Mabel Aphrodite Brown unpacks her knives—and her detective skills—when she joins a cooking competition that someone would kill to win . . . Somehow, Ditie’s best friend, Lurleen, has sweet-talked Ditie into a spot on the next edition of The Great Southern Baking Contest. It’ll mean leaving her almost-adopted kids for a little while, but they love spending time with their uncle. And she can’t turn down the chance to bake at celebrity chef Savanah Evans’s antebellum estate in Beaufort, South Carolina . . . Even when Savanah’s husband dies suspiciously at the welcome party, the show doesn’t stop. As technical problems plague filming and the body count rises faster than a soufflé, it becomes clear that everyone is hiding more than just biscuit recipes. It’s up to Ditie to sift through a slew of suspects and motives to cut through a mystery with more layers than her Georgia peach strudel. If she doesn’t come through with a killer soon, she might get chopped—from real life. Includes Family-Friendly Recipes! Visit us at www.kensingtonbooks.com.
Release date: May 5, 2020
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 244
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Murder Most Southern
I’m indebted to my beta readers who tried to catch everything that wasn’t quite right in this story: Marjorie Bufkin, Lucy Davidson, Jayne Farley, Linda Newton, Laurie Pocius, Lynne Rozsa, Margo Schmidt, Kate Shands, Donna Shapiro, and Jean Wentzell.
My wonderful writing group—Larry Allen, Mike Fournier, and BettyAnn Lauria—worked hard to catch the rest.
A special thanks to the owners of The Cuthbert House Inn, Connie and Pierre-Edouard (Ed) Binot. I stayed in their bed and breakfast twice while I was doing research for the book. While their inn is located in Beaufort, South Carolina, Savannah’s plantation house is in the nearby and completely fictitious town of Veracrue. The Cuthbert House is not an exact replica of Savannah’s, but it does offer the same warmth and amenities including a manicured garden, delicious breakfasts along with wine, cheese, and conversation in the afternoons. If you visit Beaufort, which you should, this is a wonderful place to stay.
I also want to thank Mary Rivers LeGree, for providing verbal comments and written information on Robert Smalls and the history and culture of the Gullah people. She is an Information Specialist and recipient of the 2018 Hospitality Employee award for the State of South Carolina. You can talk with her at the Beaufort Visitors Center located in the historic Beaufort Arsenal, “an 18th century structure built in 1798 to protect the town of Beaufort from ever-present caravans looking to conquer colonies in the New World.” I hope to use more of her expertise if Ditie, Lurleen, and the kids travel back to Beaufort for another story.
My 241 Fitness buddies and our much-loved teacher, Wendy Bryant, keep me happy, healthy, and sane. That’s a lot to ask of one group of people!
I’m also grateful to my tasters, all excellent cooks, who have helped me check the recipes in the book to make sure they work well and taste delicious: Jeanne Lee, Kathy Mosesian, and Lynne Rozsa.
As usual, my thanks to John Scognamiglio, my publisher and editor at Lyrical Underground and Kensington Press. He is unique in the speed with which he responds to emails and sorts out problems. Thanks also to the other professionals at Kensington—Michelle Addo, Lauren Jernigan, Rebecca Cremonese, and Larissa Ackerman who help polish and promote my books.
Finally, thanks to Dan and Alix who continue to provide their love and support for my writing.
Finally, I could breathe again after a long stifling summer. October in Atlanta had arrived!
Each day brought a new crispness to the air, and I felt as if I could conquer the world. That was always how I felt in autumn.
Lurleen found me in the kitchen working on a pumpkin pie with Jason and Lucie. Jason was scooping out handfuls of pumpkin glop and dropping them onto the tin foil that covered a good portion of my marble countertop. At five and a half he could now sit comfortably on one of the high stools as he worked. Nine year old Lucie sat beside him. She carefully picked out the seeds, rinsed them in a pan of water, and placed them in a bowl with olive oil and garlic. We’d roast the seeds to have whenever we felt like a snack.
The children’s giggling added to my pleasure as I looked online for the best pumpkin pie recipe using fresh pumpkin. They weren’t officially my children yet, but with luck they soon would be. According to our social worker, the adoption papers could be signed within the year. No close or distant relative had expressed a desire to adopt them in the six months since their mother’s murder. And Ellie had left a note that I look after them should anything happen to her.
Lurleen could see I was lost in some reverie. She waved a large envelope in my face.
“Snap out of it, chérie. I have big news. An early birthday present!”
She placed the envelope in my hand as if she were giving me a Fabergé egg: something she wanted to give me last Easter—until she found out the cost. Lurleen would have given me the moon if she could figure out a way to get it.
She’d inherited a fortune from an aunt—enough money so she could quit her job as an accountant with Sandler’s Sodas. She already had a house near mine in Virginia-Highland with no desire for a grander one in affluent Buckhead, a neighborhood in north Atlanta.
Lurleen remained frugal despite her new wealth. It was only with me and the kids that she splurged. I’m sure Danny, her live-in boyfriend, benefited from her generosity, but I suspect it took forms other than expensive gifts.
“My birthday isn’t for months,” I said, balancing the heavy envelope in my hand.
“One cannot celebrate an anniversaire too early or too often. Enjoy!”
Her French accent was unique, so it took me a moment to register what she was saying.
She stooped to kiss me. Lurleen stood a head taller than me and many pounds lighter. She was gorgeous with her wavy amber hair falling over her shoulders. People often stopped her on the street to ask if she were a model despite the fact she was in her late thirties. It never went to her head—just tickled her. “You are so sweet to say that,” she’d respond, either in a slightly exaggerated Southern accent or perhaps her own version of a French one.
“Go on,” she urged me, “open it!”
The kids stopped what they were doing to stare at us. Carefully, Lurleen gave them each a kiss on the tops of their heads, making sure to avoid Jason’s slimy hands and Lucie’s equally sticky ones.
I opened the gilt-edged envelope. Inside was a gold-embossed card, which announced that I, Mabel Aphrodite Brown, had been selected as a contestant on Savannah Evans’s Southern Comfort Cooking Contest.
“What is this?” I asked.
Lurleen could barely contain herself. “Don’t you see, chérie? You, the Mighty Ditie, will now achieve the fame you so desperately deserve. Your tea cakes will be famous. Your fried chicken recipe will create a million followers.”
“Something Jason suggested when we were giving superhero names to everyone in the family.”
“I’m a pediatrician, Lurleen. I don’t want a million followers. I have patients to see, commitments.” I studied the invitation. “They want me available for a week of shooting. It’s impossible, I’m afraid.”
Lurleen looked crestfallen. Then she shook back her auburn curls. “One week, just one week, sweet Ditie. And I will be your sous-chef if they let you have one.”
“How would they even know I liked to cook?” I asked.
“I had something to do with that,” Lurleen admitted. “I happen to know the producer of the show, Chris, and he happens to like me, and I suggested he try your tea cakes, which I happened to have saved from your last batch, and the rest as they say is histoire. He said they were the best tea cakes he’d eaten in his entire life, and believe me, that boy has eaten a few tea cakes.”
I sighed. “Lurleen, what have you gotten me into this time?”
“Rien du tout,” Lurleen said and folded her arms. “If you don’t want to go and be on national television and meet Savannah Evans, the person you claim is the best chef in the world, then who am I to care?”
Obviously, I’d hurt her feelings. I studied the dates of the event—early November for the contest, which would be held at Savannah’s South Carolina estate. There was also a gathering at Savannah’s Atlanta penthouse in one week. A meet-and-greet in which the contestants could size each other up and visit with the illustrious Savannah. Desserts and wine would be served.
“It would be wonderful to meet Savannah Evans,” I said. “I do have unused vacation time, and I might get a lot of good cooking tips.”
Perhaps I could manage it.
First, I checked with the kids to see how they felt about my being away for a week. I promised them that either Grandma Eddie or my brother, Tommy, would look after them. They were both excited.
“Grandma Eddie and I will cook every day,” Lucie said.
“I need a stick,” Jason said, “so Uncle Tommy can teach me magic tricks.”
“A wand,” Lucie corrected.
I called my boss, Vic, at the refugee clinic, and she had no problem with my being gone. She scheduled my vacation to coincide with the show’s taping.
Lurleen jumped up and down and her luscious curls bounced with her. “I knew you’d do it. Chris Evans, the producer, said I could come along and have a front row seat.”
“Does Danny know about Chris?” I asked. Danny wasn’t a jealous boyfriend, but he did sometimes have trouble with Lurleen’s many conquests.
“Bien sur.” Lurleen paused. “It’s possible I forgot to mention that Chris was a boy, not a girl. But, he is only a boy—he can’t be more than twenty-two.”
“Twenty-two and the producer of Savannah Evans’s Southern Cooking Show?”
Lurleen nodded. “He’s Savannah’s nephew. I’m sure that helped.”
I called Tommy to see if he could look after the kids for a week. I’d never have done that in the past, but my brother had changed. He made room in his life now for me and the kids. His boyfriend, Josh, had a lot to do with his transformation—Josh was as open and loving as Tommy had been secretive and closed off.
Tommy agreed to stay in my house for the entire time I was gone so I wouldn’t have to disrupt the kids or Majestic and Hermione. My cat, Majestic, wouldn’t care either way—he interacted with humans only on his own terms—but Hermione was a different matter. I swear she was half human, although the vet swore she was a shepherd-collie mix. She needed us around.
Tommy said he had no court cases scheduled for November, but if anything came up he and Eddie would work out the logistics.
My boyfriend, Mason, agreed to help, but even though he’d do anything for me, as an Atlanta police detective, his schedule wasn’t his own.
“You know my mom will love this,” Mason said. “She’s always saying how she doesn’t get to see the kids nearly enough.”
Eddie was as enthusiastic as Mason thought she’d be. She was also curious about Savannah Evans. “I’ve always wondered if she was for real,” she said. “She’s lovely, but on her shows, you never actually see her doing much. She dumps ingredients into a bowl, stirs a little, and the next thing you know someone is commenting on how delicious the food is.”
Eddie was a former cop, now retired. She noticed everything.
“I’ve never thought about that,” I said. “I’ll let you know the truth when I find out.”
Jason was beyond excited at the thought of spending time with his uncle, Tommy. “He’ll come stay with us? And Uncle Josh will come too?” Jason loved time with the guys. He’d come to think of Mason as a second dad, and that, of course, pleased Mason no end.
Lucie looked uneasy when she realized I wouldn’t be sleeping at home.
“I’m sorry, Luce,” Lurleen told her. “I checked. No kids allowed. But, Chris promised that, when Savannah does a cooking show for children, you can be one of the participants.”
Everything fell into place.
The evening at Savannah’s included an invitation for a second guest—that would be Lurleen, naturally. She was ecstatic.
Mason offered to spend the night with Lucie and Jason. “That’ll be a lot more fun than schmoozing with people I don’t know and won’t see again.”
“I’ll bring you back a sample of the desserts,” I said.
The party was scheduled for the last Friday night in October, several nights before the thirty-first. The actual contest would take place two weeks later. In between, the kids and I could thoroughly enjoy my favorite holiday, Halloween, and I’d be back from South Carolina in plenty of time for Thanksgiving.
The evening with Savannah Evans couldn’t come fast enough for Lurleen. “What will you wear to the party, chérie? I’ll wear my emerald green slinky number. Too much, do you think?”
“Not on you,” I said.
I decided on black pants and a shimmery purple jacket. Just enough pizzazz to be suitable for a penthouse gathering. My short curly hair always had a mind of its own. Lurleen offered to use gel to turn it into shiny spikes of dark brown. I declined her offer.
Danny insisted on being our chauffeur, and Mason offered his vintage Jaguar so we could arrive in style.
* * * *
Danny dropped us off at Savannah’s midtown condo at eight. He’d be back when we were ready to be picked up.
Savannah’s nephew Chris met us in the lobby. He looked like a cherub-faced college student and was obviously delighted to see Lurleen. “You look hot,” he said to her and blushed.
Then he turned to me. “You must be Dr. Brown. So glad to meet you.” He ushered us into the waiting elevator. “I’ll be up in a few minutes.”
Lurleen and I joined two other couples in the elevator. We all introduced ourselves as the doors closed. Pepper and Peter Young were in their late twenties, sophisticated Atlantans by the look of them. Pepper had a brittle kind of beauty, shiny blond hair, well-styled and well-colored, straight, dazzling white teeth, and a forehead devoid of wrinkles even when she raised her eyebrows. Everything about her glittered and nothing looked natural. Peter matched her good looks—also tall, well-dressed, black hair stylishly unkempt, with a carefully razored stubble on his face.
The second couple, Izzy and Frank Moran, were older, in their mid-forties I’d guess, well dressed in a more subdued way.
The contrast between the two couples was striking. Pepper and Peter exuded a coldness that made me shiver. Izzy and Frank were more like a warm coat inviting us into their inner circle. It seemed as if the two couples knew each other, but I couldn’t tell if they were friends.
The elevator opened into the foyer of the penthouse.
The condo was over the top, even by Lurleen’s standards. Marbled walls and marbled tile were backdrops for 18th century French antiques and tapestries from the same period.
We were ushered into a grand room twenty feet from the marbled floor to the arched ceiling. A wood-burning fireplace filled much of the back wall, and a panorama of the city was visible through Palladian windows along the side. The fire was stoked by a servant. It wasn’t really cold enough for a fire, and I suspected the air conditioning was on to keep the guests comfortable.
There were only a dozen of us present, a small gathering for such a large space. When everyone was settled with a glass of champagne, Savannah Evans swept into the room. She was dazzling, in her early forties, hair a shimmering tawny-gold color, cut chin length. She was even more attractive than she was on TV. Savannah was undoubtedly a size zero but she didn’t look scrawny. She wore a simple black sheath, and her only jewelry was a diamond and pearl necklace. According to Lurleen, it was vintage 1920s and worth thousands of dollars.
Lurleen kept up a running commentary on everything she saw and how much it cost. As a former accountant, she couldn’t keep her mind out of the numbers.
“It’s a good thing her show is so successful,” she whispered, “or she’d never be able to afford all this.”
“There isn’t a moneyed husband in the background?” I asked.
Just then, a man twice the size and twenty years older than Savannah lumbered into the room with Peter Young beside him. Peter helped him sit down on the nearest sofa where he labored to catch his breath.
“He doesn’t look well,” I said.
“Shouldn’t,” Lurleen replied. “He’s recovering from his second heart attack. And yes, he is the husband with lots of money—J. Quinn Nelson. Rumor has it he’d do anything for Savannah.”
Savannah bent over the couch and gave her husband a quick kiss. Then she popped up and welcomed her guests.
“So absolutely delighted y’all could come,” she said. She had a refined Southern accent, like a pinch of cinnamon in chocolate cake. Nothing overwhelming, just a little sparkle. “Please introduce yourselves. Let us know why you want to participate in this cooking contest.”
A plump fiftyish woman stood up first and tugged at her ill-fitting jacket.
Savannah motioned her to sit back down. “We’re very informal here,” she said. “Make yourself comfortable and tell us about yourself.”
The woman flushed and sat down. She gave her glass to her husband, a thin, withered man, who hadn’t been eating much of his wife’s cooking by the look of him.
“I’m Rose Kirkwood,” she said, smoothing wisps of dyed brown hair behind her ears. “This is my husband George. George has been after me for years to put my cooking to the test. He claims there is no one who can beat my banana pudding. We both love your show, so when the opportunity arose, he urged me to apply.”
“Thank you, Rosa,” Savannah said. “I’m delighted you could be here, and I can’t wait to taste that banana pudding of yours.”
“It’s Rose,” George said, “like the flower.”
“I do apologize,” Savannah said. “Rose, indeed.”
We went on down the line with Izzy Moran and Pepper Young speaking about how much they admired Savannah. It seemed as if they knew her off stage as well as on.
The only person who didn’t gush all over our host was an austere woman in her seventies, gray hair pulled back in a tight bun—Gertrude Flumm.
“I’m happy to participate by sharing my classic Southern recipes—with a modern twist, of course.” She looked at Savannah, but it was hard to tell if she was smiling or sneering. “I can’t wait to show the world what I have to offer.”
“She’s feisty,” I whispered to Lurleen.
Then it was my turn. “I’m honored to be here. I’m not a Southerner, but I love to cook, and I look forward to coming home with lots of new cooking tips.”
Lurleen was busy sizing up the field. “Five women. No men?” she whispered.
As if Savannah had been listening, she introduced the single male contestant. “James Bradshaw is a food critic who is anxious to try his hand at cooking. James is a distant cousin of mine, but you mustn’t think that, because we’re related, he’ll have any advantage over the rest of you. The tastings will be blind. I won’t know who submitted what.”
Lurleen gave me a funny look. “Bradshaw has written terrible reviews of Savannah’s show,” she whispered. “I wonder why she included him.”
James Bradshaw didn’t speak—he simply raised his glass of champagne and nodded at the rest of us.
Chris Evans was introduced by Savannah as the man who kept things running smoothly. “Chris is the person who makes every show possible and ensures we have just the right mix of contestants.”
Chris smiled and nodded.
Lurleen nudged me. “He looks like a young version of his namesake Captain America. Same dark hair, cute smile, blue eyes.”
I gave her a blank look.
“You know, Chris Evans, the movie star?”
I shrugged. Lurleen could rattle off the tabloid stats on every current celebrity. As a classic movie enthusiast, I did better with stars from the 40s. To me, Chris looked like a kid, still wet behind the ears and soft around the middle, as if he were waiting to grow into the man he would become.
But, no matter how young he was, it seemed he’d done a good job of recruiting middle America contestants. We ranged in age from twenty-something to more than seventy, and from sophisticated to down-home.
Half a dozen waiters appeared with dessert trays.
“Please don’t hold back,” Savannah said. “I’ve brought my best offerings. What I will ask you to do on the show, is to try to improve on some of my recipes. Don’t worry Rosa, Rose, you’ll get your chance to best my banana pudding.”
Rose smiled and blushed.
I felt obliged to taste every offering. Each was delicious—from caramelized banana pudding to apple pie biscuits. We had our work cut out for us if we thought we could improve on them.
The evening broke up around ten. No one wanted to be the first or last to leave. I noticed that Savannah’s husband hadn’t moved from the sofa. If anything, he looked grayer than when the evening started.
I went over to say goodbye. He barely nodded in my direction and his breathing was labored. I took his hand, which was cool to the touch. “Do you mind?” I said, checking his pulse. It was weak and thready.
“Is your husband all right?” I asked Savannah. “I’m a doctor, and I’m a little worried about him. I think you might need to get him checked out at the hospital tonight.”
Savannah looked at me. “Really? He never looks well these days. We have a concierge doc. I’ll call her right now. Would you mind talking with her? I won’t know what to say.”
“I’ll be happy to do that.”
Savannah made a phone call on her jewel-encrusted cell and handed it to me. I described the situation and then gave the phone back to her. Savannah nodded as the doctor continued to speak. She hung up and turned to me.
“An ambulance is on the way,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
“I don’t need a damned ambulance,” her husband managed to gasp.
“You don’t know what you need, Quinn. Better safe than sorry.”
I stood beside Savannah. Everyone else had left except for Lurleen and Savannah’s cousin, James Bradshaw. He’d come alone and seemed in no hurry to leave. He and Lurleen stood off to the side, staring at Savannah’s ailing husband.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll stay until the ambulance arrives,” I said.
“I’d appreciate that,” Savannah said. “I can’t thank you enough. If anything happened to Quinn . . . I don’t know what I’d do. He’s my rock.”
The EMTs arrived in five minutes, took one look at Quinn and got him stabilized on a stretcher with an IV started and low-dose oxygen running. Savannah left to ride in the ambulance. Lurleen, Bradshaw and I went downstairs a few moments later.
Danny was waiting in the circular entrance to the condos. Lurleen must have called him.
“Do you need a lift, Mr. Bradshaw?” I asked before I got into the car.
“No, no, I’m good. I’ll check in at the hospital and see how Quinn is doing. I know Savannah is grateful for your help.” He ran a hand through his head of thick white hair and stooped to close the Jaguar door for me.
When he stood I saw he was a tall man, impeccably dressed, Southern to his core. Somehow, I’d missed all that at the party. I thought he might wave a white handkerchief to signal Danny it was time to move on.
The next morning brought sad news. Quinn hadn’t made it through the night. The afternoon papers picked up the story. Savannah Evans was a national celebrity, and her husband, J. Quinn Nelson, was a well-known Atlanta real estate mogul. The cause of death was said to be congestive heart failure with complications.
“Complications?” I asked, after reading the article to Mason that night.
“I heard about this earlier,” Mason said, “at the precinct. It’s being considered a suspicious death. There may have been a drug involved.”
“Are you saying it was some kind of drug interaction?” I asked.
“Could be,” Mason said, “or it could be more sinister than that.”
“You mean something intentional?”
“I can’t answer that right now. They’re waiting on a definitive drug screen, but the death is under investigation.”
I left a condolence message for Savannah at the RSVP number on the invitation, and as soon as I hung up, Lurleen knocked on my front door. Hermione did her usual rouse-the-world routine. Fortunately, the kids were sound asleep and used to Hermione’s random barking outbursts.
“Have you heard the news?” Lurleen asked, rushing into the house. “You have the paper, so you know. I guess that means no contest. I’m sorry for Quinn as well. He seemed like a nice guy.”
“You spoke to him?” I asked.
“I spoke to everyone,” Lurleen said. “You can’t have too many friends in a competition like this, and you should always size up the enemy, so to speak.”
. . .
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