High Stakes – First Chapter

Chapter 1

I CAN’T BELIEVE we’re in Saratoga,” George Fayne said, her brown eyes sparkling. “And I can’t believe we’re having breakfast with a bunch of horses.”

Eighteen-year-old Nancy Drew took a sip of her freshly squeezed orange juice and grinned. She and George were at the Saratoga Racetrack in Saratoga Springs, a renowned horse-racing and resort town in upstate New York. They were sitting in an open-air restaurant overlooking the final stretch, where a dozen thoroughbreds were being worked out by their trainers. The same thoroughbreds would be racing that afternoon in front of thousands of spectators.

A roan colt cantered past Nancy and George.

Nancy watched as the colt’s trainer, who was dressed in a khaki shirt and pants, a brown riding cap, and leather boots, leaned forward in her saddle and urged him into a gallop.

“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” Nancy remarked as the colt took off. “They’re all beautiful. I can almost understand why people pay so much for them.”

“Yeah, but do you really know how much they pay?” George tapped her finger on the newspaper that lay next to her coffee cup. “I was reading about a yearling auction that’s happening on Saturday. The article said that a yearling named Goldenrod is expected to go for two million dollars, maybe more.

Nancy whistled appreciatively. “Two million dollars. Wow! That seems crazy.”

A waitress came by, pad and pencil in hand. “Ready to order, ladies?” she asked.

“We’re waiting for two more people,” Nancy told her. She glanced at her watch. “It’s seven thirty-five. They should be here any minute now.”

“No problem,” the waitress said.

When she’d left, George leaned across the table. “I can’t wait to meet Jimmy. I wonder what he’ll be like.”

“If he’s anything like Eileen,” Nancy replied, smiling, “he’ll be totally insane and lots of fun.”

Nancy and George were in Saratoga on vacation. But they were also in town to see Eileen Reed, whom they’d met on a camping trip in Vermont. A twenty-one-year-old student at Skidmore College, Eileen was engaged to be married to a guy named Jimmy English. Eileen was bringing Jimmy to breakfast so she could introduce him to Nancy and George.

Just then Nancy spotted Eileen walking into the restaurant. She was just as Nancy remembered her: tiny and waiflike, with a short cap of light brown hair that complemented her small, heart-shaped face. She was wearing a purple plaid sundress over black leggings, and three rhinestone studs in each ear.

Nancy waved to her, and Eileen immediately waved back. “Nancy! George! Hi, guys!” she yelled across the room. People turned to stare at her, but she seemed oblivious.

When Eileen came up to their table, she gave Nancy and George big hugs. “I’m so glad to see you!” she gushed. Her hazel eyes swept over the two of them. “You look great!”

“You, too,” Nancy told her. “Where’s Jimmy?”

Eileen shrugged. “Late as usual. You know newspaper reporters — he’s probably chasing down some hot lead and forgotten all about us.” She sat down next to George and picked up a menu. “Mmm, blueberry pancakes, eggs Benedict. . .” She giggled. “Remember our breakfasts around the campfire? Burned oatmeal, stale toast, powdered orange juice?”

“Don’t remind us,” George said, wrinkling her nose.

“It was a terrific idea meeting here,” Nancy told Eileen. “It’s really fun watching the horses.”

As Nancy spoke, several more horses went by. The first one was slender and silvery gray, the second was stocky and dark brown, and the third one was small and black, with a white blaze on its forehead. Their trainers worked them at different speeds: a slow trot, a canter, a full gallop, and then back to a slow trot again.

“Breakfast at the track is one of the things to do when you’re in Saratoga,” Eileen said knowingly.

“So tell us what’s going on in your life, Eileen,” George said. “How are the wedding plans?”

“Oh, it’s all incredibly crazy,” Eileen said cheerfully. “We’ve finally set a date, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which is only three months away. My parents want us to have the wedding down in Louisiana, but Jimmy and I want to have it here, at this cool old Victorian hotel — “

“The Algonquin?” Nancy asked.

Eileen whacked herself on the forehead. “Oh, yeah. You’re staying there, right? Where’s my brain? Anyway, they have this ballroom where people can get married. It’s total Victorian overload — you know, dark, gloomy furniture, murals with cupids, red velvet drapes, crystal chandeliers. You’ll love it.”

“Sounds great,” George said. “But isn’t school starting in a few weeks? How are you going to juggle that with planning the wedding?”

“I have no idea,” Eileen said with a sigh. “Especially since I’m thinking of changing my major from psych to drama. I’m totally into drama these days. Plus, I just started a job at Lulu’s, which puts major stress on my schedule.”

“Lulu’s?” Nancy asked.

“Lulu’s Coffeehouse, on Broadway. You guys have to come down and check it out. Oh, and I’m singing at a club every Monday night. I love it except for the fact that the manager is a total jerk. But what are you going to do, right?” Eileen paused and grinned. “Anyway, my life is a complete madhouse, but I don’t care. Jimmy makes me so happy, it’s all worth it”

George winked at Nancy. “I think she’s in love.”

“Definitely,” Eileen said. She cast a quick, anxious glance around the room. “I wish he’d get here. I haven’t seen him in two days. We were supposed to have dinner last night, but he had to cancel at the last — Oh, there he is. Jimmy! Jimmy!”

A very tall, very slender guy was standing in the doorway. He had short blond hair and gold wire-rimmed glasses, and he was dressed in a beige suit. Nancy was struck by the differences between him and Eileen. He was unusually tall, and she was unusually short; he was conservatively dressed, and she was anything but. I guess opposites really do attract, Nancy thought, amused.

Hearing Eileen’s voice, Jimmy waved and headed over to the table. When he arrived, Eileen leapt to her feet, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him on the lips.

Jimmy drew back, blushing slightly. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, sounding flustered.

Eileen picked up her napkin and wiped lip stick off his mouth. “Where have you been, sweetie?” she asked him merrily. “Working on some big story? Exposing crime and corruption?”

Nancy noticed that Jimmy hesitated a moment before answering. “Um, no,” he said. “I just overslept, that’s all.” He turned to Nancy and George and extended a hand. “You must be Eileen’s friends. I’m Jimmy English.”

Nancy and George shook his hand and introduced themselves. “So you’re a reporter for the local paper,” George said. “What’s that like?”

“Oh, you know, it’s a living,” Jimmy replied vaguely. He sat down in the seat across from Eileen, and his gaze wandered to the horses working out on the track. Nancy wondered why he seemed so distracted.

The waitress came by, and Nancy, George, and Eileen ordered.

“And you, hon?” the waitress asked Jimmy.

“Huh? Oh.” Jimmy picked up a menu and glanced at it quickly. “Just a cup of coffee for me.

Eileen touched Jimmy’s arm. “Are you okay, sweetie? It’s not like you to skip breakfast.”

“I’m not very hungry, that’s all,” Jimmy said. A shriek erupted across the room. Nancy turned in her seat to see what the commotion was about. A half-dozen girls were flocking around a young guy. He was medium height and lanky, and wore his long, sun-streaked brown hair in a ponytail. He was dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, and his eyes were hidden behind dark glasses.

The guy had a check in hand, and he was clearly trying to leave the restaurant. But the girls stood in his way, holding out papers for his autograph.

“I wonder who he is?”Nancy said.

Eileen peered at him, then gasped. “Oh, wow!” she exclaimed. “I don’t believe it! It’s Luke Ventura!”

“The Luke Ventura?” George said in amazement. “I just saw him in Love’s Revenge. He was incredible!”

“Plus, he’s totally gorgeous,” Eileen said, and sighed. Then she quickly put her hand to her lips. “Qops! I’m sorry, Jimmy. I didn’t mean that. Of course, you’re much cuter than Luke Ventura any day.”

“Hmm?” Jimmy murmured. “Did you say something?” He glanced across the room. “Oh, Luke Ventura. He comes to Saratoga every August for the races.”

“It seems like everybody comes to Saratoga in August for the races,” Nancy remarked, tossing her reddish blond hair over her shoulders. “When we got here last night, it was mobbed downtown. Plus, we almost didn’t have a place to stay. Our travel agent managed to get the last hotel room in town, and that was only because of a cancellation.”

“Well, Saratoga is the summer playground of the rich and famous,” Eileen told her. “Anyway, if you hadn’t scored a hotel room, you could have stayed with me in my tiny little studio apartment. We could have put sleeping bags on the floor and pretended we were camping again.” She turned to her fiance. “Hey, Jimmy, did I tell you how I met Nancy and George?”

As Eileen went on with her story, Nancy noticed that Jimmy was barely listening. He definitely had something on his mind, she thought. But what? And why did Eileen seem oblivious to it?

The waitress appeared with their food. “Belgian waffles, french toast with fresh strawberries, and a Mexican omelette,” she recited as she set the plates down. “And a cup of coffee for you, sir,” she said to Jimmy.

Jimmy took the cup from her, gulped half of it down, then glanced at his watch. Nancy noticed that it was bright purple, with a cartoon cat on it. It seemed totally unlike Jimmy. She guessed it was probably a gift from Eileen.

Jimmy pulled some money out of his pocket and set it down on the table. “Breakfast’s on me,” he announced. “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to run.”

Eileen pouted. “Oh, no! So fast? You just got here.”

Jimmy leaned across the table and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Work,” he said apologetically. He turned to Nancy and George. “It was really nice meeting you both.”

“Thanks for breakfast,” George told him.

“Yes, thanks a lot,” Nancy added.

Eileen watched Jimmy leave, then she smiled radiantly at Nancy and George. “Isn’t he the best’?”

“Oh, definitely,” Nancy agreed. She paused, then added carefully, “Is he usually so distracted?”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s just work stuff,” Eileen said, waving dismissively. “Jimmy’s really into his job. He wants to be an investigative journalist for one of the big papers someday.”

“So he likes getting to the bottom of things.” George raised an eyebrow at Nancy. “Just like someone else we know.”

“Oh, please,” Nancy said with a laugh, then picked up her fork. “The only thing I want to get to the bottom of now are these slices of french toast.”

“Now you’re talking,” Eileen told her. “Come on, guys, eat up! I have a big day of sight-seeing planned for you, and you’ll need your energy.”

On Thursday morning Nancy woke up to the sound of someone singing. She opened her eyes and ran a hand over the unfamiliar lace bed spread, then stared at the strange wallpaper with the tiny pink roses on it. It took her a second to realize that she was in the Algonquin Hotel and that George was singing in the shower.

Nancy smiled and reached for the alarm clock. It was after nine. “Wow,” she said softly to herself. “We really slept in!”

The day before, Eileen had given her and George a whirlwind tour of Saratoga. They’d taken in the beautiful Victorian architecture, a dozen shops, and some great restaurants. Eileen had insisted that they finish their long day by catching her favorite band at one of the clubs, so it had been well past midnight when Nancy and George returned to their hotel room.

Nancy got out of bed, stretched, and wandered over to the window. Pushing aside the gauzy curtain, she gazed out at Broadway, the main street in downtown Saratoga. Across the street were a nineteenth century bank building that had been converted into art studios and a gallery and an old firehouse that was now an Italian restaurant. Although it was only nine o’clock, the sidewalks and outdoor cafes were already jammed, and the mood was festive. Nancy couldn’t wait to get outside and explore the town some more.

Just then the phone rang. Nancy walked over and picked it up. “Hello?”

“Nancy? It’s me — Eileen.” Nancy heard the frantic tone in her friend’s voice. “The most terrible thing has happened.”

“Eileen, what’s going on?”

“Oh, Nancy — ” Eileen choked back a sob. Nancy could tell that her friend was close to hysterics. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Everything’s wrong,” Eileen wailed. “It’s Jimmy. He’s disappeared!”

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