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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Paige, Tess and Harry rode to the funeral together in Paige's rental car on Thursday. The mortuary in Wilder stood at the nearer end of town. When they arrived, Tess spotted Joe Latimer standing on the steps beside a woman, who thankfully wasn't Jessica Laine. Joe spoke to the woman, and she waved discreetly to Tess. Moments later Joe introduced her as his sister Rose.
Rose Latimer was tall, brown-haired, and unremarkable except for her eyes, which were the same dark green and gold as Joe's. She wore a long beige coat, open over a sedate forest green dress of the type Tess's mother used to wear to church. She was a lot thinner than Tess remembered, when she was eventually able to recall her as a young adult. Rose had been two years ahead of Tess and Angie in school, and Tess recalled with an inner cringe the time Angie had made fun of Rose's round shape. Tess hoped Rose didn't remember--but how did one forget an experience like that? Tess introduced Paige and Harry. A smile transformed Rose's face, and she was suddenly beautiful. The transformation caused Tess to take pause.
Joe held the door for all of them and they went inside.
Tess sat through the ordeal of the funeral, conscious of the sea of people seated in the large room. She hadn't expected so many. The minister from her mother's church officiated, and Joe offered the eulogy, which ended too soon, leaving the gathering in a silence broken only by sniffles and low murmurs. At the conclusion of the service, the minister announced on Tess's behalf that those in attendance were invited back to the house for a buffet lunch.
Tess returned to the house with Paige and Harry, where she went directly to the kitchen, to stress over the amount of food she'd prepared. Harry pitched in, helping to set the food out in the dining room. They heard cars drive up, and Tess was filled with unaccountable panic at the prospect of running out of food within minutes, when Paige answered a knock at the back door.
Joe and Rose Latimer had arrived with the beverages, as promised, and more food, which they carried in the back door. Lots of food, Tess realized as she watched them carry in one dish after another from Rose's car. Stunned by the sudden and miraculous abundance, Tess stammered her thanks as the first guests arrived and filtered into the living and dining rooms. Rose and Joe set to work, arranging the buffet as though Tess had given them detailed instructions, when she hadn't said a word.
They turned to find Tess watching them, dumbfounded by their generosity, and Joe said simply, "We realized you wouldn't know how many people to expect. Rose wanted to help."
"Thank goodness for you and Rose." It was all Tess had time to say. More guests were arriving, and she turned her attention to them.
Within a short time two dozen or more people were gathered in the big country kitchen and family room, where they'd visited with Tess's mother Cathy numerous times through the years.
"This was her favorite room," Tess heard someone say.
"Tess," a familiar voice called, and Tess turned as Angie crossed the living room to hug her tightly. They spent a few minutes talking, and Tess promised to come out to Stoneway to spend time with Angie while she was in town. Then another guest approached Tess with a story about her father. Another to talk about something her brother had done. This went on, and finally Paige brought Tess a plate of food and suggested she sit for a few minutes.
Tess's head spun with her own memories, mingled with the kind words and memories of her guests, and she suddenly wanted some time alone to cry. She hadn't realized the funeral would have this impact on her, and she told Paige so. Paige sat in a corner with her to eat and they kept their backs to the crowd, allowing the other people to fade into the background for a few minutes.
Tess was in the dining room a short time later when a male voice beside her said, "I'm so sorry, Tess." She turned, and took a moment to realize who the man was.
"Alan." Tess hugged him tightly. This was Alan Stewart, whom she'd dated for several months before she left home that last summer.
"I wasn't sure you'd recognize me."
Alan had been a skinny eighteen year old. Now his shoulders were broader, and he was taller than Tess remembered. His hairline was receding, and he had given up the immature goatee he'd worn back then along with the black clothing. Today he wore a neat gray suit and tie. He was clean shaven, with short brown hair. His face, once babyish, now appealed with a kind of reasonable, adult sensitivity. His hazel eyes lit up as he regarded Tess. "I'm relieved to see you here, looking so well. I wish it wasn't under these circumstances. Will you be in town long?"
Tess nodded. "I'm taking a leave of absence from my business. I'd planned to be here next week, and I was going to stay through New Years. I haven't changed that plan, it's just changed itself, dramatically. It's hard to take it all in." She found herself dipping toward tears again, and shook them off. "How are you doing, Alan? Are you painting?"
Tess and Alan had met in art class, during high school, and they, along with a few other students who'd considered themselves budding artists, had formed a tightly knit group, encouraging each other and learning together.
"I spent a few years working as a graphic artist, doing some web design on the side. Now I work part time at a local print shop, in addition to my metal sculpture and painting. I've opened a gallery in town. You should come see it while you're here. Did you ever open your bakery? And more importantly, do you still paint?"
"No bakery, but I have been painting. In fact, I'm turning my old bedroom upstairs into a studio to work in while I'm here."
"You'll have to come see my gallery. Laura Reynolds is one of the contributing artists. So is Ed Greene. They're a married couple now, you know. I'm renting the space for the gallery from Joe Latimer. Laura has a bookkeeping service there, too. It's an old Victorian house where Joe used to have his clinic before he moved into his new building across the street. Jessica Laine is opening a bath products boutique there. Only I think she's in it for fun, and to have an excuse to be in contact with Joe on a regular basis. Joe's sister Rose is opening a bookstore. Here are Laura and Ed now."
Tess turned alongside him to greet her old friends. Ed Greene and Laura, who was now his wife, had been a part of their informal artists' circle when they were teenagers. Both of them greeted Tess enthusiastically, subdued at first over her loss. Soon they were deep in conversation about their artwork. Laura, Ed and Alan were excited at the prospect of having Tess in town for at least a month, and they all agreed she needed to get some of her work into Alan's gallery.
Angie Norwood joined them, and turned the conversation with Alan and Ed to skiing and hunting. Angie's attention suddenly focused on a teenage girl who stood in the buffet line, and Angie went over to bring the girl, her plate half full, over to meet Tess. The girl looked reluctant, troubled.
"Tess, this is Karen Jensen, Spence's girlfriend. Karen worked for me at Stoneway until a few days ago." To Karen, Angie added, "Tess and I were best friends when we were girls."
Karen sent Angie a sideways glance, but greeted Tess with her hand extended.
"Karen, I'm so sorry to have to meet you like this." Tess hadn't known Spence had a girlfriend.
The girl nodded shyly and turned away. Tess thought she was headed back to the buffet, but instead she brought two adults over and introduced them to Tess as her parents, Margaret and Hank Jensen. "Spence's sister, Tess." Karen appeared close to tears.
A few minutes later Angie had to leave, to see to her guests at Stoneway, and Tess excused herself to walk her out. "I'm sorry we didn't get to talk more, Angie."
"You'll have to come out and spend some time with us, like we planned, before you leave. You will, won't you?" Angie turned at the door to face Tess.
"I have some old photos I'm dying to show you. Oh, and my brother Kevin's birthday party is in a few days. I'm sure he'll want you to be there. Remember Kevin?" She made Tess promise to attend the party.
After Angie left, Tess remained in the foyer for a minute, savoring the moment to herself before heading back to be with her guests.
She overheard two women talking in the living room, just the other side of the partial wall that divided the living room from the foyer where Tess stood.
"I don't see any alcohol here," the first woman said, arguing with her companion. "No drugs, no weird religious symbols, not even a stick of incense."
"Of course you wouldn't, after that funeral, with the minister from their church and all," the second woman said. "She hasn't lived in this house for years, but if she'd been here when the accident that killed them all happened, you'd wonder if she was the one driving. Nearly killed herself that other time. They were sued because of it. She tried to blame it on someone else, but the drugs were in her blood. I think she may have served time in jail, or a juvenile detention center. They said she was staying with relatives, but if so why didn't she come back to visit, after she was an adult? She left and never came back, until now."
Tess walked away in the other direction, through the study, to avoid seeing who it was who said those things. She knew they were talking about her and her accident, the reason she thought her parents had sent her away.
It crossed Tess's mind that it might be one of her guests today who was blackmailing her. She stood in the study, stunned for a moment by the idea that they might have the nerve to come here, eat, and pretend to grieve with her, while they harbored such diabolical motives. Tess returned to the kitchen and visited with the people there, trying to forget, trying not to wonder whether everyone here had heard gossip about her, trying not to believe she had an enemy here among all her family's friends.
By late afternoon, nearly everyone had gone home. The weather had turned stormy again, and people wanted to get home before driving became difficult.
Rose Latimer collected her clean, empty dishes, and Joe helped her load them into her car. Tess hugged Rose gratefully, thanking her again for her help. Then Paige went to the door with Harry. Both had their suitcases in hand.
"Thank you both for being here. I wish you could stay another night." Tess wanted to beg them to. She hadn't mentioned her prowler of two nights ago to them, or the blackmail letter, afraid they'd insist she return to L.A.--as if that were a safer place. Now she dreaded sleeping alone in this house.
Paige shook her head. "We'd better get to a lower elevation before we get snowed in here." She didn't miss Tess's look of disappointment. She hugged her tightly and gave her a sisterly kiss. "Take care, sweetie."
Harry followed with a hug and kiss for Tess as well. "We've a magazine to get to the printer, but we'll call you soon. Take care." Then he was out the door behind Paige. Tess held the door, noting theirs was the last car remaining out front, besides her rental.
She closed the door, locked it, and went to the kitchen to check the back door. She locked it, and looked around the kitchen. Rose and Paige had cleaned so well that Tess couldn't tell anyone had eaten a meal here today. Leftovers were packed neatly into the refrigerator, so Tess wouldn't have to cook tonight. A stack of firewood was freshly heaped on the floor near the fireplace.
Tess was about to turn off the kitchen light when she heard a thump at the back door. She hesitated to open it, but when she peered out the window there was Joe, with another load of wood, his breath steaming. She let him in and he deposited the wood on top of the stack already there. Tess remembered now that he'd parked out back when he arrived with Rose and the food and beverages.
"With a storm coming you can't afford to be without enough fuel in the house. The wall heaters aren't enough when the cold sets in." He brushed his hands and sleeves off, watching Tess. "I overheard you say you're staying on through New Years." He smiled mildly. "I'm glad to hear it."
"I can't thank you and Rose enough, for all your help today, and for the words you shared at the service."
"Will you be all right here tonight?" He seemed genuinely concerned, which touched her.
She paused, wanting more than anything to ask him to stay a little longer, but she feared allowing herself to learn to want his company any more than she already did--and she only now realized how much she did.
"I'll be fine."
"Storms don't frighten you?"
"Storms don't frighten me. I find them exciting. Honestly, I'll be fine." She lifted her chin and met his gaze.
"I'm sure you will." He buttoned his overcoat. "I'd better get home before this gets any worse. It's blowing up already out there. Remember to lock up." With a curt goodnight he went out the back door.
Tess moved through the rest of the house, closing up, drawing curtains against drafts. She stopped at the upstairs hall window and listened to the wind in the trees behind the house, their branches rattling against the roof. She looked down when a bright light made her realize that Joe was still there, seated in his truck behind the house, starting his engine and turning on his headlights. He let the engine warm up for a minute before he eased the truck around to the driveway.
On her return to the foyer downstairs, to turn on the front porch light, Tess noticed an envelope on the hall table addressed to her. Her name was typed on the outside. If not for the shape of the envelope she would've expected it to be another sympathy card, but this was a long business envelope, like the blank one she'd found in the mailbox yesterday. She opened it and unfolded the single sheet of paper it contained.
It was another blackmail letter, a printed copy, identical to the first.
Tess stared at the page, wanting to laugh, to believe it was someone's idea of a sick joke, a joke they felt they needed to repeat because no one had laughed the first time. Yet she knew this was serious. She remembered the gossips she'd overhead hours earlier, and felt sure everyone in town was aware she'd been blamed for that accident years ago, although she'd never been charged. If word of who she was in the publishing world got out, along with the story that she'd left her little brother at home alone that night, what would it do to her business? What would it do to Paige and Harry, and all their employees?
Tess carried this second blackmail letter over to the sofa and sat down to think. She got up, after a few minutes, and went to the study for paper and a pen. She sat at her father's desk and made a list of everyone she remembered being here this afternoon. One of those people had left this letter. She realized after a few minutes that she didn't know all their names. She would need to ask Rose and Joe to tell her who some of the guests had been.
Meanwhile the wind howled outside, and the snow didn't fall, but drove against the windows.
Eventually Tess went upstairs and got ready for bed. Again she felt exhausted, and she wondered if this was depression, seeping into her bones, cold, slogging and hopeless. That would be natural, a part of the grieving process. She shrugged. This was more than grief, it was grief combined with blackmail, grief combined with the possibility of murder. She'd never felt so alone in her life.
She resolved to call Paige and Harry tomorrow, give them a heads up about this letter, and offer to dissolve her part in the partnership right now. Somehow she'd make things right. Tonight it would be enough to sleep through this storm.
She wondered again if her mother's journals would have an answer to this blackmail question. Would she find information in them about her accident? Something Tess herself didn't remember? Something her parents learned after Tess went to live in Seattle with her aunt?
Then her thoughts turned to Dr. Lloyd's words, to his mention of her father planning to call her. Tess searched through her mother's journals again for the current year's book. Of course it was futile. Nothing had changed. It still wasn't there.
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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