Hope’s schedule is already jam packed with recipe testing and shameless plugs for her food blog as she rushes off to attend a spring garden tour in the charming town of Jefferson, Connecticut. Unfortunately, it isn’t the perfectly arranged potted plants that grab her attention—it’s the bloody body of reviled real estate agent Peaches McCoy . . .
One of the tour guests committed murder, and all eyes are on Hope’s older sister, Claire Dixon—who, at best, saw Peaches as a professional rival. And suspicions really heat up when another murder occurs the following night. Now, with two messy murders shaking Jefferson and all evidence pointing to Claire, Hope must set aside her burgeoning brand to prove her sister’s innocence. But the closer she gets to the truth, the closer she gets to a killer intent on making sure her life goes permanently out of style . . .
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"Thank you, Hope Early, for joining us and sharing all of your tips for spring cleaning. I'm sure you've inspired our listeners to get busy and start cleaning out their homes," Morning Pete of WPTX radio said.
With the cordless phone tucked between her ear and shoulder, Hope refilled her coffee cup for the second time. She'd been on air answering caller questions and promoting her blog, "Hope at Home." Most of the questions were easy — where to begin cleaning out, how to organize the process, and how to stay motivated midway through the important ritual of spring. It was a ritual she participated in every year and one she had down to a science. Then came the question she didn't expect.
She hated being blindsided and she hated being naïve just as much. She should have seen it coming.
"What was it like going from being a successful magazine editor to becoming a finalist on The Sweet Taste of Success to writing a blog about taking out the trash?" Morning Pete asked with a laugh, followed by a chorus of laughter from his morning crew.
Oh, so very funny. Her descent from high-powered editor to baking competition reality show loser to newly divorced blogger was fodder for Morning Pete. With no other choice but to laugh along with the morning crew, she bit her tongue and somehow managed to get the interview back on track. "Life throws us curveballs all the time, and sometimes I wish I had a little guidance when I went through all that stuff. Speaking of guidance, I have a free giveaway, and it's called 'How to Survive Spring Cleaning.' I invite everyone to visit my blog and download your copy today."
Finally her time was up. "It was my pleasure," she said through gritted teeth and then clicked the phone off. As she set the phone back into its base, footsteps sounded in the mudroom. There was only one other person who would be up so early.
Chief of Police Ethan Cahill greeted her with a smile. He'd always looked damn good in his uniform. The classic cliché — tall, dark, and handsome — always fit him. But on this chilly late-March morning, he looked even better to her because he held a white pastry bag from her favorite coffee shop, The Coffee Clique on Main Street.
"You're a good man." She snatched the bag and moved back into the kitchen island. She should eat something healthier like yogurt and granola or whole-grain toast with an egg white. But after dealing with the morning crew circus, she deserved something sweet and delicious.
The cinnamon bun, not Ethan. Then she sucked in a deep breath at the thought.
Whoa. Where did that come from?
Ethan was her rock. The friend she leaned on. The person who helped her through the darkest period of her life. So when did he go from all that to sweet and delicious?
He settled at the table and gestured to the bag. "There's one in there for me, too."
She glanced down. Better to focus on the food. She quickly plated both gooey treats and set the plates on the table, along with two filled coffee cups.
"You handled yourself well, even when that jerk asked about the reality show." Ethan bit into his cinnamon bun, then licked a drop of icing off his bottom lip.
Slightly distracted by Ethan's mouth, it took a second for Hope to register his comment. "Yeah, I didn't expect that question. Guess it's always going to come up." She'd made peace with the fact that when her name was searched on the Internet, it would always be associated with The Sweet Taste of Success. A baker's dozen of wannabe culinary stars competed for a prime-time slot on the Culinary Channel. She walked away from the twelve-week experience — just losing the top prize, and then losing her marriage.
Ethan lifted his head and leveled his gaze on her. "You did good."
"Thanks. I think what really bothers me is people think the TV show and living in New York City was the best time of my life and I somehow settled by coming back home. I didn't settle. I'm here because I want to be here."
"Would you do the show over again?"
She shrugged. "I'm not sure."
She didn't want to think any more about her time on the Culinary Channel or her divorce or the end of her publishing career. "I have a full day. After Audrey's garden tour, I have errands and I have to bake for the library's bake sale." Every year since she was a little girl, she'd baked dozens of cookies for the annual fund-raiser. Spending the afternoon baking wasn't a hardship and it also provided content for her blog. Bake sales would be popping up all over the place, and she had a series planned on the perfect treats plus tips on presentation and pricing. The first recipe she planned on making was the double-chocolate raspberry bar she'd been dreaming about for weeks. The first run-through delivered the cookie of her dreams. But since she'd promised her readers she would test a recipe three times before posting it, she had two more batches of the bars to make. Luckily her friends and family were willing to be her taste testers.
"What about you? What's on tap for you besides fighting crime?"
Ethan chuckled. "With Jefferson being named as one of the safest towns in the state, there isn't much crime to fight. I have a meeting up in Hartford this morning. Then I was thinking we could have dinner."
"That sounds good. I'll whip something up and we'll have cookies for dessert." Hope glanced at her watch. "Shoot. I've gotta get going. I haven't done the barn chores yet." She ate the last bit of the cinnamon bun, wiped her mouth on a napkin, then stood. Grabbing her plate and mug, she deposited both in the sink.
"Why don't you hire someone to help you around here?"
"There isn't that much work. I can handle it for now. Oh, there's more coffee. Help yourself. Call me later." She dashed out of the kitchen and grabbed a jacket from the mudroom before heading out to the barn. Closing the door behind her, she felt a twinge of satisfaction knowing that if she turned and went back inside, Ethan would be waiting for her. That little feeling put a spring in her step. And the little extra boost would come in handy as she collected eggs from her hens.
* * *
Holidays always brought a smile to Hope, and when the day revolved around her favorite cookie, she could barely contain herself. She knew that National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day wasn't a holiday that closed schools and the post office, but that was clearly an oversight. To celebrate the day, she would share five of her favorite recipes on her blog. She wanted to serve up a traditional cookie where it was all about the dough and the chocolate chip, but she also wanted to incorporate two hot trends in the foodie world — caramel and salt.
Hope looked up from her laptop as her part-time assistant, Vanessa Jordan, walked into the kitchen. She'd set up at the table, which was convenient for recipe testing. Still, she needed a proper office, and she planned to do a series for the blog on the project. Off the kitchen, there was a small room being converted into her office. There was enough space for a desk, a nice span of wall for bookshelves, and enough light for her photography.
Vanessa removed her jacket and draped it over a chair then dropped her purse on the table. All of five feet, she was a small powerhouse of organization who ran a tight ship, working for both Hope and her friend Audrey Bloom. Meeting the energetic thirty-something through Audrey was the best thing that had happened to Hope in months.
Vanessa eagerly took on the tasks that ate up valuable time for Hope, freeing her to create more content and focus on developing e-products to sell on her website. Though Hope wondered how long she and Audrey could continue to split Vanessa's time.
"Today is crazy. I have to be over at Audrey's house in a couple of hours." Vanessa moved over to the coffeemaker and poured a cup.
"Well, there are only a few things you need to do here. Then you can head out." Hope returned to the post she was writing about her love for chocolate chip cookies. Her fingers tapped on the keys, and her mind drifted as she wrote about her first attempt at baking the cookie.
Utter. Failure. Overbaked, overbrowned, and hard enough to use as hockey pucks. She smiled as she remembered her parents ate them with tall glasses of milk and praised their youngest daughter's baking. She was only ten, and she fell in love with baking.
"I saw Peaches McCoy putting up the For Sale sign at your neighbor's house." Vanessa settled down at the table and turned on her laptop.
"Hmm." Hope looked up. "You saw Peaches?"
"Gilbert mentioned something about selling his house now that Mitzi has broken her hip. The place is too big for them to maintain."
Vanessa's heart-shaped face pinched with annoyance. "He had to select her as his agent? Really? What about Claire?"
Hope shrugged. She wasn't privy to Gilbert Madison's decision-making when it came to hiring a real estate agent. "I'm sure he had his reasons for hiring her. We have a lot to get done before Audrey's garden tour." She wanted to get Vanessa's focus on work, not Jefferson's newest real estate agent. Though the woman seemed to have everyone talking for one reason or another.
"Audrey was a bundle of nerves last night. I assured her today would be fine. She's worried about Elaine coming because Sally has her granny panties in a twist."
"That sounds more like you than Audrey," Hope said.
Vanessa nodded. "Guilty. But, what's the big deal? The garden club voted Elaine president. It's not like they didn't know what they were getting."
Hope's assistant did have a point, but she probably shouldn't share it with Sally Merrifield. As a founding member of the Jefferson Garden Club, Sally felt a responsibility to the club, to ensure it carried on its mission to promote gardening within the community. As a retired librarian, she also believed in structure, and structure was a somewhat foreign concept to Elaine Whitcomb. Instead, Elaine was outgoing, flirtatious, and slightly scattered, but her husband's wealth helped people look past her flaws.
"It's difficult for Sally to accept Jefferson didn't make the top twenty-five community gardens in the state. She's worked hard over the past ten years to make sure our town green and smaller gardens throughout town were recognized by Connecticut Living magazine," Hope said. While living in New York City, her friends and coworkers thought their lives were complicated living in a big city. They had no clue what happened in small-town New England. Maybe she should forget her blog and write a novel.
Vanessa shrugged. "It's time to get over it and move on. Hopefully with spring now blooming all around us, Sally will forget all this nonsense. God knows, those three acres she has should keep her occupied."
"Speaking of gardens, we both have to be out of here soon."
"Right." Vanessa turned her attention to her computer and, for a few moments, she was silent. "Hey, have you checked your stats?"
"Holy cow! Did you see the spike in traffic already? And look at how many downloads of your spring cleaning worksheet. Wow, low bounce rates, too."
Low bounce rate. Three little words every blogger loved. The visitors to "Hope at Home" stayed around to check out a lot of her posts. They also signed up for her mailing list, which meant she could promote her blog and products to them. "At least something good came out of that interview."
"Come on, it was a good interview, even though Morning Pete was kind of a jerk. He could have framed his question about The Sweet Taste of Success a little better."
Hope shrugged. She agreed with Vanessa, but she also realized what Morning Pete dished out came with the territory and if she was going to build a career on a public platform like a blog, she needed to toughen up. She would be forever the runner-up winner of The Sweet Taste of Success.
"Well, seeing these numbers, if you have the opportunity go on Morning Pete's show again, you should. Do you think Audrey would make a good guest?"
"Morning Pete didn't strike me as a gardening kind of guy."
"I keep telling Audrey she needs to keep her blog updated on her website. I'm trying to get her into the twenty-first century. It's like pulling teeth."
"She doesn't even own a tablet. Who doesn't own a tablet nowadays? It's like my grandparents. Newspaper clippings. Ugh, I can't stand it. You know, Meg even offered to write the posts for her."
"I didn't know Meg was a writer," Hope said.
Meg Griffin was full of surprises, just like she was in high school. Back then there wasn't a word to describe Hope and Meg's relationship but now there was — frenemy. After being away for so long, Hope thought things would be different between them. They weren't. You could take the girl out of high school but you couldn't take the high school out of the girl.
"She's not a writer. But I guess she has a lot of skills. She's even set up a Facebook page for the preservation society. She's like a mini-me of Audrey with tech skills." Vanessa laughed.
"It's good Audrey has someone to help her with the group. It's a lot of work."
"And speaking of work ..." Vanessa smiled. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm a little nervous about the garden tour. There's so much that can go wrong, and I don't want that for Audrey."
"It's going to be a lovely day. A walk around a beautiful garden, some refreshments, and a book signing." Hope turned back to her work. "What could possibly go wrong?"
"My invitation didn't include a 'plus one.'" Hope climbed out of her SUV, leaving her sister in the passenger seat.
Claire shrugged. "What's the problem? Are you worried Audrey will be angry with you for bringing me? I thought you were over that 'everyone must like me' phase of your life."
Hope ignored her sister and grabbed her purse off the backseat. She checked her phone messages and found three, all from her former producer at the Culinary Channel who'd moved on to another network. He'd been pitching a new reality show idea to her, and she kept refusing. She had no desire to ever be in front of a television camera again.
"Would you hurry up? I'm freezing." Claire made her way around the vehicle.
Hope looked over her shoulder. "What do you think it's going to be like during the tour?" Audrey's garden was a full acre. Even Hope had to muster enthusiasm for a late March garden tour. Though the sun was brighter and the temperatures were steadily climbing, it snowed two days earlier. And the morning hadn't warmed much.
"I'm all prepared." Claire tugged at her wool trousers to reveal a leather boot with a two-inch heel.
Hope shook her head. "Are you kidding? Is that supposed to be Manolo Blahnik's version of a hiking boot?"
Slightly deflated, Claire let her trouser leg fall.
"This is a very important day for Audrey," Hope said.
"Despite my opposition to Audrey's grassroots association fighting any and all development in town, she is my friend."
Hope slung her purse over her shoulder. "Try again, Sis."
"All right." Claire pushed a lock of blond hair from her face with a gloved hand. "Maybe, just maybe if I can get her group to back off of Whitcomb's new subdivision, he might make me the listing agent for his next project. I need to get an exclusive listing. Peaches McCoy is closing sales left and right. I need that slob to owe me a favor."
"You have to stop this obsession with her. You're a very competent and skilled real estate agent."
"That is true but Miz Pits landed the exclusive listing for Whitcomb's new development and it had nothing to do with competency or skill in real estate."
"Stop calling her that."
Her sister had coined the unflattering nickname for her competitor months ago.
"You're not going to turn Audrey's garden tour into a fiasco." Hope aimed her key fob at her vehicle and clicked it.
"What do you think she and her stupid preservation group are doing to Jefferson?" Claire snipped. "The Society to Protect Jefferson. Ha! More like the society to keep Jefferson in the Dark Ages."
Hope began to walk, passing by Sally Merrifield's sensible station wagon. A lifelong gardener, Sally would never miss a gardening event. Each year she held a garden party at her family's business, The Merrifield Inn, to showcase her hard work all year long and to celebrate her love of plants and flowers. Hope noticed Meg Griffin's sporty SUV. She sighed. Yet another opportunity to travel back to high school. "Looks like a few people have already arrived. I hope Audrey is all prepared."
"We're just going to be walking around a garden full of dead stuff. What can go wrong?"
Excerpted from "The Uninvited Corpse"
Copyright © 2018 Debra Sennefelder.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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