Five Belles Too Many
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When Sarah Blair’s mother participates in a reality show competition for brides in Wheaton, Alabama, things get a little too real as a murderer crashes the wedding party . . .
Sometimes Sarah’s mother, Maybelle, can be higher maintenance than her Siamese cat RahRah. Maybelle and her friend, Mr. George Rogers, have been chosen to be one of five couples competing for a small-town “perfect” wedding and dream honeymoon on a Southern Belles reality show—and guess who has to be chaperone. Even more vexing, the producers have decided to put up the crew and participants at the restaurant/bed and breakfast owned by Sarah’s nemesis Jane Clark.
But when someone turns up dead with Jane kneeling by the body with blood on her hands, she goes from being Sarah’s chief rival to the police’s chief suspect. Neither Sarah nor her twin, Chef Emily Johnson, can stand Jane—still, they don’t think she’s a murderer. The producers vow the show must go on, but to protect their mother and the other contestants, Sarah vows to find the true killer before someone else gets eliminated . . .
Includes quick and easy recipes!
“The Sarah Blair mysteries are such a perfect blend of wit, fun, intrigue, and mouth-watering food descriptions that cozy fans will be eager for another helping.”
—Ellery Adams, New York Times bestselling author
Release date: June 28, 2022
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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Five Belles Too Many
Debra H. Goldstein
Jane Clark threw a wadded piece of paper at Alan Perrault and Sam Tolliver, the director and segment producer for the Southern Belle Perfect Wedding Competition. Sam bent and picked the paper up. He didn’t return it to her.
Sarah Blair stood in the doorway of the Southwind restaurant’s recently added outdoor dining porch, her back pressed against the frame, and smiled. She knew what she was seeing was not funny, but Jane was her nemesis. Time and again, Jane had caused so many problems for Sarah and her twin sister, Emily.
Her pleasure, however, was short-lived. As she scanned the room, Sarah knew she would soon be facing someone’s wrath too—her mother’s.
At almost sixty-three, Maybelle Johnson might not be what people typically thought of as a Southern belle, but she’d been picked as one of the show’s five finalists. Sarah had found her mother’s selection amusing until her mother declared that she needed Sarah to be her designated chaperone.
Sarah had rolled her eyes at the idea of a woman with two grown children being required to have a chaperone to make sure she had no company at night during the week the show filmed. It had become more onerous when Sarah learned that, unless she wanted her mother disqualified, she’d have to accompany her to certain scheduled events. Tonight’s first official full cast and crew dinner was one of the events. And Maybelle had expected Sarah to be on time.
No, her mother wasn’t going to be happy.
Maybelle would be even more upset if she learned Sarah had lost track of the time because Sarah was busy playing with RahRah, her Siamese cat, and Fluffy, her rescue dog. Maybe, Sarah hoped, if she held her breath and blended into the doorway, she could avoid becoming part of whatever Jane’s dramatic clash with Alan and Sam was.
It didn’t work.
Spotting Sarah, Jane, her face matching her flaming red hair, whipped away from Alan and Sam and made a beeline toward her. Jane jabbed her finger into Sarah’s chest. “I bet this is your doing. Whenever things start going right for me, you or that fancy chef sister of yours ruin everything.”
Sarah couldn’t imagine what Jane was talking about, but her tone and words got under Sarah’s skin. She certainly didn’t want any of the people in the room, who didn’t know Emily or her, to think either of them had done anything evil to Jane in the past. “The only person who ever ruins things for you is you.”
Before Jane’s finger connected with Sarah again, Alan stepped between the two women. The director shielded Sarah with his lean but toned physique. His gaze met Jane’s. “That’s enough.”
He paused, as if to give Jane and Sarah a few seconds to get a grasp on themselves. His intervention was partially successful in that the break in the tension was enough for Sarah to softly inhale and exhale and not continue to engage with Jane, but it didn’t stop Jane from turning her rant back against him.
Alan cut her off in midsentence. “Jane, our contract only specified breakfast and the craft table. If you’d read the small print before signing it, you would have seen that other than the network renting out your bedrooms for the belles and their chaperones and requiring provision of a daily craft table and breakfast buffet, Sam and I have the authority to decide where and what we’ll be doing for everything else.”
“But I’ve dedicated every aspect of Jane’s Place to the Southern Belle cast and crew this week.”
“That’s not our fault, Jane. You need to get used to Southwind not only regularly being on the shooting schedule, but it being the designated location for dinners. Most of the formal taping will be at Jane’s Place, but with your two restaurants competing to be the perfect wedding venue, we intend to feature both establishments.”
“But you can’t do that. Not after I bent over backwards for the show. Besides . . .”
Jane wildly glanced around the room. Eventually, her gaze rested on Sarah’s mother. Jane pointed to her. “It’s a conflict of interest for Southwind to be a venue finalist. Maybelle Johnson and George Rogers are finalists for the perfect wedding and she’s the mother of two of the owners of Southwind. Having Southwind as a finalist too gives an appearance of . . .” Jane took a breath while she searched for the right word.
“Impropriety,” Chef Bernardi, the pastry chef from Jane’s Place, said as he joined the fracas. “Considering that you’re featuring Maybelle, having Southwind as a finalist—not to mention having Southwind’s pastry chef be the other finalist competing against me to make the best wedding cake—everything reeks of impropriety. I can’t believe your audience isn’t going to figure the show is rigged when you have so many coincidentally appearing conflicts.” He crossed his arms and scowled at Alan.
“Roberto Bernardi,” Alan said, drawing out each syllable of the chef’s name. “We’re in complete compliance with the network’s rules for segments like this. We even have a compliance person on set every day. Jane’s Place and you will either win or lose on merit. The audience will vote on the invitations, dress, and things like that, but guest judges will be evaluating the competitions involving tasting of food and cakes. Their judging will be based on your abilities and final products.”
Chef Bernardi continued to glare at Alan, but he didn’t offer a response.
Alan continued speaking. “There is one thing I can tell you, though. After having dinner here last night, including sampling two of Wanda’s delectable Southwind desserts, if I were a gambling man, I’d bet your former protégé’s cake is going to give you a good run for your money. Roberto, you’re no stranger to culinary competitions. Figure out the odds. If you think the oven is too hot, you can concede now.”
Jane clenched her fists as she stood as straight as the line of her tightened jaw. “Chef Bernardi and I can hold our own against Southwind or anyone, but you can’t deny you’ve stacked the deck, from contestants to food choices, in Southwind’s favor.”
Alan’s facial expression didn’t change, but he uttered his words in a more clipped manner than before. “Jane and Roberto, there’s nothing further to discuss. In a small town like Wheaton, there are only so many possible contestants and so many things we can use to make it interesting. It isn’t likely that the older couple is going to win, so any appearance of a conflict of interest is no big deal. Besides, incorporating the rivalry you have with her daughters is good TV. Good TV means higher ratings. Higher ratings and increased viewers will bring a greater awareness in and out of Wheaton for both of your restaurants. Believe me, when our show airs, Jane’s Place and Southwind will benefit in the long run.”
Chef Bernardi didn’t press the issue, but Alan’s point seemed lost on Jane. She dropped any pretense of control. Stomping her foot, she stuck her face close enough to Alan’s for them to breathe the same air. “You and Sam are weasels. You won’t get away with double-crossing me. You’ll hear from my lawyer.”
Alan smiled. “I’ll look forward to that.”
Sarah glanced over to where Sam stood, holding the wadded paper but staying out of the fray. To her surprise, like Alan, Sam was grinning. She turned her gaze back toward Jane, and as she did, Sarah saw there was a cameraman positioned just outside of Jane’s peripheral vision, filming everything. From his angle, Sarah realized he probably had caught her smiling at Jane’s tirade too.
As the cameraman took a step closer to the doorway, Jane either heard or noticed him. She reactively shielded her face and yelled, “Turn that blasted camera off!”
He didn’t obey her.
Instead, he kept his shot focused on Jane until she left the room and then panned his camera toward Sarah. Uncertain whether he’d caught her on film when she was smiling, Sarah forced herself, as she turned her head away from the camera, to keep her expression as blank as possible. Even though this wasn’t technically being called a reality TV show, she’d seen enough of them to know that film often was edited to make perfectly nice people appear to be villains. The last thing she wanted was to be lumped with Jane as one of the bad guys because she looked pleased at someone else’s misfortune.
Peeking back, she was glad to see the cameraman had lost interest in her. Instead, he was filming the cast and crew, who were seated at the tables. Even if he didn’t focus on the empty seat at her mother’s table, Sarah realized her tardiness was permanently recorded. Crud.
Sarah had forgotten that she, like everyone in the cast and crew, signed an agreement that any location where an activity tied to the show took place was subject to being filmed. Her tardiness was something the show’s editors could use to make her stand out from the others.
Eager to not be the focus of any more singular attention, Sarah started toward the seat her mother had saved, but her path was blocked by Chef Bernardi effectively using his body to corner Alan and her. He glanced from Sarah to Alan. “I’m sorry for the extent of Jane’s outburst, but she’s right, you know. The way Sam and you are rigging things behind the scenes is downright rotten.”
Instead of waiting for a reply from Alan, Chef Bernardi brushed past Sarah. The cameraman filmed his exit.
Lest she be captured on film again, Sarah hurried toward her seat, already turning the events of the last few minutes over in her mind. Sarah couldn’t disagree about the obvious conflicts of interest Jane and Chef Bernardi raised, but she understood Alan’s point that the five square miles of Wheaton, Alabama, only had so many locals to choose from for anything. But, then again, the more metropolitan and newly christened foodie city of Birmingham was a mere fifteen minutes away.
Perhaps what surprised her most about Chef Bernardi standing up for Jane was that the culinary world’s gossip line was reporting that, after working together for only a few weeks, there already was tension between Chef Bernardi and Jane, both with alpha personalities. According to Emily, everyone thought their working arrangement would end once the Southern Belle segments were filmed.
As she slipped into the chair next to her mother, she heard Alan loudly observe, “That, my friends, is reality TV.”
With a quick squeeze of her mother’s hand, Sarah leaned back in her chair. Sarah knew if she glanced in her mother’s direction, Maybelle would give her an evil eye for being late. She kept her gaze focused on the director.
Sarah was struck by Alan’s attire. His fancy suit looked like what she’d expect to see on a Wall Street banker, rather than someone hanging out in Wheaton. What amazed her more was that—despite the Alabama humidity oozing into every one of her pores, even with all the fans on the screened-in porch running at full blast—there wasn’t a wrinkle to be seen on Alan’s pants or jacket. She assumed his wasn’t an off-the-rack suit, but she wished she knew his secret for looking so impeccable. Everyone around him was a bit rumpled and several of the dinner guests were glistening in the Indian summer heat.
“Listen up, everyone.” Alan held up his hand for silence. He waited for everyone to look at him, and they did, except for a diminutive gray-haired woman—a chaperone—who was seated at the next table. Her back was to him. She still didn’t respond when he said, “Granny, I need your attention too.”
It was only when the young blonde sitting next to Granny—her contestant granddaughter—touched her arm and pointed toward Alan that Granny turned her body in his direction. Granny was the perfect nickname for her. Deep lines were etched in her face and the woman wore her gray hair pulled back tightly.
“Sorry,” Granny said. “I don’t hear as well as I used to.” Stone-faced, she stared at Alan, but he ignored her explanation.
“Each day, we expect all finalists and vendors with a sequence being taped to be ready to go at eight a.m. We will have a breakfast buffet open to everyone at Jane’s Place beginning at six thirty. I’ll have a little more to tell you later, but Sam has a few things to say before the Southwind staff serves you dinner.”
Sam stepped forward. “Thank you, Alan. As most of you know, I’m Sam Tolliver, the segment producer. Although the Wheaton Southern Belle segments will air every afternoon this coming week, we’re going to tape most of the competitions over the next two days in order for our production crew to have enough time to edit them. Today, we taped the contestant introductions, a few of the vendor head-to-head competitions, and the car wash charity sequence. As you learned today, it takes a lot more time for us to shoot the footage for any segment than will ever be shown.”
“You’re not kidding,” one man said.
Sam smiled. “We’ll be airing three segments tomorrow: your introductions, the two invitations the public will vote on, and the car wash event. After the show ends, the public will have a five-hour opportunity to vote for which wedding invitation design should win. Normally, our guest judge will announce the couple leaving us before the segment goes off the air, but because we’ll have just introduced you and we want to build up a bit of tension with promos on Monday night, the first announcement will be made at the beginning of Tuesday’s show. When we’re filming, unless we are announcing your elimination, I want you to smile and look like you’re having fun. After all, we’re giving you a perfect wedding—that is, if you’re the couple lucky enough to win.”
This time, the laughter in the room was thinner.
“Whether you’re the last couple sitting in a heart of love on screen will depend upon your success with the viewers, but as set out in the agreement you signed, there are a few rules you’re going to have to honor or you’ll be out of here without the public needing to vote you off.”
He straightened out the paper Jane had thrown and held it up. “In case you didn’t look at everything we gave you, which Jane apparently didn’t, this is a call sheet. Every night, each one of you will get one. It has everything you’ll need to know for the Southern Belle show being shot the next day, from times, shooting locations, activities, who is involved, and even the local weather.”
Sarah whispered to her mother, “I left the papers they gave me with my suitcase in our room at Jane’s Place. Do you have yours here?”
Wordlessly, Maybelle reached into her purse, pulled out her call sheet, and handed it to Sarah. Sarah quickly skimmed it. “It says cast and crew members will be at Jane’s Place, the car wash, and the group dinner. I don’t see anything that should have irritated Jane. Am I missing something?”
Maybelle raised her eyebrows in exasperation at her daughter. She pointed to the bottom of the call sheet. “Look at the line about the dinner location.”
Sarah focused on the bottom of the page. In smaller print it read Location 3: Southwind. Scanning the page earlier, she’d caught that the crew was arriving at six thirty, dinner was at seven, and the wrap was scheduled for eight thirty, but her eye had missed that the dinner was taking place at Southwind.
“Emily and Marcus didn’t find out until late last night that they were going to be doing the cast and crew dinners for the week,” her mother said. Emily and her boyfriend, Marcus, were both chefs who co-owned Southwind with Sarah, who was most definitely not a chef. “Until then, Emily thought Southwind’s involvement was going to be for only the venue finalist segment.”
“What changed things?”
“My understanding is that Alan got into town yesterday morning and had lunch at Jane’s Place, but a little birdie suggested he try Southwind for dinner. He did and by dessert he had Sam moving all dinners here for the duration of the Wheaton shoot.”
“Crew, cast, vendors, you name it. Marcus and Emily scrambled all day today making sure they could take care of their regular customers, plus this group. Besides ordering extra food, they enlisted Grace’s help in the kitchen and asked her to bring some of her students from the community college’s hospitality program to help out with serving.”
Sarah was delighted to hear that Grace Winston, her friend and Emily’s former sous chef, would be helping in the kitchen for the week. “No wonder Jane was upset.”
She focused again on what Sam was saying. Because his voice was softer and he mumbled more than Alan, Sarah struggled to catch his words. Realizing he wasn’t talking about anything that applied to the chaperones or that she hadn’t already heard, she let her mind wander to his physical appearance. With Sam’s blue jeans, red-plaid flannel shirt, and scraggly salt-and-pepper-colored hair curling over his collar, he didn’t project the same suave persona as Alan. She couldn’t decide if he was deliberately going for a scruffy look or if he was simply growing his beard out. As he announced he was summing up his remarks, she snapped back to listen.
“If you can remember to be on time for our shoots and that there are no guns, fighting, or sex at Jane’s Place, you should have no problems. Any questions?”
“Yeah, I have one.”
Everyone turned their gaze toward the man who dared ask a question. Because he stood, Sarah could see he was a solidly built guy wearing a red-and-white shirt with an A embroidered on it. Must be an Alabama football fan. Good chance he’d played football in high school or at Alabama, she figured, considering how large his hands were and that his neck was probably the same size as her thigh.
“Yes?” Sam said.
“I’m Trey Taylor. We understand the rules about fighting.” He pointed to another guy in his twenties seated at the table next to his. In Sarah’s opinion, this man, whose shirt was navy blue trimmed with burnt orange, was even physically larger than the one speaking, probably because of how petite the woman encircled by his arm was. “Lance and I vowed to avoid fighting because our teams aren’t playing each other this week, but I assume there’s no restriction on a little cussin’ between friends?”
Sam deferred to a grinning Alan. “None at all. We even brought tapes of this past Saturday’s Alabama and Auburn games so anyone can watch them again during some of our downtime. Remember, a lot of us have skin in those teams too.”
As some of the chaperones and contestants reacted with shouts of “Roll Tide” and “War Eagle,” Sarah glanced at her mother.
“Alan graduated from Alabama,” Maybelle whispered. “Sam went to Auburn.”
That was all her mother needed to say. There was nothing more important in Alabama than college football—especially the rivalry between the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Auburn University.
“Okay,” Sam said. “If there aren’t any more questions, Alan and I want to show you the dailies.”
“Daylilies?” Granny turned to her granddaughter. “Lucy, why would we want to see daylilies during dinner?”
Someone at the table behind Sarah’s not only snickered at Granny’s misunderstanding, but also made a rude remark.
Lucy ignored the person. She put her hand on Granny’s arm and leaned forward until her mouth was near the older woman’s ear. “No, Grandma. Dailies, not daylilies.”
“Oh.” Granny chuckled at her mistake.
Lucy shrugged in Sam’s direction. Rather than making a funny out of Granny’s misunderstanding, he took the moment to explain how folks, in the old days, reviewed the unedited film shot that day. “Nowadays, filming and editing processes are different and there normally aren’t dailies done for television, but Alan and I thought you should see some of what we shot today.” He pointed to two monitors set up in the corners on the far side of the room.
Considering how often Sarah had been in this room during the past few weeks, especially because she’d been part of planning its addition to Southwind, she was surprised she hadn’t noticed the recent placement of the monitors.
Sam walked back toward the wall near the doorway and dimmed the lights as he called to a man standing near a small table beyond where the guests were seated. There was a laptop on the table. “Flynn, cue up the introduction segment.”
Sarah assumed the computer was the tool of the trade to share whatever film clips Alan and Sam wanted this audience to see. Sarah didn’t know who Flynn was, but she was impressed with his well-chiseled features and excellent head of jet-black hair. Over the years, as people commented at the contrast between Sarah’s thick, dark mane and her twin’s much lighter and finer hair, she’d come to appreciate the value of having thick hair.
With a quick salute in Sam’s direction, Flynn did as he was told. After a moment, he was the first person on both screens. “Welcome to Wheaton, Alabama. I’m Flynn Quinn, your host for the next week as five Southern belles compete for what each hope will be their journey from Wheaton to a perfect wedding. You’re about to meet the five couples who are our finalists, but first, let me explain how you, the viewers, will not only help choose the winner, but will select most aspects of that winner’s perfect wedding. That includes the invitations, venue, menu, flowers, and the dress. We’ve narrowed each vendor category to two finalists . . .”
Having heard this before, Sarah half-heartedly listened to Flynn. She periodically checked the monitor as she glanced at the others seated in the room. The people at the back tables had to be crew members, based upon their jeans, T-shirts, and the fact that the cameraman she’d previously encountered sat with them.
While Flynn droned on about the rules of the competition, Sam and Alan joined the table where Sarah, her mother, and George were, still leaving one seat empty. The other two nearby tables were filled with two finalist couples, their chaperones, and a few, Sarah presumed, vendors.
Sarah’s attention was drawn back to the monitor as Flynn began doing a voice-over while the camera focused briefly on each couple, sitting behind a giant heart cutout that had their names on it. Although Sarah had heard their names mentioned when everyone was in the greenroom, she still was having trouble remembering who went with who. Sarah grabbed a pen from her purse and, as Flynn announced them, she jotted the contestants’ names and whatever he said about them on a napkin.
“Lucy Aynsley and Jed Howard dream of a destination wedding in Mentone, Alabama, which is on top of Lookout Mountain. They believe its lush forest and nearby river provide the perfect location for a barn-styled hoedown. Lucy wants to wear a white dress, complemented by red cowboy boots.”
On screen, Lucy clutched Jed’s arm and snuggled closer to him. Sarah was sure the plastic smiles plastered on their faces were in response to the directive to make sure they . . .
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