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Samantha Sterling sat next to her mother in the first pew of Icicle Falls Community Church and fought back the urge to jump up, run to the front of the sanctuary, grab her stepfather, Waldo, by the neck and throttle him. She didn't, for two reasons. One, a girl didn't do things like that in church. Still, she could have overcome her reservations if not for the second reasonGod had already taken Waldo out. Waldo was as dead as roadkill on Highway 2. In addition to a daughter from his first marriage, he'd left behind his grieving wife, Muriel, his three stepdaughters, Samantha, Cecily and Bailey, and the family business, which was nearly as dead as Waldo.
Sweet Dreams Chocolates had been healthy when Samantha's father was alive. The company had been started by her great-grandmother Rose and had slowly but steadily grown under his leadershipone big, happy family to mirror the happy family who were living off its profits. All three sisters had spent their summers working at Sweet Dreams. All three had it drummed into them from an early age that this business was the source of both the family's income and honor (not to mention chocolate). But it was Samantha who had fallen in love with it. Of the three girls, she was the one who'd stayed and she was the heir apparent.
But then her father had died and everything came to a halt. Samantha lost the man she and her sisters idolized, and her mother lost her way. Muriel left it to Samantha and the bookkeeper, Lizzy, to keep the company running on autopilot while first she mourned and then later searched for a new husband.
Enter Waldo Wittman, a tall, gray-haired widower recently retired, encouraged to do so by his company, which was downsizing. (Now, looking back, Samantha suspected there were other reasons Waldo had been turned loose.) He'd wanted to get away from the rat race, or so he'd said. With its mountain views, its proximity to eastern Washington wine country, its small-town friendliness and its attractive widow, Waldo decided Icicle Falls would fit the bill. And Muriel decided the same about Waldo. So, after a year and a half of widowhood, she got a new man.
And now there he was, at the front of the church, stretched out in his favoriteexpensive!gray suit. Sweet, beloved Waldo
the money-eater. Oh, Waldo, how could everything have gone so wrong so fast?
It was early January, the beginning of a new year. And what a nightmare year it was promising to be, all because Mom had made her new husband president of their family-owned business. She'd left Samantha as VP in charge of marketing; much good that had done.
Now Samantha was VP in charge of disaster and she could hardly sit still thinking of the mess waiting for her back at the office.
"You're fidgeting," whispered her sister Cecily, who was sitting next to her.
Fidgeting at a funeral probably wasn't polite but it was an improvement over standing up, pulling out her hair and shrieking like a madwoman.
Why, oh, why hadn't Mom and Dad done what needed to be done to make sure that if something happened to Dad the business passed into competent hands? Then Mom could have skipped happily off into newly-wed bliss, no harm no foul.
None of them had expected her to remain alone forever. She was only in her fifties when Dad died and she didn't function well alone.
When Waldo arrived on the scene she came back to life, and Samantha had been happy for her. He was fun and charming, and she and her sisters gave him a hearty thumbs-up. Why not? He'd brought back Mom's smile. At first everyone got along well. Like Samantha, he'd been a shutterbug and they'd enjoyed talking photography. Her favorite joke when she'd stop by the house to talk business with Mom (or try, anyway) was to ask, "Where's Waldo?"
But once Mom dropped him on the company like a bomb, Samantha didn't have to ask. She knew where Waldo was. He was at the office, in over his head and making her crazy.
She ground her teeth as she mentally tallied how much money he'd squandered: new business cards with his name on them, new stationery, new equipment they hadn't needed, a fancy phone system they couldn't afford that a slick-tongued sales rep had talked him into buying. How could a businessman be so bad at business? Of course he'd convinced both himself and Mom that every purchase was necessary, and Samantha hadn't had the veto power to stop him.
That had been just the beginning. Six months ago their profits sank and they started having trouble paying their suppliers. Waldo cut back on production, which then affected their ability to fill orders, and Lizzy, their bookkeeper, began looking as if she'd been invited to dinner with the grim reaper. "We're behind on our IRS quarterlies," she'd informed Samantha. "And that's not all." She showed Samantha expenditures on the company credit card that made no sense. A gun. Ammunition. Cases and cases of bottled water, enough to keep the whole town hydrated. Waldo was a financial locust, devouring the company.
Where's Waldo? Busy dumping their lives in the toilet. Flush, flush, flush! She could have happily stuffed his head in a toilet and
"And I believe that if Waldo could speak to us now he'd say, 'Thank God for a life well-lived,'" Pastor Jim said.
Her mother let out a sob and Samantha felt a pang of guilt. She should be crying, too. She'd liked Waldo. He'd been a man with a big heart and a big appetite for life.
"We know he'll be missed," Pastor Jim was saying, and Cecily laid a comforting hand on Mom's arm. That, of course, gave Mom permission to start crying in earnest.
"Poor Mom," whispered Bailey, who was sitting on the other side of Samantha. "First Dad and now Waldo." Losing two husbandstalk about a double whammy.
Mom had not only loved both her husbands, she'd loved being married. She had no head for business (which probably explained why Grandpa had been perfectly happy to let Dad run Sweet Dreams), but she had a gift for relationships. She'd even had a couple of relationship books published with a small publisher and before Waldo died she'd been about to start on a new book, Secrets of a Happy Remarriage.
Samantha hoped that now Mom would turn her attention to learning how to have a happy lifewith no marriage. At least, no marriage until they could get the business off the critical-care list and Samantha was put officially in charge.
The sooner, the better. Her first order of business would be to rehire Lizzy, who Waldo had fired in a misbegotten attempt to economize. She only hoped Lizzy would come back and help her sort through this mess.
She heaved a sigh. Here her mother was grieving and all she could think about was saving the family business. What was wrong with her? Did she have a calculator for a heart?
"Now I'd like to give the rest of you a chance to say something about Waldo," Pastor Jim said.
He made me nuts probably wouldn't cut it. Saman-tha stayed seated.
Lots of other people were happy to oblige, though.
"He was the most generous man I ever met," said Maria Gomez, his regular waitress at Zelda's. "He gave me two hundred dollars to get my car fixed. Just like that. Said not to worry about paying him back."
Samantha pressed her lips firmly together and envisioned hundred-dollar bills with wings flying away, circling ever upward and off toward Sleeping Lady Mountain.
You do have a calculator for a heart. People were talking about how nice Waldo had been, and all she could think about was money. She was a terrible person, a terrible, terrible person. She hadn't always been like that, had she? A tear slipped from a corner of her eye.
Ed York, owner of D'Vine Wines, stood. "I can still remember sitting with Waldo out on his deck, looking at the mountains, sharing a bottle of wine, and him saying, 'You know, Ed, it doesn't get any better than this.' That Waldo, he sure knew how to enjoy life."
While everyone around him was pulling out their hair.
"He was a dear soul," old Mrs. Nilsen said. "Last month he stopped in the freezing cold to change my tire when I had a flat on Highway 2."
On and on went the praise. Good, old, wonderful Waldo. Everyone here would miss himexcept his rotten, ungrateful, Scrooge-in-drag, calculator-for-a-heart stepdaughter. She was pathetic. Another tear sneaked out of her eye and trickled down her cheek.
Pastor Jim finally called a halt to the festivities and the party made its way under cloudy skies to Festival Hall, where everyone could mingle, sing Waldo's praises further and devour cold cuts and potato salad. Inside, the three sisters smiled and commiserated.
Waldo's brother and his daughter, Wanda, had flown in from the East Coast. Taking in the woman's red eyes as she approached, Samantha managed to find empathy in the swirl of guilt and resentment and frustration she was experiencing
"I'm sorry we're having to see each other again in such sad circumstances," Wanda said. "So are we," Cecily told her.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Samantha added. And she was. She knew how horrible it was to lose a father and she wouldn't wish that on her worst enemy.
Wanda dabbed at her eyes with a soggy tissue. "I can't believe he's gone. He was the best father. And he was always so positive, so upbeat."
So clueless. "I wish we could turn back the clock," Samantha said.
Wanda sniffed and nodded. "You were all so good to him."
Samantha couldn't think of anything to say to that. She hardly wanted to confess that during the past few months she'd been anything but good.
Cecily stepped into the gap. "He was a nice man."
True. He was just a bad businessman.
"He sure loved Muriel," Wanda said. "He was so lonely after Mother died. Muriel gave him a new lease on life."
"And I don't know what her life would've been like without him," Samantha said.
"I think Muriel would like to hear that, Wanda," murmured Waldo's brother, Walter, as he led their longdistance stepsister away.
"I need a drink," Samantha said.
"Great idea," Bailey agreed, and they all drifted over to the punch bowl.
Samantha really wasn't much of a drinker, but a good stiff belt sure seemed to help a lot of movie characters through stressful moments and right about now she was willing to give it a try. "I wish this was spiked," she muttered.
Bailey looked across the room at their mother. "I feel so bad for Mom."
Muriel Sterling-Wittman sat on a folding chair framed by the weak winter light coming through the window behind her, a beautiful tragic figure starting the new year alone. Her basic black dress discreetly draped her Betty Boop curves and her hair was still the same shiny chestnut it had been when Samantha was a girl, courtesy of the geniuses at Sleeping Lady Salon. The green eyes Waldo once raved about were bloodshot from crying but still looked lovely thanks to lashes thick with waterproof mascara. Half the men in the room were hovering around with tissues in case she found herself in need.
"Well, at least we won't have to worry about her being lonely," Bailey said. She was the spitting image of their mother and the most like her, as wellsweet, positive and naive.
Cecily gave a cynical snort. "Much good any of those men will do her. They're all married."
"Not Ed," Bailey pointed out.
"He's got the hots for Pat over at the bookstore," Sa-mantha said, and mentally added, Thank God.
"Arnie's not married," Bailey said. "Neither is Mayor Stone. Or Waldo's brother. Wouldn't it be sweet if"
Samantha cut her off. "Let's not even put that thought out in the universe." All they needed was another man coming along and convincing Mom that the third time would be the charm.
"Look at them. Waldo's barely gone and they're already circling around her like some old-guy version of The Bachelor." Cecily shook her head. "Men."
"You know, for a matchmaker you sure have a sucky attitude," Bailey observed.
"Where do you think I got it?" Cecily retorted.
"How do you manage to stay in business?" Bailey asked in disgust.
"By staying superficial." Cecily gave them a wicked grin.
Cecily was the only blonde in the family and she was the prettiest of them all with perfect features and the longest legs. Samantha had been cute with her red hair and freckles, but it was Cecily the boys drooled over. Still, in spite of her good looks, Cupid had never been kind to her. So far she'd gone through two fiances. Samantha didn't understand how Cecily could make money matching up beautiful people in L.A. but couldn't seem to get it right when it came to her own love life.
Like you're doing so well?
Touche, she told her snarky self.
"You're enough to make a woman give up on love," Bailey muttered as she nodded and smiled politely at old Mr. Nilsen, who was ogling her from the other side of the hall.
"That would be the smart thing to do," Cecily said.
"Well, I don't think Mom's ready to give up on love. Maybe you could match her up with someone," Bailey suggested.
"No!" Several people turned to stare and Samantha downed a slug of punch in an effort to put out the fire in her cheeks. What was wrong with her? Could a woman suddenly get Tourette's at thirty?
The wicked in Cecily's grin kicked up a notch. "I know what you mean. No one will ever be able to replace Waldo."
"I liked Waldo, I really did," Samantha said. "But no more men. I've got enough to deal with already."
"Gosh, Sammy." Bailey frowned at her.
Samantha frowned back. "Hey, baby sister, you two get to go back to sunny California and match up lonely millionaires and cater events for starlets. I'm the one stuck with the fallout here."
Cecily sobered. "I'm sorry. You're right. We're leaving you with a mess. You've got the business to sort out, plus Mom's affairs."
"Except if anyone can do it, you can, Sammy," Bailey said, linking arms with her.
Samantha sighed. As the oldest it was her job to be the rock everyone leaned onalthough right now she didn't feel like a rock. She felt like a pebble on a beach about to be swept away by a tsunami.
And her own mother had been the one to unwittingly drop her there. She and Muriel loved each other dearly, but they often disagreed. And before Waldo died they'd disagreed a lot, especially when Samantha tried to get her mother to talk sense into him.
"He's not feeling well," Mom kept saying, but when pressed for details she'd remained vague.
Maybe the poor guy's heart had been acting up all along. Maybe he'd been so worried about his bad health he hadn't been able to concentrate and that was why he'd made such poor decisions. Except that didn't explain his odd purchases. Or the answers he'd given her when she asked about them.