Merry’s career as a New York City stylist has crumbled, but her passion for muffins has helped her rise upstate in Autumn Vale. Everyone in town loves the tasty treats. Still, she would like to return to her glamorous life. Besides, the upkeep of Wynter Castle is expensive, and Merry’s cup isn’t exactly overflowing.
So in order to bring some prospective buyers into the mix, Merry whisks together a spooky soiree and decorates the castle with dashes of fabric and a sprinkling of spider webs. Friends new and old are invited, and everyone has a blast. But as the revelers empty out, Merry notices one partygoer who isn’t leaving—or breathing. Now Merry must hurry to unmask a killer before her perfect plans turn into a recipe for disaster…
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RIDLEY RIDGE. HOW had I lived a whole month and a half at Wynter Castle, my inherited digs near Autumn Vale in upstate New York, without visiting Ridley Ridge, the next closest town?
Just lucky, I guess.
And I, Merry Wynter, an almost-forty not-so-merry widow and apparent inheritor of a nineteenth-century mill baron’s castlelike home, would not be visiting the town again unless I had to. I looked up and down the windswept road—gray, drab buildings, litter on the streets, one person peeping out at me from between horizontal blinds—and shivered. The winds of October in upstate New York were upon us, and I was in Ridley Ridge because I had it on good authority that they had—wait for it—a party store in town. A party store. In the drabbest, saddest town I had ever seen. Who in their right mind would open a party store in Ridley Ridge? Did they also own a bikini shop in Anchorage? A liquor store in Salt Lake City?
Standing in a puddle of gum on the dirty sidewalk, I blew a puff of air through my pursed lips, wondering which way to go. I had not been able to confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt the existence of this party store. But Pish Lincoln, my New York friend who was living at the castle for the time being, had insisted that, if I wanted to sell Wynter Castle, I needed to introduce it to potential buyers, also known as his complete little black book of influential city dwellers.
We had a game plan. Halloween was coming up, so I would host a costume party; it would be a fun gala with lots of wine and music and many of his friends, acquaintances, and former business associates from that mythical land, my former home, New York City. Since Pish was a financial advisor—the successful kind, not one of the ones who had crashed and burned in the last decade—he knew people with a lot of money. I hoped that one of his clients would be interested in turning an authentic American castle into an inn, an event venue, or a retreat.
We weren’t counting on just Pish’s friends, though. As a former stylist to the occasional star and many more models, I too knew a fair number of folks, some wealthy and others loaded with connections. I desperately needed to sell Wynter Castle if I was to return to the city with money in my pocket.
The only problem with that bright and bubbly scenario was that I had already made friends in Autumn Vale. Jack McGill, the real estate agent who had been trying to sell the castle while I ignored the problem from New York for nine months, had managed to enchant and woo my quirky gypsy model friend Shilo Dinnegan. They were now a couple, and I would not have been surprised if wedding bells were in the works. I had become fast friends with Gogi Grace, the owner of a local retirement home, and one of her residents, oddball oldster Doc. Most special of all, I had made friends with Hannah, the librarian.
I had even made friends with Binny Turner, though her brother, Tom Turner, had been murdered on my property a couple of days after I arrived. At first she’d thought I was involved, but that suspicion didn’t last and was completely eradicated when I found Binny’s frightened father, then connected Binny with Lizzie, a local teenager I had befriended, who had turned out to be Tom’s unacknowledged daughter. If that seems like a busy month or so, it certainly had been. I was just supposed to be at Wynter Castle long enough to fix it up to sell, but with each new friend made, I realized how difficult it would be parting from them all when I had to leave.
I sighed and looked around. None of this musing was helping me a bit now, on the lonely streets of Ridley Ridge. Could I perhaps find a friendly local to guide me, or was that an oxymoron in this place? The blind twitched again and I realized I must look suspicious just standing in the middle of the sidewalk gawking like a lost tourist. The scenario did feel suspiciously like the opening of a suspense movie of the week, the kind where a lone woman goes missing and is in peril for the two hours until she is finally rescued or found dead just before the credits roll. I glanced over at the café; there was a blinking pen sign in the window. Being naturally bright, I surmised that the O had died, along with any semblance of hope in this town. But coffee shops are always a good source of information.
If only Shilo had come with me, or Pish; but no, they were both too busy. Ever since we had unsuccessfully tried to decode my eccentric late uncle’s scavenger hunt, concealed in a code in Becket the cat’s tag, they had been whispering and laughing together a lot, and I had a feeling those two were coming up with some gag that would explode over my poor, unsuspecting head at some point in the next week or so.
Ah well, it would be a welcome break from worry. Worry about money. Worry about selling the castle. Worry about Cranston Higgins, and yes, that was the real name of a person, a fellow who had shown up two weeks before. He had rung the sonorous bell on the big oak doors, apologetically claiming to be a rightful co-inheritor of Wynter Castle. It’s a long story, and I’ll get to that soon.
I opened the door to the café, expecting the fragrant scent of java and donuts to wash over me. Instead, all I smelled was burnt coffee, old grease, and apathy. A chubby waitress looked up from her cell phone, on which she was busy thumbing a text, no doubt saying, Help me get out of the hell that is Ridley Ridge! One customer sat in a booth, his head down on the tabletop. Drunk? Asleep?
Dead? The fact that I considered that a real possibility shows you the depth of my loathing of the town so far.
“Hi,” I said, crossing the gummy floor, shoes sticking at every step. “I’m looking for the Ridge Gift and Party Stop.”
She stared at me for a long moment, smudgy eyes wide. “The Party Stop?”
I bit back my first instinct, which was to check for an echo. “Yes.”
She gulped and said, “Well, you go down Ash to Birch, left on Birch to Danver. It’s on the corner. You sure you want to go to the Party Stop?”
“Yes, I’m sure!” I said, uneasily. “Why?”
“Oh . . . no reason.”
“Okay, then. Thank you so much.” As she again began madly texting, I pried my gummy foot off the floor and left. Outside, I found the car—I had handed in the rental that was costing me several limbs a month and was using Shilo’s quirky rattletrap she had named Jezebel for some unfathomable reason—and followed the waitress’s directions to an unpromising semi-industrial section of town, more weed infested and lonely than I had expected. In fact, the Ridge Gift and Party Stop sign was peeling and pitted with random buckshot, and I wondered if the place was truly open. The parking lot in front was empty, so I pulled in, turning the car around and pointing it toward the road in case I needed a quick getaway. I turned the motor off. It didn’t rattle as it died, which in this case was not reassuring. Rattling and groaning were the car’s primary signs of life.
I got out and slammed the door. The car sighed and huddled where it sat, with a final murmur of worry. I sympathized; I was not reassured by the store’s appearance either. The Party Stop looked like a warehouse, a big, sagging barn of a building constructed of concrete and corrugated steel. Weeds, withered now in the chill embrace of autumn, grew from the foundation. There were no windows on the front, only a fireproof metal door with store hours posted. If the sign was to believed, the store was open for business.
“In for a penny,” I murmured, striding up to the steel door and jerking it open. The place was cavernous and looked deserted. Ah, we were still in the first act of our movie of the week, Losing Merry, wherein the heroine of the piece walks into trouble, not heeding the ominous scritch of a violin bow being drawn harshly over the strings. At least if I disappeared, the waitress at the café would remember where I had been going. I hoped. Maybe she’d text another Help me on my behalf.
It was the party shop I had been told about, I supposed, and had the requisite Halloween decorations, which did not make it look any more reassuring. Plastic gravestones and webby ghosts, mummies and spiders plastered around a metal detector entrance do not make for a cheery “come and spend” welcome. Even weirder, though, was the echoed whispering I heard from somewhere. Did I mention the place was cavernous? It had thirty-foot ceilings with dusty light fixtures up in the rafters that some bright fellow had supplied with twenty-five-watt yellow bug bulbs.
We were moving from suspense to horror, I decided. As I advanced, I was reminded of that scene in every slasher movie where the stupid girl keeps going forward, even when the ominous soundtrack is getting louder and more insistent. Everyone in the theater is saying, Don’t do it, but she keeps just bumbling along, saying, Hello?
“Hello?” My voice echoed . . . no, really! It did. Hello . . . ello . . . ello.
There was a rustling sound, and movement. Along one of the cramped, dimly lit aisles came a figure, and it turned out to be . . . a completely ordinary looking guy, mid-thirties, slim, glasses, beard, and a smile, an out-of-place hipster dude. “Hi, there,” he said as he advanced toward where I stood, near a cluttered customer service counter that was jammed with boxes of bubble gum and playing cards, fake poop and hand buzzers, the kind of jokey junk you find at gag shops. “Les Urquhart at your service.” He slipped behind the cash desk where a copy of Moby-Dick was overturned and a half-drunk cup of coffee cooled by the cash register.
With a sigh of relief, I smiled, reassured by his normalcy. “Hey, hi. I was beginning to think it was a ghost shop.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know, I heard whispers when I couldn’t see anyone.”
He just stared at me. “Uh, there were no whispers. No one else is here.”
I thought he was joking for a moment, but he seemed serious. I glanced around the place and said, “It’s a little gloomy in here. Is that on purpose?”
“I like to save on electricity. Times ain’t exactly blooming,” he said with a wry grin. “So what can I do for you?”
“I’m throwing a kind of fallish Halloweenish party at Wynter Castle.”
He started. “The Wynter Castle?” he blurted out.
“Have you heard of it?”
He paused, scruffing his goatee, then said, “Well, yeah! Everybody has. Last fall a bunch of kids from town got together and took a tour out there to see if it was haunted. That was about the time the old man who owned it got killed, right?”
“He actually died a little after that, in November, and it was a car accident,” I said, not mentioning that it had been murder and that the person responsible, Dinah Hooper, was now languishing in a federal prison awaiting trial. Too much detail. “That was my Uncle Melvyn.”
“Sorry. No offense intended.”
“None taken. The castle isn’t haunted, by the way, just in case you hear of anyone intending any more midnight rides. I’ve been living there over a month, and I haven’t heard anything. Anyway, I’m looking to decorate on the cheap and I’m hoping you can help me. I need a lot of stuff, but I don’t want to make it scary Halloween: no skeletons, no zombies, no mummies. I’m looking to do more Phantom of the Opera retro cool, you know?”
“So, not kiddy Halloween, more Count Dracula’s castle from an old movie?”
“Only not quite so kitschy. Kind of kitsch lite,” I said. I jumped and whirled around when I heard something at the back fall with a huge clatter. “What was that?”
“Nothing important. Happens all the time here, stuff falling over. It’s just storage back there.” He smiled, and I got the feeling he was enjoying my jumpiness. “Your castle may not be haunted, but this warehouse is. So let’s get started,” he said, clapping his hands together and rubbing them, perhaps at the anticipation of some actual business.
He led me past a section labeled Costumes for Rent, and then past racks and racks of commercial costumes for sale: French maids, saloon girls, zombies, and such. In half an hour he had me back at the checkout with bags of spider webbing, bolts of maroon and gold fabric to drape down the stairway, a little bit of kitschy Halloween junk, and the promise of more to come, if I so wished. Next time maybe I’d send Pish and Shilo. That would keep them busy for a few hours, which would be a blessing. As much as I love my friends, together they have the energy and imagination of a class full of kindergartners.
“Thanks so much, Les,” I said, holding out my hand. We shook. “Would you like to come out for the party? I’m planning to have some locals there, as well as a lot of out-of-towners.”
“Doesn’t sound like my thing,” he said.
“There will be girls,” I said, eying him with raised eyebrows. “In costumes. Some probably skimpy.” Why was I trying to lure him to come? I guess I just thought the more variety the better. A party isn’t a party without a lot of people to mingle.
“Maybe I will, then!” he said.
There was another crash, and I eyed him with interest. He had blinked, but that was all, but I could tell he wanted to go back there. I wondered if the back of his store was the local pot stop. I knew from my not-too-lengthy experience that there’s one in every small town, a place where all the teenagers and stoners know to go to get an ounce for a party or a kilo to sell. I stood for another moment.
“Well, have a good day,” he said, fidgeting and yet resolutely not glancing behind him.
I chuckled. “You, too. Hope business gets better.” Pot dealing would explain how he was able to survive with such a dusty, dingy shop in a town like Ridley Ridge.
I drove away, out of town, down the highway, and took a detour back through Autumn Vale. As I tootled through town, I waved at Doc English, the old dude who had been a friend of my uncle’s from way back. Today the eccentric doctor was dressed in a camouflage jacket and pith helmet—for him that was just another clothing option in an endless line of weird outfits. I did not want to know where he got his array of headwear; in fact, I existed in blissful ignorance. It was one of the mysteries of life in Autumn Vale, a town considerably cheerier than Ridley Ridge, if just as weird in its own way
I was tempted to stop at Janice Grover’s store, Crazy Lady Antiques and Collectibles, to see if she had anything new, but there was no guarantee she would be there, since her Main Street shop full of junk was only the beginning of her horde. She rented a vast warehouse on the edge of town, where, among other things, she had garden furniture and statuary, some of which I had already bought for use at Wynter Castle. She also had some wrought iron stuff I was trying to figure out a use for. I had taken photos of it all and would decide in the next couple of days. I already had dibs on an oak casket for the main hall to present the proper Halloween feel. I was only borrowing the coffin and hoped I wouldn’t need it anytime soon. Though I didn’t want a traditional Halloween feel for the party, it was a masquerade ball, so the coffin was my nod to the season.
I drove back out of town, taking the ascending road up out of the valley that gave Autumn Vale its name. A car rocketed toward and then past me, and ahead I saw Virgil Grace just getting back into his police car. Virgil is the sheriff of Autumn Vale. I’m not exactly sure of his age, but I fear he’s a little younger than me, and despite my attraction to him—he is a good-looking man—I won’t be pursuing that particular relationship for a number of reasons.
I’m a widow of over seven years, but there will never be anyone for me after Miguel. Once you’ve been loved by a man like that, there is no use trying second best. I only had two years with my husband, who was a fashion photographer, but it was two years of a bond so close I still feel him with me. I went back to my maiden name after his death only because his mother, who never liked me anyway, asked me to. She blamed me for his death, even though I wasn’t with him on the day he was killed in a car accident on his way to a shoot.
I pulled up alongside Virgil’s car and rolled down my window. “Hey, who was that? Did you have them stopped?”
“Yeah, routine traffic stop. Some weird out-of-towner with frizzy bleached blonde hair and strange clothes. Told her to stop driving so fast on gravel roads if she’s not used to them. I was actually just coming from the castle—delivered some papers to Pish. The Feds are still roaming around AVCB and see fit to use me as their messenger.”
AVCB is what locals call Autumn Vale Community Bank; after the debacle with Dinah Hooper, Isadore Openshaw, and the mismanagement of Simon Grover, the Feds had swooped in to see if there was just negligence or actual malfeasance. Pish, a financier of some repute, was helping them with the aim of keeping the local bank open for the citizens of Autumn Vale. It was complicated and tedious, both things Pish relished.
“Fun for you,” I said, with sympathy. “So you stopped the girl for speeding. Weird place to be driving if you don’t know the area, don’t you think? A backwoods road like this?”
“She’s just passing through. I warned her about her speed and a brake light that wasn’t working and that was it.”
He eyed Shilo’s decrepit car, and I ignored his cocked eyebrow . . . it was a game we were both used to by now. It was cheaper to pay the tickets than fix the car and he knew it. Eventually we would come to an impasse where he wouldn’t ignore the problems with Shilo’s bucket, and when that time came, we’d have to do something.
“So, Virgil, are you coming to the party?” He had waffled a bit about it, but his mom, Gogi Grace, with whom I had become fast friends, was coming.
“Mom wants me to. I probably will. No dead bodies, right?” he said, eyes narrowed. “No Halloween crap like that?”
“It’s not that kind of a party,” I assured him, crossing my fingers because of the planned presence of the casket and a mannequin inside it. “We won’t be going with a graveyard theme or have a haunted house or anything.” Mostly, anyway.
“Okay. I’ll have to see if I’m busy that night.”
He presided over a very small police force of three other full-time and two part-time officers that patrolled a large township, so he wasn’t being coy; even in his off hours he was on duty. Still, his caginess was annoying. His radio crackled to life, and he responded, then waved and headed off toward town.
“Don’t do me any favors, buddy,” I muttered. It was strange; the very first time I’d met him he had outright flirted with me, but ever since he had kept his distance. But I wasn’t bothered by that, not one little bit.
Okay, maybe a little.
I drove on, rounding a bend in the road that was closed in on either side by pine forests. I then passed the stake that demarcated the beginning of my property, where it met the road. At first I had needed that indication to know where I was, but now I noticed the subtle change in trees; Wynter Castle had a wonderful forest that was actually a fifty-year-old arboretum planned and planted by my uncle. I turned into the lane that wound through the forest, then came out into the open and caught my first sight of Wynter Castle. It never failed to take my breath away, and with the improvements I had made, in a good way.
It’s a real castle, built in the early nineteenth century by my mill-baron ancestor. The stone was quarried locally, a mellow cream, gold-and-gray granite that picked up the sun’s rays and looked warm and inviting even on a chilly October day. There were three vehicles already there, and I groaned. It wasn’t Jack McGill’s Smart car with the Autumn Vale Realty sign on the side, nor the mower tractor that indicated that Zeke and Gordy, two local lads I hired to do exterior maintenance, were working that caused me to groan. It was the rented car parked haphazardly that told me Cranston Higgins was on-site.
CRANSTON HIGGINS. HE was a nice enough guy in his way, well mannered and jovial. Obliging, even. But he was not only trying to horn in on my inheritance, claiming he was the long-lost grandson of my uncle Melvyn, but he was constantly, cheerfully in my way. Some people manage to be quietly helpful, but Cranston wouldn’t have known quietly if it had slapped him across the cheek and called him daddy. He wanted to help, he said, but all I heard when he said that was that he wanted to keep his eye on the prize, to be sure we got top dollar for “our” inheritance. I was doing my best to keep it all in perspective until I figured out what to do about him.
I spotted Cranston directing Zeke and Gordy. Wynter Castle is big enough, but not Highclere or Windsor Castle huge. It’s a more manageable American-sized castle, thank goodness, and has an amazing gothic arched window directly above the huge double oak doors that illuminates the great entrance hall. Ivy had grown up over the years and obscured the light, and the window was filthy. I had asked Zeke and Gordy to clear away the ivy while leaving the vines not directly on the window alone; the ivy added character to the castle and possibly hid other problems that might be revealed if the plant matter was torn away. They were then supposed to clean the glass. I hoped the ivy removal and glass cleaning would not only flood the great hall with light, but also illuminate the rose window that’s on the opposite wall over the double staircase. The rose window is amazing, a gorgeous rose-and-blue stained glass masterpiece.
Zeke and Gordy, up on matching twenty-foot ladders I had borrowed from Turner Construction, knew what to do . . . I hoped. They had assured me they did. I had even written out the instructions to be absolutely clear: Tear ivy from window only, then clean window! That was clear, right? I certainly didn’t need Cranston giving them conflicting directions. Heaven knows they could make up enough conflicting instructions between them to hopelessly confuse the matter. Cranston was trying to get them to pull all of the ivy down; he wanted it “clean and tidy,” he yelped up at the pair. Zeke, bless his heart, was arguing that I had been very specific, even while Gordy began to obey.
“No! Leave it alone,” I hollered at Gordy as I stormed across the parking area, some of my bagged goodies in my arms. “Cranston, as much as I know you’re trying to help, please don’t!”
All three men gazed at me with wide, unblinking stares. I am accustomed to that. I am normally a soft-spoken woman, and that lulls people into thinking I’m a pushover. I’m not. Gordy and Zeke went back to the task at hand, which, since they had finished removing the ivy covering the window, was now to wash said window with long-handled squeegees. Cranston, my round-faced, doughy possible cousin, just stood regarding me much as he might a pretty puppy that had bitten his hand, leaving him with a gash long enough to need stitches.
“Well, okay, Merry,” Cranston said with a disappointed frown. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his corduroy sports jacket. “If you think the ivy is okay, then we can leave it in place for now. But I heard that ivy has little roots that get into mortar and could make our castle crumble eventually.”
I smiled evenly, trying to ignore his use of we and our in the context of the castle, and said, “When it falls down around our ears in a couple hundred years, I’ll be sure to let you say, ‘I told you so’ as much as you want.”
As we watched the boys work, he began a long story about his past life in Buffalo with his beloved Granny Violet. Whenever Cranston started to drone, I drifted off.
I was of two minds regarding Cranston Higgins’s claim to being a Wynter by birth, if not by name. Skepticism comes naturally to me, so my first thought was: Con artist, grifter, fake! I was not going to be taken, and I was a little tired of being told I must not be taken in by the well-meaning folks around me. My theory is, if you are suspicious of someone, it’s wise to be kind and lovely to them so they’ll be lulled into a false sense of confidence and expose themselves at some point. It also gives you time to do some background checks. From what I had discovered so far, Cranston Higgins had indeed lived in Buffalo for most of his life, attended the schools he said he had attended, and lived where he said he had lived.
Cranston had never once asked me outright for money, just for a portion of the estate if he could prove his claim. I was keeping things polite and pleasant while we sorted it out. Melvyn, my great uncle, had apparently had a sweetheart named Violet round about 1940. He would have been in his late teens, fresh out of high school, when he enlisted in the army in ’42, after Pearl Harbor. When he headed off to basic training, there was apparently some kind of rift between them, and though she was pregnant, she never told him. She married some other fellow and moved away, but years later, just before she passed on, she told her grandson about his Wynter heritage and the castle his biological grandfather lived in.
He had a few photos of him with his granny as he grew up and in later years, but the one thing he had that connected him to the Wynter estate was an old gold-colored locket with her picture in it as a young woman. It was engraved Forever Yours, Mel.
I wouldn’t even be giving him the time of day except that Doc English, one of the few old enough to remember the old days and a great friend of my Uncle Melvyn, agreed that Melvyn had been going with a girl named Violet and that she married a fellow and moved away very soon after he and my uncle left for the war. So the tale could be true. If she had been pregnant with Melvyn’s baby but they argued and broke it off, she may have felt she had no recourse but to marry a nice 4-F fellow and raise the baby as his, rather than endure the shame of being an unwed mother in 1942.
Andrew Silvio, the estate lawyer, said he had never heard of another descendant. We could just let Cranston take us to court, the lawyer told me, but he warned that if that happened, the fight would be long and I might end up with nothing in the end even if I won, because legal fees could eat up the estate. He urged me to offer the guy a settlement to walk away. But in my gut I believed that if Melvyn had known he had a grandson, he might have handed the whole estate over to his closer male heir. Cranston just wanted half, which he said was only fair.
However, I wasn’t going to just hand half the estate over to him. I needed some ironclad proof. I asked Cranston if he was willing to do DNA testing, and he agreed. That took me aback. If he was a grifter, wouldn’t he kick up a fuss, knowing the DNA wouldn’t match? Silvio didn’t want me to do the DNA test. What if it came back positive? Then I would definitely be in for a court battle, because despite what he said right now, Cranston might sue for the whole estate, and he’d have a case. Melvyn’s stated wish—everyone in town knew about it—was to keep the castle in the family. My expressed intent to sell could be used against me, though I would argue the same would go for Cranston.
It was complicated. If Cranston and I were related, we’d be second cousins, or something like that. I didn’t have any relatives that I knew of, since I was an only child and both my parents were gone. It would have been kind of cool to have a cousin, but on the other hand, I could go from being owner of the estate to maybe visiting there occasionally. And the trouble with that was, I was beginning to like Autumn Vale and its inhabitants.
So we hadn’t done the DNA test yet, but I was leaning toward it. If Cranston ended up with the whole shebang, then that was how it was meant to be, and I’d find a way to make a fresh start. Maybe I’d move to California and become a stylist to the stars, I thought, in my more flippant moods. I just didn’t know which way I wanted to handle it yet.
It was possible that the decision would be yanked out of my hands, though, because Cranston was starting to insist. That made me lean toward the idea that, true or not, he at least believed he was the grandson of Melvyn Wynter. Silvio still thought I should just offer the guy a settlement. If he had any doubts about his granny’s story, he might take it, since at least he’d walk away with something. But exactly what could a muffin-baking former stylist and one-time assistant to a diva model who was as broke as a dollar-store watch offer as compensation? I had no real money. My only asset was the castle, which would not be liquid until it was sold.
I came back down to earth with a thud, aware that the bags were starting to get heavy and Cranston showed no sign of stopping. He was talking about the great Buffalo, New York, snowstorm of 1977, when he had been just a little guy. “I bounced out of the house and straight into a drift so high it came up to my eyebrows!”
I sighed, shifting the bags. “In case you hadn’t noticed, Cranston, I am loaded down and there’s more in the car. You can stand there and talk, or you can give me a hand.” I trudged into the castle and attempted to slam the door, but no dice. Heavy doors like the double oak ones that lead into the great hall do not slam; they swing majestically shut. I took a deep breath and sighed, letting it out gradually. The great hall always had a calming effect on me.
Gordy and Zeke’s work had already made a difference, because for the first time I could see into the corners of the enormous space, and the rose window opposite the big window over the doors was lit up nicely to show the gold and royal blue panes that offset the crimson and greens of the floral pattern. And now I could actually see the fabulous curved and carved ceiling, with its ornate gold-painted plaster curlicues, the broad border painted with a rosy sunset sky with puffy clouds illuminated by a setting sun. The big, dusty tapestries were more visible, too, with their scenes of stag hunting, fruit sellers in marketplaces, and ladies sitting in gardens being wooed by medieval knights. Gorgeous. I smiled as I set the bags down and moved to the center of the great hall, under the majestic chandelier, letting the peace of the big space fill me, edging out the irritation Cranston had incited.
How had this happened to me? Just ten or so months ago I was doing my best to keep tyrannical model Leatrice Peugot happy. I had been a struggling stylist a couple of years before when she decided I was her savior. She offered me an insane wage, so I grabbed it like a large-mouth bass snapping at a wormy hook and soon found out that being her assistant meant active duty as her flogging girl, scapegoat, gofer, and everything in between, as well as taking over a starring role in the Leatrice Peugot drama The Reason Everything Goes Wrong in My Life. I dealt with it all as best I could for a while, muffin baking being my only outlet and link to sanity.
When Leatrice started stealing and scarfing them down in private, she gained a couple of ounces, which threatened her career as professional stick woman. It was my fault she kept filching them, apparently, and she was horribly angry. Angry Leatrice was volatile, like nitroglycerin in a room full of sugar-hyped toddlers. On rocking horses. With pellet guns. I took a lot of abuse before I figured out she was filching my muffins. I could handle her accusations that I was undermining her out of jealousy, but once she accused me of stealing a valuable necklace that had been loaned to her by Tiffany, I knew I had to leave. The police did not arrest me, but they filed a report in which I was named prominently. I don’t think anyone took it; I think she either lost it or pawned it.
I was in the middle of all of that when Andrew Silvio called me and told me the news; I was heir to the Wynter Estate, castle and all. It seems odd now, looking back, that I put off coming to Autumn Vale for so long, but I was desperate to right things in my life. I thought that meant staying in the city and dealing with my multitude of problems, among them suspicion from the police, Leatrice’s backstabbing, having no job, dwindling resources, and an industry poisoned against me by gossip and innuendo. I enlisted the help of Jack McGill, Autumn Vale’s only real estate agent, to put the castle on the market.
It didn’t sell, and finally I gave up trying to clear my name and deal with the crapstorm that was the web of lies Leatrice had woven. I left New York in the middle of the night with my worldly belongings in a rented sedan, leaving what didn’t fit in a storage unit in Manhattan, one that I had since cleared. Now everything I owned was around me in the castle, and it felt good.
Many of my problems had magically vanished the moment I left New York City. Industry gossip and Leatrice’s backstabbing became moot points once I was no longer confronted by former friends and allies at every event or club. I held fast to the knowledge that gossip dies and everyone would eventually move on to some new scandal.
“Merry, you home?” came a bright shout.
I smiled. I had left NYC alone, but I wasn’t on my own for long. In fact, my best friend, a model named Shilo Dinnegan—whose shout now welcomed me back to the castle—had followed, arriving just hours after me. Then, before long, my other best friend, dapper retired financier-to-the-stars Pish Lincoln, had arrived, anxious to see the castle for himself. Both were now staying at the castle with me.
“I’m ho-ome,” I sang back.
Cranston, Gordie, and Zeke came in the front door at that moment, loaded down with the rest of the stuff I had bought at the Party Stop, just as Shilo, trailed by a smiling Pish, came down the stairs to greet me. The resulting clash was tumultuous. Shilo threw herself at me with some complaint about something Pish wouldn’t let her do—I think it was paint her room fuchsia—and Cranston preened, telling Zeke and Gordy where to deposit the bags. Becket strolled into the great hall at that moment and began washing his butt; a cat can get away with that in polite society. I smiled happily. I was home.
Cranston futzed around for a while longer, then headed off to wherever he went when he left. For the first few days of our acquaintance he had hinted that he would love to stay at the castle, but I dug my heels in. Until I knew he was Melvyn’s grandson, I wasn’t going along with that. He was staying at some bed-and-breakfast or boarding house nearby, as far as I knew.
That evening Pish and Shilo told me some of what they had found up in the attic while I was slithering through Ridley Ridge. There was, according to Pish, an embarras de richesses. Shilo said she wasn’t embarrassed at all, and in fact thought all the riches were cool. There was no point in explaining what that meant to Shilo, and why would we bother? Not everyone needs to get every snobbish literary or classical reference.
There were oodles of furniture up there, as well as trunks and trunks of random goodies, they told me. While Shilo rhapsodized about the vintage clothing—she was toying with dressing as a flapper girl for the party—Pish was intrigued by what appeared to be boxes of financial records of the family dating back many years. While I couldn’t muster any excitement over those, I was interested to learn that there were old photo albums up there, too.
We spent the evening planning the party décor and the placement of the casket, which Zeke and Gordy were bringing to Wynter Castle on a flatbed truck that Gordy would borrow from his uncle, the farmer. The coffin, with a mannequin, was going to sit on a low table in the great hall and be the welcome to the castle; Pish was planning to rig up the sound system he was working on so some maniacal laughter would emanate from the half-open oak casket. That was as far as I wanted the décor to go in that direction, I reminded him. I did not want kiddie Halloween party gruesomeness or a funhouse atmosphere.
The alarm clock woke me the next morning just as a ray of autumn sunshine peeped past the drawn curtains. I rolled out of bed, groaning, “Time to make the muffins!” Mornings dawn early when you’ve promised four dozen muffins to an old-age home and another dozen to the local café. Muffins, my downfall in New York City, had proved to be my saving grace in Autumn Vale, New York. My temporary business, called The Merry Muffin for obvious reasons, was going great guns now that I had the castle kitchen vetted and licensed as a proper place in which to bake food for the masses.
I showered and snuck downstairs, trying not to awaken my friends, who were still on New York City time, where nothing gets going until ten AM. Or at least not in my circle. I let Becket out the door—he had his own mysterious catty business to take care of, I suppose—donned a hairnet and got to work, baking two dozen spice muffins, two dozen bran, one dozen carrot, and one dozen apple.
Since my stuff had come from storage, I had made myself comfortable in the kitchen, which boasted, thanks to my uncle’s ambition, an industrial-size oven and stovetop and stainless steel countertops worthy of any inn kitchen. Whatever holes there were in my equipment supply I had been able to fill from Janice’s junk store, so I even had industrial-size baking sheets for cookies and squares, which I had added to my repertoire.
The kitchen was a long room, and now had a cozy nook at one end where the fireplace was topped by a mantel adorned with oil lamps and the more rustic of my teapot collection. I was using what I could of my own stuff to mingle with all that had been left in the castle when I inherited it, which was a lot. The huge Eastlake-style furnishings—including a marble-topped maple sideboard in the dining room that was eight feet tall, which fit the grand size of the room—along with random samples of furniture from every era in American history, made the castle a warm environment, but it was my decorations that were bringing it to life. When I had time, I was going to work on the dining room, where a long oak dining table and a huge Eastlake china buffet were currently cluttered with the remainder of my rather large teapot collection.
I was just taking the last of the muffins out of the oven when Pish, looking spiffy and dressed for town, jogged into the kitchen and grabbed a cup of coffee. He was followed by Shilo, still wearing footie pajamas—charming on her: she’s twenty-nine but looks about ten years younger—and carrying Becket.
How had he gotten back in? “No cat in the kitchen,” I told her sternly, but she didn’t listen to me and set him down in one of the big armchairs near the fireplace.
“I have to go into town today, my darling dumpling,” Pish said, laying a kiss on my floury cheek. He grabbed an apple cinnamon muffin and perched on a stool by the distressed wood worktable.
I eyed the sport coat and sweater vest he wore and smiled. Pish can be flamboyant, his dialogue sprinkled with exaggerated emphasis and wild hand movements, but he buttons it down when need be, like while talking to the federal agents who were examining Autumn Vale Community Bank. He was working with them to try to uncover and minimize the damage done to the bank by the scheming Dinah Hooper, who now languished in a federal prison awaiting trial for the murders of Tom Turner and Melvyn Wynter. She had not been granted bail, as she was considered a flight risk.
I said she was a flight certainty, but then I had looked down the barrel of her rifle and survived. To say I was happy they were keeping her out of circulation would be a vast understatement. “I’m going in about twenty minutes,” I said. “Is that too early for you?”
“Not at all my dear. I’m going to see Isadore this morning before the bank.”
Isadore Openshaw, a former teller at the bank, had not been arrested—yet—and was cooperating with the federal agents. Pish felt sorry for Isadore, and I think she had become something of a pet project of his, the plan being to keep her out of trouble and reform her life. He told me that she reminded him of an aunt who had floated in and out of his life when he was a kid. That poor woman eventually died alone in a house overrun by cats, and he foresaw a future like that for Isadore if someone didn’t intervene. Given how unpleasant she could be, I wasn’t sure Pish was ever going to succeed, but his charm and good nature gave him a better chance at it than most.
“Will you invite her to the party?” I asked.
Shilo snorted. I turned to where she sat, curled up in a chair by the fire with Becket in her lap. “What’s up?” I asked her.
“I was trying to imagine what costume she’d come up with.”
I smiled, knowing that her laughter didn’t hold any malice. Isadore was peculiar in her dress. She tended toward homemade shifts sewn from fabric featuring frolicking cats or enthusiastic, bleary-eyed bunnies. She wore jewelry to match, dangling kitties or bunnies with carrots. “Maybe she’ll come wearing a Donna Karan skirt suit.”
Pish and I headed out twenty minutes later with six tubs of assorted muffins, most for Golden Acres and a few for the café. I dropped him off near Isadore’s home, the house she had inherited from her cousin. It was a gloomy little bungalow with a dark front porch that loomed on the house like a beetle brow. He had never yet been in the house, but I knew he would keep trying to befriend her. He’d find his own way on to the bank, then back to the castle, he told me, likely with Jack McGill, who would be making one of his daily trips out to see Shilo.
I then pulled up to Golden Acres and delivered the muffins to the back kitchen, where I had made fast friends with the sole, overworked cook. It was morning snack time in the parlor, so I joined the group and sat with Doc, who was drinking a cup of premium coffee he had filched from Gogi Grace’s private stock.
“It’s gonna close, you know it’s going to!” one old guy was stating loudly, shaking his cane at no one in particular.
“What are we complaining about today?” I asked Doc.
“Everyone’s afraid the bank is going under. That’s what happened in Ridley Ridge a few years back—to the community bank, that is . . . used to be the Ridley Ridge Savings and Loan—and look at that town now. Folks in Ridley Ridge, their mortgages have been sold to some big bank and they can’t get ahold of no one when they need to talk. Damned shame.”
I shuddered. “Was that town ever anything but a gloomy hole in the wall?”
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