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"The estate looks elegant and the food tastes superb, but the book is trash," Larry Hardisty announced.
"Not so loud, Larry." Standing next to him at the buffet table, Nina Foster pressed a finger to her lips. "You might hurt Zelma's feelings. You know how sensitive some authors are about their work." She nodded across the lawn to where Zelma Duke chatted with a group of fans. The author of My Restless Heart, Zelma was the honored guest at tonight's party.
Larry helped himself to a cracker topped with smoked salmon. "Sorry, madam librarian, but I doubt Zelma gives a hoot what I think." He ate the appetizer and then adjusted his black-framed eyeglasses. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll browse the Bottses' famed art collection and catch up with you later."
"All right. We'll sit together for Zelma's reading."
Larry twisted his lips into a grimace. "A reading? Yikes. I don't know if I can survive all that purple prose." He turned and headed toward the two-story home.
Nina sighed and slowly shook her head. Larry was her assistant at the Seaview Library in Richmond, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. Although they got along well, at times like tonight, his highbrow attitude grated.
He was right about the elegant estate, though. Perched atop a cliff overlooking Puget Sound and built in the early 1900s by a timber baron, the home's stone structure, mullioned windows, and stout chimneys spoke of old money and societal position.
New money owned the property now. A few years ago, Elizabeth and Burgess Botts, who operated a chain of import shops, claimed the home and its forested environs, dubbing it "Bottswood."
Moving away from the buffet table, Nina plucked a glass of bubbling champagne from a passing waiter's tray. Tonight's June evening was perfect for Zelma's party. The temperature hovered in the low seventies, and the sun lingered in a cloudless sky like an old friend who didn't want to say good-bye.
Sipping her drink, she strolled to the table stacked with copies of My Restless Heart. The book cover featured a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums tied with a scarlet ribbon. She wasn't sure what the flowers had to do with the story, but they certainly caught the eye. Zelma had proudly told her this hardcover book was her "break-out" book, designed to appeal to a larger audience than her previous romance paperbacks.
Dorothy Quinn joined Nina. In her sixties, Dorothy was a member of Literary Lights, a book discussion group that met at the library.
"I suppose you're buying multiple copies of, uh, what is this book's title?" Dorothy peered through her glasses at the books.
Nina nodded. "My Restless Heart." Our head office bought several for every branch. But you could always buy your own here and have it autographed."
Dorothy sniffed. "I think I'll pass. This book isn't suitable for our group. We came to see Bottswood. The estate is quite grand, isn't it?" She waved a hand at the surroundings.
"Yes. I especially love the view of the sound."
Dorothy leaned to look over Nina's shoulder. "Oh, there's Myrtle Davis. I need to speak to her. Nice seeing you tonight, Nina." She fluttered her fingers and hurried off.
Continuing her stroll, Nina spotted Wildeen Bergman, owner of Bergman Books, and her employee, Hamlet Green. Wildeen's thigh-length yellow sweater and forest green tights, and Hamlet's black turtleneck and faded jeans set them apart from the more conservatively dressed guests. Wildeen's presence tonight surprised Nina. She, Wildeen, and Zelma had been friends since their days together at Pacific Northwest University, but Zelma's recent writing success had driven a wedge between her and Wildeen.
Wildeen was a writer, too, of literary short stories and poems. While Zelma sold mass-market moneymakers, Wildeen published in obscure journals, with free copies as her only payment. Moreover, Zelma now hovered on the brink of fame and fortune, everything Wildeen wanted but had been unable to achieve. Nina beckoned to the couple. "Great party, isn't it?"
Wildeen gazed around. "The view is nice."
"Awesome." Hamlet nodded, and the cross earring in his right ear danced and sparkled in the sunlight.
"I didn't expect to see you here, Wildeen." Nina studied her friend. "Did you read Zelma's book?"
Wildeen folded her arms and lifted her chin. "I did, and I found it most interesting. By the way, I found a book for your collection at an estate sale I attended last Saturday. A lovely copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The book is a first edition and in very good condition."
"Great. When can I get it?" Nina was always eager to add to her collection of children's books.
"Come by the bookstore anytime."
"How about tomorrow morning? I'll stop in on my way to work."
"Sure. I'll be there around eight-thirty, as usual ..." Wildeen's eyes widened. "Oh, no, what's he doing here? And with her."
Nina turned to see a newly arrived couple strolling arm-in-arm. The "he" was Wildeen's estranged husband, Josh Loring. Nina didn't know the "her" but assumed she was the new girlfriend she'd heard about. "Maybe Josh is a friend of the Bottses," she suggested.
"Of course." Wildeen snapped her fingers. "They all belong to the Evergreen Athletic Club. Josh met Patti Hamilton there. She teaches aerobics. Are they coming this way? I hope not."
"'Fraid so." Hamlet nodded to the approaching couple. "Buck up, Wildeen. You can handle this."
Josh and Patti made an attractive couple. Tall, broad-shouldered, and with wavy brown hair, Josh could have been the hero in a Zelma Duke novel. Patti was a slender blonde who'd most likely been a cheerleader in high school. A blue tube skirt displayed her long, shapely legs to advantage. Her golden tan must have come from a salon, though. A person couldn't get a tan such as hers in the Pacific Northwest.
"Hello, Willie." Josh gestured to his companion. "You remember Patti Hamilton, don't you? From the athletic club?"
Wildeen mumbled a greeting while looking down her nose at Patti.
Patti offered a wintry smile in return.
Josh introduced Patti to Nina and Hamlet. An awkward silence followed.
Striving to keep her tone cheerful, Nina finally said, "Nice evening, isn't it?" Josh nodded absently and focused his gaze on Wildeen.
Hugging her arms, Wildeen gazed toward the water.
Hamlet excused himself and trotted off to get another glass of wine.
Nina and Josh made small talk about the Bottses' elegant estate.
Then Patti dug her elbow into Josh's side. "Tell Wildeen."
Wildeen whirled to face Josh. "Tell me what?"
He cleared his throat. "I've asked my lawyer to set up another meeting with your lawyer. But why don't we come to an agreement on our own and save both time and expense?"
"Settle on your terms, I suppose."
Wildeen's green eyes blazed. "You can forget that. I nursed your father through his illness. I was with you at his side when he passed away. Half of the money he left is mine. He would want me to have my share. I'm entitled to the money, and I'll get it." She stuck out her chin.
Patti stepped forward. "But, Wildeen, you and Josh will have to get a divorce sometime and settle Hal's inheritance. You can't go on like this for the rest of your lives."
"Wanna bet?" Wildeen scowled. "Besides, what business is it of yours?"
Patti linked her arm through Josh's. "Anything that affects Josh affects me."
"Is that so?" Wildeen propped her hands on her hips and leaned into Patti's face. "Well, listen up, you fluffhead. I'd rather die than give in to Josh's demands. I will have what's rightfully mine, if the settlement takes forever."
Josh narrowed his eyes. "You can't talk that way to Patti."
"Oh, shut up." Wildeen snarled. "You can't tell me what to do. Not anymore."
The two faced each other, nose to nose, their gazes locked.
Tension thick enough to cut with a knife hung in the air. Nina wished she could escape.
The guests nearby looked on, open-mouthed.
Were Wildeen and Josh actually about to fight? Wanting to prevent a scene that would surely interrupt the party, Nina steeled herself to leap between them.
Patti grabbed Josh's arm and pulled him away. "Come on, Josh. We should have known better than to reason with her."
As the two stalked off, Josh flung over his shoulder, "See you in court, Willie!" Wildeen stamped her foot. "That man can be so exasperating."
Nina blew out a relieved breath. "I thought you two were about to have a knockdown-drag-out. He wouldn't really hit you, would he? Has he ever?"
"Nah." Wildeen shook her head. "Oh, we've thrown things at each other, but nothing that would do any damage. I'm not afraid of him. It's just ..." Her eyes glistened with tears.
Nina put her arm around Wildeen's shoulders. "You're still in love with him, aren't you?" She kept her tone soft.
"No, no, I'm not. We're over." Wildeen took a tissue from her sweater pocket and swiped her eyes. "Sorry. I have a lot on my mind tonight. Excuse me while I find the powder room." Pulling away, she marched toward the house.
Nina debated. Should she follow Wildeen? Or let her cool down on her own? She finally decided to leave her alone. From experience, she knew when Wildeen had a tantrum, she was better left to work out her emotions by herself.
Taking a deep breath, Nina gazed around. Wasn't someone here with whom she could have a nice, safe conversation? Her gaze landed on Larry, who'd finished his inspection of the Bottses' art collection and talked with a man she'd never seen before.
Larry caught her eye and waved. He spoke to his companion, and then the two men headed toward her.
She studied the stranger. In his early thirties, he was at least six feet tall and on the slender side. He strolled along in a laid-back manner, with his hands stuck in his slacks pockets.
Larry made a sweeping gesture at his companion. "Nina, meet Stephen Kraslow, new owner of The Richmond Review."
Nina stiffened but politely accepted his proffered hand. "Oh, yes, I've heard of you."
The Review's former owner, George Martin, became ill and had to sell the newspaper. Several local people made offers, but Stephen Kraslow, an outsider from New York, increased his until everyone else was forced to drop out.
As far as she was concerned, Kraslow was another of the annoying transplants flooding the Northwest. The steady influx of people had pushed the region's population past comfortable limits. Traffic jammed the streets at all hours, and new houses sprang up on every available piece of land like mushrooms after a rainfall. If the population infusion didn't stop, Richmond would lose its small-town character. Nina loved her hometown and didn't want the atmosphere to change. If Stephen noticed her cool greeting, he gave no indication. His handshake was firm, his smile warm.
"I've heard about you, as well," he said.
Nina carefully withdrew her hand and raised her eyebrows. "Oh? I suppose you heard something like, 'Nina Foster, that outspoken librarian'?"
Stephen tipped back his head and laughed. "As a matter of fact, I think those were the words. But I also know about you from your book review columns in the back issues of The Review. Good stuff. "
His offhand compliment sounded sincere, and she warmed toward him. "I did enjoy writing those." In an effort to downsize the newspaper, George had eliminated her column.
"Stephen's upgrading the review page." Larry waved a hand. "With syndicated reviews of literary books."
Nina's enthusiasm faded. "Oh. Then you probably won't want to revive my column."
Stephen tilted his head. "We'll see. Right now, I'm looking for someone to review Zelma's book."
"Don't look at me." Larry raised both hands and backed away.
"I wasn't." Stephen's gaze focused on Nina. "How about it?"
She shook her head. "Zelma and I are old friends. You need someone who can be more objective."
Larry chuckled. "Nina's telling you My Useless Heart isn't her kind of book, either."
"The book's title is My Restless Heart, Larry." Nina pursed her lips.
Just then, a voice called out across the lawn, "Attention, everyone!" Burgess Botts, hands cupped around his mouth, stood near a lectern and several rows of metal folding chairs grouped under a large maple tree. "Come on over and take a seat," Burgess added, while his wife, Elizabeth, herded people toward the chairs.
What an odd couple. In appearances, anyway. Burgess was a short, stocky man with a fringe of black hair encircling an otherwise bald head. His thick eyebrows reminded Nina of Groucho Marx in the old movies her grandmother liked to watch. Dressed in an ankle-length gray skirt and a jacket, Elizabeth stood at least a head taller than her husband. With her long neck and long, oval face, she might have stepped from an Amedeo Modigliani painting.
Larry moaned and rubbed the back of his neck. "Oh, oh, time to hear the guest of honor read from her masterpiece. Unfortunately, I just remembered I have to be someplace. Someplace far away from here."
"Don't you dare leave." Nina frowned. "You wanted to come tonight. You'll sit with me and listen to every word."
Larry stood tall and made a salute. "Okay, madam librarian. You're the boss." He turned to Stephen. "See what I have to put up with? Boss lady quickly turns into 'bossy lady.'"
"I do see." Stephen's eyes twinkled. "Mind if I tag along?"
"Not at all." Larry turned to Nina. "Right, Nina?" Nina's stomach tensed, but she mustered a smile. "Of course." As Nina accompanied Stephen and Larry to the rows of chairs, she glimpsed Wildeen emerging from the house.
Wildeen strode with her shoulders straight and her head high.
The back of Nina's neck pricked. Wildeen looks like a woman on a mission.But not about Josh. Not now. This mission is about Zelma and her book.
Whatever Wildeen was up to, Nina feared the outcome would be unpleasant.CHAPTER 2
Nina sat with Stephen and Larry on her left and Wildeen and Hamlet on her right. She introduced Wildeen and Hamlet to Stephen, leaning back in her seat while the three exchanged a few remarks.
When everyone was settled, Elizabeth Botts stepped to the lectern. "Thank you for coming this evening." Her gaze roved over the group. "Burgess and I are so excited to have as the guest of honor our very own homegrown celebrity."
"Homegrown?" Larry whispered. "What is she talking about? A tomato?" Nina shook her head.
Stephen gave a low chuckle.
Elizabeth stepped back. "Without any more ado, let me introduce Zelma Duke."
Enthusiastic applause accompanied Zelma to the lectern.
Although a good twenty pounds overweight for her five-foot, two-inch frame, Zelma made an impressive appearance in her stylish blue dress accented with a blue print scarf. Her thick, black hair, swept back from her face, set off wide, dark brown eyes, a straight, slender nose, and full lips. Zelma confided to Nina that she'd had a makeover at a prestigious Seattle salon. She was even sporting long, scarlet fingernails. Knowing Zelma to be a compulsive nail-biter, Nina wondered how she coped without her own nails to nibble on.
"Thank you, Elizabeth." Zelma's melodious voice floated along the airwaves. "I appreciate you and Burgess opening Bottswood to all my friends and fans. And while I'm thanking people, I must not forget two who are very important. One is my literary agent, Morry Snyder. Stand up, Morry." Zelma gestured to the front row.
A heavy-set man lumbered to his feet and turned a blunt-featured, fleshy face to the audience. He grinned and then ran a hand over his high forehead and thinning black hair. "Hi, y'all." He plopped back down, and the metal seat wobbled as he settled.
"The other person," Zelma said, "is my publicist, Sondra Wagner."
Publicist? My, my. Nina knew Zelma had a literary agent, but acquiring a publicist moved her up another notch in the publishing world.
The woman sitting next to Morry Snyder stood and took a bow. A smooth cap of dark brown hair and an upturned nose gave her a pixie look.
"The past few months have been so exciting" — Zelma rolled her eyes — "from the time I learned my publisher's big plans for My Restless Heart to this very moment. Last week, I flew to New York and was met by a limousine. Me, Zelma Duke, from Richmond, Washington." She pointed to her chest. "I said to my editor, Joanie, 'Surely, you don't treat all your authors to a limousine,' and she said, 'Only those we plan to make into stars.'" Zelma smiled and fluttered her false eyelashes.
"Oh, gimme a break." Wildeen groaned.
Zelma gripped the lectern and swept her gaze over the audience. "My publicist has planned a nationwide tour. But I can assure you nothing will be as special as this appearance here at Bottswood, surrounded by my friends. Why, I was telling my agent the other day, over lunch at Twenty-One." She batted her eyelashes. "You know, that famous restaurant in Manhattan?"
Nina's attention wandered to the row of madrona trees lining the cliff. Sunlight glazed their twisted trunks with an orange glow. Behind the trees, the sky was pale blue at the top and a soft peach near the horizon. She sighed. Bottswood truly was a beautiful place.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder Between the Pages"
Copyright © 2018 Linda Hope Lee.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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