by Nene Adams
Candy is Ruby Fontaine’s life. Sure, she has friends, but her daily connection is to her shop—the Magic Bean—and all the ways she can make decadent and irresistible confections for her customers. She’s used to women lusting after her ganache and spun sugar delights. But lusting after her? Not so much.
The news that an exclusive island resort wants to feature her candies could be life-changing. But it’s marred by the news that her friend, reporter Bee Brooks, has dropped out of sight. Adding to her confusion is the surprising interest she’s feeling from the investigating detective on the case, Frances Orsini.
But it’s the delectable Delilah Kerrigan from the St. Clare Hotel and Resort who proves the greatest distraction of all. It seems that a request to spend time on the island might prove as delicious as any treat Ruby has ever imagined…
Praise for Nene Adams
Winner, IPPY Award for Gay/Lesbian
Ruby Fontaine nestled a dark and deliciously bitter Venezuelan chocolate ganache and pink salt truffle in each small white box, followed by a vanilla bean and stout burnt caramel bonbon. The lids went on next. Tying shocking pink ribbons into neat bows around a hundred boxes took longer. At last, she finished and stepped back from the workbench to admire her handiwork. Another triumph for the Magic Bean in Summerland, Georgia.
She enjoyed putting together pretty wedding favors for brides and this order was no exception. Each box held two confections—a small sample of the handmade artisanal chocolates helping cement her reputation as a skilled chocolatier. She packed up the boxes and checked her to-do list. Without a storefront, working out of a rented commercial kitchen meant taking online orders only, but one day, she’d own a real shop.
Time to get started on the goat’s milk chocolate fudge.
Moving across the space, Ruby caught her reflection in the steel refrigerator door and paused to poke at her hair. The cotton candy pink had faded and grown out over the last few weeks to reveal dark blond roots. Orange next time? Ugh, no. The tint would do no favors for her pale blue eyes, which a former girlfriend had described as the color of anemic cornflowers during their breakup. I’ll stick with pink for now. Better touch up this weekend. She also decided to change the tiny gold hoop nestled in the curve of her nostril to a silver stud.
She took what she needed from the refrigerator and busied herself at the stove until her cell phone rang. She fished the device from her apron pocket. “Thank you for calling the Magic Bean, how may I help you?”
“Ruby, thank God…It’s me. Beatrice. Uh, you know. Bee Brooks.”
“I know who you are, Bee.”
“I’ve got a serious emergency on my hands!”
Ruby kept a close eye on the candy thermometer clipped to the side of the heavy saucepan holding the cooking fudge mixture. “What’s wrong?” An unwelcome thought struck her. “Is Katie all right?”
“Yes and no.” Beatrice sounded frazzled. “I mean yes, Kaitlyn’s fine right now. In about two hours, though, my daughter and twenty other kindergartners will be psychologically scarred for life because it’s her birthday and I was supposed to order cupcakes for the class and forgot. How the hell could I forget something so important?”
“Bee, calm down and—”
“You don’t understand! Chloe Parkinson’s mother had a specialty cake made at that fancy bakery—you know the one over on Twelfth Street and Main—and for a solid week, I swear, all Kaitlyn talked about was that damned unicorn carousel cake. So I promised her ballerina princess cupcakes with the frosting and the spun sugar that looks like your hair—”
“Bee, if you’d just let me—”
“Ballerina princesses aren’t exactly in, but it was that or some cat farting rainbows, and I forgot, and I’m a very, very bad mother! The worst. Like, the Attila the Hun of mothers. What am I going to do? I screwed up Kaitlyn’s birthday—”
“Will you please shut up for two seconds?” Ruby shouted into the phone. Silence fell, but Beatrice didn’t hang up in a snit, thank goodness. “Hang on.”
She checked the thermometer. Gosh darn it! Too high. After rescuing the fudge from outright scorching, she set the pot on a wire rack to cool before she could beat it to the right consistency. Maybe the texture wouldn’t turn out grainy.
One crisis down, one to go. She tossed down the potholders, summoned her patience and said more gently, “You’re not a bad mother, Bee. I’m sure you’ve been busy working on that newspaper story you told me about. Katie will forgive you. She’s six years old.”
She heard Beatrice draw a shaky breath. “Yeah. Okay, yeah, you’re right. I panicked. But what am I going to do? Help me, Ruby-Wan, you’re my only hope.”
“Come over to the kitchen,” Ruby said, chuckling. “I’m sure if you show up with anything sugar related, Katie and her friends won’t miss the cupcakes.”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Beatrice ended the call.
Sighing, Ruby put her phone away and went to hunt for supplies in her inventory closet. By the time Beatrice swung through the back door, she’d already started assembling treats in individual clear cellophane gift bags set out on two trays.
“You’re a godsend, honest.” Beatrice grinned and tossed her purse on top of the counter. Her sleek brunette bob swung forward to brush her cheeks when she bent over to examine the bags. “I’d look like a real chump in front of the other moms, to say nothing of Katie’s teacher, Mrs. Woods. Every time I drag myself to one of her joyless conferences, I swear the woman’s judging me and finding me wanting.”
Ruby pressed her lips together to keep from saying, The situation isn’t about you, it’s about making Katie happy, and continued selecting sweets.
Beatrice waved a hand. “Gluten free, I hope. Kids are delicate these days.”
“No gluten, no nuts,” Ruby replied. “They’re getting a couple of goat’s milk chocolate mini-bars. Real fruit gummy hearts. You’re lucky I made brown rice cereal treats with raspberry marshmallow for a client this morning, so you can have those. I’ll make more.”
“Sounds yummy. Save one for me.”
“You need to stop at the party supply store on your way to the school. Don’t make that face, Bee. Buy some favors, like mini boxes of stickers, crayons or colored pencils and little coloring books—enough for each bag. Tie the tops closed with these white ribbons.”
“No pink? Katie loves pink.”
“White’s the only color I’ve got on hand. And be sure you get Katie a tiara and a sparkly wand. Don’t forget.”
“Can’t you do the shopping? I’m useless at that girly stuff.” Beatrice snitched a passion fruit gummy heart. “Mmm, these aren’t bad.”
“Pay attention. You need to go to the party supply store. I don’t have time.” Ruby thought about the ruined pot of fudge that had put her behind schedule and held firm in the face of Beatrice’s entreating puppy dog stare.
“Fine. Whatever.” Beatrice finally gave in with bad grace. “Stickers, you said?”
“Age appropriate. Crayons and coloring books. Ask a store employee to help you.” Ruby stuck an orange-pomegranate lollipop in each bag. “Hang on a second.”
She went to a desk crammed in the corner and leaned over to peer at the computer monitor. A few taps on the keyboard brought up a large file. She quickly cut and pasted several blocks of information into a new document, turned on the printer and printed out a copy before returning to Beatrice.
“Here’s an ingredients list,” she said, handing the copy to her friend. “Give this to Mrs. Woods. She can make sure none of the students with dietary restrictions have allergies or intolerances to any candy in the goodie bags.”
Beatrice rolled her eyes, but accepted the sheet of paper.
“Anything special planned for the birthday girl?” Ruby asked, smiling at the mental image of her honorary niece. She’d bought Kaitlyn a child friendly digital camera and planned to bring the present over to Beatrice’s house after supper.
“I hadn’t really…Would you take her tonight? I’m meeting my informant for an interview and I’ll probably run late.” Beatrice lowered her voice although they were alone. “I’d rather not miss taking Katie out for some fun, but I’m getting close, Ruby. Real close to something big. There’s a lot more going on around here than anybody knows. Trust me. When I file my story, City Hall’s going to bust wide open.”
Ruby didn’t approve, but protesting was futile when Beatrice had a story at stake. She focused on a more immediate concern. “Did you tell Katie you won’t be home until late?”
Beatrice averted her gaze. “Would you mind taking her out to eat? Maybe that kids’ place she likes with the arcade games and pizza?” she asked, evading the question.
“Sure, but you need to talk to your daughter. I mean what I say, Bee. Don’t leave me holding the bag. Katie needs to hear from you why you won’t be there.”
“Aw, for fuck’s sake, do I really have to be the bad guy?”
“You’re the mommy, that’s your job. Suck it up and deal.” Ruby pointed at an empty glass jar on a corner of the workbench. A label on the jar read, You say it, you pay it. “You owe me a dollar for the F-bomb.”
Beatrice heaved a put-upon sigh, dug in her purse for a wallet and shoved a folded bill through the slit in the metal lid. “Still with the swear jar? God—I mean, gosh darn it to heck.” She raised her hands in the air. “Okay, whatever, fine. Party supply store. Buy stuff to amuse rug rats, put into gift bags, apply ribbons. I think I’ve got the gist. Thanks.” She rose up on her toes to lean farther over the counter and brush her lips over Ruby’s cheek.
“Here you go. Give Katie a kiss for me.” Ruby passed over the cardboard box she’d packed the bags in. “Should I pick up Katie after school too?”
“I’ll drop her off at your place. Three thirty work for you?”
Scooping the box under her arm, Beatrice grabbed her purse and hurried through the door, her car keys swinging from her hand.
Ruby threw out the ruined fudge and started working on a new batch. Once she finished, she made more crispy rice treats and whipped up several flavors of her bestselling gourmet marshmallows.
When she checked the website, she saw some out-of-state orders had come in for the Magic Bean’s signature Three Little Pigs brittle: bourbon, pecans and morsels of fried pancetta, guanciale and applewood smoked bacon in caramelized sugar. She grinned. Looks like a BLT for dinner. She had neither bread, tomato nor lettuce here, but she’d save some of the cooked bacon—another local product, since she preferred buying from small, high-quality producers in the area whenever possible—and take it home tonight.
Of course, that wouldn’t stop her from eating a few pieces after the bacon was cooked in the big iron skillet she’d inherited from her grandmother. Who could resist the smell of frying bacon? Cook’s privilege, her father called it. Humming, she went to the refrigerator.
A little while later, she finished pouring out the brittle into pans to cool and started packing and sorting boxes for shipment tomorrow. While applying an address label to the final box, she glanced at her watch. Her stomach sank. Three o’clock already. Good grief! She snatched up her to-do list and ticked off items, double-checked shipping and delivery labels, and ensured she had everything organized for the following morning.
Satisfied at last, she locked up and left.
The rented kitchen wasn’t far from her apartment building. Pre-rush hour traffic proved mercifully light, but an accident at an intersection had her snarled with other cars moving at a snail’s pace for twenty minutes before she could continue at a normal speed.
Finally, she pulled her old Dodge truck into the tenants-only underground garage at her building only to find a lipstick-red, sporty MINI Cooper Coupe parked in her assigned space. A space she paid thirty dollars a month to reserve, no less.
Ruby gripped the steering wheel and stared in disbelief at the MINI. Some inconsiderate so-and-so had stolen her spot! Hadn’t they seen the Reserved sign? She gritted her teeth, despising bad manners almost as much as swearing.
Checking her watch, she realized she was appallingly late. Beatrice and Kaitlyn must be upstairs waiting for her. No time to make a complaint to the management office. No time to sit there and fume either. She banked her frustration and drove forward, intending to swing the truck around and try the visitors’ parking lot next door.
A slender, professionally dressed woman came out of the stairwell at the back, catching her attention. Ruby’s suspicion flared. She braked and waited to see where the stranger went. Her patience was rewarded when the woman crossed over to the MINI.
Now intent on confronting the woman who’d stolen her spot, Ruby got out of her truck, her face flushing when opening the door caused a loud, grating squeal to reverberate off the concrete walls and ceiling. She’d meant to grease that hinge for weeks. Embarrassment added fuel to her annoyance. “Hey!” she called. “That’s my parking space!”
The woman turned her head. Loose chestnut curls slithered over the shoulders of her navy blue suit jacket. She was attractive, but her cold gray gaze and sour expression muted some of her beauty. “Give me time to get into my car and I’ll leave your precious spot,” she said, her impatient tone suggesting she spoke to an idiot.
Ruby’s cheeks heated further at the woman’s disdain. Common sense urged her to return to her truck. Instead, she put her hands on her hips and stayed right where she stood. “You shouldn’t take a space reserved for tenants. There’s a visitors’ lot next door.”
“Really?” The woman jerked open the MINI’s door. She paused, her lips drawn up in a snarl. “Just look at all the fucks I don’t give.” She slid into the driver’s seat, slammed the door shut and rolled down the window. “By the way, Miss Manners, you can take your little lecture and shove it,” she ranted before starting the MINI’s engine.
The car backed up and suddenly peeled out of the garage, leaving behind smoke, skid marks and the reek of scorched rubber.
Ruby waved a hand in front of her face, wrinkling her nose at the stink and the woman’s rudeness. The gesture brought her watch in sight. Her stomach dropped. She pushed the confrontation to the back of her mind, scrambled to park her truck and hurried to the elevator on the other side of the garage.
Getting off on the third floor, she stumbled to a halt in the empty corridor. Where are Bee and Katie? She walked to her apartment, somewhat relieved. Beatrice must be running late too, in which case her own tardiness would go unnoticed. She went inside to wait.
Another half hour passed with no word from her friend. She began to fret in earnest. When Beatrice continued to ignore her calls, the concern turned to worry.
At four fifteen, the school called to let her know no one had collected Kaitlyn yet. Ruby’s worry became full-blown panic.