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When Linnet Shellwin moves into a picturesque Victorian house known as Valentine Villa, she looks forward to a long and successful career teaching English in the town's middle school, getting to know her fellow teacher, Ned Glint, better, and adding a long-desired collie puppy to her household. Then some members of her out-of-control ninth grade class concoct a plot to kill her, the disconnected phone begins to ring at strange hours, and she learns that the previous owner of the house died after eating a poisoned cherry tart. Most terrifying of all, the phantom voice on the dead phone tells Linnet that she is going to die in two weeks.


Love, Love, Deadly Love

Chapter 1

The phone was ringing.

Its incessant shrill sliced through the afternoon silence that hung over Beechnut Street. In the thick June air, the sound was unnaturally loud, as nerve-wracking as any sudden disturbance in a quiet place.

One more annoyance, I thought as I turned the key in the lock of my house. Then, What phone?

The only phone in my newly-purchased Victorian cottage in Maple Creek was a vintage black dial tone landline, mounted on the bright yellow kitchen wall. It had been disconnected, or so the realtor, Dinah Deering, had said.

Therefore it couldn’t ring. Still, it did. Three times; four times; five . . .
Turning the knob, I pushed open the front door and dashed through the dining room to the kitchen. As I reached for the receiver, the ringing stopped, leaving a lingering echo in the close air.

Feeling foolish, I said, “Hello . . . Hello?”

No one answered. The echo faded; welcome silence returned. I heard the muted hum of the refrigerator, the faint drip drip from the faucet, and the ticking of the clock in the dining room. All familiar sounds. I was home—Home Sweet Home—in my own house, a mile from the clamor and chaos of Louisa M. Alcott Middle School. Nothing could touch me here.

I replaced the receiver and brushed a speck of dust from its top with my finger. How could a disconnected, dead phone ring?

The answer was simple. Dinah Deering was wrong.

I had never questioned her. I’d never even taken the receiver off the hook. In the age of cells and blackberries, landlines were extraneous. I’d only given the phone a passing thought. When I painted the kitchen a softer shade of yellow, I would remove it and fill in the hollowed-out space. Until then it could stay.

Besides, who would call Violet Julaine, the previous owner? She was dead, murdered a long time ago in this very house. Anyone wishing to contact me knew my cell phone number. I’d probably just missed a telemarketer.

Setting my purse and school books on the table, I told myself, It’s Friday. Forget the phone.

But it wasn’t that easy. Wouldn’t Dinah know whether or not the phone was working?

I lifted the receiver again and listened. There was no dial tone. Nothing but dead air. Well, then, Dinah was right.

Still puzzling over the mystery, I climbed the stairs to my bedroom to change out of my white blouse and navy skirt and reached for a silky peach dress with an empire waistline. For the first time all day I felt comfortable and cool.
The rest of the afternoon was mine.

* * * *

Every day after school I drew a heavy black X through the date on my kitchen calendar. On Friday, I counted the days left until June seventeenth and the end of the school year. Then I celebrated the survival of one more week with a fabulous dinner at the Blue Lion Inn on Main Street. They offered Prime Rib, Fish, Spirits, and the best desserts I’d ever eaten.

Usually I dined alone. Still relatively new in town, I hadn’t met many people yet, and most of my school friends had their own lives.

I always walked the half mile to the Blue Lion, reveling in the fresh air and scenery. The leaves on the maple trees along the way were fully developed now, vibrant green and russet red. They rustled in the breeze and cast shadows on the gleaming sidewalk. Stray sunbeams filtered through their canopy and danced off the geraniums and impatiens in my neighbors’ yards.

This was one of those rare days in June that inspires poets and revives the weary; when vegetation is young and fresh, not yet weighted down by the summer heat, and pesky insects are still hatching. Feeling free and grateful for my life, I breathed air filled with the scents of freshly-mowed grass and spicy stock.

I still marveled that I had found a unique fairy-tale home in this picturesque town. Known to the locals as Valentine Villa, the nineteenth century cottage was the soft pink color of strawberry fluff. Beneath the highest gable, a heart-shaped stained glass window glowed in the light like a rosy jewel.

The Victorian was exquisite, a veritable jewel itself, yet it had languished in Michigan’s dying house market for over a year. I couldn’t understand why no one had snapped it up at the incredible twice-reduced price.

On that sunny day last month when Dinah Deering had showed me the property, she had offered an explanation. “That’s because of the murder that was committed here. It’s part of the house’s colorful history, but some folks don’t want to live with . . .” She paused, looking away. “. . .unfortunate associations.”

“Well . . .” I’d let my gaze rest on the heart window and thought about my savings that would cover the down payment; about the affordable mortgage; and, most important of all, my present long commute. If I lived in Maple Creek, I’d avoid snowy weather and road rage on the freeway. My drive time would shrink from an hour to ten minutes, and I’d save hundreds of dollars on gas. “If this murder happened some time ago . . .”

“It did,” Dinah said quickly. “And it wasn’t a bit gory.”

“If the murder is part of the past, then it won’t bother me,” I said.

An historic murder. A Valentine window swimming in a light May mist. Cascades of pink blossoms on the weeping cherry tree in the front yard. Delicate gingerbread trim, a spacious front porch. Here was everything I had ever dreamed about; more than I ever thought I’d have.

I gazed at the white picket fence that enclosed the yard and thought, Now I can have my dog.

“Let’s walk around to the back,” Dinah said. “The flowerbeds need a little work. With all the rain we’ve been having, the weeds have taken over.”

They had, but against the west fence, tulips and hyacinths bloomed in the shade of the closely spaced-elm trees that gave the yard the look of a forest. Wild ferns and lilies of the valley threatened to choke the weeds Dinah had mentioned. I’d never had a chance to work out of doors. Neatening this unkempt garden would be a pleasure.
“The back yards on this street are unusually deep,” she added. “You could plant a vegetable garden if you like.”

“Not in all this shade,” I said.

“In containers then?”

The first half of the property was level; then it sloped slightly downward to what might have once been a grape arbor. A white aluminum tool shed with a pink roof and doors, was the sole structure in this extensive space.

“The last owner left a few tools and gardening supplies in the shed,” Dinah said. “There’s an old lawn mower. I think it still works.”

Behind my property a white house sat diagonally on its lot. The largest weeping willow tree I had ever seen shaded a pond bordered by huge rocks. From the small back porch of the pink Victorian, the view was breathtaking.

“You’ve decided, haven’t you?” Dana asked with a smug smile.

“Yes. I’m going to make an offer today. Do you think it’ll be accepted?

“Count on it,” she said.

So, after the traditional inspections and paperwork, after the hassle of packing my belongings and moving up north, I became a first-time homeowner, a resident on the street called Victorian Row.

I’d never regretted my hasty decision.


A deep masculine voice calling my name cut through my reminiscing. A vintage blue Cadillac convertible as sleek and gorgeous as a prehistoric winged creature had landed gracefully at the curb.

The man behind the wheel was gorgeous too. Incredibly handsome and tanned, with eyes the blue of a Michigan cornflower opening to the sun, he wore a deep blue shirt rolled up to his elbows. The color matched his eyes and the car’s custom paint.
Out of uniform and away from his intimidating cruiser, Lieutenant Dalton Gray of the Maple Creek Police Department looked like a different man, friendly and approachable.
I had met him at school on the worst day of my teaching career. Then his handsome features had been chiseled into a grim mask, and his eyes were as unyielding as stone. His presence had commanded instant silence from my class, the first I’d ever experienced. I could almost have been afraid of him myself.

“Hello!” he said again. “Lynette, isn’t it?”

He pronounced my name incorrectly, as almost everybody did.

“It’s Linnet,” I said. “Like the bird. Accent on the first syllable.” Then, realizing how pedantic that sounded, I added a smile and a compliment. “That’s the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen, Lieutenant Gray. It looks like you just drove it out of the show room.”

He beamed with pride. “I found her rusting away in an abandoned barn and restored her from scratch. She doesn’t look a half century old, does she?”

“Not at all.” I touched the shining fender. It felt warm and smooth, kissed by the sun.

“What are you doing in this part of the country?” he asked. “Don’t you live somewhere downstate?”

“Not anymore. I moved to Maple Creek last month. That pink house down the street is mine.”

He smiled. “The one with the stained glass heart. I know it. We’re almost neighbors.” He hesitated a moment, his eyes bright with excitement. “Would you like to go for a ride? This baby is as swift as a missile and soft inside. Like marshmallow.” He patted the pristine upholstery.

The temptation was strong, but something made me hesitate. His well-known reputation with the ladies, perhaps. And spontaneity wasn’t one of my virtues.
“Thanks, Lieutenant, but after being cooped up in a classroom all day, I like to walk.”
He glanced upward at the small patches of blue sky that managed to break through the leaves. “It’s going to rain any minute now,” he said.

I couldn’t see the clouds, but the sun burned down on my bare arms. There wasn’t a hint of rain in the air, nor in the day’s forecast.

“Not till this evening, I heard.”

“Believe me, Linnet. Police have access to secret weather information. What do you say? I can raise the top, and we’ll stay snug and dry.”

Now my stubborn streak took over. “Some other time, maybe.”

He shut off the ignition, apparently settling for a casual exchange on the street. “How are the little monsters at the Alcott Middle School?” he asked.

His question dragged me back to my fourth hour class and its rogue students, the ones I wished fervently to forget when I didn’t have to deal with them.

“They’re under control,” I said. “Sort of.”

“No sinister plots against authority?”

“None that I’m aware of. The principal suspended the two ringleaders for the rest of the school year. That helps a little.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” he said. “School’s almost over, isn’t it?”

I nodded. “Just about. For students, on the fifteenth. Two days later for staff.”
“Next fall you’ll have a whole new bunch of kids. I hope they’ll be better.”

“They can hardly be worse,” I said.

But next fall’s freshmen would have heard of what I referred to as the Plot. Unfortunately, now I had a reputation too.

Lieutenant Gray slid over to the passenger’s seat and laid his hand on the door handle. “How about joining me for a coffee?”

I glanced down at my wrist and realized I hadn’t worn my watch today. “I’d love to, but I’m on my way to dinner. I’m already late.”

“What can we do about that?”

This man didn’t take defeat lightly. Being unable to think of an appropriate response, I felt at a disadvantage.

From school gossip, I knew that the handsome Lieutenant Gray had several girlfriends. He thrived on variety. Many women hoped they could snag his interest on a permanent basis, but the word ‘commitment’ wasn’t in his vocabulary.

My friend, Jill Carlton, in Social Sciences, had summed him up in three words: “He’s a player.”

To be truthful, I wouldn’t have minded joining the ranks of the favored few for a date or two, but it didn’t seem prudent to initiate a social relationship with a man I might meet again on another official occasion.

Don’t be so stuffy, Linnet, I thought. The man asked you for coffee. It’s not as if your engagement calendar is filled, and if you’re late for dinner, who cares?
I started to speak, but Lieutenant Gray appeared to have accepted my decision.
“How about a rain check then?” he said. “A welcome-to-Maple Creek drink. Sometime when you’re not so busy.”

A loud crash of thunder overhead underscored his words. His eyes held a glint of triumph, and he winked. “Change your mind?”

“I’ll take a rain check, and I’d better be on my way. It was nice seeing you again, Lieutenant Gray.”

In a stern policeman’s voice, he said, “It’s Dalton . . . Linnet. Don’t keep him waiting. Whoever he is.”

I smiled, ignoring the wave of warmth that broke over my face, and began walking briskly toward Main Street. A few raindrops fell on my bare arms, then a few more.
I should have brought a cardigan, should go back home for an umbrella. Should have accepted Dalton Gray’s invitations. But I walked on. A little water wasn’t deadly.
Behind me, the Cadillac’s ignition purred into life. Soft music drifted into the humid air. The melody was vaguely familiar, a jaunty little tune from an earlier era, the sixties, perhaps, to complement the age of the convertible. It practically demanded that the listener sing along and be happy.

The music lent me an illusion of new-found energy. Or perhaps it was something else. An invitation from a man like Dalton Gray was a dose of spring tonic. Even if I didn’t need one. Even if he was a player.

* * * *

Dalton’s rain proved to be a gentle spring shower. By the time I left the Blue Lion with a take-out container of strawberry cheesecake, the sun had reappeared, and the sidewalks were already drying. Raindrops glistened in the grass and dripped down from the trees. The world smelled even fresher than it had before.

We were both right about the weather. A severe thunderstorm, complete with lightning, made its appearance at ten o’clock as I lay in bed, thinking about the pleasant after-school encounter with Lieutenant Gray and berating myself for not accepting one of his offers. Why did I always do the opposite of what I really wanted to do? It made no sense.

“Would you like to have your piano lesson on the spinet today, Linnet?”

“Uh, no.” I sat down at the Baby Grand and opened my Bach.

I was seven years old.

Of course, I wanted to play on the little piano. As it turned out, I never had another opportunity.

But with Dalton, there was still that rain check, if he was serious about it.
I turned on the bed and listened to thunder rolling over my roof. It seemed close. Too close. The rain pounded against the old windows. Intermittent lightning flashes illuminated the room’s shadows.

I wasn’t afraid of electrical storms, but I didn’t like them.

In the humid air, my light cotton gown felt like wool. The one amenity the pink Victorian didn’t have was air-conditioning, and I couldn’t afford another expensive purchase, only a pair of humble fans, one for each floor.

This had been the warmest, rainiest spring in my memory. People planted their flowers between showers and postponed their barbecues and outside projects. A rained-out weekend would be bad enough. But a rained-out summer? Unthinkable.
On the other hand, dismal, wet weather would keep the kids from going wild on these last hectic days of school.

My eyelids grew heavy. I wished I lived in Camelot.

Rain for school days, sunshine for vacation time, and a handsome blue knight riding down Beechnut Street on his azure winged steed . . .

Downstairs, the phone rang, yanking me out of my doze. Its impervious, persistent sound was so loud that it might have been in the room with me instead of in the kitchen. I counted ten rings. My heart rate speeded up and my hand closed around the sheet.

Someone knows you’re home. Someone’s waiting for you to answer.
Eleven. Twelve. Silence.

I stayed in bed. It was dangerous to rush down the stairs at night. In any event, I could never have reached the phone before it stopped ringing.

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October 2011

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