Authors: Amy Korman
For Jennifer and her family
HAMPAGNE?” ASKED A
handsome, dark-Âhaired waiter as a jazzy bossa nova percolated through Vicino, Magnolia Beach's newest and hottest restaurant, at 8:30 on a jasmine-Âscented Florida night.
“Abso-Âfreakin'-Âlutely!” shrieked Sophie Shields, a tiny blond woman in purple Versace seated to my right on Vicino's corner banquette. She held her glass up for the young waiter to top up her MoÃ«t.
“Ever since we got to Florida three weeks ago, it's been nothing but champagne and moonlit nights,” Sophie told me. “This place is so darn romantic, it just puts me in the mood to get some lovin'!”
Well-Âdressed Âcouples had turned to gaze askance at our table of five. The word “Abso-Âfreakin'-Âlutely” isn't screamed regularly at Magnolia Beach restaurants, a South Florida enclave where many of the patrons are over seventy and are clad exclusively in Ralph Lauren outfits 24/7.
“And we eat here at Vicino pretty much every night, whereâÂand this is sort of a secretâÂI own forty-Âfive percent of the restaurant!” added Sophie.
“I don't think it's a secret anymore,” observed Joe Delafield, my friend of more than fifteen years. He was seated to Sophie's right, her hand possessively clutching his blue-Âblazer-Âclad arm. “You've announced that you're the co-Âowner of Vicino at every party and every store we've entered since we set foot on this island,” Joe told his girlfriend.
Sophie, the estranged wife of a former mafia-Âconnected real estate developer, and Joe, a preppy thirty-Âsomething interior designer, have been dating for seven months. They're complete opposites, but they seem happy together, much to everyone's shock, including Joe's.
“Yeah, I started out as a silent partner, but it turns out I don't really do silent,” Sophie noted, shrugging.
Holly Jones and Bootsie McElvoy, the remaining members of our party, merely rolled their eyes. Holly and Bootsie went to high school with me in our hometown outside Philadelphia, where in January the weather is slushy, sludgy, gray, and freezing. Holly, who possesses virtually unlimited funds, had decided on New Year's Day that she was relocating to Magnolia Beach to wait out the rest of winter, and Sophie and Joe had followed suit.
Since my own funds are limitedâÂin fact, I barely scrape by at The Striped Awning, the antiques store I run in our village of Bryn MawrâÂBootsie and I were staying with Holly at a house she'd rented. Picture tall palm trees around a pool, a vast living room that opens out to said pool, and white linen sofas everywhere, and you get the idea of the place.
“Can I get a margarita, Patron, extra salt, please?” Bootsie asked our waiter, who was busily uncorking the next bottle of bubbly. “And a double order of the grilled shrimp? And two of the wood-Âfired pizzas? And .Â .Â .” Bootsie consulted the left side of the menu. “Actually, let's have all the appetizers. The oysters, the figs in prosciutto, the scallops, the crab risotto. Just keep them coming.”
Bootsie, who's six feet tall and plays a lot of tennis, can eat like an NFL player.
“Ya got a good appetite!” said Sophie admiringly to Bootsie.
“Seventeen hours in a car can make you a little hungry,” Bootsie told her, while I swigged some champagne, shuddering at her words. I'd spent all seventeen of those hours today with Bootsie in her black Range Rover as she'd sped down I-Â95 from Philly toward this tropical paradise. It had been a white-Âknuckler, with Bootsie speeding, honking, and cutting off 18-Âwheelers during her stint as driver, then yelling at me to go faster when I'd taken the wheel in South Carolina.
Truth be told, and I say this with all due affection for Bootsie, who's a good person and loyal in her own interfering, nosy way, I've envisioned permanently ending our friendshipâÂand possibly ending Bootsie's lifeâÂseveral times since we left Pennsylvania in the predawn hours.
Just then, though, the grilled shrimp arrived, and they were so delicious that I thought maybe the trip had been worth it. A breeze through the restaurant's open French doors wafted the fragrance of camellias our way, and my mood skyrocketed.
“Thank you so much, Holly, for convincing us to come down here! This is perfection.”
Holly and Joe exchanged a meaningful glance, and a tingle portending bad news crept down my spine.
“Perfection might be slightly overstating how things are going on this little boondoggle,” Joe told me.
“There is one small detail I left out,” Holly said, “about what's been going on since we got to Magnolia Beach.”
“Small detail?” said Joe skeptically. “You mean the part when you were almost murdered on Tuesday?”
NTIL THE PREVIOUS
spring, murder, attempted murder, or crime of any kind was never a topic of conversation among my friends, unless you count that time Bootsie toilet-Âpapered the gates to Bryn Mawr Prep during Senior Week back in the late '90s. We'd lived a protected, peaceful existence in our leafy, tranquil Pennsylvania town, where Bootsie works at the local
Bryn Mawr Gazette
, Joe runs his interior design business, and HollyâÂwell, Holly does whatever it is that heiresses to poultry fortunes do all day.
Then we met Sophie Shields. And her soon-Âto-Âbe-Âex-Âhusband, Barclay Shields, who'd been knocked on the head and left for dead under a hydrangea bush across the street from my house. From that moment on, a crime spree erupted around Bryn Mawr, complete with mafia guys in leather sport coats visiting our polo-Âshirt-Âloving town.
As I looked at Holly, who was nibbling a stalk of celery (she doesn't consume much in the way of solid food, which explains her willowy frame), I knew she and Joe were telling the truth: If it had been Sophie who'd claimed she was almost murdered, I'd have been doubtful, but Holly and Joe didn't make this stuff up.
“It was two nights ago,” Holly told Bootsie and me. “I was leaving here around ten, and Jessica and I were heading out to our cars, since these two”âÂHolly indicated Sophie and Joe with a tanned, slim handâÂ“had already left.”
“Cause I needed to get some time alone with my Snuggle Bunny!” Sophie informed us helpfully, adding a meaningful wink. “If ya know what I mean.”
“Whatever,” Holly continued. She explained that she and Jessica, the skinny blond manager of Vicino, had stood chatting near Jessica's car in the side street outside Vicino for a few minutes. Channing, Vicino's Armani-Âmodel-Âlooking chef, had been inside finishing up his work for the night.
We all knew Channing and Jessica, who had lived in Bryn Mawr until moving to Florida last summer to open the restaurant in which we now sat. Channing had been sous-Âchef to a star restaurateur named Gianni Brunello, which was how he'd met JessicaâÂGianni's former girlfriend.
Jessica and Channing had started an affair right under Gianni's nose, and soon afterward they had fled the Northeast. That had been a wise move, because Gianni, who's known for his temper, hadn't been all that happy about the steamy fling his girlfriend and sous-Âchef had been carrying on all over Bryn Mawr, including in the walk-Âin fridge in his restaurant. When the two had decided to open Vicino, both Holly and Sophie had signed on as silent partnersâÂSophie, of course, not staying too silent about her investment in the restaurant.
“So on Tuesday night, all of a sudden, this carâÂit was a small dark red car, maybe a ChevyâÂtore down the alley,” Holly told us, her sky-Âblue, almond-Âshaped eyes wide with remembered fright. “It was aiming right for the two of us, tires screaming, and was literally inches away when Channing opened the kitchen door and grabbed both me and Jessica, one in each arm, and hurdled us over the trash bins.”
“Channing's like a superhero!” Sophie contributed. “I mean, I wasn't there, because Joe and I were home getting some nooky, but it sounds like Channing saved Holly and Jessica's lives! But not their outfits. Holly had on this cotton Prada number, and it got, like, old cocktail sauce all over it,” Sophie added. “It's ruined. Oh, and Jessica sprained her wrist.”
“Maybe the car was being driven by some drunk senior citizen on the loose,” offered Bootsie. “Just look at this crowd. They're plastered!” We looked around at the convivial scene, where the wealthy older diners were knocking back vodka and gin with abandon.
“I don't think so,” Holly told her. “Because the car squealed back around the corner, then turned around and came after us again, but Channing yanked us all inside just as the car took out the trash cans. One more second, and we would have been flattened to death in the alley.”
I felt terrified for Holly, as well as Jessica. Memories from last spring came flooding back; as I'd been trying to help solve the almost-Âmurders of Barclay and Chef Gianni, I'd come within minutes of being killed by a psychotic, country-Âclubbing matron. As beautiful as Magnolia Beach was, if there was a crazed would-Âbe killer driving around town, I wasn't eager to stick around. “This doesn't sound so good,” I told Holly. “I mean, look what happened last May in Bryn MawrâÂwe could have all been killed. If someone came after you once, don't you think they'll try again?” I paused and looked around the table. “We should go home!” I urged.
“Are you crazy?” shouted Bootsie. “There's thirteen inches of snow on the ground in Bryn Mawr. We're staying down here until we figure out who almost ran down Holly and Jessica.”
“What do you think?” I asked Holly. “And what did Howard say when you told him about the alley incident?” Howard is Holly's husband, a waste-Âremoval mogul who owns a lot of trucking companies which keep him too busy to spend the winter in Magnolia Beach.
Holly looks fragile with her thin frame, blond hair, and closet full of two-Âthousand-Âdollar dresses, but she has a surprisingly steely core. “I'm not telling Howard, because he'll make a big deal about it and try to get me to go home.” She squared her shoulders. “I refuse to be intimidated,” she said bravely. “Plus,” she added with a practical air, “I've prepaid the rent on the house until April, and it's thirty thousand dollars a month. If I get run over, at least I'll die in warm weather!”
LEVEN HOURS LATER,
I woke up in the guesthouse of Holly's rented Florida villa, blinked, and looked over at my dog, Waffles, who was slumbering next to me, his portly, sausage-Âshaped, brown and white body snuggled into the 700-Âthread-Âcount duvet. Sun was pouring in through long white curtains, and I couldn't help jumping out of bed and doing a little happy dance around the room. I momentarily shelved the disturbing story of Holly almost getting run down near the trash cans a few nights earlier, and marveled that I was actually here in Magnolia Beach, sun pouring through the windows and a gentle tropical breeze ruffling the fuchsia bougainvillea just outside.
Magnolia Beach is a small island just off the coast of Florida, adjacent to Palm Beach, with a village-Ây setting and beautiful oceanfront houses from the 1920s and '30s. There's a causeway to the mainland and a shopping street that rivals Worth Avenue, which is just across the inlet. I'm not sure how both islands can support HermÃ¨s, Gucci, and Lanvin stores, but that's because I shop mostly at Target and Old Navy. When Bootsie and I arrived in Magnolia Beach last night, the sun was setting over a bank of pink clouds, the air was scented with namesake magnolia trees, and the crazy drive with Bootsie suddenly seemed worth it.
Honestly, two days ago, as I'd unlocked the doors to The Striped Awning back home in Bryn Mawr after a quick chicken salad run to the luncheonette, I'd pretty much given up hope of ever seeing the sun again. My jeans had been soaked with snow and sleet, and my puffer jacket felt like a wet sleeping bag. The vitamin D levels within my freezing frame had hit an all-Âtime low, and I'd lost all sensation in my toes three weeks before when the temperature had dipped below eighteen degrees and stayed there. I couldn't have imagined I'd be enjoying a view of the indigo pool and white chaise lounges that I could see through the French doors just outside the guesthouse.
Then again, I'd reminded myself that I had a lot to be thankful for, despite the dismal weather in Bryn Mawr in January. While The Striped Awning wasn't too busy this time of year, I had a part-Âtime job helping oversee the renovations on Sophie Shields's new (well, old, since it had been built in 1913, but new to her) farmhouse while Sophie and Joe were out of town. And my friends, who are family to me, were all happy and in love. Holly, who'd been separated from her husband Howard last year, had happily reunited with him. Sophie was almost done settling her mega-Âdivorce from her shady-Âbusinessman ex, and was spending all her free time with Joe.
Bootsie, who's been married almost ten years, was as stable as ever with her husband, Will. Her J. Crew catalogâstyle family, including two toddler boys and two yellow Labs, embodies preppy, sporty perfection. Then again, I don't see much of Will or the kids, because BootsieâÂwhile devoted to her family, not to mention the LabsâÂwell, Bootsie kind of does her own thing. Somehow, despite her job covering real estate and social events for the
Bryn Mawr Gazette
(she mostly writes about gossip), Bootsie seems to have a ton of free time to play tennis, including in the winter, when she's always on the indoor courts at the country club. The rest of the time, she's gathering information in the bar at the club, at the luncheonette, at the liquor store and post office.
I should be happy, I'd told myself as I'd shaken off the snow from my coat and given Waffles a Âcouple of Beggin' Strips for lunch: Everyone was stable and settled.
I mean, just because Holly and Joe had taken off for balmy seventy-Âeight-Âdegree days and left me behind all by myself in an arctic zone, there had been no reason for the pity party I'd been hosting for myself.
I meanâÂand here I couldn't help smilingâÂhadn't
been dating an amazing guy for seven months? This was something of a miracle. I'd met John Hall, a handsome, tall, and good-Ânatured veterinarian, in line at the buffet at a party for the Symphony Women's Board that Sophie had hosted the previous spring. John and I had bumped into each other again at Bryn Mawr Country Club the next day, and sparks had flownâÂsurprising me, because not only did John have great blue eyes, lean arms, and a nice tan from all the work he does with animals at farms outside of Philly but he's also a normal, dependable guy. He played tennis, had four dogs, and jogged. Unlike most of the guys I'd fallen for in the past, John had never once let me down, stood me up, or disappeared to Australia without saying good-Âbye in the time we'd been dating. We grilled steaks and went to flea markets together. We drove to the beach with Waffles and John's pack of motley mutts. We'd even gone on a trip to Tuscany in August, getting together with Holly and Howard and Joe and Sophie.
Of course, there was that one issue with John's divorceâÂJohn had been married to a beautiful tennis-Âplaying WASP named Lilly Merriwether, but they had amicably split almost a year before I met him. Unfortunately, Lilly's mother, Mariellen Merriwether, one of Bryn Mawr's leading doyennes, hadn't been happy about the breakup of her daughter's marriage. Mariellen, it turned out, had had something of a psychotic break about a
of changes going on around Bryn Mawr, and had been the unlikely criminal behind the attack on Sophie's soon-Âto-Âbe ex, Barclay Shields, and had also pushed Chef Gianni off a balcony.
Mariellen had almost succeeded in shooting me, Waffles, and my elderly neighbors, Jimmy and Hugh Best, but we'd been saved when Lilly had come home early from a tennis match and convinced Mariellen to hand over a gun she'd been holding on us. So these days, Mariellen was being cared for in an upscale mental-Âhealth facility in Connecticut, where she's allowed to garden, play bridge, and ride her beloved chestnut horse, Norman .Â .Â . all under supervision, of course, in case she gets any homicidal urges again. Even better, Lilly moved up to Connecticut, too, where she's dating a tennis pro. Who needs their boyfriend's gorgeous ex-Âwife, especially when said gorgeous ex has fabulous tennis-Âhoned legs, wandering around town? Not me.
But for the past two weeks, John had been out of town doing a residency in bovine medicine at Sacramento State University, and he wasn't due back for another month. I'd sighed, my pity party starting up again as I'd cranked my balky radiator, which had responded with .Â .Â . nothing. The ancient heater had seemed to be stuck at fifty-Âeight degrees, and belched a blast of lukewarm air about twice a week. Just then, the store phone had jingled.
“Kristin, you need to close up that mausoleum of a shop and get down to Florida,” Holly had informed me. “We just saw the weather guy on CNN get blown off the steps of the Philly art museum. Enough's enough.”
She'd gone on to describe the layout at her rented mega-Âhouse on Bahama Lane in Magnolia Beach, mentioning breakfasts of fresh sliced mangoes every day and dinners of grilled lobster at Vicino every night.
“So you're saying I'll have a guesthouse .Â .Â . all to myself?” I'd said, as I'd looked around my chilly shop on the main street of Bryn Mawr, miserably spritzing some Windex at my front window as snow and sleet had gusted by outside. Why bother? There hadn't been a soul out shopping that day.
“It's completely separate from the main house, adjoins the pool, and has its own kitchen, fully stocked wine fridge, and a garden with lemon and avocado trees,” Holly had confirmed. “Also, I've been shopping a lot down here, and I'm too busy to return all the stuff I decided I don't want. I have a ton of Milly dresses and Trina Turk pants in the guesthouse closet that I'm positive will fit you.”
I'd thrown aside the Windex, startling Waffles, who'd been licking sleet from his paws and looking dispirited.
A closet full of designer clothes in Magnolia Beach!
Since I rarely cook and usually can only afford to buy Progresso soup, I can somehow wriggle into most of Holly's fancy dresses.
Gosh, this was tempting. I mean, business was terrible right now. Â .Â .Â .
“Give me the phone,” I'd heard Joe demand in the background. “Listen, Kristin,” he'd said. “This isn't even a question. The contractor's shutting down the job at Sophie's house for two weeks anywayâÂall the electricians left town for a Game of Thrones theme cruise to Cancun.” He'd paused to suck something on a straw. It had sounded like a frozen drink.