Authors: Morgana Best
I was nervous about the Customer Appreciation Night. The idea had come to Thyme after she watched
The Real Housewives of New Jersey
—or was it Atlanta? I always got all those housewives mixed up. While the event was in part an actual appreciation for our current customers, the main purpose was to attract new customers. There were several conference facilities in the area, due to the proximity of the university in the next big town, so we were hoping that they would hire us to cater their cakes.
Victor Barnes owned the only conference center in Bayberry Creek. I didn’t know much about him. I had seen him once or twice, and word around town was that he was having an affair. I wondered how anyone in a small town could have an affair and keep it secret. Victor certainly hadn’t been able to. He seemed polite enough, although not overly friendly. He always looked grim. Nevertheless, that was none of my concern. I simply wanted his business.
I was even more nervous when the time for the event drew close. No one had arrived. “What if no one comes?” I asked Thyme.
“Don’t worry,” Thyme said. “People always come for free food.”
I didn’t know if that comment made me feel better or worse, but sure enough, within minutes the first customers had arrived. There was no sign of Victor, one of our main targets for the night. Apparently one of the conference room managers from the next town had arrived, though, as Thyme made a beeline straight for a distinguished looking man and at once engaged him in animated conversation.
I picked up a tray with an assortment of cupcakes, and offered them to the attendees. I knew most of the people, although some were strangers. I was right by the front door when one of the town’s three beauty therapists entered.
“Hi, Simone.” My hand immediately went to my eyebrows. “So sorry I haven’t been back to have my eyebrows waxed and tinted. It’s just that I’ve been so busy. I haven’t gone anywhere else,” I hurried to assure her.
Simone stared at my eyebrows and then smiled. “I can see that,” she said with a smile. I was a little embarrassed in the presence of one so impeccably groomed, as beauty therapists invariably are.
“Do you make all these cakes?” Simone asked me.
I did my best to hold back my laughter. “Thyme does most of the baking,” I said, and then looked at the dour-faced man walking up beside her. It was Victor Barnes.
“Have you met my husband?”
“Not really,” I said. We shook hands. His grip was firm and I wondered if he worked out. I was about to launch into what I hoped was a good sales pitch, when Victor excused himself and hurried away. “I didn’t know you were married to Victor,” I said.
Simone selected a pastry from the table and smiled, but it did not reach her eyes. “Yes,” she said simply. “We’ve been married for years.”
“I was hoping Victor would consider us for the cake catering at his conference center,” I said, pleased that I was so forthright.
Simone opened her mouth to speak, but just then Alder walked into the store. My heart thumped and I hoped my attraction to him wasn’t written all over my face. Ruprecht, Mint, and Thyme all turned to stare at him. Simone did as well, which I thought somewhat strange. I had no idea they knew each other. Surely she didn’t do Alder’s eyebrows, too?
Alder weaved his way through the people and came straight to me. “Hello, Amelia and Simone,” he said with a smile. “Amelia, why are you staring at my eyebrows?”
“Err, no reason,” I said. “Do you two know each other?”
“Everyone knows each other in a small town,” Alder said smoothly. He took me by the elbow and steered me into a quiet corner. Part of me was pleased, but part of me was a little dismayed that I had lost the opportunity to plug the business to Victor’s wife. “Your friends don’t look happy to see me.”
I shrugged. “Well, it’s because of your parents,” I said.
Alder nodded. “I know. Still, I’m nothing like my parents.”
“I’m sure they’ll realize that soon,” I said, not believing a word of it. I was worried to see Thyme heading my way.
“Amelia, could I have a quick word with you in the kitchen?” she asked sharply.
“Sorry, Alder. I’ll be right back.” I followed Thyme into the kitchen.
She wasted no time coming to the point. “Did you invite him, or did he invite himself?”
“I invited him. I like him,” I said truthfully. “Don’t forget, he saved me from Dianne when she was trying to kill me.’
Thyme shook her head. “He only called the cops. It’s not as if he saved you in person.”
“Well, calling the cops saved me, didn’t it?” I realized my tone was defensive, even whiny, but I did trust Alder. Call it intuition.
Thyme rubbed her forehead. “Look, Amelia, I know you like him, but please be careful. His family…”
I cut her off. “I know all about his family, but not everyone takes after their family. Anyway, we’d better get back to the guests.”
Thyme tapped my arm. “I’m sorry if I’m coming across as controlling, but I really am worried about you.”
I smiled. “I know you are, and I do appreciate it.” I shrugged. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I took a plate of gingerbread cupcakes out to the showroom. I couldn’t resist eating one on the way. Thyme followed me out, and didn’t say another word. I headed straight to Alder who was standing alone, although I did notice the eyes of several women fastened on him.
“How are you?” he asked with what I took to be genuine concern. “That must have been a shock.”
“Yes, it was an awful shock,” I said. “Poor Camino is distraught; that’s why she didn’t come tonight. Did you know Sue?’
Alder’s expression fell. “Yes. I often subcontracted her to take photographs.”
“She was a photographer?” I asked. I realized I didn’t know much about her.
Alder nodded. “I regularly paid her to take photographs of simple cases.”
My head was spinning. “I’m not sure I’m following you.”
“I’m a private detective.” Alder tapped himself on the chest. “I work on the insurance cases, but much of the work that comes to me is seeing if a husband is cheating on his wife, or a wife cheating on her husband. I always paid Sue to follow the alleged cheater and take photographs, while I was busy investigating more complicated, better-paying cases.”
“Do you think that’s why Sue was killed?”
All the color drained from Alder’s face. “Killed? But wasn’t it a heart attack?”
I bit my lip. I could hardly tell him that Camino had done a divination. “The police weren’t sure,” I said. “They said it had to go to the coroner.”
Alder leaned closer to me. “It’s always under the coroner’s jurisdiction if it’s a sudden death. That’s no reason to suspect murder. Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Just then I had a flash of intuition. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was as if something had opened up in front of me. “
something!” I exclaimed, rather too loudly it seemed, as several people turned to stare.
Alder did not deny it, but popped a custard caramel cupcake into his mouth. I saw that Victor was one of the people staring, and as he was nearby, I took the opportunity to speak with him. “Do you like our cupcakes?”
Victor looked at me, and for a moment I wondered if he would reply. “Yes, they’re very good.”
“We do cater for conferences,” I said. “Just with cakes, obviously, not meals. Some of the conference centers in the next town simply buy cakes from grocery stores, so we’re currently letting people know that we can cater these high quality cakes for a reasonable price.”
Victor’s expression changed. “That would be useful. As you say, we usually send out someone to buy cakes, but they’re the mass produced ones and not very good. I would be interested in talking with you.”
I tried not to look as pleased as I was. “That’s wonderful,” I said in my best professional tone. “Would you like me to email you our conference packages, and then we could set up a meeting?”
Victor handed me his business card by way of answer. I thanked him and walked over to Thyme. “I overheard,” she whispered. “Well done!”
Alder grabbed my shoulder gently and pulled me aside again, much to the chagrin of Thyme. “Congratulations.” He was beaming at me, but not with his eyes. He did seem to be sincere, though, but something was distracting him. “Amelia,” he began, but his smile faded. “Why do you think she was murdered? Be straight with me.”
“I’ll be straight with you once you start being straight with me! What is it?” I realized that I’d asked perhaps a bit too forcefully, and Alder dropped his gaze.
“I can’t tell you right now, but I…”
Before he could finish, Thyme grabbed me and spun me around.
“Let’s go! There’s plenty to celebrate.” Thyme smiled happily and pulled me away and into the crowd. I looked back at Alder who smiled and waved casually. I knew we’d have to pick this conversation up later, and the thought didn’t thrill me much. Sue had been murdered, but I couldn’t just sit Alder down and explain how I knew that, especially with his history— no, his family’s history. I had to keep reminding myself that his family’s behavior had nothing to do with him. Though, he definitely knew more than he was letting on, and it hurt that he didn’t trust me enough to tell me. Truth be told, I figured that I was doing the same to him.
“Don’t you think?” Thyme asked.
I’d been so lost in thought that I hadn’t even realized she was talking to me. “About what?” I asked.
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “About a new line of cakes for Victor. We want to make a big impression, after all, and we haven’t gone through all of your aunt’s old recipes yet. I just went over all this! Weren’t you listening?” She puffed out her cheeks angrily.
“Sorry, Thyme. I’ve just got a lot on my mind.” I tried my best to smile, but only managed a weak kind of grimace, which was probably as unflattering as it was unbelievable.
“Cheer up!” Thyme was beaming again. “Everything’s looking up. Just try your best to be happy for a night, and we’ll work everything out tomorrow. Deal?”
Thyme was so sincere that I couldn’t help but cheer up, if only a little. “All right, you win,” I said with a sigh. “But we’ll need a lot of grog.”
Thyme smiled and poured me a glass of wine, which I quickly downed and passed back to her. She wisely refilled it and handed it straight back, knowing full well that when I said ‘a lot of grog’, I meant it.
I assured Thyme that I was starting to have fun, and let her go socialize on her own. Besides, it was true—I was halfway through my second glass, and I was never one to handle my alcohol well. Still, I was a bit distracted by everything that was happening, and decided to talk to Simone.
I found her before long, wrapping up a conversation with a man I didn’t recognize. I saw my opportunity and walked over to her. “Hi Simone!” I said, smiling sincerely.
“Hello, Amelia. This is going well!” She smiled back and gestured around the room.
“It is, thank you, but I was hoping you could help me make it a little better. Do you ever do wedding makeup?”
Simone raised an eyebrow. “I do, yes, but I didn’t realize you were planning to get married. May I ask who the lucky man is?”
“Oh, no! No! It’s not like that,” I stammered. “I was wondering if you know any wedding planners. We’d like to start catering weddings, and I figured the best first step would be to contact some planners.”
“Oh, of course.” When she realized I wasn’t getting married, a look of understanding washed over her, which probably would have offended me more if I wasn’t already distracted and slightly inebriated. “I can pass along some emails to you tomorrow, if you’d like.”
“That’s great, thank you!” I hoped I didn’t sound too forced, because I meant it. Having wedding planners as well as Victor making large orders from us could really benefit the business. “Do you…”
Before I could finish, from over Simone’s shoulder, I saw Thyme approach frantically. “Excuse me, we’ll chat later. Thanks again.” I smiled and brushed past her, eager to see what had made Thyme so flustered.
“It’s Kayleen.” Thyme was clearly upset. I sighed deeply. You could always trust Kayleen to ruin a good thing. “What’s she done this time?” I asked, not really sure if I wanted to know. “Eaten all the samplers?”
“Well, not yet, but she’s getting there.” Thyme replied, pointing toward the mean mail lady at the sampler table. I’d only asked as a sort of mean joke, but it turns out that Kayleen was well on her way to actually eating all the samplers. Like some kind of food-consuming machine, she was shoveling them into her mouth one after the other. I’d say she was eating like a pig, but I wouldn’t want to insult porcine-kind. I decided that I had to put a stop to it before she made her way into the back room and ate our ingredients.
“Hello, Kayleen,” I said, grimly. “I’m afraid these are just samplers, so everybody can have one and see which they like best.”
“Yes, I know,” she managed to reply between mouthfuls. “I have to eat a few before I’m sure. You make these samples much too small.”
If only you’d been made a bit smaller
, I thought, but held back from saying anything.
“Hello, ladies.” It was Craig. He appeared from behind Kayleen, a sample cake in each hand. “How’s everything going?”
I finished the rest of my drink and immediately knew I needed a lot more. I’d been on my way to relaxation, but seeing Craig again had set me on edge. “Excuse me,” I said bluntly, not bothering to smile. I headed back to refill, downed it nearly instantly and refilled again—much better.
As I turned back to look for Thyme, I found myself standing toe-to-toe with a tall, middle-aged man. He greeted me with a friendly smile. “Hello, I’m David, Kayleen’s husband.”
My mouth fell open. “Oh, uh, hello.” I managed to sputter out a sentence. “I didn’t realize Kayleen was married.” He looked a bit hurt when I mentioned this fact. “Oh, but I don’t know her very well,” I hurried to add. It was true, I suppose, which made me feel a bit better. Of course, the reason I didn’t know her very well was because I was trying very hard not to.
“Ah, well, of course. I think I know you, though. You’re Amelia, yes?” David had difficulty maintaining eye contact as he asked, and didn’t seem very confident in his speech, though he came across as friendly. I immediately felt bad for him, given that he was married to Kayleen.
“I am, yes. Thank you for coming. I believe I saw Kayleen over at the sample table earlier, if you’re looking for her.” I almost felt bad about directing him to her, but I felt much worse when I saw her hand a cake to Craig and gently squeeze his hand. David turned to look.
“Uh, but, that was a while ago!” I said urgently, pointing in the other direction. “She might have even left by now, for all I know.” I couldn’t care less if Kayleen got what was coming to her—in fact, I’d probably enjoy it more than is healthy—but David didn’t seem like the sort of person who deserved to have his heart broken. Of course, if he really loved Kayleen, there was probably something wrong with his heart in the first place. I was conflicted, but had enough on my plate as it was, and didn’t need to deal with relationship drama.
“Yes, she does occasionally leave without me, so you might be right.” He managed a sad kind of smile. “Well, Amelia, best of luck with the rest of the night. I believe I’ll try to find my wife.”
She’s hard to miss
, I thought to myself, but responded with the kindest wave I could muster.