Bernie and Libby Simmons, caterers extraordinaire, are hosting a televised cookie contest just in time for Christmas, but unfriendly rivalries cook up a cutthroat competition…
The feisty members of the Christmas Cookie Club Exchange are busy perfecting their recipes once again. And with the Baking for Life cookie contest on the line, the stakes are higher—and deadlier—than ever. When the odds-on favorite dies in a suspicious car accident en route to the show, Bernie and Libby start digging and are shocked to uncover a soap opera of sinister secrets and clandestine affairs. But they'll stop at nothing to get to the truth, because no holiday treat is sweeter than justice.
Includes original recipes for you to try!
“A chatty, cozy mystery.”—Library Journal
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A CATERED CHRISTMAS COOKIE EXCHANGE
By ISIS CRAWFORD
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Isis Crawford
All rights reserved.
Bernie was lifting a folding chair off the pile of chairs in front of her when Libby came running into the auditorium of the Longely Community Center.
"You've come to help me set up the chairs, how sweet," Bernie told her sister, who was supposed to have been there twenty minutes ago.
"Forget the chairs," Libby replied. "We have to go."
"Why?" Bernie asked. She and Libby were supposed to be setting up the extra chairs for tomorrow's airing of Baking for Life, although why they weren't taping the show from the Longely High School auditorium was something Bernie couldn't begin to fathom. "Go where? What's the matter?"
"Amber's Aunt Millie was just in a car accident."
"Jeez." Bernie put down the chair she was holding. "Was it bad?"
"Evidently bad enough," Libby told her. "She's in the hospital."
"So we have to go back to A Little Taste of Heaven?"
"No. We have to go to the scene of the accident."
"Then who's at the shop, if Amber isn't?" Bernie asked, thoughts of customers not being waited on dancing in her head. "Besides Googie, that is?"
Libby smiled apologetically. "George."
"The George who is one of Googie's friends."
Bernie raised her eyes to the ceiling. "Oh God. Shoot me now." While Googie was a fairly responsible individual, having worked for them behind the counter for the last five years, his skateboarder friends were not.
"It'll be fine," Libby told her.
"You've got to be kidding me. It will not be fine."
"It could be worse, Bernie."
"Worse?" Bernie repeated "How?"
"We could have Selma," Libby pointed out.
Bernie groaned. Selma had tried to steal eight hundred dollars from them in addition to breaking their mixer and hiding dirty pans in the cabinet.
"After all," Libby continued, "let's not forget that George worked down at The Little Red Hen in Brooklyn last year, so he does have some idea of how to work in a bakeshop. You liked him, remember?"
"I did?" Bernie asked.
"Yeah. He filled in for Googie for a couple of days last year when Googie had the flu."
Bernie snapped her fingers. She was beginning to remember who Libby was talking about. "He's the one with the stretchers in his ears and the shaved head, right?"
Bernie felt slightly relieved. At least George could work the register and knew a croissant from a French macaroon. She sighed. "Libby, why do things like this always come at the worst possible time?"
Libby didn't argue. It was three weeks until Christmas, one of their busiest times of the year, and being guest judges on the baking show had put them squarely in the weeds, as her sister liked to say.
Bernie reached up, took the elastic out of her hair, and redid her ponytail. "Not to be mean or anything," she said when she was done, "but why do we have to go to the accident site? Isn't this a police matter?"
"Because Amber wants us to. She says the cookies are missing, and she thinks maybe someone caused Millie's accident."
Bernie frowned. "What you said makes absolutely no sense. Could you be a little clearer?"
Libby unbuttoned her sweater because it was hot inside the Longely Community Center. And then because it was her firm belief that she thought better after she'd eaten some chocolate, she reached into her jeans pocket, drew out two Hershey's kisses, and unwrapped and ate them while she organized her thoughts. "Evidently," she began when she was done, "Millie was coming here to the run-through with her cookies when she got into the accident."
"I knew that," Bernie said. "All the members of the Christmas Cookie Exchange Club are coming."
"Yes, indeedy. Anyway," Libby continued, "she called Amber before she passed out and told her to come get the cookies."
"The cookies she was taking to the show for judging? The ones she baked from the dough we were storing under lock and key until yesterday?"
Libby nodded. "Exactly. But when Amber got there and saw her aunt passed out she called 911. Then, after they came and took her aunt away, Amber remembered about the cookies and went back to look for them. But they weren't in Millie's Buick."
"Maybe Millie forgot them at home," Bernie suggested. "Maybe she was confused. After all, she'd just been in an accident."
"That's what I said to Amber," Libby agreed. "But here's the thing. When Amber got to the hospital, Millie had regained consciousness. Amber said it was like Millie was waiting for her."
"And ...," Bernie said, making a rolling motion with her hand to indicate that Libby should move the story along.
"And she told Amber to avenge her. And then she blacked out again."
"Avenge her?" said Bernie.
"That's what Amber said she heard," replied Libby.
"The poor woman was probably in shock," Bernie observed. "Or maybe Amber heard wrong."
"Maybe, but now Amber is insisting that someone caused her aunt's accident and stole the cookies."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but are you saying that someone engineered Aunt Millie's accident with the specific intent of stealing her cookies?" Bernie asked.
"Amber's saying it, not me," replied Libby.
Bernie lifted up her arms, then let them drop. "That's ridiculous."
"Agreed," said Libby.
"I mean who would steal Amber's Aunt Millie's cookies? What would be the point?"
"So they won't be in the contest." Libby shrugged. "I know it's absurd, but there it is."
"And Amber wants us to do what?" asked Bernie.
"What do you think? She wants us to investigate," said Libby.
"Great. Simply great," Bernie groused. "Come on. Like we don't have enough to do?"
"Do you want me to say no to her?" Libby demanded.
Bernie was silent for a moment. Then she said, "Yes. I do."
Libby scowled. "Seriously? You may want to rethink that answer."
Bernie nibbled on her lower lip for a moment. "I guess we can't, can we?"
"No, Bernie. We can't," Libby replied even though she would have liked to tell Amber they couldn't go.
Bernie clicked her tongue against her teeth. "So tell me exactly what, according to Amber, we are supposed to do."
"She wants us to look at the scene of the accident before the cops come and take the car away. I figured we'll do that, and then we can tell Amber that everything is okay and that will be that. We'll be off the hook."
Bernie thought for a moment. "That should work."
"I thought it would be the easiest thing to do."
Then Bernie had another thought, a more discomforting one. "You know," she continued, "not to play devil's advocate or anything ..."
Libby rolled her eyes. "Something you enjoy doing ..."
Bernie raised her hand. "Just hear me out. Much as I don't like to say this, suppose Millie is right? Suppose someone did want to hurt her and steal her cookies? After all, the Christmas Cookie Exchange Club members do take their baking very seriously."
Libby snorted. "I refuse to believe that. Who are we talking about? A bunch of middle-class old ladies who have known each other for thirty or forty years. Not possible," Libby declared.
"Everything is possible," Bernie asserted.
"Not this," Libby shot back.
"The world is a strange and wondrous place," Bernie retorted.
Libby started toward the door. "I wouldn't know. I don't have time to look. I'm in the kitchen all day long."
Bernie tsked. "So young and yet so bitter."
"No. Just tired. I've got to say, though, that if I never see another bûche de Noël it won't be too soon for me. Of course, I'd miss the chocolate buttercream," Libby reflected. "And the ganache. And the meringue mushrooms."
She stopped as another thought occurred to her. "What about the show? What if Millie doesn't make it?"
"I guess they'll have to do it with seven bakers instead of eight," Bernie answered as she reached for her coat. "Unless, of course, Millie makes a spectacular recovery."
"I hope she does," Libby said, but given what Amber had said, she had her doubts.
She and Bernie stopped on their way out of the Longely Community Center and told the producer, Penelope Lively, what had happened.
"Friggin' great," Penelope muttered. "Just what I don't need. Terri," she yelled, calling for her assistant, "get over here."
"Not a happy camper," Libby noted as she watched Penelope reach for her cell phone.
"I wouldn't be either," Bernie replied as they stepped outside.
Once they were in their van, Libby called Amber and told her they were en route. They arrived at the scene of the accident fifteen minutes later.
The van's brakes squealed as Bernie came around the curve. She stopped two inches in front of the orange traffic cones that were ringing the scene of Millie's accident.
"That was close," Libby observed. "Too close. Mathilda would not be happy if she'd gone into the Buick."
"No, she wouldn't," Bernie agreed of their van.
"And we don't have money for a new van, and I'm not sure it would be worth fixing this one. The insurance company would probably just total her out."
"Libby, don't talk like that," Bernie chided. "You'll upset Mathilda." Bernie caressed the van's dashboard. "Don't worry," she crooned to it. "I won't let anything happen to you." She took a deep breath and let it out. "Sorry," she said to it. "The curve came up faster than I expected."
"It always does," Libby commented.
Bernie glanced over at her sister, trying to decide whether she was being sarcastic and decided she wasn't. As Bernie pulled the van over to the side of the road, she reflected that even in the daylight she would have had trouble avoiding the Buick, but at night, in the dark, it would be nearly impossible. The front half of the Buick was smashed up against the tree, and the back part was sticking out into the road.
And you wouldn't see it until it was too late. Especially if you were flying along. Which was why this particular stretch of road had such a bad reputation. Between the curve and the tree, it was impossible to see around the bend. If she remembered correctly, three people had died here over the last ten years.
"I'd forgotten how bad this curve is," Libby observed.
"Me too," Bernie said as she parked. Although she really hadn't.
She was thinking about how she and her friends used to race along here when she'd been seventeen and stupid, and how lucky they'd been not to end up dead or in a wheelchair. She remembered that the road surface got slippery when wet, so it was easy to slide off onto the gravel, especially if you were going fast. And oh boy, were they ever. At least once or twice a week. She recalled one memorable evening she'd gotten her dad's car up to eighty miles an hour on this stretch of road. It had been raining and she'd fishtailed like crazy. Luckily, she'd managed to regain control and not kill the other kids in the car. In fact, she hadn't even gotten a dent in her dad's vehicle. He'd never known what had happened. Thank heavens. Otherwise she would have been under house arrest for at least five years.
But that was then, and this was now. For openers, it was dry tonight, and while it was cold, chances were there weren't any icy patches on the road. In addition, Bernie was willing to bet four pecan pies that Millie wasn't going even thirty miles an hour when the accident had happened. In fact, if she was going more than twenty miles an hour Bernie would have been surprised. But given the fact that the front end of Millie's Buick looked like one of Bernie's pleated skirts, twenty miles an hour had been enough.
"Ready?" Libby asked Bernie.
Bernie startled. "Absolutely," she said, coming back to the present.
A little ways up, she saw Matt, one of Longely's finest, sitting in his patrol car. He was waiting, Bernie assumed, for the tow truck to come and cart Millie's Buick away. Then she spotted Amber's car parked behind the police car. When Amber saw Bernie and Libby, she got out of her car and ran toward them, purple and pink braids flying. Somehow they didn't clash with her orange jumpsuit, a fact Bernie found intriguing.
"The cookies aren't here," she told Bernie and Libby before they'd even had a chance to get out of their van. "I looked all over the place."
"Well, let's take another look and see," Bernie said as she turned the van off and got out. "Maybe we'll have better luck."
Matt lifted his head when he saw Libby, Bernie, and Amber approaching. "Hey, ladies," he called out. "My favorite people."
Bernie laughed. "That's because we give you extra muffins."
Matt grinned. "Which is why you're so well protected. How's your dad doing?" he asked.
"Crabby," Libby said.
"It's when he's nice that you have to watch him," Matt observed.
Bernie laughed again. "Exactly. Hey, Matt, is it okay if we look inside the Buick? Millie thinks she left something in the car and she sent us to get it."
Matt raised an eyebrow. "So you left the store and came running over to find it? It must be quite an important something."
"Actually, we left the Longely Community Center to come running over and find it," Libby said.
"Would you mind telling me exactly what it is that you're supposed to recover?" Matt asked.
"Cookies," Bernie said.
"Cookies?" Matt echoed.
"Yeah, cookies," Libby said. "They're Millie's submission for the Baking for Life contest."
Amber leaned forward. "When I saw her at the hospital, she asked me to get them, so I came out here to look, but I couldn't find them, which was when I called Bernie and Libby. They're very important to her."
"The cookies?" Matt asked, clarifying.
"Millie's Meltaways," Amber said. "Millie's Majestic Meltaways, to be precise. Of course, she had her cashew bars in another tin, but I don't think she cares about them as much."
Matt clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth while he thought. "Well, I guess, given the circumstances, the fact that she can ask for them is a good thing."
"That's what I'm thinking," Amber answered. "Being in the show was, is, very important to her."
Matt shook his head. "Hope she makes it."
"Me too," Bernie said. "So are we good to poke around?"
"Sure," Matt said. "Look away. But do it fast because the tow truck is coming soon."
Libby moved a little closer to the patrol car. "Matt, were you the first person on the scene?"
"No. The person who called in the accident was. She took off after I arrived. Lucky for Millie she'd gotten lost coming back from a visit to Selma Mince and her husband." He went on to give more details.
"I don't suppose you noticed any cookies in the front seat," Libby asked when Matt was done speaking.
"No. But then that wasn't my first priority." He looked at Amber. "Your aunt was in pretty bad shape, and I was more concerned with getting the ambulance here as quickly as possible."
"So what do you think happened?" Bernie asked him.
Matt put down his cell phone and took a sip of his coffee. "Simple. I think Millie lost control of her car and plowed into the tree."
"Is that the way you're writing it up?"
"You betcha," Matt said, doing his best cowboy imitation.
"Was she going fast?" Libby inquired.
Matt snorted. "What do you think?"
"I'm taking that as a no," Bernie said.
"You would be correct," Matt told her. "In fact, quite the opposite. I'm guessing her speed was most likely between fifteen and twenty miles an hour. But that can do it. I mean, if she wasn't wearing her seat belt she'd have been dead."
"So why do you think she went into the tree?" Libby asked him.
Matt scratched his head. "It could be any number of reasons. Maybe her night vision is really poor and she had trouble seeing the road. Maybe there was something in the road. Maybe she had some kind of attack."
"Maybe," agreed Bernie, who thought that the latter was the most likely possibility.
"I guess that's for the docs to decide." Matt fished around in the front seat and came up with a flashlight. "Here," he said, handing it to Bernie. "This might make things a little easier. If you have any other questions, just ask," and he went back to the Scrabble game he'd been playing on his phone before Bernie, Libby, and Amber had arrived.
As the three women approached the Buick, Bernie looked up at the oak tree Millie had crashed into and thought about how large it was and how it was impossible to see around the bend in the curve because of it. Then she wondered which was older: the tree or the road?
"I looked for the cookie tins," Amber said, breaking Bernie's train of thought.
"So you said," Bernie replied. "But you told Libby you wanted us to look too. If you don't, we'll be glad to leave."
Amber rubbed her hands together. "No. No. Stay."
"Did your aunt tell you why she plowed into the tree?" Bernie asked Amber as she clicked on the flashlight.
Amber shook her head. "She doesn't remember. She doesn't remember anything."
Excerpted from A CATERED CHRISTMAS COOKIE EXCHANGE by ISIS CRAWFORD. Copyright © 2013 Isis Crawford. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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