Two Bites Too Many
Far from a domestic goddess, Sarah Blair would rather catch bad guys than slave over a hot stove. But when a dangerous murder boils over in Wheaton, Alabama, catching the killer means leaving her comfort zone . . .
Things are finally looking up for Sarah Blair following her unsavory divorce. Settled into a cozy carriage house with her sassy Siamese cat, RahRah, she has somehow managed to hang on to her modest law firm receptionist job and—if befriending flea-bitten strays at the local animal shelter counts—lead a thriving social life. For once, Sarah almost has it together more than her enterprising twin, Emily, a professional chef whose efforts to open a gourmet restaurant have hit a real dead end . . .
When the president of the town bank and city council is murdered after icing Emily's business plans, all eyes are on the one person who left the scene with blood on her hands—the Blair girls' sharp-tongued mother, Maybelle. Determined to get her mom off the hook ASAP, Sarah must collect the ingredients of a deadly crime to bring the true culprit to justice. But as neighbors turn against her family, can she pare down the suspects before another victim lands on the chopping block?
Release date: September 24, 2019
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 266
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Listen to a sample
Two Bites Too Many
Debra H. Goldstein
“I don’t care if you own this house. You aren’t the one in charge!” Arms crossed, Sarah Blair stood in the middle of the carriage house’s living room, straining to hear her hiding cat over the car horn blaring outside. Her mother was the nonstop honker.
“RahRah, where are you? I’ve got to get going!” She listened again, but the only thing she heard was the horn—short staccato beeps this time.
A soft rustle under the claw-scratched couch caught her ear. Dropping down on one knee, she pushed her curtain of hair back and peeked under the leather sofa. Two sparkling blue eyes stared back at her. Slowly, Sarah reached for RahRah. Her Siamese cat didn’t shy away. Once she had a firm grasp, she gently eased him out from under the couch.
She cuddled RahRah’s soft body to hers as she carried him into the kitchen. “Your food and water bowls are full. I’d rather stay here with you, but Mom and I are seeing Mr. Knowlton at the bank before we go to the city council meeting.”
A toot jarred their moment together.
“She’s a little persistent with that honking, isn’t she?”
RahRah didn’t squirm, even when Sarah’s loose brown hair touched his sides as she bent to put him on the floor. “I sure wouldn’t want to be Mr. Knowlton today. Not with Mom on the warpath.”
The horn sounded again. This time, one steady blow, as if a body lay collapsed on the steering wheel. Sarah glanced toward the front of the house, then focused back on RahRah. “I don’t know why Mom insists I go instead of your Aunt Emily. After all, it’s Emily’s loan application the bank has denied.”
She could have sworn RahRah tilted his tan head in her direction before he shook his body, sauntered across the linoleum floor, and stretched out in a patch of sunshine. She wondered if he understood her reference to her twin sister, Emily.
Probably. RahRah commandeered the same spot on the kitchen floor during all her discussions with Emily and Marcus about their plans following the fire that destroyed their restaurant. Sarah wouldn’t put it past her cat to know the details of how the two chefs wanted to convert their damaged location into an upscale pub and, in partnership with Sarah, open an upscale restaurant in the big house Sarah owned.
Satisfied RahRah would be fine while she was gone, Sarah closed the kitchen door behind her, cutting RahRah off from the rest of the house. She grabbed her purse and keys from the table by the front door and hurried outside. As she locked the door of the carriage house, she realized the honking had stopped. Instead, a harsh male voice carried on the wind. Whoever it was, she doubted anything could drown him out.
Uncertain which direction the voice was coming from, Sarah peered down the driveway, toward Main Street. Her mother’s car was parked next to the property’s big house, the driver’s door flung open. No one lay dramatically on the steering wheel. Instead, her mother stood at the edge of Sarah’s lot line with George Rogers, Sarah’s across-the-street neighbor. It was his voice she’d heard.
Neither his stance nor apparent tirade changed when Sarah approached them. Her mother glanced toward Sarah and rolled her eyes.
Sarah picked up on her mother’s cue. “What’s going on, Mr. Rogers? Did something happen?”
Mr. Rogers broke off his rant midsentence. He turned so his bow tie and pince-nez glasses faced her. “I’ll show you what’s going on.” Using the tip of his cane, he gestured toward the section of her wrought iron fence facing Main Street. “Look at what they did to your fence.”
Sarah gazed at where his cane pointed. Several of the decorated fence spikes near the driveway were askew. Someone had taken a baseball bat or other blunt object to the sharp-edged finials topping her fence rods. Although a few of the decorative pieces dangled precariously, at least four were completely severed.
“They got my fence last night, too.”
“Hoodlums. That’s who. The same riffraff and gangsters we’re going to have in this neighborhood all the time if your rezoning plan goes through.”
“Now, Mr. Rogers, if we get approval for my sister and her boyfriend to open an upscale restaurant in the big house, it’s only going to attract high-class patrons.”
“That’s what you think. If this neighborhood becomes an entertainment district, it means bars and lowlifes. Look at your fence and mine. Who knows how deadly their malicious mischief will be next time? As it is, I can’t find Fluffy.”
“That little white mutt that’s been hanging around the neighborhood. For the past week, I’ve tried to get close enough to bring her into the house, but she won’t let me. The best I’ve been able to do is get her to come around like clockwork for the food and water set out on the porch.”
Mr. Rogers waved his hands again toward the fence. “Fluffy didn’t touch her food today. If these hooligans you want to overrun our street didn’t hurt her, they certainly frightened her.”
Sarah bit her tongue. Her opinion on rezoning the neighborhood was diametrically opposed to Mr. Rogers, but they’d agreed to disagree without being unpleasant to each other. Seeing how upset he was about their fences and Fluffy, she forced herself not to fire back a retort. Instead, Sarah offered her help looking for Fluffy if she was still missing when Sarah got home.
“Thanks. If I haven’t found her, I’d appreciate that.” There was no divergence of opinion between them when it came to animals and their well-being. An entertainment district was another matter, entirely.
Mr. Rogers continued to rant about the gangster element that could invade their homes and property if Main Street was rezoned. Sarah tuned him out. She reminded herself that his reluctance for change reflected more than what he was verbalizing. Keeping the neighborhood exactly as it was perpetuated the memories he and his late wife created from the time they built their home across the street, well before Sarah was born.
No matter which view Sarah or any of her other neighbors held on rezoning Main Street, they all agreed Mr. Rogers was their neighborhood watch, eccentric, and historian rolled into one. Most also acknowledged his ever-present cane and bow tie represented an era no longer in fashion.
Sarah ran her hand over one of the damaged rods. “Considering the damage, I’m surprised I didn’t hear anything last night.”
“Well, the carriage house is set back quite a distance from this fence.” Sarah’s mother bent and picked up a metal finial lying on the ground. She turned it over in her hands.
“Sarah,” Mr. Rogers said, “I called my nephew, Clifford. He’s going to come by and fix my fence. If you want, I can send him your way, too.”
Uncertain what to do, Sarah looked at her mother, who imperceptibly shook her head. Her mother slipped the finial she held into her oversized purse.
“That’s very kind of you, George, offering to have your nephew help Sarah. But after she and I finish at the bank, we’ll stop by Gus’s hardware store. He owes me one, so I’m sure he’ll tell us what we need and send someone to fix it at a discounted rate.”
Sarah swallowed hard, watching her mother bat her eyes at Mr. Rogers.
She held her laughter back until her mother and she were safely in the car. “How is it that you live in Birmingham, but you still know everyone in Wheaton and everything about them?”
“Don’t be so silly. Your dad did so much business with Birmingham and Wheaton folk, I got to know them all. You’ll be the same way by the time you get to be my age.”
“I doubt that. But tell me, what do you have on Gus?”
Her mother threw the car into reverse and looked in all directions behind her before releasing her foot from the brake. “I have nothing on Gus. He simply owes me a favor. Besides, it’s always better to use a non–family member for house repairs.”
Sarah held her next question until her mother eased out of the driveway and pulled the car from the middle of the street back into her own lane. “Even if the family member is a neighbor’s, not yours?”
“Especially. It avoids problems.”
“Good point. Mom, speaking of problems, Emily and I have been meaning to talk to you about this name business. It’s one thing to insist your friends call you Maybelle, but having your daughters use your given name is simply weird. Considering our relationship, we think Mom, Mother, or Mama is more appropriate.”
Maybelle leaned forward, checking for cars as she rolled through a four-way stop. “Nonsense. My name means lovable. When I was at the spa, my guru told me the only way to obtain the best possible positive energy in my personal zone is to simplify everything. That includes the name I go by.”
She gestured toward her open car window. “Like the birds that fly or smoke rising from a fire, using only one name opens my energy flow.”
“There’s no one more energetic than you, Mom.”
“We’re talking about my positive energy flow. Because the intensity of my flow translates into a force I use to help other people, I need you to call me by my given name, too.”
“You answered to Mom this morning.”
Maybelle glanced quickly at Sarah and then focused back at the road. “Only because George was so upset. I didn’t want him to think we were minimizing his concerns. That would negate his energy flow.”
Her petite mother maintained a tight grip on the steering wheel in the ten and two positions.
Sarah repeated the name, Maybelle, to herself. It felt as funny rolling around her brain now as it had four months ago, when her mother came home from the spa announcing everyone should address her simply as Maybelle. Considering how upset her mother was when she learned about her daughters’ involvement with murders and murderers, neither Sarah nor Emily challenged their mother’s demand. They figured it was the Maybelle fad of the week.
Surprisingly, unlike so many of the ideas that possessed her mother, it hadn’t passed. Maybe it really was something to do with positive energy, but Sarah was pretty sure it might be tied to the difficulty Maybelle was having accepting this was the year she qualified for Medicare and her twin daughters turned thirty.
Then again, Sarah wasn’t sure she felt too good about the upcoming big three-o, either. She questioned what she had to show for thirty years of living. Unlike Emily, Sarah’s professionally trained chef and restaurateur twin, all Sarah could claim was marriage at eighteen, divorce before twenty-eight, employment as a law firm receptionist, an active social life only if the cats and dogs at the animal shelter were included, and recently moving from an efficiency apartment to the carriage house her cat inherited.
“Mom, I mean Maybelle, wouldn’t it have made more sense to take Emily with you today? After all, she knows all the financial stuff related to Southwind’s fire-insurance settlement and its reopening as a pub. She also has a better handle on the details of the fine-dining restaurant Marcus and she want to open in the big house.”
“That’s not today’s main issue.”
“It isn’t?” Sarah wrinkled her brow. She thought this visit was generated by the bank turning down her sister’s loan request.
“No. Today’s goal is to remind Lance Knowlton of the long-standing relationship between his bank and your dearly departed father and how, as RahRah’s guardian, you’re now an important customer, too.”
Sarah thought better of pursuing this or any discussion while her mother eased her car into the one spot open in front of the bank. It was touch and go for a moment, but at least, this time, Sarah was relieved Maybelle didn’t use either the car in front or behind to determine the boundaries of her parking space. She only hoped her mother’s confrontation with Lance Knowlton would be less deadly than her driving.
Inside the bank, Sarah lengthened her stride to stay even with her mother’s quick pace across the lobby. Her mother was on such a mission to reach the bank president’s closed door that she barely acknowledged a wave from one of the tellers as they passed. Sarah certainly didn’t envy what the next few minutes would bring for Lance Knowlton, but she wished her mother would slow down. She preferred strolling through this bank’s lobby to the clip her mother was setting.
Unlike the feeling she got in modern banks with their faux columns, glass windowed cubicles, and modular gray steel furniture, the almost one-hundred-year-old décor of this branch always lulled her with its sense of security. In her mind, the wood-paneled offices, polished furniture, and comfortable leather chairs, strategically placed throughout the lobby—so each had a view of the open vault door and the guarded safe deposit boxes—was what a bank should be. The only thing marring the historical feel of the building was its modern security cameras.
Lance’s secretary, Eloise, intercepted Maybelle and Sarah before they reached his door. She guided them to two small chairs situated to the left of his office. “I’m sorry. He’s running a few minutes behind. May I get you a cup of coffee or a soda? The matter he’s dealing with just came up, but he should be finished momentarily.”
When they declined, Eloise returned to her desk at the right of Lance’s office. Its placement always made Sarah think about how secretarial desks were positioned at the beck and call of the boss in 1950s sitcoms. Sixty plus years later, except for Eloise and her ever-present intercom, bosses and secretaries communicated by email, rarely seeing each other.
Sarah’s pondering of the furniture and Eloise’s role in the bank was interrupted by an angry string of profanity, accompanying the words coming from inside Lance’s office. “Lance, you had no right to call my loan. I swear I should kill you.”
As she focused on the closed wooden door, trying to make out more of the shouted words, it crashed open with such force the doorknob banged into the wall.
A scowling man, whose plaid shirt contrasted with his tanned face and tousled blond hair made Sarah think “Paul Bunyan meets Surf City,” stomped by her. He stopped almost even with where Sarah sat openmouthed. His presence squeezed the air from her space, making her feel she might as well have been invisible.
Lance’s voice brought her attention back to where he stood in his doorway, “Cliff, I’m sorry.”
“Not as sorry as you’re going to be.” Without glancing at Lance or her staring at him, he crossed the lobby and exited the bank.
Although the tension outside Lance’s door immediately dissipated, Sarah looked toward Lance to gauge his reaction. As she glanced in his direction, he stepped closer to Eloise’s desk to let a second man leave his office.
She wrinkled her brow in confusion. It was Jacob Hightower, a Southwind line cook. “Jacob?”
He acknowledged Sarah and Maybelle with a quick smile and wave but hurried past to catch up to the blue-jeaned windswept hunk. Sarah couldn’t help wondering what about a loan being called generated such angry words or the need to barge in on Lance without an appointment.
Knowing Jacob, she bet it involved a development deal. Even though he was the son of the wealthiest Wheaton family and recently had been burnt in more ways than one, he remained one of the biggest promoters for establishing a new entertainment district. Unfortunately, his chief opposition was the rest of his family.
Sarah’s thoughts were interrupted by Lance. “Maybelle, Sarah, how good to see you. Sorry you had to wait. Please, come in.”
With one hand gesturing in welcome, he pulled a big white handkerchief out of his pocket with the other and dabbed his forehead.
Sarah let her mother step into his office ahead of her. As she followed, Sarah glanced back and realized Lance had stopped to talk with Eloise.
Maybelle pointed to a small door at the rear of the office. “See that door? When your daddy was alive, that’s the only way we came in or went out of this bank. Your daddy didn’t believe in going through the main lobby. He liked using the alley entrance to keep our banking business private.”
Maybelle stopped talking as Lance came in and settled himself into his high-backed leather chair. “My apologies again. I try to keep my job as president of this bank separate from my responsibilities as president of the city council, but on days like today, when our council meeting is only a couple of hours away, that’s hard to do. Someone always seems to want something at the last minute.”
He pointed to a stack of papers on his desk. “These papers are the ones going to the meeting, and they’re only half of what I read each week to keep up with city issues. By the way, Sarah, I was pleased when the council voted last week in favor of permitting your animal parade idea as a means of earning money for the shelter. It was nice to see everyone in agreement on something when they expanded your idea into being an entire YipYeow Day. Let me know what the bank can sponsor for five thousand dollars.”
Sarah was thrilled to hear her pet project not only had the city’s formal blessing with its promise to provide traffic control and protection and let the shelter use the park pavilion for free but now had a sponsorship commitment from the bank. In Wheaton, having the bank and power company as supporters guaranteed a project’s success. “That’s so generous of the bank and you. Don’t forget, the organizational meeting is Thursday at six at my house. I hope you’ll come.”
“Thank you, but I have another commitment Thursday evening. Just remember, when your committee is doing its planning, you can count on this bank for five thousand dollars.” He paused and smiled. “It’s nice to sponsor a project the entire council is behind.”
Sarah agreed. Her excitement at his offer was only dampened by his not saying the council was also in favor of Emily and Marcus using the big house for a restaurant.
“Now, what can I do for you two lovely ladies?”
That, Sarah realized, was all the opening her mother needed to spring into fighter mode.
Sarah sat back to watch the Maybelle show.
“Lance Knowlton, you can tell me when you lost your mind. How could you refuse to give my daughter, Emily, and her friend Marcus a bridge loan when you had full collateral for it? Considering the extensive history my husband and I had with you, and that most of our deals were done based on a handshake, I don’t understand this.”
“Well, Maybelle, I’m not quite sure which loan you’re referring to, but you know banking regulations have tightened in the last few years. Things we used to do on a handshake can’t be done anymore. Compliance is the name of the game.”
“Maybelle, I’m sure Bailey, my loan officer, had a good reason for turning down the loan application. Restaurants are tricky businesses.”
“But guaranteed loans aren’t.”
Maybelle waved her hand at the stack of papers on his desk he’d previously shown Sarah and her. “Have you gotten so carried away with your city council position that you’re ignoring your bank duties? The guaranteed terms offered on this loan were the kind you should have signed off on in your sleep.”
Sarah was glad she’d taken the guest chair farthest away from Lance’s desk. While he stammered about bank regulations and how Bailey reviewed every loan carefully, she could tell from her mother’s rising voice level and increasingly flushed cheeks that her anger and attack on Lance hadn’t yet peaked.
When Maybelle rose and leaned over his desk, Sarah knew it was only a matter of seconds before her mother made mincemeat of Lance. “Since when does your bank turn down a loan when one of your longtime customers offers to either cosign or put up one hundred percent collateral from personal assets for it?”
“Maybelle, there could have been any number of reasons Bailey turned down the loan. He may have found the collateral insufficient or felt items in the loan request weren’t financially sound. You’d be surprised how many times these young borrowers want money for thousand-dollar light fixtures when hundred-and-fifty-dollar fixtures over the bar will suffice.”
Maybelle straightened and placed her hand on her chest, under her neck. “Bless your heart, I do understand the problems your Mr. Bailey must encounter all the time. Horrible. Simply horrible when your loan officer has to weigh helping folks and our community against profitability.”
“That’s part of the stricter compliance laws.”
“Except none of those considerations applied here. My daughter wouldn’t overspend for anything anymore than I would be so lax as to not know to the penny what money I have in your bank.”
Sarah remained silent. After her daddy died six years ago, Maybelle was petrified of outliving her money. Only when Emily and Sarah sat her down and showed her in black and white that she’d need to live to about one hundred and fifty-two to run out of funds did she relax. Since that day, Maybelle accepted with gusto the twins’ encouragement to be a bit of a madcap, spending on things she wanted.
Spa trips and searching for positive energy might be an essential part of her mother’s free-spending existence, but keeping track of every cent was equally important to her. If Maybelle said there was more than enough money to guarantee the loan Emily and Marcus applied for, Sarah knew there was.
“Let me get Bailey in here to clear this up. I can assure you having happy customers is this bank’s primary goal. If a mistake was made, I’ll personally make sure it’s rectified.” He picked up the phone and punched in a few numbers. “Eloise, have Bailey come in here and tell him to bring the Southwind file, please.”
While he made the call, Sarah watched Maybelle rest her large purse on Mr. Knowlton’s desk and rummage through it. Maybelle placed the spiked fence topper, a pair of reading glasses, and an old-fashioned savings account passbook on the desk. She kept her smartphone in her hand. Once Lance looked in Maybelle’s direction, she typed something into it and stared at the phone’s screen.
From Sarah’s vantage point, she wondered if it might be more effective to turn the phone on, but that apparently wasn’t important to either her mother or Mr. Knowlton. She stifled a giggle.
Her mother shot her a stern look before turning her attention back to Lance. “I noticed Jacob Hightower and someone who didn’t seem very happy about a loan call coming out of your office while we were waiting. Tell me, Lance, how much of this bank do Anne and Ralph Hightower own?”
Sarah was surprised to hear her mother mention Jacob’s sister and father. Not only were they two of the most influential people in the city but also the most outspoken in their opposition to creating an entertainment district. If they owned the bank, it was no wonder Emily and Marcus’s loan application was rejected.
“Now, Maybelle. You know they’re investors, not officers. Th. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...