A Gilded Age ghost helps psychic painter Celeste Cabot catch a killer . . .
Rising up against the beautiful backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Biltmore Estate is a magnificent mansion in Asheville, North Carolina, built as a summer home for George Washington Vanderbilt II—yes, of those Vanderbilts—during the Gilded Age. Nowadays, it's the site of an annual craft fair. Unfortunately, it's also about to become a crime scene . . .
Celeste is hard to miss as she pulls up with her pink and white Shasta trailer and adorable Chihuahua, Van Gogh—Van for short. But before she can show off her artwork at the fair, a tour guide is found strangled by a velvet rope barrier and a valuable painting goes missing. With a rogues' gallery of sketchy suspects, Celeste welcomes the help of a pair of handsome detectives—and a ghost with a special interest in the case . . .
Release date: December 29, 2020
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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Murder Can Haunt Your Handiwork
A loud crash echoed across the expanse of the massive room. Screams soon followed. Somehow, I knew the sounds were related to my brothers and/or my father. They were always in the middle of the chaos. If something destructive happened near them, then they were somehow typically involved.
I dashed around the corner and saw my brother Stevie standing behind the red velvet barrier rope. The space had been blocked off so that tourists would know to stay out. Either my brother chose to ignore the rope and the KEEP OUT warning signs, or he truly was clueless. Honestly, I thought he was just kind of oblivious. My brothers never meant harm. They just lived in their own little world.
My other brother, Hank, stood behind the rope barrier, too. Which one had knocked over the KEEP OUT sign? Fortunately, the large ceramic urn nearby, which I knew had to be an expensive piece of artwork, had survived the Cabot tornados. What did they think the KEEP OUT sign was there for, anyway? The piece had to be pricey and of significant importance, since it was featured on top of a pedestal column at the Biltmore Estate. Yes, my brothers were a walking disaster. It was no wonder, though. Their clumsiness combined with their muscular physiques made the right mix for disaster.
My family and I were currently touring the magnificent Biltmore mansion in Asheville, North Carolina. My family included my mother, father, grandmother, and two brothers. Now I questioned why I had agreed to come along with them for the tour. Obviously, I’d been wrong when I’d thought they could behave themselves, even for a short time.
My petite, gray-haired grandmother stood a good distance away from us, clinging to her brown pocketbook as if she might have to make a quick escape. Probably good thinking on her part. This wasn’t her first rodeo with this bunch.
My mother clutched her pearl necklace as if the jewelry would save her from fainting. I’d picked out the necklace that my father had given her for their thirtieth anniversary. She’d pretended she believed he’d chosen the pearls, but she’d winked at me, indicating that she thought I’d made a perfect selection. Sometimes when I saw my mother, it was like seeing my own reflection. The resemblance was uncanny, since we both have dark hair and big brown eyes the shade of one of my favorite things—decadent chocolate.
“I don’t know how I managed to get through over thirty years of this much chaos,” my mother said.
My father was at a vintage car display. The sign recounted that the vehicle was rare, and there were only ten in existence.
“A 1913 Stevens–Duryea C-Six,” my father said to no one in particular.
With the same strong stature as my brothers—although with a smidgen of added cushion—my father would inevitably get into trouble around breakables. As I watched in horror, he lifted the rope and scurried under to the other side. The extra weight around his middle made the movement harder than it would have been years ago, but he still managed to slide underneath.
“Mom!” I pointed.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Eddie,” she said as she ran over to him. “Get out from behind there before they arrest you.”
“Why would they arrest me? They put the stuff here to enjoy, right?” My father reached out and grabbed an ornate vase, about two feet tall, painted with a colorful hunting scene.
Since I’d known him all my life, I understood what he’d said, but others had a hard time deciphering his low, mumbled words. Of course, as I feared, within seconds, the priceless piece slipped from my father’s fingers. My mother dove for the item as if she were the star player in the baseball game trying to catch the ball. This all played out in slow motion. At least, that was the way it seemed in my mind. My mother caught the vase as she plunged to the floor. A groan escaped her lips as she rolled onto her side with the valuable antique still firmly in her arms. Gasps filled the once-silent room.
After catching her breath, my mother lifted the vase. “Got it!”
“Score,” Hank yelled.
As my father helped my mother to her feet, I ran over and grabbed the vase before he had a chance to get his hands on it again.
Two employees, who had barely finished picking up after my brothers, raced over with stunned expressions on their faces. I kind of wanted to just run the other way, because I didn’t want them to know I was involved. Since I now held the valuable piece of art, I supposed it would be hard to act as though I weren’t related to these people. My brothers laughed from somewhere behind me. The male employee, whose grumpy expression seemed deeply etched into his florid face, flared his nostrils and marched over to me. His blue blazer with the Biltmore logo barely contained his hefty girth.
He yanked the vase from my arms. “Please step out from behind the rope.”
His female companion, whose blue blazer hugged a slim figure, motioned for my mother and father to move, as well. Yes, a trip to the Biltmore Estate had definitely been a bad idea. What was once a lovely afternoon was now a complete disaster. I grabbed my brother Hank and pulled him to the side.
“What?” he said with a chuckle. “It was an honest mistake. Dad probably thought this was a flea market and was searching for a price tag.”
“Why were you on the other side of that rope, too?” I asked. “I can’t take you all anywhere.”
“You never take me anywhere,” he said.
“Now you know why,” I said.
Yes, technically, my family had invited themselves on this trip. They’d followed me all the way from Gatlinburg.
Stevie sauntered over to my side. “We just wanted to get a better view of the fancy-schmancy stuff. You can’t blame us for that.”
“Yes, I can blame you for that,” I said in a louder voice than I’d intended.
A third employee joined our group. The word SECURITY was written in big white letters across the front of his black shirt. The tall, muscular, bald-headed man gestured toward the door. “We’re going to have to ask you all to please exit.”
“Oh no, I didn’t get to see everything,” my mother said in a pouty tone.
“Is it really necessary that we leave?” my father asked.
The man stared blankly at my father.
“He wants to know if it’s necessary that we leave,” I translated. “We’ll be good.”
The man gestured toward the door again, giving my father the answer without saying a word.
“Okay, I think it’s best if we just go.” I looped my arm through my mother’s and guided her toward the door.
Glancing back, I realized my father was standing there, staring at the mural on the ceiling. I rushed over and yanked him with me. Everyone in the room stared at us. It was more attention than I wanted. My father and brothers reluctantly obeyed and marched behind us.
“Sorry,” I said over my shoulder to the employees.
Frustration covered their faces, as if they wanted no part of my apology. I totally understood their point of view. Plus, my bank account couldn’t afford reimbursing the estate if one of my wacky relatives broke something. Being asked to leave was a blessing in disguise.
My family and I walked past the groups of tour-goers entering the estate. They looked as if they were having a delightful time. With my family, I realized serenity wasn’t in the cards for me. Bright sunshine surrounded us as we stepped out of the mansion. I blinked, trying to adjust to the light. A vast array of colors surrounded us—the lush lawns and trees full of green leaves. The assortment of trees included magnolia, cherry, and crabapple. Pink hyacinths, yellow daffodils, and red tulips bloomed around the space. It was so much to take in that I felt I’d never see it all.
“Well, thanks to you all, we almost got arrested,” I said. “You should thank me for saving you from going to jail. Once again. It’s like that time you all decided to work on Mr. Renfrow’s car without telling him.”
“We had to test-drive the Cadillac to see if it was fixed. If we’d told him, it would have ruined the surprise,” Stevie said with an impish smile.
“I saved you from being arrested that time, too. Just like now,” I said, pointing my finger.
“Why would you say that you saved us? What did we do?” Stevie asked with a frown.
“She got you out of there without causing any more damage,” my mother said. “You all nearly broke something.”
I motioned for my family to quicken their steps as we marched toward the parking area. With any luck, I’d convince them to go home. Not that I didn’t love my family, but with their natural knack of creating chaos, I felt I owed it to everyone to keep them away. I was staying behind because I’d signed up to be a part of the Fifth Annual Fall Biltmore Estate Craft Fair being held right on the grounds. I couldn’t have been happier about the upcoming event. If my family stayed, I knew something disastrous would happen. It would be like throwing a wet canvas tarp over my beautiful art.
I hoped to sell quite a few of my paintings while here. Each time I signed Celeste Cabot to the bottom of a painting, my heart danced. I took pride in signing my name to each one, since now I was full-time painter. Recently, I’d quit my job at my Aunt Patsy’s diner back in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and decided to chase my dreams. Never had I thought I’d have this opportunity. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was giving it my best shot.
As soon as my family left, I’d head over to the perimeter of the estate, where the craft fair was to be held. Tomorrow was the first day, and I had a lot to do before the first customers arrived. Not only did my paintings have to be ready, but I had to finish last-minute tasks, too. There was a lot more to a craft fair than just providing the items to sell.
“Well, goodbye, everyone, it’s been a lot of fun.” I gestured, shooing them away.
“She’s being sarcastic now,” Stevie said.
“You’re right about that,” I said.
“Don’t be too mad at them, Celeste. They didn’t mean to do anything,” my mother said as she patted the backs of Stevie and Hank.
She was always defending them. That was partly why they acted this way. They were always getting into something, and my mother ignored their behavior. My father was either accidentally setting fire to something or injuring himself, sometimes both. Stevie and Hank always broke things, including their bones. The anarchy would never end. One by one, I hugged them all and said goodbye.
“Thanks for coming, you all. I’ll see you back at home,” I said.
“Oh, we’ll be back to help you later,” my mother said with a smile. “Your father needs to eat and take a nap.”
It was as if she were taking care of a toddler.
“What do you mean? Aren’t you going back to Gatlinburg now?” I asked with panic in my voice.
Suddenly my chest felt tighter. My surroundings spun ever so slightly. It was hard to inhale. They hopped in my mom’s blue Buick. My mother lowered the window.
“We’ll be around tomorrow, dear. We haven’t seen all of the estate, either. This is our vacation. See you.” She held a glossy map of the grounds close to her face.
“Yeah, there’s a lot more to do,” Stevie said around a chuckle.
“Yes, we have to see more, I suppose,” my father mumbled.
My family usually relayed my father’s messages to others. Stevie and Hank smiled, and my father said something that I didn’t understand this time. I suppose I wasn’t one hundred percent fluent in his private language. I laughed to myself as the Buick pulled away with a slight squeal of the tires. Of course, people walking around the area all noticed when my family made their grand departure.
I wanted to hide behind the nearest pine tree. There was no time for that, however. They’d already scrutinized me, possibly wondering if I had an answer to why my family was so boisterous. I had no answer for that. Instead, I plastered a huge smile on my face, trying to indicate that everything was just peachy. At least I’d get a sliver of calm before the family storm returned. For now, I was on my way to my latest adventure. Nothing would wipe the smile from my face.
Even if I managed to convince my family to head home, I wouldn’t be alone at the craft fair this week. I had my wonderful friend Vincent Van Gogh. My four-pound Chihuahua was my constant companion. I called him “Van” for short. People would say I rescued him from the shelter, but in reality, he had rescued me. I’d named him Van because he had one ear that flopped over, making it appear as if it were missing. Plus, my obvious love of art had spurred the moniker, too.
My 1947 pink Ford F-1 truck and my adorable pink-and-white Shasta trailer were parked just down the way. That was where I’d set up my art to sell tomorrow. Van was asleep in the trailer, waiting for me to return.
When I reached into my pocket, I realized my keys weren’t there. Panic set in right away. Where had I lost them? This had better not be another of my brothers’ practical jokes, like the time they stole my sneakers from gym class and I’d had to walk home barefoot. I had to find them soon, or I’d have to call a locksmith to open the trailer.
I bet I’d lost them inside the mansion. Would they allow me back inside to search for them? Probably not. Maybe they already had posters of my family plastered around with a NO ENTRY warning. Nevertheless, I had to try. I ran back over to the area where we’d been kicked out only a short time ago.
A middle-aged brown-haired woman stood at the door when I approached. She eyed me up and down. No doubt she recognized me.
I pulled out the ticket stub from my pocket. “I think I lost my keys inside. Do you mind if I go inside and check?”
She shrugged and motioned for me to go inside. I hadn’t expected that. She didn’t even so much as touch my ticket stub. I wouldn’t mention this, though. If I pointed that out, she might change her mind. Once again, I hurried inside the mansion. People spoke in hushed tones in the distance. What would I do if the other employees recognized me? I suppose I’d deal with that when it happened.
With anxiety churning in my stomach, I walked down the hallway. I tried to keep my head held high, as if I were totally supposed to be here. I’d almost made it to the area where the vase incident happened. I figured this was the location where I’d lost the keys. As I headed farther down the hall, a piercing scream rang out. What had happened? Had my family returned? That wasn’t possible, right? The next thing I knew, a stampede of people raced toward me. I dove to my left so that I wouldn’t be trampled.
I landed face first on the floor but not before knocking down one of those velvet rope barriers that I had just chastised my brothers about being behind. I briefly remained motionless, dazed and wondering what had just happened. The crowd thundered by like a herd of cattle without saying a word to me. Apparently, they just wanted out.
I managed to get up from the floor. After straightening my clothing and smoothing down my frazzled hair, I picked up the gold posts holding the barrier rope. Curiosity got me, and I really wanted to take a peek around the corner and see what the crowd could’ve possibly been running from. I didn’t smell smoke, nor did I hear a fire alarm. What other emergency could there have been? One quick glance around the corner, and I saw the motionless woman on the floor.
Was this some kind of stunt? Like one of those murder-mystery theaters? I stared in disbel. . .
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