The Rocky Road to Ruin by Meri Allen: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQJuly 20, 2021
If you looked up “New England” you’d probably find a picture of my hometown, Penniman, Connecticut. Miles of gray stone walls bordering narrow country lanes? Check. A covered bridge? A town green with a war memorial in the center of the emerald swath of grass? Check and check.
My rented car’s engine purred as I drove one of those lanes under the spreading branches of oaks whose leaves would shimmer with crimson and gold come fall. A warm feeling of homecoming washed over me as the car rattled across the covered bridge that spanned the Seven Mile River and swept into the village center.
I took a spin around the green, enjoying the familiarity of the charming boutiques, restaurants, and stately Victorian houses that had been restored and painted to perfection, then parked in front of my dad’s used book-store, The Penniless Reader. The brown clapboard building was shaded by a cheerful red-and-white-striped awning. Two benches flanked the front door, and a reader with a golden retriever at his feet sat there with a book in one hand, a coffee in the other. Golden marigolds and red geraniums burst from window boxes and the hanging basket outside the front door. The last time I’d been home, pine and holly wreaths hung in the windows.
As I got out of my rental, a blue convertible Mustang I’d splurged on, I turned slowly, taking in the green that was the heart of the village. Dad’s bookshop was at the north end of the Penniman town green, and a white Colonial-era Congregational church, graceful with tall columns, watched over it from the south end.
The more things changed, the more Penniman stayed the same. Thank goodness.
The retriever’s tail thumped as I bent to give him a pat. I’d come home to be with my best friend Caroline Spooner at her mom’s funeral, but I had just enough time to stop first to see my dad. I pushed open the door.
“Look what the cat dragged in!” My dad, Nathaniel “Nate” Hawthorne Rhodes, rushed from the front counter and wrapped me in a hug. His words were light but he held me close. “Riley, I missed you, honey.”
“I missed you too.” I felt a pang as the sunlight streaming through the window highlighted the gray in his curly brown hair and bushy eyebrows. I let my cheek rest for an extra moment against the chest of his blue plaid shirt. Dad was wiry, six feet tall with stooped shoulders, and I fit perfectly under his chin.
My dad had left his teaching job and started The Penniless Reader soon after I was born. My mom passed away when I was two, and for many years it had been just the two of us. Until Paulette.
“Is that Riley?” My stepmother’s lovely voice fluted from the back of the shop.
Ten years ago, Dad hired Paulette, a retired nurse, to work part time in the shop. When Dad asked me for my blessing to marry her, what could I say? I’d started taking overseas assignments and I wanted someone to look after him. If only she weren’t so perfect. Despite the fact that I was a thirty-five-year-old librarian who did occasional undercover work for my employer, a certain three letter agency in Washington, D.C., had several thousand followers of my own food blog, and traveled the world solo since I was sixteen, Paulette’s Stepford perfection always had a way of making me smooth my unruly shoulder-length black hair and wonder if I had spinach in my teeth.
“Welcome home!” Paulette emerged from the local history section, gracefully opened her arms in welcome, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Though she was sixty-seven (she never mentioned her age, but I looked it up), she had an ageless beauty. Everything about her gleamed: her flawless manicured nails, her silver hair, her diamond-stud earrings. Paulette’s elegant cream-colored cashmere top contrasted with the shop’s warped linoleum floors, narrow rows of overstuffed shelves, and Dad’s goofy homemade signs that read Treat Your Shelves and My Weekend Is Fully Booked. Her lovely cornflower blue eyes swept over me.
“You’re tired.” Paulette turned to Dad. “Doesn’t she look tired, Nate?”
“She’s a sight for sore eyes.” Dad beamed.
“Jet lag. I couldn’t get comfortable on my flight from Rome. I came as quickly as I could when Caroline called to tell me Buzzy’d passed away.” Caroline’s mom, larger than life Elizabeth “Buzzy” Spooner, owned Penniman’s iconic Fairweather Farm and the Udderly Delightful Ice Cream Shop for decades.
Dad’s voice softened with concern. “How’s Caroline holding up?”
On the phone, Caroline’s strained voice had sounded overwhelmed and exhausted. She lived in Boston where she worked as an art appraiser for an auction house, but for years drove to Penniman every weekend to help Buzzy in the ice cream shop.
“She’s holding up. The Brightwoods are a huge help.”
“Thank goodness for them,” Dad said.
I agreed. Darwin and Prudence Brightwood had run Buzzy’s farm for years so she could concentrate on the shop.
Paulette lowered her voice. “I heard there’s been fresh tension with Mike.”
Her words didn’t surprise me. Caroline and her brother had never been close. The little bell over the door jingled as customers entered the shop and I bit back the words I’d been about to speak: What now?
“Sometimes people rise to the occasion,” Dad said. “I’m sure Mike will support Caroline now that she needs him.”
Dad always saw the good in people. I loved that about him, but I didn’t share his optimism. I’d known Mike for too long.
I checked my watch. “I’d better get going. The funeral’s at two o’clock.”
“You and Caroline must come for dinner tomorrow,” Paulette said.
“Thanks, Paulette, we will.”
Dad hugged me again. “We’ll see you at the service.”
As I got in the Mustang, I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror and recalled Paulette’s words. So I had bags under my eyes. My eyes were the same emerald green as my Granny’s—“Green as the cliffs of Moher,” she’d say. The lilt in her voice as she put on an Irish accent always made me smile.
I turned the key and the engine surged to life, the rumble and sense of power a pleasure I savored. Dad had always taught me to look for the good in difficult times, that beauty can be a consolation, and I tried to let the charm of the countryside on the short drive to Buzzy’s farm wash over me.
It didn’t work. What was Mike up to now?
Riley, can you believe it?” Caroline said. “Mom always lied about her age. Now she’s made it official!”
Church bells chimed as our steps took us from the cemetery behind the Congregational church, leaving the gray marble headstone that marked the spot where Buzzy was buried next to her husband, Charles. I did the math—the birth-date-to-death-date span was eighty years, but underneath was inscribed Aged 29. Buzzy had stopped counting birthdays at 29 and she’d had the last laugh.
“I can’t imagine the Gravers approve,” I whispered to Caroline. “Gravers” was our nickname for two of Buzzy’s part time staff, retired sisters Flo and Gerri. Devoted genealogists, they spent their free time “graving”—documenting graves for a website called Finding Your Dearly Beloved. The name tickled me. How beloved could they be if no one knew where to find them?
Caroline smiled, but took off her thick tortoiseshell glasses to dab her almond-shaped brown eyes. Though petite as a princess in the pre-Raphaelite paintings she loved, Caroline had strong features: a prominent aquiline nose, full lips, and thick brown corkscrew curls. “I need to get back home,” she said. I put my arm around her as we walked toward the parking lot, my mind turning one last time to Buzzy.
Buzzy had always encouraged me to see the world and she’d been thrilled that I started a blog, Rhode Food, to document my travels and the food I discovered while on the road. She’d called herself my number-one fan.
Dad and Paulette joined us. “Honey, I’m sorry we have to go. We have an appointment at the shop.”
“You’re both coming for dinner tomorrow,” Paulette said as she brushed away an invisible piece of lint from the sleeve of Dad’s jacket.
“Yes, thank you,” Caroline said.
I watched Caroline’s brother, Mike, shake hands and slap backs as he shouldered through the crowd to join us. He’d left Penniman right after high school, but everyone remembered the tall, dark, and handsome star of the high school football team.
Buzzy had fostered Caroline and Mike, then adopted them, but though they were biological siblings they’d always been different: Caroline introverted, studious, and artistic; Mike a hard-partying athlete. Despite having the square jaw and physique of an action-movie hero, Mike had never been someone you could rely on.
“Mr. Rhodes, Mrs. Rhodes, thank you for coming.” He shook hands with my dad and gave Paulette a kiss on the cheek. Mrs. Rhodes. I still wasn’t used to hearing Paulette called that.
Dad and Paulette embraced me and Caroline. “We’ll see you tomorrow.” They headed to the parking lot as Mike wrapped Caroline in a careful hug. She hesitated, then closed her eyes and leaned her head against his broad chest.
The last stragglers left the reception in the church hall, including our former high school gym teacher Mrs. Danforth. We’d called her Dandy because on hu-mid days her overbleached blond hair frizzed and reminded us of dandelion fluff. Now her shoulder-length hair was gray and tamed smooth into a bob, another reminder that I’d been away from home too long. She chatted with Mike’s best friend, Kyle Aldridge, and Kyle’s wife, Nina.
“Mike!” A woman with a waterfall of straight white-blond hair, dressed in a pink suit with a tiny mini skirt edged through the crowd. Though I hadn’t seen her since high school, I recognized her immediately.
She took Mike’s hands in hers, batting heavily mascaraed blue eyes. “Remember me?”
Mike threw a quick look at me and Caroline, his message clear—Help me! “Of course I remember you, Sugar Bear! It’s been too long.” Sugar Bear was what Mike called all his girlfriends, especially when he couldn’t remember their names.
Behind us, Dandy stumbled as she shot that same disapproving look I remembered from high school at the woman’s too-short dress. Some things never changed. Kyle steadied her, then Nina said something that made her laugh.
But the woman in pink plowed on, despite Mike’s panicked expression and Mrs. Danforth’s reproachful look. “Emily Weinberg! You took me to prom!”
I shared a look with Caroline. This should be good.
“How could I forget?” Mike gave her a kiss on the cheek. “You look great.”
“Thanks, so do you.” Emily tilted her head and beamed.
Was she still crushing on Mike all these years after high school?
“Sorry for your loss, Caroline. Hi.” Emily looked at me, then recognition dawned. “Oh, you worked at the ice cream shop too. You don’t have glasses anymore.”
“Or braces.” Inwardly I rolled my eyes but pasted on a smile. “Riley Rhodes.”
Emily had been one of the queen bees of Penniman High School and had never given me or Caroline the time of day. Had she even known Buzzy? She was as out of place as her outfit.
I couldn’t help it. I glanced down at my sensible black travel dress and Caroline’s even longer black pencil skirt and leather flats. I had to agree with Dandy: Emily’s outfit was inappropriate for a funeral.
Emily had turned back to Mike, angling her body in front of mine. “You look great, Mike. You know, we could get dinner sometime . . .”
“Sure.” Mike’s dark brown eyes radiated equal parts sincerity and flirtatiousness.
Emily fished in her purse. “Here’s my card.”
“Here’s mine.” He handed her a card and they laughed.
Leave it to Mike to get a date at a funeral.
An engine growled as a red Porsche—be still my heart, a vintage Porsche 911 Turbo—downshifted and slid into an empty parking spot. Heads turned. A tall, leggy woman in a fitted black pantsuit emerged, smoothing her cascade of wavy brown hair. She scanned the crowd and then jogged over to us, her hair flowing in the wind like a shampoo commercial. “Mike!” she called.
“Angelica!” He cast a quick, uncomfortable glance at Emily. “I didn’t think you could make it.”
The woman smiled, her lips vivid with deep red lipstick that complimented her dramatically arched brows and deep brown eyes. I couldn’t help thinking of the song “The Girl from Ipanema”—the woman was tall and tan and slender and moved with enviable grace. “Turned out I was able to get on an earlier flight,” she said as she gave him a quick kiss.
“Everyone, this is Angelica Miguel,” Mike said.
“Nice to meet you.” Caroline extended her hand. “I’m Caroline.”
Angelica took Caroline’s hand, then gently embraced her. “So good to meet you.” Her smile faltered. “I’m so sorry for your loss. Buzzy sounded like a wonderful person.”
Mike turned to me. “Our family’s good friend, Riley Rhodes.” Angelica and I shook, her grip bone-crushingly strong.
“And this is”—Mike hesitated for a split second—“Emily Weinberg.”
The two women nodded as they shook hands.
Nina walked over and put her hand on Caroline’s shoulder, her hazel eyes warm. Tall and slim, with her thick, ash blond hair styled in a simple bob cut, wearing a classic black suit and pearl necklace, Nina radiated calm good taste. “Kyle just got a call he has to take and he insisted on walking Mrs. D to her car. Once again, our condolences. If you need anything, please give us a call.”
“Thank you, Nina.”
“Hello, Riley, nice to see you.” Even though we hadn’t traveled in the same circles in high school, Nina was friendly to everyone. “Em.” Nina and Emily were old friends. “Mike, we’ll see you tomorrow.”
“For sure,” Mike said.
Nina’s calm evaporated when she turned to Angelica. “You’re Angelica Miguel! We’re huge tennis fans from way back.” Nina grinned as she shook hands. “I’m so pleased to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” Angelica said.
“Sorry, I have to run. See you later.” Nina gave Caroline a small smile as she hurried after Kyle and Dandy.
Mike wrapped his arm around Angelica’s waist. “Riley, can you take Caroline back to the house? I’ll show Angelica the way. Nice to talk with you, Emily.”
Emily nodded, tossing her waterfall hair as she turned on her heel and stalked off.
So much for dinner with Emily.
As Mike and Angelica strode to Angelica’s Porsche, I thought how well suited they were, both strong, tall, and athletic. Mike helped Angelica into her car then jogged over to his sedan.
“His latest?” I asked as Caroline and I crossed the parking lot.
Caroline shrugged. “I guess. She seems like a catch. A pro tennis player.”
“Makes sense,” I said, “considering his real estate development company builds golf and tennis resorts.”
Caroline sighed as we got into the Mustang. “This is a great car.” She ran her hands over her leather seat as I pulled out of the parking lot. “You always did like to go fast, Riley.”
Her head dropped back and she closed her eyes. “Oh, I’m tired.” Lines I’d never seen before etched either side of Caroline’s mouth and sunlight picked out strands of gray in her hair. Painting was something she turned to when troubled, and I noticed bits of paint flecked her hands and there was even a splotch of blue paint among the white cat hairs that clung to her black skirt.
“Are you painting?” I asked.
She nodded. “I just started a landscape. I can’t resist all the sunflowers on the farm.”
“How’s Sprinkles?” Sprinkles was Buzzy’s cat, an ageless Persian with the haughty demeanor of a queen forced by a stroke of cruel luck to live with the servants.
“She who must be obeyed?” Caroline brushed at the cat hairs and tightened the knot on a dove gray silk scarf I’d bought her in Paris years ago. “Spoiled beast as always.”
Sprinkles had been hiding when I picked up Caroline for the funeral. “I can’t wait to see her.”
* * * * *
Caroline’s breathing deepened as the movement of the car lulled her to sleep. My mind wandered as we drove to the farm where I’d spent so many happy moments riding Buzzy’s sweet ponies and playing Capture the Flag after dark. And eating ice cream, of course—as much as I wanted.
Ten minutes later, just outside of town, I joined a slow-moving line of cars. The roads around Penniman had been designated scenic byways, and every summer day brought traffic jams to the narrow lanes. I didn’t mind the slowdown. I drank in the scenery: Farmland greened into soybeans or cornfields on both sides of the road. Red barns stood tall beside white farmhouses with black shutters. We passed the gray stone walls and pillars that marked the drive to Moy Mull, Penniman’s artists’ colony.
Who was lucky enough to live here? For hundreds of years, it had been farmers and then folks who worked at the thread mill. But in the thirties, artists started flocking to Moy Mull, along with actors from New York and Boston who wanted to escape to a country house on the weekends. For years, Penniman had been our little secret.
About ten years ago, an article about Penniman’s organic farms put the village on the foodie map. Rich people pretending to be farmers moved in, new restaurants and shops opened. It was great for the town’s economy, but it came with a price—traffic, development, and crowds in the summer and fall.
Just past the sharp curve where sunflowers crowded the road, a stopped car startled me from my reverie. I hit my brakes and Caroline started awake. There was a traffic jam at the ice cream shop, just like old times.
The Udderly Delightful Ice Cream Shop had once been a simple farm stand where Buzzy sold the farm’s produce, and occasionally homemade ice cream. But Buzzy soon noticed that her ice cream was bringing in more money than the corn and tomatoes. Neighbors helped her expand the stand; Caroline and I helped her paint it her favorite color, a deep eggplant purple; and I knocked together some window boxes for flowers. The sight of the cheerful little building always raised my spirits, but now I gripped the wheel as I watched cars jockey in the crowded parking lot. Horns blared.
“I thought Mike was going to post on social media that the shop was closed today.” Caroline fumbled in her pocket for her phone. She scrolled to the shop’s site, then huffed. “He forgot. I taped a Closed sign to the front door this morning, but I guess it wasn’t enough.”
“You can’t blame people for coming,” I said. “It’s a gorgeous day, perfect for ice cream.”
Caroline rubbed her forehead as I eased past cars and headed up narrow Farm Lane to Buzzy’s house.
Farm Lane divided Fairweather Farm into two halves, and two farmhouses faced each other across the lane: Buzzy’s white farmhouse to the east behind the shop, and a sprawling red farmhouse and barn across the road to the west. Buzzy’s farm man ag er, Darwin Brightwood, and his family lived in the red farmhouse and ran the organic farm and orchard behind it.
The wraparound porch of Buzzy’s small Victorian farmhouse beckoned with red geraniums and ivy spilling from baskets, and yellow daylilies and marigolds ringing the foundation. The view from her porch was breathtaking—over fifty acres of fields, orchards, and woodland.
All Caroline’s and Mike’s now, I thought.
Caroline craned to look back down the lane to the shop as I parked next to the kitchen door.
I followed her gaze. “Lots of disappointed people,” I said.
Caroline chewed her lower lip.
We got out of the car. Some kids ran to the small petting pen where Buzzy usually kept animals, either llamas or miniature goats from neighboring farms. The pen was locked and empty. A little boy kicked the gravel, his shoulders slumped.
“Buzzy would hate this,” Caroline said, “but Mike thought it best to close today.”
“Of course.” We stood, shoulder to shoulder, watching cars back up.
“Riley, are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Caroline said.
I turned to her. “Are you thinking about opening the shop?”
Caroline grinned. “Let’s go.”
We jogged down to the shop, unlocked the back door, and flipped on the lights. I looped an apron over my head and tied it around my waist. Faces pressed against the broad windows and a buzz of excited voices grew as Caroline and I prepared to open. I hauled tubs of ice cream from the industrial freezer in the back and felt my spirits lift as the dipping cabinets filled with a dozen different flavors. The colors—from the pale pink of strawberry to the soft purple of lavender and honey to the rich brown of mocha almond—reminded me of a box of watercolors. The enticing scent of bittersweet chocolate filled the shop as Caroline started a batch of hot fudge in the kitchen. I glanced outside as a long black Lincoln Continental lurched to a stop right in the middle of the lane before speeding up again.
Moments later, the back door of the shop burst open and the Graver girls hurried in. “Reinforcements have arrived! Give me an apron!” Gerri Fairweather Hunt, former principal of Penniman High School, had a deep alto voice that resonated with authority as she tossed one of her flowy scarves over her broad shoulders.
“Gerri, I told you that with Riley here Caroline was sure to open.” Flo Fairweather looped her apron over her head, beaming at me. Flo had been a kindergarten teacher and her voice was gentle and musical, her round face surrounded by soft white curls. While her sister dressed in jewel tones, Flo wore bright primary colors, bright as a new box of crayons.
Mike pushed through the door, his face red. He sidled behind Caroline and said in a low voice, “Caroline, we said we weren’t opening today.”
“You forgot to put the closing online,” Caroline said. “Look at all those people.”
Mike folded his arms and scoffed. “You don’t expect me to scoop ice cream—”
Angelica slipped through the back door. Her eyes wide, she ran her fingers along the yellow Formica countertop, taking in the bright windows, the yellow gingham curtains, the marble tables, the mural of sunflowers behind the counter. “Oh, Mike, you never told me how cute it is!” She took an apron from a hook and turned to me. “Do I get free ice cream for helping?”
I smiled. “Of course. Flo, will you show Angelica how to make the waffle cones?”
“And”—Caroline squared her shoulders—“everything is free today—in Buzzy’s honor.”
I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate. More times than I could count I’d seen Buzzy give a free ice cream cone to someone who looked like they could use a break.
Flo, Gerri, and I clapped, Flo bouncing on her toes, Gerri’s many bangles clanking.
Mike held up his hands. “Free? Caroline—”
“Ready?” I threw open the door.
* * * * *
By closing time, almost every bit of ice cream in the dipping cabinets was gone.
When people insisted on paying, saying it was for whatever charity Buzzy had named in her will, we took the money and put it in a gallon-size jar that had held penny candy. But the truth was that Buzzy hadn’t named a charity. Before the funeral, Caroline had confided that Buzzy had put off making a will, and Caroline wasn’t sure she’d even left one.
After we closed the door and I wiped down the counters, I noticed that the money jar was gone. Caroline followed my gaze, her lips turned down. “Mike said he was taking it up to the house for safekeeping.” We shared a look.
Wherever the money was, that’s where Mike was. Not that I could talk, but Mike had hardly ever come back to Penniman to see Buzzy, even for holidays. Caroline shared a house with some coworkers in Boston, but she spent every weekend back home in the bedroom she’d been given twenty-seven years ago when Buzzy had first fostered her as a malnourished, shy eight-year-old with all her belongings in a single green trash bag.
Caroline stood at the counter, her shoulders bowed, her hands smoothing a folded apron over and over. She looked beyond exhausted and I could feel that the emotional weight of the day was finally sinking in.
“You head up and get a bite to eat. I’ll finish closing,” I said.
She gave me a quick hug and slipped out the back door. I swallowed the lump in my throat as I made sure the front door was locked.
There wasn’t much left to do. Flo, Gerri, and Angelica had whirled through cleanup. I turned off the lights and locked the back door.
Night was falling, the sky behind the farmhouses a gorgeous shade of suede blue. A soft, warm breeze bent the heads of the tall sunflowers that crowded the lane. Buzzy had planted ten acres years ago and now they were a favorite backdrop for thousands of amateur photographers.
It was peaceful, but the night was full of a thousand different noises—dogs barking, small critters scurrying, the wind sighing through the sunflowers. Despite the warm breeze, I felt a chill. There was something in the air, a feeling that hovered around me like a swarm of gnats.
Sadness sure, an emptiness. I couldn’t fool myself into thinking that Buzzy would be waiting at the door, smiling in her favorite purple jeans and lucky Patriots T-shirt. But I also felt unsettled, like when I was a little girl watching a storm, counting the seconds between a lightning flash and the roll of thunder that followed. Something made me whip around and peer into the shadows behind the shop.
I felt . . . watched. I scanned the farm and the towering line of sunflowers. They were beautiful but their dark shadows could hide, well, anyone . . . or anything. I jogged to the back porch of the farm house, relief flooding me when I stepped into the pool of light by the kitchen door.
About The Rocky Road to Ruin by Meri Allen:
Riley Rhodes, travel food blogger and librarian at the CIA, makes a bittersweet return to her childhood home of Penniman, Connecticut – land of dairy farms and covered bridges – for a funeral. Despite the circumstances, Riley’s trip home is sprinkled with reunions with old friends, visits to her father’s cozy bookshop on the town green, and joyful hours behind the counter at the beloved Udderly Delicious Ice Cream Shop. It feels like a time to help her friend Caroline rebuild after her mother’s death, and for Riley to do a bit of her own reflecting after a botched undercover mission in Italy. After all, it’s always good to be home.
But Caroline and her brother Mike have to decide what to do with the assets they’ve inherited – the ice cream shop as well as the farm they grew up on – and they’ve never seen eye to eye. Trouble begins to swirl as Riley is spooked by reports of a stranger camping behind the farm and by the odd behavior of the shop’s mascot, Caroline’s snooty Persian, Sprinkles. When Mike turns up dead in the barn the morning after the funeral, the peace and quiet of Penniman seems upended for good. Can Riley find the killer before another body gets scooped?