Killer Closet Case | written with Elizabeth Ashby | Gemma Halliday Publishing | Publication Date: September 2015| Genre: Cozy Mystery, Romantic Comedy | Length: Novel | A Danger Cover B&B Mystery
Someone has skeletons in their closet…
Bree Milford had big city dreams. But when her glamorous career fails to materialize, she can’t pay her big city rent. Slinking home to the sleepy town of Danger Cove to reorganize and figure out her life, she agrees to run the family’s Ocean View Bed & Breakfast while her parents go on vacation. After living in fast-paced L.A., Bree fears she’ll be bored with small town life. However, it becomes anything but dull when she convinces her parents’ hot handyman to expand the tiny closet in the living quarters…and a dead body falls out of the wall! Things get even more interesting when the medical examiner puts the time of death right around when her parents took possession of the B&B and started renovations. Worried the police have Mom and Dad in their sights, Bree asks her best friend, Cristal, to stick around for backup. With her high maintenance BFF by her side, and the handsome handyman on her suspect list, Bree has her work cut out for her. She’s on the clock to prove her parents’ innocence before they end up behind bars…and the killer can strike again!
I got out of the car and climbed the moss-covered stairs to the gorgeous rock-lined front garden full of huge, leafy hostas and various bedded flowers shaded by large maple trees and dotted with dogwoods. Staring up at the beautiful three-story Victorian bed and breakfast, I had flashbacks of my childhood, much like a veteran reliving horrors of war. Okay, so kind of like that, only without gunfire and dead bodies. My parents were what you’d call rehab addicts, and the bed and breakfast was their latest conquest. Moving from small town to small town along the Pacific coast about every year or two, changing schools each time just so my parents could take on the latest project that spoke to them, had been hell on me growing up. It was probably what drove me to Los Angeles instead of college right out of high school—a big city with unlimited potential for me to be whatever or whoever struck my fancy. My parents had wanted me to have the college education they’d never had. I’d wanted pretty much the opposite just out of spite. Teenage angst was a bitch. At least my older brother, who so drew the long stick with a normal name like Bradley (instead of the name I’d gotten courtesy of my parents’ short hippy phase, Summer Breeze. But please never call me that.), followed their wishes and marched off to law school at the University of Washington right out of college a few years ago.
I was briefly distracted by the amazing view of the Pacific Ocean as I made my way up the windy path. The sun glittered on the water as waves broke across the craggy rocks in the cove.
I remembered the old picture my folks had sent of the house I now stood before, along with a list of all they’d planned to do. It had been run for decades by an older couple who had just started renovations when some sort of health condition forced them into retirement. Mom had gotten a flyer in the mail, from one of her many rehab contacts, with this place listed for sale. She’d said it was the saddest Victorian ever. Seriously, she cried while carrying on about how the house had good bones and needed her love. I honestly never remembered that many tears, even when my brother broke his leg during football practice. Wrong kind of bones, I supposed.
The old picture had shown the ancient wooden clapboard siding had obviously weathered many a harsh storm, bearing visible holes and faded to almost white from more than its share of Mother Nature’s abuse. The roof was missing shingles that’d allowed a rainstorm (or a hundred) to ruin the ceilings and mess with the structure. Mom even went on an hour-long tirade over the phone with me about how no one should have to stay in a bed and breakfast with burnt-orange wallpaper.
That had undoubtedly been the first thing to go.
It appeared the exterior makeover was pretty much complete. It now sported shiny new gray siding with white accents. The tiny, dilapidated front entry had been scrapped altogether to accommodate the massive covered porch, spanning the entire front of the house and wrapping around both sides. White Adirondack chairs were situated in groupings that spread out along the expanse, and a matching porch swing was near the front door. Large, brightly colored flowerpots hung from each support post along the railing, adding a splash of color.
I climbed the steps, then hovered my finger over the doorbell, giggling at the No Soliciting sign. In small letters underneath it touted the exception unless you’re selling wine. This was my mother’s attempt at humor, no doubt, as she did love a good glass or bottle on occasion. A sign on the other side had the check-in desk hours and phone number to call for reservations if the office was closed.
I stood taller, taking a deep breath in hopes of tamping down the butterflies at thoughts of my parents’ reactions when I told them I was moving in for a while. No luck. It just made them beat their little wings harder and call in backup. I looked over my shoulder and down the incline I’d just climbed, considering Cristal as my backup. I could see inside the car. Her sleep mask was back in place, and the seat was fully reclined.
Instead of ringing the bell, I opened the screen door and barged in. I expected a clerk behind the sleek mahogany desk that filled the far wall of the lobby. The light from the modern silver lamp illuminated a placard on the desktop.
Back in fifteen minutes.
“Hello?” I called out, spinning about the cozy lobby, checking the wrought iron railed staircase and loft area for any movement. Behind the desk was a door marked Employees Only. I briefly contemplated opening it. I was family of employees, so surely I was grandfathered in, right? Instead of taking my chances, I made myself comfortable on the overstuffed couch. I admired an old book on the coffee table in front of me. It appeared to be about the same age as the house, the timeworn leather cover cracked in a few places, the pages a bit yellowed. On the cover, the word Welcome filled the space in a curvy, bold script. I gently pulled it open and read some of the names and dates. The page in particular was from the seventies and many had followed their signatures with smiley faces. I flipped to the last page, and it had several names with the current date. It was a beautiful old book. I could see why they left it for people to keep using. When I heard a door slam at the top of the stairs, I jumped to my feet and spun around to look. The couple leaving the room had either just been married or were still so madly in love they couldn’t be bothered with reigning in their affection. Whatever the situation, they were entwined in a kiss the entire time they descended the stairs. He backed carefully from one step to the next, guiding the woman he adored while simultaneously attempting to suck her lips from her face. I tried to look away, but I found my gaze shifting back toward them until they were out the front door and making their way down the steps in much the same manner. Driving was going to pose a serious problem.
“Let’s hope they’re walking,” I muttered aloud, forcing myself back to the task at hand.
I dug my phone from my pocket and tried my parents’ cell number. I might as well have been trying to squeeze water from a rock, only instead of tearing up my hand, I ended up with a message about the user not setting up voice mail, just like ninety-nine percent of my other attempts to call them over the years. They would birth kittens if my brother or I did this kind of thing. But it was yet another futile venture to get them to realize they were in the wrong.
About pretty much anything.
They claimed to be free spirits, not wanting to be tied down by technology. Not even for their kids. I called it being stuck in the eighties.
I wandered back onto the porch, after waiting a sufficient amount of time for the lip-locked couple to have at least wandered off, and dialed the office number listed on the sign. But that just rang at the empty desk I was now staring at through the screen.
The employee door popped open and my mother emerged, a blur of poufy red hair, leopard print, and spandex on spike heels. Thankfully, her clothes were actually coming back in style, even though this had been her normal wardrobe for decades. I felt a smile crawl across my face and the warmth and safety only a mother can evoke wash through my body.
She picked up the phone. “Thank you for calling the Ocean View Bed & Breakfast. This is Janet. When can we expect you?”
“Uh, now,” I stated into the phone and through the screen door.
She dropped the receiver onto the cradle and threw her arms open wide, the myriad of thick, brightly colored plastic bracelets clacking to a stop at her wrists, as she clip-clopped across the hardwood lobby floor. “Summer Breeze, I’m so glad you made it safely!”
I rolled my eyes at the sound of my real name, the name I’d desperately hidden the past few years due to the trauma imposed at each new school throughout my childhood by every kid who’d ever seen a Summer’s Eve commercial. Most were too young to remember the seventies song I was actually named after, not that some kids hadn’t known it and pestered me with the verses just the same. My parents’ momentary hippy phase would haunt me my entire life or until that company went bankrupt. If only I’d been born a year or so later when they were safely in their eighties phase. I’d have a cute name ending with an I.
“Please,” I drew out as I opened the door, “I’m begging you. Call me Bree. That’s what most people know me as now.”
Towering over me in her stilettos, she bent and enveloped me in a big hug. “I named you that because I knew you’d be a free spirit. What’s more free than a summer’s breeze?” She pushed me to arm’s length. “Is everything okay? You seem off to me.”
“Everything…” My tone was serious, stern, ready to spill my woes of homelessness while seriously wanting to be back in the safe cocoon of her embrace, but Mom’s smile was so bright and cheerful. Why ruin the moment, right? I pushed away the doom and gloom, smiled, and lied through my teeth. “Everything is fine. It was just a long drive.” Which so wasn’t a lie. I put my arm around her waist and dropped my head on her shoulder. Close enough. I felt myself letting go of some of the stress.
“Your father is going to be so glad you made it okay.” She grabbed my hand and led me through the forbidden employee door.
It appeared that the wall had been put up to split the old living room into two. One to use for a lobby and one for Mom and Dad, evidently so Dad didn’t have to wear pants. He dropped his newspaper and pulled an old Guns N’ Roses throw-blanket from the back of his recliner, draping it over his tighty-whities.
Oh, if only there was a mental delete button.
“Hello, princess,” he gushed. “Why don’t you come over to me for a hug?”
“Yeah, that would be best for all of us,” I mumbled as I crossed the small space, kissed him on the forehead, and stooped for a hug. As I stood back up, I glanced around at the myriad of collaged pictures from their high school dating days and graduation adorning the walls. The biggest picture in the middle was of them in their caps and gowns, grinning from ear to ear in a big hug. Other students looked on as they’d milled about, some smiling, others with looks of relief, and one cranky blond guy photo-bombing them. With big hair and spandex clothes, Mom still looked almost exactly the same, other than a few crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes and the occasional gray hair she sported between colorings. Dad, on the other hand, had just let nature take its course. He was still handsome, just as a mostly-silver fox who had rounded in the middle a bit.
“How was the drive?” he asked after I stopped browsing my parents’ memory-lane wall.
I shrugged. “It was fine.”
Dad scanned me from head to toe, his lips pursed in a curious smirk. “What’s wrong?”
“U-uh,” I stammered, straightening my stance and forcing a toothy smile to my face as I glanced between my mom and dad. Was I wearing a neon sign that touted my inner turmoil? “Nothing.”
Arms folded over her ample bosom and toe tapping a slow staccato beat, Mom narrowed her gaze on me and repeated the same scan my father had just done. “Let me guess—the acting and modeling world wasn’t all you thought it’d be?”
I didn’t have a chance to respond. Dad had returned to his reading but peeked over the top of his newspaper. “My guess is that the money finally ran out.”
Ding-ding, we have a winner.
But I so wasn’t ready for that conversation. You know, the one where I told you so and we still love you no matter what converge into scathing tones, pointed fingers, and long, drawn-out sighs. “Can’t a girl just be tired from driving all day? The place looks great, by the way,” I added, hoping to divert the conversation from the downward spiral it was on.
Mom and Dad both nodded, still giving me the cynical parental up-and-down look. It was like they had some kind of radar and knew my pockets were practically empty and that I’d coasted in on fumes with everything I owned in the back of my car.
Mom’s expression was still skeptical, but her voice was a bit more inviting. “The renovations are almost done. We have the most delightful guy heading the crew.”
Dad crumpled the paper to his lap. “Only because your mom had a problem with the girl I hired.”
Snorting, she turned toward him, hands on hips and toe tapping faster than I would’ve ever thought possible had I not witnessed it myself. Many, many times. “We discussed this. Ms. Jordan with Finials and Facades is more than qualified, and her finished homes are gorgeous, but Mr. O’Connell does landscaping work as well and included a discount if we gave him both contracts. It’s all about the bottom line, honey.”
She turned away from him, nudging me with her elbow and waggling a brow, the judgy look now completely gone. She whispered from the corner of her mouth, “His bottom line is rather impressive, if you know what I mean.”
Dad snapped the paper back in front of his face. “I’m right here.”
“I love you, honey,” Mom purred.
“Mmm-hmm,” he mumbled.
She tugged me into the kitchen area. Sunshine poured through the window, glinting off the new stainless appliances and sparkling across the crystal veins in the granite counters. With the new white cabinets, it could’ve passed as a model kitchen in a magazine.
I peered through the side window, and a squinty-eyed, sour-faced, bleached blonde glared back from the run-down Victorian house next door. She had on nothing but a sports bra that was barely able to contain its contents, and nearly nonexistent exercise shorts, with a short, silky yellow robe hanging from her shoulders.
Mom pushed me out of the way, cast a haughty glare back at the half-naked, middle-aged woman, and dropped the closed mini-blinds. “Don’t mind Patricia. I wish she could be more like the other neighbor. I’ve never really met him other than a casual wave. He’s gone most every weekend and keeps to himself. But she, on the other hand”—Mom flipped her arm toward the window, pointing and setting off the cascade and clacking of bangle bracelets again—”is still hacked off that Mr. O’Connell started our rehab first. The guy, from Burke Construction or something, who she hired just up and disappeared. Not that I minded. He was really creepy, and I think he was hitting on me.”
Dad snorted. “I took care of that jerk. No one makes a move on my woman without facing the consequences and seeing the gun show.” I glanced into the other room, already knowing he’d be flexing his biceps and acting like a goof.
This wasn’t exactly anything new. Dad had married above his station, so to speak, at least in high school terms. Mom was head cheerleader—popular and loved by all. Dad had played the drums in marching band (which was how they’d met at a football game), had a small group of friends who had a garage band (which was part of why Mom fell head over heels), and was extremely intelligent. Dad really hated when men flirted with Mom and obviously still felt like he needed to stake his claim. Which happened often. He really had nothing to worry about. Their love was most definitely a two-way street, as evidenced by the many public displays of affection I’d been subjected to, well, ever since I could remember. Nothing scarring, but definitely more kisses and butt swats than I really cared to see. Especially from my parents.
Mom rolled her eyes and called out to Dad. “I’m sure that chat you had with him, with your finger poking into his chest and all, really sent him packing.” Her tone was very supportive of my father’s actions, but her shaking head and the smirk he couldn’t see said otherwise. She turned back to me. “Anyway, now Patricia’s taken to making my life miserable in retaliation, and she’s totally stalking Mal with the pretense of getting him to start on her house sooner.” Her demeanor flipped right back to flirty, and her face lit up. “Speaking of Mal…” She let out a dreamy sigh. “I can’t wait for you to meet him. He’s handsome, intelligent, a hard worker, and still has a bit of a sexy Scottish accent too. I’d listen to him read the entire freaking phone book.”
“I can still hear you,” Dad called from the other room.
Mom giggled and patted my hand. “So, really, what’s on your mind?”
I slumped onto one of the tall chairs at the counter, heaving a huge sigh of defeat. What was the harm in letting them know I’d be staying on a little longer than their trip? “Dad pretty much nailed it. Can I stay with you guys for a while? Like, maybe longer than just a B&B-sitting stint? I need to regroup and figure out life.”
“He shoots. He scores!” Dad added from his chair in the other room, snickering.
Mom let out a very unladylike snort as she sat next to me. Not that ladylike was something we really practiced in our family, mind you. “You must want to live here forever, if you’re waiting to get a handle on life.” She pushed my hair behind my ear and wound a curl around her finger as she cupped my face. “You’re smart, beautiful, and have your whole life in front of you. You can do or be anything you set your mind to. You’ll find your niche in life. Promise.”