Romantic Mystery Novel
by Barbara W. Klaser
van skids off a snowy mountain road. . . .
Tess returns home to bury her dead. There an old flame rekindles, promising the warmth of a winter romance, while Tess begins to suspect her family was murdered.
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Success doesn't mean happiness.
Tess Hunter read the words she'd written on the paper in front of her, and blinked at them a few times. They were a portion of her silent argument with a thesaurus in a computer program, this electronic listing on the screen of her laptop that ranked success right in there with words like satisfaction, contentment, happiness. Could the program be wrong about the meaning of success, or was she? Tess Hunter thought she'd found success, at a young age, but it didn't feel like happiness to her. It felt more like a trap.
She sighed and swiveled her chair back to the drafting table, where the half-inked drawing of a Victorian tea party mocked her with its sterility. Tess glanced out the window to her left, focused through the brown band of smog above the horizon visible between hundreds of other structures, and imagined she glimpsed the pale glint of the ocean beyond. This was wishful thinking. She couldn't see it from here. She took a deep breath of the filtered, conditioned air of the building from which she and her partners ran their magazine and publishing business, then looked down at her drawing, and sighed again. "This isn't working."
"It looks great to me." This came from the doorway behind her. Her secretary Debbie held a paper bag out to Tess as she entered her office. "I come bearing lunch. You looked preoccupied earlier, and I didn't think you heard my offer to bring you something, so I assumed you'd want the usual. Tuna salad on rye?"
Tess thanked her and realized how hungry she was, as she took the bag. She removed the sandwich wrapped in white paper, along with a bundle of paper napkins. She unfolded a napkin, then unwrapped and picked up half the sandwich.
"What don't you like about it?" Debbie was looking at the drawing again, her face placid.
Tess paused to chew and swallow her first bite of tuna on rye before she admitted, "I wasn't actually thinking about the drawing. I was . . . muttering to myself."
The drawing hadn't progressed since yesterday, and Tess had spent most of this afternoon sitting here daydreaming, caught up in her thoughts of escape, of rebellion--possibly total abandon.
"Tess." Her partner Harry Ryker leaned his head in the doorway behind Debbie. He spoke in a clipped British accent. "Have you got a moment to meet with Paige and me about the name change?"
Tess glanced down at her sandwich, in an inexplicable instant of panic. She put the sandwich down as Harry Ryker and their other partner Paige Chandler pressed into the office, and Tess's secretary Debbie was the one who escaped.
"Oh, you're having lunch." Paige Chandler was a tall woman with chestnut brown hair and piercing dark eyes. Her glance moved from the sandwich to the drawing on Tess's drafting table. She moved into the room and sat in one of the chairs across from Tess's desk. Harry Ryker followed suit, maneuvering his lean frame into a chair in one swift movement.
Tess sighed and wiped her hands with her paper napkin. "I'm sure we will eventually decide on a new name for the magazine. But today isn't a good day. I'm not making any progress at all on this." She waved at the drawing. "I doubt I'll be much more creative about a name."
"We want to present you with an idea," Paige Chandler said, her face bright with enthusiasm.
Tess wondered what they would both say if she told them she didn't care what they called the magazine because she was leaving. She was in fact making plans to go away for a few weeks to think through what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She glanced at each of them, afraid she'd spoken those thoughts out loud.
"Harry thinks we should add your name to the magazine title, something like Tess Hunter's Treasured Home. Only not Treasured Home anymore, of course. The point of this exercise is to get rid of that. We'd go from Treasured Home to Tess Hunter's Simple Pleasures, or Tess Hunter's Creative Living Magazine. You see?"
Tess shook her head. She saw, yes. They didn't see. Hadn't they noticed how silent she'd been on many decisions of late? Couldn't they hear in her tone that she was backing away from the business, from caring about the business? That she'd been doing so for months? She didn't see how it could be anything but clear to everyone around her that she no longer had the passion about their magazine that a publisher should have.
"You don't understand." Tess hesitated. They weren't just her partners, they were her friends--especially Paige, who'd been Tess's best friend since their first year of college. Tess dreaded letting them down, but she certainly didn't want the magazine named after her!
Paige looked at Harry. "I told you she wouldn't go for it." She leaned toward Tess, "Look, just think about it. Now we do need to go over the names. Let's brainstorm. That doesn't take too much creative genius. Even Harry can manage that."
"Thank you." Harry sent her a look.
"I'm taking a vacation," Tess blurted out. "I don't want to make any decisions, about the name change or anything else, until I've had some time away."
Her words halted Paige, who blinked. "You never take vacations." Then Paige narrowed her dark eyes. "What's going on?"
"I want some time away, to think. I'm planning to visit my family in Cedar Creek, I haven't seen them in years. I've recently been needing to . . . well, to rethink some of my decisions about my career, about my place in the business."
She'd said it.
Paige looked as if she'd been slapped. Harry wore a blank expression, his eyes a bit glazed over.
"Rethink?" Paige repeated. "Your career?"
"Yes. I can't contemplate the name change--especially putting my name on the magazine--before I do that." Tess nodded toward her laptop computer. "I've finished up my columns for the next few issues, and I'm hoping you'll be able to do without me for a few weeks--until the New Year."
Paige and Harry exchanged looks. Both leaned forward. Paige said, "Tess, why haven't you said anything before? You know we're serious about the name change. I mean, I know we go through this drill every year, but that's why I entertained the idea of using your name. Because we're serious about it this time. I thought we all were. You--"
"I know, and I'm sorry I haven't spoken up before now. I should have, but I've been having a terrible time concentrating on anything to do with the business. I've been working shorter days for months. Surely you've noticed. Maybe I'm burned out, and the time off will help me re-light the fire in myself again, but for now I feel this need . . . to escape."
Paige stood up. "Escape?" She wore the look of someone who'd been struck a blow. She looked at Harry. "I need to escape. Right now."
Paige left the room.
Harry stood and looked after Paige, then at Tess. "I thought we were the ones coming in here with a bomb to drop in the workings. I--well--I'll let you get on with . . ." He moved slowly, glancing at her sandwich, her unfinished drawing, and finally the surface of her desk. He paused and took on a sorrowful expression. Then he left the room.
Tess looked down at the desk where he'd focused, and saw her doodle in the center of the paper blotter, where she'd scrawled in bold black letters with her Rapidograph technical pen, "Success doesn't mean happiness."
Tess spent Saturday morning trying to avoid all thought of the office, her business, or her partners' reactions to her announcement. The more she resisted thinking about it the more it preoccupied her. She hadn't intended her news to come out that way. She'd hoped to have a meeting with them and calmly lead up to the possibility of her leaving, for a vacation at first, an extended leave, and then discuss the possibility that her absence might become permanent. She'd hoped to take the first few weeks off to prove to them she wasn't needed.
Anyone with some editorial and home arts background could do what Tess had been doing for the past five years. Any decent commercial artist could provide the same caliber of artwork. They didn't carry that many of her illustrations in the magazine and cookbooks these days, most of the time they used photographs. Theirs was no longer a struggling new business. They'd paid off their debts to Paige's father, the publishing business was growing, magazine circulation had increased, and most of the effort didn't directly involve Tess's culinary or fine arts background, or for that matter her ideas. She'd been thinking Paige and Harry could continue the business easily without her. They didn't see it that way, and now she'd blown her chance to ease them into the idea, by blurting out her escape plan in an inept and upsetting way.
Tess moped around her little house overlooking a canyon near the beach. She fiddled around in a haphazard way in the room she'd set aside for painting, then in the kitchen. When she'd moved here months ago, she'd equipped it as a duplicate of the test kitchen at the office, so she could bring work home. She looked around at the appliances with their cold, slick surfaces and suddenly felt lost in her own house.
Early Saturday evening Tess picked up the phone and called information, asked for the number of Stoneway Resort in Cedar Creek, and dialed the number. When the reservations clerk at Stoneway answered, Tess asked to speak to her former schoolmate Angie Norwood.
From the time Tess had been eight years old until she'd left Cedar Creek at seventeen, Angie Norwood had been her closest friend. But Tess hadn't been in touch with Angie since she'd left home eleven years ago. She recalled her mother mentioning, during one of their infrequent phone calls, that Angie owned Stoneway now.
"Tess?" A pause. "Tess Hunter? Oh my gosh! Where are you?"
"Angie, I'll tell you my whole life's story since we last spoke, once I'm there, but I'm calling to make reservations to stay at the resort for a few weeks." Tess told Angie the date she wanted to arrive and explained that she planned to stay through the end of the year. "I'm hoping to surprise my family, so please don't tell anyone about my visit yet. I'm also wondering if you'll discreetly check with my parents to find out if they plan to be in town over Thanksgiving and the winter holidays."
Angie agreed to help Tess plan her surprise. She reserved a room for her and said she'd call Tess back on Sunday about the Hunter family's plans. "Pack plenty of warm clothes. It's been snowing like crazy up here, for days. I can't wait to see you!"
Tess arrived at work late Monday morning and found Paige Chandler and Harry Ryker waiting for her. She hadn't gotten a cup of coffee or put down her bag before they entered her office, ready to talk about her plans.
"Okay, I'm over my initial shock," Paige said. "I want to know how long you've been feeling this need to escape. It hasn't been for the entire five years, has it? I know I have a forceful personality, and I tend to steamroll people, but I thought you knew me well enough not to let yourself get carried away by my crazy schemes unless you wanted to. Tell me you haven't been involved in this whole business just because I wanted it."
"No, Paige," Tess said. "I wanted it too, but I've been doing a lot of painting, at home, since I bought the house. The drawings I've done for this book are lifeless in comparison. There's the test kitchen, working in an environment that isn't anything like a house, trying to feel inspired to nurture a nonexistent family. It's all become a sham for me. I don't feel anything nurturing or homey at all in this anymore. I look at all the magazines on the racks in the supermarket, and I think the people who put them together have no idea at all what makes a house a home. Including us, to a certain degree. I mean, look at the three of us. We're single, and we spend most of our time here."
Tess stopped, because Paige wore a stormy look in her dark eyes. "There, you see? I can't talk about it without offending you. I'm saying what I feel, Paige." Tess looked at Harry. "I know it's business, that's what it's supposed to be. It's a good business. I'm just not certain I want it to be my business anymore. How can I, feeling this way about it? I'm hoping all I need is some time off, that I'll get over this--whatever it is I'm going through. But I might not, and I want you both to be prepared for that possibility. Can we call it a hiatus, for now, and try not to draw any conclusions from my need for it, until I've had some time away to get a grip on myself?"
Harry and Paige both nodded in grim silence.
"I know this couldn't come at a worse time. I know you're serious about the name change this year. I couldn't let you go any further without saying something." Tess took a deep breath and leaned toward them, over her desk. "What do you need from me before I take my leave of absence?"
Paige met her gaze, her brown eyes still dark and troubled. "You're going home?"
Tess nodded. "For the holidays, for a start. I've made reservations at an inn that an old schoolmate of mine owns, a couple miles outside Cedar Creek. I'm planning to be there in time for Thanksgiving."
"That's week after next," Harry said with a renewed look of panic.
"I don't see any reason to delay, now that you know. The sooner I get away the sooner we'll all be able to decide what direction we're headed."
An hour later, they were conversing like partners again, like business people, Tess thought. They made plans to turn over Tess's work, but Paige stalled at Tess's mention of the book she was working on. "That's your project."
"We haven't even named it. We keep calling it the tea party book," Tess argued.
Paige nodded. "I know. It makes me think of the Boston Tea Party. More now than ever." She said this in a grim tone, with a pointed look at Tess. "But it's your project."
"It's a vacation, Paige, not a revolution."
"It feels like a revolution to me."
"Tess." Debbie stood at the office door, wearing a tragic look. "You have an urgent call."
"Who is it, Debbie?" Tess spoke with an uncharacteristic sharpness, annoyed by the interruption. She needed Paige to understand her. She turned back to Paige, prepared to continue their discussion.
"It's Sheriff Les Kendall. From Wilder County." Debbie's voice was subdued but emphatic. "It's urgent, Tess."
Tess paused and turned back to Debbie as the significance sank in, of receiving a call from the sheriff of the county where her family lived. She picked up the phone. "This is Tess Hunter."
Instead of leaving as she normally would, Debbie walked over to Paige and Harry and spoke softly to them.
On the phone Sheriff Kendall said something to Tess about a van going off a mountain road, over an embankment. Something about people killed in the crash. Tess couldn't absorb the sheriff's words. They jumbled in her mind. She wanted to change them around, to make this not about her family. Then he said the names of those who'd been killed: James Hunter, Catherine Hunter, and Spencer Hunter. Her parents' and brother's names. Killed. In the crash.
Spence is only seventeen. The single thought resounded in her mind, and she was sure she'd said it out loud, but when she did try to speak, her voice broke, and she could only listen to the sheriff go on about what had happened and how sorry he was.
His words hit her like a weight pressing against her chest, constricting her breath. Tess fought past that weight and stood up. She drew in her breath as though she'd been too long underwater. Her mind fought comprehension, wrestled with it. The hand that held the phone dropped to her side. Harry took the phone from her and spoke calmly, quietly to the sheriff. Paige put her arms around Tess, speaking in a comforting tone, words Tess didn't grasp.
Some time later, Tess walked outside to a car under Harry's big black umbrella. She realized later it must have been raining when he drove her to her house overlooking the canyon. She didn't remember the rain, only the sheltering blackness of the umbrella.
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|All characters and events in the novels on this website are fictitious, they are solely products of the author's imagination. Any similarity to real persons or events is purely coincidental.||
Copyright (c) 2004 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved