After suffering a personal tragedy Abby Sullivan buys a huge old seaside mansion she has never even seen, packs up her life in San Francisco, and moves to Holiday Bay Maine, where she is adopted, quite against her will, by a huge Maine Coon Cat named Rufus, a drifter with her own tragic past named Georgia, and a giant dog with an inferiority complex named Ramos. What Abby thought she needed was alone time to heal. What she ended up with was, an inn she never knew she wanted, a cat she couldn't seem to convince to leave, and a new family she'd never be able to live without.
In book 13 in the series, a whole new crop of guests check into the inn bringing their own brand of holiday cheer and murder madness.
Release date: December 15, 2020
Publisher: Kathi Daley Books
Print pages: 133
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Cookies in the Cottage
Despite the foot of snow that had fallen over the tiny coastal town of Holiday Bay, Maine, in the past twenty-four hours, it seemed as if the entire population had shown up for the annual Christmas tree lighting, which always takes place on the first Friday of December. The park had been decked out with colorful lights and pretty decorations, leaving only the official town tree and nearby gazebo to be lit when ten-year-old Sammy Saltzman pulled the lever.
“This really is pretty insane,” I said as I pulled my new red parka even more tightly against my body while settling into the space left for me between my best friend, Georgia Carter, and my boyfriend, Police Chief Colt Wilder. “It has to be no more than two degrees out here, and yet it looks like almost everyone in town has come out for the official start of the Christmas season.”
“Yeah, I suppose it is a bit crazy, but it’s the best kind of crazy,” Georgia responded as she snuggled in closer to her boyfriend, Tanner Peyton. “I really love the fact that the hearty residents of Holiday Bay know how important this is and are here to support one another despite the unseasonably frigid weather.”
I supposed Georgia had a point. Showing up for the annual Christmas tree lighting despite the freezing temperatures that had gripped the town really was the best kind of crazy. During the two years I’d lived here, I’d grown to love all the events that defined the tiny coastal village, but the Christmas tree lighting was one of my favorites.
As the high school band lined up, I paused to consider the fact that the old Abby Sullivan would have stayed home rather than venturing out into the cold; while the new Abby Sullivan, the Abby Sullivan who’d found a way to survive after her husband and infant son had suddenly died, was a bit more resilient. “Do you know if the choir still plans to show up and join the band?” I asked as I struggled to keep my teeth from chattering.
“I think they’re going to do a short set,” Colt answered. “Maybe just a song or two. Once the tree is lit, we’ll head over to the bar for something warm to chase the chill away.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said as I tucked my mittened hands up under my armpits for extra warmth. In retrospect, maybe I should have chosen my less fashionable ski gloves over the cute knit mittens I’d selected to match my outfit. Of course, the knit mittens did come with a matching scarf and hat, which really did pull the ensemble together in a way the ski gloves wouldn’t have.
“Oh, look at the carolers,” Georgia said, nodding toward a group of men and women dressed in Victorian suits and dresses.
“They must be freezing,” I said as they headed in our direction.
“I think those dresses are actually pretty heavy, and most of them do have coats on,” Georgia responded. “Isn’t that Sierra and Shelby?” Georgia raised her arm and waved it over her head.
“Yes. I think it is,” I answered, adding my arm to the wave as the two young women walked toward us. Sierra Danielson and Shelby Morris were two of the three sisters who’d stayed at the Inn at Holiday Bay just before Thanksgiving. The two half-sisters, along with the third half-sister, Sage Wilson, had inherited an estate from a woman they didn’t know named Henrietta Rosewood and had come to Holiday Bay to sort out the details of their grandmother’s fairly complex Last Will and Testament. Once the will was read and Henrietta’s stipulations met, they’d left but had promised to return for the Christmas holiday.
“Abby. Georgia. I was hoping you’d be here,” Sierra greeted, hugging me first and then Georgia. “It’s freezing out here.”
“Yes, it really is,” I agreed. “But I suppose that’s part of the charm of a Maine Christmas. Is Sage here?” I inquired about the third sibling.
“No,” Shelby answered. “She won’t be here until around the fifteenth, but Sierra and I are all settled into the house for the holidays.”
“I’m thrilled to hear it worked out the way you’d hoped.”
“It’s been a crazy ride, but so far, I have to say I’m really enjoying it.” Shelby smiled. “Well, maybe except for the bracing temperatures.”
“I heard it’s supposed to warm up in a few days,” Sierra added as she hugged her newly discovered sister’s arm, and both girls settled in next to us.
“I’m really hoping the weather improves before Sage arrives. The girl lives in California. She’s going to hate these subfreezing temperatures, and I really want her to have a good time. A lot rides on her deciding that she wants to spend all her holidays here on the east coast.” She drew out the word all.
“It will be fine even if the temperature doesn’t improve,” Sierra assured her sister. “We’ve made it this far; we’ll figure out the rest as we go.”
I had to admit that the sisters had come a long way in a short amount of time. A codicil had been written into the will that mandated that the three sisters, who’d never even heard of each other before arriving for the reading of the will, work together to complete specific tasks, including the dispersal of the items they’d inherited jointly. The will’s codicil required that all three sisters agree on how to settle the estate. If an agreement could not be reached relating to any item, the item in question would be removed from the inheritance package and dealt with separately. The only item the sisters couldn’t agree on was the house here in Holiday Bay, which Shelby wanted to keep, Sage wanted to sell, and Sierra wanted to have time to look through everything in their grandmother’s home and sort through her feelings before deciding. A compromise had been suggested, and all three sisters agreed to spend Christmas in the house before reexamining the situation. I knew that the outcome of this trial run at the house would most likely determine the fate of the huge waterfront estate as well as the fate of the relationship the sisters were just beginning to forge.
“So how has it been staying in the house?” Georgia asked as everyone snuggled in even closer as the crowd grew larger.
“It’s been an interesting experience,” Sierra said in a tone of voice indicating that what she really meant by interesting was weird.
“Oh. How so?” I asked.
She glanced toward the tall tree that was waiting for the magical switch to be thrown. “It’s a sort of complicated situation.”
“We’re going out for a drink after this,” I said. “You’re welcome to come along.”
“Yes, do come,” Georgia quickly seconded.
“We hate to intrude on your date,” Sierra said.
“It won’t be an intrusion,” Georgia said. “I promise. Besides, I’m totally interested in the details relating to your time in the house.”
“Well…” Sierra hesitated.
“Yes, join us,” Tanner said after Georgia gently shoved an elbow into his side. “We want you to. I’m sure we’re all interested to hear what you have to say.”
“Okay,” Sierra said. “If you’re certain it will be okay.”
“Of course, it’s okay,” I said just as the countdown began and the lights that must have taken a large crew a full day to hang illuminated the dark snowy sky.
Once the tree was lit, we decided to head directly to the bar since we figured the drinking establishment would get crowded once the masses began to disperse. Luckily, we happened to arrive in time to snag a large corner booth in the back. Colt ordered Irish coffees all around, and once they were delivered, Sierra and Shelby settled in to share their story.
“As I mentioned to you a couple weeks ago, my plan was to go home, get whatever belongings I’d need for a prolonged stay, and then return to Holiday Bay and start sorting through everything in the library and attic,” Sierra began. “Shelby agreed to help me, so we’ve both been here since this past Sunday. During the five and a half days we’ve been here, some strange things have occurred that we’re having a hard time explaining.”
“Strange how?” I asked.
“Basically, there have been all sorts of strange noises and lights. It’s always after dark, and usually late at night,” Sierra answered.
“We know the house is old and old houses are apt to settle. We expected a certain amount of groaning from the walls, but what we’ve experienced has seemed excessive,” Shelby added. “And then there’s the fact that the noises only seem to happen at night. If the creaks and groans are caused by something like temperamental plumbing, don’t you think we’d hear the sounds at all times of the day and night?”
“It does seem that if you had noisy plumbing, you’d hear it at various times of the day, but it is quieter at night, so maybe you can only hear the sounds when the noises of everyday life have been muted,” Georgia suggested.
“Initially, I had a similar thought,” Sierra said, “but then we found the diaries.”
“Diaries?” I asked.
Sierra took a deep breath and started in. “Shortly after we arrived, we found a locked door in the master suite. We assumed the door led to a closet or storage space, but we didn’t have a key, so we couldn’t check it out right away. Two days ago, we had the locksmith come out, and once the door was open, we discovered that it led to a room that it appears Henri used as an office rather than a closet or storage room. Shelby and I decided to look through the items in the room, and we found a locked drawer that we eventually managed to pry open. We found several diaries inside the drawer.”
“The diaries are personal,” Shelby said. “In fact, once we started reading the first one, we discussed the fact that maybe they might be too personal for a third party reader, and perhaps we should simply store them.”
“But there was something about the honesty with which this woman bared her soul that was very alluring,” Sierra added. “We really wanted to know our grandmother, and reading her private thoughts allowed us to do just that.”
“That makes sense,” I said. “There’s no way to know if Henri intended for anyone to read the thoughts she left behind, but it seems that if by doing so, it has allowed you to be closer to her, then she’s probably fine with it.”
“That’s what Shelby and I finally decided,” Sierra said. “I, for one, feel more connected to her than I did before we found the diaries.”
“Me too,” Shelby said. “And it was while reading these diaries that we found recent passages relating to strange noises and lights. The descriptions seem to line up perfectly with the noises and lights Sierra and I have been experiencing since we’ve been staying at the house.”
“So Henri heard the same noises and saw the same lights as the two of you.” I clarified.
Shelby nodded. “It appears that during the last months of Henri’s life, she’d been having an experience very similar to ours. Of course, poor Henri thought she was losing her mind. She wrote in her current diary that she tried talking to her doctor about what she’d been experiencing, but he just prescribed antipsychotics.”
“So, what are you saying?” Georgia asked. “Do you think the house is actually haunted?”
“Not by a ghost,” Shelby answered. “But something is going on. Something unusual that can’t be explained away by old plumbing or a settling foundation.”
“We believe that Henri was being haunted by a person,” Sierra added. “We don’t know who, and we don’t know why, but we believe it might be the actions taken by this ghostly person that led to her death.”
“Led to her death?” I asked. Now that I thought of it, I realized that I had never asked about the details relating to the woman’s death. I knew she was an older woman, so I supposed I’d just assumed she’d died of an age-related malady such as a stroke or heart attack.
“Henri died as the result of injuries sustained when she fell down the stairs,” Shelby explained after a brief pause. “With everything that has been going on, we believe that the same person who has been trying to scare us scared Henri, which is what caused her to fall down the stairs.”
“I wasn’t aware that Henri died due to a fall down the stairs,” I said. “What happened exactly?”
“We don’t have all the details,” Sierra informed me. “What we do know is that the cook, a woman named Alma, found Henri at the bottom of the stairs when she came into work one day.”
“So she didn’t live in?” I asked.
“No. None of the help lived at the estate,” Sierra answered. “Alma had been working at the estate for a lot of years, however, and was sort of a supervisor.”
“She came out to the house five days a week to cook for Henri and to oversee the other help who tended to come and go,” Shelby added. “When she arrived for her shift on the day in question, she found Henri at the bottom of the stairs, alive but unconscious. She called 911, and Henri was taken to the hospital in Portland. She died two days later due to the injuries she sustained in the fall.”
“And you think she fell due to the haunting.” I clarified.
“We’re not sure, but after living in the house and experiencing the strange phenomena, we think it’s possible. At the time of her death, everyone assumed that Henri had tripped on the runner at the top of the stairs and fallen, but we’re uncertain of that now.” She looked at Colt. “We were hoping you could look into things.”
“I know that you’re probably thinking that it’s more likely that she simply tripped than it is that she was scared into falling, but after reading her accounts of the strange things going on in the house and comparing them with our own strange experiences, we really think that someone might have intentionally tried to kill her,” Sierra added.
When Colt still didn’t answer, Shelby jumped back in. “We know it’s a longshot that you’ll be able to find anything at this point, but the fact that this ghost suddenly appeared seems suspect to us. Henri lived in that house her whole life, and nothing we read in any of her old diaries indicated that she felt the house was haunted until a few months before she died.”
“All we’re really asking is if maybe someone can come by and look around,” Sierra added. “If someone rigged props of some sort to scare Henri, then maybe they left some sort of evidence behind.”
Colt nodded. “Okay. You’ve made a good case. I’ll come by tomorrow, and I’ll bring my friend, Lonnie Parker, with me. He’s a contractor. We’ll look around and see what we can find. If there’s evidence of tampering, then maybe I’ll take a second look at Henri’s death.”
“Thank you,” Sierra smiled. “That’s really all we can ask.”
“You mentioned that Henri was prescribed antipsychotics,” I said. “Did she suffer long-term mental health issues that would cause her doctor to assume she was seeing things?”
“We don’t have all the details,” Sierra began. “Shelby called and spoke to her doctor, who told us that Henri had suffered from depression and paranoia at various times in her life, but he didn’t go into a lot of detail. We do, however, feel that we have a better idea of what Henri went through after reading her diaries.”
“It seems that while Henri was a very wealthy woman, she was also a very sad and lonely woman,” Shelby shared. “After Denver died, she was faced with the fact that she’d never have grandchildren to dote on. It seemed that was when the depression began. Or at least that’s when it began to take on serious undertones.”
“Based on what we read, it seemed that Henri had been feeling trapped by her life circumstances for a while by that point,” Sierra provided.
“What do you mean?” Georgia asked.
“Henri talked about what it was like being brought up as an heir to a fortune,” Sierra answered. “She wrote about the fact that her money had prevented her from ever being able to trust anyone. When she was just eighteen, she was briefly married to a man who turned out to only care about her money. After that disaster, she spent most of the rest of her life alone.”
“She had all this money, which opened certain doors for her, but she’d also been used many times during her life by those wanting something from her,” Shelby added.
“Based on those experiences, she eventually closed herself off to the idea of allowing anyone into her life,” Sierra continued.
“Until Tex,” Shelby said.
“The man who fathered your father,” I said.
Shelby nodded. “Henri seemed to really love Tex. So much so that she allowed herself to trust him. She opened her heart to him in a way she hadn’t opened her heart to anyone for a very long time, but then once she began to trust him, he began to ask things of her. Eventually, he asked her for a large amount of money for a venture he was interested in, and once she gave him the money, he disappeared.”
“And shortly after he left town, she found out that she was pregnant with our father, Denver.” Sierra wiped a tear from her cheek.
“She raised that baby on her own,” Shelby said in a strong voice. “She did the best she could to bring him up to be a good man, but we all know how that turned out.”
“The poor woman,” Georgia said.
“Tex leaving seemed to have devastated her, and based on what we read, the experience seemed to further destroy her trust in people in general,” Sierra explained.
“So she spent the rest of her life alone,” Shelby said. “Well, mostly alone,” she qualified. “She seemed to have business acquaintances, but no real friends and definitely not another man, and she had staff who came in most days of the week.”
“I wonder why she kept that huge house if she lived in it alone,” I asked.
“Actually,” Sierra said, “there is one diary where she seriously contemplates moving to Boston. She talks about liquidating the estate and donating the proceeds to charity. I guess this occurred shortly after Denver’s death, but before she found out about us. Up to that point, I think she was keeping the house for the future grandchildren she very much seemed to hope to have one day.”
“But then her only son died, and she realized there wouldn’t be any grandchildren, so she considered selling,” Shelby said. “She even told her attorney to look into the idea.”
“But then she found out about us,” Sierra added.
“And she abandoned her idea to sell the house and came up with the plan to leave the house and the rest of her estate to us,” Shelby said.
“From what I understand, she found out about you over four years ago,” Georgia said. “In all that time, she never reached out to you. I wonder why.”
“Sierra and I have been asking ourselves that same question since we began reading the diaries,” Shelby said. “Henri seemed to find out about us within a year of Denver’s death. She changed the idea she’d been contemplating to sell the house in order to hold onto it for us. Yet never once, in the four years between finding out about our existence and her death, did she reach out and attempt to make contact with us.”
“If she had reached out to you, would you have wanted to see her?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Shelby answered. “I’d like to think I would have, but I grew up knowing that my father deserted my mother after he found out she was pregnant. I hated this nameless, faceless man, and there is a good possibility that my nineteen-year-old self would have hated Henri as well.”
“I agree,” Sierra added. “While I feel nothing but compassion for the woman after reading her diaries, I’m not sure I would have felt this way had I met her at some point before her death. I mean, here was a very wealthy woman who did absolutely nothing worthwhile with her money. She could have used her riches to help others, but she never did. She could have lived a full and meaningful life, but rather than establishing a foundation or participating on charitable boards, she simply locked herself away and did nothing.” She paused and then continued. “I hate to admit it, but in the absence of knowing what I know after reading her diaries, if this woman had come to me with a grand announcement that she was my grandmother, I think I very well might have shunned her.”
The conversation paused when the waitress came by to see if we needed food or refills. This gave me a minute to stop and ponder the idea that Henri had been intentionally terrorized. It sounded as if the woman had lived a mostly solitary life. She hadn’t seemed to interact with people much, which made me wonder what she might have done that would cause anyone to want to harm her. She did seem to have had a lot of money. I supposed that, in the end, we’d find it was her fortune that not only directed her life but had acted as the catalyst which had led to her death as well.
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