Authors: Janel Gradowski
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BANANA MUFFINS & MAYHEM
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Copyright © 2016 by Janel Gradowski
Cover design by Lyndsey Lewellen
Gemma Halliday Publishing
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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"I'm sure none of your entries can beat my lemon poppy seed muffin recipe." The platinum blonde woman smirked. "But thank you anyway for the chance to judge your little competition."
A collective gasp whooshed through the tent full of people. The insult wasn't being taken well by the Muffin Tin Madness competitors. Amy set her camera down on her lap. Phoebe Plymouth, the woman who made the rude comment, was a celebrity who could use a lesson in politeness. The snooty, perfectionist judge persona might work on reality TV shows, but it didn't fly so well in small-town Michigan. The audience grumbling increased in intensity to a dull roar. Kendra, the owner of The Cookbook Nook, snatched the microphone out of the celebrity's grasp and said, "Come back in two hours when we'll announce the winners. Until then, please enjoy the demonstrations and sidewalk sales. There are all kinds of fun and interesting things to do while you wait."
Amy snapped one more picture of the judges standing side-by-side on the low stage then stowed her camera in her tote bag. The din of disapproval over the sweeping insult filled the tent again. Every conversation she could pick out among the choir of upset voices was reacting to the unkind comment. At least her cookbook-loving friend had class. Poor Kendra looked as though she was standing next to the Wicked Witch of the West when the snarky home improvement TV show hostess delivered her assessment of the cooking skills of Kellerton's residents. Amy had been planning on doing a blog post centered on the star's visit to her town as a celebrity guest at the first Cabin Fever Cure event. But after witnessing the woman's sour attitude throughout the day, there was no way she wanted to feature such an unpleasant person on her blog. Amy's Kitchen was her online happy place.
As Amy made her way out of the main tent set up in the middle of Main Street, she checked the time on her phone. The Inkwell's owner, Aubergine, was scheduled to begin her afternoon demonstration in five minutes. Learning to draw a bouquet of wildflowers from the calligraphic artist would be the perfect way to spend some time while the cooking contest was being judged. Every recipe for the competition had to be made in a muffin tin, but that didn't limit the entries to just sweets. There were five categories, from desserts to dinner. Amy had made adorable little shepherd's pies, a creamy, frozen fruit salad, and malted chocolate and banana muffins—which tasted like the pastry version of her favorite milkshake. When she had dropped her entries off, she could see that many other people had gotten their creative mojo working too. There were plenty of muffin-shaped offerings that were far from standard, cakey muffins. Phoebe the Grump probably wouldn't like anything, given her announcement, but Kendra and the third judge, the manager of Louie's Hamburgers, would be fair.
A chilly breeze blew Amy's long, honey-blonde hair into her eyes as she wove between the people and tents. She hated doing Medusa impressions, but at least the sun was shining to offset the cool wind. The change in seasons always brought schizophrenic weather to Michigan, so the possibility of toasty-warm sunshine coupled with shiver-inducing wind gusts had been taken into consideration by the Cabin Fever Cure organizers. Big white tents were set up all along a two-block section of the downtown area to house activities such as cooking and scrapbooking demonstrations, plus interviews and autograph sessions with celebrities. The sides of the tents could be rolled up or fastened down to accommodate the fickle weather's whims. At the moment, most of the side panels were lowered to keep the people congregating inside warm. The basic idea of the event was to get residents out of their houses after the long winter by offering short seminars, plus the chance to rub shoulders with a few famous Michiganders who were guests of honor. Catching a cold or getting frostbite wasn't the intent.
Amy ducked inside the tent where the mini art class was being held. Many of the seats were already taken by people eager to learn how to draw a cheerful flower arrangement. She took a seat at the edge of the fourth row of tables and waved at the purple-haired teacher.
"How's it going?" Aubergine asked as she placed a small square of watercolor paper on the table in front of Amy. "Did you win the muffin contest?"
"The judging just started, so the winners won't be announced for another couple hours." Amy rolled her eyes. "Luckily there are more judges than Phoebe, or there might not be any winners. When it was her turn to speak, instead of being encouraging or wishing everybody good luck, she pronounced that no recipe could beat the lemon muffins that she makes. That didn't go over so well with the crowd."
"You are all a bunch of inferior minions." Aubergine perfectly imitated the voice of a cartoon villain. Her colorful curls bounced as she shook her head. "I'm just kidding, but it doesn't seem as though Phoebe is with that giant superiority complex. She doesn't act the same in real life as she does on her show. There have been a lot of people commenting about how rude she's been today. I've even heard several conversations between people who plan on never watching her show again. I thought the purpose of public appearances was to gain new viewers for her show, not lose them."
Amy could hear how disappointed Aubergine was. She had spearheaded the effort to bring the star to town. "Maybe it's just good video editing on the show, or she has a split personality. Most likely, she's just having a bad day though."
"Or all of the above!" Aubergine pointed to one of the blue Solo cups filled with felt-tip markers sitting on the table. "I need to start teaching soon. Pick out a couple colors of pens for your flowers, and you'll be all set. Have fun, and good luck with the contest."
An hour later, Amy emerged from the tent carrying a miniature work of art. Or at least a decent little drawing that definitely resembled a bouquet of flowers tied with a ribbon bow. She stowed the drawing in the pocket of her tote bag and set out to do a little retail therapy. Tables and racks were set up outside all of the businesses, filled with discounted items. The combination of learning, shopping, eating, and competing was certainly her idea of a good day. And judging from the amount of people milling around, a lot of Kellerton's residents were enjoying the event, which was masterminded by Aubergine and other downtown business owners.
By the time Amy returned to the main tent to hear the winners' announcements, her tote bag was getting uncomfortably heavy. Three new cookbooks, a pair of sandals, which would hopefully be put to good use soon—if the weather warmed up just a tiny bit more, and a heart-shaped, ceramic baking dish were coming home with her. Would a giant golden muffin trophy be heading to her house too?
Amy settled into one of the last empty chairs and shoved the bulky bag partially underneath it. While she had been shopping, dark clouds had rolled in. The sprinkle she had awkwardly sprinted half a block through turned to a downpour drumming on the canvas roof as she checked her makeup in the tiny mirror she had unearthed from her purse. People ducked through the door openings to escape the shower. It was a packed house, whether all of the people were interested in seeing who won the cooking contest or not. Nobody familiar was sitting nearby, and she wished Carla was with her to keep the nervousness at bay with a friendly conversation. They had planned on walking around the event together, at least as long as stroller-bound Macy would tolerate it. But her best friend's daughter had other plans for the day—a tummy ache that had left both her and Carla miserable with zero desire to leave the house.
At the front of the tent, the three judges sat at a table on the raised platform. The two local business owners chatted convivially, while Phoebe scowled at her phone. The crowd quieted when Kendra turned on the PA system. "Welcome to the Muffin Tin Madness awards ceremony. The other judges and I were impressed with the creativity all of the competitors demonstrated in their recipes. I am proud to live in Kellerton, a community with a wealth of fabulous cooks."
The verbal jab made many people in the audience smile, but Phoebe ignored the subtle retort to her uncalled for remark on the contestants' cooking abilities. Amy held up her camera and looked at the screen. While she was shopping, she had decided she would still do a blog post about the contest, just not place any emphasis on its most famous judge. She wanted to capture images of the awards ceremony, but it was difficult not to include disinterested Phoebe in the frame. Some creative photo editing would be in order to crop out the television personality, who wasn't even trying to pretend she was interested in what was happening. The irreverent star sat to the left of the podium, frowning at her phone as the breakfast foods winner was announced. The round of applause startled her. She dropped her phone on the table and clapped a few times while looking around the tent with a puzzled expression on her face. It wasn't as if the audience had materialized out of thin air, but it certainly appeared as though she felt that way.
After the winners in all of the non-muffin categories were announced, Kendra paused. The only sound in the tent was the rain pattering on the canvas roof, along with a few nervously tapping shoes. Amy placed the camera back in her tote bag. Her hands were shaking too badly to take clear pictures. The last three had been blurry. There was no way her meager photo editing skills could fix that problem.
Kendra smiled. "The winner of the traditional muffin category was a dreamy combination of bananas and chocolate. Congratulations, Amy Ridley."
Amy's pantry and refrigerator were filled with ingredients that ranged from common staples to exotic—unbleached flour to barley miso. Instead of shoes or purses, she collected condiments and specialty foods. While exploring her pantry, which was almost as large as the walk-in closet that held her
her husband's clothes, she had found a bottle of malted milk powder, which had been bought when a sugar craving kicked in during a grocery shopping trip. She combined her favorite milkshake flavor, a banana malt, with her best chocolate chip muffins. And a winning recipe was born.
After finally shimmying her way through the packed aisle, Amy made it to the front. She accepted the trophy then posed for pictures which would be posted on the downtown business association's website. Phoebe actually groaned when she was asked to take part in the photo shoot. Most of the audience had made their way out of the tent, during a pause in the rain showers, by the time the professional photographer was done.
Kendra wrapped Amy in a hug. She smelled like marshmallows, a very appropriate scent for the owner of a store that sold only cookbooks. "Congratulations again. The shepherd's pies were excellent, so you almost won that category too, but the muffins were absolutely divine. You are a recipe rock star. I'm telling you, it's time for you to write a cookbook."
Warmth bloomed in Amy's cheeks. "Thank you. You're making me blush."
"Well it's all true. You are my favorite foodie celebrity." Kendra tucked a stray strand of her dark hair behind her ear. "There will be a vendor and VIP wrap-up party that begins at 6 p.m. tonight at Riverbend Café. Would love to see you there because you are definitely a very important person here in Kellerton."
The awards ceremony was the last event of the Cabin Fever Cure. Amy returned home and warned her husband, Alex, that he had an engagement for the evening—beyond watching basketball and hockey games. Two hours later, she walked into her favorite downtown business—Riverbend Café. She loved it so much that she had become good friends with the owner and even worked there part-time. The gourmet coffee shop was her second home.
The dining room had been decorated for the VIP party. Vases filled with branches covered in fuzzy pussy willow buds, one of the horticultural heralds of spring in Michigan, sat in the middle of the tables. A dessert buffet was laid out at the back of the room. Cookies, brownies, and mini pies were arranged on sparkling crystal plates and platters. The usually cozy room had been glammed up for the soiree.
Despite his reluctance to come to a party instead of watching the Pistons, Alex had still made himself into a dashing date. His pewter-colored slacks and light-gray button-down shirt were tailored to fit over his muscular curves. The muted wardrobe contrasted nicely with his rusty-colored hair and blue eyes. When he wandered away to join a group of men, who were clustered in the corner watching the game on an iPad, she spotted several women discreetly checking out his trek across the room. Once he was engrossed in the NBA playoffs, Amy joined the café's owner, Sophie, as she arranged baked goods on the quickly emptying platters. After snagging a mug of whiskey-spiked Irish coffee, Amy slipped behind the buffet table to chat with her friend.