As a junior reporter ostracized by her coworkers and community in North Dakota, RaeLynn Demming has something to prove. A decades-old arson that killed over one hundred people on the island of La Paradisio might be her career-saving story, but she needs cooperation from Rose Trudeau, Hollywood socialite and survivor of the legendary Grande Hotel fire.
Rose understands loss. For thirty years, she’s refused to discuss the Grande tragedy and still mourns her closest friend who perished in the blaze. Hungry for justice, Rose wants the arsonist and murderer caught. When RaeLynn shows up at Rose’s estate begging for a scoop on the fire, Rose can’t help but admire the young woman’s determination and agrees to help.
The investigation takes the pair to La Paradisio, where the local police urge them to leave the sleuthing to the professionals. Friends and family members, too, warn them to stay clear of the case, or else.
Then the threats start.
Undaunted, the unlikely pair dig further into the Grande’s sordid history. As determined as they are to find closure for Rose, they face an enemy just as willing to do whatever it takes to keep the Grande’s secrets buried.
I’m not here to raise the dead.
At least that’s what I tell myself as I grip the sweat-soaked steering wheel of my crappy rental.
Mrs. Trudeau’s refined, ultra-proper voice streams through the intercom speaker to my left, just outside my open window. “May I help you?”
This is my chance. Rose Trudeau is a key source. Not only is she an eyewitness to one of the most infamous unsolved arson cases in history, she’s the subject of a now-iconic Time magazine cover that sits in my desk drawer.
If I land an interview with her, my story goes to another level.
Right now, with $648.00 in the bank, I need another level.
In a big way.
I need to write this piece. It has all the elements—fame, fortune, tragedy—of a juicy read. Kinda like that blockbuster three-part series on movie stars and plastic surgery. The guy who wrote that so-called puff piece landed a column with the New Yorker. Go figure.
But I can’t get ahead of myself. One step at a time.
I sit a little taller and avoid clearing my throat. “I have a delivery for you.”
Not altogether a lie.
Silence fills the space between the intercom and my car door, and I scrunch up my face, squeezing my eyes closed, waiting…
Please. Please. Please.
“Really, RaeLynn?” Mrs. Trudeau says. “You’ve been calling me nearly every day for a month. Did you think I wouldn’t recognize your voice? And, dear, don’t do that to your face. You’ll look like leather before you’re forty.”
Dang. Busted. I smooth my features and notice the camera near the top of the wrought iron gate currently boxing me out.
“Mrs. Trudeau, wait! I didn’t lie. I do have a delivery.” I snatch the bakery carton from the passenger seat and hold it up. “Ladyfingers.”
Last year, a local news station did a segment on a charity function Rose organized. During an interview, she mentioned her obsession with the ladyfingers from a bakery near her home. A little digging got me to Maude’s and here I am, ladyfingers in hand.
A sigh streams through the intercom. “Oh, for God’s sake,” she mutters. “I knew you’d keep calling, but I didn’t think you’d show up at my door.”
“With ladyfingers,” I add, offering a toothy smile.
Come on, Rose. Let me in. I can’t go back. Not yet. Not after finding that goon in my apartment, a direct result of my last story. The one that made me persona non grata in Sasper, North Dakota, my maybe-soon-to-be-former home.
Ten seconds of agonizing silence drags on and I envision myself heading back to Sasper. Facing my smug coworkers and a town full of people who blame me for…well…everything.
Even as I sit here, the humiliation rolls over me, settling into my gut. I can do this. I force my shoulders back and let out a hard breath before setting the box down and giving it a tap. So close. Something I should be happy about since, up to this point, Rose has shut me down. At least now she knows I want this badly enough to come all the way to Bel-Air.
I’ll keep working on her little by little, and maybe…
I reach for the gear shift just as the giant gate creeps open. Wait. What?
Is that for me? Not to be corny, but this might be the gate to my future swinging open.
“Uhhh,” I give my head a hard shake. Focus. “Yes, ma’am?”
“If you expect an escort to my front door, it’s not happening. Now get moving before I change my mind.”
Coveted access to Rose Trudeau’s property has just been granted, so I shift gears and hit the gas. The rental lurches and I curse the strange car. I need my trusty Subaru with the easy gas pedal that doesn’t give me whiplash.
Get it together here, Rae.
Beyond the gate, I get a glimpse of two-story white columns and stately arches that glow under the January sun that’s been sparse back home. A winding driveway lined with lush greenery and bursts of pink and yellow flowers welcomes me. There should be a sign out front. Trudeau Manor.
That’s what this place looks like. Some grand mansion cut straight from the historical romance I started reading on the plane.
All I need is a hunky guy in a cravat and I’m good to go.
I pull around to the wide stone steps leading to the front doors. A tall, seriously jacked guy—no cravat—stands behind a large van, talking on a cell phone. He’s wearing blue pants and a matching work shirt. Repairman, no doubt.
Who said I sucked as an investigative journalist?
I park and grab the bakery box from the passenger seat, pausing only to stare up at the stately mansion and the tall woman with short, steel-gray hair. Rose Trudeau.
I was a twelve-year-old kid the first time I saw her on the Time cover. My father had the magazine stored in a box with other memorabilia and I ran across it when we were cleaning out the attic. The cover photo is a bleary-eyed Rose staring up at something—presumably the fire. Her cheeks are sucked in, black soot marring one while mascara is smudged under her eyes. In the extreme close-up, she’s holding her hand over her mouth, her splayed fingers revealing her mouth open.
My early journalistic mind latched on to the photo’s raw emotion. Even at such a young age, I recognized her horror and wanted to know who that stricken lady was. And what made her so special that she landed on that cover?
I still wonder.
Only now it’s not idle curiosity. I’m a girl from modest means. I haven’t experienced Mrs. Trudeau’s extravagant lifestyle—or her power. It’s a foreign dream world to me and I want to know what that’s like. What it feels like to command a room.
After months of calling her, I finally have Mrs. Trudeau just feet in front of me. At sixty-three, even in jeans that probably cost more than I make in a month, she is elegant and formidable.
Intimidating as hell.
Which is fine. I’m not interested in games. I have a story to write and I need Rose Trudeau.
The woman’s focus is squarely on me, so I offer a wave. A spurt of adrenaline sets me on edge, but I slide out of the car, determined not to blow my chance.
At best, Rose has been a reluctant witness. Heck, even Diane Sawyer couldn’t nab an interview.
I tilt my chin up and stride toward the steps where Mrs. Trudeau stands—a queen in front of her castle. Even though we’re both in jeans, I’m somehow underdressed.
Probably should have changed after I checked into the hotel. My bad. I guess the rush of being on the hunt for a good story distracted me.
No one would ever accuse me of not having passion for my job.
“RaeLynn,” she says, her voice silky smooth, but tinged with a bit of you’ve-lost-your-mind, “even for you this is…extreme.”
The already taller Mrs. Trudeau has the bonus of three additional steps and towers over me. Still, I hold out my free hand, determined to be cordial and not too pushy after she’s repeatedly hung up on me.
She sweeps her gaze over my attire. “My God, those shoes. Absolutely hideous.”
I glance down at what I thought were functional yet snazzy hiking shoes. Hideous? Really? That might be overkill.
I take a deep breath and ease my shoulders back. “There’s a foot of snow at home.”
Mrs. Trudeau sees my shift in posture and smiles at me. Her blue eyes sparkle under the sunlight and I immediately feel the pull. Now, meeting her in person, I understand why people find her mesmerizing. She’s a fantastical mix of motherly warmth and toughness.
“I told you on the phone,” she says, “I don’t do interviews.”
Time to bust out the big guns. Otherwise known as the bakery box. “These are for you. My mother always told me to bring a gift when I visit someone’s home.”
She shifts to the repairman, who has ended his call and is walking toward us.
I offer up my best flirty-girl smile as the hunk checks me out. I’m no supermodel, but I seem to have a knack for grabbing a man’s attention.
Hunk’s gaze lands on my shoes and his lip curls. What is it about Bel-Air? Even the repair guys are shoe snobs.
“Yikes,” I say. “Has no one in Bel-Air ever seen snow? Or footwear related to snow?”
At that, Mrs. Trudeau bursts out laughing. The hunk doesn’t look amused. That’s his problem.
“Ma’am,” he says, “we don’t have the part. I think I can get it today. I’m gonna run over to the distributor. It’ll take me a couple hours. Does that work?”
Mrs. Trudeau checks her watch, a simple, thin-banded silver one that nicely accessorizes her jeans and what looks like a light blue cashmere sweater. “That’ll be fine. If you’ll be later than 2:00, please call me.”
Hunk walks back to his truck and Mrs. Trudeau faces me. Her arms are at her sides, but then she’s in motion, clasping her hands in front of her, squeezing harder than necessary.
“Now, RaeLynn, for the last time, I don’t talk about the hotel.”
The way the word erupts from her mouth reminds me of the time I accidentally ate a piece of moldy bread and spit it across the table in fear that I would succumb to anaphylactic shock.
“I know,” I say.
Which is true. Her silence on the Grande Hotel fire is legendary. Not altogether a surprise considering the blaze killed over one hundred people and injured countless others.
“If you know, then why are you here?”