Detective Nick Duncan will do anything to crack his latest case. Even if it means engaging in some less-than-legal undercover work. When his grandfather begins taking cooking classes at a catering company suspected of laundering drug money, it's almost too easy! Until Nick meets Eden Tremont-his new cooking instructor and the suspect's sister. The bubbly blonde is a whiz in the kitchen... and with his old grandfather. And before he even realizes what's happening, Nick is ambushed by his feelings for the woman. It's been a long time since he's cared about anything other than his job. But his reckless deception may cost him more than his case.
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January 01, 2012
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Excerpt from Undercover Cook by Jeannie Watt
"Cooking lessons?" Detective Daphne Sparks paused with her coffee halfway to her lips and made an are-you-kidding face. "We have a missing, probably dead, informant, and your solution is cooking lessons?"
"Dumb idea," Marcus Jethro echoed from across the table.
Nick Duncan kept his eyes on Daphne, his partner, because if he looked at Marcus he was going to say something he regretted.
"It's simple," he said. "I go with Granddad to the lessons at the catering kitchen, get the layout, figure out how best to get at the company financial records." And from those, determine whether Tremont Catering, based in Reno, was laundering Lake Tahoe drug money. As he'd said. Simple.
He pushed his chair back slightly to make room for his legs under the small table in the back corner of a Virginia Street deli--the place where he and Daphne usually met for lunch in the late afternoon, after the noon-hour crowd was gone and they could talk.
"How is it that the lessons happen to be at this particular kitchen?" Daphne asked mildly, pushing long black hair over her shoulders. Nick shrugged. "I see," she said, lifting her coffee cup in a small salute.
"Any information you get that way is totally inadmissible," Marcus interjected in a superior tone, before adding a carefully measured half teaspoon of sugar to his coffee. He hated to be left out, and since he was a forensic accountant for the Reno PD, and because of that usually chained to his desk, he often was. Marcus had visions of crime-fighting glory that weren't quite working out.
"I'm not going to seize the records," Nick said. "I'm going to examine them, see if we're wasting time on something that isn't going to pan out."
He and Daphne had been working for months as Reno PD members of the Washoe-Tahoe Drug Task Force, trying to get a toehold into the drug traffic moving through the Tahoe Summit Hotel and Casino. They knew kitchen personnel were involved, and they'd gotten some indication of how the money might be moving. But task-force funds were spread so thinly that after eight fruitless months of investigation, the Tahoe Summit had been shoved to the back burner...despite the fact that Nick and Daphne's twenty-one-year-old confidential informant, Cully, had recently gone missing. Nick thought that circumstance warranted further investigation. His lieutenant had disagreed. Strongly.
"I don't like it," Marcus said.
It didn't matter if he liked it, because Nick didn't answer to him. Technically, since his asshole lieutenant had suspended him for thirty days after their heated "discussion," Nick didn't answer to anyone in the department, which was why his investigation into Tremont Catering fell into the unofficial category. His own time, his own dime. But how the hell else was he supposed to get the answers he needed, not only to work on the drug trafficking, but to find out what had happened to Cully?
"What do you suggest?" he finally asked Marcus, more to mollify him than anything. They needed his expertise once Nick got copies of the financial records.
The accountant rolled his shoulders and then took on a thoughtful expression while slowly stirring his coffee. "If you decide to go with the cookinglesson angle, you could use it as a means to conduct an indirect investigation and try to determine if there are indications of expenditures exceeding legal income. Then go before a judge and ask for a warrant."
"And perhaps wait for a glacier to melt in the process?" Nick asked.
Marcus flushed. "It's the only course of action that will lead to admissible evidence."
"Look," Nick said. "I understand admissibility. And I don't like doing things this way, but I also don't want to waste time." He stabbed his fork into a bowl of ravioli, spearing one and holding it poised in the air. "I don't need to make a formal case. All I need is enough information to get Justin Tremont to roll and give me names if he's involved."
"And if he isn't?" Marcus asked, putting the spoon on a napkin.
"Then we're at a dead end. For now."
In Nick's last discussion with Cully, the CI had indicated that Tahoe Summit drug money was being laundered through a small Reno business. He'd sounded excited when he'd called to set up a meeting, and Nick had been relieved to finally get a break in the case. Chasing dirty money often resulted in a bust.
But Cully never showed for the meeting. Or called. Suspecting the worst, Nick and Daphne had started digging into small businesses connected with Tahoe Summit personnel. It hadn't taken long to discover that only one person on the kitchen staff had ties to a small business. Justin Tremont, part-time pastry chef, owned a catering business with his two sisters.
Marcus shook his head. "Risky. My way may take time, but at least you won't end up getting investigated by Internal Affairs."
"That won't happen," Nick said.
"You hope." Daphne eyed him over the top of her coffee cup.
"Stop being such a ray of sunshine," he muttered.
"I vote against this idea," Marcus said, pushing his lank dark hair to the side of his forehead.
"You don't have a vote," Nick said.
"When you want me to look at the figures, you might change your mind on that."
"All right, you have a vote. But it's still two against one."
"Marcus," Daphne said, fixing her large, coffee-brown eyes on his face in a way that told Nick she was on her last nerve. Marcus was, of course, oblivious. "I have sworn to uphold the law. I truly believe in the law, but I want to get the sons of bitches that nailed Cully. Don't you?"
"Of course I want to get them," the accountant said adamantly. He wanted anything that Daphne wanted--he'd had a wild crush on her since he'd first come to work two years ago.
"Then man up!" she said, and Marcus went instantly red.
"Fine," he sputtered. "I'll man up. I'm more than capable of bending the rules."
"You don't need to bend anything," Nick said. "All we want is your unofficial expertise after I get the financial records in an unofficial way. All right?"
Marcus was still red. He shot a quick look at Daphne who stared back impassively. "Yes. All right. But I'm not the dweeb you think I am."
"No one said you were a dweeb," Nick insisted, since Daphne wouldn't. She had no patience with their colleague and Nick couldn't blame her, since Marcus was hell-bent on impressing her and impervious to hints--or blatant declarations--that she wasn't interested.
"You don't have to say it," the accountant said sullenly. "I can see what you think."
Daphne dropped her napkin onto her plate, obviously having had enough. She reached for her purse, took out a handful of one-dollar bills and started counting them.
"What are you going to do now?" Nick asked.
"I am going to take my partnerless self back to the office to work on busting drug buys near the campus. Because it looks good in the newspaper." She raised her eyes. "I don't care how much of a jerk Lieutenant Davidson is, don't ever do this to me again."
Nick pulled a twenty from his wallet. "I'll try very hard to never rile him again."
Frankly, he wasn't normally the lieutenant-riling kind, but this Cully deal bugged the hell out of him. Yeah, Cully had been slick, but he'd also been a sweet, personable kid, with plans, no less. Both Nick and Daphne had, during weak moments, mentioned that as much as they appreciated what he brought them, he needed to find a safer line of work.
Cully had laughed them off, saying that he was eventually going to Police officer Standard and Training academy to become a professional undercover agent, and this was good practice. He wouldn't have gone to ground without contacting either Daphne or Nick, and it had now been four weeks since they'd last heard from him.
Eden Tremont kicked off the killer heels she wore to all her client meetings the instant she stepped inside the back door of the catering kitchen. She sighed as her bare feet hit the blessedly cool tile floor, then reached for her orange kitchen clogs. It didn't pay to be short.
Sunday-morning meetings were not the norm for her. Usually she spent that time prepping meals for the two families she cooked for on a weekly basis--the Stewarts and the Ballards--in addition to her catering duties. Today, however, was the only time a prospective bride with a vicious travel schedule could meet with her, and Eden went with it. Happily so, since she had a signed contract in her hand.
No one was in the kitchen yet, so she stowed her portfolio and her purse in the small back office. Grabbing an elastic band off the top of her desk, she pulled her blond hair into a haphazard knot and secured it just as the rear door of the kitchen banged open, scaring the bejeezus out of her. Patty Lloyd, their prep cook, did not slam. Ever.
Then one of the lockers next to the back door rattled and Eden let out a breath.
Justin. Her brother. Who wasn't supposed to be in until the early afternoon.
"Why are you here now?" Eden demanded, leaning out the door.
"Guess." Justin barely held back a yawn before pulling a white, jersey-cotton stocking cap over his choppy blond hair. Sometimes Eden wondered if he still cut it himself, as he had when they were kids. It wasn't that he couldn't afford a haircut. He was just never able to find a barber who could give him the dangerous skater-punk do he wanted.
"You took a cake order when you shouldn't have?" Her voice dripped sisterly sarcasm.
"Hey, you're one to talk. You volunteered to help with geriatric cooking lessons when you're swamped."
"I'm not as swamped as you, I have help with the lessons and it's only for six weeks." She folded her arms. "Besides, it's community service and that's not only great for the soul, it's excellent public relations." She cocked her head, scowling at her brother. Sometimes she honestly worried about him. "How late did you get in last night?"
Justin shrugged into a chef's jacket with a blue-food-color stain dribbled down the front. His favorite jacket. He said it unleashed his creativity. "Two? Two-thirty?"
"So you got what? Three hours sleep?"
"I'm too tired to do the math," he said as he headed past her to one of the two stainless-steel fridges and pulled open the door. A weary smile transformed his angular face as he glanced over his shoulder at Eden. "Did I tell you that I love Patty? That I'm going to make her my bride?" He pulled out a stainless-steel bowl of what had to be cake filling, and held it up. "One less thing to do. If I play my cards right, I may be able to sneak in a nap before I head back up to the Lake." The Lake being shorthand for Lake Tahoe, where Justin had his second job.
By day, Justin was the Tremont Catering dessert chef, but he also worked three nights a week at a Lake Tahoe resort hotel as the pastry chef, and, in spite of those two jobs filling much of his time, he kept making highend cakes. The more he made, the more the orders poured in as word spread. And they all seemed to be rush jobs. If they weren't to begin with, then by the time Justin fit them into his jammed schedule, they became rushes.