In the charming small town of South Lick, Indiana, Robbie has transformed a rundown country store into the runaway hit Pans 'N Pancakes. But the most popular destination for miles around can also invite trouble. Erica Shermer may be the widow of handsome local lawyer Jim Shermer's brother, but she doesn't appear to be in mourning. At a homecoming party held in Robbie's store, Erica is alternately obnoxious and flirtatiouseven batting her eyelashes at Jim. When Erica turns up dead in the store the next morning, apparently clobbered with cookware, the police suspect Robbie's friend Phil, who closed up after the party. To clear Phil and calm her customers, Robbie needs to step out from behind the counter and find the real killer in short order…
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Grilled for Murder
By Maddie Day
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Edith Maxwell
All rights reserved.
Was I nuts? I don't know what I was thinking, agreeing to cater and host a welcome-home party in my country store and restaurant tonight. I'd already been working since six this morning serving up breakfast and lunch to wave after wave of hungry customers on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I sank into a chair as the antique clock chimed. Thankfully, two o'clock was only half an hour until closing time, and just three people remained, lingering over their gourmet hamburgers. A couple played a game of chess on the painted tabletop and the third read a newspaper, exactly the kind of scene I'd envisioned when I'd bought this old country store and opened Pans 'N Pancakes on the edge of South Lick, Indiana.
I gazed at the gleaming counters, the shelves full of vintage cookware, the pickle barrel, proud I'd accomplished nearly all the renovation carpentry myself. My mom had wanted to be sure her daughter would always have a trade, a trade which came in handy when I'd bought the rundown place nestled in the hills of scenic Brown County last winter. Now Turkey Day was over. I needed to get decorated for Christmas, but that could wait until tomorrow. After I got through this darn party. Oh, well. It was income, and my bank account could always use more deposits.
I glanced up when the cowbell on the door jangled. Sue Berry bustled in with her daughter Paula, the hosts of tonight's shindig for Sue's other daughter. I waved them over to my table.
"Everything all set for tonight, Robbie?" Sue asked. She plopped down across from me, her short cap of bottle-blond hair looking more tousled than usual.
"I think so. Have a seat, Paula," I said to the daughter, a woman in her thirties.
"Thanks, but I think I'll stand. My back's kind of bothering me." Paula nestled her other hand in the small of her back, her pregnant belly pushing out a black knit shirt under her open coat. She wore her dark hair pulled back in a messy knot and her face was devoid of makeup, letting the high color of a woman carrying a child shine through, but also showing the dark splotches under her eyes.
"Three months to go. I sure can't wait to be a grandmother," Sue said in a bright voice, beaming up at Paula and then turning back to me. "So the cupcakes are all ordered, and Glen and Max will bring the drinks over a little early. I'm just as thrilled as punch we can do this for our dear Erica."
Sue's other daughter, Erica, had moved back to South Lick a month earlier. I wasn't quite sure why they'd waited a month to welcome her back, but I was happy they'd chosen to have the welcome-back party at Pans 'N Pancakes. Erica's late husband had been my boyfriend's twin brother, so I could hardly say no. Sue and Paula had both been customers over the last month and a half since I'd opened, so they'd had a taste of my cooking.
"I'll have a veggie platter and a couple of dips out," I said. "I've made up a pasta salad and a coleslaw, as we discussed. I have the mini-sliders ready to go, and a couple dozen hand pizzas ready in the freezer. I'll pop those in the oven during the party so they can be served hot."
"Hand pizza?" Paula asked. "Pizza with fingers sounds fun."
I laughed. "They're just small. Like the size of a hand. Maybe I should call them individual pizzas."
"It don't matter what you call them; they are going to be so yummy," Sue said. Her blue eyes sparkled behind a bit too much eye makeup.
"The mini-sliders sound delicious," Paula said.
"Beef, turkey, and black bean. And my friend Phil is going to tend bar." Thank goodness for Phil. My congenial friend was a talented singer and baker, and had helped me out of a jam more than once.
"Good, so the guys can relax and enjoy themselves." Sue beamed her approval. "Hey, Robbie, you ever think about entering the log cabin competition in Nashville?"
Nashville was the county seat five miles away. Nashville, Indiana, not Tennessee. "The what? I'd love to build a house some day, but right now I have my hands full here."
"Mom means gingerbread log cabins, right?"
Sue snapped her fingers. "It's so gol dang cute. Everybody makes log cabins out of gingerbread and other edible stuff. They judge it over at the Brown County Inn."
"You could make a cabin of a country store and enter it," Paula said. She gestured around the store. "You know, with the front door standing open. You could have little shelves of cookware showing, and a few tables and chairs. Put a couple of rocking chairs on the front porch like you have and I bet you'd win a prize."
"It sounds fun, if I could find the time." When could I fit baking and decorating a log cabin into my schedule, though? Monday, my day off, was the only possibility. On the other hand, it would be good publicity for the store.
The door jangled again and a frowning, broad-shouldered man strode in. "There you are," he said, spying Paula.
Paula twisted her wedding band around and around. "Max, I told you I was going out with Mom."
"Max, honey, come meet Robbie." Sue gestured to him.
After Max approached the table, Sue said, "Robbie Jordan, this is Paula's husband, Max Holzhauser. Max, Robbie."
He extended a big, meaty hand. "Nice to meet you, Robbie." He barely got the glower off his face, which featured a jutting Neanderthal brow and heavy eyebrows now pulled together in the middle. His thick hair, tucked behind his ears, brushed his collar.
I shook his hand. "Likewise. Sit down?" What was he so mad about?
"Can't. Let's go, Paula." He took hold of Paula's upper arm. She wasn't much taller than my own five foot four. He was not only a little over six feet tall, he was also stocky and heavy boned.
Paula pried his hand off, twisting out of his grasp. "I'm doing errands with my mother, Max. I'll be home in time to get ready for the party." Her jaw worked.
"Have it your own way, then." He cracked his knuckles. "You always do."
One of my chess-playing customers looked up and frowned at the disturbance. I watched Max leave, hearing the door close with more force than necessary, and glanced at Paula. Sue had taken one of her daughter's hands in both of hers and was stroking it.
"Things will work out, sugar," Sue murmured as the bell on the door continued to jangle. "He'll get a hold on that temper of his, bless his heart. You'll see."
* * *
The timer on the oven dinged right after the wall clock chimed eight. We were an hour into the party, and it was in full swing. I hurried over to draw out the last pan of pizzas. I slid them onto a tray, the cheese bubbling in tan spots, the aroma of fresh crust almost too alluring. I sliced each pizza into quarters and carried them to the food table. I wiped my hands down my blue-and-white store apron, which featured our logo of a cast-iron griddle held by a grinning stack of pancakes, and surveyed the now-packed room. Late this afternoon Phil and I had pushed the tables to the sides and stacked half the chairs in a corner to leave room for mingling.
Near the Welcome Back to South Lick, Erica! banner, a small group of men, including Max, Sue's husband Glen, and green-eyed Jim Shermer clustered with beers in hand. Paula, now made up and in a green dress that didn't try to disguise her baby bump, sat talking with Tiffany Porter, an attractive local jewelry maker who owned a gift shop in town. Phil stood behind the bar table chatting with Sue. His dark face was aglow and he beamed his wide smile that always reminded me of Denzel Washington's.
Other townspeople, some of whom I'd met, many I hadn't, chatted in small groups, with a few women browsing the shelves of cookware. Country music played from a couple of small speakers someone had set up next to an iPad, and the buzz of conversation over the tunes was loud.
The only person missing was the guest of honor, Erica. She was more than an hour late. People were starting to talk, and Sue had pasted on a smile so fake it looked like it came from a photo-editing app. It had to have upset the family to have Erica's husband take his own life, and I wondered why she'd taken so long to move back home. Or if Sue was now worried something had happened to Erica.
I picked up an empty slider platter and headed back to the open kitchen area, smothering a yawn before drawing another pan of sliders out of the warmer. I'd made little rolls for buns, precooked the patties, and assembled the tiny burgers shortly before the party started. All I had to do now was serve them. Then maybe I could sit down for a few minutes.
As I set the platter of sliders on the food table, Tiffany walked up to me.
"I really like all your cookware, Robbie." Her full lips curved into a smile, lighting up her face, and her almond-shaped eyes crinkled at the edges.
"Thanks. Half of it was already here when I bought the store, and I've acquired the rest."
"Don't you just love thinking about who cooked with it when it was new?" she asked, gazing at the far wall.
"I'd like to ask you a quick question about one piece."
"Sure." We moved across the room together. Tiffany, four or five inches taller than me, especially in heels, walked with a fluid motion like an athlete might. Her light-brown hair fell in graceful waves below her shoulders,
She pointed with an elegant finger that ended in the perfect white tip of a French manicure. "What's that round thing with the two long handles?"
"That's a sandwich press." It featured two slightly convex cast-iron disks joined by a hinge, and two long handles extending out. "After you insert a cheese sandwich between the disks, you clamp the press shut and then hold it over a gas flame or even a campfire to toast the sandwich. It makes the best grilled cheese in the world. You can grill other kinds of sandwiches, too, of course."
"And it's beautiful, too."
"Sure is. Browse as much as you want. The pieces for sale have tags on them."
"Thanks." She moved on down to the shelf area.
I turned back to the party and made my rounds, picking up empty dishes, tidying the food display. I paused when I passed a smiling Jim, my new boyfriend and my former real-estate lawyer. I knew he wanted more than the occasional date, but I was so busy with the store and restaurant, and he with his practice, we usually only managed Sunday nights together, since Pans 'N Pancakes was closed on Mondays.
"Everything looks great. And tastes even better," he said, smoothing an errant black curl off my forehead.
He looked more delicious than any food I could make, with those emerald eyes, that curly red hair he wore a bit long and shaggy, and his trim body. Tonight he wore a deep blue shirt with well-cut black pants, but he could look smoking-hot even in an old T-shirt and ragged jeans.
"Thanks. It seems to be going pretty well, doesn't it?" I smiled back at him.
"Except Erica isn't here." His forehead furrowed. "I wonder what's keeping her."
"It's not a surprise party, is it? Sue never said anything about that."
"No, I don't think it's supposed to be a surprise. Oh, well. Erica has always been a bit, shall we say, dramatic." He pulled his mouth. "She probably wants to make a grand entrance."
I saw Sue glance at the phone in her hand and touch it a few times with her index finger.
"Gol dang, she's almost here!" Sue announced with a big smile. "Get ready, y'all."
Sure enough, it wasn't two minutes later when the cowbell jangled and a woman pushed in, shedding a puffy, white, thigh-length coat as she walked. She wore a snug red dress that crossed over in the front and nowhere near covered her cleavage. This had to be Erica. She was closer in height to her tiny mother than to Paula, and her spiky blond hair and light coloring was more like Sue's, too. Through the door behind her emerged Abe O'Neill, a cute guy I'd met earlier in the fall who worked for the local electric company. He set a banjo case on the floor as the talking fell to a hush.
Erica left Abe at the door and swanned over to her mother on four-inch red heels. She gave Sue a hug and then waved to the room.
"Hi, everybody," she called out. "Thanks so much for all this."
Her father, a man in his sixties whose dark hair was shot through with silver, raised his beer. "Welcome back, sweetheart."
A chorus of "welcome back" echoed throughout the room. Next to me, Jim raised his bottle of Cutters Half Court IPA. "Welcome back, Rickie."
Erica turned her head sharply, then tilted her head in a seductive pose when she saw who'd said it. She clicked on her heels over to where we stood and slid her arm through Jim's.
"Oh, Jim. You're the only person besides Jon who can call me that." She pursed her lips in a pout. "And he's gone." She stroked his arm with her other hand and cast luminous blue eyes up at him.
A shadow passed over Jim's face as he carefully detached from Erica's arm and pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Jon, his twin, had killed himself in Chicago a year ago. Jim had told me how hard it'd been for him, and still was, to lose his twin, and to suicide, too. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I'll call you Erica from now on."
"No, I want you to call me Rickie. Please?"
Jim cleared his throat. "Have you met my girlfriend, Robbie Jordan? This is her restaurant and country store." He slung his arm along my shoulders, giving my arm a squeeze.
Erica narrowed her eyes and studied me before flashing a big smile. She held out her hand. "His girlfriend? Well, isn't this a surprise?"
"Nice to meet you, Erica. Welcome back." I forced a smile and shook her hand. I snuck a glance at Jim, who straightened his collar and was looking anywhere but at Erica. I gazed around the store. Almost everyone had stopped what they were doing, food halfway to their mouths, bottles halfway raised, to watch Erica.
"Isn't this a cute place you've got here," Erica said. "It was a real dump last time I lived in town."
"Robbie did all the renovation work herself, too." Jim's smile at me was genuine.
"Imagine that. You're so talented," she said in a voice oozing insincerity.
"I'll be bringing out some hot sliders in a minute, and the pizzas over there are probably still warm, if you're hungry. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll let you two have some time to catch up." I cast another quick look at Jim before heading to the kitchen area, and if that wasn't a panicked expression on his face, I don't know what was. Well, he was a big boy. He could handle his former sister-in-law. Or not. I sure wasn't going to get in the middle.CHAPTER 2
It was nine o'clock before I finally got a chance to take off my apron and sit down near my desk in the far corner. When Sue had made the arrangements for the party, she'd also made it clear she hoped I would join them when I could. She'd said I should consider myself part of the family and not only the caterer. So I'd worn my black swingy dress with the cap sleeves and my turquoise cowboy boots. A multicolored chunky necklace brightened up the dress. And even though I had to wear my thick, curly, Italian hair pulled back when I was working, I'd added a sparkly pin for a party touch.
A group of guys over near the door, including Abe, laughed at some joke, and several couples danced in the middle of the space. Erica flitted from group to group, a bottle of beer in her hand. By the smiles and hugs, people seemed genuinely glad to have her back in town. I let the party flow around me, glad to hold a plastic cup of white wine and get off my feet. It'd been a long day, but I loved seeing the place full. Part of my dream in restoring the store and adding the restaurant had been to make it a community gathering place. Just like this.
A tune sounding like West Coast swing came on and Jim strolled up, his eyes sparkling. "May I have the pleasure of this dance?"
We'd gone dancing at a local roadhouse on our very first date, the one that unfortunately ended in news of a murder in town. We shared a love of dance, although my experience was mostly freestyle, while he knew steps to all different kinds of dances, from swing to contra to international folk dancing. He'd told me that was how he stayed fit, by going dancing every chance he got.
I grabbed one more sip of wine, then said, "Why not?"
I extended my hand and let him pull me up and lead me to where others were dancing. He was a good half-foot taller than me, and it felt perfect to lay my hand on his shoulder and have him take my other hand in his. He waited until the song started a new phrase, then led me through the steps. I tried to stay loose and follow, not my strong suit, but we'd gone dancing several more times in recent weeks and I was starting to get the hang of it. He'd told me about staying in the box, about imagining a rectangle defining our moves. It helped. Next to us, Phil twirled the woman he was dancing with, and then bent her down in a dip. He caught my eye and grinned, then straightened and waltzed away.
Excerpted from Grilled for Murder by Maddie Day. Copyright © 2016 Edith Maxwell. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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