Her freelance career is catching fire. Her relationship with B&B owner Ian Sterling is flirty and fun. She’s even attending a glittering cocktail party at his sprawling Victorian inn.
But, to this ex-reporter, something seems “off.” And it’s not the canapés. When Ian’s father vanishes, the enigmatic innkeeper asks for her discretion. And her assistance.
Meanwhile, Alex is having the opposite problem at her tiny bungalow: People keep piling in uninvited. Including a mysterious intruder found sleeping in her kitchen. Her grandmother, Baba, who shows up “to help”—with Alex’s own mother hot on her heels.
When the intrepid redhead discovers a body in the B&B's basement and a “reproduction” Renoir in the library, she begins to suspect that Ian is more than just a simple hotel owner.
With editor pal Trip, brother Nick, and rescue-pup Lucy riding shotgun, Alex scrambles to stay one step ahead of disaster—and some very nasty characters.
Can she find the missing man before it’s too late? Or will Alex be the next one to disappear?
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Lightning split the sky as I dashed up the sidewalk. Not the smartest time to be carrying a metal-framed umbrella. Not the smartest time to be wearing my best navy-blue dressy dress and three-inch slingbacks, either. But if I didn't want to arrive at Ian's cocktail party looking like an extra from Titanic, I needed the bumbershoot. And a sponge.
Mother Nature was venting some serious rage. My neighbor's elegant mixer was supposed to have been held outside, weather permitting. But this weather was definitely not permitting.
At this rate, we were going to be trading drinks on the patio under twinkling lights for huddling around hurricane lamps in the basement.
The power had gone off three times just in the hour it took me to get ready. When I left, my brother Nick was on the couch trying to watch a basketball game. Lucy, our puppy, was cowering under a blanket next to him. All I could see was her tail.
Thunderstorms freaked her out. Nick figured it was a holdover from her previous life as a stray. With no place to come in out of the weather, the noise and pelting rain must have been particularly terrifying to such a small, defenseless creature.
"See, nothing to worry about," he said, slipping a treat to the lump under the blanket. "You should be more worried about taking the 76ers and the points. I expect better from you."
"I put my golf umbrella by the door," he called to me. "It's big and deep, and it'll keep you dry. And from the looks of what's going on outside, you're gonna need it."
"Ooh, University of Arizona — very stylish," I said, unsnapping the clasp while carefully keeping it closed in the house.
"Consider yourself lucky. I was saving it for the Domino's guy. If you're not home by midnight, should Lucy and I come looking for you?"
"If I'm not home by midnight, send a rowboat. The party's only supposed to go a couple of hours. And that was before Ian had to move it indoors. So he might cut things short."
"Yeah, the local weather guys are practically wetting themselves. We've got Storm Watch '19 on Channel 6, predictions of multiple tornado warnings on Channel 10, and big promises for hail the size of golf balls on Channel 12."
"Why is it always golf balls? Why not walnuts? Or Christmas tree ornaments? Or Ping-Pong balls?"
"Would you be afraid of Ping-Pong balls? They know if they're gonna grab your attention, it has to sound scary." He gently stroked the blanket lump. "But it's not scary at all, is it, Lucy? Is it? Not when we're all warm and dry."
I shut the front door, pausing on the porch to open Nick's umbrella. Thunder and lightning clapped almost simultaneously.
Inside, Lucy howled. I knew exactly how she felt.
As I jogged across the street and up the front walk to Ian's stately Victorian — now officially a B&B christened the Cotswolds Inn — the wind picked up. Rain was pinging off the umbrella. Or maybe it really was hail.
Suddenly, the heavy oak door swung open.
"Such a nasty night out, miss — come in and get dry." Harkins.
Decked out in a gray chalk-stripe suit, white vest, and matching tie, he was playing the role of stereotypical English butler to the hilt. Complete with white gloves.
I'm guessing none of the guests knew what I knew: Harkins was also Ian's father. And co-owner of the Cotswolds Inn.
He took the umbrella, expertly toweled it off with a chamois that appeared out of nowhere, folded it, and slipped it soundlessly into a caddy by the door. All in less time than it took me to step inside. The man was a wonder.
"Just this way, miss," he said with a small smile. "The guests are enjoying cocktails in the study." He dropped his voice to barely above a whisper, "And Ian will be so very glad you've arrived."
"The study" turned out to be an old-fashioned library. Complete with two-story oak bookshelves lining the walls. They put my do-it-yourself Ikea bookcases to shame.
People clustered around the room, laughing and talking, drinks in hand. A fire crackled in the fireplace. And lively '30s-era jazz played in the background — courtesy of some unseen electronic wizardry. If I hadn't just run through a thunderstorm, I'd never have known that all hell was breaking loose outside. Clearly, these folks didn't. Too bad I hadn't brought Lucy.
Ian and several others looked over as I walked in. My face went hot. And probably pink.
The curse of the redhead.
"Alex, hullo! So glad you could make it," Ian said, coming toward me. "You look smashing. Can I get you a drink? We just opened a lovely bottle of champagne."
Decked out in a black tux, British ex-pat Ian Sterling could have given James Bond a run for his money. I felt my heart beat a little faster. But maybe it was just from sprinting up the sidewalk.
"That would be wonderful, thank you," I said gratefully.
As he hoisted a champagne bottle out of its silver ice bucket, I noticed the woman glued to his elbow. Our neighbor Lydia Stewart.
While I'd opted for a short, dressy dress, Lydia looked like she'd stepped out of the pages of Vogue: Pale and wraithlike in a full-length, strapless, black taffeta ball gown with a bell skirt. Sporting a couple of diamond earrings that could double as chandeliers. Knowing Lydia, they were real diamonds. And the dress probably cost more than I earned in a year.
Unlike me, she was bone-dry. Not even a drop of rain on her shoes. How did she do that? the practical part of my brain wondered. Had she booked a room here for the night? Or did she have more permanent accommodations?
I quickly shook off that last thought and accepted the champagne flute from my smiling host.
"Alex lives in the neighborhood, and she's a writer," he announced to the room. To me, he said, "So, working on any interesting stories lately?"
For most anyone else, that would be schmoozing. But with Ian, I sensed that he really was interested. Not just in me — in everyone. In the couple of months that he'd lived across the street, I'd noticed he had a quick mind and great people skills. If he wasn't an innkeeper, he'd have made a great reporter. Or a topnotch spy.
Unfortunately, the one assignment I did have was top secret. So I demurred. "Not really. I just finished up a story for Metropolitan Bride, and I'm meeting with another editor tomorrow morning for a new assignment. Fingers crossed."
"A bridal magazine?" Lydia sniffed. "That's ironic, isn't it? What do they say — 'Always the bridesmaid, never the bride'? I wonder if that applies to bridal writers, too? Like the old adage 'Those who can't, write.'"
"I believe you'll find the correct quote is 'Those who can't, teach,'" said a distinguished sixty-plus man in a sharp blue blazer, cradling a lowball glass in his hand.
"Oh, stuff and nonsense, as you well know," said the older woman seated near him on a vintage leather sofa. They both laughed.
"I'm afraid we've spent a good part of our lives in academia," the man explained. "I'm William Prestwick — Bill. This is my wife, Emily." With that, Emily waved her champagne flute and smiled.
"Escaped just in the nick of time," she said. "Now we can travel and enjoy life — instead of droning on in front of a gaggle of tots who don't even have the good manners to look up from their electronic whatchamacallits."
"The Prestwicks are staying here at the inn for the week," Ian interjected.
"Lovely place," said Emily, as the lights flickered.
I noticed that Harkins had slipped in and was surreptitiously placing heavy silver candelabras filled with thick new tapers all around the room.
Well, a power outage would be one way to end a party early.
"Cute dress," Lydia said, sidling up to me. "Did you make it yourself?"
"Scarlett O'Hara called — she wants her coffin lining back," I replied, just loud enough for her to hear.
Lydia's jaw dropped.
"So, are you guys seeing the sights or visiting family?" I asked, settling in next to Emily Prestwick.
"Definitely the sights," she said. "We're from Boston, but we've been to Washington many times for conferences."
"We wanted to come for once when we weren't on anyone's schedule but our own," Bill added.
"We were going to stay at one of the big hotels in the city, but then Bill found this place online. It just seemed too perfect. An old Victorian house with an English garden and afternoon tea."
"Ems is a professor of architecture and housing. I'm botany."
"Home and garden," I said.
"Exactly," said Emily, raising her glass.
I looked around the room. Lydia had quickly flitted back to Ian's side and was regaling a group of listeners with a story. Or boring them to death. Hard to tell.
I actually recognized a few of the faces here tonight. But most were unfamiliar. Ian had been hosting these little get-togethers fairly regularly since the inn opened a few weeks ago. He'd invite all of the inn's guests, a neighbor or two, and some of the local bigwigs — especially the ones who could steer a little business his way. Chamber of commerce and visitors bureau types. When possible, he'd also sprinkle in a few movers and shakers. A semi-celebrity. An author, professor, or corporate honcho in town for whatever. Or a politician happy to escape the Beltway rubber-chicken dinner circuit, for even a few hours.
"Adds a little dazzle to the proceedings," Ian confided once.
He'd invited me several times, but this was the first chance I'd had to actually attend anything since his garden party grand opening. When I'd inadvertently shown up with a couple of killers in tow. Followed by a phalanx of squad cars. And an ambulance. Long story.
I'd also discovered that freelancer hours were as bad as staff reporter hours. But the money was a lot less predictable. I was wasting half my time begging editors to send checks and the other half pleading with creditors to give me extensions on bills.
So the idea of spending an evening idly sipping cocktails and making small talk seemed frivolous. But Nick and my best friend, Trip, had made a united assault on my current lack of anything resembling a social life.
I gave in when Trip floated the idea of using the event to make a few contacts for my fledgling freelance writing business. "You might even scare up a story or two," he drawled. "Besides, when's the last time you left the house for anything but work?"
"Does the grocery store count?"
"You're going," Trip concluded.
I had to admit, it did feel nice to get dressed up for a change.
"So, I recognize a few of the local people here for the party. But who's staying at the inn?" I asked Emily.
"It's a nice crowd," she said. "See that couple on the little settee? They're on their honeymoon. Paul and Georgie Something-or-other. They seem nice, but we haven't seen that much of them."
"That's because we've been spending a lot of our time out and about, Ems," Bill said. "The honeymooners have been staying close to home. Not locked in their room, mind you. Enjoying the inn. Teas, meals, walks in the garden. You've probably seen them around the neighborhood."
A normal person might have. Other than mugging the mailman daily for missing checks, I wasn't seeing much of my neighbors lately. While I let Lucy out for regular "breaks" in the backyard, Nick was the one taking her on long walks.
"Very possibly," I said, noncommittally.
"There's another woman we haven't seen much," said Emily. "Always wears a silk scarf around her head and big sunglasses. Very glamorous. Rumor is she's some kind of movie actress. Takes meals in her room. Didn't even come to the party."
"I heard she's recovering from a bit of the nip and tuck, if you know what I mean," Bill said.
"Oh, Bill, you are a horrid gossip," his wife chided, laughing. "Don't pay any attention to him."
The lights blinked again, followed by a couple of bright flashes outside. But neither Bill nor the Depression-era jazz missed a beat.
"Well, if I were interested in that kind of thing, this would be the place," he reasoned. "Away from the city, first-rate food, and lots of peace and quiet. Just the ticket."
"Even if it's true, it's none of our business," Emily said. "But it's all very mysterious. Oh, and your friend in the black dress is staying here. But that's just for tonight."
"Not if she has her way, it's not," Bill countered. "She's been looking at that poor innkeeper the way a hungry freshman looks at a vending machine. Then there's that other fellow. The large African American gent? Never caught his name. Haven't seen much of him, either, come to think of it."
"Other fellow?" I asked, happy to change the subject from Lydia.
"Oh, he's here," Bill said, sounding a little surprised. "Sitting behind you, next to the window. Talking to our host, as a matter of fact."
I twisted around in my seat. That's when I spotted him.
He saw me simultaneously. His eyes smiled, crinkling slightly. His mouth didn't.
So what was Rubicon Jones doing here?
His friends called him Rube. Everyone else called him Mr. Jones. And most people, given a choice, stayed out of his way.
Rube looked like a linebacker. He dressed like a gansta rapper. And he lived like a Medici prince.
We'd crossed paths when I was working for the paper. The subject of the story — an addict fresh out of treatment — had been a longtime customer of a local, low-level dealer. Rumor was that the dealer's dealer got the stuff from Rube. Others claimed he was also running girls, guns, numbers — or a combination of all three.
No matter how hard I searched, I couldn't find a link. Turns out, there wasn't one.
But there was a secret.
Rubicon Jones wasn't a drug kingpin, a gunrunner, or even a thug. Rubicon Jones wrote romance novels. Some of the bestselling page-turners on the market. And the man was a machine. He was cranking them out and raking in some serious money.
As Victoria Hightower, he authored a series of Regency bodice rippers. As Marisa St. John, he penned contemporary, Afrocentric romances. As Prudence Penobscot, he wrote a wildly successful line of second-chance-at-love novels. And those were just the ones I knew about.
Even though Rube had moved his mom into his palatial new home in Georgetown, she firmly believed that family ties were lifelong bonds. So his money supported a network of relatives. And his reputation as a major league crime lord meant no one would ever mess with Mrs. Jones when she visited the old neighborhood.
Only Rube, his mother, and their accountant knew the truth.
It was a great story. So great I didn't write it.
It would have ruined the guy's life. And a week later, no one would have cared.
Besides, my beat was crime. And it's not like he was a crooked congressman or coke-snorting mayor.
I smiled and turned back to Bill and Emily just as Paul and Georgie walked over. She had on an electric-green sundress and sandals. He'd opted for summer linen — coral shirt and oatmeal slacks. And a sprig of something that looked like baby's breath in his lapel. Beach casual.
"Plenty of room over here," Emily said, sliding over.
"I'm Paul. Paul Gerrard. This is my bride, Georgie."
"We just got married this week," she said, breathlessly.
"Ah, yes, the honeymooners. Bill and Emily Prestwick," Bill said, gesturing toward himself and his wife with his lowball glass. Despite his loquaciousness, I noticed his glass still held a good two fingers of scotch. Maybe it wasn't his first?
"I'm Alex. I live across the street," I said, smiling.
"We were filling Alex in on who's who tonight," Bill said. "Oh, Ems, there's that musician," he added, snapping his fingers. "The one all the kids like."
"Johnny Jericho! I forgot about him. Sweet boy. Beautiful manners. Pulled out the chair for me at tea. I imagine he's playing a concert somewhere around here this evening. I hope it's indoors."
Johnny Jericho, also known as the prince of punk, was headlining at the Arena. His biggest danger tonight wasn't hail or lightning. It was throngs of screaming, head-banging fans. Which probably explained why he was staying out in the burbs.
"He'll be fine," I said. "The venue is definitely indoors. I wonder how he heard about this place?"
"Word of mouth. From a supermodel, no less," Bill said with a chuckle.
"Anastasia?" I asked, fearing I already knew the answer. My sister — who I called Annie and the world knew as the glamorous Anastasia — had booked in for exactly two nights a few weeks ago. Just long enough to broker a delicate detente between me and our mother and, apparently, recommend the place to a few of her more famous friends.
"Yup, that's the one. Word is she stayed here and loved it. You and I got in just in time, Ems. Pretty soon it's going to be all jetsetters and glitterati. They won't have room for the likes of us."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Seeing Red"
Copyright © 2019 Dana Dratch.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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