Letitia ‘Tish’ Tarragon has just moved to Hobson Glen and opened a new restaurant and catering business, Cookin’ the Books Cafe. So when her new landlord, Schulyer Thompson, recommends her to Binnie Broderick, the executive director of the local library, Tish is delighted. Binnie needs a last-minute caterer to create a literary inspired three-course dinner for the library’s annual fundraiser, one of the highlights of Hobson Glen’s social season.
But there’s a problem: Binnie Broderick is a notoriously difficult woman to please. And when she chokes to death from arsenic poisoning after dousing her main course in hot sauce, Tish suddenly finds herself fighting to save her business – and her reputation. It seems that very few of Hobson Glen’s residents escaped Binnie’s disapproval. But who would want her dead, and why?
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'But everyone loves the way the "blood" gushes out when you bite into them,' Julian Jefferson Davis argued. Tall, trim, and sporting an immaculately coiffed and gelled head of chestnut hair, he leaned against the display cases that separated the public part of the shop from the kitchen and pleaded his case.
'I know they do, Jules. And I truly enjoy the squeals when people bite into them, but it takes some time and effort to pipe the center of each Tell-Tale Heart cupcake with raspberry preserves. Right now I can't afford to hire staff, so I need to use my time wisely.' Letitia 'Tish' Tarragon, dressed in slim, dark-wash cropped jeans, a black short-sleeve T-shirt, and a pair of leopard-print canvas sneakers, balanced herself on the top step of her vintage red kitchen stepladder and went about mounting the last of eight whitewashed shelves upon the sage-colored walls of her new restaurant and catering business, Cookin' the Books Café.
'Honey, I live right down the road. I can help you. Mary Jo is just the next town over. I'm sure she'd help too.'
'Hmm, maybe for Halloween? That'll give me two months to settle in.'
'Halloween would be perfect. The whole business district shuts down and parents bring their little ones for trick or treating. You'd make a killing! Er, no pun intended.'
'I got it.' Tish laughed.
'You truly couldn't pick a better spot for your business. It's kismet.'
Located on a quaint main road halfway between Richmond and Fredericksburg and with access to the interstate, the early twentieth-century white clapboard building once served as the first general store for the town of Hobson Glen, Virginia. In time, the general store closed and the building was repurposed as a delicatessen, then a butcher's shop and, in its most recent incarnation, a specialty bake store. Indeed, a sign reading Cynthia's Baked Goods of Distinction still hung over the front porch.
'From your mouth to God's ears,' Tish answered hopefully.
'No need for prayers. Once people get a taste of your food, they'll be lined up outside the door. What you got planned for opening day?'
'A Hogwarts-inspired back-to-school menu: Dobby's pasties, cheese broomsticks, Butterbeer cakes, Sorting Hat pita bread and hummus, and miniature steak-and-kidney pies. I'll also have my usual range of salads and sandwiches.'
'Sounds delicious. Kids and parents should love it.' Jules fanned himself. 'Just one little word of advice? Air conditioning. Switch it on. The only thing keeping me from fainting on the spot is the cool relief I feel by having my butt planted up against these refrigerated cases.'
'Thanks for the visual, Jules,' she muttered as she hammered a second bracket into a section of wall to the left of the store's front picture window. 'Better not let the health inspector catch you. He'll fine me.'
'Fine you? It's ninety-five degrees in the shade. He'd probably pay me to trade spots.' Jules watched as Tish balanced the shelf upon its brackets. 'So, what are we doing with those?'
'These are my global displays,' Tish explained as she stepped down from the ladder and ran a hand through her wavy, bobbed blonde hair. 'Each one represents a different culture, its literature, and cuisine. There's one for France, England, Italy, India, Spain, China, Africa, and, of course, America. Eventually, I'll add one for Japan – once I master sushi and tempura, that is. And then there's Greece, the Caribbean ...'
'Whoa, slow down. Don't outgrow the wall space before you've actually opened for business.'
'Sorry, just excited,' Tish chuckled. 'I also have to leave room for the bookcase out on the porch. That'll be my lending library. If someone wishes to read while they eat, they can borrow something. If they wish to take it home and continue reading, they need to —'
'Buy the book?' Jules guessed correctly.
'Or bring another book in to replace it.'
'Hmm, so what are we putting on the shelves you just hung?'
'Cookbooks, books, and cooking paraphernalia. So for France, we'd have cookbooks by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin —'
'Natch,' Jules remarked.
'Literary works by Proust and Flaubert, and, in the middle, a vintage madeleine pan.'
'And England would be Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and your blue Staffordshire tea pot?'
'Indeed.' Tish nodded. 'As well as some Dickens and Christie.'
'Clever. And where would I find these goodies?'
'In the big box behind the counter. You want some help?'
'Nope, I'll be fine.' Jules rolled up the sleeves of his neatly pressed white linen shirt and retrieved the box in question. 'You have tons to do. If I get stuck, I'll ask for help.'
As Tish set about threading a home-stitched valance made from vintage tea towels on to a brass curtain rod, a curvy brunette in her early forties entered the café bearing an oversized thermos jug.
'Sorry I'm late,' she panted. 'I had to drop Kayla off for her shift at Chick-fil-A, Gregory forgot to tell me football practice started this morning, and then Glen called – he forgot his lunch so I had to drop it off at his office.'
'We're fine,' Tish replied. 'I'm just sorry you had such a tough morning.'
Jules, however, took a tougher line. 'Mary Jo Okensholt, are you telling me that your husband made you drive all the way to Fredericksburg to deliver his lunch? Why didn't he just buy lunch today? Or better yet, why didn't he drive home and pick it up himself.'
'Well, he was busy.'
'So were you. You were out driving your children – his children – to their activities.' He shook his head and went about steadying a Martin Yan cookbook against a bamboo steamer basket. 'I hope that family of yours knows how lucky they are to have you.'
'I hope you know how lucky you are too.' Mary Jo held the insulated canteen aloft. 'A double batch of Arnold Palmers with extra ice.'
'MJ, you're my favorite woman. I love you!' he exclaimed as he hastily placed a copy of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club alongside the steamer and charged toward the thermos. 'Tish, do you have a funnel?'
Mary Jo dropped the canteen on to the counter and folded her arms across her chest. 'We're not in college anymore, Julian. I am not letting you make an iced-tea/lemonade bong from my tailgate cooler. We're —'
The appearance of a tall, handsome man in the doorway of the café brought an abrupt end to Mary Jo's ultimatums.
'Schuyler,' Tish greeted her new landlord, curtain rod still in hand. She had first met Schuyler Thompson two weeks earlier when he showed her the property after his evening jog. For that meeting, Thompson had been wearing baggy athletic shorts, a sweat-stained T-shirt, baseball cap, and a pair of runners. Today, he was immaculately dressed in a dark-blue suit that brought out the intense azure of his eyes, a red Italian silk tie, well-polished dress shoes, and a mane of neatly styled blond hair. The wardrobe change was not displeasing.
'Hey, Tish.' He smiled. 'I just stopped by to see how things were progressing.'
'Slow, but sure,' she declared before going on to introduce her helpers.
'Pleased to meet you both,' Schuyler announced after an exchange of handshakes. 'Just two little things I wanted to tell you. First, Celestine, the caretaker, is going to swing by today and give you all the details about the hot-water heater, the air conditioning, the plumbing – all that stuff. She knows this place better than I ever could.'
'Air conditioning. Thank you, Lord,' Jules exclaimed.
'The second piece of news is that Binnie Broderick, the executive director of our local library, is one of my clients. She was in my office yesterday and asked me what I was doing with my mother's old place. I told her I had rented it to a literary caterer. The library is holding a fundraiser and Binnie's caterer backed out at the last minute, so I suggested she speak with you.'
'That's terrific news. Thank you!'
'Well, don't thank me just yet. The event takes place in three weeks.'
Tish swallowed hard. 'Three weeks?'
'Actually, two weeks from this coming Friday. Also, even under the best of circumstances, Binnie can be ... difficult.'
'No worries. We'll be right by her side.' Mary Jo stepped forward and placed an arm around Tish's shoulder. 'It will be the best fundraiser the library's ever seen.'
'I'm sure it will. I have the utmost confidence in Tish's abilities. And if I can be of any help, please let me know.'
'Thanks, but I —' Tish started.
'Oh, she'll definitely let you know,' Jules interrupted.
'Great. See y'all later.' Schuyler took off through the door and hopped into the driver's seat of the black 2016 BMW 3 Series sedan parked outside the store.
'What was I saying about kismet?' Jules asked. 'Not only do you have a business in a prime location, but now you have a prime gig, and, I might add, a very fine, very prime man checking in on you.'
'That very fine, very prime man happens to be my landlord,' Tish pointed out.
'He also happens to be a small-town Southern lawyer. Hello, GQ meets Atticus Finch! Does it get any dreamier?'
'I'm not sure I'm ready for that, Jules.'
'It's been over a year since the divorce,' Mary Jo cajoled. 'Don't you think it's time to get out there again?'
'Yeah, even if it's only to flirt or have a fling,' Jules rejoined.
'I'm not a "fling" sort of gal. You both know that. I'm also not into all those fads, like online dating or speed dating or Tinder —'
'Oh, no. You definitely don't want to go on Tinder.'
'What's Tinder?' Mary Jo asked.
'I'll show you when you're older,' Jules teased.
'I don't want to go on anything,' Tish continued. 'I would love to meet someone eventually, but right now I'm focused on starting my business.'
'That's great, but you just can't work here and then go upstairs and binge-watch Netflix every night,' Mary Jo argued.
'She's right, you know. It's not like fate's going to drop Mr Right on your doorstep.' Jules brought a hand to his face in mock surprise. 'Oh, snap! It just did!'
As Tish dismissed Jules's silliness with a wave of her hand, a white Mercedes E-Class with tinted windows rolled in and parked in front of the porch. The trio watched as a stout woman in her early to mid-sixties emerged from the driver's side. She was dressed in a gauzy floral sheath dress, pearls, white sandals, and a wide-brim white hat that would have fit in better at Ascot than in a small Virginia town on a Monday morning.
'Good morning,' she greeted in a well-bred Virginian accent as she stepped through the screen door. 'I'm Lavinia Broderick, Executive Director of the Hobson Glen Library. You must be Miss Tarragon.'
'I am, but, please, call me Tish.' The caterer extended a welcoming hand.
Without accepting the greeting, Binnie Broderick pushed past Tish and went into the shop. 'Mr Thompson told me that you are something of a caterer.'
Tish retracted her hand and pulled a face. 'Yes, a literary caterer.'
'Hobson Glen Library holds their annual fundraising dinner in less than three weeks and our previous caterer has cancelled on us. Do you think you could do the job, Miss Tarragon?'
'Possibly. Why don't we discuss the details first?'
Binnie drew a heavy sigh and removed her hat, revealing a head full of hot-rollered and teased hair that proved that the Southern adage of 'the higher the hair the closer to God' was still alive and well. 'The library benefit, along with our Strawberry Social and decorated holiday homes tour, is one of the highlights of Hobson Glen's social season. Approximately three hundred people from Hobson Glen and neighboring towns – including some of Richmond's finest families – attend the event for a three-course dinner and dancing.'
'Guests travel from the city for this?' Tish was slightly incredulous.
'Of course. Hobson Glen Library is one of the oldest libraries in the Commonwealth.'
'That's quite an accomplishment for a state so rife with history,' Tish praised.
'We are quite proud.'
'With good reason. So, given that this is a county-wide affair, I assume that I need to create a relatively high-end yet budget-friendly three-course menu for three hundred guests?' Tish surmised.
'That's right, and a signature cocktail or two.'
'Yes, we sell them in souvenir glasses. Some years, those drinks raised more money than the admission tickets themselves.' Binnie gave a loud guffaw.
'Hmm.' Tish hadn't anticipated the need to create original cocktails. She flashed a panicked glance in Jules's direction; his mixology skills were legendary.
'Cocktails won't be a problem, ma'am,' he assured.
'I should hope not. Schuyler assured me that you could handle all my needs.'
'And he was correct,' Tish agreed. 'So what sort of theme did you have in mind?'
'Theme? Well, books of course,' she scoffed, as if Tish were completely daft.
'Yes, I understand that books are the focus, but which works would you like to highlight? I offer themed specialized menus for events like these. I don't have anything printed right now, but I can, for instance, do a Hemingway-inspired menu based upon the food described in his books, a Midsummer Night's Dream lawn party, a recreation of Babette's Feast, a Great Gatsby gala, an Alice in Wonderland tea party, a Christie-inspired murder mystery dinner —'
'Good heavens, no! We don't want any of that nonsense. This is a gathering of business people, not readers. These folks are too busy doing things to sit around with their nose in a book. The fundraiser is about wearing your prettiest, sparkliest clothes, drinking cocktails, posing for photos, and going home feeling that you did something good for your community.'
'So you don't want a literary theme?'
'Of course I do. It's a library, for heaven's sake. Make the food about books. Book titles, authors – make it cute, though. Nothing too deep. The most we want our guests thinking about is how many zeroes to write in their checkbooks.' She grinned.
'That isn't really what I do —'
'Maybe not, but it is now, isn't it? Otherwise, I'll take my business elsewhere.'
Tish had never before experienced such strong dislike for someone she had just met. 'Cute theme,' she noted as she typed into her phone. 'What about menu options?'
For the first time during her visit, Binnie Broderick was nonplussed. 'Menu options? What do you mean, "menu options"?'
'Fish and chicken for those whose diets don't include beef, meat-free dishes for the vegetarians and vegans. Then there's the whole gluten-free issue —'
'Gluten-free? Oh, we do not have any of those. I don't know where you were raised but this is the South, darlin'. Most everyone I know eats meat, pickles, and fried food. It's also been my experience that these benefits always run more smoothly and people are always far more generous if a steak dinner is offered. However, I suppose we do have a few of those "new-agey" sorts. Mostly the younger generation.'
'New-agey?' Mary Jo asked.
'You know ... the folks who do yoga, wear hemp clothing, get henna tattoos, and won't eat anything that has a face.'
Jules rolled his eyes and wandered behind the counter to pour himself a glass of Arnold Palmer.
'Sounds like I need to add some vegan options,' Tish stated.
'Yes, I guess you should.' Binnie sighed.
Tish typed more some notes into her cell phone. 'What's the venue for the event?'
'Our local Masonic Lodge has donated the space, the tables, the chairs, even the dinner- and serve-ware. All you have to do is show up, cook, and serve.'
'That certainly makes things easier. And what's your budget for this event?'
'Thirty dollars a head,' Mrs Broderick stated emphatically.
'I'm very sorry, Mrs Broderick, but I can't do a three-course plated dinner, steak included and with vegetarian and vegan options, for that price. Not when I need to hire a wait staff as well.'
'Really? Why, don't you have nerve! This is your first job.'
'And I appreciate the opportunity to make it the first of many, but I simply can't make it work for that little,' Tish replied. 'I can do it for sixty, but that's as low as I can go.'
'Sixty? Why —'
'You can call Richmond's finest caterers and they'll quote you three times that, I'm sure. I'm not trying to make a profit off a library fundraiser, Mrs Broderick, but I do need to be able to cover expenses.'
'Yes, well, I suppose we can make it work. I just expected you to be cheaper. Disappointing to find otherwise.'
'I am cheaper,' Tish stated in as polite a tone as she could muster. She desperately wanted the job, but she also knew that lowballing the price of her first job would set a dangerous precedent. 'I also promise to be more reliable than the caterer who cancelled.'
'Do you?' Binnie challenged as she pinned her hat back on to her head.
'Yes, I do,' Tish promised.
'I suppose you do have a selling point there,' Mrs Broderick finally relented. 'And it's far too late to go to anyone else. All right, sixty dollars a head it is.'
'Thank you, Mrs Broderick,' Tish replied and extended her hand once again. This time, Binnie Broderick extended hers as well.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cookin' the Books"
Copyright © 2018 Amy Patricia Meade.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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