Killing at White Swan Inn

by Carole Hall

When Margo Costain left her established New York publishing firm after her mother’s death to become owner and manager of the prestigious White Swan Inn in the Berkshires, she did not expect gunfire on her very first day home.

An assassination attempt was made on one of her guests, a Christian woman married to a Muslim businessman, by his Islamic fundamentalist brothers.

Soon she is wrapped up in the lives of her many guests, from a beautiful ‘trophy’ wife-model trying to escape her abusive controlling husband, a pot-smoking boy violin prodigy with his mother from Spain on his way to Julliard. There’s a destitute Neiman-Marcus business woman whose husband leaves her for his secretary, without any money or credit cards, a famous gay English actor and a renowned elderly artist. A convicted murderer recently paroled but wrongly accused of patricide out to clear his name, plus a best-selling author with a tell-all book about a famous Senator. And an assortment of other guests she has to deal with.

And into the picture came a detective and a love-story that began years before to kindle the flame.


Excerpt

Chapter One

 

Early March covered Oakbrook Grange in the Berkshires with a chilly morning mist as patches of fog-rags snagged on branches of naked trees, and while Margot flew back on the red-eye from New York, her mother, Isobel, passed away in the Blue Room upstairs.

The e-mail of her illness delivered during the weekly meeting had stopped time and swung Margot back like a whiplash.  Now here she was again surrounded by hovering ghosts, the last woman of Oakbrook Grange in the Berkshires.

“Hello, old thing,” she whispered as she used her key and entered the foyer, embraced by the smell and feel of the place. “You’re just as I left you.”

Margot Costain was slender, nicely proportioned with shoulder length brown curly hair. Freckles showered her high cheekbones, but it was her expressive brown eyes which drew you to her, and sweet dimpled smile completed the picture of a pretty if not beautiful young woman.

The sitting room was wonderfully warm. Someone had thoughtfully put a taper to the fireplace logs; John probably, her mother’s friend and companion. Margot had seen him upon arrival, holding John without speaking, smiling sadly seeing his heart plainly broken.

“She went easily, Margot,” he assured her, “and said that she loved you. I’ll take care of the funeral arrangements, if you agree.”

She sat alone in the house which now belonged to her and thought of the women of Oakbrook Grange.

The first, Claire O’Leary Barton, had been a woman of keen mind, sweet personality and extraordinary beauty. An Irish girl on her way to accept a job at a rich family’s home as a nanny to their baby.

But Claire had captivated the heart of banker, Oliver Barton, in a crowded railway station carriage.

“You must be the loveliest woman ever created,” he said to her, unable to stop staring. They had talked and lunched together, and he told her his father, Caleb, the original banker, had been shot to death in his office by a robber the year before and he had inherited a sizable fortune on his death. So he was single and fairly well off. “Would she consider him courting her?” he asked.

Oliver married Claire the following summer and built his lovely bride Oakbrook Grange; all gray stone and white marble with fountains and winding staircases and gardens where roses loved to bloom.

But unfortunately, Oliver possessed no male issue in his genes. His only daughter, Isobel, was born when he was thirty-two, his rheumatic heart stopping in the middle of dinner when he was thirty-nine.

“Well now, Isobel,” Claire told her young daughter after the funeral. “It’s you and me alone. But life goes on, as they say.”

Claire with intuitive wisdom studied the stock markets of the day, foresaw the coming industrialization of the new world and bet heavily in oil and chemicals.

“I know it’s a bit of a gamble,” she confided in her daughter. “But everything else seems to have been done.”

When the gamble paid off in handsome revenues suitors came around but left with an ear full of rebuke.

“I’ll not have you marrying my money!” said Claire caustically. “Be off with you, now!”

How good it was to be home. Margot, smiled, remembering, staring into the fireplace flames. Even the couch she sat on was something she had used as a girl, and it was still here.

“I really loved your grandmother, Claire,” Isobel had told her a dozen times across the years. “She lived in this house until she was 91. At times our lives ran parallel. I married your father, Robert Costain, who also died young. We had one daughter, you, Margot. I bought the lovely White Swan Inn and made that my life’s work, with John’s help, of course.”

Now it was Margot remembering why she hadn’t wanted to live yet another parallel life like her mother. Back then she thought it all stuffy and boring. New York had beckoned her! The bright lights, the colorful restaurants, the art galleries, the theaters. The very air had insinuated itself into her being. It had been snowing the day she left; she stood awkwardly on the step.

“Good-bye for now, Mother. I want to try something different. You can understand that, can’t you? I want to make my own way in the world.” A brisk, frosty wind ruffled her hair as she stood in the doorway. She held a large suitcase in one hand. It was time.

Isobel had just smiled. “Yes, darling.”

* * *

In seven years of hard work Margot had her own publishing house making a name for herself discovering two promising writers and two best sellers. She had also recognized something else, traditional

marriage was almost out of the question now.

Once, in halcyon days, on vacation in Greece, she had given her heart away to a startling man with gold in his Mediterranean complexion, but three years later she had lost him to a boating accident that seared her heart and brain bringing her close to collapse. The fates can be cruel to youth and golden girls.

The years, the fleeting years had been eaten up and she was

thirty-five now with wrinkles cob-webbing the corners of her eyes.

Suddenly New York seemed far away and unimportant.

“I have missed you, old Grange.”

The fire’s burning coals took on the color of warm claret, and she knew in her bones where the marrow was strongest that she was home, like a fox to its lair but far sweeter, safer.

The ghosts of Claire and Isobel surely watched this last woman of their flesh; saw her being drawn back within the fold.

It was John who knocked on the door softly, entered and took both

Margot’s hands in his. “I’m sure you’re hungry. Emma has prepared a nice dinner. Shall you dine now, my dear?”

Margot nodded, composing herself following him to the dining room.

“Do you wish to talk about selling the Grange and the White Swan, Margot? Or would you rather think about it for a while?” John asked as coffee was being served, his eyes never leaving her face. His heart was heavy losing Isobel and leaving here would be hard.

“I’m not selling either, John,” she told him quickly, realizing that indeed she would never sell, a gentle smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “I’m coming home.”

He was shocked. “But what about New York?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “New York will survive, I expect. I shall sell the publishing house though. What is it they say now-a-days, been there, done that? I think it’s time to try something new. Do you think I’ll make a good hotelier?”

Margot smiled at the kind man her mother had loved for so many

years but whose Catholic wife had refused to divorce.

“You’ll be smashing!” John grinned. “Absolutely marvelous!”

In her own room with its wallpaper blue as Wedgwood, photographs of Claire and Isobel in gold-gilt frames on the dressing table smiling back, welcoming.

“You win,” Margot congratulated them. “You knew I’d be back someday, didn’t you? Well, here I am.”

She then got down to business and began with long distance phone calls to her lawyer in Manhattan, then her assistant in New York.

“Truly my mind is made up, Jeffrey. Yes, I’ll miss you, too, but I’ve a hotel to run here, and there’s the Grange. Why don’t you think about buying the business? I’d take a reasonable offer and would love to see it pass to you.”

The evening thinned, Margot put down the phone. Tomorrow she’d

drive over to the hotel a mile away. The gracious White Swan Inn; her hotel, she smiled at that. She would ask John to please stay on as hotel manager, at a substantial raise in pay of course. He had worked side by side with her mother; it felt right. She herself had come full circle. First tasting the fruits of ambition and power and now home again like all returning travelers who ever were.

“Hello again, Oakbrook Grange. Hello Oliver, Claire, Robert and Isobel. I know you’re all here. My turn now. I’ll carry on,” Margot said softly.

There was something quite wondrous to look forward to now. A part of her blood calling, the genes awakening, denial impossible, totally comprehending.

Perhaps this was the real meaning behind second chances. You might throw away the first only to have the second come rushing at you so priceless it took your breath away with its importance. She could hardly wait for morning.

 

"Killing at White Swan Inn" by Carole Hall

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Genres

Mystery

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