Flirting with Death – Zara Romano Mystery, Book 1

Zara Romano sees dead people. New England’s best mortician, Zara and two of her older brothers own Romano Funeral Home in Salem, Massachusetts. Zara is a mingling of two nationalities, Irish and Italian. She’s Irish on the outside, complete with red hair, blue eyes and freckles, but she’s Italian on the inside, with a temper to match. 

The youngest sibling of seven and the only female, Zara loves her brothers but thinks they’re too bossy. Two of her brothers serve on the Salem Police Force, one is police chief and the other a detective. Zara’s two widowed nanas live next door. She can always rely on a home-cooked meal, unless her nanas are trolling funerals for new boyfriends. 

Another bossy man in her life is Zara’s ex-boyfriend, Marcello Ponti. A sinfully gorgeous police detective, Marcello makes a habit of appearing on her doorstep unannounced even though they broke up two years earlier when he wanted to “date” other women. Zara refuses to be a member of the Marcello Dating Club. Good thing she has her beloved dog Smooches to keep her company. Thankfully, Smooches is with her the night she finds the mayor hanging from a tree at a local park. Definitely a homicide, the mayor’s blood was drained via two puncture wounds on his neck. When she discovers two more bodies in the same condition, Zara’s own investigative instincts kick in, and she searches for the link between the three victims.

Does Salem have a vampire in its midst or a serial killer with a fetish for fang marks? More importantly is Zara marked as the murderer’s next victim or is she merely flirting with death?

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REVIEWS

Five glowing stars for the first of this new series, as the author hits a home run. Her amateur sleuth is not only unique in her profession, but she’s witty, bossy, and delightfully sassy. She’s surrounded by characters just as colorful. The nanas, when they aren’t crashing funerals looking for men, always show up in ridiculous, coordinated tee shirts. The ex-boyfriend, although Zara’s sworn off the playboy, won’t give up—and he’s pretty hard to resist. Not just a cozy mystery, this series promises to be as hilarious as it is intriguing. It will be hard to wait for the next installment of the Zara Romano Mystery Series. — Claire Gem, Goodreads

Chapter 1

My biggest fear is dying a formaldehyde-scented spinster.

Attracting men isn’t my problem.

My name is Zara Romano, New England’s best mortician. That’s what New England Magazine called me in their annual Best of New England edition.

I’m partners in Romano Funeral Home with two of my six older brothers, Leonardo and Salvatore, nicknamed Lenny and Squiggy. My brothers embalm the men and supervise wakes and funerals as well as order supplies and do the accounts.

I embalm women and children but almost never attend wakes and funerals. Crying is contagious, and all those mourners make me weepy. That’s the reason I passed on medical school

I provide a necessary service. The deceased wants to look her best for her loved ones. If my client looks peaceful, the family feels better.

A talented mortician is like a talented day-spa beautician. Prepare the body, fix the hair, apply cosmetics. The funeral home is your final day-spa visit

“I can’t return you to life,” I told my client, lying on the metal table, “but I will restore your beauty. No one leaves my salon until she looks fabulous.”

A drunk driver killed Anna Kaminsky, Salem High’s homecoming queen, as she and her friends crossed Boston Street the night before last. The former beauty had lost her head. Literally.

You can imagine the Herculean task I faced. Anna was in good hands, though, because I excel at facial restoration. I needed to erase the traumatic sight her mother had identified at the morgue.

The door swung open. “Zara?”

Isabella Jacques, my friend since preschool, stood there. Sitting beside Bella was Smooches, my two hundred pounds of love

I always wanted to look like Bella. A lithe, blue-eyed brunette.

Unlike my brothers who resemble my Italian father, I inherited my mother’s Irish looks. petite, curly red hair, tiny freckles sprinkled across the bridge of my nose. Did you ever hear the old Kim Carnes song about someone with Bette Davis eyes? Well, I’ve got Rene Zellweger boobs. Almost nonexistent.

I drew the sheet over Anna. Before leaving, I flicked the switch on the overhead. The shrouded corpse gave the room an eerie, slightly menacing atmosphere. Dead people don’t frighten me, though. Only the living can hurt you.

“Nettie’s meeting us at the restaurant,” Bella said. “Was that the Kaminsky girl? I suppose the wake will be closed casket.”

“I’ll do my best for her,” I answered, “but I’m a mortician, not a magician.”

Romano Funeral Home is divided into a main building and a smaller annex with a corridor connecting the two. The main building houses the office and viewing rooms, and we embalm our non-breathing clients in the annex.

Bella and I headed toward the main building. Smooches walked between us.

The office was small but every space was used efficiently. Two desks with black leather chairs faced each other. A Dell computer sat on one. On the wall shelf within reach of both desks sat a Bose. A box of Twinkies and an hourglass topped the file cabinet in the corner.

Squiggy, my favorite brother, relaxed in one of the chairs. With his feet propped on the desk, he looked like a gentleman of leisure or the swash-buckling hero of a romance novel.

I exchanged my Crocs for black Dansko clogs and lost the lab coat. Beneath it, I wore jeans and a white tee. No dress code was one of my job’s perks. Dead people didn’t care what I was wearing.

“Mrs. Kaminsky can’t afford a funeral,” I said, reaching for my black blazer. “I’ll pay the bill if Lenny doesn’t want to do this for nothing.”

“Lenny agreed the funeral is a charitable donation.”

“Can you dogsit while I’m gone?”

“No, I’m going to the dentist,” Squiggy answered. “Leave Smooches here.”

“I’m not leaving him alone.” I crouched in front of Smooches. “Do you want to eat?”

Smooches raised his paw. He was much too big to sit on his haunches and beg like a poodle.

“Restaurants don’t allow companion dogs,” Bella reminded me.

“They do allow service dogs.” I looked at my brother. “We’re going to Cousin Aldo’s place.”

Squiggy rolled his eyes. “Cousin Aldo needs to obey the law which prohibits dogs.”

“Cousin Aldo said Smooches could come anytime if I pretended he was a service dog,” I told him. “When I did his mother-in-law last year, his wife was so happy with the courtesy discount she let him back in her bed.”

I grabbed a service dog’s harness and leash from the file cabinet’s bottom drawer. After hooking Smooches up, I donned my dark glasses and slung my bag over my shoulder. “I’ll hold your arm for effect,” I said to Bella.

“Don’t get us tossed out in front of a crowd.”

The autumn afternoon was vintage New England. The crisp morning had heated into a comfortable afternoon. A gentle, salty breeze blew off the harbor, making me yearn for summer.

“Look across the street,” I said, looping my arm through Bella’s. “Mayor Saltonstall and Judge Lewis look intense.”

 

“Watch your back,” Judge Lewis shouted at his friend.

“I’m shaking with fright,” Mayor Saltonstall mocked the judge. “You’re gonna give me nightmares.”

“I won’t forget your betrayal,” Judge Lewis said. “I’ll dance a jig across your grave.”

 

“I’d love to know what the betrayal is,” I whispered, as the light changed.

“Speaking of betrayals, I saw David Blair with a blonde last night,” Bella said, leading me across the street. “Should we tell Nettie?”

“She won’t thank you for telling her. I guarantee David had a dinner interview.”

“You don’t think he’s having an affair?”

“Who would want David Blair?” I said. “He’s lucky he found Nettie.”

Pickering Wharf was ground zero for tourists. At lunchtime, natives mingled with the out-of-towners, making Wharf Street an obstacle course of people. We wended our way through the crowd.

The Restaurant was more crowded than Wharf Street. Fortunately, Nettie Blair sat at a table for four. She waved to catch our attention..

Nettie Blair had the most intriguing dimples, both cheeks and her chin. She loved her husband madly, which I could not understand. David Blair had nothing to recommend him. An aspiring novelist, David worked for the Salem News and lived off his wife’s nursing salary.

Personally, I could never relate to that situation. I believe what’s mine is mine unless I say otherwise, and what’s yours is mine unless I say otherwise. What else would you expect from the youngest and only girl of seven siblings? I was wearing a tiara before I could walk.

Bella guided me down the aisle between the tables. She helped me into my chair, and Smooches sat on the floor beside the window.

I saw him then. An Incredible Hunk, wearing an expensive suit, sat diagonally across from our table. His companion, another well-dressed gentleman, sat with his back to us.

Thankfully, my dark glasses hid the fact I was looking at him. He was watching me, probably pitying my disability.

“I saw the mayor and his friend arguing,” Nettie told us.

“So did we,” Bella said.

I nodded. “They were shouting about betrayal and dancing across graves.”

“I’d love to know what happened,” Nettie said. “I can’t take an hour lunch because

“Can’t you get those at work?” Bella asked.

“Hospital pharmacies are more expensive.”

“How’s the nightshift?” I asked her.

“I love the quiet with no visitors roaming the halls,” Nettie answered. “David uses that time to write.”

The waiter appeared beside our table. “Good afternoon, ladies. Today’s specials are—”

“We know what we want,” Bella interrupted him. “I’ll have a bowl of lobster bisque and an ice tea.”

“I want a bowl of clam chowder and a large coke,” Nettie ordered.

Bella spoke when the waiter looked at me. “Tell the waiter what you want, Zara.”

I heard the smile in her voice. “I’ll take the chicken Caesar salad and a glass of water. Serve the chicken on the side, please.”

“I thought you were a vegetarian,” Nettie said, after the waiter had gone.

“Smooches likes chicken.”

The Hunk was looking at me again. I was beginning to feel conspicuous. Didn’t he know that staring at a blind person was rude?

“Not if you’re a diabetic,” Bella said.

The waiter delivered our orders and, setting the salad down, winked at me. I speared a piece of chicken and lowered the forkSmooches gentky took the chicken off my fork with his mouth and gobbled it up. so Smooches could gobble up his treat and, then I started my salad. mine.

“If I had your millions,” Nettie was saying to Bella, “I’d eat lobster every day, not bisque.”

Bella’s grandfather had taught her to play the stock market. She’d made tons of money which paid her tuition to Harvard Business School. Now Bella owns most of Salem.

“I think David is having an affair,” Nettie whispered.

I choked on the romaine. Bella sent me her I-told-you-so look.

“Sometimes when I call the house at night,” Nettie told us, “David doesn’t answer.”

“That proves nothing,” I said. “I’m certain there’s a plausible reason for not answering.”

Bella nodded. “You should ask him.”

“I’m afraid of his answer,” Nettie said.

Feeling a paw on my leg, I speared another piece of chicken and lowered the fork.

“Are you using your fork to feed Smooches?” Nettie asked.

I heard the parent in her tone and didn’t like it. “Yes, I am.”

“Do you know where his mouth has been?”

“My dog’s mouth has been fewer places than yours.”

Bella burst into laughter as did Nettie. I glanced at the Hunk and caught him looking at us, a smile flirting with his lips.

“Zara’s doing the Kaminsky girl,” Bella said, changing the subject.

“I heard she was decapitated,” Nettie whispered.

“You heard correctly.” From behind the protection of my dark glasses, I glanced at the Hunk. His gaze was fixed on me so I ignored the paw on my leg. “I’m working on the poor girl now.”

“MADD has been supporting Mrs. Kaminsky,” Nettie said.

“She needs the emotional support,” I said. “Her husband suffered a fatal heart attack last year.”

“I guarantee trouble when the drunk is arraigned,” Bella said.

“Mothers Against Drunk Drivers will probably picket outside the courthouse,” I said. “Negative news in October means fewer tourists.”

“Salem doesn’t need dwindling tourism,” Nettie said. “We need a werewolf to add excitement to Halloween. That would draw more tourists.”

“Werewolves only roam during the full moon.” I offered Smooches more chicken. “Salem needs a vampire who rises from his coffin every night.”

“That would do the trick.”

“We should start a rumor,” Bella said. She glanced up and added,  “Marcello and you brother Tony just walked in. Too bad, there aren’t any tables.”

I didn’t bother to look over my shoulder. After all, I was supposed to be blind. “If they’re wearing suits, they testified in court this morning.”

“Marcello is drooling material,” Nettie said. “Why did he dump you?”

“We dumped each other,” I replied, wishing she wasn’t so blunt. “We decided to date other people.”

I sipped my water and peeked across the aisle. The Hunk was watching me again.

“Who is he dating?” Nettie asked.

I wanted to drop the subject. Marcello Ponti was not my favorite topic. Thinking about him would give me indigestion.

“Do you know who he’s going out with?” Nettie persisted.

“Marcello dates big-breasted, breathing blondes,” I answerede.

“Like who?”

“Names don’t matter,” I answered, my patience wearing thin. “The important words are big-breasted, breathing and blonde.”

“Who have you dated recently?”

Nettie was a dog with a ham bone. Didn’t she realize persisting with this subject could be dangerous, not to mention hurtful? I used my inner strength to refrain from grabbing her and giving her a good shake.

“My profession doesn’t attract normal men who ask for dates,” I told her.

“Do something else with your life,” Nettie said, “or you could die an old maid.”

“I love my profession.”

“Change your appearance,” Nettie said. “Men wouldn’t care about your profession if you were a big-breasted, breathing blonde.”

Bella laughed and then looked at me. “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed,” I told Nettie, “I’m a flat-chested redhead.”

“Bleach your hair,” she said, “and buy yourself a padded, push-up bra.”

Ignoring Bella’s snort of laughter, I told–t Nettie. “Or, I could buy a blond wig and a couple of cantaloupes.”

Bella and Nettie laughed. I chuckled, my good humor restored.

Smooches pawed my leg again. I glanced at the Hunk. He wasn’t looking at me. I speared a chunk of chicken and lowered the fork.

Coughing and gasping erupted across the aisle. The Hunk was choking, distress reddening his face. I whipped my glasses off and rushed to his aid. “Get up,” I ordered, yanking at him.

Standing behind him, I wrapped my arms around his body to give him the Heimlich maneuver. I made a fist and grabbed it with my other hand, delivering five upward squeeze thrusts. He was still choking. I repeated the maneuver, five more upward squeeze thrusts.

“Call 911.” And then I realized Bella and Nettie were laughing. I peered around his body and glanced up at him “You’re not choking?”

“I was laughing at your feeding the dog.” He laughed, still catching his breath. “You’re not blind?”

I shook my head. My face felt hotter than my last sunburn.

“Thank you for saving my life.” Even more gorgeous up close, the Hunk stood over six feet. His bone structure was pleasingly masculine, his eyes hazel. He reached into his pocket and handed me his business card. Alexander Putnam-Lodge. Attorney at Law.

I knew one thing for sure. Gentlemen with expensive suits and hyphenated last names had blue blood running through their veins.

“If you ever need an attorney,” he was saying.

I reached into my blazer pocket and passed him my business card. “If you ever need embalming.”

Smiling at that, Alexander looked at my ringless left hand and lifted his gaze to mine. “I’d like to know the reason a beautiful, young woman became a mortician. Can I call you sometime?”

Beautiful, young woman? Call me? I needed to buy a lottery ticket.

“I’d like that.” Returning to my table, I pocketed my dark glasses and reached for my dog’s leash. Smooches whined so I paused to feed him the last piece of chicken. Then I guided him toward the restaurant’s foyer where my brother and his partner were standing.

The Lord had blessed Marcello Ponti with Italian good looks that sent women diving into his bed. He’d been my brother Tony’s best friend forever. I had loved him since childhood, but that was finished. I’d taken the cure a couple of years ago.

“I love the floor show,” Marcello said with a lift of his brow. “Is there a second act?”

“Has the Heimlich maneuver replaced the swooning-at-his-feet move?” Tony asked.

I ignored their teasing. Responding would only make them tease more. “Shouldn’t you report to the station?”

“We’re getting it to go, Brat.”

“Are you going to look at me?” When I ignored him, Marcello said, “Gimme a break, Zara. I’ve apologized a hundred times.”

I glanced at him. “I heard you the first time.”

Marcello placed his hand over his heart. “You wound me.”

I gave him my sweetest smile. “Fatally, I hope.”

With Smooches in tow, I followed Nettie out of the restaurant. Bella joined us outside after paying the bill. Business expense, of course.

“The mayor is having a bad day,” Nettie said, gesturing down Wharf Street. “Now he’s arguing with Regina Bones.”

I liked Regina Bones. A British import, Regina had long black hair and stood no higher than I. We could stare into each other’s eyes without needing to crane our necks.

 

“If you do that,” Regina was saying, wagging a finger at the mayor. “I cannot guarantee your safety.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Consider this a friendly warning.”

 

“What’s the problem?” I asked, reaching them.

“The mayor wants to cut next year’s Haunted Happenings from the whole month to two weeks,” Regina said.

“Two weeks?” Nettie said.

“Henry, you can’t do that,” Bella said. “The Chamber of Commerce won’t approve.”

“The tourists will be disappointed,” I told him, “and businesses will lose income. You’ll never get re-elected.”

Mayor Saltonstall shook his head, the specter of a lost election silencing him. “I wish the witches would get on their brooms and fly away. Permanently.” And then he stalked away, muttering to himself.

Nettie left to get her husband’s insulin and syringes at the pharmacy. Bella headed to her office.

I stayed to chat with Regina, postponing what was waiting for me at the funeral home. “I doubt Henry was serious about Haunted Happenings,” I said. “He and Nathaniel Lewis were arguing this morning. That put him in a bad mood.”

“You’re restoring Anna Kaminsky,” Regina said

“How do you know I’m working on her?”

She gave me an ambiguous smile. “I know because I know.”

“Anna isn’t a pretty sight,” I said. “I’ve never had a client so difficult to restore.”

“You will do the girl proud,” Regina said, touching my arm. “Your generosity in paying for the funeral will earn you a place in heaven.”

“Does that mean I can sin with impunity?”

“I wouldn’t risk it if I were you,” Regina answered, and strolled back to her shop.

Smooches lifted his leg at every tree on the walk to the funeral home. I welcomed the delay. Anna Kaminsky was waiting for me.

When I entered the office, Squiggy was sitting at the computer. Lenny was nowhere in sight.

“I ran Anna’s facial dimensions through the computer.” Squiggy passed me a photo and the graphic chart. “I stocked the room with extra molding, wax, and feature fixer.”

I ditched my black blazer, shrugged into my lab coat, and slipped into my Crocs. Leaving the office, I walked down the corridor like a woman going to the gallows.

Anna Kaminsky awaited my magic. I would finish the restoration that afternoon. After dressing her in the morning, I would use all my powers to make her even more presentable, but today’s restoration would be the key to my success.

I glanced at the shrouded body on the table. Embalming her had been relatively easy once I’d stitched her neck and sealed it with BIOGlue adhesive. Restoring her features would be more difficult.

Anna Kaminsky could make or break my reputation. I was determined to make her look decent. Looking good might be difficult, even for a considerable talent like mine.

Terminal illnesses and heart attacks didn’t bother me, but I hated suicides and accidents. Children were the absolute worst, no matter the cause of death.

“I’m ready if you are,” I said, and then went to work.

After dropping my voice-activated recorder into my pocket, I placed the photo and the graphic chart on either side of her head and studied her face. Then I measured facial distances: nose to ears, eyes to forehead, nose to lips, mouth to chin.

Instead of writing the measurements, I spoke into my mini-recorder. The handy gadget was the size of a paperclip, and I could hide it anywhere. Since I’m no snoop, I use the recorder for facial reconstructions only.

I heard a knock on the door and called, “Go away.”

Hearing the door open, I turned around. Marcello Ponti stood there, and Smooches sat beside him.

“I said go away.”

“I thought you said enter.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” I said, crossing the room.

Marcello folded his arms across his chest. “What’s the problem?”

“The problem is you,” I said. “I’m working, and my client has a right to privacy.”

“I’m a cop.”

“I don’t care if you’re the President,” I said. “You need her mother’s written permission or a court order.”

Marcello smiled. “Call 911.”

“Back out of this room,” I ordered, “or I’ll get my gun.”

Marcello stepped back across the threshold, but his gaze scanned the room. “Where is it?”

Damn. I’d left my .22 caliber Smith and Wesson in the office.

“My gun is in my purse inside the office cabinet,” I said, “but if you wait a moment, I’ll get it to threaten you.”

“Massachusetts law prohibits carrying a concealed weapon in a purse.” Marcello gave me a wicked grin. “I may need to cuff you.”

“If you’re going to arrest me, you’ll need to wait until I finish Anna Kaminsky.”

“I said cuff you, not arrest you.” Marcello glanced in the direction of the table. “John Putnam is the man who killed her, and Alexander Lodge, the man you saved in the restaurant, is representing him.”

I gave him a blank look. “And your point is?”

“Lodge seemed attracted to you.”

“Many men are attracted to me,” I told him with a shoulder shrug. “Is that so hard to believe?”

“I’d say those men have excellent taste,” Marcello said. “Do you want to drive to Topsfield this weekend and eat deep-fried Twinkies?”

The devil had the power to assume a pleasing shape. He stood in front of me now, tempting my Twinkie addiction.

I needed willpower around Marcello Ponti. We shared a history I didn’t want to repeat. Two years earlier, I had dated him for several months. One night he plied me with deep-fried Twinkies and seduced the virginity out of me.

A few months later, Marcello thought we should date other people. He wasn’t ready to marry and shouldn’t mess around with his friend’s baby sister.

Refusing to become one of a group, I told him to get lost. He didn’t want to date me exclusively then, and I didn’t want to date him at all now.

Marcello gave me his winning smile. “What do you say?”

I had waited two years for this moment and intended to savor all sixty seconds. I placed my index finger across my lips as if considering his invitation.

“Zara.” His tone told me he disliked waiting.

“That would upset the blonde you’ve been dating.”

“We aren’t exclusive.”

“Does Blondie know?” I closed the door in his face.

 

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