Authors: Beth Groundwater
Tags: #Mystery, #cozy, #Fiction
A Real Basket Case
© 2011 Beth Groundwater
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
First e-book edition © 2011
E-book ISBN: 978-0-7387-2789-9
Book design by Donna Burch
by Kevin R. Brown
Cover illustration © Glenn Gustafson
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For my children, Anne and John, of whom I am most proud.
An old African proverb states “it takes a village to raise a child.” The same can be said for a novel, especially a first novel. I have a whole village of supportive writer friends to thank, especially my critique partners over the years and published writers who gave me sound advice and encouragement. And the writing communities I’ve joined: Pikes Peak Writers, where I garnered my first contest win and learned so much from their wonderful conferences, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, who published my first short story, Mystery Writers of America, and the Guppies chapter of Sisters in Crime, who gave me moral support and shared information.
I’d like to thank my first literary agent, Barret Neville, for his faith in my talents and for negotiating my first book contract, and my current agent, Sandra Bond, without whom I’d be a floundering fish in a murky sea of contract jargon and career choices. Many thanks to my editor, Denise Dietz, and the other professionals at Tekno Books and Five Star Publishing who worked on the first hardcover publication of
A Real Basket Case
. Also, thanks to acquisition editor Terri Bischoff, senior editor Connie Hill, cover designer Kevin R. Brown, illustrator Glenn Gustafson, and the rest of the publication staff at Midnight Ink who are breathing new life into the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series, starting with the publication of this trade paperback and ebook edition of
A Real Basket Case
. Claire and I are immensely pleased with the series’ new home.
A hearty thank you to the volunteer instructors of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Citizens Academy for educating me about crime,
jails, and police procedure. Lastly, my husband Neil deserves
super kudos for putting up with my long sojourns in my basement writing den, while laundry moldered in the washing machine and dinner preparations were forgotten. You kept the faith during the seven years it took for me to publish my first book and have been my main cheerleader since, and I love you for it.
Claire gripped the toilet
owl with white-knuckled hands. Her stomach heaved again. This time nothing came up. Laying her cheek against the hard porcelain rim, she let the comforting cold seep i
nto her skin. She waited, then wiped her mouth with a tissue. She scrubbed at the rust-colored stains around the rim—bloody fingerprints.
My fingerprints. Enrique’s blood. Oh, God.
All her wiping managed to do was smear the stains. She stared at the damning evidence. Enrique was dead because of her.
Tears threatened again. She squeezed her eyes shut, willed the tears away, and took a deep breath. She balled up the tissue, threw it in the toilet, and flushed. After pushing herself to her feet, she leaned against the wall to clear her head and settle her lurching stomach.
Her robe gaped open, exposing her bloodstained thighs, the sticky streaks cracking where they had dried. She yanked her robe shut and cinched the belt tight. She felt an overwhelming urge to shower, to stand under burning hot water and scrub and scrub and scrub until her skin was raw. But no amount of scrubbing could wash away the guilt.
And the police detective was waiting.
She lifted her chin and squared her shoulders. “I think I can talk now.”
Detective Wilson stood in the middle of her master bathroom, an authority figure awkwardly out of place among the mirrors, marbled green tile, plants, glass-enclosed shower, and whirlpool bathtub. He leaned over the sink and wrung out a washcloth, then handed it to her. “Wipe your face with this. It’ll help you feel better.”
The cool cloth on her sweat-drenched forehead did feel good. Washing her face and hands in the sink felt even better. Claire stared at the red-stained water that whirlpooled around and around the basin before being sucked down the drain. The coppery, new-penny smell was overpowering. She grabbed the knob to turn off the faucet.
She gulped down the bile rising in her throat again. She couldn’t give in to the hysteria that tugged at the edge of her sanity—not yet. She faced Wilson as she dried her hands. “Sorry about that.”
He shook his head. “Don’t be. It’s a common reaction to shock.”
His even, quiet tone calmed her somewhat. He was tall, large-boned, with a heavily lined face, black hair flecked with gray, and solemn, knowing gray eyes to match. He held a small notebook in one of his slim-fingered large hands and stood waiting patiently for her. This man obviously had seen death many times before. But how could the murder of a human being ever be routine?
He studied her face. “You feel okay to talk?”
“I think so.”
He led her to the vanity chair. “Water?”
“No, thanks.” Claire felt compelled to glance through the open bathroom doorway to the master bedroom. The forensic technician stood with her back to them, bent over the king-sized bed. Enrique’s body had been removed, but the vivid image of his gaping wound burned in Claire’s mind. She shuddered and hugged her robe close.
Wilson’s gaze followed hers. He shut the door, then perched on the edge of the Jacuzzi tub, opened the notebook, and took a pen out of his pocket. “I know this has been a big shock, Mrs. Hanover, but I need you to tell me everything that happened, with as many
details as you can remember. First of all, this Enrique Romero
wasn’t assaulting you, was he?”
Claire’s cheeks flushed. “No, he wasn’t.”
“How do you know him?”
“We met three days ago.”
Wilson’s eyes widened before he could mask his expression.
With a resigned sigh, Claire said, “I’ll tell you the whole story
. . .”
Enrique’s muscles flexed and
stretched in rhythm with his steady thrusts. His bronzed skin glistened. Long ridges and furrows defined the perfect sculpted form of his Adonis-like thighs.
Claire couldn’t help but stare at those testaments to virility as she strained to match his tempo—in, out, in, out. Her breaths came in quick gasps. She swiped at a bead of sweat on her brow. She couldn’t keep up this pace for long.
“. . . three, two, one,” Enrique said.
Good. He’s counting down.
“Excellent. Now onto your backs.”
Claire flopped down on the floor with a sigh that was matched by a long exhale on her left from her best friend. Ellen’s perfect lavender-and-aqua-clad body had barely broken a sweat, while Claire’s old black leotard clung to her damp skin like mutant plastic wrap. “I’m gonna kill you for this, Ellen. Our ten years of friendship will not save you from my wrath.”
Ellen winked. “You’ll survive.”
“But you won’t. And your death will be slow and painful, just like this class.”
With a laugh, Ellen shoved her hips in the air. “Only ten more minutes until cooldown. You’re not going to quit on me, are you?”
“Hell, no.” Determined to finish her first aerobics class even if she had to crawl to the showers, Claire concentrated on her pelvic thrusts. Up, down, up, down. Unsure how long she could continue the agonizing squeezes, she glanced to her right at her second best friend, Jill, Ellen’s co-conspirator in coercing Claire into this torture room.
Jill’s round belly bobbed in rhythm with Claire’s. Weighing about the same as Claire, but four inches shorter, Jill’s pounds-per-inch ratio was higher. Sweat trickled down her face, but she cracked a smile without breaking her pace.
No sympathy there, either. If Jill could do it, Claire wasn’t about to surrender. With gritted teeth, she watched herself in one of the mirrors covering three walls of the harshly lit room. A scan of the four rows of middle-aged women panting and pushing on the floor encouraged her. Many were in worse shape than she was. Much worse.
The instructor, Enrique, prowled among the women with quiet steps, correcting form and dispensing compliments as needed. Claire sensed his presence before his shadow fell over her.
He knelt beside her. “Not that way. Tilt your pelvis more.” His hand hovered over her stomach. “May I?”
Claire swallowed and nodded. Her nostrils sucked in his musky
man scent. Unbidden, her gaze trailed down the washboard
abdominal muscles outlined by the damp tank top clinging to his chest.
He placed one hand on her stomach and one behind her butt, then eased her pelvis into the correct tilt. “Press against my hand.”
Closing her eyes to concentrate on her form, not his, Claire thrust her hips upward. The impression of his hand seared through her leotard.
Her eyes snapped open.
“Perfect. Now do twenty more like that.” He rose.
A bead of sweat rolled off his perfect, patrician nose and plopped on Claire’s chest. The drop slid between her breasts.
Clearly oblivious, he moved along the rows of grunting housewives.
Ellen chuckled. “Overpowering, isn’t he?” A sly grin played on her collagen-enhanced lips.
Claire rolled her eyes, but her heart was thumping, and not just from the exercise. Her body’s reaction to Enrique secretly terrified her.
During the cooldown stretches, she noticed many women’s gazes flicked to Enrique’s muscular thighs bulging beneath nylon shorts, then slid away, as if the women didn’t want to be caught looking. Their gazes always returned, drawn as seductively as suicidal moths to a bug zapper on a steamy summer night. Other women, uncaring, stared brazenly.
Somehow, Claire made it through the rest of the aerobics class and limped after Ellen and Jill into the changing room. Locker doors slammed and women chattered as they peeled off damp clothes and migrated to the showers.
“Well?” Ellen planted her hands on her hips. “Think you’ll live?”
Claire collapsed on a bench. “Losing this holiday weight isn’t going to be easy.”
“No one said it would be.” Ellen took a bottle of shampoo out of her locker. “But having eye-candy to watch while you sweat the pounds off makes it more interesting.”
Jill toweled off her red face and snorted. “That’s about all he’s good for, the egotistical moron. Speaking of candy . . .” She dropped the towel, fished a bite-sized chocolate out of her gym bag, and popped the morsel into her mouth with delicate fingers.
Claire gaped. “How could you—right after exercising?”
Jill frowned, then shrugged and mumbled around the chocolate, “That’s when I need the boost the most. Besides, I earned it.”
Claire realized she might have hurt Jill’s feelings. “Sorry, I just meant I’d probably get nauseous if I ate anything now.”
Jill’s lips curled. “Chocolate never makes me nauseous. Can’t stay, girls, got errands to run.” She scurried out of the locker room.
With her brunette hair held high in a ponytail, and her small, tapered fingers and feet, Jill looked like a chubby star scrawled by a kindergartner. Claire doubted any amount of aerobics classes would change Jill’s shape, especially if she kept rewarding herself with chocolate, but Claire applauded her for trying.
After grabbing her towel, Claire followed Ellen to the showers. “Why does Jill dislike Enrique so much?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Ellen leaned back to wet her hair under the shower spray. “She’ll get over it.”
Get over what?
“This class is good for her, though. I don’t know what results she’s gotten, but I’ve lost three inches so far. Not bad for five months.” Ellen patted her flat stomach.
At forty-eight, Ellen still had a figure to be proud of, but her expression was hard and lined, even with Botox injections smoothing out her forehead wrinkles. Ellen’s husband had left her two years ago for an attractive young lawyer at his practice, and the rejection had taken its toll.
Lathering the gym’s coconut-scented liquid soap on her own poochy stomach, Claire wondered if Roger would ever do such a thing. No, her husband wasn’t interested in another woman. His career was his mistress. Claire barely saw him any more. When he did come home, he spent hours on the computer, pouring over ledgers and corporate accounts before falling exhausted into bed long after she’d turned out the light.
She had hoped that when their two children left home, she and Roger would rekindle the close relationship they’d shared before parenthood had engulfed them. But no such luck. She even suggested counseling. Roger had said nothing was wrong and he didn’t have time.
Claire stepped from the shower to dry off. Here she was, forty-six and bored out of her gourd. The home-based gift-basket business she started when her nest emptied only required twelve to sixteen hours a week. She spent too many evenings in front of the TV with a bowl of canned soup, waiting for Roger. Her restlessness had inspired her to accept Ellen’s offer to join the three-times-a-week exercise class. And if she trimmed a few inches, maybe Roger would notice.
Ellen stood next to her in front of the sinks as they dried their hair. She shut off her blow dryer and pointed to the part in Claire’s chin-length bob. “Your roots are showing.”
Claire peered in the wide mirror. Each time her blond-dyed hair grew out, more gray showed. She sighed. “Yeah, I’ll have to make an appointment.”
Tilting her head, Ellen studied Claire’s reflection. “Why not let it grow out?”
“No way.” Claire unplugged her hair dryer and headed for her locker.
Ellen trailed behind her. “If you streak it, the gray would look good on you. Roger might like the change.”
“My hair was this color when I met Roger. I won’t change it until it’s all coming out white.”
“Come to think of it, Dave didn’t go for my redhead look. Not even a new set of boobs kept him off that bitch.” Cradling her gel-filled breasts, newly minted two years ago when the trouble with Dave started, Ellen laughed. That cruel laugh was new, too. “I like them, though. And what makes you think Roger cares what color your hair is? He hardly notices you anymore.”
Normally Claire found Ellen’s blunt honesty refreshing, but this struck too close. She sat on a bench to tug on her shoes. “I like my hair blond, too.”
“Good.” With a firm yank, Ellen zipped her gym bag shut. “As long as you do it for yourself, that’s all right. But don’t do anything for a man. They aren’t worth it.”
Mulling over this new vehemence in her formerly easygoing friend, Claire nearly bumped into Ellen when she stopped abruptly outside the locker room door.
The aerobics instructor, black hair damp from his shower and smelling faintly of the coconut soap, smiled at Claire. His deep brown-eyed gaze bored into her. “Ellen, are you going to introduce me to your lovely companion?”
Ellen shot him a not-so-friendly glance then plastered a smile on her face. “Sure. This is Claire Hanover.” She swept a deprecating hand toward the instructor. “Claire, meet Enrique Romero, the Romeo of Graham’s Gym.”
“Thank you for sharing your friend with me. And Claire . . .” He took her hand and stared into her eyes until she looked away. “I hope you will return to my class on Wednesday.”
“I . . . I plan to.” Claire slid her hand from his grasp, but not before he gave it a playful squeeze.
A stately brunette in her late thirties brushed past on her way out of the locker room. She turned to Enrique. “See you soon?”
“Yes. At the usual place.” Enrique winked at her then refocused on Claire. “I look forward to seeing you again.”
As she walked out of the gym, Claire felt his gaze on her back. She zipped up her coat against both his scrutiny and the brisk winter breeze schussing down the snow-laden slopes of Pikes Peak into Colorado Springs.
“Who was that woman?” Claire asked Ellen.
“Brenda Johnston. An architect. I don’t know her well. She keeps to herself.” Ellen stopped Claire with a touch on her arm. “Enrique’s interested in you, you know.”
Claire’s face flushed. “What?”
“He has a thing for older women.”
“Who’re you calling an older woman?” Claire had never attached
that label to herself before.
Ellen grinned. “Older than he is, that is. If you want a little excitement, all you have to do is say yes.”
“I’m married, remember? I couldn’t do that to Roger.”
Ellen shrugged. “Wake up and smell the cappuccino. You’re no more important to him than a piece of furniture.”
The words stung, but Claire had to admit her friend probably was right. The hugs and hand-holding of years past had given way to quick pecks on the cheek. Guiltily, she realized that mixed with her shock was pleasure that she had attracted Enrique’s attention—that she could attract any man’s attention.
“Roger will never find out,” Ellen said. “Does he even know you’re here today?”
“See? And he probably doesn’t care, either.” She peered at Claire.
“C’mon. A little fling will do wonders for your attitude, let alone your sex life. Think about it.”
With a disturbing premonition that Enrique signaled trouble —deep trouble—Claire shook her head and rubbed the hand he had grasped.
Claire glanced at her watch that night—nine-thirty.
When is Roger coming home?
As she rose from the family room sofa, her stiff joints cracked. She stretched and made a note to take another ibuprofen, the candy of the middle-aged, before bed.
The TV sitcom had been one long string of sexual innuendoes and worn-out, demeaning jokes. Why did she sit through the tiresome show until the end? Because she had nothing better to do—like talk to her husband. She’d finished a basket order late that afternoon and couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to start another one.
She glanced at two of her large Colorado Collection gift baskets, which sat on the side table, ready for their Thursday delivery to a local real estate agent. Decorated with leather strips, beads, and turkey feathers, they brimmed with Southwestern food products—wildflower honey, blue cornbread mix, and the requisite hot sauces and salsa mouth-burners with names like Pure Hell, Durango Red, and Scorned Woman.
Claire’s lips curled.
Scorned Woman, that’s what I feel like.
She scooped up the remains of another soup-and-crackers dinner, stomped into the kitchen, and dumped the dishes in the sink. She picked up the phone, then slammed it back down again. Where would it get her to yell at him?
She paced the floor and took a couple of deep, calming breaths, then called Roger at his office. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Jeez, I didn’t realize it was so late. I’ve got my staff hustling to get ready for our investors’ briefing Friday.”
“That’s four days from now. Why are you working late tonight?”
“Because I have a goddamn mountain of work to do.” Roger paused, then resumed in a more conciliatory tone. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to take out my stress on you. I’ll be tied up on this all week. I can’t force my staff to stay and not stay myself. The dry run’s Thursday, and I have to get the books in order by then.”
Claire drummed her fingers on the counter. “Does that mean I’ll be eating alone every night until Friday?”
“I’m afraid so. I can’t let Ned down on this one.”
Since being promoted to the position of chief financial officer a year ago, Roger had been diligent in doing whatever Ned Peters, president of the mid-sized technology company, asked. Excessively diligent.
“But you can let your wife down,” she said.
“Dammit, Claire, that’s not fair. You know this is an important step in my career. If I perform well as CFO for Ned’s private company, I can move on to a large public firm. Then the bucks’ll really flow.”
“But I don’t want more money. I want you.” God, that sounded pathetic. But she was sick of playing second best to Ned and his infernal chips and bits.
Roger exhaled loudly. “You know it’s not just the money. I’ve told you before. It’s the prestige. CFOs are part of the elite, the movers and shakers of the corporate world.”