Previously published in Yule Log Murder
Few things are as sweet as Christmas in coastal Maine. The only thing that can spoil the fun is murder . . .
Realizing she can’t make a decent Bûche de Noël to save her life, Julia Snowden enlists the help of her eccentric neighbor, Mrs. St. Onge, in hopes of mastering the dessert for Christmas. With everyone in the old woman’s circle missing or deceased, however, it’s up to Julia to stop the deadly tidings before she’s the next Busman’s Harbor resident to meet a not-so-jolly fate.
Release date: September 27, 2022
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 120
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Page, my ten-year-old niece, leaned in toward the disaster sitting on a board on the countertop. “At least it must taste good.” She dipped a finger in the mess and popped it in her mouth. “Yuck.”
“There’s the final verdict.” I used a big kitchen knife to sweep it into the garbage bin. “Tomorrow I try again.”
The crease between Livvie’s big amber eyes deepened. “Maybe you should try something a little less challenging.” It was a gentle suggestion, well-intentioned.
I shook my head. “Nope. Bûche de Noël, it is.”
“Okay, then.” She turned to her family. “Let’s go. It’s a school night. Sonny, can you get Jack?” Their ten-month-old was asleep in a portable crib in my old bedroom upstairs. I’d made the Yule log cake, or, rather, I’d attempted to make the Yule log cake, at my mother’s house. The tiny kitchen in the studio apartment over Gus’s restaurant, which I shared with my boyfriend, Chris, couldn’t have handled the complicated dessert. Of course, as it turned out, neither could I.
“Sure,” Sonny said. “Then we’ll light this baby up.”
While I’d measured, mixed, and baked, Sonny, Livvie, and Page had strung lights outside the house. My mom had grown up motherless, in an apartment in New York City, and never had been one to go over the top at Christmas. All my life a simple Maine-made evergreen wreath had graced our door, nothing else.
But the year before, the Maine Coast Botanical Gardens, up the peninsula, had started a new holiday tradition. Called the Illuminations, they adorned a huge swath of their 128 acres with five hundred thousand colored bulbs. It had been successful beyond their wildest imaginings. The first year, sixty thousand people showed up. But when those people had driven down to our little town of Busman’s Harbor, looking for dinner and perhaps a place to stay overnight, they’d found the sidewalks rolled up and the town in darkness. The only place to eat in the off-season was the dinner restaurant Chris and I ran in Gus’s space. But we catered to locals and Gus was anti-signage, so most people missed us.
This year the Tourist Bureau had persuaded two of the larger restaurants to stay open every night until New Year’s. The town had strung lights along the stretch of two-lane highway from the gardens into the harbor, and they’d attempted to persuade all the year-rounders to decorate their homes. My mother was suddenly into it, consulting with Sonny about what kind of lights to buy and where to put them on the house.
While Sonny was gathering Jack, Livvie again tried to talk me out of attempting the Bûche de Noël.
“Julia and Jacques assured me that this flour-less chocolate roulade would make a perfect cake layer for my Yule log,” I told her.
“Julia Child and Jacques Pépin were both considerably more experienced bakers than you are,” Livvie pointed out.
I shook my head, unmoved. “You have cookie day.” Livvie was the field general of the family Christmas cookie-making efforts. “And Mom gives out her strawberry-rhubarb jam.” Made when the fruits were fresh in the spring, the jars were festooned with bright green ribbons and delivered to neighbors, friends, and relatives when the holidays arrived. “I need my own thing.” I’d been back in Busman’s Harbor for almost two years and had decided to make it my home. I needed my own contribution to our Christmas traditions. Livvie was the family baker. I was not. I admit the Yule log cake was an odd choice, but I had my reasons.
“Julia Child said she never changed the recipe for her Bûche de Noël—only for the cake, the filling, and the frosting,” Livvie said. I squinted at her, my best daggers stare. She shrugged. “I’m just saying.”
“Let’s go! Outside.” Sonny charged down the stairs, ten-month-old Jack in warm footie pajamas held to his shoulder. My mother hurried after them.
“So exciting,” she said as we slipped into our coats, stepped into our boots, and went out the big mahogany front door.
“Ready?” Sonny handed Jack to Livvie and disappeared around the side of the house. We stood in the road, shivering. “One, two, three!” Sonny shouted.
Merrily-colored miniature bulbs outlined the front of the house, showing off its distinctive Victorian features, including the deep front porch, the mansard roof, and the cupola at the top. We gasped appreciatively, then clapped.
“Bravo! You’ve outdone yourselves.” Mom ran to Sonny and gave him a hug as he returned to the front yard.
“The lights are on a timer,” Sonny instructed. “They’ll come on at four every day, and go off at midnight.”
I turned in the road, taking it all in. While many of the houses of seasonal residents around town were completely dark, Main Street had always been home to year-rounders. Up and down the road, every house twinkled against the night sky. Across the street, the Snugg sisters’ B&B had white lights outlining the gingerbread on their porch. One block down the hill all the town stores, including Gordon’s Jewelry, Walker’s Art Supplies, and Gleason’s Hardware, were decorated to the nines. Our days were short in coastal Maine. Dark came early. The lights made me feel so happy. They were everywhere.
Except one house. Mrs. St. Onge’s. It was at the top of the harbor hill, next to my mom’s. Set back from the street, the overgrown house was always dark and foreboding, and now, the only one on our block not lit up. It was like a black hole sucking up all the happiness on the street. I shivered and turned away. Back toward my family, smiling and laughing. Back toward the light.
“You don’t have to do this.” My boyfriend, Chris Durand, stared over my shoulder at the mess I’d made on Gus’s countertop. Rather than humiliating myself yet again by attempting the Yule log cake at Mom’s house, I’d waited until Gus finished lunch service so I could make the cake in the quiet of the restaurant kitchen. This time I’d tried a traditional sponge cake, but once again I’d foundered while trying to roll the base and filling into a log.
“I want to do it,” I insisted through clenched teeth. “Your family is coming for the holiday. It’s my tribute to your French Canadian heritage.”
Chris’s green eyes looked straight into my blue ones. “Honey, it’s lovely what you’re trying to do. But I guarantee you, the only rolled cake in our house while I was growing up was wrapped in cellophane and baked by Drake’s.”
“I want to make a good impression.”
Chris wrapped his arms around me, kissing the top of my head. “I’m more worried about the impression they’re going to make on you.” He stepped back and brushed flour off his flannel shirt. “I need to get to work.”
Our restaurant, Gus’s Too, served dinner to guests Wednesday through Monday. Gus had talked us into opening the winter before as a place for locals to gather in the evening. Chris was a gifted home cook. I’d grown up in the food business and had come home to run my family’s company, the Snowden Family Clambake. Gus’s Too was intended for casual dining, but also as a place where a couple could have a date night, or a family could celebrate a special occasion.
I’d worried about our lack of experience, and about how working and living together 24/7 would affect our relati. . .
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