Release Blitz, Killer Keys
A Cozy Corgi Mystery
A knot began to form in my shoulders from gripping the steering wheel so tightly as I focused on Saint Vrain’s twisting path, taking us ever higher into the mountains. Though it was only midafternoon, with the heavy clouds and the snowfall, the sun was little more than a hint of a glow behind the clouds that continued to grow heavier and heavier throughout the day. The town of Estes Park below us was nothing more than mist.
Even with the tension and concentration required for the treacherous roads, a sense of relaxed happiness washed over me. A weekend away! Though I was living my dream life, owning a perfect little bookshop in a gorgeously charming Colorado town, it had been forever since I’d had anything resembling a vacation. Maybe staying at an inn less than ten miles from my bookshop didn’t technically qualify as a vacation, but I was going to count it nevertheless.
And I’d be surrounded by the people I loved the most. Life was good. So, so good.
The wintry scene of rugged peaks and jagged valleys filled with forests of pine and aspen covered in a thick blanket of snow was nothing short of spectacular. Despite the growing winter storm adding an ominous layer over the scene, I let out a long, contented sigh.
A pained grunt answered from the back seat of the Mini Cooper. I dared a glance from the winding, snow-covered mountain road to inspect the rearview mirror.
“Everything okay back there?”
Katie attempted a smile. “I’m regretting every single tr—” Her eyes went wide barely catching herself. “T. R. E. A. T. that I’ve made for our furry friend here. I never thought this sentence would leave my mouth, but I think it’s diet time.”
My overly fluffy corgi, Watson, paid the insult no mind and continued to shove his weight against Katie’s lap in his attempt to wedge himself between the front seats of the car.
“I know you’re excited to see me, little man, but we’ve got two whole nights together! There’ll be plenty of bonding time.” Beside me, Leo Lopez twisted around, simultaneously patting Watson and helping nudge his hearty backside off Katie’s lap. “But if you crush our favorite baker, that’s going to put a damper on the weekend.”
Katie took a relieved breath, freed from Watson’s… fluff… and swatted at Leo. “And if our favorite park ranger didn’t have obnoxiously long legs, he could’ve squeezed himself in the back of the Mini Cooper and this whole situation would be avoided.”
“Can’t help how the good Lord made me.” Stretching farther, Leo ruffled the fur between Watson’s ears and then did the same to Katie’s brown curls, earning himself another swat. “Plus, did I mention that I have claustrophobia issues?”
“Really?” Katie’s tone held a glower. “Did I imagine sitting through a twenty-minute slideshow of your spelunking trip in New Zealand from a few years ago?”
Leo turned back around, chuckling. “That was different. I wasn’t going to pass up my chance to see the arachnocampa luminosa.”
Katie grunted again as Watson made yet another attempt to get to Leo. “Just because you know the fancy word for glowworm doesn’t mean you’re not riding in the back seat on the way home.”
Overpowering a claustrophobic wave of my own at the idea of wedging through a tight dark cave miles below the surface of the earth, my contentment grew at my friends’ bickering.
Leo had been gone during the first two weeks of January, visiting his family since he’d worked in the national park during Christmas. I’d missed him, maybe not with Watson’s frantic enthusiasm, but… I cast another quick glance away from the road, taking in Leo’s handsome features as he twisted back, making some comment to Katie once more. Before the holidays, I could’ve convinced myself I’d only missed him as a friend. Or at least enough that I would have been able to avoid looking much deeper. I couldn’t do that anymore. And the awareness of his presence made my skin tingle to such a degree I marveled the two of them didn’t pick up on it. Or knowing Katie and Leo, they probably did.
“Slow down.” That time, it was Katie leaning up between the front seats, ducking her head so she could have a better view through the windshield. “I haven’t driven up here very often, but I think this is one of my favorite formations in Estes Park.”
Though I was already going slowly due to the ice on the road, I eased off the gas a little more, and the three of us stared at the rocky cliffs surrounding the road, towering at least fifty feet above our heads. Directly in front of us, a tall, narrow opening cut through the rock like the eye of a needle, allowing us passage. It truly was breathtaking. “The last time I drove through it, I couldn’t help but think that Watson and I were traveling into Narnia. I almost expected Aslan to be on the other side.”
Katie snorted. “Instead you went to the home of the White Witch, and you weren’t even turned to stone. It was a Christmas miracle.”
“Oh, come on now.” Though Leo clearly meant it as a reprimand, there was still humor in his tone. “Susan’s not that bad.”
“Surprisingly no, she isn’t.” I still couldn’t believe the abrasive police officer lived in what almost equated to a storybook cottage. “However, ten to one, if she has trouble sleeping this weekend, she’ll blame us for being so close to her house.” As I spoke, we passed through the opening, and even though we hadn’t actually entered a magical realm on the other side, the snowstorm did seem to increase instantly, the flurries making it harder to see through the windshield.
“They said it was going to be bad. Looks like they weren’t wrong.”
At the sound of concern in Leo’s voice, I glanced his way. “Are you worried about the park?”
“No. Nadiya and the others have it under control, and it’s not like there’s anything I can do about the weather anyway. The animals take care of themselves.” He studied the swirling mass of silver and gray in front of us. “Although, this is the longest I’ve been gone from the park since I moved to Estes. Feels a little strange. But when Percival and Gary asked me to attend, and it lined up so perfectly with the end of my trip, I wasn’t about to say no.”
And there was that tingling sensation over my skin once more. Every person taking part in the weekend anniversary celebration for my uncles was either family or longtime friends of Percival and Gary. Leo was the exception. They cared about him, but it wasn’t like Gary and Percival ever hung out with Leo on their own. And he wasn’t exactly considered family the way Katie was, either. He was something in the middle, something… different. The fact that my uncles had invited him to the anniversary party was a kind gesture, but it also lacked any subtlety, which was exactly what I would expect from Percival.
“There it is. On the left.” Katie nudged my shoulder. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
Thankful for the distraction, I shoved thoughts of Leo and the obvious “setup” aside and followed where Katie pointed. “Good catch. I would’ve driven right past it.” The carved wooden sign that read Baldpate Inn over the image of an old-fashioned key was nearly buried in the snow, as was the sharp turn from the highway into the trees.
“Good thing this baby does so good with winter weather.” I patted the Mini Cooper’s dashboard as I turned left. “But hold on, nevertheless.”
Despite the snow tires, we fishtailed slightly over the ice as we rounded the corner and entered the lane cut between the tall trees.
Katie let out a little cry of surprise, and Watson took advantage of her distraction, gave a giant leap, and proved that despite his added padding, he could still claim moments of athleticism as he flung himself over the console between the front seats. His head banged my elbow, causing me to twist the wheel and send the car into a spin.
Gasping, I gripped tighter and used all my willpower to turn into the spin instead of the opposite way, as the trees blurred around us. After the first revolution, we’d slowed enough that I cranked the wheel slightly and hit the gas once more, and we shot off in our original direction.
Almost disbelieving, I glanced around, then sent Watson a glare. “If you kill your mama and her baker best friend, that’s greatly going to impact the amount of treats you get.”
Despite being wedged between the seats and grunting while Leo pulled him through and onto his lap, Watson issued a pleading whimper at the sound of his favorite word.
“Don’t even think about it, buddy.” I didn’t bother looking at him, and only then realized my hands were trembling from the adrenaline.
Leo locked his arms around my corgi, not that he needed to bother. Now that Watson was on his lap, there was nowhere else he wanted to be. “That was impressive, Fred. If the whole bookselling and sleuthing thing doesn’t work out, you can always be a racecar driver.”
“No kidding.” Though Katie sounded impressed, there was a waver in her voice that matched the shaking of my hands. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but despite your skill, I think I’m never going to ride with you again. This is the second time we’ve almost died in one of your Mini Coopers.”
Before I could comment on that, Baldpate Inn emerged, towering over us like a mirage in the snow.
“Wow!” Awe filled Leo’s voice as he leaned over Watson to get a better view. “That is stunning.”
“You’ve not been here before?”
He didn’t look at me as he shook his head, completely focused on the old hotel. “No. I’ve heard about it, just haven’t ever made my way up here.”
“I haven’t been here since I was a kid. We’d always come up here to eat when we’d visit my grandparents. It was one of my grandmother’s favorite places.” I slowed to a crawl, both because of the winter weather and simply to enjoy the sight.
“I’ve been reading about it,” Katie piped up happily from the back.
Leo and I exchanged a quick, knowing glance. Katie was notorious for her Google binges.
“It’s a century old and was named after a book. There’s been a couple of plays and a movie based off it.” Katie continued, either not noticing or not caring about Leo’s smirk. “There’s a tradition of hiring international students to staff the place, giving it a cosmopolitan kind of feel. And there’s a collection of thousands and thousands of keys. In fact…” Katie’s words trailed away to a wistful sigh as we drew nearer.
The century-old Baldpate Inn looked like a massive combination between a log cabin and a Swiss chalet. It had been built on the slope of the mountain, and nestled back into the trees. Its covered front porch jutted over the driveway, supported by massive logs. Smoke billowed from the chimneys, giving the large mansion structure a cozy, welcoming feel—a literal safe haven from the blizzard.
“Looks like we’re the last ones here.” I parked the Mini Cooper at the end of a long row of cars, each one belonging to a different member of my family.
“Sorry about that. I think after driving across the country the past couple days, my Jeep just decided it’d had enough.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. We’re not late or anything. I’m glad you caught Katie and me before we left, so we were able to pick you up.” Unbuckling my seat belt, I turned to Leo, hating the guilt I heard in his voice. “More, I meant it as a warning. We should all take a couple deep breaths now, because the minute we walk in there, we’ve got my whole crazy family to deal with. There’s not going to be a moment’s rest until the weekend is over.”
He grinned, honey-brown eyes twinkling as he looked over at me, even as Watson lathered the underside of his jaw with kisses. “Knowing your uncles, it will be unforgettable.”
“Don’t let Percival hear you say that. Unforgettable doesn’t cover it. Fabulous. He’s been very adamant that the weekend is going to be fabulous,” Katie piped up with a laugh, then shoved against the back of my seat. “Now, no more chitchat. Get out of this car. I feel like I’m the one who’s been spelunking in New Zealand.” She reached over and shoved Leo for good measure. “And if my leg cramps when I try to unfold from this pretzel shape I’ve had to be in, you’re going to carry me, Smokey Bear. Put those muscles and long legs to some use.”