—Bestselling author Shelley Freydont
Lucy Berberian has taken over her family’s Mediterranean restaurant on the Jersey Shore after an unsatisfying stint at a Philadelphia law firm. It’s great to be back in her old beach town, even if she’s turning into a seasoned sleuth . . .
Catering a high-society wedding should bring in some big income for Kebab Kitchen—and raise its profile too. But it’s not exactly good publicity when the best man winds up skewered like a shish kebab. Worse yet, Lucy’s ex, Azad—who’s the restaurant’s new head chef—is the prime suspect. But she doesn’t give a fig what the cops think. He may have killer looks, but he’s no murderer. She just needs to prove his innocence, before he has to go on the lamb . . .
“Clever and charming . . . It’s a culinary delight that will have readers salivating over the food and hungry for literary answers.”
—RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars, on Hummus and Homicide
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"Did you see who's at table three?"
Lucy Berberian set down a tray of wrapped silverware and looked where her sister, Emma, pointed from behind the waitress station.
"Isn't that Scarlet Westwood?" Lucy asked. The attractive blonde was a famous Philadelphia socialite and the daughter of a hotel mogul. Her picture was splashed across tabloids at the checkout counter of Holloway's, the sole grocery store in the small Jersey shore town.
"In the flesh!" Emma's voice rose an octave and she dropped the towel she'd been using to wipe down tables.
"Who's the older woman with her?" Lucy asked.
"Probably her personal assistant. Socialites don't go anywhere without them." Emma nudged Lucy. "They asked for you when they came in."
Lucy blinked. "Me?"
"That's right. They want to talk to the manager. That's you now, Sis."
Less than two months ago, Lucy had quit her position as an attorney at a large Philadelphia law firm, packed her bags, and returned to her small hometown of Ocean Crest, at the Jersey shore. She'd only planned for a temporary visit home until she could get back on her feet and find a new job, but she'd ended up staying and having a go at managing Kebab Kitchen, her family's Mediterranean restaurant. Her semiretired parents continued to work part-time, but Lucy was taking on a bigger role each day.
Lucy toyed with a cloth napkin on the tray. "Did they say what they wanted?"
Emma shook her head. "No. But don't keep Scarlet Westwood waiting. I don't think the celebrity types have a lot of patience."
Lucy snatched an order pad from the counter and headed for table number three, the best seat in the house, which overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and the Ocean Crest boardwalk. The table was also tucked away in a corner, semiprivate, and often requested by romantic couples. It was a hot and humid June afternoon, and sunlight shimmered on the ocean like shards of glass. Umbrellas and towels were scattered across the beach like a colorful quilt. Children frolicked in the surf and played in the sand while sunbathers reclined on beach chairs. In the distance, Lucy could see the amusement pier with its old-fashioned wooden roller coaster and Ferris wheel.
Lucy took a breath as she approached the table, wondering why they'd asked for her. Did wealthy socialites expect to be served by the manager and not the waitstaff ?
"Good afternoon. My name is Lucy Berberian. How can I help you?"
Both women looked up. Scarlet Westwood removed her sunglasses and tucked them into a slick, black Chanel purse. She was stunning, just as she appeared in the celebrity photographs. She was in her late twenties with long, blond hair that brushed her shoulders and sky-blue eyes. Her makeup was expertly applied, and her trademark lips were big and glossy. Lucy had read that Scarlet liked her Botox, and her full lips were a result of a skilled doctor's injections.
"I was told you are the new manager here," the older woman said.
Lucy turned to the woman seated across from Scarlet and studied her for the first time. She appeared to be in her midfifties, old enough to be Scarlet's mother, with a brown bob and shrewd, dark eyes. Dressed in an elegant champagne-colored suit, she drummed long red fingernails on the pristine white tablecloth.
Lucy tucked the order pad back in her apron. "Yes, that's right."
The woman shot her a haughty look. "We're here on business and don't have much time today."
"Of course. Our kitchen is quick. Would you like to hear our lunch specials? Or if you prefer there's a hummus bar that offers a variety of hummus and vegetables for dipping. Pita bread is served warm from the kitchen and —"
"Not that type of business."
Then what? From what Lucy had read in the gossip rags, Scarlet liked to party and enjoyed expensive food, wine, and couture clothing. Kebab Kitchen was a pleasant family establishment, certainly nothing as trendy as the upscale establishments to which Scarlet was accustomed.
Scarlet flipped an errant blond curl across her shoulder. "I'm getting married at Castle of the Sea in Ocean Crest. I want Kebab Kitchen to cater my reception. This is my wedding planner, Victoria Redding."
Lucy's insides froze for a heart-stopping moment. Her first thought was that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cater the socialite's wedding. Her second thought was how would she pull it off? She was still learning the business, and she'd recently hired her ex-boyfriend, Azad, as the new head chef to take her mother's place. Things were as sticky as baklava syrup between them and Lucy was taking it day by day.
Which led to a bigger question: why would someone of Scarlet Westwood's status want to have a small, family-owned Mediterranean restaurant cater her reception?
"I'm flattered that you chose us, but I have to ask —"
"Why?" Scarlet finished for her.
Lucy shrugged. "Well, yes."
"I've vacationed at the Jersey shore since I was a child, and I recently purchased a summer home in Ocean Crest."
"I see." But that still didn't explain it.
"I plan to film my first movie, and a scene will take place on the beach here. My fiancé is Bradford Papadopoulos, the show's director. Bradford has Mediterranean roots and he loves the cuisine. He also raved about the food when he last ate here."
That made more sense. Lucy remembered hearing about a possible movie being filmed on the beach from her best friend, Katie Watson, who worked at the Ocean Crest town hall. And if the groom preferred Armenian, Greek, and Lebanese food, then Kebab Kitchen was the best in all of South Jersey.
Lucy cleared her throat. "Congratulations on your engagement, and I'm honored you want us to cater your wedding."
"We realize this is a big opportunity for you," Victoria said, her voice stern. "And we have certain conditions."
Lucy may have been taken aback at Victoria's caustic tone, but she schooled her expression. The business would be great for the restaurant's catering arm. She could put up with a bridezilla, or in this case, an aggressive wedding planner, if it meant helping the business and proving her worth to her family.
"First, we intend to have two hundred and fifty guests. Have you ever catered for that large a number?"
"Of course," Lucy lied as her pulse pounded like an overloaded food processor.
She'd never catered at all. Her mother had handled the catering end of the business, and as far as Lucy knew, the largest order she'd filled was for a hundred people. But Lucy was stubborn and determined. Azad was an experienced chef, and together with their line cook, Butch, and her parents' part-time help, she was confident they could handle two hundred and fifty guests.
"Second, the wedding will take place in two weeks."
Only two weeks to prepare? The pressure tightened in her chest, and her mind whirled with all the details that would be required. The labor would be a problem, but she'd come up with something. Katie was always willing to help out, and there were college kids looking for summer jobs.
"And most important, news of the wedding must be kept as secret as possible, understand?" Victoria said.
Now this posed a different type of challenge. Gossip in Ocean Crest traveled as fast as greased lightning. It didn't help that the Town News was run by Stan Slade, a former New York City reporter who was always hungry for a story. Lucy recalled how hard it had been to keep things under wraps two months ago when the town's new health inspector had been murdered. It had been pretourist season then and Ocean Crest had been quiet, but now that it was late June, the town swelled with tourists and it was impossible to find a vacant parking spot. Talk was sure to start if anyone spotted Scarlet on the street or the boardwalk.
"I'll do everything in my power to keep it quiet. Only my staff will know, and they can be trusted. But what if you're seen in town? Surely people will ask questions."
Victoria cleared her throat. "Yes, but like Ms. Westwood said, she now owns a shore home in town. People have no reason to suspect she's getting married."
Both women stood. Victoria handed Lucy a business card. "Here's my personal cell number. I'll be in touch to go over the menu for the cocktail hour and the reception. Some of the guests have dietary restrictions that must be accommodated."
"Of course," Lucy said.
Scarlet reached into her purse and slipped her sunglasses back on. Lucy thought the disguise did little to conceal her true appearance. "You must wonder why I would want my wedding kept a secret when I live in the limelight."
"No." Yes. Scarlet's escapades and lavish lifestyle were blasted weekly in the tabloids and television celebrity shows. Bad publicity only served to add to her impressive number of young fans.
"A large part of my life is for public display," Scarlet said, "but my wedding is different. I want that one day for myself."
Good luck, Lucy almost slipped, then bit her lip. It would take a small army of personal bodyguards to keep a wedding of that size secret. Even the guests could leak details of the wedding to the press. Nothing was off limits when it came to Scarlet and publicity. Did she plan on blindfolding two hundred and fifty people and driving them in large buses to the wedding? On an off-season day, that felt like much of Ocean Crest's entire population.
As soon as the women left, Emma and Sally, a longtime waitress at the restaurant, rushed over. Both wore their uniforms — black slacks, button-down white shirts, and red aprons — and their faces were anxious with anticipation.
"Well? What did Scarlet Westwood want?" Emma asked.
"She wants Kebab Kitchen to cater her wedding." Lucy still couldn't believe it.
"That's fantastic!" Sally said.
"It's for two hundred and fifty guests. We only have two weeks to prepare." Lucy felt a bit light-headed.
"You're kidding?" Emma asked.
"Nope. That's what she said."
Emma pursed her lips. "Well then, you'd best talk to Azad."
Lucy's gut tightened at the mention of her ex. Really, Lucy. He works for you now. She had to keep things in perspective. It was just a wedding, and so far, she'd insisted on maintaining a professional working relationship with Azad, the restaurant's new head chef.
It wasn't as if they were getting married.
Her legal training would kick in to full gear. Lucy had always excelled at organization, and she just needed to come up with a battle plan for Azad, her parents, and the rest of the staff to efficiently tackle each task. She'd give Scarlet Westwood a perfect reception.
After all, with organization and hard work, what could go wrong?
* * *
"You're doing it wrong."
Lucy turned at the masculine voice to see Azad Zakarian looking over her shoulder. Tall, dark, and good-looking, the sight of her ex-boyfriend still made her heart pound a bit too fast.
She straightened her spine and wrinkled her nose. "How? There is no wrong way to chop garlic." Lucy knew the basis of Mediterranean cuisine was garlic, onions, and olive oil. It may give you killer breath, but it was one of the healthiest diets around.
Over the past two weeks, everyone at Kebab Kitchen had been working overtime to prepare for Scarlet Westwood's wedding. The kitchen had been a whirlwind of activity — the ovens heated the kitchen, the constant whirling of the industrial-sized mixer never seemed to end, and the delicious smells of freshly baked pastry and breads floated through the restaurant.
Lucy eyed the bowl of unpeeled garlic cloves soaking in cold water on the kitchen worktable. The garlic was needed for several of the dishes that would be served at the wedding reception, and Lucy had thought to peel and chop the garlic to relieve Azad from the menial task. But from the tense look on Azad's face, it was clear he didn't want her assistance.
"Yes, there's a wrong way," he said. "You're going to slice off the tips of your fingers. That chef's knife is wicked sharp and dangerous in the hands of an amateur."
In the hands of an amateur.
How many times had she heard similar comments over the past weeks? Her mother, Azad, and even their line cook, Butch, all seemed to remind her of her culinary shortcomings on a daily basis. She knew she wasn't a chef. When she'd worked as a city lawyer the extent of her culinary talent was to memorize the take-out numbers of all the restaurants within a two-mile radius of the firm. But since returning to Ocean Crest and deciding to take a stab at running her family's restaurant, she'd been determined to learn how to prepare basic Mediterranean dishes.
Lucy frowned up at him and set the knife on the cutting board. "Fine. Show me, then."
Azad plucked a clove of garlic from the bowl, efficiently peeled the skin, and placed it on the cutting board. "First, keep the tip of the blade on the cutting board at all times, then press downward and use the full length of the blade to slice your food."
He took the knife and began deftly to mince the garlic. His knife worked at breathtaking speed, and Lucy could barely follow his movements. Her gaze moved to his muscled forearms and rose to his chest. His broad shoulders strained against his shirt. She could see the day's growth of stubble on his chiseled cheeks and the sexy dimple in his chin. He wore his dark hair a bit long and it brushed his collar. Despite her determination to maintain a working relationship, she couldn't help but acknowledge that there was something irresistibly sexy about a competent male in the kitchen.
"There are five ways to mince garlic. Knife-minced, garlic-pressed, mortar and pestle, knife-pureed, and microplaned," he rattled off as he continued to work. "Each has different qualities and unique tastes for dishes."
"What about the jars you can purchase from Holloway's grocery store? The garlic comes perfectly minced."
Azad's knife halted in midchop and he gave her an incredulous sidelong glare. "You're kidding, right? Your mother would have a fit."
It was true. Everything was made from scratch at the restaurant. Her mother, who had been the head chef before Azad took over, even insisted on grinding her own meat for her dishes. "It's never as fresh if you don't do it yourself. Fresh is everything," Angela Berberian had often said.
"I never said I was a chef. That's why I hired you, remember?" The words came out a bit harsher than Lucy wanted.
He flashed a grin, and the dimple in his cheek deepened. "Don't get all bent out of shape. I'm just showing you proper technique."
Lucy felt her face grow warm. They'd dated back in college, and when they'd graduated, their relationship turned serious. Or at least, she'd been serious. Azad had broken her heart when he'd suddenly ended things and they'd gone their separate ways — Lucy to law school and Azad to culinary school. She was older, wiser, and now his boss. So why did she let him get under her skin? One charming grin and she felt like a hormonal teenager gazing longingly at the star quarterback at a high school football game.
Ugh. She'd have to try harder to hide her emotions.
Only a few months ago, Azad had wanted to buy Kebab Kitchen. But Lucy's "temporary" visit home, after quitting the firm, had turned into a permanent stay, and she'd come to realize how much she'd missed her family, her friends — and surprisingly — how important Kebab Kitchen was to her. So Lucy had stepped up. Her parents were more than happy to teach her the business as they worked part-time and eased into retirement.
At least it had seemed the perfect arrangement for her. Azad may not view it that way. He'd left his sous chef job at a fancy Atlantic City restaurant to become head chef of Kebab Kitchen. She knew he'd initially wanted to buy the place from her parents and make it his own, but he'd changed his mind after Lucy had stated her intentions to remain in town.
Azad set the knife aside and wiped his hands on a dish towel. "Now do you remember how to knife-puree it?"
"Sure. Start by crushing it with the back of the blade."
Determined to show him she could do something, Lucy picked up the knife, pressed the back of the blade flat on a clove, and slammed her fist down to squash the garlic on the cutting board. But instead of cooperating, the finicky garlic clove shot from the board and flew across the kitchen like a smelly projectile.
Oh, no. Her eyes widened in dismay. What the heck went wrong? He made it look so simple.
She was saved from another culinary lecture by the sound of footsteps on the kitchen's terra-cotta floor.
Her mother, Angela, appeared behind an industrial mixer almost as tall as her five-foot frame. Her signature beehive, which had gone out of style decades ago, added a few inches to her height. The gold cross necklace she never left the house without caught a ray of light from an overhead kitchen window.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stabbed in the Baklava"
Copyright © 2018 Tina Sickler.
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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