Wendy Meadows Cozy Mystery The Latte Stops Here (EBOOK)
Brown's Grounds Mystery Book 1

The Latte Stops Here (EBOOK)

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The victim had no shortage of enemies… and if she isn’t careful, she’ll be next.

Monica Brown’s grandfather always used to say that home is where the heart is. So when she inherits his old estate, she ditches her unsuccessful big-city life and starts fresh in a quaint and quiet country town. From the moment she arrives, she falls in with a fancy and charismatic estate owner who introduces himself as Forest – but Monica makes a shocking discovery when she finds his dead body the very next day.

Teaming up with local cop Nathan and determined to find the culprit, Monica realizes that this will be no cut-and-dry case – Forest was a known playboy, and that almost everyone in town had a reason to want him dead. As the list of suspects grows and the clues appear to lead her in circles, Monica struggles to balance her investigation with her dream of opening a coffee van business.

And after somebody vandalizes her truck, it quickly becomes clear that the murderer has her in their sights – and that if she isn’t careful, she’ll be next…

Can Monica unravel the murder of Forest Millman? Or will she be driven out of town and forced to abandon her dreams?

Chapter One

“I’ve got to be missing something,” Monica Brown mumbled as she studied the numbers she’d just written down. Math was never her strongest subject, but this was simple addition and subtraction. She had to be doing something wrong.

The Greyhound bus hit a crater of a pothole, sending the whole vehicle lurching to the right. Monica nearly landed in the lap of the lady next to her. No one seemed bothered by the motion as the bus righted itself and kept cruising at a good clip down the last stretch of the trip. She had been running over the numbers in her head the entire time. It was what she would have to live on in her new home. And it wasn’t a lot. According to her calculations, Monica would be dining on ramen noodles five out of seven days a week and might not have heat come winter.

“Just a little over 2,000 dollars in the bank to last me until I get on my feet. Well, it could be worse.” She looked out the window at the sky that had started as a beautiful blue blanket this morning. By this afternoon, the temperature had dropped, and a lumpy gray sweater of clouds hovered overhead. 

“It won’t rain,” she soothed. “It’s just cloudy, but it won’t rain.”

“Yes, it will,” the older lady in the seat across the aisle said. Her chin was up, and her wrinkly hands immediately went to her knees. “My joints stiffen every time. Yup. It’s going to rain.”

“Well, I just hope it holds out until I get to my stop,” Monica replied cheerfully.

“It won’t. Should start any minute now,” the woman replied before snuggling back into her seat, closing her eyes.

Monica gave her a scowl, then turned back to her finances. It was no use. She wouldn’t really have a grasp on anything until she saw her new home. It was grandpa’s old home, and her memories of it were sketchy at best. It had a couple bedrooms and a basement that held everything to fuel a child’s imagination. She could remember fiddling with an old piano and getting into stacks of boardgames and trunks full of treasures in that basement. Of course, all that stuff was probably gone by now. 

“How old was I the last time I was there?” she mumbled to herself, then shook her head trying to remember. She couldn’t put an age to it, but she knew it was long before her paralyzing fear of spiders had taken hold. Had she had that, she wouldn’t have ventured into the basement, let alone played down there. She shivered at the thought. That was another issue she was sure she’d have to address. How long the house had been lying vacant, the lawyer hadn’t said. All he said was that he’d been trying to find Grandpa’s last living relative, and she was it.

Congratulations. You now own a dilapidated old farmhouse on six acres of land in the middle of nowhere. Sign on the line and good luck!

Monica could remember some bits of her grandpa. He had a full head of gray hair that he swept back from his face in thick waves. He wore suspenders over flannel shirts with slacks. His voice was gravelly, and his eyebrows were thick like caterpillars over his eyes. She remembered he had one eye white with cataracts.

“I was a little boy,” he told her when she asked about it. “It was Christmas time and my mama and daddy needed money. So I was out in the cold selling newspapers and my eye froze.”

She smiled as she let her head fall back against the seat. What a corny story to remember. At the moment, it was the only story she could remember. She hoped more might come to her, but she was feeling listless. Her back was tired of sitting. Her legs ached. Looking out the window again, Monica was hopeful the old lady’s knees were wrong and that the rain would remain in the stratosphere for just a little longer. Her stop was next.

The red letters on the scrolling slide read “Next Stop: Millpond.” It was impossible to see further ahead from her window, and Monica didn’t want to make a fuss by traipsing up to the front and bothering the driver. In the city, you weren’t allowed to even talk to the drivers, let alone ask how much further. Of course, in the city you’ve got jaywalkers and bad drivers and red lights to beat and all that jazz. Out here there might be the threat of a deer darting onto the road, or maybe an obstacle course of potholes to maneuver, but that was it. 

“We’ve got to be getting close,” Monica mumbled. She had stuffed her purse with everything she thought she’d need on the ride so she could have her suitcase stowed beneath the bus. After she yanked the bulky leather thing onto her lap, she began searching for the Greyhound map she’d gotten at the bus station. Her wallet was in there, that was good. She had her diary and a change purse full of coins. Her makeup was in a smaller purse rolled up tight and taking up a lot of space. She had two apples left. She’d been surviving on those for most of the trip to conserve her cash. 

Just as she found the crumpled-up map at the bottom of the last pocket she looked in, the driver yelled. 

“Millpond! Anyone for Millpond, this is you!”

After quickly stuffing the map back in her purse, Monica stood up, swung the bulging bag over her shoulder, checked her seat, felt over her pockets, and headed to the front of the bus. 

“I hope you have an umbrella,” the old woman said with her eyes still closed. Monica didn’t look back and instead followed the bus driver off the bus. 

“Um, excuse me, sir?” Monica looked around at all the trees and up at the menacing sky. “Millpond?”

The driver, who had the look of a man who lived by a strict schedule, stomped to the undercarriage without looking at her.

“I’m sorry, sir, but Millpond is a town, right? It’s not just a patch of land? I’m not getting stranded out here, am I?” Monica slung her purse to her other shoulder as she watched the bus driver rooting around in the belly of the bus.

“This is Millpond, ma’am. Just follow that road about two miles and you’ll be in the center of town.” He emerged with her suitcase. It was a bright neon green thing with a purple ribbon tied to the handle so no one would mistake it for their own. It was a Lumi. Designer luggage wasn’t something Monica normally looked for, but when she found it at a thrift store barely used, she paid the few extra dollars to travel in style. Little did she know the only travelling she’d be doing was a ride on a Greyhound bus followed by a two-mile walk down a dirt road to her new shanty.

“Are there any cabs or Ubers around?” she asked innocently.

“I hope you have an umbrella. Smells like rain,” the driver said before tipping his cap and getting back on the bus. It pulled away, leaving Monica waving away the exhaust and staring at the road she was to follow into town. 

“Everybody’s a weatherman,” she muttered, then sniffed the air. “I don’t smell rain. How about that? I smell grass and trees and maybe a skunk. But I don’t smell rain.” She took hold of the handle of her suitcase and pulled it along behind her like a reluctant child. 

The road curved, then went slightly uphill. At the top looking down, Monica could see the little town. It looked boring and simple, and she was sure everyone knew everyone—and that was never a good thing. Of course, being anonymous in the city hadn’t exactly worked out, either. Her temp jobs were sporadic at best. That went for the men in her life, too. She had dated a couple of guys but had found no one worth clinging to.  

As she walked, she wondered if it wasn’t all her fault that she never found love in the concrete jungle. She had the same figure she’d had in college (give or take a handful of pounds). Her hair was naturally curly and dark brown, matching her eyes. She kept her skin soft with fancy lotion, and her nails were always impeccably manicured. She looked down at them and noticed a chip in two of her acrylic nails.

“Great!” she shouted, but no one heard her. 

Still, for all the time and effort she put into her looks, she didn’t have a man to show for it. Her friend Danielle, who was engaged after dating a guy for a month, always said the same thing. “You’re just too good for them, Monica.”

“That’s right,” Monica mumbled. “I was just too good for the guys I dated, and they couldn’t handle it. Yeah. That might be true. Just like it isn’t going to rain, and the old lady on the bus’s knees and the driver’s nose were sorely mistaken.” 

She squared her shoulders and yanked her suitcase a few more feet just as a clap of thunder boomed overhead. The clouds had darkened, and the first few drops of rain began to fall.

“That’s not rain. Those are sprinkles. Sprinkles can come and go just as quickly.” She quickened her pace. The suitcase was wobbling and jostling just like the bus as it was driven over all the potholes. 

Before she could start cussing up a storm of her own, she heard a rumbling sound behind her. When Monica turned to see what was making so much noise, she expected to see a Sherman tank coming over the hill. Instead, a dirty pickup truck that was red and rusted came pitching down the road shooting gravel and dirt up behind it. 

Monica held her breath. She’d seen enough horror movies to know that nothing good ever comes from a pickup truck on an old, dusty road. She tucked her head down, raised her shoulders, and pulled her suitcase along behind her while she clutched her purse to her stomach.

In just a few seconds, the truck was alongside her. It was still sprinkling out, and she could hear the sound of the wipers squeaking and scraping across its windshield.

“Hey, you need a lift?” It was a male voice, but Monica just kept her head down and her shoulders up. She also had a pocket-sized pepper spray in her purse, but she’d probably be beaten, strangled, dissected, and buried at the bottom of a river by the time she found it in her purse.

“No, thank you.”

“Are you sure? The forecast was calling for thunderstorms,” the man insisted. He was pushy. Obviously, he wanted her to get into his truck so he could drive her away into the woods where no one would find her remains.

“I’m good.”

“Town is just a short ways away. You’ll be there in five minutes. Come on. Hop in.” 

“Look, I said…no.” Monica looked up, ready to face whatever monster was in the truck—then cleared her throat and coughed. He was handsome. Not just handsome but gorgeous. She’d never seen a guy who looked like this in the city. Not once. Not ever. 

“I’m sorry, but I just don’t take rides from strangers.” 

She turned her head and focused on the road. Was the rain coming down harder? Was it? No. That was just her imagination. If she kept up her pace, she’d be in town long before the bad rain started. 

“Okay. Well, Patty’s Diner is open twenty-four hours. You can stop in there and call whoever it is you’re meeting,” the man continued. “Are you meeting someone?” 

“Listen, rube, I’m not getting in your truck, and I’m not telling you anything about myself. So why don’t you go find Jethro and head on out to the Cee-ment pond and have yourselves a good old fashioned hoot-i-nanny,” Monica snapped. That ought to show him. He’ll think twice before trying to persuade her to get into his car. Where does he think they are? Mayberry? 

“Suit yourself,” he said and sped away.

Monica stared at the truck as it left a few puffs of exhaust before disappearing toward the town that was still at least a half hour away, maybe longer since her suitcase was slowing her down. 

“My gosh, what kind of guy offers a girl a ride and doesn’t even introduce himself? He could have been a drifter or married. Oh, that’s it. I’m sure he was married. Yes.” Monica snapped her fingers. It couldn’t have been the fact that you called him a rube and insinuated he was a hillbilly, right? That wouldn’t have anything to do with why he left you to fend for yourself

“I was not wrong to say those things. Just because he was the hottest looking man I’ve ever seen doesn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. Ted Bundy was considered good-looking, and look what he did! Nope, I made the right choice.” She nodded and, with renewed vigor, picked up her pace and continued toward town.

It was then that the downpour started. By the time Monica reached Patty’s Diner, she was soaked to her skin. She had passed a dozen little buildings but couldn’t tell what any of them were, since her head was tucked down against the rain. When she spotted the sign for the diner, she hurriedly stepped inside. The smell of coffee and something deliciously greasy on the grill stirred her stomach to life. 

“You look like something the cat dragged in, girl,” the waitress behind the U-shaped counter said. Monica looked up through wet strands of hair. She had a sarcastic reply on the tip of her tongue but stopped when she saw the waitress was a gray-haired lady wearing an actual waitressing uniform with three pencils sticking out of her heavily Aqua-netted hair. 

“Didn’t hear the weather report this morning, eh?” an older man at the furthest end of the counter added. 

“No. I guess I missed it.” Monica harrumphed as she walked up to the counter, propped up her suitcase, and took a seat as far away from the older man at the end of the counter as possible. There were three tables for four and two large booths against the windows. Country kitsch was all over the walls in the form of plaques, pictures, and framed pieces of needlework. Behind the counter was a beautifully stitched farmhouse and the words “Why don’t you help yourself to a big steaming cup of shut the heck up.”

“How could you miss it? They been calling for heavy rains for days,” the man muttered. Before Monica could reply, the waitress set down a steaming cup of coffee in front of her and a small hand towel.

“Leave her be, Roy.” The waitress waved in the man’s direction as if she were shooing a fly. “Would you like to look at a menu, honey?”

“Thanks,” Monica replied with a tired smile. She set her huge purse on the counter and started to root around inside. She pulled out her wallet and took a quick inventory of how much cash she had. She’d found her wallet in a little store not far from the temp office that sold Chinese knick-knacks. It was red silk with gold and green dragons stitched across the fabric. She had enough to eat like a queen for one night. She allowed herself that luxury. Before she could talk herself out of it, she’d ordered a cheeseburger with everything, fries, and a large Coke.

The waitress, whose nametag read “Patricia,” brought the Coke and yelled her order to a man behind a tall silver counter. Monica couldn’t see his face. He was too short. But he had a sweaty forehead and a paper cap on his head. Within seconds, the sound of meat sizzling on a grill could be heard and the smell of broiled beef hit Monica’s nose. She took a sip of her Coke, then went into her purse one last time. She pulled out the letter from the lawyer that had all the pertinent information on it about her new home.

“Do you know where 2045 Cherry Tree Lane is?” Monica asked Patricia.

“Sure, that was William Brown’s place. If you’re looking for him, honey, I’m afraid I have some bad news. He’s been called home to the Lord.” Patricia looked worried, as if this news might be a shock.

“I know he died,” Monica replied with a hint of smile. “I’m his granddaughter. The only one left in the bloodline, I guess. Monica Brown.” She shook the waitress’s soft hand.

A silver bell rang, and Patricia quickly spun around, scooped up the steaming platter of food from the high counter, and, with the grace of a ballerina, grabbed bottles of ketchup, mustard, and hot sauce before gently setting everything down in front of Monica.

“Well, welcome to Millpond. I’m Patty. I own this place. That’s Roy.” She jerked her head to the right. “Town crier.”

“Hey, I resent that, Patty.”

“People often resent the truth being told.” She winked at Monica. “How long will you be staying with us?”

“It looks like indefinitely,” Monica said before drowning her French fries in ketchup. “Grandpa left me his house.”

“Oh.” She looked at Roy and then leaned on her elbow to get just a little closer to Monica. “I don’t know what you know about the house, but I don’t think anyone has been inside it for a couple months. You let me know if you need any help. William was a fine man.” She stood up straight. “Always paid his restaurant tab.” Those last words she shouted made Roy look down at his coffee with a sour face and mutter something. 

“I will, Patty. Thank you.” Within a few minutes, Monica had cleaned her plate and finished her Coke. She felt a lot better with some real food in her stomach. Behind her, the bells over the door jingled as someone walked in.

“Hi, Sheriff.” Patty waved happily.

Monica turned around to see the same achingly handsome face of the man driving the red pickup truck—the one she insulted. He was the sheriff? Of course, he was.

“Patty. Roy.” He looked at Monica with a sly grin. “Ma’am.”

“Sheriff, this is Monica Brown. She’s William Brown’s granddaughter. Going to be settin’ housekeeping at his old place,” Patty replied cheerfully, unaware that Monica’s insides were crawling with embarrassment. 

“Welcome to Millpond, Miss Brown.” The Sheriff shifted from his right foot to his left. He was wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and cowboy boots. He looked like he could walk onto the set of Bonanza and fit right in. All he needed was a white cowboy hat and a silver star on his breast pocket. “Will you be staying with us long?”

Monica heard the question but was busy pretending not to be interested. Instead of coming off cool, she looked clumsy. 

“I, uh, will be at my grandfather’s house. I’m probably going to sell the place.” She tried to sound confident. It wasn’t really working. “But for now, I’ll just play it by ear. I have an apartment in the city. Things might be too quiet around here.”

“My mother used to always tell me home is where your heart is. Of course, Mrs. Thomas was saying that as she booted me out of the nest.” He chuckled as he looked at Patty.

“Your mother was a wise woman. Some of the ladies around town would be wise to implement that kind of tough love under their own roofs.” She looked at Roy. “Ain’t it about time you moved out from your mama’s house?”

“She likes the company,” Roy replied with a smile.

“Home is where the heart is. My grandpa used to say that.” Monica smiled. Suddenly a pang of sadness plucked her heart, and her eyes began to water. What was going on? She hadn’t seen her grandfather in years. The truth was that she barely knew the man. Quickly, she took a long slurp from her empty glass to get even a tiny gulp of water to calm herself. Then she looked at her watch, not seeing the time at all, and asked if anyone could tell her the easiest way to get to 2045 Cherry Tree Lane.

“I’ll drive you there,” the sheriff offered.

“No, thank you. I’d like to walk,” Monica replied. “Besides, the rain has stopped. I’m sure I’ll make it.” Her voice was confident, but through the storefront windows, she saw an even darker bank of clouds was quickly rolling in.

Patty gave her quick directions, wrote them down on a blank receipt, and handed it to Monica. “It shouldn’t take you but ten minutes from here. Now, remember what I told you. If you need anything at all.”

“Thanks, Patty. It was nice meeting you, Roy,” Monica called across the counter and received a nod and a wave in response. “Sheriff,” she said curtly. Before he could say anything more, Monica hustled out the door, the little bells tinkling goodbye to her as she dragged her designer luggage behind her.

“Home is where the heart is,” she muttered, confident she was alone. The tears filled her eyes again, but this time she let them fall. Nothing was working out the way Monica had hoped. She’d moved to the city with visions of cocktails after work and handsome gentlemen in suits taking her for dinner at high-end restaurants. But instead, her apartment was a noisy place with no air conditioning. The subway was its own monster. Nothing was turning out the way it was supposed to. Sex and the City was a lie. A big, fat lie. Wearing stiletto heels to work is insanity. 

Monica was so wrapped up in her pity party she didn’t even hear the car that came tearing out from the hidden driveway.

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