One part Vicar of Dibley, one part amateur sleuth who loves pastries, set in the mountains of Montana where no one’s business is her own…
Between the police scanners, the coffee ladies, and the senior center, no secret is safe for long. But Vangie Vale wants nothing more than to stay under the radar…especially the police radar. So when her new business is linked to a murder investigation, nothing will stop the gossip mill from connecting her to the dead body.
Can’t have that.
In order to clear her good name and keep her face off the front page, this part-time-baker-part-time-pastor becomes extra nosy…with a little side of breaking-and-entering. But when she comes face-to-face with the Sheriff, Vangie can’t ignore the fact that one of her macarons was involved in a murder. She has to find the real murderer.
Penance on the Prairies is the first book in the Vangie Vale Mysteries–a western-set female sleuth mystery. It used to be called “Vangie Vale and the Murdered Macaron.” (This is the second edition.)
“Vangie Vale is so fun! This was a great mystery with many intriguing characters.”
“This book was fabulous. This is one of the best cozies I've read.”
Saint Agnes, Montana
Someone painted a mural on my big plate glass window, blocking my view of the parking lot. Flaking red hearts cascaded all the way down one side and circled up around the other, with Happy Valentine’s Day painted in frilly pink script in the center, like a bad homecoming float. I had to press my nose to the glass and look between the letters to even see my car.
That was saying a lot, considering my car was a monstrosity of green paint with a wheelbase so wide, it took up a space-plus. The Humvee had been a parting gift from my dad when I’d left North Carolina. Moving to the mountains apparently required a quote-big-rig-unquote.
The Tank was overkill, but that was my dad for you. Overkill was his first, last, and middle name. His thirty-three year-old daughter moved across the country and he paved the whole way with Duke flags and Humvees.
He has no idea what happened. He still thinks I chose this.
The bell above my door gave a sad little jingle. My shop neighbor, Emma Brent, slipped inside with a big smile, blonde curls bouncing on her shoulders. “Do you like the mural?”
I snickered. I should have known it was her. “It’s… I mean… it’s…”
“It matches the one I did on my window, since they’re side-by-side. Subconsciously, it’ll make people shop in both stores.”
I looped my arms over my chest, eyeing the paint job, not sold on the marketing. I was still new to this whole shop-owning thing, and still felt a little naked without my clergy collar on all day. But she’d been selling agates and gifts from her attached store for a decade. I had to trust her instincts more than mine when it came to keeping businesses afloat. While I got lost in my analysis of startup marketing trends, Emma made a beeline toward the coffee counter.
“You mind?” She lifted the plastic carafe and the end of her sentence. “You’ll have to make a new pot for the lunch rush anyway.”
“Aww. It’s so cute that you think there’ll be a lunch rush.” I was about to join her at the coffee pot when a ping sounded off to my left again.
“I told you we missed a turn, Henry.” The speaker, a sharp-featured woman, drawled out Southern-tipped words and turned up her pointy nose at whoever lingered outside the door. “Honestly. I wish you’d stopped and asked for directions.”
Miss Georgia offered me a cramped little smile and kept walking around my tables. A slim, sandy-haired man breezed in behind her, dressed in the most spectacularly cut charcoal pinstripe suit.
His gaze flitted around, like he couldn’t focus, and he followed the woman who was likely his wife. This must be Henry. He could have passed for a supermodel with those cheekbones.
“I’m so sorry, darling. I guess it’s been too long,” he said in a breezy James-Bond accent.
“Some days, I could just throttle you. We’re gonna be late.” Miss Georgia pouted at the counter with a black-gloved hand on one hip.
I crossed between the feuding couple, slid behind the white-wood-framed bake case, and lit up the fakest of fake smiles.
“What can I get you?” I asked.
“Coffee,” Miss Georgia said with a bite. “Wait.” She held up a hand and took a deep breath, her movements exaggerated. “Is it…organic?”
“Organic and grass-fed,” I said. A sing-song answer to a drama-queen question. James Bond let out a small chuckle, and I found myself meeting his eyes. They were dark, deep, delicious, and…totally married.
I re-centered on his wife. “It is organic, yes.”
“You should really put that on your sign.” Miss Georgia placed one finger on the white-wood counter. “You know, we almost didn’t stop.”
Now, that would’ve been a travesty, y’all.
Grabbing one of the paper cups, I bit my tongue and poured the coffee, leaving an inch below the rim. Miss Georgia seemed like a cream and sugar girl. I passed it across the counter and waited for more ordering.
James Bond slid a hundred dollar bill in my direction while his wife made a clip-clop beeline for the condiment bar. “Keep the change,” he said in a low voice. “Sorry about her.”
“We need to get to Saint Agnes before noon,” she said. “If you’re not ordering, Henry, just leave the poor girl alone.”
“This is Saint Agnes.” I pushed the hundred back. “And I can’t make change for this.”
“I mean it.” Henry covered my hand, stopping the progress of the bill. “Keep the change.”
When I looked down at his hand—no wedding ring—and glanced at his perfect jawline, I felt compelled to pull up a chair and ask him to read the phonebook. But he was definitely married, ring or not. I’d peg them at about ten years in. Headed for divorce? I’d need a minute to figure that one out. But not much more.
“This is Saint Agnes?” Miss Georgia turned so fast, she almost caught the open-topped coffee cup with her elbow.
“It sure is.” I pulled the bill out from under Henry’s hand and clicked a button to open the vintage cash register.
“We’re right on the edge of town,” Emma interjected with a low giggle. “That’s why my shop next door is called Saint Agnes Agates and Gifts.”
“Hmmmm.” Henry turned a thousand-watt smile on her. “I suppose we should have noticed that.”
Miss Georgia approached the counter like it was time to put the kibosh on the flirting. “I knew we should have asked for directions.” She swatted Henry’s arm. “I don’t care if they did move the highway, your memory is a sieve.”
“You can ask us,” Emma said. “Tourists always stop in, asking for directions since we’re the first place you come to. We’re used to it.”
“We’re looking for a bank.” Miss Georgia drew her neck straight and delivered her words with and-the-Oscar-goes-to gravitas. “The Rocky Mountain Bank.”
“Oh yeah, that’s down on Broadwater,” Emma said. “You’ll want to take a right at the stoplight.”
“There’s only one.” I offered a quick smile. “Can’t miss it.”
“So, I have to ask.” Henry lowered an elbow onto the counter and looked up at me through unnaturally dark lashes. “What is this Matchbakery business anyway?” He picked up one of the laminated menu cards and read from it. “‘Let the Matchbaker decide for you.’ What does that mean?”
Pulling the card from his hand, I debated a snappy read-the-rest-of-the-card answer. My little sister, a professor of interior design, had created the branding for my new business, since I had been headspun and heartbroken. At the time, it had seemed cute, and (as my sister pointed out) a great way to double-use the skills I’d gained working with people after years of service in the church. I figured, baking had been my only solace since… well, since Edward… so why not.
But the Matchbaker branding sometimes gave me the eye-rolls.
I slid the card back onto the pile. “I…match you. To a pastry. Or to a coffee drink or a sandwich.”
“What?” Henry’s brows both shot up. “You match me?”
“She tells you what you want to eat today.” Emma sidled up to me. “Like a psychic.”
“Nope. Not a psychic. I just…”
“She reads people.”
Henry held out his hand, the corners of his mouth tugging up. “Read me.”
I pushed at his arm. “I don’t need to see your palm.”
“Tell him what he wants, Vangie.” Emma gave me an elbow in the side.
But I didn’t want to Match him. This LA-trendy, over-attentive married man. He didn’t need more attention. He needed a dose of plain-Jane-reality ignoring.
“Yes,” Henry said, drawing closer, gaze going darker. “Tell me what I want.”
“I can tell you what she wants.” I nodded at Miss Georgia, avoiding Henry’s strange, insistent eye contact.
“Yes, you should do Scarlet. She’s the one who wanted to stop, after all.” He took his wife’s hand and pulled her to his side, in front of the counter, the wattage of his smile dimming just a touch. He wasn’t used to being turned down.
I looked up and down Scarlet’s body. Of course that was her name—it matched all those long, Georgia vowels and pretty, petite features. A little self-indulgent, but too worried about appearances or calories to order a mocha. “Dark roast with room for cream. That much was easy.”
Scarlet made a pointed huff and turned up her nose—a classic for a reason. She wore a three-piece tailored skirt suit in slate gray, trendy-thick hose, and black ankle boots with stiletto heels and the kind of intricate silver bead and buckle work that couldn’t be done by a machine.
She didn’t have the too-skinny look of a woman who avoided dessert for fashion’s sake, but she didn’t succumb often. She was the type who would order a fancy dessert, like a macaron—which she would both spell and pronounce correctly—and let it sit on her counter, taunting her, until she couldn’t hold out any longer. Or it went stale and was no longer appetizing.
I stepped behind the glass case and constructed a small paper box. Henry shadowed my movements, leaving his wife to stew in front of the cash register.
“I’m dying to know what you’ll pick for her.” He leaned on the counter like an underwear model and the edge of his accent tapered off, turning almost American on his last words. Interesting.
I slipped a glove on my left hand and pressed a sheet of tissue paper into the bottom of the box, crinkling it just enough that it would safely hold the delicate cookies. Using my sanitary hand, I selected a small, white macaron. Perfect smooth top, perfect ruffled foot, filled with a vivid red raspberry buttercream.
“They’re macaroons, Scarlet.” Henry glanced up, proudly, his accent back in spades. “You’re a macaroon.”
“Macaron.” Scarlet corrected him at once, sharpish, and I couldn’t help but indulge the victorious smile pulling at one corner of my mouth.
Another score for the Matchbaker.
Three more small delicacies joined the vanilla-raspberry in the box. Rich whirls of color nestled into the ruffled white paper. A bright green matcha cookie filled with ginger buttercream—because she would want people to think she was interesting enough to like green tea, even though she probably hated all things umami. A graham-cracker-crusted peach pie cookie—because it would remind her of home. And a strawberry cookie dusted with sanding sugar and filled with a glistening layer of jam—because her husband would actually eat one of them, and he would want something that sparkled just for him.
I folded the box top. A clear plastic cut-out showed the customer their “matched” treats, above the script-y signature logo stamped in a robin’s egg blue. Henry took it out of my hands and pulled out the green tea macaron, holding it up to the light.
“These are quite perfect,” he said, fully back into James Bond mode. “I’ve never seen the like.”
“Oh, give me that ridiculous box.” Scarlet grabbed for the green cookie, but Henry pulled it away, his thumb cracking the top.
He turned it over and over in his hand. “It’s more fragile than I would have expected. When I pulled it out of the box, it felt quite hard.”
I took off my glove and stepped back to lean against the counter beside Emma. She sipped at her coffee, clearly not as intrigued by Henry as I was.
“Macarons are made from meringue, so they’re very delicate,” I said, as though he knew what meringue was. “Hard on the outside, but soft on the inside.”
Henry bit into the cookie and it crumbled around his lips. His eyes went wide, and he stared at the little dessert tucked between his fingers. “That’s incredible.”
“Oh, come on.” Scarlet pulled on his arm. “We can’t be late. You have a call with Brad at exactly one o’clock. You know they moved the shooting back just for you and we have a plane to catch tonight.”
His golden brows drew together with artful precision, and all the pieces locked into place for me. He was an actor. Shooting. Accents that tried too hard. An aggressively put-together wife. So much LA in one little package.
Scarlet sighed and stalked across the room, coffee in one hand and purse on the other arm, not waiting for his frustration to ebb, swaying to some internal runway rhythm.
Her husband picked up the dessert box with a rueful smile. “Thank you for these, Miss Matchbaker.”
“Henry.” Scarlet stopped in front of the door, her hot glare igniting the last smoldering straw. “Stop flirting.”
“I’m being polite, darling. You should try it.”
“You always flirt with the fat ones.” Her tone was a touch too loud, like the head cheerleader holding court in the cafeteria.
Henry glanced over his shoulder, his features constricted, shaking his head in apology. Before he could say anything, his wife yelled out, “What street did they say to turn on?”
My chest moved fast, breath rushed. I hated bullies. Maybe more than philanderers. I gripped Emma’s arm before she could answer and plastered on that fakety-fake smile again. “Take your next left. Then look for the stoplight and turn right.”
Henry gave us apologetic eyes but no more of his melty accent. Then the bell dinged again, and they were gone.
“Evangeline Vale!” Emma hurried across the room, stopping at the window and watching the car pull away. “I can’t believe you just did that.”
I pulled the bake case closed with a hard tug. “Justice was served.”
“Holy crap, girl. They’re really taking a left.” Emma put her finger on the window, pressing it in between two painted red hearts. “There she goes.”
I stood behind her, watching the black car turn up the road. An old, beat-up pickup pulled in behind it, headed in the same direction. Away from Saint Agnes. I watched until the black car disappeared into the canyon. “Yup. They’ll be at the stoplight in Rolo in about fifteen minutes. Teach her a lesson.”
“What lesson is that?” There was a touch of sarcasm in her bright tone. She already knew, of course. It was the same lesson everyone learned eventually.
Karma occasionally wore a clergy collar and called itself the Matchbaker. At least, it did in Saint Agnes.