Turn right at the bumpy dirt road," Regan Reilly instructed her beau, Jack "no relation" Reilly. He was at the wheel of her Lexus, and they were heading to the last winery on their tour of the Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County. Regan was reading from a guidebook.
"This bumpy dirt road?" Jack asked as he made the turn and the car started to bounce along, stirring up a cloud of dust in its wake.
Regan smiled. "I don't see any others."
"I can just imagine what this place is going to be like," Jack mused. "With a name like 'Altered States' and this out-of-the-way location..."
"They say it's the perfect place to relax, sip a glass of wine, meditate, sleep in the charming bed-and-breakfast...get away from it all, and leave your stress behind."
"Well, they were right when they said we were getting away from it all." Jack reached over and squeezed Regan's hand. "This place is way off the beaten track. And in the last week we've been to some remote spots."
Regan and Jack had met five months ago in New York when Regan's father, Luke, was kidnapped at Christmastime. Jack, the head of the Major Case Squad in Manhattan, had been instrumental in finding Luke.
Luke was returned safely on Christmas Eve. Regan and Jack's romance began that night. Perhaps an odd way for two people to meet, yet Luke claimed full credit and protested that he had not yet been paid his Dolly Levi commission. He and Regan's mother, suspense writer Nora Regan Reilly, were convinced that Jack was Regan's perfect match. Not only was thirty-four-year-old Jack handsome, nice, and smart, with a wry sense of humor, but he also was a go-getter. A graduate of Boston College, he had two master's degrees, and his goal was to become police commissioner of New York. Few who knew him doubted he would make it.
Now they were finishing up their first vacation together, a driving tour that took them north from Los Angeles, up the Pacific Coast Highway, and across to the Napa Valley wine country, then back down through the valleys. Altered States was their last stop before heading back to Los Angeles where thirty-one-year-old Regan worked as a private investigator.
The trip had been great. They'd walked the beach, stopped in little coastal towns, and discovered restaurants that were full of charm and good food. Even the characters in a couple of roadside dumps they'd stumbled upon provided a lot of laughs.
"You know," Jack said, smiling, "we haven't gotten on each other's nerves even once."
"What a miracle." Regan laughed as she glanced at his profile. God, is he good-looking, she thought. And he makes me so happy. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall, broad-shouldered, with sandy brown hair that tended to curl, strong even features, and hazel eyes. He was the perfect complement to Regan, who had inherited Black Irish looks from the Reilly side of her family. She had raven black hair, light skin, and blue eyes.
"This is the bumpy dirt road to end all bumpy dirt roads." Jack navigated the car down the seemingly endless stretch. It was almost five o'clock. They had been driving for hours and were looking forward to getting out of the car and having a glass of wine on the back deck of the inn that supposedly had a great panoramic view.
In the distance, they saw a cluster of old wooden and stone buildings, surrounded by acres and acres of vineyards. Regan whispered, "It does have the feeling of an old ghost town, just as the guidebook promised."
"This place was abandoned for decades, right?" Jack asked.
"Yes. Prohibition put the winery out of business, and then it stood idle for years. A couple bought it and started renovations, but then they went bankrupt. The new owners haven't had it for long at all."
They drove slowly through a lemon grove and into the open space in front of the main building. Jack stopped the car. They got out, and each took a deep breath of the fragrant air.
"It's so peaceful and quiet," Regan said.
Jack's cell phone rang. "You were saying," he remarked as he winked at her, pulled open his phone, and answered it. Regan could tell right away from the tone of his voice that it was his office calling. She slowly walked over to the large stone building and stepped inside the main entrance.
"Hello there." A tall, thin woman greeted Regan quietly from behind a massive reception desk. Numerous candles flickered on a shelf behind the desk. The woman looked about fifty and had flowing blond hair streaked with gray that gave her an ethereal quality. "We're so glad to have you here at Altered States."
This certainly feels like Altered States, Regan thought, but she said, "Thank you. It's nice to be here."
"Do you have a reservation?"
"Yes, we do."
"Wonderful. Please sign our guest book. Where are you from?"
"That's great. Do you have a business card? We'd like to make sure you're on our mailing list."
Regan pulled a card from her wallet and handed it to the woman.
The woman stared at it for a moment, then looked up at Regan with a Zen-like expression. "You're a private investigator?"
Regan nodded. "Yes."
"How neat," she said. "That is really neat."
"Oh, it's neat all right," Regan agreed, and laughed. She could hear the door behind her open. She turned, already smiling, praying it would be Jack. This woman was just a little odd. Her prayers were answered, but Jack was not looking as relaxed as he had a few minutes before.
"I'm sorry, Regan. I have to get back to New York tomorrow. That case I told you about..."
Regan felt a stab of acute disappointment. "Oh, Jack, that means our vacation's over," she said with a look of mock horror.
"I know. I feel terrible. We should probably go down to Los Angeles tonight."
The woman behind the desk looked sympathetic. "We'll be happy to honor your reservation another time. We'd just love to have you come back and visit."
"We'd love to come back," Jack and Regan replied in unison, as a black cat jumped up on the desk.
None of them had any clue that Regan would be returning in less than twenty-four hours.
Copyright © 2002 by Carol Higgins Clark
Savvy young Los Angeles P.I. Regan Reilly faces an unusual challenge when she gets an urgent call from Lilac Weldon, owner -- with her two hippie brothers -- of the run-down California winery Altered States. Lilac asks Regan to find her actress daughter, Whitney, AKA "Freshness," in time to attend the wedding of Lilac's wealthy aunt Lucretia Standish, a 93-year-old silent-film star. The Weldons have learned from a secret source that each family member will receive a gift of $2 million from Lucretia -- but only if they all attend.
Lucretia's bridegroom, a 46-year-old con man and former actor, knows he must keep Whitney away; they have met before and she is wise to his game. How Regan foils his plot makes for an exciting climax to this comic suspense novel, filled with Carol Higgins Clark's inimitable characters.