Bobbing for Bodies – Addison Moore

I see dead people. It’s true. I do see dead people on occasion, but it’s mostly long-deceased pets that hop over from the other side to say hello—and, believe me, it’s never a good sign for whoever they’ve come to greet. But, at the moment, I’m not looking at a ghastly phantasm. No, this is no ghost, and as much as I hate to admit it, she very much feels like a harbinger of ominous things to come. The tiny metal newsstand that sits in front of the Honey Pot Diner has Merilee Simonson’s face staring back at me from behind the glass. It was just last month that Honey Hollow had its very first homicide, and I was unlucky enough to discover the body. Merilee, my old landlord, was even unluckier to be the body. I shake all thoughts of that hairy scary day out of my mind as I step out into the street to admire the newly minted bakery which Nell, my best friend’s grandmother and my boss by proxy, has put me in charge of. “The Cutie Pie Bakery and Cakery,” I whisper as I take in the beauty of the divine little shop that I’ve gleefully been holing up in the last week solid while baking up a storm for today’s grand opening. It’s the beginning of October, and autumn is showing off all of its glory in our little corner of Vermont. Honey Hollow is famous for its majestic thickets of ruby maples, liquid ambers, and bright yellow birch trees—all of the above with leaves in every color of the citrine rainbow. The sweet scent of cinnamon rolls baking, heady vanilla, and the thick scent of robust coffee permeate all of Main Street, incapacitating residents and tourists alike, forcing them to stagger down toward the bakery in a hypnotic state. I’m pretty sure I won’t need business cards to pull in the masses. I’ll opt for the olfactory takedown every single time.

Not even the heavy fog that is rolling down the street this morning has the power to subdue those heavenly scents. Hunter, my notorious ex-boyfriend’s cousin, stretches to life as he stands from where he was crouching by the entry. Bear and Hunter have been working out in front for the last three days trying to repair cracks in the wall that divides this place from Nell’s original restaurant, the Honey Pot Diner. Inside, a nice opening has been made in the south-facing wall so that patrons of both establishments can meander from place to place. And I’m glad about it, too. I’ve been a baker at the Honey Pot for so long I would have missed seeing the inner workings of it daily even though it is right next door. Not to mention the fact my best friend, Keelie, is the manager at the Honey Pot, so this guarantees I’ll still see her smiling face each and every morning. Hunter strides over and rests his elbow over my shoulder as we take in the sight together. “Don’t forget that part,” he says, pointing to the smaller sign below the words I just read. “Fine confections, gourmet coffee, and more!” he reads it just as enthusiastically as the exclamation point suggests.

We share a little laugh, never taking our eyes off the place. Otis Bear Fisher—the aforementioned and somewhat infamous ex—and Hunter spent all last week getting the furniture for the bakery painted in every shade of pastel. Bear bought out all of the chairs and café tables he could find at his friend’s chain of secondhand stores, and the end result is so sweet and cozy it’s hard for me to leave this place at night. “Thank you for all your hard work,” I say, looking up at Bear’s lookalike cousin. After Bear shattered my heart into shards as if it were a haunted mirror, it was Hunter who offered up his support and suggested I leave town for a bit to clear my head. I took his advice and hightailed it to New York—Columbia University to be exact—and, well, let’s just say my heart was shattered ten times harder in the big city than it ever was in Honey Hollow. “You know, I’ve probably never said this before, but thank you for your friendship, too.” I can’t help but sniff back tears. “You really have been a rock in my life. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to tell you sooner.

” I offer a quick embrace to the surly blonde with the body of a brick building. Both Bear and Hunter look as if they’re primed to be lumberjacks with their tree-like muscles, but lucky for me their chosen profession just so happens to be construction. “Whoa, easy, Lottie. Don’t shed a single tear for me.” He laughs at the thought. “I know this day is an emotional one for you. This bakery has been your destiny for as long as I can remember.” He nods back to the place where his tools are strewn all over the sidewalk just under the scaffolding he’s had set up for days to assist him in the exhausting effort. “Let me clean this mess up so you can get your party started.” He jogs back to the sprawl of tools, and I quickly follow him under the canopy of this skeletal structure.

“It’s not bad luck to stand under a scaffolding, is it?” I tease. I’ll admit, my nerves are slightly jangled just thinking about the festivities about to ensue. He barks out a short-lived laugh. “Nope, that would be a ladder. But you’re not allowed to have any bad luck, period. This is your big day, Lottie Lemon, and I promise you not one thing will go wrong.” He gives a playful wink, and something about that facial disclaimer sends me in a jittery panic ten times more than before. He winces. “I think I left something out back.” Hunter takes off, and no sooner does he leave than I press my hand to the window of the bakery, a no-no as far as Keelie is concerned.

She’s been helping me scrub and scour every inch of this place to get it ready for its big debut, but I’ll gladly wipe away my own fingerprints in a moment just to garner one more look inside before we open. It’s all there —the café tables and chairs look as sweet as confections themselves, the refrigerated shelves that line the front are fully stocked and loaded with every cookie, brownie, and delicious dessert you can think of, and the walls are painted a decadent shade of butter yellow. My sister, Lainey, came by yesterday to help me decorate the place for Halloween with ghosts, witches, and scarecrows set in every free space. Autumn leaves carefully line the counters, and tiny orange pumpkins dot each table with gold and red maple leaves blooming out from underneath them. To think that in just a few short hours this place will be filled with family and friends—with Everett and Noah. Noah who— A horrible creaking sound comes from the scaffolding above me, and I look up in time to see the gargantuan structure rocking back and forth. My entire body freezes solid as it careens toward me, and before I know it, I’m hit from behind by a warm body, pushed to safety as the entire scaffolding crashes into a pile of dust. That metal newspaper stand is lying on its side, and Merilee’s grinning face is staring back up at me in replicate. “Oh my God,” I pant as I struggle to catch my breath. “Geez, lady.

” A man with dark curly hair, a lantern jaw, and eyes the color of espresso pats me down by the shoulders. “You okay? You almost got crushed to death.” His eyes widen a notch at the thought as do mine. “Yeah”—I glance down at my body, thankfully still intact—“I’m fine. You saved my life!” My hand clutches at the thought of me dying, right here in front of my own bakery on opening day of all occasions. How horrible that would have been for me and perhaps for all of Honey Hollow, considering there is a stockpile of sweet treats in there to feed the entire community for a month if need be. I’d hate to think that anyone would let all of my hard work go to waste just because I met an untimely demise, but I suppose seeing my body splattered like a dead fly might kill an appetite or two. “You have to come inside.” I grip him by the sleeve, and he quickly frees himself with a shake of the head. “Please, let me give you a cake or something.

You’re a hero!” “I’m no hero.” He glances past my shoulder just as Hunter and Bear shout their way over. “I gotta run. I got a kid waiting for me at home.” He jogs across the street and is swallowed up by the fog within two seconds. “Wait,” I call after him. “Please bring your family by later! We’re having a party!” “Lottie!” Bear pulls me in tight, and I struggle to breathe for a moment before inching away. “You could have been killed!” He turns his attention back to the carnage. “Hunter”—he barks—“how many times have I told you not to put heavy crap on top of the scaffolding?” he riots over at his cousin, and poor Hunter looks just as shaken as I do. “I didn’t.

I swear.” He kicks one of the hefty looking bags that almost crushed me right along with the planks on that scaffolding. “I’d never put bags of quick-set on there. I’m not that insane,” he riots right back. Keelie appears from nowhere and pulls me into the safety of the Cutie Pie Bakery. “Don’t you worry about a thing, girl.” She slings her svelte arm around my shoulder as we take in this magical place, and somehow the trauma of what I’ve just been through begins to subside. “It’s a good thing to get all of the bad luck out of the way up front.” She bites down on a ruby red lip as if it isn’t. Keelie and I bonded at an early age, and she’s felt every bit like one of my sisters.

Her blonde curls are pulled back into a ponytail, and her bright blue eyes glow as if someone lit a match behind them. Keelie is as peppy as she is sincere, and I love every attribute about her. “This is one of the best days of your life, and I never want you to forget a single moment of it. It’s nothing but good luck from here on out.” “Right,” I say, looking past my bubbly bestie, and with everything in me I want to believe her. “Nothing but good luck.” I glance back outside as Hunter and Bear work to clean up the debris. It’s so windy those newspapers have come apart and are floating through the air like ghosts. Then with a slap, the front page of one of those papers seals itself against the glass, and there she is, Merilee Simonson and her unnatural grimace looking right at me like a dark omen as if to say there will be nothing good about this day. There is not one part of me that believes Keelie’s kind words.

There will be no good luck today. Something tells me it will be bad, bad, bad. F C H A P T E R 2 all in Honey Hollow has always been a mainstay as far as the tourists are concerned, and seeing that it’s early October I was expecting my fair share of leaf peeper foot traffic, but the number of bodies that have been passing through the Cutie Pie Bakery is enough to fill a cemetery. I frown at my morbid analogy. I can’t help it, though. After I nearly lost my life this morning when that scaffolding came down, I’ve been more than a bit shaken. I feel downright lucky to be alive and you’d think that thought alone would have me in a good mood, but there are cookies to be baked, cookies that are being eaten at a breakneck pace, thus the aforementioned hustle in the kitchen. Thankfully, both of the chefs from the Honey Pot, Margo and Mannon, have been helping out these past few days as we pump out batch after batch of delectable treats. The entire town holds the scent of vanilla and sugar at this point. “Lottie!” Lainey comes at me with a death grip of a hug.

Technically, we’re not bloodrelated since the Lemons adopted me when I was just a few hours old, but Lainey and I have the same caramel-colored waves, same hazel green eyes. Even our features hold the same open appeal. Neither of us seems to go too long without offering the world a friendly smile. “I can’t believe we pulled this off!” She takes a step back, and we admire the place together. Yes, it’s Lainey’s finishing Halloween touches that really make the bakery feel homey and well, a bit haunted. “Wasn’t it a great idea to hang those witches by their pointy hats? I just love the way they’re spinning over the refrigerated shelves!” I glance to the stuffed witches as they twirl effortlessly in a circle. “They’re great, and I love the pumpkins you brought in even more. They’re adorable and really make it feel like fall.” Lainey wanted to put up fake spider webs in every free corner, but since spider webs in general hold an unhygienic appeal, I opted out of that decorating disaster. I don’t want the first impression of the Cutie Pie that the world sees to look as if I’ve never cleaned the place.

Keelie heads over with an empty tray and hands it to one of the many workers from the Honey Pot who is graciously helping me out today. “We really need to get you a staff of your own. This grand opening is straining the Honey Pot. But don’t you worry. I’m discerning just the right people to populate the bakery with.” She leers over at me suggestively. “Guess who I saw pulling in across the street?” She bites down on a cherry red smile, a sure sign she’s up to no good. “Everett and Noah just showed up.” “Together? In the same car?” I’m a bit stunned by this. I may have just met them both a few weeks back, but I know enough about their history to understand they’re not the best of friends.

They were stepbrothers for a time while they were both in high school, and it didn’t end well between their parents—and, apparently, not between themselves either. Keelie shrugs. “Who could tell. There are so many people out front, a spaceship could have dropped them off and I wouldn’t have noticed.” She gives a wild wave at someone coming in from the Honey Pot, and I look to find Keelie’s grandmother, Nell, weaving her way over. “Hello, girls!” She offers us both a spontaneous embrace. “How are two of my favorite granddaughters?” She pinches my cheek with vigor. Nell is a sweet little old ninety-twoyear-old powerhouse who happens to own her fair share of real estate in Honey Hollow. The Honey Pot Diner and the Cutie Pie Bakery happen to be two of them. “Fine and dandy.

” Keelie kicks my foot as she answers for me. “Should we tell her about the surprise?” She nods at her grandmother as if trying to get her to agree. I glance to Lainey with wild eyes. Neither my sister nor I can fathom that life could get any better. “What surprise?” I shoot Keelie an accusing glance. She knows I don’t like surprises, and she knows I’m the last person on Earth I want anyone fussing over. The last time I got a surprise I was in a courthouse down in Ashford County when Everett took the stand as the judge presiding over the small claims court the Simonson sisters dragged me off to. Everett and I had just had a physical altercation of sorts, to put it delicately. We tripped and fell—and, well, I might have inadvertently used my head to hammer down over his crotch. It was not at all what you might think.

It was totally accidental and not at all sexual even though his nickname Mr. Sexy was employed within the same hour. Everett is sexy, but then so is Noah. I let out a dreamy sigh just thinking about that man’s lips. Noah’s, not Everett’s. Nell clears her throat while shooting Keelie with venom herself. “It was going to be a true surprise if you hadn’t said a word.” She looks my way, and her features soften. “But, since the cat is halfway out of the bag, just know that I’ll have to ask you to leave the shop a little early one night later this month, and when you get back in the morning, there will be something special waiting for you.” I gasp at the thought.

“You are one naughty lady, Nell Sawyer.” I elbow Keelie. “You’re pretty naughty yourself. You know I don’t need a single thing.” I glance back at the gleaming stainless appliances—it was Noah who helped purchased them with the money his father stole from unsuspecting people, but I didn’t know it at the time, and that marble island that sits in the middle of the kitchen was a surprise enough. I had ordered a simple counter constructed of stainless steel, but Nell canceled the order and had a beautiful stone island put in instead. Trays and trays of sandwich cookies, peanut butter bars, cream cheese swirled brownies, and chocolate macaroons sit upon it waiting to be brought out to the front for residents and tourists alike to enjoy. “Trust me, I already have everything, and if you continue to spoil me, I might just morph into a monster.” “You, a monster?” a deep voice strums from behind, and I’m greeted with a handsome Noah Corbin Fox looking just as vexingly good-looking as his surname suggests, and next to him stands Judge Essex Everett Baxter—who humbly goes by Everett. Noah is an intense man with a dangerous side that has a way of looking at me as if he were about to take me to the nearest bedroom and do amazing things to my body—all of which I wholeheartedly approve of.

I’ve been in one serious sexual drought ever since the New York debacle, and Noah is just the right kind of trouble to alleviate me of all my frustrations. Everett is dark and intimidating. He rarely, if ever, smiles, keeps his words to a minimum, and oozes testosterone to the point of demanding the attention of every female of every species to the forefront of his majesty. “You’re here!” I shout while throwing my arms around each of them at once. I hop back and take them in once again—Noah in a navy corduroy jacket and jeans, and Everett in his traditional three-piece inky dark suit. “Can you believe all of the people who are streaming through this place? I swear, it’s all of Honey Hollow and then some have come to visit.” Noah takes in the crowd. Both Noah and Everett have the same dark hair, with the exception Everett’s is jet-black and Noah’s has a touch of red in the sunlight. Noah has the dreamiest marbled green eyes, and Everett’s gaze is more of a blue heated flame. Both men are handsome in their own right, but it was Noah I took a bold step with a few weeks ago.

We’ve been fused at the mouth pretty much ever since. And how I can’t wait to fast-forward this day just to pull him into the walk-in like I did last night and shower him with all the affection I can. Who knew having a boyfriend could be such a stress reliever? I touch my fingers to my lips a moment as if I had spoken those words out loud. Noah and I aren’t anything official. I shouldn’t even be thinking the word boyfriend lest I accidentally pepper it in casual conversation. I’d hate to chase him off over some silly verbal blunder. Noah winces. “I’d say you’ve got all of Vermont in here and part of New Hampshire, and Connecticut, too.” Everett chuckles at the thought. It still amuses me to see him smile.

He wasn’t at all friendly for at least the entire first month I knew him. It’s a miracle we’re friends at all. “It’s more like the Western Hemisphere.” He nods to the feast out front. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m loading up.” Noah brushes a quick kiss to my cheek, and I can feel my skin heating to unsafe levels. Never have I had anyone show me physical affection in Honey Hollow before. Not even Bear, and we dated on and off for about three years in high school. I shudder just thinking about that time in my life. “I’d better go with him.

” Noah frowns at this once-upon-a-stepbrother. “I’ll make sure he leaves enough for the rest of us.” He takes off after him just as I spot my mother circulating in the crowd, and I can’t help but groan at the sight of her. “She’s here,” I hiss to my sister. Keelie bumps past us with a tray full of Honey Bars. “Don’t sweat a thing!” she calls out as she heads to the front. “I can’t help it,” I say, pulling my sister in close. “I don’t trust this new guy Mom is dating.” Lainey scoffs. “You don’t trust any guy Mom ever dates.

” “I know that, but he’s not culled from the usual bunch. The fact our mother is openly deviating from her usual pool of suspects makes me think that she might be serious about this guy.” It’s true. My mother has dated the same four men for as far back as the year after my father passed away. Oh, how I loved that man. And not just because he was the fireman who found me swaddled in a blanket on the cold floor of the firehouse. As much as I’ve struggled with abandonment issues sponsored by my birthmother, at least she didn’t leave me in the woods to freeze to death. Joseph Lemon was a saint. I don’t think I can say the same for the four clowns that my mother has switched out like a crop rotation since his untimely demise. But this new man, with his steely silver hair, his tall sturdy frame, his unyielding handsome features, he seems a lot more sinner than he ever does saint.

“Who cares?” Lainey’s phone rings and she pulls it out of her purse. “Mom really likes this guy, and so should you. I’ve met him, and he seems pretty decent. You’re going to love him.” She holds out her phone, and my younger sister, Meg, waves manically our way on the other side of the screen. “Congratulations, Lottie!” Meg laughs wildly as she looks past us into the room. “Can you believe it? All of your dreams have finally come true!” Meg looks a bit jarring with her harshly dyed jet-black hair teased every which way, and those signature yellow contact lenses of hers makes it feel as if Halloween were already upon us. “I gotta run, but eat some cookies for me, would you?” she roars menacingly into the screen, mostly to entertain us and quite possibly to get her in the mood for the rest of the night. Meg is a superstar on the Vegas female wrestling circuit. When she first started, Mom, Lainey, and I took a road trip to Nevada to see her in action.

Seeing my little sister in that ring was the most frightening and yet empowering thing I have ever witnessed. Suffice it to say, Madge the Badge put on one heck of a show. I spot Mom near the entry to the Honey Pot and glower at the man she has plastered to her side. Just as I’m about to bring up the boyfriend grievance to my sister’s attention once again, a watery-eyed woman steps in front of me, and I blink a few times trying to process where I’ve seen her before. “Micheline?” I take a half-step back just taking her in like this. I’ve known Micheline Roycroft for the better half of my life. She dated Hunter off and on while I dated Bear. I used to tease that we were clawing for the same life raft while on two different sinking ships. Her hair is longer, darker, her eyes a touch red and glossy, and she looks a bit forlorn. “My goodness, I’ve missed you!” I wrap my arms around my old friend.

“Where have you been? Welcome to my new bakery!” Her lips tremble with a smile. “I was living in Hollyhock for a while, working at the bank. I just transferred to Honey Hollow Savings and Loans. I moved back about a month ago.” She gives a side-eye to the crowd. “Have you seen Hunter? I thought he’d be here since he helped with the construction.” “Oh, he’s here somewhere. Are you two trying to work things out again?” I’m almost sorry I asked, considering the fact she seems on the verge of tears. Micheline cranes her neck into the crowd and mumbles something about later before threading herself into the thicket of bodies. Mom dances her way over with open arms.

“Here you are!” She offers a firm embrace before pulling forward the man of the hour—more to the point, the man of my discontent. “Wallace, this is my middle daughter, Lottie. It’s her special day, and I can’t believe I’m alive and breathing to witness it!” “Gee, thanks for the depressing endorsement. It’s nice to know you believed in me so strongly. She swats me. “You know I do.” It’s true. I do. Her gentleman caller extends his hand, and I can’t help but frown at the over-sized mitt before I give it a shake. “Wallace Chad.

” His voice is warm and deep, and yet despite the equally warm twinkle in his eyes, I can’t help but distrust him. “My pleasure to finally meet you. You have an amazing mother, as you both know.” He nods a quick hello to Lainey. Mom lifts a finger as if a thought just came to her. “Lainey, I’ve been meaning to tell you to make sure that garage of yours is locked up tight at all hours of the day. We heard Becca Turner just tell a crowd in the Honey Pot they’ve had a rash of burglaries right here in Honey Hollow.” She taps her fingers over her lips as if the thought were unspeakable, and it is. That homicide we had last month was pretty unspeakable, too. It’s just too much to wrap my head around.

My heart still bleeds for Merilee. Mom tugs at her new beau’s lapel. “We’d better work the room. I’d hate for my friends to miss the opportunity to meet one of the kindest men on the planet.” Wallace leans toward Lainey and me. “I’m a financial planner by trade, so if there’s anything I can ever do for you, it would be my pleasure to be at your service. Free of charge, of course.” Mom squeals as if we just won the lottery. “Free!” she shrills, making crazy eyes at both Lainey and me. “Isn’t that something? You never get anything free these days.

” She looks to her silver fox of a boy toy. “Now you’re just far too generous to me.” “Only because I can’t begin to repay how generous you’ve been to me.” They blend back into the crowd, and I turn to Lainey and gag. “I don’t even want to think about how generous our mother is being. If you’ll excuse me, I need to check the ovens and make sure nothing’s burning. God knows I’ve been a little distracted today.” I take off for the back, and the scent of fresh devil’s food cupcakes cooling on the rack has me swooning. Those delectable delights have been flying off the shelves—or trays as it were, so I’ve been baking them nonstop. It was Nell’s idea to have an all-you-can-eat dessert bar.

She said that would be a surefire way to get everyone addicted to my tasty treats, and when the shop officially opens for business tomorrow, I’ll have a line out the door. She was also gracious enough to pay for all of the ingredients I’d need to pull off a feat such as this. Lord knows I wouldn’t be anywhere without Nell in my life. She’s the one who gifted me my precious cat, Pancake. She happens to own Pancake’s brother, Waffles, and our shared affection for the adorable, yet severely aloof, Himalayans is just another facet of our inextricable bond. I’m pretty bonded to Pancake, too. In fact, I’m going to collapse on my bed with my arms wrapped tight around him tonight. Technically, it’s not my bed. I’m still holed up in Lainey’s guest room, but once I get a little time on my hands, I’ll be back to apartment hunting so I can get out of her hair. We get along well enough, but we’ve never made good roommates.

The back door is open, and I meander over for a quick breath of crisp autumn air. The fog is still rolling in thick, unfurling like batting, and I’m momentarily drawn to it. No sooner do I get to the back porch than I’m stopped in my tracks by the sound of shouting voices escalating to my left. Not far off in the alley, I spot Bear and Hunter going at it, both men red-faced and angry. It looks pretty volatile, so I quickly step back into the shop. I know for a fact Bear blamed Hunter for that scaffolding incident this morning, but I wish he wouldn’t hammer into him like that. It was an accident, and everybody involved survived. I head back into the bakery, picking up a tray of creamy white cake pops swirled to look like mummies, complete with chocolate chip eyes. The kids especially love those and, sure enough, every last one of them is snatched from me before I have a chance to set the tray down. Everett comes up and bumps his shoulder to mine as we inspect the wild crowd.

“That went fast. But then, so is everything else. Bear’s brownie bar is a pretty big hit, too.” “Don’t I know it. At least I can count on the fact they’ll love my brownies.” It was in honor of Bear that I put up the brownie bar to begin with. It turns out, he put this project at the top of his construction roster just so he could complete it as soon as possible. “They’ll love everything,” Everett assures before nodding to the entry that leads into the Honey Pot, and I hike up on my tiptoes to see what he’s motioning to. I suck in a quick breath at the sight of Cascade Montgomery, Merilee and Mora Anne’s cousin. And here I thought she was the one who stabbed poor Merilee in the back, but actually it was her sister, Mora Anne.

“Well, I’m glad she’s here. Actually, I’m glad everyone’s here.” I take in the crowd again and spot Holland Grand, who owns the orchard, speaking with Ken and Molly McMurry, who own the pumpkin patch. Next to them stands Naomi Turner, Keelie’s twin sister. But, unlike Keelie, Naomi has decided to eschew her naturally blonde locks and dye them a gorgeous shade of ebony much like my own sister. Her eyes are a startling shade of blue, and I must admit the combination looks stunning. Both Naomi and Keelie are stunning in general. Next to her stand her best friend, Lily Swanson, and her newly minted beau, Travis Darren. I can’t help but scowl over at him since he was dating both Simonson sisters at the very same time just last month. Past them stand Becca Turner, aka my second mom, Naomi and Keelie’s mother, speaking with Eva Hollister, the woman who runs my mother’s book club, and Chrissy Nash, the mayor’s ex-wife.

And seeing that Mayor Nash himself is here mingling amongst the crowd, I’d say Chrissy is finally past the point where she can’t stand to be in the same room with him. To their left, Collette Jenner postures for the attention of every male in a three-mile radius. Apparently, she’s one of Everett’s many exes, and I can’t help but grunt at the sight of her. Sure, she’s a perky redhead who makes it a point to brighten any room she’s in with that obnoxious witch-like cackle, but there’s something about the fact Everett used to date her that has made me unsure of how I feel about her anymore. It’s not like we were friends to begin with. Just as I’m about to tempt Everett with one of my wickedly delicious devil’s food cupcakes, something small and furry scurries across the floor, and I gasp as if trying to suck all of the oxygen out of the room. “A rodent,” I hiss to Everett, suddenly regretful I said anything at all. God forbid word get out that I’ve got rats or bats or whatever that thing was that just skipped into the place. “What? Where?” Everett looks to the ground right along with me. The tip of a fluffy little tail threads through the crowd, and my jaw unhinges.

“It’s not a rat after all. It’s a squirrel.” I’m only a touch relieved by that fact. It’s still a menacing rodent, vermin if you will. And I certainly don’t care to have it in my shop. I would have said all of that out loud, but I’m terrified of starting a stampede for the front door. “I don’t see it.” “It’s right there.” I point as the brazen little beast comes forward and stands on its hind legs right in front of my mother. Dear God, she’s going to stomp it to death with those four inch stilettos she’s stuffed her feet into.

My mother is notorious for stomping out the life of a vermin or two, mostly mice and rats that found their way far too close to her killer clogs. She would do anything to defend her daughters, and a spontaneous homicide has never been off the table. “Right where?” Everett leans in toward the spot my finger is poised to. “Are you blind?” I tease as the creature takes a few ambling steps in our direction, and I freeze solid. That silver bushy tail, that fuzzy gray coat is suddenly translucent in nature, and I can see the floor right through its body. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill woodland creature. This was once somebody’s loveable, and well past its prime, pet. “I’m beginning to question your vision.” Everett looks stymied by what it is I’m staring at. “Oh”—seeing that this beast is for my eyes only, I think it’s best I ditch this entire conversation with him—“you’re right.

” My cheeks flush pink as I stand straight as a pin. “It must have been a scarf someone dropped momentarily. It’s about freezing outside already.” A thought occurs to me, and I jolt to attention. Dear God! The last time I saw a dearly departed beast it was Merilee’s orange tabby and look what happened to her! Merilee, not the tabby. The pets that skip over from the other side of the rainbow bridge are always a prequel to some horrible event in their previous owner’s life. The trouble used to range from skinned knees to broken bones, but in Merilee’s case, that cat might as well have been dressed like the Grim Reaper. I’ve seen the ghost of a person just twice before, as well, and I’m darn glad I haven’t seen one since. The squirrel comes up and holds its tiny paws up in my direction, just looking at me with those big brown eyes, that bushy tail hiked at attention, and I can’t help but coo at it. “Oh my goodness, you are the sweetest little thing,” I whisper as I give it a quick scratch over the back.

“Lottie?” Everett sounds more than worried for me. I straighten once again as the tiny creature scuttles past me, making his way to the kitchen. Everett’s dark brows bounce with concern. “Are you feeling okay? Who were talking to?” “You!” My voice squeaks. “I was talking to you. You’re just the sweetest thing.” I bite down hard over my lower lip. Lying is something I’m loath to do. “Say! If anyone in this room were to once have had a squirrel as a pet, who would you think that would be?” “Me.” A warm, masculine voice buzzes in my ear as Noah wraps his arms around me, and my heart lurches inside my chest.

“Please tell me you’re kidding,” I say, spinning around in his arms to take in his gorgeous face. I couldn’t stand it if anything even remotely bad happened to Noah. My heart hurts just thinking about it. That tick of his cheek spells out concern. “I am kidding.” He opens his mouth to say something else just as the McMurrys come upon us. Molly smiles at both Noah and me. “I hope we’re not interrupting.” My eyes flit to that shoulder-length bob of hers with its cute, vertical curls. I’ve been envious of everyone who can pull off that hairstyle.

I’ve wanted to try it myself this summer, but I never had a free moment. And now with the bakery, I’m afraid my hair will be set in a messy bun permanently. Her husband, Ken, is classically tall, dark, and handsome. He always has a toothy grin at the ready and a piece of straw tucked behind his ear that gives him a scarecrow-esque appeal. “Not interrupting at all,” I say, fully relieved to steer all conversation away from that poor deceased squirrel. “Good,” Molly says, holding up a purple frosted devil’s food cupcake with a tiny meringue ghost spiked into the top. “Ken and I were wondering if you’d be up for baking about twelve dozen or so of these for the Fall-O-Ween Fest down at the pumpkin patch? Of course, we’ll pay you and be happy to do it. Each year we like to offer a refreshment table, and these would be a perfect treat to go along with it.” “Yes! Of course, I would.” A rush of adrenaline bursts through me all at once.

“I would love to furnish any and all of the treats you need for the Fall-O-Ween Fest. It happens to be one of my fondest memories growing up.” “That’s perfect.” Molly’s entire face brightens as if my cupcakes had the power to make her day, and I’d like to think they did. “I’ll get you a firm number of how many we’ll need, then email me with an estimate of the cost, and I’ll come by next week and leave a deposit.” “I sure will,” I say as they weave their way back into the crowd. Collette crops up in their place and immediately begins asking Everett ridiculous questions in a clear effort to pry him away. I look to Noah. “I’ll be right back. I’d better refill those cupcakes so that Molly and Ken can see firsthand how much the locals love them.” Noah ticks his head toward Nell. “Sounds good. I’ll head over and say hello.” I take off for the kitchen, and just as I’m about to steal a fresh chocolate chip cookie off a cooling rack and pop it into my mouth—there is nothing like a warm chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven—that bushy silver tail garners my attention once again. A horrible feeling of foreboding comes over me as I follow the wily beast as he makes his way out the back door. Carefully, I take a step out into the chilled autumn air. The maples from across the way have blown their golden hand-shaped leaves all over the ground as the tiny squirrel scampers over them and right over a body. A scream gets locked in my throat. Flat on his back lies Hunter Fisher with one of my devil’s food cupcakes in his hand and a bullet wound through his chest. Hunter isn’t ever going to finish that cupcake. In fact, he won’t be eating anything at all ever again. He’s dead.

.

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