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The Last Bequest
Tags: Cozy mystery, romantic mystery, rural farm mystery, cats, gold, bomb shelters, modern militia, Wisconsin, poison plants, murder, second marriage, septuagenarian romance
Editor: Anne Duguid
Line Editor: Greta Gunselman
Cover Designer: Nika Dixon
School teacher Judy Winters sets out to solve the mystery surrounding her only living relative’s murder. Back on the farm where Aunt Louise grew up, Judy encounters Hart Wingate, a young man renting the adjoining farm who helps with farm chores. When Judy learns that her boyfriend, Graham, had been secretly visiting Louise, Judy takes the opportunity to move away from him for the summer and think over the situation.
Judy loves her teaching job, but is intrigued by her heritage in the farmstead and particularly the old house, but whether to sell or stay, she has yet to decide.
Midnight visitors, a job offer, new friends, along with one special old one—Carranza, the opinionated cat—all figure into Judy’s dilemma.
Meanwhile, Judy learns that a former friend of Louise’s father, Bryce, lost a treasure of gold somewhere on the farm. As Judy and Hart look for clues to the cause of Louise’s death and Bryce’s missing treasure they develop a close friendship. Judy breaks off her relationship with Graham, who doesn’t take the news very well.
As Judy explores the farmhouse, she finds and follows clues in Louise’s mother’s diary to unearth the buried treasure. But was it the treasure that might have been behind Louise’s murder?
Another thought occurred to her. “Mr. Reynolds?”
The balding man looked up and peered at her through his plastic bifocals. He blinked. Judy was reminded of a picture of an owl in glasses she’d once seen.
“Well, I wondered whether you knew if anyone else had any keys. Any of the neighbors?”
Reynolds cleared his throat. “That, I wouldn’t know.” He looked back down at the papers in his hands. “I nearly forgot this last item. The stock report.”
“Stocks?” Judy said. “I didn’t know Louise owned any company stocks.”
Mr. Reynolds looked at her over the top of his reading glasses. “Animals.”
“Right. He said he’d been doing chores. Louise told me she had some help, but I didn’t pay attention at the time,” Judy said. She lowered her gaze to the chipped tabletop. “I assumed my aunt had a handyman or something. Mr. Wingate is renting Bryce Edwards’s farm, isn’t he?”
“That’s right. I’ve been working with Country Properties LLC for some time, trying to encourage Edwards to sell now that he’s moved into town.”
“What’s Country Properties?” Judy asked.
“Developers. Of course, any zoning change out here has to go through the town board. This farm is out of city jurisdiction, young lady. The board president, Slim Hobart, Red’s cousin, and I don’t always see eye to eye on coming changes. I strongly recommend you make a deal quickly. It’s your land now. You don’t have to listen to Hobart or the KOWPIE folks.”
Or you? Judy eyed him. Reynolds began to straighten out the papers on the table. “Just remember, this is one hot property.”
Judy was more than ready to end the discussion about her inheritance. She wanted to look at the papers. Alone. She didn’t particularly care for his little smile, little eyes, and bulging belly that rolled over his pants. “Thank you. Anyway, where do I sign then, about taking over title?”
“Right here, young lady.” Reynolds pointed to the yellow stickers attached at the proper lines. “And, here,” he shuffled some more papers, watching her intently. “And, here.”
When Judy finished, she extended the stick pen. “Well, all right. Mr. Reynolds. I appreciate the house call, and all. Um, who should I call about taking care of the…stock when I’m gone?”
“Best to ask Wingate. He knows the place, been doing it regular already.” Reynolds stuffed papers into the worn calfskin case. He nodded down toward the Formica tabletop. “There’s my card. Call me when you’re ready to sell.”
Judy stood on the drive long after his taillights disappeared. Purple twilight gradually made shadows of the fence posts. A flock of sparrows settled on power lines across the road. She had never felt so alone. At the sound of footsteps crunching in the gravel behind her, she tensed before turning around.
“Oh, you scared me,” she said, letting her shoulders slump when she recognized her neighbor. “I apologize for sounding rude earlier. I really am grateful for all you’ve done to help us out.”
“No need to apologize,” Hart Wingate replied. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to let me know.”
“As a matter of fact, I wonder…if you have time. That is, would you consider continuing to do the chores while I’m gone? Or help me find someone I can hire? I have to go home for a couple of weeks, for my job. But I think I’ll come back.”
“You’re a teacher, right?”
Judy nodded. “Yep. School’s out first Friday in June.”
They regarded the roosting birds for a quiet moment. “I’m happy to help. Louise and I worked together with the cattle. When you return I’d like to discuss our agreement with you. Louise was an interesting woman. We had some good conversations, and she taught me a lot about respecting our heritage.” He smiled briefly. “Even though she managed to ruffle some feathers by her obsession with recycling, I’ll miss her.”
Judy didn’t recall her aunt talking about a cattle deal in the papers she’d just signed, but decided she was too exhausted to think about it now. Three years she’d need to give. Could she do that? What about her job? And what did Hart mean, Louise obsessed with recycling? How could sorting one’s aluminum and newspaper be considered obsessive? She and Louise naturally did that at home in Lewiston. Didn’t anyone believe in recycling in the country?
“Aunt Louise gave up a lot to raise me. She never married or had children of her own, spent her adulthood raising me. She barely got to spend any time back here before she died. Being cut down at fifty-four is no reward for the sacrifice she made on my behalf. It all happened so fast, I hardly know how to feel.
“All my aunt wanted was to come back here and live out a peaceful life. I need to know why she died. Maybe just for my own satisfaction. Maybe so nothing like this happens to anyone else.”
Hart seemed lost in thought. “I can’t help you there. I am angry, I admit, but I don’t know what I can do to help.”
Judy hugged her elbows tight. “That’s all right. I shouldn’t be bothering you about my personal business anyway. I’ll check into your cow deal. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t let me keep you from phoning your boyfriend, or anything like that.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Judy heard someone say in her voice. What? She blinked. Graham was her boyfriend, wasn’t he? Why would she deny it? She cleared her throat. “At least, I’ve only been dating someone for a couple of months. Graham’s been great. A shoulder for me to lean on when I needed him.”
“Apparently Louise didn’t see it that way. I was here last week when he showed up. She ordered him to turn right around and leave.”
About the Author:
Lisa Lickel is a Wisconsin writer who lives with her husband in a hundred and sixty-year-old house built by a Great Lakes ship captain. Surrounded by books and dragons, she writes inspiring fiction. Her novels include mystery and romance, all with a twist of grace. She has penned dozens of feature newspaper stories, short stories, magazine articles, and radio theater. She is the editor in chief of Creative Wisconsin Magazine, a workshop leader, book reviewer, contest judge, and a freelance editor who loves to encourage new authors. Find her at LisaLickel.com.
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