Authors: Cynthia Baxter
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Mystery Fiction, #Murder, #Private Investigators, #Women Veterinarians, #Long Island (N.Y.), #Horses
Luisa and Inez were working hard, passing platters of hors d’oeuvres so rich and elaborate that they could easily have constituted dinner. I noticed that as Luisa headed back inside, probably to the kitchen to refill her tray, Inez stood alone at the edge of the patio, watching the crowd of people. She looked tired, as if all she wanted was a chance to sit down. I was struck by the dramatic contrast of the thin, dark-haired young woman in a plain black dress framed by a cluster of graceful white flowers atop slender stalks. I realized it would have made a pretty picture—and wondered if Callie’s interest in art was starting to rub off on me.
With Nick not yet there, I had no one to talk to. I wandered over to the Polynesian-style bar, an intentionally crude-looking hut with a thatched roof set up in one corner of the patio. A bartender in a straw hat was dispensing frozen tropical drinks that were as colorful as the bright flowers splashed across the fabric of his loud Hawaiian shirt.
I grabbed a frozen strawberry drink and surveyed the faces of the people gathered on the patio. There weren’t many I recognized.
Fortunately, there was one face I knew, even though I’d only seen it from across the polo field. Scott Mooney, one of the players on Andrew MacKinnon’s team, was standing alone, gobbling cheese and gulping down ginger ale. He’d changed out of his polo garb into jeans and an olive green T-shirt that was tight enough to show off his lean, muscular torso and sculpted arms. His straight, sandy blond hair, which he wore long, kept falling into his eyes, and he kept pushing it away. I couldn’t tell if it was a nervous gesture or a calculated effort to bring attention to his handsome features. He had the look of a California surfer—or maybe a midwestern farm boy.
I sidled over to him, eager to grab a few minutes of what would hopefully look like casual conversation. Not only had Scott known Eduardo Garcia; he’d galloped across polo fields just inches away from him.
“Great game,” I told him, glancing up from the cheese tray I was pretending had been the main attraction. “You played really well. Of course, since it was the first polo match I’ve ever seen, I’m not really in the best position to judge.”
He flashed me a wide smile, showing off two rows of perfectly straight teeth so white they almost twinkled. Up until that point, I hadn’t been close enough to realize that in addition to being strikingly handsome, he exuded an easy self-confidence that told me his good looks had made life easier for him than it was for most people. I also saw that, like Eduardo, he had a few scars—a nick on his cheek, a tiny line near one of his unusually green eyes.
“How did you like it?” he asked. “Your first polo match, I mean.”
“It was incredible,” I told him. “What an exciting game! And the skill that’s required to play is just unimaginable.” I paused to sip my drink before adding, “I wish I could have seen Eduardo Garcia play. I understand he was really something out on the polo field.”
“Yeah, it’s really a shame.” Scott shook his head.
“Eduardo was such a cool guy. And like you said, a hell of a polo player. But polo wasn’t his whole life, if you know what I mean. The guy really knew how to have fun.”
“Fun . . . as in other sports?” I probed.
Scott grinned. “That’s not exactly the kind of fun I was talking about. Actually, Eduardo was quite the ladies’ man.” Lowering his voice, he continued, “He used to brag to me that women told him things they wouldn’t even tell their husbands.” He paused, sipping his ginger ale. “Or, to be more accurate, things they
wouldn’t tell their husbands.”
“Sounds like he was pretty popular,” I observed.
“Yeah, Eduardo pretty much had it all. Good looks, charm, athletic ability . . . You know, he came from nothing. The guy started out dirt poor—and I’m talking the kind of poverty we just don’t have in this country. But he adapted just great, once he got to the U.S. of A. He never stopped being grateful for the chance to come up here and play on Mac’s team. He fit right in. In fact, Eduardo became part of this set in a way most Argies never manage.”
Most intriguing. “You’re talking about the women he . . . befriended, right?”
“He hung out with their husbands, too. Hell, entire families around here welcomed him with open arms. The guy was the toast of Old Brookbury! Everybody liked Eduardo. Trusted him, too. In fact, we used to tease the poor guy because he was always going to parties that the rest of us weren’t invited to. It was like he was on the inside track with these folks. He broke through the invisible barriers that separate the players— especially the Argies—from the patrons.”
He took another sip of ginger ale and frowned. “And you know, I never bought any of those rumors. Not for a minute.”
kind of hard to believe, aren’t they?” I commented, not letting on that I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about.
Or that I was absolutely dying to know.
“Anybody could get into financial trouble, the way he did,” Scott continued. “I mean, living the high life, hanging out with people with the kind of money Mac and his friends have . . . It wasn’t his fault. In fact, you could almost say it was inevitable.” He shook his head. “Still, I don’t buy what they say about him taking money from his lady friends. It just doesn’t fit, you know?”
I just nodded, trying to look knowledgeable and wise without letting my astonishment show through.
“Hey, there’s Pancho,” Scott said suddenly. “I gotta ask him something. Nice talking to you!”
I watched him disappear into the crowd. Eduardo taking money . . . as in gifts? I wondered. Or maybe cash payments for his services?
Or were the rumors Scott was referring to even more ominous—perhaps even something along the lines of blackmail?
I made a mental note to tell Forrester about my intriguing conversation with Scott. In the meantime, I set my sights on Callie, who was tucked away in a corner of the patio, sipping a foamy lime green drink through a straw. I eased over in her direction.
“Hey, Callie,” I greeted her cheerfully. “This isn’t too shabby a way to spend a Sunday evening, is it?”
She shrugged without lowering her drink from her mouth. Was it my imagination, I wondered, or was she even more surly than usual?
I tried again. “Thanks again for inviting me. Heatherfield looks pretty spiffy. It must be terrific, living in such a beautiful place.”
“Seems kind of dumb, since it’s just the four of us,” Callie mumbled. “And Peyton’s hardly ever here any more. She’s been in Europe all summer, taking some ridiculous course in Italian architecture. As if she ever opened a book or showed up for a class. I have a feeling she learned a lot more about the club scene than the cathedrals.”
“When you get older, I’m sure your parents will let you study abroad, too. And you’re right: You’ll probably get much more out of it, since it’s something you really care about.”
“I can hardly wait,” Callie agreed. “Frankly, I’m looking forward to the day I can move out and live on my own. Someplace exciting, like London or Rome.”
“Still,” I said, glancing around, “this is such a peaceful spot.”
Callie snorted. “That’s what you think. Wait ’til my sister comes home.”
“Really?” I asked, genuinely surprised. “Why?”
Her eyes met mine, but only for a moment. “You’ll see,” she said smugly, then turned back to her drinking straw.
It didn’t take long for me to find out exactly what Callie meant.
A few minutes later, as I was about to emerge from the guest bathroom off the front hallway, I heard the front door open. While I watched in the mirror above the sink, a tall, thin young woman breezed in. Behind her, a man struggled with no fewer than five suitcases. I could see that a taxi was parked out front, and I assumed he was the driver. He wasn’t exactly a small guy, yet he looked as if he’d met his match in this woman’s luggage collection.
“Just put those over there—be
!” she shrieked. “Those are Louis Vuitton!”
It was difficult to imagine why her bags were so heavy, given the fact that her preference in clothing appeared to run along the lines of the skimpiest garments available, made from the thinnest fabrics that could possibly be manufactured. The amount of space between her clingy, pink-flowered skirt and her stretchy white low-cut halter top could have qualified her as a belly dancer. Still, I had to admit that she was strikingly pretty. At least, I assumed she was, under all the makeup she’d plastered on. Her straight blond hair completed her look as the quintessential rich-girl-cum-party-girl.
“Gee, a whole dollar,” I heard the taxi driver say sarcastically.
“You’re lucky you got a tip at all. I’m positive you scratched the accessories pouch!”
“Have a nice day,” he returned. The door slammed behind him.
“Moth-er!” she cried, her voice echoing through the entire first floor. “Dad-deee!”
I chose that moment to poke my head out the door.
“Moth . . . oh, hello.” Peering at me, she demanded, “Who are you?”
“Jessie Popper. I’m a veterinarian, and I’ve been—”
“Where is everybody?” She clearly wasn’t the least bit interested in me or the reason I happened to be standing in her house. In fact, her accusing tone implied that I was responsible for hiding the other members of her family from her deliberately.
“On the patio. Your parents are having a cocktail party.” I managed to smile graciously. “You must be Peyton.”
“Of course I am,” she replied irritably. “Who else would I be?”
Peyton and I both turned at the sound of another voice. Her mother had come into the house, one hand on her hip and the other wrapped around a glass.
“Actually, I’m late,” Peyton returned crossly. “That stupid taxi driver insisted on taking the Long Island Expressway, even though I told him the Northern State would be better. Honestly, you’d think he—”
“Why didn’t you just call Ramon?” Jillian demanded. “What do you think we employ a chauffeur for?”
“Oh, Mother, you know what a mob scene it is at the airport. It just seemed simpler to jump into a cab.”
“Whatever. How was your trip?” Jillian asked distractedly. I had to admit that I was surprised by how underwhelmed she seemed by her daughter’s return after an entire summer in Europe.
“Fabulous, of course.”
“Come outside for a few minutes,” Jillian ordered. “I’m sure there are people here who’d like to see you.” She turned and walked back outside.
However, her other parent chose that moment to appear, wandering in from the patio. “Peyton!” he cried, his face lighting up.
“Daddy!” Peyton dropped her designer purse and flew across the immense foyer, throwing her arms around her father.
“There you are, sweetie! I was getting worried! I tried your cell phone, but—”
“Oh, Daddy! I’ve missed you so much!” From what I could recall, it was the first time I’d seen any member of this household show even the slightest bit of affection.
“I missed you, too, angel.”
“Why didn’t you come visit me?” Peyton pouted, sticking out her lower lip like a four-year-old who’d had her lollipop taken away. “You could have jumped onto that Lear jet of yours and come over any time. And don’t tell me you’ve been too busy. That’s the excuse you always use!”
“That’s because it’s always true, cupcake.”
“Then you’re working too hard,” she insisted. “You have to start finding time for the things that really matter—like me!”
He chuckled indulgently. “Don’t tell me you didn’t get the checks I sent.”
“Of course I did! Otherwise, how would I ever have been able to buy this fabulous outfit?” She jumped back, modeling the handkerchiefs that doubled as clothing.
“You look beautiful,” Andrew MacKinnon said admiringly. “But you always do.”
“Oh, Daddy, you’re
good to me,” Peyton cooed, throwing her arms around him once again. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world!”
“Let’s go outside,” Andrew suggested. “The McPhersons are here, and so are the Batchelders. I’m sure they’d like to say hello.”
“Whatever you say, Daddy,” Peyton cooed, wrapping her arm around his and leading him away. “And I can tell you all about my trip.”
Andrew beamed. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” I was relieved to see Nick standing on the front steps, glancing inside the house uncertainly.
“You’re in the right place,” I told him, striding over. “Just in time, too.” Leaning closer, I whispered, “Thank you for saving me! These people are like characters in a David Lynch movie.”
“Come on, how bad could they be?” Nick returned.
I decided to let him find out for himself.
I led him out onto the patio, which by that point was fairly crowded. Andrew and his adoring daughter were making the rounds, with Peyton giving air kisses to everyone she encountered. Jillian, standing at the other end of the patio, was commanding Luisa to bring out more wine. To me, it looked as if she was already having enough trouble standing up. Callie, meanwhile, stood in the corner with her shoulders slumped, still clutching her hideous lime green drink. I suspected she was wearing her usual scowl, but her stringy dirty-blond hair was obscuring her face.
Suddenly, the atmosphere shifted. Peyton’s eyes had drifted away from her father long enough to zero in on Nick. Within a fraction of a second, her expression changed. Daddy’s Little Girl was gone. In her place was a Big Girl—one who, from the looks of things, knew exactly what she wanted.
She strode across the patio so quickly I was afraid she’d knock over a few of the guests.
“Well, well, well,” she gurgled, sidling up to Nick and batting her eyelashes as if she were a cartoon character. “What have we here? Or should I say,
have we here?”
“This is Nick Burby,” I answered stiffly. “He’s, uh, my boyfriend.”
“Another veterinarian?” Peyton asked, flicking her silky blond hair over her shoulder. I noticed that a glint had appeared in her emerald green eyes—a glint that set off alarms in my head.