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Sneak Peek

I hope you enjoyed reading A Sip Before Dying! It will continue to be available here in the app until December 31. In January 2022, I'll start uploading a new book for you to read!


In the meantime, here's a sneak peak at the next book in the Wine & Dine Mysteries series, Chocolate Covered Death:




CHAPTER ONE


I stood back and admired the display in front of me. The tower of individual Chocolate Molten Lava Cakes sat alongside Oak Valley Vineyard's own Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, looking both tempting and delicious. Crispy outsides, gooey centers, and a delicate dusting of powdered sugar along the top. The desire to smuggle one out on a plate and enjoy with a glass of Pinot was almost overwhelming. I adjusted a bottle so that Oak Valley's label was more prominent and then slid one of the dozen glasses just a bit to the right so that the spacing between them was perfect. We had a guest list of at least fifty people who had RSVP'd to our Wine and Chocolate Tasting event at the Chocolate Bar, a small local bakery, and I couldn't afford for it to be anything but a success.

"Are you ready?" a familiar voice asked from behind me.

I spun on my stiletto heel and faced my best friend, Ava Barnett.

"Ready as I'll ever be," I replied, only halfway feeling it. In truth? Nervous energy practically knotted my stomach into macramé beneath my little black dress.

Ava moved in close to give me a hug, the camera slung around her neck digging into my chest as she squeezed. She was my dedicated photographer for the night, and she was taking the role seriously.

"Don't worry, Emmy. You've got this," she whispered in my ear.

Ava Barnett and I had been practically joined at the hip since childhood, and I considered her more of a sister than acquaintance. We even looked alike—sorta. We both sported blonde hair—though mine ran more toward unruly-with-a-mind-of-its-own than Ava's shampoo-commercial shimmer. We were both about a size eight—though Ava's was a slim, lithe eight, while mine was a loves-her-chocolate eight-bordering-on-ten. And we both enjoyed fashion—even if my style ran a bit more toward jeans and classic cuts while hers was an eclectic bohemian mixture that perfectly matched her upbeat artist's personality. That evening, for example, she was dressed in a long, flowy skirt and peasant style blouse in a creamy linen edged in bright embroidery. She'd brought the hippie-esque vibe into the present with modern silver jewelry of her own making and a pair of killer heels that rivaled my own in height.

I gave her a smile as she released me. "Thanks," I replied. I shook off the nerves and pointed toward the cake display. "You get photos of all of this already?"

"Several," Ava assured me. "They'll be great promotional pieces."

I nodded in agreement. Promotion was one thing we sorely needed.

I was about to double-check, for the third time in as many hours, that her camera battery was fully charged, when our hostess for the evening, Leah Holcomb, owner of the Chocolate Bar, bustled into the room carrying a tray of chocolate éclairs.

"I have two more of these in the back," she informed us, gently setting them down on an empty table near the windows. She stood, wiping a stray strand of brown curly hair from her forehead. "This should be the last display. Gosh, I hope this goes well."

I knew Leah had as much invested in tonight's success as I did. While I'd recently taken the reins at my family's struggling winery, trying to save it from being gobbled up by the corporate giants hovering just on the other side of our sinking bottom line, Leah had mortgaged everything she owned to open the Chocolate Bar after her divorce last year. I'd met her when, after a particularly depressing meeting with my accountant, Gene Schultz, I'd wandered into her newly opened shop and spent the next two hours chatting and indulging in about a million calories worth of her heavenly creations. Both of us, as it turned out, were playing the daily scramble for customers, and we figured that pooling our list of VIPs for this joint event could help put us both on the radar of the right kind of clients—wine lovers with a sweet tooth.

"Well, I think everything looks great," Ava said, ever the cheerleader. "And it smells even more amazing," she reassured Leah.

Leah's tense smile relaxed a little, but I could still see a small sheen of moisture on her forehead, betraying the fact that her nerves probably matched mine. "Thanks. I'm going to go freshen up a bit before the guests start arriving."

"Oh, hang on just a minute!" Ava instructed, moving toward a large canvas bag she'd stowed behind a display counter. "I have something for you both first." She rummaged around, digging into its depths. "I know it's somewhere…" she mumbled, more to herself than us.

"Ava, you really don't need to—" I started.

"Ah! Here they are!" Ava straightened up with such gusto that she came within millimeters of hitting Leah's pièce de résistance—a seven tiered raspberry chocolate layer cake.

Leah closed her eyes—if I had to guess, praying to some gods of sugar and cocoa.

Ava sheepishly stepped away. "Sorry."

Relief flooded through me that the arrangement was unharmed.

Leah's shoulders relaxed away from her ears as she smiled and accepted the small blue box bearing the logo of Ava's shop, Silver Girl.

"You didn't have to get me anything," I told her, accepting an identical one.

But Ava waved us both off. "I know, but I know how much this night means to both of you, so it's just a little something. Open it," she instructed.

We did, Leah being the first to get the ribbon off and lift the lip. I saw a glittering silver chain holding a yellow stone set in the center of a flower shaped pendant.

"It's for good luck," Ava told us as I opened my own box.

While my flower was slightly different—each made, I knew, by hand—it also held a small yellow stone.

"That's citrine. It brings the holder luck," Ava informed us.

"Thank you," I said, meaning it.

"This is so generous," Leah added, clasping hers around her neck.

Ava beamed, clearly enjoying her gifting. But as I saw her gaze flit toward the large glass front windows, the smiled faltered a little. "Uh-oh. Don't look now, but I think I see a couple early birds arriving."

Leah sucked in a breath, her hands immediately going to her hair as she looked down at the dusting of flour on her tasteful gray A-line dress.

"Go," I told her. "I'll hold them off while you freshen up."

Leah nodded at me. "Five minutes," she promised.

"Don't worry. We got this," Ava reassured her again.

Sounding much more confident than I felt as the first guest of the evening walked through the front doors.


* * *


I had to admit that Leah had done an exceptional job organizing the night. The room was buzzing, and I swore we had our fifty invited guests, and then some, all sipping, nibbling, and generally enjoying themselves. My stomach clenched every time I saw someone roll their glass and sniff the contents, but I knew our wines were good. Better than good, I reminded myself, watching an older man in a tight suit swish Zinfandel around in his mouth and swallow with a nod of appreciation.

"Do you have anything white?" a woman in a long-sleeved emerald dress asked me, the diamonds at her ears sparkling as she punctuated the question with a toss of platinum hair over one shoulder. Caroline Danvers. She'd been on Leah's VIP list, though I recognized her from an event I'd catered at the local golf club recently.

"It's so good to see you, Caroline," I said, turning to the table behind me. "Yes, we have a Pinot Blanc that goes very well with the tart bite of the raspberries in the chocolate layer cake."

Caroline glanced at the gorgeous towering dessert as if it were something alien instead of a delicious creation. Clearly size-two Caroline didn't do carbs. But, she accepted the glass I offered her and sipped daintily.

"Not bad," she conceded. "Where did you say your winery is again?"

"Just east of town." I handed her a brochure with our address on it.

Caroline squinted at it, flipping over the glossy photos. "Jenny," she called to a woman over her shoulder.

A slim brunette with a short bob, wearing a tailored pencil skirt and blazer that screamed power suit, appeared at her side. "Yes?"

"Uh, this is…" Caroline looked my way, at a loss for a name.

"Emmy Oak," I said, offering the newcomer my hand.

"Jennifer Foxton," she replied as she shook lightly.

"Emmy owns a winery," Caroline told her friend. "It's kinda cute." She showed Jennifer the brochure.

"Uh-huh." Jennifer's interest level looked about as low as my current bank account balance.

"Did you book a place for the fall fundraiser yet?" Caroline asked.

I felt my hopes rise. Bookings were few and far between for us lately and sorely needed. "We have a large tasting room and plenty of outdoor space for events of all sizes," I chimed in.

Jennifer gave me a cool smile. "Sorry. It's not that kind of party. My husband is Jonathan Foxton." She paused, letting the name sink in, as if it should mean something to me.

I tried to keep a neutral expression, not wanting to insult her with the fact I hadn't the slightest clue who he was.

"Senator Jonathan Foxton," she supplied.

"Of course," I lied, the name still meaningless to me.

"Uh, state senator," Caroline amended, sending a smirk toward her friend. "Let's be truthful, darling. He's in Sacramento, not Washington."

Jennifer laughed the comment off, though her eyes were cold as she shot back, "Well, at least my husband is in the country. Where did you say Trevor was tripping off to again, love?"

"Tokyo," Caroline responded. "For work."

"Sure. Work." Jennifer smiled, but it was all predatory teeth. "Anyway, Washington is not far off for Jonathan." She paused, turning to me again. "He's already campaigning for November."

"Good for him," I managed to get in between the two barbing each other.

"But I think we'll look elsewhere for the event venue, Caro," she told her friend. "We're not really into rustic." With that, Jennifer turned and glided back in the direction she'd come from.

Caroline shrugged, returning the brochure to me. "Thanks anyway."

"Uh, keep it," I encouraged. "You never know when you might need a venue." I shot her a big smile.

She shrugged and slipped the brochure into her bag before turning to join Jennifer, who was now busy greeting another similarly dressed Glamazon woman who'd just walked in the door. Though, I had a bad feeling Caroline would be tossing the brochure right into the trash that evening. At least she had liked the wine. Or at least deemed it "not bad." Not exactly glowing praise, but I'd take what I could get.

"Ohmigod!" Leah was suddenly at my side, her voice a mock whisper of urgency. "Is that Heather?"

I followed her line of sight to Caroline's group, homing in on the newcomer of the Glam Squad—a tall brunette in a short white dress that showed off her dedication to the gym. Or at least to her plastic surgeon's office. While I didn't know her personally, I did recall a Heather as one of the VIPs Schultz had recommended to me. "I'm not sure, but I did invite a Heather Atherton. She's supposed to be a wine broker."

Leah shook her head, her color going a shade paler. "Sure. But she's also married to James."

"James?" I asked, still not sure why Leah was so upset.

Leah turned to look at me, her eyes bordering on tears. "James Atherton. My ex-husband. That's his new wife."

Oops. "Leah, I'm so sorry. I had no idea." I didn't think I'd ever caught the name of her ex-husband before. Clearly Leah had reverted to her maiden name after the split.

Leah shook her head. "God, please don't tell me he's here too…" She trailed off, her eyes scanning the crowd.

"I'm so, so, so sorry!" I told her. While the most serious relationship I'd had lately was with a carton of Mint Chip, I could only imagine how awful it would be to have your ex-husband crash your party. Especially with someone who looked like Heather Atherton.

I glanced back to the group. Clearly Heather was a friend of Caroline and Jennifer's, as they were sharing air kisses all around at her arrival, though I put Heather at least a few years younger than the other ladies. Her white dress clung to her slim hips as she flipped her shimmering chestnut colored hair over her shoulder. Her perfect manicure accentuated the diamond engagement ring on her left hand, which had to be at least five carats, and her eyelashes and boobs were as fake as her smile.

"She looks like a freaking model," Leah said beside me, mirroring my own thoughts. "I think I'm going to be ill."

"She's not that pretty."

Leah shot me a yeah right look.

"I am so sorry," I said again. "Look, I'll tell her you're not comfortable with her here and ask her politely to leave—"

But Leah quickly shut that thought down. "You will do no such thing. That would only make us both look bad." Leah swallowed, her throat bobbing up and down while her gaze stayed on the tall woman's exposed back in her low-cut dress. "It's okay. I mean, how could you have known? It's my fault. I should have mentioned something. I mean, I know James runs in these circles."

Honestly, this was the first I was hearing of it. Leah had never really mentioned much about her ex-husband except that they had a seven-year-old son together and the marriage had ended badly. Now didn't feel like the time to pry though.

"I should have checked your list more carefully," Leah went on, shaking her head.

"I promise I'll run interference," I said, still feeling like a heel for my gaffe. "You won't even have to talk to her." Though even as I said it, I wondered if it was a promise I could keep. While Leah might not have known Heather was on the guest list, Heather certainly must have known she was coming to her husband's ex's bakery. And from the look of her flat tummy and tiny tushy, I doubted it was to scarf down the éclairs.

"I, uh, need to go to the kitchen and find a knife to cut the layer cake," Leah said, waving a distracted hand toward the kitchen.

If I had to guess, Leah needed to be anywhere that the new wife wasn't.

Feeling guilty as I watched Leah retreat, I decided to make good on my promise and grabbed a glass of Pinot Noir, heading in the Glam Squad's direction with it.

"Traffic was ghastly," Heather was saying to her companions as I approached. "Tourists. Too many in this town."

"Totally," Caroline agreed. "And you look amazing tonight, by the way."

"And don't you look lovely, too," Heather replied. Though her smile took on an air of smugness as she scanned Caroline head to toe.

"See," Jennifer said, swatting Caroline on the arm. "I told you that dress would look better on you than me. I mean, you fill it out much better with those hips of yours."

More smirks all around.

But Caroline didn't bat a false eyelash before retorting, "It does require someone who has the right bust for it. I mean, it's not as forgiving as, say, a blazer."

Jennifer's eyes flashed, though her expression remained neutral. Either she was a practiced politician's wife or had done a round of Botox that afternoon.

I cleared my throat, inserting myself in the middle of the cattiness. "Can I offer you a glass of our 2016 Pinot Noir?" I asked, handing it to Heather.

"Thank you," she said politely, taking the wineglass but not sipping, I noticed.

"Emmy Oak," I said, introducing myself. "My family owns Oak Valley Vineyards."

She sent me a bored smile.

"I, uh, hear you're a wine enthusiast."

"Broker," Heather corrected. "Only rare, collectible bottles." She glanced down into her glass as if already ascertaining that it was not up to collectible standards.

"We have some older bottles in our cellar you might be interested in. Vintage Napa history," I said, trying to tempt her.

"The only vintage she's interested in tonight is the old wife," Jennifer joked.

"Jenny!" Heather chided. "That's not nice."

But I could see the first genuine smile on her lips as she said it.

Oh boy. While Leah had a few years on my own twenty-nine, I wouldn't put her any older than thirty-five at the most. Hardly "vintage." I glanced over my shoulder, glad to see Leah was still hiding in the kitchen and not within earshot.

"Uh, yes, Leah mentioned you're married to her ex-husband, James," I said, stating the obvious.

"Oh? Leah mentioned me?" Heather asked. The smile grew.

"In passing," I added quickly, trying to somehow save face for my friend. "Is James, uh, here?"

But Heather shook her head. "He had a conflict."

I did a mental sigh of relief on Leah's behalf.

"Besides, this is more of a cute little girls' night event," Caroline chimed in.

I glossed over my efforts being called a "cute little" event and addressed Jennifer instead. "Can I get you a glass of anything?"

Instead of answering, Jennifer turned to Heather, who was still holding her untouched Pinot Noir. "What do you think, Heathy? Should I let her get me a glass of anything?"

Heather looked from Jennifer to me. Then she gave her glass a slow, deliberate sip. She drew out the answer, dabbing her mouth with a cocktail napkin before replying, "It's alright."

Gee, so far I'd had a "not bad" and an "alright" from these ladies. Tough crowd.

Jennifer shrugged. "I suppose I'll have a taste."

"I'll be right back with a glass." I clacked my stilettos back to the table, only too happy to put some distance between me and the Glam Squad. This was going to be one long night.


* * *


The next couple of hours passed in a blur of handshaking, glass filling, and brochure dispersing. The crowd was a good one—ranging from lively couples in cocktails dresses here for the free booze to serious enthusiasts in suits discussing tannin and oakiness, and I even spotted a guy in a cowboy hat, giving the scene some local flavor. While not everyone was as Ice Queen as Caroline and company, they were a discerning crowd, and praise was subdued enough to keep me on my toes. Leah spent most of the evening in the kitchen, only popping out to refill the dessert tables and cut the impressive layer cake. And Ava did a fantastic job of photographing the VIPs while highlighting the food and wine in the shots as well. By the time the guests started taking their leave, most of the bottles I'd brought were emptied, and only a scant few treats were left on the silver trays.

"Looks like a successful evening to me," Ava said, eyeing the quickly emptying room.

"We'll know if bookings start coming in."

"When they start coming in." Ava gave me a wink.

I grinned. "I like the way you think."

"Did Leah avoid the Model Thing okay?" Ava asked.

I nodded. I'd briefly filled her in earlier on the accidental invite situation during a lull in the crowd. "I think so. At least, I didn't see anyone clawing anyone's eyes out, so that's a good sign."

"What restraint," Ava joked.

I laughed along with her, though I realized I hadn't actually seen Leah in awhile. With the guests dispersing, it felt like a good time to check in on her and at least relay some of the praise I'd overheard for her chocolaty creations. "I'm going to go see if she needs any help cleaning up in the kitchen."

Ava nodded. "I'll keep an eye out here in case anyone wants one for the road."

"Thanks," I called, heading toward the kitchen.

As the door swung closed behind me, I took a moment to enjoy the stillness. The sounds of murmured goodbyes, tinkling glasses, and retreating footsteps filtered through the closed door, but the kitchen was blissfully silent. I took a beat to inhale the scents of sugar, cocoa, and crispy burnt edges.

"Leah?" I called. The quiet said I was alone, but she could have been hiding out in the pantry. "Leah!"

I walked past the ovens, rounding the corner to a small office, and noticed that the back door to the alleyway behind the bakery was ajar. I wondered if Leah'd popped out for a moment of fresh air. I knew I could use some.

I made my way to the door, allowing the night air to cool my warm skin as I stepped outside. Even though we were well into summer, after the sun went down, the evenings were still crisp. The dim streetlight at the end of the alleyway created shadows, and I squinted, willing my eyes to adjust to the darkness.

"Leah, are you out here?" I asked, a chill creeping across my skin.

The alleyway wasn't huge, but it was big enough for a delivery truck and for Leah to park her car. Across from the doorway was a large dumpster, next to which sat cardboard boxes holding our winery logo, now filled with empty glass bottles. But instead of them being stacked tidily like I had left them, several were now tilted on their sides, bottles scattered on the ground. I sighed, crossing the alley to pick them up. Broken glass was the last thing Leah needed back here. I picked the first one up and pushed it against the fence.

And that's when I noticed a long, slender leg sticking out from behind the dumpster.

I sucked in a breath. "Leah?" I called, my voice sounding far away as my heart hammered in my ears. I took a step forward, peeking around the side of the dumpster. "Leah?"

Only, the dress covering the top part of the woman's leg was not a tasteful gray linen, but a clinging white silk.

Heather Atherton.

And she wasn't just getting some air. If the cake knife sticking out of her back was any indication, she'd never be getting any air again.


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