Tempting Fate

( 4 )

Overview

In a town of flamboyance, wealth and family feuds, a mystery of the past is about to resurface.

Despite her success as a young entrepreneur, Dani Pembroke is a haunted woman. Long ago her mother vanished without a trace, leaving Dani to live with her wealthy relatives, who have their own questionable pasts. Although the residents of Saratoga, New York, gossip that Lilli Pembroke's disappearance will never be solved, Dani is confident that she ...

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Overview

In a town of flamboyance, wealth and family feuds, a mystery of the past is about to resurface.

Despite her success as a young entrepreneur, Dani Pembroke is a haunted woman. Long ago her mother vanished without a trace, leaving Dani to live with her wealthy relatives, who have their own questionable pasts. Although the residents of Saratoga, New York, gossip that Lilli Pembroke's disappearance will never be solved, Dani is confident that she will find the truth one day.

That day draws near when security expert Zeke Cutler arrives in Saratoga. The two join forces in an effort to find out what really happened to Lilli Pembroke. But Dani is unaware that her fearless partner has his own reasons for uncovering the truth…and that their search is putting them on track to collide with a killer who will do anything to keep that secret buried.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Headstrong, impassioned and independent, Dani Pembroke is nobody's fool. Left virtually parentless at age nine when her mother inexplicably vanished and her father abdicated responsibility for her upbringing to her grandmother, Dani is at 34 a successful entrepreneur. The granddaughter of two wealthy scions from Saratoga, N.Y., a town known for its extravagance and flamboyance, Dani has tried to forge her own identity amid the allure of old money and the unpleasantness of old feuds. Then Zeke Cutler, aloof, handsome and self-employed as a sort of private detective, arrives in Saratoga at the height of its racing season to resolve the same mystery Dani is pursuing: the circumstances surrounding her mother's disappearance. She joins forces with him although she doesn't completely trust him. When the consequences of past events threaten her business--a mineral water bottling plant and spa--Zeke offers the combination of bravado and stability that Dani needs to make peace with her past. Neggers's ( That Stubborn Yankee ) engaging romantic mystery neatly blends fiction with authentic detail . (Mar.)
Library Journal

Together with Zeke Cutler, successful businesswoman Dani Pembroke sets out to solve the 25-year-old mystery of her mother's disappearance, and, in the process, they resurrect old secrets that someone will do anything to keep buried. Wealthy, extravagant Syracuse is the high-profile setting for this chilling thriller that was first published in 1993.


—Kristin Ramsdell
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780778325864
  • Publisher: Mira
  • Publication date: 8/1/2008
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 476,893
  • Product dimensions: 4.10 (w) x 6.60 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Carla Neggers

Carla Neggers is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 60 novels, novellas and short stories. Her work has been translated into 24 languages and sold in more than 30 countries. She is a popular speaker around the country as well as a founding member of the New England Chapter of RWA, past president of Novelists, Inc., and past vice president of International Thriller Writers. She and her husband live in a house on a hilltop not far from picturesque Quechee Gorge.

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Read an Excerpt

Before she could change her mind, Dani Pembroke cut down a narrow side street in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York, and joined the line outside a small theater.

It was a beautiful August evening, the start of Saratoga's racing season, a tradition since 1863, when, just a month after the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, John "Old Smoke" Morrissey and Cornelius Vanderbilt had brought twenty-six horses to America's favorite spa for four days of racing. Dani loved the energy, the excitement, that she could feel in town. People jammed the pretty streets, the shops and restaurants were crowded and the sidewalk vendors were out in full force.

The Chandlers would have arrived by now, she thought.

My family.

Dani fought the urge to head up to the restored Victorian house they owned on North Broadway, Saratoga's "Millionaires' Row." She could see if the wraparound front porch had the hanging baskets of pink and white petunias and antique wicker furniture she remembered as a little girl. If the gardens still smelled of summer roses and lilies.

If the place still reminded her of her mother.

For twenty-five years—ever since she was nine years old— Dani had avoided Saratoga in August. Her one searing memory was of watching her mother take off in a hot-air balloon, never to return.

More people fell into the line. The August factor at work, Dani thought. Usually the theater had to scramble for a crowd. But today, a hundred people would pack the house.

Then someone said, "It's twenty-five years this month that Lilli Chandler Pembroke disappeared," and Dani felt herself go cold. But she did nothing to draw attention to herself. The theater was showing a double feature of Nick Pembroke's masterpiece, The Gamblers, and its sequel thirty years later, Casino. The owners had gotten hold of the old posters. The one of The Gamblers showed a smiling, black-eyed Mattie Witt.

She's so beautiful, Dani thought, staring at her grandmother, a young woman in the picture—dazzling and mysterious with her midnight-black eyes and glossy black hair. Even then, before she'd become a star, her famous mystique was in place. Mattie Witt had made her last movie, given her last interview and abandoned Hollywood long before Dani was even born.

Her grandmother had also been long divorced from Nick Pembroke by the time her one and only grandchild was born. But as reckless as she was feeling, Dani didn't want to think about her grandfather, a talented, scoundrel Pembroke if there'd ever been one.

Her gaze shifted to the second poster, and her chest tightened at the image of her mother. It wasn't the original Casino poster. It was the one the studio had made after Nick Pembroke admitted that the unknown young blonde in the movie-stealing scene in the second act was his daughter-in-law, missing heiress Lilli Chandler Pembroke. He'd given her the part when he'd filmed Casino on location in Saratoga the previous August, days before she disappeared.

Her photograph captured not the mother Dani had known and loved and lost, but the woman Lilli Chandler Pembroke had longed to become: vivacious, sexy, independent—someone else. She had a completely different look from Mattie Witt thirty years earlier. Lilli was all Chandler, slender, fair, patrician, pretty but not exotic. She'd believed her destiny was to be the proper heiress, always gracious and elegant, never taking a wrong—a daring—step.

Until her father-in-law had cast her in his comeback movie.

Lilli's searing performance had helped catapult Casino into the commercial and artistic success Nick Pembroke, who hadn't done much since Mattie Witt's defection from his life and work, had needed. Naturally he'd squandered it. No one had expected him to do anything else.

All Dani's instincts urged her to leap out of the line and keep going, keep walking.

Twenty-five years.

Blood pounded in her ears, but she didn't move.

She remembered herself at nine, waiting for her mother to come home. She'd sat on a wicker swing on the front porch of the Chandler cottage in her raspberry-smeared white dress, plucking a basket of petunias bald-headed until finally her white-faced father—Mattie Witt and Nick Pembroke's only son—had come for her. She made him put the raspberries she was saving for her mother into the refrigerator. They'd molded there, untouched.

Dani stayed in the line. She didn't look like the women on the posters. With her black eyes and short black hair, her strong features and straight, athletic figure—and her supposed reck-lessness—she was usually compared not to the southern Witts or the blue-blooded Chandlers but to three generations of Pembroke scoundrels. She'd seen the comparisons in the worried faces of her marketing consultants in New York. Through two days of nonstop strategy sessions, reports, brainstorming, even casual meals together, she'd sensed their unasked questions. Had she gone too far? Had she overextended herself? Was there any Chandler in her, or was she, after all, pure Pembroke? Not one Pembroke in the last hundred years had been worth a damn when it came to reliability, trustworthiness, commitment or responsibility.

When people did recognize a trace of her mother, of Chandler, in Dani—in her full, generous mouth or her occasional displays of graciousness—it was commented on with surprise, as if they must have imagined it. Even as a little girl, before her mother had disappeared, a New York gossip columnist had said, "Danielle Chandler Pembroke is not a child meant to have been born rich."

But she'd taken care of that.

Inside the theater she found a seat in the front near an exit. She'd seen both movies before, but never on the big screen. Never in public.

Sitting through The Gamblers was relatively easy. It was fun, romantic, like watching someone she didn't know, although she'd visited her grandmother in Greenwich Village just a few days ago. Mattie Witt was eighty-two now and still beautiful, still fiercely independent.

The film's rendition of Ulysses Pembroke's life—the murdered grandfather Nick had never known—painted him as a lovable rogue, a well-meaning scoundrel. It skipped his tragic end.

Dani almost left before Casino started.

She'd seen it just twice, both times on television at one o'clock in the morning. When it was released in the spring after her mother's disappearance, the adults around her all had agreed she should be spared. Nonetheless, Dani had felt the tension between the two sides of her family. Caught in the middle, her father had tried to mediate. Yes, his young wife should have— could have—told her family that she'd taken the role in Casino. But no, his father hadn't been wrong to offer it to her, to let her be reckless this once, to let her put this one dream into action.

There had been no reconciliation, no understanding. Twenty-five years later, Eugene Chandler remained horrified and humiliated by what he regarded as his older daughter's betrayal, her underhandedness. He continued to believe that by encouraging Lilli to be something she wasn't, Nick Pembroke bore at least partial responsibility for her disappearance.

The story of Casino picked up where The Gamblers had left off. It painted a less romanticized, more realistic picture of Ulysses Pembroke, not shying away from how he'd gambled away his fortune at Saratoga's gaming tables and New York's stock market, how he'd wanted desperately to do the right thing but always came up short. In Casino he didn't get the girl, and he didn't ride off into the proverbial sunset. As in real life, he was shot dead by an anonymous sore loser outside Canfield Casino, now a Saratoga landmark. Three weeks later his wife gave birth to their son on the gleaming ballroom floor of the outrageous mansion he'd built near the Saratoga Race Course. Unable to find a buyer for her husband's eclectic, unaffordable estate, his widow had stripped it of anything she could sell to make a life for herself and her child.

The last scene in the movie showed her holding her baby as she gathered up the keys to every wrought-iron gate on the property. Ulysses had had two keys made for each gate, one of brass, one of gold. His widow sold off the gold keys.

It was a nice touch—an example of Ulysses Pembroke's profligacy. For years Dani had thought it pure fiction. She'd never seen hide nor hair of any gold keys.

Until a few weeks ago.

While rock climbing on the old Pembroke estate, she'd run across an old gate key on a narrow ledge. It turned out to be twenty-four-karat gold. And it matched exactly the brass key to the wrought-iron gate of the pavilion at the springs.

Dani had hung both keys on a gold chain. They'd attracted no comments whatever in New York. Her consultants apparently had been more interested in looking into her eyes for any sign she was going off the deep end.

She touched the keys as she watched the movie. In a performance as enriching as it was painful, the thirty-year-old heiress to the Chandler fortune managed to capture not only the soul of her character—a stunning, tragic singer in late Victorian America, a complex woman of torn loyalties and dreams she herself didn't dare acknowledge—but also of countless women like her. She bridged the gap between rich and poor, between educated and illiterate, between virgin and harlot.

Lilli Chandler Pembroke tore out her own heart and gave it to every woman in her audience.

To her own daughter.

Yet if millions of moviegoers had their image of the famous missing heiress forged by her one short, unforgettable scene in Casino, Dani's central vision of her mother was of her smiling and waving from the basket of a hot-air balloon.

She'd looked so happy.

As Dani had called up to the balloon as it lifted off with her promise to save her some raspberries, she'd never guessed— couldn't have imagined—that she'd never see her mother again.

It was late when the theater emptied, but Saratoga was a late-night town, and the sidewalks were still crowded. Dani cut through Congress Park, past stately Canfield Casino. She wouldn't have been surprised if she walked right over the spot where Ulysses Pembroke had been murdered.

On the other side of the park she crossed onto Union Avenue, a wide street lined with beautifully restored Victorian houses. The air was cool, fragrant with grass, pine and summer flowers. She passed the historic racetrack, quiet so late at night, its tall, pointed wrought-iron fences and red-and-white awnings silhouetted against the dark grounds.

Soon she came to the narrow, unpretentious driveway and discreet sign that marked the entrance to the Pembroke. Not long ago there'd been no sign, just the crumbling, pitted driveway. No more. Transforming Ulysses Pembroke's dilapidated house and grounds into an inn and spa had been Dani's biggest gamble. So far, it looked to pay off.

The biggest miracle, she thought, was that Nick hadn't sold the property to a mall developer years ago, never mind that she'd threatened everything short of murder if he did. Instead, she'd leased the land from him and revived Ulysses's long-defunct mineral springs, turning it into a profitable company that enabled her to buy out her grandfather. Of course, Nick liked to claim he'd never have sold out on her. Hadn't he hung on to the old place, let it be a drag on his finances, for decades? But Dani was unimpressed. Nick Pembroke was a gambler. This time he'd just gambled on her.

Walking up the driveway, she could smell the roses even before she passed the rose garden she'd restored, first on her own, with goatskin gloves and some books on roses, then later with a gardener and landscape architect. The garden was free and open to the public, as Ulysses Pembroke himself had intended when he'd first planted roses there over a hundred years ago.

Beyond the gardens the paved road veered to the right, onto the hillside where she could see the lights of the main house through the trees. It was as big and ugly and ostentatious—and amusing—as one would have expected of someone as grandiose as her great-great-grandfather. The outbuildings were just as unconventional: a sixteenth-century stable the legendary rascal had had shipped stone by stone from Ireland; a Vermont red barn for which he'd had no discernible use; a marble bathhouse with Roman columns. There were two guesthouses and more gardens—informal, formal, vegetable, flower, herb, perennial, annual. Dani had had everything gutted, renovated, spruced up, modernized, restored—whatever was necessary, she did.

Risky, maybe, but what was the worst that could happen? She could fulfill her Chandler grandfather's expectations and fall flat on her face.

She didn't follow the road up to the main buildings now. Instead she headed straight along a narrow dirt road, onto a wooden bridge. She could hear the brook below her tumbling over rocks. The dirt road curved sharply to the right and opened into a clearing. In the middle stood her gingerbread cottage. She'd had it painted pink, mauve and purple, planted its front yard with a wild-looking mix of flowers. The area bordered woods that led to the far edge of the estate and Pembroke Springs.

Dani went into the cottage through the front door and shook off the nostalgia that had gripped her since arriving back in Saratoga. She sorted through her mail. There were more cards from friends congratulating her on the opening of the Pembroke, and there were more requests for media interviews. Please, wouldn't she reconsider her aversion to reporters? Her marketing team had counseled that the judicious, well-rehearsed interview could be good for business. Dani had countered that business was fine.

On the bottom of the pile was the card from her aunt.

She'd been expecting it.

It was burgundy on cream—the Chandler racing colors—and addressed to Miss Danielle Chandler Pembroke, inviting her to the hundredth annual Chandler lawn party next Friday evening.

Dani was always invited. She just wasn't expected to attend.

Twenty-five years.

She dropped the card into the trash and made herself a cup of chamomile tea, wondering if she should even bother going to bed. She knew she'd never sleep tonight.

*
• *

"You and your kooky office."

Dani grinned up at Ira Bernstein from the overstuffed couch in her office at the Pembroke. She'd been at work since dawn; it was now just before noon. She had her feet up on a coffee table of cherrywood and green-tinted glass she'd picked up at a yard sale in the Adirondacks. She liked to think of it as art deco. Ira insisted it was junk.

"Heard you were up prowling the grounds again last night," he said. "Couldn't sleep?"

"I was up early."

"Stealing tomatoes, I understand."

He did know how to inch close to the line. He was a stocky, healthy-looking man in his mid-forties, with iron-gray corkscrew curls and an unfortunate tendency to undermine his brilliance as the Pembroke's manager with impertinence if not out-and-out insubordination. Eugene Chandler had personally fired him ten years ago from the staff of the Beverly Hills Chandler Hotel. Apparently Ira hadn't displayed proper deference toward her grandfather, the chairman of the board. Dani could just imagine. She'd plucked him from a managerial job at a mid-priced chain hotel in Istanbul. He'd instantly fallen in love with the Pembroke.

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