The Grim Reader
"It's good to be back in Dharma," Derek said, breathing in the crisp fall air.
We stood on the balcony outside the master bedroom of the home we'd be living in for the next two weeks and took in the gorgeous scenery. I felt all of my stress dissipate as I gazed out at the green terraced hills. As far as the eye could see, thousands of sturdy grapevines grew tall and lush, their leaves turning golden brown in the autumn sun. Even from this far away, I could see the clusters of ripe fruit more than ready for the coming harvest.
"This view never gets old," I said with a happy sigh, smiling up at him.
Derek pulled me close and kissed my temple. "Beautiful."
"It's been way too long since we were here." I rested my head on my husband's shoulder. Actually, it had only been a few months, I realized with some amazement. But so much had happened in that time, it seemed longer. First I had attended a national librarians' convention and faced down a deadly librarian or two. Then Derek and I had gotten married and we'd flown off to honeymoon in Paris. It had been an incredibly romantic time. And then we had come home to find dangerous goons with guns, a vicious assassin, and more than one victim of cold-blooded murder.
Sudden shivers skittered across my shoulders at the memory. You would think I'd be used to finding dead bodies by now. But no, it shocked me to my very core, every time.
With determination, I shook off the chills. We were in Dharma now. We could relax and enjoy our families and friends. This coming weekend was Dharma's first annual Book Festival and the following week we would stay to help with the grape harvest. I took a few more deep breaths to get rid of the last of those shivers. I didn't want anything to interfere with my excitement over the upcoming book festival. There would be books everywhere—and no dead bodies!
Yes, it was good to be back in Dharma with Derek. It was good to be back in this place where my family and I had lived since I was eight years old, before there even was a town called Dharma. Back then, there were only Airstream campers and tents and grapevines. I had been very unhappy that our parents had forced us to move from San Francisco out to the boondocks, until I climbed down from the family van and spotted a little dark-haired girl. She defiantly clutched her bald Barbie doll and looked just as pissed off as I felt. That was Robin. We clicked instantly and everything was okay after that.
Our parents were part of a group of Deadheads and seekers of wisdom who had followed their spiritual leader Avatar Robson Benedict—or Guru Bob, as my siblings and I called him—to the wilds of Sonoma County, where they created the Fellowship for Spiritual Enlightenment and Higher Artistic Consciousness.
Now, of course, most members of the commune lived in beautiful homes that dotted the hills and valleys around Dharma. They worked for the winery or in the vineyards or contributed in other ways to the busy, thriving community of shops, tech firms, restaurants, and wineries scattered around Dharma. Thanks to plenty of canny advice from Guru Bob and the lucrative profit-sharing plan that he'd established early on, his followers had learned to invest wisely. And now, twenty-five years later, our people were thriving and our town had become one of the most popular destination spots in the wine country.
And lately some of Derek's family had bought homes in the area, so for me, Dharma kept getting better and better.
"Is everything out of the car?" I asked.
"Yes." Derek grinned. "Including all of your bookbinding supplies. And Charlie."
I reached out and squeezed his hand. "Thank you."
Just that morning Derek and I had driven here from San Francisco with our cat Charlie. The drive itself had only taken an hour, but it had taken even longer to move our clothes and essential items from the car into the house. Now it was time to take a minute and enjoy the quiet.
I felt a whisper of movement and glanced down to see Charlie winding herself around and between my legs, brushing her thick, creamy white tail against my ankles. "Well, look who ventured out of her crate."
After a few more sweeps of her tail, Charlie slinked over to Derek, who stooped down and picked her up in his arms. "We'll have to be extra cautious that she doesn't wander outside."
Despite being a mecca for sophisticated wine enthusiasts, Dharma was still rustic and woodsy, so there were plenty of hawks and coyotes to worry about. And even though Charlie was a full grown cat now, I still imagined her to be a defenseless little kitten and would be heartbroken if anything happened to her.
"Yes, we will." I reached over to stroke Charlie's soft back and give her a scratch between her ears. "We don't want to lose you," I murmured. Our girl was an indoor cat, having spent most of her life inside our San Francisco apartment. I knew there were any number of wild animals out there looking for a tasty snack in the form of a fluffy, well-behaved housecat. I was always reading stories in the paper about small animals being carried off by red hawks or attacked by raccoons. Lately I had even seen reports of a mountain lion sighting nearby. I wasn't about to let Charlie roam outside with predators like that skulking around.
Derek led the way back inside and I carefully closed the door behind us. The cat was precious to both of us, ever since Derek had brought her home as a surprise for me.
Footsteps sounded from behind us and I turned to watch Annie walk into the master bedroom where we were standing.
I gave her shoulder a soft squeeze. "Thank you for letting us stay."
"It's your house, too," she said lightly.
It was a long story, but basically, this house had once belonged to my old bookbinding mentor Abraham Karastovsky. He'd never known he had a daughter until the last few days of his life and he was looking forward to getting to know her better after their first brief meeting. Sadly, he was killed before that could happen and consequently, he left his entire estate to me, including his sumptuous Mediterranean-style house with its amazing views, along with the equally amazing, fully-stocked bookbinding workshop out beyond the pool. Plus six million dollars, but that's a whole other story.
So legally the house belonged to me, but after my family and I got to know Annie—and after the required paternity test results came through proving that Annie was indeed Abraham's daughter—I asked the lawyers to write out a joint tenant agreement that gave half of the property to Annie. We also set up a trust that would pay Annie a generous allowance until she could determine what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
Annie's mother—the woman who had never told Annie or Abraham about their connection to each other—had passed away during that same period. So with no more attachments, Annie moved to Dharma where she was welcomed by my mother with open arms.
After a very short time, Annie figured out exactly what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She had taken her money and opened a cute kitchenware shop on Dharma's fashionable shopping lane. Since then, she had become an integral member of Dharma's business community and now she was truly thriving. But I could still picture the grief-stricken Goth girl she had been when we first met.
"Does everything look okay?" she asked now, giving the bedspread a minute tug to straighten it. "This room is pretty nice, isn't it?"
"It's fabulous," I said. "The whole house is amazing and the view from the balcony is wonderful."
Annie sighed and glanced around the master bedroom. "I could never bring myself to move into this room. I've replaced all the furniture and painted the walls, but it still reminds me of Abraham." Her eyes clouded, then she seemed to shake herself out of the mood. "Besides, I prefer staying on the first floor. It's easier and, you know, it suits me."
"It's kind of you to open up your home to us," Derek said.
"Oh. Gosh, Derek, it's really no problem." Her eyelashes fluttered and she gave him a sappy smile, clearly charmed. Derek had that effect on people, especially women. It might've been his elegant British accent that did it, or maybe it was his amazing good looks. Either way, I, too, found myself charmed daily.
"We really do appreciate you letting us stay here," I added.
"To be honest," she admitted, "having you here gives me a good excuse to stay with Presley for the next two weeks. We've been talking about moving in together so this'll either make us or break us."
I grinned. Annie's boyfriend Presley was the son of an old friend of my mother's. "In that case, we're happy to help you out."
"It's a win-win." Annie headed for the stairway. "I'm about to take off and leave you guys alone, but first I want to go over a few things in the kitchen."
Derek and I followed her downstairs with Charlie keeping up alongside us.
Annie gave us quick lessons on using the coffeemaker and the toaster oven. "You're welcome to drink my coffee and eat anything you find in the pantry or the fridge. Oh, and I have an unopened package of English muffins in the freezer if you want any of those. And cupcakes. Help yourself."
"You're leaving cupcakes?" I said, my eyes lighting up.
"Presley won't eat them." Her frown was sorrowful. "He gives me grief whenever he sees me eating sweets."
I narrowed my eyes. "Hmm. You sure about this guy?"
"I know what you're thinking." She grinned. "But hey, he's cute."
"That makes all the difference," I said with a quick laugh. "But anything we eat, including the cupcakes, we'll be sure to replace."
"That works for me." She glanced across the room. "Oh, let me show you how to work the television."
"Good thinking." We tagged along and got the easy instructions for operating the remote control.
Heading back to the kitchen, Annie glanced down at the clear plastic crates I'd set on the floor near the door leading to the laundry room and into the garage. It was easy to see the stacks of books and papers inside. "Looks like you're ready for the book festival."
"As ready as I'll ever be, I guess." I snapped the lid off the top crate and surveyed the contents. "I brought along a few dozen demonstration books and a ton of bookbinding supplies, just in case."
I had thought about leaving these items at home because I had a complete bookbinding shop behind the house. Abraham's supplies were still stored there so why would I need to bring more? But I wanted my own things. I was comfortable with my tools. I would definitely make use of his supplies of bookbinding glue and his heavy duty book press, but otherwise, I was happier with my stuff.
"Probably a good thing. Your mom says you've got back-to-back presentations lined up on all three days."
I rolled my eyes. "That's what happens when your mother is co-chair of the festival committee."
She leaned against the kitchen counter, folded her arms across her chest, and smiled indulgently. "Your mom's really proud of you. And it doesn't hurt that you're the book guru of the western world."
I chuckled. "Book guru. I like that."
"It suits you," Derek said with a grin.
The first annual Dharma Book Festival was the main reason we had moved in for the next two weeks. I'd been campaigning for years to have a book fair in Dharma, had taken time to visit every bookstore owner in the wine country in hopes of convincing them to take part in the project, and now it was finally happening. It was my very own dream come true and I had big hopes that the festival would bring lots of smart new visitors to the area. You know, the kind of visitors who liked to read books.
And yes, my mother had signed me up for at least a dozen events on all three days of the festival, but it didn't bother me one bit. I'm a bookbinder specializing in rare book restoration. Books are my life, so why would I mind?
When the idea of putting on a book festival first came up, Mom had researched the subject with single-minded determination. She signed up for extension classes at the local college and even took several online courses. She formulated a budget and obtained some big local sponsors including three popular radio stations, a number of the larger Dharma wineries, the Sonoma Institute of the Arts, the Friends of the County Library, and four area bookstores. She established a working timeline and solicited an enthusiastic group of residents to help form a committee.
The committee members divided up the responsibilities of contacting vendors, booking authors, presenters, and other participants. There was someone assigned to promotion and someone else working out an elaborate schedule of events and activities. A beautiful program was designed and posters were displayed in every shop in town. Mom was relentless in her desire to put on the best festival ever.
In her research, she had learned that the latest trend with book festivals was to designate a classic novel as the official "book of the festival." After a lot of wrangling, the Dharma Festival Committee had chosen Little Women to be that book. Apparently there had been some serious arguments over the choice. Some of the men on the committee balked at the "girlie" choice. They wanted Call of the Wild, a more "manly" read. It made some sense to choose that one because Jack London had lived in Sonoma County and his sprawling property in the hills above Glen Ellen was a famous historical landmark. But seriously, was it important to choose a "manly" book? Mom had pointed out that statistically, women bought more books and did more reading than men, and it didn't hurt that the biggest proponent of Little Women was Mom's male co-chairman, Lawson Schmidt, whose mother had been a big fan of the book. Ultimately the decision came down to the fact that there were simply more women on the committee than men, so Little Women had won out in the end.
The entire town and anyone planning to attend had been encouraged to read the book in anticipation of the various events and workshops that would celebrate the story and the author. The committee had invited a Louisa May Alcott scholar to take part in several panel discussions. But the biggest and most exciting event of the entire festival promised to be the one-time performance of Little Women, the musical.
A bunch of people we knew had signed up to work on the musical production and my family members were no exception. My youngest sister London had been pegged to be the director, which made sense because she was immensely talented in the arts and frankly, she enjoyed telling people what to do. My other sister China, a brilliant weaver, was making all the costumes—with help from some of the ladies in town. I figured my sister Savannah, a Michelin-starred chef in town, would help with the catering. And then Annie, of course, had one of the starring roles. She wasn't an official Wainwright daughter, but Mom treated her like one of her own anyway.
And by the way, if you've never heard of the musical version of Little Women, you are not alone. It had even been performed on Broadway, and yet it was still relatively obscure. I wasn't sure why. How bad could it be?
"We're looking forward to seeing you in the musical," Derek said. "Rebecca tells us you're the real star of the show."
Derek was one of the few people in the world who called my mother Rebecca. And after hearing Derek repeat Mom's compliment, Annie practically melted and pressed her hands against her chest. "Awwww, that's so sweet."
"It's true," I confirmed. "Mom said she was blown away when she heard you sing at one of the rehearsals."
Annie actually blushed, but then waved away the compliment. "I just got lucky. They gave me a really pretty song to sing and then I get to die."
"It doesn't get better than that," I agreed.
"I know, right? But Shandi Patrick is playing Marmie, so she's the real star of the show."
I made a face. Shandi Patrick was a well-known Hollywood actress who had been living in Sonoma for a few years now and was part owner of a local winery. Many of the locals called her "the Diva." Not because of the Hollywood connection, but because she could be a real pain in the butt. According to the town buzz, anyway. I had never met the woman.
Shandi hadn't made a movie or TV show in a long time, so I had to wonder if she could still be considered a star, except in her own mind. The few times I'd seen her walking along the Lane, I'd noticed she'd been wearing a lot of spandex to accentuate her statuesque figure. Not that there was anything wrong with that. It was also a well-known fact that Shandi had a regular weekly appointment at Tangled, Dharma's premier hair salon, to touch up those gray roots of hers.
And didn't that make me sound catty? I didn't even know her, but I'd paid attention to the gossip.
"I'll bet she hates playing the mom," I said with a smirk.
"She wanted to be Meg at first," Annie admitted.
"Seriously?" I rolled my eyes. The woman had to be at least fifty years old, probably older. What made her think she could play a teenager?
"Yeah, it was a stretch, for sure," Annie said. "And she doesn't have the soprano voice that the part calls for. London ended up giving the role to Sara Janz."
"Much more age-appropriate." Sara was a high school junior and favorite babysitter for China's little girl, Hannah.
Annie nodded. "And Sara's good. Everyone is, really. Including Shandi. Despite the rumors about her, she's actually kind of . . . nice."
"I'm glad." I smiled. If Shandi was being nice to Annie, I might consider changing my opinion of her. "Sounds like you're having fun with the production."
"I am. It's a lot of hard work, but I love it."
"Well, we can't wait to see it," I said.
Annie glanced around the room for one last check, then grabbed her tote bag and purse. "I'd better get going. I'll probably see you around town, but definitely at the festival."
"Hopefully sooner," I said. "Maybe dinner at Mom's?"
"And I plan to come by your store to pick up some goodies."
"Anytime." She wiggled her eyebrows. "I'll give you the family discount."
As soon as Annie left I checked my wristwatch. "I told Dad I might be able to pick up Mom from her committee meeting. I think it'll be fun to surprise her. Do you want to come with me or would you rather go visit your parents first?"
Derek's parents and mine had become such good friends that the Stones had finally bought a home nearby. They planned to come out here twice a year and stay for a few months each time.
"We'll see my parents later," he said, wrapping his arms around me. "I'll come with you now."
"Good." I breathed him in for a long moment, then gazed up into his dark blue eyes. "The committee is meeting at the town hall so if you want, we can park at the far end of the Lane and take a nice walk, see what's new and exciting."
"Sounds like a plan."
We got Charlie settled, made sure she knew where her food bowls were, and showed her the powder room where Annie had suggested we put the cat box. Then I carried her over to the little cat bed and pointed out her mini-jungle gym nearby. We wanted her to know the lay of the land and where she could sleep or play or eat or just chill, whatever she wanted to do while we were gone. Cats needed to have some fun, too, just like their humans.
"When did we become cat people?" Derek wondered aloud, and grinned as we walked out to the car.
"I think it happened while we were sleeping."
(Visit the Secret Room to read the rest of Chapter 1!)
© Kate Carlisle
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