When Gia Morelli’s marriage falls apart, she knows it’s time to get out of New York. Her husband was a scam artist who swindled half the millionaires in town, and she doesn’t want to be there when they decide to take revenge. On the spur of the moment, she follows her best friend to a small town in Central Florida, where she braves snakes, bears, and giant spiders to open a cheery little diner called the All-Day Breakfast Café. Owning a restaurant has been her lifelong dream, but it turns into a nightmare the morning she opens her dumpster and finds her ex-husband crammed inside. As the suspect du jour, Gia will have to scramble fast to prove her innocence before a killer orders another cup of murder . . .
Praise for Lena Gregory
“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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"I'm just surprised you got out of New York without killing that son of a —"
"Savannah!" The harsh sentiment hurled with all of Savanah's sweet, easy-going, southern-girl charm caught Gia Morelli off-guard, and she stared at her best friend.
"What?" Feigning innocence, Savannah propped a long, hot pink nail beneath Gia's chin and shoved her mouth closed. "It's September in Florida, honey. You keep that open too long, you're bound to get a mouthful of lovebugs."
"What's a lov —" Gia waved her off. "Never mind. It doesn't matter."
"All that matters is that you're here now." Savannah hefted Gia's overnight bag from the back seat of the cab she'd taken from the airport while Gia paid the driver. As the cab pulled away, Savannah slung her free arm around Gia's waist. The four inch heels on her sandals only brought her to Gia's chin. "I'm just glad it's over."
If that wasn't the understatement of the year ...
Gia wrapped her arm around Savannah's shoulders and squeezed. "Me too."
The two of them stood together on the sidewalk, staring up at the glossy new sign above the shop — Gia's shop — door. All-Day Breakfast Café. A Grand Opening banner hung limp in the humidity beneath it.
Gia's gut cramped. The hot Florida sun threatened to melt the makeup right off her face. The long skirt, light sweater, and knee-high leather boots that had left her slightly chilly in the brisk, early-morning, fall air in New York a few hours ago, were practically suffocating her now. She wiped her forehead, ignoring the flutter in her stomach and the fact that her nerves, rather than the stifling heat, were probably making her sweat.
"Enough of that. Come on. Let me show you what I've done with the place since you were here last." Savannah's growing excitement was contagious.
The knot of tension loosened a little.
"I was just making sure everything was ready when the taxi pulled up." She grinned and started forward. "I thought you weren't coming in until tonight?"
Gia shrugged, not yet ready to explain her need to escape sooner. She forced a smile. "Last-minute change of plans."
"Well, I'm glad you're here to stay this time." Savannah weaved her fingers through Gia's and squeezed her hand. "But you should have called me. I'd have picked you up at the airport."
Gia glanced at her, trying to hide the pain and fear she knew her friend would see anyway. "Thanks, Savannah. I know you would have, but I needed to do it myself."
A brief flicker of pity softened Savannah's expression, but then a smile emerged. She tugged on Gia's hand, then released her and started toward the front door. "Well, you're home now. And wait until you see the finishing touches I've made to the shop. You're going to love them."
Gia took another moment to admire the historical, two-story building that housed the shop. Her shop. The pale yellow paint with white trim had been a great color choice. Standing proudly on one corner, it fit nicely with the other shops along Main Street in the small, artsy, tourist town of Boggy Creek. Nestled a bit south of Central Florida's Ocala National Forest, the town was known for its festivals, art and craft shows, and seasonal fairs. Her breakfast café would be the perfect addition. She hoped.
Shaking off another attack of nerves, she caught up to Savannah where she'd waited on the walkway.
"I can't believe you're finally here to stay this time," Savannah said.
"Me neither." The past year, since she'd found out about her husband's — ex-husband's — illicit and illegal activities, had flown by in a blur of confusion and betrayal. Savannah had been her rock, the one person who'd steadied her and helped her move toward a future. "Flying down for a day or two at a time wasn't easy."
"No, it wasn't, but you did it," Savannah reminded her, then gestured toward the café. "And just look what you've got to show for it."
Pride surged. "You're right."
"Do you like the sign?" A small wooden sign with hand-painted lettering hung in the front window framed by blue and white gingham curtains, proclaiming the café, Closed. "I picked it up at the fair last weekend."
"I love it." She turned to her friend. "Thank you, Savannah. For everything. I never would have been able to get the shop set up or the house or anything without your help."
Savannah shrugged it off, as she always did. "You're very welcome. But the truth is, you're a strong woman, and you would have managed, even without my help." She grinned. "I just made it a little easier. Now, come on. Enough dwelling on the past. It's time to take your first step toward the future."
"You're right." Taking a deep breath, Gia scrubbed the tears from her cheeks and headed up the walkway to the door. She had a lot to accomplish if she was going to open the next day. And she was definitely going to open the next day, no matter what.
Savannah held the door open.
Gia paused. Despite the intense heat, a chill raced through her, raising goose bumps. She glanced over her shoulder. People walked along the sidewalk, a few kids on bicycles headed toward the park at the end of Main Street, and cars crept through the crowded town. No one seemed to be paying any attention to her, and yet ...
The sensation had become all too familiar since word of her husband's scam had been made public. But that was in New York. And she was no longer in New York.
"Are you sure you want to open tomorrow?" Leaning against the open door as if she had all day, Savannah waited, eyes closed, face tilted up toward the warm sun.
"I'm sure. It's time to move on." Leaving the past behind her, Gia strode through the doorway and tried to see the shop as a customer would for the first time. She'd been hoping to create the cozy feel of home. With Savannah's help, she'd nailed it.
Savannah let the door fall closed. "We could take a trip down south, maybe head to the Keys for a week or so. Lie on the beach, paddleboard, enjoy the night life ..."
"As appealing as that sounds, I need to jump right in. It'll be easier for me if I'm busy."
Savannah shrugged, accepting Gia's answer, even if she couldn't understand it. She spread her arms wide and turned in a circle. "So, what do you think?"
Before Gia had left a few weeks ago, she'd ordered the tables and chairs. Now, round tables of varying sizes dotted the room, covered in navy blue cloths. Light-colored, wood chairs with homemade cushions, surrounded them. Savannah had always been amazing at anything craft related. A skill Gia didn't share, but admired immensely. "Did you make these?"
"I did. I got the fabric months ago at a craft fair." She untied a cushion from one of the chairs and turned it over. "See, there's a zipper in the back of each one, so you can take them off and throw them in the wash. There are stacks of them in the storage closet in the back by your office."
"Yup. Come on back."
Gia followed her through the shop, her footsteps echoing off the distressed bamboo flooring.
Since she'd been there last, Savannah had added some beautiful finishing touches, including paintings of local scenery — at least, Gia assumed it was local. It seemed like it, but she hadn't had time to see much on her visits. Most, well, pretty much all, of her time had been spent setting up the shop. She hadn't even seen her new house yet, though Savannah had sent tons of pictures, and it looked beautiful.
Savannah pushed open a swinging door at the back of the dining room, but instead of turning left and heading into the kitchen, she let the door swing shut behind Gia and opened a door on the right.
Gia stepped into the small office space. A desk and chair took up most of the room. Not just any desk, but Savannah's desk. The same desk she'd crammed into the closet of a bedroom they'd shared when the two of them had been roommates in New York. For years she'd skirted around that desk, stubbing her toes more often than not on her way past. But Savannah would never get rid of it, said her Pa had made it, and it had sentimental value. "That's your desk."
Savannah smiled. "I'm not using it right now, anyway, so I took it out of the spare bedroom and put it in here. Just for now, mind you. You can give it back once you get on your feet and get your own."
Gia swallowed back tears and surveyed the rest of the small room. A battered file cabinet sat in one corner behind the desk, and a set of wooden bookshelves lined one wall. "Oh, my gosh, Savannah. I don't know what to say."
"I figured you'd need quiet space now and then to place orders and stuff."
"It's perfect." Gia turned in a circle as she tried to recall the layout of the back rooms. "Wasn't this part of the storage closet?" "Yup. I had my brother, Joey, extend the closet to the back wall, so you didn't even lose that much storage space. I figured you'd want your office to be right by the door, though, so you can still hear what's going on in the kitchen and the café if you leave the door open."
"It's amazing, thank you." She threw her arms around her friend's neck. "You've done so much for me, Savannah."
"That's what friends are for." Savannah hugged her, then stepped back. "I'm just glad you're out of there now. I was worried sick every time you went back."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Don't be silly. It wasn't your fault." She lowered her gaze, but Gia didn't miss the flash of anger in her eyes. "I'm just glad you're here and ready to start over."
Gia just nodded. There was really nothing to say. Her divorce had been a bitter disaster, played out in the media for the whole world to see. Everywhere she'd gone, she'd been hounded by reporters — when she was lucky. On the worst days, her husband's victims had been pounding on her door and blowing up her phone.
The only respite she'd had through the entire ordeal had been the weekend escapes during which she'd managed to set up her shop. Thankfully, she'd been smart enough to keep working throughout her marriage, despite Bradley's insistence that she quit. Between that nest egg and the meager divorce settlement that was left after the lawyers and victims had been compensated, she'd been left with just enough to put a down payment on the beautiful building that housed the café and upstairs apartment and to buy a small house. She'd thought about living in the apartment for a while, and had stayed there on her brief visits, but she really wanted a place to go home to separate from the café. Of course, she wished she'd seen the house first, but beggars can't be choosers, and it was pretty much all she could afford anyway.
A loud crash from outside the back door startled her. She jumped and whirled toward the sound. A tremor shook her. Sweat sprang out on her forehead and trickled down the side of her face.
Something squeezed her shoulder.
Gia practically jumped out of her skin.
Savannah jerked her hand back and frowned. "Are you all right?" How could she explain the panic attacks she'd suffered this past year? How could she reveal the paranoia, the prickling sensation at the back of her neck that would come over her at random moments, the absolute conviction that someone was watching her? How could she tell Savannah about the death threats she'd received without making her worry even more? Easy, she couldn't. "I'm sorry. I'm fine. You just startled me." She forced a laugh. "What was that noise, anyway?"
Savannah's eyes narrowed, and she stared at Gia for a moment longer, then, thankfully, she let the matter drop. "Sounded like the dumpster in the parking lot out back."
Desperate to escape the claustrophobia threatening to suffocate her, as well as Savannah's far too observant gaze, Gia shoved open the back door.
The instant she emerged from the air-conditioned shop, the humidity slammed into her chest. Her breath shot from her lungs as if she'd gotten punched.
Savannah's laughter helped shake the last of the paranoia that had gripped her. "Don't worry. You'll get used to it."
"I'm not so sure."
"Trust me. It won't take long before you're looking for a jacket when the temperature falls below seventy."
"Somehow, I doubt —" She stopped short, not sure what exactly she was looking at. A man, clad in dirty, threadbare jeans, hung from the dumpster.
"Harley? Is that you, Harley?" Savannah strode toward the dumpster, then stopped and propped her hands on her hips. "You get down from there right now. What has Trevor told you about taking stuff out of dumpsters?"
The man pulled his upper body out and swung himself down to the concrete. His cheeks flushed, though whether from the intense heat or embarrassment, Gia had no clue. He lowered his gaze to the ground and smoothed a hand over his scruffy, more-gray-than-blond beard. "Sorry, ma'am."
Savannah's tone softened. "Don't be sorry. You didn't do anything wrong, but you're going to get sick if you eat stuff out of dumpsters." She reached as if to put a hand on his arm.
He lurched back.
"It's okay, Harley. But if you're hungry, just ask. You know that."
He nodded, glanced longingly at the dumpster once more, then headed off across the parking lot, slowed by a bad limp.
"Harley?" Gia called after him.
He stopped and turned but didn't make eye contact.
"I'm opening tomorrow, and if you come in, I'll treat you to breakfast on the house."
He nodded and started away again.
Savannah leaned close, pitching her voice low. "He won't come inside."
She didn't know his story, but something about him touched her. Perhaps the lost look hovering just below the surface in his bright blue eyes. She yelled after him. "I'll leave a bag out back, right beside the door."
He waved over his shoulder but kept walking.
Gia stared after him, as he shuffled across the remainder of the parking lot, his gait steady but stilted, and disappeared into a bunch of trees bordering the lakefront park. "What's up with him?"
"Don't worry about Harley. He's harmless. Everyone around here ..." She gestured toward the row of shops behind them. "Well, they sort of take care of him."
Savannah shook her head. "I don't really know, but he won't even go inside a building, so I assume so."
"Where does he live?"
"Wherever he can find somewhere to hang out."
"What about when it rains?" Weird how she'd walked past dozens of homeless people every day back home, without ever really seeing them as individuals, but this one man touched her in a way they hadn't. She wished she could go back and take notice, see each of them as a unique person with their own story, their own tragedy.
"The park has picnic areas and other sheltered spaces without walls. Technically, he's not allowed to be there, but no one chases him away. Now, come on."
"Huh? Come on where?" She shook off her concern. She'd leave something for him to eat when she closed tomorrow. Hopefully, he'd take it. "Where are we going?"
"To see your new house, silly. I'm so happy you got here in daylight."
A small thrill coursed through her. Her very own house.
"And I assume you'll want to come back to the café afterward...." Gia nodded as she held the door for Savannah to reenter the shop, then hurried through after her. "I want to make sure everything is perfect for tomorrow. I'll probably do a lot of the prep tonight."
"So we should swing by the shelter on the way to the house."
"Shelter?" The glass-domed cake dishes lining the counter distracted her from whatever Savannah was going on about. They'd be perfect to display quiche and breakfast pies, a variety of muffins, and scones. A row of stools allowed for counter seating, which would give her room for an extra ten or twelve customers. She started counting the stools.
"Yeah. Can you believe they just shut down a pet store last week? The animal shelter is overloaded with puppies."
Her concentration faltered, and she lost count. "Puppies?"
"Yeah." Savannah grinned.
"You're getting a puppy?"
"No, you are."
"Why in the world would I do that?" The thought of a pet was appealing. She'd never had one before, not even as a kid, and the company would be nice, but she'd probably choose something less ... intense. Like a fish, or maybe a parakeet.
Excerpted from "Scone Cold Killer"
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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