Ornaments of Death by Jane K. Cleland is the 10th installment of the Josie Prescott Mysteries Series surrounding a mystery of missing antique collectibles that leads Josie to learn the true meaning of Christmas and family (available December 1, 2015).
Christmas lights twinkle throughout the cozy coastal town of Rocky Point, New Hampshire, and Prescott's Antiques auction venue has been transformed into a winter wonderland for Josie Prescott's annual holiday party. Josie is especially excited this year-Ian Bennington, a recently discovered distant relative, will be joining the fun. Both Ian and Josie are, it seems, descended from Arabella Churchill, a 17th century royal mistress. The party is a success and Ian is a hit. It gives Josie an unexpected thrill to have family-and unexpected dread when he vanishes.
Ian doesn't keep his dinner date with Josie's good friend, Lavinia, or his lunch date with her. Surely, he would have done so-if he could. Ian has given his daughter two priceless 17th century watercolor miniature portraits, one of Arabella and one of her lover, King James II, and they've gone missing, too. Knowing that after her nasty divorce, Lavinia is facing financial ruin, Josie can't help wondering if her friend is behind the theft-and Ian's disappearance.
Determined to find Ian, Josie uses her knowledge of antiques to track the miniatures. In doing so, she learns the true meaning of Christmas-and the true meaning of family.
I did a slow 360.
When I’d asked Gretchen, Prescott’s office manager, and Eric, our operations manager, to transform our antiques auction venue into a winter wonderland for tomorrow’s holiday party, I’d envisioned a big Christmas tree, some pretty evergreen garlands draped here and there, and a few strings of twinkling lights hanging from the crown molding. I was utterly unprepared for the ethereal vision surrounding me.
I took a tentative step toward one of the billboard-sized photographs that hung from the picture railing on gold metal grommets. A series of them circled the room, covering every inch of wall space. Only the entryway, a nearby window, and the arched foyer that led to the restrooms were unadorned. Each photo aligned seamlessly with its neighbors like pieces of fabric in a well-made garment, creating an uninterrupted view of an idealized hardwood forest, the kind of snowy phantasma Robert Frost wrote about.
Starting about a foot from the walls, snow-tipped birch tree trunks stood in staggered rows. I blinked, half-believing that I was standing in a clearing in a forest. I approached one of the trees for a closer look and touched the peeling white and brown bark with the side of my finger.
“Get out of town!” I said. I looked at Gretchen, then Eric. “It’s fabric.”
“Aren’t they gorgeous?” Gretchen asked, stroking the soft cotton.
“Astonishing. I was worried for a minute that you guys had cut down a forest.”
Gretchen giggled. “Nope … all we did was cover plastic piping.”
Eric pointed to the treetops. “The snow is cotton batting. We tossed in some clear sequins, too. That was Gretchen’s idea.”
I tilted my head back to view the ceiling, twenty feet above my head. Tiny white star-shaped Christmas lights dangled from a twined tree branch canopy, a celestial paradise. “It’s exactly what you’d see looking up through trees on a clear winter’s night. Really, guys. It’s amazing.”
I walked toward the back, where a fifteen-foot Douglas fir stood at the far corner of the room. Red and gold strips of skinny velvet rope and strings of red, blue, amber, and white lights twisted around and through the branches. My custom-designed holiday ornaments shone in the iridescent light. I leaned in close to inspect them.
I’d started the tradition of reproducing antique Christmas ornaments as gifts for staff and clients my first year in business. This year, I’d created two ornaments, one serving as my annual gift, the other designed to celebrate Prescott’s tenth anniversary. Both were replicas. The Christmas gift featured a Victorian-era jolly Santa standing in front of a present-laden sleigh. Happy Holidays from Prescott’s Antiques was inked in script along the top. The message on the other one, which featured the kind of ornate Chinese-inspired design favored by England’s prince regent circa 1815, read Prescott’s Antiques: Ten Years of Honest Dealing.
The intercom squawked to life. “Josie! Pick up, please.”
I reached behind a panel for a wall-mounted phone.
“A man named Ian Bennington has stopped in,” Cara, Prescott’s grandmotherly receptionist, told me. “He was wondering if you had a moment to see him.”
“I’ll be there in a flash!” I said, a thrill of unfamiliar excitement tickling my insides. Ian was here!
I cradled the receiver and turned toward Gretchen and Eric. They were watching me closely, their reactions consistent with their personalities. Gretchen was spirited and proud; Eric was anxious but hopeful.
“I need to go, but I don’t want to. I wish I could stay here and admire every detail. You both did a fabulous job—it’s more than I ever could have imagined. It’s just perfect.”
“Yay!” Gretchen said, clapping her hands, her emerald eyes sparkling like the sequins she’d scattered in the cotton snow.
“Thanks,” Eric said, as shy and self-effacing as ever.
I took a long last look, noting the waist-high cocktail tables positioned here and there across the open space, the eight-foot-tall three-panel screens segregating the caterer’s work area; the two bar stations standing opposite one another at either end of the room. The row of standing coatracks extended into the room from the entryway wall, serving as a kind of room divider/weather break. Near it was the sign-in table where temps would check off names and welcome guests, and where later the gift bags would be placed for people to take on their way out. The small stage where the band would play classical standards intermingled with holiday favorites was set up at the rear.
I thanked them again for their efforts, then beelined for the front. Hank, our company’s Maine Coon cat, ran up to join me as I dashed across the warehouse.
“Hi, Hank. Are you having a good day, little boy?”
He mewed that he was.
I pushed open the heavy metal door that led to the front office. Hank followed me in, frisking alongside my legs.
Cara was on the phone giving directions to our weekly tag sale. My two antiques appraisers, Sasha and Fred, were at their desks, reading from their monitors. A tall man stood with his back to me, his hands in his pockets, gazing out the window.
“Ian?” I asked.
He looked over his shoulder and smiled. “Josie!”
His British accent was evident even from that one word. He walked toward me, his hand extended. We shook, and he pressed my right hand lightly with his left before releasing it.
“It’s so good to meet you,” I said. “Come up to my office—can I get you a coffee?”
“I’d love one, but I don’t want to interfere with your schedule.” His smile became rueful. “I drove here as a test, a dry run. This driving on the other side of the road is, might I say, distracting. And tomorrow, for the party, it will be dark.”
“I can arrange rides for you.”
“No, thanks. It’s a matter of pride.”
“If you change your mind, just let me know. I promise, no one will tease you.” I pushed open the warehouse door and waited for him to approach. “This way.”
“Are you certain you have the time?”
“You bet!” I turned to Cara, now off the phone, and asked her to bring a tray upstairs.
Ian glanced around as we walked toward the spiral staircase. There was a lot to see, from the orderly rows of shelves stocked with inventory to the workstations set up around the perimeter to Hank’s private area, furnished with area rugs, cushy pillows, comfy baskets, and an elaborate climbing system made of wooden beams, platforms, and cylindrical pass-throughs, all covered with carpet, a kitty-condo, Gretchen called it.
Ian paused on the first step, his hand on the banister. “I’m impressed.”
The 1885 building used to house a manufacturer of canvas products. When I’d bought it, I’d renovated it according to my business vision. The old shop floor was reconfigured as a warehouse and workroom. A huge side room, where in previous generations rows of office workers had labored, became the elegant auction venue. I’d kept the rustic feel of their old display room, expanding it into our tag sale area, and I’d upgraded the observation deck where managers had watched the men at work, transforming it into a cozy private office.
“Thanks. I updated the entire building when I opened the company.”
“Is everything on those shelves for sale?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s far easier to sell than buy, so we try to keep as much inventory on hand as we can.” I reached down and patted his shoulder. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to meet you, Ian.”
“I feel the same.”
I couldn’t stop smiling. I’d heard from Ian for the first time only a month earlier when he e-mailed to tell me we were related, and I still couldn’t believe it. In the dozen years since my dad had died, I’d been on my own. As the only child of only children, I’d never expected anything else, and over the years, I’d carved out a wonderful life for myself in my adopted home of Rocky Point, New Hampshire. My business was thriving, my relationship with Ty, my boyfriend, was flourishing, and I had solid friendships. Despite that, it was, to me, not the least bit surprising that I felt like clapping and kicking my heels together. For the first time in more than a decade, I had family.
I opened the door and waved him in ahead of me. He paused three paces in to look around. His eyes gravitated to the big window by my desk.
“What a super view,” he said.
I followed his gaze, peering through the old maple tree, its limbs winter bare, normal for late autumn in New Hampshire, past the church spire, to the distant ocean. You couldn’t hear or see the ocean, but the gulls that flew by proved it wasn’t far, and even with the windows closed, you could smell it, a faint salty aroma, the scent of the sea.
“That’s a million-dollar view,” he said, “a power view.”
“It’s kind of funny to hear that here in New Hampshire. When I lived in New York City, that’s what they always said about high-floor apartments or offices.”
“Why did you leave New York?”
I knew that his question was merely polite chitchat, nothing more, but the answer was complex and intimate, too intimate to talk about with a stranger, family or not. That I’d been the whistle-blower in a price-fixing scandal, ostracized by my friends and colleagues, fired from my dream job, and vilified by the press was bad enough, but then my dad, my rock, died, and only two weeks later, my boyfriend at the time, Rick the Cretin, said I was getting to be a downer, his word, and split. Old news. I learned the hard way that when fielding hostile questions from the media, the best approach was to answer the question you wished they’d asked, and that’s what I did now. Instead of telling him why I left New York, I told him why I chose New Hampshire.
“New Hampshire is a great place to do business. It has a deep core of American history—and antiques. And it’s close to Boston. It was an ideal choice.” I walked toward the seating area, a yellow brocade love seat and two matching Queen Anne wing chairs. “Have you always lived in Christmas Common?”
“All my life,” he said.
He sank onto the love seat and leaned back against the cushions, closing his eyes for a moment. He raised and lowered his shoulders.
“Tough flight?” I asked, sitting across from him.
He opened his eyes. “Not especially. I think I’m getting old.”
I knew from the genealogical chart Ian had e-mailed that he was forty-eight years old, but he didn’t look it. His hair was solid brown, without a hint of gray. His face was unlined. He looked fit, too, like an athlete.
“You look way younger than I expected.”
“Good genes, I guess.”
Cara came in with a tray and placed it on the mahogany butler’s table.
I thanked her and waited until the soft padding of her heels faded away before I asked, “Are we really truly related?”
Ian chuckled. “Questioning my research, are you?”
“Not exactly. It’s just that I’m incredulous, gobsmacked, as you might say!”
He smiled. “You pronounced that very well.”
“Thanks,” I said, pouring coffee into Minton china cups. “It’s not a matter of doubting your ability. It’s the complexity of the project. Documents that are more than three hundred years old … well, they must be filled with errors and gaps.”
Ian had reported that we were both distant relations of Arabella Churchill, a mistress of the seventeenth-century monarch King James II. Once their ten-year affair ended, Arabella married Charles Godfrey, the Master of the Jewel Office. By all accounts, the couple’s forty-year marriage was happy. Their eldest daughter, Charlotte, had sixteen children. According to Ian, he and I were descendants of one of those sixteen, a daughter named Lucy.
I handed Ian a cup and pointed to the carefully arranged plate of cookies. “These are Cara’s famous gingersnaps.”
He took one from the silver platter and ate it in two bites. “Delicious,” he said. “Actually, there aren’t as many missing bits as you might expect. Royal records, including those involving royal mistresses, were meticulously kept and maintained in multiple places, making the process straightforward.”
“I’m pretty excited,” I said, “cuz.”
“Me, too, cuz.”
We smiled at one another for a moment.
“How is it you don’t know anything about your heritage?” he asked.
“I know a little. My maternal grandmother, Deborah Austin, she of the Churchill line, was a war bride from London. She married my grandfather, Jed Prescott, an American, in 1945, when she was twenty-one. I think she was an only child, like my mom, and like me. They came back to Jed’s home, just outside of Boston, in, I think, 1946. They both died before I was born.” I lifted my hands, palms up. “You now know everything I do about my British ancestors.”
He took another gingersnap. “I see evidence in front of my eyes that you, at least, are truly a descendant of Arabella. I think you look like her.”
I grinned. “She was short?”
“She had intelligent eyes, a high forehead, and a determined chin. She was lovely—just like you.”
I gazed into my coffee cup, embarrassed. “Thanks.”
“You’ve seen the Sir Peter Lely portrait, haven’t you?”
I opened a long-closed file cabinet in my mind. “Yes—if I’m remembering right. The woman in the painting is sitting at an angle, a three-quarters profile view. She’s wearing a pale green dress, cut quite low. Her expression is more playful than distinguished.”
“That’s it. It’s a beautiful piece. There is a miniature of her, too.”
“By Lely?” I asked.
“No. By Samuel Cooper.”
“You’re kidding!” I exclaimed. Cooper was the finest miniature artist of his time. “His work is extraordinary. Is it on exhibit somewhere?”
One side of his mouth lifted, a cocky half-smile. “It came on the market a couple of years ago along with a match piece, and I bought them.”
My eyes lit up. “A match piece?”
“King James II commissioned two paintings in 1670 as his Christmas gift to Arabella. One portrait is of Arabella. The other is of himself.”
“Watercolor on vellum?”
“How big are they?”
Ian laughed. “The better question is how small are they. They’re oval shaped and only one and three-eighths inches high. Like postage stamps.”
“Where are they now?”
“I gave them to my daughter, Becca, as a housewarming gift.”
“That’s wonderful! And she’s living here, right?”
“In Boston, yes, for the year.”
“Which is why you’re in Rocky Point, New Hampshire, this weekend! You’re en route to Boston for a visit. If Becca would be willing to let me take a look at them, I’d sure love to get a gander.”
“As it happens, I e-mailed her that she ought to ask you to appraise them. Given how hot the antique miniatures market is right now, I think she ought to update her insurance.”
“That’s smart, and of course, I’d love to do the appraisal”—I raised my hand like a traffic cop—“but do tell her that I’ll understand completely if she decides to have a Boston-based company do it. There are plenty of excellent options closer to her than Prescott’s.”
“As it happens, a lot of her fieldwork is conducted right here in Rocky Point.”
“Rocky Point is home to a lot of clams.”
I laughed. “That’s funny! I hope it works out.”
We chatted for another few minutes in the way acquaintances do, about his flight from London and whether the oceanfront hotel I’d recommended was to his liking and how the December weather was less severe than he’d expected. When he’d finished his coffee and two more of Cara’s addictive gingersnaps, he stood up.
“My bed awaits,” he said, stretching. “I feel a long nap in my future … jet lag.”
I walked him downstairs, and with a cheery wave, he left.
I scooped up Hank and cuddled him as I watched Ian get into his silver Taurus and drive out of the lot, turning right, toward the Atlantic, toward the Rocky Point Sea View Hotel. I couldn’t believe he was really here.
“Mr. Bennington seems very nice,” Cara said. “A new client?”
I kissed Hank on the top of his furry head and told him he was a good boy as I lowered him to the floor.
“Nope,” I said, grinning. “He’s family.”
Copyright © 2015 Jane K. Cleland.
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Jane K. Cleland once owned a New Hampshire-based antiques and rare books business. She is the author of nine previous Josie Prescott Antiques and has been a finalist for the Macavity, Anthony, and Agatha awards and has twice won the David Award for Best Novel. Jane is the former president of the New York chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and chairs the Wolfe Pack's Black Orchid Novella Award.. She is part of the English faculty at Lehman College and lives in New York City.