Free at last. Her own space made all the difference, even if it was just a car. Still sitting in the open parking lot, Stan cranked her sunroof open and breathed in the ocean air. Nice to have some distance from the alternate universe she'd fallen into yesterday after arriving at Sheldon's Retreat for Top Chefs. She considered driving straight to Frog Ledge, and would've done it if Nutty wasn't still locked away in the hotel. Instead, she sat and processed the recent events.
One man murdered. Another missing. And her sister, smack in the middle of it.
She hadn't expected Caitlyn's bombshell. Her sister had married youngâyoung to Stan, anyway, although twenty-five seemed perfectly acceptable to most peopleâbut she'd always seemed content. At least until now. Or however long she'd been screwing around with McLeod.
A motorcycle revved nearby, shaking Stan out of her thoughts. She started her car, but before she drove to the exit she cruised the parking lot. In the back, the very last space closest to the docks, was a black Jeep. She compared the license plate to the one Caitlyn had scribbled on the back of a receipt to the Coach store. Bingo. Leaving her car running, she got out and investigated.
Which meant walking around the Jeep and trying the doors. As expected, they were all locked. She cupped her hands around her eyes and peered through the driver's side window. Spotless interior. It looked brand new. The leather seats gleamed. A travel coffee mug sat in the cup holder. A sweatshirt hung over the passenger seat back. Otherwise, nothing out of place. No map to where he might have gone. No note confessing to killing Pierre, or ransom note left by a crazed kidnapper. No suspicious luggage or bags that could belong to the dead man. Of course the police had already searched their cars.
Stan got back into her car and drove slowly back to the hotel. What if Kyle
been taken? Who could've pulled that off? Kyle was a decent-sized guy. He wouldn't have gone without a fight if he didn't want to go in the first place. Unless a weapon or a very big, scary person was involved.
But she had to play devil's advocate. If Kyle had killed Pierre in the heat of the moment, he could've panicked and taken off. He could've walked to Ocean Avenue and caught a cab, called someone, heck, rented a bicycle. She remembered his cryptic words about hoping their activities this weekend wouldn't get them thrown in jail, and how she should expect the unexpected. Sarcasm, or foreshadowing?
The street leading to the hotel had no unusual activity. No media trucks yet, so obviously Pierre's name and the connection to Sheldon and crew hadn't broken yet. No news was good news. Cars jammed the parking lot, and people in various stages of fancy clothing wandered around the lobby when Stan swung in. It was seven fifty-nine. She didn't bother going upstairs firstâSheldon would probably throw a fit if she showed up late. Instead, she stopped by the front desk and asked for directions to the secret kitchen.
“Oh! You're part of Sheldon's party.” The clerk, a twenty-something who towered above the counter like a basketball player, grinned at her. His sparkling white teeth gleamed against his dark skin. “I'll take you. Ralphie, cover?”
His companion, an older, sour-looking man, nodded.
“You guys gonna be making some phat food, huh?” He bounced along down the hall. Stan had to work to keep up with his long-legged gait.
“We are,” she said. “You should stop by and sample.”
“Dude, I'm so
.” He rubbed his hands together in glee. “We get Sheldon's pastries shipped in sometimes for events. Sometimes Lucy gets them just for the heck of it, 'cause she loves us.” He winked at her. “Make sure you save me some.” He led her to the main ballroomâan exquisite room that could easily seat five hundred or so guestsâin the back of the hotel. It overlooked a small pond and a beautifully landscaped grass area. A large tent had been set up for a party. In the back of the room a door paneled exactly like the walls hid in plain sight. He pushed it open and held it for her. “Ta-da! And that large table out here is for you guys to use.” He pointed to a table with place settings on it. “In case you want to eat together.”
She smiled. “Thanks so much.”
“Anytime, miss. I'm Jamal, if you need anything else.”
“Thanks, Jamal. Hey, before you go, were you working last night?”
Jamal shook his head. “I'm working the whole weekend, so I had last night off. Why? Everything okay with your service?”
“It was perfect,” Stan assured him. “I'm asking because one of our friends left and hasn't come back yet. We wondered if anyone saw him leave or knew where he might have gone.”
“Hmmm.” Jamal thought. “I could ask Sheila. Or Lucy. They both worked last night. Lucy's all over the place, but she may know. What's the dude's name?”
Lucy worked last night? Stan wondered why she'd left the hotel so early. She'd seen her from her window around eight, getting into her silver SUV and driving off. Maybe she'd gone to get something to eat on her lunch break and come back. “You know what? Don't worry about it. I can ask Lucy myself. But thank you so much.”
“You sure?” Jamal asked. “I don't mind.”
“Positive,” she said.
Jamal nodded and went back to work. Stan entered the kitchen. Only Maria and Joaquin were there, laughing over a cutting board full of veggies. “Hey,” she said.
They both turned.
Maria exclaimed, coming over to hug Stan. “We missed you!”
Stan hugged her back warily. She thought Maria had a couple of personalities going, but she'd take the friendly one any day over the one calling her a stupid skinny girl.
Joaquin winked at her. “Totally. But she just went and stole your cat to make up for it.”
Stan registered Nutty in a corner of the room, ensconced in his own chairâa fluffy white cat bed on top of a silver swivel base. He glanced at her, his tail flicking disinterestedly, then looked away and continued nibbling at the food in front of him. The plate looked suspiciously like china.
“Wow, look at you getting star treatment,” Stan said. “Are you here to test my food or theirs?”
“Both!” Maria beamed. “He's too skinny. He needs to fatten up.”
Spoken like a true Italian. Stan didn't agree, but she bit her tongue.
“I hope you don't mind I borrowed him,” Maria said. “He sounded so lonely, howling in there!”
“He was howling?” Stan felt guilty. “My poor guy. Of course I don't mind.” She hurried over and gave him a kiss. Nutty barely noticed.
“Everyone should be down any minute now.” Maria checked her watch. “And Sheldon has some big news!”
Everyone else showed up together at eight on the dot. Aside from Kyle, Therese and Tyler were absent. Sheldon took Nutty's stool and moved it to a more prominent position, then sat on the counter, next to it. He looked more like himself wearing a purple suit, lime green tie, and his silver shoes. He still looked tired, but had covered it with some makeup. His hair was swooped and gelled into a wave atop his head.
“Welcome to our first official planning session!” he exclaimed. “Since we didn't get to do this last night, we're going to have to work a little harder today. But I know you're all up to it. I'll tell you what I'd like to do. We're going to give three menu options to our guests on Monday, and we're going to spend the rest of the weekend perfecting them. Aaaannnnnddddd”âhe drew the word out to prolong the momentâ“thanks to Joaquin's dedication and charm, we're going to welcome a new guest, Vaughn Dawes, to help fill the enormous hole Pierre has left. Vaughn is due to arrive late tonight, isn't that right, Joaquin?”
Joaquin nodded. “Therese is on her way to pick her up at the airport. She declined a car service and opted for a taxi, but I don't feel right allowing that. We should provide her with star treatment.”
“Fabulous, my dear boy,” Sheldon said, rubbing his hands together. “I am
grateful to you for holding me together!”
“That's great,” Stan said. “Where's Vaughn coming from?”
“She's out in LA,” Sheldon said.
“LA? Wow. That's a haul.”
Sheldon's eyes narrowed. She'd probably get her hand slapped for questioning him later. But why
he sending for someone from clear across the country? Couldn't he use his own bakers from Every Sweet Thing? She filed that under her mental list of Odd Things Sheldon Was Doing.
“She's worth it,” he said shortly.
“I'm sure. But what about someone from your shop?”
Silence. Then he laughed. “My dear, these aren't fruit puffs for Aunt Rosie's birthday party. These are serious menu items for very rich people. Trust me, we want Vaughn.” He started to say something else, but Stan interrupted again.
“Have you heard from Kyle?” she asked.
Leo and Maria exchanged looks. Like they were cringing for her.
“I have not,” Sheldon said. “But I'm confident whatever business he had to attend to will be finished soon and he'll join us for this important event.”
Fabulous nonanswer. Sheldon would've been great in corporate America. Stan opened her mouth again, but Sheldon cut her off.
“So,” he went on, focusing on the others, “tonight I'd like to brainstorm menu items. Maria is cooking us a sauce while we do so.” Maria bowed at the waist, still brandishing her large knife. “Joaquin and Therese retrieved all the items on the shopping list, so we are indebted to them. And if we'd like to start cooking or baking, we can do so. Whatever ingredients we need that aren't currently on hand, we'll make arrangements to have delivered or picked up tomorrow. Does that sound fabulous?”
“Absolutely fabulous,” Leonardo declared. They all nodded in agreement except for Marcin, who looked like he thought the whole thing was anything but fabulous. Stan could think of a million more fabulous things she could be doing, but she was here now. All in.
“Okay, then. Let's discuss our soups.”
While the group engaged in a dialogue about soup and other courses, Stan went to the fridge. Joaquin and Therese had stocked it full of goodies from local farms. She took out her salad items and the shrimp to grill, along with fresh blueberries, honey, coconut flour, and oats to make some simple treats for Nutty. It had been a while since she'd had her hands in dough. She thought of Brenna, envious that she got to do all the baking for their orders this weekend, and made a mental note to call her back.
“Are you making cat snacks?” Marcin inquired, coming up behind her.
“Yes. Blueberry. Nutty's favorite.”
“Will you be serving those at the event?”
“I'm sure I can put them on the menu. It's always nice to have a simple option for the finicky cats.”
Marcin leaned closer, as if fascinated with that option. “This whole thing is absurd, you know,” he said instead, dropping his voice.
“What do you mean?” Stan asked.
“I mean, to make us stay here and go through with this dinner thing is crazy.”
He hadn't dropped his voice low enough. Maria turned from her tomatoes and frowned at him. “Did you forget your meds today?”
Marcin looked like he wanted to shoot a death ray out of his eyeballs at her. He turned and left the room without another word.
Sheldon watched him go, eyes narrowing. “Where in the world does he think he's going?” he muttered to no one in particular.
Stan wondered what kind. These people had more secrets than Imelda Marcos's closet had shoes.
“I guess that means he did. Or maybe he didn't want to take them.” Maria stirred the sauce with one arm, and with the other she rubbed under Nutty's chin. Nutty gazed at her with adoring eyes. “I hope your mother didn't mean that you're finicky. You don't look finicky in the least,” she cooed at him.
“You have no idea,” Stan said.
Maria tsked. “He's a star.”
“A star of what?”
“Of our community. He'll be a poster child, for sure. The photographer will adore him.”
A poster child? Like Nutty didn't have a big enough head. “He is very photogenic,” Stan said. “Will he be part of the photo shoot?”
“But of course!” Sheldon exclaimed. “He's an integral part of this weekend.”
Nutty flicked his tail at her as if to say,
“What if the guest cat is the finicky one?” Maria asked.
Stan didn't want to say how much that worried her. “It's always a possibility with cats,” she said breezily. “But I'm sure I can find something tempting enough.”
“You had better, my dear,” Sheldon said with a nervous laugh. “That cat
Maria snickered. “I highly doubt the cat will be our deciding factor,” she said.
Sheldon wagged a finger. “Ah, but you're wrong,” he said. “Cat owners are very cognizant of what their pets want. It could very well make or break the deal.” He smiled at Stan. “No pressure, my dear.”
By the time the menu items were hashed outâStan offered salmon, chicken, and beef as her main dishes, as well as a choice of vanilla cat-noli, fruit treats, and a strawberry glazed cake for dessertâand Nutty's treats were cooling, Maria's sauce and the grilled shrimp salad were ready. They all gathered around the table with wine. Joaquin had shown off his own pastry prowess by whipping up a strawberry torte for dessert.
“This looks great,” a familiar voice behind them said. “Got room for one more?”