Date Published: November 20, 2020
Champagne Shores, Florida, is a beach town in need of a paint job.
What it doesn’t need…is a murder.
Champagne Shores, Florida, is poised to become a tourist magnet, but a murder in the marina threatens the town’s sunny reputation. Sure, the marina’s owner had been a thorn in the local chamber of commerce’s side, but he hadn’t really made serious enemies…had he?
Millie Silver wants her True Colors Paint Store to inspire a makeover for her hometown, and she’s busy leading the Champagne Shores Revitalization Committee. But when she and her dog Sunshine discover the body of the marina’s owner, they find themselves on the trail of a murderer. The clues and suspects stack up and include an estranged wife, surly fishermen, and a flashy group of treasure hunters flaunting the Spanish gold they find offshore.
While the town repaints and reinvents itself using Millie’s color inspiration, Millie recruits her family and friends to help the police chief uncover secrets, grudges, and even sunken treasure along the Florida coast.
Excerpt from Chapter One
Champagne Shores, Florida, was a beach town in need of a paint job. I rolled out a diagram of the town and spread my paint swatches in front of me. Golden October light poured through the wide glass windows of the True Colors Paint Store and my yellow Labrador slept peacefully inside the front door, nose on her paws.
The paint shaker provided the swish-swish background noise that was the heartbeat of my shop on Atlantic Avenue while I challenged myself to choose the future palette of my hometown. Because I own the town’s paint store and have a reputation for sharing my opinions when it comes to paint colors, I was being offered a golden opportunity. Champagne Shores straddled the line between Old Florida postcard town and big bucks tourist stop, which meant orange stands mingled with boutiques. New hotels towered over the beach and the new town management wanted to attract more tourists.
“What do you think?” I asked my brother Darwin. “I could repaint the store fronts in a random pattern or in a sequence from dark to light or hot to cool.”
“There’s no such thing as a random pattern,” Darwin said. “It’s a contradiction.”
He picked up his kitten and set him on the counter, smiling as the black and white cat batted a paint card off the counter. Tony, whose original name was Saint Anthony, had come to us four months earlier in the middle of a murder investigation—the only murder known to have happened in the peaceful town. Tony had quickly endeared himself to all of us, even when he swiped things off counters like the paint card Darwin picked up and put back in my lineup.
I curled Tony’s tail around my finger as I glanced at the card labeled Sunrise Blush. “I do like this one and I think it has the fresh look the town committee wants. If I paint the downtown shops in shades of blush, though, it might look too planned.”
“But it is planned,” Darwin said.
Tiffany came through the front door, bent down and gave Sunshine a dog treat, and made her way to the counter. “It looks too planned,” my sister said after a cursory glance. She rearranged the paint cards several times, placing samples on top of each business depicted on the town plan until she smiled at the order.
“Nice,” I said.
“Like a good set of highlights,” Tiffany said. “Makes a statement without shouting.”
Darwin scooped up his cat and shook his head as he retreated to his computer at the back of the store where I knew he would ponder how paint colors could possibly shout.
“And,” Tiffany added, “with this arrangement, our building has the prettiest color. Beach Rose. Almost as if I accidentally planned it that way.”
“Hazel, too,” I added, noting the Peaceful Harbor Blue that had landed on Hazel’s Front Porch Bakery across the street.
“Everyone’s a winner,” Tiffany said.
I saw Darwin’s head come up as if he wanted to explain the necessary balance between winners and losers, but I gave him a reassuring smile and he returned to his work. Darwin is the most literal member of my family, but he’s slowly learning not to flinch when people violate the laws of logic.
Tiffany and I see the world in color—hair color for her and paint color for me—but our younger brother is more a black and white guy.
“The town hall meeting is tonight,” I said. “I’m going to present several options, but I hope they go with this one.”
“You should get to the other committee members first and plant the seed,” Tiffany said. She put both elbows on the counter. “I hope no one gets all grouchy and rains on the parade like last time.”
I shrugged. “Almost everyone likes the idea in theory.”
“Even Richard Croy?” Tiffany asked. She tilted her head and gave me the look that said she was ready to listen. Whereas I had a reputation in town for strongly advising people about colors, Tiffany had a reputation for being a good listener. It was a trait that served her well as the town’s only hair stylist, and by the end of any given day she’d heard everything from parents celebrating their kid’s place on the swim team to dark secrets involving affairs, family squabbles, and questionable paternity.
“I’m working on Richard Croy,” I said. “Deep down, I’m sure he wants his marina to look just as nice as the rest of the town is going to look, even if we have to be creative in prying the money out of him.”
Tiffany grinned. “You could tell him that anything he spends is less money his wife gets in the divorce settlement.”
I laughed. “I don’t think I’ll lead with that argument, but I could save it for the kill statement if I get desperate.”
“Even though it’s not even that much money since the town is supplying the labor and you’re providing the paint at cost,” Tiffany said. “I wonder if we’ll really be overrun with tourists someday because of all the improvements.”
We heard Darwin grunt behind us. The idea of being overrun with anything probably made him uncomfortable. As the official tech nerd for many of the enterprises in Champagne Shores, he already stayed busy maintaining websites and keeping up with computer updates. He was currently revamping the site for the Chamber of Commerce, which would include proposed plans and colors as soon as I got a consensus from the committee.
“I’ll settle for steady business and a very nice write-up in a travel magazine. Or five travel magazines,” I said. “And if tonight’s town hall goes well, these colors will transform Champagne Shores before Christmas.”
Tiffany blew a kiss to Darwin, gave me a little wave, and patted Sunshine on the head. I heard the bell tinkle on her beauty shop door as she slipped into her business next to mine.
The moment I walked in the door of Hazel’s Front Porch Bakery that evening, I felt the little shiver of excitement that only one man I know causes. Last spring’s murder of real estate mogul Ransom Heyward had divided the town and threatened its sunny reputation, but that tragic event had also introduced Champagne Shores to the deceased’s nephew. Grant Heyward had all the charm and personality his uncle hadn’t, so when Grant announced he was making Champagne Shores his official home whenever his documentary filmmaking allowed him to work in the area, no one had been disappointed.
“You have your camera with you,” I said, skipping a hello and pointing to his tripod.
“I have ideas.” Grant put a hand on my upper arm and leaned close. Our relationship was well beyond the handshake-greeting type, but not quite the kiss-hello type, either. Most days, it was hard to define. I’m sure he was leaning in so I could hear him over the voices in the room that were—unexpectedly—loud. “Do you think small-town politics would make a good film?” he asked.
“No,” I said. After serving on the spruce-up committee for a month, I was sure there was nothing entertaining about fighting over streetlights, flower boxes, and paint colors.
“Even if there’s a nice angle like a revitalization project that brings out long-simmering bad blood between business owners?” Grant prodded. He was lucky to have a dimple that made him endearing even when his grin was more devil than angel.
I cocked my head. “I thought you stuck with nonfiction for your film subjects?”
“I’m evolving. Drama is hard to resist.”
“There’s no drama,” I said, trying to sound certain despite the buzz of tension in the room. “We’re discussing the plans in a public forum, inviting comment, and voting on colors. I hope. I also hope Hazel plans to sweeten everyone up with baked goods so there’ll be no bad blood simmering anywhere tonight.”
Grant sighed. “Disappointing.”
I fanned out a full deck of paint cards and held them up for his camera. “These are beauties. The real story is the transformation of fabulous Champagne Shores.”
“Fact or Fiction?” Grant asked.
“You decide,” I said.
I made my way toward the table where the three other members of the Champagne Shores Revitalization Committee sat. Hazel owned the bakery, Vera owned the BeachWave Motel, and Chester was the newest business owner in town. He took over the antique store when its previous owner had to move to Jacksonville to keep her seventy-five-year-old sister out of trouble at her nursing home. Chester had almost discontinued the yarn sales that had taken up half the shop so he could have more room for antiques, but my Aunt Minerva had persuaded him to change his mind and he’d won the hearts of the town yarn club.
I wished there were more knitters in attendance tonight. They loved color and personal expression. My aunt and my sister were in the front row. They smiled encouragingly as if whatever I was going to say was going to be brilliant. Most of the other town residents in attendance looked as if they’d rather be home watching television. Except Poppy Russell. She wore a red sweater-dress that was already covered in white fur from the cat on her lap.
“Saint Mary of the Snow,” she said, offering me the cat as I walked past. I paused and stroked the soft fur under the cat’s chin instead of taking her.
“Is she new?”
Poppy nodded. “She was sacrificed when someone left a home empty in Champagne Circle.”
I smiled. All Poppy’s cats were named after saints, and most of them came with a tale of persecution. Poppy leash-trained them all, and they took turns accompanying her around town as she watched out for gossip and the inevitable invasion of the Russians she’d been predicting for years.
“Here we go,” Hazel said as I sat between her and Vera.
“Tension,” I whispered.
“Mostly just one person,” she said. Hazel nodded toward Richard Croy, the owner of the Champagne Shores Marina. Never the master of subtlety, Hazel’s nod was exaggerated and obvious, and the marina owner’s grimace deepened.
“Oops,” Hazel said.
“I’ll try to win him over with Ocean Sunrise Blue,” I said. “It’s perfect for his marina storefront.”
Cecil Brooks stood at the end of our table and raised a hand. After the former mayor was charged and convicted of murdering Ransom Heyward months ago, Cecil had run for the empty office. As the owner of the BrewPub downtown, he had skin in the game. And he made French fries I’d be willing to fight someone for.
“Thank you for coming,” he said to the two dozen people in Hazel’s Front Porch Bakery. Most of the attendees had a beverage and a plate of sweets, and I suspected the venue was part of the reason some of the good citizens had left their easy chairs on an October evening. “First of all, I’d like to thank our committee for all their good ideas so far. The hanging baskets along the sidewalks are even nicer now that the heat of summer is past.”
There was a little polite applause, mostly from my aunt and my sister.
“So far,” Cecil continued, “the committee and the town leadership have done the work and covered the costs, but we’re here tonight to ask local businesses to get on board and help us out.”
A short silence followed during which I heard an electronic beep that indicated Grant’s camera was rolling. He was set up on the side, and I wondered what the good citizens of my hometown would look like in profile.
“I’ll say it,” Richard Croy blurted into the silence. “Prettying up the town isn’t going to do much good unless we get more tourists in. And those tourists are probably just going to cost more money than they’re worth. I say we keep things just like they are.”
An audible sigh came from a row behind him, and I glanced over in time to see Lisa Croy roll her eyes at her husband. My sister had told me about the Croy marriage problems she’d overheard in her beauty shop, and it sounded to me like the issue boiled down to Lisa having bigger dreams and desires than Richard.
I wondered if Grant had caught the exchange and what he would do with those five seconds of dramatic film. I wanted to believe everything was fine with the Croys, but Lisa wasn’t sitting with her husband or even near him.
“You could at least look at the pretty paint colors Millie brought,” Vera Rivers said. She smiled sweetly at me and I wanted to hug her.
“Right,” Richard Croy said. “Says the owner of the ugliest orange motel in town.”
A few gasps followed that statement. It was true that Herb and Vera Rivers were married to their vintage motel’s orange color scheme, but I had gotten them to improve the shade and add a nice accent color last spring. They were happy and excited about the new look of the BeachWave, but Richard Croy had just ground the Rivers’ pride in their motel under the worn-down heel of his deck shoes.
“Their motel is lovely,” I said. I was glad Darwin wasn’t there to hear my fib because he would have had a hard time going along with it. My aunt and sister nodded emphatically, backing up my generous characterization of the BeachWave Motel. “And all our businesses could use a fresh color. If we work together, the palette works.”
I directed my words at Richard, almost daring him to criticize my expert color skills.
“Maybe I like my place just like it is,” he said.
His wife huffed, the small sound obvious in its meaning. No one could say the Champagne Shores Marina was perfect just as it was. The paint had once been lime green but it had faded and peeled until it looked like a rotting head of lettuce. The docks jutting out in long rows were crooked and weathered, a few of them partially sunken. Even the sign over the entrance to the office and store looked as if it just wasn’t trying.
“We all love Champagne Shores,” Cecil Brooks said. His tone was neutral and pleasant, the kind of tone he might use to persuade two drunkards to put away their fists after a few too many brews at his pub. “But sometimes a fresh viewpoint is just what we need. Take my BrewPub for instance. I thought the menu was just fine, but when I added some new burgers and sauces to the summer menu, I upped my sales.”
“Our hotel has been almost one hundred percent occupancy since we remodeled,” Vera Rivers said, her voice defiant as she directed her words at Richard Croy.
“That could be because you got rid of those bedbugs,” Richard muttered.
I heard at least three people gasp at the mention of the thing no one discussed out of respect for the Rivers’. Their infestation months ago forced a temporary closure of the family-owned motel but also gave them time to remodel. I was thankful I had chosen a shade of orange for the BeachWave’s exterior that would coordinate with the rest of the colors I was presenting.
Chester Bucks rose slowly from his seat on the other side of Hazel. Despite the warm evening, he wore a blazer that was at least three decades old and would have blended in with the wares in his antique shop. His white eyebrows and patient smile seemed to erase the rude comment from Richard and the discomfort of the audience.
He raised one hand, professor-like in his movement. “If I may interject a newcomer’s viewpoint.” He paused, but no one said anything. Since moving to town in July, Chester Bucks had become everyone’s grandfather, even if they already had one. “This town has welcomed me with open arms,” he said, his words slow and measured. “But it’s not just the people. Not at all. It’s also the location, the history, and—dare I say—the potential that has convinced me to make Champagne Shores my home.”
His sincerity was such a contrast with Richard Croy’s petulant assertions about his run-down marina that I glanced over at Grant to gauge his reaction. He gave me a wide-eyed head nod that seemed to say take your opportunity.
I stood and held up my deck of paint cards. “Speaking of potential, I doubt any of us want to stay here all night debating the next phase of the revitalization.” I saw Chester graciously lower himself into his chair out of the corner of my eye. “As you recall, when we started this project, we agreed that a common color scheme would pull us all together and give us a magazine-cover look.”
“We’ll get on a cover,” Vera interjected. “A really good one.”
I smiled. “I certainly hope so. I invite you all to come up here and see the colors I’ve suggested for your businesses. Of course it’s open to some changes, but I also hope you’ve learned to trust my judgment. I’m providing the paint to you at my cost, and the city will provide the labor. Some of your shops will only take a few gallons to do the outside, but I know it will be a bigger investment for larger businesses.”
I rolled out the banner showing the downtown stores and placed the paint cards according to the numbers I’d written on the backs. People vacated their chairs and crowded the table with the samples. The evening light coming through the bakery’s front window combined with low overhead lights hardly did the plan justice, but there were still enough murmurs of satisfaction to calm my nerves.
“Ocean Sunrise Blue,” Lisa Croy said to her ex-husband. “If you ask me, it sounds too good for you.”
“You’re just as delightful as the day I married you,” Richard sneered. He crossed his arms and reviewed the paint swatches along the table.
I focused on the other owners of shops, restaurants, motels, and beach rentals. They seemed happy. My sister gave me a reassuring wink.
“If anyone wants to view their paint suggestion in daylight, I’d be happy to come by tomorrow morning.”
“That’s a good idea,” the owner of a retro souvenir stand said.
Richard Croy tossed the paint card on the table and turned toward the door, but I wasn’t giving up on him or that beautiful color. His marina deserved to be prettier. It was practically crying out to me. I decided he’d be my first stop the next morning. Maybe I could persuade him to like the color—especially if he wasn’t being goaded by his wife in front of an audience.
“So lovely,” Chester Bucks said as he picked up a paint sample with his arthritic fingers. “I don’t know how you do it.”
His words were punctuated by the bakery door slamming as Richard Croy left.
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