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Center Stage

Magnolia Steele Mystery – Book #1

Ten years ago, Magnolia Steele fled Franklin, Tennessee after an incident that left her with hazy memories and a horror of the place where she had been born and bred. Though her abrupt departure destroyed most of her treasured relationships, she vowed never to return . . . until she has no choice. When Magnolia’s breakout acting role in a Broadway musical ends in disgrace, there’s only one place she can go. She finds herself on her momma’s porch, suitcase in hand.

Drama follows Magnolia around like a long lost friend. She reluctantly agrees to help her momma’s catering company at a party for a country music star, only to find herself face-to-face with a sleazy music agent from her past. After a very public spat, Magnolia not only finds him dead but herself center stage in the police’s investigation. Now she must scramble to prove her innocence, relying on the help of acquaintances old and new.

But the longer Magnolia stays in Franklin, the more she remembers about the big bad incident that chased her away. The past might not be finished with her yet, and what she doesn’t remember could be her biggest danger.

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Read Chapter One
Center Stage – A Steele Magnolia Mystery

I stepped onto my mother’s front porch for the first time in ten years. Typical of my mother, not much had changed. Same red brick with white trim. Same black, steel-reinforced front door. Same silver knocker, the word STEELE etched into it in bold capital letters.

“Get it?” my dad used to ask when I was a little girl. “The door is made of steel, and our last name is Steele.”

I worshiped my father, so I always laughed even though I didn’t get it. I would have done anything to please him.

Until he disappeared.

My mother put a lot of stock into the safety of that front door. When I was younger, she would tell me it kept the boogeyman away. A month after my father left—when I was fourteen—I heard my mother whispering with her best friend Tilly as they lay sprawled out on the patio chairs on the deck, drinking their third—or was it fourth?—white wine sangria.

“If only he’d been home that night,” my mother drawled with a slur. She may have spent most of her adult life in Franklin, Tennessee, but you couldn’t remove her Sweet Briar, Alabama roots.

“Lila,” Tilly groaned. “Not that again. The Good Lord has his mysterious ways.”

My mother had bolted upright and pointed her finger at her best friend, swaying in her seat. “The Good Lord had nothin’ to do with it, Tilly Bartok. It was that good for nothin’—”

She looked up at me and her face went blank. “Magnolia. How long have you been standin’ there?”

“Not long. I just finished my homework.”

“Then go on upstairs and tell your brother to wash up for dinner.” She gestured toward the house.

I turned around to do as I was told, wondering if the Good Lord wasn’t to blame for my father’s absence, who actually was? But I knew better than to ask. Besides, I’d heard the whispered rumors.

“Magnolia!” she called after me. “Did you lock the front door?”

“Yes, Momma.”

“Good. You can never be too careful.”

A lesson learned too late. Perhaps if I’d been more careful after my high school graduation, the big bad thing wouldn’t have happened.

But now I stood before her front door again, prepared to eat a heaping slice of humble pie, wearing the wrinkled clothes I’d worn to the theatre yesterday afternoon. Maybe the disheveled look would make my groveling more convincing.

While I had grown accustomed to the anxiety that slammed into me whenever I thought about coming home, I wasn’t prepared for the wave of fear that almost brought me to my knees. I was nervous about my mother’s reaction, yes, but this was pure terror.

I started to turn around, but the door swung open before my fist made contact with the wood. My mother stood in the threshold, looking noticeably older. I counted backward to the last time we’d seen each other. Had three years really passed since that Christmas in New York City?

She gaped at me in shock, her face turning pale. She looked like she was staring at a ghost. I hadn’t haunted her house in ten years, so I could hardly blame her. It wasn’t as if I’d issued a warning.

The sight of her quieted my fear. “Hello, Momma.”

“Magnolia.” She blinked, taking in the sight of my two large suitcases. “You’ve come for a visit?”

I shifted my weight, fighting every instinct to flee. “I’ve come home to stay.”

“For how long?”

“Maybe for a while.” Although I sure as hell hoped I was wrong about that.

“But . . . what . . .”

My mother was speechless, but I was too nervous to truly bask in the moment. Maybe hell was freezing over.

She finally regained her senses, wrapping her arms across her chest and squeezing tight. “I thought you were making your big Broadway debut this week.”

I grimaced. “I did.” Last night, actually.

“Then what are you doing here?”

Rather than answer her, I glanced over her shoulder into the entryway. Like the exterior of the house, it appeared as unchanged as if it had emerged from a time capsule. But one thing was different: me. I was no longer the sheltered naïve girl my mother had raised. I was cynical and jaded, and it had nothing to do with the ten years I’d spent in the Big Apple, even if all the scraping by and trying to make a living in the theatre world had sharpened my edges.

“Oh,” she finally said. “I see.” She took a breath, still blocking the entrance, a true sign that I had thrown her off her game. She would never dream of keeping a guest standing on the front porch. Even me. “Do you have a job?”

“What?” I asked, surprised by her question. “No.” Two days ago I’d been the lead in Fireflies at Dawn, the hottest new musical to hit New York in several years. Now I was jobless, penniless, and homeless.

Oh, how the mighty had fallen.

That seemed to jar her out of her stupor. “Then you can help me out tonight.” She stepped through the doorway, grabbed one of my suitcases, and rolled it over the threshold. “I know you’re into theatre music, but have you heard of Luke Powell?”

“Luke Powell?” I asked in disbelief. You had to be living off the grid—and for the past five years at that—to have never heard of the hottest country music star. “Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”

“We’re catering a big event at Luke Powell’s to celebrate the release of his new album. It starts in two hours, and I’m short one member of the wait staff. It has to go over perfectly. I only have inexperienced fools to take her spot, so you can fill in.”

What?” My mother’s catering business must have exploded if she was working the hottest country music star’s album release. But she wanted me to work as a waitress? Had she lost her mind?

She sensed my reluctance. “You used to wait tables up until three years ago, right?”

Two, not that I was about to admit it. “Well, yeah. I have food service experience, but I was on Broadway, Momma. I can’t be wait staff.”

“If you’re so high and mighty on Broadway—” she said the name as though it were a curse word, “—then what are you doing here?”

I couldn’t tell her. At least not yet.

She pursed her lips. “That’s what I thought. If you’re moving back home, you’ll need to pay rent. And since you’re unemployed, you’ll need work. I can apply your salary to your balance.”


She put a hand on her hip. “It wouldn’t be fair to your brother if you didn’t. Roy lived here for two years after he graduated from the University of Tennessee, and he paid rent the entire time.”

I pushed out a sigh. “I’m not living here forever, Momma. Just until I figure some things out.”

She put her hand on her hip, looking down her nose at me even though we both stood five foot seven. “And Roy didn’t live here forever either. But if you plan on doing nothing but fussin’ and thinkin’, you’ve got plenty of time to fill in for Patty at this party. She’s going to be off for another two weeks with a sprained ankle.”

“Momma, I just got here. I’ve had the worst two days of my life, and I just want to hide out in my room.”

Fire filled her eyes. “Magnolia Steele, I raised you better than that. We don’t hide from our problems. We take ’em head on.” She curled her hands into fists and shook them.

I’d done the exact opposite after my high school graduation. I’d run as fast and as far as I could. But of course my mother didn’t understand why I’d packed a single suitcase and left town without warning. No one understood.

Not even me.

Hazy dreams had haunted my sleep for those first two years in New York City. Each night, I would cry myself to sleep from fright and loneliness, trying not to wake my cranky roommate. But the very thought of going home was enough to give me a panic attack, so I never did. No matter how much it hurt my mother.

Something had happened the night of my high school graduation party. Something I couldn’t entirely remember. The nightmares had faded over time—terrifying dreams I couldn’t remember when I woke—but the horror was still a part of me. But I was sure I knew someone who did know what happened. . . or was maybe even responsible.

Of course Momma didn’t know any of that either. Sometimes my acting skills had a practical purpose. “You’re made of steel, Magnolia Mae, so no whining. Now carry your suitcases up to your room, and I’ll bring you a uniform to change into.”

I stayed on the porch for a moment, trying to decide if it was worth crossing the threshold. If I walked over that line, it would mean going back into her world, her rules. I would be reopening the very Pandora’s box that I’d shut the moment I stepped onto that plane on a warm May afternoon ten years ago. But if I stayed on this side, I had nowhere else to go. I’d burned too many bridges.

I took a deep breath, and walked inside.

If I’d known then what I know now, I would have turned around and run.

I wasn’t just crossing the threshold to my mother’s house. I was walking through the gate to hell.

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