Wendy Meadows Cozy Mystery Sweets of Fire (EBOOK)
Sweet Shop Mystery Book 7

Sweets of Fire (EBOOK)

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New Year’s candy rush, check.

Spontaneous New Year’s dinner party, check.

Another murder for Margret Nichols to solve . . . check.

Amid the tourist crowd and dinner plans, Margaret and Detective David Graham have another murder to solve: Who killed Christopher Partridge, and why? The suspect list is short, but the case is hot.

Margaret is determined to find the killer, host a perfect New Year’s Eve dinner—which will include her parents, and help her friends with the problems they share with her.

But with time running out and the murderer setting his sight on a new victim, will Margaret be able to save the day? Or will she start the new year off dead?

Chapter One

I bump into Zack coming down the ladder. I bounce off and step on Patty Matthews’s toes before I ricochet toward the register. “Oh, sorry, Patty!” I exclaim.

Zack lays both hands on my shoulders to steady me. “Take it easy, Mom. We’re all over each other in here.”

I squeeze between them to the counter and start ringing up the order I just filled. “They told me the holidays would be busy, but I never imagined it would get as bad as this.”

Thirty people crowd my candy store. More try to wedge their way inside every minute. Patty, Zack, and I have to work at full speed just to keep up with everyone who wants candy.

Droves of sightseers and tourists mob the town outside. They parade down the sidewalks going both ways. They stream in and out of every store on Main Street before heading out to the beach.

The iron-grey sky no longer sends down drifts of snow to make everything feel warm and cozy. No, sir. That ended with Christmas. Now, with New Years inching closer every day, a deep, bone-chilling cold settles over the world. The ground, the trees, the very air feels frozen with no hope of ever getting warm.

The tourists either don’t notice or they’re too excited to care. Their happy chatter fills the town. I ought to be happy about all that loot flowing into my cash register, but for some reason, it only makes me more seasonally depressed.

What’s wrong with me? I liked West End better when it was nothing but a forgotten corner of nowhere that only the locals knew and cared about. All these strangers ruin its charm, but I don’t have time to worry about that. I’m too busy bagging Skittles and running credit cards through the ATM machine.

My next customer wants Jujubes. I portion out one scoop and empty the jar. When I carry it to the storeroom to refill it, I cast a wistful glance at an empty metal baking tray propped the corner. 

I got so enthusiastic over Christmas about making my own candies. I offered samples at the Christmas market and all my customers loved them. Then the holiday rush hit. All the candies I made sold out, and now I don’t have time to make any more. I had to discontinue selling them.

I might get time to make more when the season dies down, but by then, the market will have dried up, too. All the people that wanted to buy them will be long gone and I’ll be left alone with the townsfolk I already know.

I thought, in my infinite wisdom, that Zack and Patty and I could run the store in shifts of two while the third person took their days off. I never dreamed the town could get so busy that all three of us would have to work simultaneously just to keep the doors open.

When this is over, I’m going to take about three weeks to recover. Maybe after that, I’ll have the brain power to figure out exactly how to incorporate my new candies into my sales program. Maybe I’ll be able to work out a system where I stock up on supply over the quiet seasons so I have enough to keep selling them during the holidays.

I definitely don’t have the brain power to think about that now. The customers jostle each other’s shoulders in a constant torrent of bodies edging their way to the counter, placing their orders, and then weaseling their way back to the exit. Zack, Patty, and I are stepping on each other’s feet behind the counter, but that’s nothing compared to the customers. I’m amazed no one has gotten in a fight yet, but everyone minds their manners better than I ever thought possible.

A familiar voice hails me out of the throng. “Margaret! Look at this place!”

I wave across the counter at Ariel and David Graham all rugged up in scarves and gloves and overcoats. “What are you two up to? You’re not off to the ski fields, are you? Just please don’t tell me you want candy. I think I would blow a gasket if you did.”

Ariel laughs and David grins. “No, we don’t want candy, and it looks like these people are going to eat you out of house and home anyway.”

“We came to invite you to lunch,” Ariel replies. “We haven’t seen you since Christmas.”

“I’ve been hiding behind all these heads.” I bob back and forth in a clownish impersonation of someone trying to see through the crowd.

Ariel laughs again. “Come to lunch with us. I’m sure Zack and Patty can spare you for half an hour.”

“I’m sure they can’t,” I return. “Do you see any of us stopping to wind our watches?”

“You might as well go,” Zack cuts in. “We all have to take a lunch break sometime. You might as well go first. This rush won’t die down any time soon, so it doesn’t matter if you go now or later.”

I cast a glance at Patty, but she’s in the middle of straining her ears to catch someone’s order. “All right. I’ll go, but I have to be back here in half an hour—no later.”

Ariel raises her right hand. “I do solemnly swear you’ll be back here in half an hour—no later.”

I break into a delighted grin. “All right. Let’s go.”

I peel off my apron, but it takes us over five minutes to get out the door. I breathe a sigh of relief on the sidewalk. “Phew! The insanity of it all!”

Ariel loops her arm through my elbow from one side. “You deserve a break. You haven’t sat down since Christmas.”

“It certainly feels that way.” We set off down the sidewalk away from the candy store.

I turn my feet toward the Happy-Go-Lucky Café next door, but Ariel gives me a tug. “I thought we could try that new deli that just opened up down the street.”

“Okay.” We stroll past the Happy-Go-Lucky toward the other end of town. I observe a string of brand new buildings extending from the other end of Main Street toward the western neighborhood. “I hardly recognize this town anymore with so many new businesses opening up.”

We come to the section of sidewalk passing Simone Peretti’s antique store. As we stroll along, my eye detects on a large, old-fashioned doll’s house in the window. Tiny furniture fills the rooms to make it look Victorian. Even the windows sport miniature curtains.

I stop dead in my tracks and stare at it. I walk by this window every morning on my way to work. I would have noticed that doll’s house if it had been there before. Simone must have just gotten it in yesterday. I wish like anything it had been here before. I would have bought it for Ariel for Christmas.

Now Christmas is over, but I make up my mind right then and there to get it for her. She might be fifteen and an academic genius, but she’s still a girl. She loves whimsical things like that. I can’t think of a girl who would love it more. I can’t say anything in front of her, though.

Before I can move, David snorts. “Not the smartest move, I’d say.”

I look over my shoulder. “What isn’t?”

He nods at the store across the street. A man on a ladder lowers the Toy Store sign to the ground. Another, newer sign rests on the ground nearby. It reads, Something Old, Something New Antiques and Collectibles.

“What is he doing?” I mutter.

“It looks like he’s setting up another antique store,” Ariel observes.

“He’s setting up another antique store right across the street from the only established antique store for a hundred miles around.” David shakes his head and turns away. “That’s not what I call an astute business decision. He’s going to have a tough row to hoe if he hopes to steal Simone’s customers. She’s well-known around here and the tourists love her.”

We continue on our way to the deli and find it overflowing with visitors, too. People line up to wait their turn at the counter. All the tables are full and more people stand around outside sipping steaming cups of coffee and eating sandwiches out of the rappers.

David grimaces. “Why don’t you two wait out here? I’ll go inside and get our food.”

“I’ll go, Dad.” Ariel leaps forward. “I want to. You and Margaret need to catch up.”

She snatches his wallet out of his hand and scurries off to join the line. After she leaves, I eye David. “Do we need to catch up?”

“I don’t see why.” He bites back a smile. “You’re up to your eyeballs in customers and I’m sitting around with nothing to do.”

I scan the town. “These tourists sure are polite. You would think so many people would cause an increase in crime, but they don’t. This is my idea of utopia.”

“It couldn’t be utopia for a cop if no one is doing anything wrong,” he points out. “If this keeps up, I’ll be out of a job.”

I slip my arm through his. “We should be so lucky.”

He squeezes me against his body and smiles down at me. “She’s right about one thing. It’s been too long since we spent any time together. How about you come out to dinner with me tonight? I’ll make a reservation at Stacy’s so we’re certain to get a table.”

“All right. That sounds great. I need a break.”

“I’ll meet you at the store at closing time,” he tells me. “I’ll walk you home first and then we can go to the café.”

“Perfect.” 

I rise on my tiptoes to kiss him when Ariel comes dashing back. She shoves two cups of coffee into each of our hands. “Take these! I have to go back for the sandwiches.”

I sip my drink. David does the same. In a few seconds, Ariel returns with three sandwiches. We stand around eating. Clouds of steam billow from our mouths and noses in the crisp, icy air.

The whole assembly of deli customers outside radiates a jovial atmosphere to the crowded town. Strangers laugh and joke and swap ideas for spending their time exploring the area.

When I finish my sandwich, I throw the wrapper in the garbage can. “I should get back. Zack and Patty both need lunch breaks, too.”

We head down the street and meet Simone Peretti coming the other way. To my astonishment, she walks arm in arm with a tall, slim, dapper gentlemen dressed in a sporty tailored suit with no tie.

I see them before they see us. I can’t believe my eyes when Simone gazes up at the man and beams. I’ve never seen her smile like that. She almost looks like she’s in love with him, but I’ve never seen him before. He certainly doesn’t live in West End, but something is definitely going on between them.

She laughs and looks away. When she does, she spots me, David, and Ariel, and her eyes light up. “Margaret! David! You’re just the people I was hoping to meet. This is my best friend in the whole wide world, Christopher Partridge. He’s visiting for the holidays and staying with me at my house.”

Christopher’s cheeks glow when he smiles down at her. “It’s always a delight to spend time with you, my dear.”

Now that Simone explains their relationship, I can understand why these two best friends act like a smitten couple. They don’t need a romantic relationship to think the world of each other. Anybody can see that.

Simone steals a glance around me at the deli. “I can see no one is getting into that place anytime soon. The Happy-Go-Lucky café is just as busy, so we better go back to the house and make our own lunch, Christopher.”

“Your wish is my command, my dear,” he intones.

Simone blushes. She bats her eyelashes and shoots me a salacious grin. “Did you hear that, Margaret? My wish is his command!”

They hurry away laughing. Their voices ring down Main Street and out of sight. I blink after them in wonder. “Do I know that woman?”

“She certainly looks like she took a youth tonic overnight.” David continues walking. “He’s obviously good medicine for her.”

“I hardly recognize her.”

“Margaret!” Ariel jumps a foot in the air and whirls around to attack me. “Are you coming to the New Years Eve party? Please say you’ll come.”

“I don’t know about any New Years Eve party,” I tell her. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“There’s a big party on…..”

“Let me guess,” I cut in. “It’s on New Years Eve.”

She explodes in hysterical laughter. “Quit joking. It’s the celebration of the century. You just have to go.”

“I don’t know,” I hedge. “I don’t really do New Years Eve parties. I prefer to stay home and go to bed early. Staying up until midnight might be a good idea when you’re young and frisky, but when you get to be my age, a good night’s sleep is a much higher priority.”

“Oh, stop sounding like such an old curmudgeon, Margaret,” she scolds. “You have to come. Everyone will be there and I am NOT spending New Years Eve at home going to bed early. I have to go to bed early every night of my life. This is my one chance to stay up late and live a little. Come on. Please say you’ll go. There’s going to be bands on Main Street and food and fireworks and a big sparkling ball falling at the stroke of midnight and everything.”

I steal a peek at David. He studies his daughter’s profile. I can’t read his expression. I can’t tell if he’s admiring her or fearful of what she’s suggesting. Maybe it’s a combination of both.

“I think you better check with your dad on that.” That’s right, Margaret. Pass the buck. When in doubt, put the responsibility on someone else. “I was kind of hoping to have a quiet dinner party at home with family and friends. I was hoping you and your dad could come to that, and I want to invite my parents. They live in a retirement home in Hartford and they haven’t visited West End yet. They definitely won’t be able to stay up until midnight.”

Her eyes fly open and she gasps out loud. “You can do that before! You can have your dinner earlier in the evening and the old people can go to bed while the rest of us go off to the New Years Eve party in town. Come on, Margaret. Please! Zack and Gilly are going.”

I cock my head to stare at her. “How do you know that?”

“Gilly told me.”

I exchange another glance with David. “And you’re okay with this?”

He shrugs his shoulders. “It’s like she says. It’s one night out of the year. She’s so responsible about getting up in the morning for school the rest of the year. I figured why not? Let her live dangerously for a change. She’s only young once. You and I can fall asleep in our rocking chairs when she gets old enough to go to college.”

I burst into a happy grin. “All right. You talked me into it.”

“Yay!” Ariel bounces up and down and claps her hands. “Oh, thank you, Margaret! This is going to be the best New Years ever. You and I are going to plan this whole dinner and shop and everything!”

She bolts off down the street toward the candy store. David and I follow at a more dignified pace. I murmur to him under my breath watching her pirouette in circles. “She certainly seems to be settling into life in West End since her mother went to prison. Has she shown any signs of distress over it?”

He keeps his voice low with no inflection. “Not yet. I don’t think the reality has hit her yet. The novelty of coming to live with me full time in a new town with new people is still too interesting. Once school starts again and life settles down, that’s when she’ll realize it’s all too real. I wish it didn’t have to be that way. I wish she could stay happy forever.”

“Has she seen Pauline since the arrest?”

“She doesn’t want to,” he whispers. “Ariel says she never wants to see Pauline again after what she did. She keeps saying Pauline isn’t her mother. She says no one who did what she did could be her mother. I understand how she feels. I’m just trying to brace myself for the day Ariel decides she does want Pauline to be her mother again and she can’t have her because Pauline is in prison. I dread that day more than anything.”

I slide my hand through his arm one more time and give him a little squeeze. “I know what you mean, but you’re going to be a good parent to her. Pauline did a good job and now it’s your turn. I’m sure Ariel has nothing to complain about when it comes to your parenting.”

“Don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes, Margaret,” he mutters. “She’s a kid. She’ll always find something to complain about.”

I laugh in spite of myself. “You’re right.”

“I’m a single man who has never lived with anyone since my early twenties,” he goes on. “I couldn’t possibly do a better job that Pauline. She was a champion.”

“She had fifteen years of practice,” I remind him. “She raised Ariel from infancy, and I’m sure she made her share of mistakes along the way—before she wound up killing someone, I mean.”

He pats my arm. “Thank you for the vote of confidence. I really appreciate your support.”

We stop in front of the candy store and I turn to confront him. “Listen to me. You can’t screw this up. Trust me on this. Parenting is one screw-up after another. That’s the name of the game.”

“Then how do you say I can’t screw this up?”

“Because it doesn’t matter,” I tell him. “You’re going to screw up and it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you do your best and love her the best you can. The rest comes out in the wash. It always does. You won’t be perfect and she doesn’t need perfect. She just needs you to love her and to try your hardest, and you’re already doing that.”

He puts his arms around me and buries his freezing cold face in my warm neck. “Thank you.”

I wriggle away laughing. “Go on. I’ll see you tonight.”

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