Fed up with dating after a disastrous setup, the only thing Hayley wants to snuggle up to is a box of made-to-order chocolates from plus-sized, plus-mouthed chocolatier Bessie Winthrop. But when Bessie is found dead in her kitchen, only Hayley suspects that Bessie's "heart attack" might actually be a candy-coated murder.
Turns out Bessie had more enemies than a boxful of chocolates, each one a suspicious flavor. It's sticky business juggling a job, two teenagers and finding a killer, but it's better than letting a killer find Hayley first. . .
Includes seven delectable recipes from Hayley's kitchen!
Praise for Death of a Country Fried Redneck
"Snappy pace, fun characters, and a clever plot. A tasty entrée for the culinary cozy crowd." Library Journal
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DEATH OF A CHOCOHOLIC
By LEE HOLLIS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Rick Copp and Holly Simason
All rights reserved.
He was late.
Twenty-four minutes, to be precise.
Hayley knew this was a bad idea. How could she have allowed her friend Liddy to fix her up on a date? With Liddy's own cousin from Bucksport! He didn't even live in Bar Harbor. And how could she have agreed to meet him on Valentine's Day? Who goes on a blind date on Valentine's Day? That's reserved for moony newlyweds who coo and giggle and feed each other mushy, rich desserts with their fingers. Or for tired, old married couples who feel forced to show the world the magic is still there by dining out at a romantic restaurant, even though they would rather be eating in front of the TV while watching The X Factor and not having to talk to each other.
She had tried to cancel, but Liddy wouldn't hear of it because she was convinced that what Hayley needed most right now was to get right back out there and date after her on-again, off-again boyfriend Lex Bansfield recently blew town for Vermont after losing his job.
Hayley checked her watch again.
This was torture.
Even though it was mid-February, there was no snow on the ground. The temperature was a brisk thirty-seven degrees. No ice on the roads. What possible excuse could he have for being this late? The trip from Bucksport to Bar Harbor was only a little over an hour if he took Route 3.
Hayley gulped down the last of her Merlot and tried to signal Michelle, the bartender/waitress at her brother's bar, Drinks Like A Fish, for her check.
She was not going to wait longer than thirty minutes for a blind date to show up. And that was final.
Michelle's back was turned and then she scurried through the swinging doors into the kitchen and didn't see Hayley waving at her.
Hayley actually felt relieved. Now she could firmly tell Liddy that she had given the whole dating thing a try and it just didn't work out. She certainly wasn't too keen on starting a serious relationship.
Especially so soon after Lex.
Lex was a wonderful man, a real stand-up guy, but he was not without his issues, and Hayley just didn't have the energy right now to devote to a man. Her kids had been extremely demanding lately with their various teen dramas and she wanted to focus more on them and her food-and-cocktails column at the Island Times newspaper.
Besides, dating was such a brutal endeavor. And she was never especially good at it. On her first date with Lex, she wound up arrested. But that was another story.
Michelle breezed out of the kitchen, and Hayley finally caught her attention. Hayley quickly made a scribbling motion with her finger, indicating she would like to pay for her wine and get the hell out of there, but then she felt a cold chill on her back as the front door swung open and a blast of winter air swept through the bar. She nearly jumped out of her chair as the door banged shut.
Hayley closed her eyes.
Please let it not be him.
Please let it not be him.
Hayley took a deep breath and swung her head around, hoping for the best.
Walter nodded. He was taller than Hayley had expected. Much taller. In fact, there was a slight pain in her neck as she craned her head up to meet his face. The first thing she noticed was he had a beautiful head of dirty-blond hair. Wavy and thick and a bit shaggy. But then her eyes settled on his face. Nice features, but something was definitely off. Maybe it was the low lighting in the bar, but it looked almost as if his cheeks—no, the whole left side of his face was drooping or slightly deformed. This certainly didn't come across in the photos on his Facebook page, which Hayley had researched before agreeing to meet him.
He shed his winter coat and draped it on the back of the chair and sat down across from Hayley. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice."
Hayley tried acting nonchalant. "Notice what?"
"My face. I had a small cosmetic procedure today, and the doctor warned me this might happen for a day or two until my face settles. My mother begged me to reschedule because with my nasty luck, she knew something like this might scare you off."
"Is it some kind of medical issue?"
"Oh no. Nothing that dramatic. Just a little face-lift. We're not getting any younger, and you know what they say, 'If you want to sell the used car, you need to keep it looking shiny and new.'"
Hayley had never heard anyone say that.
"So, is it noticeable?" he asked, a mask of genuine concern on his face.
Or at least half of it.
Hayley leaned forward slightly. "You can hardly tell."
That was a huge lie. He looked a bit like the Batman villain Two-Face: one side of the face normal, the other horribly disfigured.
Michelle stopped by the table. "What can I get you?"
Michelle's eyes nearly popped out of her head at the sight of Walter's misshapen face, but she instantly recovered and smiled, pretending not to be startled.
"Just some coffee. I have to drive back home to Bucksport. And do you have any desserts here? I have a raging sweet tooth."
"Yes, we do," Michelle said, pointing to a plastic bar menu in a metal holder on the table. "I recommend the German chocolate cake."
Michelle winked at Hayley knowingly. Randy had recently decided to serve sandwiches and appetizers and a few desserts at his bar, and the new food menu had been a huge hit with his customers. Hayley helped out by baking a few of her signature desserts for him.
Walter ordered the German chocolate cake, and Michelle scooted back into the kitchen, leaving Hayley with Droopy Face.
"So, Hayley, you're much prettier than your photo. Tell me a little bit about yourself," Walter said, trying to be seductive.
Hayley couldn't take her eyes off his sagging cheek; it was making her uncomfortable. She just wanted to bolt out of there, but she couldn't be rude—and Liddy would never forgive her.
So she just rattled off a litany of bullet points about her life. Born and raised in Bar Harbor. Divorced.
Two kids. Food-and-cocktails columnist for the paper. Then she quickly turned the conversation over to him.
Walter relished talking about himself: How he had been a high-school basketball star. How his dashing good looks drew women like flies, but he had very high standards, which explained why he had yet to marry. How he was engaged once, but his mother didn't approve; so the relationship was doomed from the start.
There is that mother again.
Mentioned twice in five minutes!
That was never a good sign.
His cell phone rang, interrupting his incredibly boring life story.
He fished it out of the back pocket of his khaki pants and glanced at it.
"It's my mother. I should take this."
Three times in five minutes.
Half his face lit up as he answered the call.
The other half sagged a bit more.
"Mother, you minx. You know I'm on a date," he said, winking at Hayley.
Hayley forced a smile.
"Yes, she's quite pretty. No, she says you can't notice it. I checked myself in the rearview mirror in the car before I came in and I thought it did look a bit slouchy, so maybe she's just being polite. Oh. Okay."
Walter held out the phone. "She wants to talk to you."
"Mother. She wants to speak with you."
Hayley just sat there, mouth agape for a few seconds, before robotically holding out her hand for the phone and putting it to her ear. "Hello?"
"Hi, Hayley, this is Walter's mother, Mary Beth."
"Hello, Mary Beth."
Michelle delivered the cup of coffee and the German chocolate cake. Hayley watched horrified as Walter scarfed it down, getting smears of the coconut pecan frosting lodged on the side of his sagging face while she listened to his mother on the other end of the phone.
"I told Walter not to meet you so soon after his surgery. I always say you need to put your best foot forward on a first date. Make a good impression. 'Why not give your face a couple of days to settle before meeting Hayley?' That's what I told him, but do you think he listened to me? Of course not! He insisted that from what Liddy told him, you would not be shallow enough to judge him on a little temporary side effect from his procedure."
She was wrong.
Hayley was judging. She felt bad about it, but she just couldn't help herself.
Walter finished off the cake and was now slurping his coffee.
"He's normally quite handsome, Hayley. You're going to have to trust me on that," Mary Beth cooed. "All the women in Bucksport are after my son, but they're just silly girls with no ambitions. I told Walter he needed somebody of substance, someone with a career. Someone creative. I adore cooking. I'm somewhat of an amateur chef myself. And when my niece Liddy mentioned you were a food writer, well, I just knew we had to meet you."
"We"? Did Mary Beth just say "we"?
"Anyway, I would love for you to give him another chance. Try again in a couple of weeks, once his face settles. I'm positive you won't be disappointed."
Hayley nodded, dumbfounded, before realizing Mary Beth couldn't see her through the phone. She cleared her throat. "Um, okay."
It was never going to happen.
"Thank you, Hayley. I cannot wait to meet you. I suspect we'll be fast friends. I hope you like to knit, because I've already told the women in my knitting circle all about you."
"Bye," Hayley said flatly, handing the phone back to Walter, who pressed it to his ear and grinned.
"I hope you didn't embarrass me, Mother."
They chatted a few more seconds and then Walter shut off his phone and stuffed it back into his pants pocket.
Michelle swung by the table. "How did you like the cake?"
"It was a little dry," Walter said huffily. "I think you need a new chef."
Michelle glanced at Hayley, who shook her head. Best not tell him she baked the cake.
Michelle turned back to Walter. "Can I get you anything else?"
"Just the check," Walter demanded.
Michelle tore it off her pad and slapped it down on the table. As she walked away, Hayley noticed Walter checking out her ass.
Walter let the check sit there for a few seconds.
As if he was hoping Hayley was going to reach for it first.
So she did.
Walter raised the palm of his big bony hand to stop her. "No. No. Allow me."
Maybe chivalry wasn't dead in Bucksport.
"You can get it next time," he said.
Yes, it was quite dead.
He reached into the other back pocket of his khakis.
Half his face froze.
He then frantically searched the pockets of his winter coat, which was draped over the back of his chair, before giving Hayley a sheepish grin. "I must have left my wallet in the car. You wait here. I'll go get it."
"No!" Hayley almost screamed as she snatched the check out of his hand and slammed some money down on the table, perhaps a little too hard. She couldn't stand another minute with Droopy Dog. "You can get it next time."
"You really shouldn't have to pay. I mean, Liddy told me your brother owns this place. They should comp you. Kind of rude of him, don't you think?"
Hayley just stared at him.
His sagging face actually fit his personality.
Liddy ... the mastermind behind this nightmare.
Hayley was going to have to resist the urge to kill her BFF for putting her through this wretched evening.
Especially since she was about to have another dead body on her hands.CHAPTER 2
After leaving a very detailed message on Liddy's voice mail explaining how her friend's days as Yenta the Matchmaker were officially over, Hayley drove home. She found her fifteen-year-old son, Dustin, sprawled out on the couch in the living room. He was wearing boxer shorts and a Family Guy t-shirt; a Boston Red Sox cap was pulled down so far that it shadowed his eyes. He was snoring softly, with the TV blasting. Hayley picked up the remote from the coffee table and shut off the television. She knelt down and gently shook his shoulder.
"Hey, sleepyhead, time for bed. You have school tomorrow."
Dustin half opened one eye and looked at his mother and then turned his head away into the back of the couch. "No, I want to sleep down here. If I go upstairs, the evil witch will come after me again."
"You were just having a bad dream. Now let's go."
Dustin swiveled his whole body back around to face his mother. "It wasn't a dream. Trust me. She's in a really foul mood and I don't want her biting my head off again."
"Gemma? What's wrong with her?"
Dustin shrugged. "Beats me. I just knocked on her door and asked to borrow some toothpaste and she started screaming at the top of her lungs at me to go away. So if I have bad breath right now, it's totally her fault."
Hayley climbed to her feet and headed for the stairs.
"Seriously. I wouldn't go up there if I were you," Dustin said.
"I'm not afraid of my own daughter."
Hayley started up the steps.
"You say that now," Dustin warned.
When Hayley reached the second floor, she saw Gemma's door open a crack at the end of the hall. The light was still on. Hayley took a deep breath before lightly tapping on the door.
"Gemma, you still up?"
At least she wasn't screaming.
Hayley pushed the door open a bit more until she got a view of Gemma's bed. The covers were bunched up at the end of the mattress and Gemma sat up against the headboard in flowery shorts and a pink tank top. Earbuds were planted in her ears, and she was watching something on her iPad. Hayley instantly noticed Gemma's watery eyes. It looked as if she either had a cold or had been crying.
Hayley stepped into the room; Gemma finally looked up and noticed her. Instead of acknowledging her mom, Gemma went back to staring at her iPad.
"Is everything okay?" Hayley asked.
"Gemma, I'm talking to you," Hayley said, taking a step closer to the bed.
Gemma yanked one earbud out and sighed. "What? I'm trying to watch The Vampire Diaries."
"Your brother said you were pretty moody with him earlier."
"Big deal. He was bothering me. And when did he get to be such a tattletale?"
"You want to talk about it?"
"Talking about it always makes you feel better."
"I am not interested in a therapy session. Especially with my mother. So, can we please drop it?"
Hayley saw the headlights from a car pull into the driveway outside Gemma's bedroom window. Who could be stopping by this time of night? The only person she could think of was Liddy.
If Liddy knew what was good for her, she was definitely here to beg for forgiveness.
Hayley turned back to Gemma, who had already shoved her earbud back into her ear and was staring at the screen of her iPad. She sniffed, as if she was fighting back tears. She refused to make any more eye contact with her mother.
Hayley decided to let it go.
Sometimes the odds of getting a teenager to talk were about as high as winning the million-dollar lotto. Which Hayley still tried doing on occasion, given how she was constantly drowning in bills. So it was probably best to give her daughter some space and try approaching her again in the morning.
As Hayley walked back down the stairs, she heard the door to the kitchen open and a voice call to her, "Don't kill me for showing up so late."
It was her brother, Randy.
She rounded the corner and saw him standing in the kitchen, wearing sweats and a t-shirt, furry slippers and a winter coat thrown over his shoulders. He was holding a big square box in his hand, and there was a brown bath towel covering it.
"How'd your date go?" he asked.
"Don't ask. What's that?"
"Please don't be mad," Randy said.
Whenever her brother said, "Please don't be mad," it always meant bad news for Hayley.
"What, Randy? What is it?"
"I was going to wait and come over in the morning, but I was afraid Sergio would kick me out before then, so I had to take care of it tonight."
"Take care of what? What are you talking about?"
Dustin strolled down the hall into the kitchen from the living room and opened the refrigerator to grab a carton of milk. "Hey, Uncle Randy, what did you bring us?"
Randy slowly pulled the brown bath towel off the box.
Dear God, no.
It wasn't a box.
It was a pet carrier.
And inside was a big, fat Persian Blue cat. He growled menacingly. His yellow eyes fixated on Hayley like some caged violent criminal behind bars who vowed to wreak havoc if he ever broke out.
It was Blueberry.
Excerpted from DEATH OF A CHOCOHOLIC by LEE HOLLIS. Copyright © 2014 Rick Copp and Holly Simason. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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