Despite Rebecca Anderson’s best efforts to distance herself from her ex-husband, the guy keeps popping up. When Antoine offers to feature her breakfast bars and popcorn fudge on his popular cooking show, she suspects he’s once again trying to butter her up—but the TV exposure for her gourmet popcorn shop, POPS, is too good to turn down.
Things take a shocking turn when the crew comes to Grand Lake to film in her shop, and Rebecca discovers Antoine’s assistant electrocuted in a hotel bathtub. Now the police want Antoine to come clean. Her ex may be a pain, but he’s no killer. So Rebecca decides to bag the real culprit. If she isn’t careful, however, she may be the next one getting burned.
INCLUDES POPCORN RELATED RECIPES!
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I knocked on the hotel room door. No one answered. I glanced at my watch. Seven forty-five in the morning. I was right on time. The fact that I'd had to dump the hectic breakfast crowd on Susanna and Sam to be on time for this meeting didn't irritate me at all. Now that it appeared that the person who had insisted she could only make time to talk to me from seven forty-five to eight fifteen on Thursday morning wasn't answering her door, I didn't feel like the top of my head was about to explode like a can of dulce de leche left to simmer too long. No. Of course not.
I knocked again. I'd never really liked Melanie, not from the first moment Antoine Belanger hired her. Everyone thought it was about jealousy, but if it was, it wasn't because I was jealous of Melanie. I'd been fine with Antoine needing an assistant. I'd been fine when he hired a young and frankly quite good-looking woman. I'd even been fine when I'd realized that she looked like a younger, slightly prettier version of me, from her curly sandy-brown hair to her slightly-too-long feet. I'd gotten an odd vibe off Melanie. A vibe I recognized. A "you're in my way" vibe.
Well, I wasn't in her way anymore. Or I hadn't been until Antoine decided to come to Grand Lake and tape a segment on my popcorn shop for his television show.
I knocked a third time. Hard. This time, the door swung open with a quiet shushing sound as it scraped along the carpet. Melanie must not have latched it all the way. "Melanie?" I called through the open door. "It's Rebecca. I'm here for our meeting."
The meeting you called.
I wasn't even all that thrilled about the reason for the meeting. A few weeks before, my ex-husband, Antoine, had walked in on someone threatening to shoot me and had run the other way faster than you can burn garlic. While he kept explaining to me that he'd been running to get help, we both knew the truth. He was a big fat French chicken. He was also, however, a big fat French chicken with a seriously influential television show. A show that was watched by tens of thousands of people across the nation. A show that had launched Antoine's successful line of pasta sauces.
A show that could launch my little gourmet popcorn shop into the stratosphere.
To make up for leaving me to be gunned down in the lighthouse where my father proposed to my mother and where I received my first French kiss, Antoine had offered to feature my breakfast bars and popcorn fudge on his television show.
Antoine clearly somehow thought this might win me back, but I'd been done with him since before he'd left me staring down the very black cold tunnel of a gun. Now I was beyond done. So done you couldn't even stick a fork in me. The starstruck culinary school student who had run off with the man who taught her to make a bchamel sauce that could make gods weep existed no longer. In her place was a grown-ass woman who knew it was stupid to turn down free publicity even when it came from her ex-husband who was angling for with something in return.
No one answered from inside the hotel room. I hesitated for a moment on the threshold and then walked into the hotel room, Sprocket at my side. Having my dog with me made me feel brave. Otherwise, I wasn't in the habit of marching into hotel rooms. "Melanie," I called again. "I'm here for the meeting."
It was a typical hotel room, maybe a little larger than most. It had a queen-sized bed, a desk, a dresser, a small couch. The bed was made. Clothes were strewn across the couch in the sitting area. Papers covered the desk. No Melanie, though. I turned in a slow circle. The bathroom door was ajar.
The first feeling of unease climbed up my spine. I ignored it. I watched way too many psychological thrillers. I was being dramatic. Apparently Sprocket had watched too many movies with me. He whined and then growled low in his throat. I knocked lightly on the bathroom door. It swung open, too. The bright lights reflecting off the white tile made me wince, but then my eyes adjusted. I took two big steps backward, not quite believing what I was seeing, not wanting to believe what I was seeing.
Melanie floated in the bathtub, sightless eyes staring at the ceiling. A big black blow-dryer plugged into the wall floated in the tub with her.
Apparently our meeting was going to be indefinitely postponed.
Sheriff Dan Cooper, my bestie and brother-in-law all rolled into one handsome broad-shouldered package, crouched down next to me where I sat slumped against the wall in the hallway. ÒYou okay?Ó he asked.
I'd been drawing doodles with my finger in the industrial carpet, focusing on the warp and weave to try to get the image of Melanie out of my head. It wasn't working. I looked up at him and considered his question. "Define okay."
He knocked his hat back a little on his head. "Are you going to barf or faint?" The words may have sounded harsh, but his tone was gentle. Dust motes swam behind his head like a halo. It made me want to sneeze.
I did a quick mental scan. "No, but I might have nightmares." I buried my nose in Sprocket's fur. Well, technically not fur. He's a poodle. He has hair.
"That's Sprocket's problem. Not mine." He patted my shoulder. "Do you think you can answer some questions?"
I nodded against Sprocket's shoulder. "Is there any chance that I could have some coffee while I do?" I felt ridiculously cold. Plus I'd sort of been counting on having coffee at the breakfast meeting that was now very clearly not going to happen. I was fairly certain that I'd remember more of what I'd seen with some caffeine in my system.
"Sure. We can go down to the coffee shop in the lobby." He rose up, blocking the light.
"Can we go to POPS? I meant real coffee." I wasn't sure what the Grand Lake Caf used to make the fluid they sold as coffee-I suspected liquid from wringing out dirty rags-but I was fairly certain it had never come from a bean.
"I don't think this is the moment to be snobby about your coffee." Dan extended a hand down to help me up.
"I'm probably in shock. I can't think of a more important moment to be sure to have good coffee." I took his hand and let him heave me to my feet.
He gestured for me to walk in front of him down the hall. "Maybe they can make you some tea."
"I doubt it." Trust me. The number of restaurants in America that can make a decent cuppa are fewer than hen's teeth and hens have absolutely no teeth whatsoever. Well, except for that one mutant strain of chickens and I didn't count them. I walked anyway.
The hallway that had been deserted when I'd come out of Melanie's room to call 911 was now packed with people. Crime scene people, EMTs, deputies from the Sheriff's Department all crowded the narrow space. Dan and I threaded our way through the throng.
The Grand Lake Caf was a typical hotel lobby coffee shop. Not quite a diner. Not quite a restaurant. Not quite anything, really, but a place where desperate travelers could at least get enough sustenance to maintain life. My footsteps balked as we crossed the threshold.
"Sorry, Bec. You're going to have to slum it. I can't leave here right now and I need to know what you saw." He shook his head. "Again."
We sat down in the caf with Sprocket under the table. The waitress gave my dog a pointed look, but Dan smiled up at her. "He's kind of like a service dog at the moment," he said.
"As long as you're the one telling the Health Department that," she said with a shrug. Ah, to be young and cynical. I didn't recognize her. She looked maybe nineteen or twenty and like she might be pretty out of the horrid mustard-colored uniform she wore. It was weird to actually run into someone in Grand Lake that I didn't know somehow. Who knew? Maybe Haley had babysat for her back in the day and I just didn't recognize her.
Dan asked her to bring a cup of coffee for him and a pot of Earl Grey for me. Sure enough she showed up with a white mug full of a tannish, greasy-looking liquid for Dan and a do-it-yourself assembly kit of a tea bag, a mug and a pot of tepid water for me.
I sighed and poured the water over the tea bag. Aromatic oils were not released. I could tell. Dan took a sip of his coffee and grimaced.
"Told you so." The satisfaction of being right did little to make me feel better at the moment.
"I'll suffer in the line of duty," he said, dumping in enough cream and sugar to reclassify the coffee into the dessert category. "Now what were you doing in Melanie Fitzgerald's hotel room this early in the morning?"
I sighed, sipped at my weak tepid tea and explained about the meeting, about how we were going to go over the logistics, the shooting schedule, the cooking scenes in the kitchen, about how she'd insisted we meet this morning in her room. I picked at the edge of the table where the fake wood veneer was cracked and starting to peel.
Dan rubbed his face. "I knew there would be trouble the second you told me Antoine was coming to town with his crew."
Dan had never been exactly what I'd call an Antoine fan. First of all, Antoine tended to appeal to women more. They loved that hint of a French accent, the piercing blue eyes, the blond hair, the quick grin, the way he threw his head back when he laughed . . . basically all the reasons I fell in love with him. He had legions of female fans, many of a certain age. They called themselves the Belanger Bunnies. They had Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, YouTube channels, Tumblrs, Pinterest boards. Well, everything. So Dan wasn't exactly Antoine's usual demographic or quite that up on social media. If you asked Dan to tweet he'd probably tell you he never did that in public.
Second, my marriage to Antoine had represented that moment when Dan decided I was never coming back to Grand Lake. At least, he thought I'd never come back. With my marriage to Antoine, Dan thought my life had taken a turn that set me firmly on a path that did not include little resort towns on Lake Erie.
Boy, had he been wrong about that! I had come running back full speed after my divorce. Somehow, though, Dan still harbored ill will toward my charismatic ex for stealing me away.
"I'm not sure you can blame Antoine for this one, Dan." Which was when it occurred to me to wonder who should be blamed. Who was responsible? Or if anyone was to blame at all. Maybe I was a little in shock. Maybe I really did need a decent cup of tea. Maybe it needed to have whiskey in it.
"We'll see. How well did you know Melanie?" Dan asked, taking his little notepad out of his breast pocket.
I shrugged. "She was Antoine's assistant for years, then he promoted her to executive producer. He relies on her for everything."
Dan arched a brow at me. "Everything?"
"Get your mind out of the gutter, Cooper. Seriously, do you think about my sister with that brain?" Men. Need I say more?
He grinned slightly wolfishly. "Actually I do, but that's beside the point. Was Melanie Antoine's lover?"
"I can't say what they are and aren't to each other now, but I don't think she was Antoine's lover when Antoine and I were married." I suspected it wasn't for lack of trying on her part, but that was another story. I also suspected that Melanie had had something to do with the last big fight Antoine and I had. She had been the assistant who packed up everything in our hotel room in Minneapolis while I was seeing a play at the Guthrie and had whisked Antoine off to a last-minute TV spot in Florida, leaving me behind without even a change of panties in Minnesota in February.
But I wasn't bitter. Not me. No siree bob.
"What do you know about her personal life?" Dan asked.
I leaned back and shut my eyes, but nothing much came to me. "Not a whole lot," I said, straightening up and looking at Dan. "I think there was a boyfriend in the picture back in the day, but that was over two years ago now. They could have broken up or gotten married. I wouldn't exactly be on the list of people Melanie would have notified about it. She wasn't wearing a ring, if that helps any." I blew out a big breath, hoping it would clean out the vision of Melanie's lifeless fingers floating in the tub.
"No. She wasn't." Dan chewed on the end of his pen. "Let's talk about the crime scene."
I took a big gulp of my tea. Luckily, it wasn't hot enough to burn. I didn't want to think too hard about the crime scene. It was bad enough as it was. The fact that it brought back memories of another time I had to describe a crime scene to Dan didn't help. The last time it had been my dear friend and mentor Coco Bittles who had lain dead at the center of the scene. I still saw her lifeless body slumped against her antique credenza as I fell asleep some nights. I knew Dan had to do his job, though. I knew this was one of those times that I had to at least pretend to be a grown-up and suck it up. "Okay."
He touched my hand lightly and withdrew. He knew this was hard for me. He also knew too much sympathy might undo me. Damn, it was good to have friends, especially right after you found a dead body floating in a hotel room tub. "Tell me about when you first entered the room."
"The door swung open on its own when I knocked." I shut my eyes to try to picture it all. "The room was kind of a mess. She had clothes strewn across the couch and shoes all over the floor."