Chocolate Dipped Death

There’s no use sugar-coating it—no one in Paradise can stand Savannah Horne. The former local girl is now the trophy wife of a ridiculously wealthy businessman. And she’s swept back into town just in time to enter Divinity’s Tenth Annual Confectionary Competition—and stir up trouble. But some poisoned bon-bons will guarantee that Savannah won’t make it out of Paradise alive, trapping Abby in an extremely sticky situation…

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 CHAPTER ONE

“I can’t believe she had the nerve to show up.” My cousin Karen kept her eyes riveted on the dark-haired woman across the room and shoved an empty tray in my general direction. It teetered precariously on the edge of the table and would have fallen if I hadn’t snatched it away from her. “What is she doing here, anyway?”

I slid the tray onto a shelf beneath the flowing white tablecloth that hid extra containers of candy, score sheets, programs, and the other necessary but unattractive supplies for running a three-day candy-making competition. I’d been up since five that morning and running non-stop all day as I dealt with a litany of questions, complaints and problems. I was in no mood for trouble now.

Somehow we’d managed to turn the drab second-floor meeting room of Divinity into a thing of beauty. Swaths of flowing fabric draped the walls. Crisp white cloths covered tables in the judging and staging areas. Silver trays loaded with specialty candies nestled among pine boughs and the burgundy velvet bows Karen and I had stayed awake most of one night to make. I was proud of what we’d achieved.

Even the weather was cooperating. Snow falling outside the windows added just the right touch on a January night. I just hoped no one snooped around behind the scenes where piles of raw wood and construction equipment had been left behind by my brother and his friends after they rebuilt the stairs to my third floor apartment.

The look on Karen’s face made nervous tension knot between my shoulders and shot a big fat hole in my satisfaction with a job well done. This might be the Tenth Annual Confectionary Competition for Divinity, the candy store I’d inherited a few months earlier, but it was the first time around the block for me. I was nervous as a cat and desperate for the weekend to go well. Karen was my only help, the one person who could provide the continuity and history the contest needed. I needed her to stay focused.

I gazed around the room, checking the judges, heads together as they debated their final decision, then moving on to the contestants who waited anxiously for the announcement. The winner of tonight’s round would be one-third of the way toward scoring the grand prize on the final night—five hundred dollars in prize money and a month in the featured candy spot at Divinity, not to mention a lovely engraved plaque. It wasn’t the largest or most prestigious prize in the world, but the ladies who entered the contest every year competed for it fiercely.

Satisfied that everything was going well, I tried to divert Karen’s attention away from the woman she’d been glaring at all night. “Does everyone know what time to be here tomorrow?”

“Of course.” Karen brushed an auburn curl from her forehead, but it fell right back into place. “I told everybody—even people I shouldn’t have.”

There was no mistaking who she meant, but I ignored the bait and arranged a few pieces of almond bark on a silver tray. “Good. Just as long as every one of the contestants knows, I’m happy.”

“Well, I’m not.” Karen shoved her hands into the pocket of her apron and planted herself directly in front of me. Karen’s a few years younger than my own thirty-nine, and she’s never been afraid of a fight. She’s also skinny as a rail—something I think is unnatural on a candymaker. “You shouldn’t have let Savannah Vance enter the contest, Abby. There’s going to be trouble.”

I’d gone to high school with Savannah way back when. She’d been Vance then, but her married name was Horne, and she’d made it very clear that she wanted me to use it. I’ll admit she’s never been my favorite person. But twenty years have passed since we knew each other, so I gave a casual shrug and looked away. “Her registration fee is as good as anyone else’s.”

“Yeah. Right.” Karen laughed through her nose and narrowed her eyes. “Savannah doesn’t compete. She just takes whatever she wants. She’s up to no good, Abby. Mark my words.”

“Let’s not borrow trouble, okay?” I smiled and turned away to continue my inventory. To my relief, most of the silver candy trays were still reasonably full, and the candy bouquets I’d settled in strategic spots, hoping to convince people that they were an acceptable alternative to traditional flowers on special occasions, seemed to be generating some interest.

So far, so good.

When I turned back, it was painfully obvious that Karen wasn’t going to give up, so I reluctantly dragged myself back to the conversation. “Maybe Savannah was like that in school,” I said, “but that was twenty years ago. People change.”

Karen ran a judgmental glance across Savannah’s tall, willowy figure and scooped a peppermint crunch from the candy dish at her side. “No they don’t. Especially not people like her.”

It wasn’t like Karen to be so negative. “How can you be so sure?” I asked. “You haven’t even seen her in how long?”

“Not long enough.”

“And you told me yourself that you didn’t even speak to her last time she was in town.”

Karen’s brows knit in a deep scowl. “So what’s your point?”

“That maybe she’s doing exactly what she told us she’s doing. Maybe she came to see her sister and settle her mother’s estate, and maybe she just wants a diversion while she’s in town. Can we please stay focused on what’s important here?”

“This is important,” Karen said with a curl of her lip. “It’s the middle of ski season. There are plenty of other diversions Savannah could find if that’s what she wanted.”

Her bitterness surprised me. “What do you have against Savannah, anyway?”

Karen rolled her gaze toward me. “You want the whole list, or just the top ten things?”

“One would do.”

“Okay. Fine. I don’t like her because she’s selfish. She always has been. No matter what’s going on, no matter who else is involved, it’s always all about her. What could she possibly want from this competition?”

“How about recognition?”

“As the best candymaker in Paradise? Don’t make me laugh.”

Savannah swept past us, then past Evie Rice on her way to the judging table. Neither of us missed the venomous look on Evie’s face as Savannah placed her dish in front of the judging panel. “Did you see that?” Karen whispered. “If looks could kill, nobody would have to worry about Savannah Horne.”

“That’s not funny,” I whispered back. I shoved a tray full of peanut clusters into Karen’s empty hands and tried to put a stop to the conversation. “Take that over to table three, and then check with the judges to make sure they have everything they need. “and no more about Savannah Horne. I have enough to worry about this weekend without borrowing trouble. If Savannah wants something besides a plaque at the end of the competition, I don’t want to know about it.”

“You only say that because you don’t have a husband,” Karen muttered. “If Roger was here with you, you’d be worried.”

Her comment froze me in my tracks. So that was it? Karen thought Savannah was still interested in Sergio after all these years? Thank goodness it was nothing more serious than that.

There’s no tactful way to tell a woman that her husband isn’t the stud he used to be, so I didn’t even try. “I’m sure I would be worried if Roger were here. He wasn’t exactly the faithful type, remember? That’s why we’re divorced.” She started to speak, but I cut her off. “Look, I know you have reasons to dislike Savannah. I’m sure a lot of people do. But none of that has anything to do with tonight’s competition.”

When Karen scowled doubtfully, I nodded toward Miles Horne, who watched from the other side of the room. He was a tall man with broad shoulders, thick legs, and a naturally grim expression.

He wore an impeccably tailored suit and a pair of polished leather loafers, and he dangled the keys to his BMW from one finger—either thoughtlessly comfortable with his own affluence, or making sure the rest of us saw how well Savannah had done for herself. “She’s married,” I said, “and she seems happy. So please, just let it go, okay? Help me get through this weekend and you can go back to hating her on Monday morning.”

Karen’s lips curved into a grudging smile. “By then, it might be too late.”

I locked eyes with her. “Sergio loves you, Karen. He may have wandered that one time before you were even dating seriously, but you have nothing to worry about now.” I paused to let that sink in, then tried once more to draw her attention to what really mattered. “Don’t forget to check on the judges. They’ll be announcing tonight’s finalists in a few minutes and I want to make sure everything goes smoothly.”

Karen actually looked as if she might refuse, but before she could, a shrill cry went up from the other side of the room. The buzz of excited voices rose, and folks standing nearby surged toward the sound. I met Karen’s shocked gaze a split second before we both sprang into action.

Praying that no one had been hurt, I slipped out from behind the serving table just as a wild-eyed Rachel Summers, owner of the candle shop a few doors away, burst through the crowd and waved Karen and me over. “You’d better get in there,” she warned as we closed the distance between us. “I swear one of those women is going to kill the other.”

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Savannah and Evie,” Rachel said, sharing a knowing glance with Karen. “Who else? I knew there’d be trouble the minute I saw Savannah walk through that door. You never should have let her register, Abby. She’s going to ruin everything.”

I was beginning to think she and Karen were right, but how could I have known? Most people don’t drag childhood rivalries with them into middle age. At least, I don’t think they do. Savannah and Evie were certainly putting that assumption to the test.

They’d been rivals in almost everything since junior high, and maybe even earlier than that. I distinctly remember them going nose-to-nose over which one got to do their seventh-grade research paper on France. And who could ever forget the war over first violin position in eighth-grade orchestra? Apparently, their rivalry was still going strong two decades later, and Divinity was about to become just another in a long line of battlegrounds.

Determined to regain control of the evening, I pasted on a smile and waded through the crowd. Savannah is tall, full-bosomed, and curvaceous in a way that appeals to men. She’s probably a few pounds heavier than she was back in high school, but the extra inches haven’t dulled her appeal. She still wears her dark hair long and loose, her blouses low and tight. Even in the middle of January, she was showing an ample amount of cleavage, and you had only to look at the sparkle in the eyes of men around her to know they’d noticed.

I didn’t want to encourage Karen by admitting my own feelings, but Savannah has always been more trouble than she’s worth. The fact that she’d driven all the way from Gunnison to compete for a prize she couldn’t possibly want was typical Savannah. I didn’t blame Evie for challenging her. I just wished that she’d choose somewhere else to do it.

I found Evie red as a fireball, breathing heavily, and waving a pink scoring sheet under the judges’ noses.  She stands barely five feet tall, and her blond hair hasn’t begun to show even a hint of gray. She’s maintained her teenage cheerleader figure by religious use of a membership at the Paradise Health Club, but she’s always been a more wholesome type than Savannah. Evie’s the kind of girl boys took home to meet their mothers. Savannah’s the kind they hid in the back seats of their cars.

One of the judges looked up as I approached and the clear relief on her face brought Evie around to pounce on me. “Something has to be done about this,” she shouted, as she wagged the scoring sheet at me. “It’s a travesty.”

“You’re making a fool out of yourself,” Savannah grumbled before I could get a word out.  “Why can’t you just accept the fact that the judges prefer my entry to yours?”

“All three judges sat stone-still behind the judging table. Beverly Lembeck, the judge whose round face had most recently been threatened by the score-card, rose to her feet and glowered at Evie. “This is most unprofessional—” she said, but the rest of her protest was lost in another wail from Evie.

Under the watchful gaze of his wife, Henry Stokes—judge number two and owner of the Edelweiss Bakery—struggled not to look at Savannah’s cleavage. Marshall Ames, the third judge and owner of Gigi, a French restaurant on the corner of Twelve Peaks and Poison Creek, couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Far from the dignified contest “Aunt Grace had always conducted, I had a three-ring circus on my hands.

“I certainly hope you don’t condone this kind of behavior from your contestants,” Beverly said, dodging Evie and coming to stand in front of me. Locks of graying hair hung in limp curls against her flushed cheeks, and the effort of getting around the table had her breathing hard. “All decisions of the judges are supposed to be final.”

“And they are,” I assured her. I caught a glimpse of the smug I-told-you-so on Karen’s face and felt the tension in my neck knot even tighter. Struggling to appear in control, I turned to Evie. “What seems to be the problem?”

She whipped around so fast I worried she might fall off the soles of her platform shoes. Her eyes gleamed as she shoved the score sheet in front of my face—far too close for my almost forty-year-old eyes to focus. “Have you seen this?”

“No, and I can’t see it now, either.” I tried without success to nudge her hand away. “I take it you have a complaint?”

“She wants you to rearrange the scores from tonight’s competition to suit her,” Savannah and her breasts moved closer. “Apparently, she’s having trouble believing that I scored higher than she did.”

Years of pent-up fury flashed in Evie’s violet eyes. “Only because you ignored the requirement to use an original recipe.” She pivoted back to me still lashing about with the score card. “She downloaded her recipe from the Good Cooks Network website, Abby. She should be disqualified. This isn’t the first time she’s done something like this, either.”

Savannah’s mouth thinned and her eyes narrowed. “I’d be careful if I were you,” she warned. “An accusation like that could get you in trouble.”

Evie didn’t seem to care. She squared her shoulders and straightened to her full height, which put the top of her head roughly even with Savannah’s shoulders. “I’m not worried. It will be easy enough to prove. I warned you that your nasty little habits would come back to bite you one of these days.”

I could feel the crowd closing in around us, angling to get a better view, trying harder to hear what the two women were saying. I was going to have to do something fast, or the whole weekend would be ruined.

“Evie—” I began.

Savannah cut me off. “Are you accusing me of cheating?” I don’t think anyone missed the sudden flush of color in her cheeks.

Or the triumphant smile that crossed Evie’s face. “I’m saying straight out that you’ve cheated again. But this is the last time, Savannah. Do you hear me? I swear to God, this time I’m going to stop you.” She gestured roughly toward her second-place red ribbon and the two-pound box of candy she’d just been awarded. “I didn’t almost kill myself making that fudge for that.”

No, but she’d expect anyone else to be content with it.

“Do something, Abby,” she demanded. “I’m counting on you to make this right.”

I backed a step away, wanting to put some distance between myself and her anger, and also hoping to prevent anyone from thinking that I was taking sides. “Evie,” I said quietly, “I don’t—”

“You don’t what? Don’t believe me?”

“I didn’t say that,” I assured her. “I just think it might be best to discuss this somewhere else.” I glanced over my shoulder at the rapidly gathering crowd. “Privately.”

“Why? Everyone here knows what Savannah’s like. If she’s not sleeping with somebody’s boyfriend or husband, she’s finding some other way to take what’s yours. There’s probably not a soul in this room she hasn’t hurt.”

That was going a bit over the top, and I worried about Savannah’s husband’s reaction, but if Miles heard the vicious accusation, he gave no sign.

“Why don’t we try to stay focused on tonight’s contest?” I suggested. “Let’s not drag the past into the discussion.”

Tall, blond, and surprisingly handsome considering what a nerd he’d been in high school, Marshall Ames left the judges’ table and came to stand beside Savannah. “Don’t you think you’re being unnecessarily harsh, Evie?”

“Why don’t you let her fight her own battles?” Evie snarled, leveling Marshall with a look of disdain. “I told you, I can prove what I’m saying.”

“Impossible,” Savannah said with a laugh. “If there’s a recipe for Kentucky Colonels on some website, I certainly didn’t copy it. This recipe has been in my family for generations.”

The nervous ball of energy in my stomach grew stronger and I tried again to take the argument away from the public eye, but Savannah straightened majestically and cast a royal glance around the crowd. “Don’t be ridiculous, Abby. Tonight’s scores were fair, and I, for one, refuse to give in to Evie’s raging paranoia.” She caught her husband’s eye and beckoned him toward her. “Why don’t one of you take poor Evie out for a drink? I’m sure a little alcohol will make it all better. It usually does for her.  I’ll see the rest of you tomorrow night.”

She turned away, hitching her purse strap onto her shoulder and dismissing Evie’s protests at the same time.

Maybe I should have stopped her, but I just wanted the argument to be over. At least this gave me a chance to look into Evie’s allegations without the whole town peering over my shoulder. If I was lucky, I could clear the whole mess up before tomorrow night’s segment of the competition.

I couldn’t know it as I watched Savannah stalk out the door, but things were about to get a whole lot worse.

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