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Authors: Julia Buckley

Cheddar Off Dead

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PRAISE FOR THE UNDERCOVER DISH MYSTERIES

“Julia Buckley launches her new series with a delectable concoction of appealing characters and smart sleuthing—and tasty food!”

—Sheila Connolly,
New York Times
bestselling author of the County Cork Mysteries

“Sweet and highly entertaining, with a cast of fun, quirky characters . . . Readers are sure to devour this yummy mystery.”

—Sue Ann Jaffarian, national bestselling author of the Ghost of Granny Apples Mysteries and the Odelia Grey Mysteries

“Julia Buckley has not just written a fun, entertaining and fabulous cozy, but she has introduced a truly stellar main character in Lilah.”

—Open Book Society

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Julia Buckley

Undercover Dish Mysteries

THE BIG CHILI

CHEDDAR OFF DEAD

Writer's Apprentice Mysteries

A DARK AND STORMY MURDER

BERKLEY PRIME CRIME

Published by Berkley

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Julia Buckley

Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

BERKLEY is a registered trademark and BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the B colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

eBook ISBN: 9780698166745

First Edition: September 2016

Cover illustration by Griesbach/Martucci

Cover design by SC

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The recipes contained in this book have been created for the ingredients and techniques indicated. The Publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require supervision. Nor is the Publisher responsible for any adverse reactions you may have to the recipes contained in the book, whether you follow them as written or modify them to suit your personal dietary needs or tastes.

Version_1

To my nieces—Anna, Cashie, Katie, and Pam—
who are the plucky heroines of their own
stories.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful as always to the Mystery Writers of America—particularly the MWA Midwest and its stellar officers, Clare O'Donohue and Lori Rader-Day, who work hard to help mystery writers succeed, and to Margery Flax and MWA New York for being ever willing to address my questions and concerns.

Thank you to Berkley's Michelle Vega and Bethany Blair for their kindness and insight, and thanks to Danielle Dill for her work to promote the book. As ever I appreciate the guidance of my wise and wonderful agent, Kim Lionetti.

Thank you to my writers' group, small but mighty: Elizabeth Diskin, Cynthia Quam, and Martha Whitehead. Thanks to my dear friend Kathi Baron for being my writing counselor and constant cheerleader. Thank you to Lydia Brauer for her “friend smuggery.”

Thanks to the friends, family, colleagues, and readers who have spread the word about Lilah Drake.

Thanks again to Sheila Connolly and Sue Ann Jaffarian, who said such kind words about this series.

And thank you to my husband, Jeff, and sons, Ian and Graham—just because.

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

—
SHAKESPEARE
,
The
Tempest

CHAPTER ONE

B
ing Crosby was crooning “White Christmas” as I tried to fasten a Santa hat on the large skull of my chocolate Labrador, Mick. He wasn't cooperating. “Come on, Mick. I'm trying to get a Christmas card shot here,” I wheedled, petting his nose. “Can you hold it on for just one minute?”

Mick nodded. This was Mick's special talent, but only one of the many things that made him lovable. He was able to convey, with one little humanlike gesture, the idea that he agreed with me, even approved of me. I had never encountered another dog who could nod like Mick.

I fastened the hat under his chin and took three quick snaps of him sitting in front of my shiny silver stove. I quickly reviewed the shots on my viewfinder. “Perfect! Very cozy and domestic. Thanks, Mick.” I took off the hat and scratched
his ears; then I gave him a rawhide chew, which he took into the corner of the kitchen for further investigation.

I washed my hands and went to my extra-large refrigerator (a new purchase for which I'd saved up funds for a year) and pulled out two huge trays of macaroni and cheese bake with crumbled potato chip topping. The casseroles smelled wonderful, and I realized I was hungry. Perhaps after I delivered them I could get myself some lunch. But before then I needed to get the food to John F. Kennedy Grade School, where Miss Jenny Braidwell taught third grade, and where her classroom full of students was convinced that their teacher was a terrific cook and baker. Miss Braidwell (who had once been my college roommate) made delicious, kid-friendly meals for all of her school events, and for many of them she was reimbursed by the school, since everyone at JFK liked Jenny Braidwell's cooking. No one knew, however, of Jenny's secret weapon: an old college pal who had made a clandestine agreement with Miss Braidwell to provide her with quality food—and an enhanced reputation as a super-teacher—in exchange for a generous sum of money.

At this point, all of my clientele were clandestine, but I was filling a niche. In the last two years I had learned a surprising fact: lots of people wanted credit for making food that they didn't have the time or the talent to make themselves. Some of those people had found me, or I had found them, and now I had a phone book full of clients. My father jokingly called this my “Undercover Dish” business.

I bundled the food carefully into the back of my aging Volvo, then went back into my hallway and called to Mick. “Want to come along for deliveries?” I asked. Normally
Mick was my security guard, but today he only had eyes for his rawhide. I could hear him chewing it and making little satisfied growly sounds. Bing stopped singing, and my stereo, plugged into my iPod, selected another song from my shuffled playlist: “Blue Christmas”—the original Elvis recording. I definitely didn't want to hear a sad love song, Christmas themed or otherwise. It was time to leave.

“Fine, Mick. Party pooper. I'll see you in a while.” I grabbed a little red bow off of my counter and clipped it onto my braid. Jenny had made it for me one Christmas. Her class had been making bows for moms and aunts and sisters, and she made one for me. Now I would wear it in tribute to Jenny and to the season. I locked the door of my little dwelling, which was actually an old gatehouse behind a much larger property, and climbed into the car; it smelled like cheesy heaven. Those little kids didn't know what joys awaited them.

I buckled in, flipped on the radio, and started backing out of the long driveway, headed for Dickens Street. A woman's voice on the Chicago “light” music station was speaking in soothing tones about the Christmas season. She informed me that it was 12:06. “It's December sixteenth,” she warned. “Have you finished all of your holiday shopping? If not, remember that Dalby's has a full-service gift shop right next to the deli!”

Dalby's was a Chicago-area grocery chain. I shopped there often, and if I didn't get my act together, I realized, I would probably end up doing all of my holiday shopping at a grocery store. This made me briefly sad, so I lifted my chin and changed to the classical station; there was only one in Chicago, but it was fantastic. Right now it was playing
something from
The Nutcracker
, and I pounded an imaginary baton on my steering wheel as I turned on Breville Road and headed north. There was a Dalby's on the left side of the street, highlighting the commercial message from the radio. I hadn't been to that particular store for almost a month because of an unpleasant experience that had made me avoid it.

At the end of November I had stopped at Dalby's in the evening to pick up some ingredients for a client's dish. While I marched down the spice aisle in quest of a four-pepper blend that almost always sold out, I caught a glimpse of a dark-haired man pushing his cart past the mouth of the aisle. I shrank against the wall of spices, but he hadn't seen me. It was Jay Parker, a police detective with whom I'd shared what turned out to be a one-evening event. I couldn't even call it a fling—it was just some rather passionate kissing that had suggested we might have a future together. Parker had later cast me off because I lied to him (for very complicated reasons), and the whole thing had been humiliating. The last thing I wanted, ever again, was to see him.

I found my pepper and decided to forgo the rest of the things on my list. I raced to the checkout lane, glancing furtively behind me to see if Parker was there.

The girl at the register was outrageously chatty, asking if I liked the cold weather and if I had any fun plans for Christmas, and though I gave her terse answers and forced a smile, she continued to chat, her hands moving at a leisurely pace. I was on the verge of strangling her when she finally handed me the pepper in a small bag and said, “Thanks for shopping at Dalby's. Have a nice day.”

Normally I couldn't get one word—or even eye contact—
out of a checkout person, but because I wanted to leave, Karma had made this one my best friend. I grabbed the bag from her and heard a voice say, “Lilah.”

I froze. It was Parker's voice; I peeked behind me to see that he was in line, two carts back. His startling blue eyes met mine, and they had the high-voltage effect they always did.

“Oh, hi, Jay.”

“How are you?” he asked.

The little white-haired lady between us, along with the checkout girl (whose name tag said
Hi, I'm Bonita
), watched without apology, openmouthed with wonder, probably at Parker's good looks.

“Oh, I'm fine. Just super busy. In fact, I have to run. It was good seeing you, though,” I said. I was talking far too rapidly, which aggravated me and clearly amused the white-haired woman.

“Can you hold on for one second?” he asked. “Can we talk in the parking lot, maybe?”

I couldn't bear to look at him anymore. My eyes dropped to his cart, which was full of healthy foods like fresh vegetables and lean chicken breasts—and one giant tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream. “That would be so great, but I have to run and let Mick out; he's been cooped up for hours.”

I dared a glance upward. His eyes expressed cool blue disbelief, so I added, “And I'm expecting a long-distance call. And some visitors.”

“Lilah—” Parker said. A teenage boy came to pack up the white-haired woman's groceries, and he pushed me gently out of the way so that he could get to the bags.

“Oh, look at that—I'm in the way. It was great seeing
you, Jay!” I said far too loudly, and then I ran out of Dalby's and into the parking lot—literally ran—so that I wouldn't have to encounter Jay Parker for even one second more. I thought I heard him call me once as I bolted toward the door, but I didn't turn back.

I sighed now as I drove past Dalby's. I hadn't seen Parker since that day, and I had shopped solely at Jewel since then in hopes that it would stay that way.

I was looking toward a happy Christmas holiday and a New Year in which I would establish a new me. I had a new job that I really liked, working for the best caterer in Pine Haven. I had a wonderful family and good friends, and I was about to visit one of those friends right now. I hadn't seen Jenny in person since November, either; she was always busy with school events, and I was always busy making or delivering secret food. But we managed to sneak in a lot of Facebook conversations and some deliciously snarky e-mails and texts. She knew nothing of my brief
thing
with Parker, and I didn't plan to tell her. It hadn't even been complicated by sex—just a lot of delicious kissing and some affectionate words. That tenuous relationship had proved to be an illusion. The fewer people who knew of my embarrassment, the better.

I pulled into the parking lot of JFK just as a light snow began to fall. It was lacy and delicate, like the kind inside a snow globe, and it lifted my spirits. I texted Jenny, informing her that the food was here. She wrote back,
U R the best
, and then,
B rite out
.

I sat in my car and waited, watching the snowflakes make their delicate journey from heaven to earth. Looking back,
it's hard to remember what I was thinking as I stared through my windshield and contemplated the Christmas that was to come. It was one of those moments in life when I was so comfortably immersed in daily details that I felt no obligation to contemplate the bigger questions of life and death, the vastness of the universe, the mysteries beyond earthly comprehension. In retrospect it seems like that moment of quiet amid the snowflakes and empty cars was a last moment of innocence.

A second later Jenny appeared, along with a young man in a shirt and tie. He was cute in a studious and nerdy kind of way; he wore dark-rimmed glasses and his hair was messy, but probably not for fashionable reasons. I noted that Jenny seemed to enjoy speaking with him, and that her face was pink with pleasure after he leaned in and made some little joke to her. Then they were at my car. I had flipped my radio to the Christmas station, and this station, too, was playing “Blue Christmas,” but the Michael Bublé cover instead of the Elvis version. Off it went, with a flick of my hand on the button.

I fell into professional mode, which was necessarily dishonest, in light of Jenny's companion. “Hey, Jenn. Your mom sent these over because they were taking up too much room in her house after you made them. I said I'd bring them since I live so close to her and you were right on my errand route. She said you would be baking them today and serving them at your Christmas party. Is that right?” In reality, I had no idea where Jenny's mother lived.

Jenny nodded. “Thanks so much, Lilah. Ross and I can take it from here.”

Ross was smiling at Jenny instead of me; his eyes were devouring her. Wow. I could see the wedding cake already:
Congratulations, Ross and Jennifer
.

“Are you a teacher, as well?” I asked as I slid out of the driver's seat.

Ross stuck out a hand, and I shook it. “Yes. Ross Peterson; I teach fifth grade. Jenny and I planned the lower grade Christmas party together. Between Jenny's delicious homemade food and the Christmas clown, the kids are going to be super excited. Plus we have our traditional visit from Santa. It's going to be a great party.”

“What's a Christmas clown?” I asked, opening the back hatch.

“Oh, it's just an entertainer we found. She sings some holiday songs with them, and does a little magic and juggling and joke telling. It's a really cute and fun act. Then Santa comes in and gives out presents. They're with the clown right now, actually, in the school gym. She'll be with them for about an hour while Santa is still getting his makeup on. He's an actor, so he always makes a big deal about getting the look just right. So he goes second; now he's just waiting for her to be finished. The kids are at Level Ten excitement.”

“That's fun. And where did you find Santa?” I asked.

Jenny slid out one of the trays and held it carefully in front of her. “Oh, that's Brad Whitefield. He's a friend of someone on the staff, so he got selected. He's an actor, like Ross said. He's done it the last few years. I guess actors have to take work where they can get it, right?”

Ross had the other tray now, and I closed the hatch. “Well, you guys enjoy the party,” I said.

“We will,” Jenny said, blowing me a kiss. “And Lilah, I wrote a note to my mom. Could you bring it to her when you see her today? I left it in a card on your front seat.”

That meant my money, of course. People came up with all sorts of creative ways to slip me my pay. “Sure I can,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

I watched them move carefully with the giant pans. I had warned Jenny that I would need those back within two days—lots of people wanted to “make” party food during this season, and I had very little time to put it together now that I was catering full-time most days. My boss, who had been let in on my little secret, was generally kind about letting me make deliveries before I came into work; today she had given me the whole morning off.

BOOK: Cheddar Off Dead
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