Bran new death (a merry muffin mystery)

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Praise for the Vintage Kitchen Mysteries

A Deadly Grind

“Has all the right ingredients: small-town setting, kitchen antiques, vintage cookery, and a bowlful of mystery. A perfect recipe for a cozy.”

—Susan Wittig Albert, national bestselling author ofThe Darling Dahlias and the Texas Star

“Victoria Hamilton’s charming new series is a delightful find.”

—Sheila Connolly,New York Timesbestselling author

“Hamilton’s Jaymie Leighton completely captivated me . . . I’ll be awaiting [her] return . . . in the next Vintage Kitchen mystery.”

—Lesa’s Book Critiques

“A great new series for cozy fans.”

—Debbie’s Book Bag

“Smartly written and successfully plotted, the debut of this new cozy series . . . exudes authenticity.”

—Library Journal

“Fans of vintage kitchenware and those who fondly remember grandma or mother’s Pyrex dishes will find a lot to enjoy in this mystery . . . There are several good suspects for the murderer, cleverly hinted at early on, and searching for the identity of the murder victim adds to the well-plotted investigation.”

—The Mystery Reader

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Victoria Hamilton

Vintage Kitchen Mysteries

A DEADLY GRIND

BOWLED OVER

Merry Muffin Mysteries

BRAN NEW DEATH

Bran New Death

VICTORIA HAMILTON

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA)

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

For more information about the Penguin Group, visit penguin.com.

BRAN NEW DEATH

A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2013 by Donna Lea Simpson.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

BERKLEY®PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA).

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA).

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-10162506-4

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / September 2013

Cover illustration by Ben Perini.

Cover design by Lesley Worrell.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.

Contents

Praise for the Vintage Kitchen Mysteries

Also by Victoria Hamilton

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

 

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

 

Recipes

Golden Acres Banana Bran Muffins

Bacon Cheddar Muffins

Gouda and Harvest Vegetable Chowder

To Jessica and Michelle . . .how do you thank those who have given you your lifelong dream? Words are inadequate to express my gratitude.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

In the publishing world there are so many unsung heroes, those who do work readers understandably take for granted, and make us, as authors, look so professional. When you get on the inside, you see what a difference those folks make to the author’s work and publishing life. I’d like to take a moment here to give my deepest appreciation to: Erica Horisk, copyeditor ofBran New Death, who went above and beyond in editing the book, and Ben Perini, the cover artist, who brought to life a vision for Wynter Castle that I didn’t even know was possible. I hope they know how much I appreciate their work and dedication!

Chapter One

AS A METAPHORfor my life, the crossroads rocked. I sat in my rented Chevy, glaring at the GPS screen, then got out of the vehicle and looked around. On one side of me was an evergreen forest, into which one road descended, and on the other was a rocky prominence, the highway cutting through it like a kebab skewer through shish.

I was not reflecting on mymetaphoricallostness, however, but my literal situation. The GPS told me I was in front of a Denny’s on I-90 as it cut through upstate New York. Looking around at the gloomy walls of evergreen and granite, I reflected that a Denny’s breakfast would be welcome right about then, but no shiny, happy hostess came melting out of the woods with a coffeepot and a smile.

My odyssey began in a car rental lot in Jersey City before midnight August 31, also known as the night before, and just now the rosy beginnings of dawn were glimmering through the piney treetops. September first, a good date for a fresh start,ifI could ever find my way out of the woods.

Some of my worldly belongings were piled in the backseat and trunk of the Chevy rental and the rest were stacked in a locker at a Manhattan Mini Storage near SoHo. Merry Wynter, adventuress, I thought, my mouth twisting in a grimace. But I wasn’t just wandering, I was looking for my inheritance. I leaned back into the car and grabbed the plastic tub of carrot muffins, prying off the lid and inhaling the cinnamony aroma. I took out the last one, peeled off the paper liner, and munched away, the melting goodness of my homemade muffins sweet on my tongue.

While I ate, I considered my options.

After a long night of driving all the way from Jersey City to upstate New York, I was exhausted. With a GPS in the rental I thought it would be easy going, but the trouble was, the probate lawyer who gave me instructions on how to get there had assumed I was familiar with Wynter Castle and its environs, and that I have a reasonably good sense of direction. I wasn’t, and I don’t. I’d only been there once, as a child. I’d like to say my navigational skills have come a long way since then, but my grandmother told me lying is wrong. I may be thirty-nine, and Grandma may be long gone, but I still hear her voice in my head. When the GPS started screwing up, I wasn’t aware of it until I was hopelessly lost.

I learned I inherited Wynter Castle many months before and put it up for sale, sight unseen, with a local Autumn Vale real estate agent named Jack McGill. Why would I do something so stupid? It’s complicated, and in retrospect not the brightest move I’ve ever made. Here’s the thing . . . that visit as a kid is not a happy memory, and my own life has been in turmoil the last several years.

Long story short: once upon a time (briefly), I was a plus-size model. I quit work when I married a photographer, but then my beloved husband died. I was still young, and I needed something to do, but I didn’t want to be a model again, and I was getting too old for that line of work, anyway. So even as I fought my overwhelming grief, I began styling a few model friends, plus-and regular-size, choosing their clothes, helping each define her look. It’s like an advanced game of playing dress-up, the same game I played with Barbie dolls when I was a kid, much to my hippie mother’s chagrin. In the meantime, though, my darling Miguel left me reasonably well settled; I thought I could do better and began to play the stock market with my savings.

You guessed it; the economy tanked, my investments disappeared into the pockets of the wealthiest investors while those of us foolishly toying with our life savings suffered, and I was left with very little. But it was okay; my career as a stylist was beginning to take off. As I started doing all right, making enough to live on without touching what was left of my savings, an opportunity came up that I could not ignore. When someone offers you a six-figure salary, what do you do? You grab it and hope no one notices you don’t deserve it, right?

So this is what happened. A few years back, Leatrice Pugeot, the internationally famous supermodel (born plain old Lynn Pugmire more years ago than she admits), happened to be at New York Fashion Week, and so was I. I came across her in a corner of a show venue weeping her eyes out. Concerned, I asked if I could help, and she asked me to get her some Xanax. Where was her purse, I asked. She said “No, dummy, just score some from a dealer.” I refused, gave her a cup of herbal tea instead, and talked to her for an hour.

At the end of that hour she asked me to come work for her as a personal assistant. I demurred, but she was persistent. Over the period of a few days, she steadily sweetened the pot until it was up to six figures. Here’s where it gets tricky; I heard, through the grapevine, that Leatrice was difficult to work with—like, Naomi Campbell difficult, but sheseemedlike a sweet, if troubled, soul, to me.

So I took the job, whichseemedlike it was going to be a lot less effort than the constant push to find clients and stay on top of the industry. The hole that Miguel left in my life was not being filled with work, no matter how hard I tried to stay busy, and I was beginning to worry that I wasn’t strong enough to build a whole new career while still struggling with grief. Looking back, I think that my state of mind had a lot to do with why I took the job, despite warnings to the contrary. I needed to be needed, and Leatrice needed me terribly. The next couple of years were interesting, to say the least. Ultimately, everyone was right about Leatrice and it didn’t go well. I left (was fired/quit . . . depends on who you talk to, me or her) after she accused me of stealing from her.

About that time I learned about my inheritance, a cash-poor family “estate” in the boonies of upstate New York. Wynter Castle; at first I thought that was one of those bougy names developers throw around, like McSnobbin Estates or Uppercrust Acres, which are really just suburban ticky-tacky boxes thrown up on seven feet of land. I let it slide for a long time while I dealt with the fallout from my problems with Leatrice, hiring a local real estate agent to sell the place. He wanted me to come look at it, but I just couldn’t handle it. I did begin to remember Wynter Castle at that point, and my one visit to it when I was a child of about five. My memory of that visit did nothing to make me want to go back there.

It wouldn’t be an easy sell, I was told by both the real estate agent and my uncle’s attorney and executor, and that prediction was on the money. The castle had languished on the real estate list for months without even a hint of interest. Since I had been scrambling to make ends meet for some time—it’s the old story, just when I think I’ve made ends meet, someone moves the ends—I finally took the advice of a dear friend and did something about it. I gave up the sublet on my tiny slice of Manhattan, and set out without telling anyone where I was going. Correcting the mistake I made several months before in not going to evaluate my inheritance seemed a challenge, but doable. Maybe I was finally getting my act together after a long run of personal tragedy compounded by stupid decisions.

So here I stood, in the gloom of predawn, out in the middle of nowhere, lied to by a freakin’ computer. It was quiet at my crossroads;tooquiet, I thought, looking around. A big bird circled overhead, like a vulture waiting for me to collapse into a heap. It was quite the view: nothing but a long, dirt slope downward in one direction, a rocky face upward in another, and a paved side road slicing through the rock face across it. Wind tossed the tops of the trees, and a scent like a pine tree–shaped car freshener drifted down to me, with the rustling sound of movement nearby. I should have felt alone, but I didn’t, having the uneasy sensation I was being watched from the shadowy depths of the forested slope. Turning quickly, I caught a movement in the bushes, and jumped back in the car, my heart pounding.

I was just tired and edgy, I reassured myself. I’d return to the last place that the GPS system made any sense and go from there. This wilderness was not how I pictured upstate New York. Where were the quaint, artsy towns and elegant, country houses? Where were the Martha Stewart clones? Shouldn’t they be out picking dew-flecked roses from their perfectly trimmed gardens wearing twinsets, pearls, and flowered gardening gloves?

I drove back the way I had come, past lonely farms and isolated houses that looked deserted, out to an open area. Instead of trying to find Wynter Castle, I’d concentrate on the nearby town of Autumn Vale. Anyone who had negotiated the intricacies of the London tube and the Paris Métro should be able to find a town in upstate New York. Laying my actual paper map on the passenger’s seat beside me, I followed the highway, coming to a river. The map was being a good Boy Scout and telling me the absolute truth; it certainly seemed more trustworthy than the disembodied voice that kept telling me to turn right in fifty feet, when there was no right turn available. The road I wanted departed from the river and descended steeply toanotherbranch of the same river. That was where the GPS had begun to malfunction, confusing me hopelessly. But now the map started to lie to me, just like the GPS had; none of the road names I was seeing on signs appeared on the map. Hmm.

I’d ignore the road names and just drive. Following a hard-packed dirt road overarched by tall poplars that swayed above, I found Butler Lane, which according to the map should have been Wynter Lane. Hoping I was on the right track, I began to descend and wound along a treed road until the vista finally opened out onto a picturesque view of a village below me, which a signpost announced was Autumn Vale.

“Eureka,” I shouted and pounded my fist on the steering wheel. I paused and gazed at the village, still sleeping in the dawn mist. It was a unique experience, like looking down at a model-train town; among the leafy green, I could spot the main street, a solid line of Victorian shops and businesses, all gray, stone buildings, it appeared from a distance, and then roads leading away from it, lined with redbrick homes and gleaming, white-clapboard frame houses, punctuated by civic buildings, construction yards, and the occasional massive garden plot. Now that was what I expected from upstate New York! Maybe there would be an occasional bed-and-breakfast, and perhaps even a quaint inn or two. I was hoping at the least for a cutesy café with some decent food.

My stomach grumbled, but I put it down to too many muffins and not enough real food. I should have packed a bologna sandwich, but muffins are my go-to comfort food. That was the last thing I’d done in my little studio apartment in Manhattan: make a dozen muffins to share with my neighbors. Of course, muffins were also responsible for much of my trouble with Leatrice, but that story can wait.

Buck up, Merry, I told myself. First things first, and that was finding someone who could direct me to Wynter Castle: Jack McGill, the real estate agent, or the lawyer, Mr. Andrew Silvio, orsomeone. It was a little early for a realtor or lawyer though, just six forty-five a.m. by my diamond watch, so anyone who could give me the directions to Wynter Castle would be fine.

I pulled into a parking spot in front of a hardware store (closed), and got out, looking up and down Abenaki, the street that appeared to be the main—or only—business section of Autumn Vale. I needed someplace open to ask directions. The streetscape was adorable, with commercial buildings like ones I’d seen in miniature, painted by skillful craftspeople. Stone fronts with big, glass, bow windows, clapboard-sided shops with gingerbread trim dripping from the eaves; but the reality was a little more grim than the picture-perfect image of small town America. What I hadn’t seen from a distance were the multitude of boarded-up windows.

All crammed together as they were, the shops seemed like good friends who leaned on each other for support in tough times. I walked past a bank (closed), beauty salon (closed), a clothing store (boarded up), a convenience store (closed) and another clothing store, an antique shop, another antique shop, a café, a nail salon, and a dog groomers: boarded up, closed, boarded up, closed, closed, and on vacation. The opposite side of the street appeared to be much the same story. Wasn’tanythingopen? A cool breeze fluttered down the street, chasing a few stray leaves along the sidewalk. I shivered. The early morning air was misty and damp, and my short-sleeved blouse inadequate. What I needed was a Starbucks.

Aha! I perked up when I saw, across the street, a beckoning Open sign in the window of Binny’s Bakery; glowing blue and red neon cheered me immeasurably. I crossed the street, climbed the three steps, and opened the door, triggering a chirpy bell to ring. A yeasty smell and moist warmth enveloped me. Fresh bread! And something else familiar . . . olive oil, rosemary, and cheese? Having eaten four carrot muffins since midnight and nothing else, somethingnotsweet appealed.

A young woman wiped her floury hands on her floury apron and approached the counter. “Can I help you?” she asked, looking me over like I was an alien life-form.

I glanced around the bakery, and was riveted by the shelves lining one whole wall. Teapots! Hundreds and hundreds of teapots! I truly was home, in one sense. I smiled, as I turned toward her. “How areyouthis morning?”

“Fine. Can I help you?”

The woman didn’tsoundfine. Her mouth had a natural downturn, unfortunate in someone so young and attractive, I thought, noting dark hair pulled back in a ponytail that was confined in a net.

“You have a wonderful place, here. There is no better smell on earth than fresh-baked bread, is there? And teapots; you have an amazing collection.”

The teapots ranged from a marvelous Mount Rushmore—impractical, but very collectible—to a chintz, porcelain beauty that I lusted after. My not-so-secret passion is collecting teapots in a variety of shapes, sizes, and prints. That’s what was in at least twenty of the boxes at the Manhattan Mini Storage: 253 teapots, about half of them miniatures. Another ten boxes held teacups, an uncounted number.

I pointed to an elderly beauty. “That ornate one . . . it’s Italian, right? Majolica? And the other one, with the roses and cherubs . . . that’s Capodimonte.”

Sighing, the woman rolled her eyes. “Look, not to be rude, but I have a million things to do. The focaccia is almost ready to come out of the oven.” She glanced over her shoulder at a timer, then back to me. “How can Ihelpyou?”

I scanned the others—there were English and Chinese teapots, art deco shapes, utilitarian designs, and fanciful animal shapes—but I didn’t have time to look them over, as the baker was getting impatient. No small talk, then. Too bad. I’m the master of small talk. In the modeling world, it pays to know how to schmooze, no matter what your position. First as a model, then a stylist, and then, finally, as a personal assistant to a model, being nice to hair stylists, makeup artists, set decorators, assistants, gofers, photographers, and everyone in between had paid off.

“I need directions,” I said, holding up the printed map, flapping it around. “This seems to be useless, since none of the roads around here have the names listed on the map.”

The woman cracked her first smile. “It’s a conspiracy,” she said with a short laugh. “Town council and the county can’t agree. The names get changed every year or so. You’d think they didn’t want anyone to find us. What are you looking for?”

Finally, some friendliness! “I’m trying to find Wynter Castle, on Exeter Road.”

The woman’s smile died swiftly. “You don’t want to go out there. All you’ll find at Wynter Castle is death.” She turned away as the oven timerbinged a warning.

“What do you mean?”

She bustled around in the back, taking a tray out of the oven and banging it down on the counter.

“Hello?” I hollered. “What do you mean by that?” She wouldn’t come back, ignoring me completely, so I stalked out of the place, winding up on the sidewalk again, looking up and down the street.

An old fellow in a trapper hat and plaid jacket shambled past, making use of his cane. He eyed me with interest, his smudgy glasses not quite concealing the intelligence in his beady eyes. I’d try again. “Excuse me, sir,” I said. I had to bend over to talk to the elderly gnome, but his eyes twinkled with reassuring sharpness. “Could you help me?”

“Mebbe,” he said, bushy brows raised. “Whadyawant?”

“I’m trying to figure out the best way to get to Wynter Castle on Exeter road.”

He made a choked sound in his throat and bolted away from me as if I had a communicable disease. Who knew someone using a cane could move so quickly?Tap-tap, tappity-tap.

“Charming.” As I stood watching the oldster speed down the sidewalk, a police cruiser slowed near my rental car.

I walked toward it, watching the cop lean across the passenger seat and examine my rental’s license plate. If he was so interested, he may as well help me out. I walked out onto the street and leaned over the cruiser, gesturing the cop to roll down his window. He did, and I leaned in the open window. “Hi there! Maybe you can help me?”

He looked down at my cleavage and smiled, then looked up into my eyes. “I sure hope I can,” he replied.

Never failed. I sighed inwardly, but smiled back, amused, as always, by the male fascination with breasts. The poor dears just can’t help themselves. I read his name tag, and said, “Well, Officer Virgil Grace—”

“SheriffVirgil Grace, ma’am,” he said with an attractive grin.

“Sheriff, how . . . Western. Anyway, I’m trying to find someplace.”

“I’d love to help,” he said, a dimple winking in his cheek. “You looking for the way to my heart?”

He was a definite cutie, but too young for me. I wasn’t on the lookout for the trail toanyof his vital organs. “Maybe another day. Right now I just need directions to Wynter Castle, but no one wants to tell me how to get there, not even the friendly voice on my GPS.”

Watching my eyes, he frowned and said, “Why do you want to go to Wynter Castle?”

It wasn’t any of his business, but maybe it would help if I explained. “I’m Merry Wynter, Melvyn Wynter’s niece and heir. Wynter Castle is my property.”

He nodded. “Okay. I heard you were trying to sell it.”

“I was . . .am. . . but no one seems to be in the market for a monstrosity of a castle in the wilderness of upstate New York,” I said, and stood, hand to my back. After no sleep and hours of driving I was cranky, but had to stifle the urge to snap at him. I bent back down and said, in as neutral a tone as I could manage, “So what is the problem with me trying to find Wynter Castle?”

“No problem,” he said, his expression serious. “Follow me and I’ll lead you there.”

“Thanks!”

“You may not thank me when you see the place.”

Chapter Two

TWENTY MINUTES ORso later, I followed him up a winding lane, emerging from a thick forest that opened out to a long, green slope up to Wynter Castle. I parked in a weed-infested flagstone drive and got out. The sheriff parked, too, and walked over to me. I was numb with fatigue and something else: a weird, bittersweet feeling of coming home. This was one of the few places I had ever gone with my mom, and the only place I knew of where my father had stayed for any length of time.

But holy catfish, no wonder it hadn’t sold! First I scanned the land and shook my head. The landscape, a huge open area rimmed with dense forest, wasriddledwith holes dotted around the long grass—bigholes, all with mounds of dirt beside them. The yawning cavities littered the open landscape, right to the edge of the woods. The sun rose up over the forest and beamed down beneficently on the weird and troubling scene. Turning in a complete circle, I counted about thirty holes, give or take, and there might be more beyond my field of vision or behind the outbuildings that dotted the landscape. The sheriff stood staring, glancing back and forth between my face and the gaping wounds. “This may be one of the problems with selling Wynter Castle,” I said. That was probably the understatement of the century.

He didn’t say anything, and I turned to finally look at the building itself. My inheritance really was an American castle, old and shrouded in ivy that coated the hewn, stone walls, almost concealing the diamond-pane, Gothic-arched windows. It was big, even bigger than I remembered from my one visit so long ago.

Just then another car pulled up the lane, a tiny Smart car with a sign on the side that read Autumn Vale Realty. It shrieked to a stop, and a tall, gangly man emerged, unfolding himself like a backward origami. “Miss Wynter?” he asked, approaching at a lope, his hand stuck out. “Jack McGill, your realtor.”

“Hey, Jack,” Virgil said.

“Hey, Virge, what you doing here?” he said, dropping his hand to his side.

“Showing Miss Wynter the way to her property.”

“You should have stopped at my office,” he chastised, shaking his finger at me. “I would have showed you the way!” He extended his hand again.

I took it and shook. “I couldn’tfindyour office. I couldn’t find anything.” I paused and looked around, then back at him, examining his beaky, honest face topped by a shaggy shock of reddish-brown hair. “I’m beginning to see the problem here, Mr. McGill, why Wynter Castle won’t sell. We have giant gophers on the property.”

He broke out into astonished laughter and doubled over, folding like a jackknife, slapping his thigh. “That’s a good one, Miss Wynter.”

“Call me Merry.” It wasn’tthatfunny.

Sheriff Grace, who had been leaning against his patrol car listening in, cocked his ear at a scratchy call on the radio in his car and said, “I’d better get going. I would seriously suggest, Miss Wynter, that you not stay out here alone.”

“Why?”

He let his gaze travel over the hole-riddled property. “Wouldn’t want to see you end up in one of these.”

I gasped and spluttered, openmouthed.

“You know, like falling in.” He got in and drove off, a hail of gravel from the edge of the drive shooting up in a shower from his back tires.

Was that a threat of some sort? Ridiculous man!

“Don’t mind him,” the realtor said.

“I don’t mind him at all. In fact, I doubt if I’ll even think of him after this moment.”

He cast me a glance, shaggy eyebrows raised. “Now, I suppose you’ll be wondering what caused all these holes here?”

“No, not at all.”

“Oh.” He was silent.

“I was being facetious,” I said, stifling a sigh. “Bad habit of mine. So . . . who is digging the holes? And why?”

“Well, that’s just it. We don’t know.”

I looked at him in amazement. “You don’tknow?” He shrugged, and I strolled over to one of the holes, looking into it, then turned back to McGill. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? You’d think you could have mentioned it in all the conversations we had.”

His face turned red, right up to his ears. “I tried.”

“You did not.”

“Okay, well, I tried to get you to come here.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “I told you there were things you ought to handle yourself, and that we needed to talk face to face.”

He was right about that. “Why did the baker in town say all I’d find out here is death?” I asked.

“You talked to Binny? Last person you should talk to.”

“Why?”

“Well, Binny claims that your great-uncle Melvyn killed her daddy, Rusty Turner, and buried him somewhere on the grounds of Wynter Castle. We think the holes have something to do with her, or with her brother, but we can’t prove it.”

*

“HONEST, SHILO, THIS PLACE IS CREEPIER THAN I EVENremember.” I paced beside the rental, holding my cell phone to my ear. It kept cutting out on me and blinking back in, so our conversation had the constancy of a distant radio station. “Shilo, you there?”

“I’m here. I can barely hear you!” Her voice was crackly.

“Crappy reception.” Every once in a while I looked back at the castle and shuddered. What was I going to do if I couldn’t sell it?

“Mer, honey, you should just hire someone to fill in the holes and leave!” Shilo said as the airwaves cleared for a few seconds. “Come back to New York. Surely you can find work?”

“After that trouble with Leatrice? Nobody is going to hire a thief, Shi.”

“No one who knows you believes her!” my friend said.

“But the world is not made up of people who know me.”

“She doesn’t havethatmuch influence! I told one jerk who asked about your trouble with Leatrice why he supposed the police hadn’t arrested you, if you really did steal her necklace?”

I appreciated her support. Shilo is one in a million, a model with a solid-gold heart. “I’m working on getting the holes filled in this very minute,” I said, glancing over at my real estate agent, who was sitting in his car talking on his own cell phone—organizing some help, I hoped. “But honestly, Shi, the trouble with Leatrice is only one of the reasons I came out here to stay. It’s time I dealt with this place instead of ignoring it.” I stared at the castle for a long moment. “I need to move on from Leatrice and not let her hijack my life for one more minute.”

“I miss you already,” she said after a long pause, during which my cell reception blinked in and out.

She was going to make me cry if she kept that up. But I was in upstate New York, not the deserts of equatorial Africa, for heaven’s sake! “I have to stay, honey. The estate property taxes are paid up in advance, thank God, but the life insurance Melvyn had was just enough to pay for his burial and the estate expenses for a few more months. There doesn’t seem to be any cash. The lawyer says it all disappeared in the last few years.” I ruminated on that; wherehadMelvyn’s money gone?

But back to the matter at hand. “I havegotto stay and make this place salable, which is going to be easier said than done since the grounds look like giant prospectors have been digging for gold. It’s a mess! I clearly can’t trust my realtor to sell it alone.” I kicked at a tuft of weeds in the driveway. I hadn’t told my best friend everything, and had to confess. “I’m broke, or almost, anyway, and Ihaveto stay here until I sell. I didn’t tell you but . . . I gave up my apartment in the city.”

“You gave up your apartment?” she screeched.

Well,thatcertainly came through loud and clear. I held the phone away from my ear. “Yes.”

“Honey, you shoulda told me. Why didn’t you tell me? And you left without even letting me know. I should befurious! Come back and move in with me.”

“Into your Cracker Jack box? Why don’t you move in with me, instead?” I joked.

“Into the castle?”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ve gotlotsof room,” I said, waving my hand around. “Oodles!We can fill in giant gopher holes together and ignore the morose people of Autumn Vale.” I started to laugh, but then heard the dial tone. What the heck? Had my phone dropped the call? Or had I said something to upset her? Impossible, I thought, staring at my phone. You can’t offend Shilo Dinnegan.

The realtor unfolded himself from his clown car and came back toward me. “Well, Miss Wynter, I’ve found someone who will fill in these holes for you at a rock-bottom cost.”

“What is rock-bottom cost?”

He named a number I could live with. “Okay. Mr. McGill—”

“Jack!” he said waggling his finger at me. “You’re to call me Jack.”

I smiled, and put my hand on his shoulder. “I need to sell this monstrosity, and soon. Mr. Silvio said that even just the land is worth a lot. I need to look at all possibilities, even carving up the property to sell lots.”

The realtor shrugged. “Mr. Silvio is not an expert on property, but even he should know things aren’t that simple in Abenaki County.”

Andrew Silvio was the lawyer who had been responsible for drawing up Uncle Melvyn’s will, and handled the estate’s probate proceedings. He had encouraged me to put the castle and property up for sale as soon as possible. Even if other claimants came forward—unlikely, he said, because Melvyn had died “without issue”—the castle would still have to be sold to satisfy their demands on the estate.

“I need to sell it quickly, to be frank, because I’m broke,” I said. “I know people, a few A-listers and a lot more B-listers. I’m not saying any of them will buy Wynter Castle, but even if they don’t they may know people who will.” I eyed the castle, doubt plaguing me for a moment. “It’s magnificent in its own weird way. I guess.Noone, however, is going to buy a place riddled with holes.”

“And I’ve solved that little problem for you,” he said, rocking back on his heels, then onto his toes.

“When can the hole filler start?”

“Later this morning.”

“That’ll work temporarily, at least, until the next infestation of giant gophers. If this Binny person is behind it, I’ll need to figure out how to stop her. Me staying here might help.” I took a deep breath. “Now I’d like to go inside.”

He nodded and straightened his shoulders. “Okay. I’m ready if you are.”

I tried to judge if that was a “I’m ready for you to shriek and fall into a dead faint” look, or a, “It’s not as bad as it looks from the outside” kind of expression. Nothing to do but enter. We ascended to a flagged terrace, which ran the length of the building, seventy or eighty feet by my rough estimate. McGill (he just didn’t seem like a “Jack” to me, and I already thought of him just as “McGill”) had a big key, which he rattled in the lock, finally unlatching it. He pushed, and the oak, Gothic-arched double doors swung open, the resounding creak like a Foley guy’s version of a haunted castle sound.

“It’s kinda damp and cold, but it’s been modernized, thanks to your uncle Melvyn,” McGill said as I slipped past him. “We’ll have to get the boiler serviced before firing it up. I can get the guy out today to check it for you. It gets kinda cold here at night, even in September.”

He nattered on, his voice echoing as we entered, and the door shutting with a thud that reverberated through the whole castle, but I didn’t hear anything else as I gaped at the place. The great hall was enormous, with ceilings twenty or thirty feet high—I’m a poor judge of those things—and stone walls covered by tapestries that did little to hush the sound of my high heels on the flagstone flooring. I was faced by a grand, two-directional staircase that split, climbing to galleries that overlooked the great hall on both sides. As I slowly turned, I saw that the double doors were topped by a huge, diamond-paned Gothic window. If it had not been covered in dirt and ivy, it would have flooded the hall with light.

I was taken back nine years to my wedding to Miguel, held at a lovely small “castle” much like this, only in Connecticut. I had descended stairs like those to the strains of “Clair de Lune,” and down the aisle to Miguel, where he stood, handsome and dark, before the reverend. As the pianist lingered gently over the last notes, we joined hands.

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