Hearts On Fire V10

Volume 10

A lonely hearts group invades Chelsea for the week of love. Or is it?

The group’s coordinator is inept to begin with, and an illness sidelines him. One of the lonely hearts must step up to finish out the week. The group also contends with fraud, political intrigue and…murder? Again?

Annie’s foray into fine dining, the Bon Vivant Grille, receives a serious blow. It may not survive this time.

And hold on…a new winery is coming to the hills of rural Chelsea. The new owners, staying at the Inn for a few weeks, deal with issues of their own. They may have to sell before they even get started.

Good news for the cats. Police Chief Pete seems to be getting smarter, solving cases on his own. But he still needs the assistance of the four-footed furry ones to close his murder case.

Come visit with the folks of Chelsea for a while.

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Excerpt from Hearts On Fire

Chapter 1

Henrie gazed out the kitchen window at the still-nearly-dark February morning. The weather forecast called for a balmy day – just under freezing – with snow and icy rain. Lovely. And here he was, operating on about two hours of sleep. That would be the last time he would stay out late when guests were present.

He opened the oven door. Yes. The strata was nearly ready. He heard the front door open and stood to listen. It was Nancy. She said something in low tones. Judging by the sudden sound of growls and hisses from the dining room, he presumed she was speaking to her cat, Honey Bear.

Henrie could imagine a carrier door opening to reveal the large, orange and white, long-haired and haughty boy. And he could imagine a slow and regal march from a cat carrier to the dining room as the growls and hisses increased.

Anxiety in the dining room had reached a fever pitch, but Nancy, oblivious, walked past and into the kitchen.

“Good morning, Henrie. Breakfast smells heavenly.”

Henrie knew Nancy would not hear the carnage as Honey Bear moved into a pile of seven household cats, displacing one, then another, until he found the best place to sit.
Not because she was deaf. Nancy was approaching what one would call elderly, but she heard everything she had a mind to hear. She did not have a mind to hear the angst caused by her precious Honey Bear.

Henrie set a cup of coffee in front of Nancy on the table. She took a deep breath. “I smell bacon. What did you make?”

“It is a strata, and it is nearly ready to come out of the oven.”

“And what’s in it besides bacon? And eggs, I presume.”

“Spinach, Gruyère cheese, Greek yogurt. I soaked the strata overnight. The bread has fully absorbed the egg mixture. If I calculated correctly, the strata will be crisp on top and creamy on the inside.”

“Henrie, you have never calculated incorrectly.”

He smiled and turned to complete preparations for breakfast.

Henrie was the chief cook, bottle washer and toilet bowl cleaner of the KaliKo Inn, the largest and most highly-regarded bed and breakfast in the tourist town of Chelsea. It was a grand house from the post-Civil War era: three stories with a wrap-around porch in front and a white sand beach in back.

The Inn and the town were nestled into the sunset side of a Great Lake, surrounded on two sides by a wooded state park. The town almost seemed to be cut off from the rest of the world, and the Inn was a world unto itself.

Managed by the soft spoken, mind-reading, coffee-colored and faintly French-accented Henrie, the Inn offered an elegant, yet casual respite for tourists.

Nancy was not quite a tourist, but she was a guest. She and her husband arrived the night before to stay on the ground level of the carriage house. This was their home-away-from-home. While their friends owned or rented homes in warmer climates, escaping from Midwest winters for several months each year, Sam and Nancy rented the honeymoon suite for a few weeks several times throughout the year.

It was a good arrangement for them. They could visit friends and enjoy resort amenities during every season. It was a good arrangement for the Inn. The couple paid a lesser rate, but then, they didn’t get the daily attention that other guests received. And a paying guest is a paying guest, after all.

Henrie said, “I trust you found everything to your liking? I apologize for being unavailable when you arrived.”

“Everything is fine, Henrie. Annie made sure we got settled. I hate getting here as late as we did, but, well, it couldn’t be helped. Where were you? I asked Annie, but she just said you had the night off.”

Henrie pretended he had not heard the question and changed the subject. “Do you like the new colors?”

“I think they’re perfect. I got the new quilt out of the bag, but I wanted to wait until today to put it on. I want to throw the blinds open and look in the natural light. Do you want to come over and help? You can see the quilt for yourself.”

“I would be delighted. We should wait until our guests are gone, but then, you must tour the other rooms with me.”

A few months before, Nancy made five quilts in record time, each with a different color combination and each featuring a species of bird. Henrie and Annie waited until the slow month of January and redecorated each of the rooms. All that remained was to hang plaques on the doors for the newly-named rooms.

On this trip, Nancy brought a quilt for the honeymoon suite – the suite in which she now stayed – and several for the second floor of the carriage house.

Nancy chattered on as Henrie pushed forward with breakfast. He arranged breakfast breads – white, wheat, rye, pumpernickel and oat, three kinds of bagels, wheat and white English muffins and freshly baked Danish, some cheese and some apricot – as she told him about Sam’s most recent workshop projects, the rainbow-colored quilts for the second floor of the carriage house, and Honey Bear’s latest – and terminally cute – exploits.

As she talked about Honey Bear, the cats, underneath a table in the dining room, began a new round of howling and hissing. Henrie glanced at Nancy. Not a glimmer that anything at all was happening in the next room.

The cats were quiet by the time Annie got to the kitchen. Annie, Nancy’s daughter, inherited the Inn and other businesses from her father, Nancy’s first husband. A casual woman with straight, graying hair, she enjoyed life on the lake and her family of seven rescue cats.

Annie was quick to say her cats did the rescuing. Each and every one rescued her.
Annie’s high cheekbones hinted at an American Indian ancestry, an ancestry that Nancy had recently revealed to be true. Annie’s natural father was a member of the Cherokee nation. The family tree was a bit tangled in places.

On this Friday morning, Henrie thought Annie looked sleepy. She perked up as she inhaled. “Do I smell the strata? The one you made yesterday?”

“Yes. It is nearly ready.”

“You made more than one, right?”

“I did. With a full house and carriage house, I hope that two will suffice.”

“I’ll just have a bite.”

Henrie was facing the stove. He was certain she could not see his smile. “I may allow you to smell it. Touch it, no. Not until the guests have eaten.”

He heard Annie sniff, then say, “How are you this morning, Mom? Did you and Sam sleep well?”

“After a fashion. Henrie, Sam sends his regrets not to see you first thing this morning. He’s meeting Frank for breakfast at the Café.”

“So there, Henrie. I can have Sam’s portion.”

“Perhaps.”

Nancy asked, “Who is upstairs, Henrie? In the carriage house?”

Henrie finished plating breakfast meats: bacon, ham, whole hog sausage and chicken sausage links. As he turned to take the strata and the French toast casserole out of the oven, he answered.

“The owners of a new vineyard, called Chateau Simon. It is scheduled to open in the spring.”

Annie added, “Their house sold, and they moved in two weeks ago while they look for a home here.”

“Do they have a dog?”

Annie answered. “A cat. Simon. A tuxedo. Looks a lot like Little Socks, but with a wicked white slash from her nose to almost her eyes.”

“That must be the problem.”

“Is there a problem?”

“Honey Bear roamed the suite all night, and I kept hearing thuds from upstairs. It must have been that cat.”

“I hate to say it…boy, do I hate to say it…but do you want to leave Honey Bear here? Until they get used to one another?”

“Oh, honey, he’d love it. He just loves to play with your cats.”

Henrie turned back to the stove to hide his smile.

Nancy said, “You have a full house here, too?”

Henrie answered as he spooned brown sugar, cranberries and walnuts into the oat groats. “It is a club of some type.”

“A club?”

“They have taken over the town. Our five rooms were reserved by five women. I believe we can count ourselves lucky in that women called to make their reservations first. I shudder to think what would happen if both men and women had reserved rooms.”

“Why?”

“It is a computer-based lonely hearts club, called Hearts On Fire.”

“You’re kidding. What are they doing in Chelsea?”

Annie said, “The coordinator – some computer guy from Chicago – thinks having get-togethers in smaller towns will lead to, um, bigger commitments.”

“Does anyone know anyone else?”

“I don’t know. Henrie, did the women say anything when they arrived?”

“No. They arrived at different times, from late morning through mid-afternoon. I believe they left at approximately the same time shortly before I left the house.”

“Lots of club members were at the winery last night. They wear a thing that identifies them to others. The women wear a cloisonné brooch. It’s shaped like a heart with a black background. Most of the heart is covered with orange and red flames. The men wear red hearts on a stick pin.”

“I trust the jewelry will serve two purposes.”

“Two?”

“Yes. One is to identify themselves to one another. The second is to say to anyone else in town, ‘hands off.’”

“Henrie!”

He turned to look at her. “Not that you would be tempted. Some in town, however, may have other ideas.”

“Like who?”

“Ian comes to mind. He enjoys meeting single women.”

“You’re right. This could be an interesting week. Oh. Come to think about it, Geraldine was there last night. I’m trying to think…um…yeah. She was talking to a couple of the men.”

“An interesting week indeed. Were our guests there?”

“I kept my distance. It’s possible they were, but I’m not sure. Clara and I stayed at the bar and talked to Jet. He kept us current on who was doing what with whom. Anyway, did our guests tell you what time they’d be up?”

“Each indicated a preference of eight o’clock. We should see them soon. By the way, I Googled the club this morning. One of our guests is the featured woman for January.”

“This is February.”

“The coordinator has probably been too busy putting this event together to update the page. Would you care to see?”

“Sure. Is this something like Playmate of the month?”

“I believe they call it the Monthly Flame.”

“Gag me with a spoon.”

“I would rather not.” Henrie sat at the computer and found Hearts On Fire. In the top right corner was the photograph of a tall, blond, Nordic-looking woman. The caption read, “Elena, nicknamed ‘Torch’ by those who know her, is an artist from the Midwest. She is looking to set someone’s heart afire.”

“I saw her last night. She’s even prettier in person.”

“I agree. Did you see the man?”

On the bottom left corner was a picture of a handsome man in a silk suit. The caption read, “Dorian will take time from managing the family fortune to woo the woman of his dreams.”

“Egad. Do people believe this crap?”

“Apparently. I gather this is a marketing ploy to pull people to the club.”

“You’d think they would see through it. Anyway, to answer your question, yes, I did see him. He spent time with a lady lonely heart and Geraldine.”