Dead Before The Wedding: A Carly Keene Cozy Mystery (Carly Keene Cozy Mysteries Book 1)

Dead Before The Wedding

A Carly Keene Cozy Mystery

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015, Ruby Blaylock

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

Dedication

 

 

This book is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, Shelby Jean, who was the best cook in the whole wide world. She could give Shell a run for her money in the kitchen any day.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

There is something truly divine about waking up to the sound of Keith Urban crooning in your ear and the scent of fresh coffee filling up your senses,
Carly Keene thought, as she rolled in her bed to hit the snooze button. As much as she loved the delicious sounds pouring from her alarm clock, she wasn’t quite ready to climb out of bed and face the day. However, one chunky, drooling Blue-tick, beagle cross had other plans, and Carly found herself fighting off the affections of her goofy dog.

 

“Aww, Bo! Get off the bed!” She pushed the big, affectionate dog away, guiding him off the bed. Looking for dirty paw prints on her quilt, Carly wondered if her best friend Shell had already let Bo outside to ‘take care of business.’ One look at him prancing around her bed told her the answer was ‘no.’ She shuffled down the hall, then down the stairs, and opened up the door leading to the back yard. It was fenced in, so she let Bo go do his thing while she went back up to her room.

 

The hardwood floor was cool and comfy on her feet. It was nearly mid-May, and Carly knew that the heat wouldn’t hold off for long. Summers in the small Georgia town of Parker’s Mill could be brutal, but she loved waking up on these cool mornings, knowing that the day would heat up soon enough. She dug through her closet, looking for her favorite pair of jeans.

 

It was Saturday, and she had a photo shoot at the park later on. She thought about grabbing her cowgirl boots, but hesitated. She didn’t want to worry about mosquito bites on her legs, but worried that boots and jeans might get too warm later on. Compromising, she grabbed a cute pair of sandals and put those to the side with the rest of her clothes while she jumped in the shower.

 

Ten minutes later, a perkier, fresher-feeling twenty-six-year-old emerged. Carly took just enough time to dab foundation on and some mascara, and pull her dark brown hair into a neat ponytail, then she headed downstairs towards the heavenly scent of coffee and bacon.

 

Carly was glad to have her best friend living with her. She imagined this big old house would feel awfully empty without her. Shell could certainly fill up a space, that was for sure. Carly’s best friend was her opposite in so many ways, but together, they just seemed to work.

 

When Carly had come back from college with an English major and no real job offer in sight, she’d been utterly relieved when her parents had suggested she take over her Great Aunt Trina’s old house. Trina had been one of Carly’s favorite eccentric old relatives, and there were still a few oddball relatives hanging around the old family tree, but Trina had been special. She’d been the one who had introduced Carly to her passion and current career, photography.

 

Aunt Trina’s house had always been filled with photographs of family members and places she’d travelled. A spinster her whole life, Trina had been everything Carly had wanted to be when she grew up. Her aunt had travelled around the world, taking photographs for newspapers and magazines as a freelance photographer. Later, Trina had spent her years volunteering at the elementary school, helping the little kids with their reading and art projects.

 

Trina’s house would have been big for a single woman, but she’d always had it full of people, from her own nieces and nephews to the children of the neighborhood and their mothers, who often looked to Trina for advice or a friendly ear to confide in. When she’d died just a few years ago, Carly had been heartbroken, but had been thrilled to find out that her family was keeping the house in the family, and she was even happier to find that she’d be taking care of it.

 

Carly had moved in, bringing Shell with her, and the two of them lived like a little old married couple, minus the cuddles on the couch or bickering over breakfast. So far, they’d gotten on like a house on fire, and Carly was grateful to have her best friend living with her, especially when that best friend happened to be a neat freak with a serious baking habit.

 

Shell Summers was in the kitchen when Carly came down, expertly flipping pancakes with one hand while pouring coffee into a mug with the other. She had such a look of concentration on her face, that Carly couldn’t help but giggle. The sound broke the bubbly blonde’s concentration, and her pancake fell onto the floor.

 

“Well, shoot, Carly...that one’s yours!” Shell tried to give Carly her version of the evil eye, but to Carly, it just looked like Shell was straining to break wind. Carly couldn’t help but grin.

 

Carly glanced at the tall stack of pancakes already on the table and shrugged. “Guess Bo will be eating pancakes, then. It’s not like we’re gonna be able to eat all these.”

 

Shell wiped her hands with a dish cloth, and pulled her chair out from the table. “Well, you sit down and get to eating before that dog of yours smells this bacon and busts his way in here.”

 

Carly drizzled pancake syrup over her pancakes, and poured some half-n-half into her coffee. It tasted as good as it smelled, and before she knew it, she’d emptied the cup and cleaned her plate. Feeling a little too full, she leaned back in her chair for a minute. “Shell, you’re going to have to stop cooking for me. I’m gonna get fat, and then you’ll have to roll me out the door to my photo shoots.”

 

Shell eyeballed Carly’s slim, athletic figure. “Oh, lordy...you got enough room to spare. I’m the one who oughta be watching her figure.”

 

Carly rolled her eyes. “Shell, you’ve been tiny since we were kids. I don’t think that’s going to change after one plate of pancakes.”

 

Shell pondered that thought for half-a-second, then replied, “Well, in my line of work, gaining weight is an occupational hazard, and I don’t want to end up like my Mama’s cousin Charisse, so I’d better stop eating and get to cleaning!”

 

Carly cringed. Charisse was a bit of a running joke in Parker’s Mill. Shell’s mother’s cousin, god rest her soul, had been nearly five-hundred pounds when she died. Carly had it on good authority (Shell’s mom, Christine, told Carly herself) that Charisse had suffered from some sort of thyroid disorder, but that didn’t stop people in town from using her weight as a lesson against gluttony.

 

Charisse had been so big when she died, the county coroner had needed to take off a section of her roof and lift her body out that way. Carly shuddered at the thought, and pushed her own empty plate further from her on the table.

 

“Well, well, well, Miss Shell,” Carly sang, “I do believe it’s time for me to get going. I want to make sure I get the early morning light and skip the late morning heat.” Carly stood up and stretched.

 

“Who are you shooting today?” Carly cringed. She loved photography, and adored the work that she did, but hated the fact that it sounded like she went off and did something violent every time she photographed a client.

 

“I’ve got Amy Thompson and Danny Mosier, they’re doing a pregnancy session.”

 

“I didn’t even know they got married,” said Shell, putting her plate in the kitchen sink.

 

“Yeah, well, they didn’t, I don’t think. I guess they’ll do that after the baby comes.” Carly didn’t have any hangups about having babies out of wedlock, but she couldn’t help but think that the couple would have their hands full trying to plan a wedding with a new baby to care for.

 

Carly grabbed her camera bag from the table in the hallway just outside the kitchen. She checked it quickly to make sure that she had her spare battery pack and lens, then turned back to her best friend. “I should be finished by lunchtime. You can leave Bo out until then, if you want, and I’ll just run back by here and put him up.”

 

“Okay,” Shell answered. “Have a good day at the office!”

 

“You, too!” she replied, heading for the door.

 

Carly grinned. She guessed she was one lucky girl to be able to make a living doing what she loved. She wondered briefly if she’d be any happier if she’d ended up taking a teaching job over in the next county, but put that thought out of her head quickly. She loved her crazy schedule, which allowed her time to help Shell out at the bakery in town, and she loved the fact that she got to capture some of life’s greatest moments for the people in Parker’s Mill.

 

Carly stepped out into the May sunshine. Crickets were chirping and the birds were singing loudly. She walked over to her old blue Chevy truck and put her camera case and purse inside, and pulled a rawhide chewy treat from the glove compartment box. Closing up her truck door, she went over to the fenced-in section of her yard, and waved the chewy treat at her dog.

 

“Alright, Bo. Here’s a little treat for you...now no digging holes while Mama’s gone!” She tossed the chew to her hyper dog, who snatched it up with a wagging tail. His eyes seemed to say, “Of course, I’ll be good,” but Carly knew better than to believe that. Bo had dug more holes in her yard than a gopher rat, and she was worried that it was just a matter of time before he figured out a way to dig under the fence.

 

“Bye, Bo.” Carly headed back to her truck, climbed inside, and cranked up the radio. Country music blasted from the speakers as she started the engine, and she pulled out of the driveway, heading left to go towards the city park and meet her photography clients.

 

Chapter 2

 

Carly’s truck rolled through the quiet streets of Parker’s Mill, stopping at every traffic light and stop sign by memory. She’d lived in the small town her entire life, apart from the two years she’d gone away to college at UGA. She’d enjoyed school, but two years had been more than enough for her to be away from her family and friends. She’d taken her first two years’ worth of classes at the small State college over in Dalton because she’d been anxious about living out on her own.

 

Now that she was a little older, Carly sometimes thought about travelling, maybe seeing some of the big, wide world beyond the blue Georgia skies she’d grown up under. Breathing in the scent of honeysuckle, she realized that her small town was pretty idyllic, even if it was a tad small. The only problem with perfection was that it could sometimes feel as though nothing ever happened in the sleepy little town.

 

Her truck turned down Main Street, where the town was slowly waking up to the gorgeous Friday morning. Carly passed the post office, just opening up for business. The bank would be opening soon, and the local business owners were probably all having coffee at the Chow Time, eyeballing the clock and killing time until they could scoot on over and get their banking done.

 

Online banking was still regarded with high suspicion among some of the older business owners in Parker’s Mill, and Carly knew that the social opportunities that the local bank provided were highly valuable to those looking to network in the small town.

 

Sweets & Eats was almost smack in the middle of Main Street, perfectly situated to catch most of the foot traffic that the busiest street in Parker’s Mill received. The bakery was owned by Shell’s parents, who had officially retired in January and were now taking some time to do some travelling of their own. Shell’s younger sister Mandy was away at college, so that left Shell to run the business pretty much on her own, and Carly had stepped up to help her best friend out.

 

As it turned out, Shell was a natural at running the business, and Carly had enjoyed helping her out. Of course, all the free baked goodies sweetened the deal, and Carly still had plenty of time to run her small, but growing, photography business.

 

A friendly face and a wave caught Carly’s attention. It was Pete from Chow Time, no doubt hoping to catch a glimpse of Shell on her way into work. Carly grinned, and waved back.
He is so infatuated, she thought
, and sighed. If only her friend had the same feelings, it would be perfect.

 

Carly turned onto the road that led into the park, and grimaced at the giant block of chipped concrete that still sat on the corner. At one time, a lamp post had been situated in that concrete block, but the city removed it, leaving just the concrete. Its only purpose, Carly thought, was to sit there and taunt her, since she’d hit that block not once, but twice, when she was in high school. The first time, it had been broad daylight, and she’d swerved her truck to avoid hitting a dog that had run in front of her truck.

 

The second time, she’d been driving home at night, not used to driving in the dark, and clipped it turning the corner. She guessed maybe the city had kept it to teach young drivers not to turn corners too sharply, but the visual reminder, and the dent that remained in the front of her beat up old truck, hurt her pride every time she saw them.

 

The park was quiet at this time of the day. Carly knew that in an hour or so it would be full of the stay at home moms and their little kids, looking for a way to burn off some energy and give the weary moms a break before lunch time. There was one lone jogger, enjoying what was sure to be one of the last cool mornings as summer took hold of the town.

 

Carly parked up and grabbed her camera bag and spare tripod. She always kept one with her, just in case. She kept one in the truck, two at home and one at Sweets & Eats, in case anyone ever wanted their cake photographed. Some of the bigger cakes that Shell had made rivalled anything Carly had ever seen on those fancy baking shows on reality television, and Carly wanted to make sure that there was a living record of her friend’s talents somewhere to be found.

 

Carly’s camera bag felt a little off balance this morning since she’d finally cleared out the extra lenses and filters that she’d been carrying around for the last few weeks. This photo shoot would be short, sweet and simple. The expectant couple had been hesitant about booking the session, since they’d made it clear that money was a problem for them, but Carly had gone to school with Amy and Derek, and they were good people. She planned on charging them for her smallest package, on principle, but would be throwing in quite a few extras as an early baby shower gift.

 

She had just reached up to move the bag higher on her shoulder when Carly was knocked off balance, her feet tangling up with a bundle of fur and a loose, flapping leash. She tried to stay on her feet, but failed, landing on her butt with a thud, and finding herself being covered in dog kisses for the second time that morning.

 

Carly put her hands up, trying to stand up without breaking her camera or hurting the dog, an extremely friendly chocolate lab named “Betty Sue,” if her name tag was to be believed. She finally managed to get to her feet, and took hold of Betty Sue’s leash before the dog could run off again. Grabbing the dog’s hot pink collar, she checked its tags for a phone number or owner’s name, but didn’t see any.

 

She was about to call her cousin, Brandon, who was a police officer for the Parker’s Mills police department, so that he could send over animal control, when a tall drink of water ran up, waving frantically and gasping for breath.

 

“Please...don’t call animal control! This,” he panted, trying to regain his composure, “is my dog.” He took a long, deep breath, and continued. “She had me running since Main Street. Must’ve seen a darn squirrel or something. My name’s Tucker, Tucker Gaston. Thank you for catching my dog, Miss…”

 

Carly’s eyes grew big for just a second, then she pulled herself together. “I know who you are, Tucker. I’m Carly Keene, we went to the same high school.” Carly prayed that he would not mention the fact that she’d gone out on a date with Tucker’s attractive, but obnoxious, twin brother, Larry. Carly had thought that Larry was just adorable, until he’d opened his mouth and turned out to be the cutest, most chauvinistic pig she’d ever had the misfortune of meeting.

 

If Tucker remembered her, he didn’t let on.
Good
, thought Carly.
I can live without that part of my past being drudged up. 
With his sandy brown hair and pretty blue eyes, Tucker was, she thought, even better-looking than his twin. She hoped that he didn’t have the same fabulously horrible personality.

 

Carly situated her camera bag on her shoulder and glanced at her cell phone. She would be late if she wasn’t careful, and that was not like her at all.

 

“Thank you, again, Carly Keene...Betty Sue here just does not know how to listen.” He held out his hand. “Would you like me to help you carry that? It looks heavy.”

 

Carly found herself wanting to smile, and considered handing the bag over just so she’d have an excuse to stay and talk with Tucker for just a few more minutes. He seemed like a nice guy, and lord knows there weren’t a lot of those running free in Parker’s Mill these days. She noticed his hair was slightly tousled, and his face was still flushed from chasing the dog, but he still managed to look pretty gorgeous.

 

I’ll bet he has six-pack abs under that shirt
, she thought, then pushed the thought away. She wasn’t at the park to flirt with guys who couldn’t handle their pets; she was here for business. Smiling, she shouldered the bag more securely. “It’s alright, Tucker. I’d better be going. I’m meeting someone here, a client, to take some pictures. I’m a photographer.”

 

Just then, Betty Sue pulled up sharply, her brown ears cocked and her whole body straining to pull away from her owner. “Aww, she’s seen that squirrel again!” Carly laughed, and patted the dog’s rump. “She’s a hyper one, isn’t she?”

 

Tucker groaned. “You don’t even want to know. I just picked her up from the vet’s office because I thought she ate my spare set of house keys.” He pulled her leash, and she relaxed some. “The x-ray didn’t show my keys, but there was a weird little blob that looked an awful lot like a ping-pong ball in there.”

 

Carly wasn’t sure whether to cringe or laugh. Tucker was nothing like his brother, but it had been a long time since high school. Maybe they’d all grown up a little.

 

“Thanks again for catching Betty Sue, Carly. I’m just on my way to take her home before I drop off some medicine for one of our customers.” Carly hadn’t even noticed the name tag Tucker had been wearing.

 

“You work over at the Shop N’ Go pharmacy, don’t you? I knew I’d seen you somewhere before.”
Besides when I dated your brother
, she added, in her head.

 

“Yeah, I deliver medicine to some of our older customers who can’t get out much. That is, when I’m not chasing my dog all over town.” Tucker laughed nervously, and cleared his throat. “It was nice seeing you, Carly Keene.”

 

“Yeah, it was good seeing you, too, Tucker. And it was nice meeting you, too, Betty Sue,” Carly said, rubbing the dog’s ears. She watched the pair walk away, then hurried over to the gazebo where she’d planned to meet with Amy and Derek.

 

 

 

 

Amy and Derek were a cute couple, and pretty photogenic. It was easy for Carly to get plenty of good shots, and a few that she was sure they’d treasure forever. Amy’s growing tummy and a few humorous props supplied by Derek (the mock oven he’d held in front of his fiance’s baby bump had been her favorite) made the session fun and fast.

 

Carly chatted with them easily, catching up on what they’d been up to since high school. Sometimes, Carly wondered what life would have been like if she’d settled down and gotten married to the first boy that proposed to her, but since that had been Jack Dawson and they had both been seven years old at the time, she was pretty sure that relationship wouldn’t have worked out.

 

Carly took a quick look at the images of the little family in her viewfinder. They did look so happy, and seemed to be excited about the future. Carly felt a little pang of envy looking at the photos. Marriage would be nice, she mused. Maybe have a few little kids…but she pulled herself up short of feeling sorry for herself. Carly had decided a long time ago that she did not want to be married and having kids just for the sake of it.

 

When Carly finally settled down, it would have to be with ‘the one.’ She wasn’t going to settle for good enough, because she wanted great, just like her parents had. They’d been married for thirty years and they still made each other giggle. Carly didn’t need perfection, she just needed her perfect match, and then life would be, well, perfect.

 

Carly loved photography for many reasons, but one of them was the fact that looking through her lens let her see a situation clearly, without distraction. Looking at the little family in her camera viewscreen, she could see happiness and love. She couldn’t see the worry in their faces when they went home and wondered how they were going to afford a new baby, a wedding and everything a growing family needs.

 

Carly realized that looking at life through a lens was somehow cheating, because real life was messy and not at all neat like her photographs. Still, she felt that everyone deserved one moment of clarified joy that they could keep and cherish for their whole lives, and that’s why she’d decided to become a photographer.

 

Goodness knows the pay wasn’t great, and the long hours she’d spend editing these photos were way more than the amount of money she’d earn from them. But the look on Amy and Derek’s face was priceless, and she wanted them to have something positive and joyful to hang on to if the future got scary and stressful.

 

“I think that’s it, y’all,” she said, switching off her camera. Amy and Derek seemed relieved, and Carly could tell that the pregnant woman was beginning to feel the heat of the day creep up on them. “Now, I don’t let anybody see these til they’re perfect, so you just go on home and sit tight. I’ll call you when they’re ready, and we can sort out prints.”

 

Amy and Derek thanked her, and headed off towards their car after hugging her way too many times. Carly knew she had some great shots, and would enjoy editing these. She put her camera back in the case and headed for her own car, looking out for any wayward dogs as she went. She kind of wished she’d got Tucker’s number. She hadn’t been on a date in a long time, and found herself somewhat endeared with Tucker and Betty Sue.

 

Well, she did know where he worked, and that was something. As Carly started her truck, she made a mental note to herself.
I must drop by that pharmacy and pick up some sunscreen, because it’s been getting kind of hot lately.

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