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Chocolate Cream Pie Murder (Hannah Swensen #24)
Author:Joanne Fluke

Chocolate Cream Pie Murder (Hannah Swensen #24)

Joanne Fluke

Chapter One

It was a cold Sunday morning in February when Hannah Swensen left the warmth of her condo and drove to Lake Eden, Minnesota. A frown crossed her face as she traveled down Main Street and passed The Cookie Jar, her bakery and coffee shop. It had snowed during the night, and they would have to shovel the sidewalk before they could open for business in the morning.

Hannah gunned the engine a bit as she began to drive up the steep hill that led to Holy Cross Redeemer Lutheran Church. The church sat at the very top and it overlooked the town below. Hannah pulled into the parking lot and came very close to groaning as she realized that her entire family was standing at the bottom of the church steps, waiting for her to arrive. Perhaps their intent was to allay her anxiety about what she planned to do, but it didn’t work and Hannah was sorely tempted to turn around and put things off for another week. Of course she didn’t do that. Hannah was not a quitter. Somehow she had to gather her resolve and carry on with as much grace and dignity as she could muster.

The first person to arrive at her distinctive cookie truck was Hannah’s youngest sister, Michelle. Hannah resisted the urge to tell Michelle that she ought to be wearing boots and plastered a welcoming smile on her face. “Michelle,” she said, by way of a greeting. “Get in the backseat. It’s cold out there.”

“I’m okay. I just wanted to be the first to talk to you, Hannah. Are you completely sure that you want to do this?”

Hannah shook her head. “Of course I don’t want to, but I don’t really have a choice. It’s only right, Michelle.”

“But you don’t have to do it, not really,” Michelle argued, sliding onto the backseat and shutting the door behind her. “Word gets around and everyone’s probably heard what really happened by now.”

“That’s doubtful, Michelle. Nobody in our family has said anything to contradict our cover story for Ross’s absence. And I know that Norman and Mike haven’t mentioned it to anyone. You haven’t heard any gossip about it, have you?”

“No,” Michelle admitted.

“And you know the whole town would be buzzing about it if anyone knew.”

“Well . . . yes, but we can figure out another way of telling them. You don’t have to put yourself through the pain of getting up in front of the whole congregation and talking about it.”

“Yes, I do. They deserve an explanation. And they also deserve an apology from me for lying to them.”

The front door opened and Hannah’s mother, Delores, picked up the heavy cookie platter that was nestled on the passenger seat and got in. “I heard what you just told Michelle and you’re wrong, Hannah. No one here expects you to apologize. What happened is no fault of yours.”

The other back door of Hannah’s cookie truck opened and Hannah’s middle sister, Andrea Swensen Todd, got in. “And nobody here wants to see you upset. If you think we owe anyone an apology, let me do it. I can get up there and tell them what happened.”

“Thanks, but no. It’s nice of you to offer, Andrea, but this is something I have to do myself.”

“I understand, dear,” Delores said, “but I wish you’d told me your plans earlier. We could have gone shopping for something more appropriate for you to wear.”

Hannah glanced down at her blue pantsuit. “A lot of women wear pantsuits to church, especially in the winter. What’s wrong with mine?”

“Nothing’s wrong . . . exactly,” Delores explained. “It’s just that the color washes you out. At least you’re here early and we have time to fix your makeup. A darker color lipstick would do wonders, and you need some blusher on your cheeks.”

Andrea opened her purse and glanced inside. “Mascara and eye shadow couldn’t hurt. I’ve got something that would bring out the color of Hannah’s eyes.”

“And I can do something with her hair,” Michelle offered.

“Hold it right there!” Hannah told them. “My appearance doesn’t matter that much. What really matters is what I’m going to say. I’ve worn this same outfit to church at least a dozen times and you’ve never criticized my appearance before.”

“Today is different,” Delores pointed out. “Grandma Knudson told me that you asked to stand in the front of the church right after Reverend Bob makes his announcements. Everybody’s going to see . . .” Delores stopped speaking and a panicked expression crossed her face. “You’re not planning to wear your winter boots, are you?”

Hannah had the urge to laugh. She had never, in her whole life, walked down the aisle of their church wearing winter boots. She came very close to saying that, but she realized that the root of her mother’s concern was anxiety about how the congregation would receive what Hannah had to tell them.

“Relax, Mother,” Hannah told her. “I brought dress shoes with me and I’ll change in the cloakroom as soon as we get inside.”

Delores nodded, but she still looked worried. “Your dress shoes aren’t brown, are they?”

“No, Mother. I know how you feel about wearing brown shoes with blue. These are the black shoes we bought at the Tri-County Mall last year.”

“Oh, good!” Delores drew a relieved breath and glanced at the jeweled watch her husband, Doc Knight, had given her. “Then let’s go, girls. It’ll take us a while to get Hannah ready.”

Hannah wisely kept her silence as she walked to the church with her family. Once the cookies she’d brought for the social hour after the church service had been delivered to the kitchen next to the basement meeting room, Hannah suffered her family’s attempt to make her into what Delores deemed church appropriate.

“It’s time,” Delores declared, glancing at her watch again. “Follow me, girls.”

As they walked down the center aisle single file, Hannah spotted her former boyfriend, Norman Rhodes. Norman was sitting on one side of his mother, and Carrie’s second husband, Earl Flensburg, was sitting on her other side. Norman smiled at Hannah as she passed by and he held his thumb and finger together in an okay sign.

Hannah swallowed the lump that was beginning to form in her throat and reminded herself that she knew almost everyone here. The Holy Redeemer congregation consisted of friends, neighbors, and customers who came into The Cookie Jar. They would appreciate her apology and no one would be angry with her . . . she hoped.

She was beginning to feel slightly more confident when she noticed the other local man she’d dated, Mike Kingston. He was sitting with Michelle’s boyfriend, Lonnie Murphy, and both of them smiled and gave her friendly nods. Mike was the head detective at the Winnetka County Sheriff’s Department and he was training Lonnie to be his partner. Both men usually worked on Sundays, but they must have traded days with a pair of other deputies so that they could come to hear Hannah’s apology.

Doc Knight saw them coming up the aisle and he stepped out of the pew so that they could file in. Hannah went first so that she would be on the end and it would be easier for her to get out and walk up the side aisle to the front of the church when it was time.

“Are you all right?” Michelle asked her as they sat down.

It took Hannah a moment to find her voice. “Yes, I’m all right.”

“But you’re so pale that the blusher on your cheeks is standing out in circles.” Michelle reached for the hymnal in the rack and flipped to the page that was listed in the church bulletin.

“Is something wrong?” Andrea asked in a whisper.

“Everything’s fine,” Hannah told her, pretending to be engrossed in reading the verse of the familiar hymn they were preparing to sing.