First book in the Death by Chocolate series
Lindsay loves chocolate. It tastes good, it makes her feel good, it never cheats on her like her almost-ex-husband. It's her best friend. But someone wants her dead and uses her weak spot—chocolate—to try to murder her.
Lindsay's only secret is the recipe for her chocolate chip cookies, but she is surrounded by neighbors with deadly secrets. Suddenly she finds herself battling poisoned chocolate, a psycho stalker, and a dead man who seems awfully active for a corpse.
Her best friend and co-worker, Paula, dyes her blond hair brown, hides from everybody and insists on always having an emergency exit from any room. Secrets from Paula's past have come back to put lives in jeopardy.
Determined to help Paula, Lindsay enlists the reluctant aid of another neighbor, Fred, an OCD computer nerd. In spite of his mundane existence, Fred possesses tidbits of knowledge about such things as hidden microphones, guns, the inside of maximum security prisons and how to take someone down with a well-aimed kick to his chin.
As Lindsay battles the elusive stalker, poisoned chocolate, and the dead man, she will need more than a chocolate fix to survive. But that’s always a good start.
I could tell the minute I woke that it was Sunday, and not just because it was daylight but the alarm wasn't shrieking. The songs of the birds and the September breezes coming through my open window had that Sunday morning sound and feel to them.
I rolled over and snuggled up against Rick's warm body.
That's when it hit me.
Rick and I were getting a divorce. There shouldn't be a man in my bed.
I sat bolt upright, heart pounding. Who the hell was sleeping in my bed?
Good-looking, dark golden hair streaked from the sun and Lady Clairol, nice tan, complacent expression even when he was asleep.
I suppressed a groan as I came fully awake and remembered his unexpected appearance on my front porch…and everything that followed...about the night before. I had clearly lost my mind.
Not that my mind ever had much control where Rick was concerned.
When I'd opened the door to see him standing there yesterday evening, feet planted firmly on my doormat with its image of Taz shrieking in bright red letters, Go away!, I'd been glad to see him. Right then I should have called 911 to request that I be declared mentally incompetent and hauled off in chains for my own protection. I couldn't possibly be glad to see Rick when I knew he'd already moved Muffy or Buffy or whatever her name was into our house and our bed.
Instead I'd just stood there looking at him, and he'd looked back at me with those eyes that were bluer than the Kansas City sky in the middle of summer. Of course, if that sky wore tinted contacts, it could be that blue too.
I did have enough presence of mind to snarl at him. "What do you want?" I demanded then attempted a sneer.
He smiled—the smile that made him top salesman at Rheims Commercial Real Estate for the past six years. Somebody at a party once asked Rick what he sold. He gave the person that same smile and said, "Myself."
And he did a damned good job of it.
So I snarled and sneered and he smiled. I knew he wanted to sell me something. Probably himself.
"Hi, babe," he said and waved a manila envelope. "We need to go over some more terms of the settlement agreement, so I thought I'd stop by in person."
Yeah, right. I knew...and he knew that I knew...there were no more terms to go over. He'd demanded the lion's share and I'd agreed because all I wanted was for the whole thing to be finished. I was asking for four things: this house (not the big one where he and Muffy/Buffy lived but this small one that used to be one of our rental properties), the rental house next door where my friend Paula lived, my coffee/lunch/dessert shop, Death by Chocolate, and my old but fast, red Toyota Celica.
However, I'd been facing another Saturday night alone with a book or playing Rummi-Kube with Paula, and it was one of those evenings when it's not summer anymore but not yet fall. The air was still warm though it had a nostalgic feel to it, as if remembering all the fun of the summer as it slowly faded into the past and dreading the cold winter on its way. Or maybe that was just how I was feeling.
Anyway, I asked Rick in.
And when I wasn't looking, he ordered a pizza. Double pepperoni. My favorite kind.
Like I said, he's a damned good salesman.
One dumb thing led to another and then another...and now here he was, sleeping in my bed.
I slid out very carefully, trying not to wake him. I needed some caffeine and sugar pumping through my veins before I could deal with his inevitable leaving again. Every time was like another knife straight to the gut. A dull, rusty, serrated knife. The kind I should take to his throat right now...or maybe some portion of his anatomy a bit lower.
Nah, he'd just bleed all over my new sheets and I'd have to clean it up. In eight years of marriage, he never cleaned up a single one of the messes he made.
I pulled on the T-shirt and cut-offs I'd been wearing when he came over last night, then fastened my unruly red hair into a pony tail, moving quietly so I wouldn’t wake him. As I started out of the room, I noticed his cell phone had fallen from his pants pockets, the pants he’d draped over my wooden rocking chair last night.
I told myself to move on, get out of that room as fast as I could, but the phone was blinking and a faint buzzing was coming from it. I remembered being surprised and pleased that nobody…like, for instance, that Buffy person…had called him last night. Guess now I knew why. Creep had it on vibrate.
I picked up the phone. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out how to work it. My cell doesn’t do anything but make phone calls. Rick always had to have the latest in everything. His phone will order dinner, pick it up and hire someone to wash the dishes.
When I figured it out, I saw there had been about fifteen calls, give or take a few, from "My Muffy."
He was cheating on her just like he’d cheated on me. Poor "My Muffy." I couldn't restrain an evil smile as I laid down the phone, gathered my dignity about me and tiptoed downstairs, through my house.
I loved the sound of that. My house that held my furniture, most of it vintage garage sale or early American attic, but everything chosen because I wanted it there, not because Rick approved of something and decided we would get it.
Except for Rick's elegant, expensive leather briefcase looking very out of place in my living room where it leaned incongruously against one end of my big, cushy sofa patterned with lots of brightly colored flowers.
I rushed past, hurrying outside with the excuse to myself of retrieving the paper from the front yard.
As I walked out barefoot, I savored the feel of the weathered wood of my porch, the rough, cracked texture of my sidewalk, the dew-damp, cool green of the grass and weeds and clover in my yard. Since I no longer had a lawn service, I no longer had a golf-green lawn. The last tenants of this house were an older couple who either didn't care if the lawn wasn't perfect or couldn't see well enough to tell.
I could see just fine, but I didn't care. I'm not much into yard work. If it's green, let it grow. Green or white. Clover's pretty and smells good. And yellow dandelions are nice for contrast. Okay, the truth is, if a rock wants to sit in my yard and not even think about growing, that's okay too.
I kicked a puffy dandelion, sending the seeds scattering, and took a deep breath of the morning air. It was clear, clean, and cool with the promise of fall.
My house wasn't really in Kansas City but in a small southeast suburb called Pleasant Grove. A few years ago when Rick was looking for some investment property, I checked out this one because I loved the name. Pleasant Grove. And it was pleasant. Too hilly for good farmland, it still had lots of trees and was far enough away from downtown and from the factories north of the city that the air was clean and, well, pleasant.
Renters who wanted to live in the area were pleasant too. Quiet people who paid on time, never wrote hot checks, and didn't have wild parties that ended with them in jail and our house a disaster. We'd subsequently bought the house next door, Paula's place, but this first one, ninety years old, two-stories, a big front porch and lots of trees, was still my favorite.
I picked up the Sunday edition of the Kansas City Star then stopped as I caught a glimpse of the sun glinting off Rick's dark green Jeep Cherokee parked in my driveway.
For a millisecond there I'd managed to put last night completely out of my mind. Well, at least I’d relegated it to the back of my mind.
But there the damned car sat, right in front of me, reminding me of what I had to deal with this morning. Rick in my bed. In the six weeks since we'd separated, I'd been working hard at getting on with my life and forgetting about him and Muffy/Buffy/Puffy. But last night swept away all the healing I'd done in those six weeks. The wound was raw and open and bleeding.
Something soft brushed my leg and I jumped.
A cat. A big cat, marked like a Siamese only gold where Siamese were brown.
He rubbed against my leg again and purred as if he knew I needed some affection right then.
I squatted to pet him. I was sure it was a him by the self-assured stance and the certainty of acceptance that shone in those bright blue eyes. Yeah, I'm a sucker for blue eyes. This pair didn't even have tinted contacts. This pair didn't contain any deceit or hidden depths either.
He purred more loudly and arched into my hand as I stroked along his head and back. "You're a pretty thing, aren't you? Who do you belong to?"
"Lindsay!" For a second, I thought the cat had answered, claiming me as his owner. Like I said, I should have had myself committed the night before. Hearing a cat talk was nothing compared to letting Rick back into my bedroom and my life.
I looked up to see Paula retrieving her paper next door.
Her son Zach, wearing only a diaper, spotted me, grinned, and charged across the yards, shrieking, "Anlinny! Anlinny!"
I tossed the paper onto the porch then reached down and scooped up the kid. "Good morning, Hot Shot!" I brushed his hair back, not because it was long enough to be in his face but just because it was such sweet baby hair, the color and texture of corn silk, and I loved to touch it.
He gave me a noisy smack on the cheek then babbled happily in that almost-language of his, ending with "Kee!" as he twisted in my arms to point down at the cat.
"Yes, that's a kitty. A big one."
Paula, looking immaculate and well-dressed even though she was wearing her usual uniform of nondescript, cover-up clothing that hid all evidence of her past...a long sleeved white blouse and tan slacks that morning...strolled across to join us. She's one of those tiny, petite little things that I, tall and gangly all my life, have always hated. But nobody could hate Paula. She's too nice.
The first time we met was over a year ago when Paula answered our ad for a tenant. She showed up to look at the house in an old, beat-up car that spit puffs of black smoke every few feet and, when she came to a stop, continued to rattle and shake for a full minute. Rick and I were waiting on the porch, and he shuddered right along with that car.
"I can tell you already, we don't want her," he'd said.
I admit, I had my doubts too. I could imagine our house ending up in the same condition as that car.
But then Paula got out carrying a tiny baby. At first I thought maybe she was a very young teenager who'd been sent away from home because of the baby. Okay, I've read too much Dickens. Her shoulders and head drooped a little, as if she was making an effort to keep them erect but wasn't quite succeeding.
Did the big sunglasses she wore hide a black eye?
When she got closer and took off the sunglasses, I saw that she wasn't a teenager and didn't have a black eye. What she did have were worry lines around her eyes and on her forehead, a scar that makeup couldn't quite hide on one cheekbone and a terror in the depths of her eyes and in the tentative set of her mouth that suggested the scar hadn't come from any fall down the stairs. Maybe my Dickensian guess wasn't that far off.
I knew immediately we were going to lease the house to this woman, that I'd never be able to live with myself if I sent her and that little baby back out into the world in that awful car. I also knew from the disdain on Rick's face that I'd have to fight him on that one. Well, it wouldn't be the first time.
When the four of us walked into the living room of the rental house and she asked if there was a back exit, Rick shot me a lifted-eyebrow glance suggesting he thought she was worried about escaping in case of a police raid or something.
"In the kitchen," I told her. "Good question. Of course you need another exit in case of fire." My last words were spoken to her but directed to Rick. He glared at me and his jaw firmed. But it's a weak jaw. I wasn't worried.
Paula filled out the rental application on the spot. Well, she filled in her name and Zachary's and left the rest blank, then told us she'd just moved from California, she didn't have a job, her husband was dead, her parents were dead, she was an only child and her parents had been only children. She didn't say, but I assumed her husband had been an only child too, and that her son would also be an only child. Probably hereditary.
Rick didn't buy it. He was ready to reject her on the spot, but I dragged him outside and persuaded him, after a few minutes of serious digging-in-of-the-heels, to rent to her on the spot instead. He may be a damn good salesman, but I've got the market cornered on obstinacy. He finally threw up his hands and said he expected a huge apology from me after she trashed the place and the cops raided it. I suspect he only agreed to let her rent the place in anticipation of being able to say, "I told you so."
So Paula gave Rick cash for the deposit and first month's rent, and she and Zach moved in with their two suitcases. She said her furniture would arrive later, but I suspected that furniture was as mythical as her deceased, unprolific family.
I'd peeked over her shoulder when she counted out the rent and deposit and noticed that the rest of her pile of cash was pretty thin. Rick started out the door but I turned back and offered her a job in my shop, Death by Chocolate, a small bakery in historic downtown Pleasant Grove. Even if she was an ax murderess, that baby needed to eat.
"Lindsay!" Rick exclaimed.
I elbowed Rick in the stomach to make him shut up.
"Business is booming and I need somebody to help wait tables," I said. "I've been thinking about putting an ad in the paper, but I don't have time to interview people." That was all true, but I'd probably have offered her a job if I was going into bankruptcy.
Over the past year I'd had more than one occasion to say, "I told you so," to Rick. Not only did Paula prove to be an ideal tenant, but, thanks to her expertise, Death by Chocolate expanded from a specialty bakery to a trendy breakfast and lunch place with a specialty bakery.
My single culinary skill is cooking with chocolate. I can take a basic brownie recipe, make it more or less according to directions, and it always turns out incredible. I used to share my recipes, but friends accused me of leaving out ingredients when their desserts didn't turn out like mine. Now I tell everybody my recipes are "secret" because I have no idea what I do to make them different. Magic, maybe. It's my one talent. I produce irresistible chocolate concoctions, swamp water coffee, concrete biscuits, leathery filet mignon...well, you get the picture.
So while Death by Chocolate had gained a certain reputation as a bakery, with Paula's cooking skills, we started to serve gourmet coffees, bagels and cinnamon rolls in the morning as well as my chocolate pastries, and at lunch we added sandwiches and a daily hot entrée to my chocolate desserts. I offered to make her a partner, but the idea of having legal documents drawn up with her name on them made her really nervous, so I just pay her a salary equal to half the net profits of the place. We both make a decent living.
Working with somebody all day will either make you best friends or worst enemies. Paula and I became best friends and I spilled my guts about everything in my life. Paula didn’t reciprocate, refused to talk about her past. She had secrets.
I’d like to say I respected her privacy, but I fear lightning would strike me if I told such an outrageous lie. I was dying to know what those secrets were. However, she consistently ignored my gentle and not-so-gentle probing. Not only did my curiosity go unsatisfied, but it hurt that she didn't trust me with her secrets. However, when I left Rick and moved in next door to her, I became so totally selfish in my own pain that I was more than happy to spend our time together talking about me and my problems.
We had become even closer, and somehow we’d switched roles with her being the mother hen and me being the needy one.
That morning with Rick still sleeping in my bed, I was really glad to see her. I could use a little mothering.
"You know who this cat belongs to?" I asked her, reaching for any topic other than the one uppermost in my mind.
She shook her head. "I've never seen him before. He's beautiful, though." She extended her arms toward her son. "Come on, Zach. We need to go home. Aunt Lindsay has company."
Rick's Jeep in the driveway, an advertisement to the whole neighborhood.
"You don't have to go," I protested. I didn't want Paula or Zach or even the cat to leave. I couldn't trust me alone with Rick.
Paula settled Zach on her hip then looked at me with concern. "You okay?"
"Me? Sure. Oh, yeah. No problem. Everything's under control. See you later." I turned to walk back to the house.
"Want to come over? I've got some cold Cokes."
Since I don't like the taste of coffee, Coke is my caffeine of choice, morning, noon or night. Coke and friendship were at the top of my current list of needs. I whirled around so fast I stumbled over the cat. I regained my balance while he pretended nothing had happened. "I'd love to come over," I said. "Maybe Rick'll leave before I get back."
As I followed Paula and Zach across our adjoining yards, I noticed she needed a dye job. The morning sunlight picked out the blond roots of her muddy brown hair, roots just a little darker than her son's hair, the same color as her lashes and brows when she wore no makeup. For some strange reason, while most women would kill for naturally blond hair, Paula colored hers a drab, medium brown. A nondescript brown. Add that to her nondescript clothing and reclusive lifestyle, and I deduced that she went out of her way not to be noticed.
Like I said, Paula had secrets.
We went into her house which was the same basic style as mine...two-story, white, front porch, high ceilings, hardwood floors. Hers was smaller and about twenty years newer so it was less "gingerbready," but the major differences were inside. She had put shiny new deadbolt locks on the front and back doors and kept the windows closed and locked all the time. Her furniture was new and—guess what—nondescript, as if she felt the need to blend into the background even inside her own home.
Paula latched the screen door behind us, then closed and locked the wooden door and put on the chain. I bit my tongue and didn't comment that it seemed a shame to waste one of the half dozen days out of the year when the weather in the Kansas City area was suitable for humans, neither hot and sultry nor cold and windy.
Paula disappeared into the kitchen while Zach brought me a bright orange truck, jabbered, and made appropriate engine noises. I sat on the floor and we rolled the truck back and forth to each other across the area rug. Zach laughed and chattered, obviously enjoying this activity immensely. I can't say that I got a lot out of rolling that truck, but watching him have a good time definitely made my heart happy.
I revved the truck on the floor. "Vrroom! Vrroom! Here it comes!"
This time Zach grabbed it up and ran across the room, watching me over his shoulder. This was my cue to chase him. I scrambled to my feet, yelled, "I'm gonna get you!" then caught him just before he dove behind the beige chair.
Paula came back into the room as I lifted him over my head and blew on his soft tummy.
I sank onto the beige sofa with Zach in my lap and she set her tray on the coffee table. It held, among other things, a plate of fudge cookies left over from yesterday's inventory at the shop and a Coke. I must have looked as stressed as I felt. Usually Paula chided me about having Coke and chocolate for breakfast. Now she was offering it to me.
The tray also held her coffee, a plate of non-chocolate cookies, and a red sippy cup, the last a gift from me. Zach wants to drink whatever his Aunt Lindsay is drinking. Since that usually means a red can, his Aunt Lindsay found him a red cup. He's happy and I'm proud that the kid wants to emulate me. Hey, it could be worse. He could be emulating Rick.
I picked up the Coke, popped the top and took a long, satisfying swallow, letting those little bubbles dance over my tongue and down my throat, making my mouth feel clean and awake.
Zach took a long swallow of milk from his red sippy cup then reached for the chocolate cookies.
"These are your cookies," Paula said, handing Zach one of the non-chocolate variety. "I made some bran muffins and baked part of the recipe as cookies," she explained to me.
Zach looked at the chocolate cookies then back to his. The boy was not dumb.
"Wow!" I enthused. "Look at all the chocolate chips in yours!" I pointed to the raisins.
He grinned and began to munch on it. I could just see him in a few years, at the movies, bringing his date a package of Raisinets and telling her they're chocolate covered chocolate chips.
Feeling a little guilty, I selected a cookie of the chocolate variety. Not so guilty I wouldn't eat it, of course. I needed sustenance to face the morning...and Rick in my bed.
"He ordered a pepperoni pizza," I said, as if I had to justify that car in my driveway. "Double pepperoni."
Paula only nodded and sipped her coffee. Nonjudgmental.
I drank more Coke and shoved more cookie into my mouth. I was feeling much better already. Paula's house was always immaculately clean and her paranoia about keeping the door locked and the windows closed made it feel isolated from the rest of the world. Sometimes that wasn't a bad feeling. Today was one of those times.
"I appreciate your not saying anything dumb like, does this mean you're getting back together?" I said quietly, staring into the hole in my Coke can as though I expected to find some sort of answers in there. Some people look for answers in a bottle. I look for mine in a can. Neither of us is successful, of course.
"No." Paula's voice was unexpectedly firm and intense. "I'd never say that. He's not going to change. He'd hurt you again if you took him back."
Definitely an abusive husband or lover in her past, somebody she was scared would find her and hurt her again, put another scar on the other side of her face. I wondered how many she had on the rest of her body, how many she was hiding with her long-sleeved shirts, slacks and ankle-length skirts.
I looked at her, trying to see behind that mask she never let down, but I couldn't. Her spine was straight, her chin tilted upward defiantly.
"I know Rick will never change," I replied.
"Do you still love him?"
That was a tough one. I'd asked myself that question a lot of times over the past six weeks. I'd been in total shock at first, trying to figure out what I'd done wrong. We'd had a lot of good times in the early years, then we'd kind of drifted apart as we became busy making money and getting ahead.
Not so busy he hadn't been able to find time for Scruffy Buffy, of course.
I gritted my teeth and forced a smile. Paula's not the only one who can do masks. "I don't love him the way I love chocolate and Coke."
We all three laughed. I'm sure Zach didn't know what he was laughing at, but his mommy and his Aunt Lindsay were laughing, and that made him happy.
A knock on the front door stopped the laughter.
Paula's eyes went wide, and the blood drained from her face. Total terror. She used to do that regularly at work, freak out every time somebody came into our shop. Fortunately for our profit margin, many people come in every day, and she finally got used to it, but visitors at home were apparently still scary. Of course, she didn't have visitors at home except for the postman and me.
I was sitting on the sofa and the mail didn't come on Sunday.
She set her cup on the table, her hand shaking so badly the coffee sloshed onto her fingers.
"I'll get it." I bounced up, handed Zach to her and was at the door before she could protest.
Not that I think she was capable of speech at that moment.