Different Paths: A Stella Crown Mystery #5

Different Paths: A Stella Crown Mystery #5

When Stella's friend and veterinarian Carla Beaumont is car-jacked it's just the beginning of a rash of vicious attacks on local business women. A truck driver, minister, and personal trainer ...

About The Author

Judy Clemens

Judy Clemens spends her days in rural Ohio, where she writes, spends time with her family, and eats too much ...

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Chapter One

“That is so unfair!”

I stared at Nick’s little sister, my hand in the air, hovering above the stacks of colorful cards.

Nick continued playing, flipping his cards over in threes, searching for another match to lay on one of the Dutch Piles. “What is?”

“Are you kidding me?” Miranda glared at him. “That Stella’s helping you. This game is supposed to be about the speed of one person. Not a team.”

Nick’s mother clicked her tongue. “Miranda Jane, you know Nick needs help. He can’t play Dutch Blitz like he used to.”

I reached to lay my blue seven on a middle pile. “And believe me, having me as a teammate in this game doesn’t really help. I’m more of an obstacle.”

Liz, Nick’s older sister, slid her own blue seven onto the pile before I got there.

I pulled back my card. “See?”

Miranda stuck out her lip. “Well, I don’t see how Nick having MS is going to make him worse at this game.”

Now Liz stopped, slapping her cards onto the table. “If you’d pay attention once in a while, maybe you’d understand. His body’s not working right. His eyesight. His nerves. Have you forgotten everything we’ve told you?”

“I’m not an idiot. Of course I remember. But Dutch Blitz—”

“Girls, please…” Nick’s mother looked from one to the other, her eyes darting back and forth behind her glasses.

I tipped my head to the side and scratched my ear, looking at the dark clouds visible through the window. My truck sat in Nick’s driveway, the Virginia rain washing off the last of the Pennsylvania dust I’d brought with me two days earlier.

“I wish Lucy had never given Nick this dumb game,” Miranda said. “‘A Vonderful Goot Game!’ I mean, how lame is that?”

Lucy, my farmhand, passing on some of her Mennonite heri- tage through a simple card game last Christmas. I swiped my finger across the fog on the window and wondered if it was raining at home. If Lucy was wet from milking even wetter cows.

Liz took a deep breath, then let it out in a huff. “What are you, Miranda? Sixteen again? You’ve regressed a few years now in maturity? Blaming everything on Lucy?”

“Not everything, just this game, and Nick cheating.” “Girls, will you please—”

“Blitz,” Nick said.

We turned to look at him, and he smiled. “Gotcha.”

It was true. His Blitz Pile—the stack of ten you try to eliminate—was gone. Without my help.

“Oh, that’s just great.” Miranda shoved her chair back from the table and stomped to the refrigerator, where she made a commotion out of filling her water glass from the automatic dispenser.

Nick glanced sideways at me, his cheeks filling with air. I made a face. Miranda was nothing if not dramatic, and Nick’s recent diagnosis had brought her emotions into full bloom. Liz hit the nail on the head when she’d implied their little sister had turned back into a teen-ager. And speaking of hitting, I wished I could bop Miranda on the head a good one.

“Do you want to play again?” Nick’s mother asked.

Nick laughed, while I tried to figure out if she was serious. Miranda ignored her, and Liz scooped up the cards and began putting them back in the box.

Nick’s mother folded her hands on the table. “No, I guess not.”

“I was actually thinking about lying down.” Nick stretched his arms above his head, letting go with an exaggerated yawn, and I had to stifle a laugh.

“It’s only one-thirty,” Miranda said. “We just had dinner.”

Liz stood up. “A perfect time for a little rest. I’m sure church wore Nick out this morning.”

“But—”

“Stella’s here. We can leave Nick in her hands.”

As if he wouldn’t be okay on his own. But I wasn’t going to complain. Nick’s family had been hovering over him from the first day of his illness, and I wasn’t the only one ready to scream.

Nick cleared his throat, his face a mask of patience. “We’ll be fine.”

“If you’re sure…” His mother gazed at him with that adoring-worried-disbelieving look only mothers can give.

Miranda set her glass on the counter with a snap. “Fine. Like Stella’s been here every day taking care of him since he got sick. Like she knows anything about it.”

“Miranda!” Nick’s mother fluttered a hand against her chest. “Ignore her, Mom,” Liz said. “She’s just being—” “Herself,” Nick said. “She’s just being herself.”

Miranda squinted at him, obviously unsure how to take the comment, but Nick smiled at her and held out his arms. She hesitated, then stepped into them for a hug, resting her cheek on his head for a brief moment before turning away.

Liz scooped up her keys from the counter. “Nick, you had some files to give me?”

“Right. Let me get them.”

He got up and went into the next room, where he kept his computer and most of the paperwork for Hathaway Construction and Development. Liz followed him.

Nick’s mother rose from the table, smoothing her blouse, and gathered up her purse. “How long are you staying this visit, Stella?”

“Till tomorrow. I’ll head home in the afternoon.”

“Why don’t you come to my house for lunch? I’ll make something for the three of us.” She paused, then reached over to pat my arm. “Thank you for helping out with our Nicky.”

Nicky.

“I’m glad to be here. You know that.”

“Yeah,” Miranda said. “Here for a few days, then back to your cows.”

I took a deep breath through my nose and clamped my teeth together. “It is how I make my living.”

Miranda rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”

Yup. She’d definitely returned to life as a teen-ager. An annoying one.

“Besides,” Miranda continued, “if you were smart you’d realize that as long as you’re with Nick you don’t need to make a living.” She looked at me. “Oh. So maybe you’d better keep your job, after all.”

Nick’s mother inhaled sharply, and Liz came back into the room, interrupting whatever response I could’ve managed. She held a stack of folders under her arm. “Ready, Mom? I’ll drop you off at home. I promised Robbie I’d cook him dinner tonight and I need to get working on it.”

“Oooh, supper?” Nick leaned against the door to his office, his grin wicked. “So, sis, when are you going to take the plunge and start cooking for him every night?”

Liz laughed and swatted him gently on the shoulder. “Never.”

When Nick raised his eyebrows she laughed again. “He’ll do at least half of the cooking.”

Nick smiled. “Well, it’s good to hear you’ve been discussing it, at least.”

“Like you should talk.”

Liz turned her teasing eyes to me, but I couldn’t help feeling Miranda’s smirk even more. I lifted my hands in self-defense. “Don’t look at me. I’m a terrible cook.”

Liz guffawed, and came over to give me a hug. “Come down again soon. We’re always glad to see you.”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

Nick’s mom gave me a peck on the cheek, and Miranda skirted the far side of the room, glaring at me before following her mother and sister out the front door into the rain. Nick came up behind me and put his arms around my waist as we watched Liz back her car out of the driveway, their mother in the passenger seat. Miranda left next, her Lexus spinning its wheels on the wet pavement.

I leaned my head back against Nick’s chin, my shoulders relaxing as Nick’s little sister drove away. “Whew. I wasn’t sure what was going to come out of Miranda’s mouth next.”

I felt Nick shrug. “She’s having a hard time with it all. With me being sick. You having a place in my life.”

I turned around in his arms and placed my hands on his shoulders. “Doesn’t it drive you nuts?”

“She’s freaked out. And she’s never handled change well. Not like Liz. Or even my mom.”

“Your mom really is amazing with it. Especially after your dad…” I stopped, Nick’s eyes darkening from what I was sure was the memory of his father’s death from cancer only a year earlier.

Nick patted my hips. “Enough about that. I didn’t kick them out so we could talk.”

“That’s right.” I grinned. “You said you were ready to lie down.”

A smile tickled his lips and he pulled me against him, his hands on the small of my back. “Yeah. It’s not my fault they thought I meant alone.”

The look in his eyes was anything but tired, and my breath caught in my throat. “I don’t think we put anything past Liz, but she’s a big girl.” He laughed quietly, and I slid my arms further around his neck. “And you’re a big boy.”

He laughed louder this time and lifted me off the floor, finding my lips as he lowered me against him. His fingers had just found their way under the back hem of my shirt when the sound of the Tom Copper Band filled the room.

The river rages The waters flow

Past twinkling lights The Schuylkill’s show

Nick groaned. “My new ring tone.”

I kissed him some more. “Don’t answer it.”

But tell me baby Tell me true

Can you feel our love The way I do?

Nick set me all the way on the floor and spoke, accenting each word with a point of his finger. “Don’t. Move.”

I sighed with resignation and let him go. “Hurry up. Tell whoever it is that it’s not a good time.”

He grinned and flipped open his phone. “This is Nick.” His eyes flicked to me. “Hey, Lucy. Sure. She’s right here.” He held out the phone and I went over to get it. He held it above his head until I gave him another lingering kiss, then lowered the phone into my hand. “Make it quick.”

I eased my arm around his waist and held him close. “Oh, I will.”

He gave me the phone but kept me against him, and I angled my head away to speak into the receiver. “Hey, Luce, what’s up? It better be good.”

“It’s Carla.” Her voice was brittle as she said the name of my veterinarian and long-time friend. “She’s in the hospital.”

“What? What happened?”

A sob came down the line. “Her truck. It was…she was car- jacked, Stella. And they’re not sure if she’s going to live.”

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