For culinary challenged Sarah Blair, there's only one thing scarier than cooking from scratch - murder!
Married at 18, divorced at 28, Sarah Blair reluctantly swaps her luxury lifestyle for a cramped studio apartment and a law-firm receptionist job in the tired hometown she never left. With nothing much to show for the last decade but her feisty Siamese cat, RahRah, and some clumsy domestic skills, she's the polar opposite of her bubbly twin, Emily - an ambitious chef determined to take her culinary ambitions to the top at a local gourmet restaurant....
Sarah knew starting over would be messy. But things fall apart completely when her ex drops dead, seemingly poisoned by Emily's award-winning rhubarb crisp. Now, with RahRah wanted by the woman who broke up her marriage and Emily wanted by the police for murder, Sarah needs to figure out the right recipe to crack the case before time runs out. Unfortunately, for a gal whose idea of good china is floral paper plates, catching the real killer and living to tell about it could mean facing a fate worse than death - being in the kitchen!
Release date: December 18, 2018
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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One Taste Too Many
Debra H. Goldstein
Sarah Blair stared at the cell phone in her hand. She could not believe the words she had just heard over it. Bill cannot be dead. He was her ex-husband, but like the cat he let her keep after their divorce, she always thought William Taft Blair had nine lives. And what did Emily mean that the police thought she had killed him? No way her twin sister could have done anything like that!
Sure, Emily wielded a cleaver with deft precision in her job as a line cook and she’d threatened Bill a few times over his treatment of Sarah during their marriage and divorce, but Sarah refused to believe Emily could or would murder anyone.
“We were at the Civic Center. I tried to save him, but I couldn’t.” Emily’s voice cracked in a way Sarah knew tears were threatening.
“What were the two of you doing at the Civic Center after midnight?”
“The Food Expo, but that doesn’t matter now. I’m at the police station. Please, come.”
The call ended before Sarah could ask any of the questions still racing through her brain. The only thing she was certain of was Emily needed her.
She swung her lanky legs over the side of her bed and grabbed her jeans from the floor. It couldn’t be. At thirty-four, six years older than her, Bill was too young to die. He still had so much to do and so many more people to double-cross. She doubted she would ever know how many people, besides her, he’d hurt in Wheaton.
Bill might have had a presidential name, but he lacked any presidential qualities. She poked her foot under her bed, trying to find her shoes, among the scattered college brochures. Moving her foot over a few inches, Sarah successfully hooked a shoe with her toes.
Feeling sick to her stomach, she sat down hard on her bed, disturbing her cat’s carefully constructed burrow in the quilt. RahRah stretched one tan paw into the air. Sarah put her hand on his back, but he squirmed away and jumped off the bed. She was tempted to follow him for a quick comforting hug. Instead, she pulled a purple sweater from the remaining pile of clothing on the floor and yanked it over her head.
“RahRah, what could possibly possess Emily to be at the police station without a lawyer? Didn’t she learn anything all those years I made her watch Perry Mason?”
RahRah blinked but didn’t purr.
“So, you agree with me. If Em isn’t a suspect, they would have taken her statement during normal business hours.”
Sarah stuffed her other foot into its shoe and made up her mind. Whether Emily wanted it or not, she wasn’t going to let her sit in jail without representation. She dug her phone from beneath the covers, glanced at the time on its face, and scrolled to her boss’s number.
Hopefully, Harlan was home, alone, and willing to help his receptionist’s sister.
Sarah dug her fingernails deeper into the leather handle of Harlan’s briefcase. Less than forty minutes had elapsed between Emily’s call and Harlan and Sarah’s arrival at the police station. Now they had been waiting almost the same amount of time to see Emily.
If she were in charge, Sarah would have already grabbed the portly officer manning the desk by his lapels and demanded he tell her where her sister was. Instead, Sarah forced herself to do what she’d promised her boss in the car—keep quiet and carry the briefcase.
“Harlan, I just relieved the desk man.” The officer took a sip of his coffee. “I’m not sure who’s here and who’s not. Don’t see anything with her name on it.” He waved his hands at the papers strewn on his desk and rumpled a few.
Sarah tightened her grasp on the briefcase’s handle. A ridge in the leather cut into her hand but she ignored it. Offices and other unguarded rooms were on this floor. Unless her sister was arrested, she couldn’t be too far away.
Harlan leaned forward and placed one manicured hand on the desk man’s computer screen and the other near the telephone on the desk. “Using one of these probably would be faster.”
The officer grunted but picked up his phone. He punched in a few numbers. “Emily? Emily Johnson?” He glanced at Harlan, who nodded. The officer cocked his thumb over his left shoulder. “Second door to the right.”
Harlan started down the beige hall, with Sarah behind him.
“Hey,” the desk man’s voice followed them, “where do you think she’s going?”
Sarah froze, but Harlan reached back for her elbow and tugged her forward. “She’s part of my legal team.”
He kept walking.
Keeping up with his brisk pace, Sarah hoped the desk officer didn’t see her smile. Harlan’s instant promotion from his law firm receptionist to a member of his legal team amused her, despite the situation. Not bad for someone whose education ended when she got married a week out of high school.
When Harlan stopped in front of a wooden door, Sarah stared from her higher vantage point at the balding spot atop Harlan’s head. She was surprised, as usual, to see it. Unless she was standing beside him, he always seemed taller than her and far younger than thirty-eight. She stood back as he rapped on the door and opened it without waiting for an answer.
From the doorway, Sarah saw Emily seated at a gunmetal-gray table. A pad, pen, Diet Coke can, and a cup of coffee were the only things in front of her. Peter Mueller, the Wheaton police chief, sat across from Emily.
Sarah realized that, except for campaign advertisements on television or in the newspaper, she hadn’t seen him since he graduated from their Birmingham high school a couple of years ahead of her. Obviously, moving to nearby Wheaton, Alabama, had been a good career move.
The rising level of Emily’s voice brought Sarah’s focus back to Emily. “There was somebody else in the Civic Center.”
“Who?” Peter asked.
“I don’t know. I was giving Bill CPR when I heard someone and called out for help.”
Sarah stared at Emily’s hands unconsciously pantomiming administering CPR. They were, like the top of Emily’s blouse, visible above the table and stained with red splotches. “Em, you’re bleeding!”
“Relax. It’s rhubarb,” Peter said.
Emily glanced at her blouse and hands. Spreading her red-stained fingers, she giggled. “Peter thinks it’s rhubarb from one of my rhubarb crisps. He doesn’t believe Bill wouldn’t have touched, let alone eaten, one of mine. I keep telling him . . .”
Sarah raised her hand. “Em, don’t say another word. I brought Harlan with me.”
She opened her mouth, but before she could say anything more, something sharp jammed into Sarah’s side, shoving her into Harlan. He grabbed Sarah’s arm and steadied her as a bottle-tinted redhead, the desk officer on her heels, barreled past them, straight toward Emily. Sarah recognized the iron-hipped woman as Jane Clark, a line cook Emily worked with and Bill’s latest bimbo.
“You, you killed him!” Jane yelled. “You killed Bill so he wouldn’t throw you out of the restaurant.”
The desk man grabbed for Jane, catching her arm, but the dynamo twisted free. She lunged at Emily, nails extended to scratch her face.
“Jane, stop it!” Emily sidestepped.
Peter and the other officer wrestled the angry woman into the chair where Emily had sat.
Sarah rushed to her sister’s side and gingerly touched her twin’s cheek, relieved the skin appeared to be intact.
“Jane,” Emily said, “are you crazy?”
The redhead glared at Emily and Sarah, tears in her eyes, as the police officers slowly released their grasp of her arms. Neither moved from her side.
“What’s going on here?” Peter said.
Jane pointed to Emily. “I caught her rifling through Southwind’s business records last week and told Bill what she’d been doing. He was furious and assured me he’d have her kicked out of the Food Expo. Bill swore she’d never work at Southwind or any other upscale restaurant again.”
Emily hesitated. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Jane.”
Sarah stared at Emily. The idea of Em searching through private business records didn’t make sense. Besides, even if she went through some Southwind files, why would Bill care? As chairman of the Civic Center, Bill would justifiably have exploded if Emily or anyone messed with his pet project, the Food Expo, but there was no personal connection between Bill and the restaurant where Emily worked, at least that Sarah knew about. Certainly, the rat wouldn’t deliberately hurt his former sister-in-law simply to appease his girlfriend of the week. Could Bill possibly have sunk that low?
Peter nodded at the officer and the door. “Please escort Ms. Clark to room three.” He turned his attention to the furious redhead. “Jane, go with him. I’ll be there in a few minutes to discuss this with you.”
Jane scowled at him but stood and started toward the door. The desk officer trailed, his hand firmly on her arm. Passing Sarah, Jane stopped so abruptly the officer almost tripped over her heels.
“Cat thief,” she hissed.
Jane’s spittle sprayed across Sarah’s cheek. She forced herself not to touch her face until after the officer had guided Jane from the room. Cat thief? What in the world was Jane talking about?
When the metal door closed, Sarah put her arms around her trembling sister and held her tightly, their long, dark and light hair entwined.
“Bill’s really dead?” Sarah asked.
Sarah wanted to quiz her twin about what was going on but thought it best to wait. She couldn’t read the line over her sister’s brow but knew Emily’s usually buoyant energy had leaked out like a deflated balloon at Jane’s mention of the Food Expo and Southwind.
Jane’s accusation couldn’t be true. Yes, Emily had thought and said unkind things about Bill during the divorce proceedings—as any loyal sister would—but Emily could never kill anyone, even Bill. She was too much of a straight arrow. Besides, when it came to the restaurant business, Emily was a true professional. She’d never do anything to risk her career.
From her first baby steps, Emily had been their mother’s shadow in the kitchen. She’d continued her singular focus, skipping college to attend the culinary institute and work her way up the chef ladder at restaurants in Birmingham, San Francisco, and now, Wheaton. Sarah knew how important working under Southwind’s Chef Marcus was to Emily. If it wasn’t, Emily would never have come back to Wheaton. No, there was absolutely no way Emily would have done anything to undermine her upcoming chance to be promoted from line cook to sous chef.
“Let’s get back to talking about what happened.” Peter’s voice made it clear his role was more police chief than old friend.
Sarah looked at him more closely. He’d only gained a few pounds and his hair and eyes were still dark, but deep lines were etched into his forehead.
Harlan retrieved his briefcase from the floor, where Sarah had dropped it, and placed it precisely on the table. “I’m representing Emily. I’m advising her not to say anything more until we have a chance to talk.”
Peter frowned. “Harlan, you know it’s proper protocol for me to get a statement from anyone who witnessed a crime or its aftermath.”
“What makes you think this was a crime? People have heart attacks, seizures, and strokes all the time.”
Sarah listened to the two volley back and forth, with Emily in the middle. She glanced at Peter.
“You’re probably right,” Peter said, “but I won’t know until I get the autopsy and tox reports back. In the meantime, this late at night, when I find a body covered in rhubarb, clutching a fork and not breathing, I tend to think in terms of a crime scene.”
“I’ve got nothing to hide. Bill was already—” Emily began.
Harlan rested his hand on her arm, stopping her, and said in his neatly clipped voice, “I need to speak with my client. Besides, you don’t even know if there is a crime.”
Sarah nodded in agreement, but her stomach sank at Peter’s expression. Somehow, he knew.
She’d gotten to know Peter during high school when he came around to visit Emily, who usually was either at cheerleading practice or out with the more popular boys. He never acted without considering things from all angles. If Peter didn’t think Bill died from a heart attack or a stroke, there must be some sign of poisoning or a wound that convinced him Bill was murdered. Unfortunately, from what she’d overheard Emily telling Peter, if this was his conclusion, the only person he’d found in the locked Civic Center with Bill was rhubarb-covered Emily.
“There’s nothing I couldn’t have said while Peter was in here. I didn’t do anything.”
“Emily, humor me. I can’t do a good job representing you if I don’t have the facts.” Harlan pulled two pads from his briefcase and gestured toward a chair with the one he handed Sarah. “Take notes. You’re part of my team today.”
Sarah slid into the chair, staring, as was Harlan, at her twin.
“Now, Emily,” Harlan said. “Why don’t you tell us how you got covered in rhubarb?”
Emily looked at her blouse and then at her hands. Staring at them, she began to laugh uncontrollably. She held her hands up and waved her fingers, then grew more serious as she began to talk. “I guess I got it all over me when I gave Bill CPR.”
“CPR?” Harlan sat beside Sarah and made a note on his legal pad. “Why don’t you start at the beginning?”
“Bill called me to come to the Civic Center.”
“You? In the middle of the night? Why?” Sarah asked.
Emily gazed at her hands. “I was getting ready for bed, so it was just before midnight when he called and told me there was a problem at the Civic Center. He wanted me to come immediately.”
“And you went?” Harlan waited, pen posed in the air.
“Of course. What choice did I have? He was head of the Expo and part owner of Southwind.”
“What?” Sarah stared at her sister.
Emily avoided making eye contact with her.
“You two can discuss that later.” Harlan seemed to ignore the exchange between the sisters. “Right now, I need to know exactly what happened tonight. Emily?”
“I told you, Bill called and I went to the Civic Center. His car was the only one in the front parking lot. I parked mine next to his and went up to the main entrance. The glass doors were locked, so I used my passkey to get in.”
“Could you see him or anything through the glass doors?”
“No. The main lights were off. Once I let myself in, the Civic Center’s emergency lights shone enough for me to make my way through the aisles in the main exhibition room to look for Bill.”
“Right. The booths for the Food Expo were set up yesterday so the room is now divided into four rows of stalls. Each row has a central walking aisle, except for the booths in the middle of the room. Those face an eating area and open space in front of a stage. When I neared the second aisle, I called out to Bill again, but there was no answer.”
Sarah stared at her sister. “Why didn’t you just leave?”
“I couldn’t. I didn’t want to make Bill mad. So I worked my way toward the center of the room, where the Southwind booth is adjacent to the food court area.” Emily put her head into her hands.
When she raised her head, tears escaped the corners of her eyes. “He was lying in front of the Southwind booth. I yelled his name and ran to him. He didn’t move. He just lay there, holding a fork, sprawled on his back next to a smashed rhubarb pie.”
“Did you touch him?” Harlan asked.
“Yes. He was so still. I felt his neck to see if he was dead or alive.”
“I wasn’t sure, so I called nine-one-one and started giving him CPR, like they taught us in Girl Scouts.” Emily glanced at Sarah. “Or at least taught most of us.”
Sarah leaned forward. This wasn’t the time to remember their respective Girl Scout experiences. “You mentioned someone else was in the Civic Center with you?”
“Yes. I didn’t realize it then, though. I was too busy trying to help Bill.”
Seeing the color drain from her sister’s face, Sarah put her hand on her sister’s. “Tell me.”
“Except for where there were emergency lights, it was dark and quiet. I cupped my hands over his chest and pushed, counting the compressions in my head. When I got to one hundred, I felt his neck again and checked if his chest was moving. Nothing. I put my face over his to see if I could feel any breath on my cheek. I couldn’t.”
Emily’s gaze was still directed at her, but Sarah got the feeling she wasn’t what Emily was seeing.
“Remember how we used to kid that the line of his jaw was always stiff? Well, when I rocked back on my knees, I noticed it was more set than usual. I looked at my hands and realized the rhubarb from his shirt was on me, too.”
“How did you know it was rhubarb, not blood?” Harlan said.
“I guess by smell and feel and seeing rhubarb crisp all over the place.” She shook her head. “Harlan, I honestly never thought about blood. What passed through my mind for a moment was wondering if the dry cleaner would be able to get the stains out of his shirt. It was one of those white, starched, monogrammed ones. Considering the situation, I threw that idea out of my mind and began pressing and counting again. I stopped when I heard someone else.”
Harlan raised his hand. “Could it have been one of the emergency responders? Surely they must have gotten there by then?”
“Absolutely not. They didn’t get there until later. When they did, I had to let them in through the front door. From the sound, this person stumbled into something in one of the aisles behind me.”
“If you heard someone, why didn’t you go find the person?” Sarah asked.
“I couldn’t leave Bill, but I shouted ‘Help! Please help us!’ The click of the Civic Center’s back door was the only answer to my plea.”
Sarah sat Indian-style on the floor of her apartment. At three thirty in the morning, she was happy to let Emily, in a borrowed oxford cloth shirt and rolled-up jeans, check out her refrigerator while she stroked her Siamese cat’s soft fur. Although RahRah’s purr wasn’t audible, contentment vibrated through his body.
Emily tightened the towel wrapped around her wet hair. “It was great Harlan convinced Peter to deal with Jane tonight, or should I say this morning, and let me come back at ten to give my statement.” She peered into the refrigerator. “Spaghetti, nail polish, eggs . . . don’t you ever go grocery shopping?”
“I’ve been meaning to make a run.”
“Well, I’m starved. Let’s see what I can do with what you have.” Emily pulled a carton of eggs from the refrigerator and checked its date stamp. “Great. By the way, these passed their last day to be sold two weeks ago.” She rummaged farther in the refrigerator. “Do you have any kale or spinach?”
Sarah couldn’t believe Emily was more worried about food dates and healthy eating than the fact Bill was dead. Maybe she was traumatized? Perhaps she was avoiding talking about Bill’s death for another reason? After all, Emily was the one who found Bill, and she’d never shied away from voicing her opinion of him during Sarah’s divorce. Perhaps she was afraid of being Peter’s prime suspect.
“Em,” Sarah said, “we’ve got to talk about tonight. Why were you at the Civic Center so late?”
“To meet Bill. He is . . . was chairman of the Civic Center.”
Sarah fought not to roll her eyes. She might have divorced Bill, but she hadn’t lost track of his roles with the Economic Development Council and Civic Center. “That doesn’t explain why you were there so late to meet him.”
Emily opened another drawer in the refrigerator. “Do you have any vegetables?”
“They’re on my list.” Sarah watched her sister examine the milk and cheese packaging for their expiration dates. She wondered how long Emily would delay addressing her question. Sarah’s efficiency apartment didn’t have much room beyond the refrigerator for Emily to hide.
“Is my food safe?”
“Barely, but I think we have enough for me to whip up an omelet.”
“You should be thrilled you found more than spaghetti and nail polish in there. Besides, you got a shower and you didn’t have to go home and explain to Mom what you’ve been doing tonight. You know she would demand every last detail.”
“Point taken, except your last argument is moot. Mom left yesterday for that Mexican spa. Can you imagine spending a week in a place without Internet, news, or telephones?”
Sarah instinctively glanced at her cell phone on the floor next to RahRah. “No, I can’t.” She pulled RahRah closer. “Then again, I’m not sure I want to see the local news.”
“Me either.” Emily hesitated. “Nothing about tonight seems real.”
She began bustling around the kitchen. “Why are you still sitting there? I thought you said you were hungry, too.” She went back to the refrigerator searching for another ingredient.
Sarah sighed. Her sister was the queen of avoidance. “RahRah and I are staying out of your way so you can do your Julia Child/Rachael Ray thing.” RahRah jumped up onto her shoulder and draped himself around the back of Sarah’s neck. “So are you going to tell me what happened tonight?”
“I wish I knew,” Emily muttered from back in the depths of the refrigerator. “Even though it’s too early for him to know anything for sure, Peter said Bill apparently ate a forkful of rhubarb crisp that killed him.”
“That doesn’t prove Bill was murdered.”
“I agree. Besides, if rhubarb crisp is what killed him, it couldn’t have been mine. It would have had to be someone else’s. You know as well as I do, Bill never touched my rhubarb crisp because I always use nuts in the recipe.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell Peter the same thing. After all, I was married to Bill for enough years to know which of your recipes he wouldn’t go near.”
“Thanks. I hope you don’t have to vouch for me.” Emily leaned against the now-closed refrigerator and used her free hand to tuck an escaping strand of blond hair back under her towel turban.
“To tell you the truth, I have a bad feeling about this,” Emily said. “The way Peter looked at me when I told him about someone else being in the Civic Center was like he was humoring me. I’m telling you, he believes I killed Bill.”
“Aw, come on. That’s not like Peter. He’s always been a fair guy.” She yawned and stared at her twin. “Is there some reason for Peter to suspect you?”
“What about what Jane was accusing you of? Rifling through records? Bill being able to somehow get you kicked out of the Expo. . .
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