Jenn McKinlay

New York Times Best Selling Author

DEATH BY THE DOZEN debuted at #28 on the New York Times Mass Market Best Seller's List!



"A delicious new series!" Krista Davis, author of the Domestic Diva mysteries

DEATH BY THE DOZEN

Chapter One

“Fifteen minutes!” Angie DeLaura yelled. “We have to turn the registration form in by ten o’clock or we’re locked out of the competition.”
Melanie Cooper scrambled into her tiny office with Angie hot on her heels. Paperwork was scattered all over the top of her desk. There was a reason she was a cupcake baker and not a bookkeeper. She did much better with her pantry organization than her file cabinet.
She ran a hand through her short blonde hair in exasperation.
“I know I put it here,” she said. “Why didn’t I turn it in last week like I planned?”
“Because you had a hot date with my brother,” Angie said. “And you forgot.”
“Oh, yeah,” Mel said. She couldn’t stop the silly grin that spread across her face as she remembered her romantic evening with Joe DeLaura. A heavy sigh escaped her and Angie snapped her fingers in front of Mel’s face and said, “Snap out of it!”
Mel shook her head, trying to regain her focus.
“You start on that side of the desk and I’ll start on this side,” Angie ordered as she dug into a stack of cookware catalogs.
Mel shuffled through a pile of flyers advertising Fairy Tale Cupcakes’ unique flavors and special occasion cupcake tiers. Sure enough, stuck by a smear of royal frosting to the back of the flyers was their registration form for the Scottsdale Food Festival. “I found it!”
Angie glanced at her watch. “We have twelve minutes.”
“We’d better run,” Mel said.
Together they bolted through the kitchen and the bakery. Mel turned and locked the front door behind them. Then they pounded down the sidewalk of Old Town Scottsdale, passed a Western wear store, a Mexican Import store, a jewelry store, and around the corner passed a tattoo parlor and a hair salon.
Mick, the owner of the tattoo parlor, stepped outside as they whizzed by. At six foot four with a shaved head and covered in ink, he was fairly intimidating but Mel and Angie knew he was a big old softie, who had a weakness for Mel’s Moonlight Madness coconut cupcakes.
“Where’s the fire?” he called after them.
Angie opened her mouth to retort, but Mel grabbed her arm and kept running, “No time! Chat later.”
They hit the entrance to Civic Center Mall and had to dodge an elderly couple, who stood admiring the bronze sculpture of three horses running entitled The Yearlings. Mel loved the sculpture, too, but this was not the time to stop to admire it.
They had to turn their registration form into the Scottsdale Art Association office, which was housed in one of the small buildings that encircled the many fountains and sculptures that made up the Civic Center Mall. The mall, a large two acre park, was one of Mel’s favorite spots in the city. She frequently walked to the library on the opposite side just to enjoy the lush flowers, trickling fountains and beautiful public art that filled the meticulously tended area.
A small group of tourists blocked the path ahead as they admired a short fountain that formed a ball of water. Mel followed Angie as she cut around them and onto the grass. Like track stars they jumped over the narrow stream that fed a larger fountain and raced down the slope further into the park.
Mel could feel a stitch cramping her side and she was wheezing just a bit as Angie skidded to a stop in front of the darkened glass doors of an office building.
“What office do we need?” Angie asked.
Mel glanced at the papers in her hand. “12B.”
“Second floor,” Angie said. She glanced at her watch. “Seven minutes.”
Mel suppressed a groan as they pulled open the doors and hit the stairs on the right. They wound up in a tight turn. Mel jogged up the steps, breathing hard, when she slammed into Angie’s back.
“Ow!” She grabbed the rail to keep from falling backwards and glanced up to see why Angie had stopped.
Blocking the way upstairs in a fair imitation of a brick wall was Olivia Puckett, owner of the rival bakery Confections, and Mel’s own personal pain in the patoot.
“Step aside,” Angie growled.
Olivia spread her beefy arms wide. “Make me.”
Angie took a step forward as if she would do just that, but Mel grabbed her arm and held her back. Angie was known for being a bit of a firecracker and Mel didn’t want her sending off any sparks here.
Olivia obviously didn’t know what kind of trouble she was inviting when she challenged Angie. Although it had been more than twenty years, Mel still hadn’t fully recovered from the day Angie had bloodied the nose of their seventh grade class bully, Jeff Stanton, when he dumped chocolate milk over Mel’s head at lunch one day and called her “Bessie, the chocolate cow”.
Although that had only gotten Angie a week’s detention, Mel was always afraid that one day Angie’s temper was going to land her in a jam that Mel wouldn’t be able to fix.
“Breathe, Angie,” she said. “I’ll take care of this.”
Angie gave her a mutinous look, but she complied. Mel stepped around her and faced Olivia.
“You can’t seriously think you’re going to stop us from registering to compete in the challenge to the chefs,” Mel said.
“Oh, yeah, I can and I will,” Olivia said. “I called my contact in the Arts office last night and she told me you hadn’t registered yet. I knew your last chance was this morning. I’ve been waiting since eight. You are not going to get by me.”
“You’ve been waiting here for two hours?” Angie asked. “You’re mental. You know that?”
“No little snot-nosed Scottsdale princess is going to beat me out of my title,” Olivia said. “I’ve won it five years in a row and I’m not giving it up, not now, not ever.”
“Who are you calling a Scottsdale princess?” Mel snapped, feeling her temper begin to heat. “I’m a Southie, born and raised off of Camelback Rd. I am no princess.”
“Look at you. You’re tall, blonde and thin,” Olivia snorted. “For someone who says she isn’t a princess, you sure look the part.”
The irony was almost too much to take. When Mel was a chubby adolescent, she was derided and called “Bessie the chocolate cow”. She would have given anything to be considered a princess back then. Now, after years of struggling with her weight, she had developed a healthy relationship with food and felt good about her body and herself. And she was being mocked for it. It was all so ridiculous.
“Olivia, you need to step aside,” Mel said. “I have just as much right as anyone to enter.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me,” Olivia said. “You’re not entering my contest.”
She puffed out her chest and Mel was sure she was going to expand to fill the entire landing. She was stocky with corkscrew gray hair that she wore in a stubby pony tail on top of her head. She also wore a blue chef’s coat that Mel suspected she thought made her look like Cat Cora on the Iron Chef TV show. Mel wanted to tell her that it just made her look like Grumpy Smurf, but she didn’t think that would get Olivia out of her way.
“Five minutes,” Angie hissed from behind her.
Mel felt her panic swell. Olivia was not known for being reasonable and the clock was ticking.
“’I don't scratch my head unless it itches and I don't dance unless I hear some music. I will not be intimidated. That's just the way it is,’” Angie muttered.
“Coach Boone in Remember the Titans,” Mel identified the movie quote. She and Angie and their other childhood friend, Tate Harper, were old movie aficionados and frequently quizzed one another with movie quotes. But why was Angie doing it now? Didn’t she know they were in a crisis? But then, she’d chosen a football movie quote and Mel realized that was no coincidence. She knew what Angie was thinking.
“No, we can’t do that,” she said over her shoulder.
Olivia was watching them through narrowed eyes.
“We have no choice,” Angie said. “It’s got to be the
fall over feint.”
Mel groaned. Angie had seven older brothers, who loved to play touch football, and Mel had spent enough time at the DeLaura family gatherings to be drafted into play. When they were younger, she and Angie had never been able to get their hands on the ball and the brothers only allowed them on the pitch to humor them and keep their mother from scolding them. So naturally, Mel and Angie had been forced to create a few plays of their own, one of which was the fall over feint. It was guaranteed to get them where they wanted to go with the ball, but usually resulted in someone getting fairly banged up.
“Three minutes,” Angie said through gritted teeth.
“All right, all right,” Mel said. “On three.”
Olivia was beginning to look concerned.
“One,” Angie counted.
“Two,” said Mel.
“Three!” they said together.
Mel fell over to the side as Angie sprung over her. Mel felt Angie’s sneaker kick the side of her head, but she was already crawling passed the collision of bodies and up the remaining stairs.
Olivia let out a furious bellow as Angie clung to her back, holding her from going after Mel. From her splayed position on the landing, Olivia reached out an arm and tried to grab Mel’s leg, but she was too late. Mel reached the top of the stairs and took off in a sprint.
The door to 12B was open and Mel skidded into the room just as the digital clock on the wall flipped to 10:00. An elderly woman was working the counter and she squinted at Mel through her reading glasses. She held out her hand and Mel shoved the papers into it. As the woman hit it with a rubber stamp, the clock flipped to 10:01.
“You’re cutting it pretty close, Miss,” the woman said. Her short hair was dyed a champagne color and her purple lipstick matched the frames of her reading glasses.
Mel sagged against the counter and glanced at the woman’s name tag. “You have no idea, Jane.”
Angie came tearing into the office. Her T-shirt had a small rip and her long brown hair was mussed. “Did we make it?”
Too winded to speak, Mel held up her fist and Angie banged knuckles with her.
“Excellent!” she said and then sagged against the counter beside Mel.
Jane, the clerk, looked at them in concern and then left the counter. She came back with two Dixie cups of water.
“Thanks,” Mel said. She held hers up toward Angie and they clinked paper.
“Let’s take Olivia down for good,” Angie said.
“I hear that,” Mel agreed. They downed their water and crushed their cups. Tossing the cups into the wastepaper basket, they left the office calling a thank you to Jane. There was no sign of Olivia on the stairs, just a smudge of flour on the floor where she’d been sprawled. Mel took it as a good sign.