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When Jillian and her garden club friends decide to take a fall color tour in New England, they have no idea the resort they choose as home base will soon be a setting for murder. And more than one. Who killed the hotel's head chef in his own kitchen and why? His curisine was excellent, but his personality left a bad taste. Together with Jillian's Yorkie companion, Teddy, and the help of her garden club, Jillian works with Police Chief Mark Taylor in uncovering the killer.
It was Ann Fieldman’s turn to host the Garden Club this month. Ann was my best friend and a woman I much admired. Not only was she a beautiful, sophisticated brunette, towering above my 5' 3'' frame, Ann was a world traveler with a master’s degree in French.
In a way, I dreaded our time together for fear she and my other garden club friends would ask about my recent trip to Costa Rica to visit the botanist I should have married.
It wasn’t that the trip turned out badly – the visit was quite enjoyable, except for the uncomfortable way we parted.
I heaved a long sigh and cast a loving glance at Teddy, the little brown fur ball with blond highlights sitting at my feet. He cocked his head and yipped at the set of keys jingling in my hand.
“Yes, sweet doggie. You’re coming with me to Ann’s. I know you’re excited. I’ll let you outside in the yard for a minute. After you’ve finished, I’ll get your leash and we’ll be ready to go.”
Teddy wagged his tail and panted at the mention of the word “go.” It was one of his favorite words along with “walk,” “fetch,” and “dinner.”
After buckling him safely in his special car seat, we headed to Ann’s house through the golden, rolling hills of the Bay Area. Though the hills were referred to as “golden” because of the 1849 Gold Rush, I always thought of them as golden due to the dead grass.
When we arrived, I noticed other garden club members’ cars parked in front. It appeared Nicole King and Dominique Summers were early.
Or was I late?
“Come on, Teddy. Let me get you out of your seat and get your leash on.” I attached his red-rhinestone leash, which looked a little worn, to his collar, picked him up gently and made our way to the front door, and knocked.
“We must buy you a new leash. I can’t have you looking neglected in front of my friends.” How nice, I thought, to be able to shop for one online.
Within seconds, Ann answered the door wearing a turquoise sleeveless blouse and a pair of dressy white slacks. As always, she looked stunning.
Turquoise was her favorite color. Second only to purple, most of her clothes were turquoise. Even the walls in her family room were painted in her favorite color.
“Jillian!” She gave me a hug and peck on the cheek.
“Good to see you, Ann. I Hope you don’t mind Teddy coming with me.”
“Not at all. Teddy is always welcome. Come in.” She gently scratched his ear. “Hi, little cutie.”
With Teddy’s leash and my purse added to the others on the entry bench, he rushed into the other room to greet the other ladies. I glanced around at Ann’s lovely home and admired the magnificent view of her backyard filled with summer blooming shrubs and towering redwood trees, which bordered along the rear fence.
We’d been friends for so many years. I still remember when Ann first planted them. Yes, a walk around the grounds was definitely in order before I had to face the others.
Nicole smiled as I entered the family room. “Jillian, it’s good to see you again.” She was the savvy financial advisor of our group. We looked as different as night and day – she with her beautiful, long black tresses and me with my shoulder length blonde hair.
“How was your trip?” she asked.
A typical question I would ask someone. Why did I hedge?
“I had a good time. Thanks for asking. How’s your family?” Would she notice my avoiding the subject?
Diminutive Dominique, ever the shy one, hugged me gently. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you,” she said as she searched me with her large brown eyes. “You’ve been to Costa Rica, I hear.”
It was no use. My friends would not rest until I told them about going to see my old flame, Vincent Fontaine. Perhaps I’d throw them a bone for distraction.
“Before Jillian tells us all about her trip, let’s have a walk in the garden,” Ann said. “Afterward, we’ll have tea.”
Good. A reprieve. Time to think of unimportant but placating details to keep my friends from knowing the truth about what had happened. Why was I so worried? Even I didn’t know what Vincent meant by what he said.
The garden was exquisite with deep blue morning glories climbing along the fence, rich magenta bougainvillea trellised on the deck wall, and a contemporary fountain bubbling in the middle of the courtyard in the side yard.
Ann was an accomplished gardener as well as a host extraordinaire.
The table was beautifully set for tea with ivory linens, a bouquet of lilacs, and “Old Country Roses” china Ann inherited from her mother. It was sad her mom died at such an early age from bone cancer. They were close. Since I was eight years older than Ann was, she often regarded me as a mother figure, which I didn’t mind at all.
After we took our places at her lovely table, Ann offered milk for our tea, poured out, and stirred in sugar for those like me who insisted on sweetness.
“I’m serving your favorite mix of Darjeeling and Earl Grey in honor of your return trip, Jillian.”
“How nice. Thank you. I’m convinced it tastes like the tea we had in London.”
I swallowed hard, remembering the good times. And the bad.
Teddy patiently waited at my feet for any morsels I might choose to share. He was an intelligent little thing, especially when it came to making his desires understood. His nose twitched as he sniffed the air for possibilities.
The tea fare was delicious. Ann chose to serve quiche Florentine, a pear and gorgonzola salad with champagne vinaigrette, and fresh fruit compotes rimmed with green sugar. It was a lovely touch.
“We can’t wait any longer, Jillian. Tell us about Costa Rica,” Ann said.
The others chuckled.
I took a long sip of tea and offered Teddy a bite of quiche.
He almost bit my hand off. Maybe I didn’t feed him enough breakfast this morning,
“I’m sorry, Ann. You were saying?”
The women stared at me, astonished!
I cleared my throat. “Costa Rica was beautiful. I stayed with Vincent’s friends who were gracious, and we had an enjoyable time together. He showed me all over the country including the botanical research facility where he works at the university. You know how much he’s into orchids.”
My friends looked serious. They must have known something had happened between Vincent and me.
“So, what happened?” Nicole asked.
I took a deep breath. “I’m not really sure. On the way to the airport as I left, Vincent admitted he wasn’t going to marry me.”
Gasps all around the table.
Dominique scrunched her face. “Wasn’t going to marry you or couldn’t marry you, Jillian?”
“He may have said couldn’t, but all I heard was the ‘wasn’t’ part.”
I broke down, laid my napkin on the table, and scooped Teddy up into my arms. “I’m sorry. Excuse me for a moment, please.”
My friends sat stunned, but only for a few moments until they followed me into the living room.
I sat on the curved white sofa trying not to cry. “I’m sorry to have ruined your tea, Ann. It wasn’t fair after all the trouble you went through.”
She put her arm around my shoulder, and gently stroked Teddy. “I’m sure Vincent had a good reason for saying he can’t marry you.”
“If what you say is true, why didn’t he tell me what it was? It’s as if he doesn’t trust my love for him enough to support him through something awful. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to tell you at first, but now I’m glad to get it out.”
Nicole hugged me. “We love you, Jillian.”
“We’re your friends and we care about you,” Dominique said.
She had a point.
I caught Nicole whispering to Ann in a conspiratorial manner. What were they up to?
I remembered when I had met each one. Ann, a full time mom, playing with her son as I sat in the neighborhood park resting from taking Teddy on a walk. Striking up friendships with Nicole and Dominique working together on a committee for a neighborhood event.
Our group clicked once we found out how much each of us enjoyed gardening. Soon after, we formed our Garden Club – an excuse to meet once a month for lunch and take in each others’ gardening endeavors.
Teddy licked my hand as if trying to console me.
I smiled at him, and looked at my dear friends. “Thank you, ladies. Your friendship over the years is precious. I’m sure I’ll get over this disappointment, but after all I have been through, it hurts.”
“We can understand,” Nicole said. “You’ve suffered from the loss of two husbands.”
“Thanks, Nicole. Losing one in Vietnam was bad enough, but losing Prentice at our reception was horrible. Oh dear, listen to me discussing unpleasant subjects at tea. I should be ashamed!”
“It’s okay, Jillian,” Ann said. “Speaking of which, if we’re finished, I think it’s time for the surprise.”
Aha! It was close to my birthday, there might be a birthday cake. Any nice surprise in my life at this point would be welcome.
We gathered once again around the table and continued with our tea. The conversation turned to their children finding careers, working on graduate degrees, and hopes that finding mates in the near future would bring the promise of grandchildren.
“Refills?” Ann asked. She poured more steaming tea into my cup.
“How’s the godson, D.J., doing these days?” Dominique sipped her tea. “He’s almost two isn’t he?”
I swallowed a bite of quiche before I replied. “We celebrated his second birthday last December at my house...or rather, at Walter and Cecilia’s.”
“Oh, right.” Nicole used her napkin to wipe the corner of her mouth. “How do you like living in your new cottage? It was the old worker’s house you renovated on the back of your property, wasn’t it?”
“Actually, I like the coziness of the smaller space. It’s much easier to keep. But the best part of the move is I’m frequently a dinner guest in my old kitchen with Walter and Cecilia. She loves to cook, and with me entertaining D.J. while she whips up a meal is a win-win situation for both of us. Cooking for one grew tiresome after so many years.”
“I’m sure we’ll all eventually reach that point.” Nicole was being kind as usual.
As we finished eating, Dominique began clearing away dishes. “I can’t wait for Jillian to hear about the surprise.”
Nicole smiled. “Ann, may I help you with dessert?”
“Sure, I could use an extra set of hands.”
All three of my friends sang me Happy Birthday as Nicole carried in the fresh strawberry cake lit with a single candle.
I was touched. “Oh, thank you!”
Teddy yipped as if he expected me to give him a morsel, which made my friends chuckle.
“Make a wish, Jillian,” Ann said.
I closed my eyes, made a special wish to find the truth about Vincent, and blew out the candle.
“Ann, this cake is delicious.” I took another forkful of yellow butter cake frosted with whipped cream and strawberries. It tasted especially good with the tea.
“I’ll clean up later,” Ann said. “Let’s all go into the living room for the surprise.”
My curiosity was peaked! I took a seat on the sofa and held Teddy in my lap.
“What have you ladies been up to?” I asked. No visible birthday presents anywhere.
Ann began. “The last time we met, you were in Costa Rica. We talked about many things but one thing in particular stayed with us.”
“We think we should take a girl’s getaway at least once before we’re too far over the hill,” Nicole said.
Dominique sat back and crossed her legs.
“You’ve mentioned on more than one occasion how much you’d love to see New England in the fall, Jillian,” Ann said.
“I’ve always dreamed of going to upstate New York. I’ve heard raves from people who’ve been there.”
“So if you’d like to join Nicole and me....”
“Unfortunately I’m on a buying trip to Zambia when they plan to go.” Dominique was a buyer for African art from her home country.
“We’ve planned a trip for the three of us!” Ann said.
Words wouldn’t come. After a moment, I said, “What a perfectly awesome idea!”
“Oh, good!” Ann said.
“I knew you’d like the idea.” Nicole hugged me.
“This is quite a birthday gift!” I was kidding, of course. “I don’t mind paying my own way.”
Nicole and Ann smiled at each other.
“It’s only part of the surprise.” Dominique uncrossed and crossed her legs again. “Why don’t you tell her the best part, Ann?”
Ann finished a bite of cake. “When I checked for tours and accommodations, there weren’t many venues who took dogs. Not even thinking about it, I found a photo of this charming colonial inn and called. The place sounded perfect until I mentioned Teddy.”
Nicole chimed in.
“Before Ann ended the call, the woman handling the reservations suddenly recognized who we were from our first murder incident in Half Moon Bay years ago.”
“Who was she?” I asked.
“Do you remember Ingrid Sorenson?” Ann asked.
I racked my brain.
“The woman who headed the master gardener program at LaBelles Nursery in Canyon Grove?” I leaned forward.
Teddy jumped off my lap, positioned himself at my feet, ears cocked, and waited for a morsel of cake.
I slipped him a tiny bite of strawberries and whipped cream, which he accepted gratefully with a wag of his tail.
“The same one,” Ann said. “When I mentioned your name and explained about Teddy, she graciously offered to let you stay in her cottage on the property. I told her we’d do our best to convince you.”
“Of course, Ann and I will stay at the inn. We reserved a suite overlooking Mirror Lake.”
“Mirror Lake?” I sat up. “That’s where we’re going? Isn’t it near Lake Placid where the winter Olympics was held?”
Dominique quickly checked Google for the information. “The one in 1932 and in 1980.”
“So you’re in, Jillian?” Ann nodded.
“I would love to see Ingrid again. What’s she doing in Lake Placid?”
Nicole accepted another refill from Ann, and spoke.
“After her husband passed away, her daughter, Claire, I think her name is, insisted she move closer to her. Claire is a host for a restaurant at the Mirror Lake Inn and helped her mother find a desk clerk job when there was an opening. Ingrid’s worked there three years now, she said.”
“How does she like living in upstate New York?” I asked.
Ann shrugged. “She said she loves the Adirondacks and most of the people she works with.”
Most was not lost on me.
Dominique furrowed her brow. “Didn’t Claire get married around here somewhere? Was it at the Canyon Grove Country Club?”
“I remember attending her wedding,” I said. “It was at Elliston Vineyards in Canyon Grove. A beautiful wedding, as I recall.”
“How did Claire wind up in Lake Placid? A bit far from home, don’t you think?” Nicole stood. “I need to leave soon for an appointment with a client.”
Nicole was always busy with clients since she knew how to make profitable investments.
Ann stood, too, and gathered empty plates. “Ingrid mentioned something about Claire’s husband, Sam. He’s finishing his degree online and working part time at one of the inn’s restaurants. Evidently, Sam is from the area. His father owns a local produce farm close by. Organic, I think she said.”
“Organic seems to be the trend now.” Dominique slipped the strap of her purse over her shoulder to leave.
“I visited Lake Placid once,” she said. “Our son trained for the Iron Man one summer. The area is much different from the Bay Area. More beautiful, I think. I remember the town being quaint with a touch of Sweden.”
“It must have been the Olympic influence. Don’t they call sites like Lake Placid ‘Olympic villages?’”
Ann’s comment triggered images in my mind of snow covered mountain chalets.
“Wait a minute.” She took out her cell phone. “I have a picture of Mirror Lake Inn.”
The hotel reminded me of the inn in the movie White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. “How lovely. The structure looks old, typical of the region from what people have said about the area. I wonder if it’s owned by a chain.”
Nicole hugged us. “I really need to run. And by the way, the inn is family owned. It was built in 1924. I read the history on their website.”
“Interesting.” I wondered if Ingrid’s comment referred to one of the family.
Teddy started for the front door.
“Woof!” He barked.
I shook my head. “I think he’s trying to tell me it’s time to get home. Traffic will be heavy at this time of day. Ann, thank you for the tea party and birthday cake. You ladies have brightened my spirits. I’m grateful.
I secured Teddy’s leash. “By the way, when is the trip?”
“We leave mid-September.” Ann handed me my purse. “I was told it’s the peak season for leaf peepers.”
“Leaf peepers?” I asked.
She smiled. “That’s what they call us.”
“I can’t wait!”
For some reason the term ‘peepers’ made me think of the song, “Jeepers, Creepers,” and the recollection of a horror movie by the name of “Lake Placid” entered my mind.
See you in my books!