The headline overprinted one of Sarah Quilliam’s elegant paintings of the Inn in summer. The huge old mansion was centered in the middle of a velvet-green lawn, and surrounded by gardens blazing with roses. The grounds swept down to Hemlock Gorge, where the waterfall cascaded into the river. Quill’s artistry was as vivid as ever. You could practically hear the rush of water. They needed a brochure for the winter months, too. Somebody would have to get on that.
If the gorge is as steep as it looks
I could push him right over the top. He’d bounce all the way to the bottom.
“What the hell are you grinning about?” Zeke Kingsfield blew into the conference room like the sickest of ill winds blowing absolutely nobody any good.
Keep it mild. Keep it humble. Most of all, keep it sweet.
“Just happy with what’s ahead. All of us at the magazine are.”
A little smarm couldn’t hurt.
“Another brilliant deal, Zeke. Really. Brilliant.”
Kingsfield swelled like a pig bladder. “The crap with the Inn, you mean? Sure. Fine. Whatever. Just as long as that chef . . . what’s her name?”
“Margaret Quilliam, Meg.”
“Yeah. Her. Just as long as she keeps a lid on it.” Zeke’s eyes narrowed and his thin lips got even thinner. “If she doesn’t?” Zeke shrugged. “She’ll rue the day. I can tell you that. They don’t call me the Hammer ’cause I play the drums. I’m in absolute control of the Inn deal. It’s the trailer park deal that better work.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so,
the deal that’s going to catch the nation’s eye.”
Zeke smirked. Then he scowled and said, “And if I find one word of
sucker’s been leaked in Hemlock Falls, there’ll be hell to pay. You can count on it.”
“Everything’s going to be fine, Zeke.”
“It’d better be.” He shot his cuffs and looked at his diamond-encrusted Rolex. “We’ve got the jet booked for tomorrow at noon. Add my skis to the list of stuff I’m taking with me. There is a ski run in this godforsaken village, isn’t there?”
There was an insert in the most elaborate of the brochures. “They’ve just completed two new cross-country runs. According to this.”
“’Kay. So get a move on. I’m taping that interview with Charley Rose in twenty minutes. And for God’s sake, get this pit of a room cleaned up.” He snapped the edge of the cheese tray with an irritable thumb and slammed out of the room. The tray teetered, then tipped and spilled its contents onto the monogrammed rug, obliterating a handful of Zeke’s initials.
There had to be a way to kill him.
And it had to be soon.
“You’re telling me if I don’t sign this thing, we’re going to lose the Inn?” Meg Quilliam sat directly opposite Mark Anthony Jefferson. Mark was president of the First National Bank of Hemlock Falls. The same bank that held a half-million-dollar past-due mortgage on the Inn at Hemlock Falls.
Not to mention an additional half-million-dollar line of credit. Also past due.
“Losing the Inn would be one outcome, yes,” Mark Anthony Jefferson admitted.
Meg narrowed her eyes in a lethal squint, slammed both small fists onto the Mark’s desk, and shouted, “And a
merry flippin’ Christmas to you, too!
Sarah Quilliam ran one hand through her hair and wished, not for the first time during this meeting, that her little sister would just shut up. “Meg,” she said as patiently as she could through gritted teeth. “Mark isn’t saying anything of the kind.” She added, under her breath, “I knew you wouldn’t understand what’s happening here. I just knew it.”
Meg made a sound like a teakettle on the boil.
Quill bit her lip. If there was anything Meg hated more than a meeting about their mortgage, it was a condescending sister. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” Quill amended hastily. “I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.”
Meg folded her arms across her chest and asked coldly, “How
you mean it?”
Quill cleared her throat nervously, but she met her sister’s eyes with her chin up. “Well, if you weren’t such a drama queen, I could have prepared you for this.”
“Me! Me the drama queen! As if this whole bankruptcy thing has just dropped on us out of the blue. You’ve known about this for months.” Meg sank back into her chair and drummed her fingertips furiously on the chair arm. “And you waited until now to tell me. Right before Christmas, naturally. Perfect timing, sis.”
“I wanted to be sure Kingsfield made us a real offer. An offer we can live with. An offer that will let us keep the baby
the bathwater.” Quill made a face and added lamely, “So to speak.”
Mark Anthony Jefferson shifted uneasily in his large red leather chair. Someone—perhaps Clarice, Mark’s chic and stylish wife—had piled a pyramid of blue and silver Christmas balls next to the inkstand. Quill thought about moving the ornaments out of Meg’s reach. The eight-inch sauté pans in Meg’s kitchen at the Inn were her sister’s missiles of choice, but the ornaments would do in a pinch.
Mark looked at them both sympathetically. “It’s been a rough year for a lot of small businesses, ladies.”
“I don’t get it,” Meg said. “We’ve survived tough times before. Why is this different?”
Quill ran her hands through her hair, which was thick, red, and wildly springy. “I wish I knew. I’m the one that writes the checks. I’m the one that books the guests. If anyone knows anything about why we aren’t getting more trade, I should. But, Meg, as far as I can tell, there just isn’t any business! There hasn’t been for the last six months!”
“Come to think of it,” Meg mused, “we did go under once before. We got fed up with trying to run the place a few years ago. We sold it to Marge Schmidt, remember? But then we bought it back again and things were just fine. So what makes this time different?”
“The new resort down the river has made a great deal of difference in the town’s economy,” Mark said.
“It’s made a big difference to us, that’s certain,” Quill said gloomily. “They’re very white linen”—she interrupted herself at Mark’s questioning look—“their restaurant’s very upscale, and that’s direct competition for us. And they rotate their celebrity chefs. That’s a huge draw. Plus, they have an indoor swimming pool.”
“We had Mike the groundskeeper put in a cross-country ski trail around our property,” Meg said. “That’s helped.”
“Except they use our ski trails and stay at the River Resort,” Quill said wryly—“There
more people coming to visit Hemlock Falls. They just aren’t coming to stay with us.” She put her hand to her throat.
“You okay?” Meg asked.
“Just a little queasiness,” Quill said. “On top of everything else, I’m probably coming down with the flu.” She took a deep breath. It seemed to help. “Mark, I hope you don’t think I’ve just been sitting around on my hands waiting for the bank to call the loan. I did a painting for our new brochure. Harvey’s put ads in the
New York Times
. I’ve invited a billion travel agents to come and scope us out. And there certainly seems to be more people around than ever before. They just aren’t staying with us.”
“The town’s growing,” Mark said in satisfaction. “The past few years have been very good for the town. We’re located in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. And people are discovering us.” He beamed at them. “Harvey’s making up new ads for the Chamber of Commerce. Did you hear about those? Hemlock Falls is becoming a vacation destination.”
“Phooey,” Meg said rudely. “I don’t see what’s good about more traffic and higher real estate prices. And you know what happens when you get tons of people moving in—more crime, that’s what. It puts a huge burden on town services, too.”
“Growth’s not all beer and skittles,” Mark admitted. “You two hear about the vandalism?”
“If you’re talking about the punctured inflatable Santa Clauses on the courthouse lawn, I hardly think that rises to the description of vandalism,” Quill said glumly. “And we’re losing sight of why we’re sitting here. We’re sitting here so that Meg can sign Kingsfield’s leasing agreement and I can stop having nightmares about losing everything we’ve worked for all these years.”
“So, the economy’s been good for everyone except us,” Meg said bluntly. “Why?”
Quill shook her head. “I haven’t the foggiest idea.”
“You’ve talked to John Raintree?” Mark asked in a kindly way. John had been their business manager in palmier days.
“Of course I have. He says that boutique businesses like ours can be victims of faddism.”
“Faddism,” Meg repeated.
Quill threw her arms up in the air. “He meant that we’re not the trendy thing to do anymore. He thinks we need to reinvent ourselves. And that’s what this deal with Kingsfield is going to do. Help us reinvent ourselves.”
“Oh, fine,” Meg said sarcastically. “We’re over the hill at what—you’re thirty-six? And me at thirty-two?”
Quill sighed. It felt as if the sigh came from the soles of her feet. “I tried to tell you what was going on, Meg, but did you want to hear about it? No, you didn’t.”
“That’s not fair,” Meg said.
Quill bit her lip. “No,” she said after a moment. “It isn’t fair. And I didn’t tell you as much as I should have about the financial problems because you get so upset.” She blinked back a rush of tears. “Sorry. The stress is definitely getting to me. Weepiness isn’t like me at all. Anyhow, you’re the star attraction at the Inn, Meg. It’s best that you’re left alone to do what you do best. The money stuff is my job.”
“That’s fair,” Meg admitted with what would have been sublime egotism if it hadn’t been true. She
the best chef around for three hundred miles and one of the five best in the entire state of New York. She reached over and briefly clasped Quill’s hand. “I’m sorry I yelled ‘Merry flippin’ Christmas’ at Mark. It’s not his fault. And I’m sorry I shouted at you, too. Well, pretty sorry.”
Quill took a deep, affronted breath.
Mark rapped the surface of his desk with a gentle thump of his knuckles. “Ladies,” he said. “May we get back to whether or not Meg is going to sign this contract?”
“No,” Meg said promptly, “I’m not.”
Mark was unperturbed with this obduracy. “You haven’t looked at the considerable advantages of the Kingsfield offer. You’re looking at a splendid opportunity.”
“We are, huh?” Meg said sulkily.
Very few people other than Quill knew that this meant Meg was ready to be reasonable. But Mark was president of the largest bank in Hemlock Falls because he was a genius at picking up cues. He smiled at Meg and it was the smile of a man with the answers. A man with faith in the sisters’ ability to pull the Inn out of its slump and keep the business out of foreclosure.
“A splendid opportunity,” Quill repeated. “See, Meg?”
doesn’t have to put up with Lydia Kingsfield,” Meg said flatly. “I can’t believe you guys are asking me to do this.”
Mark raised one eyebrow in Quill’s direction.
“Lydia’s editor of
,” Quill explained. “Kingsfield Publishing’s made the offer to lease the Inn to the magazine, but Lydia’s the person that thinks the Inn offers the best background for the magazine’s new TV show. She’s the one that made the decision to offer this lease to us.”
“And she’s the one who’s going to be up my nose,” Meg interrupted. “Every flippin’ second!”
“Of course I know who she is, now that you mention it,” Mark said with an air of surprise. “Clarice has a subscription to
. I looked at the current issue before I met with you two today. She writes that ‘From My Desk to Yours’ feature, right? She seems a very pleasant person, in print.”
Meg made a rude noise.
“We know her, actually,” Quill said. “I mean, not because of the magazine. Kingsfield bought the whole thing a few months ago, and a lot of the editorial staff left to work other places. Before the buyout, all our contacts with
were with the old editor, Lally Preston. Lally’s reviewers gave Meg her three-star rating a few years back. But Lally retired when the magazine was sold, or at least, that’s what the news releases said. And Lydia took over as editor. She’s made some interesting design changes in the magazine. Anyway, that’s not why we know Lydia. We know Lydia from school.”
Mark raised the other eyebrow.
“High school,” Meg grumbled. “In Connecticut. She was a stuck-up pill back then and I’ll bet she’s a stuck-up pill now. You know how she made head cheerleader?”
“Meg!” Quill said.
“Bribed the head coach. It’s true. Lydia’s father made a ton of money as an arba-whatsis on Wall Street. Bought her everything she ever wanted, including being head cheerleader.”
“Hm,” Mark said.
“And do you know what Lydia got as a sixteenth birthday present? A brand-new BMW. I suppose that doesn’t mean much to you guys now, but back then, that car was hot.” Meg folded her arms. “Not to mention an unlimited charge card at Saks Fifth Avenue.”
“Is that a fact,” Mark said. Then, for good measure, “Mm-hm.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Meg,” Quill said in exasperation. “Lydia’s changed a lot, since then. We’ve all changed a lot since then. We’ve had some terrific talks on the phone.”
“Phooey,” Meg exploded. “It’s a question of character.
She’s married to Zeke Kingsfield, the biggest business shark in the United States of America. Did you see that
piece of the two of them? They’re joined at the hip. Devoted to each other and power mad, to boot. Like Anthony and Cleopatra before the Romans showed up to sink the ships at Actium. This is a woman who thinks people can be bought. And she’s married to a man who’s happy to write the checks. Up until now, there’s been no stopping the two of them.” She pursed her lips and gazed thoughtfully at Mark. “You know about Kingsfield, don’t you, Mark? They call him the Hammer of Wall Street. Mean as a pit bull and just as likely to let me loose to do my own thing. Now, you just think about how happy
be if good ol’ Zeke made an offer to buy your bank and you had
looking over your shoulder every five minutes.”