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Strawberried Alive (Cupcake Bakery Mystery #14)

Strawberried Alive (Cupcake Bakery Mystery #14)

by Jenn McKinlay
Strawberried Alive (Cupcake Bakery Mystery #14)

Strawberried Alive (Cupcake Bakery Mystery #14)

by Jenn McKinlay

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback)

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The crew from the Fairy Tale Cupcakes shop risks getting burned when they set out to find a murderer who is terrorizing their town
Life is smooth as buttercream at the Fairy Tale Cupcakes bakery, and newlyweds Mel and Joe are stopping to smell the flours. But things start to crumble one night when an unknown gunman takes a shot at Mel. Though the bullets miss their mark, the cupcake crew goes on high alert to figure out who would want to kill a small-town baker, and why.
When more business owners are attacked, things turn fatal, and locals begin to wonder if the killer could be one of their own. Every shop owner in town starts to fear it’s only a matter of time before they too become victims of the mystery murderer. Despite the cupcake crew's superb baking skills, it will be anything but a piece of cake to catch the killer, as they try to prevent anyone else from being berried.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593333396
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/03/2022
Series: Cupcake Bakery Mystery Series , #14
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 4,933
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jenn McKinlay is the award-winning New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of several mystery and romance series. Her work has been translated into multiple languages in countries all over the world. She lives in sunny Arizona in a house that is overrun with kids, pets, and her husband's guitars.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

“I’m not paying for these,” Emerson Henry snapped. “They’re not what I asked for, in fact, they’re hideous.”

Melanie DeLaura’s eyebrows rose up to her hairline. She glanced at the bride-to-be, who stood across the counter from her with her harried mother, Julia Henry, by her side, and debated tossing them out of Fairy Tale Cupcakes. Not to be full of herself but Mel was positive she had never baked a hideous cupcake in her life.

“Now, princess, I don’t think—” Julia began, but Emerson interrupted her.

“Exactly. You don’t think,” Emerson said, with an impatient toss of her long, honey-blond hair. Her wide mouth twisted up into a puckered knot. “I told you to check on the color of the cupcakes, but you said, ‘Oh, they’ll be fine.’ And now look at the mess we’re in the day before my wedding. You knew I wanted the cupcakes to match the new bridesmaids’ dresses and these don’t. They are aqua and the dresses are teal. Now my wedding is ruined!” Emerson stalked out of the bakery, sobbing hysterically and texting frantically as she went.

Julia scrunched up her hands into tight fists. Mel hurried around the counter to position herself between the aggravated mother of the bride and the box of cupcakes on the off chance that Julia felt the need to vent her temper by slamming her fists into the pastries.

“Twenty-four hours,” Julia muttered. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply in through her nose, letting the air out on a soft exhale. Then she gave Mel a small, closed-lip smile. “In twenty-four hours, she will no longer be my problem.”

“There’s a silver lining,” Mel said. “What can I do to help?”

Mel thought about pointing out that if you called your adult daughter “princess” maybe you were part of the problem, but she resisted, guessing that now was not the time, and it really wasn’t her business.

She turned to stand beside Julia as they stared down at the cupcakes. They were vanilla cake filled with raspberry mousse and topped with white chocolate buttercream frosting covered with a layer of fondant. The fondant had been matched to the hue of the bridesmaids’ dresses with the couple’s entwined initials crafted from white chocolate centered on top. Mel plucked a swatch of fabric from where it was taped to the side of the box.

“I gather that Emerson is disappointed, but I don’t see how I could match the fondant any more closely than this,” she said. She held the fabric against one of the cupcakes and glanced from it to Julia.

Julia rubbed her forehead with her fingers. “That’s the original color for the bridesmaids’ dresses.”
Mel got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Original color?”

“Yes,” Julia said. “She changed it two weeks ago from aqua to teal and we had to pay an insane amount of money for a rush order on the dresses.”

“Oh.” Mel had sudden sympathy pangs for the dressmaker and the bridesmaids. “I’m sorry. No one told me.”

“Apparently that was my job on top of everything else,” Julia said. She sounded bitter and a teeny bit hysterical. She turned troubled eyes to Mel. “Is there any way you can redo the fondant to match the new dress color?” She opened her bag and peered inside. “I have a sample and I’ll pay you for your time.” She held up the tiny square of teal that was definitely a deeper green than the aqua.

Mel wanted to howl. This would mean an all-nighter and she’d already put in a full day. Given that Emerson had been such a brat, she wanted to say no, but Julia was a longtime customer and other than this wedding, she’d always been a pleasure to work with. Mel didn’t want to let her down.

Mel turned to look at her counter help, Marty Zelaznik, who had been listening to the entire exchange. Being an octogenarian who didn’t suffer fools, she expected him to have a few choice words to say about the situation. Instead, he raised his hands in surrender and slowly backed away, moving down the counter to help other customers. Mel was on her own.

She glanced at the swatch and then the box of cupcakes. The Henrys had ordered 350, all of which were already boxed and in the walk-in cooler in her kitchen. This was going to mean hours of work. Despite not wanting to do it, she found herself nodding. She couldn’t abide the idea of having Emerson Henry trashing her bakery over the color of the cupcakes, because Mel had no doubt that she would, while conveniently leaving out the part that it was completely her own bridezilla fault.

“Okay,” Mel said. “I’ll have them ready first thing in the morning.”

Now Julia looked like she might cry. She pressed the square of fabric into Mel’s hands and hugged her. “You’re a lifesaver.”

Mel watched as Julia rushed out the door after her daughter. She supposed it could be worse. She could be Julia, stuck catering to princess’s every whim. Suddenly a night of making new fondant didn’t seem so bad.

Marty rang up his customer and joined Mel at the counter.

“Looks like I’m working late,” Mel said.

Marty nodded. “‘You help the ones you can.’”

Mel gave him side-eye. “Did you just hit me with a movie quote from Instinct?”

This had been a long-running game between the bakers, trying to stump each other with movie quotes.

Marty snapped his fingers and looked impressed. “How did you guess it?”

“Please,” Mel said. She picked up the box of cupcakes and headed back to the kitchen. “What do you think I am, an amateur?”

He waved a dismissive hand at her just as the bells on the front door jangled, indicating the arrival of a new customer. Mel left him to it, hoping she had enough ingredients in her stores to handle this massive fondant do-over. She pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, where she found Angie Harper, one of her partners in the bakery.

“You know, I really never thought that we’d have a high-maintenance bride as hideous as Tate’s ex-fiancée,” Angie said. She was pacing around the kitchen while trying to rock her six-month-old baby girl, Emari, to sleep. Emari was not having it and instead gurgled at Mel, who was one of her favorite people.

“I assume you were listening at the door?” Mel asked.

“Of course,” Angie said. “Princess needs to get over herself.”

Mel snorted. She put the box of cupcakes on the table and paused to pat the baby’s back and coo at her. Emari had arrived on the scene in a dramatic fashion in the middle of Mel’s wedding and she’d been stealing the show ever since with her big brown eyes, downy head of dark hair, and gurgling smiles. Mel loved her as if she were her own, which was not a surprise, given Emari was the progeny of Mel’s two best friends.

After being engaged to the wrong woman, Angie’s husband, Tate, finally found his Mrs. Right in Angie, who had been waiting for him to notice her since their years as outcasts together in middle school.

Theirs was a true love story and it was one of Mel’s favorites, second only to her own. She had recently married her schoolgirl crush, too, who just happened to be none other than Joe DeLaura, the middle of Angie’s seven older brothers.

“Dear Joe,” as Mel’s mother called him, was the love of Mel’s life. They were most definitely still in the honeymoon phase of their marriage—so much so, that she hated the fact that she was going to have to work late tonight, when she could be home with Joe and their fur babies: Peanut, their rescue dog, and Captain Jack, their rescue cat. Mel hadn’t been looking for pets when they came into her life, but now she couldn’t imagine her home without them.

“Do you want me to stay and help?” Angie asked.

Mel shook her head. “No, but thank you. Baby girl needs to go home.”

Emari let out a snuffle and nuzzled into her mom’s neck. Much as she fought it, sleepiness was winning.

“She does seem to be running the show these days,” Angie said.

“Just promise me you won’t start calling her ‘princess,’” Mel said. “I don’t think that pet name works out in the long run.”

Angie laughed. “Yeah, no, we’ll call her Captain, like Captain Marvel.”

“Much better,” Mel whispered as Emari’s eyes closed and she went limp in her mother’s arms, sleep having finally won the battle.

Angie gently placed the baby into her car seat. Emari jerked once when Angie clipped the buckle, but didn’t wake up. Mel and Angie both sighed in relief. Angie hooked the car seat over her arm and shouldered the diaper bag that went with her everywhere. Mel walked her to the back door to open it for her.

“Call me if you change your mind. Tate has night duty so he won’t mind if I come back and help,” Angie said.

“Will do,” Mel said. She bent down and gently kissed Emari. She stood on the landing behind the bakery and watched as Angie walked to her car, which was parked in the small lot on the other side of the alley. It was still light out but Mel watched her friend until the baby was settled and Angie drove off.

With a sigh, Mel returned to her kitchen and set to work unboxing all of the packed-up cupcakes. She carefully removed the white chocolate initials and set them aside on a sheet of parchment paper, then she scraped off the rejected fondant and most of the underlying buttercream. Using a silicone spatula, she flicked the frosting into a large trash can. She was halfway through when the kitchen door swung open and Olivia Puckett—rival baker and current girlfriend to Marty—appeared. Olivia surveyed the cupcake-covered table and watched Mel scrape another cupcake clean. Then she laughed. It was a full-on belly laugh.

“What happened? Did you mess up an order?”

Mel eyed the gob of frosting on the end of her spatula and debated flicking it at Olivia. Tempting. It was so tempting. Mel lowered the spatula into the trash can and shook the frosting loose. She felt she should get props for being so mature, especially given that dumping the topping in the trash can was not nearly as satisfying as watching a glob of frosting splat her baking rival in the face.

Olivia was still in her chef’s coat, having just left her bakery, Confections. She was undoubtedly here to pick up Marty since they lived together. Mel tried not to feel resentful about everyone else having a fun Friday night while she was stuck here. It was a struggle.

“No, I didn’t mess up,” Mel said. “The bride changed her primary color from aqua to teal without telling me until a few moments ago.”

Olivia crossed the kitchen to glance at the vast expanse of cupcakes on the table. She let out a low whistle. “That’s a lot of boo-boos to fix. Was the bride Emerson Henry by any chance?”

Mel glanced at her in surprise. “How did you know?”

“She came to Confections about her wedding,” Olivia said. “Aqua cupcakes with their initials in white chocolate on top, am I right?”

“You’re right.” Mel gestured to the cupcakes.

“Yeah, we were already booked out,” Olivia said. “Now I feel like I dodged a bullet.” She patted Mel on the back. Olivia didn’t know her own strength—or maybe she did—as the pat almost sent Mel face-first onto the worktable. She caught herself just in time.

“You definitely did,” Mel said ruefully. They both studied the sea of cupcakes, acknowledging the amount of work that was ahead of Mel.

“I’d offer to stay and help,” Olivia said, “but I don’t want to.”

That surprised a laugh out of Mel. The door swung open again and Marty appeared. “We’re all locked up out front, boss. Liv and I are taking off if you’re okay with that?”

“I’m okay,” Mel said. She must not have sounded convincing because Marty hesitated, so she added, “Seriously, I’m good. Go, get out of here.”

They didn’t need to be told twice. The couple crossed through the kitchen and out the back door, which closed with a click of the lock behind them. Mel glanced around her kitchen, which she usually considered her sanctuary, and tried not to resent it.

She turned to her trusty KitchenAid mixer to whip up a fresh batch of fondant. Mel used a gelatin-and-corn-syrup-based recipe, so it wasn’t difficult, except that fondant could be persnickety, so she had to mind it carefully. When the rolling fondant had reached the right consistency, she put it in the cooler to chill while she prepped a new batch of white chocolate buttercream.

Mel had a large-screen television mounted on the wall of the kitchen, which she used to watch movies while baking late at night. She flicked through the streaming services until she found a classic—Bringing Up Baby. She then picked up her phone and texted Joe, letting him know that she’d be home in a couple of hours. She’d already called to tell him she was working late and he said he and the furry babies eagerly awaited her return. She felt a pang of missing her family. Being married was still very new for her and sometimes she couldn’t believe that she was Mrs. Joe DeLaura.

As Kate Hepburn sashayed across the screen, Mel began to pipe fresh buttercream onto the raspberry-filled cupcakes. She supposed she could have baked the cupcakes all over again, but no. Princess of the tantrum did not deserve that much labor from her.

The movie ended and the next one began while Mel worked. It Happened One Night, a classic starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, was halfway through when she finished. After she put the last box in the walk-in cooler, she sat down and treated herself to a glass of cold milk and one (okay, two) of her new favorite cupcakes—Strawberry Surprise. She and Oscar Ruiz, a former bakery employee known as Oz, had worked on this recipe until it was just right. It was packed with real strawberry flavor from the cake, to the frosting, to the chopped-up strawberries tucked into the center. They were ah-mazing. Plus, Mel figured with all of that strawberry goodness, they were totally healthy.

She savored each bite and washed them down with milk. She soon felt her eyes droop. Thankfully, the movie ended and she had only a couple of miles to drive until she was home. Mel made quick work of her dishes. She checked the bakery one more time to ensure everything was clean, switched off, and put away.

She retrieved her handbag from the tiny corner office that was formerly a closet and headed out the door. It was April in South Scottsdale and the nights were still blissfully cool as the heat of the Arizona summer had not yet arrived. Mel was giddy that she still had to pause to put on her lightweight hoodie as the chamber of commerce weather that was the pride of Arizona was on its way out.

She zipped up her sweatshirt and ran her fingers through her short blond hair. She locked the door and was just setting the alarm on the keypad outside when she heard footsteps in the alley behind her. Mel froze.

She glanced up at the apartment above the bakery, where Oz lived. The lights were off. Maybe it was him, coming home. He was a young man in his twenties. It wasn’t out of character for him to be out this late. Then again, he was a chef and had to be up when the rooster crowed to bake his signature desserts for the Sun Dial Resort, where he now worked, so it wouldn’t make sense for him to be out at this hour. Oz took his job very seriously.

Mel turned away from the keypad and glanced into the dark alley behind her. She tried to make her voice strong when she called out, “Oz? Is that you?”

In the shadow of the dumpster fifty yards away, she saw a figure dressed all in black. She felt her heart skip a beat—or three. Every instinct screamed at her to get out of there. She tried the handle on the door, but she’d locked it. She fumbled for her keys, wondering if she could get to her car before the person reached her.

“Oz, if you’re playing a prank, it’s not funny,” she cried. Please let it be Oz, please, please, please.

There was a sudden boom and the brick beside her arm exploded.

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