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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Cedar Creek, California, lay in a small mountain valley north of the Wilder County seat, surrounded by the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Stars lit the sky at dusk, between the soft clouds of a late fall edging early into winter. The silvers, grays, and dusky blues of the sky and distant peaks were only a bit paler than the indigos of the nearer mountains. The blues of dusk enveloped the snowy mountains, softening them. A few bright stars shone like diamonds in the wintry nightfall.
Tess Hunter drove through the town as its lights twinkled on in the deepening twilight. Autumn snow blanketed the ground. The old high school Tess had attended was gone, replaced by a new one half a mile nearer the center of Cedar Creek. Her brother Spence had attended this one, until he died. The thought struck at Tess in the dusk like a blunt object, but she shook off her grief for the moment, concentrating on the drive.
Outside town, the road meandered around mountain slopes covered with trees. A layer of fresh snow lined the road. Tess cautiously rounded the tight curves, especially the one from which the sheriff had said her family's van skidded into the deep ravine only this morning.
Farther up the road, Tess turned, and a minute after that she spotted the amber lights of her parents' house, where it stood alone, set off from the road, surrounded by meadow and backed up by forest, all currently buried under at least a half foot of snow. She parked the rental car in the long driveway beside a dilapidated old pickup truck.
Smoke curled from a chimney. Another light came on in the living room, and Tess imagined her father bending to feed the fire, her mother turning on a lamp.
"Stop torturing yourself." She pushed back the grief that stuck in her chest like a physical object making each breath a labor. Angie Norwood had said she would try to meet Tess here. It must be Angie who was warming up the house. Tess wondered about the old truck. It didn't strike her as something Angie would drive. She gathered one suitcase and an overnight bag from the trunk, hoping Angie wouldn't want to visit. Tess longed to be alone with her grief and to rest from the grueling drive.
She paused beside the driveway and stared at the wooden ramp that had been added alongside the porch. A wheelchair ramp. The sheriff had said something about a wheelchair that Tess hadn't understood in her confusion and shock this morning.
As she climbed the steps, the front door opened. A tall male figure stood in the foyer with the bright overhead light behind him. He was silhouetted against it. Tess paused again, vaguely alarmed, trying to think who he could be. He reached out to take her bags, and then she caught his profile as he turned to place the luggage on the floor. Recognition flickered in Tess's mind.
"You'd better come in out of the cold." His voice was deep and resonant. He reached out and guided her into the house, and his firm hand on her arm warmed her. When he moved it away to close the door behind her she shivered. It was then that she got a good look at him.
He'd been only seventeen when she'd last seen him. Now he stood at least six-foot-two, with wavy black hair and a thick, neatly trimmed moustache above sensuous lips. His eyes were dark green and glinted with gold flecks in the lamplight, their corners lined with tiny creases. His nose and jaws were sturdy and handsome.
"I'm Tess Hunter," she said, in case there was any doubt in his mind as to who she was and why she was here.
"You were only about twelve years old the last time I saw you, Tess, but I think I'd recognize you anywhere. The question is, do you remember me?"
She relaxed. "Joseph Latimer. I used to follow you around everywhere when I was little." As she spoke she pictured the tall, lanky, athletic boy he'd been. She'd had a crush on Joe Latimer from the time she was seven or eight, until he went away to college when Tess was twelve. She'd cried, at fourteen, when her mother heard from his mother that Joe had married.
"As I recall, at the time I rather liked it." He wore a sober expression.
"You following me around." He shifted his attention to her luggage on the floor, and motioned toward it. "Do you have more bags?"
"The rest can wait." She took off her gloves and dropped them on top of her bags. "I expected Angie Norwood."
"Angie called and asked me for the key, but I know she's busy at Stoneway this time of year, so I told her I'd open the house for you. I have a key for you, and I've brought in firewood. You'll find the pantry and freezer full. Everything you'll need." He started his last sentence with a vague half-smile that faded into regret.
Tess thanked him and looked around the living room. Nothing here had changed except for the emptiness. The furnishings were the same ones she remembered, though the old couch and armchairs had been reupholstered. The wood furnishings gleamed, and the piano stood in its old place with the keyboard open as if her mom had just finished playing. Her family had been here just this morning, before that last drive.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee drifted from the kitchen, and a small stack of unopened mail lay on the table near the door. Tess recognized the envelope on top. It contained a card she'd addressed to her family days ago.
"I was going to visit them--" The words caught in her throat and threatened to choke her with the intensity of feeling they aroused. She had pushed her grief deep inside, to get through the flight from L.A. and the drive here in the rental car. Now it rose inside her like a great chunk of ice bobbing to the surface, refusing to be ignored. She took a deep, shuddering breath and turned at a movement beside her. Joe Latimer watched her with an indecipherable expression. "I was going to surprise them for the holidays."
Joe's eyes narrowed and a frown deepened the lines on his forehead. "It's too late now, Tess." He spoke in a low voice, as if talking to himself, but he stood beside her so every word was clear, and resounded with emotion. "Why did you wait so long? What were you punishing them for?"
His words hit her with a force that made her step backward. "I didn't--they--my parents--didn't want--"
His look was fierce. A glint in his eyes disappeared when he blinked. His voice shook. "Don't you mean you didn't want to see them, even though your dad was sick? Even though your mother was one of the most nurturing people ever known? What about Spence? They missed you, Tess. I knew them, I loved them. Don't tell me they didn't want to see you. You discarded them, and it's too late to change that now."
He turned toward the hall, cleared his throat, and grabbed a jacket off the rack. He pulled it on, keeping his face averted, then he said a gruff goodnight. He had his hand on the doorknob by the time Tess found her voice.
"Wait. Joe. What was wrong with my father?"
He shook his head and rumbled in a gravelly voice, "He had MS. I'm sure you knew that. He was forced to retire because of it." Then, clearing his throat again, he looked suddenly regretful. He drew in his breath as he opened the door, and uttered more calmly, "If you need anything while you're here, you can call me or Rose. We're in the book." He closed the door and was gone.
Tess turned away, stunned by his words. She switched off the overhead light and stood with her back to the door, staring into the unlit foyer, at her bags on the floor beside the ceramic umbrella stand. The deeper darkness of her father's study yawned to her left. The stairs in front of her rose into a part of the house that seemed to both beckon and oppose her, from beyond the barrier of the stair railing.
Joe Latimer's truck started outside, loud at first and then dropping to an idle as he warmed it up. Seconds later it moved, and eventually the sound droned away onto the road below the driveway.
The chill of Joe's words hung in the foyer, and pushed Tess toward the warmth and light of the living room to her right. A door beside the living room fireplace led to the guestroom. To the left of that lay the open dimness of the dining room. Behind the wall that lined the stairs the kitchen-family room beckoned, reminding Tess of her mother. Tess moved in that direction, through the dining room, then abruptly to her left.
Joe had lit a fire in the big family room fireplace. She threw another log on the fire. On the hearth lay a few copies of Treasured Home. At the sight of them Tess stopped, and her tears startled her, surfacing all at once.
Long minutes later, Tess sat warming herself with a cup of coffee in front of the family room fire, still brooding over Joe Latimer's words, with her coat flung over the rocking chair where she'd removed it. She heard a car outside, and she wondered whether Joe had forgotten something, or if he'd returned to apologize. The vehicle didn't sound like a truck. Tess reached the front door as someone pounded on it.
A young blonde woman stood on the porch, dressed in a long fur coat that looked like sable, with her fur-clad arms folded across her chest. One elegant brown shoe tapped impatiently. Her golden hair fell in loose curls over her shoulders, while her striking face conveyed annoyance. Tess stared, amazed to see this glamorous-looking woman on her parents' doorstep.
The woman brushed past Tess in a cloud of perfume. "I'm looking for Joe Latimer. Is he here?" She didn't ask. She demanded. She turned inside the living room and looked at Tess, her arms still folded. There was something both expectant and imposing about her.
Tess closed the door against the cold. "Joe lives a quarter mile farther along the--"
"I know where he lives. I was told he came here hours ago." The girl swept her gaze around the living room.
"He just left. I think he was headed home."
The blonde cursed and actually stamped her foot.
"Can I help you? I'm Tess Hunter." Tess held out her hand.
The young woman turned a cold gaze on Tess, and a curious expression entered her large brown eyes. "How could you possibly help me?" The brown eyes quickly dismissed Tess.
That was enough for Tess. She moved into the living room, where she faced the blonde. "If you'll treat me civilly by telling me your name and asking politely, I might let you use the telephone. It could save you running around in the cold. If you can't behave, the door is that way." She pointed.
The blonde looked startled, then thoughtful. Finally she shrugged, lowering her dark eyelashes. She murmured coolly, "I'm Jessica Laine." She spoke her name as though she thought Tess should know who she was. "I would like to use your phone. Please. I didn't catch your name."
"Tess. Hunter. The phone is through there." Tess nodded in the direction of the kitchen, wanting the woman to hurry and leave her alone with her grief and her feelings still wounded by Joe Latimer's harsh words.
"Do you mind if I take off my coat? It's nice and cozy in here." Jessica Laine, her tone suddenly sweeter, took off the fur and handed it to Tess, who couldn't help a second look at Jessica's dress. It was made of soft brown wool with gold threads woven through.
"Do you like it?" Jessica asked as she noticed Tess's attention focused on the dress.
"It's very becoming," Tess ventured objectively.
"It's a designer original. I picked it up at a New York fashion show a few weeks ago," Jessica said blithely.
"Really." Tess knew the dress wasn't haute couture. It was reasonably priced in the department stores. Tess knew because she owned the same dress. The coat, on the other hand, felt like real fur. Tess hung it on the rack in the corner beneath the stairs, a little loath to touch it. "The phone's through the dining room there, to the left, in the kitchen." She pointed.
"Have you known Joe long?" Jessica removed beige kid gloves to reveal long, manicured fingernails.
"Since we were children."
"I see." The blonde nodded and left the room. Tess didn't follow. She simply waited, for what seemed an eternity, trying not to hear the sugary tone of the voice in the other room and unwilling to make out what it said to Joe Latimer.
"Joe's at home of all places," the blonde said when she returned to the front room minutes later. She donned her coat. "He was supposed to be up at my place an hour ago. We're having dinner with my uncle tonight. Thank you for the use of your phone, er--Teri?"
Jessica shrugged. "Nite-nite now." With that she left Tess to close the door behind her.
"Nite-nite," Tess mimicked her with a grimace. "You've got to be kidding!"
Daisies. Tess held a bunch of white daisies, in the dream, and looked into the deep green eyes of the older boy, Joseph. Tess wakened, and realized the dream was a memory of something that had actually happened when she was seven years old. Joseph Latimer had given her flowers. He couldn't have been more than twelve at the time. She recalled his smile, his kindness, and her affection for him in those years past, when they'd been neighbors.
It was only a dream, brought on no doubt by seeing Joe as soon as she arrived home last night. Tess shrugged it off as she looked around the cold room in which she'd slept, the downstairs guestroom at her parents' house. She hadn't wanted to go upstairs at all, last night. Even so, she hadn't avoided her family's things, because she'd discovered that her father had been sleeping in this room. The bathroom was fitted with hand grips, as well as other amenities clearly intended for someone with a disability. Tess hadn't found any of her mother's things in the bathroom, dresser, or closet. She could only conclude that her parents had been sleeping apart.
Tess had been too tired to puzzle long over these discoveries last night. She'd unpacked only her nightgown and robe and had gone to bed, there to toss and turn on the unfamiliar mattress and wake up at every creak of the old house.
The room was freezing now. Tess got up and quickly put on her robe, turned on the heat, built up a fire, and then crawled into bed with her robe on and pulled the quilt back over her to wait for the room to warm up. She had forgotten how cold mornings could be up here.
The kitchen phone was the only one in the house. Once Tess had dressed she sat on a stool at the counter near the back door, and phoned the sheriff's office in Wilder. After that call she searched for her parents' address book, and found it in a kitchen drawer. It was held together by a rubber band, with old addresses scratched out and new ones entered wherever space permitted, in her mother's neat, elegant hand.
Tess finally came across the listing for a Dr. Peter Lloyd in neighboring Wilder. She wanted to know more about her father's illness, which Joe Latimer had mentioned to her, the illness behind the ramp out front and the wheelchair the sheriff had mentioned. Tess planned to drive to Wilder this morning to see the sheriff and to make funeral arrangements. She called the doctor's office.
Dr. Lloyd answered the phone himself. He knew about the accident and offered his condolences at once. He confirmed that he'd been her father's primary care physician, and he agreed to meet with Tess this morning. "I've been hoping for a chance to speak with you. Did your father call you sometime in the last day or two before his death?"
"No. Why?" Her parents had rarely called her, and when one of them did it was usually her mother.
"We can talk about that when you get here." Dr. Lloyd gave her directions to his office.
As Tess hung up, she glimpsed a pair of beige kid gloves on the counter beside her, and she picked them up. They were Jessica Laine's. She must have left them here last night when she used the phone.
Tess finally found the number for her parents' attorney. When she phoned his office, she learned he was out of town on a tour of Europe and wouldn't return for weeks. She left a message, hoping, as his secretary suggested, that he'd check in sometime during the next few days. Next she called the sheriff, then looked up the mortuary in Wilder, and the small weekly newspaper there.
Tess had her coat on and was about to leave, when the phone rang. She hurried back to the kitchen to answer. Angie Norwood spoke before Tess could say hello.
"Joe Latimer was just here to look at one of our horses. He started grilling me about you. He asked if you'd planned to visit for the holidays. What's going on?"
Tess wondered the same thing. "What did you say?"
"I told him you'd planned to stay here at Stoneway and surprise your folks for Thanksgiving. I didn't like his attitude, though. Was he there last night when you arrived? Had he warmed up the house? He told me he would."
"Yes, he was here." Tess heard an engine out front, and thought it sounded a lot like the old truck Joe had driven last night. Tess thought she'd never get out of the house in time to meet Dr. Lloyd.
"When you're ready, let me help you go through your family's things. Remember, I went through all that when Granddad died. I know how hard it can be."
The doorbell rang.
"Thanks, Angie. I will. I have to go. Someone's at the door." Tess hung up, and shrugged on her coat as she went out to the foyer.
It was Joe Latimer. Tess started to speak, but paused as her gaze followed the lines of the cables in his pale blue Aran sweater down his broad chest to where they met the V of the ice-blue jacket he wore partially zipped over it. Good grief, he was magnificent, she thought, seeing him for the first time in daylight and without fatigue clouding her impression as it had last night.
"Good morning, Tess."
Tess lifted her gaze to meet his deep green eyes. He smiled, and she recalled her dream, of the boy Joseph handing her a bunch of daisies. She couldn't help a baffled smile in return.
"May I come in?"
She nodded, and he moved past her, turning to face her as soon as she'd closed the door. He stood so near that Tess could feel his warmth in the cold air left by the briefly open door.
"I asked Angie this morning about your plan to visit home. She told me it was true." Joe wore a serious expression now. He was so close that his words blew the warmth of his breath onto the top of her head, and she felt light headed as she tilted her chin up to meet his gaze.
"I'm sorry you needed proof." She was determined to keep her cool.
"It didn't fit your pattern."
"Your pattern of staying away from here." He watched her intently through narrowed eyes.
"Look, I was about to leave. I have an appointment in Wilder." She needed to escape the sphere of his magnetism, or whatever it was that disoriented her.
Joe remained where he stood, so close she felt cornered between him and the door. She reached up to straighten the collar of her coat. She was too warm in it, with him so near. What did he want? If he'd come to apologize, he hadn't done so yet. He kept looking at her, his expression unreadable. She silently cursed his masculine presence, and its unmistakable effect on her. She wondered how he could make her feel this way, so many years after her silly girlhood crush. She was a businesswoman. She didn't habitually fawn over every good-looking man she met.
A bang on the door behind her made Tess jump. Joe put a hand on her shoulder. She relaxed, leaning into his touch without thinking about it. He was closer now, and his gaze drew her in.
The pounding on the front door continued. Tess turned to open it. Jessica Laine, the blonde visitor from last night, stood there wearing a silver fox fur jacket over a gray suede dress. Her liquid silver necklace shone in the morning sunlight slanting under the eave of the porch.
"Joe, darling, what are you doing here?" She skimmed past Tess into the front hall, without a glance in her direction, and it was suddenly far too crowded with all three of them there in the foyer. "You're supposed to be on your way to meet Uncle Ned. Don't you ever want to get this project off the ground?" Jessica put her arm around Joe's neck and reached up to kiss him. He turned his cheek to meet her lips as she crooned, and Tess squeezed past them into the living room.
"Jessica, we're guests in Tess's home." Joe pulled away from the blonde with a bemused smile. "Why are you here?"
"I left my gloves here last night when I came looking for you."
"You came here?" He glanced at Tess, then again at Jessica. "When?" He was the one who looked disoriented now.
"I called you from here, silly." Jessica turned an insolent look at Tess. Then she smiled. "How are you holding up? When I lost my father, I was devastated, but I understand you weren't that close to your parents and, being older, perhaps you're better able to handle your loss. My cousin Trent asked me, last night, about what happened to your family."
"Trent?" An alarm rose in Tess's mind at mention of the name.
"Trent Cambridge. He's my cousin."
"Your--Trent is here, in Cedar Creek?"
"Of course he's here, he lives here. His father is my Uncle Ned." Jessica turned to grasp Joe's arm. "Joe, we have to go."
"I'll get your gloves." Tess rushed back to the kitchen for them, and returned to find the blonde clinging to Joe's arm, leaning up to murmur in his ear.
As soon as Joe saw Tess he sidled away from Jessica, guided her toward the front door, and opened it. He took the gloves from Tess and placed them in Jessica's hand. "Go on ahead."
"I'll follow you in a few minutes." He held the door for her and she went out wearing a petulant look.
Joe closed the door and turned to Tess. "Sorry, I have a breakfast meeting with Ned Cambridge to ask for his help financing a project of mine. Jessica's . . . part of the project."
"I have to leave for Wilder," Tess said with a glance at her watch. "I'm running late myself." She grabbed her purse off the coat rack and went to the door, hoping Joe would follow her and leave, so she could as well.
He touched her shoulder. She turned and found herself once again between him and the door.
"Were you all right here alone last night? Do you have everything you need?"
"Yes." Everything she could want, except her family. She met his gaze, and again he had that mesmerizing, warming and arousing effect on her. She didn't understand it. She told herself to turn away, to open the door and say goodbye to the man. Did she have to shoo him out of the house? Instead she stood there gazing into his eyes, the warmth of his body affecting her like the pull of a magnet.
Joe leaned nearer, with a serious, wondering look in his eyes, and kissed her lightly on the lips.
Tess felt a heat from his kiss that she could neither ignore nor explain. She moved back, into the door.
Joe's expression altered. "I shouldn't have done that." He moved around her and she squirmed to one side as he opened the door. He closed it behind him, leaving Tess standing there stunned once again by his behavior, and this time by her own as well, for letting him kiss her. For liking it.
She decided to wait until he drove away before going out to her rental car, and she peered out the sheer curtains in the living room--in time to see him locked in an embrace with Jessica Laine. Joe and the stunning blonde stood between his truck and Jessica's yellow sports car, kissing. They appeared oblivious to anything else including the cold.
Tess could only watch for a split second before she turned away, flushed with humiliation and anger that she'd allowed him to get a physical reaction from her with that single light kiss, when the object of his romantic preference was clearly the glamorous, fur-clad Jessica Laine.
Tess reminded herself why she was here, of her family's deaths, only yesterday, and the arrangements she needed to make, the questions she needed to answer. She couldn't believe she'd let herself get so carried away by Joe Latimer in the few minutes he'd been here. It must be grief, bringing all her emotions close to the surface, that made her react this way. She shook off her lingering images of him, and shifted her thoughts to the unappealing tasks ahead.
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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