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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"We'll look into it as far as we can," the deputy who came out told Tess. He'd introduced himself as Duane Prescott then sat in the kitchen with her to listen and take notes about what she'd seen and heard. Now he gave Tess a long look. "You don't remember me, do you?"
She nodded. "From Dr. Lloyd's office the other day."
He shook his head. "I don't mean then. I was the officer who took your statement after your accident, years ago. Sheriff Kendall's concerned about you . . . with the questions we have about your family's accident and all."
The way he emphasized "family's" made her take pause. "Should I be frightened? I mean, I am, obviously. That's why you're here. Do you mean I'm not being paranoid? Do you think there's a good reason for me to be afraid?"
He looked apologetic. "Let's say we have questions. I don't mean to frighten you, but make sure you keep things locked up while you're here. Are you going to stay long?"
She nodded. "Through the end of the year."
"Then you might want to get Joe to install new locks on the doors. Have him check the window latches, things like that."
"Why would I ask him to change the locks?"
"He owns the house." Duane Prescott cocked his head, watching her. Tess's open mouth must have clued him in. "Your parents sold it to Joe, a while back. They didn't tell you?" He went still, watching her for a few seconds longer. "Have you spoken to their attorney yet?"
"No, he's out of town, and my parents didn't tell me anything." She bit her lip against her anger. "Neither did Joe." Now she thought she understood Rose's reaction today when Tess had mentioned the possibility of selling the house.
"Maybe he assumed you knew already."
She looked at him. "Do you know Joe?"
"Sure, I've known Joe for years. He used to volunteer on our search and rescue team. We were rivals when we played high school football."
"If someone caused my family's crash, that would be murder, correct? Could someone also have caused my accident, eleven years ago, and made it appear I was driving?"
He watched her with a grave expression.
"I've never been able to remember my accident." Tess got up and paced to the window and back. She turned to face him. Tess felt idiotic that it had never crossed her mind, until she'd overheard the gossip after the funeral yesterday, but she asked the question now. "Why weren't any charges ever brought against me? I had drugs and alcohol in my system, and I was found in the driver's seat."
He didn't answer. "As for whether both accidents could've been caused by the same person, it's a possibility we haven't considered. I'd wonder about the motives. Your family's accident happened so many years later, if it's the same person I'd have to wonder why they waited so long."
Tess was in her bedroom, with the bedside lamp on, searching through the journal she'd been reading, when the doorbell rang again. She pulled on a robe and slippers and went downstairs, but hesitated to open the door, even with the chain lock. She called out, "Who is it?"
"Tess, it's Joe. Are you all right?"
She opened the door and let him in without a word. He wore the same stormy look he had earlier today. "Duane Prescott told me he was up here tonight. Is everything all right?"
"You never told me you owned this house." She was still miffed about that.
Joe opened his mouth, but then looked to one side, his lips making a sideways half-grimace. "I would've told you eventually. You'd lost your family. It wasn't the time to play landlord."
Yet he hadn't considered it out of line to berate her for not visiting her family?
Tess realized all at once that Joe hadn't been living in Cedar Creek at the time of her accident, so he couldn't have caused it, and he wouldn't have tried to break into her house, since he had a key. He may be one of the few people here she could trust. The idea surprised her by its suddenness.
She didn't realize she'd been studying him with an open expression, trying to memorize his face and realizing how much she liked it, until Joe smiled. When he did, she blinked, and his smile grew.
"Penny for them."
She blinked again. "I was thinking that I can trust you."
Joe looked wary. "Trust me with what?"
"Nothing in particular." Tess turned away from Joe and walked into the dark living room. Why was she obsessing over his face all of a sudden, as if she'd only now seen it for the first time, as if she couldn't get enough of it?
"Duane said you might want new locks on the doors. I'll take care of that for you."
She turned around. "You married. When I was about fourteen. Your mother told my mother."
Joe shrugged. "I was nineteen, and she was eighteen. We were married two years, and we had to strain to make it last that long."
Tess moved on, into the kitchen. She sat in the rocking chair and curled her legs under her. Joe sat in the big overstuffed chair. He glanced at her and said wistfully, "I always think this kitchen needs a cat."
Tess couldn't help a smile. "I used to want a cat. Mom would never let me get one."
"I remember. I nearly gave you a kitten once, for Christmas."
"You did?" She leaned forward to look at him, curious. "When?"
"Let's see. I was twelve, so you must have been, what, seven? Your mom got wind of it, through my sister, and she told my mom. That put an end to that."
Tess laughed. "I've been planning to get a cat recently, now that I have a house." She found him studying her. She could've melted into his gaze then. "Where are your parents now?"
"They moved to Arizona after Dad retired. They wanted Rose to go with them. She wouldn't budge. She loves it here. She rented the house from them, until I came back and bought it. Now she and I both live there. Look, Tess, the reason your dad sold me this house--"
"You don't need to explain. It's none of my business."
He looked at her with an odd expression. "Of course it's your business. Your parents were so far in debt, your father was afraid if he died your mother would lose the house. He sold it to me for next to nothing, and I let them live here, also for next to nothing. Just enough rent to pay the property taxes and insurance. It was an arrangement strictly between your dad and me, intended to protect your mother and Spence. It gave your dad some peace of mind. He trusted me. I like to think he was wise to do that. I'd like to think you believe that, too."
"What does it matter what I believe?"
"It matters to me. I'll sell it back to you. Hell, I'll give it to you. It's only been a few months."
She met his gaze, and fell into it. He was close, their chairs nearly touching. He leaned toward her, placed his hand on her arm. "We used to be friends. I'd like to think we can be again."
She said nothing.
"Why did you stay away all those years? I thought you loved it here, loved your family. I don't get it."
"You never asked them? My parents?"
He shook his head. "They avoided talking about you. I didn't know where you lived."
"They never told you about my accident?"
"Joe, Rose knows about it."
"I don't talk to Rose about you. She doesn't know how I feel. What accident?"
"How you feel? You've wavered, these past few days, between acting as if you hated me, and being unexplainably kind."
"I've never hated you. I was angry. I still don't understand why you stayed away. Why don't you explain it to me? And what accident?"
She looked down. "I can't."
He stood up, looking angry again. What was wrong with the man? Why did he have to know this? "I'll come by tomorrow and change out the locks. I'd better get going."
She stood up too. "I'm sorry I can't explain, Joe. I loved my family. I wanted to see them. I missed them so much, I can't begin--" Tess stopped, close to tears. "Don't ask me to explain."
"Then can you tell me why you decided to come this year? Why you needed to surprise them? They would've loved to know you were coming. Why did it have to be a surprise?"
To tell him that, she'd have to tell him they didn't want her here to begin with, for all those years. He clearly loved them, and the information would either hurt him deeply or he wouldn't believe it at all. There was no right answer.
"Believe that I loved them, that I missed them." She didn't know why it was so important to her for him to believe her, but it was. "Please."
He turned away and didn't move for several seconds. Finally he took a deep breath and turned back to face her. "Will you have dinner with me tomorrow night, at the Gold Room?"
"The Gold Room?"
"Up at Stoneway."
She nodded. "I know it." The Gold Room was the more upscale of the two restaurants there, and expensive.
"A quiet, candlelit dinner for two." He watched her, his voice low. He stood close, and he put a hand on her arm, drawing her closer. It only then sank in that he was asking her for a date.
She drew in her breath, then nodded, watching his eyes. "That would be nice, Joe."
"I want to try this again." He kissed her, and they both lingered in that kiss. Tess responded with a feeling of urgency, of longing, that she'd never experienced kissing any other man in her life. She wanted more. She put a hand up to his thick black hair and let herself free-fall into his kiss until she was breathless.
He backed away with a look of surprise. Then he smiled, his hands still lightly caressing her arms. "Tomorrow night. I'll pick you up at six."
She leaned against the front door for a minute after he left, hugging herself. "Oh my God." She breathed the words in amazement. "Oh my God, oh my God."
Tess returned upstairs and found the journal she'd been reading on the floor where she'd left it. She got into bed and picked it up. She stared at the page for several minutes before she could concentrate on the words again.
The next several pages made no mention of Tess. They dealt with everyday matters, preparations for the holidays, people her mother had visited or spoken to, and Spence's activities. These things were important to Tess, but they weren't what she needed to read now. She skimmed through the pages, unable to focus, distracted by a jumble of other thoughts, until she thought of going back to the pages written a week or two before she'd gone away to stay with her great aunt.
She doubted her parents had decided on the spur of the moment to discourage her from visiting home. In fact, it appeared to have been her father's decision. That decision must have been made long before Tess called to ask if she could come. The entries her mother made shortly after her accident might clarify her parents' motives. Tess turned back the pages.
She came to one written two days after her accident that August, eleven years ago, a matter of days before her parents had sent her away to live with Aunt Christine. She read her mother's words:
"I'm sitting in Tess's hospital room, praying she'll wake up, wondering what happened to the sweet little girl who used to help me bake on the weekends.
"Where did my little girl go? Who is this stranger? Does she know what she's doing to herself, to us? She abandoned Spence to go party with those kids, and has now wound up here, injured and unconscious. She nearly killed herself, driving drunk. My God! Was she already drunk when she left Spence alone at the house? I almost hope so, because I can't imagine--don't want to imagine--her leaving her baby brother all alone when she was thinking clearly.
"They tell me a head injury can change people. I hope I get my little girl back, the way she used to be."
The page blurred as tears formed and shook Tess, becoming deep, inconsolable sobs. The confusion and dismay of those days after her accident returned, and made more sense to her now, a kind of sense she hadn't wanted, a sense that made her feel lost and utterly beyond comfort. She couldn't read any further. Her mother had believed all those horrible things about her. Things Tess couldn't remember. No wonder her parents hadn't wanted Tess to be around Spence after that. Tess couldn't read any further. She stuffed the journal under her pillow, and tried to sleep.
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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