Summer is winding down in Frog Ledge, Connecticut, but Stan’s love life and career are both heating up nicely. In between planning her new pet patisserie and café, Stan is settling into living-in-bliss with sexy pub owner Jake McGee. Love’s on the menu for Stan’s mom, Patricia, too, who’s engaged to Frog Ledge’s mayor, Tony Falco.
Mayor Falco’s dogged ambition isn’t popular among locals, but it’s his executive coach, Eleanor Chang, who’s inspired a dangerous grudge. When Eleanor is found dead, there’s a whole pack of suspects to choose from. Stan has first-hand experience of Eleanor’s unsavory business tactics. But finding out who forced her to take a fatal plunge off the corporate ladder means unearthing some shady secrets…and a killer who’s too close for comfort.
Includes Gourmet Pet Food Recipes!
Praise for Kneading to Die
“In this fine first novel, the characters ring true and the plot and narration are seamless.” —Mystery Scene
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Custom Baked Murder
By Liz Mugavero
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Liz Mugavero
All rights reserved.
Stan Connor peered anxiously through her oven window, watching her first peanut butter and pumpkin Pup-Pie bake, hoping it hadn't fallen flat, and breathed a sigh of relief. So far, so good. It actually looked good enough for a person to eat — which technically, it was. That was part of her dog and cat food's appeal. The ingredients were all human-grade, organic and as local as possible. The dogs and cats could taste the difference, and their humans felt good about the menu. A win-win.
"What do you think, guys?" she asked the four dogs sitting at attention in a perfect semicircle, eyes glued to her. They could clearly smell the golden pumpkin aroma floating through the house. Stan understood. She drooled for pumpkin herself.
Scruffy's stubby schnoodle tail vibrated with excitement, the only part of her moving. Stan's first rescue dog behaved perfectly when it came to food. Usually. Unless she came across something tempting with no one around to catch her. Henry, her brown and white pit bull, never made a big fuss about anything, but he'd be the first to inhale the entire pie if given the chance. The other two dogs, Duncan the Weimaraner and Gaston the Australian cattle dog mix, technically belonged to her boyfriend, Jake McGee — and by extension, her, even before Jake moved in. Duncan, the least patient of the four-legged crew, danced in place, exercising a great deal of control by not tackling her. Gaston, a new rescue still adjusting to his surroundings, hung back, taking a wait-and-see approach.
When food was in the oven, they could be counted on to strike these very poses. She and Brenna, her assistant and Jake's younger sister, called them "The Review Crew." Luckily, they were easy-to-please critics, but Stan knew enough not to sit back on her laurels and take their adoration for granted. Even though her treats and pet pastries had over a year of good reputation, appearance would be everything when the doors to her Pawsitively Organic Pet Patisserie and Café opened in December, less than three short months away. She'd chosen the date to coincide with the town Christmas tree lighting, planning to take full advantage of the already-festive mood that would have surely overcome the Frog Ledge townspeople by then.
Her doggie customers would be ecstatic over anything in her cases, but their parents wanted to buy pretty things for their precious pets. She had time to perfect her new recipes, but the sooner she nailed the winning grand-opening combinations, the better.
And she was perfectly content to spend her time until opening day locked in her cozy yellow kitchen, jazz music playing and delightful smells emanating from the oven. And since she'd just gotten a big client — a new pet supply store down by the shore that wanted freshly baked doggie goods twice a week — she had even more reason to be in the kitchen. Alas, real life would inevitably intrude. She could sense her happy creating time coming to an end even now, as footsteps approached.
"Babe?" Jake appeared in the kitchen doorway, eyebrows raised. "You wearing that tonight?"
Stan glanced down at her ratty T-shirt from a 5K she'd run three years ago and yoga shorts that had seen better days. Her long blond hair fell out of its loose ponytail, and she felt the dusty coating of flour on her face where she'd likely scratched an itch with coated hands. She had a sudden, giddy urge to take Jake's comment to heart and go to the party in this outfit, just to see her mother's reaction.
By contrast, Jake already wore his suit. Or as close to a suit as he'd be caught dead in — black dress pants, a white button-down shirt, purple tie shot through with silver threads, and a leather jacket he'd slung over his shoulder. He looked like he was heading out for a photo shoot in GQ. The combination fit his rugged good looks and slightly rebellious dark blond, shoulder-length hair to a tee. Then again, most outfits suited him. He was just that sexy.
She felt a happy warmth spreading through her belly simply seeing him standing there, in "their" house. Jake had moved in a few weeks ago, and already the cozy Victorian overlooking the Frog Ledge town green felt even more like home.
"I may," she said, answering his question. "You think my mother would approve?" She giggled, imagining the reaction. Patricia wouldn't wear an outfit like this to clean the house — not that she ever did that — never mind to a hoity-toity engagement party.
"Kristan," she would say in that haughty tone she'd perfected probably before she could walk. "Whatever are you thinking? Moving to this tiny town has affected you terribly."
It wouldn't be a particularly good argument, since Patricia lived here most of the time too with her beau, the mayor, Tony Falco. Hence the reason for the fancy party tonight. Patricia and Tony wanted the entire town — or the most influential people, anyway — to be part of their big engagement celebration. Which meant Stan had to show up and smile, or hear about it forevermore.
"You always look gorgeous to me, you know that. Which works out to your advantage, because" — Jake glanced at his watch — "you really don't have time to shower."
"Eh." She shrugged. "Too bad it's not a costume party. I could go as the gardener. My mother wouldn't even notice me. Wait, yes she would," she corrected herself. "She'd expect the gardener to wear pantyhose." She let out a loud, long-suffering sigh. "I wish I could call in sick."
"Good luck with that," Jake said dryly.
"When did you get back from the pub? I didn't even hear you come in."
Jake owned McSwigg's, Frog Ledge's legendary Irish pub. Saturdays were the busiest night of the week and since he wouldn't be working, he'd gone over to help his staff set up.
"About an hour ago. The mixer was going, so I didn't want to disturb you." He kissed her, then ran a finger down her nose. "You have flour on your nose."
She scrubbed at it self-consciously. "I know. So much for the dogs warning me about someone coming in," she said. "I should stop letting them taste test if they're going to ignore the fact that another human walked through the front door and spent an hour here without me knowing."
"Then there'd definitely be mutiny. So are you going to get ready? Want me to let your mother know we'll be a few minutes late?"
Stan wrinkled her nose. "I wouldn't bother. We'll get there when we get there." She hesitated. "Unless there's some emergency that would keep us from going?"
"Nice try," he said. "You know you'll never get away with it."
"Tell me about it," she grumbled. "When did I become such an introvert? All I want to do is stay home and snuggle with you and the dogs and cats."
He pretended to consider this. "I don't think you're an introvert. I think I'm irresistible."
"You may be right." She groaned. "I guess I'd better get going."
Jake slipped his arms around her, hugging her tight. "It'll be fine," he said. "We'll go for a few hours, then slip out. No problem. The worst that can happen is that we're bored to death, right?"
She hugged him back, resting her head against his chest. "You never know, with my mother," she said. "But you're right. I have to change my attitude. This will be fun." She stepped back and squared her shoulders, readying for battle. "We'll have a fabulous time."
"Practice that in the shower," Jake advised. "Stop gritting your teeth and try it with a smile."
"Ugh. Going now." She tried not to think about how she'd rather poke herself in the eye with a fork.
"I'm going to let the dogs out before we leave," he said. "Come on, guys." He headed for the back door. All the dogs immediately followed except Henry, who stayed sitting in front of the oven, eyes still glued to the treat inside.
"Oh, shoot! My pie." Stan raced to the oven and yanked it out, cursing as she inspected the edges. "I burned it." She set it on the counter, out of reach of the dogs.
Jake came back and peered over her shoulder. "Where?"
"Right there." She pointed to the tiniest bit of dark brown around the outside of the pie.
"You're a perfectionist. Bet you the dogs would eat that in one gulp."
"Yeah, but that's not the point."
"I know, I know. Go." He pointed to the stairs. "Come on, Henry."
Henry sent Stan one last, pitiful glance.
She smiled. "You can have some after it cools, Henry."
She swore he sighed, but he got up and lumbered to the back door behind the others. Such a gentle soul, the antithesis of what pit bull haters would have you believe. Stan had rescued him from the local shelter after he saved her life last year during a sticky situation after she moved to town.
She watched them all troop outside, then poured herself some iced tea. Her two cats, Nutty and Benedict, sauntered in, having waited for the dogs to exit. Nutty, her Maine coon, leaped gracefully onto the counter, his regal tail pluming like a peacock's. He went over to sniff the pie. Benedict, a round orange guy, did not attempt to make the jump. Instead, he sat beneath Nutty and mewed plaintively.
"I know, you're starving. You guys are always starving." She opened their cat cookie jar and took out two fresh blueberry bites. Breaking them into pieces, she left the cats to their treats and started upstairs to make herself presentable. She'd made it up two steps before the doorbell rang.
Grumbling, she retraced her steps to the front door and pulled it open. Her eyes widened in surprise.
Her younger sister smiled — nervously, Stan thought — and tucked her perfectly highlighted blond hair behind her ear. Caitlyn looked stunning in a short gold minidress with matching five-inch heels. "Hey, Krissie. I'm here for the party."
Stan ignored the nickname she hated — her mother and sister both refused to call her by her preferred nickname — as her gaze strayed to the little girl standing next to her sister. Caitlin's six-year-old daughter, Evangeline. Stan hadn't seen her in more than a year. She looked adorable in her party dress, a miniature version of her mother's, and a tiny tiara in her ebony hair. But even more noticeable were the two suitcases on the porch, one adult-sized, one child.
Eva waved at her. "Hi Auntie Krissie!"
Stan knelt and opened her arms to her niece. "Hi sweetie! Look at you all dressed up. You look gorgeous."
Beaming, Eva allowed Stan to hug and kiss her.
Greetings complete, Stan stood and faced her sister, forcing a smile to her lips. She was sure she wasn't able to mask the question in her eyes. "Come in," she said. "I don't want the cats to get out."
Evangeline looked at her mother and burst into a grin from ear to ear. "I love cats!"
"Yes, Eva. I know you love cats." Caitlyn nudged her daughter inside and grabbed the suitcases, which she dropped just inside the door. "I knew she'd love this," she said to Stan. Then she did a double take. "Aren't you going to the party? Tell me you're not going like that."
Stan touched her messy hair self-consciously. "I was on my way to the shower. I've been baking. Testing new recipes for the shop."
"Shop? The pet bakery?" Caitlyn propped her sunglasses on top of her head. "You still doing that? I thought you kicked that slimeball Sheldon Allyn to the curb."
"I did." Stan and her sister reconnected over the summer when she'd gone to a chefs' retreat in Newport with the famous Allyn, who'd been intent on investing in her pet patisserie. Unfortunately, that partnership faced some challenges and ultimately didn't work out. "Jake's investing. And Mom. Didn't you know?"
"Mom?" Caitlyn's mouth dropped open, then she hurriedly closed it. "Oh, yeah, I did know. I just forgot."
Stan raised an eyebrow but let it go. "So what's with the suitcases? You staying with Mom overnight?"
"Actually, I hoped Eva and I could stay with you for a while." Caitlyn met her sister's eyes, unflinching. "Things have been unbearable at home, with all the divorce nonsense. Michael is really being a jerk and milking this for all it's worth. I don't get a moment's peace, and he refuses to leave until all the legal stuff is worked out." She waved a hand in the air dismissively, as if she could blink all her troubles — and her soon-to-be-ex-husband — away as easily as Samantha on the TV show Bewitched.
Well, you got caught cheating, Stan thought, but kept her mouth shut and focused on the really disturbing part of that statement. The part where Caitlyn wanted to stay with her. "You ... you want to stay here? With me?"
"Why not?" Caitlyn shrugged. "It's actually kind of cute here. The town, I mean. I wasn't sure what to expect. I was prepared for cows and, you know, smelly stuff." She wrinkled her nose. "But I didn't smell a thing. And your house is adorable." She looked around, nodding approvingly at the shiny hardwood floors, the lavender walls in the foyer, the staircase leading upstairs accented by beach scenes on the wall. "Homey."
Stan looked around, trying to see through her sister's eyes. She thought her home was simple but happy. Much like her life had become over the past year. Caitlyn's tastes were more aligned with their mother's. Which meant big and fancy. Between family money and her almost-ex's successful banking career, Caitlyn had more money than she'd ever be able to spend, although she certainly gave it her best effort.
By contrast, Stan took credit for her own comfortable lifestyle, bypassing her trust fund and forging her own path instead. Her former corporate job paid her well, and she'd made excellent investment choices over the years. When she'd been liberated from her job last year, she was in a position to take her time figuring out what was next. That exercise led her here, to her mint-green Victorian house in this small farming town. Which would definitely not be Caitlyn's cup of tea.
She cast around for a good way to say that without sounding like she wanted her sister to leave. "There are cows down the street," she hastened to point out. "A whole dairy farm. When the wind blows ..." She shook her head.
"Cows!" Eva screeched and clapped her hands.
"Plus I thought we could, you know, bond." Caitlyn folded her arms and narrowed her eyes. "Are you saying you don't want us here?"
"No, of course not," Stan rushed to assure her. "I mean, of course I do. I'm just ... surprised. What about school?" She nodded at Eva.
"I let them know she'd be out for a week. After that, her father and the nanny can bring her to school during the week, then she can come back on weekends. We both needed a vacation," Caitlyn added.
"Babe? You almost ready?" The back door slammed and doggie feet stampeded down the hall preceding Jake, who stopped short when he saw Stan still covered in flour, now entertaining guests. Scruffy and Duncan catapulted themselves at Caitlyn and Eva. Horrified, Caitlyn took a step back, shielding herself from whatever attack she expected. Eva gasped in delight. Henry and Gaston hung back, observing, tails wagging in sync.
"Duncan! Down," Jake commanded.
A sheepish Duncan dropped to the floor in front of Caitlyn, tail still furiously waving back and forth. Scruffy, meanwhile, was in her glory, sitting still while Eva carefully petted her head and kissed her nose.
"Sorry," Jake said, eyes sliding to Stan, then back to Caitlyn. "I didn't know we had company."
"Jake McGee, my sister, Caitlyn, and my niece, Evangeline," Stan made the introductions. She watched her sister's eyes widen appreciatively at the sight of Jake, and wondered what he would think of all this. He didn't know much about her sister aside from Stan's stories, and the most recent one — her affair with a chef wanted for murder — didn't portray her in the best light.
"Hi." Jake stepped forward and, in that perfect welcoming way he had, gave Caitlyn a hug. "We didn't get to meet in Rhode Island."
"So you're the perfect guy," Caitlyn said, but she hugged him back. "It's great to meet you. I've heard so much about you."
Jake's eyebrows shot up. "That's quite a description," he said to Stan. "I think you're misleading your sister."
"That's actually from our mother," Caitlyn said, as Jake knelt and offered his hand solemnly to Eva, who giggled and shook it. "I think she has a little crush on you."
Now Jake burst out laughing. Stan turned crimson.
"Caitlyn's, um, coming to the party," Stan said, hoping to change the subject.
"Great," Jake said.
"And she might stay for a few days."
To his credit, Jake's face didn't change. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Stan blew out a breath. "I need to get in the shower."
As she raced up the stairs, she heard Caitlyn say, "So is there a spa in town? I need to get my nails done."
Excerpted from Custom Baked Murder by Liz Mugavero. Copyright © 2017 Liz Mugavero. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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