Journalist and amateur sleuth Rona Parish is eager for a fresh challenge, so she begins to research the histories of several long-established families in town, including the Tarltons, long-time owners of the Clarendon Hotel. But a chance encounter with old friend Kate lands Rona in the midst of another case.
Kate, now married to a Tarlton, asks Rona for her help with a delicate family problem: determining the cause of her sister-in-law Freya’s terrifying nightmares. But as Rona begins to uncover disturbing facts about the Tarltons’ past, she wonders whether solving the mystery of Freya’s nightmares might destroy the family.
A Family Concern is the fourth book in the Rona Parish Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
“Smooth writing style, inventive plotting, and insights into family life . . . For readers who like to mix cozy mysteries with gentle women’s fiction.” —Booklist
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A Family Concern
By Anthea Fraser
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2006 Anthea Fraser
All rights reserved.
For the first time that she could remember, Rona Parish was not looking forward to Christmas. Nothing would be the same, she thought miserably. Her parents' marriage had recently broken down and her father was in the process of finding himself a flat while the divorce went through. Furthermore, the split had resulted in tension between herself and her twin sister, Lindsey, since they tended to side with different parents.
Admittedly, her mother had invited her and Max for Christmas lunch as usual, but Rona had still not committed them, fearful she might appear to be letting her father down. Nor had she felt able to ask him if he'd be spending the holiday with Catherine, the woman he proposed eventually to marry, though it was more than likely she'd be with her son and his wife in Cricklehurst.
'You can't keep putting it off,' Max remarked one evening. 'At this rate, we'll end up in solitary splendour. What's Lindsey doing?'
'We haven't spoken for nearly two weeks,' Rona said expressionlessly. 'She's as prickly as a hedgehog at the moment.'
'She might opt out and spend it with Hugh.'
Hugh Cavendish was Lindsey's ex-husband; now, to the concern of her family, back in Marsborough.
'No, I'm almost sure she'll go to Mum. She's still blaming Pops for all this.'
'Well, technically speaking, he is the guilty party.'
'Would you have put up with all he has over the last few years?' Rona demanded hotly, adding after a moment, 'On second thoughts, don't answer that.'
Max grinned. 'Come on, love, lighten up. Find out what he's doing and we can take it from there.'
Rona was mulling over this conversation the next day as she walked along Guild Street, now festooned with decorations and coloured lights. The shop windows glittered with tinsel, fake Christmas trees were draped with scarves, belts and sequinned evening bags, and in Netherby's Department Store, children queued to see Father Christmas. And they were only halfway through November, Rona thought impatiently. But concerns about Christmas could wait: a more pressing worry was that it was only ten days to Pops' retirement, and since no one outside the family knew of the split, Mum would be expected at all the festivities. Rona was quite sure she wouldn't attend.
Max was right, she decided suddenly; she needed to know her father's plans, both for next week and for Christmas, and it was no use pussyfooting around waiting for him to volunteer them. A glance at her watch showed it had stopped again, and she swore under her breath, shaking her wrist and lifting it hopefully to her ear. Silence. Admittedly it had been a twenty-first birthday present, she conceded ruefully; perhaps it was unreasonable to expect a watch to last indefinitely.
Above the noise of traffic and the chattering crowds, the Town Hall clock helpfully relayed the three-quarter chime. Two forty-five, Rona thought; with luck, she'd catch him at the bank.
But luck was not with her. She was informed that Mr Parish would be in on only alternate days this week. 'Winding down, as you might say,' Mavis Banister, his secretary, told her. 'He'll have a full schedule next week, though: on Monday there's a reception for key clients and their wives – some sixty-odd people; on Wednesday it's the presentation at Head Office, followed by dinner with the General Manager and his wife; and then on Friday, as you know, we have the farewell party here. A good excuse for your mother to indulge in some retail therapy!'
Rona smiled dutifully. 'Don't worry,' she said. 'No doubt I'll run him to earth.'
At the other end of town, unaware of his daughter's frustration, Tom Parish stood in the middle of the room and looked about him. It wasn't, he told himself, as though this was a long-term project; he could manage very comfortably here for the two years or so it would take for the divorce to come through. The furniture and fittings, though not what he'd have chosen, were comfortable enough, and with his books and personal belongings, he could soon make it look like home. And though Guild Street was a fifteen to twenty minute walk away, Catherine's house in Willow Crescent was just round the corner. In fact he'd noted, with a lift of the heart, that the roof of her bungalow was visible from the kitchen window.
The room in which he stood was at the front of the building, overlooking Talbot Road. There were, in all, three blocks of flats along the length of it, one at either end and one, the building in which he stood, roughly in the middle. Each was distinctive in style and replaced a rambling old house that had been demolished in the 1960s. There'd been an outcry at the time, Tom remembered, about the insensitivity of placing these stark, modern blocks in such a setting, but lack of interest in aesthetics was as rife in Marsborough in the sixties as it was in the rest of the country, and protesters could only be thankful that at least they weren't built of concrete. Now, forty years on, they had melded into their background, and only newcomers to the area professed astonishment that such sacrilege should have been countenanced.
His sole reservation, Tom reflected, was that Hugh, his ex-son-in-law, had a flat in one of the other blocks. Still, it was a long and winding road, and they were more likely to run into each other in Guild Street than here.
From Hugh, Tom's mind slid automatically to his daughter Lindsey, and he sighed. She'd been deeply hurt by his, Tom's, behaviour, heaping on him all the blame for the breakdown of the marriage. Bless her, he thought fondly; she'd even coerced Avril – who for years had taken no interest in her appearance – into buying a couple of new outfits and some make-up. His heart contracted as he recalled his wife standing in their sitting room in her new finery, awaiting his reaction. The tragedy was that it had all been too late.
He turned back and studied the room again, planning how he'd rearrange the furniture. It would be a relief to move in here; they'd decided not to cause waves during his last days at work, and to keep up appearances till after his retirement – at that stage, five weeks away. In the interim he would remain at home; there was always the chance of emergency calls from the bank, and the neighbours would notice if he weren't there.
Strangely, since her initial tears, Avril had shown no emotion, and once his possessions had been moved into the guest room, things had in fact been easier than for some time. They met only at breakfast, when they treated each other with punctilious politeness. He knew she'd be as glad to see the back of him as he would be to go. Well, next week was D- Day. His last day at the bank would be Friday, his sixty-third birthday, and then he'd move in here and the next stage of his life could begin.
He walked slowly out on to the landing, where the estate agent was tactfully waiting.
'I'll take it,' he said.
Avril Parish stood at the window of her guest room, lost in thought. That morning, over breakfast, Tom had broached the subject of his various leaving engagements. 'Everyone's expecting you to attend,' he'd said gently.
'And you know that I can't,' she'd replied. 'We agreed not to go public and I've honoured that, but playing happy families before all your colleagues is just not on. I've given it some thought, and decided the best solution is a diplomatic dose of flu.'
He hadn't met her eyes. 'There'll be gifts for you, too, in recognition of your support all these years,' he'd said, adding quickly over her choked laugh, 'and you were supportive, Avril, for most of the time.'
Beneath the table, her fingernails had dug into her palms. She would not cry.
'Whatever,' she'd said after a minute, 'but I'm not going to play the proud little wife, Tom, and that's final. Take the girls with you.'
Well, she'd brought it on herself, she reflected now, though she'd been too pig-headed to see it at the time. Over the last two or three years she'd gradually let herself go, slouching round the house in old clothes, not bothering with her hair or make-up. And she'd begun – she couldn't remember why – to needle him constantly, in an attempt to evoke some response. She should have known Tom wasn't confrontational, that he'd patiently deflect her complaints and criticisms, and in the process add to her resentment.
Pops is still an attractive man, Lindsey had warned her, and he meets attractive women every day in the course of his work.
Indeed. Well, no use crying over spilt milk. Though too late to save her marriage, she had finally taken herself in hand. In the last six weeks she'd had her hair restyled, bought some much-needed new clothes and taken a job at the local library. And when Tom finally moved out at the end of next week, she'd take her plans one stage further. That was why she'd come into this room which, since he'd been using it, she had entered only once a week in order to clean it.
She turned from the window and surveyed it critically. It was a good size, she thought with satisfaction, the fitted wardrobe giving extra floor space and adding to the air of spaciousness, while the button-back chair that had been her mother's, into which she had loved to snuggle as a child, afforded comfortable seating. Since Mother had died, though, the room had been little used; its wardrobe was the repository of summer clothes in winter, winter clothes in summer, while the bed's sole purpose had been to provide a surface for laying out things to take on holiday. All that would be needed, she concluded, was a fresh lick of paint and some new curtains.
She returned to the landing and regarded its closed doors, picturing what lay behind them. Until a month ago, she had shared the other front bedroom with Tom, and the two back rooms she still thought of as belonging to the girls. In between the master bedroom and what had been Rona's was the door leading to the small box-room. Avril opened it and looked inside. Piled higgledy-piggledy were suitcases, carrier bags crammed with the girls' university papers, old picnic hampers and a dusty violin case, memento of a passing interest of Lindsey's. It would need a good sorting out and, by the look of it, several journeys to the tip and the charity shops.
Pushing open her own bedroom door, she studied the wall adjoining the box room, and nodded slowly to herself. It shouldn't present any problems.
Rona reached her father on his mobile as he got into his car outside the flats.
'Hello, sweetie, how are you?'
'Fine. I just called at the bank, and discovered you were playing hooky.'
'To good effect. I've found myself a flat.'
'Well done. Where is it?'
'In Talbot Road. "Mulberry Lodge", if you please. Sounds grandiose, doesn't it? It must be the name of the original house.'
Rona hesitated. 'That's not where Hugh —?'
'Same road, different block. I've arranged to move in at the end of next week. Now, what can I do for you?'
'Actually, it was next week I was wondering about.'
'Ah yes. All this business put it out of my head, but you, Max and Lindsey are, of course, invited to my leaving party. Sorry for the short notice; I hope you can make it?'
'I can't answer for Linz, but we'll certainly be there.'
'And Mum?' Rona asked after a minute.
'Intends to go down with flu,' Tom said drily, 'so I'll be solo at the first two bashes.'
'And then there's Christmas,' Rona went on tentatively. 'Will you be spending it with Catherine?'
'No, she's going to Cricklehurst, as usual.' He paused. 'You'll all be at Maple Drive, I take it?'
'I don't know,' Rona said miserably.
'Of course you will, your mother will expect it. Don't worry about me, sweetheart, I'll be fine. Sorry, but I'll have to go now – I'm supposed to be following the estate agent back to his office to sign papers. I'll be in touch about the arrangements for the twenty-fifth.'
'It's also your birthday, Pops,' Rona put in quickly. 'What about after the reception? Would you —?'
'I've arranged a quiet dinner with Catherine. It seemed best, under the circumstances.'
'Fine,' she said. And wished she meant it. They exchanged goodbyes and she switched off her mobile, stepping out of the doorway she'd made use of as a cheerful voice behind her said, 'Rona Parish, as I live and breathe!'
'Kate!' The two women hugged each other. 'I've not seen you for ages.'
'Just what I was thinking. Have you time for a cuppa at the Gallery?'
'Indeed I have,' Rona replied. It was just the antidote she needed to shake her out of her misgivings; she'd known Kate Tarlton – or Kate Halliday, as she'd then been – since her schooldays.
'Where's that hound of yours?' Kate enquired, as they went up the iron staircase leading to the walkway above the shops.
'At home, recovering from an injured paw. He got a thorn in it at the park and it turned septic. He's over the worst, but he has to wear one of those wide plastic collars to stop him pulling the bandage off. He hates it, poor love.'
The café was crowded on this cold afternoon. The coveted window tables were all taken, so they settled at a corner one and, after a brief consultation, ordered tea for two and toasted teacakes.
'Now,' Kate invited, 'tell me what you've been doing since I last saw you. What are you working on at the moment?'
Here we go! Rona thought. 'Helping people find their birth parents,' she replied, and resignedly watched her friend make the connection.
'Of course – that case that hit the headlines.'
'That started it, yes, but the two I've done since have been decidedly less spectacular, thank God, and ended much more happily. Reunions and hugs all round.'
'Don't tell me you've located two sets of parents in a matter of weeks? Superwoman, or what?'
Rona shook her head. 'I didn't do the locating this time; I advertised for people willing to tell me their stories, and had a surprising number of replies. Barnie Trent, who's features editor at Chiltern Life, is quite keen on the idea – striking while the iron's hot, he calls it. He's commissioned an article per month, with a minimum of four.'
'Well, you certainly handed him a scoop with the first one,' Kate commented. 'The inside story, and all that. And your Buckford articles are still running, I see. You'll be taking over the magazine at this rate!'
Rona smiled. 'There are a couple more, but I finished writing them months ago. You're right – normally the new series would wait till they ended, but as I said, Barnie's taking advantage of public interest.'
The waitress approached and unloaded her tray on to the table.
'How's the jewellery business?' Rona asked as she poured the tea. 'Besieged by Christmas shoppers?'
Kate had married into the Tarlton family, whose prestigious shop was further along Guild Street.
'So-so, but it doesn't really get going till December. If you're thinking of buying anything, I'd advise an early visit.'
'Now that you mention it, I could do with a new watch,' Rona said reflectively. 'This one's been playing up for weeks, and it's so old, it's probably past repairing.'
Kate eyed Rona's wrist. 'The style's a bit dated, too,' she observed with professional detachment. 'We've a lovely selection at the moment, well worth a look.'
'I'll see if I can talk Max into it.'
Kate gave an embarrassed laugh. 'Sorry, I didn't mean to subject you to a sales pitch. We're not the only jewellers in town.'
'Relax – we always come to you, it's family tradition. This watch came from Tarlton's, as did my engagement ring, not to mention Lindsey's and my mother's.'
'I'm preaching to the converted, then.' Kate took a bite of her teacake. 'Your links go back a lot further than mine.'
'How long have you been there?'
'Six years, three as a member of the family.' She smiled. 'Funny to think of it now, but the first year I could hardly bring myself to speak to Lewis, he was so disagreeable. Mind you, I was prickly myself at the time. If you remember, I'd just extricated myself from a sticky relationship.'
Rona nodded. A married man, who, contrary to protestations, had never even contemplated divorce.
'Lewis, of course, was married at the time,' Kate continued, 'and later, when I realized how unhappy he'd been, I forgave him his bad temper. Then we started to come together, and it seemed I was destined to go through life as the Other Woman. Fortunately, it didn't work out that way.'
'Did it create any embarrassment,' Rona asked curiously, 'your continuing to work there while all that was going on?'
'Did they blame me for the break-up, you mean? No, I don't think so. The family hadn't expected the marriage to last; it was a flash-in-the-pan thing – mutual attraction and little else. Once the first flush had worn off, he found Sophie too sweet and docile. Lewis needs someone like me. I give as good as I get, and strike sparks off him. That's what keeps our marriage alive and exciting. Also, he's fanatical about the business, and apart from the end product, she wasn't interested. Hotel work was her scene, and she continued to work at the Clarendon, which Lewis resented. After the divorce, she married Chris Fairfax, the son of the owners. Any embarrassment – or awkwardness, rather – came from the family connection.'
Excerpted from A Family Concern by Anthea Fraser. Copyright © 2006 Anthea Fraser. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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