Abby Shaw has returned to her hometown of Paradise, Colorado–leaving behind a career in corporate law and a cheating husband–to take over her aunt’s candy shop, Divinity. But her sweet new life quickly turns sour when a fellow merchant dies in a fire. With all clues pointing to arson–and Abby’s brother as the number one suspect–she must sink her teeth into finding the killer.
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“I swear, darlin’,” Brandon Mills said in a sexy Texas drawl edged with sugar, “this fudge of yours is going to turn me into a butterball.”
I looked up from the marble counter and took in the fine sight of him leaning against the glass counter. All around us glass jars filled with an endless variety of confections winked in the brilliant Colorado sunshine. I’d only been back for nine months and running Divinity for six, and I still had to pinch myself sometimes to prove I was here at all.
This afternoon was one of those times.
Brandon looked deep into my eyes—I mean deep–and I, nearly forty and arguably intelligent, went weak in the knees. He’s probably mid-forties, tall, dark, and incredibly handsome, and I defy any normal, red-blooded American woman to maintain her composure when he’s around.
When he realized that he had my full attention, he tossed off a heart-stopping grin that almost made me believe he meant something by it. I knew better, of course. I hadn’t known Brandon long, but it had only taken me a few minutes to peg him as a playboy. Since coming back to Paradise, I’d watched a handful of women flit through his life, and I’d come to the regrettable decision that Brandon had about as much staying power in a relationship as cotton candy.
Too bad. He really was something to look at.
With a sigh, I tried to pull my mind back to business. We were alone in the store that afternoon since my part-time sales clerk, who also happens to be my cousin, was off taking care of real-life problems. It was mid-September, so tourist season had already tapered off and there wasn’t a single customer browsing Divinity for a tasty morsel to sweeten their day.
That made Brandon even more flirtatious than usual.
I didn’t want him to guess how deeply that penetrating gaze of his affected me, so I did what I could to look irritated. “That fudge of mine is still a little too soft,” I said, turning away from that full-on gaze, “I just can’t figure out what I did wrong.”
“Not a damn thing as far as I’m concerned.” Slowly, and wearing a deliberately teasing grin, he licked chocolate from his fingertips and ran a slow glance along the length of me. He was standing in the spill of autumn sunlight coming in through the front windows, perfectly framed by a nine-pane window and sheer granite mountain peaks. “It’s perfect, just like the woman who made it.”
He could have gone all day without using that word. It makes me uneasy. Scowling slightly, I turned away to pull a new box of tissue paper from the supply cupboard. In the past year, I’d watched my “perfect” husband take up with another woman, my “perfect” marriage fall apart, and my “perfect” life unravel right in front of my eyes. Not my favorite word, no matter who says it.
“I’m not perfect,” I protested. “Nobody is.”
“Close enough.” Stepping away from the counter, Brandon snagged one of the wrought-iron chairs from the seating area and straddled it. “You’re working too hard, Abby love. Why don’t you leave all this and come away with me?”
I had been working hard ever since Aunt Grace’s death six months earlier. Actually, Grace was my mother’s aunt, and I still hadn’t been able to figure out why she left Divinity to me in her will. Sure, I’d worked with Grade when I was a kid, but so had most of the other cousins, and some of them seemed more obvious choices than me. But I was the one Aunt Grace chose, and so far nobody had done much more than mutter about her decision.
“So how about it?” Brandon asked.
I arched a skeptical eyebrow. “Away where?”
“Oh, I don’t know. How about Rye-T On for a sandwich? I’ll bet five dollars you haven’t had lunch yet.”
“You’d win that bet,” I said with a reluctant smile, “but no thanks. You know, you’re lucky I’m not some dewy eyed young thing with romantic dreams. Another sort of woman might expect ‘going away’ to mean more than walking twenty feet down the sidewalk.”
His expression sobered and that lazy bedroom look in his eyes made me think about things I probably shouldn’t. “Well, now, for you, darlin’, lunch would be just the beginning.”
My thoughts were definitely moving into dangerous territory now. Anticipation tingled all through me, but I didn’t want him to know that. “Really?” I said, doing my best to sound bored. “What comes next? Dinner at McDonald’s?”
“Not for you, Abby. You deserve better.”
He sounded serious, so I stole another glance at him. He flashed a grin and reached for another piece of fudge. Oh yeah, he knew the effect he had on women, and he used it to his advantage. I just didn’t understand why he was using it on me.
I didn’t know why I was responding, either. Suddenly irritated with myself, I slapped his hand away. “I asked you to taste it,” I snapped, “not eat the entire batch single-handedly.”
“Come and have lunch with me, and I’ll stop eating.”
“Tempting . . .,” I said aloud this time. “But no. I have way too much to do.”
“Do it later.”
That’s another problem with Brandon. No sense of responsibility. “I can’t,” I said. “I still have to put together those sample gift baskets basket before six. Come to think of it, I’m sure there are things you should be doing before the meeting, too.”
He gave another lazy-shouldered shrug. “Nothing special. I left Chelsea in charge of the store for a while and Lucas is there with her. It’ll be fine.”
“You hope.” Chelsea isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Unfortunately, I think Brandon’s the only person on earth who doesn’t realize that. He’s protective of her for reasons I don’t completely understand, and that means it’s best to tread cautiously when talking about her. Steering away from that topic, I asked, “So you’re all ready for the meeting then?”
For the first time that afternoon, Brandon’s expression grew serious. For weeks he’d been wrangling with the city council and the Downtown Merchants Alliance over the changes he’d proposed to the city’s annual Arts Festival. His motion included expanding the festival from two days to four and moving the whole thing to the center of town, but his ideas had stirred up a controversy that had split the town in two.
Thanks to Aunt Grace’s sense of style or of the dramatic, Divinity occupies a graceful old building that dates back to the earliest days of Paradise’s history. Originally the territorial jail, the building is filled with enough cubby holes, nooks and crannies to stir anyone’s imagination. The store and kitchen take up the entire first floor. Storage rooms and a large, airy meeting room—a courtroom during much of the nineteenth century—occupy the second level, and my apartment is on the third floor. I’d offered that second-floor meeting room for tonight’s meeting, and I still wasn’t ready for the crowd I was sure we’d have.
If we were lucky, we’d sway enough of the Alliance to make a difference at the next City Council meeting. I had another reason for wanting the meeting here. In a couple of weeks, the counsel would be voting on whether to renew the long-standing contract between Divinity and the city that allowed us to provide gift baskets for visiting dignitaries.
The contract had been nothing special when I was a kid, but we were garnering a fair share of overspill traffic from Vail and Aspen these days, and Divinity needed the exposure. If Aunt Grace were still alive, contract renewal wouldn’t even be a question. But she was gone, and I’d been out of the candy business too long. People considered me an unknown quantity. I guess I was.
Business had dropped off sharply right after Aunt Grace’s heart attack and I was desperate to build our clientele up again. Maybe people were skeptical about me. Maybe they thought I needed time to mourn—which I did—but I also needed an income.
In response to my question, Brandon shrugged. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
Considering how much he had at stake, his answer seemed oddly indifferent. “Yeah?” I said. “Well, I’m not. I haven’t had time to set up the chairs for the meeting. Even if I was ready to run away with you, I couldn’t do it.”
Brandon’s scowl faded and a teasing light danced in eyes the color of Aunt Grace’s blue Depression-glass candy dish. “Come on, Abby. Screw the city council. Divinity has always made VIP gift baskets, and anybody with a head knows that. Those short-sighted jerks have no business making you beg for the job.”
I tossed him a modest smile and arranged a few toffee squares in a box. “First of all,” I said, just to set the record straight, “I’m not begging. And Aunt Grace always made the gift baskets, but I’ve never done it before. If the council members want to make sure the quality of our candy hasn’t slipped since I took over, I really can’t object.”
Brandon growled in protest. “Most of the City Council members are idiots, and the ones who aren’t stupid are dangerous.” I would have argued with him, but he held up a hand to stop me. “Admit it. Kasie McGuire doesn’t like anything, and Sherm Hitchcock won’t breathe unless she tells him to.”
I certainly couldn’t argue with that. I couldn’t figure out how Kasie, who probably wouldn’t recognize the truth if she fell over it, had ended up in a position of authority. And Squirrelly Sherm? I was surprised the guy had guts enough to run for office.
“Yeah,” I said grudgingly, “but they’re not the only two who’ll be voting.”
“Don’t tell them that. Kasie’s convinced she’s the Queen of Paradise. If you don’t believe me, just look into her eyes some time when you’re talking to her.”
I couldn’t argue with that either. “It’s not Kasie I’m worried about,” I told him. “It’s Laura Applewood. She can be pretty persuasive when she puts her mind to it.”
“Putting her mind to anything doesn’t happen very often.” Brandon rested both arms on the chair’s back and tilted it onto two legs. “You’ll keep the gift basket contract, so try not to worry so much. The Arts Festival—? That one I don’t know about.”
“Some of the council members think expanding the Festival is a good idea,” I said, trying to sound encouraging. “And half the Downtown Alliance agrees.”
“That’s because some of you have brains. I don’t know what the rest of them think with, but I could take a guess. Old-fashioned thinking is going to kill this town, Abby. You know that as well as I do.”
I happened to agree with him, but plenty of people didn’t. My brother Wyatt is a prime example. If you ask Wyatt, expansion is going to kill the town. He avoids new, trendy restaurants and refuses to shop in any of the specialty stores that have sprung up in the past few years. He still gets his coffee at Sid’s out on Highway 91, and he grumbles almost constantly about having newcomers underfoot.
Wyatt and Brandon have tussled a couple of times over their differences at town meetings, but I think Wyatt objects to Brandon more than he does his ideas. I’m not sure why he dislikes Brandon, but I haven’t asked. Some subjects are better left alone.
“If the council members hear you talking about them like that,” I said, turning away and pulling another stack of gift boxes from the cupboard, “you’ll lose votes for sure.”
Instead of looking worried, Brandon pitched another of his traffic-stopping grins. “What are you saying, Abby? You think I need to change my approach?”
That smile made me wonder—briefly—if I was really so smart for keeping him at arms’ length. But flattering as the attention was, I wasn’t stupid. My five minutes at the top of the list would be over soon. I couldn’t afford to forget that. “I don’t think that changing your approach would hurt anything.”
“You want me to play nice, is that it?”
“I just think that if expanding the festival is as important as you say, it’s not exactly smart to antagonize the people who’ll make the decision.”
“So you want me to kiss ass.”
“Actually, I was thinking of something sort of in-between kissing up and in-your-face.”
With a laugh, Brandon let the chair fall down on all four legs again. “Not in this lifetime, darlin’. In-your-face is the only thing some of the people in this town will listen to.”
He was probably right. Paradise is an odd combination of old and new, and nobody ever seems to agree on exactly what we are or what we want to be. Half the folks in town share Wyatt’s opinion about the changes taking place, but most of those changes have been good for the town and the people in it.
We’re an old mining community, but that industry died out a long time ago. New businesses springing up all over have helped stabilize our tax base, but unlike some of the more popular neighboring towns, we haven’t reached the level where long-time residents can’t afford to keep their homes.
In his own way, Brandon is a lot like Paradise. He’s a successful businessman–at least by Paradise standards–and he usually dresses as if he’s ready to hob-nob with the rich and famous. On the other side of the coin, he talks as if he has to scrape manure from the soles of his designer boots. Adding to his image is Max, the Doberman pinscher who’s Brandon’s best friend and the inventory retrieval specialist for the men’s clothing store Brandon owns. Brandon likes to brag that he’ll never need an expensive security system at Man About Town with Max around, and he’s probably right.
At that moment, Max was laying on the sidewalk outside the front door of my shop, enjoying the late September sunshine. Ever alert, he kept his head up, and his ears twitched as shoppers and local business people passed him by. Most of the locals were used to Max, but occasionally someone would cross the road to avoid him and Brandon never ceased to find that amusing.
I slipped a small piece of almond toffee onto a scrap of tissue paper, nudged it in Brandon’s direction, and began moving the remaining squares into trays for that night’s meeting. “If you play your cards right, everything will be decided at the meeting tonight.”
Grinning a thank-you, Brandon shifted the candy to his table. “Everything will be decided whether I play my cards right or not. People have been dragging their feet long enough. The festival is just six months away. If we’re going to change we need to decide now.”
“For the record, I agree with you. I just think you’d be smart to back off a little. Don’t hit people over the head with it all the time. Inspire them to see things your way. And maybe stop calling them idiots in public.” I closed a box and slapped a gold-edged Divinity label on it as a seal. “You might even consider acting as if you’re taking their opinions seriously.”
The bell over the door tinkled and the Gilbert sisters, two elderly ladies with nearly identical heads of silver hair came into the store, catching Brandon’s attention momentarily. When he looked back at me, his face was expressionless. “You know what they say about opinions,” he said. “They’re like—”
The sisters are devout Christians who carry their Bibles everywhere they go. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t appreciate the end of that thought so I interrupted quickly. “I know what they’re like. Everybody has one. All I’m saying is you’d probably have fewer problems if you exercised a little more tact.”
Grinning as if the Arts Festival and its detractors didn’t matter, Brandon stood and leaned across the counter, close enough that I could smell the faint hint of toothpaste and chocolate on his breath. Close enough to send a faint shiver of something I hadn’t felt more than a handful of times in the past few years running up my spine.
“I’m not worried about it, darlin’,” he whispered. “Nobody ever takes me seriously.”
There was a hint of something I couldn’t read in his eyes, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to delve that deeply into his psyche. I might get caught there. “I hope not,” I whispered back, “for your sake.”
He pulled away and looked down at me from nearly a foot above. If I hadn’t grown up with a brother, I might have felt a little intimidated. “My head’s on straight, Abby. Don’t you worry about that. I know what I want and I know how to get it.” He raked a long, slow gaze across my face and his expression grew serious. “Speaking of what I want, how ‘bout you and me spend a little time together after the meeting?”
The invitation surprised me, but I can’t say it didn’t please me. I’m five-five and packing more on my hips and thighs than I’d like. Half the time my cocoa-brown hair looks like somebody ran over it with a lawnmower and my wardrobe doesn’t qualify as any kind of chic–but in that moment, I felt beautiful.
To give my heart a chance to slide back out of my throat, I swiped at the counter and tossed the cloth into the sink behind me. “Why Brandon Mills,” I said when I trusted myself to speak, “if I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were asking me on a date.”
The grin on his face was deliciously wicked. “Yes ma’am. I was thinking about dinner at Romano’s. How does that sound to you?”
Was he kidding? Romano’s is one of the best restaurants in town, and by far one of the most expensive. I could exist happily for weeks on their penne pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts. Every excuse for keeping the relationship platonic flew right out of my head. I grinned right back while mentally diving through my closet for something to wear. “I think I could handle that.”
“Then I’ll see you at six-forty-five.” He chucked me under the chin on his way out the door, and I stood there wearing a goofy grin until one of the silver-haired sisters drifted toward me with a question.
I’d had a couple of unsatisfactory relationships before my marriage, and a pretty rotten relationship during my marriage. I know from experience that a good chin-chuck delivered with meaning has it all over a dozen roses delivered out of resentment or duty.
When I realized that Miss Lily was looking at me strangely, I pulled my attention away from the fine sight of Brandon Mills leaving my store and struggled to remember everything Aunt Grace had taught me about fruit jellies.
I had three hours to wait until closing, four until the meeting, and one of the longest afternoons of my life stretching out in front of me. I just wish I’d known what was to come. If I had, maybe I’d have spent another thirty seconds of it watching Brandon and Max walk away.
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