A Trip with Trouble by Diane Kelly: Featured Excerpt

Praised by Woman's World for "her delightfully fun amateur sleuth sagas," Diane Kelly is back with the second installment in a charming and engrossing cozy series, A Trip with Trouble proves that in the Blue Ridge Mountains, life in the fast lane could end in a crash. Read an excerpt here!

Chapter 1

Misty Murphy

 

Shadows chased each other across the grounds of the Mountaintop Lodge as dappled sunlight streamed through the beautiful orange, red, and golden leaves. Autumn had arrived in Beech Mountain, North Carolina, spreading its glorious colors across the peaks and valleys. With the season came the so-called leaf peepers, tourists from the low country who ventured to the higher elevations to enjoy the fall foliage where it arrived first. My lodge would be hosting a group of these peepers, who were scheduled to arrive at any moment. The Dangerous Curves, a female motorcycle club from Raleigh, had booked all of the guest rooms with plans to take rides in the area and enjoy the autumn splendor. They’d been smart to plan their arrival on a Monday. The area wasn’t as crowded midweek, and they’d have less traffic to contend with.

My assistant, Brynn O’Reilly, and I wrangled with a couple of scarecrows in front of the lodge. I’d bought the traditional log-cabin inn only a few weeks earlier, on the same day I’d turned fifty, signed divorce papers, and sent my youngest son off to college. I suppose that makes me a multitasker. It might also make me as nutty as the acorns scattered about. But living in the mountains had been my dream as long as I could remember. Hitting the half-century mark had made me realize that the time to live my dreams was dwindling. I didn’t want to look back at the end of my life and have regrets. It was now or never. I chose now.

Fortunately, my split from my husband Jack had been amicable, our relationship having long since settled into more of a routine than a romance. My ex and I remained friendly, and still considered ourselves and our sons to be a family. In fact, the three of them would be coming up to the lodge next month so we could spend Thanksgiving together. I could hardly wait to catch up with my boys. Like most college kids, they communicated via terse texts. Each of my inquiries—How’s dorm life? How’s the cafeteria food? How are your classes?—earned the same single word response—Fine. Though I’d love to know more, I took their short replies as a sign they were busy studying and having fun. I’d press them for details when I saw them in person. And as much curiosity as I had about their lives, I was quite busy with my own—especially since the scarecrow I was currently wrestling refused to sit up straight.

I looked up from my labors to see Patty Williamson, owner of the Greasy Griddle Diner across the parking lot, walking toward us. Patty was a pretty black woman with lively curls held back from her face by a pumpkin-print

headband. She wore a ruffled apron over her clothing and held a steaming mug in each hand. With it being a Monday afternoon, her diner wasn’t busy. Our little tourist town came to life on weekends, when vacationers ascended the two-lane road up the mountain, driving bumper to bumper, seeking a temporary escape in our wonderful corner of the world.

As Patty stopped before us, she offered a smile as warm as the sweet drink in the mugs she held out. “I bought an apple press and drove down to the Orchard at Altapass to get three bushels of apples yesterday. I’m trying out cider recipes. Thought y’all might enjoy a hot cup.”

“You thought right. Thanks.” Poppy’s Coffee Shop had the town’s coffee market covered, but cider would make a unique addition to the diner’s drink menu. I took a mug and returned Patty’s smile.

As Brynn echoed my sentiment, the late-afternoon sun reflected off her long, wavy hair. Her tresses bore an autumn-like auburn hue much like the golden orange of the steaming apple cider. Brynn was willowy, with a penchant for colorful bohemian dresses, giving her the look of an Irish fairy. My hair, on the other hand, was more similar to the ground coffee I poured into the urn each morning. I wore what had essentially become my lodgekeeper uniform—a pair of jeans, a red and black buffalo plaid shirt, and hiking boots. Being up here in the mountains, I could get away with the casual, outdoorsy look.

Though we three women each had our own personal style, we also had a lot in common. We were all hardworking, savvy businesswomen. Patty had run her diner successfully for years, not an easy feat in a town where weather could be fickle and significantly impact tourist traffic. I, of course, owned the lodge, which had been in the red when I’d bought it. It was yet to be seen whether I could turn things around, but business had been going well and I remained optimistic. Until recently, Brynn had operated her own residential cleaning business, preparing rental properties for vacationers. Desiring less paperwork and more stability, she’d applied for the job as my assistant manager at the lodge. I felt fortunate to have her. She’d proven to be a reliable, if somewhat eccentric, employee.

Brynn took a sip of the drink and moaned in bliss. “Delicious.”

Patty continued to talk cider. “The press I bought is an old-fashioned manual model.” She flexed her bicep. “My arms have gotten quite a workout. They haven’t looked this good since my thirties.”

Though there were many great things about being this age, the loss of muscle mass was not one of them. I poked her arm. Her flesh was nice and firm. “Wow. Maybe I should help you out, spend some time cranking the press.”

Brynn took things a step further. “You two could arm wrestle at the diner. I’ll take bets.”

“Great idea!” Patty said, playing along. “You in, Misty?”

“Absolutely not. Last time I arm wrestled was with my youngest son and I ended up with bruised knuckles.” You’d think a kid would go easy on their mother. After downing a generous chug of the warm drink, I set my mug down on the rolling cart that held a push broom, rake, and long-handled tree pruners. Turning back to the task at hand, I tried to seat the smiling scarecrow on the hay bale. Despite my best efforts, he flopped forward like an inflatable air dancer.

Brynn snorted. “That scarecrow could use some Viagra.”

Patty had a more realistic solution. “A wooden stake ought to keep him upright.”

“I’ll see what we’ve got in the shed.” Pulling my key ring from my pocket, I strode across the grounds to the storage shed and unlocked it. My fluffy white cat watched me from the window of our room where she lay on the sill, absorbing the sunshine. I’d named the cat Baroness Blizzard, but my sons had dubbed her Yeti and the nickname stuck. Apparently, she found my activities boring. Her mouth opened in a wide yawn, revealing her sharp fangs and pink tongue. She settled her head on her paws and closed her eyes.

As the shed door swung open, a musty, earthy scent emanated, the smell of seasons past. The shed housed a variety of implements ranging from a leaf blower to a wheelbarrow, as well as snow shovels, hand tools, and assorted pieces of lumber and trim. I gathered two wooden stakes, a spool of twine, and a mallet, and carried the items back to the hay bale. After hammering the stakes into the back of the bale, Brynn and I affixed the scarecrows to them with the twine and stepped back to assess our handiwork. The scarecrows sat firmly upright now. Patty declared the decorations “festive.”

Brynn and I finished our cider. Rather than taking the mugs back to her diner, Patty rinsed them at the outdoor faucet and positioned the mugs in the scarecrows’ hands so that it appeared they were enjoying drinks from the Greasy Griddle. Cute. Turning to me, she cocked her head. “Got a head count for the morning?”

When I’d bought the lodge, Patty had graciously agreed to cater a daily breakfast on site. It was a convenient perk for my guests, and it kept the diner’s tables open for other hungry patrons, allowing her staff to serve everyone more expeditiously. She charged me a reasonable price, too, allowing me to offer the amenity without busting my budget. “We’ll have twenty-two guests tonight,” I said, “plus Rocky and me.”

Brynn lifted her chin to indicate the parking lot. “Speak of the devil.”

A blue king-cab pickup eased from the asphalt onto the lawn. A shiny metal toolbox was mounted in the truck’s bed behind the rear window. A stack of firewood secured with netting filled the remainder of the bed. The flatbed trailer was piled high with firewood, too. The driver’s door sported a sign that read High Country Handyman Service. Behind the wheel sat the devil to which Brynn had referred, and what a handsome devil he was. Rocky’s sandy brown hair bore hints of gray, like a cougar’s, and his closely trimmed beard accentuated the chiseled angles of his jawline. He sported a cotton shirt that stretched across his shoulders. The charming and capable Mister Fixit had come to my rescue when the back of the lodge had collapsed due to soil erosion. The two of us shared a simmering attraction, but with my divorce being so recent I was in no hurry to rush into another relationship. Besides, Rocky and I were both mature adults with grown children. There was no ticktock of a biological clock spurring us to action.We could take our time.

Standing in the back seat and hanging his head out of the open window was Molasses, Rocky’s enormous Bernese mountain dog. The sweet beast weighed in at over a hundred pounds and bore a coat of beautiful black fur with the breed’s distinctive white stripe down the nose, the light swath trimmed in rusty brown. Rocky acknowledged us ladies with a lift of his chin and an “afternoon” before sliding out of his truck and letting Molasses out of the back seat. While I retrieved the wheelbarrow from the shed for Rocky, Molasses moseyed over to Brynn and Patty, flopped onto his back, and received the belly rubs he’d come for.

Rocky donned a pair of worn canvas work gloves, loosened the netting from the firewood, and began to move the split logs from the bed of his truck into the wheelbarrow. I snagged a spare pair of gloves from the shed to help him. As we worked, the crisp, clean scent of aromatic pine awakened my senses. “Some of this wood is balsam, isn’t it?” I knew the smell well, having hiked the Balsam Trail at the summit of Mount Mitchell many times. The mountain was the highest in the Appalachian Range and sat less than two hours’ drive to the southwest, one of the primary points of interest along the Blue Ridge Parkway. “Balsam,” Rocky confirmed with an affirmative dip of his head. “Some spruce pine, too. Makes a great-smelling fire.”

When I’d bought the lodge, he’d built a beautiful deck behind it. The guests enjoyed the lodge’s outdoor space, so he’d later expanded it, adding steps that led down from the deck to a stone terrace surrounding a fire pit. The stone was a beautiful addition, held the soil underneath in place, and blended well with the natural scenery. What’s more, stone was easy to sweep and wouldn’t catch fire if a stray ember landed on it. No doubt the lady bikers would enjoy sitting outside around a fire during their evenings here, after their invigorating daily rides.

Patty gave Molasses a final scratch, stood, and was about to return to the diner when a low rumble met our ears, echoing off the nearby peaks as if the mountains themselves were growling. The ground beneath our feet vibrated, too. It felt like the earth was coming alive. Patty’s brown eyes went wide. “Is this another earthquake?”

In August of 2020, a 5.1 magnitude quake had hit the area, centered in the town of Sparta seventy miles to the northeast. The quake was the largest to hit the state in over a century and had damaged hundreds of buildings near the epicenter, rattling windows and nerves as far away as Charlotte. Since the quake, there’d been hundreds of minor aftershocks. Still, I knew the noise and vibration didn’t come from Mother Earth. It came from my arriving guests.

 

Copyright © 2022 by Diane Kelly. All rights reserved.

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