Marla’s family reunion at a haunted Florida resort turns up dead bodies instead of fond memories in this spooky cozy mystery.
Hairstylist Marla Shore is eager to introduce her fiancé, Detective Dalton Vail, to her extended family over Thanksgiving weekend at Sugar Crest Plantation Resort. But that was before she found Aunt Polly suffocated in bed. Is it a coincidence that her aunt’s father once owned the property? According to rumor, he met with two mysterious Cossacks immediately before his premature death. Their spirits are said to haunt the place, and Marla believes it when she hears a bell tolling outside and feels a cold presence inside the hotel’s rickety elevator.
Are ghosts at fault for the strange goings-on, or could politics be playing a part? Sugar Crest is slated for demolition, although some folks would profit if it was remodeled instead. The city council meeting is being held that weekend to determine the resort’s fate. Tensions deepen when another body turns up on the nature trail. Whatever is going on at Sugar Crest, someone is willing to go to great lengths to keep it hidden. But the killer doesn’t count on Marla, who determines to learn the truth even if it means uprooting her family’s unsavory past.
Dead Roots was originally published by Kensington. This Author’s Edition has been revised and updated with added bonus materials.
A Cozy Mystery with a Haunted Hotel, Ghosts, Secret Passages, and Paranormal Experts on Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Independent Mystery Bookstore Association Bestseller List
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore Bestseller
“Well‑developed characters and an intriguing historical background enhance this winning cozy.” Publishers Weekly
“Dead Roots has all right the ingredients for a great hair day, absolutely fun, winsome characters, a fast‑paced, wonderful mystery read!” Heather Graham, NY Times Bestselling Author
“The setting, a Florida resort complete with ghosts, ruins and secret passages, makes a terrific site for a mystery. With Marla, Cohen has created a plucky heroine, and it’s great fun to watch her negotiate the investigation, her nosy relatives and her consuming attraction for her fiancé.” RT Book Reviews
“A mystery series to dye for.” Jay Macdonald, The News-Press
“Ghost stories, nifty secret passages, tales of gemstones and family secrets enliven this tale.” Oline Cogdill, Sun-Sentinel
“If you like ghosts and ghoulies and things that go blink in the night, you’ll love this book.” Mysterious Women
“Condemned wings of the hotel, secret passages, and a gaggle of paranormal experts investigating the resident ghosts, all add up to a frenetic mixture of mirth and mayhem.” Manya Nogg, I Love A Mystery
“Cohen once again blends colorful characters and an interesting setting into a fast‑paced, entertaining story. With just the right balance of romance, humor, and suspense, Cohen brings her winning characters and the fascinating world they inhabit to life in a mystery novel with plenty of twists and turns.” Michael Lister, Sunshine & Crime
“Cohen constructs a dandy murder mystery with a wonderfully thought‑out story line that includes family secrets, historic preservationists, real estate developers, and some scary things that go bump in the night. The characters are fully developed and very likeable…Spend Thanksgiving with Marla and her family at the haunted Sugar Crest Hotel.” Sharon Katz, Reviewing the Evidence
“Sassy and spunky as ever, Marla sets out to save the day with her usual courage and tenacity.” Nancy Sapir, Kingston Observer
“If you love a good mystery with humor, this is for you.” Jackie Baumgarten, Armchair Interviews
“You can count on a hairdresser to get to the root of things, and Marla Shore, owner of the Cut ‘N Dye, does just that in Nancy Cohen’s entertaining seventh Bad Hair Day mystery.” Ginger Curwen, Barnes & Noble
“Dead Roots finds Nancy J. Cohen’s hairdresser sleuth Marla Shore taking her fiancé to meet her family. The situation is tense enough but tales of hidden jewels in the old hotel they’re meeting in followed by the death of her aunt bring things to a boil. An always enjoyable series.” Mystery Lovers Bookshop
“The main building of the resort is riddled with secret passages, a hidden floor and cleverly disguised entrances and exits to the passageways adding a gothic ambience to DEAD ROOTS. One of Nancy J. Cohen’s most incredible skills is letting her characters grow and change as they experience new things. The deepening romantic relationship of Dalton and Marla adds a nice twist of spice to a cleverly crafted and well-designed who‑done‑it. This delightfully entertaining amateur sleuth tale is one of Ms. Cohen’s best in this long running series.” Harriet Klausner, The Best Reviews
“Maybe I shouldn’t have come,” Detective Dalton Vail said to hairstylist Marla Shore while they drove north on I-75 along Florida’s west coast. “Your family is holding its first reunion. They may resent having an outsider present.”
“You’re my fiancé, not an outsider.”
“How many people do you expect?”
Marla swept a strand of chestnut hair behind her ear. “I have a gazillion relatives. Some of us will be meeting each other for the first time. We’re from all over the country.”
Keeping his hands on the wheel, Dalton gave her a disquieted glance. “I’d rather have you all to myself.”
“We’ll have our own room. You’re not nervous, are you?”
His broad shoulders stiffened. “Nothing bothers me, sweetcakes. You know that.”
“Right,” she murmured, her lips curving in a smile. I might have believed that before we grew close, but not now.
When they first met, she’d never suspected the gruff lieutenant could have a soft side. Memories flitted through her mind of their initial encounter. He’d been investigating a murder case where she was the prime suspect. His onslaught of questions had made her quake in her shoes. Later, when they started solving crimes together, her reaction changed to another sort of trembling under his skilled touch. Even now, Marla marveled that the lonely widower and his thirteen-year-old daughter included her as a special person in their lives.
She gazed at him fondly, absorbing the pleasing sight of his ebony hair streaked with silver, his sharp, angular features, and his tall, powerful frame. Too bad they couldn’t steal away for longer.
“I’ve never heard of Sugar Crest,” he commented.
“The resort isn’t widely advertised. Out-of-state tourists usually go to places like Naples and Sarasota.”
“What was that crack your Aunt Polly made? Something about being prepared for stormy waters?”
Her brow wrinkled. “I don’t understand what she meant. Hurricane season is over, and we’re supposed to have clear skies this weekend. It should be perfect for Thanksgiving.”
“Fireworks often happen when families get together.”
“She could be afraid of ghosts. The resort is listed in my guidebook under Haunted Florida Hotels. It dates to the 1800s and was a sugar plantation until new owners took over in 1924. I’m sorry Brianna couldn’t come. Your daughter would have had fun exploring the buildings.”
“My folks haven’t seen Brie in a long time. She was excited about visiting them in Maine. It’ll be good for her to be with her grandparents for a change.” Dalton’s gray eyes darkened to slate. “So it’s just you and me. This can be sort of a pre-honeymoon. What shall we say if your family asks what date we’ve set?”
“We’re still coordinating our schedules.” Marla swung her gaze to the window. They’d passed the Peace River near Punta Gorda. Fingering the amethyst ring on her right hand, she considered their options. Delaying the date for their nuptials had been her idea. “It’s only been three weeks since Wilda’s salon closed its doors in the same shopping strip as my place. We’ve been getting an influx of new customers as a result, and it’s all I can do to handle the extra business. I must have been nuts to consider Wilda’s offer to buy her shop.”
“You can’t do everything. I like your idea of adding spa services to Cut ’N Dye instead.”
“Yeah, well, we’re not supposed to discuss work on this trip.” Marla felt edgy about leaving the salon even for a weekend. She’d had to assign her clients to someone else and ask Nicole to take over as manager in her absence. The other stylist didn’t mind. Nicole was always exhorting Marla to take time off, but being the owner didn’t allow such luxuries.
“I can’t wait to see the plantation,” she said. “Ma told me she’d be arriving early. She’s supposed to bring Aunt Polly. I wouldn’t want to drive in their car, the way those two argue.”
“You’ve told me so much about Aunt Polly that I’m curious to meet her,” Dalton said with a grin.
“You may be sorry. She’s quite a character.” Marla hoped her eccentric relatives wouldn’t turn him off about marrying her. Maybe that’s why Dalton hadn’t given her a diamond engagement ring yet as he’d promised. He wanted to check out her bloodlines first.
“Isn’t your Aunt Polly the one who came up with the idea of holding a reunion at this resort?” he asked.
“That’s right, although Cynthia made the arrangements.” Dalton had met her cousin while investigating the murder of a board member from Cynthia’s favorite volunteer organization. “She said there’s a lot to do in the area. The resort alone covers over two hundred acres, and if that doesn’t keep us occupied, we can drive to Sarasota or visit Solomon’s Castle. Four days probably won’t be enough, especially with the social events planned.”
Dalton’s lips tightened. “What do you mean?”
“Cynthia is working with the social director at the hotel to provide some mixers for our group. I know there’s a cocktail party tonight. We’ll get a schedule when we arrive. I want enough time to enjoy the beach.”
“If I can see you in a swimsuit, I’ll agree.”
Her eyebrows lifted, but she didn’t respond to his innuendo. “You should like the restaurants, although Cynthia may have secured us a private banquet hall.”
“I was hoping we’d have free rein during the day and would just meet your clan for dinner.” He gave a resigned sigh. “Whatever makes you happy.”
“Oh, I don’t know—after an extended weekend with my cousins, I might go home screaming. I’m more curious about Aunt Polly’s motives. I think she may have her own agenda for bringing us together.”
Dalton glanced at her. “You’re not thinking about that psychic’s prediction, are you?”
“What, that someone close to me will die during an upcoming trip? Wilda used that as an excuse to force me to solve Carolyn Sutton’s murder.”
“I thought you said another medium in Cassadaga confirmed her reading.”
“I’m not worried. We both need a break from work. Let’s try to relax.” Both psychics had advised her to devote more energy to herself. She intended to have fun this weekend, and that meant casting off her misgivings. “Look, there’s the sign. Turn here.”
The drive into the estate took them down a bumpy segment of road. According to her guidebook, the road was constructed from an early form of concrete called tabby—a mixture of lime, sand, oyster shells, and water. Their route wound through fields that had once yielded cotton, sugarcane, and citrus. Sunlight gave way to shade when they entered a wooded area where Spanish moss draped overhead from live oaks. In the distance, Marla spotted stately queen palms dotting grounds splashed with pink and red hibiscus and other perennial flowers.
Her attention shifted to various buildings looming within range, but nothing prepared her for the sight of the main hotel. The road segued into a paved brick driveway that ended in a circular swath. Their car slowed in front of an immense palatial structure.
As Dalton pulled up to a section marked FOR GUESTS ONLY, she gaped at the grand entrance. “Oh, my gosh. I didn’t expect anything so magnificent.”
He peered at the edifice. “This doesn’t look like a plantation manor to me. I was expecting some quaint old cracker residence.”
“I’ll bet this complex rivals the Breakers in Palm Beach,” she told him. “The only thing like it on this coast is the Don Cesar Beach Resort in St. Petersburg.”
She gazed at the French Renaissance design, craning her neck to regard the central tower, which stood higher than ten stories. The main portion appeared as a rectangle, with four offshoots sprouting like an X-Wing fighter.
Eager to see the place in detail, Marla stepped outside into the balmy November air. She’d brought mostly casual clothes, appropriate for a beach house, not for this opulence.
When she pushed beyond the massive double doors, she noted that time seemed frozen in the 1920s-era lobby. Crystal chandeliers, wood-paneled walls, and hunter green upholstered furnishings decorated an expanse intersected by a wide, carpeted stairway that climbed to a mezzanine level. The air didn’t have the modern smell of air-conditioned purity. It carried a faint mustiness with a tinge of lemon oil.
“Marla, I’ve been waiting for you.”
She whirled to see her mother bearing down on them. “Ma, you didn’t tell me this place was so fancy. I didn’t bring the right clothes.”
Anita kissed her and gave Dalton a brief hug. “Don’t worry about it. I’m a bit overwhelmed myself. Did you tell the porter to get your luggage? They still have old-fashioned keys here, none of that plastic card nonsense. Wait until you see the rooms. They’re enormous.”
Marla and Dalton followed Anita to the registration desk, a wide mahogany counter. Here a concession to modernity appeared in the form of computer stations manned by uniformed clerks. Marla’s astounded glance lifted to the far wall where miniature wood cubicles were emblazoned with each guest’s room number on shiny brass plates. Past meets present, she thought, anxious to explore.
“Marla gave me the impression this hotel was built on the site of an old plantation house,” Dalton said after giving their names to a fresh-faced young man. “I expected southern-style comfort like ceiling fans and wraparound porches.”
“You’ll find those features at Planter’s House, a separate building from the main hotel. It’s the original residence, built in 1844, when the plantation was established,” the clerk explained. “When Andrew Marks took over in the 1920s, he constructed this hotel and converted the property to a resort. Planter’s House was renovated and is now reserved for concierge-level guests. You can tour some of our other buildings, though.” He handed Dalton a form to sign.
“How many of the original structures survived?”
“The sugar mill, some tabby slave cabins, the old barn, and the stable.”
Anita poked her arm. “I’d hoped our family would have exclusive run of the resort this weekend, but we’re not the only group here, since it’s a holiday. A team of paranormal researchers are staying at the hotel to conduct experiments. I met some of them already. They’re looking for ghosts.”
Marla gave Dalton a seductive glance. “Maybe you’d like to hunt spooks with me.”
“You left your poodle at the vet, remember?” he replied, his eyes twinkling.
“Leave Spooks out of this. I’m not talking about my dog.”
“Oh no? Some of those psychics you’ve met could be considered strange animals.”
“You’ll see. I’ll bet some of the ghost stories are real. Maybe Aunt Polly knows more about them. She’s the one who chose this place. Where is she?” Marla asked her mother.
“Polly is getting settled in her room. If I had to stay in her company for one more minute, I’d plotz.”
“Ma, that’s not nice.”
“You should have heard her on the drive over. She wouldn’t shut up about Roger and me.” Anita thrust her fingers tipped with red nail polish through her white layered hair.
Marla was grateful her mother hadn’t brought her annoying boyfriend. This was a family retreat, after all. It was also her fiancé’s first chance to meet the entire clan. She hoped he wouldn’t have to listen to arguments the whole time.
“There’s talk of converting this property into a Florida living-history experience,” Anita said in an undertone so the clerk wouldn’t overhear.
“Just what we need in Florida, another theme park,” Dalton commented.
Anita snorted her displeasure. “City council members are meeting to discuss the issue. If you ask me, the hotel shouldn’t have booked so many groups for one weekend. At least Cynthia reserved early enough to get the prime space. You’ll have to get a schedule, angel. Oh, there’s the social director.” Anita flagged down a lady coming off the elevator.
Dalton completed the room arrangements and handed Marla a heavy metal key. “I’ll go up with the luggage. You can join me when you’re ready.” He sped off, clearly anxious to avoid further entanglement.
A woman with hair like spun gold, ocean blue eyes, and a smiling mouth approached them. “Hello, I’m Champagne Glass, the social events coordinator.” With her shorts outfit, funky socks, and running shoes, the social director looked like a preppie camp counselor, even down to her ponytail tied with a navy scrunchie.
“This is my daughter, Marla,” Anita said, beaming.
“We’re so delighted to have your family with us this weekend.” Champagne pulled a stack of papers from her portfolio. “I’ve designed a schedule of activities for you to meet and greet each other. Most are casual affairs, except for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, and a dance party on Saturday night before everyone leaves. You’re going to love this place. If I can help you in any way, my extension is on this card. Otherwise, I’ll be around to make sure everyone is having a super time.”
Forced fun was never Marla’s favorite sport. “After I unpack, I’d like to explore the grounds. What time is the tour? Seeing the original buildings is a highlight on my list.”
Champagne’s smile dazzled like sunbeams on the ocean. “I’m leading a group at two o’clock. You’re welcome to join us. Um, there is one thing I must mention. The hotel is in various stages of repair. We ask that you don’t go near the northwest wing.”
“Why is that?” Marla’s natural nosiness compelled her to ask.
“Oleander Hall is unsafe. Termites, you see, and there’s some question about whether it’ll be torn down or renovated. In the meantime, it is imperative you don’t venture into that area.”