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Spoonful of Murder Exclusive: Chapters One – Three

Chapter One

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.

 

Chapter Two

No sooner did I get the mini quiches in the oven than the coffee pots went off for the Cocoon Inn.

“I’m going to run the coffee down to the inn.” I slid the display case’s sliding glass doors open and put the tray of quiche in it. They weren’t the prettiest of displays today, but I was in a hurry.

Loretta Bebe’s visit had put me behind. Luckily Bunny was able to do most things, just at a slower pace. I reckoned we weren’t in a race, but I did like to be ready for the first customer of the day. It was just a professional thing I was sure I’d carried over from my days of being a lawyer.

Patrick had helped over the years to bring some spontaneity to my life.

“I’ve got everything all ready.” Bunny walked behind the counter, straightening everything as she went.

“I’ll be back soon.” I grabbed my coat from the coat rack but kept my apron on, tugged my knit cap over my head, and pulled my gloves from the pocket. “Call if you need me.” I patted my phone, which was in my coat pocket, then took the handles of the two industrial coffee pots.

“Don’t forget these.” Bunny picked up the bag of bagels and cream cheese I’d prepared for the hotel guests.

I put down one of the carafes and let Bunny slip the bag handle on my wrist before I made sure I had everything and headed out the door.

A nice brisk walk might wake me up a little more. It was already six o’clock, and the sun wouldn’t make its appearance until at least seven thirty. From what I understood, it was going to be a sunny winter day.

“Roxanne Bloom Cane, is that you?”

My face squished up, and an inward groan escaped when I recognized the voice breaking the early morning’s quiet from the opposite end of the way I was walking.

I turned around to find Aunt Maxi bolting down the boardwalk, snowshoes and ski poles in hand. She was running as fast as she could. Her crossbody bag was shaped like a Christmas tree with multicolored sequins sewn on, and it swung back and forth at her hip.

“What is this I hear about you letting Low-retta host the appetizers?” She huffed and took big steps. The snow flew up behind her as she got closer and closer.

“I didn’t let her do anything.” Oh my goodness. Loretta’s main motive to come by this morning was for her to tell me and prevent me from disagreeing so she could conveniently tell people that I let her. “She came in this morning just a few minutes ago and told me. News travels fast.”

“I reckon Bunny Bowowski couldn’t wait for me to hear. She got on that text prayer chain quicker than a rabbit. Mae Belle Donovan texted Jean Hill, who texted Ursula Scott, who texted your mama. Thank God Penney decided to call me. I can’t hardly hear my text go off, but I can hear my phone ringing.”

“I just found out myself. And it’s fine. It’ll all be fine.” Do y’all honestly think Aunt Maxi heard me? Well, no. She already had it in her head that she wanted me to know how this was going to go down. I could picture how she must have looked when she got the call from my mom.

I tried not to laugh out loud at the images of her face contorting from shock and running through various emotions until she got to anger. She was in that phase now and would probably remain there until she saw it would all work out.

“Have you tried her dips?” Aunt Maxi was on my heels as we walked along the boardwalk, making our way through the snow.

I was trying to listen to her while juggling the two coffee containers and bag and not falling on the boardwalk and ending up like Babette.

“What about that chipped beef ball?” She huffed, stuck one of the poles up underneath her armpit, and took out her cell phone. She was thumbing through it. “Here. Take a look at this.” She shoved the phone up in my face.

I stopped and looked at the photo.

“That’s one of her creations.” She shook her head. “I am not having it at my first progressive dinner. That’s why I didn’t ask her. People will wonder if the dogs made the appetizers, they are so pitiful.”

“Tis the season,” I chirped and started walking again.

“Tis the season to ruin the season? Is that what you’re saying?” She wasn’t going to let this go. “You mean to tell me after everything you went through, all them hoops with the health department to get Pet Palace in the coffeehouse, that you’re going to let one Low-retta Bebe ruin it for you? No one will donate if they taste her stuff because no one will survive.”

Actually, I was a little glad we were discussing it outside rather than inside, where someone might hear us.

“Why don’t you take it up with her?” I nodded forward. “She and Lana are at the Wild and Whimsy, picking up something from Beverly Teagarden.”

We were almost past the Buzz In and Out Diner, which wasn’t too far from the end of the boardwalk, where I was headed. Wild and Whimsy Antiques was the last shop.

“What on earth would Low-retta be up at this time?” Aunt Maxi asked, continuing to pronounce Loretta’s name the way Loretta pronounced her own name.

In Loretta’s slow southern drawl, it sounded more like she was saying Low-retta. It irked her so much when Aunt Maxi said her name that way. I had a feeling it was the only way Aunt Maxi would pronounce it until the progressive dinner was over.

“Let me guess.” Aunt Maxi put her pole in front of me to stop me.

I turned to look at her.

Though Halloween had long passed, if I didn’t know her, I would have thought she was dressed in costume. Her reddish-orange hair stuck out from underneath one of those winter hats with the flaps over the ears. She wore what she liked to call her Dolly Parton coat with many colors, like the movie based on the queen of country music. And the snowshoes were a much-exaggerated addition to the outfit. A pair of simple snow boots would’ve done the trick, even though Aunt Maxi had walked to the boardwalk from downtown, where she lived.

Being physical was a way of life in Honey Springs. If we didn’t walk everywhere, we biked. Unless it was snowy, I rode my little bike with the basket to the Bean Hive on most days.

Honey Springs was small enough that it was more convenient to bike places than to worry about parking a car.

“She’s been rambling on about that darn barn auction.” Aunt Maxi’s eyes glowed. “She has been itching to get in there all these years to see what’s been held up in there. When I was at the Southern Women’s Club last month, Jean Hill mentioned that she’d heard from Evan Rich all the contents had been bought by the Teagardens.”

“Is that right?” I asked, letting it go in one ear and out the other. I happened to look into the Buzz In and Out Diner as we walked by.

Aunt Maxi was so busy telling me about the gossip she’d heard that she didn’t notice Loretta sitting in a booth at the window with Lana.

“I just can’t believe anything in the old barn would be so valuable.” I acted as if I were interested now that I didn’t want Aunt Maxi to see Loretta. Walking in the freezing cold and snow had zapped any energy I might have had, leaving none to stop a cat fight between the two women.

“You’d be surprised what people would hide back in the day.” Aunt Maxi plunged the poles down into the snow, thumping her way across the boardwalk. “Looks like Loretta didn’t get what she wanted. Ha!” Aunt Maxi squealed in delight when we passed the antique shop and it was sealed up tight. No lights whatsoever.

No wonder Loretta was at the diner. She must’ve been waiting.

“It would be one thing if Low-retta could cook, but to screw up a cheese ball takes talent.”

I hated to admit it, but the words coming out of Aunt Maxi’s mouth were true.

“And she’s going to ruin the dinner.”

“It’s going to be fine.” My shift had focused to just calming Aunt Maxi down.

The walk between the boardwalk and the Cocoon Hotel was literally a grassy field about the size of a football field.

The historic white mansion, built in 1841, had been in Camey’s family for years. Camey had hired Cane Construction to help rebuild the old structure into an amazing hotel that was situated right on the Lake Honey Springs and kept the cozy character. The two-story white brick with the double porches across both stories was something to behold, especially during the Christmas season.

Camey had light-up garland wrapped around the huge columns in the front and draped along all the wrought iron two-story balconies.

“What are you smiling about? There’s nothing good to smile about.” Aunt Maxi huffed.

“Oh, I was just remembering my honeymoon night was right up there.” I pointed at the balcony of the room Camey had offered Patrick and me on our wedding night during the Halloween festival a couple of years ago.

We’d planned the entire thing because Aunt Maxi and my mom were being pills about who got to do what after Patrick and I got engaged. Patrick and I pulled one over on them and the entire community when we dressed as a bride and groom for Halloween. We were really dressed for our wedding, which also took place in the hotel’s hospitality room.

“My stars, Roxanne. Did you hear me about Low-retta’s dips?” Aunt Maxi had moved on from the cheese balls to the dips.

“I did hear you, but what do you want me to do?” I asked and stopped shy of the front door.

“I want you to tell me why you decided to invite her to participate in the Christmas Progressive Dinner. And of all things, the hors d’oeuvres?” she cried out.

“It’s not nice to exclude people, especially during the holidays.” I had nothing for her but hoped throwing something about holidays and niceness in there might light a spark of kindness in her heart.

“It was my idea,” Aunt Maxi grumbled. “If I wanted her to be involved, I’d have asked. It’s fine if she wants to come with the rest of the community.”

“It was a great idea too.” I wanted to make sure she knew I recognized her efforts in getting such a fun event scheduled. “And sometimes we have to do things with people we aren’t the fondest of. It’s going to be after cocktails at the Watershed.” I grinned. “Maybe people will be too looped up to notice how bad Loretta’s dips are.”

“Oh.” Aunt Maxi’s face froze. Her mouth slightly open, her brows lifted way up on her forehead. “You might just have something.” She gnawed on her lip. “I think I’ll go talk to Fiona and see if she can do some heavy pours that night. I’ll catch up later.”

Oh dear me. Just what we needed. A bunch of folks with too much alcohol in their systems walking around Honey Springs. Apparently, today wouldn’t be as great as I thought it was going to be.

 

 

Chapter Three

Camey Montgomery was busy with a customer when I dropped the items off in the hospitality room. I didn’t get a chance to ask her about Loretta, but none of it really mattered. Loretta seemed dead set on hosting it, and Aunt Maxi had appeared to be good with trying to get Fiona Rosone, the bartender at the Watershed, to use a heavy hand. No doubt Aunt Maxi would entice the young lady with cash.

As much as I didn’t like the idea, it was kind of funny to think Aunt Maxi would honestly condone such a thing, to get people to drink so they didn’t have to taste Loretta’s awful appetizers. Then again, I’d make amazing treats and coffee to help sober them up for their way home tonight.

Bunny had a handful of customers when I’d gotten back, and she seemed to be doing fine on her own. Pepper was still asleep in his bed next to the fireplace.

I slipped out of my coat and hung it on the rack next to the counter just as the bell over the coffeehouse door dinged. Pepper jumped up.

The jingle and jangle of bracelets immediately clued me in on who was bending down in the front of the shop. Sure enough, I saw the middle-aged, silver-bobbed, and highly classy Louise Carlton stand up, holding the cutest little puppy you’d ever seen.

“Oh my stars,” I gushed, extending my arms out in front of me, weaving in and out of the tables to get my hands on the fur baby. “This one will go fast.”

I made a pouty face, knowing there’d not be much time to spend with this week’s featured animal from the Pet Palace, Honey Springs’s idea of a local SPCA. Louise was the head of the program, and when I moved to Honey Springs, Pet Palace was where I thought I would go and volunteer. I did that, but Pepper also found me, and, well… I ended up taking him home, and now we were constant companions.

“Can you believe someone found this little one down by the lake? I’m so glad they were able to get her right before the snow today.” Louise stroked the puppy’s back while I snuggled the little one close to my neck.

“Oh, she’s shivering.” I frowned and tried to ignore Pepper, but he was standing on his hind legs with his front paws on my legs, nose tilted up to get a sniff.

“She’s been scared since we got her.” Louise got really close to the puppy and smiled, making smoochy sounds. “You’re right. Puppies go fast, especially during Christmas. But she wasn’t thriving in the shelter, so I thought I better let her come here and get some training from a perfect Pet Palace alumnus.”

Louise’s pockets were always full of treats, so when she dragged one out to give to Pepper, I wasn’t surprised.

“I think he will show her the ropes really fast.” I decided to put the puppy down to see what she did.

She peed. I grabbed some napkins off the nearest table and wiped it up.

“Great!” Bunny groaned. “Just what we need in case the health inspector comes in. Or maybe I can anonymously call the health inspector to tell them to check in on Low-retta’s kitchen. If we don’t do something, she’s gonna kill someone.”

Bunny took off toward the janitorial closet.

Louise paused to examine Bunny before her brows gave a quick furrow and lifted.

“Aunt Maxi has everyone in an uproar. Babette broke her ankle, so she can’t participate in the progressive dinner tonight. Apparently, she called Loretta Bebe to take her place.” I rolled my eyes.

“Oh.” Louise’s mouth formed a huge O. “Have you tasted”—she grimaced—“her food? In particular, her dips and cheese balls?”

“I heard. No, I’ve not tasted them, but if Babette saw fit to, then I can only assume it’s for the best.” I watched the puppy start to follow Pepper around.

Pepper was so good with the animals that were showcased each week. He’d been a Pet Palace superstar student and was a natural at loving all animals, even the cats Louise dropped off.

“Well, maybe she’s gotten better. I know the ladies from church have started to give her the task of bringing paper plates and napkins.” Louise laughed. “Don’t be upset with Maxine. She’s worked really hard, and I’m sure when she calms down, she’ll realize it’s best.”

“I know you’re right, but I’m the one who has to listen to her in the meantime.”

“Hello, Louise.” Bunny joined us with a mop. “Cute puppy, but I don’t do pee.”

“She’s potty trained. Probably got a little too excited. How’s Floyd?” Louise wasn’t fooling me none. She wanted off the subject of the puppy and was smart enough to know to ask about Floyd.

“He’s fair. He’s gone to see some family over Christmas, so I reckon I’ll be spending it here for dinner.” I was happy to hear Bunny say she would come to my annual Christmas Day lunch at the Bean Hive.

Over the past few years, I’d hosted a big get-together for family and for friends who had become my family. Bunny Bowowski was definitely one of them. Even Louise came one year.

The invitation was open to anyone.

“That’s wonderful that you’re coming.” My heart warmed right along with the inside of the coffee shop as the fire continued to pop and crackle.

“You might have more people than you think if this snowfall keeps up.” Louise referred to how the snow kept falling at a steady pace.

“The more, the merrier.” I couldn’t help but picture all the people inside of the Bean Hive.

Patrick and I transformed the dining room of the coffeehouse to a large table with all the Christmas cheer the space could handle.

“Which reminds me to move that table out of the way.” I pointed at the corner table up near the right corner. “Patrick should be stopping by with the Christmas tree. I had him go to Hill’s Dairy Farm to get one from Jean.”

“Oh, Jean. How is she?” Louise asked.

“I think she’s doing better. Each month as a widower, she seems to be getting stronger.” It was my standard reply, but I’d know better once I headed out that way to get the creamer, fresh eggs, and other things I needed to keep my promise to use only products from Honey Springs as much as I could.

The local supplies cost a little more, but the quality was something money couldn’t buy. Jean Hill had the best of everything. Even flowers.

“That puppy will enjoy the fire with Pepper.” Bunny had walked over, bent down, and fluffed up Pepper’s doggy bed.

That got his attention away from the puppy. Pepper trotted over to his bed, and the puppy followed him.

“Would you look at that.” A huge smile crossed Bunny’s face. “That puppy has taken to Pepper.”

“And I’m sure the little rascal won’t be here long.” I couldn’t resist the cute puppy, not to mention her breath, which had a smell that was unmistakable and unforgettable.

I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going and bumped into one of the tables, knocking off one of the cow ceramic creamer pots.

“I reckon I’m gonna just keep this out all day.” Bunny huffed and stood over me with the mop, waiting for me to pick up the glass.

“Dang. That was one of my favorites.”

“If you hurry down to the Wild and Whimsy, I heard Beverly picked up some good finds at that barn auction. I bet they had some.” Louise had my interest piqued.

Aunt Maxi had mentioned the barn, and now, so did Louise.

“Maybe I’ll run down there.” I glanced up at the clock. It was a little before eight a.m. Although the Wild and Whimsy opened at ten, they were keeping Christmas hours, which meant they would open at eight for a few weeks.

“Go on. I’ve got the puppy and the cream.” Bunny sloshed the mop right and then left.

“Thank you, Bunny. What would I do without you?” Even though she played tough sometimes, she knew I adored and appreciated her.

“You’d get along just fine,” she joked, moving her attention to a customer who’d walked up to the bakery counter.

This time I took my apron off and exchanged it for my coat, hat, and gloves before I ventured back out into the snow.

The sun was barely peeking out from behind a low-hanging grey cloud. The wind skidded across Lake Honey Springs. The lapping waves crashed against the pier, slapping against the piles and echoing from underneath.

With my gloved hand, I fisted the collar of my coat a little tighter to ward off the chill before it settled into my bones.

“Two Blooms in one day,” Beverly Teagarden said after I’d taken off all the layers and she recognized it was me. “Maxi was in earlier.”

Beverly lifted her chin, giving me a look indicating that something was up.

“Let me guess.” I pulled off my hat and brushed my hands through my black hair, shaking the ends to get the snowflakes off the bottom. My hair was naturally curly, and any bit of water would just add frizz. “She was in here looking for Loretta Bebe.”

“You guessed it.” Beverly and Dan had such a cute shop.

A grunting sound followed by a creaking noise came from the roof.

She walked over and looked out the door. “I sure hope that awning stays attached to the roof. I told Dan during the summer I noticed it was coming away from the building, but things piled up.”

“The awning is coming off?” I asked and looked outside and then up to see the red awning flapping in time with the wind. “Oh yeah. I see it on the end.”

Beverly let out a long sigh, shaking her head.

“Patrick is going to stop by the coffeehouse this morning. I’ll have him stop by and see if he can do anything.” It was a mere suggestion and one of those things Patrick didn’t like me to do.

He was so handy, and since he owned Cane Construction, I offered up his services without asking him. He had told me a time or two not to fill his schedule with friends, but I was in the small-shop frame of mind. We all had to stick together to survive, and if he could screw in a bolt or hammer a nail or two, it was for the good of Honey Springs.

“Did Aunt Maxi find Loretta?” I asked and moseyed into the antique shop, looking around for anything that struck my fancy while Beverly and I made chitchat.

“No, but Lana was in here, going through the boxes of items Dan and I had gotten from that old barn off of Crescent Peek Road.” She picked up some little box and dusted it off before she found a place for it on the other shelf filled with little boxes.

That was the thing about antiques. They always looked like they needed to be dusted. They were just old, and I definitely didn’t want them for my house.

“Speaking of that old barn, did you get any cow creamers? I broke one this morning.” I couldn’t stop myself from walking over to one of the many Christmas trees, all of which had glittery ornaments on them.

“Let me look in the boxes in the back. There’s so many.” She hurried to the back of the shop.

The balls on the tree weren’t bright but had more muted tones. The sequins along with some little Swarovski crystals made them shine and sparkle from the tree lights.

“I love these,” I said when I heard her shuffling. “I think I’d like to purchase all of them for the tree at the Bean Hive.”

“Sure! I can use this box.” I didn’t see Beverly, but I heard her voice and the noise of her removing the items she referred to out of the box. “I don’t see any creamers in here. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any.”

She walked back up to meet me at the tree with an empty box in her hand.

“Let me go get some bubble wrap for them.” She set the box down at my feet.

“Nah. Patrick should be here any minute, so I don’t want to take the time to wrap only to have to unwrap them.” I started to pluck the ornaments off the tree one at a time and carefully place them in the box with Beverly’s help.

“Loretta didn’t get an earful, but Lana sure did from Maxi.” Beverly began to tell me how Aunt Maxi begged Lana to make the appetizers. “Lana insisted Loretta wanted to do it because she’d offered.”

“What did Loretta want from you anyways?” I asked just to bide time while we took down the ornaments.

“After she heard I’d gotten the bid on the old bar, she was on the phone, calling me.” Beverly snorted. “Dan and I knew why she was calling before I even picked up the phone. She’s been dying to get her hands on it, but it was the property of the banks, and, well, let’s just say that the bank knew we would pay the price and not try to negotiate.”

I could hear Loretta now, trying to get Evan to come down on the price.

“Believe you me, when she threw out a number for the china she wanted, I almost left this world. Honestly, she doesn’t want anyone to make any money. I know she’s been eyeballing that china for years.” Beverly had my interest piqued.

“Years?” I asked. “From what I understood, the house on the property had been demolished a long, long time ago.”

“It was by the family. I was a kid when they moved the items to the barn. At that time, the barn was in really good shape.” She patted around her body. “Just like me,” she joked. “Over time, this ol’ gal has gone downhill.”

“You look great. Just like one of the girls.” I was talking about Savannah and Melanie, the Teagardens’ daughters, who were about ten years younger than me. Both were in college. “What is so special about the china?”

“I don’t think it’s the actual worth as much as the memory. You see, the family who lived there were pretty well off. They would throw these huge Christmas parties. If your family got invited, it was a big deal.” She had a look on her face as if she were remembering something.

“Did you get to go?” I asked.

“Yes,” she gushed. “I’ll never forget it. My parents had spent all the money they’d saved for the winter months to get us new clothes. It was the first time I’d ever had matching anything.” The memory made her face glow. “The interior of the house was decorated from floor to ceiling with Christmas. There wasn’t one single area that didn’t have something. All the doorknobs even had some sort of decoration hanging from them.”

“That sounds like a fairytale.” I loved hearing old stories like these.

“It was. Especially for a kid. Santa came on a huge sled drawn by real reindeer.” When I gave her an odd look, she nodded. “Don’t ask me how, but it was amazing. And I’ll never forget it. I got a doll the size of me.” She laughed. “I think I still have the doll in my attic. See, it’s the memories the house gave you. Loretta remembers the tablescape. It was gorgeous, so when I bought the barn, I let her buy the china. The china was full except for one piece—the serving platter. That’s the one she really wants.”

“What on earth happened to the family?” I had to know.

“They got older and became reclusive.” She frowned and held one of the ornaments in her hand. “Too bad too. The house was really different, and none of their children lived here. They just let it sit and rot.”

“They didn’t want to buy back the property?” It was such a shame.

“Evan said the deed was signed over to Honey Springs. Technically, the city owns it, and I can’t help but wonder if they are about to do something with the land. You know, one of those strip malls or something.” Beverly told me something I sure didn’t like to hear. She slipped the last ornament into the box. “Anyways, long gone are the good ol’ days.”

She picked up the box.

“That’s a shame.” I tugged my hat out of my coat pocket and pulled it back over my head.
“Maybe you’ll find a creamer in one of them when you search for the platter.”

“Maybe, but Loretta wants the platter now for this appetizer deal.” Beverly handed me the box. “Maxine told me she’d pay me not to give it to Loretta. She even begged Lana to quit working for Loretta and come work for her. They almost got into an argument about it.”

“What did Lana say?” I felt bad for her being stuck in the middle of what Aunt Maxi put her in.

“Lana at first thought Maxine was joking, but Maxine got a little huffy. Finally, Lana told her flat-out no, and it was literally a stern no.” Beverly waved at the group of customers coming in. “I can’t wait to see the tree tonight. Those will look great in the coffeeshop.”

“How much?”  I asked.

“Nothing if you can get Patrick down here to fix my awning,” she called from over her shoulder as she walked away to see if the customers needed any help.

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