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DEAD ROOTS A Bad Hair Day Mystery
By Nancy J. Cohen
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP. Copyright © 2005 Nancy J. Cohen
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Maybe I shouldn't have come," Detective Dalton Vail said to hairstylist Marla Shore while they drove north on I-75 along Florida's west coast. "Your family is holding its first reunion. They may resent having an outsider present."
"You're my fiancé, not an outsider."
"How many people do you expect?"
Marla swept a strand of chestnut hair behind her ear. "I have a gazillion relatives. Some of us will be meeting each other for the first time. We're from all over the country."
Keeping his hands on the wheel, Vail gave her a disquieted glance. "I'd rather have you all to myself."
"We'll have our own room. You're not nervous, are you?"
His broad shoulders stiffened. "Nothing bothers me, sweetcakes; you know that."
"Right," she murmured, her lips curving in a smile. I might have believed that before we grew close, but not now.
When they first met, she'd never suspected the gruff lieutenant could have a soft side. Memories flitted through her mind of their initial encounter. He'd been investigating a murder case where she was the prime suspect. His onslaught of questions had made her quake in her shoes. Later, when they started solving crimes together, her reaction changed to another sortof trembling under his skilled touch. Even now, Marla marveled that the lonely widower and his thirteen-year-old daughter included her as a special person in their lives.
She gazed at him fondly, absorbing the pleasing sight of his ebony hair streaked with silver, his sharp, angular features and tall, powerful frame. Too bad they couldn't steal away for longer.
"I've never heard of Sugar Crest," he commented.
"The resort isn't widely advertised. Out-of-state tourists usually go to places like Naples and Sarasota."
"What was that crack your Aunt Polly made? Something about being prepared for stormy waters?"
Her brow wrinkled. "I don't understand what she meant. Hurricane season is over, and we're supposed to have clear skies this weekend. It should be perfect for Thanksgiving."
"Fireworks often happen when families get together."
"She could be afraid of ghosts." Marla grinned. "The resort is listed in my guidebook under 'Haunted Florida Hotels.' It dates to the 1800s and was a sugar plantation until new owners took over in 1924. I'm sorry Brianna couldn't come. Your daughter would have had fun exploring the buildings."
"My folks haven't seen Brie in a long time. She was excited about visiting them in Maine. It'll be good for her to be with her grandparents for a change." Vail's gray eyes darkened to slate. "So it's just you and me. This can be sort of a pre-honeymoon. What shall we say if your family asks what date we've set?"
"We're still coordinating our schedules." Marla swung her gaze to the window. They'd just passed the Peace River near Punta Gorda. Fingering the amethyst ring on her right hand, she considered their options. Delaying the date for their nuptials had been her idea. "It's only been three weeks since Wilda's salon closed its doors in the same shopping strip as my place. We've been getting an influx of new customers as a result, and it's all I can do to handle the extra business. I must have been nuts to consider Wilda's offer to buy her shop."
"You can't do everything." He patted her arm. "I like your idea of adding spa services to Cut 'N Dye instead."
"Yeah, well, we're not supposed to discuss work on this trip." Leaving the salon made her edgy. She'd had to assign her clients to someone else and ask Nicole to take over as manager in her absence. The other stylist didn't mind; she was always exhorting Marla to take time off, but being the owner usually didn't allow such luxuries.
"I can't wait to see the plantation," Marla said. "Ma told me she'd be arriving early. She's supposed to bring Aunt Polly. I wouldn't want to drive in their car, the way those two argue."
"You've told me so much about Aunt Polly that I'm curious to meet her," Vail said, smiling.
"You may be sorry. She's quite a character." Marla hoped her eccentric relatives wouldn't turn him off about marrying her. Maybe that's why Vail hadn't given her a diamond engagement ring yet as he'd promised: he wanted to check out her bloodlines.
"Isn't your Aunt Polly the one who came up with the idea of holding a reunion at this resort?"
"That's right, although Cynthia made the arrangements." Dalton had met her cousin while investigating the murder of a board member for Cynthia's favorite volunteer organization. "She said there's a lot to do in the area. I believe the resort alone covers over two hundred acres, and if that doesn't keep us occupied, we can drive to Sarasota or visit Solomon's Castle. Four days probably won't be enough, especially with the social events planned."
Vail's lips tightened. "What do you mean?"
"Cynthia was working with the social director at the hotel to provide some mixers for our group. I know there's a cocktail party tonight. We'll get a schedule when we arrive. I just want enough time to enjoy the beach."
"If I can look at you in a swimsuit, I'll agree."
Her eyebrows lifted, but she didn't respond to his innuendo. "You should like the restaurants, although Cynthia may have secured us a private banquet hall."
"I was hoping we'd have free rein during the day and would just meet your clan for dinner." He gave a resigned sigh. "Whatever makes you happy."
"Oh, I don't know-after an extended weekend with my cousins, I might go home screaming. I'm more curious about Aunt Polly's motives. I think she may have her own agenda for bringing us together."
Vail glanced at her. "You're not thinking about that psychic's prediction, are you?"
"What, that someone close to me will die during an upcoming trip?" She laughed. "Wilda just used that as an excuse to get me to solve Carolyn Sutton's murder."
"I thought you said another medium in Cassadaga confirmed her reading."
"I'm not worried. We both need a break from work. Let's try to relax." The psychics had also advised her to devote more energy to herself. She intended to have fun this weekend, and that meant casting off her misgivings. "Look, there's the sign. Turn here."
The drive into the estate took them down a bumpy segment of road. According to her guidebook, the road was constructed from an early form of concrete called tabby: a mixture of lime, sand, oyster shells, and water. Their route wound through fields that had once yielded cotton, sugarcane, and citrus. Sunlight gave way to shade when they entered a wooded area where Spanish moss draped overhanging live oaks. In the distance, Marla spotted stately queen palms dotting the grounds, which were splashed with pink and red hibiscus and other perennial flowers.
Her attention shifted to various buildings looming within range, but nothing prepared her for the sight of the main hotel. The road segued into a paved brick driveway that ended in a circular swath. Their car slowed in front of an immense palatial structure.
As Vail pulled up to a section marked FOR GUESTS ONLY, she gaped at the grand entrance. "Oh my gosh. I didn't expect anything so magnificent."
Vail slid the keys out of the ignition. "This doesn't look like a plantation manor to me. I was expecting some quaint old cracker residence." Disappointment edged his tone.
"Cynthia didn't tell me the renovations were this extensive. It must be a well-guarded secret. I'll bet this rivals the Breakers in Palm Beach. The only thing like it on this coast is the Don Cesar Beach Resort in St. Petersburg."
She gazed at the French Renaissance design, craning her neck to regard the central tower, which stood higher than ten stories. The main portion appeared as a rectangle, with four offshoots sprouting like an X-Wing fighter.
After Vail hit the UNLOCK button, Marla stepped into the balmy November air. She'd brought mostly casual clothes, appropriate for a beach house, not for this opulence. When she pushed beyond the massive double doors, she noted that time seemed frozen in the 1920s-era lobby. Crystal chandeliers, wood-paneled walls, and hunter green upholstered furnishings decorated an expanse intersected by a wide, carpeted stairway that climbed to a mezzanine level. The air didn't have the modern smell of air-conditioned purity; rather, it carried a faint mustiness with a tinge of lemon oil.
"Marla, I've been waiting for you!"
She whirled to see her mother bearing down on them. "Ma, you didn't tell me this place was so fancy. I didn't bring the right clothes."
Anita kissed her and gave Vail a brief hug. "Don't worry about it. I'm a bit overwhelmed myself. Did you tell the porter to get your luggage? They still have old-fashioned keys here, none of that plastic card nonsense. Wait until you see the rooms. They're enormous."
Marla and Dalton followed Anita to the registration desk, a wide mahogany counter. Here a concession to modernity appeared: computer stations manned by uniformed clerks. Marla's astounded glance lifted to the far wall where miniature wood cubicles were emblazoned with each guest's room number on shiny brass plates. Past meets present, she thought, eager to explore.
"Marla gave me the impression this hotel was built on the site of an old plantation house," Vail said after giving their names to a fresh-faced young man. "I expected southern-style comfort-you know, ceiling fans, wraparound porches."
"You'll find that at Planter's House, a separate building from the main hotel. It's the original residence, built in 1844, when the plantation was established," the clerk explained. "When Andrew Marks took over in the 1920s, he constructed this hotel and converted the property to a resort. Planter's House was renovated and is now reserved for our concierge-level guests. You can tour some of the other early buildings, though."
"Didn't slaves work the fields?" Marla asked.
"Yes ma'am." He handed Vail a form to sign.
"How many of the original structures survived?"
"The sugar mill, some tabby cabins, the old barn, and the stable," Anita cut in. "I'd hoped our family would have exclusive run of the resort this weekend, but we're not the only group here, since it's a holiday. A team of paranormal researchers are staying at the hotel to conduct experiments. I met some of them already. They're looking for ghosts."
Turning to Vail, Marla gave him a seductive glance. "Maybe you'd like to hunt spooks with me."
"You left your poodle with the vet, remember?" he replied, eyes twinkling.
"Leave Spooks out of this. I'm not talking about my dog."
"Oh no? Some of those psychics you've met could be considered animals of an unusual variety."
"You'll see. I'll bet some of the ghost stories are real. Maybe Aunt Polly knows more about them. She's the one who chose this place. Where is she?" Marla asked her mother.
"Polly is getting settled in her room. If I had to stay in her company for one more minute, I'd plotz."
"Ma, that's not nice."
"You should have heard her on the drive over. She wouldn't shut up about Roger and me." Lifting her chin, Anita thrust slender fingers tipped with red nail polish through her white layered hair.
Marla was grateful Anita had not brought her boyfriend. This was a family retreat, after all. It was also her fiancé's first chance to meet the entire clan. She hoped he wouldn't have to listen to arguments the whole time.
"There's talk of converting the property into a Florida living-history experience as a new tourist attraction," Anita said.
"Just what we need in Florida, another theme park," Vail drawled.
Anita snorted her displeasure. "City council members are meeting to discuss the issue. If you ask me, the hotel shouldn't have booked so many groups for one weekend. At least Cynthia reserved early enough to get the prime space. You'll have to get a schedule, angel. Oh, there's the social director." Anita flagged down a lady just coming off the elevator.
Completing the room arrangements, Vail handed Marla a key. "I'll go up with the luggage. You can join me when you're ready." He sped off, clearly anxious to avoid further entanglement.
A woman with hair like spun gold, ocean blue eyes, and a smiling mouth approached them. "Hello, I'm Champagne Glass, the social events coordinator." She held out a firm hand for Marla to shake.
"Marla Shore, my daughter," Anita said, beaming.
Marla felt like Gulliver as she took the petite blond woman's hand. With her shorts outfit, socks, and running shoes, the social director looked like a preppie camp counselor, even down to her ponytail tied with a navy scrunchie.
"We're so delighted to have your family with us this weekend." Champagne pulled a stack of papers from her portfolio. "I've designed a schedule of activities for you to meet and greet each other. Most are casual affairs, except for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, and a dance party on Saturday night before everyone leaves. You're just going to love this place. If I can help you in any way, my extension is on this card. Otherwise, I'll be around to make sure everyone is having a super time."
Forced fun was never Marla's favorite sport. "After I unpack, I'd like to explore the grounds. What time is the tour? Seeing the original buildings is a highlight on my list."
Champagne's smile dazzled like sunbeams on the ocean. "I'm leading a group at two o'clock. You're so welcome to join us. Um, there's one thing I must mention. The hotel is in various stages of repair. We ask that you not go near the northwest wing."
"Why is that?" Marla's natural nosiness compelled her to ask.
"Oleander Hall is unsafe. Termites, you see, and there's some question about whether it'll be torn down or renovated. In the meantime, it is imperative you don't venture into that area."
"Okay." Odd that only a portion of the place would be affected by termites. Wouldn't they have to clear out the entire hotel to fumigate it with poison gas? Or maybe you only did that with houses.
"Is the beach far, and is there a charge for chair rentals?" Marla asked. Changing into a swimsuit and lazing under the sun seemed an appealing prospect for later.
"If you head down the Grand Terrace in the rear," said Champagne, "past the pool, you'll come to the beach. Chairs are free, and you can rent cabanas."
"Wait, Marla, here comes Polly. You talk to her," Anita urged. "I want to ask Champagne about our cocktail party."
Before Marla could protest, Anita hustled away with Champagne in a huddled conversation. Oh great, Marla thought, Aunt Polly had spotted her. Now she was stuck, while Vail waited upstairs. He must be wondering what was keeping her.
"Aunt Polly, how good to see you," she said, catching the elderly lady's frail shoulders in a quick embrace. Was it her imagination, or had Polly grown thinner since their last visit? Marla had begun helping her aunt with financial affairs at home, and she'd just seen her two weeks ago. She hadn't remembered Polly's bones being so prominent. It gave her face a hollow appearance and her wrinkled skin a sallow cast.
"It's about time you got here," her aunt scolded, waggling a gnarled finger. "I have something for you to do." She peered at Marla through new glasses, thanks to Barry Gold, an optometrist who kept up his pursuit of Marla even though her affection was engaged elsewhere. Now if only Marla could get Polly to shop for new clothes. Her aunt's shirtwaist dress was clean, with the hem in place, but the style dated back to the fifties. Knowing Polly, Marla figured the garment might be that old.
"What can I help you with?" she asked her aunt, wishing Polly would listen to reason. The older woman saved money by eschewing air-conditioning, recycling trash, saving junk-mail envelopes, and doing her laundry by hand. Rejecting Anita's offer of assistance, Polly had allowed Marla into her frugal life but refused to change her ways.
"It's a long story. We'll need to sit down."
"Then I'll need time to listen. I'm here with my fiancé," Marla explained. "Can we meet later? Dalton is waiting for me, and I have to unpack."
"Whassat? Something wrong with your back?"
Why don't you get a set of hearing aids already? "I've got to go," she said in a loud voice, moving away from a laughing couple in tennis outfits.
"We all have to go sometime. Did you know your granddaddy passed away in this place?"
"What?" Startled, Marla glanced into Polly's rheumy eyes, but they held intelligence, not senility.
"Yep. We used to live here when I was young. Those were the days when everything was golden, mind you. By the time I was old enough to spell my name, Papa had moved us out of the antebellum mansion and into this grand hotel. He had vision, Papa did. That's your granddaddy Andrew."
Excerpted from DEAD ROOTS by Nancy J. Cohen Copyright © 2005 by Nancy J. Cohen. Excerpted by permission.
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