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Cut Out Cookie - ACB 17 ebook

Cut Out Cookie - ACB 17 ebook

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Who cut out Crazy Theresa?

Erin once again finds herself sandwiched between a friend and her partner’s police investigation when Willie Andrews is accused of killing Crazy Theresa Franklin.

Willie couldn’t have done it.

At least, Erin doesn’t think so.

He isn’t talking to her about it, or to anyone else. There are plenty of other people who might have killed Crazy Theresa. She had enemies. But which one had managed to catch her off guard?

And can Erin ensure that one of her friends does not end up in prison for it?

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Another fun book in this series. I love the characters and the interactions between the friends. I can't wait to see what they are involved in next. 

Like baking mysteries? Cats, dogs, and other pets? Award-winning and USA Today Bestselling Author P.D. Workman brings readers back to small town Bald Eagle Falls for another culinary cozy mystery to be solved by gluten-free baker Erin Price and her friends.

Have your gluten-free cake and eat it too. Sink your teeth into this sweet treat now!

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Chapter 1

Erin heard Terry’s truck engine as he pulled in front of the house and parked. She rubbed a hand across her forehead, trying to ease the muscle tension that was giving her a headache. Orange Blossom meowed a protest as she got up out of bed, removing his favorite warm body. She scratched his ears and continued past him to the front door. She reached it at the same time that Terry opened the door and put out his hand to enter the security code into the burglar alarm panel.

Her presence there made him startle, and she saw his hand jump to the holster on his hip before he was able to process who it was and that he was safe. He let out his breath and let K9 in before shutting the door behind him.

“Scared the crap out of me, Erin!” He punched the code into the alarm so that the siren wouldn’t start blaring, then took her in his arms and gave her a firm hug and a kiss on the top of her dark hair. “What are you doing up?”

“I haven’t been able to sleep. Too restless. I thought I’d get up and have a cup of tea with you and see if that would help me settle in.”

Terry nodded and escorted her, one arm around her shoulders, into the kitchen. His brown eyes were smiley and he kissed her on top of the head. “Always happy to have a bit of company. But you need to make sure you get enough sleep.”

Erin pushed a dark lock of hair back from her face. “I’m not sleeping right now, whether I’m in bed or out of it, so I might as well do something to help myself relax.”

There was the patter of footsteps as Blossom realized they were in the kitchen and galloped in looking for food. He started to yowl noisily for a treat.

“Calm down,” Erin told him. “You’d wake the dead.”

“Or at least the neighbors,” Terry agreed. He shifted his heavy-duty belt before sitting down. “We don’t need any more nuisance calls because you’re making too much noise.”

Erin went into the pantry to get a treat for the noisy orange feline and skimmed a few across the floor for him to chase and gobble down. She grabbed one of the gluten-free dog biscuits they offered at Auntie Clem’s Bakery and gave it to K9, who was standing patiently waiting for it. He took it politely in his lips, then stretched out on the floor beside Terry’s chair to munch on it. Orange Blossom arched his back and hissed at K9, but the dog took no notice.

“How about you, Marshmallow? Do you want a carrot?” Erin called out. There was no movement from the living room, where the bunny was probably snoozing behind the couch. “You see? Marshmallow knows that it’s time to sleep, not to eat,” she told Blossom, who yowled for another treat. She gave in and got him one more.

After that, she closed the pantry door to signal that there would be no more treats. She washed her hands and put the kettle on, then got out their favorite mugs and put a basket of assorted teabags on the table.

“How was work?”

Terry ran his fingers through his short, dark hair. “Pretty quiet today. A couple of reports of a prowler, but nothing there when we checked it out. Kids, maybe. Or just shadows in the trees.”

“Any of those reports from Adele?” Erin asked. Adele lived in the summer cottage in the woods behind Erin’s house and acted as a groundskeeper, ensuring there were no trespassers or teens hanging out, causing trouble. It was an arrangement that gave Adele a place to live and the ability to practice her Wiccan observances in private so that she wouldn’t be driven out of town by her Bible-thumping neighbors, as she had been from other towns.

“No, nothing from Adele. She can take care of most trespassers on her own.”

A shotgun in hand was a remarkably effective deterrent. There were other places to hang out and be rowdy.

As Erin poured the boiling water into their mugs, she saw Terry’s eyes jump to the window. Looking out from the brightness of the kitchen into the dark night, they couldn’t make out very much, but Erin saw the ghostly glow of a white dress drift across the yard. Blond hair, a slim figure. Victoria Webster, Erin’s employee and best friend, in her nightgown, taking Nilla out for a tinkle, she guessed.

“It’s just Vic.”

Erin put the kettle down on a hot pad and went to the back door. She opened it and turned the back door light on. “Vic?”

“Sheesh, you trying to scare the life out of me?” Vic’s voice was sharp, a departure from her usual calm Southern drawl. She swore under her breath.

Erin’s stomach tied itself in a knot. Everyone seemed to be jumpy. “I’m sorry, Vicky. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just up with Terry, and…”

“I wouldn’t be up if I didn’t have to take this critter out for a walk,” Vic growled, reaching down to pet the fluffy white dog. “I’d be in bed, where you should be. I know it’s not a regular day at Auntie Clem’s, just the ladies’ tea after church services, but you still need to sleep sometime.”

“I couldn’t sleep tonight. Figured I’d get up and have some tea with Terry.”

“And wake up half the neighborhood with that cat.”

Erin shook her head, surprised by Vic’s response. She was normally cheerful, even when she was short on sleep. A calm, grounding presence, which was just what Erin needed most of the time. Even though Vic was younger than Erin, she often seemed more mature. Maybe because of the life she had lived with her family, part of the notorious Jackson clan, or as a result of the discrimination and even hate that she’d had to deal with after coming out as transgender.

“Do you want to come in for some tea?” she offered. “Valerian or chamomile?”

“No. I’m going straight back to bed as soon as His Majesty is finished his business out here.”

Erin nodded. “Okay. Sorry about scaring you; I didn’t mean to.”

“I know. It’s okay. You just startled me with the light suddenly going on.”

Erin gave Vic a little wave and shut the door. She hesitated whether to turn the light off or leave it on, and decided to leave it on. She would be able to see that Vic was safely back in her loft over the garage before she and Terry went to bed.

Terry raised his brows as Erin returned to the kitchen table and sat down. “She seems a little on edge.”

Erin nodded. “Nilla probably woke her up. You know what it’s like being awakened from a sound sleep.”

“Yes, I suppose. But she’s usually more in control than that.”

Erin sipped her sleepy tea, hoping that it would calm her overactive thoughts and allow her to get a rest before morning when her body would wake her up, whether it was a baking day or not.

“I’ve noticed she’s been kind of moody since we got back from seeing her parents in Moose River. She’s been under a lot of stress.”

“Having to deal with the revelation that her brothers were trying to kill her pa for the clan—that kind of stress?” They both sipped their drinks, thinking about it. “Yeah,” Terry agreed. “I think we can give her a little bit of latitude for that one.”

Erin watched K9 chewing on his biscuit. Orange Blossom was creeping closer, watching for his opportunity to steal what was left of the treat or to lick up the crumbs from the floor and K9’s face.

“Do you want something to eat?” she offered Terry. “I can make a sandwich or rewarm some pasta.”

“No, I’m fine. I’ll eat when we get up in the morning.”

“Nothing? A cookie?”

He smiled, the adorable dimple in his cheek making its appearance. “I can’t very well say no to a cookie.”

Erin got up and went to the fridge to see what was in the freezer. “We’ve been making a lot of sugar cookies cut out in Easter shapes. Do you want one of those?”

“Sure. Got a bunny?”

“We’ve got bunnies, eggs, lilies, lambs…”

“You’d better give me an assortment so I can do a quality check,” Terry suggested, smiling, the dimple even more prominent. Officer Handsome Vic was fond of calling him.

Erin defrosted several Easter cut-out cookies for him. Terry tested them seriously, gazing out the window.

“There must be a security light out. The backyard shouldn’t be that dark.”

Erin looked, then nodded. “You’re right. If someone other than Vic had been out there, I wouldn’t have been able to tell who it was. Someone should check into that.” She gave him a wry smile. He would, of course, check in the next few days to see which of the bulbs was out and replace it. He was very determined to see that Erin was as safe as possible, especially when he was on shift and she was home alone.

Things had happened in the past. They didn’t want a repeat.

Chapter 2

It was a bright, clear day, already warm when Erin got up in the morning, at a time which she would have considered late any other day of the week. But as Terry had said, all she had to worry about on Sunday was the ladies’ tea after the Baptist ladies’ church meetings. She didn’t bake early Sunday morning; she either made something for the tea on Saturday or pulled something out of the freezer. It wasn’t really the baking that the ladies came for, but the gossip session. A little fellowship after their services.

Erin’s aunt, Clementine, had held the Sunday tea for many years when the storefront was a tea shop rather than a gluten-free bakery. Eventually, as her health had failed, she had been forced to shut down the business and the weekly get-together. After her death, a private investigator had managed to find Erin and told her that Clementine had left everything to her. They had been estranged for many years, since Erin had been put into foster care after her parents’ death and had grown up mostly in Maine and on the eastern seaboard, nowhere near Clementine in Tennessee.

Erin rubbed her forehead and the bridge of her nose. She had been unable to kick the headache and knew that it was most likely tension. She should be relaxed now that she was back in Bald Eagle Falls, but she’d been struggling with sleepless nights, and the fatigue that was building over the weeks never left her.

She wasn’t actually sure how she had ended up moving from Tennessee to Maine as a child, when foster parents were not usually allowed to take children across state borders. But one of the early families that she had been with must have managed to get permission when the father’s work transferred him north. Maybe they had been planning to adopt her at the time and some social worker had pulled out all the stops to try to make it work.

But Erin had never been adopted. A forever family had not been in the cards for her.

Erin set out the tray of cookies that she had set aside for the ladies’ tea and turned to go back into the kitchen. Vic was coming out at the same time, her eyes down on her phone, and the two of them nearly collided.

“Whoa, I’m sorry,” Vic apologized, shoving her phone into an apron pocket. “I wasn’t watching where I was going. I thought you were still setting up.”

Erin held Vic’s arm to steady herself for a moment, then smiled and shrugged. “It’s a wonder we don’t do that more often.”

Vic nodded vaguely. She looked at the small area at the front of the store with a couple of tables surrounded by chairs. “What else do you need? I’ve got the coffee perking and water heating in the boiler. Cookies. Plates.” She laughed. “How about teacups?”

“That might be a good idea,” Erin agreed. They were both so scattered it would be a wonder if the tea went off without some kind of snag. She hadn’t used the checklist for the ladies’ tea in a long time. Still, it was safely stored in a sheet protector in the operations binder, accessible to all employees. Maybe she ought to pull it out to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything. Like the tea.

Erin shook her head as she continued to gather the things they needed together. And she did flip open the binder to make sure they hadn’t missed anything obvious. After the number of teas she and Vic had held, everything should be automatic. And usually, it was.

They weren’t quite ready when the ladies started to come in the door. Erin focused on not running or appearing hurried as they arranged the final details. The best way to make people think that you were behind or unprofessional was by rushing. Instead, she carefully finished setting everything out, nodding to each of the women and addressing them by name. No one seemed to notice anything awry.

Once everyone had served themselves and was sipping tea and eating cookies—those who allowed themselves such indulgences—Erin took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to slow her breathing and heartbeat and to enjoy the moment. She had come to look forward to the ladies’ teas, the final cap to her busy week, a time that was slower and allowed her to socialize and relax.

“We were mighty sorry to hear about your family troubles,” Melissa told Vic, combing her dark brown curls away from her face with her fingers. Melissa always had the down-low on the juiciest gossip, drawing from both doing part-time administrative work for the police department and from her relationship with Davis Plaint, in prison for the deaths of his brother and Bertie Braceling. Davis was the one, Erin suspected, who had passed on any word of Vic’s “family troubles” to Melissa. Certainly, it hadn’t come from Terry, who knew he couldn’t rely upon anything he mentioned around Melissa remaining confidential. He wouldn’t have passed any of Vic’s private information on to her, and it wouldn’t have been in the records of the Bald Eagle Falls police department because it had happened in Moose River.

“Well… thank you, I’m sure,” Vic said hesitantly. It would be ungracious not to acknowledge and accept Melissa’s condolences. Still, she didn’t want to discuss any of the sordid details in front of the other ladies. And who knew how much Melissa had already told them? Vic wouldn’t know until she started getting condolences from others as well.

“Yes, we were all sorry to hear,” Lottie Sturm chimed in.

Her tone clearly indicated that she was holding something back. “But what could be expected from the Jackson clan?” or “We always knew you came from bad stock,” or something along those lines. Lottie was one of the women who would never accept Vic for who she was. If she was polite to Vic, it was only because she knew Erin would eject her from the bakery if she weren’t.

“How is your poor mother?” Melissa asked, oblivious to Vic’s discomfort. “It must have been such a trial for her, your pa being so sick. I heard he was on his death bed.”

Vic nodded reluctantly. “I’m sure she’s doing better now that everything is back to normal. Pa was lucky to recover. It was pretty perilous for a while there.”

Melissa gave a little gasp and covered her mouth in horror. But her eyes were dancing and it was obvious that she was enjoying the drama and having Vic as a captive audience.

“We were all praying for him,” Cindy Prost chimed in. She was sitting beside her daughter, Bella, who was one of Erin’s best employees. Even though Bella was still in high school, she had a good business mind. She was very responsible and often had ideas for Erin to try out to improve areas of her business. Cindy glanced sideways at Bella to make sure she heard and approved of this comment. Erin had her doubts that Cindy had prayed about anyone in Vic’s family. Unless she was a closer relation than Erin thought. Many of the families in the area were related, and the Prosts and Jacksons had been around for long enough that Erin was sure the families’ genealogies probably connected at several different points.

“We sure were,” Bella agreed, and her words sounded genuine. She’d held down the fort while Vic and Erin had been in Moose River, and she had expressed her good wishes for Vic’s father and the family several times. Erin never sensed the same insincerity in Bella as she did in Cindy.

Vic too sensed this and nodded real appreciation to Bella. “Thank you for that. It was miraculous that he survived.”

Erin knew that sooner or later, one of the ladies was going to bring up Vic’s brothers and their actions. She looked at Vic and cocked her head slightly, as if listening carefully.

“Vicky, would you mind getting the phone in my office? I can hear it ringing.”

Vic stared at her for a moment in confusion. There was, after all, no phone in Erin’s tiny, closet-sized office in the back. There was a wall phone just inside the kitchen doorway so that if a customer called, they could answer it from either the front or the back, but that was the only hard-wired phone in the bakery. Erin used her cell phone for everything else. Then understanding came into Vic’s eyes, and she nodded and hurried into the back, out of the reach of the ladies’ pointed questions and comments. If Erin needed a hand with anything in the front, she knew that Bella would jump in to help. Vic could hide out in the back and tidy away anything that had been left out in the kitchen.

The atmosphere in the bakery deflated as everyone watched their prime target retreat and disappear out of reach of their barbs. Lorrie Sturm gave Erin a glare, understanding that Erin had intentionally removed Vic from the line of fire.

“It was so kind of you to go to Moose River with Vic,” Mary Lou commented. She took a sip of her tea. She had not taken any of the cookies, always mindful of her figure. “You are always looking for ways to help people.”

Erin’s face warmed at the compliment. She wasn’t quite sure how to respond. It was true; she did the best she could to help those in need. But she was too modest to like having this brought to everyone else’s attention. She shrugged and looked away. “Thank you.”

* * *

Conversations shifted and the focus moved away from Erin and Vic, since they would not indulge the women’s interests. After draining a cup or two of tea, the ladies started looking at their watches and excusing themselves. Bella hovered as her mother made movements toward the front door.

“Can I help you clean up, Erin? We can wait for a few minutes.”

“No, it’s okay,” Erin assured her. “There’s not much to do. I’ll see you next week.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure. Take care. Thanks for coming, Cindy,” Erin raised her voice slightly to acknowledge Cindy’s departure as well. Not a “see you soon,” but more of a “don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”

Bella gave Erin a grin and scurried after her mother. Mary Lou was the last to leave, though usually she was one of the first, staying for just long enough to satisfy the others that she had made an effort.

“You can tell Vic that it’s safe to come out now,” Mary Lou said dryly. She patted her iron gray bob, though she didn’t have a hair out of place.

Erin acknowledged this with a smile. “Vic! All clear!”

Vic poked her head out the door and looked around. She nodded at Mary Lou. “Sorry about that,” she apologized, her cheeks growing pink. “It was a longer call than I expected.”

Erin gave an unladylike snort. “Hopefully, by next week, they’ll have moved on to other things. Or maybe you should give someone else the shift next week. They’re bound to have something else to gossip about in two whole weeks.”

“Maybe I will,” Vic agreed.

Mary Lou gazed at Vic for a moment in silence. “I do wish you the best with your family,” she said eventually. “I hope that… y’all will find some peace.”

“Thanks.” Vic blinked, her eyes swimming with tears. “I hope that too.”

Mary Lou nodded once, smoothed invisible wrinkles on her pants, and left the bakery. Erin flipped the sign to Closed and locked the bolt on the door without a word, and they each moved quietly around each other to gather up the few things that needed to be put away.

“I swear, I thought things would be better this week,” Erin sighed. “I thought that giving them a couple of weeks would head off any problems.”

“Things must be too quiet in Bald Eagle Falls.” Vic swiped at the corners of her eyes when she thought Erin wasn’t looking. “We’ll have to stir up some trouble!”

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P.D. (Pamela) Workman is a USA Today Bestselling author, winner of several awards from Library Services for Youth in Custody and the InD’tale Magazine’s Crowned Heart award, and has published over 100 mystery/suspense/thriller and young adult books.

Workman loves writing about the underdog. She has been praised for her realistic details, deep characterization, and sensitive handling of the serious social issues that appear in her stories, from light cozy mysteries to darker, grittier young adult and mystery/suspense books.

P. D. Workman does not shy from probing the deep psychological scars of childhood trauma, mental illness, and addiction. Also characteristic of this author, these extremely sensitive issues are explored with extensive empathy, described with incredible clarity, and portrayed with profound insight.
—Kim, Goodreads reviewer