Authors: Maureen K. Howard
SUNNY SIDE UP
Book 1 in the Lake Erie Mysteries
Maureen K. Howard
SUNNY SIDE UP Copyright © 2014 by Maureen K. Howard
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations embodied in articles or book reviews.
Edited and formatted by
THE EYES FOR EDITING
Silver Phoenix Publishing
2713 Foxfire Lane
Findlay, OH 45840
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, and dialogue are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Settings in and around Lake Erie are either real or based on actual locations.
The evening sky made me think of rainbow sherbet as I watched the sun set over picturesque Kelleys Island. The sound of waves lapping against the side of my small skiff as I steered toward the lakeshore had a cathartic effect—my breathing and heart rate were finally returning to normal. From a hundred yards off shore, it was a postcard perfect scene. Idling past the breakwall, past the pier and the beach, I envisioned the fingers of charcoal smoke curling their way through the pastel clouds, clutching and twisting, distorting the idyllic scene. I could almost smell it, faint at first, but increasing in intensity, a foul odor like hot summer asphalt mixed with the sweetly noxious smell of burnt cupcakes. It would make your eyes water and your nostrils burn.
Increasing my speed, I glanced over my shoulder then focused once more on the shoreline, imagining the result of my handiwork and the thrill that would course through me when my mission was complete and my trophy, the charred remains of my victim, was discovered.
Did I leave my vibrator on? Oh wait, I don’t own a vibrator, so what was causing the riotous pile of clothes on my bedroom floor to buzz with such urgency? The mundane truth was that I’d switched my cell phone ringer off so I wouldn’t lose focus while trying to assemble my weekend wardrobe. Obviously that wasn’t working out so well for me.
I located the gyrating devil under some discarded tank tops and swiped the answer button on the screen just before the call was switched over to voicemail. “Hello?”
“Francie! Is it a go? Did you get the hubby to agree to run us over to the island in the boat this weekend?”
“It’s good to hear from you, too, June. And no, I haven’t even gotten around to asking him yet. He’s downstairs whipping up one of his gourmet meals, and I sure don’t want to distract him from that. I was trying to figure out what I should pack. How do you prepare for freezing cold mornings, balmy afternoons, torrential downpours and high winds—and fit everything into one suitcase? At least I don’t have to worry about bathing suits. After the winter we’ve just had, the lake probably won’t warm up until August.”
“Sorry. I’m just anxious to get to the island. My editor is jumping down my throat to get this story in before the official start of the season.”
June’s passion was hard to resist. She was like that about everything she did—she took off running and didn’t look back. I could feel myself being lured in to the promise of fun and adventure. It wouldn’t be the first time.
My best friend was a freelance writer. She worked for a consortium of specialty magazines running the gamut from Fruit Aficionado to The Neighborhood Cigar, to my favorite, Lady Sings the Tools. Two years ago she gave up her high-profile job as an investigative reporter for WCLV, the major network news channel in Cleveland. After her divorce, she bagged up all her corporate outfits, chopped off her hair, and set off on a new career path that didn’t hamper her free spirit. Her new job now requires her to spend time with all kinds of interesting people from every walk of life instead of digging up dirt on the lowest of low-life criminals.
Recently, I even got to meet Christie Browne, the beautiful model, while June was working on a story about the latest beauty product the star was endorsing. In our enthusiasm to prove our support for the much-touted self-tanning lotion, we doubled the recommended amount as well as the recommended usage time. Our skin turned a frightening shade of burnt pumpkin, and wouldn’t you know it, I had to accompany Hammond to a formal dinner party given by his firm that same evening. June, on the other hand, was able to postpone her face-to-face interview, and by the time we met Christie, we both looked sweetly sun-kissed. She got rave reviews on her piece. I got put on a prayer list.
“I get that you’re under a deadline, but if I don’t approach Hamm in just the right way, I’m fried. Let me call you back in a little while.”
“Okay, but let me know soon. If I don’t take this assignment, I’ll be stuck documenting the mating behaviors of ferrets for the next two weeks.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll call ya back. I promise!”
I clicked off the call, tucked my cell phone into the back pocket of my favorite worn jeans, and hustled down the stairs to the kitchen.
“Seriously, Francesca? Was that June again?”
“What? I wasn’t talking to anyone. I was just sorting through my closet to see what I would need in case we headed up to the lake for the weekend.”
“You know you can’t just pack up and take off after that nut job friend of yours every time she goes off on one of her top-secret missions or assignments or whatever the heck they are. The university doesn’t appreciate you turning up AWOL whenever Miss Batman sends up her rally signal.”
My husband, Hammond, had a point. I grabbed a bottle of Pinot Noir and poured two glasses while trying to judge Hamm’s mood.
Hamm was logical, thoughtful, intelligent, and often introspective. I, on the other hand, lived in the moment, embracing the passions of the people around me. Although Hamm was speaking sternly, he wasn’t fooling me. He was having a hard time suppressing the smile turning up the corners of his mouth and making the emerging crow’s feet around his eyes crinkle.
“Hamm, you know the semester is over, and I’m finished with the drama department for the summer. There’s nothing but sunshine and blue skies in my immediate future.”
The guy just didn’t have it in him when he knew a battle was not to be won. He shook his head and then turned his back to me, focusing his attention once more on the cast iron pan he wielded over the front gas burner of our commercial-grade stove. The fact Hammond loves to cook and was exceptionally skilled at it made loving him even easier.
At the moment, he was scuttling around the kitchen, putting together one of his traditional Norwegian recipes, a bacon and egg cake. The main ingredients of this heavenly meal consisted of three-quarters of a pound of crisp bacon, six eggs, two-thirds of a cup of half-and-half, and a few secret herbs. He liked to personalize his version with a generous portion of Jarlsberg cheese. There is no such thing as a half-cup serving of this recipe, and this was why I was a life-long member of Weight Watchers.
I flashed a big smile his way when he turned to ask me for the pepper shaker. “I love you, honey, but you know darned well that I won’t be changing my ways any time soon.”
“Oh, don’t I know. The food is ready. Let’s eat before it gets cold.”
Perfect timing, I thought. All of that packing had made me hungry. I must admit I really had been spoiled by my husband of twenty-two years. I picked up my glass of wine, silently toasted my best friend, and took my usual seat at the barn-plank kitchen table. Its old-fashioned, wax pine patina blended well with our whitewashed, clean-lined kitchen chairs.
A heaping portion of bacon and egg cake was already served up and waiting for me. Hamm filled his plate at the counter and took his spot across from me. We sat for a while in companionable silence, savoring each mouthful of the bacon-y, cheesy dish. Finally, I placed my fork on my placemat, wiped the corners of my mouth, and cleared my throat. It was time to put my plan into action.
“Dinner was out of this world, hon. I’ll clear the table and do the dishes if you’ll just hear me out for a minute. By the time I’m finished, I bet you’ll be grabbing your keys and pulling me out the front door.
Hamm stared across the table at me with a look of resignation on his handsome face.
“We’re talking about the same thing, right? You are referring to that spiky-haired, skinny journalist friend of yours who just blurts out her every thought and opinion without benefit of a social filter? I cringe every time she opens her mouth.”
I sent my best flirty eyelashes in his direction. “Yeah, yeah, of course, Hamm. But you love me, right? You know June likes to have company when she has to stay overnight to do research for one of her articles. Humor me for a minute.” Another eyelash bat. “Contrary to popular belief, her super powers don’t always include the desire to be a one-woman show, especially since her split with Cliff. Sometimes she’s even downright shy.”
“Hmmph.” It was the best he would give me for the time being. At least he didn’t offer to get me some eye drops.
Finally, Hamm found the ability to speak again. “Okay, let’s have it. What’s this latest adventure? I guess it can’t be any worse than last winter when the two of you got so caught up in the daily life of a mall security guard that you ended up being locked up in Macy’s overnight. You’re lucky you weren’t both arrested.”
“Well, you don’t have to keep bringing that up. First of all, you’ll definitely like the setting of her latest assignment. June’s been commissioned to research and write an article about the many offerings on Kelleys Island for the romantic and adventurous. Her boss wants her to visit the stores and boutiques on the island and see what different kinds of merchandise are available to spice up adult play time, if you know what I mean.”
“Who’s going to read a story on that? You wouldn’t think there would be much available on the little island in the first place. But then again, what would I possibly know about that?”
“Oh, you’d be surprised. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of interest in toys and such for grown-ups, and retailers are always looking for ways to stimulate the… economy.”
Hamm sucked in air and choked on his wine. It’s not like I was asking him to perform some kinky sex act on the kitchen table. Hmmm. Then again… I mentally slapped myself and brought my attention back to the real-life conversation.
“June’s boss got a lead on some creative new lines being sold, and apparently, the boutiques on the island want in on the action. She wants her to get the scoop before the summer season gets into full swing. I can’t wait to see what all the buzz is about. She says that even Ruby’s Treasure Chest has expanded, and the shop now has a section in the back for her twenty-one and over clients.”
The face of my conservative lawyer husband had just turned a shocking shade of red.
“Oh, I can hardly wait.”
“There’s no need for sarcasm just because you aren’t interested in the fascinating world of retail. Think about this for a minute. Memorial Day means we could have a nice three-day weekend. It’s just a six-mile boat ride to the island from the condo, the winds are going to be calm, the weather forecast is calling for seventy-six degrees and sunny, and the first pitcher of Brandy Alexanders at the Village Pump is calling your name!”
“Well, there is that.”
Hammond ran his long fingers through his thick, dark hair. I thought the recent glint of silver at his temples made him look a little bit like George Clooney. I also thought that it was damn unfair that my husband got sexier as he got older while I just spent more and more time and money chasing the elusive fountain of youth. At least my shoulder-length, dark curls were still bouncy, and with the right styling products and a little effort, I could still usually pull off a passable version of “youthful chic.” I’m not embarrassed to admit I have a flair for putting together some attention-getting fashion looks; I can find my way around a thrift shop or Nordstroms with equal success.
Hammond blew out a little sigh. “Okay. I guess you’re right. There’s a full tank of gas in the boat, and I would enjoy a trip out to Kelleys to kick off the season. But does she have to stay with us at the condo? And god-forbid, she’s not staying on the boat too when we get there. It would be really nice to relax and just enjoy the weekend without an agenda, but somehow when June’s around, chaos is just a given.”
“Hamm, give June a break. For your information, her houseboat is already at the dock. She had the water and electrical systems inspected, and the marina manager gave her the green light to stay aboard. She has the galley stocked with provisions and is ready to call Anchor Management her floating cottage for the summer.”
“Well, there is that.”
I knew I had him hooked. The thought of our first long weekend at the lake, warm breezes, sunny skies, and for the most part, June-free condo living was more than my dear husband could resist.
I hummed a show tune as I cleared our plates and loaded the dishwasher. I didn’t have to worry about packing up leftovers. Once again, there weren’t any. When I had finished tidying up in the kitchen, I went to my favorite spot in the family room. The soft mahogany leather of the L-shaped sofa was wrinkled and dipped in just the right places. I stretched out my legs, checked my toenails for chipped polish, and retrieved my cell phone from my pocket. June picked up on the very first ring.
“We’re in!” I announced. “I’m already packed and I can’t wait to get started. What luck that your latest job wasn’t writing about computer classes for pets. I’m highly allergic to cats you know.”
“I didn’t think you’d mind being my unpaid research assistant on this one. I am curious though. What did you have to promise Hamm to get him to agree?
“Nothing much,” I replied.