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  • Writer's pictureBrittany Brinegar

Ballots, Belles, and Blackmail

Sneak Peek at the first chapter in my new Twin Bluebonnet Ranch Mystery.

Ballots, Belles, and Blackmail

Chapter 1 – Clear as a Bell

Samantha

 

 

Nostalgia and memories of the past echoed through the pink granite hall as I entered the historic Lake Falls train station. Built in the late 1800s, it served as a functional transportation hub and a cultural landmark in the community. And today it played host to an over-the-top beauty pageant.

As I weaved around a plush leather armchair, I did my finest impression of a horse and threw a shoe. I hopped on my stocking-covered toes as I collected the beige heel.

My best friend, Becky Robinson, flashed a cheeky grin. “I’m not used to you being the clumsy one.”

“I’m not used to walking on ill-fitting stilts.” I shoved my narrow foot into the stiletto borrowed from my sister. With each stride, my heel lifted from the back.

“They’re barely four inches.” Becky’s eyes cut across the terminal. “If you don’t figure out how to walk like a lady, your cover will be blown before breakfast.”

I smoothed the hem of my knee-length floral dress. The delicate blooms featured shades of pink, lavender, and green. “Don’t worry about me. I memorized a detailed character history last night. I’m prepared.”

Her mouth popped open but she internalized the comment. We both knew I was way out of my comfort zone. Sure, I was beautiful but I knew nothing about beauty pageants and the politics involved in competing. If not for my editor, I wouldn’t be caught dead within ten miles of the event.

An investigative reporter never turns down a juicy story.

“I wish I had more time to coach you,” Becky said.

“Since when are you the pageant expert?”

“I’ve seen Miss Congeniality at least a dozen times.” She crossed her arms. “And pageant reality TV is a guilty pleasure of mine. Toddlers and Tiaras, Coach Charming, Honey Boo Boo…”

“You made up those names.”

She retrieved a bottle of hairspray from her tote. “Bend down. You’re frizzing.”

Despite the last-minute assignment, Becky dropped everything to come down from Texas A&M and pose as my coach. I plopped on a bench so she could fix my intricate bouffant hairstyle. “Thanks.”

 “I’m happy to get away from my roommate for the weekend. All she does is complain about biology and science-y courses. Her parents want her to become a doctor and she’s too afraid to tell them she would rather study film.”

Sounds familiar. “Speaking of pursuing what you love. How’s pre-law, Becky?”

“Ha, ha. You’re saying I should cut her slack because my mom is doing the same thing to me?” She teased my hair. “Noted.”

“Hurry up, I’m supposed to attend a meeting with the pageant coordinator before the breakfast social.” I shook my head. How is this my life?

“Stay still.” Becky tiptoed to make final adjustments. “You’re good to go, Samantha.”

“I’ll meet you on the patio in a few minutes. Start scoping out the competitors.”

Her eyes widened. “For suspects?”

“What else? Not like I actually want to win this.”

The Southern Belle Pageant featured representatives from fourteen states - Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Competition was fierce as the winner would receive a substantial scholarship to the school of her choice. To fill in as the Texas representative, I had to do some fancy footwork.

Nerves settled in the pit of my stomach. I hated being unprepared but I didn’t have the luxury of time. I took over the assignment less than twelve hours ago when the original reporter disappeared without a trace.

Mallory Michaels, the gossip columnist for the Lake Falls Gazette, was competing in the pageant when she stumbled onto a rumor involving judge bribery. She bragged that the undercover blockbuster would win her a Pulitzer and our editor let her run with it.

Then last night, she sent an email withdrawing from the pageant. Out of the blue before completing her story. The facts didn’t add up. The only way Mallory abandoned her exposé was if someone forced her hand. I hardly considered her a colleague much less a friend, but that didn’t mean I wanted her kidnapped or worse.

I hurried across the station to the adjacent business building and rode the elevator to the third floor. As I approached the massive office of Cooke Kingston, I recognized the voice of my editor.

I knocked on the frame. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“Speak of the devil.” The wealthy CEO of Kingston Peach Farm swiveled on his Italian loafer. He buttoned his impeccable black suit. “We were just discussing your spot in the pageant, Miss Brown.”

“We found a loophole.” Though in her sixties, Mattie McDonald could pass for younger. Blonde hair fell over her shoulder as she reached for a picture. “You’re the runner-up of the Texas division.”

I squinted at the photo of Mallory and me. She wore a crown and carried a bouquet. “This is terrific photoshop. I almost believe I was there.”

“The only reason I’m agreeing to this duplicity is because I am certain Miss Michaels wouldn’t simply quit,” Mr. Kingston said. “She was the favorite to win the whole kit and kaboodle.”

Mattie cocked her head to the side and eyed the sponsor. “Meaning you will vouch for Samantha with the pageant coordinator.”

“I will indeed.” He tightened his purple necktie. “We can’t have a Southern Belle Pageant without Miss Texas, now can we?”

“Especially when we’re hosting.” Mattie hooked her arm through mine. “Give me a minute with my reporter, Cooke.”

He placed a hand in the pocket of his blazer. “My office is your office.”

The door closed and Mattie’s intense blue eyes glared. “There is something incredibly fishy going on here.”

“With Kingston?”

“I don’t know about that but if someone is manipulating pageant results, it could be him. Or one of the contestants.”

My brow furrowed. “Did Mallory have any inkling of who bribed the judges?”

“None that she shared with me.” Mattie pinched her chin. “Mallory always carries her turquoise notebook. If she had a theory, that would be the first place to check.”

“What happened to her stuff?”

“Both her hotel room and locker were cleared out. But I’m certain she didn’t quit. There’s something sinister going on here.”

I sighed. “People take these silly pageants way too seriously.”

“They aren’t silly, Samantha. Aside from the fact the winner receives a college scholarship, pageants are terrific for networking and personal achievement.”

It’s a glorified popularity contest. I internalized the comment. If I complained too much, Mattie might reassign the story.

Bribing judges was one thing but who would go so far as to kidnap the competition? If caught, the culprit stood to lose a lot more than a scholarship.

Mattie marched to the door and eyed me. “If you aren’t willing to give this pageant your all, tell me now. Mr. Kingston is risking his reputation to get you inside. If you embarrass him, it’s both our heads on a platter.”

My jaw tightened. Just because I was a cowgirl didn’t mean I couldn’t gussy up and win a beauty contest… if I put my mind to it. “I’ll find Mallory, expose the bribery, and win the whole shooting match. You’ll see.”

“I’d settle for the first two but I like the spirit.” She swung the door. “She’s all yours, Kingston.”

“Follow me, Miss Brown. I’ll introduce you to the pageant coordinator.” He ran a hand through his shoulder-length, center-part silver hair. The style belonged to a surfer who ended every sentence with dude or gnarly, not one of the most influential men in the county.

We rode the elevator in silence and Kingston led the way to the patio restaurant. He paused at the door. “Do you have any questions for me?”

“Regarding?”

“The case, of course.”

“Do you have something worth sharing?”

“What would I know?”

I shrugged. “You’re the sponsor. If there is substance to the rumor of bribed judges, I expect you’d be interested.”

“Which is exactly why I’m allowing this charade. It’s important to maintain the integrity of the event.”

“You said Mallory was a frontrunner. Who was her biggest competition?”

“It’s a wide-open field. You might even stand a chance, Missy.”

I clenched my jaw, not taking the bait. I had confidence in spades and it would take a lot more than a snide comment to shake it.

“Is this the new Texas girl?” A woman in a burgundy wrap dress bustled toward me and placed a hand on her hip. “Where have you been? The breakfast social started ten minutes ago.”

“Delta Dawn Dixon, meet the Texas runner-up Samantha Brown.”

I shook hands with the pageant coordinator. “It’s a pleasure to be here.”

“Come on, Second Place. It’s time to get you introduced.” She shoved me to a converted dining car that served as the entrance to the patio restaurant.

On a stage situated at the front, an MC entertained the crowd with magic tricks. Delta Dawn handed him a piece of paper.

“You’re up, Honey Bunches.” With another push in the back, she nudged me to the steps and a spotlight landed on me.

I stumbled over my stupid shoes and nearly took a header into the magician. Boone Hitchcock grabbed my arm and spun me with a graceful dance move as if we planned the whole thing. “Give a warm welcome to our fourteenth contestant, the fashionably late Texan Samantha Brown.”

“Nice save, Boone.” I smiled at the kid who normally acted as the thorn in my side.

He covered the microphone as he led me to the end of the stage. “I must say, I never expected to catch you here. What happened to Mallory?”

“She vanished. I’m investigating her kidnapping.”

“Now that makes a lot more sense.” He pulled a bouquet from his pocket. “Holler if you need a lovely assistant.”

 “The position has already been filled.” I jutted my chin to Becky. “Besides, I think you have your hands full entertaining the crowd.”

He twirled his microphone and it turned into a magic wand. “That I do.”

I hurried off the stage, too aware of the eyes watching me. Becky mimed something about smiling and I softened my ‘thinking face’. My identical twin sister, who was a lot more smiley, said my default expression was angry intimidation. Which normally worked well to avoid mindless chitchat with strangers. But in a pageant atmosphere, an adjustment was necessary.

“Did you find out anything?”

Becky smoothed the hem of her sunshine yellow dress. “The contestants are a tight clique. This is high school all over again.”

“Mallory kept a journal with her investigation notes. I need to locate that before I meet the other states.”

“Did you check her locker?”

“Cleared out.”

“Ah, to make her ‘quitting’ look legit.” Becky stroked her chin. “What would a kidnapper do with her stuff? Toss it? Hide it?”

“They aren’t expecting anyone to go looking for her. That’s why they sent the email.”

Becky snapped her fingers. “Where does everything missing eventually turn up? Lost and found.”

“I don’t think…”

“Humor me.”



Samanth & Lizzie Fan Art

While the other states mingled with judges, sponsors, and each other, we snuck out to snoop through the lost and found box.

Becky scooted a dirty sneaker aside. “How does someone lose a single shoe? You’d think you’d notice that.”

“Have any journals been turned in recently?” I asked the train station employee.

He shook his head. “The only thing today was a purse left in the women’s restroom.”

“May I see it?”

He reached for the Kate Spade bag under the counter and I immediately recognized the blue and white pattern as Mallory’s. “That’s it.”

“I thought you were missing a journal.”

“Which I keep in my purse.” I slapped my forehead and played up the ditsy beauty contestant. “You’re my hero.”

“You’re, uh, welcome. Good luck.”

Becky leaned into me. “Not such a terrible plan after all, huh?”

I dug through the purse and found Mallory’s turquoise notebook. The gold emboss of the MM monogram bulged on the front cover and a watermark graced the top of every teal page. I thumbed through it and stopped on the dossier of contestants. “This is huge.”

“Did she have any suspects?”

“A few.” I ran my hand along the ripped edges. “Pages are missing.”

“I understand tearing out pages from a spiral but what kind of heathen destroys a pretty notebook like that?” Becky frowned. “What do you think was on them?”

I skimmed passages and a knot formed in my stomach. The journal read more like a diary than a research notebook. Mallory fantasized about leveraging her exposé into a TV deal. “I’m going to say this just so the theory is out there.”

Becky gasped. “What?”

“Is it possible Mallory staged her own disappearance for attention or to create a sensational story?”

“You know her better but doesn’t that seem a little risky?”

“She’s a gossip columnist. Not as if she has journalistic integrity.” I cocked my head to the side. “If the bribery thing fizzled, maybe she decided to invent her own headlines.”

“Either way we have something to investigate.”


 

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