Title: Eggnog & Extortion
Series: Sweet Bites Mysteries #4
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: 02/23/2016
Contributors: Heather Justesen
Genre:
Pages: 221
ISBN13: 978-1-63034-010-0
ASIN: B01AUZG32I

Tess Crawford has her hands full at the bakery with Christmas orders, an upcoming event, and two men vying for her attention.

Getting pulled into a murder investigation wasn’t in her plans, but she can’t take the threat to her life in Silver Springs lightly. Though the police make an arrest in the case, Tess is sure they’re wrong. When not just her case but her business is at stake, can Tess find out the truth, save an innocent woman, and solve her relationship woes?

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Chapter 1

Big red bows decked the hall and multi-colored glass balls bejeweled the nearby Christmas trees at Nova Cosmetics, but I wasn’t full of holiday cheer. I checked my watch and resisted the temptation to tap my foot, wondering when Anise was going to finish her dog and pony show. Lenny and I were providing the desserts for Nova Cosmetics’ annual Christmas party and we’d been told things would be petering out by now. Then the dancing had been interrupted so Anise, the company’s founder and president, could wax poetic about how thrilled she was regarding the company’s growth, and her excitement about the breakthrough line of organic cosmetics they were releasing before the end of the year.

She was resplendent in her peacock blue dress, ice pick heels, and flashing jewelry. The woman knew how to pick gold and gems for maximum effect. Her necklace was flashy and a tad pretentious without being gaudy. How did she do that? I had a collection of jewelry I rarely wore, thanks to my job, but never seemed to have the just-right piece when I needed it.

Lenny muttered something unrepeatable about the length of the speech and several employees drifted toward the door, anxious for the night to be over. I was firmly in their corner. The event was supposed to be over in ten minutes but I didn’t see that happening.

“And now what you’ve all been waiting for.” Anise clapped her hands and people entered on each side of the stage, their arms laden with the company’s signature cerulean gift bags. “I have samples of the complete line for each of you, to thank you for your hard work. Please try them and spread the word.” She raised her hands with a flourish as if she had just performed an amazing magical feat.

Everyone clapped, though I wondered if, like myself, it was mostly in gratitude that the mind-numbing speech was over. Several men and women streamed from the stage, passing out more bags, and the dance music started again.

“Remind me to find an excuse not to come back here next year,” Lenny said to me. “If we get the contract, I’m afraid I’ll have an unavoidable trip to visit Kat’s parents.” He referenced his new wife.

I elbowed him. “You cannot tell me that listening to her was worse than dealing with your in-laws. Your in-laws, need I remind you.” They were mean to him, mean to Kat, and the worst kind of ignorant rednecks. The town of Silver Springs, Arizona, where we lived, was full of cowboys and ranchers, so I knew my rednecks. Most of them were not only much smarter than the term implied, but also extremely pleasant—an adjective that could only be applied to the female members of Kat’s family. The wedding was only a month behind us and the thought of seeing them again next year at Christmas already made me shudder.

“No, you’re right. I might as well save myself the airfare and stay here. At least I’m getting paid for this torture.” He tugged on his chef’s hat.

I shot him a dirty look for his bad attitude, and then smiled as someone approached for a slice of chocolate peanut butter cheesecake.

“I shouldn’t,” the cute twenty-something blonde said as she accepted the treat. “I ought to be home dealing with my headache before it gets worse, but I can’t resist.”

I’d seen her in the shop a few times since I opened it the previous March, though I didn’t know her name. I loved moving to the town where my grandma lived until her death a few years ago, but I still had a lot of people to get to know. “Well, if anything short of medical assistance can cut a headache, it’s one of my desserts.”

“Don’t I know it?” She forked off a tiny sliver and her eyes closed with appreciation as she savored it. “I hear you’re doing a booth for Christmas Around the World. Will there be cheesecake?”

I smiled. “Nope, but there will be plenty of other treats. Like kolacky—which is a cookie made mostly of butter and cream cheese—total decadence. You should stop by and try a couple of them.” I was talking up the city celebration every chance I got—they had never held the event before and I was worried attendance wouldn’t be very good.

“I’ll have to do that.”

Someone called her name—which was apparently Jasmine—and she waved goodbye to us with her fork, as she had just taken another bite. She swayed to the music as she made her way back through the thinning crowd.

The crush of people ebbed and flowed around us, gradually growing lighter until most of them had wandered out nearly an hour later. Anise came over to the table with a gift bag in each hand and set them on the table. “The desserts were magnificent. Everyone raved about them. We’d love to have you back next year. Unlike some people.” She shot a look of disgust at the caterers who had brought the rest of the food.

The caterer had given us a few samples in the back room and the food seemed fine to me, some of it was even quite delicious. I wasn’t about to disagree with her, though. “I’m so glad you liked my desserts. You must be excited about your new product line. It was all the buzz in the room this evening.”

She preened a little. “It’s my brain child. There are so few products for people with skin as delicate as my own. I brought you both samples.” She nudged them toward us. Her eyes glanced over Lenny disapprovingly, even though he wasn’t wearing earrings at the moment, his tattoos were covered, and he wore the chef hat (which he hated with a burning passion) so you couldn’t see his usual blond, spiky hair. Maybe she disapproved as a matter of policy. “You probably have a girlfriend or someone whom you can give that to.”

His smile was stiff but he nodded and made nice. “I’m sure my wife will appreciate it. She’s always complaining about how hard it is to find cleansers without sulfates in them. She gets rashes.”

Anise brightened. “That puts her right in our target market—and at only thirty dollars a tube, it’ll be a steal.” She glanced at the clock. “I really should be going. Goodnight.” Anise didn’t wait for a response, turning on her four-inch heels and clicking across the tiled floor.

I Jasmine hurry after her into the hallway. Strange that she had stayed the whole night when she complained of a headache.

Lenny dug into the bag of bright, shiny products that would hopefully leave my skin bright, but not shiny, and snorted when he pulled out a tube of facial cleanser. It was about half an ounce. “I sure hope this is the sample size, because no matter how popular Kat’s paintings get, I can’t see her spending thirty bucks for something this tiny.” He tossed it back in his bag and shoved both of our bags under the table. “Let’s clean this baby up and get out of here.”

Nodding, I covered a yawn. I couldn’t agree more. I had to be back at the bakery in a little over six hours to start the morning prep.

We had everything nearly cleared away when Ann Morgan, the caterer, beckoned us over. “I have almost a quart of eggnog left. Care for any?”

“Only if you douse mine liberally with whiskey,” Lenny muttered.

I glared at him for drinking on the job, but it had been a rough night, and we would be leaving in a few minutes. “Make his small. Give me some without the alcohol. I’m driving.” That and I didn’t drink, but it was easier to use driving as an excuse.

She filled our cups and passed them over. “You wouldn’t want to swap some extra canapés for some of those blueberry tarts and cookies, would you?” she asked.

“I would.” The tarts were something I could sell in my bakery the next day, but I was happy to trade a few for her fabulous cheese puffs. When I asked for the recipe earlier she had demurred, but I was determined to get it eventually.

“Great. I’ll bring some over before I leave.”

We finished packing things and swapped plates of leftovers with Ann—and I finagled the recipe from her—and then hauled it all out of the building to my new van.

“One more trip,” Lenny said as we trudged back inside, pulling our coats tighter around us. It was Arizona, but just outside of Prescott it still got pretty chilly in the winter, and a snow storm was on the way.

“I need to put my feet up. Or take a hot soak in the tub.” I dreamed of a bubble bath and a good book, an indulgence I didn’t often give in to, and probably wouldn’t tonight, considering how long I had already been awake.

I grabbed the canvas bag of equipment while Lenny hefted the last heavy-duty plastic bin, and I snagged the end of my eggnog on the way out the door. Enjoying the creamy goodness, I decided I needed to get some next time I was at the store. Or take some time to whip up the recipe I’d perfected in culinary school. Most of the time I got home from closing the shop and wanted nothing more than to get off my feet for a couple of hours before bed. My eggnog recipe would be worth the trouble—but not tonight.

The glass double doors of the exit closed on someone as we came around a corner in the hall and I wondered who had been left in the building. The caterer had already cleared out—she and her helpers must have been just as anxious to get out as we were. I nodded to the security guard who was standing by the front doors. “Thanks, Cleet. We’ll see you later.”

“Good night, Miss Crawford. Lenny.”

“It’s Tess,” I corrected him—not for the first time. He was such a cute, old fashioned man.

“Yes, Miss Crawford.” The corners of his mouth tipped up as if he were trying to keep a straight face. His round face always seemed to hold a smile, and I didn’t know if his mouth was capable of any other shape.

I shook my head. I’d been trying to get him to use my first name for two months—ever since he helped me unload some purchases from my vehicle at my bakery. We took only a few steps out the door when I heard something thud to the ground ahead of us. Lenny and I looked at each other, and hurried into the parking lot. Someone lay twitching in the lamplight.

“It’s Jasmine,” Lenny said as he dropped the storage container and hurried to her side. She lay under the edge of a parking lot lamp’s reach, partially illuminated by its glow. Her face was pale and tight with pain.

Though panic edged my thoughts, I dropped the cup of eggnog and reached into my pocket for my phone, dialing 911. “I’ll call an ambulance.” Lenny cushioned the woman’s head with his coat as she continued seizing and I watched helplessly, counting the seconds it took for someone to answer. What were they doing, taking a smoke break? After four rings, someone finally answered and I rushed to tell them where we were.

Thankfully, the ambulance was dispatched immediately and we weren’t too far from the station. Nova Cosmetics was on the edge of town, but the ambulance shed was less than a mile away. Though I was jittery and anxious the whole time, it only took a few minutes before I heard the sirens, and soon the vehicle pulled into the parking lot. Its red and white lights flashed on the bar across the front, glinting off the few remaining windshields as the vehicle crossed the lot.

It had barely come to a stop when the back doors flew open and a paramedic jumped out—Jack King, my sort-of boyfriend. A police truck pulled in right behind him, the shell over the truck bed said it was a K-9 unit. Shawn Plummer, the other guy I was dating, barreled out of it.

Oy.

“What happened?” Jack asked, rushing to Jasmine’s side.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think we heard her fall to the ground. We found her like this.”

Except Jasmine wasn’t having a seizure anymore. She was lying still and I wasn’t sure if she was breathing. Jack called for his partner to bring the trauma kit and he checked for a pulse, and then began CPR.

Shawn helped retrieve the stretcher and other equipment while I watched. Usually I was a problem solver, but I didn’t know of any way to help them—to help her—and it made me feel useless. She was too young to be having a heart attack, wasn’t she? And what was with the seizure? I didn’t think the two things often went together. Was it common for the heart to stop during a seizure? I hadn’t thought so, but what did I know? Lenny was down on the ground, helping to strap her onto the backboard Jack and his partner had shifted her onto.

I was frozen in place as they worked on Jasmine.

“Come help us move her to the gurney. Take her feet,” Jack said to me and, snapping out of it, I dropped the canvas bag that was still over my shoulder and moved to her feet as directed. I should have moved in to help sooner, but had been too stunned by everything to think clearly.

We heaved her onto the stretcher and Shawn and Jack’s partner belted her onto it while Jack continued compressions. They loaded it into the back of the ambulance in less time than I would have thought possible.

A moment later they were gone and Shawn approached me and Lenny. He wrapped his arms around my shoulders, pulling me into a hug. “Hey, how are you doing? You look a little pale.”

He smelled spicy from his aftershave and I buried my face against his neck for a moment, soaking up his warmth and comfort, needing the contact. I was still shaky. “I’m in shock. What do you think’s wrong with her?”

He shook his head, and leaned away so we looked into each other’s faces. “I don’t know. I’m sure the doctor will figure it out. She was lucky you happened across her.”

If we had been even a few minutes later, she would have been dead—more dead. Beyond saving with CPR dead. She still might be. I shivered, thinking of her dying here in the cold all alone. Was there anything sadder than that?

“You’re cold.” Shawn said when I shivered. “You should go home, unpack the van and change into something warm and fuzzy.” He pressed a kiss to my forehead. “I’ll know where to find you if I have any questions.”

I let him release me with reluctance; I always felt safe and comforted in his embrace and hated to lose it. “Thanks.” I knew he would follow the ambulance to the hospital to see what was going on. I wasn’t going to think about him and Jack at the hospital together. They managed to be cordial to each other—they interacted often through their work—but neither of them was thrilled that I was dating the other. That was another thing I needed to figure out before the end of the year, but for now, I would focus on getting back to my shop and my apartment upstairs.

He said goodnight and headed for his truck. Still disturbed from the whole situation, I decided to follow his example.

I collected my bag again, noticing I’d dropped it in the puddle of eggnog, but not caring at the moment. We loaded the remaining items in the back of my van and I got into the driver’s seat, still feeling shaky.

“Hey, are you okay?” Lenny asked.

“I’m fine, maybe experiencing a little shock, but I’m not going to pass out or anything.” I retrieved the keys from my pocket and slotted the right one into the ignition. “I wasn’t really any good there. It just took me by surprise.” I’d found dead bodies before but seeing someone lying on the pavement was totally different. I felt helpless. Jasmine had seemed so healthy and vibrant an hour earlier. Had the headache been a symptom of whatever caused the seizure? Why had it taken her so long to leave the building?

“Don’t worry about it,” Lenny said. “There’s nothing you can do for a seizure except keep her from hurting herself while you send for help. You called for help; that was good. Jack will take care of her.” He reached out and squeezed my arm. “Let’s go back to the bakery. I think Shawn had the right idea.”

I must be worrying Lenny if he was agreeing with anything Shawn said. He was not a fan of cops in general and Shawn in particular, though he couldn’t really explain why he disliked Shawn so much. “I hope they figure out what’s wrong with her.” She was so young still, and I didn’t want that to be my last image of her.

 

Chocolate peanut butter cheesecake

For a 9” springform pan.

Preheat oven 350 degrees—It’s best to bake this with the springform sitting inside a large pan of water so the cheesecake bakes evenly. For consistent oven temperatures, you should preheat the oven for at least an hour before baking the crust with the filling. This can be done while preparing the filling.

Crust:

1 ½ C chocolate cookie crumbs

½ Cup chocolate chips

1 cube (1/2 cup) butter, melted

¼ C sugar

Filling:

4 8-oz packages cream cheese at room temperature (use full fat, not reduced-fat varieties)

1 2/3 cups sugar

¼ cup cornstartch

1 Tbsp vanilla

3 Large eggs

¾ cup sour cream

4 oz semi-sweet chocolate, chopped

1 cup creamy peanut butter

Ganache topping:

1/3 cup heavy cream

4 oz semi-sweet chocolate

1 Tbsp creamy peanut butter

Crust Directions:

Process chocolate wafer cookie or chocolate parts of sandwich cookies in a food processor with sugar until smooth. Melt the butter and chocolate chips on low and mix well. Pour the butter and chocolate mixture over the cookie mixture and mix well. Press in to the bottom and halfway up the sides of a 9” springform pan.

Filling Directions:

Put one package of cream cheese, 1/3 cup sugar and the cornstarch into a bowl and beat until creamy. Then add the other packages of cream cheese, one block at a time until mixed in. Scrape down the sides as needed. Increase the speed of the mixer and add the rest of the sugar, the vanilla. Then beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well.

Split the batter in half and add the peanut butter to one half, mixing well.

In a pan, melt the chocolate on low heat. Cool a little so it’s still warm to the touch, then whip in the cream. Add the chocolate cream mixture to the second bowl of batter, blending just until mixed, but don’t over mix.

Spoon batter into the prepared crust, alternating which bowl you pull from—cheesecake batter doesn’t swirl together like a cake batter.  Alternately, you could place all of one batter on the bottom and then top with the other. Wrap the springform pan in a single piece of aluminum foil, or two that have been folded together to ensure water from the water bath doesn’t infiltrate the pan. Place springform pan into a larger, shallow pan containing hot water that comes about 1 inch up the sides of the springform pan. Bake about 1 ½ hours, or until the edges are set, but the middle still jiggles slightly. Remove the cheesecake from the water bath and place on a wire rack to cool for two hours.

Ganache directions:

Bring cream to a light simmer in a pan on the stove. Turn off the heat and mix in the chocolate chips and peanut butter, mixing until smooth and melted. Top the cheesecake with the ganache layer and place in the refrigerator until cold, at least four hours. You should cover it with plastic wrap once the ganache has set, or after about thirty minutes.

 

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