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Jean Hager's
Serving up crime at a charming B&B
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Chapter One
(Read or print)

"Not a pretty sight," she muttered as she gazed at herself in the white-and-gold framed mirror
Or rather at Pat Snell.
Pat Snell, Pat Snell, she repeated in her mind, trying to embed the name so deeply that she wouldn't make a telling slip. Such a slip could cost her everything. Everything that mattered, at any rate.
The blue eyes of the woman looking back at her gazed through new horn-rimmed eyeglasses-with lenses that turned sunglass-brown when she was in the sun. She had never worn glasses before, and they had already rubbed a tender spot on one side of her nose. She massaged the spot with her index finger for a moment, then removed the glasses and studied her face-short nose, wide mouth, smooth skin thanks to a laser peel, and perfect white teeth thanks to modern dentistry. 'Me hair made a difference, but perhaps not enough. Better keep the glasses. With a sigh, she put them back on.
She picked up her brush and ran it through her short, dyed black hair one more time. It did not magically transform her reflection into Sandra Bullock, more's the pity. She turned her head sideways to examine her profile. She did have a nice profile when she was thirty pounds lighter and that little lump of fat under her chin was gone.
Sighing, she tossed the brush aside and smoothed both hands down ample hips to press the wrinkles out of the green cotton slacks she'd bought in a Chicago discount store. The slacks had elastic at the waist to accommodate her thick middle. The tails of her white shirt hung down over the slacks, a pathetic attempt to hide the bulge of her stomach. She looked like some middle-aged housewife who'd had three or four kids and then just gave up the fight and let herself go to hell.
In contrast to the woman in the mirror, the room reflected behind her was daintily feminine-lace ruffles, white wicker, and spring green and lavender chintz. A framed watercolor of the ruffled lavender iris for which the room was named hung over the delicately scrolled white-and-brass iron bed. Even the view from the window overlooking the big front yard-clumps of daffodils hugging a white wrought-iron fence-seemed designed to complement her accommodations.
The Annabel Jane Room in Iris House Bed and Breakfast was light and airy and quite lovely. When she'd checked in, she'd been pleasantly surprised to find she would be spending the next two weeks in such charming surroundings. Unfortunately Pat Snell looked as out of place there as a fat English bulldog at a Yorkshire Terrier show.
Dr. Patrice Singleton, on the other hand, would be right at home. But Dr. Patrice had perfectly styled, frosted blond hair and a trim, fit body-and no patience with those who let themselves go, like Pat Snell. Dr. Patrice bought her designer clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue. She wouldn't be caught dead in the getup worn by Pat Snell, or any of the other discount shirts or slacks
and shorts, with elasticized waists, hanging in the closet of the Annabel Jane Room. Furthermore, if Dr. Patrice needed corrective lenses, she'd wear contacts. No, she'd get that laser surgery. Dr. Patrice did not readily tolerate human imperfections.
But Dr. Patrice was on an extended vacation in the Caribbean. She had not told anyone, not even her boss at the Chicago radio station that syndicated her call-in show, how she could be reached, saying she simply must have some uninterrupted time away from her grueling schedule. Time to think and plan the agenda for the fall shows, which were organized around a different theme each week.
She had told him that when she returned, she'd be a brand new woman. He hadn't mentioned her weight gain, but she'd caught him studying her figure when he thought she wasn't looking.
However, knowing that she had a lucrative offer from another syndicate, he'd indulged her. Besides, she had enough tapes in the can to cover three months, if necessary.
For the next two weeks, while Dr. Patrice lolled in the sun, Pat Snell would spend the time at Iris House in a weight-loss retreat conducted by Lida Darnell, the woman who owned Lida's Fitness World in Victoria Springs. Pat Snell had three months to take off thirty pounds, and she was determined to shed the first ten before the retreat ended. Lida's two-week makeover package carried a hefty price tag, but if it worked, it was well worth it. Not if, she told herself. It would work.
Pat Snell would probably sign up for another weightloss program after this one. She knew she couldn't come out of the next three months thirty pounds lighter without a rigid structure and somebody to tell her what to eat and when. 'Me bald truth was that Pat Snell was so undisciplined, she needed a keeper.
She was seriously considering getting counseling. There had to be somebody somewhere who could help her keep the weight off once she lost it.
Dr. Patrice, of course, would shake her head in disgust at such weakness. But she was Pat Snell for now and money was no barrier. Whatever it took, she had to get one the weight off by the first of June. Otherwise Dr. Patrice was finished. Besides which, the thought of traveling around the country in her current revolting condition made her want to crawl under a bed.
Her stomach grumbled. Denied her late-evening bowl of Ben & Jerry's Heath Bar Crunch ice cream the previous day, Pat was hungry enough to eat the ivy flowing from a wicker basket near the lace-curtained south window. Unhappily, there was the morning jog to get through before she could eat.
Her mind still on food, she turned away from the mirror, wondering what the cook was serving for breakfast which, combined with lunch, could contain no more than six hundred calories. They would go out for dinner so that Lida could teach them how to order five-hundred-calorie meals from a menu. Lida had explained all this to her when she'd arrived at Iris House last evening.
She had also been asked to sign a release giving Lida and her trainer, a Tom Cruise look-alike, permission to conduct random searches of her room and luggage for contraband food.
Shades of all those summer camps she'd attended as a child!
She had instinctively bristled at the invasion of privacy, but had stifled the impulse to voice her outrage-a typical Dr. Patrice reaction-and signed on the dotted line.
What choice did she have?
She was up against the wall, but she had always managed to come through when faced with a deadline. With the help of Lida and the trainer she would do it again.
The trainer was named, to her disbelief, Cail, and he had so many muscles, his muscles had muscles. He must spend a couple of hours a day working out with weights; the very idea made her shudder. And the thought of the muscular, cocky Cail rifling through her belongings, especially her large size 10 underpants made her skin crawl. 'Me man had shifty eyes, Handsome as he was, there was something almost unsavory about Cail Marrs.
Get over it, she told herself as she headed for the door.
"It's exactly what you deserve for having so little self control," she lectured. "Behave like a child, without restraint, and you deserve to be treated like a child. Where did you think all those desserts would go, anyway?"
That sounded exactly like Dr. Patrice. She paused at the door to gather her wits and take a deep breath. "Pat Snell, Pat Snell, Pat Snell," she murmured as she left the room.
Still in her robe, Tess Darcy dashed out to the Iris House veranda for the morning paper. As she returned to her apartment via the foyer, Pat Snell, one of the guests who'd checked in last evening, came down the stairs.
Tess paused in her open doorway to say, "Good morning, Pat."
Pat peered at her over the top of her eyeglasses as she came down the last few steps. "Oh, hi. Is breakfast ready yet?"
"I think you're the first one down," Tess said, "but Gertie will serve you in the dining room whenever you're ready."
Pat pushed her glasses up to the bridge of her nose, then immediately readjusted them to rest halfway down her nose. "I was ready an hour ago. I'm hungry enough to eat the furniture. I hope whatever's on the menu is filling."
Tess didn't have the heart to tell her that the two hundred calories allotted for breakfast by Lida Darnell, the woman running the retreat, would probably not allow for a meal that could honestly be described as filling. Gertie was the best cook in Victoria Springs, Missouri, but she couldn't work miracles.
"By the way," Tess said, "when you checked in, I gave you a form to fill out. You left the blank form in my office. If you'll wait just a minute, I'll get it for you." Before Pat could reply, Tess stepped into her apartment, dropped the morning paper on sofa, and returned to the foyer with the form.
Pat took it, scanned it, and handed it back. "I'm a very private person. I don't like the ideas of my home address and phone number lying around in somebody's files."
"Oh." Tess was taken aback. Nobody had ever reacted quite that way to the simple form. "It's just that I usually mail thank-you notes after guests return home. And sometimes I send former guests announcements of special events scheduled in the area. Several have returned for a second visit after receiving the mailings."
Pat had the closed expression of someone who's mind is already made up and nothing anyone says will change it.
"But, of course, if you'd rather not. .
"I'd rather not," Pat said flatly.
Tess forced a smile. "Fine. Now, I'd better get dressed. I'll see you later." Closing her apartment door behind her, Tess thought, How strange. Since Pat had given her a down payment in cash it wasn't essential that Tess have her address and phone number. But she did find Pat's response intriguing.
And Pat wasn't the only current guest who had aroused Tess's curiosity. In fact, some of the undercurrents she'd picked up already were a bit worrisome. One guest, a high-fashion model known professionally as merely Lillith, had arrived with an obese husband and heavy-set adolescent boy whom Tess had surmised was the model's stepson. When Tess had observed casually that Lillith didn't look as if she needed to lose weight, the woman frowned, gave a quick shake of her head, and rushed her family up the stairs, away from Tess. Another young woman named Heather had quizzed Tess about Cail Marrs, the trainer who would be working with the group. How long had he lived in Victoria Springs? What was his relationship with Lida Darnell, his employer? Odd questions to ask about a stranger, Tess had thought. But when she inquired if her guest knew Cail, Heather had hastily changed the subject. Later, after she'd shown Heather to her room, two sisters, who were sharing accommodations, had arrived in the midst of a heated argument. Tess hadn't learned what the dispute was about, but the older of the two had called her sister a brainless nitwit, to which the younger had replied that she, at least, had more in her life than work. It made Tess wonder how they would manage to spend two weeks in the same room without coming to blows.
Shaking her head, Tess went to get dressed. She had a feeling the next two weeks would provide some surprises.

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Twilight Lane, from Avon Books, at The Online Mystery Network,
is produced and published by Newfront Productions, Inc.

Copyright ©1999 by Avon Books and Newfront Productions, Inc.
All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form.