Fiction by L.K. Campbell

Sneak Preview—Aunt Eve's Last Bite

Two weeks into April and Grandfather’s profile still has white caps. Celeste Adams tore herself away from the mountain scenery outside her office window and sat behind the desk. Winter had produced a record snowfall and brought a steady stream of skiers to her small hotel. Yet, she found herself longing for warmer days and with them, more Blue Ridge Parkway traffic and weddings to host. She clicked a shortcut on her computer screen to bring up her financial spreadsheet. Despite a rockslide closing the road for several days and the homicide she’d rather forget, Gran Vista had a stable profit margin. Good amenities and pillowtop mattresses can offset a murder, I suppose.

Her buzzing intercom interrupted those thoughts.

“Yes, Maddie.”

“Arnold Penny on line one,” her desk clerk responded.

“Thank you.”

She poised her index finger over the flashing light. Arnold Penny owned Granny Belle’s Apples, one of her locally sourced food vendors. My bill is paid. I wonder what he needs. She pressed the button.

“This is Celeste Adams. How may I help you, Mr. Penny?”

“I want to book some rooms for a family meeting,” he said in a voice fit for an outdoor rock concert. She jerked the receiver away from her ear.

The request piqued her curiosity. Surely, he could accommodate his relatives in Penny Manor, a name locals had assigned to his sprawling hilltop mansion overlooking his orchards.

“If you’ll give me a date,” she said. “I’ll check my reservations calendar and see what we have available.”

“As soon as possible,” he said. “I can’t wait too long on this.”

His tone and choice of words tended more toward a business conference than a family get-together. She double-clicked the calendar on her desktop computer.

“I have one suite, one king-sized room, and four standard double rooms that haven’t been reserved through this weekend. From Sunday on, we only have a few unbooked rooms for the remainder of April.”

“Fine. Put me down for four rooms this weekend. I’ll take the king-sized room and three standards. We’ll be checking in Friday afternoon and checking out Sunday morning.”

Celeste selected the four rooms and tapped the reserve button. “You’re booked,” she said. “Would you like your total cost?”

“I’m not worried about the price,” he said. “I’d rather spend a little more money with a local concern than give it to one of those chain motels. Besides, you’re a customer of mine. One good turn deserves another, right? I’m sending my nephew, Lucas over there to pay the bill.”

“Sounds good,” she said. “Call me if you need anything else between now and next weekend.”

Before her last word had rolled off her tongue, his end of the line had gone dead. He didn’t say goodbye. Still, his considering her a local concern did her heart good. Six years seemed like a short time since she and her late husband had left life in Raleigh behind to purchase and renovate hotel.

Maddie appeared at her door. “Large booking?” she asked.

“Yes, a family meeting, according to Mr. Penny. I’ve reserved the rooms, and Lucas will be by to prepay the bill.”

Her young employee twirled her dark curls with a pencil. “For some reason, I thought Lucas was Mr. Penny’s sole relative. The rest of the clan must have moved off to other places.”

“I wonder why Arnold Penny would need to house his family at our hotel? His house must have at least four bedrooms.”

Maddie’s eyebrows shot up over her red-rimmed glasses. “As it happens, I know he’s remodeling. My older brother works for the electrical contractors Mr. Penny hired.”

Celeste found Maddie’s news surprising. A few members of the local arts council called him Mr. Penny pincher. She’d never subscribed to their musings about his frugality. Busloads of tour groups visiting his orchard to pick apples and purchase apple-related products didn’t necessarily equate to vast wealth. People might think I’m wealthy because I own a hotel. If they only knew.

“My brother said it was a wonder the sixty-five-year-old wiring hadn’t caused a fire.” She started to leave but stopped to add, “Can you imagine anything that old still working?”

“Yes, it’s amazing,” Celeste said while thinking, I’m that old and still working.

Fifteen minutes later, Lucas Penny walked through the front door. He wore his usual work uniform, a navy blue blazer with Granny Belle’s logo embroidered on the top pocket. When he ran a hand through his thick, dark hair, she saw a few silver strands. Lucas can’t be old enough for gray hair, can he? He favored his uncle—average height, square jaw, and thin lips.

She overheard him saying his Uncle Arnold had sent him over to pay a bill. She also made out something about the party room. Maddie cracked Celeste’s door enough to stick her head inside.

“Mr. Penny would also like to rent our party room next Saturday.”

Celeste didn’t have to consult her booking calendar. The room, used most often during wedding season, would be free for another few weeks.

“He can have the whole day if he needs it, and give him a twenty percent discount off the usual price.”

As Arnold had said, “One good turn deserves another.” And he’s in a position to recommend my hotel to tourists.

“We’ll have a catered lunch delivered at noon,” she heard Lucas say. “And our business should conclude around two p.m.”

Maddie gave him the adjusted price, and he paid it without complaint. When he left, he waved and smiled at Celeste through the office window. She reciprocated with a smile of her own. Nice guy. Arnold Penny is lucky to have Lucas taking care of his affairs.

“Do you think it’s odd for him to book rooms for the whole weekend to have a two-hour meeting? My sixth sense is telling me he has a big surprise for them,” Maddie said.

“My suspicious mind is rubbing off on you, Maddie. However, if Arnold Penny wants to bring his family to our hotel for the weekend—for whatever reason—he’s welcome here.”



Friday Afternoon


“Could Arnold have found a place any further out in the boondocks?”

“Aunt Eve, please,” Lucas said while flashing Celeste an apologetic smile. “This is not in the boondocks. It’s only one mile off The Parkway and five miles from Blowing Rock.”

Eve Penny Tolliver cast her gaze upward to the lobby’s knotty pine, cathedral ceiling. Her shoulder-length hair shone like fine silver in the recessed LED lighting.

“Lucas, I’m very familiar with where I am.”

He held up his hands and backed up a step or two. “Of course, Aunt Eve. My apologies.”

“We have complimentary wi-fi and satellite T.V.,” Maddie added. “And the cell phone signal is fairly good on this side of the mountain, too.”

A pair of cool, blue eyes stared across the check-in counter at Maddie. Eve didn’t look too annoyed, but Celeste saw Maddie chew the inside of her bottom lip the way she would when dealing with a difficult guest.

“Young lady, I was born and raised here,” Eve said. “I wasn’t implying you have no modern conveniences. I was questioning why my brother picked a lodge this far up on The Parkway when many fine hotels are located on the highway between Blowing Rock and Boone.”

“And if you’d stayed on the highway, you’d be complaining about backed-up, holiday weekend traffic moving about a foot every five minutes,” Lucas said.

Maddie’s cheeks blushed pink. Celeste was grateful not to be on the receiving end of the glare Eve aimed at Lucas. She also felt the need, at this point, to interject herself into the conversation.

“Mrs. Tolliver, I’m Celeste Adams, the owner of this hotel. I want to offer my personal assistance if you need anything to make you feel more comfortable during your stay.”

Extending her slim right hand, Eve showed off manicured nails painted in a shade reminiscent of pink peonies. An amethyst ring the size of a drawer pull adorned her middle finger. She could knock someone out with that thing.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Eve said. “I do remember this place from its former days. When I was in high school, our Spanish Club had our parties in the restaurant. I commend you for all the changes. It looks like a real mountain lodge now instead of tacky, 1960s something.” She paused and seemed to admire the mural of Grandview Overlook on the wall next to the parking lot exit door. “I particularly like this. It’s well done. Is it a local artist?”

“Yes, she worked from a photo my husband had taken. We were pleased with the result.” Celeste said. “An authentic mountain lodge was our intention or I should say my late husband’s intention. He was the driving force behind Gran Vista’s renovations.”

“You said, late husband? So you’re a widow?” Eve asked.

“Yes, I am, unfortunately.”

A crooked smile crossed Eve’s glossy, mauve lips. “Well, unfortunately, my latest one is still alive. We’re in the process of getting a divorce. He’s trying to stall our settlement, but I have some tricks up my sleeve. The greedy old coot isn’t going to get away with cheating me out of what I deserve.”

For lack of knowing what to say, Celeste kept quiet. Why would Eve talk that way to a complete stranger?

“My son keeps telling me to cut my losses and give him a divorce free and clear,” Eve said. “But I should be compensated for fifteen years of marriage to an ornery, selfish man.”

Celeste nodded and smiled. Thankfully, Lucas appeared next to his aunt.

“Mrs. Adams doesn’t want to hear your marital problems, Aunt Eve. Let me show you to your room.” He paused and addressed Celeste. “Uncle Arnold was held up on a phone call and sent me over to help everyone get settled.”

Eve placed her left hand against his chest. Her ring finger displayed a large, multiple gemstone, cocktail ring resembling a blooming flower. She spares no expense on jewelry.

“I wanted to wait for Hugh and Lacee to arrive. They’re my son and daughter-in-law,” she said to Celeste. “They moved to Nashville last year leaving me alone in Wilmington.”

“Then let me at least take your bags up while you wait for them,” Lucas said.

“The nice young lady at the reception desk hasn’t given me my room key,” she said.

Maddie held up Eve’s key card. “Here it is, ma’am. It’s on the second floor. Room 202.”

Taking it without saying thank you, Eve turned her back on Maddie. Celeste had never been more thankful for Maddie’s even temperament.

“Will your sweet sister, Tattletale be joining us?” Eve asked Lucas.

Celeste heard his sigh and saw a flash of exasperation in his eyes. “She calls herself Tazewell, Aunt Eve.”

From her travels in the Blue Ridge, the name struck a chord of familiarity for Celeste. “I’ve driven through a town in Virginia called Tazewell many times. This is the first time I’ve heard it used for a person’s given name.”

“Tazewell is our mother’s hometown,” Lucas said. “My sister’s full name is Sarah Tazewell Penny…well…Burns, now. She recently married. Don’t ask me why she decided to go by her middle name.” He twirled an index finger next to his right temple. “She’s a writer, and she’s a little weird.”

“Yes, and she used her poisoned pen to relate some unflattering things about our family,” Eve said.

“And you may have overreacted, Aunt Eve. What she wrote wasn’t terrible, and it was the truth. I wonder why it didn’t come out years ago?”

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Arnold Penny gathers his family at The Gran Vista Hotel to inform them of an offer to purchase the popular tourist destination, Granny Belle’s Apple Orchard. He intends to accept the bid and distribute the proceeds among them but chaos ensues. One family member returns after forty years of being presumed dead and doesn’t find a warm welcome home. Another family member dies in a manner reminiscent of an old family curse. Was it a freak accident or was she murdered?

Category: Fiction, Mystery, Cozy

Release Date: December 26, 2023

Words: 47,400

ISBN: 9798201937973