Sunday, November 09, 2008
Fudge-Laced Felonies - Cynthia Hickey
By Cynthia Hickey
Genre cozy mystery
Published date July 2008
Where it can be purchased From Barbour at 1-800-847-8270 or through retail at the end of 2008
Summer Meadows entered church on Sunday, not to find God, but to search for a killer.
I marched into church on Sunday--not to search for God but to find a killer.
My prey stood in the corner of the foyer, lurking in the shadows. With narrowed eyes, I intended to face him. Instead, the delicious aroma of coffee wafted in the air, beckoning me like a siren’s song. I glared at the one I pursued just long enough to let him know I meant business, and switched my course across the tiled narthex of the large church to the fellowship wing. I needed caffeinated reinforcement before confronting the villain.
“Good morning, Summer.” The barista, Susan, smiled and slid an ice-cold mocha- flavored concoction into my waiting hands. “Thought you were going to pass us by.”
“Not a chance.” I nodded toward a man behind her. His back was turned, giving me a clear view of dark blue jeans beneath a navy apron. “Who’s the new guy?”
Susan shrugged. “Nate something. I can’t remember. He was here this morning when I got in. Seems like a nice enough kind of guy. Quiet.” She winked. “Very handsome.”
“Not interested.” Pursing my lips around the straw, I closed my eyes, giving in to the sheer bliss of the drink. Immediately, the coffee seized my brain in a painful grip of ice. My eyes shot open.
Susan smiled. “I’ve told you a thousand times not to gulp it.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger. Pressure released, I turned, focusing again on the man I’d come to confront.
“Leave him alone, Summer.” Susan handed me a napkin.
What? Did everyone know what he’d done?
“You’re glaring at Ethan like you want to put a hole through him.”
“He’s a murderer, and I intend to see justice served.” Righteous indignation rose in my chest, and my face grew warm. My fair skin probably burned as scarlet as a summer sunset. I ducked my head and took another long suck on the straw, drawing strength from the frozen coffee.
Ethan Banning, murderer extraordinaire—looking as fine as Adonis in khaki pants and a baby-blue polo shirt—emerged for his routine of greeting the arriving parishioners. A wide, white-tooth smile, and dimples you could drown in had probably sent many a woman’s heart into palpitations. I steeled myself to resist his charms as I approached him.
“Good morning, Summer.” His deep voice rolled over me like faraway thunder on a spring day.
With tremendous willpower, I forced myself not to fall into his deep blue eyes and, instead, focused on a spot over his shoulder. Big mistake. He stepped closer, and I caught a whiff of some heavenly man cologne.
“It’s not a good morning, Ethan.” I stepped. “You’re a murderer.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “I can’t believe the people of this church trust their youth to you. I’ll never allow you to care for any of my children.”
“Got your Irish dander up again, don’t you?” Ethan laughed. “You don’t have any children.”
I met his gaze. The drink in my hand sweated, the condensation running down my arm. “Well, if I did, I. . .”
Taking hold of my arm, Ethan pulled me away from the throng of people. “I’m sorry I killed your rose bush, Summer, but I did warn you I don’t have a green thumb.”
“But you’re a teacher, Ethan. I trusted you.”
“I’m not a gardener.” He dropped his hand. “Why aren’t you at the child check booth?”
“It’s my month off.” I felt a stab of pity at the frustrated look on his face.
“Look. We’ll go by the nursery after church and I’ll buy you another rose bush. Meet me out front.”
“The Midnight Blue? They’re hard to find. And expensive.”
“Yes. Whatever you want.” He turned to smile at a middle-aged woman. “Good morning, Mrs. Parker. How are you this beautiful, sunny day?”
“Oh, I’m fine, Ethan. Now that my son has come home.”
They released Duane from prison? I racked my brain trying to remember the boy I’d gone to school with. The boy I’d rejected as a prom date. Then, he’d been sent to prison for assault and I’d counted my blessings for not getting hooked up him. Ethan took the woman’s arm, said something soft, and stepped away. The sun, once streaming through the large front windows, hid behind a cloud, casting me in shadow.
With a sigh, I flounced past Ethan to attend the second morning service, faltering as he called to me. “Pay close attention to this morning’s sermon, Summer. It’s on forgiveness.” At the sound of Ethan’s laughter rumbling across the foyer, my spine stiffened.
Sitting in the pew, I tried to focus on the pastor’s words, but images of my shriveled rose bush wouldn’t go away. I’d only been gone for three days! How could anyone kill a thriving plant in three days?
I gazed at the stained glass windows. One in particular grabbed my attention. The Rose of Sharon. I closed my eyes in mental anguish, letting my head fall back upon the pew. I took the hard thunk of skull meeting wood as a sign of God telling me to pay attention. Straightening, I refocused my thoughts on the pastor’s words.
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Flipping in my Bible to Mark 11:25, I reread the words and groaned inwardly. I wasn’t ready to forgive Ethan. I’d loved that rose bush. Well, I loved it as much as anyone can love an inanimate object and I’d had high hopes.
Once I’d decided to grow flowers for the town’s annual rose festival, I searched for the perfect one. I’d special ordered the Midnight Blue. I waited weeks for it to arrive. Hopefully, Uncle Roy’s nursery ordered more than one. The exhibit loomed, now only months away.
I’m sorry, Lord. Thank You for Your words. I’ll do better. I will. I forgive Ethan—but he’d better buy another rose bush.
True to his word, Ethan waited in front of the church, truck door held gallantly open. “We’ll pick your car up later.” He waved a hand in the air as he barked his order.
“Why can’t we take it now?” The wind blew beneath the flirty skirt I wore, causing me to yelp. I struggled to hold the garment in place and not expose my assets to the man I least desired to embarrass myself in front of. Being the gentleman he is, Ethan turned his head, but not before he smirked.
“It’ll be easier if we take my truck. We’ll have somewhere to put the bush.” He closed the door and loped to the driver’s side. “How’s the business going? Ready to open?”
“Fine.” I smoothed the skirt into place over my bird legs. At least they weren’t fat, as my aunt always told me. “Aunt Eunice and I are doing a good job of marketing. I expect a prosperous opening day.”
“Really? That’s great.” He drove around the parking lot, too slow for my taste, stopping to greet and wish good day to everyone they passed. “Is there much money in chocolate?”
“Not just chocolate, Ethan.” How could someone so handsome be so dense? “Hand-dipped candies made with the finest ingredients.”
“Don’t get testy.” He steered onto the street. “I’m just making conversation.”
“I think you deliberately antagonize me. You’ve done it since we were in grade school.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “But it’s so much fun. Why do you try to disguise your red hair? Cause with that temper of yours. . .”
I pulled my hair over my shoulder, admiring the rich auburn color that came only from a bottle. “Don’t tease me about my orange hair.”
“Your hair isn’t orange. A beautiful red laced with gold. Like molten lava.”
“Oh, and now you’re a poet?” I smirked, tossing my hair over my shoulder.
It didn’t take long to drive across Mountain Shadows, Arkansas. Population, 27,000. Fifteen minutes after leaving church, Ethan pulled into the parking lot of the only garden nursery in the country city.
I sat with my back ramrod straight and waited for Ethan to open my door. I expected him to treat me like the lady I knew myself to be. I smoothed the crisp cotton of the white skirt over my thighs.
“My lady.” Ethan flung the door open and bowed.
How does he do that? The man always seems to know what I’m thinking. “Thank you.” I stepped primly from the truck, nose in the air. My foot sank into a hole. I cried out as I toppled off my high heel and clutched at Ethan.
He grabbed my arm. “You okay? You should really watch where you’re going, Summer. That pothole was clearly visible.”
“I’m fine.” Yanking my arm free, I limped past him with a throbbing ankle, and preceded him through the wrought iron gates of the nursery. His laughter didn’t improve my mood.
“Buying another bush already, Summer?” Roy Meadows, my uncle and owner of the nursery, wiped his hands on the thighs of his coveralls.
“I have to. Ethan killed the poor thing. While you, me, and Aunt Eunice were in Branson. Didn’t you see it this morning when you left the house? Please tell me you have another Midnight Blue.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” He held a soil-encrusted hand out to Ethan. “Sounds like you’re in hot water, mister.”
Ethan didn’t seem to notice the dirt beneath my uncle’s fingernails. He returned the hearty handshake. “I sure am. I’ll be paying for the new bush for a long time to come. And I’m not talking about money.”
Roy laughed. “Yep. That’s my Summer. She may be beautiful, but her tongue is as sharp as a brand new garden hoe. She might just be the sassiest girl in these Ozark foothills.”
“If y’all are finished ridiculing me, we really need to get this rose bush planted sometime today.” I did enjoy a moment of pleasure when he called me beautiful, and glanced at Ethan to see whether he’d noticed my uncle’s flattery for his only niece. Apparently, he didn’t. The two men set off without me.
Regretting my choice of footwear for the second time that day, I limped after them, stepping over stretched hoses and hobbling around garden tools. My uncle wasn’t organized.
A man stepped from behind a tool shed and wiped his hands on the front of his navy cover-alls. I recognized the bully from high school. He couldn’t hide behind a bushy dark beard.
“Duane!” My uncle waved him over. “You remember my niece Summer, don’t you?” Duane nodded without smiling.
Uncle Roy turned back to Ethan and I. “Duane’s working for me now. Good worker. Doesn’t talk much, keeps to himself…Lives in the trailer park down by the railroad tracks. You know the one. Not too far from our place. You’ve probably heard him whistling as he takes his nightly walks.” Sometimes Uncle Roy started talking and rambled on and on. Why couldn’t he just get to the Midnight Blue? “Ah, here she is.” He pointed to a five-gallon bucket of lush emerald leaves.
“Yay!” I clapped my hands together. “Let’s get her loaded in Ethan’s truck.”
The men looked at me as if I’d turned green.
“Let’s? You plan on helping, sweetie?” My uncle turned to me, his brow furrowed. “Cause it’ll be the first time. Or I could send Duane over?”
“I planted the last bush, Uncle Roy.” My cheeks burned with such intensity, they hurt. Along with my bruised feelings. “I’ve planted all my rose bushes myself. I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty.”
Uncle Roy winked at Ethan. “She wears a pair of pink gardening gloves and she has these flowered overalls.” He shook his head. “I haven’t the faintest idea where she gets that stuff. But she makes a purty picture.”
I rolled my eyes and folded my arms across my chest. From now on, getting my own place was going to be a priority.
“Okay, Summer, we’ll get going.” Ethan’s arms bulged beneath his polo shirt as he hefted the bucket onto a nearby dolly. “I’d like to enjoy some of my Sunday.”
“I do appreciate this,” I told him. “I can plant the bush myself if you have other things to do.” Please say you’ll plant it. Don’t leave so soon.
“I’ll plant it. After all, I was responsible for its predecessor’s death.” My heart leaped with the abandon of a young colt.
Two minutes later, Ethan pulled into the driveway, crunching gravel. I swung open the truck door and slid from the seat. “I’ll pour us some cold drinks.”
As I limped up the porch steps and unlocked the door, I glanced back. Ethan was dragging the rose bush from the truck bed. The sun shone on his head, highlighting his blond curls with a halo. I sighed from the sheer beauty of the picture he made then opened the door.
The scraping of the shovel along with gentle thuds of dirt hitting the ground floated through the open kitchen window. I peeked out and caught a glance at the back of Ethan’s head as he stretched, his hands braced against his lower back.
“I’ll be right out!” I poured soda into a plastic tumbler. Pushing open the screen door, I stepped into the afternoon sun. My cairn terrier, Truly Scrumptious, squeezed past my legs and shot into the yard.
Hunkered beside the freshly dug hole, Ethan stared up at me as I walked out. “Summer, you need to see this.”
“Uh.” He ran a dirty hand through his curls. “I didn’t kill your bush. Something clogged the drip line. The bush died of thirst. Take a look.”
I peered into the dirt. The forgotten tumblers containing our drinks slipped from my hands. Sticky soda splattered my ankles. About a foot down, a black velvet bag lay open.
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