The door at the back of the truck opened and the ramp hit the pavement. Joaquin clanged up the ramp and entered. “We're here, friends,” he called in that same cheery voice. “Did everyone enjoy the ride?”
“Loved it,” Kyle said in an overly exuberant tone.
“Definitely,” Stan said when it appeared Joaquin waited for her answer also.
“Wonderful!” Joaquin said. “We're not quite ready to start yet, so I'm going to leave you here and keep you in suspense for a few moments longer. Just adding to the mystery!” He chuckled at his own joke. “Back in a few!”
He left again, closing the door behind him. Kyle groaned. “Is this guy for real?”
“Sounds like it,” Stan said. She itched to slip her blindfold off and take a tiny peek at her surroundings, but figured Joaquin still had some camera trained on them.
“Where do you think we are, anyway?” Kyle said.
Stan considered. They hadn't been in the truck more than ten minutes. They had to be near the heart of Newport. Plus they'd stopped a bunch of times, probably for traffic lights or summer tourist jams. “We're probably over by the mansions,” she said. “Or somewhere around the beaches.”
“How do you know that?”
“I grew up around here,” she said.
Another silence. “Narragansett?”
She cocked her head, even though she couldn't see him. “How did you know that?”
“I think Sheldon mentioned it,” he said. “Listen, I wasn't trying to be a downer about the weekend. Are you excited?”
Odd, because she didn't remember telling Sheldon specifically where she'd grown up, just that it had been in Rhode Island. “I am. It's kind of fun, even the weirdness of this,” she said. “I'm anxious to get started.”
They lapsed into silence, which seemed loud given their lack of sight. Just when Stan started to see purple stars blinking in front of her eyes, Kyle spoke again.
“I'll bet my latest order of organic avocados that someone hasn't shown up yet, and that's what's holding up the works.” He fell silent as footsteps sounded on the ramp outside.
“Let's go,” Joaquin chirped. “Stan? Ladies first! Hold on to the kitty.” He grabbed her elbow and tugged her to her feet.
She rose, steadying herself against the side of the truck. “Are you taking this thing off so I don't fall out of the truck on the way down?”
He laughed. “Alas, no. I'm here to help you, but the unveiling will only happen when everyone has arrived.”
Kyle muttered something Stan couldn't quite make out. It was her turn to sigh.
“Okay,” she said. “Let's get this over with. I have to warn you, I'm not coordinated even when I can see.” Hugging Nutty to her, she took a few tentative steps toward the exit.
“You're doing fine. Coming up to the ramp. Watch the speed bump! You're doing great, aaand . . . you're down. Wait right here while I get Mr. McLeod.” He went back into the truck.
“You don't need to hold my hand,” she heard Kyle say, and smiled.
When Kyle had arrived safely on the ground, too, Joaquin herded them forward, his hand at the small of Stan's back. “We have some of our other friends here, and we're just waiting for one more. And the infamous Sheldon, of course. Sit tight, people. But do mingle.” He squeezed Stan's arm and moved away.
Mingle. Funny, since they couldn't even see each other. Stan squinted, trying to see through the thin fabric of her blindfold, but Joaquin had created enough layers that she couldn't. She took a deep breath and sniffed the ocean air. A slight clue about where they were, although it wasn't a stretch to find ocean in Rhode Island.
It felt good to be home. She'd missed this smell and the bliss of a summer's afternoon on the sand. It had been a long time since she'd allowed herself an afternoon at the beach. When she'd worked in corporate America she'd never made the time. After her job elimination last year she'd spent the summer moving to Frog Ledge and getting used to her new town, which left no beach time either. So maybe this weekend with Sheldon and his crew was a sign. Maybe Jake could join her after this shindig and they could spend a few days at a B and B overlooking the ocean.
“I haven't heard Pierre's big mouth yet,” a grating female voice said near Stan's ear, jolting her out of her thoughts. “He never showed up at our meeting place. He's the one holding up the works.”
“Figures.” A man's voice this time. “He's probably protesting something.”
The woman snorted. “As usual. He can be such a turd. Poor Joaquin is running around like a maniac looking for him. He's got Sheldon's whole staff on it.”
. She wondered if they were talking about Pierre LaPorte, one of the only other names she knew in food besides Sheldon. Another pastry guy. His bakery in New York had been linked to Sheldonâa tidbit she'd discovered when doing research last yearâso it made sense. Pierre's creations, though geared to humans, looked exquisite. Maybe he could help her adapt a recipe like his puffed apple pastry for cats and dogs. Her earlier excitement returned. This weekend could be a huge opportunity.
Two more vehicles roared up the driveway. They didn't sound like mobile pastry trucks. More like fast cars. Doors slammed. Voices hummed through the summer afternoon air. Stan felt impatience stirring.
Let's get on with it, already.
She wanted to get this stupid blindfold off.
“Everyone! Wonderful news!” Joaquin called. “Sheldon is here! Please, let's gather.”
Stan put Nutty on the ground and took a few tentative steps forward, arms outstretched in front of her. Someone jostled her, stepping on her foot.
“So sorry,” the same man's voice said. “I can't see a bloody thing!”
“Which is kind of the point,” another male voice said. “Genius.”
Joaquin clapped his hands to get their attention. “Okay, everyone, presenting . . . Sheldon!”
“Don't you all look adorable!” Sheldon's unmistakeable silvery voice rang out. “Welcome to our weekend. Thank you for humoring me with my covert operations to get you here. We're missing Pierreâyes, the famous Pierre LaPorteâbut I'm sure he'll be along soon.”
“Probably throwing a temper tantrum because it wasn't a limo come to get him,” the female voice murmured.
“So without further ado, I want to share our upcoming adventure.” Sheldon paused for dramatic effect. “As you know, I've called you all here this weekend because you're chefs in some stage of working with me. What you may not know is that you're my top group of food artists. And so very special to me.” He paused again, waiting, Stan thought, for some recognition. She clapped. The others followed suit. Nutty sat on her feet.
“Thank you, thank you. When you take your blindfolds off you'll see our haven for the weekend, where we'll create together, cook together, bond. This house is very special to me and I'm thrilled we'll all be sharing it. And then on Monday . . .” He trailed into silence for another bout of dramatic effect. “On Monday, we'll present a sit-down, five-course dinner to a group of investors at The Chanler at Cliff Walk.”
Stan raised an eyebrow behind her blindfold. The Chanler was one of Newport's oldest mansions that had gone through many iterations to become what it was todayâa luxury hotel with ocean views, guest chauffeurs, and pricey rooms. And a delightful restaurant, which Sheldon apparently had designs to hijack for the day. She wondered how he was pulling that off.
“I have brought you all together because you have a specialty that will be featured at the meal,” Sheldon continued.
from her fellow chefs. A couple of them clapped in earnest now. She frowned behind her blindfold. Unless her investors were going to eat gourmet pet food, she probably didn't belong here. But Sheldon must have anticipated her thought process.
“And my dear Stan. You look lovely in purple, by the way! I'm sure you're wondering what your role will be. Well, let me assure you I'm not losing my mind. You will provide the food for one of our investor's Siamese cats. A meal that will be equal in importanceâmaybe even more importantâthan the humans' meal, because this cat is very special. A three-time winner of the World Championship Cat Show! And your lovely feline, who accompanied you here this weekend, will be our taste tester. What do you think of that?”
A Siamese. Lord help her. They were only the pickiest breed of cats. “Wow,” Stan managed. “That . . . sounds amazing.”
“I knew you would think so. This is a phenomenal opportunity for all of us. First”âStan could picture him jabbing a finger into the air to highlight his pointâ“the event will be a featured spread in
magazine. The photographer will arrive Monday morning and follow us through the day. And two, it will allow me to expand our enterprise, if everyone signs on. And the best for last. One of our guests works for The Food Channel. And he's on the lookout for chefs like us. . . .” He paused for added effect. “For an
. . . series!”
This time, the
, and claps were more enthusiastic. Who wouldn't want to be on The Food Channel? Maybe this weekend wasn't so crazy after all, despite Sheldon's eccentricities.
“So are you ready to see your new home away from home?” he called. “Ladies and gentlemen, remove your blindfolds and join me at the Allyn Retreat for Top Chefs!”
Stan tugged the silk from her eyes and blinked in the bright afternoon sunlight. Directly in front of her, Sheldon Allyn filled her vision. He stood on the hood of an honest-to-God, for-real pink Cadillac wearing aviator sunglasses and beaming at them. The sun glinted off his metallic pink suit, which matched the tips of his short, spiky white hair. A lime green shirt peeked out from under the suit jacket. Silver wing-tipped shoes completed the outfit. She always wanted to break into a disco number when she saw him. Which opened the door for “I Will Survive” to start a continuous loop through her brain, but found it fought for purchase against “Pink Cadillac.”
Once she could tear her gaze from him and his finery, she assessed her surroundings. She stood at the top of a long, slightly inclined, circular driveway along with four other people doing the same blinking routine, as well as a small crowd around Sheldon. His staffers-turned-drivers. Joaquin; a young woman weighing about eighty pounds wearing a skintight leather tube dress; and a tall, slim, punk-slash-retro looking guy with bleached blond hair, earlobes stretched around giant rings, and headphones in his ears, the cords of which snaked down the front of his shirt and disappeared into the pocket of skintight jeans. He was the complete opposite of Joaquin, who was short and round and wore a yellow suit and a turquoise blue tie with his fire-engine red shoes.
Stan did get a better look at Kyle McLeod, her travel companion. She'd been rightâhandsome in a tanned, golden-boy way, with sparkling white teeth and just enough stubble to be fashionable. He wore his blond, sun-bleached hair cut short and carefully gelled. He caught her eye and smiled at her.
“Maybe that ride was worth it after all,” he murmured. “The Food Channel. That would be a dream come true.”
The Food Channel hadn't yet made it to Stan's bucket list, but she didn't say so. She already felt out of place with this crew and she hadn't officially met them yet. “Mmm,” she said noncommittally, bending down to scoop Nutty into her arms. “Look at this place.” She nodded at the house before them. The four-story structure looked like more than a simple weekend retreat. A combination of glass, steel, and stucco resulted in a futuristic feel. Skylights, balconies, and rooftop decks all vied for her attention when she wasn't drawn to the sculpture in the yard facing the circular driveway. The enormous piece of twisted steel towered above them, no doubt in the modern contemporary family. It would make quite a picture tonight against the dusky purple sky with yellows and oranges burning in the windows behind it, contrasting brilliantly with the blue gray of the ocean glimmering in the background.
Which got her excited all over again. She couldn't wait to sneak around back and stand in front of the sea, breathing in the energy of the water. She hoped her room faced the ocean.
Kyle gave a long, low whistle. “Now that's a house,” he said. “Maybe when we sign our contracts we can buy something like this, too. Hi, cat. Nice to see you finally.” He rubbed Nutty's head. Nutty pressed his face into Kyle's palm.
“Sheldon owns this place?” Stan asked.
Kyle nodded. “That'd be my guess. Not too far from his place in Providence.”
Every Sweet Thing had been born in Providence. Sheldon had established himself as a true hero of sweets in the tiny state, and his fans ate it up when he showed up on the cover of some fancy foodie magazine or a prime-time cooking show.
“That's where I'm opening my second restaurant, too. Not far from Sheldon's place,” Kyle said.
“Another vegan restaurant?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Kyle said. “My restaurant in Boca Raton, Green Cuisine, is doing really well. Sheldon wanted me to bring one here.”
It occurred to her that Kyle might be the other odd duck of the group. Sheldon's chefs didn't look like a vegan crowd. “That's fantastic,” Stan said, setting the squirming Nutty on the ground. “We need more of those around here. And Providence is a great place for it. Very diverse.”
Nutty howled, that plaintive Maine coon cry that signaled his unhappiness. The sound caught the attention of the only other woman in the group, who turned and hurried over. Short and round, her generous bosom spilled out of her glittery sky blue sundress. She screeched to a halt in front of Stan, teetering on silver stilettos, and beamed. Even with the shoes the woman wore, Stan towered over her. She found herself eye level with curly, layered hair teased nearly straight up off the woman's head and sprayed with some silver, glittery shellac.
Like her first glimpse of the house and the competing statue, Stan had trouble focusing between the dress's plunging neckline and the too-tall hair. She hadn't seen hair that high since some time in the late eighties. The silver color sparkled with a metallic sheen that matched the shoes perfectly.
“Stan Connor, the pet chef!” the woman boomed in that nasally voice Stan had heard earlier making comments about Pierre. She grabbed Stan's hand and pumped it enthusiastically, nearly yanking it off her arm. “And the cat! Oh my, I have been
to meet the cat. What is his name?”
“Nutty,” Stan said.
Forgetting about Stan, the woman dropped to her knees and began cooing baby talk at Nutty, her tone high pitched and grating. Nutty pressed himself against Stan, as far away from the woman as he could get, ears flattened against his fluffy head. His look of disdain rivaled that of the late Joan Rivers encountering a particularly bad outfit on the red carpet.
Stan met Kyle's eyes over the woman's head. He rolled his.
“I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name,” Stan said, raising her voice so the woman could hear over her own gibberish. Instead of salvaging the meeting, that made things worse. The woman immediately stopped insulting Nutty's intelligence. Slowly, she rose, eyes narrowed, hands going to her bulky hips.
“I beg your pardon,” she said. Her tone had dropped a few degrees and the hint of an Italian accent emerged. “I didn't realize I needed to introduce myself. I'm Maria Ferranto.” She rolled the
's in both names. “I am the owner of Cibo in New York and Rome. I am a
“Oh,” Stan said. She vaguely recognized the name of the restaurant. She'd probably visited it during her past life, wooing journalists at fancy New York eateries. “I'm so sorry, Maria. I should've known that. It's lovely to meet you. Nutty thinks so, too.”
Maria's gaze raked over her, glaring for another moment before her face cleared. “Well, it's lovely to meet Nutty.”
Before Stan could say anything else that got her in trouble, Sheldon commanded their attention again. “I'm so very sorry,” he said. “Joaquin just reminded meâI must be getting old!” He tapped a finger to his temple. “We have packets for each of you with some pertinent information for the weekendâfacts on The Chanler, a pamphlet on our investors, some meal suggestions. We'll hand those out once inside. And Joaquin reminded me that not all of you know each other. So I'd like to take a moment and introduce you.”
“Since we apparently need introductions,” Maria said in a snooty tone that now sounded more New Jersey than Italy.
“Let's start with our newest member. Stan? Please join me.” He held out his hands as she scooped up Nutty and approached him. “And the lovely kitty. How delightful.” He beamed at her, then turned her to face the group. She felt like a brand-new car on
Wheel of Fortune
, with Sheldon playing Vanna. “This is Stan Connor of Pawsitively Organic, a gourmet pet food business. She's been dabbling in many things. Treats, meals, catering, even a wedding! We're thrilled to announce her new shopâwhich will be headquartered in Frogtown, Connecticutâopening soon!”
“Frog Ledge,” Stan corrected.
“Hmmm? Oh, yes, dear. We can open one there, too,” he said absently. “And this delightful creature . . .” He took Nutty from her arms and held him up high in the air. Stan watched in horror as Nutty flattened his ears and hissed. “Is Nutty. He's the taste tester. Thank you, Stan.” Returning the cat to her, he gave her a slight shove back toward the others.
“It's okay, Nutter,” she whispered. “Next time you can bite him.”
Sheldon went through the same spiel with the rest of them. Maria first, then a man named Leonardo Brandt, who could've been Elton John's distant cousin, with his tousled burnt auburn hair, jogging suit, and round, happy face. Brandt specialized in soups and bisques. Then Kyle, and finally a man in a white suit and bright pink shaved head named Marcin Houle, who apparently made melt-in-your-mouth fish dishes. Marcin didn't look pleased to be here. He stood slightly off to the side and didn't acknowledge Sheldon's introduction. Stan noticed that while Maria and Kyle were noted as having restaurants of their own, Leonardo and Marcin were not.
Sheldon rounded out the introductions by gathering his three “assistants” together. “You all know Joaquin, who organizes my entire life.”
Joaquin beamed at them. “We're gonna have
“And of course Therese, who can do hair, makeup, massage, anything you need. Finally, Tyler, my public relations and social media expert. Group hug, assistants!”
The three huddled with Sheldon in an awkward hug. Stan felt an immediate kinship to Tyler. PR had been the center of her previous world. Although Tyler didn't really look friendly enough to do PR.
“Now that we're all friends, let's go inside!” Sheldon headed toward the front door, brandishing a key. The rest of them followed except Stan, who took a few stealth steps toward the back gate.
Kyle turned. “Coming?”
“In a minute. I'm going to peek around back and check out the water. Nutty wants to see it, too.” She couldn't wait any longer. She had already imagined sneaking off to the beach to plot her pastries.
Kyle looked over his shoulder again, uncertain. Sheldon made a big show of unlocking the front door.
“I'll be fast. No one will even notice I'm gone. Cover for me,” she said, letting Nutty down. He strained against his harness. She led him to the gate and unlatched it.
They stepped into a backyard straight out of a magazine. What looked like miles of grass in a lovely shade of green stretched out before them. It felt wrong to step on the well-manicured, plush lawn. There were no dead spots. It looked like someone had hand-clipped it blade by blade. A lovely raised patio spanned the length of the back of the house, with stone tiles and elegant furniture. A wooden fence with a gate gave the yard privacy. And over the fence she could see the blue of the ocean.
Nutty mewed again.
“I know, it's gorgeous,” she said. “You could totally be an ocean cat, couldn't you?”
She started forward, glancing over to admire the patio. Real furniture, nicer than in her own living room, had been placed strategically under the umbrella, which was large enough to cover the whole patio, practically. She paused. Someone sat on one of the chairs, his or her back to Stan, slouched over as if napping. She could see the faint shadow against the white stones of the patio and moved over to look more closely.
“Hello?” she called. Nutty hissed.
No answer from the person sitting on the love-seat-sized chair. Maybe one of the house staffers? Poor guy or gal was probably trying to get some rest before the madness began. She should tiptoe past and leave him or her alone. But curiosity got the better of her and she circled around to the front of the chair.
“Hi. Sorry to bother youâ” She stopped, a sick, greasy feeling rising up in her stomach along with the remnants of her last meal. She forced it back down, clenching her teeth together as her mind registered the horror of the sight before her.
The man slumped on the bench looked, based on her memory of a couple of YouTube videos, like Pierre LaPorte, the famous pastry chef who'd been late to the party. He had good reason. His throat had been cut. The wound gaped. Blood dried in the sunlight. His eyes stared open and unseeing into the Newport horizon.