Tricia Miles, mystery bookstore owner and amateur sleuth, throws a housewarming cocktail party in her new apartment and has cooked all the food by herself—quite a feat for someone who previously couldn't boil water. Then one of her guests is poisoned and dies. Tricia's left to wonder if her cooking is to blame or if there's something much more sinister at play. Either way, Tricia's once again in hot water with her ex-lover, Chief Baker.
Meanwhile the charming town of Stoneham is being disrupted by a vandalism crime wave. It's the hot topic in the race for Chamber of Commerce president which sees Tricia pitted against two bitter rivals. With all that's going on can she find the killer before she's the next item on the menu?
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Never had 221b Main Street, Stoneham, New Hampshire, seen so many people enter its doors. Instead of customers arriving for a book signing at Haven't Got a Clue, the village's vintage mystery bookstore, this gathering was of friends, sort-of relatives, and business associates from the local Chamber of Commerce. It was also Tricia's first stab at entertaining more than one or two people. Perhaps, she thought as another guest entered the newly refurbished living room of her loft apartment, she should have started with a more modest get-together. The space had more recently been a storeroom filled with shelves and boxes full of vintage mysteries. That stock now resided in the basement, which had also been renovated. The open-concept space was now bright, inviting, and—more importantly—felt like home.
"Isn't this a wonderful party?" Pixie Poe called, Tricia's newly married assistant. Pixie looked radiant in a vintage black, tight-fitting cocktail dress with a beaded bodice. Where she continually found those flirtatious frocks was a mystery to Tricia, but the style fit her to a T.
"Thanks for making the music mix CDs. They're perfect for a cocktail party."
"When it comes to entertainment, ya can't beat der Bingle, Frank, Dino, Tommy Dorsey, and the boys."
Before Tricia could reply, Angelica swooped past with a brightly polished silver tray of stemmed wineglasses filled with Chardonnay. "We've run out of red," she called as she began worming her way through the crowd.
Tricia's former assistant, and now step-niece and adopted little sister, Ginny Wilson-Barbero, had donned an apron that Angelica must have supplied and was passing around yet another silver tray with salmon cucumber rosettes. They looked adorable on the frilly paper doily-covered platter-just as Tricia had hoped they would.
As she passed by the floor-to-ceiling antique mirror that stood against the east wall of her new digs, Tricia noted she looked pretty good, too—considering she'd spent an hour or so crying her eyes out after returning from the cemetery. But now that the trial was behind her, she was determined not to think about it or Christopher's killer. When redecorating the apartment, she had allowed herself to display one framed photo of Christopher and her, taken on their honeymoon in Cancún, but that was it. She'd even stopped wearing his engagement ring on a chain around her neck. She now thought of herself as free to move on with her life, and the party was one big step in that direction.
Contractor Jim Stark and his team had finished their work on the transformation more than a month before, but Tricia had wanted to settle in—finding just the right places to set her treasures, some of which had been boxed up for years—and, more importantly, to test the recipes she'd serve at her first (and possibly only) big bash. The ones she'd fed to her pseudofamily at their weekly Sunday dinners. Nobody had complained, and, in fact, the praise had been effusive, which had given her a much-needed boost of confidence in her burgeoning culinary skills.
Tricia headed toward the dry bar she'd set up on a vintage glass-topped patio table. It had been a housewarming gift from Pixie and her groom, Fred Pillins, and it went perfectly with the eclectic furnishings she'd chosen. Although the table was laden with the best alcoholic spirits, Tricia decided she'd better keep a clear head. She plunked some ice into an old-fashioned glass, poured club soda from an opened bottle, and took a sip. Eh.
"Great party," Russ Smith said from behind Tricia, startling her.
"Hi, Russ. So glad you could make it." Although he certainly hadn't dressed for such a party, wearing instead his usual attire of a plaid flannel shirt and rather grungy jeans. His only concession was a tired-looking corduroy sport coat with leather patches on the elbows that he'd probably worn since college. "Is Nikki here, too?"
Russ tipped his glass, with what looked like Scotch in it, toward his wife, who was standing near one of the windows overlooking Main Street and conversing with Frannie Armstrong.
Nikki looked fabulous in the proverbial little black dress, with her hair pulled back in a chignon, looking much more sophisticated than she did when behind the counter of the village's only bakery, the Patisserie, which she owned. However, the effect was spoiled, as she looked to be bored out of her mind. In contrast, Frannie, who managed Angelica's store, the Cookery—a cookbook and sundries store—looked like a tourist who'd lost her way en route to our fiftieth state. Tricia had only ever seen Frannie wear something other than a loud aloha shirt on rare occasions. Frannie, a sturdy woman in her mid-fifties, seemed to be snagging anyone who would listen so that she could introduce her latest gentleman friend, whom she'd met via an online dating service. She found a lot of guys that way, but none of them seemed to last long. Tricia had already forgotten the poor man's name. The tall gent, with a graying beard and sparse hair, didn't seem all that enthused to be attending the party, nor being shown off like Frannie's pet dog. Tricia felt sorry for him.
"It sure feels good to be out and about—and on a weeknight," Russ said, eyeing the Scotch bottle on the table. "That's just about unheard-of for us." He took a hearty slug of his drink.
"Is it tough finding a babysitter?"
"More like tough getting Nikki to leave little Russell. She feels guilty for plunking him in day care most of the week. It's not like the kid is even up this late," he lamented. Not for the first time, Tricia got the impression that Russ wasn't exactly thrilled to be a daddy.
Antonio Barbero—whom Tricia referred to as Angelica's secret stepson—passed by. It looked like he'd been enlisted to help pass out canapés as well, and he offered the mini spinach quiches around, with just about everybody taking and enjoying one. Unlike Russ, Antonio loved being a dad to his daughter, little Sofia, born the very same day as Russ's son. And though Antonio sometimes worked hellish hours, he always found time for his precious bambina. Of course, Antonio was a good ten or twelve years younger than Russ, who Tricia suspected had never contemplated marriage, let alone fatherhood, when he'd worked out his life's plan.
C'est la vie.
"Angelica said you'd made all the food," Russ said, grabbing a quiche off the tray as Antonio passed.
Tricia took a sip of her club soda. "Almost. A number of people brought goodies as well. Mary Fairchild brought some hot artichoke dip, and, of course, Nikki brought some of her marvelous mini cream puffs. A lot of people brought wine." She gestured toward the console table near the entryway, which was covered in bottles. Hmm, she ought to have mentioned that to Angelica when she'd stated they'd run out of red wine.
"Speaking of food, I'd better get back in the kitchen and make sure there's enough for everybody."
"And I'll just pour myself another drink," Russ said, but he didn't sound all that pleased about the prospect.
Tricia made her escape and found Angelica leaning against the large white-and-black-veined granite island, presumably taking a breather. Or was it her four-inch stilettos that caused her discomfort—not that she'd ever admit it? "Ange, why don't you go sit down in the living room and relax."
"Me, relax at a party? Unthinkable," she said, and picked up a cookie-crumb-littered plate from the island.
"Yes, but it's my party—not yours."
"Tricia, dear, you are the hostess—that doesn't mean you have to play waitress. Now, I've got everything in the kitchen under control," she said, and held out a hand to show that she'd tidied the island, which had been where Tricia had spread out some of the food, including the chafing dish that was now nearly empty of her childhood favorite Swedish meatballs.
"Yes—I also see you keep sending Ginny and Antonio out to play waitstaff."
"And they are enjoying themselves."
"Are you sure you didn't just browbeat them into helping out?"
"Of course not! Tricia, I don't think you realize it, dear, but there are a lot of people who would do anything to help you out because you're such a force for good in this town."
That wasn't true. It was Angelica who had earned that accolade in her role as founder of Nigela Ricita Associates, and anonymously, too. In a few short years she'd helped shape the village into what it was today—a thriving success. She'd also accomplished that with her dual role as president of the Stoneham Chamber of Commerce. Tricia aspired to take her place, but she was sure she would never be able to fill her shoes. Eyeing the shiny red slingback Jimmy Choos, Tricia decided she'd much rather follow in Angelica's footsteps.
Angelica turned for the refrigerator. "Now, what else can we surprise your guests with?"
"Most of the hors d'oeuvres are probably already gone—"
"You got that right. There's just one more tray of those crab-stuffed mushrooms. Wherever did you get that wonderful recipe?"
"From your first cookbook—as you darn well know."
"Yes," Angelica said with satisfaction, "simple, but elegant. And everybody loves them."
At least those who like shellfish seemed to love them. Tricia wasn't a big fan herself, but they did look appetizing.
Russ entered the kitchen. "Any chance there's another bottle of soda around?"
Angelica handed Tricia the platter of rosettes and plucked the last bottle of club soda from the fridge's door. "Here you go."
"Thanks." He headed back toward the living room.
Angelica looked after him. "He's had a few tonight."
"Yes," Tricia said, and sighed. "I think he's grateful to be out of harness for a few hours. I just hope Nikki isn't going to have to drag him out of here kicking and screaming."
Behind them, someone cleared his throat. They turned to find Mr. Everett, one of Tricia's employees and an honorary family member, standing near the kitchen island.
"Ms. Miles, I wanted to let you know that Grace"—his wife of four years—"and I are leaving."
"We've had a wonderful time, but we pick up our little bundle of joy bright and early tomorrow morning from the Animal Rescue League. We don't want to take the risk of being late."
Tricia knew the equally elderly cat they were adopting had been waiting nearly two years to find his forever home. "I understand completely."
"Where are you parked?" Angelica asked.
"In the municipal lot."
"Let me get Antonio to walk you to your car."
"Oh, no. That won't be necessary. We don't want to bother anyone."
"It's no bother," Angelica assured him, and charged toward the living room to flag down Antonio.
"Will you be bringing pictures of Charlie into work tomorrow?"
"I wanted to speak to you about that," Mr. Everett said, sounding contrite. "I was wondering if I might have the entire morning off. I would like to make sure Charlie is well acclimated before I leave him. Grace thinks I'm being foolish, but I haven't owned a pet in a long time." He had, however, taken care of Tricia's cat, Miss Marple, for about a week the summer before. "I don't wish to neglect my pet on his first day with us."
"Of course not. Take all the time you need. Pixie and I will handle everything."
"You're very generous, Ms. Miles."
"Nonsense. I want your new family member to feel secure. I'm just so happy for the two of you. You're doing a wonderful thing adopting Charlie."
"It was a difficult decision to make. At our ages . . ."
That was why they were adopting an elderly cat—the fear of outliving a younger pet. And also the fact that taking Charlie in would give the feline the opportunity to live out the remainder of his life in a loving home.
Angelica and Antonio arrived, along with Grace's and Mr. Everett's coats.
"Dear boy, you do not need to walk us to our car," Grace exclaimed.
"It would be my pleasure. I want to hear all about your new bambino, too," Antonio said. Tricia just loved to hear his lilting Italian accent.
"I'm afraid we may bore all our friends. William has even learned to take pictures with his phone just to chronicle our boy's arrival."
Mr. Everett ducked his head, blushing in embarrassment.
"I can't wait to see them," Tricia said.
"Me, too," Angelica chimed in.
Mr. Everett slipped on his coat and buttoned it, and then he, Grace, and Antonio headed for the door, calling good-bye over their shoulders.
"Oh, dear," Tricia said. "Do you think them leaving will cause the party to break up early?"
"As we're running out of food and some drink, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world," Angelica said.
"Now I'll hustle that last tray of canapés out to the hungry crowd, while you check on your guests."
"Right." Tricia walked away from the island, heading for a group standing near the door. As she'd feared, several others already had donned their coats.
"There you are, Tricia," said Joyce Widman, proprietress of the Have a Heart bookstore a few doors down from Haven't Got a Clue.
"Leaving so soon?"
"I've got a big sale going on tomorrow and haven't finished pricing my stock. I'll need to get to my store early in the morning. But I had a lovely time. The food was wonderful, the company even better."
"Thank you, Joyce. I'm so glad you were able to come."
"I wouldn't have missed it."
"Me, too, Tricia," said Mariana Sommers, the Chamber of Commerce's secretary, with whom Tricia hoped to work closely should she win the upcoming Chamber of Commerce election for its presidency. For months, Angelica had been quietly (for her) pushing the idea that Tricia should run for president of the Stoneham Chamber of Commerce. Now that the renovations on her home were complete, and since the campaign season was to start in three days, Tricia had decided to pursue the job. Oh, dear. She'd meant to make an official announcement on just that subject during the party, but had obviously waited far too long.
Tricia walked her guests down the stairs and through the front door of Haven't Got a Clue. If her visitors were going to be filtering out, perhaps she should ask Antonio to stay down there to make sure the shop was secure until the bulk of them had left.
Sure enough, by the time she made it back upstairs, four more of her guests had donned their coats and were saying their good-byes to Angelica. At this rate, the place would empty out in no time.