Batter Off Dead
Book 2 in the Southern Cake Baker Cozy Mystery Series
Sophia Cummings may be unlucky in love, but she knows that the way to a man’s heart is through his sweet tooth. This evening, she plans to use that knowledge—and her skills as a New York City-trained pastry chef—to open the hearts and wallets of Rumford, Kentucky’s richest men. Sophia, proprietress of For Goodness Cakes, has been commissioned to cater the Heart of the Town Library charity fundraiser at Grape Valley Winery. She’s spent all her dough to make this a successful event, raise her profile, and win more plum catering jobs.
At first, the going is as smooth as an elegant chocolate ganache. After nibbling Sophia’s tasty treats, Ray Peel, the winery’s landlord, announces he will pay off Rumford’s library loan. But the evening soon turns decidedly frosty when Ray is murdered—before he can make good on his promise, and before he can pay Sophia for her catering services.
For Goodness Cakes will collapse if Sophia can’t collect what she’s owed. So Sophia once again puts on her sleuthing apron to figure out who iced Ray. A glass of your favorite red or white is the perfect accompaniment to Maymee Bell’s scrumptious Batter Off Dead―with authentic Southern recipes!
Batter Off Dead
Book 2 in the Southern Cake Baker Cozy Mystery Series
Batter Off Dead
Six months ago, if you would’ve told me I’d be living in Rumford, Kentucky, my small-town childhood home, I’d have given you all sorts of funny looks. I would’ve denied any part of your statement and claimed that you were one rung shy of a full ladder.
After all, I’d been following my dream as a lead pastry chef in a swanky New York City restaurant for the last year. Little did I know, I’d been following the wrong dream.
One of my mama, Bitsy’s, sayings was, “Sophia Cummings, don’t get above your raisin’s.” I didn’t really take the time to understand it as a child, but I sure knew what she meant now. Life takes you in a direction you never saw coming and if you’re open, life can be pretty great. With the opening of For Goodness Cakes, my own bakery in the hometown I never figured I’d come back to, life couldn’t be better.
“This beats nothing I’ve ever seen,” I muttered to myself as I stood looking at the bakery display window in utter disbelief that this was my shop. My dream.
An audible sigh escaped me and a smile stretched across my face as I read the bakery name printed across the glass. I stared at my reflection and into my dark brown eyes. My mouth began to water at the creations I’d displayed there and I wondered how on earth I’d always managed to stay a normal size body weight considering I made it a policy to taste-test.
“Are you lollygaggin’?” Charlotte Harrington, my best friend, asked as she pushed open the swinging door between the kitchen and the bakery. She tucked a piece of her long red hair behind her ear and stuck her palm on her hip. “We’ve got a lot of baking to do. Chop. Chop.” She clapped her hands.
“Quit your belly aching. I’ll get it done.” I ran my hands down my white apron and pulled my shoulder length brown hair up into a hairnet before I headed back to finish up some baking. “You’d think you were the boss,” I teased her after I walked back into the kitchen.
“Someone’s got to do it.” She shook her head and went back to rolling out the red velvet dough that was just the perfect color dessert for The Heart of the Town red-carpet fundraiser we were catering for the new addition to the Rumford Library. I’d named the pastry Heart of Rumford and even used a heart cookie cutter to shape them.
“Orders aren’t going to get made by you standing around all day,” she joked.
Charlotte was my one and only employee at For Goodness Cakes. When I opened the bakery, there was no other person I could imagine being by my side. Charlotte and I had each other’s back since we were in preschool. When I’d made the decision in Kindergarten that I wanted to be a baker, she played and made dirt pies on the playground with me, and had been my biggest cheerleader since.
She was godsend because she was also a great baker. She was the type of person who could look around and know what to do without me even telling her what needed to be done. She’d even gone as far as doing some of her own baking and coming up with her own recipes when time allowed, and I loved that.
“The red velvet roll is going to pair nicely with the Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Syrah, or Zinfandel Rose,” I said, mentioning a few of the wines Giles Dugan had sent over. The fundraiser was at Grape Valley Winery, his winery.
I thought Heart of the Town was a very clever name for the fundraiser because it was true. Almost everything took place at the Rumford Library. It was the only building that had a couple of bigger conference rooms to accommodate town meetings. All the local business held their monthly meetings there; all the clubs helped keep the rooms booked; and even the Chamber of Commerce rented out a room each month. It was time we got a renovation and addition.
“I know. I’m so excited for the new addition to be revealed.” Charlotte leaned on the counter. “Can’t you just give me a little hint of what it looks like?”
“Mmmhhh,” I hummed with my lips pinched together. “It’s a big secret.”
I’d seen the new library addition in person a couple of times because I needed to see the venue. Catherine Fraxman, the librarian, had booked For Goodness Cakes for the ribbon cutting ceremony. It wasn’t going to be nearly as posh as Grape Valley Winery since the ribbon cutting ceremony also included children. The Winery fundraiser was hosting all the big donors and spenders in Rumford. The ones that belonged to the Rumford Country Club, RCC for short. There was going to be plenty of wine, whiskey, and booze to help get residents loosey goosey and open up their wallets.
I was really excited Cat had asked me to do the desserts for the ceremony because it opened up my creative side, allowing me to make fun pastries with book themes and library cards. But it was Grape Valley Winery that’d help me pay the bills for a couple of months. They’d ordered large quantities of expensive desserts.
I’d yet to get a good system down for how my clients paid. It was always a hard thing for me to decide whether they should put down a deposit or pay in full. With the winery, I knew they were good for the money, so they paid ten percent down. Ingredients I didn’t keep in the bakery and had to order I put on my credit card, but I knew I’d be able to pay that off once Giles Dugan paid me for the event. So I wasn’t too worried. Plus, the exposure to all the wealthy people the fundraiser would give For Goodness Cakes and my creations a considerable boost. I could see it now: I’d be booked for weddings, holiday parties, birthdays, and any special occasion that required a dessert. I was in a win-win situation all the way around.
“You’re going to love the green roof space. It’ll be so nice to sit up there and read. Plus, Cat has lots of fun events planned,” I said, referring to Catherine Fraxman by her nickname. I scooped butter into the electric mixer and switched out the attachment to the paddle so it would beat the butter into a light and fluffy mix while I prepared to make the batter. I flipped the switch to medium and grabbed a few metal cookie sheets to line them with parchment paper. “She said they need at least half a million in donations to pay the renovation loan off completely.”
Charlotte’s jaw dropped. “Half a million?”
“Yeah. I thought it was a little steep too.” I didn’t know a thing about fundraising or how long it took to raise that sort of money, but I did know Grape Valley Winery was going all out for the big event, including bands, catering, and wine tasting. Plus, some of the wine sale proceeds would go toward the library. “If I know Giles Dugan, I’m sure he’ll do all he can to make sure he gets the money raised.”
“Standing here gabbing isn’t going to get the pastries baked for the upcoming orders.” Charlotte nodded to our dry-erase board with the days of the weeks on it. It was perfect for writing down orders.
“We have the Heart of the Town Fundraiser tonight, which we will mainly focus on today. Then I know Bitsy will volunteer us to do something for the Garden Club meeting this week.” My brow twitched at the thought of how Bitsy volunteered me for anything and everything she was involved in. “I’ve got a meeting with Perry Dugan this week about doing an employee cake for Reba Carol. And we have a couple of kids’ birthday cakes.”
A couple of minutes later I started to wash the dishes and utensils we’d already dirtied up from the Heart of Rumford cookies. It was one of those times when you looked at something and didn’t even remember all the steps. I was on automatic pilot. Charlotte got the Heart of Rumford red velvet hearts in the oven. The bell over the shop door dinged and I walked into the bakery to find Bitsy standing there.
“Speak of the devil,” I muttered under my breath. Not that my mama was the devil, Bitsy Cummings, she just had some very southern roots. That meant she wanted me to go to college, get an education that I’d shelf because I met a good southern boy with solid roots, have babies, be a homemaker and join all the clubs she’s in.
“What on earth is all over your face?” I asked her after I noticed there was something on it.
“For goodness sakes, is that any way to properly greet me?” she asked, using her favorite saying. It was how I came up with the bakery name.
“I just saw you last night at the Junior League meeting,” I reminded her. “It was like ten hours ago.”
“It’s the next day.” Bitsy was sassy and raring to go. “Good early afternoon. Now, get over here and give me some sugar,” she said in her southern voice, her arms outstretched. She was covered in dirt for no discernable reason.
Trust me when I said Bitsy was the epitome of a southern woman who never got her hands dirty, much less her face.
“Oh, Sophia.” There was displeasure in her voice. “Must you look so. . .” Her eyes looked up and down my body, “drab when you work?” She patted the hairnet and forced a smile. “Do you have to wear that?”
“I’m baking,” I gently reminded her. “Working.”
“Being well dressed is a beautiful form of politeness, and you could stand to be a whole lot politer.” Bitsy had a way with words.
It was no big secret Bitsy wasn’t the least bit happy that I decided to leave Rumford when I was eighteen years old and fresh out of high school. I set off to pursue my love of baking by enrolling in pastry classes instead of becoming a debutant. Not for a second did I believe she wasn’t proud of me. She was and many Rumford residents and customers told me so when they’d come into the bakery.
I could hear her now.
“You’re not going to college?” She held her hand up to her chest like she was going to faint. Then she moved the back of her hand to her forehead. She cried, “You need an education. No one can take away your education.” Needless to say, it was a trying time but we all muddled through it.
“What have you been doing?” I asked her. Most of the things Bitsy said, I had to let roll off my shoulders or we’d never get along.
“A little of this and that.” Her head tilted side-to-side.
“What’s on your face?” I pulled the edge of my apron up and attempted to brushed whatever it was off her face. “A new mud mask?” I joked. “I’m not sure, but I think you’re supposed to wash it off before you go out in public.”
“Gardening.” She lifted her chin in the air.
“You’ve been gardening?” I asked. You could’ve blown me over with a feather. The only gardening I’d ever seen Bitsy do was open a bag of carrots from the refrigerator or pick through a salad when we went out to supper.
“At this time of the day? After church?” There was something not adding up.
“The Garden Club plant and flower exchange is coming up. We’ve got to bring in a few samples this week to the meeting. You’re bringing the sweet treats. Or have you already forgotten?” She asked, spacing her words evenly apart.
She was a master of turning a bad spotlight off her and keeping a good spotlight on her. In this instance, it was bad. Bitsy never gardened.
She moseyed over to the glass counter that showcased some of my favorite cake designs, and she eyeballed them.
“Nope. I’ve not forgotten.” The Garden Club President, Dolores Masters, had contacted For Goodness Cakes and placed an order for the big event.
I pointed to one of the apple scones and she shook her head.
“I’ve been planting,” she said as if she were offended. “And digging up so I can take the plants I’ve grown.”
“You? Planting? Digging? Growing?” I burst out in shock.
“What? I can plant a seed or two.” She glanced up at me as if she wanted to see if I’d fallen for the clear lie she was trying to feed me.
“I know. You better be nice to me. You’re gonna miss me when I’m dead and gone. Now, give me some of your father’s favorite.” She huffed and took a look around the bakery. “I’m assuming we’ll see you tonight at the Heart of the Town Fundraiser?”
“Yes, you will.” I turned around and took one of the white to-go box that had a logo with a domed cake stand in pink, and For Goodness Cakes written in teal where the cake was supposed to go. It was an adorable logo I was really proud of. “These were made this morning, so dad will love them,” I said, referring to the Nanner’ Mini Pies my dad adored. I put them into the box and drew a heart on the top in a black marker.
“Isn’t that so cute?” Bitsy tapped the heart after I handed the box to her. “We raised over two thousand dollars from the girls at the Junior League. I can’t wait to give the donation check to Cat tonight.”
“That’s great.” Since I was an only child, when I moved away ten years ago there was a little bit of guilt leaving Bitsy here, though she still had my dad. I loved that she’d stayed in all of her groups and committees. “The new addition to the library is going to be so beautiful.”
“Speaking of beautiful, you’ve got everything looking so nice in here.” Bitsy looked around.
“I can’t believe that I own the old Ford’s Bakery.” It was a dream come true. “Remember all the times you would bring me in here?”
“Do I?” Bitsy’s brows lifted. “I couldn’t get you out of that display window for nothing.”
“Oh, I’d get out with the bribe of one of the famous Ford’s Maple Long Johns,” I said.
Both of us stared at the display window, remembering through different eyes. Fond memories for us. Well, me at least.
“You did love those long johns.” Bitsy licked her lips. “There was a line out the door with people waiting to buy them. I remember Dixie Ford always saying she felt like she was herding cattle but with customers.” She laughed and looked around. “You could use some customers.”
“We aren’t open today.” I pointed to the sign on the door with the Heart of the Town flyer covering the bakery hours. “Remember, closed on Sundays?”
“Oh, I might’ve remembered if you were sitting in the pew next to me and your father at church,” she said mockingly.
“I had to get all the yummies made for the fundraiser. The fresher the better.” Another thing Bitsy loved was going to church. She especially loved going to church with the whole family, because she was a very proud southern woman who loved to show off what she’d brought up. Me and Daddy.
I put the box of Dad’s treats on top of the glass case.
“Speaking of Ford’s Bakery.” I motioned for her to stay put while I headed to the office space, through the door on the right when you came into the bakery. I didn’t use it as an office and figured it’d be a good storage room. “You aren’t going to believe what I found.” I wiped my hands down my apron and opened the door.
“A stash of cash?” She asked, upbeat.
“I found something much better than cash.” I flipped the light on, ignoring her questions, and picked up the old leather-bound journal on the desk. “The Ford’s journal.”
I walked back into the bakery and handed the journal to her. She flipped through and barely looked up at Reba Gunther when she came through the front door.
“Hi, Reba.” I gave a half smile. “I’m sorry. We’re closed on Sundays.”
“I know you’re not open today, but I was wondering since I saw you in here when I was walking past, if I could just go ahead and buy some pastries for tomorrow. After all, you know how cranky Giles gets if I don’t bring in a couple of those Cherry Flip Flops.” She put her hands in prayer position. “Please? I’ve got something to do in the morning and I’ll barely be able to make it to work on time.”
“No problem,” I said. “But I do hope those Dugans know how hard you work for the winery. Even on your off day.” Reba was the secretary for the winery.
I grabbed a box from behind the counter and filled it up with Cherry Flip Flops. I’d intended to put them out the following morning, but my customer was here now. Besides, I had more in the freezer that I could easily pop in the oven and viola. Perfection.
“I’ll see you two at the fundraiser tonight.” Reba handed me the cash. Her soft red hair was cut in the cutest pixie cut that only she could pull off. Though she was about to turn forty, she sure did look a lot younger.
“You don’t want me to put it on the winery tab you have open?” I asked. She came in every weekday to pick up some donuts and paid the bill once a month.
“Not today.” She waved off and was on her way.
I went back to my conversation with Bitsy. “It’s all of their recipes.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. When I’d been cleaning out the office to make it my own, I came across the journal. I put the cash in the drawer and walked back over to Bitsy.
“I made a phone call to see if I could buy the some of the recipes from them.” That gave me a reminder to call again since I’d yet to hear back.
“Why can’t you?” She asked. “You bought the place and that includes everything in it.”
“It’s not so simple.” I loved how Bitsy thought, and wished I could do like she said, but it was the Fords’ intellectual property. There had to be some sort of law against it. “Maybe I can check with Dad.”
Dad was a lawyer and had taken over his father’s law firm, which made a great living for our family. So much so the Bitsy never worked outside the home. As in a paycheck work, because she’d tell you she’d been working all day. Dad adored her nonetheless. He stayed busy, but still came home every night to eat supper with her.
“He would know.” She ran her hand down a page. “Their long johns. I wondered how they made them so perfectly.”
When she gave me back the journal, I looked at the page. They did make the best long johns and it was so tempting to recreate them, but it didn’t seem right. When I’d read the recipe after finding the journal, I didn’t notice anything special about the donut that wasn’t already common knowledge. But their long johns didn’t taste like the common recipe.
“I still want to check with Dad. Are you both coming to the fundraiser tonight?” If they were, I was sure I’d have time to ask him then.
“We are. Your father pledged a nice donation to Cat and she insists he give it at the fundraiser along with Ray Peel’s donation.” She shivered with excitement. Bitsy loved a good fundraiser, especially where a lot of money was to be given.
“Ray Peel?” I asked.
“Yes. The Friends of the Library are all aflutter with his pledge. It’s about time he gives his share for this town.” Her fine silky eyebrows rose a trifle. She leaned in to whisper a little gossip, “Half a million dollars.”
“Half a million?” My jaw dropped.
“Cat is beyond excited. She was shaking when she told us. This means we don’t have to hold anymore fundraisers after the addition is built. The loan they took out with the bank will be free and clear. I can’t wait to see Bob Bellman’s wife tonight. I heard he got a big fat check for landing the loan from the bank.”
“I bet.” I still couldn’t get past the fact Ray Peel had donated half a million dollars.
“The Friends of the Library can continue to bring the library to the public and not worry about things like a silly little mortgage on the expansion.” Bitsy had been a member of the Friends of the Library since before I was born.
Bitsy was a member of practically every club, society, and gossip circle in Rumford.
She lifted the edge of her sleeve and checked her watch. “I’ve got to run. And your father will be so happy to see you at the fundraiser.” She held the box in the air and played the guilt card. “You’ve been so busy here we’ve missed you for supper or even just a pop by.”
“I know. I’ll be over soon.” I smiled and hugged her.
“Then I’ll see you tonight,” she said. “Your father is going to love these.”
“I’ll see you tonight.” I gave her one last hug before I walked her to the door and made sure she got into her car and didn’t come back.
The old Ford Bakery sure didn’t look the same. I couldn’t stop the smile from curling up on the edges of my lips when I turned around and saw all the changes I’d made. The old lights had been replaced with some hanging jeweled chandeliers. The glass display counter had been replaced with a long antique credenza I’d painted with white milk paint. A three-shelf glass display case sat on top of the credenza. The crisp lighting in the case really showed off the beautiful cookies, hand pies, donuts, and other sweet pastries. On the top, I placed domed cake plates decorated with delicious to-go cakes. All the old walls had been covered with white shiplap and the floors had been replaced with white tiles. It was a sea of white with colorful treats to give it the perfect pop to make it cozy and inviting.
It was the display windows that were the most fun. Kentucky was a beautiful state in all four seasons. Each season required a different level of comfort in our food. It was no different with desserts. A heavy winter chess pie wasn’t a big seller in the spring, so when I opened For Goodness Cakes, I knew I was going to cater to the seasons. The display window showed off the amazing spring season we were having.
There were two trees on each side of the window with white bud flowers and a mossy floor. Each tree trunk had a garland of magnolia leaves wrapped around them. I’d taken an old park bench I’d found in the antique store, painted it in white, and sat four cake plates on top. Each plate had a different spring cake.
“Are you okay?” Charlotte stuck her head out of the kitchen. “I heard Bitsy carrying on out here. Was she giving you some grief?”
“I’m good.” I released a happy sigh. “No. I’m great. Let’s get this all finished up before we run out of time.”
As we headed back to the kitchen, the front bell dinged again.
“Mother, I’m busy,” I twirled around on the ball of my foot expecting to see Bitsy standing there to tell me one more thing she’d forgotten, but it wasn’t her. A very chic blonde, who was obviously an out-of-towner, was standing in the door with a very expensive handbag. Like the one I had wanted when I lived in the city.
“Oh,” I was embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else. I’m sorry but we are closed until Monday. We aren’t open on Sundays.”
“Not even for catered orders?” The lady didn’t look like she was going to take no for an answer, as she stepped right up on up the counter in her black sky-high heels and very stylish blue cotton sheeting jumpsuit. Her hair, though I could tell it was dyed, was the perfect shade of blonde with the right amount of highlights that no hairdresser around here could do. In fact, I only knew of one who was this perfect and that was when I lived in Manhattan.
“I heard this was the absolute best place to come for some fabulous pies and cakes.” She snapped her purse open and took out a business card.
“Seeing your only other option is the grocery store, I’m going to have to agree with whoever told you that,” I said.
“And she’s being too modest,” Charlotte chimed in, “For Goodness Cakes is the best southern bakery in all of Kentucky.” Charlotte was a little too overprotective. “If you don’t believe me, you can walk right on out that door and see for yourself.”
“Thanks, Charlotte,” I smiled and said through my teeth like a ventriloquist. “I’ve got it covered.”
Charlotte moved her head slightly to the right to see the woman over my shoulder before she focused back on me. I waited until she went back into the kitchen before I turned back to the woman.
“I’m sorry. We’ve got a big event,” I started yammering, and once I get started it’s hard for me to stop. “I mean, biggest we’ve ever done, and we keep getting interrupted. What is it I can do for you?”
“If you’re the best in all of Kentucky, then you must cater my lunch event on Monday. I’m the President of the National Wine Tasters of America and we’re holding our annual shareholders meeting at the Grape Valley Winery in a couple of days. I know it seems like short notice, but this is how I operate every year. I come into town and pick the best place for dessert even though we’ve already got a food caterer. It’s hard to get them to realize I don’t want their desserts, just the food.” She dragged her hand with the business card up in the air and held it out to me. Her manicure was even perfect. “Lanie Truvinski.”
“You’re going to love the winery. In fact, that’s the big catering gig I’ve got tonight.” I pointed to the flyer on the door. “The Heart of the Town fundraiser. It’s going toward the new addition to our library.” I had high expectations of this event since the socialites were going to be there and they loved to host parties, which meant referrals for me. “You should come. The more the merrier.” I stuck her card next to the register.
“Then you have to take my job. I’ll pay you double the cost.” She ignored my invite and gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was money I needed to help pay off the debt from the updates to Ford’s Bakery. “Besides, I’m getting a great deal on the place from Ray Peel. A longtime friend.”
“Deal.” Even though her event was a day away.“I only make pies and cakes for the season. For the spring I have some wonderful crumble cakes and Sunshine Lemon Pie. Every day, I serve donuts, cookies, and other usual pastries.”
Not that she was looking for every day. There I went again, yammering on.
“What is the light pink one in the front window with the cute macarons on top?” She pointed over her shoulder.
“That’s Macaron Delight. A delicious three-layered cake. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry fluffy layers with some buttercream and strawberry jam filling.” A very satisfied sigh escaped me. “I love using jams this time of the year from our local farmers’ market. I try to use all ingredients made locally.”
“I definitely want one of those. How do you think it’d pair with wine?” she asked.
“I’d pair it with a nice Moscato.” I nodded with confidence. “It pairs well with strawberry.”
“I’m going to have to agree with your employee. You do know what you’re talking about.” She plunked her purse on the counter and pulled out a wad of cash. “You are worth your weight in gold. How much?”
A few decisions later, Lanie Truvinski was walking out the door a very happy customer.
“Not too shabby for a day we aren’t open,” I said, after I told Charlotte about the whole Lanie Truvinski conversation. “She said she got a great deal from Ray Peel to hold her convention there.”
“Maybe there’ll be more events held at Grape Valley since wineries are becoming so popular in Kentucky.” Charlotte stood next to me and we watched Lanie get into her fancy silver car.
“Let’s hope so.” I turned and smiled at her. “It’s proving to be good for business. But I thought Ray Peel only owned the land the winery was on, not the actual winery.”
“Who cares?” Charlotte pulled the Heart of Rumfords out of the oven. “As long as we are getting paid, I don’t care who owns what.”
“This is much better than the little Corolla.” Madison Ridge greeted me at the Grape Valley Winery’s barn they’d converted into the offices.
Charlotte, Madison, and I were always together and as adults it wasn’t any different.
“There was no way I could carry all my catered items in that little four-door.” I patted the old RV that Poochie Honeycutt had found for me from the only used car lot in Rumford. “This way I can take the items straight from the oven and put them on the baking racks inside the bakery bus.”
“Bakery bus?” She laughed and shook her head.
“Yes. And the passenger side opens up like a food truck so I can take it to children’s events or even business events that are set up outside.” It really was a neat vehicle and I was pretty pleased how it turned out; another expense I was going to help pay off. “But I still have the Corolla for personal use.”
When I’d moved back to Rumford, I’d had to use Bitsy’s car, but rather quickly realized I needed my own. Poochie also owned the gas station in town. He’d been so nice helping me get a car, I gave him free pastries for life. Plus, he did come in on a regular basis for a sweet treat.
“What are you doing here?” I asked Madison, trying not to lose focus from the amazing landscape.
The vineyard was nestled to the right of the offices and appeared to be rolling for miles along the nooks and crannies of the holler. The grapes were round and fat. They’d be perfect for picking in a few months.
“I’m here to see Ray Peel.” Her brows drew up. Ray was a very wealthy bachelor in Rumford who was a couple of years ahead of me and Madison in school
“Seems like a lot of people are looking for Ray Peel.” I laughed. “I heard he’s giving Friends of the Library half-a-mil. That’s all they need to pay off the new renovation.” It was gossip and I probably shouldn’t’ve said anything, but it was juicy gossip. Not many people around these parts saw half-a-million dollars, much less gave it away.
Madison’s brows narrowed.
“And his generosity doesn’t stop there.” I was talking to my best friend, so it just felt like girl talk. “He donated the use of the winery to the National Wine Tasters of America Convention that’s here in a couple of days. The president of the convention paid me rather nicely to make some desserts.”
“That’s odd. He’s thinking about selling the land.” Slowly she nodded when she saw my shocked reaction.
“Yes.” She leaned in. “But it’s hush-hush. He’s getting a bid from me on what I could list it for.” She rubbed her fingers and thumb together in a big payday gesture. “It would really help me out in getting that new car. I’ve been up since the crack of dawn working on numbers and crunching comps to see what we can ask for it.”
“What about the winery?” I asked. A knot formed in my gut. I should’ve gotten my check for this event up front. “Is it going to stay?”
“I have no idea. I’m assuming the Dugans will still lease the land from the new owners.” She shrugged.
Her words made me feel somewhat better, but still something just felt off. First off, I’d never known Ray Peel to give anything to anyone. That’s how he’d gotten to be a millionaire. He’d been a shrewd businessman and taken after his own father. One standout memory I had that probably shaped my image of Ray was a story I’d overheard Bitsy and my dad talking about when I was a little girl. Dad mentioned how Ray’s mama had left a note on the kitchen table to Ray’s dad telling him she was leaving. They never heard hide nor hair from her afterward. Ray’s dad died right after Ray got out of high school and it was then Ray’d taken over his dad’s properties. After that I lost track of him and hadn’t keep up with him the last ten years.
The office door opened, catching our attention.
“Shh.” Madison flipped around, her eyes big. “Don’t say anything.”
She turned back to face the doors with a big smile on her face and a different tone in her voice.
“Ray.” Madison rushed forward with her hand stuck out for him to shake. “I’m thrilled you’ve given me this time to talk to you.”
“Madison,” Ray nodded. “I expected to see you here, but not little Sophia Cummings.” He strolled over to us. “I’ve got to get down to your new bakery. It’s been the talk of the town. Plus, your Cherry Flip Flops are delicious.”
He stood six feet tall with a hint of grey in his coal black hair. He had a slim, muscular build and nicely rounded biceps that snuck out from the short sleeved shirt. You could tell he was a man who took very good care of himself.
“Oh,” I smiled. “You’ve eaten my Flip Flops?”
“Reba Gunther brought me some today and they were divine. Better than the ones you can get at fast food restaurants.” He rocked back on his heels.
I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or not, but I decided to roll with it.
“You’ll get to sample some more at the fundraiser,” I said. “Which reminds me, I need to get in there and see Reba about my set up.” I smiled at them. Really, I wanted to get in there and see her about my payment. I couldn’t help but wonder why she’d given Ray the Flip Flops when she said they were for Giles Dugan in the morning.
I reached in the van and took out a box I’d filled with some of my original Peanut Butter and Jam Sandwiches. It wasn’t enough for me to spread locally made strawberry jam between two homemade peanut butter cookies, it was the buttercream mixed in with the strawberry jam that made this sweet treat a customer favorite.
I could’ve made more small talk, but I could tell Madison was really excited about the possible listing for her real estate office. She’d been waiting to bag a big fish so she could get a new car. She was hauling her two little kids all over Rumford in her parents’ old wood-paneled station wagon.
“I’ve been thinking about your property,” Madison tucked her hand in the crook of Ray’s arm and led him off in the direction of the vines.
I headed on into the converted barn. The dirt floor had long been replaced by hardwood and the hay lofts had been taken out, making way for some industrial lighting. They’d kept the big open area in the front and built two offices in the back. One for Ray and the other for Giles. Made sense for Giles to have one since he did lease and harvest the vineyard.
Reba’s desk was the first big desk in the middle as soon as you came in the door. Beyond her there were a couple of desks on each side. Tammy Dugan’s name was printed on the wooden nameplate on one. Tammy was Giles’s daughter and word around town was she was really the one running the winery, and was the money behind it.
“Do not tell me those are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?” Reba’s eyes light up.
Perry Dugan had contacted me about doing a special birthday cake for her, which was the only reason I knew her age. He asked me to keep it hush-hush because it was a surprise. Perry had made an appointment for later in the week to come pick something out.
“Okay.” I ho-hummed. “I go put them back in the van.”
“Don’t you dare,” she gasped with a big grin and outstretched arms, fingers doing the gimme here.
“I don’t know. You didn’t seem like you wanted them.” I teased and handed her the box before she could pounce on me.
“Seriously, Dad.” Giles Dugan and Tammy walked in the front door. They hurried past me and Reba.
When Giles Dugan looked at me, I said, “I’m glad you enjoyed the Cherry Flip Flops. I’ll be sure to bring some out again.”
“Cherry what?” He looked at me.
“The pastries from Sophia’s new bakery,” Reba bit her lip nervously.
“Oh, yeah.” He nodded, but I could tell he had no clue what Reba was talking about by the blank look on his face.
It was odd to say the least but I wasn’t going to waste any time on trying to figure out what Reba Gunther had going on. I just wanted to get paid since I didn’t have them make a deposit. Lesson learned. Tammy didn’t even notice me standing there.
“You can’t just lie down and not fight Ray on this. This is not right. This will impact not only the rest of your life and retirement, but mine and your grandchild’s future. Paul is planning on going Ivy League and if I’d known I was going to be out of a job, I’d have been saving for it. Are you going to tell him that he can’t go because you couldn’t stand up to Ray Peel? Well, by gosh, I will stand up to the jerk.” Tammy continued to talk into her father’s ear as they walked to the back of the building and into the office.
I’m going to eat all of these before the days over.” Reba took a bite and nervously chewed.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Giles just doesn’t remember all the food he’s had today. He really wants to make a good impression on the community with the fundraiser since it’s the first one they’ve hosted for the town,” Reba said.
“I’m glad he likes the Flip Flops,” I said, knowing she didn’t even give them to him and lied to me. “What’s Tammy talking about? Why would she be out of a job?”
“Ray Peel wants to sell the land and not renew the winery lease that’s coming due.” She stuffed a full cookie in her mouth. “This week.”
“This week?” That’s why he wanted to see Madison.
Her chin drew an imaginary line up toward the ceiling and back down toward the floor in a dramatic nod.
“Can’t they open a new winery somewhere?” I asked. I had no knowledge of how to make wine or even how the grapes were grown.
She shook her head and swallowed. “Grape Valley is known for their sweet grape which comes from the amazing limestone found here on this land. When the Dugans’ decided to make wine, they did a lot of research. That’s when Giles made the lease agreement with Ray.”
“There’s plenty of limestone all over Rumford.” It wasn’t a secret that Kentucky’s nickname, the Bluegrass State, was because the grass had a slightly blue tint from the rich limestone soil.
“Apparently not for grape growing for the wine that’s made here. Giles even paid for some soil tests around Rumford to see if any matched the quality they have here and there’s nothing else like it.” She glanced over her shoulder.
“So they’re just going to close up if Ray sells?” I asked.
“I’m afraid it’s their only choice. At least that’s the way Giles sees it.” The stress had found its way into the creases between her eyes. “It’s a shame too. He’s been doing so good since his wife died. He put all he had into this company and with one swoop it’s gone.” Her lips turned down. She reached for another cookie, and her face relaxed. She bit into it. “This is so good.”
“And the Cherry Flip Flops didn’t change his mind?” I joked but Reba didn’t laugh. I tapped the box of Peanut Butter and Jam Sandwiches. “I’m glad I could bring some comfort to you today.” I was going to ask for the money they owed me for the catering but right now didn’t seem like the right time. “Where do you want me to set up?”
“You can go on down to the visitor’s center where we do the wine tastings and selling. They’ve got a nice big tent for you to set up there. I drove by there this morning to make sure they had your tables set up.” The phone rang. “Let me know if you need anything. Thank you for the cookies.” She grabbed the receiver of the phone. “Good afternoon, Grape Valley Winery.”
When she paused to answer the phone, Tammy’s voice echoed off the old barn walls and into the air as she stomped by, “Where is that down low dirty dog? He’s going to hear what I have to say, even if it’s the last thing he ever hears!”
I quietly made my way out of the offices. This was my first big job and I was already out a lot of money; I sure hoped they had enough to pay me.
At least the sun was shining, and it was turning out to be an unusually warm day for spring. Mother Nature had decided to grace us with an early budding and the trees were nice and full of vibrant leaves that could be seen across the rolling hills of the vineyard along with the swaying sea of colors from the wildflowers.
As I drove the van toward the visitors area of the winery, I saw some employees already out in the vines and picking the grapes. It was a big operation to run a vineyard. It made me sad to realize just how many families would be impacted by Ray’s decision to sell the land. Especially since there weren’t any other vineyards in Rumford.
For now, I had to put all that in the back of my head. I needed to stick with the commitment at hand. The fundraiser for the library needed to be at the forefront and since the wealthiest of Rumford were going to be in attendance, I just knew they’d taste my delicious treats and hire me to cater more of their events. There was a rainbow in every dark cloud, I thought, and put the van in park.
The winery was also a renovated barn with a café that sat along the bank of a small lake with an amazing view of the vineyards. They had a gift shop inside of the winery carrying the Grape Valley Winery logo on anything you could possibly imagine. Shirts, cups, glasses, plates, napkins, purses, and their own signature bottles. There were three bars where customers could purchase drinks as well as taste the wine. One bar was inside and two bars were outside under the covered patio that included a dance floor where the band was setting up. There were at least twenty round banquet tables with ten white folding chairs circling each. Empty bourbon barrels were made into table tops and empty bottles with the winery label served as centerpieces with the most beautiful array of Kentucky wildflowers I was sure came from the land right here on the winery.
There were so many people running around getting ready for the fundraiser, I wasn’t sure who I needed to check in with, so I just started to pull the trays of pastries off the baking racks and put them on the tables, before I retrieved the mobile display cases.
“Let me help you,” Madison ran up to the van. Her face was as red as a tomato. Her jaw was set and huffed a couple of times.
I pushed the display case to the edge of the van and she jerked it.
“Be careful. These were expensive and they can break. I really need this job to help pay them off.” I peered around the case and looked at her when she didn’t respond with her typical positive words about how much Rumford needed the bakery and I was going to be a huge success. “Ah, oh, you look really mad.”
I’d thought she was hot, but I was sorely wrong.
“That Ray Peel, he’s a jerk.” She tugged a little more and grabbed one side while I grabbed the other. We placed it on the ground. “If I weren’t a good southern girl, I’d strangle him with one of the grapevines out there.”
“Lucky for us.” Catherine Fraxman the librarian had snuck up behind us. “You are a good southern gal. And no one is touching him until I get the money he’s donated for the new addition to the library.” She winked and pulled her long black hair behind her shoulders. She pushed her red glasses up on her nose and reached help Madison with the end of the display case. “Let me help y’all.”
“Thanks.” I was glad to see her since she was the one in charge and it meant the fundraiser was in full swing. I could go get the winery payment before the night was over. “Are you getting excited?” I asked after we set the case on the ground.
“I am. I don’t know what Ray did to you, but I’m excited to see his big donation push us over the goal.” She pursed her lips in satisfaction. “You have no idea how much the library needs his donation. A true lifesaver.”
Lifesaver was a bit over the top, but like I said, no one in Rumford had ever just given away half-a-million dollars.
“I can tell you. . .” Madison started to grumble, but Cat’s phone rang and she quickly answered it.
“Over there,” Cat whispered and pointed to the area where she wanted me to set up. “Hi, Ray. I just got here.”
Madison rolled her eyes and took a deep sigh. She reached down and unlocked the wheels. She shoved the moveable case faster than the wheels could go.
“I’m not sure what’s going on with you, but you’re going to have to push slower on this gravel.” I tried to steady the case so it wouldn’t tip as she shoved it toward me, pushing it across the gravel parking lot and into the grass. We ended by the gazebo that had a perfect view of the lake and the entire vineyard.
Madison stopped; her eyes grazed my right shoulder. I turned around to see what she was glaring at.
I instantly recognized Lanie Truvinski, the president of the wine convention. “I know that lady.” Ray Peel was walking up to Lanie, and he appeared to be on his cell phone. The big smile on Lanie’s face didn’t go unnoticed. “She’s the woman that placed that order this morning.”
“What order?” Madison voice was harsh with frustration. “Who is she?”
“She’s the one I told you about that’s in town for a wine convention.” I shrugged. “Why do you ask?”
“I thought she might be some high-faluting real estate agent.” She brought her attention back to me and pushed a little gentler this time, helping me get the case in place safely.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked, trying not to pry.
“I’m fine.” She gave me a quick hug, but the glare she gave Ray when he and Lanie walked closer to the winery didn’t go unnoticed. “I’ll see you here tonight.”
We gave each other another quick hug, and I decided to give her space. She’d tell me when she was ready.
After I’d come back from retrieving the For Goodness Cakes banner from the van, Lanie and Ray were standing in the gazebo looking out at the lake.
“I need the right buyer.” I overheard Ray say to Lanie. He scoffed, “That agent you just met, she’s what I’d consider low on the real estate scale. She can only handle the cheap properties with cheap buyers. More of the income type of seller, if you know what I mean.”
“It takes a special person to be able to buy a winery.” Lanie spoke with an air of confidence that made my stomach turn. Neither of them knew just how hard Madison would work to find the right buyer. She just needed a chance. “When are you going to shut down production?”
“Tonight.” His words made me gasp.
Out of the corner of my eye, as I hung up my sign, I could see them look at me. I busied myself acting as if I’d not heard them.
“You can’t do that tonight.” Lanie voice held a hoarse frustration. “I’ve got over one hundred of the best wine connoisseurs coming here tomorrow.”
“Too bad.” There wasn’t a sad tone to his words. “I’m losing money quicker than a speeding ticket.”
“Ray.” I could tell by her body language she was trying to keep her cool, but there was a deep frustration in her voice. “Maybe one of the wine members will want to purchase the land if we still have the convention here. I’ll be able to promote the land and the winery for you. Don’t pull the plug on me now. You promised me.”
“Well, honey.” He snickered. “Promises were meant to be broken.”
“I should’ve known you’d do this. This isn’t the first time you’ve disappointed me.” Her words seethed out of her mouth.
The sound of her hand slapping Ray across the face caught my attention. I quickly looked away as he responded with a few choice words that’d make the devil blush. Lanie ran off.
Ray touched his cheek, spit on the ground and turned his attention back toward the lake.
The bluegrass band started to play just as I got the last mini-cupcake placed on the cupcake stand. They were perfect bite sized treats filled with chocolate and vanilla cream that was perfectly paired with the different wines offered to the guest. I’d even made cute little signs that had which pastry paired well with which wine.
It was nice to see the residents of Rumford come out and enjoy the last bit of the afternoon sun, listen to some good music, and hang out with each other while raising money for a good cause. For a Sunday, the winery grounds were busy and full.
Even Cat Fraxman was socializing more than I’d ever seen her do, and she was smiling the entire time. It was strange not seeing her head stuck between the covers of an open book.
Perry and Tammy Dugan strolled over with wine glasses in their hands. Perry reached for one of the cupcakes before Tammy smacked his hand away.
“Please, help yourself.” I laughed at the brother and sister duo. I was always envious of siblings since I didn’t have any, though you might consider Bitsy more of an annoying older sister than a mother. “I’ve got plenty more.”
“If you insist.” Perry flashed that bright white smile. He was very different from his father and he didn’t work for the family business like his sister. He was a lawyer and with all the rumors I’d been hearing today, it looked like he was the only member of the family who wouldn’t be affected by the sale of the land.
“What is that?” Tammy pointed to the plate inside of the glass display.
“Mud puddles.” I opened the door and took one out, placing it on a napkin as I held it over the case for her. After she took it, I pointed to the sheet I’d made up. “Are you drinking Cab?” I asked, guessing that her glass contained Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Beaujolais, Cabernet Sauvigon, Bordeaux, Merlot, and Zinfandel go well with a mud puddle?” Tammy looked at the list and down at the napkin in her hand.
“Smile!” Lizbeth Mockby, the editor of the Rumford Newspaper, hid behind her camera and snapped a few photos of the brother and sister with their pastry treats in the air. “For Goodness Cakes Bakery, right?” She looked at me over the top of her glasses for confirmation.
“Yes. Thanks.” I was happy to take all the free press I could get.
Lizbeth didn’t bother to acknowledge my thanks; she moved like a little flea, hopping from person to person, snapping photos along the way.
Excitement and pride rose from my stomach to my throat almost making me tear up as I saw all the happy faces not only glad to interact with one another, but enjoy my pastries. Everyone told me I’d outdone myself.
Every time Tammy took a bite of the cookie she followed it up with a sip of her wine. Her face relaxed and a smile crossed her lips. A satisfied gurgle even escaped her throat. This was the exact reaction that made me love baking so much. It was the satisfaction and happiness baked goods brought to people that made me feel like I was making some sort of difference in the world, making it a happier place one pastry at a time.
“Delicious.” Perry smiled.
“I think you’re right.” Tammy nodded and popped the rest of a cookie in her mouth, slowly chewing every savory bite before she took another sip of wine. “Perry,” she whispered, “You must try. Amazing.”
Tammy held the napkin out for him. He took the mud puddle off the napkin and took a bite.
“This cookie is amazing.” His eyes were gentle. “Tammy is right. You’re a pretty amazing baker.”
“Tammy, do you know where your father is?” Reba’s eyes snapped between Tammy and Perry after she walked over. “Cat Fraxman is desperately looking for him. She’s not a happy person right now. I think Ray told her.”
Their attention quickly locked on Cat Fraxman and Ray Peel. Cat and Ray seemed to be having a very heated discussion. Her voice above the band and laughter of all the guests. Perry and Tammy headed that way and I watched as Ray’s face contorted when they reached him.
While I rearranged and added some pastries to keep the display looking full and pretty, I could see Bitsy scurrying my way.
“You didn’t go home and change?” Bitsy brows knitted together. Her eyes bore into me with each step she took toward me.
“I think you look just fine.” My dad, Robert, stood next to her. “Bitsy, she’s working.”
He’d obviously just came from work because he had on his three-piece suit that he used for trials.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ray storm off toward the vineyard, cursing under his breath.
“She needs to work on settling down. Where is Carter anyway?” Bitsy’s disapproval of my lack of interest in getting married was written all over her face. But ever since I started dating Sheriff Carter Kincaid, Bitsy had been dropping off bridal magazines in my mailbox on a weekly basis. “Robert, none of us are getting any younger, and I’d like to be able to run around with my grandchildren on my own two feet instead of them pushing me in a wheelchair.” Bitsy let out a very loud and exhausting sigh.
“You talk about me like I’m not here.” I looked between them. “I’m here for a job, not to attend and donate, or be on a date with Carter.”
I wanted to remind Bitsy exactly why I moved back to Rumford from New York City, though falling in love with Carter* was a bonus. He’d gone to school with me, Charlotte, and Madison, but wasn’t a stand out like the boys we’d hung around with. He was quiet, reserved, and observant, qualities I like much more now that we are older.
Since he had the title of sheriff and came from what Bitsy would call “good stock”, she was pleased as a peach when we’d started dating.
“Smile for the camera,” Lizbeth chimed in on her way back over to us.
“Where have you been?” Bitsy gave Lizbeth a scowl. “You were supposed to be at the Junior League last night taking pictures for the society page. We raised over two-thousand dollars.”
“Yeah. I got a little tied up, but I’ll be sure to get a photo of you and the league members today with the check. I’ll definitely put you on the society page.” Lizbeth knew the right words to say to Bitsy.
Bitsy perked up and nudged my dad. I was standing on the other side of him for the photo and he jerked away from Bitsy.
“Robert, smile with your mouth slightly open and show your teeth,” she instructed him. “Not the fake pull-your-lips-apart kind, either. Actually, think of something that will make you laugh.”
“Like the thought of you gardening?” I asked and dad busted out laughing.
“Good one.” Lizbeth grinned.
“I want to see it. I don’t think I was smiling.” Bitsy rushed over to Lizbeth’s side and tried to get a glimpse at the digital screen that gave a preview of the photo.
“It’s fine,” Lizbeth assured her, but held her camera close to the cuff.
While the two of them debated whether or not Lizbeth was going to show Bitsy the photo, I tugged dad toward the For Goodness Cakes Bakery counter.
“Would you like a Nanner’ mini pie?” I asked, putting on my sweet as pie face because Cat had walked up.
Before he answered, I took out a mini graham cracker pie shell, knowing it was hard for Bitsy and Dad to refuse any sort of homemade treat from their daughter. Especially Nanner’ mini pie.
“You’ve got to be so proud of Sophia coming back to Rumford after all of these years and reopening the old bakery?” Cat clasped her hands in front of her and rocked back on the heels of her black flats.
Bitsy rejoined us after Lisbeth found someone else to capture.
“Mmhhhmmm,” Bitsy’s lips snapped together and she nodded her head.
“We are very, very proud of our daughter, even if she didn’t come back to Rumford. But there’s no denying we are pleased she’s come home to live.” Dad always had the right thing to say. “Have you tried Sophia’s Nanner’ mini pie?” Dad offered his mini pie to Cat, but she politely declined.
“I’m excited you’re here and hope you still plan on giving generously to the addition to the library. Especially since you are in the Friends of the Library club.” Cat wasn’t so subtle in asking for money.
“You can rest assured we have our check.” My dad patted the front pocket of the suit coat before he took one of the Heart of Rumford cookies.
“I hope it’s big,” Cat chirped.
Dad dropped the cookie and Bitsy quickly picked it up.
“Blow it off. It ain’t dirty.” She popped the cookie in dad’s mouth. “Sophia needs all the samples here she can get. I noticed no one was in her bakery today. This will be good advertisement.”
I gave Bitsy the stink eye. It was best to ignore her. She knew I wasn’t going to say anything at the fundraiser.
“Dad, can I talk to you?” I asked him.
He looked at Bitsy like he needed her permission.
“I’m going to go say hi to the girls from the Garden Club.” Bitsy excused herself.
“What’s going on, kiddo?” My dad treated me like I was still a teenager.
“I wanted to ask you about intellectual property law. I was cleaning out the bakery office and I found the Fords’ old recipe journal. It appears to be really old and I’d love to recreate some of their recipes. Is that illegal?”
“It’s true you did buy the bakery, but morally I think you know what you need to do.” His head tilted, his soft eyes looked down at me.
“I was afraid you’d say that.” A sigh escaped me. “I did try to call them, but I guess I could stop by their house.”
“They’d love that. I wonder if they know you were the one who bought the bakery?” He asked a good question. Everything with the sale was done through their lawyer and Madison, since she was the real estate agent.
“Thanks, dad.” I gave him a quick hug and let him go enjoy his evening.
Cat was still waiting for me.
“Are you okay?” I asked. Tears lined the ridges of her lower lids, and if she blinked they would flood right on over and mess up the pretty makeup she wore.
“No.” Her jaw tensed as she swallowed back that wall of tears. “Ray Peel said he wasn’t able to give the donation he’d pledge to give.”
“How much is he donating?” I asked.
“Much less. Like nothing. Nada. Zip. Goose egg.” She held her fingers tips together in the shape of a zero.
“But.” I started to ask her about it. “What about the half million?”
“That man,” she spat. “I swear…” She started to say something, but stopped herself. Her eyes became flat and unreadable. “Karma is a bitch.”
Of course, after Cat had stormed off, I’d kept my eye on the crowd and how many people seemed to give her checks for donations. I had to give her credit because she’d taken the donations with a smile on her face, thought I knew she was dying inside. She seemed to be holding it together when the entire addition to the library was crumbling in front of her eyes.
From what I’d heard, there had to be certain amount pledged before the bank would even give the city the loan to build the addition. It was rumored that Ray Peel had made the pledge as long as his name was on the new addition. Of course, it was hearsay. Gossip around town spread like butter on a hot, fresh out of the oven biscuit.
“Did I miss anything?” Charlotte asked hurried next to me, pushing her purse under the counter. She pushed her hair back with her hands and grabbed the apron I had brought for her to put on over her clothes.
“Did you,” I responded, pointing her face toward Cat. “Ray Peel has not only pulled his funding for the project, but he’s also planning on selling the land. Oh. . .” I pointed my finger in the air toward her. “Remember the lady who ordered the pastries for the wine convention?”
“She was here and she smacked Ray.” I watched as Charlotte’s eyes grew big. “You missed a lot.”
“Okay.” Her jaw dropped. “The land is no big deal, but the funding? What’s going to happen with the library addition? And why did that lady smack him?”
I shrugged. “I guess they’ll have to pay on the loan from the bank.” I looked at my watch and noticed it was already eight-thirty. I didn’t want the offices to close before I got my money.
“Maybe you can get some inside scoop while you’re here.” I untied the apron from around my waist and hung it on the corner of the display case. “I’m going to go get my check from the Dugans before they decide they can’t pay me. Do you think you can hold down the fort?”
“Absolutely.” There was a gleam of excitement in her eyes. There was nothing Charlotte loved more than good gossip; she’d have all the answers before I got back.
It was that strange time of the day when it isn’t quite dark but is past dusk. The sun had set on the rolling hills on the horizon and painted the sky with a burnt orange and dark blue. If I didn’t hurry, it’d be dark before I got back and the vineyard would become a maze.
I hurried down the row of the grapevines and it took a lot for me to not pluck off a grape. I loved grapes. Especially when I put them in a dessert to sweeten it a little more. Or even just threw some in a baggie to put in a freezer for a nice garnish to a cocktail at a catered baby shower or bridal shower. It was the little touches that made the catering business so special and kept customers coming back.
Being around the grapes, the sun setting and the entangled vines had my head swimming with creative ideas. My foot got hung on an old tangled dead grapevine. I tried a couple of times to jerk my foot out. Without success, I felt myself start to tumble. I put my arms out to gain balance, grabbing a ripe grapevine on my way down. Un-ripened grapes plucked off the vine one-by-one as my hand slid down, following suit with the rest of my body.
“Oh no!” I screamed when I realized I’d not fallen on top a soft piece of ground, but I was on top and face-to-face with Ray Peel. A wide-eyed and blue-lipped Ray Peel. “Ray?” I frantically called out his name and put my hand on the front of his shirt. “Ray?” I asked again when I didn’t feel or see a rise and fall of his chest. “No, no, no,” I pleaded and put my ear up to his heart to even see if I could hear a heartbeat.
Nothing. Ray Peel was dead.