Strawberry Tartlets and a Dead Starlet (2 page)

"Poppy?" His voice is exactly as I remember it—deep and rustic.

"Presley," I say, observing his plain attire. "Are you…?"

"Lacy's new bodyguard," he responds.

"What happened to Chance
The Hammer

"Food poisoning." Presley grins, taking me back to the day I'd first met him. I had gone to the Oregon Coast with my neighbor, Evie, for a girl's weekend, and Presley had showed up at my door. "Despite what Chance says to people, he does not have a stomach made of steel. What are you doing here?"

"I should be asking you the same question," I reply. "How does an Oregon Ducks football player end up in a place like this?"

"The same way a ballerina does," Presley answers.

My stomach ties itself in knots as I hand him the salt and pepper shakers. Presley and I had dated for a summer. One of the best summers I can remember. But in the end we both realized that we lived worlds apart. That was the last time I had seen him. He looks like he hasn't aged a day.

"I'm a pastry chef," I reply.

"My, how times have changed."





Bree and I have bedrooms right next to each other. They're not as nice as the guest rooms upstairs, but they have air conditioning. Also, my bed doesn't squeak like Bree's does when she gets up in the middle of the night. My only complaint is that the walls are a tad too thin.

"What are you going to do?" Bree's voice carries through the wall and into my room. "Are you going to ask him out?"

"No," I blurt out. "He's working. He probably doesn't have time for that sort of thing."

"Can I ask him out?"

I raise my eyebrows and dart out of my room and into Bree's. She's organizing a drawer of clothes. It's one of her Sunday routines. She tidies her room even if it's already spotless, which it normally is.

"You've never even met him," I point out. "Besides, don't you already have a boyfriend?"

"You're the one who keeps telling me to be more spontaneous, and Jeff is not my boyfriend. We went out once after graduation." Bree smiles and continues to re-fold a stack of T-shirts. "Besides, I've never met a guy with the name

"His parents were die hard Elvis fans. Look, you can't just waltz up to his room and ask him out. Technically, he's a guest here, and Jeff would be heartbroken."

"Enough about Jeff," she responds. "It's not my fault that I can't get him to stop calling me."

"You must have put some sort of spell on him," I tease. I think back to the last time I saw Jeff. It was at graduation, and his ice-blue eyes matched the color of his shirt. He knew how to push Bree's buttons, and I think he does it on purpose. But most of all, he's in love with her cooking.

"If I cast some sort of spell without knowing, then it was on the wrong guy," Bree answers. "I would much rather take my chances with a guy named Presley."

"If either of us asks Presley out, I'm sure Cherie will send us packing."

"Cherie is all talk, and…" Bree looks up—her eyes darting to the space behind me. A familiar jingle sounds through the room as Muffin trots through the hallway as if she's on patrol. "The cat really freaks me out sometimes. I swear she spies on everyone in the hotel."

"And what?" I laugh. "Reports back to her owner?"

"It could happen," Bree insists.

"Well, I think we should celebrate a job well done yesterday," I continue. "Not one complaint about afternoon tea or dessert last night. I think we've earned a morning at the shops. I'm talking specialty coffees and the Seashell Boutique."

"There's no such thing as a day off when Lacy Leigh is in town." Bree hardly makes eye contact as she moves on with her morning chores. "You should know that by now."

Footsteps thud towards me, and I poke my head into the hallway to see where they're coming from. Ford rushes towards me in a tank top and swimming trunks. Beads of sweat drip down his forehead as he comes to a sudden halt and catches his breath.

"Dad needs you both in the kitchen," he exhales.

"Told you." Bree smiles matter-of-factly.

"Ford, we have the morning off, remember?" I remind him.

"Frankie is a no show this morning, and breakfast is ready," he explains. "Dad almost had a heart attack when I volunteered to take the trays upstairs. I can't imagine why."

"I can," Bree cuts in. Her eyes focus on the stain on his shirt and his unsightly tan lines.

"Tell Gilly I will deliver the queen her morning meal," I volunteer.

Ford nods gratefully and sprints in the opposite direction to deliver the message.

"So much for the Seashell Boutique," Bree responds.

"It's only a tray." I hang onto the hope that my Sunday morning won't be wasted waiting on the guests of the Magnolia Harbor Inn and Spa. "Besides, the breads are done. Dessert has been prepped. There are more than enough pastries to feed all of Gator Bay in the dining room. What more could they want from us?"

"If Frankie doesn't show up, someone will have to scrub the toilets," Bree adds. "And you know as well as I do that we've been a chef short in the kitchen for a while. Gilly always needs help."

"I would rather do trash duty on the beach." I take a deep breath. "One favor and I'll be back before you know it."

"Okay, I'll be waiting." Bree raises her eyebrows. "But if I'm right, you're inviting Presley on that dinner cruise we booked for Monday night."

"Bree." My heart races at the thought of it.

"What?" She cracks a half-smile. "When a guy like that is dropped at your doorstep, you shouldn't ignore it."

If only Bree knew the trouble Presley and I had gotten into the weekend we first met.


*   *   *


I quietly balance the breakfast tray in my hands as I go through the checklist of instructions in my head. Two other rooms had ordered a morning breakfast assortment, and Gilly instructed me to take the first tray to Lacy Leigh's room. Normally, Lacy booked the entire inn to herself, but this weekend she showed up with hardly any notice. The Masons in the Pelican Room are supposed to be checking out today, and word around the kitchen is that Cherie had to beg Mr. Wheeler to check out early. All other reservations for tonight were cancelled.

"Finally my coffee has arrived," Mr. Wheeler barks at me as he pokes his head out of his room.

"Sorry, Mr. Wheeler," I apologize. "I'll be back with your morning fix just as soon as I deliver this." Mr. Wheeler rolls his eyes. He's a writer doing a piece on the Gulf Coast and its frequent inhabitants of sea turtles.

"It's bad enough that you people are making me leave early, especially since a nest was spotted just up the beach. Now I have to drive all the way here from my new hotel. Very inconvenient." He adjusts the metal frame of his glasses—his grayish hair combed back like he's been up for hours.

"My apologies." I smile as best as I can as he shuts the door.

I continue towards Lacy Leigh's room, the best and biggest room in the hotel. I knock lightly, hoping that I'm not interrupting anything important. If Lacy complains, I might have to sit through another lecture from Cherie on professionalism. I glance up and down the quiet hallway as I wait. No answer. I knock a second time—this time a little louder. My heart stops as the doorknob slowly turns.

"Presley?" I stammer. Presley opens the door and straightens the collar of his shirt. "Oh, I…" I bite the corner of my lip. "Breakfast for two, I guess?"

"Don't be silly, Poppy," he quickly corrects me. "It's not what it looks like." Through the open door I see an unmade bed. The window is open, letting a brisk ocean breeze drift through the room and make the curtain sway from side to side.

"This is for Lacy," I say, holding up the tray of food. "I'll just leave it—"

"You can give it to her yourself," Presley chimes in, shutting the door behind him. "She slept in my room last night."

"Really?" I tilt my head. Presley's room isn't much bigger than mine—a simple suite with a bed, a desk, and a small bathroom.

"Yes, she went on one of her rants last night," he continues, leading me to his guest room where Lacy Leigh is sure to be just waking up. "Something about a stalker who has been following her around. Of course, she says things like this no matter where she goes."

"Paranoia?" I guess. The last celebrity I met, Chef Bartolo Chimenti, was a paranoid person too. Though he had reason to be—taking money from the wrong sorts of people all to look good in the public eye. Chef Otto, as he preferred to be called, left his teaching post after my last semester at Calle Pastry Academy. Bree and I still couldn't believe that his reality cooking show,
Bonbon Voyage
, was still airing.

"This girl has issues," Presley mutters as he approaches the door to his room. "That's all I'm going to say."

"She must have been desperate if she requested a room swap. This room doesn't even have a view of the beach." I lightly knock on the door.

"It was her idea," he admits. "She needed her sleep, and she didn't want me patrolling around her room all night. Besides, I needed my sleep too for today. She's planning on meeting her aunt in town today. That means a full morning of crowd control for me."

"Sounds exhausting." I knock again. No answer. Presley holds up a finger.

"Hang on." He pulls his cell phone from his pocket and hits speed dial.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

Lacy Leigh's phone rings, and the two of us wait patiently for her to answer the door.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

Her phone is loud enough that the buzzing carries right through her door, but it seems to be the only sound in the room.

"Maybe she's in the bathroom?" I suggest.

The two of us wait a few more minutes. I eye the breakfast tray in front of me. Gilly will kill me if I serve Lacy Leigh a cold stack of hotcakes. I impatiently knock on the door. Presley studies the door handle and quietly presses his ear against the sturdy wood.

"Ms. Nichols," Presley shouts. "Lacy, are you there?" He pauses. No answer. "Lacy, if you don't respond, I'll be forced to open the door myself." Still no answer.

"Does she do this often?" I ask.

Presley gently nudges me back—his expression like a block of concrete.

"Never," he replies. He kicks the door in like it's made of gingerbread. A loud bang echoes through the hallway and jolts me back.

Presley enters the room cautiously, surveying every corner before letting me take a peek. He drops to his knees, and I almost stumble over his feet. My eyes go wide as I take in the scene in front of me. My chest tightens, and I feel as if a strong current is reeling me into dangerous territory. I loosen my grip on the breakfast tray—my palms starting to sweat.

Lacy Leigh is lying on the floor with an overturned desk chair right beside her. Presley's room looks practically untouched. The bed is still made, and the window is closed. A tray from last night's dessert and tea run is sitting on the desk.

"Is she…" I can't bring myself to say the word as I stare at a wave of firecracker-red hair and a wrinkled silk robe. But my stomach starts to churn. Lacy isn't moving, and one of my strawberry tartlets is in a heap of crumbs next to her lifeless hand. Pastry cream had oozed onto the floor, and a trail of crumbs makes it clear that
tartlet was the last thing she bit into.

"She is," Presley quietly responds. He gulps loud enough to break the eerie silence. He presses his fingers to her neck a second time, but shakes his head. He hangs his shoulders in remorse. "Lacy Leigh Nichols is dead."





The kitchen is crowded with all the staff, and even Archy has taken a break from beach fishing to see what the commotion was at the Magnolia Harbor Inn and Spa. Bree and I stand shoulder to shoulder along with Gilly and his son. Cherie stands with her arms folded, observing Frankie who arrived just after the police. The inn's masseuse and esthetician were also called in for a very important meeting.

Miss Hattie Mae Scott leans on her cane as she walks. She's wearing one of her brightly colored skirt suits—one that I'm sure has a sun hat to match it. She's a true southern debutante and much more hospitable than her daughter Cherie.

"Good morning, folks," Hattie Mae addresses us. Her southern accent is stronger than Gilly's, but more proper. She doesn't mumble the way Gilly does when he's under a time crunch.

"Good morning, ma'am." Bree nods.

"It saddens me to call you here today and to tell you the most upsetting news." Hattie Mae grips the top of her cane even tighter. "It's been an honor to host the wonderful Lacy Leigh this year, but…" She leans against the nearest wall for extra support. Her daughter darts to her side.

"I can take it from here, Mama." Cherie wraps her arm around Hattie Mae and clears her throat.

"You all must be wondering why the police are upstairs and there are photographers waiting around outside," she begins. I look from Bree to Gilly. The truth is that, like most small towns, the news of Lacy Leigh's passing traveled fast. "Well, this morning Lacy Leigh Nichols was found unresponsive in her room. And unfortunately, she is no longer with us."

The room falls silent as a short, stubby man enters the kitchen. He nods politely—his eyes immediately fixating on various pieces of kitchen equipment. I don't have to wait for an explanation to know why he's here. I've met men like him before. So far, unlike my old Georgian acquaintance Detective Reid, the man in front of me doesn't look like he's too busy to stick around. Detective Reid was always on the go.

"Morning." The man glances around the room. He places a hand on his rounded belly, which is covered in a light-peach dress shirt.

"Everyone, this is Detective Sugars," Cherie informs us. "He's here to ask y'all a few questions, so please make him feel at home."

"Bob Sugars," the man clarified with a smirk on his face. "We begin the interviews in the dining room. Who would like to go first?" He pauses, waiting for a volunteer. Bree glances at me.

"Sure," I volunteer. "I will."

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