My name is MayBell Ferth, and the cute little ball of fluff and ‘tude sitting on my lap is Shakespeare… Shakes for short. Shakes is a Pomeranian, a.k.a. the Pomeranian Devil. He’s also my best friend and my accomplice in crime-fighting and other things.
I come from a family of cops. My dad, the Lieutenant, is a fearsome creature with a soft spot for Shakes that he tries to deny. My brother Argh is a detective. Argh got his weird nickname as a kid when he had to wear an eyepatch due to reoccurring eye infections. Argh and I have an older brother and sister who are also cops.
I’m pretty sure the very first Ferth to step off a ship onto terra firma in the New World was a cop of some sort. The Ferths have worn the impetus for protecting and serving as a badge of honor through countless generations.
I’m not a cop. And, I’ll bet you an entire box of caramel-filled chocolates that you’ve never heard of my job before.
I started out as a Community Theatre actor.
“Ha!” you say. You can almost taste those chocolates. I’m sorry to disappoint. I may have started out in the theatre, but I left that job behind because I couldn’t take all the drama. Wait…an actor who doesn’t like drama? Let me clarify.
I couldn’t take diva drama.
Which brings me to my current career as a Professional Mourner. Yep, that’s a real thing. I actually get paid to cry at funerals and play whatever role the client wishes me to play. Bereaved girlfriend, gloating college rival, conniving ex-partner. I’ve played them all.
I love my job, even though it has gotten me into a few “situations” since I started. I’ve bagged a murderer since taking my job at Exit Stage Left and almost gotten myself killed in the process.
But the situation I’m currently in isn’t due to my Professional Mourning job. I signed up for a role in a community theatre production for charity because the proceeds will be going to a really good cause. If I’d known I’d be working with one of the very divas who’d sent me sprinting from the stage in the first place, I might not have taken the role.
But I am, and I did.
Patrice Reynolds has been the bane of my existence since we both tried out for the same role in a high school production of Peter Pan. She’d shoved me down a short flight of stairs to keep me from getting the coveted role of Tinkerbell. Unfortunately for Patrice, we Ferths have excellent bones. I didn’t break a leg…euphemistically or otherwise.
And, I totally rocked the role of Tinkerbell.
Over the years, Patrice has schemed and lied, flinging self-respect to the winds in an effort to get one over on me, both professionally and personally. I’d thought I’d left her in my dust when I changed careers.
Then I found her dead body in the wings. I soon realized that made me the prime suspect since I was the only one in the theatre when I stumbled over her body.
Well…me and the shadowy figure I’d seen sprinting away through the cheap seats just before I found Patrice.
To make things worse, not only was Patrice dead but she’d clearly been murdered. No surprise at all to those of us who knew her.
Since Argh was the detective in charge of the case and I was the one to find her, with no witnesses to absolve me of the crime, I’ve also put my family in a terrible situation.
Enter the hero stage right. Okay, hero might be too strong a word. Eddie Deitz certainly looks the part, with his tousled black hair, smoldering gaze, and delectable…erm…flipside, but he’s no hero. He’s a private investigator. And since he was hired by the deceased to protect her much less delectable flipside from some unknown stalker, he’s surfing in the same shark-infested waters as I am.
So it looks like we’ll need to work together to figure out who killed the diva. With the help of a certain adorable Pom, potential assistance from my monosyllabic, dread-headed neighbor who lives in a medically-endorsed cannabis cloud, and an assist or two from the Lieutenant, whose involvement definitely nudges the line between ethical and not so much.
There’s a murder to be solved, and I’m going to solve it. I might not be a cop like the rest of my family, but I’ve got more detective than diva coursing through my veins.
Lord Acton once said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I wouldn’t know. I have no power.
My name is Joey and I’m an unabashed bumpkin. I live in a quaint and quirky country town named Deer Hollow. We’re pretty simple and laid back in the Hollow. But that doesn’t mean the occasional murder can’t happen here. It’s just that when it does, it seems more surprising somehow.
Especially when a corpse turns up in the mayor’s kitchen.
(Psst! If you’re keeping track, he does have power.) But don’t worry, we’re on it. By “we” I mean me, the Greek deity (my boyfriend Hal), and my sweet Pitbull Caphy. Yeah, I didn’t include my snooty Siamese cat, LaLee or our adorable pot-bellied pig Ethel Squeaks. Not because I love them any less. But let’s face it, the cat isn’t going to get her paws dirty delving into a messy murder, and the pig…well…she tends to hoard all the evidence in her little tent in my kitchen, so…
5 Stars! Another Exciting Nonstop Action Pack Laugh Out Loud Cozy Mystery!!!
“I said I didn’t want peas,” a cranky elderly woman I didn’t know barked out. “They give me gas. I wanted the green beans.”
I bit back a retort and apologized, grabbing the plate back. “I’m sorry. I’ll go fix it.”
“Miss!” I barely made it two steps before one of the pre-teens in booth four waved me over.
I forced myself to smile. “Yes?”
“We asked for catsup twenty minutes ago. Our fries are cold now. We want new fries.”
I looked around the table and fought panic. Six plates with burgers and fries. I’d have to drop off the pea-phobic lady's plate and come back. It had been a long time since I’d hustled plates, and I wasn’t sure I could carry six of them at once. That meant two trips, and my dogs were beyond tired.
Max came up behind me and handed the kids a bottle of catsup. “Stop torturing Joey,” she told the complaining teen, glowering down at him. “Or I’ll tell your mom I saw you kissing Missy Palentine outside the library last night.”
The boy’s pimply face paled, and he slumped in his seat.
I fought a grin. Whispering, “Thanks!” to Max, I hurried to the kitchen for a pea-extraction. Stopping in front of the pass-thru window, I was surprised to see Hal working the grill. “Where’s Tom?”
Hal looked up, his handsome face flushed from the heat of the grill. His dark eyes twinkled as he looked at me. “Cigarette break out back. I think he’s smoking a whole pack. He’s been gone for a while.”
I frowned. “You doing okay?”
He actually grinned. “I’m having a ball. Did I ever tell you I worked in a place a lot like this to put myself through college?”
“You did not.” I grinned back. “But now that I know, I’m going to make you do all the cooking from now on.”
He arched a midnight brow. “I already do all the cooking. Even, it seems, when we go out to eat.”
I laughed. He wasn’t wrong. “Can you swap out these peas for green beans, please?” I leaned in. “Peas give her gas.” He grimaced and quickly made the switch. Handing it back to me, he said, “Even if Tom’s heading for Mexico right now, I’d rather be back here than dealing with all those people out there.”
“You have no idea,” I whispered. “It’s an angry crowd.”
I took the plate back to the old woman. “Here you go.”
“About time,” she groused.
I turned away so I wouldn’t say something about how rude she was. The booth nearest the door was empty, and the table was covered in dirty dishes. I went to get the bin and started filling it.
The door jangled, and I looked up to find a familiar face coming through the door. When the server from the mayor’s house spotted me, she blanched, glancing at the door as if she was considering making a run for it.
I gave her a smile and picked up the now-full bin. “If you’ll give me just a minute, I’ll wipe this down and get you menus.”
I hurried away, hoping she didn’t leave. I’d love to question her about what she saw in that kitchen. When I returned, the woman was sitting down across from a dark-haired man who was around the same age. They were both wearing the white shirts and black trousers of the catering crew.
“Sorry,” I said, offering another smile. “Apparently, there’s a flu going around, and poor Max was short of help.”
I handed them menus.
“You work here?” the woman asked, looking surprised.
“Just for tonight. What can I get you to drink?”
By the time I brought two sweet teas to the table, the couple was ready to order. I took their orders and hesitated. The woman’s expression turned wary. “I’m sorry, I just wondered if you were doing okay? Finding that guy was…” I shuddered.
She chewed her bottom lip. “It was gruesome.”
“You and your friends seemed pretty chill about it, though.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Telling her that I found bodies all the time probably wouldn’t go over very well. I settled on, “We date cops.” The truth. Sort of.
As if that explained everything, she nodded.
I offered my hand. “I’m Joey.”
The woman shook it. “Karinne Magness.” She nodded at her dinner companion. “That’s Prince.”
“Nice to meet you, Prince. I love your music,” I quipped.
He gave me a flat stare in return. “Whatever.”
Alrighty then. I nodded toward his clothes. “Looks like you worked the party too?”
“I did. I was on the dessert table.”
“My favorite place,” I said, grinning. Talking about food made my stomach rumble. I was really going to enjoy that banana cream pie Max had set aside for us.
He shrugged. Clearly, the guy had no sense of humor.
“It’s quite a shock about your boss, huh?”
Karinne shuddered. Prince frowned at his silverware.
“Do you know of anybody who might have wanted him dead?”
Prince snorted. “That list is long. The guy was a jerk.”
Karinne glared at him. “That’s not fair, P. He was understandably nervous since the client threatened him like that.”
My spidey senses perked. “Mayor Robb threatened Jonathan Calliente?”
Karinne looked irritated by my question. “I told that cop this.”
I fought not to cringe. If she refused to tell me because she’d already told one of the deputies her story, there’d be nothing I could say to get her to open up. I couldn’t exactly say I was a cop. Though, I might be able to throw the PI card at her.
Fortunately, I didn’t need to go that far.
“The cop didn’t seem all that interested. But I think it’s important. Jon was a nervous wreck after the argument.” She glanced at her companion. “He was a little short with everybody because of it.”
“This was before the party?”
Shaking her head, Karinne clarified. “Just after it started, I guess. That woman got right in John’s face and told him he’d never work in the area again. She said the mayor would see to that.”
“I don’t know her name. The petite blonde. She works for the mayor. You know her. She was with you in the kitchen this afternoon.”
I blinked. Cecily? “But you said the mayor threatened him.”
Karinne gave me a sigh of exasperation. “She’s the mayor’s right hand, isn’t she? You don’t think a man like Robb would do his own dirty work, do you? I’ve had experience with these politician types. Believe me, they’re not going to stick their necks out. And they’re used to taking what they want.”
Karinne was bitter. That was obvious. I wondered what kind of experience she’d had. But I didn’t want to get her off track by asking. Besides, she was right. I didn’t think Robb did his own dirty work if he could help it. In fact, I knew he didn’t. But what if the dirty work was Cecily’s own? “Do you know what it was about?” I asked. “What did he do that made her threaten him?”
Karinne shook her head. “I have no idea. All I heard was her telling him he’d never get another job.”
Prince fidgeted in his seat, drawing my gaze to his guilty face.
“What?” I asked. “Do you know something?”
The order pickup bell jangled. “Order, Joey,” Hal called out.
Prince nudged Karinne’s arm. “Come on, I’m not hungry anymore.”
Not wanting to chase after them and cause a scene, I watched them walk out of Sonny’s with a sinking feeling in my gut.
Prince knew something that might throw light on the murder. And I’d just lost my chance at finding out what. “Jeezopete!” I said under my breath, heading to the window to pick up my order.
What more could you possibly want in a Valentine's Story? heh
Hearts and Heresy
Never let it be said that I have a thing against heart-shaped stuff. Goddess knew I was currently surrounded by it.
Heart-shaped cutouts hung from nearly every surface above navel height throughout Croakies bookstore. Heart-shaped doilies dotted every flat surface.
Heart-shaped candies enclosed in heart-shaped tins and wrapped in heart-colored foil filled a heart-shaped wicker basket on the sales counter.
Heart-shaped cookies, sans frosting since I’d sworn off frosted cookies after our ill-fated Christmas fiasco, were displayed on a heart-shaped platter with a pink paper heart taped to it proclaiming, “Snarf to your heart’s desire!”
And, right at that moment, a heart-shaped face, peering at me with heart-felt emotion brimming in eyes that reflected a heartbreaking level of devastation from my lack of hearty despair for her heartfelt disappointment.
“But you advertised that ‘Hearts of Bomb’ would be available today,” The cupid’s bow lips said. The heartsick client shook her head, her stick-straight mop of Valentine-colored hair swinging back and forth to reflect her disgust. “You promised.”
I opened my mouth to tell Holly Heartsick that the shipment of books had been delayed, risking another accusation of bookseller heartlessness. Thankfully, the heart-rending announcement was waylaid by the arrival of my own personal Valerie Valentine.
Sebille’s naturally heart-colored hair was plaited into two waist-length braids on either side of her long, freckled face. She wore a matching red dress dotted with white hearts and pink and white striped socks that covered her knees beneath the calf-length dress. Her usual Wicked Witch of the West shoes were the perfect complement to the bad dress and ugly stockings.
By contrast, I wore a plain white shirt, worn blue jeans and white sneakers. My below-shoulder-length brown hair was straight and my dark blue eyes were wary. Valentine’s Day wasn’t my favorite holiday. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I don’t seem to like any holidays. That wasn’t true. Exactly. I just haven’t found the one I like yet.
The sprite surged energetically into the bookstore, her sticklike arms wrapped around a plain brown box marked all over with heart-shaped stickers. “They’re here!” Her iridescent green eyes flashing, she grinned at my excited customer, who was currently hopping around and clapping her hands with wholehearted, heartfelt glee.
My shoulders slumped with relief. I grabbed a frosting-free sugar cookie, pink sparkles glittering from its pale surface, and jammed it into my mouth, wishing I had tea to go with it. Sebille settled the box on the table and opened it, pulling out a glossy paperback whose cover was a study in…you guessed it…pinks and red hearts.
Sebille plucked a copy of ‘Hearts of Bomb’ from the box and offered it to my merrily cackling client.
“Yay! I can’t believe it’s here,” Holly Heartface enthused as she did a little happy dance.
I rolled my eyes for two very good reasons.
Number one, though I loved books, and made half…okay a third…all right, a tenth…of my living with the sale of them, I couldn’t imagine becoming so enamored of one that my world literally ended if I couldn’t get my hands on it.
And two, unlike my heart-eyed customers, I knew the author of the book personally and was finding it exceedingly difficult picturing my Uncle Archibald Pudsnecker, a.k.a. Ben E. Nigma, as the type to write a cozy murder mystery with a cutesy name meant to bring to mind a stalky vegetable. Especially since the book that was currently all the rage with my customers was only his second. Pudsy’s first food cozy, “Banana Scream Pie”, had taken the mystery world by storm, selling out its first modest print run and earning two additional runs by the time the new book was released. This was no small feat for a guy whose previous works had included the riveting treatise, “Spatial Voids Around the World” and “The Argument For Embracing The Abyss”.
Sebille and her new best friend shoved me out of the way and I all but ran away from the counter, leaving them to it.
In a desperate move I knew I’d regret later, I shoved another cookie into my mouth. I was going to gain ten pounds before the current Valentine's Day book massacre ended.
“Thanks so much for coming!”
I jerked around at the pleasant, happy sound of Sebille’s voice and caught her waving gaily at her heart-faced bestie as the woman headed out of Croakies with a tin of candies in one hand and her new book in the other.
The door opened again and three women, all old enough to know better, bounced inside to the sound of the jangling doorbell. The oldest and tallest of the threesome set her bright, expectant gaze on me. “Please tell me you have Hearts of Bomb in the store?”
I swung an arm toward the box. “Just came in. Help yourselves.”
My dour mood didn’t seem to have any effect on their excitement. The gaggle of giggling women descended on the box like a school of piranha and extracted whole handfuls of the books.
Finally, my shopkeeper mojo kicked in. “Only one per person,” I told them. My Valentine’s Day crankiness earned me a trio of scowls, but I yanked the box off the table and held it out for them to replace their extras.
I’d like to say that I was trying to make sure every single one of Uncle Pudsy’s adoring fans got a copy of his latest book, but really, I just didn’t want to face another rabid reader with the bad news that we were out of stock. Again.
Sebille happily made the three sales, doling out candy tins with every purchase, and then sighed with unnatural contentment as the three women left in a dither of excitement. She turned to me and her smile wilted like raw spinach in a hot frying pan. “What’s wrong with you, Dour Dana?”
I started arranging the books atop the table in a happy display of pink and red hearts, my lips curling. “Not a thing, Valentina. Why are you so blasted happy?”
Sebille shrugged, her thin lips curving in an irrepressible smile. “Nothing. I just like Valentine’s Day.”
I looked agape at my usually morose and unhelpful assistant. “Why? You realize it’s a totally made-up holiday, right? It’s a retail holiday, created just for selling stuff.”
“Apparently you haven’t noticed this is a retail establishment?”
I slammed a paperback down on the table with excessive force.
Sebille came over, a half-eaten cookie in her hand and vanilla crumbs painting the corners of her lips. “Still no word from Grym, huh?”
I grimaced and didn’t respond. My fight with the prickly detective was not a subject I wanted to discuss.
Sebille nodded. “Okay, don’t tell me. I’ll just guess.”
Realizing that letting the sprite’s imagination run wild over the bumps in the road of my love life was a recipe for disaster, I sighed. “He’s about as malleable as a…” The thought slid away from my brain and turned to mist. I’d been having trouble holding a cogent thought all day. I blamed the copious amounts of sugar I’d eaten. I’d gorged on two heart-shaped jelly donuts for breakfast, a heart-shaped red velvet cupcake for lunch, two tins of heart-shaped candy, and three of the sugar cookies.
I was mood eating. And, I was in dire need of some of the stalky inspiration from Pudsy’s cozy. Or anything even remotely resembling a vegetable.
“As malleable as a boulder?” Sebille finished for me, snickering. “Granite?” Her snickers turned to guffaws. “A mountain?” She bent double, happy tears pouring from her iridescent green gaze.
I was not amused. “Gargoyle humor. Har,” I said, glaring.
The dividing door opened between the bookstore and the artifact library at the back of the store. A blur of pale pink and white shot into the store and skidded to a stop right in front of me. For a blip, the air around the creature looking up at me with oversized blue eyes was striped with cartoon-like contrails from his superfast arrival. Then the glowy lines on the air sifted away into nothingness.
I narrowed my gaze on Hobs, my resident hobgoblin. “Are you wearing a diaper?”
He laughed, happily bouncing on his oversized toes. “Miss Sebille made it for me. Do you like it?”
My still-narrowed gaze slid to the matching, heart-shaped spots of pale red highlighting his cheeks and then to the tiny bow in his hand. “Please tell me you’re not supposed to be playing Cupid?”
Hobs cocked his head, looking confused. “I’m not supposed to be playing Cupid?” His high-pitched voice was filled with a question.
I sighed and threw a glower Sebille’s way.
“What?” she objected. “Customers will love him.”
My eyes went wide. “We can’t…”
The dividing door slammed back on its hinges and Mr. Wicked skulked through, his dark orange gaze wide as he hit my calf with a manic, “Yeow!”
“Hey, buddy,” I said, bending to scoop him into my arms. I buried my face in his fur and sucked a snout full of something small and irritating.
Sneezing violently several times, I nearly dropped my cat. I sniffled, glancing at my hands. They sparkled. “What is in your fur?” I asked him.
Wicked swished his tail. Hard. A tiny growl slid from his throat.
He was all sparkly. Pink sparkly! “Sebille!”
She rolled her eyes. “Uncoil your granny panties,” she said. “He’s fine.”
I sneezed again, placing him on the floor. “You’re killing me with this Valentine’s stuff. What other surprises do you have for me?”
She flipped a dismissive hand. “I’ll make tea. Maybe that will calm you down.”
I looked down at the fat, green squish on the floor by my feet.
He blinked up at me, his eyes blank pools of black, like miniature Pudsy voids.
Horror slid up my spine. “What…?”
Get it off me! screamed the irate frog in my mind. Now!
Enormous pink lips protruded from the frog’s sparkly green face. “Oh, Slimy,” I said in a commiserating tone. “I can’t believe she did this to you.” I crouched down and tugged at the lips, expecting them to be made of paper or wax. Instead, realistic-feeling flesh, plumped and puckered, resisted my tugging. I jerked my hand away, straightening on a squeal. “They’re real!” I rounded on the Sprite, who quickly turned away from me when I tried to catch her eye. “I can’t believe you gave him puckery lips! Have you lost your mind?”
She hid a grin behind her hand. “Don’t you get the joke? Kiss the frog, get a prince? Come on,” she said as steam wafted from my ears. “Customers are going to love it.”
“Ribbit!” Slimy proclaimed indignantly.
I pointed a shaky finger toward the quivering frog. “Fix. Him.”
Sebille gave me a long-suffering sigh and threw a pale green jet of magic toward the frog. The big, puckery lips disappeared with a pop.
Slimy gave the sprite one last indignant, “Ribbit!” and then hopped underneath the nearest bookshelf to work on regaining his self-respect.
“You’ve lost your mind, sprite,” I told her, madder than I’d ever been. Well…in the last week anyway. “What’s going on with you?”
Amazingly, she gave me a secret smile and headed for the door. “I’m taking my break.”
I felt my eyes go wide. “What? You can’t take a break. You just got here.”
She shrugged and slipped through the door, leaving me with one delighted Cupid who I couldn’t let anybody see, a traumatized frog, and a seriously annoyed cat.
I sagged. Could the day get any worse?
Proving that it could, the front door bell jangled and I steeled myself for more shrieking Ben E. Nigma fans. Instead, I found myself looking into a handsome, craggy face and an intense dark caramel gaze. “Oh,” I said, my wit firmly intact.
“Hello, Naida,” said Detective Wise Grym, a.k.a. my maybe-boyfriend.
It's an age-old battle–country folk vs city folk–verdant hillside vs concrete jungle–Pickup vs Prius. City folk think all country folk are simple-minded bumpkins. Country folk believe all city folk are rats living in a maze. But some things transcend culture. Some things spoil any lifestyle.
Murder is one of those things…
Hal’s younger brother has been banished to Deer Hollow because of his proclivity for getting into trouble. Hal’s parents are hoping he’ll take the kid under his wing and straighten him out. But Asher Amity has a knack for finding trouble, and it doesn’t take him long to find it in Deer Hollow. When Asher steps into a steaming pile of murder and treachery, Hal and Joey are destined to get dragged into the mess with him. Who knew how dangerous babysitting could be?
The sun was high and bright and the day had turned hot. I left Caphy to run free, the leash dragging the ground in case I needed to catch her.
She and her snotty sister explored every tree we passed, teasing the squirrels that chittered angrily from the highest branches.
Unbeknownst to the chirping rodents, LaLee could actually climb the trees if she wanted to. She’d nearly caught one of the squirrels who’d been taunting the pitty from the distant heights of a particularly impressive walnut tree.
Even worse, the cat ignored my shrieking for her to leave the hapless creature alone as only a cat could. After a suitable period of time had passed to prove she was doing it on her own terms, LaLee finally descended the tree, sailing gracefully from branch to branch until she landed lightly in the dirt.
Felines. You couldn’t live with them, and you couldn’t return them for a refund.
I settled into the walk, blissfully inhaling the sweet, hot air and enjoying the pleasant trills and flutterings of a multitude of birds.
The trees provided enough shade to make the heat bearable, but adequate sun to keep the Grimm’s fairytale feeling at bay.
We followed familiar paths that wound up familiar hills and into familiar ravines. After an hour of exploring, the distant sound of the river told me we’d probably better turn back, or I was going to lose one of my frisky companions to the enticement of a cool swim.
The currents in that part of the river were treacherous, and I’d always made it a point to keep Caphy away from it. She got into enough trouble in the pond in front of my house.
As if I’d conjured her from my thoughts, Caphy started barking from somewhere over the next hill. LaLee had been sharpening her claws on the rough bark of a walnut tree, but her head came up and the lazy waving of her long tail took on a more energetic tone.
The first tendrils of unease tightened my chest.
“Caphy girl, come!”
Caphy continued to bark, the sound growing increasingly strident.
I hurried toward the hill. “Caphy! Come!”
The pitty usually listened to my “mean voice”. Unless there was something more interesting to keep her attention.
LaLee sprinted along beside me as I started to run. The hill was one of the larger ones in the woods. When I’d topped the incline, I found myself standing on the edge of a ravine, the sides steep and treacherous. I all but slid down the first side and then had to scramble and grasp at roots and saplings to make it up the opposite slope.
My voice was breathless when I called Caphy again. “Caphy, girl. Come!”
Somewhere around the middle of the upward slope, the pibl had gone quiet. Already at the top of the hill, LaLee yowled unhappily and hissed.
Icy fear made me quicken my steps. What if Caphy had run into a coyote? The thought was terrifying. I’d heard too many stories of pets being lured away by seemingly playful coyotes, only to be attacked in numbers once they’d gotten them alone.
“Caphy!” My voice took on a strident shriek as panic took me completely over.
LaLee suddenly shot away on an angry yowl, and I nearly choked to death trying to find the air to scream as I scrabbled for purchase on the slippery ravine wall. “LaLee, no! Caphy!”
I shoved myself the last couple of feet, my heart pounding like a piledriver and my hands bloodied from the fight to climb.
My frantic gaze slipped over the woods that was laid out in front of me. I spotted a low form shooting through the trees, agile and fast.
I cried out, an unformed sound built of pure fear. Had that been a coyote? No…please no.
I started to run, my eyes on the fast-moving form gliding too quickly away from me.
LaLee disappeared into the obscuring branches of a huge evergreen ahead of me. I stepped up my speed, catching my foot in a root and slamming to the ground with a surprised cry.
Ignoring the pain in my knees and palms, I shoved back to my feet and started forward.
Something moved to my right and, before I could see what it was, pain exploded on the side of my head. And the ground roared up to smack me.
The best chocolate begins with imagination and ends in murder.
Making chocolate is a labor of love and an age-old art. As a connoisseur of the sweet, creamy stuff herself, Blaise is excited to be working at an exclusive confectioner’s shop, run by a woman whose reputation for being a creative chocolatier is legendary. Madeline Foss’s past might be murky and slightly dark, but her chocolate is delicious. And nothing says love like chocolate. Or at least, that’s what Blaise has always believed.
But when her new boss ends up dead, she quickly realizes that nothing says murder like jealousy and ambition. And there isn’t enough chocolate in the world to overcome a savage intent.
She floated into the room in a cloud of raspberry and chocolate chiffon, her arms waving around her head and her eyes swiveling to take in every display with a slightly hostile, but eminently discerning eye. “Les grains de café enrobés de chocolat!”
Blaise settled the last perfectly formed rectangle of toffee onto its tray in the glass case and glanced up. “I’ve got them ready to put out. I’ll do those next.”
Madeline Foss nodded and stopped in the middle of the cozy little shop, an index finger pressed against her ruby-red lips as her cool, gray gaze swept the tables and danced over the glass display cases. “The brittle is messy,” she told Blaise.
“I know. I’ll do that after the chocolate covered coffee beans.”
“Les grains de café enrobés de chocolat,” Madeline corrected, her upturned nose lifting with disdain.
“The grains de whatever, yes.” Head down so her boss couldn’t see when she rolled her eyes, Blaise closed the case and moved over to the tray of pretty plastic containers filled with coffee beans coated in creamy, rich chocolate. She fought the urge to inhale their scent, knowing that Madeline, in her Queen of England persona, would consider it gauche.
Madeline’s cell rang and she tugged it from an invisible pocket in the cloud of chiffon, glaring at the screen. “I’ll be in my office, Blaise.” She turned and swept toward the back of the shop, her outfit billowing around her like a designer flag in a windstorm.
“Yes?” Her voice was tight and shrill. It was her “I don’t like you, so why are you talking to me” voice.
Blaise shook her head. She’d taken the job as an experiment, thinking she might like to get into the confectionary business. She’d learned a lot and enjoyed creating the sweet delicacies as much as watching people’s eyes light up when they came through the door and looked around. But dealing with the talented yet decidedly temperamental Madeline had been a bit more than Blaise had bargained for.
Still, she’d been surprised to discover she really liked her new boss. Once she’d realized there was a soft center under all that prickliness.
Her own cell rang a couple of moments later as the back door snicked closed, sending a cold draft of early Winter air in Blaise’s direction. Blaise frowned toward the hallway that led to Madeline’s office, the private restroom, and the exit.
Had her boss left for the day without saying anything?
Irritation flaring, Blaise answered her phone without looking to see who it was. “Hello?”
A shrill bark met her greeting. Her temper sifted away and Blaise grinned. “Hey, Miss Ivy. How’s my beautiful girl?”
Panting noises preceded a soft whine, and Blaise chuckled. “Dolfe, how many times have I told you not to whine on the phone.”
“It works for the fur-brats,” a sexy, deep voice told her.
“That’s because they’re little and cute.”
“I’m not cute?” His voice filled with pretend hurt.
“Cute is not the word I’d use for you, no.” Gorgeous. Sexy. Painfully masculine. She grinned.
His chuckle made her all warm and sizzly inside. “What time will you be done tonight? The brats and I want to go to that new drive-in restaurant for dinner.”
“The brats told you that, huh?”
“They did. I happen to speak fluent fur-brat.”
Laughing, she glanced through the front windows at the lead-gray sky beyond. “It’s cold and ugly outside, Honeybun.”
“We won’t be getting out of the car.” She could almost hear him smile. “Besides, I’ll keep you warm.”
“More like the two dogs on my lap will keep me warm. You won’t be able to reach me through all the fur and teeth.”
Dolfe sighed. “Story of my life. Time?”
“Five o’clock. I’m almost done setting up for tomorrow.”
“Perfect. We’ll see you then.”
A short, muffled scream had Blaise turning toward the back again. “What the…?” She disconnected and started toward the office. “Madeline?”
The hall was empty. The office door was locked. Madeline kept it locked whenever she left the room. Blaise’s boss wasn’t a very trusting person and the office’s proximity to the back exit, which led to an alley featuring a stinky dumpster, a few employee cars, and zero security cameras didn’t improve her trust issues.
Blaise tugged the bathroom door open and stuck her head inside. “Madeline?”
A cold breeze skimmed down the hall and the metal door to the alley clacked against the frame. It wasn’t latched.
It was unlike her boss to leave it open. Unless she’d been in a hurry. Or upset.
Frowning, Blaise hurried toward the door and eased it open, peering into the alley as an icy blast of wind scoured across the space, sending bits of debris skimming over the dingy asphalt and carrying the stench of the dumpster down the way to her nose.
Her boss’s car was still there, sitting alone under the security light that hadn’t come on yet.
“Madeline…?” Blaise’s voice cut off as she spotted a length of raspberry chiffon dancing on the air near the dumpster. Shivering violently, Blaise stepped into the alley. “What are you doing out here? You’re going to get frostbite.” She headed for the cloud of chiffon, rubbing her arms and looking around for any indication of why Madeline had come into the alley.
“You know, I took the trash out earlier, right?”
A pale hand lifted above the dumpster and Blaise gave a startled yelp as a rangy orange cat jumped from the rusty container and dropped lightly to the ground. The cat turned to stare at her, its startling green gaze filled with distrust. The stray’s tail whipped from side to side and Blaise took note of the dark stains around its mouth. She grimaced. “Dumpster diving, huh?”
Madeline must have been trying to capture the cat. The woman was cat crazy. She had six cats of her own, all rescued off the streets of Indianapolis. Blaise frowned as the cat ran away, her gaze drawn to the pale hand resting against the side of the dumpster. “Please tell me you didn’t fall into that dumpster trying to help the cat?”
She stepped on something that crunched under her boot. Looking down, Blaise frowned at the familiar phone, its back encased in faux purple jewels. She picked it up and grimaced at the cracked screen. “Um, Madeline…I think I broke your phone.”
Silence met her statement. “Madeline?”
Blaise hurried over, jerking to a stop as she got close enough to see inside the trash receptacle.
Blaise gave a sharp scream, her hand snapping up to cover her mouth.
“Oh, Maddie…” Tears burned her eyes and slid down her cheeks, dripping to the stained and debris-strewn asphalt beneath her boots.
When Sebille suggests I open the bookstore up to a small holiday party, I foolishly agree. How was I supposed to know that the hobgoblin would decide it would be fun to hide everybody’s stuff? Or that we’d be hit with a freak winter storm that confined everybody inside for the duration. Or that a “You’re me but who am I?” spell would be released inside the shop, switching everybody’s identities and creating general chaos and hysteria?
I could probably deal with all that if it weren’t for the fact that my friend, Lea…the one person who could possibly reverse the spell…was ensconced in SB the parrot, with no opposable thumbs for spelling.
And me? Of course, I’m sitting fat and squishy inside Mr. Slimy. Thank goodness Rustin isn’t currently in residence, or it would be really crowded in here.
Who spelled my party? What do a pair of Santa’s elves have to do with it? And why have old enemies suddenly become new friends? I apparently have a little holiday mystery to solve inside Croakies, and I have no idea how I’m going to solve it with everybody mixed up and some of us human.
She’s got a lot more to lose now…and somebody’s determined to make sure she loses it all.
Blaise is at it again. She's still searching
for that perfect job. But even when she thinks she might have found a job that
could be more of a career than just a 9 to 5 gig, something always happens to
get in her way.
Usually, that something involves a corpse…
But this time, Blaise's past comes back to
haunt her in a big way. She’d thought she put that whole, seeing a murder on
the beach thing behind her. But it seems somebody doesn't want to leave the
past where it belongs.
And her past problems are about to become her
She's just trying to live her life. But someone doesn't want to let go of the past. And that means not letting go of her!
“Just think of it as a giant party,” Blaise’s friend, Suz Whatsnoggin told her, grinning.
“It will be just like working at the bar,” Dolfe offered,
taking a long swig of his icy cold beer.
Tyrese shook his head. “Not really. There are no Bridezillas
at the bar.”
Dolfe’s handsome face filled with worry. “Bridezilla? I
don’t know what that is but I’m pretty sure I don’t like the sound of it.”
Blaise winced, imploring her friends with her eyes not to
inform her sexy fiancé about the horrors of dealing with a nervous bride. It
was the last thing Blaise wanted him to think about on the virtual eve of their
Well…if you consider “within the next year” the eve.
Fortunately, Suz caught what her friend was throwing. “It’s
nothing you need to ever worry about, Honeybun.” She winked at Blaise.
But Dolfe was not a stupid man. In fact, he was probably
even smarter than he was good-looking, Blaise thought. And that was a lot of
smart. “It’s just a mean term used for brides who get the jitters,” she told
him in as offhand a way as she could muster. “Suz is right. You’ll never
experience that with me. I’m a rock.”
He grinned. “A rock, huh?” Being the aforementioned smart
hottie, Dolfe was wise enough not to venture any further into those tempestuous
seas. He simply smiled, shaking his head, and took another sip of his beer.
Tyrese apparently wasn’t smart enough to stay out of the storm.
He dove right in, daring the waves to swamp him. “I have no delusions. If Suz
and I choose to get married someday, she’ll be the queen of bridezillas. My Suz
will own the term.” He shook his head
as Suz gave him a quelling look. “I love me some strong woman. I have my own
special way of easing her nerves.”
When he waggled his brows, Suz rolled her eyes. “Stupidity,
thy name is Tyrese.”
Ty’s leer slid away. “Babe!” He leaned across the table, one
long, brown finger tucking up beneath her delicate chin and lifting. “You know
you’re cray-cray about me.”
She leaned in too, her lips a mere breath from his as she
released the Kraken. “Dude,” Suz said in her sexiest voice. “You know, if we
ever did decide to tie the knot, I’d just be marrying you for your last name,
Ty laughed. “What? You don’t want to lumber through life
with the name Whatsnoggin anymore?”
Suz smacked him on the arm.
Blaise shook her head. “Please tell me you didn’t just go
there,” she said.
Dolfe winced. “We
don’t make fun of a person’s name around here, man. It’s not in good taste,” said
the guy named Honeybun.
Ty’s smile withered. “She started it.”
Suz snorted. “Really? That’s what you’re going with? A
Ty shrugged. “Look, I love your weird name, babe. It’s just
one of the many funny little oddities that make you special.”
Dolfe groaned and Blaise sucked in a gasp. “Ty!”
Suz stared at him for a long moment, her pretty face so
lacking in expression it was an expression all on its own. It was a face that
said, you are so dead, while simultaneously declaring a total lack of concern.
Tyrese slowly lost his swagger and began to wilt, until he
became little more than a handsome puddle in the delicate chair. When he was so
puddly he looked ready to slither bonelessly off the chair onto the newly
carpeted floor, Suz finally gave him a tight smile. “Just for that, if we ever
decide to get married, Tyrese Miller, you’re going to take my name.”
Everybody gasped at that, followed by Dolfe’s low chuckle.
“Snap!” Blaise told her friends, knocking dainty knuckles
“Come on, girlfriend,” Suz told Blaise. “Help me count the
new shipment of linen napkins that just came in?”
Blaise stood, winking at Tyrese. “You’d better pull together
your best defrazzling game, son. That’s one ticked off ‘special’ girl right
there.” Blaise grinned as she followed Suz’s angrily swaying behind toward the
door at the back of the enormous room. Behind her, she heard Dolfe’s deep
chuckle as Ty whined at him in a voice that sounded like seagulls on a stormy beach.
Suz stopped at the open storage room door and grinned. “That
should keep him on his toes for a while.”
Blaise laughed softly. “Oh yeah.”
Before going inside, the two of them stood in the doorway
and looked around at the massive main space. It was a gorgeous room, elegant
and clean, with lots of light and clean, simple lines. Blaise was impressed by
her friend’s vision and decorating skills.
“It’s really beautiful, Suz.”
Her friend sighed, leaning companionably against Blaise’s
shoulder. “It is, isn’t it?”
Blaise nodded. When Suz had first come to her with the idea
of a wedding reception barn venue, Blaise had thought Suz had lost her mind.
But her friend had quickly sold the plan, backing up her excitement with lots
of rock-solid information that supported both the need and profitability of the
With Blaise’s help and Dolfe’s investment in time and effort,
Ty and Suz had turned the dream into reality in only a few short months.
They’d found a big, dusty barn out in the country on twenty
acres of farmland and woods. The property featured a picturesque creek running
along behind the main building, a wide lawn with old growth evergreens, and a
lovely bridge over the creek that would make a perfect spot for pictures.
Ty and Suz had turned the interior of the metal-sided barn
into a beautiful space, with rustic looking cedar walls, a tall ceiling with
the original beams, and cream-colored carpet that Blaise couldn’t help thinking
was going to be Hell on Earth to keep clean.
The public portion of the venue mostly consisted of one,
giant room, with an alcove for coats and gifts, two bathrooms, and an open-air
patio out back that served both as an outdoor kitchen and smoking lounge. The
roof of the lounge was outfitted with industrial-sized heaters for cooler
nights, and giant ceiling fans for sultry summer nights. The structure was
mostly enclosed, with one wall entirely open so that smoke from cigars or the
grill could escape harmlessly out into the night. The view through the open wall included the
pretty little creek and bridge, as well as a few acres of grass, flower beds,
and evergreen trees.
It was actually a really nice space that Blaise hoped they’d
be able to use for future Honeybun parties. It was large enough to accommodate
a family as big as the Honeybuns, even as they continued to grow.
The non-public part of the venue consisted of a storage room
with a small office at the back, and a caterer’s kitchen with restaurant-grade
The main room held fifty tables that were big enough to seat
eight to ten people each, with chairs that Suz had covered in frilly white
covers. Overhead, crystal chandeliers looked both opulent and kitschy against
the age-darkened wood and were complimented by yard after yard of gossamer
drapings, which hung from the rustic beams.
They’d added a small dance floor on one end, with a raised
stage and glossy wood floors.
A swinging metal door in the back corner of the main space
led to the caterer’s kitchen, which contained ample refrigeration, a bank of
industrial microwaves for reheating food that was brought in for events, and a
couple of long, wide, stainless-steel counters for food prep. They’d added the
kitchen space on Dolfe’s suggestion, and it had required building a small annex
of the main building. But Blaise realized it had absolutely been the right
thing to do, and she was happy her friends had listened to her very smart
Blaise had been intrigued as the couple turned the ugly
building into something straight out of a fairy tale. All her doubts had slowly
been swept away as she saw the enormous potential there.
And the last hurdle had been breached when they got their
first clients, who were on their way to the venue at that very moment for a
Suz took a deep breath. “This is really going to happen,
Wrapping an arm around her friend, Blaise nodded, “It really
“I hope this couple isn’t difficult,” Suz said, frowning.
She chewed on her bottom lip, clearly affected by the whole bridezilla
“We’ll deal with whatever happens,” Blaise said soothingly.
Suz nodded, giving Blaise a wide smile. “Have I told you
that I’m so happy you’re here to help us get this off the ground?”
“Only five times today,” Blaise said, laughing. “But
remember, it’s only for the first few months.” The wedding reception venue
concept felt too much like working in a bar for Blaise’s taste. She was happy
to help out, but it wasn’t what she wanted to do long-term for a living.
“I know,” her friend said on a sigh. “But a girl can dream,
“She absolutely can.” Blaise swung her arm to encompass the entire space. “Look what happens when she does.”
Grab your copy of Risky Venue at its temporary New Release price!
Hi. My name is Caphy, short for Cacophony. My best friend Joey named me that because I make a lot of noise when I'm hungry, or want to play ball, or see a squirrel, or a car, a bird, a speck of dirt blowing across the floor…
Geez, I used to think she was being overly sensitive about the noise thing. But now that I look at it, she might have something there.
Joey doesn't know I'm here. Ixnay on the ewsnay. She'd be mad if she knew I was whining in your ear. But something must be done. Our author's out of control. She's ruining my fictional life!!! Whiiiiiiinnnnnneeeee!
I've been Joey's best friend for years, ever since she and her Uncle Dev rescued me from that ditch alongside the road. We're inseparable and, other than my second-best friend Hal Amity (who launches a mean tennis ball) we've been a team of two for that whole time.
I like it that way.
But now Sam's throwing a wrench into the works. Or should I say, a cranky cat? I don't like this cat. She's mean and spits at me a lot. Joey won't let me eat her, so what's a sweet, slightly scared of spitting felines, pibl to do? All that's left for me is hiding under and behind the furniture. I've been sucking hairballs for a whole week now and I hate it.
Please help me talk Sam out of making Joey keep this nightmare on soundless feet. If LaLee stays around I'm going to need serious therapy. I'm talking hours of tennis ball chasing, copious amounts of rolling in stinky stuff, and boxes full of my favorite dog treats.
Look, I'm not heartless. I know the cat just lost her owner. Good boy do I know! She was swimmin' wid' da fishes in Joey's pond. But that doesn't mean I need a furever sister, does it?
No! It doesn't. So please, do me a solid, send Sam a note and beg her not to saddle me with the cat. Pleeeeaaassseee…whiiiiiinnnnnneeeee! I'll be your third best friend furever if you do.
I tucked the tiny bottle of fake tears more deeply into my tissue and sniffed daintily, scoping out the assembled crowd of mourners with a practiced eye. My baby blues caught on a handsome, dark-haired man standing back from the rest, and I did one of those embarrassing jerk-away things with my eyes, hoping he didn’t notice me noticing him again.
He totally noticed me.
He’d been staring at me since I’d arrived at the viewing an hour earlier. And his expression was anything but friendly. Somehow my eyes kept traveling to him, though I swear on the life of my spunky Pomeranian, Shakespeare, that it was pure accident.
I wasn’t ogling the mourners.
Really, I wasn’t.
Of its own volition, my gaze accidentally slipped over the spot where he’d been again, and I blinked.
He was gone.
To cover my surprise, I turned to the elderly woman next to me and let my bottom lip quiver. I gave a practiced little sob and squeezed the fake tears in my tissue just as a big hand landed on my shoulder.
I yelped, gripped the tiny bottle as if it was the only thing keeping me from plunging a thousand feet off a bridge to my death, and then yelped again as I shot a stream of faux sadness right into one wide blue eye.
Fake tears ran like the River Jordan down my artificially pale cheek. “Oh!” I exclaimed as I tried to deal with the mess.
I jerked around to eye the owner of the hand and forgot how to speak.
Across the room he’d been yummy, definitely an eight-star performance on opening night. But up close and personal, Mr. Hostile was a solid fifteen stars, with a good three-minute standing ovation added in.
Even with the glare on his face.
I couldn’t help wondering why he seemed so angry with me. Surely it wasn’t because I was ogling him at the viewing of the man who was supposed to be my boyfriend. I gave that one a few moments of thought.
Nah. That couldn’t be it.
Hostile Hottie stuck the hand he’d accosted me with in front of my face, all but daring me to shake it. “Eddie Deitz.”
I blinked. “Huh?” Brilliant, MayBell. Oscar-worthy response.
My poor tissue was swamped with fake tears, and there were more of them trailing down one cheek. I couldn’t seem to get them under control. So, I decided to embrace the dramatic substance of the moment. I quivered my bottom lip and sniffled behind the lump of saturated tissue.
Accepting his challenge, I placed a limp paw into his and allowed it to be pumped. “MayBell Ferth. It’s a pleasure.”
Ugh! I wanted to kick myself. Who says that at a funeral? Jeezopete!
His gorgeous green gaze narrowed slightly, bringing my attention to the thick fringe of black lashes framing his eyes.
I’d do a year’s worth of PiYo classes to have lashes like that. And that was saying something because I hated PiYo with the power of a thousand suns.
“Is there something wrong with your eye?” he asked.
I mopped ineffectually at the fake tears with my soggy tissue. “Um, no, I’m just sad.”
Stupid, May. Stupid.
His expression told me he didn’t believe I was sad out of only one eye. I couldn’t blame him for his skepticism.
NOTE: Mourning Commute is available exclusively on Amazon. If you don't have a Kindle you can use Amazon's free Reading App. That's how I read on all my Apple devices! It's also available in Print.