Strawberry Tartlets and a Dead Starlet


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Copyright © 2016 by A. Gardner

Cover design by Yocla Designs

Gemma Halliday Publishing



All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.




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The red flag swaying above my head means there's danger beyond the shore. The current will suck me in if I go for a swim, but the waves in front of me look just as friendly as the white sugar sand scrunched between my toes. The ocean breeze brushes across my cheeks—the coolest breeze of the day.

Morning walks in the sand are my pre-work ritual, and they should be my old schoolmate Bree's as well. Since accepting the open positions at the Magnolia Harbor Inn and Spa, the Gulf Coast has become our new home. Two trial months have turned into another two, and now it's the peak of summer. Sometimes the heat makes Bree look like a pressure cooker about to pop with her strawberry blonde locks and rosy cheeks to match.

The life of a pastry chef has turned out to be tougher than assisting the owner of a modest cupcake shop. I stumbled on that lesson early on. During my brief internship at Parisian bakery Le Croissant, I learned that baking for a living wasn't all cupcakes and frosting. In fact, the early mornings, aching feet, and overly critical coworkers remind me a lot of my dancing days. And I thought quitting ballet to attend Calle Pastry Academy, like my grandma Liz, would be the opposite of what I'm used to.

I take another whiff of the morning air—my cell phone buzzes in my pocket. The tiny beach town of Gator Bay has taught me more than just the importance of getting my shopping done early before everything is closed. It has also taught me not to sweat the small stuff. Or as Bree once put it, "Quit beach bummin', and finish rolling that pastry dough."

"Mornin' Poppy," a familiar voice greets me. Archy scratches his matted head of hair. He glances up at the flag waving in the wind as he drags his fishing pole behind him. "Nasty currents today. Yesterday the flag was yella."

"It usually is," I reply with a smile.

"Well, that ain't stoppin' me from fishin'." Archy winks as he searches the shoreline for the perfect spot. "Breakfast."

I nod, admiring the way he rolls out of bed every morning and lives off the land. He seems to manage it better than I ever could. I pull my cell phone from my pocket to see an unopened text from Bree.

She's here, and Gilly's freaking out.

I shake my head and jog my way back to the Magnolia Harbor Inn and Spa. It's situated on its own stretch of oceanfront property, complete with a private beach and a spacious porch out back that's perfect for watching the sunrise. I'd never seen anything like it the day Bree and I first pulled up to the front door.

The three-story mansion sits on stilts that elevate it from the sandy beach. It is painted white with powder-blue accents, and the front porch is surrounded by baby palm trees. Against the azure backdrop, the Inn and Spa looks like a little slice of heaven amongst the fiery Alabama heat. The owner, Miss Hattie Mae Scott, matches her home's serene persona. However, her daughter, who also happens to be the current innkeeper, does not.

"Sorry," I mutter as I sneak through the back door and head towards the kitchen.

"How many times do I have to tell you to use the side entrance?" Cherie reserves her smiles for guests only. She stands next to a cream-colored sofa in the sitting area as if she's posing for a photograph.

"This door is closer," I admit.

"You'll track in sand," Cherie insists. "Besides, a chef belongs in the kitchen, not wandering around the hotel confusing our guests."

I nod as Muffin eyes me from the corner of the room. Whenever Cherie is close by, Muffin is sure to be also. The gray, fluffy Persian can only be described as the inn's demon feline. She is only polite to guests, much like her owner. And, of course, there was the time she stalked Bree all night for grabbing an evening tea and cake in the kitchen after quiet hours.

"Of course." I tilt my head and force a fake grin. As annoyingly prim as Cherie is with her sleek blonde hair and slender figure to match, I have to remind myself that she's the owner's daughter. Besides, getting even is as easy as calling her
and walking away. She hates it when her name is mispronounced, which is why she spelled it out for me every day my first week here.
It's Cher-ree, not Cherry, okay?

I walk as quietly as I can down the long hall leading to the kitchen. The house is divided into two sections—one for paying guests and the other smaller half for staff like Bree and me. I grab my apron and scrub my hands before joining Bree at our end of the kitchen.

"There you are." Bree breathes a sigh of relief as she glances at Gilly, the inn's head chef in charge of savory dishes. Gilly had seemed to have a permanent scowl on his face when we arrived. His fragile frame reminds me of a chef I once met in Paris during my internship at Le Croissant—short and a little too thin. But Gilly's graying hair and spotty skin are those of a man who has spent most of his life outdoors.

"Brioche," Gilly shouts, waving his hands in the air. "I told you ladies I needed brioche this morning for the eggs benedict."

"And brioche you shall have, sir," Bree calmly responds. She hands him the gorgeously browned loaf she baked yesterday. Gilly snatches it and immediately begins slicing.

"Boy, he is on one today," I whisper. "Which isn't much different from most days."

"Lacy Leigh just arrived," Bree mutters back. "You remember what happened last time she was here. She practically told Gilly off for over-salting her cheese grits."

"Yep, I remember." I glance at today's menu and zero in on tonight's requested dessert. Strawberry tartlets. Lacy Leigh Nichols is Gator Bay's living, breathing success story. A small-town girl collecting crabs on the beach turned country music star. She hadn't been back to her hometown in years, but a few months ago she called up Miss Hattie Mae requesting that she ready the inn for her arrival. Lacy Leigh has been back twice since then. Today marks her third visit to Gator Bay this year.

"I'll work on the cakes for afternoon tea," Bree volunteers. The first day I met her back at Calle Pastry Academy, she was baking a layered chocolate cake fit for the Queen of England. Cakes are her thing, and French-inspired pastries are mine.

"I'll start the pastry dough for the tartlets." I busy myself by cutting the butter into cubes. Having the tartlets done early will give the pastry cream more time to firm up.

"Eh!" Gilly shouts at his assistant. He shakes his head and grabs a metal bowl of hollandaise. "You broke it. Now we have to start over."

"Sorry, Dad." Gilly's kitchen assistant, and son, is a young teenage boy named Ford. Unlike his father, Ford seems to embrace the carefree
beach bummin'
attitude. Most days he wears flip-flops and a tank top underneath his apron. He usually gets away with it, unless Cherie happens to enter the kitchen.

"Let me do it." Gilly takes over, grabbing a brand new bowl.

"I just hope he doesn't boil over like last time Lacy Leigh was here," Bree whispers as she mixes her first cake batter of the day.

"As long as she doesn't request another crawfish boil on the beach, I think we're good."

"Crawdaddies." Bree cracks a smile. "Gilly calls them crawdaddies."

"Because that's the name we use around here," Gilly huffs. The kitchen has sufficient room for the four of us, but it's still snug enough to hear each other's conversations. Just last week, Bree and I learned that Gilly used to be in an '80s hair band.

"I thought Southerners liked their spices?" I sift my flour, remembering Lacy Leigh's last visit. She shook up the entire town when she insisted that her entourage join her on the beach to ward off cameras. An entire line of locals had woven their way around the inn. Cherie had a hissy fit. Not to mention Lacy Leigh knocking over the stockpot of crawfish on her last night with us because the broth was way too spicy. "Heart attack spicy" were her exact words.

"Let's just get through this visit, and then things will go back to normal." Bree's cheeks are already turning scarlet, and it's not even close to noon. "We'll be back to reading and sipping cocktails on the beach in no time."

"How crowded do you think the beach will get today?" Ford nods as he watches his dad finish the morning breakfast orders.

"Crowded enough that Cherie will pound the espressos like she did last time," I comment.

"You have yourself a bet," Ford happily replies.

"I'm here! I'm here!" a voice rings through the kitchen. Frankie, the hotel maid, appears in the doorway with her shirt on inside out. The lettering on her polo is backwards. "I didn't miss the breakfast run, did I?"

"I'm just finishing it, Frankie," Gilly answers, holding more patience towards her than he does Bree and me. She's a local.

"Uh, you got a little something," I say, pointing at her uniform. She's lucky that Miss Hattie Mae won the debate on keeping staff attire casual. Cherie wants Frankie to wear something more formal.

"What?" Frankie glances down at her top and rolls her eyes. "Oh, how silly of me." Without an ounce of hesitation, she pulls her polo over her tight, auburn bun, revealing a hot-pink bikini top.

"Excuse me," Gilly scolds his son as Ford leans to the side to get a closer look. "Back to work."

Bree pays no attention as Frankie readjusts her powder-blue shirt with the inn's name embroidered on it. Frankie smoothes her hair with her fingers and directs her attention to the coffee pot. She rubs the side of her hand. It's covered in scratches.

"What happened?" I ask. I stare at the sores near her wrists. Her opposite hand is also blemished. Long scrapes that remind me of claw marks.

"Bike accident," Frankie blurts out, hiding her scars.

"It looks like you had a run-in with a bigger and meaner Muffin," I tease.

Frankie's chuckle sounds forced. She beelines for the coffee pot and pours herself a morning cup. Gilly arranges Lacy Leigh's morning breakfast tray with shaking hands. He aligns each fork, spoon, and knife perfectly even and places his finished product in the center. He gulps as he places a silver plate cover over the steaming food.

"If she complains—"

"Bring it back immediately," Frankie finishes. "Yes, Gilly, I know the drill."

Frankie grabs the tray and quickly heads for the door. I focus on my pastry dough as Gilly shouts at Ford for bringing his skimboard into the kitchen again. He uses it to skim the gentle waves on the beach after breakfast. Though today the currents were too strong for swimmers.

"Get that thing out of here," Gilly yells, waving a hand.

"Where am I supposed to put it?" Ford argues. He holds up the brightly colored board that stands at about half of the length of a surfboard.

"Outside." Gilly wipes the counter in front of him. "If Cherie does another one of her surprise inspections, she'll feed me to the gators for letting you store that thing in here. It's full of germs."

"Fine," Ford huffs. He promptly leaves the kitchen, rolling his eyes.

"My children will be nothing like that," Bree mutters.

?" I joke. "You want more than one?"

"Enough to run my own bakery." Bree grins as she pours her cake batter into a circular pan.

"Eh!" Gilly's voice rings through my ears, making me jump. "She forgot the salt and pepper. Again!" His rosy cheeks become more and more damp.

"Relax, Gilly." I grab a set of miniature salt and pepper shakers and head towards the exit. "I might be able to catch Frankie before she leaves Lacy Leigh's suite."

I jog as quickly as I can towards the staff staircase on the side of the house. I half expect to hear the jingle of Muffin's sparkly collar as I enter the upstairs guest hallway and search for Frankie. Lacy Leigh is staying in the largest room available. A private deck overlooks the ocean, and the suite is separated into an enclosed bedroom and sitting area.

I scan up and down the hall, but there is no sign of Frankie. I smooth my apron, preparing to knock on Lacy Leigh's door. My last encounter with her was brief. In fact, she thought I was an overzealous fan who had snuck into the inn somehow. Cherie explained to her twice that I am one of the pastry chefs.

The door opens before I have a chance to knock. Frankie exits the room—wide-eyed. And holding open the door is a face I never thought I would see this far south. The man in the doorway looks like a Greek god in disguise. His chocolatey hair and chiseled features are ones I haven't seen since my college years.

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