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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Tess was more anxious than ever, after her phone call from the deputy, unable to stop thinking her family may have been deliberately killed. She wondered if she would have the courage to stay here, if the grand opening proved to her that she could make her business idea work.
She decided to bring refreshments to the meeting, in the morning, to give everyone a sample of the fare she'd offer for the grand opening.
She made a pot of barley beef soup and baked a few varieties of sweet bread, along with more of the snow angel cookies.
Tess had invited Paige and Harry for dinner, and they sampled the soup as a first course. Both immediately voiced their approval. "You know we'll scarf up anything you cook," Paige told her.
Harry rolled his eyes. "The connoisseur speaks. It's delicious, Tess."
"Thank you. I'm hoping you'll be able to help me move some things from here over to Cottage Arts tomorrow afternoon. There's a lot to do there in the next week, and it will help clear space here for my Thanksgiving dinner preparations."
"Sure. What kinds of things?" Paige asked.
"Utensils, pots, pans, dishes. Staples. I need to get set up for the grand opening, start preparing some things ahead. The cupboards are bare in that kitchen. Rose offered to help too."
Though they'd agreed on the soup, the three of them couldn't come to any decision at all about the blackmail letters. Paige was morose during the meal, and Tess suspected it had something to do with her decision to help with the grand opening. Harry finally suggested they wait until after Tess's holiday gathering on Thursday to make a decision. "Let's spend Friday together. Then we'll decide once and for all, to go to the sheriff or not."
Early Wednesday morning Tess baked whole grain rolls, and tossed a salad of spinach, bacon, and chickpeas. She made honey-Dijon dressing to go with the salad, and packed these, along with her pot of soup, into her rental car to take to the meeting at the old Victorian house. "Cottage Arts," Tess said to herself as she got out of her car and smiled up at the house. She felt incredibly happy. This effort was the one bright patch in the clouds that had hung over her since her family's deaths, except for a few stolen hours with Joe.
Laura was already at work when Tess carried everything in and began setting up. She kept coming down to peek at the activity in the kitchen and dining space. By the time the others arrived Tess had three tables pushed together and a tablecloth over them. The island counter was set up buffet style, with a matching tablecloth, dishes, cutlery, and the food she'd prepared, along with coffee and tea. She'd made a centerpiece out of some colorful gourds and a small pumpkin from the local market.
Laura entered the dining room first. "There are luscious smells coming out of this kitchen. Tess, you're amazing!"
Soon five business people gathered at the table in the dining room, and Rose introduced Megan Thomas, who'd leased space for her yarn shop. Neither Joe nor Jessica Laine had arrived yet. When Joe failed to turn up by nine, Rose apologized and said she'd run across the street and find out what was delaying him.
Tess offered to go instead. "You all represent the committed businesses here. I'm still wavering. Start your meeting, and I'll run over and remind Joe of the time." She'd already told them about her proposed name, Cottage Arts, and they were discussing it as she left, getting acquainted with the sound of it. Tess hurried across the street.
The door to the veterinary office was unlocked, and the open sign was out. Tess went into the front room and glanced around. There were chairs and a bench in the front room, and a counter as a reception desk. A woman sat behind it, at a narrow desk with a computer, a laser printer, a hi-speed printer with billing forms feeding through it, and two telephones. The space behind the desk was filled with file cabinets and storage cabinets, as well as a small refrigerator.
One woman sat in the small waiting area. So far Joe appeared to have more business than Dr. Lloyd. Tess was about to ask the woman at the reception desk if Dr. Latimer was in, when the door to an inner room opened and Joe came out with a teenage boy and a golden retriever puppy on a lead.
Joe wore a white lab coat, and he grinned as he spoke to the boy, and then his mother who'd been waiting out here. Joe took some forms over to the reception desk and got the billing process started. Finally he smiled at Tess and glanced at his watch. "I'm late, aren't I? Let me wash up, and I'll be right over."
He returned to the back room, leaving the door open. Tess glimpsed a row of cages and kennels where sick or postoperative pets must spend the night sometimes. Tess caught sight of two kittens housed together in a cage. One kitten was pure white and the other pure black. Both were fluffy little fur balls, as sweet as any creature she'd ever laid eyes on. She had to get a closer look at them. She followed Joe in.
He'd removed the lab coat and was scrubbing his hands at the sink at the far end of the room, his back to her. When he finished and turned around to find her enraptured by the kittens, he laughed. "Uh-oh, that looks like love."
"They're so precious!" Tess only glanced his way, mesmerized by the kittens, who played together, leaping around and tumbling over each other in the cage, a couple of furry little clowns. The black one looked up, saw Tess watching, and came over to gaze at her and greet her with a soft mew.
"Ohh. . ." Tess had just raised her hand to touch the tiny paw the kitten pressed to the side of the cage, when Joe drew her away, taking her hand in his.
"Come on, we have a meeting." He spoke in an indulgent tone, and he continued to hold her hand as they crossed the street.
"Joe, do they have a home?"
He stopped inside the front door of the old house and turned to her, then looked down at her hand in his. Tess pulled her hand from his, but kept her eyes on him, waiting for an answer.
"They're spoken for, yes." He watched her face. "What if they weren't?"
"I'd--" She stopped herself short of saying she would adopt them, or buy them, or whatever she had to do to make them a part of her life. "Well, if they're spoken for, there's no sense in--"
"That's not what I asked." He was teasing now.
"I'd want to take them home with me, today." She smiled. "Right this minute."
"Both of them?"
"Yes. You're right, I fell in love."
His smile broadened at her confession, and he steered her into the bakery. "Happens to me on a regular basis."
Joe walked into the dining room and sat down beside Jessica, who'd arrived while Tess was across the street. Jessica clasped one of Joe's hands between her own. He removed his hand from her grasp a short time later, but it was too late for Tess to get any kind of comfort from his action, and she reminded herself again that the two were engaged. She promised to keep reminding herself of that fact, every ten minutes or so, if necessary.
"Here's a seat for you, Tess," Alan said helpfully. She sat beside him, and tried to keep her mind, and her gaze, off Joe and Jessica during the meeting.
Alan was having his flyers printed up and distributed in Cedar Creek and Wilder, to announce the grand opening. The group had placed an ad in the Wilder newspaper for the next few weeks, and Alan had a copy of the latest issue with him. He opened it to the full-page ad and placed it in the center of the table, along with a copy of the flyer.
"Next Friday morning we open at nine o'clock sharp."
"Nine?" Jessica said.
"Can you be here that early, Jessica?" Laura asked.
Jessica bristled at the question. "I can open my business any time I want. Tell them, Joe."
Joe leaned back, raising his hands. "Don't look at me. I'm the landlord. I'll be across the street in my own office."
Jessica turned to Laura. "I'll be here. Make sure you're ready, Laura."
Alan spoke up. "Jess, Laura has an established client base, and in fact many of my first walk-ins have been her clients. You may find the same thing, once your shop opens, that her clients become some of your first customers. We need to work together to pull this off."
Jessica toned down the petulant little-girl act, while Joe sat beside her appearing to ignore the episode.
The food Tess had prepared went quickly, and most of the others supported her ideas about what to serve for the opening.
When the meeting broke up, Alan offered to help Tess clear dishes from the table and wash up.
"No need." She did want to get outside soon, though. The sky was clouding up, and she had a date with a bridge she wanted to sketch before it got too stormy, she told him. He laughed and stayed to help.
"Alan, are you still a Pagan?" she asked him while they were drying dishes.
He hesitated before answering. "Yes, why?"
"You used to have a ceremonial knife. I remember you kept it on an altar in your room. It had a double-edged blade. What was it called?"
"An athame," he said with a nod, pronouncing it ath-a-may. "What about it?"
Tess shrugged. She'd been thinking about the cause of the tire damage on her family's van. She wasn't sure how to tell him this without offending him.
Alan hung the towel he'd been using on the rack, took out his wallet, and opened it to show her a picture of his son, Tyler. "When we divorced, his mother started making trouble about my beliefs. She tried to make out that I was an unfit father, and she didn't want Tyler exposed to what she referred to as my alternate lifestyle. Maybe I should've fought it. It was based on pure bigotry, but she gave me a scare, you know? I didn't want to take any chance of losing custody or visiting rights with Tyler, so I decided I could practice my beliefs without using the physical trappings. I gave my athame away, along with a lot of other things. I don't keep anything more involved than a pinecone and a vase of flowers on my altar anymore, things people don't relate exclusively to Paganism."
He put his wallet away, and watched Tess for a minute. "What's up, Tess? You had to have a reason for asking about that."
She still hesitated to answer.
"Look, Tess. I know Angie's been trying to throw us together, whatever her reasons are, and I've figured out you're not interested in me romantically. I don't have to be beaten over the head to understand that. We started out as friends, though. I like to think we still are. What's going on?"
"The sheriff thinks my parents and brother were murdered." Tess described the damage to their front tire.
Alan looked thoughtful for a moment. "So you wondered if I threw a knife at their tire? Why would I want to hurt them?"
"I'm exploring all the possibilities, Alan. I can't figure out how that kind of damage could have been done to their tire. What the deputy described is an unusual type of blade. Your athame is the only thing like it I've ever seen, except in television or movies."
He nodded. "Fair enough. Most athames have dull blades. They're not intended for cutting. I sharpened mine, I was unusual in that regard, but I don't own it anymore."
She nodded, meeting his gaze.
"If there's any way I can help you, Tess, will you let me know?"
She thanked him, and invited him to her Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. They were finished with the dishes. "I'm going to take off and sketch that bridge. Later I have some things at home to transfer over here for the grand opening. Supplies, utensils, dishes. Things I need out of the way for my holiday dinner. Rose, Paige and Harry promised to help me move them this afternoon."
Alan grinned. "Few men can say they've been dismissed in favor of a bridge. It's a nice bridge. Don't be too long there, though. We've a storm on the way. Maybe I'll drop by your place later, to see if you need another hand moving things. As a friend. Would you mind?"
"Not at all. Thank you, Alan."
"Any time." He added more soberly, "Be careful, okay? I mean, if someone killed them. . ."
They were both on their way to the door when Deputy Prescott entered the dining room, carrying a cardboard box. He greeted Tess, and placed the box on a table. Then he looked around the kitchen and dining area with a sober expression while he waited for Alan to leave.
"These are your folks' things," Duane Prescott told Tess after Alan went upstairs. He nodded toward the box. "I need to have you sign for them. Then we'd like you to go through them as soon as you get a chance. We've pretty much exhausted what we can get from them, but you may find something meaningful." Before he left he asked, "Do you know of anyone who might've wanted to hurt them--or you?"
She hesitated, thinking about the blackmail letter, but she didn't know who'd written it, and she and her partners still hadn't agreed on giving it to the sheriff. "I don't know who would do any of this, but I'll go through these things, right after the holiday."
Deputy Prescott gave her a long look, as if sensing she was holding back. She explained to him she was on her way out. He nodded, and offered to carry the box out to her car.
Alan was right about the weather. It had turned gray, cold and blustery. This disappointed Tess, but she decided to stick with her plans. At her car, the deputy reminded her again to go through the box of her family's things, and to call him if anything came up. She nodded, thanked him and drove home.
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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