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The article about a grave robbery caught my attention. It was a short piece, only three or four column inches, on the second page of the Snowcap Village Gazette, which quoted a haughty wisecrack made by the local sheriff: “Probably another case of yuppie skiers robbing us of our ancestry, like the way they’re turning the Goodwin estate into the Wendell Barton B-and-B.” My heart started racing, and I thought: Here we go again.
Sullivan handed me a cup of coffee. Although he’d pulled on a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt before heading downstairs to the kitchen of the aforementioned Goodwin estate, he slipped back under the covers beside me, his own cup in hand.
“Thanks, sweetie.” I took a tentative sip. Perfection.
“Did you see the story about the grave robbery in this week’s Gazette?”
“Yeah. Annoying potshot about the inn. Sheriff Mackey sounds like a major jerk.”
“No kidding.” Wendell Barton, who owned the ski resort a few miles from here, was just one of the partners who’d purchased this fabulous Victorian mansion from Henry Goodwin, a direct descendent of its original owner. Steve’s and my two-person company—Sullivan & Gilbert Designs—was in charge of the remodel. “I suppose by ‘yuppie skiers’ turning this place into a ‘Wendell Barton B-and-B,’ he means you and me.”
“Not if he’s ever seen you try to ski,” Sullivan teased. I considered swatting him, but didn’t want to risk his spilling coffee on our divine gold-and-burgundy silk duvet. I settled for narrowing my eyes at him. He laughed and kissed my forehead.
I felt the warm glow that I’d grown so wonderfully accustomed to during the nine-plus months since we’d started dating in earnest. “I’m getting better at skiing, you know. You said so yourself.”
“Yes, you are, Gilbert. If you make good use of our last three weeks here, you might even be able to stop without grabbing onto a tree.”
His snide remark called for a comeback, but my worry about the grave robbery nagged at me. Why would somebody steal a person’s bones? I took a couple of sips of coffee and reread the article.
“I’m sure the incident at the cemetery was just a prank,” Sullivan said. “Drunken frat boys on a ski trip, blowing off some steam, maybe.”
“Their timing’s odd, if that’s all it was. They had to dig through snow and frozen ground, just for a dumb joke. You’d think they’d get maybe two inches down and decide to go TP some trees instead.”
“Yeah, but it has to be a prank. What sensible motive could there possibly be? It’s idiotic to dig up a random fifty-year-old grave. Wasn’t there a really common name on the tombstone?”
“ ‘R. Garcia,’ and the cemetery records are inadequate, so they don’t even know how to track down Garcia’s relatives.” My imagination started to run wild in spite of myself. “Maybe that’s why this particular grave was chosen . . . so as to ruffle the fewest feathers. I hope I’m just being paranoid, but this could be the handiwork of one of the hundred or so townspeople trying to prevent the Snowcap Inn from opening.”
Sullivan stared at me, his gorgeous hazel eyes incredulous. “Seriously, Erin? You think someone’s going to . . . what? Plant a skeleton in a closet here? Stick some bones underneath the gazebo to freak out the building inspector this morning?”
“Yes. That’s precisely what I’m afraid someone wants to do.”
He took a sip of coffee, appearing to ponder my words. “No way.”
“All I know is, every time Henry Goodwin, or anyone else, puts up a sign about the Snowcap Inn, someone covers it in graffiti.”
“Still, Erin. That’s a gigantic leap . . . from scribbling four-letter words on a sign to digging up a grave and planting someone’s remains here. Don’t you think?”
How could I answer that? His point was valid, but my counterargument was a combination of women’s intuition and past experience. A string of terrible past experiences, to be more precise. The police department in Crestview—our hometown some seventy miles away— had undoubtedly been on the verge of assigning a homicide task force to follow me around. In the last three years, client after client had dragged Designs by Gilbert into a string of luck so bad that Job himself might have offered me a sympathetic shoulder. My gloomy run of catastrophes had magically lifted on Valentine’s Day, when Steve and I finally gave in to our mutual attraction. Since then, we’d become the proverbial happy couple. And yet, even as a young child, I’d known there was no such thing as happily ever after. We were long overdue for a stumbling block.
I tried to employ my “confidence and optimism” mantra, but it was too late. With my penchant for stumbling across dead bodies, I knew with unshakeable certainty that “R. Garcia” was sure to turn up in my van or my laundry basket. Our idyllic job would devolve into a disaster. This wonderful three-story house had been built eighty years ago, as commissioned by the current owner’s grandfather—the founder of Snowcap Village—but in these last couple of months, it had come to represent how far I’d grown in my career and in my life. Now this grand home, with its cupolas, curved turrets, festive stained-glass accent sidelights and transoms, and all its countless handcrafted details, was somehow going to turn dark and ugly.
And so was my life.
“Erin? You’re shaking. Are you cold?”
He set down his cup and pulled me close. “Let me warm you up again.” He kissed me, and for a time, my fears melted away.
An hour later, I trotted down the stairs. Our bedroom was on the third floor of Henry’s house—soon to be the Snowcap Inn. When the inn officially opened on Christmas Eve, Henry, too, would live elsewhere; he planned to rent a condo in town and then, once his mayoral duties officially ended next November, to travel. As I entered the central hall, which we were converting into a hotel lobby, I spotted Sullivan’s notepad on the newly built receptionist’s desk. He’d probably left his pad there by mistake; it contained measurements for the perfect Christmas tree to grace this space. Sullivan and Henry had headed out several minutes ago to cut down one of the large spruce trees on Henry’s enormous parcel of land. When I entered the kitchen through the double doors, a tall, angular, fortyish woman was peering into the knotty-pine cabinets and compiling an inventory of kitchenware. I waited till she’d completed her count of serving spoons, then said, “Hi. I’m Erin Gilbert, an interior designer here at the inn.”
She peered at me a little too imperiously for my liking.
I got the feeling that she was tabulating the cost of my Icelandic cardigan (a gift from Steve) and designer slacks. She was wearing a crisp white shirt with pleats and piping, black pants, and loafers. She had limp brown hair in a blunt cut just above the nape of her long neck. She would have been pretty, except for her permanent-looking scowl. “Mikara Woolf. Manager-to-be of the Snowcap Inn.” Her voice was confident, yet flat.
“Nice to meet you. Henry Goodwin said that you’d be starting sometime this week. My partner, Steve Sullivan, is here, too, and he—”
“Yeah, he’s out back with Henry. Something about Christmas decorations . . . chopping down a tree, I think. Quite a hunk, that Mr. Sullivan.” She raised an eyebrow.
“You two are sleeping together, right? And you’re not married?”
“Um, much as I hate to get us off on the wrong foot, frankly, I don’t see why you’re asking, or why I should answer.” She gave me a slight smile. “Oh, I realize it’s none of my business . . . even though you did give me my answer just now. I’m simply checking the accuracy of the local rumor mill. I’m a native . . . back from when everybody knew one another. The town went to pot ten years ago, when Snowcap Village was turned into the ‘New Mini- Vail.’ Back when Wendell Barton bought the mountain . . . along with everything and everyone else.”
“If part of small-town life means everyone discussing who’s sleeping with whom, there’s something to be said for tourist towns and anonymity.”
She crossed her arms and gave me another visual once-over. “Spoken like a city girl. Where are you from originally?
New York? Philadelphia?”
“No, I grew up in the suburbs. Of the Albany area.”
She cocked an eyebrow as if she doubted me, and for the purposes of full disclosure, I conceded, “But I went to college and trained in New York.”
She smirked and nodded. “Another New Yorker.
Figured as much.”
I bristled and found myself adding defensively, “Steve’s a native Coloradoan.”
“Yeah, I figured that out, too.”
“Huh. I’ll have to remind him to stop wearing his
‘Colorado Native’ sweatshirt so often.”
To her credit, she laughed. Maybe she wasn’t quite as standoffish as all that. “Guess I’m coming off as a little judgmental. My apologies. It’s been a rough week. You wouldn’t believe the flak I’m getting from my sister and former neighbors for accepting this job. They think I’ve sold my soul to the devil by agreeing to work here . . . considering it now belongs to Barton.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Henry Goodwin has the final say in everything regarding the remodel, not Wendell Barton. Henry has control over just about everything for a full year. Furthermore, the inn doesn’t belong to Wendell. He’s just one of three partners, including Audrey Munroe, my friend and landlady back in Crestview. She’s got more integrity than anyone I know. She’s not about to cede full control to Barton, or to anyone else, for that matter.”
“I assume you mean Audrey Munroe of the Domestic Bliss television show.” Mikara gave me a smug smile. “She’s currently dating Wendell Barton.”
“What?!” Apparently the Small-Town Gossip Express was way ahead of me.
“Angie, my sister, spotted them together at The Nines last Saturday night.”
Much as I wanted to deny the accuracy of Mikara’s information, it could very well be true; there’d been some sparks between Wendell and Audrey when I’d last seen them, at an inn meeting on Friday afternoon; Steve and I had gone back to Crestview immediately afterward. During the remodel, we had full use of any of the eight mostly completed guest bedrooms, which we’d designed ourselves. That allowed us to make the ninety-minute commute to Crestview only when we so chose, which generally meant on weekends, so that I could be with Hildi, my adorable black cat, who was happier at home. Truth be told, I disliked Wendell Barton. He’d struck me as a blowhard. I’d yet to find a Snowcap resident who had a single nice thing to say about the man. Then again, from the sound of things, Mikara hadn’t found any residents to say anything nice about me, either, so maybe this town was snooty about all nonnatives.
“In another week or two, Wendell’s going to have Ms. Domestic Bliss in his sweaty palm,” Mikara continued, “and next thing you know, he’ll flatten that gazebo you just built out back and erect a half dozen condos in its place.”
“If you’re so negative about Snowcap Inn’s future, why did you take this job?”
“I’m a pragmatist. The inn is paying me really well. Especially compared to the pittance I used to make at the art gallery.”
I heard the back door open, followed by the stomping of snowboots on the mat and the rumbling tones of Steve’s voice. I couldn’t help but smile. All this beauty that surrounded us—the blanket of pure white snow, the glittering stars, the red sashes and green boughs on all the storefronts, the charming cabins, town homes, and quaint shops in Snowcap Village—was only encouraging my lovesickness.
The two men entered the kitchen. Henry, soon to be the former owner of this large estate, was a tall, lanky man in his mid-forties who looked like he’d stepped out of an L.L. Bean ad. He’d been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, although he’d apparently traded that spoon for a camper’s spork. Aside from his current duties as mayor, he hadn’t held an actual job in his life. He’d invested his father’s sizable fortune well and spent his time pursuing women and the great outdoors.
Steve’s face lit up when our eyes met (which made my day), and Henry smiled broadly at the sight of Mikara. “You’ve got perfect timing, Mikki, as usual,” he said. “Just in time for you to butter up your sister.” Henry waggled his thumb in the direction of the back door. “Angie’s here now, doing the inspection on the new gazebo.”
“Wait,” I said to Mikara, instantly anxious. “Your sister is the building inspector?”
“It’s a small town,” she replied with a shrug.
“But you just told me she doesn’t want the inn to open!”
“She’ll be reasonable, though, won’t she, Mikki?” Henry asked.
“Sure. She won’t cause trouble . . . as long as you don’t have any violations. She’ll be a total stickler for detail. Don’t go expecting her to cut you any slack, is all I’m saying.” Henry stared at her. “But . . . the city codes are chockfull of minutiae that could be used to nitpick us indefinitely! You’re her sister. She’ll show some family loyalty, surely . . . right?”
“If that’s why you hired me, Henry, you misjudged my sister by a mile!”
Henry massaged his forehead in a silent confirmation that he did hire Mikara for political reasons. “Good thing it’s just the gazebo, then. We can tear it down if we have to. But she passed the inn’s plumbing and electric work two weeks ago.”
Sullivan grimaced. “If Angie already inspected the plumbing, why was she taking tap water samples last Friday?”
“She does some contract work for the health inspectors, too,” Mikara replied.
Henry paled a little at this news, but seemed to visibly steel himself a moment later. “So, Mikki, you wanted to make this a live-in position, right? Did you pick out a bedroom yet?”
“Not yet. Why? Does my bedroom have to be located in the basement?”
He laughed heartily and winked in Sullivan’s and my direction. “Such a kidder. No. Just not the master bedroom.”
“Ah, yes,” she said with a sigh. “I remember that room well.”
Henry winced slightly at the remark, and I had to mask my own reaction. Had Henry actually hired his former lover to manage their love-nest-cum-B&B? No chance of trouble there!
“I’m sure you plan on charging hundreds a night for that room,” Mikara added.
“Absolutely. It’s a huge space. Erin, Steve, and Audrey Munroe are using the third-floor bedrooms until we open on Christmas Eve. Gilbert and Sullivan Designs is refurbishing this place from top to bottom, literally.”
I gave Sullivan a quick grin, which he answered with a wink; we were actually Sullivan and Gilbert Designs, but clients inevitably got it wrong.
“The bedrooms just need Christmas decorations and whatnot,” Henry continued, “then they’re all set to be rented out. So . . . I was hoping you’d consider moving into my old office on the main floor.”
“Fine. That makes sense,” Mikara said with a grim nod. “You don’t want to confuse the paying guests by having them mingle upstairs with the hired help.”
He clicked his tongue. “Come on! You’re not the hired help. You’re the manager. I need you to lead the troops. My contract only gives me control of the daily operations of this joint for another ten months. As of next October first, I’m entrusting the operations and procedures of the Snowcap Inn entirely to you. I wouldn’t have sold if I hadn’t always pictured you here, managing the inn.”
Although I personally found his minispeech quite persuasive— so much so that my mind’s eye was already envisioning a lovely transformation from home office to Mikara’s bedroom—she glared at him and put her hands on her narrow hips. “You should never have sold this place, even so.”
“We’ve been through this before,” he snapped. “I’m a sworn bachelor. It was nuts, my having this huge place all to myself. Especially when I’d just as soon be backpacking across Europe. Besides, the Snowcap Ski Resort is never going away. This town has got to accept that fact . . . learn how to maintain its community ties even while embracing the seasonal tourist trade.”
“So you sold to Wendell Barton and a couple of inname- only partners.”
“They’re hardly puppets, Mikki. Audrey Munroe and Chiffon Walters each own thirty percent of the inn now.”
“But Chiffon’s just a mindless bimbo who happened to record a couple of hit pop songs some five years ago. And promptly bought a luxury condo next to Wendell’s mountain. She’s no match for Barton!”
“That’s not true! Chiffon’s got a great head on her shoulders. Barton’s powerless unless she or Audrey sides with him. And I trust both of them implicitly.” He added pointedly, “I set things up that way specifically so Barton could never tear down this house and put a hundred condos in its place.”
“Better get ready for the bulldozer, then,” Mikara said with a snort. “Your Ms. Munroe and Mr. Barton are the new hot couple. Or as hot as anyone in their sixties can be, that is. Angie saw them necking at The Nines.”
Henry looked stricken.
“If Wendell’s dating Audrey strictly to win her vote, his plan will backfire,” I quickly interjected.
“Erin’s right,” Steve added. “Audrey has a mind of her own.”
“So does every woman—” Mikara glanced at Henry, then added sadly, “—right up until she falls in love.” There was an uncomfortable amount of truth in Mikara’s remark, which gave me pause; we women do have a tendency to adopt our lovers’ viewpoints. Sullivan glanced at me, and I felt my cheeks grow warm.
“Erin, did you see where I left my notepad?” he whispered.
“I measured the—”
“It’s on the desk in the lobby.”
The doorbell rang. “That’s probably Angie,” Henry said. “I asked her to give us the results of her inspection right away. Let’s all treat her with respect, regardless of what she says.”
“Oh, darn,” Mikara muttered. “Now I won’t be able to spit in my sister’s eye, like usual.”
Ignoring her, Henry strode into the lobby. Moments later, a blonder, younger version of Mikara entered the kitchen, followed by Henry. Mikara forced a smile. “Hey, Angie,” she said. “You’ve got the work done already?”
“Yeah. But there’s a big problem.”
Why am I not surprised? I thought. Henry grimaced and did a double take, but Mikara merely sighed and introduced me to her sister.
“Nice to meet you, Angie,” I said with a big smile. “Hi, Angie,” Sullivan said, giving her a charming smile. “Good to see you again.” She barely looked at him, which to my mind was similar to the jury not looking at the defendant before they announced their guilty verdict.
“I can’t believe there was anything wrong with the gazebo construction,” Henry said. “You know what a great job Ben Orlin always does.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the gazebo. But there’s too much lead in your tap water. I can’t approve of this residence being converted into a motel.”
“Fortunately,” Henry promptly countered, “you don’t have to. We intend to use the house as a small bed-andbreakfast inn.”
“Right,” Angie said with a sneer. “That’s even worse.
You’ll have to get restaurant approval. Cooking meals and serving tap water rife with these poisons is out of the question.”
“We use the city water here. Same as everyone else.”
“It’s got nothing to do with the water supply. You’ve got bad pipes. You’ll have to replace them all.”
Sullivan and I exchanged puzzled glances; contaminants could be removed with filters, which would be much easier and less expensive than replacing pipes. We needed to wait until Angie left to tell Henry that, though; my hunch was that otherwise Angie would find some arcane ruling that prohibited water filtering.
“Our pipes are copper, not lead!” Henry shouted.
“Must be the solder in all the joints,” she said with a shrug. “Or else maybe they’re copper-coated lead pipes.”
“Oh, come off it!” Henry shouted. “You’re making this stuff up, and we both know it! Now, what’s it going to take to get you to give the water here a passing grade?”
“Are you offering me a bribe, Mr. Goodwin?”
“No, I’m just—”
“Good, because that would be a federal crime, and you’re in enough trouble already. What with your lead contaminants and your faulty front steps.”
She gave him a sly grin. “I must have forgotten to tell you. They’re too steep for a business . . . and particularly for a business that’s going to have geriatrics and little children going up and down them all the time.”
“Toddlers and geriatric guests can use the back door and our handicap access.”
“Or you can follow the law, and rebuild to meet the city codes, so they can use your front steps.”
“Angie!” Mikara cried. “Quit busting Henry’s chops!” She glowered at Mikara. “Hey, sis. You know, it’s like what you said to me when you left the house this morning: ‘I’m just trying to do my job.’ ” She used a lilting voice and flitted her eyes derisively, mocking her sister.
“You’re being a brat, Angela!”
“And you’re being a weasel!” Angie shot her sister a furious glare, then she softened her expression slightly and said to Henry, “The bottom line is there are unacceptable levels of lead in the water supply. Fix it, or else you’re not going to be able to convert this place into a bed-andbreakfast.”
“But we’re opening on Christmas Eve! In three weeks!”
“Then you’d better get the lead out, hadn’t you,” she said. “Plus, have the entire concrete stoop demolished and rebuilt to code.” She tore off a pink copy from her clipboard and handed it to him. “Here’s your official notice. Pity your violations will probably delay your opening. But take heart, Mayor Goodwin. There’s always next Christmas.”
She strode toward the front door, glanced back over her shoulder, and said with a haughty smile, “Good seeing you, Henry.”
“Be real careful on the steps,” he snarled. “We wouldn’t want you to fall and crack your head open. ”