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Tea Cups and Carnage
A Tourist Trap Mystery
By LYNN CAHOON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Lynn Cahoon
All rights reserved.
Is family defined by blood or is it more than that?
I looked around the table at the June Business-to-Business meeting as attendees started to gather. Aunt Jackie stood with Mary Sullivan, her best friend. I loved hearing them talking about the cruise my aunt and her new boyfriend, Harrold, would be taking in a few months. Bill Sullivan, the committee chair and Mary's husband, stood at the counter, refilling his cup and glancing around the room, as he took stock of the attendance. Typically, these meetings had about ten to fifteen representatives, but summer was the busy season for our tourist town. Even with the busy schedules, we had almost a full house at twenty. I'd had to send Sasha into the back to pull out a couple of boxes of cookies to serve.
They were all here for one reason. Kathi Corbin, the newest member of our community and our committee was holding court over at the couch near the romance section. Kathi's Texas drawl and infectious laugh had the men enthralled. I'd heard rumors the girl had been a Miss San Antonio and had been shortlisted to win Miss Texas, except something had gone awry. She hadn't taken the crown home, ending the competition at the bottom of the top ten.
Having only been in one beauty contest in my entire life and that on a whim, I couldn't imagine where she'd gone wrong. She seemed to play the role well. I walked over to the couch where she was holding court and handed her a cup of coffee. "I'm Jill Gardner, South Cove business liaison to the city council and owner/manager of Coffee, Books, and More." Or at least my aunt lets me think I'm the manager of the shop, even though she makes most of the decisions and then tells me what she's done.
She took the cup from me. "I love your place. I hope we can make some sort of agreement on you guys selling my products over here. If we partner, we'll both increase our business."
"Let's talk next week. I'm sure we can carve out an agreement." I tried to source locally-made product for the shop. The treats were all made by Pies on the Fly, a local bakery. To me it made good financial sense to help another South Cove business survive. I walked back to the table and surveyed the room.
Sasha paused next to me with a filled carafe of coffee. Sasha's my newest employee and came to us as an intern through the Work First program last fall. The single mom had quickly fit into our small staff and Aunt Jackie and I decided to hire her after the ten-week program ended.
"She's quite the charmer," Sasha whispered. Her happiness made her soft brown skin glow. "Even Josh is offering to get her more coffee."
I nodded. The room was separated into two groups. The women clustered around the table waiting for the meeting to start, and the men, except Bill, assembled around Kathi. An old Martina McBride song started going in my head about a woman out for fun but before I could answer Sasha, Bill clapped his hands above his head, trying to get everyone's attention.
"It's five past starting time, folks. I want to honor your busy schedules as well as our host's kind offer of her space. I'm pretty sure Jill would rather be serving coffee and this amazing Apple Caramel Cheesecake to paying customers." He smiled at me and waved the group over to the table. "Bring your coffee with you. We'll pass around the carafes while we're talking."
Kathi sat. Josh Thomas and Dustin Austin jostled each other for the chair next to her. As they jockeyed for position, Mayor Baylor slimed into one of the chairs next to Kathi. Austin dodged and dove into the other, leaving Josh holding onto the back and steaming.
"There's a chair next to Jill." Bill called out to Josh, the portly owner of Antiques by Thomas and up until a few months ago, Aunt Jackie's gentleman caller. I waved at him and pointed to the chair. For my trouble, I got the evil eye as his shoulders slumped and he let go of the chair. Dustin Austin, owner of the bike rental shop, grinned as he tilted his grey dreadlocks toward Kathi's ear and whispered something that made her laugh.
Bill turned her way and Kathi shook her head. "Sorry, but you all are so entertaining. I can't believe I didn't move here years ago."
"Glad you're enjoying your first meeting. Now that we've all settled in, Mary, do you want to give a summary of the upcoming Summer Beach Blast?" As Bill looked at his wife, I saw the adoration he had for the woman even after so many years.
Mary smoothed her skirt as she stood. "As you know, summer traffic really picks up around the fourth of July, but June can be a little slow. So we're sponsoring a festival starting tomorrow to bring in tourists and hopefully customers for your shops. Our bed and breakfast is already full for the weekend and we're hearing that the others in town are nearing capacity."
A loud motorcycle roared up Main Street and Mary, along with the rest of the committee members, switched their attention to the window. All I could see was a huge bike with an equally large rider in black leathers. I could see he wore a gang patch on his leather jacket, but couldn't read the lettering in the short time before he disappeared out of my view.
"And that's what worries me about these activities." Pointing to the window and the now-vanished rider, Josh interrupted Mary's presentation. "Are we sure this will bring in the right types? I don't want to see any of those motorcycle gangs taking over South Cove. Let them stay in South Dakota where they can't do any damage."
"Not all motorcycle clubs are gangs." Dustin had started renting scooters in addition to the bikes last month after he'd received a large inheritance from his recently passed wife, Kacey. Well, actually, recently murdered wife. But Austin had been cleared of her death even though I still thought he should be charged with being a royal jerk.
"That's right. My cousin rides a motorcycle and he's not in a gang at all." Kathi added to the discussion. "He just can't afford a real car right now. He's kind of between jobs."
"We bought advertising in upscale local publications, so we're targeting a specific customer." Mary looked around the room, trying to get back to her prepared notes.
"I don't care who comes into town as long as they have money to spend." Harrold held his coffee cup and toasted Mary. "I appreciate you setting up this program. Go ahead, tell us what we can expect."
Mary smiled gratefully at Harrold and I saw my aunt pat his hand. On my left, I could feel the rage coming off Josh like Harrold had just stolen his last dollar. I tried to circumvent the upcoming blowup by diverting the attention back to Mary. "Be sure to mention the beach party on Saturday. That's my favorite part."
"Oh, there's a beach party? I want to help. I've ran a snow cone machine before, do you all have a snow cone specialist?" Kathi clapped her hands together and actually bounced in her chair, gaining the attention of the men at the table. I heard a sharp gasp of air escape Josh's lips.
Mary tapped her empty coffee cup on the table. "If I could have everyone's attention." She waited for the group to turn back toward the front.
Man, those guys must be getting cricks in their necks turning them so much.
"We'll get to the party, Jill." Mary considered Kathi. "I appreciate your enthusiasm for the festival. I'm sure we can find something for you to do to help. Let's just go over the schedule first and maybe something will pop out at you."
She took a breath and dove into the list of events happening starting the next day and running through mid-next week. Mary scheduled the celebration to start on a Wednesday to try to bring in traffic to our normally dead days. We were setting up the new Coffee, Books, and More mobile annex at the beach starting on Thursday. I'd scheduled Sasha and Aunt Jackie to man the main store, but Toby had to be at his real job as one of South Cove's finest. He'd be doing security for the event when he wasn't mixing coffee drinks. I didn't know when the guy slept.
We'd also hired Nick Michaels for the summer. His mom ran Sadie's Pies on the Fly and was one of my BFF's. This would be the kid's first full-time week since he came home from Stanford for the summer. I hoped he was up to the challenge.
As I considered our staffing for the Summer Beach Blast, I noticed the table had gone quiet. Mary had sat down and Bill, and the rest of the table, was looking at me. "Sorry, what?"
"Way to pay attention," Josh muttered. "He asked you if you wanted to attend the city council session next time to present our results."
"Oh, yeah, I could do that." I looked at Mary. "Aren't you going to be there?"
"Our daughter is expecting our first grandchild this month, so I'm heading to Idaho as soon as labor starts." Mary smiled at Bill. "I know I'm leaving at a bad time, but you can't plan babies."
"As long as you leave me talking points, I'd love to step in for you." Okay, so love wasn't quite the emotion I was feeling. I wrote a note so I'd remember to attend. I tended to file my liaison reports electronically and hadn't been present at a council meeting for months. Both Mayor Baylor and I liked it that way. He didn't have to pretend he liked me and I didn't have to be around the guy.
We finished off the rest of the agenda in record time. I looked at Bill, hoping he'd close the meeting early rather than opening the agenda up for new business. Josh fumbled with a list from the pocket of his black suit and ran his hand over the wrinkles in the page that had been folded and unfolded several times. I snuck a peek at the list and groaned. All the items he tried to get onto the committee's agenda month after month were on the list. He must have read my thoughts because he narrowed his eyes and moved the paper out of my line of sight.
"Now, since we have a little time," Bill said and I watched Josh sit forward in his chair waiting to pounce on the opening. Bill didn't even look Josh's way as he continued. "I'd love to learn more about our newest member. Kathi, can you tell us a little about you, your new store, and why you came to South Cove?"
The men around the table broke into applause as Kathi stood, blushing. "Why, aren't you all the sweetest things?"
I looked at Aunt Jackie across the table who shrugged. I guess I just didn't get why Kathi was a big deal. Yes, she had a southern drawl, and, I'll admit she was beautiful, but the men in the room were treating her like some Hollywood starlet had arrived in our little town. I realized Kathi had started talking and I was still zoned out.
"So, I decided to take my love for china into a specialty shop that only sells tea-related items. Tea Hee will sell specialty teas, teacups, saucers, and tea pots. The idea came to me one day when I was in my grandmother's china cabinet and noticed how many different sets of good china we'd collected over the years. Of course, many of the sets were missing pieces, but they all had enough cups and saucers to put on a good tea party with the girls. And who doesn't like a good tea party on a sunny afternoon?" Kathi paused, looking around the room focusing her attention at me. "I'm sure Jill and her friends often get together in the afternoons for tea and gossip. Am I right?"
I froze as every member of the table turned their attention to me, shook their heads, and went back to watching Kathi. That just ticked me off. "Actually, no, most of my friends have jobs during the day so afternoon get-togethers are kind of hard to plan. We do like to do girls' night at Darla's winery every week or so."
A flicker of anger or disappointment passed behind Kathi's eyes and then her mask was back on and I questioned even seeing it. "Well, that's just sad. Women need more time to bond. There's nothing like girlfriends to keep your life settled. Men come and go, but a good girlfriend is gold." She shook a finger at me. "That was what my mama always told me when I was a child. You'd be happier if you followed Mama's advice."
I wanted to tell her I had plenty of strong friendships with women, but Amy and I had just gone through a rough patch and I had made Sadie mad a few months ago by not telling her that Greg was going to question her kid. OK, maybe my female relationships weren't as strong as they needed to be. However, I didn't think that an afternoon of serving tea and cookies at the house was going to make my friendships stronger. Besides, with Kathi's description of her new business, I was sure she'd be back on the train to Texas in less than three months. Teacups were too specialized a niche to generate business for a new shop.
So I smiled and nodded. "Your mother sounds like a smart woman."
"Oh, she was a bit of a drunk and had the worst taste in men, but she did have a good point once in a while." Kathi turned and looked at Mayor Baylor. "Even a blind dog can find a bone once in a while, am I right?"
Our creepy mayor laughed and smirked at me. "Go on Kathi, tell us more about the tea shop. It sounds fascinating."
I tried not to gag, but I must have made some noise in the back of my throat as Bill looked at me. Leaning over the table, he whispered, "Are you all right?"
I was far from all right, but before I could do more than nod, Sherry King pushed open the door to the shop, letting it slam into a table that was sitting a little too close. Pat Williams, her sidekick, rolled her eyes and gently shut the door.
"I'm so sorry I'm late. We had such awful traffic on Highway One from Bakerstown today. Pat and I had our weekly mani-pedi appointment this morning. Frighteningly early, but you all know how hard finding personal time is when you run a successful shop." Sherry pulled a chair up next to Mayor Baylor but twisted her head when she saw Kathi. "Who is she?"
Now, this was getting entertaining. I leaned back in my chair and waved a hand toward Bill, encouraging him to answer Sherry's question.
He coughed into his hand, then made the introductions. "Sherry, this is our newest member, Kathi Corbin. She's opening the shop next to The Glass Slipper." Bill looked at Kathi. "Sherry and Pat run Vintage Duds. Go ahead Kathi, you were saying?"
And with that, he turned the floor back to Kathi, who spoke for over twenty minutes on the subject of Tea Hee, her time in the pageant world, and how she'd made the decision to move because Texas was just so freaking hot.
Sherry's face turned pink five minutes into Kathi's discourse, red at ten, and by the time Bill closed the meeting, I would say Sherry's face was a lovely shade of royal purple. The girl didn't like anyone stealing her limelight and especially not someone who, to be frank, was prettier.
I thought I might just give Sherry a mirror and tell her it was magic. She was acting more like the evil queen than I'd ever seen her reveal in public. And I loved it.
Sue me, I'm shallow. Especially when it comes to my boyfriend's ex-wife. Yep. Greg King, South Cove police detective, and also my boyfriend, had once been married to the woman.
Of course, I knew she didn't see me as competition. How? She'd told me so on more than one occasion.
A smile still curved my lips as I cleaned up after the business meeting. I shoved a chair back under a table and wiped the top of the table clean.
"That was some show." Sasha put two more chairs under the table.
I put the last chair in place and looked around the room. The shop was back in order in a total of eight minutes. We were getting better at this cleanup process. "I wasn't sure you were watching. I saw you over on the couch reading."
"Trying to read. The circus was just too entertaining." Sasha stretched. "I'll watch the shop until Toby gets here. Don't you have a class with Amy this morning?"
"Yeah." I glanced at the clock. I still had ten minutes before I was supposed to meet Amy Newman at the city gym. I retrieved my gym bag from the back office and strolled down Main Street to the building that housed the rec center along with a small day care. Sasha had Olivia on the waiting list for the next open slot.
South Cove sat smack dab in the center of the coast line. We got our traffic from tourists wandering down Highway One and looking for a quick bite to eat or a break away from the road. The town had one diner, one coffee shop – mine, one bookstore – mine, and a ton of artists' shops including The Glass Slipper, across the street from my coffee shop. Tourists could choose from a variety of lodging options, from one of our upscale bed and breakfasts, to a lower-priced hotel on the main highway, to a luxury villa at The Castle. Oh, and we had South Cove Winery. Now, isn't that the perfect tourist town?
The morning air was cool and helped me get the meeting out of my head. The only good thing that had happened was how mad Sherry had been when she stomped out. Someday that woman would realize the world didn't revolve around her. And with Kathi around, someday could be sooner than Sherry knew.
Excerpted from Tea Cups and Carnage by LYNN CAHOON. Copyright © 2016 Lynn Cahoon. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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