Gingerbread and Deadly Dread – Addison Moore

I see dead people. Mostly I see those of the furry dearly departed variety, but last month I saw a bona fide once-upon-a human. It was my good friend Everett’s father, and he, like his dearly departed predecessors, was here to warn of some unfortunate soul’s impending doom. But at the moment, I’m not looking at the dearly departed—unless I can quickly arrange otherwise, and, my God, how I would love to—I’m staring at the perverse louse my mother has just introduced me to as her questionable date for the evening. “Brad Rutherford?” I balk. “Mother, you can’t be serious.” My mother, Miranda Lemon, has been instilling confidence and independence in her three daughters, not to mention leading by example once my father died of a heart attack by running a successful B&B and chartering many groups that cater to women right here in Honey Hollow. Dating a well-documented philanderer who has a craving for all things kinky is taking about ten severe paces back—not just as far as her daughters are concerned, for all womankind. Mr. Rutherford laughs as if I had fashioned those words to get a chuckle out of him. He’s the cad that was cheating on his wife with Collette Jenner—the same Collette Jenner that his wife poisoned inadvertently instead of shoving this perverted oaf off to the great majority. He’s a tall, stalky man with gray hair and eyes that twinkle with mischief. And I wasn’t kidding about the perverse part either. It turns out, he and Collette shared a penchant for particular tastes in the bedroom, and don’t get me started on the crowd they invited to participate or those kinky rough and rowdy dealings down in a seedy place called the Jungle Room. Miranda Lemon has not had great taste in men since the passing of my father, but this time she has crossed one big, fat perverted line.

“Lottie Lemon!” Mom hisses as she pulls Mr. Rutherford closer to her as if the physical proximity alone was made to drive a point home. “Please mind your manners.” She wrinkles her nose and giggles. “And when you have a chance, see to it that a platter of those fabulous Christmas tree crunchies make their way to our table.” They start to take off and she backtracks. “Ooh, I almost forgot to mention. There’s been a rash of package thefts all over town. Please be careful. It’s such a risk purchasing gifts off the internet this time of year.

Pass the word around!” She gives a quick wiggle of the fingers as they take off into the crowded hall of the community center. It’s the night of the Parks and Recs Christmas extravaganza, and Lainey’s two-timing boyfriend extended an invite to my mother and apparently to her two-timing date. There’s a theme that I refuse to acknowledge taking place among the Lemon women— myself and my sister Meg excluded. Tanner Redwood is the second two-timing louse of the night who makes my blood boil. I’ve caught him on a couple of occasions entertaining women—mostly girls who look suspiciously underage—behind my sister’s back. I choose to ignore my mother’s plea for cookies at the moment, and instead make my way to the brand new refrigerated van that Everett surprised me with on Thanksgiving. Everett felt bad that I didn’t win one of these beauties in the pie bake-off last month. Instead, I let my pies burn to a crisp while I helped apprehend the person responsible for Collette’s death. It’s true. Everett was the only reason I was so wrapped up in the case.

Essex Everett Baxter has quickly become my dear friend, so of course I wanted to help clear his good name. I met Everett in September when my old landlords took me to small claims court. Everett was the presiding judge and, well, let’s just say we had a rather salacious meet and greet just prior to winding up in the courtroom together. Speaking of salacious meet and greets—a goofy grin rides high on my face as I head out into the frozen night—my new boyfriend Noah and I sort of had a memorable meet and greet of our own on that very same afternoon. But never mind the past. Noah and I are about to venture into far more memorable waters later tonight. The parking lot is filled to capacity as I venture into the frozen, starless night. The evergreens have cast their sensory spell on the night, loosening their oils in a rich, earthy perfume. I could inhale this scent for days. But Mother Nature hasn’t forgotten about offering us a visual feast.

The snow may have been cleared from the roadways, but mounds of glistening fresh powder blankets the rest of Honey Hollow. A storm just buried the entire town in four feet of frosted glory, and we’re well on our way to having a gorgeous white Christmas. It’s the beginning of December and already all of Main Street has been strung with white twinkle lights and huge furry wreaths punctuated with cherry red bows. The official Honey Hollow tree lighting ceremony is coming up in a few days, and the mayor himself asked me to provide the sweet treats for the occasion. Not to mention the fact the owners of the Jolly Holly Tree Lot have ordered a steady stream of holiday cookies for their staff and customers. Those are both big ticket catering events I was asked to cover this month. But the pièce de résistance is the annual community Christmas party being held at the Evergreen Manor. I’ve never been in charge of so many holiday desserts, but seeing that it’s the first Christmas for the Cutie Pie Bakery and Cakery, I’m determined to knock it out of the park. Suffice it to say, business is booming. There’s already an order list for Christmas Eve pies as long as my arm.

And as soon as we put up the gingerbread house as a part of our holiday display, we’ve been baking and assembling the cute, candied cottages at breakneck pace—it seems every customer wants at least two. And that fact alone is the very reason the entire bakery, all of Main Street just outside our doors—and I’d venture to say the entire great state of Vermont holds the spiced scent of ginger and black strap molasses. It’s a lovely combination that I can’t seem to get enough of this time of year, which is exactly why I baked three times as many gingerbread cookies as I did those Christmas tree crunchies my mother can’t seem to get enough of. A car pulls up next to me and out steps a dapper looking Essex Everett Baxter, the aforementioned honorable judge who happens to be my new next-door neighbor as well. Everett is tall, commanding in every sexual way, and, dare I say, handsome to a fault. He’s not one to smile easily. The sound of his laughter is a rare treat, and he manages to garner the attention of every female in a five-mile radius with all that raw testosterone he oozes. “Lemon”—he nods my way before holding out his hands, and I give him two foilcovered platters to carry in—“you look spectacular this evening.” He says it with a note of suspicion as his eyes do that broken elevator thing up and down my body. Everett and I happen to share a special bond because he just so happened to wrangle my supernatural secret out of me last month.

Up until then only Nell Sawyer, my BFF’s Grammy, knew anything about the fact I can see the dead. Believe you me, I wasn’t hungry to tell Everett, and a small part of me still resents how insistent he was that I tell him. Those threats to go to the police didn’t help either. But now that the dearly departed cat is out of the bag, I feel comfortable knowing my secret is safe with him. I feel terrible that Everett is privy to something that Noah is not. But my new boyfriend has nothing to worry about. I’m about to make him privy to a whole lot more of me in just a few hours. Noah is tall, dark, and handsome as well, but not in any conventional sense. His dark hair is thick and glossy, the color of a raven’s wing. And when it hits the light, it catches fire and makes my insides dissolve with lust.

Those marbled verdant green eyes of his remind me of the rich pine trees that Honey Hollow seems to be comprised of. And when he looks right at me, I have a distinct feeling I should yank him into the nearest broom closet and have my way with him. His cheeks are peppered with permanent stubble, and every time he’s around my fingers twitch to touch him. Noah is irresistibly sexy, and that would explain the fact women seem to lean in whenever he’s around. That arresting amount of testosterone he’s been gifted naturally acts as a gravitational pull. He, much like Everett, is slow to smile. Bedroom eyes seem to be his default, and he just so happens to be Ashford County’s number one homicide detective. Some might contest that last fact, but I happen to know it’s the truth. “Earth to Lottie.” Everett ducks down to my height a moment.

“I said you look stunning. You really dressed to the nines.” My cheeks heat to unsafe levels. “Yes, well, it is a special night. I hear there’s a talent show we’ll be treated to, and let’s not forget it’s the first holiday party of the season.” “For the Parks and Recs Department.” He continues with his wary scrutinizing stare. “You look like you’re about to head off to prom.” I cringe at the high school-esque analogy. “Is it that obvious?” I glance down at the emerald gown—strapless no less, with a matching velvet shawl pinned together with an old rhinestone broach in the shape of a candy cane—my biggest and best find at Goodwill this month.

I had to eschew the heels for my warm, cozy winter boots, but that’s because I’m still on duty and heels are simply not practical while working with baked goods in any capacity. I’m not usually one to dress to the nines for any occasion, for sure not when it means my bones will be so cold they’ll threaten to shatter the way they are now, but Noah and I decided this was the night we would exchange holiday gifts a little early. We’ve decided to give the gift that keeps on giving—each other. So understandably I wanted to look like a stunning woman, not a teenager who has heavily abused her cosmetic privileges. Although, in my defense, I logged about a thousand makeup tutorials to get my contouring and highlighting just right to avoid the aforementioned high school malfeasance. Not only did I plunk down a decent amount of change at the beauty counter for all the Spackle that went into the making of this disaster piece, but it took me three hours to achieve the natural look. “Never you mind what I’m up to. You look rather dapper yourself.” I happen to know he’s just left work. Everett leaves the house and comes home every single day in a threepiece suit with a dark wool coat thrown over it, and that’s exactly what he has on now.

“You came for my cookies, didn’t you?” He smacks his lips as he looks to the bustling community center before us. “That and the fact Lily extended the invite.” “Working on another ex, I see.” I’d rather gag myself with a candy cane or poke my eyes out with an evergreen bough than witness Lily Swanson cavorting with Everett. Lily works for me at the bakery, and she’s also the BFF of my long-time self-professed nemesis, Naomi Turner—who happens to be the twin of my own BFF, the fabulous Keelie Turner. Keelie runs the Honey Pot Diner, which is the adjoining establishment to the Cutie Pie. Her Grammy Nell owns both. Everett rumbles with a dull laugh. “Can one ever have enough?” “Most people can—with me at the top of the list. Noah and I are forever.

” I can’t help but beam as I say it. Noah and Everett used to be stepbrothers back when they were in high school. I’m not quite sure how they truly feel about one another now, but they seem tolerant to say the least. Keelie bounces in our path just as we enter the back door to the kitchen. “I come bearing gifts!” She holds up a sparkly tote in the shape of a hot pink Christmas stocking. Keelie Turner is as bubbly and cute as her name suggests with her blonde curls bouncing around her shoulders and her blue eyes gleaming with wicked intent. “Look!” She plucks the gift from the bowels of the hot pink stocking and shakes out something red with frilly white trim that looks as soft as down feathers. It’s not until she holds it up, with two hands for Everett and me to inspect, do I wheeze with embarrassment. “Keelie Nell Turner!” I shout as I do my best to snatch the raunchy accouterment from her hot little hands. “What?” She cackles into the night as Everett and I make our way past her.

“Tonight’s the perfect night for you to dress up as a naughty Mrs. Claus.” Everett lifts a brow my way as we set down our platters. “Is that why you’re dressed to impress, Lemon? It’s prom night for Noah and you?” I give a quick glance at the kitchen staff before smacking Everett on the arm. “Would you keep it down? It is not prom night for Noah and me. I refuse to liken what’s about to take place to some high school sexual blunder filled with teen angst and regret.” Keelie steals a peppermint melt-away and moans as she takes a bite. She’s dressed head to toe as Santa’s naughty little elf in a tight sequin dress that hardly covers her rear, red and white striped tights, and a pair of high-heeled boots with the toes curling upwards like red satin snakes, each one tipped with a tiny silver bell. “I’d better get back out there,” she mumbles with a mouthful. “Tanner’s break is just about up, and God knows he needs me to hold back those ho ho hos from stampeding his throne.

He’s quite the holiday rock star.” “He’s quite the holiday as—” “Lemon,” Everett presses it out with a hint of judgment—his specialty might I add. “I was going to say astonishment.” No sooner does Keelie take off than a beautiful strawberry blonde Golden Retriever bounds right in through the back door and gets trapped between me and the pantry. “Oh my goodness! Well, look at you!” I say, bending over and tousling its soft flurry fur. “Someone is going to be very sorry they let you out of their sight and on a night like tonight! You could freeze to death out there.” It nuzzles against my hand, and I feel a collar and a nametag. Just as I gently pull it forward to get a look at it, the sweet beast tips its head up, revealing eyes that burn red with fire. “Gah!” I jump back and straighten, only to meet with a less than amused look on Everett’s face. His eyes widen a notch.

“You see another one, don’t you?” My mouth opens a moment as I ponder my options, but unfortunately for me, the truth wins out. “Yes, Everett, I do.” It turns out, this beautiful phantasm of a beast wasn’t about to freeze to death after all. But I’m guessing someone at the community center is in store for more than just a holly jolly evening. They’re about to get a permanent ride to the other side, courtesy of the Grim Reaper’s jingle bell express. T C H A P T E R 2 he Honey Hollow Community Center is filled to the brim with bodies as the Parks and Rec holiday jubilee gets ready to kick off. The entire room is festooned with garland and wreathes made of fresh evergreen branches giving it that earthy pine scent that makes my spirit sing. There’s enough mistletoe hung in every nook and cranny to raise the heat level of the room another fifty degrees, and the twinkle lights strewn across the ceiling make it look as if we’re celebrating under the stars. The event itself is open to all of the Parks and Recs Departments of Ashford County, so that encompasses Honey Hollow, Hollyhock, and Leeds as well. Of course, everyone was encouraged to bring family or a plus one—and for a small donation, anyone else is welcome to join in.

Aside from refreshments and my sweet desserts, the Honey Pot Diner brought a four-course holiday feast to please even the most finicky palate. All of this is on the county dime, of course. With so many cutbacks, it’s nice to see that there’s still enough left to bankroll a good old-fashioned Christmas party. I spot my sister Lainey toward the entrance, craning her neck frantically every which way, probably looking for Tanner, the twit she never should have ended up with. Even though the Lemon family adopted me as an infant, Lainey and I still share the same long caramel waves and light hazel-green eyes. I want so much better for my sister than Tanner Redwood. Lainey and her long-time true love, Forest Donovan, had a nasty falling-out last summer and, well, that disaster still hasn’t rectified itself. Just as I’m about to flag her down, Everett grabs ahold of my elbow and speeds us down the corridor in the back. “Lemon, we need to discuss this.” “Would you let go? I’m going to drop my goodies!” I grabbed a platter of my to die for gingerbread cookies on our way out of the kitchen.

The staff will be serving up the rest of the treats I’ve brought for the celebration, but I always like to offer up a round of my delectable delights myself just to see those wide grins break out once people take a bite. “There’s nothing to discuss.” I glance past him as that adorable Golden Retriever with those menacing red eyes bounds in and out of the crowd. “Call Noah,” he insists. “Call every sheriff’s department in the country. Call the fire department, the FBI, the CIA—” “No,” I say sternly, my finger rising to his chest. “I can’t just alert the authorities. What am I supposed to say? Excuse me, I see the ghost of the cutest Golden Retriever that ever lived, and I’m pretty sure a homicide is about to take place?” Those deep blue eyes of his bulge for a moment. “Yes. No.

I don’t know. Maybe.” He rakes his fingers through his hair. The sound of shrill wheezing comes from behind, and I step around a couple of discarded boxes only to find a young girl with her hands discreetly hidden in—oh my Honey Hollow stars, are those Santa’s pants? “Tanner!” I bark so loud that the girl dismounts ungracefully and makes a run for it. The only thing I can make out clearly is her scarlet hair bouncing like flames. “Excuse me,” Tanner huffs as he pushes past us on his way back into the main hall while doing his best to adjust that ridiculous velour suit he’s stuffed himself into. “Did you see that?” I squawk to Everett. “That was no saint. That was Tanner Redwood disgracing the good name of Santas everywhere while openly cheating on my sister!” Everett winces. “He wasn’t exactly doing it in the open.

” “Do not defend him!” My phone bleats, and I pluck it out of my purse. “It’s a text from Noah.” My cheeks flush with heat at the thought of seeing him—all of him in a few short hours. I read the text and bite down over my bottom lip to keep from grinning like an idiot. “He says he’s finishing up early, and he’ll be here soon.” “Not soon enough. Let’s get back out there and see if we can find out who might need our help.” I tug him back by the sleeve of his coat, a laugh caught in my throat. “Our help?” “Yes. I’m not letting you go out there on your own while there’s a murderer on the loose.

” “We don’t know that.” “It’s a damn good guess.” Everett and I head into the thicket of bodies heating the community center to sweltering degrees. There’s no sign of that fuzzy, cute, all too excitable retriever, but I do spot Lainey standing less than a few feet away, her arm threaded with that unsavory Santa as he regales a small crowd of co-workers with his false persona. Apparently, he’s been honing his skills on my sister all these months. I can’t wait to tell Lainey all about that tacky tryst Everett and I just witnessed. I haul Everett over with me, and Lainey beams at the sight of us. “I’m so glad you made it! And you brought a date.” She gives a hearty wink. Very funny.

Lainey knows Everett and I are just friends. She also knows that after dropping off the cookies for the event I was about to hightail it out of here and finish decorating my home for Noah and me with candles and pizza—the pizza was less for decorating purposes and more a staple I was securing to maintain our stamina. I’ve already ordered three extra-large with everything on them from our favorite Italian restaurant Mangia. One for all three days we’ve marked off to enjoy our carnal feast. This weekend will mark the very first days off I’ve had from the Cutie Pie Bakery since it’s been in operation. It’s going to feel odd, terrifying, irresponsible as if I’ve accidentally left a toddler unsupervised at the mall. Tanner belts out a hearty ho ho ho and the small crowd huddled around us chortles with delight. Lainey lifts a hand my way. “Everyone, this is my sister Lottie and her good friend Everett. Lottie, Everett, this is, well—everyone!” “Hello!” I sing as I quickly offer them each an adorable gingerbread cookie complete with humble smiles and miniature red Santa hats iced over their foreheads.

They really are the cutest batch I’ve whipped up in ages. Tanner helps himself to a fistful, and I can’t help but scowl. Even dressed as the man in red he has absolutely zero decorum. But I’ve known that about him for a good long while now. Chrissy Nash is the only familiar face to me in this small circle. She’s the mayor’s ex, and if I’m not mistaken, he’s roving the premises, too. I can’t imagine what it would be like to constantly run in the same social circles as your cheating ex-husband. A tall, lantern-jawed man steps our way. He’s got one of those charming twirly oldtimey mustaches that lends itself to an era long gone by, eyes that smile all on their own, and is that a— “Gah!” I squeal while jumping behind Everett and employing him as a human shield. The small crowd around us lights up with laughter once again, this time on my behalf.

Sitting on the mustache man’s arm is one of those ultra-creepy wooden dummies with the face of an over-animated child. It’s only then I note they’re both dressed in matching gray checkered suits, making the dummy look like some bizarre extension of the man himself. “Hello!” The dummy’s mouth opens and closes, and its eyes give a clumsy blink. “My name is Darjeeling, and this here dummy is Ned Sweeny,” the doll chatters the words out with the clattering of its fake wooden teeth. “Clever,” I say since I seem to be the victim of this monster’s depravity. The man, Ned Sweeny, I presume, belts out a laugh. “You look scared to death! Don’t worry. He won’t get you.” He lifts the piece of fabric from the dummy’s back. “I’ve got about twenty of these to match my suits.

It’s an extra coattail that attaches with Velcro and gives us a seamless appeal. I find it less distracting. That way people can focus on Darjeeling and not where he ends and I begin.” “Lovely,” I say, looking to Everett who’s busy glaring at the wooden demon. “We’ll be performing in just a bit,” Darjeeling reassures us with a click of his teeth. “Prepare to be annoyed by the tall, stiff one.” The dummy leans in, glancing over his shoulder as if he’s about to divulge a secret. “He’s got a real wooden personality, if you know what I mean.” Our small circle warms with laughter once again, but the young girl by his side, dressed in a long red cape, rolls her eyes as if she’s had enough of the show already— and, believe you me, I’m with her. Cute cape though.

I’ll have to ask where she bought it. I’m just about to extend a compliment when a long scarlet tendril falls to her shoulder. I suck in a quick breath. It’s her! The trollop I found crawling all over Santa’s lap just a few minutes ago. I shoot Lainey a knowing look and tip my head toward the scarlet sleaze ball—not that it’s entirely Red Riding Hood’s fault, but surely my sister must suspect something. A brunette with a pixie cut and enormous silver hoop earrings—my God, I think they were intended to be bracelets—clears her throat. “I for one am looking forward to the show and then some.” She offers a flirtatious wink to the three-foot wooden creature as if it were real. “I happen to have a soft spot for men without a brain.” Explosive laughter breaks out, and Darjeeling, the creepiest entity in the room—and considering there’s a fiery-eyed phantasm floating around says a lot—laughs right along with us before leaning her way.

“Then you’ll love this guy!” He jerks his head toward his twisted owner. “Sorry, ladies”—Ned Sweeny, the man himself, speaks up in a much deeper octave than he allows his sidekick—“but I’ve got a wife and two kids. I’m taken.” More laughter ensues, and this time it’s me rolling my eyes up at Everett. I’m betting he’s sorry Lily Swanson ever wrangled him into this questionably good time. Our circle begins to break up, and a man near Tanner leans in and whispers something into his ear. I can’t help but note that the young man reminds me a bit of Noah with the same dark hair with red highlights, chiseled features, and broad shoulders. “It’s almost show time!” someone cries from the stage, and my entire body bucks. It’s almost show time indeed. The sooner Noah gets here, the sooner we can get out of here.

“Dude.” Tanner ticks his head back, shooting the Noah lookalike the stink eye. He would. And then, without a warning, Tanner nods over to someone and starts to take off. “Be back in five, babe!” He shoots my sister with his finger. So not a Santa move. Is it really too much to ask of him to stay in character while in that suit? There are children present, for Pete’s sake. And I have it on good authority that Santa does not say dude. No sooner does Tanner ditch us than Little Red Riding Ho follows right after him. “That’s it!” I say, snatching Lainey by the wrist.

“What you’re about to witness is going to be upsetting, and even though you won’t think this is the time or the place, you’ll thank me come morning. And on a bright note, it also happens to be your get-out-ofventriloquist-hell free card because I’ll bet good money neither you nor I will want to stick around for the scary show.” I yank her along with me toward the infamous corridor where I’m sure Santa is looking to offer a quickie sleigh ride to that less than sweet tart. “Where are you taking me?” Lainey does her best to yank free. Everett strides by my side. “You see him, don’t you, Lemon?” He’s all eyes as he scans the vicinity. Come to think of it, Everett would make one hot G-man. If the feds are looking for a few good men, they’d be lucky to have him. “I sure will in one hot-to-trot second.” No sooner do the words speed out of me than I realize Everett probably meant our loyal friend from the great beyond.

This is really panning out to be a spooktacular Christmas party after all. “Would you stop! You’re choking the life out of my fingers!” my sister shrills her nonstop protest in my ear as we speed to that tower of boxes, and no sooner do we turn the corner than we spot the salacious Santa with a girl wrapped around his waist like a flesh-colored serpent. “Tanner Redwood!” Lainey roars like the bloodthirsty lioness I always knew she could be. “You are a dead man!” she shrieks so loud the corridor fills with an unexpected crowd. The girl ambles down and bolts, but not before I note those oversized hoop earrings jostling from side to side. It’s her! The girl who said she liked men without a brain. Boy, she wasn’t kidding. And shockingly, Tanner here might just be overqualified for the position. His lack of brain cells goes above and beyond the call of duty. Lainey proceeds to pummel him as Everett and I do our best to pluck her off the redsuited jackass.

“Let me at him!” Lainey howls as we struggle to hoist her away, and Tanner the twotimer bolts down the hall and out the back door presumably to safety. Not if my sister has anything to do with it. “Let me at him!” I shout, rivaling her ferocity and fury. “I’m going to strangle you!” she shouts after him. “I’m going to strangle you!” My voice rises to its upper octaves. “No, wait!” Lainey hops in the direction Tanner took off in. “Strangling you is too easy! I’m going to chop you up piece by piece and feed you to the wolves!” I shrug over at Everett. “She’s a librarian. She loves to read. It really does give her a great imagination.

” “I can’t believe this!” Lainey shakes herself free from our hold on her just as another tall, handsome, heart-stopper bounds our way. “Forest!” My entire affect brightens. As bad as I feel for making her witness what she did, it warms my heart to see Forest showing up like a knight in shining armor—only he happens to be wearing an inky dark suit. Normally, Forest wears a suit of a different color, as in yellow. He loves Lainey so much he followed in our father’s footsteps and became a firefighter. My dad sure did love Forest. And I’m sure if he were here now, it would warm his heart to see him comforting his distraught daughter. “What happened?” Forest trots past us at the void in Tanner’s wake. “Did that idiot hurt you?” “You bet he did!” Lainey riots toward the exit. “And I’m going to make sure he pays!” “Not before I do.

I’m going to kill him!” Forest takes off and ditches out the exit before we can stop him. Tanner Redwood isn’t worth felony assault charges, but I’m not opposed to Forest getting a good left hook in after the way he treated my sister. “Lottie!” a woman cries from the entry to the kitchen, and I turn to find a frantic Lily Swanson—Everett’s official plus one for the evening. Lily is a stunner with long, dark hair that has a life of its own, a face and body that demand the attention of any and every man who seems to step into the bakery, including Everett—sans Noah, of course. “Someone just tipped over two trays of snowcapped brownies, and now we’re short for the dessert table. To top it off, they want us to have a mini platter on every table by the time the show starts!” The lights dim in the community center, and the room breaks out into hushed urgent tones as the crowd migrates to their seats. “I’ll be right there, Lily.” I turn to Everett. “Get my sister to her car, and don’t you dare let her out of your sight. I’ll be right over once I deal with this fiasco.

” I take off and, sure enough, the Gestapo running this circus is chewing out poor Lily as she cleans up the mess. “I’ve got this,” I say, taking the broom from her. “Go ahead and pull a few dinner plates from the pantry, and I’ll help you make up the mini platters. We’ll have more than enough dessert, I promise.” I head over to the broom closet to get a dustpan and note a strawberry blond tail sweeping back and forth. A breath hitches in my throat. “No, no, not tonight,” I mutter to myself as I find the fantastic phantasm desperately trying to lap up one of my snowcapped brownies from off the floor to no avail. “Hey there,” I say, running my fingers gently over his luxurious coat, and he quickly rolls onto his back until I’m scratching his belly. “You like this, don’t you?” I can’t help but laugh. He’s such a beautiful, noble beast, and at the moment he looks to be smiling with his tongue hanging to the side, his left leg thumping a mile minute.

“That’s your spot, isn’t it?” I say, increasing the velocity. It never ceases to amaze me at how real they feel to me. They might be shy of one carnal body, but they sure look and feel like the real deal. It looks up at me with those glowing red eyes and whimpers as if trying its best to lick up the mess once again. “I’m sorry you can’t indulge. But if it makes you feel any better, brownies have far too much chocolate in them and they could kill you.” I wince as I say it. I suppose it’s rather a moot point anyway. “In that case, I’d sweep up both platters and let you have at it, but as fate and your lack of a digestive system would have it, I guess I have to clean the mess up myself.” A silver charm dangles from his neck.

“I bet I can find out who you belonged to. Maybe there’s a number on here?” I balk at the thought. Like I’m really going to call someone and say you’d better watch your back. There’s a good chance you might be slaughtered in your sleep tonight. That would go over real well. But there’s no number, just the name Dutch written across the front. “Dutch?” As soon as I say it, his head jerks up—and he is indeed a boy. I gleaned that fact a moment ago while he was rolling around getting his tummy scratched to his heart’s content. Dutch sits up straight as if he heard someone calling his name from a distance, those fiery eyes pinned on something behind me. Then, just like that, he takes off and runs out the back door that leads to the parking lot.

“Hey!” I call out, abandoning the broom as I speed into the night after him. I follow his golden fur through the lot and up a small mound of snow and stop short at the sight of something red sprawled out before me about twenty yards away. Sitting dutifully by that pile of cheap red velour and curly white wig is that red-eyed retriever. It takes all of my strength to hustle my way over, my boots sinking into the powder well past my ankles. Lying facedown in the snow is Tanner Redwood with one of my gingerbread cookies still curled in his hand. There’s a foot-long icicle piercing the side of his neck, and I quickly fall to my knees and pluck it out. “Lottie?” a familiar voice booms from behind as Noah races his way over, a bouquet of red roses in his hand, the other on his gun. “What the heck is going on?” “It’s Tanner,” I pant. “He’s dead.” T C H A P T E R 3 here have been times in my life when I have really regretted leaving my bed in the morning.

There have been places I’ve been to that I wish I could retrace my steps and erase any evidence of my presence. This moment in time happens to be a healthy mixture of both. “I know what this looks like,” I say, panting up a storm while holding a bloodied icicle over Tanner Redwood’s stone-cold body. “Did you kill him, Lottie?” The flowers slip from Noah’s hand as he staggers over and does a quick check of Tanner’s pulse. “No,” I say, dropping the murderous weapon and struggling to get back on my feet as the snow does its best to hold me still as if it were placing me under arrest itself. “I found him. I was in the kitchen, and there was this dog.”


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