by Kate Merrill
Artist Amanda Rittenhouse is a genius at refashioning old twisted metal into unique sculpture. But the twists of fate in her own life are a lot more challenging. Recovering from a devastating breakup, she returns to North Carolina and reconnects with the family she hasn’t seen since she left her dysfunctional home when she turned 18.
Despite dealing with some residual mama drama and a new extended family, Amanda decides to stay and try to refashion her own life. She rents a workspace and booth at Metrolina Tradeshow Expo, one of the largest arts and antiques shows in the country. The other tenants are as varied as their wares and run the gamut from kooky to creepy.
Although Amanda’s mom’s skill as an amateur sleuth has earned her the local reputation as “a crime scene waiting to happen,” the biggest mystery in Amanda’s life right now is whether or not the incredibly attractive sister of one of the other exhibitors is straight. Until one of the exhibitors makes a sensational announcement that turns Metrolina’s opening weekend into chaos on steroids. And exposes its dark underbelly of greed, jealousy…and murder.
An Amanda Rittenhouse Mystery Book 1.
Who are these people?
AMANDA RITTENHOUSE was hyperaware of her mother’s cool fingers looped around her wrist as they strolled arm in arm down a pathway lit by Tiki torches. Heading for a rustic clapboard shack called Buffalo Guys, they were sandwiched fore and aft on the narrow trail by the rest of the group, everyone laughing and talking at once, a gang of strangers. As she breathed the warm fishy-smelling air fogging up off the Catawba River, suddenly her mother’s grip, even though it hadn’t tightened, felt more like handcuffs than the tender gesture it was intended to be.
Their host and hostess for the evening, Trevor Dula and Ginny Troutman, led the parade. Trev, darkly handsome as a time-warped Elvis Presley, owned this music bar and restaurant, while Ginny, with her short black punk-cut hair, silver stud in her left nostril, had suddenly become Amanda’s stepsister. Although Amanda sensed a kindred spirit in Ginny, who was exactly her age, she refused to even go there. To hell with relationships, family or otherwise.
Behind Trev and Ginny, Amanda’s estranged brother Robby loped with his long-legged giraffe walk and glanced hopefully frontward and backward, seeking approval. It had always been that way. As children growing up in Philadelphia, even though Robby was two years her senior, he was the one who always sought to please. Now, at age thirty, his shy, introverted personality still made him seem like an overeager little boy. Unlike him, when their dysfunctional parents divorced, Amanda got the hell outta there, running away at age eighteen. In many ways, it felt like she’d been running ever since.
Her mother gave her wrist a little squeeze of encouragement, while right behind them Amanda felt the close, towering presence of Matthew Troutman, her new stepfather. She couldn’t help but like Trout, as everyone called him. The man radiated warmth and stability. His gentle, reassuring ways were the polar opposite of Amanda’s father, Robert Rittenhouse, the formal, uptight lawyer who had ruled their household with an iron fist. She wondered, not for the first time that week, how her cool and distant mother had hooked up with such a free spirit.
“How are you doing, honey?” her mother whispered into her ear.
Amanda glanced briefly into intense blue eyes, which were disturbingly like Amanda’s own, and noticed the laugh lines and crinkles at the corners of her mother’s mouth. They hadn’t been there before.
“I’m fine, Diana.” She hoped with all her heart that her mother noticed how she refused to call her Mother. The name Mother had to be earned, and as far as Amanda was concerned Diana had a lot of work to do before she got there. Perhaps the slight was cruel and childish, but Amanda couldn’t help herself.
“Isn’t it amazing, all of us together like this?”
“Yeah, it is amazing.” She hadn’t seen her mother or brother for ten years, so what else would it be but amazing? Bizarre maybe?
Bringing up the rear were the last two guests in their party: the crazy redhead, Liz McCorkle, who was her mother’s real estate partner, and Danny Capelli, Liz’s jolly fiancé, who was some sort of building contractor. The two were a little older than her brother, and she supposed they would be a fun pair to know, but they were so southern. Far as Amanda was concerned, this past week she had stepped into not only a surreal new family dynamic, but also a foreign country.
“Too bad your grandma and Linc couldn’t have joined us,” her mother said.
“Yeah,” Amanda mumbled. That was another thing. Her grandmother Vivian, at age seventy-five, had caught the same disease afflicting the others and decided to get married. At this very moment, Grandma Viv was back at Trout’s lake cottage with her boyfriend Lincoln, a white-haired gent pushing eighty. They were purportedly babysitting Ginny’s seven-year-old daughter Lissa, but Amanda thought they were probably getting drunk on sherry and playing footsie under Trout’s cocktail table.
“Well, here we are!” Trev flung open the door to Buffalo Guys, pride of ownership on his face, and they all filed into a dimly lit reception foyer.
Amanda was assaulted by the thudding bass of the country-western band playing on the stage near the bar. She felt it in her gut. She also felt peanut shells and sawdust under her feet. Mostly she was dumbstruck by the side by side images of her mother and herself reflected in the large gilt mirror across the room. At a glance, they appeared to be twins. Both were unusually tall, athletic and slim, with extremely short hair—her mother’s pure white, Amanda’s duck-down blond. They wore sturdy sandals, jeans and loose shirts untidily tucked at the waist. They posed with both hips cocked up on the left, bearing weight on their right legs, and they looked for all the world like the prelude to a vaudeville routine.
Her mother saw it too, and gave a little gasp of surprise as she released her daughter’s arm.
“We’ll eat on the deck, where we can hear ourselves think,” Trev announced. And without further discussion he ushered them outside to a large porch hung above the river, where a picnic table was set for eight. “Have a seat, folks. Dinner n’ drinks are on Ginny and me.”
Amanda had assumed all the newlyweds and all the about-to-be-weds would cozy up side by side at the table. But instead they mixed it up, so that Amanda was across from Ginny, Liz and her mother. She could deal with the girls, but why was it so hard to look at her mother?
The waiter brought several pitchers of beer, with Bell jars to drink it from, as well as a choice of wines. Everyone cheered and studied their menus.
Mist lifted off the river. A new moon and first stars filled the cobalt sky. Amanda tuned out the chatter as everyone ordered, and then she slipped into her zone. This allowed her to quietly hover above the chaos, like the mockingbird singing in one of the dark, distant treetops. And from high above, she observed and wondered: Who are these people?
One week ago, she and the others had witnessed her mother and Trout’s wedding at a rustic chapel in the mountains. She’d been summoned there by these voices from the past, and with her life already in turmoil, she had decided to come. Afterward she and her long-lost brother had camped out at their new parents’ lake home, where they were encouraged to get to know this family of strangers—not to mention a motley collection of friends and dogs.
“I have to go back to Philly tomorrow,” her brother whined at her elbow.
“Oh, I wish you could stay a little longer,” their mother said.
Sneaking a peek at her mother’s face, Amanda believed her entreaty was sincere, but would she be sorry when Amanda left? Her mother had always described how she and Grandma had fought. They were like oil and water, just wouldn’t mix. But weren’t she and her mother the same? Maybe fighting with one’s mother was a family trait.
“I’ll have the catfish platter with coleslaw,” she absently told the waiter. Below the deck, she heard something large splash in the water.
“I’ll bet you have alligators down where you come from,” a male voice said from the end of the table.
Startled, Amanda realized Danny was talking to her. “Uh, yes. Even within the Sarasota town limits, they’ve been known to slither out of pools and eat the neighborhood poodles.”
“Oooh, that’s disgusting!” Liz made a face.
Still zoning, Amanda recalled that Liz and Danny were getting married this summer, as were Ginny and Trev, as were Grandma Viv and Linc. What was wrong with these people? Didn’t they realize that commitment of any kind was a dead-end street?
“I have to leave tomorrow too,” Amanda abruptly announced.
Her words sucked the sound out of the night. The birds stopped singing, the fish stopped splashing, even the band took a break.
“Why leave so soon, honey?” Her mother’s pale eyebrows arched in disappointment. “We need more time to get to know one another again.”
Right. Like that would ever happen. Why was everyone staring at her?
“C’mon, Mandy, you can’t go yet.” Ginny winked, causing the silver stud in her nose to bob. “I have plans for tomorrow, just you and me. You’re gonna love it, I promise.”
Was this a conspiracy? They all seemed to be hanging on her response, like if she said the wrong thing, their world would deconstruct.
“Well, girl?” Trout prompted rather sternly. “Do you have anything better to do?”
She thought about it hard, but no matter how she sliced and diced it, no, she had nothing better to do.
Fairground, or prison…?
“So, where are we going?” Amanda yawned as Ginny steered her forest green Subaru off River Highway onto Interstate 77 South, heading for Charlotte.
“It’s a surprise. Relax and enjoy the view.”
View? Amanda’s idea of a view consisted of royal palms marching along a grand avenue lined with highrise condos and exclusive boutiques, like back home in Sarasota. Here the rural, sparsely forested fields were carelessly punctuated by new suburban shopping centers that had sprung up at each exit.
Ginny shrugged, noticing Amanda’s skepticism. “Yeah, I know I felt the same way when I got here from Vegas. But the lake’s pretty cool, right?” She nodded at the wide expanse of water opening to the right of the highway.
Amanda was forced to agree. “Sure, the lake is nice.” Lake Norman had over five hundred miles of shoreline and stretched about forty miles north to south west of the interstate. Her mother the real estate broker said the lake was responsible for the area’s recent prosperity, as well as the out-of-control growth. Thousands of newcomers from all over the country had arrived, like her mother, to cash in on the potential.
“Did you enjoy the boat ride yesterday?” Ginny asked.
“Yeah, it was fun.” Her mother’s new husband had bought a pontoon boat as a wedding present to them both. Its maiden voyage the day before had been a long tour from the top of the lake around Statesville, all the way down to Huntersville, where a nuclear plant employed the cascading water to power all the surrounding communities. “I got sunburned though,” Amanda added. She didn’t want Ginny to misinterpret her enthusiasm.
Ginny laughed. “Yeah, you and your mother both. Did you see her nose at breakfast? God, you two are just alike with that fair skin. You burn if you get near a lightbulb.”
“We are nothing alike,” Amanda objected.
Her stepsister frowned and glanced at her from the corner of an eye. “Okay. Do you wanna tell me why you’re so hard on Diana?”
A big cloud passed over the sun and long, finger-like shadows stretched across the road. Amanda stared at the stick-like trees making the shadows. “Hey, you didn’t grow up with Diana.”
“Hey, I wish I had a mother.”
Ashamed, Amanda clamped her jaw shut so she wouldn’t say something hurtful. She knew Ginny’s mom had died of cancer, and Trout had admitted that he’d been so devastated by her death that he’d ignored Ginny, shut her out. He blamed himself for her running away from home at age eighteen, just like Amanda had done.
“Well, I love Diana,” Ginny continued. “She’s fun and funny. She’s been great to Lissa and me, and terrific for Dad.”
“I’m happy for you all.” Amanda hadn’t meant to sound so snide, but the past week in close proximity to her mother brought out the worst in her. All anyone talked about was Diana’s witty sense of humor and her uncanny ability to solve murder mysteries, of all things. The brave, adventurous woman they described was no one Amanda recognized.
“I don’t get your attitude,” Ginny said. “Robby adores Diana. Did you see him this morning?”
Yeah, she’d seen her brother blubbering like a baby when the taxi came to take him to the airport. He didn’t want to return to Philly and the law practice he shared with their father. Indeed, all Robby talked about was how he wanted to quit law and become a teacher, and Diana had encouraged him in his silly dream. But Robby had always been Mama’s Boy, and Amanda had been Daddy’s Girl. Always a tomboy, she’d played golf and tennis with her father. She’d gone fishing, hunting, even fixed cars with the man. When Diana divorced him, claiming Daddy had been violent and abusive, she didn’t believe it, not for one minute.
“Mandy, I think you’d change your mind about Diana if you stayed a little longer. You should give her a chance.”
Ginny wasn’t going to let this go. Suddenly Amanda regretted delaying her departure by even one day. Also, she strongly suspected this mission they were currently undertaking was part of a giant plot to keep her here.
“So please tell me, where are we going?” she demanded.
“Like I said, it’s a surprise. But since we’re almost there, I’ll give you a hint…”
Amanda noticed they had exited the highway onto Harris Boulevard. “So what’s the hint?”
Ginny’s dark eyes sparkled with mischief. “Well, you make sculpture, right? And you said you needed workspace and a place to exhibit, so I had this brilliant idea…”
“Not here in North Carolina!” Amanda snapped. Why on earth had she opened her big mouth and confided in Ginny? In a weak moment, just because they’d both been runaways and seemed to share a wild gene, she had let her guard down and confessed her passion for metal welding. Big mistake.
“Hey, maybe it’s a silly idea,” Ginny assured her. “Let me show you the place and if you don’t like it, just say no. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Ginny slowed the car and drove into a large expanse of acreage surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. In the distance, Amanda saw two huge steel buildings that could have been armories or airplane hangars. These buildings were connected by a roofed, open-air pavilion with picnic tables. Beyond them, four tiers of smaller steel buildings, like enormous garages, marched into the barren fields.
They continued through muddy blocks of land devoted to parking for hundreds of cars, then up to a guard station, where a sleepy attendant glanced at Ginny’s pass then waved them through.
The whole complex seemed deserted under the mid-May sun. Amanda blinked in confusion. “Is this a fairground, or a prison?”
“Neither.” Ginny grinned broadly. “Welcome to Carolina’s Metrolina Tradeshow Expo, one of the largest arts and antique shows in the country!”
“But where the hell is everybody?” Amanda wondered.
“My dear Mandy…” Ginny smiled indulgently. “It’s a weekday in the middle of the month. Metrolina only operates for four days around the first Saturday of each month, and wait until you see it then, it’s a zoo!”
“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.” Amanda scowled as Ginny navigated past the two huge buildings, then turned right between the first rows of steel garages. She came to a stop at Building 16.
“This is your future, Mandy,” Ginny exclaimed.
In that case, Amanda’s future looked mighty bleak, because aside from a few cars parked randomly here and there, the place was more like a state fairgrounds after the exhibitors, carnival rides and laughing guests had long departed. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she grumbled.
“No, wait until you see inside. Diana’s partner, Liz McCorkle, gave me the pass and a key. She knows a woman who exhibits here and that woman told her there’s space available.”
“So you’re all in on this?”
“Well, Diana and Matthew know. They really hope you’ll like the place.”
With no choice but to grin and bear it, she was determined to make this tour fast. “Okay, let’s do it.”
They crawled from the air-conditioned Forester into the heat, then walked up a short dirt pathway to a large, corrugated steel door. Amanda hoped that somebody would plant the sorry-looking flower boxes flanking the walkway with something colorful—impatiens or marigolds—because this first impression would scare the buying customers away. She noticed a billboard near the door listing the exhibitors within and wondered if anyone really made a living here.
When they stepped into the dim interior, Amanda heard the whir of overhead fans, which did little to cool the stuffy space. The building included an open hallway running the full length, with what appeared to be six large exhibit areas labeled A-F, three on each side. Most spaces were closed off by bright blue tarps hung down from the individual stalls, but directly to their right, in Space A, lights glowed and a radio was tuned to a gospel channel.
“Anybody home?” Ginny called.
After a flutter of activity, a round pink face peeked out from behind the tarp. “Oh, I didn’t hear you girls come in!”
The woman was short and plump, with big brown eyes and a pageboy haircut. Clearly they had startled the poor lady, so Ginny quickly introduced themselves and stated their business.
“Oh, I see,” she said. “I am Lucy Monroe…” She paused to stare suspiciously at Ginny, with her nose stud, tight red halter top and raggedy jean shorts. She looked more favorably upon Amanda, in pressed khakis and a baggy blue T-shirt.
“I know your mother, Diana Rittenhouse. She sold my house for me, and we got a good price too. Then her cute redheaded partner Liz found this adorable little townhouse for Jenny and me to buy in Huntersville. I just love those two, so y’all come in and make yourselves at home.”
They followed Lucy into a spacious but crowded room filled with shelf upon shelf of handmade pottery. Amanda saw everything from wheel-thrown utilitarian vessels to distinctive face pots and imaginative slab constructions.
“You made all these?” Amanda was truly impressed.
“Yes, ma’am, me and my daughter Jenny.” Lucy waved at a corner where a chubby teenaged girl was half-hiding behind a display of brightly glazed fantasy animals. She came out reluctantly and attempted a smile through a mouthful of silver braces.
“And I bet you make these.” Ginny pointed at the animals. “I love them. They’re so whimsical!”
Jenny looked to her mother for a clue as to how she should respond to such praise.
Eventually, Mom responded for her. “Yes, ma’am, Jenny makes the crazy critters from low-fire earthenware clay and paint-on glazes, while my stuff is high-fire stoneware. We have two kilns.”
“But where do you work?” Amanda asked.
“Well, that’s the beauty of this building, the feature that makes it different from all the others,” Lucy said. “The whole east side is devoted to rough studio space. Three of us share it, but the girl who used to be in Space D, right across the hall from us, just up and left. One third of the studio space was hers.”
“Oh really?” Ginny cast a meaningful glance in Amanda’s direction. “So Space D and its studio space are available to lease?”
“You bet.” Lucy nodded. “Wanna have a look-see?”
Amanda was getting excited in spite of herself, but she wasn’t about to say so.
“We’d love to see it, if it’s not too much trouble,” Ginny spoke up. “My stepsister Mandy might be interested.”
“Really?” Lucy gave Amanda a hopeful smile.
Lucy shrugged amiably. “Well, I’ll show you anyway.”
Too shy to tag along, plump little Jenny stayed behind as her mother opened the space across the hall and took Amanda and Ginny through it. Along the way, Lucy told them the long painful story of her divorce from an abusive husband named Jimmy and her hardships as a single mom.
Amanda tuned it all out, because the possibilities for Space D were endless. The dingy pegboard walls would sparkle with a fresh coat of white paint, and there was plenty of room for the largest of her welded sculptures—even for the funky furniture she had made from old tailpipes and auto bumpers.
“What do you think?” Ginny prompted.
“It’s not too bad,” Amanda conceded.
“C’mon, I’ll show you the workspace.” Lucy opened an almost-concealed door at the side of the room, and they entered a dark cavern. Then she opened an electrical box and tripped the switches, which flooded the long space running the full length of the building with intensely bright light.
“Wow…” Amanda breathed. “This is sufficient.”
Ginny gave her an odd look. “I think she means the artists can see what they’re doing.”
“Well, we’re not all artists here,” Lucy said. “Jenny and me consider ourselves craftsmen, while the handsome hunk who trades in recycled building materials is more of a carpenter—even though he paints wild canvases,” she added grudgingly.
Amanda took it all in. The room was casually divided into three sections. As she walked the length, she could not imagine what the girl who left Space D had done, because all she noticed in the broom-swept area were some brightly colored shards of fabric and yarn.
“Oh, she was a weaver.” Lucy had read Amanda’s mind. “She had a big loom set up back here, sewing machines too.”
The boundaries of the potters’ space were loosely defined by drying racks, with the potter’s wheel dead center and the two kilns against the back wall. Lucy and Jenny Monroe also had a utility sink, which, Lucy informed her, they allowed the others to use. Their space smelled earthy, like wet clay.
The last area was obviously the handsome hunk carpenter’s and seemed to be a chaotic pile of junk. Amanda saw old mantelpieces, sheets of bead board, ancient heart-of-pine flooring and antique bricks stacked randomly. One corner included a workbench and tools. Everything smelled of old wood, dust and lemon oil.
“Wow!” was all Amanda could manage.
“Interested?” Lucy pressed.
“Maybe we are,” Ginny interjected. “How much does it cost?”
That would have been Amanda’s next question.
“You should visit the Lease Office in the Main Building,” Lucy said. “The Super’s always on duty, and he’ll give you a price schedule.”
“Great! Let’s go, Mandy.”
Amanda felt a weird mixture of dread blended with hope. The combination made her woozy. “No, you go without me, Ginny. I’ll hang out here and explore some more.”
“Okay, be that way.” Ginny stomped back through the door leading to Space D, while Lucy waddled behind, turning off the lights. “I’ll get the damned price schedule!” Ginny called.
Amanda and Lucy watched her truck down the road toward the largest of the steel buildings.
Lucy turned to Amanda. “Do you want a complete tour?”
“No, thanks. I want a bathroom.”
A moment of epiphany…
“The restroom is down at the other end, to the right of the cafeteria, inside the private office,” Lucy said.
“You have a cafeteria?” This place was looking better all the time.
“It’s only open during the show weekends. They sell chili dogs, fries, greasy hamburgers—you know, junk food.”
“I love junk food!” Amanda spontaneously admitted.
“Me too, can’t you tell?” Lucy patted her fat tummy. She dug into the pocket of her floral housecoat and brought out a key on a short wooden baton. “This is for our private bathroom. It’s not open to the public, and it’s unisex.”
“Of course, we have public restrooms behind the cafeteria, but they’re locked during the downtime.”
“I understand.” Amanda took the key. If Lucy didn’t let her go soon, she’d be in trouble. Suddenly the gallons of coffee she’d consumed that morning needed an outlet.
“Be sure to lock up when you’re done,” Lucy called as Amanda rushed down the hallway.
As she hurried, she sensed dark shapes looming from the exhibition spaces to either side. It was eerie, like trespassing in a closed museum, but this museum was definitely downscale. When she reached the end of the hall, she saw upturned chairs on the café tables and chain link pulled across the kitchen’s service window. Finally, she found the office marked Private and the restroom inside. After a few fumbles, she unlocked the bathroom and gratefully sank onto the john. She found a dangling string, pulled it, and turned on a single bulb above a dingy sink.
She sat staring at the colorful ads for vintage merchandise framed on the walls and listened to birds flapping around in the steel rafters. She figured they’d flown in through the many open air vents she’d seen near the ceiling.
Soon Amanda heard another sound: heavy truck wheels on gravel. The vehicle came to a halt just on the other side of her flimsy wall. A key rasped in the lock of the corrugated steel door at this end of the building, and then she heard two voices, a man’s and a woman’s.
“Why do we have to unload today?” the woman complained.
“Why can’t you just suck it up and help me with this?” he answered angrily. “We need to empty the truck so I can pick up another load tomorrow.”
Amanda felt like a trespasser, an interloper. Should she hide in the bathroom, or step out and explain herself? As she held her breath, the doorknob a few feet from her nose suddenly jiggled, then turned.
“Oh my God!” She was completely exposed.
“Oh shit, I’m so sorry!” The man quickly backed away and closed the door with the universal speed of extreme embarrassment.
Amanda was mortified. She jumped upright and pulled up her pants. But of course it was too late, the damage already done. The intruder, obviously the handsome hunk carpenter, had gotten an eyeful. So had Amanda. She’d seen him shirtless, his narrow waist and rippling muscles, his startled brown eyes above a square jaw below a short buzz-cut of shiny black hair.
“Oh shit is right,” she muttered as she caught the reflection of her flushed face and shocked eyes in the mirror. As she nervously washed and dried her hands, she now definitely wanted to hide here forever. In the meantime, she heard the man and woman whispering just beyond the paper-thin wall. Likely they were just as clueless as she was about how to resolve this uncomfortable situation.
Well, the choices being limited, Amanda figured she might just as well make the first move. Squaring her shoulders, she stepped through the private office and into the hall. At first the light pouring through the opened back door blinded her, but then she saw the couple standing side by side.
The sight froze Amanda in wonder. It was a rare moment of epiphany, for lack of a better word. The handsome young man was one pace behind the woman, in partial shadow, with only the planes of his cheekbones, biceps and edge of one leg illuminated, like the highlights in a Cubist painting.
But the woman was spotlighted in a conical beam of sunshine issuing from a ceiling vent. The golden glow was softened by shimmering dust motes. The beam glistened on her shoulder- length black hair, then cascaded like water over the gentle curves of her breasts and hips. But most dramatic was the oval of light that hovered like a cameo around her beautiful face, featuring her emerald green eyes and full red lips parted in a smile.
Amanda understood in those timeless seconds that this astonishing tableau would be etched in her mind forever. It stopped her breath and halted her heartbeat, until mercifully, the enchantment ended as abruptly as it had begun, and the world started spinning again…leaving the three of them staring at one another.
The woman spoke first as she stepped out of the spotlight. “Who are you?”
“Sorry about before,” the man added sheepishly.
Completely disoriented, Amanda had forgotten about the embarrassing incident in the bathroom. Moving back inside her skin, she walked forward and held out her hand. “Amanda Rittenhouse,” she automatically introduced herself.
The woman, who was about three inches shorter than Amanda, took her hand. Her skin was soft and warm, her handshake firm. “I’m Sara, and this is Marco.”
“Marco Orlando, but everyone calls me Marc.” The man stepped from the shadows and also shook Amanda’s hand, but he held it a heartbeat too long. “I have the booth across the way, Space F.”
Amanda worked to compose herself. The man’s obvious interest made her uncomfortable. “Then you must be the antiques dealer. Lucy Monroe told me about you.”
“Did she, now?” Marc took her elbow and guided her into his booth. “Come in. I’ll show you what we do.”
Sara followed and perched on a stool on the periphery while Marc explained the nature of what proved to be a fascinating business. Basically, the man traveled throughout the southeast salvaging materials from old residences, warehouses and barns being torn down. He rescued architectural elements like special mantelpieces, doors and window frames, floor and ceiling moldings. He saved unique flooring, bricks and paneling—anything of quality or aesthetic value—and then repurposed these materials into new construction.
“Think of it as recycling,” he said. “We hate to see this stuff go to waste.”
“So you use this booth as a showroom, and people can see what you do?” She wished he would let go of her elbow, so she deliberately moved away. At the same time, she was aware of Sara leaving her stool and joining them.
“One time Marc actually rented scuba gear and pulled some ancient logs from a river in Georgia. He had them milled into floorboards, and they’ve been a best seller,” Sara proudly added.
Amanda was impressed. At the same time, she noticed an easel with an unfinished canvas propped in an inconspicuous corner. Her heart dropped. The last thing she needed in her life was another artist. She turned to Sara. “Are you the painter?”
The woman laughed. “God no, Marc’s the painter.”
“It’s a hobby,” he said. “Something to do while the browsers are here, wasting my time.”
Amanda couldn’t curb her curiosity. “Sara, do you help your husband with the business?”
Again the laughter. This time it was as raucous and deep-throated as the Liberty Bell—a big sound for a little woman. “Jesus, Marc’s not my husband, he’s my brother!”
“Oh.” Amanda was relieved, in light of how Marc had been flirting with her. “So what do you do, Sara?”
She rolled her eyes. “Believe it or not, I’m a shrink.”
“A psychiatrist?” Amanda was totally nonplussed.
“Yes, when I’m not helping my brother choose and haul his junk, I’m picking through the junk in folk’s heads.”
For once Amanda was at a loss for words. Luckily, they were interrupted by Ginny, who burst into the space with a wad of papers in her hands.
“Hey, what’s happenin’?” she said.
Amanda introduced her, noting how Ginny’s eyes clung to Marc, an inappropriately hungry reaction from a gal about to be married. Once Marc had repeated the spiel about his repurposing business, Sara again turned to Amanda.
“So what are you doing here at Metrolina?”
Before Amanda could respond, Ginny spoke up. “My stepsister’s thinking about renting Space D. She’s a sculptor.”
“Really?” Marc and Sara said in unison.
“No, not really.” Amanda could have murdered Ginny on the spot.
“No, you’re not really a sculptor, or no, you’re not really renting here?” Sara asked.
“No, I’m not really renting here.”
“C’mon, Mandy. It’s cheap, you won’t believe it!” Ginny waved the lease papers in her face.
“Too bad.” Marc looked crestfallen. “Maybe you should sleep on it?”
“Yeah, Mandy, you don’t have to decide this minute,” Ginny urged.
Amanda felt three sets of eyes boring into her. Damn it, they’d put her on the spot. “Okay, I’ll sleep on it,” she told them, and then walked purposefully from the building.