In my last post I presented the "Introduction" from HEARTS AND DAGGERS, a January Ebook release containing three romantic suspense novellas, one by Amy Alessio, one by Margot Justes, and one written by me. Each novella has a Valentine Day's theme and features the writer's main series character. In my case, that character is Caroline Rhodes, the intrepid ER nurse first introduced in A MERRY LITTLE MURDER. To make things even more interesting, we also gave each other's main characters bit parts in our stories. Incorporating Amy's Alana O'Neill and Margot's Rebecca Standish into FRAMED, my novella, was a fun but challenging assignment.
Today I'm presenting the first chapter of FRAMED on my blog. If you enjoy it and want to read more, you can click on the title below. That link will take you to my Amazon page where FRAMED can be found in HEARTS AND DAGGERS.
Hearts and Daggers: Three Valentine Mystery Novellas
The letter was delivered shortly before dusk on a chilly Friday in February. Time and the postal service had taken their toll on the once pristine missive as it traveled from Chicago to the Illinois town of Rhineburg along a circuitous route marked by zigzagging detours and much backtracking. Its tattered edges, torn flap, and smeared return address bore witness to a ruthless mechanical wizard in the main Chicago office; this monster digested rather than sorted mail before burping a semi-mutilated version of the original into the waiting hands of a bored postal employee. Further manhandling along the way resulted in several barely decipherable messages having been stamped across the surface of the envelope in faded shades of red and blue.
The letter had certainly taken a beating on its two-week journey across the state. Nevertheless, it arrived at its final destination in one piece (more or less). Caroline Rhodes found it in her mail slot early Saturday morning when, after working an unexpected double shift in the ER, she entered the lobby of the red brick nursing dormitory attached to St. Anne's Hospital. Sleepy-eyed and low on patience, the middle-aged nurse dismissed the colorful but smudged printing on the envelope with a disdainful 'harrumph' born of long experience with junk mail.
"Sorry, guys. Whatever you're selling, I'm not buying."
Summoning her last reserves of energy, she crumpled the envelope into a ball, assumed a Michael Jordan-like stance, and launched her unread mail toward a wicker trash-basket stationed beneath the farthest mail slot. What looked like a sure thing wound up a miss as her three-point shot fell just short of its target. Ricocheting off the edge of the basket, the wad of paper skittered across the marble floor.
Caroline chased down the envelope and stomped on it, effectively killing the dust bunnies accumulated on its journey across the lobby. Deciding a slam-dunk was in order, she was about to toss the entire mess in the trash when a young woman clattered down the dormitory stairs, skidded to a stop in front of the mail slots, and, with a nervous glance in Caroline's direction, began rummaging through the wastebasket.
"Lose something?" Caroline recognized the girl as a first-year student who lived on the second floor. Judith, or Janice, or something like that.
"Umm, not really. I…ah…" The girl reached deeper into the basket and pulled out a torn envelope. She studied it intently for a moment before satisfaction wedged her lips into a dreamy smile that slowly edged the tension from her face.
A keen observer of human nature, Caroline immediately recognized the look as having graced the faces of hormonally challenged young women since time immemorial. It meant only one thing: unrequited love was rearing its heart-breaking head again.
"You found what you were looking for?"
"What? Oh…ah…yes!" Overcome by a sudden case of teenage angst, the girl stumbled on uncertainly. "I…I'm on a scavenger hunt. I had to find…old mail. Any old mail." She put a finger to her lips. "It's all very hush-hush."
"Hmm. A scavenger hunt at seven-thirty in the morning." Caroline plucked the envelope from the student's hands and examined the name on the address line. "Peggy Winkler. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Peggy a shorter-than-average blond who favors the preppie look in clothes?" She fingered the torn sleeve on the girl's faded sweatshirt. "You, on the other hand, are a five-foot nine redhead who obviously prefers tattered sweats to tailored blouses." She shook her head. "You'll have to come up with a better story, young lady. No way does this belong to you."
The girl rolled her eyes. "Aw, come on, Mrs. Rhodes. Peg's my roomie. Please don't tell on me."
"When people say 'please don't tell on me', it usually means they've been up to no good. As housemother for this dorm, Judy…"
"It's Jackie. Jackie Harlan."
Caroline mentally kicked herself. Ah, well. Close enough.
"Right. You're Jackie. Yes."
Pull yourself together, woman!
Caroline responded to her inner voice with what little energy she had left. Raising one eyebrow, she lifted her chin and peered down her nose at Jackie in what she hoped was a look of stern admonition. "As I was saying, as housemother, I'm trusted to protect each student's privacy. This letter…"
"It's just an envelope!" Jackie squealed. "Look, Mrs. Rhodes. Peggy broke up with her boyfriend a week ago. Andy wrote her a soppy letter begging her to take him back. I was standing right here with her yesterday when she read it. She was so mad, she tore the note into a million pieces and mailed it back to him." Jackie pointed at the envelope. "She threw that in the trash."
Caroline cocked her head to the left. "And you want it because…"
"His address is on it." Jackie sighed while staring longingly into space. "You won't believe how cute Andy is. He's got these puppy dog eyes. And when he smiles, it's enough to break your heart." She shook her head disgustedly. "Peggy's nuts to let him get away, Mrs. Rhodes. I figured if she doesn't want him…" She broke off with a shrug.
"Who am I to stand in the way of true love?" Caroline handed Jackie the envelope, but stopped the girl as she turned to leave. "Not so fast, Miss Harlan. Before you run off, I want to give you a piece of advice."
Jackie's eyes glazed over. "If this is about safe sex, you needn't worry. I got that lecture from my mom years ago."
"It's not about sex," Caroline said with a smile. "It's about friendship. If you're really Peggy's friend, you should tell her how you feel about Andy. Don't go behind her back and contact him secretly. If she hears through the grapevine that you two are dating, you could spend the rest of the school year sharing space with a very angry roommate."
"I'm willing to take that risk," Jackie replied defiantly.
"Don't forget, Valentine's Day is coming up. Unless Peggy has another fish on the line…"
"No way! She and Andy have been dating for years. She's never even looked at another guy."
"All the more reason to reconsider what you're doing. I doubt Peggy will enjoy spending Valentine's Day alone in the dorm when everyone else is out celebrating. She may decide to make up with Andy before then. If she does, where does that leave you?"
"I don't care. I've got to try. Andy's worth it."
Caroline knew when she was beat. The girl might be naïve when it came to romance, but she certainly was stubborn. "Think about what I said, Jackie. That's all I ask." She thumbed over her shoulder. "Want to ride up with me in the elevator?"
Jackie took one look at the ancient elevator with its wrought-iron grillwork door and shook her head. "No thanks," she said, backpedaling down the hallway. "I need to find a street map and check out this address!"
Feeling suddenly older than her age warranted, Caroline watched the girl skip away, the all-important envelope clutched tightly in her hand. Young love was exasperating, but she had to admit it was also blindingly exciting. Memories came to mind of her own youthful adventures with Cupid. That little winged bugger had found a ready bull's-eye for his arrow when, as a mere seventeen-year-old, she first met Ed at a high school football game. Three months later, on Valentine's Day, the two of them exchanged class rings. The following Valentine's Day, with graduation now well behind them, they exchanged something more precious—their wedding vows.
They'd shared a good life, raising three children together before Ed's untimely death in a hit-and-run accident. Most of the year she could deal with her loss, but there were times when it took all her strength to stave off depression. February was one of those times. As the month wore on it became more and more difficult to think of the upcoming holiday without falling into a blue funk.
Straightening her shoulders, Caroline shook off her sudden attack of gloominess. Back on New Year's Eve she'd resolved to make this year different, and different it would be. She was done giving in to the blues, allowing them to ruin an entire month of her life. February was a challenge to be faced head on, which is why last week she'd volunteered to chaperone the Valentine's Day dance at Bruck University. Babysitting a bunch of moonstruck teenagers might not be the most romantic way to spend an evening, but it sure beat sitting alone in her apartment with a glass of wine listening to Barry White croon "Can't get enough of your love, babe."
"And that means one less cold shower to take," she muttered as she contemplated the effect of White's sexy bass on her long neglected libido. Just thinking of that voice was enough to send shivers down her spine.
Banishing Barry to the far recesses of her mind, she glanced once more at her mail. Considering the fiasco she'd just witnessed vis-a-vis Jackie and her precious envelope, the first floor wastebasket might not be the best place to dispose of any personal communiqués. She tucked the letter in the pocket of her scrubs disgustedly and headed upstairs to her apartment.
The dormitory Caroline called home had been built several decades before to accommodate young women studying nursing at St. Anne's. The three-year diploma program had produced many fine graduates, but when Bruck University began offering a bachelor's degree in the same subject, enrollment at St. Anne's dwindled. The hospital closed its school in 1978 while brokering a deal with the university to keep the dorm open. The building was now reserved solely for nursing students attending nearby Bruck.
Renovated in 1980, the dormitory housed most of its residents on two floors situated above the lobby and its connecting classrooms. A sprawling three-story wing had been added west of the building the following year. The Stromberg addition, named for the woman who'd financed its construction, contained staff offices and a small auditorium on the first floor. The spacious rooms on the upper two floors were the private domains of several dozen lucky seniors.
The small stipend Caroline received for serving as housemother barely counted when she filed her taxes. What attracted her to the job was the promise of rent-free lodging in Stromberg. Her apartment extended across the width of the addition at the far end of the third floor. It was far smaller than her previous home in Chicago, but it suited her immediate needs.
At the moment, one of those needs was sleep. Caroline locked her door with a sigh of relief and made a beeline for the bedroom, shucking her scrubs along the way. She shivered when the cold air hit her bare skin. Winter still had a hold on little Rhineburg.
"You wouldn't know it by this," she said as she checked the thermostat anchored to the wall outside the bedroom. Permanently set at sixty-six degrees by the hospital's maintenance department, it was covered by a wire cage that made increasing the temperature impossible. "Damn skin flints act like it's summer all year 'round. Free doesn't mean FREEzing!"
She hustled into the red flannel pajamas she'd received as a Christmas present from her oldest daughter. Imprinted with prancing reindeer and grinning elves, they'd been meant as a gag gift after she'd complained about the frigid conditions in her living quarters. They'd soon become her favorite nightwear, second only to her Chicago Bears sweatshirt in both warmth and comfort.
Caroline snuggled under the covers and closed her eyes, choosing to ignore the red message signal blinking on the nightstand's answering machine. Whoever had called could wait until she had eight good hours of sleep under her belt. Her brain cells were shutting down, and with them, her desire to talk with either friends or family.
Family. She shot up in bed and reached for the telephone. Her daughter-in-law was pregnant. Maybe something had happened to Nikki. Maybe she was sick or, God forbid, she'd gone into early labor. Who else would call her this early in the morning? It had to be Nikki, or her son, Martin. Thinking the worst, she punched in Martin's number, than just as quickly cancelled the call.
Idiot! Check the answering machine first! You've been away for sixteen hours!
"Right," she mumbled irritatedly. The call must have come in after she'd left for work. Aggravated with herself, she jabbed the message button. An unfamiliar voice filled the room.
"I'm trying to reach Mrs. Caroline Rhodes. If Mrs. Rhodes is there, please answer the phone." A moment of silence preceded a drawn out sigh. "Mrs. Rhodes, this is Henry Hillerman of Hillerman and Murphy, Attorneys at Law. It's three o'clock on Friday, February the sixth. Some time ago, I sent you a letter concerning the late Mrs. Geraldine Miller. I received no response from you concerning the matter described in that missive. A second letter was mailed from this office two weeks ago. Again, I have not heard from you as to your interest in the wording of Mrs. Miller's will." The nasally voice dropped an octave. "As executor of Mrs. Miller's estate, it is my duty to contact you one last time before invoking the final provisions of the will. Distribution of the estate will take place this Saturday at 10 a.m. in the home of my recently departed client. If you wish to receive your inheritance, you must appear at the house on time and in such condition as to prove your identity."
Apparently the lawyer had little training in manners. His last words were followed by a loud click indicating a phone slammed down in anger. Caroline stared at the message machine with raised eyebrows. The name Miller was unfamiliar to her. She had no friends or relatives called Geraldine, nor had her late husband.
At least, none that I know of.
She bounded off the bed. Racing to the living room, she retrieved her abandoned scrubs, reached into the pants pocket, and extracted the letter she'd found in her mailbox. Sure enough, the smudged return address listed the two lawyers mentioned in the phone message. Beneath her own address were a series of messages stamped in red and blue ink, each one smaller than the last. She examined them closely, then silently cursed the world at large. What she'd assumed at first glance to be advertising was, in fact, warnings from the postal service that a) the letter was undeliverable as addressed; b) the zip code listed did not exist; and c) the envelope was being forwarded not once, but multiple times.
"Which is why I didn't receive it until now," she snarled. "It's a miracle I got it at all!" She ripped open the envelope, withdrew a cream-colored sheet of paper embossed with the name and address of Hillerman's Chicago law firm, and quickly scanned it.
The letter was short on details. The first paragraph reminded her of Mrs. Geraldine Miller's death the previous year and the forwarding to Caroline of copies of the will and other forms related to probate. The next two paragraphs were a mumbo-jumbo of legalistic terms, but what it came down to was this: she'd had been named a beneficiary in Geraldine's will.
"Me? A beneficiary? How can that be?"
She glanced at the final paragraph. It began innocently enough; Mrs. Miller's address was listed along with the date and time mentioned by the disembodied voice on the message machine. The final sentence proved more perplexing.
"'Please refer to the provisions of the will re failure to appear on the above indicated date.'" Caroline rolled her eyes. "What are you talking about? I never got a copy of any will. And I don't know any Geraldine Miller!"
She re-read the letter, letting the words slowly sink into her consciousness until their full meaning finally hit her. Someone she'd never met before was about to enrich her life in some unknown way.
Sinking onto the couch, she thought of the health insurance she'd lost after Ed's death and the debt she'd incurred from her own hospitalization soon afterwards. She'd sold her home to pay the bills, and while her present job gave her an income, she had little saved for the future. An inheritance could mean the difference between just making it financially and not having to worry she'd be dependent on her children in her old age. Yes, retirement was a long way off for her. But the years had a way of passing all too quickly. An inherited nest egg–even a small one–would be much appreciated.
Caroline glanced at the clock and quickly shook off her reverie. It was eight-thirty, and Chicago was over an hour's drive away. She jumped off the couch and hurried to the bedroom where she exchanged her pajamas for a pair of black corduroy slacks, a red turtleneck sweater, and black suede loafers. The last sentence of the letter continued to bother her as she slid her arms into her parka and headed for the door. She had no idea what the will actually said, but she bet those 'final provisions' could strip her of her inheritance.
"Not if I can help it," she promised herself as, car keys in hand, she ran out of the apartment.
END OF CHAPTER ONE