The Statue of Liberty is 130 years old, and for the struggling residents of Hubbard, Ohio, any opportunity to bring in tourists is reason enough for a celebration. Laurel Inwood and her aunt, Sophie, are pitching in. Sophie’s Terminal at the Tracks, a former greasy spoon turned charming ethnic eatery, will be offering French cuisine for the entire week.
For expert help with their quiche and escargot, the ladies turn to Raquel “Rocky” Arnaud, a former French chef and friend of Sophie. What looks like a match made in heaven turns rank as quickly as buttermilk on a summer’s day. Rocky turns up dead and when her nightly red wine shows notes of oak, cinnamon, and poison, Laurel turns from soufflé to sleuth.
INCLUDES A RECIPE
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"Bone sue war!"
I was putting the last touches on the quiches about to go into the oven, so I didn't turn around when someone bumped through the kitchen door of Sophie's Terminal at the Tracks and called out the greeting.
I didn't need to.
I'd recognize Sophie Charnowski's voice—and her lousy French accent—anywhere.
Then again, I should. It had been six months since I'd left California and arrived in Hubbard, Ohio, to run what I thought was Sophie's white-linen-and-candlelight restaurant while she had knee-replacement surgery. Six months since I found out that the elegant restaurant she'd lied about for years was really a greasy spoon in an old train station that anchored a battered-but-trying-to-gentrify part of town.
Six months since I'd been embroiled as much in murder as I was in cooking.
The thought hit, and a touch like icy fingers squirmed its way up my back. I twitched it aside and called over my shoulder. "Bonsoir, Sophie. Any sign of Rocky yet?"
"No! She is nowhere to be seen, yes?" Sophie tried for a French lilt that pinged around the tile and stainless steel kitchen and fell flat. With her usual good humor, she laughed it away and came up behind me so she could stand on tiptoe and peek over my shoulder at the six quiches on the counter.
"Oh, Laurel, they look fabulous!" Sophie breathed in deep. "Think six will be enough?"
I wiped my hands on the white apron looped around my neck. "We've got three more in the fridge and George will pop them in the oven if we need them," I told Sophie at the same time I glanced across the kitchen. George Porter was leaning back against the industrial fridge, his beefy arms crossed over his massive chest, and a scowl on his face that pretty much said all there was to say about what he thought of quiche.
In spite of the scowl—or maybe because of it—I gave him the kind of smile that said I was sure he was on board with my plan.
George didn't smile back.
But then, what did I expect?
The Terminal's longtime cook was a mountain of a man with more tats on his arms than I had fingers and toes, a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy who was as happy as a cholesterol-challenged clam cooking up the fried eggs, fried baloney, fried steak, and fried chicken that for years had been the staples of the Terminal menu. That is, before I arrived and started introducing healthier dishes and, in a flash of inspiration, featuring ethnic specials.
We'd started with Irish, and that summer had tried Japanese (sushi did not exactly go over big with the Hubbard crowd) and Chinese (popular, but there were plenty of Chinese places in town and I gave up on a menu that seemed to me to be déjà vu all over again). Now, in honor of a town celebration commemorating the anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the people of America, we'd decided to go with the Tricolor flow. French food, but not the fussy kind that's so off-putting to so many people. We were sticking with French country, French bistro. Delicious, accessible, and easy for a man like George to handle. Even if in his heart-of-fried-food hearts, he didn't want to.
I sloughed the thought aside and reminded Sophie, "There are tartines, too."
"Tartines." Her sigh hovered in the ether somewhere between Nirvana and Utopia. In the weeks since we'd started planning our French menu and I'd introduced her to tartines, she'd become something of an addict. And who could blame her?! The knife-and-fork open-faced French sandwiches are delightful.
"We're going to use some of the heirloom tomatoes still coming in from the local farmers," I told Sophie. "We'll put those on some of the tartines along with eggplant. Then for others, we've got ham and Gruyère, and toasted Camembert, walnut, and fig."
"Walnut and fig."
I ignored George when he grunted.
"Now all we need . . ." I glanced at the quiches that looked decidedly naked. "Did Rocky say what time she'd be here with the herbs?"
"I'm late. I know. I'm sorry!"
For the second time in as many minutes, the kitchen door swung open and this time, Raquel Arnaud bumped into the room. Rocky was a friend of Sophie's, but there couldn't be two women who were more different. Sophie was short, plump, and as down-to-earth as her sensible shoes. Her hair was the same silvery color as Rocky's, but while Sophie's was short and shaggy, Rocky's was long and sleek and as glorious as the woman herself.
But then, Rocky had the whole French thing going for her, including just a trace of an accent that hadn't disappeared in spite of the fact that she'd left her native country nearly fifty years earlier.
Rocky was almost as tall as my five-nine, willowy, and as elegant as her clothing. She was a farmer—herbs and specialty vegetables—a woman whose life revolved around the seasons and the weather and the acreage thirty minutes outside of Hubbard where she grew some of the best produce in the state, yet anyone meeting her for the first time would think she'd just stepped out of the house to shop on the Rue de la Paix.
Well, except for that Friday night.
I did a double take.
That evening, graceful and refined Rocky looked . . .
She was wearing the black A-line dress she claimed was a fashion must, but Rocky's hair was uncombed and her lipstick was smudged. Sure, she was running late, and that might account for the slapdash grooming, but nothing I knew about Rocky could explain—
Before I came to Hubbard, I'd worked as a personal chef in Hollywood. Believe me, I knew fashion trends, fashion faux pas, and plain ol' fashion disasters.
I'd never known Raquel Arnaud to dare something as unfashionable and as downright un-French as to wear tennis shoes outside of the house. Especially ones that looked to be encrusted with a week's worth of garden goo.
"I knew I was running late so I chopped the thyme at home."
Before I could even think of what to say or how to ask Rocky if she'd completely lost her mind, she raced over and put a basket on the countertop beside me. There was a white linen towel thrown over the top of it and when Rocky whisked it away, I forgot all about her smeared lipstick and her tennis shoes.
But then, who can resist the heavenly woody/lemony aroma of fresh thyme?
I took a deep breath and automatically found myself smiling.
"Always has that effect on me, too." Rocky gave me a playful poke in the ribs at the same time she reached around me to sprinkle thyme on the quiches. "I brought griselles, too," she said. "But since you're already done with these, they'll have to wait for tomorrow's quiche."
I stepped back to admire the finished quiches. "Bacon, onion, and Swiss today," I told Rocky. "Pretty traditional, I know, but I thought that might be easiest if we get a crowd after the book signing. Tomorrow after the big parade, we'll mix it up with spinach and the shallots in some of the quiches." I peeked at the French shallots—what Rocky called griselles—and took another deep breath, and I swear, I could still smell the scent of autumn earth that clung to the shallots.
And to Rocky.
Carefully, I took another sniff.
A fragrant cloud of Chanel No. 5 usually enveloped Rocky.
That night, she smelled more like wet soil. And red wine.
Lots of red wine.
I guess Sophie noticed, too, because behind Rocky's back, she raised her eyebrows and gave me That Look. The one that said I was supposed to ask what the heck was going on.
Before I could, Rocky pulled a bottle of wine out of the basket she'd brought with her.
"We need to have a glass before we head out, eh?" She didn't wait for us to agree, but reached for the corkscrew she'd also brought along and opened the bottle. "You have glasses, George?" she asked, and since we didn't have a liquor license and there weren't any appropriate wineglasses around, he brought over water glasses. Four of them.
Rocky didn't mind sharing. She poured into each of the glasses and she was just about to take a drink when Sophie stopped her.
"What about a toast?" Sophie asked. "We always have a toast."
"Oh." As if this were a new thought, Rocky blinked and stared into her glass.
This time, Sophie augmented That Look with a scrunched-up nose and a tip of her head in Rocky's direction.
I knew a losing cause when I saw one.
I put a hand on Rocky's arm and couldn't help but notice that when I did, she flinched.
"Are you all right?" I asked. "You seem distracted."
She made a face that would have been convincing if I hadn't spent the last few years of my career as the personal chef of Hollywood megastar Meghan Cohan. I knew actors. Good actors. Bad actors. Rocky fell into the latter category.
"I get so flustered when I'm running late." I guess Rocky forgot all about the toast, because she downed her wine. "We should probably get going, huh? We don't want to miss the book signing."
"Imagine, Aurore Brisson here in Hubbard!" It looked as if Sophie knew a losing cause when she saw one, too, because she gave up on the toast, took a quick sip of wine, and set down her glass. She stepped up beside Rocky. "How exciting it must be for you to have a Frenchwoman here in town. And such a famous one! That book of hers—"
"Yesterday's Passion. Yes, yes." Before Sophie could pilot her to the door, Rocky poured another glass of wine and slugged it down. "I'm anxious to read it. I've always been interested in my country's history but really, I don't know all that much about the Middle Ages. The story sounds so . . . so romantic. Knights, ladies, castles—"
"And that gorgeous hunk, Sam Baker, who's going to play the lead role when the book's made into a TV series!" Sophie grinned and leaned closer to Rocky, speaking in a stage whisper I couldn't fail to hear. "Laurel knows him."
Rocky raised her eyebrows.
"Not well," I admitted because it was better than letting anyone know that Sam Baker had once had an affair with Meghan Cohan and had come on to me one morning while I was getting breakfast ready for the two of them down in the kitchen of Meghan's Malibu mansion. "We've met."
"Is he as gorgeous in person as he is in the movies?" Rocky asked.
He was, and I admitted it. Without adding that he was also a little too much into recreational drugs and other men's wives.
"It's only natural that he's playing the lead. Isn't that right, Laurel?" Sophie asked. "Meghan Cohan herself is producing and directing and starring. She's playing Cecile. The tabloids say they're having an affair, Meghan and Sam." Sophie paused, waiting for me to fill in the blanks. When I didn't, she breezed right on. "Oh, I can't wait to read the book and see the show and see if they stick to the original story. Is that how it works, Laurel? When they make a film or a TV show, do they usually stick to the original story?"
In this case, only if the original story involved late-night fights of epic proportions, accusations thrown back and forth like rocks from a catapult, and a huge and ugly breakup the tabloids had yet to get wind of. No doubt the network had squelched the truth to get as much mileage as they could out of what they were touting as both an on-screen and an offscreen romance.
"Well, I'm buying a copy of the book, that's for sure," Sophie told us. "And I can't wait to get Aurore Brisson's autograph. How clever it was of John and Mike over at the Book Nook to get her here just in time for the Statue of Liberty celebration. She's such a superstar, so young and pretty. I bet there will be a line out the door of the bookstore. Let's get over there fast."
Fast, of course, is a relative word when it comes to Sophie, who always has a patron to stop and say hello to or a neighbor to greet. Then, of course, there was the matter of Sophie's knee. Oh, she didn't move at a snail's pace because of that replacement surgery back in the spring. She'd recovered from that and gone through rehab and all was well. At least for a few weeks. That's when she twisted her knee. While she was on a Mediterranean cruise. On an island. Drinking ouzo and doing the Zorba the Greek dance with some hunky fisherman who emailed her regularly now and called her his little baklava and promised to come visit sometime soon.
To say this new injury annoyed me no end makes me look small-minded when, in fact, it makes sense that I'd be irritated. See, I had no intention of staying in Hubbard and I'd told Sophie that from the start. I promised I'd stay only until she felt better and could take over the management of the restaurant herself again.
Only that didn't look like it was going to happen anytime soon.
I held on to my temper along with the thought that this, too, would pass. And when it did . . .
We had just walked out the front door of the Terminal and a brisk autumn breeze ruffled my hair along with the French flag we were flying from a post out front, and I made sure to keep a smile off my face.
Sophie had an uncanny way of reading into my smiles, and for now, what I knew about how long I was staying and where I might be going when I waved adios to the town that time forgot was my business and mine alone.
We fell into step behind the throngs of people milling in front of the bookstore and slowly making themselves into some sort of orderly line, and while Sophie and Rocky chatted about people I didn't know, I had a few minutes to look around. What was now called the Traintown neighborhood had once been at the heart of Hubbard's industrial center. There were railroad tracks that ran along the back side of the restaurant and six times a day, a train still rumbled by and shook the Terminal to its nineteenth-century foundation. Across the tracks was a factory, long shuttered, just one of the many businesses that had gone south/closed their doors/given up the ghost in what had once been a vibrant community.