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Bernice swears she just saw the ghost of her moonshiner uncle who disappeared in the swamp fifteen years ago. And when her cousin soon goes missing in the same swamp, Bernice is certain someone’s playing a nasty trick, and convinces Rita and Miss Frankie to help her investigate. They’ll just need to watch their steps, as these ladies are liable to get mired in a very swampy mystery…
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“You need to tell her,” the voice inside my head whispered. It’s an annoying voice, so despite the fact that my aunt had raised me to listen when my conscience voiced an opinion, I did my best to ignore it. It isn’t always right, and besides, I was pretty sure Aunt Yolanda hadn’t counted on me having to deliver bad news to Frances Mae Renier when she gave me that advice.
Frances Mae, known by most as Miss Frankie, is my mother‑in‑law (which explains why Aunt Yolanda didn’t know about her when I was a kid). She’s also my business partner. Together we run Zydeco Cakes, a high-end bakery near New Orleans’s Garden District. Actually, I do much of the running. Miss Frankie is my mostly silent partner who does behind-the-scenes stuff like writing checks and nudging high-profile clients our way.
My name is Rita Lucero, and I want to say up front that, despite my hesitation to come clean with Miss Frankie, I am not a coward. I am a trained pastry chef who moved from Albuquerque to New Orleans just like that last summer when Miss Frankie offered me the chance to take over the day‑to‑day operations at Zydeco after the death of her son, Philippe, my almost‑ex‑husband. I’d had to stand up to Uncle Nestor to do it, too. Believe me, that took courage.
My complicated relationship with Miss Frankie is why I was parking the Mercedes I’d inherited from Philippe’s estate in her driveway on a Friday night. I should have been joining the rest of Zydeco’s staff for a birthday party at the Dizzy Duke, our favorite after-hours hangout. But Miss Frankie had summoned me, so here I was. I didn’t know what she wanted, but that wasn’t unusual. Still, I was feeling a little resentful as I climbed the front steps and rang her doorbell.
A stiff wind tossed the branches of the massive trees that lined the street. Their shadows did a macabre dance suitable for the Halloween season on Miss Frankie’s sweeping front lawn, and I smiled as I watched them shift and bend.
Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. Not because I’m overly fond of ghosts and goblins, but because I have sweet memories of trick‑or‑treating with my parents when I was young. They died in a car accident the year I turned twelve. I’ve lost too many memories of them over the years so I cling to the ones I’ve managed to keep. Losing them flipped my world upside down for a while, so I knew how much losing her only child had rocked Miss Frankie’s. I do my best to be gentle with her, which is why I was hesitating over telling her that I’d be going to Albuquerque for Christmas.
We’d limped through the holidays last year, mostly ignoring the festivities and staying home rather than joining others. She tries hard not to be clingy where I’m concerned, and some days she succeeds. Others, she hangs on to me like a good-quality plastic wrap.
Miss Frankie was well aware that I had missed home since I’d moved to New Orleans. She knew that, with the exception of one brief visit from Aunt Yolanda and Uncle Nestor, I hadn’t seen my family in over a year. I’d left my familiar Hispanic culture behind and stepped into the very different world of New Orleans, and sometimes homesickness hit hard. Surely Miss Frankie would understand why I wanted to go back for Christmas. At least she’d try to.
I heard footsteps on the other side of the door, and an instant later it flew open. Miss Frankie greeted me with a warm hug and a glimmer of excitement in her golden brown eyes. In spite of the late hour, she looked ready to begin her day. Her auburn hair was teased and sprayed, a whiff of Shalimar noticeable as she wrapped her arms around me.
She wore a pair of wide-legged pants and a loose-fitting tunic made of silky rust-colored fabric. A pair of off-white sandals revealed toenails painted a deep pumpkin color to match her fingernails. “Thanks for coming, sugar. Let’s talk in the kitchen. I’ve got everything in there.”
I wondered what “everything” was, but I knew there was only one way to find out. After closing the door behind me, I followed her to the back of the house. “I can’t stay long,” I warned as we walked. “I’m meeting the rest of the staff at the Duke in half an hour to celebrate Dwight’s birthday.”
Dwight is one of Zydeco’s best cake artists and an old friend from pastry school. He’d come to New Orleans to work for Philippe, but he’d been supportive of me since Philippe died and I took over at Zydeco. I wanted to show him that I could be a good friend, too.
I was even looking forward to the party, which I considered progress since I’m not much of a partier. When Philippe and I were married, I was much more likely to be found balancing the books while he entertained our friends. Since stepping into his shoes at Zydeco, I’d been making an effort to loosen up.
Miss Frankie glanced back at me. “Is that tonight? I guess I plumb forgot about it. But don’t worry. This won’t take but a minute.” She stopped just inside the kitchen and motioned me toward the table, which was piled with magazines, recipe books, newspaper clippings, and a large three-ring binder—the kind she used whenever she coordinated a social event. It’s her favorite thing to do.
“It looks like you’ve been busy,” I said. “Are you planning a party?”
She grinned and headed for the coffeemaker. “Not exactly.” She turned back to me and linked her hands together over her chest. “Oh, sugar, isn’t it exciting? I decided to take Pearl Lee’s advice.”
I knew right then that we were in for trouble. Pearl Lee Gates is Miss Frankie’s cousin, five foot nothing of “Let’s see how much I can get away with.” She’s a few years younger than Miss Frankie, which puts her somewhere in her late fifties or early sixties, I think. Talking to her is dangerous enough. Taking her advice could be a disaster.
You’d think Miss Frankie would know that by now.
“What advice is that?” I asked. I thought I sounded remarkably calm, considering.
“Well, about Christmas, of course. It’s only two months away.”
Uh‑oh. I got a squidgy feeling in my stomach, and my conscience gave me a sharp poke. This was the perfect time to tell Miss Frankie about my plans. And I probably would have if she hadn’t kept talking.
“I was thinking about giving it a miss again this year. The thought of sitting around while people talk about Philippe—and you know they will—is just too much. It’s barely been more than a year since he died and people think I should be through grieving. But we both know it doesn’t ever really end.”
We’d just stepped onto uneven ground so I thought about my response before I spoke. I didn’t have any experience with losing a child, but I did know how easy it was to get stuck in the moment of a loved one’s death. I didn’t want that for Miss Frankie, and I knew Philippe wouldn’t have wanted it either. “It doesn’t end,” I agreed cautiously, “but it does change with time. I still miss my parents, but the thought of them doesn’t hurt like it used to.”
My conscience flicked me again, but Miss Frankie was staring at me with eyes that were too bright and a smile that looked too brittle. She tried so hard to cope with the death of her only child but I could tell that she was on the edge of tears, so I swallowed my news and smiled instead. “So does this mean you’re going to join your family this year?” I said. “I think that’s wonderful.”
“It’s better than that,” she said, waving me toward a chair. “We’re hosting this year.”
I think I gasped. I was all for Miss Frankie taking a step forward this year, but hosting? What was she thinking?
“You’re doing what?” I squeaked.
“Hosting the family. They’ll all come here this year.”
If Pearl Lee had been in the room, I might have throttled her right then and there. In Miss Frankie–speak, family meant a dozen cousins from the Dumond family line along with their spouses and any children or grandchildren who had no other plans. Throw in a couple of ancient aunts and uncles and a Renier relative or two at loose ends, and she could be looking at fifty mouths or more to feed.
“That’s a huge job,” I pointed out in case she’d failed to do the math. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Well, of course, it’s far too big a job to do alone. That’s why I’m counting on your help. I’ll admit that when Pearl Lee first suggested it, I thought it would be too, too much, but then she pointed out that by inviting everyone here, we’ll be able to set the tone for the holiday week and maintain some kind of control over the events. It’s my turn anyway, so I really should just jump in and do it.”
“But I—” I sank into the closest chair and tried not to sound angry. That wasn’t easy. Miss Frankie has a habit of volunteering me for things without talking to me first. It’s one of the few downsides of our relationship. “I’m sure everyone would understand if you wanted to wait another year.”
“But I don’t want to wait. That’s the point.” I knew that Pearl Lee was responsible for Miss Frankie’s attitude, and that irritated me big-time. Pearl Lee has her fair share of problems, but Miss Frankie is fiercely loyal. I’d learned not to bad-mouth her cousin in front of her, so again I went with a careful answer. “Pearl Lee might have a point,” I said with caution. “But wouldn’t you rather put your heads together and do this with her?”
Miss Frankie waved a dismissive hand. “Pearl Lee is useless when it comes to things like this. I need your head, sugar. I’ve been thinking that if you make some amazing cake for the family, they’ll see that the bakery is in good hands and we’ll be able to focus on the future instead of the past.”
“Yes, but—” Hearing her talk about moving on was a good sign, even if her chosen method for doing it was questionable. I took another deep breath to steady my nerves. “You can’t keep making commitments for me without talking to me first. What if I had other plans?” Okay, so it wasn’t the direct approach, but it was the best I could do with the threat of my mother‑in‑law’s tears so close to the surface.
When it comes to Miss Frankie, it’s more effective to steal a few bases at a time than to try for a home run right off.
Her expression fell, but she looked concerned for only a moment. “Have you made plans? Gracious! I never even thought. Well, that’s no problem. You’ll just invite whoever it is to join us here. After all, the more the merrier. Is it one of your young men?”
By that, she meant Liam Sullivan, a detective with the New Orleans PD’s Homicide Division, and Gabriel Broussard, part-owner of the Dizzy Duke. I’d been seeing both of them over the past year—all open and aboveboard—but neither relationship had progressed to the “spend holidays together” stage.
I screwed up my courage, ready to tell Miss Frankie about Albuquerque, but she didn’t wait for an answer. She waved a hand at the mess on the table. “We can work all of that out later. That isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about anyway. I have the most wonderful news for Zydeco, and I simply couldn’t wait to tell you. How would you feel about making a cake for the Crescent City Vintage Clothing Society Belle Lune Ball?”
Every thought inside my head froze and my heart began to thump. The Crescent City Vintage Clothing Society was one of the most prestigious groups in New Orleans. The Belle Lune Ball, held each January, was a premiere social event. The moneyed set shelled out staggering amounts of cash for tickets every year, and the silent auction brought in a whopping total that was used to help disadvantaged women around the world.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “We actually have a shot?”
Miss Frankie smiled slyly. “You like the idea?”
“Um . . . yeah! It’s only one of the biggest events in the whole city. Do you know what a coup like that would do for our reputation?”
“I have a good idea. That’s why, when I heard that the society had an opening, I invited Evangeline Delahunt to lunch. She’s eager to find someone quickly. For an event that size, time is running out. I saw an opportunity to get your work in front of the right people and I took it.”
Uuurch! My excitement ground to a screeching halt. “Wait a minute. You’re not talking about this year’s ball? The one just three months away . . . are you? With the holidays and everything, it’s going to be tough to come up with a design, coordinate everything, and put together the kind of cake they’d want.”
“Well . . . it’s a little more than just the cake, sugar. Actually, she needs a caterer for the entire event.” Miss Frankie flicked her wrist as if catering dinner for a few hundred people would add barely any extra work. “Don’t worry, though. I have faith in you.”
“But Zydeco doesn’t do catering,” I pointed out in what I hoped was a reasonable tone. “We’ve never done catering.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You’ve had training, and I know Ox and Dwight have, too. Really, Rita, I’m offering you the chance of a lifetime. But if you really don’t want to do it, I’ll call Evangeline and tell her to look for someone else. She’ll be disappointed, but I’m sure she won’t hold it against you.”
I kneaded my forehead and tried to pull my thoughts together. “Why did she wait so long to find a caterer? Surely she knows what a huge job this is.”
Miss Frankie waved her hand again. “Well, of course she knows. She’s been in charge of planning the ball for at least a decade. This is a great opportunity for Zydeco and for everyone who works there. There will be press coverage of the event, and there’s a very good chance you’ll be interviewed yourself.”
“But we don’t do catering,” I reminded her again. “I don’t want Zydeco to gain a reputation as a caterer. I want it to be known as New Orleans’s premiere bakery for high-end cakes.”
“And it will be, after you do this job.” Miss Frankie gave me a look that clearly said she thought I was being a bit slow on the uptake. “Philippe tried more than once to get his foot in the door with Evangeline Delahunt. He never could do it.”
That made my ears perk up. Philippe and I had met in pastry school, and at least in the beginning, we’d indulged in what I thought was a healthy and harmless competition, pitting our cake decorating and business skills against each other whenever the occasion arose. Looking back, I could see now that before we’d separated, the competition had become less healthy, but I hadn’t realized it at the time.
Hearing about Philippe’s failure to land the contract I’d just been handed made my competitive side yawn and stretch like a cat waking up after a long nap. I tried again to get an answer to my question. “If working for Evangeline Delahunt is such a coup de grace, why is she looking for a caterer at this late date?”
Miss Frankie’s gaze flickered ever so slightly, which set off a warning bell in my head. “She had to let the first one go. Something about them failing to produce an appropriate design and menu. I could have told her she’d be dissatisfied with her original choice if she’d only asked my advice. Anyway, she’ll be coming to see you tomorrow morning at ten. I hope that works with your schedule.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I haven’t agreed to this yet. Who was her original choice?”
My mother‑in‑law gave me an enigmatic smile. “Gâteaux.”
I could almost hear the sound of her reeling me in. Gâteaux was Zydeco’s stiffest competition, and Dmitri Wolff, Gâteaux’s owner, was a complete snake in the grass. He’d not only tried to lure away my staff, but also indulged in a little industrial sabotage before trying to buy Zydeco from Miss Frankie after Philippe died. I smiled slowly.
“Wolff couldn’t make her happy?”
Just like that, every one of my objections disappeared. Like I said, I have a competitive nature. So what if Gâteaux had had months to come up with a winning plan? The important thing was that I had a chance to succeed where Dmitri Wolff had failed.
I had an amazing staff made up of the most talented cake artists around. About half of us had formal training in the kitchen, and the others were talented artists who’d learned on the job. We worked together like a well-oiled machine.
Most of the time anyway. If anybody could do this, I thought to myself, we could. And besides, it would be morally irresponsible to leave such a well-publicized and popular event without a caterer. Or, considerably worse, with substandard food for their event.
I swallowed all of my concerns and smiled. “I’ll make it work.”
“Good. Now, about Christmas—”
The abrupt change of subject caught me off guard, and before I could shift gears, I heard the sound of Miss Frankie’s back garden gate open and close, followed by rapid footsteps tapping toward the kitchen door. A moment later someone banged on the door urgently.
Mild concern hit me at once, but relief at the interruption was the stronger emotion. After all, I thought, nothing bad ever happens in Miss Frankie’s neighborhood. Yep, I actually thought that. And yeah, I was wrong.
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