From the author of The Pickled Piper comes another Pickled and Preserved Mystery...
Piper Lamb knows how to make fruits and vegetables keep for months. Unfortunately, it’s the people around her who are expiring too soon...
After her fiancé left her, Piper came to Cloverdale to rebuild her life and open up her shop, Piper’s Picklings, to sell pickles and preserves. When her ex decides to drop in for a visit—just as things are heating up between her and a local Christmas tree farmer—Piper finds herself in a jam.
But there are other visitors to worry about...
An Italian soccer team is set to play the Cloverdale All-Stars in an exhibition game. Their manager, Raffaele Conti, was a bitter rival of Piper’s dill supplier, local farmer Gerald Standley. After Conti is found dead in Standley’s field, Piper must work to clear Gerald’s name and find out who relished killing Raffaele before the town is soured by another death.
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Mary Ellen Hughes is the author of the Craft Corner Mysteries, including Wreath of Deception, String of Lies, and Paper-Thin Alibi, as well as the Maggie Olenski Mysteries. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Terry, who has long provided her with bounties of homegrown vegetables for preserving and pickling as well as unique inspirations for mysteries. Mary Ellen is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“Are you sitting down?” Amy asked when Piper picked up.
“Why?” Piper, who’d been standing to check her supply of canning jars, didn’t immediately reach for a chair. Though she was surprised to hear from her assistant that day, Amy’s tone wasn’t warning of deeply upsetting news, such as anything happening to Aunt Judy or Uncle Frank. It did sound serious, though.
“My dad was called out early this morning.”
“Oh?” Piper decided to ease over to one of her tall stools after all. Anything involving the sheriff was bound to be bad.
“It’s Raffaele Conti.” Amy paused. “He’s dead.”
Piper sucked in her breath. “What happened?” she asked, hoping it would be of natural causes—perhaps a sudden heart attack, or even a car accident, both terrible, of course, but still natural.
“I don’t know many details,” Amy said. “But Conti was found in Gerald Standley’s dill field.”
“The dill field!”
“Right in the middle of it.” Amy said. She then blew away the last of Piper’s hopes. “He was shot.”
Piper Lamb walked over to the front window of her shop, Piper’s Picklings, for about the twentieth time that morning.
“I’ve got to stop this,” she muttered, “or I’ll wear a groove in the floor.” Scott Littleton was arriving that day. Typically, her ex-fiancé had neglected to give her a precise time, but he’d be showing up after months of travel about the globe to “find himself.” Piper didn’t know if he’d run across the real Scott Littleton during that time. But she did know he’d find a very different Piper Lamb from the woman he’d once been engaged to.
Piper was certain there was little trace of that unassuming girl who had worked at an unfulfilling job in the New York State tax office, and who had waited much too long for a foot-dragging fiancé to agree on a date for their wedding. Nor did she bear any resemblance to the Piper who had once regularly deferred to her fiancé’s opinions on things that affected her own life. The very thought now made her cringe.
Since she’d returned to Cloverdale, the upstate New York town where she’d spent many happy childhood summers with Aunt Judy and Uncle Frank, Piper knew she’d become a self-sufficient and competent businesswoman as well as a person who spent her days doing what she loved. In her case, that happened to be running a shop that offered customers everything they’d need for deliciously pickling or preserving every vegetable and fruit on God’s green earth, as well as happily doing a fair share of the same herself.
Scott, however, seemed convinced she’d been simply occupying herself with a little hobby to keep from missing him too much until he decided to return. No matter that she’d explained multiple times by phone, text, and e-mail that she considered their relationship over and had moved on to a new life. For an intelligent person, Scott apparently had difficulty absorbing that information. Would saying it to him face-to-face make the difference? She hoped so. But why, then, did the thought of seeing her ex-fiancé for the first time in months make her so nervous?
Piper walked back to the window, telling herself that this time she was looking out for Mr. Standley, who was due to bring her a fresh batch of dill. Gerald Standley owned a farm outside of Cloverdale, just as Piper’s aunt and uncle did. But Standley had branched out beyond the usual crop of vegetables to include dill, and had become Piper’s main source of the tasty weed. You couldn’t get much fresher than “picked that morning,” and Piper felt extremely lucky to have a Gerald Standley nearby.
She loved driving by his farm and seeing the three-foot-tall stalks with their feathery heads waving gracefully in the breeze. Thinking about the tasty pickles she would eventually season with them got her adrenaline pumping, which only convinced her that she had been right to leave the safe but dreary career of numbers and tax forms for the simpler but oh-so-much-more enjoyable life she now had.
One part of the enjoyment—a significant part—was Will Burchett. Piper had begun seeing Will a few weeks ago, and though she was uncomfortably aware that half of Cloverdale was planning what to wear to their wedding, Piper intended to take things slowly. She’d spent much too long mired in her relationship with Scott to want to tie herself to anyone else in a hurry, though Will was a definite temptation. The more she saw of the tall blond Christmas tree farmer the better she liked him, so much so that she worried about how he would take Scott’s sudden appearance on the scene.
Which was why she probably should have warned the man. And she’d meant to. Piper looked at the phone. She should pick it up and call Will right then and give him the whole story—that Scott, the ex-fiancé she’d told him about, had decided not to return to his job in the state’s attorney’s office in Albany but was seriously considering settling in Cloverdale. She stared at the instrument, planning her words, but the sudden honk of a truck’s horn pulled her gaze to the window. Gerald Standley had driven up with his delivery of fresh dill. Piper left the phone and hurried to the door, promising herself she’d call Will the minute her visitor left.
“Good morning, Mr. Standley,” she called, holding the door open for the farmer as he made his way toward her shop with a crate packed full of wonderfully aromatic dill.
“Morning, young lady,” Standley responded. “You’re looking mighty perky today.”
Piper smiled. It was Gerald Standley’s standard greeting, and she had no doubt he’d deliver it even if she stood propped on crutches, suffering from the flu, and covered with red blotches. Standley, on the other hand, did look pretty lively. As he set the crate down in her back room, Piper asked him why.
Standley straightened to look at Piper with surprise. “Why, haven’t you heard about the big soccer match coming up?”
“Um, no, I haven’t,” Piper admitted. “You mean a match at the high school?”
“Young woman,” Standley said with mock indignation, “this just might be the match of the century!” He grinned, and softened his statement. “At least for Cloverdale. And no, it’s not Cloverdale High School’s team, though a few did play on the team before they graduated. This is a brand-new group, drawn from top Cloverdale players as well as surrounding areas. In other words, we have an all-star team!”
“Impressive. And who will they be playing?”
Standley’s face shone with excitement as he reverently whispered the words. “A semiprofessional team from Italy.” Which told Piper it was, in his opinion, the best thing that could have ever happened to Cloverdale, perhaps in his lifetime. She tried to look properly impressed.
“That’s wonderful,” she said. “But how did that come about?”
“The Italian team is touring,” Standley explained as he took off his cap and swiped his forehead with his sleeve. “They’re doing exhibition matches, and they don’t play just anybody. This was arranged months ago, and our all-star team had to meet top standards. Which, after plenty of good, hard work, we did. It’s going to be great, just great!”
Piper remembered that Uncle Frank had once mentioned that Gerald Standley helped coach the Cloverdale soccer teams for years, both boys and girls.
“Gerry’s plumb crazy about the game,” Uncle Frank had said. “He played it himself in school, and he’s volunteered for all the teams his daughter played on growing up. When Miranda moved on to other things, he kept right at it. Cloverdale High is lucky to have him pitching in.”
Piper, who’d played soccer at age seven or eight and remembered it mostly as running around the field and pretending she knew what she was doing, nevertheless was delighted for Mr. Standley. “When is the match?”
“Actually, it’s a tournament—best of three matches. They’ll start this weekend, only two days from now!” Standley’s eyes sparkled. “The team—Bianconeri—arrives tomorrow.”
Piper, who had started thinking that the tournament might be a useful distraction for keeping Scott out of her hair once he arrived, smiled delightedly. “That’s terrific. Go Cloverdale!” she said.
“Cloverdale rocks!” a voice answered from the front of the store. Piper recognized it as that of Amy Carlyle, her young, part-time helper who’d arrived for her shift. Amy walked into Piper’s back room, tying back her thick red hair as she did. “Hi, Mr. Standley. Ready for the big match?”
“Ready as we’ll ever be, most likely, though it never hurts to get in more practice. I’d better get going. Have to make a few more deliveries before heading over to the field.” He slipped his cap back onto his thinning but still dark hair, and straightened his light jacket over a trim frame. All that soccer play along with plenty of hard work in his fields obviously kept the man in great shape, Piper thought. Only a few wrinkles hinted at his forty-something age.
“Break a leg,” Amy said. “Wait, no! I mean, knock ’em dead! We’ll be cheering you on.”
Gerald Standley waved his thanks as he hustled out.
When Piper heard the door close, she turned to Amy. “You knew about this big tournament?”
“Of course! Everyone does. It’ll be the event of the year for Cloverdale.”
“It’s news to me.”
Amy grinned. “You had a few other things on your mind lately. Any word from the ex yet?”
“Not a peep. I’m hoping he’s changed his mind.”
“Not me. I’m dying to see the guy. Is he as cute as Will Burchett?”
Piper knew Amy was teasing but answered loftily, “I like to think a man’s looks are the least important quality to consider.” As she said it, though, she was aware of how Will’s bright blue eyes had bowled her over the first time they met. “Besides, who knows what Scott looks like after tramping through every kind of climate and condition as well as eating strange foods for months.”
“Oh, he won’t have changed that much. It’s not like he was marooned on a desert island.” Amy had started unloading Gerald Standley’s dill, getting ready to separate and chop bunches for freezing, drying, or immediate use. Her culinary skills were matchless and Piper daily considered herself blessed to have the girl’s assistance—for as long as it lasted. She knew the twenty-one-year-old’s long-term goals were to own her own restaurant. But for now she gathered experience by also working part-time as an assistant chef at Cloverdale’s finest restaurant, A La Carte. Amy’s boyfriend, Nate Purdy, also conveniently worked there, but providing the musical entertainment.
Eager to change the subject, Piper asked, “How’s Nate doing?”
Amy smiled. “He’s doing great. He’s written a few new songs and plans to record a demo. But we were talking about Scott. You still haven’t hung up that gorgeous wooden plaque he sent you from Thailand. Has Will even seen it? What does he think of Scott’s coming here?”
Piper winced. “I’ll find out as soon as I tell him.” Amy’s lips formed a silent O. “I know, I know,” Piper said. “I should have. Go ahead and get started on the dill. I’m going to call him right now.”
Piper went out to the customer area of her store and pressed Will’s speed dial number but almost immediately caught sight of Aunt Judy out front, climbing out of her blue Equinox, and quickly hung up. Piper usually loved seeing her aunt, but she hoped this visit would be brief. As she went to the door, her white-haired, slightly plump aunt caught sight of her and waved. Aunt Judy turned to lift out a large paper bag from her car, and Piper hurried out to take it from her.
“These are the green tomatoes Uncle Frank promised you,” Aunt Judy said as she reached back for a second bag.
“Great! I wanted to make some green tomato relish. A few customers had never heard of it. This’ll give them a chance to try it out.”
“I’ve made it for years,” Aunt Judy said. “And I helped my mother make it when I was a girl, just as you helped me when you were little.”
“I remember.” Piper led the way to her back room, thinking about those days in Aunt Judy’s big farm kitchen. The first summer she’d been sent there by her archaeologist parents as they headed off to a weeks-long, child-unfriendly dig, Piper had sullenly resisted, convinced she wouldn’t like it. But Uncle Frank and Aunt Judy had quickly won her over with fun things like tractor rides, but especially with Aunt Judy’s cooking. Piper, who’d never done anything before with food other than eat it, found she loved helping her aunt can, pickle, and preserve much of the fresh-picked produce from Uncle Frank’s farm. Now Piper was doing it herself, and able to make a living at it!
“Hi, Mrs. Lamb,” Amy said, turning from her work with the dill.
“Good morning, Amy,” Aunt Judy said. “I’m afraid I’ve brought you more work.”
“Bring it on,” Amy said cheerfully and continued her rapid chopping of a large bunch of freshly washed dill leaves. “Are you and Mr. Lamb going to the soccer tournament?”
“Oh yes.” Aunt Judy set her bag on a counter and stepped back, dusting off her hands. “Gerry Standley’s been talking about it for weeks. We wouldn’t dare miss it.” She turned to Piper. “What about you? Have you made plans to go with Will? Or has Scott’s visit . . . ?” Aunt Judy’s voice trailed off uncertainly.
“I don’t have any plans for the tournament other than sending Scott in that direction on his own. Might as well get the message across right away that he’s not going to be able to pick things up where he left them six months ago.”
“Oooh,” Amy said, shaking her head. “That could backfire. Scott could take it as a challenge. That might make him ramp up his efforts to win you back.”
“He can take it any way he wants. As long as he takes it out of my presence.” Piper knew she sounded tougher than she felt. Deep down, she worried about her own reaction to seeing the man she’d once been in love with. She’d been doing so well with Scott not around. Would she be able to hold strong with him nearby?
The toot of a car’s horn sounded from out front, drawing Piper out from the back room, followed closely by Aunt Judy and Amy. The first thing she saw was a red convertible Volvo, the exact model Scott had sold before leaving on his soul-searching journey. The driver’s door opened and someone climbed out. Piper held her breath. She heard the door slam shut and a man stepped into view, looking toward the shop.
“Oh!” Aunt Judy cried. “It’s Scott!”
Piper found herself nodding dumbly. It was indeed Scott.
And he looked absolutely great.
Piper felt herself rooted to the spot. Aunt Judy glanced at her, then moved on past to greet Piper’s former fiancé.
“Scott,” Piper heard her aunt cry at the doorway. “How nice to see you again!”
Piper was aware of Amy’s stepping discreetly back into the workroom, though she left the door open. Piper knew she should take a step forward but couldn’t seem to will herself to do it. She watched as Scott gave her aunt a hug then looked toward Piper. This was silly, Piper told herself. If she was such a self-assured person she should start acting like one. She therefore held out her hand and moved forward, intending to keep her greeting cool and distancing. It didn’t work. Scott rushed f...
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