THE CHEF CATERS TO THE REAPER
Sugar Skull Books
Release Date: February 2018
Reaping souls for over two centuries can be such a bore. Breaking every rule in the Heavenly guidebook, reaper Stasia Tien has been secretly moonlighting as a seasonal catering chef in the quirky town of Nocturne Falls. She’s managed to balance her double life for the past decade or two, but as Valentine’s Day approaches, her sous chef and reaper colleague is unexpectedly called away weeks before the elaborate charity dinner for which Stasia’s responsible. Forced to find a last-minute replacement, she has no choice except to collect a debt from handsome celebrity chef du jour, Balthazar Dash. Years ago, Stasia saved Zar, and although she’s responsible for guiding souls into the afterlife, this is one rogue soul she’d rather keep all for herself…
Chef Zar owes Stasia his life—literally. Living on a second chance, he’s long forgotten a bargain made during a moment of desperation until the mysterious reaper pops into his busy restaurant. He’s been living the American dream with several hit shows under his belt. But Zar is ready to take a step back to better care for his young daughter. Exiting his current lifestyle won’t be easy, but perhaps the gorgeous diversion Stasia provides is exactly what he needs to get back into Heaven’s good graces…
RELEASE DATE: MARCH 22, 2018
Read an Excerpt
Stasia meticulously poured organic black tea from the antique crimson kettle into the matching cups. She waited with the same level of patience that she’d learned to master in the past century. A hint of a smile touched the corner of her lips. Patience hadn’t always been her strong suit. Time had taught her the importance of the word, especially when it came to her duties as a reaper. The job description wasn’t as simple as collecting assigned souls and directing them to the afterlife.
Contrary to what the mortal world believed, there were different levels of reapers with their own sets of duties and responsibilities. Depending on what country or region, the handling of the delicate matters differed based on a case-to-case basis. Her least favorite part of her work was the actual reporting. This tedious task required a lot of time since the Big Boss happened to favor paper reports and the archaic art of the handwritten forms. They may have taken cursive out of schools, but in the world of the reapers, it was mandatory.
The familiar musical wind chimes alerted her to the guest’s arrival. Stasia glanced down at her wristwatch and confirmed the time. It was precisely 4:44 pm. The front door slowly opened as an elderly man dressed in a dark striped suit walked confidently into the space. He glanced around the vintage tea shop and apothecary, catching sight of her, he smiled.
“Mr. Bartholomew Wexley, I’ve been expecting you.” She gave him a kind smile from where she was sitting.
Nodding in acknowledgment, he headed toward the middle of the room where the table was set.
“Please have a seat.”
The man sat down and she slid a steaming teacup in front of him.
“I suppose this means I’ve died,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“Peacefully in your sleep.”
He nodded. “So, let’s cut to the chase. Where do I go from here?”
“It depends on what you want to do, Mr. Wexley.”
He gave her a quizzical look. “And why is that?”
Stasia picked up the square white linen card on top of the envelope with the case number beautifully written on it. Just by touching the paper, the encrypted file unlocked, and all the pertinent contents of his life were downloaded into her head. “Well, it seems you’ve led an exemplary life as man and a dedicated physician. You’ve worked hard, were a loving husband and father, gave generously to the less fortunate and never asked for anything in return. Yada, yada, yada…” She paused and looked him square in the eyes. “I’d call that pretty damn amazing.”
“Wouldn’t anyone do the same thing?”
She bit back a sarcastic response. Being a reaper had exposed her to all sorts of personality types, greed and selfishness a common theme. The man had no clue he was a welcome exception. He was a rare case every reaper salivated for, one that helped restore her faith in humanity whenever her soul assignments were uninspiring.
Stasia cleared her throat and smiled brightly. “Okay, superstar. It appears that all your good deeds have garnered a golden ticket. A one-way ticket to the big H, to be exact.”
“Heaven,” he breathed.
She nodded, but raised a finger. “However, you also have the choice to return to the human world as a VIP. You’d never want for anything in the next life.” She gently picked up his cup and held it out to him. “Free will and all that biz.”
“I feel there’s a catch.”
Stasia grinned and lowered the drink. “You’re perceptive. There are certainly some restrictions that come with the good life. If you decide to take this offer, you must give up all memories of your life so that there’s no interference in the new one.”
“If you were to retain any memory, you would want to search for your family and friends which would cause complications.”
Mr. Wexley rubbed his jaw. “Yes, I can see how that would pose a problem.”
“I wish I could give you more time to make a decision, but it’s time. What shall it be?” Stasia held up the teacup for him again.
He paused for a second and hope shined in his bright blue eyes. “What if I choose heaven? Will my Martha be waiting for me there?”
She placed the tea on the table. “She’s actually waiting on the other side of that door.” Stasia pointed to the white door to the left of her. “Does that mean you’re refusing the tea?”
“That was a no brainer.” He winked. “I whole-heartedly refuse.”
“Good choice.” She stood up and he followed her lead. “Let’s get to it, heaven awaits,”
Mr. Wexley reached for the doorknob, hesitating. “Is it everything that they say it is?”
Stasia shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.” Her tone perked up. “Enjoy the afterlife.”
The man turned the handle and pushed the door open. His face instantly transformed, and so did his physical appearance. He was twenty years younger and dressed in a dapper suit. Standing in front of him was a beautiful woman with warm honey hair, a little wave to it. She was in 1940s fashion, a simple blouse with a ruffled neckline tucked inside an A-line skirt that accentuated her slender waist. Sensible pumps completed the attire.
His eyes teared up. “Martha.” They embraced, rejoicing in the reunion. “You’re still as beautiful as I remembered.”
Stasia gave them a moment before she gently said, “It’s time, Mr. Wexley.”
He took his wife’s hand and his smile widened. “I’ll be sure to let you know my thoughts on the big H.”
“I’ll hold you to it,” she waved them on. “Now get going, lovebirds. You don’t want to waste another second catching up.”
She watched the couple slowly fade, turning into two orbs of white light as the door closed automatically when they vanished.
One thing that always seemed to make her stomach react oddly was watching true love in action. Something Stasia never experienced as a mortal—yet whenever she witnessed this human emotion, it was becoming more difficult to let the questions go. She’d been intrigued in the past, but never enough for her to pursue the curiosity, until today. The area in her chest, what humans called the heart, had a dull ache that she didn’t quite understand. Observing the purity of the couple’s soul connection made her desire to understand more.
She dismissed the direction of her thoughts and returned her attention to the clean-up task. Once the table was cleared and the tea set washed, she carefully placed them in the empty space on the wooden shelf. She was finally satisfied with the immaculate condition of the Greeting Room, the space where the assigned souls made their afterlife choices, most often willingly. Sometimes…not so much.
“That’s a wrap.” She breathed, pressing the button on her watch, and the room morphed back into her cozy cottage. Back to parading as a mortal in Nocturne Falls, the town that celebrated Halloween 365 days a year.
Stasia had grown fond of her home, the holiday themed shops and streets, and its quirky inhabitants. Importantly, supernaturals were able to walk freely, and tourists embraced the magical town without knowledge of the truth surrounding it. She may be leading a double life, but it was no different than the residents here. In fact, secrets were the PB&J that held Nocturne Falls together.
That’s why it made for a perfect community for a reaper to hide out without being exposed.
“We’re here, kiddo.” Zar announced as he parked in the patch of gravel, cutting off the ignition of his sleek luxury SUV.
His teen daughter popped her bubble gum and eyed the house. She yanked out her earbuds, exclaiming, “O-M-G, Dad! This place is something outta Country Livin’.”
“C’mon, it’s not that bad, Sage.” He covered the dread he felt with a chipper tone. “I think it’s cozy.”
She crossed her arms and gave him a quizzical stare. “You sure you aren’t going through an early mid-life crisis or somethin’? You never suddenly just take an extended vacation; especially in the middle of the woods. You don’t even like to camp!”
He gave her a reassuring smile through the rearview mirror. “This is hardly the middle of the woods, honey. Besides, I needed a break from the city life—a change of pace can be good.”
“Sure, Daddy-O!” Sage unbuckled her seat belt and grabbed her backpack. “What kind of juicy dirt does this chick have on you that you’d drop everything to help her out? It’s not like you.”
Zar blew out a frustrated breath, “I told you, Stasia and I go way back.”
“Uh-huh. So why haven’t you mentioned her before?”
“I’m sure I have…Hey, I know what you’re doing.” He quickly changed the topic, “I don’t need to defend my decision to a thirteen-year-old spiritual-hippie-smarty-pants. Can you just accept that I owe her a favor and I happen to have a little down time? Besides, we’re long overdue for a daddy-daughter vacay. My new show starts soon and you know how hectic it can get.”
“Vacay?” Sage rolled her eyes. “I believe you, Chef Zar. Or should I say…” she giggled, “Chef Hottie?” She pushed the door open, hopped out, and slammed it behind her.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled. His daughter always knew how to raise his blood pressure. Truthfully, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Even at a young age she’d shown signs of being an old soul, and as frustrating as she was, Sage was the reason his life had been worth living.
Sage blew out a breath and announced, “Let’s get this over with.”
“That’s an understatement,” he murmured while exiting the vehicle.
Zar walked over and ruffled her messy mop of blonde hair. “You’re a trooper.” He swung his arm protectively around his daughter’s shoulders as they scrutinized their new temporary residence.
“Daaaad!” she grumbled but didn’t pull away. “Maybe you’re right. It’s not so bad from this angle.”
“Just think, my little herbal alchemist, I bet there’s a ton of plants in the organic garden for you to experiment with. Probably even ones indigenous to this town that are unavailable in the city.”
Sage tilted her head, eyes glittering with excitement. “Really? You think so? Why didn’t you mention this before?” her volume increased with each question.
“I didn’t want to spoil the surprise.” He released his hold. “Now go back there and check it out. I’m told there’s a beautiful lake, too.”
The teen clapped her hands together. She didn’t need to be told twice.
“Scoot. I’ll grab the luggage and get us squared away.”
“Thanks, Dad!” she quickly called over her shoulder as she darted to the back yard.
Zar laughed as he unloaded the trunk. He reached for the sturdy case that held his precious tools and a linen card fell onto the ground. He leaned down to pick it up, noticing the neatly handwritten calligraphy scrawled across it.
Congratulations on the wise decision. –S.
No doubt it was Stasia’s way of ruffling his feathers, but he wasn’t intimidated so easily. He may have agreed to help her, but he no longer feared death. Figuratively and literally. He’d spent over a decade making darn sure his daughter would be taken care of in case anything unexpected happened to him. Heck, he’d do everything in his power to protect Sage, even bargained with the—He fisted the card, crumpling it in his hand.
His mind returned to a week ago when the reaper popped into his restaurant during the dinner rush. Thankfully, the entire establishment was frozen in mid-action as the beautiful woman calmly instructed…no, told him—she was there to collect on the favor he owed.
Refusal wasn’t an option.
Truth be told, he’d regretted a lot of things, but he’d never renege on a promise. Stasia had saved his life thirteen years ago and this was a contract he’d been prepared to honor.
Confidence made him straighten his spine. He’d always been a consummate professional when it came to fulfilling commitments. This job was no different. In a few weeks, when the catering gig was over, he’d walk away without the blasted debt hanging over his head.
He wasn’t called Chef Zar without sacrifices, and he had plenty of battle scars to prove.
He’d busted butt to move up the culinary ladder at a young age, which had gotten him quite an arsenal of frenemies. When the world took notice of his talents, he’d proven his worth by surpassing some of the best chefs in the industry. They’d graciously slapped on the label of ‘arrogant egomaniac’, as well as a few choice names he’d rather not repeat. Now at thirty-six, he’d gained a stellar reputation and amassed a solid empire. He didn’t have plans of slowing down either—that was, until the reaper came knocking.
Echoing the sentiments of his precocious daughter, he puffed, “Let’s get this over with.”