For Scarlett Parker, part of the fun of living in London is celebrating the British holidays, and she’s excited to share her first Bonfire Night with her cousin Vivian Tremont. Invited to a posh party by their friend Harrison Wentworth, Scarlett and Viv decide to promote their hat shop, Mim’s Whims, by donning a few of their more outrageous creations. The hats prove to be quite the conversation starters as the girls mix and mingle with the guests—never suspecting that one of them is a killer.
It’s a cold, clear night, perfect for the British tradition of tossing a straw stuffed effigy of Guy Fawkes, traitor to the crown, onto the bonfire. But instead of a straw man, they realize in the heat of the moment that the would-be Guy Fawkes is actually Harrison’s office rival and he’s been murdered. Before the smoke has cleared, Harrison is the Metropolitan police’s prime suspect, and Scarlett and Vivian must find the real homicidal hothead before their dear friend’s life goes up in flames.
About the Author
A true Anglophile, New York Times bestselling author Jenn McKinlay loves all things British. In her idea of a perfect world, every day would include high tea or wearing a fabulous hat, or both. This adoration of all things U.K. inspired her to write the Hat Shop Mysteries, which are set in London, one of her most favorite cities in the world. She now gets to visit regularly—for research purposes of course.
In addition to being the author of the Hat Shop Mysteries, including At the Drop of a Hat, Death of a Mad Hatter, and Cloche and Dagger, Jenn also writes the Cupcake Bakery Mysteries and the Library Lover’s Mysteries.
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Special Excerpt from Vanilla Beaned
There was a sneaky draft taunting me while I worked the front counter at Mim’s Whims, the hat shop I co-own with my cousin Vivian Tremont. It slipped through the cracks of our old building and snuck up on me; sliding beneath the collar of my shirt with its cold fingers and making me shiver.
Well, two could play this game. I had stopped by the Tool Shop in Marylebone over by Regents Park and picked myself up a caulking gun and the junk you put in it. I felt like one of Charlie’s Angels with my caulk gun on my hip, filling in any gap that allowed November to blow its wintery breath across my skin.
I had already filled four cracks when I felt another gust of chilly air. I pulled my caulk gun out of my tool belt and whirled around, ready to fire goop into the offending orifice.
“Blimey, don’t shoot, Scarlett. I just had this suit pressed.” The handsome man who entered the shop slowly raised his hands in the air as if this would make me less likely to blast him.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t,” I said. I did not lower the gun; instead I squinted at Harrison Wentworth over the top of it as if I were adjusting my aim while I tried to ignore the ridiculous fluttery feeling that filled my chest at the sight of him.
“Rough day, Ginger?” he asked. His voice was kind when he used my nickname but his eyes were laughing at me and it looked like his lips weren’t far behind as he pressed them together as if to keep the guffaws in.
“Yuck it up, Harry,” I said. I liked to use his nickname, too, the one he’d gone by when we were kids. The one he didn’t care for now. I holstered the caulk shooter. “You’re not the one freezing to death in this drafty old building.”
“It’s Harrison,” he corrected me. “And I think it’s actually quite toasty in here.”
He shrugged off his overcoat and draped it over his arm. “Maybe you should wear more layers.”
I glanced down at my outfit. I had on a cashmere heather gray turtleneck, a black wool cardigan and a black corduroy miniskirt over thick gray tights paired with my favorite black riding boots.
“I’m pretty sure the only people wearing more clothes than me this early in November live in the polar regions,” I said.
This time he did laugh. “Scarlett Parker, your Florida is showing.”
“It is, isn’t it?” I asked. “What I wouldn’t give for a martini on the beach right now.”
“I can’t offer you that, but I can give you a mulled wine and a bonfire in Kensington,” he said.
“No palm trees?” I asked.
“No, ’fraid not.”
“No sand between my toes?”
“No, damn shame,” he said.
“Actually, that’s a high point,” I said. “With this ghostly complexion I’ve got going I’d scare even the sharks away.”
“I don’t think anyone in their right mind would notice your complexion if you went trotting by them in a swimsuit,” he said. The look he gave me scorched.
And that right there was the trouble with Harry. He gets me so flustered I can’t even think. Yes, it could be his charming British accent or his wavy brown hair, his broad shoulders and his bright green eyes, but I think it was more than that. Honestly, I liked Harry for more than the swanky packaging. I liked him for himself.
I liked the way he was unfailingly polite to everyone from waiters to bus drivers to elderly ladies in the street. I loved the sound of his laugh and how he always seemed delighted to find himself laughing and it made him laugh even harder. I enjoyed the way he whistled when he made tea, even though he was not the most gifted person in the whistling arts. And I loved how gentle he was with the young children and pets we frequently ran into on walks in Hyde Park. Even his own particular scent, a manly bay rum sort of smell, had worked its way into my head and I found any man who didn’t smell like Harry was lacking.
“Well, what do you say?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I hesitated.
First, I needed to be clear that this was not a date. Yeah, I know he was the perfect male but that didn’t mean I was ready to date. My mother, bless her heart, had convinced me to go one whole year without dating anyone at all. This may not sound significant but I had never gone more than two weeks between boyfriends before, so yeah, kind of a big deal.
Why did I agree to my mother’s crazy suggestion? Good question. True story, funny story, okay, it isn’t funny to me yet, but I’ve been assured that it will be someday. In a nut, my last boyfriend and I had a breakup of epic proportions, the kind that found a video of me, aka the party crasher, throwing fistfuls of wedding anniversary cake at him.
Yes, you read that right. My boyfriend was married, not to me, and I didn’t take the news very well. It went viral on the Internet and I pretty much had to flee the state of Florida and, well, the continent of North America to save face. Talk about your walk of shame.
Needless to say when my cousin Viv sent me a one-way ticket to London encouraging me to take up my half of the millinery business we had inherited from our grandmother Mim, I was all in. It’s been eight months now and it’s almost begun to feel like home.
I love my cousin and our friends, dearly, but as the holiday season approached, and the cold air took up permanent residence in our abode, I was surprised to find I was feeling more homesick than I had expected. And I did not want to throw myself at Harrison in a weak moment of pitiful loneliness, so I needed to be very clear on the boundaries of his suggested mulled wine and bonfire.
“How does one dress for a bonfire?” I asked.
Yes, this was my pitiful attempt to get more information. Harry knew I wasn’t dating and he’d said he was willing to wait, which I hadn’t believed, but it had been months and as far as I knew he wasn’t dating anyone else. Another point in his favor, unless this was his sly way of getting me to go on a date without actually asking me on a date; boys can be sneaky like that, you know.
“Bonfire?” Viv asked as she entered the store front from the workroom in back. “Who’s dressing for a bonfire?”
“We all are,” Harrison said. “My company is having a huge Guy Fawkes party and you’re all invited.”
“Me, too, yeah?” Fiona Felton, Viv’s apprentice, asked as she followed Viv into the room.
“Absolutely,” Harrison said.
Now I was irritated that it had not been a covert way to ask me out. I’m impossible to please, yes, I know.
“Who is Guy Fawkes?” I asked.
All three of them turned to look at me. This was another one of those moments where I just felt utterly, boorishly, ignorantly American.
“Ginger, really?” Harrison asked.
“Do you know who Bigfoot Wallace is?” I countered.
“Basketball player,” he guessed.
“No.” I laughed. “He’s an American folk hero, so don’t be judgy just because I don’t know who Guy Fawkes is.”
“Was,” Fee said. She blew an orange corkscrew curl out of her eyes and smiled. “He failed to blow up Parliament in 1605.”
“Oh, he does have Bigfoot Wallace beat then,” I said. “Wallace was a Texas Ranger, one of the good guys actually.”
“Guy Fawkes night is bonfire night,” Viv said. She looked delighted as she looped her arm through mine. “You’ve never been here for bonfire night before, this will be so much fun.”
For Viv alone I would freeze my tail feathers off and go to the bonfire. Things had been strained between us for the past several weeks. You see, Viv is the eccentric artist in our business while I am more the people person. She and Fee create amazing hats for people and I charm them into buying them. It’s a system that works for us.
Unfortunately, Viv takes after our grandmother in more than just her creativity. She is impulsive, rash, scatterbrained, impetuous and reckless, especially when chasing down some crazy artistic whim or another. Most recently, she had leveled me with the news that she is married. Yes, married.
Shocking, right? It wouldn’t be so bad but so far she has refused to give me any details. I don’t know his name, where he’s from, how they met, how long they’ve been married, or where he is right now. I badgered, cajoled, begged, pleaded, whined, stomped my feet and bellowed, but Viv could not be moved. She has refused to tell me absolutely anything about her husband. Not one darn thing. It has sort of festered between us like a hot boil because, yeah, we can be like that sometimes.
What’s worse is the fact that Harry knew about her marriage and he never, not once, even hinted to me about it. I was still sore at him for that, which was another reason I had been keeping him at arm’s length. I was still a bit miffed at him, even though he had assured me that he knew no particulars about the marriage, just that it had happened.
“Where’s the party?” Viv asked.
“My boss’s house in Kensington,” Harrison said. “He’s hoping to make a splash in the society pages.”
“We can wear some hats from the shop,” Fee said. “It’ll be a nice opportunity to advertise our creations amongst Harrison’s posh clients.”
“I thought we were his posh clients,” I teased.
“Well, there’s certainly no one quite like you . . . three,” Harrison said.
His gaze moved away from me to include the others and again I was charmed stupid by his ability to make me feel that I alone had his attention while I admired his sensitivity in including the others, who were actually much more attractive than me.
I glanced at Viv, with her long blond curls, big blue eyes and curvy figure; she was a woman who turned heads everywhere she went. And then Fee, with her West Indies heritage, boasted a lovely dark brown complexion and a model’s figure, tall and thin, that she topped off with her amazing hair, which she wore in a curly bob that she liked to streak with unusual colors; currently it was orange. I’d seen men literally walk into walls when she passed by. Then there was me, medium height, average figure, too many freckles to count and shoulder-length auburn hair that was on the thin side. I most definitely got by on my personality.
Still, Harrison was right. We made a threesome that was hard to ignore, mostly because Viv made us wear her most outrageous hats whenever we went anywhere together. I wondered if that was why he had invited us.
“Aren’t we a bit small scale to be invited to your boss’s shindig?” I asked.
“Ginger, you’re overthinking it,” Harry said. “It’s a bonfire with music, mulled wine and a view of the city’s fireworks.”
Both Fee and Viv nodded in agreement as if I was being silly for thinking that a bunch of milliners at an investment broker’s party was weird. But they didn’t see what I saw, which was that Harry wasn’t meeting my eyes.
Perhaps because I hadn’t dated him and gotten bored with him just yet, I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about Harrison Wentworth and covertly studying the man who took up entirely too much of my head space. In any case, I knew him and I knew he was hiding something. I was sure of it. And now, no matter what crazy creation Viv wanted to slap onto my head, nothing could keep me from attending the party.
“I refuse to wear that,” I said to Viv. “There is nothing you can say or do that will change my mind.”
“Oh, don’t be difficult, Scarlett,” Viv said. “You’ll look adorable in it.”
I frowned at the felt concoction she was holding out at me. It was a bright yellow cap like something a paperboy in the nineteen twenties would wear. It was lumpy on top and saggy at the back and the narrow brim would sit just over my eyes, destroying my visibility.
“I’ll look like a flattened banana,” I argued. “I’m not wearing it, unless . . .”
“Unless what?” Viv looked wary. Smart girl.
“Tell me about your husband,” I said. “Name. Birthplace. Occupation. Anything.”
“No.” She blanched. “I can’t.”
“Why?” I asked. Yes, I was trying to give her time but every now and again I felt the need to poke the bear with the stick to see if I could get her to bite or at least offer up some details.
“It’s too . . .” Her voice trailed off and she shook her head.
I stared at her. What was the big secret?
“Oh, my god, he lives with his mother, doesn’t he?” I asked. “And you can’t get him to leave her.”
She looked as if she was going to let me believe that for just a moment and then her chin dropped to her chest in defeat. “I wish the problem was his mother.”
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind, I’m not discussing this anymore.” Viv looked at the hat and then at me. She had a very determined look in her eyes and I had a feeling she was transferring her conflicted feelings about her marriage to my head and a hat. “You have to wear a hat.”
“Fine,” I said. I realized it was time to put my stick down before the bear mauled me. “But not that one.”
“Which would you prefer?” Viv asked.
“That one,” I said. I pointed to the hat on her head.
“But . . .” Viv puffed out her lower lip.
I snatched the bright blue cashmere ribbed beanie off of her head and moved over to a mirror, where I could try it on. It was a perfect fit, very hip and cool without the nerd quotient of the hat she’d been trying to get me to wear. Plus, she had hand stitched seed pearls all over it, giving it a solid wow factor.
“This will do,” I said.
“Oh, that looks terrific on you, Scarlett,” Fee said. She entered the shop from the workroom, wearing an adorable bright red bucket hat fashioned out of a quilted flannel material and trimmed with a wide black ribbon.
Viv twirled the yellow felted hat on her finger. “I really thought Scarlett would look adorable in this one.”
Fee looked at the hat and then at Viv. It was clear to see she was struggling with what to say. I gave her the hairy eyeball to make sure she didn’t gang up on me with Viv and try to force me into the hat. There are very few times that I don’t love Viv’s designs but this was one of them and I was not going to wear it.
“Fine, I’ll wear it,” Viv said. “But it’s not nearly as eye-catching with my hair color as it would be with yours.”
“Maybe,” I said. I pointed to my head. “But this one looks amazing on me and I’m keeping it.”
Viv opened her mouth to argue but the front door opened and in swaggered our neighbors Nick Carroll and Andre Eisel. They were a couple who owned a photography gallery/studio a few shops down Portobello Road from us. Although Nick was a dentist by day and his partner Andre was the photographer of their twosome, they ran the gallery together.
They lived above their shop just like we lived above ours, and the five of us had become fast friends after, well, after Andre and I had stumbled across a dead body together. What can I say, that sort of thing bonds people.
“Good evening, ladies,” Nick said. He was using a walking stick with a silver knob at the top. By the way he was twirling it and admiring his reflection in the window glass, I got the feeling it was a new toy for him.
Andre was dressed all in black, as always, and looked at his partner with amusement. As we exchanged greetings, Andre hugged me close and said, “I just don’t have the heart to tell him it looks pretentious.”
“Let’s not,” I agreed. “He looks so happy.”
The doors opened again and this time it was Harrison arriving to escort us all to the party. Per usual, my treacherous insides clutched at the sight of him, a fact that was not missed by Andre.
“Why don’t you just date the poor man already?” he asked.
“You know very well why,” I said.
“Scarlett, you can’t punish yourself just because your last boyfriend was a heartless git,” Andre said.
“Quite right,” Nick agreed as he joined us. “Did you ever get the tally of women the blighter cheated on his wife with?”
I made a face like I had a bad taste in my mouth. “I stopped counting at five.”
“Five?” Harrison asked from behind me. “I can’t even manage one girlfriend never mind five and a wife.”
I glared at him. “Do not sound impressed. He is a horrible person.”
“Agreed,” Nick said. “But still, juggling six women is . . .”
“Morally reprehensible, socially repugnant, blatantly misogynistic and utterly unforgivable!” Viv snapped.
I patted Viv on the back. “Well said, cousin.”
“Brilliant,” Fee agreed.
“All right, now that’s sorted,” Harrison said. “Is everyone ready to go?”
Viv straightened the cap on her head. With her long curly blond hair flowing out from under it, it really did look so much better on her than it would have on me. Yes, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
We locked up Mim’s Whims behind us and set out into the early evening. I love Portobello Road not just because I spent all of my school holidays here with Mim and Viv, although that is a lot of it, but I love that it has its own village sort of charm, where everyone knows everyone else and we all keep an eye out for each other.
The lower level of the buildings on our street are done in vibrant shades of red, blue and green while the upper resident stories are white or exposed brick. There is even a side street of buildings painted a glorious rainbow of pastel colors in a stubborn show of cheerfulness that I’ve always admired. Mim’s Whims is white with a royal blue trim. I once suggested a color change but both Mim and Viv were horrified, probably because I was going through a hot pink phase at the time. Either way, I’m glad it has stayed white with a blue trim. It had been one of the constants in my life and now that Mim is gone, I can’t imagine it any other way.
Another thing I love about Notting Hill is that travelers from all over the world come to the Saturday market, which stretches for over two miles. You can find anything from antique clocks and cameras to T-shirts with animal faces painted on them, there’s even a booth with all things Beatles, and of course, we sell our hats.
Portobello Road has such a frantic friendly atmosphere that I really couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in London. I traveled all over the world as a hospitality major, yes, I convinced myself it was research, and London is by far my favorite city.
Still, with the winter cold creeping in, I was longing for some beach time. As a redhead, I am the person with SPF 50 slathered on every bit of my exposed skin and I have a sun hat the width of my own personal beach umbrella, still, there is something about the feeling of powdery sand between my toes, the briny smell of the sea and the sound of the waves crashing on the shore that soothes me like nothing else. Or maybe I just wanted some space between me and the man who had come to dominate my thoughts.
“Nice lid, Ginger,” Harrison said.
See? It’s like just thinking about him conjured him to my side. He looked ridiculously attractive in his black suit jacket with a matching cashmere sweater underneath framing his crisp white dress shirt and dark gray silk tie with a fancy embroidered design. Truly, I needed to put three thousand miles of ocean between us for a bit for my own mental health.
He fell into step beside me and I noted that we had paired off on the narrow walkway with Harrison and I in the lead, Fee and Viv behind us and Nick and Andre bringing up the rear.
“Lid? Is that your attempt at American slang?” I asked.
“Yes, how did I do?” he asked.
“Not quite as bad as your Southern accent,” I said. “If I remember right your ‘y’all’ still needs work.”
He grinned and I glanced away. How could a man’s smile make me dizzy? That had never happened to me before. I was pretty sure it was a bad thing. Maybe I was allergic to him.
“I’ll keep working on it,” he said.
“So tell me more about Guy Fawkes,” I said. “Give me the four-one-one on why it’s still celebrated over four hundred years later.”
“Honestly?” he asked. “I think it’s because we like to burn things.”
I glanced at him in surprise and he laughed.
“Just teasing, although . . .” His words trailed off and I thought maybe there was a kernel of truth to what he said. Bonfires are fun, after all.
“Let’s see what I remember from my school days,” he said. “From what I recall, in 1605, Guy Fawkes and his coconspirators planned to blow up the House of Lords using kegs of gunpowder hidden beneath the building. They failed. To celebrate King James I surviving the dastardly plot, people lit bonfires all over the city. It had much more political and religious overtones for the first two hundred and fifty years, but now it’s more of a social event for bonfires and fireworks, although people do still like to burn a Guy Fawkes effigy.”
“I can see where that would be therapeutic,” I said. “Any chance we could make it look like my ex?”
“Still feel the need to burn him at the stake?” Harrison asked.
I sensed he was watching me closely while trying to appear not to be, and I realized my answer was important. I tried not to blow it, but I figured honesty was best.
“Not as much as I used to,” I said.
Again, he grinned and I felt it all the way down to my toes.
“Well, I’d say that’s good, no, great progress,” he said.
We continued walking. Occasionally, his arm brushed mine and I felt the urge to link my arm through his, but we weren’t there yet and that was okay.
“What exactly is it that you do at Carson and Evers?” I asked.
“Money stuff,” he said. “Basically, I make a lot of money for people by telling them what to buy and when to buy and conversely what to sell and when to sell it.”
“Is that what you always wanted to do?” I asked. I found I was curious about what the boy I had once known had wanted out of life and if it mirrored what the man had become. So many people our age had settled into careers they loathed just for the money; I wondered if he was one of them.
Clearly, I was since I had always dreamed of managing a grand hotel with hundreds of staff but was now managing a hat shop with no staff except an intern, who really worked for my cousin.
“Uh, no, not exactly,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh.
“Interesting,” I said. I gave him a sidelong look, wondering if I could get him to confess. “Tell me, what would you be doing with your life if not ‘money stuff’?”
“Ugh, this is embarrassing,” he said. “I have to be clear that I think I landed exactly where I am supposed to be, but when I was younger, in my teens, I had thought I would be something much more daring like a spy.”
“A spy?” I goggled at him. “Like 007? A womanizer?”
“With the babes but without the misogyny,” he clarified. “Yes. In my defense, I was a teenager.”
I laughed, enjoying his look of chagrin.
“What stopped you?” I asked.
“The family needed me to take up my uncle’s clients, and I wasn’t sure I was cut out for a life of espionage,” he said. “I still love a good thriller, though.”
“Me, too,” I said. I grinned at him. I couldn’t help it. Never in a million years would I have pegged Harry as a wannabe spy. I found it thoroughly charming.
“Oy, Harrison! Scarlett! You missed the turn, yeah?”
I glanced over my shoulder at our party, who were all clustered around Notting Hill Gate. Caught up in our conversation, we’d missed the entrance to the underground.
“Oh, sorry!” Harrison shouted back. He took my elbow and guided me back to our group.
“We were discussing the history of Guy Fawkes, fascinating stuff,” I said. “My fault.”
“No, it was me,” Harrison said. “I was distracted.”
“That’s one word for it,” Nick said and gave us a broad wink. “Come along, loves, we’re off to the Boltons, second wealthiest street in all of London according to the Daily Mail.”
“Nick, how can you stand that rag?” Fee asked.
“Are you kidding?” he asked. “It’s the highlight of my day. Now come along, I don’t want to miss a moment of our time living like the other half or the upper tenth, more accurately.”
He brandished his walking stick like a drum major’s baton and led the way down the steps. As everyone fell in behind him, I glanced at Harrison and found him looking at me. It made me too aware of him, of us, of whatever was happening between us, so I did what I always do, I made a joke of it.
I forced a laugh and rolled my eyes and said, “I wonder how far we would have walked before we realized we’d missed our gate.”
Harrison reached between us and straightened my beanie although it didn’t need it.
“I have a feeling, Ginger, that I could have walked all the way across Merry Old England with you by my side and never have realized we’d left the city.”
The man charmed me stupid. There was no other explanation for why I suddenly couldn’t remember how to make my legs move in an alternating motion that would propel me forward, you know, that thing called walking.
“Come on,” he said and grabbed my hand. “We’re going to miss the train.”
I let the man lead me to the platform to meet our friends with the sneaky suspicion that I would pretty much let this guy drag me anywhere. Uh-oh.
When we arrived at Harrison’s boss’s house, Nick’s comment about the other half hit me like a frying pan upside the head.
Viv and I do pretty well in the hat shop. We’re on one of the main tourist thoroughfares in London; Mim bought the building outright forty years ago, so we’re not mortgaged up to our eyeballs. Viv is brilliant and has a lot of high-society clients, who are more than happy to pay four to eight hundred pounds for a hat. Yeah, chew on that conversion for a bit. So we’re doing well, better than most, in fact, especially since Harrison is in charge of the money and is much more fiscally responsible than we are.
But there’s doing well and then there’s doing spec-freaking-tacular. As we stood on the sidewalk looking up at the glowing white monstrous colossus that loomed over us, I felt small, like ant under boot small. It occurred to me that the ant’s perspective on things stinks.
Harrison led the way into the courtyard. It was festively decorated with twinkling lights and glass lanterns, which made the entire front of the house glow. Large dried cornstalks stood on either side of the massive front door with pumpkins of all sizes scattered about. It reminded me of Thanksgiving in the States and I felt a sharp pang of homesickness.
Although I had most recently lived and worked in Florida, I had always traveled north to spend the holiday with my parents. They resided in New England, where my father was employed as a research scientist. I loved going back to enjoy the cold crisp air, the snuggly feeling of impending winter, and my mother’s apple pie. I realized this would be the first Thanksgiving that I hadn’t shared with them.
“All right, Scarlett?” Andre asked me.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I said with a forced smile. Then the front door opened and my eyes went wide. “I’m just taking it all in.”
“I know what you mean,” he said. “I wish I’d brought my camera.”
A stern-looking man in a crisp black suit, white shirt and narrow tie stood in the doorway. His face was impassive as he took in our party. Then his eyes lit on Harrison and he lowered his head in greeting.
“Good evening, Mr. Wentworth,” the man said. “Please come in.”
“Thank you, Price,” Harrison said. “And how are you this evening?”
“Very well, sir,” the man said. He stepped aside and Harrison led the way into the house. “I hope the evening finds you the same.”
“It does,” Harrison said.
“The party is in the back garden,” Price said. “If you’ll follow me.”
“I feel like I’m in an episode of Downton Abbey, yeah?” Fee whispered.
“I call the part of the good-looking footman,” Nick whispered in return.
I snorted. I couldn’t help it. Viv giggled and Andre guffawed. Harrison looked back at us as if we were a pack of unruly children he’d discovered on his way here and hadn’t been able to ditch us.
A golden chandelier hung over our heads, sparkling its jubilant light all over the foyer. I gawked. I can admit it. I was pretty sure the thing was made of real gold. Holy bananas!
We entered a great room that was bare except for several giant paintings that decorated the walls and a lone glass table in the center that upon second glance was probably a pricey sculpture of some sort. Andre froze. I slammed into his back with a very unladylike oomph.
“Andre, love, what are you staring at?” Nick asked.
“He’s looking at the Rothko.”
I turned at the sound of the voice and saw a woman stride into the room, watching Andre with a knowing look as if the two of them shared a secret.
I glanced back at the painting. My knowledge base of art is pretty rudimentary, but even I knew who Mark Rothko was, an abstract expressionist who came into popularity in postwar America with Jackson Pollack and William de Kooning. Of course, my first thought was to wonder whether the piece was an original and then I did a mental face palm. In this palatial estate of course it was an original, just like the chandelier was made of real gold.
“Ava, it’s good to see you,” Harrison said.
The woman was a tall, willowy blonde with pouty red lips and large eyes that were accentuated by an amazing amount of black eyeliner. She was dressed all in lavender cashmere with dark purple leather boots and a matching belt. The sparklers on her fingers were bigger than my knuckles and the perfume she wore was the sort of fragrance that is one of a kind, made especially for the person wearing it. I’d like to say it was tacky and noxious but no. It was a light scent that brought to mind fields of wildflowers and warm summer breezes.
“Harrison, it’s been too long,” she said. Her voice was a low-slung sultry growl as she enveloped him in a hug I found to be entirely too chummy, and I wondered at Harrison’s relationship with her.
“It has,” he said. “But you look as if time stands still around you. You never change a bit.”
The way Ava preened under the compliment I gathered that vanity was her weakness.
“Be sure to tell Tyler that,” she said. “I don’t think my husband appreciates me nearly as much as he should.”
Ah, she was the boss’s wife. I felt myself stand down.
“It will be the very first thing I say to him tonight,” Harrison said.
“Be sure that you do.” Ava slipped her arm through Harrison’s and turned to study us. “Are these your friends?”
“Yes, friends and clients,” Harrison said. He introduced each of us by name. “This is Ava Carson, our hostess for the evening.”
She looked at each of us in turn as if trying to memorize our faces. Then she clapped her hands together in a gesture that reminded me more of a little girl than a grown woman.
“How lovely it must be to have friends,” she said. She looked at me. “You’re from the States. My father loves your country-western music. He fancies himself quite the singer.”
Her gaze seemed to go fuzzy as if her mind had just wandered off leaving no forwarding address.
“Awkward,” Nick whispered in my ear. Andre gave him a quelling look and approached Ava with his usual Andre Eisel charm.
“Tell me, Mrs. Carson, is the Rothko your favorite?”
She stared at Andre for a moment and then her eyes cleared and she smiled. “Yes, it is. How did you guess?”
“Because it is as breathtaking as you are,” he said and flashed a smile at her. She beamed. “Also, it’s the first thing you see when you walk into the room and I assumed you hung it there to give it preferential treatment.”
Fee made a bit of a gagging sound behind me but Ava looked entranced.
“Quite right, Mr. Eisel,” she said. “How very clever you are.”
“Please call me Andre,” he said. Oh, he was a charmer, our Andre. With his sculpted physique, dark complexion and close-shaved head, he could have been in front of the camera instead of behind it, and very few people, men or women, were immune to his flattery.
“Ava,” she returned. “Are you an artist, Andre?”
“I dabble.” Andre ran a hand over his smoothly shaved head as if he were embarrassed. His diamond earring winked in the light as he looked down to study his shoes.
“Oh, dear, I’d best rein him in. He just doesn’t understand the effect he has on people, it’s like a superpower,” Nick said to me. He stepped forward and spoke to Ava, “He is a brilliant photographer. Don’t let his modesty fool you.”
Ava smiled at the couple. “I like you two. Come with me, I’ll give you an art tour of the house.”
Andre looked as if he’d hit the lottery while Nick gave us a tiny finger wave as they disappeared behind Ava.
“She seems nice,” Viv said.
Harrison sent a rueful glance in the direction the three of them had taken. “Sometimes.”
He and Price shared a glance that was rich with understanding, and I got the feeling there was more to Ava Carson than I had just seen. I also got the feeling that both Price and Harrison were very relieved that she was nice at the moment, which I found interesting.
Price led us down a long corridor that opened up into several great rooms on each side and ended in a gorgeous solarium. Stone statuary, plants and several water features filled the glassed-in space, which had the rich smell of earth and the spicy musky scent of things growing.
Several groups of people were scattered among the labyrinth of plants and trees, sitting on stone benches or on groupings of padded iron furniture. Three sets of French doors were wide open on the far end of the sunroom and Price led us toward them.
The sound of music grew louder as we approached the outdoors. Voices in conversation and laughter mingled with the music and I could feel the party atmosphere kick into high gear as we strode through the doors.
“Here you are, sir,” Price said as he gestured to the party unfolding before us.
“Thank you, Price,” Harrison said.
Price went back to his post as we turned to take in the sight before us. More twinkling lights lit up the entire terrace as well as the backyard, which looked to be the size of a modest football field, meticulously landscaped with flower beds, hedgerows and enormous trees. Even in the dark, it was a slice of wilderness paradise in the heart of the city.
More cornstalks and pumpkins decorated the terrace and lawn, as well as hanging glass lanterns in red and orange. A huge bonfire was roaring in a large concrete basin in the middle of the backyard while clusters of people filled the terrace and the yard, most of which were dressed just like us in hats and scarves and warm coats.
There were several bars serving mulled wine and hot toddies as well as multiple food stands, offering roasted chestnuts and warm pasties. Despite my bout of homesickness earlier, I felt my spirits lift at the festive atmosphere.
As one, the four of us turned to see who was calling for Viv.
It was a beautiful brunette, Elise Stanford, who was easily recognizable not just because of her trademark thick glossy brown tresses but also because she greeted us every morning on the television, where she delivered the day’s news with a side of tea and gossip.
“Hello, Elise,” Viv said. They exchanged an air kiss.
“I love the hat. I simply love it,” Elise gushed. “Is that the new fashion? I simply have to have one.”
Viv glanced over her shoulder at me with a very clear I-told-you-so look on her face. I just smiled. Obviously, there was no accounting for taste.
“They are becoming all the rage,” Viv said. “My assistant, Fee, and I simply can’t keep up with the demand.”
Fiona looked as if she might swoon when Elise glanced her way.
“Do you have a moment?” Elise asked. “I want to introduce the two of you to my producer, Sam Kerry. I think we could do a brilliant segment on winter hats in the next few days. What do you think?”
Viv and Fee disappeared into the crowd, and I found myself standing alone with Harrison. I wasn’t sure what to say or do because while we’re friends, we’re rarely alone. I decided now was as good a time as any to discover a bit more about the man who had the uncanny ability to make my heart go pitter pat.
“So, Harry, looks like you’re stuck with me,” I said as I slipped my arm through his and pulled him toward the bonfire. “Tell me, who does a gal have to kill to own a place like this?”
“Why, the person who already owns it. Right, Harrison, old boy?” It was not Harry who answered me.
A distinguished-looking man, with perfectly cut silver hair, a clean shaven face and an impeccable navy suit under a matching overcoat, was standing on the other side of Harrison smiling at me in amusement. I knew without being told that this had to be Harry’s boss. Oh, gees!
Excerpted from "Copy Cap Murder"
Copyright © 2016 Jenn McKinlay.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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