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Book 2 - Murder at the Church Picnic - A Mallory Beck Cozy Culinary Caper (Original Cover Large Print Paperback) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4.6 (450 ratings)

Book 2 - Murder at the Church Picnic - A Mallory Beck Cozy Culinary Caper (Original Cover Large Print Paperback) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4.6 (450 ratings)

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A church picnic where murder is on the menu! The second standalone mystery in the Mallory Beck series is perfect for fans of Hannah Swensen.


Main Tropes

  • Charming small town
  • A sleuthing cat named Hunch
  • Misdirection and red herrings


Murder has such a sting!

If anyone had told Mallory Beck she would become Honeysuckle Grove’s next amateur sleuth, she would have thought they were ten walnuts short of a brownie. Her late husband had been the mystery novelist with a penchant for the suspicious. She was born for the muffin pan, not the binoculars, and yet here she was, having just solved her first murder case. It had all started with delivering a casserole to a grieving family and finished with the help of a sarcastic teenager, a cop with kind-hearted green eyes, and a cat with a hunch.

Maybe she should have thought twice about delivering another casserole. But this one was for the potluck at the annual church picnic, and what could possibly go wrong at a picnic?

Find out when you order this cozy culinary caper now!

Intro Into Chapter One

Almost nine months and I still felt like a flake of eggshell in a bowl of yolks every time I attended a social gathering alone. At least today I’d made an extra effort to avoid any wardrobe malfunctions. Even if I did something brainless like leave the house without brushing my hair or putting on pants, I’d be meeting Amber, my new fifteen-year-old BFF, who, with any hope, wouldn’t let me traipse through a public park in my underwear.

I collected the cheesy bacon and potato casserole from my kitchen and then said goodbye to Hunch, a cat with an attitude if I’d ever met one. He had recently broken his leg and dislocated his hip, so I was trying to have some grace for his bristly attitude. I compensated for his growls with my perkiest voice.

“I’ll only be gone a couple of hours,” I singsonged to him.

Cooper, my late husband and Hunch’s true owner, used to talk to him aloud constantly. In fact, with Cooper, it had usually been less like talking to a cat and more like some kind of intelligent three-point discussion. I hadn’t quite gotten comfortable with having conversations with my feline roommate yet, but then again, I didn’t need his help in plotting my next mystery novel like Cooper had.

“Maybe I’ll even bring Amber back with me,” I told Hunch, and this earned me an uptick of his whiskers.

Amber had been visiting me almost every day since we’d solved the murder of her dad together and brought the guilty parties to justice. She always came around under the guise of a cooking lesson—I’d promised to teach her how to prepare everything from baked sourdough to ratatouille, and in fact, she’d assembled today’s casserole pretty much on her own with only my instructions from the kitchen table. I’d simply popped it into the oven this morning to warm it up, filling my kitchen with the scents of savory sharp cheddar and apple-smoked bacon. Amber had wanted to make a casserole with bacon in it, and while I was as big of a fan of crispy pork as the next girl, we’d had to play around a little with the recipe so the salty flavor hadn’t overpowered the rest. We’d started with nugget potatoes, but in the end, I’d suggested adding a couple of Yukon gold and Vitelotte purple potatoes to round out the flavors and add some vibrant color.

In truth, Amber probably did only show up for the cooking lessons. Me? I’d do almost anything for the company, and Hunch, I was fairly certain, would do almost anything to have someone other than me in his lair.

I left my cantankerous cat in my wake and headed for Cooper’s Jeep with Amber’s casserole in hand. After my husband’s death, I’d driven his Jeep for months, trying to find the powerful feeling he’d claimed to have gotten from driving it, but today I chose it because of the FOR SALE sign posted prominently in the back window. I didn’t often spend much of the daytime out in public, but today at the park would be the perfect opportunity to get lots of eyes on it. Surprisingly, posting the FOR SALE sign in the vehicle had made me feel the strongest I had felt in the last eight and a half months since I lost my true strength—Cooper.

I took deep breaths to steady myself on my ten-minute drive to Bateman Park. I kept telling myself it shouldn’t take this much bravery to simply leave my house. It would certainly have been easy—too easy—to back out on attending the annual church picnic if I hadn’t made a commitment to Amber. She had originally asked me to go with her because she didn’t think her mom would be up for it. As of last night, though, it turned out her mom wanted to go, and so that left me still feeling committed, but meeting her there instead of picking her up. I hoped these solo outings would eventually get easier with time and practice

I turned the corner onto Bateman Road and discovered my next problem. Finding parking might prove as difficult as interpreting my cat’s growls. The picnic was supposed to start at eleven, in lieu of today’s church service, and it was already five to. I didn’t like to be late, especially with someone meeting me, but nevertheless, I turned the corner and drove farther from the park in search of a space big enough for this giant gas guzzler.

I should have expected as much on such a beautiful day, but most of the time, my brain still wasn’t as quick on the uptake about normal life situations as it used to be. As I wove around various back streets, I passed plenty of people walking toward the park, arms loaded with lawn chairs, blankets, and food. I recognized one couple—Marv and Donna Mayberry—which only served to increase my already racing heart. Chatting with couples after losing your spouse felt a little like driving a three-wheeled car. Marv worked long hours, so it was more common to have one-on-one time with Donna, but apparently not today. Some people strolling toward the park wore dresses and suits, and I looked down at my peach T-shirt and denim capris, wondering if there was some kind of church picnic dress code I wasn’t aware of.

At least Amber would be here somewhere, and I couldn’t in my wildest dreams imagine her showing up to the park in a fancy dress. I’d yet to see her in something more formal than a hoodie and cut-offs. It was just a matter of finding her. Up the next block, I finally found a space big enough for the Jeep.

Cooper had kept a couple of lawn chairs in the back of his Jeep for as long as he’d owned it. They hadn’t been used in over a year, but it was time to get the creaks out of at least one of them. I’d come back for the other if Amber hadn’t brought her own. Thankfully, they had backpack straps on them, so I grabbed the red one on top and slung it onto my back. Then I reached for my purse, complete with suntan lotion and bug spray, and finally for the warm casserole. The scent of salty goodness wafted up toward me as I adjusted the lid. Now that it was fresh out of the oven, the flavors had baked into one another, the melted cheese had rounded it out, and it smelled amazing.

Foot traffic thickened as I strode closer toward Bateman Park, and I kept my eyes peeled for Amber and her mom. They both had auburn hair and were both striking in different ways—Amber with her big-eyed attitude and her mom with her bouffant hairstyle—so they shouldn’t be hard to spot.

Before I could find them, I rounded a small hill to get into the park, and a flurry of activity captured my attention. Tables were being assembled with food under one of the two giant park shelters, kids chased each other around the playground, and at least a dozen carnival games were being erected between the food shelter and a big open field. I’d been happy when Amber told me our contribution to the day would be food because that sounded much more up my alley than setting up and manning a ring toss or a kiddie pool fishing pond.

I surveyed the nearly one hundred heads of those either helping set up or involved in clustered conversations, but Amber and her mom weren’t among them. The giant shelter on my left consisted of a large wooden gazebo with a cement floor and a half dozen picnic tables under the overhang. The tables wouldn’t have nearly enough seating for our congregation, but other church members busily set up oblong tables and chairs from the church basement all around the perimeter of the shelter.

The one other shelter in the park stood about fifty feet away, and this one had rows of white chairs lined up in front of the cement area and white tulle decorating the front rafters of the shelter. A nearby table overflowed with wrapped gifts. It looked like preparations for a wedding. Two men in suits straightened the twenty-or-so rows of chairs, and many of the formally-dressed folks I’d seen on the sidewalk milled around that side of the park. I let out a breath, glad I hadn’t dressed inappropriately for the picnic after all.

As I headed for the church’s picnic shelter where the hot food had been placed, a nearby commotion caught my eye. Pastor Jeff was in the midst of a hushed argument with a lady I didn’t recognize. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, but what she lacked in height, she made up for with her large pregnant belly, stretched tight under a pale pink dress.

She flapped her arms to the sides, and as I moved closer, I started to make out the problem. “The bride and groom expected to have the whole park to themselves. It’s their special day and they’ll be here any minute! I’m their wedding planner. How do you think this is going to look for me?”

Pastor Jeff pushed his hands toward the ground and spoke in his usual calming and authoritative tone. “I understand your concern, Mrs. Winters, and I have no idea where the mix-up happened, but let’s just take a deep breath and see what we can do.” Pastor Jeff angled away from the pregnant lady, toward where the carnival games were being assembled. He quickly located his wife and called, “Emily? Let’s try to keep all the games closer to the playground, all right?”

Between Pastor Jeff and his wife stood Marv and Donna Mayberry. They were one of the first couples Cooper and I had met at Honeysuckle Grove Community Church. Donna leaned into her husband and whispered something, likely an embellished rumor. And just like that, the giant game of telephone that always seemed to start with gossiping Donna Mayberry had begun.

“I don’t care how much you move those games,” the pregnant wedding planner said in an exasperated tone to Pastor Jeff. “The Bankses and the Albrights are still not going to appreciate kids running through their ceremony, and all the noise a church picnic will generate. They’re not going to want these people they don’t know hanging around their wedding!” She flapped her arms again. Pastor Jeff took a breath, about to speak, but she interrupted him. “Look, I don’t know how the municipal office could think this park is big enough for both a wedding and a church picnic, but it’s just not. I’m calling them right this second to sort this out.”

I couldn’t imagine the municipal office being open on a Sunday, but she pulled out a cell phone and marched away with it, not giving Pastor Jeff a chance to respond. That left our pastor staring straight at me, the only other person in the immediate vicinity. The deep grooves of his face told me he wanted to find a solution as much as the wedding planner did.

And like the last time I’d seen Pastor Jeff looking helpless, I wanted to do what I could to take that pained look off of his face.

“What can I do to help?” I asked.

Pastor Jeff wore a lavender dress shirt and khaki shorts that looked lovely together. I attributed his tidy and coordinated appearance to his wife, Emily, being here helping, instead of at her usual Sunday morning job in the church nursery. But in only one second, Pastor Jeff ran a hand through his sandy brown hair, and it stuck up in all directions, effectively ruining the put-together effect.

He shook his head. “I need to get the games moved as far away from the wedding as possible.” He turned, and I took a step to follow him, but then he swung back around and said, “Actually, could you ask Sasha to gather some parents and corral the kids to keep them near the playground? That would help.”

I looked to where he pointed to a lady in a long purple paisley dress. I knew the woman, or at least I had known her many years ago. She’d been my seventh-grade English teacher, back when I’d lived in Honeysuckle Grove, West Virginia, with my dad and sister more than fifteen years ago. Her hair had grown from shoulder-length to halfway down her back, and it was grayer than it had been back then, but she still clearly wore the same paisley dresses.

“You mean Ms. Mills?” I asked.

Pastor Jeff nodded, but he looked eager to rush off and speak with his secretary and the rest of the church staff to figure this out. “Yes. She takes care of our children’s ministry.”

If I’d had kids, perhaps I would have known that. Cooper and I had wanted kids, lots of them, but sadly, he’d been killed in a fire at one of the local banks shortly after we settled into town.

I nodded to Pastor Jeff, but still had my casserole dish in my hands, so I followed him toward his church secretary, near the food shelter, saying, “Yes, right away. I’ll just put this down first.”

Pastor Jeff was too concerned about his current problem to worry about me and spoke to his secretary from several feet away as he approached. “Did we not book both shelters for the picnic, Penny? Their wedding planner, Mrs. Winters, insists she has the park booked for a wedding today.” He motioned to where Mrs. Winters stood angrily punching something into her phone’s keyboard.

“Oh, I, um, I’m afraid I don’t know.” Penny Lismore was in her early twenties with bright naturally-orange hair and big blue naïve eyes. She had been the church secretary for a little less than a year. I only knew this because she had been new on the job when Cooper died, and she had made many apologies to me about not understanding procedures in booking a memorial service. Today she looked equally clueless as she picked at the side seam of her navy shorts. “Troy said he was going to book it.”

I placed my casserole dish on a nearby table and looked up to where both Penny and Pastor Jeff had moved their gazes. Near the carnival games, with a clipboard in hand, stood Troy Offenbach, the treasurer of Honeysuckle Grove Community Church. He had trim blond hair, statuesque posture, and a stoic face that meant business, even at a picnic. My knowledge of Troy Offenbach was about as limited as my knowledge of Penny Lismore. He had printed off a detailed bill for Cooper’s memorial service, and I had paid it.

Troy hadn’t been particularly compassionate about the fact that I’d only just lost my husband a week prior, but I hadn’t expected him to be. He was a numbers guy. If Cooper had taught me one thing from when I’d helped him research his mystery novels, it was that if you wanted to get a better handle on the cast of people surrounding your story, they could all quickly be reduced to certain stereotypes. Troy was all about the accounting, Penny was an employee who could follow simple instructions but wasn’t much of a self-starter, and Pastor Jeff gave from the depths of such a big heart every time he came across a problem, no matter how large or small. I feared it might be the thing to break him.

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