Normally, Emily's eyes tend to glaze over when prospective brides go on about their wedding plans. But when the owner of the clothing shop, Dressed to Kill, asks Emily to design a donut wall for her reception, she’s immediately sweet on the idea. With the help of her father-in-law and business partner—the former police chief of Fallingbrook—she hangs the treats from dowels on the wall so guests can help themselves.
But that night, when the groom ends up on the floor with signs of poisoning, Emily suspects someone has tampered with her treats. When the groom dies, there's no way to sugarcoat it: she’s got a murder on her hands. Despite a list of suspects as long as the guest list, Emily vows to find out who created the killer confection to save her shop’s reputation and keep the bride out of handcuffs. She’ll have to move fast . . . before the poisoner takes a powder.
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The yelling began almost the second I started walking down the driveway between Deputy Donut, the café that my father-in-law and I owned, and Dressed to Kill, Jenn Zeeland's cute clothing boutique.
The loud argument wasn't going on inside Deputy Donut, where Tom was finishing the day's tidying. It was going on inside Dressed to Kill, where I was heading. I couldn't make out the words, but the women spewing them were obviously angry.
I almost turned around and went back to Deputy Donut.
However, it was nearly five. In ten minutes, Dressed to Kill would close for two weeks, and I needed the black jeans and white shirts that I'd ordered. Besides, what if Jenn was in danger?
I hurried to the front of Dressed to Kill.
I wasn't about to barge inside without peeking in first. Jenn's display windows were lovely, but I couldn't see beyond her hand-knit sweaters, mittens, scarves, and hats, and the cords and down-filled vests that went with them. The clothes were draped over antique skis, sleds, skates, and snowshoes. In one window, an electric fireplace sent warm hues rippling over the entire scene. It could have been very welcoming if women inside the store hadn't been screaming at each other only seconds before.
A red-faced woman burst out of Dressed to Kill. She muttered, "Don't go in there," budged past me, and raced south on Wisconsin Street.
My training kicked in. Get a description, Emily.
I guessed she was in her mid-to-late forties. She was tall and angular, with straight brown flyaway hair. Her mid-calf, flowing dress, a floral print in blue and white, hung several inches below an unbuttoned navy wool coat. She hadn't zipped up the sides of her tan knee-high leather boots. With their tops flapping and threatening to trip her with each step, she ran past the bookstore and the artisans' co-op, and then she turned right and disappeared. For a few seconds, I heard the clap, clap, clap of those unzipped boots.
I had never seen her before.
I again considered returning to Deputy Donut. Before Tom and I opened our coffee and donut shop, he had been Fallingbrook's police chief. Tom could handle whatever had gone on inside Dressed to Kill.
And so can you, Emily.
I pulled the door open. Tiny bells jingled.
Usually, unless Jenn was busy with a customer, she heard the bells, peeked around racks of clothing, and greeted me.
This time, she didn't. I was getting twitchy.
That shouting I'd heard earlier ...
And now, this breathless quiet ...
I told myself I was being overly dramatic. Jenn knew I was coming. Besides, she was probably immersed in wedding preparations.
I tiptoed into the store. I couldn't help touching, with one tentative finger, an emerald green velvet cocktail dress. It would be perfect for Jenn's reception the next night, but I was attending the reception late, only to keep the donut wall stocked, and I would be wearing my Deputy Donut uniform. The black jeans and white shirt would be new, though, if Jenn was here to give them to me.
"Jenn?" I called.
I walked farther into the store, past a table of neatly folded sequined sweaters. "Jenn?"
Near the back of the store, a door slammed or something fell.
"Jenn!" I sounded a little frantic. "Are you here?" If she didn't answer by the count of ten, I was going back to Deputy Donut for Tom.
I got to eight, and then footsteps approached from the office beyond the dressing cubicles. Someone vigorously blew a nose.
Tall and slender, dressed in tight jeans and a luscious coral sweater that she must have designed, Jenn came out from between the dressing rooms. Her head was bowed, and her long blond hair hung down like curtains, concealing the sides of her face. "Hey, Emily," she mumbled toward her sweater. "I'll get the things you ordered." She walked away quickly, like she didn't want me to get a good look at her.
It was too late.
I'd already noticed her red and swollen eyelids.
The poor thing. She was only a little older than I was, in her mid-thirties, but the sad eyes aged her, and in less than twenty-four hours she was scheduled to wow everyone with her long white dress and the radiance that wedding guests expected from brides.
She returned, holding the clothes, which were on hangers, high, as if she were hiding behind them. She walked to the cash desk at the front of the store and hung the garments on a rack. I followed. Fiddling with receipts and invoices, she didn't meet my gaze. "These should fit," she said. "Teensy for you and muscular for Tom."
I tried to prolong the joking atmosphere. "You've changed the names of sizes?" She raised her face, and I couldn't ignore the tear rolling down her cheek. "What's wrong, Jenn?"
"Everything. I wish I had your curls."
I couldn't believe she was crying because she didn't have a crop of unruly dark curls.
"And those vivid blue eyes."
"Don't be ridiculous," I said. "Nearly everyone wants straight blond hair like yours, and your hazel eyes are beautiful. Besides, curls seldom behave the way I want them to." Plunking a hand on my Deputy Donut cap, a police hat with a faux-fur donut attached where the badge would ordinarily be, I accidentally pushed the cap down. It nearly covered my eyes. "It's a good thing I designed a hat to hide my hair at work." I shoved the hat up again. "The bad news is that when I remove it every evening I have a bad case of hat head."
"The blond is out of a bottle, but the straight is real. Without the help of chemicals, my hair is mousy brown. Like my sister's. Do you know Suzanne?"
She was jumping so quickly from subject to subject that I couldn't do much besides shake my head and clench my teeth to prevent my mouth from gaping open.
"She just left," Jenn said. "I thought maybe you saw her. She's my half-sister, really. We had different fathers. She's ten years older, and when our mother got sick, Suzanne promised to look after me. I was only nine. Looking after is one thing, but ..." She blew her nose again. "Smothering is quite another. I mean, we work together here all right."
"Here? I never saw her before today." I didn't mean to sound skeptical.
"We own Dressed to Kill together, fifty-fifty. She does the books, usually at night, long after you've closed Deputy Donut. She doesn't like dealing with customers or ordering clothes, so I do all that. She says it would be different if we sold shoes. She loves shoes and knows just about everything there is to know about footwear."
Maybe wearing boots unzipped and flopping around one's ankles was the latest trend. Would knowledge about footwear make someone cry? "Did she upset you?"
Jenn wailed, "She told me to cancel the wedding. Told me!"
All I managed was, "Oh." Did Jenn's half-sister want Jenn's fiancé for herself?
Apparently not. "She hates Roger! She always has. She never gave him half a chance."
Still not knowing quite what to say, I mumbled something meant to sound sympathetic.
"I never should have agreed to marry him in the first place, but the wedding's tomorrow, and now it's way too late to change my mind."
Seriously confused, I held up a hand. "Wait. Don't you want to marry him?"
"Yes. No." She strode to the cash desk and grabbed a fresh tissue. "I don't know. To make matters worse, I haven't told Roger that I invited my old boyfriend to the wedding and reception. There was never a right time to tell Roger. And my old boyfriend and I are just friends, really, but he's one of my best friends."
I saw where this could pose a problem. "Maybe you should tell Roger before tomorrow. Or wouldn't a best friend understand if you uninvited him?"
She clicked long and shapely nails against the cash desk. "I couldn't do either of those things. Uninviting someone would be just too rude. And I don't want to make Roger angry tonight, the night before our wedding. I'll just have to trust that he won't make a scene tomorrow."
Some people were really good at causing problems for themselves. I suggested, "If you're not sure about marrying Roger, maybe you could postpone the wedding until you know what you want to do."
"I do know. Marry Roger. I'm just having pre-wedding jitters, I guess. They say every bride has them."
I'd never had the least doubt about marrying Alec.
As if I'd said it aloud, she apologized. "I shouldn't be reminding you. You must miss your husband."
"That's okay. I've finally reached the stage where thinking about him brings back wonderful memories." Still, I couldn't help remembering the night that my detective husband was killed while on duty, and it still hurt. "Why did your sister wait so long to tell you to cancel the wedding?"
Jenn bowed her head again, letting her hair fall in front of her face. "She's been saying it all along. She told me to stop seeing him when we were first dating. Like it's any of her business, you know? And this afternoon, she went ballistic on me, screaming, yelling, the whole nine yards. For no reason, other than this last-ditch attempt to get me to drop Roger."
"Is she married?"
"No. Never has been. And I know she cares about me, really. It's just that ..."
"Smothering," I repeated.
"She doesn't want me to move away from Fallingbrook, either."
"Are you going to? We'd all miss you — and your wonderful shop. I love how you turned your online knitting and knitwear design business into a bricks-and-mortar store." And I'd been buying a lot of sweaters. ... "But you can run your online store from wherever you live, can't you?"
"I don't plan to close Dressed to Kill, but Suzanne says that Roger won't let me stay in business, period. She thinks he's jealous of my success. But how could he be? He's doing great as a life coach, even though he inherited so much from some distant relative that he doesn't have to work. Suzanne says that Roger has always moved around and he's not going to want to stay in Fallingbrook. She even uses his wealth against him, saying it will allow him to live anywhere." Jenn's face crumpled and tears welled in her eyes. "Just now, she accused me of being a gold digger."
"That's nonsense." Jenn seemed too sweet to marry a man only for his money. She had to care about him. "He used to live in Fallingbrook, didn't he? And he came back, so maybe he's ready to settle down, with you, here."
"I hope so. I don't think I could bear to part with Dressed to Kill." She gave a resigned little shrug. "But I might have to. The things we do for love." Her halfhearted attempt at a smile didn't reach her eyes. "And the things we do because we've already planned a wedding. Maybe I could have canceled it a year or even six months ago, but now it's too late. For instance, you and Tom — you wouldn't let me put down a deposit. You built that donut wall and you're planning to stay up tomorrow night to provide late-night snacks for our guests. You've probably ordered tons of extra ingredients for the donuts and crullers. I can't ask you to cancel now."
"It wouldn't be a problem. We can use that donut wall another time, and the ingredients will keep. But you'd lose your deposit on the banquet hall rental and the meals you ordered, and you probably can't send your dress back, and ..." Why was I giving her excuses to marry someone who, I was beginning to suspect, might make her unhappy?
"Yeah, it's definitely too late. And I want to marry Roger. I do." She gave me a watery smile. " 'I do.' See? I'm already practicing my lines for tomorrow."CHAPTER 2
On Saturday afternoon, Tom and I closed Deputy Donut at our usual time, four thirty. Leaving Tom in the kitchen to make the dough we'd need for Jenn's reception later that night, I went through our dining area to our office and shut myself inside with my cat. When she was a tiny kitten, Alec had taken one look at the donut-like circles on her sides and had burst out laughing. "Deputy Donut," he'd said, "the perfect name for a cop's cat." Laughing as hard as he did, I'd agreed.
And then after Alec was gone, Dep had graciously allowed Alec's father and me to call our coffee and donut shop Deputy Donut.
Because of health regulations, Dep wasn't allowed in the kitchen or dining area, and we had designed our office as Dep's home-away-from-home. The room had windows on all four sides. Dep could perch on windowsills and supervise the kitchen, the dining area, the parking lot, or the driveway between Deputy Donut and Dressed to Kill.
She was curled up on our comfy couch. She stood and stretched. Her markings, including those cute circles, were tabby, and her coloring was tortoiseshell — black, cream, and ginger, which qualified her as a tortoiseshell tabby, also known as a torbie. I kissed the stripy orange patch on her forehead.
She and I usually walked to and from work, and her cat carrier had been underneath the desk for days. However, she must have sensed that I was in a hurry and needed to drive her home. She scrambled up a carpeted "tree" to the multilevel catwalk that Tom and I had built for her above the windows. Darting up and down steps and ramps, she circled the room and picked up a catnip mouse she'd stored in a cranny.
"Come down, Dep," I urged.
I closed my mouth just in time. The slightly damp catnip mouse bounced off my chin.
I rattled her halter. That plus the catnip mouse at my feet must have convinced her to trot down her kitty-sized staircase. Grasping my warm fur baby, I pulled the cat carrier into the center of the office.
Despite a flurry of caterwauling and spread-out kitty toes, I managed to shut her into her carrier. I called goodbye to Tom, took the vociferous cat out to the garage in the back of our parking lot, and opened the overhead door.
Our Deputy Donut delivery vehicle was a restored 1950 Ford Fordor, a four-door sedan painted like a police cruiser, black with white doors and roof. However, the insignia on the doors was our Deputy Donut logo, the silhouette of a cat wearing a rakishly tilted Deputy Donut hat, faux-fur donut and all. Instead of a light bar, a large plastic donut lay flat on the roof. It was topped by dripping white "icing" and sprinkles that were actually tiny lights programmed to change colors and patterns in a zillion ways. A megaphone-shaped loudspeaker in front of the donut resembled an old-fashioned siren.
I buckled Dep's carrier into the back seat. During the entire eight-block ride, Dep commented loudly about the indignities she was suffering. I parked behind my own car in the driveway of our Victorian cottage, took the carrier inside, and let Dep out in the living room. "I'll come home and change around nine," I promised.
Switching her tail back and forth, she looked away.
My phone rang. Why was Detective Brent Fyne calling? I knew it was silly, but I answered his call with the sort of pinpricks of anxiety I would always feel when a law-enforcement officer called unexpectedly, even when he called from his personal phone. "Hi, Brent."
"Hi, Em. I'm on duty later tonight. I was wondering if I could bring over pizza and beer for a quick dinner."
"That sounds great, but Tom and I are providing the late-night snacks at a wedding reception, and I'll be working until the wee hours. How does tomorrow sound instead?"
He agreed, and we disconnected.
Brent and I were friends again despite my standoffishness during the first three years after Alec was shot. Brent and Alec had been best friends and had also been partners on the Fallingbrook police force, first as patrolmen and later as detectives. They'd been together the night that Alec was killed and a bullet grazed Brent's arm. I'd been a 911 dispatcher, but I wasn't working that fateful night. Out-of-town friends had been visiting only one evening, and I'd traded shifts with a new dispatcher so I could go out to dinner with my friends.
I would always feel guilty about going out that night. If I hadn't traded shifts, maybe I could have gotten emergency responders to Alec in time to save him. Brent had told me that I couldn't have sped the response. Brent had radioed police headquarters even before a witness phoned 911, and the ambulance had arrived almost immediately.
But I still felt guilty.
During those first three years, my raw grief had excluded Brent. I hadn't wanted to think about Alec and the night I lost him. However, just over a year ago, Brent's investigation of the murder of a Deputy Donut customer had forced me to spend time with Brent. Finally, I'd understood that both of us missed Alec terribly. Alec and I had often gotten together with Brent and whatever woman he was dating at the time. Brent was a good man, and he and I had lots in common, including the shared pain that we almost never mentioned to each other. We were friends again, but the friendship was tenuous, and the time we spent together was always casual, like a pizza and beer at my place before he headed off to an evening shift. Sometimes I wondered if Brent was visiting me or the cat he'd gotten to know when Alec was alive.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Goodbye Cruller World"
Copyright © 2018 Janet Bolin.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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