Jean-Luc gazed around the kitchen, his heart pounding crazily, as it had ever since he’d taken this job. The place was impossible! The oven was ancient. The grill erratic. The counters so badly scarred that Jean-Luc had sprayed them down with disinfectant himself. The Crissmans might think their Denim and Diamonds affair was the height of societal fun, but Jean-Luc was the one who had to pull his staff together and create hors d’oeuvres that were spectacular. He’d taken the job because the Crissman family was well-known, well-respected, and wellheeled, or so he’d thought. He’d been stunned at the dismal state of the lodge, downright appalled at the kitchen, and when it was explained that the lodge’s “rustic” appearance was in keeping with its 1930s architecture, he’d pasted on a smile and tried to hide his full-body shiver. It was after he’d agreed to take the job that he learned that there were parameters. He was supposed to make something outstanding on a limited budget. Still, he’d done the impossible. He’d put his own twist on some regulars: dates and bacon, tuna tartare, a rustic cheese plate, platters of crudités with his own Roquefort dressing, and those lovely trays of melons, grapes, pineapple, and papaya. There were breads and desserts, a particularly lovely pear tarte, and oh, his amuse bouche! The bite-size morsel was packed with flavor; his rendition of capers and goat cheese and salmon that Donovan, his sous chef, had mostly mastered to correctly put together. But these people … All dressed in their finery, the women in smooth heels, shimmering gowns, and diamonds—or maybe zircons, one never really knew—or, and this was the “fun” party, in jeans and casual shirts. One woman had even worn cowboy boots. Jean-Luc had peeked out at them as they’d arrived, wondering dourly why he even tried.
It was all a joke to them. Well, wait till they tasted his food. They would swoon, no matter how gauche they were. The event was all for charity. Everybody said so. In fact, they said it over and over again, as if they couldn’t believe it themselves. He snorted. Maybe they couldn’t. He glanced down at the rows of champagne glasses on serving trays and sparkling in the drab green kitchen. Soong-Li was watching over them, making sure everyone just got one.
They could buy drinks from the open bar, but they were allowed only one glass of free champagne . or rather, sparkling wine, as there was nothing remotely French about the California varietal they were serving. Jean-Luc sniffed, then glared at the kitchen worker, not one of his regulars, who was trying not to dry out the prawns. “Watch those!” Jean-Luc told the man, who didn’t even bother acknowledging him. Imbeciles! Jean-Luc flared his nostrils as he drew in air, shaking his head. He glanced at the “champagne.” Where was Soong-Li? As he watched, several guests snatched glasses from the serving station, and he could see that a full tray was missing. No, no! They weren’t serving it yet. They hadn’t made the final count. Hurriedly, he placed himself in front of the glasses and had to block a rather tense-looking woman in a beaded blue gown with grasping hands.
“Not quite ready,” he said with a forced smile. “Well, I saw a tray go out,” she declared aggressively. “Yes, soon, madam. I will look you up personally and bring you a glass.” She shot him a baleful glare and left. As soon as she was gone, Jean-Luc hissed, “Soong-Li! Soong-Li!” She rushed back in from the serving room. “Mr. Crissman took the tray. I couldn’t stop him. I’m so sorry.
” Mr. Crissman. “The raspberries?” Jean-Luc snapped. “All of the glasses had raspberries in the bottom. They’re okay. It’s okay.” “Ah.” “Should I take out another tray of champagne?” His ears almost hurt at her words. “No. Serve the cheese tray.
It’s been forgotten and looks forlorn. I’ll watch the wine.” She hurried off, and Jean-Luc fumed at being required to attend to such a menial task. There was so much to do. Why was he relegated to this? He suddenly smelled the scent of burning seafood. “The prawns!” he shrieked, but his words were drowned out by a shout from the main room, a rising chorus of wailing, screaming voices. Jean-Luc put a hand to his heart. What? Soong-Li returned, wild-eyed. “A guest has collapsed. Stomach pains.
He’s . vomiting!” Food poisoning. Jean-Luc’s face went slack. He saw his own ruin in a series of newspaper headlines . Famed chef poisons guest . Health Department called to famed chef’s restaurant to check for violations . Famed chef blamed for employee’s negligence . “I . I . think he might be dead,” Soong-Li declared, tears of horror standing in her eyes.
With a soft cry of submission, the “famed chef” fell to the ground, hand still on his heart. PART ONE Chapter One One month earlier … Lucy Linfield pressed herself into the back of the padded, oxblood-red booth and sipped her vodka martini, her gaze on the good-looking bartender with the strong jaw and the five o’clock shadow as he moved from one end of the bar to the other, pouring drinks and offering up little ecru napkins. His shirt’s white sleeves were pushed up his forearms, and she liked the look of his skin on his arms and the underlying muscles. She also liked the look of his face and his neck above the unbuttoned vee of smooth, hard flesh. She imagined his eyes were blue. She was a sucker for blue eyes. Narrowing her eyes for a better look—she really should get those long-distance glasses she’d been putting off—she watched him pour a cosmopolitan into a triangular glass and push it toward the server whose breasts were trying to escape the white, ruffled bodice of her wench outfit. This was part of the Pembroke Inn’s theme decor, which, if asked, Lucy would label medieval men’s club. It was one of the few Portland restaurants that had been open over a hundred years and had been a favorite of her grandfather, Lyle Abbott Crissman Jr., called simply Junior, and her father, Lyle Abbott Crissman III, called simply Abbott.
She’d never asked if her great-grandfather, the original Lyle Abbott Crissman, called simply Criss—the construct of Criss, Junior, and Abbott made to keep their names straight over the years, apparently—had been a patron. In any case, she was glad to be here today, idly imagining what it would be like to kiss the bartender’s firm lips. Mark. His name was Mark, she thought. She’d never seen him before—unlike the male counterparts in her family, she wasn’t a Pembroke Inn regular—but she thought she’d heard someone call him by name. I’ll have to ask Kate when she gets here. Her sister-in-law, married to her brother, Lyle Abbott Crissman IV, simply called Lyle, which was the sanest answer to the family name thing, Lucy firmly believed, had been the one to set up this afternoon meeting. Kate had said she had something she wanted to discuss with Lucy and her sister, Layla, and she’d invited them both to a four o’clock soirée on Tuesday afternoon; well, more like a command performance, knowing Kate, which was why Lucy was here drinking martinis in the first place. And, well, Mark. “Mark,” she uttered softly, trying it out.
She was in dangerous territory even thinking about him. She’d had crushes before, if you could call them that. Little naught-mentioned obsessions about one man or another: the buff, dark-haired son of the head gardener at Stonehenge, the family’s pet name for their estate above the Columbia River; the actor on the drama about that wealthy Southern family whose name she could never remember—she’d watched his episodes over and over again until John had teased her about him and she’d abruptly stopped, embarrassed; the UPS worker with the really muscular arms, the one before the older guy who delivered to them now; and then, of course, lastly, the true lover whom she would not name, sort of like Voldemort, who’d given her Evie and who sometimes, even now, occasionally entered her darkest dreams, and she would remember that night and the pain and the choking shame that came after. She tossed back the rest of her martini in one swallow, coughing a little. Nope. Not going there again. She knew better. She’d made up way too many scenarios and excuses and reasons, and all of them were lies to explain the unexplainable. Pushing those thoughts firmly aside, she turned her attention to the massive oak and stone fireplace at the far end of the room, the firebox huge enough that you could practically stand in it, the andirons impossible to move without a forklift. A number of white-haired gentlemen Lucy recognized as friends of her grandfather were congregated by the mullioned windows that opened onto a grassy forecourt.
During the day, the restaurant looked like an English country home, but this afternoon, with rain puddling on the walkways and the box hedges glimmering wetly in the fading light, it seemed more like a lodge in the far backwoods of Sherwood Forest, not a bustling restaurant on the east side of the Willamette River, a stone’s throw from Portland’s city center. The Pembroke’s one bar waitress was leaning across the bar, giving Mark a good, long look at those bursting breasts. He was saying something to her and she nodded, and in that moment one of the male patrons reached over and slapped her lightly on the butt, just above her short little ruffled hem. Lucy sucked in a breath in surprise as the waitress reared back and gave Mr. Grab-ass a glare that could cut through steel. Lucy glanced at Mark, who seemed to be assessing the situation, wondering, maybe, whether to jump into the fray. But the waitress was clearly holding her own. Lucy read her lips: Touch me again and die. The guy was much younger than the group by the fireplace; thirties, she guessed. Drunk, he grinned up sloppily at the waitress, lifted his hands in surrender, and tried to maintain his seat on the barstool with limited success.
His friend collared him and sat him back down, then leaned past him to apologize. In the process, he copped a very long, lascivious look at the waitress’s burgeoning boobs himself. Drama. Well, huh. Lucy had new respect for the waitress, whose name was Kitty, she believed. She was pretty sure that was what Mark had called her, though from across the room she wasn’t entirely sure she’d heard correctly, and her lip-reading skills weren’t that refined. Kitty had a great body, but her face was as stern and humorless as a prison matron’s, and the continued stare she gave Mr. Grab-ass was enough to give a sober person fair warning. When Kitty finally broke focus to glance around the room at the other patrons, Lucy signaled her, pointing to her own drink, then lifting a finger to indicate she needed another. Kitty raised her chin in an I-got-you motion, and said something to Mark, who looked Lucy’s way.
Lucy felt a frisson of awareness shoot through her and did a moment of serious soul-searching. Would she go there? Would she? If he was interested? Would she? Yes. Maybe… Her heart pounded at the thought. It was utterly depressing to realize how little spark there was left in her own marriage. A few minutes later, Kitty plopped an icy-cold martini with two olives skewered on a red toothpick in front of Lucy. “On the tab?” she asked, already gazing back at another group of men at the far end of the bar from Mr. Grab-ass and his friend, who seemed to be collecting themselves and getting ready to leave. “Yes, thanks.” One of the men in the new group was signaling her, and Kitty drew a breath and dutifully walked toward him, standing back on one hip to take his order. He seemed to be having a hell of a time deciding as he smiled up at Kitty in that too-friendly way, like he’d gotten by on charm for way too much of his life.
He, too, was all hands, touching Kitty’s arm, sliding fingers around her elbow, leaning in just as she turned in the hopes of brushing her magnificent rack. They were all assholes. Except Mark. Well, maybe him, too, but fine. She’d do him anyway. It wasn’t like she planned on marrying him. She’d made that mistake already, and though she’d been faithful to John and tried her best over the last four years—well, at least mostly her best—she was suffering beneath the law of diminishing returns. Even when she tried harder, John almost never responded or noticed. Were they really edging toward divorce? Yes. Lucy closed her eyes, sighed, then opened them again.
She picked up her drink, took a sip. She had a nice little buzz going and she didn’t want it to stop. Besides, if she had to put up with Kate, better to be somewhat trashed. Whatever her sister-in-law wanted, alcohol would make it more bearable. It occurred to her that she hadn’t told John she was meeting Layla and Kate, so he would run right into the babysitter: her neighbor’s daughter, who was sliding from fresh-faced cheerleader into gothic pseudo-intellectual, much to John’s horror and Lucy’s private amusement. Plucking her cell phone from a side pocket of her purse, she texted her husband: With Layla and Kate. Bella is babysitting Evie. There. She dropped the phone back in the pocket and turned to her drink once more. She knew this wouldn’t go over, but she’d deal with the fallout later.
She’d left the office early with no explanation. Lately, she hadn’t been a model employee at Crissman & Wolfe, her family’s department store, but she didn’t much care. Though she hadn’t wanted to meet Kate, she was happy to walk out and let the other employees figure out their jobs, for once. She wasn’t going to earn any points with her brother, her father, or her husband, all connected to the business in one way or another, but sometimes being the mother and decision maker to everyone else just plain sucked. She heard a text come in just as Layla blew through the heavy oak door, followed by a swirling, cold January wind that made everyone in the bar sit up a little straighter and glare at her as if the weather was her fault. Her sister was a couple of inches taller than Lucy and her curves were more pronounced. She wore a long, dark blue skirt and black boots beneath a thigh-length black coat, a matching blue scarf with dark symbols that looked like runes from where Lucy sat. Layla saw Lucy and nodded to her, her blondish hair touched with rain, the ends sparkling like diamonds. “You’re drinking a martini,” she said as she approached, sliding the scarf from around her neck and beginning to unbutton the coat. “Yes, I am.
Grey Goose straight up.” She lofted the glass and nearly spilled some. “Your first?” “My fourth,” Lucy lied. “But who’s counting?” Layla gave her a sharp look, then realized Lucy was putting her on. She shrugged out of her coat to reveal a brick-red peasant-style blouse and hammered, dull gray metal earrings with a matching, looping necklace in a vaguely Native American design. Layla was nothing if not colorful, though she’d never learned the art of makeup, for some reason. “Since when are you the booze police?” Lucy asked her. Layla was a teetotaler after a traffic accident that, though it hadn’t involved drinking at all, had resulted in a young woman’s death and robbed her child of a mother. Still, she rarely made judgment calls. “I don’t care if it’s your tenth, except I don’t want you to die of alcohol poisoning.
I need to talk to you before Kate gets here, and I want you to remember it.” “I’ll remember.” Lucy thought this might be close to an untruth, so she forced herself to focus hard. “I’m . ” Layla inhaled, held it a moment, then exhaled. “I’m in flux.” This wasn’t exactly breaking news. Layla was always in some kind of a situation, it seemed. “What kind of flux?” “Maybe I should wait till Kate gets here, so I don’t have to go through this twice,” she said, changing her mind. Again, true Layla.
She could switch gears so fast, you’d suffer vertigo. “Sounds dire.” “Not dire … but life changing.” “Okay. Now you’ve got my attention.” Layla shook her head, apparently having made up her mind to wait for Kate. “Tell me about Evie. How’s it going?” Lucy’s daughter was nine and the apple of her Aunt Layla’s eye. “She’s being watched by Bella Stromvig, who lives down the street. You remember her?” “The cheerleader?” “Yeah, well … yes, though she seems to be entering a new phase.
Evie thinks she’s the greatest, no matter what, so that’s good. Sitters are just a challenge; you have no idea. Or maybe it’s just me. Other people seem to manage them without a problem, but I find them needy. Luckily, we’re nearly out of the babysitting phase and it’s just a couple of hours after school these days. And I’ve been shortening my hours.” By simply leaving work. A frown line was forming between Layla’s brows. Afraid she might actually have heard of Lucy’s new work plan, she added before Layla could speak, “Evie’s piano lessons are coming along. Luckily, we have that old monster upright from John’s mother, and we barely use the living room for anything else, so now it’s a music room.
” “I hated piano,” Layla said on a sigh. “I remember. Dad made Mom stop giving you lessons because you cried like you were being beaten.” “I’ve never been good about hiding my feelings.” “Amen.” Lucy nearly slopped her drink. “At least they didn’t make me take lessons.” “That’s because you were so bullheaded, no one wanted to fight with you.” That struck Lucy surprisingly hard. She had been bullheaded.
“But I’m not that way any longer,” she said before she could stop herself. “You try harder now,” Layla agreed, though that wasn’t quite the same thing, in Lucy’s opinion. Layla, the oldest of the three Crissman siblings, had always been more laid-back than Lucy, who was only a year behind her. In that way, they’d seemed to skip the traditional roles. It was Lucy who was the more responsible . or at least she had been. Layla was artier and generally considered the nicer of the two sisters, though they’d certainly had their fights growing up. Lyle, the youngest, had been a pleaser when he was a kid, and the way he kowtowed to his wife these days, that personality trait still seemed to be going strong. “You changed when you had Evie,” Layla added to Lucy’s silence. I changed when Evie was conceived, Lucy thought.
She had a moment of remembrance before she pulled herself back from that precipice. “Why don’t you tell me your big secret before Kate arrives and sucks all the air out of the room?” “Well . ” Layla said, hesitating. Before she could go further, the inn’s front door opened again, and Kate appeared in a hooded white rain jacket. She glanced toward the bar, then looked around with a lifted chin in that way Lucy found distracting and annoying, as if she were royalty surveying her kingdom. “As soon as she sits down, you’re spilling,” Lucy warned her sister, her gaze fixed on Kate. She really couldn’t stand her sister-in-law for a whole host of reasons. Kate was single-minded, humorless, and mean-spirited. She didn’t like women at all, in Lucy’s experience. Men, well, men with money, now they interested her, and whenever they were in a social situation that involved males, Kate zeroed in on the wealthiest, usually older guy in the room and beelined toward him.
Said older gentlemen always ate up the attention. It was a marvel that men never seemed to see through her, or maybe they just didn’t care. Maybe it was just nice to have someone hang on your every word, no matter that you were boring as dirt. And Kate was certainly pleasant enough to look at. Lucy would never have been able to suffer through it, whereas Kate, always on a mission, appeared attentive and interested. But, man, was she a sour pill to her sisters-in-law. Maybe to all women, come to that. Not for the first time, Lucy almost wished Kate would cheat on her brother. Maybe then Lyle would see she was only in it for the family money, of which he, being the only male heir, would get the lion’s share, an antiquated part of the will they’d all been made aware of, though no one had seen fit to change it. It was great-grandfather Lyle Abbott Crissman, Criss’s wish, and it had remained in place throughout the years.
Ironically, dear old dad, Abbott, and her grandfather, Junior, had helped themselves to Great-grandfather’s wealth without adding anything to the pot. After a long stretch of profligate spending and bad investments, the once-vaunted Crissman wealth had sorely diminished, and by the time Junior died, after a long stay in a private-care nursing home—a drawn-out misery that had ended the year before—the Crissman fortune was mostly a thing of the past. All, again, according to what she’d heard. Neither Lucy nor Layla had asked for a running account and, as their father was still alive and the sole heir, it also wasn’t their right. Kate spied them, lifted a palm in recognition, then pulled back her hood and headed their way. She wore her blond-streaked hair in a sleek bob and her cherubic face was split by an insincere smile. Kate swung into the chair opposite Lucy and next to Layla. She had icy-blue eyes that never showed the least bit of warmth or humor. Her coldness put Lucy’s teeth on edge. Lucy tried very hard to keep a smile on her face whenever they were together, but it was difficult.
Lucy slid a look to Layla, wondering how her sister felt about Kate. Lucy was close to her sister in some ways, oddly separated in others. Layla was … different. On the bohemian side and into performance art, which Lucy didn’t even pretend to understand. Layla currently had an artist boyfriend who didn’t believe in marriage, or working a job, or making money, or pretty much anything bourgeois. As far as Lucy could tell, Layla was barely one step ahead of total ruin, and said boyfriend, Ian, wasn’t doing anything to contribute. Of course, Ian hadn’t been spoken of for many months, so maybe he was out of the picture. Maybe that was what Layla wanted to talk about? There was another guy she’d mentioned a few times, so maybe not. Lucy couldn’t tell if this new guy was a romantic prospect or something else. If it was the former, she hoped to hell he was better, financially speaking, but then, anyone would be a step up from shiftless, layabout Ian.
The last time Lucy had been to Layla’s apartment, he’d been lying on the floor against Layla’s batik-covered cushions smelling of marijuana and incense. His one positive quality was his good looks, and he did the least humanly possible with it. Lucy doubted his man bun had been taken down in over a year. Her eyes strayed to the bar. She focused again on Mark’s tanned, muscled forearms. “Whew. It’s really trying to rain out there,” Kate said as she eased out of her raincoat. She wore a soft pink sweater graced by a strand of pearls. Lucy wondered if the gems were real and, if so, where Lyle was getting his money. Kate did work for a charter school, April Academy, founded by April McAdams, a bitch on wheels who seemed to bully people into getting what she wanted, but Lucy didn’t think Kate’s job earned her the big bucks.
Lucy had gotten her info about April McAdams from Kate herself, in a rare moment of female bonding several years earlier, though Kate would never admit it aloud now. Kate conveniently remembered what she wanted to and forgot the rest. No bringing up the truth would dissuade her either. She fit the facts to her own narrative and that was that. “It sure is,” Layla agreed. Kate noticed Lucy eyeing the pearls and said, “They were a Christmas gift. I couldn’t believe it when I opened the box. Lyle is so careful, you know. He’s a really good money manager.” Lucy battened down a dozen snippy comments that wanted to burst from her mouth and said simply, “They’re beautiful.
” Layla asked dubiously, “Lyle really got those for you?” She was apparently less interested in keeping the peace. Kate regarded Layla coolly. She didn’t do well with questions that shone too bright a light on her personal fairy tale. “Yes, he did. I know he’s your brother and you have your own opinions about him. I have a brother, too. But Lyle’s really tender under that hard crust he shows the world. He saved and saved for the pearls.” Lucy wondered how her brother saved anything; he was currently jobless. Well, sort of.
Like herself, Lyle worked for their dad, but whereas Lucy worked in the department store’s business office, Lyle worked “from home.” He’d had a job at the store itself a few years earlier, but he hadn’t liked their father telling him what to do, nor had he liked Miranda Wallace, the store’s longestworking employee, being put in charge of teaching him the ropes. Resenting Miranda’s authoritative nature, Lyle had complained to Abbott to get Miranda fired, but their father hadn’t listened, declaring he would be lost without her. Well, somebody had to do the real work, and that was Miranda, who approved of Lucy because of her work ethic. Well, at least she had. Maybe she would feel differently after Lucy’s early disappearance today. In any case, Miranda was still at the store, but Lyle now had the amorphous job of overseeing investments with Abbott. Apart from Crissman & Wolfe and the family property in the Columbia River Gorge, Lucy couldn’t guess what those investments might be. “I’m glad you both could make it. I tried to pick a centrally located venue.
” Kate flashed a smile, but it seemed forced. “Figured it was a place you frequent,” Lucy said. Kate acknowledged that with a nod, and one of the white-haired gents mistook the gesture for him. He smiled and winked at her, and she smiled back. “Kenton DiPalma,” she said. “Friend of Junior’s?” Lucy guessed. “And your father’s.” “I’m on the east side of the Willamette. This place isn’t close for me,” Layla reminded. “Well, there are a lot of bridges,” said Kate shortly.
Lucy shrugged. “It’s not called Bridge City for nothing.” She hefted the remains of her martini. Two down. The buzz was there, but way too slight to dull the anxiety and annoyance she was beginning to feel. She was already tired of waiting for Kate to get to the point, so she took matters into her own hands. “Why did you want to meet?” “Well, as you know, the days of the brick-and-mortar store—certainly our brick-and-mortar store —are almost over. Like everyone else, we’re relying more and more on internet sales.” This was hardly a news flash. Lucy knew the store’s sales trajectory over the past few years, and it had been on a slow decline.
You couldn’t turn on the news without hearing something similar. Kate looked at Layla. “Maybe this doesn’t affect you as directly, because you aren’t employed by Crissman and Wolfe, but Lucy . ” She glanced back at her and gave her a commiserating look. “Both you and John are employed by the company.” “What are you saying? Where are you going with this?” Lucy demanded. She didn’t need a lecture, and she didn’t like the way this was going. Kate was already seriously getting on her nerves. “John’s been Abbott’s right-hand man, but now I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, with shrinking market share, changes are going to have to take place.” “Are you letting John go?” Lucy demanded, her voice rising.
“You know I don’t have that power,” Kate said. “But . your father’s been grooming Lyle for that position for a long time.” “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” Layla held up her hands. “Dad’s giving Lyle John’s job?” “No,” Lucy said firmly. Kate’s lips tightened. “I’m just saying, things are changing. They have to change.
” “How come you’re telling us this and not Lyle?” Layla asked. “Because it isn’t true,” Lucy snapped. “I don’t even work there, like you said,” Layla pointed out. “It seems to me—” “If Dad were going to fire John, he’d tell him himself,” Lucy interrupted. She spoke positively, looking at Kate for corroboration. Her sister-in-law’s hesitation spoke volumes. “You’re kidding. What? Am I supposed to tell my husband he’s been fired?” “Abbott will talk to everyone when the time’s right. I was just trying to broach the subject to both of you as family,” Kate said. “As family,” Lucy repeated.
“You’re not the family member who should be telling us this,” Layla pointed out, eyeing Lucy with concern. “I’m okay,” said Lucy tightly. “Look, I know how you’re both feeling. I was a little stunned myself when Abbott first talked it over with Lyle. Change is always hard,” Kate murmured. You don’t know the first thing about how I feel. Lucy thought of a thousand things she wanted to say back. Actually opened her mouth to say at least some of them but was usurped by Layla, who said, “I have something I want to talk about.”