Excerpt: On Lavender Lane

Book 3 : Shelter Bay Series

On Lavender Lane (Shelter Bay Series) by JoAnn Ross

Madeline Durand was braising short ribs in an Omaha department store when her husband’s sex video went viral.

The day, which would go down as one of the worst in her life, hadn’t exactly begun on a high note. Her early-morning flight from New York was delayed for three hours because of a late-spring storm that had barreled into Nebraska, bringing with it tree-bending winds, snow, and ice.

Lots and lots of ice.

On the plus side, when she finally did arrive in Omaha, she was greeted by a sixty-something woman wearing a puffy down coat the same color as her weather-chapped cheeks, and a red knit hat pulled down over salt-and-pepper hair. Her down-to-earth, Midwestern friendliness gave Madeline hope that her luck may have taken a turn for the better.

“Hi, Chef Madeline! I’m Birdy Hinlemeir,” she said enthusiastically, pulling off a red-and-white-striped mitten and thrusting out her hand. “Head of the store’s special-events department. We’re all so excited about hosting your cooking demonstration today.”

“I’m happy to be here.” Which was the absolute truth. After holding her breath while the pilot landed in what appeared to be near whiteout conditions, Madeline was infinitely grateful to be back on solid ground.

“Sorry about the weather,” Birdy said as they walked out into air thick with swirling white flakes. “We tend to have four seasons here: almost winter, winter, still winter, and wow, this has gotta be the hottest summer ever!”

“I take it we’re still in winter.” Madeline sucked in a breath as a freezing mix of snow and sleet pelted her face.

“Yep. We don’t tend to get snow this late, but the weather’s been really strange the past couple years. I guess Mother Nature had one more storm up her sleeve.”

“You needn’t apologize. Fortunately, I won’t be cooking outdoors.”

“Oh, the store will definitely be warm enough,” the older woman assured her. “Your dish for the finished part of the demonstration arrived this morning, all packed in dry ice, so my assistant’s heating it up for you.”

“I appreciate that.” Short ribs took three hours in the oven, so, following Julia Child’s motto that a few simple steps ahead of time could make all the difference in the end, Madeline had preprepared a dish to serve to the audience.

“Good thinking, going with beef, since we’re definitely a meat-and-potatoes crowd out here. It’s not that often we get a celebrity at the store—usually it’s just some local selling homemade jam or sausage—so we wanted to do it up right.”

“I appreciate the effort. But I’m not a celebrity. I just cook.”

“Well, to us you’re certainly a TV star. I’ve never missed an episode of Comfort Cooking, but your new show, Dinner at Home, got my family sitting down at the table together again.”

“That’s always lovely to hear,” Madeline said through teeth she’d clenched together to keep them from chattering.

“Of course, my own three kids have left the nest,” Birdy confided. “But my daughter got laid off from her management job at ConAgra. The same week, her cheating husband left her for the woman who claimed to be her best friend. Yah. Right. That’s a real good friend.” She shook her head in disgust. “Anyway, with money tight right now, she and her kids have moved in with me until she gets back on her feet.”

“I’m sorry about her marriage.”

“Oh, in the long run, it’s probably for the best. He was a no-good louse from the get-go. I tried to warn her, but what can you do?” She shrugged well-padded shoulders as she clicked a remote, causing a tomato-red SUV a few cars away in the lot to chirp. “They never had anything in common. Nothing like you and that sexy French chef you married. Is it true one of his ancestors cooked for Napoleon?”

“So they say.” Maxime had never been shy about mentioning that bit of family history.

“It’s good to know your roots. One of my greats, going back several generations, came here to Nebraska on a covered wagon from Philadelphia. She had a baby along the way, and both mother and son lived to carry on the family line.” She opened the hatch of the SUV, took Madeline’s carry-on bag, and tossed it into the back

Desperate for warmth, Madeline scrambled into the passenger’s seat, only to find the inside of the car as cold as outside.

“We’ll get the heat going right away,” Birdy promised, as she switched on the car, causing icy air to blast out of the dashboard vents. “Does your husband ever come with you on any of these trips?”

“Not so far. But running all his restaurants involves a lot of traveling of his own. He’s currently in Las Vegas.” And probably lounging by the pool while she was in danger of becoming a Popsicle.

“Small world. My Heather and Tom, her ex, got married there,” she said as they headed out of the parking lot. “By one of those Elvis impersonators, which should’ve been Heather’s first clue that they weren’t exactly compatible. Tom’s into all the typical outdoors stuff. Hunting, ice-fishing, four-wheeling.”

“I imagine those would be popular activities here.”

“True enough. But Heather prefers reading and going to museums and such. She volunteers at the library. I don’t think they have a cookbook she hasn’t read. She’s the one who got me watching cooking shows. Two years ago, Hamburger Helper and a green-bean casserole were about as fancy as I got. Now I can whip up a three-course meal from what I find in the pantry.”

“That’s a useful skill to have.” It was also something Madeline stressed on both her shows.

“You betcha. That’s our Dancing Cranes,” Birdy pointed toward a huge statue that was barely visible through the horizontally blowing snow. “It’s the largest bronze statue in North America.”

“That’s impressive.”

“We like to think so. I realize that a lot of people on the coasts never think about us out here in the flyover heartland, but we’re not all hicks in sticks. Kool-Aid and the Reuben sandwich were both invented right here in Nebraska.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It’s true. Too bad you’re not going to be here longer. There’s even a Kool-Aid exhibit in the Hastings Museum, just a couple hours from here. Did you know that during the Depression, one of those little packages cost more than a loaf of bread?”

“I had no idea.”

“It sure enough did. But people bought the stuff anyway. Imagine that. Hastings got an offer from some marketing folks to change the name of their town to Kool-Aid, Nebraska, but they declined the honor.” Her dry tone suggested how ridiculous she’d found the suggestion

“I think they made the right choice,” Madeline said. “I haven’t always lived in New York. I spent my childhood in an Italian village with my parents, then moved to an Oregon coastal town that’s kept its small-town flavor when I was thirteen.”

Shelter Bay was also where she’d given her teenage heart to a rich “summer boy,” only to have it shattered by Labor Day. But she’d tried, with not always successful results, to put that dark day in the past.

“I read all about that.” The pompom on her hat bobbed as the woman nodded. “After your folks died in that plane crash, which was a crying shame, you went to live with your grandmother on her lavender farm.

“You can find anything on the Internet these days,” she clarified at Madeline’s surprised glance. “I even found your wedding photos. You sure were a picture in that white dress.”

“My wedding photos are on the Internet?”

“The photographer has them in his gallery.”

“I hadn’t realized that.” The idea of her personal photos out there on the World Wide Web was more than a little unsettling. Unlike her celebrity-chef husband, who thrived in the spotlight, Madeline had always been a private person. It had taken a lot for her to get comfortable in front of the TV cameras.

“Well, you needn’t worry, because they’re beautiful. Did you make that pretty flowered cake yourself?”

“No. I’m not much of a baker.” Unlike the creative freedom and improvisation allowed by the comfort food she’d become known for, baking required precision, a strict attention to measurements, and much more patience than Madeline possessed. “My husband’s pastry chef made it.”

“I stick to cookies when it comes to baking,” Birdy said cheerfully. “They’re a lot harder to mess up than cakes or pies, and the grandkids love them.” Her comfortable way with a total stranger reminded Madeline of her grandmother, Sofia. “My mother-in-law’s from South Dakota, so, now that she’s passed, I got the job of cooking her kuchen for this year’s Easter dinner.”

As she launched into a lengthy explanation of the pressures of duplicating the recipe, which used raspberries atop a custard base, an oncoming car fishtailed on the icy road, then headed directly toward them.

Birdy twisted the wheel and braked at the same time. Although she managed to avoid impact, the SUV went into a skid.

As Madeline clutched the door handle, they skated on what felt like an ice rink beneath the tires, bumping over the rumble strip in the middle of the road.

“Hold on,” Birdy advised with what Madeline found to be remarkable calm. “We’re about to come to a stop.”

Which they did as they plowed, hood first, into a frozen, exhaust-darkened snowbank.

“Don’t you worry.” After trying to back up only sent the rear wheels spinning, the woman, who seemed to have sturdy pioneer blood flowing in her veins, dug into her coat pocket and pulled out a phone. “We’ll get you to the mall on time. Not that they can start without you.”

She punched a single number on the keypad. “No point in calling for a tow truck, since we’re not all that stuck. The police will be here in a two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

“You have the police department on speed dial?”

“My youngest boy, Jeb, is on the force, so I keep his number handy. He’s the one who’ll pull us out.”

And sure enough, before Madeline’s feet could turn completely to ice cubes, a huge black SUV with white doors came up behind them, blue-and-red roof lights flashing.

The officer who climbed out of the driver’s seat was large enough to have played linebacker on the Cornhuskers football team. He was wearing sensible snowpack boots, thick gloves, a parka, and a fur hat with ear flaps. While his partner jumped out of the shotgun seat to set a flare and direct traffic, he crunched along the plowed snow at the edge of the roadway.

“Third time this week, Ma,” he greeted her. Although his expression was resigned, his blue eyes revealed relief that the accident hadn’t been worse.

“It wasn’t my fault,” she said. “The driver of the other car, who didn’t even stick around to see the trouble he caused, went across the line first.” She turned toward Madeline. “Tell him.”

“Your mother did a lot better than I would have under the circumstances,” Madeline said.

“Driven in a lot of snow, have you, ma’am?” he asked.

“No, but—”

“You must be the celebrity chef from New York City,” he cut her off.

Madeline was about to explain again that she wasn’t a celebrity, but decided it wasn’t germane to their situation.

“She is. And we need to get her to the mall on time.” Birdy might be a good foot shorter than her son, but that didn’t stop her from pulling out her mom voice. “Jebediah, meet Chef Madeline Durand. Chef Madeline, this is my baby boy. Who I’m usually super proud of.” She drummed her mitten-clad fingers on the steering wheel. “Except for when he wastes time scolding his mother when she has important things to do.”

“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” he said politely to Madeline. “And I worry about you,” he told his mother.

“Well, that makes us even for all the years I’ve worried about you,,” she shot back. “Now, if you don’t mind, we’re going to be late if we don’t get this show on the road.”

“That’s very good,” Madeline murmured after Officer Jebediah Hinlemeir trudged back to his Omaha Police SUV.

“One of the perks of being a mother,” Birdy said cheerfully, as snowflakes began to pile up on the windshield. “You get to boss around people bigger than you. Jeb’s about to become a father himself in the next month or so, but he’ll always be my baby. You and your husband planning to have kids anytime soon?”

“I do want children—someday—but we’re both occupied with our careers right now.”

Madeline wasn’t prepared to share the fact that she and Maxime weren’t exactly on the same page when it came to starting a family. Admittedly, the timing wasn’t right now, when she was forced to give every waking moment to her work and supporting Maxime’s far-flung enterprises. At twenty-eight, she had years left to convince her husband that she could, as her own mother had, successfully combine work and a career, despite Maxime’s fear that a child would take her focus off her career. Or, more likely, as she often suspected, off him.

“Well, you’re still young,” Birdy pointed out. “Of course, your husband’s quite a bit older, but age isn’t such a big deal for men. They’re not the ones with their eggs getting older by the day.”

And wasn’t that a fun thought?

It didn’t take long for Jebediah and his partner to pull them out of the snowbank, and within fifteen minutes the SUV was crunching its way across the mall parking lot.

“Nice thing about winter,” Birdy said, her optimism once again reminding Madeline of her grandmother. “The snow fills in all the potholes.”

The kitchen setup in the store was as good as promised. As she entered the area to the enthusiastic applause of all the women—along with a few men—who’d braved the weather to show up today, Madeline felt almost like a rock star.

Birdy’s assistant had warmed up the preprepared dish, sending the rich aroma of wine gravy and braised meat wafting throughout the store.

“That scrumptious smell’s goin’ to be drawing them in from all over the mall,” Birdy predicted.

Which appeared to be true as the crowd grew while Madeline demonstrated how to caramelize meat in a sauté pan from ChefSteel, the company with whom her agent had negotiated an endorsement deal. Birdy had gone all out, setting up a video camera, which allowed those in the back of the crowd to watch on a large-screen television.

“Sizzling’s good,” Madeline said as the olive oil danced. “This part takes patience because you want the meat to be nicely colored on all sides. That’s what elevates your dish to perfection.”

She took the ribs out of the pan and put them on a plate. “Now we’ll sauté our mirepoix—which is simply a fancy French name for a mixture of cut celery, carrots, and onions—in the drippings from the meat.”

Again, the assistant had come through with the prep work.

“The fat in the pan is bringing up more meat flavors into the veggies,” Madeline said as she stirred them. “We’ll cook just until they’re tender. An interesting little bit of trivia is that mirepoix is named for a duke who was a field marshal for King Louis the Fifteenth. According to the stories, despite being incompetent, he was given the post of ambassador because the king appreciated his wife’s charms.”

As always, that story raised eyebrows.

“Whatever Mirepoix’s alleged failings, the man could definitely cook. He gave his name to lots of different sauces, but this one’s become the standard.”

As she went on to demonstrate how to deglaze with balsamic vinegar and red wine, Madeline thought the bit of eighteenth-century gossip was the cause of the murmurs humming through the crowd. Then she noticed a couple sharing an iPhone, while others around them were busily tapping into their own smart phones.

Curious, she glanced over at Birdy, who, after looking up from her own phone’s screen, went as pale as the onions sautéing in the pan.

The older woman hurried over to Madeline. “Now that Chef Madeline’s been good enough to share her wonderful culinary tips with us, Julie will be serving the final result,” she announced. “And I know you’ll all enjoy it.” She took hold of Madeline’s arm and dragged her behind a tall counter filled with shiny, upscale coffeemakers.

“What’s wrong?” Madeline asked.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, dear, but one of the women in the crowd apparently hit on a YouTube video while Googling your name. My guess is she’s a shopper who didn’t know about you being here today and went online to find out more about you.”

“Which video?” The network kept several of her past episodes on their Web site.

Birdy winced. “It’s hard to explain. Maybe I’d best just show you.” She handed Madeline her phone. The screen was small and a distracting glare from the store’s bright overhead lights at first made it difficult for Madeline to make out what she was seeing.

It appeared to be a man and woman having sex. Energetic, hot, sweaty sex. Fortunately, the phone’s sound had been muted

Madeline was still wondering what this had to do with her when realization hit like a meat mallet to her head.

It wasn’t just any man. The crescent-shaped birthmark on his butt gave him away.

It was Maxime.

Her husband.

Proving, Madeline thought as white spots like snowflakes began to dance in front of her eyes, that not everything that happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas.