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Spoonful of Murder: Chapter 1 Exclusive

Even after three years, it never got any easier to hear my alarm go off at four o’clock in the morning. A chill seeped through the small hole at my feet where Pepper, my schnauzer, stuck his nose out from underneath the covers.

“Can’t you go in late?” My bedmate, Patrick, rolled over and tugged me into his arms. He snuggled his nose in my neck. “It’s cold and snowy.”

When Patrick broke the silence of the night, Pepper and Sassy jumped off the bed.

“That’s the best time to be open.” I gave him a quick kiss before I rolled to the edge of the bed, where I slipped my feet into my cozy slippers. “I’ll stoke the fire.”

Patrick was already snoring before I could slip my thick robe on over my pajamas and leave our bedroom in our small cabin.

“Okay. Okay.” At the door, the tippy-tap of Sassy and Pepper’s toenails clicked on the old hardwood floors.

I flipped on the light in the family room to greet the black standard poodle and grey schnauzer, Patrick’s children and mine.

They bolted out the door and bounced off the porch into the deep snow. I shook my head and went to get a towel out of the laundry room so I could brush off their paws when they came back in.

They were taking their sweet time, giving me the opportunity to stoke the embers and put some more logs in the woodburning stove. The cabin was small, and the wood burner was the perfect solution to keep the chill out and heat the house quickly. We rarely had to use the gas heat.

“I’m coming.”

The dogs scratched at the door.

“Are y’all hungry?”

Both of them were so well trained, they knew to stop on the towel I’d laid in front of the door so I could brush the snow off their furry feet and keep it from balling up.

The inside of the cabin was one big room with a combination kitchen and dining room. The bathroom and laundry room were located in the back, on the far right. A set of stairs led up to one big room we considered our bedroom.

“Good night, Sass.” I called for her before she darted back up the stairs to go back to bed with her dad. “Just me and you.”

Pepper stayed at my heels as we headed into the kitchen area, where I grabbed a quick scoop of Pepper’s kibble to hold him over while I got ready for work. He would get his real breakfast there.

It was our routine, except for Sundays. Like Pepper, the Bean Hive Coffeehouse was my baby, and it was open six days a week. On Sunday after church, I spent most of the afternoon at the Bean Hive, making treats like muffins, casseroles, quiche, cookies, and really anything that I wanted to serve with the coffee.

Plus I’d been really working hard on creating my own coffee with my new roastery equipment. Creating some new Christmas blends had been a lot of fun, and I was excited to serve those this morning. The snow was going to bring in a lot of customers.

Some people might think the opposite, but residents of Honey Springs, Kentucky, loved to get together and gossip—um… talk over coffee.

Let’s be clear. When someone consumed something as delicious as coffee, it warmed the body, invigorated the mind, and made one feel good. The Bean Hive created a fun atmosphere for locals to come together and enjoy a cup of coffee while catching up on the day’s news, and even the tourists had found their spot there too.

They came in after a day of shopping at the boardwalk’s local small businesses next to the coffeehouse to take a load off their feet and enjoy a delicious cup of coffee with a sweet treat. They also took advantage of looking at my corkboard, where the month’s local activities were posted.

The board was filled with fun things for the Christmas season. I was looking forward to two events—the Christmas Pawrade, featuring a parade downtown for fur babies, and the Holiday Progressive Dinner, which was a fundraiser for Pet Palace, our local SPCA.

The progressive dinner was new this year, and I was excited about it. Anything I could do for the local animals, I was all over it.

“Slow down,” I called to Pepper. He was scarfing down the kibble like it was his last meal. “I’ll be back.”

I talked to my four-legged companion like he understood me. Most times, I felt like he did.

If I stopped to listen, I could hear Patrick’s light snoring. I smiled and flipped on the light in the laundry room, where I kept my uniform for work.

It would inevitably get coffee sloshed on it or food where I’d haphazardly swipe my hands down me, missing the apron I also wore. But it was nice to have a few long-sleeved shirts with the Bean Hive logo on them so I didn’t have to think too hard about what to wear.

“You ready?”

Pepper was curled up on his bed in front of the potbelly but perked right up when he heard me get my keys off the hook that hung next to the door.

I took one good look around the cabin before I left, checking that everything was in order and nothing could set the cabin on fire, like the woodburning stove.

A fire had happened here once. Luckily, I wasn’t home, but with my world—Patrick and Sassy—inside, double checking had become part of my morning routine, since they did sleep in a little longer.

“Let’s get your sweater on.”

Pepper loved his little winter wear. The drive to the boardwalk wasn’t too far from here, but the car would be cold, and I just couldn’t bear seeing him shiver.

Based on the way he stood there waiting patiently, wagging his tail, he, too, was excited to be warm and toasty.

“There you go.” The smile was stuck on my face at the sheer sight of my sweet fur baby. He’d been such a joy and companion.

The moon hung high in the sky, shining the perfect spotlight to our car. It had snowed about two feet over the past couple of days, which I loved. The snow fell at a nice steady pace that allowed just enough snow to cover the grass, trees, and tops of buildings while letting the snowplows keep the streets from getting covered and icy.

This was exactly what Honey Springs needed.

A white Christmas.

“How about some festive tunes?” I asked Pepper, who was already nestled in the passenger seat with his doggy seatbelt clipped. He sat there like a human child, staring out the window.

I flipped the radio on to our local station, which played twenty-four-seven Christmas music this time of year. Just hearing Bing sing “Rudolph” had my fingers drumming and toes tapping, creating a joy that was truly so intense  that I knew it was going to be a really great day.

Even though I’d taken the curvy road from the cabin along the banks of Lake Honey Springs, I got through hearing only “Rudolph” and the hippopotamus song, the one in which the kid asked for a hippo for Christmas, before we pulled into the parking lot for the boardwalk.

Lake Honey Springs was really what brought tourists to Honey Springs. People loved to boat, fish, and rent cabins along the area, which made for great business on the boardwalk. That was where the Bean Hive Coffeehouse was located.

My dream job of owning a coffee shop came to life after I’d gotten a divorce from my college sweetheart, who turned out to be a sweetheart to many, and returned to where I’d known comfort and solace as a child.

Right into the arms of my aunt, Maxine Bloom, known around here as Maxi. Honey Springs was also where I’d gotten to visit with Patrick Cane, now my husband, when we were kids. Let’s just say that we had feelings for each other from the first day I laid eyes on the scrawny kid.

Fast forward to now. We were happily married, I rented the Bean Hive Coffeehouse space from Aunt Maxi, and my ex, Kirk, was out of our life until recently.

Let’s just say he was a new citizen of Honey Springs, and discussing him would require me to indulge in a lot of coffee. I’d yet to have my normal servings.

“Okay. What do you say we get our day started?” I unclipped my seat belt and then Pepper’s, grabbed my bag from the back seat, and opened the door.

Pepper delighted so much in the snow. I stood on the bottom step of the stairs that led up to the boardwalk and watched him shove his nose into the snow and come up with a snowball mustache.

“Come on,” I called out to him and headed up the steps.

The carriage lights along the boardwalk had twinkling lights roped around the base. The dowel rods had a light-up wreath hanging down. Even the railing of the boardwalk was covered in garland and red bows every few feet.

The Beautification Committee had really gone out of their way to make the boardwalk a new tourist destination for holiday travelers. The annual Christmas Pawrade had become super popular. In this fun little Christmas event, locals dressed up their animals, and we marched around the downtown park.

Since we started it, Christmas in Honey Springs had grown bigger and bigger. The townspeople had added a tree-lighting ceremony, Santa, and vendor booths, just to name a few.

This year, a progressive dinner was added to the list, only it was a little different than the  typical progressive dinner held at people’s homes. Not only was this progressive dinner meant to raise money, but it was a cool way for local businesses to showcase their shops. During the winter months, the lack of tourism made lean times for small businesses like mine and the other shops on the boardwalk.

Of course I was hosting the after-dinner coffee and desserts in my shop’s honor. Aunt Maxi had been the one to really get the dinner together.

The first stop would be for cocktails down at the Watershed Restaurant, located on the lake. The appetizers were taking place at All About the Details, the shop next door to mine. The dinner portion would be hosted at Wild and Whimsy Antiques, though the food was coming from the In and Out Diner. After that, it would be my turn to provide everyone with the best coffee in Kentucky. Or at least in Honey Springs.

Today my agenda was to make as many of the desserts as possible so we only had to pull them out of the refrigerator, flip on the industrial coffee pots, and enjoy the winding down of the evening’s festivities.

It didn’t take long for Pepper to catch up to me and dart right on past. He knew exactly where to go and wait for me.

“You’re so good.” I got the coffeeshop keys out of my bag and unlocked the door.

I ran my hand up along the inside wall and felt for the light switch. The inside came to life.

A few café tables dotted the café’s interior, as did two long window tables that had stools butted up to them on each side of the front door. The front of the café was a perfect spot to sit, enjoy the beautiful Lake Honey Springs, and sip on your favorite beverage.

Today would be especially gorgeous, thanks to the view of all the fresh snow lying on top of the frozen lake. This was my favorite spot in the coffeehouse, but today I was sure my spot would be glued behind the counter, making all the warm drinks for customers.

On my way back to the kitchen to get the ovens started, I knew Pepper would be ready for something to eat. Since he wasn’t allowed to go into the food prep area because of health department regulations, I got a scoop of his kibble and tossed it into his bowl. He could get his belly full, lie down in his doggy bed, and take a nap while I got the coffeehouse ready for the day.

There were so many things to do. Flipping on all the industrial coffee makers was the priority. I walked behind the L-shaped counter and flipped the coffee makers on one by one before I finally walked through the swinging kitchen doors.

I loved the kitchen so much. The big workstation in the middle was perfect! I could mix, stir, add, cut, or do whatever I needed to do to get all the food made. The kitchen had a huge walk-in freezer, a big refrigerator, several shelving units that held all the dry ingredients, and a big pantry I used to store many of the bags of coffee beans I’d ordered from all over the world.

Now that I had my own roastery attached to the kitchen, I made a point of adding roasting fresh beans to my Sunday ritual.

“Yoooo-hoooo!” I heard my one and only employee call from the coffeehouse just as I turned on the ovens.

Soon the door swung open, and there stood Bunny Bowowski. Her little brown coat had great big buttons up the front, and her pillbox hat matched it perfectly. Her brown pocketbook hung from the crease of her arm and swung back and forth.

“You’re here early.” I was delighted to see her. Bunny was a regular at the coffeehouse when I first opened. Since she’d long been retired, she decided to help me out, which was how she became an employee.

“Floyd said he’d bring me, since he is heading out of town to visit some family this morning.” She pulled the bobby pins from her short grey hair and took off the hat. With her mouth, she pulled the pins apart and slipped them on the lacy part of her hat.

“You didn’t want to go?” I asked.

“Heavens no.” She peeled off her coat and folded it over her arm. “If I did that, Floyd would think I wanted more than companionship. At my age, there’s no way I want to take care of a man in the”—her head wobbled from side to side as she came up with a number—“ten years.”

“You’re going to be alive longer than ten years.” I laughed and slipped the muffin tin in the oven. “I’d never figure you to be in your seventies. Ever.”

“I attribute that to lots of coffee that keeps me active.” She wiggled her brows. “I’ll go get the rest of the duties done. I bet we’re busy today. Everyone is looking forward to the progressive dinner tonight.”

She left me alone in the kitchen. With Bunny being early, it would be a good time for me to get the coffee and treats down to the Cocoon Inn.

Every day, Camey Montgomery, owner of the inn, served Bean Hive Coffeehouse coffee and a breakfast-type item in the Inn’s hospitality room. Sometimes if I was running a little behind on getting them to her, she’d send up her husband, Walker Peavler.

Not today. I hurried over to the workstation and grabbed three industrial coffee pots with the cantilever push arm from the shelf underneath.

“How do you think Maxine is going to take the news that All About the Details won’t be able to host the appetizers?” Bunny’s question caught me off guard.

“What?” I asked and stopped to see her face. “Why isn’t Babette doing the appetizers?”

Babette Cliff was the owner of All About the Details. Her store was really an events venue with spectacular views of Lake Honey Springs and the little island across it.

“Fell on ice.” Bunny tsked. “I told her just the other day how she needed to invest in some good snow boots to walk from the parking lot because she was going to fall in those heels.” Bunny tapped her temple. “I should be reading people’s fortunes. The very next day, she slipped on some black ice, and down she went.”

Bunny clapped her hands together then slid them apart like one hand was the pavement and the other was Babette slipping on it.

“Broke an ankle.” Bunny shook her head and headed behind the bar, where a few of the industrial pots had beeped.

I grabbed a couple of the carafes, set them aside, and replaced them with the ones for the hospitality room at the hotel.

“I think she’s going to have a meltdown.” Bunny gave a sly smile like she was going to love seeing Aunt Maxi in a little pickle. She walked over, got one carafe from the counter at a time, and took them over to the coffee bar.

“Who?” I asked, not sure if she was talking about Babette.

“Maxine Bloom.” Bunny’s smile told me she would personally love to see Aunt Maxi squirm, since they weren’t the best of friends. She made her way to the end of the counter to the coffee bar.

On each side of the counter was a drink stand. One was a coffee bar with six industrial thermoses containing different blends of my specialty coffees as well as one filled with a decaffeinated blend, even though I never clearly understood the concept of decaffeinated coffee. When I first opened, Aunt Maxi made sure I understood some people drank only the unleaded stuff.

The coffee bar had everything you needed to take a coffee with you, even an honor system that let you pay and go. Honestly, I never truly took the time to see if the honor system worked. In my head and heart, I liked to believe everyone was kind and honest.

“I guess I could do the appetizers then come back for coffee.” It was a mere suggestion. The last thing I wanted to do was come up with appetizers today and make sure the coffee beans I’d roasted for the special occasion were perfect.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bunny tidying up everything as she went along.

During her shift, she took pride in making sure everything looked nice and presentable. This is just like your home. You need to keep it tidy and clean, she’d told me one time. I’ve never forgotten those words either.

While Bunny did the straightening and I waited for the coffee to brew for the hotel, I decided to change out the menus.

Instead of investing in a fancy menu or even menu boards that attached to the wall, I’d bought four large chalkboards that hung down from the ceiling over the L-shaped glass countertop.

The first chalkboard menu hung over the pie counter and listed the pies and cookies and their prices. The second menu hung over the tortes and quiches. The third menu, over where the L-shaped counter bent, listed the breakfast casseroles and drinks. Above the other counter, the chalkboard listed lunch options, including soups, as well as catering information.

“I better get rid of these soups if I’m going to make some mini-soup bowls for appetizers. It’ll be a good night for them.” I swiped the eraser across the chalk board, taking the harvest soup off the menu.

Bunny had moved on to the tea bar to get it ready for the breakfast crowd.

On the opposite end of the counter from the coffee bar stood the tea bar, which offered a nice selection of gourmet, loose-leaf, and cold teas. I’d even gotten a few antique teapots from the Wild and Whimsy Antique Shop, which happened to be the first shop on the boardwalk. If a customer came in and wanted a pot of hot tea, I could fix it for them, or they could fix their own to their taste.

I heard a knock on the window. From the outline of the silhouette, I knew exactly who was trying to wave me over.

Loretta Bebe.

“What on earth is she doing here at this hour?” Bunny glanced back.

“I don’t know.” I walked over to the door and decided to just flip the sign to Open. If people were milling about, I reckoned I better serve them. “I sure hope Birdie is okay.”

“Get in here,” I said to Loretta in a gleeful voice, but I knew something was going on to warrant a visit at this time of the morning. “You’re gonna get frostbite.”

“Are you kidding?” I heard Bunny mutter to herself, only it wasn’t so quiet. “She’s too mean to get frostbitten.”

“Is Birdie okay?” I asked about Loretta’s granddaughter, who had been working for me since she moved in with Loretta.

“Oh yes.” Loretta kept tilting her head out the door.

“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked and looked out.

“Yes. My new helper dropped me off at the steps and is parking the car. I don’t think she’s ever been here, love her heart, and I told you were located in the middle of the boardwalk.”

“She’ll find us,” I assured her and shut the door, since it was so cold out. “What’s going on?”

“I heard, and I’m here.” She tugged on each fingertip of her glove, gracefully slipping her hands out of each one. “I’m here to let you know that I’ll be taking over,” Loretta said in her slow southern drawl, not making it sound as bad as my gut told me it was.

“Taking over what?” Bunny’s interest got piqued.

“The appetizer part of the progressive dinner.” She sounded as nonchalant as though the decision was hers to make. “Now, before you two start in on me”—she slapped her gloves in one hand—“I know I wouldn’t make no fundraiser about any animals. It’s just me, but I like to give money back into our community.”

“The animals are part of our community.” I walked over to the coffee bar and plucked one of the stacked paper cups to fill for Loretta.

When you were the barista of a coffeehouse and had regular customers, you could make their orders in your sleep. Loretta liked her coffee with two light creamers, one vanilla creamer, and two packs of sugar.

“I am not here to argue with you, Roxanne.” Loretta batted her fake lashes a few times before she took the cup from me. Instead of saying, “Thank you for fixing this amazing cup of coffee for me,” she continued, “What’s done is done. The fundraiser is set, and I’ve come to just turn the other cheek. This year.” She let me know in her own subtle way that she would make sure to intervene for next year. “All under the bridge. What we have to deal with is the here and now, and right now I’m stepping up to the plate to offer my services.”

The fundraiser was Aunt Maxi’s, and if Aunt Maxi was here, there’d be no way in H-E-double-hockey-sticks that she’d let Loretta participate.

“Before you poo-poo the idea”—the bangles of her wrist jingled and jangled when she held up her finger to stop me from talking—“I’m going to give you my idea. Now…” She moved past me to walk deeper into the coffeehouse. “I’ve decided to host it at the Cocoon Hotel. I’ve already gotten confirmation with Camey Montgomery to use the appetizers. The only difference is that I’ll be providing the appetizers instead of Babette.”

“I’m gonna need to take some Tums tonight,” Bunny murmured on her way past me back to the coffee bar. There, she cleaned up the leftover sprinkles of sugar that’d found their way out of their packet when I opened them to stir into Loretta’s coffee.

The bell over the door dinged. A frazzled, snow-covered young woman walked in.

“Good.” Loretta called to her. “You found it. Lana, Roxy, Roxy, Lana.” Loretta waved a finger in introduction between us.

“Let me get you a coffee, Lana,” I said to her when I noticed her shivering jawline.

When I reached for another cup, Bunny smacked my hands away.

“I’ll fix it,” she snapped, knowing full well that I’d make another mess she’d feel like she had to clean up.

Poor Bunny spent most of her shift cleaning up after people. I just let her do what made her happy.

“Lana, take off that coat and go stand in front of the fireplace. I’m sure Roxy is about to start one.” Loretta had a way of giving orders indirectly. “I’ll be right back.”

Loretta excused herself to the bathroom.

“Lana, what do you like in your coffee, dear?” Bunny asked Lana.

“How did Loretta take hers?” she asked.

“Don’t you mind Low-retta,” Bunny said, her voice deepening on the end syllable of Loretta’s name.

Loretta Bebe was somewhat hard to deal with in the community. She was a little forward and, well, bossy. She never bothered me any, but she did bother a lot of people. If it weren’t for Loretta’s volunteering, things would probably take a lot longer to get done around Honey Springs. She was not only the president of the Southern Women’s Club but also a big member of the local church, which put you right on top of the society list, even though she did exaggerate about her year-round suntan.

Loretta claimed she was part Cherokee, and, well, that could have been true, since the Cherokee people were indigenous to Honey Springs, but it didn’t coincide with her using Lisa Stalh’s tanning bed a few times a week to keep her skin’s pigment. And if you asked Loretta about it, she’d get all torn up. So we just brushed the subject underneath the rug like most secrets around here.

Funny thing I’d found out since I moved to Honey Springs—those really dark secrets were like dust bunnies. They found their way into the light when they lurked too long in the shadows.

“Black is good.” Lana offered a sweet smile.

“Let me get a fire started.” I had Lana move away from the front of the fireplace so I could throw in a starter log. “Pepper is excited.” I laughed when he ran over and got into his dog bed.

“He’s cute.” She smiled.

“How long have you worked for Loretta?” I started some chitchat while the flame took.

Bunny walked behind the counter and tried to secretly write a text message on her phone. She wasn’t foolin’ me any. I’d bet she was texting Mae Belle Donovan, her partner in crime.

“A few weeks. She keeps me on my toes.” Lana rubbed her hands together. “I’m there to cook and clean up a bit. She’s so busy with all her volunteer work, and now she’s offered to make the cheese balls.”

She abruptly stopped talking when the handle of the bathroom door jiggled as if Loretta couldn’t get it open.

“I bet she has.” Bunny’s flat voice and ticked-up brow made Lana smile even bigger. “What are y’all doing out so early?” Bunny handed Lana a cup of coffee.

“She put a call in to the owners down at the Wild and Whimsy about a piece missing from the Christmas china she’d bought from them. They told her they found it in another box and were holding it for her.” Lana sipped on the coffee and took a seat on the hearth, giving me just enough space to lay a few of the seasoned pieces of firewood on the starter log.

“Where’s my cup?” Loretta had joined us again, this time without her coat. She tapped her maroon fingernail on her big-faced watch. “I’m expected at Wild and Whimsy when they open, so we need to make this a quick chat.”

“We are chatting?” I asked and glanced up at Bunny, who was pointing to where Loretta had set her cup down previously.

Bunny snarled and rolled her eyes.

“I know that your aunt is going to be all sort of, well, let’s just be honest, shall we?” Loretta eased down on the edge of one of the couches, crossing her legs at the ankles like a good southern woman would sit.

“Nothing but around here,” I said, giving the fire a little stoke with the poker.

“You and I both know Maxine has her opinions of me, and that’s all fine and dandy, but she’s going to have to put those out of her way for the good of the community. We need someone to take over the appetizers, and I’ve stepped up to the plate.”

“Did Maxine ask you to do anything for the progressive dinner?” Bunny asked a question we all knew the answers to.

Loretta’s shoulders peeled down from her ears, her head tilted and her face flat when she looked at Bunny.

“Maybe she wants you to enjoy it,” Bunny suggested. All of us in the room, including Lana, knew the truth. Again, we were sweeping it under the rug, so to speak.

Here was the strange part. Bunny seemed to be taking up for Aunt Maxi, which told me she didn’t want Loretta to do the appetizers either. I snickered.

“Anyways, I just wanted you to know that I’ve once again saved the event.” Loretta was also good at taking credit where it wasn’t hers to take. Her quirks were very entertaining to me. Not so much to Aunt Maxi.

“I guess I’m not sure where our visit this early comes in?” I asked.

“Honestly, Roxy.” Loretta uncrossed her ankles and sighed, carefully putting the mug on the coffee table in front of her. “I’m going to need you to back me up because I’m sure when Maxine Bloom hears that I’ve had to save her once again, she’ll be a little perturbed.”

“And you think I can calm her down if she is? Then you don’t know her too well.” I snickered, knowing Aunt Maxi would fume once she got word, and trust me, she was going to get word before the sun popped up in about an hour and a half.

The faint sound of a ding caused Pepper to lift his head.

“The ovens are preheated. I’ve got to get some items cooked before we really open.” It was my way of excusing myself.

“We have to get going anyways. Beverly is going to meet us down there so I can get that platter for one of my famous cheese balls.” Loretta stood up. “Lana.”

“Thanks for the coffee and the warm fire. I’ll be back.” Lana helped Loretta with her coat.

“I hope you do.” I felt sorry for Lana. She was at Loretta’s mercy.

Bunny and I walked them over to the door.

“From what I hear, Loretta can’t keep a helper. How long do you think that girl will last?” Bunny asked.

“Maybe Lana will last. She’s got a little gumption. I do know one thing.” I watched out the door as Loretta and Lana hurried down the boardwalk. “Aunt Maxi sure is going to be mad.”

“Mmm-hmmm, she sure is. And I thought this was going to be a good day.” Bunny sighed, breathing into her coffee mug before she took a sip.

Unfortunately, Bunny was right. I could feel the chill in my bones.

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