Updated: May 16, 2021
Want a sneak peek into the lives of Alex Lightwood and the residents of Piney Ridge, Maryland? Read the first chapters of this yet to be released Cozy Mystery. I'd love to know your thoughts!
In the middle of Rural Route 97, I sat pouting in my idling car, vacillating between forging ahead to my childhood hometown or crawling under a rock and hiding.
This was not the triumphant return I'd imagined. No, this was the adult equivalent of a walk of shame. Riding back into town, not the successful one-who-got-out but, instead, with my tail between my three-weeks-overdue, unshaven legs.
I had left Piney Ridge, a teeny-tiny town in a teeny-tiny county in teeny-tiny Maryland, right after high school graduation. I crossed the stage, hung a left, and headed north to New York with no plans of looking back. Despite pleas from my family to stay, Piney Ridge was not the place to kick off what I hoped would be a successful photojournalism career. The biggest news headline to hit town during my childhood—"Escaped Cow Pins Mail Carrier Against Truck."
Well, except for my big brother Harrison who went missing at nine years old, but I tried not to think about that at all.
Sure, I'd been back to Piney Ridge several times in the intervening years. But those were just visits—with an end date. I'd been passing through on my way to the next great adventure. This time, however, I had an open ticket.
If I continued on my current trajectory, toward Piney Ridge, Harrison's disappearance wouldn't be the only ghost threatening to creep back into my life. Not that I cared to admit it, but I'd burned a few bridges when I left so quickly after graduation. And small towns weren't quick to forget past indiscretions. They thrived on gossip, absorbed the secrets of their inhabitants, cradled memories for generations. The more painful and salacious, the more power the small town seemed to have. And Piney Ridge proved the cliché. One of the many reasons I had chosen New York City—for its perfect, blissful anonymity.
On the other hand, finding a rock big enough to store my camera gear and my precious crowntail betta fish, Lashatelle Lady Gretchen, under would be near impossible.
I was still in a war with my right foot when two things happened in quick succession. First, my cell phone rang, startling me out of the solo pity party. Second, as I reached to silence it, a horn honked loudly behind me, scaring me into fumbling the phone and simultaneously floorboarding the gas pedal.
Right into the Welcome to Piney Ridge sign.
After impact, I batted the airbag out of my face and coughed from the dust. I checked on Lash—pronounced Lah-sh, not lash because she wasn't part of an eye—still sloshing around in her bowl and mean-mugging me, but otherwise fine. I opened the door to get out of the stench from the airbag, but my seat belt locked me in place. A cracking sound paused my efforts to unbuckle. I leaned forward in my seat to peer out the windshield. The large wooden Welcome sign above me tipped precariously backward.
Perhaps "sign" is a bit misleading. The town calls it a sign—specifically the Welcome sign—but size-wise it's somewhere between a billboard and the drive-in movie screen. It had stood for generations as a guidepost and landmark for giving directions, as a photo opportunity for proud mayors and out-of-town visitors, and as a reminder of the beautiful landscape from which Piney Ridge took its name. This was no metal highway sign. Oh no. This sign was carved from locally sourced wood and featured a once colorful, beautifully detailed depiction of the local reservoir and surrounding pine forest.
With a final crack and a sad, resigned, little shudder, the sign gave in to its injury and hit the ground with an echoing boom. A dust cloud formed around it and enveloped my car.
"Great. So much for sneaking back in quietly," I said into the dust.
"Holy Christmas! Are you okay?" a voice asked from beside me.
I jolted in my seat and turned to see the freckled face of a curly redhead staring back at me. Despite my less than triumphant return, I smiled. Those flaming red curls and emerald eyes could only belong to one person this side of the Mason-Dixon—my childhood best friend, Colleen McMurphy. Probably the one person, except my parents, genuinely glad to see me.
"Alex? Is that you?" she asked, waving her hand to try to clear the air.
"What gave me away? My exceptional grace and poise?" I managed to unbuckle, finally, and stepped out of the car onto wobbly legs.
Before I could move to the front of the vehicle to assess the damage, Colleen threw her arms around me in an exuberant embrace. "Girl! It's been too long since I last saw you!"
I hugged Colleen back. "Well, you'll be seeing a lot more of me now."
Colleen held my shoulders at arm's length, eyes wide with surprise and excitement. "You're really staying? Your mom hinted as much when I saw her at our book club, but I didn't really believe her. Especially since my best friend didn't say anything to me about it."
I winced. "Sorry. It happened kind of fast. I wanted to simply sneak back in. I would've called you when I got settled."
"Eh, I forgive you." She leaned back even more to look me over. "Besides a small cut on your forehead, you seem to be okay. Are you okay? That was quite a hit."
"I'm fine. A little shaky, but fine." I reached up to touch the cut. My fingers came away sticky. I wiped them unceremoniously on my leggings. Must have been from the airbag smashing my sunglasses against my face.
At least I hoped that was the crunch I heard and not my nose. I gently pinched the bridge between my fingers, but it didn't feel overly tender. Hopefully I wouldn't have two black eyes.
"What were you doing just sitting in the middle of the road?" Colleen asked. "I almost ran right into the back of you."
I shrugged. How to sum up all those feelings. "I—"
"Never mind," Colleen cut me off. "I know exactly why, Miss City Slicker. But you'll see that Piney Ridge isn't all that bad. Some of us are actually happy making our life here." She gave me a pointed look.
She still knew me so well. We could go months without talking, especially if I was on location for a shoot, but when we did reconnect, it was like no time passed at all.
"I know. My hesitation has more to do with a crippling sense of failure and less to do with the town. I'll get over it. I just need to wallow a little longer."
I moved away from Colleen to walk around the car and assess the damage. The front fender wrapped neatly around the sign pole. It didn't look terribly bad, but what I knew about cars could fit comfortably inside a change purse. I couldn't tell if the smoke came from the airbag, the lingering dust storm, or my poor, crumpled car.
Colleen joined me. "Not drivable. But probably not totaled."
"Goody. I guess I should call my parents for a ride." I gave another glance at the sign on the ground. "And the police."
"Funny you should mention the police," Colleen mumbled.
That's when I heard the sirens. Yes, plural. A pang of homesickness for New York blew through me at the sound. Add the smell of exhaust and hot dogs, and I'd be home. The homesickness was quickly replaced by a different kind of queasiness.
Many sirens in New York? Totally normal.
Many sirens in Piney Ridge? Juicy gossip. Every busybody and their brother had a police scanner going nonstop in their kitchens. My grandmother, Nana Klafkeniewski—known lovingly as Nana K by everyone who can't pronounce her very Polish surname—included.
"Who exactly did you call?" I asked Colleen.
"Listen, I wasn't sure how hurt you were," Colleen said defensively. "So I asked for paramedics. And then I saw the sign wobble, so I suggested they also send a fire truck. And, of course, the police always respond to a roadside accident..." She trailed off as a shiny red fire truck screeched to a halt on the shoulder. Compared to the battered and dented New York City trucks, this one looked barely used. In fact, the only time I remembered seeing fire trucks were for the biyearly parades—Fourth of July and Christmas.
Colleen rushed to add, "To be fair, I didn't know it was you when I called."
The flashing lights from the truck illuminated the still settling dust from the sign's demise, creating a retro dance club vibe on the side of Rural Route 97. I squinted my eyes as the first firefighter emerged from the truck. He came into focus slowly through the dust and lights, one glorious muscle after another taking shape as he neared. His station-issued T-shirt fit snug across broad shoulders and sculpted abs. He might be the only man who looked good in suspenders. Maybe Piney Ridge did have something to offer after all.
"Is it too late to fake a more serious injury?" I asked Colleen, smoothing out my rumpled T-shirt. Even though I swore off men after my last experience, I wasn't dead.
She laughed. "Just wait."
"Wait for wha—" I started to ask. Then Mr. Bulging Bicep's face came into full focus through the dust. The sexy club music playing in my head scratched to a halt, replaced immediately with the Darth Vader theme. How fitting that one of my burned bridges grew up to be a firefighter.
Lincoln Livestrong—childhood nemesis-slash-best friend-slash-silly crush-slash-broken heart-slash-biggest regret. We'd been thrown together all throughout our school years due to the alphabetical proximity of our last names. A fact that at first annoyed me and then pleased me and then annoyed me again as we aged.
"Sexy Lexi. I should have guessed," he said, using the old nickname I hated. His eyes lit with amusement; one corner of his mouth hitched into the annoyingly adorable smirk I wrote embarrassing poems about in high school.
"Lincoln Towncar," I returned. Two could play the nickname game. "Who else is gonna show up? We might as well make it a high school reunion."
"What did you do?" His deep, rich voice was equal parts amused and astonished.
"I'm redecorating." I crossed my arms over my chest and popped a hip defiantly.
He moved his steel-gray eyes from the sign back to me. He gave me a quick once-over—no doubt clocking the ketchup-stained shirt, worn-out leggings, mismatched flip-flops, and road hair—then zeroed in on my forehead.
"You're bleeding." He encircled my wrist in his large hand.
"I can wait for the paramedics, thanks," I said, trying to pull out of his grasp. He held on tighter, dragged me over to the fire truck, and deposited me firmly on the back fender.
He smirked again. "You're looking at the paramedic. It's a small town. We all fill many roles," he added with a chuckle. "Sit. I'll get the first-aid kit."
I was about to tell him where he could sit when a fluff ball that might be a dog—or maybe a Muppet—laid a head on my lap and snuffled my hand. The tension and snark that filled me so completely a moment ago vanished, and I melted into a big pile of goo.
"Hello, there," I cooed in a voice all women reserved for babies and puppies. "Where did you come from?"
"That's Fang," Linc said as he walked away.
"Aren't you a sweetie?" I buried my hands in his soft fur. He drooled on my leg. The dog was so furry, I couldn't even tell if it had eyes.
I was pushing the massive amount of black and white fur out of the way to inspect when the rest of the uniformed calvary arrived. Chief Duncan, who had been chief since I was in high school, rolled out of his car. After adjusting his pants over his rotund belly, he surveyed the scene until his sleepy brown eyes landed on me. I gave him a small finger wave and what I hoped passed for a sheepish smile. He lumbered over, hands on hips.
"When I heard the call come over the radio, I didn't believe it," he said instead of a greeting. "Do you know how long that sign has stood at the town's edge?"
I shook my head forlornly. I'm sure I learned that tidbit in school at some point, but I absolutely had not cared enough to retain it.
Linc came back with the first-aid kit. Chief Duncan gave him a grunt and a nod, then turned his attention back to me. "Since 1947."
"It was an accident," I mumbled stupidly. Linc snorted beside me but covered it by coughing. He pulled an alcohol pad and butterfly Band-Aid from the kit.
"Your mother is going to kill you, Alex, so I'll spare you the lecture. But I am going to have to write you a ticket. And you'll have to appear in court," the chief continued. "Probably pay to have the sign fixed."
Just what an unemployed thirtysomething wanted to hear. I groaned and tried to put my head in my hands. Linc grabbed my chin and lifted it back up.
"Hold still," he commanded in a deep tenor.
As he dabbed at my cut with an alcohol swab, he kept his fingers on my jaw, a lighter touch than I would have expected from someone so muscular. Since his focus was on my forehead, I took a moment to take in his features. Same gray eyes framed by the enviably long lashes that I remembered. But his face was more angular, his jaw more pronounced. And covered in stubble. Somewhere in the intervening years, this annoying teenager had turned into a man. I sat on my hands to keep them from reaching out to touch his arm muscles through his shirt. Man, I was a sucker for arm muscles. And, of course, Linc would have them to spare. So far, karma was not on my side. I'd taken comfort in imagining him as a hunchback with a hooknose and acne one could see from space.
"Alex, are you listening?" Chief Duncan asked.
"She might have a concussion, you know," Colleen said from somewhere beside me. "The airbag did deploy."
"I'll call a tow truck," the chief said.
"I feel fine. Thank you all so much for asking," I mumbled. I was having a hard time forming words. Totally because Linc still held my jaw, not because of his nearness.
"Do you really feel okay?" he asked, backing up a little. I could finally breathe. "You don't feel nauseous or dizzy?"
"Nope. I honestly wasn't going that fast when I collided with the sign. I was actually at a dead stop. Colleen honked behind me and scared me into pressing the gas. That's when I hit the sign," I explained, absently rubbing Fang's head. "I swear those poles were dry-rotted for that thing to topple with barely a tap."
Linc and the chief both looked at my fender hugging the remaining stump of the post, then back at me with eyebrows raised. The look was so identical, I swallowed a laugh. They must teach incredulity in first-responder class or something.
"Okay, fine," I conceded. "Maybe it was a little more than a tap."
"Uh-oh," Colleen said, looking at the road.
"What?" I peeked around Lincoln's broad chest.
"I swear I didn't call her," Colleen said with a wince. The way Colleen said "her" coupled with a "please don't blame me" expression meant only one thing—my mother had arrived.
I grabbed Linc's shirt. "Hide me. Or better yet, stage me to look like I'm unconscious. Or even better yet, that I vaporized."
Mercilessly, he pried my fingers off his clothing and clucked his tongue. "Alex, Alex, Alex. Look at you. In your thirties and still scared of your mother."
"Alexandretta Harriet Lightwood!" my mother bellowed. I cringed. Heck, half of Maryland cringed. Linc tried to step aside, but I scooted over so he still blocked me. That worked for all of two seconds.
My mother, Constance Lightwood, was a five-foot-five whirling dervish of strong emotions and fierce convictions. Her morals were as strong as her bowling arm and her voice as loud as her clothing. Currently, she wore a bright yellow housedress with large green and purple flowers. Her hair was in rollers under a babushka. Matching bright yellow Crocs slap-slap-slapped the pavement as she barreled toward us.
"Mom," I whined when we made eye contact. "I'm so glad you're here. I always need my mama when I'm hurt." I pointed to the Band-Aid on my head and tried to drum up some tears.
"Oh no you don't," my mother scolded, wagging her pointer finger at me. "Look what you did!" She turned that finger toward the sign.
I hung my head, wishing Linc hadn't whistled for Fang and disappeared around the truck. I could use a buffer. Even Colleen skedaddled, the chicken.
"I didn't mean it."
"I'm going to forever be the mother of the Sign Killer. I better not get kicked out of our book club for this," she said, arms gesticulating wildly as she spoke. "It's all over the police scanner already. And now I'm on the side of the road in my curlers and housecoat."
She grabbed my face in her hands and lifted it so our eyes met again. The hard edges of my mother's expression softened; she kissed my forehead.
"Ah, po ptakach," she said, using the Polish for it's all over now. "I am glad you're here, Peanut. But next time, a simple phone call will suffice."
"I think my car is undrivable," I said, wrapping my arms around my mother's middle. As indiscreetly as I could, I savored her smell like an addict. No matter the circumstance, she always smelled the same—a little bit of lemon, a dash of vanilla, a pinch of dough, and all of home. Every time I was even in the vicinity of a lemon danish, images of my mother in the kitchen with Nana K, making pierogis from scratch or homemade cookies for one of her many clubs, popped immediately into my mind.
"Undrivable isn't a word, Peanut," Mom said absently, stroking my hair. "We'll transfer all your stuff into my car. Doesn't look like it'll take too long."
Leave it to my mother to notice my lack of belongings. And point it out to everyone.
"Tow truck is on the way, Connie," Chief Duncan said. He ripped a ticket from his pad and handed it to me. "Don't miss your court date."
I jumped off the fender and walked with my mom toward my car to begin unloading my stuff. Linc stuck his head out the window of the fire truck.
"Hey, Alex," he called. I glanced up at him. "Welcome back to Piney Ridge. You know, in case you didn't see the sign."
To be continued in Secrets in a Still Life -
Released June 1, 2021;
Buy a SIGNED paperback HERE
E-book Available for Pre-order on Amazon Now