"The men are missing." Kirsten Peplinski stood in her white chef's hat and apron staring at an empty restaurant on a Friday night. On a hot July evening, the place should've been filled with locals lapping up her bluegill special. "Don't look at me that way, Crystal. Three afternoons and nights in a row--no men in Moonstone. No money in my register."
With a cockeyed smile, Crystal Hagan, a redhead almost twenty years older than fair-haired Kirsten, clutched a stack of bridal magazines. "Kirstie, nobody's been able to pass on your garlic mashed potatoes since you opened The Jingle Bell Inn last month. I heard they're only fishing." But Kirsten had a bad feeling. She popped off her hat to run fingers through chin-length hair. "This much fishing? Is there a tournament?"
"Not that I know of, but you know how men can be."
"Unfortunately. That's why I prefer being busy."
Crystal laughed, settling in with her magazines at a maple table that normally held four paying customers by five o'clock. "Maybe you should go fishing. If Peter were back from Phoenix that's where I'd be. Since moving back to Wisconsin the man has become addicted to fishing. Recapturing a missed childhood."
Kirsten scrunched her starched hat. "They're boycotting my restaurant, aren't they? Because of..." She swallowed the secret that Crystal and only a precious few others knew. Kirsten had been born in Moonstone, but some unfortunate events during her teenage years had sent her packing. "What've they been saying about me around Moonstone?"
"I can't decide between sleeveless or cap sleeves. Do you think I'm too old for sleeveless?"
Groaning, Kirsten plopped down at the table. Ever since Crystal Hagan and Peter LeBarron had decided on a wedding date, all Kirsten could get out of her friend were lopsided grins, twinkles in her green eyes, and more effervescence than the Italian sodas Kirsten served.
"You're sure it's not about what happened back then?" She hadn't wanted to return to the village on the shores of Lake Superior, but her mother had insisted, threatening to have another heart attack. Thus, all three of the Peplinski women had returned to Moonstone, ring-leader Grandma included. Crystal ripped out a page picturing a veil. "Do you think a princess crown with the veil would be too pretentious?"
"You'll be a princess to your first-graders. Go for the crown."
"A crown it is."
Kirsten wished she could be that worry-free. The Jingle Bell Inn was located in what used to be the lavish dining hall of the historic mansion called the North Pole, a place replete with green roof, red trim, and creamy white siding. It got its name because the elderly owner and upstairs resident, Henri LeBarron, had played Santa Claus for the town's Christmas celebrations for years. Henri was Peter's father. They'd given Kirsten a second chance at "doing good" in life. She didn't mind philanthropy. But now she'd fallen in love with the place. Its possibilities let her have dreams for the first time in her life.
The outdoor setting was as magical as the interior's polished oak floors with their inlaid designs. A sweeping yard hugged the craggy, Lake Superior shoreline. Tall pines and white birch rimmed the property. If the restaurant succeeded, she wanted to add a deck and patio for music and special events. But now that dream looked elusive. She was about to go out of business.
But because of fishing?
"Maybe my prices are too high."
Tisking at her, Crystal ripped out two more pages. "The trout are active on the BruleRiver, what with the mosquito hatch we've had."
It had to be something more. Kirsten's pride couldn't accept being beat by biting bugs. "Should I offer entertainment? I could clear the far corner for dancing."
"Don't even go there with your background."
Heat shimmied up Kirsten's neck and face. "You're right."
Somehow she had to win back the men. At twenty-five and fresh out of college, she was expected to fail. Refusing to succumb, she shot off the chair. "Can you watch things for me?" As if there was anything to watch.
"Where're you going?"
"I haven't a clue. To find the men and bring them back here."
Crystal held up a page again, green eyes going dewy. She wasn't going to be any help.
Kirsten swallowed her distress. "Wouldn't the sleeveless version be cold for a Christmas wedding?"
Crystal swooned. "Peter suggested taking advantage of the flower gardens out back that I've been restoring. Could you handle cooking for two hundred guests, say in a couple of weeks?"
Kirsten flinched. "Say what?"
"Okay, a month?"
Since Crystal would technically be her boss by marriage--soon, it appeared--Kirsten nodded, swallowing a whimper.
She hurried out and down the mansion's broad sidewalk. With hot sun slanting from the west, fighting through thick humidity, she almost ran headlong into the mayor's wife. Even the limpest hair stood up on the nape of Kirsten's neck.
Built like a bulldog never been denied a treat in its life, silver-haired Tootsie Winters blocked the sidewalk, panting. She'd stuffed herself into a red, flower-spangled sleeveless blouse and matching capris. "Good grief but it's hot. I heard eighty-five. Can you believe that? Right here next to the lake?"
Kirsten considered bolting. "Yeah, it's mighty hot, Mrs. Winters."
"What's on special? Bob already eating my share?"
"I think he's fishing."
Tootsie's jowls shook. "Again? He's been fishing for three days now."
"They've all been fishing. Haven't you noticed? And look there."
The town was so small they could see from one end of the main drag to the other. Cars glided by. Kirsten was tempted to lie down in the street in an attempt to get customers. "Nobody's stopped in the past three days."
"Damn fishing," Tootsie mused. "It's a religion here, just like Friday night fish fries. Did you change a recipe? I told Bob you were too young to handle this."
Too young? That was her concern? Not the rap sheet? But Tootsie was concerned about money. The five-person Chamber of Commerce had given a grant to Kirsten to help her buy restaurant equipment and start up Moonstone's first new business in years. Tootsie had argued that grants should go to people who had far more experience than a "college student cooking snooty food in a funny hat". Kirsten reminded her that a chef's hat was called a "toque". Tootsie hadn't liked it that her husband had voted for the "toque grant".
"I knew this would happen," Tootsie said. "People around here expect a cook to be professional looking."
Kirsten chewed on a lip to keep from talking. She had a tendency to say all the wrong things.
Tootsie prattled on. "Maybe you should put a perm in your straight hair, wear mascara. You can't really tell that you have eyelashes. Maybe you're freaking people out."
Her fingers coiled into fists, but Kirsten forced herself to relax. "I'll try mascara. Thanks for the tip, Mrs. Winters. Is there anything going on in Duluth at the harbor? A fair? Maybe there's a beer tent?"
"Not that I know of. Bob prefers brandy over beer. He hates loud music. That's why he likes your place. It's always dead."
Kirsten choked that down as a compliment. "Excuse me, but I've got to find out why my regulars aren't here."
"I'll come with. It's not like Bob to miss a meal." The older woman strutted her heft down the sidewalk ahead of Kirsten, taking command like the Pied Piper of Moonstone. "Rita might know what's going on."
Rita Johnson ran the post office which sat on a rocky lot west of the LeBarron mansion. Rita wasn't there, so they headed across the town's open square to the bar. All they found was a sign on the locked door: "Gone fishing. Back at ten p.m. Lucas."
Tootsie looked as perplexed as Kirsten. "Lucas is always open on Fridays. He has that special on brandy old-fashioneds. Bob and I were coming here after dinner at your place. That's another thing you need. A bar."
Got it. Mascara and a bar. How about customers?
There was one more possibility--the hardware store on the corner, run by Rita Johnson's husband, Greg. He sold live bait and fishing equipment. The lack of cars parked on the streets gave Kirsten little hope.
The place smelled of rope and twine, oil paint, and stale coffee, but no men. Kirsten would give anything to whiff a little cigar smoke, fish guts, and sweat.
Rita was alone at the counter putting orange sales tags on clear plastic bags of rubber worms. "Greg didn't say where he was going. He called as I was locking up the post office and asked if I could fill in. I assume he's picking up supplies in Duluth. We're out of bug spray."
Tootsie puffed, "Out of bug spray?! You can't expect us all to wear long sleeves and pants in this weather. Those damn mosquitoes are killing me."
"Toots, if you wouldn't wear that dime store perfume you'd attract fewer mosquitoes and keep your husband close to you instead."
Kirsten turned away so Tootsie wouldn't see her smirk.
Tootsie ran a hand across her sweaty forehead. "I'm not the problem. It seems the men have up and gone fishing again."
"It's what we want them to do in summer," mused Rita, writing new prices on the tags.
Tootsie persisted, to Kirsten's surprise. "They haven't shown up for Kirstie's garlic mashed potatoes. As much as this pains me to say, they are pretty darn good. They don't even require gravy."
Rita put down the worms. "You know, this is odd. Every Friday night we go out for fish. They're fishing? Again?"
Kirsten nodded. "Henri was sitting out in his chair watching traffic and told me a guy waved from a truck and invited him to come along. Something about fishing being the new Viagra."
"Viagra?" yelped Tootsie. "Bob's heart can't handle that stuff."
Rita grunted. "You know, three fishing days in a row is a bit much. Greg wouldn't miss your pan-seared bluegills with the garlic mashed potatoes and cheddar cheesy muffins."
"With the blueberry pie and Kirsten's homemade vanilla ice cream."
Kirsten beamed in shock. "Thank you, Mrs. Winters. You sound as if you're on my side."
Tootsie squared her shoulders. "Having a restaurant here beats driving into Duluth. It's all about saving gas money."
"Of course." Kirsten wanted to mutter something about Tootsie not needing any more gas, but instead said to Rita, "Maybe Greg knows what's going on? Somebody must have stopped by today and said something."
"Good thought." Rita punched a button on her cell phone, then frowned. "That's odd. He must've turned his phone off. He never does that." Rita stared at the phone as if her husband would pop out.
Tootsie called her husband. She, too, got no answer. "Now I am concerned. Bob needs his food and pills on time to keep his blood pressure in check."
Kirsten offered, "Fishing's supposed to be relaxing."
"Bob doesn't need to relax. That's his problem," said Tootsie. "If he'd do more around the house, he'd lose weight. Did you know vacuuming is worth about three hundred steps toward your ten-thousand a day? What's fishing? Ten steps to find a place to plop the beer cooler so you can sit and watch your bobber on the water."
Kirsten was saved from responding by the door flapping open.
Three frowning women sashayed in amid a whoosh of hot, humid air. Though Kirsten had seen them before in her restaurant, she didn't know their names. Tootsie introduced Jeri Kaminski, with long, blonde hair that Kirsten admired. The woman drove a bus when school was in session and had the muscular arms to go with the job. The petite, freckled brunette, Lily Bauer, wearing a string of pearls, was the head teller at the bank. Both maybe in their thirties, they wore conservative sundresses, too much makeup, and carried handbags that matched their dresses and sandals. The fiftyish, plump but curvaceous, dark-haired Margie Mueller wore a pink blouse with buttons bursting and matching pink pants. She managed the IGA grocery. Maybe looking like a giant strawberry was appropriate for a grocer. Kirsten hadn't socialized enough in Moonstone to know the fashion rules.
Jeri declared, "I thought our guys would be here. They were supposed to meet us at The Jingle Bell Inn. Don't tell me they're fishing again."
The comely Lily fingered her pearls. "We truly must stop this fishing thing. Three days without my man makes me itch."
Margie sniffled, fanning her generous cleavage. "Some blind date this has been so far. This is the last time I let you two do this to me. I even bought a new bra just in case."
In case of--? Kirsten didn't want to ask. "Maybe the guys are taking your blind date for a drink first before he meets you."
"He has to drink to get his courage to meet me?" Margie burst into tears, her bosom bouncing despite the new bra.
Kirsten wanted to evaporate. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it the way it sounded."
Little Lily stretched to pat Margie's ample shoulders. "Please don't cry. Think of your makeup."
Margie bawled louder. The women glared at Kirsten. In a panic she said, "All of you go over to the restaurant for a free dinner. Salad bar's ready. I'll get to the bottom of this and be back in a jiffy."
The women only stood there.
Kirsten's heart fell into her belly. "What's wrong? It's free food."
Jeri frowned. "You want us to go out on Friday night without our men? Kirk and I have been going out for fish on Friday nights together for years. We have our routine. Breaking it means our marriage is breaking."
Lily nodded. "Tom likes to eat early, then we do the hoochy-coo and go to bed by nine."
Did she wear her pearls for that, too?
Rita snapped her fingers. "Greg mentioned how the fishing had been picking up out on the lake. If there's a stiff wind, you know how easy it is to drift east to the casino in Port Cliff."
"Gambling?" Tootsie growled. "When I get my hands on him--"
Margie sucked back a sob. "I suppose I could meet my blind date at the casino for dinner instead of here."
"Ladies," Kirsten blurted, her brain racing. She couldn't lose them to a casino buffet, even though she'd heard good things about the woman who cooked there. "Go over to the Inn. Margie, I'll find your blind date. You're going to fall in love over my bluegills and garlic mashed potatoes. I guarantee it."
"I am?" Margie dabbed a tissue around her eyes.
"Fix your mascara and get ready to bat those eyelashes. You have lovely eyelashes."
Kirsten rushed out. She trotted back to the North Pole to get her car, then drove east out of Moonstone. Traffic was unusually heavy, which worried her. Maybe the casino's food was doing her in. She had driven only a couple of miles along the Lake Superior shoreline, though, before she discovered what had happened to Moonstone's men.
She slammed on the brakes.
Had she just seen...what she thought she saw?
She did a U-turn and pulled into a scenic lookout on a bluff overlooking the lake.
She grabbed her binoculars, got out, then paled at what she saw.
Was that legal?