But there’s a catch. Frazier has written his own murder mystery script, and the PIs must work out whodunnit. As they’re about to discover, though, the murder Frazier wants them to solve is a real cold case, and there's a killer twist that isn't in the script . . .
Unable to reach Elysian Island and her co-workers, Kate is sure that someone wants her to stay away. Can she stop a ruthless killer and uncover the truth behind a deadly game?
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Charleston, South Carolina. Wednesday a.m.
Kate Weller shifted her load of boxes to her other arm, held the screen door open with her backside, and turned the knob. When the door swung wide, she thought she might be able to move into the upstairs apartment without a major commotion. No such luck.
'A little bird told me you were coming back.' The squeaky voice emanating from the shadows belonged to a white-haired, wren-sized woman, clad in a cotton dress and white apron, who stepped into Kate's path.
'Would that "little bird" be your grandson, Eric?' Kate smiled at the ridiculousness of describing someone who was six foot three inches tall as little.
'It would.' Angelica Donatella Manfredi, better known as Nonni, crossed her arms over her chest.
Kate shifted the heavy load of books, CDs, and work paraphernalia to her other arm. 'Would my moving back be OK with you? If I remember correctly, you really liked me and wanted Eric to marry me.' She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling.
'True, but that was before you set my kitchen on fire, blew up my grandson's car, and then vanished in the dead of night.' Nonni's brows knitted together above the bridge of her nose.
'It was morning when I moved out, and the fire and car bomb weren't exactly my fault. May I please set my boxes on the counter?'
'Not until you answer a few questions.' Nonni stepped closer and peered up. 'Do you have honest intentions toward my Enrique?'
'You bet I do.'
'Do you promise not to cook without a fire extinguisher handy?'
'I promise.' Kate held up her right hand as the boxes began to slip.
'Then put down your junk and give me a hug.' Nonni stretched out both arms.
Kate reached across her heap of boxes and hugged the matriarch of the clan. Donatella and her husband had emigrated from Sicily to South Carolina and opened a small trattoria on the first floor of their home. Now the Manfredi family owned one of the most successful upscale restaurants in Charleston, one that was favorably reviewed in every travel guide. 'I missed you, Nonni.'
'And I, you.' The woman hugged with a fierceness that belied her small stature. 'Go upstairs and rest. Eric didn't like the so-called fresh seafood that they delivered.' Nonni's nose crinkled as she winced. 'He went to the market to select his own fresh catch of the day. I'll have the busboys unpack your car and carry up these boxes.' Nonni's face had flushed and her eyes were moist when she finally released the hug.
Kate knew better than to argue with her about anything. She kissed the top of the octogenarian's head, grabbed her tote bag, and climbed the steep staircase. When she opened the door of the suite reserved for out-of-town relatives, a wave of nostalgia washed over her, despite having lived here only a few months. Her refrigerator would be fully stocked, gratis; her bed linens would be Egyptian cotton, and the quilt handmade. As the only non-relative ever to rent the room, Kate had been made to feel like a family member by Nonni Manfredi. Yet she had held Eric at arm's length so many times she'd almost ruined any chance of a relationship. Without a doubt, he was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
Since packing and moving from Pensacola, Florida to Charleston had left her out of touch with her boss and co-workers for several days, Kate unpacked her laptop and signed into Bella Trattoria's Wi- Fi. Among the emails, a subject line of WHERE ARE YOU!!!, all in caps and followed by several exclamation points caught her immediate attention. Kate clicked on the email from her boss, Nate Price, wherein he repeated his question a second time: Where are you? You still haven't responded to the notice about our company's retreat. Then Nate had cut and pasted an invitation from a previous email: One week, all-expenses-paid getaway – casual attire, championship golf, shopping, hiking, swimming in either heated pool or Atlantic Ocean, bird-watching – you name it! Employee, plus spouse or significant other. Yes, you will be paid for your time out of the field. Please tell me yes or no within the next few days, because we'll be convening on St Simons Island in Georgia in one week.
Then Nate added at the bottom of the email: You must have gotten back to Charleston by now. Are you and Eric coming on the retreat? I have a special surprise to announce once everyone gets here. St Simons Island is only a couple hours away and you don't have a case right now! Then her boss had added an emoji of a skull and crossbones.
Kate experienced several different emotions: fear, because the newest PI in the company had just annoyed the boss; joy, because a week's vacation sounded fabulous; and hope, because Eric might decide unequivocally that he wanted to be a PI. Not taking a chance with an email going unread for days, Kate punched in the boss's number.
Nate Price picked up immediately. 'Good grief, Weller, I was starting to worry about you.'
'I'm fine, but I had to make a few stops between the Gulf and the city of Charleston. I'm unpacking and settling into my old suite right now. Oh, I saw the invite. The retreat sounds wonderful. Thanks for Eric too.'
'Does that mean you're coming?' he asked.
Kate heard a baby crying in the background and remembered Nate and his wife had a two-year-old. 'I am, for sure, but I don't know about Eric. He just got back to work. His family might not want him leaving again so soon. Bella Trattoria is super busy this time of year.'
'I understand, but this is the only time Nicki can get a babysitter for a full week and Izzy can take time off too. Plus, there's a surprise waiting for everyone who shows up on St Simons.' He imbued the words with tantalizing significance. 'Try to talk Eric into it. Even if you have to promise his family you'll work in the restaurant too when you get back.'
'That might not do the trick. The Manfredis know I can't cook.' She laughed. 'You can expect me for sure in three days and I'll do my best with Eric.'
'Sounds good. We'll be staying at my friend's condo on St Simons Island while he's in Europe. It's a really nice place. I'll text you John's address to punch into the GPS. Be prepared for anything in terms of weather. Bring sturdy shoes, rain gear, sunblock and jungle- strength bug spray, besides all your beach gear.'
'What is your surprise – a private jet to the Amazon rainforest with a stopover in Rio?' she asked.
'Even better than that, because you won't need your passport or typhoid fever shots. Make sure you check your email during the next couple days in case I give you more info. I'm telling you, Weller, this will be the trip of a lifetime. So work your magic with your "significant other."'
When Nate hung up, Kate ran to the window that overlooked the employee parking lot. No black Ford Expedition. Eric hadn't returned, so she unpacked her boxes and one suitcase until wheels crunched the gravel below her window. Then she bolted down the stairs to work her magic. This would be one time Eric couldn't say no.
But of course, he did. At least initially.
Eric listened to her read the entire invitation as attentively and patiently as any boyfriend down through the ages ever had. Then he tipped up her chin and kissed her sweetly. 'Sorry, Kate. As much as I'd love to join you on this getaway, I have to pass.'
'But why?' she asked, unable to hide her disappointment.
'Because the getaway is for spouses and significant others. I'm not a spouse and you and I just started dating seriously.'
'What does the number of days or weeks have to do with it?' Kate tried her best to sound seductive. 'Didn't I tell you I loved you?' she added in a whisper.
'And I love you.' Eric kissed her a second time. 'But this company retreat is for private investigators and I'm not one ... at least, not yet.'
'Hunter Galen isn't a PI; he's a stockbroker. And neither is Isabelle Price, Nate's wife. Besides, you said you wanted to learn investigative work. A retreat would be a great place to learn in a casual setting.'
'These kinds of job-related vacations can strain long-married couples. Do you want to subject our new relationship to so much pressure?' Eric leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms, his biceps straining the fabric of his sleeves.
'That's a bunch of hooey,' Kate argued. 'There won't be any seminars or training sessions. We'll be doing fun stuff like hiking and swimming, maybe deep-sea fishing and a little shopping. Then we'll chow down on free food. What sounds high pressure about that?' Kate was taking a chance by mentioning Eric's favorite pastime, fishing, since she had no clue if that would be available, but she was desperate.
Eric smiled kindly. 'I know your boss intimidates you. So maybe if you just hang out with your friends, without the added drama of me being there, you will relax more.'
Kate resisted the immature impulse to stomp her foot. 'Truly, Nate Price no longer intimidates me. I'm hoping if you hang out with a bunch of private investigators, you'll gain a better feel for the job.' She dropped her voice to a whisper in case Nonni was eavesdropping, one of her favorite pastimes. 'You don't want to give up your position as head chef until you know for sure what you want career- wise.'
The love of her life picked up the recently purveyed seafood to check over and clean. 'You're sweet to worry, but when your family owns the place, they can't slam the door in my face if I change my mind down the road. How would that look at Christmastime?'
Kate decided to join him at the sink. After rolling up her sleeves and washing her hands, she pulled the tails and shells off shrimp that would be used in sauces and casseroles. 'That's true,' she said. 'Even though your family adores you, they recently put up with your absence while you were my bodyguard in Pensacola.'
'And I helped get your brother's capital murder conviction amended.' He rubbed his knuckles against his shirt. 'When Liam is finally released on parole, he'll have a job waiting at Bella Trattoria.'
'And for that, I'm eternally grateful.' Kate reached for another handful of shrimp. 'But don't you think your family should know if you're willing to take the reins when your dad retires or if your sister will be at the helm? This week might give you a better insight as to what a PI does, not just the fun parts.'
'What exactly are the fun parts?' Eric teased. 'But I see your point. Dad has been at the restaurant more than my mother likes, plus my sister needs more help than just her teenage daughter and Nonni. Bernadette needs someone who's invested in the future of Bella.'
Kate paused to organize her thoughts. 'So why not lay your cards on the table? Tell them what you're considering and ask for one more week of time off. After that, you'll come back to work with the intention of remaining permanently. Or you'll tell them you'll stay only long enough to hire and train another chef to assist Bernadette. That way you can be true to yourself without leaving your family in the lurch.'
Eric remained quiet as he deveined shrimp after shrimp with an expert's precision. 'That makes sense. I'll talk to my sister and dad tonight to see what they think, but I still can't promise to go on the retreat. I can't leave unless I can cover my position in the kitchen. I'm sure my dad is exhausted.'
'But will you seriously try?' Kate held her colander of shrimp under cold water.
Eric washed his hands of shrimp entrails and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. 'You bet I will. I've only seen you in a swimsuit a handful of times. Is it a pink bikini with white polka dots?'
She chuckled. 'Don't be ridiculous. It's a one-piece racing suit like those worn by professional athletes. And I have a matching swim shirt which I seldom take off.'
'Let's hope my family agrees and for plenty of stifling hot weather.' He kissed the top of her head. 'Now get out of here and let me work. Bella has plenty of reservations for tonight.'
'Thank you, Eric. If your ducks line up, be ready to go Saturday morning with every kind of clothes and footwear. Nate said we should be prepared for anything.'
'Should I bring my Swiss Army knife and Maglite?' he asked.
'Absolutely bring them.' Kate dried her hands and padded across the tile floor in a kitchen that smelled of garlic, rosemary, basil, and grilled onions. She loved the aroma of Italian food. And she loved the family who owned the restaurant. And, most of all, she loved one man of Italian heritage more than life itself. So whether Eric would be able to get away or not, she would behave like a mature adult.
For the next few hours Kate finished unpacking and then answered every email, one by one. She sent her new best friend and mentor, Beth Preston, a full update on where she stood with the retreat. Beth had trained Kate to be a PI after she had trained Michael, who ended up becoming her new husband. Truth be told, Michael had been a lot easier to mold than she had been. But all that was behind them. During this getaway, she would get to know Beth and Michael better, in addition to the boss and his wife, Isabelle. And Kate would finally meet Nicki Price, Nate's cousin, who also worked for the agency. Nicki, who hailed from a small town in Mississippi, had married a stockbroker from a very rich, very old New Orleans family. Kate couldn't wait to meet her since, according to Nate, Nicki had been worse than her when she first started.
Promptly at nine o'clock, Kate refreshed her makeup, put on a dress, and headed downstairs. After the last reservation had been served, the Manfredi clan always sat down to a family-style dinner in the kitchen, while the wait staff executed their duties with customary precision. Then the night staff would clean the kitchen and dining rooms from top to bottom. When Kate stepped off the bottom rung, everyone was already clustered around the table, chatting and wearing nothing but smiles.
'A pleasure to see you again, Miss Weller,' murmured Irena Manfredi in her cultured Milanese voice. Warming up to Kate had taken Eric's mother some time, but nevertheless she'd finally done so.
'Welcome back, Kate,' boomed the patriarch, Alfonzo Manfredi. 'You'll be happy to hear I haven't been accused of any capital crimes while you've been gone.' Alfonzo lifted a glass of well-aged red wine in salute.
'Thank you, Mr and Mrs Manfredi. I'm grateful that the upstairs suite was still available.' Kate took her place next to Eric, who was grinning like a recent lottery winner.
'Ach, so what if I had to kick out a great-nephew doing postgraduate work?' Alfonzo filled a glass with wine and handed it to Kate. 'That boy needs to stand on his own two feet.'
Aghast, she peered up at Eric for confirmation.
'Worry not, my sweet.' Eric slid his arm around her waist. 'My cousin had already decided to move in with his girlfriend. A win-win, I'd say.'
'Welcome back, Kate,' greeted Bernadette, entering the kitchen from the back door. Eric's sister usually went home to change clothes and pick up her husband and daughter, Danielle, before eating dinner. 'My brother is never quite right in the head when you're not around.'
'Aunt Kate!' Danielle pushed her uncle aside and locked both arms around Kate's waist. 'I'm so glad to see you. I need somebody on my side.'
'If I even hear the words "spring break" once at this table, young lady, I'll drag you to the car by your hair.' Bernadette gritted out the words through clenched teeth.
Everyone at the table except Danielle and her parents laughed.
Kate hugged the seventeen-year-old fondly. 'I'll do my best,' she whispered. 'Good to see all three of you.' She nodded at the parents over Danielle's head.
'Enough of the hellos already!' Nonni approached the table with a steaming platter of food. 'The veal parmesan is done, and the pasta with a Portobello mushroom sauce is getting cold. Everyone, sit down and eat!'
Whenever Nonni speaks, everyone listens ... and eventually abides by her wishes. Unlike American culinary customs, salad came after both the pasta course and the entrée. But because it was an ordinary Wednesday with family, Nonni served the pasta along with the entrée. A huge bowl of salad sat within easy reach for those who wished to partake early.
'Did you miss the merry band of lunatics?' Eric asked next to Kate's ear.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Island of Last Resorts"
Copyright © 2019 Mary Ellis.
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.
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