Lethal Dose of Love
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by Cindy Davis
Description: What does it take to make a law-abiding, outgoing, philanthropic woman murder her only son? Sean's misdeeds began with the thefts of school kids' lunches and toys, and escalated to womanizing and blackmail. The town's reputation is in jeopardy. His mother puts up with it for twenty-seven years, four months and seventeen days--then she snaps. Claire devises a plan to poison him. Trouble is, she buys the plant, from which she derives the poison, in a good friends' shop. When Payton comes under suspicion for the murder, Claire descends into deep depression. She's committed one murder to protect her town, will she commit another to protect her friend?
eBook Publisher: L&L Dreamspell/L&L Dreamspell, 2011 London, Texas
eBookwise Release Date: March 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [428 KB]
Reading time: 261-366 min.
In Lethal Dose of Love, Cindy Davis wraps a tricky mystery around a quirky yet familiar small town and appealing cast of characters?who know what they want and aren't afraid to go after it. This book is witty, sexy, smart and fun. I found it to be a fast and exhilarating read. - Bill Tapply, author of Hell Bent, a Brady Coyne mystery, and the third in the Stoney Calhoun series, Dark Tiger
What on earth were Sean and Payton doing in the middle of Main Street? Claire stopped the little hatchback two feet from Sean Adams' left elbow. He never flinched, never looked her way. He stabbed an index finger in the air just above Payton Winters' left breast. Payton held her ground.
Good girl. Time someone stood up to him. Claire turned down the CD playing Neil Sedaka's "Bad Blood." She lowered the window and was assaulted by a chilly May wind off the harbor.
Sean's index finger moved up, now poking the space just under Payton's nose. "We had a deal."
Payton didn't back an inch. "There was no deal." She said each word with definition, no backing down there, either.
He took a step and a half forward and leaned in her face. "We had a deal."
"You're crazy, you know that?" She made two sideways steps left, but he grabbed her arm and jerked her back. She shook him off, shooting him a glare rivaling Scarlett's to Rhett.
He was going to hurt her. Claire got out of the car and dashed toward them. Why couldn't he just leave people alone?
Sean spotted Claire. "What do you want, you interfering old biddy?"
Claire positioned herself arm-to-arm with Payton. The united front--or possibly the crowd of onlookers who'd gathered on the sidewalk--forced Sean to slap his mouth shut and stalk across the street and inside his cafe.
Two taps on a horn spun Claire around. She threw the driver a shrug and went to move her car out of the way. What were Sean and Payton fighting about? Yesterday at the yacht club meeting everything was fine. Wasn't it?
Come to think of it, maybe everything hadn't been fine. Sean had asked Payton to be his sailing partner, and she said she was buying a boat and partnering with someone else. Still and all, that shouldn't lead to something like this. He'd been spouting something about a deal. Deals meant money. Claire got out of the car and pocketed her keys. Maybe Payton wanted to talk; when Claire was upset it helped talking to Mamie.
But Payton had disappeared.
On the sidewalk, two men on tall ladders were fastening a covered sign above the long-vacant hardware store. Claire watched the workmen, hoping they'd drop the covering and reveal the newest shop addition to their small-town Main Street. Maybe she could sneak under the ladders and peer through the plate glass window. No, the window was covered with newspaper; sheet upon overlapping sheet of the Watertown Daily Times taped to the glass. Claire wouldn't like the job of scraping off all that stickum. Besides, it was bad luck to walk under a ladder, probably twice as bad to walk under two of them. She resumed her original plan, a trip to the post office. Overhead, bare branches on the row of young crabapple trees rattled in the wind.
Not that the opening of a new store was a big event in Sackets Harbor, New York. Flatlanders did it all the time thinking they'd make a killing with the tourist trade. What they invariably forgot was that tourists only came from Memorial Day to Labor Day. That left seven months to pay rent and utilities with no income, because chances of the locals buying cheap ceramic dragons or chintzy imported vases were slim. Most of the shops folded in two seasons. Through all the openings and closings, the hardware building remained vacant: too large for a gift shop, too unwieldy to be divided into smaller shops, and too expensive to be bought and torn down. Till now. Apparently someone thought they could make it work.
Who? And how could this information have slipped past the Sackets Harbor gossip committee? There were permits to be applied for, leases to be signed, utilities to be connected and advertising to be bought. Surely someone would've heard something.
Claire finished her business at the post office and went outside where the workmen still fought with the heavy-looking sign. Maybe they should have picked a less blustery day. No good. There were few days without some sort of bluster off the harbor. One of the men climbed down two rungs and knocked on the window. Claire didn't try to squelch the gasp of surprise when Payton came out carrying a clipboard and pencil. She stepped off the sidewalk and returned to the middle of the road. Claire glanced at Sean's cafe to see if he was watching out the big, wide window, waiting to race out and rekindle the argument. He wasn't.
Payton tilted her head, giving the sign a critical gaze. After a moment, she nodded approval. The men gripped identical white ties at either end of the sign. Payton nodded. In unison the workmen tugged on the strings and the covering dropped away. With a crack like thunder, the giant nylon sheet snapped into the air. An enormous moth now, it lifted, dipped, lifted again and then landed, taking down a whirlwind of dry oak and maple leaves under it.
The sign was exposed: white background, green vines twining the edges, green and gold lettering. Payton's Place ~ Exotic and Domestic Plants. The gossip pipeline had really missed this one. As a matter of fact, they'd missed the whole boat on Payton Winters' arrival in town. She'd been here four months and so far all anyone knew was that she had once been married and apparently had a bottomless gully of money.
"What's so funny?"
Claire roused herself and blinked the owner of the voice into focus. Payton's face was beautiful and smooth. High cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes. Auburn had to be her natural hair color--it matched her brows. Payton repeated the question. Claire pointed to the workmen and quirked a sheepish grin. "When the cover dropped, I sort of expected them to wave magic wands and say ta-da."
Payton smiled. White, square teeth. Was anything not perfect about this woman? Claire bet she didn't even wake up with bed-head. Payton wore a bewildered expression; had she read Claire's thoughts? People always said her face was an open book. To cover the awkward seconds, Claire said the first thing that came to her mouth, "You're opening a flower shop."
"Exotic plants. Come see."
Payton's hair, pulled through the strap of a Twins baseball cap, swung like a pendulum on her shoulders. She wore blue Levis and a pink hooded sweatshirt topped by a fleece LL Bean vest.
The shop door stood open. Brown leaves lifted in a mini-tornado in the doorway. Payton and Claire pushed through and climbed the pair of cement steps. "I warn you, the place is a mess." The room was a rectangle stretching toward the back. The walls wore a fresh coat of white paint. Beneath the paint smell was a mustiness that would probably take months to erase. Tools and wood everywhere, shelves of every shape and size piled at one side, cardboard boxes stacked against the far wall. Sawdust floated in the air, brilliant twinklers in the afternoon sunshine.
Payton waved at the wall on the side of the building that faced an empty lot. "I'm having a door and a large bay window put in there. Outside will be a patio area with a lattice enclosure and flagstone paths." She took a breath. "Patio furniture and chimneas, lots of hanging plants."
Claire turned in a circle, imagining. "It sounds lovely."
A squeak and whoosh of cold air made them whirl around. Someone stood silhouetted in the doorway. From the shape, which included an apron, it had to be Sean. The twister that spun leaves outside the door became one in Claire's stomach. Damn him.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" He lashed out an arm that encompassed the room and repeated his question.
So, he'd just learned about the shop, too. That meant their discussion in the street was about something else. Claire thought back to what they'd said: "We had a deal." "There was no deal."
Payton's voice was calm. "I'm showing Claire my shop."
"As if you didn't see the sign," Claire couldn't help saying.
"You stay out of this."
"Leave Claire alone. What do you want?"
"You aren't taking up all the street parking with a-a flower shop."
"What's wrong with a flower shop?" Claire was unable to keep from mimicking his tone of voice. When she corrected herself, saying, "exotic plant shop," Payton flashed her a grin.
"There's not enough parking on the street as it is," he continued.
"Calm down, Sean," Payton said. "I have it covered."
Claire stepped forward. "Since when are you complaining about parking? I've never seen you grumbling about the bookstore, or about Mamie's gallery taking up spaces." He didn't reply. As a matter of fact, he didn't even acknowledge her. She forged on, "You can't be worried Payton's plants will take business from your cafe."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"You're the one being ridiculous," Payton said. "What I do is no concern of yours."
"It is so long as you owe me money..."
She owed him money? His words echoed in Claire's head: "We had a deal."
"Get out." Payton marched toward him holding the clipboard like a shield. Claire readied herself in case he balked.
Sean laughed but backed outside anyway. The women watched him cross to the cafe and disappear inside.
"Does he act like that all the time?" Payton asked.
"You mean obnoxious and domineering?"
Claire looked down at her hands, clenched like gnarly wrestlers. She forced the fingers apart, making one hand grip the purse strap and the other drop to her side, feigning nonchalance. "In grade school he conned other kids out of their lunch money and toys. In high school he cheated on tests and fooled around with married women. He--" Claire squeezed her eyes shut. She'd never spoken these images out loud. It left her feeling empty, sick. She opened her eyes at Payton's touch on her arm and changed the subject. "What did he mean about you owing him money?"
Payton's groan resonated in the empty room. "I showed interest in one of the paintings for sale in his restaurant. We dickered on a price but couldn't come to an agreement. Next thing I know, he's calling to ask when I'm picking it up. I reminded him we hadn't agreed on a price. He insisted we had and I'd better come through."
"The price wasn't the real reason I backed out."
Claire recalled yesterday's yacht club meeting. At the time certain comments hadn't seemed odd, but in light of today's developments... "Amanda March, right?"
"Yes. I was late getting to the meeting and didn't catch the whole discussion, but Amanda was clearly upset. I thought it had something to do with that painting of the Commodore she bought from him. After the meeting I cornered her and asked about it, but she wouldn't talk." Payton shook her head, twitching her ponytail forward over her shoulder. "I'm glad I decided to stay away from him."
"I'm not sure you'll be able to."
"Because I'm opening across from his cafe?"
"That yes. But he won't stay away from you."
Payton blew out a sigh. "I thought moving to Sackets Harbor was such a good idea." She dragged two wooden crates and dropped on one. She leaned the clipboard against the side, then gestured for Claire to sit too.
"Why did you choose Sackets Harbor, if you don't mind my asking?"
"It's a long story. I won't bore you with it now."
"It wouldn't bore me." Claire definitely wouldn't be bored. Everyone in town was dying to know why someone as rich and beautiful as Payton moved to an out of the way place like Sackets Harbor, New York. Rumor had it she was hiding from something, or someone. Till a few minutes ago, Claire sort of believed it. But if she were hiding out, why would she open a retail business where anyone might recognize her?
"God, I hate confrontations." Payton tipped her head left and then right, as though working kinks out of her neck. She glanced around the shop. "I'm trying to open a week or so before Memorial Day. Just in time for the tourists' arrival." Payton took off her cap, shook the shoulder-length tresses, then combed absentminded fingers through them.
"Are you really having second thoughts?"
Payton didn't reply.
"Because of Sean?"
More silence. If only Claire knew Payton better, she'd tell her about a plan that, for months--no, years--had been brewing in the back of her mind. Some days the stress of keeping it inside was more than she could stand. "What did you mean when you said you had parking covered?" she asked instead.
"Besides this building, I bought the vacant lot next door. Part of it will be turned into the patio I mentioned, but the rest will be off-street parking--for everyone to use."
"Somehow I don't think that would have made any difference to Sean."
Payton stood, ran a hand through her hair again and put the hat back on, easing the hair through the strap. "I'm not letting him ruin my plans. People who act like bullies are just covering up their own weaknesses. He probably had a bad childhood."
Claire's stomach flip-flopped. "Yes. Yes, that must be it." She pulled up a sleeve and checked her watch. "I, er, just remembered an appointment. Very nice shop. I wish you much good fortune." By the time the last word was out of her mouth, Claire had burst outdoors.
It was all her fault. This whole bloody mess was her fault.