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 returned to her parents' house and went to the kitchen, where she built up the fire and then set to work, cooking. Her trip to Wilder had left her feeling fragmented, and cooking had often made her feel whole again. She hoped it would do the same for her now.
She needed to use up the perishables in the refrigerator, and there was enough food stored away in the pantry and freezer to feed the entire family for a year. That had always been her mother's way, Tess recalled. She'd spent many a hot summer day helping her mother can and freeze the abundance of fruit and vegetables from their home garden and from local growers.
Tess had no idea what she would do with all this food before closing up the house and leaving Cedar Creek. With her family gone there was nothing to hold her here.
She kneaded whole grain dough for rolls and left it to rise on the warm counter near the stove, where she started a pot of chicken stock simmering. Then she sat down to review the food on hand and decide what to prepare for a gathering here after the funeral.
Midmorning she made a quick call to Paige, to ensure all was going well at the office.
"Harry and I plan to fly up for the funeral. What's the name of the resort you were going to stay at?"
"Stoneway, but you can stay here with me. There's plenty of room." Tess had sensed a distance widening between herself and Paige, ever since Tess had announced her decision to take a leave of absence. She wanted to bridge it somehow. She'd lost her family. She couldn't stand to lose her best friend at the same time.
"We don't want to impose, but it will only be one night."
"Stay with me, please. When we were in college you and your family put me up plenty of times for the holidays," Tess reminded her.
After the call, Tess adjusted the seasonings in the chicken stock and left it on the lowest heat to simmer.
Finally she ventured upstairs and looked through those rooms. She'd avoided coming up here at all since her arrival last night.
The bedroom Tess had occupied as a teenager remained as she'd left it, furnished in pale ivory, with eyelet ruffles on the sheets and curtains, and old fading art posters on the cream colored walls. Old sketches she'd drawn as a girl were still tacked up on the wall above the small desk.
She turned around, wondering why her parents had left the bedroom this way, when they'd so often given her the impression they wanted to forget her. Why had they allowed her to have the largest room in the house in the first place? It was immense, taking up the entire space over the two-car garage.
Tess opened drawers, knowing they'd be empty because she'd taken all her things with her when she left home. But inside the night table she found two necklaces, and she held them up to the light pouring through the windows. One delicate silver chain held a Celtic cross her mother had given her, and the other held a pentacle given to her by a boy named Alan Stewart, whom she'd dated shortly before she left home. Both were sterling silver, simple in design and close to the same size. Seeing them brought back one of the worst arguments she'd ever had with her mother, and Tess hurriedly put them away, but on a second impulse she removed them again from the drawer and held onto them. She turned to look around the room.
She didn't want anyone else to sleep here. She felt a need to reclaim this space where she'd first begun to grow into adulthood, to learn her own likes and dislikes, her own way of being. It was here she'd first dipped a brush in paint. This big room had served as a sanctuary where she could explore her creativity during unbroken hours of solitude.
She looked at the big windows facing east, north, and west, and the entire wall of built-in cabinets, and she thought what a nice studio the room would make. The light was good, there was plenty of storage, and a large work table. She could use the typing table from her father's study for her laptop computer.
Next she went into Spence's room, where the sports-theme wallpaper reminded her of the boy Spence had been when Tess was seventeen. At six, he'd been emerging from babyhood, eager to grow up. Tess sat on the bed and looked around at the room where she'd read to Spence that night, eleven years ago. Her memories of that evening converged. Tess sat on her brother's bed and wept, remembering their last game, the last cookies, and the last bedtime stories they'd shared.
Their parents had gone out with friends. Her mother had left a note on the refrigerator with the phone number. Tess was to stay home and baby-sit Spence, who'd turned six that summer.
As soon as they finished eating dinner and cleaning up, Tess got out his favorite board game, and she and Spence played it there at the kitchen table. As promised and expected on a night the two of them spent at home together, Tess baked cookies. Chocolate chip, Spence's favorite. It was a hot August night, so she kept all the kitchen windows and back door open, with only the old-fashioned, wooden screen door closed against the night and mosquitoes, so the oven wouldn't overheat the house.
Alan Stewart called. He was the boy Tess had been dating, until her parents had pressured her to break up with him a few days earlier. He wanted to know if she'd changed her mind and would see him. She told him no, and ended the call, while an impatient Spence waited to continue their game. Then a girl from her mother's church called, inviting Tess to a social event. Tess wasn't interested and again ended the call as soon as she could.
Her other friends all knew she was babysitting tonight and didn't want to be distracted. Spence was growing fast, and Tess planned to go away to college the following year. She had decided to savor this evening, make it an oasis of childhood for both of them.
So they played, and she baked. She sipped lemonade, and she let Spence eat warm cookies with a glass of milk while they played his game. He got chocolate all over his face, and had a milk moustache, and he was laughing and prattling happily because he'd won the game, when they finally went upstairs for his bath and pajamas. Once he was in bed Tess read to him.
Then there were new smells and sounds, white sheets, people in white lab coats. Pain. A bright light in her eyes, and her mother crying.
"Why? Why would you go off and leave Spence all alone in the house? What were you thinking, driving off like that? You could've been killed. You nearly killed yourself. Do you understand?"
Tess didn't understand her mother's words, or how she'd wound up in the hospital. Her mother broke down in tears, and Tess didn't understand much else she said that day.
Later a sheriff's deputy questioned Tess about an accident he said she'd had with her mother's car. Tess didn't remember an accident. She didn't remember taking her mother's car anywhere. She only remembered reading to Spence, baking him cookies, putting him to bed.
Her father told her she'd had alcohol and barbiturates in her blood. He told her she'd taken her mother's car and driven it through the front of the Masons' flower shop at the bottom of the hill. She'd been unconscious for two days. She'd nearly been killed. He said Tess had gone off and left Spence alone in the house.
Tess didn't believe any of it. Why would she do that?
Her father demanded to know what she was thinking, what was going on with her. Why she'd stayed out all night two nights before she left Spence at home alone. That was when she finally told him about Trent Cambridge trying to rape her and her narrow escape that other night. That night she remembered with crystal clarity.
Her father listened, silent. He nodded as she spoke, but didn't say another word.
Neither of her parents spoke to her much after that. They were quiet, somber, reserved. They took her home and told her to rest. They spoke in low voices in another room. School was supposed to start that week, but they didn't encourage her to get ready. Instead they called Aunt Christine, who drove down from Seattle and packed Tess, her clothing, books, and art supplies back to Seattle with her.
Tess had spent her senior year of high school and the following summer in Seattle. She'd stayed with Aunt Christine until she went away to college in New York the following fall. She hadn't set foot in her parents' house or seen her family since the summer of her accident.
Tess decided to use her mother's bedroom and give Harry the downstairs guestroom her father had recently occupied. Paige would sleep up here in Spence's room. Keeping Tess's old bedroom available to her as a studio posed a minor problem, since it was the only room with an empty closet and dresser, and she dreaded the task of going through her family's things to accommodate guests.
Tess spent the next few minutes transferring her luggage up to her mother's room. She then packed the contents of her brother's and her father's dressers and closets into empty cartons she found folded in the garage. She marked each box according to where its contents came from. Instead of going carefully through their things and making decisions about what to do with them, she blindly packed items into boxes, unwilling to make decisions or examine them today.
In the midst of this task, while cleaning out the bedside tables in her father's room downstairs, Tess found some of her mother's personal things tucked away in the nightstand on the side of the bed farthest from the door. Tess paused for the first time in her packing and looked at them. Her mother had spent time here, possibly had slept here every night. Her father would've needed the downstairs room because of his need for a wheelchair.
Finally Tess packed her mother's things away. She didn't pause until she came to the bookcase above the old writing desk near her mother's bedroom door.
The titles on the top shelf included a set of Jane Austen novels, two Thomas Hardy novels, and a book of poems by William Wordsworth. A row of smaller, clothbound volumes on the bottom shelf caught Tess's eye. They were all covered with the same printed cloth, in different colors. Tess took one out for a closer look. It was a journal, filled with her mother's handwriting. Each journal was marked with a different year inside the front cover and on the outside binding. They were arranged on the shelf by year. They more than filled the bottom shelf, with a few stacked horizontally on top of the others.
Tess opened the first one, and glimpsed her mother's name in the first line of the inscription on the front page:
"To my beloved daughter Cathy on your wedding day, from your mother, Sara."
Tess's mother Cathy had mentioned these journals to her when Tess was younger. Tess's maternal grandmother had given them to Tess's mother as a wedding gift. Tess counted twenty-eight of the journals on the shelf, all filled with her mother's writing. Her parents had been married less than twenty-nine years. There was no book with this year's date on the shelf, so Tess went to the bedside and opened her mother's night-table drawers. She found more of the books tucked inside the bottom drawer, but they were all blank. There hadn't been one among her mother's things in the downstairs bedroom, either. The current year's journal was missing.
Tess returned to the bookcase and the completed journals. They'd obviously been important to her mother. She was curious to know what her mother might have written about her in these books. They might contain answers to why her parents had kept her away. She wanted desperately to believe it wasn't because they thought her guilty of abandoning Spence on the night of her accident, or because they suspected she'd been using drugs, or was otherwise unfit to be around her younger brother any longer.
Tess found the first journal Cathy Hunter had started after she married, and placed it on the bed, intending to start reading it that night.
For the remainder of Tuesday morning Tess wore a grim track through her parents' address book, making phone calls to tell her family's friends and acquaintances about the funeral service on Thursday. She sat at the kitchen counter, and took deep breaths between calls to regain composure and steel her nerve. At first she had thought the task would grow easier as she went along, but each person she called expressed either shock at the news, or grief of their own. They related memories that fed the intensity of hers, until Tess felt drained.
When she came to the listing for the Latimers, Tess considered making a quick, polite request for Joe Latimer to offer a eulogy, but she remembered his words last night, and she dreaded speaking to him again about her family. She marked the page and continued with her other calls, saving that one for last.
By afternoon Tess was emotionally exhausted, and she still hadn't called the Latimers. She opened the address book to their number, and looked at it for a minute. Finally she dialed--and was infinitely relieved when a woman answered.
"Rose Latimer? This is Tess Hunter."
"Oh, Tess. I'm so sorry about what's happened. I was planning to call you to ask if you need help with anything. The funeral arrangements, or--?"
"Thank you. I'm actually calling to tell you about the service and to ask Joe if he would be willing to offer a eulogy."
"Oh. Well, I'm sure he won't mind, but of course you'll have to ask him. I'll have him call you when he gets in. He should've been home half an hour ago for lunch."
"He works near home?"
"He has a veterinary clinic in town."
When he was a boy, Joe Latimer had always had his dog following after him, tail wagging lazily, and its mouth open in a smiling expression. He'd had pets of all kinds. Once he'd allowed Tess to hold a baby rabbit, instructing her how to grasp it so it didn't jump away. She smiled as she recalled that tiny rabbit, sitting warm and furry in her hand. She supposed it made sense that Joe had become a veterinarian.
"When is the funeral?" Rose's voice brought Tess back to the present. She told her the time and place, and her plans for a buffet lunch at the house afterward.
"Let me bring the beverages. I can contact people you may not know, about the services."
"That would be a great help. Thank you." Tess was stunned by Rose's warmth, after Joe's demeanor last night and his puzzling behavior this morning. Tess tried to remember what she could about Rose Latimer, but it had been Rose's brother Joseph who'd commanded Tess's attention when they were young. Tess recalled his kiss earlier, and her face warmed with the memory--then with a different emotion, as she pictured him kissing Jessica Laine less than a minute later.
Rose was saying, "Your mother was a good friend. I'm going to miss her a lot."
"I understand you saw the accident happen."
Rose was silent for a few seconds. "I was on my way to work, at the school. I was some distance away, but I saw the van go over. I used my cell phone to call for help." After another pause she said in a quivering voice, "Yesterday was the worst day of my life. Joe's too. He came along right afterward, on his way to work, and he helped get them out."
After the call, Tess felt restless. She checked her chicken stock, still simmering on the stove, and then decided to take a short walk outside. She pulled on a jacket at the front door.
The sun had slipped behind clouds in the early afternoon, and now the wind was rising. The fresh, vigorous feel and scent to the air energized Tess and reminded her of snowstorms she'd experienced growing up in these mountains. She used to love to hear the wind sing and bustle in the trees as it did now. Her mother had once told her that trees gave the wind its voice.
Tess walked briskly down to the mailbox at the end of the long driveway and pulled out the mail. There were ads, bills, envelopes that she guessed contained sympathy cards, and one business size envelope with no stamp and no forwarding or return address. The envelope was sealed, but completely blank. It caught her interest at once, because whoever left it had driven some distance to place it in the box without ringing the doorbell--unless they'd come up this morning while she was in Wilder.
Tess stood by the mailbox and opened the blank envelope. She pulled out a single sheet of paper folded in thirds, a typed letter without salutation, signature or date.
"You don't know how lucky you are to find success in your business at such a young age. A magazine and cookbooks. How nice for you. But that can change. If you don't leave town and pay $50,000 cash, newspapers and television stations all over the state will learn that the publisher of Treasured Home ran off and left her baby brother alone while she ploughed her mother's car into the florist's shop. They'll learn about the drugs and alcohol, and we'll see how successful you feel then. Don't go to the police, and don't ignore this! Start packing your bags and putting together the cash. Instructions for payment will follow."
Tess stood there in the cold wind, and read and reread the letter, trying to understand, to think what to do about it. She wanted to wad it up, throw it away and pretend she'd ever seen it. She wanted to ignore it. Who would do this? Who here knew about her business? She hadn't mentioned it to Angie Norwood during their brief phone calls over the past few days. The only people in Cedar Creek she'd ever spoken to about it were her family.
She recalled a phone call from her mother after she'd seen Tess's first slender, plum-colored cookbook in a Sacramento bookstore, with Tess's watercolor painting of a three-tiered dessert tray crammed with pastries reproduced on the dust jacket. Cathy Hunter had purchased the book for herself and called Tess the same evening.
"Recipes and illustrations by Tess Hunter. I can't tell you how proud I was when I saw a whole stack of those books in that store. I wanted to tell everyone in the store that my daughter wrote them. They're beautiful. We're so proud of you, Tess."
Tess's eyes filled as she remembered her mother's words. The day of that call had been the first time in years that she'd thought either of her parents could be proud of her.
Now she felt empty, and incapable of doing anything but going to sleep. She trudged through the snow, up the driveway, and into the house. She returned to the kitchen and went numbly through the motions of preparing food for the funeral gathering. She didn't know what else to do. She couldn't do anything about this letter, now, except go to the police, which the blackmailer had warned against. She thought of calling Paige and Harry, since it was a threat to them as well. Instead Tess worked in her mother's kitchen. Cooking had always been a balm for Tess, as it had been for her mother. She tried to lose herself in that familiar activity, but it didn't work the same magic for her this afternoon that it had in the past. A dark, onerous cloud hung over everything. As if the weight of her grief hadn't been enough, now fresh fear for her business, friends, and employees--in addition to a new and profound loneliness--weighed her spirits.
Late that afternoon snow fell.
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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