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.
Home | Snow Angels | Chapters
Tess was upstairs changing clothes when her next few guests arrived. She opened her bedroom door an inch or so, and heard Paige greet Angie and Kevin Norwood. They chatted happily, laughing and commenting on the good smells coming out of the kitchen. Tess closed the door and turned back to the mirror to put on her garnet earrings. At a light knock on the bedroom door she called, "Come in."
Angie paused in the doorway. "That's lovely, Tess. You always did have the best taste in clothes."
Tess wore a black velvet skirt and the deep red sequined top she'd purchased to match the garnet earrings. She'd applied makeup to conceal her black eye as well as possible, and she'd put her hair up. "Thank you. I thought I'd let the train wreck look go for tonight. Oh, I nearly forgot the shawl." She crossed the hall into her studio, where she took the Russian print shawl down from its place on the wall. She brought it back to her bedroom and wrapped it around her shoulders, standing in front of the mirror to adjust it.
"Oh!" Angie breathed behind her. "That's so beautiful!"
Tess shook her head as she scrutinized the shawl. "No, it will get in my way while I'm serving food, and it catches on the sequins." She sighed. "This always happens. In the store I have the whole outfit put together, but when it comes to wearing it in real life, something isn't right." Tess folded the shawl carefully so it wouldn't droop clear to the floor, and tied it around her waist, peasant style. "There." She turned to find Angie staring into space with her mouth open. "What do you think?"
"I--" Angie met Tess's gaze and smiled mildly. "You look like a Gypsy, exotic and mysterious."
"Let's go." Tess hurried out the door and approached the stairs, eager to see everyone. She turned to find Angie, still in the upstairs hallway, looking sober and deep in thought. "Coming?"
Angie nodded, looking distracted, tired.
"Do you ever get away from here for a vacation, Angie?" Tess said. "Let someone else do all the work, and order room service?"
Angie started down the stairs ahead of Tess and didn't answer.
Tess paused, halfway down, when Joe came in the front door. She forgot about everything else at the sight of him. He carried in a huge, gift-wrapped box and placed it on the floor of the entry hall. Then he turned to hang his coat, glanced up, and saw Tess watching him. He returned her look for several seconds with an expression that raised her internal temperature several degrees.
His brown-and-tan tweed jacket emphasized the breadth of his shoulders. It was open at the front, revealing a moss green cable-knit sweater. His eyes shone woodsy green in the lamplight. His lips partially opened, looking firm and supple in a decidedly masculine way. They curved toward a smile and then stilled halfway there, while he stood with one hand on the coat rack and gazed silently up at Tess.
Tess didn't know how long she stood there returning his look, before either moved. The doorbell broke the spell. Joe shifted his attention to let Ed Greene in. Only then did Tess become aware of the others gathered in the living room. She continued down the stairs and greeted her guests.
Paige came out of the kitchen and pounced on the big package Joe had brought. It was covered in wrapping paper with a design of pumpkins and autumn leaves. "What's this?" Paige bent to read the envelope on top. "It says Tess, that's all. Who brought it?" She raised her head.
"I did." Joe turned to Tess. "You'd better open it now."
"Now?" Rose said. "Joe, it's Thanksgiving, not--"
"There's no way this can wait." Joe picked up the package gingerly, holding the big box level as he carried it. "You'll understand when you see it. It won't keep until morning, or through dinner. You'd better open it now, Tess." He set it down in front of an armchair, then motioned Tess to be seated.
Tess went to work on the package, carefully sliding off the big ribbon and loosening the tape that held the top of the box securely in place. Then she lifted the lid slowly and stared at what it contained.
Two tiny, fluffy kittens, the same pair she'd seen in Joe's office, one black and one white, looked up at her and mewed, showing white kitten teeth and pink tongues. "Oh!" Tess breathed, lost in wonder as she scooped them up and held them in her arms. "Joe." She looked up to find him grinning at her with a soft warmth in his eyes. "I don't know what to say. They're--"
"The white one's a she, the black is a he."
"They're . . . perfect!" Tess kissed each kitten's forehead.
"I don't get it," Kevin Norwood said in a glum tone. "Why'd you get her cats, Joe?"
"Because she needs them."
"I mean, what's she going to do with them?"
"I'm going to love them, Kevin. I've always wanted a cat, and I fell in love with these two the instant I saw them in Joe's office." She held the kittens close, and now they both purred, curling into balls next to each other in her lap, their eyes half closed. "You precious things," Tess breathed. She looked up. "Thank you, Joe."
"That's not all there is." He squatted down to show her the remaining contents of the box. "Of course they're the important part." He'd also included a litter box, cat litter, food and water dishes, kitten food, toys, scratching post, and two books on cats and cat care."
"What's this?" Tess picked up a small package that lay inside. It was wrapped in gold and silver striped paper with a white bow bigger than the tiny box itself.
"A flea collar," Ed Greene quipped. Tess glanced at Ed, and wondered why he suddenly looked so pleased, as if he enjoyed a secret.
Joe took the package from Tess with a glance around the room. "That can wait until later." He carried it over and placed it on the piano. "Now, didn't you promise us food, Tess? I'm starved. I smell turkey."
"With cornbread dressing and homemade cranberry sauce," Ed said. "I peeked into the kitchen as soon as I arrived."
"Everything's nearly ready," Laura said. "All we have to do is carve the bird and take the rolls out of the oven." Laura had taken over the kitchen while Tess dressed. She glanced at her watch. "You just have time to settle those little ones."
Tess nodded. "Upstairs for now, I think."
"Those kittens are a tough act to follow," Ed said, getting to his feet. "But I brought a gift, too, for everyone. Champagne. It's chilling in the kitchen. We can have a toast, later, in honor of Cottage Arts and their upcoming grand opening--and anything else that deserves a toast." He looked at Joe as he said this, with an odd light in his eyes.
Alan arrived then, and Harry returned soon afterward, while Tess and Paige settled the kittens in Tess's room. Finally Tess and Laura prepared to put the meal on the table while Paige gathered everyone in the dining room and Joe helped carve the bird.
Harry and Alan both reported that the weather was worsening, and everyone grew concerned, hoping it didn't blow into a blizzard. They decided to hope for the best, determined to enjoy the holiday meal together.
Laura was taking the rolls out of the oven when Joe decided he'd better bring in firewood before it got too messy out. He opened the back door, and snow slanted into the kitchen in a heavy gust.
Tess poured the gravy into a boat. "Will you take this in, too?" She handed it to Laura, who took it and the rolls away. Tess went to the back door to watch for Joe when he returned. He came in on a gust of wind, and they fought the door closed.
"It's blowing in all directions out there." He was out of breath. When he appeared ready to battle the storm again, Tess said, "Don't go alone. It will take you forever in that."
All the men pitched in to help, and they spent the next few minutes carrying in as much firewood as would fit next to the kitchen fireplace.
Now everyone was concerned about the storm, and they soon reached a unanimous decision to spend the night rather than try to drive in this.
Tess got everyone together in the dining room again. She lit the candles on the table. "We can't do anything about the storm. So let's enjoy this meal together and be grateful we're not out in it." They passed the food around family style.
Meanwhile the wind had begun to howl in the trees and chimneys. Above that came the sound of someone banging on the front door.
Tess got up to answer, and Joe came with her. "Eat," she pleaded with the others, as Joe followed her out. "I can't believe this wind," she told Joe as they approached the door.
Jessica Laine huddled close to the door, her clothes pressed against her body, her hair flying wildly in the wind and snow. She was wailing when Joe opened it, and she nearly blew inside. Joe took her by the arm and drew her inside so he could haul the door closed.
Then he turned and glared at her. "Jessica, what the hell are you doing here?"
"I came to get you, Joe. Then this--this--snow started. You were expected at Uncle Ned's for Thanksgiving dinner. You knew that, didn't you?"
Joe glanced at Tess, then placed his hands on his hips as he faced Jessica again. "What are you talking about?"
"You didn't expect to spend Thanksgiving with me?" Jessica looked at Tess, and her face changed expression. She beckoned Joe to the door. "Come on, Joe. We're late."
"No one's driving anywhere in this."
"Well I'm not staying here. I only came to get you."
"You shouldn't have come at all."
"You won't be a gentleman and drive me back home?" Jessica looked angry now. She shot a glare at Tess and then faced Joe squarely. "What's going on here, Joe?"
"Dinner," Harry said brightly, coming out to the foyer. "And it's getting cold. Come on, you'll have to join us. Joe's right, no one's driving anywhere in this." He introduced himself in his most charming manner, took her fur coat, and beckoned Jessica into the dining room.
Harry, Joe and Tess between them managed to convince Jessica to not rush back out into the storm, and she reluctantly sat at the table with Tess's other nine guests.
The former gaiety of the gathering faded to nearly absolute silence--except for the wind howling outside.
Laura Greene suddenly laughed. Ed asked her what she thought was so humorous.
"I was remembering the year I offered to cook Thanksgiving dinner for both our families. Then I got the flu, and you wound up taking care of me as well as all the cooking. Until now, I've always thought that was the most disastrous holiday meal on record."
The next problem was to decide where everyone should sleep. There were four double beds, one sofa sleeper in the study, and a regular sofa in the living room.
Laura and Ed were the only married couple. Everyone agreed they should room together, and the others would double up by gender as space allowed. They agreed on this while still at the table, where the food served to keep everyone in a jovial mood regarding the situation, except for Jessica.
"How shall we decide on roommates?" Kevin said. "Draw straws?"
"I'll share a room with you, Joe," Jessica said with a sweet expression.
Silence fell over the table. Someone coughed, and Joe's face turned red. He shook his head and said quietly, "No, Jessica. You should room with one of the other women." He glanced at Tess.
"Let's let our hostess decide," Paige said quickly. Tess sent her a look.
Jessica stared at Joe for a several seconds and then said, "How could you embarrass me this way?" She rose and ran out of the room, in tears.
Tess waited for Joe to follow. It seemed inevitable to her that he would, but he didn't. Joe resumed eating. Tess wondered what was going on with him, that he could eat while his fiancée was crying her eyes out in the other room, but she said nothing.
They could all hear Jessica sobbing in the living room. People looked at each other, or at their plate, and no one said a word. Tess considered going out to talk to Jessica, but didn't want a repeat of the scene that had occurred when Jessica came here to tell Tess to stay away from Joe because they were engaged. Meanwhile Jessica's sobbing continued, growing louder and more dramatic.
"Well. This is awkward," Alan said. He exchanged looks with Kevin, who grinned.
"Oh, I can't take it any longer," Laura finally said in disgust. She started to get up.
"Wait," Rose said. "Let me talk to her." With a glance at Joe, his sister went out to console Jessica.
Paige had found a sheet of paper in the kitchen and now sat beside Tess again, writing furiously. She folded the paper and handed it to Tess, who unfolded it. It read, "Ten Little Indians!"
Very amusing, Tess thought, but not constructive. She turned the sheet over and sideways, took the pen from Paige, and made six columns, one for each of the rooms in question. Upstairs:
Tess's Room, Studio, Spence's Room. Downstairs: Study, Guestroom, Living Room.
Paige took the sheet back from Tess and started filling in names, looking up for Tess's nod as she entered each one. Upstairs: Tess's Room--Tess, Paige; Studio--Harry, Joe; Spence's room--Laura, Ed. Downstairs: Study--Alan, Kevin; Guestroom--Angie, Rose; Living Room--Jessica.
Tess gave a final nod. Then she read off to the group where everyone was to sleep. If anyone didn't like it she was prepared to put up a fight. She knew Paige and Harry would back her up. But no one argued. Paige went out to the living room to relay the decision to Jessica and Rose. There was no apparent disagreement there, either. If Jessica couldn't sleep with Joe, she was at least getting more privacy than anyone else, with the living room to herself.
"Thank goodness that's settled," Ed said when Paige returned. "Now we can continue the festivities." He picked up the glazed yams. "Anyone else want more of these?"
"I think we're ready for that champagne," Kevin said.
Ed looked at Joe. "Not yet."
"We may never be ready for that." Joe sent a wary glance in Ed's direction.
"Oh no." Ed shook his head, smiling. "No backing out now, Joe."
"What are you two talking about?" Laura looked from Joe to Ed. "Something's up."
The lights went out then. Out in the living room, Jessica screamed. The dining room would've been plunged into pitch darkness if not for the candles in the center of the table.
"Oh crap!" Paige said. Laura cracked up again.
They washed dishes and put away leftovers by flashlight and candlelight, limiting as much as possible the time the refrigerator remained open, and doing their best not to bump into each other in the dark.
Later Tess and Rose served pie in the living room, with coffee brewed in an old percolator on the gas stovetop. The guests sat on either the sofa, armchair, chairs carried in from the dining room, or pillows on the floor. While they ate dessert, the glow of firelight and candles created a warm and comfortable oasis, a haven of safety while the storm raged outside.
"One good thing," Ed said, "is that you decided to delay the grand opening of Cottage Arts until next Friday. So if we're stuck here through tomorrow, the worst anyone will suffer is a long weekend indoors. Anyone have a problem with that?"
"I have guests at Stoneway," Angie said, fidgeting.
"They're in good hands, Angie," Kevin told her. In spite of his repeated assurance that her employees were capable of handling things, Angie kept going to the guestroom to use her cell phone and check on her business.
During one of Angie's absences Jessica announced, to no one in particular, "My cousin Trent was arrested today. Uncle Ned is furious about it."
Ed gave her a long look. "Why was he arrested?"
"I don't know. We'd just heard about it before I came here to get Joe."
"Tess thinks he's the one who vandalized this house yesterday, and gave her that black eye, don't you Tess?" Laura said.
"I'm certain it was Trent."
"But you said they wore masks," Rose blurted out.
This made Tess take a hard look at Rose, but her face was cast in shadow. "I'm sure I recognized his voice."
"Why would he do that?" Ed said.
"I think they were searching for something." Tess wished this subject hadn't come up at all. She didn't know who to trust anymore, among all of these people who were supposed to be her friends.
"They?" Ed said. "There were more than one?"
Tess nodded. "There were two people."
"The police think Tess's family was murdered," Laura said.
"Murdered?" Angie stopped in the doorway, returning from the guestroom with her cell phone in hand. "Kevin, my battery's dead on this thing. Did you bring yours?"
"Of course not. I know how to take an evening off. Use Tess's phone."
Tess asked if anyone wanted more coffee or pie, and got up to serve seconds, hoping the subject of her intruders and her family's murder would die down while she made her escape. But it didn't. Harry explained his theory about bows and arrows while the rest of the group listened.
"Jessica, does Trent own a bow?" Tess heard Kevin ask while she was in the kitchen.
"Why would Trent kill Tess's family?" Ed said. "Tess," he called, "did they know Trent?"
"What are they talking about?" Angie said, hanging up the phone and heading back toward the living room.
Tess was pouring coffee by flashlight. She didn't answer.
"You okay?" Joe said beside her, having followed her from the other room with a stack of pie plates.
"I'm fine, but I didn't intend to discuss this now, with these guests."
"They can't help it. The power's out, and they've found something more interesting than television. They're like kids telling ghost stories."
"It's my family they're discussing."
"I know." Joe put his arm around her.
Tess thought he was about to kiss her, with his fiancée in the next room. She moved out of his reach and faced him.
"Joe, why didn't you want to share a room with Jessica? Why didn't you go to her when she was crying like that?"
Joe went still. He took a few seconds to speak. "Why would I do either of those things?"
"Because of who she is to you."
"Who she is?"
"Oh, never mind." Tess turned and picked up the tray of coffee cups she'd filled. "It's none of my business." She walked out of the kitchen.
"Tess, wait a minute," Joe called after her, and followed her, but he didn't pursue the subject after they returned to the room full of people. He went to stand near the piano, and Tess felt his gaze on her as she served coffee and sat down again to join in the conversation. To her relief the discussion of Trent Cambridge and her family had been dropped in her absence.
"Angie asked how many of us have been snowed in before," Laura told her. "Have you, Tess?"
They took some time to exhaust that topic, since most had lived here in the high Sierras for years. By then it was nearly ten o'clock, and no one seemed in any hurry to end the party and go to their assigned beds.
Rose sat on a cushion on the floor near the fire, beside Harry. Her eyes shone and her smile looked years younger in the candlelight. "Tess, do you mind if we bring the kittens down here to play for a while?"
Joe grinned at his sister. "I thought you were allergic." He stood by the piano again, where he'd spent most of the past hour, though there was a vacant place on the sofa beside Jessica.
Alan got up and crossed over to the piano. "Who plays?" He opened the bench to look for music, but then he spotted the small gift-wrapped package Joe had placed on top of the piano earlier, before Alan arrived. Tess saw a curious look come over Alan's face. He reached out to touch the package. "That looks like a--"
Joe snatched it up and walked over to Tess. "I need to speak to you for a few minutes. In private," Joe murmured. "We can round up your kittens while we're at it, and bring them down here for some play."
Tess agreed. "But you all have to help look out for them in the dark, so they don't get stepped on, and keep them away from the candles and the fire." She headed for the stairs with Joe right behind her.
"We'll be careful with your babies," Ed teased.
Jessica got up from the sofa as Joe passed her. "I'll go with you."
"Not now, Jessica." Joe spoke in a firm tone. He picked up a flashlight from the coffee table and lit the steps for Tess with it as he followed her up the stairs.
Home | Snow Angels | Chapters
|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