is the story of opposites colliding when a dedicated second-grade teacher fights the school’s new financial director in order to reinstate a much-beloved autumn festival. But secrets, ambition, attraction and meddling family members complicate matters in this small Midwestern town. The book is part light mystery, part romantic comedy and entirely packed with delectable sweets -- including a step-by-step recipe for making homemade chocolate-cherry ice cream.
Hope you enjoy this excerpt (copyright Marilyn Brant 2011) of the book!
To make a delightful, delicious, delectable batch
of my regionally famous ice cream,
“Chunky Cherry-Chocolate Jubilee,”
you must first gather the following ingredients:
eggs, sugar, milk, heavy cream, real vanilla extract,
cherry-flavored syrup, sliced candied cherries,
milk chocolate chips, shaved dark chocolate…
and some air-blown kisses for good luck.
~From Mr. Koolemar’s Top Secret,
Kool Kreme Ice Kreamations Recipe Book, pg. 97
Caitlin Walsh knew good men were hard to find, so she rarely had high expectations. After all, what average American male could possess Cary Grant’s debonair charm, Gregory Peck’s effortless intelligence or Jimmy Stewart’s boyish enthusiasm?
That’s right, none. So why bother with them?
But that afternoon, as she sweltered in her second-grade classroom and scanned the new financial director’s end-of-August memo, she realized the average American male had just sunk to a new low.
Cait rubbed her eyes. “Jenna, please tell me I didn’t read what I think I did. That this is some rotten joke.”
Her best friend and fellow Ridgewood Grove Elementary teacher, Jenna Murray, crossed the tiles of Cait’s classroom, handed her a pint of premium ice cream and a spoon and said, “I couldn’t believe it either…so I got us these.”
Cait stared at the ice cream, then back at the memo—unable to speak, unsure of what to do next. With the new school year starting tomorrow, she’d been prepared for the typical changes. But, Good Godiva, she’d never imagined anything this disastrous.
She tossed the awful memo onto her desk and, despite the excess calories her “full-figured” (in Jenna’s diplomatic words) body didn’t need, she yanked open the pint of Raspberry Truffle Swirl and plunged her spoon into it. Ah, creamy heaven.
In this tiny southeastern corner of Wisconsin, where the town’s motto was “Sundaes Save Souls” and the local doctors prescribed “two scoops” instead of aspirin, comfort was as close as a grocer’s freezer.
After a few medicinal spoonfuls, she recovered her voice. “How could this Ellis guy cancel the Harvest Hoopla? He hasn’t even been the financial director for a week and already he’s cutting our favorite school festival?” This was her festival, dammit. The one she hosted. The one her students loved best.
Her friend dug into her own sweet pint. “He’s despicable.”
Cait tightened her grip on the spoon. “The children are going to be crushed. The staff up in arms. I’ve already made arrangements with half the vendors and…oh, God, my mother!”
“It’s real crummy, no doubt about it.” Jenna’s voice dropped to a whisper. “But maybe if we talk to him, tell him how important this event is…the community spirit it builds…maybe he’ll reconsider. Sonja said the superintendent hired him after only one meeting, so he’s got to have a brain.”
“But does he have a heart?”
Jenna shrugged. “Who knows? But if he did this, he can undo this. And, if all else fails, we could make an appeal to Ronald.”
Cait thought of the school’s aged principal Ronald Jaspers. Not a bad man, but not an effective administrator either. “Doesn’t the financial director’s authority in these matters go over Ronald’s head?”
Cait sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, certain the blond must be turning to gray after her horrid afternoon. “Well, Budget Man Ellis has to show up by tomorrow. You’d think the guy was a fugitive. Has anyone seen him recently?”
Other than tidbits their secretary Sonja divulged last week, Cait didn’t know much about Garrett Ellis, but she was willing to bet the elusive financial director was hiding out in a cave somewhere with his calculator, crunching numbers and dreaming up new methods to wreak havoc on their fall plans.
Another teacher rushed through the classroom door. “Did you hear? Can you believe it?” the usually calm Marlene said indignantly. “What kind of an idiot would—”
“We know,” Jenna said around a mouthful of Butternut Pecan.
“Well, someone’s gotta put a stop to this.” Marlene shook a wiry fist. “And where is that guy anyway?”
Loni, one of the older teachers, marched in from her classroom across the hall. “You ladies talking about the Harvest Hoopla?” She waved her copy of the memo in the air. “I almost had a coronary when I read this thing.”
Cait reread the memo. “He’s canceling the Hoopla but keeping the Open House Parents’ Coffee. Why?”
“Who’s running the Coffee this year?” Loni asked.
“Mrs. McAllister,” Jenna said, rolling her eyes.
Marlene pretended to gag.
Cait groaned. She couldn’t bear the sight of that school-board-member-slash-socialite Shelley McAllister. Her obnoxious perkiness. Her smoldering red hair. Her evil attempts at sweet talking the administrators during meetings. That had to stop.
“Mrs. McAllister certainly has a way of getting what she wants. We should insist on getting our way, too,” Cait said.
“How?” Marlene asked. “Have you got a plan?”
“Yeah?” Jenna’s grin turned devious. “Forget using the proper channels, is there a way to get rid of a financial director without leaving any evidence?”
“Sure,” Cait said, enjoying the momentary slide into silliness. “Consider a non-detectable poison. Villains have tried that in countless films. Only, with our nasty Mr. Ellis, some clever heroine won’t be there to figure it out and save him.”
Jenna chuckled. “Super. Glad to see you’re putting your realistic Movie Channel knowledge to good use.”
“Reality is for people who lack imagination,” Cait shot back. She licked her last spoonful of ice cream with a ripple of regret. “But it’s hard to do away with someone you can’t identify. We have no idea what Garrett Ellis even looks like.”
“Too true.” Jenna flicked a mass of dark hair away from her face and grimaced. “Guess it won’t work then.”
Cait tried to fight the familiar feeling of powerlessness, but it was no use. She had to do something useful. Grabbing the stapler, she pounded the edges of her calendar into the bulletin board. “My mom’s been talking about doing the children’s face painting again at the Hoopla ever since we wrapped up last year’s festival,” she told her friends. “It’s one of her clearest memories from the past school year, and I can’t come up with many activities like that anymore.”
The other teachers nodded, sympathy etched on their faces.
“Is her memory loss getting worse?” Marlene asked.
Cait inhaled and bobbed her head. Damn that Budget Man. On top of the kids’ disappointment and the staff’s frustration, how would she explain the Hoopla’s cancellation to her mother?
She stabbed straight pins into a “Second Grade Welcomes You” poster and tacked it to the wall with a sense of permanency. “School administrators are as bad as deceitful politicians,” she muttered, a memory bubbling to the surface of her politically ambitious ex-fiancé Fredric. The callous jerk.
She snatched the financial director’s vile memo, crinkled it into a ball and lobbed it toward the trash…missing by half a foot. Well, sports never were her strong suit.
Loni looked defiant. “We’ll get Ellis to change his mind.”
“Or maybe we’ll just get him,” Marlene said.
Cait cringed and tried to tear her thoughts away from fruitless revenge fantasies. She could count on nothing but hard work, which was her life’s salvation alongside ice cream and MGM. But every time she’d played by the rules someone underhanded and conniving muscled his—or her—way into the center ring. She hated to make trouble, but if she didn’t stand firm for once she’d get shoved aside and forgotten.
“You think this Ellis guy’s got any secrets?” she asked.
“Besides that he’s bound to be an ogre?” Jenna asked. “No.”
Marlene and Loni shook their heads.
“Well, I’m going to find out.” Cait pressed her fists to her sides and stood firm, her extra-decisive pose. “When The Ogre shows up, I’ll pick his brain, cunning and ugly as it may be.”
“You go!” said Loni. “Snoop in his office. Peek in his car.”
“Exactly,” Jenna said. “Ask some pointed questions and, Cait, don’t be so nice and polite like you always are.”
“Yeah!” Marlene threw herself into the cause. “Give the creep a hard time. The opportunity’s bound to present itself. Pester Ellis until he’s forced to consider our point of view.”
Her friends were right. She’d do it! She’d make that man listen. The easy way or the hard way. His choice.
“I’ll try,” she murmured.
“Do more than try,” Jenna said. “Remember, he’s not our boss or anything, just a math geek they’ve got squirreled away somewhere. We’ll probably never see him except at monthly staff meetings.”
A twist of self-doubt turned circles in her gut. “What if I can’t get him to change his mind?”
“I’m betting you can.” Jenna looked at the other teachers. “Give it a shot and we’ll have a quart of Fudge Triple-Ripple Decadence waiting for you in the teacher’s lounge freezer—”
“A gallon,” Loni corrected.
“A gallon,” Jenna agreed. “Maybe two.” She crossed her arms and gave Cait an expectant look.
Cait walked over to where the crumpled memo lay on the floor and stomped on it good and hard. “Okay, ladies. You’ve got yourselves a deal.”
Outside the building, Garrett Ellis swiped a few beads of sweat off his brow and tried to provide the school district’s anxious superintendent with the calm reassurance he needed.
The hefty administrator ran his thumb between his belly and his belt buckle before leaning in and whispering, “I think you’ve got a good handle on the situation, Garrett. The stolen money is being siphoned off through extracurricular school events, not big-budget programs. Whoever’s doing it would have to either look for another channel or stop stealing altogether if that avenue is blocked.”
“Which is a big reason why this year’s Harvest Hoopla has to be the first thing to go,” Garrett said. “All records point to that event as having the highest potential for thievery.”
The superintendent nodded sadly. “There’s gonna be a lot of disappointed people, but you’re right. We have little choice.”
“Well, if they’re disappointed, maybe a few of them have motives that aren’t as pure as they should be.”
The superintendent rubbed a bloodshot eye then dropped his gaze. “I wish I didn’t have to suspect the people I suspect.”
“I know,” Garrett told him, feeling a stab of empathy for the man and his difficult situation. “Don’t worry. I’ll investigate everyone’s expenditures. Even those marginally involved. If someone’s gotten a kickback from previous festivals, human nature says they’ll find a way to keep the cash flowing. They’ll get careless. And when they do, I’ll be there to catch them.”
The older man looked miserable. “Thank you. I know this is a challenging job, but I’m sure I chose the right person for it. Your reputation precedes you, Garrett.”
Really? Says who? Garrett swallowed the unasked questions and said instead, “Thanks, sir.”
“I appreciate both your skill and your discretion in handling this matter.” The superintendent extended his palm.
Garrett shook it. “I’ll do my best to find the culprit.”
And he would. He was a big believer in hard work on the job. At least when it came to jobs he had some skill at and marginally enjoyed. But he couldn’t stop wondering just who had recommended him for this position. It must’ve been one of the East Coast CEOs he’d worked for earlier this year, though none of them had mentioned anything. He sure hadn’t gotten an endorsement from his father.
The older administrator shuffled away before Garrett could work up the nerve to ask and, besides, he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
He knew the superintendent had given him an opportunity to right a district wrong and, equally pressing, he’d given him a chance to prove himself to his dad. A chance Garrett desperately needed. Because one thing was for damned certain, with his father’s angry statements still ringing in his ears, he couldn’t go back to Connecticut if he failed here in Wisconsin.
With added resolve, he took a deep breath and marched toward the school.
Cait whipped the lid off an activity box and dropped it to the floor with a clunk. She tossed some folders onto a kid’s desk and glanced up again at the clock. Another twenty minutes gone and still no Ogre-ish Budget Man. Huh.
She’d tried to find the guy, but his office was locked. Figured. So she’d scribbled a message for him to find her, tacked it to his door and took out her fury on the remaining boxes.
In an unpacking frenzy, she displayed the puzzles, put away the new stash of construction paper and arranged the language arts worksheets. Where the heck would she get the money to purchase the rest of the supplies she needed, though? The ones the school was too thrifty to buy this year?
Pain-in-the-neck Budget Man at it again, no doubt.
Still, she surveyed her mostly completed room with pride. Here were concrete lessons. Well-organized activities. The one place in the world where she felt in control.
At the double knock, she turned toward the door. A man stood in the doorway—a lean, tall figure, claiming the space.
She froze. A visceral reaction rooted her sneakers to the ground. Dark, wavy hair. Chipped-chocolate eyes. Enticing lips. A distinguished jaw line. And somehow she knew instinctively it was The Ogre. Only he wasn’t, was he? The man before her might be pure evil, but Holy Hollywood, he was Cary Grant reincarnate.
She drew upon her most assertive teacher voice. “Hello. I’m Caitlin Walsh.”
He quirked a brow in apparent surprise. “If this is Room Number Eight, I guess you would be.” His rich baritone swirled around her. He offered his hand along with a shrewd, resolute look. “Garrett Ellis,” he said, his gaze sweeping the room collecting details. “Looks like you’re ready for the first day tomorrow.”
“Not quite,” she murmured. Whoa. This was Budget Man?! That cologne…it had to be something expensive, European. Goodness. She’d gotten a whiff of Italy when their hands touched, and her fingers practically tingled from the contact. “You got my message, finally.”
He narrowed his eyes at her, very slightly, but she noticed.
“Yes. I understand you’re disappointed by the cancellation of the Harvest Hoopla.”
Now there was a genius remark. Making it out to be her problem. His insinuation made her curse power-hungry males everywhere for their absurd games.
“I’m disappointed, of course, but also concerned.” She kept her tone neutral. “The funding we need to get the festival up and running is nominal. We’ve always held it on school grounds, so there’s no additional charge for location and—”
“Not quite. There are set-up and clean-up costs.” He appraised her with an adversarial confidence.
“But not many,” she shot back. “The vendors use cafeteria tables and share a percentage of their profits to offset expenses. We photocopy the fliers at school—”
“Which means you’d need reams of paper, the use of the district’s copy machines and—”
Her temper flared. “I’d appreciate your attention without interruption.” She waited until he closed that mocking mouth of his. “As I was trying to say, Mr. Ellis, only a small portion of the school’s extracurricular budget is used for decorations, advertising and incidentals.” She raised her palms in question.
He raised his eyebrows in response.
Okay, so he was a tad slow. She’d try again. “For an educational event that brings pleasure to the children, business to the community and overall goodwill, the benefits of the Hoopla are clear. I can’t understand why you’d choose to let it go.”
Cait didn’t think men in their early thirties still snorted, but Garrett Ellis was an exception.
“We’re talking about the same event, right? The one where kids wear ‘goblin ears’ and run around painting pumpkins and eating caramel apples until their teeth rot?” He snorted again. “I read about it in the old newsletter files. Very educational.”
His sarcasm made her skin itch. “Well, we also have a storyteller,” she said.
“For fairy tales?”
She paused, imagining an evil sorceress turning him into a real ogre—one with warts and two heads—but she only said, “No, Mr. Ellis. Ghost stories.”
“And Ridgewood Grove’s balloon artist comes, too. There’s face painting…” She thought of her mom and sucked in a few gulps of air. “And caricature drawing. And the Jenkins family runs the Harvest Vegetable Taste Test, which is amazing.”
“Baked squash is amazing?”
She couldn’t help but laugh, remembering. “It was brown-sugar ‘n’ cinnamon-spiced squash. Last year they also made sweet potato dumplings, zucchini pie and Mr. Jenkins’s specialty—rutabaga al formaggio.”
He creased his brow, clearly unimpressed.
She sighed, grabbed a pen, then squeezed and twisted it. “Look, if it’s a matter of money, I’m sure the vendors would be willing to contribute a little more to offset the startup costs. They rely on events like this to attract new customers. Or, though we’ve never had to do it before, we could have a small admission fee for adults and students. I’d be willing to donate something, too, in addition to doing all of the organizing.”
An odd expression crossed his face. “Sorry, Miss Walsh, but there’s more to it than that.” Of course he didn’t deign to elaborate. He took a couple of steps forward and picked up the crumpled, trodden memo. “Mine, I presume?” He actually had the nerve to wink at her before tossing it in the trash.
She felt her face flush. She should’ve pitched the darn thing earlier. She took a few breaths until she could speak calmly. “Mr. Ellis, I’m sure you have your own, um, logic, but you’ve yet to tell me one good reason why you—”
“What’s this?” He pointed to her list with the words STILL NEED written in red marker along the top.
She’d have thought it was self-explanatory but, perhaps, he needed that spelled out for him, too. “It’s for supplies I don’t have yet. Things the school district won’t pay for but that the children still need. Now, about the—”
“The school district won’t pay for them?” He seemed taken aback. “But the parents will buy these items instead then, right?”
“The parents have already been sent a list of over twenty school supplies they need to provide. I didn’t put these things on their list because, in past years, the school has purchased them. Not this year, though.” She crossed her arms. What would Budget Man say to that?
He scrutinized the list with a mystified expression. “Ridgewood Grove Elementary can certainly afford to buy felt, yarn and glitter bottles.” He mumbled the names of the other things then looked her in the eye. “Let’s go get these for you.”
She almost dropped her pen. “What? Now?”
“Sure. Why not? You got other plans?”
“Well, um, no,” she admitted. “But—but wouldn’t that contradict the ‘streamlined’ office-supplies budget you set up?”
He shook his head. “I may have canceled your little festival, but I didn’t set up the supplies budget. Some blunders actually preceded me, though you may find that hard to believe.”
He seemed strangely sincere about it and, to top it off, he’d just given her the perfect opportunity to snoop a little into his life. She should grab it. But she still had questions. “What about the other teachers? They need these supplies, too.”
“One problem at a time, Miss Walsh. And you’re first on my list.”
Now what did he mean by that? That her problem had come up first, or that she was a problem? She couldn’t help but wonder if Garrett Ellis was really trying to help her, or if he was merely acting supportive because he wanted something in return. Maybe he was trying to buy her silence…
She studied him. He had the classic glint in his eye of a player. The kind of man who’d switch allegiances—or women—like airport rent-a-cars if someone got in his way or if his ego got neglected for five minutes. She knew men like this. Guys just like her ex-fiancé Fredric. They didn’t spill secrets easily, and they always, always had ulterior motives.
She needed to clarify terms. “So, you’re saying the school is going to buy these things for me after all?”
“If the school doesn’t cover it, Miss Walsh, don’t worry. I will.”
Garrett watched the curvaceous blonde throw a few last things together, and he shook his head behind her back. This was exactly the kind of individual who could get away with skimming budget funds if she wanted to. No one would suspect someone as lovely and as, well, wholesome-looking as Cait Walsh. Not of fiscal misdeeds.
Still, it would be bad form to deny a teacher her glitter. The school board had approved the office supplies change, but he wondered who’d orchestrated it and why. Something seriously strange was afoot in this district.
He studied Cait. She was young, dynamic and closer to his sister’s age than his. Twenty-five, maybe. But unlike Sis, this shapely woman was a neat freak who used round vowel tones as weapons. She challenged him with that reserved posture, that combination of clarity and caution. With those huge gray-green eyes, freckle-splattered nose and forehead creased in concentration over God knew what, she was cute as hell.
Which annoyed him. He had too much to do. A leak to pinpoint. He had no intention of finding anyone “cute as hell.” Least of all a potential embezzler from Wisconsin.
He saw her lift a bulky beige tote with the letters “CLW” stitched in green. It looked as heavy as a golf bag, but shorter and twice as dense. She had it crammed with papers, scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers, lots of stuff he couldn’t see. He’d have offered to carry it for her, but she grabbed it tight. Didn’t look like she’d trust the FBI with that thing. Huh. Suspect behavior.
“What’s the ‘L’ stand for?” He pointed to her monogram. “It wouldn’t be Lynn, would it?” He squinted. “Leigh? Or Loretta?”
“None of the above.” Cait locked her classroom door.
Then again, maybe secrecy was just part and parcel of being a woman. They always thought they had to be so mysterious.
“So, what? You’re not going to tell me? Think I’ll laugh?”
She nodded, standing still and staring at him in the hallway.
He puffed out some hot air. He’d have to brush up on his chitchatting. Not a good idea to alienate the staff so soon, even if he had suspicions about somebody. He’d known her for…what? A whole fifteen minutes? And already she pretty clearly despised him. Well, never let it be said he couldn’t make a strong first impression.
“I won’t laugh.” He tried to radiate sincerity.
She gave him a thorough once-over. “Livie,” she mumbled. “After my grandmother Olivia.”
“Oh.” He shrugged. “That’s not so bad. Olivia’s nice, too. Why’d your parents shorten it?”
At this she chuckled. “Think about it, Mr. Ellis. You couldn’t have grown up around here. Even in Wisconsin—the ‘Dairy State’—having the initials C.O.W. is hardly a woman’s deepest desire.”
A laugh erupted from deep within him. So there was a sense of humor behind the snow queen façade. Good. Maybe she’d thaw a bit, they could talk, he’d figure out her angle and, hopefully, discount her from his investigation. He needed to concentrate on forwarding his career…and on keeping his father from disowning him. Ogling attractive women was his brother’s department, not his.
“You have bright parents,” he said finally. “Bet you appreciated their foresight.”
“I did.” She surprised him with a grin that lit up her whole face. For a moment he was rendered speechless.
They strolled outside toward the parking lot.
“Okay,” she said. “Now that you know my secret, what’s your middle name?”
Sheesh. He hadn’t been thinking. Sharing his middle name could only land him in boiling water. “Mine’s not real interesting.”
The light in her face vanished. She turned huge, distrustful eyes on him. “So?”
He grimaced. “My middle initial’s ‘M,’ how ‘bout you guess?”
“What? I practically told you mine outright. There’s no reason to hedge with me. It couldn’t be that terrible.”
“Oh, don’t be so sure. Your parents altered yours from your namesake’s to be less embarrassing, my parents did nothing of the kind.” He hesitated, praying she’d back off. The name recognition, he knew from years of painful experience, could be instantaneous. But no such luck. This Miss Walsh was a persistent one.
Her forehead crinkled. “Hmm. Well, it couldn’t be Michael or Matthew, could it? Those aren’t unusual enough to upset anyone. Max, maybe? What about Mitch? Or, Marvin?”
“I wish,” he muttered. And he did. For maybe the ninety-thousandth time he wished he came from a family that wasn’t internationally famous.
They reached their vehicles, and he changed the subject. “Look,” he told her, “why don’t you jump in with me? It’ll be easier than taking two cars. I can drive you back here later.”
He opened the passenger door of his red BMW and held it for her. She slid into the black leather seat, her eyes bulging at the rows of gadgets on the dash. He knew how impressive it looked. He liked his cars complicated, his women simple. Yet another reason the chilly and changeable Miss Walsh posed a problem: She did not seem simple. But someone was meddling with funds and, although instinct and experience told him Cait didn’t have the bearing of a ringleader, she might know who was at the center of these thefts.
He slipped into the driver’s seat and retrieved a second list from the glove compartment. Time for a test.
He pasted on a grin, wondering how invested she was in this silly fall festival. If he could draw her off track, it might not be much. “Now that we’re out of school, I hope you don’t mind one addition to our plans. I need to grab a few things from the bookstore before they close. Is it okay if we head there first?”
She gave a curt nod and laced her fingers together, looking about as enthusiastic as a shop mannequin.
Within ten minutes, he had them parked in front of Bookends. First they’d book shop, then they’d drive to the supplies store. His two-part strategy to relax, converse, slide into informality. He’d try to find out what she knew, if anything. If he could rule her out, he could get back to investigating the problem. Alone.
Garrett leaped out of the car. “You coming in?” he asked as she sat, pensive, in the passenger’s seat.
“No, I’ll just wait here for you.”
Damn. “Are you sure? If you don’t want to browse, there’s a nice coffee bar and snack area inside. You could relax a little.”
She glared at him like he’d suggested a round of strip poker. “I’m fine here. Really. Get what you need. Take your time.”
“Okay.” What could he do? Garrett tossed her his car keys. “If you want music, feel free to pop something in. CDs are in a case under your seat.” At that she looked almost intrigued.
“Thank you.” Cait doled out one of her angelic smiles. It made him tense, uncomfortable and kind of…warm. Aw, hell.
He took a few brisk strides across the street toward the shop. He had a job to do, he reminded himself again. He didn’t need complications like, oh, lady swindlers.
But he hoped to heaven she was innocent and he could maintain a friendly distance from her. Something about this woman just got to him. A point underscored by the fact that, as he entered the bookstore, he found himself wondering what he might buy her to make her smile again.