“You want something, AnnieLeez? Easy Baked Chicken Parmesan is the lunch special. Or if you want sweets, maybe Cherry Philly Fudge or Bacardi Rum Cake?”

Receiving a polite, “No thank you, Mama,” from reporter AnnaLise Griggs, Phyllis “Mama” Balesteri shrugged and moved away from the “family booth,” where the younger woman sat engrossed in her cellphone.

Picking up a syrup-sticky menu from the next table, Mama sighed. One day in the life of a restaurant owner was pretty much same as another, most of Phyllis’s spent overseeing Mama Philomena’s, the restaurant her mother–the original “Mama”–passed on to her.

Unfortunately, what Phyllis hadn’t inherited from Philomena was any sort of cooking ability, at least so far as the “homemade family-style Italian specialties” touted in the North Carolina High Country travel guides. In contrast, Phyllis’s idea of spaghetti was Creamette elbow macaroni topped with Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup, one of the many concoctions she’d made herself while her mother was busy at the restaurant making pasta from scratch for the rest of the town.

Little Phyllis Balisteri had never met a convenience food or brand-name recipe she didn’t like, and as an adult she’d incorporated most of them into the restaurant’s menu, much to the relief of the patrons who’d had the misfortune to try her half-hearted attempts at Philomena’s old-world classics.

Despite the dramatic shift in cuisine, “Mama’s” remained the well-advertised–if slightly miscast–anchor of Sutherton’s Main Street. Tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the tiny town’s population swelled to nearly bursting during tourist season–or, to be fair, seasons: Summer, when Southerners fled the heat; autumn, when the foliage change drew crowds of weekend leaf-gawkers; and winter, of course, when skiers took over the mountain.

“You okay, AnnieLeez?” Mama set the syrupy menu next to the cash register and, deciding to forgive the affront to her food, circled back to AnnaLise. After all, the young reporter had a lot on her mind, only recently having returned home to see after her mother Daisy, Mama’s best friend. “Is it your mother you’re worrying about?”

“Daisy?” Startled, AnnaLise looked up, placing her phone–screen down–on a worn copy of Best Recipes from the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars, 1979, Mama’s menu-planning bible. “No, no. She seems fine…at least for now.” An involuntary glance toward the phone.

Mama saw it. “Is somebody bothering you on that thing? Maybe sexting you?”

“Sexting?” AnnaLise seemed genuinely astonished. “Of course not. Where in the world did you hear about–”

“What?” Mama demanded, hands on hips. “You think you’re the only one on the social network? I’m all over it, ‘cepting,” a shadow crossed her face, “‘cepting that Twitter thing, which I’ll freely admit makes no sense to me at all. A hundred-forty letters? Barely puts a person within swinging distance of the point she’s intending to make.”

The obnoxious electronic chime on the plate glass door interrupted and Mama, tossing a look skyward, moved to the cash register for a menu. “How many?”

“Three.” The answer came from above and when Mama turned she had to crane her neck to peer up into the smiling face of a suntanned man with tousled hair.

Handsome, sure, but too politician-like for Mama’s taste. Not that she was one prone to judging. Behind Smiley was a teenage girl and a woman who looked like she tipped her hairdresser more than Mama cleared in a year. And the woman had a High Country travel guide in one well-manicured hand.

Clearing her throat, Mama shifted the menu to her other, decidedly UNmanicured hand–or tried to. Inadvertently she’d picked up the sticky one. “Seems,” she said, peeling it off, “I need to get you some luncheon menus. AnnaLise?” She swiveled toward the family booth. “Would you mind–”

But the reporter was gone.

You can read more about Mama in DEAD ENDS, the second book in the “Main Street” mystery series. The first book in the series is Running on Empty.

Meet the author
Sandra Balzo is an award-winning author of crime fiction, including nine books in two different mystery series–Main Street Murders, set in the High Country, and the Maggy Thorsen Coffeehouse Mysteries. Balzo’s books have garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, while being recommended to readers of Janet Evanovich, Charlaine Harris, Joan Hess and Margaret Maron. A Wisconsin native, Sandy now splits her time between South Florida and the mountains of North Carolina.

Visit Sandra at www.SandraBalzo.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Books are available at retail and online booksellers.

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