Excerpt

An Unwanted Guest

Shari Lapena

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Unwanted Guest, the new mystery, and first locked-room mystery, from up-and-comer Shari LaPena, who demonstrates her mastery over the multi-character whodunnit in this tale of murder at a ski resort snowed in by a blizzard.

Friday, 5:00 p.m.

Beverly Sullivan drops her overnight bag at her feet and lets her eyes sweep around the room. It’s perfect. Just like the one in the brochure. There’s an old‑fashioned luxury here that she’s not accustomed to, and she moves about the room, touching things. The antique, king‑size bed is heaped with pillows. The carved wardrobe is gorgeous, and the thick Oriental carpet must have cost a fortune. She steps up to the windows, which face out over the front of the hotel. The snowfall has made everything indescribably beautiful. New‑fallen snow always makes her feel hopeful.

She turns away from the windows and peeks into the en suite bath—a spotless oasis of white marble and fluffy white towels. She checks her appearance briefly in the elaborate mirror over the vanity and turns away. Sitting down on the bed, testing it, she begins to wonder what’s taking her husband so long. Henry had stayed down at the front desk to inquire about cross‑country skis and God knows what else, and she’d come up to the room herself. He insisted that she not wait for him, although she’d been perfectly willing to sit in one of the deep‑blue velvet chairs or sofas around the stone fireplace in the lobby while he fussed over the equipment. But she didn’t want to make an issue of it. She tries not to feel disappointed. It will take time for him to begin to relax. But he seems to be looking for ways to fill their weekend with activities, when all she wants is to slow down and simply be together. It’s almost as if he’s avoiding being with her, as if he doesn’t want to be here at all.

She knows her marriage is in . . . disrepair. She wouldn’t say it’s in trouble, exactly. But it needs work.

She knows her marriage is in . . . disrepair. She wouldn’t say it’s in trouble, exactly. But it needs work. They have drifted apart, begun to take each other for granted. She’s guilty of it too. How does a modern marriage survive all the forces that converge to tear it apart? Too much familiarity, the dreariness of domesticity, of paying bills, raising children. Of having full‑time jobs and always too much to do. She doesn’t know if a weekend away at a lovely and remote place in the country will make that much of a difference, but it could be a start. A start they certainly wouldn’t get if they stayed at home. They desperately need a chance to reconnect, to remember what they like about each other. Away from squabbling, sullen teenagers who demand their attention and drain their energies. She sighs and slumps inwardly; she wishes they didn’t argue so much about the kids. She’s hoping that here, they’ll be able to talk about things without being interrupted, without that constant, wearying, underlying tension.

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She wonders with a vague unease how the weekend will unfold, and if anything will be different by the time they return home.

***

Henry Sullivan lingers near the reception desk in the lobby to the left of the grand staircase. The smell of logs burning in the fireplace reminds him of Christmases as a boy. He looks at some glossy flyers advertising local restaurants and attractions. Although “local” may be stretching it a bit. They’re pretty far away from things up here. Unfortunately, with all the snow, it looks like it might be too difficult to go anywhere anyway, but the young man at the desk said the snowplows would be running tomorrow, and the roads should be fine. Henry fingers the cell phone in his pants pocket. There’s no reception up here, which is something he hadn’t been expecting. Beverly hadn’t mentioned that. He feels a twinge of annoyance.

He’s not sure why he agreed to this weekend away, except perhaps out of guilt. He already regrets it; he just wants to go home. He fantasizes harmlessly for a moment about getting back in his car and leaving his wife here. How long would it be before she noticed he was gone? What would she do? Quickly, he squashes the fantasy.

His wife has been looking increasingly unhappy lately, but, he tells himself, it’s not just because of him. It’s the kids too. Her job. Encroaching middle age. Her thickening waistline. It’s everything. But one person can’t be responsible for another person’s happiness. She is responsible for her own. He can’t make her happy.

Yet, he’s not a complete heel. He knows it’s not that simple. He loved her once. She’s the mother of his children. He simply doesn’t love her anymore. And he has no idea what to do about it.

***

Dana Hart stamps the snow off her Stuart Weitzman boots at the front doorstep and looks around the lobby approvingly. The first thing that strikes her is the grand central staircase. The newel post and railings are elaborately carved out of a burnished, dark wood. The stairs are wide, with a thick runner in a dark floral pattern. She can see the glint of the brass carpet rods holding the runner in place. It’s very impressive, and these days Dana isn’t easily impressed. The staircase makes her think of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, or perhaps Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. It’s the kind of staircase you put on your best long dress for, and make an entrance, she thinks. I’m ready for my close‑up. Unfortunately, she didn’t bring any evening gowns. What a shame for such a glorious staircase to go to waste, she thinks. Next she notices the large stone fireplace on the left side of the lobby; around it are arranged a lot of comfortable‑looking sofas and chairs for lounging in, some in deep‑blue velvet, others in dark‑brown leather, accompanied by little tables with lamps on them. The walls are paneled halfway up from the floor with dark wooden wainscoting. A gorgeous Persian carpet covers part of the dark wood floors and makes everything feel cozy but expensive, which is just what she likes. A chandelier sparkles overhead. The smell of the wood fire reminds her of blissful days spent at Matthew’s family cottage. She breathes deeply and smiles. She’s a very happy woman. Recently engaged, on a weekend tryst with the man she is going to marry. Everything is glorious, including this lovely hotel that Matthew has found for them.

Everything is glorious, including this lovely hotel that Matthew has found for them.

He dropped her in front and is parking the car. He’ll be here in a minute with their bags. She sets off across the lobby past the fireplace to the old‑fashioned reception desk to the left of the staircase. Everything here gleams with a patina of age and good furniture polish. There’s a young man behind the desk, and another man, older—obviously a guest—leaning against it, leafing through some pamphlets. He glances up when he sees her. He stops for a second, stares, and then smiles in an embarrassed way and looks away. She’s used to it. She has that effect on men. As if when they see her, they can’t believe their eyes for a minute. She can’t help that.

The younger man behind the desk does an almost imperceptible double take, but it’s there. She’s used to that too.

“I’m Dana Hart. My fiancé and I have a reservation under the name Matthew Hutchinson?”

“Yes, of course,” the young man says smoothly and looks at the register. She notices that they use an old hotel register—how quaint—rather than a computer system for checking in guests. Be‑ hind the desk, against the wall, are wooden pigeonholes for the room keys. “You’re in room 201. Up the stairs to the second floor and to the right,” the young man tells her.

The door opens behind her with a burst of cold air and she turns to see Matthew with a bag in each hand and a dusting of snow on his coat and on his dark hair. He comes up beside her and she brushes the snow off his shoulders; she enjoys these little demon‑ strations of ownership.

“Welcome to Mitchell’s Inn,” the young man behind the desk says, smiling and handing over a heavy brass key. She notices now how attractive he is. “Dinner is in the dining room from seven to nine p.m. We offer drinks in the lobby before dinner. Enjoy your stay.”

“Thank you, I’m sure we will,” her fiancé says, giving her a look. She raises her perfectly shaped eyebrows at him, her way of telling him to behave himself in public.

Matthew picks up the bags again and follows Dana up the wide staircase. He notices that there’s no elevator. It’s a small hotel. He chose carefully. He wanted someplace quiet and intimate to spend some time with Dana before all the craziness of the wedding, which he would prefer to avoid altogether. He wishes they could elope to some delightful spot in the Caribbean. But the heir to a large fortune in New England does not elope. Such a thing would crush his mother, and all his aunts, and he’s not prepared to do that. And he knows that Dana, despite her sometimes becoming overwhelmed with the stress of the planning, the appointments, the millions of details such a wedding entails, is actually quite thrilled about the whole thing. But she’s been prone to emotional outbursts lately. This break will be good for both of them before the final push to their spring wedding.

The thick rug softens their footsteps so that it is almost perfectly quiet as they walk up the stairs to the second floor and a few steps along the hall to room 201. There’s an oval brass plate on the door, engraved with the number, and an old‑fashioned keyhole lock.

He unlocks the door and opens it for her. “After you.”

She steps inside and smiles approvingly. “It’s lovely,” she says. She whirls to face him as he closes the door firmly behind them.

He puts his arms around her and says, “You are lovely.” He kisses her; eventually she pushes him away with a playful shove.

She shrugs out of her coat. He does the same and hangs them up in the wardrobe. They examine the room together. The bed is kingsize, of course, and the linens, he notes, are first rate. There are chocolates wrapped in foil resting on the pillows. The bathtub is obviously intended for two, and a bucket of champagne on ice rests on a little table near the door, with a note of welcome. The windows look out onto the vast front lawn with snow‑weighted trees, and the long, curving drive leading down to the main road, filling up fast now with snow. Half a dozen cars are parked in the lot to the side of the lawn. The two lovers stand together side by side, looking out.

“It’s the honeymoon suite,” he tells her, “if you haven’t already guessed.”

“Isn’t that bad luck?” she asks. “To book the honeymoon suite when it’s not really your honeymoon?”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” They watch a car struggle bravely up the drive and pull slowly into the lot. Four people get out. Three women and a man. He nuzzles her neck and says, “How about a nap before dinner?”

***

Ian Beeton drops into one of the chairs next to the fireplace in the lobby while Lauren signs in and gets the key to their room. He wouldn’t mind a drink. He wonders where the bar is. The dining room is to the right, off the lobby—the glass doors to the dining room are open and he can see tables with white linen tablecloths set up inside. The place is quite charming. Probably lots of little rooms and hallways and alcoves by the look of it; not like a typical modern hotel, built for efficiency and maximum returns.

He turns his attention to the two women they rescued. Gwen, the driver, is getting the key to their room. It looks like they’re sharing. He watches them go up the stairs together. He lets his mind drift.

Lauren approaches and holds out her hand to him. “Ready to go up?”

“She seemed awfully tense. I got a weird vibe off her.”

“Sure.”

“Dinner is from seven to nine in the dining room, but we can have cocktails down here,” she tells him.

“Good. What are we waiting for?” “We’re on the third floor.”

He gets up and lifts the bags, then follows Lauren up the stairs. The place seems so quiet. Maybe it’s the snow, or the thick carpet, or the soft lighting, but everything seems muffled, subdued.

“Did you notice anything odd about that woman Riley?” Lauren whispers as they climb the elaborate staircase.

“She looked pretty rattled,” he admits.

“She didn’t say a word the whole time. I mean, they only slid into a ditch. No actual harm done.”

“Maybe she’s been in a car accident before.”

“Maybe.” When they reach the third floor she turns to him and says, “She seemed awfully tense. I got a weird vibe off her.”

“Don’t think about her,” Ian says, giving her a sudden kiss. “Think about me.”

__________________________________

From AN UNWANTED GUEST by Shari Lapena, to be published by Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by 1742145 Ontario Limited.




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