The blackmail flour trai.., p.1
The Blackmail Flour Trail: A Culinary Cozy Mystery (Slice of Paradise Cozy Mysteries Book 3), page 1
The Blackmail Flour Trail
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A SLICE OF PARADISE COZY MYSTERY
The Blackmail Flour Trail
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The breeze fluttered in on Faith’s lace curtains and the warmth of the Florida morning wrapped around her like a comforting hug. Faith, still tucked up under the sheet with kittens Cirrus and Nimbus curled up by her side, smiled out at the creamy blue sky and the cottonball clouds that floated by.
She still couldn’t quite believe it. Any of it.
Couldn’t believe that the Slice of Paradise team – Faith herself, her Grandma Bessie, and her best friend Laura - had reached the semi-final of the Cynthia Rochford Cupcake Marathon, a contest spanning most of the southern states. Though she knew Grandma Bessie was a master baker – after all, she had owned the café for forty years before she’d passed it on to Faith - and that she herself was able to whip up some inventive creations of her own, she’d never expected them to get beyond the first round.
She’d been shocked they were even nominated. When the organizer Marigold Rochford had called up the tearoom telling them they’d been shortlisted for the contest, Faith had said, “Ha ha, nice try,” thinking it was a prank call, then had hung up the phone. Only after Laura scrambling to find out the caller I.D. and a desperate call back had they found out the truth – they had indeed been nominated, and would fight for not only the title of the best cupcakes in the South, but also $50,000 to spend as they wanted!
Grandma Bessie kept going on about expanding the tearoom or maybe opening a new location, but Faith was firm in her mind – the money would go toward Grandma Bessie’s knee replacement, no matter how much she fussed and moaned about it. Grandma Bessie was proud when it came to accepting help or money. Proud about most everything, come to think of it. But there was no way Faith would let her pride get in the way of her health. Thankfully a couple years before she’d accepted Faith’s check for $2,000 and got herself the help she’d needed. But the knee operation required a much fatter check. Faith could only hope Grandma Bessie would see sense and accept it.
Little Nimbus, the more cuddly of her kitties, nuzzled into Faith’s hand. “Semifinal today, Nim Nim,” she said, pushing his downy gray fur back. “Wish me luck.” Faith was pretty nervous about going up on stage. All the heats and the quarterfinals had been held in halls and smaller venues.
At that moment, Cirrus leapt down from the bed and began stalking the room. Then he turned to Faith with a reproachful look, as if to say, Come on, sleepyhead! Up and at ‘em!
Faith smiled at him in amusement. “Yes, sir.” Then she swung her legs off the bed, feeling butterflies dancing in her stomach. She went over to the closet to pick out which sundress she would wear. Since moving to Florida, it seemed like her wardrobe had morphed into nothing but loose, flowing sundresses that caught on the breeze and kept her cool. Much more comfortable than the jeans and top combo she always wore back in Minnesota.
Pretty soon she chose a fuchsia pink maxi that always made her feel confident, and slipped it on. Looking at herself in the mirror, she felt her heart beating faster. If there was one thing nobody had ever told Faith about happiness and success, it was how nervous they could make you. At least when you were miserable or directionless, there was nothing to be afraid of. But these days, with all of Faith’s dreams coming true, she unexpectedly found herself anxious a lot.
Back in Minnesota, taking odd shifts as a cashier and generally not knowing what to do with her life, it had been dull and boring and unfulfilling, sure. But it had felt safe, too. Routine. Easy, if anything. But running her dream business in sunny Florida, with a new best friend Laura and a budding relationship with Laura’s cousin Nathan, well, it was scary. Faith felt like she was holding a very precious vase a lot of the time, or some priceless crystal ornament. She had to be so careful all the time. What would happen if she dropped it?
“Right, everyone!” Marigold said into the microphone with dramatic flair. Her voice boomed through the speaker system that had been set up in one of the open areas in Paradise Point. The place was crammed full with vending stalls and families and the smells of cotton candy and ripening mango – there was a huge mango tree lining the park, and Nathan was helping the kids pick their own with a special contraption he’d made. “So, our judges have spoken.”
Faith watched from the side of the platform where their chairs were arranged, her heart skipping every other beat, it felt like. She looked up at the two competitors, the Baking Babes and Wilhelmina Roby. While the three middle aged women who made up the Baking Babes were biting their lips and huddling together in their pink T-shirts, Wilhelmina oozed poise and assurance. Arrogance, even. Her long salt-and-pepper hair was swept back in a thick curtain behind her shoulders, and her gaze ahead was steely, her chin high.
Faith didn’t know what to think of her. On one hand, Wilhelmina was an undisputed cupcake genius, and a seasoned professional, that much had to be said. Faith had watched in awe as she had showed off her portfolio to everyone – a square shaped, glossy paged book with larger than life photos of intricate cupcakes. Elegant looped cursive overlaid each picture, reporting the exotic flavor combinations she’d invented. Cinnamon and chocolate with chili-infused vanilla frosting. Rosemary-roasted strawberry frosting on top of a plain sugar sponge. A ‘pastry-cupcake’, as she’d proudly told Faith, a mini pear tartlet in the shape of a cupcake, with ginger whipped frosting.
There was no doubt about her talent, but she had this unnerving overconfidence that made it clear she thought she was better than everyone else. But Faith supposed it kind of was warranted. She had won the contest every single one of the five years it had been on, except for the last, where new boy Nico had swooped in and claimed the top spot. Wilhelmina had studiously ignored him for the entire competition.
“I have the results here,” Marigold said, taking an envelope from the panel of three judges. She tottered back in her high heels back to the space in between the Baking Babes table and Wilhelmina’s table.
Faith held her breath. This was the moment they’d find out who their potential rival in the final would be, if they managed to beat Nico.
Marigold pushed her black glasses up her nose wher
“Congratulations to…” Marigold said with some suspense, then flung her arm up in the air. “Wilhelmina Roby!”
A cheer went up from the crowd, though Faith was sure they were just excited and would have cheered for anyone. She clapped along politely, not sure whether to be glad or not. Laura nudged her with her elbow and rolled her eyes. Then she leaned in and whispered, “I’m not sure I want to get to the final. If we beat her I don’t think she’d think twice about killing us in revenge.”
Faith gave a little laugh, watching Wilhelmina give a gracious bow, which was quite strange. It was obvious the woman was trying to stop herself from smiling the broad smile she wanted to, and her lips were pursed tightly in a half smile.
“So, congratulations, Ms. Roby,” Marigold said, holding the microphone toward her.
“Thank you, indeed.”
“Anything you would like to say? To the judges, or to everyone gathered here today?”
Wilhelmina sent a death stare over to Nico, who was sitting off to the left of Faith and Laura and Grandma Bessie. “See you in the final, Nico. Be prepared to be beaten like an egg.”
Marigold gave a nervous laugh and hastily took the microphone back. “Ha, brilliant. Well, actually, Ms. Roby, Nico and the Slice of Paradise team have to battle it out yet. Now, Baking Babes, our commiserations to you.”
As Marigold tottered over in her high heels to catch up with the losing team, Grandma Bessie leant over, her eyes wide with disapproval. “The cheek of it!” she said, not quite quietly enough. “Presuming we’re going to be knocked out before we’ve even started baking. Can you believe it?”
“I know, Grandma,” Faith whispered back hurriedly, hoping she’d quieten down. The judges, Karen, Chad and Tamalynn, were already looking in their direction. Luckily the crowd was buzzing with chatter so that was as far as her voice carried, but it was still a bit embarrassing.
Since they were on their home turf in Paradise Point – effectively the hosts – Faith wanted to make a good impression. Marigold had come to visit them when they’d first entered and had fallen in love with the beach-side park all over again. “I visited when I was a kid,” she’d told them. “My mom always liked it here, too. Remember her, Miss Bessie? Cynthia Rochford?”
Miss Bessie had nodded and smiled pleasantly, which Faith knew could only mean one thing – they’d despised each other. And sure enough, as soon as Marigold had left, Miss Bessie had told Faith and Laura all about how Cynthia had been a busybody who came down to the park once a year and did nothing but harp on about how Miss Bessie was running the place all wrong. “Still,” Miss Bessie said, adjusting her apron and nodding charitably, “she did know how to appreciate a good cupcake.”
That was why Marigold was running the contest in the first place – an event in memory of her mother, who had always wanted to support small, independent bakeries and tearooms.
“Now, please step up to your tables,” Marigold said. “Nico Morris, everyone!”
Faith’s insides went wild when Marigold said that and the crowd erupted into cheering. It was a long time since she’d had a panic attack, and she sure hoped she wasn’t about to have one on stage.
“And the ladies from Slice of Paradise. Miss Bessie, Faith and Laura!”
Faith got up from her chair and headed to their designated table with Grandma Bessie and Laura. Just after the previous result had been announced, assistants had rushed in and tidied all of the Baking Babes and Wilhelmina’s equipment and mess away. Now all they had was an empty table, the boxes of ingredients they’d brought with them, and the cue word Marigold would give them.
Faith glanced over at Nico. He was taking a selfie, his bulging, tattooed bicep holding up his iPhone toward his tanned face and perfectly tousled dark hair. It was probably for his blog, That Tattooed Baking Guy, Faith thought. He’d been signing autographs for some of his adoring super fans since he’d arrived the day before, and some had even found out which hotel he was staying in and crowded into the lobby with squeals of excitement. He didn’t mind, though. If anything, he seemed to crave the attention.
Laura gave Faith another little nudge. “Gorgeous, isn’t he?”
“Ew,” Faith said. “He’s way too into himself.” Besides, he wasn’t her type. Unglamorous, mad-for-gardening Nathan was her type, with his dark intense eyes and kind nature and ability to laugh at pretty much anything in life. She looked over toward the mango tree to see him paused in his mango-collecting work, gazing in their direction. Faith gave him a little wave. It sounded weird, but she swore she could feel him believing in her, even from way across the park.
“Well, if I wasn’t with Yale, I’d be introducing myself, put it that way,” Laura said.
Faith rolled her eyes with a grin. At least joking around distracted her momentarily from all the fluttering in her stomach.
“All right, ladies and gent,” Marigold said. “Your assignment is, summer, fall and winter. Go!” She hit the enormous button connected to the oversized timer overhead.
“Fall will be pumpkin and cinnamon, of course,” Grandma Bessie said firmly as they huddled together.
“All right,” Faith agreed, though in truth she thought it was a little predictable. “What about pumpkin and cinnamon for the cupcake. Then… ooh! What about for the frosting, right, we make up three different types. One chocolate based, one pumpkin based and one a deep autumnal red. Then we pipe them on the top in swirls, so it’ll look like a big pile of fall leaves.”
“Yes!” Laura said.
Grandma Bessie nodded. “Okay.”
Pretty soon they’d also decided that summer would be a vanilla cupcake with cream and fresh berries on top, and winter would be a mini Christmas pudding style cupcake with dried fruit inside, and brandy butter frosting as its crowning glory.
Faith tried not to hear the young women in the audience hollering, “Nico! Nico!” in adoration, as she started on mixing up some of the fall frostings.
She also tried not to notice Grandma Bessie’s awkward gait as she hobbled over to their assigned oven. It looked like her knee really was hurting her, but Grandma Bessie certainly wasn’t the type to complain.
Faith swallowed, hoping and wishing with all her might that they’d get through to the next round. Grandma Bessie had sunk all her money into the tearoom over the years, and with no life savings to fall back on, it looked like the operation might never happen. But Faith knew she desperately needed it. It seemed impossible they’d ever be able to beat Wilhelmina Roby, but maybe there was a slight chance they could win out against Nico?
“We can do this,” Faith said firmly to Laura, who was by her side whipping up brandy butter for the frosting. “Right?”
Laura grinned, her sticking out ears and tiny little blonde topknot making her look like a pixie. “The Slice of Paradise ladies about to get beaten out by an overhyped blogger who wears his shirts too tight?”
“I knew you couldn’t have really liked him,” Faith said.
Laura giggled. “He’s good looking, I guess. But he looks like hard work. Very hard work. Like a high maintenance princess type, in male.”
Faith smiled. “That’s true enough.”
“He’d probably spend the $50k on a personal tanning bed, a fully body tattoo, a personal trainer, and 100 more too-tight shirts,” Laura said.
Well, if that wasn’t motivation, then nothing would be, Faith thought. The idea of Nico squandering the money her grandma so desperately needed put fire in her heart and her fingers. “Let’s do this!” she said, determination filling her up. “We can win this thing. We can.”
“So!” Marigold announced. “The moment of truth. Will our second finalist be Nico—”
She was interrupted by an explosion of excited screams from Nico’s sup
“Or the ladies from the Slice of Paradise?” Marigold practically had to shout down the microphone to drown the crazed fans out. She was standing by the judges, looking down while Karen finished the final paperwork. “All right, all right,” Marigold said, trying to kill time. “So… Tamalynn, tell me, which was your favorite cupcake in this round?”
Tamalynn looked at her husband Chad, which she seemed to do every time before she spoke. Faith thought it odd, not least because he didn’t seem the controlling type at all and usually just gave her a slight smile back. Tamalynn then tucked some of her delicate bronze curls behind her ear with her delicate wrist, and said in her delicate voice, “Oh, that’s a difficult decision, Marigold, because they were all so delicious.”
Marigold laughed. “So you’re not sick of cake yet?”
Tamalynn’s laugh was delicate, too. She was the kind of person who looked like she might snap if you hugged her too tight. “Oh, no. Certainly not. Um… to answer your question...” She bit her lip, looking between Nico and Faith’s table. “Oh, I just can’t choose. There are no losers with me. They were both absolutely wonderful.”
“Diplomatic,” Marigold said with a laugh. “What about you, Chad? Did you have a favorite?”
“The results are ready!” Karen said loudly, getting to her feet and waving the papers in the air with excitement. She was a big lady, but full of oomph and energy.
Chad tried – but failed – to conceal his annoyance, Faith noticed, and Tamalynn had a somewhat vacant smile as she leaned in to stroke his forearm.
“Brilliant!” Marigold said, taking the envelope that Karen held out for her. “So… Everyone, listen up.” She looked into the envelope and an involuntary smile lit up her face. “Joining Wilhelmina Roby in the final is…. Slice of Paradise!”
by Nancy McGovern have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes