New York native Gia Morelli is just getting used to life in Florida when she gets word that the town government wants to shut down her pride and joy: the charming little diner known as the All-Day Breakfast Café. A forgotten zoning regulation means that the café was opened illegally, and hardboiled council president Marcia Steers refuses to budge. Gia is considering hanging up her apron and going back to New York, but before she gives up on her dream, she discovers something shocking in the local swamp: Marcia Steers, dead in the water. There’s a secret buried in the books at town hall, and someone killed to keep it hidden. To save her café and bring a killer to justice, Gia and her friends will have to figure out a killer’s recipe for murder . . .
Praise for Lena Gregory
“Hold on to your plates for this fast-paced mystery that will leave you hungering for more!”—J.C. Eaton, author of the Sophie Kimball Mysteries, on Scone Cold Killer
“Family secrets, old mansions, and a growing list of murder victims—these elements and more blend together to make an intriguing as well as entertaining cozy mystery.”—RT Book Reviews on Occult and Battery
“As breezy and salty as a gust of wind off the chilly bay waters.”—Juliet Blackwell, New York Times bestselling author of the Witchcraft Mysteries on Death at First Sight
“An intriguing opening to a fun new series.”—E. J. Copperman, national bestselling author of the Haunted Guesthouse Mysteries on Death at First Sight
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"Fools!" Savannah Mills swiveled back and forth on a stool at the All-Day Breakfast Café counter and tapped a steady rhythm against the butcher-block countertop with her long, powder blue nails. "Every last one of them."
Gia Morelli scrubbed the already spotless counter one more time for good measure, then flung the dishcloth into a bin beneath the counter, the steady rat-a-tat-tat of Savannah's rhythmic drumming making it almost impossible to think straight. "What I don't get is how they think they can get away with this?"
Earl snorted. The elderly man, who'd been the All-Day Breakfast Café's first customer, and had since become a friend, had made a habit of arriving at the café before they opened and lingering over coffee until Gia officially unlocked the door and started cooking. "The council members are so used to doing whatever they want with no opposition they're like a pack of spoiled brats."
"Yeah, well, not this time." Gia checked the clock — just about time to open. She rounded the counter and headed for the door. "No way I'm giving up everything I've worked for because that bunch found some antiquated zoning mistake."
"How are you going to get around it, though?" Earl asked.
"I have no idea. Yet." Gia unlocked the door, then dragged the chalkboard with the day's specials out onto the sidewalk and set it up. She looked up and down Main Street. Winter in Boggy Creek was certainly milder than the harsh bite of winter in New York, and yet there was something inside her, a small niggle of homesickness, that missed the change of seasons. Still ... If she was going to give everything up and go back to New York, it would be on her terms, not because she was forced out. She strode back into the café more determined than ever to fight the council's rulings. "Did your brother get back to you yet, Savannah?"
She shook her head. "He still hasn't heard back from his lawyer friend. Of course, you did only get the letter last night."
Gia resisted the urge to argue. Savannah was right. She hadn't gotten the mail until after closing yesterday, and it was barely six o'clock in the morning now. Savannah's brother, Tommy, who also sat on the town council, would call as soon as he heard something. Until then ...
Willow, the young woman who served as hostess, waitress, and cashier, breezed through the door, her usual smile firmly in place. "Good morning."
"Morning." Earl nodded.
Willow slowed, taking in the three of them. "Is something wrong?"
Gia sighed. Not like she wasn't going to find out anyway. Heck, half of Boggy Creek had probably already heard, and the remainder of the residents would know everything within an hour of the shops on Main Street opening. "I received a letter from the town council. They're closing the café."
Willow's mouth fell open.
Savannah spun her stool toward Gia. "Oh, stop being dramatic, Gia. They're not closing the café, exactly, they're just ..."
Gia lifted a brow and waited.
"Oh, all right. So they're trying to close the café, but they aren't going to get away with it."
"No, they're not. But I need to know why they're trying before I can figure out how to fight them." And that was the problem. The letter only asked her to willingly close the café, said it had been brought to their attention that the historic building that housed the café and the small apartment above it had never been zoned commercial. Instead, it was the only building on Main Street that was still zoned residential.
"Could be it's a mistake," Savannah offered.
"I guess." Gia shrugged.
Earl sipped his coffee, then lowered his mug to the counter. "Of course, yours is the last shop on the block, and the area of town past it is zoned residential."
Gia just looked at him.
"What?" he said innocently. "I know how to use Google."
Earl had quickly become a close friend. He'd believed in her when a lot of other people hadn't, and she cherished his friendship. "When did you find out about the letter?"
"Last night." His cheeks reddened. "One of my sons might have called."
Well, at least the Boggy Creek rumor mill was still up and running. Truth be told, he'd probably known before she had. Since she was always stuck in the kitchen, it had been late before she'd gotten the mail. Then she'd had to feed and walk Thor before she finally found time to open the letter. "But why did the letter ask me to close? They could have said they wanted to discuss the matter or offered advice on how to change the zoning, anything. Something."
Savannah and Earl glanced at each other, a quick, passing look, but something definitely simmered just beneath the surface.
"Okay, spill it. What don't I know?"
"Weeell ..." Savannah looked at Earl once more, then returned her attention to Gia. "Do you know who any of the council members are?"
"No. Well, other than your brother, which I only found out last night. Oh, and the president, Marcia something, is it? Whoever signed the letter." Between running the café, unpacking and putting everything away at the house, and taking care of Thor, she didn't have time to worry about who sat on the town council. "I get a newsletter from them every month, but honestly, I usually just chuck it in the trash."
"Yeah, well, you probably should have paid closer attention," Savannah said.
"Maybelle sits on the council."
"Are you kidding me?" Great. Just what she needed, an enemy on the council. "How could someone that lazy —"
The front door opened, and an older couple walked in.
Gia plastered on a smile and went to greet them. She'd have to try to sort everything out later. "Good morning."
"Hello," the man answered and glanced at Earl. "Hey there, Earl."
Earl stood and extended a hand. "Harry. How are you?"
"Good, good." He shook Earl's hand, then stepped back and gestured toward the woman Gia assumed was his wife. "Theresa and I figured we'd check out the breakfast you're always raving about."
"Well, you won't be disappointed." Earl winked at Gia. "This here's Gia, and she makes a mean breakfast."
"Nice to meet you, Gia."
"It's a pleasure to meet both of you." She grabbed two menus. "Can I show you to a table?"
After settling them with coffee and their menus, Gia retreated to the kitchen. She grabbed tongs and moved a few slices of bacon and sausage from the warming trays to the grill, then started scrambling three eggs.
Maybelle Sanford. It figured. That woman was destined to be a thorn in her side. She'd only worked — to use the term loosely — at the café for a day, and yet she kept coming back to haunt her. Since Maybelle had accused Gia of murder last time she'd seen her, it was hard not to jump to the conclusion she had something to do with the zoning fiasco. And yet ...
Gia had been ready to fire Maybelle for being so lazy. Useless as a steering wheel on a mule according to Savannah. That being the case, it was hard to believe Maybelle had found the ambition to search for a way to close the café.
Gia dismissed any thought of Maybelle. Nothing she could do about it right now anyway, and all it was doing was aggravating her. She'd have to wait until Tommy called Savannah back. If not for his wife having their first baby last month, he'd have been at the latest council meeting, and she might have had a heads-up. As it was, she'd have to wait for him to get caught up.
She drizzled a small amount of oil onto the grill, let it heat until it sizzled, then poured the eggs onto the hot oil. While they cooked, she spooned out a serving of grits and one of home fries, which Earl had added to his usual breakfast after the first time he'd tried hers. She filled a bowl with gravy, dropped two biscuits onto a small plate, and set the dish on the cutout counter between the kitchen and dining room.
Earl ate an unbelievable amount of food for breakfast every day while still managing to stay rail thin. The man was in remarkably good shape for almost eighty years old, despite consuming a week's work of fat each morning.
She'd miss this if she had to give up the café. She enjoyed cooking, and she'd enjoyed making friends in Boggy Creek. In addition to Earl, there was Trevor, who owned the ice cream parlor down the street, Savannah, who'd been a good friend for years, and Hunt, who she held out hope would become more than just a friend. She dismissed the thought. Detective Tall, Dark, and Gorgeous was the last thing she needed to concern herself with at the moment.
She'd even gotten used to the solitude of living in her small house at the edge of the Ocala National Forest. Sort of. Thor helped. It was hard to believe Savannah had to talk her into getting the big Bernese Mountain Dog puppy. Now, she had no clue what she'd do without him. He made her life complete.
"Here you go." Willow rushed in, ripped the top page off her order pad, and stuck it above the grill, then frowned. "Are you all right?"
"I'll be okay." She smiled. "As soon as I get past being blindsided and figure out what my options are."
"If I can do anything to help, just let me know."
She grabbed Earl's breakfast order and headed back to the dining room. Willow was a good kid and a hard worker. She'd also become a friend.
Another plus in the stay-and-fight-for-her-café column.
She started the next order. Unfortunately, she hadn't had much luck finding a cook after Maybelle and her replacement both hadn't worked out — or in Maybelle's case, just hadn't worked — which left Gia stuck in the kitchen all day. As much as she loved cooking, she really wanted to get out from in front of the grill and get to know her customers a little better. If she was going to make this work, she might have to give in and hire a cook. Third time's the charm? She certainly hoped so.
Truth be told, Boggy Creek was growing on her. At least, the people were. The critters, not so much.
The sound of raised voices right outside the kitchen pulled her attention.
Gia set the finished order on the cutout for Willow, pulled off her apron, and draped it over a stool. She strode through the doorway but stopped short when she ran into Savannah and a woman she didn't know in the hallway outside her office door. "Everything okay?"
Savannah peeked into Gia's office, then glanced at the other woman and pulled the door shut. She tucked her hair behind her ear, a nervous habit Gia had become familiar with when they'd lived together in New York. "Gia, this is Marcia Steers."
She only recognized the name because she'd recently received the letter from the council with Marcia Steers's name scrawled across the bottom and her title, Council President, typed in bold print beneath it. Gia eyed the woman standing in front of her, then swallowed her anger and extended a hand. "It's nice to meet you, Ms. Steers."
A hot pink sundress clung to Marcia's ample curves, and bleach blond hair framed her round face in a mane of over-teased frizz. High-heeled, leopard print sandals laced up her calves. She sneered and folded her arms across her chest. "Ms. Morelli."
Okay. Gia lowered her hand. "What can I help you with?"
"I want to discuss something with you." She raked her gaze over Savannah. "In private."
Savannah offered her sweetest smile. "As I already told you, Ms. Morelli is working. She will be happy to meet with you after the café closes."
Marcia ignored her, instead homing in on Gia. "And as I already told Ms. Mills, I need to speak with you."
"Actually, I'd like to speak with you as well." She forced a smile. "I'm hoping we can clear up the zoning mistake so I can keep the café open."
"There's no mistake, Ms. Morelli." Though Marcia's expression remained hard, her gaze darted repeatedly between the closed back door to the parking lot and the swinging door to the dining room. She stood stiff, like a cornered animal. "The café will close. The matter I must discuss with you is of a more personal nature."
Savannah eyed Gia and gave a discreet head shake behind Marcia's back.
Great. Now she had to either irritate Marcia, the woman who quite possibly held Gia's fate in her hands, or go against Savannah, which she couldn't do. She cracked the swinging door to the dining room open and peeked in. Willow had already seated several more tables and was taking an order. "I'm so sorry, Ms. Steers, but I'm the only cook, and I can't leave the kitchen just now. Can we meet later on?"
Marcia eyed her for a moment, then relented. "Fine. I want to look into something anyway. The café is closed on Mondays, right?"
"I'll meet you here tomorrow around noon."
"Sounds good. I —"
Before Gia could finish speaking, Marcia shot Savannah a dirty look, whirled away from Gia, then shoved through the swinging doors into the dining room.
Gia stared after her. "Maybe I should have just talked to her."
Savannah blew out a breath. "And what about your customers? Are you going to make them sit and wait while you two have it out in the middle of the café?"
The fact that she was right did nothing to lessen Gia's apprehension.
"She's clearly agitated about something. A public confrontation is the last thing you need right now." Savannah shook her head, then opened the door and walked into Gia's office. "Besides, I was helping Willow out, pouring coffee while people waited to order their breakfast. When I looked up, I caught sight of someone heading through the doors toward the kitchen. I couldn't tell who it was, so I came back to see what was going on, and I found Marcia coming out of your office."
Savannah shuffled through a small stack of papers on the desk. "You should really go through these and see if anything's missing before you meet with her."
"I guess —"
"Gia?" Willow stuck her head in the doorway. "Is everything all right?" she asked for the third time since arriving.
Gia needed to get her act together. "Umm ... yeah."
Willow frowned but let it drop. "I just put three orders up, and one of them is a group of seven."
"Got it." She quickly scanned the papers on the desk. There was nothing of importance that she could see, but she'd have to look more carefully later. "Thanks, Savannah."
"No problem. But I think I'll give my brother another call." She looked up and caught Gia's gaze. "And maybe you'd better think about calling a lawyer."CHAPTER 2
Gia stepped over a large branch blocking the path through the woods, then patted her pocket — for the millionth time — to make sure her canister of bear spray was still there. Though she enjoyed their walks, which allowed her to spend time with Thor and provided both of them some much needed exercise, her nerves sometimes got the better of her. This morning was no exception.
Thor trotted happily alongside her, sometimes darting ahead, but always staying on the trail and within sight.
She didn't have the heart to call him back, even though she wasn't in the best mood this morning and her mind was a million miles away. Unfortunately, her hectic schedule at the café didn't allow much time for hiking, or anything else for that matter. So she trudged on, despite wanting to go home and spend her morning curled up with a good book.
Savannah and Trevor had both insisted early morning hikes would clear her head and help her get used to living at the edge of the forest. Though they did help her focus better, they did nothing to help her embrace her new surroundings. If anything, they terrified her even more. Looking into the woods surrounding her property and not knowing what lurked just behind the tree line gave her the creeps, but hiking the local trails and actually seeing snakes, alligators, and other critters, some of which she couldn't even identify, brought nightmares.
And yet, here she was. ... She'd been looking forward to hiking the new trail, but her mind was too cluttered with everything else to focus on enjoying the peaceful morning. She sucked in a shaky breath, the humidity making her chest heavy. "Don't get too far ahead, Thor."
The big, furry dog, who still hadn't quite grown into his chunky paws, stopped at the sound of her voice, turned back to her, and tilted his head, then waited for her to catch up.
"Good boy." She petted his head. "At least, you're having a good time. You sure do love these early morning walks, don't you?"
He dropped his tongue out and panted.
"Come on. There's supposed to be a lake up ahead. I'll get some water out when we get there, and we can rest for a few minutes and have a drink." She hefted her small backpack farther onto her shoulders and started forward.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder Made To Order"
Copyright © 2018 Lena Gregory.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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