Cinnamon Toasted: New Excerpt

Cinnamon Toasted by Gail Oust is the latest in the Spice Shop Mystery Series following Piper Prescott's former mother-in-law Melly who has to race against the clock to clear her name of a murder before time runs out.

Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Case in point: Piper Prescott's former mother-in-law Melly. Beneath her twin sets and pearls beats the heart of a geek―a geek whose programming changes for the point-of-sale software in Piper's shop have the owners of the program ready to make her an offer she can't refuse. “Trusty” Rusty Tulley and Chip Balboa swing by Brandywine Creek―just in time for the town's annual Oktoberfest, which has cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom flying off Piper's shelves in record numbers. News spreads faster than a text message, and Melly is the toast of the town.

But it isn't long before Melly's status changes to public enemy number one when Chip's body is found at the foot of her basement stairs. Questions start to pile up when handsome police chief Wyatt McBride arrives on the scene and the coroner sets the time of death for the previous evening. McBride wants to know why it took Melly so long to report the incident―especially after she admits to arguing with Chip about the contract he wanted her to sign. Piper knows Melly would never hurt a fly, so she enlists the help of her BFF Reba Mae to clear her name―but can they find the real killer before Melly gets sent away for good?

Chapter 1

CINNAMON FROM CEYLON. Nutmeg from Grenada. Cloves from Madagascar. A regular United Nations lined the shelves of Spice It Up! Pleased, I stepped back to admire the window display I’d just finished. The collection of baking spices paired with the large wicker basket of red Cortland apples as nicely as cheese did with crackers.

In spite of naysayers, Spice It Up!, my little spice shop on the town square in Brandywine Creek, Georgia, was flourishing. Certain folks—they shall remain nameless—were reluctant to admit that a former country club wife who’d been dumped by her ambulance-chasing, skirt-chasing husband of twenty-some years could morph into a successful shopkeeper. But I’d done it. I’d showed them.

With a contented sigh, I returned to my place behind the counter, intending to check inventory. I’d no sooner clicked on the computer than Melly Prescott, my former mother-in-law, burst through the door.

“Piper,” she gasped. “I practically ran all the way over.”

I stared at her, aghast. Melly, run? Never in a million years. Not even if her house were on fire. It simply wasn’t her nature to hurry. “Melly, are you all right?”

Melly pressed a blue-veined hand against her twinset-clad chest. “I’m fine, dear, really,” she panted. “Give me a minute to catch my breath, is all.”

I went over to her and, taking her elbow, guided her toward one of the stools I kept behind the counter. I studied her more closely. She looked … different. Her usual not-a-hair-out-of-place silver pageboy was mussed. If that weren’t alarming enough, she’d ventured out in public without first applying lipstick.

Melly managed a laugh, albeit a breathless one. “The way my heart’s pounding, you’d think I’d just won a dance contest.”

“Sit down. I’ll get you some water.” Racing for the small fridge at the rear of the shop, I patted the pocket of my sunny yellow apron with its chili pepper logo for the reassuring outline of my cell phone. I might need to dial 911. Melly not only looked different, but she was behaving strangely as well. Was this a warning sign of a stroke?

Casey, my mutt of many breeds, woke from his snooze at the foot of the back stairs leading up to my apartment. My scruffy pet raised his head, one ear cocked, as if to ask what all the commotion was about. When I ignored him, he resumed his afternoon nap.

I snatched a bottle of water from the fridge, twisted off the cap, and hurried to Melly’s side. “Here you go.”

“Thanks, dear.” Melly took an unladylike gulp.

Although her breathing was less ragged, Melly’s color was still high, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes mirror bright. I berated myself for not taking the CPR course offered at the fire station. One never knew when that information might come in handy. What is the rule of thumb these days? I wondered. Were people still doing mouth-to-mouth? Was it chest compressions only? Or both? I made a mental note to Google this later.

“You haven’t stopped taking your blood pressure medication, have you?” I inquired, eyeing her nervously.

“Mercy sakes, no,” she said. “I’m fit as a fiddle.”

I regarded her thoughtfully. Melly had to be in her seventies, but other than that, I didn’t have a clue which end of the spectrum her birthday fell upon. I doubted even CJ—her son, my ex—knew his mother’s exact age. According to the Melly Prescott Book of Etiquette, never ask a woman her age. Never. And if—I shuddered at the prospect—a person unwittingly breached the etiquette protocols, a bald-faced lie was perfectly acceptable.

“Melly”—I channeled my inner yoga instructor—“why don’t you take a deep, calming breath, then tell me what’s going on.”

She withdrew an envelope from the pocket of her A-line skirt. “I wanted you to be the first to see the letter that arrived in the afternoon mail.”

Before she could explain further, a woman who looked startlingly familiar, yet drastically different, charged through the door. “Honeybun, wait till I tell you…”

Melly and I gaped at the new arrival dressed in red with blond hair styled in a beehive. Hoops the size of tangerines dangled from her earlobes. Strappy sandals with three-inch wedge heels were also a clue. Big earrings, high heels, and bright colors pointed in only one direction. I was the first to recover from surprise. “Reba Mae Johnson, that you?”

Opposite as opposite could be on the outside, Reba Mae, my BFF, and I were two peas in a pod when it came to things that mattered. Where I was barely five foot two, with unruly red curls and eyes as green as a tomcat’s, Reba Mae was tall and statuesque, with fair skin and eyes a pretty soft brown. Her hair color varied with her mood—or maybe the moon. Yesterday it had been jet black; today it was sunflower yellow. The two of us had bonded years ago over diapers, teething, and soap operas.

Melly pursed her lips, her urgent news temporarily forgotten. “Girl, what have you gone and done to yourself this time? You look like a floozy.”

Unabashed, Reba Mae patted her sky-high do. “You know what they say, Melly. The higher the hair, the closer to God.”

“Hmph.” Melly sniffed. “If that’s true, you oughta be close enough to whisper in his ear.”

“Stop!” I held up my hand like a traffic cop. “Will one of you kindly tell me what’s going on?”

Both of them began talking at once.

“I just received the most wonderful—,” Melly gushed.

“Y’all won’t believe—,” Reba Mae said—so excited, she couldn’t stand still.

They stopped midsentence and glared at each other.

“I was here first,” Melly pointed out. After sliding off the stool she occupied, she insinuated her smaller self between me and Reba Mae, who towered over us. “Piper, dear, I wanted you to be the first to hear my news.”

Reba Mae, not about to be outdone, gently but firmly elbowed Melly aside. “Piper, you’re gonna freak once I tell you—”

“Not so fast, missy.” Melly glowered at Reba Mae.

“Ladies, ladies,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “You’re behaving like a pair of six-year-olds. Don’t make me give you a time-out.”

Again, Melly sniffed, affronted. Reba Mae, on the other hand, pouted—she actually pouted. I hated to see a forty-something woman pout. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

“Fine,” Reba Mae conceded grudgingly. “Age before beauty.”

“Reba Mae Johnson,” I scolded. “Shame on you. That’s no way for you to speak to my mother-in-law.”

“Ex-mother-in-law,” Reba Mae and Melly chorused in perfect two-part harmony.

“Right,” I muttered. “Nice to see that you finally see eye to eye on something. Now, someone, please tell me what the heck’s going on.”

Melly took the high ground. “Go on, Reba Mae, you first.”

Reba Mae, not to be outdone, folded her arms across her impressive bosom. “No, you go first. I insist.”

Unbelievable! We had apparently reached a stalemate. I tucked an errant red curl behind one ear. “Why don’t we just flip a coin and settle this thing once and for all?”

I fished a shiny copper penny from the need-a-penny dish next to my antique cash register.

“Very well,” Melly agreed in a put-upon tone. “I’ll take heads.”

“Fine,” Reba Mae said, sounding equally prim. “Tails.”

I rolled my eyes, a gesture I’d acquired from my daughter, Lindsey, who turned seventeen in late July. Teens, I’d discovered, were hands-down experts when it came to eye rolls. “All righty, then.” I placed the coin on my closed fist and tossed it into the air. It landed on the heart pine floor and spun around a few times before coming to rest.

“Tails,” Reba Mae crowed. “I got the part.”

“And I’m going to be rich,” Melly announced, not missing a beat.

“Part? What part?” My head swiveled from one woman to the other. “Rich … how rich?”

“I’m gonna be Truvy Jones.” Reba Mae enveloped me in a hug that nearly cracked my ribs. “The opera house is puttin’ on Steel Magnolias. Since I own and operate the Klassy Kut—the best little ol’ beauty shop in Brandywine Creek—the director said I’d be perfect for the role.”

I hugged her back. “That’s wonderful, Reba Mae. You’ll make the best Truvy ever.”

Melly cleared her throat to regain my attention. “My turn for a hug.” She put her arms around me in a stiff embrace, gave me an anemic squeeze, and just as quickly released me.

I tried not to show my surprise at this unprecedented display of affection. Now, I know hugging is second nature to most Southerners, but Melly Prescott didn’t number among them. I swear the woman must have been at the hairdresser’s the day the good Lord dispensed the hugging gene.

Melly’s face was wreathed in a smile the size of Texas. “I’m going to be rich, Piper. Not just rich, but filthy rich. And I owe it all to you.”

“Me? What did I do?”

“You feelin’ okay, Melly?” Reba Mae asked, genuine concern on her face. “You look a mite feverish. Maybe you should sit a spell.”

“Never felt better.” Melly waved a sheet of paper, which by this time was a bit crumpled. “I’m too excited to sit still, although I do feel a little flushed.”

Melly, excited? Flushed? Reba Mae and I exchanged nervous glances. Melly was scaring me. I regarded her worriedly. Eyes—the same blue gray as my ex-husband’s and my daughter’s—sparkled, her cheeks rosy. “How long has it been since your last physical?”

“Here, read this.” She shoved the letter into my hands. “This will explain everything.”

“What’s it say?” Reba Mae huddled closer so she could read over my shoulder.

I scanned the contents. It seemed a company called Trustychipdesign.com was prepared to make Melly a generous—make that very generous—offer for software she’d developed. After attending a trade show in Atlanta, the owners of the company planned to stop by Brandywine Creek and seal the deal in person. If all went according to plan, Melly would soon be a wealthy woman.

“Melly, this is wonderful news,” I said, “but I can’t take credit for your accomplishment.”

“Of course you can, dear,” she corrected. “If I hadn’t been so bored one afternoon while you were out running errands, I never would have been tempted to experiment with the software on your computer. I never would have discovered where my true talents lay.”

I recalled how upset I’d been several months ago when I returned to Spice It Up! and, much to my chagrin, discovered Melly had tinkered with my pricey point-of-sale software program. Guess all that tinkering had paid off.

“Next to yours, my grand announcement seems like small potatoes,” Reba Mae complained.

“Now, now, don’t say that.” Melly, no doubt feeling magnanimous, patted her arm. “Steel Magnolias is a wonderful play. Why, I saw it years ago and cried my eyes out. It was funny yet poignant. I loved seeing how all the women supported one another.”

“I never saw the play,” I confessed, “but I saw the movie version. Sorry, but I can’t remember who played Truvy.”

Reba Mae patted the blond confection atop her head. “Dolly Parton.”

“Well, then, that explains the do.”

“It’s a wig,” she explained needlessly. “The director, Sandy Granger, let me borrow it. Said she used it last year as part of a Halloween costume. Sandy claimed wearing it would help me get into character.”

“All this good news calls for a celebration. And I have just the thing.” Not waiting for an answer, I turned and ran up the stairs to my apartment. I returned minutes later with a bottle of champagne. “I’ve been saving this for a special occasion, and as occasions go, they don’t get any more special than this.”

“I’ll get cups.” Reba Mae dashed toward the rear of my shop and brought back three dainty teacups.

“Mmm, I don’t normally imbibe in spirits.” Melly eyed the bottle of bubbly, then broke into another smile. “But I suppose it won’t hurt to indulge just this once.”

I filled the teacups, then handed one to Melly and one to Reba Mae. I raised mine in a salute. “To Melly, soon to become the toast of the town. And to you, Reba Mae, a star is born. You, ladies, rock!”

“Hear! Hear!” they said as our cups clinked together.

The three of us proceeded to get comfy as we sipped and chatted. Melly and I claimed the pair of stools. Reba Mae perched on the edge of the counter, crossed her long legs, and let them dangle. I felt my chest swell with pride at seeing the pair looking so happy, so pleased with themselves.

Melly chuckled. “I can’t wait to see the expressions on everyone’s faces when I make my grand announcement at computer club.”

“Wish I could be a fly on the wall,” Reba Mae said.

“Yeah, me too,” I replied.

Melly smiled again, smugly. “Just because Thompson Gray’s the president, folks think he is the be-all, end-all when it comes to computers. They tend to overlook comments from a woman of a certain age. Will they be surprised at hearing my news!”

Thompson owned and operated Gray’s Hardware, down the block from Spice It Up! He’d returned to Brandywine Creek several years ago after his father passed away suddenly. He lived with his mother, and as far as I knew, he’d never married, never even had a serious relationship. And, if rumors were true, it wasn’t for lack of trying on Thompson’s part. “When’s the next meeting?” I asked idly.

“Tonight at seven o’clock,” Melly replied. “I volunteered to bring refreshments. How well do you think gingersnaps go with champagne?”

“Honey, everythin’ goes well with champagne,” Reba Mae drawled as she motioned to refill our cups.

“I really shouldn’t,” Melly demurred, then changed her mind. “Oh, why not? What harm can it do?”

We were giggling like schoolgirls at a pajama party when my ex-husband strolled in, looking dapper in his designer duds. CJ took in the scene at a glance, then fixed his gaze on the nearly empty champagne bottle. His sandy brows drew together in a frown. “Y’all ought to be ashamed. Drinkin’ like fish, and it’s not even five o’clock yet.”

Melly raised her cup. “It’s five o’clock somewhere, son. Care to join us?”

Chapter 2

“WHAT’S THE OCCASION? Did Scooter here”—CJ gave me a patronizing wink—“manage to break even for a change?”

I cringed at hearing the nickname I’d once found endearing but now loathed. As for his snide remark, I refused to take the bait. “Sorry to disappoint you, CJ, but I’m happy to report business is brisk at Spice It Up!”

“That so?” CJ surveyed the exposed brick and wood beams of my shop. He was an attractive man with golden blond hair, styled not cut, and slate blue eyes. His thickening waistline—blame it on a fondness for fine Kentucky bourbon and prime rib—was camouflaged by an expertly tailored suit. “You might want to consider usin’ some of those big bucks to spruce up this place,” he continued. “Might want to ask Amber for advice. That girl’s got style.”

Mention of Miss Homewrecker set my teeth on edge. Reba Mae sucked in a breath; Melly pressed her lips together in disapproval. I may not have been number one on my ex-mother-in-law’s personal hit parade, but she wasn’t happy her only son had sullied the family name by discarding his wife and hooking up with a former beauty queen. The lovebirds were planning a destination wedding over the Christmas holidays. The honor of my presence hadn’t been requested at the nuptials.

“What brings you here, CJ? Can’t find an ambulance to chase?” Reba Mae asked.

CJ snapped to attention. “Reba Mae, that you? What have you gone and done to yourself? You look like a floozy.”

Floozy? Hadn’t I heard that same word from Melly’s mouth? It was “déjà vu all over again,” to quote Yogi Berra, my father’s favorite philosopher.

Reba Mae patted her blond wig and batted her lashes. “You should be so lucky, darlin’.”

As usual, CJ’s attention skidded from Reba Mae’s hair to her 38DDs framed to full advantage in a cherry red scoop-neck top.

“What did bring you here, CJ?” I repeated.

After digging into his pants pockets, CJ fished out a set of car keys and placed it on the counter in front of me. “Thought I’d stop by and drop off Lindsey’s car keys. Tell her I had Reba Mae’s boy rotate the tires and change the oil.”

“Sure thing,” I said, taking the keys and tossing them into a drawer. Lindsey’s red Mustang convertible had been a bone of contention when CJ presented it to her on her sixteenth birthday. A consolation prize of sorts for having divorced parents.

CJ returned his attention to Reba Mae and flashed his chemically whitened choppers. “I hear your boy is doin’ a fine job of keepin’ Cloune Motors in business.”

“Caleb has a God-given talent tinkerin’ with motors.” When it came to her twins, Reba Mae couldn’t keep her pride from showing.

“Heard Diane Cloune is huntin’ for a buyer for the place. She’s lookin’ at real estate in Atlanta. Got her eye on a place in Buckhead and needs the cash.”

“That so?” Reba Mae replied, her tone noncommittal. “And accordin’ to the grapevine, I heard talk you’re thinkin’ of hirin’ yourself a personal trainer. Any truth to the rumor?”

At Reba Mae’s question, CJ’s expression turned stormy.

“Reba Mae just found out she landed a role in Steel Magnolias,” I interjected before the thundercloud burst.

“Steel Magnolias?” CJ scratched his head. “Piper, isn’t that the chick flick you dragged me to years ago? For the life of me, I don’t know why women like to cry in movies till their mascara runs. Gimme a good shoot-’em-up and car chase any ol’ day.”

“Son, are you certain I can’t interest you in a bit of the bubbly?” Melly asked, as gracious as a hostess at a soiree.

I took the offer of champagne as my cue to hop down from the stool. “I’ll get another cup.”

CJ flicked his wrist to glance at the gold Rolex I’d once given him for an anniversary gift. In exchange, I received a dozen roses. I swear they were the same sorry-looking bunch I’d seen in the produce aisle at the Piggly Wiggly. “Don’t bother,” he said. “I’m meetin’ a client in fifteen minutes. Seems this guy slipped on a bar of soap and wants to sue the manufacturer for pain and sufferin’. I told ’im he’s got a good case. Things that slippery oughta carry a warnin’ label.”

Ain’t that the truth? I wished CJ had come with a warning label. Something along the lines: BEWARE OF SLIPPERY SMOOTH-TALKERS OOZING SOUTHERN CHARM. I brought myself up short, thinking of the lovely daughter and smart, good-looking son our marriage had produced. CJ and I’d had plenty of good times, lots of good memories until he decided he needed his “space.” Needed to “find” himself. Fortunately for me, I’d moved on.

CJ rocked back on his polished loafers. “So, just to be clear, all this celebratin’s just ’cause Reba Mae’s gonna try her hand at actin’?”

Melly, Reba Mae, and I exchanged conspiratorial looks. I traced the rim of my teacup with a fingertip. Melly sighed. “You might as well hear it, son, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.”

CJ’s forehead creased in another frown. “Out with it, Momma,” he demanded. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone and invested in some fool get-rich-quick scheme and now you need me to bail you out. I don’t want to hear that you used your last twenty bucks for a bottle of cheap champagne to drown your sorrows.”

Melly climbed down from her stool and went around the counter to confront him. “I did no such thing.”

CJ aimed a finger in her direction. “If you’re tryin’ to get up the nerve to ask if you can come live with Amber and me, you might want to consider one of those senior citizen homes. The kind that cater to folks your age. We got plenty of room, but between my work schedule and what with Amber busy with weddin’ plans, neither of us are home much. You’d be lonesome and spend all your time mopin’.”

Fisting her hands on her hips, Melly looked her son dead in the eye. “Chandler Jameson Prescott, mind your tone. Stop treating me like some doddering old fool. For your information, I haven’t lost my last red cent to some harebrained scheme. Quite the contrary. I’m about to become quite wealthy—and I owe it all to Piper.”

“Momma, you’re startin’ to scare me. You comin’ down with old-timers’ disease?”

“It’s not old-timers’, you idiot,” Reba Mae informed him. “It’s Alzheimer’s.”

“Really, Melly, I can’t take any credit for—,” I protested.

“Nonsense,” Melly cut me off. “For the record, CJ, I’m in full possession of my faculties. Matter of fact, I might even decide to put the house on the market and buy myself a condo in some place like Hilton Head.”

“Momma, you’re not makin’ a lick of sense. I think you should go home and rest a spell.”

Melly whipped out the letter she’d received from the software firm. “Here, read this.”

CJ’s brow furrowed once more as he read the letter. “Sounds like a scam, if you ask me,” he said, handing it back. “No way a woman your age could come up with an idea to make a company hand over that much money.”

“Well, she did, and they can,” I said, summing it up.

CJ shot me a look before turning back to his mother. “Momma, don’t sign a thing without the advice of a good lawyer.”

“And who might that be?” Reba Mae inquired oh-so sweetly.

CJ ignored her. “I’m tellin’ you, Momma, it’s a trick of some sort. Folks your age should be content to take life easy. To sit in a recliner with the TV tuned to the Weather Channel, and not fool around tryin’ to design software.”

“I didn’t design. I merely modified preexisting software.”

“Melly made some changes on my point-of-sale while I was out one afternoon. And I have to admit, I was amazed at how much more efficiently it operated. I can understand your doubts, CJ, but—”

“It’s a scam,” he repeated obstinately.

“CJ Prescott, that’s quite enough!” Melly’s patience was wearing thin. “I researched Trustychipdesign.com long before ever submitting my idea. I assure you Chip Balboa and Rusty Tulley are highly respected in their field and very successful businessmen. If they think my … modifications … are valuable, then who am I to quibble?”

“Hmph!” CJ snorted. “Well, I’m going to check them out myself. In the meantime, Momma, don’t sign any contracts until I look them over. Take advantage of your son’s free legal expertise.”

“When are this Chip and Rusty expected?” I asked.

“Gracious.” Melly looked flustered. “I’m afraid I was in so much of a hurry to share my good news that I didn’t pay attention to minor details. I confess I might’ve been temporarily blinded by the dollar signs.”

“There’s no time like the present. Give it up, hon. Let me take a gander.” Reba Mae stuck out her hand, and Melly gave her the letter.

Spice It Up! grew so still that the only sound to be heard was Casey snoring softly in the storeroom at the rear of the store. Although we’d quickly skimmed Melly’s letter earlier, none of us paid much attention to the closing paragraph.

“Well?” I asked impatiently. “When are they coming?”

CJ edged closer. For all his skepticism, I knew he was every bit as interested as we were. Reba Mae looked at me, her expression dazed.

“Well…,” I prompted again.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “Their letter states they’re arriving tomorrow afternoon. They plan to spend several days in Brandywine Creek before headin’ to Savannah.”

Melly clapped her hand to her chest. “Goodness! Tomorrow? I’ve got a thousand and one things to do before they get here. Reba Mae, can you squeeze me in for an early morning appointment? I want to look my best when I meet Chip and Rusty.”

“I’ll check my appointment book the minute I get back to the Klassy Kut.”

“I’ll go with you.” Melly hooked her arm through Reba Mae’s and steered her toward the door. “Soon as I get home, I’m going to bake a fresh batch of gingersnaps. Nothing says welcome like homemade cookies.”

The instant the door swung shut behind them, CJ turned to me. “Thanks to you,” he growled, “Momma’s talkin’ about tradin’ in the family home for a condo on the beach.”

I tuned him out and proceeded to stack the teacups.

“What next?” he ranted. “A villa in Tuscany? Momma’s led a sheltered life. When Daddy was alive, he treated her like a queen. She never had to lift a finger. Never had to balance a checkbook or pump her own gas.”

I stopped what I was doing and tried to reason with him. “Your mother is an intelligent, self-sufficient woman, CJ. I’m sure her talent with computers came as a shock, but chill. Relax and let her enjoy her time in the limelight.”

“Easy for you to say.” He glared at me. “The way I see it, this whole thing is gonna be nothin’ but trouble. I’m warnin’ you, Piper, quit interferin’ in Momma’s life.”

 

Copyright © 2015 Gail Oust.

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Gail Oust is often accused of flunking retirement. Hearing the words “maybe it's a dead body” while golfing fired her imagination for writing a cozy. Ever since then, she has spent more time on a computer than at a golf course. She lives with her husband in McCormick, South Carolina.

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