Macaron Massacre – Addison Moore

I see dead people. Mostly I see dead pets, and on the rare occasion I do see a dearly departed of the human variety, but right now, I’m seeing a man that I wish I could kill with my bare hands. Rich Dallas has his own leathery mitts around my mother’s waist as they observe a tower of macarons I’ve assembled for the shenanigans about to be employed at the Honey Pot Diner next door. He’s tall, stalky, has a shock of silver hair, and sports an orange glowing faux tan—even though it’s June and he could get a real tan outside. The three of us stand in the kitchen of the Cutie Pie Bakery and Cakery, the very bakery that a sweet woman by the name of Nell Sawyer gifted me in her will—along with a good stretch of Main Street right here in Honey Hollow, and perhaps my fair share of the great state of Vermont, too—but that’s all up for debate at the moment and tangled up in legal red tape. I won’t fight my newfound uncle William for anything, with the exception of this bakery. I live, eat, and breathe the Cutie Pie. I bet if you took a microscope and looked hard enough, you’d find that it was inscribed over my DNA. I take in a deep lungful of the rich vanilla scent still permeating the air. I’ve been whipping up macarons all week, and the last flavor I baked was French vanilla. Macarons, not to be mistaken for macaroons, which are typically a coconut based cookie, are one of my all-time favorite treats. They’re colorful and flavorful with a light crunchy shell and a variety of creamy flavors sandwiched in between. “Let’s get this locked and loaded into the next room, little woman,” Rich Dallas barks at my mother. Rich happens to be my mother’s most recent romantic regret. They’ve been together for a few unfortunate months now, and, at the end of April, she accidentally found herself engaged to the brute.

She may have said yes, initially, but has wisely since regretted it. She did put in an effort to shake him last month but to no avail. They met as volunteers at the hospital, but my mother has since ditched that altruistic gig in an effort to ditch the madman she’s unwittingly leashed herself to. Rich is controlling to a fault, forcing my mother to check in with him regarding her whereabouts every twenty minutes. His vocal cords only seem to work at top volume, and, as of late, he’s accused her of cheating. Okay, so he may not be too far off base in the cheating arena. My mother seems to have acquired a mad hankering for her bestie’s ex—another eye-popping relationship sin that Mother sees nothing wrong with. And the sin in question’s name is Mayor Harry Nash. My mother’s blonde locks bounce as she pulls forth a platter of macarons in the shape of a two-foot tall pyramid. My mother is beautiful, feisty, and has been perhaps a little too friendly with the opposite gender ever since my father died over a decade ago. Joseph and Miranda Lemon adopted me right after my father found me squirming on the floor of the firehouse where he worked. But last January, my biological mother, Carlotta Sawyer, popped back into the scene. It turns out, she asked the Lemons—via a note—to give me her name, and although they complied, they promptly nicknamed me Lottie. “Mom, be careful,” I warn as I head over to help her. “Ah ah!” she scolds, slowly pulling the platter off the white marble island.

“I’ve got this, Lottie. You just finish up the rest of those delectable discs. Rich and I will take care of everything else.” “Please don’t call them discs. That makes them sound like Frisbees.” My macarons are the furthest thing from that. They’re no bigger than a silver dollar and come in every color and flavor. The bottom rung of the tower she’s holding is comprised of a layer of pink raspberry macarons followed by lemon, vanilla, blueberry, chocolate, pistachio, salted caramel, and finally, a new experimental flavor, strawberry cheesecake. It’s a magnificent tower of deliciousness, if I do say so myself. My mother tucks her tongue to the side of her lips, something she does frequently when deep in concentration. “Don’t you worry about a thing, Lottie. Ooh, and remember, Rich’s children will be here. We’ll need a cake. How about writing Happy Birthday Rich in navy?” Rich grunts, “That’s a good manly color,” he huffs my way. “You bet.

” I shrug to no one in particular. Rich might think he’s the epitome of a macho man, but my sisters and I have pegged him more as the epitome of a psycho killer. Mom pauses before they hit the front of the bakery. “Oh, and before I forget, Mayor Nash’s children will be here as well!” “Oh goody.” I don’t bother hiding my disdain. I grew up with Mayor Nash’s spoiled brood. I know all about their wily ways, and if my afternoon goes in the direction I plan, I’ll expertly dodge them. Mom makes a face at my less than enthusiastic response. “And, Lottie, thank you so much for making your world-famous macarons.” “Please”—I try to shrug it off, but I secretly eat up every ounce of my mother’s praise —“they’re hardly world-famous.” “They will be once Mayor Nash becomes president! Oh, Lottie, that man has the capability to rule the world! He can truly do no wrong.” Rich ushers her out of the kitchen as if the bakery were on fire, and suddenly I’m fearing for both my mother and the macaron tower in her hands. Rich doesn’t take kindly to my mother bringing up another man. And my mother can’t seem to help but bring up her new obsession. No sooner does my mother and her psychotic suitor leave the kitchen than I get back to the millions of macarons I’ve spent the better part of a week crafting and carefully arrange them onto yet another platter.

It’s done for the most part. I’m just putting the finishing touches on it now. I’ve decided since there were two events we’re celebrating next door that the occasion boasted the need for two spectacular towers. The Honey Pot Diner, the scene of the blunder that’s about to take place, is connected by way of an opening in an adjoining wall that leads from the café portion of the bakery into the dining room of the Honey Pot. The Honey Pot Diner was Nell Sawyer’s first real estate love. She opened the restaurant almost a half a century ago. It’s casual or formal, or anything in between you’d like it to be. They have two five-star chefs on hand, and the décor is whimsical with a large resin oak tree planted smack in the middle of the restaurant. Its branches fan out over the ceiling and ebb their way over into my own café—and the best part is, each branch is intertwined with white sparkling twinkle lights. It looks perfectly magical, especially as the sun starts to set. A pair of strong hands land carefully over my shoulders and spontaneously begin to give me the best massage known to man. I can feel a rather familiar frame hovering behind me. The scent of that warm cologne lets me know I’m carnally familiar with the hands currently casting a rather enticing spell over me. It’s my boyfriend, Everett—or as the citizens of Ashford County like to refer to him, Judge Baxter. “Yes,” I moan it out like a promise.

“Keep it going.” I close my eyes and roll my head from side to side. “Oh yes! Has anyone told you those hands should be certified as trained weapons?” A tall, dark shadow appears at the back door of the bakery, and I can vaguely make it out with my peripheral vision. Truth be told, I’m enjoying the massage too much to care who it might be darkening my doorway. Besides, with Everett around, I always feel safe. “The only thing he’s trained for is the circus,” the shadowed man quips, sounding decidedly like Everett, and I glance over to affirm the fact in a fit of terror. A short-lived scream evicts from me as I hop out of range from those strange hands indulging in my flesh, only to find they’re connected to another all too familiar face. “Noah!” I shout before swatting him with a dishrag. “How dare you creep up on me like that.” Everett grunts, “Emphasis on creep.” Noah’s dimples press in deep as he sheds the hint of a wicked grin. Noah Corbin Fox is the lead homicide detective down in Ashford County, and he just so happens to be the cad that broke my heart. Okay, so Noah wasn’t exactly a cad by true definition, but we dated, and I’m embarrassed to say mated, for months before his wife walked back into the picture. I swear on all that is holy, I thought she was his ex. But as my luck in the love department would have it, she’s still the legal missus whose ring finger bears the diamonds he parked over it on their wedding day.

Noah admitted later that they were separated, but it didn’t do much as far as making me feel any less like the other woman, and how I loathe the other woman. “Sorry, Lot”—the smile melts off Noah’s face—“but I was just proving a point.” Noah is handsome to a fault, face of a god, the aforementioned dimples, dark hair that turns red as fire in the sun. He’s built like a linebacker, and considering his career in law enforcement, he’s packing heat nearly twenty-four seven. Everett nods as if he were in on it. “I get it. And, as much as I don’t want your banana hands on Lemon, I think you proved the point brilliantly.” “What point?” I look at the devilishly handsome judge. Everett has black hair, steely blue eyes, almost no affect, save for the hard-won dirty grin he lets slip now and again, and he is rather dirty in the most delicious sense. There’s not a woman on the planet who isn’t capable of being disarmed by his charm and wit. Essex Everett Baxter was a prolific playboy before we started dating a few weeks back. In fact, it seems he’s bedded his way through most of Vermont. And oddly enough, each of the women who has landed him horizontally comes away with the ability to freely use his proper moniker as a door prize. Even though Everett and I have crested that coital horizon many, many times, I’ve yet to call him anything but what I’ve grown accustomed to. Everett swoops in and drops a tender kiss to my lips.

Noah growls disapprovingly at the display of affection, and it sounds like thunder. Even though I broke up with Noah rather quickly after I learned of his matrimonial entanglement, especially after I learned that his wife halted the divorce proceedings and wanted him back—Noah still loves me deeply—as I do him, and none of those feelings are a secret to anyone in this room. Everett takes a step back, his expression somber as he penetrates me with his gaze. “You have to admit, Lemon, you had someone within striking distance. Noah could have been anyone. If you had that gun we gave you, Noah’s head could have been splattered all over the wall right now, just the way it should be.” “Everett.” I squeeze my eyes shut, forbidding the visual to ever take root. I may have forgotten to mention that Noah and Everett cannot stand one another, and the rivalry predates me by a mile. They were stepbrothers once upon a time in high school. Noah’s scoundrel of a father took financial advantage of Everett’s mother. And while the two were legally brothers, Noah thought it was a good idea to steal Everett’s girlfriend, a beast by the name of Cormack Featherby. Cormack has since moved into the bed and breakfast that my mother owns and has tried to pull every trick in the book to win Noah back. I can’t stand her. She’s wily, wickedly crafty, and a drop-dead gorgeous blonde who might just succeed at her mission.

Honestly, nothing frightens me more. I realize that I’m with Everett now, but my heart is still tangled in the unfinished business between Noah and me. Noah steps in next to Everett, and the two of them are observing me with the same disapproving look echoed on their faces. I scoff. “You do realize I don’t care for it when the two of you team up against me.” “It’s for your safety.” Noah is quick to bat a reason my way. “He’s right, Lemon.” Everett always refers to me by my surname, and it just tickles me to pieces. “We’ll head over to the range later this afternoon if you’re available. I had two cases to preside over this morning, and I’m off for the rest of the day.” A dull moan escapes me as I look to the marble island filled with hundreds if not thousands of the delicate French pastries. “I could really use a break from the bakery. I’ve been dreaming of macarons all week.” “Don’t I know it.

” Everett gives a sly wink. Mostly he said that to drive Noah wild with rage, and, judging by Noah’s purple face, he succeeded. Noah recently asked me to slow the frequency in which I entertain myself with Everett —Noah’s code for coital contact. But I can’t seem to slow anything down with Everett. He’s so ridiculously handsome, women of all ages and stages in life are practically required to crane their necks whenever he’s around. And I’m definitely not immune to his charms. In fact, I find them the calm in this ocean of misery Noah has inadvertently tossed me into. Noah nods as if he’s suddenly on board with anything that Everett has to say. “I’ll go, too.” He shoots a dirty look to Everett. “In fact, I’m the only one who should ever be at a gun range with you, Lottie. If you go with this buffoon, you just might hurt someone. On second thought, maybe I should give the two of you a fifteen-minute lead. Aim for his ticker. I’ll help cover up the crime.

” He manufactures a dimple-laden grin my way. “I am the lead homicide detective. I can make this look like an accident, and we’ll live happily ever after.” “With your wife?” I couldn’t help it. He had it coming for suggesting I commit a murder just to get me back in the sack—okay, so Noah wants everything with me, not just a quick thrill, but still. And boy was it ever thrilling being with Noah. “Or your girlfriend?” Everett doesn’t mind getting in on the field day. “He’s got you there,” I say, chuckling as I head back to the island to quickly finish constructing the last tower for the party. While I’m busy assembling away, Noah and Everett get into a heated argument over God knows what—probably debating whose weapon is bigger, and I’m not talking about a pistol anymore. But I choose to ignore the clatter. It’s crunch time, and I can hear the voices picking up volume as they drift in from the Honey Pot. Not only is it Rich Dallas’ impromptu birthday party—the real event is Mayor Nash’s official kickoff for his reelection campaign. Leave it to my mother to arrange a shindig for both of her boyfriends all at once. My God, she’ll be lucky if they don’t kill each other this afternoon. Rich Dallas is basically a human stick of hostile dynamite just waiting to explode.

It’s no secret he hates Mayor Nash, but he’s putting up with my mother’s lunacy in an effort to fully win her back. I’m hoping that right after we cut into the birthday cake and Rich’s children leave, she’ll put his head on the chopping block. A thought comes to me, and I pause midflight with a raspberry macaron in hand. A few weeks back I saw the ghost of— Something at the front of the bakery catches my eye, and it’s a welcome reprieve from my disastrous train of thought. My coworker, Lily Swanson, is manning the register so I’m not worried about a customer needing service, but the air out front—it almost looks as if it’s swirling and sparkling. I take a few blind steps in that direction, ignoring the all-out shouting match that’s broken out between Noah and Everett. Sure enough, the air glitters into the shape of a woman, an older woman—a familiar frame that I’m both frightened to see—and equally looking forward to. Slowly her form begins to come in clear in front of me—wrinkly, bent over, a head full of glowing silver hair as if a piece of the moon were alive in it—and that warm smile I miss so very much. Here she is, in the ghostly flesh. Nell Sawyer looks my way and offers me a lethargic wave as she disappears once again in a sea of sparkling stars. My heart drums wildly, and my adrenaline spikes to unsafe levels. This is what I’ve been dreading for weeks. Usually it’s a pet that’s crossed over that I see just before disaster strikes. But in the event the person who is about to undergo a severe misfortune didn’t have a favorite pet, a human will do in a pinch. And it seems as if Nell is here in that very dreadful pinch.

The most horrible part is, whoever Nell was called for, here on Earth, must have really adored Nell. And I happen to adore just about everyone who loved dear, sweet Nell. Someone I love, someone Nell loved, and someone who loves Nell is about to meet their demise. But not if I can help it. If anyone can aid me in circumventing this great tragedy in the making, it’s Nell Sawyer herself. Death has come to Honey Hollow once again, but I’ll do anything to keep it from finishing the job. Not today. Not with anyone who loves Nell. T C H A P T E R 2 he Honey Pot Diner is rather spacious inside, but you wouldn’t know it with all of the bustling bodies fighting for elbow room. Copious amounts of floral perfume clash with vats of expensive cologne as the people of Honey Hollow struggle to circulate through the tight space. Large waxy posters stamped with the face of a handsome older man sporting a flirtatious grin are plastered in every free corner. The words Reelect Mayor Nash are stamped across every last one of them. There’s a small birthday banner currently being erected by my mother and the hostile birthday boy himself, and I can’t help but scowl. I bet he threatened her within an inch of her life if she didn’t decorate for his shindig, too. My sister, Meg, pops up next to me and scowls at the two of them right along with me.

“Lure him to the kitchen, Lottie. I’ll plunge the knife through his chest.” Before I can reprimand her, our older sister, Lainey, pops up. Both Lainey and I share the same caramel-colored waves and hazel eyes. We really do look as if we could be blood-related, even though we’re far from it. Meg was born with flaxen locks but chooses to dye her hair a stark jet-black. It looks gorgeous when juxtaposed with her icy blue eyes. For years, Meg used to work the female wrestling circuit in Las Vegas, but she’s been back in Vermont for the last few months teaching the strippers down at Red Satin some lusty-thrusty moves. “No death.” Lainey bites the air between us as if the suggestion were mine. “No murder, no homicide. Please kindly take the Grim Reaper off of every invitation list for the next six months. My bridal shower is in less than two weeks, and I’m a nervous wreck that the sickle is going to swing and hex my entire wedding.” Meg barks out a laugh. “Forget revoking the Grim Reaper’s invite.

It’s Lottie you need to put on the no-fly list. You do realize she’s been at the center of every murder investigation in Honey Hollow’s history.” I cringe because it happens to be true. And how I hate that it is. Since last September, we’ve had an entire rash of murders taking place—one a month to be precise. I shudder just thinking about them. And, of course, seeing that I’m transmundane, further classified as supersensual, I have the supernatural gift to see the dead pets and people alike. It used to be that the dead making a guest appearance meant that something far less drastic than a human soul getting evicted off the planet. But, as of late, it’s almost a given that a proverbial head will roll. Lainey scoffs at the thought. “Lottie, your invite is safe with me.” She frowns as her eyes fill with worry. “That is, of course, unless you stumble upon another corpse between today and my bridal shower. I really can’t afford a body cropping up between my gifts and my cake. All that bad juju…” She shudders.

“I need everything to go off without a hitch.” Her mouth rounds out. “Ooh, before I forget. I’m in love with that tower of macarons! I absolutely need to have that at the shower. Would you? Could you? Please? I really don’t need a cake.” She squeezes her eyes shut as she pleads and looks adorable in the process. But before I can answer, her fiancé, Forest Donovan, comes up and lands a kiss on her cheek from behind. Forest has wavy chestnut hair and stunning gray eyes. He and Lainey have been in love for as long as I can remember save for a short bout of insanity last fall. He’s a firefighter right here in town, and Lainey is head librarian at the community library. They’re a match made in Honey Hollow heaven. “Hello, girls.” He dots another kiss to her cheek. “Do you think this will wrap up before five? We’ve got dance lessons tonight.” He makes a face as if he wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.

“Dance lessons?” Meg perks up. “You’re not coming to one of my couples’ courses, are you?” I inch back from my brash sister as my mouth squares up. “You’re not teaching couples how to strip, are you?” As if I’m immune. It wasn’t so long ago that Everett and I took a class that specialized in exactly that, but it was all a part of a covert operation to catch a killer. Meg’s chest thumps with a laugh. “Honey, I’m teaching classes on everything under the sun these days, and I do mean everything. I just rented a condo in Lainey’s complex.” Lainey’s upper lip twitches, a sure sign she’s disgusted. “What kind of couples’ classes?” “It’s more like couples’ therapy.” Meg looks my way. “You should consider coming, Lot, and bring the hot judge. Heck, bring the hot detective, too. I’m betting some time on your back with two handsome men tending to your needs is just what the doctor ordered.” Both Lainey and Forest break out into a fit of laughter. “Very funny.

That’s right. Have a good laugh at my expense.” I spot Mayor Nash heading in through the door, and the room breaks out into congratulatory cheers. “Forest, please assure your sweet bride-to-be that not one thing will go wrong on or before your nuptials.” I nod to the three of them. “Excuse me just a sec. I’d better get the last of my macarons finished up.” I head for the walk-through that leads into the Cutie Pie Bakery and Cakery and bump into a body. I jump back a foot, only to find myself staring at a stunning brunette who could double as the newly-minted Duchess of Sussex’s look-alike. “Can I help you?” I say instinctively, forgetting momentarily all about the dual shindig about to take place next door. For all I know, she could be one of Rich Dallas’ daughters. He’s got two or twelve. She bites down on her bottom lip as she cranes her neck past me while taking in the crowd. “You wouldn’t happen to know a Judge Baxter, would you?” I flick my wrist as I break out into an easy grin. “I sure do—in the Biblical sense, if you know what I mean.

” I give a cheeky wink. “Everett is my boyfriend.” Her eyes grow twice their size as her jaw unhinges. I know what she’s thinking. What in the heck is Mr. Sexy doing with this church mouse? Mr. Sexy is actually an official nickname bestowed to Everett by baristas everywhere. And I happen to agree with it. I hitch a thumb toward the back. “Would you like me to get him for you?” Her shock quickly morphs to horror. “Oh God, I didn’t think—” She gives a quick look around. “I didn’t know… I’m sorry. I have to go.” She darts out the door before I can stop her. “Ha,” a female voice honks from behind, and I turn to find my best friend, Keelie Turner, with her pale blue eyes cast in the direction of the mystery woman.

Keelie and I have been besties since preschool, and just last January we found out we’re related. Her grandma, Nell Sawyer, is my grandma, too, in a roundabout way. Nell was technically my birth mother’s aunt, but she raised her so I’m not sure what familial trajectory that lands us in, but I’ve been affectionately calling her my grandmother for as long as I can remember. Nell and I have been friends for as long as I’ve known Keelie. Up until last fall, Nell was the only one who knew about my supersensual standing. And then a few months after that, I found out that Nell was transmundane, too. But then she died, and here we are with her ghost milling around somewhere on the premises. Keelie smirks as she ticks her head in the girl’s direction. “I bet she’s sorry she can’t hitch a ride on the Essex Express.” “Maybe,” I say, twisting my lips in that direction. “But the funny thing is, she didn’t call him by that mattress-based moniker.” Lily waves us over from the register. Lily Swanson is a brunette beauty who, aside from working dutifully for me, has in the past hated my guts. Lily and Keelie’s twin sister, Naomi, are best friends, and well, Naomi has harbored ill will toward me ever since Otis Bear Fisher chose me over her way back in high school. And how I wish Bear had chosen Naomi in retrospect.

Bear took my heart and ground it down to powder with his notorious cheating ways. I left Honey Hollow as soon as high school was over to attend Columbia University where I promptly had my heart ground down to powder once again by my then fiancé, Curt Vanderlin. But ample time has passed and I’ve mended fences with both the cheating louses. Noah was the third to crush my heart, and after that thorough pummeling, I’ve been a living mess ever since. Keelie leans in. “Hey, doesn’t that man at the counter look familiar to you?” I squint over at a man just a touch older than my twenty-seven years, wiry brown hair, a day-glow tan, dark blue polo and matching pants. “Oh, I know him,” I say as I gleefully head over. “Well, if it isn’t Councilman Dushane,” I say cheerily as I head behind the counter to help Lily box up what looks to be the entire bakery. “Checking out the competition?” Scott Dushane is Mayor Nash’s only opponent in the mayoral race. “Lottie Lemon.” He ticks his head from side to side. “You’re onto me, aren’t you?” He lets a dark laugh fly. “I’m having an official kickoff party of my own down the street at the Woodhouse Grill, but they just informed me they don’t have near enough baked goods to supply my future constituents with, so here I am. Why should Harry Nash get the best goods in town?” He gives a sly wink as he stacks enough pink boxes to make a precarious tower of his own. “Well, good luck to you in the mayoral race.

May the best man win,” I say just as I spot a sparkle of ethereal light coming from the kitchen in the back. “Keelie? Would you mind helping Lily carry these out to his car?” I head to the kitchen without so much as catching a breath, but it’s empty—no sign of Noah, Everett, or Nell’s ghost. Not even my tower of macarons is to be seen. I’m assuming Noah or Everett carried it over for me. The celestial prickling of light starts up again, and this time I follow it right back into the Honey Pot. I spot Noah near the bar talking to Cormack Featherby—more like being accosted by the bimbo. I’ve had about enough of her blonde ambition as she tries her best to trap herself a detective to call her own. Everett is near the bar as well, and I see him having a conversation with a leggy redhead, Detective Ivy Fairbanks. I can’t help but make a face. Ivy is Noah’s official partner in crime. She doesn’t think much of me, but I’m pretty sure she thinks a whole lot about Noah in a less than platonic sense. I’m about to move in that direction when a hand reaches out and clasps over my arm. “There you are!” my mother chimes. “You, Lottie Lemon, are a slippery fish. I just introduced Lainey and Meg to Rich’s children.

I’d like for you to meet them, too.” “What?” I shake her loose as the burgeoning crowd presses up against us. “Why would I want to meet them? You’re about to break it off with their father. I’m shocked you want to meet them.” Mom swats me on the arm. “I know that. But it’s good etiquette. Besides, his ex-wife showed up, and to make things worse, they think this entire crowd is here just for his birthday party.” “If the posters of your new beau, and the patriotic party hats didn’t give away the true essence of this shindig, then they’re denser than their father. I guess the fruit didn’t fall too far from the hostile tree.” And I’m willing to bet Rich shook them loose before they were ripe. He’s just that mean. “I don’t know what they think. But one thing is for sure. They all seem a little uptight.

I’ve even plied them with your scrumptious macarons, but they’re unflinching in their rude behavior.” “Maybe they’re still hoping their parents will reconcile?” “Lottie, they’re grown women,” she says, navigating me through the crowd. I’m about to say that it doesn’t matter, that in my heart she’ll always belong to my father, Joseph Lemon, but before I can get a word out, I spot Mayor Nash’s daughters, Kelleth and Aspen, up front. They’re svelte, sandy-headed blondes with tiny turned-up noses and perpetual scowls that frown at the plebs of Honey Hollow. They’re both about my age, one a year older, one younger. They have a brother, too, Finn, but he’s pretty much down-to-earth. He manages a ski resort not far from here. I’m not sure what the girls have been up to, but I’m betting it’s no good. Mom leans in as we come up on my sisters standing awkwardly in a small crowd of angry looking people, all who resemble Rich in some small way. “Everyone—this is my middle daughter, Lottie. She baked all the goodies for the party, and she baked a very special cake for the birthday boy as well.” Technically, that’s true, but I didn’t bake a cake for Rich, per se. I was just going to pull one out of the refrigerated shelves and slap his name on it. A thought hits me. Councilman Dushane just cleaned my refrigerated shelves right out.

Oh well, I’ll have to take one from the Honey Pot’s kitchen. Keelie is the manager here, and I know for a fact she won’t mind. “Lottie, this is Gloria”—Mom practically shoves me in the older woman’s face. The woman is pretty, trim, short red hair, and an eerie grin that looks more like a painful grimace. Her lips are glossy and red, and her eyeteeth bear a matching stain. “Gloria is Rich’s ex.” “Ah! The lucky one that got away.” I give a playful laugh, and the older woman chortles right along with me. I have a feeling Gloria and I will get along just fine. Rich bucks as if I just shot him with my shiny new gun—which I don’t happen to have on me. I left it at home, tucked safely in my underwear drawer, in the event my sweet Himalayan cats, Pancake and Waffles, decided to grow opposable thumbs while I’m gone and go on a shooting spree. Stranger things have happened in Honey Hollow as of late. “Funny.” The taller girl steps forward and offers me a rather enthusiastic shake of the hand. Her crimson hair is long and has that spiral perm effect, but I can tell it just grows out of her head that way.

What I wouldn’t do to have hair that amazing. It’s larger-than-life, and I bet it has to have its own zip code, too. But I wouldn’t dare say that out loud in the event she thinks it’s an insult. If she’s at all like her father, she takes everything way out of context. “I’m Michelle Ireland”—she continues—“my married surname, of course.” She says it so confidently, with just a touch of humility, as if I should know who she is. She does have the aura of an extrovert. I can’t help but notice there are a handful of people turning to look at her every now and again. She shrugs. “You’re probably wondering where you’ve seen me before. I’ve got an entire slew of ads running on cable right now. I’m sorry if you’re sick of looking at my impish mug. I’m a life coach. I do events and speaking engagements for large corporations. In fact, I have an entire string of seminars set up for the area.

Home is Hollyhock, but I’ve only slept in my bed twenty times this year so far.” “Please.” The younger redhead next to her rolls her eyes. “As if she cares.” She extends a hand. “Claret Dallas. Single. Not a life coach. I still live in Fallbrook with my mother.” She wrinkles her nose. “And I really don’t care who knows it.” We all share a warm laugh. Claret is a shorter version of her sister, Michelle, but she seems far more down-to-earth. Her hair is straight but has just about as much body. Claret juts her head forward a notch.

“Your sisters mentioned that you’re the town sleuth.” I shoot a look to Lainey and Meg before glancing around at the overcrowded room. If Nell is here, then there’s a good chance a homicide will take place today. The last thing I want to do is tip off the potential killer that I’m already onto them—sort of. “Not really.” I wave it off as if it were no big deal. “I just got lucky a time or two.” Meg lands an arm over Claret’s shoulder and balks, “She’s just being coy. Lottie here has stumbled across nine bodies in nine months.” Gloria, Michelle, and Claret each gasp in unison. And I think my mother and Lainey just joined in on the breathless fun as well. Rich leans in toward his younger daughter. “Tell ’em what you do, honey bun.” Claret’s face pinches the same color as her name. “Dad, this isn’t about me.

” She tries to shoo him away with her hand but to no avail. Good luck with that, toots. My mother has been trying to shoo him away for the better part of the last few weeks. Michelle offers my mother a look of disdain. “So, when’s the big day?” Lainey tips her head back. “July twenty-fifth.” She thrusts that sparkler on her ring finger forward, and the sisters admire it with an audible ooh. Lainey is so high off her upcoming nuptials, it didn’t even register to her that the question wasn’t aimed at her. But I’m pretty sure everyone in this circle prefers it that way. Gloria lifts a brow to my mother. “Let’s see yours, Miranda. I know what Rich is capable of. I’ll be able to tell if you’re a keeper just by the size of that rock.” I exchange a quick glance with my sisters. What a terrible thing to say.

Mom giggles like a schoolgirl and wiggles her left hand at the woman who had the gall to ask. Gloria scowls at my mother’s bling as if it offended her on some level. “Two carats, occluded, and, my God, Rich, is that a yellow stone?” She shakes her head up at her ex. “You’ve insulted this poor woman and you’ve dragged us all out here to witness it.” Geez. I don’t know who’s worse, Rich or his ex. I can see why the divorce was imminent. He’s too crazy, and she’s too honest. My mother’s mouth opens to say something, but she gags on her reply. Her attention instead diverts to the front of the restaurant where Mayor Nash is attempting to get everyone’s attention by way of spitting into the mic. “If you’ll excuse me,” my mother happily chirps. “A campaign coordinator’s work is never done.” She takes off for greener boyfriend pastures and leaves us holding the dysfunctional family bag. Lainey says something about spotting her fiancé and abandons poor Meg and me to fend for ourselves. Meg waves wildly at someone who just walked in.

“Hook!” she barks so loud half the restaurant goes silent for three solid seconds before rumbling to life once again. “That’s my hookup. Gotta run.” And run she does. Both Meg and my bestie, Keelie, have been seeing Hook Redwood for the last few months. It’s twisted. I’m going to highly recommend Keelie ditch that tiresome threesome and branch out on her own. She deserves to be happy, and I doubt that’s ever going to happen while attached to my sister and her all too randy hookup. I’m about to make up an excuse to leave, myself, but by the time I look around, the entire Dallas family has disbanded. Gloria is flirting with an older man at the bar, Rich has magnetized to my mother once again, strapping his arms around her as if he were a life preserver—more like a rusted anchor complete with crusty barnacles—and Michelle and Claret are to my right, carrying on a lively conversation with Mayor Nash’s daughters, Kelleth and Aspen. Figures. From what my mother says, the Dallas family is loaded to the hilt. I bet they recognize one another from their billion dollar social circles. Although Mayor Nash is far from a billionaire, the Nashes were always a bit better off than we were growing up. Mayor Nash starts in on his speech, and the din in the room quiets just a notch.

I do my best to spot Noah and Everett, but it’s officially wall-to-wall bodies. Instead, I spot Carlotta Sawyer, my bio mom, chatting away with someone in the corner and head on over. “Carlotta”—I start as I come upon her—“I’m sorry to interrupt, but have you seen—” I stop my sentence mid-flight when I notice the fact Carlotta is seemingly chatting it up with the wall. “Who are you talking to?” The air before us sparkles in a spray of microscopic stars, and I gasp. “It’s Nell, isn’t it?” I yank Carlotta back by the elbow as if I just caught her stealing a cookie from one of my prized cookie jars. Come to find out, Carlotta is supersensual like me, although the gift isn’t nearly as strong with her. She helped set up a meeting at my bakery a few months back with others that were like us, but my powers were the strongest and the deadliest by far. Carlotta grunts as she yanks her arm right back. Carlotta is an older version of me, same caramel waves, same hazel eyes, but she’s enhanced the look with frown lines and wrinkles, a stray gray hair here and there. “None of your beeswax who I’m chatting it up with. It just so happens our friendly ghost doesn’t want anything to do with you.” “Carlotta!” a faint voice wobbles beside me, and I recognize it as none other than Nell Sawyer. “Ha! You are here. Why are you hiding from me, Nell? Is someone going to die this afternoon? My God, it’s not Keelie, is it?” I crane my neck for my bestie and spot her mother, Becca—Nell’s very own daughter, and Naomi, too. “Oh God, it’s one of them, isn’t it?” Carlotta swats me.

“Don’t you get it? She doesn’t want you causing a scene. She said to tell you she’ll meet you someplace where the two of you can be alone.” “Fine.” I bite the air between us. “We can go now. The bakery is empty. We’ll meet in the kitchen,” I say, talking in the direction I heard Nell’s voice emanate from. “No can do.” Carlotta spins me around. “She said she’ll wait until this mosh pit clears out. Too many people spook her.” “Now there’s a role reversal. The spook is spooked.” “Go on.” Carlotta gives me a shove.

“Get out there and find that boyfriend of yours who lets you play with his gavel. Nell promises she’ll talk all night long once this fiasco is through.” I head out into the crowd, discouraged. I miss Nell so much. Just knowing she’s in the same room and that I can’t wrap my arms around her kills me. Mayor Nash drones on and on about the public works department, and I want to cry enough tears to fill the fountain in Town Square over the fact Nell wants very little to do with me. Worst yet, she won’t even give me the heads-up on whether or not we’ll have a murder on our hands. Mom rushes up just as Mayor Nash is wrapping up his speech. “Oh, Lottie, please bring out the cake. Rich was livid earlier because he’s starting to feel like a second-class citizen at his own birthday party!” “Newsflash, Mother. He is.” I take off for the kitchen. I’m more than familiar with the inner workings of the Honey Pot Diner. I was the head baker—only baker, here for years. The kitchen is empty, most likely due to the fact the entire town is riveted by all of Mayor Nash’s shiny new promises.

The chefs have the steel island laden with finger foods ready to replenish the chafing dishes out front. I bet the cakes are in the walk-in, where I’m hoping to find at least one. I bake all the cakes for the Honey Pot Diner, and unfortunately, I can’t remember the last time I sent one over. I open the enormous door of the walk-in refrigerator and gasp. Rich Dallas won’t be needing a birthday cake, after all. Rich Dallas is dead.


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Updated: 16 June 2020 — 22:48

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