Main Victim in the Vineyard

Victim in the Vineyard

It's a dream come true for Emmy Oak to be hosting the Sonoma Fall Food & Wine Festival at her family-run Oak Valley Vineyards...and even more exciting to have secured TV celebu-chef Tyler Daniels to MC the event! He's sure to bring in just the type of crowd her struggling winery needs to stay afloat. But when the demanding star is found shot to death in Emmy's vineyard, her dream quickly turns into wine country nightmare Things only get worse when Detective Christopher Grant sets his sights on Emmy's sommelier and friend, Jean Luc, as his prime suspect. Despite her growing feelings for the tall, dark, and dangerously hot detective, Emmy knows Jean Luc is innocent--and it's up to her to prove it. Along with her sidekick-slash-best-friend, Ava, she wades through the foodie crowd and finds no shortage of people who had a grudge against the TV chef. And no shortage of secrets worth killing for, especially when Emmy uncovers that Tyler wasn't exactly who he pretended to be. With her reputation on the line, her Food & Wine festival going to pieces, and the danger mounting, can Emmy catch a killer...before she becomes the next victim in the vineyard?
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VICTIM IN THE VINEYARD

Wine & Dine Mysteries book #3

by

GEMMA HALLIDAY



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Smashwords Edition Copyright © 2019 by Gemma Halliday http://www.gemmahalliday.com All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

Smashwords Edition License Notes This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author's work.

Dedicated to Tom, who will one day appreciate my cooking.





CHAPTER ONE


I pulled my soufflé from the oven and groaned. Its sides were burnt, and the middle had collapsed, leaving it flat, dense, and looking more like a flopped pancake than a light, airy French delicacy.

"What's cookin', good lookin'?&qu; ot; my best friend, Ava Barnett, asked, coming into the kitchen on a cloud of peachy lotion and subtle jasmine incense. She had on a flowy off-the-shoulder top in a pale blue chiffon that matched her eyes, and her blonde hair was braided and twirled onto her head like some sort of halo. She peeked over my shoulder. "Pancakes?"

"It was supposed to be a soufflé."

"Ouch." She scrunched up her nose. "Bummer."

"I must have had the temperature wrong," I mused, more to myself than her as I checked the oven. Warm…but not necessarily as warm as it should have been. Great—my oven was on the fritz. Which matched my dishwasher that was on the fritz, my stand mixer that was on the fritz, and my oversized refrigerator that was currently barely working but I was sure was fritz-imminent. My mother had converted the old storeroom into a modern commercial kitchen fifteen years ago, with the hopes that having the ability to prepare gourmet meals on-site would make our little family run Oak Valley Vineyards a more enticing place to hold weddings and corporate events. And it had, for a short time, until my mother had become sick and everything at Oak Valley—including our kitchen appliances—had started to fall into decline.

But those memories were as sad as my soufflé, and I quickly shut them down. Today of all days, I needed to remain optimistic.

"Well, at least the brownies turned out okay," I said, trying to focus on the positive. I shot Ava my best try at an optimistic smile.

"What on earth was that grimace for?" she asked.

"Optimism?"

Ava laughed, a light tinkling thing that floated through the air. "Oh Emmy, if that's optimism, I'd hate to see you on a pessimistic day."

I didn't have time to make a snappy comeback, as the kitchen doors flew open again, my winery manager, Eddie, swinging through them.

"Good morning, my beautiful sunshines!" he sang as he practically danced across the worn tiles. "The birds are singing, the grapes are ripening, and the breeze through the trees is warm and fresh as a daisy!"

"Now that's how you do optimism," Ava said, grinning as she slipped onto a kitchen stool and stole one of my well turned out brownies.

"Good morning, Eddie," I said, ignoring Ava's playful jab. "How does the tasting room look?"

"Stocked to the gills with our finest wines!" He grinned, his entire pudgy face lighting up. Eddie Bliss had come to work for me a few months ago when I'd been desperate to fill the position. After years of living as a househusband, Eddie had acquired zero skills as a winery operator, but he'd been friendly, eager to learn, and, most importantly, willing to work for what I could afford to pay. Which was admittedly not much. Eddie was just a shade taller than my own 5'6", had ears that were made for a man twice his size, and was one of the snappiest dressers I'd ever seen, even if his partner, Curtis, did try to tone him down a bit. Today, though, it appeared Eddie had won the war of the wardrobe, opting for a pair of pressed checked pants, a matching blazer, and a bright blue shirt, topped off with a red bow tie. I wasn't sure if he was ready to sell wine or sing in a barbershop quartet, but I forced my optimism theme front and center.

"Very nice tie," I told him.

Eddie beamed. "Why thank you. Curtis gave it to me for Father's Day."

I stifled a laugh. I knew the only "child" Curtis and Eddie had was a Pomeranian named Winky. "How are things outside? Vendors still setting up?"

"Yes, but just putting on the finishing touches. Conchita is arranging the tasting plates in the dining pavilion, Jean Luc has glasses of Pinot Blanc at the ready, and Hector is prepping the stage for our cooking demonstration with Tyler." Eddie ticked off each of my staff's locations as he spoke, easing my tense mood a bit.

We were gearing up to host the Sonoma Fall Food and Wine Festival, featuring booths from local restaurants, up-and-coming chefs, and even a few tables from local artists, like Ava's Silver Girl display featuring handmade jewelry from her shop. And of course alongside it all we'd be serving the wines my family had been making at the vineyard for years: Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and small runs of Petite Sirah. My vineyard manager, Hector, had diligently been preparing for the event for weeks, transforming our large meadow into a small village of culinary delights and local artisans.

And thanks to my sommelier, Jean Luc, being six degrees of separation from the TV celebrity chef Tyler Daniels, we'd been able to convince Daniels to act as MC for the four-day festival. Tyler was a wine country native who'd made good, becoming the star of several Cooking Network shows, including his latest, Eat Up. While his flagship restaurant was here in his hometown of Sonoma, he now owned a chain of Tyler's Place restaurants, including locations in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. On his fame alone, we'd been able to sell out tickets for the event, and we were looking to draw a small crowd. One that I hoped enjoyed the wine enough to tell a friend about us and bring our revenue into the black so I could fix our fritzy appliances.

"Sounds like all the festival is missing is the host," Ava said, nodding toward me as she nibbled on her brownie. "Time to go get dressed for your public, Miss Oak."

I glanced down at the jeans and navy blouse I was wearing. "I am dressed."

Both Ava and Eddie stared at me as if I'd suggested we pair our Petite Sirah with fish tacos.

"What?" I asked. "This is a designer silk blouse." Which was met with more stares of disbelief. Okay, so the designer was Target, and it had been on sale. But it was silk.

"I'm doing casual chic," I informed them.

Eddie clucked his tongue and shook his head.

"Honey, do you think Gabby will be doing casual anything?" Ava asked.

She was referring to Tyler Daniels' sidekick on the television show Eat Up and our co-MC for the event, Gabriela Genova. She was known for her delectable Italian cooking, her warm Italian personality, and her sultry Italian looks that were usually encased in something tight and cleavage enhancing. I'd never seen the woman without a three-inch pair of heels on, and I'm pretty sure she was born wearing false eyelashes and cherry red lipstick.

"No," I admitted. "I don't think Gabby does casual."

"So, do you want to stand next to her for press photos wearing that ?" Ava reasoned.

I sighed. "Fine. I'll go change."

Eddie shot my jeans—which may or may not have had a small hole in the left knee—a nervous glance before turning to Ava. "Maybe you'd better supervise."



* * *



Under Ava's watchful eye, I swapped my jeans for a flattering fit and flare lavender dress and a pair of low-heeled Grecian sandals. I added a little extra mascara and blush just for good measure before adorning my ears with a pair of silver hoops of Ava's creation. While her style might be a bit more boho than mine in the clothing department, she knew my taste in jewelry to a tee. In fact, Ava knew most everything about me to a tee, having been my bestie since childhood. Some people even thought we looked alike, though my blonde hair tended a bit more toward the frizzy side than Ava's smooth locks, and my hips might betray the fact that I liked soufflé a bit more than my lithe, athletic looking friend. But by the time the first guests started arriving, we both looked ready to face the hordes of wine enthusiasts (still working that optimism thing) who would soon descend upon our little winery.

As the tourists and weekenders started perusing our stalls, Ava and I did the same, walking among them to make sure all was running smoothly. Hector had set the booths up like a small village, two wide aisles of wares winding toward the center of the meadow, where he'd constructed a low stage that would house the twice daily cooking demonstrations by our celebrity guests. A variety of tempting scents wafted through the warm, morning air—sweet confections mingling with the savory tang of onions and garlic sautéing on portable cooktops. I heard several murmurs of approval and even a few groans of pleasure as foodies began sampling the chefs' creations, giving kudos on seasoning and spice. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and my nerves ticked down a notch.

Until I heard a shrill female voice carrying over the din of the crowd.

"I cannot work like this. This air is too dry. I can feel it zapping the moisture from my skin!"

"Is that Gabby?" Ava gently tugged on my arm, pointing toward the center stage where several pots, pans, and utensils sat atop of a long, low counter, ready for the first demo of the day.

Riffling through them was the female half of our celebrity chef duo, waving her arms at the young man standing next to her wearing a harried expression. As suspected, Gabby was dressed to the nines in a bright red, body hugging dress that ended well above her knee and dipped far below the modesty level in the front. Her perfectly tanned legs ended in spiky red stilettos that looked in danger of sinking into the dirt the second she stepped down from the stage.

"Why didn't anyone tell me we'd be outside?" she complained. "There are bugs !"

"This should be fun," I mumbled to Ava before pasting a bright smile on my face. "Hi. Gabriela Genova?" I asked, approaching the woman.

She gave me a blank look. "Sorry, no autographs."

I cleared my throat and thought I heard Ava snicker behind me.

"Uh, actually my name is Emmy Oak. We spoke on the phone. I'm the owner of the winery." Technically my family owned it, but with Dad gone and Mom losing more of herself day by day, I was the only Oak left to pull it up from its sinking bottom line. But I figured Gabby didn't need details. "Do you have everything you need for the demonstration?" I asked her.

"Well, finally someone comes to check on us. And no, I don't have everything I need, thank you very much."

"Is there something I can get for you?"

"I'm sorry, but this weather doesn't work for me."

"Th-the weather?" I looked up at the thankfully cloudless blue sky above us. While it was warm still, not yet having hit the chill of autumn, the majestic oak trees surrounding the meadow gave enough shade that it felt pleasantly sunny rather than sweltering as our summer had been.

"Yes," Gabby said, repeating herself. "The weather. My skin is dry, and my hair is lifeless. Look at it. Flat!" She ran a hand through her long dark hair that many women would kill for.

"I told you, you look great, babe," the young man beside her piped up. While he was several inches over six feet, he appeared at least a few years younger than Gabby, maybe in his midtwenties at the latest. He had a smooth baby face, a hard gym-dedicated body, and a shock of blond hair that fell over his forehead in a stylish cut. He shot me a wide smile, showing off a lot of white teeth and a cute little dimple in his right cheek. "I'm the boyfriend. Alec Post," he said, offering his hand.

The name clicked immediately. "You have that cooking webcast, right?" I asked as I shook his hand. "The Digest?"

If it was possible his smile widened. "Yes. You've seen it?"

I nodded. "Several times in fact. It's a fun show." While it was aimed more at the millennial audience with things like liquid nitrogen ice cream and pizza inspired ramen bowls, Alec's fresh take on food was actually quite entertaining.

"Well, unless someone can do something about the weather, this is not going to be a fun show today," Gabby whined, pulling my attention back to her.

"Babe, no one can control the weather," Alec reasoned.

"But no one told me it would be bone dry here!" Gabby shot back.

I'd had to wage a battle against my own frizz, just barely winning with the help of an army of hair products, so I'd hardly call it bone dry. But I was happy to report I kept the smile pasted on my face as I responded. "I'm so sorry. Can I get you a bottle of water perhaps?"

She blinked at me as if I were stupid. "I need a humidifier."

"A…" I trailed off, wondering where we'd get one of those.

"Hi, I'm Ava," my best friend jumped in, sticking her slim hand out toward Gabby. "You are amazing. I'm a huge fan!" she gushed.

Gabby acknowledged my friend for the first time, flashing her a sunny smile. Apparently playing to her ego was all you needed to get one.

"Thank you," Gabby answered. "You watch Eat Up ?"

"Every morning at 8 a.m.," Ava replied. "Your banter with Tyler is almost as delish as the recipes you two cook."

Gabby smiled again. "I appreciate that. But, as you know, Tyler does most of the cooking."

"Oh, but my favorites are the recipes you bring from your family's life in the Italian countryside. You're so talented at weaving a story with the food."

"Tell that to my network." Gabriela laughed sarcastically.

"What are you planning to make today?" Ava asked. I could have kissed her for seemingly defusing the diva.

" Easy Mediterranean Chicken ." She paused, the smile dropping. " If Tyler ever decides to make an appearance."

"Wait—Tyler's not here yet?" I asked, a small surge of panic hitting my belly. He was the main draw of the event, and I knew I'd have a mob of angry foodies on my hands if he was a no-show.

Gabby shrugged. "He hasn't graced me with his presence. Now about that humidifier…?"

"I'll see if I can find one," Ava promised her.

I mouthed a silent thank you in her direction before leaving Gabby and Alec to search for our star.

As I wove through the stalls again, I noticed the crowd had grown, including not only tourists but also several Sonoma locals and a few food critics and bloggers. I spied Bradley Wu, a syndicated food columnist who often covered the wine country scene, and I prayed that he enjoyed our Chardonnay pairings as he tipped his wineglass back, only spilling a slight dribble down the front of his tweed jacket.

What I did not spy was Tyler Daniels. Having searched the entire festival grounds, I left the meadow and made for the collections of low, Spanish style buildings that made up Oak Valley Vineyards. I walked into what I was delighted to see was a packed tasting room. Our sommelier, Jean Luc, was pouring with flourish, laying his French accent on as thick as the wax he used in his mustache. If Hercules Poirot had a slimmer, fussier, cousin from Paris, Jean Luc would be it. He was currently putting on a show for a woman in a tasteful little black dress and dark hair cut short in a stylish bob. As he slid the glass along the bar to her, I caught his attention.

"You haven't seen Tyler Daniels, have you?" I asked.

He shook his head, his slick black mustache twitching. "No, mon amie . Why do you ask?"

"He's…" I paused, hating to admit our star was missing. "…late," I decided on.

The woman at the bar must have overheard, as she snorted loudly. "Typical Tyler."

"Uh, Emmy, zees eez Ashley Daniels," Jean Luc said, making introductions.

"Charmed," the woman said, holding her drink up in a greeting that jangled the gold bracelets at her wrists.

"Pleased to meet you," I told her. "You said Daniels? Any relation to Tyler?"

"I have the unfortunate distinction of being his first wife. Ex , that is," she added with emphasis.

"I see," I said, not sure if I should congratulate her or sympathize with her.

"Ashley eez also a food critic," Jean Luc told me, sending me a meaningful look. "For zee LA Times ."

"Oh, I see ," I told him.

"Yes, I heard about your little shindig here, and I thought, why not treat myself to a weekend in wine country?" she said. Then she winked at me. "On the paper's dime, of course."

"Well, I hope you're enjoying our Pinot Blanc."

"It's delightful. Like drinking sunshine," she said, her words slurring slightly, as if perhaps she'd been in the sun just a bit too long. Which I took as a good sign, as long as the words "light" and "fresh" ended up in her review in the LA Times .

"You haven't heard from Tyler today, have you?" I asked them both again.

Jean Luc shook his head.

"Sorry," Ashley told me, "but I try to hear from my ex-husband as little as possible." She sent me another wink.

"Understandable," I agreed. "We're set to start the demo in half an hour, and I'm just getting a little nervous."

"Don't be," Ashley assured me. "Trust me, if there is any chance of attention, Tyler will be here. He never misses an opportunity to preen for an adoring crowd." She ended the comment with sarcastic ha at her own joke.

"I hope so," I said, excusing myself to continue my search.

I stepped out the main entrance to the front of the winery, where large, centuries old oak trees created a canopy of shade over a small gravel parking lot and long, winding driveway. Our spot on a small hill overlooking the valley was tucked away enough from the main road to feel like a hidden oasis yet was still a short, pleasant drive from downtown Sonoma, which I hoped many foodies and enthusiasts were willing to make today.

I spotted Eddie standing next to the carved wooden sign touting our winery's name, adjusting his bowtie as he played greeter to guests as they trekked from our parking lot to the festival site.

"We're getting a fair crowd," he told me, smiling and waving at a young couple with a baby in a carrier.

"That's good news," I told him. "But the bad news is we're missing our star."

Eddie turned to me. "I thought I saw Gabby arrive earlier. She was with this delish little boy toy with dimples." He paused, quickly covering his mouth with a pudgy hand. "Oh, don't tell Curtis I said that. He's got a wicked jealous streak ever since I made the mistake of saying I thought Derek Hough looked hot on Dancing with the Stars ."

Despite my worried mood, I couldn't help a grin. "Your secret's safe with me. But I don't suppose you've seen our other star, Tyler Daniels?"

Eddie nodded. "As a matter of fact, I believe that's him arriving now."

I followed the line of his well manicured finger to see a man in his midforties stepping out of a Ferrari and running a hand through his trademark shock of red hair styled in an old fashioned pompadour. He wore jeans and a white T-shirt in a deceptively casual style and took a moment to survey the crowded lot before taking his mirrored aviator glasses off.

I felt relief flood me as I rushed forward to greet him.

"Mr. Daniels," I called.

His gaze turned my way, his blue eyes even brighter in person than they sparkled on TV.

"Emmy Oak," I introduced myself, approaching. "I'm the owner and coordinator of the festival. Thank you so much for being here."

"Let's make this quick, huh, doll," Tyler said, gaze going somewhere beyond me as if completely disinterested. "I'm not here to chitchat."

I cleared my throat, glossing over the whole "doll" thing. "Uh, right. Well, we're setting up for the first demo now, and it's about to start, so let me show you—"

"Yeah, we'll be postponing that."

"Excuse me?"

He shot me an annoyed look. "Do I look ready for a demo right now? Huh? Do I?"

"I-I'm not sure," I stammered. While I knew Tyler Daniels was known for his hotheaded persona on TV, I hadn't expected to bear the wrath of it before even making it out of the parking lot.

"Where can I put my trailer?" he demanded, crossing his arms over his chest as he barked at me.

"T-trailer?" I asked. "I'm not sure I—"

But I didn't get to finish as he gestured to the tree lined driveway where a large RV was pulling up. Along the side of the trailer was a huge image of Tyler's face—white veneers grinning for the camera in a much more charming fashion than the scowl I was currently encountering—along with his famous catchphrase, Now we're cookin' with heat!

I blinked. "Oh. I didn't realize you planned to stay here."

Tyler threw his head back and laughed, though the tone was more mocking than humor. "Honey, you couldn't pay me to stay here. "

I tried really hard to keep a placid look on my face at the insult. Not that Tyler seemed to care what effect he had on little ol' me as he rambled on.

"I have a condo in town. Overlooking the river ," he added for emphasis, lest I should think he lived among the peasants who couldn't afford a water view. "This," he said, gesturing to the monument to his ego, "is just to give me somewhere to escape my fans."

I sighed. His own trailer. Of course.

"So," he continued. "Where can my crew set up?"

"Crew? You brought a camera crew too?"

Tyler shook his head, frowning at me. "No, this is my hair and makeup crew." He paused. "You didn't expect me to go on without my stylists?" He did a smirk that said I was so naïve in the ways of the televised and famous.

"No. Of course not," I covered. I quickly surveyed the packed lot for anywhere to put the fifty-foot monstrosity. "Um, why don't you have them pull it around the back? We have some space where deliveries unload behind the kitchen."

For a moment I thought he was going to protest the back door placement, the frown deepening, but finally he must have realized space was at a premium, as he just barked out a quick, "Fine." Then he spun and stalked to the RV.

I let out a breath, having diffused the second diva of the day, and asked Eddie to direct the RV around the back of the building as I took over his greeter duties.



* * *



It took Tyler at least half an hour to have hair and makeup release him in the same white T-shirt and jeans, looking almost exactly the way he went into the trailer. Then he required an extra half hour to go over the recipe they'd be demonstrating with Gabby, who complained the entire time about how her makeup was melting in the moisture from the humidifier that Ava had miraculously found. By the time the cooking demo started, we were a good hour behind, but Tyler pulled on a welcoming smile, loud and booming voice, and jovial, humorous banter that had the crowd applauding and oohing and ahhing at his culinary creations. Gabby's warm laughter floated down to us as she seared the chicken on the grill, and as Tyler tossed a handful of red pepper flakes at the dish and yelled his catchphrase, the audience cheered with delight. For all the headaches, the two stars were consummate professionals on the stage, doing exactly what I had hoped they would to entertain and entice the crowd. I felt my nerves dissipating as the murmurs of approval rang all around me.

Once the demo was over, the crowd applauded heartily before dispersing to enjoy more tasty bites and sip the afternoon away. Tyler retired to his trailer, and Alec was able to convince Gabby to step inside the tasting room to get out of the "wretched outdoors."

The rest of the afternoon went off without a hitch, a couple of local bands taking the stage to play mellow country and then soft jazz as the crowd continued to grow. Tyler emerged from his trailer and camped out in our tasting room, drinking Pinot Noir like it was going out of style. Which I didn't mind in the least—if I was lucky, he'd order a couple of cases. If I was really lucky, he might start serving it in his restaurant chain. Ava sold several silver pieces to patrons, a couple of booths were so popular they ran out of food, and even Gabby seemed to enjoy herself, dancing with Alec as the jazz band encouraged amorous couples to gather in front of the stage.

By the time the sun was starting to set, we were ready for our second demo of the night—a final dessert dish to pair with our Zinfandel before the guests made their way home.

The sky was turning a dusky pink, the moon appearing just above the horizon in a pale crescent glow, as I spied Gabby taking the stage. I could see her gesturing her arms wildly at Alec, a frown on her beautiful features. I steeled myself against whatever she had to complain about this time as I approached.

"Gabby," I said, pasting a smile on my face. "The last demo was absolutely fabulous. The crowd loved it."

She blinked at me a moment as if trying to remember who I was before recognition set in. "Well, it should be. Tyler made us rehearse it enough. As if I don't know how to cook chicken breast." She snorted.

"Uh, where is Tyler?" I hated to ask.

Gabby put both hands on her ample hips. " That is just what I'd like to know. I swear if that man makes me stand out in the elements waiting again while he preens for an hour, I'll—"

"Maybe you could check his trailer?" Alec cut in, addressing me before Gabby could finish that threat.

"Thanks. On my way," I told him, quickly exiting the stage and leaving him to soothe the savage ego.

I crossed the meadow, coming around the back of the main winery buildings, and spotted the trailer parked under a large tree that just skimmed the roof. A couple of guys with spiky, bleached hair and lots of piercings stood outside of it, smoking cigarettes.

"Is Tyler in there?" I asked who I assumed were his glam squad.

The taller of the two shook his head. "Haven't seen him. We were waiting to freshen up his makeup, but he hasn't showed."

I felt a frown form, praying my star hadn't lost track of time in the tasting room. Just for good measure, I knocked on the trailer door, but it was answered by a slim girl in a hairdresser's apron, who informed me Tyler was not inside. She hadn't seen him since after the last demo.

After making rounds to the tasting room, the dining pavilion, and backtracking through the festival grounds again, I came up empty. I glanced at my phone, noting the time. Ten minutes until our demo was to start. I bit my lip. I wasn't sure guests would stick around if Tyler was an hour late with the final event like he'd been with the first.

I was about to give up and tell Gabby to go ahead solo, when a flash of movement in the vineyard to the left of the meadow caught my eye. The sun was falling lower now, and the landscape was growing dusky, casting shadows among the vines.

"Tyler?" I called out.

While no one answered, I thought I saw another flash of something, just beyond the first row of grapevines.

I followed it, jogging toward the vines, though as I peeked down the row, I saw nothing. I walked a few more paces, going one row over, hoping Tyler had snuck away to memorize lines or take a quiet moment apart from the crowds before his performance.

"Tyler?" I called again. "Tyler, we're about to start the demo."

Nothing but the breeze answered me. I could hear the dull roar of the crowd still, but it sounded far away. The stillness of the vineyard was almost eerie as the light quickly faded, darkness seeming to wrap around me from all angles.

I stepped one more row over.

And then I saw it.

White T-shirt, jeans, and a now-tussled mess of red hair that sat atop a face whose expression was frozen in shock, bright blue eyes staring unblinking up at the night sky.

Tyler Daniels.

And judging by the lifeless stare and pool of blood growing around his still body, he would not be doing any more cooking demonstrations.

Ever again.





CHAPTER TWO


I heard a long, gut-wrenching scream that in hindsight was most certainly mine. Then I felt my legs turn and flee, as if they had a mind of their own and it was telling them in no uncertain terms to run—run as far away from the gruesome scene as possible. I vaguely remembered stumbling back toward the festival grounds and falling into Ava's arms, incoherently babbling about dead bodies and blood.

So much blood.

She'd had the good sense to call 9-1-1 then pour me a glass of Zin and sit me in a chair in a quiet corner as she instructed Jean Luc to calmly start ushering guests out before the police arrived and the festival turned into a crime scene.

It felt like hours before the faint sound of sirens approached, but in reality it was probably more like minutes. As the last festival stragglers unsteadily awaited their Ubers, the sky was suddenly bathed in the red and blue lights of local law enforcement arriving en mass. Uniformed officers swarmed the scene. Ava directed several toward the south vineyard as one young officer in a rumpled uniform and glasses asked for my version of events, electronic tablet open to take notes.

I took deep breaths, trying to calm my thoughts into something at least mildly coherent. I slowly relayed my movements that evening, from looking for our wayward star to finding him very much unable to greet his public. As I replayed the scene, the hairs on my forearms stood at attention and my eyes shut as if they were trying to stop the disturbing image from gushing in.

"Emmy?" I opened them to find a plainclothes detective had joined the young officer.

He was tall, over six feet, and had broad shoulders, dark hair that lay several days past needing a cut along the nape of his neck, and deep brown eyes with small golden flecks that were now staring back at me with a note of concern.

Detective Christopher Grant, Violent Crimes Investigations Unit of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.

I'd first encountered Grant a few months ago when we'd had an unfortunate incident in our wine cellar. He'd struck me then as thorough, stoic, and harboring maybe just a little danger beneath the surface. Since then I'd seen some softness peek through that hard shell, and possibly even a little flirtatiousness. The last time I'd seen him was on what was to be our first date, at Ashton's restaurant downtown. Only, we'd just ordered the appetizers when a home invasion had occurred in Petaluma, and Grant had had to cut the evening short. We'd been promising to get together again ever since, neither of our busy schedules quite matching up enough to make it happen.

"I guess all it takes is a dead body to get a second date," I said, trying at humor to cover the fear still making my hands shake even as I held them together in my lap.

The corner of Grant's mouth lifted ever so slightly as he crouched down to meet me eye to eye. "You okay?" he asked, his voice low and deep and feeling more intimate than a detective usually got with his witnesses.

I sighed. "I will be."

He gave me a long look like he was only half convinced, but he nodded. "Good." He stood back up and pulled another chair over to sit beside me. "Can you tell me what happened?"

I took a deep breath, willing myself to relive the whole thing again. "There's not a lot to tell," I said honestly. "Tyler was missing. Then I found him." I paused, swallowing down the image. "Dead in the vineyard. There was a lot of blood." My voice must have betrayed the host of emotions still coursing through me, as Grant put a protective hand on my back. While it was a small gesture, the warmth felt like a beacon of safety.

"How well did you know Tyler?" Grant asked.

"I didn't. I mean, I just met him today. Jean Luc secured him for the event."

"So Jean Luc knew Tyler?"

I nodded. "I think he used to work for him. Years ago in one of his restaurants. Back when Tyler was first starting out on TV."

"Right. Tyler was some sort of celebrity?"

I let out a small laugh. "I take it you don't watch the Cooking Network?"

He shook his head. "Enlighten me."

"Well, Tyler's been the star of the network for a few years. He's had several shows— Kitchen Battle , On the Chopping Block , Tasty Treats with Tyler ."

"So this guy was a big deal," he surmised.

"In the foodie world, yeah. His most recent is Eat Up , a daily morning show he co-hosts with Gabby."

"That would be Gabriela Genova?" he asked, pulling his notebook out to consult it. Unlike the other officers, Grant still used old school paper. I could see his hastily scratched notes covering the page he flipped to.

"Yes. She and Tyler had a fun banter on the show. I think that's what people tuned in for even more than the recipes."

"And she was here with Tyler today?"

I nodded again. "They did a chicken demonstration together earlier. They were supposed to do a cake presentation tonight and a barbeque thing tomorrow." I bit my lip as it sunk in that those plans were as dead as my MC. No Tyler meant no demos, no presentations, no celebrity draw. Though, I was pretty sure the press would be swarming in droves. I closed my eyes again, thinking of the salacious headline I was sure Bradley Wu was typing up right now. He had a flair for the dramatic, and little was more dramatic than a victim in the vineyard.

"When was the last time you saw Tyler?" Grant asked.

I opened my eyes to find him scribbling down more notes. "I-I'm not really sure. Maybe seven. Eight? He was in the tasting room."

"And you went looking for him when?"

"About an hour later. He was supposed to do another demo soon, and Gabby was afraid he'd be late again, which is when I went looking for him and…" I trailed off, not wanting to go over the rest again.

"Did you see Jean Luc then?"

"What?" I snapped my thought away from Tyler Daniels' dead body and back to present.

"Jean Luc. Did you see him while you were looking for Daniels?"

"I-I don't think so. Why do you ask?" I scanned Grant's expression for any indication of his thoughts, but he had his stony Cop Face on now, all of the previous concern replaced by a blank look that gave away nothing.

"Did you look for Tyler in the tasting room?"

"Yes," I hedged.

"And Jean Luc was there?"

I pursed my lips, thinking back. "No, I didn't see him here. But he was probably in the cellar, grabbing more bottles for tomorrow."

"Did you see him in the cellar?" Grant pressed.

I shook my head slowly. "No, but, I didn't specifically go there either."

"When was the last time you saw Jean Luc at the bar?"

"Maybe eight thirty? It was getting dark, and we'd started pouring the Zinfandel to pair with Tyler's dessert."

"Eight thirty." Grant made a note in his book.

"Whose alibi are you looking for?" I asked point-blank. "Jean Luc's or mine?"

Grant's eyes flickered up to mine. "Did you kill Tyler?"

"No!" I scoffed.

The corner of Grant's mouth ticked up a notch. "I didn't think so."

"But you think Jean Luc did?" I asked, reading between the lines.

Grant drew in a deep breath through his nose, nostril flaring. "Jean Luc and Tyler had a history together."

"The foodie community is small—lots of us have histories together," I countered. "Jean Luc worked for Tyler. But that was a long time ago."

"It was his idea to have Tyler MC this event?"

I nodded slowly. "Yes. Tyler was a big draw. Local boy done good and all." I paused again. "Why?"

"Jean Luc was seen arguing with Tyler this evening."

That stopped me. "He was?"

Grant nodded. "Any idea what it was about?"

I shook my head. "This is the first I'm hearing of it." I wasn't sure if that looked better or worse for Jean Luc. "When was this argument?"

Grant looked at his notes again. "Around seven. Witnesses say Tyler was at the bar, and he and Jean Luc seemed to get into it pretty loudly. Jean Luc was even overheard threatening Tyler."

"No!" I said empathically. "No way. Jean Luc would never hurt a fly."

Grant quirked an eyebrow at me. "He was quoted as saying, 'I'll kill you if you do.'"

I bit my lip. Well that didn't sound good. I almost hated to ask… "If he did what?"

But Grant shrugged. "I don't know yet. That's all that was overheard. So far," he added.

"Look, whatever the argument was about, I'm sure it was just Jean Luc being dramatic. That's his thing. But I know he would never hurt anyone."

"Do you know if he owns a gun?" Grant asked, switching gears.

I sucked in a breath. "Is that what killed Tyler?"

He nodded. "Single GSW to the chest. He would have expired instantly."

Well at least he hadn't suffered, but I still felt myself shiver despite the warm night. "I didn't hear a gunshot," I told him.

"That far off from the festival, with all the noise going on? Even if someone did hear it, it could have easily been mistaken for the pop of a wine cork."

Of which there were plenty that night.

"Jean Luc didn't do this," I repeated.

Which must have come out as small and helpless as I felt in that moment, as Grant's Cop Face softened a bit and his hand went to my back again. "Don't worry. We'll sort it all out," he promised. "In the meantime, maybe you want to have Ava spend the night?"

I nodded. The idea of being alone at the winery that night was not one I relished.

Grant stood, but before he could walk away, I stopped him.

"Uh, about the Food and Wine Festival…"

Grant turned his attention back toward me.

"Are we shut down?" I felt callous even thinking of the event with a man dead. But I knew the vendors and other participants had counted on this publicity as much as I had—not to mention had invested in four days' worth of food and ingredients that would go to waste if we had to close. I hated to let them all down if we didn't need to. Granted, I wasn't even sure anyone would show up after they heard about the death, but I didn't want everyone's hard work to be for nothing.

Grant must have seen the warring emotions in my eyes as he took a beat before answering. "The crime scene is contained to the vineyard. We've sealed Tyler's trailer for now, and we may need access to the surrounding area if forensics deems it necessary, but I don't see a reason to secure the festival grounds."

"So, that's a yes on reopening tomorrow?"

He gave me a tentative nod. "I would ask that your wine steward make himself available for questioning, though."

I bit my lip as I watched Grant turn and join the small gathering of uniformed officers chatting at the bar. The way they kept gesturing at the spot where Jean Luc had spent most of the day was not reassuring. Neither was Grant's thinly veiled "don't leave town" request. I had a bad feeling that my sommelier had suddenly jumped from wine steward to murder suspect.



* * *



Ava slept in the guest room of my small cottage at the back of the winery property, and I tossed and turned in my bedroom across the hallway, images of Tyler's smirk, his larger-than-life persona with the crowd, and his lifeless body all swirling together to take over my subconscious. By the time the pale first light of morning came peeking through my curtains, I gave up and threw myself into a hot shower.

In lieu of a good night's sleep, I added extra eyeliner and mascara, completing the look with a pale mauve lipstick that gave my nude lip just a hint of color. I almost reached for a black sheaf dress, but considering the morbid circumstances of our festival, I rejected it, going instead for a sunny yellow sundress and a pair of cork wedges that felt sturdy enough to traverse the grounds while still adding a bit of style to the outfit. I was just securing the small pearl stud earrings that my grandmother and namesake, Grammy Emmeline, had handed down to me, when I heard Ava on the landing outside my door.

I peeked my head out. "Hey, you're up."

"Unfortunately." Ava's usual shampoo commercial perfect hair was matted to one side in a bedhead that was totally social media worthy. "You get much sleep?" she asked.

"Negative." I shoved the backing on my earring and led the way down the stairs to the small living room/kitchen combo. The cottage had been built in my grandfather's time, along with most of the small buildings that comprised our winery—including the tasting room, offices, converted barn that housed our wine production equipment, and The Cave, our wine cellar dug deep in the earth to keep our bottles cool and preserved. My parents had added small upgrades to the cottage over time, but it was still what real estate agents referred to as "cozy." But since the only inhabitants were me, myself, and I, it worked. Especially since the guest room doubled as my overflow closet.

"Coffee?" I asked Ava.

"I'd kill for a cup." She froze, immediately cringing. "Sorry. Poor choice of words."

I shook my head. "It's okay. I have a bad feeling that Tyler's death is all anyone will be talking about today." I crossed to my kitchen counter, where I had a small coffeemaker set up. Normally I took all my meals—including morning coffee—in the large kitchen down the little stone pathway. There was little reason to fuss around in my tiny house when I had a well-appointed (if slightly dilapidated) commercial kitchen just a few steps away. But today, I didn't want to get in the way, as I knew Conchita, our house manager, would be running the kitchen like a drill sergeant to get all of the appetizer trays ready for the guests.

Assuming we had any.

I shoved that thought aside and loaded a pod into the machine, thankful for the instant gratification of hot, aromatic liquid pouring out in response. I handed the first mug to Ava and did a repeat for myself.

"I saw you talking to Grant last night," Ava said as she sipped. "I don't suppose he gave any indication of what happened to Tyler?"

"Gunshot," I said, trying not to picture it.

"Who on earth would have a gun at the festival?" Ava asked, sipping her coffee. "Mmm. Heaven."

I made a cheers motion with my mug. "Ditto." I paused. "But I got the impression that the police think Jean Luc might have had something to do with it."

"No way! Even Grant?"

I nodded, replaying our conversation for her. "You didn't happen to see Jean Luc argue with Tyler, did you?"

She shook her head. "No. I thought they were friends. Didn't Jean Luc used to work for him?"

"In one of his restaurants. But I don't know the details." I sipped again. "Any chance you saw Jean Luc before Tyler was found? Between like eight and nine?"

"You mean, can I provide an alibi?" Ava sipped, her eyes going to the ceiling as she thought. "I was outside watching the sunset for a while with a couple of retirees. I'd just sold them some matching silver rings in a feather motif. Really cute."

I nodded. "I remember those."

"Anyway, after that I took a break to grab some food myself. I stopped at the booth with those stuffed mushrooms. Super yum. I guess that was around, maybe nine? Nine fifteen?"

"So you weren't near the tasting room at all?"

She shook her head. "Sorry. I'm not much help, am I?"

"It's okay," I assured her. "I'm sure someone saw Jean Luc." At least I hoped.

"Have you talked to Gabby yet?" Ava asked. "About the fate of the festival?"

I shook my head. "To be honest, I'm a little conflicted about the whole thing. It feels like we should shut it down in reverence to Tyler, but I hate to put all the vendors out like that."

"Not to mention the guests who have come in from out of town," Ava noted.

I sighed. "If they stay."

"Okay, how about this," Ava offered. "Let's see what kind of turnout we get today. If it's a flop, maybe we close up a couple of days early."

I nodded. "That way the vendors at least have a fighting chance to make back what they've put into their booths."

"And you wouldn't have to refund all of the guests' tickets. Just half."

I inwardly groaned. That was still enough to put us in the red on the entire thing. That coupled with the bad publicity was likely to have my accountant, Gene Schultz, crying in his spreadsheets.

I picked up my phone and dialed Gabby's number. Unfortunately, her cell went to voice mail, but I wasn't sure how to properly express both my condolences and our intent to carry on as planned in a thirty second soundbite. So I just asked her to please call me back when she could. I didn't blame her for screening her calls. As much as Tyler's death had jarred me, I could only imagine how his co-host was taking it.

"No answer?" Ava surmised from my end of the conversation.

I shook my head. "She's staying at the Sonoma Country Inn. Think we should visit in person?"

"Give me twenty minutes to shower, and I'm in."



* * *



Forty minutes later Ava and I were pulling up to the upscale hotel and spa near the Plaza. Ava parked her vintage mint green GTO convertible in the underground lot, and we rode the elevator up to the main lobby, which sported a large fountain in the middle, a lounge to the right, and a long, sleek reception desk done in white marble that gleamed under the crystal chandeliers.

While the clerk at the desk was pleasant and helpful, he told us he could not give out Gabby's room number, for obvious security reasons. Instead, he rang up to her room where, thankfully, she did not screen his call. After a little back and forth on his end, he told us she would come down and meet us in the lounge.

Being that it was barely nine in the morning, the bar was closed, but a coffee machine and various pastries had been set out on a side table for patrons to enjoy while chatting in the club chairs and small groupings of tables.

Ava and I each grabbed a second cup of coffee and chose a table near the windows, overlooking a small courtyard garden, featuring a sister fountain to the one in the lobby, large flowering hydrangeas, and several tall shade trees. The entire scene would have been very serene if we hadn't been there to discuss a murder.

We didn't have to wait long, as a few quick minutes later, Gabriela Genova floated into the room. As with the previous day, she was again in a body hugging dress that showed off curves I seriously doubted had ever ingested an ounce of the decadent pasta dishes she created. Today's ensemble was a deep navy blue, capped off with a pair of nude heels in a much more subdued design than the fire engine red ones of the day before, though they were no less tall and precariously spiky. Maybe it was the murder on my mind, but they looked like they'd make excellent weapons.

While it was relatively early, it was clear Gabby had already been up, as her hair was poofed into a large mane of dark waves and her makeup was impeccably camera ready. I noticed her eyes were clear and dry beneath her long, thick lashes. If she was in mourning, she was hiding it well.

"Gabby," I said, standing to greet her as she approached our table. "I'm so sorry for your loss."

"Thank you," she said, sitting. Her eyes went from me to Ava, though they held little emotion. "It's been a shock."

"How are you holding up?" Ava asked.

Gabby let out a long sigh. "I've already fielded several calls from the press. My publicist is in an absolute tizzy."

Apparently having your co-host die was quite the inconvenience to one's image.

"I tried to call you earlier," I started, struggling for the tactful words.

"Yes, I got your message," she told me. "I assume you're here about the festival."

I shifted awkwardly in my seat. "Actually, we are."

Gabby nodded. "I'll do it, but I want what Tyler was being paid."

I blinked at her, not sure I understood. "You'll do it…?"

"MC the festival. That's what you're here about, right?"

"Uh…" I looked to Ava. "Well, yes, we've tentatively decided to keep it going. At least for today," I amended.

"We feel we owe it to the vendors," Ava added. "And ticket holders."

"Sure," she said, brushing our reasoning off. "I'll take over the full duties, but I want the same rate you were paying Tyler and access to his glam squad."

I wasn't sure what I'd expected Gabby's reaction to us continuing the Food and Wine Festival to be, but negotiating for better pay had been last on my list. "Uh, okay," I agreed. I looked to Ava again, but she just shrugged. "I hope you don't find this insensitive of us," I said.

Gabby arched a perfectly shaped eyebrow my way. "Insensitive?"

"To go on with the show, so to speak," I explained, feeling my cheeks heat even as I said the words out loud.

Gabby let out a sharp bark of laugher. "God no. This is Tyler Daniels we're talking about. The man posed for the cameras in his sleep. Crass publicity was practically an art form to him."

While I had to agree with her sentiments—I hadn't found the late celebrity terribly endearing in life—her lack of emotion at his death was a little jarring. "I take it you two were not the best of friends off camera?"

Gabby snorted. "Tyler didn't have friends. He had an entourage and underlings."

"And you were considered an underling?" I asked, finding this new insight into their relationship interesting.

"It is Tyler's show," she pointed out. Then she paused, quickly correcting herself. "Or was."

"How long had you been doing Eat Up w ith Tyler?" Ava asked.

"Two years," Gabby answered. "Longest two years of my life. Every day that I had to endure him aged me ten. Look at these crow's feet. Just look!" She pointed to nonexistent wrinkles at her eyes.

"Tyler was difficult to work with, then?" Ava asked.

"You met him. What do you think?" Gabby countered.

I thought Tyler had been almost as much of a diva as Gabby was, but I figured the question was rhetorical.

"Look, Tyler played nice to the cameras," Gabby went on, "but I'm not going to pretend he was a humanitarian now just because he's dead."

"So why did you stay with the show so long?" Ava asked. I could see the frown on her face, betraying the fact she was at least a little disappointed that the onscreen relationship between the two was pure fiction.

"Well, he was my meal ticket, wasn't he?" Gabby reasoned. "Even if he was a hack."

"Hack?" I asked, jumping on the word. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, all he brought to the show was his name. I was the one who provided real content. You said it yourself—it was my family's stories that brought our recipes to life. But who got the bigger salary? Tyler Daniels. With his stupid catchphrases and career built on yelling at other chefs. Anybody can yell. Ask if he could actually cook."

"Could he?" I couldn't help complying.

She smirked. "You saw the demonstration yesterday. The most complicated thing the man cooked was chicken breasts. Good thing the crowd didn't actually have to eat them, too. Dry as the freakin' air in this little town."

"Surely he was just having an off day," I said.

But she just shrugged. "I'd put my homemade pasta up against his dry chicken any day."

Clearly there was no love lost between the stars, but I wondered how much of Gabby's accusations were born of jealousy and how much had a seed of truth. You didn't get to be Cooking Network royalty like Tyler Daniels without at least having some culinary chops.

"Where were you before the second demonstration was supposed to start?" I asked, wondering just how badly Gabby might have wanted out from Tyler's large shadow.

Gabby blinked at me as if not understanding the question. "I was on the stage. Waiting for Tyler. You saw me."

"I mean before that," I clarified. "Between eight and nine?"

She frowned. "I was getting a bite to eat. I never perform hungry. I was at the booth that served those little crostinis."

"With Alec?" Ava asked.

She frowned deeper. "No. I was alone. He said he needed to take some photos for his webcast." She paused. "Why?"

"The police think that's when Tyler was killed," I said, watching her reaction carefully.

"And you think I had something to do with that?" She barked out another laugh. Nothing like the warm tinkling thing she pulled out for the cameras every morning. "Please," she scoffed.

"It's clear you weren't a fan," Ava pointed out.

Gabby scoffed. "No, but he has plenty of those who tune in to his show. But he dies—so does the show. Why would I want to be out of a job?"

"You think the network will cancel the show now?" Ava asked, and I could tell it was at least partly as a concerned fan.

But Gabby just shrugged again. "I have no idea. My agent hasn't been able to get hold of anyone there yet."

Though I found it interesting she'd tried.

"So, do we have a deal or not?" Gabby asked, looking from me to Ava .

"Deal?"

She rolled her eyes. "The pay rate. And the glam squad," she added, stabbing a long red fingernail my way.

I licked my lips. "I can agree to the pay rate," I told her. Truth was, that was already in our budget. "But Tyler brought in the hair and makeup crew on his own." I paused. "Honestly, I'm not sure how they're getting paid now."

Gabby waved a hand in my direction. "I'm sure Mark will take care of all of that."

"Mark?"

Gabby nodded. "Mark Black. He's Tyler's business partner. He runs the corporation, oversees the flagship restaurant here in town, holds the purse strings." She barked out a laugh. "Holds them quite tightly, in fact."

"Oh?" Ava leaned forward in her seat. "Are you saying he and Tyler didn't get along?" I could see her inner Charlie's Angel perking up—never a good sign.

"Mixed about as well as oil and vinegar," Gabby answered. "Tyler liked to spend, and Mark liked to save. Why the two ever thought they could work together peacefully, I can't imagine."

"So they fought?" Ava asked, shooting me a meaningful glance.

"All the time," Gabby confirmed. "In fact, I overheard Mark threaten him just a couple of days ago."

I had to admit, now my inner seventies diva detective was perking up a bit too. "Really? What did he say?" I asked.

"It was right after we flew in for the festival, on Friday. Tyler wanted to film a segment at his flagship restaurant while we were all in wine country. Total puff piece. Blatant self-promotion, but you know…whatever Tyler wants." She frowned. "Or wanted," she corrected herself again.

"So what happened with his partner, Mark?" I prompted.

Her eyes went wide, and she shrugged again. "Search me! But the two seemed at each other's throats the entire time. Tyler was so preoccupied that we had to shoot the segment, like, fifteen times before he could get his lines right."

"And you said you overheard a threat?"

"Yeah, just as we were leaving. Alec and I were packing up to drive to the hotel, and I passed by the back office. Mark and Tyler were arguing about something, and Mark said that if Tyler didn't fix it, Mark was cutting him out."

"Fix what?" Ava asked.

But Gabby just did more blinking, her eyelashes fluttering like dark little butterflies. "Beats me. I don't stoop to eavesdropping. All I know is Mark was mad as I've ever seen him, and now Tyler's dead."

I had to admit, that was interesting timing.





CHAPTER THREE


"So what do we think of Gabby's story?" I asked Ava as we trekked back to her car.

"I think Gabby's colder than her gazpacho," Ava decided.

I tried to stifle a laugh. "She didn't seem to be too broken up about Tyler's death, did she?"

"She also didn't have an alibi," Ava pointed out.

"Or motive," I countered.

"True," Ava admitted as we got back into her GTO. "Unless…" she said.

"Unless?"

"Unless she plans to propose the same thing to the network that she did to you."

"That she could step into Tyler's shoes?" I thought about that for a second. "You may be right—especially if she really did have the cooking chops and Tyler just had the catchphrases."

"So, Gabby overhears Mark argue with Tyler," Ava said as she backed out of the parking space. "And she takes the opportunity to kill him at the crowded festival, then blame the business partner while she steps into the starring role and becomes the solo host of Eat Up. "

"That's possible," I mused. "But I'd be curious to know what Tyler and his business partner argued about the day before he died. What do you think 'fix it' could have been referring to?"

Ava shook her head. "Just about anything, I guess."

I pulled my phone out of my purse, googling Tyler's Place in Sonoma. An address in downtown off E. Napa came up, along with a pretty decent Yelp rating. Nothing there that immediately screamed in need of fixing.

"Is there a phone number listed?" Ava asked, glancing over at me.

I nodded. "The police are saying Jean Luc argued with Tyler before he died. But if we could give them the name of someone else who also fought with Tyler, you think it might help Jean Luc?"

"I think it can't hurt," Ava responded.

I took a deep breath and dialed the number for Tyler's Place, getting a recording that said they didn't open for dinner until five and to leave a message.

"Hi! This is Emmy Oak from Oak Valley Vineyards," I said at the tone. "I, uh, spoke with Tyler yesterday about possibly stocking our wine in your restaurants."

Ava shot me a look from behind the wheel. I did an innocent palms-up thing. Okay, so it was a little white lie, but really, Tyler had seemed to like the wine. Who knows—maybe he would have ordered some?

"Uh, anyway," I continued, "I'd appreciate it if you could give me a call back when you're free." I quickly rattled off my number before hanging up.

"Possibly stocking your wine, huh?" Ava teased. "Maybe you should have gone for broke and said he already ordered it."

"Just drive," I mumbled, giving her a playful swat on the arm.



* * *



By the time we got back to Oak Valley Vineyards, guests were already starting to arrive for day two of our festival. I felt a bubble of hope lift in my chest at how many cars were parked in the lot—almost as many as the previous day. Though, as we got out of Ava's GTO and began walking up the stone pathway to the festival grounds, I realized that at least half the bodies in attendance were not ticket holding foodies but press. I spotted a woman in a blazer and microphone with our local NBC affiliate's logo on it giving a narrative to a cameraman in front of the tasting room entrance. Bradley Wu had Eddie cornered near the stage, peppering him with questions that had my winery manager visibly sweating. And several other people had cell phones out, taking pictures of everything from the culinary booths to the vineyard, fingers furiously typing up headlines that I feared would be all over both social media and legitimate news outlets in moments.

"This isn't good," Ava said beside me, stating the obvious.

"Aren't they trespassing or something?" I asked, glancing around for any sign of Hector, who might be able to shoo them off the property.

"Possibly. But do you want to go viral as being an unwelcoming winery as well as deadly?"

"It's a lose-lose, isn't it?" I said, feeling all bubbles of hope die with a resounding pop.

"Cheer up. Maybe the reporters will try the Pinot Noir and get hooked."

I shook my head. "You have a lot more optimism than I do."

"You're still in training." She gave my arm a comforting squeeze before heading off to man the Silver Girl booth.

I took a deep, fortifying breath and made my way to the stage to rescue Eddie from Bradley Wu's clutches. Bradley had forgone the tweed today in deference to the heat, but he'd compensated with a loud, paisley printed shirt that stretched over his rotund belly. Standing next to Eddie, who was dressed in a double breasted seersucker suit in lilac, the two made quite a fashion statement. I only hoped the clothes were the only statements being made.

"…so you don't deny that Jean Luc has a difficult streak," I heard Bradley ask Eddie as I approached.

"No!" Eddie blinked at the reporter. "Wait, yes! I do deny. I mean, he's not difficult."

"But you just admitted that he yelled at you for moving his corkscrew."

"Well, really, what's a yell ? He was loud, and he wasn't happy, but—"

"And he called you incompetent."

"I-I may have provoked him a bit—"

"And threatened you with bodily harm?"

"N-now, I'm sure it was just a saying. You know, 'touch my barware again and I'll feed you to the goats.' Haven't we all heard that figure of speech?" Eddie pulled a checked handkerchief from the pocket of his suit and moved to mop the fine sheen of sweat that had collected on his brow. He must have seen me approach, as his shoulders sagged in relief. "Emmy! You're here."

"Eddie," I greeted him then turned my attention to the vulture beside him. "Bradley."

"Emmy Oak, just the woman I wanted to see." Bradley's eyes twinkled with glee, like I was the main course after his Eddie appetizer. "I just must ask you about this terribly tragic occurrence."

While every instinct I had wanted to tell Bradley to waddle himself right back down our oak lined drive, Ava's words echoed in my head, and I pasted a smile on my face, doing my best to play nice to the press. "What is it you wanted to know?"

Bradley pulled out this phone, presumably to record my words for all posterity in the cloud. "Can I get a quote from you on the tragic demise of one culinary legendary Tyler Daniels on the grounds of your winery?"

"It's tragic," I said.

Bradley's smile faltered for a second. "Yes, I just said that. What are your thoughts?"

"I think it's tragic?"

I thought I heard Eddie shift beside me. Or possibly he was trying to sidle away unnoticed, which would be quite a feat for a two-hundred-pound man in head-to-toe lilac seersucker.

Bradley cleared his throat. "Okay, well, what about the rumor that your wine steward—"

"Sommelier," I corrected automatically. I knew from experience that Jean Luc preferred that term. It probably stemmed from the fact that he preferred the French anything to American.

"Yes," Bradley agreed. "Your sommelier, Jean Luc, is being questioned in the death."

"That's quite a rumor," I told him.

"But is it true?" Bradley pressed.

" I'm not questioning him."

"But are the police?"

"You'd have to ask them."

"Come now, Emmy," Bradley said, sending me a smile that was practically predatory. "You know how many nice reviews I've given your Petite Sirah. Surely you can give me a little something in return…hmmm?"

I pulled in a long breath. As much as I hated it, he was right—he had given us some good press, even using the words heavenly and divine in the same article about a recent luncheon I'd catered. While I was dreading the column he was currently cooking up, I knew that Sonoma was a small community, and making an enemy of a syndicated food columnist was a mistake I could not afford to make.

"Fine," I relented.

Bradley moved his phone in closer. Eddie, I noticed, had all but disappeared. Smart man.

"Tell me," Bradley prompted. "Is Jean Luc guilty of murder?"

"No," I said empathically. "It's all a big misunderstanding. I'm saddened by the tragic loss of Tyler Daniels, but I can assure you that no one connected to Oak Valley Vineyards had anything to do with his death."

Bradley looked slightly disappointed for a moment. Then his eyes focused on something just beyond me, and that twinkling lit them again.

"I see," he drawled. "Then, I wonder—why are the police hauling off your sommelier now?"

My heart jumped in my chest as I spun around, just in time to catch the scene Bradley had witnessed through the windows of the tasting room. I spied at least three uniformed officers gently guiding Jean Luc away from the bar—along with one plainclothes detective I recognized only too well.

Grant.

"Uh, excuse me…" I mumbled to Bradley, barely giving him a backwards glance as I jogged toward the tasting room doors. I caught up with the group just as Grant ushered Jean Luc down the short hallway that connected the tasting room to the kitchen.

"What's going on?" I demanded.

Five pairs of eyes turned my way—four accusatory and one so full of fear that I had to stop myself from throwing my arms around Jean Luc.

Grant stepped forward first, looming over me, clad in worn jeans, black boots, and a button-down shirt that pulled tightly against his broad frame. His expression was unreadable. Even the golden flecks in his eyes were at a standstill, giving nothing away.

"We need to ask Jean Luc a few questions," he said simply.

"Emmy, please, tell zee police I do not know what zay are talking about," Jean Luc pleaded, his mustache twitching with every syllable.

I looked from Jean Luc to Grant, the tension between them almost palpable.

"Can we go somewhere private? My office, perhaps?" I suggested, hoping to avoid a scene.

Grant gave me a curt nod, gesturing for Jean Luc to walk the short distance down the hallway ahead of him before following. Grant mumbled something to the uniformed officers, and they opted to wait in the hallway, leaving the three of us alone in my office as Grant closed the door.

"Have a seat," he told Jean Luc. Clearly an order, not a suggestion.

My sommelier did, sinking into one of the chairs opposite my desk. He had the expression of a kid about to get a strong talking to in the principal's office. Facing Cop Mode Grant, I was feeling a little antsy myself.

"What sort of questions do you have?" I asked, sounding bolder than I felt as I took a defensive position standing behind Jean Luc's chair.

Grant leaned casually against my desk, crossing both arms over his chest. "ME was able to pull the bullet that killed Tyler. A 9mm."

"Any way to trace it?" I asked.

"We're working on a striation match. If there's a record of bullets with similar patterns in the database, we can match them to the same weapon." He paused. While he'd been addressing me this whole time, I could see his eyes on Jean Luc. If I had to guess, he was watching for any small hint of reaction.

"What does that have to do with Jean Luc?" I asked, feeling like there was something he was holding back.

"Zay think the gun is mine!" Jean Luc shouted out, his accent thick with distress.

"What?" I barked out. "That's crazy. You don't own a gun." I paused. "Do you?"

"A Ruger SR9c 9mm is registered to a Jean Luc Gasteon, purchased six years ago at a trade show in Pomona." Grant leveled my sommelier with a stare.

Jean Luc looked from me to Grant, his eyes misting. "I-I told zee policia man. Yes, I did own a gun. I bought this gun for protection when I lived in Los Angeles. It's dangerous there, mon amie !"

Apparently it was dangerous here in wine country too.

"Where is your gun now?" I asked him.

"I-I put it in a case before I move. I keep it under my bed. I have not taken it out since I arrive in Sonoma."

"You're sure?" I asked.

" Oui , oui !" He nodded vigorously. "I never take it out of its case. I swear!"

I turned to Grant, who had been silent during our exchange. "Then that bullet didn't come from Jean Luc's gun."

Grant breathed slowly, his eyes never leaving Jean Luc. "How long have you known Tyler Daniels?"

"A long time. Seven, eight years. Maybe more." Jean Luc seemed to calm down a bit at the change of subject.

"You worked for him previously, correct?"

Jean Luc nodded. "Yes. I tended bar at his restaurant in LA when it first opened."

"Tyler's Place," I supplied.

Jean Luc nodded. " Oui . Though, Tyler was just starting his TV career then, so he was not so famous yet, you know."

"How long did you work there?" Grant asked.

Jean Luc licked his lips, his mustache doing a little dance. "I do not know. Eh…maybe two years. Not so long."

"Why did you leave?" Grant asked, the question coming out more like a demand. The unspoken accusation in his tone had me taking a step closer to Jean Luc and putting a protective hand on his shoulder as he answered.

"I, well, I moved on."

"It had nothing to do with you being fired?"

"Fired!" Jean Luc shouted, his eyebrows hunkering down in a deep frown. "Who tells you zees?"

"Ashley Daniels," Grant supplied. "She and Tyler were married then, weren't they?"

"Yes," Jean Luc admitted. "But it's not true. I quit. Tyler, he was—how do you say?—difficult to work with. Demanding. He yells a lot."

"It's his trademark," I explained to Grant. "It's how he earned his reputation in the celebu-chef world on Kitchen Showdown ."

But Grant's eyes only flickered to me with the briefest of interest before focusing in on Jean Luc again.

"So there was bad blood between you two?" Grant clarified.

"No!" Jean Luc shook his head so hard his dark hair flopped onto his forehead. "No, we parted ways. Zat is all."

"Parted ways a long time ago," I added for emphasis. "Jean Luc has worked here for at least five years, right?" I asked, turning to him for confirmation.

He did more nodding, displacing more shiny black hairs. " Oui . At least."

"And how much contact did you have with Tyler in that time?" Grant pressed.

"None! Why would I? I promise you, when I call him to come work Emmy's event, it eez the first I talk to Tyler in years. I hadn't even seen him before today."

Grant stared at Jean Luc, his eyes narrowed as if trying to decide if he believed him.

"Look, even if he was difficult to work with, that was years ago," I pointed out. "What reason would Jean Luc possibly have to want Tyler dead now?"

Grant's eyes flickered up to meet mine. "That's a good question." Then his gaze settled on his prey again. "What did you and Tyler argue about yesterday?"

Jean Luc paused, seeming to sink into the chair more, his slight frame shrinking before my eyes. "It was nothing," he said so softly it was almost a whisper.

"Witnesses overhead you threatening him."

Jean Luc sucked in a deep breath, but he remained silent.

I felt my heart squeeze. Clearly he was holding something back. While I knew he was innocent, I also knew this did not look good.

"I'm sure it was a figure of speech," I piped up on his behalf. "People say things when they're heated. It doesn't make them killers."

Grant grunted noncommittally, his gaze still on the man shrinking in his chair before my very eyes.

"Was there anything else?" I challenged Grant.

He sucked in a slow breath, and I could see a whole host of thoughts running through the golden flecks in his eyes, but the only one he apparently decided to voice was, "Not at the moment."

"Then, if you'll excuse us, we have a hundred thirsty guests and no sommelier on duty," I told him, hearing a lot more bravado in the statement than I felt. Honestly, in the confined space with Grant, I felt a little like I was poking a caged lion. But at this point it was either poke or let him devour Jean Luc.

Luckily, Grant let it go, giving me a curt, impersonal nod before opening the door to my office and stalking out into the corridor, the waiting uniformed officers a quick step behind him.

I let an audible sigh of relief as soon as he left, and I could feel the tension draining from Jean Luc as well. While I itched to dig into exactly what he'd said to Tyler the day before, I wasn't lying when I'd said someone needed to be at the bar pouring.

"I'm so sorry, Emmy," Jean Luc said, his voice sounding small and pitiful. I ached to scoop him up in a fierce hug, but I knew his sense of pride would only take more injury if I did.

Instead, I shook my head. "No need to apologize. You've done nothing wrong. Of that I am sure." I sent him the most reassuring smile I could muster, having just been on the business end of Bad Cop.

He smiled back, hinting at some of his usual flair. " Merci . But I will understand if you do not want me to stay on for the festival—"

"Nonsense," I said, quickly shutting that down. Both because I had absolute faith in Jean Luc and because I had zero faith in Eddie's abilities to fill his void. "Take a moment to freshen up, and then your public awaits, Monsieur."

He grinned again, this one looking a bit stronger as he stood. "I shall not disappoint," he promised as he left the office.





CHAPTER FOUR


The crowd was slow to pick up as the morning turned into afternoon, and it was clear that the majority of foodies who'd come to see Tyler Daniels put on a show had stayed away that day. Though, whether it was due to the absence of the star or the fact that our vineyard was now a crime scene, I wasn't sure.

I roamed the stalls, stopping near the main stage as Gabby put on a show of making Fettuccini Pomodoro from scratch in a way she deemed easy enough for any home cook to follow along. While Tyler had been the larger-than-life personality of the two, Gabby had a certain friendly charm about her as she cooked, deftly breaking eggs into a little well of flour as she regaled the crowd with stories of her Nonna making Sunday dinner back in the old country. Her tone was easy and conversational—nothing like the woman I'd come to know offstage. I had to admit that her dish looked very enticing and smelled even better, the heavenly aromas wafting over the small crowd as she tossed together garlic, fragrant basil, and San Marzano tomatoes.

My stomach growled, reminding me I'd yet to take time out to eat that day. I took a detour to the banh mi booth, where I picked up two sandwiches, and then headed toward the Silver Girl display to deliver one to Ava, whom I suspected hadn't taken time for herself that afternoon either.

Only, as I approached, I realized she was not alone.

Standing next her table of handcrafted jewelry was a woman in a flowy, floral printed sundress and a man I knew all too well.

He looked up as I approached, and a wicked grin snaked across his dark features. "Well, there's my little wine and dine girl," David Allen said, taking a sandwich from my hands and digging in before I could stop him.

"I'm a woman, not a girl," I shot back automatically. "And I'm definitely not your girl. And that was my dinner." I handed the other sandwich to Ava. She gave me a grateful smile that said my guess at how busy she'd been was right.

"Well, well. I see we're in a feisty mood today," David teased, offering back the banh mi he'd taken a large bite from.

I shook my head and shot him a look.

David Allen and I had a complicated relationship. When I first met him, he was my prime suspect in the murder of his stepfather. While he'd turned out to be innocent of that particular crime, there were several gray areas of the criminal law code he traversed on a regular basis, including making a tidy living as a card shark. Not that he needed the cash. David came from a wealthy though highly dysfunctional family (see murdered stepfather reference above). He lived in the guest house of their vacation estate, had a healthy trust fund to keep him flush with video games and weed, and when he wasn't bilking unsuspecting poker players at the country club of their hardly earned cash, he showed his moody paintings at local galleries. Money was not something David Allen needed—he just liked the thrill of getting it.

While I didn't totally approve of David's extracurricular activities, he had displayed some chivalry recently when I'd been in a jam at the Sonoma Links golf club, coming to my aid at just the right moment. I was eternally grateful to him for it, but to say we were in the friend zone would be overstating the situation some. We coexisted peacefully.

Mostly.

"We were just talking about you," David told me, a gleam in his eyes that made me instantly nervous. "You seem to have created quite the excitement up here at your deadly little winery."

"Ha! Excitement is one way to put it," the woman in the sundress said. Up close I recognized her as Ashley Daniels, food critic and Tyler's ex-wife. Though, she looked as if she was as far as possible from mourning—decked out in a sunny red straw hat, high heels, and even more jangling bracelets than the previous day.

"Ms. Daniels," I greeted her. "I'm so sorry for your loss."

"Oh, honey, don't be. Do I look like I'm at a loss?" she asked with a wide smile, voicing my very thoughts.

"David stopped by just as I was telling Ashley here that we were on the fence about running the full four days of the festival," Ava jumped in.

"Well, I applaud you for going on with the show today," Ashley said, actually clapping her hands together, making the bracelets clack like castanets. "I'm sure Tyler caused you enough inconvenience in life—don't let his death spoil this for you."

David chuckled, leaning against Ava's table. "Wow, and I thought I was cold."

"Oh, honey, pure ice runs through these veins," Ashley responded, still grinning. "That's what a decade of living with Tyler Daniels' ego does to a body."

David nodded his understanding. Before devouring the rest of my dinner.

"Uh, well, I'm not sure we'll be continuing the festival tomorrow," I hedged.

"Oh, what a shame." Ashley frowned. "I bought a four-day ticket."

So had at least two hundred other people, the income from which I was counting on to keep us in the black next month. "I really don't know how many people will even be back." I glanced around at the sparse crowd.

"Look, if you close, you have to refund, correct?" Ashley asked.

"Well, I—" I looked to Ava, not wanting to admit anything until I checked my bank account balance. Could I even afford to refund everyone?

"But if you stay open and people decide not to come on their own…well, that's their choice, isn't it?" she reasoned.

"I-I guess that makes sense," I admitted. I still wasn't sure we were paying proper respect to the deceased star, but I was starting to think I was in the minority there.

"Really," Ashley went on as she picked up a silver necklace, turning it over in her hands, "it's not like anyone can blame you . You didn't kill Tyler." She paused. "Did you?"

"Wh-what? No!"

She winked at me. "Just teasing. Though, I would like to shake that man's hand." She paused again. "Or woman's," she amended.

"You were close to Tyler—who do you think did kill him?" Ava asked.

But Ashley just laughed. "Oh, honey, it's been years since I was even in the neighborhood of close with Tyler. He sends alimony checks. I keep my distance. That's it. I lived the Tyler show for almost ten long years. Plenty long enough to know the real man behind the catchphrases. And his personality was not as pretty as his pictures."

"Then you were married to Tyler when Jean Luc worked for him," I said, recalling my previous conversation with Grant. "At his Los Angeles restaurant?"

Ashley nodded. "Yes. Jean Luc tended bar, so I saw him occasionally."

"You told Detective Grant that Jean Luc was fired."

Ashley blinked at me. "H-how would you know that?"

"Emmy and Detective Grant are close," David said, infusing the statement with much more meaning than made me comfortable. " Quite close, in fact."

"We're…acquaintances," I said.

David raised one dark eyebrow into his long hair but thankfully didn't say anything.

"Oh, I see," Ashley said, eyes going to the silver necklace in her hands again. "Well, yes, the detective did ask me about Tyler and Jean Luc's relationship, and I did say he'd been fired."

"Was he?" I pressed, knowing that was not my sommelier's version of events.

"Well, yes. I mean, I assumed he was. Wasn't he?" She glanced up at me, blinking innocently. "He and Tyler were always at each other's throats. Tyler's explosive personality was one thing he didn't have to fake for the cameras. And Jean Luc—well, those French are just so expressive!"

I had a feeling that not every person from France could be or would appreciate being described that way, but I let it go. Mostly because, well, it did describe this particular person to a tee.

"But you didn't actually witness Tyler fire Jean Luc? Or hear Tyler mention it to you specifically?"

Ashley shrugged. "Like I said, I assumed. But it wasn't like Tyler and I engaged in late-night pillow talk or anything. Back then Tyler's head was usually on someone else's pillow."

David snorted, quickly covering it.

"Tyler cheated on you?" Ava cut in, her tone sympathetic.

But Ashley laughed again, as if she'd long ago spent all negative emotion surrounding that subject. "That man couldn't walk the line if he was on a tightrope. The bigger the bust the better. And, of course, as soon as his TV shows started airing, the man had hordes of foodie groupies. That was the last straw for me."

"How long ago was this?" I asked, hoping I didn't seem like I was prying as much as I actually was. But if Ashley Daniels had harbored animosity toward Tyler for cheating, it was a lovely motive to want him dead. And she was far from a grieving window—or even ex-widow.

"That was ages ago!" she said, waving my question off with the same airy attitude she'd had throughout the conversation about her dead ex. "Look, we both got what we wanted—Tyler was free to make sweet, sweet cupcakes with whatever foodie floozy he wanted, and I got a lovely alimony check each month."

Which meant she had very little reason to want him gone. No Tyler, no more alimony checks.

My disappointment must have been plain on my face, as Ashley laughed again. "Sorry, darling, but really, Tyler had reason to want me dead, not the other way around. My divorce decree was ironclad. Even his fancy attorney couldn't get the payments lowered."

"His attorney tried to lower your alimony payments?" Ava asked, sympathy in her voice again.

Ashley shrugged. "Yes, but like I said, he was unsuccessful."

"Did Tyler say why?"

"I didn't speak to Tyler, my dear. That's like chatting with a brick wall." She laughed at her own joke. "But his attorney said it was because of the lawsuit."

"Lawsuit?" I asked. "Someone was suing Tyler?"

"Well, yes." She blinked at me as if it was common knowledge and she was surprised I had to ask. "Alec Post."

That was news. "Gabriela's boyfriend?"

"Well, I suppose he is now, but Gabby met Alec through Tyler. Alec used to work for him. He cooked in his Sonoma restaurant, actually."

"What was Alec suing him over?" Ava piped up.

But Ashley just shrugged. "Haven't the foggiest. You'd have to ask Alec."



* * *



I left Ashley haggling over the price of the silver necklace with Ava and noticed David Allen followed me away from the booth.

"Well?" he asked as I slowly wound through the festivalgoers.

"Well what?"

"Well, aren't you going to fill me in on the victim in your vineyard?" He grinned mischievously at me.

"Et tu, David?" I asked.

The grin grew. "Meaning?"

"Meaning, I'm afraid all anyone is here for today is sensationalism." I sighed, venting my general frustrations his way. "This is not how I wanted people to be talking about Oak Valley."

"Aw, poor Ems," David said, laying an arm around my shoulders in a move that was just a little too familiar to feel comfortable. His shirt smelled faintly of marijuana and some spicy aftershave, which was a much more pleasant combination than I would have guessed, and his lazy grin held the slightest hint of something predatory beneath it as he added, "Come have a glass of wine and tell me all about it."

"Hard pass," I decided. Chatting with David always made me feel like a small fish swimming precariously close to the big shark. If I was lucky, the shark would protect me from the big fish. If I was unlucky, I didn't want to know what those teeth could do.

Though, if David was offended, he didn't show it. "Well, at least tell me we're going to find out why Alec Post was suing his former employer."

"I doubt Alec Post will want to discuss the finer details of a lawsuit against a murder victim with me," I reasoned.

David shook his head. "You don't need him to. If the suit was filed in California, it will be public record. All civil court records are."

I paused, feeling my left eyebrow go up. "Since when do you know the California legal system so well?"

"Since I started playing poker with Judge Tomlinson."

"Poor Judge Tomlinson," I mused.

David laughed. "Well don't feel too sorry for him. The old goat's a total racist and plans to cut his gay son out of his will."

"So now you're card sharking for humanity?"

David shook his head at me. "Don't confuse sentiment with intention, Ems. You know I'd shark my grandmother, given the chance."

Interesting statement, since his grandmother was in jail. The Allen/Price family was highly dysfunctional.

"So you think we could access details of Alec's lawsuit online somewhere?" I asked David as I pulled out my phone.

"Possibly. How many details depends on how recently it was filed, but we could at least get an overview."

He looked over my shoulder as I opened a browser and typed in Sonoma County Court. A search engine directed me to the Superior Court's website, where, with a couple quick clicks, I found a page to search civil cases by date and keyword. I had to guess at a few parameters, like whether we were talking small claims court or high dollar, but after trying a few dates, I finally found a hit for Daniels in the unlimited civil cases section—claims over twenty-five thousand dollars.

Details were, unfortunately, sparse—just a case number, the names of the two parties, Post v. Daniels, and the claim of the action: Fraud.

"Fraud?" I frowned at the word. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but this threw me. "What could Tyler have been fraudulent about that could have hurt Alec?"

"Hard to say," David answered.

"You think it had something to do with when Alec worked at his restaurant? Like, maybe Alec saw something or overheard something?"

"It really could be anything. Suit was just filed a couple of months ago," he noted. "No judgment yet."

"Which means?" I asked.

"Anybody can sue anybody else for just about anything. Frivolous lawsuits are brought all the time. Since it's still pending, it's hard to know if Alec was just tying up Tyler's time and money or if there was a legitimate claim."

I bit my lip, staring at the screen. The SCV court that was listed as scheduled to hear the case dealt in claims twenty-five thousand…and up. Meaning we could be talking several hundred thousand or even millions. If Tyler's lawyer had actually tried to get Ashley's alimony payments lowered, that made me think we could be talking about a significant amount. And it also seemed as if his lawyer thought there was at least some merit to the claims.

I glanced toward the stage where I'd last seen Alec, standing supportively on the sidelines when Gabby had demonstrated her chicken Milanese. No sign of either now, but a couple of Tyler's former glam squad members were milling around, glasses of wine in hand. With David on my heels, I quickly threaded my way through the crowd toward the raised stage and addressed the taller of the two bleached blonds.

"Excuse me?" I called up.

He paused, turning his attention my way.

"I'm looking for Alec Post. He was here with Gabby earlier?"

"Tall guy? Kind of young?" he asked.

I nodded. "Have you seen him?"

But the blond shook his head. "Sorry, I think they left. Gabby said she had a headache from all the pollen in the air."

I bit back a snide comment. The pollen count today was at moderate to none. "Any idea if they went back to the hotel?"

But the blond just shrugged. "Sorry."

I thanked him, trying not to feel too dejected as I turned away. I could try calling Gabby to talk to Alec, but this was honestly the type of conversation that I wanted to have face to face—where I could see the millennial's reactions.

"So, what now?" David asked, leaning casually against the stage.

I glanced at the time readout on my phone. Just after six. While Gabby might be done for the day, there was one place that was now open for business. Tyler's Place, in downtown Sonoma. Where Tyler's business partner, Mark Black—who still hadn't gotten back to me—worked.

And I still hadn't eaten.

"Feel like grabbing dinner in town?" I asked.

One of David's dark eyebrows rose into his hairline. "What happened to the hard pass?"

"Are you coming with me or not?" I sighed.

"Oh, I'm coming," he assured me, his eyes still twinkling with mocking humor. "You think I'd pass up a date?"

I scoffed. "This is not a date. You should be so lucky."

"Hmm." He narrowed his eyes at me, a grin spreading across his face.

"'Hmm' what?"

"I do get on a lucky streak now and then." The grin grew. "Just ask Judge Tomlinson."

"Just for that, you're buying."





CHAPTER FIVE


Half an hour later we pulled up to Tyler's Place on E. Napa. While the restaurant had started as a fine dining establishment, garnering some nice reviews early on that had gotten Tyler noticed on the foodie scene, it was now a kitschy monument to Tyler's onscreen persona, covered in neon writing and a large picture of Tyler's sparkling white smile ten feet high on the side of the building.

David parked the white Rolls Royce that was a hand-me-down from his mother, and we walked into the restaurant, where a life-size cardboard cutout of Tyler greeted us. At its base, some patrons had put flowers, making for an unconventional memorial in the lobby.

Which, by the way, was packed. If Tyler's death had turned people off to my Food and Wine Festival, it had only brought them in droves to Tyler's Place. The lobby was wall-to-wall patrons awaiting tables—sitting on benches along the windows, lining the walls, and spilling out into the walkways. David and I fought our way through them to approach a woman at a wooden hostess station, whose nametag read Mandy .

"Wow, busy tonight, huh?" I noted.

She laughed. "You're telling me. I haven't even had a chance for a potty break since I got on shift."

I couldn't help a smile at her candor. "We were hoping to get a table for two," I told her, fearing how long that wait would be.

"Oh wow. Do you have reservations?"

"Uh, no, not really," I admitted.

She pursed her lips together. "Well, the wait is about an hour for a table right now." She glanced at the packed waiting room.

"I'm guessing you're not always this busy," I said.

She shook her head. "God, no. But, well…" She bit her lip and lowered her voice. "One of the owners died." She gestured toward the makeshift memorial.

I nodded. "Yes, I heard about Tyler."

"It's been crazy here. The fire marshal almost fined us when he saw vigil candles outside, and security had to take a couple of nuns out who wouldn't stop praying at the silverware station." Then she paused, leaning in close. "You didn't hear it from me, but we've been so busy, management even raised the prices on the signature burger by a whole buck today." She pulled herself back upright. "So crazy, right?"

"Nuts," David agreed with a grin.

"Any chance of a spot at the bar?" I asked.

Mandy glanced behind her. "I could check. But honestly, the stools are super uncomfortable. You won't want to sit there for too long."

"Hashtag no filter," David mumbled to me.

I tried to cover my grin again. "Thanks, but I think it would be fine."

"'K. Lemme check," Mandy said, stepping away for a minute.

I watched a couple of ladies in all black wearing comical veils come in the front door, sniffle into actual handkerchiefs, and lay roses at cardboard Tyler's feet.

"Even in death he's got groupies," David mused.

"Seems people either loved him or hated him," I noted.

"Or killed him." David sent me a wink.

I was about to respond when Mandy hurried back, letting us know she had two stools near the bathrooms that had just opened up. Though, "we didn't hear it from her," the bathroom plumbing had been backed up by someone trying to flush a picture of Tyler down the toilet earlier, so it might not smell the best. I saw David having second thoughts, but I quickly assured her we'd take the chance and let her lead us to the only two empty barstools at the polished chrome bar top.

"Excuse me, Mandy," I asked her before she slipped back to her podium. "Do you know if Mark Black is in tonight?"

She nodded. "You're friends?"

"Possible business associates," I fibbed. "Emmy Oak. I own Oak Valley Vineyards."

"I'll let him know you're here," she promised before hurrying off to greet the three couples who'd come in the door after us.

"Business associates?" David Allen asked as we perused the bar menu.

I shrugged. "It's possible he may want to stock our wines here. Possible even Tyler mentioned doing so before he died."

"Possible or actual?"

"Semantics," I told him.

We both ordered Tyler's signature "Turn Up the Heat" Burger (even though it was a dollar overpriced), and I added a glass of the Zinfandel, which was good, though it wasn't as full-bodied as ours. Obviously I was a bit biased, but maybe Mark Black really should consider doing business with us.

I was halfway through my burger—which was juicy with a spicy aioli that was perfectly balanced between tangy and creamy—when a tall, thick man stepped up behind the bar where we were seated. "Emmy Oak?" he asked.

I awkwardly swallowed the massive bite I'd been chewing. "Yes?"

"I'm Mark Black. My hostess said you wanted to talk to me about some wine?" His voice was husky and deep, hinting at a bit of a New York accent. He was stocky, and his dark hair was liberally shot with gray at the temples. I put him in his mid-to-late-forties, around the same age as Tyler, though his face was much more weather worn than his camera-ready partner's had been. He was dressed in simple gray slacks and a navy button down shirt, rolled at the sleeves in an approachably casual way, and his nose was just slightly crooked, having spoken of being broke at some time in his youth.

I quickly dabbed at my lips with my napkin. "Uh, yes. I actually called you earlier today as well."

"My apologies. It's been a rather hectic day. I haven't had a chance to check my messages yet." His voice was appropriately solemn for someone who had just lost a partner and possibly friend. But the sentiment didn't quite reach his eyes, which shifted from me to David as if sizing us up.

"Please, no need to apologize," I told him. "And I'm so sorry for your loss." I felt like I'd been repeating that line a lot lately.

And as with the other times I'd uttered it, the person on the receiving end seemed less than broken up about it.

Mark simply nodded, as if I were telling him the burger had arrived cold.

"Tyler was actually at my winery for the Fall Food and Wine Festival when he…"

"When he expired so very tragically and prematurely," David jumped in.

Mark's gaze flickered to him, taking in the black T-shirt, overly long hair, and worn jeans.

"David Allen," my companion offered, sticking a hand out Mark's way. "Friend of the winery."

Friend might be overstating our relationship a little, but I let that go.

"Mark Black." He shook it warily before turning back to me. "And, yes, Tyler told me he was working a winery event. Sorry, I didn't put the name together until now."

I shook my head. "No, I'm sure you've had a lot to deal with today."

He sighed. "You can't imagine. Press have been calling since dawn, and the morbid mourners were lined up on the sidewalk even before we opened." He nodded toward the lobby, where I saw a busty woman placing a bouquet of pink roses at the feet of Cardboard Tyler.

"I imagine this has all been twice as difficult considering the strained terms you two were on," I said, watching his reaction closely.

I didn't have to watch too hard, as his gaze whipped to mine. "Excuse me?"

"I heard that you two fought the last time you saw him. Didn't you?"

His eyes narrowed, his jaw clenching. "You heard?"

"Uh, Gabby told me she overhead you two. Not that she was eavesdropping. She was just…concerned." I hoped I hadn't just thrown the Italian diva under the bus. The way Mark was glaring at me, I had a feeling he was mentally driving it into someone right now.

He sucked in a long, slow breath, gaze flickering to the couple drinking mojitos beside us, as if making sure no was paying attention to us before continuing. "Yes. We had words. But it was just business."

"People kill over business all the time," David casually threw out there.

The look Mark Black shot him could have frozen a volcano.

"Just an observation," David covered smoothly. "I'm sure you didn't kill your business partner. I mean, why would you, with the way business is clearly booming here?" He punctuated the statement with a wide smile.

Mark's eyes narrowed in return.

"Gabby said there was something you needed Tyler to fix?" I asked gently.

"Gabby said that, huh?" Mark asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

I nodded.

"Gabby has a big mouth," he shot back.

Agreed. But by the way Mark was starting to turn red and his jaw clenched tight, I had a feeling she wasn't entirely a liar.

"Was Tyler in trouble, Mr. Black?" I asked. "Maybe some sort of trouble that got him killed?"

His gaze bounced from me to David as he tried to make diamonds out of his back teeth a little more. Then finally, he must have decided we were relatively harmless and let out a long sigh. "Yeah, you could say Tyler was in trouble. Or more accurately, he was the trouble."

"How so?" I prodded.

"He had booked a commercial shoot at the restaurant next month."

"That doesn't seem terrible," I said, shooting a questioning look at David. His eyebrows were drawn down in a frown of confusion too.

"No, it wouldn't be," Mark went on, "if we hadn't just shot a very expensive commercial last month. And one three months before that. Both of which lost money hand over fist, but Tyler said he needed to shoot a fresh spot to air during his show." He sighed again, as if trying to yoga breathe his frustration away.

"So, Tyler was playing loose with advertising funds?" I clarified.

"Tyler played loose with all funds. Look, the guy knew how to work a crowd, but he knew nothing about running a business. He breezed in every two months like clockwork, flashing his smile around and pretending to actually have a hand in this place. But I'm the one holding it all together here." He paused. "Or trying to."

"So the 'fix it' was…?" David asked.

"Cancel the commercial shoot! Tyler said he'd prepaid for the crew, but I told him to get a refund. No way did we need another losing commercial when we had two in the can already."

"I take it Tyler did not get a chance to fix it before he died," I assumed.

Black shook his head. "No. Once again, I'm left to clean up the mess."

Which was plenty of reason to be angry at Tyler, but I wasn't sure it was reason enough to want him dead.

"Alec Post used to work here, correct?" I asked him, changing gears.

"Alec Post?" Black blinked at me a couple of times, as if trying to place the name.

"He has a webcast now called The Digest, but I believe he used to work here under Tyler. As a chef?"

Black nodded, recognition dawning. "Right. Sous chef. That was back when Tyler actually spent time in the kitchen." He snorted.

"I suspect he did less of that when he landed the TV show?" David asked.

"Show s ," Black corrected. "Plural. And he was not one to let us forget that."

"Did you know if there was any animosity between the two? Alec and Tyler? Any sort of falling out?"

He frowned, his bushy eyebrows taking on that menacing look again. "No. I mean, that was what—five years ago?"

"Alec recently filed a lawsuit against Tyler," David jumped in. "For fraud."

The bushy eyebrows moved north, but Black didn't respond.

"Any idea what that was about?" I asked.

He shook his head. "This is the first I'm hearing of it."

"So, Tyler didn't do anything that strikes you as fraudulent while they worked together?"

Black shrugged. "Look, Tyler was no prince. He was loud, arrogant, and often just downright mean. Did he make this Post guy angry enough to sue him? Probably. But you'd have to ask him."

Believe me, it was on my to-do list.

"Well, at least it appears Tyler's posthumously bringing in some revenue," David said, gesturing behind him to the packed restaurant.

Mark grunted. "This won't put a dent in what Tyler's done to our accounts." He paused. "But you're right. It doesn't hurt."

It was clear no one was mourning Tyler. Or, correction, no one who knew him was mourning. There were plenty of people—mostly women, I noted—in the lobby who looked like they'd been running their mascara over his demise. But I'd yet to encounter someone from his day-to-day life who wasn't speaking ill of this particular dead. While Black said he was left cleaning up Tyler's mess again, he did now have comfort in knowing it was the last time he'd be put in such a situation.

"Mandy said you wanted to talk about your wines?" Black said, pulling me out of my thoughts.

"Huh?" I blinked at him, trying not to see a potential murder suspect.

"Mandy," he said, gesturing toward the hostess who'd seated us. "She mentioned something about possibly serving your wines here? That Tyler suggested it?"

"Oh. Right." I cleared my throat. Knowing I was terrible liar, I tried to stick to the truth as much as possible. "Well, I know the tourist crowd always appreciates when they're served local wines. We've got a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Zinfandel, and a few cases of small run Petite Sirah."

"Impressive. How large did you say your winery is?"

"Just under ten acres. But we use it wisely, and it's been in the family for generations."

He nodded. "I'm assuming you'll sell at wholesale prices?"

"Of course," I agreed, mentally trying to calculate our profit margins on those.

"Okay, tell you what? Bring some samples by, and I'll consider it."

"Sounds great," I told him, meaning it. While it had been a cover story, it was an opportunity that could be lucrative for us. Especially if people kept pouring into Tyler's Place in droves of hungry mourners.



* * *



"Well he was pleasant," David said, laying on the sarcasm thick as we left Tyler's Place and drove back toward the winery.

"He wasn't very cut up about Tyler, was he?"

David shook his head. "It doesn't appear anyo