Books

coverCookie Dough or Die

Chapter One

Olivia Greyson's eyes popped open to darkness—and to the sense that someone was downstairs. Her little Yorkie had heard something. Spunky hadn't barked, but he was watching the bedroom door, ears perked.

Olivia's beloved store, The Gingerbread House, occupied the entire first floor of her small Victorian home. In a town like Chatterley Heights, no one bothered with fancy burglar alarms, but Olivia—who had, after all, lived a dozen years in Baltimore—kicked herself for not knowing better. On the other hand, Chatterley Heights barely managed to provide enough crime for two officers, so what were the odds?

It must have been a dream. "That does it," Olivia said. "No more chocolate-iced shortbread before bed. And that includes you, young man. Don't think I didn't see you lap up those crumbs." Spunky objected with a whimper.

Olivia's head dropped to the pillow, but her eyes stared into the darkness as she mentally ticked through the contents of her store—cookie cutters, first and foremost, but she locked the valuable antiques in the safe each night, along with the day's receipts. Some of the glossier cookie cookbooks, designed for coffee table display, carried hefty price tags; however, they were too heavy to steal. The more expensive aprons, hand-appliquéd with decorated cookie designs, drew sighs only from the few customers who understood the skill it took to create them.

Olivia left only one costly piece of equipment on permanent display in the cookbook alcove, a bright red mixer set with a stunning array of attachments. It was worth stealing, but even a desperate thief might think twice. Try explaining that contraption to a pawnshop clerk.

Spunky curled into the curve of her knees, relaxing the tension in Olivia's body, but her mind kept bouncing around the store downstairs. Luckily, she had a fail-safe method for falling asleep. She closed her eyes and imagined herself snuggled in a fleece-lined canoe, drifting along a river of chocolate sprinkles. She smelled the rich, sensuous aroma of chocolate melting under a warm sun. Soon she felt a gentle drop as her canoe glided down a waterfall of colored sugar crystals. Sparkling cascades of violet, red, and blue splashed all around her. A soft landing in a pool of frothy icing, and she'd be asleep. Instead, she crash landed awake as Spunky jumped to his paws and barked at the closed bedroom door.

Olivia dragged herself up on one elbow. "What is it, Spunks?"

Spunky stiffened and growled.

coverReaching over the tiny dog, Olivia patted the top of her bedside table to locate her alarm clock, also known as her cell phone. She pushed the center button to wake it up. The lit numbers at the top read four a.m.

So far, Olivia hadn't heard a sound in the house, at least nothing besides the usual creaks or the furnace kicking on. Spunky had excellent hearing, though, so perhaps someone really was trying to get into the store—someone who didn't realize the pricy items were locked away.

Olivia started to punch 911, then hesitated, remembering an incident the previous autumn. An extended family of hungry mice had invaded The Gingerbread House kitchen and settled down for the winter in brand-new sacks of fl our and sugar. Spunky had heard them through the fl oor vents upstairs. It would be a shame to rouse the town's limited police force, only to confront a band of unarmed mice. She'd never hear the end of it.

Olivia slid her feet from under the covers and into a pair of battered tennis shoes she used for slippers. Ears erect and ready for anything, Spunky hopped off the bed and trotted toward the bedroom door. His right front paw, injured in puppyhood, twisted inward a bit, so he had a limp. Still, he moved as fast as any five-pound dog alive. He had no awareness of his size; he would protect Olivia to the death. She had no intention of allowing him to do so. Using her firm alpha-dog voice, learned in puppy school, Olivia said, "Spunky, stay here and guard the inner sanctum."

At the word "stay," Spunky tilted his head sideways. A curtain of silky hair fell across his face, covering one eye. The other eye pleaded for a chance to do battle for her.

Olivia reached down to smooth the hair back over his head. "Nice try," she said. "I'll be right back." She cracked open the bedroom door enough to squeeze through sideways, blocking Spunky with her foot, then snapped the door shut behind her. Spunky had a frightening habit of exploding through doorways as if escape were his only salvation. A holdover from puppyhood.

In the hallway, a nightlight made from a cookie cutter cast a glowing teakettle shape on the wall. Olivia decided to leave the overhead light off, just in case, though she still hadn't heard any alarming noises.

At that moment Olivia heard a faint scraping sound, and it hadn't come from the bedroom behind her. It might have been beneath her feet. Olivia knelt down, put her ear to the fl oor, and listened. There it was again, a scrape, like a stuck door being yanked open. The door to the supply cabinet in the kitchen made a sound like that. She kept meaning to ask Lucas Ashford, owner of Height's Hardware next door, to stop by and sand it down. Now she was glad she'd forgotten. That telltale scraping sound told her someone was downstairs in The Gingerbread House kitchen, opening cupboard doors.

Olivia had left her cell phone by her bed, but she could use the wall phone in her small upstairs kitchen, two doors down, at the rear of the house. She bolted to her feet and reached the kitchen in seconds, panting more from anxiety than exertion. Her hand shook as she grabbed for the phone. The noises were much louder now that she was in her own kitchen, right above the store kitchen. Olivia hesitated, listening. Surely not even a battalion of mice could make such a racket, let alone any self-respecting intruder.

The sounds downstairs had become way too familiar—the clatter of metal pans, the rhythmic clink of a spoon hitting a porcelain bowl, the oven door clunking shut. Either the mice were baking cookies or...

"Maddie." The name came out as an exasperated groan, as Olivia collapsed on a kitchen chair.

Madeline Briggs was her best friend, had been since they were ten years old. In the intervening twenty-one years, Maddie had brought much to Olivia's life, including fun, a shoulder to cry on, and the occasional murderous impulse. The latter had become more common in the past year, since she and Maddie had become business partners. Olivia's fun quotient had increased, too, but this was not one of those moments.

Olivia had dawdled at bedtime and, so far, had achieved only four hours of sleep. The last fi fteen minutes had worn her out. The thought of crawling back under the covers brought her to her feet. She'd have to remind Maddie that she wasn't in her own kitchen. After more sleep.

At that moment, the Chatterley Heights Gospel Chorus erupted into deafening four-part harmony. Except Chatterley Heights didn't have a gospel chorus, and it was barely past four o'clock in the morning.

This was vintage Maddie. Her aunt Sadie, who'd raised her, used to complain that Maddie would awaken with a masterpiece in mind for the school bake sale, pay no attention to the time, run down to the kitchen—oblivious to the absence of sunlight—and jump headfi rst into her project. Never mind that someone might be in hearing distance, trying to complete an adequate night's sleep. Only she'd never before pulled this stunt in The Gingerbread House.

On the plus side, Maddie was responsible for several wildly creative ideas that had already made The Gingerbread House a shopping destination for customers from DC and Baltimore. Everyone loved her, and she was fun to work with. Most of the time.

Olivia grabbed her keys from the kitchen wall hook and draped them over the waistband of the sweatpants she'd worn to bed. She would simply explain to Maddie that most people don't find loud music conducive to slumber, they would come to an agreement, and Olivia could enjoy another few hours of sleep.

First, she stopped at her bathroom to splash some cold water on her face. It didn't help. The woman she saw in the mirror had sleep-crusted bluish gray eyes, one creased cheek, and serious bed hair. She consoled herself with the thought that she looked terrifying.

Olivia's laceless sneakers flopped as she trudged down the stairs to unlock her front door, which opened into the house's original entryway. A wealthy Baltimore family had built the little Queen Anne in 1889 as a summer getaway. During the following century, new owners had transformed the house into a duplex by blocking off the staircase and adding two inner doors inside the entryway. One led upstairs, the other opened into The Gingerbread House. This double entry had sold Olivia on the idea of sinking a good chunk of her divorce settlement into a mortgage. The location, the northeast corner of Chatterley Heights's busy town square, couldn't be more perfect. She'd decided to open a cookie-cutter store downstairs, complete with its own kitchen, and she could live upstairs, all for one hefty monthly payment. On this particular morning, she questioned the wisdom of her business and residential choices.

Olivia unlocked The Gingerbread House and stepped inside, bolting the door behind her. She could make out shapes in the darkness, but she knew better than to feel her way along without light. The store was a glorious cookie-cutter minefield—cookie cutters served as lamp and curtain pulls, themed cookie-cutter mobiles swung from the ceiling, and small tables holding elaborate displays dotted the room. Customers with aesthetic leanings felt free to rearrange tables on whim.

Olivia twisted the dimmer switch enough so she could cross to the kitchen without breaking several toes or her neck. Even in her crabby, sleep-interrupted state, she felt a ping of pleasure as dozens of metal cookie cutters caught the light and glistened like waves in the moonlight. For Olivia, each day began like her childhood Christmas mornings, when she would sneak downstairs before anyone else was up. She would plug in the tree lights and sit cross-legged in the dark, staring at the sparkles of color. If she swung her head back and forth fast enough, the lights would blur and appear to move, like multicolored shooting stars.

Then her younger brother Jason would bound downstairs, whooping and jabbering with excitement. He'd flip on all the lights and dive for his presents, ripping the shiny paper into shreds. She loved her baby brother, but he sure could destroy a moment of enchantment.

As she reached for the kitchen doorknob, Olivia took a deep breath to prepare herself for chaotic reality. At least the gospel music had stopped. Maybe Maddie was winding down, cleaning up the kitchen. Olivia turned the knob and opened the kitchen door. A blast of the Bee Gees singing "Stayin' Alive" knocked her a step backwards.

Olivia stepped inside to buttery warmth laced with nutmeg, which almost made up for the state of the kitchen. Maddie had a gift for exuberant baking, which always resulted in a huge mess, but this time she had achieved a personal best. Apparently, it had snowed in the kitchen. Flour dusted the surface of the large kitchen table, the counter, the floor. Globs of cookie dough stuck to the walls, the door, even the refrigerator.

Maddie's pretty round face showed smudges of fl our wherever she had rubbed or swiped, including the tip of her nose. At least she'd thought to put an apron over her jeans and T-shirt. A magenta bandanna held back her springy red curls. Her curvy hips were swaying in time to the disco beat as she studied a color chart. Olivia couldn't help but smile.

On the kitchen table, several dozen cut-out cookies lay cooling on racks. As always, they were baked to perfection and not one second beyond. At least a dozen soup-size plastic containers, plus a large mixing bowl filled with cream-colored icing, crowded the table. Maddie had her back to Olivia while she selected a small bottle from an impressive collection of similar bottles that lined the shelves next to the color chart. After executing a smooth disco spin around to the table, Maddie scooped some icing into one of the containers, then opened her bottle of food coloring. She existed only on Planet Maddie, alone with her colors, her tunes, and a gallon of royal icing.

Olivia saw only one easy way to get Maddie's attention. She pushed the stop button on the CD player. Maddie's hand froze over the bowl of icing. As her head snapped toward the CD player, a drop of royal blue coloring retreated back into its dropper.

Catching sight of Olivia, Maddie grinned. "Livie! Hey, sleepyhead."

"I don't suppose you know what time it is?"

"Not a clue. Is it time to open? Because I stowed some work clothes in the bathroom, so I can be changed in a jiffy." Maddie's eyes flicked to Olivia's attire. "You're in your jammies. Are you sick or—?"

"Or," Olivia said, "it's the middle of the night."

Maddie twisted her head to check the clock over the sink. "It's almost five o'clock."

"That's four twenty-four. In the morning. Your music woke me up at four. I was catching up on paperwork until midnight, so I had my heart set on at least three more hours of sleep. I need those three hours."

"Oh, Livie, I'm sorry. You'll get those three hours, I promise. I'll open the store; you can sleep till noon if you want." Maddie reached toward a rack of cookies. "Only first let me show you what I'm making for our special spring event on Saturday. You'll love it, and you'll sleep so much better knowing how fabulously fun it will be. Please?"

"What the heck, I'm awake now." Olivia dragged a tall stool over to the table and crawled onto it. "I don't suppose you've made coffee?"

As Maddie shook her head, a red curl escaped its restraint and bounced on her cheek. She swept it behind her ear. "I've got extra icing, though. A good dose of sugar would perk you right up."

"Tell me your brilliant idea."

Maddie's face lit up. She pushed the rack of cookies toward Olivia and asked, "What do you think?"

"Flowers? For spring, right?"

"And?"

Olivia picked up a cookie. "This looks like a tulip, but I don't remember having a cutter quite like this in stock."

"And you would be correct," Maddie said. "I used our regular tulip cookie cutter, but then I worked the dough a bit to make it look more like a lily-flowering tulip. I did the same thing with all our flower shapes." She reached to a rack on the table and plucked up another cookie. "This is a daisy I'm turning into a sunflower. See?"

It still looked like a daisy to Olivia. "I'm sure I will once you've outlined the petals."

"Maybe you will and maybe you won't," Maddie said, with her signature mad-scientist smirk. "I'm decorating them with wild colors, and Saturday we'll ask customers to identify each fl ower. You guess right, you get the cookie. Whoever gets the most right wins a free lesson on making creative cutout cookies. We'll show customers how versatile cookie cutters can be, so when they buy a set of five ordinary shapes, they are really investing in endless possibilities."

Olivia bit a petal off her cookie and chewed, enjoying the sweet-butter feel of it melting in her mouth. Maddie was truly gifted when it came to anything cookie related. When Olivia didn't answer immediately, Maddie's full lips began to droop. "You hate my idea."

Olivia swallowed quickly. "Girlfriend, your idea is nothing short of brilliant. Cleaning up after your fits of genius is a small price to pay. However, next time bring your iPod and plug it in your ear." She slid off her stool, taking the remains of the cookie with her. "And now I am going back to bed. I'll be down by nine."

Olivia was about to leave when she heard a knocking sound from the direction of a door that opened into the alley behind the store. She spun around. Maddie, her hand hovering over the bottles of food coloring, stared over her shoulder at Olivia. "Who on earth... ?" she whispered.

Another knock, louder this time. Olivia, who was facing the back door, saw the doorknob turn. The door rattled as someone tried to push it open. Olivia reached across the kitchen table toward the knife Maddie had been using to trim cookie edges. She curled her fingers around the handle, pulled it to her.

"Livie? Maddie? You kids okay in there?" It was a man's voice, authoritative, concerned, and familiar.

"Thank God," Maddie said. "It's Del."

Olivia realized how tense she'd been as her shoulders dropped about a foot. Del was Sheriff Delroy Jenkins. He was only in his late thirties, but he always referred to younger women as kids. Olivia suspected it was his way of keeping some professional distance. Which was fine with her—she'd felt the occasional spark between them, but she wasn't anywhere near ready for a new relationship. Her divorce was barely a year old.

Maddie unlocked the back door and flung it open. Sheriff Del stood in the dark alley, his hand on the butt of his service revolver. As he stepped closer to the doorway, his eyes darted around the kitchen.

"You scared the life out of us," Maddie said. She grabbed the shoulder of Del's uniform and pulled him inside.

The back door was small, and Del was one of the few men in town who didn't have to duck to go through it. However, he was still taller than Olivia's five foot seven. Which didn't matter, she reminded herself, because there was nothing whatsoever between them.

Sheriff Del locked and bolted the door behind him. "What the heck are you doing out there?" Maddie demanded. "Are you on night shift or something, or is this a cop thing, wandering around alleys at—well, whatever time it is, it's still dark."

Del had an easygoing, unflappable manner, but to Olivia he looked shaken.

"You two sure you're okay in here?" Del asked, his eyes on the knife in Olivia's hand.

Olivia held the knife up, pointing toward the ceiling. "Everything's under control," she said. "The body's in the basement. Want to help bury it?"

Del relaxed enough to drop his hand from his gun handle. He grinned as his gaze flicked up and down Olivia's body. "You are looking lovely this morning, Ms. Greyson." Olivia plunked the knife onto the table so she wouldn't throw it at him. Though she wasn't prone to blushing, she could feel her cheeks heat up. She'd forgotten what she was wearing when she'd been blasted out of bed. It wasn't pretty.

Olivia's ex-husband wasn't an evil guy, but he'd been a bit on the controlling side. Ryan was a surgeon, which eventually became more important to him than being an equal partner in their marriage. Over time, he'd begun laying down rules for Olivia to live by. Ryan despised dogs, said they were smelly and noisy and carried germs. He had also insisted that a surgeon's wife should always dress well, day and night. If even a neighbor saw Olivia wearing ratty clothes, it might trigger rumors that Ryan was a sloppy surgeon.

As soon as she moved to Chatterley Heights, Olivia set about breaking the rules. She'd adopted Spunky, a rescue Yorkie who liked to steal food off her plate. And she always wore her oldest, most dilapidated sweats to bed. The more holes, the better. It hadn't occurred to her that anyone besides Spunky or Maddie might ever spot her in them. So much for that hint of future romance. Probably for the best.

Del looked too tired to keep up the banter, so Olivia swallowed her scathing retort. "Has something happened?" she asked him. "Is that why you're out at this hour?"

Del hesitated, frowning. With a shrug, he said, "Everyone will know soon, anyway. I was on my way home from the Chamberlain house when I saw the lights on in here. It got me worrying. Not that there's anything for you to worry about, it looked like an accident, but I thought I'd check on you, to be on the safe side."

"Could you be a little less clear?" Olivia asked.

"Sorry," Del said with a faint smile. "We got a call around two a.m. from the Chamberlain housekeeper—you know Bertha, right? Anyway, Bertha said she'd found Clarisse unconscious. We got there right after the paramedics, but there was nothing anyone could do. She was dead."

 

© Virginia Lowell.