Romantic Mystery Novel

Shadows Fall

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.

Barbara W. Klaser, romatic mystery and whodunit author, photo from 1970s

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Shadows Fall cover art, whodunit, romantic mystery Novel

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50

Chapter 4

Later that morning, Rita and Vicky took Abby into town. Beth watched them leave with trepidation, while Emily assured her that Abby would be fine and invited her to work in the garden. "If you're feeling up to it," she added.

Beth rankled at her mother's indulgent tone and opted to spend a few hours engaged in the one activity for which she preferred solitude. She pulled a purple and gray swirl-patterned sweater over her shirt. Then she carried her portable easel and charcoals down to the lake and found a sunny spot on the eastern shore to sketch.

She drew the Lodge, thinking she would complete a final painting of it in pastels. She rediscovered her affection for the outward form of the Lodge, distinct from the pressures she felt when inside it.

The Lodge made demands on Beth. Her family home had a hold on her, in associations and unfulfilled obligations. It had haunted her for years through memories of her father, and in the time and energy her mother spent attempting to redeem his dead dreams. But the Lodge didn't despise Beth, it didn't believe things about her that were impossible to disprove. It didn't scrutinize her every action as she felt her family had in the past several hours.

The proportions of the third sketch pleased her, and she began to fill in the shapes of the surrounding landscape. The sun wound its way along the ecliptic while she struggled with a vague feeling that she was missing something. She removed her jacket, and later the sweater, as she grew more frustrated. Finally she stood with her arms crossed, and studied the sketch. This should be as effortless as any portrait, but when she looked for what was missing she felt disoriented. She shook herself. She was overanalyzing. It was just a building!

She felt a chill in the air, and bent to pick up her sweater.

"Isn't that turning into a bit of a mess?" a male voice said behind her.

Beth whirled around.

Peter Lloyd stood several feet away with a fishing rod propped beside him as he calmly tied a fly onto his line. He didn't look up, but continued what he was doing.

He wore the gray and black plaid shirt he'd worn to breakfast, only now the sleeves were rolled up past his elbows, disregarding the chilly breeze. His threadbare fishing vest, which appeared held together by its pockets, hung open because the zipper was broken. A largish nose gave his face an appealing strength, and his skin was lightly tanned, with a healthy glow, but the mark of intervening time in the set of his mouth and in the lines around his eyes had aged him. The years hadn't been kind, but Beth liked his face better this way.

After a swift glance her way, he cast his line into the shimmering, sunlit water beyond the shade of the trees. The sinews stood out on his bare forearms as he gripped the rod. He turned his head and grinned at Beth. "Sorry I startled you. I saw you running this morning. I take it the knee healed all right?"

She dropped her sweater and walked over to him. "So you do remember me. What are you doing here?"

"Catching lunch."

"I mean what are you doing in Wilder?"

He lifted his shoulders, and smiled mildly. That warmed his eyes and made her tingle a little all over. "Waiting around for you."

"You started making points right off, denying knowing me."

He lifted his eyebrows and didn't answer.

Her breath caught in her throat as she considered he might actually be serious. "But why? I mean, are you following me?" There was a word for people who did things like that.

Mischief tugged at the corners of his mouth. He looked about to laugh. "I've been here for five years, Beth. I got here first."

"You don't know what a shock you gave me, showing up at breakfast. Then you wouldn't even acknowledge you knew me."

He turned to the water and played with his line. "Doctor patient privilege."

"I thought that was supposed to protect me, not make me feel like a fool. Aren't you taking it to extremes? The patient acknowledged she knew you."

"You told me, twelve years ago, you didn't want your mother to know you'd been injured. Does she know now? Or did you want to tell her this morning, at breakfast?" He glanced sideways at her.

She looked down at his battered boots. "No. I still don't want her to know ... and how else would I explain knowing you? Okay, I understand. Thank you. But why are you here?"

"I already answered that question." He returned his attention to his fishing line and reeled it in.

"So five years ago you came here because, years earlier, one of your patients mentioned the magic word, fishing. You rented a cabin and decided the fishing was so good you never wanted to leave."

He answered with a squint and a lopsided grin. Then he prepared to cast again and she got out of his way. The fly hit the water. "Where else can I fish in the pristine serenity of a private lake not overrun by tourists? You did mention your mother had closed the Lodge."

"Will you stop kidding around? Oh never mind." She walked to her easel.

"Why is it so important to you?" He turned to face her again, his eyes narrowed and his smile no longer in evidence, the fishing rod gripped loosely in one hand. "Why did you come back?"

She moved closer to him again. She couldn't help her curiosity. Whether it was his claim to have come here looking for her, or just the tug of intense attraction, she couldn't say. He irritated and intrigued her. "My mother didn't tell you?"

"Your mother doesn't talk to me much. Your siblings, who do, have no idea why you're here."

Beth absorbed this in silence, and remained silent.

A sudden tug on his line distracted them both. He brought in a rainbow trout with the speed and dexterity of practice, and dispatched it more quickly and cleanly than she'd thought possible.

He lay his rod down, came over and stood facing her with his hands on his hips. "Well?"

"My siblings could've told you, I wasn't allowed to come back. The conditions of my parole prohibited me from returning to the vicinity of the crime."

He looked resigned. "That's not why you're here, it's why you stayed away."

"My mother had never met my daughter."

He shook his head. "Your mother could've visited you."

She didn't go into the reasons her mother couldn't visit. "I own half of a business I used to love being a part of, but I'm burned out. I came here for a vacation, to relax and paint."

"You could vacation, or paint, elsewhere."

"You're an exasperating man."

His grin returned. "That's not the reason you're here either."

She took a deep breath. "I had a bad case of pneumonia. I decided life is too short to spend it avoiding the place and the people I love most. I had to see it again."

Peter nodded, appearing satisfied, yet he said quietly, "Any other reason?"

"My ex-husband wanted ... I suppose I do need to ..." She dropped her arms to her sides and looked around without seeing. Then she closed her eyes and heard a car on the Lodge road.

Why did he have to stand so close, and stir up memories of a time she'd rather forget? Weren't there enough unanswered questions in her life? Why couldn't she ignore him? "To see if I can reclaim any lost dreams. To see if the shadows are as scary in reality as they are in my nightmares. To see if Gabriel and I still love each other."

He frowned. "Gabriel?"

"Gabriel Handley. We were engaged."

He turned toward the lake, still frowning.

Beth saw Vicky's small green car arrive at the Lodge, and moved toward her easel to gather her things together. Peter stepped between her and the easel. He touched her shoulder, and when she felt his hand through her purple silk shirt she wanted to lean into his strength. She stood rooted to the spot, feeling the weight of his gaze on her as plainly as she felt his hand on her shoulder.

"You're planning to see Gabriel while you're here?" he said.

"Yes, probably. I need to."

He stood in the sun now, and his eyes were lighter, a pale blue with dark gray rims around the irises.

"I'm afraid," Beth said. "I mean, he's at the center of that part of my life. The most important things in my life before Ollie Stevens' death were Gabriel and the Lodge." She blew out her breath. "Why am I telling you this?"

"Maybe you need someone who understands your history, rather than someone who's a part of it." Did he mean himself? He removed his hand from her shoulder and tucked his fingers into his back pockets, but he didn't move away.

"I have to find out for certain, first, about Gabriel. Don't I?"

He shook his head, wearing a lopsided grin. "You're asking the wrong guy. What will make you happy?"

"I don't know anymore. All I know is I'm not happy." The truth in her words surprised her. So did her tears. She cleared her throat and watched Abby skip toward them, ahead of Vicky.

Peter moved away and looked out over the lake, where Leigh glided his canoe across the water toward the Lodge. "If you have to see him, just do it, Beth. Do it soon." He turned to look at her. "Will you introduce me to your daughter?"

Abby ran over to them and Beth scooped her up and kissed her cheek before turning to Peter. "Abby, this is Dr. Lloyd."

"Hello." Abby stretched a hand toward him, narrowing her eyes. "Doctor?"

"Hi, Abby." He grasped her hand. "You can call me Peter."

"Peter, are you the doctor who's going to tell Mommy she's better, when she's had enough vacation?"

He glanced the question at Beth. She sighed, put Abby down, and began gathering her things together.

Abby went on in a serious, grownup tone of voice. "Mommy was very sick for a while, and I was worried. First she dreamed bad dreams and she wouldn't wake up. Then she was in the hospital in sensitive care, and even Daddy was scared. He said I shouldn't be loud or make her play hard for a long time, 'cause we have to take care of her. And Aunt Stella thinks Mommy's a worker—a workercolic. She never used to sleep, but now she's always tired and she sleeps a lot. So, I think you should keep your eyes on her for a while. Just in case."

Beth threw up her hands. "I've told her I'm okay. Maybe she'll believe it coming from you."

Peter squatted down on Abby's eye level. "You don't need to worry about Mommy anymore, Abby." He glanced at Beth again. "She looks pretty healthy to me."

"Why is she always tired?"

"She's building up her energy again after being sick. Even Mommies are supposed to sleep, Abby. No more worrying." He tugged on one dark curl, and Abby skipped away to meet Aunt Vicky.

"Feel free to bill me for that," Beth said, smiling.

He returned her smile, in silence at first. Then he said, "No charge. Just don't make a liar out of me."

Vicky approached, with Abby beside her. "Are you eating with us, Peter?"

"No, I have my lunch right here. I'll walk in that direction, if you ladies don't mind my company," he said with a glance at Beth.

Peter picked up his fishing gear. Beth was slower gathering her things and followed the other three. Vicky and Abby went ahead, while Peter waited for Beth, and walked close beside her. When they neared the northwest shore of the lake, he spoke privately. "If things don't work out with Gabriel, I hope I have a chance."

She paused and watched him move in long strides up the gentle slope ahead of her. Surely he hadn't waited around here for five years for her to show up. He seemed too grounded in reality to do something like that.

He turned and watched her, blue eyes wide and pale in the sunlight. Sober eyes, steady and unshakable.

Of all the men she'd met in the past several years, he had the best chance. There were no secrets to keep from him, no wondering when to tell him what. She had this compulsion to blab her life's story to him. But she couldn't stay.

He veered off, waving goodbye with his rod.

Abby had run ahead to meet her grandmother on the front steps. Vicky hung back in the parking lot, waiting for Beth. She made a bright splash of color in her coral pink tunic and pale gold leggings, with her hair released from the braid she'd worn at breakfast, glistening gold in the sunlight. Her pale green eyes sparkled in her freckled face. She approached Beth with a little smile like the one she'd worn when she asked Peter to lunch. Beth began to think Vicky was warming up to her.

"Making the rounds already, Beth? Is that the example you set for your daughter? Are you planning to sleep with every man in the county before you leave? That should be a recuperative vacation." Vicky turned and strode the rest of the way to the steps.

***

Leigh Turner joined the family for lunch, which was again served on the wide porch, west of the empty dining hall, to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather. Today two square tables were pushed together to accommodate eight.

After a few false starts at conversation, Rita had fallen silent. Abby was tired and picked at her food. Matt and Vicky were both surly. Jack wore the same smug grin he'd worn through breakfast, but he said nothing. Emily appeared to daydream, her face a placid mask.

"The orchard looks spectacular in bloom. Did you get a lot of fruit last year?" Beth said, attempting once again to fill the awkward void. Was this why neither Peter nor Leigh had been here for dinner last night?

"I'm not convinced the cold is over," Jack said. "Too bad you won't be here to make jelly when the fruit's ripe, Beth. Your lemon marmalade is excellent."

She glanced at him, feeling he was laughing at her, or at someone. "Thank you, Jack."

Emily cleared her throat. "Gabriel plans to stop by one morning this week, Beth. He doesn't know about your visit. If you'd like me to cancel, I can."

"I want to see him. Gabriel is part of the reason I'm here."

"Who's Gabriel?" Abby said.

Beth glanced at her and caught sight of Matt, watching her with an unreadable expression. Jack scraped the floorboards with his chair, excused himself and left the table.

"Is Gabriel my uncle too?" Abby persisted.

"He's an old friend of your mother's," Matt said. "You can call him uncle if you want to."

"Like Aunt Stella? She's not my aunt either. She works with Mommy and Daddy at—"

"Abby!" Beth said.

"Wups." Abby lowered her eyes, and spoke in a small voice, "I'm not s'posed to talk about that."

"Who said you can't talk about that?" Vicky glared at Beth.

"I said." Beth met the challenge in her sister's eyes.

"I'm sorry, Mommy."

"I know. I'm sorry I snapped at you, sweetheart."

"I'm not hungry. I ate stuff at the other peoples' house. Can I go play with my dolls?"

"May I. Yes, go ahead." Beth watched her go through the dining hall.

"So, since you're hiding, Abby has to hide from us too?" Vicky said. "She has to keep your secrets for you?"

"Victoria, that's enough," Emily said.

"It's not enough, Mom. I can't believe you help her hide the way she does."

"It has nothing to do with you, Vicky," Beth said. "The life I've made for myself is my business."

"Then why did you come back? How dare you, after what you did?" Vicky's eyes blazed. "How can you sit here as if you have every right, and expect us to treat you like one of us?" Vicky spoke slowly, through clenched jaws, her eyes cold as she met Beth's gaze. "Ollie is still dead."

"Yes. He would be just as dead if I were still in prison. No one and nothing can change the fact that he's dead. Believe me, I prayed that could change, a thousand times, during the trial alone."

In the long silence that followed, Beth attempted to eat, and found her appetite had vaporized. She excused herself and took the stairs slowly.

Abby lay asleep on the carpeted floor of her room, with a soft cloth doll tucked in her arms. Beth covered her with a quilt and sat on the floor beside her to watch her sleep.

"No matter how I may want to change the past," Beth whispered, "I'll never regret that it included having you."

***

That afternoon, Beth and Abby found Emily seated with Rita in the kitchen, planning menus and making a shopping list. Beth asked her mother for keys to the unused rooms, so she could take Abby on a tour of the Lodge.

A smile appeared on Emily's face, and she got up at once. "Of course, just wait here while I get them."

"I'm trying to decide what to wear for my graduation," Rita said. "Mom says it has to be a dress, not pants. I'm giving a speech. What do you think, Beth?"

Beth watched Rita's sparkling, deep blue eyes, which she found curious in a member of her family. Rita was taller than Beth, with wide shoulders, a slender, athletic build and long legs. Her hair was short, straight and jet black. She was a striking-looking girl. "I recently saw a slim, two-piece outfit, with one of those little flared skirts, a long, slightly-fitted jacket with a round neck, no lapels. It was made of a soft rayon, in Navy."

"Navy?"

"It's a serious color, but it would make your eyes shine like sapphires."

Rita cracked a smile. "Sounds nice, but I don't know, Beth. I'm a blue jeans kind of girl. Nobody would recognize me."

"Isn't that what commencement is about?"

Emily returned a moment later with a large ring of keys. She placed them in Beth's hand with a satisfied pat. "These are for you to keep. You have the run of the place."

The keys were all labeled. Beth went through them and came to one marked TWR, an abbreviation for the tower. She removed it from the ring and handed it back.

"If Dad's collection is still there, I don't want this one. Are there any others you should've removed before you gave them to me? I warned you the other day on the phone, Mom. The firearms stay locked up as long as I'm here. I don't want to risk any trouble, and I don't want the keys, for God's sake!" Her voice shook with barely contained anger.

Her mother stared at her. So did Abby. Rita sighed and sent her mother an exasperated look.

"It's illegal, Mom, for me to be in possession of a firearm. I don't want there to be even the hint of a question about that. Do you understand?"

"I thought you were just worried about Abby. Here, there are two others to the gun cabinets in the library. Let me find them." Emily took the key ring, removed two small keys and handed the rest back. "I want to think that's all over for you now."

"It will never be over. Never!"

***

The Lodge had been modeled after an English castle, by one of Beth's ancestors who'd made the bulk of his fortune in a gold strike. The interior layout was an educated guess at best, arranged to suit his personal tastes and later reworked when it was converted into an inn.

The center stairs were the widest, leading from the lobby through the center of the Lodge to the upper floors. The east and west stairways were narrower, one beginning just outside the kitchen. The tower had its own spiral stairs and connected to each floor of the Lodge via the outside gallery, but since the tower was locked for the duration of Beth's visit, she didn't bother to explain to Abby how it fit into the layout of the Lodge.

They explored the ground floor first: the library, music room, game room, the downstairs drawing rooms and smoking rooms. Eventually they reached Beth's father's medical clinic, which occupied the east end of the first floor. Beth marveled at how clean the examining rooms were. On the second floor, they avoided the rooms the family members occupied and inspected instead the unused rooms in the east end, where dustsheets shrouded antique furnishings. Abby insisted on seeing each room, lifting the dustsheets to see the objects beneath.

The fourth floor rooms were different, having been used for storage and as staff living quarters in distant years, when the Lodge had been in service first as a luxurious family residence and later as an inn. On the fourth floor, at the southwest corner of the Lodge, beside the tower, Beth eyed the last door and told Abby the tour was over. She moved toward the stairs.

"But we didn't see that one," Abby said, thorough as always.

"We're not going in there," Beth said.

"Just to look?" Abby pleaded.

Beth stood facing her daughter. This was ridiculous. How could she expect Abby to go through life avoiding the things she avoided so irrationally? That room carried no significance to anyone but Beth, of something that had happened before her earliest memory. It was the stuff of nightmares, but a child's nightmares. It wasn't something an adult should fear.

She nodded, inserted the key in the lock and turned it.

Her feet wouldn't move her past the threshold. She broke out in a sweat and her pulse thundered in her ears while she let Abby peek into the room, holding her firmly in her grip.

"You're not taking her in there, are you?" a male voice said.

Beth jumped.

Cornell stood on the stair landing several feet down the hall.

Beth drew Abby away, shut the door and removed her key from the lock. "No. You startled me, Cornell."

"I'm sorry." He came closer, looking annoyed with himself. "Mom told me you were showing Abby around. I haven't been in most of these rooms myself in years. Mom goes through them twice a year like clockwork, but she's obsessive about this place. Why did you open it?"

"Abby wanted to peek inside."

"I wouldn't think you'd want to go anywhere near it, especially with her."

"Abby doesn't share my fears, and I see no reason why she should. I thought about taking her inside, but as soon as I had the door open, I ... changed my mind." Her feet had changed her mind.

"Come visit for a while. You don't have to scare up every ghost in the place your first week here. Come on, Abby."

***

Late that same night, Beth woke with a shriek and sat up in bed, shivering and breathing hard. It took a moment to recall where she was.

She shivered, breathless, still caught in the terror of the dream. She pulled the covers closer to ward off the chill, took deep, slow breaths and told herself it was just a dream.

But she knew this wide-eyed, lingering apprehension. There would be no more sleep tonight, and she'd brought no work or knitting with her. Once she was calmer, she might sleep again. She had to get her mind off the dream.

She turned on the bedside touch lamp and slipped into her robe. She padded down the center stairs, through the lobby, into the library on the left. Her mother kept a stack of paperbacks on a corner shelf near the door. She snatched one off the top without looking at it and started back through the lobby.

"Bad dream?"

Beth jumped away from the murmuring shadow, releasing a sharp cry. It moved out of the darkness at the foot of the stairs into the faint light of the front lampposts shining through the diamond-shaped panes.

"Matt! You scared the hell out of me."

Like her, he was in his robe, barefoot.

"Sorry. I heard you cry out earlier. Then I wondered where you were going at this hour."

This was a hell of a time for him to start speaking to her, in the middle of the night after a nightmare. But his room was next to hers, so it was no surprise he'd heard her.

"I'm sorry I wakened you." She hugged the book. "Excuse me."

He followed her to the stairs. "Doesn't that frighten Abby?"

"What?"

"The screaming. Doesn't it wake her up?"

"Hardly ever. She's a sound sleeper. If I exchanged rooms with Abby, maybe it wouldn't waken you."

"That would put you next to Vicky. I normally only sleep here on weekends. I just wondered if you were okay." He stood beside her on the same step, speaking in a hushed tone. "What do you dream about that frightens you?"

"A shadow, with—" She stopped. Her voice had risen in pitch. "I can't talk about it now."

He watched her for a few seconds. "Well, try to get some sleep." He continued up the stairs ahead of her and into his room.

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Copyright (c) 2001 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved

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