Sucker Punch

Abby’s life is sweet. She’s settling into running her candy shop, dealing with her busy-body family, and maintaining a solid-if-slow relationship with local police detective Pine Jawarski. But Abby’s smooth sailing soon turns into rocky road when a friend asks her to audition for a production with some considerably talented locals. Out of curiosity, Abby pops her head into the chaotic audition–and finds a dead star center stage. Now she needs to find the true culprit and clear her friend’s name before her newfound happiness is totally fudged…

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CHAPTER ONE

“What are you talking about?” my cousin Karen demanded, her expression a mix of horror and hurt feelings. “You can’t hate Valentine’s Day!” Even her auburn curls seemed to droop, as if my slip of the tongue had affected them too. A lifetime spent in the candy business had turned her into a full-fledged romantic . . .

Weak winter sunlight spilled into the candy shop through the front windows and winked off the glass containers on the shelves. The day looked warm and sunny, but that was a delusion. The temperature in Paradise had been hovering below freezing for more than two weeks, ever since a cold front swept down from the Arctic and swallowed the northern half of Colorado.

I’d grown up hanging around Divinity, just as she had, but I’d only been owner of the shop for two years. I hadn’t been affected yet. But I still knew better than to open my mouth around Karen about some things. My attitude toward Cupid was one of them.

If I hadn’t unexpectedly found myself standing beneath a cascade of carelessly stacked gift boxes—every one covered with red and pink heart stickers—I would have kept my opinion to myself. At least, that’s what I told myself. I picked up one of the boxes and grimaced. “Are they all like this?”

They were gaudy, and they weren’t the only issue. I’d run a few errands yesterday afternoon, and I hadn’t come back until after the shop was closed. Apparently Karen and my new clerk, Liberty, had been busy while I was gone. The entire shop was filled with hearts, so much red and pink my head had started to pound when I came inside a few minutes earlier.

Karen snatched it away from me and skewered me with a look. “Yes they’re all like this. They’re festive. And you didn’t answer my question. How can you say you hate Valentine’s Day? You’re a candy maker for Pete’s sake. It’s like our national holiday.”

Karen had worked part time for our Aunt Grace from the time we were teenagers until Grace died. She’s been my assistant manager since I came back to Paradise to run the shop. When it comes to Divinity, she and I agree about almost everything. But not this time.

I tried to pick my way through the mound of boxes without crushing any. They’re usually pretty classy looking—white with gold trim. Classy. Elegant. The heart stickers moved them from the “refined” column right over into “cheesy.”

“I didn’t say that I hate Valentine’s Day. I said that I try to avoid thinking about it. This—” I waved a hand to encompass the hearts hanging from the ceiling and walls, “—makes that kind of hard to do. When did we decide to … decorate … and why wasn’t I consulted? These stickers were a huge waste of money, not to mention the cost of the boxes you’ve ruined.” The shop wasn’t struggling to make ends meet anymore, but that’s only because we watch every penny and never spend when we don’t have to. Until today.

Karen’s scowl etched lines into her face. She’s a few years younger than I am, but she’s also married with a teenage daughter and she sometimes forgets she’s not my mother. “We haven’t ruined anything,” she said.

“That’s a matter of opinion.”

Karen dismissed my concerns with the flick of her slender wrist. “It was Liberty’s idea,” she said. “and I happen to think it’s a good one. Liberty says—and she has a point—that we’re cheating ourselves by not getting more into the spirit of the day.”

“Great,” I snarled. “Now you’re taking business advice from someone who thinks the alternative rock station is the perfect background music for a candy shop.” Karen’s quick glance into the showroom set my teeth on edge. “Give me some credit. I’d never talk about Liberty when she was around to hear me.”

“You still don’t like her, do you?” Karen said, but it was more accusation than question.

“I like her. I just don’t like some of her ideas. She’s only worked here for a few months. I’m sure she’ll eventually get a feel for how we do things.”

A challenge flashed through Karen’s brown eyes. “Well, I like it.” She’d thrown down the gauntlet with that. She’d been asking for more authority in the store, and I’d been obliging little by little. After all, she’s the one who stayed in Paradise while I was gone for twenty years. She’s the one who should have inherited the store. It had been a touchy subject between us since the day I came back, and I owed her more than just a job. But I wasn’t sure I could go along with this. The store looked garish, and that was the nicest word I could think of the describe it.

I finally reached the edge of the boxes and looked around for a place to escape the hearts. “It can’t stay like this, Karen. It’s—”

“It’s festive,” she insisted again, cutting me off. The frigid temperatures outside seemed warm when compared to the wall of ice forming inside Divinity. Much as I hated the decorations, I relied on Karen too much to risk offending her.

“Can we at least scale back a little?”

“I like it,” Karen said stubbornly. “And the only reason you don’t is because you’re still bitter over your divorce. I understand that Roger hurt you, and I know you’ve had issues with the idea of falling in love again, but your attitude toward love is cynical and unnatural, especially for someone who does what you do for a living.”

Her observations stung, and cousin or not, she’d stepped across the line. “My attitude has nothing to do with Roger,” I snapped. Maybe that wasn’t entirely true, but I wasn’t going to get into a discussion about my ex-husband, his new wife, or the havoc finding that coming home from work to find them rolling around on my bedroom floor had done on my psyche.

I could tell by the scowl on Karen’s narrow face that she didn’t believe me. She’s one of those people who seems to know everything about everything. Want to know how to treat psoriasis, the definition of “a jiffy”, or how to keep rubber bands like new? Call my cousin.

She also knows where to find the best price on everything, from aspirin to zucchini, and can tell you without pausing to think who fits where in any family tree. She also has a serious sugar addiction, but you’d never know it because she’s rail thin—something I think is unnatural in a candy maker.

So when her eyes widened and her face took on an “aha” expression, I knew I was in trouble.

I had someone new in my life. And if we weren’t exactly ready to commit to a life together, at least we were inching in that direction. Karen’s expression warned me that her thoughts had moved in the same direction as mine. “Does Jawarski know you feel this way?”

We were in dangerous territory now, and I knew I had to nip this conversation in the bud. “Jawarski and I don’t talk about it. Why don’t you stand there and I’ll hand you the boxes. The least we can do is get the mess off the floor.”

Karen was too busy gaping at me to move. “You haven’t talked about what you’re going to do for Valentine’s Day this year?”

“He hasn’t brought it up, and neither have I.” I picked up a few boxes and held them out to her. When she made no move to take them, I caved. “It’s no big deal. He’ll probably be working. And I’ll breaking my neck that whole week to keep up around here. I’ll probably just want to crash.”

Karen took the boxes reluctantly and said something I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear.

I’d finally reached the point in my relationship with Jawarski where I could actually call it a relationship. I’d adjusted to the fact that most everyone in Paradise considered us a couple. I’d even adjusted to the fact that we spent most weekends together as a matter of course. They were huge concessions for me, and I thought they might make up for the fact that Jawarski’s growing importance in my life made me feel weak and vulnerable—and the fact that I don’t like feeling weak and vulnerable.

Karen stacked the boxes on the shelf and turned back for more. “All I’m saying is, you’d better start thinking about what you’re going to do that night. Valentine’s Day is only two weeks away, and Paradise isn’t the quiet little town it used to be. If you don’t have a reservation for dinner, you’ll be scraping something together out of the cupboard.”

I thought about my kitchen in the apartment upstairs and made a mental note to pick up a frozen dinner, just in case. Make that two. “Thanks for the warning,” I said. “What time will is Liberty coming in today?”

Karen shot a look over her shoulder. “In about fifteen minutes. So is that it? ‘Thanks for the warning,’ now mind your own business?”

“Something like that.”

She stopped working and turned to face me, hands on hips. “You’re going to lose him, you know. With that attitude.”

“Just because I don’t want to agonize over Jawarski all night and day, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about him. Maybe what we have isn’t what you’d want, but it works for us so leave it alone okay?”

“Does it work? Are you sure?”

She was really fighting dirty today, but Karen isn’t usually like that. She’s not mean or vicious, so why did she keep aiming at my weakest spots? “Are you trying to make me insecure?”

“Of course not.” She sounded hurt that I’d even suggest such a thing. “I’m just trying to help.”

Some help. I’d never had self-esteem issues until the day I’d discovered the truth about my marriage. Twenty years of blind trust had been blown away in an instant, and the blast had been the emotional equivalent of a nuclear explosion. Try as I might, I couldn’t just flip a switch and get over it.

Not even for Jawarski.

I knew there were times when he felt impatient with me, but I didn’t think I was in danger of losing him. But what did I know? I hadn’t known I was in danger of losing Roger, either.  “It works for us,” I said again. “And I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“Just don’t blame me—”

“I mean it, Karen. Drop it, okay?”

She clamped her mouth shut and turned back to the supply cupboard. A strained silence stretched between us as we each pretended to concentrate on the task at hand. Only the steady slap-slap of boxes hitting the shelves broke the unnatural quiet.

When the bell over the front door jangled to signal a customer, both of us turned toward it gratefully. My eagerness turned to dread when I saw Jawarski come into the shop. Karen beamed as if she’d personally arranged for his arrival.

While he scraped snow from his boots, I tossed off a desperate prayer that he hadn’t come to talk about Valentine’s Day or anything else remotely related to our relationship. That was one hassle I didn’t need.

(copyrighted material)


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