Romantic Mystery Novel
a whodunit by Barbara W. Klaser
|There's a little bit of sleuth in everyone....
Shadows Fall is a romantic mystery set in an old, closed mountain resort, in the Sierra Nevada of California.
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Just after sunrise the following morning, Beth answered Rita's light rap on her door. "Mom sent me to invite you to breakfast. I didn't think you'd be awake." Rita's gaze fell on Beth's pink sweat suit, then the open French doors. "It's cold out."
"I need a run, but I'm worried Abby will feel lost if she wakes up alone in a strange place."
"Leave her door open. I'll listen for her. I'm right downstairs in the kitchen. She knows where that is."
"Thanks, Rita. I won't be long." Beth bounded down the lobby stairs and out the front door.
The lake beckoned, still and glassy. Beth warmed up on the front steps, then ran at an easy pace down the sloping meadow to the water. From there she moved onto the paved road leading to the cabins. It was her first run in several weeks, and she wasn't accustomed to the altitude yet. She turned back when she reached the first cabin.
A truck with a blue and white camper came along the road behind her, heading toward the Lodge. The driver tapped his horn as he approached, and waved as he passed. Out on the lake, another man glided a canoe toward the landing below the Lodge.
Beth ran on. The clean air moved in and out of her lungs. There were no freeway sounds, no airplanes above, no other people, and no smog. The only sounds besides her own were those of the birds and a fresh breeze rustling the trees and stirring the lake. The immense peace stilled her mind. The movement of her feet over the earth liberated her as nothing else ever had.
When she reached the parking lot she slowed and passed the blue and white camper at a walk. Its occupant was seated in the shadow of the cab. She would've called good morning and introduced herself, but his window was closed and he held a telephone to his ear. A cellular phone, up here. So much for leaving the city behind. Beth grinned to herself and continued into the lobby.
Peter Lloyd sat in his truck and watched Beth run up the steps and enter the Lodge, leaving the door wide open behind her; and he sincerely wished his phone hadn't rung just now. He'd hoped to speak to her out here, alone.
The second he'd seen her running along the side of the road, he'd been swept back to the day they first met. Every memory of her was as clear in his mind as if it had happened yesterday.
It had been in a hospital in Corona. Peter had known which room he wanted by the guard stationed outside. Inside, he'd introduced himself, explained the patient's injuries to her, the more urgent surgery she'd undergone to save her life, the surgery they'd performed to save as much function as possible in her left knee. She remained silent. He shone his penlight into her eyes and commented on how gray they were. No response, except from the pupils in those deep gray irises. He finally went to the door, his curiosity stymied.
"Does her family know she's here?" he asked the guard.
"Doesn't want them to."
Peter glanced back into the room. The flicker in her eyes was like a lantern signaling. He returned to her side, and for the fifth or sixth time he wondered why she was here.
Not literally why. He knew about the attack in the prison infirmary. A doctor had been killed and a nurse and three guards injured. The inmate who'd waged the brutal attack was dead. One of the injured guards had told Peter that a young inmate saved her life. This inmate, Elizabeth Gray. She'd been brought in well after the others, badly beaten, with fractured ribs, a lacerated spleen, and a gunshot wound to her knee.
Peter wondered why she'd appeared in his life again. Not that she'd actually been in his life before. Only her picture, and a strong sense of familiarity. It was a cosmic why, the why-am-I-here kind of why. He didn't expect an answer. It was the end of a long and arduous shift. He needed to unwind, he told himself, before the drive to his parents' house and then home. So he lingered at her bedside.
She stirred and said something he didn't hear. He leaned nearer.
"What happened to Tilly?" she murmured.
"Tilly?" Then he recalled the injured nurse. "She's down the hall. She's going to be fine. So are you, you realize that, don't you, Elizabeth?"
She blinked at him, then shifted her focus. Peter sat there for a full minute before she spoke again. "My father's a doctor. Was. I keep forgetting he's not there. The Lodge wasn't the same place, after he died."
"Wilder Mountain Lodge, in the northern Sierras. I was the first Gray born at the Lodge in a hundred years. My father planned to leave the Lodge to me. My brothers and sisters didn't like that plan, but he used to tell me I was like him. I miss the Lodge, the lake and the trees."
"What is that, the Lodge? Is that your house?"
Her chuckle was silky, sleepy. "Too big. It's an inn, built like an English manor, during the Gold Rush days. Later it became a hunting and fishing lodge. My mother closed it, after my father died."
It started that way, and she kept talking. He should go home, the nagging voice of worry told him, not sit here and listen to a killer ramble on about her home and childhood. A murderer who'd grown up in a fishing lodge. "I used to like to fish, when I was younger," he found himself saying.
"You don't like to now?" Dark eyes watched him, wide and softly lit. He felt torn between going and staying.
"Try to rest. You're safe here." He forced himself to go.
On his way to lunch a couple of days later, Peter steered his way into Elizabeth Gray's room without planning to. She looked up, lay her book aside, and asked if it was raining outside.
He went to the window and peered at the wet parking lot below. "What do you know? It is."
"You work too hard, if you go around not knowing what the weather's like."
He grinned at her. "You're probably right."
She returned a close-mouthed smile that favored the cut lip and lightened her eyes. That lightness, that vital glow, softened the contrast of her darker eyebrows and hair with her pale complexion. He lifted one end of the book beside her, a copy of Anna Karenina. "You prefer Tolstoy to TV?"
She grimaced. "I'd just as soon read a steamy romance novel. My mother's an English teacher. She sends me lists of books she thinks will improve my mind, and she quizzes me in her letters to see if I've read them. I've told her I don't think poetry and literature are going to help me get an entry level job in another twelve years, but I do like the poetry."
The weight of her situation slammed home in Peter's mind. She'd be thirty-two in twelve years. "Aren't you eligible for parole before then?"
She didn't answer that. "When will I be able to run, Dr. Lloyd?"
"You're a runner?" His words came out choked.
"That's what I'm asking you."
He explained again that she'd need follow-up surgery, and lengthy physical therapy. "Let's see how it heals," Peter concluded. "I've been wondering why you helped that guard."
Her smile vanished and she looked at her hands. "Why not?"
Harry, another guard, barged in carrying a big rain-splotched envelope and emptied it onto the roll-away table. "Fresh letters, paper, pencils, and Wordsworth. Oh, and your drawing for Tilly." He glanced at Peter as he handed her a slender blue book and a roll of paper, then he turned and left the room.
"'Why not' isn't an answer," Peter said, getting back to why she'd helped the guard.
She clearly wanted to forget that conversation. He returned her look steadily, waiting.
"I can't think straight today. Doctors. A drug for every occasion, just like my father." Her gaze flickered. "My actions only baffle you because I've been convicted of murder. If anyone on the street helped someone out of a spot like that, they'd be praised, and no one would question their motive. You question mine because you think I have no regard for life. I've already been judged, Doctor."
Her bitterness disturbed him. What did she want? She'd killed someone. Of course that changed how people viewed her and her motives. Suddenly Peter felt anxious to change the subject. "What do you do besides read?"
"Draw, study, and work in the textile factory." She shook her head and shifted, looking pained and sheepish. "That's not true. I like to sew, and I want to learn upholstery; but the doctor before Severn said I shouldn't operate machinery, because I'm taking medication. I clean floors. Someone gets a perverse delight out of assigning a well-read inmate to janitorial and a less bookish one to the library. It's engineered to humiliate generally."
"What do you study?"
"Business. Are you always so serious?"
"Serious? No." Until Claire's illness, no one had ever accused him of being too serious. He rubbed his face. "I've ... had a tough year." He turned away and headed for the door.
"May you have only one," she said in a gentle tone. Then she picked up the roll of paper. "Will you give this to Tilly for me? I'm afraid I won't see her before she retires."
He took it from her and unrolled the color-pencil portrait. The woman in the drawing wore a knowing, humorous expression in her liquid brown eyes. Her broad smile was brilliant against mahogany skin and black hair. Humor dwelt in the graceful arches of her eyebrows, warmth moved in the gentle curve of her lips. The drawing was dated and signed in one corner, "E. R. Gray." There was a note that read, "Tilly, Happy Retirement. Please don't come back. Love, Beth."
"You're an unusual lady," Peter said, meeting her gaze.
"Ladies don't wind up in prison."
Peter's stomach growled as he left her room, and he tried to think only about lunch. There was lady written all over her face, in her speech, and enlivening her big soft eyes from deep inside. Why had she wound up in prison?
"She going to be okay, Doc?" Harry said. "I mean the leg."
Peter gave a non-committal answer and walked away. Then he turned around. "Why isn't she allowed visitors?"
"She doesn't want them. Never has." Harry frowned at her door and shook his head. "She's the only one I've heard of with that distinction."
"Why wouldn't she want visitors?" Peter said, half to himself.
"I asked her once. Said she's trying to leave her past behind. But you saw her in there, reading books and poetry her mother sends her. Doesn't sound like she's making a clean break, does it?"
Peter took the portrait to Tilly's room, and found five young men and women there. They crowded that side of the room and made enough noise for Peter to be relieved the other bed was empty. Tilly sat up in bed with one arm in a sling, laughing. She opened her eyes wide when she saw Peter, and grinned at him. "Hello."
"I'm Dr. Lloyd. I have something for you from Beth Gray."
She took the roll, thanked him, and had the young woman nearest her open it. Tilly's mouth opened, and the others began talking excitedly.
"Mom, I'm going to have this framed and hang it in the living room," the daughter who held the drawing said.
Tilly leaned forward, and the younger woman inched the drawing closer. Tilly burst into tears. "Oh, put it away before I spoil it!"
"Mom, what's wrong? It's beautiful."
Tilly looked at Peter with her great brown eyes swimming in tears. "That girl saved my life and drew this picture, and she won't let me visit her. Well, I'm going to write her once a week." Tilly looked at Peter again. "Children, get out. I need to talk to this man." She waved her good arm at them, and they filed out.
"I'm her nurse," she told Peter. "Have been for two years. She saved my life, and she saved that guard's life, when Dr. Severn was killed. Did she tell you what happened?"
"I heard it from the guard."
"Well she couldn't see it the way I did. Beth wouldn't pick up that gun to save herself. She couldn't. She saw something."
"Something only she could see, in here." Tilly pointed at her head. "It like to got her killed."
"Are you saying she hallucinated?"
Tilly looked disgusted. "She told me her own lawyer wanted to prove she's psychotic. But she's been evaluated and tested, probed and questioned until she doesn't care if she ever sees another doctor. No, I'm not saying she hallucinated!"
"I don't know. Dr. Severn had just been saying how he thought she has posttraumatic stress. He'd just finished talking to her for the first time." Tilly's eyes filled with tears again. "Then he gets killed, on his first day. Nothing like that's happened in all the time I've worked there. With a gun. The guards don't even carry guns."
"Do you think she flashed back to killing that boy?"
Tilly glared at him. "So you think you know why she's in CIW."
"I read a newspaper article soon after she was arrested."
"Did she tell you why she's in prison?"
"She says she was convicted of murder."
Tilly nodded. "Exactly. She never says she committed murder, just that she was convicted. Do you see the difference? She says it's like a puzzle she should've solved but couldn't."
"Do you think she's in denial about the murder?"
"That child never killed anyone." Tilly pursed her lips, resolute.
"Tilly, did she tell you she didn't kill him?"
"She won't say, and there's no convincing someone who doesn't know her the way I do. But I see criminals every day who claim they're innocent. I see spoiled rich white girls who thought they could get away with anything until they got locked away for a while. She's different."
He couldn't help a smile. "Tilly, don't mistake affability for innocence." He'd grown uneasy about Beth Gray. He wanted a reason not to care so much, not to worry about her.
"Look in her eyes and ask her if she killed that boy, Dr. Lloyd."
Peter entered the guarded room early that evening and found his patient leaning over the rail of the bed, whimpering as she struggled to reach something out of view on the floor.
When she saw him, she lay back and moaned, clearly hurting a lot. She was sweating, and there was a wildness in the depths of her eyes. Drawings and art supplies were strewn across the bed, table and floor.
"It didn't hurt this much when she hit me. She really beat the hell out of me, didn't she?"
He picked up the drawing she'd been trying to reach, of an old gnarled oak tree. Then another, of a spruce. Both were signed and dated today. "Seems to me you should be studying fine arts instead of business." He gathered the rest together, collected the pencils and replaced them in the fallen box.
When he stood up, her wary, searching look didn't comfort him. The bruised side of her face and the cut lip gave her a desperate, rakish appearance. He handed her the stack of drawings and moved away. "If you re-injure yourself, you'll be stuck in bed that much longer. Call for help next time."
She nodded silently.
He remained beside her until she met his gaze. "Why are you in prison, Beth?"
She blinked. "You said you knew." She turned to place the stack of drawings on the table, then hesitated, clearly unwilling to repeat a painful movement. Peter rolled the table closer, took the drawings from her and placed them on it, within her reach. Then he sat in the chair on the other side of the bed and faced her.
"Talk to me, Beth. Why are you in prison?"
She spoke quietly, without expression, and didn't meet his gaze. "I was sentenced to fifteen years for the murder of a fourteen-year-old boy named Oliver Stevens."
"'Sentenced ... for the murder of.' You never say you killed him, do you?"
Her gaze flicked in his direction, cautious.
"You're careful never to say that, aren't you?"
"I don't have to be careful."
"Only lies require planning."
"Did you kill him?"
She looked at her hands and didn't answer.
"What do you have to lose by telling the truth now? You're in prison. Why won't you answer me?"
"Because ..." Her face took on a drawn look as the light faded out of it. She looked straight at him. "I don't want to see your eyes filled with disbelief."
Peter stood and turned away. He rubbed the back of his neck.
"He's dead. I'm locked up. Talking about it won't change that."
Peter turned to face her again. She rested her head against the pillow and gazed at the window with a hungry look.
"What did you see when you tried to pick up the gun in the infirmary?" he asked.
Her eyes widened and she met his look again. Then she slid her gaze away and closed her eyes.
He glanced at his watch. "I have to go."
"Wait." She focused on something not present in the room.
He sat down and waited.
She held out her right hand. "I saw ... my father's gun ... in my hand. I saw Ollie Stevens lying on the ground in the moonlight, that night."
"The night you killed him?"
She caught and held his gaze, then brushed beads of sweat off her upper lip. "The night he died."
"Did you see him die?"
She parted her lips, then she went still, watching Peter. "Picking up a gun that night got me into such a mess, I don't think I could ever do it again." She cleared her throat.
Peter sat and looked at the floor, feeling slightly ill. She still wouldn't say it, but now he grew convinced she was innocent. Twelve more years? It was almost as much a waste of life as Claire's illness. Almost.
He sat up straight, suddenly anxious to leave. That was when he remembered, stuck his hand in his pocket and retrieved the small bag of chocolate kisses. "These are for you." He placed them in her hand. "Tilly told me you love chocolate."
She smiled sweetly at him. "Thank you." She opened one, bit half of it off and sucked it with a rapt expression.
Peter had known her barely three days. He'd been hearing her voice in his dreams, seeing her face, and watching for her among crowds, ever since.
His attention returned to the present. The caller was his brother. "I tried you at home first. You're out early. Fish biting already?"
"Not yet. I'm about to have breakfast." Seated in the driver's seat of his camper, Peter watched the door Beth had left open when she entered the Lodge.
"Have you checked your mailbox lately? I want to be sure my package made it there."
"Tim, you didn't have to buy me a gift. You're buying me dinner—"
"I know, but I got a fantastic deal on this, from a client, so just enjoy it. When's your interview?"
Peter sighed, watching his friend Leigh glide his canoe to the landing. Then he said a hurried goodbye to Tim and went to meet Leigh. They walked around to the kitchen together.
Breakfast aromas drifted into the hallway along with the voices of the family Beth hadn't been a part of in years. A familiar ache, a longing she hadn't allowed herself to explore in a long time overwhelmed her all at once. She paused outside the kitchen door, leaned against the wall, and willed the heaviness to leave her before she faced the people in that room.
"You trust Rita to cook for your guests, Mom?" Jack said in the kitchen.
"They're family," Rita said.
"Beth brought some of her lemon marmalade," Emily said. "Put that out for the toast, Rita."
Vicky murmured something Beth couldn't make out, and Jack laughed. Beth pushed away from the wall and entered the kitchen with a cheery "Good morning."
Jack's laughter silenced as if someone had pulled his plug. Emily lifted her gaze from her newspaper and smiled. "Sit here, Beth." She beckoned to two empty places between her and Matt. "There's room for Abby next to you when she wakes up. All these strangers must be overwhelming for her."
"You're the picture of health, this morning." Jack's eyes flashed as he met Beth's gaze.
"Beth was always an active child," Emily said. Jack glanced at Vicky and chuckled. "What is it you find so amusing, Jack?" Emily eyed him over her reading glasses.
Jack looked thoughtful for an instant. "The drama of it all, Mother. More coffee?"
Jack filled Emily's cup from a carafe on the table. "Beth?"
"Please." Beth wished she'd allowed herself time to shower and change. Emily looked impeccable, not at all like a woman who planned to grub around in a garden all day. Jack was neatly combed, in a polo shirt and trousers. Vicky wore mascara and lipstick. Her hair's tight curls were caught up in a precarious French braid.
Matt, on the other hand, was unshaven and dressed in ragged navy blue sweats. He watched Beth with a sleepily insolent expression, which she had trouble meeting.
Beth had just decided to take the chair nearest her mother when Jack placed her coffee beside Matt. Jack leaned back and grinned a challenge at his brother. They appeared to wait to see which chair Beth would choose.
"Sit down, Beth," Emily prompted.
The back door opened. Two men entered, said a general good morning and removed jackets, revealing plaid shirts tucked into blue jeans. Beth went over to introduce herself. After last night's dinner, two strangers were easier to face than her family, especially Matt.
She offered her hand to the man from the canoe first. "I'm Beth Gray."
"Leigh Turner." He held her hand an extra second or two, his intelligent hazel eyes level with hers.
"Leigh, it's nice to meet you." She turned to the taller man, and stopped short when she realized she knew him.
His pale blue eyes lit with what Beth presumed was recognition as he took her hand. His handshake was warm and firm, his voice deep and resonant, almost a caress. "Peter Lloyd."
"We've met before," Beth said.
His gaze deepened as if in surprise, then he shook his head. "I'm not from around here."
"You're just in time," Rita said, carrying plates to the table. "Sit down."
Beth took the seat nearest Matt, feeling challenged on all sides, and determined not to let it get to her. Leigh Turner took the seat across from her. Peter Lloyd sat beside Vicky.
"I'm sure we've met, Peter," Beth persisted.
He shook his head. "I must have one of those faces."
"No, I'm certain. I don't mistake faces. It was—" Beth glanced at Emily and closed her mouth, realizing she didn't want to say where they'd met, or how, in front of her mother.
Peter cleared his throat. His solemn gaze rested on Emily before it returned to Beth. Beth dragged her attention away and found Leigh Turner regarding her thoughtfully. "Certainly he would remember you," Leigh said. "Wouldn't you, Peter?"
"Most certainly," Peter agreed. "I moved here five years ago," Peter added, capturing Beth's gaze again. Now his eyes twinkled. "The fishing came highly recommended."
Jack chuckled. "We haven't decided whether Peter is more serious about doctoring or fishing. I don't think he knows."
"Peter's a physician." Matt said helpfully.
Beth barely noticed this was the first time Matt had spoken to her. She returned Peter's gaze, her knowledge confirmed. Why did he deny knowing her?
Jack leaned toward Beth with the last corner of his toast in his hand. "The marmalade isn't bad. No bitterness?"
His tone made her wonder if he hinted at something besides the quality of the marmalade. "No bitterness," she said evenly.
"Funny, I don't recall you being much of a cook."
"I'm not. Lemon marmalade, cookies and pies are the extent of my culinary skills, as my ex-husband and daughter will attest."
Someone chuckled. Beth glanced at Peter Lloyd again.
"Your talents clearly lie elsewhere," Leigh said. "You've come to the right place to let others do the cooking. Good food abounds here."
"Thank you, Leigh," Rita said and shot a smug look at Jack.
"Leigh teaches Robin's third grade class," Emily told Beth, "and he's an accomplished artist. I hope you'll show Beth your artwork."
Leigh's face colored. "The portraits you painted of your mother and daughter are extraordinary. Perhaps you'll give me some advice while you're here. Portraits are an enigma for me." He spoke with the softest hint of an accent.
"I've had a lot of practice with portraits," Beth said. "I'd love to see your work."
Peter Lloyd spoke to Vicky, and Beth's gaze returned to him and lingered. She couldn't keep her eyes off him, or her mind off the puzzle of his presence here.
"You're welcome to come by my cabin and see them anytime," Leigh said.
Vicky looked Beth's way, and Peter met Beth's gaze. His was steady, searching. Under the weight of it Beth lowered her fork, glimpsed Matt's keen glance, and then realized Leigh had spoken to her. She blinked at him. "I'm sorry?"
"Mommy?" Abby said upstairs. Beth excused herself and ran up the stairs. When she eventually returned to the kitchen with Abby, everyone but Rita had gone.
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Copyright (c) 2001 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved