By Carol Higgins Clark

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The frontier spirit is alive and well in the old silver-mining town-turned-trendy resort of Aspen, Colorado, despite an influx of the rich and famous – and Regan Reilly. Regan has arrived with her mystery-writing mom and suave, funeral director father to spend the Christmas holidays on the slopes and visiting friends. Secretly, she wouldn’t mind meeting a single man or two. She never expects to be rubbing shoulders, and maybe risking her neck, with varmints, desperadoes, or art thieves. Million-dollar paintings have been disappearing from elegant condos and chic chalets all over town. Suspicion immediately falls on a congenial ex-con caretaker named Eben Bean, who seems to have absconded with the loot. Worse, Regan not only knew and liked Eben, but also had helped him get his caretaking job. Now she may be the only person in town who believes he is innocent.


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In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at Thank you for your support of the author's rights.

I would like to thank Dr. Larry Ashkinazy, a good friend and fine dentist, who encouraged me to visit Aspen and who allowed me to have some fun with his character in this book.



Saturday, December 24

EBEN BEAN LOVED to ski. The magic, the joy, the excitement of it thrilled him. It made him feel free. And that was very important to someone who'd spent five years in the slammer. The ski slopes of Aspen Mountain, with their sweeping views of the surrounding Rocky Mountains, the very essence of nature in all its glory and splendor did his soul good. It was also a lot better for his nervous system than the claustrophobic view he had had from the bottom bunk in his tiny cell. He'd never gone to sleep without the nagging worry in the back of his mind that his hulk of a cellmate would strain the bed frame, which had supported the weight of scores of outlaws, to its breaking point.

"Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I get squashed before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take"

he had prayed nightly for those five of his fifty-six years.

Since his confinement, Eben had developed a total love for the outdoors in all seasons. Neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night wiped the smile off his face, just as long as he wasn't surrounded by a chain-link fence. Even taking out the garbage had become a treat.

Of course, just because Eben loved to ski didn't mean he was very good at it. As a matter of fact, he wasn't very good at all. Just last week he had lost control and careened into the path of a fellow skier. She had desperately tried to avoid him but ended up taking a nasty spill, resulting in a very painful broken leg. Broken in two places as a matter of fact. Eben had watched as the ski patrol carefully strapped her into a sled, trying to ignore the slurs that the victim was spewing about his character. Oh well, Eben thought to himself. Sometimes it's a healthy thing to let yourself vent your anger.

He tried to make it up to her. But he heard that the poinsettia he'd spent at least fifteen minutes picking out and delivered to the hospital himself was ordered out of her sight the minute she read the card. Not that he didn't understand. Being in traction for six weeks didn't sound like much fun.

And this was going to be a fun week, Eben decided, as he completed his first run of the afternoon at Aspen Mountain. It had taken a little longer than usual to get down. He'd stopped for a late bite at Bonnie's, the bustling cafeteria-like restaurant on the slopes, which was crowded with skiers eager to refuel their bodies after a hard workout. It was one of a very few places on the planet where celebrities slogged through a lunch line carrying their own trays. Eben had hung around the picnic tables on the deck outside, where skiers clad in designer skisuits and sunglasses congregated to see or be seen as they nibbled their chosen edibles.

Sitting alone, Eben had felt a little unappreciated by mankind in general. But tonight, he thought, I'll be the center of attention. They'll all be looking at me at the big party. Okay, he thought, so I'll be in a Santa suit. In a way, it was very freeing. He could act like a dope and everyone would think it was cute. He liked to dance around swinging his sack, ho-ho-ho-ing his way through the crowd.

It was Christmas Eve, and almost everyone was in a good mood. People were actually nice to each other the world over. Christmas was a great time to call a truce, no matter what religion you were. Hmmm, he wondered. I wonder if the lady with the broken leg would accept a holly wreath from me. Probably not, he decided as he dug his ski poles into the ground and awkwardly propelled himself in the general direction of the gondola. "Mush," he mumbled. "Mush."

Eben popped his feet out of his skis and hoisted them over his shoulder as he took his place in line. It was more than a fifteen-minute ride up to the top. This was the only lift where you had to take your skis off. The gondola was enclosed and you sat with anywhere from one to five other people, sometimes conversing, sometimes eavesdropping, sometimes lost in your own thoughts as you took in the unbelievable beauty of the mountains.

As Eben waited for the next free gondola to swing around, he realized that he would have it all to himself. There was no one behind him. It was getting late. People were heading back for their après-ski drinks, their Jacuzzis, and their preparations for the evening's activities. Many of them would be at the ritzy party tonight, just waiting for his big entrance.

Nervously, Eben dropped his skis in the side pocket of the gondola and awkwardly clumped into his seat. He was always afraid that he'd be half in when it surged forward, or he'd fall and they'd have to shut it off as he hoisted himself up from the ground. That had happened more times than he'd care to remember on the lifts where you have to push yourself hurriedly off the chair and down the hill when it was time to disembark. It was usually a steep incline and more than once Eben had taken a belly flop. One of the lift operators had suggested that Eben try skiing at Tiehack, the mountain for beginners, which was just down the road. "It's a lot easier, Eben," he had said. Yeah, well, it's a free country, Eben had thought as he skied off. Besides, he liked to have his lunch at Bonnie's.

Eben settled himself in and stretched out sideways in the gondola. This way he had a view of the skiers swishing down the steep slopes above and at the same time could admire the charm offered by the village of Aspen below, a landscape dotted with snow-covered brick and wood buildings, ensconced between the protective surrounding mountains. When you were packed in with a bunch of other people, you either had to sit facing front or back.

This isn't such a bad life, Eben thought as he listened to the creak of the lift and the gentle blowing of the wind. He never thought he'd enjoy life without crime, but after he was hatched from prison five years ago, he decided that that was it. A master of separating jewelry from the bejeweled, he had enjoyed considerable success until the unfortunate evening when he unknowingly targeted the wife of the police commissioner of New York. The occasion had been a dinner at the Plaza Hotel. Employed by the waiters' union thanks to fake identification, Eben had gone around collecting dirty dishes while plying his true trade. Until that moment it had been a very successful night. A Rolex watch and a ruby pendant were concealed in the floating remains of a Banana Surprise.

As it turned out, the police commissioner's photographic memory had already identified Eben and he had been watching him. An on-the-spot arrest was made, much to the oohs and aahs of everyone at the surrounding tables and the disappointment of the dinner speaker, who had just reached page eight of his address. In the confusion that followed, many of the guests who'd fallen into an involuntary trance sensed the opportunity to put themselves out of their misery and seized on it immediately. Jolted awake, they jumped from their seats and scurried to the coatroom with a grateful nod to the handcuffed Eben.

In the five years he'd spent up the river, Eben had mused that he'd been stealing jewelry since he was sixteen. He comforted himself with the thought that thirty-odd harmonious and profitable years were enjoyed by almost no one else in his profession.

However, five years as a guest of New York State had permanently soured Eben on the prospect of a return visit to the penitentiary. When he was given a measly check, an ill-fitting suit and the address of his parole officer, he had one fleeting moment of regret for the friends he'd made behind bars. They'd even put together a party of sorts in the TV room the night before he was sprung. One friend's wife had baked a seven-layer cake and as a tribute to his particular skills had filled the layers with plastic toy watches. Swallowing over a lump in his throat as the whole room burst into "Auld Lang Syne," followed by "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," Eben had said to them, "You're the only family I've ever known. But I still don't want to come back."

In his days as a thief, Eben had come to enjoy a bit of gracious living. He was particularly fond of renting nice houses. Post-prison, he realized that he would never be able to afford such luxury from the fruits of honest labor. While flipping through a copy of Architectural Digest, he started to get depressed but then happened upon an ideal solution. It occurred to him that every one of the estates he was looking at probably had a caretaker. Kidney-shaped pools with their very own waterfalls needed to be maintained, velvety lawns needed to be raked, long winding driveways needed to be blown clear of snow to make way for luxury vehicles.

Many a time Eben had made his leisurely way through an estate house after disconnecting the alarm, while the caretaker sat in his apartment over the garage drinking beer and watching mud-wrestling on television. Eben had decided that the only way he was going to come even close to living the good life again was to be a caretaker. Of course the old-fashioned way was to marry into it, but so far Eben had found no prospects.

To be totally insignificant-looking had been a great advantage when he was pursuing his life outside the law. Medium height, mousy hair, brown eyes and average features constituted a nightmare for police sketch artists. Horn-rimmed or frameless glasses, colored contact lenses, various hues of hair rinse contributed to his makeovers, enabling him to elude police for so long. Now he had put on a little extra weight that he wasn't proud of, but at least he didn't have to worry about disguising it.

He'd won the drama medal in the eighth grade after starting out playing the third wise man in the school Christmas pageant and then had gone on to star, ironically enough, as the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist. The zealous director should never have called in the magician named Slippery Fingers to teach me all those tricks, he often thought. It became too easy to relieve people of their gems. After his arrest, the only chance Eben had to exercise his acting skills was when he played Santa Claus for the children of inmates at the annual family Christmas party.

Which leads me to where I am today, Eben thought as he looked down from his perch. The slopes that a short time ago had been dotted with skiers were now virtually empty. The clouds that had blown in only a few minutes ago opened up and it began to snow. The thick soft powder immediately began to obscure the mountain peaks on the horizon.

Eben began to hum "Frosty the Snowman." This was perfect. He'd have one more run down the mountain, then go home and get ready for his big night. He quickly switched his humming to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."

At the top of the mountain Eben disembarked, grabbed his skis and clumped over to the area where people threw their skis on the ground and got ready for their run. Eben pulled on his goggles to protect his eyes from the blowing snow. Someday I'll be a great skier, he thought. But right now I'm glad that there aren't many people around and I have more room to myself.

He started down the hill, ambling from side to side, practicing the snowplow, which so far was the safest way for him to navigate the slopes, all the while repeating the commandments he'd learned on his Even You Can Ski video. He'd watched the tape over and over in the privacy of the guest suite of the Wood home, where he was the caretaker in residence. He'd been so lucky to get the job.

He liked working for important people like Sam and Kendra Wood. They owned a home in Aspen but weren't there very much. Eben was in charge of keeping the place in shape. The Wood family was flying in tomorrow for the Christmas vacation. Their houseguests, the mystery writer Nora Reilly and her husband Luke, would be arriving with them. Eben had been busy getting everything ready. He still had to clear his stuff out of the guest suite, which he secretly used when he was alone. No one was the wiser for it, and Eben enjoyed living like a king. His quarters were perfectly adequate, but the little garage apartment could get drafty at times and it didn't have a big screen TV or plush carpeting or a Jacuzzi in the bathroom. Eben was always careful about leaving everything spotless when it was time to clear out, a bittersweet task at best. He loved it when the Wood family came into town and he was always truly glad to see them but he also had a great love for the big comfy bed and heated towel racks that he wouldn't get to enjoy again until they packed their bags and winged their way back to New York. Give and take, that's what life is all about, Eben thought.

He was so proud of the place that he'd even gotten a little daring about showing it off after he'd had a few drinks. I probably shouldn't have brought them back last night, Eben thought as he slipped and fell. Who would have thought, when he went into town last night for a beer and a burger at the Red Onion, Eben's favorite, a famous old mining-day saloon where he felt comfortable relaxing around the historic wooden bar and under the old historical photographs, that he would run into Judd Schnulte? What a surprise that had been. And it could have been a terrible problem. No one in Aspen except his friend Louis knew that Eben had been a jailbird, and he wanted to keep it that way.

He needn't have worried. When Judd saw Eben, it was hard to tell from both their horrified expressions who had more use for a panic button.

"My girlfriend's in the can," Judd had said nervously.

"How long will she be in?" Eben asked sympathetically.

"You never know with women. She's always complaining about the long lines in ladies' rooms."

"I thought you meant our kind of can," Eben responded with a laugh, and then lowered his voice. "You know, a house of correction." He patted Judd on the shoulder. "We always did call you Mr. Smoothie."

"Yeah, well, whatever you want to call it, she doesn't know about my life in the cage. And I'd really like to keep it that way," Judd said, with almost a warning tone that slightly annoyed Eben.

"It's our little secret," Eben assured him. "I'm trying to make an honest living too. I've got a dream job, but I wouldn't have it if they didn't think they could trust me." As he talked, Eben wondered if all the members of the five million support groups that had sprung up for every conceivable problem felt the same queasiness when they ran into each other in public. Life was so much simpler when the one club everyone had in common was the T.G.I.F. group. Thank God it's Friday. Of course, being inmates together wasn't quite the same as being in group therapy, but it was a secret that the rest of the world didn't need to know.

Eben could see that a new girlfriend might not look kindly on a previously unmentioned incarceration period. What was it that Judd had been locked up for anyway? Eben racked his brains. I've got it! he thought as Judd's girlfriend joined them. He was an art thief.

Judd put down his beer. "This is Willeen. Willeen, say hello to Eben here. We know each other from way back."

She's a cute-looking gal, Eben thought. He extended his hand. "How do you do."

"My pleasure." Willeen smiled as she squeezed Eben's hand and held it just a little bit too long. She had blond hair, freckles and a pouty mouth. Eben figured she was probably about forty. Judd still looked the same to him: a good-looking Mr. Smoothie with brown hair and brown eyes, about the same height as Eben, late forties. Eben remembered him as being sharp-tongued but funny. They make an attractive couple, Eben thought, even though Judd is not practicing the honesty-is-the-best-policy theory of relationships these days.

"So what's this job, Eben?" he asked.

Over a beer he explained. It was nice to chat and brag about the fancy home he was in charge of. They sat down in one of the booths by the bar and ordered dinner. Feeling good, Eben boasted a little about his upcoming gig playing Santa at the famous Christmas Eve party at Yvonne and Lester Grants' house. Willeen obviously read the gossip columns.

"The Grants' house?" she repeated, impressed.

"Yes," Eben said proudly. "Yvonne Grant has a big party every year and really likes to do it up. Everyone brings their kids, so naturally they want Santa there too. It's so much fun. You should see me all dressed up!"

"We'd love to." Judd had laughed.

"But how, honey?" Willeen asked. She turned to Eben and put her hand on his arm. "We're not invited to the party," she said with a flirtatious pout.

Eben was pretty relaxed at this point. He usually didn't like to bring anybody back to Kendra's house. But his Santa suit was in the bedroom there and it was Christmas….

"Come back to my place for a nightcap!" he'd blurted. "The Wood family is coming on Christmas Day. I'm sure they wouldn't mind."

Judd had insisted on paying the check and the three of them headed out into the night together.

Now in the light of day Eben felt a little guilty about it. Oh well, he thought as he snowplowed back and forth. No use worrying about it now.

The snow was really coming down and Eben's goggles were starting to fog up. It was perfect Christmas Eve weather, but Eben was glad when he made it to the bottom. He hurried to his car and secured his skis in the rack on top. I'll be home in a few minutes, he thought, and I'll heat up some cider, take a nice hot Jacuzzi, and get ready to ho-ho-ho.


Eben turned his head as he was opening the door to his car. Judd was running toward him.

"Hi, Judd. What's going on?"

Huffing and puffing, Judd told him. "Willeen was supposed to pick me up but she had some trouble with the car. Would you mind giving me a lift to the place where we're staying?"

Eben tried to sound cordial when he was really anxious to get home. "Well, sure, Judd. Where did you say it was?"

"It's just a few minutes outside of town. Not too far."

"Hop in."

They drove along chatting amiably, heading in the opposite direction of the Woods' home. Eben stole a peek at his watch, hoping that they'd get there soon. He didn't have much time now.

"Turn here," Judd finally said. He led Eben up a heavily wooded rural road to an old Victorian farmhouse.

"I see you decided not to go the condo route, huh?" Eben said.

"We like an old-fashioned kind of place with a little bit of privacy," Judd replied. "Why don't you come in for a drink?"

"Thanks, but I can't." Eben didn't know why all of a sudden he felt uncomfortable. "I told you I've got to go be Santa."

Judd pulled out a gun from under his jacket and pointed it at Eben's head. "Don't worry about Santa. Nobody believes in him anyway. Now get in the house."

As his life passed before his eyes, Eben desperately wished he'd obeyed his instinct that morning to remove his things from the guest suite and wipe out the tub.



Saturday, December 24

REGAN REILLY LEANED back on the big overstuffed couch in her parents' den and balanced a cup of hot tea in her hands; she was mesmerized by the twinkling lights of the sizable Christmas tree in the corner. Gaily wrapped packages were cozily arranged around its trunk. Tinsel glistened from its branches.

You'd never know it was a fake, Regan thought. She turned her gaze to the flames lapping evenly in the fireplace. You'd never know the fire was a fake either. Three red felt stockings hanging on the mantel, embroidered with the names Regan, Luke and Nora, completed the perfect Christmas-card scene.

The old grandfather clock in the hallway started to bong. Five o'clock and all is well, she thought.

So where are my mommy and daddy?

Her father, the owner of three funeral homes in the Summit, New Jersey, area, had gone out to take care of a few errands and her mother had gone into New York City to have her tooth repaired by their friend, Dr. Larry Ashkinazy, otherwise known as Mr. Drill, Fill and Bill.

Regan, a private investigator who lived in Los Angeles, was home with her parents for a few days before they all headed out to Aspen on Christmas Day. Regan was going to stay with a friend who was opening a restaurant and inn out there. She and Louis had met three years ago in traffic school in L.A., both having been nailed by the same cop in a speed trap on the Santa Monica Freeway. Rather than get points on their licenses, they had each opted for the choice of attending traffic school, which meant classes run by stand-up comedians. Louis, an occasionally successful dilettante, was a co-founder of the Silver Dollar Flapjack Chain, and he had confided to Regan his dream of someday opening up a restaurant of his own in Colorado.

Now, at age fifty, Louis had finally achieved his goal. He had sold his house in L.A., invested his last red cent, and had begged and borrowed the rest. His new restaurant was called the Silver Mine, and there would be a kickoff party there on December 29 to benefit the Rescue Aspen's Past Association.

While Regan stayed at the Silver Mine, her parents would be the houseguests of Kendra and Sam Wood. Sam was a prominent Broadway producer. Kendra, an actress who had starred in one of Nora's television movies, was about to make her Broadway debut in Sam's upcoming production.

Regan put down her teacup and pulled the requisite multi-colored afghan on the back of the couch around her. She snuggled into the arm of the couch, the only arm around, when the phone began to ring. She picked up the cordless phone next to her, willing her voice to sound bright and holidayish.



"Kit!" It was one of Regan's best friends. They had met ten years before, in college, when they'd both spent their junior year abroad, at Saint Polycarp's in Oxford, England. They'd become fast friends when at the first evening meal they'd deemed the cafeteria food unfit for human consumption. Dumping their trays, they headed downtown for spaghetti, which they ended up living on all year. Regan sat up on the couch. "How are things in the land of the insurance policy?"

"Hartford's all right. I'm trying to get into the spirit before I head to my parents' house for dinner."

"I don't suppose you're nibbling on any of that fruitcake your company sends out?" Regan asked. "Unless of course you keep a power saw in your apartment."

"No way. We had about a dozen left over from last year. We sent them out to people who canceled their policies."

"So how else are you getting into the spirit?" Regan asked.

"Well," Kit sighed. "I bought some mistletoe."

"I admire your optimism."

"Very funny. You know what we're heading into, don't you?"

"No. What?"

"The start of the Bermuda Triangle. And believe me, it's deadly."

Regan frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"Christmas, New Year's Eve, and Valentine's Day. The three worst holidays for single women. Will you get a present for Christmas, a date for New Year's, a lone flower on Valentine's Day?"

Regan laughed. "I have a feeling that on February fifteenth I'm going to be zero for three."


"Well, I'm sitting here staring at the presents under the tree. Every single one that's labeled 'Regan' has handwriting that looks suspiciously like my mother's. New Year's Eve in Aspen should be fun, but I'm sure it'll be a group affair. But that's okay. Ever since Guy Lombardo died, New Year's Eve just hasn't been the same. Valentine's Day I don't want to even think about. Now"—Regan paused slightly for emphasis—"you are coming to Aspen, aren't you?"

"I think so."

"I think so's not good enough. I know you're off next week."

"Well, I should go in and clear up some odds and ends before the end of the year."

"I thought you sent out all the fruitcake."

Kit laughed. "I've checked the flights. I'll probably be there by mid-week."

"What do you mean, probably? There isn't anything else stopping you, is there?"

Kit hesitated. "No."

"What is it? You bought mistletoe. Are you dating somebody?"

"Well, I've had a few dates with this guy in my health club. He seems really nice. I just thought that if he wanted to get together over the holidays, you know…"

"Yeah," Regan said, "but if he doesn't ask you out for New Year's Eve, you'll be sitting home alone banging pots and pans together at midnight."

"I've thought of that."

The phone clicked in Regan's ear. "Hold on a second, Kit."


"Doll! It's me."

"Louis!"Regan could picture him fluffing his hair, pushing it behind his ear and then patting his head. "I'm just on the phone with Kit."

"Is she coming?"

"I hope so. Hold on." Regan clicked back to Kit. "It's Louis. Let me call you back."

"I'll be here hanging the mistletoe."

As Regan got back on the line with Louis, she could hear him giving orders in the background. "Louis? Hellooooo. LOUIS!"

"Yes, darling. We're a little crazed."

"Isn't that good?" Regan asked. It was an important time for him. Reaction to his restaurant over the holidays, and the party on the twenty-ninth, would make or break him.

"Yes, I guess so, darling. Don't mind me, I'm just a wreck. I thought I'd try and reach you and make sure you'll be in tomorrow night. I can't believe it'll be Christmas!"

"I know," Regan said. "I'll be there. My parents and I are flying out tomorrow afternoon on the Woods' jet."


Regan chuckled. "You do sound busy. I'd better let you go. I'll see you after dinner at Kendra's."

"Anything special you'll want to eat while you're here, darling?"

"Whatever you're serving. Oh, but one thing."

"What?" he asked quickly.

"I love it when the bread is served nice and hot."

Louis mumbled what Regan was sure was an obscenity and hung up on her.



Saturday, December 24

LARRY WILL THIS hurt?" Nora Regan Reilly garbled from underneath the mask that covered her nostrils, sending nitrous oxide swirling through her brain.

"Just a few more minutes, Nor," Dr. Larry Ashkinazy replied amiably, holding an instrument that looked suspiciously like a cuticle cutter in his hands. "That's some nasty tooth. I'll turn up the gas a little more."

"I have to walk out of here on two feet," Nora croaked as she felt herself flying out of the dentist chair.


On Sale
Jul 3, 1995
Page Count
272 pages