The holidays are quickly approaching, and New Years' Day will be fast on their heels. I'm super pleased with how my New Year's Day release, A Holiday Haunting at the Biltmore, is turning out.
Here's a sneak peek of the first chapter:
Chapter One: Hot Tub Musings
Ellen clung to the handrail as she eased down the steps into the hot, bubbling water. She adjusted her black one-piece bathing suit, making sure she was still covered. The aquafit class had rearranged everything.
From behind her, Sue said, “I can’t believe I let you guys talk me into this.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Tanya said from where she was already resting in the tub.
Ellen sat across from her. “Speak for yourself. I could barely breathe.”
Sue followed Ellen through the water, the ruffles of her polka dotted bathing suit dancing on the surface. “I may have even died for a few minutes. I thought I saw a light at the end of a tunnel and my mother waving to me.”
“That was probably just the Nazi instructor on deck telling you to lift your knees higher,” Ellen teased.
Two other women from the aquafit class, both in their early seventies, joined Ellen and her friends.
“That instructor isn’t as good as the one on Tuesdays,” one of them, a petite woman with white hair, said. She was nearly as thin as Tanya.
The other woman, rounder than Ellen but not as round as Sue, nodded. “The one on Tuesday really works you.”
“Oh, Lord.” Sue pushed her dark brown bangs from her eyes. “Let’s not come on Tuesday.”
“We already agreed that we would,” Tanya pointed out. “At least until the wedding.”
Ellen tugged at her shoulder straps, trying to keep everything in the right place. “You can count on me. I’m determined to lose twenty pounds or die trying.”
Sue scoffed. “Well, maybe I love life more than you.”
“If that were true,” the petite woman with the white hair began, “you’d keep coming. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years. I used to be bigger than both of you combined.”
The woman pointed at Ellen and Sue. Ellen tried not to be offended. The audacity of some people, she thought.
“I’m sold!” Sue said comedically, lifting her finger high in the air. “Sign me up! Oh, that’s right. Tanya already did.”
The other women laughed, and Ellen’s mood lightened.
“Did I hear you say that you have a wedding coming up?” the rounder woman asked Tanya.
“Not my wedding,” Tanya said as her blue eyes widened. “It’s Ellen’s son. He’s getting married on Christmas eve at the Biltmore Estate.”
“Oh, how nice,” the petite woman said. “That’s the most beautiful house in the country.”
Ellen leaned against the lip of the tub and breathed in the smell of lavender and musk. “That’s what my son’s future in-laws say, too. They’ve been planning this wedding since their daughter was a baby, I think.”
“Are they from Asheville then?” the petite one asked.
“They live there,” Sue said. Then, turning to Ellen, she asked, “Is it the mother that’s related to the Vanderbilts?”
“Yes,” Ellen said.
“Which means they’re getting the works,” Sue gloated. “The entire wedding party and their guests will be staying at the Biltmore House, which is never done anymore.”
Ellen gave Sue her keep-your-mouth-shut look. Maya’s parents had asked them not to talk about the event with others. They wanted to avoid a media circus.
“How wonderful,” the petite woman said. “You sure you don’t need another grandmother to come?”
Ellen smiled but said nothing in reply.
“That sounds like a once in a lifetime experience.” The round woman climbed from the tub. “I hope you enjoy it, and have a nice weekend, ladies.”
“You, too,” Ellen said as Sue and Tanya waved.
“I should go, too,” the petite woman said. “Will I see you all on Tuesday?”
“We’ll be here.” Tanya turned to Sue. “Right?”
Sue shrugged. “We shall see.”
After the two women left, and she and her friends were alone in the hot tub, Ellen said, “Poor Lane is so stressed over this wedding.”
“I thought that was the job of the bride,” Sue said.
Tanya stood up. “It can be hard on the groom, too. Poor thing. What’s been the most stressful for him?”
Ellen sighed. “Maya’s grandparents. Both sets are still alive, and, apparently, one set can’t stand the other, and vice versa.”
Sue furrowed her brows. “Do you know why?”
“Lane doesn’t know the whole story. The grandfathers were friends long before Maya’s parents were born. According to Maya, they can be really nasty when forced to be in the same room.”
“That’s too bad,” Tanya said as she took her damp blonde hair from its ponytail, and then remade it higher on her head. “I hope they won’t ruin the wedding.”
Ellen’s stomach clenched. She wanted Lane’s wedding day to be perfect for him so that only happy memories would be made.
“I would think the setting alone would be enough to sweeten even the sourest grapes of the bunch,” Sue said reassuringly.
Ellen lifted her brows. “I hope you’re right.”
“Is it Maya’s maternal grandfather or grandmother that’s related to the Vanderbilts?” Tanya asked.
Ellen submerged to her neck. She let out a small gasp of pleasure as the hot water relaxed her muscles, tight from the workout. Then she said, “Grandmother. Melissa Dresden—used to be Brown. She’s the daughter to a cousin of George Vanderbilt, the one who made it all happen. I just read a book about it called The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan. It was interesting to read about the estate’s history. George fell in love with Asheville when he took his ailing mother there to breathe.”
“To what?” Tanya asked.
“To breathe,” Ellen repeated. “Back then, they believed fresh air was the cure for almost everything—especially tuberculosis—and Asheville had become known for its breathing porches that overlooked the beautiful Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains.”
“George’s mother had tuberculosis?” Sue asked. “Most people didn’t survive it.”
“No, she had malaria, and she recovered from it, but not before George fell in love with the area and began buying up all the land.”
“What year was this?” Tanya asked.
“Late 1800s,” Ellen said. “According to the book, George wasn’t interested in the family business like his two older brothers, who took over various railroad companies when their father died. George was more of a scholar. He loved to read and to collect art, and he wanted something different for himself. So, he decided to outdo his siblings by building the largest private home in America.”
Sue nodded. “That he did.”
“It was more than that, though, wasn’t it?” Tanya asked. “Didn’t he build a famous dairy?”
“Yes—though now it’s a winery. He also hired the best forester and horticulturalist and created a forest preserve and foresters’ school. Later, his wife Edith, who outlived him by many years, created a school for the villagers that focused on textiles and crafts, I believe. Apparently, Edith did a lot for Asheville. I think she was the real heart of Biltmore, only because George died young. They had a daughter named Cornelia, but, according to the book, she was never as devoted to Biltmore as her mother.”
“How old was George when he died?” Sue asked.