The Most Wonderful Crime of the Year: The Golden Rings of Christmas: A Massanutten Tale
CHRISTMAS MIRACLES ABOUND
in the first book in the Artsy Chicks mysteries!
Lily, LauraLea and the rest of the the Artsy Chicks are busily preparing for a white Christmas on Massanutten Mountain. The Art Gallery has taught dozens of classes and served gallons of Mulled Wine. Dr. Kenzie Zimbro, the local medical examiner stops by to shop and reports she's working over the Christmas Holiday. Lily and LauraLea detect a sadness in Kenzie they hadn't noticed before. A few days later, during a massive blizzard, Kenzie is forced to confront her demons when she investigates the murder of a man by a Virginia black bear. A Christmas story of love, grief, and forgiveness.
Release date: October 26, 2018
Publisher: Bluestone Valley Publishing
Print pages: 202
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The Most Wonderful Crime of the Year: The Golden Rings of Christmas: A Massanutten Tale
It was four days before Christmas, my most favorite time of the year. I sat at the art table, where we teach classes at the Artisans Gallery. The gallery is located at Massanutten Resort, a five-star, four-season vacation-heaven located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I’d just taught my third star-making class of the day. I was covered with red, green, gold, and silver glitter. The glitter clung to my hands deeply embedded in white glue. I’d been teaching star-making classes for the ten days. I knew that most of the folks who visited Massanutten Resort over the holidays didn’t bring their Christmas decorations, and I thought the stars could be festive and help brighten up their condo or rental unit, and consequently, their Christmas. I loved the stars, and even though they were made from toilet paper rolls, in my mind they were beautiful. My sister had taught me about the charming stars several years ago but my good friend, fellow artist, and gallery owner, LauraLea, Diva extraordinaire, hated them. She considered them messy, tacky, tasteless, and ugly. Nevertheless, each class had been packed, and most participants had made extra stars they liked them so much. After all, it was a six dollar class for three stars, so why not hang out, have a glass of wine, and create a few more stars for an extra couple of bucks. It was fun, and it was all about Christmas spirit, good times, and friends. Christmas at my house always included lots of glitter and lots of stars, among other treasures.
Oh, by the way. Let me introduce myself. I’m Lily Lucci. I’m a “sort of retired” nursing professor, an author of medical and crime thriller novels, and the author of The Artzy Chicks Mysteries. You’re reading the first one today. The Artzy Chicks are a group of quirky, zany, eccentric, and talented artisans who are all associated with LauraLea’s gallery at the resort. You’ll meet many of them in this book. All the ladies are immensely talented, good-hearted, and fun. I feel privileged and honored to know all of them.
“What are you doing, Lily?” LauraLea hollered at me from the wine room, one of the rooms in the Hopkins Cabin on Massanutten Resort. Hopkins Cabin is a three-room hunting cabin that was donated by the Hopkins family many years ago. The cabin is charming with old hand-hewn logs and a bluestone fireplace. An effective use of lighting and about sixty-seven lamps makes the gallery bright and cozy.
“I’m picking glitter out of my fingernails,” I answered as I swept up a pile of green glitter with my palm.” My voice was happy. I loved closing time at the Artisans Gallery.
“It’s after five o’clock, I locked the door. I don’t think I can smile and be nice for another minute today.” LauraLea’s voice sounded weary. We’d been slammed most of the day.
I laughed. LauraLea was serious. We’d been busy. I had no idea how many people had been in, but there had been lines at the checkout all day. I could swear that half of the resort guests did all their Christmas shopping at the gallery. But, that’s not a bad thing…
We’ve had the gallery for about five years, and many of our customers are return folks who know we have terrific art and great gifts. I was in the art room, or what we call the “right room,” of the cabin where we teach classes. The main room of the cabin has the front door and an incredible stone fireplace. The gallery houses a lovely collection of hand-crafted jewelry, silks, paintings, and impressive hunting knives that are pieces of art. The knives have great utility if you’re a hunter, and they look good if you’re simply a collector. Some of these knives have pearl handles and are encrusted with jewels; others are etched silver and bronze. LauraLea wears one on her belt every day since she’s constantly opening boxes. The knife cases are leather and are often a work of art as well. All three galleries house collections of oil, acrylic, and watercolor wall art. Shelves display pottery, hand-hewn wooden bowls, and just about anything else you can imagine. We even make candles, our own brand of all natural “Bug-Off” natural bug spray, and a very special product called “The Royal Flush,” a spray you spritz in the potty’s water to prevent any bad scents or odors.
At any rate, you need to visit the gallery three or four times to take in the sensory overload. Many people do. We have folks who visit Artisans Gallery every day of their Massanutten vacation. We pride ourselves in knowing many of our customers by name, and many of them return year after year.
LauraLea called me again. “Lily, where are you?”
“In the art room,” I replied. “I’m cleaning up a little.”
I’d been making toilet paper stars for the past few weeks, and honestly, I was a little tired of it. Tomorrow was the last day, and I’d scheduled two final classes in the afternoon.
LauraLea, better known as the Diva, trotted back to the art room, looked at me, and laughed. “Holy cow, Lily. How many of those things are you gonna cut?” She eyed the stack of toilet paper rolls on the table, shook her head, and rolled her green eyes. “Honestly, they’re the tackiest things I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe you make them!”
I shook my head. “You know how it is, LauraLea. People pay six dollars to make three stars and the next thing you know, they pull out their wallets, and they want to make three or four more, and then they buy another glass of wine. It’s made you a lot of money!” I gushed. “And to think how much you laughed at this. You said no one would take this class,” I chided her, a hint of sarcasm in my voice.
LauraLea glared at me, and her green eyes flashed. “How in the world did you know people would want glitter stars constructed of toilet paper rolls?”
I smirked. “I told you last year they were pretty cool. I made a bunch of them as hostess gifts and my granddaughter took all of them to give to her children’s teachers who, by the way, loved them.”
LauraLea shook her head. “You’re impossible! I just hate it when you gloat.”
I grinned as I brushed silver glitter into a box. “Gloat I will. I’ve saved toilet paper rolls for the past fifty weeks to prepare for these two weeks before Christmas.” I looked behind me and said, “I’m not sure I have enough for the final classes tomorrow. Are there any in the bathroom back there?”
LauraLea crossed her arms against her chest and leaned against the doorframe. It was her defiant stance. “I don’t know. I haven’t looked,” she said in an exasperated tone. “You can go search the bathroom, but I do know that Tammy Lynn was saving toilet paper rolls for you, the very good soul that she is!”
I nodded and smiled. “Yes, she is. She’s the best.” I paused for a moment and thought about the lovely woman who worked during the week. She was a true southern lady. She taught a course on manners and etiquette to children in the summer. “I wonder what her life would’ve been like as a country singer. She’s so perfect for the part, and she’s so good. I love her voice!”
LauraLea shook her head. “How many times have I told you that her career was in jazz?”
I sprayed clear glue on my toilet paper stars and dipped them in red and green glitter. The glitter sparkled happily in the gallery lights. I love glitter. My house is strewn with glitter from Thanksgiving afternoon through the twelfth night of Christmas. I guess it was my years in New Orleans that taught me to put on the glitz.
LauraLea changed positions and shifted to the other hip. “I said her career was in jazz. She sings jazz.”
I looked up. “Oh, well, I always think of it as country music since she spent so much time in Nashville. Besides, isn’t she Patsy Cline’s cousin?”
LauraLea nodded her head. “That she is. I guess I’d better go plug in the dust buster because you’ll never be able to get that glitter up by yourself.” She gave me the long-suffering look that she reserved just for me and my behavior. Then, she disappeared into the main room of the gallery.
I almost jumped out of my skin when Rembrandt, the gallery cat, jumped down from the top of the art supply cabinet. He landed in my box of green glitter, tipped it over, and green glitter fell to the floor. I hollered at him, but he was gone quicker than a flash. I looked at my fingernails. They were covered with stuck-on glitter. I got up and headed to the sink in the wine room when I saw the headlights of an SUV that was pulling into the gallery parking lot. A moment or two later, I watched as a woman let her large dog, a black lab, out of the passenger side of her vehicle.
I immediately recognized the young woman. It was Kenzie. Kenzie, or Dr. Kenzie Zimbro, was a physician and the local medical examiner for our part of Virginia. In the months since we’d known her, she’d taken every class we offered at the Artisans Gallery at least once or twice. Sometimes I wondered if she was lonely, or if there was a man in her life. She wore a ring that could’ve passed for a wedding ring, but then again, I do too, and I’m not married.
“Here comes Kenzie and Solomon,” I said to LauraLea. “Maybe she’ll join us for a mug of mulled wine. It’s freezing out there.”
“That sounds great,” LauraLea hollered from the back room that houses the refrigerator, our unisex bathroom, and LauraLea’s pride and joy, the gold-plated Slushee machine that groans and grinds every day to make red and white wine Slushees and LauraLea a bunch of money.
I walked over and unlocked the door for Kenzie. I smiled at her, “Get in here, my friend. It’s freezing out there.”
Kenzie gave me a warm smile. “Are you sure it’s okay? I know you guys are closed, but I saw LauraLea’s car here and thought I’d stop by.” I noted a tone of hesitancy in Kenzie’s voice.
I smiled, “We’re always open for you, Kenzie. You’re welcome anytime our cars are here.” I pointed at Vino, the gallery lab. “Vino would love to take a romp with Solomon. Vino stood at the sound of his name, and Solomon stood at attention. Kenzie’s black lab never left her side.
Kenzie whistled at the dogs, opened the door, and said, “Out,” and the two dogs took off running through the grass down the Arboretum trail behind the gallery.
Kenzie laughed as she watched the two dogs tear through the woods back toward the Rockingham Springs Arboretum. “Honestly, every day when we go through the gate at the police station to head home, Solomon starts getting excited. He starts breathing harder and he’s so attentive, but he literally goes out of his mind when I turn on the road to come here. He loves it here, and he loves to play with Vino.”
I nodded. “Trust me. Vino loves it, too. Now get in here, young lady, it’s freezing out there. LauraLea just made us some mulled wine, and we have some tremendously, bad-for-you high-calorie Christmas cookies that Diane baked.”
Kenzie crossed the threshold into the gallery and immediately walked to the fireplace and stood in front of the fire and warmed her hands.
I laughed. “You look just like a Virginia girl. We always warm our hands first and then our buns in front of the fire. That’s a sacred space here sometimes. People who’ve walked the Arboretum trail in this weather can’t wait to get in here and cozy up to the fire for a warm-up.”
“I can only imagine. It’s bitter cold outside. My car thermostat said it was in the twenties. I’ve been tied up in Roanoke all day,” she said as a shadow passed over her pretty face. “There was a bad car accident on I-81. It was freezing out there with all those tractor-trailers racing past me,” she said with a shiver.
I nodded. “I heard about that. It was on the news at noon. It looked like a pretty bad accident.”
Kenzie nodded. “It was. A very bad accident.” Her eyes filled with tears. “Of course, any accident this time a year seems twenty times worse than any other time.” Kenzie paused. I was about to ask her something when LauraLea came through the door with a tray with three steaming mugs of mulled wine.
“Merry Christmas, Kenzie. So glad you stopped by. You and I can have some mulled wine while Lily dust-busts a couple of pounds of red, green, and gold glitter that’s on the art table,” she moaned with a toss of her head.
“I’m having mulled wine, too” I insisted. “I’m not cleaning up that glitter until the final class is over tomorrow.”
Kenzie’s eyes lit up. “Whoa, I want to see! What are you making, Lily? It might be something I want to do.” She smiled in anticipation.
LauraLea handed Kenzie her mug of mulled wine. The odor of cinnamon permeated the air. Kenzie wrapped her hands around the cup for warmth. “Oh, the cup has warmed my hands. It feels so good.” She turned to me, “Now, show me the glitter stuff.”
LauraLea shook her head ferociously. “No, you don’t. You positively don’t want to take Lily’s toilet paper roll star-making class. It’s hideous!” LauraLea assured her with a quick toss of her expertly highlighted hair.
I flashed LauraLea a dirty look. “Come on back, Kenzie. You’re a grown-up. You can make up your own mind.” I smirked at LauraLea and said, “LauraLea’s just jealous because the class has been such a success and the supplies are practically free.”
Kenzie laughed. “I don’t know what I’ve done for the past years without the two of you. Anyone would think you guys were arch enemies if they listened to you all grapple back-and-forth.”
“Well, she is a pain in my butt,” I said as I nodded toward LauraLea.
“Likewise,” LauraLea scoffed. “But, that’s hardly newsworthy.”
Kenzie ignored us and walked quickly to the art table. “Oh, my gosh! Look at the stars; look at all that glitter. I love it,” she gushed as she picked up one of my controversial toilet paper stars that had been expertly covered with red and green glitter. “This is great!” She examined the other stars on the table. “I love the gold and silver stars, too!”
I laughed. “Thank you, Kenzie. Now, would you know they were made with toilet paper rolls if LauraLea hadn’t told you?”
Kenzie shook her head. “Absolutely not. These are great. Can I come tomorrow? I’m off tomorrow, but I have to work the twenty-third and the twenty-fourth.”
“Of course! Do you work on Christmas day? That almost seems sacrilegious,” LauraLea said with a flash of her eyes.
“Yep… well, technically, I’m off but I’m sure I’ll be up all night long on Christmas Eve, so I’ll sleep most of Christmas day and probably won’t make your brunch, Lily.” Her voice was apologetic.
I patted her shoulder. “That’s okay, my dear. It’s nothing special. Just a bunch of people that I really like… And her, of course,” I said as I jabbed my finger into LauraLea’s arm. I winked at Kenzie.
“But you can come to the gallery Christmas party at Lily’s house on the twenty-seventh, can’t you Kenzie?” LauraLea asked.
Kenzie’s smile lit up her face. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world! It’s such a treat to be included in the Artzy Chicks’ Christmas festivities. All of you guys are awesome and so talented.”
I smiled and gave her a brief hug. “That’s terrific, Kenzie. I’m so glad. We’re having prime rib, and it’ll be delicious because LauraLea’s cooking it. We’ll also do a white elephant gift exchange, and you have to wear the ugliest Christmas sweater you can find!” I smiled happily.
Kenzie nodded. “I’m in. I’ve got the gift, the sweater, and two great bottles of Raspberry Cabernet Wine to bring – from Marceline Vineyards down the road. Best wine around. And… I’ve ordered chocolates from Switzerland. They should arrive tomorrow!”
“Oooh. That sounds perfect to me. It’ll be fun. We’ll have Tammy Lynn play the piano, and we’ll sing Christmas carols, too.” I gave her a sideways glance. “And, if you know anyone you want to invite, that’s fine, too.”
A shadow crossed Kenzie’s face, and her eyes looked watery. “Nope, just me and Solomon. We’re a package.” Perhaps I imagined it, but her voice wavered.
“That’s a package I’d host anytime,” I said with a smile.
LauraLea interrupted. “Okay, now that you’ve seen these butt-ugly stars, let’s go and sit by the fireplace and have some of Diane’s cookies and enjoy wine,” LauraLea suggested.
The three of us tromped back into the main gallery and sat at the roundtable. The fire was warm, and the mulled wine was strong.
“Do you ladies know it’s supposed to snow like a foot in a couple of days?” Kenzie asked. “The weather report is kind of scary.
“I heard that. That’s what my husband said,” LauraLea said with a smile. “He said it’s coming from the south which means we’ll probably be hammered. And, of course, the snow machines up the hill are going full-blast to get a good base down to ski.”
“That’s great. Massanutten will be full, and we’ll have a white Christmas. I’m looking forward to that,” I said as I snatched another cookie from the tray. “Boy, Diane outdid herself with these cookies. This one is almond flavored.”
Kenzie shook her head and laughed. “Yeah, but the bad part of the snow is the sheet of ice they’re predicting.”
LauraLea shook her head. “Yeah. That’s always bad. No one can drive in ice. The roads will be treacherous.”
Kenzie nodded. “You’re right about the roads and the cookies. I’ve never known anyone quite like Diane. She’s a take charge kind of lady, and these cookies are delicious.”
“That she is,” LauraLea agreed. “It’s probably not a good idea to cross her,” she warned. “She makes the best baked goods and homemade relish I’ve ever tasted. We can’t keep them in here.”
“Yeah, she does,” I agreed. “Besides, she works here all the time and bakes at night. I don’t see how she does it. I’d be exhausted.” I shook my head.
“Yep, she’s a trooper,” LauraLea agreed. “I hope she brings deviled eggs to the Christmas party. She makes the best ones of anyone I know.”
“So, Lily, what time is your class tomorrow? I truly want to come and make a few of those stars. I’ll use them to decorate at home, and I’d like to give three or four as gifts to my office staff.”
I shot LauraLea a triumphant look, and she rolled her eyes and mumbled, “Here we go again.”
“In the afternoon. I’ve got one scheduled at one and another at three. You can come to both if you want,” I offered with a smile.
“Well, I’ll definitely be here at one. I may take both classes if that’s okay. I may even sip some wine. I’m gonna sort of celebrate Christmas tomorrow since I have to work on Thursday and Friday.”
“That would be perfect, Kenzie. Maybe if I have a couple of glasses of wine, I can force myself to make a toilet paper Christmas star.” LauraLea shuddered and grimaced at the thought.
Kenzie laughed. “You guys are a riot. I’m looking forward to it.” She reached for a cookie as I heard a dog bark on the front porch.
“Sounds like Vino and Solomon are back from their run. I’ll let them in and get them some jerky.” I rose from the table and opened the gallery door as the two large labs entered the 1850s log cabin art gallery. Solomon immediately went to Kenzie for an ear scratch, and Vino placed himself between LauraLea and me. His eyes lit up as he sniffed. He knew the smell of our homemade beef jerky. He loved it almost as much as he loved wine.
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