Domestic diva Sophie Winston can whip up an elaborate event in her sleep, but as the hippest hostess she rarely gets to enjoy the full guest treatment. Which is why her best friend Nina Reid Norwood loops her in to the latest culinary craze: a pop-up gourmet dinner party. The celebrity chef, the epicurean menu, and the high-profile attendees are all a surprise, turning the decadent dining experience into the hottest ticket in Old Town. But Sophie's just pleased as punch that she finally has an opportunity to join her fellow foodies in some fun.
The posh party proves to be a recipe for disaster when Hollis Haberman sours spirits by bringing his own hot new dish—his young trophy wife. With Hollis's son and ex-wife in attendance, there may be more heat at the table than in the kitchen. But by aperitifs, Sophie discovers Hollis swallowing his last bits of air, and she must scramble to stop a killer before the swanky supper becomes anyone else's last meal.
Release date: May 29, 2018
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 352
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The Diva Cooks Up a Storm
Daisy barked once and ran for the front gate. Dogs have far better hearing than humans, so I trusted her inclination about the direction of the trouble and followed right behind her.
A man ran toward us on the sidewalk, his gait awkward and ungainly. He waved his hands madly around his head and continued screaming.
By that time, my neighbors Nina Reid Norwood and Francie Vanderhoosen had emerged from their homes.
At first blush, the man appeared to be deranged. But as he neared, his dilemma became readily apparent. Angry bees buzzed around him and more followed.
I seized his hand. “Quick. Into the house!”
Daisy snapped at the bees as we ran. Nina and Francie brought up the rear. We rushed into my kitchen and quickly closed the door behind us.
A few bees made it inside. Nina and Francie grabbed sections of the newspaper and swatted at them while Daisy continued to chase and snap at them.
Meanwhile, I sat the man down. Thirtyish, I guessed. His green T-shirt bore the hound face logo of The Laughing Hound, a local restaurant. His jeans were dusty, as though he’d been doing lawn work in them. He was having trouble breathing. Red welts had already formed on his face.
“Do you have a bee allergy?” I asked.
“Doh. Gihzzy.” He opened his mouth for some deep breaths. There was no mistaking the swelling of his tongue.
I grabbed the phone, dialed 911, and handed it to Nina while I wet a kitchen towel with cold water. I had no idea whether that was the right thing to do, but I held it against his face.
Francie seized the beautiful pink begonia from my bay window, pulled it out of the pot, and scooped up dirt in her hands. “Scoot over, Sophie.”
She packed the dirt against his face. One of his eyes was swelling shut.
“Will you look at that?” asked Nina. “Bees are still buzzing around your kitchen door.”
Some of the bees outside were even hitting the glass window in the door as though they were angry that they couldn’t come inside.
Moments later, the reassuring wail of an ambulance soothed my nerves. Allergic or not, this guy needed medical attention. I ran to the front door and opened it. In moments, the ambulance had parked, and emergency medical technicians walked inside calm as a serene lake.
An EMT asked the man, “What’s your name, sir?”
“Anguh Guhanhoh.” His speech was so garbled that none of us could understand it.
“You ladies know him?”
The three of us looked at one another and shook our heads.
“He came running down the street with bees buzzing all around him,” I explained.
The EMT felt the man’s pockets for a wallet and extracted it while another EMT asked what was on his face.
Francie beamed when she said, “Dirt. It’s an old home remedy. Soothes the stings.”
The EMT shook his head in obvious disbelief.
The one with the wallet said, “I don’t see any allergy alerts in here. You’re Angus Bogdanoff?”
The man nodded.
“Got any allergies?”
“Doh.” He shook his head.
They administered a shot of epinephrine, put him on a stretcher, and wheeled him out to the ambulance. We trailed along, feeling helpless. We couldn’t even notify anyone for the poor guy.
When the ambulance departed, Nina, Francie, and I returned to my kitchen. I took lemonade and iced tea out of the fridge to make Arnold Palmers.
“I’d suggest sitting in the garden,” said Francie, “but we probably ought to let any lingering bees dissipate.”
“Not to mention that it’s already getting warm,” Nina fanned herself with both hands. “I swear this is the hottest summer I can remember. I try to stay indoors until six in the evening. Thank heaven the underground dinner tonight doesn’t start earlier. They’d have people fainting all over the place.”
“Everyone is too pampered these days. We didn’t have air-conditioning when I was growing up.” Francie sipped her Arnold Palmer. “I remember my daddy sitting outside to read at ten o’clock at night because it was too stuffy in the house. And no one had air-conditioning in their cars, either. We kids sat in the back with the windows rolled down and hung our heads out like dogs. Mom and Dad made ice cream with an old crank machine and cream. Can you imagine? It had fat it in! Best ice cream ever. It was such fun running around the neighborhood, catching fireflies in the dark. Now that’s how summer ought to be.”
Nina shot her a sideways glance. “I bet you wouldn’t go without air-conditioning today.”
She’d caught Francie, who laughed. “I bet I could weather it better than you.”
I suspected that might be the case. A true outdoorsy Southerner, Francie had reached the age where she said what she thought, even if it might sting. She made no effort to tame her dyed-yellow hair that looked as brittle as straw, or to hide the wrinkles she had earned from years of gardening and bird-watching in all kinds of weather.
“What do you know about bees, Francie?” I asked. “Why would they chase Angus like that?”
“Bees can be ornery little buggers. They’re focused on protecting the hive and the queen. My guess is that Angus accidentally stumbled onto a hive and disturbed it. I’ve heard they’ll chase a person up to half a mile.”
Nina shuddered. “I love honey, but bees scare me.”
I was perusing the fridge for a snack when someone knocked on the front door. Daisy accompanied me to open it.
Hollis Haberman, who lived on the next block, stood on my stoop. A respected criminal attorney in his fifties, Hollis liked to eat and had long ago given up any sort of exercise. His face was flushed from the heat and the short walk to my house.
“Hollis! Come on in out of the sun. Could I offer you an Arnold Palmer?”
“That would hit the spot. Sorry to disturb you, but my yard man vanished, and I’m told he was seen headed this way acting kind of strange.”
I closed the door behind him. “Angus was working for you? Come into the kitchen. Nina and Francie are here. It was the strangest thing. Angus was being chased by bees. You’d better be careful in your yard.”
Hollis touched my arm ever so gently. “Could I have a private word with you out here first?”
“Sure.” I frowned at him. “What’s up?”
Hollis’s belly heaved when he took a deep breath. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Do you know of a way to test food at home to be sure nobody poisoned it?”
My first thought was of Hollis’s new and much younger wife. “Hollis! If you suspect someone is poisoning you, then you need to talk to the police.”
His lips bunched together. “I’m not quite ready to do that. What if I’m wrong? I’d like to keep this on the q.t.”
I understood the problem. It would destroy his marriage. The Haberman divorce had been the talk of the town. Rumor had it that Hollis’s lawyer buddies had chewed up his wife Cindy’s lawyers like a wood chipper, leaving her with a tiny pile of shredded mulch. As an event planner, I had seen Cindy frequently at local society affairs in the past. Sadly, the divorce had put an end to her life on the party circuit. The new wife, Kelsey, a woman barely touching thirty with long blond hair, too much eye makeup, and a knockout figure, had replaced Cindy.
Hollis hadn’t been married to Kelsey very long. “You think Kelsey is trying to poison you?”
“I did not say that.” Hollis’s face was purple.
Poor guy. He probably suspected her of poisoning him but wasn’t ready to admit it. “My friend Humphrey Brown is a mortician with a lot of connections. I can check with him.”
“I would be very grateful, Sophie. I don’t mean to push you on this, but obviously, the sooner the better.”
“In the meantime, I believe I’d only eat takeout.”
“Sophie, please don’t breathe a word of this to anyone. No mentioning my name, okay? That’s why I came to you. I know I can trust you to keep this under your hat.”
I took a deep breath. “Hollis, I still think you should speak to a cop. I don’t want to see anything happen to you.”
Hollis smiled at me. “I appreciate that. Now, how about that Arnold Palmer? I’m parched. Think the hospital would give me an update on Angus?”
He accompanied me into the kitchen. “Good morning, ladies. I hear you helped rescue poor Angus.”
After a brief exchange, he asked us to which hospital the ambulance had taken Angus and called from my kitchen phone.
The three of us listened shamelessly while I poured him a cold drink.
The hospital confirmed that Angus was being treated there, but had no information regarding his condition. Hollis hung up. “Those aggravating HIPAA laws. Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll enjoy your hospitality for a few minutes, then head over to the hospital to see him.”
“Does he have any family to notify?” asked Nina.
“Not that I know of. I believe he’s single. Nice young fellow.” Hollis took a seat on the banquette with Francie and Nina.
I handed him an Arnold Palmer. “Will we be seeing you at the underground dinner tonight?”
“Wouldn’t miss it!” He eyed me. “Have you got the inside scoop? Know what they’ll be serving?”
“I don’t know anything more than you do.”
“Don’t believe her!” cautioned Nina. “I sent them to Sophie when they couldn’t find a location. But do you think she would tell me where it was going to be? She kept that secret for six months. I couldn’t get it out of her.”
“That’s one of the things we all admire about Sophie. She knows how to keep a secret.” Hollis winked at me.
I felt a little sick. Hollis’s secret wasn’t the kind I liked to know. I excused myself for a moment and hustled back to my tiny home office to phone Humphrey.
I punched in his number. Humphrey Brown had had a crush on me when we were children. At the time, I had been too self-absorbed in my own childhood insecurities to even notice him. Pale with white-blond hair, Humphrey was bone thin. He didn’t frequent a gym or work out. In fact, he reminded me of the old advertisements about ninety-pound-weaklings who had sand kicked in their faces. Oddly enough, we had become fast friends as adults.
When he answered the phone, I said, “Hi, Humphrey! A couple years back, I think you helped us test some food that had been poisoned. Could I impose on you to do that again?”
“I worry about you, Sophie.”
“It’s not for me.”
“How do you get mixed up in things like this?” asked Humphrey.
“I’m just doing a favor for a friend.”
There was a short silence. “Bring a sample on ice to the underground dinner tonight, and I’ll get my buddy to check it out. I’ll need to know what he’s supposed to look for.”
“Okay.” He couldn’t test for every poison in the world. I understood that. “Thanks, Humphrey! I’ll see you tonight.”
When I returned to the kitchen, Hollis was saying good-bye to Francie and Nina. I saw him to the front door and whispered, “Bring food samples to the dinner tonight. They should be on ice. And I’ll need a list of suspected poisons.”
Hollis frowned at me. “How am I supposed to know that?”
“There isn’t a universal test for poisons. They need to know what to look for. What do you have around the house? Rodent poison? Antifreeze? There are probably poisonous plants in your yard.”
“Like what?” He frowned at me.
“Hollyhocks, yew, foxglove . . .”
Hollis drew a deep breath. “This isn’t going to be as easy as I had hoped. See you tonight, Sophie.”
When I returned to the kitchen, Nina and Francie were arguing about the weather. Nina and I were scheduled to leave for North Carolina early the next day for sun and fun at the beach, but a hurricane was tracking over open sea just off the east coast of Florida.
“It’s going to swing farther out to sea,” Nina insisted. “I grew up in North Carolina, it happened all the time.”
“You’re deceiving yourself, sugar.” Francie waved her forefinger back and forth. “Geographically speaking, North Carolina juts out and that storm is headed right for it.”
“Has there been an update on the tracking?” I asked.
“No,” Nina growled. “The stupid thing is picking up speed, though.”
Francie tsked. “Well, I hope you girls get to go to the beach, but I can tell you from experience that I’ll be gathering my candles and making a run to the store for nonperishable foods.” She scooted out of the banquette. “See you tonight.” After checking for stray bees, Francie ambled out the kitchen door.
Nina groaned. “I will be so doggoned mad if Hurricane Dorian spoils our plans! We should have booked flights to Paris.”
“With our luck, the hurricane would have delayed our flight. Maybe it will peter out. I’m going to pack anyway so we’ll be ready to take off early tomorrow morning as planned.”
Still grumbling, Nina left, and I set out for the library.
Cindy Haberman, Hollis’s ex-wife, stood at the desk and greeted me warmly. “Sophie! I was just going to call you. The library book sale is on Saturday. I was hoping you might be willing to help us out?”
Willowy, with fair skin that was so unwrinkled it put the rest of us to shame, Cindy was best known for her mane of hair. Thick black tresses rippled from her part down her back. They didn’t look like contrived beach waves to me. I suspected her hair would be very curly if she wore it in a short cut.
“I’d love to help out, but Nina and I are planning a trip to the beach. We won’t be in town.”
Cindy stared at me for a long moment. In a whisper, she said, “Honestly, I wish I could go with you. A vacation at the beach with girlfriends sounds perfect to me. Margaritas, toes in the sand—it would be heaven. After all I’ve been through . . .”
I assumed she meant the divorce. “Is Gavin okay?”
She massaged her temple. “He’s fourteen and ready to rule the world without a clue. They tell me the teen years are hard so we won’t miss them when they leave for college. If you ask me, it’s nature’s way of being cruel to parents.”
Gavin had walked Daisy and mowed my yard from time to time when he was younger. “But Gavin’s such a sweet kid!”
“Mmm. He’s still adorable when he’s sleeping.”
Someone walked up beside me and asked a question, so I wandered to the mystery section and nabbed a few books to take to the beach.
I spent the rest of the afternoon getting the house ready for Mars. When we divorced, neither of us could bear to give up sweet Daisy, so we worked out a sharing arrangement. While I was at the beach, Mars would be staying at my house with Daisy and Mochie, my Ocicat.
We had inherited the house from Mars’s aunt Faye, who loved to entertain. She had expanded the house with a grand dining room and living room that could accommodate her lavish parties in the 1960s. When Mars and I divorced, I bought out Mars fair and square. The mortgage was hefty, but I loved the old place, creaking floors and all.
A portrait of Aunt Faye hung in my kitchen. Mars’s mother dropped by sometimes to talk with her deceased sister, an oddity that came close to landing her in a nursing home. She sat in one of the chairs next to the fireplace in the kitchen and had conversations with . . . no one. Not anyone that I could see or hear, anyway. I was a little skeptical about her ability to speak with the dead, but who was I to determine what other people might be able to do? At worst, she probably got some worries off her mind.
In the late afternoon, I showered and slid into a sleeveless dress—white with a sunflower pattern. We would be walking over to the dinner, which meant high heels were out of the question. My white FitFlops were ideal for the brick sidewalks.
Shortly before six in the afternoon, my current beau, Alex German, arrived to pick me up. Now a lawyer in Old Town, Alex had served in the military and still had that amazing straight-shouldered bearing. He was, without fail, the tidiest man I had ever met. Sometimes I ruffled his neatly trimmed dark brown hair a little bit, but it always fell back precisely into place.
“Think it’s okay if I wear shorts to this thing? It’s hot enough to melt a person.”
He wore navy blue shorts with a button-down white shirt, the sleeves rolled back, and brown leather Top-Siders. The outfit was nearly an Old Town uniform for men’s casual wear, with a golf shirt an acceptable alternative. “I’m sure you won’t be the only one dressed that way.”
Francie and Nina met us at the curb.
“Nina, I thought your husband was coming this time?” said Alex.
A forensic pathologist, Nina’s husband spent more time out of town than at home.
“He’s still in San Diego because the trial ran long. I gave his ticket to Jay Charles.”
The four of us walked over to the Garrett house, with Nina still scolding me about having kept the location of the underground dinner a secret.
Months ago, when there was still snow on the ground, Nina had been contacted by Madison Jenkins, who was planning the underground dinner. She had everything lined up, but couldn’t find a location. That wasn’t surprising, even with Madison’s influential friends. Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, was a coveted site for weddings and other festivities. The quaint brick sidewalks and Federal-style houses dating back to the days of George Washington were as popular with locals as they were with tourists. Even a year out was barely enough time to schedule the most desirable venues.
Nina had sent Madison to me. As an event planner, I often dealt with the lack of available venues. I had turned to private homes as a possibility. Million-dollar price tags on houses in Old Town weren’t unusual, but I’d had a hunch that a historic home with a heftier than normal price tag might not move fast. The property dated back to the 1700s, although the existing structure was built in the mid-1800s. From the outside, the only clue to its significance was the oval plaque denoting it a historical building.
Red brick clad the first two floors. A third floor featured dormer windows in the roof. The modest black front door and matching shutters weren’t noteworthy, but an observant eye might catch the original bubble glass in some of the windows. To the left was a generous parking pad paved with brick, where everyone now gathered to show their tickets to the underground dinner. A white gate led to the garden and guesthouse in back.
A teenager stood alone on the parking pad, out of his element. At $200 a plate, no one else had brought kids. He held a phone in one hand, a book in the other, and stared shamelessly at Kelsey Haberman.
I wasn’t surprised. Kelsey Haberman had caught the attention of most of the men. Her dress in shades of blue hugged her curves, and the neckline plunged so wide and deep that I held my breath in anticipation of an imminent wardrobe malfunction.
I’d never spoken to her, but I had seen her at events.
“There’s always one,” muttered Francie. “When I was young, showing your knees was enough to mark you as a tramp. That skirt’s so short she might as well have worn a bikini. Can you imagine having that woman as your stepmother?”
The word stepmother gave me pause. “Is that Gavin Haberman?” I whispered in reference to the teen. I took a closer look. He had grown like crazy since I’d seen him last.
Francie nodded. “Poor kid. His parents’ divorce turned his life upside down. I see him at the library sometimes, wa. . .
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