#6 in the Series
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Rita Lucero, co-owner of New Orleans’s Zydeco Cakes, is thrilled to be catering an annual ball held at the Monte Cristo Hotel. Designing the high-end desserts is her priority—until she stumbles upon a mystery long-buried at her shop. It’s an ornate ruby necklace, hidden underneath her staircase and rumored to be cursed.
After the gem’s appraiser suddenly drops dead and Rita herself is targeted by a menacing stranger, she’s no longer laughing at local superstition. Now with five cakes on order and an investigation into the necklace’s past revealing layers of unsettling clues, Rita has reason to keep looking over her shoulder while she’s frosting. Because any way you slice it, the next victim of the legendary curse could be her.
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“What do you mean, trouble?” I barked into my cell phone. It was a beautiful January morning in
Orleans. The temperature was cool and the humidity
low. It was so nice out that as I left home, I’d rolled down the windows of my
brand-new Range Rover to let in the fresh air. The Range Rover, just two months
old, still had that new car smell, a scent I’d never enjoyed in a car of my own
before. It was the very first brand-new car I’d ever owned and it was mine
because I’d totaled my previous ride last fall. (Don’t ask.)
I’d enjoyed the spring-like day for exactly twenty-three minutes. That’s when I’d been halted by a solid wall of traffic on the freeway. The odor of exhaust began to fill the car, forcing me to roll up the windows as I settled in to wait for traffic to clear. In my book that was trouble enough for a Monday morning. Simone O’Neil’s phone call and her cryptic reference to trouble was a complication I didn’t want or need.
“Tommy just called,” Simone O’Neil explained. “He sounded hysterical.”
Simone is a member of the Crescent City Vintage Clothing Society. She and I had been working together for the past couple of months on the upcoming Belle Lune Ball, which the high-end bakery I run, Zydeco Cakes, was catering. The ball was just two weeks away, which meant that the stress was starting to build.
“Tommy always sounds hysterical,” I reminded Simone. Tommy Sheridan, the drama queen, was our contact at the Monte Cristo Hotel, the venue for the event. “He loses it on a regular basis.”
“He might have good reason this time. Apparently, a water pipe on the third floor broke and the Papillion Ballroom is completely flooded.”
My heart dropped like a rock. The Belle Lune Ball was a very big deal and I’d put Zydeco’s neck on the line by accepting the contract. We were committed not only to delivering five cakes that would wow the guests, but catering the event as well—something we had never done before. Losing the space we’d planned for might derail us completely.
“How bad is it really?” I asked. “Have you seen it?”
“Not yet,” Simone said. “I’m headed there now. Evangeline wants me to check it out.”
Evangeline Delahunt, Simone’s mother, was a founding member of the Vintage Clothing Society. She’s been in charge of coordinating the Belle Lune Ball for two decades, and has definite ideas about how things should work. That makes her a difficult woman to please. Simone’s the only one who can do it consistently.
“Tommy swears they can still accommodate us,” Simone said. “But Evangeline is concerned that we’ll have to cancel. She’s not happy. I’m sure you can imagine.”
I nodded, but didn’t respond out loud. I try not to share my negative thoughts about Evangeline with her daughter. I don’t want my big mouth to ruin our budding friendship. “Let’s hope the damage isn’t as bad as Tommy thinks.”
“We can dream,” Simone said with a sigh. “He wants us to look at the alternate space right away so we can decide what to do. How soon can you meet me?”
I craned to see past the wall of cars in front of me, but all I could see were more cars. “Judging from the way traffic is moving, maybe tomorrow. Did Tommy tell you what he’s thinking?”
I could hear footsteps on Simone’s end followed by an electronic signal from inside a car, which probably meant that she was on her way. “No,” she said. “He just kept saying that he has a space to show us and promised over and over that we won’t have to move to another location.”
“I hope he’s right. The Monte Cristo isn’t that big,” I mused. Cars in the lane next to me inched forward and a small space opened up between two of them, but traffic ground to a halt again before I could make a move. “I wonder if they even have another space with the square footage and electrical outlets we need.”
“We won’t know until we look,” Simone said reasonably.
I laughed. “That’s true. So I’ll meet you as soon as possible. All I have to do is get to the next exit. Then I’ll get off the highway and drive the rest of the way through town. I can see the exit from where I sit, but the ramp is packed with cars that don’t seem to be moving. Can you stall Tommy until I can get there?”
“I’ll try,” Simone said. “Both he and Evangeline are chomping at the bit. I don’t know how long they’ll be willing to wait.”
“I get that,” I said, “but I don’t dare approve any space without checking measurements and traffic flow.” I didn’t have my notes with me, but I wouldn’t waste time stopping at Zydeco to get them. I’d looked at them so often, I figured I could remember most of what I needed to know. If there was something important I couldn’t remember, I could always call Ox, my second-in-command at Zydeco.
“I’ll get there as soon as I can,” I promised Simone. “Try not to make any decisions without me.”
Simone agreed and I disconnected, immediately calling Zydeco to let my staff know about the latest development.
The phone rang five times before someone picked up, and then an angry male voice snarled, “Zydeco Cakes.”
“Ox? Why are you answering the phone?” Ox is a trained pastry chef, a gifted cake artist, and the one person at Zydeco besides me with enough culinary training to cater an event like the Belle Lune Ball. He had so much on his plate at the moment, he was the last person I expected to answer.
“I answered because it was ringing,” he growled. “Somebody had to pick up the damn thing.”
Oh good. He was in a mood. I really wanted to know why the temporary receptionist I’d just hired—the third temp in the two months our office manager had been on maternity leave—hadn’t answered my call. But since Ox was so full of sunshine, I decided not to pursue the question.
I heard a crash and a cry of dismay in the background, which prompted me to ask, “What was that?”
“Nothing. Where in the hell are you?”
Ox had expected to take over at Zydeco back when my almost-ex-husband (and Zydeco’s founder) died. Maybe Ox should have been the one in the boss’s chair, but my mother-in-law, Miss Frankie, had chosen me instead. Ox has never completely reconciled himself with her choice and sometimes he forgets which one of us calls the shots. But that was another topic I wasn’t going to pursue that morning.
“I was on my way, but I got stuck in traffic,” I said. “Plus, I just got a call from Simone. Apparently, there’s a major complication at the Monte Cristo so I have to swing by there before I come in.”
“What kind of complication?” He sounded suspicious, as if he thought I might be making an excuse to skip out on work. As if I would ever do that.
I refused to let him rattle me. “Broken water pipe. Flooded ballroom. They’ve told Simone there’s an alternate space, but I’m not going to commit without seeing it for myself.”
“Does that mean you’re not coming in at all this morning?”
“I’ll be there,” I assured him. “It’ll just be a bit later.”
Ox let out a heavy breath but when he spoke again his tone was friendlier. “Sorry I got on your case. We’ve run into a snag of our own over here. Half the fondant on the Grady wedding cake has cracked. We’re peeling it off now, but I’m not sure how many of the decorations we’ll be able to save.”
I moved the Range Rover a foot closer to the exit, where cars had begun to move slowly. “Do your best,” I said, although my direction really wasn’t necessary. “I’ll do what I can to help as soon as I can get there.”
Ox mumbled something that I took as agreement and disconnected. I went back to watching traffic and looking for an opening that might let me escape the gridlock. Four lanes of traffic eventually merged into three, and then two. Thirty minutes later, I crept past a couple of banged-up vehicles, an ambulance, and a state trooper car. And just like that, traffic began to move again.
I breathed a sigh of relief and concentrated on getting to the Monte Cristo. Thankfully, I’d shoved a tape measure into my glove box after our original inspection and I hadn’t gotten around to putting it back where it belonged. Despite what Aunt Yolanda had said when I was growing up, procrastination can sometimes be a good thing.
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