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“LIKE IT OR not, honeybun, Shirley and Wyatt make a strikin’ couple.”
Although my BFF’s observation echoed my own, not even Chinese water torture could get me to admit this out loud. For the past seven minutes and thirty seconds, Reba Mae Johnson and I had watched an animated exchange between Shirley Randolph, Realtor and reigning diva, and Wyatt McBride, Brandywine Creek’s hunky police chief, that was taking place on the sidewalk just outside my spice shop, Spice It Up!
I grimaced at hearing Shirley’s peal of laughter. “Since when did McBride turn into a jokester?”
Casey, my mutt of many breeds, opened one eye at hearing the name of his favorite lawman. When there was no sign of him, however, Casey resumed napping under the counter.
Reba Mae shifted from her perch next to my antique cash register to get a better view of the pair. “Could be Wyatt’s harbored a secret ambition to be a stand-up comic and he’s tryin’ out his routine on Shirley.”
“Hmph!” I grunted. “McBride’s more the ‘book ’em, Danno’ type. The man’s seriously lacking in the humor department.”
“What’s that old sayin’?” Reba Mae drawled. “Somethin’ about opposites attractin’? Why, look at us.”
“Point well taken.” Outwardly the two of us were physically as different as could be. While Reba Mae tended toward the flamboyant and statuesque with hair color that changed with the seasons and soft-brown eyes, I had bright red hair, unruly curls, and eyes green as a tomcat’s. Some people referred to me as short, but I preferred to think of myself as vertically challenged.
When Shirley placed a possessive hand on McBride’s arm, I turned away and began rearranging spices I’d only have to unarrange later. “I don’t see what those two could possibly have in common.”
“Gee, let me think.” Reba Mae struck a thoughtful pose. “You mean other than the fact that they’re both drop-dead gorgeous?”
“Looks aren’t everything.” I lined up jars of sea salt according to grind: extra coarse, coarse, and fine. “Shirley doesn’t seem his type is all. She’s a girlie-girl; he’s more the hunting and fishing sort. She prefers shrimp and grits; he likes pulled pork. When it comes to Atlanta, she’d opt for a play at the Fox while McBride would rather see a play on the field at the Falcons’ new football stadium.”
“Piper Prescott!” Reba Mae’s eyes held a teasing glint. “Since when did you become an authority on Wyatt McBride’s likes and dislikes?”
“I couldn’t care less what he does with his personal life. Makes no difference to me they’ve been seen having dinner a time or two.” I could tell from my friend’s amused expression that she wasn’t buying my explanation. We’d been besties for years, and she could read me like a book. Granted, I felt a certain attraction to the man, but I didn’t need to complicate my life falling for a bachelor with lady-killer looks. I had no claim on McBride, and he had none on me. Why, then, did I feel irritated each time I saw Shirley and him together?
“Don’t let Shirley’s appearance fool you,” Reba Mae warned me with a shake of her head that set her gold hoop earrings swaying. “When it comes to business, she’s a piranha on the hunt for Sunday dinner.”
“And when did you become an expert on Shirley Randolph?” From the corner of my eye, I watched Shirley conclude her conversation with McBride. To my surprise, instead of heading for her office at Creekside Realty, she strolled into Spice It Up!
“Hey, Shirley. How can I help you?” The woman would be easy to dislike. She was just too … too … darn perfect. Tall and slender, she possessed an exotic type of beauty with her dark, almost black, shoulder-length bob and almond-shaped eyes the color of espresso. I felt frumpy in comparison in my sunny yellow apron with its chili pepper logo over jeans and a T-shirt.
Reba Mae slid off the counter, straightened her flowered skirt with one hand, smoothed her hair with the other—hair that this spring happened to be dark auburn—and pointed at Shirley’s feet. “Those are one snazzy pair of shoes.”
I confess until now I hadn’t noticed Shirley’s footwear. My friend and Shirley shared an obsession with shoes. Pumps, sandals, or platforms, didn’t matter. The exception being, Reba Mae purchased hers at discount stores and Shirley didn’t. The pumps Shirley currently wore were a trendy suede leopard print with four-inch heels.
“Reba Mae, bless your heart, so kind of you to notice my little ol’ shoes,” Shirley said in a voice sweet enough to induce a diabetic coma, then turned her attention to me. “Piper, I’m here to ask a great big favor.”
My spate of arranging and rearranging over, I said, “Ask away.”
“I was hoping you’d invite a prospective client of mine to Melly’s bridal shower.”
Never in a million years did I dream I’d be hosting a bridal shower for my former mother-in-law. But, as I’ve heard said, fact is stranger than fiction. Next Sunday afternoon, Melly Prescott was set to wed Judge Cottrell “Cot” Herman in a lovely outdoor ceremony in the gazebo at Felicity Driscoll’s bed-and-breakfast. Melly’s shower would take place tomorrow afternoon at Antonio’s, Brandywine Creek’s answer to fine dining.
“I realize my request sounds forward,” Shirley continued, “but it’s important Elaine Dixon experience some genuine Southern hospitality.”
Reba Mae and I exchanged glances; then I shrugged. “What’s one more person? I don’t mind as long as Ms. Dixon doesn’t feel uncomfortable surrounded by a roomful of strangers.”
“Elaine is no shrinking violet,” Shirley said. “She and her husband Kirby are interested in making an offer on Gray’s Hardware. Kirby is enthusiastic, but his wife has … reservations … about life in a small town. I thought Melly’s shower would help pave the way.”
Reba Mae folded her arms over her impressive bosom. “What’s this woman got against small towns? I’ve lived in one all my life, and it never bothered me none.”
“The Dixons hail from New York. Syracuse,” Shirley explained. “Elaine is used to the amenities a larger city offers. Apparently Syracuse boasts a symphony, museums, art galleries, and theaters.”
Reba Mae didn’t look ready to pack a bag and relocate. “I hope you gave her a tour of the opera house? Be sure to mention I played Truvy Jones in Steel Magnolias last Valentine’s Day.”
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Reba Mae had been cast, fired, then rehired, for the role of Truvy but had taken literary license with names of the characters. Thankfully the rest of the cast adjusted to the changes. And to their credit, the audience had awarded the cast and crew with a standing ovation.
“Gotta run,” Reba Mae said after a glance at her wristwatch. “Got one last haircut waitin’ on me at the Klassy Kut.”
Shirley gazed around my shop, taking in the heart pine floors, exposed brick, and open ductwork. “I confess I’m not into cooking. This marks my first time in your little store. It’s cute.”
“Cute” wasn’t the word I’d had in mind when designing Spice It Up! I’d more aptly describe my shop in terms such as “charming,” “unique,” or “appealing.” But then again, being the proprietor, I might be a trifle prejudiced.
“While I’m here, do you carry ginger?”
“Absolutely.” I started toward the Hoosier cabinet where I kept most of my baking spices. “Powdered, crystallized, or rhizomes?”
Shirley trailed after me, a frown marring her smooth brow. “I didn’t realize there was such a variety.”
“If you explain how you plan to use it, it will make the decision easier.”
“Recently I read an article claiming ginger is good for occasional indigestion. I ordered some from a health food store online, but, in the meantime, well, I thought I’d see what you’d recommend.”
I plucked a jar of crystallized ginger from a shelf. “Ginger has been used for thousands of years to treat stomach upsets. As with any herbal medicine, however, you might want to check with your health care provider.”
“My overall health is excellent!” she snapped. “An occasional tummy upset is all.”
Replacing the jar, I took a knobby rhizome from a small basket nearby. “You could use this to brew yourself a nice cup of ginger tea.”
“Surely you’re not serious.”
“Serious as a heart attack,” I said, handing her the rhizome.
Shirley stared at the rhizome in disgust. “That ugly thing? Don’t tell me it’s edible?”
“It’s the root of the ginger plant, commonly referred to as fresh ginger.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
Sensing a sale, I walked back to the counter. “Well, there are numerous ways to prepare ginger tea. When I make it, I bring eight cups of water and one cup of thinly sliced, unpeeled ginger to a simmer until the liquid is reduced to about five cups. Once the tea’s finished, I strain it, add honey as a sweetener, and dust with cinnamon. Ginger tea is also great served over ice.”
“Thanks. I’ll give it a try.” She paid for the ginger and chatted while I bagged it. “I appreciate you extending a shower invitation to Elaine. Sale of the hardware store will be a huge relief for Mavis Gray; she’s anxious to move closer to her sister in Tampa.”
I wanted to add that the sale of Gray’s Hardware would be huge for Shirley, too, in the form of a commission. As I closed up afterwards, I wondered uncharitably if the meals she’d purportedly shared with McBride were the cause of her indigestion. The thought of them with their heads together gave me indigestion as well.
* * *
Guests were due to arrive any minute for Melly’s bridal shower. I stood in the center of the restaurant and gazed around. Starched white tablecloths with red or green napkins. Check. Small cellophane bags filled with Italian wedding cookies at each place setting. Check. Carnation centerpieces flying tiny Italian flags. Check. Mock passports and boarding passes along with travel brochures were scattered on each table. Colorful posters of iconic Italian destinations—The Colosseum, Vatican City, Venice, Lake Como—hung on the walls. Yes, I could tick all the boxes.
“Mom, where do you want this?” Lindsey, my blond-haired, blue-eyed, teenage daughter, a high school senior, held a floral arrangement of white carnations, lots of greenery, and a large red bow.
“Set it on top of the vintage suitcase on the gift table.”
Amber Leigh Ames-Prescott was next to arrive. In my more generous moments, I refer to the leggy brunette as Miss Peach Pit. The former runner-up in a Miss Georgia beauty pageant had snagged my former husband while he was taking a respite from married life. Instead of finding his “space,” he found Amber Leigh. The rest, as they say, is history.
Amber eyed my emerald green print dress with distaste. “Honestly, Piper, with your red hair and green eyes, you could be mistaken for a leprechaun. And what’s with all the red, white, and green? This place looks ready for Christmas, not a bridal shower. I knew I shouldn’t have left you in charge of details.”
I felt the urge to slap her silly but restrained myself. What in Amber’s opinion constituted a fair division of labor ended up being me doing all work and her writing a check. “If you recall,” I said, “we agreed on a travel theme. Red, white, and green happen to be the colors of the Italian flag. Since Cot and Melly are honeymooning in Tuscany, I thought the colors appropriate.”
Amber dropped her bulky Michael Kors bag on a nearby chair. “I swear the only reason Melly’s hell-bent on goin’ to Italy is because CJ and I are plannin’ a trip there this summer. She wants braggin’ rights. I can hear her now: ‘We did this; we did that. Blah, blah, blah.’”
“For your information, Italy was Cot’s idea, not Melly’s.”
“Whatever,” she said, and stalked off to join Lindsey.
Gina Deltorro emerged from the kitchen wearing an apron around her plump figure with the words I DON’T NEED A RECIPE, I’M ITALIAN emblazoned across the front. The mouthwatering fragrance of garlic wafted into the dining area. “How does everything look?” she asked.
“You and Tony did a fabulous job, Gina. The place fairly screams ‘take me to Italy!’”
Gina’s chocolate brown eyes glowed at the compliment. “Judge Cottrell is one of Antonio’s best customers. We wanted to do right by him.”
If it weren’t for the judge, Tony would have turned down my request to hold Melly’s shower here. Tony, being Sicilian, still harbored a grudge against me for naming him as a possible suspect in the murder of Mario Barrone, the restaurant’s ambitious previous owner. A simple mistake. It was time he move on.
Reba Mae sailed through the door of the restaurant followed by a bevy of women, Melly included, who all seemed to be talking at once. “Showtime,” Reba Mae said, giving me a wink as she passed by to deposit a gaily wrapped package on the rapidly filling gift table.
Gina hurried off to pour wine—both red and white—into glasses sitting on the bar next to pitchers of sweet tea. I noticed Melly Prescott working the room with the ease of a seasoned politician. When she caught my eye, she gave me a thumbs-up and mouthed, Thank you.
Love had transformed my ex-mother-in-law into a softer, prettier woman. Although Melly still wore her silver hair in a neat pageboy and was rarely seen without her pearls, these days she smiled more and criticized less.
Among the last to make an appearance was Shirley Randolph. She was accompanied by an unsmiling woman with pale blond hair and a slender figure bordering on anorexic who I assumed was Elaine Dixon. I stepped forward and held out my hand. “I’m Piper Prescott. So happy you were able to join us.”
“Shirley insisted I come,” she said by way of a greeting. “She simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“I’ve won a reputation as being persistent.” Shirley’s smile seemed forced. “Piper owns Spice It Up! just a few doors down from Gray’s Hardware.”
Vicki Lamont, rookie real estate agent, strode toward us, flicking her long dark hair over her shoulder as she walked. “We need to talk,” she said to Shirley without preamble. Taking her by the elbow before she could protest, Vicki led her out of earshot.
Elaine raised a perfectly arched brow. “What was that all about?”
Judging from the angry hand gestures, the conversation between Shirley and Vicki didn’t appear amicable. Some introduction this was to Southern hospitality. “Probably a minor difference of opinion,” I said, trying to downplay the incident. “Shirley has been helping Vicki prepare for her real estate exam.”
I was grateful when Gina appeared with a tray of wineglasses. Elaine and I each took a glass of white wine. Gina smiled and moved on. A diamond the size of a lima bean twinkled on Elaine’s ring finger as she took a sip. More diamonds, I noticed, sparkled in her earlobes.
“I usually do aerobics five times a week,” Elaine said. “I don’t suppose this town has a fitness center?”
“Er, no, we don’t. But if you like to jog, Brandywine Creek does have a variety of routes.”
“I prefer to exercise in places that have air-conditioning, changing rooms, and a juice bar.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Reba Mae worming her way through the crowd. “Hey, y’all,” she said when she reached us. “You must be Elaine Dixon. I’m Reba Mae Johnson, owner of the Klassy Kut, best little ol’ beauty shop in Brandywine County. Pleased to meet you.”
I welcomed the interruption. Reba Mae was a ray of sunshine after a downpour—the downpour being Elaine. “Elaine and I were just getting acquainted.”
“Shirley said you and your hubby are thinkin’ of buyin’ Gray’s Hardware and movin’ here. How do you like Brandywine Creek so far?”
The look Elaine gave Reba Mae could have withered tomatoes ripe on the vine. “So far, I hate everything about this town. In fact, I could shoot Kirby for coming up with this harebrained notion. As for Shirley, she’s also in my sights for encouraging him. This isn’t how I planned to spend retirement. Now if you ladies will excuse me”—she set down her wineglass—“I’m off to find a bartender who can make a decent martini.”
Reba Mae leaned closer and lowered her voice. “Did that woman really threaten to shoot her husband?”
I took a sip of my wine before answering. “An innocent remark. I’m sure she didn’t mean it.”
“Let’s hope Kirby doesn’t end up with a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.”
I surveyed the crowd. Vicki and Shirley were off in a corner and, from their grim expressions, were still exchanging heated words. Elaine Dixon accosted poor Gina Deltorro and was demanding a martini. Tony Deltorro poked his head out of the kitchen long enough to glare at me, then ducked out of sight. Was this the bridal shower that would live in infamy?
As though attuned to my glum thoughts, Reba Mae looped her arm through mine. “C’mon, honeybun. Let’s have us some fun before someone gets killed. Wait till Melly sees the undies I bought her at Victoria’s Secret.”
I chuckled in spite of myself. “Embarrass Melly in front of her friends and you’ll wind up the murder victim.”
Copyright © 2017 by Gail Oust