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 carried the box from the sheriff into the house and took it upstairs to her studio. She tucked it into the cabinets where she'd stored away all her family's other personal belongings. Stacked there, with the boxes and boxes of their things, it would be safe until she was ready to take a look at it sometime in the next couple of days. It would have to wait until after Thanksgiving.
She closed the cabinets and stood looking around the room, disturbed that she still couldn't face her family's belongings. Those boxes haunted her, even concealed from view behind the cabinet doors. She would take either Rose or Angie up on their offers to help go through them, after Thanksgiving. Tess couldn't face them today, especially alone. On an impulse, she placed the cheval mirror in front of one cabinet door, and then moved the chintz-covered slipper chair over beside it. She went to her room and found the large, lightweight, fringed silk shawl she'd had Paige bring along with her holiday dresses. It was a deep, rich, Russian rose print with black fringe, and it was large enough to conceal the remaining cabinet doors. Tess hung it over them, then stood back and looked at the facade she'd created. The shawl added warmth and color to the large room, in contrast with its bright windows and pale decor.
Hiding from reality again, Tess? She seemed to be doing that a lot lately, trying to forget she was here to say goodbye to her family, to dispose of their things, and to make decisions about her life.
Tess had planned to pick up her sketching supplies and then go straight to the stone bridge, but now she remembered Paige's message from Debbie about her voice mail. She dropped some art supplies into a tote bag. Then she went to the kitchen, picked up the cordless phone, and dialed the number and code for her personal voice mail. There was one old message, dated the morning of her family's deaths.
Her father's voice. She hadn't heard it in a year or more. He sounded hesitant, unsure, which she'd never known her father to be. "Tess, sweetheart, it's Dad. I need to talk to you. About a lot of things, but especially . . . well, something you might be able to help with. We're going to see the sheriff this morning. We'll be back by the time you get home and hear this message. Please call me, honey. Call home."
From the date and time of the message Tess knew her father must've recorded it minutes before they'd left on their fatal drive. Tess thought about Dr. Lloyd's question, of whether her father had contacted her shortly before his death. Dr. Lloyd had thought his call would have something to do with Trent, but what had her father known about Trent? Only what she'd told him, and he hadn't believed her. So why would he see the sheriff about that? Was that the reason her family had died? Did Trent have something to do with their deaths?
She took her art supplies out to the car, but came back in to check the weather report, because the wind was blowing harder now, and the sky had turned a dark, metallic gray. The report predicted a snowstorm tomorrow, but it felt to Tess as if it might come tonight. The day was taking a definite stormy turn. She layered on warm clothes, insulated boots, a knitted hat, mittens, and a parka. Finally she ventured out into the blustery gray and got into her car.
Minutes later Tess parked near the old stone footbridge that crossed Cedar Creek a half-mile or so north of town. She carried her tote bag filled with drawing supplies and crossed on foot to the middle of the bridge, where she stood and gazed upstream at the rush of water. Snow-shrouded trees and dead bracken crowded the banks of the stream, a few bare branches twisting frozen into the metallic sky. The small flood leaped over rock and boulders, and around the curving banks, roiling with a wild life of its own, as yet undaunted by winter's freeze.
This was a sight once familiar to Tess. This was where she'd conceived many of her childhood dreams. Here, standing on this bridge, watching this creek's unending flow, she had grown into a young woman. This creek was home, and Tess wanted to carry the spirit of it with her if she left again. She had come here intending to sketch the bridge itself, from the bank of the creek, but instead she took out her sketchbook and pencils and set to work attempting to capture the essence of Cedar Creek as she saw it from the bridge.
Tess poured all her concentration into the task. Now and then her fingers grew so cold she couldn't grasp a pencil properly. She would stop, put on her mittens and hold her hands under her arms until her fingers warmed enough to continue. She kept up this cycle until she had the beginnings of a decent drawing in front of her. Her passion intensified with this visible product of her efforts, and she worked faster in the growing cold. The water moved on the page, and Tess smiled to herself, releasing a sigh of indescribable pleasure, which ended in a shiver. She took out her watercolors, recorded the colors and made notes for a painting she would complete later in the warmth of her studio.
"That looks like cold work," Joe's deep voice said nearby. Tess dragged her attention from her work and turned to meet his gaze. He stood at one end of the bridge, watching her with a placid, weary, expression. He moved closer. "Wouldn't it be simpler to take a photograph? It would save freezing your fingers at least." His own fingers, gloved warmly, were thrust into his jacket pockets. His black hair blew in the wind and his eyes were a limitless gray-green under the leaden sky. Tess longed to draw him as he stood there, but the idea was to forget him, not have a portrait of him haunting her forever.
He moved to her side and looked over her shoulder at the drawing.
"How long have you been here?" Tess asked him.
"Long enough to realize there must be something special about this place, to make you want so desperately to capture it."
"I used to come here to think when I was a girl. I would spend hours watching water run under this bridge."
Tess looked up at him.
"You weren't the only one who took to following another youngster around."
"You followed me? Here?"
"Many times." He looked at the water as he spoke, and he reminded Tess suddenly of that young, dark-haired boy. He took the sketchpad from her, picked up her mittens and handed them to her. "Why are you doing this, Tess?"
Tess pulled the mittens on and tucked her hands under her arms, hugging herself against another shiver. "I want to record a bit of home to take back with me, in case I go away and never return. Something to help me remember all the good things that came out of growing up here."
He frowned. "You intend to leave? And never come back?"
Tess stared at the water foaming noisily over a boulder, as she answered him, thinking she could almost see the water slow, turning to ice. "I don't have definite plans yet. I've told you that." Her voice shook, and she shivered. "I want to stay, but I need a good reason. Dreams aren't enough to keep me here. I have a business in L.A. Responsibilities. My family's gone." She shivered again.
"You've been out here too long," Joe said gruffly. "Go home and get warmed up before you make yourself sick. You'll have other days to finish this thing, if it's so important, won't you? You're not leaving this week."
Tess stood silent, watching him as he packed her things away for her. He took the pencil out of her hand, and dropped it into the bag as he handed it to her. "Do you mind if I come with Rose, to your Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow?"
"Please do, Joe. I want all my friends there."
He watched her for another few seconds. Then he gave her a gentle shove toward her car as if she were a child. "Go home and warm up."
Tess obeyed, because she was too chilled to argue. When she'd reached the relative shelter of her car, out of the bitter wind, she looked back to see Joe still there. He leaned against the railing, watching the swift-running water of Cedar Creek.
As she drove away, Tess glanced in the rearview mirror, and saw a red snowmobile take off from the nearby woods and head in the same direction she was going, the sound of its engine muffled by the gusting wind. It alarmed her at first, but the snowmobile veered off into the woods again.
Tess was in the kitchen at her house, still feeling the effects of the cold, when Rose arrived to help her transfer food and utensils to Cottage Arts. Rose smiled as she repeated the name. "I love it, Tess. As soon as Joe told me the name you came up with, I thought how wonderfully it fits what we're doing there. We never would've come up with Cottage Arts, without you. But I will be so relieved when the stress of this grand opening is over with." She turned to look through the items they needed to move. "Who was on the snowmobile?"
"What snowmobile?" Tess's mind went instantly to the one she'd seen at the bridge.
"The one leaving your driveway when I arrived. I couldn't tell who it was. They were all bundled up and wearing a ski mask under their helmet. They sped off as I drove up." Rose shrugged. "Maybe they took a wrong turn or something."
"Was it bright red?"
"No, it was dark blue, I think, with a white stripe."
"They must be out in droves today. You wouldn't think it would be that much fun in this weather." But then Tess had stood on a cold bridge and bared her fingers to sketch, so who was she to judge? Still, the thought of the snowmobiles disturbed her after the strange destruction of her snow angels the other night.
"They're always out in droves, here, once the snow gets this deep. That just doesn't usually happen until after Christmas."
Before they set to work, Tess offered Rose a cup of hot tea. "I need it myself, before I go out there again. I'm about frozen."
Rose thanked her and accepted the tea. "Harry called, and told me he and Paige will be here to help. Jessica showed up again, right before I left, looking for Joe. She was positively rude to me when I told her I didn't know where he was. He's not at his office, or Cottage Arts, and his pager's sitting on our kitchen table at home. That's the third time in three days he's vanished like that."
"I just saw him down by the stone footbridge." Tess poured her own tea.
"I wouldn't have told Jessica that, if I'd known. I've had it with her possessiveness. These are ready to load into my car." Rose had finished packing things from Tess's freezer into a box. Tess carried her tea over to join Rose at the table. Rose peered into a tin of cookies there. "Oh!" Rose cried out. She beamed at Tess. "They're snow angels!"
Paige and Harry arrived in time to help load Rose's car. Rose insisted on showing them the snow angel cookies before she drove away with the first load for Tess's bakery. Then Harry and Paige loaded Paige's rental car, with Tess's help, and followed Rose. Tess moved her car around to the back, planning to follow the others to Cottage Arts as soon as she loaded the last box of dishes into her car.
On her way into the kitchen through the back door, Tess heard what she thought must be the snowmobile Rose had seen earlier. It was barely audible over the rising wind. She returned to the kitchen and rushed to finish her task, packing baking tins into a cardboard carton. She'd just finished when the back door opened behind her, blowing in cold air. Tess turned around, not expecting anyone back.
She froze. The person who stood in the doorway wore a ski mask. A black parka, gloves, black snow pants, and sneakers sheathed what she was sure was a male form. She could only see his eyes. "You really should lock your doors." He closed and locked the door, turned the deadbolt. "You made this way too easy."
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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