Book 1: The Virile Cowboy
I stared out the window at the flat, barren landscape between Red Deer and Rocky Mountain House. The fields were covered in a light dusting of snow, the trees still naked from a long Alberta winter.
I smiled sadly when the familiar wooden sign came into view, welcoming visitors to my cozy hometown, nestled east of the Rocky Mountains. You could just barely make out the peaks on a clear day.
The main drag had changed a lot in the twenty years since I’d left. I shook my head as I passed a Tim Hortons, a Boston Pizza, and hotels that weren’t there the last time I was home, two years before.
I pulled into the driveway, my tires crunching on the gravel. A wave of sadness hit me like a tsunami.
Her red 1979 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible was still parked in the driveway. I hated that car.
She bought it brand new and had black polka dots painted on it to make it look like a ladybug. It was embarrassing to ride in, especially for an introverted teenager, who preferred to hide in the shadows.
Everybody knew when Dot Jennings was at the grocery store, or anywhere else in town. I never got my driver’s license until I left home, because I wouldn’t be caught dead driving that car.
“Oh, Grams,” I whispered, wiping away my tears with the back of my hand. “I’m so sorry I gave you such a hard time about your car.”
I took a deep breath before opening the door and climbing out of my F-Pace. My Jaguar SUV looked out of place in the neighborhood I grew up in.
Most of the houses on the street were older bungalows, with faded siding and plastic on the windows to keep the heat in. Many of my grandma’s neighbors had lived there for years.
Hardworking Canadians, struggling to get by, but they always seemed happy. Just like my gram. They were thankful for what they had, and they didn’t place a lot of value on material things.
I opened the hatch and reached for the handle of my suitcase.
I glanced to my right at the woman waddling across the lawn with a toddler on her hip. My childhood best friend, Deanne Simpson, still lived next door, except she was Deanne Dunkley now.
She married her high school sweetheart. They lived with her parents until they passed away a few years back. I’d lost track of how many kids she had. Her husband worked on the pipeline, so he was away a lot.
“Deanne! You’re pregnant!”
“Oh, yeah.” She laughed with a shrug.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I thought I mentioned it in a text.”
I smiled at my old friend. She was dressed in faded overalls, her dye job clearly out of a box.
Her minivan was missing its hubcaps, and there was a massive dent in the bumper, but her wide smile reached her eyes. Deanne was happy.
“This must be Daniel,” I said, reaching out to tousle the toddler’s silky blond locks.
“Darian,” she corrected.
“Sorry.” I laughed. “Your kids’ names are too similar.”
“I know,” she agreed, adjusting the baby on her hip. “Dave’s mother gets them mixed up sometimes. Don’t feel bad.”
“When are you due?”
“And this is number seven?”
“Eight,” she sighed. “Lucky number eight was supposed to be a girl.”
“Will you try again?”
“Absolutely not. Dave had a vasectomy. We’re done.”
“That’s, uh, that’s good.”
“I’m so sorry about Dot,” she said quietly.
“I can’t believe she didn’t want a funeral.”
“I can.” I chuckled. “She was cheap. She thought funerals were a waste of money.”
“How are you doing, Jillian?”
“No, you’re not,” she said. “Don’t try that shit on me. I’ve known you too long.”
“She lived a full life.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t be sad.” She tilted her head, studying me thoughtfully. “And you’re still grieving for your husband.”
“Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary.”
“Oh. That’s rough.”
“You should come to the reunion,” she suggested gently.
“No thanks,” I laughed.
“Why not?” she whined. “It would be a perfect distraction for you.”
“I hated high school, Dee,” I said. “I didn’t fit in here then, and I don’t fit in here now. Why would I want to spend an evening with people I didn’t associate with twenty years ago?”
“You’re a world-famous author, Jillian. And you’re rich. You got out of this town and made something of your life. Most of our classmates can’t say the same. Don’t you want to rub it in their faces?”
“I’m on the reunion committee,” she said. “I can get you a ticket.”
“I’m not going, Dee.”
“Ethan Stillwell is attending.”
“And your point is?”
“You had a serious crush on him in high school.”
“That was twenty years ago.” I laughed. “And I’m sure his beautiful wife will be on his arm. Another reason not to attend.”
“Uh, he’s not bringing a date, sweetie. Lisa died.”
“What?” I gasped. “When?”
“A year ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think you cared about what went on here. And you’d just lost your husband.”
“How did she die?”
“That’s sad,” I said. “Did they have kids?”
“Definitely not interested in Ethan Stillwell,” I declared. “Poor guy.”
“He’s rich. I heard he has a nanny.”
“Good for him.”
“I’ve got to get dinner started,” she said, freeing her hair from her toddler’s fingers. “Promise me you’ll at least think about the reunion.”
My fingers flew across the keyboard, ideas for my next novel flowing like the Bow and Elbow River in early spring.
I never suffered from writer’s block. Writing was my escape. And there always seemed to be something to escape from in my shitty life.
I lost track of time, forgetting where I was until my belly grumbled. Gram’s cuckoo clock dragged me from my happy place with the shrill call of a blackbird announcing it was nine o’clock.
I’d always hated that clock. A different bird squawking every hour. Why would anyone want to listen to that?
I fixed a plate of cheese and crackers, my brain continuing to flesh out the plot of my new novel while I ate.
My genre was teen and young adult mystery. I’d written several stand-alone novels, but my teenage detective series was my big break.
The Sandy Detectives followed teenage sleuths Sandy Ketcheson and her male best friend, Sandy Long, and their life in a beachfront community.
They solved mysteries that usually revolved around missing people or items with the occasional murder. There was an underlying romance theme as Sandy hid his true feelings for Sandy in order to protect their friendship.
Seven of the ten books in the series were best sellers. And my editor wanted book eleven as soon as possible.
The Mystery of the Missing Prom Queen was shaping up to be a hit. The parents of Sandy and Sandy attend their high school reunion on an old ship turned into a hotel with the attendees spending the night.
The prom queen was an awful person in high school, and her classmates quickly discover she hasn’t changed, agreeing that she is insufferable. When she goes missing on the large ship, Sandy and Sandy investigate.
I reached for my phone, firing off a text to Deanna.
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