Friday, December 9, 2022

Enjoy an Excerpt from Chocolate Mousse Attack by Sally Berneathy



Book 4 in DEATH BY CHOCOLATE series
from USA Today Bestselling Author, Sally Berneathy

A phone call at two a.m. is never good news. But there’s bad news and then there’s strange news. Lindsay’s two a.m. call is a plea for help. There’s a woman in Fred’s closet and he can’t get her out.

Their new neighbor, Sophie Fleming, has taken up sleepwalking, straight into Fred’s house and his bedroom closet. She’s having nightmares about the brutal stabbing of a little girl named Carolyn. But Carolyn was her imaginary childhood friend.

Lindsay, Fred, Trent, Paula and Henry must solve a twenty-year old murder with no bodies, no DNA and no proof the victims ever existed.

How can someone who never lived be murdered? Why is Sophie seeing it happen in Fred's bedroom? Why is she hiding in his closet? Will his clothes even fit her?

Chapter One

Kansas City in August. People vacation in hell because it’s cooler there.
The air conditioning in my Death by Chocolate kitchen shot craps just before noon on a 102/90 day…a hundred and two degrees, ninety percent humidity. My shop is actually in Pleasant Grove, a suburb of Kansas City, but it’s all the same in terms of weather.
By the time I got home that afternoon my T-shirt, shorts and face were streaked with sweat and chocolate, and my ponytail was a mass of red frizz.
The thought of meeting somebody I’d never met before ranked way down on my wish list, somewhere between sitting in a sauna for an hour while wearing a fur coat and going on a date with my ex-husband.
So when I saw Fred, my next-door neighbor, standing on the porch of the formerly vacant house across the street, talking to a woman, I hesitated, torn between nosiness and a desire to rush into my house, strip off my clothes and stand in the shower until the cold water ran out.
The house across the street had been vacant for years except for assorted rodents and roaches and Paula’s ex-husband who briefly hid in the attic to spy on her. But I guess that last part’s redundant. He qualifies for either of the first two categories.
A couple of months ago workmen suddenly converged on the three-story structure and launched into an extensive renovation. The jungle of trees, bushes and weeds became a sedate lawn. They painted the house a blue gray color, then the fish scale siding white and the gingerbread trim maroon. The house used to remind me of an elegant, aging dowager who’d seen better days. After the redo, it looked like a regal Victorian lady in her best ball gown.
And Fred, who was half hermit, half nerd and half mystery man (yes, I know that equals one and a half, which is a perfect description of Fred) was standing on the front porch of that house, talking to a beautiful woman, probably the new owner.
For a fleeting instant I considered giving in to curiosity, dashing over and insinuating myself into the conversation in a friendly, welcome-to-the-neighborhood sort of way. But then a gust of oven-hot wind blew a stray wisp of hair onto my cheek where it stuck in the sweat and chocolate. I took that as a sign.
I ducked my head and kept walking from my doddering garage toward my slightly more stable house. There’s a time for curiosity and a time for hiding. Hair stuck to the cheek is a time for hiding.
I had my foot on the first step of my front porch when I heard Fred call my name. I won’t say he has eyes in the back of his head because that would be silly. His hair would get in the way. But he does have a way of seeing everything going on around him.
I peeled the bit of hair from the sweat on my face, tucked it into my pony tail, squared my shoulders and walked across the street, down the brand new sidewalk and up to the brand new wraparound porch with pristine white columns.
Fred’s white hair, like the white columns, was immaculate as was everything else about him. He wasn’t even perspiring. The afternoon sun glinted off the lenses of his black framed glasses as he turned to me. I preferred his old wire frames but he listened to my opinion about as often as my cat did. “Lindsay Powell, this is our new neighbor, Sophie Fleming.”
Sophie smiled, teeth white and sparkling against olive skin, and extended a slender, well-manicured hand. She was beautiful, even up close. She had flawless skin and a smooth curtain of long dark hair with no sign of frizz even in the heat and humidity. Although she’d obviously been unpacking, her beige shirt and khaki shorts looked fresh and barely rumpled. Standing next to Sophie, I felt even grungier than I had a few minutes ago.
I accepted her hand. Cool and dry. Of course it was. “Welcome to the neighborhood.” I smiled, hoping I didn’t have spinach stuck in my teeth. I hadn’t eaten any spinach that day, but Sophie’s perfection made me worry anyway. “Place looks great.”
“Thank you.” She glanced back at the house. “This has been a labor of love. My parents and I lived here when I was a little girl. Part of our rent was to fix the place up. My dad was good at that. He did quite a bit of work before…” She hesitated for a brief instant, and it seemed a cloud passed between the sun and her face. Of course it didn’t. Not in August. “Before we moved to Nebraska,” she continued. “It broke my heart to find it had become so rundown.”
We knew all that already, of course, thanks to Fred’s prowess on the Internet. Well, we knew she and her family moved to Nebraska when she was five. We didn’t know why that cloud came over her face when she talked about it. Assuming there really was a cloud. Maybe I was just looking for some slight imperfection in my new neighbor so I wouldn’t have to hate her.
“We’re very glad you’ve returned.” Fred smiled.
Dirty old man.
“Yes, we are.” I really was. I liked her instinctively in spite of her being gorgeous and having straight hair and enough money to restore the house to showplace condition and not sweating in the heat.
“As soon as I get everything unpacked and set up, I’d love to have both of you over for dinner and a tour of the place, if you’d like.”
“We’d like! Fred will bring wine because he’s a connoisseur and I’ll bring dessert because I’m chocolatier.”
She beamed. “Wonderful.”
“Since you’re still in the process of all that unpacking, why don’t you come to my house on Saturday night for a cookout? You can meet another of your neighbors, Paula, and my boyfriend, Trent.”
She beamed even more brightly. “I’d love to. What can I bring?”
“Just yourself. Moving into a new house qualifies you for a pass.”
Fred and I left her to continue her unpacking.
“Do you think you should have checked with Paula before committing her to Saturday night?” Fred asked as we strolled across the street. “Maybe she has plans.”
“Are you kidding? Paula’s only plans for Saturday nights are to stay home and watch Toy Story with Zach for the hundredth time.”
“You didn’t ask me if I had plans.”
“Do you?”
“None I can’t change for a chance to have dessert at your place.”
I grinned. “Right answer.”
“I think Sophie was grateful for the invitation.”
“Probably. New in town, doesn’t know anybody yet. She may not be so grateful once she gets to know us.”
“She seems nice,” he said.
“You like her.”
He frowned. “Of course I like her. She’s done nothing to merit my dislike. I even like you in spite of the number of things you’ve done to merit my dislike.”
I scowled at him. “Name one thing I’ve done that my chocolate doesn’t compensate for.”
“Did you bring home anything?”
“Chocolate chip cookies. Your favorite.”
“I’m making spaghetti with homemade pasta and garlic bread. It should be ready in about two hours.”
“I’ll be there with chocolate on and sweat off.”
I went to my house and Fred went to his.
King Henry, the cat who adopted me shortly after I moved in, ran to greet me as soon as I opened the front door. He rubbed against my leg and looked up with big blue eyes. He didn’t care if I was stinky and sweaty. Fred loves me for my chocolate and Henry loves me for my can opener. It’s good to be loved.
I slept really soundly that night. Meeting Sophie and knowing she was living in what used to be a creepy old house somehow made the neighborhood feel safer. Being in an air conditioned bedroom after the heated kitchen probably helped too.
When the sound of Wild Bull Rider pulled me from a deep sleep, I sat bolt upright in bed, heart pounding, and grabbed for my phone. Wild Bull Rider is Fred’s ringtone. I don’t know that he’s ever ridden any wild bulls, but I don’t know that he hasn’t. One thing I did know, he never called after ten o’clock at night or before nine in the morning. My clock clearly said two a.m. No good news ever comes at two in the morning.
A thousand horrible possibilities flitted through my mind in the second it took to accept the call.
Aliens had come to take Fred back to his home planet and he was calling to say good-bye.
A burglar had broken into his house, stolen his phone and was pocket-dialing me.
Fred had awakened with a sudden craving for brownies.
Ridiculous, of course, but nothing compared to the reality.
“Lindsay, I need you to come over here.” His voice was firm, his words precise, but I detected an edge of panic.
“Are you all right? Are you hurt? Have you fallen and can’t get up?” Fred wasn’t young, but he wasn’t old either. He’d always seemed ageless and invulnerable. The thought that he might be hurt and need my help clenched my heart into a cold, painful knot.
“Do you remember Sophie Fleming, the woman who moved into the house across the street?”
“Did you call me at two a.m. just to test my memory? Yes, I remember her. Brunette with hair down to her butt and no perspiration on her brow. Did I pass the test? Can I go back to sleep now?”
“No. I told you I need you here. Sophie Fleming won’t come out of my closet.”
It’s often difficult to tell if Fred’s being funny or serious. His expression and tone rarely change. I couldn’t see his expression at that moment, and his tone was calm but with just a hint of desperation. I decided to play it straight.
“Why is Sophie Fleming in your closet?”
“If I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn’t be calling you.”
“Which closet is she in?” I didn’t suppose it made a lot of difference, but I was trying to get a picture of what the heck was going on at Fred’s house.
“My bedroom closet.”
“Is this some kind of kinky sex thing?”
“Lindsay, if you ever again want me to help you break into somebody’s house or hack into a website illegally or get a speeding ticket erased from the system, you need to stop asking stupid questions and get over here. Now.” He hung up.
Fred’s more than capable of dragging one or more people out of his closet and tossing them on their butt in the street, but a beautiful woman apparently had him completely freaked out. This was the closest I’d ever known him to get to all-out panic mode.
I swung my feet out of bed and onto the hardwood floor. Henry, sleeping off a catnip binge on the foot of my bed, lifted his head, opened one blue eye and gave a questioning meow but was back asleep before I could answer. Good thing. I didn’t relish trying to explain something to him that I didn’t understand.
I sleep in an old T-shirt Rick threw out because it was faded and ratty. The years hadn’t improved its condition, but it was big and comfortable and would do for a night time visit. I grabbed a pair of shorts and pulled them on then hurried downstairs, making a quick detour through the kitchen to grab a Coke and a plastic container of chocolate chip cookies. I needed the Coke, and it sounded like Fred might need the cookies.
Every blade of grass in Fred’s yard is always three inches long and the flowers never have wilted blooms. As I crossed it, I looked for the elves I’m sure do his yard work in the middle of the night. I caught a glimpse of someone skulking in a car parked in front of my house, but it couldn’t be an elf because everybody knows there’s no such thing as elves in the Kansas City area. It gets too cold in the winter.
Probably just my scuzzy ex-husband stalking me. He does that when he’s in between bimbos.
The car was parked in the shadows of the big trees that line our street. Nevertheless I was pretty sure the elf’s hair was blond. Definitely Rick though the car wasn’t familiar. A mid-size white sedan. Not his style but it could belong to a new bimbo. I considered going over to confront and yell at him, but Fred’s crisis was more important than a moment’s pleasure.
Fred met me at his front door. His hair was mussed, his glasses were slightly askew, and he wore white cotton pajamas that were unwrinkled despite the hour. He looked more like he’d come from a Karate workout than the bedroom.
“Please tell me you didn’t iron those pajamas,” I said by way of greeting.
He glared at me. Yes, Fred actually glared. That was a lot of emotion for him to display. Then his gaze dropped to my hands. “Are those cookies for me?”
I handed him the container.
“Thank you.” He turned and I followed him into his immaculate home.
His house is like his yard, always immaculate. His hardwood floors are shiny, and no speck of dust mars his furniture. Elves again. They come to clean in the middle of the night and then dump his dust in my house.
“Do you want to tell me how Sophie Fleming got into your bedroom closet in the first place?” I asked as we started up the stairs.
“She walked in there. Actually, it was closer to a run. Speed walk, to be specific.”
He strode onto the landing and down the hall toward his bedroom, his hurried strides longer than usual. Fred was as stressed as I’d ever seen him. Things were getting a little freaky.
I got another shock when I entered his bedroom. The bed was unmade. Sure, the average person wouldn’t make his bed when he got up in the middle of the night to try to lure a strange woman out of his closet, but Fred wasn’t the average person. Anyway, he had those elves.
He strode to the open closet door and I followed.
The closet was large for an old house. On one side, shirts were grouped by color, fabric and long sleeves versus short sleeves. On the other side, slacks and jackets were arranged the same way. He had a shoe rack that held polished shoes and a tie rack with ties, sorted by color.
Sophie huddled in one corner at the very back. She sat with her face between her knees, a dark curtain of hair flowing over her arms which wrapped protectively around her head. A silky white gown spread around her.
A beautiful woman in a nightgown hiding in the bedroom closet of a man in pajamas. If it had been anybody but Fred—
“Sophie?” I spoke softly.
She flinched and tightened her arms around her head.
I turned to Fred. “How did she get in your house? I feel certain you had the door locked.”
He straightened his glasses. “At 1:33 a.m. my security system told me someone was on my front porch. I went to investigate and saw her trying to get in. I opened the door and asked if I could be of assistance. She walked past me, straight up the stairs and into my bedroom closet. I believe she’s sleepwalking, but I can’t seem to wake her or persuade her to come out.” He removed a cookie from the container and bit into it. His hand shook slightly. I was glad I had brought the cookies. He definitely needed a fix.
I took the container from him. Maybe Sophie would respond to a cookie. Chocolate has restorative powers.
I handed Fred my Coke and moved into the closet, pushed Fred’s pants aside and knelt next to her. “Sophie, it’s Lindsay. I’m your neighbor. Remember me? Chocolatier?”
She shivered but didn’t look up.
“Would you like a chocolate chip cookie? I made them myself.”
There’s something very wrong with anyone who turns down one of my cookies.
I touched her arm.
Her head flew up and she shoved my hand away. Her eyes were wide and filled with terror. “Carolyn! No!”
I had a bad feeling it was going to take more than a few cookies to help that woman.

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