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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The ringing of the phone downstairs wakened Tess late Saturday morning. It took a moment for her to realize what the sound was. She tumbled out of bed and headed sleepily down the stairs in her nightgown, hugging herself for warmth as she went. The house was frigid. The chill of the kitchen tiles under her bare feet served to clear her head as she reached for the phone. She would've preferred coffee.
It was Paige. "What took you so long to answer?"
"I was asleep." Tess's voice cracked and she cleared her throat. "This phone is miles from the bedroom."
"It's ten o'clock. You are taking a vacation. We're finishing up some things here so we can take a few days off to come up there. What's the name again of the resort you were going to stay at? Stonehenge?"
"Stoneway. When are you coming?"
"Tomorrow afternoon. I convinced Harry that you need some moral support and help looking into this blackmail business. Is there a turkey in your mother's freezer, by any chance? I promised him food."
"If there isn't I'll buy one. I can't wait to see you."
"Do you have a phone number handy for Stoneway?"
"They're likely booked up by now. You can stay with me."
"No, we want you to continue your retreat. I'm calling it a retreat now. We'll only be there a few days. You need your privacy, and we want to go skiing, but we do insist on a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, prepared by our favorite cook--you. What's the number for Stoneway?"
Tess gave her the number. "Would you bring my cordless phone with you? And call me back if you can't get a room."
"Sure. I'll call you back either way, tonight when I get home."
"I won't be here tonight."
"I have a date, with Joe Latimer."
"Oh. Good. Have fun. We'll see you late tomorrow."
Tess was shivering by the time their call ended, and she went to work warming up the house.
Later she surveyed the snow out front where her snow angels had been obliterated by the snowmobile. She used a rake to smooth it, and then she made new snow angels. Yesterday she'd made them to relax. Today it was an act of defiance.
After noon, Tess drove into town and parked in front of Joe's old house. She sat in her car and looked up at the white Victorian for a few minutes. It was a venerable house, built when the town was young and smaller than it was today. She'd rarely taken notice of the house, as a girl, even to draw or paint it, picturesque as it was. So why did it attract her now? Did that have everything to do with Joe Latimer? Or was it also the idea of a bakery, and of hanging her paintings in Alan's gallery? In spite of the loss of her family, possibilities had been opening up since she arrived back in Cedar Creek. She wanted to get past her suspicions of blackmail and murder, and past her grief as well. She wanted to get on to whatever it was she would do with the rest of her life. She needed to start something new.
Tess got out of her car at the same moment Laura Greene came striding along the sidewalk. Laura called out to Tess, and when she was close enough she hugged her exuberantly.
Laura wore a smart burgundy suit with a teal and burgundy silk scarf. She hurried along the sidewalk beside Tess, with no coat, her arms crossed and head bowed against the cold. She wore boots, but carried a pair of dainty burgundy pumps with three-inch heels in one hand, and a leather briefcase in the other. She wore her hair longer than she had as a girl, pulled back from her face by a single barrette. It curled in natural waves, gold-burnished tendrils plotting escape in every direction. Princess hair, Tess had called it when they were girls. Laura's hazel eyes were perpetually filled with lighthearted humor. Her voice effervesced, her laughter bubbled to the surface at the least provocation, and she loved to talk, as she did right now.
"I've been wanting to get together with you again ever since I saw you the other day. There wasn't enough time to catch up. Come in and take a look at my office. I'm hoping Joe finds enough tenants to fill the place up, because otherwise he's sinking a lot into this without making a profit, and if he's forced to close the place down we all lose. Ed would move in too, but this isn't suitable for his type of business. He sells sporting goods and outdoor gear, as well as snowmobiles, so he needs a lot more space for that, indoors and out. Alan told me you're considering opening a bakery. Wouldn't that be great? The whole gang would be back together again. Alan's ecstatic about you being here, did you know that?" Laura opened the jingling front door of the Victorian and held it for Tess, who followed her into the big front room.
It was warm inside. A hammering noise came from somewhere, possibly the kitchen, and Tess turned in that direction. Laura followed. "So do you think there's a chance you and Alan will get together again?"
Tess looked into the kitchen, with its spacious layout and big windows. The room appeared to be empty. Maybe the noise had been outside. Sunlight beamed in through the south facing windows of the dining room, warming the room and lending the woodwork a golden glow. Tess pictured the island countertop between the two rooms piled high with pastries and breads.
"Well? What do you think?" Laura said.
"You know, I'd love to jump right in and say yes, but I'm still mulling it over. I don't want to commit until I've given myself more time."
"He asked you out already?"
Tess turned and looked at Laura. Surely she couldn't know about Joe asking Tess out. He'd only done that last night. "Who?"
"Alan. We're talking about Alan, aren't we?"
"No. I wasn't. I'm sorry, I got distracted. I love this kitchen. What were you saying about Alan?"
"He hinted yesterday that he's planning to ask you out. He seemed hesitant though. I think he's worried you'll break his heart again. You did, you know."
"My parents made me stop seeing him. They thought he was a bad influence. They thought you all were. I don't know where they got the idea, but they acted on it. That was when they set me up with Trent."
"I never heard what happened to you after your accident. I mean, except rumors. We weren't allowed to visit you in the hospital. Then my mom heard all the gossip about it and decided you were a bad influence on me. But you disappeared, Tess. Where did you go?"
"My parents sent me to live in Seattle with my great aunt. Maybe they thought I'd lead Spence astray, or get him hurt somehow. They thought I ran off and left him alone that night. They didn't want me around after that."
Laura made a sound of disbelief. "How could they think that? Didn't they know you at all?"
"I don't know. They never spoke to me about it after those first days in the hospital. They just sent me away."
"That's awful, Tess."
Tess felt desperate to change the subject. She realized this was Saturday, and she turned to Laura. "Are you working today?"
"Yeah, I'm trying to get caught up so I can take some time over the holiday." Laura looked at her watch. "I have an appointment at one. Want to see my office?"
Laura led the way upstairs, and they met Jessica Laine on the landing. She slid a cold glance in Tess's direction. Then she asked Laura if she'd seen Joe.
"No, but we just got here."
"He said he'd be working right downstairs." Jessica's voice bordered on petulance. "He promised he'd come up and help me with these shelves as soon as he's done with the plumbing."
"Which plumbing?" Laura glanced at Tess and shrugged. "I didn't see him. We just came from the kitchen."
At a noise below, Tess glanced down the stairs, and saw Joe come out of the kitchen. He paused in the doorway with a pipe wrench in his hand and looked up in her direction.
"I'll be another few minutes, Jessica." He nodded at Tess and Laura with a half smile.
Jessica flipped her blonde hair over her shoulder as she turned and headed back up the stairs, heels clomping on the wooden stairs.
"That woman drives me up a wall," Laura said in an undertone, shaking her head as she led Tess into her bookkeeping office.
Tess tried to recall what she and Laura had said in the kitchen, because she was certain Joe had been there and overheard. He must've been working under the sink. The counter would have blocked him from their view. "Don't people have pets around here? What's Joe doing working on plumbing and shelves?" she said irritably.
Laura laughed. "He actually has a pretty good business going at his clinic, and he has a second veterinarian working there now. He's been limiting his office hours so he can work on this project. It's a good thing for us, or we'd never get the place ready for business. Right now it looks more like a construction project than a business center. It puts people off. We're looking forward to the more finished look, and the publicity from the grand opening."
Laura gave Tess a tour of her office. It was small, but pleasantly arranged and inviting, with big windows and plenty of light. When Laura's client arrived Tess returned downstairs, pausing to enter the restaurant space again, wondering if Joe was still there.
Tess peered into the kitchen. "Hello?"
"Hello." It was Joe's voice, the sound muffled.
Tess heard other noises, a clink of a tool against metal. She continued in and rounded the island. Joe lay on his back under the sink, with only his long legs and torso visible.
"You didn't warn me the plumbing needed work."
"It'll be finished today. It's not a commercial kitchen you know, it's an old house."
"I'm sick of commercial kitchens."
He eased out from under the sink, stood up and grinned at her. "A plain old country kitchen is good enough? That's a relief." He looked down at the plumbing part in his hand, and a washer he was testing for fit.
Jessica came to the door and reminded him again that he'd promised to help her. As she clomped away, he shook his head, looking beleaguered.
"I'd better let you get back to work." Tess turned to leave.
"Why didn't you tell me your parents sent you away?"
Tess turned back. He studied the part in his hand.
"Because you didn't want to hear that, Joe."
He looked at her and shrugged. "So you tell people what they want to hear?"
Was he deliberately twisting her words? "I didn't tell you anything. I never answered the question." She moved toward the door.
He called after her, "See you at six."
Tess decided to wear an ivory silk dress that she'd been saving for the holidays, for her date with Joe. Paige had brought it along with some other clothes when she came up for the funeral. Its plunging back showed a lot of skin, and the wrap that went with it was lightweight, so Tess worried she'd freeze on her way to the restaurant with Joe.
Angie called while Tess was dressing, and Tess wore the wrap downstairs to answer.
"Your partner Paige made reservations for her and Harry to stay here through the weekend," Angie said on the phone. "She mentioned you're going out with Joe tonight."
"What's going on, Tess?"
"I'm not sure, actually." Tess hesitated to admit to anyone that she was falling for Joe.
"Well my brother Kevin's birthday party is Monday night. I know he'd love to see you, and Alan Stewart asked me if you'll be there. He and Kevin are as free as birds."
"I don't relish the thought of Jessica Laine sinking her claws into you. She considers Joe Latimer her territory. Some people have placed bets on how long it will be before he marries her."
Tess returned upstairs in a changed mood. She wanted to dismiss Angie's warning as gossip, to believe that Joe wouldn't have asked her out if things were that serious between him and Jessica.
Minutes later Tess ran down to the door to greet Joe. He took in the ivory dress with smoldering eyes. "You look like a snow angel tonight." He took her hand and led her out to Rose's sedan, which he'd borrowed for the evening.
"How did you fare with the plumbing, and Jessica's shelves?" she asked, nagged by the notion that he was cheating on Jessica to go out with her.
"No shop talk tonight. I intend to show you a good time, not bore you with house repairs." He stopped at the car and slapped his forehead. "Your new locks."
She laughed. "Are you sure you have time to be a veterinarian?"
He wore a wide grin as he opened the car door. "Tomorrow morning, I promise."
At the Gold Room, they ordered prime rib and shared a split of champagne. "I only come here on special occasions," Joe told her as he filled her glass.
"What's the occasion tonight?"
He filled his own and then met her gaze. "I'm celebrating the return of my first love, who grew up to be far lovelier than I could've imagined."
Tess was taken aback and suddenly she didn't know what to say.
"To first love." Joe held out his glass.
Tess clinked glasses with his and drank to that thought. "When did you return to Cedar Creek?"
He chuckled, shaking his head. "That's not the question I expected."
"You expected me to be surprised that I was your first love? Are you forgetting the flowers? You brought me flowers when I was seven. You couldn't have been more than twelve."
"You remember that?" His smile was warm and gratifying.
Later they danced to the strains of a string quartet. Joe's hand in the small of her back drew Tess close, and he nuzzled her hair. Tess tilted her head back to look at him. He smiled, with a welcome deep in his eyes. "I don't want to let you go. I want to savor this as long as possible."
I'm falling in love with you, Joe Latimer. She didn't dare to say it out loud. It was too soon, surely, to know her feelings so clearly. Was she being a fool?
Joe drove Tess home and walked her up to her door. A light snow was falling, a gentle snow that didn't carry any storm threat. The shapes of her snow angels were blurring but not yet obscured under the fresh layer. As he took her keys from her and unlocked the door, she saw that snow had fallen on Joe's black hair. He bent his head to kiss her, but she stopped him.
She hadn't been able to drive Angie's words from her mind. She had to know. "Joe, are you seeing anyone else right now?"
His green eyes glinted under the porch light as he smiled at her. He shook his head and touched her cheek with his fingers. "Only the sweetest woman I know, who apparently doesn't want me to kiss her goodnight."
"Kiss me!" Tess said hungrily. He chuckled, and held her in an endless kiss that warmed them both. He kissed her once more, and said goodnight.
"I'll be here early with those locks."
Tess tossed and turned, and finally got no more than a few hours of sleep. Toward morning she had a nightmare. Trent Cambridge pursued her through the woods. She ran, staying a few steps ahead of him, while Trent called to her, telling her she'd pay.
She lay awake after that. She rose long before dawn and went down to the kitchen-family room, where she built up a fire and brewed coffee. She sat in the dark by the fire, thinking about Trent, her accident, and the more recent one that had killed her family.
Finally she went upstairs to her studio and turned on all the lights. There she worked out some ideas for paintings. She was on her fifth or sixth watercolor sketch when she jumped at the sound of the doorbell, and realized she was still in her nightgown, fuzzy blue robe, and slippers.
It was Joe at the door. "I saw your lights and presumed it wasn't too early to start work. I decided to add deadbolts to replace those old chain locks. I had two on hand."
"Have you had breakfast?"
He shook his head. There was a new light in his eyes, something that made her feel incredibly at home with him this morning.
"Let me fix you something." She led him to the kitchen, where she prepared to crack eggs into a skillet.
She didn't get far before Joe came around the counter and took her into his arms. "It feels so amazing to hold you like this. I feel as if I've come home. Would you--" He didn't finish his sentence, but kissed her instead. A moment later Tess was breathless. She drew her lips away. "The food."
"I don't want breakfast, Tess. I want you."
She pulled out of his embrace just long enough to turn off the stove. Then she moved into his arms again, and this time she didn't let go. Before long they moved upstairs, to her bedroom.
Much later, Tess made them both breakfast while Joe went to work installing deadbolts on her doors. He hummed as he worked, and she felt like singing, herself. She hadn't known this feeling of shared bliss before, and it made even the mundane task of preparing breakfast a rare treat.
Ed Greene called, and Tess carried the phone over to the stove, away from the noise Joe was making. Ed wanted Tess to help him shop for a gift for his wife Laura, for her birthday next month. "I have a few dresses picked out, but I can't decide, and Laura thinks you have excellent taste."
Tess agreed to help, and arranged to bring Paige and Harry along to shop with Ed for the gift in Sacramento tomorrow.
"The glass in the back door still bothers me," Joe told her later, once he'd finished installing the locks. "I should replace it with a solid door, since you're not feeling safe. Is that why Duane was out here the other night? You weren't feeling safe?"
She took a deep breath and sighed.
"There was someone here that night, Joe. On a snowmobile. They tore up my snow angels." It sounded so idiotic now that she cringed at her own words, but Joe looked worried. He went through the house with her and checked all the window locks.
When they came to her studio, Joe paused to look at the sketches she'd done that morning.
"These are incredible." He picked up first one and then another. They were mostly of the scenes she could see from these windows, the trees thick on the mountains, the snow frosting everything.
"You captured Cedar Creek, your house, the trees, the subtlest colors. These make me think you love it here more than you ever say." His gaze lingered on her sketches.
"I suppose I do. This is home."
He finally gathered his tools together. He had more work to do at the Victorian today.
"What are you going to name that old house?" Tess asked him at the door.
"I used to call it by its street number." He turned to her with a challenge in his eyes. "You name it for me. Give it some thought, and come up with a name. I'll have a sign made. By the way, what will you call your bakery, if you open it?"
She surprised herself by answering at once, with a smile, "Cathy's."
"After your mom. I like that." He kissed her again before he left. Tess stood by the door and watched him drive away.
Tess knew she should start sorting through her family's things. Instead she went to the kitchen and baked. She stirred up a light, fluffy sugar cookie dough and formed it into snow angel shapes. She baked them to delicate, crisp perfection and let them cool.
Shortly after noon, an insistent pounding on the front door roused Tess from the batch of cooled snow angel cookies she'd begun to dust with powdered sugar. Irritated by the interruption and more by the unnecessary racket, she paused to glance out the living room window. The yellow sports car parked crookedly in the driveway was Jessica Laine's. Tess groaned, and took her time wiping her hands on a kitchen towel as she headed for the door.
"I do have a doorbell, Jessica," Tess said as she opened it. "The button is right there, and it's lit up all the time." If she was going to have to tangle with Jessica, Tess was going to do it on her own terms. She moved to block the doorway as Jessica tried to sweep in past her. "I don't believe I asked you in."
"It's cold out here. It's snowing."
"You're not going to freeze, in that fur, in the short time you'll be here."
Jessica said, bristling noticeably. "I need to talk to you."
Tess waited silently, her arms folded. She hoped this wouldn't take too long, as she hated to let much cold air into the house.
"May I please come in?"
"That wasn't too difficult was it?" Tess stepped to one side.
"I'll say what I came to say quickly. I want you to stay away from Joe. You don't live here, you have nothing to gain from chasing after him. He doesn't have any money. He's sunk every cent he has into these rental projects of his. Leave him alone."
"Shouldn't he be the one to decide that?"
"My cousin told me she saw you and Joe together in the Gold Room last night."
"She said you were holding hands."
"Yes." Tess met Jessica's gaze calmly. "I don't see what that has to do with you."
"Joe and I are engaged!" Jessica raised her left hand and flashed a diamond ring in front of Tess's face. A huge diamond.
Tess's heart caught in her throat at the sight of that ring. She'd assumed Angie had been exaggerating, gossiping, making assumptions. She'd never mentioned a ring.
Jessica went on, and the name she spoke next caught and held Tess's attention. "Trent told me about you, what kind of trouble you can be."
"Trent is a rapist, Jessica. I'd be careful taking his word for anything. Shouldn't you talk to your fiancé about this, rather than to me? It was Joe who asked me to dinner. He failed to mention any engagement."
Tess spoke with a dignity she didn't feel. She'd been foolish for not heeding Angie's warning. Tess had always been amazed that any woman would want to involve herself with a man who was already attached. Now she'd gone and done it herself. She couldn't believe her own naivete. As for Joe, he'd looked her right in the eye and lied to her! How could she have been such an idiot?
"Don't you stand there looking wide-eyed and innocent," Jessica blurted out. "You knew Joe and I were involved with each other. You've seen us together, and I'm sure others have told you. Yet you deliberately chased after him. Stay away from him, do you hear?" Jessica swung around and stalked out the door, leaving it wide open.
Tess closed the door and leaned against it, facing the silent, empty house.
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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