Conflict in Little Leaf Creek
Cassie Alberta is loving her new life in Little Leaf Creek. She is getting over the sudden death of her husband, appreciating what small town life has to offer and is enjoying getting to know the locals and their secrets. She is slowly learning how to live next to two cheeky goats and has fallen in love with her neighbor’s endearing dog. But life becomes a whole lot more complicated when she finds the dead body of an orchard owner.
Cassie partners with her antisocial ex-cop neighbor to help solve the murder. Her hands are full, as Thanksgiving is right around the corner and she is determined to try and bring her friends together for a feast, but they would prefer to remain alone. Not to mention the fact that two hunky locals have caught her attention. Cassie peels back layers of clues and suspects to try and get to the core of the murder and uncover the murderer.
Will the murderer be caught in time so that Cassie can have the Thanksgiving she longs for?
Recipe included: Lattice Apple Pie
Conflict in Little Leaf Creek is the fast-paced third book in the Little Leaf Creek Cozy Mystery Series. If you like unexpected twists and turns, lively personalities, lovable animals and a never-ending list of suspicious characters, then you’ll love Cindy Bell’s heartwarming whodunnit.
Buy Conflict in Little Leaf Creek to start solving the murder today!
Release date: October 26, 2020
Print pages: 160
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Conflict in Little Leaf Creek
Beady eyes, and thick, long teeth inched closer to her.
Cassie Alberta bit down into her bottom lip and wondered what would be the best thing to do. Should she stay perfectly still? Make a run for it? She glanced toward the gate in the chain link fence. Too far.
A high-pitched grunt drew her attention back to the determined stares of her two captors. If only she hadn’t brought them a gift, they might not have cornered her in her neighbor’s yard.
“Easy boys.” Cassie held out her hands as the goats crept closer to her.
As she tried to back away faster, they matched her pace. There was no way she could outrun them.
“I know, I know, I brought this on myself.” Cassie drew a sharp breath, then shook her head as a burst of panic threatened to overtake her. “But I had no idea that you would be so fond of the carrots from my garden. If you just give me a moment, I can get more.”
Her fingertips danced perilously along the sharp edges of the top of the chain link fence behind her, in search of the gate that would allow her to escape the yard, and the two very hungry goats.
The back door of the house that the chain link fence surrounded swung open with a bang.
“Shoo there!” A shrill but rough voice called out. “Leave her be, you greedy goats!”
A dog burst past the door, and the woman who held it open, then sailed over the two steps attached to the back porch, and landed right between the two goats.
Instantly, the two goats skittered off in opposite directions, around either side of the house, toward the front of the property. Barks and bleats filled the air as the dog continued to chase the goats. Cassie had never been so happy to see Harry, the collie mix.
A sigh of relief burst past Cassie’s lips, followed by an embarrassed laugh as she looked up at the woman still on the back porch.
“Thanks, Tessa, you saved me!”
“Let me guess, you were trying to spoil them with treats again?” Tessa Watters, a woman in her sixties, walked down the steps into the yard. She walked toward Cassie with an uneven gait. Her silver hair framed her face in short, layered waves. Her striking blue eyes settled on Cassie with certainty. “Haven’t I warned you about that?”
“Yes, you have.” Cassie’s shoulders slumped as her laughter faded. The woman who walked toward her was twenty years her senior and she felt dwarfed by her wisdom and confidence. “And, I didn’t listen. I really didn’t think they would like carrots so much. I thought, if I bribed them with a few they might like me a little better.”
“They’re goats.” Tessa shrugged as a smile cracked her stern expression. “They’ll eat anything you give them, but they won’t stop being ornery. That’s why we get along so well. We understand each other.”
“I promise, I won’t try to bribe them anymore.” Cassie smiled in return, warmed by the presence of the friend she’d made since moving to the small town of Little Leaf Creek. It had been a big change from the glitz and demands of the city, where she’d spent twenty years of her life as a CEO’s socialite wife. She had been the manager at a small museum, but her first priority was being a CEO’s wife. Now, in dusty jeans, her heart still racing from her close encounter with two determined goats, she was still adjusting to her new lifestyle.
“Oh, don’t disappoint them.” Tessa shook her head as she crossed her arms over her stomach and grinned. “Then they’ll really hate you.”
“Great, I’m in a bit of a mess, aren’t I?” Cassie rolled her eyes as she resisted the urge to hug Tessa. Although the gruff woman had warmed up to her to some degree, she was quite certain that hugs were still off the table.
“I’ve got some coffee ready, come on in.” Tessa turned and started up the steps toward the kitchen door. “Get it while it’s hot.”
Cassie eagerly followed after her. At least in the house, for the moment, she’d be safe from the goats. Tessa adored her pets. Harry followed close behind them. Cassie felt lucky to be invited into her home, since for the most part, Tessa kept completely to herself, and preferred the outside world, remain outside.
“It smells so delicious in here!” Cassie sucked in a deep breath of blueberry laced air and sighed as she poured herself a cup of fresh coffee.
“Just made these muffins.” Tessa gestured to the platter on the counter. “I was in the mood for baking.”
“I’m so glad you were.” Cassie grinned as she plucked one of the muffins off of the platter. For all of Tessa’s toughness, when it came to baking, another side of her surfaced. Cassie had witnessed it a few times. As she stirred ingredients together, or tasted the batter in search of what might be missing, her muscles relaxed, her voice softened, the hardness in her expression faded into something almost whimsical. The moments were elusive, and impossible to pin down, but when she spotted one, Cassie tried to take a mental picture of it.
“With the holiday coming up, I think everyone’s getting the baking bug.” Cassie sat down in one of the retro-style metal chairs and set her coffee and muffin on the kitchen table. “I’m looking forward to trying out a few new recipes.”
“Holiday?” Tessa carried her own muffin and coffee to the table and sat in the only other chair. Tessa’s home wasn’t set up to support very many guests. Even her living room only had two easy chairs and a television, with nothing that invited anyone to stay longer than they had to.
“Thanksgiving.” Cassie met her eyes, then took a nibble of the muffin. “Oh, so good. How do you make everything perfect every time?”
“Perfect.” Tessa gave a short laugh. “I suppose you’ve sampled enough blueberry muffins in your lifetime to know what makes one perfect?”
“All I know is that whatever you make melts in my mouth.” Cassie closed her eyes as she savored another bite. “This is definitely the highlight of my day.”
“I think you’ve been alone in that house too long.” Tessa shook her head, then sipped her coffee.
“I guess we both have been.” Cassie peeked over the top of her coffee mug. “So maybe we could be alone, together, on Thanksgiving? I’d love to have you over. The house is finally coming together and I’m sure that you would enjoy it.” She took a breath, prepared to launch into more convincing chatter, but before she could Tessa set her mug down hard on the table.
“Not a chance. It’s not going to happen, Cassie. Drop it.”
Tessa took a loud slurp of her coffee.
“We don’t even have to call it Thanksgiving, we can just call it a get together.” Cassie toyed with the handle of her mug and forced as much cheer into her voice as she could summon.
“Cassie, are we friends?” Tessa’s eyes locked to hers, their cool blue shade carrying an icy chill.
Cassie’s chest tightened, capturing a breath between her throat and her lungs, as she braced herself for the consequences her answer might bring.
“I hope we are.”
“I do, too.” A smile flickered across Tessa’s lips. “So, drop it.”
Cassie offered a light nod and focused on her muffin. Occasionally, as Tessa baked, and they chatted about the town of Little Leaf Creek, or the behavior of mischievous goats, Cassie forgot that Tessa was an intimidating woman. But a moment, not unlike the current one, always surfaced to remind her of the truth. Yes, she hoped they were friends, but she also knew that friendship was stretched as taut as a tightrope, ready to snap with the wrong move.
“Thanks.” Cassie stood up from the table, the tension between them still thick as she turned toward the door.
“Cassie wait.” Tessa’s voice softened as she stood up as well.
“Yes?” Cassie turned back toward her, eager to hear what she had to say.
“Here, take these.” Tessa gave the curve of her hip a hard slap. “I definitely don’t need to eat the whole batch myself, and you could certainly use some rounding.”
Cassie smiled as she took the muffins from Tessa. She knew the other woman was only teasing. Cassie had certainly had more than her share of sweet treats since she had moved to Little Leaf Creek.
“Thanks Tessa. Are you sure about Thanksgiving? We still have plenty of time to plan, and I’d love to try out some recipes.”
“I’m quite sure.” Tessa locked her eyes to Cassie’s and lifted one eyebrow just far enough to sharpen her stare.
Cassie was almost to the gate between Tessa and her house, when she heard the pounding of two goats headed straight for her. “Stop, Billy, Gerry!” She shrieked and threw a muffin in their direction as she ducked through the gate. She slammed it closed behind her as the two goats shoved at each other to get the larger share of the muffin.
Amused, Cassie watched them for a moment, before the sound of a rumbling engine drew her attention to the street in front of her house. Early morning sunshine reflected off of the sculpture displayed in the center of her yard, created by a local, young artist. It was the first purchase she made in Little Leaf Creek, after buying her home. As her attention shifted back to the blue pickup truck, its driver stepped out. Sebastian Vail.
Cassie paused a moment and observed the way he tugged his cap down lower over his straight, blond hair, shielding his sun-tanned face from the sun’s insistent rays. His focus remained on gathering some supplies from the back of his truck, but abruptly, he looked up at her, too fast for her to look away and pretend she wasn’t staring. She set the tray of muffins down on the table on the front porch, then hurried toward him.
“Morning Sebastian, hi,” Cassie stumbled over her words as she walked toward him. “Let me help you with that.”
“Sure, if you want to grab a few paint cans.” Sebastian tipped his head in the direction of several cans of paint lined up in the back of the truck. “I don’t think we’ll use them all today, but there was a sale.”
“Great.” Cassie grabbed two of the cans which were surprisingly heavy as they hung from her hands. “Thanks again for doing this.”
“It’s my pleasure.” Sebastian winked at her from beneath the rim of his baseball cap. “I live to serve the ladies of Little Leaf Creek.”
Cassie resisted rolling her eyes. She knew he meant his comment to be teasing, but he wasn’t far off the mark. Most of the single women in Little Leaf Creek were in quite a heated competition to catch the eye of the jack-of-all-trades that charmed them with his smooth accent and his warm, dark brown eyes. Not her of course. At least, that’s what she’d been trying to convince herself of, since the last time he’d stared so hard into her eyes that her heart stopped beating for just a second. He had his choice of women, not to mention the fact that he was two years younger than her.
“Coming through.” Sebastian carried a ladder between her and the front gate of the house, then propped it up against the front porch. “I think we’ll be able to get a good first coat going today. I sanded all of the troublesome patches yesterday, so we should be in good shape.”
“Wonderful, I’m curious about how it will look.” Cassie gazed at the dingy exterior of the house she’d claimed as her own. A paint job wasn’t the only thing it needed, but it was a good place to start. The two-story structure was a far cry from the penthouse style apartment she’d shared with her late husband. What it lacked in luxury, it made up for in nostalgia, as it was quite similar to the house she’d grown up in. Her life had started out in a town, just about as small as Little Leaf Creek, and the draw of that simple life had inspired her to try to find it again. Something slower, quieter. Something that could soothe the wounds that a loveless marriage and a life of trying to fit into high society had created.
“Morning Cassie.” A car stopped just outside the fence, right behind Sebastian’s blue pickup truck. The dark-haired man behind the wheel leaned his head out through the window and settled his gray gaze on her. “Hard at work already?”
“Just getting started.” Cassie turned with a smile to face Detective Oliver Graham. He was one of the first people she’d encountered in Little Leaf Creek, and although his demeanor left a lot to be desired, she sensed that his heart was in the right place.
As Cassie looked at him she recalled when they had last seen each other. They had planned to go on a date a few weeks ago, but it got cancelled due to the pursuit of a murderer. She’d been convinced that it was too soon to even consider dating, but against her better judgement she had decided to go to dinner with him. Eventually, they rescheduled their date.
Cassie had become quite well acquainted with Little Leaf Creek’s police detective. He was highly focused on his work. His attention to detail was something that she very much admired, and yet it might have been what unraveled their first date. Their dinner had been a disaster. She could recall her attempts to choose a meal, how nervous she felt, the flutter in her heart when he looked at her, and the tension in her muscles when he placed his hand over hers.
Cassie guessed that he had noticed, too. He seemed so nervous that they’d barely been able to get a conversation going, and once they did, it had ended in a mild but frustrating argument about following the rules.
At the end of the evening, Oliver had said that he enjoyed her company but he didn’t want to lose the friendship they had and he thought they should just remain friends. The way he had looked at her when he said it left her unsettled. He was too hard for her to read. She had been right. The date hadn’t gone well.
Cassie was relieved, as although she could see them being friends, her husband had passed away less than a year ago, and she wasn’t sure if she was ready for a relationship. She also didn’t want to string him along and then hurt him, as he seemed to take everything so seriously.
That was that then. They were just friends. So, why did it feel so strange to her that things had ended that way? She pushed the thought from her mind. She had many adventures ahead of her. She just had to find a way to keep her mind open to them all. At least Oliver had been brave enough to say what they were both thinking.
Many things about Little Leaf Creek still felt foreign to her, but the wonderful friendships she’d made with a handful of people had already made her certain that it was meant to be her home.
Cassie passed a glance toward Sebastian, who sent a curt nod in Oliver’s direction. The two had had a few tense moments with Cassie right in the middle of them. Tessa had mentioned that she believed it was because they both liked Cassie, but Cassie couldn’t see what either man would see in her. Anyway it wasn’t a problem now, Oliver had obviously changed his mind. Cassie turned her attention to him.
“I’m headed over to James’ Orchard Store to pick up some produce. Just thought I’d check and see if you needed anything.” Oliver swept his gaze over Sebastian once more, then turned his attention back to her.
“Thanks, but I can’t think of anything at the moment.” Cassie crouched down to pry open the paint cans.
“James’ store?” Sebastian turned to face Oliver. “Why would you go there? Zach’s orchard has been in business here for years, and he really needs the support of the community to keep it going, since James has been outselling him.”
“James’ prices are cheaper.” Oliver shrugged as he stared at Sebastian. “I can get a lot more for my money.”
“They’re cheaper because he’s trying to run Zach out of business!” Sebastian’s voice roughened as he spoke, though his accent still softened the blow of each word.
“Hey, buy your apples where you want, and I’ll buy mine where I want.” Oliver rolled his eyes, then pulled the car away from the fence and back onto the road.
Cassie winced as she looked over at Sebastian, but from the stormy expression he wore she guessed he didn’t want to talk about it.
That didn’t mean she didn’t want to hear about it.
“Sit down for a minute, have a muffin.” Cassie gestured to the small table and two chairs tucked into the corner of the porch. “I’ll get us some iced tea. If we’re going to work for a while you should eat first.”
“Alright, thank you.” Sebastian eased down into one of the wooden chairs and plucked a muffin off of the plate. “Tessa made these?”
“Yes.” Cassie glanced back to smile at him, then hurried into the kitchen. She guessed he would be grateful that she wasn’t the one who had tried to bake. She hoped that some of Tessa’s talent would eventually rub off on her, but so far it hadn’t. She returned with two glasses of iced tea and set them down on the table. “Are you alright?” She met his eyes as she sat down across from him.
“Sorry about the attitude.” Sebastian pulled his cap off his head and dug his fingers through his thick, blond hair. “It just gets under my skin when people support predators.”
“Predators?” Cassie’s eyes widened at the thought. “That’s what you think of James?”
“I know it sounds harsh. He’s new in town, and I do try to keep an open mind about people. But he knows what he’s doing when he prices his produce so low, it means that no one else in the area can compete with him. I’ve seen it happen before, and it’s never pretty.” Sebastian sighed as he took another bite of the muffin. “It’s something I don’t have to worry about. I sell most of my produce to one of the big grocery stores, and they’re more interested in having a steady source than getting the cheapest price. But some of these orchards and farms, they rely completely on their local sales.” He winced. “I saw it coming when Ben died. That orchard has been in his family for a long time, and I knew he intended to pass it down to his children, but they’re too interested in the city life to be bothered. So, they turned it over to this outsider.” He paused and met her eyes. “No offense.”
“None taken.” Cassie nodded.
“Anyway, it’s all about profit to him. He runs everyone else out of business, he’ll buy up their properties once they’re in foreclosure, then he’ll be the only option.” Sebastian shook his head. “No ethics.”
Cassie took a sip of tea and glanced away as she felt a pang of guilt. She’d bought her produce from James a few times, because his prices were cheaper. It hadn’t occurred to her to think about supporting Zach’s business.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll be sure to do my best to support Zach from now on.”
“I’m sure you will.” Sebastian smiled at her, then stood up. “As much as I enjoy talking with you, we’d better get some work done.”
Cassie wondered for a moment if he really did enjoy it, or if that was just his polite way of saying he didn’t want to waste his time on chatting. She pushed the insecurity away and reminded herself that it didn’t matter either way. Sebastian could be a great friend, and he certainly did know how to fix everything, it was best not to let her mind wander to other things.
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