Wednesday, December 16, 2009

First Chapter: Book one in Colorado Crimes


Retirement was not what Pricilla Crumb envisioned. if asked, she would compare it to one of her prized cheese soufflĂ©s gone flat. Dull and disappointing. Thankfully, her son, Nathan, had been desperate enough to fly her to the upscale hunting lodge he owned, or more than likely she’d be sitting at her card table right now, putting together one of those five-hundred- piece puzzles her next-door neighbor had given her last Christmas. Filling in for Nathan’s full-time cook, who had come down with a serious case of the West Nile virus four months ago, had, it seemed, become her escape from the yawning predictability of retirement.

Pricilla sorted through the stack of cookbooks piled beside her on the kitchen’s granite countertop. Most of tonight’s menu had been set three days ago, but a problem had arisen with the appetizer. Rendezvous, Colorado, might not be the smallest dot on the state map, but it certainly lacked some of the conveniences of Seattle, one of them being oysters, a key ingredient for her grilled oyster dish.

At least the lodge’s newly remodeled kitchen left nothing to complain about. The antique-styled cabinets, professional appliances, and aged ceiling beams that added a finishing touch to the spacious room, were a chef’s dream. Already, Pricilla hoped that the temporary position would become permanent. Moving back to Colorado and near her son would be worth giving up a few conveniences of the city.

Penelope, her Persian cat, paraded into the room and pressed against her legs.

“Where have you been? Hiding under the bed again?” With the top of her foot, Pricilla rubbed Penelope under the chin. “You’ll have to wait awhile, my sweet, unless you have an idea for the perfect starter.”

She flipped through another book of appetizers then dog-eared one of the pages. Finally, she’d found something suitable. Salmon-filled tartlets would be an ideal choice start to tonight’s dinner.

The timer on the oven buzzed, and Pricilla crossed the hardwood floor to check on her cake. With the weather still surprisingly warm as the calendar moved into October, the baked Alaska flambĂ© would be the perfect ending to the meal. Presentation, as she’d always taught her students, was half the goal with food preparation, and the lighting of the meringue would be the highlight of the evening. She had seen Julia Child present the flaming dessert on television with awed reactions. Pricilla foresaw nothing less for tonight.

Nathan entered the kitchen and kissed her on the forehead, frowning when he saw the stack of cookbooks. “Mom, I thought you promised me you’d keep the menu simple tonight.”

She eyed her son’s tall, handsome frame before pulling the almond and orange cake from the oven and setting it on a rack. “I haven’t prepared anything I wouldn’t have fixed for your father for a typical Sunday afternoon meal. Roast pork, herbed oven-roasted potatoes— ”

“I admit that you’re anything but a typical cook, but”—he glanced at the opened cookbook—“salmon-filled tartlets?”

“They’re delicious. You’ll love them.” she paused, trying to remember if she’d checked the expiration date on the smoked salmon. Surely she had. It was second nature by now.

“I’m sure I will,” Nathan continued, “but a simple pot roast with vegetables on the side would have been fine.”

She dismissed his concerns with the wave of her hand and checked on the rising dough for her yeast rolls. “The reputation of this lodge is at stake, and I don’t plan to have anything to do with tarnishing it. Which reminds me.” she turned toward him, her hands placed firmly on her hips. “You must speak to the owner of the grocery store. There are a number of things they don’t carry, making it quite inconvenient—”

“Mom, my regular cook never had a problem with getting what she
needed.” He cocked his head and shot her a smile. “I’m sure that the guests will be happy with whatever you fix. You are Pricilla Crumb, hostess and cook extraordinaire, are you not? Besides, I didn’t bring you up here to work you to death. You need to relax a bit.”

She couldn’t help but smile back. He always knew how to appease her. Without a doubt he had her completely wrapped around his finger. She’d do anything for him, and he knew it.

“I suppose I am a bit keyed up.” Pricilla rubbed her hands on her apron. “It’s just with all the guests arriving in the next few hours, as well as Max and his daughter Trisha. . .” Pricilla turned back to her bowl of dough, pausing for emphasis. There was no reason to pass up an opportunity to further her plan. “Trisha’s such a sweet girl. It’s strange that the two of you have never met, despite all the years I’ve known Max.” she glanced at her son.

“It is strange, isn’t it?” His expression confirmed he wasn’t a bit moved by her ploys of innocence. “Especially considering the fact that you’ve told me about her at least a half dozen times. And that’s just since yesterday.” Nathan leaned against the counter. “Let’s see. Trisha is a graphic designer, stunning eyes, and. . .how could I forget? She’s single.”

Pricilla ignored her son’s teasing tone. Single was the key word here,
because she had a plan. She was certain that sparks would fly once the two of them met. With her matchmaking skills sharpened and detailed plans in place, she was convinced that Trisha Summers was the perfect antidote to her son’s lonely heart.

Nathan popped a handful of walnuts into his mouth from a ceramic bowl on the counter. “Why are you so worried about me, despite the fact that I keep assuring you that I’m not lonely? I love running the lodge, meeting new people, and—”

“Running this lodge, no matter how successful, will never bring you true happiness—or give me grandchildren.” There. she’d made her point.

“Okay, but what about you, Mom?” He leaned down and caught her gaze, his eyes suddenly dark and serious. “Don’t you think it would be far more suitable to find someone for yourself before attempting to try and find a match for your only son?”

Pricilla frowned. That was an entirely different subject. She dropped the ball of dough onto a floured board and started kneading. “I’m not convinced life gives second chances when it comes to true love.”

When her husband, Marty, died, she decided to thank the good Lord for loaning him to her for almost forty years. She’d found love once and wasn’t certain she’d ever find what she had with him again. Still, while she wouldn’t ever admit to anyone that she was lonely, it was hard not to wonder at times what it would be like to share her life with someone other than Penelope.

Max summers sneaked a hot yeast roll from the breadbasket, intent on avoiding Pricilla’s watchful gaze. He thought the chances of her catching him, though, were slim. With all the guests here and dinner about to be served, she was running around with the precision of a military general and finishing up last-minute details. He’d rarely seen her more in her element.

“I saw you sneak that roll, Max Summers.”

He sat back on the bar stool and shot her his most guilty expression. “You know I never could resist your cooking. And I’m not the only one. I just saw one of your guests steal out of the dining room with a plateful of appetizers.”

“Charles Woodruff, I assume?” Pricilla frowned. “He’s already complained that dinner was being served too late. Like seven o’clock is an uncivilized hour to eat.”

“Do you expect all the guests to be as cantankerous as Mr. Woodruff?”

Despite the warmth of the kitchen, Pricilla’s silver hair lay in perfect curls against the nape of her neck, and her face, with just a hint of makeup, still looked fresh. The years might have added a few wrinkles and age spots, but he still found her beautiful.

“It’s a small crowd this week. Charles’s wife, Claire, seems sweet. The quiet type, I understand, who spends most of her time reading romance novels.”

Pricilla pulled out another pan of hot rolls from the top oven, the heavenly smell reminding him just how hungry he was. “There are also three college buddies who return each year. Let’s see, I think their names are Simon Wheeler, Anthony Mills, and Michael Smythe. Nathan told me that they’re businessmen who made it big with their. . .their dot company—”

“Dot-com company.” Max stifled a laugh. Pricilla knew nothing about
computers. E-mail correspondence would have been the perfect way for them to keep in touch, but she insisted on the old-fashioned method, the post office.

“Anyway,” Pricilla continued, “Nathan said they were among the few who managed to survive the fallout in the nineties. Apparently they sold the company a couple years ago for quite a fortune.”

He watched her flutter around the kitchen and found himself worrying about her. Even with Misty, the housekeeper, helping, he knew that cooking three meals a day for all the guests and staff of the resort lodge wasn’t easy.

He finished the last of his roll. “You’re overdoing it, Pricilla.”

Pricilla put her fists against her hips and frowned. “Why? Because I’m
retired and should be sitting out on my back porch, knitting or, even better, categorizing my dozens of herbal pills and vitamins like my friend Madge?”

“I do remember that Madge’s obsession with supplements was a bit
extreme, but what’s wrong with knitting?” Max smiled. He loved to tease
her. “I can’t remember my mother ever being without knitting needles in her hands.”

Her eyes widened. “I wasn’t trying to imply that there’s anything wrong with knitting, it’s just that—”

“Don’t worry.” This time Max didn’t even try not to laugh. “I can’t see you knitting either.”

“Thank you. I think.” Pricilla frowned and peeked into the oven, letting the savory scent of marinated pork fill the room.

“It smells fantastic.” Max knew she loved compliments, and he tried to hand them out freely.

“Let’s hope the guests agree.”

“Undoubtedly they will.”

Pricilla had always been the perfect cook and hostess, and he was quite sure she missed teaching her students at the Willow Hill Private Academy for Girls how to become the same. Times had changed too much, though. Today’s generation rarely cooked from scratch anymore, and formal dinners around the family table were becoming a thing of the past.

The principal had insisted Pricilla retire and instead hired a girl straight out of university whose idea of a home-cooked meal was frozen lasagna from the supermarket. For Pricilla, leaving behind the academy had been like losing a part of herself. He, on the other hand, didn’t miss working. After giving thirty-five years to his country and the United States Air Force, he loved his newfound freedom. Last week he’d gone fishing four days in a row, just because he wanted to.

“Where’s your daughter?” Pricilla brushed some flour off her apron, making sure it didn’t get on her red pants suit, then pulled a large glass bowl out of one of the oak cabinets. “I haven’t seen her since you arrived, and I’m anxious to introduce her to Nathan.”

“I’m already ahead of you.” Max watched her expression closely. “Introductions have been made, and the last time I peeked into Nathan’s office, they were still talking.”

Pricilla’s eyes widened. “Really?”


He couldn’t believe he’d agreed to conspire with her in her most recent scheme to match up his business-oriented daughter with Pricilla’s like-minded son. His real reason to come for the week, though, had nothing to do with his daughter’s love life. He watched as Pricilla busied herself at the stove. Stirring, tasting. . .adding a bit of salt and pepper. . .then stirring some more.

Violet had been gone almost five years now, and while he still missed her, he had to admit he wouldn’t mind sharing his life with someone as fun-loving as Pricilla, even if she was a bit overbearing at times. The problem was, he knew that Pricilla saw him as nothing more than a close friend. Even through their years of correspondence, that fact never changed. Still, he loved the intelligent conversations with her and wondered if perhaps God might grant him one last chance to change their relationship into something more permanent.

Someone screamed.

“What in the world—” Max jumped off the bar stool and ran out of the kitchen, with Pricilla following.

The scream had originated from the second floor of the log-styled building. Max rushed up the staircase and down the hall, stopping at the first open door. Claire Woodruff was bent over her husband, her face paler than a December sky. Charles Woodruff sat slumped sideways in a wingback chair beside the fireplace, his face contorted and pink. A half empty plate of Pricilla’s tartlets lay strewn across the stone hearth.

“It’s Charles.” Claire stood up to face Max, her expression void of any emotion. “I think. . .I think he’s dead.”