Check out Chapters One and Two from my newest release—Bowling Blunder—the second book in the Magical Mane Mystery series.
I hope you enjoy this sneak peek!
We sounded like a herd of elephants running down the dirt road.
Elephants that giggled like schoolgirls.
“How is everyone doing?” I turned to jog backward so I could see the group. My headlamp shone against the dark of the early morning light. Five headlamps shone back at me.
“Do we have to go so far?” Amy croaked. Her dyed orange hair and baggy sweats made her look like a grandma wearing her teenage granddaughter’s wardrobe.
“Oh, stop it,” Fran said. “Ellie’s trying to get us in shape for this run. Do you want to win the old people category or not?” Fran wore jeans like she did every day for every activity. Including yoga.
“Speak for yourself,” Katie said, trotting along gracefully, her long blue wrap flowing behind her like a cape. “Some of us do not consider ourselves old.”
Next to her ran another woman, equally as graceful, but in an outfit that looked like it came straight out of a Los Angeles spin class. Bonnie was the odd one out, and it showed. None of the other women even acknowledged her existence.
I kept jogging backward. “You’re not old. You’re experienced.”
“Ooh, experienced,” Nancy, in her bright red tracksuit and matching tennis shoes, said as she power-walked near a panting Amy. “I like that.”
“Don’t be weird,” Fran said. “She meant experienced in life. Not . . . other things.”
Fran was the tough one in the group. She ran the feed and fabric store in the middle of Cliff Haven, Iowa—the town I’d recently come to know as home.
After being practically on my own for twenty-some years—transferring in and out of foster homes before settling into the solo life—I received a letter from my biological grandmother—Esme Vanderwick. Though I hadn’t met Esme before she died, she did leave me her farm.
Now, Cliff Haven was more of a home than any I’d ever known.
Well, besides my Volkswagen Microbus—Mona.
Penelope, my tiny pet pig, and I lived many years in Mona. She had not only been my traveling wellness business—Relief with Ellie—she was my bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining room, and transportation. She was also relatively temperamental. It added to her charm.
“We’re going to pick up the pace for thirty seconds,” I said. “In five, four—”
“How fast do we have to go?” Amy whined, clutching her sides.
“Just as fast as you feel comfortable,” I said. “In five, four, three—”
“I’m ready, just say go,” Nancy said.
I laughed. That’s what I was trying to do. “Five, four, three, two—”
“Hold on, my leg is cramping,” Fran said, stopping to rub her calf.
“I’ll circle back for you,” I said. “Everyone else, thirty seconds, go.”
All the women besides Fran took off. And when I say took off, I mean they seemed to go faster.
All but Katie and Bonnie were still practically walking. But Katie and Bonnie seemed to be in some sort of unofficial race. They might not have acknowledged one another, but they sure had a competitive nature.
Bonnie came to Cliff Haven under sketchy circumstances. She was having an affair with one of the local farmers who ended up dead in my cornfield. Through a series of events, Bonnie ended up getting his farm. Which was right next to mine. So when she’d shown interest in the morning running group, I couldn’t turn her down. Plus, the extra money was always welcome.
“What’s wrong with your leg?” I asked, running back to meet Fran.
“It’s just a cramp,” she said, still massaging.
“Can I help?”
“Sure,” she said. “Give those magic fingers a whirl.”
Whether my fingers were magic was still up for debate.
“I like what you’ve done with your hair,” she said as I worked my way down her calf.
“It pretty much does whatever it wants anymore,” I said.
My hair, unlike my fingers, was somewhat magical. At least in the sense that it changed color and shape whenever I had any sort of emotion. It also notified me of danger, but I was still working out the details on that one. The last time it had warned me, I hadn’t paid attention and nearly got myself killed.
“I like the pink on you,” she said. “It goes well with your eyes.”
“I think pink means I’m happy,” I said. “Especially when it’s wavy like this.”
I had it back in a ponytail, but the wave was still noticeable. “How’s that feel?”
Fran flexed her foot. “Magical.”
“Great,” I said. “Now, let’s catch up to the others.”
“Race ya,” she said and took off. She was almost as fast as Katie and Bonnie, but not nearly as fast as me. If I’d been able to stay at a high school for longer than a couple of months, I probably would have done well on a track team—maybe even gotten a college scholarship.
I passed her quickly and made my way up to the front of the pack.
“How are you feeling today?” I asked the two leaders, who each acted as if they were running solo.
“Feeling good,” Bonnie said. “I like when it gets colder, and the air stings my lungs a bit.”
I couldn’t quite tell in the dark, but I think Katie may have rolled her eyes.
“I feel great,” Katie said, trying to one-up Bonnie. “I can’t wait to knock the socks off everyone at the Trot ‘n Tater this year.”
“The what?” I laughed. Being from Colorado, I knew little about Iowa traditions.
“The Trot ‘n Tater is the 5k we have every year the week of Thanksgiving,” Katie said. “That’s what those old ladies—” she shouted over her shoulder, “—were talking about.”
“I get the trot part, but what’s up with the tater?”
“Once the race is over, you have to eat a Tupperware full of mashed potatoes. If you throw up, you lose.”
“What?” I laughed. “That’s nuts.”
“It’s a very important tradition,” Katie said but laughed along with me. “It takes stamina and an appetite.”
“Sounds—uh—interesting.” I checked my watch. “Okay, time to slow down and take a breather.”
Everyone slowed to a walk, even Katie, but she waited until Bonnie did first.
“Did I hear you telling her about the TNT?” Amy yelled from behind us. “Can you eat, Ellie?”
Katie, Bonnie, and I slowed and waited for the others to catch up.
“Have you never seen her at a potluck?” Fran said. “She could be a professional eater.”
“As long as the mashed potatoes don’t have pork in them,” Nancy said.
I laughed. She’d once tried to get me to eat a pork tenderloin, but I had to refuse. Not that I was a vegetarian or vegan. I just couldn’t eat something that could be related to my best friend in the entire world.
“Let’s place our bets now,” Amy said. “Ellie’s gonna win.”
“I don’t know,” Nancy said. “Sometimes we get some good ones from the cities.”
“But those ones don’t know how to eat.” Katie jogged practically in place to keep her heart rate up. “They’re all a bunch of runners who barf everything up. I think we got ourselves a winner here.”
Bonnie didn’t join in the chatter. She never did. She kept to herself and barely even spoke to me.
I didn’t know what to think about the Trot ‘n Tater, but if there were two things I did relatively well, they were running and eating. And I wasn’t about to tell them this, but mashed potatoes were one of my favorite side dishes ever.
I’d only ever had a real family Thanksgiving once with a foster family. I was five and Thanksgiving dinner ended with me going back into the system. One of the other foster kids intentionally spilled cranberries all over my brand-new white dress. Which naturally made my hair go all different shades of red and completely freaked out my foster parents.
All my other Thanksgivings were spent in either group homes or with families that didn’t really celebrate.
“So? Will you race?” Nancy asked.
“What do I get if I win?” I asked.
“A big old trophy,” Amy said. “In the shape of a potato with legs and wings.”
I shook my head. I should have known it would be something like that.
“Should we do one more sprint before we call it a day?” I asked. “We’re almost back to the house.”
My house—the one I’d inherited from my grandmother—was at the end of a long dirt driveway that used to be surrounded by cornfields. Now that it had been harvested, it was just a big flat piece of land with a touch of snow that fell a couple of weeks back.
Northern Iowa wasn’t like Colorado. Or at least Denver, Colorado. Once the snow came, it was there until spring. At least, that’s what I’d been told.
“In five, four—”
But before I could get any further, a woman came running up behind us yelling obscenities.
We turned to look.
She wore all black with a bright reflective strip down each leg. When our headlamps caught the strip, it glowed like an agile worm dancing on its tail.
“I’m sorry, did we do something?” I asked as she ran by. She was still yelling.
When she realized I was talking to her, she held up a hand for me to be quiet and pointed at her ear.
I instantly understood—she was on the phone.
“You can’t take me off the case,” she went back to yelling. “I don’t care what your reasoning is. She wants me on the case. And she is the client.”
Once she was a few steps ahead of us, Fran said, “What in the heck was she talking about?”
“She was on the phone,” I said. “Sounded important.”
I shrugged. It wasn’t our business. “Okay, let’s do this one last sprint. In five, four—”
“I’m gonna win,” Fran said, taking off before I got through my countdown.
Everyone else started running—even Nancy, who practically never ran.
“That’s cheating,” Nancy said, her sweet rosy cheeks bobbing up and down with every step. She and her husband were like the rock ‘n roll equivalent of Santa and Mrs. Claus with their white hair, tattoos, and jolly nature.
It was too bad their son turned out to be a murderer. He killed his aunt, uncle, and cousin to get his hands on the family farm. In the end, it reverted back to his uncle’s mistress—Bonnie—who was currently trying to get a permit to build a bunch of fancy houses on the land.
Those houses would go up right next door to mine. Thankfully, quite a few acres of my cornfield separated our properties.
The whole situation had shaken the community pretty badly. Nancy’s son and his girlfriend had gone to jail because of it. Nancy and her husband, Hank, didn’t like talking about it.
That was part of the reason I started the morning fitness club. Katie mentioned the other women needed a stress reliever. So every day, we worked out together, and then we each headed to our respective jobs. Mine being a waitress at the café.
Though I could probably get by on the money Esme left and the money I got from training sessions like the morning workouts with the ladies, I enjoyed working at the café a couple of days a week. It kept me connected in the community and gave me an outlet for my extroverted-ness.
I was just thankful I could use my degree in therapeutic recreation every once in a while if only to help my friends.
“I win,” Katie shouted when she barely outpaced Bonnie and reached the top steps of my house. Penelope oinked excitedly and ran around Katie’s feet. She loved it when we came back from runs.
I scooped her up and said goodbye to all the women. “I’ll see you bright and early for yoga tomorrow.”
“Namaste,” Amy said with a bow, her orange hair flopping over her face.
Fran laughed. “You goof.” Then she turned to Katie. “Next time, I’m going to win.”
“Next time, don’t cheat, and maybe I’ll let you,” Katie said.
“Oh, and Ellie,” Fran said as I opened the door. “Start training that stomach of yours to eat after runs. We’ll be counting on you next week.”
I waved and waited until they were all out of the driveway before I went upstairs to shower.
When I first arrived in Cliff Haven, I felt guilty using Esme’s space. But I’d tried to sleep in nearly all the other rooms, and none of them even remotely worked out for me. I always ended up sleeping in Mona.
Then I slept in Esme’s bed. And it was as if Esme had made all the other beds intentionally unwelcoming so hers would feel so cozy it made it hard to get out of bed in the morning. Which was quite the task since I was one hundred percent a morning person.
The bedroom was the largest in the house, and in one corner down by the lower trim was a tiny hole just big enough for a finger to fit inside. That hole opened a secret passageway leading to an attic. I was almost entirely sure no one but Penelope and I knew about the attic.
And I planned on keeping it that way.
The attic was my sanctuary. The place I went when everything was too much, too overwhelming, too crazy. And I knew it was Esme’s sanctuary, too. Her journal had told me that, if nothing else. I was still trying to figure the darn thing out.
The master bedroom, bathroom, and closet were almost four times as big as my living space inside Mona. Sometimes the expanse of the house actually made me claustrophobic. Or maybe the opposite—whatever that was.
I never liked super small spaces, but Mona’s living area had always seemed perfect for Penelope and me. We would lie together and look up through the skylight at the stars every night.
As much as I loved Esme’s—my—bed, sometimes I’d pull Mona out of the garage and sleep under the clear sky for old times’ sake.
When I finished showering, I pulled on a pair of loose-fitting jeans and a nice long-sleeved t-shirt I’d gotten from Katie. She’d given me all of her daughter’s old clothes. Her daughter—Melody—was a big-name actress and apparently had fancy Hollywood clothes now.
I’d never met Melody, but Katie was hopeful she’d come home for Thanksgiving this year. From what Earl—Katie’s husband and Melody’s dad—said, Melody hadn’t been home in several years.
It was really none of my business, but people just seemed to like to tell me things. Personal things. Things I sometimes wished they wouldn’t.
“I’ll see you later,” I said to Penelope. “Be good while I’m gone.”
As I drove past Bonnie’s house, I could see her in the large window watering her flowers.
I waved, and she waved back—her hands covered in yellow rubber gloves.
Bonnie seemed to be incredibly particular about everything. Her appearance, her home, her business. It didn’t surprise me at all that she would do chores with gloves on.
When I pulled into town, the sky was lightening from a deep navy blue to a cool purple.
I unlocked the door to the diner and let two of the four regulars inside. I’d become familiar with two of the farmers—Hank and Earl. But these two—George and William—had kept their distance.
Probably because their wives thought I was a witch.
When I’d first arrived, everyone seemed to have loved Esme. They were always telling me how important she was to the town, how much they missed her, and how I reminded them of her.
But I’d come to realize not everyone loved Esme. And those people steered clear of me too. Including William and George, their wives, and their kids.
Jake—the local police chief and the man I once wrongly thought was my father—assured me they’d come around. Though I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t let it get me down. I’d learned early in life not to let the small things get to me. Or the big things. Or anything. I tried my absolute best to be happy regardless of my situation.
I set two cups of coffee in front of George and William and put their food orders in with the kitchen before tending to a woman who just walked in.
A woman I’d seen only once before.
“Can I get you something to drink?” I asked, handing her a menu.
“Don’t you recognize me?” She wore more makeup than people usually wore in Cliff Haven and would have probably been prettier without it. She had on a button-down plaid shirt, a puffy green vest, skinny jeans, and brown lace-up boots. “I’m PJ’s fiancée.”
I almost corrected her because PJ was dead, but I didn’t think it would be the kindest thing to do.
“That’s right,” I said. “I saw you at the hospital.”
“I thought you were a cop,” she said. “That man you were with was a cop, right?”
“He’s the police chief.”
“And you are?”
“I’m a waitress and recreational therapist,” I said. “I was just helping Jake—the chief—with the investigation.”
“And it was your boyfriend who killed him, right?”
“My boyfriend?” I was confused. Did she think I was Sally? “No, his girlfriend—Sally—is in jail as well. For helping him commit the crimes.”
“Then who are you?” she asked.
Who was I? Her fiancé’s ex-girlfriend, her ex-future-mother-in-law’s neighbor. “I’m Ellie,” I finally said. “And you are?”
“Samantha,” she said. “Not Sam. Not Sammy. Samantha.”
She dropped her head to look at the menu. “Coffee, black,” she said without looking back up.
I didn’t mind her rudeness. I couldn’t imagine losing my fiancé, not that I’d ever been engaged, but still. And going through a court battle probably wasn’t very fun.
When I dropped the coffee off, she ordered two egg whites and one slice of dry wheat toast.
“Who’s that?” Bex said when she walked in to start her shift.
“That is PJ’s fiancée, Samantha.”
“Why is she here?” Bex was breathtakingly gorgeous with her black curly hair, dark complexion, and deep brown eyes. She almost always wore some version of the same outfit—bellbottom jeans, a flowy top, and sandals—even as the weather cooled.
“She said she’s fighting Bonnie for the farm.”
Bex huffed. “There has been enough fighting over that farm. It’s bad luck if you ask me. There’s too much bloodshed surrounding it.”
The front door opened, jingle bells notifying us of Earl’s arrival. Earl was Katie’s husband and one of the more handsome of the older men in town with his salt and pepper hair and strong jawline. He was even more attractive when he smiled, which he didn’t often do.
“I don’t know that either of them actually wants to keep the farm,” I said to Bex. “I think they want to develop the land.”
“They might change their minds when they find out the town won’t let that happen,” Bex said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“She means,” Earl interjected. “There’s an ordinance in Cliff Haven that says no one can develop within city limits.”
“But I thought we were outside city limits,” I said.
“You are,” he said. “But the very tip of Bonnie’s property is in the city. She doesn’t know that yet.”
Bex gave me an amused smile.
“So basically, it’s useless,” I said. “And all those people died for something that would never come to pass, anyway?”
They both stopped smiling.
“When you put it like that,” Bex gave me a sad face and walked away.
Earl patted me on the back twice, nearly knocking me over. “People die. It’s sad, but it happens.”
“It didn’t have to happen,” I said. “Ty didn’t have to kill everyone.”
“Ty was a greedy little boy who didn’t want to lift a finger to make a buck.” Earl’s gruff mannerisms were intimidating at first, but the more I got to know him, the more he seemed like a big teddy bear.
“It’s still sad,” I said.
“You’re right,” he said. “It is sad. I may not have gotten along with Percy, but I never wanted him to die. And Helen was a good woman.”
I nodded. I had really liked Helen, even though I hadn’t known her very long.
A bell rang from the back, telling me I had an order ready.
I picked up Samantha’s egg whites and toast and delivered them along with a coffee refill. “Can I get you anything else?”
“What did I hear you talking about?” Samantha said.
“Just a minute ago,” she said. “Did I hear that man say there’s no way that land will be developed?”
I sucked in a breath. I didn’t want to be the one to tell her this. I hated confrontation. But I also couldn’t lie. “Yes, that’s what he said.”
“And should I believe him?”
I shrugged. I didn’t tell her he was a non-practicing attorney who had lived in Cliff Haven his entire life.
She pondered this for a second before looking back at me. “That’s all.”
Her dismissal was both rude and welcome. I didn’t want to answer any more of her questions.
# # #
“Want to go out tonight?” Bex asked as we were cleaning and getting ready to close up. “A bunch of us are going into the city for some black light bowling and drinks.”
I hesitated. I’d never been out with Bex and her friends before. They were the same age as me, but I felt much more comfortable around the older women.
“Come on, it’ll be fun,” she said.
“I don’t know.” I swept the entry near the door. Only a few people were left—one being Samantha, who had taken out her laptop and worked at her booth all day. She’d probably had fifteen cups of black coffee. If I had that much coffee, my hair would have worked itself into a giant fuzzball. “I have early morning yoga therapy tomorrow, and I probably shouldn’t be hungover for that.”
“You don’t have to drink,” Bex said. She’d asked me to hang out nearly a dozen times, and each time, I’d found a reason to decline. Not that I didn’t enjoy hanging out with other people—that was one of my favorite things to do—I just knew some of her friends didn’t like me.
“Okay, I’ll go,” I finally said.
Her eyes widened. “Really? That’s awesome.”
Anxiety crept up my spine, and I could feel my hair changing.
“Oh, come on, don’t worry,” she said, looking up at my hair. “My friends are nice.”
I still found it disconcerting that many of the people in the town were not only unbothered by my hair changes, but also knew what they meant. Esme and Emily—my mother—had the same color-changing hair and had lived in Cliff Haven many years. But growing up, I’d always had to hide my hair. I had the scarfs, hats, and headbands to prove it.
“I guess I haven’t had great luck with people my age,” I said, taking a breath to get my hair back to its natural white.
“I’ll be with you the entire time. Nothing bad will happen.”
I felt a smidge better. “What should I wear?”
Before she could answer, a whirlwind of pink and sparkles entered the café. Four women screeched like banshees when they saw Samantha sitting in the corner.
Samantha closed her computer and jumped up to hug the short one with brown hair. Two of the other women were blonde, and one was . . . the woman who had been yelling into the phone on her run that morning.
She stood back from the group a bit but hugged Samantha tightly when it was her turn.
“Are you ready for the best bachelorette weekend ever?” The tall blonde asked, her peppiness that of a head cheerleader. “What do you have planned for us today?” she asked Samantha.
Samantha’s eyes widened, then she turned her gaze on me. She told her friends to hold on and marched over with a big smile on her face. A smile she’d never given me before.
“Can I get you something?” I asked.
“As a matter of fact, you can,” she said. “You teach exercise classes, right?”
“What about pole dancing?”
I could feel my hair tingle with embarrassment.
Bex snickered behind me.
“Uh, no. That’s not really in my wheelhouse.” Or solar system.
“I don’t have spin bikes,” I said. Or a proper studio for those bikes, but eventually I’d redo the barn and—
“Then what do you teach?” She huffed. “I want to do something for my friends. Something fun. I forgot today was up to me to plan. I’ll make it well worth your while.”
I thought for a minute. Part of me wanted to say no. Someone once told me it was my choice whether to make other people’s emergencies my own. I could have easily told her no. It wasn’t my fault she hadn’t planned appropriately.
But it was hard to turn down the money. Though I had plenty to keep me going, I still had a fear of the bottom dropping out. I’d spent my entire adult life making sure I wouldn’t go hungry—that Penelope wouldn’t go hungry—I just didn’t have it in me to turn down cold, hard cash.
“How about belly dancing?” I’d taught a class for a few months during my college internship. I wasn’t great at it, but they didn’t have to know that.
“Belly dancing?” Her eyes lit up. “Perfect. We’ll be at your house in an hour.”
I looked at my watch. I only had about thirty minutes left in my shift, which would only give me about twenty to prepare. “How about an hour and a half? I have to find some costumes.”
“Costumes?” She smiled. “Perfect. Thanks.”
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