Restaurant manager Dodie O'Dell has found her niche in the cozy New Jersey town of Etonville, creating menus that make a delicious double-act with the community theater's productions. Now she's ready for a vacation at the Jersey Shore town she called home before a hurricane hit. Sun, salty air, and seagulls make for a nostalgic escape from regular life-until a contingent from Etonville arrives to compete in a Jersey Shore theater festival.
Roped into helping her former boss cater the event, Dodie also gets a visit from her old flame, Jackson, who's hoping to revive his charter boat business and is looking for a place to crash. Before Dodie can tell him that ship has sailed, Jackson's partner is found murdered on his boat. Dodie knows her ex is a mooch, but she's sure he's no killer. But as she follows a trail of evidence that leads into her own past, Dodie stumbles on a dangerous conspiracy theory that could bring the festival to a shocking finale...
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"Here ya go. A gin and tonic and a Creamsicle Crush." The bartender at the Bottom Feeder, a tiki bar next door to the beach, made change from Bill's twenty and sauntered away after pocketing a liberal tip.
"You're in a generous mood," I said, taking my first sip and letting the vodka and OJ land on the back of my throat before swallowing.
"Dodie, a Creamsicle Crush sounds like a kid's drink." Bill elevated an eyebrow, and his quirky grin emerged, one side of his mouth ticking upward.
"Uh ...not exactly."
The sun shifted lower in the sky signaling the beginning of early evening. Swaying palm trees danced and dipped to the Polynesian music.
"Don't forget we have an early dinner at the Sandbar. I told Grody we'd be there about seven with appetites. I think he's creating something special."
Bill groaned. "I forgot about dinner. I hoped we could hang out here for a few hours, scarf up some of that cauliflower tempura and spicy shrimp we had the other night, and then collapse at our bungalow, lulled to sleep by the music of the rolling waves and the scent of salt air."
I stared at him. "When did you become so poetic?"
"Must be the heat."
I studied him, my glass at my lips. "That's been your reason for pretty much everything these days."
Bill, aka Etonville, New Jersey, police chief and my current squeeze, was totally enjoying our Jersey Shore vacation. He leaned back into the bar stool. "I haven't had a beach vacation in years. Not since I was nineteen."
"Nineteen? Jersey Shore?"
"No. I was with a bunch of guys, and we spent spring break in Fort Lauderdale." He stirred his drink.
"How traditional of you." I swiveled sideways in my seat to get a better view of the ocean.
"Nothing traditional about the way we hit the town and —"
I gawked at a table of guys at the other end of the bar who were hooting and drinking and enjoying themselves royally. "I know that man."
"Who?" Bill took a swig of his gin and tonic.
"Him. At the table." I glanced behind me.
"Which him? There's five hims there," Bill said.
A man rose, waved off the offer of money from one of his compatriots, and walked directly toward us. I watched his progress. He approached the bar on Bill's right, retrieving his wallet from a back pocket. "Another round for that rowdy crew."
He grinned amiably at us. "Great weather."
"Uh-huh," Bill agreed.
"Vinnie?" I said. I recognized that confident stroll, cocky grin, and golden tan.
Bill was as amazed as Vinnie Carcherelli. Or Vinnie C as I knew him. "You know each other?"
Vinnie tossed three twenties on the bar's glossy surface, his back to me. "Sorry. But ...?"
"It's been a while. Dodie O'Dell? Jackson's ... friend?" I said, trying to be helpful.
Vinnie looked at me. A series of reactions flitted across his face: confusion, then astonishment, finally chagrin. He had an aha moment accompanied by his world-class smile. "Of course I remember you. Dodie! How've you been?" He leaned in to kiss my cheek, the spicy, clean scent of his aftershave tickling my nose. A thin silver chain around his neck swung forward and grazed my cheek.
"Fine. I relocated to Etonville up north after Hurricane Sandy. This is Bill Thompson. My ..." Did "boyfriend" sound too casual?
Before I could finish my sentence, Vinnie had his arm extended, pumping the life out of Bill's hand. "Nice to meet you."
"Are you still in the boat business?" I asked. Vinnie had the polished façade of someone who had been doing well for himself — a crisp white shirt that set off his tan, beige cargo pants, and a TAG Heuer watch with a gold bracelet band. Had to have cost a bundle. Sunglasses were perched atop his lightly graying hair. He reeked of affluence. This was not the Vinnie who had spent his days on a charter fishing boat with Jackson in a tattered T-shirt and bathing trunks ferrying tourists up and down the shoreline, in and out of bays and inlets.
"Yeah," he said vaguely. "Took a while to rebuild things after Sandy."
"Have you heard from Jackson since he left town?" I asked politely.
"Hey, we're getting thirsty!" A heavyset man at Vinnie's table raised his voice and waggled his arm as if flagging down a cab.
"Gotta go. Maybe we can catch up some time. Really great to see you" — he glanced at Bill. — "and meet you." Vinnie grabbed a tray of drinks and headed to the table whose occupants let out a cheer when he reached them.
Bill observed Vinnie, then picked up his gin and tonic. "That was ...?"
"Jackson's old charter boat partner," I said.
"Jackson. Your former ...?"
"Uh-huh. You said Jackson wasn't all that successful as a businessman," Bill said.
"He wasn't. Never seemed to have more than a few bucks in his pocket when we were dating years ago. And the two of them were hopeless at managing the books. I offered more than once to help out. They were always in debt." I finished my Creamsicle Crush. "They named their boat the JV ..."
"... for Jackson and Vinnie. Not too original."
"The way they carried on, it also stood for juvenile."
"Vinnie must have turned the company around."
"I guess. The price tag on his watch has got to be five thousand plus," I said.
"I saw an ad for them in a magazine," I said noncommittally. I had researched men's watches as a potential Christmas present for Bill last December. TAG Heuer was definitely not in my ballpark. My attention was riveted on Vinnie, as if he were a magnet drawing me back to the past. A light wind wafted through the open-air bar. I shivered.
* * *
"Try this." Grody delivered two plates of gourmet seafood risotto — one of the Sandbar specials — to our table. "You'll like it." He sat and waited, arms akimbo, until Bill and I each took forkfuls, nodding with enthusiasm. "Am I right? Super delicious?" He grinned at his own success and tossed a bar towel over his shoulder. "We crushed it tonight."
"Grody, this is wonderful!" I said.
"It's the black truffle and leeks combo. Shhh. Don't let the word get out," Grody mock-whispered.
"I'd love the recipe to take home," Bill mock-whispered back.
Grody let out a huge belly laugh, one of his trademarks from way back, and ran one hand over his damp, bald head. "Because you're here with Irish, I'll make an exception."
"Irish" was one of his nicknames for me. It had something to do with my auburn hair and green eyes. Grody Van Houten, aka Surfer G, and I went back a decade when he hired me to manage his first restaurant here in Candle Beach, the Jersey Shore town near where I grew up. It was called Bigelow's. Destroyed during the hurricane like almost everything else on the boardwalk at that time. Grody and I had transitioned from employer/employee to big brother/little sister, and when the storm wrecked his livelihood, we parted ways. He moved to North Carolina to regroup; I moved north to Etonville to manage the Windjammer restaurant. We'd kept in touch via email and texts during the past couple of years, but I was thrilled to see him back in Candle Beach. The scene of so many shared culinary escapades. He'd recently opened the Sandbar, and from all appearances business was booming.
A waiter cruised by, whisked away our appetizer plates — we'd already stuffed ourselves with fried shrimp and calamari — and left a longneck beer for Grody. "I love what you've done with the place. Simple, no fuss. Like Bigelow's." The restaurant featured indoor seating under a thatched roof with the bar surrounding an open kitchen. Outdoor seating had tables and chairs sunk into the sand and a fabulous view of the ocean and jetty.
"I wasn't sure I could reopen another one." Grody tugged on his pirate's earring. "I was so burnt out and depressed after Sandy." He stared at the water. "But then a year ago I started to feel the old itch. I woke up in the middle of the night and researched recipes, went to seafood markets, experimented with sauces and spices." He raised his hands helplessly. "Once an old cook ..."
"An old beach bum, you mean," I teased.
Grody tugged on a strand of my hair. "Hey, knock it off, Red."
Another of Grody's pet names for me.
"I think you made the right choice," Bill said. "If tonight is any indication, so do the folks down here." The Sandbar was full. Every table taken, with some patrons waiting at the bar for seating.
"People have been real receptive."
Grody was too modest. "You're a pillar of the Candle Beach community. A different story from those early days when you surfed all morning, cooked the rest of the day, and then hit the waves again at dawn."
"I'm too old for that kind of carrying-on. Like you said, I'm an over-the- hill beach bum."
We laughed and I gave him a hug.
"Speaking of the community, the New Jersey Community Theater Festival is holding its contest down here. Part of the Labor Day weekend celebration," Grody added.
"I saw a poster about it on the boardwalk." Lola Tripper, the current artistic director of the Etonville Little Theatre and my BFF, informed me that they had entered the competition but ended up on the runner-up list. Lola was philosophical about it, claiming that now she had a low-key end to her summer instead of an ELT crazy-busy one. I agreed.
"... so I kind of got roped into catering the opening night reception." Grody grunted. "Henry tells me you have theater theme nights at the Windjammer. You can give me some advice."
My mind wandered. I'd lost the thread of the conversation, but apparently Grody was providing food for the community theater event. And his cousin, my boss Henry, chef/owner of the Windjammer restaurant, had described my various theme food experiments. "As long as I can give the advice from my beach towel."
"In exchange for a colorful drink with a miniature umbrella."
Grody chuckled. "You got it, Irish."
The night was warm and sensuous ... every muscle in my body was limp, my skin was tingling from the heat of sunbathing, my mind was dull and woozy. This was my kind of vacation, spending a holiday at the shore, basking in the sun, indulging my passion for seafood, not a care in the world, no responsibilities to assume. Away from the Windjammer restaurant that I'd managed since my arrival in Etonville. Away from the on- and off-stage melodrama of the Etonville Little Theatre. And, even though I loved them all, away from my BFFs, Lola and Carol, and friends in my small but gossipy town.
We chatted a bit more. I filled Grody in on the status of the Windjammer and Henry's culinary competition with his cross-town nemesis, La Famiglia. He regaled Bill and me with stories about getting restarted at the shore. Henry and Grody were first cousins with the restaurant connection and their bald heads common ground. Personality and temperament? Distant relatives.
"So the area has pretty much come back from the storm?" Bill asked.
"Yes and no. There are plenty of businesses and people who've been able to rebuild with FEMA, insurance, and state aid. But there are lots of horror stories of residents who got ripped off. Houses deserted and left sitting in their post-hurricane state because their money was stolen before work was completed." Grody shook his head. "I'd like to get some of those con artist contractors and strangle 'em," he said vehemently.
We all sat in silence for a moment. I had a vision of Surfer G with his hands around the neck of a cheating contractor. Sheesh!
"Hey, do you remember Vinnie C? He was Jackson's partner in the charter boat."
Grody frowned. "Vinnie ...?" Then he lit up. "You mean Vincent Carcherelli."
"Vinnie's moving up in the world. Bill and I ran into him at the Bottom Feeder during happy hour. He reeked of money."
"I heard he's in a high-end situation. No rusty tub for him anymore." Grody took a pull on his beer. "Ever hear from Jackson?" He slid his eyes in Bill's direction, who was scraping the last bit of risotto off his dinner plate, ignoring Grody and me.
"Only two or three emails the year after he moved to Iowa," I said. "Facebook once."
"Iowa?" Grody frowned, then snapped his fingers. "Now I remember. He went to work for his brother, right? Selling ... what was it?"
"Farm equipment," I said with a straight face.
"I don't mind you talking about Jackson. As long as I don't have to meet him," Bill said as we ambled down the boardwalk.
"No chance of that. Some dinner, right? Grody's recipes could rival La Famiglia. Earn him four stars." Henry was peeved that the Windjammer had only garnered three and a half stars from the local rag, the Etonville Standard, to La Famiglia's four.
"Beautiful." Bill tilted his head and studied the night sky. "I love the dark expanse over the ocean. There's Aquila and Lyra."
"Constellations. See? There." Bill pointed skyward to the mass of stars. I had no idea what he was seeing.
"Wow. You're into astronomy. I can't even find the Big Dipper."
"Part of Ursa Major," he said. "I spent a lot of time at the planetarium in Philly."
Where he was a deputy chief of police before his Etonville gig. "Impressive."
"Well ... I like stars." He grinned.
"What?" he asked.
"It's all so peaceful. I can't believe I have another week of this."
"Don't think about it ending. Just be in the moment," he said.
"In the moment? Has Suki gotten to you?" Suki Shung was Bill's deputy chief, a martial arts specialist, and a Buddhist. Even in the midst of harrowing law enforcement episodes, she managed to maintain her equilibrium.
"Suki? No. It's the —"
"Heat!" My cell buzzed signaling a text coming in.
Bill took my hand and squeezed. "Ignore it."
He was right. I was on vacation. Anyone who needed to communicate with me could wait until tomorrow. Besides, Bill seemed to be getting a little frisky, and I knew where that could lead. I laid my head against his shoulder. "Good idea."
We crossed Ocean Avenue, entered Atlantic Street, which ran perpendicular to the boardwalk. I could see our cozy bungalow, only a block from the ocean, up ahead. A living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, a lovely patio, and a large screened-in porch. Perfect for outdoor sleeping in this weather.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" he asked, one side of his mouth curving upward.
We arrived at our rental. "You bet," I murmured sexily and climbed the front steps, Bill grasping my hand close behind. "Why don't we pop the cork on that champagne we've been chilling?" I opened the screen door, and my foot scraped a large object. That moved. I jumped. "Eek!"
"What's going on?" Bill yelled, catching me as I fell backward.
A voice in the dark hollered, "Dudette!"
My heart banged in my chest. I knew only one person who referred to me as dudette. "J-Jackson?" I said, unbelieving.
"It's me. In the flesh." He cackled.
"Jackson?" Bill ushered me onto the porch and flicked on the light.
"What are you doing here?" I gasped.
"It's a long story." He caught sight of Bill. "Hey, what's happening, man?" He did a kind of bro handshake, his brown curls bouncing off his forehead and around his neck as he tried out variations on gripping the hand of the police chief of Etonville, New Jersey. "Hope you don't mind I kind of made myself at home on your porch."
In the dim light I could see a sleeping bag and an open backpack with clothes spilling out of it.
"What are you doing here?" I asked again. My mind not putting it all together. "Why aren't you in Iowa?"
"I had to split that scene. Missed the ocean. I kinda got fed up with tractors, combines, balers —"
"Jackson!" I practically screamed.
"Yo! You're killing my eardrums." He plopped on the ground and leaned back against the chaise lounge. "So what've you been up to?" He got a glimpse of Bill and grinned lazily.
"Excuse me." Bill, tight-lipped, went into our house.
I counted to ten to calm down. "Okay ... I'm happy to see you. We can get together for a drink and talk old times. Good night." I opened the screen door for Jackson to leave.
"That's a problem. I got a negative cash flow. No place to stay. Hey, I could crash out here."
"Here?" My voice skidded up an octave.
"For tonight. For old times' sake." I remembered that young, boyish grin that usually got him whatever he wanted. Including me. "Puleeeease?" he whined. "I'll make breakfast in the morning. I rock the kitchen."
A light went on inside our bedroom. Yikes. Poor Bill. "For one night," I said emphatically.
He nodded. "Nighty night. Sleep tight."
I slammed the door into the house. It was supposed to be a romantic end to our day, Bill and me under the stars, monitoring a constellation or two ... my cell pinged. Once, then twice. Who was so insistent? Might as well check it. The night couldn't get any worse.
It was Lola: ELT chosen for NJ CTF!!! Cranford had to bow out. Food poisoning! We're coming down the shore. Can't wait to see u!
Excerpted from "No More Time"
Copyright © 2019 Suzanne Trauth.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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