Erno Oliveri made sure to be on set for his daughter’s cook-off appearance on Sunny Side Up with Brett and Carmell. Or as it’s now known, Sunny Side Up with Carmell and Brett—since the ambitious young Carmell seems to have the producer and station owner eating out of her hand. But the important news is that Sherry has bested the competition with her Spicy Toasted Chickpea and Almond appetizer and clinched the spatula-shaped trophy. It’s her shining moment—until everything goes dark.
A quick-moving storm has knocked out power to the studio—and when the lights come back up, Carmell is at her desk with a sharp object lodged in her neck. The weapon is an unusual tool, used by craftsmen who make hooked rugs. Has someone taken corporate backstabbing to a new level, and framed Erno in the process? If Sherry’s going to protect her dad and their family name, she has to find out where he was when the lights went out . . .
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"You'd think winning recipe contests was a matter of life and death. Two of the contestants stormed out of here in such a huff I didn't get to try their appetizers." Erno Oliveri put one arm around his daughter, while snaking his free hand toward the plate loaded with crab-stuffed mushrooms. He popped one in his mouth. "If your recipe beat these beauties, you must be a great cook." He released his daughter and went back, double-fisted, for more.
As Sherry touched her warm cheek, she envisioned her face glowing radish red. "Thanks, Dad, but you're exaggerating a bit. I don't think anyone was in a huff. And if you think I'm such a good cook, why haven't you had more than one taste of my Spicy Toasted Chickpea and Almond Bites?" Sherry untied and removed her new Watch Sunny Side Up with Brett and Carmell weekdays at 8 a.m. apron. She folded the cloth to the size of a dinner napkin. "I have to say, the way you've been scarfing down my competitor's food, I'm glad you weren't one of the judges." She used the compacted apron to swat her father's head with loving restraint.
Sherry set the cloth on the polished acrylic table she and her fellow cook-off competitors had displayed their competing dishes on. The spills and splatters each cook had produced during their thirty-minute time allotment had been mopped up, and Studio B was ready for whatever broadcast segments were coming up next.
"Congratulations, Sherry, great recipe," the woman who had crafted the crab mushrooms said as she headed toward the building's exit, appetizer platter in hand. Her kind words couldn't mask the sagging frown on her face.
As she passed, Erno's hand jutted forward to hijack one more bite. He was a moment too tardy; the plate traveled beyond his reach, and his hand remained empty. His arm collapsed down to his side, and his chest deflated.
"Yours were great, too," Erno called after Mushroom Lady. He turned back to face Sherry. "Forgive me. I'm not a chickpea fan, but obviously your appetizer was perfectly executed." Erno's gaze followed the exiting tray of fungi across the TV studio and out the door. "Farewell, delicious ones, I'll miss you."
"Dad, you're so transparent. Can you get your mind off the crab long enough to help me gather my stuff, please?"
A block of a man with a headful of wavy salt-and-pepper hair approached Sherry as she placed her baking sheet inside her rolling carryall. She lifted her head and smiled at the imposing News Twelve station owner, Damien Castle. She began to utter a greeting before she realized he was talking on his cell phone. Sherry swallowed her "hello" and continued packing her cooking supplies.
"I'll be there. Yes, of course. I haven't missed one yet, have I? Thank you for being so accommodating." Damien put the phone in his breast pocket, lifted a mixing bowl off the counter, and handed it to Sherry. "Your cook- off win today is the biggest thing to happen at News Twelve since the governor's motorcade stopped by unannounced to use the men's room last month. We had to interrupt our broadcast because his entourage created such a stir." Damien pursed his lips and handed Sherry her serving spoon from the pile of rinsed silverware.
"Thanks, Mr. Castle. I love these smaller cook-offs." Sherry arched her eyebrows skyward as she reconsidered her comment. "I didn't mean this was a small cook-off in any negative sense."
Sherry sucked in a deep breath, in hopes of washing away any lingering taste of the foot she had put in her mouth. She blew a wayward lock of hair from her face. The hairstyle she had begun sporting recently was taking some getting used to. She hadn't worn a shoulder-length cut, without clips or barrettes, since she was in her twenties. "Certainly was one of the most fun appetizer competitions I've been a part of in a long time. Your TV station went above and beyond to make all four of us contestants feel well taken care of."
Erno cleared his throat with a rumble rivaling a food processor set on full power. Sherry heaved her slumping shoulders back and gulped down the emerging words she had been about to relay, rather than continue rambling. Instead, she watched her father relocate to the edge of the room, where he found a seat.
Sherry resumed collecting the kitchenware she had brought from home. Some contests provided all the supplies needed to complete a recipe while others required participants to bring supplies needed for success. Sherry preferred the former, but was resigned to the growing popularity of the latter. It was a more economically sound way for the sponsor to run the contest, but, for Sherry, always a juggling act to get supplies to and fro.
"Please, call me Damien. I may own this place, but I don't put on airs. On airs, on-air. That's quite punny if you think about it."
The chuckling man took a step away from Sherry, only to be replaced by a woman in a pinstripe blazer and pencil skirt.
"Damien's right. You proved once again you're Augustin's most decorated home cook. Thanks for entering our contest. You elevated the level for all the others who tried and failed to beat you. For your information, there were close to one hundred and fifty recipes our staff whittled down to the final four, from the chefs who competed this morning, so you should be proud to come out victorious." Carmell Gordy edged backward until she was shoulder to shoulder with Damien.
"Thank you, Carmell." Sherry thrust her platter of appetizers toward Carmell. "Would you like to try some? I don't think you got a chance to try them during the cook-off." Sherry's second attempt to lure the News Twelve personality into a taste-test was thwarted with a wave of Carmell's elegant hand.
"I'm careful about what I eat." Carmell patted her concave core with one hand while clutching a vibrant green smoothie in the other. "Television anchors think they can sit behind a desk and hide extra pounds, but savvy viewers know when you've let yourself go."
"Hard to break my urge to want to fill bellies." Sherry set the platter back down. She wedged the tips of her fingers just inside her straining waistband and sighed as she struggled to fit more than one finger in. She untucked her shirt and yanked the hem over her stomach bulge. "I'm thinking of taking up Zumba. Lately I've been doing too much cooking and not enough sweating. I need to get back in shape."
Carmell glanced past Sherry. With no real intention of taking up the dance aerobics exercise du jour, Sherry was glad her comment was ignored.
Carmell rotated on her heels for a close encounter with Damien. "Are you behind in your e-mails? I'm waiting for a reply. There's time sensitivity involved." The words hissed from Carmell's mouth like escaped steam from a pressure cooker.
Damien winced and pulled out his phone. He began talking into the device.
"Ugh. He's not fooling me. He puts on that act when he wants to avoid a conversation, especially one involving me." Carmell craned her neck toward Sherry. "Did you hear his phone ring? I didn't. Did you see him dial out? I didn't."
Sherry scraped her shoe along the ground. "It could be on vibrate. We were told to shut our phones down when we came in the building."
"He owns this place. He plays by his own rules. I've heard his phone ring during a broadcast plenty of times. And if he's talking to someone right now, I'm the queen of England." Carmell took a noisy pull on her straw. "Time to get back to the anchor desk. We have a segment coming up on Augustin's Andre August Dahlback Festival. As you probably know, he's the legendary founder and namesake of the town of Augustin. If he hadn't brought those first onion bulbs over from his native Sweden and made this land the prosperous center of the onion universe, who knows what this town would be famous for today? Tune in for more information." Carmell's sweeping wave brushed Sherry's shoulder as she turned and walked away. "Bye, bye."
Sherry watched Carmell hop over the camera cables crisscrossing the floor of the studio before slipping through the studio doors.
Damien returned his phone to his pocket. "I've got to run. Need to stay ahead of the next mini crisis brewing. Sorry I can't offer more cleanup assistance." He helped himself to a cluster of Sherry's chickpeas and almonds and marched away in Carmell's footsteps.
A young man in an oversized flannel shirt trotted over. On his head, a haphazard man bun fidgeted from side to side with each step he took. A shorter man, who reminded Sherry of a beet, bottom heavy and red-faced, tailed him.
"Carmell Gordy sends me on a wild-goose chase to find a certain kind of treat for her dog, and now the picky canine won't touch the pricy biscuit. What he did eat was the receipt. Now I can't get reimbursed." Man Bun stuffed the pouch of dog treats in one of his multiple cargo pants pockets. "What am I doing all this for? Certainly not for the big bucks. Interns don't make a dime. Her pooch hates me and, considering all I do for him, he could be a tiny bit grateful." The taller man locked gazes with Sherry. A broad smile bloomed, revealing gleaming white teeth. "Hi, I'm Steele Dumont, esteemed station apprentice. My job description is, if someone wants something done and no one else wants to do it, I'm your man."
"Nice to see you, Steele. I know of you, although you probably have never heard of me. I work for your grandmother one day a week selling her pickles at the farmer's market. She mentioned I might see you here. Such a small world, right?" Sherry returned the smile. "I was in the appetizer cook- off this morning. I think I saw you darting around the studio behind the scenes. You're hard to miss." Sherry observed Steele's man bun, which was sprouting free-spirited hair. "And now I'm on my way out. Good luck in your job."
"Much appreciated. Got to go, too." Steele spun around toward the shorter man. "Brett, do you need me to grab any supplies from the closet before I get too involved in settling Dog Treat-gate with Carmell?"
"Nope, all set. I'm on in ten after Carmell finishes her segment, so right now I'm heading to my dressing room for a touch-up. My rosacea is acting up again. Stress-related, I'm sure." The man who had served as the moderator of the morning's cook-off, Brett Paladin, brushed his glowing cheek with the back of his hand. "Hard to believe, but I could use a bite to eat, too."
"I didn't get a chance to tell you how much I've enjoyed watching you over the years. I watched your very first broadcast. If I'm not mistaken you anchored a show called On The Front Burner With Brett. That same year you visited my high school and gave a talk in our English class. I was star struck." Sherry visualized a statuesque powerhouse of a man whose authoritative voice had kept the interest of twenty-two willful teenagers for an hour. All these years later, standing next to him, the bridge of her nose was the same height as the top of his head. She had to decline her chin to make eye contact.
Brett massaged his well-fed stomach. "Thank you. Loyal viewership means the world to me. I remember how difficult it was working solo. A partner like Carmell is an invaluable asset." He tossed a glance toward Sherry's plate of food and held up what appeared to be a large cookie. He took a hearty bite. Half of the remaining cookie collapsed to the floor. "I make these energy breakfast cookies myself. I think they're good enough to market. Would you like a taste? I'd value your opinion."
Sherry's stomach warned, "No more room until I've digested the crab mushrooms, mini sausage sliders, and phyllo spinach quiche the other contestants had me sample."
Sherry attempted to send a signal of refusal with the wave of her hand, but it was ignored. Brett broke off a chunk.
"Okay." The word leapt out before she could squash it.
The cookie landed in her hand. Brett's lips parted. The cookie entered Sherry's mouth. After a moment of mulling over the flavor and texture, she transported it down her digestive highway. She gulped hard to squelch a rising belch.
"Well? Pretty good, right?" Brett's grin was so expansive, his ears lifted. He took a bite of the remaining cookie.
"If I could give you one suggestion."
Brett's shiny smile went south faster than mayonnaise sitting in the summer sun.
"If you add a spoonful of almond butter, the batter will be moister and bind the baked product better. And maybe add more flavoring. I suggest turbinado sugar. Oh, and some chopped almonds for crunch. Oatmeal would give the cookie a desirable chewy texture, and a sprinkle of sea salt would deliver a tangy, bright note." After analyzing Brett's creased forehead, Sherry added, "I see great possibilities, though."
Sherry's rising shoulders dropped when a man carrying a clipboard jogged over to a scowling Brett. Clipboard Man's crew cut was so flat on top Sherry imagined she could rest a stack of pancakes without concern for toppling. He pointed out a spot on a sheet of paper to Brett before proceeding on. Brett grumbled and massaged his temples with his fingertips in a small circular motion.
The building heat of heartburn churned in Sherry's chest. "Boy, a typhoon of constant motion around here. People rushing in, people rushing out. Gives me an uneasy feeling."
The way Brett studied the room from one corner to the other, she knew he wasn't fully invested in listening to her.
"That guy can't make a decision to save his life, and he's our producer." Brett exhaled with such force that crumbs came flying out of his mouth. "Truman Fletcher's clipboard is what really runs this place." Brett's voice reverberated throughout the room. "Where's your dad?"
"How did you know my father was with me, Mr. Paladin?"
Brett's facial hue deepened. "Call me Brett, please. Only Dan Rather deserves the honorific 'Mr.'" Brett laughed at length, without drawing in air, until the color drained from his face.
Brett finally vacuumed in a breath. "I recognized Erno Oliveri in the back of the room, off-camera, while you were cooking. It wasn't hard to pin him as your father. The resemblance is quite strong. I rushed onto the cook-off studio floor this morning, so I didn't get a chance to say hi. To be honest with you, I thought the kitchen segment was solely Carmell's. Didn't get that assignment until five minutes before shoot time. Not sure how that girl has the wherewithal to make changes for others at the last minute, but if Truman Fletcher okays something, it's as good as done." Brett gestured toward the mountain of a man in chino pants and an oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up, examining his clipboard.
"I had no idea you and Dad knew each other." Sherry shifted her weight from one leg to the other. "Dad's right over there in the back of the room." She pointed him out, seated along the dimly lit edge of the studio. Erno was partially obscured by the massive lens of a TV camera. "I'm almost done here. In a minute I'll take you over to him."
After Sherry stored the last of her utensils in her rolling suitcase, she strained to close the zipper, but, a few failed attempts later, she gave up. Sherry turned to Brett. "Follow me."
"Watch the cables." Brett steered Sherry by the arm as they headed over to Erno.
As she neared her father, Sherry's footstep snagged a thick plastic- encased wire, and she lost her balance. Brett's reaction wasn't fast enough to keep her from pitching forward toward a monstrous camera. Her ribs took the brunt of the blow.
Carmell Gordy emerged from Erno's side and steadied Sherry by grasping her shoulders. "Are you hurt?" Carmell's lips were as puckered as a week-old apple slice. "You were almost breaking news. I wouldn't want to have to report that the cook-off winner was a casualty." Carmell released her grip, and Sherry teetered for a split second.
"Thanks. I'm clumsy. Old news there." Sherry righted herself. The intensity in Erno's eyes was that which the little girl in Sherry had seen on a few occasions growing up. That uncomfortable energy he transmitted meant a punishment was about to be doled out.
"I'm going." Carmell's clipped tone was fortified by the harsh tapping of her heels as she strutted away. She stopped and turned her head. "Oh, Brett, Damien took you off the Founder's Day feature we're shooting tomorrow. Did he tell you?"
"Yep. Can't count on much around here lasting more than a few minutes." Brett scuffed his shoe on the floor.
"What was that all about?" Sherry leaned over and put her hand on Erno's shoulder. "You and Carmell could have toasted my appetizer almonds with the heat generated between you two."
"Just a friendly chat." Erno avoided Sherry's glare. "We'd met prior to today and were catching up on lost time."
"I brought Brett Paladin, Carmell's co-anchor, over to say hello." Sherry stepped aside to let Brett slide between them. "He was asking for you."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Final Roasting Place"
Copyright © 2018 Devon Delaney.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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