Authors: Sally Goldenbaum
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
A Loveswept eBook
Copyright © 1987 by Sally Goldenbaum
Remember the Time
by Annette Reynolds copyright © 1997 by Annette A. Reynolds.
by Juliana Garnett copyright © 1998 by Juliana Garnett.
This Fierce Splendor
by Iris Johansen copyright ©1988 by Iris Johansen.
Lightning that Lingers
by Sharon and Tom Curtis copyright © 1983 by Thomas Dale Curtis and Sharon Curtis.
Tall, Dark, and Lonesome
by Debra Dixon copyright © 1993 by Debra Dixon.
by Adrienne Staff copyright © 1995 by Adrienne Staff.
by Deborah Smith copyright © 1990 by Deborah Smith.
All Rights Reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
LOVESWEPT and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Cover image © Form Advertising/Alamy. Cover design: Jae Song.
Excerpt from Annette Reynolds’s
Remember the Time
Excerpt from Juliana Garnett’s
Excerpt from Iris Johansen’s
This Fierce Splendor
Excerpt from Sharon and Tom Curtis’s
Lightning That Lingers
Excerpt from Debra Dixon’s
Tall, Dark, and Lonesome
Excerpt from Adrienne Staff’s
Excerpt from Deborah Smith’s
Halley Finnegan raised one white-gloved hand to her carefully made-up lips. Her large emerald green eyes grew larger as she leaned through the open car window and stared at the elaborate house she was about to enter.
“Good grief,” she said, choking. “I’ll need a tour guide just to get me through the weekend!”
Reluctantly she opened the door of her tiny Volkswagen and got out. She teetered sideways almost instantly, her slender body weaving like a reed in a high wind. Grasping the door handle for support, Halley stared down accusingly at the unfamiliar spike heels. She’d never make it inside in them. She grimaced as she scanned the crimson dress that hugged her hips like a girdle and squeezed her pale, full breasts so tightly that she felt sure a sneeze would leave her naked. It had to have been Rosie’s cheap wine. Nothing else could possibly have made her agree that the dress was perfect for the occasion!
The thought of Rosie Wilson brought a smile to her face. Rosie had delighted in rummaging through every shelf and dusty box in her antique clothing shop the previous night to outfit Halley for the weekend,
and the venture had ended in hilarious laughter as the two friends finally settled on the sexy crimson dress and filmy shawl that did little to cover Halley’s skin.
“Finnegan, it’s the chance of a lifetime!” Rose had insisted, her dramatic flair with words making the ridiculous sound sensible. “A whirlwind weekend of mystery and charade! And the more exotic you look, the more you’ll melt into the crowd. If you try to dress like Halley Finnegan, you’ll stand out like a sore thumb!”
It was only after the second glass of wine that Halley had tried on the dress. It was after a third glass that she had agreed to wear it. Rose had stared at her lean, lovely curves with envy. “I’d look like a fortune-teller in that, Finn. But you look positively regal. No one will ever guess you’re a fill-in houseguest!”
. The thought jolted her attention back to the magnificent house that stretched out before her. The mansion sat atop a gentle rise like a jeweled crown, its opulence and grandeur borrowed from another time. Off in the distance, beyond the rolling lawns, Halley could see a shimmering lake, its surface streaked in shadow by the setting sun. She didn’t hear any violins yet, but the graceful strains of Mozart and Beethoven fit the scene so perfectly, she fully expected to tune in to them at any moment. It was the perfect setting for a Fitzgerald novel, Halley mused as she cautiously approached the wide fan of marble steps leading up to the entrance. Or a romance. Or a murder.
The last thought sent an uncomfortable ripple of apprehension through her body. That was, after all, why she was there. She shivered, drawing the lacy shawl up over her bare shoulders, and walked slowly up the steps.
Why, oh, why had she let Leo Thorne talk her into
coming, anyway? She’d give almost anything to be somewhere else, preferably curled up in her favorite library chair, burying herself in a wonderful musty book! But when her kindly benefactor had asked her to go as a favor to him, he had left her no room for a refusal. His dear, dear friends were hosting this charming party—a murder-mystery weekend, plotted and directed by a professional troupe—and all the guests would participate.
“Such a clever idea, Halley, eh?” His grin had been barely visible beneath his bushy white mustache. The problem was, he’d explained, that one guest had come down with the flu at the last minute and he didn’t think Halley would mind filling in. Furthermore, he had insisted it would actually be a wonderful thing for her to get away from the Thorne Estate Library for a brief vacation.
A fortuitous change of pace. Refreshing. Invigorating
Halley had stared at him wide-eyed, assuming he’d been nipping from the bottle he kept on a bookshelf behind the fat, leather volume of
. Luck wasn’t on her side, however. Mr. Thorne had been dead serious.
There was no way on God’s earth she could turn the man down. Aside from her family, he had done more for Halley Finnegan than any other human alive, and when she reluctantly agreed, the spread of happy wrinkles around his eyes
made having to go to the party worth it.
Until now. Halley wet her lips nervously and glanced back toward the circular drive, her gaze settling on the tiny green Volkswagen. It looked pathetic in the grandiose surroundings. “Don’t worry, my green knight,” she whispered softly. “If I can do it, so can you.…”
With a feeble burst of energy Halley Finnegan spun around to face her first—and
, pray to God!—murder-mystery party.
She paused on the top step. She could hear voices coming from around the side of the house and through the open windows. The happy clink of ice against fine glass mingled with laughing chatter. She hadn’t missed the cocktails, after all. So much for
She eyed the shiny brass door knocker with renewed determination and smoothed her palms down over the flaming red dress.
Well, Finnegan, here goes
. With a forced bravado that painted a crimson blush across her high cheekbones, Halley lifted the knocker and let it drop firmly against the heavy oak door.
In seconds the door opened wide and a gray-haired butler filled the opening. His gaze met hers, then fell almost immediately to her dress. Halley felt a rush of damp heat travel up her neck, then back down to the cleavage the elderly man eyed so admiringly.
“Ah,” he managed, pulling his gaze upward and wiping away the tiny beads of perspiration that dotted his forehead, “welcome, madam. Please, won’t you come in?” He backed up stiffly against the door to let Halley pass.
Halley paused, her heart hammering beneath her ribs. There was still time to feign a polite excuse and leave, to hurry back to the warm security of the Thorne Estate, to slip into her familiar warm-up clothes and tennies and sink her teeth into any one of a million projects she was halfway through. She could … No, of course she couldn’t. Besides, she decided with a sudden grin and a lift of her head that brought the doting butler to full attention, she was anonymous, playing a part. Rosie was absolutely right! She could be whoever she wanted to be. It was the only way to get through the crazy weekend, and she’d do it come hell or high water.
A tingle of childlike pleasure eased through Halley, pushing the nervousness aside, as she began to
look at the situation as a challenge. When it came right down to the wire, she’d always been able to tap into her ever-ready reservoir of strength and make the most of it. Wasn’t that what Joe Finnegan had always taught his kids to do?
With head held high and her thick auburn hair cascading down the bare, creamy skin of her back, Halley Finnegan whisked gracefully past the butler, then turned and faced him with a smile so alluring, it caused the elderly gentleman to cough behind his hand.
“Please, sir,” Halley said huskily, “kindly tell the Harringtons that the Contessa Ambrosia is here.”
At that moment a tiny silver-haired lady appeared from the other side of a giant fern, her bright oval eyes sparkling and a flowing Grecian gown trailing behind her.
“My dear, welcome!” She grasped Halley’s hand and looked up into her face, smiling. “I am Sylvia Harrington. And you
be dear Leo’s friend. He’s told us so very much about you, and I cannot tell you how grateful we are that you agreed to come at the last minute like this!” Her small head bounced along with the words. “Now, tell me, just to remind me, of course”—she touched her cheek lightly with one finger, a small crease lining her still smooth brow—“you are …?”
Halley smiled. “Halley. Halley Fin—”
The woman reached up and covered Halley’s mouth with her small gloved hand. “Shh! No, no, no, dear. We won’t use any of
names this weekend. No, no. This weekend you are …” She reached over and picked up a small scroll lying on the side table in the formal entrance hall. “Ah, here! You are the Contessa Ambrosia, of course.” She stepped back and looked Halley over from head to toe, A
contessa, I should say. My, oh, my.” Her eyes traveled over the
silk gown. “What a lovely, lovely dress, my dear. You are ravishing!”
Halley smiled back and felt the fantasy taking shape around her. Her hostess, dressed as an Italian princess, was lovely, and her own dress hadn’t been condemned—not yet, anyway—and she—plain Halley Finnegan—was a contessa.
“Ravishing, indeed!” The deep, husky voice that swept into the conversation was disembodied at first, and Halley delighted in the resonance of it. It was a marvelous voice, the kind one would sit back and enjoy from the last row of a theater as it rolled off the stage in huge waves.
this ravishing creature?”
The owner of the voice took her hand and swept her gloved fingers to his warm lips, which kissed her fingers through the thin material and left hot imprints on her skin.
“This,” Mrs. Harrington said graciously and with a great deal of enthusiasm, “is our final guest. The Contessa Ambrosia.” She curled her arm around Halley’s waist.
“And this, Contessa, is Baron von Bluster.” Sylvia Harrington giggled at the fictitious name. “Goodness, Nick, how perfect a name for you!” She tweaked his cheek affectionately.
Halley raised her head slowly, her thick lashes lifting until she looked directly into the Baron’s eyes—soft black eyes that nearly swallowed her.
A smile spread across his darkly handsome face. Halley shivered. She opened her mouth to speak, but her hostess gushed on in warm, silvery tones. “And such a happy chance that you should have walked in, my dear Baron, because the lovely Contessa happens to be your partner for the weekend. Ah, such a good match; I shall have to commend my dear Herbert on his farsightedness.” She chuckled happily, patted Halley’s shoulder, then swept off,
leaving Halley and the Baron facing each other in the middle of the spacious hallway.