Grace Cassidy stared at the stranger’s body. He was about sixty, pot-bellied, naked, and very dead. She knew he was dead because his skin was the color of concrete. Worst of all, he was lying smack dab in the middle of her bed.
Icy fingers gripped her heart, then rose to close her throat. Her sweat-soaked silk shirt clung to her skin, and a chill permeated her soul. She shivered. Why in the world did I wear silk to walk on the beach, she wondered, and then gave herself a mental shake. A ruined outfit was the least of her problems.
How did a native Okie end up alone in a Northern California town with some stranger’s corpse on her bed and a dead cell phone in her Louis Vuitton purse? This couldn’t be happening. Not to her. She was Miss Goody Two-Shoes from Southwest Suburbia, USA.
And she couldn’t just stand there, looking at the body, doing nothing. Grace searched her mind for the names of the two women she had met earlier. The zany ones who had asked endless questions that she’d found herself answering for reasons she couldn’t understand.
“Help me! There’s a man in my bed!” She backed out of the room and flew down the creaking stairs of the Victorian inn into the second-floor sitting room. Empty. Where was a busybody when you needed one?
Her gaze swept across the hall, and her dazed brain noted that the brass plaque on the door read “Elizabeth Barrett Browning Suite.” She lifted a hand to pound solid antique wood.
“Let me in. Help me. There’s a dead man in my bed. A naked dead man.”
Footsteps sounded, a deadbolt scraped, and a mature woman stepped into the hallway. She was short and dark, and she moved with dramatic, decisive movements. Theodora. That was her name, Grace remembered.
“Did I hear you say that a naked man is in your bed?” Theodora threw a fringed, gauzy wrap around her shoulders to cover a fuchsia silk caftan that clung to her rounded, still-sexy body. “I’m assuming from your hysterical tone that he’s not your husband.”
“Of course not. I don’t know who he is, but he’s dead. And naked.” Grace blushed, and then bit her lip in self-annoyance.
“Better let me call Pansy,” Theodora said, and knocked on the door to her right. “Pansy!” she called loudly. “A woman here says she’s found a naked body.”
The door opened and an obviously amused blonde stuck her head into the hallway. Both women were a young sixty-something.
“You’re kidding, right?” Pansy ran tapered fingers through her blond hair, then shook her head so every strand settled into silky perfection. She looked at Grace. “Surely you didn’t find a naked body,” she said. “I’ll bet you fell asleep reading a mystery. Just a bad dream, I expect.”
Grace wanted to shout that her whole life was suddenly a bad dream, only it didn’t include unknown corpses in her bed. She took a deep breath, exhaled.
“I wasn’t sleeping. I had just returned from a long walk. You gave me directions for the scenic route to the beach, remember?” She had wanted to walk forever, and almost had. The crisp air, the sun on her back—walking past the rows of Victorian houses to the rocky beach had been the purest of therapies. She had shelved her anger with Charlie and concentrated on long strides and deep breaths.
“You’re sure he’s not your husband?” Theodora stepped forward, reached up, and patted Grace on the shoulder. “Didn’t you tell us the two of you had a little spat in San Francisco? You said—”
“I’m sure.” Grace cut the woman off mid-sentence, vexed at the quantity of information the two women had pried from her in their short casual conversation before her walk.
“Believe me. I’d know my own husband, dead or alive.” And he may be dead after I get through with him, Grace thought.
The women exchanged a look, and Grace read their thoughts.
“I’m not making this up. Where’s a phone? My cell needs recharging and I’ve got to call the police!”
“Of course, dear.” Theodora exchanged another look with Pansy, then stepped forward and took Grace’s elbow. “But first, let’s step into the guests’ parlor and make ourselves a nice cup of tea. There will be time enough afterwards to bother the police. After all, if the man is dead, he’s dead. Another ten minutes won’t alter that fact.” She waved airily toward the small sitting room at the top of the stairs.
“I can’t believe he was naked. Perhaps I should run upstairs and take a quick peek.” Pansy’s eyes sparkled, mischievous as a small child’s. “I might know him.”
“In that case, he’d have been in your bed.” Theodora said.
“I’ve got to call the police.” Grace tugged against Theodora’s firm grip, but the woman was strong for her age.
“Now, now, dear. Let’s just stay calm.” Theodora kept a firm hand on Grace’s arm and led her into the cozy room, then pulled her down onto the Victorian sofa. “First, we’ll drink some tea.” She waved ringed fingers in a graceful movement and looked at Pansy with an expression that suggested they should be tolerant of the madwoman before them. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a body at Wimberly Place before,” she said in what seemed to be a forced conversational voice.
“Dear me, no.” Pansy assumed the same tone. She stepped to the small sink and took floral teacups from an open shelf. She paused as if she were seriously considering the question. “Not a naked one, anyway. There was that sweet old lady who passed away quietly in her sleep last March while we were here on spring break. But she wasn’t naked. I saw her. She wore a really sweet gown. Yellow sprigged batiste, I think it was.” Pansy studied an assortment of tea bags.
“You were here last spring?” Shock numbed Grace. I’m Alice in Wonderland in a deep hole, she thought, with outrageous characters acting a fantasy. “Do you live here?” What kind of kinky inn had she stumbled into in her eagerness to distance herself from Charlie?
“Only during vacations and on holidays. Pansy and I love Port Ortega and spend a great deal of time visiting here at Wimberly Place,” Theodora said. “It’s rather like our home away from home. Both reasonable and charming. We come often and sometimes stay for extended periods of time.” She smiled and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial tone. “Small-town teachers must escape from time to time, you know.”
Grace took a deep breath. None of this was happening. She was dreaming. Soon she would wake up and her only problem would be Charlie and how to tell their nineteen-year-old son Brand about the divorce.
“I think we’d better have chamomile,” Theodora said. Her gaze fastened on Grace, a curious, studying look that alarmed Grace. “To steady our nerves.”
“Excellent.” Pansy chose three bags, stripped paper covers with a neat movement, and put them in the cups. “We’ll need to be calm. If someone really is dead, I expect Mr. Wimberly won’t like it at all.” She pulled a tap, and boiling water poured from an automatic jet. Pansy handed the first cup to Grace. “Was the man big?”
Grace’s hand shook rattling the teacup in its saucer. Neither woman believed her. This Pansy person must be stretching for conversation to ask such a question. Grace set the cup on the table. It was going to take more than chamomile to settle her nerves in this stage-center scene from the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
“Medium height, I’d say,” Grace said to humor the woman, glancing around for a telephone.
“Oh. Height.” Pansy raised an eyebrow at Theodora, who smiled.
Grace rolled her eyes. “I’m calling the police.” She stood and headed toward the stairs.
Theodora rose with unexpected speed and grabbed Grace’s arm.
“I suggest that the three of us go upstairs together and look at whatever it is you’ve seen.”
“I told you, I saw a dead man.” Grace forced herself to speak calmly. “If you don’t believe me, come on up and see for yourselves.”
“I believe we’ll do just that.” Theodora’s authoritative tone verified that she had taught public school for what Grace suspected was most of her adult life.
It took a few minutes for the three of them to reach the top of the stairs. Pansy, who was athletic, paused considerately to wait on Theodora, who seemed to favor her right foot. They walked to the open door and peered in.
“Good grief, he really is naked.” Theodora panted, breathless from the climb.
Pansy moved to the edge of the bed, her hand fluttering around her throat. Grace kept her gaze on Pansy. She didn’t want to look at the body.
“This man isn’t a guest here.” Pansy leaned forward, studying the corpse. “And not really medium sized either.” She sounded disappointed. “Of course, being dead might be a factor.”
Grace blinked. The scene was surrealistic, like a clip from a weird movie. Get a grip, she told herself. But she couldn’t move. All she could do was stand there and think about how the heavy floral scent reminded her of a funeral home. Potpourri, she supposed. The stuff seemed to be scattered everywhere throughout the inn.
“He’s lying in an odd position,” Theodora said.
Grace forced herself to glance at the body. Everything about the guy looked odd to her. And a bit pathetic, too—he was stretched out straight in a helpless manner for all the world to view. She looked away.
“His eyes look like a raccoon’s,” Pansy said. “The poor man must have never slept.” She shot a look at Grace. “You’re sure you’ve never seen him before?”
“I’m sure. We’ve got to call the police, and also tell the owner, Mrs. Wimberly.” Grace could barely speak. She wanted to walk away, but her legs wouldn’t cooperate.
“I hope this won’t ruin the trip Mrs. Wimberly is planning.” Pansy turned away from the body, seeming to dismiss it entirely. “She’s supposed to fly out of San Francisco for Hawaii tomorrow.”
Were these women crazy? Grace took a deep breath and tried to pull herself together. She had to call the police.
“Why should it?” Theodora said. “The innsitter, that nice Mrs. Smith, is due in tonight. Why make a big fuss over the dead body of a person we don’t even know? He probably just wandered into the wrong bedroom and fell asleep—had a heart attack or stroke or something.”
Relief washed through Grace and she took a deep breath. Of course. That had to be what happened. A body in her bed could only be some sort of bizarre mishap. The shock lifted and her indecision evaporated. “I’m calling the police,” she said, and raced downstairs to find a phone.
“You say you don’t know this man? Never saw him before?” Sam Harper’s tone was flat, his eyes bored, as if diplomacy were a dishonest quality to him. Grace figured that was why he was still a sergeant at his age, which she guessed to be about fifty. His tone indicated that he thought Grace was lying.
“I’ve said it three times.” Grace hoped her own tone told him she didn’t care what he thought. “I’ve never seen him in my life. He evidently wandered into my room thinking it was his, undressed, and had a stroke or something. Ask the other guests, I’m sure someone knows him.”
“Hmmm.” Harper lifted an eyebrow and looked annoyed.
Grace figured he hadn’t learned anything from the other guests, but he wasn’t going to admit that, at least not to her. He had ordered the others to stay in the upstairs sitting room and then led Grace down to Wimberly’s office. Grace had glanced behind her and seen everyone clustered about in a gaggle of excitement, their tongues wagging non-stop. And even with the sergeant’s suggestion of murder, Grace could hardly keep from smiling when she thought of Theodora’s and Pansy’s attempts to take another peek at the body. The sergeant had been furious.
She watched as Harper scribbled something on a pad. What was he writing? Or was he just killing time to make her more nervous than she already was? She fought to keep her face expressionless as he lifted his gaze and gave her a drill-to-the-soul look.
Grace met his stare. The man was making her nuts. Desperation made her long for support, any support. Where was Charlie? Much as it had galled her, she had called his convention hotel room three times but received no answer. Maybe it served her right for storming out in a rage after the nasty confrontation with Clover McBride. But how did a woman make polite conversation with her husband’s girlfriend? Certainly not a situation she could handle gracefully. Instead, she’d thrown around a few nasty threats and then packed a bag and headed north. She needed some time alone. But now this wannabe Columbo seemed to think that she was lying.
“I don’t know anyone in this town. I drove to Port Ortega on a whim and landed at Wimberly Place by accident. Why can’t you accept the truth?”
“Two things bother me.” Harper stretched his long legs in front of him and shifted his weight without breaking eye contact. “One.” He held up his index finger. “According to the owner, you walked in unannounced and insisted on a room. ‘Any room would do,’ you said. You were even willing to take a room in the process of being redecorated.”
“I told Mr. Wimberly that I wasn’t choosy. Who cares if there’s only newspapers on the windows?” Grace watched the sergeant’s jaw tighten. She was a woman who cared about such things, and he obviously knew it. But Grace soldiered on. “I was tired of driving. Is that a crime?”
“Number two.” Sergeant Harper held up a second finger, then paused.
“Which is?” The stare-down was tiring Grace. She narrowed her eyes. Damn that cop. He didn’t even blink.
“He didn’t have any clothes.” Harper leaned back and studied her.
“I know that!” Grace said. “I explained it. You have a nasty mind, Sergeant. I was not sleeping with that man. I’m a married woman.” The pious sound of her voice was a big mistake, she knew. But so what? If he could find out that her marriage was on the rocks, he could also find that the problems weren’t caused by her infidelity.
Harper raised an eyebrow. His expression told Grace he would be rich if he had a dollar for every married woman who had slept with someone besides her husband and then lied about it.
“It’ll be easier on everyone if you just told me his name.”
“John Doe.” Grace gave him the icy stare that Charlie always said made her look like a society woman. Poised and self-confident, he said. Not that she ever felt that way. She was forty-three but usually felt an insecure sixteen. Even when she did something smart. But the sergeant wouldn’t know that. She kept her gaze locked to his.
“You can forget your cliché solution. I didn’t know the man.”
“I’m afraid that won’t wash,” Harper said. “You had to know him. The point isn’t that he was naked. The point is that he doesn’t seem to have any clothes—no clothes at all. Not on the floor, not on a chair, not in the closet, not on the cutesy hooks behind the door. Not even in the bushes outside the window.”
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