Read an Excerpt
Fatality By Firelight
By LYNN CAHOON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Lynn Cahoon
All rights reserved.
The world outside still clung to the previous night, the shadows not quite releasing their hold to the breaking light over the mountain ridge outside Aspen Hills, Colorado. With the first rays of morning, the fresh snow glistened and covered the lawn all around 700 Warm Springs.
Cat Latimer, owner of the Warm Springs Writers' Retreat, housed in the old Victorian, sat at the kitchen table drinking a mix of hot chocolate and coffee. With a dab of freshly whipped cream, Cat thought Shauna's winter concoction was just about the most perfect drink ever invented. Her friend, Shauna Mary Clodah, had taken over the role of cook, planner, and manager for the writing retreats. Shauna was a petite, pretty, Irish redhead that cooked like an angel. The small group sitting around the table was drinking the "virgin" version of her mixture. Later, the retreat guests would have the option of adding a shot of Bailey's Irish Cream or Kahlúa to their cups, an invitation to the muse.
Right now her guests were tucked in their beds, sleeping. Which was where she wanted to be instead of sitting here in the kitchen. But then she took in the smell of coffee and chocolate mixed together and she sighed in delight.
"I can't believe you're taking the group up the mountain. I thought this was supposed to be about writing. They aren't going to get many words written by spending the day skiing." Uncle Pete had become a regular at the breakfast table, both when the retreat was in session and when it was just Cat and Shauna milling around the empty house. Her uncle was Aspen Hills' police chief and Cat's closest relative.
"It's part of the Colorado experience," Cat explained, thinking about her own manuscript sitting on her computer waiting for her to make time to write. The phrase making time to write was a joke. She either wrote or didn't, and today her word-count chart would show a big fat zero, unless she had the mental energy when they returned from skiing. During the first retreat, she'd managed to get a few pages written — before one of her guests wound up dead in his room. This retreat she'd promised herself that she'd focus on her own work, even when they had guests. Shauna was in charge of the day-to-day activities when the retreat was in session. Cat's job was to be the resident writer and set a good example as a professional writer. A job that sometimes was harder than other days, especially if she got drawn into a Facebook rotating loop of cute kittens or the occasional photos of hot guys — or worse, one simple question that grew into a research project on the entire history of the Salem Witch trials.
Today was about building relationships and having experiences. Writers needed both.
"Who do you have visiting this month? Anyone I need to put some eyes on?" As the town police chief, Uncle Pete could be a little overprotective when it came to Cat. At least that was her experience. Cat had moved back to Aspen Hills when her ex-husband died and left her the huge Victorian. She and Michael had bought it when their marriage was young, before he started cheating.
Now the house was hers. Not hers and the bank's, just hers: The mortgage insurance had paid off the loan when Michael died. Karma was sweet.
"We have five guests, including the student from the college. They're writing sweet romance, historical fiction, speculative fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. They all seem pretty harmless." Cat had a list of the guests in front of her. They'd all arrived yesterday and for once, Seth had only had to do one trip to the Denver airport as the planes had arrived within an hour. Last night had been casual with the group hanging out over soup and homemade bread in the living room. It had been nice to get to know the group before the retreat got started. Cat pointed to one of the names on the list. "We have one guest who is not joining in the ski trip. Bella Neighbors told me last night she has no interest in skiing or going outside in this weather."
The door blew open, and on the wind a few snowflakes entered around the tall man covered in skiwear. "Who ever said that is a smart cookie. It's c-c-c-cold out there."
Cat watched as Seth Howard stomped his feet, then shrugged out of his heavy coat and sat on the bench to take off his shoes. He shook his head, letting the snowflakes fall from his brown hair onto the wood floor. Seth had been her high school sweetheart, and apparently, was now her after-divorce boyfriend. She forced herself to focus on Shauna instead. "Are you going to be okay here? Bella's the historical fiction author, so I'm sure she'd be interested in the history of the town. I know I have several books in the house library about the area."
Shauna nodded. "We'll be good. I'll send her over that way when I see her. Miss Bella can write or go wandering through town, and I'll have a fine dinner of shepherd's pie waiting for you when you get back."
"Sounds great." Seth made his way over to the table, taking the cup Shauna held out for him. He kissed Cat on her neck, sinking into a chair next to her. "Hey, Pete. How are things in Aspen Hills?"
"If we didn't have the book thief over at the college, my days would be filled with counted cross-stitch. Why someone would want to steal an old book is beyond me." The big man drained his cup and stood. "I'm heading back to the station. You guys be careful on the road to the ski resort. I'm getting reports of slide-offs every day."
"I put the chains on the tires just now. We should be fine." Seth sipped his coffee. "I hear that guy stole some rare books from the library. You got any suspects?"
Uncle Pete pulled his belt upward and put on his coat. "I can't comment on an open investigation, but since I have squat for evidence, I guess I still can't comment on nothing."
"See you tomorrow?" Cat called after him as he made his way to the kitchen door.
Uncle Pete didn't turn around as he waved. "Yep."
Cat watched through the window as he made his way to his police car. The black Charger looked more like a white hill, so much snow had fallen in the hour her uncle had been in the kitchen visiting and having breakfast. She turned back to the others at the table. "Does he look tired to you?"
"You worry too much. Your uncle looks fine." Seth took the plate of fried potatoes and ham Shauna handed him. "Thanks."
"I don't know. He didn't eat as much as usual." Shauna returned to the counter where she was finishing the buffet items for the guests. "I think the college is putting pressure on him about that break-in."
"That could be it." Cat wasn't convinced, and tomorrow she'd ask him about the last time he had a physical. Uncle Pete was a widower, and with her mother in Florida, Cat was the only relative around to make sure he kept his routines. She took her plate to the sink and poured herself another cup of coffee. Glancing around the kitchen, she paused. "Do you need help with anything?"
"No. I've got it handled." Shauna waved her away from the stove. "I don't need you messing in my kitchen."
Cat put up her hands. "Fine, I was just asking." She focused on Seth. "When are we leaving?"
"No later than ten. So yeah, you have time to sneak up to your office and write. I'll come get you when we're ready to go." Seth didn't look up from his plate of food. "Just be ready to lose when we race down Mountain Top."
"Who said we were racing?" Cat smiled at the memory of winters growing up skiing at the local resort. Back then, they'd gotten their season passes as early Christmas gifts as soon as the snow arrived.
This time he did look up and the look he gave her seared her with desire. "We always race."
She ignored his comment and left the kitchen with a filled carafe of coffee Shauna handed her wordlessly. Her office was in the third floor turret, the same floor where she and Shauna had bedroom suites. The guest rooms were all on the second floor with the first floor open for guest use including scheduled and unscheduled group activities and of course, breakfast.
Except for Michael's study. After one quick look around for anything vital, she had locked that room. It held too many memories that right now Cat didn't need to be dealing with. Especially with a house full of writers to herd. She looked forward to this new group. An introvert, Cat was drained by running a retreat. What surprised her was last time, when the retreat was over, how much she needed that writer-to-writer interaction.
She entered her office, turned on her computer, and promptly got lost in the world of her teenage witch trying to navigate the horrors of high school.
True to his word, Seth knocked on her door exactly at ten. The writing was done for today. She saved her document, then turned off her computer. "Just a minute."
When she opened the door, Seth eased his body up next to hers and walked her back to the office wall. He leaned in for the first kiss. Even in high school, he had known just how to kiss her to make her toes catch fire. She relaxed into his arms, feeling the desire she'd only just brushed against a few hours ago flow through her. After a few minutes, she turned her head and whispered in his ear, "I thought we had to leave."
He groaned and stepped away from her. He waved her through the open door. "We do."
Everyone had already loaded into the van by the time they got downstairs and Cat slipped into her ski jacket. Shauna handed her a bag. When she peeked inside, she saw a thermos of cocoa and what looked like a Tupperware container of sandwiches. "In case we get snowed in?"
Shauna shrugged. "I know they just ate, but sometimes people need a little something to tide them over."
Shauna was right. The sandwiches were gone before they arrived at the Little Ski Hill's parking lot. As they unloaded their passengers, Cat gave everyone a card with her cell and the house numbers listed. "Call if you need something. We'll be meeting in the great room in the main lodge at three to return to the house."
As the guests made their way to the rental shack, Seth took his and Cat's equipment down from the rack on top of the SUV. "Do you have a season pass?" He jiggled his laminated pass that hung on a chain around his neck in her face. "I guess you'll have to stand in line with the newbies then. I'll see you after my first run, if you're set up by then." He started to turn away but Cat put a hand on his jacket, stopping his movement.
"You mean this?" She took out the season pass from her pocket. She'd bought it last month when the ski hill had been advertising a buy one, -get one half-off sale for Aspen Hills residents. She and Shauna had already been on the slopes a few times.
He grinned and grabbed her skis. "Bring along the poles and we'll get going. The line for the chair lift gets long on Saturday's."
* * *
They skied together for hours, taking the same runs they'd taken back in high school. The snow was powdery, and Cat felt like she was running on feathers except for the spray of cold that sometimes snuck around her goggles and scarf. Rays of sunshine on the hillside turned the white into bright. Ending a run, Cat waved Seth over as they slid into the area around the lodge. "Let's go in and warm up."
They took off their skis and left them and the poles standing in a rack near the door. Stamping the snow off her boots, she entered the warm lodge. The lodge, the ski runs, being with Seth — it all left Cat feeling like she'd stepped into a time machine. The leather couches surrounding the stone fireplace in the middle of the great room looked just like she remembered. A hum of excited chatter filled the area, echoing off the cathedral ceilings and wall-to-ceiling windows highlighting the mountains they'd just left.
Taking off her gloves, she checked her phone to make sure she hadn't missed any calls. She hadn't, but she was shocked at the time: 2 p.m. already. They only had another hour before they would be meeting up with the guests. Laughter echoed out of the bar area, and they followed it inside.
They squeezed into the last two seats on the edge of the bar. "What can I get you?" A man in his early twenties stood in front of Cat, clearing the empty glasses and wiping the bar in front of them. His blond hair was too long and messy, just the style girls loved. And he had the most arresting green eyes. His Little Ski Hill shirt had Martin embroidered over the front pocket. Cat figured the bartender did all right in the tips department.
"Hey Martin, I'll have a coffee, black." Seth looked at Cat. "Merlot for you?"
Cat pulled the knitted hat off her head. "I don't know. I guess I'll take a beer. You got a dark on draft?"
"For being so far away from civilization, this place has a quality draft list. Let me get you a sample." Martin walked toward the taps.
"You see any of the guests?" she asked Seth as she looked around the crowded bar. But before she could recognize anyone, the bartender was back.
"Tell me if you like it." He pushed a small glass filled with a dark amber liquid toward Cat, then set a coffee cup in front of Seth. "You sure you don't want me to Jack that coffee up a bit?"
"Black is fine. I'm the designated driver." He took a sip of the brew.
"Too bad, man. I make a mean mixed drink. You two are going to have to check out our condo rentals. They're cheapest during the week when we don't have out-of-town visitors. Of course, I'm only here on weekends. Getting my degree in both accounting and mixology; at least I'll be employable after four years." He turned toward Cat who had finished the mini-beer. "Do you like it?"
"Most definitely." She turned to Seth as the young man went to get her a normal pint of the draft. "I think he's got a great idea about the condos. Maybe next week when the retreat's over, we should look into staying a few days."
"Ski by day and snuggle by night?" Seth raised his eyebrows. "I could be talked into playing hooky for a few days."
"You're only working for me," Cat reminded him. The promise of two days of skiing and relaxing were almost enough for Cat to get through the retreat without a major breakdown. She knew she'd come up with the idea, but sometimes having so many people around was challenging, if not downright crazy. She'd book the mini-vacation online as soon as they returned to the house.
A loud cheer sounded from a table across the room. A very drunk woman stood on the table and downed what looked to Cat from this distance to be a boilermaker. As she raised her hands in victory, a man swept her off the table and into his arms on the couch. The couple started kissing. The kiss continued so long, Cat felt uncomfortable watching them and turned back to Seth.
"Kids." She shrugged and sipped her beer.
"That's one of your writers." He pointed to the girl. "Don't know her name, but there's another one, Nelson something."
Cat choked on her beer. "What did they do, just ignore the slopes and come right to the bar? That girl is hammered."
"Furthermore, she's kissing the wrong guy. Tommy Neil is engaged." Seth pointed to a third person sitting farther down at the bar watching the scene unfold on the couch. "There's another one, the poet?"
"Jeffrey Blank," Cat answered absently. "How do you know the guy kissing Christina is engaged?"
"I've met him before. He's kind of a jerk, but he's Brittany's fiancé. You remember Brit, the bartender down at Bernie's?" He saw the confusion in her eyes as she tried to place the names. "Don't you read the local papers? I'm pretty sure I've brought in the Aspen Hills Post from your doorstep."
"Shauna reads the local. I'm too busy." She sipped her beer and glanced at the clock. "So we're only missing one. Maybe we should start moving everyone to the van. I can call Jennifer and have her meet us there."
"No need. She's at the same table with our party girl." Seth pointed to the last retreat guest sipping a glass of wine. He focused back on Cat and shook his head. "Brit's not going to like this one bit. And Bernie has connections."
"That's just a rumor." Cat finished her beer and dug in her purse for cash. Seth stilled her hand and took out his wallet, throwing some bills on the bar.
"Not a rumor I would want to test out." He looked at her. "I don't think Tommy's going to like it if his future father-in-law finds out about his extra-curricular activities. The guy might end up skiing down a mountain side with some specialty concrete boots."
Excerpted from Fatality By Firelight by LYNN CAHOON. Copyright © 2017 Lynn Cahoon. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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