Providence, Ohio, is celebrating Valentine’s Day with weeklong events, including lovers’ baskets with heart-shaped cheeses at Fromagerie Bessette. Charlotte Bessette is celebrating by finally walking down the aisle with the man of her dreams, handsome artisanal cheese farmer, Jordan Pace. But when a beloved bar owner is discovered murdered on Jordan’s farm, he believes they should reschedule their wedding given the grim turn of events.
Charlotte is heartsick over the postponement. This killer crossed the wrong woman. No one, but no one, is ruining her wedding plans!
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“Where are you taking me?” I asked. “And don’t ‘Hush, Charlotte’ me again.” I hate being blindfolded, hate not being able to see. Even as a girl, I despised it. I remembered one time when my oh-so-sly cousin coerced me into following him into a cave. We encountered shrieking bats and spiders and—ick—something creepy-crawly with a long tail that skittered across my foot.
“Hush, Charlotte,” Delilah said. The moment I’d arrived home from work, she and Meredith, my other best friend, had kidnapped me.
“It’s Thursday night, for heaven’s sake. I’ve got to open Fromagerie Bessette early tomorrow. We have so much to do to prepare for next week’s Lovers Trail event before I—”
“We’re going to a party.”
“A bachelorette party,” Meredith added.
“Yours.” Delilah pushed me at the small of my back. “Now, move it.”
“Look.” I tried to dig in my heels, to no avail. “I’d be game for whatever you have up your sleeves if I didn’t have things to do.”
Tons of things: decorations to put up and gift baskets to create for the Lovers Trail event. Not to mention all the things I needed to do for my impending nuptials: a hem to stitch, boutonnieres to fashion. Did my sweet friends care? Not a whit. They were giggling too hard to care about anything.
A brisk gust of February wind attacked me. I shivered from the cold. “Where are we?” I demanded. Delilah had escorted me out of her car a minute ago; we were on foot. On cement. A sidewalk, I was pretty sure. I heard light traffic. I detected the faint smell of cinnamon and coffee. Were we near Café au Lait, a delicious coffeehouse designed with a French flair? I could use a cup of coffee. “At least take the blindfold off. It’s tugging the back of my hair.”
“No, ma’am,” Delilah said.
“Ma’am,” Meredith sniggered. “That’s right. You’re going to be a ma’am soon. Maybe we should continue to call you Miss Charlotte for a while longer.” More giggles erupted from Meredith. How had Delilah talked her into this escapade? Meredith was usually the reliable and sane one. Sure, back in high school, she had been sneaky, but now? “Sounds like something right out of Gone with the Wind,” she continued. “Miss Charlotte. Hmm. Which do you prefer, Miss Charlotte or Mrs. Jordan Pace?”
I didn’t know who, where, or what was on the agenda for tonight, but in three days, on Sunday, I was moving forward with my life and marrying the man of my dreams—Jordan. A sizzle of desire shot through me just thinking about him. Prior to moving to Providence, Jordan had been the chef and owner of an Italian restaurant in upstate New York. One night outside the restaurant, he saw two thugs attack a third man. Without hesitating, Jordan, a former military man, sprang to the third man’s defense. Days later, Jordan entered the WITSEC program to testify against the survivor, whose buddies had been the lynchpins of a gambling ring. Entering WITSEC had landed him in Providence, Ohio. Lucky me.
“This way, Miss Charlotte.” Delilah steered me to the right.
A door opened and I breathed easier. I recognized the jingle of the chime above the door. We were entering Fromagerie Bessette. The aroma of a potent Irish Cheddar cheese—our last sale of the day—hung in the air. I detected a hint of the quiche I’d made in the morning, too—apple bacon Gouda. It had been rich with a smoky, savory flavor.
“Let me go and tell me which way to go.”
“Uh-uh,” Delilah said.
“C’mon.” I could navigate blindfolded through the shop without their help. I often dreamed about Fromagerie Bessette—or as the locals called it, The Cheese Shop—and its displays of cheeses, honey, mustards, and specialty crackers. Yes, I was a major cheese geek. Being a cheese shop proprietor was a dream job. I had inherited the shop from my grandparents, who had migrated from France to the States after World War II and had raised me to love the shop as much as they did.
Delilah joggled me. “Oops.”
Although I would have been safe if I’d been allowed to grope along on my own, with Delilah as my guide, I instinctively reached out in front of me. Good thing I had. My foot hit something hard. “Ow.” I grasped what had attacked me—a display barrel, the old oak cask kind with metal struts. “You did that on purpose.”
“Did what?” Delilah guffawed.
“Shh,” Meredith cooed. “Charlotte, just a few more feet.”
Gingerly, I shuffled across the hardwood floor praying I wouldn’t wind up with ten stubbed toes. At least I was wearing a pair of Ugg boots; they were padded and perfect for the winter. I still couldn’t understand a girl wearing them in the summer, but I wasn’t a fashion guru.
“Where are we headed?” I asked. “The annex?” The wine annex, which my cousin managed and stocked with some of the finest wines this side of the Rockies, was situated to the right through a stone archway. “Ooh, are we having a wine tasting?” I was always up for one of those.
“Sort of,” Meredith said.
I had known Meredith and Delilah since I was in grade school. The two of them were like night and day. Meredith was blonde and sun-kissed with freckles; she had a rosy disposition. In contrast, Delilah had dark curly hair, striking features, and a wicked sense of humor. Meredith was an elementary teacher and soon would run the Providence Liberal Arts College. She was married to my cousin, and stepmother to my pre-teen twin nieces—I referred to them as my nieces; they were really my first cousins once removed. Delilah ran The Country Kitchen diner across the street. She had returned to Providence after her career on Broadway stalled. Weekly, the three of us and a few other women went out for girls’ night. I imagined tonight’s bachelorette soiree was going to be an entirely different kind of event.
“What are we going to do at the party?” I said.
“It’s a secret,” Delilah answered.
“How many people?”
“Just a few of us.”
“All girls?” I asked.
“No boys allowed,” Delilah said.
“Well, almost no boys.” Meredith snorted.
What had gotten into her?
A chilly wisp of air tickled my nose. Abruptly Delilah pivoted me and ushered me in the direction of the cold. Good thing I’d worn a cashmere sweater and corduroy trousers. I knew where we were headed. Downstairs, into the cellar. My cousin and I, with Jordan’s help, had installed a wine and cheese cellar. It was one of the best investments we had made. Even after cheese makers shipped wheels of cheese to us, we preferred to age some of them a tad longer.
I stepped down the stairs, drinking in the luscious perfume of cheese. The temperature in the cellar ranged from a cool fifty-five degrees to a toasty fifty-eight. Heat affects the speed with which wine and cheese age. We had painted the cellar white and had fitted it with wood racks. In addition, we had commissioned a local artist to paint a faux window with a view of the rolling hills of Providence in the eight-foot, semi-round alcove. Below the painting stood an oak buffet as well as a mosaic-inlaid table with chairs. Perfect for a small gathering.
My left foot touched the cellar floor. “C’mon, ladies, out with it. I smell something nutty with a hint of charcoal and fresh herbs. Are we having a cheese tasting party?”
I heard more tittering. Not from my guides. From other party members already in the cellar.
“Please say something,” I pleaded. “Wait, do I also smell . . . suntan oil?”
Meredith brushed my arm with something furry.
I recoiled. “Ew, what is that?”
“It’s a paintbrush, silly.”
I moaned. “We’re having an art party?” I’d heard about them. They were very au courant. “I’m not an artist,” I protested. “Isn’t this supposed to be all about me?”
“No, you goon,” Delilah said. “This party is about all of us giving you a fabulous sendoff into married life. Get with the program.”
“Don’t worry,” Meredith reassured me. “None of us are artists.”
“You are, Meredith,” Delilah chimed.
“I’m not sure about this kind of art.” Meredith pinched me.
“What do you mean ‘this kind of art’?” I cried, truly hating being in the dark . . . about anything. “Take off my blindfold. Now!”
“Don’t get snippy.” Delilah released my hand and moved behind me. She started to untie the scarf she had slung around my head. “One, two, voilà.”
“Surprise!” the other party guests yelled.
When my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized each was wearing a cream-colored artist’s smock over warm winter clothing, and each held a glass of sparkling wine. A gorgeous spread of appetizers was laid out on a long table behind them: biscuits stuffed with ham, mini quiches, and one of my all-time favorites, a cranberry crusted cheese torte.
“Turn around,” the women said in unison.
When I did, I couldn’t believe what I saw.
In the nook with the faux window that held a view of Providence stood the handsome yet darling Deputy O’Shea . . . wearing nothing but boxer shorts. The kid—okay, he wasn’t a kid, he was pushing thirty—blushed. He reminded me of something right out of a Calvin Klein ad. His skin was bronzed. His abs were perfectly formed. His hair hung rakishly across his forehead.
Rebecca Zook, my slim assistant, traipsed to me and gave me a hug. “Hooray! You really are surprised. I was so afraid I would spill the beans. An art party!” Before coming to work at Fromagerie Bessette, Rebecca had lived a sheltered life in an Amish community. She left the fold to explore the world, and though she now considered herself worldly, she was still the epitome of innocence. She swooped her long golden hair over her shoulder. “Don’t you love it?”
A flood of emotions—love wasn’t one of them—rushed through me. I did my best to curb a fit of giggles. We were going to paint a semi-nude man. My artwork would no doubt turn out looking like a glob. I could bake. I could sew. I could sculpt cakes made out of cheese. I could even refinish furniture. But paint? Most of my creations turned out to be bad Jackson Pollock imitations—splatter with no substance. Nope. I had no talent.
Rebecca said, “Charlotte, cat got your tongue?”
“It’s . . .” What could I say? When Delilah said we were on our way to a bachelorette party, I had expected a simple party. Chitchat. Cake. Nothing too extravagant. This? Every single woman in the cellar, including Meredith, Delilah, Rebecca, and four of my other friends, looked ready—no, eager—to sketch the deputy. My cheeks warmed; my heart thrummed with anticipation. I wondered what Jordan was doing at his bachelor party, kicking back a beer and watching sports? I couldn’t imagine any of his friends hiring a stripper. Perhaps I was too naïve for words.
“C’mon, Charlotte,” Delilah said. “This will be fun. Here’s a smock. Put it on.”
I shrugged off my coat and purse and threw the smock on over my sweater. The smock billowed around my corduroy slacks.
“There,” Delilah said. “Georgia O’Keefe, eat your heart out. Party time!”
The deputy drew near, and the aroma of suntan oil grew stronger. Had he just left the tanning parlor? “Sorry, Charlotte,” he whispered, using my first name instead of the more formal Miss Bessette. “I hope you’re okay with this. I got wrangled into the gig.”
“Who wrangled you?”
“Who do you think?”
“Your uncle Tim?”
“Yep.” O’Shea’s uncle, who owned the Irish pub where my girlfriends and I occasionally spent our girls’ nights out, was a bit of a prankster. “Uncle Tim suggested it to Tyanne.”
He nodded in Tyanne’s direction. Tyanne, a part-timer at The Cheese Shop and the town’s premier wedding planner, was currently dating Tim. They made a cute pair, he with his burly ruggedness and she with her Southern femininity. She caught me looking her way and buffed her fingers on her smock. I mock-glowered at her.
O’Shea added, “The two of them thought it would be a gas.”
“I said, ‘Go for it.’ Granted, this is a one-time deal. If word gets out, it might . . . Well, you understand.”
“Undermine your authority. Got it. It’s our secret.” I nodded. “Aren’t you cold in this chilly cellar?”
“Nah. I go ice fishing and winter swimming. I can take it.”
“Tonight you can call me Devon.”
“Devon,” the women in the cellar sang in unison. Exactly how much liquor had they imbibed already? Had all of them promised to keep the secret, too?
“Devon, it’ll be my pleasure to attempt to sketch you.”
A telephone rang insistently. O’Shea looked toward a gym bag that was sitting on the floor by the door.
“Uh-uh,” Rebecca said. “No phone calls. It’s a rule.”
He said, “But it could be business.”
“And business could mean bad news. No.” She folded her arms. For a slight thing, she sure could look tough. “You’re officially off the clock. Stay right there. I’ll fix this.” Without asking his permission, she hurried to his bag and rummaged through his things. She swiped her finger across the face of the cell phone and dumped it back into the bag.
She returned and drew me off to one side for a tête-à-tête. “Isn’t the deputy the yummiest?” For the past few months, Rebecca had been sitting on the fence, deliberating whether to choose her former fiancé or Devon O’Shea as a full-time boyfriend. In the end, she didn’t have to decide. Though her former fiancé had protested to the gods above, at his parents’ directive he had sold his honeybee farm and returned to Hawaii. Poor guy. Now Rebecca and O’Shea were an item. I had to admit they were cute together. “Well, isn’t he?”
“Definitely. Yummy. You don’t mind him doing this?”
“Why would I?”
I had no answer for that. I would have been uncomfortable if a half dozen women were ogling my boyfriend with downright lust, but apparently she wasn’t. Maybe I needed to grow up.
“All right, everyone.” Meredith clapped her hands. “Let’s get this party started. Maestro, music.”
Jordan’s sister, Jacky, a willowy, dark-haired beauty who had given up her former life to live near her brother, was in charge of the iPod. She pressed a button and the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” started to play through a portable speaker.
“Turn it off,” I yelped as a shiver shimmied up my spine.
Jacky switched off the song. “What’s wrong?”
“She doesn’t want Councilwoman Bell to hear the noise,” Delilah chirped. “You know how she can be. She complains so much, you’d think she could hear every single sound in town.”
“No, that’s not it. I—” I hugged myself as a painful memory flooded my senses. I was back in the car with my parents. Pre-crash. “Sweet Dreams” was playing on the radio. The wind. My parents laughing. Then the screams. “Just pick another song, okay?” Talk about a mood killer.
Jacky whisked her finger across a playlist, and sultry Latin music started to play. “Better?”
“That Mrs. Bell,” Rebecca groused. “I swear, I thought she was so nice when I first met her, but she complains more than our not-so-favorite dress shop owner.”
Delilah tangoed to me with a flute of sparkling wine and a platter of cheeses that included one of my all-time favorites, Big Rock Blue, a creamy, teal-veined cheese with the texture of fudge. “Drink up, everyone, and have some cheese to fortify yourself,” she announced to all. “It’s party time.” Then she whispered to me, “Are you okay? Bad memory?”
How well she knew me. “My parents,” I said.
“I’ll be fine.” I took a sip of the wine. It was ice-cold and luscious, with hints of peach and apricot. The bubbles tickled my nose.
Meredith waltzed up with a paintbrush in hand. She thrust it at me and gave me a nudge. Easels had been set up around the cellar. “You get to pick first. Deputy O’Shea, take your position.”
“Call me Devon,” he said.
“Devon!” the ladies chimed again like a group of giggly chorines.
I laughed. Despite my earlier trepidation and the momentary upset with the music, the party was going to be fun.
Devon moved to the center of the cellar and perched on a short ladder with one foot propped on the lowest rung.
“Arms up,” Delilah ordered.
O’Shea raised his arms overhead and offered a muscleman pose. His biceps flexed; his abs tightened. The women cooed their appreciation. After a moment, O’Shea shook his head. “Uh-uh, not a chance. I can’t hold this pose for longer than a minute.” He shook out his arms and squared his shoulders. “How’s this?” He angled his elbows and gripped his hands in front of his torso. If Jordan wasn’t twice as handsome, I might have found myself salivating.
For over an hour, while my friends and I sketched, they plowed me with questions about Jordan and the wedding plans. Although neither Jordan nor I had been married before—both of us had been engaged in our twenties; my fiancé, let’s just say, turned out to be a bad apple, and Jordan’s fiancée had died tragically of a heart attack—we weren’t doing anything overly dramatic for our nuptials. We had planned a low-key ceremony at his farm. I would walk down the aisle to a solo French horn, to honor my father, and we would have Irish music and an Irish prayer to honor my mother. I’d also requested that a swarm of butterflies be released after we said our vows. I’d considered having Jordan come to my grandparents’ house and pick me up—it was an old French tradition—but we had decided against it; we were way beyond being kids.
“What’re you wearing?” Rebecca said. “You’ve been so hush-hush about it. And what is Jordan wearing?”
Freckles, a pint-sized, sunny woman who owned Sew Inspired Quilt Shoppe, waved a hand. “I can answer that.” She had designed my simple ecru dress, which was in need of hemming, and she had tailored Jordan’s light brown suit. She described them in detail. Bridesmaids were going to wear shimmering gold cocktail dresses.
“I’ve advised Charlotte to keep her hair just as it is,” Tyanne said. She may have relocated from New Orleans a few years ago, but her Southern accent was still intact. “It’s very sassy.”
I had touched up my hair with extra blonde highlights and had cut it shorter to frame my face, very much like Tyanne’s current hairstyle. Ever since she had started an exercise regimen, her entire look had changed. She had lost weight and toned up. Divorce, in her case, had been good for her overall well-being.
In addition to the ceremony requirements, I had two other traditions that mattered to me. I would wear my mother’s pearl earrings, the same she had worn when she married my father, and I would carry a handful of daisies—my mother’s favorite flower. How she and my father would have loved to see me walk down the aisle.
“How many people are coming?” Freckles asked.
“Jordan and I have invited a few friends, including all of you and our immediate family.” At the last, my cousin had strong-armed us into inviting his ex-wife Sylvie; otherwise, she would crash the party. So be it. Who needed the aggravation? Fortunately, she had not been invited to the bachelorette party. I could only imagine what she would have been saying to taunt me.
“And the menu,” Tyanne said. “Tell them about the menu, Charlotte. Y’all, it’s so delicious, you’ll die.”
“I want the whole affair to be romantic,” I said. “We’ll have a winter salad with chocolate-dipped strawberries, roasted chicken with chocolate mole sauce, and a decadent chocolate cheesecake for dessert.”
“That’s my recipe,” Delilah boasted. “I’ve been working on it for weeks. It’s got chocolate swirled throughout, and there will be a mound of whipped cream topped with shaved chocolate curls on top.”
The others oohed their appreciation.
Tyanne said, “Isn’t it thrilling? And how much more romantic could it be? The wedding is set during our town’s Lovers Trail festivities.”
The Lovers Trail celebration was my septuagenarian, go-getter grandmother’s creation. She served as mayor of Providence. The festivities started tomorrow and would run for ten days, through the following Sunday. The celebration would feature sleigh rides, moveable feasts, and more. Many places, like the wineries, the ice-skating rink, and Nature’s Preserve, were hosting daily events. Otherwise, the town was divided up by main streets: east and west, north and south. On a specific day, shops and restaurants in town were to honor good old St. Valentine’s by offering candy, wine, and meals with a lovers’ theme. Fromagerie Bessette was preparing lovers’ baskets complete with heart-shaped cheeses. Next Thursday, in the wine annex, we were throwing a cheese and wine soiree. Tickets were required.
“What could be more romantic than Providence in February?” Tyanne said. “The whole town is ablaze with twinkling lights. Everyone is in love or pretending to be.”
“Some are totally in love.” Rebecca flushed pink as she ogled Deputy O’Shea. He did his best not to break his pose, but he couldn’t prevent a transcendental grin from spreading across his handsome face.
I tried to capture that grin with my paintbrush, but I failed. Miserably. I wondered whether I could convince everyone who looked at my artwork that I was trying to emulate Picasso in his cubist period.
“Why isn’t your grandmother here, Charlotte?” Freckles asked.
Delilah answered, “She’s busy with preparations for the weekend’s festivities.”
Rebecca said, “Also, she has purchased the rights to the play Love Letters for the Providence Playhouse, so she’s busy building sets.”
In addition to serving as mayor, my grandmother dedicated her life to making the Providence Playhouse a must-visit theater. Love Letters was a Pulitzer Prize finalist that focused on two people. The actor, who played a staid lawyer, and the actress, who played an unstable artist, sit side by side onstage. Though they are worlds apart, they read letters and cards that pass between them over the course of fifty years, in which they express their hopes, dreams, and bitter disappointments. Grandmère had asked me to read the play before she purchased the rights. By the final scene, I was a sobbing, hiccupping mess. During the play’s twenty-plus-year run, Hollywood stars like Kathleen Turner, Jason Robards, and Colleen Dewhurst had performed in it. Grandmère suggested that Jordan and I take on the roles, but I nixed that idea. I am not an actress in much the same way that I am not an artist. Yes, I acted in high-school plays, but I fumbled lines and generally stunk. Lately I’d heard Grandmère trying to cajole our local chief of police into taking on the male role. I would never reveal, not even after drinking sparkling wine with my dearest friends, that I was the one who had suggested him to my grandmother. Heaven forbid he discover I had. He and I could go head-to-head on occasion.
Delilah instructed O’Shea to change his pose. At the same time, a cell phone buzzed. Everyone’s gaze flew to Deputy O’Shea’s gym bag.
Rebecca huffed. “Sheesh. Didn’t I switch it off? No—”
“That’s a message. Let me take a look, Rebecca.” O’Shea didn’t wait for her okay. He dashed to his gym bag and pulled out his phone. Crouched low, he pressed a button and listened. “What the—” He glanced at the readout.
A shiver snaked up my spine for the second time that evening. It wasn’t related to my parents’ crash. Why was I on edge? What was going on? I’d been feeling so confident and settled lately. Was it just pre-wedding jitters?
I rushed to O’Shea. “Is everything all right?”
The deputy had the phone planted against his ear. He jammed a finger into his other ear. A few seconds later, he snapped to a stand. “Dang.”
“What’s wrong?” I said.
O’Shea didn’t answer. He stabbed in numbers on the cell phone and pressed Send.
“Devon, talk to me.”
“Is he okay? Did something happen?”
“I’m not sure. He sounded flustered. He said he heard, no, he saw something.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He left a message.” O’Shea looked worried. “His voice cut in and out. He didn’t sound good. He sounded . . . scared. He said he was going to contact Chief Urso. Just as the call ended, something crashed in the background.”
While apologizing, Deputy O’Shea threw on his shirt, trousers, and shoes. He seized his bag and dashed upstairs. Needless to say, my celebratory good vibrations flew out the window. I tore off my smock, asked everyone to clean up the cellar, grabbed my coat and purse, and raced after him.
Luckily yesterday’s snow had melted and the streets were dry. The cold air stung my cheeks. “Where are you going?” I called.
“To the pub.” O’Shea didn’t slow down.
“Why are you so worried?”
“It’s not like Uncle Tim to—” He shook his head once. Hard. “You know him,” he yelled over his shoulder. “He’s not the kind who panics. About anything.”
“And he sounded freaked out?”
“That’s the thing. I’m not sure. But I’m going to find out.”
“When did he leave the message?”
“An hour ago.”
Timothy O’Shea’s Irish Pub was located at the north end of the Village Green, about a block from Fromagerie Bessette. Deputy O’Shea entered first. I trailed him.
Invariably, O’Shea’s was crowded. The pub was the only place at night that had multiple televisions airing sports or highlights, nonstop. When it was time for the three-piece band to play, like now, all the televisions were switched to closed-caption mode. The walls were bare. Tim wouldn’t put up the St. Patrick’s Day decorations until March; they would stay up until May.
The deputy and I bypassed the hostess’s station and headed toward the antique bar. The leader of the band announced that the upcoming song would be their last for a while, and then the band launched into a rousing rendition of “The Irish Rover.”
Deputy O’Shea strode to a red-haired waitress at the far end of the bar. Like all the waitresses, she was fit and bright-eyed. Tim insisted that his waitresses be able to handle any person, drunk or sober. Rowdies, he called them.
O’Shea said, “Where’s my uncle?”
“No need to shout, Devon, my darlin’. I can hear just fine, music and all.” The waitress planted a hand on her hip. “Last I saw him, he was shuffling toward the kitchen.” She gestured with a thumb toward the kitchen door.
“When was that?”
“An hour ago. Maybe more. Why?”
“You’re not concerned that he’s gone?”
“Why would I be? He often leaves and comes back at close of business. He takes walks. It’s good for his heart, he says.” She thumped hers. “I figure he stayed out for some fresh air. I wouldn’t blame him. It’s hot in here.” She loosened the red bandanna around her neck and mopped her forehead with a white bar towel. “I hate when we crank up the heat because it’s cold outside. People dress warmly. There’s no—”
“Hush.” O’Shea held up a hand.
The waitress grimaced. “What’s eating you?”
“Tim called me.”
“That’s because you’re his favorite nephew. He always has a soft spot—”
“Stop talking. Listen to me. I’m not kidding. I think something might be wrong.”
The waitress, realizing O’Shea was earnest, tried to apologize, but O’Shea didn’t respond. He marched ahead. I trailed him through the kitchen to the rear of the restaurant.
“Has anyone seen Tim in the last hour?” O’Shea said to the kitchen staff. He pushed through the back door. I peeked over his shoulder. The alley was empty. No sign of Tim. O’Shea made a U-turn. “Anybody?”
“He went outside a while ago,” said a female sous-chef who was in her mid-thirties, about the same age I was. She continued to stuff potato skins with whipped potatoes. “I don’t remember seeing him return. He likes to—”
“Stroll,” a whip-thin waitress said while filling a basket with Parmesan breadsticks.
“Did somebody drop a tray of glassware in the last hour?” O’Shea asked.
A timid dishwasher in a dirty white apron raised a hand. “Me.”
“That means you were outside when my uncle was calling me on his cell phone.”
“I heard the glasses shatter.”
The guy blanched. “I mean, yes, I dropped the glasses, but I didn’t see Tim. I wasn’t outside. I was just inside the door.”
“Where was Tim?”
“I don’t know. We had the door wedged open. We just needed some air. I . . .” He shrugged. “I was clumsy. I think I heard him crank up his truck, though. It’s got that sputter sound. Like it needs a good tune-up.”
Tim had owned his truck since high school. He loved working on the engine. That didn’t mean he was any good at fixing the darned thing.
“Did you see him drive off?” O’Shea asked.
“No. I just heard—”
O’Shea didn’t wait for the rest of the guy’s explanation. He strode back into the pub and stood with his hands on his hips while scanning the place. Picking a target, he stomped off to talk to a pair of regulars.
Believing that the more news we gleaned the better—especially before anyone left the bar—I chose another twosome to question. Violet Walden, the woman who ran the upscale Violet’s Victoriana Inn, was sitting with Paige Alpaugh, a pert, forty-something single mom who reminded me of a show pony with her big jaw, big teeth, and plume of caramel-colored hair.
With no introduction, I slid onto one of the chairs at the women’s table and said, “Hey, Violet, I’ve got that Fromager d’Affinois you like in stock.” The cheese was a delicious French double-cream, similar to Brie in taste, and in my personal opinion, creamier.
“Mmm.” Violet, also mid-thirties, who had a classically pretty face but dyed her shoulder-length hair a ridiculous marshmallow-blonde color, hummed without looking up. She was rummaging in her purse. Out came a lozenge, a folded piece of blue paper, a receipt, and a pack of cigarettes. The latter must have been what she was after. She jammed everything but the pack of cigarettes back inside and began tap-tapping the pack on the tabletop. “I’m off of cheese for a while.”
“Why?” I assessed her. Had she lost weight? Despite the fact that her B&B offered spa cuisine, Violet usually appeared thick. Perhaps it was because she wore clothes that were one size too small. Tonight, however, she looked downright trim in her chic sweater and jeans. “Has Paige ordered you to change your eating habits?”
“It wasn’t me,” Paige said, holding her hand up like a Girl Scout ready to take the pledge. “I adore cheese.” A divorcee and mother of two, Paige made her living as a farmer. She was also a foodie blogger who wrote passionately and tirelessly about a well-balanced diet. I couldn’t get over the amount of hours she put into her blog. She posted recipes daily and showed every step of preparation. Each post had a chatty story and sometimes a moral or warning to go along with it. “Dairy in the diet is a good thing,” she said. “It’s the sugar you have to watch out for. Candy, sodas, pastries.”
“Amen.” Violet gestured with a V sign.
“And the cigarettes.”
Violet threw Paige a nasty look.
“Eat right and you’ll make pretty babies,” Paige went on with authority. I was sure she believed what she professed, but, honestly, genetics had a lot to do with beautiful offspring. Paige’s eldest daughter had turned out as attractive as Paige; the younger girl had her father’s features.
I turned to Violet. “Are you pregnant?”
“No. I’m single. I would never—” She huffed. “I hope to have kids one day. Soon. Paige is just being . . . Paige. In other words, annoying.”
Paige hiccupped a laugh.
“What’s up with the deputy?” Violet eyed O’Shea. “He looks like he’s on the warpath.”
“His uncle Tim called him.”
“So?” Violet, who was a head taller than I was, shimmied in her chair until she was sitting straight and, I was pretty sure, could look down on me. I wouldn’t necessarily call her controlling, simply in need of the upper hand.
“He left a message, which sounded urgent,” I said. “But the reception cut in and out, so the deputy didn’t catch all of Tim’s message. Now he can’t reach him.”
“Typical around here,” Paige said. “All the rolling hills. What we need is a good cell tower.”
“Oh, yeah, right.” Violet gave her the evil eye. “Talk Councilwoman Bell into that. Can you spell eyesore on her precious landscape?”
Not only did the councilwoman dislike noise in our fair town; she disliked any change whatsoever. She owned Memory Lane Collectibles, which was wedged in between the pastry shop and the Revue Movie Theater. Her shop reflected who she was: a woman who wanted things in her life and town to remain quaint and unchanged.
“If she had her way,” Violet went on, “we would return to pioneer days, as long as the showers and plumbing worked.”
Paige let out with a high-pitched whinny of a laugh.
“Have either of you seen Tim?” I asked.
“The last I saw, he was pouring a pitcher of beer for that table over there.” Paige pointed to a group of four. I recognized them. They were California tourists who had come into The Cheese Shop earlier and had bought out my entire assortment of New England cheeses.
“When was that?”
“Over an hour ago.” She snorted again. “We’ve been here awhile.” She ran a finger along the rim of her glass of beer. “I’m nursing my one and only. A girl’s got to party, just not too hearty, don’t you think?”
“How about you, Violet?” I noticed the pack of cigarettes she was toying with. A cigarette was missing. Perhaps holding the pack helped her over the hurdle of needing to smoke another. I knew a man who would suck on an unlit cigar all day. Years ago, I’d suggested trying a lollipop, but he wouldn’t go for it. I said, “Did you happen to see Tim when you went outside for a smoke?”
“Aha!” Paige tsked. “That’s why you snuck out.” The disappointment in her tone was heavy-handed.
“No. I mean, yes. I had one. Only one.” Violet tucked the cigarettes into her purse, and then leaned toward me. “I’m trying to quit.”
I said, “The kitchen staff said Tim went out back, by the garbage.”
“I wasn’t out there. I was in the parking lot.”
“So you didn’t see Tim.”
“No.” Violet tapped her manicured fingertips on the table.
“One of the staff thought Tim might have driven off in his truck.”
Violet’s eyes brightened. “You know, now that you mention it, I did see Tim. In his truck. Driving away. And I noticed someone else. Jawbone.”
“How many Jawbones can there be?” she quipped.
The first time I’d met Jawbone Jones, who was the owner of a gun shop, I felt scared down to my toes. His appearance wasn’t the typical look people sported in Providence. He shaved his head, he wore a goatee, and he had the word king tattooed on his neck. However, over the past year, I had grown to enjoy him. He was a true aficionado of hard cheeses. I remembered how he would wax rhapsodic about Vermont Shepherd Invierno cheese, a sublime mixture of cow and sheep’s milk with a mushroomy taste. He would also purchase a huge portion of Jordan’s Pace Hill Farm Double-cream Gouda whenever he came in; he said it was his mother’s favorite.
“Why did you notice him?” I asked.
“Because he peeled rubber and sped off in his truck, too. Maybe he was chasing Tim.”
“Which way did Jawbone go?”
“He made a right turn.”
That would mean he had headed north.
“Did Tim drive the same direction?”
“I think so.” Violet linked a finger into the hair at the nape of her neck and twirled. “You know, Ray Pfeiffer might have seen him, too.” Ray was the latest owner of The Ice Castle, the rink where I’d learned to skate ages ago. “He was outside fetching something from his car.” She gazed toward the ceiling, as if picturing something in her mind. “Jawbone was definitely in a hurry.”
I scanned the pub. “Is Ray still here?” Maybe he had seen more than Violet had.
“No, he and Dottie left a while ago. You know how it is with Dottie. She’s got to hit the hay so she can get up early to make all those pastries of hers.”
“Those sugar-loaded fattening pastries,” Paige said under her breath.
Those delicious pastries, I thought, but kept my opinion to myself. Dottie was the owner of the Providence Pâtisserie, from which our shop purchased many of the breads we used to make sandwiches.
I hurried to O’Shea and tapped him on the shoulder. He whipped around.
I apologized to the pub regulars for interrupting. “Violet saw Jawbone Jones tear off in his truck. He headed north. She wasn’t sure, but he might have been chasing your uncle. You said Tim wanted to talk to Urso. Maybe he drove to Pace Hill Farm. That’s where Urso is. At Jordan’s bachelor party.”
O’Shea raced out of the pub and nearly flew to the precinct parking lot. I made it into the passenger seat of his SUV seconds before he tore off. As he zoomed toward the farmland in the north part of the county, I pulled my cell phone from my purse. Following the first wild turn, I was forced to grab the bar above the passenger side window. So much for being able to dial Urso. Where had the deputy learned to drive that way? Had he trained with NASCAR racers, or had the academy taught him the skill? His teeth looked cemented together.
“Deputy, please slow down.”
“Roads are dry.”
“We can barely see the pavement.” The sky was pitch-black. There was no moon. The pastoral areas beyond the town’s main roads weren’t lined with street lamps. “All it takes is a patch of ice kicked up by one of the sleighs to make us spin out.”
Easy for him to say. My fingers were tingling from gripping the bar. I didn’t dare let go.
We rounded the bend by Windmill Crest. The ancient windmill at the top was doing its level best to fight off a blustery wind. A Camaro whizzed past us. I couldn’t see the driver’s face, but I recognized the car. Its owner was a young man who worked at Providence Pâtisserie and often delivered the bread we purchased. Right after he zoomed past, we came upon a sleigh moving along the side of the road, just beyond the buildup of old snow.
“Do you see the sleigh, Devon?” Saying his name made me think of the bachelorette party and the way the girls had hooted after uttering his name. How long ago that seemed.
“I’m not blind.”
He slowed ever so slightly as he passed the sleigh and then resumed speed. I glanced back. The couple, draped in blankets and lit by the glow of hurricane candles mounted on either side of the driver, looked happy and totally oblivious to our plight. If only I was riding in a sleigh with Jordan and not a partner on this wild adventure.
“There’s the Bozzuto Winery,” I said. Torchlights lit the winding road that led to the winery. It looked so inviting. All week long, expressly for the Lovers Trail festivities, the winery was having a wine tasting, twice daily and once nightly. “Pace Hill is beyond.”
“I know,” he grumbled.
Don’t shoot the messenger, I thought.
Pace Hill Farm is an artisanal farm that raises its own cows and turns out about eighty thousand pounds of cheese a year. Seasonally, tourists are encouraged to walk the hiking trails and visit the cheese-making facility. On a typical day in spring, the drive to Pace Hill Farm would have taken us through brilliant green swales and knolls dotted with oak. We would have smelled the sweet aroma of grass wafting through the open windows of the SUV, but today, following a week of snow and temperatures hovering in the teens, all we smelled was the car’s interior, and all we saw were white hills and dales framed by the dark of night.
The deputy hit the brakes and made a sharp turn onto the road leading to the farm.
“What if your uncle didn’t come here?” I asked. “What if he thought better about whatever he was setting out to do and went home? We should have gone there first.”
“But we didn’t. We’re here.”
“I’ll try to call him.”
“His cell phone glitched out. Don’t you remember?” Venom filled the deputy’s tone.
I refused to buckle. “What’s his home number?”
O’Shea rattled it off. I dared to release my hold on the overhead bar and dialed Tim’s number, but it didn’t ring through. I glanced at the readout; my cell phone had lost its signal. I reflected on the conversation with Violet and Paige back at the pub. We really could use another cell tower in the area. What if we decorated it with those fake trees to mask it? Would Councilwoman Bell get on board then?
My cell phone trilled. Heartened, hoping it was Tim—maybe he’d glimpsed that I had called him at home, and he was returning the call; crisis averted—I answered.
“Charlotte,” Rebecca said. She sounded out of breath. “Where are— Where’s Dev—” Her words kept cutting off. A wheeze of what sounded like air but had to be electric static echoed in the background. “I’m at the pub with Delil— We came looking for— We got worr— What’s going on?”
My insides felt cinched tight. “We’re on our way to Jordan’s place. Urso’s there.”
“Why do you—” More dead air. “Urso?”
“I can barely hear you, and I can’t talk now. Tim’s missing. I’m hanging up. I’ll call you when we learn something. It’s probably nothing.” Another icier-than-all-get-out chill coursed through me. I chalked it up to me channeling the deputy’s worry. Nothing was wrong. Nothing.
At the top of the drive, O’Shea swerved around the many cars and trucks parked in front of Jordan’s ranch-style house and screeched to a halt. We bounded from the SUV at the same time.
“Look!” He pointed. “That’s my uncle’s truck.”
At the far left of the driveway, a blue 1995 Chevy Silverado stood at an angle. I remembered when Tim bought it. I was still in high school, but my grandparents took me into the pub for a burger. Tim was behind the bar bragging about the truck and how he was going to rebuild the engine and upgrade the radiator from a single-core to a three-core because the lesser wasn’t good for towing. Like he towed anything, his conversation mate had teased. Now I recalled a more recent boast by Tim; the Silverado had over two hundred and fifty thousand miles on it. He claimed it was the most reliable buddy a guy could ever have. My grandfather said Tim would make a great spokesman for Chevrolet.
O’Shea darted to the truck and peeked through the driver window. “He’s not inside. Follow me.”
Not one to argue with the law—okay, sometimes I did, but I wasn’t about to tonight—I obeyed.
O’Shea sprinted to the main house and up the triplet of steps to the porch. He lifted the lion’s-head-shaped doorknocker and rammed it against the wood. From inside, I heard men laughing.
When Delilah and Meredith had kidnapped me, they hadn’t let me grab my gloves. I rubbed my fingers to warm them. Not good enough. I cupped them and blew into them. “Deputy . . . Devon . . .” Were my teeth chattering? “I think we might be overreacting. I’ll bet your uncle came here to join the party. He and Jordan are friends. Maybe he was trying to tell you he saw an invitation. He forgot to RSVP. He was going to call Urso to tell him he was on his way. Maybe this party was a surprise like mine was. Maybe—”
“No.” O’Shea was adamant. “Uncle Tim refuses to go to bachelor parties. He hates them. He hates all celebrations.”
“You’re kidding. He owns the most rousing place in town.”
“And he was the one who talked you into posing at my bachelorette party.”
“I can celebrate. You can celebrate. Not him.”
“I don’t get it. Why does he hate celebrating so much?”
“You don’t know?” O’Shea rammed the doorknocker into the wood again. “He got dumped at the altar twenty years ago.”
“Wow. I had no idea. I barely knew him then. I was in high school.”
“Yeah, of course. Dumb me.”
To the deputy, I would bet anyone over thirty was ancient.
“Tim was the youngest brother,” O’Shea continued. “After all of his older brothers got married, he was feeling the pressure to follow in their footsteps. So he got engaged to a girl he didn’t love. Respectable, but, well, you know.” O’Shea grimaced. “Sometime before the big date, he decided to quit farming and buy the bar. I guess he forgot to tell his intended. On the morning of the wedding, she called it off. She didn’t want to have anything to do with someone who supplied liquor to people.”
“Who was she?”
“Does she still live in town?”
“No. She moved away about a year later. Tim told me she never married. He swears he ruined her for everyone. Some couples aren’t meant to be, I guess.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Cheese Shop Mysteries:
“It’s not just Gouda, it’s great!”—Lorna Barrett, New York Times bestselling author
“Fun, flirty, and full of local flavor.”—Kate Carlisle, New York Times bestselling author
“A bold new series to be savored like a seductive Brie.” —Krista Davis, New York Times bestselling author
"Deliciously fast-paced...delightful."—Julie Hyzy, New York Times bestselling author
“A mouthwatering mystery… a plot that twists and turns…Enticing and intriguing.”—Jenn McKinlay, New York Times