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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Friday morning revealed a world layered with a new accumulation of white. Snow had fallen all night long, the storm easing up toward dawn. Now the sky was clearing, and the sun reflected off snow, blinding Tess when she first opened the west-facing front door. Snow had drifted onto the porch and steps, so she had to take a broom out with her and sweep it out of her path. She shoveled the walkway and driveway. Then she watched the snow removal service's red truck labor up the road with a snowplow on the front of it. She was heading back into the house when she again noticed the smooth, virgin blanket of snow on the front yard.
Tess couldn't help herself, it filled her with the same urge she'd felt as a girl when faced with new snow. She ran over and plopped down in the cold stuff, and moved her arms and legs to make a snow angel. She got up and repeated her action twice more, once on each side of the asphalt walkway. Three snow angels soon graced the yard, beckoning her back to the house, where she changed clothes and ate a hot breakfast.
When it came time to plan her day, all Tess could think about were the blackmail letters. She took out her list of the people who'd come to the house yesterday and looked it over. She needed more information before she broke the news to Paige and Harry. She dialed the number for the Latimers, but got their answering machine. Frustrated, Tess drove into town. She planned to visit Joe at his veterinary clinic and request his help with her list.
On the drive, she slowed as she approached the curve in the road where her family's van had gone over. There was a pullout across the road from the spot, on the inside of the curve. On an impulse, Tess parked there, got out, and crossed over to the outside curve, which edged a steep drop off into a ravine filled with rocks, brush and trees, under the fresh covering of new snow. She had to watch her footing, because snow had been piled at the side of the road by the snowplow, and she couldn't tell for sure where the shoulder ended and the drop off began, beneath the dirty ridges of cleared snow. She kept her distance, and peered over into the ravine where the van had rolled into a stand of trees, way down there near a creek bed. It was a long way down. She'd been told the van had rolled a few times before it hit the trees and rocks below.
She wondered if her father's missing cane was somewhere down there, buried under snow. If it was wood, it could have been thrown from the wreckage and landed among tree branches where it had been virtually invisible to the sheriff's people.
Tess found herself shivering as she visualized the crash scene. She scrambled back into the car, cranked up the heater, and drove on into town.
Cedar Creek's main street was a fantasy scene this morning. Everything was frosted with new snow, and Tess drove through with a feeling of being inside the pages of a fairy tale. She'd joked, while living in L.A., about shoveling snow and the cold, and the long winters in a mountain climate, while secretly she'd missed it.
Downtown Cedar Creek was quiet. It was early for shoppers to be out. Tess slowed in front of a big white Victorian house, and spotted a sign across the street for Cedar Creek Animal Hospital, which must be Joe Latimer's veterinary clinic.
She parked nearby, got out and looked around. Joe's office was still closed. Across the street from it, the old Victorian's front yard sported a crude, unfinished plywood sign.
"Sierra Lights--Fine Arts Gallery
Maybe she could get a look at Alan's gallery before Joe arrived at his office. She crossed the street to the majestic old house and tried the front door. It opened with the jingle of a string of bells that hung inside the door.
"Be right with you!" a voice called from somewhere inside. It sounded like Joe.
"Take your time," Tess called.
"Tess?" Joe appeared in the far doorway, clothed in a plaid shirt and faded, paint-spotted jeans. "You're out early this morning."
"A lot of city people rise early too, you know."
He came toward her with a claw hammer in one hand, his smile wide.
"Are you remodeling?" She nodded at the hammer.
He glanced at his hammer. "I'm building display shelves for Jessica's shop. The Boudoir," he added with a wry grin.
Tess recalled Jessica's mention of her cousin Trent, and she shivered.
"Cold out, after L.A., isn't it? You're not used to this."
"I'm fine. How many businesses are you going to house here?"
"So far, there are four. Alan Stewart's gallery, Jessica's bath products shop, Rose's books and gifts, and Laura Greene's bookkeeping service, but we have space for at least five more. I thought I'd leased the kitchen and dining space for a restaurant, about two weeks ago, but that fell through." As he said this, he headed toward the kitchen and dining area, and she followed. It was a large, old-fashioned kitchen, partly refitted for commercial use. The dining room and parlor had been opened up to make room for seating.
"This used to be a veterinary office?" Tess noted the crown molding, wainscoting, and hardwood floors that must be vintage oak. The decorative detail on the arched entrance to the parlor was exquisite, the work of craftsmen of an earlier era.
Joe's gaze moved affectionately over the rooms. "I used to live here, along with my business. It took up the front rooms on the other side, and the back of the first floor. I lived upstairs, but used this as my kitchen. It wasn't ideal for my purposes, and it's too big for one person to live in, which is why I built the new place. This is perfect for several small businesses. Laura and Alan are already open for trade."
Tess turned to him purposefully. "Is Rose here at her shop this morning?"
"No, she's been working weekday mornings at the high school library. She'll be here later, if you try back. Did you need something?"
"I'm hoping you and she can help me recall the names of everyone who attended the buffet at my house yesterday." Tess pulled her list out of her purse. "I've made this list of everyone I remember being there, but I didn't know some of the names, and I'm sure I've left some out."
Joe said nothing. He appeared to wait for a reason she would want to do this. She handed him the list and he scanned it, nodding his head a couple of times. Then he reached into his breast pocket for a pen, and went over to the kitchen counter to add some names. Finally he handed the list back to her. "That's all I remember. Why the list?"
It was an innocent question, but Tess wasn't prepared to explain. She hadn't spoken to Paige and Harry yet about the threat. She felt she owed it to them to let them know before she told anyone else.
"Tess! Hey, you made it." Alan Stewart stopped in the front hall, looking into the kitchen. He came in, hugged Tess, and kissed her cheek. "I knew you'd come see the place. Let me show you around. The gallery is upstairs." He took her hand and drew her out of the room, saying over his shoulder, "Did you ask her yet, Joe?"
"No," Joe replied.
Alan started up the stairs, with Tess in tow.
"Ask me what?"
"If you want to lease his kitchen for your bakery."
"What?" She stopped and stared at Alan.
"That's what you always wanted, isn't it?"
"You used to say you wanted to come back here after college and open a bakery. Did you ever change your mind?"
"Yes. I mean, no. I--" Tess realized she'd never changed her mind at all. It had been changed for her, by her parents, by the magazine, by circumstances beyond her control. Or had they been beyond her control? Ever since hearing of the crash that killed her family she'd been asking herself why she hadn't come back to visit years ago, regardless of what her parents wanted. What would they have done, thrown her out of the house? At least then she would've known how they felt about her. She wouldn't have this big, empty, gnawing question left unanswered by the suddenness of their deaths.
"Well which is it?" Alan grinned at her.
She studied his face. "You look so happy. You didn't used to smile all the time like this. You must love putting your gallery together."
"I'm having the time of my life. Come on." Alan continued up the stairs. "It's risky, finally putting all my ideas to the test, investing my savings. Still, I had to do this sooner or later, or die wondering if I could've made it work."
Tess felt an odd sensation and looked over her shoulder. Joe Latimer stood at the foot of the stairs watching them, his face a mask of--what? Anger? Bitterness? She couldn't read it, and Alan was above her on the stairs, urging her to follow.
The gallery took up most of the second floor, including the hallway and balcony overlooking the entrance below. The walls weren't filled yet, but Alan was steadily working his way in that direction. "A lot of what's here so far is Laura's, Ed's and my work, but I'm finding other artists in the area. Rose's shop is on this floor too. We thought artwork and books fit well together. The Boudoir, Jessica's bath products shop, is up in the garret. You'll have to meet Jessica later. I think she rises at the crack of noon." He chuckled.
"I've already met her."
"Yeah? Why don't you take a look around here, while I go down and talk to Joe for a minute. He looked about to spit nails a minute ago. I'd better make sure my rent check didn't bounce or something."
Tess wound her way through the gallery, following the walls. There were pieces on display in the walkways as well, out of the path but viewable from all sides. These were mostly metal sculptures of plants, their leaves shaped into receptacles for water fountains. They must be Alan's work. Tess took it all in, but her mind kept returning to Alan's mention of a bakery. Her bakery. She couldn't get it off her mind. Finally, when she'd absorbed as much of the artwork as she could in one visit, she ventured back down to the kitchen, interrupting a joke between the two men, who both laughed.
Alan appeared to be having more fun, of the two. Joe's laughter was forced, and he didn't look all that happy. He glanced at Tess as she entered, and he sobered at once. He'd been leaning on the counter, but now he stood straight, facing the other way, appearing not to want to meet her gaze.
"Well?" Alan entreated Tess's opinion, looking eager, hopeful. "What do you think?"
"It's incredible. You have something special here. It's a beautiful house, Joe. What are you going to call it?"
Alan looked at Joe. "We were discussing that."
"Why don't you hold a contest? Have people submit name ideas. Are you going to have a grand opening?"
Joe turned and looked at her. "Are you interested in leasing the kitchen and dining space for a bakery? Alan seems to think you'll jump at the chance."
She looked at Alan, but Joe was the one putting the pressure on. She felt the weight of his gaze. His deep green eyes were lit up like a forest on fire.
"I'll consider it, but I'm only on a leave of absence. I'm not making any decisions now, just--well--drifting a bit, getting back in touch with myself."
"You sound like a teenager, talking like that." Joe turned away. "When you decide to be serious, give me a call." He stalked out the front door.
Alan watched Tess. "What is it with you and him?"
Tess looked after Joe, wondering the same thing. "He's grieving too, you know. He was closer to my family than I was in recent years." She couldn't believe she was making excuses for him, but it was true he'd been closer recently. Maybe that explained his behavior.
"Why did you stay away so long?" Alan asked the question quietly, with no accusation in his tone. His eyes flickered.
Tess wasn't sure she wanted to answer, or could. She headed for the front exit, and Alan walked beside her.
"You know what you could do. It would be a great help to us, and give you a handle on what you want. Sell baked goods at our grand opening. That would help you gauge what it would be like to run the business, as well as what the customer traffic would be. Decide what you want to do after that. Maybe you can get Joe to give you an ultra-short-term lease for the opening. He doesn't have any new prospects for the space, that I know of. That might be why he's acting so peeved at the moment. He's not normally a wet blanket. Why don't we go ask him what he thinks. He's right across the street."
"Not this morning, Alan. I have some things I need to take care of. Let me give it some thought."
At home, Tess placed her call to Paige and Harry. She got them on the conference phone and read the blackmail letter to them.
"Oh no," Paige groaned as soon as Tess finished reading it. "Look, I have some savings. Twenty thousand or so--"
"Paige. Wait. We're not going to pay them."
"What do you mean? It says you have to pay them and leave, or they'll go to the press. They haven't left you any option, Tess."
"They're breaking the law! Extortion is a crime. I'm not going to pay them. I'm not going to leave, either, until I'm ready. I've received two of these letters now. I'm taking them to the sheriff. I've made a list of everyone who was here yesterday when the second one was left."
"What if they go to the press as soon as they find out you've reported it? It could ruin us. Harry, aren't you going to say anything?"
"I'm afraid I agree with Tess. If you pay this person, they'll simply come back later and want more. Then what do you do? It does no good to try to save our business from bad press, if we're going to the poor house by way of blackmail. There's not a lot we can do aside from go to the police. It's not a perfect answer, but there it is."
"There's nothing we can do, once they go to the press," Paige argued. "Then the damage will be done and there's no undoing it. Then we're dead!"
Tess thought she could hear, between the lines of Paige's words, that Tess was responsible for this.
"I'm sorry." Tess's past shouldn't affect their business this way, whether she was at fault or not.
"You know, Tess," Paige said, "if I could reach through the phone line I'd strangle you right now. Don't you dare apologize for this. It's not your fault!"
"I'm going to the sheriff as soon as I hang up."
"No. Wait. Let's give this more thought. They said they'd contact you again, with instructions. Give us time to think this through. Maybe we'll come up with an answer." Paige said those last words with much more conviction than Tess felt.
Tess hung up the phone, frustrated. Who was doing this? Why? She felt certain there was more to it than an opportunistic grapple for money. It was someone who knew her, someone with an axe to grind. Could it be someone who resented the damage from her accident? The owners of the flower shop? The women gossiping yesterday had mentioned a lawsuit, but Tess's parents had never told her about any lawsuit. Had there been one?
Tess had no memory of her accident, and too little knowledge of the events after it. She still felt certain she would never have done what the sheriff and her parents and all the gossips thought she had done that night. What had really happened? What would happen to her business, her magazine, if word got out? What could the sheriff do about it?
She could only think of one thing to do if the blackmailer went to the press, and that was for her to leave their partnership. She'd been considering doing that, but she didn't want to be forced out this way. What about the next business she chose to enter into? Would that be jeopardized as well by these kinds of threats? She wanted to clear this up once and for all, but how?
The doorbell interrupted her thoughts.
Spence's girlfriend Karen Jensen stood on the doorstep, with her hand raised to press the bell again. She smiled mildly at Tess. Karen was curvy, for a sixteen-year-old, slightly plump. She wore her thick, chestnut brown hair long, with feathered bangs surrounding her lustrous brown eyes and long lashes. "Hi. Do you remember me?"
"Of course. Come in, Karen. How are you?"
Karen followed Tess into the living room, where she paused, looking around. "Are you staying on here at the house?"
"Until the end of the year. I've been planning to get back in touch with you, to ask if you'd like to have anything of Spence's."
Karen's eyes widened, and she glanced around the room. She shook her head with a sad expression. "I can't think of anything right now." She reminded Tess alarmingly of how she herself had felt a few hours ago, when she'd peered over the side of the road at the crash scene--traumatized and lost.
Tess urged Karen to sit down, and Tess took the armchair next to the sofa. "How long had you and my brother been dating?"
"About two years, but we weren't really dating at first. My mom wouldn't let me until I turned sixteen. We hung out together, and saw each other at school activities. We've known each other all our lives. We just started dating this past summer."
"Well, give some thought to whether you want any of his things, and let's make a date for you to come over for lunch one day next week, or after the holiday, when we're both better recovered from the shock."
Karen nodded. "I'd like that. I came to ask if you found a key that Spence was going to return to Stoneway for me."
"A key? No, but I haven't gone through his things yet. I'll keep a lookout for it. Do you need it back right away?"
Karen chewed her lower lip.
They both heard a vehicle park outside. Tess recognized the sound of Joe's truck, and mused over the fact that she knew it as she got up. "Excuse me."
Joe started talking as soon as she opened the door. "I'll only take a minute of your time. I want to give you something to think about." He glanced back toward the driveway where Karen's car was parked. "You have company?" Now he looked at Tess.
"Karen Jensen is here." Tess moved aside and invited him in.
Karen got up to leave. Joe greeted her in a relaxed and friendly manner, while he'd been nothing but tense with Tess a few seconds ago. Karen said hi to him and continued to the door.
"I'll look for the key, and I'll call you," Tess told her as she left. Then she invited Joe into the living room, but he refused.
"I'll only be a minute. I came to make you an offer. Alan mentioned his idea of letting you bake for the grand opening as a trial for a possible business. He told me you're thinking of moving back here." Joe looked away for several seconds. "I'm not putting this well. I want you to consider doing that. Staying, leasing the bakery--er, restaurant space. If you decide you want to lease the place, I'll do whatever modifications you need, to make it work. I'd like to do business with you." He met her gaze, his own eyes stormy with tension.
Tess wasn't so sure Joe would feel the same desire to do business with her if he knew her current business was being threatened by blackmail over her past, but she nodded. "I will consider it. When is your opening?"
"In two weeks. We wanted to open the weekend after Thanksgiving, to catch the first holiday shoppers, but we're running behind, so it will be the following weekend. It would mean a lot to us to have you there, Tess. I asked Rose to come by later and talk to you about the plans for the opening. Is that all right?"
"Yes, of course." After all, exploring her dreams was the whole reason she'd decided to come here, before tragedy intervened.
"Good." Joe held out his hand. Tess shook it. He was keeping his distance now. She wondered at the change. Tess stood on the porch and watched him drive away.
As he was turning out of the driveway, another car turned in past him and pulled up out front. A blue sedan. Alan Stewart got out and waved at Joe, a big smile on his face as he approached the door, and Tess.
"I wanted to come with Joe, to help persuade you, but he was on his way home for lunch. I forgot to send these with him. They're just a couple of flyers for you to take a look at." He handed her a few sheets of paper, with an ad for the grand opening of his gallery printed on them.
Tess thanked him, and couldn't help seeing his glance toward the door. He was hoping she'd invite him in, but she wanted a little time alone.
The phone rang, its sound muffled by the door. "Um--I have to get that. It's business." She nodded over her shoulder, her hand on the doorknob.
"Oh. No problem. I need to get back. I'll . . . see you soon." Alan turned back toward his car with another wave, no longer smiling, and Tess hurried inside to answer the phone.
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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