Fry was looking forward to the day that she wouldnt have to carry a tray again. It wasnt today. She had agreed to help Vince out and was hustling to set up another buffet table. Shed volunteered to do the decorating, while Leon and Vince finished unloading the backup supplies and Stephanie arranged the bar with George. Shed worked Vinces catering gigs for years. Whenever she had time in her schedule shed let him know. He was a good friend and fun to work for.
She spread a bunch of flowers across the baskets and was straightening a candlestick in its holder when she heard a familiar voice behind her.
I hope your boss knows youre moonlighting because I dont want a scene later. And shell be here, so let me know now.
Fry turned to see Julia, resplendent in an emerald gown that made her hair, that had been placed in an ornate knot, look like a deep, rich flame. She hadnt been looking forward to this, or Frenchs scene later. She hadnt known where this party was going to be until Vince had mentioned it in the truck on the way over.
Hearing that Julia and French werent lovers was good news, learning that Julia may not even be friendly with French brought up another feeling altogether. She reminded herself that she only knew half of the story, not even half, because French was about as forthcoming with the details as she was with everything else. She gave a bright smile and said, Oh, shell be fine. I told her that I was helping Vince out already.
She also hoped that she saw French before French saw her later on.
By the time she gets here Ill probably be needing some entertainment. The chefs always make the most fashionable entrances. Hazard of the trade. Everythings looking great. Wheres Vince, I want to give the last minute marching orders.
Several hours and about thirty trays of hors doeuvres later (and her friends wondered where she got her biceps...), Fry was chatting with Skyler Redmond. Skyler had introduced Fry to her mother whod wandered by. Portia managed an indifferent half smile and moved on. Skyler blushed lightly in embarrassment, but continued to chat, until she spotted French in the doorway.
Fry might not have seen her right off if it hadnt been for the surprised look on Skylers face. She expected her to excuse herself and approach the chef, but instead she excused herself and beat it in the opposite direction. She walked right out one of the open doors to the terrace.
Frenchs effect on Skyler was an aberration. As Skyler had moved away, the rest of the room seemed to close in on her. Attracted in no small part, Fry opined, by the black dress shed chosen to wear. On second thought it couldnt have been the dress that attracted so many, there wasnt enough of it. She was sure that everybody else, like herself, was drawn by the magnificent woman who inhabited it. The dress wasnt immodest in its length. It flowed down, over and across Frenchs figure, stopping just above the knee. The neckline stopped short of her knee too, but not by much. The back was non existent, dropping down to the dip of her lower back. And there was no way you could miss her back because her hair was wound into a knot, clearing the view entirely.
Hot damn. Fry muttered under her breath. She sent up a silent prayer to no one in particular to give her strength. Shed never been much of one for the ultra feminine thing, but Frenchs shoulders did something for that look that shed never seen before. She ducked behind one of the screens that theyd set up earlier as a clearing station and took a deep breath.
The party showed no signs of slowing. It was past one and a few people had left, but only the older, more sedate guests. Theyd been replaced by a rowdier bunch whod shown up later, many of whom had crewed in various capacities for the captains in the Old Boat Regatta. They were also full to capacity liquor-wise and the volume in the room had escalated.
Fry had managed to dodge French for an hour and found herself with the added chore of dodging Nigel, Julias private secretary, as well. Not that he struck her as administrative looking in any way. On occasion hed take out a digital device from his pocket and fiddle with it, usually after a brief chat with Julia. The rest of the time he waited in doorways for her to pass by and asked her for drinks, leered at her, and generally made a nuisance of himself. She wouldnt miss that kind of thing either.
The party took place in three main rooms. All of them opened into each other through wide double doors. The ceilings were high in all of the rooms helping to dissipate the heat. In the large dining room that had been emptied for the event and turned into the buffet room, four floor to ceiling doors were opened onto a terrace. It overlooked a garden and beyond that the cliffs and the ocean. There was a nice breeze and if you could pass by the windows or doors, you could stay cooler. Unfortunately, Fry had to circulate, it was part of the job.
Shed spied French a couple of times and found convenient plants or guests to hide behind. As she made her way through one of the least crowded rooms, she saw French talking to Skippy Hendrake in a corner. Actually, from her vantage point she was that Skippy was doing most of the talking. Looked like smooth talking too. It hadnt escaped Frys notice that Skippy, an older woman, with graying, short cropped hair, had been following French around since shed arrived. She was wearing a sporty linen suit with a simple silk chemise. She liked Skippy, usually. She was nice and had a zest for life. She was always on the go.
Fry wasnt sure Skippy was really talking to French, because it seemed to be the chefs chest that was getting the lions share of her attention. Now Fry had come to a point in her self awareness that shed admit to herself, and possibly a close friend like Bobby, that Frenchs chest was worthy of attention. But she wasnt sure how she felt about having to watch someone else in that act of appreciation.
French was leaning against the wall. Skippy, who wasnt as tall as the chef by a couple of inches, had placed a hand on the wall by Frenchs shoulder and was leaning in on the pretense to hear her better. But from Frys view point it looked like nothing more than a better angle from which to view Frenchs cleavage. Fry was getting peeved.
For one thing she knew French was trying to change her life. For another, Fry knew how hard that kind of change could be. And here was Skippy, she wasnt helping at all. Fry decided to give the chef an out, in case she was caught in one of those socially awkward moments and couldnt find an opportunity in the conversation to politely excuse herself. Fry was struggling to maintain the thin veneer of denial that obstructed her view of the massive jealousy attack she was suffering.
She approached the women as Skippy leaned in. Fry couldnt tell if she was going to whisper something into Frenchs ear, or kiss her and she wasnt all that interested in finding out. She introduced her tray between the two bodies and said as politely as she could manage. Hors doeuvre? The smoked salmon is especially good.
Without changing her posture, Skippy turned her head slowly. When she saw Fry she let out a frustrated sigh and said, Hello Violet.
Frenchs only response was to glance at the tray and then give Fry a blasé sort of look that said, I dont know you from a hole in the wall. She then poured herself off the wall, pushed the tray out of her way and said that she was going to refill her drink. Fry schooled her reflexes and managed not to follow her with her eyes. Skippy wasnt so well trained as Fry in the art of not caving into your baser instincts around the chef. She considered that she should give a tutorial. Howd the race go?
Skippy gave Fry a pained, but polite smile. She wasnt interested in talking boats with Violet just then. She knew Violet from all of her work in the community. Shed been warned about her the first week shed hit town. Be prepared for a young woman to visit you with a fierce determination to involve you in the lesser doings of the island. Shell go away for a price. But Skippy had enjoyed Violets company and gotten familiar with some other aspects of the town through her projects.
She took a breath and decided shed deal with French later. The night was young, so to speak. Not bad all round. Came in fourth, under protest. But it came clear in the end.
Great! I have to run back to the kitchen for a refill. Can I get you anything?
Fry walked through the doors to the back hall and gave a sigh of relief. On her way to the kitchen, Vince had asked her to grab a couple of extra canisters of propane from the truck. It was nice to get a break from the loud, crowded rooms. It had gotten hot in there and her starched white shirt and bow tie were going to wilt if she didnt get some air. Her musings were interrupted by an arm that shot out and grabbed her from behind a floor to ceiling curtain that covered a passageway. She yelped as she was pulled through the opening and found herself face to face with an irritated French.
Fry didnt have to wonder at Frenchs mood, her body language was terrifically articulate. She towered with her arms crossed over her chest and she was tapping her toe on the marble floor. How could a heeled shoe sound so ominous. Tick, tick, tick.
Whats with the ambush?
Fry couldnt be sure if French meant Skippy, or her being at the party at all. She opted for the party explanation first. It wasnt an ambush. I didnt even know whos party it was until Vince mentioned it on the drive over. Besides, I can watch your back for you. I see Skippys got your front covered. If only she could edit internally, these little things would stop slipping out.
She wanted to talk business.
Looked like shed have made that deal horizontal if she could.
If this is jealousy Fry, it doesnt suit you.
Why is it okay for you to get involved with someone like Skippy and not me?
Well there was a straightforward question if French had ever heard one. Look, theres a lot going on here. Lets not confuse the issue. We can talk about it later.
I dont need to talk about it later. And for the record, Im not confused. I know what I want. She headed back through the curtain, gently brushing Frenchs arm as she left.
For the love of Pete. French was feeling frustrated herself, but it was a different frustration than Fry was experiencing. She was right, Skippy had propositioned her, but it was nothing like Fry had imagined. Shed told Skippy to get lost, she had enough on her plate as it was.
The party finally began to thin out around two thirty. Fry was doing more picking up than anything else. She was hunting stray glasses in the smaller room when she came across Nigel again.
He was totally toasted. Or so Fry assumed from his behavior, having had a lot of experience with the effects of alcohol on the thirsty public. Nigel was that special kind of person who didnt get silly or stupid or clumsy as he drank, he got mean.
If it isnt my favorite little waitress. I need another drink, bring it to me in the library, over there. Im going to have to make a few calls. And make it quick, I dont want to have to wait for it.
Fry glanced around, there were still about forty people at the party, ten or so in that room alone. She felt pretty safe, but knew that following that man into the library wasnt a bright idea. Sure, just a minute.
She found Leon, and explained the situation. He said hed bring the guy the drink and if he made a move on him hed block him one. Fry thanked him, but said shed bring the drink, she just wanted Leon to look in on the room in a couple of minutes. Especially if she hadnt come out. He said it didnt make sense, but agreed and she set off.
She didnt have a plan. It was one of those things she often didnt have, but it hadnt ever stopped her before. She knew that Julias familys company could be involved in the murder in some way. Maybe Nigel knew something about it.
She entered the library with his scotch and found him perched on the edge of a desk, waiting. He was across the large room and made no effort to meet her half way. He sat there and waited. She smiled and headed over.
French was in the process of gathering information of her own. Shed been watching the guests, a few with particular interest. That meant spending a lot of time letting herself get pawed and fawned over and generally bored out of her mind. But it also gave her the all important opportunity to observe. And what shed seen had interested her.
The Senator hadnt shown up until nearly 12:30AM. He apologized to the remaining guests, saying an important phone call had kept him away. It must have been some phone call, because it had made him look his age. Something French had never thought possible for Jay. She wondered briefly if youthful looks had anything to do with goodness. Fry had that kind of youthful thing going for her too.
Shed watched the Senator talking with Nigel earlier and thought shed found a better explanation for his fatigued condition. Dealing with the likes of Nigel would age anyone. What French couldnt figure out on first blush was why it should also frighten them. She recognized the signs of fear in Jay as easily as any predator might.
She dodged Skippy a few times and was still on the prowl. She had a short conversation with the lady of the house and waited for a while to speak to Jay. He was in the center of a small group when she approached.
Ah French, so glad you could make it. Come with me to refill my drink. He offered his arm and she took it, letting him lead her away from the group.
Its good to see you. Youre looking stunning as ever. He smiled.
Youre not looking so bad yourself. She wasnt lying. While Jay had aged like all other humans, hed also grown more handsome. A little fatigue only enhanced his features, making him appear more serious and pensive than he otherwise might.
Flattery will get you everywhere. But as I recall, it wasnt me you were ever interested in. I didnt own any restaurants.
True enough. But you were a temptation nonetheless. She smiled a winning smile at him and he reciprocated in kind. Theyd always been like that with each other. Oddly honest in a teasing manner. Shed seen it as his way of letting her know he knew the score. He was never blind to her relationship with Julia, he wasnt threatened by it either. He let her know in his subtle, kind way that as long as she didnt cross the line and hurt Julia, hed tolerate her. Shed felt a bit like a jackal being batted at by a lioness cub.
However, tonight she sensed a bitterness beneath his words that hadnt been there before. But it had been six years since shed seen either Julia or Jay. A lot could happen to change a person in that kind of time. She knew that for a fact.
She saw him watching Nigel who had walked through a door off of the main rooms where the party was going on. Jays expression darkened momentarily. Then he smiled a rueful looking smile and laughed a little. I never thought I could say this, but I think Ive missed you.
French wondered if he meant that hed proffered her to Nigel. Could Nigel be Julias right hand man? Surely, she had more sense than that. He was a nasty piece of work, no question, but a little shit who you couldnt trust as far as you could stretch his lying little tongue. Shed never liked the obsequious pissant. Even all of those years ago she could feel him worming his way into Julias confidence. Shed made sure Nigel never got his hooks in too deeply while shed been around. Not out of any concern for Julia, it just hadnt been in Frenchs interest to allow it. She recognized a threat when she saw one. Apparently neither Jay nor Julia were so keen.
Jay took a handkerchief from his pocket and patted at the sweat on his brow. Its hot in here. Lets go onto the terrace.
Fry was feeling pretty stupid just about now. The moment shed reached Nigel at the desk, hed made a grab at her. No sweet talk, no questions, no nothing. He pushed the tray aside and went for her. And she hadnt been prepared for it.
Oh, shed been prepared to fend off an advance, maybe some groping. Not his whole body, all at once. And he wasnt being gentle, not by a long shot. Her clip on tie was history and she was attempting to push him away as he grabbed at her shirt. Hed tackled her onto the couch and was trying to rip it off. She was about to scream when a quiet voice spoke out near her ear.
Nigel. Stop. It was Julia.
He did. But he didnt look happy about it and he wasnt letting her go. She was going to kick him for all she was worth, but she felt Julia pushing him off of her.
This is none of your business Julia. You dont see me sticking my nose into your fun. He stumbled before he got his balance.
Get out. Now.
I think youd better stop treating me like the hired help around here. And maybe you ought to get the hell out! He was drunk all right. It also looked like he was ready to take a swing at his employer.
Thats when French ducked her head in the door. She was surprised by the scene she encountered. Then she was something else altogether when all of the implications of it lined up neatly in her brain. She stepped inside and closed the door quietly. Julia, Jays looking for you. I dont think hes feeling well.
Fry had heard that tone in Frenchs voice before. It was the even, calm voice shed used in the kitchen a while back when she was brushing Frys neat shirt unnecessarily, before she had her pinned to a wall. Apparently, the other people in the room were familiar with the deceptively placid tone as well. Nigel took a step back.
Hes out on the terrace. French moved closer. She hadnt taken her eyes off Nigel.
Fry had stood up, straightened her shirt and was looking for her bow tie. She hadnt seen where it landed.
Julia said, Nigel, I think you ought to leave now.
He did, feeling like a marked man.
As he walked through the door Frenchs nostrils flared at the scent of fear. Her blood had increased flow. She wanted to taste some of Nigels, not watch him walk out the door.
Thank you darling. Thats a very impressive entrance you make. Understated menace always suited you so well. Julia didnt want her party broken up along with Nigels body. And French was no one to be making any kind of judgements in her house. Julia suspected that if anything was bothering the chef it was someone messing with one of her employees. French had always managed her better employees like possessions. She treated them horribly, but they were hers to treat as she wished and anyone else who horned in on that privilege got burned quickly.
Whatever the cause for Frenchs reaction, Julia wasnt interested. Unless French had the audacity to actually care what happened to one of her employees, that would be another matter altogether. Julia decided she was going to do some research. Maybe change Frenchs focus while she was at it.
French had reached their side of the room and gave Fry a cursory glance. She looked rumpled, but otherwise alright. Fryd given her a smile and nod as she was replacing her bow tie. It was slightly crooked and it surprised French to feel the amount of willpower it took to refrain from straightening it. Was she really such a tightass?
She turned to face Julia who had a gleam in her eye. That could be trouble. Gleams usually were.
Enjoying the party? Julia asked.
French wondered why she hadnt gone to see about Jay. She hadnt been kidding, he hadnt looked well when shed left him. Youve always known how to keep things entertaining.
French closed the distance between them. She was going to distract Julia, she hoped that Fry would take the chance to make tracks. Of course, she hoped in vain.
You dont seem interested in anything I have on offer this evening. Poor Skippy looks like shes run a country mile chasing you all night.
You didnt tell me she was interested in the restaurant business. Shes got investor fever written all over her.
I think its more than the business shes got in mind.
Skippys barking up the wrong tree.
Yes, Ive noticed that youre sampling the local atmosphere this summer. Good choice. Julia glanced over Frenchs shoulder at Fry, her meaning clear, her tone light and conversational. She could eviscerate you in the most cheerful manner. So sweet. Not your usual fare. Does she know anything about you? Or is that the attraction? Come to think of it, she does remind me of somebody... One of your old conquests. She was younger of course, but sweet in her own way. Yes, shes a lot like Giselle, isnt she?
It had been years since French had heard the name spoken aloud. Fry, would you excuse us for a moment?
This is personal.
I got that feeling. Shed also felt the temperature in the room drop about ten degrees. There was a crackling electric vibe bouncing between the two women that would have singed anyone whod stepped into it. Fry hadnt a clue what was going on, but she wasnt leaving French now, not by a long shot.
Really, I could chat with you girls all night, but I have to see to Jay. Bye Sweet, Ill see you later. Julia leaned forward and gave French a peck on the cheek. Game, set and match. She had all the information she needed.
French hadnt moved since Julia left the room. She stood, rooted to the spot. Fry was still wondering what had happened. On the surface of it, nothing. Julia may have made a less than pleasant inference that she and French were involved. Okay, itd been demeaning, but she doubted that it would have effected French so extremely. Whoever Giselle was seemed to be the key. Whoever Giselle was must also be the kind of thing you treaded around lightly. Fry hadnt spent the first third of her summer being yelled at, pushed around and generally harassed by French and not picked up a certain sensitivity to her moods.
She walked over and looked at the chef. Her face was devoid of emotion or spark. The look pulled at Frys heart. French looked lost. Fry reached out and took her hand. You okay?
French removed her hand from her grasp. It wasnt a sudden gesture, more like a falling away. Go back to your work. Ill see you later.
French turned away, walked over to a window and stared out. Fry watched her for a minute, then decided she should give her space and returned to her job.
Continued in Chapter 30.