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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They entered Tess's bedroom carefully, in case there were kittens underfoot in the dark, but the kittens were nowhere in sight.
"They've curled up to sleep somewhere." Joe closed the bedroom door. "They're in some tight crevice where it's warm, but they'll be together."
Tess took the flashlight from him and searched under the furniture.
"Tess, Jessica and I aren't lovers."
It was all she could do not to shine the light in his face when she turned back to look at him. Was he saying they hadn't made love yet? That they were waiting until they married?
"I'm not in love with her."
"Why are you telling me this? It's none of my business." Tess shone the light under the bed, resuming her search.
"Tess, stop. The kittens are fine. I'll help you find them. First, sit down here and listen to me for a minute." He motioned for her to sit on the foot of the bed, and he sat beside her, his thigh touching hers. She scooted away.
"Listen to me. I'm in love with you." He took her free hand in his. Then he pulled the gift box with the white ribbon out of his jacket pocket, and placed it in her hand. "This is for you. I wanted to have some time alone with you, after everyone left tonight, to ask you. It's damned awkward having all of these people here right now."
Ask her? "What is it?" She held onto the little package and looked into his eyes, as best she could in the dark without blinding him with the flashlight.
"Here." He took the flashlight from her and held its beam on the gift in her hand. "Any ordinary couple would do this by candlelight. You get a blizzard, with all its sound and bad light effects. Open it, Tess. Please."
She hesitated, trying to read his expression. She didn't understand why he would give her another gift, after he'd already brought the kittens here tonight.
Tess slid off the ribbon and carefully removed the wrapping, to reveal a velvet jeweler's box. "Joe?" She looked up at him, afraid to open it. "This is for me?"
"It's for you."
She opened the box. A ring shone up at her, sparkling in the illumination of the flashlight he held. It was white gold, with three stones, one large blue topaz set between two smaller diamonds. Tess stared at it, not sure what to make of it. "It's--beautiful, but why--"
"I wanted to get you a diamond that size, but the topaz is the color of your eyes. I thought of you as soon as I saw it."
"But--You thought of me?" Was this what he'd bought in Sacramento, for Jessica?
"Will you marry me, Tess?"
She gawked at him. Then at the ring again. Finally she said, "Do you realize what you're saying?"
"Do I realize? I've been able to think of little else for nearly a week. I can't sleep. I can't concentrate. I love you, Tess, and I think--at least I strongly suspect--that you feel the same for me."
Her heart gave a lurch as she took in his words. She only stared at him. "I thought you and Jessica--"
"I love you, Tess. I want you to be my wife."
"What about Jessica?"
"You're not going to go on holding that against me, are you? It was a lot of idiocy. I should never have let her get the idea there was anything between us. I'm not sure how it happened. Her uncle kept--"
Tess was angry again. She wanted to hit him, shake him. "Joe, you're engaged to her! I saw you kiss her!"
He looked taken aback for a few seconds. "Engaged? No, no, Tess. I've never even gone out with Jessica except when her uncle was present. He throws her at me on a regular basis, when she's not doing it herself, and I've been careful not to hurt either his or her feelings, because I've been hoping he'd loan me some money for Cottage Arts, for the renovations. I was a fool for letting Ned string me along the way he has. I don't think he ever intended to make me the loan. He probably wanted to marry off his niece."
"What about that ring she's wearing?"
It was his turn to gape at her.
"She came here the day you and I made love, and she told me to stay away from you because you and she are engaged."
Joe shook his head, wearing a look of disbelief. "The ring used to be her mother's. So were all the fur coats. She's--not my type at all." He held up his hands as if to ward off this whole line of thinking. "She told you we're engaged? Is that what happened? Tess, I swear to you, any romance Jessica thinks exists between her and me is a fantasy." He took the box from Tess and removed the ring. "Will you answer my question? Will you marry me?"
Tess was stunned, still taking in what he was doing, but she began finally to fear that if she didn't stop staring at him like an idiot and say something soon, he'd stop asking. She wanted to answer. She had an answer all ready.
"I've been back here less than two weeks. We hardly know each other. I love you, Joe, but I keep asking myself how this could be, so quickly."
He nodded. "I know. When I think back to how I felt about you years ago, I can't help but think that this is absolutely and undeniably meant to be. I want to be with you every minute. I know I can't, but when we're together it feels like the most natural thing in the world to want to spend the rest of my life with you. I don't understand it, Tess, and I can't help but believe in it, that the feeling is real, that it means something. I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I'll understand, though, if you need more time to answer."
He loved her. Tess. Not Jessica. She broke into a smile, welcoming fully this new notion, of marrying Joe.
"I love you, Joe--"
"Let me put this where it belongs." He was ready to slip the ring onto her finger.
"Wait." She took a deep breath, and said the words she didn't want to say. "Jessica Laine. Whether she's lying or fantasizing, I can't say yes until that's cleared up, Joe."
He stood. "Then let's talk to Jessica."
They returned downstairs, with Joe in the lead this time. He looked about as determined as Tess had ever seen him. When he reached the foot of the stairs he said, "Jessica."
The blonde jumped up from the sofa as if on springs.
"Will you talk to us in private for a minute?" Joe headed for the study, with Tess right behind him. When Jessica followed them in, Joe closed the door.
"Tess has something she'd like to ask you," he said. "Have a seat."
Tess sat behind her father's desk. Joe and Jessica sat in the two leather visitor chairs, at right angles to each other.
It was dark, except for the flashlight in Joe's hand, which he shone toward the floor. All their faces were dimly lit, with deep shadows. It was difficult for Tess to read either Joe's or Jessica's expression.
"What do you want?" Jessica said to Tess in that familiar, haughty tone.
"I want to know why you told me that you and Joe were engaged."
Jessica sucked in her breath and looked at Joe. "I never told her that, Joe."
"Are you saying you and Joe aren't engaged?" Tess said.
"I--" Jessica looked at Joe again, as if seeking his support now.
He sighed and looked away. "Jessica, I've never given you any indication that I was in love with you."
Tess herself almost protested, remembering their kiss, which she'd seen occur right out in her own driveway. She reminded herself that it had been a glimpse of less than a second. Still, she wanted an explanation.
"You didn't have to say it, Joe. You helped me with my shop. You went to all those meetings and dinners with Uncle Ned and me. You--" Jessica broke off.
Joe's voice took on a more gentle tone. "Your uncle didn't tell you that I was trying to get a loan from him, for Cottage Arts? That was the reason he gave me, for all those meetings. He never gave any indication that he thought it was for any purpose but to discuss a loan. He invited you along, I didn't."
"You kissed me."
"No. You kissed me."
Jessica looked at Tess. "Why are you doing this? Why don't you leave us alone? Why did you have to come back here?" She stood up, ready to leave the room.
"Jess--" Joe took her arm, and she wrenched it out of his grasp.
"Leave me alone!" Jessica shrieked.
"Jessica," Tess said. "I'd like to hear you tell me the truth. Why did you tell me that you and Joe were engaged?"
"Because you were throwing yourself at him, you wouldn't leave him alone. You don't belong here. I love him!" She remained standing, halfway to the door.
Tess looked at Joe. "Tell her, Joe."
He looked confused.
"Joe, you've never told her that you don't love her, have you? She's made it clear how she feels. You haven't."
"I--" Joe stared at Tess for a few seconds. Finally he looked at Jessica, who waited.
A light knock on the door brought all their heads around. They didn't answer it.
"Jessica," Joe finally said, his voice still incredibly gentle, "I don't love you. I never have. I'm not in love with you. Do you understand?"
Jessica released a little gasp-cry combination and looked at him, then at Tess. Then she went out the door, slamming it behind her.
Tess got up and came around the desk.
Joe got up more slowly. "I'm an idiot," he said as Tess moved into his arms. "I was so worried about hurting her feelings, or Ned's feelings, I didn't even realize I was confusing the issue."
"Compassion is only an error when it leaves too much unsaid." Tess kissed him. "We need to find my kittens."
He followed her out of the study. Jessica had run into the powder room, and was sobbing noisily in there. Kevin stood near the study door when they came out. "What's up guys? Everything all right?"
"Everything's fine now," Joe said, taking Tess by the hand. He led her back up the stairs.
Once inside her bedroom with the door closed, Joe kissed Tess. She melted into his kiss, into his arms, and they lost themselves in each other for several wonderful seconds before a tiny mew brought them back to reality.
Tess drew away and picked up the two kittens, who'd come out from wherever they'd been hiding to rub against her ankles.
Joe chuckled. "I don't know what I was thinking, providing myself such effective competition for your attention."
"You were thinking you loved me."
"Now." Joe brought the ring box out of his pocket and opened it. He removed the ring. "Will you marry me, Tess?"
"It's just now sinking in. I'm so happy, Joe. I don't think I can contain myself." Tess glanced at the ring, which sparkled with a special light, for her, even without the flashlight aimed at it. She looked up at Joe. "Is this really happening?"
"It's real." He kissed her again. "But you had me going there. In fact, you still haven't said yes."
"Yes!" She kissed him again. He slipped the ring onto her left ring finger.
"There, finally where it belongs."
"I--we--I want to tell everyone. Do you--should we, with Jessica here?"
"I think the best thing is for her to hear it announced publicly, in a way that can't be questioned. She lied to you, and as a result confused and hurt us both. I'm not a vengeful person, and I may have left too much unsaid with her, but I'm not feeling particularly sympathetic toward her either. Are you?"
"I thought your love was only my imagination for a few days there, so I know how that feels."
Joe smiled. "I love you, Tess Hunter. God how I love you! I'm going to tell all your guests downstairs that I do, and that I'm going to marry you, in about thirty seconds." He drew her to the door.
"Okay, but we're talking about someone who wears fur. I'm holding onto my kittens until I've gauged her reaction."
Jessica was seated in her corner of the sofa again. Her reaction to their news was silence, but the others became noisy. Rowdy, even. Tess held the kittens, sometimes passing them off to Joe or Rose, for the next few minutes, while they received congratulations, hugs, best wishes, and kisses for Tess from most of those gathered in the house.
"Now it's time for champagne," Ed said. "I've been holding out for this news. Joe, I thought you'd never ask her."
"You knew about this?" Laura and Tess asked at the same time.
Ed looked only a little guilty, but he smiled. "Joe couldn't contain himself. He showed me the ring the day he bought it, when we were all in Sacramento. You had him worried that day, Tess, when you wouldn't even go to Kevin's party with him." Ed slapped his hand over his mouth, then, and Tess remembered Laura wasn't supposed to know they'd shopped there.
"I don't understand," Laura said to Joe. "You two just met. It's not usually possible for a romance to go on right under my nose without me realizing it. When did this happen?"
"We didn't just meet," Joe said, his arm around Tess. "We grew up together."
"You did? Oh. Well. I suppose you did. You were neighbors, weren't you? I'd forgotten that. Ed, let's open the champagne. While we're in the kitchen you can tell me when you went to Sacramento with Joe, in case you think I missed that. How much did you spend?" Laura the bookkeeper drew her husband away to the kitchen.
Tess hazarded a glance at Jessica, who sat in a corner of the sofa clutching an afghan and a pillow, her eyes red and puffy, staring into space. Tess felt sorry for her, but Jessica had invited herself here tonight, had lied to Tess about her relationship with Joe, and had driven a wedge between them that had almost stuck. A little humiliation wouldn't kill her. Tess just wished Jessica didn't look so young and vulnerable right now.
Jessica glanced up and saw Tess looking her way. Her lips tightened and she turned her head. Alan walked over to Jessica then, and offered her a glass of champagne. He sat beside her and spoke to her, coaxing her into conversation. Tess felt a world of gratitude to Alan, on the girl's behalf.
Ed toasted Tess and Joe, and their future. Then he toasted Cottage Arts and all its business owners. Finally he toasted Tess's house, calling it, "a wonderful, warm place to be holed up in a storm with friends."
Sometime during the night the storm subsided. Tess wondered, when she wakened in the dark, if a shift in the storm's intensity was what had wakened her. A moment later she heard someone creaking around the upstairs hallway, and she wondered if that was what had pierced her sleep. She glanced over at Paige, who was still deep in slumber.
A floor board creaked again, while Tess listened. It sounded like someone was right outside her door. She crept out of bed, into her robe, and checked to see that the kittens were snug in their big box where she'd decided earlier they'd be safest for the night. There was a chill in the room, in spite of the wall heaters having been on all night. The kittens were curled up together in a tight ball, in one corner of their padded basket, asleep.
Tess went to the bedroom door. She listened, but didn't hear anything for several seconds. She'd just worked up her nerve to open the door, when a soft knock on it made her jump.
"Tess?" The low voice on the other side of the door sounded like Joe. Tess opened it a crack, heart pounding. A dark figure stood there, his height and size unmistakable in the dark hall. "Are you all right?" Joe murmured.
She breathed again. "Yes. What are you doing up?"
"Something wakened me. I remember hearing the sound of a snowmobile in my sleep. Then I thought I saw a light outside as I woke up."
"Something woke me too, a few minutes ago," Tess said.
"I'm going downstairs to take a look." He brandished the flashlight he held, as yet unlit.
"Wait a minute, Joe. Wake up Ed and Harry and take them with you."
He paused, standing close to her in the darkness for a moment. She wanted to hold onto him, to cling the way she'd seen Jessica do.
"It may be nothing at all," Joe eventually said. "I'll be careful. I want to take a look. I was probably dreaming about snowmobiles. Who would come out on one in this weather?" He moved away.
Indeed, who would be out in this weather running around on a snowmobile in the dark? A murderer was the only answer Tess could come up with. Trent may be in jail, but his accomplice wasn't. She followed Joe to the head of the stairs.
Now that she thought about it, Trent hadn't behaved like a murderer, the day before yesterday. He could easily have killed her, but he'd shifted his attention from her as soon as his accomplice arrived, and that was when he'd blindfolded Tess, so she hadn't seen or heard the accomplice in any way that could give her a hint of who the person was. Was there a reason for that? Was the accomplice more dangerous than Trent? Did Trent know that? Had he actually been protecting Tess when he did that?
Joe turned and saw that she'd followed. "Wait here." He moved down the stairs. Tess wanted to stop him. Since she couldn't, she decided to follow.
Joe was two-thirds of the way down the stairs when the sound of breaking glass came from the kitchen. Tess swallowed a scream.
Other sounds followed. A rattle and scrape, mingled with the tinkle and crack of glass. Then, faintly, the sound of a man cursing. A door lock turned, operating with the mechanical smoothness of the new deadbolt on the back door, which had glass panes. Tess could only assume it was one of those panes that had broken.
She wanted to call Joe back, but he'd disappeared from view, down the stairs into the living room, heading in the direction of the kitchen. She held her breath, afraid to make a sound. Her heart thundered, filling her ears with its rapid rhythm so she didn't think she could hear properly what was going on down there. She held her mouth open and crept closer, further down the stairs, hugging the wall, her body so rigid with fear that each step she took felt sluggish, resistant. She needed to know Joe was safe, though.
Reflected light flashed on the far dining room wall, and a man cursed. "Turn off that damn light, or I'll shoot, and I may hit you."
The light went out.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Joe demanded.
A tiny shriek from the direction of the living room sofa signaled that Jessica had wakened.
"Joe?" the man in the kitchen said."
Who was that? Tess wondered. The voice was of an older man.
"Where is she?" the man said.
"Uncle Ned?" Jessica said in a wondering tone. Tess saw her sit up, on the sofa.
"Jessica's here?" the man said.
"Put the gun down, Ned," Joe said, "and tell me what you're doing breaking in here in the middle of the night."
"The hell I will. I'm going to get what I came for, if it's the last thing I do. I've paid for it enough times. Where is she?"
"Jessica?" Joe said.
"No, damn it. The woman who's been bleeding me dry for years."
"What are you talking about?"
"Tess Hunter. Where is she?"
Silence. Tess covered her mouth, terrified and clueless as to why Ned Cambridge was here with a gun, looking for her. And who was the woman who'd been bleeding him dry?
"She's in here, Uncle Ned," Jessica called, pointing at Tess as if Uncle Ned could see her.
Tess plastered her back to the wall, wondering how she could ever have felt sorry for the blonde and wishing she'd left her standing on the front porch to freeze last night.
"What do you want with Tess?" Joe finally said in a low, deadly tone, which would've gratified Tess if only he was the one with the gun.
"Move. Now. Don't make me shoot you, Joe," Uncle Ned said in the kitchen.
Jessica moved, releasing something like an enraged whimper as she scrambled in the direction of the foyer. She moved something around down there. What was she doing?
Joe backed into the living room slowly, from the kitchen, and the muzzle of Ned Cambridge's hand gun followed. Then Ned himself.
Other noises stirred in the house, the confused mutterings and movements of Tess's other guests, who'd been wakened by the noise and were now shrugging off sleep as they attempted to understand what was happening. This worried Tess, because the more people the more confusion, and the more confusion, the more likely Ned Cambridge was to use that gun.
"I'm up here," Tess said, as calmly as she could. "What do you want from me, Ned?"
Jessica moved out of the foyer then, sidling over toward Ned.
"Get out of the way, Jessica!" Ned waved her behind him. She moved as he indicated, in a sideways motion, keeping her face toward him and Joe, and her hands behind her back. She nodded in Tess's direction. "She's up there."
Ned moved to see around Joe and looked up the stairs.
"What do you want from me?" Tess said, her voice shaking.
"Give me the blouse and I'll leave. I've paid you for it enough times. You're not getting another dime out of me now that Trent's in jail."
Tess opened her mouth to speak, but then wondered what he would do if she told him the sheriff had the blouse. Shoot her? Shoot Joe?
"Get out of the way, Joe," Ned said. "I don't want to hurt you. I want the damned blouse."
"What blouse?" Joe said.
"I know which blouse he wants." Tess fought to keep her teeth from chattering as she spoke. Would Ned know what the blouse looked like? If she gave him a blouse, any blouse, would he go away and leave them all alone? Or did he know that specific blouse? Tess backed up onto the next higher step.
"Don't move another inch, Tess!" Ned warned. "Get out of the way, Joe!"
"I'm not moving until you tell me what blouse."
Tess saw Jessica raise an object that she'd held behind her. She lifted it high and crashed it down on Ned's head from behind. The gun in his hand went off. The object shattered into pieces. Ned crumpled to the floor.
Joe cursed and sat down hard on the bottom step, then leaned against the railing. Tess cried out, and nearly fell down the stairs to get to him.
She was almost beside him when she saw heard Jessica say, "Get away from him!"
Jessica was aiming the gun at Tess. "Joe, darling, I'm so sorry. Are you all right? Please say something."
Yes, please say something. Tess moved toward Joe again, and Jessica screamed at her, shaking the gun in Tess's direction. "Stay away from him! This is all your fault!" Then, in a sweet, dulcet tone, "Joe."
Joe cursed again and moved, holding his left arm. He stood and moved up a couple of steps, placing himself between Tess and the gun.
"Joe!" Jessica was in tears.
A figure moved out of the shadows, beyond Jessica, and the gun flew upward out of her hand as the figure knocked her sideways. The figure picked up the gun. The figure was Rose. Angie stood behind her.
Joe finally moved, in Rose's direction.
"You're all right," Jessica cried, trying to put her arms around Joe. "You're all right."
It took a few minutes for Tess, or any of them, for that matter, to take in what had happened. Jessica had hit Ned with the ceramic umbrella stand from the foyer. "I didn't want him to shoot Joe. I was so afraid he'd hurt you, Joe. Are you okay?"
Joe's left upper arm was bleeding, but he stood and nodded. "I'm okay."
They all looked at Ned, who lay still on the living room floor. Joe moved over to him and felt for a pulse at the man's neck.
"Is he dead?" Jessica asked.
Joe shook his head. Then he said to Tess, "Let's find something to restrain him, in case he comes to. I don't want to take any chances. Where's the gun?" He turned around, searching.
Rose moved forward, the gun in her hand at her side. "I have it. What did he want? Do you know, Jessica?"
"Something she has." Jessica pointed at Tess. "She's the reason for this."
Joe, Angie and Rose all looked up at Tess.
Tess nodded. "I think I know what he wanted, but I don't have it. Joe, your arm." She finally took another step toward him, and then was beside him, ecstatic that he was alive, that he was standing.
He looked down at his arm and nodded. "It hurts like hell, but I think it's only a nick. I'll take a look at it once Ned is restrained. Come with me, Tess." He brought the flashlight, and he and Tess went to the kitchen pantry, where he found a roll of duct tape. Joe took it out and secured Ned's hands and feet, moving him as little as possible to do so. "We may need to improve on this once he comes to, but I don't want to risk injuring him further by moving him, for now."
Next Joe took a paper bag and had Rose drop the gun into it. He closed the bag and taped it shut. "We'll hold onto this for the sheriff."
By now all the other guests had congregated in the living room. All but Tess, Paige and Harry were still in their street clothes from last night. Ed was in the kitchen already, calling the sheriff.
Everyone felt chilled, now the excitement was over. So they set about building up the fires in the hearths again, and thought about breakfast. There was nothing else they could do. After contacting the sheriff, Ed remained with Ned, to keep an eye on him. "It'll be hours before they can get here, with this storm and the snow it's dropped."
Joe finally let Tess look at his arm, in the upstairs studio, by the light of the flashlight. He told her where to find the first aid kit, in the upstairs linen closet, and he directed her actions as she cleaned and taped up his wound. She found a fresh shirt of her father's for him.
"What about the gun?" Tess finally said, eyeing the paper bag, which lay on the bed now. "I don't want it where Jessica can get to it. I know she says she was trying to save you, but I don't trust her."
"Here." Joe handed the bag with the gun in it to Tess. "Hide it somewhere in the house, and don't tell anyone where you're putting it until the sheriff arrives." Joe lay down on the bed. "Oh, man, what a morning."
"Harry, Laura and Rose are fixing us all some breakfast," Paige said, coming into the room. "Is it over now? Was Ned Trent's accomplice yesterday? Did they kill Tess's family?"
Joe sat up. "We don't know. Tess, do you have any idea what Ned was talking about? He wanted a blouse."
"The blouse is with the sheriff now," Paige said.
"What blouse?" Joe asked, exasperated.
Tess explained to him, about Trent's attempted rape eleven years ago, about the blouse Paige had found in Spence's backpack. She told him about her visit to Karen yesterday. She repeated Harry's theory of how the tire on her family's van was damaged. Finally, Tess told Joe about the blackmail letters she'd received. He took it all in, listening in silence.
Ed sent word up, via Paige, that Ned Cambridge was conscious but not talking. Breakfast was ready. Joe and Tess headed downstairs.
Angie fidgeted more now than she had last night. "I have half a mind to take that snowmobile out there and head back to Stoneway to make sure my guests are okay."
"Angie, will you stop? You're obsessed," Kevin said, beside her. "You can't control everything, you know."
Angie glared at him. Then she asked Joe, "What did you do with the gun?"
"It's in a safe place," Tess said, and that was all she said. She'd hidden it away in the upstairs linen closet, in the back corner of the topmost shelf, behind a pile of her mother's old lace.
"As much as I know you'd like to borrow that snowmobile," Joe told Angie, "No one's going to touch it until the sheriff gets here."
"Fair enough." Angie nodded. "I guess maybe I could use a day off. Good thing too," she said with a glance out the window. "Because it's snowing again."
They all groaned. Paige looked at Tess. "Have you had enough fun in the snow yet? Have you made enough snow angels? Can we go home now? Oh, I forgot, you're getting married. Joe, are you going to make her live in this? She has a perfectly good house overlooking a canyon, in L.A. There hasn't been a blizzard there since the last ice age."
"What was that blouse Ned was talking about?" Kevin asked. "Tess, do you know? He seemed awfully worked up about it. Maybe we should ask him, now that he's awake."
Tess shook her head. "I don't think--" She didn't want to talk about Trent's attack on her in front of so many people.
"I'd like to ask him why he was stupid enough to break in, with all those cars parked out front," Laura said. "I keep my money in his bank. You like to think bankers are smarter than that."
"Maybe he didn't notice them under all that snow," Rose said. "The lights were out."
"Maybe he rode in the back way," Kevin said.
Paige looked at Tess. "Is there a back way?"
"We should save any discussion or questioning for the sheriff," Joe said helpfully, his gaze on Tess.
"Right," Ed said. "Once the power is back on and the snow removal gets underway we can concentrate on digging ourselves out of here so Tess and Joe can have some privacy to plan a wedding." He winked at Tess. "In the meantime, let's try to relax. The crisis is over."
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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