Series: Sweet Bites Mysteries #1
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: 10/07/2012
Contributors: Heather Justesen
Genre: Culinary Mystery
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Sometimes weddings can be murder.
Pastry chef Tess Crawford thought moving from Chicago to quiet Silver Springs, Arizona would simplify her life. That was before she found the body of a maid-of-honor with whom she had traded heated words the previous night, left her fingerprints on the murder weapon, and came under attack for trying to clear her name. When her cheating ex-fiance shows up, intent on convincing her to come back to work for him, Tess—armed with an extra batch of éclairs—decides to take control and solve the mystery herself, with the help of a few friends.
But will that be enough to save her when her investigation gets too close and the killer decides it’s safer to get her out of the way?
Also in this series:
I pulled into a parking spot and took a deep breath. What was I doing here?
Okay, so I knew what I was doing. I was bringing moist, delicious, award-winning brownies to the wedding rehearsal of a woman I’d known for years and always disliked, in the pathetic grand ballroom of a three-star hotel. It was a long fall from the Best-in-State hotel restaurant in Chicago where I’d created cakes and pastries for the past nine years. I tried not to let that bother me.
And the whole thing made me as nervous as a preteen at her first bakeoff with much older kids—an event I remembered clearly almost twenty years later.
My cell phone vibrated in my pocket. “Honey,” I greeted my best friend after a glance at the Caller ID. “This is a big mistake. I can’t believe I let you talk me into it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. This is nothing—you’ve baked cakes that cost more than my car. This is a batch of brownies. Have you left for the hotel yet?”
“I’m here. And don’t talk down about our award-winning brownie recipe.”
Honey laughed. “See, you’ll be fine.”
“If I fail at this, I may never forgive you, so you know.” I climbed from my Mitsubishi Outlander and walked around to the back to retrieve the box of brownies.
“You’ve never failed at anything, and we need a good custom bakery in town. Not to say anything against ours at the store, but our staff is hardly cut out to do fancy wedding cakes.” She spoke of Mark’s Foodtown, her in-laws’ grocery store, which her husband now managed. The suggestion that I start my own bakery here in town wasn’t a new refrain; Honey had been singing it for several years.
The quiet town of Silver Springs, Arizona, wasn’t exactly a hotbed of socialites willing to pay thousands for custom cakes, but with everything else in my life crumbling to ashes, she’d convinced me to give it a go. I hoped having the much larger city of Prescott close by would bring in extra business to keep me running since my savings account would only stretch so far. “I ought to go,” I said as I clicked the button to lock the vehicle’s doors and headed for the hotel. “Have to face Bridezilla.”
“She’s not your first.”
“And I’m sure she won’t be the last,” I agreed as I pushed through the double glass doors and headed toward the grand ballroom. It wasn’t particularly grand, but it would fit the needs of most locals. The new reception center wasn’t supposed to be up and running for a couple more months.
“Hey, at least you only had to put up with her for a week—it could have been worse.”
When I looked back at the hurried cleaning and planning to renovate my grandma’s old restaurant into a pastry shop, I had a hard time believing that I was still working in Chicago seven days earlier. I felt a tug of longing for what I had thrown away, but pushed it back as I entered the left half of the ballroom, which had been sectioned off for tonight’s meal while the wedding party held their rehearsal on the other side. Muffled voices leaked through to me as I set the pastry box on the table and checked to make sure my short, dark-brown hair was still tight in its little ponytail at the nape of my neck. Then I pulled on a pair of food-grade gloves and began to set the rocky road brownies on the provided tray.
“Valerie, this is my wedding. Can’t you let it go for one night?” A woman’s voice drew my attention as two women walked into the room. It was the bride, Analesa.
“It’s not like I’m trying to seduce Tad. Shawn is an adult, remember?” the woman who must have been Valerie answered. She gestured expansively, and her jeweled bracelet caught my eye. The voices went low again, and I heard a few phrases like control yourself and get a grip. The conversation was punctuated with angry eyes and finger jabs to the air.
So not everything was smooth sailing with this wedding. Since I’d done cakes for hundreds of weddings, I knew that was hardly unusual. And Analesa had never been particularly easy to please. Though we never hung out on my long summer visits to Silver Springs to see my grandma, I remembered well what a control freak she was.
I glanced at the two women, the blonde bride and her brunette maid of honor—I hadn’t met many of the members of the wedding party, but I recognized Valerie’s name from when Analesa paid for the cake.
Both women were tall, tanned and had long hair flowing down their backs, but that was where the similarities ended. Analesa was the picture of conservative upper class—the poster wife for her attorney fiancé—though she’d been raised at lower-middle class at best. Valerie was dressed like a loaded call girl, from the strappy red Jimmy Choo’s, which I admit made my knees weak with envy, to the formfitting dress that showcased her ample cleavage.
I tried to pretend I wasn’t listening while I strained to catch more of the conversation. Valerie turned toward me and approached, all but stomping in her heels, if anything so graceful could be considered stomping. “Quit being so uptight, Ana. I’m just trying to have a little fun.”
Analesa looked like she intended to continue the conversation, but her groom-to-be, Tad, entered the room and caught her by the elbow. I thought he looked far less handsome in person than in his engagement picture, which I’d seen around town. And more geeky, with his slicked-back, tawny hair and silver-rimmed glasses. Maybe it was the stress of dealing with warring women, I mused. I added the last brownie to the trays the kitchen staff had provided me, then shifted them all around for the perfect presentation. I added another item to the growing mental list of equipment I would need for my new shop and imagined my savings account shrinking.
Valerie dragged my attention back to her. “Brownies? Aren’t you Tempest Crawford? I heard you were supposed to be some amazing pastry chef, a woman who creates fabulous desserts capable of awing the most discerning of customers. And yet we have brownies.” She stared down her nose at the delectable delights. “Are all your awards invented to make you sound impressive?” She snatched one from the tray. Her bracelet sparkled, almost blinding me at this proximity, the colored stones catching the light, the dangles jingling as she moved. A matching necklace with a large, gaudy pendant and cluster earrings glittered, completing the set.
I couldn’t help feeling defensive, but determined to stay professional, I clenched my jaw and forced a smile. “You should wait until dinner. You’re ruining the presentation. And this is what Analesa asked me to make. These brownies are award-winning.”
“I’m sure they are—in tiny burgs like this one. Even in Prescott they’re probably considered fancy fare. I doubt you’ll have any trouble fitting in here.” She took a large bite, looking smug.
I held in a growl at her disregard for etiquette as the other guests entered the room. I needed to make a good impression, as this was my first opportunity to showcase my pastry skills since my impulsive relocation. I knew any work I found here would be a far cry from my previous employment, but I was determined to make my business succeed.
Valerie tipped her head to the side, looking at the ceiling as though considering the dessert’s merits as she chewed and swallowed. “They’re fine, I suppose. But I know this chef in Mesa—Roscoe Marks. He’d bake circles around you. Sorry, sweetie.” With a gleam of meanness in her eyes, took another large bite before she turned and walked off.
I couldn’t help myself. Roscoe? She was comparing my award-winning brownie recipe to Roscoe? He was such a poser! If she’d wanted to offend me, she could not have done better—besides comparing my work to Karen’s, that is, but as my former boss wasn’t a pastry chef, such a comparison was unlikely to happen. “That idiot wouldn’t know a turkey roaster from a double boiler.” I said this low so no one else would hear, but I must have been louder than I thought.
Valerie twisted back, amusement in her eyes. “Hit a mark, didn’t I? I know why you’re here—you were let go by your former employer. Surprised I heard about that, aren’t you? Small towns have big mouths. In your late thirties and you’re already a washed-up has-been.” She turned and trotted off.
I saw red. I was only thirty-one, for heaven’s sake, and I didn’t get fired, I quit. I had them begging me to come back. Knowing that didn’t stop a shaft of hurt from accompanying the anger, though.
A tall, blond man who did serious justice to the navy designer suit he wore—Armani, if my guess was right—followed Valerie into the hall, a look of determination on his face.
Tad approached and addressed me. “Ana’s been telling me all about your fabulous desserts. The brownies look great, and I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with the cake on such short notice.” He extended a hand. “Hi, I suppose I ought to introduce myself. I’m Tad Richardson. I’m the anxious groom.” He stepped in front of me so I couldn’t tear off after Valerie and mar her pretty little face before the wedding. I don’t know what he was worried about. It’s not like I would do anything permanent.
I sucked in a breath and admitted to myself that I wouldn’t have hurt her. We would have crossed verbal swords again, and since she had my measure, she was more likely to come out ahead. Reining in my emotions, I focused my attention on tomorrow’s groom and forced a polite smile as I took his hand, which was cool and dry. He had a nice, firm grip—something I appreciated.
“It’s good to meet you. I know Analesa is very excited about becoming Mrs. Richardson. And I promise tomorrow’s cake won’t disappoint. You’ve had the benefit of my almost undivided attention, which didn’t hurt.” I admit, my vanity was mollified by his words. Smooth talkers—I always seemed to fall for them, which was why I’ve had two failed engagements. But now was not the time for dwelling on my relationship failures.
His grin transformed his face from a serious, but pleasant-looking, geek, to someone considerably more handsome. Even his green eyes seemed to sparkle. Ah, the man in the photos did exist.
A tall, platinum blonde who ought to have had some gray in her hair, but instead looked fresh and young as a forty-year-old, came over, putting a hand on Tad’s elbow. “Sweetheart, can you find out what’s keeping the food? And track down Jeff and Valerie—he took off after her and we’re ready to sit down, don’t you think?”
“Of course, Mother.”
Mother, like they were some high-fashion set. All polite façade and no warmth, but then I changed my mind. There was warmth in both mother’s and son’s eyes when they looked at each other. Yet she wasn’t Mom, she was Mother. I let the thought go—there were too many odd characters in this group.
Tad turned to leave as a little girl ran over to him. She had dark hair and a sweet pixie face with huge green eyes and a smile that would light up a high-rise. “Tad, where you goin’?”
“To find your mom. You want to come along?” He held out his hand to her with a fond smile. She accepted both as her due and they wandered out together. That adorable little girl was Valerie’s? Really?
I offered my hand to Tad’s mother. “Hello, my name is Tempest Crawford, but you can call me Tess. I’m about to get out of your way for the evening.”
“I’m Caroline Richardson. Tad’s mother, of course. Well, your brownies look delicious. I’ve heard such great things about your desserts. I look forward to sampling one.” Her smile was genuine, but I doubted the woman had eaten a brownie in the past ten years. She looked slightly better fed than an Ethiopian during a drought.
I appreciated the kind words, however, so I thanked her and made a final adjustment to cover the hole Valerie’s theft had made. I collected my things and headed for the exit. As I reached it, I nearly bumped into the man who’d been chasing Valerie. He was coming through the doorway from the other direction. I moved to the side and ran into a table nearby, which held a huge Chinese vase of pale pink roses.
I reached out and grabbed the vase in time to stop the whole thing from toppling, though the empty pastry box I’d been carrying ended up on the floor. My heart rate kicked up for a moment when I realized how close I’d come to knocking the vase over, but my temporary lack of personal coordination wasn’t going to cost me this time.
“Sorry,” the blond said, picking up what I’d dropped. “I should watch where I’m going.”
“No problem. It was my mistake,” I answered. I took another glance at his suit, now that I was up close. Yes, definitely Armani. “I’m Tess, the pastry chef.”
“I’m Jeff, the best man.” He grinned and passed over my things. “Are your brownies a work of art too?”
“Of course. They may not look it, but wait until you’ve tasted them.”
“I look forward to it.” He backed out of the way and let me pass.
2 cups sugar
1 cup plus 3 Tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups melted unsweetened chocolate chips
½ cup plus 1 Tbsp cocoa
Mix, then add: 2 ½ cup flour
¼ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 Cup pecan bits
1 Cup semi-sweet chips
4 Cups miniature marshmallows
Mix the sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla and cocoa until smooth. Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave, stirring every twenty seconds until smooth Cool and mix in rest of it.
Add the baking soda and salt, then the flour, mixing between cup fulls. Add the nuts and chocolate chips into the batter, mixing well, and pour into greased and floured 9x13 pan. I usually use a spray oil like Pam or Vegalene, then flour the pan to keep it from sticking. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes, adding mini-marshmallows to the top of the pan for the final five minutes or until the marshallows on the edge just start to turn golden. The marshmallows will cut better if you let the brownies cool most of the way first.
The cake was a masterpiece. I carried the final layers into the room where the meal would be held in two hours. Though many pastry chefs liked to assemble the cake at the bakery and have someone else deliver it completed to the site, I’d always preferred to do deliveries and assemble final details on site myself—especially since you never knew what could happen in transit.
I can’t count the number of disasters I’d had to fix over the years. If a piece could crush, fall off, slump, or wilt, it had happened, and being on hand to fix and assemble was the best option in my mind. As I set the last pastry box on the table, I realized I was spoiled doing cakes at the hotel in Chicago, since I baked, assembled and displayed most of them at the same location. I would have to consider the issue before I finalized my policies for the pastry shop.
Wait staff scurried around me as I checked each bakery box and was relieved when I saw there had been no disasters en route to the hotel. I put in my ear buds and turned on my tunes. After flipping to my collection of songs from the nineties, I mouthed some of the words with Paula Abdul, though I was too conscious of everyone around me to sing any of it out loud—I saved that for the quiet of my kitchen at home.
Straightening the tablecloth on the table I’d used the night before, I set the cake base in the middle, checked my box of supplies to be certain everything was there, and began with the lower layers.
The mother of the groom entered and said something to me. I turned off my iPod, pretending like she wasn’t interrupting, and that I wouldn’t have minded if she had. It was a carefully honed talent of mine. “Sorry, what was that?”
She repeated the question. “Have you seen Valerie? She should have been up in the bride’s suite hours ago for her hair and makeup. Could the woman be any more irresponsible?”
I blinked and watched her glance around the room as if she expected to find the missing maid of honor there with me. “No, I haven’t seen her. If I do, I’ll send her along.”
Diamonds glittered at Caroline’s ears, sequins adorned her long, cream-colored sheath and her hair was perfectly coifed. I thought she’d make a lovely bride herself. She pursed her lips. “I’d appreciate it. I told Analesa not to choose that woman for maid of honor. Millie would have been a much better choice. Valerie’s daughter’s running wild here with no one to watch her, and it’s distracting having her in the dressing room. Why isn’t Valerie keeping her under control?”
“The little girl I saw last night, with the big eyes and dark hair? Why would Valerie leave her running wild?” It seemed odd that the woman hadn’t arranged for someone to watch the girl.
Caroline seemed to realize she had overstepped the bounds of propriety into the murky fields of gossip. “Valerie took her to a neighbor’s house last night. The neighbor brought her back here this morning for the wedding, though why Tad insisted that she be here, I certainly don’t know.” She checked the slim gold watch on her wrist. “I guess Millie will have to fill in as maid of honor.”
The woman swept out of the room again.
After I switched my tunes back on, I focused again on my task. Playing with butter cream and gumpaste, tinting and tweaking and manipulating it had always soothed and excited me, since the very first cake I had decorated when I was eight. That was long before I had a clue what I was doing or how to use the very few tools my mom had in the kitchen. I’d never been great at drawing, though I could do a decent sketch in most cases—enough to please the clients—but with sugar, I could be an artist.
I stacked the bottom two layers, added plates and columns and arranged the gumpaste flowers I’d made earlier in the week. Next came the leaves I’d made and dusted with sparkling powders to make them realistic. Making a little sugar look like the real thing was my specialty, I thought smugly as I placed another rose and continued around the table. It was a labor of love.
“How are things in here?” The male voice made me jump, as it came from right over my shoulder—the only way I would have heard it while wearing my earbuds.
I yanked one out and looked back at Tad, willing my heart rate to return to normal. “Just fine, thanks. Don’t worry—it’ll be perfect, and I’ll get out of the way long before the ceremony ends.”
“Thank you, I appreciate everything you’ve done. Your brownies last night were amazing.”
“Most of you thought so,” I muttered, but not low enough.
“What do you mean?”
“Valerie seemed to have definite opinions on their quality.” I tried to pretend I wasn’t still offended. Roscoe, of all people!
“Funny, I swear she had two at dinner. Well, I better get moving. Guests will start arriving any moment.” He nodded and smiled, then took off.
So Valerie had eaten not one, but three of my brownies over the course of the evening? I held the thought close, reassured. Like so many before her, she enjoyed causing a fuss. I’d had experience with her type.
When I got around to the back of the cake, I heard organ music start. Early arrivals, I thought. I checked my watch and realized I was taking longer than usual. This would be my first opportunity to wow the locals, and I wanted to do it right. One more step and I saw a smear of chocolate frosting from the previous night’s brownies on the floor at the edge of the tablecloth. Hadn’t the hotel cleaned up everything after everyone ate?
I grabbed a paper towel and leaned over to wipe up the frosting, and saw the smear continue under the table. I lifted the pale pink tablecloth—did Analesa’s obsession with pink have no end?—and saw the brownie lying on the floor, a bite taken out of it. What a waste, I thought as I reached for it, then noticed the red toe of a woman’s shoe. I pulled the tablecloth up even farther and saw a bent leg, the tiny red dress and sprawled body of Valerie among shards of a china vase. In my earbuds, Jon Bon Jovi started screaming about going down in a blaze of glory, and I knew I’d never hear the song again without seeing her pale face.
Blood pooled on the floor beneath her head, and streaks led to the edge of the tablecloth. More blood soaked her dress and ran down from her chest, where a shard of china vase still stuck out from her heart. Her eyes were closed, her face gray, the earring twinkling in the reflected light. My breath caught and I dropped the tablecloth, taking several steps back. Was she dead? I wasn’t sure, but my first thought was that she had to be. I held my breath for a moment, then started breathing again, faster than ever.
I dipped my hand in my pocket for my cell phone, dialed 911 and approached the body again. Body—was she dead? I asked myself again. Though there were still over twenty minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to begin, I heard the murmur of voices coming from the next room. My hand shook as the operator answered, “9-1-1, what’s the address of the emergency?”
I gave her the name of the hotel and what I remembered of the address. I spoke haltingly, still not sure I believed what I’d seen. “There’s a body, I’m not sure if she’s dead, but this woman, at the hotel, she’s been hurt. Blood. Lots of blood.” Why was I freaking out? Most of the time, I was so level-headed. I’d encountered many an emergency during weddings over the years, and they hadn’t thrown me. But I’d never seen so much blood before.
As she relayed the information to emergency personnel, I lifted the table cloth and looked into Valerie’s gray face again. Her eyes were closed, for which I was grateful, as I didn’t think I could stand looking into her dark, almond-shaped eyes if they had been vacant. I smelled the tang of blood in the air, and wondered, vaguely, why I hadn’t noticed it before.
One pink rosebud lay across her pale chest, as if put there as adornment while the rest of the bouquet lay scattered around her. Her legs were scrunched up in front of her, so she was in the fetal position—the only way she would have fit under the table.
A teenage girl approached me in her wait-staff uniform. “Is something wrong?” she asked.
I pointed to the body. The girl’s eyes widened, and turning hysterical, she screamed. That made me feel almost competent—after all, I hadn’t screamed, right? I almost wet myself with surprise, but I managed not to scream.
I heard a faint beeping in the hallway, the whisper of a voice over the radio—the same voice I heard in my ear, though slightly off-sync, and a tall, muscular man with serious, pale-blue eyes and strawberry blond hair entered the room, scanned it, zeroed in on me and strode over in long, ground-eating steps. “Where’s the patient?” I wondered if he intended to kneel in the blood while wearing his gray pinstripe suit—which was definitely off the rack, not a product of Armani or any other designer of note. Strange, the details you notice when you’re in shock.
I pointed to the table, and he flipped up the cloth edge, brushing my cake with it. I decided I didn’t much care if he damaged the decorations as I collapsed into a nearby chair. He felt for Valerie’s pulse, lifted an arm and pulled out his cell phone. A moment later, I heard him say, “This is Jack King with the Agave County paramedics. You can 1022 the ambulance—the patient is status echo. Trauma to the head and chest, rigor mortis has already begun.”
I didn’t get most of what he said—it was all gibberish. I did get the words “rigor mortis,” however. That was hard to miss. I felt all the blood rush out of my head and I swayed.
Jack looked up at me, stood and hurried over, closing his phone and sliding it back into his pocket. “Hey, are you okay?” He touched my shoulder and forced me to bend at the waist so I folded in half. “Head between your legs. Feeling a bit woozy?”
“It’s my first dead body,” I told him. “Last night I saw her wearing that dress. She looked a little healthier then.”
“Yeah, I bet she did.” He touched my wrist for a moment—feeling for a pulse, I wondered? “Stay there, don’t move.” He stood and headed back to the door, where, when I turned my head to follow him, I saw people starting to crowd in. “Everyone out. The police will be here any minute. Go on, get out.”
A distinguished man in a gray tux and wearing a pink rose boutonnière stood firm and argued with him, but Jack urged him out, promising someone would be by to explain in a minute. He requested that Mr. Richardson—which would make him father of the groom—wait for the police at the front door and show them in. I saw Tad standing beyond the door, looking in, shock on his unnaturally pale face. I thought it would be good if he put his head between his knees as well.
A minute later Jack crouched beside me. “Feeling better yet?”
“Yeah. Why did everyone come?” I asked.
“The screaming. Was it you?”
“No. Some young wait staff. Blonde.” My words were still halting, but I thought I might sit up without passing out now. When I straightened in the chair, I saw the body again, Valerie. One long, slim arm extended behind her. “How long has she been dead?”
“I don’t know—the officers will have an idea. Feeling better?”
I nodded, relieved it didn’t make my head spin.
He looked me over. “What are you doing here? Do you work in the kitchen?”
“No, I’m the pastry chef. Analesa asked me to make the cake.”
He put two fingers on my wrist’s pulse point again. “You sound like you’re from the east.”
“Chicago. I’ve only been back for a few days. Should’ve known leaving the city would put me in the middle of something. Bronson warned me.” I was babbling at this point, not sure why, except that I needed to fill the silence with words.
“Bronson Daniel DeMille the third. My fiancé, or rather, my ex-fiancé.” Lousy cheat. But I didn’t need to spread my dirty laundry, and it appeared I did still have a tiny bit of self-control left.
“He warned you not to come to Silver Springs?” Jack stood again.
“Rednecks, he said. Hole in the ground. Waste of my potential.” These were all things he’d said in a conversation we’d had on the phone the previous evening as he tried to convince me I should return to Chicago and work for him again, instead of staying in this backwater hole—as he called it. I was rather attached to this backwater hole. He also seemed to think he could sweet-talk his way back into our relationship. Stupid jerk. As if I would ever forget the sight of him kissing Karen, of the smirk on her face when she’d seen my hurt and surprise.
A sneer came over Jack’s face. “I’ve heard that before. I didn’t agree then, either.” He moved away as the sound of sirens penetrated the room. “You seem fine to me. I suppose I should go where I’m useful.”
I wasn’t sure what I’d said to cause the attitude turnaround. Maybe he was just like that. Was he with the police? He seemed to know what was going on. I wished I did, but I didn’t seem to have regained full control of my senses.
The sirens stopped, and a couple of minutes later, the doors opened and three blue-uniformed officers entered along with a man in a suit. Two went straight to the body, the other stayed to talk to Jack and the man in the suit, a tow-head in his early forties, came to my side. “Jack said he didn’t get your name. I’m Detective Tingey. Can you tell me what you know?”
“I’m Tess, Tempest Crawford, and I made the cake.” I told him everything I remembered from the moment I arrived, though I’m afraid it came out a bit jumbled and full of nonsense. I ran through the events, then he had me write them down. By that time, I felt more in control, and I hoped my written account made sense.
As he took the papers from me, he asked, “Is there anything you noticed that was out of place? You said she wore that dress last night. Is she missing jewelry, a purse, anything else you remember?”
I touched my ears, then my chest as I tried to remember. How had I missed it at first? “Her jewelry. She had a real flashy bracelet, necklace and earrings. I know she’s still wearing the earrings but I don’t think she has the necklace on anymore. I’m not sure about the bracelet.” I took back the pages I’d written on and turned the last one over, doing a rough sketch of the set for him. “It was an expensive set, probably worth several thousand dollars. Do you think it might be a robbery gone wrong?”
“It’s too early to tell. Thanks for the sketch—it helps.” He took the pages back and moved away.
Everything seemed to happen in a blur—the people, the officers, the noise and confusion—but above the din, I heard Analesa’s clear, distinctive voice wailing. At first I thought it was over the death of her friend, then I realized that was only one component. “Val, Val is dead, how can I get married without Val? My wedding is ruined. This was supposed to be the most perfect day of my life. But Val. Val! And her poor little girl. Parentless.” It sounded as though she wasn’t sure whether she should be more upset over her friend’s unfortunate demise, or the postponing of the ceremony. Tad patted her hand, a grim look on his face. It was his wedding too—I supposed he was more than allowed to be upset.
A moment later Valerie’s little girl ran into the room, tears flowing down her cheeks. Tad took three long strides and snatched the girl up before one of the officers could stop her. She sobbed and hit and kicked Tad, calling out to her mommy. He cradled her to his chest, murmuring softly into her hair and walked back toward the exit. The girl grew limp despite her sobs, and her little hands wrapped behind his neck before they moved out of sight.
My heart wrenched for her pain as I remembered vividly the way I’d felt when I learned my parents had been killed in a train accident. Was it better or worse that I’d been old enough to really understand what dead meant? I rubbed the chill from my arms and forced the thoughts away.
Everyone milled around, shocked and muttering. Soon Honey approached, her long black hair hanging in cornrows and her dark eyes filled with concern. “Are you okay? Someone said you found Valerie.” She leaned over and gave me a big hug.
I squeezed her back, grateful for her calming influence. I’d needed a friend. “I did. It’s horrible. I can’t even explain how awful.” Honey and I had been best friends since we were little, despite the distance between our homes.
She let me talk about what had happened until one of the officers asked her to rejoin the others. Honey squeezed my hand, promising to stop by and see me later, but left without complaint, promising me to keep her ears open. I knew how she loved gossip; it was part of what made her the savvy, people-oriented person she was.
Eventually Caroline stopped by. “We’re going to have the buffet set up in the next room though the ceremony isn’t taking place today. The police say we’ll be able to hold the wedding tomorrow, even if we have to set up on the grounds. Can you take the cake back with you, and bring it again tomorrow. It’ll keep in the fridge, won’t it?”
“It’ll keep.” I didn’t mention it was covered in fondant, so the refrigerator wasn’t an option, not unless she wanted it to sweat and get water spots on it. She wouldn’t care about the details, anyway, and I could handle it. The pantry downstairs in the shop was cool, since I hadn’t turned on the heat there yet, and it was still March. The problem was that my cake sat on top of the table above the body, and the police hadn’t appeared too interested in letting anyone near it. Deciding it couldn’t be helped, I went in search of Detective Tingey. I hoped he could work something out for me.
Ten minutes later, under my direction, an officer disassembled the tiers, as much as I dared let him, and brought it over to me. I lifted the plate off the second tier and drove several sharpened dowels through the two tiers. That would keep everything together until I brought the cake back the next day. I’d deal with any issues later. I loaded everything back into my SUV and headed home.
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