The party was going perfectly until the hostess clutched her stomach with an agonized cry and crumpled to the floor.
Rory Rourke, her boyfriend and star of the new TV series Man Handled, knelt by the woman's side and barked, "Someone, call 911."
"Call her doctor," said someone else.
"Call the Star Reporter" the victim said faintly.
And that was when Bailey Sterling knew she was in trouble.
She'd been so excited to land this gig catering Samba Barrett's party. Samba wasn't an Emma Stone or Kristen Stewart, but she was
someone. Sort of. And with her catlike green eyes and red hair, she was on her way up, like the rest of her party guests. It was what everyone said. And surely that had meant Bailey was on her way up, too. The West Hollywood apartment had been packed with hot young actors and actresses. As she'd slipped among them bearing trays of goodies, she'd heard more than one person rave about the food and had envisioned a whole string of catering gigs after this one.
The shrimp salsa in phyllo cups had been an especially big hit. "Oh, my God, this is to die for," Angelica Winston (from the new reality show Hard Ass) had raved. Bailey had smiled modestly and kept circulating, while her assistant Giorgio served up stuffed mushrooms. She'd been working for the past three years to earn a reputation as caterer to the stars, and things were finally starting to happen.
Except here was Samba Barrett, writhing on her living room floor, groaning in agony. Twenty minutes ago she'd been eating those shrimp cups and laughing. Did she have food allergies she hadn't told Bailey about? Samba had gone over the menu with her, approved everything. How could this have happened? Was Bailey going to be known as killer of the stars?
Thirty people gathered around the actress, some offering advice, some taking pictures with their cell phones, others texting wildly. Bailey stood on the fringe and nervously downed one of her own appetizers.
"You'll be okay, baby," Rory Rourke assured Samba.
"I think I ate something bad," she whimpered.
"Oh, no, that's not possible," Bailey protested, and everyone turned to look at her. One woman aimed her cell phone at Bailey, capturing her miserable expression. This couldn't be happening.
But it could. And it was. Now Bailey felt sick. She lost her grip on the tray of canapés she was carrying and down they went, the tray landing on the Jimmy Choos of one of the party guests busily recording her hostess's misery on her cell phone.
The woman next to her let out a yelp and jumped back, then glared at Bailey.
"Sorry," Bailey muttered and bent to scoop the mess onto the tray. In the process she managed to get in the way of another guest, nearly tripping him.
He didn't settle for glaring. He swore at her.
Catering hellthat was what this was. Bailey made a dash for the kitchen and hid out, watching the drama unfold from behind the counter.
The ambulance arrived, and the EMTs showed up to take Samba's vitals and load her onto a stretcher. Then away she went, a pitifulbut gorgeousvictim of Sterling Catering.
The guests switched from eating to drinking. Rory told Bailey she could clean up and leave, and not in the kindest tone of voice. He didn't offer to pay her, and she didn't ask. All she wanted to do was get out of that cramped apartment full of the young and the beautiful.
By the time she left, the media was waiting. Photographers snapped her picture, and reporters stuck microphones in her face. "Have you catered for Samba before?"
"Has Samba threatened to sue?"
"What's your relationship with Rory Rourke?"
Bailey stood there like Bambi staring at the headlights of a Mack truck, her toque askew, offering quotable quotes such as, "What?"
She quickly realized that it was time to scram and bolted for the van where Giorgio was loading up boxes of supplies
and telling a reporter that he wasn't involved with any of the food prep. "I'm only doing this while I wait to hear from my agent. We've got something big in the works. Giorgio Romano. R-o-m
Bailey tossed in the last of her serving equipment, then tugged on his double-breasted white jacket and growled, "Get in the van," even as the vultures who'd been talking to him now turned their attention to her.
He scowled at her but got moving.
They drove away with photographers pointing their cameras and shooting. "What were you thinking?" she demanded, swerving to avoid one.
"I wasn't thinking anything. I was just answering questions."
"Well, thanks a lot," she snapped.
He held out both hands. "What did you want me to do?"
"How about saying that Sterling Catering was not responsible for Samba Barrett's illness?" she suggested, her voice rising.
"I can't be sure of that," Giorgio said sullenly.
"You've been working for me for six months now, Giorgio. You know how good I am. You could have said something." Was there no loyalty in the world? She brushed away a tear.
"I told you, I'm only here until I get my break."
"And I suppose that was it," she said in disgust. "Getting your name in the paper as a caterer?"
"Every little bit helps," he retorted. "Publicity is great, even if it's bad."
Not for a caterer. She had a small liability policy, but it didn't cover bad press. Overwhelmed with misery, Bailey pulled off the road and began to cry in earnest.
Giorgio sat there in what she thought was silent sympathy. Until he said, "Here, let me drive. I've got a date."
She raised her tearstained face from the steering wheel. "A date? You were working the party."
"Yeah. But when it ended early
" He shrugged. "Sorry."
Sorry about summed it up.
After a long day of work punctuated hourly by texts from her miserable little sister, Cecily Sterling was standing in line at the Icicle Falls Safeway with her recharge essentialsa pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream and a bag of Cheetos. It seemed everyone else in Icicle Falls had had a long day at work, too, and the store was packed.
She'd already run into Dot Morrison, who'd eyed her purchases and said, "Now, that's my kind of dinner."
She'd planned on adding more to her "dinner," but she'd spotted Luke Goodman, the production manager at her family's chocolate company, in the cookie department with his daughter, Serena, and had decided to skip the cookies.
Not that she didn't want to see little Serena or, as Serena would insist, Big Serena now that she'd "graduated" from kindergarten. Serena's visits to the Sweet Dreams Chocolates office with her grandma gave Cecily her kid fix on a regular basis.
But Serena's daddy was another matter.
Luke Goodman was a nice guy. He had the husky build of a wrestler (which he'd been in high school), kind blue eyes and a great smile. He was a widower, and he'd been interested in Cecily ever since she'd moved back home to Icicle Falls. The only problem was that she wasn't interested in him as anything more than a friend.
She should have been. What was wrong with her, anyway? She had such a gift for matching up other people. She'd brought together friends in high school and in college; thanks to her, a lot of weddings had taken place. She'd even been in the matchmaking business, for crying out loud. She could size people up and instinctively know who should be with whom. But when it came to herself she knew nothing. She'd been engaged twice, and each man had turned out to be a loser and a user. Pathetic.
Luke was neither of those, and he wanted her. So why did her stupid hormones do the happy dance every time she got anywhere near Todd Black?
Todd had also been after her ever since she'd moved home. He owned The Man Cave, a seedy tavern at the edge of town, and he was no Luke Goodman. He looked like Johnny Depp's kid brother, and he was a heartbreak waiting to happen. He had bad boy written all over him, from the double entendre s he was so good at throwing Cecily's way to how he looked at her, as if she were a chocolate bar he'd like to unwrap. Slowly. Luke Goodman was the kind of man who married a girl, but Todd Black was the kind who slept with her and then conveniently forgot to call the next day.
She should have no interest whatsoever in Todd Black. And she certainly should never have agreed to stop by his tavern on Friday night to play pinball when she'd run into him earlier that day at Bavarian Brews.
But he'd caught her in a weak moment. She'd been worried about her younger sister, Bailey, and she'd said yes without thinking. At least that was her excuse. She really couldn't blame her moment of weakness on preoccupation, though. Insanity was the true culprit. Anytime she was around that man he heated up her hormones and fried her brain. Now she was going to go home and rewire the synapses with junk food and a long bubble bath. She enjoyed making bath salts and bubble bath and could hardly wait to indulge in her latest creationlavender-vanilla.
She'd barely gotten in line when Cass Wilkes walked up behind her and said hi. "Ice creamfood of the gods."
Cass was Cecily's sister Samantha's BFF, but she'd opened the door of friendship to Cecily, too, and they saw each other every Sunday at Cass's chick-flick nights and during their monthly book-club meetings.
Cecily smiled, feeling slightly embarrassed. That was both the beauty and the curse of living in a small town. Everyone knew your business. "Not exactly the diet special, is it?"
"No, but I can't exactly say anything." Cass held up her shopping basket, which contained a pizza and a two-liter bottle of root beer. "You can see we're eating well tonight."
The basket also held a bag of ready-made salad. "It's not all bad," Cecily said, pointing to the salad. "And pizza has good things on it."
"That's what I keep telling myself. I also keep telling myself that I'm only going to eat the salad and leave the pizza for the kids. But I'm lying."
"Life's too short not to eat pizza," Cecily said with a smile. The smile fell away when her cell phone started singing Bailey's ringtone, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."
Bailey's life had been anything but fun the past couple of days. She had called Cecily the evening of the disastrous party, practically hysterical. They'd pulled in Samantha, who had found Bailey a tough L.A. lawyer, but no legal shark could save her from bad publicity. Of course, the story had made the papers, and all the TV stations had repeatedly run the footage of her van driving away, leaving the scene of the "crime." Naturally, they'd zoomed in on Sterling Catering painted on the side of the van. Word of mouth had added to the avalanche of bad press. People who'd booked her for their events had been calling right and left and canceling.
Cecily answered, bracing herself for more bad news.
Sure enough. "Have you seen the Star Reporter?"
Oh, no. What now? Cecily turned to the magazine rack near the cash register. There, on the front of the latest popular celebrity news rag, was a picture of Bailey in her white caterer's coat, standing outside Samba Barrett's apartment building. She was wearing an expression of shock, along with her chef's toque, her big hazel eyes wide and her mouth dangling open. She looked more confused than crazy. In fact, she looked like the village idiot. The bold print above the picture proclaimed, Samba Barrett Poisoned? Crazy Caterer Tries to Take Out the Competition.
"Oh, no." Cecily dropped her junk food on the checkout conveyor belt and grabbed the magazine.
Cass, standing right next to her, took one, too, muttering, "Those creeps."
"This is the worst yet. I'm ruined!" Bailey wailed.
"That headline doesn't make sense. What competition are they talking about?" Cecily asked, trying to balance her cell phone, calm her sister and turn to the article all at the same time.
"They're saying I had a thing for Rory Rourke, which is ridiculous. I don't even know Rory Rourke. I didn't know any of those people!"
During the past forty-eight hours, Bailey's moods had swung between grim resignation and wild hysteria. It wasn't hard to tell what mode she was in now. "This is a gossip rag," Cecily reminded her. "You can't believe what you read in papers like this. Nobody takes this stuff seriously."
"My business is trashed. My life is trashed. I don't even have money to pay for the lawyer."
"Samantha and I told you not to worry about that," Cecily told her. "It's being taken care of." News had traveled as fast around Icicle Falls as it had in L.A., and Dot Morrison and Pat Wilder, two of the town's older businesswomen, had already set up a special bank account for Bailey's defense fund.
Not that she was going to need it. Anyone with eyes could see the actress had pulled a cheap publicity stunt. The lawyer was on top of things, and Cecily was sure that before the month was over, Bailey would be out from under this. She said as much, hoping to calm her sister.
this article," Bailey said between sobs. "I'm nothing like that. And I worked so hard to build my business. Now it's
Cecily wished she could reassure her, but in Hollywood, where making an impression was everything, well, it didn't look good for Sterling Catering. "Come home," she said.
Cecily knew how hard it was to give up a dream. She also knew how hard it was to come full circle, right back to where you started. She'd done it herself. It had turned out to be exactly what she needed, and she was much happier working in the family business than she'd been trying to match up gold diggers with shallow men who wanted Playboy bunnies.
"Think about it," she urged. "Everyone here loves you."
"That's for sure," Cass said over her shoulder.
"I can't even leave my apartment. There are reporters hiding in the bushes."
"They won't hide there forever. And I can guarantee they won't follow you here," Cecily said. At least she hoped they wouldn't. "The story will die down as soon as the next manufactured scandal hits. Which, I predict, will be sometime within the next seventy-two hours."
"I asked her if she had any allergies," Bailey said. "I have all kinds of menus to choose from, and she chose that one."
"Don't worry. This will all work out," Cecily promised.
It was as if Bailey hadn't heard. "I'm ruined," she said again.
"Well, how long is temporary?" Bailey cried. That was something for which Cecily had no answer.
Ruined, Bailey thought miserably as she ended the call with her sister. She'd gone to the hospital to see Samba, thinking maybe they could talk, that she could explain why her food couldn't possibly have made the actress sick. She'd even brought flowers. She'd encountered a hired guard at the door of Samba's private room, and all he'd allowed in had been the flowers, along with the get-well card on which Bailey had written, I hope you feel better soon. But now she hoped Samba contracted terminal acne.
Well, okay, not really. She liked to think she was better than that.
Samba was out of the hospital the next day, shopping on Rodeo Drive, pretending to look annoyed when photographers took her picture. Of course, she'd given a quote to any paper that was interested. "I really don't know what happened."
Bailey knew what had happened. She'd been duped.
"All I want is to put this behind me," Samba said, posing like a tragic heroine.
Sure, now that she'd milked all the free publicity she could out of ruining Bailey. Rumor had it that Samba had been offered a part in a pilot for a new TV series, some sort of female detective show. (That was rich. Samba Barrett, who had just faked her own food poisoning, solving crimes.)
Meanwhile, Bailey couldn't even get a job catering to street people. She'd been dubbed "the party poisoner," and not only had she lost business, but she was also the butt of everyone's jokes. One late-night TV host had cracked that he'd planned to hire a caterer for his birthday party but changed his mind since he wanted to live to see his next birthday. Ha-ha.
She'd finally given a quote to the Star Reporter, a diplomatic but strongly worded quote, insisting, "I don't know what happened to Samba, but I know it wasn't my food that made her sick. No one else at that party got ill."