by Kate Merrill
When Amanda Rittenhouse’s new girlfriend, psychiatrist Sara Orlando, convinces her to hire one of her patients to bake a wedding cake, Amanda can’t say no. The fact that the baker is an ex-con doesn’t really worry her until the wedding day arrives.
Then during the ceremony the baker disappears, thrusting Amanda and Sara into a twisted web that involves kidnapping, drug trafficking, and murder.
Concerned for her patient Tammy, Sara invites Amanda to vacation with her on the Outer Banks, where Tammy’s mother still lives. As it turns out Amanda isn’t the only amateur sleuth in the relationship. With every layer Sara and Amanda peel back about Tammy and her family, the deeper they’re pulled into a dangerous trap.
With Hurricane Bella barreling its way to shore, the pressure is on to find Tammy and uncover the reasons behind her disappearance. Is Tammy just an innocent victim in these shadowy dealings, or does she play a larger role? Sara and Amanda are about to find out.
Amanda Rittenhouse Mystery Book 2.
A study in contrasts…
“You want a heroin addict to bake my sister’s wedding cake? Seriously?” Amanda Rittenhouse glanced at Sara Orlando, who was driving.
“Recovering addict. Tammy’s been clean two years. She’s doing the twelve-step program and attends Narcotics Anonymous right here in Mooresville.” Sara sighed and glanced at Amanda with her amazing emerald eyes. “I explained all this before and you were okay with it. You said you wanted to give Tammy a chance.”
“Right. I do.” Amanda squirmed on the seat. Even with the air-conditioning at full blast, the black leather in Sara’s Mazda MX-5 Miata convertible stuck to the backs of her thighs where her shorts ended.
“Well, that’s good, then. You’ll like Tammy. I promise.” Sara reached over with her small hand and squeezed Amanda’s knee.
Though her fingers were warm, Sara’s touch sent a chill, more like a thrill, straight up Amanda’s spine. And she realized it wasn’t the prospect of an ex-addict baking the cake that alarmed her, but rather being in such close quarters with Sara. They had met less than three months ago, and the attraction had been immediate and electric. In that short time, they had shared traumatic events, become lovers, and spent as much time together as possible. Yet Amanda barely knew this woman. In fact, this was the first time they had ridden together in a car.
“Relax, Mandy.” Sara laughed, a deep-throated sound that always reminded her of the Liberty Bell. “You’re just nervous about the wedding. But hey, you volunteered to buy Ginny’s cake.”
“Yes, I did, and it was a stupid idea. What do I know about cakes?”
“So that’s why you need Tammy.”
As they drove into the old part of Mooresville and turned right on Main Street, moving into the poorer section of the small town, the brutal sun of a North Carolina July beat down on the convertible top. It made the interior smell like a heated canvas pup tent, time-warping Amanda back to her childhood days at summer camp, when sandwiched into those tents with other giggling girls smelling of Noxzema, she first suspected she was gay.
With her right hand now casually resting on Amanda’s thigh, Sara said, “I noticed when you mentioned Ginny you called her your sister, not your stepsister. Why?”
“Oh, give me a break, Sara. Are you trying to psychoanalyze me again?”
It was true. Dr. Sara Orlando was a shrink. She worked for the city of Charlotte as a counselor, mostly to the homeless and parolees. Tammy Tillman, former prisoner, was one of Sara’s favorite clients, thus the recommendation that Tammy become Amanda’s chosen baker.
Since Amanda was a metal sculptor, she found Sara’s profession exotic, like the two of them perceived life from different sides of the brain. She also knew Sara was selflessly dedicated to her patients and admired her for that. It was only when Sara turned her scalpel-like scrutiny to dissect Amanda’s mind that it became decidedly uncomfortable.
“Seriously, I never heard you call Ginny your sister before. It seems like you’ve both gotten really close.”
“Yeah, we’re close,” she conceded. “What would you expect? We both ran away from home ten years ago, when we were only eighteen, and we’ve both managed to completely fuck up our lives.”
“And you both came through as amazing human beings who share two great parents. So it’s all good, right?”
She grunted in the affirmative. Someday she would tell the full story of her and Ginny’s dysfunctional families, but it was a long and complex tale. Even she was having trouble accepting her newfound happiness, so she couldn’t possibly explain it to Sara, not until they knew one another a whole lot better.
“Make a left after you pass the old mill. According to her address, Tammy lives in mill town.” Not a neighborhood where one should park a shiny new red sports car. “Does she run her bakery out of her house?”
“Well, I gather the house actually belonged to an aunt on her father’s side. The aunt left it to Tammy in her will.”
“Is that even legal? Running a business out of her house?”
“Who knows, who cares? I’m just glad the woman has an entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to make a go of it.”
She could easily imagine the Department of Health and Sanitation coming down on Tammy Tillman like a ten-pound hammer.
As Sara removed her hand from Amanda’s thigh to slow and downshift, Amanda was both disappointed and relieved by the loss of physical contact.
The street could best be described as “southern seedy.” The rows of decrepit wooden bungalows had once been occupied by middle-class factory workers who made blue jeans, but when those jobs moved overseas, the neighborhood decayed slowly. Today, on a steamy summer Sunday, malodorous garbage spilled from cans lining the cracked curbs, awaiting Monday pickup. Junk cars sat on concrete blocks, couches on porches leaked upholstery stuffing, and a group of kids—black and white—played half-naked in a gushing water hydrant that had been forced open at the end of the block. None of this boded well for Ginny’s wedding cake.
“Yikes.” Even Sara was shocked by the poverty as they parked in front of Tammy’s place. “I guess I should lock the car.”
“I think you should stay with the car.” Amanda nodded at two punks across the street who were greedily eyeing the hubcaps.
“Maybe I’ll introduce you guys, then sit out on the porch where I can keep those kids honest.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
After they climbed out of the Miata, she noticed their elongated shadows creeping across the yard. Hers was tall and skinny, Sara’s short and voluptuous. They were a study in contrasts. Amanda was fair, freckled, and prone to sunburn with very short, duck-down blond hair. Sara’s Puerto Rican genes gave her flawless, sun-loving skin, silken shoulder-length black hair, full red lips, and hypnotic green eyes. Both were twenty-eight years old.
The old cliché that opposites attract definitely applied. While Amanda was somewhat reserved and shy, Sara was bold and outgoing. The first and only time they had managed to make love, she’d worried about how their vastly different bodies would fit together, but it worked out just fine. More than fine, it was a fireworks spectacular. Since then, they’d been on a high-tension tightrope in anticipation of a repeat performance.
When they stepped onto Tammy’s sagging porch, a pit bull in the yard next door began barking viciously and flinging his teeth against the chain-link fence between them.
“Jesus Christ!” Sara jumped.
A woman Amanda presumed was Tammy opened the screen door and screamed, “Aw, shut up, Hamilton!” He stopped barking and slinked off to the far side of his pen. The shaggy dishwater blonde had the figure of a young girl but the eyes of an old lady.
“Hey, y’all. Welcome to my home.”
You’ll be my date…
Tammy Tillman’s furniture was shabby, but the house, particularly the kitchen, was meticulously clean. This boded well for Ginny’s wedding cake.
With Sara keeping a watchful eye on the punks across the street, they moved into the tiny space, which smelled of vanilla and hot baked goods. Amanda’s stomach growled when Tammy lifted a large tray of samples from a cupboard that included bite-sized slices of white, yellow, and chocolate iced cake in every conceivable combination from lemon to strawberry.
“So you can taste everything I offer,” Tammy explained as she brought an oversized photo album from a drawer. “And these are pictures of all the cakes I’ve made, all the way up to a six-tiered number I call Royal Wedding.”
“Wow!” Sara and Amanda said in unison.
Tammy seemed to sense that Sara was uneasy about her car and suggested they do the taste tests out on the front porch. “It’s too damned hot in here anyway. These floor fans can’t keep up.”
Tammy’s hands shook when she passed Amanda a tray holding multicolored metal glasses and a tall, frosted pitcher of iced water. Well, that was fine. Amanda was a bit shaky herself. She had left the hospital only one week ago, and her side still ached from where a bullet had cracked her ribs. She had been shot by a crazed exhibitor at Metrolina Expo, where she had been showing her sculpture and where she first met Sara. The two of them had been instrumental in solving a bizarre murder, not the most auspicious way to begin a love affair. On the bright side, at least the docs had recently removed the splint from the middle finger of Amanda’s left hand, which was a relief, because the broken finger had stuck straight up in a perpetual obscene gesture.
“Love the table!” she commented, dragging her mind back to the present as they set the trays on an old wood-paneled door painted turquoise and suspended on four upended concrete blocks.
“Thanks.” Tammy offered a quick smile, then glared at the two punks who were now dribbling a basketball in the street, moving closer to Sara’s hubcaps. The rhythmic thunk—thunk—thunk made communicating hard. “Hey, you two!” she hollered. “Don’t you have something better to do?”
For a wisp of a woman and substantial as a sparrow, Tammy’s voice and attitude packed a punch. The teenagers growled a little but then moved down the street to play with the kids at the hydrant. Even Hamilton the pit bull crawled into his doghouse.
“There, now we can hear ourselves think. Have a seat, girls.”
They eased onto a cushioned glider, while Tammy played hostess, handing them each a pile of napkins. “Don’t be shy, now, dig in.”
Amanda needed no coaxing as she greedily sampled the cakes. Neither did Sara. Soon both were making un-ladylike guttural sounds of approval. A tiny smear of strawberry icing clung to Sara’s upper lip. She longed to lick it away. In the meantime, Tammy looked on with motherly satisfaction, which was odd, since Amanda knew Tammy was only twenty-two, more like a little sister. Yet the weary look in her strange pale blue eyes betrayed the rough life she had endured so far.
“Now, tell me something about the bride and groom,” Tammy said. “Maybe it’ll help us decide how to style the cake.”
Amanda wiped her lips and described the tumultuous romance between her stepsister, Ginny Troutman, and Ginny’s high school lover, Trevor Dula. She explained how Ginny had run away from North Carolina to Galveston when her mother died. As soon as she settled in Texas, she realized she was pregnant and married an abusive oil man, old enough to be her daddy. Seven months later she gave birth to her daughter, Lissa. Finally Ginny divorced the oil man, got a job as a croupier in Las Vegas, and eventually returned home when her father, Matthew Troutman, married Diana Rittenhouse, Amanda’s mother.
“Wow, that’s quite a story!” Tammy exclaimed. “So let me guess. Now Ginny is reunited with Trev, the love of her life, and little Lissa has herself a real daddy, isn’t that right?” Tammy grinned. “Well, at least we’ve got us a happy ending. I’d say that calls for something special on top of this cake.” With that, she scuttled back inside the house, leaving Amanda and Sara on the glider.
“Is that a true story?” Sara asked.
“Oh, yeah, but it’s not the whole story. I left out all the gory details about the murder that brought them together.” The saga of Ginny and Trev was yet another little piece of Amanda’s life she’d not yet shared with Sara. “I’ll tell you all about it when we have more time.”
“It sounds like we need another sleepover,” Sara whispered suggestively as she took her hand. “It’s ironic that a murder brought us together too.”
She laughed. “Ironic indeed. Up until this year, I would have said my mother was the crime magnet, but now I’m not so sure.”
But truthfully, the past three months since her homecoming had shaken her to the core. Reuniting with her estranged mom, Diana, and gaining a nurturing extended family had been an unexpected blessing. Meeting Sara, after giving up on love, was beyond amazing. Almost losing her life to a crazed killer—that she could have done without.
Sara squeezed her hand. “Yes, you’ve told me about Diana’s adventures as an amateur sleuth. Like I said, scary stories are great for a slumber party.”
A blush crept up Amanda’s neck. When Sara used her seductive voice, it sent a surge of heat to all the right places. It also made her shy, so she slipped away from her hand. Yet she loved how the hot summer afternoon moistened the skin on Sara’s forehead and upper lip, and the way the shadows shifted on her bare shoulders. Amanda needed a hug and a kiss badly, but she had no desire to put on a show for the neighborhood.
Luckily they were interrupted by Tammy, who pushed through the screen door carrying a large cardboard box covered with gold silk. “These are the toppers.” She set the box on the floor between them and removed miniature plastic figurines of brides and grooms of all races, clad in many different fashions. She had tiny wedding bells, musical instruments, gazebos, and lovebirds. “Now, ladies, choose something that suits Ginny and Trevor.”
“A marriage toy box,” Amanda muttered. Without hesitation she picked a bride in a miniskirt with a little pink guitar, and a groom who was a cross between Elvis and GI Joe. “These are perfect! I can’t believe you had a guitar to go with this sassy bride.”
“Really? Are you sure?” Tammy must have expected something more traditional.
“Absolutely.” Amanda made the statues do a happy dance.
“What about this?” Sara picked up two brides—one a tall, skinny blonde, the other short and dark. “Did you ever bake a cake for two women?”
Tammy’s eyes expanded like transparent blue marbles. “Oh, no, I never did one of those weddings!”
“Would that be a problem for you, Tammy?”
Amanda was shocked. Yes, Sara was Tammy’s therapist, but how much had she shared about her private life? Resisting an urge to hide under the turquoise table, Amanda held her breath and waited for the awkward moment to pass.
Finally Tammy began to giggle. The sound started deep in her throat and bubbled up through her lips. “You think I’m one of those ignorant, redneck gay-bashers? The ones who beat their Bibles and pretend they’re not bigots? Hell no, Doc. You know me better than that. You find some same-sex couples who want to get hitched and send them my way. It would be an honor.”
Sara smiled and high-fived her patient, and Amanda exhaled in relief. They concluded their business quickly. Amanda chose a three-tiered cake in three flavors, iced in white frosting. She wrote a check, gave Tammy the pertinent time and directions to the house where the wedding would be held, and they said their goodbyes.
“You almost gave me a heart attack in there, Sara!”
“Calm down, darlin’.” She smiled and winked. “I knew Tammy would be cool with the idea of a gay wedding. After all, I’ve been inside her head quite a lot lately.”
“Even so…” Amanda wasn’t about to let her off the hook that easily. Sara knew she was only halfway out of the closet and easily embarrassed. “I think you take malicious delight in teasing me.”
“I think you’re afraid to acknowledge me in public.”
She thought about it, noting the catch in Sara’s voice, and recognized a grain of truth. “You’re wrong,” she said at last.
She took her hand without even checking to see if someone was watching. “Okay, come with me to Ginny’s wedding. You’ll be my date.”
The Saturday of Ginny’s wedding could not have been more perfect. The guests arrived and parked along the dead-end street leading to Mom and Matthew’s house on Lake Norman. The mood was relaxed and upbeat as those in attendance greeted their hosts, then strolled down the freshly mown lawn to water’s edge. Rows of chairs faced the gazebo where the service would be held.
The sky was robin’s-egg blue with a trace of thready clouds high above and a gentle breeze to blow away the heat and the humidity. Uninvited guests in sailboats and motorboats steered close to the shore, bobbing on the waves, curious to see what all the fuss was about.
“They’re like gawkers at a traffic accident,” Amanda complained.
“This wedding is no traffic accident,” her mother objected. “I’m sure our yard looks pretty from the lake, and those boaters just want a little piece of the romance.”
In her role as maid of honor, Amanda was obliged to wear a silly pastel blue sheath dress that skimmed the tops of her knees in front, then dipped down to midcalf like a faux train in back. The outfit included a fringed scarf in bright abstract tones of green, tangerine, and hot pink. It hung loosely around her neck and flapped around in front. As matron of honor, her mother wore a pale green dress like Amanda’s and the same dumb scarf. Ginny’s seven-year-old daughter, Lissa, the flower girl, got a pale pink dress and a little version of the scarf tied like a flopping bow in her flaming-red hair.
“These high heels are killing me,” she grumbled as she accepted a glass of white wine and a warm cheese puff from a boy carrying a silver tray. “And where did Ginny find these waiters? They look like high school kids.”
“That’s because they are high school kids. Matthew drafted them from that automotive class he teaches once a week.”
“I thought I saw grease under that boy’s fingernails.”
“For heaven’s sake, knock it off, Mandy. I know you hate playing dress-up, but you’ll be able to lose the heels soon,” Mom finished with a grimace.
Now that made Amanda smile. Ginny’s instructions specified that those in the wedding party must kick off their shoes and walk barefoot down the grassy aisle. This included the bride and the groom and was supposed to symbolize comfort and freedom in their marriage. Mom absolutely hated the idea.
“Is your friend Sara here yet? I’m eager to meet her.”
“Not yet.” She’d been anxiously watching for a red Miata and was worried because Tammy was late. The plan was to serve the cake right after the service, then most of the guests would leave. Close friends and family, including Sara, would then drive up to Buffalo Guys, the nightclub Trev owned. There they would be treated to dinner.
Excusing herself, Amanda wandered back to the road to watch the incoming traffic. By the time she reached the driveway, a battered gray Toyota pulled in and parked. Tammy Tillman leaped from the passenger seat. Her straggly blond hair was subdued in a ponytail and she wore a crisp white shirt, black trousers and bow tie.
“Jeez, I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “But the cake’s in the back and it’s awesome.”
Before she could respond, a surly looking man climbed from the passenger’s side and glared at her. He was tall and muscle-bound, with a blond crew cut and bloodshot blue eyes. Amanda figured he was too old to be Tammy’s boyfriend and too young to be her daddy. Either way, he looked like a cage wrestler with his tattoos, black wife-beater T-shirt, and tight jeans. She sincerely hoped he wasn’t Tammy’s assistant and wouldn’t have contact with their guests.
“This here is Sonny Roach,” Tammy explained. “He’s my mom’s boyfriend, visiting from the beach. He’ll help me bring in the cake, but then he’s gonna wait in the car.”
“Hi, Sonny.” Amanda did not hold out her hand for him to shake, which was a good thing, because the man barely acknowledged the introduction. Instead, he pivoted in his alligator boots and stomped to the back of the car.
“Don’t mind him. He’s a jerk,” Tammy said quickly.
She was nervous, talking so fast Amanda wondered if she was on speed. Like Sonny, her eyes were bloodshot, but more like she’d been crying, not using drugs.
“Are you okay, Tammy? Can I help?”
“No, Mandy, I’m good. Just point me to the kitchen and everything will be ready when you are.”
By the time she’d set them up in the kitchen and Sonny had retreated to the Toyota as promised, Amanda stepped outside and nearly collided with Sara. The woman took her breath away. She wore a soft, emerald green pantsuit that brought out her eyes and a low-cut cream silk shell that showed off her cleavage. A single strand of pearls glowed against her deeply tanned throat as she gave Amanda a wicked smile.
“Hey, babe,” Sara said. “You look like an honorable maid.”
“Thanks. You clean up pretty good too, Doc.”
Her heart fluttered as she led Sara down to the first row, bride’s side. Along the way, she snagged a high school kid and supplied Sara with wine and a dainty plate of canapes. The seat next to Sara’s had been reserved for Amanda so they could sit together after she completed her part in the ceremony.
“Mandy, do you remember that first day I saw you when you were in the hospital?”
“Yes, it was the day the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges, entitling same-sex couples to marry nationwide.”
“Good memory. So maybe someday we will attend one of those weddings?”
“Maybe so.” But she could not imagine such a thing. At the same moment, she heard the dinner bell ringing up at the house, the signal that the service was about to begin. “Looks like I’m on. Wish me luck.”