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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Monday dawned brilliant, warm and sparkling. The weather didn't do anything to improve Tess's mood, even when she remembered the shopping trip scheduled for today, which she'd hoped would provide a diversion from her problems. She showered and dried her hair, taking much longer than usual to do so, because she kept dawdling, caught up in one memory after another of the hours--there were surprisingly few of them--that she'd spent with Joe Latimer since her return.
Paige and Harry arrived and scolded her affectionately for not being ready to leave. While she finished dressing Harry made a quick breakfast for them. They grabbed their coats when they heard Ed Greene's mini-van in the driveway.
Ed greeted them with his broad, salesman's grin. "Look who's coming with us today." Joe Latimer stepped out of the car behind him. "Joe has some business in Sacramento, so I suggested he ride along with us."
Joe nodded a silent greeting to them, catching Tess's eye. He held her gaze for long seconds, as if looking for an answer to a question in her eyes. Tess drew in her breath and stiffened, remembering too clearly how she'd seen him last night, seated beside Jessica. Yet a part of her felt a thrill at the sight of him standing under the blue sky, his marvelous eyes focused on her. You're pitiful, she told herself in disgust.
They piled into the mini-van, and somehow Joe maneuvered into a place beside Tess, in the back. Tess couldn't help but be conscious of him, so near their shoulders touched. Tess remained aware, all during the drive into the valley, of the wonderful male scent of him, the nearness of the shining black hair she'd run her fingers through yesterday morning. His voice was like a touch each time he spoke, entering easily into conversation with the others.
Paige and Harry were both quiet and constrained at first, but Joe drew them out, and soon they conversed with him casually. Paige caught Tess's glance and shrugged, as if to ask what else she could do? She was being civil. Tess remained quiet through most of the drive.
In Sacramento, Ed parked in front of a large outdoor mall. The sun was much warmer here, and Tess and Paige both shed their coats to leave them in the car. Tess folded her coat neatly and placed it on the car seat. When she turned, Ed and Joe were both staring at her, each wearing a different expression.
Ed's was a look of open admiration mingled with curiosity. "That dress looks familiar. I'm sure I've seen it before, on someone else."
Tess wore her brown wool dress, identical to the one Jessica Laine had worn on the first night Tess had met her.
"If you've been shopping for your wife, you may have seen it on a store dummy," Paige said. "I was with Tess when she bought it, in a store much like the ones here."
"That must be it." Ed led them away from the car.
Tess surmised that Ed had seen the dress on Jessica, who'd passed it off as something unique and pricey. She turned to follow him and found Joe still watching her, his gaze on her dress.
Ed showed them the five or six dresses he'd narrowed his choice to, and Paige and Harry were both instantly in their element. Harry had worked for a fashion magazine, and Paige was an inveterate shopper. Ed got into a lengthy discussion with Harry about Laura's coloring and color preferences, what he thought she looked best in, and so on.
Tess found it hard to concentrate on the business at hand, and she hung back, silent and full of her own thoughts. She kept catching herself daydreaming, and soon the others drifted away to other racks of clothing, leaving her behind.
"Tess?" Joe was beside her, his hand on her arm. "Are you all right?"
She looked up into his eyes. "I'm fine." Tess turned toward the others, only to find with a shock that they were nowhere in sight. She suddenly felt as she had when she was a little girl and would get lost while shopping with her mom. She experienced the same instant of panic now. She let out a cry under her breath.
"You don't look as if you slept at all last night. Alan should've known better than to tire you out dancing." Joe's voice was edgy.
Tess turned to look at him, amazed that he had the gall to be jealous of her and Alan.
"He did nothing of the kind. Alan was kind to me. I find his company . . . relaxing." She wanted to ask if he'd enjoyed his dinner with Jessica last night, but held her tongue.
"Tess, come look at this," Paige called nearby. Tess tugged her arm out of Joe's grasp and hurried away in the direction of Paige's voice.
The simple dress was made of elegant French blue silk, with a modestly scooping neckline. It could be dressed up with a jacket, scarf or wrap, and was a suitable length for any occasion. Ed decided within a few minutes on the purchase. He couldn't wait to see it on Laura. Soon he had it gift-wrapped and paid for, and the small group decided to split up and do the rest of their shopping separately. It was nearly holiday season, and they'd get a head start on next weekend's crowds. They agreed to meet at one o'clock for lunch in a nearby coffee shop.
Tess was leaving a book store, later, when she saw Joe walk into the jeweler's across the way. She'd planned to go there next to look for a gift for Paige, but after seeing him go in, Tess changed her course and headed for another shop.
When the time neared to meet at the coffee shop for lunch, Tess set out briskly in that direction. She passed the jewelry store again and the display in the window caught her eye. She paused to look, though she'd already found a gift for Paige. When she was about to walk on she heard a salesman's voice inside the shop, near the open door.
"Thank you, Mr. Latimer. I'm sure your lovely fiancée will be delighted with your choice. Come again soon, won't you?"
Tess froze, as the words rang home. Joe had purchased jewelry for Jessica. He must have spent considerable time choosing the gift. He'd been in that shop for well over an hour.
It's none of my business, Tess told herself. She watched Joe come out of the shop and turn away in the other direction. She shivered, in spite of the warmth of the sunlight. Bemused and depressed, she felt more alone than ever. She hung back and waited for a few minutes before she followed Joe to the coffee shop.
He was waiting at the door, the first one there, and he shot her a brilliant smile when he saw her.
"I see your shopping was fruitful. Let me take some of those for you." He took most of her packages off her hands. She thanked him coolly, at a loss for words after what she'd heard outside the jeweler's. Did he have to be so nice to her right now? She would've been relieved to be able to dislike him. It would be so much less painful than loving him without any hope of her love being returned.
Joe stood close to her. "Tess, I'd like to ask you something."
She looked up, praying silently that he wouldn't want her opinion of whatever he'd purchased for Jessica. She couldn't bear that.
"Kevin Norwood's birthday party is tonight, at Stoneway. I'd like you to accompany me."
She stared at him for a few seconds. Why did he do this to her? Did he enjoy torturing her, tearing her apart emotionally? "Why don't you ask Jessica to go with you?" Her words were sharp.
He stared at her, and a frown slowly creased his forehead. "You don't understand, Tess."
"No, I don't understand you!" She hurried to the restroom at the back of the coffee shop.
Paige found Tess there, minutes later, splashing cool water on her face and tear-reddened eyes. "Joe said you ran in here." She handed Tess a paper towel. "He thought maybe you weren't feeling well."
Tess didn't speak, for fear her tears would start again. She hadn't intended to cry when she ran in here. She'd only wanted to get away from Joe until the others arrived.
"Love sucks, Tessie, and man have you got a bad case." Paige shook her head. "Here." She took Tess's purse from her and opened it to find her makeup pouch. "Cosmetics are a woman's arsenal. Sometimes they're all the armor you have against a cruel world."
Paige talked about things totally unrelated to her troubles while Tess freshened her makeup. Finally she thought she looked close to herself again and ventured a weak smile at her reflection.
"That's more like it. Let's go eat. I'm starved."
Tess felt awkward arriving at their table under the concerned scrutiny of the others. The men stood, and Joe was quick to pull out a chair for her. She thanked him, and was relieved when Harry took up the conversation right where the men had left off. Tess sat quietly composing herself, listening to the others talk. She was hungry, and when the food arrived she focused her attention on that.
When Ed dropped them off at her house, Tess told Paige and Harry she needed some time alone. They drove away at once, leaving Tess to her privacy.
She checked to make sure all the downstairs windows and doors were locked, then she warmed up the house and took a relaxing bath. She didn't want to go to Kevin's party at all now, but she'd promised both Angie and Kevin that she would, and Paige and Harry were expecting her. She started to get ready early, so she could take her time.
Rose Latimer came to Kevin's party at Stoneway, but Joe didn't, to Tess's relief. She didn't think she could face him again today. Jessica's word alone may not have convinced Tess fully of their engagement, but the jewelry salesman could only have known of it from Joe himself. Joe was entirely out of Tess's reach, for any appropriate relationship. If the blackmail letters hadn't been enough to drive her away from Cedar Creek for good, her need to avoid Joe Latimer very well might.
Kevin introduced Harry and Paige around to all of his friends, and Harry and Rose Latimer danced together in the lounge while Paige and Tess witnessed Harry's unmistakable attraction to Joe's unpretentious sister. "I believe our favorite Englishman may have picked himself a blushing Rose," Paige murmured in Tess's ear as they watched the pair dance. "Oh gods, now I'm punning!"
Tess smiled. "You're a romantic, Paige."
"I think it's the altitude. I'm much more of a cynic at home."
Tess chatted with old friends from school, and danced with Kevin, remarking to him how impressed she was with all he and Angie had done at Stoneway.
"It's all Angie's doing. I just work here. The place was close to bankruptcy when Granddad died, so I'm as impressed as anyone. She sure stresses over marketing, though. Makes me relieved to be only an employee. I hope you'll encourage her to take some time off with you while you're here."
Tess danced with Alan again, twice. Then Angie beckoned her away, to her office. Tess followed her through the dimly lit lobby, past the stuffed black bear. They went through the opening behind the front desk into the office beyond. It was a small space, crowded with file cabinets, three chairs, the desk and a credenza. A computer and laser printer took up much of the space on the desktop and the credenza.
Angie sat at the big desk and unlocked a bottom drawer. "Kevin rarely comes in here, so this is where I hid his gift." She brought out a wooden case and opened it up. A large knife gleamed inside the case, its dark wood handle inlaid with silver.
"Is that a hunting knife?"
"Beautifully worked handle."
Angie looked up at her. "I don't know why I'm showing you. I know you're not interested in hunting. At least you never used to be."
"I'm sure Kevin will love it, if he's a hunter."
"He's new to it, he first went with us this fall. We're planning an outing in a couple of days. Would you like to go? I'll convince Alan to come if you do."
"Alan?" Suddenly Tess understood. "Angie, are you trying to fix me up With Alan?"
"I'm apparently better at it than I thought. It took you forever to catch on. I can loan you anything you need." Angie nodded toward one wall of the office.
Tess only then noticed the gun rack on that wall, full of hunting rifles. A compound bow and other hunting implements hung on the same wall.
Angie closed the box containing Kevin's gift and placed it in a gift bag. She signed a card while Tess continued to look around the office. "On second thought, if you don't have a tag, you're not going to get one at this late date. You'd have to come along as an observer."
"I'd forgotten you liked to hunt." Once when they were teens, Angie had talked Tess into going with her and her grandfather, when they hunted with some of their friends. Tess had packed along art supplies and been happy to do some nature sketching while she trailed as quietly as possible after the others. When one member of the party had killed a deer, Tess had been ready to go home, and thought she was finished with hunting for life.
Angie watched her now. "Still not your speed?"
"I'm afraid not. What are you going to hunt?"
"Black bear." Tess couldn't help a glance over her shoulder toward the lobby where the black bear stood. "Oh that thing's old as the hills."
"I'll stick to playing in the snow."
Angie grinned, shaking her head. "It's a wonder you're not a vegetarian. Oh, Alan doesn't ski. He thinks clearing slopes for skiing is an affront to the environment. He's only considering coming on this hunt because of you. He says the only reason he hunts deer is it helps balance the population, since we've killed off most of the predators. Personally, I think he's full of crap, making excuses because he loves to hunt and hates to ski. He probably has two left feet. How was he at dancing?" Angie went on without waiting for an answer. "In any case, I'm sure we'll find something you two still have in common."
"We have the same thing in common we always did, our artwork. But, Angie, I don't want to be fixed up, with Alan or anyone else. I haven't decided yet whether I'm staying, you know." She was thinking she might leave when Paige and Harry did, after Thanksgiving.
"Okay, but Alan will be disappointed, and I was hoping to get your mind off you-know-who for the rest of your visit." Angie smiled and picked up the gift bag. "Come on, I want to give this to Kevin."
Tess didn't think anyone or anything would get her mind off Joe Latimer anytime soon. She returned to the party, where she danced, visited with old friends, and watched Kevin open his gifts. When she was so tired she feared she would fall asleep standing up, and her yawns were out of control, she went home alone and lost herself in a deep, exhausted sleep.
On Tuesday Tess went to the old Victorian house at noon, and dropped in on Rose in her bookshop.
"I want to invite you to Thanksgiving dinner at my house," Tess told her, thinking Joe would no doubt spend Thanksgiving with his fiancée, so Rose might be at odds. "Harry will be there. So will Paige, Ed and Laura. Angie and Kevin have even promised to come, if they can get away. Bring a guest if you like."
Rose nodded. "Thank you. I think I'll come with Joe, if you don't mind."
"Of course," Tess said after only a second's hesitation. "Um, let him know about it, will you, when you see him? I haven't had a chance to invite him yet."
Rose showed her around Fabled Rose. Afterward they sat in the private portion of the room Rose had screened off as an office space. Her laptop computer was there, and a typing chair, along with a chair for a visitor. A small table held a laser printer. Rose moved books off another tiny table between the two chairs, and as she did so Tess glimpsed titles having to do with hunting. Archer's Bible and The Elk Hunter, among others.
"You're a hunter too?" Tess said in some surprise. So soon after her conversation with Angie last night, the sight of those books had her wondering if she was the only person from Cedar Creek who shunned the sport.
Rose followed her gaze to the books, and her face reddened. "Oh, those. They're . . . research. I borrowed them, and I put them here so I'd remember to return them. I've been doing some writing." She said this as though confessing a crime.
"What are you writing?"
Rose's smile was meek and radiant at once. "A novel."
"Rose, that's fantastic."
"I used to write essays. The Sacramento paper ran a couple of them. I've written some stories for children, for a magazine, and I've always kept a journal, like your mother did, but I've never tackled anything like this. It's a huge project. I stalled on the fourth chapter for a few weeks, but in the past few days I've taken off again. The characters have come to life for me, and I can't stop thinking about it. Just when I thought I was done with the research, I came up with something new that I needed to learn."
"Soon you'll be busy doing book signings."
Rose blushed. "Thank you, Tess. You're what I needed today, to encourage me to keep going. You know, you inspired me with your studio. I've set aside a workspace in the den now, for my writing. I've been taking the laptop back and forth between here and home." She paused. "I keep finding myself hoping you'll decide to move back here." Her smile saddened. "You'll stay in touch with me, won't you, whether things work out between you and Joe or not?"
Tess studied Rose's face, thinking Rose must not know yet about Joe's engagement, though she couldn't imagine why he would keep that from his sister. "Our friendship is a separate thing." Tess assured Rose that if she went back to L.A. she would keep in touch. She gave her the phone numbers in L.A. to seal her promise.
"Have you decided yet whether you're going to bake for our grand opening, and try out the place for your own business?"
Tess shook her head. "I'm afraid I'm leaning toward not doing it."
"Oh, that's too bad. I hope you'll reconsider. Joe keeps telling me you're a wonderful cook. Harry says the same thing. He mentioned you've been doing some baking." Rose looked so disappointed Tess felt a need to explain.
"I admit, there's something about this place that inspires me to cook. The fresh air gives me a huge appetite. If I stay much longer, I'll be so fat someone will have to roll me around, but I doubt I'll be here much longer, so I don't--" Tess stopped, because a strange expression had come over Rose's face. "I've upset you."
Rose shook her head. "Sorry. Old self-consciousness rearing its ugly head. I don't know if you remember, but I used to be terribly overweight. You'd think I'd be over it now, but sometimes the mere mention of the word fat brings it all back. The kids making fun, you know. Don't mind me." She took on a sad expression.
Tess remembered the pep talks her mother used to give her about her appearance whenever she felt particularly gawky as a girl. "You miss my mom right now, don't you?"
Rose stared at her, mouth open. "How did you--" Then she smiled and nodded. "You would know better than anyone how encouraging she could be. I lived away during my first two years of college, and I lost a lot of weight. Then I came back here to live. That summer, I dated someone I thought was special, but when I started gaining weight again, he--well, he actually turned on me. He was abusive. It was a painful time for me. That was shortly before you went away, and after you did--well, let's say I can honestly give Cathy--your mom--credit for pulling me through that and the work it took to get those pounds back off again, when I was still depressed over what happened with him."
Rose's expression had softened. She went on, "Maybe it was because she missed you that she took me under her wing the way she did. She made me feel less of an emptiness that needed to be filled with food. I don't know how she did it, but if you could bottle that magic of hers you could make a fortune."
Tess wondered where that magic had been when her mother had kept her away all those years.
"I think Cathy made me a foster daughter, to fill your place in her life," Rose said, watching Tess with a remote expression. "I used to wonder, if you came back, whether she and I could still be as close. I confess to a certain amount of envy toward you."
Envy? Tess's glance fell on the laser printer again, and she recalled the blackmail letters, which could've been printed on a laser printer. She'd seen laser printers in Angie's office and here, but this one surprised her, because Rose had said she was on a tight budget and had taken out a loan to purchase inventory for her shop.
"That's a nice printer," Tess said, hating her suspicions and her jealousy.
"I got it at a sale the school had. Every few years they replace old computer equipment. It needed work, but Alan helped me find a place that repairs them. He works at the print shop, you know, and all the business people wind up there sooner or later, so he knows them all. I paid so little for the printer to begin with, even with the cost of the repair it was a bargain."
Tess felt guilty for asking about it. She got up to leave. Then she couldn't help wondering about Alan and his job at the printer's. Could he have written the blackmail letters? But why would Angie, Rose or Alan do it? She'd begun to suspect everyone around her.
"Tess, may I bring dessert, on Thursday? Blackberry and pumpkin pies?" Rose blushed again, prettily.
Tess nodded. "That would be a great help. Thank you."
Tess arrived home that afternoon in a terrible mood. She wished she hadn't walked into the big old house today, because it made her realize she was giving up on her girlhood dream again without trying it out--because Joe Latimer had broken her heart, of all the childish reasons.
She remembered that Joe wanted her to name the house. She'd promised him she would come up with something.
She sat in her kitchen and thought about possible names. All she came up with for the first few minutes were the names that she, Paige and Harry had brainstormed as possible magazine names. There were dozens of them, and they made her wince at the idea of going back to L.A.
She visualized the Victorian, and the businesses it housed. Bookkeeping services, artwork, bath products, gifts, books, and the empty restaurant space. Some were useful, some were beautiful or luxurious, others nourishing.
"Nourishing?" Tess shook her head. Then she realized she'd been making a mistake whenever she visualized the bakery. People didn't live on cookies and cakes. Bakeries sold bread too. She took a blank sheet of paper and began writing. Soon she had a simple menu worked up, for tasty, nourishing meals, foods that people would want to eat every day.
"That's it," she told herself once she had the menu written out. It included sandwiches, breads, roast meats, salads, and a few savory soups that would keep well in a steam table. There would be a soup of the day, a salad of the day, and quiche or frittata as specials.
By the time she had the menu worked out she was wide awake, and excited. Tess was suddenly impassioned by the idea of the business. It would mean working within proximity of Joe Latimer, doing business with him. In spite of that, maybe it was worth a try, at least for the grand opening. Then she could leave if it didn't work out.
That was when the phone rang. It was Rose.
"Tess, I forgot to tell you earlier, Karen Jensen came by the school library to see me this morning. She asked if I'd be hiring anyone to help out in the book shop. I hated having to turn her down, but there's no way I'll have enough work to hire anyone for some time. I thought about you, though. I didn't say anything to her because I didn't want to get her hopes up. Are you likely to hire someone to wait tables, if you decide to make a go of the bakery?"
"I would have to. As a matter of fact, Rose, I have reconsidered. I've decided to cook for the grand opening, and see how it goes." She told Rose about the menu she'd devised.
Rose was delighted. "Joe will be so happy."
That was not what Tess needed to hear. "Well. I'll keep Karen in mind." She wondered why Karen had quit her job at Stoneway, if she still wanted one.
Tess sat down at the table again and looked over her menu. Cedar Creek's only restaurants were currently at Stoneway, which was outside of town by a couple of miles. There was no convenient place right in town for people to eat. The only restaurant in Wilder was the diner whose coffee Tess couldn't swallow a few mornings ago. Dr. Lloyd had said he didn't know how they stayed in business, and Tess knew the old lodge near Wilder had been closed for years. It was possible her ideas would work, that they'd even bring in substantial business.
Tess began free associating: art, house, gifts, books, bath, bookkeeping, and bakery. They were all cottage businesses. They were all creative or constructive in their own way. Creativity Cottage. Tess shook her head. Then she wrote a name in the center of a sheet of paper and looked at it for a few minutes: Cottage Arts.
She went to the phone and called Joe's office. When Joe came to the phone, Tess simply said, "Cottage Arts."
He was silent for a minute. Then he said, "I like it. By the way, we're getting a yarn shop. A woman came by and spoke to Rose about it this morning. I just called her. She's going to sign a lease this afternoon. I don't know anything about yarn, myself. I do know a thing or two about sheep. . ."
Tess grinned to herself. "It's perfect, it fits right in."
"I'm glad you think so. I'm arranging for us to all meet tomorrow morning, in the restaurant space, to work out our plan for the grand opening. Can you be there at nine to present your name idea to the group?"
"Great. I'll see you then."
Tess smiled to herself after their brief conversation. Then, when she realized how much she looked forward to the meeting tomorrow morning, partly because it meant seeing Joe, she was disgusted with herself all over again for letting him get to her.
The phone rang then. "This is Duane," the caller said. It took her a moment to realize Duane was Deputy Prescott. "I thought you'd want to know the latest on the investigation into your family's crash. The lab confirmed today that one of the front tires was cut, through the side wall, with a sharp object, something with a double-edged blade. Because of the way it was damaged, and the skid marks, the forensics people think the van was moving at the time it happened. It doesn't appear to have been any ordinary road hazard or debris."
It took Tess a moment to speak. She sat down on the kitchen stool. "Something with a double-edged blade? Are you saying someone threw a knife at their van while they were moving? That's too bizarre, isn't it?"
"Something like a knife struck the tire's side wall, but I'm not saying it was a knife. We don't know what it was. There was nothing found at the scene that could've caused that kind of damage."
"They were murdered then?" The idea still stunned her.
"Until we know what caused the damage, we won't know for certain, but it's looking more and more suspicious. I'm going to need to ask you, and others who knew them, further questions. We'd also like you to take a good look at their personal effects, see if there's anything there that raises questions for you. Are you available tomorrow? I can bring them out there."
She told him she'd be at Cottage Arts tomorrow morning, that she didn't know how long she'd be. He offered to meet her there, and she described where it was. "My father's cane is still missing. Did you find that?"
He consulted his report of items found in the wreckage and told her there was no cane listed.
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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