It’s Christmas many years ago, and topping young Hannah Swensen’s wish list is becoming the go-to baker in Lake Eden, Minnesota. But as Hannah finds out, revisiting holiday memories can be murder…
With her dream of opening The Cookie Jar taking shape, Hannah’s life matches the hectic December hustle and bustle in Lake Eden—especially when she agrees to help recreate a spectacular Christmas Ball from the past in honor of Essie Granger, an elderly local in hospice care. But instead of poring over decadent dessert recipes for the merry festivities, she instantly becomes enthralled by Essie’s old notebooks—and the tale of a woman escaping danger on the streets of New York.
Hannah’s surprised by Essie’s secret talent for penning crime fiction. She’s even more surprised when the story turns real. As Hannah prepares to run a bakery and move out of her mother’s house, it’ll be a true miracle if she can prevent another Yuletide disaster by solving a mystery as dense as a Christmas fruitcake . . .
Features over a dozen cookie and dessert recipes from The Cookie Jar!
“Series fans will enjoy learning how the Cookie Jar bakery came to be.”—Publishers Weekly
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Hannah Comes Home From College
Hannah Swensen took her mother's potholders off the hook by the stove and removed a sheet of cookies from the oven. Since her mother only had a single oven, Hannah set the cookie sheet on a cold stovetop burner to let the cookies cool for a minute or two. Then she used a metal spatula to take them off the cookie sheet and move them to the wire rack she'd set on the counter.
The familiar scent of the cookies cooling brought tears to Hannah's eyes. These had been her father's favorite cookies. She brushed the tears that threatened to fall away with the back of her hand and sighed. Lars Swensen's funeral had taken place three weeks ago, and Hannah was worried about her mother. Delores was upstairs in the bedroom she'd shared with her husband and she was napping again. She'd taken a lengthy nap every day since the funeral and hadn't come downstairs until Hannah had called her for dinner. Even though Hannah had made some of her mother's favorite foods and Delores had complimented her on her wonderfully tasty meals, she hadn't eaten more than a few small bites. And when Hannah had dashed upstairs to straighten the bed after her mother's lengthy afternoon naps, she'd found her pillow wet with tears. Delores was crying in private, unable or unwilling to share her feelings with anyone. She had cut off all efforts her friends had made to see her by claiming that she was too tired to visit with them.
Of course Hannah had discussed this worrisome situation with her sisters, and all three of them had attempted to pull their mother out of her self-imposed isolation. Hannah's youngest sister, Michelle, was still in high school, and she had tried to engage their mother's help in learning her lines for the lead she'd landed in the junior play. Michelle had even talked about cheerleading tryouts and how she hoped she'd get a spot on the cheerleading team, but Delores just didn't seem interested in her youngest daughter's high school life.
Andrea, Hannah's middle sister, was married to Bill Todd, a deputy sheriff with the Winnetka County Sheriff's Department. They had purchased a house only blocks from Delores, and Andrea was expecting her first baby. She had attempted to engage their mother's interest by inviting Delores to help her decorate the baby's room, an invitation that normally would have delighted their mother. But instead of jumping at the opportunity to help by doing something she loved, Delores had claimed that she was simply too exhausted to help Andrea.
All three Swensen sisters had tried every way that they could think of to get their mother into some activity that would get her involved in small-town life again, but everything they'd tried had failed.
Hannah looked down at the cookies she'd baked. They were almost cool enough to eat and for one brief moment, she considered taking some up to her mother for an afternoon treat. Then she'd discarded that notion, fearful that the sight of her father's favorite cookies might remind Delores of Lars.
Hannah gave a weary sigh as she realized that all three Swensen sisters were walking on eggshells around their mother, afraid that anything they tried might make things even worse. They knew that they had to do something to help their mother, but they were fresh out of ideas.
The doorbell rang, pulling Hannah away from the dilemma, and she hurried to answer the door. It was snowing again, a regular occurrence in Minnesota winters, and the temperature outside was well below zero. Hannah pulled the door open and began to smile when she saw Grandma Knudson, the unofficial leader of the Lake Eden Holy Cross Redeemer Lutheran Church. She was the current pastor's grandmother and everyone in Lake Eden called her "Grandma" as a term of affection and respect.
Standing next to Grandma Knudson was another one of her mother's friends, Annie Winters. Annie was the current head of the Lake Eden Children's Home, an orphanage situated just outside of town in a large, rambling brick mansion.
"Hello, Hannah. How are you?" Grandma Knudson greeted her.
"I'm okay," Hannah answered, giving her a smile before she turned to Annie. "Hi, Annie."
"Hello, Hannah. We came to call on your mother."
"Please come in," Hannah said, opening the door a little wider. Perhaps Grandma Knudson and Annie would know what to do to help Delores. Grandma Knudson always gave everyone wise advice, and Annie had her doctorate in psychology.
"Would you like tea?" Hannah asked them, leading the way to the living room.
"That would be lovely, Hannah," Annie answered. "Will your mother join us?"
Hannah shook her head. "I'm afraid not. Mother is napping upstairs."
"Again?" Grandma Knudson asked, looking more than a little distressed. "I've been here four times and it's the same story."
"Yes," Hannah admitted. "She's been taking long naps every afternoon."
Annie and Grandma Knudson exchanged glances and then Annie spoke. "You look troubled, Hannah. Tell us why and perhaps we can help."
Hannah took a deep breath and blurted out her worries. "It's Mother. Andrea and Michelle and I have done everything we can think of to coax her out of her bedroom, but she still spends more time in there with the door closed than she does in the rest of the house. And when I go up to straighten the bed, her pillow is wet with tears. We're afraid that she's going to withdraw from life completely and we don't know what to do about it!"
Grandma Knudson gave a sad little smile. "It's a common reaction, Hannah," she said. "Some wives just don't want to go on with their lives when their husbands die." She turned to Annie. "Isn't that right, Annie?"
"Yes, and sometimes husbands feel the same way when their wives die," Annie added. "They think that getting involved in life again is a betrayal in some way."
"That's it exactly!" Hannah confirmed, feeling slightly relieved just telling them about it. "What can we do to convince Mother to start living her life again?"
"We have to come up with a project that only Delores can accomplish, a project that she can't refuse to accept," Grandma Knudson told her.
"That makes sense, but ..." Hannah paused and wiped away a tear with the back of her hand. "Andrea and Michelle and I have tried everything we could think of, but ... nothing has worked."
"Did you try things that your mother would enjoy doing?"
"Yes. Michelle was chosen for the lead in the junior play and she asked Mother to help her learn her lines. I know that, normally, Mother would have loved to do that, but she claimed that she was too tired to help Michelle."
"That's because she would have enjoyed helping Michelle," Annie explained. "And she didn't want to enjoy anything without your father. What did Andrea try?"
"Andrea asked her to help decorate the baby's room. And you know how Mother loves to decorate."
"Of course she does." Grandma Knudson gave a little smile. "And your mother claimed that she was too tired to help Andrea?"
"Yes, that's exactly what she said."
"And what did you do, Hannah?" Annie asked her.
"I made all of Mother's favorite meals for dinner, but she just pushed the food around on her plate and said she just wasn't hungry. And when I asked her if she'd go antiquing with me to find some unusual Christmas gifts, she told me that she wasn't interested in antiquing anymore."
"All right then," Annie said. "Grandma Knudson and I discussed the problem, Hannah, and we think we have a solution for you and your sisters."
"What is it?" Hannah leaned forward, eager to hear what two of the women she respected most in Lake Eden wanted them to try.
"We came up with a project that your mother won't really want to do, but one that she'll feel guilty about refusing," Annie explained. "Delores won't want to help us, but she's going to feel obligated."
Hannah thought about that for a moment and then she gave a little nod. "Yes, I can see how that could work. And you have a project like that?"
"Yes," Grandma Knudson said. "We think we have the perfect project. You know Dr. Kalick's niece, don't you?"
Hannah began to smile. "Of course I know Essie. She was married to Alton Granger, the owner of the Albion Hotel. I used to go to there for Essie's story-time on Saturday afternoons, and so did Andrea and Michelle. Essie's story-time was really popular in Lake Eden."
"So popular that they bussed in all the kids from the Children's Home," Annie added. "Everyone loved to hear Essie's stories, and it gave every mother in town a break for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoons."
"That's right." Hannah began to smile. "And I think I see exactly where you're going. Mother used to say that everyone owed Essie a debt of gratitude for telling those wonderful stories and entertaining all the children in Lake Eden. Mother used to drop us off there and go to yard sales and farm auctions."
"Perfect!" Grandma Knudson declared. "I think our idea is going to work, Hannah. We went to see Essie at the hospital last week."
"At the hospital?" Hannah felt a stab of fear. "Is Essie all right?"
"Not really," Annie responded. "We had a long talk with Doc Knight, and he says that Essie can't live alone in those two rooms at the hotel any longer. He said that she wasn't eating right and the flight of stairs to her rooms is simply too much for her to handle. She doesn't have running water, you know, and Essie has to go up and down the stairs to use the bathroom at the café."
"But the café closes at nine at night!"
"That's why Rose gave Essie a key. She can get in if she needs to."
"But you said that Essie can't handle the stairs any longer."
"That's right," Annie agreed. "She's fallen a few times, and the last fall was the worst. She was planning to go to your father's funeral, but she fell halfway down the stairs and broke her hip."
Hannah felt tears come to her eyes again. "That's awful! What can I do to help her?"
Grandma Knudson smiled. "That's exactly the reaction I hope your mother will have when we tell her about Essie. Doc Knight has her in the hospice ward at the hospital."
"You mean ... Essie's dying?"
"No," Annie was quick to correct her. "Essie's not terminal, but she can't go back to living alone, especially with the stairs and the fact that she doesn't have electricity or running water. It's going to take her a couple of months to heal, and that's why he's keeping her in the hospice ward."
"I understand, but what, exactly, do you think Mother could do for Essie?"
"She can make Essie very happy," Grandma Knudson said. "You told me that Delores feels she owes Essie a debt of gratitude for inviting you girls to her story- time. That's why we think we know the perfect way for your mother to pay Essie back."
"How can she do that?"
"We'll tell both of you when your mother gets down here," Annie said. "Go get her, Hannah. Tell her she's got to come downstairs, that we need her help and we won't take no for an answer."
"I would ... but ..." Hannah stopped and gave a little sigh. "She'll just say she's too tired."
"Then we'll go up and get her," Grandma Knudson declared, springing up from her chair. "Go put on the tea, Hannah. Annie and I will have your mother down here in less than five minutes."
Hannah watched the two women climb the stairs to get her mother. If anyone could get Delores out of her bedroom, it would be Annie and Grandma Knudson. She watched them until they'd reached the top of the stairs and then she made a beeline for the kitchen to heat the water for tea.CHAPTER 2
Hannah was setting out the tea tray and a platter of cookies when she saw her mother coming down the stairs with Grandma Knudson and Annie. It had been five minutes since she'd heard them knocking on her mother's bedroom door and here was Delores, walking down the stairs with them.
Delores smiled when she saw the tea tray on the living room coffee table. "Oh, good!" she said to Hannah. "I'm so glad you made tea, dear. Do you happen to have any cookies that we can have with it?"
"I have Cocoa-Crunch Cookies," Hannah responded, lifting the napkin she'd placed over the platter of cookies.
"Perfect!" Delores turned to Grandma Knudson and Annie. "Lars used to say that they were like little bites of heaven. He loved those cookies and so do I."
Hannah began to smile. After three weeks of picking at whatever Hannah had made for her, Delores was finally enthusiastic about eating. This definitely reinforced her belief that Grandma Knudson and Annie were miracle workers.
Grandma Knudson picked up the cookie platter and passed it to Delores. "Have one, dear."
"Thank you," Delores said politely, selecting a cookie and taking a bite almost immediately. "These are wonderful cookies."
Hannah felt like turning cartwheels on the living room rug, and if she'd been more athletic, she might very well have been attempting it. "Thank you, Mother," she said as she filled the cups and passed the tea.
"As I mentioned upstairs, Annie was the one who found Essie," Grandma Knudson said, turned to Annie. "Tell Delores about it, Annie."
Annie drew a deep breath and Hannah could tell that the memory still upset her. "Essie and I had dinner every Sunday at the Children's Home. Essie always met me at the café and that night, she was late. I sat there for a while, waiting for her, but then I began to worry that she was sick, or she'd forgotten, or ... worse."
"I had a key to the hotel." Annie stopped speaking and cleared her throat. "I used it and opened the door. And there was Essie at the foot of the stairs, just lying there and not moving."
"So Annie called the paramedics," Grandma Knudson reached out to pat Annie's hand continued with the account. "They were there in less than fifteen minutes and they took Essie's vital signs, loaded her onto a stretcher, and took her to the hospital."
Annie nodded. "I followed them and when we got there, Doc Knight told me that Essie had broken her hip. He took her into surgery immediately and I waited until he came back to say that she was going to be all right."
"That must have been awful for you!" Delores said.
"It was ... especially when she wasn't moving and I couldn't tell if she was breathing or not." Annie stopped again to take a sip of her tea. "I'm just so glad I was there that evening. I don't even want to think about what would have happened if it hadn't been our night to have dinner. Essie has been almost like a mother to us at the Children's Home. And she's like a grandmother to the children now."
"Annie grew up at the Children's Home," Grandma Knudson explained.
"Yes, and Essie was a volunteer. Then, after she married Alton and moved into the hotel, she started her Saturday story-time. She invited me and two of my best friends to come to the hotel after school every day. She always fixed us an after- school snack, and we sat at a booth in the Red Velvet Lounge." Annie stopped to smile at the memory. "You have no idea how special we felt, being in a grown-up place like that! Essie helped us with our homework and then Alton would give us a ride back to the Children's Home. It's a good place, Delores, and I'd like to think that, because of my background, I was able to make it into an even better environment for the children."
"You've done that, Annie. No question about it," Grandma Knudson said.
"Thank you. The point of all this is that I loved to take Essie out to the Home. Having her there was a chance for me to make sure she had a good breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
"That was kind of you, Annie," Delores responded.
"Perhaps, but it was also self-serving. Essie was wonderful with the children. They called her Grandma and they all looked forward to seeing her."
"It's so sad that Essie didn't have any children of her own," Delores said.
"That's not the saddest thing," Grandma Knudson told her. "Doc Knight says that Essie won't be able to go back to her home at the hotel again. I know that almost everybody in Lake Eden would be happy to help Essie out, but you do know how proud she is, don't you?"
Delores nodded. "Yes, she's never accepted help from anyone. Lars found out that there was no running water or electricity in those two rooms she had on the second floor, so he found her a battery-operated electric blanket."
"How nice!" Annie commented.
"Yes, but Essie insisted on paying him for it. He tried to give it to her, but she wouldn't have it. He ended up telling her that it was a sample from the company and all she had to do was pay for the shipping and keep a record of any problems she had with it."
"Oh, that was really clever!" Annie exclaimed.
"Thank you. It was my idea," Delores beamed, and Hannah realized that she hadn't seen her mother look happy in weeks. "Just a little thing like that made both of us feel good. It's so rewarding to help someone you like."
"Exactly!" Grandma Knudson agreed. "That's why we came here today, Delores."
"What can I do?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Christmas Cake Murder"
Copyright © 2018 H.L. Swensen, Inc..
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