No Red Roses Online - Iris Johansen

ONE

WITH A SIGH of relief, Tamara Ledford pulled into the driveway of the roomy old Victorian house where she’d lived all her twenty-three years. The gracious, turreted white frame house exuded an aura of mellow serenity that seemed to wrap her in a comforting embrace, and she badly needed that comfort at the moment. She jumped out of her old Toyota, slammed the door, and walked swiftly along the flower-bordered path and up the four stairs to the frosted glasspaneled front door.

She paused for a moment and drew a deep breath, trying to cool the anger and tension that had robbed her of her usual composure. There was no sense in disturbing Aunt Elizabeth over something as trivial as Celia Bettencourt’s bitchiness. And, if she didn’t calm down, her aunt would definitely notice how upset she was. Even if Aunt Elizabeth’s “gift” wasn’t fully operational at any given moment, like this one, she was always uncannily perceptive.

When Tamara opened the front door, she was immediately enveloped in a deliciously spicy aroma. Gingerbread, she identified with a sudden lift of her spirits, as she quickly made her way down the linoleum-covered hallway to the large old-fashioned kitchen at the back of the house.

Aunt Elizabeth was at the kitchen table spreading white sugar icing on the luscious sweet bread, and she looked up with a quick smile at Tamara’s appearance. “Hello, dear. Aren’t you home a little early?” she asked absently, as she turned the plate and dipped her spatula once more into the bowl of icing.

“A little. I came home early to dress for Mr. Bettencourt’s party,” Tamara replied, strolling over to the table and dropping into a gingham-cushioned ladderback chair.

“Oh yes, I’d forgotten that was tonight,” Elizabeth Ledford said vaguely. She looked up, her blue eyes suddenly sparkling. “What are you planning on wearing?”

“I haven’t decided,” Tamara said evasively, then knowing the suggestion that was coming, she went on hurriedly. “I see you have on your Madame Zara outfit.” Her violet eyes twinkled. “Who have you been peering into your crystal ball for now?”

Her aunt looked down with serene satisfaction at her midnight blue caftan that was extravagantly embroidered with silver stars and crescent moons. She always claimed the rather bizarre outfit inspired her clients with confidence, despite her great-niece’s constant teasing raillery. “Mildred Harris’s Pekingese ran away last night. She was most upset.”

Tamara dipped a finger into the mixing bowl and scooped a bit of icing off the side. She grimaced, as she slowly licked her finger. “I’d run away too, if I were as smothered with attention as that poor animal. Did you locate him?”

Her aunt shook her head reprovingly. “You should be a little more understanding, Tamara. That Pekingese is the only living creature that Mildred has to care about since her husband died. She can’t help it if she goes a bit overboard at times. After all, she is getting older.”

Tamara smothered a smile at that last remark. Elizabeth Ledford at seventy-three was at least six years older than Mildred Harris, but she never seemed to be conscious of the fact that she might be considered a senior citizen. She certainly didn’t look anywhere near her age, Tamara thought idly. Aunt Elizabeth’s slim, athletic body was as straight and lively as ever. Her face was as unlined and smooth as a woman of forty, and her sparkling blue eyes were constantly dancing with enthusiasm and humor. Though her hair was snow white, it curled in a riot of tight shiny curls around her face, increasing the aura of youthfulness.

“Sorry,” Tamara said solemnly. “Did you find the Peke?”

“Of course,” her aunt said serenely. “He got locked in the fruit cellar by mistake when Mildred was fetching some peach preserves. He didn’t really run away. When I told Mildred where he was, she hurried right home to let him out.”

“I wonder if she’ll be able to coax him out. He’s probably enjoying his vacation from that eternal fussing,” Tamara said with a grin.

She never doubted for an instant that the dog would be exactly where Aunt Elizabeth said he would be. As a child she’d accepted as a matter of course that her aunt could see where she’d misplaced her doll or lost her favorite hair ribbon. Aunt Elizabeth had once explained to Tamara that she would break her arm in the next few days, but that she mustn’t be frightened and would be quite well again in a few weeks. Tamara hadn’t even been surprised when the rope