Authors: Jennifer L. Hart
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What critics are saying about
Jennifer L. Hart's books:
"Who Needs A Hero is a wonderful story of two people who made their share of mistakes during their lifetime but seem to complete each other."
—Sizzling Hot Book Reviews
"Ms. Hart writes all genres with ease and I enjoy her books but my heart will always be with Neil and Maggie because I am a total sucker for the Happily Ever After."
—The Reading Reviewer
"A must read for all people who love a good mystery and a jolly good laugh…laugh out loud funny."
—Black Orchid, Cocktail Reviews
"A wonderfully fun whodunit"
"Laugh out loud funny, realistic characters, snappy true to life dialog, and a sufficiently difficult mystery; all the required elements for an excellent read."
"I would not hesitate to pick up another of Ms. Hart's works as she definitely made me with one book a lifelong fan."
"Jennifer L. Hart gives readers a contemporary love story constructed by two achingly real main characters."
—Coffee Time Romance
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MURDER AL FRESCO
JENNIFER L. HART
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Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer L. Hart
Cover design by Janet Holmes
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.
Ginger Smith and Kathy Martin,
two of my favorite foodies and total suckers for a Scooby-Doo finish.
Thanks for reading it all!
"What's that smell?" My fiancé, Malcolm Jones, paused in the doorway of his kitchen and wrinkled his nose in obvious distaste. God help me, in his cultured accent, seasoned with both New Zealand and Oxford, even that question was blood-boiling sexy.
"That, my skeptical friend, is either the sweet smell of success or the acrid tang of defeat. Only time will tell." I replaced the lid on my latest concoction and stood on my tiptoes to give him a kiss.
He glanced at the stove, then the counter, which was littered with every kitchen implement he owned. "Right now, it smells more like an old pair of knickers than anything. What the devil are you doing, Andrea?"
"It's for that culinary competition I told you about. Don't worry. I'll clean it up before you get back." Might have to have the place fumigated first—my dish really did smell rancid.
Jones shook his head. "Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself? You only sent in your application yesterday."
He was probably right. I'd just heard about the
the day before, but ever since, the thought of winning the competition had gnawed at me. I'd been publicly humiliated on television eighteen months ago when my live studio audience came down with food poisoning in the middle of my debut cooking show. The worst part was, I still wasn't sure how it had happened. Over a year later, the how didn't matter. What did matter was me getting back to where I'd been before the disaster, and the
presented a ticket to redemption.
"This is my shot, Malcolm. Being selected for the celebrity challenge will help clear my name and get me out from under the whole Death Chef pall once and for all. I was disgraced in public. I should be vindicated in public."
He brushed a stray lock of hair out of my eyes. "I understand, and you know I support you, love. But I don't want you to be disappointed if things don't work out the way you intend. I don't want to see you get your hopes dashed."
I grinned up at him. "Can't win if I don't play, right? This is me throwing my hat in the proverbial ring, climbing back on the proverbial saddle, and giving the naysayers the proverbial finger."
He laughed and then eyeballed the steaming pot as though it would eat him, instead of the other way around. "I don't have to try that, do I?"
"Not unless I deem it edible." Part of the challenge was coming up with recipes to suit special dietary needs. I'd been experimenting with a unique vegetarian dish—hence the smell. There really wasn't much to be done to overcome the unique aroma of durian, and the odd-looking fruit really did smell like a moldy athletic sock that had slid under the washing machine and been left to rot. "I think I reached a little too far outside my comfort zone on this one. Maybe I should scrap the global cook idea and set my sights a little closer to Italy."
"A fine idea. I'm glad its summer and we can open the windows." Jones took the bubbling pot of mangled fruit out to the trash, and I filled the sink with soapy water then glanced at the clock. Shoot, the time had gotten away from me. I dried my hands, pocketed my cell phone, and plucked my car keys off the little dish in the foyer.
"Tell me again why you aren't cooking in your own kitchen at the pasta shop?" Jones asked as he held the door for me.
I opened the door to my baby, aka Mustang Sally, and rolled my eyes at him. "We've been over this, Malcolm. I don't want Pops and Aunt Cecily to know anything's up until it's definite I'll be on the show. No sense getting them all riled up if I don't even make the cut."
My own expectations I could handle, but my grandfather's and my great aunt's were another matter. Then there was my long lost yet recently found biological daughter and her father, the sheriff. Not to mention my BFF Donna Muller and her family, plus various friends, and pretty much the entire population of Beaverton, NC. The town had been blessedly quiet for six blissful months, and I wasn't about to get them all stirred up about my possible return to celebrity status again.
It was a glorious July day with bees buzzing in the herb garden and sun warm enough to seep into my bones without cooking the flesh right off them. The arm I'd badly broken last winter ached on occasion, but today it felt good as new.
I climbed behind the wheel of my mustang—I was driving since we needed to get to the airport ASAP, and Jones, despite his many attributes, meandered like a little old lady on the way to bingo. He set his small duffel on the backseat, his camera bag on his lap, and then buckled up.
"I can't believe I'm going to miss your artistic debut," I said and pulled out of the driveway. "I feel like a crummy girlfriend. Are you sure you don't want me to come with you?"
Jones slid opaque sunglasses over his gorgeous blue eyes. "First of all, you're my fiancée, not my girlfriend. Of course I want you to come with me, but I know you can't get away right now. And it's not like it's my own show. It's a joint one with a bunch of other no-name artists hosted by the Brooklyn gallery where I used to work. If I'm lucky, my sales will cover the airfare."
"People are going to buy
photographs from a
." How could the man not make a huge deal out of this? He'd been so nonchalant when he'd received the call, had brushed it off like he hadn't been working his oh-so-sexy backside off to get to this point in his career. "If it were me, I'd be shouting from the roof of the pasta shop and telling the whole town to choke on it."
"I doubt that would help your bottom line," he said dryly.
I waved him off. "Nah. Just another day in Beaverton."
A few moments later we pulled up at the neighboring estate to pick up Jones's half-sister and my former archenemy, Lizzy Tillman. She'd been my nemesis in high school, but Lizzy and I had formed a tentative truce since I'd started dating Jones. I'd even been ready to hand her over to my ex, Kyle, with best wishes. For some unknown reason, the pair had broken up a few months back, though neither of them seemed happy about the situation.
Lizzy was sitting on the steps, her pink suitcase propped on her lap, but she jumped up when we pulled up. She had oblong-shaped sunglass with huge, white frames that engulfed her elfin face. Her hair was tied back with a pink-and-white polka dot scarf. She looked like a retro model going out incognito to avoid the paparazzi. Jones got out to hug her and dealt with her luggage while she climbed into the backseat.
"How's it hanging?" I asked her.
She lowered her sunglass enough to display her eye roll and answered primly, "Just fine, thank you very much. And how are you, Andy?"
"Can't complain." Well I could, but I wasn't going to. It was part of my whole positive attitude makeover. I'd read somewhere that to attract positive things to you, you needed to be positive, and I had decided to give it a go.
Once everybody was settled, I maneuvered the car out to the main highway that led to the nearest airport, in Charlotte. "So, Lizzy, do me a solid, and make sure that Jones actually goes to the meeting with Rochelle's lawyer."
Lizzy looked at me over the tops of her glasses. "What meeting?"
"Andrea," his tone held a note of warning, which Lizzy and I both ignored.
"Rochelle's lawyer has been calling him like three times a day, and he's been too damn stubborn to take the call." Rochelle was his recently deceased ex and a very long story.
"So Andrea took it upon herself and called on my behalf and set up a meeting." His tone left no doubt how he'd felt about my butting in.
"You need closure," I insisted.
"Since when did you become a monument to mental health?" In the rearview mirror, Lizzy's reflection quirked a brow.
I made a faux ringing sound. "
Hello, Pot? This is Kettle, and I hate to break it to you, but you're black."
"Ladies, please." Jones sounded a trifle impatient. "I promised I would go and hear the man out, but that's all. Agreed?"
"Whatever you want," I said even as I caught Lizzy's eye in the rearview as she peered over her ridiculous sunglasses at the two of us.
she mouthed silently.
Lizzy was definitely a better ally than enemy, and I had to give her props for playing dirty when the situation called for it.
We chatted about New York, a city I loved to visit for the food and energy. I made Jones promise to indulge on my behalf and then call me every night to describe slowly and in vivid detail exactly what he ate and how it tasted—our version of phone sex. Lizzy was more of a Fifth Avenue shopper and Jones the designated cultural connoisseur. If not for having no one to cover the pasta shop in my absence, I would have bought a ticket to hang out with them for the weekend in, well, a New York minute. Since my sous chef, and lone employee, was also taking a holiday over the weekend to visit her long-distance beaux, I had to hold down the fort.
"I'll miss you," I said as I hugged Jones at the airport drop off. "You better not have
much fun without me."
"Not even in the realm of possibility," he assured me.
I silently promised myself that after we were married we'd do a romantic weekend in the Big Apple. "You'll have a good time with your sister. And your show will be a mad success—I know it."
One of the parking goons was giving us the hairy eyeball, so I settled for one last squeeze and scuttled back behind the wheel. Jones waved once more and escorted Lizzy through the revolving door, and I shifted, suddenly uneasy.
This was the first time Jones had left Beaverton without me since we'd met the previous year. Would I be able to endure the town without him?
"Don't be an idiot," I told my reflection. To distract myself, I clicked on the radio and searched for some decent driving tunes. It was a beautiful day, traffic was light, and I cruised along thinking about the recipes I would try once I got home.
For some reason though, I couldn't shake the feeling that everything was about to change.
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"Ugh, I give up. I can't cook vegan." I threw down my wooden spoon in a huff. "And I really don't want to eat it either."
"Why are you even trying to?" Kaylee asked me.
It was lull time at the Bowtie Angel, that mid-afternoon slump between late lunches and early dinner. In about an hour we'd be slammed with take-out orders until we closed for the night, but for now, all was quiet.
In spite of my earlier resolve to not get anyone's hopes up, I'd decided I needed someone to confide in about the opportunity. And sharing a secret with my biological daughter seemed right. "Promise you won't tell anyone. Not your mom or Aunt Cecily or your friends?"
She shook her head. "Do I have to do the lame cross my heart thing?"
I smirked. She was so my kid. "Just give me your word, brat."
She laughed, the same way I did, whenever I called her a brat. "Fine, I promise not to tell anyone."