The holidays are the icing on the cake for bakery owner Hannah Swensen. Surrounded by her loved ones, she has all the ingredients for a perfect Christmas—until murder is added to the mix . . .
When it comes to holidays, Minnesotans rise to the occasion—and the little town of Lake Eden is baking up a storm with Hannah leading the way. The annual Christmas Buffet is the final test of the recipes Hannah has collected for the Lake Eden Holiday Buffet Cookbook.
The recently divorced Martin Dubinski arrives at the buffet with his new Vegas showgirl wife—all wrapped up in glitter and fur. His ex-wife, however, seems as cool as chilled eggnog. And when Hannah’s mother’s antique Christmas cake knife disappears, its discovery in the décolletage of the new—and now late—Mrs. Dubinski puts the festivities on ice.
With everyone stranded at the community center by a blizzard, Hannah puts her investigative skills to the test, using the ingredients at hand: half the town of Lake Eden—and a killer. Now, as the snowdrifts get higher, it’s up to Hannah to dig out all the clues—and make sure that this white Christmas doesn’t bring any more deadly tidings . . .
“Wacky and delightful characters, plus tempting recipes from appetizers to desserts, make this lighthearted offering sure to please the palate of any cozy fan.”
“Fluke’s talent for spinning a mesmerizing tale carries on in this sixth book, and its holiday recipes are an added treat for readers.”
—Times News Record
INCLUDES OVER 50 ORIGINAL RECIPES FOR YOU TO TRY!
About the Author
JOANNE FLUKE is the New York Times bestselling author of the Hannah Swensen mysteries, which include Double Fudge Brownie Murder, Blackberry Pie Murder, Cinnamon Roll Murder, and the book that started it all, Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. That first installment in the series premiered as Murder, She Baked: A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries Channel. Like Hannah Swensen, Joanne Fluke was born and raised in a small town in rural Minnesota, but now lives in Southern California. Please visit her online at www.JoanneFluke.com.
Read an Excerpt
It was a meatball, a really big meatball, and it was rolling out of her closet. It stopped a few feet from the end of the bed, and that was when she noticed its eyes and its face. The eyes stared at her in abject disappointment, and two tears of gravy rolled down its fat bumpy cheeks. It looked so miserable Hannah wanted to reach out and give it a hug.
"You forgot me," the meatball said, "and I'm an entrée. And from what I hear, your entrées aren't that good."
"Yes, they are. We've got ..."
"I'm doing my best not to take this as a personal insult," the meatball interrupted her, "but you know I'm a lot more delicious than your mother's Hawaiian Pot Roast. What really makes me mad is that you left me out, but you put in four of your sister Andrea's Jell-O molds. Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to dump a can of fruit in some Jell-O. If you want her name in the cookbook, you ought to teach her to cook."
What was the meatball talking about? No ordinary mortal could teach Andrea to cook! Her sister was firmly entrenched among the ranks of the culinary-impaired. Hannah sat bolt upright in bed, prepared to give the Swedish treat a piece of her mind. But there was no longer a round, brown entrée with the delectable scent of mushrooms and beef positioned in front of her closet or at the foot of her bed. With the exception of Moishe, who was curled up at her feet sleeping peacefully, she was alone.
Hannah blinked several times, and then the truth of the situation dawned. She'd been dreaming. The talking meatball had retreated into whatever corner of her mind had created it, but the message it had delivered remained. Hannah had goofed big time. She'd forgotten to include Edna Ferguson's recipe for Not So Swedish Meatballs in the packet to be tested at tonight's potluck dinner.
"Uh-oh," Hannah groaned, feeling around under the bed for her slippers. When she'd wiggled her feet inside the fake fur lining, she patted the mattress to wake the orange and white tomcat who'd been her roommate for the past year and a half. "Come on, Moishe. Time to wake up and smell the kitty crunchies."
Moishe opened one yellow eye and regarded her balefully. Then the phrase "kitty crunchies" must have registered in his feline brain, because he jumped off the bed with an athletic grace that Hannah could only envy, and padded down the hallway at her side as she headed for the kitchen.
Once Moishe had been fed and watered and she'd poured herself a cup of strong coffee, Hannah sat down at the kitchen table that was on the cusp of becoming an antique and considered the problem of Edna Ferguson's meatballs. Since the whole thing was her fault for forgetting to include them, she'd have to find time to test them herself. One thing for sure ... Edna wouldn't be the soul of understanding if she couldn't find her favorite recipe in the cookbook.
Hannah glanced down at her coffee mug. Empty. And she didn't even remember drinking it. If she showered and dressed right now, before she was fully awake, the lure of a second mug of coffee would make her hurry.
Before the second hand on her apple-shaped wall clock had made twelve complete revolutions, Hannah was back in the kitchen. Instead of her robe, she was wearing jeans and a dark green pullover sweater. Her feet were encased in fur-lined, moosehide boots to stave off the chill of the first cold week in December, and her towel-dried hair was already springing up into a riot of red curls.
"Coffee," Hannah breathed, pouring a mug, inhaling the fragrance and taking the first steaming sip, "is almost as good as ..." but before she could decide exactly what it was almost as good as, the phone rang.
"Mother!" Hannah muttered in the same tone she used when she stubbed her toe, but she reached for the phone. To let the answering machine get it would only delay the inevitable. Delores Swensen was relentless. If she wanted to talk to her eldest daughter, she'd keep on calling until she was successful.
"Good morning, Mother," Hannah forced a cheery note into her voice and sank down in a chair. Conversations with Delores had been known to last as long as an hour.
"Good morning, dear. You sound like you got up on the right side of the bed," Delores replied, matching Hannah's cheery tone and raising her a cliché. "I know this Christmas potluck has been a lot of work for you and I called to see if there was anything I could do to help."
Warning bells went off in Hannah's head. When Delores tried to be this helpful, she had an ulterior motive. "That's nice of you, Mother, but I think I've got everything covered."
"I thought so. You're so organized, dear. Did I tell you that Luanne found an antique silver cake knife with a provenance that dates back to the Regency period?"
"No, you didn't," Hannah said, getting up to pour more coffee and stretching out the phone cord to within an inch of its life. Luanne Hanks was Delores and Carrie's assistant at Granny's Attic, the antique store they'd opened right next to Hannah's bakery, and she was a genius at finding valuable antiques at estate auctions.
"I thought you might want to use it tonight. It has a lovely old- fashioned Christmas tree on the handle."
"Didn't you say it was Regency?"
"That's right, dear."
"But I didn't think they had Christmas trees in Regency England."
"They didn't. But don't forget that the Regent's family was German. And since this particular knife was used at court, it's decorated with a German Christmas tree."
"I'd love to use it," Hannah said. "It'll fit in perfectly."
"That's what I thought. When I showed it to Winthrop last night, he thought it would be appropriate to cut a cake from the period."
Hannah frowned at the mention of her mother's "significant other." She had no basis in fact, but she had the inkling that "Winnie," as her niece Tracey called him, wasn't precisely on the level. She'd asked Norman Rhodes, Carrie's son and the man she occasionally dated, to check Winthrop out on the Internet. Norman had done it, but he hadn't found anything shady about the British lord who was visiting Lake Eden "for a lark."
Hannah pulled herself back to the problem at hand. "I think using the cake knife is a great idea, but as far as I know, no one is bringing a cake made from a Regency recipe."
"Yes, they are, dear. You're forgetting about Lady Hermoine's Chocolate Sunshine Cake."
"Lady Hermoine?" Hannah's voice reached a high note that would have shocked the Jordan High choir director who'd assigned her to the second alto section. "Who's Lady Hermoine? You know that's my original recipe!"
"Of course I do, but there's a slight problem, dear. You see, the knife is very valuable. I didn't want to let just anyone use it, so I fibbed a bit."
"What's a bit?"
"I said that Lady Hermoine's Chocolate Sunshine Cake originated a lot earlier. If it'll make him happy, is there any harm in letting Winthrop think the recipe's been in our family for hundreds of years?"
Hannah sighed. She didn't like lying even when it was for a good cause, and Winthrop's happiness wasn't high on her list of good causes. "Your fib won't work, Mother. My cake uses frozen orange juice concentrate and that certainly wasn't around back then!"
"That's all right. Winthrop won't notice. And on the off chance he does, I'll say the original recipe called for orange marmalade." Delores gave a sigh and when she spoke again, her voice held a quaver. "That's all right, isn't it?"
Hannah thought about it for a second or two and then she caved. That little quaver in her mother's voice always got to her. "All right, Mother. I won't lie if Winthrop asks me straight out, but as long as he doesn't, I'll play along."
"Thank you, dear! And now I'd better rush. Carrie's picking me up in ten minutes and I still have to do my makeup."
Hannah said her goodbyes and hung up, but the moment she placed the phone back in the cradle it rang again. "Mother," she muttered, grabbing for the phone. Delores often called back immediately if she'd forgotten to say something she felt was important.
"What is it, Mother?" Hannah asked, not bothering with a greeting. She had to leave her condo soon or she'd be late for work.
"I'm not your mother," a male voice replied, chuckling slightly. "It's Mike."
Hannah sat down in her chair with a thunk. Hearing Mike Kingston's voice always made her knees turn weak and her heart beat faster, but she took a deep breath and tried to ignore it.
"I called to find out who's testing my pâté tonight."
Hannah took another deep breath and fought her urge to cave in without a whimper. Tall, rugged, and more handsome than any man had a right to be, Mike wasn't easy to deny. "I can't tell you. You know the rules. The recipe tester has to remain anonymous. Otherwise there could be hard feelings."
"But I really need to know. I might have forgotten to put something in the recipe."
"What?" Hannah asked. She remembered Mike's recipe and there were only two ingredients.
"I need to make sure I wrote down horseradish sauce and not just horseradish. If the tester uses straight horseradish, it'll be too spicy for some people."
"No problem, Mike," Hannah's response was immediate. "You specified horseradish sauce."
"But how do you know, unless ... you're testing it!"
Hannah groaned softly under her breath. Mike was the head detective at the Winnetka County Sheriff's Department, and he'd picked up on her blunder right away. "Uh ... I can't confirm or deny that."
"Of course you can't, but thanks for putting my mind at ease about that horseradish sauce. How about tonight? Do you want me to pick you up?"
"I think it'd be better if we met at the community center. I'm going to leave work around three, head home to get dressed and pick up the food I'm bringing, and get there early to make sure Edna has all the help she needs in the kitchen."
"Okay. I'll see you there."
Was that a sigh of relief she'd just heard in Mike's voice? "You sound happy that you don't have to pick me up."
"It's not that. I'd pick you up if you needed me. It's just that Shawna Lee asked me if I'd take her to the party."
Hannah closed her eyes and counted to ten. Shawna Lee Quinn had been Mike's secretary in Minneapolis and he'd convinced her to follow him to Lake Eden. She'd landed a job at the Winnetka Sheriff's Department and Mike had found her an apartment in the complex where he lived. He insisted that they were just friends, and Hannah had done her best not to be jealous, but it was difficult to stave off the green-eyed monster when the Southern beauty who'd been crowned Miss Atlanta called Mike every time her car wouldn't start.
"Hannah? Is something wrong?"
Hannah took a deep breath and forced herself to be calm. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought we had a date."
"We do. I'm just giving Shawna Lee a lift there, that's all. She's meeting someone and she's got her own way home."
"Oh. Well ... okay," Hannah said, hoping that the person Shawna Lee was meeting would show up and she wouldn't turn out to be a third wheel on their date.
"You're really a nice person, Hannah."
"What brought that on?" Hannah asked and immediately wished she hadn't. She'd broken one of her mother's cardinal rules: If a man compliments you, don't argue with him. Just smile and say thank you.
"Shawna Lee told me you accepted her brownie recipe for the cookbook."
"That's right. The person who tested it thought her brownies were really good."
"But you had the power to veto it and you didn't."
Hannah hoped Mike would never find out how close she'd come to relegating Shawna Lee's recipe to the circular file. As the "author" of the Lake Eden potluck cookbook and the head of the cookbook committee, Hannah had the power to accept or reject as she saw fit. The only thing that had stopped her in Shawna Lee's case was the fear that someone might find out and accuse her of being petty. "Of course I didn't use my veto. Why would I veto a perfectly good recipe?"
Mike chuckled, and Hannah felt her toes tingle. It was an intimate chuckle, one that should be heard up close and personal, not transmitted over telephone wires. "Have you tasted those brownies yet?"
"Not yet." Hannah's eyebrows began to knit, but she stopped in mid- frown. The magazine she'd paged through in the supermarket line had warned that frowns caused wrinkles in women over thirty, and she'd passed the three decade mark a couple of months ago.
"They're the best brownies I've ever tasted, and I've tasted a lot. I told Shawna Lee she should call them hot brownies."
"Yeah. Hot as in 'terrific' not hot from the stove. You know what I mean?"
"I get it."
"Anyway, they're definitely hot, and if I work it just right, I might be able to talk her into letting you add them to your menu, especially if you call them Shawna Lee's Brownies. What do you think about that?"
"Impressive," Hannah said, envisioning the anvil she'd like to impress into the top of Mike's head. Bake Shawna Lee's brownies for her shop? Not a chance!
Five minutes later, Hannah was still sitting at her kitchen table, staring down into her half-filled and rapidly cooling coffee mug. Hot brownies. The best Mike had ever tasted. The slow burn she'd started to do when Mike had first uttered those words had grown into a sizable conflagration. If Mike liked hot brownies so much, she'd give him hot brownies. They wouldn't be "hot" as in "terrific." And they wouldn't be "hot" from the stove. Her brownies would be "hot" as in "five-alarm-chili- hot" and she could hardly wait to hear Mike yowl when he bit into one!CHAPTER 2
"Hi, Hannah," Lisa Herman called out as she came in the back door at The Cookie Jar. "It's really snowing out there. I had to brush off the whole top of the ... what's that?"
Hannah glanced up at her young partner and started to laugh. Lisa looked absolutely horrified at the sight of the box of brownie mix Hannah had just upended into her bowl. "It's brownie mix."
"I can see that. But why are you using it?"
"Mike called me this morning and he told me all about Shawna Lee Quinn's brownies. He said they were hot as in terrific. I thought about it after I hung up and I decided I should make him some of my hot brownies."
"Okay. But I still don't understand why you're using ..." Lisa stopped speaking as Hannah picked up an open can of diced jalapeño peppers and dumped them into the bowl. She blinked a couple of times as if she couldn't believe her eyes, and then she laughed. "I get it. Hot brownies."
"Very hot. And I didn't want to waste time and effort baking something that Mike's going to trash ten seconds after he tastes it."
Lisa picked up the empty can and took a sniff. Then she immediately grabbed for a paper towel to dab at the tears that were beginning to run down her cheeks. "One sniff and my eyes are watering. Those must be some really potent peppers."
"Florence said they were," Hannah named the woman who owned the Lake Eden Red Owl grocery. "She told me she put one can in a pot of chili and it was so hot, nobody could eat it."
Lisa hung up her coat, switched from her boots to her shoes, and headed for the sink to wash her hands. "Are you going to call Mike and have him come here to taste them?"
"No way! He's armed, you know. I'll just run them out to the sheriff's station and leave them for him."
"That would be my choice, but he's a good detective. He'd figure out who sent them. I'll just drop them off at the front desk and come straight back here."
"Sounds like a wise decision," Lisa said, rolling her apron up at the waist and tying it in place by wrapping the strings around her twice. She was petite, and the chef's aprons were designed for someone Hannah's size. "What do you want me to do first?"
"You can check the cake in the cooler. I need to see if the raspberry Jell-O is set."
Hannah glanced up at Lisa. It was clear from the expression on her face that she was thoroughly mystified. "It's Andrea's recipe for Jell-O Cake, and it needs two different colors of Jell-O. She got it in late, but I promised I'd bake it and test it at the party tonight."
"So you're going to put it in the cookbook?"
Hannah sighed deeply. "I'll have to include it if it turns out all right. It's a family obligation, you know?"
"I know all about family obligations. I barely managed to keep Dad from submitting his father's catfish bait recipe."
"He should have done it. I would have put it in."
Lisa's mouth dropped open in shock. "You're kidding!"
"No, I'm not. Tell him I want it. As far as I'm concerned, every book needs a sprinkling of humor."
"Even a cookbook?"
"Especially a cookbook. All the recipes are so precise. I miss those days when it was a pinch of salt, a smidgen of pepper, and a snippet of parsley. Of course that was before Fanny Farmer standardized level cooking measurements."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sugar Cookie Murder"
Copyright © 2004 Joanne Fluke.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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