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Authors: Connie Shelton

Tags: #Mystery

Bitter Sweet

 

Bitter Sweet

The Fifth Samantha
Sweet Mystery

 

Copyright 2012 –
Connie Shelton

 

“Shelton continues to combine
suspenseful storytelling with sensitive portrayals of complex family
relationships.” —
Booklist

 

“...a wonderful, easy flow that draws in
the reader.”

—Amazon 5-Star review

 

“As for me, I enjoy mysteries infused with a little touch of magic and
a dream that anything is possible.” —Amazon 5-Star review

 

“Connie Shelton gets better with every book she writes.”

--Midwest Book Review

Chapter 1

The prospect of breaking into
houses made Samantha Sweet weary as she considered the two jobs that needed her
attention later in the day. Once, those breakins had provided a living, but
this past year they had increasingly become a drudgery. However, the obligation
loomed and she could see no way out just yet. She sighed. Sweet’s Sweets, her
‘bakery of magical delights’ was her life now.

She piped the final few inches of
shell border on an all-ivory wedding cake and stepped back to check the
finished piece, happy to see that it met with her usual exacting standards. She
called over her assistant baker, Becky Harper, to help her move the five-tiered
confection into the walk-in fridge.

“It’s gorgeous, Sam. As always,”
Becky said, admiring the intricate traditional swags and piping as they wheeled
the metal cart toward the back of the workroom. “No wonder every bride in town
wants you to make her cake.”

“Kind of a mixed blessing,” Sam
said. “I love creating the cakes—it’s what I dreamed of for years before actually
opening the shop. I just never imagined that there would be
no
down
time. You know what I mean?”

She’d no sooner opened the shop
last fall than the winter holidays rushed in upon her—Halloween, Thanksgiving,
Christmas. Personal sorrow followed in January at the sudden death of her
fiancé’s mother. A huge rush of business around Valentine’s Day, when her own
wedding had to be postponed, and she’d suddenly found herself in the midst of
the spring holidays. She couldn’t begin to count how many cupcakes and cookies
they’d baked and decorated with pastel bunnies, chicks and eggs. Before she
could breathe she was taking orders for June weddings and the barrage of
associated showers and bachelorette parties. She glanced at the wire trays on
her desk, where the orders were stacking up. Now, in mid-June, she already had
wedding cake orders well into September.

“You’re probably beat when you
get home at night,” Becky said, catching Sam’s expression.

“It’s a good kind of tired.” She
didn’t want to admit that she was running near her limits.

For at least the fourth time that
week, she made herself a mental note to hire more help. If nothing else she
should be able to get some teenage boys to mow lawns and trim hedges. She’d run
ads at the end of May, the moment school let out for summer, but there were no
takers—hard to imagine there was so much unemployment and nobody willing to do
some actual labor. Kids wanted to work at the electronics store where playing
around with the cool new devices was more enticing than fresh air and sunshine.

“Sam? Your two o’clock
consultation is here.” Jennifer Baca, the shop’s only clerk, peeked through the
curtain between the sales area and kitchen.

“Be right there.” Sam quickly
rinsed the perpetual sugary residue from her hands and picked up her order pad
and folder of cake designs. “Becky, can you get those flowers done for the
Cassidy cake? White daisies with yellow centers?”

“I’m on it. Don’t worry.”

An hour later, Sam realized she’d
never eaten lunch and her energy was gone.

“You better give yourself a
break, Sam.” Jen wiped down the shop’s unoccupied bistro tables. “Go get a
sandwich, or at least sit here for a few and put your feet up.”

“I brought an apple from home.
I’ll just—”

The bell on the front door
interrupted.

“Zoë! Hey, what’s up?”

Sam’s best friend breezed in,
wearing her usual cotton broomstick skirt and a crinkled top that hung just
right on her slender frame. She had a foil packet and a round plastic carton in
her hands.

“I made way too many tamales. One
of our groups canceled. I know you like them and there’s enough here for you,
Beau and Kelly to have a couple of dinners.”

“You sure you don’t want to just
stick them in my freezer here? They’ll keep for your next influx of guests.”

“Nah. You take them.”

Zoë knew Sam rarely found time to
cook these days. The ‘overages’ at her friend’s B&B were happening fairly
regularly now.

“At least let me pay you for
them. These things take a lot of work.”

“Nope. You’re not paying for a
thing. How many cakes and cookies have you made for me recently? At Easter,
when Darryl’s whole family showed up and you gave us all those adorable
cupcakes for the kids—”

“Okay, okay. As long as you
continue to let me reciprocate.” Sam took the warm packet and the heavenly
smell just about brought her to her knees. “Can you stay a minute? I was about
to take a lunch break.”

Zoë followed her into the kitchen
where she unwrapped two of the tamales, placed them on a plate and poured some
of her friend’s famous red sauce over them. The women sat on either side of
Sam’s desk.

“So, is your mother still nagging
about the wedding or are you and Beau about to appease her by actually going
through with it?”

Sam rolled her eyes as she cut
into the tamale and took her first bite. “Mother, I’m afraid, is far more stressed
over our pending marriage than we are. I learned my lesson trying to plan it
for Valentine’s Day—there was just way too much going on. Beau and I want to
wait until we see a clear spot, when we can both enjoy our wedding and get away
long enough for an actual honeymoon trip.”

“Makes sense to me.” Zoë
tactfully didn’t add the fact that there was no such opening anywhere on the
horizon.

“Losing Iris was still pretty
fresh to us then, too,” Sam said. “We had hoped she would recover from that
first stroke enough to attend. It was a difficult time.”

She touched the garnet ring on
her left hand.

Zoë nodded, letting Sam move on
to the second tamale. The telephone rang and Sam automatically noted that Jen
picked up two lines in the sales room. Less than a minute later, the intercom
buzzed on Sam’s desk.

“Sorry about this, Sam. Line one
is Delbert Crow and line two is your mother.”

Sam swallowed her food. Her gaze
locked with Zoë’s. “I’ll get Delbert,” she told Jen. “Tell Mother I’ll have to
call her back and that it will probably be later this evening.”

“Chicken,” Zoë said, giving Sam’s
hand a squeeze as she stood. “I’ll catch you later.”

Sam gave her friend a lopsided
grin. “Samantha Sweet here,” she said to the man who was her USDA contracting
officer. As much as she wanted to put the job of breaking into abandoned homes
and keeping them clean and tidy out of her mind, nearly eighteen months
remained on her current contract with the Department of Agriculture.

“There’s another job for you.
Ready for the details?” Delbert Crow’s voice never changed. Perpetually grumpy
sounding, he seemed to Sam like a guy who’d been in his job too long and
couldn’t wait to retire. She pictured him slumped at a desk stacked high with
thick manila folders, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. Except
that there were probably no government offices that allowed anyone to smoke
indoors these days.

Like it or not, she would need to
spend the better part of the afternoon mowing lawns and sweeping cobwebs at the
two properties already under her care and now he was assigning her a third.
This past winter and spring, her caretaker duties dwindled and she’d almost
become lulled into believing the influx of abandoned properties in Taos County
was slowing. Suddenly, it didn’t seem that way at all.

She reached for a notepad and
took down the particulars for the new caretaking job. Might as well go out
there now, she decided as she hung up the phone. She’d scheduled no bakery
deliveries this afternoon, leaving time to mow lawns at the other two places.
If she handled the preliminaries quickly on this new one she should have time
to get it all done before dark. Luckily—or not—this time of year darkness
didn’t come until well after eight o’clock. There might be more daylight, but
that didn’t mean a person actually had the stamina to make full use of it.

“I’m getting too old for this,”
she muttered as she hung up her baker’s jacket and fished in her backpack for
the keys to her pickup.

Becky looked up from the rack
where nearly three dozen sugar daisies hung by their stems to dry. “Sam, you
okay?”

Sam forced a perky smile. Her
assistant was the same age as Sam’s daughter and she managed to put in a full
day at the bakery, go home and cook for a husband and two little boys. Surely
Sam could handle this workload. And if it got to be too much . . . well, there
was another way . . .

She tamped down that thought
right away and gave Jen and Becky a few last-minute instructions. They could
handle two more hours and close up the shop on their own. Her red pickup truck
sat in the alley behind the shop, the utility trailer with garden tractor and
cans of extra gasoline hitched to it. A locking bin contained the smaller tools
she needed for her jobs. Taos might be small-town in a lot of ways, but that didn’t
mean portable items wouldn’t walk away.

She unlocked the truck and let it
idle as she plotted her route. The new property was farthest away so she would
save it for last. The other two places should only need mowing, and one of
those was a fairly small house with just a patch of lawn. She put the truck in
gear and headed out.

She polished off the postage
stamp lawn in no time and quickly swept a light coating of dirt off the porch
and sidewalk of the little tan-
stuccoed
, flat roofed
house, then went inside and logged her appearance on the sign-in sheet that she
kept at each of the properties in her care. The second place was less than a
mile from the first and it, too, needed minimal work. Riding the lawn tractor
around a half-acre relaxed her, and the fact that no phones were ringing and
frantic brides were not nit-picking the shade of purple she’d chosen for the
flowers on their cakes, well, that was an added benefit at the moment.

She made the final pass across
the lawn, then rode the mower up the ramp to her trailer. When she peeked at
it, the readout on her cell phone told her it was nearly six o’clock. Kelly
would be leaving Puppy Chic any minute. Sam speed dialed her daughter’s number.

“Hey, Mom.” Kelly always sounded
chipper, no matter how long the workday.

“There are fresh tamales for
dinner, if you want to pop in next door and pick them up.”

“Zoë’s?
Yum
.”

“Her red sauce is in a little tub
right beside them in the fridge. I’ll be late so go ahead and eat without me.”

“You’re not at the bakery now?”

Sam explained about the new
property assignment. “I’ll probably just give it a once-over, make my list of
what needs to be done. But I’m in the truck, so if the yard needs tending this
might be the easiest time to do it.”

They ended the call and Sam rechecked
the address. She secured everything on the trailer and headed west. A series of
winding lanes took her past open fields of alfalfa and fenced paddocks where
horses stood swishing at flies with their tails. Street signs and address
numbers were tricky to find out here so she slowed to a crawl. Turning the big
truck and trailer wasn’t the easiest feat and she didn’t want to pass her
destination and have to double back. At a straight stretch in the road an
impatient driver in a yellow Audi zoomed past her. She ignored his scowl and
focused on the mailboxes along the road.

Two modest houses, each on about
a quarter-acre plot appeared on her right. The second one looked the way
Delbert Crow had described it and she turned in at a short driveway that led to
a detached garage. The front yard consisted of a parking area and turnaround,
all graveled. Thank goodness, no mowing.

Beds of bright dahlias and
hollyhocks fronted the mid-sized house, which was neatly sided in white with
blue shutters. Two large cottonwood trees in the back cast long shadows toward
the neighboring house. At a glance, the place didn’t seem to be in bad shape at
all. Sam maneuvered her vehicle into the parking area, leaving plenty of room
to make the turn when it was time to leave.

Her job at this point would be to
get inside the house, check to be sure everything was secure and post the
required notices inside, on the door and in the yard to indicate that the place
was now under the protection of the USDA. For shrewd property buyers this was
the signal that the place would probably go up for auction soon. Once in
awhile, someone would approach her and ask about buying a place but since that
wasn’t her department all she could do was to hand out Delbert Crow’s business
cards and tell them to get the details from him.

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