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 made two more snow angels that afternoon, one on either side of the front walkway, in an attempt to release tension. A car turned into the driveway while she lay on the ground pushing snow around. She felt foolish, but she finished the second snow angel before she stood up to find Rose Latimer leaning against her car, smiling at her.
Rose waved. "That's a fine troupe of snow angels."
"I suppose it looks silly, but I needed to unwind." Tess looked down at her clothes caked with snow and lifted her hands. "Now I need to change. Come on in." She led the way into the house, and headed for the stairs. "Make yourself at home. I'll only be a minute."
"No problem, and I like your idea of how to unwind," Rose called after her.
When Tess returned downstairs she found Rose in the kitchen. The fire had been fed, and Rose was carrying the teapot over to the table, along with a plate of cookies.
"I hope you don't mind, I made us some tea."
"Not at all. It will warm me up." Tess brought cups over to the table and sat down. "I want to thank you again for helping with the food yesterday. I don't know what I would have done without you and your brother. I was a bit lost over the whole business. I'm still--"
"In shock? So are we. We were so close to your family. Your mother was a great source of support to me. I miss them a lot." Rose poured the tea. "Joe asked me to bring you up to speed on our plans for our grand opening."
"First tell me about your bookstore."
"It's a book and gift shop, actually. Books, small gift items, greeting cards. Books are my passion, but I'm told they don't bring in a lot of trade these days, so the other items are there to entice people to take a walk past the books."
"I love books. I can't walk into a bookstore without spending money."
Rose laughed. "I'm hoping there are lots of your kind here, more than I know about. You know, I have three of your cookbooks, and I subscribe to your magazine. What are you working on now?"
Tess sighed and sipped her tea. "I'm not working at all right now. I'm trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life. I may leave the magazine and book business altogether. I don't know yet. Right now I'm taking it easy, reading Mom's journals, trying to figure out the mysteries of my own family."
Rose took this in with a nod. "She mentioned to me that she kept journals. You might learn new things about her."
"That's what I'm hoping, but she wrote mostly about us--the family. She didn't talk about herself when I was growing up. Did she to you?"
"Not much. Cathy was one of those people who focused on others, to the exclusion of herself."
Tess nodded. Yet someone may have killed her. Why was that? "How could anyone not love her?"
"Why--" Rose stopped, but her face asked the question for her.
"Why didn't I visit?" Tess wasn't sure she wanted to break the spell for Rose, any more than she wanted to for Joe. They believed her mother was no less than a constant source of support for her family, as she had apparently been to Rose. Tess shook her head. "I won't go into that. I don't know all the reasons, for certain, and my parents aren't here to tell their side of the story. Do you know about my accident, eleven years ago?"
Rose nodded, looking down at her teacup. "Yes, I'd heard about it, but I hate gossip." It was all she said, and it made Tess wonder.
"So you didn't hear about it from my family. What did you hear about it, and from whom?"
"I don't want to repeat it." Rose wore a look of distaste.
Tess dropped the subject, frustrated, wondering how she would ever figure out who was blackmailing her. The culprit wasn't likely to volunteer the information, but who would? She took a cookie and offered the plate to Rose.
Rose stiffened. "No, none for me, thanks."
"Would you look at a list of the guests who were here after the funeral yesterday, and tell me if I've left anyone out? I already showed it to your brother." Tess got up and retrieved the list.
Rose looked it over, and added a few names, mostly people who attended the same church she and Tess's mother had. She shook her head eventually. "I don't recall anyone else. What's the list for?"
"It's--to jog my memory. Tell me about the grand opening."
Tess and Rose spent hours, first talking about the grand opening of Joe's business center, and then visiting. Rose brought up the subject of Tess's artwork in her cookbooks. "I've always envied that kind of creative talent. Of course I see cooking as an art, and I do love to cook." Rose glanced at Tess with longing in her expression. Then she smiled shyly.
Tess nodded. "Any pursuit can be artwork. It's embracing what you're doing, and forgetting yourself completely while you do it. I've seen people make a dance out of directing traffic."
She took Rose upstairs to show her what she was doing with her old bedroom, turning it into a studio to work in while she was here.
"Oh, did you get to see Alan Stewart's gallery this morning?" Rose hesitated then. "Your mother told me you used to date him."
It amazed Tess that her mother would share that information with Rose. Alan was the boy her mother had insisted she break up with, right before her parents set her up on her ill-fated date with Trent Cambridge.
"How interesting." Rose picked up the two silver necklaces, the Celtic cross and pentacle, which Tess had left on the typing table beside her laptop. Rose blushed as she glanced at Tess and put them down. Tess thought she could see the wheels turning in Rose's mind. Was she wondering about the pentacle? Did she understand its significance? Tess waited for her questions, but Rose never asked them.
"Your mother and I went to the same church," she said quietly, and that was all. Tess took a deep breath and didn't reply. Rose was different from anyone she'd ever come across, but Tess understood shyness in a way that more extroverted people likely couldn't, and she found that she liked Joe's quiet, understated sister, in spite of her awkward pauses and unspoken questions.
"It was a gift," Tess told Rose. "The points of the pentacle represent earth, air, fire, water, and spirit, to Pagans. At least that's my understanding."
Rose nodded, silently taking in her words.
"My mother gave me the cross."
"She gave me one just like it."
Tess felt a powerful tug of envy, in that instant, for Rose and her closeness to Tess's mother. She hated the feeling, and immediately wanted to turn it around. "Rose, Joe told me about a cane he gave my father, that he'd like to have as a keepsake. Would you like anything of my mother's? Let me know, because I have no idea what I'll do with all their things. I'm overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning out this house, if I decide to sell it, and I--"
Rose turned abruptly with a gasp and a surprised look that made Tess pause mid-sentence. "What is it?"
"I--that's kind of you. I'll think about it. I can't think of anything right now. Maybe--" Rose shook her head, blushing again. "Maybe you should wait until after you have a chance to--" She broke off again and appeared not to know what to say. "Until you have a chance to straighten out all their affairs." Rose looked at the door of the studio then, as if seeking an escape.
They were on their way down to the kitchen again when the doorbell rang. Rose looked at her watch. "I should be going. I didn't realize it was so late."
Tess opened the front door, and Angie Norwood nodded in the direction of the snow angels. "I see you've been playing in the snow. That's a healthy sign. I was able to get away for a few hours, and I wondered if you could use some company. Oh, hi Rose." Angie's voice took on a note of humor and a look of amusement entered her eyes.
Rose greeted Angie quietly and put on her coat, saying she had to go. Angie looked after her as she closed the door. Then she turned to Tess. "What did she want?"
"We were visiting."
Angie shrugged and clamped her lips shut as if changing her mind about something. "I didn't think you knew her that well."
"No, but she and my mother were good friends. Come into the kitchen. I'll make us some fresh tea."
"I'd love some coffee."
They sat in the kitchen and nibbled at the plate of cookies. The conversation started out slow, as the two women warmed up again after years of separation. It gave Tess an opportunity to take in the physical changes in her former schoolmate.
Angie and Tess had been told numerous times when they were girls that they looked like sisters. They looked less so now, but both had blue eyes and dark brown hair. Tess's eyes tended more toward cerulean, while Angie's were aquamarine. Tess's taller, slender frame contrasted with Angie's more robust, athletic build. Tess wore her hair longer, and it waved naturally. Angie's was thicker, and she wore it in a short, straight style that curled under right at her neckline.
"Your partners mentioned yesterday that you're on a hiatus." Angie bunched her eyebrows. "How is your magazine doing?"
"Oh, it's coming along." Tess regretted that they'd talked about the business at all yesterday, because now she wouldn't be able to discern who'd already known about it and may have left her that first blackmail letter two days earlier.
The coffee finished burbling, and Tess got up to pour it. "Angie, do you still hear much gossip about the accident I was hurt in years ago?"
Angie didn't say anything at first. When Tess sat down and looked at her she shrugged. "It's old news, and most of the people I talk to are from out of town, so they wouldn't know about it. I heard some old biddies talking about it yesterday, comparing it to your family's accident. That was right before I left. Why?"
"I heard what must have been the tail end of the same conversation."
Angie's eyes flickered. "I was worried you'd overhear and it would upset you." She studied Tess's face. "How are you doing? It has to be some shock, losing your parents and brother all at once."
Tess shrugged. "I'm doing about as well as you'd expect."
"How are you planning to spend your time here?"
"There's plenty of work to do, settling my family's affairs. I'm thinking of helping Joe and Rose with their grand opening, too. Have you seen what they're doing with that old house?"
Angie made a face. "They don't know what the hell they're doing. We have two restaurants at Stoneway, and a gift shop. What do they think we need that place for?"
"It will be nice to have a bookshop so close, won't it? You're not worried about the competition, are you? I'm thinking about getting involved with it myself. You know how I always used to want to open a bakery here."
Angie's eyes opened wide. "Oh. Sorry. I didn't mean to discourage you. They came up with this so suddenly, I don't get the impression they've put much thought into it. I'm not convinced they have a lot of business sense between them. They're sinking a lot of money into inventory and renovations. I guess I've become cynical about such things."
Tess had heard from others yesterday that Angie had done a lot of renovations at Stoneway, so this made her wonder. "Is Stoneway doing well?"
"It takes up all my time, I barely have a private life anymore, but it's doing well."
"So there are no money problems?" Tess had to ask. She hated to, but the blackmail letter weighed on her mind.
Angie laughed. "There are always money problems with a business, you know that. Don't get me started. Oh don't look like that. Things are going okay. So you're staying? Maybe for good?" Her eyes were wide with interest.
"I don't know. I planned to come here for some quiet time, to think things through. Now I have my family's affairs to settle, and a mystery to boot. I haven't had a chance to think. There's not a lot to hold me here with them gone."
"What about old friends?"
Tess returned Angie's smile. "Old friends are wonderful."
"What's the mystery?"
Tess regretted that slip. She didn't want to talk about the blackmail letter. She reached for a cookie, but only held it, thinking. "I'm reading through my mother's journals, trying to learn from them why my parents kept me from visiting all those years."
"Your mom kept journals?"
Tess nodded, looking at the cookie in her hand. "They discouraged me from visiting, you know. They sent me away, after my accident, and they found some excuse or another for me not to visit, whenever I told them I wanted to. It hurt me a lot, when I was younger. Then I guess my skin thickened, or I developed an attitude about it. I made my own life, and let them grow more distant as time went by. I feel as if I hardly knew them in the past few years. I hated that, though, and my surprise visit this year was intended to break through that. I was going to confront them and demand to know why they kept me away. I wanted to know if they thought I abandoned Spence that night, whether they still believed in me at all, after that accident."
"You disappeared without a word." Angie's taught voice revealed more than her narrowed eyes. Angie had been hurt as well, and Tess had done that. "Your parents wouldn't tell anyone how to reach you."
"I'm sorry I didn't contact you. They sent me away right after my accident, as soon as I got out of the hospital. They didn't want me to come home for the holidays. They were so distant after that, I didn't know about my dad's MS, or that he'd retired. When I was in college, they came up with any excuse they could for me not to visit during breaks or holidays."
Angie got up and went to the window. She sighed. "You and I weren't very close that last summer to begin with. I was always busy at Stoneway--and with Granddad while he was sick."
Tess had been too busy with her new friends, dreaming about her future, to realize Angie had been lonely and needed support through her grandfather's illness. Angie and Kevin both depended on their grandfather. Their parents were hopeless drug addicts, who'd been living on the streets in Sacramento and had essentially abandoned the two into their grandfather's care when they were children. Few people knew that about them, but Tess had known, and she'd let Angie down when she needed her.
"I'm so sorry, Angie. I never meant to hurt you."
"That was a long time ago." Angie returned to sit facing Tess. She picked up her coffee mug and reached for a cookie. "How long had it been, since you'd heard from your folks?"
"I called them two weeks before the accident, to feel out the situation before the holidays without actually asking them about their plans. For all the good it did. I learned more from you than I did from them. Dr. Lloyd thought my father planned to call me, before their accident, which is odd because my dad never did. It was always my mom."
"Why did Dr. Lloyd think your dad planned to call you then? I mean, how would he know? Was it about your dad's health?"
"It was something to do with Trent Cambridge. Apparently he hasn't reformed." Tess shook her head. "I wouldn't have been able to help them."
"Oh, I know about that. Trent's supposed to have raped a teenage girl. I heard there was no evidence though, only her word against his."
"Still, the man she's accusing happens to be Trent, whom we both know to have done things like that in the past."
Angie shrugged, then looked Tess in the eye and said in a quiet tone, "There was no evidence in your case either. You didn't report it. You didn't tell your parents."
Tess puzzled over Angie's words. "I told my parents about it, after my accident. Didn't they ask you about it?"
Angie wore a blank look.
"Angie, didn't my parents ever ask you about Trent trying to rape me?" Tess had pleaded with them to ask Angie about it. It had been important to Tess that they believe her.
Angie shook her head. "They never mentioned it to me. I didn't know they knew."
Tess looked down at the cookie she'd absently crumbled into pieces. She got up, brushed the crumbs into her hand and carried them to the sink. "I was right then. There's not much point in feeling guilty for refusing to talk to the deputy and Dr. Lloyd about it." She wondered if there was any point in continuing through her mother's journals.
Angie looked at her watch, then she gathered her jacket from the back of the kitchen chair. "I'd better run. I'll call you tomorrow and we'll set up some time for fun, all right?"
Tess followed her to the door and hugged her. Angie closed the door behind her, and Tess looked around the front room, her thoughts returning to that curve in the road where her family's van had gone over.
Tess put on her coat and walked down to the road for the mail. It was too cold to stay out, so she just grabbed the stack and hurried back inside to sort through it in the warmth of the living room.
She sorted out the ads, sympathy cards, and bills. One envelope had no return address, no postmark, and no stamp. Tess paused, looking at it with trepidation. It was the same type of envelope the other blackmail letters had been in.
She went to the kitchen and put on her mother's rubber gloves, then took a knife from the drawer to open the envelope. Inside, the letter was folded the same way as the others, and contained the identical threat. It looked like a copy, or a computer laser printout.
Now she'd received three identical blackmail letters, three days in a row. Why? Was the blackmailer worried she hadn't found the others? Or did they think she wasn't taking the threat seriously enough? There were still no further instructions, only the promise of more to come. Tess placed the letter inside a plastic bag.
She put on her coat and walked down to the mailbox again. It was a roadside box, larger than most, painted white with a red flag and a slot in front for the carrier to push the mail through. Anyone could have come along here and pushed the blackmail letters through the slot, anytime. When she was home she would've heard the car, but there had been at least an hour, this morning, when someone could've come here and not been seen. The driveway, and her rental car, were visible from the road, so they would see whether she was home or not.
Who was doing this? Karen, Joe, Alan, Rose, and Angie had each been here, one visitor after the other, since she'd come back from town; but during the time Tess had been in town this morning, anyone could've driven up and placed this in the box. Surely that was when it had happened. The blackmailer wouldn't risk dropping this off when she was home, with all the visitors she'd had today who might see.
Suddenly Tess wondered what would happen if her car wasn't visible, if it appeared no one was home. Would the blackmailer reveal him or herself--as they nearly had the other night when she'd heard the noise at her front door?
Tess started up the rental car, and moved it around to the back of the house. She took a quick, surreptitious look around the yard, and then the house as she moved around inside, locking up and closing windows for the evening. What if she didn't turn on any lights, or used only small, dim lamps in the places where she needed them, with all the drapes closed? Would the blackmailer think she wasn't home?
"I'm going nuts," she murmured with a shake of her head as she finished locking up. "They're driving me nuts."
Early that evening Tess took a long hot bath by candlelight, trying to settle her thoughts. She realized afterward that all she'd eaten today was breakfast and a cookie, and she'd drunk way too much tea and coffee. She sat at the kitchen table in her robe, the room illuminated only by the light of the fire, and ate some of yesterday's buffet leftovers.
Later she returned upstairs, closed the heavy bedroom drapes, and found the journal she'd been reading last night. She plugged in the book light she'd brought with her, turned it on and got into bed.
Tess had started out intending to read all her mother's journals in chronological order, but as she reached over to turn off the bedside lamp she knocked the stack of journals off the nightstand. She groaned and got out of bed to pick them up. One had fallen open, and the date at the top of the page caught her eye. It had been written the first December she'd lived with Aunt Christine in Seattle, during her senior year of high school. She took that journal, got back into bed, turned off the bedside lamp, and started reading with the book light.
"I felt awful telling Tess such a bald-faced lie. I wanted to see her at Christmas, we all did. I pray one day she'll understand. She sounded so disappointed, I can't believe she felt otherwise, and I can't understand why anyone would think so. Jim feels strongly about her staying at Christine's, and going off to college next year. Spence cried when he learned his sister wasn't coming. I couldn't help it, I cried too."
Tess gazed at the page for a long time. It wasn't full of information, and it didn't explain why her parents hadn't wanted her to visit, but it somehow made her feel better to know her mother had cared enough to write what she had on this page. She should stop trying to read all these journals in chronological order, and skip ahead to the events that preoccupied her most.
A noise outside distracted her. It was the sound of an engine, but not a car or truck. It was something like a lawn mower, maybe a motorcycle. She switched off the book light, then got up and moved the drapes aside, peering out the front bedroom window. A snowmobile, the white glow of its single light flooding over the snow in front of it, circled around on the yard below, as it chopped the snow with its track, obliterating the snow angels Tess had made there today.
Tess stood absolutely still and watched the bizarre scene, wondering why and who would do such a pointless thing. The rider wore a helmet, and what appeared to be dark clothing.
The snowmobile stopped and the rider raised his head and looked directly at her window. Tess froze, her heart pounding as she imagined he saw her. Tess closed the drapes quickly, and then chided herself for that movement, which the rider may have seen even if he hadn't seen her before.
In something of a panic, now, and feeling too alone and suddenly blind and vulnerable in the cloying darkness, Tess went to the bedroom door and turned on the overhead light.
She heard the snowmobile start up and speed away into the night. Then Tess remembered the sheriff's mention of a snowmobile seen in the area at the time of her family's crash. She went downstairs, turning on lights as she went, checking all the doors again to ensure they were locked.
She called the sheriff's office in Wilder.
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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