A bookseller reunites with her estranged, enigmatic father in Key West in this suspenseful novel by a New York Times–bestselling author.
Twenty-five years ago, Long Island bookstore owner Laurel York was abandoned by her father, author Clifton York. Ever since, she’s followed his life and career with morbid resentment. When Clifton’s collaborator shows up in her shop with the gift of an orchid, she reluctantly agrees to accompany him back to Key West to help her and her father come to terms with the past—even in light of her late mother’s warning: “There is something terribly wrong in that house . . .”
Laurel arrives at her father’s estate in the historic district of Old Town expecting past wounds to show their scars. But what she doesn’t anticipate are her father’s cool reception, two strange stepsisters, rumors of a buried treasure, and the whispers about Clifton’s second wife—and her bizarre death in a greenhouse full of orchids. The only one who seems to be happy about her presence is the mysterious Marcus O’Neill—if only she could be sure she can trust him. Now, in a house of bad blood and family secrets, Laurel finds herself alone, unprepared for the real reason she has been summoned, and, with every new revelation, more afraid for her life.
Edgar Award winner Phyllis A. Whitney, “headmistress of handsomely-schooled suspense [is] in full bloom” in this gothic romance of deception and murder (Kirkus Reviews).
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Phyllis A. Whitney including rare images from the author’s estate.
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About the Author
Whitney resided in several places, including New Jersey. She traveled to every location mentioned in her books in order to better depict the settings of her stories. She earned the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master award in 1988, the Agatha in 1990, and the lifetime achievement award from the Society of Midland Authors in 1995. Whitney was working on her autobiography at the time of her passing at the age of 104.
Read an Excerpt
The bookstore had emptied, and we were nearly ready to close. Stan Neese, my assistant, was working at the back, and I had just set down my record of sales for the day when a man walked into the shop — a stranger.
He caught my attention, not only because of his bright red hair, but also because a deep tan doesn't often appear in March in our part of Long Island. Bellport is a quiet village, especially before the summer people arrive. His manner suggested barely suppressed energy, even when he stood quite still beyond my semicircle of counter and regarded me searchingly in a way that seemed almost a challenge.
Under one arm he carried a small, square florist's box tied with green ribbon, and as he rested the box on the counter, Ernest, my bookstore cat, padded across to examine it. The stranger made friends, scratching behind Ernest's tawny ears and smiling at the loud purr that resulted. His smile came easily, relaxed, amused — until he looked at me again with a question in his eyes that I couldn't answer, since I didn't know what the question was.
I tried the standard phrase. "May I help you?"
"I hope so," he said, and walked away between book tables, looking around with a more intense interest than the average customer was apt to show. I gave up watching him and returned to my work. If he wanted something, he'd have to let me know.
When I glanced at him again, I saw that he'd stopped before some paintings of Bellport scenes that I'd hung on the wall. They clearly interested him, and since I'd painted them myself, I began to watch him more closely.
After a time he turned back to me. "Are these houses local?" he asked.
I told him they were, and he smiled as if to himself. "That's interesting, and rather curious."
That was a remark I didn't understand, but now I was beginning to feel curious myself about who this man was, and what he wanted.
He gave me no clue until, moving about, he found a table of books near the front of the shop and picked up a copy of Clifton York's new suspense novel, Caribbean Gold. The moment he took the book into his hands, I felt as though a warning bell had rung — though with no logical reason, since the pile of books was there to attract customers, and people picked them up every day. Yet something told me this was different.
Stan came forward to wait on him, knowing I was busy closing out the register. We'd had a disagreement earlier that day, and Stan was still miffed and hardly speaking to me. Something had to be done about him sooner or later. He not only wanted to buy out the store and take it over, he wanted to take me over as well, and he had no idea of the rebellion that had begun to seethe beneath the smooth surface I tried to offer the world. My safe disguise!
I noticed how strikingly tall the stranger seemed beside Stan and again how vividly red his hair was. He considered Stan's earnest, spectacled face and said, "No, thanks." Then he stared openly at me again. Not caring for a challenge I didn't understand, I stared back and became aware for the first time of the deep gray-blue of his eyes. They were the color of the bay with the sun shining on it — and that was a completely irrelevant thought.
Stan went back to the cartons he was unpacking, and the red-haired man turned the Clifton York novel over in his hands to examine the photograph on the back panel. Then he looked at me again.
"Of course you're Laurel York. You look remarkably like your father — thick black hair, blue eyes, squarish chin. I expect you've been told that before."
I'd been told it more often than I liked, since I didn't want to look like my father, and I hated being caught off guard like this.
"Who are you?" I asked. "What do you want?"
"My name is Marcus O'Neill. Sometimes I help your father with his research. I dug up some of the background scoop for Caribbean Gold."
I reached for the stool behind me and perched on it, hooking my heels over a rung to steady myself. An excitement I didn't welcome was rising in me, and I needed to hold it back, give nothing away. If ever I let it go, I didn't know what would happen.
"I know very little about Clifton York," I said coolly. A statement that was scarcely true, since I never missed anything about him that came my way. I'd always read his interviews and studied his book jackets, and I'd followed all the movies made from his books. Two or three times in the past I'd even caught him on television — without my mother knowing. Of course I had read every word he'd written with a contradictory mix of curiosity, longing, and resentment that had been hard for me to live with. Somehow I'd always managed to conceal what seemed to me a morbid interest. After what he had done to my mother — and to me — I had no business thinking of him at all. My mother had been hurt for as long as I could remember, and I'd never wanted to add to her anguish. Now that she was gone, there was no more need for suppression, but old feelings died hard.
"I haven't seen my father since I was three years old," I told Marcus O'Neill. "As far as I'm concerned, I have no father."
"Perhaps that's partly your own fault." He continued to study me, considering, judging, while my indignation grew.
"What do you want, Mr. O'Neill?" I asked.
"Not to quarrel with you. But I'm no diplomat, and I suppose there's no graceful way to ease into this."
I didn't know what he wanted to ease into, and because of his connection with my father, I meant to resist, no matter what it was.
"I'm sorry about your mother's death," he went on.
"Why should you be sorry? I don't suppose he is."
"He could be, you know, though probably in a remote sort of way. His wife — his second wife — died nearly a year ago. He's a lonely, driven, unhappy man."
"He has two other daughters to keep him company, hasn't he?"
"He was talking about you a few days ago — just wondering out loud. That's partly what brought me here."
"Long Island's a whole coastline from Key West! Did he send you?"
"I'm afraid not. He doesn't know I've come — it was my own idea."
"Why?" I wished the shaking inside me would stop.
His look softened a little. "I wanted to learn something about Laurel York. Is there a place where we could talk?" He used my name easily, as though he'd spoken it in the past.
I was all too aware of Stan's listening presence at the back of the store. Another late customer came into the shop, and when Stan hurried forward again I led the way up wide wooden steps to my browsing gallery. A rocker and comfortable armchair waited there, and a table stood ready to receive books pulled down from the shelves. This was where I kept more expensive art books in various categories. The lighting was good, but soft, and the brown wooden shelves and floor gave a subdued feeling of quiet and serenity to the long room. I still believed in browsing space for readers. Stairs at the rear led down to the children's section.
He chose the armchair and I the rocker, though I kept my feet solidly on the floor, so the chair wouldn't move. I was still in a tense, suspended state of waiting. I had no questions to ask. There was nothing I wanted to know ... and everything.
"I met Cliff York about ten years ago when I was twenty-two," he said. "I was breaking in as a free-lance writer — I'd sold a few articles to magazines. Cliff gave me a research job that helped me to survive, and he sent other opportunities my way. I'd come to Key West to write about the island, and I liked it enough to stay. My home was in Wisconsin, but I had no more ties there, and I'd been wandering around since I got out of college."
His tone was conversational now, but I was still on guard, and he made me increasingly uneasy. I would listen to him, but whatever he asked of me, the answer would be no.
He'd brought the florist's box with him, and now he set it on the floor beside his chair.
"Haven't you been curious about your father?" he asked, suddenly direct. "Or about your two half sisters?" I gripped the arms of the rocker. The old longing that I wanted to deny seemed stronger than ever and impossible to deal with.
"He treated my mother horribly. He just left — walked out on us both! In all these twenty-five years since I was three, he has never sent me one single birthday card, or one letter, or called me on the phone. After my mother divorced him, he married that — that woman! — and we never heard from him again. I'm not to blame for any of that. How could I possibly want to get in touch with him?" "I'm sorry. He's not an easy man to understand, and I'm not trying to excuse anything he did in the past. Of course I don't know what your mother was like. It's just that he's having a rough time right now. His older daughter, Iris, is only twenty-four, and she's going determinedly into a marriage her own mother was very much against. Fern, your younger sister, is a delicate little thing, and their mother's death has hit her hard. Your father has lost his grip completely since Poppy died. He was very much in love with his wife right to the end, you know."
I didn't want to hear how much Cliff York had loved another woman instead of my mother.
"So what is all this to me?" I knew I sounded defiant, but I couldn't help that. I'd been holding everything back for too long — years too long.
"Perhaps nothing. That's what I've come to find out. I care about what happens to Cliff. I owe him."
"Are you suggesting that I go to Key West?"
The appraising look had returned. "I expect it was a mistake for me to come here. A wild chance I had to take. But there's nothing I can ask of you. There's no real reason why you should consider what he may need."
"No, there isn't," I said quickly. "But you might at least have phoned before you walked in on me like this."
"Would you have seen me if I had?"
I tried to be honest. "Probably not. I can't forget all the times when I needed him and he wasn't there."
"Of course I don't blame you for the way you feel."
He spoke stiffly and I knew he was blaming me, and that made me angry. Let him go back to Key West! Let him carry word to Clifton York that he had an older daughter who would never forgive him for what he had done.
My chair was rocking furiously, and he reached out one brown hand, quieting me and the chair. Then he picked up the florist's box and handed it to me. "This is for you."
I didn't want to take the box. I didn't want flowers from him, or from anyone in Key West.
"Your half sister Fern sent it. Fern is the only one who knew I was coming here."
In spite of my reluctance, I had to take the box and slide the green ribbon off. When I lifted the lid and spread back white tissue, I found a lovely miniature orchid inside. It was a pale greenish-bronze, edged with a band of deep crimson around the fluted petals with speckles of darker bronze cast like confetti upon satin. There was a card in the box, and I took it out. From Fern had been penned across it in a small, firm hand.
I held the delicate blossom — my first orchid from Key West — and a certain presentiment stirred in me. I couldn't know it then, but this was the beginning of the dream that was to haunt me for so long.
To hide an emotion I didn't want to show, I spoke a bit tartly.
"If that woman's name was Poppy, how could she possibly call her daughters Iris and Fern? How could she do anything so silly?"
"Poppy York was never a silly woman," he said quietly. "A bit dramatic and breathtaking, perhaps. Completely enchanting — but never foolish. She was a lady to be reckoned with — and she still is. She held that house together for a long time, and you can still feel her influence all through it. Her death was tragic and senseless."
I put the orchid back in its nest of tissue and set the open box on the table near me. I didn't dare to think about the half sister who had sent me this flower. Or of why she had sent it, and what she was like. I didn't want to weaken in my resistance.
Marcus stood up, and I rose with him. "Fern wanted you to know that she grew this flower herself. I'll go along now. I'm staying overnight with friends in East Patchogue, and I'll be flying home tomorrow. Thanks for talking with me."
I went down the stairs with him to the front door of the shop. In a moment he would be gone, and I would never hear from Key West again. My angry instinct to resist, coupled with all the longings that I'd suppressed, made miserable companions, and suddenly I wanted to dismiss one and satisfy the other.
"I need time to think," I told him in a rush. "Let me have tonight. Can you stop here at the shop tomorrow morning before you leave? I can be here as early as you like."
He stood two steps down on the sidewalk and looked up at me in that strange way that made me uneasy, uncertain. It was as though some unexpected current flowed between us, quickening a new awareness in me, making me feel suddenly more alive than I had in a long while.
His smile was warm, kind — as though he understood, which of course wasn't possible. This man could be appealing when he chose, but I didn't want to trust him.
"Why did you come?" I demanded. "You haven't really explained that."
"One reason I've come is because there may not be a lot of time left. Cliff's had one heart attack, and he doesn't always take care of himself. Besides, there's an anniversary coming up in April. The anniversary of Poppy's death — and such dates can be dangerous."
He answered too quickly. "To emotional health. Or haven't you lived long enough to find that out?"
"How did she die?"
"Perhaps your father would tell you about that. Otherwise, it's not important to you, is it?"
I couldn't deal with his directness.
He went on. "Would you care to have dinner with me tonight? We can't stand here talking on your doorstep."
I was already backing into the shop. "Thanks, but — no. I need to be alone. I need to think."
"You need to stop being scared of your own shadow," he said. "Good night, Laurel. I'll be back in the morning. Say, eight o'clock."
I watched him stride off down the street with a vigorous, purposeful walk. He was a man who knew where he was going and what he wanted, and I wasn't going to tag after him or be pushed into anything I didn't really want to do. I wasn't that scared.
I went inside, feeling troubled. The store had emptied, and I tried to shake off the peculiar spell I'd fallen under.
Questions were about to pour out of Stan, and I stemmed the tide quickly. "His name is Marcus O'Neill. He helps my father in his research, and he wanted me to come to Key West."
"That's idiotic! Of course you won't go," Stan said in his most outraged tone.
"Of course I won't," I repeated, feeling unreasonably irritated. "Just go home, Stan. I'll close up. I want to be by myself for a while."
At least Stan had never accused me of being scared of shadows — my own or anyone else's — and sensing my angry mood, he got out of the shop as fast as he could.
I locked the back door, clicking the bolt firmly, and began to turn out lights. One thing I knew — I loved this shop. It had rescued me from aimlessness after college, and I had worked hard for its success. I was at home with books and with people who enjoyed reading as much as I did. My mother had loaned me the money to buy it, and it had done well enough so that I'd been able to pay her back. But it wasn't my whole life. It couldn't satisfy the dreaming and the make-believe that went churning on inside me, even though I kept them hidden. I was supposed to be capable and sensible. All those dull virtues! No one suspected the wild dreams that sometimes pushed against a trap my mother had built around me and that I had helped her to build. But I didn't like the emotion that had surged up in me when a stranger from Key West had suddenly sprung the trap.
Walking among the book tables and turn stands, I touched a bright jacket here and there and knew I was among my friends. Trusted friends who never let me down — and who encouraged my dreaming. I'd always loved the very smell and feel of books — even before I opened the covers to see what was inside. I read about the authors and knew all their titles, and I knew my customers' tastes and how individual the matter of a "good book" was. This was my world — and it ought to be enough.
Halfway down the shop, I paused before several paintings on the wall. If I had a creative talent, it was this, though I'd never worked at it steadily. That was another dream I had no place for. The seascape I had painted on Fire Island. Another was a watercolor of a white clapboard house with a picket fence — a typical old Bellport house. This was the picture that had caught Marcus O'Neill's attention, and I wondered why.
Excerpted from "Dream of Orchids"
Copyright © 1985 Phyllis A. Whitney.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I've read all her books. She was a wonderful author.
Good description of place, but plot is a bit predictable.
i read this book 10 yuears ago and could never put it out of my mind....phillys whitney did a wonderful job weaving the character's tale...what a beautiful surprise!!
Read years ago. Laurel goes to key West to meet her father and half sisters iris and fern. Laurel solves mysterious deaths.