Literary caterer Letitia ‘Tish’ Tarragon is preparing her English Secret Garden-themed luncheon for Coleton Creek’s annual garden club awards, but when she is taken on a tour of some of the top contenders with the garden club’s president, Jim Ainsley, Tish is surprised at how seriously the residents take the awards – and how desperate they are to win.
Wealthy, retired businessman Sloane Shackleford has won the coveted best garden category five years in a row, but he and his Bichon Frise, Biscuit, are universally despised. When Sloane’s bludgeoned body is discovered in his pristine garden, Tish soon learns that he was disliked for reasons that go beyond his green fingers. Have the hotly contested awards brought out a competitive and murderous streak in one of the residents?
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'Good Lord!' Julian Jefferson Davis exclaimed as he drew a manicured hand to his impeccably clean-shaven and bronzed face. 'It's like The Stepford Wives meets Cocoon.'
Letitia 'Tish' Tarragon, owner of Cookin' the Books Café and Catering, steered her fire-engine-red 2015 Toyota Matrix past row upon row of tidy cookie-cutter homes and their impossibly – especially after a long, hot Virginia summer – verdant and well-groomed lawns. 'It's an adult community, Jules. Not a nursing home.'
'Does it matter? There's not a soul out there who doesn't have gray hair.' He gave a reluctant wave out the passenger window as the residents of Coleton Creek Sixty-Plus Community bade Tish and Julian a friendly welcome. 'And look at their clothes. It's like we've driven into my nana's old Montgomery Ward catalogs.'
'Montgomery Ward? Don't know about that one. We only saw Blair and Sears catalogs back up in New York.' Tish ran a hand through her wavy blond bob and adjusted her sunglasses to shield her blue eyes against the brilliant late-morning sunshine.
'And why are they all smiling and waving?' Jules continued. 'It's creepy. Like they're going to drain our blood and drink it to make themselves young again.'
'Young?' Tish challenged. 'Who are you calling young? We're only one generation behind them. Why, just yesterday Amazon Now delivered your nose- and ear-hair trimmer to my café because you didn't want anyone at the station to see it.'
'I'm a television celebrity,' Jules explained, alluding to his job as Channel Ten weatherman and, in recent weeks, occasional desk anchor. 'I have an image to uphold.' He punctuated the sentence by adjusting the collar of his perfectly pressed beige linen shirt.
Jules had risen to prominence at the news station due to a viral video of him being wiped out by a snowplow outside the Edgar Allen Poe Museum while covering Richmond's biggest snowstorm of the year. Thankfully, Jules's reputation as a serious journalist had begun to improve after a tough interview with Hobson Glen's former mayor, Jarrod Whitley, made top story on the eleven o'clock nightly news.
'Well, I certainly appreciate you leaving fame and fortune behind to tend bar this weekend,' Tish acknowledged.
'Honey, I wouldn't miss it for the world. Unless I'm called in to the newsroom, like last weekend.'
'Oh, how I missed you last weekend, Jules. Not only was the event far less fun without you, but the bartender the temp agency sent looked like she'd gone for a Botox injection that afternoon. The drinks she mixed were fine, but it's off-putting to request a simple Cosmopolitan or Vodka Collins and be met with a wide-eyed, startled stare.'
'Have no fear. Jules is back in gear,' he announced ceremoniously.
'I can't tell you how relieved I am. Again, thank you.'
'No worries. Not only do I love helping out a bestie, but I'm looking forward to working this luncheon. I've never served tea in china cups before. It's so posh.'
'Posh?' Tish repeated. In the twenty years since she, Jules, and their other 'bestie,' Mary Jo Okensholt, met at University of Virginia, she had never heard him utter that word, unless it was in reference to one of the Spice Girls.
'Sorry, I've been searching BBC Online and watching tons of British cooking shows in order to perfect my orange squash and "Gin and It" drink recipes. I guess I just picked up the lingo.' Jules gave another wave out the passenger window. 'Look! That little gray poodle has the same hairstyle as the woman walking him.'
Tish laughed as she turned off the main street, aptly named Coleton Creek Way, and into the lifestyle-center parking lot. With its colonnaded façade, ornamental cupola, and lush landscaping, the lifestyle center more closely resembled the entrance to a luxury resort hotel than the centerpiece of everyday life for a senior community in Virginia.
'Swank,' Jules remarked as Tish pulled the Matrix into the visitor's parking area. 'Ooh, is that a pool I see?'
'One of two. There's an indoor pool next to the fitness room,' Tish explained as she shut off the car engine and tossed the keys into an oversized scarlet handbag. 'And a Jacuzzi too.'
'A hot tub?' Jules remarked as he climbed out of the passenger door and followed Tish across the parking lot.
'Don't get too excited,' she warned as she tugged at the hem of her red floral-print sheath dress. 'We're setting up in the patio garden at the back of the lifestyle center. There's no direct access to the hot tub or pools unless you walk through the building.'
'What difference does it make? You can't relax in a hot tub while serving drinks. Then again, knowing you ...'
'Don't be silly. Not only am I a professional, but I have the perfect outfit already picked out for the luncheon and it's not waterproof. I just thought that after work it might have been nice to take a dip or relax poolside in a chaise lounge with a Gin and It.'
'Forget it. In addition to being on the other side of the building, the pool and other facilities are for residents only,' she stated before swinging open the glass door of the lifestyle center and stepping inside. A disappointed Jules trailed closely behind her.
The entrance hall of the lifestyle center was just as lavish as the exterior. Boasting marble tile, a giant crystal chandelier, more columns, oversized artificial floral arrangements, and scads of gold accents, the area looked as if it had been modeled on a trendy, overpriced wedding venue.
'Ms Tarragon,' greeted an auburn-haired woman from behind the reception desk.
'Ms Hilton,' Tish replied.
'Oh, please call me Susannah.'
'Only if you call me Tish. And this is our bartender, Julian Davis. How are things today?'
'After a bumpy start, surprisingly good,' Susannah stated with a sigh, her deep-set brown eyes belying her positive attitude.
'I hope my food delivery didn't cause you any trouble.'
'Not at all,' the forty-something woman assured Tish. 'I had an issue with a problematic resident this morning, but it's all over now. As for the event, I'm happy to report that everything is on track. The landscaping crew tidied the patio area, and the supplies you ordered arrived on schedule. Everything is stacked on the kitchen counter. Perishable items are, of course, in the refrigerator.' She stepped out from behind the desk, revealing a lithe figure swathed in a beautiful soft-brown peasant dress. 'Here's the receipt and bill of lading so you can double-check you have everything you need.'
'Terrific.' Tish took two stapled sheets of printer paper from Susannah's hand. 'Thanks for receiving the delivery. It saved me from having to cart everything here myself.'
'No problem, and it's I who thank you. I'm so glad you're catering our garden awards luncheon. Everyone is super excited to see how you carry out The Secret Garden theme in the food and the décor.'
'Well, you shouldn't have to wait too long for either. Jules and I are going to work on the staging and decorations today. Tomorrow, my assistant cook, Celestine, and I will focus on the food. And Sunday afternoon is the event.'
'Hard to believe it's already here,' Susannah noted. 'I'll take you out to the patio to show you the work the gardeners did. Is there anything I can help carry?'
'I have some boxes in the trunk of my car,' Tish indicated. 'But nothing we can't handle on our own. We'll just make a few trips.'
'Nonsense,' Susannah, the soul of professionalism, dismissed. 'Let's get everything in and then I'll introduce you to Mr Ainsley. He's dying to meet you.'
'Mr Ainsley?' Tish's face was a question.
'Jim Ainsley. The president of the garden club. He's the one you'll be working for this weekend.'
'Oh, I thought you were the organizer.'
'Organizer, yes, but it's the garden club that funds the annual award luncheon and the prize trophy. Their garden competition has grown into a major event at Coleton Creek these past ten years. It started off as a friendly rivalry between neighbors, but as the number of homes in the development grew, so did the competition. Now there are so many entrants each year that the members are usually too busy with the judging and garden preparations to plan the luncheon. That's why I, as the activities director and resident liaison, stepped in to facilitate.'
'That's kind of you,' Jules praised.
Susannah shrugged off the compliment. 'It's my job to make sure the residents are happy.'
'I always thought garden competitions were held in the spring and summer,' Tish questioned.
'I thought that too, and perhaps most are, but this competition compares the residents' gardens and lawns at different intervals between spring and early fall to find the property that looks best in all seasons. Mr Ainsley will be able to tell you more. He's the master gardener around here. He's also very excited to have you on board as caterer. When he saw your photo in the papers a few weeks back, he said, "Susannah, I want Ms Tarragon for our event."'
'Seems you're a celebrity, Tish,' Jules observed with glee. 'Don't worry, I'll let you borrow my trimmer.'
Tish wrinkled her nose at her friend before addressing Susannah. 'I'm glad Mr Ainsley thought enough to hire me, but I wish it was for my food.'
'Mr Ainsley isn't much of a foodie; that's why I did the tasting. He's a sweet man, though. He told me he wanted to hire you because you had "gumption" for solving that murder case the way you did,' Susannah smiled. 'I admit, I'm more than a little impressed myself. With your cooking and your detective skills.'
'Thanks. Not to disappoint, but I plan on demonstrating only one of those skills this weekend,' Tish teased before the trio walked out to the Matrix to retrieve the decorations for Sunday's luncheon.CHAPTER 2
'Ms Tarragon, so good to have you here at Coleton Creek.' Jim Ainsley, six feet tall, slim, with close-cropped light-brown hair that was graying at the temples, and a military bearing, extended a hand to Tish. 'Everyone in the garden club is thrilled with your idea for our luncheon.'
'I'm glad to hear it.' Tish took Mr Ainsley's hand in hers and gave it a sturdy shake. 'I only hope my menu lives up to expectations.'
'I'm sure it will. I'm not an adventurous eater, but the concept of sausage rolls intrigues me. Meat. Pastry. How can you go wrong?'
'It's traditional English picnic and celebratory fare.'
'Consider this country boy sold. I'm also very much sold on the Victoria sponge cake Ms Hilton told me about.' Ainsley went on to shake Jules's hand. 'I admit I had to look up The Secret Garden on the internet, but once I did, I thought it was a brilliant choice. You're truly an expert in your field.'
'Thank you.' Tish was gracious. 'However, I'd appreciate it if you reserved the title of expert until you taste the food on Sunday. Besides, I'm sure your knowledge of gardens and plant varieties runs rings around my knowledge of books and cooking, so I think we're even.'
'Ah, yes, the gardens,' Ainsley grinned. 'May I give you both a tour?'
As Susannah excused herself and returned to the lifestyle center, Ainsley led Tish and Jules down the central hallway of his two-story duplex townhouse, into the kitchen, and out a set of sliding glass doors.
Stepping on to a small red-brick patio, Tish and Jules were treated to the view of a lush carpet-like lawn bordered on three sides by an irregularly shaped mature evergreen garden. There were no roses or trellises or tendrils of ivy, no delicate pink or ivory blooms, only shrubs of varying texture, height, and hue. Feathery blue point junipers mingled with compact, richly toned boxwood, yellowish, leafy Gold Mound spirea, and spiky, emerald-green arborvitae to create an invitingly luxuriant canvas against which well-placed Japanese maples, scarlet-and-purple- berried viburnum, and Rieger begonias in yellow, red, and orange provided warm pops of color that echoed those of the coming autumn season.
'Wow,' Jules exclaimed.
'It's like a painting,' Tish declared. 'What with all the layers and textures.'
'Thank you. I switch out the winter begonias for more seasonal plants in the spring and summer, but I like the depth I've created. Makes my sixty-by-eighty-foot plot feel bigger. It also helps block the unsightly stockade fence that came with the house.'
Jules's jaw dropped open in surprise. 'I didn't even notice there was a fence.'
'See what I mean?' Ainsley challenged with a satisfied grin.
'We've yet to see the other contestants' gardens, but I'd say you're a sure bet for an award this Sunday,' Tish opined.
'That's most kind of you, Ms Tarragon, but as president of the garden club and a judge for the event, I'm not allowed to compete.'
'What a shame,' Jules lamented.
'Not really,' Ainsley shrugged. 'This garden suits me perfectly. If I were to open it up to the scrutiny of a panel of judges, I might feel compelled to alter it somehow. No, I'd much rather enjoy it the way it is and let the opinions of others be damned.'
'Meanwhile, you're willing to share your opinions with anyone willing to listen,' came a jocular man's voice from the other side of the fence.
Ainsley sounded a mighty guffaw. 'My friends, the Abercrombies,' he explained to his guests. 'They live in the connecting townhouse. They're also competing in this year's event. Come on, I'll introduce you and let you see their garden.'
Rolling up the sleeves of his pinstriped button-down Oxford shirt, Ainsley led Tish and Jules back into the house, out the front door, and, cutting across the shared duplex lawn, to the Abercrombie's white picket garden gate which was framed by an arbor festooned with late-blooming yellow and orange roses. 'Tucker? Violet? It's Ainsley.'
A petite, fine-boned, delicate-looking woman dressed in a fine-gauge turquoise sweater, white Bermuda shorts, orange garden clogs, and a giant sun hat appeared at the gate. Her yellowish gray hair was pinned into an elegant bun at the nape of her neck and her hazel eyes sparkled with the joy that comes from a well-spent life. 'Hello, Jim. Don't be listening to that husband of mine. He's just sore because I've had him in the garden since breakfast.'
'Needs must. Competition's tight,' Ainsley replied before introducing his guests.
After an exchange of greetings, Violet Abercrombie swung open the gate and guided the group into a quintessential cottage garden. Native asters in an array of purple hues, plump zinnias in white, red, pink, and orange, pink turtleheads, sunny black-eyed Susans, and local coneflower grew in tidy rows along a gravel- lined path that led to a center birdbath and, a few feet beyond it, a white gazebo outfitted with a wrought-iron bistro set.
'Oh, my!' Tish exclaimed. 'And here I thought the patio at the lifestyle center was the perfect setting for The Secret Garden luncheon.'
'There will be no luncheon's hosted in this garden. Not after all the work we've done,' a familiar voice joked. From his weeding spot behind a tall patch of Japanese anemone, a salt-and-pepper-haired man dressed in a blue polo shirt and khaki pants tucked into a pair of work boots rose to his feet. He was somewhere in his mid-seventies, of athletic build, and his eyes were covered by a pair of wrap-around sunglasses of the kind that ophthalmologists provide. 'Tucker Abercrombie.' He extended a muddied glove to his guests.
Tish extended a hand and then quickly withdrew.
'Sorry.' Tucker, realizing his error, removed the glove and then offered his hand again. This time Tish accepted. 'I've been in this garden since the crack of dawn. Starts to play with a man's mind.'
'Crack of dawn?' Violet scoffed. 'You came out here at nine. You only rolled out of bed at eight thirty.'
'For me, eight thirty is the crack of dawn. I worked fifty years for the right to sleep late. Now that I finally retired last month, I plan to exercise that right on a regular basis.'
'And once the garden competition is over, I won't stand in the way of you doing so. But, as the woman who made your coffee and fixed you breakfast for forty-five of those fifty years, I'd like a trophy.' Violet folded her arms across her chest and gave a defiant wag of her chin.
'For making coffee and breakfast?' Tucker was deliberately obtuse. 'I admit both have always been very tasty, but a trophy?' 'For best garden.' Violet gave her husband a playful slap on the arm.
'Oh, that.' He broke into laughter. 'Well, I'm here to do my best to help make that happen. No one deserves the award more than you, my dear.' Tucker turned to his guests. 'My Violet has planned, plotted, dug, planted, and nursed this garden into the vision you see before you. It's been a true labor of love.'
'It's incredible,' Tish admired.
'Like something you'd see in a Jane Austen miniseries,' Jules added.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Garden Club Murder"
Copyright © 2019 Amy Patricia Meade.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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