"Summer evenings, cold cider and murder, a perfect combination."
Reviewed by Clare O'Beara
Posted May 12, 2020
Time for another mystery with Winona Mae Montgomery and her Granny Smythe, as they get happily to grips with running a cider shop on the old orchard farm. The outdoor beautiful, dignified wedding scenes framed by apple trees and wildflowers, really took my breath away at the start of PULP FRICTION. Winona is making income from hosting a wedding and doing the catering. She’d have liked the happiness to last beyond the first chapter, though.
Blossom Valley, Virginia used to be such a quiet spot. Then Winona split up with her ex-boyfriend Hank, put herself through college, and started this cider shop. Life hasn’t been the same since. A new police officer in town took on the post of sheriff and he’s been kept busy solving murders. We’ve no sooner met the cast than unpleasantness occurs and at the end of the evening, the new groom is found dead under his wedding car.
Since Hank has vanished, Winona thinks – as do others – that he may be on the run, either from his evil deed or because he knows something and is afraid. But Winona goes to quite extraordinary lengths for Hank during this tale, leading me to think that she still has feelings for him, even as she tells herself that Hank is just too good at manipulating her and getting what he wants. At the same time she is getting better acquainted with Sheriff Colton which puts her in some awkward spots.
The rest of the stunningly good cast include the town senior men and woman, some new faces attending the wedding, and Winona’s good friend Dot, a National Park Ranger and animal rescuer, who this time rescues some livestock bigger than kittens. This is getting to be my favourite mystery series and the Cider Shop Mystery books are only on the second one so far. The accomplished author Julie Anne Lindsey has also written the Geek Girl's Guide to Murder series which blends a tech-savvy lady with Renaissance fayres. Her work is going from strength to strength. I enjoy the outdoors setting so much in PULP FRICTION and we get to consider some home blends for spiced ciders. What could be nicer? Summer evenings and cold cider, a perfect combination.
Nothing’s sweeter than a fruitful family business, and for Winona Mae Montgomery and her Granny Smythe, that means Smythe Orchards in Blossom Valley, Virginia. But this year’s apple crop is especially juicy—with scandal . . .
SEEDS OF DANGER
Thanks to Winnie's new cider shop, Smythe Orchards is out of the red and folks can get their fix of the produce and other delectable products they love all year round. The locals are even booking the shop for events, including a June wedding! Winnie couldn’t be happier to see the barn filled to the rafters for the big bash—until her doting ex, Hank, is caught in a heated argument with the groom. Winnie plans to scold Hank after the party, but spots him running off instead. And when the groom turns up dead, apparently hit by the honeymoon getaway car, Hank is the main suspect. Now Hank is on the lam, and it’s up to Winnie to get to the core of the truth—before the real killer puts the squeeze on her . . .
“Well, it’s official.” Mrs. Sawyer beamed at me across the service counter of my newly opened cider shop while half the town danced the funky chicken behind her. “You’ve impressed me, Winona Mae Montgomery, exactly as everyone promised you would.” She fished a narrow envelope from her heavily beaded clutch and passed it my way. “This is for you. You’ve earned every penny.”
I accepted the check with a warm smile.
Three weeks ago, Mrs. Sawyer and her daughter, Elsie, had come to see me about an outdoor wedding at my granny’s orchard. They’d wanted a simple ceremony for Elsie and her fiancé, Jack, preferably in the meadow between our field of wildflowers and rows of apple trees. They’d requested a reception to follow at my cider shop just across the property. Something simple and elegant. Fun and memorable. I’d accepted their offered deposit, marked my calendar, and vowed to do my best.
Fast-forward a few frantic weeks and Elsie Grace Sawyer married Jack Robert Warren, among the wildflowers today at high noon. It was a small, modest country ceremony so beautiful I’d cried.
I tucked the envelope beneath my cash register’s till and locked the drawer. “Y’all made it easy,” I said. “You knew exactly what you wanted, and you were gracious at every turn.”
She nodded, accepting the compliment. “Elsie was glad to have found such a perfect location on such short notice. Though I can’t say I’m sorry there was an issue with their previously booked venue. A West Virginia woman’s heart never travels far from home, so it’s fitting she fell in love here and that this was where she was married. Besides, there’s nothing like Blossom Valley in June.” I couldn’t disagree. In fact, Blossom Valley, West Virginia, was unspeakably gorgeous any time of year. A national park ran through it. The Ohio River wound along it, and all things wild and wonderful lived in it, my family and friends included. Our quintessential small-town community was nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains with views to die for at every turn. And my Granny Smythe’s orchard was no exception.
The music changed, and the crowd broke into applause. Exhausted two-steppers fanned smiling faces as they made their way off the dance floor and navigated the tightly packed space. The renovated Mail Pouch barn that housed my cider shop was historic and beloved. A piece of our local history. A source of our town’s pride and my personal victory beacon. Opening the cider shop had saved Granny’s failing orchard last Christmas. The shop allowed us to sell Granny’s produce and baked goods all year long, not to mention a little light lunch fare and my eight-and-counting flavors of cider. As an added financial bonus, the barn could be rented for events like this one.
Mrs. Sawyer smiled at a group of bridesmaids in shimmery chiffon. They’d broken away from the crowd to take selfies with Elsie. The ladies cheerfully circled the bride, striking poses from serious to silly, genuine smiles on their lips and an array of cowgirl boots peeking out from beneath their gowns.
“She certainly looks happy, doesn’t she?” Mrs. Sawyer asked softly, a prideful curve to her lips.
“Yes, ma’am,” I agreed, though I suspected the question had been rhetorical.
Truthfully, everyone in sight seemed downright blissful. Folks chatted animatedly around tables I’d draped in white linens and centered with wildflowers. Friends rocked with laughter in chairs I’d tied with massive burlap bows. And the sweet scent of cider hung thick in the evening air.
I offered Mrs. Sawyer a bottle of water from the metal washtub of melting ice on the countertop. The day had been long and hot, even for mid-June. The setting sun had provided some relief, but I mentally added an air conditioning unit to my list of potential shop upgrades—once I’d made enough cash to pay for it.
Mrs. Sawyer guzzled her water, then sighed as her daughter twirled across the dance floor.
I smiled at the unfettered joy on Elsie’s face, her chin tipped upward, eyes closed. She was a pinwheel of white satin beneath rough-hewn rafters wrapped in twinkle lights. Thick floral garlands hung in ropes from above, each handcrafted to match the soft pink-and-white color scheme. Combined with the twinkle lights and setting sun, the overall look was ethereal, even in a hundred-year- old barn.
Elsie was several years younger than me, and I didn’t know her personally, but I’d seen her around before she’d left for college. She’d met her husband at West Virginia University and moved to Kentucky following graduation. He didn’t have much family as far as I could see, but Elsie had plenty to spare. The couple ran a wellness shop together in Louisville, where she sold essential oils and he used his botany degree to recommend holistic approaches to healthful living, like eating kale and taking garlic tablets. To each her own, I thought, but I preferred a burger and fries. The shop kept them busy, so Elsie didn’t travel often. Her mother was over the moon to have her home for the weekend, so she’d extended an open invitation to the town last week and had made a mighty effort to see the news spread. All of Blossom Valley was welcome to attend the reception any time after eight. The formalities would be over and folks would have a chance to see Elsie before she climbed aboard the old farm truck I’d decorated as the getaway vehicle, and left again. I wasn’t sure a barn, even one the size of mine, could accommodate the entire town, but there was plenty of space outside and I was thrilled for the added exposure.
I filled and distributed a few more cups of cider, then took a beat to bask in the glory of my blessings and achievements. Six months ago, my granny’s orchard had been deep in the red, but together with a lot of prayers and elbow grease, we’d renovated the barn, opened a cider shop, and turned things around. So far, the results were far better than I’d imagined.
I kept a framed portrait of Granny and Grampy behind the counter. They’d purchased this land with money from their wedding. They’d built a legacy and raised a family here. Then when their teenaged daughter had a baby and ran out, they’d stepped up and raised me too. I’d gotten my dark hair and eyes from Granny, but my go-getter attitude and big mouth were all Grampy. The latter two were the qualities that had made my cider shop possible.
The recent renovation had replaced the original slatted flooring with high-gloss wide-planked pine. The former hayloft had been transformed and repurposed into much needed storage space, a potential expansion area for cider shop seating and a lovely overlook for anyone wanting a bird’s-eye view of the area below. At least that’s what I’d been told. I didn’t make a habit of leaving the ground more often than absolutely necessary.
At a booming round of howdy-dos, Mrs. Sawyer peeled away from the counter with glee. “Marvelous!” she squealed, setting her empty water bottle aside. “Welcome!”
I squinted curiously at the silhouettes moving through the open barn doors and morphing into folks I recognized beneath the warm cider shop lights. Thanks to a decade of waitressing at the Sip N Sup, I knew just about everyone in town by sight, if not by name.
I felt my grin growing as I motioned for my best friend, Dot, to join me behind the service counter. She arrived with an armload of discarded plates and crumbled napkins. She dumped the collection into a former wine barrel turned trash bin, then flicked on the sink to wash her hands. “Look out,” she said. “Business is about to be jumping.” She dried her hands and put her game face on. The billowing material of her scoop-neck satin blouse did little to conceal the athletic figure beneath. Dot was an outdoorswoman by day, a ranger at the national park and animal rescuer on the regular, but tonight she was my fellow barkeep.
I grabbed a fresh stack of cups and righted them on the bar. “Let’s hope all these folks are thirsty.”
Dot pulled jugs of cider from the refrigerator and lined them behind the counter for quick access.
If there was anyone in town who hadn’t visited my new cider shop yet, they were probably on their way now. And nothing was better for business than word of mouth or a good experience. Since everyone loved a wedding, I was counting on tonight to provide both.
I pulled the little countertop chalkboard back into view for the benefit of our new arrivals and waited while they made their way over for a look.
“What’ll it be?” I asked the first man who made eye contact. I recognized him from the local shoe repair shop, but couldn’t recall his name.
“House special, for me,” he said, “and a champagne cider for my wife.”
“Coming right up.” I filled a cup with Honeycrisp and ginger cider for the man. Then I whipped a plastic flute off the counter and dipped it top-down into a shallow dish of caramel sauce. Next I pressed the sticky rim into a bowl of brown sugar and gave it a twist. Hunks of dark crystals clung to the edge as I righted the flute, throwing delectable scents into the air.
He watched with eager eyes as I filled the flute halfway with champagne, then topped it off with cider and a few chunks of chopped green apples. “Outstanding.”
“Thanks.” I wiped my hands into a towel behind the counter and set the empty champagne bottle beside my last full one. I’d need to get more soon.
“What do I owe ya?”
“Not a thing. Tab’s on Mrs. Sawyer tonight,” I said.
He nodded approvingly, then pressed a generous wad of ones into my tip jar before vanishing back into the crowd with his drinks.
Dot and I worked diligently for several more minutes before the newcomers were satiated and I could catch my breath.
“You throw one heck of a wedding,” Dot said, digging her hands into my tip jar and removing a pile of crinkled bills. “Remind me to call you up when it’s my turn.” She arranged and smoothed the money, then worked it into an already bursting envelope tucked beneath the counter. “Folks sure are generous once you get them all liquored up.”
I bumped my hip against hers with a laugh. “No one is liquored up. Aside from the champagne ciders, nothing back here is alcoholic. Just good old-fashioned sugar highs all around.” I hooked a fingertip on a tray of Granny’s mini turnovers and tugged it in Dot’s direction, eyebrows wiggling.
She nabbed a flaky, icing-drizzled treat and nibbled slowly, attention fixed across the room. “What do you suppose the groom’s drinking?”
I turned to catch sight of Jack hoisting a silver flask to his lips. His face was ruddy, and his posture slack. Both seemed accentuated by the bright white of his tuxedo, a sharp contrast to the traditional black attire of his best man, Aaron. Aaron patted his shoulder and leaned in close, hopefully to tell Jack to pull it together.
Jack made a sour face and gave him a shove.
I tensed, searching the crowd for Elsie and hoping she hadn’t seen.
“Uh oh,” Dot said. “Bride’s mad.”
I watched in horror as Elsie carried the weight of her skirt in both hands, heading straight for her groom. Her fair skin was flushed, her eyebrows pinched.
Aaron stepped back as she approached, then cast the groom a grin before retreating onto the dance floor, immediately enveloped by a round of ladies in chiffon.
Dot sucked frosting from her thumb. “He’s cute,” she said. “The best man, not the groom. Jack’s a mess.”
My gaze drifted back to the man in question. Elsie stood on her tiptoes, palms against Jack’s cheeks, successfully blocking my view of his face. I couldn’t tell if they were kissing or talking nose-to- nose, but given his hands cradling her hips, I was confident the tension had been diffused.
I gave the room another long look and felt my shoulders relax. Everyone seemed happy and no one appeared in need of a drink. The bridesmaids had formed a circle around the best man and were clearly showing off for his benefit. Dot was right. He was cute. “How’s it going with Jake?” I asked, turning to watch her instead. Dot had been seeing Jake Wesson, a junior loan officer at the bank, for a few months now, but it never seemed to evolve beyond coffee or a movie. “You haven’t mentioned him in a while.”
She wrinkled her nose and lifted one shoulder. “He’s a nice guy.”
“Something wrong with nice guys?” I asked.
“No. I just don’t think he’s the one for me.”
“Fair enough,” I said, selecting a fat chocolate-dipped strawberry from a platter down the bar. I bit into the heavenly fruit and scanned the crowd for someone who might be the right guy for her.
My attention caught on a far too familiar face and I groaned. My ex-boyfriend, Hank Donovan, leaned casually against the far wall, his forearm resting against the wood above his head, his face buried deep into a bridesmaid’s hair. Whispering in her ear? Kissing her cheek or neck? I instinctively made a thick gagging sound.
Hank had broken my heart in deep and complicated ways not so long ago. Though to hear him tell it, the whole thing had been a misunderstanding. Regardless, he’d spent the last six months trying to make it up to me. I’d been warming to the possibility I might’ve overreacted last year, but seeing him lost in the golden curls of a too-young-for- him bridesmaid had me rethinking things.
Dot slid against my side. “Who is that with your man?”
“Bridesmaid,” I said, unable to recall her name or if I’d even been introduced. “She seems nice, huh?”
Dot barked a laugh. “I’d say. Only a truly charitable individual would allow Hank to eat her hair like that.”
I grabbed a rag and busied myself wiping pastry crumbs and water spots off the heavily lacquered reclaimed-wood countertop. “Hank isn’t my man anymore.”
She nudged me playfully with her elbow. “So where’s your new fella?”
I rolled my eyes, but didn’t bother responding. I knew who she was referring to, and Sheriff Colton Wise wasn’t my fella. He was barely a friend. More like an infinitely frustrating acquaintance who’d shown up last fall when I found a dead body and called for help. He’d gotten under my skin, accusing Granny of murder and me of conspiracy. He’d eventually dropped that nonsense, bought me a chocolate malt, and saved my life, but he still made me crazy. “I’m going to get more champagne. Hold down the fort?”
She nodded and I slipped away. The air grew heady and thick as I passed the crowded dance floor where perfumes and colognes collided with heat from too many moving bodies and an abundance of fresh-cut flowers. I wiped my brow and shimmied as a bead of sweat cruised the valley between my shoulder blades.
A rumble of angry voices registered in a beat of silence between songs, and I craned my neck in search of the source. My jaw dropped as Hank and the groom came into view overhead, posed in the former hayloft, features hard and bodies tensed.
“Hank?” I called. When he didn’t respond, I cupped my hands around the sides of my mouth like parenthesis and tried again. “Hank?”
He pushed a finger at the groom’s face and barked out words I couldn’t understand through the bass of a Luke Bryan song. A moment later Jack gave him a shove. Hank stumbled back against the loft railing, arms flung wide.
“Hank!” I screamed.
A few guests rushed to my side. I raised a hand overhead, pointing and speechless.
Jack took notice of the gathering crowd and stormed away, knocking his shoulder into Hank as he headed for the steps. I moved back as Jack jogged past me, his unbuttoned white tuxedo jacket flapping at his sides. Several people called after him, but he didn’t stop.
Elsie whirled in his wake and gave chase as he exited the barn.
Her bridesmaids followed her, and Hank followed them into the night.
I gaped, motionless and stunned, while the clutch of guests at my side disbanded. They flowed easily back to their tables or the dance floor, seemingly satisfied with the dramatic resolution.
I, on the other hand, wanted to know what on earth had gotten into Hank and why Jack had pushed him.
I grabbed a case of champagne from the walk-in refrigerator and headed back up front to see if Dot had heard anything.
She lifted her eyebrows when I approached. “Did you see the groom, the bride, her bridesmaids, and Hank blow out of here?”
“Yep.” I set the box on the bar. “Any chance someone has had anything to say about it? Like what happened? What started it? Or how Hank is involved?”
I bit my bottom lip, torn. I hated to get involved in something that was clearly none of my business, but I also didn’t want the dispute to end in fisticuffs on Granny’s property. Then the sheriff would hear about it, or worse, come out to deal with it himself, and my cider shop might get a bad reputation for being a rumble spot. “I’m going to find out what happened.”
Dot grinned. “Good luck.”
I hurried outside before the group got too far away or the men started fighting again. The night beyond the bustling barn was quiet. No signs of anyone, just innumerable stars in an inky black sky and the scents of spring flowers on the air.
I tried not to think about the meaning behind Dot’s silly smile. I supposed she thought I was nosy, but I was the hostess. I had an obligation to see that the guests were all right.
I slowed as a familiar truck tore out of the parking lot, tossing loose stones and kicking up tufts of grass in its wake.
I sighed. At least if he was gone, he couldn’t cause another commotion, but I would’ve liked to ask him a few questions. I turned back for the barn, moderately disappointed. Why had he argued with Jack Warren? Had they even known one another before tonight? I pulled my phone from my pocket. I could always give Hank a call to make sure he was okay. If he felt like talking about what had happened, all the better.
A bloodcurdling scream froze me in place and stilled my thumb above the phone’s illuminated face. My heart seized briefly before jolting me into a sprint.
“Help!” a chorus of women cried as I rounded the barn toward the bulbous old farm truck I’d decorated as the bride and groom’s getaway vehicle. Tin cans littered the ground behind the idling truck, each tied to the rear bumper with twine. The words Just Married were scripted across the back window.
A line of bawling bridesmaids stood before the hood. Their faces jerked uniformly in my direction as I skidded to a stop.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, forcing an encouraging smile.
Their gazes swept silently away, turning their collective attention to the ground before them and the idling truck.
I crept forward, drawn by quiet sobs and a fist of apprehension clenching in my stomach.
Elsie was sprawled on the ground in a heap of white satin, her narrow body trembling with every gut-wrenching cry. “Help him! Please! Help him!” Her desperate fingers clawed at a pair of shiny white shoes and matching tuxedo pants just visible beneath the truck’s rusted old bumper.
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