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Authors: Julia Buckley

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“To your faculty Christmas party?”

“Just a party. The fact is, I'm going with that guy you saw me with—you know, my colleague, Ross Peterson?—and I'd really like you to get to know him. And Dave said we can invite friends and stuff.”

“Jenny, I don't want to be a third wheel while you're there with Ross! And besides, it sounds like it would be the JFK faculty and me!”

“No, really—there's a whole crowd every year—people bring friends and dates and such. He has a huge place, and he loves to throw parties.”

Parker tapped my arm. “Who is that?” he mouthed.

I stared, surprised at his rudeness. “Hang on,” I told Jenny. I covered the phone and said, “It's my friend Jenny, the one who teaches at JFK. She invited me to the faculty Christmas party on Monday; she wants me to meet her date. But I think it would be beyond awkward to go there, to be around all those people I don't know, and they'll probably all talk about the shooting—”

“Tell her you're going,” Parker said.

“What? Why?”

“And tell her you're bringing a date.”

I stared at him for a minute, then told Jenny I'd changed my mind, and that I was bringing someone.

“Oh, great! Who are you bringing?” she asked.

“Uh—I guess Jay Parker,” I said.

“Jay Parker. Okay, that's a new name. He sounds cute! I
can't wait to meet him. Okay, how about if you guys stop by my house at about seven, and then we can go to the party together?”

“Sounds good. What do I wear?” I asked.

“Oh, just something festive. I'm going to wear a red dress, in hopes of driving Ross crazy.”

“Okay. I guess I'll see you Monday night.”

Jenny sent me some loud phone kisses and hung up.

I turned to Parker. “What the heck is going on?”

Parker held up a hand. “If I have the opportunity to talk to everyone who knew the dead man, at least peripherally, not as a police officer but as someone at a party, where their lips will be loosened by alcohol, then that is an opportunity that I will not pass up.”

“So you're going to be, like, undercover?”

“Not exactly. But you won't be mentioning that I'm the police unless someone asks. I'm your date, that's all.”

Serafina watched us as though we were a Saturday afternoon movie. “Isn't she beautiful, Detective Parker? With her lovely golden hair and that perfect dress?”

“Yes, she is,” Parker said, but he wasn't looking at me.

I felt a spurt of rebellion. “Are we finished here? Because I have to call Angelo.” I tossed my newly silky hair. “And how long do I have to stay in this apartment? Mick and I need to go home.”

“I don't know how long, Lilah. How long would you like to feel safe?”

We exchanged a glance that was not entirely friendly.

Parker turned to Serafina. “Is it all right for Lilah and Mick to stay here a little bit longer?”

The fact that he included my dog made some of my anger dissipate. I smiled down at my Labrador, who was smiling up at me from his place on the carpet.

“Of course they may stay as long as they wish! It is always fun to have family, especially at the holidays.”

“Great.” Parker packed up his computer and then stood up. “Then Lilah, I will expect you to stay here. Let me know what time to pick you up Monday, and I'll escort you to the party. Meanwhile, you can go call your boyfriend.”

So that was it. Parker was still fuming about Angelo.

“I'll do that. And maybe, since we'll be attending a party, you can take that rod out of your spine just for one evening.”

We glared at each other. Parker said a polite good-bye to Serafina, then strode out of the apartment without another word to me.

He closed the door, and Serafina clapped. “Oh, Lilah! He is so much in love with you.”

“What?”

“He couldn't take his eyes off you in that dress! And he is very jealous of the old flame, no? He cannot bear the thought of you with that man.”

“Well—why can't he ever just be normal and affectionate? I'm so tired of his scowling face.”

Serafina nodded, her face sympathetic. “But his job is so hard, isn't it? And it's Christmastime, when I'm sure he would rather be doing something else.”

I nodded. “Yeah, okay.”

“But he is going to a party with you soon.”

“Yeah—for
work
.”

“But he is not going as a policeman, is he? He will be a
different person. Perhaps he will be glad to escape into his role as your date. Hmm?” She leaned toward me with a mischievous expression.

Suddenly the room seemed brighter. “Serafina.”

“Yes?”

“I need to wear something perfect on Monday. As perfect as this dress, but different, because he's already seen it.”

“I have a whole closet full of perfect dresses,” Serafina said.

CHAPTER SIX

I
was at Angelo's studio at seven Friday morning, escorted by my brother (my guard) and clutching ingredients in Tupperware bowls. I made Cameron wait in the lobby with some Italian book he was reading; the only person he hated more than Parker was Angelo Cardelini, and I didn't need Cam glaring and making me nervous. He said he was fine with this plan, and he found a large chair near the stone fireplace across from the main door.

I rode up in the elevator, humming a song that had been in my head since I woke up that morning—a sad Beatles song called “For No One” that my father had always liked. Like many love songs, it was all about regret and missed opportunities. I sighed and tried to think up a happier tune. I forced a few bars of “Sleigh Ride” into my brain before the elevator doors opened.

In the studio Angelo pried my fingers off of the containers and started setting out the food on his work space: a golden-tiled counter in front of a backsplash depicting a Tuscan orchard. A little Christmas tree sat on one side of the island, flickering with white lights and adding holiday charm to the set. The faux kitchen looked homey and authentic, and Angelo was a sexy chef, his hair tied back, his shirtsleeves pushed up, his overall appearance scrubbed and clean. He had a small studio audience already assembled in their folding chairs, and a quick glance told me that they were all middle-aged women. I had a feeling I knew why Angelo's ratings were climbing.

“You are in the second segment,” Angelo said, consulting a clipboard that a woman wearing a headset handed him. “I will ask you about the dish: how you came up with the recipe, who you make it for, how long it takes, why it is good for an average family person to make at the holidays. Right? And you just answer naturally, as Lilah.”

“Okay. And that's it?”

“Then you make it for us, before our eyes. I help now and then, with stirring or pouring. And we talk together, laugh, flirt, just like old times. The audience likes chemistry.” He grinned at me.

I studied his face and realized that he was quite good at this: the organizing of the show, the planning of the segments, the putting his guest at ease. I patted his arm. “I'm happy for you, Angelo. This is going to make you a big success. You're going to end up in New York.”

He smiled. “You are sweet. Now Tabitha will take you to the dressing room because you look too tired to be on camera. She will work some magic with her brushes.”

“Oh—okay. That's because I didn't have a lot of notice for this.” I gave him a significant glance, which he shrugged away.

“You will be great. And the red dress is perfect—very Christmassy!”

“Thanks.” The woman named Tabitha, she of the headset, appeared and led me to a tiny back room with a couple of chairs in front of a large mirror. She sat me down and turned me toward a bright light. “Okay—let me see that face,” she said. “You have terrific skin, but I'm afraid I'm going to gunk it up with some stage makeup. Be sure you wash it off really thoroughly when you get home. This stuff is industrial strength.”

I laughed, but Tabitha told me to hold my face still. I studied her, as well. She looked to be about thirty, with a round, childlike face and a long brown ponytail. Without being able to pin down exactly why, I decided that she looked like what my brother called “a theater person.” She wore a nondescript outfit of gray corduroys and a green turtleneck, and she had an air of authority that made me think she wore many hats. When she finished working on my face, I ventured a glance into the mirror. “Oh, that's too much,” I said.

“Nope. On TV it will look just right—trust me.”

I studied my reflection dubiously, and my eyes wandered to a newspaper clipping on the table in front of the mirror. The headline read,

L
OCAL
M
AN
G
UNNED
D
OWN IN
S
CHOOL
P
ARKING
L
OT

I gasped at the first picture I'd ever seen of Brad Whitefield without Santa makeup. I had purposely avoided
television, on Cam and Fina's advice. “Oh my,” I said. Brad Whitefield had been a handsome man—brown haired and brown eyed, with a charming, dimpled smile. The caption identified him as

Pine Haven Resident Brad Whitefield, 32.

Tabitha followed my gaze. “Isn't that terrible? I actually knew that guy—Brad. He and I were in a production together in the city. He was in the cast, and I did the makeup. We got to be friends.” She shook her head, and I looked at her in the mirror.

“You were in a show together—is it running now?”

She busied herself with her make-up case. “No—this was a production of
A Christmas Carol
that we did at the Goodman last year. But Brad was in something now, too. A Shakespearean play. He was actually quite a good actor.”

“He was doing Shakespeare, and yet he was playing Santa at a grade school?”

“The grade school thing paid good money for two hours. He did it the last few years. It was actually a great way to get some Christmas cash. I asked him once if he needed an elf, and he laughed. I suppose he needed the money, because that was what he and Cleo always fought about.”

“Cleo?”

“His wife. They had some hard times in the past, but I think they were pretty solid lately. Poor Cleo.”

“Did she—?” I didn't get to finish my question, because Tabitha looked at her watch and then signaled me to follow her. She led me to the wings of the little stage, where we watched Angelo doing his first segment. This was called
“Kitchen Dilemmas,” during which Angelo read a letter from a viewer and then solved her (or his) kitchen problem. This letter was from a woman named Darlene who had made one of Angelo's recipes but had been disappointed when half of the food stuck to the dish. I realized that Angelo was a natural for television. He looked right into the camera and said, “Darlene, the problem is not the way you are greasing your pan; the problem is in your ingredients. You cannot make that dish without olive oil, which adds moisture to the food and keeps the casserole from sticking to your glass bakeware. And you know which olive oil you should be using, don't you, Darlene?” He pointed to his audience full of fascinated women, and they all cried, “Angelo's Gourmet!”

This was the name of Angelo's own food line, and it was quite good; I used it in my own cooking.

Angelo smiled into the camera at the absent Darlene, who was probably going to faint when she watched the show and saw the sexy attention Angelo paid to her. Then he was saying, “For our next holiday segment, I have invited an old friend of mine, a Chicago chef and caterer named Lilah Drake. If you haven't heard of her yet, be ready to hear of her in the future. She is talented, young, and beautiful, and Chicago will not be able to keep her much longer!”

The crowd clapped and cheered. Angelo held up a hand. “Today Lilah is going to show us how to make a holiday brunch casserole that will feed eight and warm their hearts during this season of love and companionship. Lilah, come on out!”

I walked out on rubbery legs, not sure where to focus my attention. And then, to my vast relief, Angelo took over. He embraced me warmly and said, “Just look at me, not the
camera,” into my ear, then pulled away to tell his audience that we were lucky to benefit from the expertise of someone who was currently a caterer for Haven of Pine Haven. “But you also have private clients, do you not, Lilah?”

“I do, Angelo, and I must tell you—it's difficult to juggle catering with Haven during the day and then working on my own projects at night—but it's taught me to be very organized, and that pays off in the kitchen.”

“It does, I agree. Now, this casserole is similar to a quiche, is it not?”

“It is. And, speaking of organization, it can all be prepared and refrigerated the night before, so that the next morning the chef can focus on whatever—setting a holiday table or putting on festive attire, or just relaxing with a cup of tea and a good book. We all deserve to relax once in a while, especially at the holidays, right?” I ventured a look at the studio audience, and they clapped. Heat rose in my face, and I basked in Angelo's approving glance.

“Show us how it's done, Lilah.”

“All right. Before anything else I would advise you, when you're ready to bake, to preheat your oven for at least five minutes. You want this to go into a very hot oven, because it will affect the consistency of your casserole.”

Angelo turned a dial on what seemed to be a fake stove. We already had a completed casserole that he would show as the “after” specimen. I had baked it at one o'clock that morning. “Done! And how do we start?”

“Well, you'll want to beat your eggs quite well. You can use an old-fashioned egg beater, or a fork. If it's the latter, remember that you should use your wrist for the most
efficient mixing. I'm putting ten eggs in the bowl, along with my heavy cream, and I'll need you to add in the paprika and salt, Angelo.”

Angelo grinned at his audience. “You see how she puts me to work? I once dated this woman, and I can tell you, she is the boss in the kitchen.”

The women in the audience practically screamed with laughter, along with what was probably a barely sublimated desire for Angelo. The room seemed electric since his mention of our former romance. I tried not to glare at him. “And as I recall, you rarely listened to me, which is why we are a
former
duo.”

The women laughed again, and Angelo clapped his hands with theatrical glee. “She has spirit, friends. All right, let me get these spices in here before Lilah gets stern with me.”

Somehow he was making everything sound sexual, and it was getting on my nerves. I tried to list the next ingredients in a very boring way, but Angelo managed to find double entendres in almost everything and to point those out to the crazed studio audience, who were stomping their feet by the time I said something about shredding the cheese, which they seemed to interpret as a euphemism for sex.

I finally just laughed and went with the flow—Angelo's smirking and the women shrieking—because it gave a certain manic energy to what might otherwise have been a placid and boring list of ingredients. Perhaps Angelo had planned this from the start: to use our relationship and our fairly attractive demeanors to his advantage. I wondered if he was thinking of it as a sort of audition for one of those morning shows in which an attractive duo sits on a couch
and relates the news and the trends of the day. Who knew how far Angelo could go? He had the looks and the instinct for the cameras.

I poured my whipped eggs into the glass pan. “Once you've put in the eggs, add your bacon mixture, and then your little bowl of shredded cheese and spices. Keep some of the cheese off to the side to sprinkle on top when the dish is baked. I can tell you, Angelo, that this is not only delicious, but an elegant meal for your holiday table. And you can see that there wasn't that much preparation—we've gotten it all ready in less than ten minutes.”

“I've preheated my oven, Lilah
mia
, and so can we slide the dish in?”

“Yes. Just put that in, and then I think you have a finished version to show your audience?”

“I do.” Angelo pulled out the casserole I'd baked to a golden-brown. “Look at that, ladies.”

The audience actually said, “Ahhhhh.” I wondered if Angelo had given them wine.

“And how would you serve this at your table, Lilah?”

“It's delicious with some fresh fruit or a nice green salad, perhaps with some nuts and crunchy peppers as a complement to the warm, chewy casserole. And as a beverage you can serve fruit juice or a nice holiday champagne.”

“I have one here that I think will taste delicious—a Charles Heidsieck Brut. Will you toast with me, in honor of Christmas and the old days?”

Angelo sent me a sparkling smile, then winked at his audience, encouraging them, and soon they were all cheering us on, so of course I lifted a glass and clinked it against
Angelo's. “Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year,” I said.

“And to you, lovely Lilah. Good luck in all your endeavors.” We sipped our champagne, and then Angelo leaned in to kiss me on the lips.

“Lilah Drake, everyone!” he said to his cheering audience.

I waved and made my way offstage.

Tabitha stood there, dumbstruck. “That is the best show he's done yet, hands down. I'll bet you a million dollars the producers are going to want you back!” She patted my shoulder. “Great job!”

“Thanks, Tabitha. Now I'm going to go home and take a nap.”

“Yeah, we tape super early. But it's going to be great. Make sure you watch at nine o'clock.”

“I will, thanks.” We went back to the makeup room, where I retrieved my purse and coat. I saw the newspaper clipping again and paused. “Hey, Tabitha. Would you be able to find out for me what show Brad Whitefield was in? The thing is—I knew him slightly, and so did some friends of mine. I wanted to let them know that he was actually doing better than they thought. Some of them thought he was an out-of-work actor, but it sounds like he had pretty steady gigs in Chicago, didn't he?”

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