Chocolate Bunny Betrayal
Book 5 in the Holiday Cozy Mystery
When amateur sleuth and town journalist, Violet Rhinehammer, stumbles upon a dead body during the Hip Hop Hurray Easter Festival, she knows she has to get to the bottom of things.
As she delves deeper into the mystery, she discovers that one of the bunnies auditioning for the top spot was seen running away from the scene of the crime. With the added pressure of keeping her identity as the town’s Merry Maker a secret, Violet must work quickly to uncover clues and find the killer before they strike again.
But the investigation takes a delicious turn after some clues turn up at bake-off competition. Could one of the baking contestants have motive to commit murder over a prize-winning dessert?
Is this a case of chocolate bunny betrayal, or is there something even darker at play?
Violet encounters a cast of colorful characters, including rival bunnies competing for the top spot, a demanding Easter Bunny, and a group of mischievous bakers vying for the top baker spot. With twists and turns at every corner, Violet must use all of her skills and wit to solve the case before the killer hops away.
Chocolate Bunny Betrayal
Book 5 in the Holiday Cozy Mystery
Chocolate Bunny Betrayal
“This is all wrong.” Mama scraped the side of the big pot that sat atop one of the many stoves in the Incubator, a kitchen that amateur chefs and bakers used in the back of the Freedom Diner.
“You didn’t put enough water in the boiler.” Nate Lustig, the diner’s owner and the head honcho of the Incubator, stood over Mama’s shoulder, giving her pointers. “See?” He lifted the double boiler and had Mama look inside. “All gone. Evaporated!”
He clapped, making her jump.
“We can fix it.” Nate grabbed a few ingredients and some heavy cream. He poured them in while Mama vigorously stirred.
I was too busy with my own dark chocolate concoction to worry about what Mama was doing. The small bunny molds would be perfect for the dark chocolate treats I’d planned to give out to the friends I’d made in Holiday Junction while working at the Easter-egg-dyeing station for the Hip Hop Hurray Easter Festival.
It was my first Easter here, and with the huge town Bake-Off to celebrate the holiday, I’d agreed to come with Mama to the Incubator. She’d entered the Bake-Off and could perfect her Easter dirt cake here. She claimed the chocolate bunnies she was going to outline the cake with would make her design the winner, which was why she insisted on getting the melted chocolate just right.
The sound of the aerosol can of cooking spray I was using to coat the bunny molds combined with the whirring of mixers and a blender, the clanging of pots and pans, the sizzling of pans on the stove, and the clinking of utensils other people used.
Nate moved around the kitchen and gave the occasional shout or conversation between himself and one of the bakers. Though this was his weekly baking class, most of the bakers in the Incubator were also contestants in the big Bake-Off.
When I heard the squeak of the oven doors opening and closing and the beeping of timers going off, I looked around to see who had either started or ended the baking process.
Frances Green had called Nate over to test the cake she’d taken out of the oven. She was one of Mama’s toughest competitors.
Nate’s fork slid through the slice of chocolate cake. He put it in his mouth and raked the tines along the bottoms of his teeth as a look of pure bliss forced his eyes to close.
It was almost like I could also savor the rich chocolate that made Nate’s lips curl up into a satisfied smile.
“Perfect,” Nate said. He let out a small sigh of contentment and then took another bite of the moist, fluffy cake.
Frances clapped in delight. The lines around her mouth deepened as her smile grew. She pushed back a few of the loose strands of grey hair that’d fallen out of her topknot and straightened her shoulders as her inner confident baker came out. It was no secret that Frances had won the Bake-Off last year and was here with a passion to win again, making the competition fierce.
Well, for Mama at least. And when I caught Mama looking at Frances, I saw a fire in Mama’s eyes, one I’d seen before. The kind of spark that gave her a challenge, and that was what she lived for.
Frances reached around her waist and untied her apron before she tossed it into the dirty hamper.
“The perfect balance of sweetness and chocolate in every bite.” Nate bit into the treat again as if he needed to back up his statement. “Every bite.”
“Thank you.” Frances slid her gaze over to Mama with a wry smile. “This isn’t even the recipe I’m going to enter into the contest.”
“By the smile on your face, you look like you’ve got someone special.” Willow Johnson pulled her shoulders up to her ears as she blushed.
“I do,” Frances whispered loudly enough for me to make out the words that piqued my interest. “But I can’t tell anyone. Yet.”
“Good for you.” Willow conveyed her excitement in a touch above a hushed tone. “You deserve it. Especially after all the time you put into Holiday Junction.”
I turned my body slightly so I could hear them a little better, but I wasn’t quick enough.
Frances’s phone alarm sounded. She took the phone out of her apron pocket.
“I’ll be back later to make the one for the competition. I’m going to be late for the audition if I don’t get out of here now.” Frances’s smile never faltered from when Willow asked about the special someone.
In fact, Frances’s smile got bigger as she walked closer to Mama.
“I see you made some hollow chocolate bunnies. I bet they are so good.” Frances looked over Mama’s shoulder. “I love a good chocolate bunny.”
Frances pointed at the ten molds Mama had made to surround her cake with the first time around.
“Would you like one?” Mama asked.
“I’d love one. Thank you, Millie Kay.” Frances scanned down the line, trying to decide which bunny looked appetizing to her. “How did you know chocolate bunnies are my favorite?”
“Just a guess. I have one special just for you.” Mama bent down and took one out of the baking case she’d brought from home.
“It has eyes and a little button candy nose.” Frances took the one Mama had made at home for practice. Mama had even put pastel sugar candy buttons on the chocolate bunny for more detail for the nose, eyes, and teeth. “These are adorable.”
“Thank you.” Mama was proud of what she’d done at home, but today she couldn’t even melt the chocolate properly, much less make any sort of bunnies to go around her cake.
“I’ll eat this while I go judge the annual bunny competition. I can guarantee there are going to be some big changes, and some people aren’t going to like them.” Frances waved the chocolate bunny in the air on her way out the door. “You better hurry up.”
“Mama, that was nice of you.” I wanted her to know I was proud of her, since she’d been yammering on and on about Frances being tough competition for her.
“Ahem.” Mama intentionally cleared her throat to make me look at her. It was her way of telling me she didn’t want me to mention the kind gesture again unless it was necessary. “We’ll have to come back. I have to be at the Easter Bunny auditions in about five minutes, and you have to take the photos,” she said, reminding me of the article I was doing for the Junction Journal.
I glanced up at the clock on the wall to check the time. The past few hours had gone by fast, and I’d yet to get my mold into the refrigerator.
“Oh no,” Willow Johnson cried out over the hum of her mixer. “It’s already time for the audition?”
She flipped the switch and ran her fingers down the front of her apron, leaving a chocolate streak trail before she used the apron’s bottom edges to wipe her hands down.
“Maximus is probably wondering where I’m at.” She untied her apron, wadded it up, and placed it on the mixer. When she hurried off, it fell to the ground. “I’ll be back,” she called over her shoulder and ran out of the building.
“Then we have to hurry,” I told her, starting to scoop my melted dark chocolate out of the pan and into the molds. “Nate,” I called to him.
He looked up.
“Can I leave these in the freezer until later?” I asked. “We have to get to the bunny auditions.”
I wasn’t a judge like Mama. She was a new member on the Village Council and had the hard task of choosing the perfect bunny for the village’s Hip Hop Hurray event.
“I’m going to start fresh later.” Mama literally tossed everything, including the top pan of the double boiler, in the large jute sack she’d used to bring all her ingredients in from home. “Are you ready?” Mama gave me the side eye.
“Let me get these into the refrigerator and snap a few quick photos.” Carefully, I picked up each mold, walked them across the test kitchen, and placed them on a shelf in the walk-in freezer.
“Violet! Let’s go!” Mama had already left the Incubator and stood outside on the sidewalk, yelling for me, swinging her baking box back and forth.
“Thanks, Nate.” I offered a wry smile in an attempt to apologize for Mama’s behavior. At times like these, she wasn’t so southern and ladylike as she thought she was.
“I think I’ve lost my touch,” Mama whined before she picked up her speed, swinging her arms.
The weather was warm and sunny, with clear blue skies and a gentle breeze coming off the ocean. It was nice to see the beach crowded with people who had come to Holiday Junction to enjoy the holiday.
Mama stomped down the seaside sidewalk on the way toward the lighthouse. We were trying to catch the trail leading up to Holiday Park, where the main events of the Hip Hop Hurray Festival would take place.
It was best not to say anything to her or answer her when she was like this, which I’d learned a long time ago.
Instead of commenting, I grunted a few mm-hhmms and did a little window shopping. It was fun to see how the small shops along the seashore had decorated their display windows. Easter-themed decorations such as bunnies, eggs, and pastel colors seemed to be the décor of choice.
A few children darted around Mama then around me as their parents called for them, but the excitement of holiday chocolate was smeared all over their faces.
I sucked in a deep breath, taking in the scent of saltwater mixed with sunscreen that filled the air. The sound of waves crashing on the shore was so soothing and made me smile.
I’d really fallen in love with Holiday Junction without even knowing it.
One big cardboard Easter Bunny was duct-taped to the black door of the jiggle joint. No doubt Darren Strickland had gone to such great efforts to fulfil the Village Council’s request that all businesses in Holiday Junction put out some sort of decoration for the holiday.
It took all my willpower not to open the door and slip in where Darren Strickland was working on this week’s liquor order.
“Violet Rhinehammer!” Mama stopped, turned around, threw her hands on her hips, and glared. “What are you doing? Stop lollygagging this instant,” she snapped and twirled back around, walking like one of those speed walkers at the mall.
I gave one last look at the bar’s door and sighed. Seeing Darren would have to wait.
“Violet!” Mama yelled her one-last-time-or-she-would-scold-me yell, even though I was almost thirty years old. “The Leisure Center will be a great place for the Leading Ladies to practice, and I found the perfect place.”
“You found a place?” She got my attention, because that was a sure sign the idea had formed into a more solid planning stage.
I hurried up beside her with full attention.
“Did you hear me about the Leisure Center?” Mama had this crazy idea that Holiday Junction needed a place for seniors to go. “I’m telling you I’d be really good at helping people my age.”
“Your age?” I questioned. “You’re sixty.”
Mama had gotten a harebrained idea that Holiday Junction needed something like a senior center, only she named it the Leisure Center. She’d been eyeballing a few older buildings in the area, and it seemed like she’d settled on one.
“We won’t have to practice outside in all the elements anymore,” she said and hurried up the sidewalk leading from the seaside to Holiday Park.
The sun shone brightly on this beautiful spring day as the Hip Hop Hurray Easter Festival was being set up in the large park.
The park was bustling. Vendors were setting up their booths on the far side of the park, toward the bubbling fountain. The echo from the Leading Ladies inside the bowl of the amphitheater filled the air, as did the laughter of tourists who came off the lake as they paddled around in the large swan boats.
Spring was one of my favorite seasons, and since this was my first spring here, Holiday Junction didn’t disappoint.
“I’ll be over in a few!” Mama yelled at the Leading Ladies to let them know her itinerary.
“Isn’t it gorgeous here?” Mama must’ve felt the light in her spirit too. “After a long winter, I’m so glad to have this sunshine.” She tucked her arm in my elbow and pointed out what the committee had done to make this year’s Hip Hop Hurray Easter Festival the best yet.
And that included her participation in the Leading Ladies production as well as taking home the Golden Egg Trophy for winning the stiff baking competition.
The park was adorned with colorful decorations and flowers hanging from baskets suspended from the planters on the carriage lights. The banners hanging from the dowel rods fluttered in the breeze, adding to the festive atmosphere. The large fountain in the park’s center was a popular spot, with children running around and splashing in the cool water.
It was funny to see seven Easter Bunnies all lined up near a banquet table in various types of outfits, trying to win the coveted title to play the Easter Bunny during the entire Hip Hop Hurray Easter Festival. They took that very seriously around here.
“Don’t forget to get me sitting at the judges’ table,” Mama told me as she ran her hand over her shoulder-length blond hair with a hint of gray around the scalp. Her makeup was as perfect as if she’d just left the makeup counter at a high-end department store.
Mama was every part of the southern lady she had always been, even though we no longer lived in the South.
“How do I look?” She tugged at the hem of her monogrammed three-quarter-length sweater as it lay against her jeans.
“You look fantastic,” I told her. “And you’ll be the prettiest picture I take all day.”
Mama hurried over to the judges’ table and sat in the chair on the far right, leaving a chair open between her and Emily, the owner of Emily’s Treasures. Frances hadn’t taken her middle seat at the judges’ table. I took the moment to snap a few shots of Mama sitting there so Frances wouldn’t be in the photos. Or at least I wouldn’t have to crop them out if Mama was standing over my shoulder at the office while I wrote the article.
I moseyed around, slipping in and out of the crowd milling around the park to get some action shots for the Junction Journal.
There were six bunnies in costume, and they were all completely different. They were also carrying baskets filled to the brim with colored eggs. Some looked to be the real dyed kind, making me shiver, since I’d done my civic duty as a member of the village and volunteered for a couple of hours during the festival at the egg-dyeing table. The other baskets looked like they were filled with plastic eggs. But the one bunny basket that really got my attention was the one with the two little baby bunnies nestled inside.
“Easter Bunny,” I said as I approached and wiggled my camera in the air, “may I take your photo for the Junction Journal?”
The bunny nodded and then turned slightly, gave the little cotton tail a little wiggle, and came my way with a little hopping action.
Before too long, the four other bunnies had hopped over, trying to get me to take a photo.
They had really gotten their ability to grab a child’s attention down—and my attention too.
One hopped around in a playful manner, attempting to catch my eye by playing peek-a-boo. Another had started to clap the paws and give a little squeal while waving at me.
But the one who rattled a plastic egg, indicating that something was inside, and then offered it to me really got my attention.
“I’m a sucker for Easter candy,” I teased and snapped a few photos that included all the bunnies before they hopped away.
I sure didn’t envy Mama, Emily, and Frances’s job. They were going to have a hard time picking which one would be the best because they all looked great to me.
All but the fifth one, who wore a distinctive bow tie and had not tried to come over but was hopping toward the judges’ table.
“Smart,” I whispered and brought the camera up to my eye, using my hand to manually zoom in.
In the bliss of watching the bunny stand behind Mama and tease her by trying to take her baking box, I didn’t even see Darren Strickland come up behind me.
“Looks like someone is trying to win over Millie Kay.” His deep voice and warm breath on my ear made me jump.
“You scared me, Darren Strickland.” I playfully smacked him on the arm. “I see the Mad Fiddlers are setting up after the Leading Ladies rehearse.”
“I think the Merry Maker picked an egg-cellent spot this year.” Darren made a horrible joke.
As the editor, photographer, journalist and pretty much the only employee at the Junction Journal, even though Mama had recently joined on as part of my research team, I had all the schedules for the holiday functions so I could take photos and report on them.
And because I was Holiday Junction’s secret Merry Maker, it was nice to be able to have the inside scoop publicly, making the secret job much easier to perform.
The rules about the Merry Maker weren’t clear. The only rules were these: no one could know, and a person-sized sign in the shape of the holiday had to be planted in the area where the Merry Maker wanted the holiday’s last hurrah to take place. No one had ever known if co-Merry Makers existed, but I decided on that rule when Darren caused Mama to find out about my secret identity.
“Yes, they did.” I stared into his dark eyes, resisting the urge to curl up on my tiptoes and kiss him. Instead, I reached up and mussed the longer curls in his dark hair.
“Stop.” He batted me away. “Seriously. Do you like it?”
“I love it.” I twisted my shoulders toward the amphitheater. A huge wooden cutout of a decorated Easter egg was placed near it. “It’s a perfect place to end the festival. And the Mad Fiddlers are playing too.”
I hadn’t picked the amphitheater as the final hurrah for the festival because Darren’s band was playing—not that I didn’t choose that spot for that reason. Even though Darren and I had become co-Merry Makers, which I suspected was a first after hundreds of years, and I was wildly attracted to him, I wanted his band to be popular. If I had the power to let them be part of the final Easter celebration, I was going to do that.
“Thank you,” he said, his eyes softening under his thick dark brows. “I know you suggested it for me.”
He leaned in just enough to get my heart racing and my mind believing he was about to kiss me. Right there. In front of everyone.
A bloodcurdling scream made us jerk apart and look to see who was in desperate need of help.
The seven Easter Bunnies scattered in different directions. Make that six, because the one Mama was standing over lay flat on his fluffy back. Colorfully decorated Easter eggs had spilled out of the white basket and were strewn all around the costumed person auditioning for the part.
Mama brought her hands over her mouth and screamed, “The Easter Bunny is dead!”