Sisters Bernie and Libby Simmons are reunited with a distant relative who wants them to cater a New Year’s Eve event—and help find a guilty party . . .
It’s been years since Bernie and Libby’s parents became estranged from Ada Sinclair’s side of the family—though the reasons for the rift are lost to history. The sisters, however, are intrigued when Ada makes contact and tells them about the long-ago deaths of her father and his business partner—both of which were ruled accidental.
Ada thinks otherwise—and has a plan. On New Year’s Eve, she’ll gather a group of guests and read from a diary she’s found in her mother’s attic that she thinks will expose the culprit. The Simmons sisters agree to provide refreshments for the bash, but when the night arrives, a guest drops dead. In the tumult, the diary disappears. When Ada is arrested for murder, she’ll have to hope that Bernie and Libby can provide a resolution before the clock runs out.
Includes Original Recipes for You to Try!
“Fast paced and lively, this mystery will appeal to fans of Joanne Fluke and Laura Childs.”
Release date: October 29, 2019
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 320
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A Catered New Year’s Eve
Ada Sinclair walked into the Simmons’s flat at four in the afternoon on the dot. It was snowing out and a dusting of flakes clung to her hair and shoulders. “Thank you for agreeing to see me,” she told the family. She gave a nervous little laugh as Bernie got up from the sofa to greet her. “I know your mother and my family haven’t seen each other in a while.” Then her voice trailed off.
Bernie’s father stopped petting the cat on his lap for a moment. “I don’t suppose you have the money your family owes us?” he asked, raising his voice over the clatter coming from their shop below.
“Dad,” Bernie hissed, embarrassed.
Sean turned toward his daughter. “Just kidding,” he told Bernie, his expression belying his words, before he turned back to Ada. “But it doesn’t hurt to ask, right?”
“Yes. Of course,” Ada Sinclair stammered. She colored slightly and nodded in the direction of the door she’d just come through. “I’m sorry. I can go if you want.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bernie told Ada, ignoring her father’s scowl and holding out her hand for Ada’s coat and scarf. “Let me hang these up for you.”
“You’re sure you want me to stay?” Ada asked her.
“I’m positive,” Bernie said. She threw a warning glance in her father’s direction as she watched Ada unwind her long red scarf, take off her navy pea coat, and hand both of them to her. “It’s exciting to meet new family, or rather, not new, but family I didn’t know we had. Right, Dad?”
“Right,” Sean told her, the word coming out reluctantly.
“Here, Ada,” Libby said, patting the empty space on the sofa next to her. “Come sit.”
“This is a nice place. Cozy,” Ada reflected as she plopped herself down and rearranged the pleats of her skirt. Bernie could see that her hands were shaking.
“Coffee?” Libby asked, her voice aggressively cheery to compensate for her dad’s rudeness. “A cinnamon bun? They just came out of the oven.”
Ada smiled in relief. “Thank you. That would be great.” She paused. “I just didn’t know who else to come to,” she confided after a few seconds had passed. “And you’re supposed to be really good at this kind of thing.”
“You mean catering?” Bernie asked. Ada’s call had come out of the blue and she’d agreed to the meeting because she’d sounded desperate on the phone, even though her father had warned against it. That and the fact that she wanted to meet her.
Ada shook her head. “No. The other thing you do.” Then she touched her throat and brought her hand down to her lap.
“Oh, you mean the detective thing,” Bernie said as she watched the snow outside thicken and swirl. The forecast had called for two to four inches. She hoped it was closer to two. People tended to go straight home instead of stopping at A Taste of Heaven to pick up dinner when the weather was bad.
“I hate New Year’s Eve,” Ada suddenly said with a vehemence that surprised Libby and Bernie.
“I’m not a big fan, either,” Libby replied, not sure where the conversation was going. She smiled sympathetically. “I don’t really like big parties.”
“My father died on New Year’s Eve,” Ada declared.
“Well, that would do it,” Libby told her, immediately wishing she could retract the words coming out of her mouth. Talk about insensitive, but in her defense, she’d been taken by surprise.
“I figured you knew,” Ada said, looking from one sister to the other.
Both Libby and Bernie shook their heads.
“Sorry,” Bernie said. “We didn’t.”
“Your father didn’t tell you?”
Libby and Bernie looked at their dad, who looked back at them defiantly.
“I forgot,” he told them.
“There were articles in the Sunset Gazette,” Ada said as she twisted the silver and turquoise ring on her forefinger around and around.
“We don’t normally see that paper,” Libby informed her.
“Ten years ago,” Ada continued as if Libby hadn’t spoken. “It happened ten years ago in Hollingsworth.” Hollingsworth was two towns away. “We lived there then.” She tittered. “I don’t know why I said that because we still do.” She looked at Sean as if she expected him to contradict her. But he didn’t. He continued petting Cindy. Ada turned back to Libby and Bernie. “I’m hoping you can help me.”
“It’s possible,” Bernie said. “But I’m not really sure what you want us to do. You didn’t say on the phone. You just said something about hiring us for an event.”
Ada poured cream into her coffee and stirred in a teaspoon of raw sugar. “It’s simple,” she said.
Somehow Bernie doubted that. It never was in her experience. But she didn’t say that. Instead, as Bernie watched Ada, she thought about what her dad had said about Ada’s family and why her mother had severed ties with them.
Okay, she could see why her mother had done what she had done but that had happened a long time ago. It had nothing to do with Ada Sinclair. Bernie had never gone along with the sins of the father visited on the son philosophy. It was so Old Testament.
“So,” Bernie said after Ada had taken a sip of her coffee and a bite of her bun, “tell me why you came.”
Ada carefully put her mug back on the tray sitting on the coffee table. She took a deep breath and let it out. Libby leaned over and patted Ada’s hands. Ada nodded her thanks. “This is hard,” she said.
“So is sticking to your word,” Sean observed.
Bernie glared at him. “Dad, didn’t you say something about taking a nap?”
“Oh, a nap,” Sean repeated. “How could I have forgotten?” And he brushed the crumbs off his lap and pushed back his chair. Cindy meowed and jumped down to the floor as he stood up. “If you’ll excuse me,” Sean said.
The three women watched as Sean stalked into his bedroom, the cat padding after him, and slammed the door behind them. A moment later, the sounds of the radio drifted out of his bedroom.
Ada bit her lip. “Maybe I should go,” she suggested. “I don’t want to be the cause of a family argument.”
Bernie shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. My dad isn’t feeling well,” she lied. She pointed to her forehead. “Sinus headache. It makes him cranky.”
“Are you sure?” Ada asked.
“I’m positive,” Bernie said firmly. She’d just found a whole new family branch and she was damned if she wasn’t going to put the best possible foot forward.
“As you were saying,” Libby prompted before Ada could say anything else.
Ada took another deep breath and began again. “Like I told you, my father died ten years ago, on New Year’s Eve.”
“That must have been terrible,” Libby sympathized, making up for her previous comment.
“You have no idea.” Ada stopped again. She took a sip of coffee to fortify herself and continued. “My father died from an overdose of pain medication—at least that’s what the police said—and, coincidentally, his partner, Joel Grover, died in an automobile accident the next day.”
“But you didn’t think that’s what happened?” Bernie surmised from Ada’s tone of voice.
“No, I didn’t,” Ada said. “A couple of days after Mr. Grover died I called the police. I spoke to a Bill McCready.” Bernie and Libby exchanged looks. Their dad knew him. Ada cleared her throat and the sisters turned their attention back to her. “I told him that I thought my dad’s business partner had poisoned my dad and then killed himself the next day because he felt guilty about what he had done.”
Bernie raised an eyebrow.
“See,” Ada said, pointing at Bernie.
“See what?” Bernie asked.
“Your expression. McCready thought that too.”
“He thought what?” Libby asked, although she had a pretty good idea what Ada was going to say.
“That I was this crazy twelve-year-old girl.” Ada frowned at the memory, as she blinked the tears away.
“Well, I could see where your statement would have given him pause,” Bernie allowed, trying to be diplomatic. “That’s a pretty big leap.”
“Did McCready tell you you were crazy?” Libby asked. She remembered him as being a pretty outspoken guy.
“No. He didn’t. He humored me, which was worse. I could tell he thought I was bonkers, though.” Ada held out her hands, spread her fingers out, and stared at them, seemingly lost in thought.
“What happened next?” Libby asked Ada, trying to keep the impatience out of her voice after another minute had passed without Ada saying anything. She felt guilty about feeling that way, especially since Ada was so obviously upset, but it was getting late and she and Bernie had to be down in the store for the evening rush in half an hour max. Even if the weather was bad and there were fewer people than normal in there, they still had to man the register and help wait on people. Besides, her sister was more invested in this whole new-family thing than she was.
Ada startled and looked up. “Sorry. I was thinking about that night. Nothing’s been the same since.”
“I bet,” Bernie said, leaning forward to show her support.
“McCready,” Libby prompted.
“Right.” Ada shook her head as if to clear it. “He came over to my house and talked to my mom, Linda.” Ada shook her head at the memory. “Boy, let me tell you, she was really, really pissed when she heard what I’d done.”
“I can only imagine,” Libby murmured.
“So, you didn’t tell her what you thought beforehand?” Bernie asked, thinking of the implications of Ada’s action. “You went straight to the police?”
“I didn’t think she’d believe me.” Ada gave a wry smile. “She always told me I had an overactive imagination. My brother and sister were pissed at me, too. They said I’d imagined the whole thing, that I’d called the cops because I always had to be the center of attention. My stepmom was pretty angry as well.” Ada sighed. “So were her kids. Everyone said they didn’t see anything weird. The psychiatrist my mom took me to said this was my way of coping with the shock of my dad’s death.”
“So, everyone was there?”
Ada fell silent and fiddled with the buttons on her navy cardigan. Then she said, “My dad insisted on it. He said he had some kind of business announcement to make and he wanted everyone to hear it at the same time.”
“Any idea what it was?” Bernie asked, exchanging another look with her sister.
Ada shook her head. “No. He died before he could tell us. But he said it was a surprise.”
“A good surprise?” Bernie asked.
Ada held out her hands, palms up. “I have no idea.”
Libby finished the last of her coffee. “Do you think what the psychiatrist said was true about your wanting to be the center of attention?” she asked, reverting to the subject Ada had introduced a minute ago.
“No, I don’t, although I began to believe that,” Ada answered. “Hearing the same thing over and over again will do that to you after a while. Only, here’s the thing. My father didn’t take pain medicine. Not the serious kind. He took Tylenol once in a while if his back got really bad, but that was it. And as for his partner, something was going on. Two days before he died, I heard my dad and Mr. Grover arguing.”
Bernie glanced at the clock on the wall. “What about?”
“I couldn’t make out most of the words,” Ada told her. “But at the end they were shouting at each other and I heard Mr. Grover tell my dad he was going to kill him.”
“People say that all the time,” Libby pointed out. “That doesn’t mean your dad’s business partner actually did it.”
“That’s what the psychiatrist said,” Ada allowed. “So did the police. And Linda. And my stepmom, Vicky, for that matter. And my brother and sister.” Ada shook her head ruefully. “No one believed me. After a while I thought they were right. I figured I’d made the whole thing up so I just forgot about it and went on with my life.”
“And then?” Bernie asked, because obviously there was a then.
“And then last week, I was looking up in my mother’s attic looking for something and I came across this box. It turned out my dad’s diary was in it,” Ada told her. “Or maybe not diary. Maybe more like a notebook. Anyway, I read it and I’ve been turning things over in my head ever since because you know what? As it turns out, I wasn’t crazy.” There was a note of triumph in her voice. “I wasn’t crazy at all.” Ada took a sip of coffee, put her cup down, and asked them what she’d come there to ask.
Normally Bernie and Libby would have said no to her request—they didn’t work on New Year’s Eve—but their dad was going off to a party with his fiancée, and Brandon, Bernie’s boyfriend, had to take a coworker’s shift at RJ’s, while Marvin, after discussing it with Libby, was going to a family wedding.
“What do you think?” Bernie asked her sister.
Libby shrugged. Ada’s request sounded simple enough and it seemed to mean a great deal to her.
“Sure. Why not?” Libby replied. It wouldn’t hurt to start off the New Year with a good deed, and even though she wasn’t as anxious as Bernie to meet a new branch of her family, it couldn’t be—despite what her dad said—a bad thing.
“Thank you. Thank you,” Ada cried as she got up and hugged them both. “I knew I could count on you guys. You’re the best.”
Sean emerged from his bedroom as soon as he heard Ada’s footsteps going down the stairs to the street below.
“You were pretty rude,” Bernie observed as Sean sat back down in his chair.
“I was direct,” Sean countered as the cat jumped back up on his lap. “I’m just telling you, don’t come crying to me when things go south.”
“How about if they go north?” Bernie asked.
Sean tried to keep from smiling and failed.
“Don’t you think you’re being a tad dramatic?” Libby asked her dad.
“No, I don’t. Not even a little bit.” Sean nodded in the direction of the stairs. “That girl is trouble.”
“Woman,” Bernie corrected.
Sean waved his hand in the air to signal his annoyance. “Call her what you want, the result will be the same.”
“I don’t know why you’re saying that,” Bernie objected as she watched Ada Sinclair get into a nondescript Toyota Camry. A moment later, the Camry’s headlights came on, a bright beacon in the early dark of the winter afternoon, and the windshield wipers started going from side to side, clearing the accumulated snow off the glass. Bernie kept watching until Ada had backed out of A Taste of Heaven’s parking lot and was halfway down Main Street. Then she turned to her father and said, “She seems like a perfectly nice person to me.”
“Appearances can be deceptive,” Sean replied.
“It’s not like Ada Sinclair wants us to rob a bank,” Libby said and she stood up, brushed cinnamon bun crumbs off her lap onto the tray sitting on the table, and began collecting the dirty plates and coffee mugs to take down to the kitchen. “Or murder someone.”
“So, what does she want you to do?” Sean asked. “Since you banished me from the room, I don’t know.” He’d turned on the radio in his room, and that and a slight hearing loss had ensured he wouldn’t hear the conversation in the living room. Otherwise, he might have been tempted to come back out and comment on the proceedings.
“Ridiculous,” Sean muttered when she was done.
Bernie raised an eyebrow. “So what was the skinny about what happened to Ada’s dad and her dad’s partner?”
“Nothing,” Sean replied. “Absolutely nothing.”
“I find that difficult to believe,” Libby said. “There’s always a story behind the story.”
“Not in this case,” Sean replied. “If there was a story, it was Ada, whom everyone thought was nuts.”
“Truly?” Bernie asked.
“Yes, truly,” Sean replied, remembering. “The deaths weren’t a big story back then. The Gazette ran a couple of articles about them in the papers—you know, unfortunate coincidence, family tragedy, blah, blah, blah—but that was about it,” Sean told her. “Don’t forget, the deaths you’re referring to weren’t seen as homicides. They were seen as a hit-and-run and a possible suicide or accidental overdose. Sometimes, to coin your phrase, things are what they are. And anyway,” Sean concluded, “the deaths happened in Hollingsworth.”
“Hollingsworth is two towns over,” Libby objected. “You’re talking like this happened in Cali.”
Sean shrugged. “To point out the obvious, Hollingsworth was outside of my jurisdiction. And anyway, at the time I had my hands full with the Long Branch bank robbery.” He sighed, remembering how that had gone down. Nothing like having the son of one of Longely’s most prominent citizens involved. “And as for being a mess”—Sean shook his head—“wait and see, this is going to turn into a first-rate one,” he predicted.
“Mr. Optimism,” Bernie retorted.
“You don’t get it,” Sean replied as Cindy butted her head against his hands.
“Then tell me,” Bernie said.
“It’s simple.” Sean began rubbing Cindy’s ears. “The Sinclairs are a bad luck family and everyone who gets involved with them catches it.”
Libby raised an eyebrow. “Bad luck? Catches it?” Libby repeated.
“Yes,” Sean replied, a defensive tone in his voice.
Bernie rolled her eyes. “Seriously? I can’t believe those words are coming out of your mouth. Aren’t you the one who says everyone makes their own luck?”
Sean got even more defensive. “To be exact, your mother was the one who called the Sinclairs a bad luck family, but in this instance I think she was correct. Call them whatever you want, though. Bad news would work, too.”
“Which is quite a bit different,” Libby pointed out. “Since when have you become superstitious?” she asked.
“I’m not, but sometimes superstitions are based on reality,” Sean replied. “For instance, if you walk under a ladder, you’re more likely to get hit on the head with something. Breaking a mirror was considered bad luck because glass was extremely expensive back in the old days and there are bad luck places.”
“Which are?” Bernie asked.
“Places where things don’t thrive,” Sean replied.
Bernie and Libby looked at each other.
Sean pointed at his daughters. “You two are superstitious,” he said. “And don’t tell me you aren’t because I know that you are.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Bernie told him.
“Yes,” Libby said. “Where do you get that from?”
“What about the kitchen witch,” Sean demanded. He knew he was grasping at straws but he went ahead anyway. “You haven’t moved that.” His wife had insisted that moving the stuffed doll from its perch on the window behind the sink would bring bad luck.
“That’s out of sentiment, not superstition,” Bernie told him.
“So you say,” Sean said.
“Yes, I do,” Bernie retorted.
Sean kept rubbing the tips of Cindy’s ears. She began to purr. “Okay. Let me rephrase this. Your mom was family first all the way.”
“Agreed,” Libby said.
“So, things had to be pretty bad to make her cut ties with the Sinclairs. Totaling cars, not repaying money. These are not people you want to hang around with.”
“Yeah, but that stuff happened a long time ago.”
“Not that long,” Sean pointed out.
“Long enough,” Bernie told him. “People change. People change all the time. So do families.”
Sean leaned forward. “Not in my experience they don’t,” he told Bernie. “Okay,” he conceded. “Once in a great while, but it’s as rare as a blue moon. It may look as if people have changed, but inside, where it counts”—he hit his chest with the flat of his hand—“everything is still the same.”
Libby made a face. She’d heard this all the time growing up. “That’s you being a cop and thinking the worst of everyone.”
“And it’s usually true.” Sean threw up his hands. “Hey, don’t believe me,” he said. Then he repeated what he’d told them earlier. “That’s fine with me. All I’m saying is that when things go wrong”—he reached for the remote and turned on the television—“and they will, don’t come crying to me.”
“Don’t worry, we wouldn’t,” Libby informed him.
Bernie picked a strand of cat hair off her black turtleneck sweater and flicked it away. “I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
Sean shook his head and stared at the screen in front of him. “Have it your way.”
For a moment Bernie watched the snow fall and thought that she or Libby was going to have to shovel the sidewalk in front of the shop if it didn’t let up soon. And they’d be smart to pick up the chickens they’d ordered from Odel’s farm sooner rather than later because the road leading up to it was bad enough in good weather, let alone in this. She sighed. Sometimes she wondered why she’d left California.
She was thinking about her time there when her dad transferred his attention from the program guide appearing on the TV screen—as per usual, there was nothing much he wanted to watch—to his youngest daughter. “Tell me the truth,” he said to her. “Are you taking this job on because I’m going to that New Year’s Eve party with Michele?” Michele was his fiancée and his daughters disliked her. “Is that why you’re doing this?”
“Don’t be absurd,” Bernie scoffed, although her dad was partially correct in his assessment. If he’d stayed home, she and Libby would have stayed home with him. Not that she was about to tell him that.
“You could come if you want,” Sean told her. “You know that.”
“I know,” Bernie replied as she finished her coffee. What she didn’t say was she’d rather do her laundry than go to that party and she guessed that Libby felt the same way. She looked at her sister expecting her to say something, but Libby didn’t. Libby was glancing at the clock on the wall and thinking that it was almost five and that it was time to get downstairs. Libby could hear the voices from the shop percolating up through the floor as customers came through the door.
“Pretty confident of yourself vis-à-vis the Sinclairs, aren’t you, Dad?” Bernie observed.
Sean nodded. “Yes, I am.”
“Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?” Bernie asked him.
Sean cocked his head. “Are you saying you wanna bet?”
“You got it,” Bernie replied.
“What do you have in mind?” Sean asked.
“How about the usual,” Libby said.
“A dollar? Let’s make it more interesting,” Bernie suggested.
Sean put the remote down. He was intrigued. “I’m listening.”
“Me too,” Libby said.
Bernie told them. “If the Armageddon you’re predicting doesn’t occur we buy a new sofa.” Their present one was twenty years old and Bernie had been after her dad to replace it for the last five y. . .
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