Read an Excerpt from Wendy Corsi Staub’s PROSE AND CONS
by Severn House on 28 October 2021
Young widow Bella Jordan investigates a mystery with a literary twist in this charming, magical small-town cozy mystery from New York Times bestseller Wendy Corsi Staub.
Here’s a sneak preview from Chapter One of Prose and Cons.
Lily Dale, New York
Isabella? Halloooo, Isabella?’ calls the only person in Lily Dale who addresses Bella Jordan by her full first name. ‘Where are you?’
‘Up here, in the tub! Give me a second and I’ll be right—’
The bathroom door is thrown open.
‘. . . down.’
Pandora Feeney is framed in the doorway. Sharp-featured and angular, she reminds Bella of the portrait of Sir Isaac Newton that hung in her classroom when she taught middle school science, not quite a year – and yet a lifetime – ago.
Last spring, the world had screeched to a terrifying halt amid a heartbreaking trifecta: her husband Sam died, her longtime landlord evicted her and their six-year-old, Max, and she lost her job.
But look at you now.
Well, not now, on her hands and knees in the cast-iron clawfoot tub with a scrub brush, wearing ragged clothes, her long brown hair in a bedraggled ponytail. But generally speaking, she’s come a long way.
‘Blimey! You are a sight, Isabella! I’d assumed you were soaking in the bath, not . . . What, pray tell, are you doing?’
‘Trying to remove the rust stains so that I can reglaze the enamel. And if you thought I was in the bath, shouldn’t you have knocked first?’
‘I did knock, luv, on the front door, and I rang the bell. But you didn’t hear me.’
‘So you let yourself in.’
It’s hardly the first time. As the former mistress of this three-story Victorian manor, Pandora maintains a proprietary interest in the place, though she lost it years ago in a messy divorce. It’s since been converted from private residence to guesthouse, now managed by Bella with plenty of input from Pandora.
Bella hoists herself to her feet with a groan and brushes flecks of scouring powder from her favorite soft-as-velvet faded jeans.
Pandora eyes the frayed holes in the knees. ‘Oh, you poor thing! You seem to have torn your trousers.’
Oh, you poor thing. Your frock seems to have sprouted a small cabbage, Bella longs to reply, eyeing the floral-sprigged dress with an enormous rose corsage appliqué jutting beneath one of Pandora’s long gray braids. But if she’s learned anything in the nine months she’s lived in Lily Dale, it’s that Pandora Feeney – for all her haughtiness and maddening overstepping – means well.
‘I’m loath to trouble you, luv,’ she says, ‘but might you have a few moments for a tête-à-tête over a cuppa?’
‘Is this about book club again? Because I told you, if you don’t agree with Misty’s choice for the first month’s read, you can just opt out.’
‘Goodness, no, it isn’t about that, although now that you’ve brought it up, in hindsight, I believe we should have elected officers at our inaugural gathering. We’re in dire need of a governing body to keep unruly members in check.’
‘There are only five of us, Pandora. I don’t think we—’
‘I’m going to throw my hat in the ring for president, and I’ve chosen you, Isabella, as my running mate.’
‘So this little tête-à-tête is about book club?’
‘No, an issue has arisen that’s far more urgent. Please, Isabella. I shall only require a few minutes of your time.’
Bella glances at her watch. ‘All right. I guess I can spare a few—’
‘Splendid! I put the kettle on before I came up. Shall we?’
Bella sighs and climbs out of the tub. ‘I guess we shall.’
Pandora leads the way down the grand polished staircase to the kitchen as though she’s still the lady of the house, commenting on the ‘clutter’ along the way. Coats draped over the newel post, cat toys scattered across the parlor hardwoods, polished mahogany dining room table buried under overdue library books, clean laundry waiting to be folded, and a large – and largely unfinished – jigsaw puzzle.
‘What were you thinking, Isabella, opening all these windows in the dead of winter?’
‘I was thinking that it’s the first day of spring. Because it is,’ she reminds Pandora. The day had dawned with sunny blue skies, and the temperature had leapt well into the fifties by noon. ‘You know what they say. In like a lion, out like a lamb.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘The old proverb. If March comes in like a lion, with terrible weather – and it did, with that roaring blizzard, remember? – then it goes out like a lamb.’
‘A lamb? Did I ever mention that I dated an Uplands shepherd back in the UK? I was studying music at Leeds, and I met Duncan at the Christmas market. He had a stall, and I purchased a pair of woolen mittens. He was quite flirtatious – said he’d knitted them just for me. Do you know that they were precisely the color of my hair?’
She waits for a response.
‘Uh . . . gray?’
‘Not my hair now, my hair back then, when I was just a lass! Do keep up with the conversation, Isabella. Those mittens were dyed a rich shade of brown. I kept them and treasured them long after Duncan broke my heart. Oh, he was quite the strapping bloke. I often wonder about the path not taken, where he is now, whether he’s forgotten me after all these years.’
‘I doubt it. You’re pretty . . . unforgettable, Pandora. Anyway . . . March is going out like a lamb. I’m feeling really optimistic about the weather.’
And other things, she thinks, glancing at the jigsaw puzzle and remembering Saturday night.
‘One must never be optimistic about springtime, Isabella. She’s a cruel tease here in the Dale. Some years, July is the only month of the year we’ve not seen snow. This cold draft is aggravating my chilblains. Please do close the windows.’
Pandora sails on toward the kitchen, pausing to adjust the vintage thermostat dial.
An icy breeze jangles the wind chimes on the porch and blows through the open screens as Bella tugs down the sticky window sashes. The skies have indeed faded once more to a familiar wintry monochrome.
She can hear the furnace creaking and groaning into action beneath the scarred floorboards. Like many things here at Valley View Manor, the ancient ductwork needs costly attention that will have to wait.
Bella checks the thermostat and finds that it’s been raised to seventy-five, with the recklessness of someone who’s no longer paying to heat this drafty old house. The money doesn’t come out of Bella’s pocket, either, but Valley View’s owner, Grant Everard, expects her to stick to the budget.
She lowers the thermostat ten degrees, then stoops to pick up a jigsaw puzzle piece from the floor beneath the table. It’s mostly blue, with a narrow triangle of pale green. She glances at the image on the puzzle box – a dazzling New York cityscape – and sees that the piece is mostly sky, pierced by the tip of Lady Liberty’s crown. Leaning over the puzzle, she tries the piece in various locations, remembering how touched she’d been when Drew Bailey showed up with it last weekend, along with pizza, a bottle of pinot noir, and . . .
‘Is that a puppy?’ Max had asked, peeking into the blanket-covered crate. ‘Yes! It’s a puppy! Is he a present for me?’
Bella’s ‘No!’ was decidedly more forceful than Drew’s, hers accompanied by a how-could-you? glare, and his by a chuckle. He explained that the pup was the last of the litter born to an injured dog he’d rescued at his veterinary hospital around Christmas.
‘This little guy is lonely because his mom and brothers and sisters have all gone to their new homes.’
‘Yep, and one of those new homes is at my friend Jiffy’s house down the street. His little guy is a boy dog and his name is called Jelly. So I want to keep this one. Then me and him can visit his brother Jelly, and Jiffy’s kind of like my brother since I don’t have one. So can I have the puppy, Mom?’
Drew responded for her. ‘Actually, Max, he’s already spoken for. But his new family can’t take him until next week, so until then, he’s hanging out with me. I thought maybe you could play with him tonight?’
It had been a perfect Saturday night. Puppy, pizza, pinot, puzzle . . .
‘I thought you’d like this view of the Statue of Liberty better than the one you had when you were a little girl,’ Drew had said, showing her the box.
‘What? I can’t believe you remember that.’
A while back, she’d mentioned to him that she only ever saw the back of the statue’s head when she was growing up in Bayonne. And after she and her widowed father moved into the city, she didn’t even see that.
‘Our first apartment in Queens faced the brick wall of the building next door,’ she’d told Drew. ‘The next one overlooked a bodega. One night, I was looking out of the window and saw the owner being held up at gunpoint.’
Drew cringed. ‘That had to be terrifying.’
‘Oh, he didn’t get shot.’
‘But still . . .’
‘Yeah, Dad moved us out a few weeks later. We moved a lot.’
‘I hope the views got better?’
She smiled and shook her head. ‘Mostly alleys and dumpsters.’
‘That makes me sad for little Bella.’
‘Don’t be. My dad did the best he could, and even though it was just the two of us, I always felt loved and protected.’
After her father passed away, she had her husband. And then Sam, too, was gone, and for the first time in her life, she was alone – homeless, jobless, terrified.
Some days she still feels that way. She’s learned, however, that she doesn’t have to rely on anyone else to take care of her and Max. She’s found a new home, a new job, and provided her son with steadfast love and stability, with a strong support system among their friends here in Lily Dale. Now, she’s never alone unless she wants to be – and often, not even then.
Loneliness, though . . . Loneliness is different. It’s a pervasive ache that can’t always be assuaged by kids and kittens, small town bustle, daily chores, an endless to-do list.
But lately, with Drew, she almost feels a sense of—
‘Isabella? Where are you?’ Pandora calls as the kettle starts to whistle.
With a sigh, Bella gives up on the puzzle piece and goes into the kitchen.
Pandora has taken a canister of imported leaf tea from one cupboard and a pair of bone china cups and saucers from another. Supermarket teabags and mismatched coffee mugs won’t do for the Dale’s self-proclaimed royalty.
Pandora may not be descended from Queen Victoria or King George, but she claims to chat with both on a regular basis, along with other illustrious departed souls. She’s a psychic medium, as are the fellow residents of this tiny western New York village. Lily Dale was the birthplace of the nineteenth-century Spiritualist movement and remains populated by people who can speak to the dead . . . if one believes in that sort of thing.
Bella would like to think that her late husband can communicate with her and Max from beyond the grave, but she’s found logical explanations for most so-called paranormal incidents that have occurred since their arrival last summer. As for the seemingly inexplicable ones . . .
‘Not now,’ Pandora tells a patch of empty air over her left shoulder, then pauses, head tilted as though listening. ‘Yes, yes, darling, I’m quite aware . . . No, just you . . . Yes. Tomorrow, then. And do make yourself more presentable.’
Catching Bella’s raised eyebrow, Pandora says, by way of explanation, ‘Winston. Why on earth does he wear those awful jumpsuits? They don’t do a thing for him, do they?’
Again, she pauses, and shakes her head at her invisible – imaginary? – visitor. ‘No, I’m afraid not. I’ve nothing to say to you.’ To Bella, she adds, as if it means anything at all, ‘Wallis.’
‘Not what, whom. Wallis Simpson. She’s the dreadful divorcee for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in ’36’
‘No, I know who she is. Uh, was.’
‘And always shall be. A leopard doesn’t change her spots in the hereafter, Isabella. I saw you shiver just as she touched in. Clearly, you felt the chill of Spirit in the air.’
‘What I felt was the chill because it’s still cold in here from the open windows.’
Pandora regards her from behind steamy vapor rising from her cup like ectoplasm from a grave . . . if one believes in that sort of thing.
Bella does not. Yet through the mist, she sees – or imagines she sees – a pair of hands close around Pandora’s spindly neck.
She blinks, and they’re gone.
Yes, she finds Pandora irritating, and maybe there are times when she’d love to strangle her, but merely figuratively. This felt . . . malicious.
Could it have been a ghostly vision?
No, because you don’t see ghosts, and anyway, ghosts aren’t real.