*Enjoy this special excerpt from Baby Bundt Cake Confusion (Murder in the Mix 31)
As the luck of the Irish would have it, the very next day is St. Patrick’s Day.
The bakery was booming and I couldn’t be more pleased. Lily and I had the idea to dye my lemon Bundt cakes green for the day, and they were flying off the shelves at twice the rate than they were already. All the four-leaf clover sugar cookies, iced lime green with lots of green sugar crystals, sold out as soon as a new batch was delivered from the kitchen. We couldn’t bake fast enough to meet up with the demands.
But once evening comes, I don my greenest accoutrements and Noah drives my minivan filled to capacity with Evie, her friend Dash, Dash’s boyfriend Kyle, and Evie’s boyfriend Conner, Carlotta, and me down to Fallbrook for their annual St. Patrick’s Day Festival where Ariella Kellerman has been serving as a volunteer for years.
Noah called her this afternoon asking if she wouldn’t mind catching a cup of coffee and she offered to share green beer instead. Here’s hoping we can scoop some details out of her that just might lead to the killer.
We file out of the van only to be stabbed by the artic wind that’s blowing every which way. Carlotta hops out last and barks like a seal to get our attention.
“Nobody moves a muscle until you’ve been appropriately outfitted for a sacred holiday such as this.” She produces a large tote bag and starts throwing green beaded necklaces with giant four-leaf clovers dangling from them, green felt stove pipe hats with big black buckles, and furry orange beards our way.
The entire lot of us quickly outfit ourselves with the festive accessories and take a moment to stare at one another while somewhere in the vicinity someone plays the bagpipes—and if I had to guess, I’d say there was a drunk at the helm of that winded instrument.
Evie giggles my way. “You look good with a beard, Mom.”
“Good thing.” Carlotta gives a wistful tick of her head. “You got the real deal coming your way when you turn forty, Lot. We’ll be saying Lordy, Lordy, look who’s forty—the bearded woman, that’s who!”
“Is that what they chanted on your fortieth, Carlotta?” I ask with more than a note of suspicion.
She gives a hard sniff. “What can I say? I ran with an honest crowd.”
Evie comes over and offers me a warm embrace. “Don’t worry, Mom. Cressi-duh may not have left me with much, but I still have the name of her esthetician.” She crimps her lips a moment. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten your birthday is in just a few days. I’ll make sure they zap off your mustache, too.”
“Thank you? I think,” I say as my fingers float to my upper lip, and I pet my peach fuzz.
“No problem.” Evie gives a heartfelt blink. “I want to apologize for my childish behavior last night. Of course, I don’t want to run amok on the beach with wild boys and endless booze.” She winks over at her blond boyfriend who just so happens to be built like a brick house, Conner Saint. Yes, that’s his surname. And both Everett and I are hoping he lives up to it. Conner is on the Honey Hollow High football team and Evie is a cheerleader. It’s a match made in sports heaven. She turns my way once again. “And I can’t wait for our little sugar cookie to get here. I know you plan on letting it hang off your boobs till it’s like twelve, but I plan on changing a diaper or two. Just number one, of course. We’ve got Dad and Uncle Noah to pick up the slack with number two.”
“Aw, thank you, Evie.” Tears mist my eyes. “You don’t know how happy that makes me to hear it.”
Her blonde bestie, Dash, wraps an arm around Evie’s shoulder. “I told her she needed to cut you some slack. And that she wouldn’t want to miss out on watching you have the baby. My aunt had a kid last month, and I watched her lady parts explode like a stick of dynamite and splatter all over her living room. She had a homebirth. She didn’t want anyone telling her she couldn’t eat a box of crullers while she was trying to push the little beast out.”
“Oh.” I suppress the urge to shudder. “That’s, um, lovely.”
“We’ll catch you later!” Evie shouts. “If the kid tries to crawl out early, text me!”
Carlotta chuckles. “What do you know, Lot? I had a homebirth with you, too. I guess I was ahead of my time. Only I wasn’t noshing on crullers. Cat Canelli whipped up some funny brownies to help take the edge off.”
“Did it work?”
No sooner do I ask the question than Noah frowns over at me.
“What?” I say. “Baking is in my wheelhouse, and I’m not opposed to exploring the benefits of recreational drugs for the occasion either. I may not be able to help the fact my lady parts are about to blow up, but if I can numb my brain, I might just do it.”
The sound of someone clearing their throat garners our attention, and I look over to see Everett standing there looking mind-numbingly handsome in his dark coat and his hands buried in his pockets as he inspects the three of us for a moment.
“Looking good,” he says, but nary a smile crests his lips. Not that it would. I’ve had to fight for every smile with that man, and do I ever love the challenge. “I’d ask if I missed anything, but I’m afraid you’ll fill me in.” Everett drove out on his own in the event his car blew up on the way.
“Aw shucks, Sexy. This is all I’ve got left to give you.” Carlotta reaches down into her bag of magic tricks and comes up with an oversized button that reads Kiss me, I’m Irish!
“Nope.” I take the pin and attach it to Carlotta’s lime green puffer jacket. “You can have fun with this one.”
“I will, Lot,” she’s quick to tell me. “Harry’s meeting me here. I told him I’d be with the weirdo with the beardo.” She hitches a thumb my way as she winks at Everett. “That way he’ll know how to find me.”
“I’m not keeping this orange beard on, Carlotta,” I say as the four of us head off for the crowded street in front of us. But no sooner do I pluck it down a notch than the icy wind licks at my chin, so I place that red facial fuzz right back where it belongs. “But maybe I’ll keep it on for just a teeny bit. You know, in an effort to blend in.” And to keep my face from freezing right off my body.
The street before us is heavily congested as the sidewalks become increasingly infiltrated with boisterous partygoers, all trying to catch a glimpse of the parade at hand.
The parade seems a bit chaotic with drunken bystanders staggering into the street and mucking up the band formation. There looks to be a few cheer squads, a handful of green mascots, and even a few floats coming down the pike. A disarray of music seems to be going off all at once, and from every direction. Not only is the band honking away, but those bagpipes I heard earlier are going on nonstop as well. And then there are the bars. Who knew the seemingly innocent streets of downtown Fallbrook were lined with Irish pubs? And the one that Noah leads us to just so happens to be called Hooligans.
It only seems fitting. Here’s hoping Ariella can lead us to the hooligan in question who gunned down her husband.
Hooligans is thick with bodies. It’s standing room only, the music is loud, the beer is green, and the women are all shockingly wearing their own red fuzzy beards.
“I guess I’m not the only weirdo with a beardo around here,” I say to Carlotta.
“No, but you’re the only weirdo with a beardo who can see ghosts. I’ve just got the beard and ghosts going for me.” She flashes a short-lived smile as Lil’ Mama floats right into her arms.
The sparkling specter lets out a few quick barks. “What fun is this? It reminds me of the parties that young Jazzy would throw when her parents went away for the weekend. There would be rivers of beer. And on one occasion the entire swimming pool turned green. And, of course, Jazzy herself would turn green the next morning. I guess she was a true-blue, or should I say true-green, Irish girl after all.”
“I sure wish we knew as much about Owen as we do about Jasmine.”
“I can help you with that,” a friendly female voice calls from behind as Ariella Kellerman smiles at us with an orange fuzzy beard of her own. The beard is just a shade lighter than her hair. But Ariella is cute despite the facial foible. She’s donned a green sweater, green jeans, and even has a matching green fanny pack cinched around her waist. You have to admire her enthusiasm for the festive day. “It’s so good to see you guys again.” She pulls Noah and Everett in for a quick embrace and the scent of her perfume wafts past me. It smells nice, clean, yet warm and homey—the exact way brown sugar enlivens the air when I’m melting it down with butter. “Let’s get a table,” she says as she inches us over to a standing height circle of wood where we can rest our elbows. She raises a hand and points toward the bar and miraculously five large steins of glowing green ale appear at the table. “I’m sorry, Lottie. I can get you some water if you like.”
“Oh no, that’s okay. I have everything I need right here.” I hold up my oversized bag as evidence.
Carlotta nods her way. “Lot’s got a bona fide convenience store tucked in her purse in the event she gets a bad case of the munchies. Want a fried pickle?”
“No thanks.” Ariella wrinkles her nose our way. “But I’ll pitch for appetizers. In fact, it’s all on me. The owner and I are the ones in charge of the debauchery taking place outside. I’ve got a running tab here that I don’t plan on paying.” She gives a good-natured laugh before she stops a waitress and puts in an order for some pretzel dog cheese dip. She turns my way. “I would have asked what you wanted, but it’s the only item on the menu.”
“That’s more than fine,” I say. “Anything with the words cheese dip on it will eventually find its way into my mouth.”
Carlotta elbows Noah. “Take notes, Foxy.”
“Everett”—Ariella pulls back and inspects him—“you don’t have a speck of green on. Just like the old days, huh? Hoping you’ll get a hearty pinch from every girl on the street. Well, you’re an old married man now.” She reaches into the fanny pack sitting on her hip and produces a large green button. “Here, this should fix things—or make things worse.” A tiny laugh trembles from her as she pulls her hand back and I read the button.
Blink if you want to get lucky.
Noah’s chest bucks at the sight. “What a coincidence. He used to have that very thing tattooed on his forehead.”
“I’ve got a pin for you, too, Noah.” She pulls another one out of her magic pack and secures it to his lapel, and once she pulls away we take a look at it.
“World’s tallest leprechaun,” Carlotta reads as she slaps the table with her hand with a laugh.
“To leprechauns.” Everett raises his beer to Noah. “The Irish fairy.”
Lil’ Mama barks. “I love fairies. Jazzy was a fairy herself just about every year on Halloween. She said she hadn’t been good enough to earn a halo, so she just went with the wings.”
Sounds as if Jasmine had an honest streak—albeit seasonal.
Ariella waves Everett off. “You two never change. Always going at it.” She laughs my way. “Don’t be insulted, Noah. A leprechaun is thought to be a supernatural being, who not only has a knack for getting their way, they’re often associated with very good luck.”
Getting their way? It’s safe to say Noah comes from a very long line of leprechauns, starting with Suze.
“Thank you,” he tells her. “And considering the fact I might be a father in just a few days, I indeed consider myself lucky.”
“That’s right.” She winces as she glances my way. “You’re still not sure who the father is. But I know either one of these guys will make a very good father. Everett, I hear you’re there already. Congrats.”
“Thanks,” he says as his expression grows a touch somber. It’s not too different from his regular expression, but I’ve grown to recognize his nuances. “How are you doing so far?”
“I’m doing surprisingly well.” Her own happy-go-lucky demeanor does a disappearing act. “You know it comes in waves, the grief. But things like this have a way of taking my mind off of it for at least five minutes at a time. It’s like the fact that Owen is gone completely slips my mind, and I’m as content as can be. And then it hits me all over again like an avalanche of bricks and I’m pulled under again.” She closes her eyes for a good long while. “So what’s new with the case?” She looks to Noah as she asks the question. “You mentioned there was a new development.”
I had asked Noah that very same question when he came home last night, but he said he wanted to save the big reveal for when we had Ariella with us.
He pulls his beer forward. “It turns out, Jasmine was trying to secure a bad loan. And she just might have. We have footage of her visiting a place down in Leeds. She was talking to a finance company run by mobsters.”
Ariella nearly chokes as she takes in a sharp breath.
Personally, I’m not so shocked. My investigations have taken me down to that thorny investment shack buried in the armpit of Red Satin. But I’m not sure I’m buying the fact the mob would put a hit out on a woman who owed them money. That is, if that’s what Noah is getting at. Surely there were other ways of getting her attention outside of death.
A waitress pops a cast iron pot filled with orange goo and lined with pigs in a blanket and every last bit of me gasps.
But Ariella shakes her head at Noah as if she didn’t even see the treat that just materialized before us.
Lil’ Mama yips my way. “What are we waiting for, Lottie? Let’s dive in. You take a bite and I’ll take a bite. It’s only fair.”
I shake my head at the hungry apparition. “It’s every girl for herself.”
“Suit yourself.” She drops down to the table and begins licking up the cheesy dip at record speeds.
“Gah!” Ariella cries as she looks to the dish that seems to be diminishing all by its lonesome.
So I do the only thing I can think of. I dive in with both hands and shovel in as much cheese as I can before scooping up a couple of hot dogs to go along with it. My hands, my face, my new beard are all covered with orange bliss.
Lil’ Mama looks like a hot cheesy mess herself.
“So good.” She staggers around the table before floating into the air and heading straight for the ceiling. It’s almost as if she’s drunk off the cheese, and honestly? Same here.
“Lottie?” Ariella says my name with a touch of apprehension, as if she’s afraid I might reach across the table and start noshing on her arm. “Is everything okay? Please be careful. I’d hate for you to choke.”
“Don’t pay her any mind,” Carlotta is quick to dismiss my erratic, albeit ravenous behavior. “Lot’s been double fisting wieners for so long, she’s an old pro at it.”
I stop cold just to stare Carlotta down before taking a rather aggressive bite out of the wiener in my hand.
“Okay.” Everett takes a breath. “Let’s stay focused. Ariella, outside of Jasmine and her dirty dealings, I really want to know if Owen had someone who was angry with him, maybe someone who was stalking him? I’ve had a few disgruntled defendants who didn’t exactly appreciate their day in court. I’m afraid it’s a hazard of the job.”
She glances to the ceiling, to the exact spot where Lil’ Mama is moaning and groaning while getting walloped by a couple of Mylar balloons in the shape of four-leaf clovers.
“Not that I know of.” Ariella shrugs back his way just as her eyes enlarge a notch. “But, you know what? I bet that could have happened. It’s as plain as the nose on my face. Owen had a way of infuriating everyone, but for some reason, everyone was always extra nice to him in the courtroom. I used to think it was that black robe that garnered him a little respect. But as time went on, I started to believe the rumors.” A sheepish look crosses her face. “I guess you’ve heard them, too.”
Both Noah and Everett give a subtle nod. It’s not a secret, I guess, that Owen took bribes and racked up enemies.
“Wow.” Ariella hugs herself as she stares off in a daze. “I guess that must be what happened. I suppose the sheriff’s department will have to dig in and see who could have turned on him this way. I’m sure the courthouse will be more than cooperative with you, Noah.”
“I know they will,” he tells her. His evergreen eyes never leave hers. I know that look on Noah’s face. He suspects something else is afoot. So do I.
I clear my throat. “So what’s going to happen to Jasmine’s food business? Are you taking it under your wings?”
“Jazzy could only wish.” She rolls her eyes. “Door-to-Door Gourmet is just as dead as she is. Sorry to sound so harsh. But the company was struggling. Like most restaurants, the only thing Door-to-Door Gourmet was good at is closing. I’m not too sad over it. I was about five minutes from suggesting that Jazzy give up on the endeavor.”
“That’s too bad,” I say. “I mean, it sounds like a good idea. I’m so busy that I would love to have a meal delivery service. Especially at this point in my life.” I pat my belly. “And on another note, I can’t imagine how you feel. You not only lost your husband, but you lost a good friend, too.”
“That’s right.” Her lips crimp for a moment. “Jazzy and I go way back.”
“So you knew her well.” I lean forward. “Jen mentioned that Jasmine knew how to make people do her bidding. She mentioned that she herself was no different. Did Jasmine have anything on Jen?”
Ariella’s shoulders cinch. “I don’t know.” She gives a few wild blinks. “I mean, I’d hate to set poor Jen up to look like she could have done this, but I suppose someone needs to take the blame.” She blows out a hard breath. “Okay, so there was something that Jazzy had over Jen, but it’s embarrassing and it’s nothing to take someone’s life over. It’s silly, in fact.”
“What is it?” Noah prods.
“A confession.” She frowns up at Everett. “She forged her father’s signature while he was on his deathbed. Nobody was going to give her the money she needed to open a chicken hut of all things. Her father was embarrassed by the idea. And when Jen saw that he was on his last leg, she simply helped herself to his checkbook. She took way more than he had planned on leaving her in the will. Her brothers got ripped off when you consider how large that sum was. And well, Jazzy found out, because, get this—Jen outed herself while on one of their famous bender weekends. Jazzy wasn’t too drunk to forget, though. She always remembered the dirty details and filed them away for later. She knew how to ruin people—how to eviscerate them financially to the point they’d never recover.” She closes her eyes and shudders. “Poor Jen. I’m sure if she did pull that trigger, it wasn’t premeditated. But I don’t think it was her or anyone from the courthouse. Honestly, I should probably have my money on Stassi.”
“Really?” I blink back, surprised. Because the evidence seemed to be mounting toward Jen’s chicken coop a moment ago.
“Really,” she says with a forlorn smile. “I saw Slater and Stassi with my own two eyes. Her hair was rumpled and so was his. Her skin was pink and glowing, and no, I don’t buy that whole looking-for-his-wedding-ring routine. Stassi grew to hate Jazzy while they were filming the second season of Money on the Med. You could tell just by the way the show interviews grew cattier by the day. Stassi had always been jealous of Jazzy. If you watch season two, episode ten, she says so as much word for word. And after Jazzy humiliated Stassi publicly, all Stassi saw was red. She knew that Owen carried a gun. She had asked to see it on several occasions, and Owen was always more than happy to comply. My guess is, she did exactly that the night of the murder. She lured Jazzy outside when she asked if they could have a private chat. I was hoping for the best when I heard the invite, but here two people I loved ended up dead. As for Owen, I think he realized that Stassi might have had nefarious intentions and went after her. And that’s when I think he was caught in the crossfire. Stassi never meant to hurt Owen that night. She wouldn’t.”
Noah tips his head to the side. “So you knew Stassi had asked Jasmine outside?”
She closes her eyes a moment too long. “I not only knew it, I heard it.”
“That’s not what you said in the police report.” He sighs.
And that’s not what she said to me either. She said Jasmine stepped out to have a smoke. But in her defense, she was in shock. It was her husband lying there dead on the ground. I don’t think I would even know how to formulate a sentence, let alone answer a question the same way twice.
Everett takes a deep breath. “Have you seen Slater?”
“Not at all.” The words speed from her. “I’ve been thinking about him a lot, though.” She sighs as her gaze drifts for a moment. “You know, everything he did for Jazzy was because he loved her. I never understood why she was so cold and undercutting to him.”
“Oh, I do!” a voice trills from above as Lil’ Mama floats down from the ceiling with all the elegance of a deflated balloon. “Mrs. Albright always said, ‘Never let a man see your soft side. They want you hard and stern and able to dole out a swift emotional beating every now and again. A healthy dose of humiliation never hurt either. And having a little blackmail on the side would always serve you well.’”
“Blackmail?” I say out loud without meaning to. “Sorry.” I pat my fingers to my lips a moment. “I was just thinking out loud. But could Jasmine have been blackmailing Slater?”
Her eyes grow wide with the accusation. “Over what?” she says, incensed that I had the nerve to ask. “I’m sorry, Lottie, but they were done. She wanted out. And she set out to humiliate him for cheating on her. Her ego couldn’t handle not being in the driver’s seat for once. And, by God, she was going to take back the wheel any way she knew how.”
Her phone buzzes, and she glances down. “I’m sorry, it seems a float has been overrun with a bunch of teenagers shouting who needs Cabo when we’ve got Fallbrook.” A pained laugh strums through her. “I don’t even know what that means. I bet they’ve been hitting the green beer. Half the bartenders are so drunk tonight they’re forgetting to card people. And Lord knows a sixteen-year-old girl these days can look far older than twenty-one when she wants to. I’ll see you all soon at Mackie and Cressie’s new B&B. It’s going to be fun!” She darts out of the pub before we can ask another question.
Everett groans, “I’d better clean up this mess before Evie and her friends get tossed into a paddy wagon.”
“I’m coming with you, Sexy.” Carlotta quickly works the pin off Everett’s chest. “Sorry, but I have a feeling Harry won’t have a stitch of green on him, and I’ve got some blinking I’ve been meaning to do.”
The two of them zip off and I shrug over at Noah.
“What do you think?”
“She gave us a lot to work with. So what’s next, Detective Lemon?”
“We polish off the rest of this cheese dip and figure out a way to talk to Slater Sutton one more time. If he was being blackmailed, that might be a motive for murder.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
We chow down on what’s left of the cheese dip and pigs in a blanket. Okay, so it’s just me chowing down on melted cheese and double fisting the wieners while Noah waits patiently.
We finally head outside just in time to see a float scooting by with a large white fluffy cloud base and a giant rainbow balloon arch stretched from one side of it to the other.
Three things immediately stop me cold.
One: Evie and her friends are staggered, standing near the front and waving at the howling crowd.
Two: Carlotta and Mayor Nash have fallen into a large cauldron at the rear of the float that reads pot o’ gold and they’re making out like a couple of teenagers.
And three: Everett is standing on the side facing our way and is tossing green beaded necklaces out to a crowd of very enthusiastic women—some of which might be flashing him.
“Don’t ask,” he shouts our way before holding up his bucket of green beaded goodness as if he were sending an invite.
Noah and I don’t hesitate. Noah helps hoist me on board, and soon I’m sandwiched between him and Everett, each of us with a bucket o’ beads to toss at the crowd, and I can’t help but think I’m the luckiest girl alive.
And I’ll be feeling even luckier once we nail down that killer.
I look up at Everett and give a few solid blinks his way.
“Lemon.” His lips curve at the tips. “That’s a legally binding contract I plan on holding you to.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
And just like that, the luckiest girl alive gets even luckier.
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