Authors: Joanne Fluke
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 from 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 and 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 breath, 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 answer 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 hone 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 was 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 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 bother 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 a 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’ secretary in Minneapolis and he’d convinced her to follow him to Lake Eden. She’d landed a job in 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 hw 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!
“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.”
Lisa turned to Hannah with surprise. “I didn’t know Fanny Farmer did that! And she was from Minnesota! So was Betty Crocker.”
“Actually, Betty Crocker wasn’t from anywhere. It’s the name Pillsbury came up with to market their first cookbook. But Pillsbury’s based in Minnesota so I guess you could say they both came from here.”
“Good. I love it when important people besides Sinclair Lewis come from Minnesota.”
Hannah blinked. What Lisa said was a jump in logic. “You’ve got something against Sinclair Lewis?”
“Not really. I realize he’s important, but his books are depressing. I’m already living depressing. My mother’s dead, my dad’s got Alzheimer’s, and the wedding’s off.”
“Whoa!” Hannah pushed Lisa down on a stool at the workstation and made an end run to the kitchen coffeepot. This was a crisis. “What’s this about the wedding? Did you have a fight with Herb?”
“Of course not. I love Herb and he loves me. That’s not the problem.”
“What is?” Hannah filled two mugs, put one down in front of Lisa, and sat down on the opposite stool.
“It’s a matter of timing. Herb and I talked about it last night and we both agreed to call off the wedding.”
“For good? I mean, you don’t have to tell me if it’s too personal, but . . . “
“It’s not personal,” Lisa interrupted her. “And no, it’s not off for good. We just decided to wait to get married until everything’s settled with Dad.”
“He’s okay, isn’t he?” Hannah felt a quick jolt of fear. Lisa adored her father and she’d given up her college scholarship to stay home and take care of him.
“Dad’s fine. It’s just that Marge found a new doctor for him, a really good neurologist, and he was accepted in a new drug-testing program. It’s some kind of cocktail thing, three drugs that work together to boost a brain-signaling chemical that improves memory. Dad’s all excited about it, but the only thing is, the study starts this coming Monday and it lasts for two months. Herb and I didn’t think it was fair for us to get married in the middle of the program, especially since we’ll be switching houses and all.”
“That makes sense,” Hannah said, breathing a sigh of relief. As far as she was concerned, Lisa and Herb made a perfect couple. And Herb’s mother, Marge Beeseman, was really stepping into the breach to help with Lisa’s dad. She was giving them her house as a wedding present and she was moving into Jack Herman’s home to become his caretaker. And even though Marge was a widow and Jack was a widower and they used to date in high school, no one in town was saying boo about the living arrangements. “So when do you think you’ll get married?”
Lisa looked down at her engagement ring and gave a little smile. “We’re shooting for the middle of February. That’s when Dad’s test program is over. But instead of a big wedding, we’re just going to run down to the courthouse.”
“Not fair,” Hannah said, getting up to stash her crock full of meatballs in the cooler and making a mental note to take it down to the community center at noon and let it cook until time for the party.
“What’s not fair?”
“Your dad told me he was looking forward to walking you down the aisle. And Tracey’s all excited about being your flower girl. Not only that, your bridesmaids already ordered their dresses.”
“I know.” Lisa looked worried. “Herb and I talked about that and we decided we’d pay everybody back. It’s the right thing to do.”
“No, it’s not.”
Hannah shook her head. “Nobody would take your money, and that’s not the point anyway. Everybody’s looking forward to seeing you marry Herb. Why don’t you just postpone the wedding until the middle of February?”
“I always wanted to get married on Valentine’s Day,” Lisa sounded wistful, “but it’s impossible, Hannah. I want to be with Dad while he’s going through the clinical trials, and I won’t have time to make all the arrangements.”
“No problem. Just ask Andrea to do everything for you. She loves to plan weddings.”
“But she’ll be busy with the new baby.”
“No, she won’t. She told me she hired Grandma McCann to come in during the week, just like she did when Tracey was born, and Al gave her three months maternity leave. Andrea’s bored, you’ll be doing her a favor.”
“Do you think so?” Lisa’s smile was pure golden.
“I think so.”
“It would be just wonderful if all we had to do was show up for the ceremony. That’s my idea of a perfect wedding. But . . . are you sure Andrea would be willing take on a big job like that?”
“Wild horses couldn’t stop her,” Hannah said. “I’ll call her just as soon as we’re through here.”
“Is Andrea coming to the party tonight?”
“I hope so. She’s got an appointment with Doc Knight this morning and she’s going to try to talk him into letting her go.”
“I’ve got my fingers crossed for her. She’s probably going stir-crazy at home with her feet up on pillows. I want to work right up until they rush me off to the delivery room.”
Hannah turned to give Lisa a sharp look. “Are you trying to tell me something?”
“Of course not! Herb and I aren’t even married yet.”
“Marriage isn’t always a prerequisite for parenthood.”
“Maybe not for some people, but it is for me,” Lisa said. “I’ll get that cake and see if the Jell-O’s set.”
Hannah kicked herself mentally as Lisa ducked into the walk-in cooler to retrieve the cake. It was clear that she’d stepped over the line into an area Lisa didn’t want to discuss, and this was her partner’s way of changing the subject.
“The Jell-O’s set,” Lisa announced, carrying the cake to the workstation. “Do you want me to finish making it for you?”
“That would be great. The recipe’s on the counter.”
Lisa set down the cake and glanced through the recipe. “This sounds really good.”
“It is. Andrea always makes it for Tracey’s birthday. It’s the one time of year she uses her oven.”
“It must be strange having a sister who doesn’t cook.”
“Not really,” Hannah said with a shrug. She’d gotten quite accustomed to being the baker in the family. Delores didn’t “do” desserts, and Andrea avoided the oven with a passion. The only other member of the family who showed signs of inheriting Grandma Ingrid’s love of baking was Hannah’s youngest sister, Michelle. She was constantly calling Hannah for recipes to try out on her college roommates.
Lisa stuck some water on to boil and opened the lemon Jell-O packet. “When I’m done with this, I’ll do the baking for the day. You can concentrate on the recipes you have left to test for tonight.”
Hannah gave her a grateful smile. Lisa was only nineteen, but she was more responsible than others who were twice her age. Hannah had never regretted the day, only a little over a year ago, when she’d offered her diminutive assistant a partnership in The Cookie Jar.
Once the baking was done and Hannah had returned from her run to the sheriff’s station with the brownies for Mike, Lisa and Hannah settled down in the back booth of the coffee shop with fresh mugs of coffee.
“So what did Mike say when you gave him the brownies?” Lisa asked.
“He wasn’t there. I just wrote a quick note, put them on his desk, and came straight back here.”
“I wonder what time we should start hiding.”
Hannah laughed. “Not before noon. I checked with Barbara and she thought he’d be out in the field all morning. If he does come back early and he charges in here, he’ll be so bowled over by your decorations, he’ll forget all about being mad.”
“You like them?”
“They’re even better than last year. I never would have thought to paint Christmas designs on the mirror with Glass Wax and powdered tempera.”
“It’s just an idea I got from a magazine. When you wash it off, it cleans the mirror at the same time.”
“Well, it makes the whole place look fantastic.” Hannah glanced up at the silver and gold streamers Lisa had hung from the ceiling and admired how nicely they fluttered as the ceiling fans whirred softly overhead. She’d even hung mistletoe from the pull chain, a little extra that Hannah hadn’t noticed when she’d first seen the decorations. “It’s a good thing Moishe isn’t here.”
“Because mistletoe berries are poisonous for cats. So are poinsettia leaves.”
“I didn’t know that!”
“Most people don’t. Christmas is very hard on cats, especially if their people don’t know how dangerous it is. Sue told me Dr. Bob had three feline patients last Christmas who almost died from eating tinsel. It gets tangled up in their insides and causes all sorts of problems.”
Lisa just shook her head. “Maybe it’s a good thing Herb wants us to get a puppy.”
“Not necessarily. Poinsettias and mistletoe are poisonous for dogs too, and tinsel’s not good, either. And then there are the glass balls that people use to decorate trees.”
“A dog might bat at them and break them?”
“Yes, and swallow some of the pieces. And then there’s chocolate. A lot of people leave a box of chocolates out on a coffee table for guests. That’s perfect dog height, and too much chocolate can kill a dog.”
“That’s a real pity,” Lisa sounded very sympathetic. “At least if we eat too much chocolate, all we get is hyperactive. And that reminds me. . . we’d better stoke up on the chocolate tonight, because we have to be on our toes.”
“Why is that?”
“Martin Dubinski got married in Vegas, and he’s bringing his new wife to the Christmas party.”
“Uh-oh,” Hannah groaned. “Shirley submitted her Poppy Seed Cake recipe for the cookbook and it’s being tested tonight.”
“That’s what I mean. The ex-wife and the new wife. It’s straight out of a soap, especially since Shirley wants Martin back.”
“She does?” Hannah was surprised.
“I think so. At least that’s what I heard.”
“I wish I’d known that before! Now I feel really guilty about going out with Martin.”
“You went out with Martin?” Lisa looked positively mystified. “Why did you do that?”
“Mother. But it was only once. Tell me what you know about Martin’s new wife.”
“Well . . . “ Lisa paused to take a fortifying sip of coffee. “She’s a Las Vegas dancer named Brandi Wyen. Get it?”
“I don’t know for sure, but what I heard was he married her just five hours after he flew to Las Vegas for a conference.”
“That doesn’t bode well. What else?”
“Before Martin and Brandi flew back here, he took her to a furrier and bought her a twenty-thousand-dollar coat so she wouldn’t be cold.”
Hannah groaned again, envisioning the old cloth coat Shirley had worn for the past three years because she hadn’t been able to afford a new one. “Do you think there’ll be fireworks at the party tonight?”
“It’s a pretty safe bet, especially since there’s another woman in the picture.”
“Another woman?” Hannah was mystified that even one woman would be attracted to Martin, much less three! He was a nice enough man, but her date with him had been boredom personified. Why he’d thought she’d be interested in discussing the newest tax laws was beyond her!
“I stopped in to see Janice Cox at Kiddie Korner after I dropped Dad off at the Senior Center,” Lisa explained. “She went to school with Martin’s secretary, Laura Jorgensen. Janice said Laura didn’t exactly confide in her, but she was pretty sure that Laura was in love with Martin.”
“Oh, boy!” Hannah breathed, almost wishing that she had gone on for her doctorate and was now teaching in a rarified academic atmosphere that was hundreds of miles from what would probably happen when Laura and Shirley met Martin and Brandi. “I guess it’s a good thing that Laura has an accounting class at the junior college tonight.”
“Not anymore. Janice said Laura’s class was cancelled and she’s going to be at the party to make sure that whoever tested her Smothered Chicken did a good job.”
Hannah just shook her head. It was a disaster in the making, perhaps even another Titanic on a slightly smaller scale. “At least we can get one thing settled before the crockery starts flying.” Hannah stood up and headed for the phone by the cash register. “I’m going to call Andrea and ask her if she’ll handle your wedding arrangements.”
“Tell her she can have complete control of everything. I’ll go along with whatever she wants to do.”
“That’ll sweeten the pot.” Hannah started to grin as she punched in the number. “If I know Andrea, she won’t be able to resist.”
Andrea sounded chipper when she answered the phone. “Hi, Hannah.”
“How did you know it was me?”
“I just got a new cell phone with built-in caller I.D. It’s a very important tool for a real estate professional.”
“No doubt,” Hannah said, grinning a little. Andrea always had state-of-the-art electronics, and she always said she needed it because she was a real estate agent. “I called to tell you that Herb and Lisa have to postpone their wedding until Valentine’s Day.”
“That’s too bad. Hang on a second, will you?” Hannah hung on and waited for several seconds. Then Andrea came on the line again. “Sorry about that. So why are they postponing the wedding?”
“Jack Herman’s been accepted in a test program for a new Alzheimer’s drug. Lisa and Herb want to wait until the trials are over.”
“That makes sense. So why did you call me?”
“Lisa needs to spend all her free time with her dad and she won’t have time to arrange the wedding. She’d love it if someone else would take charge and I thought maybe you might . . . hold on a second.” Hannah put down the phone and motioned to Lisa. “I think I hear someone knocking at the back door. Can you go let them in?”
“Sorry, Andrea.” Hannah directed her attention back to the phone. “Someone’s at the back door and Lisa went to let them in. it’s probably Mother or Carrie.”
“No, it’s not.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it’s me.”
“What are you talking about?” Hannah was thoroughly confused, especially because her phone had suddenly developed a strange new echo.
“Turn around, Hannah. Lisa just let me in and I’m standing right behind you.”
Hannah whirled around and practically bumped into her hugely pregnant sister. Andrea was standing there grinning, her cell phone to her ear. Despite the fact that she was almost as big around as she was tall, Andrea still managed to look glamorous. She’d arranged her shining blond hair in an elaborate twist, her make-up was perfect, and she’d draped a forest-green cashmere scarf over her fawn-colored coat so artfully, she could have been the cover model for a maternity fashion magazine.
“You can hang up now, Hannah,” Andrea said.
“Right.” Hannah hung up the phone and hurried to take her sister’s arm. “Come with me. You’d better sit down. I’ll get another chair so you can put your feet up.”
“I don’t need to put my feet up. Doc Knight lifted every single one of my restrictions and gave me the green light to resume normal activities.”
Hannah glanced at Lisa, who looked every bit as shocked as she did. “But I thought he told you to take it easy until the baby was born.”
“He did. . . but that was then, and this is now. When he tested me this morning, he said he can’t wait much longer for me to go into labor. I’m overdue.”
“What does that mean?” Hannah asked.
“It means I should have delivered last week, or maybe even the week before. Doc says I’m getting too big, and that’s not good for the baby.” Andrea shrugged out of her coat, handed it to Hannah, and pointed at the middle of her wine red maternity dress. “See?”
Hannah’s eyes widened. She’d seen Andrea at the beginning of the week, but now it looked as if her normally petite sister had swallowed a large beach ball.
“Doc’s giving my until next Friday,” Andrea went on. “If I don’t have the baby by then, he’ll put me in the hospital and speed things up.”
“How is he going to do that?” Lisa asked.
“You don’t want to know. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to know, so I didn’t ask. I’m just hoping that if I move around enough, the baby will decide it’s time to get born.”
“Horseback riding,” Lisa suggested.
“What?” Hannah turned to her with a puzzled frown.
“That’s what my mother used to do. If she went past her due date, she just went out to my grandfather’s farm and went for a ride. She said that always did the trick.”
Hannah laughed and shook her head. “Thanks for telling us, but I don’t think this is the time for Andrea to hone her equestrian skills.”
“That’s right, especially since the one time Bill took me riding, I fell off. I’d much rather drive around town, but first I need coffee. I haven’t had a good cup of coffee for weeks! And then I need some chocolate to give me energy. After that, I want you to give me something to do.”
“Like what?” Lisa asked, as Hannah went off to get the coffee and cookies.
“Like . . . that’s up to you, but there’s absolutely nothing for me to do at home. Grandma McCann was just in to clean and get the nursery all ready.”
“How about decorating for Christmas?” Hannah suggested. “Once you have the baby, you might be too busy to put up the tree and everything.”
“It’s already up and the house is all decorated. Lucy Dunwight organized the whole thing with a coupled of the other kindergarten mothers and we had a party at my house. They did everything and the kids helped them. All I had to do was supervise from the couch.”
“That’s nice,” Hannah said, setting a mug and a napkin containing two Twin Chocolate Delights in front of her sister.
“So I have absolutely nothing to do. And I just thought that since tonight’s the Christmas party, you might have a last-minute recipe you don’t have time to test. I need to stay busy.”
“Thanks Andrea, but I think we’ve got it covered.” Hannah gave Lisa a warning glance that was meant to remind her that Andrea was among the ranks of the cuisine-challenged.
Lisa just smiled, ignoring Hannah completely. “Hannah’s right. We’ve got everything under control here, but I ran into Edna this morning and there’s something she really needs for the party.”
“Really?” Andrea took a sip of coffee and swallowed with obvious pleasure. “Why is your coffee so much better than mine?”
Hannah just shrugged, biting back the obvious answer. Freshly brewed coffee from freshly ground beans was bound to be better than instant coffee made in a microwave.
“So what does Edna need?” Andrea turned to Lisa again. “Whatever it is, I can make it. I’m not a very good cook, but I’ve got all day to get it right.”
Hannah cam close to groaning out loud. Any dish that Andrea prepared was bound to fail through no fault of its own.
“It’s not food,” Lisa explained. “Edna said people always forget to bring serving spoons and I promised to find someone who could round them up for her.”
“I can do that. It’s absolutely perfect for me. I’ll canvass house to house and while I’m at it, I’ll pass out calendars for Al. He’s got a really good one this year. It features twelve of the best houses sold through Lake Eden Realty, one for every month. And I sold ten of them!”
“I’m surprised it wasn’t all twelve,” Hannah said, grinning at her sister. Andrea was so good at talking people into things, she could probably get desert nomads to buy kitty litter. “So how about Lisa’s wedding? Will you take care of the arrangement?”
“Was there ever any doubt?” Andrea turned to Lisa with a laugh. “All you have to do is give me the guest list, and tell me your favorite color and your favorite flower. You can leave everything else up to me.”
“Thanks, Andrea. This really means a lot to me.” Lisa finished her coffee and stood up. “I’m going to start decorating those sugar cookies we baked for the party. Call me when it’s time, and I’ll open.”
Once Lisa had gone through the swinging door to the kitchen, Andrea leaned across the table. “If you give me two more cookies and a refill on the coffee, I’ll tell you what I just heard.”
Hannah wasted no time getting what her sister wanted. Andrea always exact payment for the latest Lake Eden gossip. “If it’s about Martin Dubinski’s new wife, Lisa already told me.”
“That’s old news. If you were a real estate professional like me, you would have heard about it yesterday.”
“Yes, but do you know about the twenty-thousand-dollar fur coat?”
“Twenty-two thousand,” Andrea corrected her. “At least that’s the way I heard it. But what I’ve got to tell you is new news, not old news. And it’s going to knock your socks off.”
“Okay. What is it?”
“It’s about Shawna Lee Quinn!”
“What about her?” Hannah took a deep breath and held it, hoping that her sister’s gossip didn’t include Mike.
“She’s leaving town tonight.”
“Would I kid about something that important? Bill called me from the station to tell me. there was a death in the family and Shawna Lee’s going back home to Georgia.”
Hannah curbed her impulse to cheer at Shawna Lee’s impending absence and did her best to react to the gravity of the situation. “I’m sorry for her loss. Who died?”
“Vanessa’s husband. And from what Shawna Lee told Bill, it wasn’t unexpected.”
“Shawna Lee’s younger sister. They’re less than a year apart and they were really close growing up. Vanessa’s husband was an octogenarian.”
Hannah’s eyebrows shot up. Shawna Lee was in her middle twenties, and it seemed unlikely that her younger sister would marry a man who was sixty years her senior. “Her husband was in his eighties?”
“That’s what octogenarian means. Shawna Lee told Bill that they’d been married for a little over a year before he died.”
Hannah didn’t comment. It could have been a love match, but the term gold digger came to mind. She was trying to figure out a polite way to pose the question, when Andrea nodded.
“I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. He was a rich octogenarian and he owned a whole string of home improvement stores. Vanessa inherited everything and from what Shawna Lee told Bill, it amount to a lot of money!”
“How long is Shawna Lee staying?”
“I don’t know, for sure, but Bill asked her when he gave her the standard form to fill out.”
“Yes?” Hannah asked, holding her breath. She hoped it was a good long time.
“She said she wasn’t sure, that she’d been homesick for her sister and her family and she could hardly wait to go home for Christmas, even under these sad circumstances. She also promised to call him in two weeks to let him know whether she’d be coming back to her job . . . or not.”
“You mean there’s a chance she won’t come back?” Hannah could hardly believe her good fortune.
“That’s what it sounds like to me. Bill has to hold her job for a month. That’s a union regulation. But after that, the job can be posted at the sheriff’s discretion.”
“And Bill’s discretion will be right away?”
“It will be if I have anything to say about it! I feel the same way about Shawna Lee as you do, and her sister sounds like more of the same. I mean . . . I suppose it’s unfair of me to judge her when I’ve never even met her, but think back to when you were twenty-three.”
“Okay.” Hannah thought back to her college days and she remembered the efficiency apartment she’d rented in a crumbling stucco building six blocks from campus. She’d fixed it all up with low-cost decorations, and it hadn’t seemed to matter that if she took longer than a three-minute shower, she’d run out of hot water.
“You were young and you had the whole world ahead of you, right?”
“And you dated guys your own age, or a little older, right?”
Hannah shrugged. “I would have, if they’d asked me.”
“Good enough. Anyway. . . there you are, surrounded by all these good-looking guys your age. Would you have fallen in love with a sick old man in a wheelchair?”
Hannah did her best to think of a scenario that would fit the situation, but she came up blank.
“I didn’t think so,” Andrea said, interpreting Hannah’s silence as assent. “Vanessa married him for his money. There’s no other explanation. Let’s just hope she shares all that cash with Shawna Lee and both of them stay put in Georgia!”
It wasn’t until the predictable eleven-thirty break that Hannah remembered Mike’s brownies. When she did, she let out a gasp that made Lisa rush to her side in alarm.
“It’s okay,” Hannah reassured her. “I just remembered Mike’s hot brownies, that’s all. I’d better call him and tell him not to eat them.”
“You mean because Shawna Lee’s leaving town and you don’t have to compete with her anymore?”
“That’s right. The green-eyed monster made me start the brownie wars, and I’m a little embarrassed.”
Lisa shrugged. “I don’t see why. Mike deserved it. Eh still deserves it. He didn’t have to suggest that you serve Shawna Lee’s brownies in here!”
“True, but I think I’d better keep the peace if I want a date for tonight.”
“There’s always that,” Lisa said with a grin, “especially since you bought a new outfit. Why don’t you call Barbara before she goes to lunch? She can snatch the brownies off Mike’s desk and toss them, and he’ll never have to know anything about it.”
“Good idea.” Hannah headed for the phone. A moment later, she had Barbara Donnelly, the head secretary at the sheriff’s station, on the line.