Whitney's 39th novel (Daughter of the Stars, 1994, etc.) is a confusing mishmash of plot and character, but the author's usual enthusiasm for setting and historical background will continue to please her fans. It's been two years since Susan Trench disappeared, and her wealthy, dying grandfather Nicholas can't bear to meet his maker without learning what happened to her. It's possible that the pretty, tempestuous, self-dramatizing Susan deliberately absented herself from the family manse on Topsail Island off the coast of North Carolina, but her gloomy father, her grandfather's housekeeper, and Susan's former lover, the housekeeper's son, are all convinced she's dead. When Nicholas sends for Susan's best friend from college, Hallie Knight, to reminisce about Susan, his family panics over rumors that Nicholas plans to leave to Hallie the fortune he'd intended for Susan. Hallie, a sensible young California native eager for a vacation from her troubled marriage, accepts the invitation, unaware of the hornet's nest she's stepping into. Once she arrives on Topsail Island, her sympathy for Susan's grandfather--and her own need to know what happened--prompts her to investigate the family's many secrets in the hope of solving the longstanding mystery. Meanwhile, a high-security missile project, a secret underground room, a pool of quicksand, a beautiful former circus performer, and a pair of amethyst geodes that invoke strange visions are stuffed willy-nilly into the mystery, Nancy Drew style. The characters' abrupt shifts in attitude and behavior, as well as the arbitrary unveiling of new clues, also make for a very bumpy ride. And the solution to the mystery is a disappointment. Still, Whitney's loving descriptions of (fictitious) historic homes provide more entertainment than Hallie's vague ruminations over what happened to her unfortunate friend. Not this eightysomething author's best, then, but her obvious relish for the romantic suspense genre is charming.