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While Gabriella Boudreaux filled a tray of chocolate eclairs with pastry cream in the kitchen of Chez Emile, she was fighting off panic. When the phone rang, she knew it was for her. With bad news.
As one of the prep staff called her name, she put down the pastry bag she was holding, wiped her hands on her white apron and crossed the kitchen.
The anxious voice on the other end of the line belonged to her mother.
"Gabriella, you've got to come home."
"Mom, we've talked about this before. I'm in the middle of getting ready for the evening rush. I can't drop everything and drive to Lafayette."
"You have to!"
"There's a man stalking me."
Gabriella's hand clamped on the receiver. Over the past few years, she watched and worried as she'd seen her mother's mental state deteriorating. There had been too many instances when Gabriella had hurried home to take care of some emergency or anotheronly to have her mother ask why she was there.
"I can't leave right now," she said. "I have to work."
"I need you."
The mom's pleading tone almost undid her, but she managed to say, "Can you get Paula to help you out?"
The voice on the other end of the line turned petulant. "I don't want Paula."
"She's your best friend. I'll come home as soon as I can get away," she answered, thinking that she'd have to spend the night in Lafayette, then rush back to New Orleans to start work again in the morning.
When her mother started crying, Gabriella's heart squeezed painfully. "Mom, I'm sorry. Truly. I'll be there in a few hours."
"That will be too late."
She looked up and saw Emile Gautreaux watching her. A short, plump man with thinning gray hair, he had been a darling of the New Orleans restaurant scene for more than thirty years. When arthritis and his increasing bulk had curtailed his ability to function efficiently, he had hired several surrogates to populate his kitchen. Gabriella was the senior pastry chef.
"I've got to go. I'll see you later," she said into the phone.
Her mother's high-pitched voice still rang over the line as she replaced the receiver in the cradle. Dropping her hand, she took a moment to compose herself before looking up at the man who treated his professional staff like plantation hands.
He was still eyeing her. "Something wrong, chere?" he asked in the deep bayou accent that his customers found so appealing.
"No. Everything is fine."
"I hope there is not going to be a problem," he replied with the edge in his voice that he only used with staff. "I'll handle it."
"I hope so." He gave a curt nod. When he strode over to the stove to taste the shrimp and andouille gumbo simmering in a large pot, she let out the breath she was holding.
She wanted to make her mark in the food world, and despite Emile's slave driver attitude, he'd provided her with a wonderful chance to showcase her work. She'd received some glowing reviews in the local papers, on food blogs and even one of the airline magazines, but she'd started to wonder if she could have a life and work for Gautreaux at the same time.
She longed to tell him she had to take some personal time this afternoon, but it wouldn't do her or Mom any good if she got fired and had to look for another job.
She finished the eclairs on automatic pilot, cataloguing her own shortcomings as she worked.
She'd never been the daughter her mother wanted, and Mom had never let her forget it. Which left her feeling more on edge than ever.
Janie Rivers glided over. Janie was also working as a pastry chef at Chez Emileunder Gabriella's directionand Gabriella's intuition told her that the other woman was looking for an opportunity to move up in the food chain.
"Did you get a complaint about one of your desserts?"
"No," Gabriella snapped. Then softened her voice. "A problem at home."
"I'm so sorry."
Yeah, I'll bet, Gabriella thought, but there was no point in saying it aloud.
"What can I do to help?" Janie asked.
"I've finished the eclairs, the chocolate torte and the flourless chocolate cake. I've still got to do the lemon sponge, the cinnamon ice cream that goes with the torte and the peach crisp."
"I can do the ice cream."
Despite her previous thought about Janie's career ambitions, Gabriella gave her a grateful smile. "I'll owe you one."
"Oh, don't worry about it. We all help each other out when we can."
When Janie reached out to touch Gabriella's shoulder, she automatically took a step back, and the other woman dropped her hand.
As long as she could remember, Gabriella hadn't liked being touched. She couldn't explain the aversion. She only knew that it usually made her nerves jangle.
"Got to get started on the lemon sponge." Quickly Gabriella went to the storage bin where the restaurant kept the flour, then brought out lemons, eggs and sugar.
Ordering herself to focus on her work so she could finish up and get out of here, she began grating lemon peel.
But she couldn't shake the worry that something was different at home this time. Something bad was going to happen, and she was going to be too late.
There was no way to explain the feeling. It might simply have come from guilt or from the abilities that she'd developed in her teens. It wasn't anything that she could explainor wanted to talk about, to be frank. But sometimes she caught a glimmer of the future.
Like when little Billy Poirier had wandered into the bayou, and she was sure he wasn't going to be found alive. Or maybe that had been her fearnot her foreknowledge. Because there was no way to prove it either way.
By the time she packed up some of yesterday's desserts for Mom and left Chez Emile, it was already late in the afternoon and rush-hour traffic on I-10 was brutal. As she sat in the car, gripping the steering wheel, her sense of anxiety grew.
Drivers weren't supposed to talk on the phone without a headset, which she didn't have. Nevertheless, she punched in her mom's number and listened to the phone ring.
When she heard her mother's voice, her heart leaped, but it was only the answering machine asking her to leave a message.
"Mom, I'm on my way. I'll be there as soon as I can."
Her stomach was in knots now. Three hours later, when she finally reached the turnoff to the plantation where she'd grown up, she breathed out a small sigh.
If you didn't know much about the Boudreaux family, you might think they were well off.
Her mother still lived in the nineteenth-century mansion she'd inherited from her parents, but she'd abandoned the whole second floor to save on utilities, and she supplemented her income by renting out furnished cottages on the property. Still, when Gabriella had suggested selling off some of the acreage, her mother had refused.
Mom's car was in the circular drive in front of the mansion, but another vehicle was pulled up, too.
As Gabriella cut the engine, her mother's friend Paula Aucoin came rushing down the steps. The expression on her face was a confirmation of Gabriella's worst fears.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
"Honey, I'm so sorry. There's been an accident."
Her throat clenched, but she managed to say, "It's bad, right?"
"It looks like Marian fell down the steps. I'm sorry. She's dead."
Gabriella struggled to take that in. "But. .but she never goes upstairs."
"I know. That's why it's so strange. She was worried about something, and she called me. When I got here, she was sprawled at the bottom of the steps, unconscious."
Gabriella gasped. "She called me. couldn't leave the restaurant. I " Her voice trailed off as terrible guilt assaulted her. "She wanted me to come home."
"It wouldn't have done any good. I think she called me right after she talked to you, and I came straight over. I'm right here in town, but when I got here, she had already fallen."
Gabriella nodded numbly. The explanation didn't help. All she knew was that she should have dropped everything and come home.
"Where is she now?"
"The LeBlanc Funeral Home. She'd written me a letter about what she wanted to happen after she died."
Gabriella swallowed hard, thinking that she should have been the one to get the letter. But Mom had relied on Paula more than her own daughter.
"Come in. Sit down and have a cup of coffee."
She was torn. She should go to the funeral home, but she sensed that Paula wanted to talk to her, so she allowed the older woman to take her into the kitchen. It was at the back of the house, and the breakfast room looked out over weedy gardens and a slow-moving bayou.
She stood for a moment, breathing in the familiar scents. Fried bacon. Strong Cajun coffee. This was where her love of cooking had been born. First she'd helped with mixing batter and stirring soup. Then she'd started following recipes on her own. Her relationship with Mom might have been troubled, but the kitchen was one place where they had connected.
When Gabriella walked to the coffeemaker on the worn Formica counter, Paula waved her toward the table. "Sit down. I know you've had a bad shock."
"So have you."
"I've had some time to absorb it." Paula got down mugs and poured two cups of the strong coffee that Mom must have made that morning.
"Your mother was so proud of you."
Gabriella looked up in surprise. "She was?"
"Yes. She'd talk about your career all the time. About how the famous Emile Gautreaux relied on you."
"She didn't say that to me."
"It was hard for her to reach out to you."
"Why?" Gabriella asked, curious to get Paula's take on their relationship.
"When your father was sick, she wanted to spend as much time with him as she could. After he died, she felt like she'd lost her connection with you."
Gabriella had been only three years old when her father had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and her mom had thrown herself into nursing him. When he'd died a couple of years after that, Gabriella had felt as if her mother was a stranger, and they'd never been able to reach across the breach.
"She considered herself a failure for not being closer to you," Paula said.
Gabriella raised her head in shock. "But I always thought that was my fault."
"I guess Marian had the same feelings. Too bad the two of you didn't communicate better."
"I'm not blaming you, child. It was on her as much as on you. Maybe more. The adult is the one who's supposed to take the lead."
Paula brought two mugs of coffee to the table, both with cream and sugar. When she sat down and stirred her coffee, Gabriella had the feeling there was more she was going to say.
"What is it?" she asked.
"A couple of months ago, your mom rented the Cypress Cottage to a man named Luke Buckley."
"Yes, she mentioned that. She was glad of the extra income. He wasn't any trouble, was he?"
"You mean complaining about stuff? I don't think so. But I think she regretted having him on the property."
"I think she was afraid of him."
"Why?" she asked again.
"She said he was secretive. I tried to tell her that maybe he just wanted to keep to himself. He could have lost his job or his wife for all we knew. Who can say why a man moves into an isolated cottage in a new location?"
"Because he's hiding from the law?" Gabriella asked, putting a different spin on the speculations.
"I don't know, but I do know she kept going on about him. He was stony. Aloof. Abrupt. He was always in there working on the computer. And there were papers scattered all over the place. When she'd come in, he'd hide them."
"Well, gather them up. And there was something about him that she just didn't trust."
"Did he have a lease?"
"I don't know. Maybe she thought he was all right at the beginning. Or.you know.she was."
Paula let the sentence trail off, and Gabriella was sure her mother's friend was referring to her recent mental problems, although she wasn't willing to come out and say it.