A taste of trouble is in the air when a group of well-heeled, fudge-loving women descend on Ava Oosterling’s newly acquired and lovingly refurbished bed & breakfast inn for a chocolate lovers’ getaway.
When one of the women turns up dead–and Ava’s grandfather is a prime suspect–Ava plunges into the thick of a murder case stickier than her candy store’s line of Fairy Tale fudge flavors and the chocolate facials the women adore at the local spa.
It’s springtime and the start of the tourist season in Fishers’ Harbor, Wisconsin. Ava has opened the Blue Heron Inn with the help of handsome construction worker Dillon Rivers. Unfortunately, Dillon’s mother–Ava’s ex-mother-in-law–is among the secretive divas who become suspects along with Grandpa.
Ava turns for help from her friends but they have troubles, too. One is eager for a wedding proposal to unfold on live television, while another friend is expecting her first baby and asks Ava to assist with the birth.
Everything and everybody Ava loves seems in chaos–her fudge shop, her inn, her family, and her own friendships… Until she uncovers a thirty-year-old secret of the “deadly fudge divas”.
GENRE: Cozy Mystery ISBN: 978-1-925574-69-2 ASIN: B085DRFZML Word Count: 90, 380
“The same can be said for DeSmet’s mysteries that can be said for actual fudge: There is no way you can consume just one.” –Suspense Magazine
I should have been happy.
Why wasn’t I happy? Five reasons. They called themselves the “Fudge Divas”.
This was the first week in April and tourists would soon clog our two-lane, picturesque, winding roads. I hoped many would stay at my newly renovated, historic Blue Heron Inn.
In the middle of the kitchen sat the new giant, white marble countertop, perfect for loafing fudge so joyfully delicious that angels would strike up a chorus. Instead, yelling and arguing echoed from the divas.
Nasty thoughts of them stumbling off the bluff came to me more than once.
The Blue Heron Inn sat atop a scenic outcropping of rock that was part of the ancient escarpment stretching from Wisconsin to Niagara Falls. Cedars and sugar maples dotted the B&B’s hilltop perch. My parents and grandparents had just tapped the maples a couple of weeks ago after the daytime temperature kited into the fifties for a few days with the nights in the teens and twenties Fahrenheit.
The inn overlooked Lake Michigan’s big bay on the western shoreline of Door County, known as the Cape Cod of the Midwest. The powder blue-and-cream inn’s past may have included housing some of my Belgian ancestors when they’d immigrated to fish, farm, and work in the forests. Many immigrants in the 1800s made wood shingles for a living. The shingles were sent via steamer ships down to a bustling, growing Chicago. My parents were now farmers, but Dad and Grandpa still wielded an axe often to create firewood.
It was ten o’clock on this chilly Saturday morning, a good one for a fire in the fireplace, and so foggy it appeared white cotton candy pressed against the windowpanes.
Ordinarily springtime ushered in as quietly as a yellow daffodil sneaking through the last remnant of a snowbank on the south side of a building.
The fudge divas’s zumba music and raucous exercising and voices–arguing again–had the wood floors rumbling, the antique chandeliers swaying, and my mind muddled.
The dark fudge ingredients in front of me were a primordial pool jiggling to the shock of earthquakes. The sweet confection had no chance of hardening into anything I could cut and serve as fudge.
The divas, all in their fifties, included and were invited by my former mother-in-law Cathy Rivers. She lived in Fishers’ Harbor these days, but the rest of them had arrived early Wednesday from various cities and parts of the country. They dubbed their girlfriend vacation the “Freshmen Fudge Frolic”.
The women had attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison where they’d met as freshmen in the early 1980s.
Their first “fudge retreat” day in Fishers’ Harbor included cocoa bean-jalapeno-spiced facials at the new local spa called the Glass Slipper, owned by Cathy. She was also staying in an upstairs room, though she had a condo nearby.
My grandpa Gil–whom I’d called Gilpa since a toddler–didn’t trust Cathy.
“Ava Mathilde Oosterling, she’s pushing that darn son of hers on you again to get your fudge business,” he’d said many a time.
Just yesterday while in the kitchen I’d responded, “How is inviting her friends here pushing Dillon on me? I’m going to be making gobs of money.”
“Exactly. And then you’ll become too busy and you’ll ask Dillon to help out more, and then his mother will be here all the time, and pretty soon she’ll offer to buy this from us. That will leave you with nothing except a paid-off mortgage.”
Grandpa had helped me out by co-signing on the mortgage papers to buy the Blue Heron Inn several months back.
Grandpa feared for himself, too. He and I shared Oosterlings’ Live Bait, Bobbers & Belgian Fudge & Beer, a small shop that sat on our village’s harbor. That’s where I got my start, just a year ago when I’d moved back from the West Coast.
It was true Cathy liked to take straw and spin it into gold. But Cathy also loved our quaint area. Originally from Milwaukee, she’d visited here last year and ended up staying, admiring the historical significance of this area of the country. Cathy bought an old mansion on Main Street and turned it into the Glass Slipper. Since Wednesday, Cathy and her friends visited the spa every day, then returned to the inn to nosh on different fudge flavors paired with local wines. But instead of reminiscing about English lit classes and cheerleading in college, they debated return-on-investment ratios. They still looked like cheerleaders, though. Exercise was part of every morning and afternoon.
Diva Jackie Valentine–a tall redhead and sometime voice of reason among them–said on the first day, “We’re not letting menopause cause a meno-plus in pounds. We eat fudge with impunity.”
I was thirty-three and played basketball with friends over at the school playground, but these health-conscious divas could probably beat us in a game.
They’d brought along a couple of twenty-somethings–Zadie, the daughter of Pepper Elliott, and Zadie’s friend, Yola Wooten–but those two disappeared day and night. Couldn’t blame them. They had freaked out after hearing there’d been a murder upstairs last year; I accommodated their request not to stay in the dead woman’s room.
The fifty-somethings, on the other hand, loved the drama of murder. They declared that every inn had to have a murder and a ghost. It’s just how it’s done, right?
Grandma had assured me the high energy level and constant kibitzing was their manner of communicating. “They’re like puppies,” Grandma Sophie said, “that constantly gnaw on each other’s tail. It’s playful.”
Puppies? The women struck me as sharks.
I was praying the April fog would lift soon so the divas could go on another of their adventures and leave me in peace to figure out my fudge. The boards under my feet in the kitchen continued to reverberate. Jackie’s voice wafted in, “And again!”
Groans resounded. A strained voice sounding like Pepper’s said, “Kim, stop it!”
Yes! Kim, Pepper, Jackie, Eliza, and Cathy–stop it!
Jackie bellowed, “Pepper, for goodness sake, pick up the pace!”
Another voice–Eliza’s with its hint of gravelly tone–ground out, “Jackie, you’re not the boss of us.”
“You got that right.” Cathy’s sweet voice had chimed in. “If this were a TV show you might not last the night, Jackie.”
I gasped at the threat, listening hard from the kitchen.
“Cathy,” Kim’s voice joined the fray, “that was not called for at all.”
Jackie laughed heartily. “No offense taken. I guess we’ve all imagined doing each other in at some point, right?”
“Shhhh, she might hear,” Eliza said as the music hit low notes.
I shuddered. I did not want another murder in the inn.
I leaped from my morbid thoughts when the back door to the kitchen banged open and shut.
Best friend Pauline Mertens skidded to a stop on the other side of the kitchen island, flipping her long, black hair behind her shoulders–an action she did a lot when it was time to one-up me or hold something over on me. “Ava, I have big news.”
Though it was only morning and on her day off at that, she wore a new, red blouse fit for our county’s five-star dinner restaurants. I groaned inwardly. New clothes usually meant another misadventure with her so-called beau.
Regaining my bearings by focusing on the fudge problem, I kidded, “You’re taking my guests for a long hike into Peninsula State Park right now and then losing them?”
She rose to her six feet to look down. She enjoyed having two inches on me. “If you’re going to run an inn, you have to take charge like I do. Tell them, ‘If you don’t behave and sleep in on Saturdays, you won’t get your chocolate milk after recess or your fudge.'”
Pauline was a kindergarten teacher.
I turned to the cupboards behind me to retrieve antique plates featuring yellow roses. It was only a coincidence, but the women loved them because yellow roses were their signature flower. They’d asked about the collection’s price, which I thought rude. Fortunately, I’d inherited the plates so I had responded with a toothy smile, “They’re priceless.”
With a sigh for Pauline, I said, “You know I can’t give these particular guests any rules to follow.”
Pauline plunked her giant apple-green purse on the white island top next to the pan of fudge. “Didn’t you hear me? I have news. And it’s from John.”
“Can’t we take my problem first? I have about ten minutes tops before those divas rush the dining room expecting yet another new fudge flavor for brunch. And this–” I pointed to the jiggling ooze. “–Makes me a nervous wreck.”
“Tell them it’s pudding. They’ll brag about it on social media and you’ll be rich with a whole new line of desserts. Oh woe is you.”
Huh. Honesty. It hurt. “So I’m whining. I’m a millennial wienie who needs ‘mommy’s’ help.”
“At least you have a mother who actually responds to you.” She sniffed the fudge pan.
Pauline rarely allowed herself or me to mention her mother, so this alluding to the woman surprised me. I suspected we’d talk about it later. When she was ready.
She said, “Put on decent clothes and come with me. I need your sleuthing skills. I received a surprise from John.”
I was intrigued. Her boyfriend, John Schultz, was traveling the state gathering video stories for a public television show idea he’d sold last fall. So it was odd she wore makeup and the new red blouse with a dazzling infinity scarf to match. Her black hair was lustrous. In contrast, my brown hair was tied in a ponytail sagging against the back of my heated neck. The customary, long-sleeved white blouse and Cinderella Pink Fairy Tale Fudge pink apron were dotted with egg yolks that had splashed during a zumba-induced tsunami in a mixing bowl.
Giving in, I turned to the warming oven behind me to retrieve omelets. “So John finally texted you?”
With dark eyes sparkling, she said, “He texted me an address. To a place.”
Her emphasis on “place” was ominous. I plated an omelet atop antique yellow roses. “These smell heavenly, don’t you think?”
The omelets were redolent with winter onions that had popped up after the snow melted in Grandma’s garden. The egg dish was also filled with organic cheddar cheese delivered yesterday by Mom from her cheese factory on my parents’ dairy farm south of our village of Fishers’ Harbor.
To further put off talking about John, I said, “I only have to put up with the divas for one more day. They leave tomorrow.”
“Good thing. I couldn’t get in your front door,” Pauline said from behind me. “I think the latch is jimmied from those women knocking the floor off-kilter.”
“Or slamming the front door in each other’s face. There’s something odd about the way they relate to each other, especially for a college reunion.”
“I bet they have some secret.”
I blinked at her. “Grandpa thinks they have a secret, too.”
“Maybe they robbed a bank together. When my kindergarteners do something bad, they do the same thing.”
“They argue over money? And rob a bank?”
“No. But they love to argue over secrets. I had to stop one kid from dunking another in the janitor’s scrub pail the other day.”
I forced an uneasy laugh. “If something bad happens, you and I can handle it. Our instincts have been pretty good in solving a murder or two.”
“Or three.” She fussed with her infinity scarf. “There won’t be a murder. Life, Ava, is about secrets and who holds and owns the secrets. We all want power. Women have egos just like men, you know. But, in the end, all the fighting tires my kindergarteners and they become friends because that’s easier than fighting. Those five women are going to be tired by the time they leave tomorrow and they will fall into crying hugs because they’ll miss each other.”
I plated another mouth-watering, onion-cheese omelet from the warm oven. “So the arguing equals bonding.” At least we weren’t talking about John, though the mysterious “place” had now teased my brain’s curiosity juices.
Pauline was shaking the fudge pan as if it were an Etch-A-Sketch. “Why aren’t they exercising over at Jane’s bookstore? I thought they’d taken over her great exercise room in back.”
“They broke the stripper pole yesterday. Jane texted me. She’s furious and wants to be sure my guests pay for it before they leave.”
“All this trouble because you couldn’t say ‘no’ to a fudge frolic set up by Cathy.”
Cathy Rivers had been my mother-in-law nine years ago for all of a month. Dillon and I–in a silly, libido-driven, not-very-grown-up time after college graduation–had driven to Las Vegas and gotten married. Then, because of revelations about Dillon’s past misadventures, I got our mistake annulled. But after eight years, people mature. We’d met again last April when both of us returned to Door County. Dillon and I tiptoed into being friends again. Over this past winter during pleasant evenings in front of the fireplace at his place or mine, it had deepened to something more, though we weren’t sure what it might mean yet.
Pauline pulled me from the blast of troubling thoughts. “This fudge has bacon in it!” She grabbed a serving spoon from the utensil holder then dredged straight through the middle of the pan, slapping a glob into her mouth.
She swooned, got off the stool, then pirouetted. The melodrama came from acting out picture books with her kindergartners. After sitting again, she smacked her lips. “Dauntingly delicious delicacy to die for.”
I rolled my eyes at Pauline’s penchant for alliteration.
“Can’t you see it’s not setting up?”
She winked. “This would be terrific with beer, Ava. Try a Belgian ale for breakfast perhaps? What will you call this fudge? What fairy tale lends itself to bacon? The Three Little Pigs?”
“That’s awful.” But she’d made me smile, which is why she was my BFF. I relented again. “What’s this about John giving you an address to a place?”
She rose to dance with arms raised. “I thought you’d never ask!” She sat again, hugging her green purse with a smile the size of a half-moon. “He texted that he wanted me to look at a place. You know what that means!”
“No, I don’t.”
With two plates of omelets, I headed across the trembling wood floor into the dining room. The fudge divas were exercising two rooms away in the parlor beyond the foyer. Where we were, the pink tablecloth’s skirt swayed.
Pauline followed with two plates, setting them next to delicate china cups rattling in their saucers. “A ‘place’ means he’s picked out a place for us to live. As in ‘together’. After we’re married.”
Shock burned my cheeks. “Did John propose?”
“Not yet. But he must be going to.” She toggled up and down on the toes of her sexy black riding boots. Her dark eyes sparkled.
In my opinion, John Schultz was not interested in marriage in the near future. I could never hurt her feelings, though. “Did John say anything more about this ‘place’?”
I hiked back into the kitchen. Pauline hustled behind, stomping her boots.
“He gave me an address and no other information. He wants me to look at it without him first because I suspect he wants me to feel the impact of seeing ‘our place’ for the first time.” Her face exuded dreaminess. “He wants me to say ‘yes’ to the place and to, well…”
I grabbed the last omelet plate and delivered it to the dining room table. “Did you go online to look at a satellite image of this so-called place?”
“Of course not. John would want me to see it in person first.”
Back in the kitchen again, I grabbed goblets from a cupboard and set them on the island. “Maybe you should wait for him to come back and go together. Dillon and I could go with.” To help assuage the disappointment I was sure would happen.
“That’s not John’s way of doing things.” Pauline was fussing again with the infinity scarf, as if it were choking her. “He’s very shy at his core.”
“Shy? He wears Hawaiian shirts and sandals to funerals.”
“He has to stand out. He works in TV. Now listen, Ava. I’m going to find this house, open up the front door, and there on a table will be romantic red roses with a ruby ribbon revealing a ring.”
“Will your class be studying ‘R’ this coming week?”
“Yes.” She beamed. “It’s like John knew. R for romance, R for ring–“
“Enough, Pauline. He’s over in Rhinelander–“
I let my shoulders sag. “He’s hours away in the north woods of Wisconsin chasing a hodag. He’s not thinking about marriage. He’s chasing a mythical monster and you’re chasing a mythical-ever-after.”
“Why can’t you admit John is the real deal?”
From the refrigerator I grabbed the orange juice to make mimosas, though serving juice spiked with champagne to my rockin’-and-rollin’ fighting guests was probably not a good idea. “So real that you bought your own engagement ring–then lost it in the woods.”
“I knew you’d bring that up. Can we not go there?”
While we’d been running for our lives from a murderer in the woods of southern Door County last fall, Pauline had lost her purse. In it was a diamond ring she’d bought, thinking John had wanted her to choose her own ring. We never found the purse. Now some raccoon probably wore a shiny bauble.
Pauline said, “No man asks a woman to look at ‘a place’ unless he means they’re moving in together. Come with me. Please?”
“After I go down to check on the fudge shop.”
Pauline hugged me carefully, wary of my messy apron. “Thank you! I’ll say hi to Jane at the bookstore. I want to see if she has any wedding planner books. I’ll meet you at the fudge shop.”
As we finished pouring mimosas, a frowning Pepper Elliott strode into the kitchen. The short, petite woman was dressed in pink as usual, this time in a leotard and exercise shoes. Her blond bob was perfect, as always. She hadn’t been exercising.
She whiffed a mimosa, then set it back down without a sip. “You have to do something. Kim is driving all of us nuts.”
“The white gloves again?”
“She’s exercising in those stupid white gloves. And cleaning at the same time. Kick, dust a vase, kick, dust a table. This is your place. She already broke one of your lamps the other day. Maybe you can say something.”
I couldn’t because my ex-mother-in-law who wanted to again be my mother-in-law loved Kim’s idea for the magical white gloves that could clean anything.
Pepper said, “She’s dusting again to convince Jackie to invest in a television shopping network spot for the white gloves.”
Pauline picked up the pan of failed bacon fudge. “I’m so sorry, Pepper, but we have an emergency down at the fudge shop. Ava’s Grandpa Gil isn’t feeling well.”
A best friend’s lie to the rescue! Thanks, Pauline.
Pepper’s wan face paled more. “Is Gil all right? What’s wrong?”
Already pushing Pauline toward the back door, I said, “I’m sure it’s just a spring cold. I need to go take over for him. Your brunch is ready. Enjoy.”
Pauline and I trotted out the back to avoid drawing more attention from the other ladies.
We hiked down the steep, narrow blacktopped street. The feathery fog was turning into a golden haze with the late-morning sun smiling on it.
On the corner of Main and Duck Marsh Streets, Pauline handed me the fudge ingredients (a.k.a. the primordial pool) and we split. I headed down my old street toward the harbor, wending by the cabin where I used to live. Dillon now rented it. From there I cut across the cabin’s lawn to head east to the shop.
After I came through the back door with the pan of wiggling fudge, I skidded to a stop, wrinkling my nose. “Grandpa? It smells like an oil tanker in here. And what’s that on your face?”