Book Excerpt: Death Gone a-Rye

Read the first chapter in Death Gone a-Rye

Chapter 1

The sky was a periwinkle blue dotted with cotton ball clouds. The sound of waves crashed along the surf, intermixed with the occasional squawk of a sea gull. The light April breeze might have made the late afternoon too chilly for an outdoor wedding, but the stars had aligned and the weather was a temperate sixty-eight degrees. It couldn’t have been more perfect if we had dialed in an order to Mother Nature herself.

My brother, Billy Culpepper, stood with his back to the Pacific Ocean wearing a cream-colored lightweight suit, turquoise tie and boutonniere, and a stupidly beautiful and nervous grin. His hazel eyes seemed to almost glow with the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean behind him. His best man, Terry Masaki, stood next to him in a similar linen suit, a slight wave in his fine black hair. It was parted in the middle and gave him a movie star look. The sole groomsman was Emmaline’s brother, Efram. He was wider than both Billy and Terry, had a nearly shaved head, and had cheekbones that sliced across his face. He was half tank, half man, and, from my experience with him, was the biggest teddy bear on the planet.

The three men stood in front of the unbelievably gorgeous wedding arch Billy had built in his garage. He had used over thirty pieces of driftwood that he’d gathered from coastal shores during the last several months. He’d designed the arbor to be self-standing with the two support poles, two sides, and a top piece wound together from the wood. While Billy and Em were on their honeymoon, Terry and Efram would disassemble it and put it up in their backyard. From wedding arch to backyard arbor, the piece would be a constant reminder of Billy and Emmaline’s special day.

Emmaline hadn’t seen the arbor yet. Billy was full of surprises for the love of his life. They’d spent years at different crossroads, always missing each other. She’d been attached, and he hadn’t. Or he’d been seeing someone when she was single. Finally, though, they’d gotten together, and now they were getting hitched. Everything was as it should be.

A cluster of greenery and flowers cascaded down from the top left of the arbor, with another bouquet on the right side. White tulle had been wrapped around the frame, the ends now billowing in the gentle wind. It was magical.
The outdoor patio of Baptista’s Cantina and Grill had been transformed from a dining area to a wedding venue and Miguel, who happened to be the love of my life, had closed the restaurant for the occasion. The moment the ceremony ended, he had staff ready to move the chairs that currently faced the altar, set up tables, and serve the food that was being prepared in the restaurant’s state-of-the-art kitchen, which Miguel had recently renovated.

My brother’s wedding to my best friend was one for the ages. Everything was perfect.

A string trio, playing a violin, a viola, and a cello, sat on white slipcovered chairs, music stands holding the sheet music. They played while the guests trickled in.

Traditionally, the groom’s friends and family sat on one side while the bride’s friends and family sat on the other. Billy and Emmaline had grown up together, so, for the most part, they shared the same friends. Those friends seated themselves on either side of the aisle, while Emmaline’s family took the front row seats on the left. My dad, two of my cousins who’d up come from Los Angeles, and Olaya Solis and Penelope Branford, who were the women I’d chosen to be part of my family, sat on the right with Olaya next to my dad, Owen, and Mrs. Branford on his other side. They were bolstering him with silent emotional support, I knew. There was a hole in all of our hearts because of my mother’s absence. I looked up at the sky and closed my eyes. She might not be here with us physically, but I could feel her presence.
I met Billy’s gaze and raised my eyebrows. He was marrying his soul mate, but I understood his nerves. Marriage was a big step. I knew. I’d been there once. If and when I ever did it again, it would be forever.

He flipped his wrist and glanced down at his watch, then back at me. I got the message. My heart fluttered. It was time.

I scurried around the chairs, noticing people I recognized as members of the Santa Sofia sheriff’s department, which Emmaline Davis ran, huddled together. Some of her staff were manning the office and streets, but a handful of them, including the captain, a new position within the department, were here to celebrate her wedding.

Emmaline had stepped into the role of sheriff after her predecessor found himself in a heap of trouble. He’d run a bare-bones operation with minimal manpower to fill the typical positions within a department. Em had changed all that. She’d established a hierarchy, which included a captain who was over the criminal investigation division, freeing up Emmaline to run the department, which oversaw the county jail, policed the unincorporated areas of our county, served warrants, and secured the courthouses. It was a big job, but she was a strong woman and more than capable of handling it all.
The new captain was a tall, thin man with long sideburns and feathery blond hair. All he needed was a black turtleneck and a brown leather blazer and he could have played David Soul’s part in a Starsky & Hutch reboot. As I scooted by, he withdrew his cell phone from the pocket of his lightweight jacket and peered at it, but the sudden movement of his department people drew his attention away from his screen. As if they’d received some sort of subliminal message, Emmaline’s subordinates moved as a group toward their seats.

I slipped through the patio door leading inside the restaurant. The second Emmaline laid eyes on me, she screeched, all her sheriff composure out the window. “Ivy, where have you been? I’m so nervous. I think my knees are going to buckle.”

I rushed over to her. “You and Billy have been waiting for this day since you were kids. Come on, you’re fine.”

Em’s mother and father had stepped back, allowing me room to wrap my arms around my best friend and give her a squeeze.

“He’s a great guy,” she said.

I might be biased because he’s my brother, but I agreed with her.

Wholeheartedly. “He definitely is a great guy. Better than great. And you are perfect together.”

She lifted her chin slightly, her lips curving up. “I really thought this day would never come.”

From the patio, the string trio finished the song they’d been playing. A silence fell. I squeezed Em’s hand. “But here it is,” I said just as the string instruments began playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

“Ready, love?” Emmaline’s mother had stepped forward next to her daughter.
Em nodded, her eyes already glistening.

Miguel looked dashing in beige linen pants, boat shoes, and a black guayabera decorated with satin stitching on either side of the buttons. His years in the military, coupled with his daily bike rides and runs along the beach, meant he was lean and mean and wore his clothes well. Enrique Iglesias had nothing on Miguel Baptista. He whispered something to the little flower girl, who was Terry Masaki’s four-year-old daughter, Hana. She giggled and bit her lower lip as she got ready to skip toward the groom. She looked like a fairy in her pale turquoise sheath, her satiny black hair dusting her shoulders, and a wreath of daisies like a halo encircling her head. She waved at her daddy, who stood next to Billy, then at her mom, Mei, who snapped pictures of her little girl with her phone. Miguel urged Hana forward and she started down the aisle. She carried a sweet drawstring satin bag, digging her hand into it, pulling it out with a fist full of satin silver, aquamarine, and turquoise rose petals, and tossing them on the white runner leading to the altar.

Emmaline’s cousin, Vonnie, went next. Vonnie was shorter than Em. They had the same perfect dark skin, but while Emmaline was slender, Vonnie was curvy. She had a weave done for the wedding and today her black hair had a million kinky curls, the volume of it framing her face. Emmaline generally preferred natural, but for the wedding she’d gone with braids woven into an intricate updo.

Emmaline had wanted a small wedding party with her one bridesmaid—Vonnie—and me, her maid of honor, looking beachy and radiant. Her life was all order amid the chaos of crime. In contrast, she wanted her wedding to be relaxed and effervescent. So far, so good. Vonnie- glided down the aisle, holding a small spray of daisies tied together with a length of white ribbon. When she was halfway to the altar, I straightened my dress. The shade of turquoise was paler than Vonnie’s. It draped over one shoulder, reminiscent of a Greek goddess, and fell effortlessly, flowing behind me as I walked slowly down the aisle.

When I reached the halfway mark between the restaurant and the altar, the Pachelbel faded, and the traditional wedding march began. The guests rose in unison and all eyes turned to face the bride. I reached my spot next to Vonnie. We smiled at each other and as I looked at Emmaline, flanked on either side by her parents, gliding toward us, my eyes filled. My best friend was getting married. To my brother. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better day for them.

Beneath her veil, I knew Em’s eyes were glistening. From the driftwood archway to Vonnie and me, to the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop, and then to Billy, standing next to Terry and Efrem, a goofy grin on his face, this was the day she’d been looking forward to.

She reached the front altar. Her mom lifted Em’s veil, arranging it so it hung neatly behind her. She bussed her daughter’s cheek. Em hugged her mom, then her dad. They retreated to their reserved seats while Em handed me her bouquet of fresh daisies.

As Billy stepped next to her, she pointed at the archway, whispering something to him. He nodded, and this time, her eyes filled and her lower lip quivered with emotion. She wove her arm around his and moved closer.
As the pastor led the ceremony, I felt a pair of eyes on me. I scanned the guests. Everyone’s attention was on Billy and Emmaline. Everyone except one man. Miguel sat in the back row, ready to jump into action once the ceremony ended. But for now, he was intent, not on the wedding couple, but on me. As I met his gaze, one side of his mouth lifted in a saucy smile and his eyebrows raised slightly. What was his unspoken message? I couldn’t exactly say, but I liked that he was thinking about me in this moment. Miguel and I had been through a lot over the years, but we’d found our way back to each other and it was nothing but bright roads ahead for us.

I smiled back at him, then returned my attention to the ceremony. Billy and Em had chosen to write their own vows, something I wasn’t sure I’d have the courage to do and speak aloud. Emmaline was finishing hers, speaking through her tears. “Things have a way of falling into place at the right time. It took a while, but we were finally in the right place at the right time. You are my soul mate, Billy, and I love you. I love the way you show your love for me. I love how I still get butterflies whenever I lay eyes on you. I love how you take care of me, but also everyone around you. I love that we are, above all, best friends. I’m a strong woman, and you admire and respect that. Being with you has made me a better woman. You, Billy, have my heart forever and ever. I promise always to love you, respect you, and stand by your side.”
Next to me, Vonnie sniffled. I’d been smart enough to tuck several tissues into the bodice of my dress. I artfully removed one now, handing it to Vonnie. Meanwhile Billy held Emmaline’s hands in his and gazed at her with such love I thought his heart might actually burst.

Mine felt like it was about to.

“Em,” he began. “I have loved you since we were little kids running around barefoot on the beach. I don’t know how many people can say they are marrying the love of their life, but for me, that is the absolute truth. I’ve wanted you to be my wife for as long as I can remember. Now it is finally happening. I am blessed that you choose me to spend your life with, and I choose you. I’ll always choose you. Today we may be starting a new chapter, but we’re already a book. I already belong to you. Falling in love with you has been like walking into a house and knowing you’re home.

“Em, I promise to stand by your side, always. To continue to learn from you, to always make you your favorite green smoothies, to keep my eyes open and to see clearly with you by my side, to binge-watch Parks and Rec with you after a tough day, or maybe The Office, but most importantly, today, in front of our friends and family, I promise to love you, respect you, and cherish you forever.”

There were some chuckles, and there was not a dry eye in the house.
Except, maybe, the sheriff’s department’s captain. Even from where I stood at the altar, I could see him cradling his phone in one hand, his focus fully on his screen.

Somehow, I resisted a grimace. The pastor pronounced Billy and Emmaline husband and wife. The newly married couple kissed, and then Em turned to me and we fell into a hug. “Real sisters at last,” she said with a happy sigh.
We’d been sisters of the heart since we were kids, but now it was official. I squeezed her, then let her go so she and Billy could walk up the aisle as Mr. and Mrs. Culpepper. Although I knew Em was going to stick with “Davis” professionally. She was sheriff, after all. Keeping her maiden name at work seemed easiest and best.

I held on to Terry’s crooked arm and followed Billy and Em back toward the restaurant, Vonnie and Efrem behind us. Miguel had already gotten the ball rolling on his end of things. As the guests stood and began milling around, his staff swept in to fold up the chairs. They set up the round tables, redistributing the chairs around them. As much as I wanted to find Billy and Emmaline again and give them both rib-crushing hugs and sloppy congratulatory smooches, I let the rest of the guests have their turns. I skirted around the tables and slipped inside, stopping when I saw the spread that had materialized between the time the ceremony had started and now. Buffet tables overflowed with the food choices Em and Billy had selected. Fancy shrimp quesadillas; crab and shrimp cocktail spooned into straight clear glasses and topped with chunks of avocado and lime; and corn cakes, each covered with a healthy dollop of a chopped shrimp, avocado, tomato, and cilantro mixture, a drizzle of tomatillo cream on top. And these were only a few of the offerings.

Another table, perpendicular to the buffet line, was mounded with bread from Yeast of Eden. Billy and Em couldn’t get enough of the bread shop where I worked alongside the owner, Olaya Solis. I was her apprentice, of sorts, but had worked for her almost since I met her. I would have done it for free, I loved it so much, but Olaya insisted on paying me. Since my savings were running low, I was glad for the steady paycheck. I was a good student and worked hard, both at the shop and in my own kitchen. Thus, my collection of bread recipes had grown from zero to about ten. These were the ones I could make without a recipe and that almost always turned out well.

Olaya had at least two dozen more in her head. Maybe one day I’d have a fraction of those in my repertoire. What I saw before me today, though, was like nothing Olaya had ever made before. Or at least not like anything I’d ever seen from her. There were mounds of popovers and traditional dinner rolls, but one of the standouts was a basket of beautiful buns that looked like the dough had been swirled with a vibrant purple. I knew she’d used butterfly pea flower to get that deep color. “It is used in ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines,” she’d told me when I’d first seen her bake with it. “It does not change the flavor, but has healing properties.”

But what really made me gasp were the focaccia breads that looked like pieces of art. They could be van Gogh paintings. There were eleven focaccia loaves in all, each with a different floral design. One was of sunflowers and poppies with the design made from Kalamata olives, the stems and leaves made from fresh herbs set into the dough, yellow peppers for the sunflower petals, capers for the seeds in the center of each bloom, and grape tomatoes adding pops of color. Several of the focaccias were heart shaped, with herb stems and baby bell pepper slices, grape tomato or olive flower tops. Little slices of red onion created an illusion of the earth beneath the flowers. The dough palettes were gorgeous and inspiring and filled with the love Olaya had developed for Billy and Emmaline. I had become a pseudo-granddaughter to Olaya, as she had become the family I had chosen. My own family, which meant my dad, my brother, and now Em, had become like family to Olaya, too. This display of breads was her way of showing that affection.

An arm slipped through mine and suddenly there she was at my side. I was a bit taller than she was and, with my heels on, even more so. I tilted my head to hers, the spiraled tendrils of my ginger hair cascading over her short, spiked iron-gray strands. She had traded her typical caftan for a slightly fancier flowing dress. Olaya was a free spirit with an incredible business mind and creativity that flowed from her core into the bread she baked. “This is absolutely amazing,” I said.

“Sí. They are an amazing couple,” she said.

Miguel appeared at my other side, complimenting the display of bread just as I had. “I’ve never seen focaccia art,” he said.

“It is Instagram-worthy, do you not think?” Olaya winked at me. I knew she did not have Instagram or any other social media for that matter. I ran the website, the bread shop’s Facebook page, and its brand-new Instagram account. Those tasks took me out of Yeast of Eden’s commercial kitchen, but they still kept me connected to Olaya’s bread, which had magical elements that no one could explain. Whatever ailed you, Olaya had a loaf of bread that was healing.

“Are those sourdough?” Miguel asked. He pointed to a cluster of dinner rolls. Instead of having a rounded top, each looked like the dough had been rolled into a strand, then knotted and sprinkled with white and black sesame seeds.
“Yes. Made with fresh-milled local rye, spelt, and, por supuesto, wild yeast.”

“Of course. Only wide yeast,” Miguel agreed with a smile.

“You laugh, but it makes a huge difference,” she said.

Miguel threw up his hands. “I am not laughing. I know the importance of your traditions and the best ingredients.”

Olaya nodded her head, just once. It was her acknowledgment that she knew Miguel understood. She released my arm, took up a napkin, and used it to rearrange a few of the rolls to better balance the display. Miguel slipped his arm around me, pulling me close. “You look beautiful,” he said. With his free hand, he played with the loose strands of my hair. “I like the updo.”
I gingerly patted the back of my head. My hair tended toward unruly, but the clips and bobby pins were keeping it controlled at the moment. My coquettish reply was stalled when the door from the patio flung open and a man stepped through. It was David Soul’s look-alike. He had his phone in his hand again, but this time he held it to his ear. “I’ll tell her, but she’s leaving on her honeymoon. Don’t worry. I’ll handle it.”

Miguel and I looked at each other. This was the captain in the sheriff’s department, and he was clearly talking about Emmaline. “Will do,” he said into his phone. He snapped the device onto the phone clip strung onto his belt, then looked up, noticing us for the first time. A wee bit concerning for a crime investigator. I thought spacial awareness and observation would be key to his position.

“Sorry ’bout that,” he said. He looked at me. “You’re Ivy, right? Culpepper? Sister of the groom?”

I nodded. I’d originally placed him in his late forties, but up close, he looked younger. Maybe forty or forty-one. His skin was tanned, and with his blond hair and white teeth, he wore his age well. I wondered how he felt about having a female boss who was younger than him, hoping he was the progressive sort who celebrated women in power.

“The sheriff has mentioned your, um, contributions to the department.”
Contributions. That was one way to put it. Crime solving was another. I was an apprentice baker at Yeast of Eden, but I had also found myself acting as a Santa Sofia sleuth lately. “She’s mentioned you, too. She was thrilled to steal you from San Luis Obispo.”

He nodded but didn’t continue the chitchat. “There’s been a . . . an incident. Good to see you.” He nodded to Miguel, acknowledging him, although they hadn’t formally met, before turning on his cowboy-booted heel and heading back outside.

From his conversation on the phone and his demeanor, I knew he didn’t want to burden Emmaline with whatever incident had happened, but she was the sheriff and I knew he had to. I pulled away from Miguel. “I’ll be right back,” I said, and started after him.

“Stay out of it,” Miguel called after me.

I couldn’t promise that until l knew what it was. I looked over my shoulder and smiled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, and before he could tell me exactly what he was thinking, which was that I didn’t need to get wrapped up in another murder, I was back on the patio and making a beeline for Em and Billy.

By the time I reached the newly married couple, the captain had already pulled Emmaline aside. With her hands on her hips and her face tight as she listened to him, she had shifted from blushing bride to badass sheriff. She glanced at me as I came up next to her. The captain looked hesitant and stopped speaking. “Ivy, this is Captain Craig York. Craig, my best friend, Ivy Culpepper.” She didn’t wait for either of us to acknowledge the introduction, instead rolling one hand in the air, telling him to keep going.
“It’s a local school board member,” he said.

Her breath hitched. I don’t think the captain noticed, but I’d known Emmaline Davis for nearly my whole life, and I knew what that response was about. The Santa Sofia school board was made up of five people. One of them, Candace Coffey, had been in high school with us. Now she was a mother of three and served as vice president of the board. “Dead?” Em asked, and I knew she was hoping against hope, just like I was, that it wasn’t Candy.

York cupped one hand against the back of his neck before saying, “Murder.”
“Who?” Em asked.

“Nessa Renchrik. School board president.”

Em and I both sighed in relief, although only mine was audible. Not Candy, thank God.

“I’ll handle it,” York said. “I’ll keep you updated.”

I could see the internal battle Em was going through. How could she leave town when a murder had just happened? But it was her honeymoon.

She proceeded to give him precise instructions on how often he was to be in touch with her, and emphasized the high priority of the case. A school board member was a political figure in a community. The people of Santa Sofia would demand answers and justice.

“Will do,” York said. He gave one succinct nod to both of us before walking away.

The second we were alone, I took Emmaline’s hand. “It’s going to be okay. He seems on top of things.”

She grimaced. Not the most desirable expression for a bride. “He’s new.”
“You wouldn’t have hired him if he wasn’t qualified. He can handle it.”
“It’s not Candy,” she said, hands on her hips again. “Thank God.”
“Do you know this woman, Nessa?” I asked.

“No. But school board president. That’s not good.”

Billy sidled up behind her and snaked his arms around her waist. “What’s going on, Mrs. Culpepper?”

“Murder,” she said.

His face fell. “Uh-oh.”

She put her hands on top of his. “And it’s a high-profile one.”

His hold on her tightened. “You have people to handle it, though. We have a flight to catch in the morning, and, you know, a wedding reception with all our friends and family.”

She turned to face him, tilting her head to look up at him. “And we’re going to enjoy every second of it. Captain York is handling the investigation. He’ll update me, but he’s in charge.”

Billy nodded. “Good to hear. Now, let’s round these folks up and head inside for the food.”

Craig York’s words came back to me then. I’d made contributions to the department with my sleuthing skills. There was no reason I couldn’t help out again. Miguel had told me to stay out of it, but I just couldn’t. And since I had an in with Candy, maybe I’d be able to get information York couldn’t.
The next few hours would be filled with food and dancing, but in my mind, I’d be formulating a plan on how to solve a murder.