Grace Cries Uncle (A Manor House Mystery)

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9780425259689: Grace Cries Uncle (A Manor House Mystery)

The New York Times bestselling author of the Manor House Mysteries and the White House Chef Mysteries shows how a blast from the past can spell trouble for Grace Wheaton...

When Grace’s estranged sister Liza shows up on her doorstep, the timing couldn’t be worse. Grace’s beloved boss and benefactor, Bennett Marshfield, has finally gotten her to agree to a DNA test to establish if he is, in fact, her uncle. If so, Grace would move from being the trusted curator and manager of Marshfield Manor to Bennett’s heir. And her duplicitous sister would be right behind her in the line of inheritance.

Liza is not the only mysterious visitor to arrive in town. A man claiming to be an FBI agent has shown up, and a swarm of avaricious antique collectors have descended on Emberstowne for a prestigious convention. When Bennett reveals he’s in mind to acquire a secret antique and the FBI agent turns up dead, the plot thickens. And Grace can’t help but wonder if Liza is at the center of it all...

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About the Author:

New York Times bestselling author Julie Hyzy writes both the White House Chef Mysteries and the Manor House Mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime, and has won the Anthony Award and the Barry Award for her work.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1

I snatched my hand from the jangling telephone when I caught Aunt Belinda’s name on the caller ID.

“Of all days,” I said to Bootsie, who had perched herself on one of our kitchen chairs. “It’s almost as though she knows what’s up.” My little tuxedo cat cocked her head and let out an expressive howl.

“My thoughts exactly,” I said. Scratching under Bootsie’s soft chin, I stared at the ringing phone. My mother’s sister didn’t call often and whenever she did it was to talk about Liza. Aunt Belinda’s fascination with my estranged sister never ceased to baffle me.

I tapped my fingers against my lips. With Ronny Tooney due to pick me up in about ten minutes, I could answer now, satisfy family duty, yet legitimately keep the conversation brief. If I opted to let it go to voicemail I’d feel compelled to return the call later. And then who knows how long Aunt Belinda would natter on about Liza, urging me to reach out to her, make amends, support my sister’s feckless lifestyle.

Grabbing the handset before I could change my mind, I answered, endeavoring to sound breathless. “Aunt Belinda. How are you?”

I braced myself for the litany of health issues she’d unleash. My aunt always insisted on bringing me up to speed on her myriad visits to the doctor and regular trips to the emergency room.

“I was pretty sick for a while last month,” she said. “Doctors thought it was pneumonia, but I’m finally breathing better now.”

“Sorry to hear that you were ill—” I began.

She cut me off. “You haven’t heard from Liza, have you?”

“No.”

“Is she still in San Francisco?”

“I have no idea.” Last I’d heard, Liza and Eric had tied the knot and settled in Nevada. San Francisco was news to me.

“It’s been too long. I’m worried about her. She’s out there in the world all by herself.”

I barked a laugh. “Not quite by herself.”

“Don’t be spiteful, Grace, it isn’t nice,” she said. “What’s that husband of hers like anyway? I never met him.”

I rubbed my forehead. Aunt Belinda was fully aware of the fact that Eric and I had at one time been engaged. That is, until my sister had blown back into my life. The prodigal daughter had returned home in time to say good-bye to our dying mother, collect half the inheritance, and take off again, this time with Eric in tow.

“I’m hardly the best person to comment on his character.”

“You’re not still smarting from that romantic business, are you? Liza must have been a better match for him. Aren’t you happy you found out before you got married?”

More than happy; I was thrilled. Extraordinarily so. But that was now, after I’d had time to heal and distance myself from the situation. Although I’d dodged a bullet, my relief—no matter how profound—could never dull the pain of my sister’s betrayal. I doubted it ever would.

“Mom was sick for so long that all I remember from that time is that Eric was here and Liza showed up. Next thing I knew, they were both gone.”

“I hear from her now and then,” Aunt Belinda went on, as always glossing over details that painted Liza in a poor light. “That girl can never afford the nicer things in life, even though she works so hard.”

I pressed my lips together to hold back a snippy response.

“Last time we talked, though, I got the feeling she might be having problems. Now I can’t reach her.”

“I wouldn’t worry,” I said, pooh-poohing my aunt’s concerns, “Like a cat, she always lands on her feet.” I mouthed the words, “Sorry, Bootsie,” to my feline companion. Returning to Aunt Belinda, I said, “Liza is shrewd, tough, and has a sharp edge that keeps her safe even while those around her get sliced to ribbons.”

“What’s happened to you, Grace?” Aunt Belinda asked. “How did you get so calloused? You’re not still working at Marshfield, are you?”

“As a matter of fact, I am.” Allowing a little pride to creep into my voice, I added, “I couldn’t ask for a better job.”

“I don’t know how you abide it there. The place always gave me the creeps.”

How could I explain that, despite recent goings-on, I’d never felt more appreciated or more loved than I did working for Bennett. Ever since I’d taken the position as curator and manager of Marshfield Manor, the mansion-tourist attraction-museum that was the jewel of Emberstowne, I’d felt as though I’d come home.

I drew in a breath to explain, but thought better of sharing personal sentiments. What I said was, “This is where I was meant to be.”

“Oh, I see now. It’s obvious they have you snowed. You’re just like your mother.”

Unwilling to go down this route again, I said, “Listen, I’m a little pressed for time.”

“How old is billionaire Bennett Marshfield anyway? Shouldn’t he be dead by now?”

“Bennett is in excellent health, and I’m lucky to be part of his life,” I said, clipping my words. How dare she say such a thing? If I had my wish, Bennett would never die. “But I really am going to have to cut this short. I have an appointment this morning.”

“What kind of appointment?”

Bennett and I intended to undergo DNA testing today. His goal was to set to rest, once and for all, the question of our blood relationship. With Aunt Belinda’s hateful attitude toward Marshfield and its illustrious family, I refused to bare that part of my life to her. Truth was, I harbored a secret belief that Aunt Belinda knew—or at least suspected—that her mother had carried on an affair with Bennett’s father, an involvement that had resulted in my mother’s birth. Tempting though it was to broach the subject, I didn’t want to open that particular Pandora’s box.

“I need to get some blood drawn.”

“Oh.” For all of Aunt Belinda’s yammering about doctor visits and health scares, she was unfailingly disinterested in the well-being of others—or, at least, mine. “You’ll let me know if you hear from Liza?”

“I really don’t expect to. She has no use for me anymore, does she?”

“That’s a real shame, you know. Liza looks up to you. You ought to reach out and offer her a hand. You have so much and she has so little.”

The doorbell rang, sparing Aunt Belinda from my irate outburst. “I have to go. My ride’s here.”

“Oh?” Her interest piqued at last, she asked, “A new beau?”

“Not quite. Take care, Aunt Belinda. Bye.”

Bootsie scampered after me as I hurried to the front door. Thank goodness I’d gotten ready early; my aunt’s call could have set me behind schedule. I smoothed the sides of my navy sweater and tugged at the hem of my blue tweed skirt as I went to greet my escort for the day.

Ronny Tooney and I had taken an unlikely path toward friendship. Middle-aged, with a bit of paunch and a generally unkempt appearance, Tooney had recently attained his long-desired goal when he’d been named official private investigator to Marshfield Manor. I’d done the hiring, but only after Bennett had given his blessing. Tooney had proven to be one of Marshfield’s most steadfast allies.

Cold January air spilled in when I drew open the door. In the split second it took my brain to process that the man in the gray suit wasn’t Tooney, I chastised myself for not taking the time to check first. That sharp discomfort, coupled with the visitor’s unwelcome step closer to the storm door, triggered my testiness.

I raised my voice to be heard through the glass. “What do you want?”

The man’s high forehead scooped into his crown like an inverted U, giving his face a long, narrow look. He had dark, blank eyes. The barest trace of stubble along his chin. Neatly trimmed sideburns. He acknowledged my question with a slight lift of his lips. Though it had snowed overnight and temperatures were in the twenties, he wasn’t wearing an overcoat.

Consulting a small notebook, he asked, “Are you Grace Wheaton?”

Bootsie joined me at the door, clambering onto a nearby table to get a better look at the fellow, her little pink-and-black nose tilting up. Even though the outer door remained secure, I lifted her into my arms.

“Who are you?” I asked.

One of his dark eyebrows twitched upward. “My name is Alvin Clark.” In a smooth move, he used his free hand to draw a wallet from his breast pocket. Flipping it open, he said, “I’m with the FBI.” He’d raised the endings of both statements to make them sound like questions and he accentuated the L consonants in his name an odd way. Not a local.

I scanned the proffered document through the glass, noting his photo, name, and the sizeable gold badge embedded in the leather, but saw nothing to indicate where he was from.

He snapped the leather portfolio shut again and returned it to his pocket. “Now, can we try this again? Are you Grace Wheaton?”

“I am,” I said. “Why are you here? What do you need from me?”

With an exaggerated shiver, as though to make me aware of winter’s chill, he pointed over my shoulder. “May I come in?”

My imagination didn’t need more than a second to conjure up possible scenarios. Had someone outside our circle of trusted confidantes found out about today’s blood test? Bennett’s will stipulated that, upon his death, his stepdaughter, Hillary, would be awarded a substantial sum of money. The bulk of his estate, however—Marshfield Manor and all of its treasures—was bequeathed to the city of Emberstowne. Could the elected officials have ordered a background check on me? I had no designs on Bennett’s immense fortune, but that wouldn’t stop the municipality’s lawyers from taking steps to protect their client’s best interests.

Another thought—this one coming on the heels of Aunt Belinda’s phone call: She’d intimated that Liza was in trouble. Heaven knew that Aunt Belinda had a far better finger on the pulse of Liza’s life than I did. Could this Fed’s sudden appearance at my house involve my sister?

“Sorry.” I wanted to collect my thoughts before I answered. “I’m leaving in a couple of minutes. I have an appointment.”

“Who lives here with you?” the FBI man asked.

“Why?” It was one thing to answer questions about myself. Quite another to share information about my roommates. Bruce and Scott, two men I loved like brothers, were currently hard at work at their wine shop, Amethyst Cellars. They had nothing to do with Bennett. Nothing to do with Liza. For what other reasons could the Feds be interested in me?

“Just answer the question.”

“I need to know what this is about, first.”

Alvin Clark stretched his chin forward, running stub-nailed fingers down the front of his neck. “I suggest you cooperate, Ms. Wheaton. This will go much easier for you if you do.”

Bootsie struggled in my arms. I let her bound to the floor and was pleased when she meandered away, having lost interest in the drama at the front door. The ever-so-slight interruption allowed me to summon my resolve.

“First of all,” I began, “you haven’t told me what this is about. I’d be more inclined to cooperate if I understood why you’re here.”

“Ms. Wheaton—” His voice was a growl.

I talked right over him. “As I already stated, I have an appointment this morning.” At that moment I spotted Tooney coming up the walk, his tattered wool coat flapping open in the wind. He was clearly taken aback by the sight of the man on my porch.

He locked eyes with me from behind the FBI guy, taking the steps two at a time to position himself close to the door. “What’s going on?”

Alvin Clark was momentarily rattled. He took a step backward and gave Tooney an appraising glance. “Do you live here?”

Tooney straightened his rumpled self as tall as he could and returned the scrutiny. Ignoring the Fed’s question, he asked, “What do you need me to do, Grace?”

“This gentleman is from the FBI,” I said. “He hasn’t told me why he’s here, but I made it clear that I’m running late for an appointment.” I forced a smile at the agent. “If you’ll excuse us?”

Clark’s gaze shifted from me to Tooney, then back again. “This won’t take long. Just a few important questions.”

I debated handling this agent the same way I had Aunt Belinda. Answering him now would get this over with. But Bennett was waiting, and today was an important day.

“Unless you have some sort of warrant or paperwork that requires me to answer your questions now,” I said, “you’ll have to come back another time.”

The fact that the FBI guy didn’t produce any such documentation provided a small sense of comfort.

His lips curled in hard disapproval as he shoved the notebook into his pocket. “When will you be back?”

“I can’t say exactly.”

“After five o’clock?”

“Probably.”

“And if you are not home then?” he asked, taking a deep, irritated sniff. “What about tomorrow?”

I didn’t appreciate being put on the spot, but I knew that the quicker I cooperated, the faster he’d be out of here. “I should be home all day tomorrow.”

“Fine.” He pivoted and strode away.

“What was that all about?” Tooney asked when he was gone.

“You got me.” I shook my shoulders to release the tension in them.

“You want me to be here when he comes back tonight?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Let’s talk about it on the way. The FBI guy’s visit put us behind schedule.”

Chapter 2

I could have driven myself to the lab this morning, but Bennett had insisted on an escort. Afraid that I might be light-headed from the blood draw, he asked me to indulge him by allowing Tooney to drive.

When I’d first agreed to the DNA test, I’d expected Bennett would invite his personal physician to come into the office, swab our cheeks, and then—weeks later—return with results. Bennett had other ideas. We would get our cheeks swabbed today for sure, but we’d also submit blood samples. I’d tried to reason with him, reminding him that swabs were enough, but Bennett could be obstinate. “I want more information,” he’d said. “Not less. I don’t plan to repeat this procedure, so let’s get it done right.”

Once I’d agreed, we’d settled on the first Saturday we both had free. Today.

Tooney usually drove a rattletrap sedan that boasted more dents than an aluminum shed after a hailstorm, but today he’d arrived in a shiny Buick Enclave. There wasn’t a hint of snow on its shadow-gray exterior and it sported temporary license plates.

Tooney gallantly handed me into the passenger seat before closing my door and making his way around to settle behind the wheel.

“New car?” I asked.

He started the vehicle and put it into gear, his cheeks flushing pink as he shot me a quick glance. “Mr. Marshfield has been very generous with me, ever since . . . I mean . . .” Pulling away, his face now glowed scarlet. “First the house, and now a car . . .”

In an effort to better Tooney’s standard of living, Bennett had snatched up the painted lady next to mine the moment it went on the market. On paper Bennett retained ownership of the property, but he had essentially handed the house to Tooney after hearing about the hovel our scruffy private investigator called home. Bennett had also arranged to have the place updated and renovated, despite the fact that it was in good shape to begin with. Hillary was in charge of that project.

“Mr. Marshfield doesn’t ne...

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