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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Early in the evening Tess chopped leeks and sorrel from her mother's supply in the refrigerator and used them, along with her chicken stock, to make soup. She added potatoes and let them soften enough to mash with a spoon. Finally she added cream, and chopped roast chicken from the refrigerator. She adjusted the seasonings as the thickened mixture reheated to serving temperature. Then she ladled herself a bowl of the soup and sat at the kitchen table to eat it with a hot buttered roll and a simple lettuce salad, attempting to regain some semblance of peace from the silent, solitary meal.
After dinner she bathed and put on her warmest nightgown, then crawled under the electric blanket in the upstairs bedroom that had been her mother's.
She picked up her mother's first journal, and soon found herself caught up in events that had occurred years before her earliest memories, seeing them vividly from her mother's point of view.
She read of her own birth and her mother's first blissful, if tiring, days of parenthood. The early worries and joys of watching an infant take her first steps into childhood unfolded with the turn of the pages. It touched Tess deeply to realize those loving words had been written about her. Could this be the same woman who years later made transparent excuses to keep her daughter from coming home for semester breaks and holidays?
Tess dozed off while reading, and the ringing of the doorbell wakened her. The bedside lamp was still on, and the journal she'd been reading lay open beside her where she'd dropped it. It was eight o'clock. She got up and put on her fleece robe and slippers and hurried down to answer the persistent ringing, brushing hair back from her face with her fingers as she went.
Tess left the chain lock fastened and inched the door open. "Who is it?" she called against a gust of freezing air that nearly compelled her to swallow her words.
Joe Latimer peered through the opening at her. "It's Joe. May I come in?"
Tess slid the chain off the door and opened it.
Joe game in with a gust of cold, and quickly closed the door. "Whew! Thanks. It's a mess out there."
He turned around, took in Tess's appearance--her robe and fuzzy slippers--and grinned. "Uh-oh. I thought you city people stayed up later than this." Snow clung to his hair and eyebrows, quickly melting in the warmer air of the house.
"I guess I'm still a country girl at heart." Tess watched him coolly, hiding her bafflement. Why had he come here on a cold, snowy night, when he'd made it plain he thought badly of her? Why had he kissed her this morning?
"I don't suppose you have a fire going?" Joe glanced toward the darkened living room, then turned his gaze on her again. The warmth in his eyes was an embrace. They held her attention, and Tess took a moment to register what he'd said.
"A fire. No, but--here, you'd better take these things off." Without thinking she reached up and took his knitted hat, while he removed his gloves.
He smiled again at her familiar action, then unzipped his jacket, and sat down on the nearest living room chair to unlace his boots. "Do you mind if I make us both some hot chocolate?"
Tess stared at him curiously. Then she looked down at his hat in her hand. He took it from her with a quick "Thanks," and strode toward the kitchen in his socks, carrying his boots. Tess followed. Joe placed his boots, hat and gloves on the family room hearth and started to add wood to the coals.
"Let me do that," Tess said, and took over.
When she turned away from the fire a minute later, Joe already had the milk heating, and as Tess watched he took cocoa and mugs out of the cabinets. He was obviously as familiar with the kitchen as she was. Tess sat in the old rocking chair near the fireplace to watch him.
He looked up with a sheepish grin. "I got used to making myself at home here. I never did get to eat dinner tonight. I was hungry, and I found myself pulling into your driveway out of habit, thinking about your mom."
Tess stood up. "You haven't eaten? I have soup and some bread I can warm for you."
He watched her with a half smile lighting his eyes as she came over and joined him in the kitchen. She took out the soup and started it warming alongside the pan of milk and cocoa, then placed a couple of the whole-grain rolls in the toaster oven. Tess returned to the center island stove to find him still watching her. He abruptly looked away and gave the pan in front of him a stir.
"What brings you out in this weather?" she said.
"I had an emergency call this afternoon. I was on my way home. Visibility got bad below the turnoff to your place, and the heater's out in my truck. I used to visit your folks a lot. Sorry, it looks as if you were asleep."
"I was reading in bed." A glance at him told her he didn't believe her. "I may have dozed a little."
He gave her a slow, knowing smile. "You took a long time to answer."
She grinned back at him. "Okay, I was sound asleep at eight o'clock. Stop looking so smug about it."
He held her gaze for several seconds. "I was always fascinated by the way your eyes lighten in color when you smile. They're a pale blue now, a shade lighter than your robe." He continued to study her. "You look a lot like your mom."
"Do I?" Tess's voice faltered.
"That photo of you on the living room mantle deceived me. It made me picture this cool, savvy business woman in a suit, someone I've never met and never wanted to." His look turned solemn. "You know, I miss them a lot."
She nodded and said nothing. She wanted to ask him about her family, but she was afraid he'd rebuke her again, or she wouldn't like the answers.
Neither of them spoke again until the soup, bread, and hot chocolate were ready. Joe carried mugs over to the table for both of them while Tess ladled out his soup and arranged warm rolls on a plate with a pat of butter. She placed the food in front of him, sat down and picked up her mug.
"This smells wonderful." He took a spoonful of the soup and made a pleased sound in his throat, his eyes half-closed.
"It's potato leek with roast chicken." She sipped her cocoa and watched him take another spoonful, then quickly bite into the warm buttered roll. Joe was so intent on his food, she wondered if he'd missed lunch as well as dinner.
Tess continued to sip her cocoa. Once she raised her eyes to find him studying her. Her heart gave a lurch as their eyes met.
"Watch your cocoa," Joe said as she tilted it. There was a hint of laughter in his voice. Tess shifted her gaze to the fire, unable to still her thoughts with him watching her like that. His attention made something come alive in her, something that felt restless to answer. She was wide awake now.
He gestured at his empty bowl as he put down his spoon. "I needed that. Did your mom make the soup?"
"No, I did. With her roasted chicken."
"That's right, you write cookbooks." He continued eating, finishing his second roll. She couldn't help noticing that he knew about her cookbooks, as did the blackmailer, but Joe hadn't lived here in Cedar Creek when she was hurt in that accident. Did he know about it?
"You never married." He didn't ask it, he stated it.
"Too busy with your career?"
Tess shrugged. "There's always been time to date. No one held my interest for long."
"You had a crush on me for years. Has your attention span shortened since then?"
Tess smiled. "I thought that was my secret. Was I so transparent?"
"Remember how you used to follow me around, back then? You never guessed how enchanted I was by that. Other boys were falling for girls their own age, but I thought you were the dreamiest thing I'd ever seen. There, your eyes lit up again."
She had paused, watching him. "I was thinking how it would have thrilled me, back then, to hear you say that."
"I don't suppose it would give you the same thrill now."
"I hardly know you now. Besides, we were children." Why did you kiss me today? Tess wanted to ask it, but she didn't.
They finished in silence. Tess took their dishes to the sink while Joe went to the fire to put on his boots. He sat in the rocking chair to lace them while Tess washed dishes. She brought a sponge over to wipe off the stove, where she faced in his direction. Joe had his boots on now and stood watching her work. He moved closer.
"How long will you stay?" His green eyes glinted at her.
"I don't know. There are a lot of things to settle. I'd planned to spend a few weeks here, before I received the news."
His glance slid away. He nodded toward the window. "It's coming down out there. At least I don't have much farther to go. Are you all right alone here?"
"I'm fine, Joe. I live alone. I'm used to it." She turned and picked up the dish towel. She wasn't used to living in this particular empty house, surrounded by memories of her childhood, with no family here to share them, but she wasn't about to admit that to him. Then she thought of the blackmail letter. She felt a great need to tell someone about that, but she'd decided to wait until after the funeral. She wouldn't let the blackmailer drive her away before then.
He turned to face her. "Do you need help making final arrangements?"
"Um, yes. Did Rose mention I phoned your house earlier?"
He shook his head. "I haven't been home since morning."
"I called to ask if you would give the eulogy."
His eyes darkened, but he nodded. "I have a lot I'd like to share about them."
Tess sighed, realizing what a weight that simple yet critical detail had been for her today. "I don't know how to thank you."
He looked reluctant, but said, "There is one thing. Your father had a cane I gave him. It was a gift, an antique made of hardwood, with a brass handle. I'd like to have that, as a keepsake."
Tess had to think for a minute. With all the packing she'd done of her family's things she'd never considered that her father might have used a cane. "I haven't seen it, but the sheriff still has their belongings from the accident." She still called it an accident, unable to get her mind to contain the idea that it might be murder. She recalled the sheriff had mentioned her father's wheelchair was found among the wreckage. "Would he have had the cane and his wheelchair with him?"
Joe nodded. "He took the cane everywhere. He hated the wheelchair, and used it as little as possible. I bought him that cane because he detested anything that looked like it came from a medical supply." Joe was frowning now. He looked away for a moment.
"Consider it yours. Tell Rose, too, if there's anything she wants, to let me know. I don't know what I'll do with all their things."
"If you need help going through them, let us know." He faced her again with a pained look. Then he came around in front of the stove and faced her. "You know, Tess, I had my reasons for feeling the anger I expressed last night. I loved your family. I thought you did too, when you were a girl. I've never understood why you stayed away."
She considered telling him why, but if he loved them as he said he did, she doubted he'd accept what she had to say. "It was between my parents and me."
He looked incredulous. "What about Spence? He missed you. Did something between your parents and you have to affect him as well?"
"I didn't want it to."
Joe leaned forward and put his hands lightly on her shoulders. He looked into her eyes and spoke quietly. "But it did, Tess."
"I can't change that now. I wish I could." Tears stung her eyes, tears she didn't want to shed in his presence.
"Didn't you ever want to see him? Didn't you miss them?"
"Of course I did." Tears stung her eyes. "How do you think I felt when--" Her throat constricted. She didn't want to cry with him so close, watching her this way. She cleared her throat. "I had reasons for not visiting, reasons I don't want to go into. That's in the past. Isn't it bad enough they're gone? Do we have to go over every wrong thing that ever happened?" Tess blinked back her tears and raised her chin to meet his gaze.
"I've made you cry. I'm sorry." Joe raised a hand to her chin, touched it lightly. His touch, his nearness somehow warmed and comforted her. He looked into her eyes, his own brilliant, searching. His expression changed, softened.
He moved closer, until his lips touched hers. She drew in her breath, and started to move out of his grasp, but then her hands met the hard expanse of his chest, and his lips touched hers, warm and supple. She let her lips linger on his for a few seconds, on the edge of surrendering in a single-minded response, before she backed away.
Joe stood there looking after her, wearing a dark gaze that Tess couldn't read. Then he moved.
"Goodnight." He uttered this in a low, raspy voice with an abrupt nod of his head, and he strode out of the kitchen.
Tess followed and watched him pull on his jacket at the door. "Drive carefully," she said as he opened it.
He glanced back at her, nodded again, and closed the door quickly behind him. Her lips still tingled from his kiss as Tess turned away. She touched them and listened to the sound of his truck as he started it.
Upstairs, Tess nestled under the warm bed covers, picked up her mother's second journal, and opened it to where she'd left off.
It took some time and effort to get her mind off Joe Latimer so she could concentrate on reading, but she eventually did with the help of her worries about the blackmail letter, which nagged at her with greater intensity as the hours passed. There was a chance her mother's journals could help solve that mystery, once she worked her way into the more recent ones. She was determined to read them in sequential order, to get a fix on when her parents had begun to change in their feelings, suspicions, and eventually their behavior toward Tess.
She read late into the night, skimming over everyday events and seasonal celebrations. She skipped over the humorous account of how she'd lost her first tooth. She knew these things. She could go back to them later. She wanted to get to the bottom of her questions about her family. She wanted to have answers for Joe if he asked again.
Finally, shortly after one in the morning, Tess put down the eighth volume and switched off the bedside lamp.
As she lay awake, her thoughts kept returning to the last page she'd read. It was her mother's account of how seven-year-old Tess followed young Joe Latimer everywhere and never stopped talking about what Joseph had said, or what Joseph had done. Her mother described Joe as a "tall, lanky, black-haired boy with thoughtful green eyes. He never seems to tire of Tess tagging after him, and he brought her a bunch of daisies this morning. Tess's first flowers from a beau?"
Tess tossed and turned that night, her dreams full of the boy Joseph Latimer, whom she'd sought out so persistently as a child.
Later in the night her dreams changed. She ran barefoot down a road, away from a car that pursued her. The faster she tried to run, the slower she moved. Tess wanted to escape into the woods, but she couldn't make her legs move in that direction. Finally she stood still in the middle of the road, unable to move at all, while the headlights bore down on her. Closer.
Tess woke with a start.
Had that been a noise? An engine? She didn't hear anything now, but something had roused her completely from sleep a second ago.
She sat up and listened, sensing a stillness in the old house that seemed remarkable, considering all the strange noises it had made to keep her awake her first night here. She listened for a few minutes, but heard nothing out of the ordinary. Still feeling anxious, restless, she attempted to reason herself into relaxing. The dream must have wakened her.
Then another sound caught her attention, and adrenaline sent her heart racing. This sound had come from downstairs.
Tess crept out of bed and listened, mouth open, as she made her way out to the stairs. She stood on the upstairs landing and waited. It was a rattle, like that of a doorknob. The front door. Someone was fiddling with the door lock. Trying to pick it?
A scream rose in her throat, threatening to let loose along with her panic. She put a hand over her mouth. Whatever the person wanted, there was no good reason she could think of that they'd try to pick her lock in the middle of the night rather than use the doorbell. She had to do something.
She switched on the light over the stairs, then continued down the stairs into the foyer, where she switched on the foyer and porch lights with one swipe of her hand across the wall panel.
The rattle of the doorknob stopped abruptly. Then Tess was certain she heard movement on the floorboards of the front porch. She pictured someone darting down the porch steps.
Silence, except for Tess's heartbeat pulsing in her ears as she imagined a figure running off through the snow out there, but she couldn't be sure unless she saw them. She turned off the two inside lights. Leaving the porch light on, she went into the living room and parted the drapes a crack to peer outside.
A gust of wind whined in the trees or the chimney. Branches scraped the roof of the porch. The dark shapes of the trees outside danced in their snow blankets, shrouded by falling snow. The front door shook with the gust, and the doorknob rattled. Snow spattered against the big living room window in front of her, and Tess backed away from it with a startled cry.
Finally she laughed, and berated herself for panicking at the wind. She returned upstairs to bed. She'd settled down again, gotten her pillow back into the right shape, her head into the right depression on the pillow, when she heard another noise that wasn't the wind.
Somewhere outside, down near the road or up on the hill beyond the driveway, an engine started and whined away into the night, too quickly for her to get a handle on the sound. It was drowned out by another gust of wind.
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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