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BHby Gayle Trent

Welcome, Judge Bill Hopkins! Thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your work.

DOD: Tell us about you latest book, River Mourn.

bh2Judge Rosswell Carew’s fiancée is still missing.(See Courting Murder, the first in the series). Because her last call  to him came from a payphone in Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, Carew arranges to hold  court there so he can pursue his search for her. When he witnesses  someone who resembles Tina tossed from a riverboat ferry, he’s plunged  into a nightmare world he never knew existed. Rosswell is astounded when he discovers that what he saw and the fate of Tina are intertwined.  Unable to convince the local authorities that something deadly is going  on, Rosswell teams up with his faithful research assistant Ollie Groton  to discover the truth. The excitement never lets up until the last page.

Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?

The next in the series is Bloody Earth. Judge Rosswell Carew witnesses his friend getting killed on the steps of the courthouse in the river town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. When he investigates the death he discovers some dangerous secrets. It will be out in spring 2014.

What is a typical writing day like for you?

I like to start writing early in the morning. I’ll quit around five. If I have to work at my day job (lawyer and I’m the boss), I’ll often take off during the afternoon and write until bed time.

When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?

The characters. Once I changed a character from female to male and it turned the whole story in a different direction. (Note: This is a good idea if you’re stuck in a story. Change something drastically!)

Who are your favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?

I love hard science fiction. If it’s been written since Jules Verne and has to do with aliens and space ships, I’ve read it.

Promotion is a big—and usually the most hated—part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?

My wife (Sharon Woods Hopkins, also a mystery writer) and I promote a lot. We have book signings every chance we get. The best luck we’ve ever had is at craft fairs. I’m not sure why, but people who go to craft fairs love to read and they like local authors!

How long have you been writing?

All my life. The first story I wrote was about Robin Hood. I was about five or six. I don’t remember the plot.

Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?

T. S. Eliot. His use of language fascinates me.

What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?

People want to read my words. That thrills me more than just about anything. I love my fans.

Tell us a little bit about where you live.

I live in the hills of Southeast Missouri. It’s got low population and beautiful scenery.

Mark Twain said, “Southerners speak music…”  Do you have a favorite southern saying you can share with our readers?

Mark Twain, a Missourian, has also been a great influence on me. One of the funniest sayings I’ve heard around here is when someone wants to leave the company he is in will say, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got a lot of rats to kill before dark.”

That is funny! Who were your favorite authors as a child? Have they influenced your writing career in any way?

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl was an exciting adventure story. I also loved reading stories about Marco Polo and other explorers.

Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

I don’t know. I’ve got so many ideas, I’ll have to live another hundred years to write them all.

What are major themes or motifs in your work? Do your readers ever surprise you by seeing something else in your stories than you think you wrote?

My protagonist fights sub rosa against slavery, which is a problem in the world and in this country, especially sex slavery. The books are humorous but deal with exceptionally strong and serious themes. I don’t have anything graphic in the books, but there’s no question what’s going on.

Thanks again for talking with us today, Bill. Readers, please check out Bill’s websites:

COURTING MURDER
http://tinyurl.com/Bill-Hopkins-Courting-Murder

RIVER MOURN
http://tinyurl.com/Bill-Hopkins-River-Mourn

My website:
http://tinyurl.com/Judge-Bill-Hopkins-Website

My website with preview:
http://preview.tinyurl.com/Judge-Bill-Hopkins-Website

My Amazon Author Page:
http://tinyurl.com/Bill-Hopkins-Amazon-AuthorPage

 

Chocoalate%20Cola%20Brownies%20THDon’t these look swoon-worthy? My son got our entire family hooked on the cola cake made by Cracker Barrel, so I was delighted to find this healthier version of the treat on Holly Clegg’s website. The recipe is from her cookbook Too Hot in the Kitchen.

Holly contributed recipes for my book Dead Pan. She also tweaks recipes for those fighting cancer, arthritis, and diabetes. Check out her website for more wonderful recipes and information on her books: Freezer Friendly Meals, Eating Well Through Cancer, Eating Well to Fight Arthritis, Trim & Terrific Diabetic Cooking, Kitchen 101, Gulf Coast Favorites, and Too Hot in the Kitchen.

Here is Holly’s recipe for Chocolate Cola Cake/Brownie. If you get around to making them before I do–and just go ahead and err on the side of caution–please call me. Having posted the recipe, I feel responsible for helping you taste-test them before giving them to your family. We might have to test to many that you’ll have to bake another batch, but that’s okay. We’re thorough. 🙂 By the way, the symbols to the right of the title indicate the recipe is freezer-friendly, vegetarian, and diabetic.

Chocolate Cola Cake/Brownie                

This recipe is from: Too Hot In the Kitchen: Secret To Sizzle At Any Age with  200 Simple and Sassy Recipes

The secret recipe is now out!!!   I participated in a regional diet coke promotion and this recipe was all the rage each year so I am excited to share it with you and included it in my cookbook for everyone to enjoy now.

Makes 60-70 squares

Ingredients

1/3 cup canola oil

1 3/4 cups sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup diet cola

1/2 cup buttermilk

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup cocoa

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows

Cola Chocolate Icing (recipe follows)

Instructions

1. Preheat oven 350°F. Coat 15x10x1-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray.

2. In mixing bowl, beat together oil, sugar, egg and vanilla until creamy. In another bowl, mix together cola and buttermilk; set aside.

3. In small bowl, combine flour, cocoa, and baking soda; set aside. Add flour mixture to sugar mixture alternately with cola mixture, mixing only until just blended. Stir in miniature marshmallows.

4. Spread batter into prepared pan. Bake 12-15 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven, and immediately pour Cola Chocolate Icing (see recipe) on top of cake and carefully spread. Cool to room temperature, cut into squares.

Cola Chocolate Icing This icing hardens on cake-delicious.

6 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup diet cola

1/4 cup cocoa

1 (16-ounce) box confectioners sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In medium pot, combine butter, cola, and cocoa, bring to boil. Remove from heat, and add confectioners sugar and vanilla, mixing until smooth. Icing will thicken.

Spicy Advice: For cakes like squares, make in 13x9x2-inch pan, bake 30-35 minutes.

Food Facts

Calories 84 Calories from fat 24% Fat 2g Saturated Fat 1g Cholesterol 6mg Sodium 29mg Carbohydrate 16g Dietary Fiber 0g Sugars 12g Protein 1g Dietary Exchanges: 1 other carbohydrate, 1/2 fat

Stitch_Me_Deadly“Fans of the genre will take kindly to Marcy, her Irish wolfhound, Angus O’Ruff, and Tallulah Falls. This is a fast, pleasant read with prose full of pop culture references and, of course, sharp needlework puns.”  – Publishers Weekly

Chapter One

I stepped out of MacKenzies’ Mochas, the charming brown-brick coffee shop and café owned by my best friend, Sadie MacKenzie, and her husband, Blake. I clutched my jacket to me with one hand and my so far unsipped chamomile tea with the other. My throat had been getting scratchy, so I’d taken the opportunity to sprint over–their shop was just down the street from my embroidery specialty shop–at the first break in the rain.

I shivered. Even though it was only sprinkling now, it was a cold rain. But, then, who would expect tropical rain on the Oregon coast in January?

I spotted an elderly woman, dressed in black and carrying a bright yellow umbrella, making her way slowly to my shop, the Seven-Year Stitch. I quickened my step.

“I’m coming!” I called. I reached the door just before she did. As I held it open, I felt relieved that I’d put Angus, my Irish wolfhound, in the bathroom before stepping out. Had he bounded toward me in his usual fashion, this poor diminutive woman might have had a heart attack.

It’s rare that, at five foot nothing, I’m able to think of anyone other than a child as diminutive. But this woman was stooped and frail; and perhaps it was due to her black attire, but her skin had a deathly pallor.

“Thank you,” she said breathlessly, lowering her umbrella and stepping into the shop. She placed the umbrella in the corner. “May I sit?”

I followed her gaze to the seating area. “Of course.”

I took her elbow, fearing she might fall, and guided her to the Seven-Year Stitch sit-and-stitch area. It had two overstuffed navy sofas that faced each other. An oval maple coffee table sat between the sofas on a navy, red, and white braided rug. Red club chairs with matching ottomans completed the cozy square.

I helped the lady sit on one of the chairs. “Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m a bit light-headed is all.”

“Would you like some chamomile tea? It might help.”

She nodded weakly. “Yes…please.”

I removed the top and handed her the tea.

Her hand shook as she brought the hot liquid to her lips. She took one sip and then another before lowering the cup and speaking. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Is there anyone I can call for you?”

She shook her head. “I’ll be fine momentarily.” She sipped the tea again. “I’m Louisa Ralston, and I’m here to implore you to help me find ivy.”

I didn’t want it to appear as if I were hovering, so I sat on the edge of the navy sofa to Mrs. Ralston’s right. “What sort of ivy?”

She handed me back the tea, and I set it on a coaster on the coffee table. She opened her purse–a quilted black Chanel–and removed something wrapped in layers of white tissue paper. Then with trembling hands, she carefully unwrapped the tissue to reveal an embroidery sampler.

I drew in my breath. It was exquisite…and it was old. I’d say it was circa mid- to late 1800s.

“It’s gorgeous,” I said.

“Thank you, dear. My great-grandmother…made it…passed it down through the family for…” Her breathing became more laborious. “Please…help…find…ivy.”

I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, or why she’d come to my shop, but now didn’t seem like the time to split hairs. The poor thing really seemed to be in ill health. “Of course, I will, Mrs. Ralston. But, please, won’t you let me call someone to come and get you until you’re feeling better?”

She leaned forward as if to retrieve her tea and collapsed onto the floor.

I dropped to my knees beside her. “Mrs. Ralston?” I patted her hand. “Can you stand? Maybe I can help you move to this sofa until paramedics arrive.”

No response. And her hand was limp. I hurried to the counter, called 911, and explained the situation. The dispatcher instructed me not to try to move Mrs. Ralston and promised that emergency technicians would be there shortly.

I could hear Angus barking and whining in the bathroom, but I knew better than to let him out until after the paramedics had already come and gone. I also knew speaking to him to try to reassure him would only make things worse.

I returned to Mrs. Ralston’s side and continued trying to revive her. She was unconscious but breathing, and her pulse revealed a weak, irregular heartbeat.

Please hurry, EMTs.

Although it seemed to take forever, the paramedics arrived within ten minutes. Within fifteen, they’d given Mrs. Ralston oxygen, begun monitoring her vital signs, and loaded her into an ambulance en route to the emergency room. I had to hand it to Tallulah Falls’ emergency medical service professionals. They were excellent at their jobs.

I opened the bathroom door, and Angus jumped up on his hind legs to give me a hug. When he does that, he’s a foot taller than I am. I hugged him and told him what a good boy he was.

He dropped back on all fours, retrieved his chew toy, and trotted into the shop. Before he could discover the open container of chamomile tea and spill it all over my braided rug, I hurried to the sitting area and got the cup and Mrs. Ralston’s sampler. I placed the sampler on the counter and went to the bathroom to pour the remainder of the tea down the sink before tossing the cup into the garbage.

I returned to the counter and sat down on a stool. Standing near the cash register was Jill, who’s a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe.

I sighed. “Rough morning, eh, Jill?”

She simply smiled like she didn’t have a care in the world. That was because she didn’t. She was a mannequin, and she would smile even if the building were burning down around her.

Maybe I should paint a permanent smile on my face.

Batman’s archvillain, the Joker, sprang to mind.

Er, maybe not.

I picked up the phone and called Sadie. After explaining the situation, I asked if she’d mind watching the store and Angus for just a few minutes while I went to the hospital to check on Mrs. Ralston and return her sampler. Sadie said she’d be over as soon as she helped Blake get some tables cleaned up.

As I waited, I studied the sampler. It had the alphabet in Victorian-style letters–both upper- and lowercase–at the top, followed by the numbers one through ten. In the center of the sampler were a primitive house and trees, the kind of artwork you might find on a child’s stencil.

The sides were little squares made to look like quilt blocks, and at the bottom was a verse:

His friends were those of his own blood or those whom he had known the longest; his affections, like ivy, were the growth of time, they implied no aptness in the object.

I realized I’d love to make a pattern for it and stitch a copy to display in the shop.

I looked around at the pieces currently on display, all of which I’d made myself. The candlewick pillows on the sofas, dolls wearing dresses I’d sewn and embroidered, finished cross-stitch and needlework projects for every holiday and every season…. One more sampler couldn’t hurt.

Besides, a copy of this sampler would not only be beautiful, but it would also have historical significance. I could put a plaque with the finished piece giving a brief history of embroidery samplers in general and an account of this particular sampler. Maybe Mrs. Ralston would let me do that in memory of her great-grandmother. I planned on asking her when I visited her at the hospital.

I gently folded the sampler back into the tissue paper, taking care because the thread was faded and the cloth was delicate. I realized this beautiful piece of history should be framed and hanging in a museum somewhere. I made a mental note to suggest that to Mrs. Ralston…after I asked permission to copy the pattern.

Sadie strode through the door with a tall cup in her hand. “Your tea” she said, pushing back her hood to reveal  her dark hair. “Since you gave yours to the sick customer.”

I accepted the steaming cup gratefully. “Thank you so much.”

“Besides, you’ll need it to knock the chill off. The rain is coming down pretty hard again.”

“Thanks,” I said again. “I’ll be back as quickly as I can, Sadie.”

“Take your time. Things are slow at the shop this morning. I’ll have much more fun over here playing with Angus.”

At the sound of his name, Angus dropped his chew toy and loped over to Sadie. She vigorously scratched his head.

“By the way,” Sadie said, as I started out the door, “your tea came from the same pot as your customer’s. So if you start feeling queasy, call me, would you?”

“Yeah…and thanks for that shot of paranoia.” I hadn’t even thought that the tea could have had anything to do with Mrs. Ralston’s collapse.

“Well, hey, I’m just trying to be on the safe side.”

“The ‘safe side’ would’ve poured the tea out if there were any concerns about it,” I said, “not given it to the ‘safe side’s’ best friend.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I tasted yours, and it seems fine. Besides, you did say the old gal was sickly, which was why you gave her your tea in the first place.”

“Good point. I’m sure everything is fine…with the tea and with Mrs. Ralston.”

That statement would come back to haunt me–and to remind me that one was seldom “sure” of anything. Upon my arrival at the Tallulah Falls Medical Center, I learned Mrs. Ralston was dead.

# # #

Please visit Gayle Trent/Amanda Lee at http://www.gayletrent.com. To order a copy of Stitch Me Deadly, please see Amazon, Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookseller.

Dead-Pan-248x383“…a sweetly satisfying mystery that’ll have you licking your lips for more!” – Christine Verstraete, Searching for a Starry Night, a Miniature Art Mystery
 
“Murder Takes the Cake has all the right ingredients for a delicious read.” – Ellen Crosby, author of The Bordeaux Betrayal

Chapter One  

            For the second time in as many months, I found myself telling a police officer, “I just brought the cake.”

We were sitting in my kitchen with its beige walls, white cabinets and light-colored wood floor. It’s usually a peaceful, happy place. But then, I’m usually not being interrogated here . . . although, I am interrogated here more than you might thing.

“Yes, ma’am,” the police man was saying, “and the lab has already tested remnants of that cake and determined it’s not the cause.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” It was also a relief to be dealing with Officer McAfee rather than Officer Hayden this time. Officer McAfee appeared to be on the backside of thirty and didn’t seem to rush to judgment the way young Officer Hayden had.

“Nevertheless, ninety percent of the folks who attended the Brea Ridge Pharmaceutical Christmas party are violently ill today,” Officer McAfee said.

“Right. As I said, I just brought the cake. I didn’t stay for the festivities.”

“Lucky you.” His brown fingers fumbled with a small blue notebook. “You didn’t notice anything unusual going on?”

“Like Momba Womba spiking the punch?” With a name like Daphne, I’m entitled to a Scooby Doo reference now and then, especially when I’m nervous. I can’t remember what Momba Womba really did, although I do remember he was a witch doctor. I’m fairly sure he didn’t spike any punch, or else Shaggy and Scooby would’ve been in big trouble. Those guys would eat and drink things found in cobweb covered cabinets in creepy haunted houses.

Officer McAfee’s dark eyes widened as he leaned forward in my kitchen chair. “You saw somebody spike the punch?”

“No, no . . . I didn’t see anything.”

He stood up. “If you think of anything—anything at all—that might’ve made those people sick, call me.” He handed me his business card. “This is deadly serious, Ms. Martin. Fred Duncan is in the hospital in a coma today.”

“Fred Duncan?”

“Yeah. You know him?”
“He works at the Save-A-Buck.”

“Right.”

I walked Officer McAfee to the door. “That’s terrible. Do the doctors think he’ll be okay?”

He shook his head. “It’s not looking good.”

I’d barely had time to put our coffee cups in the dishwasher before my neighbor Myra was at the door. Myra was a feisty widow with too much time on her hands, but she was always entertaining. I invited her in and we went to sit in the living room. I felt I might as well be comfortable for my inquisition.

“I thought I saw a police car over here,” Myra said, kicking off her loafers and dropping into my pink and white checked club chair.

“You did. You did see a police car.” The Looney Tunes reference was lost on Myra. She was like a bloodhound with a scent to follow.

“What were they doing here?”

I sat down on the couch. “Brea Ridge Pharmaceuticals had their Christmas party last night.”

“Were you there? Did it get rowdy? Was there a drunken brawl?”

“I delivered a cake, but I left before the party started.”

“So you didn’t get to see the brawl?”

“As far as I know, there was no brawl.”

“Then why were the police here?”

“A lot of people who were at the party got sick.”

“From your cake?”

I held up my hand. “Definitely not from my cake. Officer McAfee said the lab tested remnants of the cake, and it was fine.”

“Remnants? I thought only carpet came in remnants. Huh.” She folded her legs up under her. “That Officer McAfee is a good looking man, ain’t he? He reminds me of Malcolm Winters from Y and R. Of course, he’s on that crime show now, so there you go.”

“There you go,” I echoed, as if her train of thought made one iota of sense.

“What was it that made everybody so sick?”

“They don’t know yet. Fortunately, the company had some drugs on hand that lessened the symptoms for most of them. They couldn’t help poor Fred Duncan, though.”

“He still sick?”

I nodded slowly. “He’s in a coma.”

“Fred Duncan is in a coma?” She scoffed. “Bet he’s fakin’.”

“Myra, you can’t fake a coma.”

“Oh, honey, you can. I did it one time. Me and Carl had this big fight and he stormed out. I wanted him to find me passed out on the bedroom floor when he got home so he’d feel really ashamed for how he’d left.”

I merely stared at her with my mouth hanging open.

“I took a couple of sleeping pills and laid down on the floor,” she continued. “I don’t know how long I’d been asleep before Carl got home, but he was plenty worried when he finally got me revived. He called an ambulance and everything. And that wasn’t like Carl. Normally, he was so cheap, he’d have just pitched me in the back of the Buick, turned on the four-way flashers and took me to the hospital himself.” She smiled smugly. “Even with our insurance, that trip cost us a pretty penny. They checked my heart and everything.”

“You didn’t tell the doctor you took the sleeping pills?”

“Nah. That showed up in the blood work later. But by then, they’d gone over me with a fine tooth comb. I even got to have a CT scan. Let me tell you, Carl Jenkins never dared storm off and leave me again.”

“I guess not.”

“So, you see? You can fake a coma.”

* * *

            Despite Myra’s assertions to the contrary, I did not believe Fred Duncan was faking his coma. I felt horrible for him and his family. His grandfather and my uncle were hunting buddies, and I knew Fred’s near fatal car accident and resulting brain damage about a year ago had taken a considerable toll on the Duncans.

My niece and nephew were convinced Fred was “crushing on me big time” after he asked my sister a ton of questions about me at the grocery store and then ordered a cake for his grandfather. He’d ordered a birthday cake; and since Mr. Duncan’s birthday was still months away, Fred’s mother had called and canceled the order.

All of this pondering somehow led to my hopping in my little red Mini Cooper and heading to the hospital. And I hate, hate, hate hospitals.

I approached the two elderly women volunteering at the reception desk.

“I’m here to see Fred Duncan.”

One of the women tapped Fred’s name into the computer before directing me to the ICU waiting area. The halls were lined with potted peace lilies. I spotted the door with the sign reading “Chapel” and considered going in to say a prayer for Fred. The chapel would be an excellent place to hide while I steeled myself to actually go and see Fred. On the other hand, if there was a grieving family in the chapel, that would be a terribly awkward situation . . . especially if it was Fred’s family. I took a deep breath and went on to the ICU waiting room.

A nurse approached and quietly asked who I was there to see. I told her, and she led me back to a cramped room where Fred lay hooked up to a number of beeping, whirring, whooshing gadgets. A tired-looking woman wearing a pink sweatshirt and jeans sat in a straight-backed chair by the bed and held Fred’s hand. I’d been standing in the room a full minute before she looked up.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Daphne Martin.”

“The cake lady.” She smiled wanly. “Now I can see why Fred ordered his papaw a birthday cake five months early. I’m Connie Duncan.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Duncan. How’s Fred?”

Connie looked at her son. “Not very well, Daphne. Would you talk to him . . . let him know you’re here?”

“Of course.” I moved closer to the bed. “Fred, hi, it’s me, Daphne. You’d better hurry up and get well before the Save-A-Buck goes broke. You know they can’t run that place without you.” I looked from Fred’s ashen face to Connie’s.

“Thank you,” she said softly.

“Can I get you anything? A cup or coffee or a soda maybe?”

“Coffee would be nice. Would you walk down to the cafeteria with me?”

“Sure.”

Connie went by the nurses’ station to inform them she’d be back within five minutes, and then we headed for the cafeteria.

“I heard about the party,” I said as we walked. “Actually, Officer McAfee of the police department stopped by and asked me about it. I told him I only delivered the cake and didn’t know about all those people getting sick.” I bit my bottom lip. “For the record, the lab confirmed there was nothing in the cake that caused the illness.”

“I know, sweetie. This isn’t your fault.”

“What happened? How did all those people get sick?”

“I don’t know. I only wish that if one of us had to be sick, it had been me instead of Fred. He’s been through so much already.”

“Do you work at Brea Ridge Pharmaceuticals?”

“Yes. I’m the bookkeeper.”

“I simply can’t understand how everybody—at least, everybody infected—got so sick so fast. Even if they contracted some sort of virus, it usually takes a few days to incubate, doesn’t it?”

“You’d think,” Connie said. “But the medicine Dr. Holloway gave out when people started getting sick appeared to help everybody except Fred.” She looked at me. “Why didn’t it help Fred?”

“I wish I knew.”

We’d arrived at the cafeteria. While Connie got her coffee, I stepped over to the soda machine to get a Diet Coke. I popped the tab on the can and took a drink. She rejoined me and we started walking back toward the ICU waiting area.

“I was impressed by how you found out who killed Yodel Watson,” Connie said. “I read about it in the papers.”

I grinned. “I wasn’t all that impressive. I’m dating the guy who wrote the article, so he might’ve fudged a bit.”

“No,” she said, “I don’t think so. I think you were very brave. You set your mind to finding out what happened to that old woman, and you did it. I admire you for that.”

“Thank you.” Why do I have a huge knot of dread gathering in my stomach? Dread not even Diet Coke can wash away?

She nodded and stirred her coffee. “I want you to do that for me.”

I stopped walking. “Excuse me?”

She’d taken a couple steps ahead of me and had to turn around to face me. “That’s what I want you to do for me. Find out what happened to Fred.”

“The police are already investigating, and—”

“But you’re Fred’s friend. You know him.”

Not exactly.

I started walking again and she fell into step beside me. “But I’m not a detective by any stretch of the imagination.”

“Yes, you are! You solved that other crime and put a killer in jail.”

Yeah. Not looking forward to testifying in that case. Certainly don’t want to get tangled up in another messy situation.

“Mrs. Duncan, I’d love to help you . . . really, I would . . . but the police are doing everything they can. I’m sure they’ll resolve this as quickly as possible.”

When we entered the ICU waiting area, the nurse on duty rushed toward Connie and propelled her in the direction of Fred’s room. Not knowing what else to do, I followed.

The nurse spoke in a hushed but urgent tone. “Fred is in some significant distress, Mrs. Duncan. We’re doing everything we can do.”

“Distress? What do you mean? What kind of distress? Will he be all right?”

If you’ve ever seen a soap opera or a movie-of-the-week, then you’ve heard the beep. As soon as I heard the beep, I closed my eyes.

Please, no. This can’t be happening.

When I reopened my eyes, a nurse was pulling the curtain around Fred’s bed and the doctor was approaching Connie.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Duncan. We did all we could do.”

Connie screamed, dropped her coffee, and threw herself into my arms. “They’ve killed him! They’ve killed my baby! You have to help me, Daphne.”

“I will,” I said, patting her back. I have to. It’s my fault you went for coffee.

            The nurses gathered around Connie. I heard one say they’d called her family. I waited with Connie in the hallway—mainly holding her hand, patting her shoulder and trying not to say anything stupid—until Walt Duncan, Fred’s grandfather, arrived. I then excused myself and told Connie I’d call her later.

I walked down the hall and pressed the button for the elevator. I was relieved to see the elevator was empty. Being in a crowded hospital elevator is especially awkward. Before the door could close, I saw a tall, thin blonde woman with a briefcase and a travel mug briskly approaching.

I studied her while I was holding the “Open Door” button. “Cara? Cara Logan?”

She whisked a long strand of hair off her face with her wrist. “Daphne?” She smiled. “Hi! What’re you doing here?”

“I was visiting a friend. You?”

“Following a story. As always. My boyfriend works with Brea Ridge Pharmaceuticals. They had some sort of outbreak during a Christmas party, of all things.”

“I heard.”

“My boyfriend, John Holloway, saved just about everybody with some kind of miracle vaccine the company has been working on.”

I merely nodded. Just about everybody was right.

“The only guy who didn’t get better right away was Fred . . . somebody.”

“Duncan,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, his reaction was more severe than everyone else’s, and I intend to figure out why.” She lifted her mug and took a drink of—given the scent—coffee. “I meant to talk to them upstairs, but they sent me away. Even threatened to call security.”

The elevator door opened.

“Oh, well, see ya, Daphne. Maybe we can get together while I’m in town.”

“Sure. That’d be great.” I slowly walked out of the hospital.

Cara was a reporter from Richmond. How her paper had the resources to send her all over the country to follow stories was beyond me. Or maybe Cara was the one with the budget, and the paper just gave her free rein to pursue whatever stories she wanted to report on. Either way, it seemed a bit strange to me.

I’d met Cara a few months ago at the Oklahoma Sugar Art Show. We discovered we were from the same area of the country and had lunch together. Over lunch, Cara had talked in depth about her career. She flitted from story to story and subject to subject like a honeybee in a field of wildflowers. Buzz. . . buzz. A murder in Kentucky. Buzz . . . buzz. Katrina restorations. Buzz . . . buzz. Fashion week in New York. Buzz . . . buzz. The Oklahoma Sugar Art Show. And now she was here in Brea Ridge covering a story involving her boyfriend, Dr. Holloway. . . a story—given Fred’s death—I wouldn’t think Dr. Holloway would want told.

# # #

Please visit Gayle Trent at http://www.gayletrent.com. If you’d like to order Dead Pan, you may do so at Amazon, Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, or from your local bookseller. Thank you so much for your interest in Dead Pan!

Bras Cover

“Gayle Trent has penned a wonderful read that this reviewer thoroughly enjoyed and couldn’t put down. Spending the afternoon with Myrtle and Tansie was a delight. A very highly recommended book.”  –   Fallen Angel Reviews

Chapter One  

Don’t that grass smell good? I’ll probably sneeze my head off the rest of the evening, but it does smell good. Lenny is giving the yard one last goin’ over before fall gets here. You’d think that by the first week in October, we’d be through with yard-mowing. It’s supposed to frost tomorrow night, so I reckon this’ll do it. Yard-mowing is something normal though, and peaceful, especially after what happened last night.

Faye called. “Mother,” she said, “has Crimson said anything to you about the thefts that’ve been taking place at her school?”

“Not a word!” I was shocked Sunny didn’t talk to me about it—me bein’ a detective and all. Sunny is my sunshine, you know. That’s why I don’t call her by that hippie name her Mama gave her. “What kind of thefts?”

“Well, on Monday, it was a bicycle. Tuesday a clarinet was taken from the band room, and on Friday, the cafeteria came up twenty dollars short.”

“Don’t that beat all?”  It’s unusual to have that kind of stuff happen around here. We have a pretty low crime rate…at least, most of the time. “Do they have any leads?”

“I don’t know, Mother, but Crimson has been acting really strange lately. When I asked her about the thefts, she—”

“Surely you don’t think she had anything to do with that stuff?”

“Do I think she’s a thief?  No. But I do think she might know something…that she might be protecting somebody.”

I sighed. “I’ll have a talk with her.”

“Please don’t tell her I said anything. Be tactful.”

“When have you ever known me not to be tactful?” I asked.

Faye humphed. “I’ll be tactful and not answer that.”

After that, we said our good-byes and hung up.

Not long after I’d talked with Faye, Lenny called to see if he could come by and mow the yard today. I told him he could, and then I asked him if he’d heard anything about the thefts over at the middle school. Even though he’s in high-school, the high-schoolers and middle-schoolers ride the bus together; so I figured Lenny might’ve heard people talking.

I’ve become sorta partial to that young ‘un this summer. God love him, he’s been through the mill. His daddy had some sort of breakdown—I’ve heard whispers about drugs—and had to go into a rest home—I’ve heard whispers about rehab. Then, instead of staying home and taking care of her young ‘un like she’s got some sense, Lenny’s mother up and takes off to go “find herself.”  Now, if that ain’t hippie nonsense, I don’t know what is. Poor little ol’ Lenny didn’t get to go “find himself.”  He got to find himself jerked up—plumb uprooted—and sat down on Delphine’s front stoop.

You remember Delphine, don’t you? She’s the one that makes that peanut butter fudge that’s so all-fired good.

Anyway, Delphine is Lenny’s grandmother on his daddy’s side. I’ve been hopin’ Lenny’s daddy would get better and come live with him and Delphine, but so far it ain’t happened.

Delphine lives just down the street from me. Hers is the little white house with the blue shutters. It’s nice…neat as a pin…but Delphine doesn’t have a lot of money. That’s why Lenny went to mowing yards this summer…so he could get some of the things sixteen-year-old boys like—music, more’n likely—although he might be saving up to buy a car or something.

He mows for me, Tansie, Melvia…not for Bettie Easton, though. Her snotty little grandson mows her yard…when he feels like it, from what I gather, because sometimes you drive by her house and you can hardly see the house for the weeds. It looks like it’s been abandoned.

Not that it’s any of my  business, but Bettie pays that boy—Brandon, I believe his name is—twenty-five dollars to mow her yard, plus his parents give him a big ol’ allowance, plus they buy him anything he wants. But, again, that’s none of my business.

Still, the Bible talks about sparing the rod and spoiling the child; and that Easton boy is spoiled rotten.

Of course, my own beautiful granddaughter Sunny—or Crimson, as her mother and everybody else calls her—ain’t had to want for very much in her life either. Well, what’s a grandchild for if not to spoil?  I reckon Bettie feels the same way about that Brandon, so now I’ll have to ask the Lord to forgive me for passing judgment. He knows I just get myself worked up about Lenny and his sad situation.

But back to what Lenny knew about the robberies.

“I heard some people talking about it,” Lenny said. “Somebody said a bike got stole, and I also heard something about some money.”

“That’s what I heard,” I said. “A bicycle, a clarinet and twenty dollars from the lunchroom. That’s what I heard.”

“Man.”

“Who do you think would do such a thing?”

“Gosh, Ms. Crumb, I don’t know. I could probably give you a list of high-schoolers that’d do it, but I don’t know any of the middle-schoolers that well.”

“Is there any way a high-schooler could’ve done it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Me, either. All the kids I’ve met at Sunny’s school seem to be good kids, but you never know. Also, I wonder why they’d steal bicycles and clarinets?  Seems like an odd combination to me.”

“They’ll probably pawn ‘em,” Lenny said.

“Pawn ‘em?  Why, that thought never occurred to me. Have you ever considered going into the detecting business?”

He laughed. “No, ma’am.”

“Well, I think it’d be worth you lookin’ into.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said, “but for now I guess I’d better stick to lawn mowing.”

I waited until after Lenny had collected his mowing money and left to call Sunny. Faye hadn’t called me ‘til after the young-un had gone to bed last night, so I’d had to wait until now to call her. Not that it did me any good.

“I can’t talk right now, Mimi. I’m studying with a friend.”

“Oh, well, Claire won’t mind if we talk a minute.”

“It’s not Claire,” she said. “It’s Al.”

“Al!  Where’s your mother?  Does she know there’s a boy—”

“Alicia.”  Sunny huffed. “Her name is Alicia, and her nickname is Al.”

“Oh. Well, I—”

“Later, Mimi.”

And then, I’ll have you know, she hung up on me. I never thought she’d ever treat me that way!  We’ve always been so close.

Maybe Faye was right. Maybe Sunny did know something…and it was up to me to find out what it was. I decided right then and there to go undercover.

* * *

Mrs. Anderson, the secretary who ought to have retired two hundred years ago, sat staring at a computer screen. I cleared my throat, and she eventually looked up at me.

“How can I help you?” she wheezed, not an iota of recognition in her face even though I’d met her just last month.

“I’m here to see your resource officer,” I said. “Would you let him know Myrtle Crumb is here?”

I was glad I’d worn my gray trench coat because it apparently lent me an air of authority. Mrs. Anderson got right on the horn and told Officer Wilbur Brody that I was waitin’ to see him.

When poor ol’ Officer Brody ambled into the office, I could see why he didn’t inspire much respect or confidence, bless his heart. For the world, he reminded me of Oliver Hardy. Remember him?  He was the fat half of Laurel and Hardy. So here was Hardy in a brown and khaki police uniform. I half expected him to waggle his tie. No wonder thieves were pickin’ the school clean.

“Mrs. Crumb?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Is there some place we can speak privately?”

“Uh…sure. Come on back to my office.”

I followed him down the hall. I reckon if you were lookin’ for a good place to beat your head against the wall, Officer Brody’s office would be it. It was a little cube made of cinderblock. He’d tried to liven the place up a bit by taping up safety posters, but it came across as depressing to me…like the kind of place that’d make you want to beat your head against the wall. So there you go.

He sat down at a gray metal desk and motioned for me to sit in one of the straight-backed chairs opposite him. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Crumb?”

I sat, placing my pocketbook on my lap. “I’m here to help you, Officer Brody.”

“Huh?”

“I know about the robberies; and as a seasoned detective, I’m here to lend you a hand.”

“Thank you, but—”

“What evidence do you have so far?”

“Look, I appreciate your—”

“You’re welcome.”  I waved away his gratitude. “Now let’s get down to business before anything else gets stolen.”

“But, Mrs. Crumb, I can’t accept your help. I don’t—”

“Of course, you can. Let’s put pride on the backburner now, shall we?  It won’t cost you a thing to have me onboard, and I’ll let you take all the credit. Where do you need me stationed…you know, to work undercover?”

Officer Brody sighed. “Try the cafeteria. See if they’ll let you volunteer in there if you wanna work some place.”

I pointed my finger at him. “You got it.”  I got up and headed for the lunchroom. Maybe havin’ me help solve this case would be a boon to Officer Brody. It seemed to me he could be a bit more aggressive…plus he could use all the self-confidence he could get.

I went down to the lunchroom. There was a woman there about Faye’s age. She had light brown hair pulled back from her face and she was wearin’ one of them ugly Ruth-Buzzy-from-Laugh-In hairnets. She smelled like fresh bread.

“Hi,” I said. “Officer Brody sent me down here to work undercover. I’m tryin’ to help him catch ya’ll’s thief.”

The bread lady swiped her wrist across her forehead. “Fine with me, honey. We need all the help we can get.”

She took me to a supply closet and got me a pair of plastic gloves, a hairnet, and an apron that went from neck to knees. Now, the gloves and the apron were no problem, but I didn’t care a bit for that hairnet. Not only was it ugly, I knew that thing would tear my hair all to pieces.

“I…uh…just had my hair done down at the Tilt-A-Curl yesterday,” I said.

“Well, honey, if you’re gonna work here, you’ve gotta wear the hairnet.”

I sucked up my pride and put the darn thing on. Sometimes you’ve got to make sacrifices in the detective business.

They were making hamburgers and French fries for lunch. The rolls were fresh, but the hamburger patties and French fries came out of the freezer in bags. We were givin’ the young ‘uns canned peaches for dessert. Not a lot of cooking involved, but the students didn’t complain. I guess they were used to it. Most of them have probably grown up eating fast food and done-fixed, heat-em-up meals. Still, I couldn’t help feeling like these young ‘uns were getting gypped.

I was spooning peach halves onto trays when I heard somebody say, “Good afternoon, Ms. Crumb. What a pleasant surprise seeing you here.”

It was Brandon Easton, Bettie’s grandson. You know who he reminds me of?  That Eddie Haskell from “Leave It To Beaver.”  Nice to your face and smarmy behind your back.

“Hello, Brandon,” I said. “For some reason I’d have pegged you for somebody who’d pack his lunch.”  I meant I figured he was too good to eat in the lunchroom with everybody else.

He smiled. “Not today when you fine ladies are serving an American classic.”

See what I mean about Eddie Haskell?

“Are you working here now?” he asked.

“No, not really. These ‘fine ladies’ were a little short-handed today so I volunteered to pitch in.”

“That was very magnanimous of you.”

“Thank you.” I tried to either come up with a big word of my own or to say something that would show him I knew exactly what “magnanimous” means. Before I could do either, I spotted Sunny coming through the line. And she spotted me. Normally, that would be a good thing, but I could tell by the look on her face it wasn’t a good thing today.

I put my head down and went back to slopping peaches on trays until she got to me. I let her speak first because I thought she might want to pretend she didn’t know me. Wasn’t that magnanimous of me?

“Mimi,” she said through clenched teeth, her eyes darting from side to side. “What are you doing here?”

“I thought I’d volunteer at your school today.”  I smiled. She didn’t.

A girl behind her who had the too mature, too perfect look of a dark-haired Britney Spears doll said, “You’re holding up the line, Crim.”

The starlet smiled at me, and I smiled back at her. “Are you a friend of Su—Crimson’s?” I asked.

Sunny hurried on down the line as the woman-child said, “Yeah. I’m new here, and Crim and I really bonded, you know?”

Then it dawned on me. “You must be Alicia.”

Another blinding smile—this time with a hair toss thrown in for good measure. “Al. That’s me. How do you know Crim?”

“I know her mother.”

Al nodded, took her tray, and moved along.

Near the end of the line trailed Claire, the girl who’d been Sunny’s best friend since they’d been in second grade. Poor little ol’ Claire looked like she’d lost her best friend…and she very well might have. Unlike the diva Alicia, Claire was wearing loose-fitting jeans and a top that covered her entire upper torso.

“Hi, darlin’,” I said. “Something wrong?”

Claire shook her head. “Nah, not really. How’re you, Ms. Crumb?”

“I’m okay. Listen, do you have a few minutes after lunch?”

She lifted one shoulder. “I guess. I’m supposed to go to study hall, but if you need something—”

“I’d like to talk with you a minute is all. I can have Officer Brody clear it with the study hall.”

“Officer Brody?  Am I in trouble?”

“No, honey. It’s just that he’s the only person I know here, so I thought I’d ask him to take care of it.”

“Okay. I’ll come back here right after lunch.”

A few minutes later, Officer Brody came through the lunch line. Would you believe he looked surprised to see me?

“Mrs. Crumb, what are you doing here?”

Then it hit me. He was trying not to blow my cover.

“I just thought I’d help out the lunch ladies for awhile today,” I told him. I winked to clue him in to the fact that I understood the undercover game well.

He still looked confounded. Maybe he was better at his job than I’d originally given him credit for. Sometimes first impressions can be deceiving…although I didn’t think my first impression of Alicia or “Al” was all that far off the mark.

I leaned closer to Officer Brody so I could lower my voice. “Claire Davies will be a little late to study hall today. Clear that with her teacher, will you?”

“Uh…sure. I’ll do that.”

I nodded and gave the good man an extra spoonful of peaches. I intended to get the scoop on “Al” from Claire. Somebody who could make Sunny ditch both her best friend and her grandmother couldn’t be a good influence.

When Claire came into the kitchen after she ate her lunch, I took her out the door where the trucks make their deliveries. We sat down on the stoop.

“How’s school goin’ so far this year?” I asked her.

She lifted a bony shoulder. “All right, I guess.”

“You don’t look like it’s all right.”  I brushed a strand of her blonde hair back off her face with my fingertips. “What’s the matter?”

God love her, she looked at me then and them big green eyes of hers were just full of tears. “Nobody cares about me anymore.”

“Baloney,” I said. “I care about you, and I know your Mama and Daddy love you better than anything on God’s green earth. Sunny cares about you.”

“Crimson don’t care about anybody except Al.”

I frowned. “I met Al today when she came through the lunch line. I don’t quite know what to make of her.”  I waited for Claire to tell me what she thought of Al, but she didn’t. “Is she new here?”

Claire nodded. “She started a couple weeks into the school year. She was really behind in math class; and since Crimson makes some of the best grades in class, Ms. Kuzco asked her to tutor Al a few afternoons after school.”

“So that’s how they became friends.”

“Yep,” she said, flicking an ant off the top step. “Now they’re thicker than thieves.”

“Speaking of thieves, have you heard anything about those robberies around here?”

Claire bit her bottom lip. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Do you know something that might help me and Officer Brody find out who’s been doing this?”

“I said I don’t wanna talk about it.”

I put my hand on her shoulder. “Please, baby, if you know something, tell me. I promise not to tell who told.”

She put her head in her hands. “I can’t.”

At least, I believe that’s what she said. It was muffled.

“They have that on all them detective shows on television. Never reveal your sources. That’s what they say. And sometimes when they’re talkin’ about true stories, they’ll even black out the people’s faces so you can’t tell who they are.”  I shook my head. “Still, I often wonder if it was somebody you knew, if you’d be able to tell it was them anyway. You know what I mean?  Say, they said it was an anonymous source that worked at the Piggly Wiggly, and I knew you worked at the Piggly Wiggly and—”

“Crimson,” she said.

“What, sweetie?”  I was still tryin’ to get my mind around whether or not I could recognize an anonymous source with a blacked out face if it was somebody I knew. I believe I could. Even if their voice was disguised, I think I could do it.

“Crimson.”

I looked over at Claire. “What about her?”

“I think….”  She bit her lip again. “I think she might be involved with the robberies.”

# # #

Please visit Gayle Trent at http://www.gayletrent.com. When Good Bras Go Bad is available only on Kindle. On the bright side, it’s only ninety-nine cents! 🙂

Quick-and-the-Thread2-186x300“If her debut here is any indication, Lee’s new series is going to be fun, spunky and educational. She smoothly interweaves plot with her character’s personality and charm, while dropping tantalizing hints of stitching projects and their history. Marcy Singer is young, fun, sharp and likable. Readers will be looking forward to her future adventures.” – Pat Cooper, RT Book Reviews (RT Book Reviews nominated The Quick and the Thread for a 2010 Book Reviewers’ Choice Award in the Amateur Sleuth category)

Chapter One 

Just after crossing over. . . under . . . through. . . the covered bridge, I could see it. Barely. I could make out the top of it, and that was enough at the moment to make me set aside the troubling grammatical conundrum of whether one passes over, under or through a covered bridge.

“There it is,” I told Angus, my best buddy in the whole wide world. “There’s our sign!”

He “woofed” which could mean anything from “I gotta pee” to “yay!” I went with “yay.”

“Me, too! I’m so excited.”

I was closer to the store now and could really see the sign.

I pointed. “See, Angus?” My voice was barely above a whisper. “Our sign.”

     The Seven Year Stitch.

I named the shop The Seven Year Stitch for three reasons. One, it’s an embroidery specialty shop. Two, I’m a huge fan of classic movies. And, three, it actually took me seven years to turn my dream of owning an embroidery shop into a reality.

Once upon a time, in a funky cool land called San Francisco, I was an accountant. Not a funky cool job, believe me, especially for a funky cool girl like me. . . Marcy Singer. I had a corner cubicle near a window. You’d think the window would be a good thing, but it looked out upon a vacant building that grew more dilapidated by the day. Maybe by the hour. It was majorly depressing. One year, a coworker gave me a cactus for my birthday. I sat it in that window, and it died. I told you it was depressing.

Still, my job wasn’t that bad. I can’t say I truly enjoyed it, but I am good with numbers and the work was tolerable. Then I got the call from Sadie. Not “a” call, mind you, “the” call.

“Hey, girl. Are you sitting down?”

“Sadie, I’m always sitting down. I keep a stationary bike frame and pedal it under my desk so my leg muscles won’t atrophy.”

“Good. The hardware store next to me just went out of business.”

“And this is good because you hate the hardware guy?”

She gave me an exasperated huff. “No, silly. It’s good because the space is for lease. I’ve already called the landlord, and he’s giving you the opportunity to snatch it up before anyone else does.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said. “You expect me to come up there to Quaint City, Oregon—”

“TallulahFalls, thank you very much.”

“—and set up shop? Just like that?”

“Yes! It’s not like you’re happy there or like you’re on some big five-year career plan.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

“And you’ve not had a boyfriend or even a date for over a year now.”

“Once again, thank you for the painful reminder.”

“So what’s keeping you there? This is your chance to open up the embroidery shop you used to talk about all the time in college.”

“But what do I know about actually running a business?”

Sadie huffed. “You can’t tell me you’ve been keeping companies’ books all these years without having picked up some pointers about how to—and how not to—run a business.”

“You’ve got a point there. But what about Angus?”

“Girl, he will love it here! He can come to work with you every day, run up and down the beach . . . . Isn’t that better than the situation he has now?”

I swallowed a lump of guilt the size of my fist.

“You’re right, Sadie,” I’d admitted. “A change will do us both good.”

That had been a month ago. Now I was a resident of Tallulah Falls, Oregon; and today was the grand opening of The Seven Year Stitch.

A cool breeze off the ocean ruffled my hair as I hopped down out of the bright red Jeep I’d bought to traipse up and down the coast in.

“Come on, Angus.”

He followed me out of the Jeep and trotted beside me up the river rock steps to the walk that connected all the shops on this side of the street. The shops on the other side of the street were set up in a similar manner, giving the town square a strong community feel. TallulahFalls billed itself as the friendliest town on the OregonCoast, and so far I had no reason to doubt that claim.

I unlocked the door and flipped the “Closed” sign to “Open” before turning to survey the shop. It was if I was seeing it for the first time. And, in a way, I was. I’d been here until nearly midnight last night putting the finishing touches on everything. This was my first look at the finished project. Like all my finished projects, I tried to view it objectively. But, like all my finished projects, I looked upon this one as a cherished child.

The floor was black and white tile, laid out like a gleaming chess board. All my wood accents were maple. I had maple bins in the floor to my left holding cross-stitch threads and yarns. When the customer first comes in the door, she’ll see the cross-stitch threads. They start in white and go through shades of ecru, pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, gray and black. The yarns are organized the same way on the opposite side. Perle flosses, embroidery hoops, needles and cross-stitch kits hang on maple-trimmed corkboard over top of the bins. On the other side of the corkboard on the side with the yarn, there are knitting needles, crochet hooks, tapestry needles and needlepoint kits.

The walls are covered by shelves where I display pattern books, dolls with dresses I’ve designed and embroidered, and framed samplers. I have some dolls for those who like to sew and embroider outfits (like me) as well as for those who enjoy knitting and crocheting doll clothes.

Standing near the cash register is my life-size mannequin who bears a striking resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, especially since I put a short, curly blonde wig on her and did her makeup. I even gave her a mole . . . er, beauty mark. I call her Jill. I was going to name her after Marilyn’s character in The Seven Year Itch, but she didn’t have a name in that movie. Can you believe that? A main character with no name? She was simply billed as “The Girl.” So I call the mannequin Jill.

To the right of the door is the sitting area. As much as I love to play in the “stuff” displayed all over the store, I think the sitting area is my favorite place in the shop. Two navy overstuffed sofas face each other across an oval maple coffee table. The table sits on a navy, red and white braided rug. There are red club chairs with matching ottomans near either end of the coffee table, and candlewick pillows with lace borders are scattered over both the sofas. I made those, too. The pillows, not the sofas.

The bell over the door jingled, and I turned to see Sadie walking in with a travel coffee mug.

I smiled. “Is that what I think it is?”

“It is, if you think it’s a nonfat vanilla latte with a hint of cinnamon.” She handed me the mug. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

“Thank you. You’re the best.” The steaming mug felt good in my hands. I looked back over the store. “It looks good, doesn’t it?”

“It looks fantastic. You’ve outdone yourself.” She cocked her head. “Is that what you’re wearing tonight?”

Happily married for the past five years, Sadie was always eager to play matchmaker for me. I hid a smile and held the hem of my vintage tee as if it were a dress. “You don’t think Snoopy’s Joe Cool is appropriate for the grand opening party?”

Sadie closed her eyes.

“I have a super cute dress for tonight,” I said with a laugh, “and Mr. O’Ruff will be sporting a black tie for the momentous event.”

Angus wagged his tail at the sound of his surname.

“Girl, you and that pony!” Sadie scratched Angus behind the ears.

“He’s a proud boy. Aren’t you, Angus?”

Angus barked his agreement, and Sadie chuckled.

“I’m proud, too . . . of both of you.” She grinned. “I’d better get back over here to Blake. I’ll be back to check on you again in a while.”

Though we’re the same age and had been roommates in college, Sadie clucks over me like a mother hen. It’s sweet, but I can do without the fix-ups. Some of these guys she’s tried to foist off on me, I have no idea where she got them . . . mainly because I’m afraid to ask.

I went over to the counter and placed my honking yellow purse and floral tote bag on the bottom shelf before finally taking a sip of my latte.

“That’s yummy, Angus. It’s nice to have a friend who owns a coffee shop, isn’t it?”

Angus lay down on the large bed I’d put behind the counter for him.

“That’s a good idea,” I told him. “Rest up. We’ve got a big day and an even bigger night ahead of us.”

* * *

     The day passed quickly. Some Tallulah Falls residents stopped by to wish me well, many bought threads, patterns and fabrics, and most promised to return for tonight’s festivities. Sadie and Blake had enjoyed a busy day next door at MacKenzies’ Mochas, too. But Sadie had stopped in for a quick hello after the lunch rush.

I slipped the black lace dress over my head and smoothed the material over my hips. The dress came to just above my knees, but it didn’t do much to make me look taller. Maybe the four-inch high red stilettos would help. The black did make my pale skin and platinum hair stand out, especially with my splash of red lipstick. I was going for an “old Hollywood” look, and I think I was pulling if off rather well.

My mind drifted back to Mom as I dug through my jewelry box for the pair of jet beaded chandelier earrings I love so much. Here Angus and I had gone and “loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly.” Actually, we’d moved away from Beverly. Singer, that is . . . a/k/a Mom. Costume designer extraordinaire. Complete with “swimming pools and movie stars.”

I gave myself a mental shake. Why in the world was I thinking The Beverly Hillbillies theme song? Of course, thinking about The Beverly Hillbillies brought Buddy Ebsen to mind; and that, in turn, made me remember he’d played Audrey Hepburn’s estranged husband in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Random trivia seems to be always lurking just beyond the forefront of my mind.

I took a long black cigarette filter from inside my jewelry box and placed it between my teeth. Mom had given it to me years ago. It had been a prop on some movie set. God only knew who had used it, so she’d insisted on scalding it before giving it to me. Good thing. While I’ve never been a smoker, I used to love pretending to use the long black cigarette filter. Even Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo used one to make her look sophisticated after she and Ethel had attended charm school.

Leaving Mom behind in San Francisco had been the one drawback to my moving to TallulahFalls. I wished Mom could have made the party tonight, but she’s currently in New   York on a movie set. It’s par for the course. In many ways, I grew up privileged. But I was lonely for my mother who was often on location somewhere; and since Dad had died when I was very young, I’d often been left in the care of my nanny.

I have to give Mom credit for passing along to me a love of textiles, though. When she was home, Mom would often allow me to come to the studio and help work with the fabrics. She’d wanted me to go into fashion and costume design. A rebellious little snot at the time, I’d told her I wanted a “more stable and reliable career.” Mom said I’d be bored with a reliable career; and while I’d admitted accounting wouldn’t be as exciting as dressing Hollywood’s A-listers, it would allow me to be home for my family, should I ever be fortunate enough to have one. Told you I was a rebellious little snot. That comment had hurt Mom. And I’d meant for it to. At the time I wouldn’t have taken it back for anything in the world . . . even if I could have. Now that I was a wee bit older and wiser, I regretted it.

During my rebellious teen years, I even stopped going to Mom’s studio. It was like I was spiting her, but I was really only hurting myself. I hadn’t realized that until I was in college. I’d come back to the apartment one evening to find Sadie laboriously trying to embroider a pair of jeans. I took over the task and rediscovered my love for the craft. Still, I was too proud to admit that to Mom; so I’d sucked it up and embarked upon my career in accounting.

I found the chandelier earrings and put them on. Taking one last imaginary puff from the cigarette filter, I placed it back in the jewelry box.

I called Angus to me and put his black bow tie around his neck. Then I batted my lashes at him and imitated Bette Davis: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

* * *

When Angus and I got to the shop, Sadie and Blake were already there setting up a refreshment buffet on the counter.

“We used the key you gave me,” Sadie said. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Why would I mind? I just wish I’d arrived earlier. You two already have all the work done.” I inhaled deeply, savoring the chocolate-vanilla scented air. “Everything looks—and smells—delicious.”

“And you look beautiful,” Blake said. “Todd will be thrilled.”

“Blake!” Sadie frowned at her husband.

I looked from one to the other. “Who’s Todd?”

Blake looked at Sadie. “You didn’t tell her?”

“Tell me what?”

The pair continued conversing as if I hadn’t spoken. That made me even more nervous that I already was.

“Of course, I didn’t tell her,” Sadie said. “I didn’t want her to think I was trying to fix her up.”

“You mean you’re not?”

Sadie sighed. “Not exactly. I wanted to introduce the two of them, that’s all . . . nothing more.”

“Uh-huh.” Blake grinned knowingly. “That’s all, huh?”

Sadie swatted at him playfully with a paper plate, and he pulled her to him for a quick kiss.

They’re a sweet couple . . . well-suited, even though on the surface they appear to be such opposites. Sadie is tall and dark. She has an almost European look about her. Blake is only an inch or two taller than his wife, stockily built with blue eyes and light blond hair. They’re opposites in other ways as well: Sadie loves football, Blake prefers hockey; Sadie likes corny horror flicks, Blake likes corny comedies; Sadie enjoys reading the classics, Blake’s reading seems to be confined to blogs . . . really dorky blogs, to be exact. And yet, you can look at them and see how much they love each other, how compatible they truly are.

I hope to find a love like that myself one day. But based on Sadie’s previous attempts, I doubt I’ll find it with this Todd guy. Or anyone else Sadie happens to dig out from under a rock.

“Blake is right about you looking beautiful,” Sadie said. “Though how you walk in those shoes, I’ll never know.”

“You’ll never have to find out,” I said. “You’re tall enough without them. And you look terrific, by the way.”

Sadie looked down at her navy dress with the beaded bodice. “Aw, this old thing?” She winked, as Blake rolled his eyes.

I went to take a closer look at the refreshments while Blake fed Angus a shortbread cookie. There was a carafe of hot chocolate and another of hazelnut mocha coffee. I thought fleetingly of asking the MacKenzies about a pot of decaf but decided not to. Let everyone eat, drink and be wired.

Besides the aforementioned shortbread cookies, there were smores, chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter crinkles. The napkins had The Seven Year Stitch superimposed over an image of Marilyn Monroe standing on a grate with her dress billowing about her thighs. Blake had found the napkins online somewhere. Blake could find anything online.

I turned back to my friends. “Thank you so much, guys. This means a lot to me.”

Sadie smiled. “You’re welcome. You mean a lot to us.”

That’s when I knew I’d have to give this Todd guy a chance . . . no matter what he might be like.

“Will you help me keep an eye on Angus tonight?” I asked. “You know he has no problem reaching the counter; and with everybody’s attention diverted, he might just give in to temptation.” I looked at Angus who wagged his tail and looked up at me with a “who me?” expression.

“Yeah, especially since Blake has already got him started on those shortbread cookies,” Sadie said. “They’re addictive. Trust me, I know.”

“Sorry.” Blake looked sheepish but slipped another cookie behind his back to Angus.

The bell over the door heralded the first guest.

“Am I too early?”

Before I could turn to see who’d spoken, I was struck by “The Voice.” It was a deep, melodic Pernell-Roberts-as-Adam-Cartwright voice, and it was as smooth and delicious as warm maple syrup dripping off a hot pancake on an icy January morning. I turned, half expecting to be disappointed when I saw the man with “The Voice.” I was not disappointed.

“You’re right on time,” I said, taking in the man’s thick dark hair and sparkling brown eyes. I held out my hand. “I’m Marcy Singer. Welcome to The Seven Year Stitch.”

From the corner of my eye, I noticed Sadie and Blake elbowing each other as the man encased my hand in his own.

“Nice to meet you, Marcy. I’m Todd Crowell.”

Angus placed his big snout on our clasped hands to effectively end the handshake.

“Well, hey, big fellow,” Todd said. “Do you embroidery, or are you only here for the party?”

“He’s here for the shortbread,” Blake said.

To everyone’s delight, Angus sat and offered Todd his large gray paw to shake.

Wow, I thought, even Angus approves. I caught Sadie’s eye and gave her an appreciative smile. If she’d dug Todd Crowell out from under a rock, that rock must’ve been a diamond.

* * *

     Before I really knew what was happening, the shop was full. Sadie and Blake introduced me to the people I hadn’t met earlier in the day. Still, it was going to be hard to remember everyone.

I looked around the room and caught sight of Todd Crowell. He was bending over to hear what some short older woman with her hair in a super severe bun was telling him. When he caught my eye, he raised his coffee cup in a salute.

I grinned. There was at least one person here I’d have no trouble remembering.

I sought out Angus and spotted him sitting beside a lovely girl with honey-colored hair. The girl was stroking Angus’ head and speaking to him softly.

“Hi, I’m Marcy,” I said, approaching the girl. I nodded at Angus. “Angus likes you.”

“Thanks. I like him, too. People say I’m good with dogs.”

“You sure are.”

From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a lanky, unkempt man wearing dirty jeans and a trucker cap coming toward us. He staggered into me and caused me to stumble. Angus stiffened as I caught the back of the red chair to steady myself.

“It’s okay, Angus,” I said softly.

“I needa talk wif you,” the man said.

“Okay.”

The man was obviously drunk, and he was making me uneasy. I walked slowly away from Angus so the dog wouldn’t sense my anxiety. The man followed with an unsteady gait.

“Dis used to be my store,” the man said.

“Oh, then you must be Mr. Enright,” I said.

“Yep. Tim Enright. Thirty years . . . this was Enright’s Hardware.”

“It—” I cleared my throat. “It must be hard for you to see the place change hands. I—”

Mr. Enright shook his head. “No . . . not that. Something else. We needa talk.”

I glanced around and was relieved to see Blake coming to my rescue.

“Hey, Tim! How’re you doing?” He put his arm around Mr. Enright’s shoulders and propelled him away from me.

“I needa talk to her,” Mr. Enright said. “Gotta tell her.”

“Aw, that can wait, man. Come on over and check out the refreshments.”

Mr. Enright tried to turn back to me, but Blake had a firm grip and led him over to the counter.

I had no idea why Mr. Enright would want to talk with me. I was giving that some thought when Sadie came over with a slender woman with salt-and-pepper hair and small round glasses. The woman wore a white knee-length tunic and scarf over matching pants.

“Marcy, I’d like you to meet Regina Singh.”

“Please call me ‘Reggie,’” the woman said. “Everyone does.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Reggie.”

“Likewise. I love to embroider—” She held out the end of her scarf to reveal intricately embroidered white orchids. “So I know you and I will get on swimmingly.”

“I’m sure we will.” I took a closer look at her scarf. “This is chikankari, isn’t it?” Chikankari is a traditional form of white-on-white embroidery from India. “You do lovely work.”

“Thank you.”

Reggie seemed pleased that I recognized her form of embroidery.

“Reggie is the local librarian,” Sadie said.

“Then I’m sure we’ll see a lot of each other,” I said with a laugh. “I love to read. And I love looking through art books for embroidery ideas.”

“I do, too,” Reggie said. “I wish my husband could’ve been here tonight, but he’s on duty. He’s the police chief.”

“That must be an exciting job,” I said.

“It has its moments, I guess. Manu loves it, but the hours can be a pain.”

“Speaking of being a pain, what’s with Tim Enright this evening?” Sadie asked. “He looks horrible.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever met him,” I said. I bit my lower lip. “Does he drink a lot?”

Reggie shook her head. “I’ve known Timothy for more than twenty years, and I’ve never known him to take a drink.”

Before either Sadie or I could respond, a heavyset woman with short curly brown hair interrupted. She wore a severe black suit and pumps. The suit seemed to belie the woman’s outgoing personality.

“Excuse me,” she said, “I’m Vera Langhorne. I have to run, but I didn’t want to leave before meeting the guest of honor.” She shook my hand warmly.

“Thank you so much for coming tonight, Mrs. Langhorne,” I said. “I do hope you’ll come back when we have more time to visit.”

“Oh, I will. I’ve signed up for one of your classes. I’m looking forward to it.”

“So am I,” Marcy said.

As Mrs. Langhorne walked away, Timothy Enright approached me and took me by the arm. “Come ‘ere. Gotta tell you.”

“Please, Mr. Enright,” I began. “I’m sorry I—”

“Tim!” It was Todd Crowell. “How’ve you been?” He widened his eyes at me and led Tim Enright away. “What’ve you been up to these days?”

Mr. Enright turned back to me, his eyes pleading. I’d have felt sorry for him if I weren’t so frightened by his behavior. Since I was frightened, I took the opportunity to walk away and lose myself in the crowd.

* * *

Two hours later, everyone except Sadie, Blake, Todd, Angus and I had gone. I slipped off my shoes and padded around in my stocking feet while helping Blake and Sadie clean up.

“Ms. Singer,” Todd said, “I believe your open house was a rousing success.”

“Thank you. I do, too. Look at how many people signed up for embroidery classes.”

Sadie looked over my shoulder at the list. “Impressive.”

Suddenly, we heard a thud. It appeared to have come from the back of the building.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Probably just a dog turning over a trash can,” Blake said.

“We get that a lot,” Sadie said. “If you throw any food in the garbage cans out back, be sure to double bag it.”

“Or even triple bag it,” Todd said. “Because of the bears.”

“Bears?”

“Oh, sure. They come scrounging around every now and then.” He caught Blake’s eye and grinned. “In fact, I should probably walk you out to your car just in case that was a bear.”

The next morning, it became clear that a bear had not caused the thud we’d heard. Timothy Enright had.

# # #

Visit Gayle Trent/Amanda Lee online at http://www.gayletrent.com. To order a copy of The Quick and The Thread, please go to Amazon, Books-A-Million, Barnes and Noble, or order from your local bookseller. Thank you for your interest in The Quick and The Thread!

Murder_Takes_The_Cake“For people who love a tasty cake and a cozy murder mystery, Murder Takes the Cake is a delicious read.” -Suzanne Pitner, Suite101.com
 
“The breezy story line is fun to follow…Daphne is a solid lead character as she follows the murder recipe one step at a time to the delight of sub-genre readers.” – Harriet Klausner, The Mystery Gazette
Special Note: Amazon is offering Murder Takes the Cake for only $1.99 in Kindle form for the month of August. Take advantage of this special pricing while you can!

Chapter One

“Mrs. Watson?” I called, banging on the door again. I glanced up at the ever-blackening clouds. Although I had Mrs. Watson’s cake in a box, it would be my luck to get caught in a downpour with it. This was my third attempt to please her, and I couldn’t afford another mistake on the amount she was paying me. Whoever said “the customer is always right” had obviously never dealt with Yodel Watson.

I heard something from inside the house and pressed my ear against the door. A vision of my falling into the living room and dropping the cake when Mrs. Watson flung open the door made me rethink that decision.

“Mrs. Watson?” I called again.

“Come in! It’s open! Come in!”

I tried the knob and the door was indeed unlocked. I stepped inside but couldn’t see Mrs. Watson. “It’s me—Daphne Martin. I’m here with your cake.”

“Come in! It’s open!”

“I am in, Mrs. Watson. Where are you?”

“It’s open!”

“I know! I—” Gritting my teeth, I walked through the living room and placed the cake on the kitchen table. A quick glance around the kitchen told me Mrs. Watson wasn’t in there either.

“It’s open!”

Man, could this lady get on your nerves. I decided to follow the voice. It came from my left, so I eased down the hallway.

“Mrs. Watson?”

On my right, there was a den. I poked my head inside.

“Come in!”

I turned toward the voice. A gray parrot was sitting on its perch inside its cage.

“It’s open!” the bird squawked.

“I noticed.” Great. She’s probably not home, and I’ll get arrested for breaking and entering…though technically, I didn’t break….

It was then I saw Mrs. Watson lying on the sofa in a faded navy robe. There was a plaid blanket over her legs. She appeared to be sleeping, but I’d heard the parrot calling when I was outside. No way could Mrs. Watson be in the same room and sleep through that racket.

I stepped closer. “Are you okay?” Her pallor told me she was not okay. Then the foul odor hit me.

I backed away and took my cell phone out of my purse. “I’m calling 9-1-1, Mrs. Watson. Everything’s gonna be all right.” I don’t know if I was trying to reassure her or myself.

Everything’s gonna be all right. I’d been telling myself that for the past month.

I lingered in the doorway in case Mrs. Watson would wake up and need something before the EMTs arrived.

I turned forty this year. Forty seems to be a sobering age for every woman, but it hit me especially hard. When most women get to be my age, they at least have some bragging rights: successful career, happy marriage, beautiful children, nice home. I had none of the above. My so-called bragging rights included a failed marriage, a dingy apartment, and twenty years’ service in a dead-end job. Cue violins.

When my sister Violet called and told me about a “charming little house” for sale near her neighborhood, I jumped at the chance to leave all the dead ends of middle Tennessee and come home to southwest Virginia. Surely, something better awaited me here.

So far, I’d moved into my house—which I recently learned came with a one-eyed stray cat—and started a cake decorating business. A great deal of my time had involved coming up with a name, a logo, getting business cards made up, setting up a Web site and other “fun” administrative duties. The cake and cupcakes I’d made for my niece and nephew to take to school on Halloween had been a hit, though, and had led to some nice word-of-mouth advertising and a couple orders. Leslie’s puppy dog cake and Lucas’ black cat cupcakes were the first additions to my Web site’s gallery.

Sadly, my first customer had been Yodel Watson. She’d considered herself a world-class baker in her hey-day but no longer had the time or desire to engage in “such foolishness.”

“I want you to make me a cake for my Thanksgiving dinner,” she’d said. “Nothing too gaudy. I want my family to think I made it myself.”

My first two attempts had been refused: the first cake was too fancy; the second was too plain. I’d been hoping—praying—third time would be the charm. Now the laboriously prepared spice cake with cream cheese frosting decorated with orange and red satin ribbons for a bottom border and a red apple arranged in a flower petal pattern on top was on Mrs. Watson’s kitchen table. Mrs. Watson herself was lying on her den sofa as deflated as a December jack-o-lantern. Oh, yeah, things were looking up.

I was startled out of my reverie by a sharp rap.

“EMT!”

“Come in! It’s open!” the bird called.

I hurried to the living room to open the door, and two men with a stretcher brushed past me.

“Where’s the patient?” one asked.

“Back here.” I led the way to the den, and then got out of the way.

“Come in!”

I moved next to the bird cage. “Don’t you ever shut up? This is serious.”

“I’ll say,” agreed one of the EMTs. “Are you the next of kin?”

“Excuse me?” My hand flew to my throat. “She’s dead?”

“Yes, ma’am. Are you related to her?”

While the one EMT was questioning me, the other was on the radio asking dispatch to send the police and the coroner.

“I don’t know anything,” I said. “I just brought the cake.”

* * *

After calling in the reinforcements, the EMT’s sent me back to the living room. They didn’t get any argument from me. I sat down on the edge of a burgundy wingback chair and studied the room.

It was a formal living room; and on my previous visits, I’d only been just inside the front door. This room was a far cry from the den. The den was lived in. Ugh. Bad choice of words.

This room seemed as sterile as an operating room. There was an elaborate Oriental rug over beige carpet, a pale blue sofa, a curio cabinet with all sorts of expensive-looking knick-knacks. Unlike the den, this room was spotless.

Except for that.

Near my right foot was a small yellow stain. Parrot pee, I supposed. Still, even if Mrs. Watson had allowed the bird outside its cage, I’d have thought this room would’ve been off limits.

Maybe that’s what killed her. Maybe she came in here and saw bird pee in her perfect room and had a heart attack. Then she returned to the den to collapse so as not to further contaminate the room.

Funny thing, though; I didn’t even know Mrs. Watson had a bird until today.

“Ms. Martin?”

I looked up. It was one of the deputies.

“Yes?”

“I’m Officer Hayden, and I need to ask you some questions.”

“Um…sure.” This guy looked young enough to be my son—scratch that, nephew—and he still made me nervous.

“Tell me about your arrival, ma’am.”

Ma’am. Like I was seventy. Of course, when you’re twelve, everybody looks old.

I cleared my throat. “I, uh, knocked on the door, and someone told me to come in. I thought it was Mrs. Watson, so I opened the door and came on inside.” I pointed toward the kitchen table. “I’m Daphne of Daphne’s Delectable Cakes.” I patted my pockets for my business card holder but realized I must have left it in the car. “I brought the cake.”

Officer Hayden took out a notepad. “Let me get this straight. Someone else was here when you arrived?”

“No…no, it was the bird. The bird hollered and told me to come in.”

He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I thought it was her, though.” Please, God, don’t let me get arrested. “It told me the door was open, and it was.”

Officer Hayden opened his eyes.

Never being one to know when to shut up, I reiterated, “I just brought the cake.”

* * *

About an hour later, I pulled into my driveway. I didn’t make it to the front door before I heard my next-door-neighbor calling me.

“Hello, Daphne! I see you’re bringing home another cake.”

“Afraid so.”

She beat me to the porch. For a woman in her sixties, Myra Jenkins was pretty quick. “What was wrong with this one?”

I handed Myra the cake and unlocked the door. “Um…she didn’t say.”

“She didn’t say?” Myra wiped her feet on the mat and followed me inside.

I dropped my purse onto the table by the door. I let Myra hang onto the cake. She’d kept the other two rejects. I figured she’d take this one, too.

I went into the kitchen and took two diet sodas from the fridge. I handed Myra a soda, popped the top on the other, and took a long drink before dropping into a chair.

“This is beautiful,” Myra said, after opening the cake box and peering inside. “What kind of cake is it?”

“Spice. The icing is cream cheese.”

Myra ran her finger through the frosting on the side of the cake and licked her finger. “Mmm, this is out of this world. You know the Save-A-Buck sometimes takes baked goods on commission, don’t you?”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

She nodded. “They don’t keep a bakery staff, so they sometimes buy cakes, cookies, doughnuts—stuff like that—from the locals and sell them in their store.”

“I’ll definitely look into that.

“You should.” She put the lid down on the box. “Are you going to take this one?”

“No,” I said, thinking her poking the side had already nullified that possibility. “Why don’t you take it?”

“Thank you. I believe I’ll serve this one and the white one with the raspberry filling for Thanksgiving and save the chocolate one for Christmas.” She smiled. “Do I owe you anything?”

“Yes. Good publicity. Sing my praises to the church group, the quilting circle, the library group, and any other social cause you’re participate in.”

“Will do, honey. Will do.”

“Um…how well do you know Yodel Watson?” I asked.

Myra pulled out a chair and sat down. “About as well as anybody in this town, I reckon. Why?”

“She….” I sighed. “She’s dead.”

She gasped. “What happened? Car wreck? You know, she drives the awfulest car I’ve ever seen. All the tires are bald, the—”

“It wasn’t a car wreck,” I interrupted. “When I went to her house, I thought she told me to come in, so—”

“Banjo.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“It was probably Yodel’s bird Banjo tellin’ you to come in.”

“Right. It was. So, uh, I went in and…and found Mrs. Watson in the den.”

“And she was dead?”

I nodded.

“Was she naked?”

“No! She had on a robe and was covered with a blanket. Why would you think she was naked?”

Myra shrugged. “When people find dead bodies in the movies, the bodies are usually naked.” She opened her soda. “So what happened?”

“I don’t know. Since there was no obvious cause of death, she’s being sent for an autopsy.”

“Were there any opened envelopes lying around? Maybe somebody sent Yodel some of that amtrax stuff.”

“I don’t think it was anthrax,” I said. “I figure she had a heart attack or an aneurysm or something.”

“Don’t be too sure.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because Yodel was mean.” Myra took a drink of her soda. “Heck, you know that.”

I shook my head and tried to steer the conversation away from murder. “Who’d name their daughter Yodel?”

“Oh, honey.”

In the short time I’ve lived here, I’ve already learned that when Myra Jenkins says Oh, honey, you’re in for a story.

“The Watsons yearned to follow in the Carter family’s footsteps,” she said. “Yodel’s sisters were Melody and Harmony, and her brother was Guitar. Guitar Refrain Watson—Tar, for short.”

I nearly spit diet soda across the table. “You’re kidding.”

“No, honey, I’m not. Trouble was, nary a one of them Watsons had any talent. When my daughter was little, she’d clap her hands over her ears and make the most awful faces if we happened to sit behind them in church. Just about anybody can sing that ‘praise God from Whom all blessings flow’ song they sing while takin’ the offering plates back up to the alter, but the Watsons couldn’t. And the worst part was every one of them sang out loud and proud. Loud, proud, off-key and tone deaf.” She smiled. “I have to admit, though, the congregation as a whole said a lot more silent prayers in church before Mr. and Mrs. Watson died and before their young-uns—all but Yodel—scattered here and yon. ‘Lord, please don’t let the Watsons sit near us.’ ‘Lord, please stop up my ears just long enough to deliver me from sufferin’ through another hymn.’ ‘Lord, please give Tar laryngitis for forty-five minutes.’”

We both laughed.

“That was ugly of me to tell,” Myra said. “But it’s true! Still, I’ll have to ask forgiveness for that. I always did wonder if God hadn’t blessed any of them Watsons with musical ability because they’d tried to write their own ticket with those musical names. You know what I mean?”

“I guess you’ve got a point there.”

“Anyhow, back to Yodel. Yodel was jealous of China York because China could sing. The choir director was always getting China to sing solos. China didn’t care for Yodel because Yodel was spiteful and mean to her most of the time. It seemed Yodel couldn’t feel good about herself unless she was puttin’ somebody else down.”

“She must’ve felt great about herself every time I brought a cake over,” I muttered. “Sorry. Go on.”

“Well, a few years ago, our old preacher retired and we got a new one. Of course, we threw him a potluck howdy-get-to-know-you party at the church. It was summer, and I took a strawberry pie. I make the best strawberry pies. I’d thought about making one for Thanksgiving, but I don’t have to now that you’ve given me all these cakes. I do appreciate it.”

I waved away her gratitude. “Don’t mention it.”

“Anyhow, China brought a chocolate and coconut cake. She’d got the recipe out of McCall’s magazine and was just bustin’ to have us all try out this cake. Wouldn’t you know it? In waltzed Yodel with the very same cake.”

“If she loved to bake so much, I wonder why she gave it up. She told me she didn’t have time to bake these days. Was she active in a lot of groups? I mean, what took up so much of her time?”

“Keeping tabs on the rest of the town took up her time. When Arlo was alive—he was a Watson, too, of course, though no relation…except maybe really distant cousins once or twice removed or something…. There’s more Watsons in these parts than there are chins…at a fat farm. Is that how that saying goes?”

“I think it’s more Chins than a Chinese phone book.”

“Huh. I don’t get it. Anyhow, Arlo expected his wife to be more than the town gossip. That’s when Yodel prided herself on her cooking, her volunteer work and all the rest. When he died—oh, I guess it was ten years ago—she gave all that up.” She shook her head. “Shame, too. But, back to the story. Yodel told the new preacher, ‘Wait until you try this cake. It’s my very own recipe.’

‘It is not,’ China said. “You saw me copy that recipe out of McCall’s when we were both at the beauty shop waitin’ to get our hair done!’

‘So what if I did?’ Yodel asked.

‘You had to have heard me tell Mary that I was making this cake for the potluck.’

Oooh, China was boiling. But Yodel just shrugged and said, ‘I subscribe to McCall’s. How was I supposed to know you’d be making a similar cake?’

China got right up in Yodel’s face and hollered, ‘It’s the same cake!’

Yodel said it wasn’t. She said, ‘I put almonds and a splash of vanilla in mine. Otherwise that cake would be boring and bland.’

At this point, the preacher tried to intervene. ‘They both look delicious,’ he told them, ‘and I’m sure there are enough of us here to eat them both.’

Yodel’s and China’s eyes were locked like two snarling dogs, and I don’t believe either of them heard a word he said. China had already set her cake on the table, but Yodel was still holding hers. China calmly placed her hand on the bottom of Yodel’s cake plate and upended that cake right on Yodel’s chest.”

I giggled. “Really?”

“Really. And then China walked to the door and said, ‘I’ve had it with her. I won’t be back here until one of us is dead.’ And she ain’t been back to church since.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s some story.”

“Makes you wonder if China finally got tired of sitting home by herself on Sunday mornings.”

Seeing how serious Myra looked, I stifled my laughter. “Do you honestly think this woman has been nursing a grudge all these years and killed Mrs. Watson rather than simply finding herself another church?”

“There’s not another Baptist church within ten miles of here.” She finished off her soda. “People have killed for crazier reasons than that, haven’t they?”

“I suppose, but—”

“And if it wasn’t China York, I can think of a few other folks who had it in for Yodel.”

“Come on. I’ll admit she’s been a pain to work with on these cakes, but I have a hard time casting Mrs. Watson in the role of Cruella de Vil.”

Myra got up and put her empty soda can in the garbage. “I didn’t say she made puppy coats. I said there were a lot of people who’d just as soon not have Yodel Watson around.”

* * *

I was relieved when Myra left. She seemed to be a good person, and I liked her; but she could be a bit much. Everything had to be so dramatic with her. She even had me wondering whether or not poor Mrs. Watson died of natural causes.

I got up and walked down the hall to my office. It had a sofa bed to double as a guest room if need be. Other than that, it held a desk, a file cabinet and a bookcase full of cookbooks, cake decorating books, small business books, marketing books and one photograph of me with Lucas and Leslie. The photo had been taken last year when I was at Violet’s house for Christmas.

I booted up the computer. As always, I checked my e-mail first. E-mail is a procrastinator’s dream come true.

There was a message from my friend Bonnie, still holding down the fort at the company I’d worked for in Tennessee.

Hey, girl! Are you up to your eyebrows in cake batter? I can think of worse predicaments. We get off half a day Wednesday. I can hardly wait. Do you have tons of orders to fill before Thursday? I hope so. I mean, I hope business is off to a good start but that you have time to enjoy the holiday, too. I really miss you, Daph. Write when you can and fill me in on everything, especially whether or not any of your neighbors are HAGS!

I smiled. HAG was our acronym for Hot Available Guys. It wasn’t a flattering acronym, but it worked.

I marked the e-mail as unread and neglected to reply until I had better news to report. As I deleted my junk messages, I thought about Bonnie. She and I had met while I was taking culinary classes at a local college. She was taking business courses and was desperate to get into the field I wanted out of so badly. We met one evening because we were two of the oldest people in the student lounge. That night even the faculty members present were in their twenties! Bonnie and I were both in our early thirties, and after that initial meeting we had fun people-watching over coffee before all our evening classes.

When a job came open at our company, Bonnie applied and got the job. I was glad. It wasn’t long after she got the job that my college days came to an abrupt end. Not believing that I could actually be good—make that great—at something, dear hubby Todd came by the school one evening and saw Chef Pierre. Admittedly, Chef Pierre was impressive in every way, but Bonnie and I had already dubbed him a HUG—Hot Unavailable Guy. Chef Pierre was married, had three young children and was devoted to his lovely wife. Todd couldn’t get past the chef’s stellar looks though; and since I was the chef’s star student, Todd thought I had to be sleeping with the man. He’d made me drop out.

By then I’d been bitten by the baking bug. I watched TV chefs, bought books—including cake decorating course books, rented how-to videos, and practiced decorating every chance I got. I’d practice on vinyl placemats. And I’d tell myself “someday.” Now it seemed my “someday” had come. I am an excellent cake decorator, I’d finally taken a chance, and I was finally tuning out Todd’s taunting voice in my head. I was believing in myself for the first time in years. I knew I could make this business work.

The phone rang. It was Violet.

“Hey, I heard about Mrs. Watson. You must’ve freaked out when you found her.”

“How’d you know?”

“I saw Bill Hayden’s wife at the school when I picked up Leslie and Lucas this afternoon.”

Bill Hayden. Officer Bill Hayden. Married…and with children. He must be older than he looked.

“Why didn’t you call me?” Violet was asking.

“I don’t know.” Because you’re perfect; and in three years when you turn forty, all you’ll have to be concerned about is laugh lines? Because I didn’t come back home because I need a babysitter? Because I promised myself I wouldn’t be the one thorn in your bouquet of roses? “Myra came over as soon as I got home, so I really didn’t have a chance to call.”

“No, I don’t suppose you did. Did you tell her about Yodel?”

“Yeah. Was that all right?”

“I guess so. It’ll be in the paper tomorrow anyway.”

“Plus, it’s a really small town, Vi. There were probably a dozen messages on Myra’s answering machine when she got back home. I mean, you heard it at the school, right?”

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Violet said. “I’m merely cautioning you to be careful of what you say to Myra.”

“With Myra, I find myself mostly listening.”

“I know that’s true.” Violet laughed. “I’m only asking you to be careful. As a witness in a homicide investigation, you have to watch what you say to the general public.”

“A homicide investigation? The coroner didn’t send the woman’s body to Roanoke for autopsy until this afternoon. The results couldn’t possibly be in.”

“No, of course not, but Joanne told me Bill said there were indications of foul play.”

“Is that ethical?”

“He only told his wife, Daphne.”

“And she told you and who knows who else. What is it with small town dramas?”

“Excuse me, Ms. Big City. I forgot how boring we must be to you now.”

“That’s not what I meant. I just think Officer Hayden should learn a bit about confidentiality, that’s all.”

“Please don’t get him in trouble.”

“I won’t. I—”

“Let’s talk about Thursday. What time will you be here?”

“I was thinking eleven, but I can come earlier if you’d like.”

“No. Eleven’s good. Mom’s spending the night, so I’ll have plenty of help in the kitchen.”

“Then eleven it is.”

After talking with Violet, I went out the kitchen door to sit on the side porch. It was cool outside, but I had on a jacket. Plus, I was feeling a little sorry for myself and felt better in the big wide open than I did in an empty house.

Violet did have a lot to be proud of. She’d been married for the past fifteen years to a dreamboat of a guy. She had gorgeous eleven-year-old boy/girl twins. She was a successful realtor. She had a lovely home. She had curly blonde hair, blue eyes and a bubbly personality; as opposed to my straight dark brown hair, brown eyes, and more serious demeanor. And she had a great relationship with Mom.

I’d been married for ten years to an abusive manipulator who is currently serving a seven-year term in prison for assault with a deadly weapon after shooting at me. Fortunately, he’d missed; and, in my opinion, he was sentenced to far too little time simply because his aim was off. He’d called it a “mistake.” Whether he meant shooting at me or missing, I have no idea. Mom called the whole ordeal a mistake, too. Neither of them could understand why I filed for divorce.

“He said he was sorry,” Mom had scolded me over the phone. “You made the man angry, Daphne. You know how you can be. A person can only take so much.”

I’d hung up on her. A person could only take so much. That was nearly five years ago.

I heard a plaintive meow and looked up to see the fluffy gray and white, one-eyed stray sitting a short distance away.

“Me, too, baby,” I told the cat softly. “Me, too.”

# # #

Visit Gayle at http://www.gayletrent.com. If you’d like to take advantage of Amazon’s special offer, please go to Amazon Kindle. To buy a hard copy book, you may do so at Amazon, Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookseller.  Thank you so much for your interest in Murder Takes the Cake!

Cross Stitch Before Dying by Amanda Lee

Cross Stitch Before Dying by Amanda Lee

“[A] cozy, promising mystery series…a fast, pleasant read with prose full of pop culture references and, of course, sharp needlework puns.” —Publishers Weekly
    
“[A] fast-paced, intriguing who-done-it that will delight fans of the cozy mystery genre.” —Fresh Fiction

Chapter One

I was maneuvering my red Jeep down Main Street when I saw some sort of commotion up ahead. Angus, my Irish wolfhound, was in the back seat. We were on our way to the Seven-Year Stitch, my embroidery specialty shop, located in the Tallulah Falls town square.

I braked, squinted, and craned my neck; but all I could really see were the cars in front of me and the flashing lights of two police cars and an ambulance.

“Must be a car accident,” I murmured to Angus.

As I debated trying to get out of the traffic so I could turn around and go another route to my shop, someone on the street to my left screamed. I looked in the screamer’s direction just in time to see a man dressed all in black shove past her. He was brandishing a handgun. The gunman hesitated, looked behind him, and then sprinted off again.

I, too, was anxious to see who was chasing him so I trained my gaze at the sidewalk and didn’t watch to see where the man with the gun went. My heart dropped when I saw that the criminal was being pursued by Detective Ted Nash…my Ted. I closed my eyes briefly and said a silent prayer.

What could I do? How could I help? I couldn’t just sit there.

I whipped my head around in time to see the gunman and Ted disappear around the corner. I desperately wanted to do something…anything. But if I distracted Ted and he was harmed because of my actions, I’d never forgive myself. As hard as it was, it was better for me to wait. Wait and pray….

Suddenly, I heard the shots. They sounded no louder than firecrackers being discharged. Bam! Bam! Bam! Then silence.

Angus whimpered, aware that I was falling to pieces. He leaned over and licked tears from my right cheek.

I needed to get out of this traffic…. I had to park somewhere and see about Ted. The crowd had grown on the street, and, in addition to a couple of uniformed police officers, I thought I caught a glimpse of Manu Singh, Chief of Police. I knew he’d help Ted, but that reassurance did nothing to dispel my need to get to Ted and make sure he was all right.

I ignored the blaring of the car horns behind me as I edged out of the traffic and pulled onto a side street. There I parked, cracked the windows for Angus, promised him I’d be right back, locked the Jeep, and ran across the street.

“Let me through!” I shouted as I fought my way through the crowd. “Let me through!”

Someone had the audacity to stop me in my tracks. He was tall and strong, and I glared up at him. When I saw that it was Ted, I melted into his arms and sobbed.

“It’s all right, babe.” He ran his hands over my back tenderly. “It’s all right.”

* * *

I’d assured Ted I was fine once I’d seen that he was okay, and I came on to work. He’d wanted to drive me, but he had more pressing matters to attend to. He needed to go back to the station with Manu and question their suspect. Fortunately, no one had been hurt when the man had fired off his weapon—he was, thankfully, a lousy shot.

Now I tossed the bright yellow tennis ball from my spot on the sofa in the sit-and-stitch square into the merchandise area of the shop. It was a chilly, windy, cloudy day on the Oregon coast, and I hoped our morning of playing fetch would calm my jagged nerves and sufficiently tire Angus out. I wanted him to nap for a while so I could get some work done. I’d received a delivery late yesterday afternoon, and I hadn’t even had time to open the box yet.

At a little over a year old, Angus was still a puppy. He loved to romp and play. He returned and dropped the soggy ball at my feet, and I tossed it again. This time it landed near Jill, and Angus nearly knocked her down as he retrieved it.

“Look out, Jill!” I called. Of course, she couldn’t have moved out of his way anyhow. Jill was a mannequin.

The name of my embroidery shop was the Seven-Year Stitch, and the mannequin resembled Marilyn Monroe, who had starred in the movie The Seven-Year Itch. So all day, day in and day out, Jill stood near the cash register silently greeting patrons to the store. She sometimes modeled some of my embroidery projects. For instance, today she wore a white, button-down oxford shirt with a cluster of crewel embroidery flowers on the left shoulder. Combining the shirt with her jean shorts, she looked fetching as she embraced springtime.

Many of my other embroidery projects adorned the walls—either framed or in embroidery hoops—and I had candlewick embroidered pillows on the sofa. Dolls dressed in clothing I’d embroidered stood on shelves throughout the store. I was not above putting embroidered bandanas around Angus’s neck, but I didn’t do it often since he didn’t particularly go in for fancy accessories.

My cell phone rang. It was Mom. Mom, by the way, was the acclaimed Hollywood costume designer Beverly Singer. She lived in San Francisco…which was also where I’d lived until about nine months ago when I gave up a career in accounting to come to Tallulah Falls and open an embroidery shop. Mom probably thought I’d lost my mind at the time. But if she did, she never said so. She was awfully supportive.

“Hi, Mom,” I said. “What’s up?”

“I just got exciting news,” she said. “Henry Beaumont has asked me to design and oversee costuming for a huge, lavish production about the life of early Bollywood star Sonam Zakaria.”

“Congratulations! That’s terrific. Tell me all about this guy Sonam and why Mr. Beaumont is making a movie about his life.”

“Sonam was a she, darling, and she was larger than life. The only American star I can think of to even remotely compare her to off the top of my head would be Elizabeth Taylor,” Mom said. “Anyway, this job is going to be quite an undertaking. And since the studio has given me an extremely generous budget, I’d like to hire you and a few of your most trusted stitchers to help me out.”

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“Absolutely. I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it without you.” She paused. “Wait. That’s not fair. I’m sorry. I’d love for you to help with the costumes, but I understand if you’re too busy. I can—”

“Mom, I want to help,” I interrupted. “And I’m sure Vera will.” Vera Langhorne was a widow in her late fifties to early sixties who was always game for a little adventure.

“What about Reggie?” Mom asked. “She’s so skilled in chikankari that she’d be ideal for this project. Do you think she’d be willing to pitch in? If nothing else, maybe she could give the rest of us a crash course in Indian embroidery.”

“I’ll call her and ask,” I said. “I’ll let you know as soon as I talk with her.”

“Thank you, dear. Give my love to Angus and Ted.”

“About Ted…. He had quite the adventure this morning.” I told her about our earlier excitement.

“Oh, darling, I’m so glad he’s okay! What a terrible ordeal. Are you all right?”

“I’m still a little shaky, but I’m getting over it,” I said.

“With all this going on, are you sure you want to take on a stitching project of this magnitude?” she asked.

“Of course. They caught the guy. Everything is fine now.”

“If you’re sure….”

“I’m sure. I’ll talk with you later. Love you, Mom.”

“Love you more than chocolate,” she said.

We ended the call, and I smiled at Angus. “That was Grandma,” I told him. “She loves us more than chocolate. Yes, she does!”

He woofed, scooped up the tennis ball, and took a run around the shop with it.

Before I could call Rajani Singh, better known as Reggie, Sadie MacKenzie came in and was nearly bowled over by Angus. Sadie had been my best friend since our college days. She and her husband Blake owned MacKenzies’ Mochas, a hip little coffeehouse down the street from the Seven-Year Stitch. In fact, it was Sadie who’d convinced me to move here and open my shop.

“What’s got him so excited?” Sadie asked, as she walked over to join me on the sofa facing away from the window in the sit-and-stitch square.

The square was so named because two navy sofas faced each other with an oval maple coffee table between them. On either end of the coffee table were two red club chairs with matching ottomans. A red and blue braided rug beneath the coffee table pulled everything together and created a cozy square where customers could come sit and stitch.

“We’ve had an exciting morning,” I answered Sadie. “First we saw Ted chasing an armed man on the street, shots were fired, and I nearly had a breakdown. Then Mom called.”

“I heard about the robbery and the chase afterward. Was anyone hurt?”

“No.”

“That’s good. What’s your mom up to?”

“She’s signed on for a huge, lavish production—her words, not mine—about some Bollywood starlet. Mom has asked me and some of Tallulah Falls’ finest needle crafters to help with embroidering the costumes.”

“Have fun with that.” Sadie was so not a stitcher.

“I should take you to San Fran to the movie set one day to be an extra,” I said.

“My skin might be darker than yours, but I don’t look Indian.”

“With a scarf and veil, you might.”

“With a scarf and veil, you might,” she said.

“Not me. I’m way too pale. I read something cute the other day on some blog forum.” I grinned as I quoted, “We Oregonians don’t tan; we rust.”

She smiled. “That is cute. Oh, hey, Todd took Audrey Dayton out to dinner last night.” She carefully watched to gauge my reaction. “I haven’t heard from him this morning—he didn’t even come in for his usual espresso—so I don’t know how it went.”

“I’m sure it went great,” I said. “I’m the one who suggested they’d make a good couple in the first place, remember?”

“I remember. I only wanted to make sure you hadn’t had a change of heart now that…you know….” She shrugged. “He seems to be getting over you and moving on.”

“Sadie, nothing could make me happier. Ted and I are so right for each other. I see it more and more every day, and I believe he does too. I wish you could see it.”

Since I’d first arrived in Tallulah Falls, Sadie had been trying to fix me up with Todd Calloway. Todd owned the Brew Crew, a pub and craft brewery directly across the street from the Seven-Year Stitch. Todd and I went on a few dates, but it never amounted to more than friendship. Sure, Todd was sweet and good-looking, but I never felt the spark of excitement with him that I felt with Ted Nash, head detective for the Tallulah Falls Sheriff’s Department.

I felt Todd had been hurt when I chose Ted over him, but it was probably more from pride than anything else. Like me, Todd realized that though we cared about each other, it was as friends. And while the idea of Todd getting seriously involved with MacKenzies’ Mochas’ mean-spirited waitress Keira made my stomach churn, I was delighted that he and the kind, auburn-haired deputy Audrey Dayton might be compatible.

“You know, I suspect Todd didn’t come by for his usual espresso this morning because he was avoiding Keira,” I said.

“That’s a pretty safe bet. She was livid when she found out he and Audrey had a date. She thought that with you out of the picture, she was all set.” Sadie smiled. “Maybe Blake and I can have you and Ted over for dinner sometime soon.”

“That would mean a lot to both of us,” I said. Especially since you’ve made it apparent that you thought our relationship was a mistake. I didn’t say that last part out loud, of course… only in my head.

As soon as Sadie left, I called Reggie. Reggie was the librarian for Tallulah Falls’ only public library. I could tell by the clipped efficiency of her voice when she answered the phone that I’d called her at a busy time.

“Hi, it’s Marcy,” I said. “I won’t keep you, but I’m calling to ask if you’d be willing to help out my mom with some Bollywood costumes.”

I didn’t need to explain anything further. Reggie knew my mom from the times Mom had visited Tallulah Falls, and all my friends had enjoyed listening to her “war stories.”

“That sounds fantastic,” Reggie said. “I’ll be over to the shop on my lunch break to get all the details.”

* * *

As I’d hoped, Angus spent most of the late morning napping by the window while I attended to customers, opened the box that had been delivered yesterday afternoon, and restocked the pegboards with embroidery hoops and frames. The merchandise area of the shop was separated from the sit-and-stitch square by a black-and-white checkerboard tile floor. I’d worn heels today, and they clicked on the tile as I placed the canvas and monks cloth on the maple shelves, refilled the bins with yarn and embroidery floss, and put the overflow in the storeroom. Normally, that clicking sound combined with our being alone in the store would’ve made Angus come bounding over to jump and nip at me. Today he was too worn out from the earlier game of fetch.

Once my work was caught up—for the moment—I returned to the sit-and-stitch square and felt pleased with myself for a job well done. I glanced up at the clock and saw that it was a quarter until twelve.

I went into my office and made sure there were sodas in my mini-fridge. After Reggie had told me she’d be by around noon, I’d called and asked Ted to bring us a pizza for lunch.

I heard the bells over the shop door jingle, and I hurried out of the office. I was glad to see that Ted had not only brought the cheese pizza I’d asked for, but that he’d also brought Reggie’s husband, Manu.

They were quite a contrast standing there side by side. Ted was six feet, three inches tall, dwarfing Manu, who stood a mere five feet, seven inches. Not that I was one to talk about height. At five feet nothing, Manu dwarfed me.

Ted was muscular and athletic. Manu was muscular, too, but he had a stockier build. And while Manu had deep-set dark brown eyes, Ted’s eyes were as blue as the ocean on a clear summer’s day.

I greeted Ted with a quick kiss. “This is a nice surprise,” I told Manu.

“When you said Reggie was coming over, I thought we should make it a foursome,” Ted said.

“I’m glad you did,” I said.

Angus, who’d loped over when the men first walked in, was busying himself trying to sniff at the pizza box that Ted was holding up out of the dog’s reach.

“You’ll get your share, buddy,” Ted said.

“Especially after Reggie gets here,” Manu added.

“I’ll grab us some paper plates, napkins, and sodas,” I said.

Ted and I usually ate in my office; but since Manu and Reggie were joining us, we’d need to dine in the sit-and-stitch square.

When Reggie arrived, I put the cardboard clock with the plastic hands on the door indicating I’d “be back” in half an hour. I didn’t lock the door, but I hoped any customer who might come by during that time would respect our desire to eat lunch uninterrupted.

As we ate, I explained about Mom’s new project and advised Reggie that Mom had requested her specifically because she did such gorgeous chikankari work. Reggie was sporting some of that white-on-white embroidery today on the fitted cuffs of her cream-colored tunic. Unlike her husband, who favored Western dress such as jeans and plaid shirts, Reggie preferred her traditional Indian attire of flowing tunics with matching pants or saris.

“I’m flattered that your mother thinks I’m good enough to be of help,” Reggie said, lowering her head in modesty and pushing her silver, wire-framed glasses up on her nose.

“Good enough?” I scoffed. “She wants you to give the rest of us—including her crew in San Francisco—a crash course!”

“I’m looking forward to seeing this movie,” Manu said. “Sonam Zakaria was an incredible talent.”

“Yes, she was,” Reggie said. “But she had such extreme highs and lows in both her career and her personal life. Who will be playing her in the movie?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t think to ask Mom when I was talking with her.”

“Will you have to go to San Francisco?” Ted asked, tossing a piece of pizza crust to Angus.

“I should go at least overnight to get a feel for the designs and what Mom will need,” I said. “But most of our actual work will be done here. Reggie, I’d love for you to go with me to San Fran. How about this coming weekend? Maybe we could all go.”

“I’d like that,” Reggie said.

“Great. I’m sure the studio will pay for our flight, and we can stay with Mom. We’ll try to get a flight out right after work tomorrow evening and….” I noticed the guys were looking at each other. And, although I couldn’t read their expressions, I knew Ted well enough to realize that one or both of them would not be going to California. “What?”

“Ted and I can’t go,” Manu said. “Our robbery suspect escaped this morning.”

“Escaped? How?” Please don’t let it be my fault. Please don’t let it be my fault.

“He punched the deputy who was cuffing him, and then he got away,” Ted said. “He apparently ran through one of the shops and out the back where we think there was a car waiting.”

“You believe he had an accomplice?” I asked.

“He would have had to have,” Manu said. “He got away too easily.”

“We’re thinking he must’ve hidden in the trunk or the back floor and that his driver simply merged into the traffic and fled the scene while we were still combing the shops for our suspect,” Ted said.

“Oh, my goodness. That’s terrible.” I placed my hand over Ted’s. “I’ll call Mom back and ask her to get someone else.”

They all spoke at once.

“No, you won’t,” said Ted.

“Over my dead body,” Reggie chimed in.

“That’s not necessary,” Manu said. “We’ll catch this guy…hopefully before the sun sets today.”

“Still, I don’t think it’s appropriate to leave and go to San Francisco,” I said.

“It’s a perfect time to go,” Ted said. “If we don’t catch this guy, Manu and I will be working around the clock to find him. You and Reggie might as well enjoy yourselves.”

I turned to Reggie.

She shrugged. “He’s right. Let’s go. We won’t do them any good by pacing the floors and wringing our hands at home. Trust me—I’ve been there and done that.”

“Besides, somebody has to babysit.” Ted inclined his head toward Angus.

“Our men are too busy for us this weekend, Marcy,” Reggie said with a wink. “We might as well skip town.”

I smiled uncertainly. “I’ll make the arrangements.”

# # #

CROSS STITCH BEFORE DYING will be released on August 6, 2013. If you’d like to pre-order, please do so! Links to retailers are below:

Amazon

Books-A-Million

Barnes and Noble

Indiebound

Claus of Death by Gayle Trent

Claus of Death by Gayle Trent

“I really enjoyed ‘Between a Clutch and a Hard Place.’ Myrtle is a great character and the story is refreshing. I like how Gayle Trent avoids being overly sweet and ‘cozy’ yet isn’t ‘hard-boiled’ either. The second book ‘When Good Bras Go Bad’ is just as fun to read. I look forward to more books about Myrtle!” – AlphaGirl, Vine Voice

 

Chapter One

I was all snuggled up in my recliner with a blanket over my legs and Matlock beside me when the doorbell rang. I’d been watching my show—The Young and The Restless—and they were right in the middle of something dramatic. It was Friday, and they always do something overly dramatic and then leave you hangin’ over the weekend.

I heaved a big sigh, which made Matlock heave a big sigh—he wasn’t one to go barking every time somebody came to the door—as I put down the footrest and got up to peek out the window and see who was there. You remember Matlock, don’t you? He’s the chocolate Labrador retriever I got at the animal shelter a few months ago. He’s my buddy—that’s for sure. When I first got him, I thought I’d lost my mind. Now I don’t know how I ever got along without him.

Anyway, back to who was at the door. I looked out the window, and there stood Tansie and her sister Melvia. I know you remember Tansie—she’s my big, mouthy neighbor that throws money around like it was confetti. Melvia is also my neighbor, but she’s nice. She can’t help who her sister is. And, like myself, Melvia is on a fixed income.

I turned off the television before I opened the door. I didn’t want Tansie and Melvia to think I just sit around watching soap operas all day because I don’t. I watch one, and that’s only because I’ve watched it for years. And me and Matlock enjoy some of them old shows they have on sometimes like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Big Valley…that kind of thing. And we watch talk shows sometimes. We have to keep up on what’s going on in the world, you know. But we don’t spend all day in front of the television. We have things to do.

“It’s about time,” Tansie said, when I opened the door. She brushed past me. “I thought you were going to let us stand out there in the cold all day.”

“Well, no,” I said. “I hadn’t planned on it, Miss Impatient.  Hi, Melvia.”

“Hello, Myrtle,” Melvia said.

“Here. Give me your coats, and I’ll hang ‘em up,” I said.

Tansie wriggled out of her long wool coat and handed it to me. Melvia said she believed she’d leave her jacket on.

“I took a chill when we were at the mall, and I’ve not got over it yet,” she said.

“Is it that cold out?” I asked. It hadn’t snowed or anything, but I knew it was in the low thirties or the high twenties…about right for early December in southwest Virginia.

“It’s not so much the cold as what happened at the mall,” Tansie said.

“Can I get ya’ll some coffee?” I asked.

“I’d like a cup,” Melvia said.

We all went into the kitchen, Matlock included. He was as eager as I was to find out what happened at the mall that had given poor little old Melvia a chill.

I poured Melvia a cup of coffee and handed her the sugar bowl, the creamer, and a spoon as she sat down at the table.

“How long has that coffee been settin’ there?” Tansie asked.

“Not long. I made a fresh pot at lunchtime. But if you don’t want any, it won’t hurt my feelings.” I poured myself a cup as Tansie said she believed she’d pass. Hateful thing. Like her coffee don’t taste as thick and strong as motor oil no matter when it’s made.

I took my coffee and sat down at the table with Melvia.

Tansie sat down across from Melvia. “You gonna tell her, or do you want me to?”

Melvia shook her head. “I don’t want to. You tell her.”

“Well, I wish somebody would,” I said. This was getting worse than one of them soap opera cliff hangers. I put sugar and creamer into my coffee and stirred it up. I didn’t have all day.

“Melvia and I went to the mall to do a little Christmas shopping. I needed to finish up.” She looked down her nose at her sister. “Had you even started before this morning?”

Melvia shook her head. “I told you. I had to wait on my Social Security check to get here.”

I told you Tansie was hateful. She didn’t have to bring that up in front of me or anybody else. She just wanted me to know—and Melvia to be reminded—that she didn’t have to wait for money to come in. She could go shopping whenever she wanted.

“I do mine a little bit along,” I said to Melvia. In fact, I had mine pert near done, but I didn’t say so. No sense in making Melvia feel even worse.

“Will ya’ll please stop interrupting?” Tansie huffed. “Melvia and I were going through the mall. Belk had their pantsuits on sale, and we were headed down there to look at them when we saw a commotion at Santa Land.”

She was waiting for me to ask what happened, but I didn’t say a word. She’d just told us to stop interrupting, so I’d be dogged if I was going to now.

Since neither me nor Melvia said a word, Tansie just blurted the rest of it out.

“Jackson Barnard, who was playing Santa Claus, killed himself.”

“And he was on the throne when he did it,” Melvia said softly. “Oh, I don’t mean in the bathroom. He was on his Santa Land throne.”

“He killed himself?” I asked. “With what? A gun?”

“No. It was poison. He’d put it in his coffee,” Tansie said.

Melvia looked down at hers like it might have poison in it, so I took a sip of mine to reassure her.

“Are you sure?” I frowned. “Maybe he just had a heart attack or something. No self-respecting mall Santa would kill himself right there in Santa Land in front of all those little kids.”

“It wasn’t too bad crowded today,” Melvia said. “I reckon most of the young ‘uns were in school.”

“Still, what makes y’all so sure it was a suicide?” I asked.

“Because we heard the police talking about it with the woman who works at the Bagel Barn,” Tansie said. “She saw the whole thing. She said he was fine as frog hair, said ‘good morning’ to her as he passed by, went over to Santa Land and sat down on his throne, took a drink of his coffee, and five minutes later he was dead.”

“But why do you think it was suicide?” I wasn’t letting this go without some hard evidence.

“We know because one of the police officers said there were signs of poison,” Melvia said.

“Then how do you know it was suicide and not murder?” I asked.

Tansie rolled her eyes like I was stupid. “Because people get depressed this time of year. Besides, who’s gonna kill Santa?”

 * * *

 When my granddaughter Sunny (y’all know I don’t call my little Sunshine by Crimson, that hippie name her Mama hung on her) got home from school, she called me.

“Hey, Mimi,” she said. “What can I get Matlock for Christmas?”

“I reckon he’d like a visit from you more than anything,” I said.

“Yeah, but I want to get him something and wrap it up.”

“All right.” I looked down at Matlock. “He likes them little dog bones and those treats that look like beef jerky.”

Matlock raised his big head off his paws and looked up at me.

“He knows we’re talking about him,” I told Sunny.

She giggled. “What’ve y’all been doin’ today?”

“We had a surprise visit from Tansie and Melvia,” I said. “They were going on about Santa droppin’ dead at the mall today.”

“I heard about that,” she said. “Monica Krenshaw had been to the orthodontist, and her mama took her to the mall to get her some chicken strips from the food court, and she said the police were there and that they’d roped off Santa Land. It’s closed for the time being.”

“For how long?” I asked. “That’s awful for Santa Land to be closed three weeks before Christmas.”

“I know. But then, who’d want to take their kids there knowing some guy died there?”

“Melvia said he died right there on the throne,” I said. “Did the young ‘un with the braces say anything about what happened to the guy?”

“She didn’t know. She said the only thing the people at the Chicken Coop knew was that he fell over dead and that he had definitely not had anything to eat from the Chicken Coop,” said Sunny.

“Tansie and Melvia heard he was poisoned…but keep that to yourself for now,” I said. “I don’t know any of the details yet.”

“That might be why the people at the Chicken Coop were doing damage control,” she said. “If I ran the Chicken Coop and somebody got poisoned, I wouldn’t want people to think my chicken made them sick.”

“Me either.” My little Sunshine has a good business head on her shoulders, don’t you think? “Still, I can’t figure out why the people at the mall would automatically assume he killed himself if he was poisoned. You’d think it was either accidental or that he was killed. How many people kill themselves with poison?”

“I don’t know, Mimi. Want me to look it up?”

“Yeah. If you don’t care and have time,” I said.

“I’ve got my laptop right here. Hold on a sec.”

After a sec, she came back to tell me that she couldn’t find any exact statistics.

“Poisoning oneself is listed as a way of committing suicide,” Sunny said. “It’s listed right there with vehicular collisions, jumping off bridges, firearms, and hanging.”

“Well, eww…. I wish you hadn’t looked that up now,” I said. “I don’t want you going around with that kinda stuff on your mind.”

“Puh-leeze, Mimi. I’m almost fifteen. And I watch Supernatural. I’m not going to let something a little icky creep me out.”

Supernatural is a good show, but it’s full of haints, boogers, spooks, and monsters. Me and Matlock started watching it to see what Sunny was going on about. I believe she watches it because she thinks them boys on there are handsome. But she’s right. If she can watch that and not be scared as all get out, looking up an article on suicide methods shouldn’t bother her. And them boys are awfully nice looking.

Still, I told her I’d prefer that she didn’t mention what I’d had her look up to her mama. Faye don’t like for me to get Sunny involved with my investigations. In fact, Faye don’t like me getting’ involved with my investigations. And I reckoned that’s what this was now. I was probably going to have to go undercover to find out whether or not Jolly Old Saint Nick committed Hari Kari. Hey, I guess that’d make me Mata Hari Kari.

I’m having dinner with Sheriff Cooper Norville this evening. We got to know each other when I was investigating Flora Adams’ disappearance. I’ll see what he knows about the Santa suicide…the Santa situation…the Santa Land takedown…. If I ever decide to write books about my investigations, I’m going to have to get better at coming up with catchy names for my cases.

# # #

CLAUS OF DEATH will be out this fall, but I don’t have a release date yet. Still, you can get to know Myrtle through her first two books, BETWEEN A CLUTCH AND A HARD PLACE and WHEN GOOD BRAS GO BAD. Both are available on Kindle.

Battered to Death by Gayle Trent“One day I found myself happily reading . . . mysteries by Gayle Trent. If she can win me over . . . she’s got a great future.” —Dean Koontz, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Daphne gets to investigate the complexities of the human condition, with one hand on her mixer and the other wielding a piping bag…A must read for cake bakers and anyone who has ever spent creative time in the kitchen!” – Kerry Vincent, Sugar Artist and Food Network Challenge judge

 

Chapter One

It had been a long, bleak winter in southwest Virginia. Even though I was born and raised in the small town of Brea Ridge and should be used to the cold, often snowy winters, I was a warm-weather gal at heart. I sometimes wondered if I was adopted . . . if I’d been born to parents whose native climate was tropical . . . and if they ever wondered what had become of their dear Daphne and wished they’d have kept me there with them in their oceanfront mansion.

And so my thoughts were meandering now that the weather was finally warming up. I was sitting at the island in my kitchen—as close to a tropical island as I was likely to get for a while—making flowers for the wedding cake I was entering in the first annual Brea Ridge Taste Bud Temptation Cake and Confectionary Arts Exhibit and Competition when Myra rapped on the door. The knock was a mere formality. She could see me and figured—rightly so—that the door was unlocked, so she came on in.

Myra is my closest—both in proximity and in relationship—neighbor. She’s wonderful, she’s exasperating, she’s aggravating, she’s endearing, and she’s always entertaining.

“What are you doing?” she asked, cocking her head as she watched me using my cattleya  orchid cutters to make petals out of fondant.

“I’m making orchids for the wedding cake I’m doing for the cake competition,” I said.

“Oh, good. I thought you were making the weirdest-looking cookies I’d ever seen.” She sat down on one of the stools across the island from me. “So . . . do you think anything crazy will happen at this cake thing?”

“Crazy?” I smiled. “There’s always something crazy going on in the cake world. That much competitive spirit combined with all that sugar makes for some interesting shenanigans.”

“No, no, no.” She waved away my “interesting shenanigans”  with a double flick of her left wrist. “I’m talking about criminal activity. I’m hoping that with all these people coming to little old Brea Ridge, Mark and I will have at least one interesting case on our hands before the weekend is out.”

Myra—an attractive widow in her early to mid-sixties—had been dating private investigator Mark Thompson for the past couple of months. Mark was good at his job and had plenty to keep him busy. He’d also had the good sense to keep Myra away from his investigations for the most part, but I suspected that was getting harder and harder for him to do.

“I didn’t know Mark was looking for extra work,” I said, gently picking up one of the orchid leaves and ruffling its edges with a ball  modeling tool.

“He’s not, but he’s told me that if the right kind of case comes along, he’ll be glad to have me help out.”

The right kind of case . . . Well played, Mark. Well played, I thought.

I continued shaping the orchid. “Well, good luck, but I can’t see anything too awfully crazy happening over the course of the next few days. I mean, any criminal activity would be handled by the police, so I don’t know what could happen in that short amount of time that would require the services of a private investigator.”

“That’s the kind of stuff people say just before disaster strikes,” Myra said, with a sage nod of her head that would’ve done any mountaintop guru proud.

“I guess you have a point there.” I tried to change the subject. “I hope the confectionary arts exhibit and cake competition  will go well. I know there are some people in Brea Ridge who aren’t happy that so many people will be converging on the town, but I think it’ll be good for the local economy. Don’t you?”

“Well, honey, I hope it will. I know all the locals could use the money. Tanya’s even put a sign in her window that walk-ins are welcome and that they specialize in updos .”

I’d seen some of the updos that had been done at Tanya’s Tremendous Tress Taming Salon. The words “beehive” and “shellacked” immediately came to mind.

“Hopefully, she’ll get some business,” I said, trying not to shudder as I imagined scores of out-of-towners with ten-gallon updos that would stand up to hurricane-force winds. I really did hope Tanya would get some business, though. Maybe new customers would be good. They could look at their new hairstyles as part of the whole Brea Ridge Taste Bud Temptation experience.

Myra looked down at the orchid I’d just finished. “Well, that’s pretty after all. I didn’t know what you were going to wind up with when you started.”

“Thanks. I’ve not done many orchids before, but I thought white orchids and peach roses would be a beautiful combination on the wedding cake I’m entering into the competition.” I put the orchid on a foam square. “Hopefully, next year, I’ll be able to incorporate the Australian string work I’ll be learning in Jordan Richards’s two-day class that starts tomorrow.”

“Jordan Richards?” Myra leaned back and frowned at me. “He’s that cake decorator from TV, right?”

I nodded. “He’s a renowned sugar artist. A lot of people are coming to the cake and confectionary arts exhibit and competition  just to see him. He only accepted ten students into his class. The ones who weren’t able to get into the class will be attending his demonstrations at the show.”

Myra scoffed. “Like he’ll give two hoots of an owl’s patoot.”

“What?” I chuckled.

“He’s the one who’s so mean on television. He makes that Gordon Ramsay  fellow look like Mary Poppins .”

“I know he has the reputation of being hypercritical  and a . . .” I struggled to find the right word.

Myra didn’t need to think about it as long and hard as I did. “Jerk . . . creep . . . rabid, inconsiderate, rude, hypocritical  ball of snot?”

“Uh . . . yeah, I guess you could call him any or all of those things. But that might just be his TV persona. He might be nothing like that in real life. At least, I hope he’s not.” I held up my crossed index and middle fingers. “Fingers crossed. Besides, I want to learn from the best.”

“Oh, honey,” Myra said. “Sometimes you learn just as many bad things as good from the best.”

I put aside the orchid petal I was working on and asked Myra if she’d like something to drink. Experience had taught me that when Myra began an Oh, honey story, I might as well make myself comfortable and settle in for the long haul.

“No, thanks, I’m fine,” she said.

I took a bottle of water from the fridge, uncapped it, took a long drink, and sat back down.

“Ruthie Mae Pruitt got to be purt near fifty years old before she learned to drive a car,” Myra said. “She didn’t really feel the need to learn to drive until after her husband died. The fact that he’d died as the result of a car accident didn’t really faze her, since he’d been walking and was hit by the car that had the accident.”

“So she figured she might as well learn to drive in case she wanted to hit somebody? Or was it because she was afraid to walk wherever she wanted to go after her husband’s death?” I was being sarcastic, but Myra answered as if I weren’t.

“Mainly, she didn’t want to walk everywhere she wanted to go. And, of course, she got to thinking that driving herself could really broaden her horizons. She’d had to depend on someone else to take her wherever she’d wanted to go all her life. With her own driver’s license, she could go anywhere she wanted. She’d even decided to visit her sister two states down and one state over, in the upper corner of Georgia. That was a big deal to Ruthie Mae. So she started asking around town because she wanted to learn to drive from the best.” Myra leveled her gaze at me. We were getting to the moral of the story.

“Now, everybody in Brea Ridge knew that Tony Barger was the best driver around. He could’ve probably gone pro on the NASCAR  circuit or that Indy 500  deal or some other big-time racing racket had it not been for his drinking problem,” she continued.

“Please tell me Tony Barger wasn’t drunk when he taught Ruthie how to drive,” I said.

“Of course he wasn’t. He had, however, tied one on and kept it on the entire weekend before he took Ruthie Mae for her first and only driving lesson on Monday afternoon.”

“First and only?” I asked. “Did she decide she didn’t like it after all?”

“More than likely, that was her final thought. Neither of them made it out of that driving lesson alive. You see, Tony was definitely not drunk when he was driving Ruthie Mae out to the parking lot of that closed-down grocery store where he was going to give her that first lesson in driving. He was very conscientious about that. He wanted to set a good example and that sort of thing. But the poor man did have the DTs something fierce,” she said, slowly shaking her head. “Some say he might’ve even had a seizure.”

“Wait a second. How do you know he had delirium tremens?” I asked. “Did someone see him having them?”

“Nah, honey. It just stood to reason. What would you think if a man who was normally a drunk who could drive circles around everybody else in Brea Ridge suddenly took a relatively young widow for her first driving lesson and drove her into the side of an abandoned grocery store at eighty-five miles an hour, instantly killing them both?”

“I’d think he was drunk at the time instead of suffering from withdrawal,” I said.

“That’s because you didn’t know Tony. He could drive just as good drunk as he could sober,” Myra said. “In fact, he drove better drunk than some people could drive sober. And had he been drunk, that accident never would’ve happened.”

I took another drink of my water, figuring it was useless to argue the point with her. Even though I found it nearly impossible to believe that an intoxicated man could outdrive most of the sober citizens of Brea Ridge, why argue? After all, what difference did it make?

“Plus, there was no alcohol in his bloodstream at the time of the accident,” Myra went on. “It was in the newspaper. That’s how everybody knew it wasn’t the alcohol that caused the wreck but the fact that he’d been off it since Sunday night that had been the problem. So you see? Sometimes learning from the best isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “Hopefully, Chef Richards won’t be drunk . . . or sober . . . or in any kind of condition that would hinder him from instructing us all in the fine art of Australian string work. And even if he is, the worst he can do is frost us to death, right?”

She laughed. “I guess so. Just be careful he doesn’t put you in a sugar coma.”

“Or cause me to gain ten pounds overnight,” I said.

“Oh, honey, that’s my worst nightmare . . . well, one of them anyway.”

At the time I didn’t realize that taking a cake decorating class from Jordan Richards would not be too different from hitting a brick wall at eighty-five miles per hour. We live and we learn. And, to Myra’s credit, it turned out that sometimes learning from the best was not everything you thought it would be.

* * *

After Myra left, Sparrow, my gray-and-white, one-eyed Persian cat, came out of my home office-slash–guest room, where she had a bed in the corner in which she liked to hide. Her mewing reminded me that it was nearing dinnertime. Although she was a stray that I had inherited when I’d moved into my house last year, Sparrow had adapted very quickly to having her meals served on a regular basis.

As I opened a can of cat food and emptied it into her dish, I thought about how far I’d come these past few months. After my abusive husband had shot at me—fortunately, he’d missed—and had been arrested for attempted murder, I ended our fifteen-year marriage and moved from our home in Tennessee back to my hometown of Brea Ridge, Virginia. My sister, Violet,  was a Realtor  in Brea Ridge, and she’d found a house she knew I’d love. She was right. My cozy two-bedroom cottage suited me to a tee.

I also loved living closer to Violet’s twelve-year-old boy/girl twins, Lucas and Leslie. My ex-husband, Todd, and I had never had any children—a good thing, looking back—and Lucas and Leslie were as close as I was likely going to get to having children for a while. Of course, I was forty, and nearing forty-one at breakneck speed. If I was going to be a mom, I needed to get started on the process fairly soon . . . whether naturally or by adoption. I had a vision of Marisa Tomei  stomping her foot in one of her movies and telling her onscreen boyfriend that her biological clock was ticking. I was afraid that if I waited much longer, my biological alarm would start buzzing . . . and I wouldn’t be able to hit the snooze button either.

Anyway, Leslie and Lucas had always held a special place in my heart. I’d enjoyed spending plenty of time with them since I’d been back in Brea Ridge. It was just that sometimes watching them interact with Violet and Jason, their dad, I sensed the strength of the family’s bond and longed to have that closeness with my own child. A husband would be nice too, of course. Yes, I wanted the whole package. I wanted everything I didn’t have with Todd: a lover who cherished me, a man I could trust and respect, a provider and guardian who would shelter me and our child—or children—from life’s storms. Suddenly, music from Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet  swelled in my head, and I nearly began singing “A Time for Us” at the top of my lungs. I restrained myself, though, because it would have really freaked out the cat . . . and any neighbors within earshot.

I’d worked for a government housing agency for over twenty years when I was living in Tennessee, so I was fortunate to get a severance package when I retired, which allowed me to realize my dream of operating a bakery out of my home when I moved back to Virginia. Pretty much ever since I’d been back in Brea Ridge, I’d been the sole proprietor of Daphne’s Delectable Cakes. And now I was getting ready to put my cake-decorating skills to the test by entering not one but two cakes in the Brea Ridge Taste Bud Temptation Cake and Confectionary Arts Exhibit and Competition. In addition to the wedding cake I’d told Myra about, I’d sculpted a superhero cake to enter into the novelty cake division.

I washed my hands at the sink and then put away my orchid petals and the completed flowers while I wondered what to have for dinner. Ben, my significant other —the term “boyfriend” sounded too teenybopper to apply at our age, although I’d been envisioning him as the Romeo to my Juliet in my previously mentioned fantasy—was the editor in chief of the Brea Ridge Chronicle, and he was working tonight so I was on my own. I opened the cabinet and perused the shelves. Cold cereal it was.

I had several boxes on hand of various varieties. I’d learned cold cereal to be the most important staple of the single woman’s diet. I took the box from the cabinet and put in on the table. Before I could get my bowl, milk, and spoon, the phone rang. Maybe it was Ben, and he was going to be able to have dinner with me after all. We could cook something together, or get takeout, or . . .

I answered the phone. It wasn’t Ben. It was my sister, Violet.

“I finally talked her into it,” Violet said  as soon as I’d said  hello. “Leslie is going to enter a cake in the kids’ division of the cake competition.”

“I’m so glad! Is she going with carved, traditional, or something a little more modern, like the topsy-turvy cake we discussed?”

“She’s going to do a carved cheeseburger-and-fries cake.”

“That’s good,” I said. “She’ll be utilizing one of her strongest skills. She is great at eyeballing shapes and chiseling them out. How about Lucas? Is going to enter a cake?”

“I’m afraid not,” she said. “He still likes to bake sometimes, but he doesn’t think it’s cool to admit it anymore. He and Jason are attending a college baseball game Saturday, but they’ll be stopping by the competition either before or after the game to see how everything is going.”

“I’m glad. I can hardly wait to see him . . . them. I mean, it’ll be nice to see their dad too, but I haven’t seen Lucas and Leslie in over a week!”

“Hello? Don’t I rate at all?”

“Of course you do,” I said. “It goes without saying that I’ll be happy to see you.”

“Yeah, sure.” She laughed. “Way to try and cover. Between you and me, how do you think Leslie will fare in the competition?”

“I think she’ll do really well. She has a knack for decorating, and she learns quickly. The only problem I think she’ll have at all is stressing out over it too much,” I said. “Just remind her to do her best and then to let it go. Tell her to have fun with it.”

“I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you of the same thing,” said Vi. “You’ve been known to stress out too much over things like this yourself.”

She was talking about the time that I went all the way to the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show in Tulsa and then chickened out of entering my cake in the competition. I wound up giving it to the staff at my hotel, much to show director Kerry Vincent’s disapproval. Ms. Vincent had basically told me to come back when I was ready to put a little more faith in myself and my ability as a decorator. She was very kind and understanding. Maybe I would return to the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show and compete . . . but I needed to see how I would fare in the Brea Ridge Taste Bud Temptation Cake and Confectionary Art Exhibit and Competition first. Then I’d think about frying bigger fish . . . in Oklahoma.

“In my defense, the hotel staff said my cake was gorgeous . . . and that it tasted delicious,” I said.

“I’m sure it was. And I dare you to bail out of this competition at the last minute like you did that one,” she said. “In fact, I’ll be there to kick your butt if you try. If I’d been in Oklahoma with you, I wouldn’t have let you squirm out of that one either.”

“But, Vi, you didn’t see all those incredible cakes!”

“I saw the pictures you took. Granted, they were magnificent—and there will be impressive cakes at this competition too—but you have to stop selling yourself short.”

“I will,” I said. “I promise.”

“All right. And I’m not going to let Leslie back out either. Like her aunt Daphne, she merely needs to recognize her own worth and talents and feel confident enough to show them off.”

“Preach, sister, preach!” I laughed.

She huffed. “Okay. I’ll get off my pulpit now and let you go back to whatever you were doing.” She paused. “What were you doing?”

“Deciding which cereal to have for dinner,” I said. “I’m thinking of going with a granola entrée and following up with either a chocolaty or fruity cereal for dessert.”

“I take it Ben’s working?” she asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“How are things going between you two?”

“Great,” I said. “He’s wonderful. I should’ve never let him go all those years ago. I’m lucky he gave me another chance.”

Ben and I had been childhood friends and later high school sweethearts. Although we had tried to make it work, our romance fell apart after we went to separate colleges and I met Todd.

“Then don’t let him get away again,” she said. She kept her tone light, but there was a word of warning there.

“Do you know something I don’t?” I asked.

“No. I’m just saying that it’s rare for a couple to get a second chance like the two of you have been given,” she said. “Make the most of it.”

“I am.”

After talking with Violet, I took my bowl of granola  into the living room and watched the episode of Chef Jordan Richards’s program I had recorded on my DVR.

As the show came on, it showed Chef Richards addressing a petite brunette about her three-tiered wedding cake. “What’s this *bleep*?” he demanded. “What color is this supposed to be?”

“Burnt orange,” the brunette said, lowering her eyes away from his scalding glare. “It’s what the client wanted.”

“Well, it looks like *bleep* brown to me!” He used his right hand to forcefully push the center tier of the cake, effectively knocking the entire cake off the counter and onto the floor. “Clean that up! Then you can start over!”

The camera zoomed in on the brunette’s face—particularly, her quavering lips—as she went to the corner of the kitchen to get a broom and dustpan. The cameraman followed, allowing the audience to see the woman’s humiliating trip back behind the table to clean up the remains of her hard work. He then panned the camera over to Chef Richards, who was shaking his head in contempt as he wiped his icing-covered hand on a dishtowel.

I gulped, suddenly dreading tomorrow morning’s class. I tried to reassure myself. I’d dealt with bullies before. Todd had bullied me for years before committing the act of abuse—trying to kill me—that was second only to the final act of abuse—succeeding in the murder attempt. At least Jordan Richards wouldn’t try to kill me during the course of teaching his string work class . . . would he?

# # #

BATTERED TO DEATH by Gayle Trent will be published on September 24, 2013. Please pre-order the book at one of the retailers below:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Books-A-Million

Indiebound

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