Read the first chapter of Poison Contact

Read the first Chapter

Poison Contact, the sequel to Dead Messages, is coming out later next month! To whet your appetite, here’s a sneak peek at the first chapter.

Chapter 1: These cookies are x-rated

Sydney Farina placed a fondant mermaid tail on top of the last blueberry cupcake and stepped back to survey her work. Six perfect cupcakes stood on the tray before her. Edible glitter covered the two-tone blue and cyan frosting and gave it the appearance of a glimmering ocean, and the sea-green liners had a pattern of fish scales. They were absolutely freakin’ adorable, at least in Sydney’s biased opinion. She picked up the tray, headed out of the kitchen—

—and nearly crashed into Javier.

“Whoa!” He jumped back, almost dropping the empty napkin holder he was bringing back to refill. “Close call.”

Sydney smirked at him. “Yeah, close call for you. If you’d made me drop these cupcakes, I’d—”

I’d murder you.

The joke almost left her lips before she stopped herself. Her stomach felt cold and slimy like half-melted ice cream. Their former boss had been murdered a month earlier inside the bakery, and a little later, the killer had tried to stab Sydney just yards away from where she currently stood. Maybe someday she’d be able to make dark jokes about the experience, but it was still too soon.

“I’d kick you in the shins,” she finished after a brief pause. “Repeatedly.”

If Javier noticed her stumble, he didn’t comment. “You sure you can reach my shins?”

Sydney scoffed. She wasn’t short; Javier was just enormous. He stood at six foot five and was heavyset with a thick, dark beard. Currently in his early forties, he’d played football when he was younger, and anyone who’d tried to tackle him must have bounced harmlessly off his rock-solid mass. He was intimidating—if you ignored his goofy grin and the apron he wore that showed a cat flying through outer space with a slice of pizza.

She raised her boot-covered foot threateningly. “Don’t tempt me.”

“Now you’re just bullying me. I’m going to complain to Faith about workplace harassment.”

Sydney walked to the empty spot in the display case where only crumbs remained of the last batch of mermaid cupcakes. Summertime Sweets had been doing better business lately thanks to the arrival of warmer weather. The cold, dark days of slushy snow and barren trees that gripped Beaverfield, Michigan for most of the year had finally relented. Spring had brought back the greenery, and the town’s residents had brought out their shorts and sunglasses, determined to enjoy the weather. And most of them wanted cake and cookies for their outdoor parties.

Summertime Sweets had cakes and cookies—and pies, cupcakes, donuts, tarts, and almost every other baked dessert you could desire. It was a cute space with a white tile floor and pale pink walls that were decorated with vintage illustrations and white porcelain plates.

Some people might think Sydney looked out of place there. In a room of pastels, she was dressed from head to toe in black, her hair dyed blue and her tattoos and piercings on full display. But baking was her passion, and she felt lucky she’d turned it into her full-time job.

She was setting out the last cupcake when the bell over the door jingled.

“Mayra!” Javier called in his booming voice. “How’s it going?”

Sydney looked up. She’d gone to school with Mayra Navarro, Javier’s cousin, and still bumped into her now and then. (Beaverfield was small enough that you bumped into everyone whether you liked it or not.) A short, stocky woman, she had curly hair, brown skin, and glasses. She’d inherited similar fashion sense as her cousin, and she wore a T-shirt with a grumpy cartoon cat and the text “You Gotta Be Kitten Me.”

“Hey, Javi,” she said. “How soon could you make cookies for Bobbie’s bachelorette party?”

“How soon do you need them?” he asked.

Mayra scratched her cheek. “Well, the party’s tomorrow, so…”

Sydney winced. Usually they got catering orders weeks in advance.

 “You’re lucky you’re family,” Javier said. “Are you slacking on your maid of honor duties or what?”

“I’m not slacking.” Mayra scowled. “You have no idea how elaborate this thing is. Bobbie had me rent a boat—a boat! I had to put together party favors and order champagne from this place in California. Then I had to rent a photo booth and get the sizes of every bridesmaid for matching robes. I thought I had finished the catering when I took care of lunch and dinner, but then I realized I forgot the stupid cookies!” She clutched her head, face scrunched up in frustration.

“Hey, relax.” Javier changed from teasing to soothing in an instant. “We’ll take care of it. What do you need?”

Mayra covered her face with her hands. “Can I talk to Sydney about it?”

Javier crossed his beefy arms. “What, am I not good enough for you? You know I work here, right? I don’t just hang out in a bakery for fun. I bake.”

“I know, I know,” Mayra said. “It’s just… These are bachelorette party cookies.”

“I can make cookies.” He pointed down at the display case. “See those ones shaped like bacon and eggs? Made by yours truly.”

“Yeah, but…” Mayra rubbed her forehead. “Bachelorette party cookies are… They’re for a bunch of drunk, wild women, so they’re shaped like…” She gestured helplessly.

Javier squinted at her. “Why are you making this so weird?”

“She wants cookies shaped like penises,” Sydney provided.

Mayra sighed, her shoulders slumping in defeat. “Yes. Two dozen, please.”

“Oh.” Javier’s voiced turned strangled, and he stepped back from the counter. “Uh… You want to take this one, Sydney?”

“Wimp,” she said, but stepped forward.

Unfortunately, a mother chose that moment to enter the bakery with her two young children, cutting off any further talk of X-rated cookies and foiling Sydney’s plans to see how embarrassed she could make Javier.

“Come on back,” she told Mayra. “We can talk in the office.”

She led Mayra through the kitchen, the industrial refrigerator humming and timers over the ovens counting steadily down. Faith’s office sat in the back corner, and Sydney knocked before opening the door.

Faith looked up from her computer. A plump, middle-aged woman, she had short blond hair and glasses, and she always dressed business casual despite not enforcing a dress code on the rest of the staff.

“Can I borrow the room for a few minutes?” Sydney asked.

“Of course.” Faith stood before Sydney could explain why she needed it, as if her employee had every right to kick her out of her own office.

“We’ve got a bachelorette party order and some kids out front who don’t need to hear what shapes we can make cookies into,” Sydney said, feeling the need to explain.

“Say no more,” Faith said. “I’ll go help Javier until you’re finished.”

She smiled pleasantly at Mayra and then headed for the front of the store.

“Right.” Sydney settled into the office chair behind Faith’s desk, AKA the most organized desk in the world. “Take a seat.”

A webpage was open on Faith’s computer with the heading “10 Marketing Ideas for your Bakery Business.” Ever since Glenda, Faith’s mother and their former boss, had been killed, Faith had been stepping up her efforts to promote Summertime Sweets. She wanted to keep her mother’s bakery afloat, but Sydney suspected she also had something to prove. While Glenda had been alive, she’d never allowed her daughter to pursue any of her ideas for growing the business.

A hinged double photo frame stood on the desk between the office supply organizers and file trays. The left picture showed Faith and her wife, while the right showed Glenda surrounded by Faith’s children. The older woman wore a smile she’d rarely displayed at the bakery. She’d been a grumpy, unreasonable boss, and Sydney had only seen a different side of her after the woman had died and sent her text messages from beyond the grave.

No, seriously. That had happened.

Sydney’s phone felt suddenly heavy in her apron pocket, but it hadn’t done anything unusual since she’d caught Glenda’s killer and put her ghost to rest. Sydney still had no explanation for how she’d gotten text messages from a dead person, and she scrolled through her conversation with Glenda at least once a week to reassure herself it hadn’t been a dream.

But that was in the past, and she needed to focus. She minimized the marketing webpage and opened the app they used to track orders.

“You said two dozen cookies?”

“Yes,” Mayra answered. “You sell cookies in dozens, right?”

“We can sell any number you’d like.”

“Two dozen should be fine.” Creases formed between Mayra’s eyebrows as she thought. “There are eight of us, and I can’t see anyone needing more than three whole cookies.”

Sydney typed in the number. “Any dietary restrictions?”

“Two of the bridesmaids are vegan. I tried going vegan in college once and ended up with a vitamin deficiency that made me constipated.” She winced. “Sorry, that was too much information.”

“Just a little.” Sydney smiled to take the sting out of her words. “We can include some vegan ones. I’ll give them a different color icing to set them apart—assuming you want icing. What type of cookies do you need?”

Mayra sank deeper into the chair and looked like Sydney had asked whether she wanted to get executed by a firing squad or hanging.

“I have no clue,” she moaned. “Bobbie just said cookies.”

“We’ll do our classic sugar cookies with royal icing. They’re always a crowd pleaser.” Sydney looked her up and down. “I’ll give you one as a sample on the way out. You look like you could use a cookie.”

Mayra slumped forward. “Thanks. I had no idea this would be so stressful. It isn’t even my wedding.”

Sydney leaned back in her chair. “So who’s Bobbie, and how’d you get roped into maid of honor duties?”

“Bobbie Bellerose, my brother’s fiancée. She’s awful. I don’t know what Ramón sees in her.” Mayra straightened up, angry red blotches appearing on her cheeks. “She’s the shallowest person I’ve ever met. She runs this beauty blog where she makes women feel insecure so she can sell them makeup from her sponsors, and she’s obsessed with her brand and her looks. I snapped a picture at one of Javi’s kid’s birthday parties that had her in it, and she screamed my head off because I didn’t give her time to fix her hair and makeup—forced me to delete the photo from my phone and everything. She’s a nightmare.”

“Yikes,” Sydney said.

“And the wedding’s making her a thousand times worse.” Mayra clutched her head. “She’s doing these wedding planning videos online, so if everything isn’t one-hundred percent, magazine-worthy perfect, she has a meltdown. You should’ve seen her freak out over the invitations coming out glossy instead of matte.”

“How long until the ceremony?”

“One more month, so at least it will be over soon.”

More like it’s just beginning, Sydney thought. Aloud, she said, “That sucks, sorry. I’d offer you some rum cake, but the baking cooks out all the alcohol.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m going to get hammered on the boat tomorrow.”

“Maybe you’ll get lucky and fall overboard and drown,” Sydney said, and then clamped her jaw shut. Not everybody appreciated her sense of humor. She really needed to act more professionally with customers.

Mayra, though, just barked out a laugh. “Yeah, that’s probably the best possible outcome—actually, no, I take that back. The best would be Bobbie drowning.”

Sydney hadn’t hung out with Mayra much in school, but she had a feeling they would have gotten along. They went over the final details, and Sydney submitted the order into their system before grabbing Mayra’s cookie and walking her out.

A line had formed in front of the register, so Sydney jumped behind the counter and helped with the rush. A young couple wanted a cupcake to share, a group of teenagers cleared out their stock of chocolate chip cookies, and an older woman discussed an order for an anniversary cake. Fifteen minutes passed before things died down enough for Sydney to chat with Javier and Faith.

“You want to take the cookie order?” she asked Javier teasingly. “It’s your cousin’s wedding, after all.”

“It’s the bachelorette party, not the wedding.” He held up a hand. “And are cookies like that really a thing, or is Mayra pranking Bobbie?”

“They’re a thing.”

He made a face. “Weird.”

Sydney crossed her arms. “Guys don’t have a monopoly on lewdness, you know. Women can be raunchy too.”

“Uh, if a group of guys ate cookies shaped like lady parts, I’m pretty sure they’d end up on an FBI watch list.” He looked over at Faith. “Hey, so do lesbian bachelorette parties have those, or…?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Faith said with a mysterious smile. Then her face turned serious. “Sydney, I know it’s a rush-order, but would you mind getting them made?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

Sydney could make sugar cookies in her sleep. The hard part was the shape. They had a lot of different cookie cutters in the kitchen, but not one for the particular appendage Mayra had ordered. Sydney made a temporary cutter out of aluminum foil and had the cookies in the oven less than thirty minutes later. She moved on to their other catering orders next: a birthday cake and a few dozen donuts. Then the cookies came out of the oven, and she let them cool before starting the icing. Time flew by, and it was close to three o’clock when she heard a knock at the back door.

She opened it, stepping back so the delivery man could push inside a dolly stacked with six-packs of local organic juice.

“Hey, Trevor,” she said.

He tipped his cap. “Good afternoon, my lady.”

Trevor was a wiry man with bleached blond hair who was taking advantage of the warm weather to rock khaki shorts with his company polo shirt.

“Not your lady,” Sydney replied. “But glad you’re here. We sold out of the mango-flavored ones yesterday.”

“I’m on it,” he said, heading to the front.

Part of Faith’s marketing push involved networking with other local businesses. The bakery recently started carrying drinks from Vamoose Juice, a family-owned business from a few towns over. She’d also convinced some local produce stands and farmers’ markets to stock cookies from Summertime Sweets.

Sydney hoped Faith’s efforts panned out. When Glenda had died, Sydney had worried about the bakery closing. Business was slowly getting back to normal, but were they were turning enough of a profit to keep the doors open? What if Faith decided to cut her losses and change careers?

As if her thoughts had jinxed the bakery, she suddenly heard shouting out front.

Sydney dropped what she was doing and left the kitchen. Emerging through the doorway behind the counter, she saw a woman in front of the register yelling at Javier. She was drop-dead gorgeous. Her dark blond hair had pale highlights and was styled in a way that looked effortless despite probably requiring twenty minutes with a curling iron. A light blue summer dress covered her tall, thin frame, and she had the kind of golden-brown skin that Caucasian people only got in Michigan with frequent visits to a tanning salon.

She jabbed a perfectly manicured finger toward Javier’s chest. “I don’t care! I’m not taking them! Cancel the order.”

“You don’t have to shout, Bobbie,” said Javier. “Nobody’s gonna force you to take the cookies.”

“You’d better not!” she screeched. “Do you know how many followers I have? I post a bad review about this place, and you’ll be out of business in a month.”

Thank goodness no other customers were around to witness the drama. Only poor Trevor. He stood by the glass-doored refrigerator he was restocking and stared at Bobbie with an open mouth.

“The cookies are what Mayra ordered—” Javier tried.

“Mayra.” Bobbie’s nostrils flared. “I don’t know why I let Ramón talk me into making her the maid of honor.” She slammed her hands on the countertop. “Who’s in charge here? I want to speak to your manager.”

Faith chose that moment to come out the door behind Sydney. She must have been able to hear the shouting all the way from her office. A worried frown tugged on her lips.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes,” Bobbie said. “I want to cancel those obscene cookies. They don’t match the theme of my party at all.”

Javier ran a hand over his head. “I tried telling her we’ve already made them—”

“And I said I don’t care,” Bobbie snapped.

“Of course we can cancel the order if it’s not what you want,” Faith said. “I assume you want a refund?”

“No. Just make them properly this time.”

Faith glanced at Javier, but he looked just as cluelessly back at her.

“What do you mean by properly?” Faith asked Bobbie in a polite voice. “If you could explain what you’re looking for—”

Bobbie made a frustrated sound. “Make them shaped like diamond rings and champagne glasses—classy, not trashy. Can you do that? Or do you only make smutty garbage?”

“We can do that,” Faith assured her.

“Good. I need them delivered to Bluewater Marina by ten o’clock tomorrow. What’s the contact info for your delivery person?”

They took turns on deliveries. With a resigned look on her face, Faith opened her mouth to volunteer. Sydney, who didn’t want her boss to deal with the human-shaped incarnation of rage in front of them any longer than necessary, spoke up faster.

“I’ll do it.”

Sydney pulled out her phone, and they exchanged numbers.

“The boat leaves at ten, so get there before then,” Bobbie warned.

“Two dozen cookies. Bluewater Marina. No later than nine-fifty-five.” Sydney slipped her phone back into her pocket. “Got it.”

“Good. Thank you.” Then Bobbie strode out without another word.

Everyone stood in shocked silence after she’d gone like the traumatized survivors of a tiger attack.

“So…” Sydney elbowed Javier. “Have fun dealing with her at family gatherings.”

So what do you think? If you’re familiar with cozy mystery tropes, I bet you can guess which character is going to get murdered. 😉

Poison Contact comes out next month in ebook and paperback, and I’ll post when it’s released.

Poison Contact is out now! Order it here.

Kristen's signature

Published by Brandedkristen

If Kristen Brand could have any superpower, she'd want telekinesis so she wouldn't have to move from her computer to pour a new cup of tea. She spends far too much time on the internet, and when she's not writing, she's usually reading novels or comic books. Icon by @heckosart.

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