The first in a brand-new series from New York Times bestselling author Sheila Connolly!
Katherine Hamilton’s goal in high school was to escape from her dead-end hometown of Asheboro, Maryland. Fifteen years later she’s got a degree in hospitality management and a great job at a high-end boutique hotel in Baltimore. Until, that is, the hotel is acquired by a chain, and she’s laid off. When Kate’s high school best friend calls with a mysterious invitation to come talk with the town leaders of Asheboro, she agrees to make the trip, curious about where this new opportunity might lead.
Once Kate arrives, the town council members reveal that their town is on the verge of going bankrupt, and they’ve decided that Kate’s skills and knowledge make her the perfect person to cure all their ills. The town has used its last available funds to buy the huge Victorian mansion just outside of town, hoping to use it to attract some of the tourists who travel to visit the nearby Civil War battle sites. Kate has less-than-fond memories of the mansion, for personal reasons, but to make matters worse, the only person who has presented a possible alternate plan is Cordelia WalkerKate’s high school nemesis.
But a few days later, while touring the mansion, Kate stumbles over a bodyand it’s none other than Cordelia. Kate finds herself juggling the murder investigation and her growing fascination with the old house, which itself is full of long-hidden mysteries. Kate must clear her name and save her townbefore she ends up in hot water.
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I stopped in the doorway of the second-floor restaurant at the Oriole Suites Hotel in Baltimore, where I'd worked for the past five years, looking for Lisbeth. She'd called out of the blue and asked to meet me for lunch, but she'd been very secretive about why, which led me to think it was more than just a "hey, how are you, what have you been doing for the past ten years?" kind of lunch. Still, we'd been good friends in high school then sort of drifted apart. As far as I knew, she'd stayed in Asheboro ever since, going to the local community college, marrying a local guy, having a couple of kids. Unlike me: I'd headed out of state for college and never looked back. Not that there was anything wrong with Asheboro, Maryland. It was a nice small town — with emphasis on the "small" — but I'd always had bigger plans. Most of what I knew about Asheboro now had come from holiday cards from the few people I'd kept in touch with, like Lisbeth.
She spotted me standing in the doorway and waved enthusiastically. I smiled and wove my way through the tables until I reached hers. When she'd called me, I'd made the reservation for us, and made sure there was a nice view of Baltimore Harbor. Working for the hotel had a few perks.
"Katie, you look great!" she exclaimed, standing and hugging me. "Love your outfit. But then, you work in a city, so I guess you have to look good. I had to dig into the back of my closet to find something to wear that wasn't jeans or sweats. I'm so glad you could meet with me!"
"It was great to hear from you," I told her, as we took our seats. "How long has it been?" "I think you came to Jeffrey's christening. He's eight now."
"Wow, that long? But since my folks moved to Florida, I haven't had much reason to visit Asheboro."
"They bailed out early, didn't they? What are they, fifty-something?"
"Yes. But they always figured they'd head south eventually, and they decided to go while they were still mobile enough to enjoy it. They didn't want to get stuck in one of those old-folks towers on the beach. They've got a nice small cottage that suits them, and I get to visit when I want."
"Sounds great!" Lisbeth said, although I sensed a false note in her voice. "Anything new with you? A guy? Or lady? Kids?"
"No to all of those," I told her, smiling. "I'm married to my job, and that's enough for me."
A waiter appeared. I smiled at him; I knew Tony pretty well, since I often dropped into the restaurant to pick up something to eat. He handed us menus, and we ordered iced tea.
"What's good here?" Lisbeth asked Tony, staring in awe at the multipage menu.
"If you want some local flavor, the crab cakes are great."
"Okay, I'll do those." She shut the menu with a firm slap and handed it to Tony. "How long have you been working at the hotel, Katie?"
"About five years. I don't remember when I last updated you, but you already know I went to college, worked for a while, decided I wanted to be in management so I got an MBA, worked at a big chain hotel in Philadelphia for a couple of years. Then this hotel opened up in Baltimore, and I snagged a really good job in administration, and here I am."
"I'm surprised you came back to Maryland," Lisbeth said. "Didn't you want to travel, see other places? Los Angeles? Chicago? London?"
"I thought about it, but this was too good a job to pass up and I was given a free hand, since the hotel was new."
Waiter Tony delivered the tea and slipped away again. "What exactly is it you do here?" Lisbeth asked.
Since I'd more or less created the position, it wasn't easy to explain. "A little of everything. I'm in charge of customer satisfaction. I know, that sounds vague, but it's kind of a catch-all job about making sure that everything goes smoothly. No, more than that, really: that everything is comfortable but memorable. Appearance, cleanliness, responsiveness of the staff, even the quality of the food and the polish on the silverware and glassware. We want people to go home talking about this place, sending their friends here, coming back themselves."
"You always were a little OCD," Lisbeth said. When I looked startled, she spoke quickly to explain. "In a good way, of course. I mean, you were always really well organized. You turned in your assignments on real paper, not just something torn out of a notebook. You always spell-checked everything twice. When we were on the soccer team, you always knew all the rules, and you even argued with the refs now and then. Now you just do it on a much bigger scale. I mean, you've got a whole hotel here!"
Had Lisbeth really seen me that way, years ago? "Yes, but you can still break it down into smaller tasks, like service staff, restaurant, website, reservations, and so on. I won't bore you with it all. What about you? What have you been doing?"
Tony brought our lunch dishes and refilled our water glasses, then disappeared discreetly once again. While we ate Lisbeth nattered on about her husband, and her kids, and how smart they were (all of them), and how wonderful, and what a busy life she led — what with the PTA and the annual school fund drive, and her daughter's Brownie troop and her son's softball team. I listened with half an ear and tried to summon up my memories of Asheboro: small town, one main street, one stoplight in the center. Surrounded by pretty rolling country (although for all I knew it was nothing but strip malls now) and near a lot of Civil War battlefields, but most history buffs just passed right through, since there was no reason to stop in town. One elementary school, ending with eighth grade, and one high school — or maybe now there was a regional high school — I wasn't exactly on their email list for updates. One old factory that had been closed since long before we were born. Maybe it had fallen down by now. Parents had warned us to stay away from it, but there were always a few guys who couldn't resist a dare. Yet I couldn't recall that anybody had ever gotten hurt there. I had no recollection of what the old factory had made.
My hometown was sounding really dull, even to me — and I'd been more or less happy growing up there. So I hurried to recall a few good points: no violence, no poverty, no pollution. It was a safe, quiet town, like so many others. It was also a place I hadn't wanted to stay, but that didn't mean that good people didn't go on living happy lives there. People like Lisbeth, who seemed to have thrived in that setting.
I noticed that Lisbeth kept darting nervous glances as me. Did she have another motive that she hadn't mentioned? "So, what brings you to Baltimore, Lisbeth? Don't tell me it's just to have lunch with me and catch up. Are you leaving your husband? Looking for a job?"
She giggled nervously. "No, no, nothing like that. Phil and I are fine. He's got a great job. The kids are healthy and happy. I keep busy with volunteering, like I told you, and we're doing okay financially."
She wasn't answering my question, so I pressed on. "You wanted a mini-vacation? Come on, Lisbeth, there's something you aren't saying. Isn't there?"
She sighed and looked out at the sparkling harbor, the clusters of people passing by, the boats on the water — anywhere but at me. "I have a favor to ask. Or we do. And it's a big one."
We? "You mean, you and Phil? And what's big?"
"No, actually, I mean the town." She took a deep breath. "We want you to save Asheboro."
Well, that was something I didn't expect to hear. "What on earth do you mean?"
"It's kind of complicated. You have time?"
"After a request like that, I'll make time. Start at the beginning."
Tony appeared again. "Would you ladies care for anything else?"
"Just coffee for me, please," Lisbeth told him. I asked for coffee too, but I also requested one of the petit fours plates to share for dessert. The restaurant had a great chef and baking staff, and I'd asked that they create a plate of small bites for those patrons who didn't want anything heavy to end their meal. It had proved very popular, even for people requesting room service, and I was proud of it. Attention to detail in the hospitality business was important.
My mind was wandering. Was I stalling for time? Lisbeth was staring at me with an odd expression on her face, but she stayed silent until Tony reappeared with the pretty platter of goodies and set it carefully between us, then retrieved the polished coffee carafe and filled our cups. Then he retreated silently.
I looked her straight in the eye. "Have a strawberry tartlet and then tell me what the heck is going on, Lisbeth."
She reached tentatively for the silver-dollar-size pastry and took a bite — and smiled. "Ooh, this is good."
"I know it is. What is it you want me to do?"
Lisbeth finished the tartlet with a second bite. "I'm what I guess you'd call an emissary, although I was the one who brought your name up, and volunteered to come talk to you. When was the last time you visited Asheboro?"
I had to stop and think. "I know I was there to help my folks pack for the move — that must have been at least three years ago. Other than that I have no reason to go back. I haven't been to a high school reunion. Why?"
"You heard about that big storm a couple of weeks ago?"
"I saw it on the news, but they didn't mention Asheboro." Now she was beginning to worry me. "Was the town in its path?"
"No, not directly, but close enough. There was a lot of damage, mostly superficial rather than structural. You know, high winds blowing shingles off, or siding. But a lot of people had been putting off fixing things the past few years, so things were loose, you know? And people, mainly the store owners, were cutting back on their insurance, because it just cost too much. They may not be able to make all the repairs they'd like to, so they might just pack up and go somewhere else."
I still didn't see where I fit in this. "Can't the town help? There must be some municipal funds for emergencies."
"Well, yes, there would be, normally. But ... you remember the old Barton place, outside of town?"
"Sort of. Did it blow down?"
"No, not at all. It was built to last. You probably don't remember the history of the place. It was built by some Civil War veteran who moved to Asheboro and made a mint with the factory in town, and poured most of it into making his house as grand as he could. But he never had kids, so when he died, nobody inherited. He created a trust to support it until a buyer came along, and the bank has been managing it ever since. But they couldn't manage to sell it — too big, too expensive, too far out of town, who knows what. So that's where things rested for quite a while. More than a century, actually."
"So what's that got to do with anything?"
Lisbeth helped herself to another pastry. "Well, last year a member of our town council proposed that the town buy it from the bank and turn it into something useful. She was really enthusiastic, not to mention persuasive, so she sold the rest of the council on the idea. The bank was happy to go along with it to get it off their books, so they expedited the paperwork and set a really reasonable price on it, and the town bought the place outright. Which used up whatever surplus money we had. If it's used for any commercial purpose, the town will get some of that back, in taxes, but right now our account is just about empty, so we can't help the businesses in town."
"Ambitious," I said, nodding, "but not a bad idea, if they can turn the place around. Which of course does not solve your immediate problem."
"It gets worse," Lisbeth said. "Turns out that board member had her own ideas for what to do with it, but when she laid them out to the board, after the purchase had been voted on by the town and the title had been transferred, they pitched a fit and voted her idea down. She's royally pissed off. But nobody's got a better idea."
"Buyer's remorse, probably. And that's where you think I come in?"
Lisbeth nodded. "Yes. You're in the hotel business. You know how to run things. You know how to fix things up and make people want to visit them, like you said. We thought maybe you could come spend a little time in Asheboro and maybe come up with some new ideas?" Lisbeth looked at me like an eager puppy.
Obviously if the town had no money, there wouldn't be anything like a consulting fee in it for me. Did I really want to bail out a place I had deliberately left behind? Could I even do it? From Lisbeth's very brief description of the issues, nobody had any money to throw at the problem — and it was pretty clear that it would take money. And nobody had a clue which way to go. As I remembered the town, there really wasn't much there, and no way to dress it up — and that had been before this storm had swept through. I had to admit I had barely seen the Barton mansion, because it was surrounded by a substantial piece of property that kept it invisible from the roads. But if in fact it had been sitting more or less empty for decades, there had to be some major problems with it, didn't there? Even if it was gorgeous, could it be brought back?
"Say something. Please?" Lisbeth begged. "We're at the end of our rope, and you're our last resort. I wouldn't have come to see you if there was any other way out of this mess."
I thought about it for a moment. While I could see plenty of pitfalls, this project in Asheboro sounded like a real challenge. If I looked around and saw there was no hope for the town, I could tell them as much and walk away. Couldn't I? What the heck — why not?
"All right. But I have to see what's going on — what kind of damage the town has suffered, and what kind of shape that Barton place is in. Maybe talk to some of your town council. Will people be around if I come down this weekend?"
Lisbeth looked like the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders. "Of course! I'll make sure they are." She grabbed another pastry and ate half of it in a bite, beaming all the while. "We'll set up a meeting for you."
"Don't get too worked up about it, Lisbeth — I'm not promising anything. But I'll look things over and tell you what I think can be done. Or if it's hopeless."
"That's all I can ask. Thank you, Katie. You're a lifesaver."
"Don't say that until after I've looked at things." I glanced at my watch. "Look, I've got a meeting at two and a foot-high stack of paperwork on my desk. But how about I drive over on Saturday and you can show me around and connect me with the people I need to talk to?"
"Perfect. Thank you so, so much, Katie!"
"I go by Kate, mostly, these days."
"Oh, right, of course. But I'll always remember you as Katie."
I wondered just what I had let myself in for. Bailing out my old hometown? Yeah, right. But it was worth taking a look, if only to help an old friend. I hoped.CHAPTER 2
At the end of the day I headed back to my condo on the fringes of the city, and I found a message from my boss, George, on my answering machine. That was odd, since I'd been in the office all day except for my lunch with Lisbeth, and I was pretty sure he'd been somewhere in the hotel as well. In the message he asked to meet me early the next morning when I came in, but didn't leave any explanation. George and I got along well so I hoped it might be good news. I'd have to wait and see.
The next morning I was in my office at Oriole Suites early, in advance of the meeting with my boss. I still had no idea what it was about: as far as I knew, everything was going smoothly, and our stats looked good. A few minutes ahead of schedule I presented myself to George's executive assistant, who said quickly, "He's expecting you. Go on in." Then she looked away.
"Good morning, George," I greeted him as I walked in. "Is this about the refurbishment of the penthouse?"
"Sit, please, Kate," he said, his expression somber. He sat back in his chair and steepled his hands. "We've worked together for some time now, so I'll get right to the point: this hotel has been bought out by a Japanese conglomerate, one that owns quite a few hotels in multiple countries. As a business acquisition, it makes a lot of sense."
I hadn't seen that coming. I felt gut-punched. "And?"
"They want to bring in their own management team to run the hotel. They've decided that I'd be redundant, so I've been let go."
"Oh, George, I'm so sorry to hear that. You've done a great job here." I knew that for a fact: the hotel was running like a well-oiled machine, and bookings and profits had been up for the past two years. Which was probably why it had been a tempting target for a buyer. I sat back and waited for the other shoe to drop, because I was pretty sure there had to be one.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder at the Mansion"
Copyright © 2018 Sheila Connolly.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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