“Would you mind sticking around while we talk to the others?” Owens asked when it became clear Stan had nothing more to say.
She would. She wanted to pack up and head back to Frog Ledge and Jake. But it didn't seem like she had a choice. And she didn't have a car.
“Sure,” she said unhappily.
“Great. We'll be back in a bit. Oh,” Genske said as if suddenly remembering. “Can you give me your contact information, please? A cell phone number and address. And your full name.”
Stan scribbled her info in the notebook Genske offered her, then handed it back.
“Thanks,” Genske said.
The detectives left her sitting there, still holding Nutty. He'd finally stopped swishing his plumed tail, in favor of a nap. She figured any minute he'd start yelling for dinner. She didn't blame him. He hadn't even gotten any treats today.
She picked him up and moved to the pristine white couch, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes. She had a splitting headache and wanted to crawl into bed and sleep for the next week. She recognized the look they'd given her on the way out, that murder-suspect look. All because she'd wanted to see the ocean and had the misfortune of finding a dead body instead.
Tears swam into her eyes. She blinked them away. She'd been so hopeful coming here. After a rough yearâtransitioning to a new home, leaving behind her old corporate life, being dragged into three separate murder investigations, starting a new business, and trying to sort through her feelings for Jakeâshe'd finally thought she'd found the right path. The opportunity with Sheldon seemed like the icing on an already sweet cake. And now another dead body had fallen at her feet. A fresh set of tears filled her eyes and spilled over. She gave up trying to hold them back and let them fall. They dripped down onto Nutty's fur.
She needed to talk to Jake. He would be at the pub now, probably getting ready for the evening rush. He'd recently upgraded the McSwigg's menu, and the food orders were as robust as the beer these days. When she came in, he'd have a plate of her favorite, homemade French fries, waiting for her. He'd pour a glass of her favorite red wineâpinot noirâand top it off with that smile that made her all melty inside. Give her a quick kiss before he had to go pour drinks, scraping her cheek with that sexy stubble.
The last time Stan could remember feeling homesick she'd been twelve years old. Her mother had sent her to a ridiculously expensive dance camp for the summer. She hated dance and she missed her dad. She spent most nights crying into her pillow. Today, she felt that kind of homesick. And as much like a prisoner now at thirty-six as she'd been at twelve.
She looked up. Kyle stood in front of her. “Hey,” she said, forcing her voice back to normal. “They let you off the hook?”
Kyle shrugged. “They didn't arrest me. Although they did ask us to âremain available.' And swore us to silence with threat of jail if we leaked this before they had a chance to notify Pierre's family.” He rubbed his face with both hands. “This is crazy. Who would kill Pierre? And why here?
“I don't know,” Stan said. They were silent for a moment. “It didn't sound like some of the people here liked him very much,” she said finally. “Was he really that unpopular?”
Kyle shrugged. “I didn't know him as well as the rest of them.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one had joined them. “He could be a jerk. I know that's bad to say about a dead guy.” He looked up at the ceiling, a silent apology to heaven.
“So what now?” Stan asked.
“I have no idea,” Kyle said. He watched her for a minute. “Are you okay? That couldn't have been a pleasant sight.”
“I'm fine,” Stan said. “Great. How are you?”
“About the same.” He blew out a breath and sat in the chair across from her, a cushy red blob that looked like a cross between a beanbag and an oversized pillow. They sat in silence for a while. Stan closed her eyes, trying to discourage conversation, but she could feel her companion's eyes on her. Finally Sheldon came in.
“Folks?” He'd toned down his normally loud, animated voice to a low, even keel. “Can you join us in the kitchen?”
Stan gathered Nutty's leash around her wrist. They followed Sheldon and Kyle into the other room. The entire group had assembled. Detective Genske leaned against the counter. Owens was nowhere in sight. He'd probably gone to oversee the activity outside.
Maria Ferranto huddled on a bar stool. Joaquin had his arm around her. Therese clutched a glass of Scotch. She drank in big gulps, a deer-in-headlights look plastered across her face. Tyler, on the other hand, had a computer out on the table and typed furiously. Stan felt a pang of sympathy. The weekend had just gotten complicated for him. Life in public relations. Leonardo and Marcin stood together near the table, talking in low voices. They trailed off into silence when Sheldon, Stan, and Kyle entered the room.
Sheldon took his position at the front of the room and cleared his throat. He looked at Genske. She met his eyes, hers cool and coplike. “May I?” Sheldon asked her.
She shrugged. “Be my guest.”
Sheldon's brows knitted together in consternation, but he turned to his people. “Team, as you know, we've had a horrible tragedy. The police are working very hard to find out what happened to our friend and colleague.” His eyes watered and he dragged his wrist across his face, smearing silver eye shadow. “They've asked a couple of things from us. One, that we continue to make ourselves available during this ongoing investigation, and notify them immediately if any information about this crime comes to our attention.”
Maybe they thought the murder had been a group effort, Stan thought. The sinking feeling in her stomach grew more pronounced.
“Two,” Sheldon continued, “they would like permission to search the cars of anyone who has their vehicles here, as well as your cars in the lot downtown. I trust no one will have an issue with that, and if so, you'll hand over keys.”
Everyone nodded and fished in pockets or bags.
“And three, they've asked that we vacate the house so they can peruse the entire, aah, crime scene without us getting in their way. To that end, I've made arrangements with a friend nearby to put us up for the weekend. I guarantee you'll find the accommodations just as pleasant.”
Silence. Stan saw Leonardo's eyebrows shoot straight up as the others cast furtive, confused looks at each other. The same thought seemed to go through their minds:
We're still doing this weekend thing?
“Sheldon,” Leonardo said, clearly the bravest of them all. “Do you mean that we're still going on with our cooking show?”
Sheldon's expression could have curdled milk. “But of course, Leo,” he said in a voice that suggested Leo was extremely stupid. “We have an
. Sheldon Allyn's team always keeps its word, no matter the circumstances. And this is how PierreâGod rest his soulâwould've wanted it.” He looked at each of them in turn to make sure they understood completely.
“Tyler is working on our media statement. And Joaquin is going to find us a replacement chef for Pierre's portion of the meal.” He nodded, as if convincing himself. “We'll cook a meal that will make everyone proud. Pierre will smile down on us. We'll pull this off in Pierre's name!” He raised his fist in the air, a private battle cry. No one followed suit.
Stan got the distinct feeling his tenacity had more to do with a potential Food Channel contract than the memory of his dead pastry chef. She met Genske's eyes across the room. Judging from the detective's face, she had the same doubts. But that was the least of Stan's worries right now, considering she might be rooming with a killer this weekend.
Genske stayed on them like a hawk until they'd vacated the house. Sheldon called for the limo Maria'd joked about earlier. No mobile pastry truck this time. They all piled in with their belongings. Stan worried about Nutty. He hadn't used a litter box since this morning and she prayed he wouldn't have an accident in the car. Since once again they had no idea where they were going, she didn't know how long it would take to get there. At least this time they weren't blindfolded.
She piled in with Maria, Leonardo, Marcin, and Kyle. Sheldon drove his pink Cadillac. Tyler and Therese got in another car that appeared to be Tyler's. Joaquin drove his own car, a royal blue Ford Fiesta.
No one spoke during the short trip. The car drove down Ocean Avenue and pulled into what looked like a private driveway. Stan recognized the resort on the hill ahead of them. The Newport Premier, another of Newport's finest hotels. It wasn't quite as pricey as The Chanler, where an “ocean villa” could run you $1,200 a night, but it was up there. She and her friends used to come here as teenagers for the afternoon tea served in the lobby after a day at the beach, pretending they were celebrities. If Sheldon could afford to put them up here, she wondered if he even needed a Food Channel contract. The place resembled a mini castle, with circular rooms and decks that jutted out over the ocean. Stan had never stayed here, but presumed it cost a small fortune for one night. And for nine peopleâshe couldn't even do the math. Maria sniffed when she saw the resort. Stan figured she had some villa in Italy that made this look like a shack. Next to her Kyle stiffened and muttered something that sounded like,
You've got to be kidding me
“I hope they have the right accommodations for our guest of honor,” Maria said, reaching across the seat to rub Nutty's head. Nutty head-butted her hand, then Stan's.
He wanted his dinner. She rummaged through her bag for her packet of emergency treats and fed him one. He gobbled it up and waited expectantly for another. She fed him two more while the limo parked in the circular driveway meant for unloading. Maria had a good point, though. She needed a litter box for Nutty, stat. She hadn't brought any of his normal traveling paraphernalia because his invitation had been specificâNutty would have everything he needed, especially delicious food. But with this change of plans, who knew?
The doorman opened the limo door and offered his hand. “Thanks,” Stan said, shifting Nutty under her arm. He kicked at her, scratching her arm with his back claws. The doorman pretended not to notice. Like when a kid has a temper tantrum in a store and people avert their eyes from the embarrassed parent.
Kyle lingered in the car. “You coming?” Stan asked.
“I'll be right there.”
She shrugged and followed the doorman. “Right this way, miss,” he said. “We have someone coming to collect your bags. If you could just step into the lobby.”
They all went through the revolving door. Sheldon joined them a minute later with Kyle on his heels. “Let's gather,” he called. “We'll have room assignments momentarily.”
Stan tried to hide her impatience. She wanted to feed Nutty, take a shower, and crawl into bed. Away from these people, preferably.
A woman swept down the grand staircase in the middle of the lobby. She could have walked out of the pages of
magazine, with her perfect hair, perfect outfit, and perfect smile, in the perfect setting. Everyone in their group fell silent as she approached.
“Good evening,” she purred in a voice best suited for a phone sex hotline. “I'm Lucy Keyes. I'll be your host tonight. We're delighted to have such a talented group of chefs gracing our halls.”
Stan knew she'd never looked that perfect even straight out of the shower with clothes fresh from the cleaners. Despite the seven o'clock hour, no wrinkle dared in7fringe upon Lucy's expensive gray suitâChanel, undoubtedly. Her gleaming chestnut hair, long and layered and glossy, looked like she'd just left a professional stylist's on Fifth Avenue. Her pink-studded Louboutins helped give the impression that she towered over all of them, though without them Stan estimated she would be around Maria's height. Sheldon rushed over and kissed both her cheeks and spoke softly to her. Lucy nodded a few times, then turned her attention to the rest of them. Stan noticed her gaze linger on Kyle McLeod just a tad longer than everyone else. He seemed to look everywhere but at her.
“We've reserved three suites for you tonight,” she said. “My sincere apologies that I couldn't have a suite open for each of you, but we're quite full this weekend due to the Jazz Festival.”
Jazz Festival weekend. Stan'd almost forgotten, it had been so long. She wished Jake could meet her here and they could sneak off to enjoy it.
“I think you'll find the suites quite roomy in any event,” Lucy continued. “I have the three ladiesâand our star felineâtogether.” She winked at Stan. “And I'll leave you boys to decide how to divide yourselves in threes. Jackson will show you to your rooms. I'll take the ladies.” A small man in a bellhop uniform magically appeared at her side.
“Gentlemen, if you could follow me,” Jackson intoned in a pinched voice that made Stan want to blow her nose. Everyone but Kyle McLeod immediately fell in line, Sheldon herding them from the end position like a corgi herding a flock of sheep. Kyle stepped over to Lucy Keyes. He bent his head close to hers and said something. She shook her head, then turned so Stan couldn't hear. A minute later, Kyle rejoined the group and they headed off.
Lucy watched them go, then said, “Follow me, ladies.” She led them to an elevator and hit the Up button.
Therese and Maria took off after her. Nutty dug his heels in and refused to move, so Stan had to bend down and scoop him up again. He'd clearly had enough of this weekend of stardom. He meowed his displeasure loudly enough that Lucy turned around, amused, as the elevator operator held the Door Open button.
“Is our star kitty unhappy?” she asked.
“He's had a rough day,” Stan said, ducking into the elevator. The door slid shut behind her.
“I bet. Fifth floor, please,” she said to the man, and he pressed the button.
The ride took about two seconds. Lucy led them off the elevator and down a marble hall, her heels
. Stan felt frumpy and underdressed in her denim shorts, tank top, and flip-flops.
“I've sent someone to get him his supplies,” Lucy said. “The cat. What's his name again?”
“Nutty. What kind of supplies?”
Lucy paused and looked back at her. “Every cat needs a comfortable commode, right?”
Stan smiled. “This cat probably needs one bad.”
Lucy led them down that hall for what seemed like a mile. She finally stopped in front of a wooden door with brass knobs. She threw the door open with a grand sweep of her arm and beamed. “This suite should suit you. There are three floors. Kitchen on the first, living room on the second, and two bedrooms on the third. One has a king bed, the other has two queens. If you don't want to share a bedroom, there's a delightful pull-out sofa in the second-floor living room. As welcoming as the softest bed.”
Stan stepped into the suite and looked around. They were in a foyer larger than the one in her own little Victorian house. To her right, a fully equipped kitchen. The first floor also had a full bathroom. A short staircase led to the second floor.
“There's also a small office on the second floor,” Lucy said. “Bathrooms are on each level, and both bedrooms have their own bathroom. There's also an elevator.”
“I'll take the single bedroom,” Maria said. “Age probably has preference, right, girls?” She looked at Stan and Therese, waiting for them to challenge her. Stan didn't care. Therese still hadn't uttered a word. Maria looked disappointed to avoid a fight and promptly disappeared upstairs.
Lucy watched with amusement. “Please let me know if you need anything else. I hope you'll enjoy. And there's Miguel now, with Nutty's supplies.” She waved at the man waiting at the door. He wore overalls and boots and carried a small wooden box that looked hand carved, a bag of cat litter, and another bag full of supplies. He bowed slightly.
“Bed and commode for the gentleman,” he said, with the slightest trace of a Spanish accent. “Which room would you like it in?”
Stan glanced at her other roomie. “The second bedroom. Therese, is that okay with you? I'll need to leave him closed off in a room while I'm out of the suite.”
Therese let out a loud sigh. “Whatever,” she said in a whiny, high-pitched voice with a noticeable New York accent. So much for that exotic accent her features suggested.
“Okay, then,” Stan said to Miguel. “The bedroom it is.”
Lucy nodded approvingly as Miguel bustled past them. Another knock on the door sounded, and the bellhop appeared with the luggage. “You can take those right to the bedrooms,” Lucy said, then turned to Stan and Therese. “I'll leave you, then. I do hope you're comfortable. We'll send dinner up shortlyâfor you ladies and Nutty. My condolences on the loss of your friend.”
Stan almost told her Pierre wasn't her friend, but thought better of it. “Thanks. And Nutty thanks you, too.”
Lucy nodded and exited the suite, closing the door behind her. Miguel appeared and beamed at her. “The commode is set up in the bedroom.” He bowed again, then backed out of the room.
“Thank you,” Stan called. She locked the door behind him and turned to Therese. “Are you going to take the other bed in the bedroom? Or the living room?”
Therese rolled her eyes. “I totally
I'm going out anyway. This is the lamest day ever!”
“Oh,” Stan said. “Are we allowed to leave?”
It's not like Shel is your dad or anything. Like, we don't have a
,” she scoffed, and flounced out of the room. Stan heard the bathroom door slam seconds later.
Stan shook her head. By this time she agreed with the detectives' unspoken assessment: these people were all crazy. “Come on, Nutty.” She led him upstairs, took his harness and leash off, then showed him the litter box. He made a grateful beeline inside. Stan ran a hand over the wood, admiring it. She could definitely use something like this at home.
While she waited for Nutty to finish, she looked around the room. Fit for royalty, done entirely in reds and deep, mustardy yellows. Red velvet curtains covered all the windows, and the plush golden carpet welcomed her feet like a hug when she gratefully slipped her flip-flops off. The bed looked a heck of a lot bigger than queen-sized, and oh, so soft.
Stan heard Maria's door open and a minute later she appeared in the doorway. “Would you like a cannoli?” She held out a Tupperware container. “Homemade from my restaurant just this morning. I brought them with me in case of emergency, and good thing, right?” She held the carton out.
Stan still felt queasy. “Thanks, but I'm not feeling very hungry right now,” she said.
Maria sniffed. “I knew it. You're one of those skinny girls. My restaurant
the skinny girls. Come to an Italian, award-winning kitchen and eat salad.
Stan recognized the wordâItalian for “stupid”âand her eyes narrowed. But before she could respond, the bathroom door flew open and Therese came out. She wore a skirt that barely covered her tiny butt, over-the-knee high-heeled boots, and a low-cut gold top. She glared at the two of them, then wrinkled her nose at the cannoli.
“Ew,” she said. “That'll make you fat just looking at it.” And she swept out of the room and into the elevator. A moment later the door to the suite slammed.
“That,” Stan said, “would be the