Nicole Earp stripped out of her yoga pants and T-shirt, stuffed them in her always overflowing clothes hamper, and hopped in the shower. Excitement to get this weekend started had her zinging as if she’d consumed a full pot of coffee. These twice a year weekends with her sister, Emma Banefield, always proved fun. Their getaways at the historic Dulce Inn offered a time to regenerate in the peaceful setting of downtown Wyatt, Arizona while catching up on all things sisterly.
Last spring, a murder at the Dulce added an extra layer to their adventure for Em’s birthday. Nic had had great fun solving the crime with her aspiring writer-sister. Surely, Em could get the basis for a mystery novel out of the true-life drama. They’d lived it.
She paused in the middle of toweling off, a thought goose-dimpling her damp skin. This weekend, the Dulce Inn was the official hotel for the Western Writers Guild Conference they were attending. Would the event offer the drama of last year? Not that she wished for a repeat of murder, but…
“Gah! Nic, you’re horrible.” She flung her towel in the general direction of the hamper and grabbed the bottle of her latest, favorite lotion made with the essential oils of sage, geranium, ylang ylang, and grapefruit. She liked to think of it jokingly as her preventative measure against the sure-to-happen onslaught of hormone imbalance coming her way any year now. Once slathered from neck to toes, she dressed in an autumn-colored skirt of rust, gold, and green, a rust-colored sweater, and ankle boots. After putting on jewelry, she popped on a basil green, small-brimmed hat to complete her outfit.
With her leather hobo bag on one shoulder, she wheeled her suitcase through the living-dining area and onto the landing of her second story apartment. A ruckus in the courtyard of the converted 1920s home drew her attention. She hastily locked her door as Mitchell and Gloria, owners of the house and occupants of the bottom apartment, waged yet another war. She suspected Mitchell’s hearing difficulties resulted in bouts loud enough to echo off the walls of the courtyard. Then again, being married to a drama queen like Gloria could account for the free entertainment. Bag in hand, she trooped down the steps, ignoring the yelling and front door slamming
“Oh, hi, Nic.” Mitchell lowered his fist and pivoted away from the door, a sheepish grin on his melon-shaped face. His pink, bald head already showed signs of too much sun. “Gloria doesn’t like the color I painted the kitchen.”
“Locked you out, again, huh?”
“Yeah. She’ll get over it.” He banged on the door again. “Come on you old bird. Open up.”
How many times in their forty years of marriage had Gloria booted Mitchell out? And still, they were together. Was the pattern a testament to the endurance of love, or a bit of repetitive craziness? They might consider the loud, wacky production of their married life fun. Living alone suited her just fine—most of the time.
While she loaded her case into the back of her Jeep, she hitched a breath at the colors of the trees along her street that had exploded in a visual buffet overnight. A definite bite in the air announced autumn’s presence with the golden ash trees, red maples, and the reddish-brown of the oak. The Virginia creeper covering the fence between the street and sidewalk was breathtaking with the brilliance of crimson. She loved autumn.
Before starting the engine, she slipped the cell out of her bag and called her daughter, Chloe. She hadn’t heard from her in at least two days. They didn’t speak every day, but she wanted to say hi and remind her about sister weekend. Voicemail came on. She hung up without leaving a message. She’d try again later.
The drive along her colorful street, three blocks from the heart of Wyatt, upped her already happy mood several notches higher. Taking her foot off the gas pedal, she coasted down the incline, past four two-story Victorian homes: one converted into apartments like hers, two restored to the grandeur of the late 1800s, and the fourth housing a law firm. She braked at the bottom of the hill, brought the Jeep back to the posted speed limit, and did a rolling stop at the four-way. At the antique store on the corner, somebody flipped the store sign to open.
The time on the dashboard clock evidenced her eagerness for the weekend to commence—she was running an hour ahead of the scheduled three-thirty time to meet her sister at the inn.
What the heck. She’d go to the conference site at Yavapai County College and see if she could register early for the event. She was anxious to get her hands on the conference materials.
She turned onto Dry Gulch Avenue, which coursed through the heart of Wyatt and bordered the town square. The Dulce Inn came into view. The three-story, L-shaped, red brick structure stood on the corner of Dry Gulch and First Avenue, occupying nearly a city block in both directions. She drove past the front entrance of brass and glass double doors to the corner where the patio nestled in the elbow of the L-shape. The true character of the inn lay inside of the 150-year-old establishment, maintaining the plush, old-west décor. Another mile and a half past the inn brought her to the college. The conference promised to be interesting, and she looked forward to a class given by a renowned travel writer and humorist, Arthur Chambers. She hoped to gain knowledge to further enhance her freelance travel articles.
After parking, signs led her along a sidewalk to a two-story cream-colored building designed and built in the 1960s without any particular style, all straight, flat lines. Four square pillars of the same colorless brick spaced at six-foot intervals appeared to prop up the overhang of the second story. She could only hope the instructors who taught within this no-nonsense facility bore more creativity and eccentricity than the architect. Glass spanned the bottom front with metal divisions between windows. She tugged open one of the doors. Why did school buildings always have such heavy doors? Once inside, voices led her to a lobby with tables set up for registration and authors’ book sales. To her left, was an auditorium with royal blue fabric-covered seating. To the right, double doors opened to a cafeteria.
Behind the registration tables, a twenty-something man, shirt sleeves flapping around his thin arms and jeans cinched high on his middle, removed conference brochures from cardboard boxes. A woman with blotchy, flushed cheeks, auburn hair twisted into a knot at the back of her head, and a wide bottom stuffed into a tight skirt, shuffled back and forth between boxes and the young man. If she kept up the pace, her pointy-toed heels should be killing her before the conference even began. The way her feet must be sausaged into those shoes made Nic’s toes curl with sympathy pains. After a flutter of fingers at her helper, the pointy-toed penguin waddled to the tables set for book sales.
Nic approached the young man. “Excuse me. I know I’m early, but do you suppose I could pick up my conference materials?”
His mouth opened, but the answer came in the voice of the woman who’d shuffled off to the author tables. “No. We aren’t ready yet. Jeff, make sure you get to box A before box B.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset the routine. You must be the coordinator of this exciting event.” She offered her hand to the fast-talking woman in matching jacket and skirt. “I’m Nicole Earp, travel writer.”
She clasped Nic’s hand. “Runa Neuman.” The woman’s smile froze as she gazed over Nic’s shoulder. A moment later, she flung her hand aside and rushed around her. Nic pivoted toward the attraction.
Lola Dufrane, the keynote speaker, had entered and surveyed the author area in the grand hall. Nic immediately coveted her thick, strawberry hair falling in soft waves over her collarbones. Even more petite than she appeared in her photos, the uber popular romance novelist wore a pastel coral dress, fitted at her tiny waist. The full-skirted frock in a 1950s style didn’t skimp on cleavage. Lola frowned and flapped her hand, directing someone in a hurry-up manner. Behind her, a slight woman appeared, wheeling a heavy-looking cart like the ones used to transport books in a library. As Lola spoke, the woman nodded, her blonde, blunt-cut hair bobbing against her jawline.
When the coordinator, heels clacking on the linoleum and arms flapping, reached Lola, the dainty assistant meandered in the direction of the registration tables just as a man ambled from the auditorium. He motioned to her.
“Eric Tuckerman,” Nic whispered in awe. He may have ranked only as a mid-list author, but he held a position on her top ten list of favorite mystery writers. He would be presenting a workshop during the conference, which unfortunately, conflicted time-wise with Art Chambers’ travel writing class. His fluid movement toward the assistant spoke not only to his attractiveness but exuded an air of confidence. And could that man wear a suit. The jacket hung open, and the powder blue shirt with an open collar matched his eyes perfectly. Only his style of writing could outdo his physical presentation. He had an enticing way with words.
Longing to introduce herself, she edged closer and hesitated, pretending to inspect a potted plant. She carried his latest book in print edition in her bag and wanted to get his signature. He didn’t notice her. He had eyes for another. She couldn’t hear what he said to the assistant. Looking shy, the pretty woman studied the floor. He sidled closer, glanced in Lola’s direction, then whispered in the woman’s ear. Nic caught her breath when Lola’s assistant slowly batted her eyelids and gazed into his face. Her cheeks flushed. Nic sighed, moved by the intimate moment.
“Misty!” Lola’s discordant cry startled both her and the frail aide who jerked. The author’s nostrils flared. “Why aren’t you with me?”
The assistant shot Eric a look of regret before she rushed toward her boss.
Lola frowned. Her puzzled, pure blue gaze darted between her assistant and Eric. Resting her attention on the latter, the tiny wrinkle across her forehead disappeared while her full lips tilted in a smile. She waved and made a move toward him, but Eric spun around giving her his back. Jaw clenched, he stalked down a nearby hallway.
Phooey. She’d have to catch him at the conference. But wow! The wordless exchange between Lola and Eric was fodder for the imagination—she exuded pleasure, and he shunned her.
Passing by the tables, Nic pilfered a leaflet when the worker bee turned his back and slipped it in her bag. At least she could peruse the schedule.
“Lola!” A man in his late thirties stood near the front entrance, his gaze lasered on the romance author.
The author didn’t return the greeting but merely stared with a grimace.
Sensing the possibility of another interesting encounter, Nic paused, plucked the brochure from her bag, and pretended to read, keeping the couple in her sight.
Lola rested a hand on her hip, a brow cocked, and her chin tipped upward.
The man covered the short distance with a sweet smile reminding Nic of the friendly-boy-next-door. He sported one of those haircuts between long and short, mussed and hip. A shadow beard also proclaimed him purposely unkempt in a fashionably hip manner. His worn, black leather jacket over a crisp white shirt and black sneakers below roomy jeans added to his trendy laid-back air.
“So good to see you. At last.” His smile faltered for a split second when Lola didn’t respond. “You’re a hard person to reach. I’ve called you several times.”
“I’ve been busy.”
Nic quickly scanned her leaflet finding his photo—Seth Dawes, publicist—then trained an ear to overhear the conversation.
“Can I buy you a drink later? I’d really like to talk to you.”
“I don’t see the point. Groveling won’t do you any good. It’s so unbecoming.”
The sweet smile dropped like the last ray of sun over Sutter’s Ridge. “Groveling wasn’t my intention.”
“Then let’s leave it, Seth.” She whirled away, her coral skirt slashing across his thighs. “Come, Misty.”
His shoulders drooped. Hands shoved into his jacket pockets, he wasted no time exiting.
“Criminy.” She might not have gotten her conference material, but the people-watching already kicked off the conference with fun-a-plenty.
Outside, she checked the time on her phone and considered stopping at Bangles Jewelry. She intended to buy herself a ring for her birthday. Nah, she’d wait for her sister to shop together. A second opinion would be welcomed.
She looked forward to seeing Em. They hadn’t had much time lately, what with Nic’s latest free-lance travel article taking her out of town for three weeks. Besides catching up, she couldn’t wait to relay a bit of early conference gossip about Lola and Eric. There had to be a tale there, considering his frost to her sunny delight. And Eric and the assistant? A juicy subplot. Add in Lola and Seth—this conference could be the plot of one of the author’s dramatic romances.
Within minutes, she’d parked her Jeep in the outside lot of the Dulce Inn. After wheeling her suitcase along the sidewalk on Dry Gulch Avenue, she entered the lobby. The hotel resonated with bygone days of southwestern charm. She scanned the opulent room bathed in rich jewel colors but didn’t see Em. Astonished she might have arrived before her sister, she decided to check in.
At the registration desk, her favorite inn employee, Penelope Frye, stared at a computer screen. The perky, dark-skinned beauty always had the latest scoop on all things Dulce. Today, she sported a sparkly-red nose stud to match her red, hooped earrings. She handed off room key cards and a hotel brochure to a couple who appeared to have stepped out of a vacation comedy movie. The only allowances for fall in their attire were the cowboy boots. Khaki shorts and matching Hawaiian shirts better suited the deck of a cruise ship.
Nic wheeled her case forward. “Hi, Penelope.”
The clerk chuckled. “Nic! Good to see you back. It must be your birthday weekend.”
“Right you are.” She thumped the counter. “And I’m a writers’ conference attendee. Am I too early to check in?”
“Not at all. Where’s your sister?”
“I was going to ask you. Em hasn’t arrived yet?” Possible scenarios crossed her mind—dog problems? Her son had an issue? No matter the case, if something had gone awry, she would have called.
“Nope.” She punched keys on her computer. “But you can check in for both of you if you want. Cute hat, by the way.”
While the clerk prepared the reservation, a bearded man Nic didn’t recognize emerged from the assistant manager Carter Ramirez’s office. Tanned, tall, and well-built, his dark, slicked-back hair gave the mid-forties dazzler a cosmopolitan air. “I see someone I don’t know coming out of Carter’s office.”
“He’s the new assistant manager, Leo Ragazzi. Carter terminated employment shortly after you ladies were last here.” She canted sideways and lowered her voice. “The rumor mill said a mutual parting of ways between him and Jillian, if you know what I mean, led to his departure.”
She and her sister became well-acquainted last spring with Jillian Jackson, the morally challenged owner of the Dulce. And speak of the devil… As Leo Ragazzi passed by Jillian’s office, she emerged and motioned with a come-hither finger. He paused in her doorway and said a few words before entering and closing the door behind them.
“Is Jillian still up to her old sexist ways hiring handsome, male employees?”
Penelope sputtered a laugh. “You don’t pull any punches do you, Nic?” She handed her two keys and nametags. “These are for the festivities tonight.”
“Thanks. Maybe I’ll see you later.”
“Oh, you’ll see me on into the evening. What a weekend to have someone call in sick. I’m on a double shift.” She squinched her pert nose.
“I hope you get some kind of break later.” She winked at the desk clerk and tucked around the registration counter in the direction of the elevator. After storing her luggage in the room, she returned to the lobby to wait for Em. She chose one of the leather sofas which provided a view of the pastoral desert painting looming large over the oak mantel of the enormous fireplace. From her hobo bag, she dug out her cell phone and Eric Tuckerman’s book to read as she waited.
Before opening the book, she called Chloe. A tinge of disappointment niggled when she got voice mail again. Her daughter wasn’t normally difficult to reach, especially since she worked from home, yet she appeared to be off the grid these last couple of days. This time, she left a brief message stating her location and a request for a return call.
As she dropped the phone into her bag, the inn doors opened. Two women, one she recognized from the conference leaflet, entered. Literary Agent Shannon Valdez surveyed the lobby with a commanding air. The brochure didn’t show her Amazon-like stature. Tall, large boned, yet curvy, she struck a pose, one tan, spiked-heel on a step, with her free hand tucked in a pocket of her trendy, calf-length belled trousers. A creamy, white sweater beneath an unbuttoned, blue, knee-length coat completed the image. Nic didn’t recognize the shorter woman with shiny, ebony hair and alabaster skin, but the brochure stated additional agents might be added at the last minute.
They strolled toward the registration desk when Seth Dawes approached them. He must have flown from the school to the inn to beat Nic. “Shannon and Nell. Good to see you both.” He clasped Nell’s hand with both of his.
“Hi, Seth.” Shannon air kissed each cheek. “I see you’re giving a presentation on author and book promotions.”
“I am and looking forward to it. This should be an interesting conference, only you’d think they could’ve gotten a better keynote speaker.”
“Who knows if she’ll even show?” The literary agent waved a hand. Electric blue, manicured nails cut the air. “Lola’s not above screwing over anyone if a better deal comes along.”
Seth leaned in, a smirk on his lips. “I happen to know she’s in town, but you’re right. Who knows what she’ll pull. Too bad they didn’t put “watch your back” in the fine print under her bio in the conference brochure.”
The threesome shared a laugh.
“I need to check in. See you later, Seth.” Shannon led the way to the front desk.
Dawes reversed course toward the Azul Saloon.
She relaxed against the sofa. Apparently, not everyone adored Lola Dufrane. She wanted to rub her hands together. Drama and writer-fun—all in the same weekend.