Mask of the Queen (Temporarily Unavailable)

“You’re not Jewish?” Joel Green, the new director of Columbia’s Jewish Community Center, eyed Celeste “Skye” Schuyler with suspicion.

“Nope.” Skye forced her cheeriness. “But I do have my kosher certification. I explained all this to your predecessor when he signed the contract for me to cater the Purim Carnival.”

She kept her smile firmly in place. Didn’t even grit her teeth.

“Kosher is more than no lobster or bacon.” The poor man was truly distressed.

“I know. Don’t worry. My certification is legitimate. And I’m a vegan caterer, too. The two cuisines work well together.”

He didn’t seem assured. “Why would you cater kosher meals if you’re not Jewish?”

“I like to cook. I like studying various cuisines. I saw a need for a kosher caterer in Columbia. It was a business decision.”

She didn’t know what her religious or cultural orientation had to do with her ability to cook kosher. Yes, she understood kashrut—the dietary laws—wasn’t the same as being able to cook Thai or French. But the secondary kitchen in her Skye’s The Limit building had been certified kosher. She had completely separate cooking utensils. She understood what she could and couldn’t do. In fact, she’d already catered a wedding reception at one of the local synagogues. Her credentials had been scrutinized by the previous director of the JCC before he signed the contract for her to cater the Purim Carnival.

Green finally smiled at her, but the ice in his vivid blue eyes didn’t melt. “Given the current political climate, you have to understand why the center is being cautious.”

She’d heard about the rise in hate crimes around the country. She couldn’t escape it. Especially when she was a victim, too.

“Nothing has happened here, has it?” she asked.

”There was a threat back in January. And the Purim Carnival is the first big event we’ve had this calendar year, so it’s…attractive. We’ll be beefing up security as well as taking a closer look at all our vendors.”

He was trying to tell her his questions weren’t personal. “Completely understandable.”

Skye really needed this job. She’d signed the contract the previous autumn, right after her certification had come through. She’d been scrambling then, trying to come up with a balloon payment on her mortgage. Then the local baseball team won the National League pennant and went to the World Series. Since her contract with the Columbia Gems called for her to cater all home games, she’d gotten four unexpected but quite welcome jobs from the series.

Catering jobs weren’t the only thing she’d gotten.

“And frankly, something came up in our background check on you that concerns us.”

Skye’s stomach dropped, probably along with her blood pressure. She knew what was coming.

“Tag Gentry,” Green said.

Tag Gentry. The Columbia Gems catcher whose play at the plate during the final game of the National League pennant race had put the Gems in the World Series. Who’d sacrificed his leg for his team. Who had become Skye’s friend with benefits when the team hired her to feed him during his initial rehab. Who she’d had the complete lack of common sense to fall in love with.

Yeah. That guy.

Thanks to his jealous ex, the world believed Skye had exposed him as a steroid user. That she’d betrayed him. That she was untrustworthy.

She waited for Green to explain, while he seemed to be waiting for a response from her.

Her relationship with Tag was no one’s business but hers and Tag’s. Nor did it have any bearing on her ability to cook a kugel.

Actually, she wished she knew what her relationship with Tag was. Because it was her business. But Tag was getting weird, and Skye decided the most important thing she could do was protect her heart. Because she’d done the world’s stupidest thing by falling in love with the man.

The clock on Green’s desk ticked loudly in the ensuing silence. Did he think all he had to do was mention a name and she’d start talking?

He broke first. “You do know Tag Gentry.”

“Of course.” Everybody in Columbia knew who Tag Gentry was. “He’s the catcher for the Gems who broke his leg last year.”

Green steepled his fingers. Skye sat back in her chair. Yes, she needed the job, but she wasn’t going to let anyone intimidate her. She was through being a wimp. Especially to a man.

As a child, her father had dragged her around the country, always looking for something better, something that didn’t exist for him. Drake Dixon, majority shareholder of the Columbia Gems, tried to mess with her mortgage, not to mention her body. When he didn’t get away with that, he tried to destroy her career. And maybe he’d succeeded. Based on this conversation, she was going to add Joel Green’s name to her shit list.

“And you know that. Otherwise you wouldn’t have asked.” Skye crossed her legs and jiggled her foot. “Now, I appreciate your concern. After all, I’m going to be at the festival, and the hate crimes worry me too. But I’m also a little offended that you assume because I’m not Jewish I can’t cook kosher and that I might be a threat.”

She was still raw from New Orleans, where she’d been contracted to cater a Mardi Gras party. To say Mardi Gras had been a nightmare was like saying the Pope was Catholic. Drake Dixon had lured her to the French Quarter to finish what Tag had prevented at Halloween.

“Look,” Green said. “Purim is a very festive, happy holiday for us. It commemorates the thwarting of a plot by the government to kill the Jews.”

“They tried to kill us. They couldn’t. Let’s eat.” Skye smiled as she repeated an old joke.

Green’s lips tightened. “It’s easy to joke when you’re not in the crosshairs.”

“You’re right. I apologize. I guess it wasn’t my joke to make.”

“We’re especially vulnerable during Purim,” Green continued after a moment. “We’re supposed to get so drunk we can’t tell the hero from the villain of the Purim story. Although we don’t have alcohol at our festival. It’s more family oriented. But there’s a giddiness involved, as well as costumes and masks.”

“Masks?” Skye heard her voice squeak. She inhaled deeply. This wasn’t a free-for-all like Mardi Gras. Nor was it a private party for a letch like the Halloween fiasco at Drake Dixon’s. Purim Carnival was a family event. Children. Events for children. Foods children would eat.

“I’m going with a meat menu,” Skye said. Talking business helped her regain control. “Grilled hot dogs. Kosher, of course. Mini knish—potato and kasha. I have already started baking several kinds of hamantaschen.” She needed to show this man she was prepared. That she knew what she was doing.

“Apricot?” he asked.

She smiled. All the world loved a cookie and hamantaschen was a favorite with this crowd. “Of course. And prune, strawberry, and chocolate. Dark chocolate—no milk. People will be able to eat them with their hot dogs.” Mixing dairy products and meat was forbidden by dietary laws, and it didn’t hurt to let him know she knew it. “And I have some other holiday-themed ideas. I have done my research, Mr. Green. I know the basic story of the two queens, the villain, the king, and Uncle Mordechai. I won’t embarrass you, me, or the Jewish community.”