Hemlock for the Holidays, the third book in Paula Darnell's new cozy series, A Fine Art Mystery, will be available for pre-order soon!
What's it all about?
As Lonesome Valley kicks off the holiday season with its annual parade, artist Amanda Trent embraces the Christmas spirit, happy that her family will be coming to town to celebrate the season with her and her loyal pets, Laddie, a friendly golden retriever, and Mona Lisa, an independent calico cat.
Amanda has just one nagging concern: her art sales have stalled, so her checking account is starting to look a bit puny. Her financial woes pale, though, in comparison to her concern when several people eat carrot bars laced with hemlock at the high school's arts and crafts fair, resulting in one unlucky man's death. Was the poisoning an accident, or did someone with evil intent deliberately spike the sweet baked goods?
Leads the police follow don't pan out until Amanda puts the puzzle together. But, sometimes, knowledge can be a dangerous thing. . .
Read an Excerpt from Chapter One
“Santa! Over here!” Belle called, as she waved to jolly Mr. Claus, who stood atop the passing float, surrounded by elves busily depositing toys in his sleigh.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” he exclaimed, as he blew her a kiss.
The jolly red-suited gent, none other than my bestie's husband Dennis, had been drafted to play Santa in Lonesome Valley's annual Christmas parade when the original actor had come down with a case of food poisoning just a few hours before the parade was scheduled to begin.
“He's really into his role,” I said, as the giant float slowly progressed down Main Street. “How did you plump him up? He actually looks kind of roly-poly.”
“I wrapped him with fluffy batting before he put on the costume. I think it's working pretty well.”
“For sure. He's a big hit.”
Santa's float was followed by another featuring a giant, twinkling Christmas tree surrounded by beautifully wrapped presents. Children of members of Lonesome Valley's Downtown Merchants' Association sat among the gifts, waving shyly to the crowds that lined both sides of Main Street.
“Oh, look! Here come the carolers.” Belle pointed to the next float, which was large enough to accommodate the Lonesome Valley Pioneers, who performed at many community events. We spotted Rebecca and Greg Winter, a couple Belle and I had met in the spring, when we were walking our dogs in the little park a few blocks from our houses.
The choir began its rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with Rebecca and Greg singing the first verse in duet. The only decoration on the choir's float was a small tree graced by a few pears and a lone partridge. Each time the choir sang the refrain “and a partridge in a pear tree,” the singers all gestured toward the tree, and the partridge squawked, much to the delight of the spectators along the parade route.
“What a perfect day for the parade,” I said. The Arizona sun shone in a cloudless, blue sky, and there wasn't so much as a breeze.
“Yes, it's great,” Belle agreed. “Not like last year, when the wind gusted so much Santa lost his hat and Frosty blew over and fell right off the float. Of course, that happened before you moved here. I can't believe you've lived next door for—what is it?—just ten months now. It seems like we've been friends forever.”
“Yes, it does,” I said, putting my arm around her, “and I couldn't have better friends. If it weren't for you and Dennis, I might still be trying to adjust to my new life.”
Instead, I felt perfectly at home in my tiny house with my amiable golden retriever Laddie and my mercurial calico cat Mona Lisa for company. I'd chosen the little house because it featured an attached art studio that was the same size as the house's living area. A year ago, I'd been trying to come to terms with my recent, unexpected divorce. My husband Ned had decided to drop that bomb on the same night as my one-and-only solo art show at the Crystal Star Gallery in Kansas City. He'd announced that he planned to marry Candy, his office assistant, who's only a couple of years older than our daughter Emma. What he'd neglected to say was that Candy had a baby on the way. I'd been so excited preparing for my show that I hadn't had a clue!
Luckily, I'd snapped out of my panic mode after a few months to plan my new life. It wasn't long before I made the move from Kansas City to Lonesome Valley to pursue a career as a full-time artist, and I didn't regret it for a second.
Belle and I watched and cheered from the sidelines as several more floats passed by. A ninteenth-century stagecoach followed, pulled by four handsome horses, their manes and tails braided with red and green streamers. The sleigh bells hung around their necks jingled merrily as they pulled the coach along. The stage's driver sported traditional Western garb, with one exception. He'd substituted a plush red Santa hat for the Stetson he normally wore. His wife, decked out in a gorgeous, red velvet cape trimmed with white faux fur, rode beside him. Their three children peeped out the windows of the stagecoach and waved to the crowd. A high-profile couple, Melinda Gibbs was Lonesome Valley's mayor, and her husband Bob operated a large equestrian training center and horse stables at their ranch a few miles north of town.
Since the Gibbses never missed an opportunity to promote Lonesome Valley's galleries, all the artists at the Roadrunner, a cooperative art gallery where I displayed my oil paintings, appreciated their support.
Last up, the Lonesome Valley High School band marched past us, stepping smartly while they played “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree.” The crowd clapped enthusiastically, then began to disperse after the band passed by.
“I'm going to pick up a few gifts,” Belle said. “Should I meet you at the Roadrunner in about an hour?”
“Perfect. Then we can see how Dennis is coming along with his Santa act.” Dennis had agreed to play Santa for a group of preschoolers who'd have their pictures taken with him after the parade.
Belle crossed to the opposite side of Main Street, while I walked a block to the Roadrunner, curious to find out whether the parade-goers had stayed to shop. I hoped to improve my sales in December, especially since I'd had a bad month in November, and my finances were looking a bit tight, although I was in better shape than I'd been when I'd first moved to Lonesome Valley. The Roadrunner isn't the only place I sell my paintings, but it's my main venue. I also try to keep things going with studio tours, commissioned pet portraits, and even wholesale accounts with a few local boutiques, where I sell my abstract, dyed silk scarves.
With fingers figuratively crossed, I approached the Roadrunner and was pleased to see several people entering the gallery ahead of me.
Inside, a crush of people crowded around the jewelry counter and cash register, where Carrie and Ralph, two of our members, waited on customers. I was pleased that eighty-five-year-old Ralph kept pace as he handled the transactions. A few months earlier, his arthritis had plagued him so much that it had been difficult for him to move, but since his doctor had prescribed a different pain medication, he no longer relied on a cane.
Pamela, our gallery director, and my friend Susan, an awesome watercolorist who also sculpts huge animals in papier-mâché, were helping other customers as they browsed the paintings. I headed down the hallway and deposited my coat in our meeting room, then returned to the front of the gallery and stowed my purse in a drawer under the counter.
“Excuse me,” a gray-haired woman carrying a large shopping bag said. “Do you work here?”
“Yes. How may I help you?”
“I saw a little painting of a cactus flower in the back.”
“Let's take a closer look,” I said, accompanying her around the divider to the back room.
She pointed to a group of cactus flowers. “I really like these,” she said, “but I can't decide which one to buy.”
“Do you have a place in mind to hang it?” I asked.
“Yes, I was thinking above a little table in my entryway. The walls are light beige, so I suppose any color would do—maybe the white flower?”
“How about the pink one? It could add a nice touch of color.”
“I do like that one,” she said, stepping in for a closer look. “Yes, I think you're right. I'll take it.”
I carefully removed it from the wall and carried it to the front for her. There was a line at the register, so I jumped in to help Ralph, and we had soon checked out all the waiting customers.
“Enjoy it!” I said, waving at the woman I'd assisted as she left the gallery, carrying her painting.
Although Pamela was talking to a group of people near the door, the crowd had thinned, and I joined Susan.
“Amanda, I'm glad you came in when you did. It was getting crazy. I didn't think we'd be so busy after the festivities, but it looks as though things have calmed down now.”
“Were you able to watch the parade?”
“We had a bird's-eye view from the balcony upstairs. It was great. I thought the squawking partridge was so cute. Oh, look who's here!” A man wearing a jeans jacket entered the gallery.
I didn't recognize the newcomer, but Susan seemed pleased to see him when he approached and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“Eric, I haven't seen you for ages!” Susan exclaimed after she'd introduced us.
“Yeah, I've been busy, too. Business is way down. I'm barely hanging on there, but things are about to take a turn for the better in a big way.”
“That's good news.”
“Yeah, I'm psyched. Timing couldn't be better. Anyway, I thought I'd pop in for a minute to say 'hi.' Figured you'd be here. Looks like you've been busy.” He nodded at the large papier-mâché zebra that stood in the window. “As soon as I saw it, I knew it had to be yours. Say, do you have time to come by the house tomorrow evening? There's something I'd like to show you.”
“I suppose I could stop by for a few minutes. Amanda and I were planning on going out to dinner tomorrow. Would you like to join us?”
“Well, all right, if it's OK with Amanda.”
“Of course. The more, the merrier, and this is certainly the season to be merry,” I agreed.
“All right. We're on. Text me the time and place, and I'll see you ladies tomorrow.”
We watched him as he made his way to the door and stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the gallery.
“I hope he's right about things improving for him.” Susan sighed. “About two years ago, his wife was killed in a terrible helicopter crash. She was my best friend.”
“Susan, I'm so sorry. I didn't know.”
“I don't talk about it much. It still hurts, and whenever I see Eric, it hurts even more. I haven't been avoiding him exactly, but I haven't gone out of my way to see him, either. I know he has financial problems now, too.”
The gallery had almost cleared out by this time, and we joined Ralph and Carrie at the jewelry counter.
“Say, wasn't the guy you were just talking to the owner of Thrifty Buys?” Carrie asked.
“Yes. Eric Thompson,” Susan confirmed.
“I heard the place is going under.”
“I don't know about that,” Susan said.
“It's true,” Ralph interjected. “I saw the bankruptcy notice in the newspaper yesterday. He's filed for Chapter 7.”