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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"You're in love, aren't you?" Paige looked accusingly at Tess across the table. They were in the main dining room at Stoneway, a huge rustic room with a walk-in fireplace and warm, polished wood gleaming everywhere. Harry had gone to get drinks for the three of them, and as soon as he'd gone Paige shot the words at Tess.
"I don't suppose there's any use denying it. You know me too well. Is this what it's like to have a sister?"
"Don't tease me, Tess. It's written all over you. I could tell when you met us here today. Your parents would've liked you to marry him, I suppose."
"Marry. Paige, I'm not going to marry him."
"Well of course you haven't talked about it yet, but in time. You don't think I missed the way he kept looking at you when we were here the last time?"
Tess was shaking her head at her friend. "I never knew you were a romantic."
"I'm not. I think it's disgusting. You're just making a name for yourself, entering the height of your career, then in walks this country Joe and sweeps you off your feet, like in some hokey romance. It's horrible. I always thought you were so sensible."
"I hope you're right, because I'm going to do what I feel is the most sensible thing."
"What's that?" Paige leaned toward Tess, her eyes intent.
"I'm going to forget all about Joe Latimer, and concentrate on making some decisions about my life," Tess said in a dull tone of voice.
"Oh," Paige said with a hint of disbelief. "You don't appear overly enthusiastic about that plan--if one can call it a plan."
Harry returned with their drinks. He looked from one silent woman to the other as he set their drinks down. "What's this? Have I interrupted the girl talk? Do you want me to exit and come back later?" He sat down. "Or join in. What's up?"
"Tess is in love. Isn't it awful?"
"It's Harry. I wouldn't tell anyone else. Harry's family."
"Why thank you. But what's this about? Tess? Don't tell me you've fallen for that Latimer fellow."
Tess grimaced at Paige, who grinned back devilishly and raised her eyebrows. Then Paige sobered. "What do you think, Harry?"
"It's what Tess thinks that matters."
"And I don't want to discuss it, Paige. He's not available. Nothing can ever come of it, so what's the point? Let's enjoy our dinner." Tess took a long swallow of the icy drink Harry had placed in front of her. Harry and Paige exchanged meaningful looks across the table. "Please."
"Very well, Tess. But remember, should you ever want to discuss it."
"You're the first two people I would think of." Tess sent Harry a grateful smile.
"Good." He picked up his menu and they discussed other matters. The magazine, Stoneway, the chances of more snow falling before morning. Paige glared into space for a few minutes, but soon she joined the conversation as well. Tess felt Paige's curious glance on her several times before the meal was served, but Harry continued to delicately steer the conversation away from the subject of Joe Latimer.
"I brought your cordless phone," Paige said eventually, "and Deborah says you need to check your voice mail at home. She's been taking care of the business calls, but she says there's one personal message you need to hear."
Tess nodded, not wanting to think about L.A.
They sat in Stoneway's main dining room, with its high open rafters, wide expanses of small, leaded window panes, and gleaming woodwork. Amid the rustic, casual atmosphere the warm hum of unstilted conversation filled the room. A fire crackled in the gigantic stone hearth and a trio of musicians played down-to-earth tunes to which diners sporadically sang along or clapped their hands.
Most of the other diners were skiers, who tended to congregate in small groups in the big dining room, wearing colorful sweaters. They were young people--or young at heart--with bright eyes, glowing skin, glistening hair, and lively voices. Laughter continuously drifted from one corner or another of the dining hall. The effect was exhilarating.
Halfway through the meal, Tess realized she'd been staring unseeing at an oil painting on the nearest wall. She focused on it. It was unusual for a dining room, a portrayal of a hunter shooting at an elk. The elk performed an agonized contortion, seemingly mid-air, as it was struck while attempting to flee.
Tess realized an awkward silence had dropped over the table. She looked at Paige and Harry. The expression in Paige's eyes startled Tess. Paige glared furiously at something, or someone, behind Tess, in the direction of the entrance to the dining hall. Tess started to turn around, to see what Paige was looking at, when Harry grasped her arm, wearing a sudden eager smile on his face.
"Tess, you haven't told me much about this inn, and I'm fascinated by it. It's a grand place, not at all what I expected to find out here in--"
"The back of beyond?" Paige put in. She still frowned, but her focus had shifted back to Tess and Harry. "It is a nice place. I'm glad we came here."
"Angie's grandfather built it. Angie's done a lot of renovations since she took over. I think she's done an amazing job. You should ask her to tell you more about it, Harry."
"I'll do that. It would make a terrific setting for a photo shoot. We could do a whole story here. Another drink, Tess? Have you had any new thoughts about the name change?"
"No more for me, thanks. I need more time to think about the name."
"Yes. Of course, give it more time. Would the added publicity make you uncomfortable?"
"You're the extroverts in this business." Tess stopped, because she wanted to say she didn't feel half the same commitment to the magazine that she knew they each did. She'd been too caught up in her feelings about her family, the past, and Joe to notice what was going on in her feelings about her work, now that she was away from the office.
Tess knew the reason the tea party book didn't yet have a title was that she'd been waiting for something about it to light a fire inside her, the way her other books had. This one was work, that was all. Pleasant work, but still just work. She hadn't felt passionate about that work in a long time.
"I'm still thinking things through."
"Let's order dessert and coffee," Paige said decisively.
"You two go ahead." Tess pushed her half-eaten food away. "We have a full day planned tomorrow. I think I'll run home now, if you don't mind. I didn't get much sleep last night." She stood and picked up her purse.
"But you can't go yet." Paige looked alarmed.
"I'm sorry. I know it's early and you just got here, but I'm bushed." Tess started to turn away, but something in Paige's eyes stopped her. She looked closely at her friend. Paige lowered her gaze, but not soon enough for Tess to miss the anger that still smoldered in their depths. "Paige, what is it?"
Paige said nothing, but Tess had already witnessed her angry glance toward the entrance. Tess felt a cold prickle at the nape of her neck. Paige had focused in that direction, with the same anger in her eyes, minutes earlier. Tess turned around, scanning the crowd.
It didn't take long to pick out the object of Paige's animosity. Seated at a table near the doorway, sharing a meal and a bottle of wine with two other people, was Joe Latimer. One of the people with him was a well-dressed older man, with the athletic build and tan of someone who spent a lot of time on tennis courts and ski trails. It took Tess a few seconds to recognize him as Ned Cambridge. The other person was Jessica Laine, looking svelte in a low-cut gold satin dress. Her blonde hair hung sleek and golden in the lamplight. Jessica sat near enough to brush thighs with Joe, and she appeared to hang on his every word while he spoke animatedly to Ned.
Tess's heart went cold inside her as she studied Joe seated there beside his fiancée. Tess couldn't help but let her gaze linger, taking in the fine, strong lines of Joe's cheekbones, his wavy black hair and moustache, that spark of intelligence in his eyes. It was unmistakable, even glimpsed across a crowded room. The sight of him brought a stab of pain.
Tess turned back to her friends. Both were watchful, concerned.
Paige shook her head. "The nerve of him."
"You're better off, Tess," Harry offered.
Suddenly Tess was unaccountably angry with her two friends. "Stop it. Stop it, both of you!" She hissed at them. She blinked back tears and took a deep breath. "I'll see you both in the morning."
Tess walked across the dining hall with all the dignity she could marshal. She had to pass by Joe's table, and as she neared it she felt his gaze settle on her. She thought she heard him call her name out low. She walked past the table with her back straight, her chin level, and her eyes on the wide, open doorway to the lobby, where a large black bear, a taxidermist's nightmare from half a century ago, reigned over the front desk, looking about to swipe at an innocent guest. Tess remembered it from when she'd worked here as a teenager. She'd always hated the bear. It gave the lobby a disquieting atmosphere, not at all conducive, in her mind, to fun and relaxation. Tess was surprised Angie kept it around, and she recoiled a little as she walked past it. Its size alone was intimidating.
As she passed the bear, she nearly collided with Trent Cambridge.
Tess knew him instantly. She stopped and stared at him. Trent appeared just as shocked to see her. Then his handsome, clean-cut face took on a familiar expression that made Tess feel ill, as she froze there, paralyzed with fear.
"Pardon me." He nodded, with a smug look, and headed the other way, out the lobby door.
Tess stood there, unmoving. She felt seventeen again, and scared out of her wits. Would Trent be waiting out there for her, when she went to her car? She cast around the empty lobby, not sure what to do. She had nowhere else to go but out to that parking lot, so she could get home. She couldn't go back and face Joe, or Paige and Harry. She wanted to get home. She used to work here at Stoneway, but at the moment she felt entirely lost.
"Tess?" Alan's voice, close behind her, startled her. She turned back into the hallway to face him, not four feet from the dining room entrance and the table at which Joe and his companions sat. Alan's eyes and light brown hair gleamed in the light of the big fireplace nearby. "Hey, you were a million miles away."
"I suppose I was."
Alan smiled, and Tess forced herself to smile too, though without much genuine force behind it.
"I tried to phone you at home earlier. Then Angie told me your friends had arrived from L.A. I hoped to buy you dinner. You're alone? Have you been abandoned?" He glanced around.
"No. I left them. I'm not good company tonight. I--didn't get much sleep."
"Well, you look sensational. There's dancing in the lounge, and danceable music." He nodded in that direction. Tess could hear the beat of the band playing there. "How about one drink and one dance?"
"You'd make my night for me. My motives are purely selfish. I want to be seen with the most beautiful woman in the place tonight. Won't you boost a poor fellow's ego?"
Tess nodded, with a sudden desire to avoid going anywhere near Trent Cambridge, and, secondary to that, a wish to simply abandon herself to some fun in the hope it would numb her to everything else. "How could I refuse in the face of blatant flattery? All right. One drink and one dance."
"It's still early," Alan said with a wide grin as he wrapped her arm in his and steered her toward the lounge. "Maybe I can coax more out of you."
As they moved away, Tess heard a loud "Humph!" She thought it came from Ned Cambridge.
"Here she is," Alan said to Angie and her brother Kevin, in the lounge.
"What'll you have, Tess?" Kevin asked from behind the bar. "May I make a recommendation?"
Kevin drew a Canadian ale into a frosty mug for her. Tess took a seat at the bar, while Alan wandered away toward the band, which had paused for a break.
"I guess you saw Joe," Angie said behind Tess.
Tess nodded. "They're engaged."
"Might as well be, and the uncle's all for it. I tried to warn you about them."
"It was too late by then." Tess turned toward Angie with a grim smile.
"So that's how it is? This is your month, isn't it?"
Tess shrugged. Angie straightened and moved closer to her. "Have you learned anything from your mother's journals?"
Tess shook her head. She put her beer down, untouched. Her stomach felt leaden. Her mother's words came back to her. They tell me a head injury can change people. I hope I get my little girl back, the way she used to be.
How could her mother have believed Tess to be anything other than who she was? A young girl, eager for life, broadening her horizons. Tess had never been in any trouble, before her accident. Why had her mother been so convinced she was up to something she wasn't? Because she'd stayed out late a few nights? Because she'd dropped her old shyness and made some new and unusual friends? Because Tess and her new friends had wanted to be different?
Was it simply because Tess had made new friends, and questioned the religion she'd grown up with, that her parents began to distrust her? So much so that they believed her capable of truly criminal behavior? That didn't make any more sense now than it had back then, when Tess had become so hyperaware of her parents' disapproval that she'd second-guessed every move, afraid they'd get the wrong impression about what she was up to. She'd done her best to comply with their rules, their desires. How could they have been so wrong about her? They lived with her!
"Tess?" Angie prompted.
"Nothing. Nothing but more grief," Tess finally said, with another shake of her head.
"What does that mean?" Angie sat down on the bar stool beside her, ready to listen.
"It means I should've come home years ago, whether they wanted me to or not. At least I would've seen Spence again." She turned to meet Angie's gaze. Angie looked down then.
Tess needed to change the subject. "The place looks great, Angie. I can't believe what you've done with it." Tess recalled the place had seemed run down to her when she worked here, years ago. Angie had made a lot of changes. "How did you manage to do so much?"
Angie gave a half-shrug in reply.
"Tess?" Alan was beside her. He grasped her hand and urged her toward the dance floor. The band had started a slow, romantic song. Tess looked curiously at Alan.
"You did promise." His smile was contagious. "I requested a slow one."
She relented, and moved onto the dance floor with him. He held her close. "You'll feel much better soon. I promise."
"When did you become friends with Angie?" Tess asked him, recalling how he and Angie had bantered about their hunting exploits, like old pals, after the funeral a few days ago.
"After you went away, we consoled each other and tried to figure out where you'd gone. Your parents wouldn't tell us."
"I never knew that."
"I guess we commiserated long enough that we eventually realized we had a few other interests in common, besides you."
"I'm glad the commiserating wasn't a total waste of time."
"We hunt together, that's about it, but she's encouraging me to see more of you while you're here. Would you mind that?"
Tess didn't know what to say. If Angie was fixing her up with Alan, Tess hadn't asked to be fixed up. She'd forgotten about Alan years ago, and didn't feel the same attraction to him that she once had. Nothing even close.
"Your silence isn't reassuring."
"I'm sorry. There are a lot of other things on my mind right now besides dating, that's all."
"Well. That's understandable." Alan held her close, and said no more. After their dance, Tess asked Alan to walk her out to her car.
She drove home, attempting to push Joe out of her mind, while she puzzled over the blackmail letter, which she and her partners had avoided discussing in the public setting of the main dining room. They couldn't discuss it tomorrow either, during the shopping trip to Sacramento with Ed. Kevin's party was tomorrow night. It would be Tuesday before they could talk about it. Tess hated waiting that long to go to the sheriff.
When she arrived home, Tess parked in front of the house with an uneasy feeling. She glimpsed her snow angels as she hurried up the walkway, noting they were untouched. She unlocked the door, and bent to pick up a piece of paper that was stuck partway under the front door. It was a handwritten note:
"Heard you were back in town. Funny we should bump into each other. I waited for you in the parking lot. Catch you next time. T."
Certain the "T" of the note was Trent Cambridge, Tess was afraid to enter the house--and afraid to stay outside. She went in, locked the door right behind her, and turned on every light as she headed to the kitchen and the phone.
She hadn't given Paige a chance to get her cordless phone from her room for her, so the kitchen was still the only place Tess could make a call. She thought about calling the sheriff. What would she say, that Trent Cambridge had left a note on her door? Only it didn't say Trent, he hadn't signed it. It wouldn't appear threatening to anyone but Tess. It could be from anyone, signed with nothing more than an initial. She rummaged in her purse for the card the deputy had given her. Finally she called the number, and asked for Deputy Prescott. He'd seemed to take her fears seriously. He'd been the one to suggest she get the locks changed, and he'd mentioned Trent.
"He's off duty," the woman who answered the phone told her. "Do you want to leave a message, or speak to another officer?"
"Neither. Thank you." Tess hung up.
When she went to bed, Tess noticed all the journals stacked on the nightstand. In a fit of melancholy, she got up and retrieved an empty box from the garage. She packed all her mother's journals into the box, and put it in her studio cabinet, where she'd stored all her family's other possessions. "I can't face you right now, either, Mom."
Tess wasn't able to sleep until late. The house was empty and cold, and her mind was full of loose threads of thought. She thought about Trent, and every creak of the settling woodwork frightened her. She woke up in the middle of the night and felt lost in the emptiness of the big bed. She longed to have Joe here. She finally slept, dozing fitfully until morning.
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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