What?” Maeve said, her face draining of all its color.
“Jesus,” Jackson said. “What the hell happened?”
“Nobody knows any of the details yet. Alice is working on it,” Sherri told them before leaving the room.
Chef Paul Delvechio was not simply Maeve and Jackson’s third partner—he was the chef their projects hinged on. Most chefs used ghostwriters for their books, but Paul insisted Maeve get the writing credit. He created new recipes based on the traditional cuisine at the locations Maeve was writing about. She worked closely with him to create recipes, write the recipes, test the recipes, and descriptions of food. He preferred to stay out of the limelight. His love of the kitchen and his food superseded any kind of love for publicity. How many other chefs did they know who were like that? Zilch.
Jackson’s nerdy-but-tough-cookie of a partner wilted in front of him. Was she going to faint? His arms went around her, propping her up, and he lead her to the couch. Damn. She was an armful—a delightful one. “Maeve? Can I get you something? Some water?” He gently touched her cheek. So soft.
She looked at him and the confident amber eyes of a few moments ago looked haunted, vacant, and moist with tears. She sunk into his chest and sobbed. Jackson was at a loss—how to comfort her? Ever since he was a child, with an over-emotional, alcoholic mother who had embarrassed him in public as a matter of course, he had shied away from any intense emotions. But he managed to hold Maeve and rub her back as she cried, despite how awkward he felt.
“Maeve? Are you okay?”
She finally broke away from him and rummaged through her purse for a tissue. She blew her nose and took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to say.
Maeve’s hands went to her chest. Her nails, short and cropped, gleamed against her tight pink sweater. What the hell? How was he not supposed to look at her breasts, there on display, peeking out in all their rounded glory?
“Hey,” he said. “It was a shock. I get that.”
“I loved Chef,” she said looking out into her own distance. “He was an amazing man. Much like my dad.”
Maeve may have thought Jackson was an asshole, but he did know when to shut up. He knew about her father’s death and how it affected her family. She’d had it rough. Then several years later, her mother had passed away, right before their first book was published. Heartbreaking.
Though he hated to admit it, he had been nervous about meeting Maeve in person. He’d managed to not be in her presence for so many years. And he liked it. Smart women scared the shit out of him.
“I’ve traveled with him a bit,” Jackson said. “But we never hung out. He seemed kind of quiet. Or something.”
Chef did warn him about the “sexiest bachelor” label. A few years ago, he had been named the “Sexiest Chef” in America. “Women and food, man. Women love a man who cooks and everywhere I went…well, let’s just say there was plenty of both. At first, it’s intoxicating. But it gets to be old.”
Jackson didn’t believe that, then, and he wasn’t sure he did now. He loved the affect he had on women. He didn’t care who knew it. And it intrigued him that Maeve seemed unaffected by him.
“Chef Paul was intensely private,” Maeve said, then sighed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without him.”
“Whoa,” Jackson said. “What kind of shit are you talking? You’re a hell of a writer and you might as well be a chef.”
She smiled at him. Something in him softened. From what he could tell from photos and Skype, she rarely smiled, but when she did, he was surprised to find she had dimples, which added an interesting element to her heart-shaped face and her high cheekbones. Yeah, he’d always known Maeve was gorgeous, but it was easier to keep any hint of sexuality at bay when they weren’t the same room. The glasses didn’t bother him in person. But over Skype, he could never see her eyes because of the glare from her desk lamp.
“Well, thank you Jackson. Writing is one thing, but the cooking? I was always on the phone with him getting his advice as I cooked.”
“I bet you know more than you think you do.”
She smiled at him again—this time it was a full blown smile. Damn. Was this the same woman who ended a Skype conversation with him the other day by throwing her arms in the air and saying “Bite me, Jackson”?
And the same woman he was kind of afraid of? At least he’d gotten over his nerves about this meeting. Well, he’d replaced those concerns with others. His biggest concern before they’d heard about Chef’s murder was hoping he could sit still and make sense of what she and Alice were talking about during the meeting, that his mind wouldn’t wander to images. The images in the room. The light playing against shadows. The color of the walls changing against the light. He thought in pictures, not words, so he was grateful for these two attractive women.
“Where is Alice?” he said, getting up from the couch and pacing in front of the desk.
“And what’s going to happen with the project?” Maeve said, as if her mind had suddenly cleared. “I mean our contract specifically calls for the three of us, and I’ve already started the preliminary research.”
“That’s the question of the day,” Jackson said. “What’s next?”
“And who would want to kill Paul? I just don’t understand…”
“Nor do I,” Alice said as she walked into the room. “But he was poisoned, probably by some kind of mushroom in Brazil. They won’t even allow his body back into the States. His services will be held in Mexico, anyway. It’s where he wanted to be buried. Some island there, I think. I expect you both to be there and will have your flight booked soon.”
She walked around to her desk and flopped into her chair. The woman looked as if she had just rolled out of bed. Her clothes were wrinkled, hair barely brushed and unkempt, which was not like her. She cleared her throat. Her hand trembled slightly when she picked up a pen and tapped it on her desk.
“I’m, ah, so shocked. Poisoned? Chef? Murdered?” Maeve said.
Alice managed to nod. “None of the toxicology reports have come back yet so we don’t know exactly what it was. “
“Well, then how do they know he was poisoned?”
Alice shrugged. “There’s all kinds of rigmarole…international agencies involved. Investigating.”
“Jesus,” Jackson said. “Was his wife there? Kids?”
“Yes. His wife. They were in the wilds of Brazil. The kids are in school at home. His wife found him, evidently, as he was dying. So awful,” Alice said.
“He must have eaten something—I mean, on his own. You know how he is. The man would eat the most disgusting things. I’m sure nobody poisoned him. Who would want Paul dead?”
Alice looked away from them. “Paul was a lot more complicated than either one of you knew. He had a life outside of work. But still…he was loved everywhere. I wonder the same thing.”
“I’m sure the authorities have a reason for their investigation?”
“He was a famous chef and he was poisoned—whether it’s his fault or someone else’s, they will need to get to the bottom of it,” Alice said.
“Where does this leave us?” Maeve asked.
Jackson was glad she’d been the one to ask.
Alice cleared her throat. “I’m not sure, frankly. I need to review the contracts and speak with the publisher. We’re playing phone tag this morning.”
“You mean they might choose not to go forward?” Jackson said.
“Well, it’s such a great idea. High-end concept. I’m sure they will give the matter serious consideration. But without Chef…I just don’t know.”
“Alice, “ Sherri stuck her head into the office.
“Please excuse me,” she said, and barely managed to lift herself from her chair.