Chocolate Grudge (AUDIOBOOK)
Chocolate Grudge (AUDIOBOOK)
- Narrated by: Lily Jane
Read a Sample
Read a Sample
Endless Bubbles Chewing Gum, the package label reads. I give a wry smile. I return the plastic bag to the cardboard box and move it aside to check the next carton. Breathing Fire Balls. Wonderful. Just what we need. What next? Pop Rocks. I devoured these weekly as a kid.
I put that one back with a sigh and hand the glass jar of gumballs up the ladder to my son Zack. He slots it into place on the shelf between the chocolate and caramel chews, so I guess the world isn’t ending on my watch.
I stand back to survey our progress. Tier upon tier of candy jars decorated the shelves behind the counter of my candy store. Just this morning I hung my shingle by the front door, Nichols’ Candy Shop, Margaret Nichols, proprietor. Even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still have that memory to keep me warm in my old age.
I always wanted to run a candy shop, and now I am. I invested my pennies in the little old seaside town of Rockshield, Connecticut, and left behind the last cringe-worthy chapter of my life in the big city. Maybe a fresh start building the business of my dreams will give Zack and me a better life.
“Mom!” Zack calls down.
I snap out of my reverie and raised the next jar, this one containing peppermint sticks. That’s the last jar. Zack descends the ladder just as the jingle doorbells clatter to announce our first customer.
I turn around to see a white-haired old lady march into the store. She doesn’t even look at the candy. She walks straight up to me and points. “You ought to move the cash register over here. People must traipse all the way down there just to check out.”
I should have known someone would come along to give their two cents worth of opinion on how I’m doing things. In a small town like this, everybody gets involved in everybody else’s drama. I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon on my first morning in business before I’d even sold a tin of mints.
Her eyes drift past me to Zack standing right behind me. She scans him up and down. She’s old enough to be my grandmother, but no one can resist getting an eyeful of my son. At twenty years old, six-foot-three, broad-shouldered, brown hair and big, cow-soft eyes, he’s anybody’s idea of a dream.
Unlike me. I’m nobody’s idea of a dream. At forty-five, I’m carrying a few extra pounds these days and fretting over gray hair around my temples. No one checks me out like that anymore, and they probably never will again. Those days are long over for me.
The old lady’s eyes light up with a lurid gleam when she looks at him. “Hello, there!”
I’ve heard enough. Coming into the shop to kibitz is one thing. A seventy-year-old woman making a pass at a twenty-year-old kid is another. “Can I help you, Miss….?” I stick out my hand to make my point.
She snaps out of it, and her features harden when she breaks away from ogling my son. “Patty. My name’s Patty Matthews. I live just down the street over there.” She stops shaking my hand to point toward the Toy Store at the far end of town. A few scattered houses trail off where Main Street continues on down the coast highway. “I just came by to see if you needed any help setting up.”
“Oh!” I exclaim. “I wasn’t expecting any help.”
She throws her arms out to both sides and breaks into a broad grin. It lights up her entire face, and her whole demeanor changes. Her expression becomes friendly and childlike. “Well, here I am. What can I do? Put me to work.”
Even then, I take a minute to wrap my head around someone offering help gratis without being asked. I stroll down the counter to where a lot of empty boxes form a heap in the corner. “You could break these boxes down for recycling.”
Patty jumps toward me. “Okay!”
She picks up the first box and punches it with her bony old fist. She breaks the tape holding it together and folds it down flat. No one would ever expect a lady as old as she is could be so strong.
With that settled, I return to the counter. I leaf through the invoices for the candy shipments I ordered to stock the shop for opening. I almost dread totaling up the cost. After buying a house in this town, renting the shop, and fitting it out with all the furniture, plus ATMs, security system, and storage space, my savings are running low as it is.
Patty interrupts my thoughts from across the room. “Is it true all the candy in this store only costs a nickel?”
“No, it doesn’t,” I reply. “My last name is Nichols. That’s why the store is called Nichols’ Candy Shop.”
Patty lets out a cackle that would curl the straightest hair. She chortles and snorts at her own joke. Great. Just great. She’s turning into the weird sidekick out of a bad movie. I cast a sidelong glance at Zack in time to see him roll his eyes and turn away to dust the shelves.
“You bought the Barrowmans’ old house, didn’t you?” Patty asks between punches. “I suppose you’ve heard the stories.”
“What stories?” I ask.
“They say Mr. Barrowman’s grandfather died in the upstairs back bedroom. They say that house is haunted, you know. Have you heard any strange noises at night?”
I steal another glimpse at Zack. He sleeps in the upstairs back bedroom. He makes another face at me. “Sorry, Patty,” I reply. “We haven’t heard anything, and it seems like a nice house to us.”
“Maybe, but I guess you got a good price for it, didn’t you?” She makes a smacking noise with her lips and tosses another box on the pile. “That house stood empty for years. The family couldn’t get anyone to buy it. They had to lower the price three times before they found a sucker to…..I mean, a buyer to take it on.”
My skin crawls. It’s true I got the house at a rock-bottom price. I couldn’t have afforded it if I hadn’t. Still, I haven’t noticed anything strange about the place. I catch Patty shooting me another mischievous grin. She’s messing with me.
“What made you move up to Rockshield, anyway?” she asks.
I shrug and lower my eyes to the invoices. I’m not getting any work done with this conversation going on. “We just wanted a quiet life away from the city. That’s all.”
“Did things go wrong for you there?” she asks. “Let me guess. You got your heart broken and had to leave town. Am I right?”
I keep my head bowed to hide my burning cheeks. I don’t like this, but I can’t be rude to her by telling her to mind her own beeswax. I can’t start off my new life in this town by making enemies of people trying to help me.
She’s a busybody, that’s all. She likes to pry. I tell myself to put up with her a little longer and send her away happy. That’s the best I can do. “No, I didn’t get my heart broken. It was nothing like that.”
Zack strides around the counter to where Patty finishes folding down the last box. “I’ll take these out to the recycling bin. Thanks for your help, Patty, but we can handle it from here.”
He’s always trying to protect me, but when I see Patty’s face fall, I intervene. “That’s okay, Patty. You can hang around if you want to, but there’s not much to do. We just finished the hard work.”
She doesn’t seem to get the hint from either of us. She saunters to the counter and trails her fingertip over the glass top. She scrutinizes the boxes of sweets underneath. “I’m sure a single lady like you will attract a lot of attention in this town. I’m sure you’ll have all the single guys hounding you morning, noon, and night.”
I snort. “I doubt that.”
“Don’t tell me you have somebody already picked out,” she fires back. “Tell me who it is.”
I gather up the invoices. I want out of this conversation sooner rather than later. “I’m not looking right now, Patty, but thanks for asking.”
Zack turns around, and I see that determined flash in his eyes that says he’s not putting up with this a second longer. He steps forward when the door jangles again. Saved by the bell.
A tall man with salt-and-pepper hair halts in the doorway to sweep the shop with an eagle eye. He wears his hair combed over his forehead in a glorious mop to hide a bald spot. He surveys the store with a quiver of disdain, twitching his upper lip.
Patty makes a grunting noise in her throat and turns her back on him. I approach the stranger and hold out my hand. “Good morning. I’m Margaret Nichols. What can I help you with today?”
He casts a withering glare down at my hand, but he doesn’t take it. “I’m not here to buy anything. I don’t eat candy.”
He says the last word with a poisonous roll of his tongue in his mouth. His lips pinch into a sour, crooked sneer. He would be a handsome older gentleman if he wasn’t so offensively unpleasant.
In front of my face, he puts his hand down and brushes an invisible speck off his corduroy pants. Black and white checked loafers stick out under his cuffs, and his vertical striped blue shirt contrasts with his other clothes in the most garish, disturbing way.
That obvious gesture of superior contempt for me and everything that represents my dream in life makes me hate him to my core, and I don’t even know his name. I let my hand drop to my side. “Well, sir, if you’re not here to buy candy, may I ask what you are doing here?”
“I run the dog grooming shop across the street.” He points directly across Rockshield’s only street. A large, glass-fronted store faces mine, and I see a scrawny young man leaning over a tabletop shampooing a Labrador with a spray nozzle. He looks like a nice kid. He reminds me of Zack. I wouldn’t want Zack working for a sour puss like Captain Combover.
The guy takes another disgusted look around the shop, but he still doesn’t venture inside. He catches sight of Patty and growls under his breath. “Good morning, Miss Matthews.”
Patty tightens her lips into a brutal line. If I thought she looked unfriendly before, now she looks positively murderous. “Mr. Stewart.”
He examines the shelves with a critical eye and waves his hand toward the door. “You must change the name, you know. People will get offended when you charge them more than a nickel for your wares. You could get sued for false advertising.”
He makes a pathetic attempt to smile at his own joke, but it bounces right off me. I wouldn’t change the name for all the gold in Fort Knox. “Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Stewart. It was…interesting to meet you. I’m sure we’ll be great neighbors once we get to know each other better.”
He gives a clipped nod to all and sundry and strides out the way he came. After the door closes behind him, the atmosphere in the shop relaxes.
“What a jerk!” Zack murmurs.
I sigh and hunt under the counter for my accounts book. I still haven’t done the invoices. “I suppose that was his special way of trying to be neighborly.”
“He’s a toad,” Patty snarls. “I can’t stand him.”
“You tried to be civil to him,” I point out. “If he’s that bad, I wonder why you bother to give him the time of day.”
“He might have been born without manners,” Patty returns, “but that doesn’t mean I have to be rude. I don’t dislike him for being unfriendly—which he is. He has insulted me to my face more than once.”
“He’s obnoxious,” Zack grumbles.
“We hardly know the man,” I remark. “He might be nice when you get to know him. Most people have a sweet center under their sour exterior.”
“Jeez, Mom,” Zack teases, “you sound just like an ad for a candy store.”
The jingle bells interrupt our conversation one more time. A rotund lady in a white apron hustles into the candy shop. She bobs right and left to peek through the front window. “Was that Mr. Stewart I saw just leaving?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” I reply. “Apparently, he’s too holy to eat candy.”
She bursts out laughing and rushes up to me all out of breath. Her rosy cheeks radiate life and fun, and she seizes my hand in both of her meaty paws. She shakes it hard. “That is so funny! I just knew we would get along famously. I’m Stacy Koontz. I run the Happy-Go-Lucky Café next door.”
She jerks her thumb over her shoulder to my only neighbor down the street. I return her handshake, but when I try to withdraw my hand, she won’t let go. “It’s very nice to meet you, Stacy. How’s business treating you? Have you had dealings with Mr. Stewart, too? I don’t even know his first name.”
“No one does.” Stacy breaks into raucous laughter again. “Isn’t that ridiculous? He’s so high and mighty he tells nobody his first name. Everybody calls him Mr. Stewart like somebody’s old high school biology teacher or something.” She shakes her head and flaps her hands, which finally dislodges me from her grip. “I declare, he’s a strange kettle of fish. Business is great for me. Thanks so much for asking. How about yourself? Had many takers yet?”
I’m too relieved to meet a normal person to care about my hand. “All these people keep coming in to introduce themselves, but I haven’t had a single customer yet. I keep waiting for someone to break the ice and buy something.”
She jumps a foot in the air. “Ooohh! I get to be your first.” She rushes to the counter and drums her fingers on the glass. “Now, let me see. What shall I indulge in today? I know. Give me half a pound of that saltwater taffy—the strawberry shortcake flavor.”
I stare at her. “Half a pound!”
“Yep. I just love saltwater taffy, and I give a piece to every customer along with the check. It sweetens the deal if you know what I mean. How much is it? Just a nickel, right?” She waves her hands at me and lets out another peal of laughter. “I’m only kidding.”
Just then, the door opens one more time. A middle-aged woman in a houndstooth trench coat takes one look at Stacy and walks sideways to where Patty still stands next to the broken-down boxes.
Instead of looking at the candy, the newcomer bends over, picks up one of the flattened cartons, and turns it over and over in her hand like she wants to buy that. Zack, Patty, Stacy, and I all stare at her, too stunned to speak.
All at once, Stacy spins around and snatches the bag of taffy out of my hand. She shoves a twenty dollar bill into its place and hightails it out of the shop without a word. She casts a frightened glance over her shoulder at the stranger before she vanishes down the sidewalk.
I don’t know what to make of all this when the woman puts the folded carton down and comes over to me. She extends a bony hand. “Good morning, Ms. Nichols. Your name is Nichols, isn’t it? I surmised as such from your sign out front. My name is Simone Peretti. I own the antique shop on the other side of the café. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other in the near future.”
She strikes me as so different from the other business owners that I can’t think of one intelligent thing to say. I shake her hand and feel every cruel bone under her paper-thin skin.
She speaks in a dry monotone out of some ancient detective novel. She pronounces every word with impossible slowness. Even the lazy drag of her eyes over her surroundings takes an eternity. She seems decades older than she really is.
“Due to the nature of my business,” she drawls, “I always have a constant flow of goods coming into and out of my store. That’s why I’m always in search of good boxes to package items for shipping and storage. If you don’t mind, I would like to take these cartons off your hands. I would be happy to compensate you for them. I know decent boxes cost a pretty penny bought new from the shipping companies.”
I jolt out of my trance. “Oh, that’s all right! You can just take them. We were going to put them in the recycling dumpster anyway, so you’re welcome to them. They didn’t cost us anything. They came with the candy shipments.”
I try to laugh, but she doesn’t even smile. Laughter seems so out of place around her. That must be why Stacy ran off the way she did.
Simone nods. She looks around the shop with her languid watery eyes, but her expression reveals none of the scorn so apparent with Mr. Stewart. A natural disaster couldn’t surprise her. “Thank you, Ms. Nichols. I had a feeling you would be a sensible businesswoman like myself. I’m so glad we had a chance to be properly introduced.”
She heads for the door with that deathly silence hovering around her. She lays her bony hand on the doorknob when Zack calls out behind her. “Hey! Don’t forget your boxes.”
She rounds on him with a perfectly blank, emotionless stare. “I’ll have my store man come and fetch them in an hour. Thank you again.”
She drifts away on a cushion of air. Not even the jingling doorbells disturb her cadaverous passage. After she disappears around the corner toward the café, Patty shudders. “That witch gives me the creeps.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Witch? Haunted houses? Now I know you’re just making it up. I’m sure she’s just eccentric.”
“You’re right. There’s nothing magical about her,” Patty replies. “She freaks me out, though. Every time I see her, she makes me feel like someone just walked over my grave.”
I lay open the accounts book on the counter. “Well, at least she didn’t make any jokes about the name. I don’t think I could stand that.”
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