As owners of the popular bistro The French Quarter, former New York City restauranteurs Picasso and Laurel St. Pierre are the toast of the town of Crestwood, Kansas. Chef Picasso's culinary creations delight the women of the quilting club, who have embraced him as a friend. But Laurel's anti-social behavior confuses Kate Simpson-until she spots Mrs. St. Pierre with another man in what appears to be a lover's spat.
Gossip travels fast in a small town like Crestwood, and rumor has it this isn't Laurel's first indiscretion. She also filed a police report accusing Picasso of domestic abuse. And when Laurel's murdered body is found Picasso is the prime suspect. To prove their friend's innocence, Kate and the Crestwood Quilters must uncover the secrets of Laurel's past-a patchwork history wrapped up in Kate's own teenage years . . .
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"Jacques, you've outdone yourself."
Po Paltrow dropped her white napkin beside the plate and looked up into the chef's beaming face. His round knob of nose, slightly out of proportion to his face, was perilously close to her own. Po pushed back slightly in her chair.
"It is my Mama's recipe," Jacques St. Pierre said proudly.
"I had fish tacos once, never fish soup. This is very cool. Like who would have thought?" Phoebe Mellon, a diminutive mother of toddler twins, lifted up from her chair and planted a quick kiss on Jacques's sweaty cheek.
"Bouillabaisse," Jacques corrected, clearly pleased at the attention. His fingers squeezed together and pulled the syllables from his lips like a string of molasses. "Boo-yeh-baze, mon ami."
"Bouillabaisse," Phoebe repeated. "Cool." She headed off toward the ladies' room and a quick cell phone call to check on husband Jimmy and her toddler twins.
"It's quite a feat to make good bouillabaisse in the heart of Kansas," Eleanor Canterbury said. She wiped a trace of soup from the corner of her mouth with her napkin. "But you've done it, indeed, dear Jacques." In her eighty-two years of living life to the fullest, Eleanor had traveled the world several times and eaten bouillabaisse in every coastal village in France. She declared Jacques's among the best, the blend of saffron, orange zest, and crushed fennel seeds balanced perfectly. "Even Venus would be proud," she said.
"Venus who? Venus the goddess?" Kate Simpson lifted her head from scooping up the last tablespoon of soup from her bowl.
Eleanor nodded, poking a loose pearl comb back into her poufy sweep of silvery hair. "It's said Venus served bouillabaisse to her husband, Vulcan, to lull him to sleep while she consorted with Mars." She smiled up at Jacques. "Your soup has a rich history, mon ami."
For an instant, the proud smile slipped from Jacques's face. His smooth pink brow pulled together in a grimace.
"Are you all right?" Po asked.
Jacques gripped the back of Phoebe's empty chair and pushed a smile back into place. "I am excellent," he said. "Just like my bouillabaisse."
"So, tell us your secret," Po said.
"I am happy to share." The small chef leaned over slightly as if keeping his words from the other diners. "My fish is flown in fresh on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. And those are the only days you will see bouillabaisse on my menu. Never," he wagged his index fingers in the air, "never, ever a Tuesday or a Thursday. The fish need to jump from the packed ice right into my pot. My fennel is fresh, plucked from my own garden. And a touch of pernod, mes amis. Just a touch."
Kate took a hunk of French bread from the basket and wiped the bottom of the blue bowl. A tiny strand of saffron clung to the bread. She looked around the table, her eyebrows arched. "How many pounds do you think we've collectively gained since Jacques came into our lives?"
"Horrible thought," Maggie Helmers groaned, pushing away her plate. "Jacques, you're killing us with this fancy French food." But the look of delight on the veterinarian's face indicated she wasn't about to stop any time soon.
Jacques beamed. The French Quarter, his tiny French bistro, had filled the once-empty storefront on Elderberry Road for a scant six months, but it was lively and thriving, a favorite neighborhood spot, and the Crestwood quilters occupied the round white-clothed table in the back corner far more often than they cared to admit. The small eatery with its tile floor, tightly packed tables, and old framed photographs of the French countryside on the walls had been woven into their lives effortlessly. And they were equally fond of the small round Frenchman who had become a friend.
"We're really here on business. Justification for our decadence," Leah Sarandon said. She smiled up at Jacques. A professor at nearby Canterbury College, Leah was a dedicated member of the quilting group. "We're here to talk about the quilt we're making for you, sweet man. We picked Wednesday night because we thought the place would be empty but look at it —" She gestured to a packed room. "Nearly every table filled."
The Frenchman stepped back and followed her look. A thick oak bar curved along the east wall. The bistro had become a gathering place for drinks after work, a cozy alternative to the downtown bars, and even in the middle of the week it was crowded, people squeezed between the tall stools, raising steins of beer and glasses of Jacques's French wines. Several tall tables near the bar were also filled. Noisy and slightly raucous, just the way Jacques liked it. He nodded to the mayor sitting at one of the small tables. And nearby, Max Elliott, his lawyer and friend, chatted with the president of Canterbury College over a plate of his special escargot. He was glad to see Max back in the restaurant. The last time he had come in for dinner, a young waiter, Randy Haynes, had dumped a plate of wild mushroom fricassee directly onto his lap. Jacques's wife, Laurel, had been standing directly behind Randy, and he suspected her presence had unnerved the young man. He had a wild crush on Laurel; at least that was Jacques's interpretation of the way he stumbled over his words whenever Laurel was near. But Max had been a good sport about the mess in his lap and even refused the offer to pay for the cleaning.
Jacques brought his thoughts back to the table. "It's a good evening," he said.
Po smiled. "It's good for you, good for the Elderberry neighborhood, and certainly good for us."
Phoebe returned to the table and flopped down in her chair. "My Jimmy is beginning to wonder if you have some secret hold on me, Jacques. I think he's jealous."
Jacques threw up his chubby hands in mock horror. "Do not let me be the cause of marital discord, sweet Phoebe."
"Marital discord?" Laurel St. Pierre walked over to Jacques's side and rested one elegant hand on her husband's round shoulder. Laurel was a perfect long-stemmed rose to her husband's daisy. Silky red hair swept her slender shoulders, and her graceful body rose several inches above Jacques's portly frame. Extravagantly high, narrow heels, accentuated her height.
"Well, certainly not yours, Laurel," Po said. She smiled at the lovely hostess.
"Certainly not," Laurel said.
The smile that followed her words was distracted, and Po wondered briefly if Laurel was feeling all right. She watched the hostess's eyes moving over the crowded restaurant, taking in the two couples at the next table, a family back in the corner, the bar tables of business people relaxing with a Scotch and soda before heading home. Watching for anything that needed attention. What an asset she was to Jacques, Po thought.
Her gaze seemed to rest on Max Elliott, a frown marring her smooth forehead. Perhaps she was remembering the awkward spill. Max had told her about it recently, emphasizing the humor in the incident. But then he'd said something curious, something that sounded like the spill might not have been completely an accident.
Laurel focused back on their table when Eleanor asked her if she would like to join them for a few minutes and rest her feet. "I would last two minutes on those heels," she said with a laugh.
"Thank you, Mrs. Canterbury. I'd love to sit with you wonderful women, but we're very busy tonight. I wouldn't want Jacques to fire me." She smiled.
Jacques shook his head. "I tell her not to work so hard. But sometimes she doesn't listen to me."
Laurel smiled at her husband, every bit twenty years her senior, then turned away as Randy walked by, stopping him with a hand on his sleeve and pointing out an empty glass at the next table. Randy's lips opened slightly, his face flushed, and his eyes rested on Laurel for a brief second before he hurried off to do her bidding.
Laurel smiled at the back of his head, then headed toward the hostess station.
"I think Randy Haynes has a crush on your wife," Kate said, nodding toward the blond-headed waiter who was now refilling water glasses at the next table. "I used to babysit for him. He's a sweet kid, though very young and naive."
"He is a good worker. But you are right, Kate. He follows Laurel around like a pup. But then, should he not? She is a beautiful woman. All my helpers here, they think she is so very beautiful, so wonderful."
Kate suspected it was mostly the male helpers, but she kept her words to herself and glanced over at Laurel. Randy had found his way back to the hostess's side, and was happily still as Laurel touched his white jacket, straightening the lapel, and smiling up into his young face. She's flirting with him. And then she grimaced, imagining the heartache Randy would suffer digging out from under this crush.
"So, my lovelies," Jacques was saying beside her. "Tell me about my quilt. How is it coming?"
Kate reached into her large purse and pulled out a stack of pictures. She pushed aside the salt and peppershakers and scattered the photos across the empty space in the middle of the table. "Here's my contribution, Jacques. Plump and perfect fish."
Jacques leaned over and looked at the photos, then clapped his hands excitedly. "These are most certainly worthy of my bouillabaisse."
"Thanks. I am a mess in the quilting department, but my camera and I are good friends."
"Kate's photos of the fish are what inspired the design," Susan explained. In addition to helping manage the fabric store, Susan had returned to school herself and was impressing them all with her talent in fiber arts. "The quilt will have an enormous cooking pot at the bottom. These great fish will be reproduced in beautiful colors."
Jacques looked over at a stucco wall, squinting as he imagined the quilting art hanging in that very spot. "Magnifique," he said, his voice hushed as if in a museum.
He turned away briefly as a waiter approached with a question.
"I still think doing an appliquéd quilt is going to drive me to drink," Maggie Helmers said, her plump arms resting on the table edge. Maggie considered quilting her therapy and loved the time away from her veterinary clinic. It refreshed her spirit, she often said. But her skill was limited to backing small shapes with freezer paper, then sewing them up on her mother's old machine. "Those little tiny pieces will make me crazy."
"I understand how you feel, Mags," Leah said. "No worries. You're in charge of background duty. You won't touch a piece of appliqué."
Maggie sighed with relief and looked up as Jacques turned back their way. "So, Jacques, what do you think?" she asked.
The Crestwood quilting group had created more quilts in its thirty-year history than anyone could recollect. Members moved away or died, and daughters or friends were added, but the love and passion for the art was a staple and passed along seamlessly. When Jacques asked for a quilt to hang in his restaurant — a tribute to his mother — they had agreed instantly.
"What do I think?" Jacques beamed in delight. "Les poisson will fly across the fabric beneath the magic of your lovely fingers!"
A short distance away, Laurel St. Pierre was once again looking around the room, her clear hazel eyes glancing back into the kitchen through the round window in the door, then to the front door. She held her cell phone in her hand, glancing down at it frequently. She took a slow, deep breath, rotating her narrow shoulders beneath the green silk jacket. She looked again at the group of women sitting across the room. They were gesturing, handing photographs around from one to the other, chatting.
Her eyes narrowed as she stared at Kate, laughing now at something someone had said. Kate Simpson.Kate. Laurel felt a painful squeeze across her chest, a tightening rope that made it hard to breathe. She slipped the phone into her pocket and pressed her fingers against her temple, rubbing. The headaches were beginning again.
She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again, trying to focus on something to alleviate the pain.
Jacques was still at the table, wedged between Kate and Portia Paltrow, leaning over the photographs with a look of utter delight on his plump face. His hair was thinning, visible all the way across the room. Small wisps of brown and gray scattered across the top of his head. Foolish old man, she thought. Boring, silly Frenchman. Laurel brushed her hand across her forehead, staring intently at her husband. She'd actually loved him once. Or had she? He'd certainly been good to her, scooping her up from a dreadful life — a horrible waitressing job in New York and that dreary fourth-floor walk-up. He'd given her a home, more money than she had ever dreamed of, everything she needed to turn herself from a mousy godforsaken creature into Laurel St. Pierre. Sometimes she surprised herself with her elegance. And it brought Jacques great pleasure. He adored her. So much so, in fact, that when she suggested they get away from the city and move to a little Kansas town that he had never heard of, he had agreed. They'd have more time together, she had vowed. And he could create something very special in Crestwood.
He had been so useful to her. So necessary. So compliant.
But those needs were almost nonexistent now. The score was even, or almost so. Soon she would shake herself free and move on. Bury the past forever. Laurel looked again at Jacques and her lips tightened, her head still throbbing with pain. She narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips together until the beauty fell from her face.
Look at you standing there, your forehead sweaty, your tummy bulging beneath that awful apron. The words floated inside Laurel's pained head, an uninvited, disturbing chant. Oh, Jacques, it would all be easier if you were dead.CHAPTER 2
When Kate and Po left Jacques's bistro a short while later, the sky had darkened, and a crisp breeze stirred the new buds on the trees lining Elderberry Road. Kate looped her arm through Po's and the two walked slowly down the street toward Po's car.
The gesture came more naturally to Kate now than it had a year ago, when she'd returned from California to care for her ailing mother. Somehow, her mother's death had been too connected to Po Paltrow — her mother's best friend and soul mate and a staple in Kate's life from birth. She found her grief turning irrationally to a resentment of her own godmother, this woman who knew her mother even better than she did. At first, she couldn't wait to get back to the life in California, to sell the house her mother had left her and return to her West Coast friends. But it hadn't happened. And now a year later, she couldn't explain it to anyone.
Po turned her head to look at Kate, and thought, as she often did, how proud Liz Simpson would be of her only child. She's decent and kind, Po thought — if a bit unpredictable. And she's totally oblivious to the fact that strangers sometimes stop on the street to look at her, wondering if they've seen her in some romantic comedy with Bradley Cooper or Channing Tatum.
"Why doesn't everyone live in Kansas in the springtime?" Kate said, interrupting Po's thoughts. She looked up at the parade of clouds skittering across the moon. The Big Dipper hung low, nearly close enough to touch, Kate thought. Or to jump right in and take a ride.
Po laughed. "You escaped doing exactly that for several years. And very happily so."
A year ago, Kate would have thought Po's comment a rebuke. But it wasn't, and she knew that. It was a point of fact, and the words were carried on pure affection, along with Po's delight that Kate was there right now. For however long. Kate still insisted she was "just visiting," though no talk of selling the family home ever worked its way into conversation.
"I think I always visited in springtime," Kate answered smugly.
The two women paused in front of Gus Schuette's bookstore, checking out the new books he had placed in his window.
"Well, will you look at Billy McKay," Kate said, pointing to a poster in the back of the window.
Po looked past a display of Ed Bain mysteries to the picture of Bill McKay, a handsome hometown boy who had gone through school with her daughter, Sophie, before going off to Yale. "Billy has certainly made his way in the world, hasn't he?" she said.
Meet the author, the sign read. And below that, the name of Bill's book, and in larger type, Crestwood mayoral candidate.
"Well, he tries." A deep voice answered Po's question, and Kate spun around, nearly landing in the arms of Bill McKay.
"You saying good things about me?" Bill asked, lifting one eyebrow.
Kate laughed. "You're just as conceited as you were in high school, McKay."
"But it looks good on me, right?" Bill shoved his hands in the pockets of his finely tailored pants. "And life itself looks good on you two beautiful ladies. You fine, Po?"
"Doing fine, Billy."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Thread of Darkness"
Copyright © 2019 Sally Goldenbaum.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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