Sunday, February 26, 2012

Julie and Hank: Two fine mystery writers

The fun part of mystery cons is, you have dozens of books to choose from when you hit the bookseller's room. Earlier this month I attended Love Is Murder, Chicago's premier mystery con, and the first thing I did on arriving was hunt down Sue Peterson, LIM's designated bookseller. Sue's a great gal, interesting and fun to visit with. But talk wasn't the main reason I went looking for Sue. The truth is, I wanted to buy the headliners' books before they were gobbled up by the rest of the attendees. And buy I did. Some of the books were intended for family members, and those I gave away without first reading them. (I'll get them back to read eventually -- we pass books around in my family so we can argue later over which one was the best!)

So far I've finished four of the books I bought at LIM. Here are my reviews of two of those four.

AFFAIRS OF STEAK is the fifth "White House Chef Mystery" by Anthony and Barry award winner Julie Hyzy. In this episode, executive chef Olivia "Ollie" Paras has to put personal feelings aside when she's paired up with Peter Everett Sargeant, the unlikeable White House sensitivity director, to help choose a location for Secretary of State Gerald Quinones' White House sponsored birthday party. Ollie and Peter are told to meet the First Lady's personal assistant, Patty Woodruff, at Lexington Place, a glittering banquet hall not far from the White House that might prove to be the most suitable place for the party. Ollie and Peter arrive on time for the meeting, but when Patty is nowhere to be found, the two set off to survey the hall by themselves. While doing so, they stumble across not one, but two bodies. The first victim is Patty Woodruff. The second is the President's chief of staff.

While the media plays on an imagined love affair involving the two, the Secret Service investigates a much more complicated scenario linking their deaths to threats against Secretary of State Quinones and his family. Who kidnapped the Secretary's father-in-law? Is there a conspiracy to kill Quinones? If so, does Sargeant's much despised nephew Milton know who's behind the plot? Why is someone trying to get Sargeant fired? And who is the man who followed Ollie into the subway?

A temperamental chef, a conceited social aide, and an unresolved romance add to Ollie's problems as she strives to keep her head above water in this highly entertaining culinary whodunnit. Hyzy's knowledge of White House protocol and Secret Service SOPs keeps the plot on track and humming down the line to a surprising but satisfying conclusion. The puff pastry recipes at the end of the book only add to the fun. This one is highly recommended for fans of political intrigue, amateur sleuths, and romantic suspense, not to mention lovers of fine food and wine. (And yes, I fully intend to try the recipe for cranberry pecan brie en croute and chocolate sundae vol-au-vents. My mouth was watering just reading those recipes!)

As a member of Boston's NBC affiliate, Hank Phillip Ryan has won dozens of major awards for her investigative reporting. Fortunately for mystery fans, Hank is now also using her journalistic talents to produce tightly scripted killer mysteries featuring a smart, strong, yet highly feminine, female protagonist.

In DRIVE TIME, the fourth book in Ryan's Charlotte McNally series, TV reporter Charlie McNally stumbles upon a deviously dangerous scheme when she and her producer Franklin stop to help the victim of a highway accident. Declan Ross tells her his vehicle is in the repair shop following a manufacturer's recall notice. He's driving a rental car--now badly damaged--and is furious because the air bags didn't deploy during the crash. Instinct tells Charlie there's a story brewing here, and what better time to investigate it than in the few days left leading up to sweeps week.

Working on the potential car scam report cuts into Charlie's personal time just as life is getting really interesting for her. Engaged to be married, Charlie is learning to become a step-mom to Josh's daughter Penny, and that means getting involved at Bexter, the private school where Josh teaches and Penny will be starting junior high. "Getting involved" isn't supposed to equate with "investigating" though, so when Josh tells Charlie something about Bexter in confidence, she's forced to rein in her natural tendency to snoop.

Conflicted by promises she's made and secrets she must keep, Charlie walks a fine line to keep her private life separate from her professional one. But when Josh becomes involved in an unexplained death, Charlie must use her investigative skills to solve a mystery that hits too near to home for comfort.

Hank Phillippi Ryan's bullet-like prose propels this nicely devised story at breakneck speed along a well-plotted course. Her "bang-bang" style of writing makes for a book that's hard to put down; I wanted to turn just one more page, read one more chapter, before closing the book each night. And despite the heightened pace of the story, Ryan displays great skill at characterization and description, painting pictures of people, places, and events with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of reality. All in all, this was a mystery that grabbed my attention from the first page.


later this week I'll be presenting some book reviews by Carl Brookins along with my own reviews of two of David Morrell's books. Hope you'll drop by Cicero's Children again. :)


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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Too Old to Drive??

When does the term "Senior Citizen" equate to the phrase "too old to drive"?

For a Schaumburg, IL man, described by the Daily Herald as being in his 80's, the answer to that question might be, "At 4:45 PM yesterday, February 21, 2012."

That's when the unnamed gentleman drove his minivan through the front door and into the lobby of the Schaumburg Township District Library.

The man and his wife were taken to the hospital suffering minor cuts and bruises. Luckily, no patrons or employees of the library were injured in the accident. Significant damage was done to the building, though, and crews were needed to shore up the entranceway.

I've been to this library many times. The main doors shown in the pictures above open onto an enclosed foyer that ends at a second set of doors leading into the lobby. The lobby itself is long and wide and features a small but much used cafe off to one side. Benches line both sides of the lobby, providing resting spots for patrons waiting to be picked up by family or friends.

This is a busy library, especially in the afternoon and early evening when mothers with children and teens researching homework projects flock to the well-stocked reading rooms. It amazes me that no one else was injured when the 2000-lb. minivan plunged through the doorway.

And that brings me to the point of this blog.

We've all read of accidents involving elderly drivers, accidents where pedestrians were killed or injured through no fault of their own. It seems like in every case, the driver either stepped on the gas rather than the break or failed to complete an intended turn.

TV, radio, and newspapers report such tragedies when they occur. But the public rarely hears or sees follow-up stories that tell us what happened to the driver, what penalty he or she had to pay under the law for causing the accident. Are these drivers prosecuted for killing or maiming innocent people? I doubt they're sent to prison, but do they at least lose their licenses? Do they face probation? Must they in some way make amends for what they've done?

I've heard it said by some that the guilt these elderly drivers experience over the accident is more than enough punishment, that they shouldn't be arrested for vehicular manslaughter or face other types of criminal charges in less serious cases. I've also heard people say, "You have to understand how difficult it is for older people to give up driving a car", as if understanding should lead to forgiveness of their actions.

I'm not a cold-hearted person, but I'm not sure understanding or forgiveness equals justice. And here I don't speak lightly. I had elderly parents who insisted on driving long after they'd lost the physical and mental abilities to drive safely. I did a lot of their driving for them, ferrying them to the store, to church, to the doctor. But there were times when I'd call on the phone and they'd not be home. That's when I'd hold my breath and pray that they -- and everyone around them -- stayed safe.

And let me tell you, they had a few close calls. Once my father couldn't quite make the turn in a parking lot and ended up nose-to-nose with a store's glass window. Once my mother drove herself to the hairdresser and, while parking her car, hit the car in the space next to her. Neither time was anyone hurt, but neither time did either of my parents take responsibility and say, "It was my fault." They were too afraid to admit they were no longer good drivers, so they made excruciatingly poor excuses as to why these accidents and near-accidents occurred.

I believe if people claim they're capable of driving, they should have to prove it. We require teens to take a driving course and pass a driving test in order to get a license. Why? Because we know young people are often impulsive and don't make good decisions. We do our best to teach them how to safely handle a car, how to think before putting their foot on the gas pedal, how to be responsible for their actions behind the wheel.

I believe a similar approach should be taken with people over the age of seventy. I believe senior citizens should not only have to pass a written driving test every three years, but also an on-the-road driving test. I also think a doctor's note stating they're healthy enough to drive should be included in the requirements.

I don't think asking this of senior citizens would be unfair. I'm over the age of sixty myself, and I'd be more than willing to prove my driving capabilities to the DMV. I'm also willing to give up my license when the day comes that I can no longer safely operate a vehicle.

I'd much rather lose my license that way then lose it after killing someone in an accident.

How about you?

****************** (Photos courtesy of ABC7, The Daily Herald, and Fire Rescue on FB)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Reviews by Carl Brookins

The weekend is coming, a time to relax and forget about work for a while. There's no better way to relax than with a good mystery novel, so to help you find the perfect one, I present for your reading pleasure five book reviews by my good friend Carl Brookins.

Assignment:Nepal
By J.S. Squires
ASIN: B005VFMK6Q
2011 E-book release from
Echelon Press
Reviewed by Carl Brookins

Readers of this review should be aware that this press has published some of my crime fiction and I am acquainted with the publisher, though not with the two authors writing under a single pseudonym.

The protagonist is named Irene Adler. Not the woman who beat Sherlock Holmes at his own game, but her modern namesake, a Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology at Boston University. Adler has a semi-cynical outlook on life and it turns out she supplements her income by playing poker, specifically Texas Holdem in the gambling parlors around the New England area. Irene Adler is a bright, smart, single woman, and an endearing protagonist.

Her former adviser, a fellow faculty member, prevails on Ms. Adler to travel to Nepal to inquire into the life and times of a former fellow undergraduate student of Irene’s, a Margot Smith, who’s in Nepal doing research on one of that country’s goddesses, one Chwwaassa Dyo. The problem is, it appears something's gone awry with Margot and her physician husband, and Adler is supposed to sort things out. What needs sorting turns out to be only part of the story. Irene agrees to go half-way around the world to see a woman she barely knows. From this most unlikely beginning, the plot drives poor Adler into one complexity after another.

Her assignment clearly has unstated dimensions about which neither we readers nor Irene Adler herself are clear. Now, Nepal is an exotic nation from which assaults on Mount Everest are mounted and the ubiquitous Sherpa play an important part, as do digital cameras, former Cold War adversaries, political unrest in the country, and a whole series of meddlesome individuals who seem to still show up on the fringes of the former English Empire.

The novel winds its way through a variety of conflicts among wanderers, a boorish American tourist couple, and murder and bomb blasts. At times the narrative suffers from a pedestrian pace and some lapses of editing discipline over the point of view. Still, the story is interesting, Irene is definitely a character to build a series around, the exotic setting in and around Katmandu is, well, exotic, and a satisfactory conclusion is fashioned. I think four stars is too strong a rating, but the novel is more enjoyable than three stars would indicate. Sample the story and make your own judgment.

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LETHAL Lineage
By Charlotte Hinger
ISBN:978-1-59058-837-6
2011 Release from
Poisoned Pen Press
Reviewed by Carl Brookins

This is an amazing novel. Almost from the first line, one is interested, entertained, and enthralled. Lottie Albright is a first-class protagonist, a bright, wealthy, well-educated woman with a healthy measure of community sense and human empathy. The fact that she’s now living on the isolated windy plains of northwestern Kansas, second wife of a widowed farmer, only enhances her claim on the reader’s attention.

The author writes with such clarity, precision and verve, one is swept into the lives of these people with intimacy, with love, and with a clear eye on the realities of life in this place in the Twenty-first Century. As isolated as they are, and feel themselves to be, the citizens of four sparsely-populated counties will be touched in tender and horrific ways by larger events happening continents away beginning with a confirmation in a new Episcopal congregation meeting in a new church.

The novel’s sojourn into the world of historical research, especially Albright’s struggle to deal with the surprises of family history projects is a fascinating and relevant subplot. The characters are all well-laid on and consistent in their roles. All in all an outstanding effort.

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Damage Control
by Denise Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0-7432-9674-8
a 2011 hardcover release from
Scribner. 372 pages.
Reviewed by Carl Brookins

More than just romance can often flower under the hot desert moon. In southern California, a lot more. In the artificially irrigated hothouse of perfectly sculpted bodies, overabundance of wealth, aggressive power and overweening ambition are a dangerous combination that leads, almost inevitably, to corruption. And it is corruption that’s at the heart of this complex, lyrically written tale, along with a strong dose of murder and mystery.

Maggie Silver grew up on the far side of the tracks. Now in adulthood with a mortgage, a failed marriage, and an ill mother, she’s scrambling for a place, if not in the sun, as near as she can get without singeing her fingers. Her values are aspiring middle class. She’d like to be one of the beautiful people, and for a while in a private school with a rich girl friend named Anabelle Paxton, the giddy, youthful exuberance of unsupervised teenaged life seems to point to a life to come of luxury and happiness.

Fast forward to today. Having lost that youthful connection to the good life, Maggie is establishing herself as a fixer. Working for the powerful public relations firm, Blair Company, she find herself once more entangled with the Paxton family, Henry, now a powerful U.S. Senator, Luke, the golden son, and Anabelle, once her very best girl friend. A murder has happened and the situation must be managed. The Blair firm gets paid a great deal of money by wealthy clients to do exactly that. What happens then, to Maggie, the Paxtons, to other members of the firm is enthralling, complicated, and almost a Greek tragedy.

The author has taken a common theme, power, wealth and their corrupting influences, and infused the story with a strong dose of both good and evil. and while she carefully and fully illuminates much of the evil that resides in Los Angeles and its special culture, there is at times, a faint but fascinating aura of envy, as if the author yearns, however ruefully, for just a little taste of the life she writes about. The genius of the novel lies in part in the complex and convoluted story and the way the author infuses this story with life.

Hamilton has not penned a polemic against the culture of southern California. Rather she holds up the citizens, and the organizations to a searing light and lets readers judge the actions and the influences that result. Unlike Raymond Chandler, with whose writing she is compared, her sympathies clearly lie with all the characters, while never condoning their actions, or trumpeting the consequences. So in the end, readers, themselves having perhaps experienced a little bit of envy for the characters, can close the book and ponder the questions we all may ask ourselves, to whom do we really owe the greatest loyalty?

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The Lost Women of Lost Lake
by Ellen Hart
ISBN: 978-0-312-61477-5
2011 hardcover release from
Minotaur Books, 320 pgs.
Reviewed by Carl Brookins

It is interesting how these things come in multiples. Libby Hellmann recently released a novel with its genesis in the riotous summer and fall of 1968. The Minnesota History Center has just opened an elaborate exhibit focused on 1968, and the History Theater in Saint Paul has mounted an original play, “1968, The year That Rocked The World.” And now here we have a powerful, emotionally intense novel by that excellent Minneapolis writer, Ellen Hart. It is a story of two women who are unable to divorce themselves from that same year, 196, and the decisions and actions they took then.

The story is another event in the evolving saga of Minneapolis restaurateur, Jane Lawless. This time she and bosom chum Cordelia take what they intend to be a short vacation trip into Minnesota’s benign northern wilderness to the Lawless family lodge on a lake north of the Twin Cities. It’s a common enough activity, and bucolic time on placid water amid peaceful forests is expected to provide calm and rejuvenation. Jane is trying to decide whether she can commit to working with a close friend toward becoming a professional private investigator.

The peaceful appearing forest, like so many lives, conceals dark doings, and Jane is drawn into a maelstrom of murder, revenge, drugs and double dealing. The multiple threads of this complex story intersect, divide, and then reweave. At times the action is high with tension, the pace frantic. At other times, the story becomes thoughtful, calm, like the smooth waters of the lake itself, allowing readers moments to reflect, perhaps, on their own lives and paths not taken. The women of lost lake, must, in the end, decide for themselves, and take for themselves the heart-rending consequences of their lives.

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Murder in the 11th house
by Mitchell Scott Lewis
ISBN: 978-59058-950-2
a 2011 release from
Poisoned Pen Press
Reviewed by Carl Brookins

A team of intrepid and intelligent agents in league with an astrologer take on difficult cases of potential injustice. The feeling one gets from this debut novel about the Starlight Detective Agency is one of a small team of right-minded individuals with varied skills united around common goals. When government doesn’t get it right, the agency will. And they’re not above bending the law for all the right reasons. How that affects the lawyer/daughter on the team remains to be seen. The agency does work with police in New York City whenever possible, and because of his wealth and reputation, that seems to be often, but David Lowell, Astrologer non parallel, is not above spending his considerable money and influence to right apparent wrongs.

Angry bartender Johnny Colbert has a loud confrontation with a judge in a small New York Courtroom. It’s a civil case but the judge is soon dead in spectacular fashion and the bartender has no alibi. Enter Lowell’s daughter, defense attorney, Melinda, who prevails on her father to attempt to solve the mystery of who killed the judge and why, thus, presumably, exonerating Ms Colbert. The why of the murder proves far more fascinating that the astrological explanations. There are many explanations, and in some detail. They tend to slow the pace of the story considerably.

But it doesn’t matter whether you believe in astrology or not, the writing is generally smooth and the story develops logically. All of the characters stay in character, even if it’s a bit of a stretch for the young idealistic attorney to countenance what she knows is marginally illegal activity on behalf of her client. Several of the characters, Sarah and the client in particular, are interesting and well-drawn. all in all a nice traditionally-styled crime novel for a pleasant reading afternoon.

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All reviews by:
Carl Brookins
www.carlbrookins.com
agora2.blogspot.com
Reunion, Devils Island, Red Sky, The Case of the Great Train Robbery
The Case of The Missing Case

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Friday, February 10, 2012

FRAMED -- from HEARTS AND DAGGERS

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

Chapter One

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.

"Rats!"

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

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