The last thing gluten-free baker Poppy McAllister needs in her life is more drama—or more murder . . . Poppy thought her toughest challenge this winter would be sticking to her Paleo diet and filling all her orders for her gluten-free goodies, but now she has to choose between two suitors. She’s not the only one with boyfriend drama. Aunt Ginny’s long-ago high-school beau, Royce Hanson, a retired Broadway actor, has returned to Cape May, New Jersey, to star in a Senior Center staging of Mamma Mia. Leaving Aunt Ginny to wonder: What's his motivation? Slated to open February 13th, the problem-plagued production seems to be cursed—with stolen props, sabotage, and even a death threat. But when a cast member plunges to his death from a catwalk, it soon becomes clear a murderer is waiting in the wings. Now Poppy, Aunt Ginny, and a supporting cast must take center stage to catch the killer—before it's curtains for someone else . . . Includes Seven Recipes from Poppy’s Kitchen! “Fans of Chopped will have fun juggling the complicated set of suspects and following a romantic triangle that has yet to be resolved.” — Kirkus Reviews on Restaurant Weeks Are Murder
Release date: December 31, 2019
Print pages: 304
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Theater Nights Are Murder
Aunt Ginny wrapped her fur coat tight around her pink leather hot pants and white go-go boots. “I had to do something to get you out of there. Tim looked like he was about to get down on one knee and there was panic in your eyes. I was afraid you were going to flee.”
Is that still an option? I scanned the chefs for Tim while considering life in the rejection protection program. If that didn’t exist, it should. “I considered it. My life hasn’t turned out the way I expected.”
Aunt Ginny watched the crowd filing out of the college and put a papery hand on my arm. “Nobody’s does, honey. Nobody’s does.”
Two fire trucks screamed into the parking lot, followed by an ambulance. I took a deep breath and let it out slow, watching the white fog leave my mouth and swirl out in front of me like puffs from a sleeping dragon. I had seen the hope in Tim’s eyes, his heart on his sleeve. I had dreamed of this moment for twenty-five years and now that it was here, I felt like I was signing a waiver for plastic surgery. What if something goes horribly wrong? What if I wake up and my belly button is missing? Maybe chunky will come back into fashion right after I have all my fat sucked out and I’ll have missed my chance to be beautiful. I think I’m willing to take that chance. Wait? What was I thinking about?
A police car thundered into the parking lot and Aunt Ginny tightened her grip on her fur coat. “Uh-oh.”
Uh-oh was right. We’d seen the police more often than the mailman in the four short months I’d been home. Aunt Ginny was somewhere in her eighties, but somehow the feisty redhead got into more trouble than a five-year-old after a sugar binge. I considered our recent luck with law enforcement. “Maybe we should go. I can come back later to get my things.”
“Come on. I know a back way out of here.” Aunt Ginny backed away from the flashing lights and pivoted toward the parked cars. “What are you going to say to Tim when he comes looking for an answer?”
“I don’t know. I can’t put him off for long.”
“You don’t need to rush it either. You’ll know when you know. Time is the greatest revealer of men’s hearts.”
I sighed. “I hope so, Aunt Ginny. I really hope so. Nobody likes a love triangle.”
I woke up the next morning a bundle of nerves with a mouthful of fur. “Figaro, get off of my head.” I slid the purring ball of fluff to the side, where orange slits creaked open to glare at me for disturbing his royal beauty rest. Sir Figaro Newton was definitely beautiful, so the sleeping eighteen hours a day was really paying off. If only there was a good behavior nap for the black smoke Persian, we’d be in business.
“I feel like we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole since coming here, Fig. Do you miss our home in Virginia?”
Figaro yawned and lifted a back leg to clean his undercarriage.
“I’ll take that as a no.” I stretched and twisted to the side. “No matter where we are, everything eventually goes sideways. Why do you think that is?”
Figaro was judging me under his raised leg with a look that said, Oh, I’m pretty sure I know where the problem is.
“Poppy!” Aunt Ginny hammered on the bedroom door before throwing it open. “Why are you still in bed?!”
“Uh, because it’s six in the morning.”
“Isn’t Tim coming over to talk about your feelings?”
“In four hours.”
“Wash and cream your face and find something that isn’t wrinkled to put on. And wrap your hair up in some hot rollers.”
“I’m working on it.”
“Come on, girl, work faster. No matter what you tell him, you want to look your best!”
“You’re still in your housecoat!”
“My first boyfriend didn’t just declare his love to me after a lifetime apart. Hop to!”
What happened to you don’t need to rush it?
Aunt Ginny trotted down the stairs, followed by Figaro, who saw this as an opening to fill his belly with some gourmet fish goo.
“Really, Fig. You’re just going to leave me here?” I flipped the covers off while muttering to myself. “You’re supposed to be my best friend. I was the one who stayed up with you all night when you ate that suspicious bug. As soon as we moved in with Aunt Ginny, you switched sides. Traitor.”
I picked up the silver picture frame that sat on the nightstand by my bed. It was a photo of me and my late husband taken at some formal society event my mother-in-law, Georgina, had no doubt pressured us into attending. John was wearing a tuxedo and my silver heels were dangling from his fingers. I was wearing an emerald-green, floor-length gown and walking barefoot. I had to use both hands to hold the skirt up so it didn’t drag on the ground. We were looking at each other and laughing because he had just made some joke I couldn’t remember anymore. We were so happy. I put the frame back in its position. I would give anything to remember what he’d said to make me laugh like that.
My heart was split into three pieces, each belonging to someone else. My late husband’s smiling face was etched on a big chunk, watching me. John was encouraging me to live life and be happy even though he was gone. How can I ever be happy without you? There was a piece that had always been Tim’s since we met in high school thirty years ago. First love was hard to extinguish no matter how much I’d screwed it up. I had buried it in the corner and refused to look at it. Then there was Gia. Where had that come from? My feelings for the sexy Italian barista were unexpected. His kindness and friendship had made my first few months back in South Jersey tolerable. Maybe even happy. I wasn’t sure why he was drawn to a plus-size, middle-aged gal like me when he could have his pick from the parade of short skirts and cleavage I’d seen throw themselves at him every day, but somehow, he seemed to really like me. I would rather die than hurt either of them.
I got in the shower and let the hot water melt my anxiety and calm my mind. What was I going to say to Tim? The problem wasn’t love. I’d always loved him. The problem was every time I saw myself saying yes to Tim, Gia popped into my head and my heart broke. But when I saw myself with Gia, I relived the day I told Tim I’d cheated, and he dropped me faster than Oprah lost her first hundred pounds.
I didn’t want to decide anything right now. Truth be told, I kind of liked things the way they were. I never dreamed anyone would be interested in me for the rest of my life. Part of me was worried it was a hoax. Like that time Greg Eisler asked me to the school dance in the sixth grade, then laughed in my face when I said yes. The little weasel had feathered hair and thought he was David Cassidy. The joke was on him when he stopped growing at twelve. Not such a hotshot now at five foot two, are you, Greg?
I blow-dried my hair, checking the auburn for traces of silver. So far, so good. I applied some makeup, then dressed in teal leggings and a long black tunic. My skinny jeans were way too tight after my brief stint as pastry chef for Tim’s restaurant, Maxine’s. Who knew a little gluten and dairy would inflate me like a hot-air balloon? So now I’m back to my Paleo sentence and only eating what comes out of the dirt. Festive.
Thoughts of Tim brought the heaviness back. He was the first man I ever fell in love with. I almost married him. Being exclusive seemed like an obvious choice, but I needed more time. John hadn’t even been gone a year. I had just started my life over. I’d only stayed in Cape May to take care of Aunt Ginny and keep her out of the assisted living facility she called Old Lady Lockdown because of her . . . let’s just say peculiarities. We really needed the Butterfly Wings Bed and Breakfast to take flight if we were going to pay for luxuries like water and electricity. This Grand Victorian had been in our family for almost a hundred and fifty years, and the taxes on it were nearly equal to a pop diva’s touring glitter budget. Our only options were to sell it or strike it rich on Survivor. Since there was no amount of money that would get me to eat a spider, it looked like me and Aunt Ginny were going to be serving waffles to tourists for the foreseeable future.
The grande dame of the McAllister clan was in the kitchen wearing a fuchsia track suit with the word HOTTIE bedazzled on the back and eating a bowl of Cap’n Crunch that she thought I wouldn’t notice. You underestimate me, madam! I had every sugar cereal memorized and ranked by color, shape, and texture. I knew my stuff and crunch berries were at the top of my list.
“It’s about time you rolled out of bed.”
“The sun is still yawning.”
“Do you want some coffee to settle your nerves?”
“No. I think I’m going to head over to La Dolce Vita to make a couple of batches of muffins for Gia to sell to his weekend crowd. I’ll get coffee there.”
Aunt Ginny raised an eyebrow. “You think time around a sexy Italian will help you decide if you’re ready to commit to Tim?”
“I think if anyone is able to make me forget about Tim, it’s Gia. And that in itself is a red flag.”
Aunt Ginny drummed her fingers on the table. “You know I’m here for you, whatever you decide. I just don’t want you to make yourself crazy over a man.”
“Duly noted.” I grabbed my purse and headed for the front door. Figaro sat on the narrow table in the hall where we had a dish of hard candy, a bowl for keys, and a plant that he liked to knock over when he didn’t think he was getting enough attention. He gave me a meow as I grabbed my coat off the rack. I rubbed his ears and he pushed against my hand. “You are the only man I need in my life, Fig, but you wouldn’t mind if we add someone else to the mix, would you?”
Figaro sat up tall and batted a butterscotch out of the candy dish. It landed at my feet with a thud. It seemed everyone had a definite opinion about my love life except me.
I decided to walk the two and a half blocks to the Washington Street Mall. You don’t get much more off in the off season than January in Cape May. The streets were dark and misty, and many of the bed-and-breakfasts were closed for the month so the owners could have their own vacations before the new season began. The few stores that opened had reduced hours, some only open on weekends. Gia opened the coffee shop at eight to accommodate early morning churchgoers on their way to Mass at Our Lady Star of the Sea at the end of the Mall. We’d been pretty busy filling special orders since I’d been making allergy-friendly baked goods to expand clientele. It seemed all the kids born in the last ten years were allergic to something.
I used my key to let myself in the back to the kitchen. Gia was sitting in his little office staring at the blank screen of his laptop, drinking a cappuccino. He looked up when he heard the door close and his eyebrows shot up to his wavy dark hair. He didn’t speak at first, his eyes searching mine. We were frozen, letting the silence hang between us.
“I came to make some muffins.”
“I thought I would do Paleo Mexican Chocolate and Apple Pie Crumble.”
After a moment of silence, he stood up. “Do you want a latte?”
He headed to the espresso bar in the front room but paused in front of me. He pulled me into a hug and held on like it was the last time we would see each other. He broke away and left the room without a word.
I set out ingredients for the baking I wanted to try and willed my heart to slow down. Maybe this was a bad idea. There was a reckless part of me that would take off with Gia and never look back. All he had to do was say the word. I measured and mixed batter with shaky hands and a heavy heart until he brought me a coconut almond milk latte that he had created just for me.
“So.” He leaned against the counter.
“So.” I took a sip of my coffee.
“Are you exclusive with Tim now?”
“I haven’t given him an answer yet.”
Gia lifted a hand and tucked a shock of my hair that had come loose from my ponytail behind my ear. “So, it’s not too late.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“What is your heart telling you?”
“That everyone is going to get hurt.”
“I don’t care about everyone. I just care about you. What do you want?”
“I don’t know yet. I don’t want to decide right now.”
Gia pulled me into his arms. “Then don’t. Wait until you are sure.”
“What if I never know?”
Gia laughed softly, and I felt his breath against my forehead. “You will.”
I pulled back and looked into his smiling eyes. A rush of heat flew up to my cheeks. There was a part of me that loved this attention. Two men were fighting over me. I was both exhilarated and ashamed of myself for being exhilarated. “How long will you wait?”
He grinned. “I don’t see a ring on your finger, so there’s still time to make you mine.”
I returned his smile. “So, you won’t give up until I’m engaged?”
Gia brought his face close and brushed his lips against mine. “Bella, I won’t give up until you’re married.”
I left Gia with four dozen muffins and another little piece of my heart and walked home with my third latte of the morning. I contemplated the many ways my life would change if I entered into a committed relationship with Tim. I mean, it wasn’t a marriage proposal. It was a let’s-give-it-ago-by-officially-dating proposal. A proposal to finally see what might have been with my first love, Tim. The one whose heart I recklessly broke twenty-five years ago. If I screwed it up this time, there would be no coming back. What was my heart telling me? It was telling me to run far, far away and hide out in the woods with some cookie-baking elves. Tim’s Kia was parked in front of Aunt Ginny’s house. He was early.
I wiped my boots on the mat at the front door so long I shaved off a layer of the soles and finally had to go in.
Tim was standing on the other side of the door in his striped chef pants and a black T-shirt with a bouquet of lavender roses. He gave me a big grin, then saw the La Dolce Vita cup in my hands and his grin shrank half a size. “Hey, gorgeous. I wanted to surprise you.” He leaned down and gave me a quick kiss. “I didn’t realize you’d be with him this morning.” His eyes slid to the coffee cup again.
I took the roses in one hand and slipped my coffee cup down on the key table behind him with the other. “I’m just getting back from making the gluten-free muffins.” I started to shrug out of my coat when Aunt Ginny breezed into the foyer.
“Welcome home. I told Tim he didn’t have to wait in here. He was welcome to come into the kitchen with me, but he wanted to meet you at the door.” Aunt Ginny took the roses. “I’ll put these in water so you two can talk.” She started toward the kitchen, but not before searching my face for clues as to what I was going to say.
Tim smiled down at me. He spied something behind me and his eyes lit up. “Wow.” He walked over to a wooden bird hanging on the wall in the sitting room. “You still have that?”
Memories flew at me like dandelion seeds on the wind. “That was my ninth-grade shop project.”
“Okay.” Tim took it off its peg. “Don’t you mean this was my project?”
I laughed and tried to get it away from him. “Hey, I got that B fair and square.”
He held it out of my reach. “Because I carved it for you after class. You were trying to fake an illness to get out of it.”
“Who needs wood-carving skills in real life?”
“Dwarfs, clog makers, whittlers,” he teased me.
“Professional whittlers? Really?”
Tim turned it around. “Look, I secretly signed it.” He pointed to a tiny heart hidden in the bird’s feathers.
“I never noticed that before.”
“I knew even then that I wanted you to be my girlfriend.”
My throat closed up, and Tim put the carved bird back on its hook. He shot off across the foyer into the library. “Remember when we played that epic, four-hour game of Monopoly?”
“I remember you tried to get me to pay my rent on your Park Place hotel by taking my shirt off.”
Tim grinned. “Oh yeah. And that’s when your grandmother decided to do her crocheting in here with us.”
We both laughed, then gave birth to a moment of awkward silence.
Tim gestured to the fireplace. “You want me to light a fire?”
“Sure.” I sat on the couch and took a couple of deep breaths to calm my nerves. Figaro peeked around the corner to see what was going on. His ears pinned to his head at the sight of Tim. A hand appeared and nudged Figaro into the room. Subtle. I wondered if Aunt Ginny had bugged his collar.
Tim joined me on the couch and we watched the fire dance over the kindling until the logs roared to life. “I’m sorry if I put you on the spot yesterday.”
“I definitely didn’t see it coming.” Gigi didn’t see it either. She had flames shooting out of her eyes when Tim said he wasn’t interested in her that way.
Tim took my hand in his. “I know things didn’t work out when we were teenagers, but I never stopped loving you. I thought about you every day.”
“I’ve always loved you too . . .” I didn’t get to finish because we were interrupted when a gray ball thudded onto the couch. Figaro turned so his backside was in Tim’s face and gave me a long meow.
Tim gathered Figaro’s tail out of his mouth and looked around to catch my eye.
Fig was insistent. “Merrrroww.”
I scooped the gray pouf into my lap, but instead of settling down, he repositioned himself between Tim and me.
Tim struggled to get a cat hair out of his mouth. “What were you saying . . . before . . .”
“I’m sorry. I was just going to say that I–I’ve always loved you too . . . but . . .”
Figaro lifted his back leg to do some detail work in Tim’s direction.
Tim’s eyebrows shot up. “I see you went for the full neutering. Good choice.”
I grabbed Fig around the middle and pulled him to me. “I am so sorry. He’s not normally . . . actually, he’s always like this. I’m just sorry you have to be on the receiving end of it.” I placed Figaro on the floor at my feet. He narrowed his eyes and flicked his tail at me.
I pointed at him to behave.
He flopped over.
Tim shifted in his seat and wiped his palms back and forth over his legs. “You’ve always loved me, but . . . ?”
“Well . . . I’ve been gone a long time and . . .”
Figaro mistakenly assumed Tim was baiting him and pounced, rapid-fire batting Tim’s hands.
Tim pulled his hands away. “Ahh! Stop it!”
Figaro bolted around the back of the couch to regroup. This was not going well.
I put my hand on Tim’s arm. “It’s just that I don’t think I’m ready . . .”
Tim’s eyes lost their sparkle and he ran his hand through his hair and sighed. “I don’t want you to be pressured, Mack. It’s not like I was asking you to marry me or anything.”
“Oh no, of course I didn’t think that . . .”
He crossed his arms over his chest and gave a mirthless laugh. “Heck no. We’ve only been reacquainted for a few weeks really. Much too soon for any kind of long-term commitment.”
“Oh. I thought . . . When you told Gigi that you were only interested in me . . .”
Tim’s face blossomed pink up to his ears and he looked at the fire. “Oh, that? Well, what I meant was . . . you know. As a chef.”
“As a chef?”
Figaro was doing figure eights against Tim’s black pants. Every couple of swipes he would stop and inspect his work to see how much gray fur he’d left behind matching the narrow stripes.
Tim cleared his throat. “Yeah. Um, why don’t you come to work for me? As my full-time pastry chef.”
I felt my heart slide two inches lower in my ribs. Tim wasn’t asking me to be his girlfriend. I should have been relieved, and yet I wasn’t as elated as I’d expected. I felt the heat rise to my face. What is wrong with me? “You weren’t looking for a relationship?”
Tim grinned. “I am if you are.” He leaned in and put a hand on my leg. “I want to be with you.” He turned my chin up and kissed me. He searched my eyes for a moment, then dropped my chin. “But it’s not like I’m looking to get engaged. Let’s just keep things loose for now.”
There was something in the way his eyes shifted to the side that made me wonder if he was backpedaling. How is he going to pay me to be a full-time pastry chef? He’s barely in the black as it is. That was the whole reason we did that cockamamie Restaurant Week competition. “What exactly would you want me to do as your pastry chef?”
Tim thought for a minute. “Well . . . you and I would work very closely together to plan the menu. You’d need to come in very early to make the desserts and be finished before the line comes in to get lunch prepped.”
“Would you be there with me?”
“Ah . . . no. Not every day. I usually come in after prep and work from lunch to around ten. I don’t get off until around two a.m. in the summer.”
“So, I wouldn’t really see you.”
Tim took my hand in his. “That’s the biz, babe. That’s what we’d be doing if we had our own restaurant.”
That doesn’t sound like fun at all. “Well, I’d love to make your desserts, but I don’t think I can keep that schedule plus my commitment to La Dolce Vita.”
Tim dropped my hand. “Oh, you’re still planning on doing that?”
“Well, yeah. I’ve promised to make Gia’s baked goods first. Plus, I have the B&B to run. We only have the occasional weekend booking right now, but in a couple of months I think we’ll be full when the season officially starts.”
Tim nodded and chewed his bottom lip.
Figaro swatted at Tim’s shoelace. I tried to nudge him away, but he bit my foot.
Tim smiled wistfully. “We always planned to run our own place together, remember?”
“I didn’t have to take care of Aunt Ginny in that dream.”
“I’ll tell you what.” He perked up. “What if you make the desserts here at home? You have a certified kitchen. You could make a few things each week and bring them in when we run low. That way we could still work together, and if you get too busy to make a few muffins for Gia”—he practically choked on his name—“maybe then it would be time to let him find someone else and you and I can make it a permanent thing.”
“We can make what a permanent thing?”
Tim smiled. “Everything.” He gave me another kiss that lingered until we heard a throat clear from just outside the door.
I sat up straight and Tim stood up. Both of his shoelaces were untied, and Figaro had mysteriously disappeared.
Tim leaned down to tie his shoes. “What do you say? Want to come work for me, Mack?”
I let out an obvious sigh of relief like an open pressure cooker valve. I had no idea when I was going to find the time to make Tim’s desserts, Gia’s allergy-friendly baked goods, and run my bed-and-breakfast. I had made plans with Tim many years ago to run our own restaurant. Of course, that promise had come with a diamond engagement ring, a joint checking account, and fringe bedroom benefits. I’d blindly jumped into situations in the past, and some of them had changed the course of my whole life. I didn’t want to make that mistake again. I wasn’t ready to make any life-altering decisions, but Tim was offering me time to figure out my heart, and that was good enough.
“Deal.” I tucked myself into his arms and hugged him.
We walked to the front door, and Aunt Ginny tried to make herself look busy examining a picture of an old lady cutting a pear that had been hanging in the foyer for fifty years. “Oh, are you two all finished with your talk already?”
I cut my eyes at Aunt Ginny and gave her a look that I was on to her. She blinked and returned giant eyes of innocence.
Tim smiled at me. “For now.”
“Good.” She took a sip of her coffee and looked over the rim at me. “You guys are so young. You know I hate to see you get all jumbled up in drama over relationship stuff.”
Tim gave me a quick kiss. “I’ll call you later.” He opened the door and had to take a step back.
Huddled in the doorway were three fleecy-haired old biddies. Aunt Ginny’s lifelong besties, Mrs. Dodson, Mrs. Davis, and Mother Gibson. They were silent, but their bright eyes were all atwitter.
Mrs. Dodson double tapped her cane on the porch. “Ginny, he’s back!”
Aunt Ginny turned pale. Her eyes fluttered, and the coffee cup dropped from her hands and shattered.
“Aunt Ginny, you’re shaking.” I rubbed her hands with mine to be sure she wasn’t going to pass out or have a stroke.
Figaro rushed to sniff out what had been in that coffee cup while the ladies tut-tutted and shook their heads in a show of support. Tim gave me a subtle head nod and slipped out while I led Aunt Ginny to a tufted chair in the sitting room to compose herself.
Aunt Ginny fiddled with the locket around her neck and stared off into her memories. “I can’t believe it. After all this time.”
I got the broom and dustpan out of the hall closet. “After all this time what?”
Mrs. Davis took a hankie out of her purse and passed it to Aunt Ginny. “Word on the street is, he’s here to stay.”
I picked through the larger pieces of pottery and tossed them into the wastebasket. “Who’s here to stay?”
Aunt Ginny waved her hand like she was swatting a mosquito. “Pshh. We’ll see. He’s probably having a contract dispute.”
I swept the fragments into the dustpan. “Contract dispute about what?”
Mother Gibson patted Aunt Ginny on the shoulder. “You know how he is. He always thought he was a hotshot.”
I emptied the dustpan into the wastebasket. “Who’s a hotshot?”
Aunt Ginny shook her head. “Yeah, but he really is now. Four Tonys.”
I shot to my feet. “Ladies! Who are we talking about?”
Four sets of sharp eyes snapped to me. Mrs. Dodson gave me a love-suffers-long kind of look. “Ginny’s first boyfriend, Royce Hansen.”
Aunt Ginny woke from her haze with a roll of her eyes. “That’s not true. My first boyfriend was Duffy Collins and he was an idiot. With Royce it was love at first sight.”
I recalled Aunt Ginny’s words just before Tim left. “So, all this drama is over a man?” I gave Aunt Ginny a sarcastic look and she had the decency to blush. “I’ll go make us some coffee.”
Aunt Ginny called weakly after me, “Thank you, honey.”
“And bring some cookies!” Mrs. Davis hollered. “You can’t gripe about an ex-boyfriend properly without cookies.”
I went to the kitchen to boil water for the commiseration session. So, Aunt Ginny had a high school boyfriend she hasn’t seen in years. And, apparently, he’s a Broadway actor. Unless four Tonys means something else to her generation. I’d better find that out before I say anything. I placed a bunch of Easy Peanut Butter cookies on a tray with all the necessary accouterment and willed the water to boil faster. Gossip was happening in the next room and I didn’t want to miss it. I had grown up in this ho. . .
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