Behind her down-home folksy persona, celebrity chef Sonia Scott is a real Dixie diva who’s made plenty of enemies in her climb to the top of the culinary world. One of them is the newest member of the Dream Club, Etta Mae Beasley, who claims Sonia stole her family’s recipes and used them in her latest cookbook.
After Sonia’s suspicious death from anaphylactic shock at a book signing held at Taylor and Ali’s retro candy store, Etta’s revelation sows seeds of doubt in Taylor Blake’s mind. Now the Dream Club needs to put their heads together to determine if one of their own decided to give the chef her just desserts…
About the Author
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“Do you suppose she’ll pose for pictures with us? Or give me a few quotes for my book club newsletter?” Lucinda Macavy flashed a shy smile at Sybil Powers, her eyes bright with excitement. “It’s not every day a celebrity chef like Sonia Scott comes to town,” she added breathlessly. “It would be such an honor to meet her.”
Lucinda, a thin woman wearing an expensive but unflattering clay-colored shift, leaned forward to inspect the goodies Ali had arranged on the coffee table. With a quick, birdlike movement, she added a napoleon, a lemon bar, and a blueberry scone to her bone china plate and then sat back, waiting for the group to respond.
It was a hot summer evening in Savannah and Ali had jacked up the AC before the members of the Dream Club arrived for their weekly meeting. Sybil looked flushed in one of her tropical caftans and was gulping down vast quantities of sweet tea served in mason jars. Persia Walker appeared thoughtful, fingering her chunky handmade necklace from Nepal.
My sister Ali, as always, looked cool, blond, and slender in white skinny jeans and and a pale yellow beaded top. As the proprietor of Oldies But Goodies, a Savannah candy shop, she dresses casually but always looks put together. The Dream Club meets weekly in her apartment above the shop, and she serves sweet tea, coffee, and a delicious array of pastries. She calls the Dream Club members her “beta tasters,” and she adds the most popular items to the café menu downstairs.
When I arrived in Savannah a few months ago, the vintage candy shop, just a couple of blocks off the Historic District, was struggling. We’ve made a few changes since then, invested in some marketing, added a café menu, and things are looking up. We’ve gone from operating in the red to the black, and Ali likes to tease me that my MBA finally came in handy. I like to tell her that my advice as a high-powered business consultant has rubbed off on her.
We make a good team. Yin and yang. Ali is headstrong and impulsive, with a wild creative bent, and I’m more conservative, always looking out for the bottom line. My quick visit down south to help my sister took an unexpected turn: I fell in love with Savannah and decided to make it my home.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Lucinda. She won’t be bothered giving you quotes for a little newsletter,” Dorien said sharply. “She’s a celebrity and I bet all she cares about are articles in major newspapers,” she went on, “so you’d just be wasting your time. You know the food critic Neal Garson will want to do a big piece on Sonia. She thanked him on the acknowledgment page of her new book. I’ve heard the two of them are like this.” She held up her index finger intertwined with her middle finger and gave a knowing look like an actress in a soap opera.
“I think they dated back in high school,” Minerva Harper said thoughtfully. Minerva and her sister Rose are octogenarians who seem to know everyone who has ever lived in, died in, or visited Savannah in the past seventy-five years.
“See what I mean,” Dorien said triumphantly. “If anyone chats with Sonia about her cooking empire it will be Neal Garson, not you.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Lucinda said diffidently. “Still . . . I’d certainly like to have a few moments with her.”
“Buy her latest cookbook, and you’ll get ten seconds with her and an autograph.” Dorien snorted.
Ali raised her eyebrows and exchanged a look with me. I lifted my shoulders in a little shrug. We both know Dorien can be abrasive and has a way of dampening everyone’s enthusiasm with her cutting remarks. The club members tolerate her rudeness and chalk it up to the fact that the woman has no idea she’s being offensive. Plus she’s fallen on hard times since her catering company took a nosedive. Dorien is a competent cook, but a few months ago she delivered a catered dinner to a dance instructor who later was found poisoned. Even though Dorien had no part in his death, it certainly had put a damper on her business.
“Maybe we should start the meeting,” I said, glancing at my watch. We were due to head over to the television taping at eight sharp. Sonia Scott, a nationally known chef, was going to do a live broadcast at a local television studio, and our reporter friend, Sara, had managed to snare tickets for everyone.
“Good idea,” Sybil said, fanning herself with a folded-up copy of Southern Living. Usually the thick stucco walls of the building keep the apartment cool, but this had been a brutally hot day, and now, even with the AC maxed out, the apartment seemed uncomfortably warm.
“We have a new member with us tonight,” Ali announced. “Etta Mae Beasley.” She nodded to a slight woman with hawkish features and piercing dark eyes. “Please tell us a little about yourself.”
Etta Mae licked her lips nervously and rested her hands on her knees. I noticed her hands looked rough and chapped as if the woman had spent a great deal of time farming or gardening.
“I moved here from Brunswick, Georgia,” she said slowly. “I’ve always been interested in dreams, so I’m really happy to be part of this group.” She hesitated for a moment. “I know everyone seems excited over the arrival of Sonia Scott, but I have a sort of”—she paused delicately—“history with her, so I’m afraid I don’t share your enthusiasm.”
There was an awkward silence and Ali said quickly, “I’m so sorry to hear that, Etta Mae.” She glanced at me, probably hoping I’d chime in. “I hope you’ll join us at the taping anyway.”
“Oh, I’ll be there,” Etta Mae said in a stronger voice. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Her gaze traveled to a thick book with a glossy cover lying on an end table. “Is that what I think it is? Sonia’s latest cookbook?” Her eyes widened in surprise as Dorien reached over and handed it to her. “How did you get it, if you don’t mind my asking? The Southern Lights bookstore told me it wouldn’t be available until tomorrow.”
“One of my customers picked up a copy at Hilton Head yesterday,” Ali said quickly. “The release day is tomorrow, but she saw them unpacking a box of Sonia’s books at a local bookstore and managed to buy one. You can borrow it, if you like.”
“I’d like that very much,” Etta Mae said, her face hardening. “I bet this book is full of surprises.” Surprises? It seemed like an odd thing to say. Another uncomfortable pause while Etta Mae shoved the book into a large quilted tote bag and didn’t say another word. I had no idea what Etta Mae’s “history” was with Sonia Scott, but it was obvious she wasn’t a fan.
“Who’s up first tonight?” Ali sat down and Scout gave a little meow and jumped into her lap. Barney and Scout are Ali’s beloved cats, and no one is a stranger to them. Ali’s question was just a formality; everyone knew the members take turns.
“I believe it’s my turn,” Rose Harper said in her quivery voice. She and her sister Minerva were dressed in nearly identical floral dresses, and their wispy white hair framed their faces like halos.
“Go ahead, Rose,” Ali said encouragingly, just as we heard footsteps on the stairs leading up from the shop. Ali tensed and rushed to the landing but then laughed and touched her hand to her chest. “It’s okay. We have another new member, Edward Giles.” She greeted a thin man in his sixties with an angular face as he reached the top of the stairs. “Welcome, Edward. Please have a seat anywhere you like.”
He glanced apologetically around the room and sat down on a leather hammock near the coffee table. “Sorry to be late; I was held up at the university.”
“Edward is a professor in the botany department,” Ali said warmly. “He knows all about herbalism and is an expert on nineteenth-century Savannah.”
“But I’m here tonight to learn about dreams,” he said, flushing a little. I wondered if he felt silly admitting his interest in dreams, or if he felt overwhelmed by the all-female Dream Club.
Ali quickly introduced the members by first names. “We’re running a bit late, Edward, so if you don’t mind, we’ll let Rose tell us about her dream.”
Rose stared at the new guest. “Edward Giles,” she said musingly. “Your mother was a Sudderth, I believe.”
The professor’s eyebrows flew up. “Why yes, her name was Hilda Sudderth. But how in the world—”
“My sister knows everything about genealogy,” Minerva said complacently. “We’re probably related.”
“We are.” Rose nodded her head vigorously. “Your maternal great-grandmother was married briefly to Thomas Newton of Charleston, who later had five children by Emily Cavendish.” She stopped and thought for a moment. “We’re third cousins, twice removed, I believe. I’ll look it up tonight to be sure.”
“That’s astonishing,” Edward said, leaning forward. “We could use you at the university library in our reference department. We have a lot of people who need help researching their ancestry.”
“Oh, I’m retired,” Rose said, “I just research the family history of my friends and relatives for fun. That’s one of my passions in life,” she added, “along with this club, of course.”
“Rose . . .” Ali said, urging her on.
“Oh yes, my dream,” Rose said. “I think this is an easy one. It’s the House Dream.” She looked around the circle and paused dramatically. “Some of you are probably familiar with it. It’s supposed to be a classic.”
“I’ve had that dream several times,” Persia Walker said. She turned to Etta Mae and explained, “It’s a very symbolic dream. You’re walking through a beautiful house and it represents all your dreams and aspirations. Each room is more lovely than the next.” Etta Mae nodded but didn’t reply.
“I’ve hopped into that dream a few times,” Sybil offered. “It’s fascinating.”
“You hopped in?” Edward looked perplexed. “How is that possible?”
“Sybil is a dream-hopper,” Ali explained. “She has a very special talent. She can drop into other people’s dreams and follow them just as if she were watching a movie. It’s a unique ability; the rest of us don’t have it.”
Minerva gently nudged her sister. “Tell them about your dream, Rose,” she said, pointedly glancing at her watch.
“I was in a beautiful house somewhere down south. I know it was in the South because I saw Spanish moss hanging from the trees in the backyard. I was standing in the kitchen looking out at a lovely garden. Everything was perfect, pristine. The kitchen was stark white and modern, like something out of Architectural Digest. Very high-end: white cabinets, white subway tiles along the backsplash, a big farmhouse sink, white marble countertops.”
“Would anyone use marble on kitchen countertops?” Dorien asked. “Marble stains so easily, you know. Soapstone or granite are much more practical.”
“Anything is possible in a dream,” Rose said mildly. “There were copper pots hanging from the ceiling. They were gleaming; it was hard to believe they’d ever been used. The countertops were bare except for some lovely glass canisters. I think they must have been antiques. They were made of cut glass with silver lids. All of them were filled with spices and seeds and herbs. I opened one and it contained vanilla beans. The one next to it had cinnamon sticks, and a third one was stocked with tiny seeds I didn’t recognize. They may have been sesame seeds, but they were larger, like nuts.”
“How did you feel when you were wandering through the kitchen?” I asked. Rose always has very detailed dreams, and I wanted to hurry her along. I’m new to dream interpretation, but I know the emotional content of a dream is the key to analyzing it. Since Ali started the Dream Club a few months ago, the members have become surprisingly astute in uncovering the symbolic elements in a dream.
“First I felt very happy and carefree. Then I felt a sense of dread come over me, a premonition that something awful was about to take place,” Rose said, her voice faltering. “I looked outside and the sky had turned gray, threatening. The beautiful kitchen, the lovely décor”—she shook her head as if to focus her thoughts—“everything was suddenly shrouded in shadows. I sensed that something sinister was about to happen. I felt an evil presence in the kitchen.”
“Probably a demon,” Persia said calmly. Etta Mae’s eyes widened and she gave a jaw-dropping stare. I suppose Ali and I should have warned her that dream content isn’t always puppies and sunsets. Sometimes a nefarious spirit or two appears and a thread of hidden danger inserts itself into the dream. The dreamer’s mood can switch from euphoria to terror in a split second.
“It was just a feeling,” Rose went on, “and I’m having trouble describing it.” She paused and let out her breath slowly. “There was a book on the kitchen counter, a very old book with a brown leather cover. I remember it so clearly.”
“Did it remind you of something?” Sybil asked, her bangle bracelets clanging as she reached for an éclair.
“Maybe.” Rose squinted her eyes shut, as if she was trying to recall the image of the book. “I knew it was precious to many people and probably very valuable. I had the feeling it belonged to a family, a sort of keepsake that was handed down from generation to generation.”
“That’s amazing,” Etta Mae said softly. She was leaning forward, listening raptly. “Did it have a title?”
Rose opened her eyes. “I can’t recall,” she said apologetically.
“What makes you think it was a family heirloom?” I asked.
“Just an impression I had,” Rose said, blinking. “The pages were yellowed and some of them were sticking out, as if new pages had been inserted.”
The room was silent, and I guessed no one had a clue how to interpret Rose’s dream.
“Anything else?” Ali asked gently. I knew she was eager to leave for the television taping.
“The book,” Rose said, her voice suddenly stronger. “When I finished walking through the house, I went back to the kitchen and picked it up to leaf through it. There was nothing there. Just blank pages. Every single one.”
“What did you make of Rose’s dream?” I asked Ali a couple of hours later. We were settled on folding chairs at the taping of Sonia’s cooking show and the studio was buzzing with activity.
“No idea,” she replied. “That was a tough one. Usually the House Dream ends with the dreamer coming to some resolution about a problem that’s troubling them in real life. Rose’s dream just seemed to trail off and she was left with a mysterious book and a sense of foreboding.” She craned her neck to see past the Harper sisters, who were sitting right in front of us. “Has Sonia made her appearance yet?”
“There she is! Right in front of the guy following her with a microphone. I think he wants to do a sound check.” I watched as he finally caught up with Sonia and pinned a tiny mic to the lapel of her pink linen blazer. She pretended to shout into the mic for comic effect and some crew members laughed and put their hands over their ears. Sonia has a reputation for clowning around with the crew, but she’s all business when it comes to cooking.
Lucinda nudged me and said, “Excuse me for a minute. I just spotted someone I haven’t seen in years.” Moments later, she returned with her arm around a thin brunette, who gave us a shy smile. “Leslie, these are my dear friends Taylor and Ali Blake. They’re new to Savannah and own the cutest little candy shop in the Historic District.” As Leslie shook hands with us, Lucinda added, “Leslie was one of my students at the Academy.”
“I hope you enjoy Savannah,” Leslie said quietly to us. “It’s a beautiful city.”
“Leslie’s husband works for Sonia’s company; isn’t that exciting?” Lucinda said in a bubbly voice. “And she has two beautiful little children. Do you suppose we could we meet your husband, dear?”
Leslie hesitated. “He’s usually busy with last-minute details, but I can try to catch his eye.” She gestured to a tall, dark-haired man who was standing at the front of the room, chatting with one of the technicians. When he spotted Leslie, he frowned but made his way down the aisle toward us. By the time he reached us, he’d rearranged his features into a more pleasant expression.
“I know you’re busy, honey,” Leslie said, “but this is Lucinda Macavy from the Academy and two of her friends.”
“Taylor and Ali Blake,” I offered.
“Nice to meet all of you,” he said briefly. “Jeremy Watts.” He seemed tense and preoccupied, eager to get back to the business at hand. “A good crowd,” he added vaguely.
“Yes, everyone’s excited over Sonia’s visit,” I told him. He nodded, barely listening, and quickly excused himself when a cameraman called out to him.
There was an awkward pause, and Leslie stared after her husband, looking embarrassed at his brusque behavior. Ali and I exchanged a look. Jeremy Watts certainly wasn’t Mr. Congeniality.
“I can’t wait to have a good long chat with you,” Lucinda said quickly, patting Leslie on the hand. “Do you want to follow me home or shall I give you directions?”
“Just write down your address and I’ll use my GPS,” Leslie said. “Jeremy and I came in separate cars. I need to get home to the children tonight and he’s leaving right after the taping to do some advance work in Atlanta.” Leslie smiled her thanks when Lucinda scribbled a note and passed it to her. “I’m so glad we ran into each other,” she said with a broad smile. She returned to her seat near the front of the studio, and we settled back to enjoy the show. Sonia darted around the set, arranging flowers and crockery as the crew fumbled with the equipment, her raucous laugh bouncing off the walls. She seemed completely at ease and I remembered reading that the show was unscripted. The food was prepared ahead of time, and the recipes would flash on the screen as Sonia read the ingredients. She had a keen sense of theatrics and that, along with her sometimes bawdy sense of humor, was guaranteed to keep the viewers watching. Even people who didn’t like to cook enjoyed Sonia’s show.
Sara Rutledge walked in a side door and I waved her over. “I saved you a seat right next to me.” I picked up the newspaper I’d placed on the folding chair next to mine. “It looks like a full house tonight.”
“Thanks,” she said, settling down next to me.
“It’s the least I could do,” I said with a grin. “After all, you’re the one who got us the tickets.” Sara is a freelance journalist who recently moved to Savannah. We’ve been friends since college, and I was thrilled to have her living so close to us. “Are you interviewing Sonia for the paper, or did Neal grab that one?”
“I got it,” she said triumphantly. “Neal’s taking his annual two-week vacation in Maine, so the timing couldn’t be better. For me, I mean,” she added with a giggle. “I did a quick sit-down with Sonia at Riverfront today and got some good quotes. I’ll put it together with my background material and I think I’ll get above the fold in the Sunday edition.”
“That’s impressive.” I reached out my hand for a fist bump. “How did you manage to interview her without interruptions? Didn’t the tourists at the Riverfront pester her for autographs?”
Sara shook her head. “No one even spotted her. She was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses and we sat at an outdoor café. She picked an umbrella table hidden behind a palm tree, which was a smart move. I think the waiter recognized her, but he never said a word.” Sara laughed. “I tipped him well, so he’s happy.”
“That was smart,” Ali said as she waited for the taping to begin.
The back door to the studio was open to the parking lot and a few minutes later, I spotted a man and woman step out under the awning, deep in conversation. I assumed they were part of Sonia’s entourage because the woman, a fortyish blonde, was holding a notebook with the Sonia Scott logo on it. There was something intimate about their body language, and I wondered if they were a couple. When the man lit a cigarette and offered it to her, I realized it was Jeremy Watts, Leslie’s husband. The woman smiled and shook her head, touching his lapel, letting her gaze linger on his face just a second too long. Interesting.
The taping started then, and the next ninety minutes flew by. Sonia was at her best, talking directly to the camera, telling anecdotes about the recipes she was preparing. The menu called for grilled chicken with mango and oranges slices, scalloped cheese potatoes, and peach cobbler. These were all staples from her previous cookbooks, and she put them together effortlessly, all the while keeping up a playful banter.
The filming stopped for a few breaks and Sonia’s bubbly persona vanished as she moved out of the bright lights, talking on her cell. I had hoped she might interact with the studio audience, but she seemed distant and preoccupied.
Sara raised her eyebrows. “She seems to switch off when the cameras do,” she said shrewdly. “Interesting.” Sara pulled out a pen and jotted a note in the steno pad she carried everywhere.
“You’re not putting that in the article, are you?” I supposed it would be a juicy tidbit, but that kind of observation certainly wouldn’t portray Sonia in a good light. Nobody likes a celebrity who ignores her fans.
“No, I’m just saving it, in case I write an in-depth piece about her down the road. The article I’m doing for the Sunday paper is a puff piece, all positive. But who knows? Someday I might do an unauthorized biography and this sort of detail might be important.” I know Sara plans on moving to New York or Los Angeles and hopes to snare a job as an investigative reporter with a major paper. At the moment, she’s happy to get freelance work writing arts and entertainment pieces in Savannah, but it barely pays the bills.
We were filing out after the taping when a harried-looking young woman carrying a clipboard approached Sara. It was the attractive blonde I had seen chatting outside the studio with Jeremy Watts. “Excuse me, are you Sara Rutledge from the newspaper?” When Sara nodded, she raced on, “It seems we’re going to be in Savannah for another half day. Sonia’s flight to Richmond tonight was canceled.” She realized we were blocking traffic and motioned us over to the sidelines. “Sorry, I’m so frazzled, I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Olivia Hudson, Sonia’s personal assistant.”
“Nice to meet you. We chatted on the phone,” Sara told her.
“Yes, I remember,” Olivia raced on, barely acknowledging the comment. “This is all very last-minute, but we’d like to get as much mileage out of the tour as possible. Is there a place Sonia could meet with some fans tomorrow morning for a quick photo op? Maybe a bookstore, or a cooking school? I know I can get a few photographers to show up and I’ve got some of her earlier titles we can use as giveaways. Nothing formal—it’s just a way for her to be seen chatting with the fans, you know. “
“What about a candy store?” Sara interjected. She grabbed my arm. “Here’s someone you need to talk to. Taylor Blake. She and her sister Ali own a vintage candy store here in Savannah. It’s also a café. They’re both big fans of Sonia and recommend her cookbooks to all their customers.”
“A candy store?” Olivia looked doubtful. “I suppose it’s a possibility.” She looked me up and down. “I don’t think Sonia has ever done an appearance in a candy store—”
“It has lots of charm and it’s right off the Historic District,” Sara interrupted. “It would be perfect, and it’s a big hit with the locals. I know they can guarantee you a good turnout, even on a weekday morning.” I bit back a smile at Sara’s eagerness. If ever I could afford to hire a PR person, it would be Sara, I thought. Meanwhile, Ali had joined us, a puzzled look clouding her face.
Sara quickly explained the situation and Ali’s face lit up. “You know what would be fun?” Ali said. “We could offer a free sampling of classic Southern desserts for her visit. And, of course, we’d include some of her recipes. It would add a little interest to the event, and I think the fans would love it.”
And it would be great publicity for Oldies But Goodies, I thought to myself. Only our regular customers seemed to know that we’d added a café to the vintage candy store. An appearance by Sonia Scott would definitely help to get the word out.
“Nothing with peanuts,” Olivia said crisply. “She’s really allergic to nuts and seeds.”
“No peanuts, no nuts, no seeds,” Ali agreed. Ali was beaming, practically vibrating with happiness.
“It’s a deal, then,” Olivia said, pocketing Ali’s business card. “We’ll be there at nine sharp. Just a quick stop en route to the airport. See you then!” she added before scurrying away. We watched as she raced back to Sonia, who had pulled off her mic and looked irritated, hands on hips.
“Chop, chop,” I heard Sonia say in a snappish voice to one of her assistants. “Let’s get back to the hotel. I’m exhausted.” She pointed to the collection of dirty dishes and pans on the countertop. “Olivia, make sure these are cleaned and then pack everything up; you know which ones are mine. The cheap stuff belongs to the studio. And don’t forget my copper frying pan like you did the last time.” There was a sharp edge in her voice and Olivia immediately sprang into action like a well-trained greyhound. “Wake me at seven sharp with croissants and coffee. Skim milk, no sugar.” She turned a beady-eyed stare at Olivia. “Got it?”
“I’ve got it,” Olivia said in a tired voice.
“That limo had better be waiting at the curb, or heads are gonna roll,” Sonia said, sweeping out of the studio.
“Wow, Sonia’s a bit of a surprise in person, isn’t she?” Ali asked as Lucinda walked up next to us.
“They call her ‘a force of nature,’” I said, reading from a publicity handout.
Sara laughed. “Really? I’d say ‘diva’ would be more like it. I wonder what it’s like to work for her.”
“Well, it seems that one of my former students, Leslie, is married to an executive with Sonia’s company,” Lucinda said. “We chatted with them just before you arrived, Sara. Her husband, Jeremy, is such a fine-looking young man. I’d say they’re a very happy couple, wouldn’t you, Taylor?”
“Oh, I’m sure they are,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. My mind was still reeling at the image of Olivia Hudson having a tête-à-tête outside the studio with the very married Jeremy Watts. Had I imagined the obvious attraction between them? Leslie had been in the studio audience when Olivia and Jeremy were having their private moment. Didn’t she see what was so obvious to me? Or did she just turn a blind eye because of the children?
“I’m sure I’ll hear some interesting tidbits from Leslie tonight,” Lucinda said contentedly. “I bet she’ll have a lot to tell me.”
“I’m sure she will,” I muttered under my breath. Having tea with Leslie might prove to be more than Lucinda had bargained for.
• • •
“What have we gotten ourselves into?” Ali asked me in a fade-away voice the next morning. She was clearly exhausted. We’d darted back to the shop last night, tidied up the kitchen, and polished the glass display cases until they sparkled. I washed and waxed the floor while Ali defrosted some goodies she’d stored away for our Dream Club meetings. Lemon squares and tiny cherry cheesecake tarts appeared as if by magic. Ali arranged the pastries on a long pine table that we pulled into the center aisle of the shop. Ali was very fussy about “presentation” and the pine table was covered with a blue chintz tablecloth.
Minverva and Rose Harper had offered to bring a few vases of pale pink roses and bright blue hydrangeas to add a festive air. Visitors could help themselves to the free treats and enjoy a glass of homemade lemonade or sweet tea while waiting for a quick meet and greet with Sonia.
“How much lemonade do we really need?” I said, squeezing my twenty-third lemon. I was tired and hot and my hair was hanging limply in my eyes.
“Do a few more,” Ali said in her most encouraging voice. “I want to fill at least five of those cut-glass pitchers. And we’ll have gallons of sweet tea, as well. Do you think we should serve lattes . . .” she began, and then broke off when she caught my expression. “Okay, we’ll just go with the lemonade and the sweet tea,” she said quickly. “It’s too hot for lattes anyway.”
• • •
“Howdy, y’all!” Sonia Scott swept into the shop at 9 a.m. sharp, followed by her personal assistant, Olivia Hudson, and the rest of her entourage. She turned up the volume on her smile when she spotted the table laden with homemade goodies. “Hope these are all Sonia Scott recipes,” she said, wagging her finger at us playfully.
“Of course they are,” Ali said gamely. “We wouldn’t serve anything else.” Ali gave me a broad wink and I hoped Sonia wouldn’t inspect the dishes too closely.
“Well, let’s get this show on the road, ladies. Time’s a-wastin’, and we need to be at the airport by noon.”
“Actually, by eleven thirty,” Olivia muttered under her breath.
“Whatever,” Sonia said, waving her hand like she was swatting at a fly. “Now, where do you want me to sit? This looks good,” she said, plunking herself down on a padded armchair that Ali had arranged in front of a small table we used as a desk. Olivia immediately arranged three piles of books in front of Sonia, along with a Sharpie, and motioned for the people in the front row to come forward and have their books signed.
“Come on up here, honey, don’t be shy,” Sonia urged an awed-looking Lucinda Macavy. Lucinda’s face was flushed with excitement; she was clearly dazzled at the idea of meeting the iconic chef. The Dream Club members—including Etta Mae Beasley and Edward Giles—had arrived early and snared seats in the very first row. “I thought I’d sign all these books and then when I run out, I can sign bookmarks and pose for pictures until we have to leave.” She paused, her eyes sweeping over the audience. The place was packed. “Sound like a plan?” she asked with a grin.
Smiles all around and some scattered applause as Lucinda, Dorien, Sybil, and Etta Mae made their way to the front. Edward Giles stood up with some reluctance and let the other people in the row go ahead of him. I couldn’t decide whether he wasn’t interested in a free autographed cookbook, or he was just shy.
Sonia certainly knew how to work a room. Olivia asked each guest in line how they would like the book signed, and then scribbled their name on a small card and passed it to Sonia. It was all very streamlined and professional. Sonia signed books for the next half hour, stopping to chat with individual fans, asking questions about their hometown, their children, and their families. She even asked one woman to show her a photo of her Cavalier King Charles spaniels so she could admire them. She never seemed rushed and was happy to allow people to take pictures of her.
At one point, Olivia bent down to ask Sonia if she would like something to drink and Sonia bellowed, “I sure would, honey. And grab me some more of those shortbread cookies. I have to do a taste test.” She gave a raucous laugh and aimed a broad wink at the audience. “Let’s make sure these are up to snuff,” she said teasingly. “I hope these are Sonia Scott classics.”
Ali flashed me a look and I hoped Sonia would approve of our efforts.
“These are all Sonia’s recipes, right?” Olivia leaned close to me, arching her eyebrows.
“Why, yes, they are,” I blurted out. “All three of them.” The lemon bars and cherry cheesecake tarts were out of Sonia’s Southern Favorites cookbook, and Lucinda had offered to bring some shortbread cookies that were featured in Sonia’s Easy Desserts cookbook.
Sonia was about to start signing bookmarks—Olivia had thoughtfully brought what looked like several hundred—when she frowned and started scratching her arm.
“Darn,” she said irritably. “Do you have cats in here? I can feel my allergies kicking in.”
Ali shot me a startled look. Barney and Scout were safely ensconced upstairs, taking their morning naps on the windowsill. “Not in this part of the shop,” she admitted, “although we do have two cats upstairs.”
“That must be it,” Sonia said, munching on a cookie. I noticed someone had placed a few cookies next to her on a pretty plate decorated with a rooster. The cookies were sand-colored and looked delicious. I decided they must be the shortbread “Sandies” that Lucinda had brought.
“Are you all right, Sonia?” Ali hovered over her.
“I think so; I’m just very sensitive to cats.” I noticed a red flush creeping up her throat and was about to comment when she jumped to her feet. “Olivia, find my inhaler right away,” she rasped. “My chest feels so tight I can hardly breathe. I need to splash some water on my face. Where’s the ladies’ room?” She coughed twice and made a strangled gasp as a deep frown line appeared between her eyes.
I jumped to my feet. “It’s right down the hall, but do you need—” Sonia ignored me and heaved herself toward the hall. She was clutching her throat but gamely held up one finger in a just a minute gesture. She raced down the hall into the ladies’ room and I heard the door slam shut. Olivia and I exchanged a look.
“She’s terribly allergic to cats,” Olivia said, scowling. A touch of annoyance crept into her voice. “I should have said something to you earlier. It never occurred to me that you lived in your shop.”
“We live above the shop,” Ali corrected her. “But I don’t understand what happened to her. I’ve never seen anyone with such a severe cat allergy.” I hadn’t, either, and I’d been alarmed when I saw Sonia’s neck suddenly turn a vivid shade of candy-apple red.
Olivia dug into an oversized tote bag and pulled out an asthma inhaler. “We just need a quick break from the signing. Sonia can take a few puffs on this and she’ll be right as rain.”
She took off down the hallway with a couple of “Team Sonia” staffers racing after her.
There was an excited buzz in the room, and I saw Sara Rutledge half rise out of her seat. We locked gazes for a moment and she shot me a questioning look. When I touched my index finger to my thumb in an okay gesture, she nodded and sat back down.
“What’s up? Is Sonia sick?” Sam Stiles had made her way to the front of the room and stood close to me, her body poised for action. Sam is a detective with the Savannah PD and a member of the Dream Club. Unfortunately, her grueling work schedule makes it difficult for her to attend meetings. In her mid-thirties, with an athletic build and a brisk, no-nonsense style, she’s a commanding presence. I’d seen her slip into the shop a moment earlier and was grateful she was on the scene.
“I’m not sure.” I bent close to whisper in her ear. “Her assistant thinks she’s allergic to Barney and Scout, and she believes it triggered an asthma attack. Olivia—the assistant—is in the ladies’ room with her right now, along with a couple of other staffers. I’m hoping this will all blow over in a few minutes. People are getting restless.”
“Don’t worry, folks. Everything’s fine.” Ali practically had to shout to be heard above the noise. “Sonia will be right back and you’ll all have autographed bookmarks. In the meantime, eat up. We have plenty of goodies over there!” She gave a wide, reassuring smile and people started edging back to the dessert buffet on the heart pine table. A couple of minutes passed and I glanced at my watch. I was just about to go check on Sonia when Olivia darted out of the ladies’ room, her face pale, her eyes wide with panic.
“Call nine-one-one,” she shouted. “Hurry up! Something’s terribly wrong with Sonia. She’s collapsed. I don’t think she’s breathing, and I can’t find her EpiPen.” She went white and I could feel the tension rolling off her. I reached for my phone but Sam Stiles beat me to it.
“We need an ambulance, stat!” Sam yelled into her cell as she pushed past me. Sara Rutledge jumped to her feet, tossing her shoulder bag on her chair. I knew Sara had CPR training, and she darted after Sam. By now everyone in the audience knew something was amiss.
Olivia was visibly shaken. “I thought you brought her the asthma inhaler—” I began. My voice was wobbly, and I clasped my hands together to keep them from shaking.
“The inhaler isn’t working.” She turned Sonia’s green Coach bag upside down on the table. Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead and her voice had taken on a shrill, desperate note. “She needs her EpiPen. That’s the only thing that’s going to save her now.”
An EpiPen? If Sonia needed epinephrine, it must mean that she was going into anaphylactic shock.
“Do you want me to help you look?” I offered. I felt helpless just standing there.
“No, I’ll find it. I know she has it with her. I saw it earlier today.” Olivia shoved her hands into the pile of lipsticks, gum wrappers, receipts, tissues, bookmarks, and business cards strewn across the table. Little scraps of paper feathered in the air. I remembered that Sonia had a habit of scribbling notes to herself and dropping them into her purse.
“Where is the EpiPen?” Olivia’s voice spiraled upward; it sounded like she was bordering on hysteria. She made a pitiful note in her throat, almost a groan of pain. “It has to be here, but where, where?”
“Doesn’t anyone have a backup pen?” I asked gently, riffling through the debris from Sonia’s purse. I knew people often carried two pens in case one of them malfunctioned.
“I have an extra one, but mine’s missing, too!” Now her voice was glazed with panic, and I knew she was seconds away from losing control. She dumped the contents of her tote bag on the floor. “How could they both be missing? That’s impossible,” she screamed. She was on her hands and knees, palms outstretched, sifting through the items from her bag. I noticed she was much neater than Sonia, and she carried a wallet, a small makeup kit, a pen and pad of paper, a BlackBerry, and a package of tissues. No sign of the missing pen.
“It could be a false alarm,” I said, trying to calm her. “The cats are both upstairs—”
“Don’t you understand anything? It’s not the cats; it’s something else. Something much worse.” She stood up, let out a deep sigh, and blinked rapidly a few times, as if she was fighting back tears. “I knew this would happen,” she said darkly. “I just knew it.” With that, she bolted out of the room, heading back to her boss.
I opened my mouth to speak but knew it would be pointless. What had she suspected would happen? And what did she mean by “something worse”? My gaze traveled to the buffet table. Was it the food? What could Sonia have possibly eaten that caused her to collapse? An unpleasant tingling sensation coursed through my body and a knot of cold fear crept up the back of my neck.
“Please stay calm, everyone,” I said as people started shouting questions. “Help is on the way. Right now we need to take our seats and clear a path for the paramedics. I’m sure this is a false alarm.” But Olivia insisted that Sonia wasn’t breathing. Could that be true? My voice quavered with emotion and I swallowed hard, taking a deep breath. “As soon as they check her out, we’ll be able to continue the book signing. Sit back and relax, everyone.” I put on my “game face,” as Ali calls it, and spoke with a lot more conviction than I actually felt.
The next few minutes passed in a blur. The paramedics burst through the shop doors, pushing a gurney piled high with resuscitation equipment. I noticed one of the paramedics looked to be barely out of her teens, a thin, wiry redhead with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. She took the lead down the hallway, hoisting a defibrillator off the stretcher as her partner, a middle-aged male with a considerable paunch, hurried inside the ladies’ room.
I peeked inside and my breath caught in my throat. There was Sonia, lying very still, on her back, in the middle of the bathroom floor. Both paramedics were now kneeling beside her, working quickly, their expressions intent. They spoke softly to each other as they passed equipment back and forth.
Sonia looked exactly as Olivia had described—like someone who’d collapsed without warning—and I spotted a small bruise on her forehead. She’d probably hit her head on the porcelain sink when she fell. I had the sudden fear that the resuscitation efforts were all in vain. Sonia looked lifeless, her features slack, her limbs splayed at odd angles like a doll’s. I noticed she had a scratch on her neck, probably also from her fall.
Sam Stiles ushered all of us back to the center of the shop.
“Let’s give the EMTs some space to do their job,” she said quietly. “Keep everyone out of the hallway. I’m going back in there to see if I can help.”
I felt queasy and took a seat at the signing table, looking out over the audience. I didn’t think the fans realized the seriousness of the situation and I heard a woman in the front row tell her friend that Sonia had “fainted.”
I knew better, and I was sure I’d caught the words “anaphylactic shock” drifting down the hallway. The EMTs must have been in phone contact with the hospital, and they were giving clipped updates on Sonia’s condition. “Edema, impossible to intubate,” someone said curtly, and I sucked in a breath. If they were talking about intubating her, then Sonia really wasn’t breathing and Olivia’s analysis of the situation was correct.
After what seemed like an eternity, the EMTs emerged from the hallway. The younger of the two was talking into a mic pinned to her uniform. “ETA ten minutes,” she said brusquely. Sonia was lying perfectly still on the gurney, with an oxygen mask strapped to her face. Her eyes were closed and her face was a mottled red. A soft groan went up from the audience as the paramedics hurried out to the ambulance. Olivia, along with the rest of Sonia’s entourage, looked shell-shocked.
“How bad is it?” I whispered to Sam, who appeared next to me.
“Very bad,” she said, shaking her head. “No detectable pulse, the airway’s blocked, and epinephrine didn’t seem to help.”
“But the oxygen mask—?”
“Just standard protocol.” She shook her head. “It’s probably not going to be enough to turn things around.” I remembered Sam had once told me that paramedics often slap an oxygen mask on a patient even if there isn’t any medical reason to do so. They want to give the appearance that the person is still alive and that they are making every effort to resuscitate them as they whisk them off to the hospital.
“Oh, that doesn’t sound good,” I said, surveying the crowd. This was going to be devastating news for her fans.
“They’ll have her in the ER in a few minutes, but I think she’s already gone. She probably could have been pronounced dead at the scene.”
“This is horrible,” Ali muttered.
I was silent, watching Sam, who was scanning the room, her eyes narrowed, her body tense. Her arms dangled at her sides, but I noticed she was closing and unclosing her hands as her gaze swept the audience. She was on high alert today, but what—or who—was she looking for?
Then I spotted Etta Mae Beasley in the front row, hugging her autographed copy of Sonia’s cookbook to her chest. There was an odd look on her face, an expression I couldn’t quite place. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she looked almost triumphant.
Etta Mae’s lips were twitching in a ghost of a smile, and her expression was gloating. But that was impossible, wasn’t it? Why would she be happy that Sonia was seriously ill? Etta Mae had made it clear that she wasn’t a fan of Sonia’s, but did her feelings go beyond mere dislike? There was something chilling about her expression, and my stomach clenched.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Nightmares Can Be Murder:
"A dream come true for cozy readers everywhere."Lorna Barrett, New York Times bestselling author of the Booktown Mysteries
"A wry and clever debut. Huge fun."Carolyn Hart, New York Times bestselling author of the Death on Demand Bookstore Mysteries
"A fun series that goes where no sleuth has gone before. Once you pick this book up, you won't look at dreams in the same way. Or mysteries."Carolyn Haines, award-winning author of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mysteries
"Kennedy, who previously penned the Talk Radio Mystery series, introduces a fresh premise to the cozy genre. Balancing a murder plot with humorous characters and a genteel Southern setting, this is a terrific start to a new series." Library Journal
"Kennedy pens a lively mystery." RT Book Reviews
"Entertaining...well-written." Kings River Life Magazine
"A clever premise." MyShelf.com