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~ Maddie ~
“This is even more nerve-wracking than meeting an old boyfriend,” says Hailey Rose, who is sitting in the backseat of my SUV next to our friend Fran McDonald.
I’m driving. Mary Jane Stetson, who we call MJ, is riding shotgun, rounding out our quartet of writers. We’re on our way to Asheville, North Carolina, to pick up our friend Kellen Corsi, who is flying in from New York City.
“Why am I so nervous?” Hailey asks.
I glance in the rearview mirror and glimpse her checking her pretty reflection in a compact mirror, fluffing her light pink curls and reapplying lipstick.
“It’s just Kellen,” I say. “Don’t be nervous. She’s the most nonjudgmental person in the world.”
“At least she used to be,” Fran says. “Who knows how she’s changed now that she’s hit the big time?”
About a decade ago, when I made the decision to move beyond reading cozy mysteries to trying my hand at writing them, I hung a notice in the Hemlock Public Library seeking authors who were interested in forming a mystery-writers support group. Fran, Hailey, MJ, Kellen, another writer named Olivia Knowles, and I turned up.
We hit it off fabulously and dubbed ourselves the Hemlock Homicide Heroines. It was the start of something magical.
“Why do you assume Kellen has changed?” I ask.
“Having your book made into a movie and living in a place like Manhattan can change a person’s sensibilities,” Fran says. “I feel like the country mouse going to pick up my big city friend.”
“Exactly,” Hailey says. “How can a person who has achieved the level of success Kellen has not change? I mean, she’s famous now.”
“Well, no one forced her to come back to Hemlock,” says MJ as she fans herself with a piece of paper. “If Kellen had gotten too far above her raisin’, I suppose she wouldn’t be schlepping it all the way back to North Carolina to walk in a small-town charity fashion show and spend time with a bunch of nobodies like us.”
I bristle at MJ’s referring to us as nobodies, but I swallow my irritation before I speak. “When I talked to her she sounded like the same old Kellen to me. She said she was excited to see us, and it’s generous of her to help the ladies league raise money.”
For the past decade, the Hemlock Ladies’ League, a local volunteer organization that my daughter Jenna and I belong to, has staged its Successful You Fashion Showcase, which supports regional organizations that aid women facing employment and financial challenges. Every year, the show has a different theme—last year it was tropical oasis; another year it was I Love Paris.
In celebration of the tenth annual show, the committee, which I’m chairing this year, chose a murder mystery theme featuring a special celebrity guest star to walk in the show—Hemlock’s very own hometown girl who hit the big time, best-selling mystery author Kellen Corsi.
Kellen’s first thriller not only became an instant number-one best seller, it launched her career and set her on a trajectory for literary superstardom. With one number-one best seller after another, everything she touches seems to turn to gold. Now, her first book is being made into a movie. The production company is shooting in Asheville. That’s one of the reasons she had been able to join us. After the show and our reunion weekend, she’s going to stop by the movie set.
Is it any wonder her success has bruised some egos and stirred up enough professional jealousy to splinter our writers group? Because of that—or maybe in spite of it, I asked the other founding members of the Hemlock Homicide Heroines to walk in the show, too. Every year, local woman are invited to participate—some local celebrities and others who want to help raise money. Since my friends write mysteries, I figured they would be the perfect models for this year’s show. It’s a nice opportunity for us to join about a dozen other women from the community and help a good cause. It also provided a great excuse for a HHH reunion.
“Too bad Olivia can’t join us,” MJ says.
The others make appropriate noises. Even though it is more apt to say Olivia Knowles won’t join us rather than can’t, no one dares utter a word. Not with MJ in the car. Olivia and MJ are close. Or at least they were once. Olivia was also an original member of our writers group. She declined to participate in the reunion and fashion show after she learned that Kellen would be there.
“I guess it would be awkward for the two to be in the same room on account of the lawsuit.” There’s an undercurrent of snark in MJ’s voice. A wake of dead silence follows.
I slant a quick glance at MJ. Before returning my gaze to the road, I see beads of perspiration forming on her upper lip.
“Do you want me to turn up the air conditioner?” I ask, even though I’m about to freeze into an icicle. It’s no wonder she’s warm. She’s wearing a black sweater dress on this hot, humid July day. Paired with her pearls, she looks nice, even if the dress, with its long sleeves and high neck, is better suited for winter. I know we all tried a little harder than usual to dress up because in addition to being successful, Kellen is gorgeous.
“Maybe it would help if I adjusted the vent.” She does and leans forward to allow the air to blow directly on her face.
As I steer the SUV into the Asheville airport entrance, nervous electricity crackles in the air even though the four of us have settled into silence.
Initially, when I invited Olivia to walk in the show she was excited. However, a few days later, after I announced to the group that Kellen had agreed to fly in from New York, Olivia called me back and said she was too far in the weeds with her current book. She simply couldn’t take the time off for the fashion show or the four-day reunion we had planned around the show. She said she absolutely could not be late with this book or her editor would hunt her down and kill her.
Once a mystery writer always a mystery writer.
Or better yet, once a drama queen, always a drama queen.
Even before her beef with Kellen, Olivia always seemed to have it in for someone whom she believed had slighted her. She was usually late for our meetings and when she did finally breeze in, she commanded the floor with her dramatic justifications and outraged story of the week about the most recent person who had wronged her. It was tiresome. And, of course, it was never her fault. Other times, she would go on diatribes skewering the latest editor who dared turn down the story she’d submitted. I’ll never forget the time Olivia was particularly incensed over a rejection and she was so nasty to Hailey she made her cry by saying things like, “If the editor thinks my writing is bad, there’s no way you’re going to sell.”
The cherry on top was when Olivia accused Kellen of plagiarism, claiming Kellen had not only used character names she had claimed as her own, but had also stolen the idea for her book, The Sting of Death, from her.
“Where are we supposed to meet her?” Fran’s voice cuts through the silence.
“She said she’d wait outside of baggage claim,” I say.
“Are you sure we still can’t persuade Olivia to join us?” Hailey asks. “I know she and Kellen have had their issues, but—”
MJ snorts and murmurs under her breath, “That’s an understatement.”
“Maybe after Olivia had a chance to reconsider the invitation, she changed her mind,” Hailey says. “Maybe she just needs a little coaxing. You know, she might need to hear that we really want her here. I don’t mind calling her.”
I glance in my rearview mirror and see how earnest Hailey’s wide blue eyes look. I also glimpse Fran rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
“You can try,” Fran says. “But don’t count on her changing her mind. Plus, I was really looking forward to a peaceful weekend.”
Fran and Hailey are as different as their hair colors. Hailey’s bouncy pink curls reflect her innocence and quirky view on the world, while Fran’s stark, sleek salt-and-pepper bob is just as no-nonsense as her call-it-as-she-sees-it view on life.
“We’ll never know unless we try,” Hailey says, who was still in high school when we started the group.
Fran shrugs. “Knock yourself out, kid.”
Everyone thought Olivia would be the first of us to sell. No one believed that more than Olivia herself. She had been writing for a couple of years and had several finished novels under her belt before joining the Hemlock Homicide Heroines.
Olivia came so close to getting published several times, but somehow it never happened.
When Kellen sold her partially completed first novel to the publisher Olivia wanted to work with, she said it felt as if Kellen had cut to the head of the long line where Olivia had been waiting for years.
Kellen makes it seem as though she floats effortlessly through life. Not only is she talented, but she’s a maddeningly prolific writer. The stories and the words seem to come easier to her than to us mere mortals, which is why it didn’t make sense when Olivia filed the civil suit against Kellen accusing her of plagiarism.
Kellen had done the work. She’d written the book. But Olivia claimed Kellen had stolen it from her, adding the proof would come when Kellen failed at all subsequent projects since she didn’t have access to Olivia’s ideas anymore. Olivia is wrong on at least one account; each book Kellen publishes seems to be more successful than the last even without access to Olivia’s so-called brain trust.
“There she is.” MJ points to the tall, slim blonde in a red blouse, white jeans, and espadrille wedges standing curbside next to her suitcase.
She’s typing something on her smartphone. She looks more like a model than the queen of macabre murder mysteries. But that’s our Kellen, a walking contradiction.
The sight of her makes me smile. She looks calm and cool and effortlessly stylish, as if she’d nipped into a salon between deplaning and stepping out into the summer heat. But there was no time for a glam session. I’m sure this is exactly what Kellen looked like after her journey from New York City, where she has lived with her literary agent husband, Tom Corsi, for the past seven years.
“I’ll get in back and let her sit in front.” MJ swipes at her moist brow, stuffs her makeshift fan into her purse and begins undoing her seat belt before I have a chance to stop the vehicle.
I’m glad MJ is playing nice. Out of the six of us, MJ and Olivia have remained the closest. In the beginning, MJ was quick to jump to Olivia’s defense and side with her, even though she swore she would never take sides. People are funny. Rooting for the underdog, but still wanting a piece of the person who’s found the fame and fortune.
When I stop the car, Kellen straightens and flashes her perfect smile at us. She looks the same as always, only more polished. Then again, she always was a little more put together than the average woman. It’s the thing that makes people love and hate her.
MJ lumbers out of the car first and throws her arms around Kellen as if there never was an issue with Olivia. I make my way around the front of the car as the others in the back open the door and climb out, making the appropriate sounds of delight at the reunion.
“Here, give me your bags,” MJ says. “I’ll put them in the back.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Kellen says.
MJ waves her away. “Come on, give them up. I’ll take care of everything while you finish saying hello to the others.”
“Thank you, MJ,” Kellen says as MJ whisks her bags away.
“Be careful and don’t crush the boxes in the back,” I call. “Those are the dresses you all are going to wear for the fashion show.”
“I’m well aware,” she answers in a singsong voice as she disappears around the back of the car. “You already told us that.”
Fran rolls her eyes, but I just chuckle. I’m trying to think of a witty response because I’m determined for this to be a good weekend without hurt feelings or fragile egos getting in the way. My train of thought is preempted by a string of choice words coming from the direction of the liftgate.
“MJ?” I call as I make my way to her followed by the others.
“I’m fine. I just dumped my purse. Sorry for the potty mouth.”
We get there just in time to see her grabbing the contents of her handbag, which is strewn all over the back bumper and the top of Kellen’s suitcase, which MJ had already lifted into the wayback of the car.
“No worries,” she says as she stashes the last of the items—a package of tissue, a compact, a tube of lipstick, a couple of crumpled receipts. “I’m such a klutz. You can’t take me anywhere. I guess some things never change.”
This is vintage MJ. One thing I’ve always admired about her is, despite her tendency to annoy people by mothering them to death, she always manages to show a human side by doing something like this. When we would meet, sometimes she would be so busy mother-henning everyone that she would fail to see the open manhole right in front of her. I hate it that she’s embarrassed, but in a way, it brings back good times.
It’s a half-hour trip from the airport back to Hemlock. The whole time the car is filled with the sounds of chatter and laughter. It takes me back a decade to when we first met and our meetings were filled with the sound of possibility and passion for writing.
I love listening to everyone tell Kellen what they’ve been up to over the years. It’s no surprise that Hailey has successfully embraced indie publishing and is making boatloads of money.
“I’m so proud of you, Hail,” Kellen gushes. “You seem so happy.”
“I am. I’m making enough from my writing to support myself. I get to be my own boss. I set my own hours and have plenty of time to pursue other things I’m interested in. The best part is I write what I want and it sells.”
“That’s the holy grail of writing,” Kellen says, turning around in her seat to look at the others. “Why did you quit writing, Fran? You’re so talented. The world needs your voice.”
Fran shrugs. “You know—Well, no, you probably don’t know since you’re so prolific. One day I woke up and I was out of words. I just didn’t have anything left to say.”
“No!” Kellen says. “You probably just need to take a break. I can’t live in a world without a continuous stream of new books in your Carmody Callahan series. You were doing so well.”
Fran chuckles low in her throat. “Not that well since Kingston Press dropped me. And it’s been almost two years since my last Carmody Callahan. So, I think you’ll be okay.”
For a split second, an uncomfortable silence falls over the car.
It’s broken by the sound of MJ’s nervous laugh. “Well, Fran, at least you did better than Maddie and me. Neither of us has published anything. Of course, it’s not for want of trying on Maddie’s part. I on the other hand, have yet to finish a book. You can’t publish what isn’t there. Lord knows short stories don’t sell. Well, that is unless you know someone in the business who’s willing to help you out.”
She says it like not trying is a point of pride and I tighten my grip on the steering wheel to keep myself from saying something I’ll regret like, well, I had a hard time after my husband went missing and it takes a lot of energy to run the bridal shop, which is how I support myself. But I tell myself MJ doesn’t mean anything by her barbs. Or at least I don’t have to let her thoughtless words sting me. When the HHHs were meeting, MJ always talked about writing a novel. Short stories were her forte and she was good at it, but she claimed she wanted to write something longer. The problem was she could never seem to finish a book. Everyone tried to help her, but basically it boiled down to writing being a solitary endeavor. We couldn’t do it for her.
As much as we want it for her, she needs to want it that badly for herself.
Thinking back on that reminds me of everyone’s place in the writers’ group. For the most part, I think I’m the peacekeeper. Olivia fancied herself the queen bee. Kellen was all business, always showing up prepared. Fran was the jaded old soul with a slightly caustic edge. Hailey, the millennial, was the baby of the group. Smart as a whip, she kept us young and in touch. MJ seemed completely devoted to Olivia. She spent so much time fretting and fussing over Olivia, it seemed to use up her best energy—as if she was being productive even though she wasn’t writing. The sad part is MJ is a good writer. I honestly believe she’s afraid of success. Or maybe she’s one of those people who like the idea of being a writer, but they don’t want to do the hard work. Too bad because she always offered thoughtful critiques of everyone else’s work and was brilliant at brainstorming when one of us had written herself into a corner.
That is until Kellen sold her first book, and Olivia accused Kellen of plagiarism. Then things got weird.
End of Excerpt