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Not even her impending nuptials can keep Lucy Berberian, manager of her family-owned Kebab Kitchen, from the Jersey Shore’s annual Polar Bear Plunge. But her dive into the icy ocean is especially chilling when she finds a fellow swimmer doing the dead man’s float—for real . . .
Who would kill a man in cold blood during Ocean Crest, New Jersey’s most popular winter event? When Lucy learns the victim is Deacon Spooner, the reception hall owner who turned up his nose—and his price—at her wedding plans, she can’t help wondering who wouldn’t kill the pompous caterer . . .
Perhaps the culprit is the wedding cake baker whose career Deacon nearly destroyed? Or the angry bride whose reception he ruined? With her maid of honor, Katie, busily planning Lucy’s wedding without her, Lucy will have to get to the bottom of this cold-hearted business in time for Kebab Kitchen’s mouthwatering Christmas celebration—and before her hometown’s holiday spirit washes out to sea . . .
“With a warm cast of characters and an ingenious main character, this is a series that will prove delightful for cozy fans.” —Parkersburg News & Sentinel on Stabbed in the Baklava
“Clever and charming . . . A culinary delight that will have readers salivating over the food and hungry for literary answers.” —RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars, on Hummus and Homicide
Release date: September 29, 2020
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 336
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Mistletoe, Moussaka, and Murder
Lucy Berberian’s lips twitched as she gave her best friend, Katie Watson, her most convincing look.
“That’s right,” Lucy said. “This year’s Polar Bear Plunge is to benefit the Ocean Crest senior center.”
It was early December and the two friends were decorating a seven-foot Christmas tree and hanging wreaths and mistletoe throughout Kebab Kitchen. Lucy scanned the restaurant, noting the cozy maple booths, the tables covered with white tablecloths, and the neat stack of menus on the hostess stand. It was early morning and Kebab Kitchen wouldn’t open until the lunch shift, when it would serve its Mediterranean specialties. Through the large bay window was a lovely view of the Ocean Crest beach and the boardwalk, now covered in a sprinkling of snow. The Ferris wheel and old-fashioned wooden roller coaster on the boardwalk pier stood motionless and wouldn’t operate until the start of the summer season. But the small town was just as lively as ever and gearing up to celebrate the holidays. Festive parties, boardwalk craft shows, a town Christmas tree lighting, and much more was planned.
Katie removed a bell ornament decorated with glitter from a stack of boxes and hung it on one of the branches of the artificial tree. “This year’s Polar Bear Plunge may be for a good cause, but I’m still not certain I want to—”
Lucy reached into a box and pulled out a string of lights. “Of course you do! Don’t be a crab. It’s only a quick dip in the ocean. Don’t you want to help the seniors fundraise?”
“My landlady, Mrs. Lubinski, told me the seniors are excited about the renovation, and they’re planning a dance to celebrate before construction begins. Plus, your grandma will have a nice new facility to play designer purse bingo in.”
Katie pursed her lips. “You’re using my grandma as leverage?”
Katie let out a puff of air. “Fine. You drive a hard bargain.”
“Good, because if I’m going to freeze my butt off, I want my best friend by my side.”
Lucy managed to untangle the string of lights and plug one end into the closest electrical socket, only to find that just half the string lit up. Ugh. “One light must be bad. Why does this happen every year?”
“It wouldn’t be Christmas decorating without a bad string of lights.” Katie stood on tiptoe to hang a reindeer ornament near the top of the seven-foot tree.
Katie was much taller than Lucy, who was only five-foot-three inches. The two had been best friends forever, but were opposites in appearance. Katie had poker-straight blond hair, blue eyes, and skin that sunburned easily, whereas Lucy had dark curls, chocolate-colored eyes, and an olive complexion that resulted in a summer tan that lasted long after fall. Lucy’s Armenian, Lebanese, and Greek ethnicity definitely contributed to her ability to tan.
“I’m flattered you want me by your side when we run into the ocean, but why not your hot chef-turned-fiancé?” Katie asked.
As if on cue, the kitchen doors swung open and Azad Zakarian walked out carrying a loaded tray. No matter how many times Lucy saw the restaurant’s head chef, her heart did a pitter-patter. He was tall, dark-haired, and dark-eyed, but it wasn’t just his good looks and lean build that attracted her. He had a certain confidence, especially in the kitchen, that she found compelling.
Nothing like a skilled chef in the kitchen, her mother often said. Over time, Lucy had grudgingly come to respect her mother’s opinion.
“Hi, Katie. You’re just in time to taste test today’s specials.” Azad pointed to each dish on the tray, “Moussaka and chicken shish kebab as entrees; and the appetizers are octopus with olive oil, fennel, and lemon; tabbouleh salad; and spicy black bean hummus, artichoke hummus, and our traditional hummus. The pita bread is hot from the oven.”
Katie’s face lit up like the star that topped the Christmas tree. “Bill’s going to be so jealous,” she said, referring to her husband, an Ocean Crest detective.
Both Lucy and Katie picked up a small plate and fork and tasted each dish. The shish kebab was delicious, the tabbouleh nicely tart, and the hummus smooth with sesame seed puree, lemon, and garlic. But it was the moussaka, the layers of eggplant, ground meat, and béchamel sauce, that melted in her mouth. Azad had outdone himself.
“Oh my gosh!” Katie said. “It’s all so good, but the moussaka is fabulous. I could devour all of it.”
Azad’s grin transformed his face into something even more striking. He picked up the tray and his muscles flexed beneath his chef’s coat. “I’ll pack a take-out container for Bill and some of the cops at the station.”
“They’ll love it.” Katie set down her empty plate. “Hey, Azad. Are you going to do the Polar Bear Plunge?”
Azad shook his head. “Someone has to hold down the fort here. I’ll be in the kitchen and Lucy’s parents agreed to help run the restaurant. But I promise to take a break and get to the beach as fast as I can with hot chocolate and towels for you both. Now, if you’ll pardon me, ladies, I’ll leave you to your decorating. I need to finish preparing for today’s service.” Azad disappeared into the kitchen.
“You’re a lucky lady,” Katie said as she reached for some fake mistletoe. “Bill can’t boil water.”
Lucy hadn’t always been so lucky, especially in the romance department. But since leaving her Philadelphia job at a law firm, a lot had happened, in and out of the kitchen.
The sleigh bells above the door chimed and a slim blonde stepped inside. With a heart-shaped face and blue eyes, Susan Cutie was dressed in a mauve blouse and a stylish skirt that emphasized her slim waist. She was the owner of Cutie’s Cupcakes. Since returning to Ocean Crest, Lucy had been hooked on Susan’s lemon meringue pie. Lucy’s fondness for pie and baklava, combined with working in a restaurant all day, inspired her to jog the boardwalk three times a week.
“Nice tree,” Susan said as she picked up an ornament that had fallen from a low tree branch and handed it to Katie. “I heard you are doing the Polar Bear Plunge. I came to tell you that Jake and I also just signed up to do it.”
“You signed up together? Things must be heating up in the bakery with your new boyfriend,” Katie said.
Susan’s face turned a shade red. “Jake’s been wonderful, and he’s taking me out for a romantic dinner tonight. I need to thank Lucy’s mom for introducing us.”
Lucy rolled her eyes. “My mom already thinks she’s quite the matchmaker. This will encourage her to no end.”
Angela Berberian was a fixture in town and had been head chef of Kebab Kitchen for thirty years before retiring. Lucy’s mother had tried to play matchmaker between Lucy and Azad for as long as Lucy could remember. Of course, that meant Lucy had avoided giving Azad a second chance after he’d broken her heart after college. But time, and Azad’s help with the restaurant, had a way of changing a lady’s mind.
“If you and Jake get engaged, I’ll have lots of tips for you,” Katie said. “I’ve been taking my role as Lucy’s matron of honor seriously.”
Lucy shot Katie a sideways glance. “A bit too seriously.” Her friend had been even more gung ho than her mother. Lucy hadn’t seen that coming. She’d always assumed her mother would be too meddling.
“Nonsense. It’s never too early to start looking for reception halls. Not to mention bands, florists, and wedding gown shopping. I’ve been looking at catering halls online.”
“We haven’t even set a date yet,” Lucy protested.
Katie waved a dismissive hand. “Reception halls fill up. You need to plan months in advance. As soon as we’re finished here, I’m taking Lucy to one of the sites today.”
Lucy looked at her in surprise. “Today?”
“Yup. I already made an appointment,” Katie said.
Lucy turned to Susan. “Take your time, Susan. There’s no pressure to get engaged.”
A dreamy look crossed Susan’s face. “It doesn’t seem like pressure when you’re in love. Does it, Lucy?”
“Susan’s right,” Katie said. “Love is what matters. As for the perfect wedding, what can go wrong when you plan in advance?”
Lucy held on to the handle above the Jeep’s door as Katie took a turn a bit too fast. “Jeez, Katie. Slow down. What’s the rush?”
“You still haven’t gotten used to my driving, have you?” Katie asked as she sped down Ocean Avenue.
“I don’t think I ever will.” Katie had a tendency to drive like Mario Andretti. Even worse, she’d often glance from side to side, sometimes waving at people on the sidewalk. Lucy wanted to turn her friend’s chin back to the road.
Katie pushed through a yellow light. “Don’t get your panties in a twist. We’re almost there.”
“Where are we headed again?” Lucy’s mind had gone blank a few blocks back from Katie’s driving. Self-preservation had kicked in.
“I told you. The Sea View was closed for renovations, but reopened about six months ago. We need to check it out to see if it would be good for your reception.”
“I still don’t see why we couldn’t wait to visit.”
“I’m saving you time. Azad works all day in the kitchen. Would you rather go by yourself?”
Good point. It was much nicer to tour possible wedding reception halls with a friend. This way, if Lucy really loved the place, she could bring Azad to look at it later. Thankfully, he was easygoing when it came to wedding planning. He’d often said he wanted her to be happy and would like whatever she liked. He also deferred to her about setting a date, which suited Lucy just fine.
“I have another reason for visiting this place,” Katie said as she halted at the second of the two stoplights in the small town. “The township employees and their families have a holiday party at Rocco’s Ristorante every year, but Rocco retired without notice and moved to the Virgin Islands.”
“The Virgin Islands? Wow! I know the restaurant business can be stressful, but that’s a big life change.” She couldn’t image her parents just closing shop and taking off for the Caribbean.
“Tell me about it. Rocco abandoned a lot of people who had events booked. I need to find a new venue for our holiday party and fast. I was tasked with pricing the Sea View. Since the renovations, we hope the owner, Deacon Spooner, cuts the township a deal to help promote his business.”
Katie worked for the Ocean Crest town hall and handled everything from collecting real estate taxes, to issuing dog and cat licenses, to handling zoning applications, and more. Her duties had expanded to being in charge of the township holiday party.
They came to the edge of town. “I had no idea you were in charge of finding a new place for the township holiday party. Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I would have happily come along,” Lucy said.
“I want you to focus on your wedding—whenever it may be—and I’ll focus on town business.”
They left Ocean Crest and arrived at their destination less than five minutes later. Katie slid into a spot and thrust the Jeep into Park.
Lucy opened the door and stepped out. Her gaze was drawn to the building before her. An old, two-story manor house, it had eight white columns and looked like an elegant Southern plantation house. “Wow. I didn’t know this place existed.”
“The renovation must have cost a pretty penny,” Katie said.
They walked up the stone driveway, opened the double front doors, and stepped inside. A large chandelier in the vestibule cast a kaleidoscope of color on the floral, patterned carpet.
“Hello?” Lucy called out.
Katie shrugged. “Let’s check out the catering hall. Someone has to be around.”
They pushed through a set of doors and entered the dining room. “From the looks of things, they are getting ready to have a party tonight,” Lucy said, gazing at the dozen tables set up around the room.
Each was covered with alternating pink or white tablecloths and set with silver-rimmed china and flatware. Matching pink-and-white napkins were folded into elaborate swans. Flower arrangements of pink and white carnations with baby’s breath in vases graced each table, along with tea lights in glass holders. A wooden dance floor gleamed with polish, and an elevated stage showcased where a band could set up and play. The floral carpet they had seen in the entrance hall was repeated here. In the corner was a bar, the counter glossy and recently polished. Large windows were covered with custom gold drapes held back with gold tassels.
Lucy spotted a set of double French doors. Curious, she walked to them and turned the handle. “Oh, look!” she cried out when the doors opened to reveal the view.
A brick patio overlooked the pristine Jersey shore beach and the Atlantic Ocean. It was a cold but clear day, and the cloudless sky was an endless blue line in the horizon. The ocean stretched on forever and the waves were capped with white peaks. A light dusting of snow covered the sand.
Snow on the beach was a sight to see. The Jersey shore tourism bureau had been working hard to create winter events that would draw tourists to the area year-round. It seemed to be working. Tourists had been traveling to Ocean Crest in December just to see snow on the sand and the boardwalk.
After spending eight years in Philadelphia working as a lawyer for a big city firm, Lucy would never get tired of the sight. The patio would be ideal for a lovely wedding reception cocktail hour.
Katie joined her on the patio, and the two stood gazing outside when a deep voice made them jump.
“You were looking for me?”
Lucy whirled to find a middle-aged man approaching. Of average height, his thinning, fair hair was styled in a bad comb-over, his face pockmarked. He held a clipboard in one hand. Dressed in a navy suit with a floral tie that looked like it matched the carpet, he extended his free hand. “Deacon Spooner.”
Lucy shook his hand. “I’m Lucy Berberian, and this is my matron of honor, Katie Watson. I’m interested in having a wedding reception here.”
“My price depends on the number of guests, the date, and your menu selection. Alcohol is not included and you need to arrange to have everything delivered.” He pulled a sheet from the clipboard and handed it to her.
Lucy’s eyes nearly popped out of her head as she took in the figures. “That much?”
His gaze traveled around the ballroom. “We recently renovated.”
The price was well above Lucy and Azad’s budget. Azad wanted her to be happy, but not at this cost. If the other reception halls were this pricey, they would have to host a backyard wedding.
Katie took the paper from Lucy, and her brow furrowed as she studied the numbers. “Are you negotiable? I work at the Ocean Crest town hall and we are looking for a venue to hold our annual holiday party. Can you offer a discount if we have both events here?”
Deacon scoffed. “Why does everyone want something for free?”
“Not free,” Katie argued. “Just a reasonable price.”
He snatched the paper from Katie’s hand. “Time for you two to go.”
Lucy and Katie gaped in astonishment as Deacon Spooner turned his back and caromed through a door in the corner of the dining room that must have led to his office.
“Wow. I wasn’t expecting Deacon Spooner to behave like that,” Lucy mumbled beneath her breath.
“What a jerk. I feel bad I made you come here,” Katie said.
“It’s not your fault. How could you know?” Lucy asked.
Together, they departed through the double doors and walked toward Katie’s Jeep.
“He must only deal with rich people. Who else can afford that price?” Katie said.
“And it didn’t even include liquor,” Lucy added.
“We have to make a list of other places.”
“Isn’t your township holiday party soon?”
Katie worried her bottom lip. “In two weeks. It puts me in a bit of a bind.”
“I’ll help you, just like you’re helping me,” Lucy vowed.
They were almost to Katie’s Jeep when a voice shouted out, “Stop! Don’t you two go anywhere.”
Lucy spun around to see a tall man barreling toward them in the parking lot. “Who’s that?”
Katie shook her head, looking just as perplexed as Lucy. “No idea.”
The man halted before them. He was even taller up close, about six feet five inches. He was about the same age as Deacon Spooner, but more fit, and he wore a golf shirt, khakis, and brown suede shoes. His pencil-thin mustache made him look like Clark Gable, but without the movie star glamour. He flashed a grin and stuck out a hand. “I’m Norman Weston, co-owner of the Sea View.”
Katie spoke up first and shook his hand. “I didn’t know Mr. Spooner had a business partner.”
“He never tells anyone. I overheard part of your conversation. You work at the town hall?” He looked at Katie.
“That’s right,” Katie said.
“I was at Lola’s Coffee Shop and heard through the grapevine that your holiday party at Rocco’s fell through. I’d be happy to hold it at the Sea View for a reasonable price,” Norman said.
Lucy wasn’t surprised he’d learned of the doomed Rocco’s and the township employee holiday party. Lola’s Coffee Shop was one of the heartbeats of Ocean Crest. Townsfolk loved two things: coffee and gossip.
“That’s wonderful! But what about your partner? Mr. Spooner doesn’t seem the agreeable type,” Katie said.
Norman waved a dismissive hand. “Despite what Deacon thinks, he doesn’t have full control over the business. I have a say, too.”
“Good news.” Katie glanced at Lucy before turning back to Norman. “But what about Lucy’s wedding?”
Norman smoothed his mustache. “I’ll revisit the quote Deacon gave you.”
Even though Norman Weston’s offer was kind, Lucy wasn’t positive she wanted to have her reception here. Deacon had left a sour taste in her mouth.
“That’s kind of you,” Lucy said. “But if you don’t mind my asking, why the difference between you and Mr. Spooner?”
Norman stilled. “Let’s just say that business partners have a way of bringing out either the best or the worst in each other.”
Based on Norman’s tone, Lucy believed it was the latter in their case.
“I’ve decided to run into the ocean alongside you and Katie tomorrow,” Eloisa Lubinski said.
Lucy stared at her landlady in shock. It wasn’t just the woman’s outfit that caught her attention—a flamboyant flapper dress complete with feathered headdress and dancing shoes—but the fact that Eloisa Lubinski was in her eighties.
Lucy set down her purse on her kitchen table. Her eccentric, elderly landlady occupied the first floor of her beach home and rented the second floor to Lucy. She’d asked to come upstairs to chat, and now Lucy knew the reason. “You sure you want to participate in the Polar Bear Plunge?” Lucy asked.
Eloisa shot Lucy a challenging look. “What? You don’t think a senior citizen can’t freeze her boobies alongside you?”
Whoa! Eloisa’s breasts were definitely not something Lucy wanted to picture in her mind. No. No. No! How did one erase a mental image?
Lucy cleared her throat. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I was just wondering why.”
“Why not? I’m not getting any younger, and if others are willing to do it to raise money for the senior center, why shouldn’t I? I’ll benefit from the place more than all of them.”
“I just figured you’d wait with Azad on the beach, holding hot chocolate and a warm towel.”
Eloisa raised a tweezed eyebrow. “Azad will be on the beach?”
Oh brother. Her landlady had a fondness for Kebab Kitchen’s chef, and it wasn’t for his culinary talents.
“He has to work up until the last minute, but he said he’ll take a break from work to be there,” Lucy said.
“Hmm. Maybe he’ll want some company.”
“I’ll be sure to tell him.” Lucy shot her a sidelong look. “That is if you decide not to jump in.”
“I’m thinking about sitting this one out now. I’ll let you know.”
Before moving into the second floor of the widow’s beach home, Lucy had been living in Katie and Bill’s guest bedroom. When her brother-in-law and real estate agent, Max, had first shown Lucy this place, she’d been hesitant. But the rent was in her budget and it was a short walk to Kebab Kitchen, and she’d decided to give it and her landlady a chance. Lucy had packed her bags and taken the outdoor restaurant cat, Gadoo, with her. She hadn’t regretted it.
A low growl drew Lucy’s attention. Eloisa’s shih tzu had awakened Gadoo, and the cat swatted at the dog. Gadoo’s razor-sharp claws just missed the canine. Lucy had no doubt that if Gadoo wanted to slice the dog’s nose, he would have. After circling the couch and eyeing each other, the two settled down together on the cushion.
“Cupid and Gadoo have been getting along nicely,” Eloisa said.
Getting along “nicely” was a bit too strong to describe their relationship. Gadoo tolerated the shih tzu. Sometimes the cat even let the dog share his cat bed. The dog’s overbite and topknot may have looked adorable, but the shih tzu’s appearance and name were deceptive. He wasn’t exactly as loving as his Roman namesake, and he had a tendency to growl at people, especially Lucy.
A car honk sounded, and Eloisa peered out the window. “That’s Edna. We’re dancing tonight. If we don’t get there early, all the senior men will be taken. Not many still kicking.”
That explained the flapper dress. Eloisa turned toward the door that led to her own downstairs living area and whistled for Cupid. The little shih tzu reluctantly left the couch and trotted over to her side.
“Good sharing, Gadoo. I know Cupid can be a bother sometimes,” Lucy said.
The black-and-orange cat blinked his yellow eyes. After refilling his food and water bowls, Lucy poured herself a mug of decaffeinated green tea and cracked open the balcony door. The cat jumped off the couch and joined her on the patio.
Most evenings, Gadoo could be found outside on the patio or visiting Kebab Kitchen, where Lucy’s mother still left out cat food for the feline.
It was a cold December evening, but Lucy wore a heavy sweatshirt and jeans. She loved this view, morning or evening, and it had been another bonus when deciding to move here. Eloisa’s home was oceanfront, and Lucy sat outside every morning with a mug of coffee and took in the magnificent view. Now, the moon cast a shimmering glow on the ocean. The calming sounds of the waves and the scent of salt. . .
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