Having finished transforming Windy Corner, the grand Victorian mansion she inherited from her great aunt, into a writers’ retreat, widowed literature professor Emily Cavanaugh is ready to receive her first set of guests. But her careful planning is thrown into disarray by the unexpected arrival of outrageous true-crime writer, Cruella Crime, whose unpardonably rude behaviour is causing great offence.
As a ferocious ice storm rages outside, the guests entertain one another with a game of charades. But their revelries are brought to a sudden halt by the discovery of a body in one of the guest bedrooms. When it transpires the victim was poisoned, Emily decides to take a leaf out of the book of her favourite detective writer, Agatha Christie, and investigate. But as she pursues her enquiries, it becomes chillingly clear that she herself may have been the intended victim...
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Emily watched from the entrance hall of Windy Corner, holding a squirming Lizzie, as Katie draped the last gold-ribboned garland around the stair railing. More garlands hung from the arched doorways into the parlor, library, and dining room, while displays of Victorian Christmas cards adorned the walls. Through the parlor door Emily could glimpse the nine-foot noble fir that dominated the room, sparkling with red and gold baubles and white twinkle lights. Every room of the mansion was festooned, bedecked, and bedizened in the spirit of a true Victorian Christmas.
'There.' Katie twisted the last tie and stood back to admire the effect. 'The Windy Corner Writers' Retreat Center is ready for business.'
'Business' was only a manner of speaking; the retreat center had not been conceived as a money-making proposition, but as a way for Emily to share the wealth she'd inherited from her great-aunt, Beatrice. She would accept voluntary donations, proportionate to each guest's means, to cover the cost of food and maintenance, but she would never charge her guests for their stay here.
The retreat center had been the joint brainchild of Emily and Katie back in June, shortly after Emily had taken possession of Beatrice's large Victorian home and hired Katie as her housekeeper. They had worked through the fall to remodel the building and decorate it appropriately, with each of the six guest rooms themed around a different classic author, and Katie had been promoted to co-manager. Now, a week before Christmas, they were ready to receive their first guests. This experiment would help to determine how often Emily would want to open her home in this way in the future.
Emily caught Lizzie as she lunged for one of the baubles dangling above her head. 'Are you sure we have everything? Clean sheets on all the beds?'
'Check,' Katie said cheerfully, taking her daughter from Emily's arms.
'Clean towels laid out in each room?'
'Flowers and welcome basket in the Forster room?' The first guest – an adjunct lit prof from Reed College in Portland, the school from which Emily herself was on sabbatical – would arrive today, Monday; the other guests were not due till Friday. Emily's friend Marguerite from the Reed French department had lined up all the guests, though they did not all have a connection to Reed. Emily had assigned this first guest the Forster room – coincidentally the best room – since he was finishing up his PhD thesis on that author.
'Check. Relax, Mrs C, we've got it covered.'
Emily squeezed Katie's hand. 'I know. You always do. I'm nervous, that's all. It's almost like a blind date. I want to make a good first impression.'
'And we will. Trust me. Everything will go fine.'
Emily prayed that was true. In the few months since she'd inherited the place, Windy Corner had seen more than its share of disaster; surely a little triumph could be allowed.
The doorbell rang. 'Oh my goodness, he's here!' Emily's heart raced as she turned to the hall mirror to check her appearance. 'Do I look all right?'
'You look great, Mrs C. And it's really not a date, after all.'
Emily tucked a stray auburn curl into her loose, high bun, adjusted her hand-knitted shawl over the lace collar of her blouse, and smoothed her mid-calf-length flared tweed skirt. Her retro outfit did coordinate with the Victorian ambiance of the place, but it had been her usual style for years before she came here. 'All right. Here we go.'
She opened the door herself, although normally that was Katie's job. Emily was the official face of Windy Corner, and she wanted to be the first to greet her guests.
A slight young man – everyone under forty was young to Emily now – stood shivering on the porch, warming his hands under his armpits. A battered suitcase stood beside him. The cold had drained all color from his fair skin, and his reddish goatee stood out against it in stark relief.
He extracted his right hand from its heavy leather glove and held it out to her. 'I'm Oscar Lansing,' he said in a pleasant, if somewhat shivery, tenor voice.
Emily took his hand. 'Emily Cavanaugh. Welcome to Windy Corner. Come in before you freeze.' She stood back, and he grabbed his suitcase and darted in.
'You can leave your things here and come into the library. We've got a tremendous fire going in there.' Aunt Beatrice had installed central heating, but Emily kept the thermostat low because she enjoyed having fires in all the fireplaces.
'Thanks.' He pulled off his hand-knitted hat and hung it on a peg of the hall tree, then smoothed his ruffled, longish light brown hair in front of the mirror. Emily noted the hat's clumsily executed cable pattern and deduced Oscar had some woman in his life whose affection for him exceeded her knitting skill. Marguerite had told Emily when she recommended him that he wasn't married. Girlfriend? Sister? Mother? There was something endearing about the care with which Oscar removed the hat and hung it up. Whoever the knitter was, her affection was clearly returned.
He added a coordinating hand-knitted scarf to the rack, then sat on the bench to remove his galoshes. Yes, actual old-fashioned galoshes, covering brown leather wingtips that looked far from new but were polished to a sheen. 'I'll keep my coat on for now, if you don't mind.' He smiled apologetically.
Emily led Oscar to the library and took one of the wing chairs before the fire, waving him to the other one. 'Did you have a good trip?'
He sat on the edge of his chair, chafing his hands in the warmth from the flames. 'Not too bad. Except the heater in my car doesn't work very well.' He glanced toward the semicircular bay window that looked out on the ocean. 'I'm glad I got here when I did. I don't like the look of that sky.'
The sky was a leaden gray, the clouds merging with the frothing sea at the horizon and hanging ominously low over the lawn. 'Me neither. They say it might actually snow.' Winter storms were a near-weekly occurrence on the Oregon coast, but snow here at the beach was rare. However, the temperature had been dropping steadily all day and would surely be well below freezing tonight.
Kitty, the female half of Emily's matched pair of gray cats, rose from her nap on the hearthrug to sniff at Oscar's outstretched hands. 'Well, hello, there,' he said with a smile. He waited a moment for Kitty to get his scent, then moved his hand to scratch her head. 'Aren't you a beauty?'
She arched and purred under his hand, basking in the praise that was only her due. Her identical brother Levin came up to Oscar's left hand looking for a piece of the action. However, Bustopher Jones – the aging, portly tuxedo cat Emily had inherited from her aunt along with the house – merely raised his head, blinked once in dismissal, and went back to sleep.
Emily introduced the cats to Oscar. Bustopher Jones' name elicited an appreciative chuckle. At last, someone who got the reference to T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. 'I guess Bustopher doesn't like strangers,' he said.
'Only if they feed him. Actually, it's more that he's lazy. He must be at least eighteen years old. He doesn't do much these days except eat and sleep.'
Oscar sat back in his chair, and Kitty leapt into his lap. Levin sulked for a nanosecond, then took possession of Emily's lap.
Time to make some real conversation. 'So Marguerite tells me you're an adjunct lit prof.'
'What classes are you teaching?'
'I have a Hum One Ten section, of course.' Humanities 110 was Reed College's unique class, required of all freshmen, which examined the classical period and the Renaissance from an interdisciplinary perspective. Emily remembered her own Hum 110 teaching time with fondness.
'Then I have the early twentieth-century novel, which of course is my specialty.'
'Oh, yes, Marguerite said you were doing your thesis on Forster. He's one of my favorites. What's your focus?'
'I'm looking at his view of the individual in society, across all the novels.'
Emily nodded. 'Lots to work with there.' That focus was one of the things she loved about Forster – that and his sly humor.
Oscar grimaced. 'Too much, I'm afraid. I'm having a really hard time narrowing it down.'
'Well, if talking it out would do any good, feel free. I know Forster pretty well. And not only from the movies.' Emily shot Oscar a grin, which he returned. The films of A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Passage to India, and Howards End were excellent and quite faithful, but a film was never a substitute for a novel – only a way of bringing it to multisensory life.
Katie came in carrying a tea tray laden with little cakes, scones, and sandwiches. Oscar's face brightened at the sight like the sun coming through clouds. 'High tea! How marvelous! I have landed on my feet and no mistake.' His smile told Emily the obscure Narnia reference was deliberate. This guest was going to be fun to have around.
'How do you like your tea?' Emily asked as she poured the first cup.
'Milk and one sugar, thanks,' Oscar replied.
'I have some delicious local blackberry honey – much better for you than sugar.' Or so Beanie, proprietor of the local yarn shop, had assured Emily when she gave it to her. Beanie's health kicks turned over faster than her seasonally alternating stock of yarn. 'Would you like to try it?'
Oscar started visibly. 'Oh, no, thank you. I'm allergic to honey.'
'Oh, I'm sorry. I'll be sure to let Katie know.' Emily twizzled the amber liquid from the small jar with its rather garish homemade label and drizzled a little into her cup. She'd been accustomed to taking her tea with no sweetener, but she had to try the honey for Beanie's sake, and it had proved to be quite delicious.
As they sipped and nibbled, their talk ranged over other favorite authors, revealing they not only liked most of the same ones but liked them for the same reasons: Jane Austen for her strict morality, wicked wit, and incisive grasp of human nature; Charlotte Brontë for her indomitable faith and her pioneering treatment of an independent female mind; L.M. Montgomery for her incomparable descriptions of natural beauty and her inveterate cheerfulness; Dickens for his outrageous characters and the arrow-perfect language in which he brought them to life; and Dostoevsky for his wrestling with the deepest spiritual questions of life, death, and afterlife.
'I'm hoping to write about Dostoevsky myself someday,' Emily confessed, surprised at herself for revealing this closely guarded secret to a virtual stranger. But she felt intuitively she could trust this man – he seemed almost like a male reflection of herself.
'I admire you for that. He's so complex, writing about him sounds quite daunting. Have you made a start?'
'Not yet. I thought I might have time this year, being on sabbatical, but so far I've been so focused on getting the retreat center ready, I haven't had a minute to think about it.' Well, that and helping to solve several murders that had taken place right here on her property. But there was no need to mention that to a guest.
'Marguerite told me you inherited this place recently. Did it need a lot of work?'
'Not need, per se. My aunt had kept it in excellent condition. But I did some alterations to make it work better as a retreat center – an expanded bathroom on the guest floor and a private suite of rooms for me on the third floor. And all the bedrooms have been redecorated.'
Oscar set down his empty cup and brushed a few crumbs from his trousers. 'Would you be willing to give me a tour? What I've seen of the house so far is beautiful. I'd love to see the rest.'
'Certainly.' In fact, she inwardly reveled in this opportunity to show off the fruits of her own and Katie's months of planning and labor.
She took him first to the Dickens room, at the back of the main floor, then peeked into the kitchen, where Katie was busy with dinner preparations. They visited the dining room and the parlor, then mounted the U-shaped staircase with its intricately carved balusters and paneled walls to the second floor. Oscar seemed amused, but hardly surprised, to find the five bedrooms named after the very authors they had just been discussing.
Emily preened a bit as she showed him the bathroom arrangements. She'd taken out the back stairs in order to add a bathroom next to the existing one, but instead of simply creating two separate, complete rooms, she'd planned five small cubicles – two with a toilet and sink each, two with shower stalls, and one with a clawfoot tub. That way, even with all the bedrooms occupied, the wait for any of the facilities should be minimal. Each cubicle had a hand-lettered sign indicating its purpose, with a slider below to show whether or not it was occupied.
Oscar was properly appreciative. 'And I'm so glad you have a bathtub,' he said. 'I think a good soak is the only thing that will completely thaw me out.'
She smiled and turned to the last remaining door. 'And here's where I've put you, in the Forster room.' She opened the door to the spacious, airy room that lay directly above the library and shared its semicircular ocean-view bay.
Oscar caught his breath. 'Oh, but this is marvelous!' He circled the room, stroking the delicate maple furniture and examining the pictures on the walls. One showed an old English manor house that might have been Howards End; others were landscapes of northern Italy.
He stopped in front of one print that depicted a view of the Arno in Florence. Shooting a quizzical look toward Emily, who attempted vainly to keep a neutral face, he lifted the frame from its hook and turned it over. On the paper that covered the back was scribbled a huge question mark.
Oscar burst out laughing. 'I knew it! Emily Cavanaugh, you are a woman after my own heart.'
The feeling was definitely mutual.CHAPTER 2
Emily had invited Luke to dinner that evening to fill any gaps in conversation that might arise, since she so often found herself ill qualified to recommend herself to strangers. By dinnertime, though, she felt as if she'd known Oscar for years. Luke's presence as a facilitator was superfluous.
But Luke himself could never be superfluous. They had met as teenagers on one of Emily's annual summer visits to Windy Corner, and she had thought their intense romance would prove to be lasting as well. But circumstances had separated them, and she had not seen Luke again until she returned to Stony Beach as a widow last summer to claim her inheritance. It was thirty-five years since she'd fallen in love with him, and Emily still felt a little thrill every time he caught her eye. Now that her life seemed to be settling down a bit, she'd begun to think she might have to accept his oft-repeated marriage proposal sometime soon. Though they still had a few wrinkles to iron out, such as where they would live.
Luke arrived right on time but still wearing his sheriff's uniform. 'Sorry, got a last-minute call out and didn't have time to change. Figured with a guest you'd rather have me on time in uniform than late in civvies.'
She kissed him lightly. 'You guessed right. Dinner smells heavenly, and I'm starved. And poor Oscar is still thawing out – he needs to get a good meal in him and get under a nice thick down comforter as soon as he can.'
'Oscar?' Luke raised an eyebrow at her. 'First-name basis already, huh?'
'Of course. He's a dear. Come and meet him.' She led the way into the library.
Oscar rose to greet them. He came up to about Luke's shoulder, and Luke could have spanned his upper arm with one hand. Oscar swallowed and gave a nervous smile. Surely he didn't have anything to fear from the law? No, he couldn't. It was understandable he'd find Luke a trifle intimidating, uniform or no.
'Oscar Lansing, I'd like you to meet Luke Richards. Luke is our local lawman, as you can see, and also my ' Here Emily paused, at a loss as to how to describe their relationship. It was obvious to all their local acquaintances, so a formal designation was rarely necessary.
'Boyfriend' sounded ridiculously juvenile for a couple in their fifties; 'gentleman friend' suggested a professional arrangement. 'Lover' would have been accurate in the Victorian sense – one who loves – but not in the modern one; 'partner' didn't convey the right impression either. 'Significant other' was just silly. She might have to accept Luke's proposal simply so she could introduce him as her fiancé. Oh well, the insipid 'very dear friend' would have to do for now, accompanied by a possessive hand on Luke's arm.
Luke stuck out his right hand with a genial smile, and Oscar relaxed and shook it. 'Pleased to meet you. What should I call you? Sheriff?' 'The title's Lieutenant, but Luke will do when I'm off-duty. Which I most certainly am, uniform notwithstanding.' Luke turned his nose toward the kitchen and inhaled deeply. 'Can't wait to see what Katie's cooked up for us this time.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cyanide with Christie"
Copyright © 2018 Katherine Bolger Hyde.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.