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Authors: Julia Buckley

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BOOK: Cheddar Off Dead
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“Hmm. I'll need to talk to her; you're right.”

Serafina had crept forward. “Lilah, I'm sorry to interrupt—but do you mind if I put on the show? I taped it because I was working out. It played an hour ago.”

“It did?” I stared at her. I could barely remember the whole TV show escapade—it seemed ages ago. I grabbed
my purse and pulled out my phone; sure enough, there were about twelve text messages, mostly from my mother and from Jenny, all of them saying things like
You look beautiful!
and
You and Angelo looked great together!
(that was Jenny) and
That was the best show ever!

“Oh geez,” I said. “Yeah, I guess you can put it on. I'll have to face it sometime.”

She flipped on her television and clicked on her recording of the show. There were Angelo's opening credits and some images of him striding down Michigan Avenue to the strains of some invigorating Italian music. Then the final screen image was a freeze of his face, looking very handsome, and the words
Cooking with Angelo
.

Parker cleared his throat and started skimming through his notes.

On the screen, Angelo waved at his studio audience as they clapped wildly; then he began reading the “Kitchen Dilemmas” letter from Darlene. I was amazed anew at what a natural Angelo was on camera; there was nothing stiff about him.

Parker, on the other hand, was growing stiffer by the moment.

Angelo introduced me, and I walked out. “Oh, Lilah, look how pretty you look on television!” Serafina yelled, clapping her hands.

Cam nodded. “You do, Lilah—you look great.”

Parker said nothing, but he glanced up at the screen when Serafina said that.

I said, “Tabitha was right. You can't tell how much makeup I had on—but look at my face now. I had tons of gunk on—”

I stole a look at Parker's shirt and saw the telltale makeup smears. “Oh, Jay, I'm so sorry. I got makeup on you.”

He looked down and then shook his head. “No big deal. It will wash off.” He wasn't making eye contact; this was never a good sign with Parker.

I needed to get him out of this room before Angelo kissed me on-screen.

“Don't you have to go call in? There's a phone right over there in Serafina's study.”

Parker's blue eyes were on his computer. “This isn't the 1970s, Lilah. I called on my cell.”

“I just thought—you probably need some quiet so you can fill people in on what's happening. Maybe get some feedback about Donato or something. I don't know—just away from the chaos.”

“All I hear is a whistling teakettle,” said Parker, giving me his cool blue stare. Fina ran to switch it off, then returned.

Angelo was already getting pretty flirtatious on the screen, and Cam and Fina were caught up in the drama. “Despite the host, this show is good,” Cam said. “I'm going to start watching it for cooking tips. Fina and I don't cook enough.”

“And you have such good chemistry,” Serafina said. “The way he looks at you—oh, the audience is eating it up.” She sent a little sidelong look to Parker, whose jaw had tightened significantly. I realized she was trying to help me by making him jealous, but that wasn't a good plan with the inscrutable Jay Parker.

“We really don't have chemistry,” I assured them. “It shows that Angelo is a good actor.”

Fina went to the kitchen to make the tea, and on-screen Angelo showed the audience my finished casserole.

Then we were wishing each other happy holidays and Angelo was leaning in to kiss me. Even on television I could see the way that I blushed when he stole that kiss. It had been a blush of anger, but it looked like attraction.

Parker set down his computer and stood up. “Can I help you make the tea?” he called after Serafina.

Shoot. I locked eyes with Cam, who had figured out what was happening. He sat down next to me and spoke in a low voice. “What does he think, you're going to pine for him until you die? Screw him. If he wants you, he should fight for you.”

“You sound like your wife.”

“You're right,” said Cam, looking surprised. “But it's true. He has to stop getting angry at every little setback. Life is full of setbacks. He needs to take you as you are. So you're attractive to other men—duh.”

Now I sighed. “It's more complicated than that. We had just sort of agreed that when the case was over we would—try again. And now he sees this.”

“Oh,” Cam said.

“I didn't know Angelo was going to kiss me.”

“It's not a big deal. He still needs to get over it.”

We continued speaking in low voices, but we stopped when Parker and Fina came in with the tea. Parker handed me a mug and said, “Here you go, Lilah.” His voice wasn't unfriendly, but it had lost the intimacy that had thrilled me in the hallway. Then he said, “Serafina, if it's all right, I will use your office for a moment.”

“Oh, of course,” she said. “Let me move some things off
of the chair.” She ran ahead of him to manage the clutter. I sipped my tea and narrowed my eyes, watching Parker. A moment later Fina came out, and Parker shut the door.

“Oh boy,” I said.

Mick, who had been sleeping through our whole exchange, now yawned and ventured out of his basket to set his head in my lap. I rubbed his silky ears and said, “Mick, I think I'm in trouble.”

He looked at me with his sweet, soulful eyes—and nodded.

CHAPTER SEVEN

P
arker stayed at Cam's apartment that night; he said he would be around until the police appointed me an official guardian. Normally this would have been thrilling, but instead it was rather disappointing, since Parker spent a lot of time on his phone in another room, and he didn't really take part in our quietly festive movie watching and eggnog drinking.

I still felt a bit disappointed as I made some belated calls on Saturday morning, the nineteenth of December. The first was to my parents; I informed them of the event I'd witnessed, but I left out any mention of the second shooting. Cam and I had agreed to keep that from them for the time being. However, I had to admit to my mother that Parker was, once again, arranging for me to have a police guard.

“Oh my! Jay Parker. Are you—is that working out okay?”

“Yeah. It wasn't ideal, to be thrown together again, but it hasn't been that bad. We—we're talking again, sort of.”

“Does he really think a bodyguard is necessary?” my mother asked.

“Long story,” I hedged.

“Well, better safe than sorry. You've been through enough. Will this police officer he's assigning you be at our Christmas celebration?”

“Um—I don't know. You never know what can happen in a few days. Maybe they'll have someone under arrest by then.”

“Hmm,” said my mother. Then, brightening, she said, “You looked so wonderful on television. Daddy and I both said that you missed your calling. You seemed like a natural up there. Esther called me and said the same thing; and she said they've received a slew of phone calls at Haven since your appearance.”

“Oh, Haven! I have to call her.”

“You do that, sweetheart. But remember that you and I are making Christmas cookies on the twenty-third, right?”

“Right. See you then, Mom.”

“Take care. Do whatever the police say to be safe.”

“I will.” I hung up and stared at the phone. I had told my mother all she needed to know, but I felt bad about omitting the truly serious parts. Still, neither Cam nor I wanted her worrying over it. What good had worrying ever done?

I dialed the number for Haven and spoke to Esther, apologizing for being out of commission.

“Lilah, you've had a lot going on. Jim and I both feel that you should just come back in the New Year. As you know,
we're giving ourselves a little holiday anyway, so it's only a couple more days that we'll need to do without you—then it's vacation for all.”

“Well—if you're sure—”

“I am. We can handle it. In the meantime, you've given us some amazing and free publicity—please thank Angelo Cardelini for me.” Her voice was bright.

“You—got a lot of calls?”

“You have no idea! Jim and I have practically filled our bookings through June, with a few extra things squeezed in.”

“That's wonderful!”

“Yes. And you did that for us, so stop worrying and sit back. Enjoy your family and the holidays, and let the police catch this culprit.”

“You're the best, Esther.”

“Merry Christmas, Lilah!”

I was smiling at the phone when Parker walked in, fresh out of the shower. A manly scent trailed him—traces of sandalwood and cedar. I would have given a lot to get a peek inside his travel bag and find out what products he used. “Good morning,” he said in his professional voice.

“Good morning.” I sent him a smile, but he managed to not see it while he busied himself at Cam's counter, looking for coffee supplies. He seemed none the worse for wear, despite the fact that he had slept on the floor of Serafina's office.

“Will I be able to go out today? I have some deliveries to make to clients, and I need to get some ingredients. I think Serafina said there was a little grocery store down in the lobby. Is it okay to go there?”

“As long as I go with you,” Parker said. “Officer Banks will be here later this morning; I'll introduce you to her, and she will accompany you wherever else you need to go.”

“Thanks, Jay.” I smiled again, and this time he saw it. He reciprocated with a smile of his own, wan and pale, but there.

The phone in my lap rang, and I answered it.

“Hello—is that Lilah?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“This is Tabitha Roth, from Channel 40? I did your makeup yesterday.”

“Oh yes. Hello.”

“Hi. Listen, you told me to call you. . . .”

I sat up. “Have you remembered something about Brad? Something the police could use?”

Parker's eyes darted to me, his posture alert.

“No, not really. But I ended up contacting an old friend of mine last night—someone from the cast of
The Tempest
. I know everyone on the cast, as a matter of fact. The fact is—the show has been canceled for the next couple of days. A bunch of us are going to meet today for lunch to have a drink in Brad's honor. You said you wanted to know funeral arrangements—and this might be all there is. The rest is going to be private. I don't know if you're interested, or if your cop friend wants to know.”

“Yes, I'm glad you called. I'd like to go. I have—reasons I'd like to pay my respects to him, however that's going to be done. Where are you meeting?”

“Brad lived in Pine Haven, so we're going to a little bar there that he liked called Penny Lane.”

“Sure—I know it. I'll meet you there at—what time?”

“Around one. Okay, see you later.” She hung up, and I turned to Parker.

“That was Tabitha, the girl I told you about who did my makeup?”

Parker nodded.

“She's getting together with some actors from the production Brad was currently in. They're having drinks in his honor at some bar—I guess almost as a little ceremony. There will be no public funeral. She thought you or I might want to sit in on their gathering.”

His eyebrows rose. “That sounds good.” He had his ubiquitous computer out again, and he scrolled through some things while the coffee percolated and filled the air with a rich aroma. “But I have a lot of things to follow up on, and I'm pretty backed up. . . .”

He didn't say it, but we both understood that he was behind in his investigation because of me. “But you said you wanted to go—is that because of your conversation with him? You don't have to feel guilty, Lilah.”

“I don't, exactly. I just—I'd like to give some sort of formal acknowledgment of him.”

“And I'll definitely want their names and their contact information. Officer Banks will be with you, and she'll get that information for me. I'm glad your connection gave you a call.”

“Yeah—I'm kind of surprised she did. She said she didn't like cops. Anyway.” I jumped up and grabbed my purse. “That means I need to get some stuff in the oven pronto. I'll have to deliver some casseroles before I meet with Tabitha, and I'll have a tight window to work in.”

“Will you be making anything for the gang here?” Parker
asked, his eyes gleaming with hope. One thing I knew Parker loved without condition was my cooking.

“Yes, as a matter of fact. I'm making a French toast casserole that I created for my friend Toby. He's been a client for a while. He has lots of kids and he has a dad specialty, which is this casserole, but since it's Christmas I'm flavoring it with gingerbread. It's delicious, and his kids will love it. I'll make two, and you'll have something to eat with your coffee.”

“That sounds good,” he said.

He accompanied me down the stairs to the lobby, where we found the little storefront that said
Mighty Mart
. It was barely a store at all, just one of those places that sells the staples for people who don't want to leave their building to get a couple of ingredients. I managed to find almost everything I needed and came up with substitutions for what I didn't have. Parker held a basket, and I dropped things in with feverish haste, worrying over timelines.

“Lilah,” he murmured.

“Hmm?”

“That man in the doorway. Have you seen him before?”

I looked up, surprised. The man in question, youngish, dark haired, lounged just outside the Mighty Mart, leaning on the wall.

“No.”

“He's been following us. He was on the stairway behind us.”

“He's not a cop?”

“No.” His brow furrowed, and his lips grew narrow. “Why am I thinking this might be the work of your new friend, Mr. Donato?”

I opened my mouth, but couldn't think of words. Parker took my basket to the counter and set it down. “You ring up. I'm going to have a chat.”

He walked to the entrance and confronted the man outside, who looked not at all bothered by Parker's presence. I tried to keep my eyes on the cashier, but my gaze kept drifting to the doorway, where the two men held a quiet but intense conversation.

Finally the clerk handed me two bags and I moved toward the door. Parker, unsmiling, took my bags and steered me toward the stairs with his elbow. I waited until we were in the stairwell and said, “Well?”

“His name is Frank. He said he was asked by Mr. Donato to keep an eye on you and protect you. I explained that I am the police and he can scram.”

I grinned at Parker. “Scram? Should he scram all the way back to the 1940s?”

That got a tiny smile. “If you see him around again when I'm not here, you call me, Lilah.”

I shrugged. “If he's actually protecting me, why is that a bad thing?” We had reached our floor, and Parker held the door so that I could walk through.

Parker started to say something that was probably a lecture, but his phone rang, and he clicked it on and turned slightly away. “Parker.” He listened for a while, and his shoulders stiffened. Then he said, “Okay. Yes—exactly. So maybe I can call you in about half an hour? I know.” He took a few steps away and spoke in a soft voice. “Don't worry; I'll call you soon.” And then, even more softly, “I love you.”

I was outside Cam's door, so I was able to hide my distress by thumping the bags onto the floor and fumbling for
the key Cam had given me. Parker put away his phone and moved closer. I couldn't resist. “Was that your mother?” I tried to sound bright and unconcerned.

Parker looked at his shoes. “Uh—no.”

That was all I was going to get. I blundered into the apartment and moved blindly to the kitchen, racking my brains to think of a person—any person—who might innocently elicit that intimate tone from Parker. He had no sisters, and I was sure he wouldn't speak to a brother that way. No—he had been talking to a woman, and that meant only something bad.

Parker moved toward me, his look wary. I got busy at the countertop, cracking eggs into a lovely red bowl from Serafina's cabinet. “You're quite proficient in the kitchen,” he tried. “Such efficiency of movement.”

“Thanks.”

He seemed to realize that he was going to get nothing more from me, including eye contact, so he moved off to Serafina's office and shut the door. Even from this distance I thought I could hear him murmuring to someone.

I focused on my casseroles. The key to a delicious gingerbread is getting the right molasses (I used Angelo's Gourmet, which had earned a frown from Parker at the convenience store) and the perfect blend of spices. I did some careful measuring of cinnamon, cloves, and ginger, doubling up so that I could make two versions of this particular casserole. I preheated the oven and then dipped my bread into the gingerbread concoction, laying it into glass bakeware, then drizzling it with a sprinkling of nuts and melted butter.

By the time I slid them into the oven, Serafina finally appeared, looking rumpled and sexy in a little red robe. It
was official: there was no occasion in which Serafina did not look attractive. “Lilah? You're up so early!”

“Yes. I had to get started on some food deliveries, but I'll have breakfast for you and Cam. Is he at work?”

“No—he's in bed. We were up late, talking and talking.”

Now it was Serafina who didn't make eye contact, but it was clear enough what she and my brother had been doing into the wee hours. “Oh. Well, hurry up and take your shower, and I'll make you both some coffee.”

Forty minutes later they were all at the table and being regaled with Christmas songs from Serafina's iPod. I watched as Parker, Cam, and Serafina dug in to the still-warm gingerbread casserole. Cam slathered his with additional syrup and butter, although I had already topped the dish with fresh whipped cream. They started to eat, and I held my breath until I heard the first “Ah,” which came from Parker. He certainly was a loyalist about my food.

“Lilah, this is delicious!” Serafina said. “Such a wonderful way to start the day—warm food to warm the heart.” Her words were highlighted by Perry Como, who was singing “Home for the Holidays” in his rich, reassuring voice.

“Thank you. Now I have to wrap up this other one and deliver it to Toby. I'll get your dish back tomorrow, Serafina.”

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