Different Paths (Stella Crown Series #5)

Different Paths (Stella Crown Series #5)

by Judy Clemens

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590586310
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date: 05/01/2009
Series: Stella Crown Series , #5
Pages: 258
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Judy Clemens is the author of the Anthony and Agatha-nominated Stella  Crown mystery series, as well as FLOWERS FOR HER GRAVE, which is the  
third in the Grim Reaper mysteries.  She is a former president of  Sisters in Crime.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

"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 heritage 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 carjacked, Stella. And they're not sure if she's going to live."

CHAPTER 2

I pushed the speed limit all the way home, my fingers crossed that the cops wouldn't be out to get a single woman in a rusting truck. My luck held, and four hours later I pulled into the driveway at home, gravel spitting under my tires. My collie, Queenie, raced around in circles, barking, while Lucy's nine-year-old daughter Tess stood goggled-eyed as I jumped out of the barely-stopped truck. I jogged to the barn, where Lucy was swabbing Sleeping Beauty's udder. Queenie followed me, panting noisily, and I laid my hand on her head while I waited for Lucy's report.

Lucy stood and rested an elbow on the cow's sizable haunch. "Carla's out of the woods. She's stable, but they're keeping her in the ICU for observation. She got a good whack on the head they want to monitor."

I sagged into a squat, Queenie offering support to keep me from falling. With shame I thought of my earlier wishes to smack Miranda on her head. "Am I allowed to visit her?"

"Don't know. I suppose. I'm sure she'd be glad to see you."

I rubbed the sides of Queenie's neck, her long fur warm and soft. She sniffed at my face, her eyes betraying her heightened anxiety as she felt my own.

"It's okay, girl," I told her. "It sounds like it's going to be okay." I stood. "All right if I head over to the hospital, then? She's at Grand View?"

"Yup. Go ahead. Zach's here to help."

I glanced up, only now seeing our teen-age assistant further down the row. He tilted his chin my way, but otherwise ignored me.

"Give Carla my love, will you?" Lucy said. "Tell her I'm praying for her."

"Will do." I gave Queenie one last pat. "You know any more details about what happened?"

Lucy leaned back down, giving the cow's teats a last swipe with her cloth. "Just that someone surprised her. Came up from behind in the parking lot of the Roy-El Diner and took off with the truck, catching Carla's shirt in the door. Luckily she wasn't wearing her coveralls, since she'd taken them off for lunch."

"Why'd she have the truck? She doesn't usually work on Sundays."

"She was on call. Had to go out to the Moyers', check one of their horses. Anyway, her shirt ripped off almost as soon as the guy took off —"

"She's sure it was a guy? She know who?"

"She didn't really see him, but her impression was a male. Tall, in a ball cap and jacket. He took off and she banged her head on the pavement. Knocked her out. Some folks pulling into the parking lot found her. Don't know how long she was lying there. Couldn't have been too long." She pulled the milker down and slid the hoses onto Sleeping Beauty's teats.

"Thanks for calling and letting me know."

"No problem. I figured you'd want to come back, just in case ..."

We let that thought go, and I turned to leave.

"Nick?" Lucy asked. "How is he?"

I looked back. "He's fine." An image of his face, furrowed with concern as I stuffed dirty clothes into my duffel bag, rose before me. Our afternoon delight had obviously been postponed. Not for too long, I hoped, but we didn't have a date set yet for our next visit. It was his turn to come up to PA, and it was hard finding a time when his doctors and family were willing to let him travel so far away.

"I'll give him a call when I get back to let him know how Carla's doing."

Lucy nodded, already on to the next cow.

Grand View Hospital was busy, but I had no trouble finding Carla's room. I'd been afraid they wouldn't let me in, not being actual family, but the nurse was friendly and helpful, glancing at my tattoo only briefly before telling me Carla's room number.

The door eased open with a quiet whoosh, and I caught a glimpse of Carla before she knew I'd arrived. I swallowed a gasp and stared at my friend's face, already black and blue. Her arm was wrapped in gauze, and her nose had swelled to twice its normal size. I took a deep breath and entered.

"Stella!" Her eyes lit up and a smile spread across her puffy face.

I made my way toward her, stopping suddenly at the sight of another person in the room. A man.

He stood quickly, his eyes flicking toward me. Tall and thin, his brown eyes bored into mine as his hands grasped a magazine rolled into a tight cylinder.

Carla waved an arm, strapped with tape and an IV, toward him. "Stella, this is Bryan. Bryan, Stella. Stella's known me for ... well, forever, I guess. At least all the time that matters."

"Hello." He rolled the magazine even tighter, and twisted it in his hands before shifting it to his left hand and holding out his right.

I nodded, studying his blue cotton shirt and combed-back hair as I shook his hand. Pointy cowboy boots poked out from under his jeans, and a shiny NASCAR belt buckle adorned his waist. Super. I hoped he didn't want to talk about Dale Earnhardt, Jr., or any of those other guys, because I knew nothing about them. Didn't have any interest in them, either, as far as that went.

"Um ..." He let go of my hand and cleared his throat. "I guess I'll go to the cafeteria. Get something to eat. If that's okay." He looked anxiously at Carla.

"Of course that's okay. Take your time. I've got some catching up to do with Stella, here."

"Okay. Great. I'll be back. If you're sure." He stepped toward the door, hesitated, and held the magazine out to Carla.

She smiled. "You take it. Read it while you're eating."

A smile flickered on his face, and he ducked his head briefly before exiting through the whooshing door.

"Who," I asked, "was that?"

Her smile grew. "Bryan. I told you."

"Yeah, but —"

"My new boyfriend."

"New boyfriend."

"Why do you sound so skeptical? Think I can't get one?"

"Stop it. It's just I hadn't heard about him."

She tried to sit up straighter and winced. I reached out, but she waved me away. "Push that green button."

I jabbed it with my thumb, and the head of the bed rose, putting her at a better angle for talking. "I told you he's new. I haven't had a chance to tell you."

"You met him where? The OK Corral?"

"Ha, ha. Very funny."

"Well, the cowboy boots, the belt buckle ..."

"Yeah, yeah, make fun. I just so happened to meet him country line dancing."

I stared at her. "What?"

"I assume you've heard of it? The Boot Scootin' Boogie? The Tennessee Twister?"

"Of course I've heard of it. I just didn't know you —"

"Could do it? I might be a little rounder than you, but that doesn't mean I'm incapable of some fancy footwork."

"I know that. I didn't mean —"

"Bryan asked me to dance about, oh, three weeks ago, at the VFW in Souderton. We hit it off, and he's been hanging around ever since. He's been fantastic today after ... well, since I got mugged."

I stepped closer. "Speaking of that ..."

"Yeah, it's something, huh? You like my new face?"

"It'll be back to normal in no time."

"I guess."

I studied the IV in her arm. "So why are you still here? In the ICU?"

She waggled her eyebrows. "Subdural hematoma."

"Which means ..."

"I've got a skull fracture. A vessel in my head tore, and they want to make sure the tear isn't expanding, bleeding all over the place in there."

"They didn't do surgery?"

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Different Paths"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Judy Clemens.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Different Paths 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the first reaction by everyone to the assault on veterinarian Carla Beaumont and the subsequent hijacking of her truck is that the criminal was after the drugs she carried. Stunned by the attack on her currently hospitalized friend, dairy farmer Stella Crown agrees with the consensus, but revises her opinion when other female professionals are assailed with no males harassed at all.--------------- The police continue to cling to the drug theory assuming that the perp believes women are easier targets. The violence widens as a new female pastor¿s office and the truck of a woman driver are vandalized and medical physician Dr. Peterson is killed. Stella begins to investigate with her MS afflicted boyfriend Nick covering her back.----------------- Stella is extremely opinioned as judge and executioner based on her first impressions upon meeting someone this often leads her into inadvertently forming red herrings about people and cases. Her abrupt often false conclusions make the tale and the series (see THE DAY WILL COME) fun to read as the heroine is not the crown jewel of amateur sleuthing though she is wise enough to adapt her theory this leads to excellent whodunits as she overcomes her initial estimations to achieve success. Fans will enjoy eccentric Stella, loyal to a fault to her friends and acerbic to her enemies.------------------- Harriet Klausner