fter seventy-three years, change doesn’t sit well with Fred Vickery. So he’s not about to give up coffee and diner food, no matter what his daughter and his doctor say. Because Fred knows the secret for staying young is staying happy. And as long as there’s a mystery to be solved, Cutler, Colorado, is heaven on earth.
Fred hasn’t seen much of his in-laws since the death of his wife. But family loyalty prevails when his late wife’s niece is accused of murdering her husband.
Though rumors of infidelity point to Nancy’s guilt, Fred knows that more is going on here than a relationship turned sour. He’s determined to uncover the truth, even though the whole town of Cutler–his family included–has joined forced to keep him from getting involved in the case…
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Pleasantly full after a great meal, Fred Vickery followed his brother-in-law, Porter Jorgensen, from the Jorgensens’ kitchen into the living room. In the nearly fifty years since they’d each married out of T.S. Cooper’ daughters, they’d done this hundreds of times—a big meal in the kitchen, after which the men were shooed into the living room where he and Porter saved the world (in theory) while Phoebe and Harriet chatted and cleared the table.
In the early years, Fred had often tried to help but Phoebe had always sent him away. He’d finally given up after she explained it was her only chance to spend time alone with her sister and that the dishes provided a convenient excuse.
An air conditioner unit in one window churned out cold air and a fan whirred softly on the other side of the room, trying to take the edge off the hot August evening. Fred settled into an easy chair and listened to the clatter of silverware, the rush of water, and the low murmur of conversation in the kitchen. If he closed his eyes, he could almost believe nothing had changed. But the kids were all grown and out on their own now—except Douglas, who’d moved back home in the spring—and Phoebe was gone. Had been for nearly three years now. Fred had grown used to living without her—almost. But times like this brought the pain back so sharply, Fred wondered if he’d ever truly adjust.
The past three years he’d avoided Phoebe’s family almost entirely—four sisters, all too much like Phoebe in one way or another, one brother, and too many children among them all to keep an accurate count. Porter and Harriet lived closest to Fred, and he’d missed the times they used to spend together. So when Harriet called last Sunday with this invitation to dinner, he’d convinced himself he’d healed enough to make it through the evening without trouble.
He’d been wrong.
Stifling a groan, he patted his stomach and forced a smile. “Harriet sure hasn’t lose her touch with a meal.”
Porter grinned and dropped heavily into his easy chair. “Nope, I’ll say that for her. She’s still one of the best cooks in the county.” His ample frame provided silent proof of his words. His snow-white hair, once nearly jet-black, testified to how many years he’d been enjoying Harriet’s efforts in the kitchen.
He picked up the remote control from the TV tray beside him and almost instantly a picture popped onto the screen. With a satisfied grunt, he settled back in his chair as if he’d been watching the blasted thing all evening.
From the kitchen, a burst of laughter erupted and Fred’s heart twisted. But it wasn’t Phoebe’s laugh. Tonight, Harriet and Nancy Bigelow, the Jorgensens’ youngest child, had joined forces and kicked the men out of the kitchen. The laughter drifted away, then erupted again before facing into muted conversation. Nancy’s voice blended with Harriet’s like Phoebe’s had. Both voices were soft and melodious. Both a little husky. Both pleasant and soothing.
Fred leaned his head against the chair and tried to push away the longing for the life he’d never get back. He’d had forty-seven years with Phoebe. Many people didn’t get that much time together. This year they’d have celebrated their golden anniversary, but no matter how much he longed for the past, he couldn’t bring Phoebe back. All he had was the here and now. He wanted to make the best of it.
Tonight he’d shared some pleasant company and had eaten a good meal for the first time in years. Obviously, Harriet and Phoebe had learned to cook from the same teacher. His daughter Margaret had cooked that well once, but lately she’d let her fear of fat grams and cholesterol chase all the taste from her food. The only flavor he got these days was what he sneaked into his own recipes.
Cutting a glance toward the kitchen he said, “It’s good to see Nancy again. I didn’t expect her to be here.”
Porter grunted again and wiped a trickle of sweat from his temple. “We all thought Douglas would come with you, and she was looking forward to seeing him again.”
“I passed along the invitation,” Fred said, “but I can’t predict what Douglas will do now any better than I could when he was a boy.”
Porter nodded, no doubt remembering the younger Douglas and his tendency to leap from one interest to another without warning. “Did you say he’working now?”
Fred’s mouth tightened into a frown. “He’s still looking.”
With an expression full of understanding, Porter leaned back in his chair. “If it’s not one thing it’s another, isn’t it?” He shot a quick glance at the kitchen door. “Nancy’s been on my mind a lot lately. She comes by more than she ought to, but that husband if hers spends all his time working, so she’d be alone if she didn’t spent time with us.”
Fred heard the disapproval in Porter’s voice and saw it on his face. Fred empathized with his brother-in-law. He knew how it felt to disapprove of a son-in-law, but Phoebe hadn’t liked him to voice his opinion of Webb in front of Margaret, and he figured Harriet would feel the same way about Nancy’s marriage. Besides, Fred had known Adam Bigelow since childhood. He’d watched the boy grow up as he went through school, and he’d always kind of liked the kid. For all those reasons, he tried to keep his voice neutral. “What’s Adam doing now? Does he still have that government job?”
“He’s a subcontractor,” Porter said. “Soil and water testing, that sort of thing. What it amounts to is he plays in the dirt and mud all day.” Porter made a noise at something on the television and leaned forward slightly. “For hell’s sake—” he muttered, then dropped back again and shook his head. “So are you and Douglas coming to the picnic on Labor Day?”
“I don’t know,” Fred admitted. “Douglas could have found a job and left town by then.”
“The real question is, what about you?” Porter asked. “We’ve missed having you around.”
Fred appreciated that, but he didn’t want to make a promise he might not keep. “I don’t know,” he said again. “There are lots of memories in this house. More than I expected.”
Porter’s chins waggled as he studied the living room. Maybe he thought he could see the memories if he looked hard enough. “Well, I suppose there are reminders here, and I’m sure it’s tough. But you can’t make yourself a hermit forever. Phoebe’s gone, sure, but that doesn’t mean you’re not part of the family anymore.”
“I know that.”
“You should have been at Bev’s for the Fourth of July,” Porter went on. “We had quite a party, and everybody asked about you.”
Phoebe’s eldest sister, Beverly, had long ago claimed the Fourth of July as her exclusive bailiwick, but Fred hadn’t joined them at once of her parties since Phoebe passed on. It just wouldn’t be the same. But he knew the others wouldn’t understand so he just nodded slowly and said, “Margaret told me.”
Porter chuckled at some picnic memory and adjusted his shirtfront over his ample stomach. “Viv brought a date—did Margaret tell you that?”
Vivian, the sister between Phoebe and Harriet, had divorced her husband more than twenty years earlier. Every year or so she’d date someone new. Nothing serious had ever developed with any of her callers, but her descriptions of the dates kept the family in stitches.
Fred smiled, realizing that he’d missed hearing Vivien’s stories. “Do I need to run out and buy a wedding gift?”
Porter snorted in reply. “No, not yet. She called the next week and said the guy turned out to be the Date from Hell.” He changed the channel on the television and went back to ignoring the program. “So what about Labor Day? I’ve got to warn you, Bev said that if you didn’t show up this year she’d drive down and drag you up here by the seat of your pants.”
Fred grinned at the image. Beverly had been a year ahead of Fred in school, so he knew she had to be at least seventy-four, but he had no trouble picturing her carrying out her threat. “Labor Day’s still over two weeks away, “Fred said. “I’ll think about it and let you know.”
In the other room, water shut off and chairs scraped against the floor. Porter jerked his head in the direction of the kitchen. “Sounds like they’re coming. You know Harriet’s not going to let you rest until you give her the answer she wants.”
Before Fred could respond, footsteps clattered on the hardwood floor and a moment later Harriet and Nancy burst into the room. Harriet still wore her apron, and she’d left a kitchen towel draped over one shoulder. She had lighter hair than any of her sisters, but there was no mistaking which family she came from.
Nancy followed her mother, carrying a tray loaded with steaming mugs of coffee. She must have been about thirty, Fred calculated—give or take a year or two. The only girl out of the Jorgensens’ five children, she had her mother’s light hair, but her eyes were honey brown, just like Phoebe’s had been. Those eyes, inherited from a maternal grandmother, had marked the family connection through several generations.
Harriet beamed at them and waved Nancy toward the coffee table. “Well, here we are. Anybody want coffee?”
“It’s not decaf is it?” Fred asked.
She handed him a mug and jerked her head toward her husband. “Are you kidding? Porter would divorce me if I tried to give him decaf.” She perched on the edge of the couch and let her gaze linger on Fred as he sipped cautiously. “So, did he talk you into coming for Labor Day?”
Fred smiled and shook his head. “He asked, but I don’t know—”
Harriet put a hand on his knee. “Please, Fred? We’ve missed you. Holidays aren’t the same without you.”
“They’re not the same without Phoebe,” he said.
He half expected Harriet’s eyes to grow misty, but in her typical bullheaded way she refused to let the emotion take hold. “No, they’re not. But we can’t change that, can we? This is ridiculous, Fred. We live less than thirty miles apart, but we’ve hardly seen you in the past three years.”
“I’m here tonight,” he pointed out.
“Yes you are,” Harriet admitted. “And it’s a good thing, too. I’ve just about reached the end of my patience with you.”
Nancy grabbed a mug and wedged herself into a corner of the couch. “Come on, Uncle Fred. Admit it. You’ve missed us too.”
He had. No denying it.
As if sensing his hesitation, Harriet touched his knee again. “Dorothy’s bringing that casserole you like so much—”
Against his will, a laugh escaped. “Now you’re fighting dirty.”
Harriet pushed at his knee and chuckled. “The best way to win you over has always been with food. Why do you think Phoebe spent one whole summer learning how to bake? We all thought we’d die in that hot old house before you got around to proposing.”
Porter flicked through another couple of channels. “You might as well give up, Fred. You don’t stand a chance. They’ve been plotting against you all summer, planning a menu with all your favorite dishes and who knows what else.”
Fred laughed, but before he could reply the front door slammed open and cut off what he’d been about to say. Nancy’s husband, Adam Bigelow, stood in the doorway, his chest heaving from exertion or emotion, Fred couldn’t tell which, and a stream of hot summer air swept into the room with him.
As just about six feet tall, Adam wasn’t a small man. He had the broad-shouldered build and weathered complexion of a man who worked outdoors, and now that he’d reached his early thirties, he had a fine sprinkling of fray in his dark hair and beard.
Pausing only a second to get his bearings, Adam stormed into the living room toward Nancy. His dark eyes glinted and his breathing was ragged.
Nancy’s smile faded. “Adam? What are you doing here? What’s wrong?”
He jerked his head toward the door. “I want to talk to you right now. Outside.”
A flicker of uncertainty crossed Nancy’s face, but she put down the mug she was holding and stood to face him. “Now? Adam—”
“Right now!” The angry look he gave her made Fred uneasy.
“For Pete’s sake, boy—” Porter snarled.
“Don’t get involved, Porter,” Harriet interrupted. “Let the kids work out whatever it is.”
Nancy looked at each of her parents and managed a weak smile in Fred direction. “I’m sorry—”
“I said now.” Adam grabbed her arm roughly and tried to pull her toward the door.
Nancy jerked away from him. “Let go of me.”
Porter struggled to his feet and tried to step between them. “Whatever you’re upset about, there’s no need to get pushy.”
Adam ignored his father-in-law and grabbed for Nancy again. This time she managed to sidestep him.
Harriet scrambled for Porter’s remote and aimed it at the television. But when she turned up the volume on the first try and changed the channel on her second, she tossed it aside with a cry of irritation.
“Are you coming with me?” Adam demanded.
“Not while you’re acting like this,” Nancy said with a toss of her head. She was trying to look brave, but Fred could see anxiety in her eyes.
He wondered if he should leave. He’d recently seen Douglas through a divorce and he didn’t have the stomach to hear more angry accusations and bitter recriminations. But a quick glance around the room told him that it wouldn’t be easy to slip out. Harriet was blocking the door to the kitchen and Adam was standing between him and the front door. Leaving right now would call more attention to himself than he wanted so he sat back in his chair and tried to make himself invisible.
When the television show gave way to a commercial, the volume jumped again. Growling in frustration, Porter marched toward the set and turned it off manually. “You’re not going anywhere with him, Nancy. Not until he calms down.” He turned on Adam with an angry scowl. “You have some nerve barging in to my house like this.”
Fury contorted Adam’s face. “This isn’t your concern, Porter.”
Harriet fluttered her hands toward the couch. “Why don’t you sit down, Adam? I’m sure you two can work out whatever’s wrong.”
Adam laughed bitterly. “I don’t know what I’m thinking. There’s nothing to work out. I’m talking to an attorney first thing tomorrow.”
It had gone this far, then. Fred sure hated to see it. He knew how deep the wounds of divorce could cut.
Harriet cried out as if Adam had struck her. “What? Oh, Adam, you don’t mean that.” She turned to Nancy and grabbed her arms. “He didn’t mean it, sweetie.”
Nancy’s eyes filled with tears and her face crumpled in pain. “Yes he does, Mom.”
“No,” Harriet insisted. “You’ll see.” She reached a pleading hand toward her son-in-law. “Maybe you and I should talk about it, Adam.”
Nancy tugged her backward. “No, Mom. Adam’s right. This is between him and me—”
Adam barked another angry laugh. “If that were true, we might have a chance. But it’s been a long time since things were between the two of us, hasn’t it?”
Harriet let go of Nancy and began to wring her hands. Adam took advantage of that to grab Nancy’s arm and jerk her toward the door. He must have gripped her too tightly or pulled too roughly because she cried out in pain.
That’s all it took for Porter to lose his temper. Red-faced and breathing hard, he lunged toward Adam. “You hurt her again and I’ll take you apart.”
“Please don’t, Dad,” Nancy begged, trying in vain to pull away from Adam.
Adam refused to let go and jerked her toward the door again. “Now, Nancy. I’m not waiting all night while you milk your parents for sympathy.”
Embarrassed to witness the argument and concerned for everyone involved, Fred wished they would stop. That they’d go their separate ways tonight and discuss it later, when their emotions had cooled. If they let this go on too long, it would be hard to repair the damage later.
Nancy bit her lip as if Adam had hurt her again, and Porter’s round face turned even redder. “Let go of her, you little son of a bitch—”
Adam finally let go of Nancy, but only so he could get in Porter’s face. “Stay out of this, Porter, unless you want to hear things you’d rather not know about. Nancy can tell the whole damned lot of you about it later. . .” His mouth twisted into an ugly smile. “. . .if she wants to.”
As if she’d suddenly regained control, Nancy snarled at her husband. “Stop it, Adam. You want to talk? Fine. We’ll talk. But leave my parents out of this.”
At least she was willing to talk, Fred thought. Maybe they’d discuss it rationally—whatever it was—when they were alone.
And they might have if Porter hadn’t rushed after Nancy shouting, “You’re not going anywhere with him. Not unless he calms down.”
Adam’s face turned to stone. He leaned too close to Porter and when he spoke his voice came out low and frighteningly controlled. “If you had any idea. . .”
“All right, you want a divorce?” Nancy shouted. “You’ve got it. Just get out of here before you do any more damage.”
Harriet looked at Fred as if she thought he should do something, but he stayed put. Much as he hated watching this scene play out, he had no intention of getting involved. He’d learned his lesson with his own children. He worked hard not to interfere in their lives, and he wasn’t about to walk into the middle of his niece’s troubles. Besides, he was no match for Adam physically and he doubted Adam would listen if Fred tried to calm him down.
“Before I do more damage?” Adam demanded. He laughed bitterly. “You’re something else, you know that?”
Nancy turned away from him and Harriet started to say something, but Porter put one arm around Harriet’s shoulders and spoke before she could. “You heard her. Get the hell out.”
Adam’s lip curled. “That’s the way you handle everything, isn’t it? Can’t even think about telling you the truth about any of your precious children because you wouldn’t believe the truth if it hit you in the face. Well they’re not the angels you think they are, Porter.”
As if Adam had given him an idea, Porter shot out his fist and connected with Adam’s face. Blood spurted from the boy’s nose and all hell broke loose. Nancy cried out in shock. Harriet ran toward her husband shouting something, and Adam answered with a right hook to Porter’s stomach and a quick left to his jaw.
Too late, Porter jerked to cover himself too late, groaning when Adam’s fist knocked the wind out of him. Belatedly, Fred realized that maybe remaining neutral was the wrong decision. He worked his way to his feet, a lot slower than he wanted to. He still didn’t think he could restrain Adam, but he had to do something before someone got seriously hurt.
Before he could cross the room, Nancy threw herself between her father and husband. Harriet shouted and Adam tried to hit Porter again, but because Nancy had planted herself between them, he struck her arm and shoulder instead. She cried out and gripped her arm with her free hand.
Porter pulled himself upright, still trying to catch his breath. “Call the sheriff, Harriet.”
Harriet said something Fred couldn’t quite hear, and Nancy sank onto the couch, burying her face in her hands.
Adam let his gaze wander over Nancy slowly, and Fred saw bare hatred there. “Congratulations,” Adam said softly. “You’ve got what you wanted. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
“Adam, no!” Harriet cried and tried to grab him.
He shrugged her off and slammed out the door.
Harriet caught back a sob and rounded on her husband. “Now look what you’ve done. Go after him.”
“The hell I will,” Porter snapped, his angry red face a sharp contrast to his snowy white hair. “And neither will anyone else.” He dropped heavily into his chair and rubbed his jaw gingerly. The look on his face left no doubt that he meant what he said.
Harriet looked just as angry as her husband. “You’ve ruined everything. The kids could have worked things out if you hadn’t jumped into the middle of their argument. Did you hear what he said to her? Did you hear?”
“I heard, and I say good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Harriet shoved her hands onto her hips. “You’ve going to have to apologize to him tomorrow, you know.”
Porter glared at her. “I’m not apologizing. I’m not a bit sorry for anything I said. Or did.”
Harriet stared at him for one long moment as if she couldn’t believe her ears. “One of these days, you’re going to go too far,” she said. And without another word, she walked out of the room.
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