Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #cozy mystery
“Because Pearl refuses to accept the reality of our marriage,” Tosh said.
“Then I’ll tell her,” Riley said. “Or, better yet, let Lacy tell her. She likes Lacy.”
Somehow between Pearl’s incarceration and Tosh’s marriage, Pearl had decided that Lacy was her new best friend. She greeted her with suffocating, bosomy hugs at every sighting. Riley was now public enemy number one in Pearl’s quagmire of a mind. Lacy should have been relieved. Instead she spent too much time trying to get the stench of Pearl’s perfume out of her nose after every smothering hug. Her phone buzzed with a text from Jason.
“It’s about to be a moot point anyway,” Lacy said as she read her phone. “Jason needs us back at the hotel for a briefing.”
“What for?” Tosh asked.
They didn’t know. How could something so cataclysmic have occurred without their knowledge? “Summer is dead; she was murdered last night. Everyone who was staying at the hotel needs to be at the meeting.”
“Summer is dead?” Riley repeated. “But she was so pretty.” She sat back, deflated. Tosh eased his arm around her, and Lacy shuddered. Summer hadn’t looked so pretty last time she saw her. How long would it take to get that image out of her head?
“Are you okay, Lacy?” Tosh asked.
“She’s fine,” Riley replied as she pulled away and stood. “We should go before his royal constable gets cranky and issues arrest warrants for all of us.”
Lacy held her tongue with effort. Her patience with Riley was wearing thin. Why was she picking on Jason? Then again, why did she do any of the things she did? She was an enigma. “I have Kimber’s car. You can ride with me, if you want. I didn’t see your car in the drive, so I assume you walked.”
“Sprinted, actually,” Tosh said with a secret smile for Riley that made her laugh.
I don’t want to know,
Lacy thought. The more distance she kept between herself and their sham of a marriage, the less pain she would feel when it inevitably fell apart. How long would Riley wait to tell him about the money she owed? Or had she already and that was what all the fighting was about? That might explain the fighting, but not the making up. Unless Riley was trying to cajole the money out of Tosh. Riley wasn’t above using her wiles to get what she wanted, and Tosh was easy prey for a sob story and pretty face. Together, they were toxic. As much as Lacy expected their “relationship” to implode, she dreaded the fallout. Tosh would need her, but for all their differences, Riley was still her sister. She was already torn, and the end hadn’t even arrived yet. How much worse would it be when it actually happened?
Tosh plucked the keys from her fingers. “You’re in la-la land,” he said. He herded her toward the back seat and opened the passenger door for Riley who beamed at him. A light bulb went off. Was that what this was about? Maybe being with Tosh wasn’t about the money; maybe it was about hurting Lacy. Maybe for Riley it was another notch in whatever sick, twisted, sisterly competition had been going on since birth. Jason hadn’t given her a glance, but Tosh had fallen like a hollow tree. Had that been Riley’s plan all along?
Lacy sat in the back and studied them through narrowed eyes. She was missing something, but what? What was Riley’s master plan? Lacy had no doubt that she had one. Her sister had never made an impetuous, uncalculated move in her life. Lacy felt a desperate, gnawing need to discern her strategy before she revealed her final move. If she knew Riley’s game, maybe she could protect herself and everyone else from the inevitable mess when it was over.
They arrived at the hotel in minutes. Tosh parked and leaned over the console to kiss Riley who returned it with a smile. They turned to look at Lacy who must have been scowling because Tosh’s smile faltered, and Riley’s grew.
“Coming?” Tosh said.
Lacy nodded and slid out of the car, stalking ahead of them while they meandered hand in hand. She was so distracted by them that she forgot her appearance until she entered the ballroom and Jason did a double take. He beckoned her with a jerk of his head. She ignored him and tried to blend into the crowd on the opposite side of the room. Once properly wedged between an overweight teacher and a potted plant, Lacy studied Jason. He must not have shaved that morning because a thick mass of stubble covered the lower half of his face. Even so, there was no disguising the lush fullness of his lips or the way his long, thick lashes fanned on his cheeks when he blinked. He was beautiful. Meanwhile, she had reverted to her high school self. At this moment, her hair was soaking up all the humidity in the atmosphere and was taking on a life of its own. As if she needed confirmation of how bad she looked, Kimber sidled up and shook her head.
“Girl, that hair could put an eye out. I should have brought you one of my scarves. Your eyes are red. Are you wearing your retainers?”
“Yes to all of it,” Lacy said, wearily tearing her gaze from Jason’s perfection. Kimber dodged to the side to avoid being smacked by The Hair.
“It looks like everyone is here. Let’s begin,” Jason said in his cop voice—cool, composed, authoritative. Usually the voice filled Lacy with all manner of flutters. Now she wanted to run away from it. “If you haven’t heard by now, I’m sorry to inform you that Summer Ridgefield passed away last night.” Some people hadn’t heard because there were several loud gasps and exclamations. In the corner, her group of friends sat huddled together, crying. “The cause of death is still under investigation. We’ll be speaking with each of you eventually. Most of you are staying the next few days for the reunion. Please make sure I have personally spoken with you if you need to leave before that time. I’ve obtained a list of guests and their room numbers from the front desk. They assured me the hotel’s owner would arrive shortly.” He scanned the crowd.
Lacy sighed and raised her hand. “Present,” she said.
Jason blinked at her, whether from shock over her appearance or statement she didn’t know. “You own the hotel,” he clarified.
“It’s a recent acquisition,” she said.
“How recent?” he asked.
She paused. “Three weeks.”
His lips pressed together in a grim line. She looked away from his intense scrutiny. The spell was broken when someone else captured his attention with a question. Lacy released a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. People asked questions that Jason wouldn’t or couldn’t answer, detailed questions about how Summer had died, where she had been found, and how long she had been gone. No one seemed to realize yet that she had been murdered. The common thread weaving among the group was that she had met with some sort of accident, such as a fall. Lacy’s eyes scanned the crowd and paused on a familiar face. Across the room and hidden in almost the same manner was Tony Rico, their class’s notorious recluse. They made eye contact and a surprising thing happened: he smiled. Lacy suppressed the urge to turn around and make sure he was smiling at her. She and Tony hadn’t been enemies in high school, but neither had they been friends. They had both just been
, swirling on the fringes, never quite fitting in. She returned his smile, and the meeting was adjourned.
Lacy beat a hasty retreat. Not only did she have hotel business to attend, she didn’t want to risk facing Jason’s wrath until he’d had a chance to calm down. If she could make it to her office, the one she had commandeered when she bought the hotel, then she would be safe. She was almost there. The room was in sight, the door was open, when a hand shot out and dragged her into the closet. The door closed with a bang, the lock slipped into place, and Lacy was in the dark.
“Are there any more properties you want to declare, Ms. Hilton?”
“This is a very dramatic display,” Lacy said. “What’s with the darkness?”
“I can’t find the light. Where is it?” Jason said.
“How should I know?”
“It’s your hotel,” Jason accused.
“I haven’t had time to sit down and memorize the light switches yet,” she replied. They fumbled in the dark until they found the string and pulled it. Anemic light filtered through the stuffy enclosure.
“Is there anything else you’ve bought since we started dating? An airport or Laundromat, perhaps.”
“I’m not keeping it,” she said. “I bought it, fixed it up, and now I intend to sell it.”
“Oh, see, that makes it better. I thought maybe you bought it because you needed a place to live. Knowing that you bought it because you had a giant pile of cash sitting around and plans to flip it makes me feel loads better.”
“You get upset when I tell you money things,” Lacy said.
“I get upset when you don’t,” Jason said.
“I can’t win. The money means nothing to me; it’s a means to an end. But you’re so touchy about it. I never know what I’m supposed to tell you and not supposed to tell you. I don’t want it to make you feel uncomfortable, so I pretend it doesn’t exist.”
He swallowed down a retort and let out a sigh of frustration. “You’re right. The money thing is hard for me. I’ll work on it. In the meantime, you can’t not tell me things of this caliber. You bought a hotel, Lacy; that’s a big deal.”
“It’s a very small hotel,” she said. She risked touching him. When he didn’t move away, she slid her hands from his chest to circle his neck.
“It’s bigger than any hotel I own,” he said, but he was smiling. His fingers skimmed her waist. “How come you ignored me in there?”
“I don’t think we should tell anyone about us yet,” she said.
“Why not?” He regarded her through narrowed, suspicious eyes.
Because you’re beautiful and I’ve regressed to full-blown ugly duckling.
“Well, there’s the murder. I was thinking about motive. Who wanted Summer dead the most? That would be my group of friends. I can be your mole. I’m not sure they would accept me if they knew you and I were together; you’re one of them.”
“Your thought processes are starting to make sense to me; that’s worrisome.”
“Yes, and yours are becoming clear to me. I know you don’t want me to get involved in your case, and I know you don’t want me in danger. I’ll just keep my ear to the ground and see if anyone held an especially large grudge against Summer. I’ll liaise.”
“Is that why you’re dressed like a sexy librarian?” he asked, motioning to her disarray.
“Sure,” she said. She touched her palm to his forehead. No fever.
“Why don’t you ever wear your glasses for me?”
“Because they’re glasses,” she said. Why was it that the only people who found glasses attractive were those with perfect vision? She had spent most of her life trying to escape having four eyes. Now that she had contacts, she had no plans to ever go back.
“This is how your hair looks after I’ve had my fingers in it for a long time. Are you trying to drive me crazy?”
“I think you’re already there,” Lacy said. He advanced on her, but she leaned away. “Wait. Close your eyes.”
He closed his eyes. She popped out her retainers and clasped them out of sight behind his back. “Okay,” she said.
“What was that about?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she said.
“So mysterious, Miss Steele.”
“So delusional, Mr. Cantor,” she replied.
Sometime later, they emerged from the closet together. Maybe if people knew she’d been having a tête-à-tête in the supply room, they would think that was why she was so disheveled. No such luck, though. There was no one around. Jason followed her toward her office to retrieve the electronic key information for the pool room.
“Maybe I’ll get lucky and whoever killed Summer was stupid enough to use his own key,” he said.
“Or her. Summer had a lot of female enemies, too,” Lacy pointed out.
“Why did Summer have enemies?” Jason said. “She was just Summer.”
Lacy rolled her eyes, but she was in front of him so he didn’t see. His high school experience had been very different from hers. Before she could answer, Coach Wilson rounded the corner and called to him.
“Jason Cantor, as I ding diddly live and breathe.”
“Coach Wilson,” Jason said, his tone a combination of delight and wonder. Obviously the non-swearing was new for him, too.
They hugged in the manly way that athletes do, more of a chest bump than an actual embrace. “Now tell me this, boy,” the coach demanded. “Why aren’t you playing in the flapjacking alumni game?”
“I had no idea there was a game until Lacy told me. Then I rifled through my mail, found the form, and realized I had passed the RSVP date.”
“Boy, you were one of the best quarterbacks I ever coached. You don’t need a blast dagged form. You don’t even need to practice. Just show up on Saturday ready to throw. Look at you.” He stood back to admire Jason’s buff physique. “I bet you work out every flapdoodle day.”
“Almost,” Jason confessed.
“Thatta boy,” the coach said. Then he punched Jason in the stomach, hard. “I’ll see you in the game, son.” He left without ever acknowledging Lacy’s presence.
Jason let out a rush of air and rubbed his stomach. “Geez,” he breathed.
“Are you bleeding internally?” Lacy asked. She rushed forward and laid her hand gently over his.
“There’s a high probability. I need a nurse and some TLC, stat.” He reached for her, but before he could connect, Riley and Kimber exploded out of the hallway, laughing and giggling together. They caught sight of Lacy and bustled forward.
“Guess who’s here,” Kimber whispered.
From their tone, Lacy had a pretty good idea. “I don’t want to know,” she said with a pointed glance at Jason.
” Riley said. Her pointed glance at Jason was filled with mischief.
“Him who?” Jason asked.
There was no need to answer because as they watched, Chester Campbell rounded the corner and made a beeline for Lacy. “Someone told me you’re the owner of this hotel,” he said.
Kimber nudged her. Until then, she didn’t realize she had been staring, mouth agape. “Yes.” They were eye to eye. Didn’t he used to be taller? Because she was short, height had never been important to her in a man, but she could have sworn that Chester was taller. And broader. They probably wore the same shirt size. Had he always been so diminutive?