The Emergency Dessert Squad business is booming, with owner and baker Winnie Johnson working overtime to satisfy the emergency cravings of Silver Lake, Ohio. Her latest order, a plate of motivational desserts for an artists' retreat, is just what she needs to keep her mind off her own relationship woes.
But Winnie's problems seem like trifles when she discovers the body of retreat owner Sally Dearfield mere inches away from five oh-so-eccentric and viable suspects. Now, this baking detective must uncover the inspiration behind Sally's murder before another creative genius is iced.
Release date: January 2, 2018
Print pages: 304
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Listen to a sample
Dial M for Mousse
Winnie Johnson knew it wasn't polite to stare. She'd been taught that little life lesson when she was no more than three. But when you made your living baking, and your latest creation earned an elevated lip-nostril combination from one of your closest friends, it was hard to look away. "I try to tell myself it will get better-that the next go-round will surely be better than the one before, but it never happens. And I'm not the only one who feels this way, dear. Parker does, as well." Bridget O'Keefe set her plate on the wicker table beside her favorite rocking chair and raised her eyes to the porch ceiling. "Maybe it really is time to start thinking about heading south to that fancy-schmancy retirement community Louise Rickter moved to last year. I talked to her on the phone just the other day and she's convinced the warmer weather would do far more for my aching joints than any of my overpriced doctors do."
Winnie sucked in her breath so hard and so fast, Lovey lifted her head from her slumber atop Bridget's lap and hissed. "How long have you been feeling this way? And why on earth didn't you tell me sooner?"
"I don't want to burden you with my ever-growing list of health problems, dear." Rocking forward on her chair, the eighty-year-old thrust her elbow across the gap between their chairs. "Did I tell you that I may have ankylosing spondylitis? My elbow was absolutely throbbing throughout the night."
"I'm pretty sure ankylosing spondylitis has something to do with the spine, not the elbow." Winnie rose to her feet and made a beeline for the table and the barely touched strawberry shortcake she would have laid odds on in the edible-home-run department.
A bit too much vanilla, perhaps?
Maybe a smidge less sugar?
Bridget returned her hand to the brown and white tabby's head and slumped her broad shoulders against the back of the chair. "My spine has been a bit creaky lately. . ."
Grabbing hold of the plate, Winnie hoisted it up to eye level.
Consistency is good . . .
Color is spot-on . . .
The creak of the screen door on the other side of the porch registered in Winnie's head a split second before her best friend's giggle and the subsequent moan of appreciation from Winnie's downstairs neighbor.
"Winnie? Did you know Mr. Nelson has had a crush on me since the moment he first laid eyes on me behind the counter at Delectable Delights?" Renee Ballentine asked over the click of her stilettos against the wooden floor.
A host of replies covering a wide range of sarcasm danced across Winnie's tongue, but in light of the more pressing matters on her plate (both figuratively and literally) she settled on an answer that required the least amount of syllables.
"Um, duh . . ."
The clicking built to a crescendo before ceasing completely beside Winnie. "Are you going to keep staring at that strawberry shortcake or are you going to let me give it a try?" Renee asked.
Slowly, Winnie lowered the plate back to the table in favor of a thorough once-over of the ample-figured woman who was single-handedly responsible for Mr. Nelson's growing clip-on bow tie collection. Bypassing the cleavage view no doubt being enjoyed by her housemate, Winnie focused, instead, on the emerald green eyes twinkling back at her without a care in the world.
"Man, you're good," she mumbled before crossing her arms in front of her own (and far less endowed) chest. "So how long, exactly, have you been lying to me, too, Renee?"
Renee ran her red-tipped fingers through her pixie-style haircut and then shook any disheveled strands of white-blond hair back into place with a flick of her head (and a hard swallow from Mr. Nelson). "Did someone forget to eat her pound of sugar today?"
Bracing her hands atop her hips, Winnie widened what she hoped was an accusatory look to include a bow tie-wearing Mr. Nelson and their ailment-infested next-door neighbor, Bridget. "Did any of you ever think, for even a second, that maybe, just maybe the reason Delectable Delights failed was because you pretended you liked my desserts? And maybe, if you'd told me this, I could have used Gertie's ambulance for something entirely different like . . ." She cast about for something, anything, to drive home her point, settling finally on the feline gearing up to hiss at her for what had to be the millionth time in little more than four months. "Like an emergency dog spa!"
In a flash, Bridget's hands were over Lovey's ears and Mr. Nelson was caning his way over to the table, his attention no longer on Renee. "What's going on, Winnie Girl?"
"This!" Again, she lifted Bridget's plate off the table, only this time, instead of inspecting it for clues, she brandished it between them. "How many times have you guys gushed over my latest creations, telling me they're the best thing ever?"
Sticking his finger in his ear, Mr. Nelson played with the volume on his hearing aid and then made a face at Renee. "The volume appears to be on . . ."
"It better be." Winnie flopped onto the chair in front of Mr. Nelson's chessboard. "Was anything ever good? My Don't-Be-Blue Berry Pie? My Worry No s'More Bar? My One Smart Cookie? My Hot Flash Fudge Sundae?"
She stopped, closed her eyes briefly, and then jerked upright on the chair, snapping her fingers at Renee. "I saw your eyes roll back in your head when you tried that Dump (Him) Cake you helped dream up! You were in heaven! There's no way you could fake that."
"Technically, I could," Renee mused as she clicked her way over to the porch railing. "But considering I lamented the effects of that cake on the scale the next morning, you know I didn't."
"And you!"-Winnie shifted her next snap to indicate a clearly baffled Mr. Nelson-"I've caught you eating your way through what was supposed to be a customer's pie more times than I can count! No one made you do that."
Bridget took a moment to address a wide-eyed Lovey. "This is why sleep is so important, little one. People who stay up all night, trying out recipes instead of sleeping, risk going mad. I've seen it before. With Hildegard Reeves. She lived on the other side of Silver Lake and routinely gave up sleep to crochet. Needless to say, dear old Hilde spent the last few years of her life under heavy sedation in the loony bin ward of Silver Lake General."
"Look at her!"-Renee pointed at Lovey-"It actually looks like she's nodding along with what Bridget is saying, doesn't it?"
Winnie turned a wary eye on Mr. Nelson, his mouth full with Bridget's cast-off strawberry shortcake. "Wit woes?"
He swallowed. "It does-look like she's nodding, that is." He lifted the remaining shortcake to his thinning lips and winked at Winnie. "This is goo-ood, Winnie Girl."
"Thirty minutes ago, I'd have believed you, Mr. Nelson. But now, not so much."
He stopped chewing and stared at her. "I may be a prankster, Winnie Girl, but I ain't no liar. Never have been, never will be."
"But Bridget said you two are always hoping my desserts get better, but they don't." There was no denying the hurt in her voice or the way Mr. Nelson nearly choked on whatever amount of shortcake still remained in his mouth.
"I said no such thing!" Bridget protested.
"Yes, you did! You said it as you were rejecting the very same strawberry shortcake Mr. Nelson is eating right now!"
Bridget's eyebrows dipped downward in confusion only to return to their normal resting place in short order. "I wasn't talking about your desserts, dear. I was talking about the summer folks. They seem to have multiplied in number and annoyingness this year."
Wiping the back of his weathered hand across his mouth, Mr. Nelson brushed away all lingering remnants of his shortcake. "I couldn't agree more."
"So you haven't been humoring me about my baking these last two years?" Winnie asked as her gaze darted between Mr. Nelson and Bridget before landing on her slack-jawed employee-turned-friend. "What? It was an honest mistake . . ."
Renee crossed to Bridget's rocker, lifted Lovey from the elderly woman's lap, and then turned the animal so they were eye to eye. "I know Winnie isn't your favorite person in the world, but I think it's best if we operate on the assumption that this most recent break in her sanity is a result of Jay being out of town."
"Rendezvousing with his famous ex-wife, no less," Bridget added.
"The famous ex-wife his daughter requested to see . . ." Mr. Nelson's hand came down on Winnie's shoulder and squeezed ever so gently. "Jay Morgan knows what he has in you, Winnie Girl. I'm as certain of that as I am that your strawberry shortcake just now was the best strawberry shortcake I think I've ever eaten."
Blinking against the sudden and equally unwelcome mist in her eyes, Winnie smiled up at him. "Thanks, Mr. Nelson. On both counts. And I'm sorry I accused you of lying about my desserts. I guess I jumped to conclusions."
"Nothing you can't fix with another one of them shortcakes." Mr. Nelson removed his hand from her shoulder and lowered himself onto the rocking chair next to Bridget's. "So what did I miss about the summer folks?"
Bridget stopped rocking and, in a move belying her age and her oft-reported ailing health, jumped to her feet. "They're back. Isn't that enough?"
Mr. Nelson nodded.
"Last night, after I picked Ty up at Bob's, we stopped at that ice cream stand out by the lake." Renee tucked Lovey into the crook of her arm and leaned back against the porch railing. "One of them was out there, too. Just sitting on the shoreline skipping rocks."
"One of them?" Winnie echoed.
"The summer people. Only this one was super good-looking."
Hope pulled Winnie forward in her chair. "Did you talk to him?"
The single mom who turned more heads than the promise of free candy, shrugged. "Ty was curious about what this guy was doing. So, he wandered over to the shoreline with a few rocks of his own and tried to make them skip, too. Mystery Hunk watched him a few times and then showed him how to do it right."
"That sounds promising. . ."
"If he'd actually said something, maybe. But he didn't." Renee exhaled dramatically, the sudden rush of air making Lovey's ear flick in response. "Ty, of course, didn't care. He learned how to skip a rock. But when everything I said to the guy-from Wow, you're good at that, to Thanks for making my son smile-was met with a single nod of his head or a quick hand to his chest, I have to assume he wasn't interested."
"Did he have eyes?" Mr. Nelson asked.
"Yup. Two. And they were a real pretty charcoal color."
Mr. Nelson surveyed the now-empty plate in front of him and shrugged. "Musta been a blind, charcoal-eyed mute. Only thing that makes sense about that story."
"Winnie, have I told you how much I love this man?" Renee gushed.
Before Winnie could respond, or offer Mr. Nelson a cool drink of water to counteract his sudden panting, she heard her kitchen phone ring once through the open upstairs windows. Less than a second later, the sound morphed into a vibration inside her back pocket, and she reached for the device. A quick check of the screen revealed an unknown number.
A brief hesitation gave way to a female voice. "Oh, I'm sorry, I was trying to reach the Emergency Dessert Squad. I must have misdialed-"
Winnie sat up tall. "No. You didn't misdial. This is the Emergency Dessert Squad. How can I help . . ." Her words petered off as the object of Mr. Nelson's affection set Lovey down on the porch and clapped her hands.
"You're saying it wrong," Renee whispered.
Winnie cleared her throat and began again. "You've reached the Emergency Dessert Squad, please state your emergency."
"This is Sally Dearfield out at Silver Lake Artists' Retreat. I'd like to place five separate orders to be delivered to our current residents around noon on Monday."
"We can do that." She saw a pen-topped notebook sliding across the table toward her free hand and mouthed a thank-you at Renee. "Have you had a chance to look at our list of rescue desserts?"
"I have, but it mentions on your website that you can also customize to the customer. Is that true?"
Winnie opened the notebook to the first blank page and readied the pen. "Of course. I'll just need a little information about each customer, as well as specifics on their ailment or problem. If you know a little bit about their taste in flavors, that's always helpful. Oh, and I'll need to know if there are any allergies I should work around."
"No allergies. As for the recipients, there is a poet, a magician, a mime, a comedian, and a puppeteer."
"And each of their issues?" she asked, even as the creative side of her brain began to mull over a slew of possible flavor combinations and the forms each could take. "I mean, the reason they need to be rescued?"
"The potential end to their careers, for starters."
Winnie stopped writing. "So you want these to be motivational in nature?"
"I'm hoping the prospect of being penniless and publicly mortified is all the motivation they really need. But a clever little rescue dessert for their respective craft certainly can't hurt. Especially if it's timed just right."
Leaning back against the center island, Winnie took in the faces assembled around her kitchen table. Bridget, who'd claimed the head chair, was detailing, to no one in particular, the reason behind her most recent wince. Lovey was half licking, half watching from her nearby windowsill hammock. Mr. Nelson kept shifting in his seat in the hopes of securing the best view of Renee. And Renee, in turn, was sending a not-so-occasional glance in the direction of the dark-haired thirty-eight-year-old seated at the far end of the table, seemingly oblivious to all but the last piece of apple pie on his plate.
"I tell you, Winnie, you should have a show on television." Greg Stevens forked up the pie's remains and lifted it to his lips, stopping just shy of inhaling it the way he had every other bite to that point. "There's no way the stuff on that dessert channel is as good as your stuff. No way, no how."
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