Oscar-nominated actress Meg Tilly strikes again with the third gripping contemporary romantic suspense novel set on the idyllic Solace Island in the Pacific Northwest.
When Solace Island gallery owner Zelia Thompson’s close friend Alexus Feinstein of the prestigious art gallery Feinstein & Co. dies of a “drug overdose,” Zelia’s intuition sounds an alarm. The Alexus she knew didn’t do drugs and had everything to live for.
As Zelia begins looking into the circumstances of her friend’s death, what she uncovers will put her life in imminent danger. Will Zelia–with the help of the reclusive crime fiction novelist Gabe Conaghan–be able to unravel the mysterious happenings surrounding Alexus’s untimely death? Or will she become the bloodthirsty artist’s next victim?
The sole meunière was cooked to perfection, moist, the brown butter sauce with hints of lemon and parsley was flawless. However, he was only able to swallow a few mouthfuls. Wasn’t able to do justice to the lamb chops. Didn’t even bother attempting the passion fruit pavlova.
The chef appeared like a shadow at his shoulder, worry etching deep groves around his mouth, on his forehead. “Sir,” he said hesitantly. “Dinner? Was it not to your liking?”
“Dinner was fine, Jacques. Feeling a little distracted is all. You know how I am.” He lifted his shoulders in an elegant shrug. “So emotional.”
“Of course. Forgive me. I should have known.” His chef inclined his head, in a modified bow as he backed silently out of the room.
He plucked the white linen napkin from his lap and daintily dabbed the outer corners of his lips. His butler, Fredrick, rushed forward and pulled out his Gothic throne chair¾circa 1850, obtained from a private castle in France¾as he rose to his feet, grace in motion.
He took a few steps then paused. “I thought I saw Tati on the way home,” he told his long-faced butler. “Followed her discreetly in the limo for a while, keeping a half-a-block distance at all times, but then she slipped into a fur shop. I instructed Bob to pull over, got out and entered the shop. In a matter of minutes I found her. She was standing before a three-way mirror, modeling a gorgeous Russian sable coat. I have to tell you, my heart was racing, until she turned around and we were face-to-face. It was then I realized my eyes had been playing tricks on me again. Her nose was the wrong shape, and her irises were brown.” He sighed.
Fredrick cleared his throat. “Well, sir,” he said cautiously. “Always, at this time of year…”
“Yes. Yes, you’re right, of course. Such a disappointment, though, to have one’s hopes so high and then dashed like that. I was tempted to break her nose for being the wrong shape. Gouge out her eyes.” He laughed. Fredrick didn’t. No sense of humor, poor fellow. “That will be all, Fredrick,” he said as he passed his butler standing like a sentinel by the dining room door. “I shall put myself to bed tonight.”
“Very good, sir.”
Once settled in his Italian leather armchair he thought on the fur shop encounter further. The reminder of Tatiana was a sign. It was as if she had descended from heaven and whispered in his ear, “Enough time has been spent, my love, setting the stage. The muse is hungry. Requires sustenance. You must, once again, step into the light.” After two pours of brandy¾Emperador, of course¾his nerves had calmed sufficiently to pick up the phone and make the call.
“Alexus, darling,” he crooned when she answered the phone. Sweat dampened his underarms and the back of his ecru silk shirt. “I was wondering if I could interest you in a little pre-exhibit champagne tomorrow night before the doors are opened to the masses.”
Gabriel Conaghan skimmed over the day’s work and then heaved a sigh of relief. Some days the writing went fast and the words flowed. This had not been one of those days. He had been unable to settle into the world of his novel. His protagonist had felt flat and one-dimensional. He’d gone online to do research only to look up an hour and a half later with the realization that he’d fallen down a rabbit’s hole and was reading stuff that had nothing to do with what he had initially looked up. It wasn’t until he’d disconnected from the Internet and turned his cellphone to Do Not Disturb that he was able to dive fully into Troy Master’s world.
As Gabe saved his work in documents, on his desktop, in the cloud and on a flash-drive, he became aware of the stiffness in his shoulders, neck and lower back. Once again he’d sat at his computer for far too long. Night had fallen, and what did he have to show for it? A few more pages added to his latest manuscript.
He pushed back from his desk and stared out his study window. Not much to see, just the brick wall of the neighboring building. He leaned his face against the smooth surface of the cool windowpane and tilted his head back, as this enabled him to see the smallest scrap of night sky. Suddenly, he longed for more. What “more” was? He had no idea, but lately he had noticed a pervasive feeling of emptiness niggling at him, as if something intangible was missing. The air in his sleek loft apartment suddenly seemed stale, as if the oxygen had been depleted. He’d been holed up in there for a couple of days, writing, eating, sleeping and then writing some more.
He grabbed his cell phone off the desk, got a coat from the hall closet and slipped it on. On his way through the kitchen he poured himself two fingers of whiskey, and then climbed the circular stairs that led to his rooftop terrace.
The slap of frigid air had him turning up the collar of his overcoat; however, he enjoyed the sharp bite of it. Found it invigorating after being glued to his keyboard all day.
What time is it, he wondered. He huffed out a laugh. Forget what time…what day is it? That was the disadvantage of being self-employed; one day blurred into the next. He pulled out his cellphone and clicked the home button. 9:38 PM? Wow, who knew it had gotten that late. He slid the screen up and turned off the Do Not Disturb. Instantaneously his phone started to buzz with incoming messages and emails.
He took a slug of his whiskey and savored the heat as it travelled down his throat, then glanced down at the phone. What he saw had his heart thumping hard in his chest with worry.
There was a profusion of missed phone calls from his mom. Something must be terribly wrong.
Fergus Conaghan looked with satisfaction in the mirror that his wife, Alma, held before him.
“Looks good,” he said. “Perhaps a dab more shadow under the eyes.”
“I will not, Fergus,” she replied with a touch of tart lemon to her voice. “You already look like death warmed over. If I add any more the poor boy will think you’re on your deathbed.”
“Good,” Fergus roared. “I want to scare the crap outta him. I’m sixty-five years old. You turned sixty-one last week. Why isn’t he married? Where are our grandchildren? We should have been gifted with half a dozen by now. But has he done his duty? No! None of the children have.”
“Give him time. He’s only thirty-six¾”
“When I was his age, our fourth child was in your belly¾”
“It was a different era, Fergus¾
“He’s wasting his life, hunched over that keyboard of his. How many blasted murder mysteries must that boy write?”
“He writes crime fiction, honey.”
“How’s he ever supposed to meet anyone when he never goes out? Refuses to socialize. Has his nose to that computer all damned day. The boy needs a good boot in the rear end, and I’m just the man to give it to him. We’re going to send him to Solace Island. No one on God’s green earth could resist the siren’s lure of that gorgeous landscape.” Fergus rubbed his hands together gleefully. “It will lull him away from his keyboard and out into the world. “
“And what if it doesn’t? Fergus, this is a crazy scheme¾”
“Never you mind.” He waved away her objections. “You didn’t marry this wily guy for nothing. This head here?” He rapped his gnarled fist on his temple. “It’s stuffed with high quality brains. You’ll see, my dear. I’ve also devised a devilishly clever back-up plan.” He grinned triumphantly. “What the landscape doesn’t accomplish, the task I give him will. He’ll be forced to talk and interact with people. Real people. Not the make-believe ones that populate those darn books of his.”
The bedside phone rang. Fergus grabbed it. “Yup?”
“Mr. Conaghan,” the doorman said. “Your son is on his way up.”
Fergus hung up the phone and leapt into action. “Draw the curtains!” he yelled. “Turn off the TV. We gotta set the stage!” While she closed the curtains, he dimmed the lights. Oh sweet Jesus! Her make-up was lying on the bed. He snatched it, ran into the master bathroom and shoved the make-up into a drawer. While he was there inspiration struck. He quickly stuck a washcloth under the tap, rung out the excess water and then rubbed the wet washcloth in his hair. The moisture was a good touch. Made him look like he was feverish and sweating. He scrubbed his fists against his eyes to make them bloodshot and slightly swollen. Dabbled a little water on his brow and on his upper lip. Should have been a damned actor, he chortled to himself. I belong on the stage!
The elevator chimed, marking his son’s arrival at their Park Avenue penthouse.
Fergus sprinted back into the bedroom, his hip only giving him minor trouble, dove into bed and yanked the covers over his shoulders. He could hear Alma greeting their son at the door as Fergus sank his body deep into the bed and rattled out a feeble cough.
Let the games begin!
“Not to worry, Dad,” Gabe reassured his father. “I’ll take care of it.
“I…” His father dissolved into a racking coughing fit. “Water … water …”
Gabe grabbed the glass of water off the bedside table and placed it in his dad’s shaking hand. “Here you are.”
His dad took a tiny sip. “Thanks, son.” Fergus’s eyes drifted shut as if wearied by the bout of coughing, the glass resting on his chest. “I feel bad … laying this burden on you,” his father croaked feebly.
“It’s not a burden,” Gabe lied. “I was just thinking I wanted to get out of New York for a while. You’re doing me a favor. I’ll be your eyes and your ears. Will check the place out and send you a report.” Gabriel removed the glass of water from his father’s limp grip and set it back on the bedside table. “And I want you to focus on resting up, regaining your health. Before you know it, you’ll be back on your feet, irritating the hell out of all of your loved ones,” Gabe’s voice was a whisper now, a peaceful lullaby that had lulled his father to sleep. A soft snore was rumbling forth. He was having good dreams apparently, because there was a hint of a smile gracing his father’s lips.
Gabe crossed the room on quiet feet and exited, gently closing the heavy oak door of the master bedroom behind him. He felt as if he’d been run over by a Mack truck.
His mother’s hand lighted on his forearm. “Are you all right, son?” she said in her soft, lilting voice. Her family had immigrated to New York when she was six years old, but traces of the old county Cork accent still lingered in times of stress.
“He looks terrible,” Gabriel said. It was an effort to keep his voice from cracking. “I knew he was fighting a cold last week.” He shook his head. “How could he have deteriorated so quickly? Dad mentioned the doctor ordered a chest X-ray?” His mother was wringing her hands, which was never a good sign. “That Dad might have pneumonia or possibly something worse?”
“I said walking pneumonia,” his father bellowed from behind the closed door. He must have woken up. The man had the ears of an elephant.
His mother bit her lip, her face flushed with emotion. “Don’t you concern yourself too much, Gabe. He’s a hearty old fart.” Her voice was a little sharp. The stress and worry must be getting to her.
He patted her hand. “Don’t worry, Mom. It’s no problem. I’ll throw a few things in my suitcase and catch an early flight out.”
“But your manuscript. I know you have a deadline coming¾”
“It’s not a problem,” he said, pulling her in for a hug, dropping a gentle kiss on the top of her greying hair. She felt slighter than before, more fragile. His parents had gotten old while he wasn’t looking. “I can write anywhere. Will be nice to get away from New York for a while. I was supposed to take Nora to lunch at Le Bernardin tomorrow¾”
“Not to worry, I’ll let your godmother know it will be lunch with me instead.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Give her my love.”
He kept the reassuring smile firmly on his face until the elevator doors closed behind him. Shit. He rolled his shoulders, trying to dispel the tension that had settled there. His father’s request was a massive inconvenience. Would disrupt the flow of his writing to hop on a plane and fly to the Pacific Northwest.
Never mind. Family first, he told himself. You’ll go to this Solace Island. Check out the Mansfield Manor for Father, then return. Back home in four or five days, maybe less.
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.