I’m so excited that book 2 in my new Writers Retreat Mystery Series is publishing next week on July 4! I really love this new series and hope you all love it as much as I do.
I am using this blog to share the first chapter of Second Look with anyone who is interested in previewing it.
Monday, October 23
Five years ago, award-winning actor Rhett Crawford threw a party for a group of family members and friends. The event was held at his beachfront estate on Gull Island. At around eleven-thirty on the night of the party, the groundskeeper, Wylie Slater, found the body of one of the guests, Georgia Darcy, bludgeoned to death and left in the toolshed at the edge of the property, beyond the garden. The authorities were notified and interviews of all individuals on the property were conducted. It was eventually determined that the victim’s date, a man named Dru Breland, had most likely killed the woman before fleeing the scene of the crime.
After Georgia’s remains were found, the authorities conducted an exhaustive search but were unable to locate Mr. Breland. As far as anyone associated with the investigation could find out, he was never seen again by friends, family, or business associates. It was assumed by most that he had fled the country and started a new life under an assumed name.
Then, five days ago, the oceanfront estate once owned by Rhett Crawford but now owned by an out-of-state developer, was scheduled for demolition. During the destruction of the house, a human skeleton was found in a hidden room off the wine cellar. After a thorough investigation by the medical examiner and his team, it was determined that the body was the decomposed remains of murder suspect Dru Breland.
My friend Jackson Jones, owner of the fledging Gull Island News, had latched onto the story and seemed determined to find out not only how Dru Breland ended up in the secret room but who had killed Georgia Darcy, if, in fact, Dru Breland wasn’t the killer, as everyone had believed. Jack knew the five-year-old mystery would be a complicated one to unravel, so he asked me, Jillian Hanford, if I’d be willing to present it to the writers’ group I lived and sleuthed with. I agreed, which brings us to the regular Monday night meeting of the eclectic group of writers I call friends but consider family.
“Okay, so what do we know about the other guests at the party?” asked George Baxter, a sixty-eight-year-old writer of traditional whodunits who was currently living in one of the cabins on the property I was running as a writers’ retreat.
“There were twelve people in all on the property during the party,” Jack answered. “As I mentioned before, the estate was owned by actor Rhett Crawford. He, along with his wife at the time, Hillary Crawford, invited eight guests, including four visitors from off the island: the victim, Georgia Darcy, who was Hillary Crawford’s younger sister; Georgia’s date, Dru Breland, who was living in Los Angeles at that time; Jedd Boswell, also an actor and Rhett’s best friend; and Honey Golden, a model living in Orange County and Jedd’s date.”
Jack paused while I wrote the names of the out-of-town guests on the whiteboard we always used when attempting to unravel mysteries. We’d found visuals to be invaluable as relationships, motives, and secrets long kept began to reveal themselves.
“Also at the party were six Gull Island residents,” Jack continued. “Tiffany Pritchett, a friend of Hillary’s; Reggie Southern, Tiffany’s date; Claudia Norris, the woman who owned the adjoining estate and had become friendly with the Crawfords, and her date, Trent Truitt; and two employees, Olivia Cotton, who was hired to handle the cooking, and Wylie Slater, who lived on the property and worked as the groundskeeper.”
Once all the players had been identified, Jack paused to ask if there were any questions. I glanced around the room, which was lit by a crackling fire and warm candlelight. On this particular occasion, the electricity was up and running, but after a previous meeting held during a blackout caused by a storm, we’d decided the subdued lighting somehow heightened the senses. The only electric light in the room was a small overhead one we’d positioned over the whiteboard so everyone could see the details I was recording.
“I’m not really one to keep up on all the Hollywood news,” Clara Kline, a sixty-two-year-old, self-proclaimed psychic who wrote fantasy and paranormal mysteries, admitted. “You said Hillary Crawford was married to Rhett Crawford at the time of the murder. Have they since dissolved their relationship?”
“Yes,” Jack answered. “They were divorced shortly after the murder of Hillary’s sister, Georgia. The specifics of their divorce aren’t public record, but the press at the time reported that Hillary in some way blamed Rhett for what happened to Georgia.”
“Did they have children?”
Jack shook his head. “The couple seemed to be focused on their careers above all else. Not only was Rhett a major star at the time of the party but Hillary was a pretty big name as well. Based on what I’ve heard, it seems the couple’s relationship took a backseat to the fame they seemed to crave.”
Clara rocked back and forth in the antique rocker she favored, stroking her cat, Agatha, but not commenting further. Clara was an intuitive of sorts who had, in the past, helped provide key pieces of information necessary to solve the mysteries we were working on. The problem was, she was an emotionally intense individual who had a tendency to be flighty and distracted. When her emotions became too entangled with the specifics of the case, they seemed to block the psychic ability she claimed to possess. I just hoped she’d be able to maintain an emotional distance and help us out this time.
“Do we know if any of the guests who attended the party still live on Gull Island?” asked Brit Baxter, George’s twenty-six-year-old niece and the newest resident at my writers’ retreat. Brit had been a business major who’d decided her true calling was to be a writer. She’d yet to have anything published, but she’d already established herself as a valuable member of our little family. She had an intense look of concentration on her face as she sat on a barstool next to where the resident mascot, a parrot named Blackbeard, watched from his perch.
“Tiffany, Claudia, Olivia, and Wylie still live on the island,” Jack answered. “Tiffany Pritchett, who, as you’ll remember, was Hillary’s friend, is married to a contractor, Vince Flannigan. The couple have two children and seem to be contributing members of the Gulf Island community. Olivia Cotton, the woman hired to cook for the party, now owns her own bakery in town, and Wylie Slater, the Crawfords’ groundskeeper, now owns a fishing boat docked in the marina. And finally, Claudia Norris, who lived next door to the Crawfords’ beach house, still lives on the same property. She’s single and is no longer dating Trent Truitt.”
“And Truitt?” Brit asked.
“Now lives on Folly Island.” Jack named a nearby island.
“So it seems Tiffany, Claudia, Olivia, Wylie, and Trent should be available to interview,” stated Alex Cole, a twenty-eight-year-old, fun and flirty millennial who’d made his first million writing science fiction when he was just twenty-two.
“In terms of proximity, it seems very likely these individuals will be available for interviews,” Jack agreed. “I haven’t, however, had the opportunity to contact any of them, so it remains to be seen whether they’ll be willing to share their memories of what occurred.”
“I don’t see why they wouldn’t speak to us if they’re innocent,” Alex added. “If they’re guilty of killing two people, however…”
Alex made a good point. If Dru hadn’t killed Georgia, one of the people we sought to interview most likely had.
“So where do we start?” Brit asked.
“Is everyone in to help?” Jack queried.
“As interesting as this sounds, I’m heading to New York tomorrow morning,” Alex informed us. “I have meetings with my agent, publicist, and publisher, so I’ll be gone for four or five days. If you haven’t solved this by the time I return, I’d be happy to help then.”
“Actually,” Jack smiled, “the fact that you’re heading to New York works out really well. I did some research before this meeting, and it seems Hillary Crawford moved to Manhattan after she divorced Rhett. I have her current address and phone number. Maybe you can find the time to interview her while you’re there.”
“I’d be happy to.” Alex reached out for the paper on which Jack had recorded Hillary’s contact information. “I’ll call you to let you know what I find out.”
“What about the others who aren’t on the island?” I asked. “Do you know where they are now?”
“Rhett and Jedd still live in Los Angeles. They both continue to be active in the entertainment industry. Reggie Southern, Tiffany’s date to the party, has moved to Charleston.”
“And Honey Golden?” I asked.
“Her present whereabouts are unknown.”
“I’ll do some research to see if I can track her down,” Brit volunteered. “Almost everyone has social media accounts these days. I’m sure I can find her, and maybe Victoria can have a chat with Rhett and Jedd.”
“I’ll call to ask her,” I said.
Victoria Vance was the final member of our writers’ group, a thirty-seven-year-old romance writer who lives the life she writes about in her steamy novels. She was currently in Los Angeles, meeting with the production studio that was thinking of making some of her novels into movies. She’d be the perfect person to interview Rhett and Jedd. For one thing, she possessed certain assets that tended to make men do whatever she asked of them. For another, Victoria is a strong-willed woman who rarely takes no for an answer.
“Jill and I will get started on the interviews for the guests living in the area,” Jack added. “I have contact information for most of them and should be able to dig up phone numbers for the rest.”
I glanced at Clara, who seemed to be deep in thought. “Are you picking up anything?” I asked.
She frowned. “Maybe, but I’m not ready to say anything just yet. When we’re done here, I’ll consult my cards to see if I can confirm my suspicions.”
I was happy to see Clara was on board and hoped she’d be able to make a connection.
“And I’ll look in to the history of the estate,” George offered. “The idea of a secret room intrigues me. I wonder if its existence was widely known.”
“If not, that could narrow down our suspect list,” Jack said.
“It would be interesting to find out if the room was built into the original structure of the house or if Rhett added it.” George looked at Jack. “Do you happen to know if there was anything in the room other than the body of Dru Breland?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll see if I can find out.”
“How long ago was the property sold to the developer?” George added.
“I think about a year ago,” Jack answered. “I’ll find out the exact date.”
“On the surface, it seems Rhett is a likely suspect because he would know about the room, but if he’s the one who put the body in it, I would think he’d have moved it before he sold the property. He was selling to a developer, so he must have figured the house would be torn down at some point.”
George might be right. In all likelihood, Rhett wasn’t the killer.
The room fell into silence. I glanced at Blackbeard, who seemed to be taking in everything that was happening and was watching, not speaking. I know looking to a bird for insight might seem odd, but I’ve discovered since living on the island that Blackbeard had a way of knowing exactly what was going on even when no one else had a clue.
“Does Deputy Savage know you’re taking a second look at the case?” George asked Jack.
I glanced at Jack. I’d wondered that myself but hadn’t gotten around to asking. Deputy Savage was a good guy who honestly seemed to care about the people he had sworn to serve, but he hadn’t been much of a fan of civilians getting involved in ongoing cases. While the case had been closed when it had been decided that Dru Breland must have murdered Georgia Darcy, there hadn’t been an ongoing investigation. I was certain it would be reopened now that Breland’s body had been found.
“I haven’t spoken to Deputy Savage, so I don’t know what he thinks about the new developments in the case,” Jack admitted. “Having said that, I’m a newspaperman now and it’s my duty to my readers to find and report the facts as I see them. I believe we all have our assignments. When should we meet again?”
“I can meet whenever,” Brit answered. “When’s Victoria due back?”
“I don’t think until the weekend at least,” I told her. “But she can pass along anything she finds out to me and I’ll bring it to the meeting.”
“I won’t be back for several days, but I’m fine with calling Jack or Jill with any information I uncover as well,” Alex added.
I glanced at George, who asked for a day or so to do his research but was pretty open, and Clara indicated her schedule was flexible as well. Those of us who would be on the island tentatively arranged to meet again on Thursday. George, Brit, and Alex headed out to the cabins they were living in and Clara and Agatha went upstairs to her suite.
I began picking up coffee mugs and dessert plates once they’d gone and it was just Jack and me. “So what do you think?” I asked.
“I think we have a good plan that hopefully will yield the results we need. We won’t begin to get a good picture of what might have occurred five years ago until we begin to speak to people. I can make some calls in the morning and set up appointments if you want to get started right away.”
“Yeah. We may as well plunge right in.” I glanced at Blackbeard. “Any thoughts?”
“Secret kisses, secret kisses.”
“That big guy turns out to be the motive behind more murders than you might think,” Jack replied.
I opened Blackbeard’s cage. “How about we get you settled in for the night?” I turned and glanced at Jack. “I have wine in the kitchen if you want to stay.”
“I have an article to write, but we’ll catch up tomorrow. Call me and we’ll set up a time to get started on the interviews.”
After Jack left, I got Blackbeard settled and then poured myself a glass of wine. It was a lovely autumn evening and a stroll along the beach seemed just the thing to sooth my jangled nerves. The last time the group had taken on a case it had been at my request, and the time before that it had been George we’d helped. When I’d decided to move to Gull Island temporarily to help the half brother I hadn’t known I had, I’d never imagined the family I’d find; not just Garrett but the writers I shared my life with as well.
The idea for the writers’ retreat had been something of a whim. Garrett had run the place as a family resort before he’d had his stroke. When he realized he would most likely never be able to live on his own again, he’d thought he had no choice but to sell the property that had been in his family for generations. The resort had fallen into disrepair over the past decade, and Garrett realized that to make any money selling the resort he’d have to fix it up first. Initially, he’d asked an old friend of the family to oversee the renovations, but when a chance occurrence revealed my existence to him, he’d gotten in touch and asked me if I’d be willing to run the property in his absence. Normally, island living wouldn’t be my thing, but my own life was a total mess at that time, and I’d jumped at the chance to escape and try something new.
I walked along the well-worn path to the beach. The Turtle Cove Resort was a magical place, situated on the tip of a narrow peninsula that jetted off the southern end of Gull Island. Due to its unique location, the property was bordered by oceanfront on the east and marsh on the west. The sheer amount of wildlife that inhabited this part of the island, including the endangered sea turtles, created an enchanting setting to work and live.
Initially, I’d planned to oversee the renovations and then move on. I could see Garrett wanted me to stay, but I couldn’t see myself running a family resort. Then his good friend, George Baxter, had come for a visit, and a conversation about the old days, when he’d come here to write, gave me the idea of reopening the resort as a writers’ retreat rather than a family vacation spot. I’d approached Garrett with the idea and he’d assured me that he was fine with my running the property whatever way I saw fit. At that time only the main house was habitable, but it had ten bedrooms, so George had moved in. Shortly after that, Clara found her way to my doorstep, followed by my best friend Victoria, Alex, and, eventually, Brit.
The remodel of three of the cabins was now completed, so George, Alex, and Brit all had their own space. Clara seemed content to remain in the main house, and while Victoria wanted her own cabin eventually, she wasn’t around much and so had been content to wait. I’d remodeled the attic to create my own private retreat within the communal structure; so far, my plans were working out perfectly, and I had additional writers who’d signed on to come aboard as soon as the first of the year.
I paused and took a sip of wine as the waves rolled gently onto the shore. It was a cool evening, although the day had been hot, so I took a moment to enjoy the perfection of the moment. It seemed I’d been running full throttle ever since making the decision to move to the island. Not only had I had the renovation to deal with but our little mystery solvers group had been kept quite busy as well.
Jack was the only member of the group who didn’t live at the resort, but as a writer, he was qualified for membership. Not only did he own the local newspaper but he was a novelist, probably more successful than all the rest of us combined.
Jack had written his first best seller and made his first million when he was just nineteen. Since then, he’d had several other best sellers and was considered one of the major names in the industry. He lived in an oceanfront mansion, but most weekday evenings you could find him here at the resort, hanging out with the rest of us lowly writers.
I took a deep breath and turned back to the house. Despite the peaceful evening, I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t imagine how investigating a five-year-old murder could put anyone in danger, but my instinct told me it would be found before the answers we sought were revealed.