Sugar and Spice Cookbooks’ newest project is a fundraiser organized by the St. Ignatius Crack of Dawn Breakfast Club, famous for their all-you-can-eat biscuits and gravy events. But when a group member is found dead, Sugar and Spice’s priorities change from raising dough to figuring out who put murder on the menu.
The return of former badboy Nick Marchant has stirred the town’s gossips too. Add a few grudges and some old-fashioned greed over a land deal into the mix, and it’s a recipe for mayhem. And when someone serves up a second helping of murder, Sugar and Spice need to sift the guilty from the blameless, or their next breakfast may be their last . . .
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Home. Some people can't wait to leave home. Some believe you can't go home again. Some long for home.
That would be me. I believe I've been longing for home most of my life. Growing up with a series of moves after my parents' not very messy but very final divorce, I'd never felt a true sense of home until I moved to St. Ignatius, the small town that had adopted me. Or maybe I'd adopted it. I mulled over the concept as I let the sounds of the Red Hen Diner wrap around me and a warm buttermilk biscuit melt in my mouth. Comfort food.
Rosetta Sugarbaker Calloway here. But you can call me Sugar, everybody does. I'm not from anywhere near St. Ignatius, but the locals had embraced this southern gal and most of the time totally ignored that I was a transplant. It helped that I was in business with life-long resident Dixie Spicer. Dixie and I had a friendship and a partnership formed when we had both needed a new start. Her roots in town gave me street cred.
Chicken and biscuits had been today's special and I'd been reading the table while I waited for my order. You heard that right, reading the table.
The Red Hen had clippings from the St. Ignatius Journal sealed under glass atop the diner's wooden tables. A Notes from Memory Lane column about a bank robbery that had happened in 1932 had captured my attention. That would have been during the time when there were a number of Depression-era gangs and I wondered if the crime had ever been solved. Could St. Ignatius have been hit by the likes of the Dillinger Gang, Pretty Boy Floyd, or Bonnie and Clyde? I'd never considered that the sleepy midwestern town I'd come to love might have been part of a history-making crime spree.
When I heard the word "bank" from the booth behind me, I whipped around, wondering if I'd been seated by a mind reader or if I'd said something out loud about the tabletop story under glass. The two women continued talking and didn't appear to notice me peering over the booth.
"Do you think he's planning to stay?" The brunette stopped midbite, a biscuit dolloped with butter and strawberry jam halfway to her mouth.
I felt I'd shown great restraint by swiping only a smidge of butter on mine, but I've got to confess that her biscuit toppings looked tasty.
"I can't believe he's back in town after all this time," a second voice responded.
I couldn't see the other woman because we were back to back, but the strong scent of her hairspray had tickled my nose when I turned. Grabbing a napkin, I held it against my face to keep from sneezing.
"Sounds like you ladies have already heard that Nick Marchant is back in town." Another voice joined the conversation. I didn't need to look to identify this one. I recognized the bubbly chirp of Tressa Hostetter. Tressa spotted me and swooped by my booth.
"Sugar, look at you!" Tressa exclaimed.
It always seemed like the redhead spoke in exclamation points.
"Hi, Tressa." I braced for the big hug I knew was coming.
I didn't mind. Who can't use a hug, right?
"Love that top!" Her long arms enveloped me in a bear hug. I appreciated the compliment but seriously, it was my gray Sugar and Spice T-shirt. "It brings out the gorgeous gray of your eyes!"
Tressa leaned back and held me at arm's length. "So jealous of you, Sugar, your porcelain skin [yes, I'm pale] and that rich sable hair! [it's brown]. What I wouldn't give for such natural beauty." She gave me a big smile, but I suspected that last comment meant any makeup I'd started the day with was long gone.
With her colorful and creative commentary, Tressa could have been a writer of ads for beauty products, but she wasn't. She was the proprietor of Tressa's Tresses, the hair salon on the town square. I know, not a very imaginative name, but what she lacked in imagination she made up in good nature. The girl was beyond sweet, though at times not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Tressa moved on and sat down with the group behind me and said something to the two women that I couldn't quite catch. I shifted in the booth so I could hear better and then told myself I needed to MYOB. That's mind your own business, according to my Aunt Cricket back home in Georgia. Aunt Cricket used a lot of acronyms, but she had a bucketload of pithy sayings so I guess it was kind of handy to have a shortened way to remember them.
Marchant, Tressa had said. The name sounded familiar.
"I hear he's driving a red Jag and that he's still a hottie," the dark-haired woman noted.
"I heard ..." I couldn't catch the rest and didn't turn around because I didn't want to risk a noseful of hairspray again.
"Sugar, do you need a box for that?" Toy George, the owner of the Red Hen, and "Head Chick" according to her apron, interrupted my eavesdropping.
"Yes, please." The chicken and biscuits special had been a generous portion, and I'd barely made a dent in the chicken. Of course, that might have been because I'd started with the warm-from-the-oven biscuits.
Toy hustled back behind the counter, pulled out a to-go box, and brought it to me. The diner had begun to hit the lunchtime rush and I felt guilty tying up a booth, so I quickly packed up my leftovers.
Standing, to-go box in hand, I headed to the register to pay. The door chimed its signature "cluck." I'm telling you, the Red Hen Diner went all out with the chicken theme. I glanced up as Nate from the bank ducked in.
"Nate, I hear your brother's back in town," one of the brood back in the booth called out to him.
Nate Marchant. That was why the name sounded familiar. The Nick who the women had been discussing must be Nate's brother. Nate not only worked at the bank, he was also a city council alderman. I knew this because he'd recently asked to put a reelection poster in our window at the shop. I hadn't even realized he had a brother.
Handing the ticket and my money to Toy, I couldn't hear his response, but I could hear the laughter from the booth. Toy handed me my change and just as I dropped it into my bag, my cell phone rang. I glanced at the display and saw it was Greer Gooder, my landlady. The eighty-something dear had decided to rent out her house and move to a retirement complex just as I'd been looking for a place to live. I'd snapped up the well-kept Victorian right away. Greer's friendship had been an added bonus.
"Hello, Greer," I answered as I nudged open the diner's door with my hip.
"Cluck," the door chime announced as I went out.
"Sugar, Bunny is missing." Greer's voice was excited.
"Bunny?" I asked and started walking back toward the office.
I ran through possibilities in my mind. Had there been a bunny statue? Greer had left a slew of boxes behind at the house and was prone to asking me to bring various items from the attic. No, I couldn't recall a bunny. Had there been a real live bunny she'd talked to me about?
"You know. My friend Bunny." She sounded out of breath. "You met her at the meeting about the breakfast club cookbook."
I searched through my memory for Bunny. I'm usually pretty good with names, but I'd met quite a few new people when we'd had our first meeting with the Crack of Dawn Breakfast Club. The group of retirees were very excited about their plan to raise money to refurbish the aging shelter house at the St. Ignatius City Park. And Dixie and I were very excited to have a paying client.
"Oh, yes, Bunny." Now I remembered the stooped white-haired Bunny because her last name was Hopper. I mean, really? Still the moniker did seem to fit her. She'd reminded me a bit of the actress in the Miss Marple series I loved to watch on PBS. "Why do you think Bunny is missing?"
"I don't think she's missing." Greer's irritation crackled through the phone. "I know she's missing. She was supposed to be at pinochle and she's not. Bunny knows we don't have enough people to play without her and she's always on time."
"Where have you looked for her?" I asked. I didn't want to rile Greer any further, but it would help to know where she might be.
"Her apartment and around the grounds," Greer replied. "As far as we old ladies could walk anyway."
"Okay, I'll come and help look. Do you think she might have fallen?" I picked up my pace as I headed across the town square. "Does Bunny have a cell phone?"
"She does but she doesn't always turn it on. Besides, it was sitting on her kitchen table when we looked in the window at her place."
"I'll be right there." I hung up as I unlocked the front door of the office and stepped inside. "Dixie, are you here?"
As I mentioned before, Dixie is the other half of the partnership in the business that brought me to St. Ignatius, Sugar and Spice Publishing. We publish community cookbooks. Dixie's the food talent part of our partnership, the best cook hands down I have ever known, and a great friend to boot. She'd passed on lunch with me at the Red Hen because she'd had some groceries to pick up and errands to run. I'd thought she might be back since I'd spent so long reading the news clippings.
I jotted a note telling Dixie I'd gone to see Greer and stuck it on the counter where she'd be sure to see it. I'd fill her in later on the missing Bunny part of the story when we met up.
Walking around the counter and through to the back door, I fished my car keys from my bag. I made sure the door was locked and then hopped in Big Blue, my Jeep Cherokee. Turning the vehicle toward the Good Life retirement center, I wondered what could have happened to Bunny. The Good Life was an independent living complex and was on the western edge of town but truly nothing in St. Ignatius is very far.
The weather was nice but fall was in the air. If Bunny had fallen at least she wasn't lying somewhere out in the elements or in drifting snow like we'd have in just a few short months. I turned the corner at Jefferson Street. Dixie's Aunt Bertie owned the Jefferson Street Bed & Breakfast a bit farther down. I slowed as a mother with two small children had just started to cross and then I looked both ways before continuing. As I did, a figure on the opposite corner caught my attention.
Walking along the sidewalk, straw hat square on her head, big decorative daisy bouncing with each step, was Bunny Hopper.
I pulled around the corner, stopped my car, and got out.
"Hello, Bunny." As I got closer, I looked her over. She seemed to be okay and didn't look like she'd taken a tumble or anything.
"What?" She didn't seem to have heard me.
"I said, hello." I spoke louder.
"Oh, hello." She nodded.
"I don't know if you remember me —"
"What?" She leaned closer, the daisy on her hat coming very close to smacking me in the face.
I tried again, this time even louder. "I don't know if you remember me or not but we met at the cookbook meeting."
"'Course I remember you. You make cookbooks with Dixie Spicer." She smiled up at me. I'm not terribly tall myself, but Bunny was so petite I suddenly felt like a moose.
"The ladies who play cards with you were worried when you didn't show up for today's pinochle game."
"Wasn't my fault." She shrugged thin shoulders. "Alma dropped me off at the post office because I had some things to mail to my daughter in Indiana. She never came back for me so eventually I started walking."
"I see." I wasn't sure I did see. There must have been some confusion about Alma coming back. I guessed the main thing was that Bunny was found. "Can I give you a ride back to the Good Life?"
"Oh, yes." She immediately headed toward my Jeep. "I was afraid I was going to have to walk the whole way. I was getting pretty worn out."
I glanced back at the post office. Bunny had only made it a block so I truly don't think she could have walked the whole way. Dialing Greer's number, I let her know that Bunny was found and that I'd explain when I got there. And then I helped Bunny into the Jeep. Big Blue was great for travel and especially good in Iowa snow, but it was not a great choice for ferrying tiny elderly people.
Once she was in, I helped Bunny get her seatbelt buckled and then headed once again toward the retirement village.
* * *
"I can't believe Alma forgot Bunny." Greer poured tea into my cup, although she'd just asked if I'd like more and I'd said no thanks. She sloshed some in her own mug and came to sit across from me at the table.
I'd taken Bunny to the community center, where the residents had various activities. The group of pinochle players had finally dispersed after determining that Bunny was okay. Bunny seemed less upset than the rest about being abandoned at the post office. She'd apologized for missing the game and then was ready to get on with her day.
Greer and I had walked back to her place, and I'd accepted her offer of tea, thinking that preparing it might give her a chance to calm down.
"Do you think Alma's dealing with some memory issues?" I asked. "Could there maybe be a problem with medication she's on or something like that?"
"The woman is normally sharp as a tack but lately she's had the attention span of a gnat." Greer added sugar to her tea and pushed the container of honey in my direction. "I asked her for her recipe for Better Than Sex cake and she said she'd email it to me as soon as she got home. I still don't have it."
"Her what?" I very nearly spat my tea across the table. "What kind of cake?"
"You know, Better Than Sex cake or some call it Better Than Robert Redford cake. I don't call it that, because I'm not so wild about him. I mean he's okay, loved him in All the President's Men and The Natural and that one where everybody is after him."
"Three Days of the Condor?" One of my favorites. I love old movies.
"Right." She took a sip from her cup. "I mean he's okay but I don't love him like I love that cake." She paused. "Or George Clooney."
I'd have to ask Dixie about this cake. I hadn't heard of it, but if Greer thought it was that good, it sounded like something we definitely should try.
But back to Alma. "I'm sure it just slipped her mind."
Greer leaned back in her chair. "You're probably right. I don't mean to be griping. I know she's a busy woman with being in charge of the cookbook and carting us old ladies around, but I'm kind of worried about her."
"I know you are." I patted her hand.
"She's been on edge. Like the other day we were going to the bakery over in Marston and she turned the wrong direction on the highway. When I said, 'Hey Alma, wrong way!' she slammed on the brakes so hard that poor Freda Watson's wig ended up in the front seat on top of Nellie's pocketbook. It's lucky we didn't all have whiplash."
Glad that I didn't have tea in my mouth this time, I tried not to snicker at the visual of Freda's wig flying through the air and landing in Nellie's lap. Stopping in the middle of the highway was serious and could have caused an accident. "Maybe when you see her, you can talk with her about what's going on."
"I'll do that." Greer set her cup down. "She's probably okay. I just hope it's not a medical thing. We ladies of a certain age worry about that kind of stuff, you know."
I could imagine they might.
"Bunny seemed to be having problems hearing when I picked her up." Standing, I carried my cup to the sink and then returned to the living room. "Is that usual or something new?"
"That's been going on for a while." Greer rolled her eyes. "We've been trying to get her to have it checked out, but she thinks she hears just fine. We'll nag her until she gets to the doctor."
It's true what they say about old age not being for sissies. These ladies, and Greer especially, were proof of that, and I loved how they took care of one another. I could see why Greer had moved to the Good Life and why she enjoyed living there.
Picking up my bag to leave, I gave Greer a hug. "I need to talk with Alma about all the recipes she's collected for the cookbook. I'll see if I notice anything peculiar when we get together."
"Thank you." She hugged me back and hung on for a bit. "You're a dear to come and help me with things."
* * *
Back at the shop, Dixie had arrived with a bunch of supplies. I talked while she put things away in their places. My cinnamon-haired, no-nonsense business partner knows exactly where she wants things and I've found it's best not to get in her way.
"Greer seemed to think Alma had been distracted lately." I handed her a large bag of pecans, wondering what tasty thing she was going to make with them. Pecan pie? Pralines? There were so many possibilities.
"I'm thinking if Alma is having problems maybe she shouldn't be driving the rest of those women around, even if it is mostly in town." Dixie pushed a red curl off her forehead, placed several cans of soup on a shelf, and then shifted a few items around.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Risky Biscuits"
Copyright © 2019 Mary Lee Ashford.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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