Christmas is Bailey King's favorite time of year. For her first Yuletide in Harvest, Ohio, the former big-city chocolatier is recreating a cherished holiday treat: peppermint combined with molten white chocolate. But her sugar high plummets when her former boyfriend walks into the candy shop she now runs with her Amish grandmother.
New York celebrity chef Eric Sharp and his TV crew have arrived to film an authentic Amish Christmas. Bailey's not about to let her beloved town—and Swissmen Sweets—be turned into a sound bite. Unfortunately, she gets more publicity than she bargained for when Eric's executive producer is found strangled to death—and Eric's the prime suspect.
With Bailey's sheriff deputy boyfriend out to prove Eric's guilt, her bad-boy ex tries to sweet-talk her into helping him clear his name...and rekindle their romance to boost ratings for his show. Now, between a surplus of suspects and a victim who wasn't who she seemed, Bailey's edging dangerously close to a killer who isn't looking to bring joy to the world—or to Bailey—this deadly Noel....
Release date: September 25, 2018
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 352
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Peppermint is much more than a Christmastime treat. It has a thousand uses. It has been used to freshen breath, flavor beverages, calm nerves, and even grow hair. But as far as I could tell, it did not have the power to repel ex-boyfriends.
I wasn’t considering this failing on peppermint’s part when I awoke early that Thursday morning, two weeks before Christmas, and when I say early, I mean very early. It was before five AM, but there was much to do to prepare for the Harvest Christmas Market that would begin the next afternoon on the village square. I lived and worked just across the square at Swissmen Sweets, an Amish candy shop in Holmes County, Ohio, that I ran with my Amish grandmother Clara King. No, I wasn’t Amish, but my father’s family was. However, I did have peppermint on the mind.
Peppermint was the name of the game for our table at the Christmas Market. The organizer, Margot Rawlings, who typically was the instigator of all major events in the village, said that every table had to have a Christmas theme. Peppermint was the obvious choice for the candy shop. In addition to peppermint bark, we would have peppermint hard candy, fudge, hot chocolate mix, taffy, and thumbprint cookies.
It was midmorning now, and the shop smelled like the inside of a peppermint patty. My grandmother, her young Amish cousin Charlotte, and I worked in a companionable silence that had taken me some time to grow accustomed to. Up until a few months ago, I had spent most of my adult life in New York City working as an assistant chocolatier at JP Chocolates for world-renowned chocolate maker Jean Pierre Ruge. After my grandfather’s death in September, I left city life behind to take over Swissmen Sweets. After working the busy, fully staffed chocolate shop in New York, where there was constant activity, it had taken me some time to get used to the quiet of Swissmen Sweets. Even when the shop was busy, it never felt as frenetic as JP Chocolates. I had grown to like the quiet and was looking forward to my first peaceful Christmas in Amish Country.
Down the counter from me, Maami cut her chocolate peppermint fudge into neat squares, and Charlotte packed them in small white boxes. She tied each box closed with narrow red ribbon. The pair softly murmured to each other in Pennsylvania Dutch while they worked. They looked much more like grandmother and granddaughter in their plain dresses and matching prayer caps than Maami and I ever would. I wasn’t sure they even realized they were speaking a language I didn’t understand at that moment, but I felt a stab of isolation at the other end of the counter as I worked on my own peppermint treats.
I tried to focus on the task at hand. I had hoped to make a few additional peppermint goodies before the market opened, but all my Christmas Market plans seemed to have flown out of my head a few hours earlier, when my ex-boyfriend crashed my candy shop. That was the moment when I realized peppermint’s shortcomings.
The moment Eric Sharp walked into Swissmen Sweets, I was up to my elbows in a triple batch of peppermint and white chocolate, getting ready to spread the molten white chocolate mixture on a cookie sheet to cool. After the peppermint bark solidified, I would break it into pieces, place the pieces in cellophane bags, and tie the tops with bright red ribbons.
I was frozen by Eric’s arrival. I had always wondered what I would feel if I ever saw him again. I expected hurt, sadness, anger, or maybe some of the old spark we’d once had, but I didn’t feel any of those emotions. Instead, I was shocked and seriously annoyed. What on Earth did he think he was doing by waltzing into my peaceful shop at Christmas?
Eric smiled when he caught me staring gape-mouthed at him. I had a strong urge to toss a piece of peppermint bark at him just to see if it would repel an ex-boyfriend, but wisdom prevailed. I didn’t have superaccurate arm, and I could hit a paying customer. Besides, I didn’t want to do anything to alarm my grandmother and Charlotte, who both stood behind the glass-domed counter in their solid-colored Amish dresses, black aprons, and white prayer caps over long hair that was tightly coiled in smooth buns at the napes of their necks.
Eric strode toward me, looking every bit the successful New Yorker dressed in designer clothes from his Burberry winter hat to his polished Gucci boots. My grandmother, who made most of her own clothes, would be aghast to know how much each article of clothing had cost.
My grandmother smiled brightly at him. “May I help you?”
I wanted to blurt out, “No, you may not help him. He’s not staying!”
But, of course, I didn’t say that. My sweet maami would be aghast if I shouted anything so rude.
Eric grinned that smug grin that once upon a time I thought was so confident and attractive. Now I saw it for what it was: condescending. “You’re so kind, but I see what I need.” He made a point of looking at me when he said this. “Hello, Bailey. It’s nice to see you again.”
“I can’t say the same about you.”
My grandmother and Charlotte stared at me, clearly shocked at my rudeness. I closed my eyes for a moment and recited in my head the six types of chocolate, as my mentor Jean Pierre had taught me. I hadn’t even reach “white chocolate” when Eric chuckled. “I see you still say what you think. I’m glad living with the Amish hasn’t robbed you of your spunk.”
I ground my teeth. “What are you doing here, Eric?”
“I’m here to visit you.”
My frown deepened. I wasn’t buying it. “You flew to Ohio to visit me? A person you haven’t spoken to in over three months?”
He nodded, doing his best to appear sincere. “I know how much you love Christmas.”
It was true I loved Christmas. Christmas was my favorite time of the year. I loved the parties, the carols, the food, and more than anything, I loved the sweets, but I knew Eric hadn’t flown all the way to Ohio because Christmas was just two weeks away and I was a big fan.
“I’ve taken a few days off from my bakeries, and I thought it would be a great idea to see what a real country Christmas is all about. It will be a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of New York.”
My brow furrowed. “You took time from work? To see the country?” My voice rose an octave with each question. When he made that claim, I knew he was lying. Eric was the biggest workaholic I knew. He was a bigger workaholic than I was, which was saying something, since before moving to Ohio I easily worked one hundred hours a week at JP Chocolates. Eric didn’t take time off from his bakeries. Ever. Something was most definitely up.
I was about to argue that point with him when the glass door to Swissmen Sweets opened again and two disheveled men walked into the shop. The older of the two was short and middle-aged. What hair he had left on his head was graying at the temples. He had a plaid scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and wore a heavy hoodie and jeans. He carried a large video camera on his right shoulder. The other man wore a similar outfit but no scarf, and that’s where the likenesses in their appearances ended. He was Asian, half the other man’s age, and at least a foot taller and a foot wider than the older, slighter man. He carried a boom microphone and wore the largest pair of headphones I had ever seen.
I dropped my spatula into the peppermint bark, most likely condemning the utensil to a white chocolatey death, but I didn’t care. I had much bigger problems than a lost spatula. I scowled at Eric. “What’s going on? Doesn’t look to me like you took time off of work to see the country.”
Charlotte and my grandmother stared at me openmouthed, then turned to look at Eric and his film crew. I was willing to bet they had never seen anyone like this group of men before.
Eric shuffled back with his hands raised. “There is no reason to make a scene.”
My frown deepened. “What’s going on, Eric?” But I knew. Just before we’d broken up, Eric had been given the chance to film a reality baking show. As he was a famously volatile and hot pastry chef of the NYC culinary world, he was just what a popular cooking network was looking for to boost its ratings and give it an edgier image.
Maami lifted the piece of wood that separated the front of the shop from the back counter and stepped through the opening. “Bailey, what is going on? Do you know these men?”
I winced. One advantage of my grandmother’s being Amish was that she’d been shielded from most of my headline-making relationship back in New York. She knew that I had been dating someone and I had broken up with him just before moving to Ohio. She didn’t know who he was or what he did, and she most certainly didn’t know he was standing in the middle of her shop with a film crew.
Before I could answer, Eric stepped forward. “You must be Bailey’s grandmother. I’ve heard so much about you.” He held out his hand to her.
Maami stared at his hand, and after a long pause she took it for the briefest of handshakes. I knew she didn’t want to be rude, but typically Amish women didn’t shake hands with people they didn’t know, especially strange men, and to Maami, Eric must have looked very strange. He had perfectly styled blond hair and was wearing tight jeans, a leather jacket, bright blue scarf—because it matched his eyes, I knew—a Rolex watch, and the Gucci boots, both of which cost more than my car. It certainly wasn’t the typical male uniform in Harvest, where plain trousers and a white button-down shirt was more the norm for men.
“I’m Eric Sharp,” he went on to say. “I’m sure you have heard of me from Bailey.”
Maami looked to me. “Nee, Bailey has never mentioned anyone by the name of Eric Sharp. Are you a friend?”
This only made Eric chuckle again. “Well, I will just tell you that Bailey and I were very good friends back in New York, and I have missed her.”
It took all my strength not to roll my eyes.
“Since she hasn’t told you much about me, I suppose that you don’t know I am a pastry chef in New York, the best pastry chef, actually.”
I stifled a snort.
Eric went on as if I hadn’t made a noise. “I’m doing so well, in fact, that I have my own television show, and that’s where you all come in. We’re filming a holiday special set in Amish Country. We haven’t settled on a title yet, but I know we will soon. As you can guess, the network is in love with the idea!” He smiled as if that was reason enough to let him keep filming. It wasn’t. “This is my crew. Roden on camera, and Pike on sound.”
Pike waved, and his face broke into a winning smile. “Hey.” He peered over the counter. “Are you making peppermint candies? Peppermint is my very favorite!”
My sweet grandmother smiled at him. “We are preparing for the Harvest Christmas Market to begin tomorrow afternoon, and our table will be all peppermint. Charlotte”—she nodded at her cousin—“will be at the table selling our goods. You should stay for the market to see it.”
“Wow!” Pike said. “A whole table of peppermint—count me in!”
Maami picked up a bag of peppermint meltaways, each candy individually wrapped in a small piece of cellophane, and handed the bag to Pike. “Here. Merry Christmas.” She smiled, and her cheeks were rosy. She was the very picture of an Amish grandmother.
Pike took the bag. “These are my favorites! How much?”
Maami shook her head. “They are a gift to tide you over until tomorrow.” She turned to Roden. “Would you like a bag too?”
“No.” His voice was hoarse, perhaps from the cold. “I don’t do sweets.”
“Oh,” Maami said as if she didn’t know how to respond to that.
“Eric,” I said, determined to move the conversation back to the issue at hand. “What are you doing here? Tell the truth this time.”
“I do want to see what an old-fashioned Amish Christmas is like,” he began, and leaned on the counter. “And it occurred to the network and to me that my viewers would too. My executive producer made a few calls and pulled a few strings, and here we are. Ready to film your little Amish town and little Amish candy shop.”
My mouth went dry. It was what I had expected him to say, but that didn’t mean it was any easier to hear.
He smiled his lopsided smile, which was so perfect I wondered if he had practiced it in the mirror until it was second nature. “The network was mad for the idea.”
I forced a smile. “I’m sure the network loved the idea, and it is nice to meet you,” I said, nodding at the two crew members, “but you just can’t show up here unannounced and say you are going to film my family’s shop. That’s not how it works.”
The men looked to Eric, and he nodded. They lowered their equipment and shuffled to the corner of the room beside the large display of jarred candies. Pike opened his candy bag.
Eric turned to me. “I don’t know why you are making such a fuss, Bailey. Don’t you realize what a show like this could do for your shop? Don’t you want free advertising for Swissmen Sweets? It could really boost your Internet sales. Wouldn’t that be something that you want for your business?”
I felt a twinge. He had a point. Of course, the free advertising was something that I wanted for the shop. The exposure could be unbelievable for business, but it wasn’t that easy. I had to respect my grandmother’s culture. Being on television wasn’t very Amish, and I didn’t know if her Amish district would approve. In fact, I suspected they would not.
He must have noticed my hesitation, because the smug grin was back on his face.
Before I could give him an answer, the shop door opened for a third time that afternoon, and the last person on the planet I would have wanted to see at that moment stepped inside.
Tall and loose-jointed, sheriff’s deputy Aiden Brody stood just inside the doorway to Swissmen Sweets. His eyes were alert as if he could feel the tension in the room. As a seasoned law enforcement officer, Aiden was tuned in to the mood of his surroundings, and the current mood inside Swissmen Sweets was anything but welcoming.
He took in Roden and Pike in the corner of the room. Pike had his boom leaning over his shoulder like a baseball bat ready to be taken out onto the field as he tore through his bag of candy.
“Anyone want to tell me what’s going on in here?” Aiden asked.
And that’s when I knew my first Christmas in Amish Country would be anything but peaceful.
Eric’s sharp gaze swung to me. “You called the cops, Bailey? That’s not much of a welcome for me to your little town.”
I rolled my eyes. “I did no such thing.”
Aiden looked from me to Eric and back again. When it was clear that neither one of us was going to answer his question, he turned to my grandmother. “Clara? Do you know what’s going on?”
Maami shrugged her shoulders. “This is Eric and his friends, and they know Bailey from New York. They are here for Christmas.”
My grandmother had sort of got it right, and I watched as a light dawned on the deputy’s face. My grandmother might have been able to miss the media coverage of my relationship with Eric, but Aiden had not. He placed his hand lightly on the hilt of his gun. If I were Eric I would head toward the exit now. I knew that Eric worked out, but he’d never chased down a criminal or thrown one in jail as I knew Aiden had done countless times.
“Aiden, this is my old . . .” I searched for the right word and then cleared my throat. “Aiden, this is Eric Sharp from New York.”
Aiden’s eyes narrowed as my words only confirmed what he had to be thinking.
“Eric is here to shoot a Christmas special for his reality baking show here in Harvest, and he was just telling us he would like Swissmen Sweets to be involved.”
“I bet he would,” Aiden muttered. He frowned. “Are you going to do it?”
“Well, I . . . I . . .” It was a difficult question to answer as the publicity opportunities danced in my head. Being part of Eric’s show, which aired on Gourmet Television, a major cable cooking channel, would be a huge boon to the business. Our online orders could jump 300 percent. Even considering the possibility made me dizzy. I cleared my throat. “Maami will have to decide. It’s her shop.”
Eric grinned. “I knew you would come around, Bailey honey.”
I ground my teeth. “I’m not your honey.”
Eric held out his hand to Aiden. “I have always had the utmost respect for the police. What was your name?”
“Deputy Aiden Brody,” Aiden said in a clipped voice.
I had a sinking feeling that this encounter was about to go from bad to worse.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Aiden.”
The door opened for fourth time, and I started to wonder if I should begin charging admission.
I hoped that it was an actual customer who was dropping by for a fudge sample, but I had a sinking feeling it was not as soon as a slender woman in a hip-length, wool trench coat stepped through the door. Her red hair was swept back from her narrow face by a pair of oversized sunglasses that rested on the top of her head. “Eric, where have you been? I have been looking for you for the last hour.” She removed the sunglasses, and her silky hair fell like a curtain on either side of her face.
Eric went over to her and held out his hand. “What are you doing in here, Rocky? I thought you were waiting outside for the van.”
She squeezed his hand for the briefest of moments and narrowed her eyes, which were an unusual color of smoky gray. “You expect me to wait for the van. Why can’t the crew do that?” She nodded at the two men in the corner of the shop. Pike had a meltaway suspended in the air on the way to his mouth, and Roden just looked bored out of his skull.
“I needed them in here. In case we had a chance to start filming. I thought it was a good use of time to get some footage while we wait.”
“I suppose it is,” she relented. “Time is money, and the last thing I want to spend on this project is more money. We’ve already gone over budget, and on-location production hasn’t even begun. This must be the shop you told me about. It’s quaint. You’re right—with a few tweaks, it would be a great platform.” Rocky turned to me for the first time and looked me up and down. “You’re Bailey. I recognize you from the papers.”
My face grew hot. I knew the papers she was referring to, the weekly glossies that were sold on every corner of the city, the ones that had exposed Eric and me as a secret couple.
She held out her hand. “I’m Rocky Rivers. I’m the executive producer on this special. Eric tells me that we will be shooting segments of the show here.” She glanced around. “This should work nicely. The lighting is great. We will have to put in a few more lights if we plan to shoot in the morning since your shop faces south, but we can make it work.” She folded her arms when I didn’t take her hand. “Is there any chance you can remove some of the clutter from the counter there? We love a clean prep place for our programs. Extra ingredients sitting around confuse the viewers, and when the viewers get confused, they stop watching. Remember that most television programming is geared toward a sixth-grade education. That goes for cooking shows as well. Although I have never met a sixth grader who liked to cook other than those adorable children we book for our kids’ baking challenges, and we have to look far and wide for them. They can be difficult to come by.” She took a breath.
Aiden, Charlotte, and my grandmother all stared at her. They were not accustomed to how fast a real New Yorker could speak, and everything about Rocky screamed that she was a real New Yorker: her look, her speech, her manners.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said quickly because I wanted to get out what I wanted to say before Rocky could kick back into gear. “But I think there has been some sort of mix-up. Eric never got permission to film here. In fact, he just told us his plan a minute ago. My grandmother and I need to discuss it.”
“Guder mariye,” Maami said.
“Gud—Good morning,” Rocky said, seeming taken aback for a brief moment. She gave a quick smile. “Then you and your grandmother should discuss this.”
I was about to ask her what was wrong when my words were interrupted by a honk that was so loud it shook the candies in the jars along the wall.
Honk! Honk! The blaring horn came again. It sounded as if someone was strangling a goose just outside the shop.
“What on earth is that?” Maami asked.
Charlotte’s hazel eyes were the size of dinner plates.
Aiden strode to the front door of the shop and opened it. “What the—” was all he said before the door slammed behind him.
The rest of us, including Rocky, ran to the large picture window at the front of the shop and stared as a white van slowly rolled down Main Street with GOURMET TELEVISION emblazoned on the side. The van barely fit between the Amish buggies and cars parked on either side of the road.
Abel Esh, a large, red-haired Amish man, was tying his horse and buggy up to the hitching post across from Swissmen Sweets. He secured the reins around the hitching post and then shook his fist at the van driver.
The driver didn’t so much as blink an eye, and when she was just past the front window of Swissmen Sweets, she took a sharp left turn off the road and onto the green. As the van rocked. . .
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