When Hope’s elderly neighbor perishes in a home fire, she can't help but feel somewhat responsible. Only the day before, Peggy Olson had called her over, having burned a pot on the stove while she was sleeping and filling the house with smoke. In fact, she couldn't even remember cooking. Clearly, it was dangerous for the woman to live alone.
But it turns out she wasn't alone. When a second body is discovered in the basement of the burned house, suddenly what appeared to be a tragic accident is beginning to look like premeditated murder. As rumors spread like wildfire, Hope is determined to sort out the facts and smoke out a killer, but she might be jumping from the frying pan straight into the fire . . .
Includes Recipes from Hope’s Kitchen!
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"Still missing, no new leads on Lily Barnhart."
Hope Early stopped scrolling on her tablet when she came to the article. Her interest piqued by the ongoing saga about how the forty-one-year-old architect went missing three weeks earlier, after last being seen by her husband when she left for work. Hope shook her head in disbelief. How could the police have no new leads? A woman simply didn't vanish.
Lily disappeared on a damp, rainy day. Hope remembered because it had been a perfect day for baking. She'd spent hours in her kitchen testing banana nut bread recipes. The first three attempts resulted in so-so breads, but with the fourth try she had perfected the recipe for her blog, Hope at Home.
When she worked on recipe development, she blocked out the world around her. It was just her, the recipe, and the ingredients. So, it wasn't until later in the evening when she'd settled down for a cup of tea and a slice of bread that she'd learned Lily had gone missing. By morning her hometown of Jefferson, Connecticut, was abuzz with speculation, and the fear for Lily's safety was palpable.
"I can't believe she just vanished." Felicity Campbell sat down next to Hope at the long table that was set up for the four students attending the food photography course.
Hope looked up from her tablet. She met Felicity when they both auditioned for the reality television show The Sweet Taste of Success. Hope was chosen as one of the thirteen bakers to compete for the grand prize, while Felicity was encouraged to audition for another season. Hope left the show as the first runner-up with a small monetary prize and a broken marriage. So maybe Felicity had won after all.
"It's scary, isn't it?" The thought of leaving her house one morning and never returning sent a shiver down Hope's spine.
"Since you live in town, did you know her?" Felicity's auburn hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail and her makeup was heavily applied, which was a bit much for a food photography class. She was known for posting selfies on her blog, Felicity Cooks with Style, so Hope figured she always wanted to look camera ready.
Hope doubted any of her readers wanted to see what she looked like when she was in the midst of cooking. Her shoulder-length dark hair was usually pushed back in a headband, her face was makeup free, and she preferred to cook in her comfortable lounge pants and loose T-shirts. She hardly looked camera ready when she was in her kitchen.
"Not really. I saw her a few times in town." Hope closed the website and set her tablet on the table. The last thing she wanted was her photography instructor peering over her shoulder and seeing an article about his missing wife.
"This must be a nightmare for Cal. I thought for sure he would have cancelled this class." Felicity raised her cell phone, leaned in closer to Hope, and angled the phone down toward them. "Selfie," she cooed. Within seconds she was tapping a message to accompany the photo of them on her Facebook page. "I tagged you."
"Thank you." Hope was glad she opted to apply a little blush to her usual mascara and dusty rose lipstick for her class.
Felicity finished checking her Facebook page and set her phone down. "I've been so excited about this workshop for months. I'm really glad he didn't cancel. Though, I'm not sure if I was excited about being taught by Cal Barnhart himself or finally seeing his studio. It's awesome, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is." Hope looked around the large space where Cal worked when he was home in Jefferson.
A dozen floor-to-ceiling windows allowed for natural light to flow in and brick walls gave the expansive space character. Baker's racks were packed with props and a fully functioning kitchen was tucked into the corner for food preparation. His photography class used real food and, from where Hope was sitting, she saw Cal's assistant working in the kitchen.
"This place is awesome." Louis Maddox pulled out a chair and sat across from Hope. The thirty-something writer behind the This Man Grills blog was dressed in a short- sleeved plaid shirt and khakis. He wore dark-rimmed glasses that kept sliding down the bridge of his nose. "Barnhart's cool factor is off the charts. Especially since his wife disappeared and it's an active missing person case."
"What a terrible thing to say." Elena Voss approached the table. She was the main recipe developer behind the Two Chicks and a Stove blog. Upon meeting Hope, she quickly listed all of the magazines her recipes were recently published in. Hope was impressed by the woman's professional pride and the ability to ramble off multiple titles without taking a breath.
"Really? Tell me you ladies don't think he's even hotter now that there's a hint of scandal around him," Louis challenged.
Felicity nodded. "He's right. Cal is hotter now."
Elena let out an exasperated sigh as she sat down next to Felicity. "What about you, Hope? What do you think?"
She'd always admired Cal's work, but now that he was in the midst of a scandal, there was an air of mystery about him. And mystery could be, as Louis said, hot. Not that Hope would ever admit that to anyone, especially the three bloggers surrounding her.
"Okay, let's begin. Everyone take a seat." Cal Barnhart's voice boomed as he entered the studio, clapping his hands. He got everyone's attention; even his assistant stopped what she was doing to focus on him. He was tall, lean, and ruggedly artistic, a potent combination for any woman to take in and Hope understood Felicity's assessment of him. He wore his trademark black, his dark hair was peppered with flecks of silver, and his deep blue eyes cast a sweeping glance over his students.
"How do you create sexy food photography that your readers can't get enough of?" Cal asked, his intense gaze landing on Hope.
She shifted in her seat and the studio suddenly seemed warmer than the cool May morning. This wasn't college, and she wasn't a silly freshman who flirted with instructors. Especially one with a missing wife.
"Your goal is to entice your readers with your photographs. Make them stop from clicking off of your website. Grab them. Pull them in. Keep them. If your photography is lackluster or substandard, I guarantee your reader will be off your blog before you can say Google Analytics."
His students chuckled.
Hope lifted her gaze and found Cal had moved over to one of the tables set up for their class. He now was looking at the whole group, not just her.
"Shouldn't our recipes be enough to keep our readers on our blog?" Elena asked.
"If you believed that, you wouldn't be here," Cal replied dryly.
"I'm all for learning how to create sexy food photos," Felicity gushed in a breathy voice.
"I doubt any of my grilled bratwursts will ever be considered a sexy photo," Louis quipped.
"You can make any food look delicious and appealing. That's your job. And the reason why you're here today. We're going to begin with lighting. Then we'll cover styling, editing, and angles. Angles are easy. I have two preferences." Cal picked up his digital camera.
"I wouldn't mind being angled by him," Felicity whispered as she leaned over to Hope. "Come on, you have to be thinking that too."
"Actually, I was thinking of why he chose that lens to use." Hope pointed at the camera Cal held. She'd invested in two lenses when she purchased her digital camera for her blog, but he was using a different lens. She was curious to find out how the lens performed compared to the two she owned.
Felicity rolled her eyes. "Boooring."
"We'll begin with shooting bowls of oatmeal and fruit. What we want to accomplish is snapping a photo that will go viral. Everybody and their mother will want to make your recipe. So, let's get started. Everyone to their table." Cal clapped his hands again.
Cal's assistant had set out a bowl of oatmeal and berries with a gingham napkin and a spoon at each station to be photographed to death.
Hope grabbed her camera bag and walked to one of the tables. There wasn't anything fancy about Cal's setup. Its simple functionality gave the space a cool, hip urban vibe. Each station consisted of a four-foot table topped with a thick board. She ran her fingers over the rough surface and had some serious prop envy.
Stacked against the wall was a stash of boards in various sizes and finishes. Hope had a similar growing collection, but Cal's selection was huge. She spent weekends scouring flea markets and home centers for creative backdrops, trying to find a mix of wood boards, laminates, and stone to get just the right photograph.
She pulled out her camera and attached one of her lenses, all the while keeping an eye on Cal. Countless questions ran through her mind, probably the same questions everyone in town was asking. How was he able to live a normal life with his wife missing? Was she dead or alive? Did she take off with someone or did someone take her? Cal's head turned and he caught her staring. He flashed a smile and she wanted to crawl under the table. She broke their eye contact and returned to adjusting the focus on her camera. He moved to Elena and assisted her with setting up a soft box to diffuse light, giving the photographer more control over the shoot.
"Flirting with the teacher?" Felicity whispered as she passed by Hope on the way to her table.
Hope cleared her throat and returned her attention to her camera and bowl of oatmeal. How Cal was dealing with the disappearance of his wife wasn't her concern. She was there to improve her photography, not to stick her nose into his private business. No matter how curious she was.
The workshop ended at three. For over five hours, Hope was standing and, even though she wore sensible shoes, the same ones she cooked in for hours, her lower back ached. The pain probably was due to the various angles she contorted her body into to get hundreds of photographs. At one point she even used a three-foot ladder to get overhead shots. A nice long soak in her tub would go a long way in easing the tension that spread across her back. But she had one stop to make on her way home. Drew had texted her right as class ended and asked to meet for coffee.
She pushed open the door of the Coffee Clique and found a midafternoon rush of desperate caffeine seekers. A long line at the counter snaked around carefully laid out posts, while two harried baristas whipped up fancy coffees. Her shoulders sagged. The last thing she wanted was to stand in line for a coffee she desperately needed. A quick glance around the coffee shop revealed every table was taken, but then she saw Drew waving her over. Bless him. He'd grabbed a table for them. She passed by the line of customers, smiling at familiar faces. When she reached the small table, she draped her purse on the back of the chair and sat. In front of her was a large coffee cup and a pastry.
"Luckily, I got here before everybody else in Jefferson started jonesing for a coffee. I ordered you a hazelnut and the cinnamon bun. I know they're your favorites." Drew gave a big smile as he stood. He looked like the picture of cool casualness in a turquoise-colored polo shirt paired with pleated dark blue pants and two-toned blue sneakers. Hope glanced at her simple outfit of a floral top and khaki capri pants. She seriously needed to up her fashion game. Drew gave her a peck on the cheek and then returned to his seat.
Something was up. She knew Drew too well not to be suspicious of his doting. He'd been her closet friend since grade school. They'd grown up together, went through breakups together, and shared the ups and downs of their careers. While Hope went off to New York City, he stayed in Jefferson and worked for the North Country Gazette newspaper.
"Thank you. I'm starving." She took a sip of her coffee.
"I know you've had a long day in class, so I didn't want you standing in line for your coffee." He glanced over at the counter. "They really should get more help."
Hope bit into the cinnamon bun. The layers of sweet, soft dough melted together with the heavenly sugar glaze topping and bursts of cinnamon exploded in her mouth. She needed to figure out a way to make cinnamon buns a food group required at every meal.
After she swallowed, she wiped her mouth with a napkin. Now it was time to find out what Drew wanted. "You're being very kind to me."
"Well" — Drew waved his hand in a dramatic gesture — "it's my pleasure. After all, you're my best friend."
Hope nodded as she chewed another bite of the pastry. "I am."
"And best friends are happy to do things for their best friends."
"So, it was my pleasure to make sure you had your favorite coffee and pastry." Drew leaned forward and rested his arms on the table.
Hope wiped her mouth again, discarded the napkin, and then took a sip of her coffee. While she was confident something was attached to her afternoon treat, she had to admit she was enjoying being taken care of for a change. She couldn't remember the last time someone fussed over her.
"What do you want?" she asked.
Drew grinned. "That obvious?"
Hope laughed. "Yes."
Drew took a long drink of his coffee before confessing his ulterior motive. "I want every detail of what happened today."
"Since when are you interested in food photography?"
"I'm not. I'm interested in Cal Barnhart. More precisely, his missing wife."
Hope shook her head. She should've known. Every reporter from local newspapers to the wire services wanted an interview with Cal. During the five hours she was at Cal's studio, which was located on his home's five acres, he never once mentioned Lily. When they broke for lunch, they all gathered around a picnic table outside under a majestic maple tree and ate a catered lunch his assistant picked up. Their conversation revolved around photography and blogging and a bunch of photos were snapped for everyone's social media platforms.
"There's nothing I can tell you. He didn't talk about Lily during the class. We weren't there to discuss his missing wife."
The workshop cost Hope an exorbitant amount of money, so the only thing she wanted to talk about was photography. Food blogs that earned decent money had great food and awesome photographs, reason number one to sign up for the class. The other reason was to up the ante on her camera skills because she'd been approached to contribute to a cookbook being published by The Sweet Taste of Success. Along with the recipes, she needed to include photographs.
Drew slumped and his face twisted with frustration. "I've been trying to land an interview with him since Lily disappeared. He's shut out all media. I can't even get a 'no comment' out of him." Drew reached across the table, broke off a piece of the cinnamon roll, and chewed it.
Hope couldn't blame Cal for staying away from the media. After her loss on The Sweet Taste of Success and her subsequent divorce, she was on the receiving end of some negative coverage in newspaper gossip columns and on celebrity websites. In the past couple of weeks, she had seen Cal receive some of the same treatment. But his case was worse, since husbands were always the first person the police looked at when a wife went missing.
"I need that interview. I need an exclusive." Drew rubbed his temples and exhaled a deep breath. "You know him personally."
"Barely. And only through blogger events and some work at the magazine years ago. What's going on?"
Drew set his hands on the table, then laced his fingers together. "Remember what I told you a few weeks ago about budget cuts at the newspaper?"
Hope nodded. The newspaper's publisher had gathered the staff together for an impromptu meeting to announce that the Gazette was in financial difficulty and would be looking at ways to reduce expenses, including layoffs. To recover from the stunning announcement, Drew showed up at her door that night with a bottle of wine, a container of ice cream, and a list of movies he wanted to watch.
"You're very good at your job, Drew. I don't think you have anything to worry about," Hope reassured.
"I have a lot to worry about and she has a name."
"You got it! The new shiny star of the Gazette. She ran out of the office today because she landed an interview with Lily's secretary. If I don't get something exclusive or juicy, I'm out! Out!"
Hope reached out and covered his hands with hers. "Drew, calm down. You're overreacting."
"You're not going to get fired."
"Not if I can get an interview with Cal Barnhart."
"Reach out to him again," Hope suggested.
"He'll just turn me down, again. But I bet you can convince him to give me an interview."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Hidden Corpse"
Copyright © 2019 Debra Sennefelder.
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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