Thursday, May 27, 2010

Visit Marshfield Manor. Meet Grace Wheaton

Sneak preview of the opening of
Grace Under Pressure
first in the new
Manor of Murder Mystery series

For your reading enjoyment... approximately 2/3 of the first chapter:

Chapter 1

There were at least sixty people in the Birdcage room this afternoon but not one of them made a peep. The animated conversations, gentle laughter, and musical plinks from the harp had gone suddenly silent, as though a giant thumb had hit the mute button.

And that giant thumb stood in front of me.

“Please keep your voice down,” I said to him.

The big guy paced in circles, his untamed red hair ballooning like a lion’s mane. He stopped moving long enough to glare at the crowd. “What are you all staring at?”

Guests, who moments before had been nibbling finger sandwiches, now exchanged awkward glances. They tried, and failed, to shift their attention elsewhere. But who could blame them? The heavyset fellow with the ripped jeans, dirty shirt, and wild eyes didn’t belong in this serene setting. He made a show of looking around the room then shouted again, his voice echoing. “Huh? Whatcha all looking at?”

I tried to get his attention. “Sir, why don’t you tell me how I can help you?”

He shot me a dirty look. Resumed pacing.

Next to me, our hostess, Martha, took a half step back. She had called me down to help with a “problem guest.” I hadn’t expected 350 pounds of fury. The worst complaint we usually received about afternoon tea in the Birdcage was about it being too hot or too cool. Regulating temperature in an all-window room was always a challenge. I whispered to Martha to call security and she took off, clearly relieved to get away.

Trying again, I smiled at the big guy. “What’s your name?”

He stopped moving. “Why do you want to know?”

“My name is Grace,” I said, inching forward. “I’m the assistant curator here at Marshfield Manor.”

“Cure-ator? What does that mean? They sent you here to cure me?” His angry look was replaced by confusion. “And you’re, like, just an assistant? Where are the important people? I don’t want to talk to some dumb assistant.”

“Why don’t you tell me what you need,” I said, more slowly this time, “and I’ll do my best to get the right person to help you.”

Teeth bared, he spread his arms wide and lifted his gaze to the glassed ceiling as though begging the heavens for patience. Whatever biceps he might have once had sagged out from short sleeves, seams shredded to accommodate his arms’ girth. He looked as though he’d slept in this outfit. All week. At about twenty-five, he was younger than I was, and a few inches taller than my five-foot-eight, but he outweighed me by at least two hundred pounds. A morbidly obese time bomb. I glanced over to the wall where we kept the defibrillator and hoped I wouldn’t need to use it.

Still staring upward, he asked, “What do I have to do to get a cheeseburger around here?”

A nervous laugh bubbled up from the back of the room.

Snapping his attention toward the giggler, the guy yelled, “What, you think this is funny?”

Two of our plainclothes security guards eased in. Older guys, decked out to look like tourists, they didn’t cut an imposing sight. I wished they’d sent a different team, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. I moved into the big man’s view, distracting him. “We don’t serve cheeseburgers here, I’m afraid . . .”

“Why not?”

“This,” I gestured, “is our tea room.” Maybe if I explained things, he might be encouraged to leave. “We serve light refreshments here, like savories and sweets. If you want a more substantial meal, our hotel offers a full menu.” Not that our bellicose guest would fit any better there than he did here. “Or maybe you’d prefer to try one of the great little diners off property? We have a shuttle that can take you into Emberstowne, if you like.”

He worked his tongue inside his bottom lip. “Don’t want that,” he said more to himself than to me. Grabbing the back of a nearby chair, he shouted, “I want a cheeseburger.” He lifted the chair over his head and leaped sideways toward the outside wall. “Or I’ll . . . I’ll . . . throw this through a window.”

He certainly had plenty to choose from. This room was called the Birdcage for good reason: Jutting out from the mansion to the south, the cylindrical room was a two-storied glass marvel. Each of the clear panes was framed by black support beams, which arched to meet at a buttressed central point. Though impressive, the Birdcage was just one more showstopper setting in this 150-room gothic beauty. A giant museum as well as a home, each huge room showcased priceless artifacts. Stepping inside the manor always made me feel tiny, yet protected.

I kept my voice even and tried to smile. “Just put the chair down and we can talk.”

His arms faltered. He bit his lip and glanced from side to side. I could only imagine what he was thinking. I had my back to the rest of the room, focusing completely on this wild-eyed, crazy-haired man in front of me.

“Tell me your name,” I tried again.

“How come it’s just you talking to me? I mean, shouldn’t they, like, send security in here?”

I sincerely hoped the security guards would make their move soon. They must be waiting for backup. These two men were both over sixty, unarmed, and relatively small. The toughest assignments this team usually faced was stopping kids from entering roped-off areas or adults from using flash photography. I doubted these two could take down our sizeable guest. Not even working together. Not even if I jumped in to help.

The big guy waved the chair over his head again. I got the feeling his arms were getting tired.

“Come on,” I said, “How can I help you if I don’t know your name?”

He surprised me by answering. “Percy.”

“Nice to meet you, Percy. Now why don’t you put down that chair and we’ll talk.”

Without warning, he threw the chair to the floor and ran to my right. The two elderly security guards had rushed him but they were a half-step too slow. Percy threw a fat arm against William, the smaller of the two guards, sending him sprawling onto the marble floor. When he hit the ground, I heard William whoof in pain.

Percy hustled along the room’s perimeter, arms pumping, his mane of hair blocking his view as he glanced back at the guard sprawled on the floor. The big man didn’t run out of the room, as I expected. Instead, he ducked between tables, grabbing the backs of patrons’ chairs as he dodged the other guard, Niles, who was trying his best to corner the big man all by himself.

I pulled up my walkie-talkie and called for assistance, requesting an emergency team to help the fallen William. He’d managed to sit up, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

People screamed. Some shouted. Those nearest the doors got out. Who could blame them?

Our young harpist, looking shell-shocked and too panicked to run, kept her arms protectively around her instrument. Nearby, an elderly woman with arthritic hands stared up at the big man. Her eyes were bright and wide. Just as I thought she might faint, she hurled her teacup at him. It bounced off his shoulder before crashing to the floor. Percy turned and ran past her, patting her blue-white hair more gently than I would have expected. “Good aim, lady,” he said. Then, waving his arms over his head he skirted tables with surprising agility, crying out, “My kingdom for a cheeseburger.”

Had this been a scene in a movie, I might have laughed. But this was Marshfield Manor. Outbursts like this didn’t happen here. Our guests must not be terrorized. This magnificent, extraordinary haven should not be compromised. Ever.

I was not amused.

The rest of security finally stormed in. Although Percy’s wild behavior had probably only gone on for about a minute and a half, it seemed ten times longer. Uniformed guards took positions at every exit and three tough officers—two men just hired by our head of security, and the top man himself—came in, hands on holsters. These men were armed but I knew they wouldn’t draw their weapons with patrons present unless it became absolutely necessary.

The chief of security, Terrence Carr, sidled up. “What do we got? Talk to me,” he said.

I gave him a quick rundown, adding, “I don’t think the guy is dangerous. Just a little unstable.”

Tall, black, and stunningly handsome, Carr had an Ironman triathlete’s physique and—much to the disappointment of many female staffers—a wife and three kids. He didn’t take his eyes off our unwelcome guest. “Mr. Percy,” he called. “We will take you out by force if we have to. But I think it would be much better if you came out on your own.”

“Yeah, right,” Percy answered. A woman behind him leaned as far away as possible, the look on her face making it apparent she was too terrified to get up and run. As he backed up, Percy stumbled against her seat, knocking it sideways. She jumped to her feet, squeaking in fear. “Sorry,” he mumbled. He offered a quick smile. “My fault.”

An apology? This made no sense at all. I started feeling sorry for the big guy. Maybe he had just come in looking for a handout. Maybe he’d missed taking his meds.

When Carr’s two men got within striking distance, Percy took off, nimbly avoiding further collisions with patrons, tables, and harp. I stepped back, letting the professionals do their job, sad to see this beautiful room suffer as Percy threw empty chairs into the officers’ paths and knocked furniture to the ground. Abandoned meals crashed loudly and messily to the floor. I winced.

This was one of my favorite rooms in the entire mansion, and the only place in the actual home where guests could sit, relax, and grab a bite to eat. With its reproduction furniture—rattan chairs and settees with peach-, cream- and pale green–striped cushions—potted palms, and a soaring ceiling, this was always the brightest place to be.

Sitting in this room, as I had as a young child with my family, always made me feel special. Like I belonged here. And now, as assistant curator, I really did belong here. I was as protective of the Marshfield Manor castle as I was of my own home.

I stepped forward instinctively as Percy grabbed another chair, using it to fend off the guards as a lion tamer might tease his quarry. I didn’t know what I could possibly do, but I felt a powerful need to do something. With Percy’s leonine appearance, watching him fight the guards with the upturned chair was a peculiar sight. Again, in another situation, I might have laughed. No one wanted to hurt this guy, but we couldn’t let him get away with this behavior. Carr repeatedly ordered him to put the chair down.

Instead, wiggling the chair like a sword, Percy grinned, pointedly ignoring the officer’s demands. Carr pulled out pepper spray. I hoped he was bluffing because pepper spray would affect everyone in the room if he used it. From the set of his jaw and the tension in his posture, however, I could tell he was itching to spring.

...the rest of Chapter 1 is available at the end of Eggsecutive Orders, or in your copy of GRACE UNDER PRESSURE, on sale June 1st (but apparently available early at some Borders stores and through

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