The first book in a new culinary cozy series full of sharp humor and delectable dishes—one that might just be killer....
When Lila Macapagal moves back home to recover from a horrible breakup, her life seems to be following all the typical rom-com tropes. She's tasked with saving her Tita Rosie's failing restaurant, and she has to deal with a group of matchmaking aunties who shower her with love and judgment. But when a notoriously nasty food critic (who happens to be her ex-boyfriend) drops dead moments after a confrontation with Lila, her life quickly swerves from a Nora Ephron romp to an Agatha Christie case.
With the cops treating her like she's the one and only suspect, and the shady landlord looking to finally kick the Macapagal family out and resell the storefront, Lila's left with no choice but to conduct her own investigation. Armed with the nosy auntie network, her barista best bud, and her trusted Dachshund, Longanisa, Lila takes on this tasty, twisted case and soon finds her own neck on the chopping block…
About the Author
She is the winner of the 2018 Hugh Holton Award, the 2018 Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award, the 2017 William F. Deeck - Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers, and the 2016 Mystery Writers of America/Helen McCloy Scholarship. She's also a 2017 Pitch Wars alum and 2018-2019 mentor.
Read an Excerpt
My name is Lila Macapagal and my life has become a rom-com cliché.
Not many romantic comedies feature an Asian-American lead (or dead bodies, but more on that later), but all the hallmarks are there.
Girl from an improbably named small town in the Midwest moves to the big city to make a name for herself and find love? Check.
Girl achieves these things only for the world to come crashing down when she walks in on her fiancé getting down and dirty with their next-door neighbors (yes, plural)? Double check.
Girl then moves back home in disgrace and finds work reinvigorating her aunt's failing business? Well now we're up to a hat trick of clichés.
And to put the cherry on top, in the trope of all tropes, I even reconnected with my high school sweetheart after moving back to town and discovered the true meaning of Christmas.
OK, that last part is a joke, but I really did run into my high school sweetheart. Derek Winter, my first love.
Too bad he'd aged into a ridiculous jerk with a puffed-up sense of importance and weird vendetta against my family. Pretty much tried to shut down my aunt's restaurant on a weekly basis. Odd behavior from the guy who'd wanted to marry me right after graduating from high school, but what can I say? I had exceptionally bad taste when I was younger. You're dumb when you're fifteen and hopped up on hormones.
Heck, I'm twenty-five and still make bad decisions based on those same dumb hormones.
Hence I was working at my Tita Rosie's restaurant rather than running my own cafe, which is what I'd been going to school for before I found out Sam was a cheating scumbag. That was right around the time my aunt sent me a distress signal, and here we are. So instead of grinding my own coffee beans or brewing the delightful loose-leaf teas I'd sourced for my dream cafe in Chicago, I now spent every morning preparing mugs of Kopiko 3 in 1 in my hometown of Shady Palms, Illinois, over two hours outside the city.
And yes, the town really was named Shady Palms. Rumor has it some rich dude from the Caribbean got homesick after moving to the area and tried transplanting a bunch of palm trees along the main street. Surprise, surprise, they didn't take, so he replaced them with tacky plastic replicas. Both the fake palms and the name stuck.
Anyway, the morning clientele at my tita's restaurant always included a bevy of gossiping aunties, none as loud or nosy as the group of fiftysomething-year-old women I privately referred to as "the Calendar Crew." Their names were April, Mae, and June-they weren't related, but all three of them were completely interchangeable, down to their bad perms, love of floral patterns, and need to provide running commentary on my life.
It was their due-after all, they were my godmothers (yes, plural). They bore the important title of "Ninang" and were my late mother's best friends. They loved and cared about me.
In their own infuriating way.
I brought over their morning plate of pandesal and they descended like a pack of locusts upon the dish of lightly sweetened Filipino bread, spreading the warm rolls with butter and dipping them in their coffee or drizzling them with condensed milk. And like locusts, once they were done devouring one thing, they moved as a pack on to their next victim: me.
"Lila, why's everything you wear always dark? You look like a bruha."
"And your hair's always in that ponytail and hat. Not sexy."
"Ay nako, what is this? You get bigger every time I see you!"
This last statement, accompanied by a firm pinch of my arm fat, was from Ninang April, who always had to have the final say. April always was the cruelest month.
I was used to these digs against my appearance-it was how older Asians showed affection. While I was no beauty queen (well, except for that one time, but that's a story for another day), my brown skin glowed and my long, black hair was thick and shiny from straightening it every morning. My pride and joy. Too bad I had to keep it under a baseball cap for work.
I could ignore my godmothers' first two comments-while being told you looked like a witch would bother most people, I considered it a compliment. I loved natural remedies, dark color palettes, and made bewitchingly delicious baked goods, so I'd learned to lean into the bruha image. Everyone needed a personal brand.
As for the baseball cap, it's not like I wore it as a fashion accessory. I worked in food service, and my family were sticklers for hygiene. It was either a cap or a hairnet, which, thanks but no thanks.
My weight gain, however, was a sore topic. Bad enough that I'd been eating my feelings and couldn't fit into my old clothes anymore; I didn't need them and their fatphobic comments rubbing it in. Then again, I hadn't been home in almost three years. The recovering Catholic in me recognized that these barbs were just the beginning of the penance they would make me pay for being away so long.
I waved my hand dismissively. "Ay Ninang April, I'm just adjusting to being back home. You know everybody eats well when Tita Rosie is around."
The Calendar Crew all nodded as they helped themselves to the coconut jam and kesong puti, or salty white cheese, that I'd added to the table.
"Why do you think we come here all the time? The decor?" Ninang Mae asked, gesturing around at the scuffed tables, mismatched silverware, and appliances from the 80s. "Nobody cooks better than your Tita Rosie."
A loud "Ha!" was the response to Ninang Mae's comment. We all turned toward the source of this rudeness, and my stomach clenched as I locked eyes with the only man I hated as much as my ex-fiancé: Derek Winter.
Derek sipped at a travel cup of coffee and tapped his foot in a cartoonish show of impatience. "Hey, could I get a table already?"
My godmothers all clicked their tongues in unison and began whispering furiously in Tagalog as I approached him. "I thought I made it very clear you weren't welcome here."
His eyes crinkled in amusement-something I used to find so attractive. His charms were wasted on me now.
"Now, Lila, is that any way to treat a customer?" the man behind him asked.
My eyes snapped to the newcomer-I hadn't realized Derek was dining with a guest. He'd always eaten alone before. Supposedly, dining solo made it easier for him to focus on the food so he could write his "reviews." I figured he just didn't have any friends.
And even more surprising than the idea of someone willingly spending time with Derek was his companion. What was Derek doing with our landlord?
"Mr. Long? What are you doing here?"
"What, a man can't have brunch with his son?" He clapped Derek on the shoulder, who flinched. "I've owned this plaza for a while now, but I've never tried your aunt's cooking. You missed another payment, so after seeing some of Derek's reviews, I figured I'd come see what the problem was. See if I could offer any assistance."
I narrowed my eyes at Derek. "The problem," huh? And since when were these two related? You'd think he would've told me his mom had remarried when we first saw each other again, but I guess this was just another of his little omissions.
I knew Mr. Long was just his stepfather, but still, looking back and forth between the two, I couldn't picture someone less likely to have sired him. Mr. Long was thin, wiry, and balding, with pale gray eyes and the red flush of the constant drinker. Derek, unfortunately, was still absolutely gorgeous, with wavy, sandy brown hair that matched his eyes perfectly, as well as the stocky build of a football player gone slightly to seed. The only thing they had in common, appearance-wise, was they were both White. Derek's hair had thinned quite a bit over the last few months though, so maybe the baldness would unite them.
Derek met my glare with a smirk and gestured toward his favorite table near the window. Honestly, how was it even possible to have a favorite table at a restaurant you allegedly despised?
"Of course, make yourselves comfortable." I smiled sweetly and added, "But no outside food or drinks allowed."
Derek rolled his eyes and started toward the door, but Mr. Long intercepted him. "Here, son, why don't you finish your drink and I'll put the thermos in the car? I gotta call your mom real quick, so go ahead and order for me. I don't know what any of this food is anyway."
I waited till Derek gulped down his drink and handed over the travel cup before hurrying to the kitchen to talk to my aunt and grandmother. Those two coming here together-especially after our latest warning about being behind on rent again-could only mean one thing for us.
I banged into the kitchen, startling my aunt, who was adding longganisa, the short, fat sausages I'd named my dog after, to a breakfast platter.
My grandmother, Lola Flor, was grating coconut on the special bench she'd brought over from the Philippines. Remaining her usual aloof self, she said, "Is that how a lady enters a room? A little less noise, ha?"
"I'm sorry, Lola. It's just . . . Derek Winter is here. With Mr. Long."
Tita Rosie blew a puff of air that made the old-fashioned bangs curled over her forehead fly up. "Those two. OK, anak, I'll take care of this. Just add some fried garlic and bring these plates to table six, yeah?"
She washed her hands, quickly dried them on a nearby dish towel, then grabbed a plate of pandesal to bring to the men.
I did as she asked, and when I reentered the dining area, Derek was snapping his fingers to get my attention. The rude gesture, coupled with his hideous uniform of year-round khaki cargo shorts (it was March in Illinois and there was like, half a foot of snow on the ground, yet he still wore shorts) and baggy sports jerseys, were what I had to put up with every time he dropped by for a meal. Which was surprisingly often, considering the negative reviews he wrote about us.
He was a notorious food blogger and critic for our local paper, which was pretty ridiculous since our town boasted a population of less than twenty thousand and consisted of chain restaurants with the occasional mom-and-pop shop sprinkled around the area. Shady Palms wasn't exactly a hotbed of fine dining options-when Starbucks came to our town, it was literally front-page news.
Though according to my best friend, Adeena, a bunch of fun, new places had opened up within the last couple of years. Not that I'd had the chance to check any of them out since I'd been so busy with the family restaurant. You'd think Derek would focus on these new places since that was literally his job as a food critic, but nope. He seemed fixated on us.
Sadly, Derek was the kind of guy who prided himself on "telling it like it is." In his mind, that meant calling people out over every imagined slight. He tried a new dish whenever he came to our place and managed to find fault with every single one, despite clearing his plate each time. Tita Rosie went out of her way to be gracious and make him feel welcome, and I hated it.
"Why are you killing yourself trying to impress this jerk?" I'd asked her several times. "We could be feeding him manna provided by the heavens and he'd still write a scathing review of the Lord's kitchen."
She pursed her lips the way she always did when she felt I was being blasphemous, then said, "Ay, it's not about impressing him. He can write what he wants. But you know his mother has issues, so he could use a little kindness. Besides, I hate seeing someone unsatisfied with their food. It means they're going unnurtured. Unfed."
An expression of pain crossed her face as she said that, causing a pang in my heart. In typical Filipino fashion, my aunt expressed her love not through words of encouragement or affectionate embraces, but through food. Food was how she communicated. Food was how she found her place in the world. When someone rejected her food, they were really rejecting her heart. It crushed her.
And I did not take kindly to those who made her feel that way.
Luckily, Tita Rosie was taking care of Derek's party, so I went over to table six to drop off the breakfast platters my aunt had prepared. I chatted with the family of four as I refilled their glasses of honey calamansi iced tea and delighted in their compliments. This refreshment was one of my concoctions-traditional, but with a bit of a twist. Just like all my creations.
I wandered around the restaurant with a pitcher of water in one hand and the tea in the other, topping up glasses as needed. I joked around with my godmothers and made them a couple more cups of instant coffee. I avoided Derek's table as long as I could, but as I gazed around the space to check on the customers, he looked up from his plate and we locked eyes.
Fudge. Not like I could avoid him now.
Pasting my customer-service smile on again, I approached the table. "Would either of you care for a refill?"
Mr. Long was too busy shoving pork and chicken adobo into his mouth to respond, but Derek pushed his empty glass toward me. As soon as I filled it with tea, he knocked it back and gestured for another refill.
"Thirsty, huh?" I said as I filled the glass yet again.
"Got a sore throat. It's been bugging me for a while and the tea helps."
Just when I thought he was finally going to compliment the restaurant, he wiped his mouth and asked, "Where are my chopsticks?"
I took a deep breath. "Derek, you've been here tons of times. You know we don't have chopsticks."
"Well, how am I supposed to eat my noodles?"
"With a fork, like everyone else."
"But noodles are supposed to be eaten with chopsticks," the would-be gourmet whined. "What kind of Asian restaurant doesn't have any?"
"The kind serving food from a country that doesn't use them."
At his blank look, I added, "We don't really use chopsticks in the Philippines. We mostly use a spoon and fork or our hands."