When Dana Lewis and Zennia Patrakio go to the Blossom Valley farmer's market, they expect to find luscious fruits and vegetables to delight the spa's guests. They are not expecting to see Birch Keller, Zennia's one true love. But Zennia's excitement over "the one who got away" is short-lived when Birch is found dead in her garden. Kitchen-challenged Dana takes over grief-stricken Zennia's cooking duties at the spa--but the biggest challenge will be searching for answers at the commune where Birch had been living. The residents are nuttier than granola, and as Dana tills up the truth, she'll discover a killer with a wholly unwholesome appetite for revenge…
Praise for The Blossom Valley Mysteries!
"Cleverly plotted…Plenty of suspects and potential motives keep readers guessing until the very end!" --RT Book Reviews on Green Living Can Be Deadly
"A fun, light read." --Library Journal on Going Organic Can Kill You
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Murder Most Wholesome
By Staci McLaughlin
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Staci McLaughlin
All rights reserved.
I pointed to a round, bumpy vegetable I'd spied on a folding table at the Blossom Valley farmers market. "What on earth is that thing?" I asked Zennia.
She gave me a patient smile. "It's cauliflower, Dana."
"But it's orange," I said.
"Some varieties are."
None that I'd ever seen. Then again, Zennia, the health-minded and Zen-like cook at the O'Connell Organic Farm and Spa, the bed-and-breakfast where I worked, could identify more vegetables than anyone I knew. I surveyed the rest of the produce that was laid out on the table. "You must be in heaven when you shop here."
She picked up a clump of pea pods. "Based on the way you keep wrinkling your nose, I'm guessing you're not as enthralled as I am."
I reached up and touched my nose. "It's an automatic reflex. I don't think all vegetables are bad. Those peas you're holding would taste downright scrumptious if you drowned them in melted cheese."
"Good grief," Zennia muttered. "And spoil the sweet peas?"
It was a warm evening in early June, and I'd agreed to accompany Zennia to this week's farmers market. The event was held at Blossom Valley's largest park, an expansive square of lush, green lawn outlined by a wide sidewalk. Two dozen vendors had set up a collection of tables and displays, each overflowing with ripe vegetables, sweet-scented fruits, or brightly colored flowers, in hopes of attracting customers. One innovative farmer had chosen to back up his pickup truck to the sidewalk and lower his tailgate to reveal several types of lettuce, saving himself the time and trouble of unloading his crop.
On the grass, children played tag while a handful of people sunbathed on beach towels and others tossed Frisbees or balls to their dogs. In the summer months, the park would host outdoor concerts, eating competitions, and the Fourth of July fireworks show, but for now, fruits and vegetables were the main focus.
Even though my primary responsibility at the O'Connell farm was to provide marketing services, my official duties rarely took up the entire workday. I often helped Zennia prepare and serve meals for the guests. It couldn't hurt to stop by the market and expand my food knowledge. Considering I didn't recognize several types of produce for sale, I clearly needed to brush up.
"Next time I make my spring barley risotto, I'll be sure to have you help me," Zennia said, sorting through a pile of string beans. "One bite and you'll realize why I love vegetables as much as I do."
I gestured to a nearby stall, where a variety of cheeses and several bottles of local olive oil weighed down a folding table. My mouth watered at the sight. "Right now, I'm going to check out what kind of Monterey Jack that guy is selling."
"Suit yourself." Zennia moved on to a booth where a woman was peddling asparagus while I homed in on the cheese guy, a tall, thin man with a pronounced Adam's apple that bobbed up and down as he told me about each and every cheese on his table.
"If you're looking for a good Jack cheese, try the dill. What you want to do is toast slices of ciabatta bread and spread on a little mayonnaise. Add the dill Jack, a layer of tomato slices, and a sprinkle of salt, and you're all set." He kissed his fingertips. "Perfection. Put it under the broiler for a minute, and it's even better, if that's possible."
I selected a wedge and studied the other offerings. "What about the garlic Jack?"
The man rubbed his stomach, as if the mere mention made him ravenous. "All you need is a hunk of plain, old bread to go with that."
I picked up a wrapped piece of garlic Jack and paid the man for both cheeses before storing my purchases in the reusable tote Zennia had given me a few months back. With a nod of thanks, I walked over to the booth where I'd seen Zennia before we'd separated, only to find she was no longer there.
The crowd had picked up considerably while I'd been shopping, but I spotted her bright yellow blouse across the lawn. A few feet away from the table where she stood, an older man was giving her the once-over. He sported a short, gray beard and wore a long-sleeved thermal shirt and cargo shorts. I'd have to let Zennia know she had an admirer. With her long dark hair and tall, athletic figure, she probably had several more.
As I headed in her direction, I stopped to buy a container of ripe, red strawberries. I'd noticed premade sponge cake shells at the Meat and Potatoes grocery store when I'd shopped there last week. With a little whipped cream, I could make an easy strawberry shortcake.
I gingerly placed my strawberries in my tote and looked across the grass toward Zennia again. My gaze drifted to the left, and I shivered. The man I'd noticed admiring her stood in the same spot, seemingly transfixed. He watched as Zennia browsed among the tables and talked to the sellers. When she moved to the next table, he advanced a few steps in her direction, his stare never wavering.
I started across the lawn to warn Zennia. Maybe that guy had a perfectly innocent reason to be fixated on her, or maybe not. Either way, I didn't like the way he was acting. I picked up my pace.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something moving through the air and jerked my head around in time to see a Frisbee streak straight toward my face. I raised my arm to deflect it. The plastic disc hit my forearm with a sharp sting before falling to the grass.
A boy of about ten ran over and picked it up. "Sorry about that," he mumbled to his feet.
"No problem," I said. "Those Frisbees have minds of their own."
He ran back to his friends. I scanned the people before me and frowned. Zennia was still there, but the man in the cargo shorts had vanished. I checked the nearby tables and spotted him standing behind a trio of women who were huddled in a semicircle, comparing the contents of their bags as if the items were never-before-seen vegetables. Maybe they'd all bought the orange cauliflower. The man cast one last look at Zennia before moving farther back into the crowd and out of sight.
I chuckled to myself. I really needed to stop watching so many scary movies. Seeing masked men with machetes stalking young co-eds was making me paranoid.
Shaking my head at my own foolishness, I reached Zennia as she was paying the vendor.
"There you are," she said. "Find anything good?"
I hefted my bag. "Cheese and strawberries."
"That's a lovely combination. I found baby artichokes. I keep meaning to plant artichokes at the farm, although I'm not sure we have space for any more crops."
I tried to spot the mystery man, but couldn't find him. "I don't think you noticed, but a guy was totally checking you out while you were shopping."
Zennia's cheeks instantly turned pink. "I'm not some young girl. No one checks me out anymore."
"Give yourself more credit. Mid-forties is prime dating age."
"Says the girl who's not even thirty," Zennia said.
"I'm awfully close. Besides, I saw this guy for myself. He was staring at you so long, I almost considered calling the cops."
Zennia waved her hand, like she was swiping the compliment away, but I could tell she was pleased. "Shall we keep shopping? I think I saw sunflower bouquets when we first came in. Those will certainly brighten the farm's dining room."
We wandered around the square, stopping at the occasional table. By the time we were halfway through the stands, my bag was becoming uncomfortably heavy, though it paled in comparison to Zennia's two teeming totes.
"I believe I have enough for the week," Zennia said. "Do you need anything else, Dana?"
"No, I'm good." We stepped to the edge of the park and away from the vendors. "Can you carry both bags by yourself?" I asked.
"I'll manage." We carried our purchases to the parking lot and stopped at Zennia's Prius.
I bent down and gently set my own bag on the pavement so I could help Zennia load her bags into the trunk. As I straightened up, I glanced across the lot and froze.
He was back. The man who'd been watching Zennia.
This time, he stood next to the open passenger door of a nondescript white van, the kind that always made me think of stories I'd heard about Ted Bundy. Once more, he was staring at Zennia.
"Zennia," I said sharply.
She was in the middle of lifting one of the bags to place in the trunk. When I said her name, she turned toward me. "What?" The movement sent her off balance, and the bag slipped from her grasp and hit the pavement. Two heads of cabbage and several small onions fell out the top and rolled under a nearby car.
"The cabbage is making a run for it," she joked as she bent down to retrieve the wayward vegetables.
I knelt down with her and helped gather the onions as quickly as I could. "Forget about the cabbage. I saw that guy again." From my crouched position, I couldn't see over the car, but I jerked my head in his direction. "Do you know him?"
Zennia stood and scanned the lot. "What guy?"
I tossed the last onion in the bag and rose. I looked toward the van where I'd seen him standing only moments ago.
For the second time that day, the man had disappeared.CHAPTER 2
"I'm telling you, the guy was there a minute ago." I pointed across the parking lot. "Right by that white van."
"Are you sure?" Zennia said. "Maybe you're hallucinating from all that saturated fat you eat." But as she spoke, the man appeared from the other side of the van. When Zennia saw him, her face turned ashen. "I don't believe it," she whispered.
The guy started moving in our direction. I felt in my back pocket for my phone, ready to call for help, not that there was any chance help would arrive in time. "Who is he?"
Zennia placed a visibly trembling hand to her mouth. "It's Birch. But it can't be."
I wasn't sure she'd heard me until she whirled around, a silly grin on her face, like a teenage girl who'd caught sight of her favorite movie star. "Birch was my one true love. I can't believe he's back."
At that, she practically ran to the man, with her Birkenstocks slapping against the asphalt. When she reached him, he swept her up in a bone-crushing hug. In all my time working at the farm, Zennia had never mentioned a man she was romantically involved with. Who was this guy?
I realized my mouth was hanging open and closed it with a snap as Birch and Zennia pulled apart. They immediately huddled together and started talking, but from this distance, I couldn't hear what they were saying.
I considered driving home without interrupting their reunion, but my car was parked only two spaces from Birch's van. I couldn't possibly sneak by without being seen, and it seemed rude not to say anything. I gave them another moment to reconnect before I walked over.
As I got closer, I noticed the man's shorts were frayed along the bottom, and his shirt had a few stains. He wore a string of colorful beads around his neck.
I stuck out my hand. "Hi, I'm Dana Lewis."
Zennia laid a hand on her cheek. "Dana, I forgot all about you. Where are my manners?" She gestured toward Birch. "Dana, this is ..."
Before she could answer, Birch grabbed my hand and clasped it in both of his, pumping it up and down with a vigor that made my brain vibrate. The area around his eyes collapsed into wrinkles as he beamed at me. "Birch. My parents named me after the tree. Trees are one of nature's greatest gifts, and I've spent my life embracing the outdoors because of this."
"Nice to meet you. I gather you're a friend of Zennia's?"
"Friend is not a strong enough word for our deep-rooted link." He wrapped an arm around Zennia and pulled her toward him until their hips were touching. He tilted his tan face toward her and said, "She is my soul mate."
Zennia shifted her weight and eased away at this declaration, but she smiled at him nonetheless. "I can't believe you're here after all these years. You haven't changed a bit."
He reached up and touched his hair. "Kind of you to say, but the gray says otherwise." He gazed at Zennia. "But you've only gotten more beautiful. Remember how inseparable we once were? I thought we'd be together forever, but we must follow fate wherever it takes us."
"And where did fate take you?" I asked, picturing Birch trekking through far-off lands, with only a backpack and a walking stick to help him along.
"To Oregon. I've been running a T-shirt shop on the beach up until a few months ago when I moved back to the commune."
Not quite the exotic traveling life I'd envisioned.
Zennia took a step back. "You were living in Oregon? And now you're back at Evergreen? Why didn't you try to get in touch with me?"
"My God, how I wanted to," Birch said. "When you left the commune all those years ago, I was forced to reflect on my own life. If you could brave the world, what was I missing by staying put? Once I went to Oregon, I thought about finding you time and again, but I didn't want to interrupt your own journey with fate." Birch took Zennia's hands in his and gazed at her face. His own hazel-green eyes were filled with sadness. "Seeing you again, and feeling all this love swell into my heart, I know I made the wrong decision."
"Hey, Birch, you ready to hit the road?" a voice called from behind us, breaking the spell. A large, broad-shouldered man in his late sixties headed in our direction, carrying a stack of empty wooden crates.
Birch whipped his head around. "Frank, I've had the most glorious surprise. I can't believe my good fortune."
He gestured toward Zennia, but Frank didn't even glance in her direction as he dropped the crates on the ground behind the van, swung open the back doors, and started to load them in.
"That's great," he said, "but we have to get back. Ryan's expecting us."
"Of course. I'd forgotten," Birch said. "While Ryan might be expecting us, I'm the one who needs to do the talking. I sense he's not going to be happy."
Frank grunted. "Not my problem." He placed the last crate in the van.
"It could be your problem, now that my confidence has wavered. And after Ryan's meeting, you and I need to sit down alone and talk. There's another issue that must be addressed."
"Then let's go. It'll be dark soon."
Without acknowledging Zennia and me, Frank slammed the back doors shut and went around the side of the van toward the driver's door.
Birch went through the contents of his pockets, coming up with a wadded-up piece of paper and a pencil stub. He tried his best to unwrinkle the paper. "I must have your number. We can't let this opportunity escape us."
Zennia recited her phone number while Birch used the side of the van as a writing board. As he was putting the paper back in his pocket, the van's engine roared to life.
Birch hastily hugged Zennia. "How I wish I could stay longer, but work awaits."
He swung his lanky body into the passenger seat with a grace that belied his years and pulled the door closed. He stuck his head out the window. "This is such a magnificent day to find you once more." The van lurched forward, and Birch pulled his head back inside as it sped away.
"Wow, Zennia, how cool that you and Birch have reunited after all this time," I said, as we watched the van drive out of the lot. "It's like something out of a Hallmark movie."
Zennia blinked rapidly, as if trying to bring her mind back to the present. "I returned to the commune after a brief time away, and the members told me Birch had also left. I figured he'd moved to India to study further enlightenment. I can't believe he's been living one state away this whole time."
I laid a hand on her arm. "You've got plenty of time to make up for those lost years. No reason you two can't pick up where you left off." I could practically hear the violin music swelling in the soundtrack of my imaginary movie as the two lovers became inseparable once more.
"I'm not sure I want to," Zennia said softly.
The music in my head screeched to a halt. "What? But I thought he was your one true love."
"Sure, that's what we called each other at the time, but that was twenty-five years ago. I was young and in love, wooed by an older man. When I went back to the commune, only to find out he was no longer there, I was heartbroken, of course, but I moved on. I imagine he has too, even if he is back at the commune."
Twenty-five years? I was barely out of diapers when all this happened. "I didn't realize communes even existed these days," I said. "Where is it?"
Excerpted from Murder Most Wholesome by Staci McLaughlin. Copyright © 2016 Staci McLaughlin. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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