Manor of Death (Domestic Bliss Series #3)by Leslie Caine
Erin Gilbert is paid to bring spaces to new life–not to uncover murder. But from the beginning of her job in a Victorian manor, things are totally out of control. It starts with the sighting of a ghost and leads to the discovery of a decades-old secret, a hidden dead space in the attic, and the shocking death of a beautiful young woman. Teamed with her insufferably self-confident competitor, Steve Sullivan, Erin finds herself up against the neighbors, a troubled teen, a woman communing with the dead, and one very unnerved client. The more Erin works on the house, the more manners of death she seems to find until, like peeling off layers of wallpaper,
she suddenly sees it revealed all too clearly: the perfect blueprint for murder….
Read an Excerpt
A ghost was on Francine Findley's roof!
That was my first thought at spotting the figure in white--luminescent in the moonlight outside my bedroom window.
My second thought was that the stress I'd been under lately was finally getting to me. It was not a ghost. Just a girl, wearing a white nightgown, her long red tresses ruffled in the breeze. Could that be Lisa, up on her mother's roof at this hour? Who else had long red hair like that?
No, this girl was taller and older than twelve-year-old Lisa. It was too dark and, with our houses separated by Francine's and my own backyards, too distant for me to be certain, but the girl looked a lot like Willow McAndrews, the college student who was renting a room in the house next door to Francine's. Willow had short blond hair, though.
Still staring out the window, I brushed aside my sheet and comforter, sat up, and struggled to rouse myself from my brain fog. Why would Willow McAndrews don a red wig and climb out onto a neighbor's roof? And how could she or anyone else get onto the roof of the third-floor tower room in the first place?
As an interior designer, I was intimately familiar with Francine Findley's octagonal-shaped room. Francine had hired me recently to renovate her Victorian mansion in preparation for Crestview's annual tour of historic homes. Contrary to my advice, Francine had insisted on keeping the wall that sealed off the only staircase to the roof. Decades ago, previous owners had built that wall after their daughter Abby had fallen to her death, a tragedy that later inspired the rumor that the ghost of Abby haunted the "widow's walk"--a flat roof encircled by banisters. The architectural feature was modeled after homes along New England shores where wives of fishermen stood to watch for their husbands' boats.
This afternoon, Francine had mentioned that she was exhausted and planned to "have an early dinner and collapse in bed." Had she suddenly needed to leave home, however, and asked Willow to stay overnight to watch Lisa? That would at least explain Willow's presence in the house, just not on it. All the windows were dark. Should I call Francine's cell phone? I looked at my clock on my nightstand. The red digital numbers read 1:06 a.m.--a horrid hour to call a single mother who might be in the midst of a real emergency--to report that her sitter was strolling around on the roof.
I looked outside again, but the girl had vanished. She couldn't possibly have eased herself over the railing and climbed down a ladder that fast. She must have dashed down the stairs and was now in the three-by-twelve-foot walled-off space, getting in and out through the window. That window had been boarded up the last time I'd looked, though. Yawning, I rubbed at my eyes as I lay back down, cursing my insomnia, which had left me addled for a full month now. In desperation, I'd poured a small fortune into my bed: Egyptian-cotton sheets with an obscenely high thread count, a silk comforter as light and soft as angel wings, and--
Wait! I bolted upright. There was a second--and horrible--means for someone to vanish from a rooftop in an instant!
I gasped as my cracked door creaked further open. Framed by the doorway, I could make out my black cat's silhouette in and see her amber eyes. My heart thudding, I looked out the window again. No one was on the roof. "Oh, Hildi, I have to go check my neighbor's yard!" I informed my cat.
I clicked on the small Tiffany lamp atop my nightstand, sprang from my bed, jammed my arms into the sleeves of my dusty-rose bathrobe to cover my silk teddy, and grabbed the first shoes I could find--black stilettos. If I did have to run to assist some badly injured girl, I'd probably trip on the two-inch heels. I started for the door, then whirled to grab the flashlight by my bed. I raced down the stairs, my confused cat darting out of my path. I threw open the back door, crammed my feet into my shoes, and tore across the lawn. My heels sank into the wet grass, but I didn't slow my pace until I reached the landscape rocks and the row of rosebushes that rimmed the property line.
With the stones crunching beneath my feet, I trotted across the hard-packed dirt alley, stepped over Francine's low, wrought-iron fence, and swept my dim beam across her back lawn. "Hello? Is anybody out here?" I asked the silent darkness, my voice barely above a whisper.
No groans. No crumpled bodies clad in white nightgowns. No maniacal cackles, either. My presence did, however, set off Francine's neighbor's dog to barking--Diana Durst's beagle. Diana's attic window was aglow with a yellow light. Was that lamp on earlier, or had I wakened her? Or could that be the room that Willow McAndrews was renting from Diana? Diana had once told me that Willow was a rock climber. Willow was also self-absorbed and immature, perhaps pretending to be the red-haired ghost of some long-dead soul was her idea of humor.
Hildi joined me, her soft fur now brushing against my bare shins. "Let's go back home," I told her over Bugle's ruckus. At least it was reassuring to realize that if anyone had fallen off Francine's roof, Bugle would already have been barking.
Come to think of it, his shrill barks were what had originally awakened me.
Though typically hot and dry in mid-July, Crestview was doing its best impression of Seattle the next afternoon as I walked to Francine's home. I held my London Fog overcoat closed, careful not to crush the rolled-up lengths of wallpaper angled into my inner pockets, and luxuriated in the soothing, steady patter of raindrops on my umbrella. When I'd called Francine this morning and reported last night's disturbance, Francine insisted she'd been home all night and that "it is absolutely impossible that anyone was on my roof." She sounded as though she thought I was as flaky as old paint on a picnic table.
Could I have dreamt the whole thing? If so, I'd never had such a vivid dream. Maybe my struggles with the neighborhood association and with my beloved landlady, Audrey Munroe, were wreaking havoc with me, even during my sleep.
While stepping over a puddle, I silently repeated my personal mantra: confidence and optimism. In so many ways, this was my all-time dream assignment--an interior-design job within my own astonishingly lovely neighborhood of Maplewood Hill at the Victorian mansion that I'd lusted over for two years now, ever since I'd first moved to Colorado. Granted, my work to date at the mansion had met with a series of snags and brick walls, but that goes with the territory--the better the job, the bigger the challenges. And my optimism was already being affirmed; just last week Audrey had told me she understood and supported my decision to accept this assignment at Francine's--that I couldn't very well give up a major career opportunity without as much as knowing why Audrey didn't "wish to associate with Francine." (Nor was Audrey willing to elaborate on the matter, even now.)
Soon the neighborhood association would approve of our plans to install three picture windows within the octagonal tower room. Better yet, if they rejected them, I'd have more ammunition to convince Francine to remove that awful inner wall, which not only blocked the staircase but made the room lopsided. Her sole argument was that she had "a severe fear of heights" and didn't want young Lisa to be able to get onto the roof. For the life of me, I couldn't understand why she refused to remove both the wall and the staircase to the roof. Be that as it may, when it comes to interior design, the customer is always right; after all, she or he is the one who must live with the final results. However, some customers need more nudges than others to discover their own good taste and sound decision-making skills. Francine Findley required a nice, firm shove, and fortunately for her, she'd hired just the right designer to give her one.
Speaking of shoves, a chilly blast of wind encouraged me to increase my pace. Francine's and my landlady's backyards bordered each other, so it was a thirty-second walk between our back doors. Today, with the lawns drenched, I'd taken the more formal front-door route, which required me to circle to the opposite side of our block. Even as I picked my way across a veritable river forming alongside Francine's walkway, I was so taken by the looming presence of the tower room that I tilted my umbrella and looked up through the raindrops. The curtains were quivering, as though someone had spotted me and ducked out of sight--Francine's daughter Lisa, no doubt.
Protected by the roof over the Findleys' stoop, I shook off my umbrella and closed it, enjoying the wonderful damp air, a delectable pine scent wafting from the majestic evergreen in the front yard. I rang the old-fashioned twist-key doorbell. After a brief wait, Francine, a pretty woman in her late forties with auburn hair like mine, threw open the door. "Good afternoon, Erin," she said with gusto.
"Hi, Francine." my heart danced as I stepped inside her marvelous foyer. The maple parquet floor, ivory-colored walls, and carved archway had such a regal grace. For me, it felt as magical as being able to walk into a Faberge egg. I grinned at Francine. "We're having quite the rainstorm today."
"We sure are. Let me take your coat."
"Thanks. Just let me empty my pockets. I've got the wallpaper samples with me." I extracted the samples and some double-sided sticky tape.
"I thought you looked a little stiff--and wide--around the waistline," she teased.
Handing her my coat, I wondered what could have caused such a deep rift between my affable landlady and Francine in the three short years since Francine had moved to Crestview. The latter had always been unfailingly charming and gracious to me, although I'd only been in the neighborhood for eight months or so and hadn't known her for long.
She slid open a pair of paneled pocket doors. As she grabbed a hanger out of the coat closet, her hand brushed a Halloween costume. It was a cheap, department-store purchase--a skeleton painted on thin polyester black fabric and a plastic mask for the skull, its elastic cord looped over the hanger hook.
"Oh, look, Francine," I said with a smile, "it seems as though you've got a skeleton in your closet."
Francine, chuckled. "Well, I suppose we all have skeletons in our closets. But this one in particular must be Lisa's doing. She must be trying to give us a message about the lack of closet space in her bedroom."
Francine's twelve-year-old had been the friendliest of all my neighbors--up until she learned that I had been hired to turn her would-be bedroom into a studio for her mom. Now, along with my landlady and the homeowners' association, Lisa was a third source of contention. It was my job to ensure that all members of the family were satisfied (and preferably thrilled) with the transformation of their living spaces. "I can design a wonderful, spacious closet for her," I said.
"Oh, that won't do the trick," Francine scoffed. "Believe me."
"She's still hinting that she wants to have the third-floor room as her bedroom?"
"She sure is. And Lisa's 'hints' have all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop. I'm not budging, though. I've told her all along that I was eventually going to convert that room into my music studio." A professional musician, Francine played an electric organ. "But now, after we've lived here for almost three years, she seems to think--"
Francine broke off as a door above us slammed, followed by the sound of footsteps tromping down the stairs. Lisa, Francine's only child, sneered at me as she rounded the corner. She wore cutoffs and a black camisole underneath an unbuttoned denim jacket and dragged a black backpack along the gorgeous maple floorboards, making me inwardly shudder. She was a freckle-faced redhead, and I couldn't help but study her now to see if that could have been Lisa on the roof, after all. I was even more certain, however, that the girl I'd seen was a young woman and not Lisa. She lowered the earphones on her iPod and grumbled, "Oh. You're here."
"Yes, Erin just arrived," her mother replied breezily. "Which you would have realized if you weren't always pumping rap music into your ears." Lisa rolled her eyes and slung a strap of her backpack over one shoulder. Francine explained to me,
"Lisa is off to a sleepover before her best friend leaves town for three weeks."
Lisa shrugged off her mother's attempt to hug her, muttering, "You don't need to tell the whole world my private business, Mom."
"I'm only mentioning it because, at some point soon, the three of us need to sit down together. We need to discuss what we want done with your bedroom."
"Jeez! I already told you! I want the tower room as my bedroom! If I can't have that, you might as well do whatever you want to my room!" Lisa stepped into a pair of fire-engine red flip-flops on the closet floor.
"We noticed your Halloween costume, by the way, dear."
"This skeleton." Francine removed the costume on its hanger to show Lisa.
In a voice rancid with disdain, Lisa replied, "That's not mine. I've never seen it before."
"Well, it certainly isn't mine. It's six sizes too small, for one thing." Francine examined the tag inside the costume neckline before she stashed it back in the closet. She added, "It must be one of your friends' costumes, then."
"Nope. Not possible. I'd remember. Bet it's Abby's."
"Lisa!" her mother admonished.
"Abby's our ghost," Lisa informed me, one hand on her hip, which she jutted in my general direction. "Our house has been haunted ever since some kid jumped off the roof fifty years ago. Abby lives in the room that you're remodeling. And, I can tell you right now, she is not going to approve of the way you plan to destroy her bedroom."
"Lisa! That's enough!"
In spite of the girl's undisguised attitude toward me, I liked Lisa and I understood all too well her frustration at losing out on her favorite space. I smiled at her and replied, "Then we'll just have to put all our heads together to come up with a fabulous room that we all approve of."
"Yeah. Like that's gonna happen." She returned her headphones to her ears. "I gotta go, Mom. We're riding our bikes and meeting halfway."
"But . . . it's pouring outside."
"I know. That's why we're riding our bikes."
Meet the Author
Leslie Caine was once taken hostage at gunpoint and finds that writing about crimes is infinitely more enjoyable than taking part in them. Leslie is a certified interior decorator and lives in Colorado with her husband, two teenage children, and a cocker spaniel.
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In Crestview, Colorado homeowners are getting their houses in shape in preparation for the upcoming Historic Home Tour. Interior Designer Erin Gilbert is contracted to renovate Francine Findley¿s Victorian mansion even though she won¿t let Erin take down the wall that sealed off the only staircase to the roof. It was closed off decades ago after a teenager jumped from that same roof. Erin doesn¿t give credence to the rumors that the mansion is haunted but when she sees a young woman on Francine¿s roof, she believe the person is the very much alive Willow McAndrews, who lives on the other side of Francine¿s abode with Diana Durst. --- When Willow falls off the same roof as the dead Abby did over four decades ago Erin is a witness and sees Lisa, Francine¿s daughter on the roof. Lisa declares she got there after Willow fell but Erin believes Lisa isn¿t telling everything she knows. Helped by her business rival Steve Sullivan, they search for clues that will lead to Willow¿s killer. When a second person dies, one who is linked to Willow, both Erin and Steve think the murders are somehow linked to Abby¿s death. Now all they have to do is find the evidence to prove it without getting killed. --- Leslie Caine has written a charming amateur sleuth tale that is filled with humor, intrigue, and a complicated who done it. This murder is up close and personal for Erin because the evidence points to several different neighbors as possible suspects and she suspects that when the killer is found she is going to be upset because it will be someone she trusted implicitly. Erin feels for Steve a more powerful emotion than annoyance, one that could change her life it she has the courage to look into her heart. Perhaps she will in future books. --- Harriet Klausner