AJ Brower

A Family To Die For



from The Wild Rose Press

When high school chemistry teacher Mike Garretson learns one of his ancestral relatives was the victim of identity theft, long before it became the preferred crime of today’s white collar thieves, he suddenly finds himself having to prove it before he ends up as dead as his murdered grandmother.

 Mike’s only hope of winning the family inheritance is to hire historian Dr. Jennie Foster. But as she begins to uncover nearly century-old family secrets, Mike fears the feisty and brainy Jennie may discover more than he wants her to know.

 Jennie’s happy to climb around in her mysterious and aloof co-worker’s family tree. At least until she discovers Mike has a few secrets too. As the ancestral body count rises and a modern killer discovers what they’re looking for, will Jennie lay her life–and her heart–on the line for a man who refuses to let her into his?

Read Chapter One

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Jennie Foster barely noticed the two teenagers tossing a skull back and forth. She was far too focused on stretching the length of her skirt to cover a bit more bare leg. Unfortunately, the unyielding waistband would not go any lower on her hips and what little stretch she could pull out of the length bounced back when she let go. Though her students wouldn’t bat an eye at the new skirt, Jennie preferred a length that reached the floor and was more like pants. Whatever had possessed her to wear a skirt to school?

Giving up on the fruitless task, she turned her frustration on Josh and Adam and frowned at them.

“Enough already. Put Sir Isaac’s head back on his body and get to your own classes.”

Josh, one thumb in the plastic head’s eye socket, pranced over to Jennie’s desk, where she had retreated to hide her bare legs. The odd half walk, half dance made his skinny six-foot frame comical.

“First bell hasn’t rung yet. Besides, your class is so much more fun than Mrs. Whitmore’s. She makes us be quiet until class begins. Better to be tardy than be tortured like that.”

Jennie eased herself down in her chair, tugging at the skirt as she crossed her legs. “Instead, you torture me.”

“Ahhhh, Dr. Foster.” Adam joined his best friend in towering over the teacher’s desk. He angled his chin down and stuck out his bottom lip in imitation of a sad child. “You know you’re our favorite teacher forever and ever. We would never torture you. Can I borrow this?” He grabbed a new pen off her desk, a nice one Jennie had managed to snag from the school supply room before they all disappeared.

She sighed, holding out her hand for the pen. “No. And, if you’re going to stay, make yourself useful.” She handed them each a stack of papers and reclaimed her pen. “Sort these alphabetically. That’ll make it easier to put the grades in the computer. And go far away from me.”

The two students each took a pile and immediately began to laugh at the junior students’ bad answers on the causes of the Cold War. Jennie smiled at their comments because they were right. In her U.S. History class last year, Josh and Adam had been stellar students. They were the exception among their peers in the required class, enjoying it thoroughly. No surprise they were also in the Archeology Club she advised.

With fifteen minutes until her first period, Jennie turned to the remaining stack of papers and began the tedious task of putting grades into the computer. But before she could get more than a couple typed in, a large shadow filled her doorway. She looked up in surprise to see Mike Garretson, one of Swansea High School’s chemistry teachers. Hard to miss at six-foot-two and dressed in a suit and tie, the former semi-pro baseball player and current school baseball coach eyed her classroom warily, as if he expected the skeleton to walk over and shake his hand.

Jennie picked up the pen recently retrieved from Adam, repeatedly snapping off the top with her thumb and clicking it back into place. Mike had never been in her room. In fact, they hadn’t said a dozen words to each other in the two years he’d been at Swansea High School. Not that Jennie hadn’t noticed him. Every female teacher instantly fell for his tall athletic looks. But when faced with his cool reception, they quickly lost interest.

Jennie was no exception. However, Mike was one of many men she’d dismissed as not worth the effort. At least that’s what her best friend, Mae Jefferson, accused her of doing. But what was the point of having a boyfriend if he was going to dump you in the end? Her argument stemmed from her most recent relationship.

Mae had pointed out five years should be sufficient to get over anyone.
Wearing the skirt had been an acknowledgement Mae was right. Jennie’s wardrobe was reminiscent of a grandmother’s garage sale find, unlikely to attract any man’s attention. At twenty-nine, Jennie knew she needed to look more feminine. But she suddenly wished for a pair of pants and comfortable flats, not the short skirt and heels she had on.

It was little consolation Mike seemed as uneasy, his broad shoulders filling the room’s entrance. He might be a teacher, but he looked the part of a successful businessman with an unmistakable athlete’s body stretching the suit in all the right places.

Josh called out a greeting. “Hey, Coach! Great game yesterday. Think we’ll get to regionals this year?”

The slightest hint of smile crossed the coach’s face. “That would be the plan. I think if our players are as dedicated as you two are as fans, then it’s doable.”

The two teens exchanged glances, grinned, and gave each other high-fives. Their reputation as avid Swansea High School Skyhawk baseball fans gave them a bit of prestige in the hallways, especially when they donned face paint and hair dye.

When Mike turned his attention back to Jennie, she popped the pen cap off again. This time it skittered across her desk and dropped to the floor. She stood up quickly to retrieve it and felt the uncomfortable hemline dust her legs above the kneecap. Torn between slipping back behind her desk or getting her pen cap, Jennie watched as Mike strode across the room and scooped it up.

As he stood, offering her the cap, his eyes, brilliant green and somehow all-knowing, traveled up her legs to the blouse with its deep “V” neck, before settling on her face.

A slow blush crept up her cheeks as she took the cap from him.

“Nice outfit.”

Jennie gritted her teeth and plopped unladylike into her chair, words leaping unheeded from her mouth. “It was on the clearance rack,” she said, irritated at the compliment. It meant Mae was right again.

“Probably because no one wanted such a short skirt.” She would have sworn he was laughing at her. She needed to stop acting like one of her students.

“What brings the school’s most winning baseball coach into my classroom?” she managed to say lightly.

“Business. Someone told me you run your own historical research company?”

Jennie nodded, dismissing the slight twinge of disappointment that the faculty’s most eligible bachelor sought her for work purposes. “I don’t do much during the school year. Are you wanting some research done this summer?”

“Actually, I need your help sooner.”

Great. The project from the hot teacher she’d have to turn down.

“There’s only a month of school left. Not an ideal time for me, not with end-of-semester projects due and final exams around the corner.”

“I need you to find one thing, not a whole family tree or anything.” He glanced over his shoulder at Josh and Adam. Then he pulled one of the student desks closer to Jennie’s desk and squeezed into it before leaning in conspiratorially.

“I have an odd inheritance involving an old house. I need an expert’s help with some documents,” he explained. “A lot of them have to do with family history. It’s complicated.” He paused, obviously considering his words carefully. Jennie expected him to hand her a secret message and request she eat it after reading it.

“Do you like old houses?” Mike asked.

She glanced at the pictures on her desk. Next to a photo of her father was another of her pride and joy, the 1920s home she’d spent more than two years refurbishing. She’d gotten her doctorate in history because she loved anything with the hint of age to it, but architecture topped her interests.

“Sure, I suppose I like old houses.” After she said it, she realized Mike probably wouldn’t catch the sarcasm.

He plowed on with his pitch. “I inherited a house that’s at least a hundred years old. Well, sort of inherited. Without getting into the details, I need some help with the history associated with it.” He shifted in his seat again, looking over his shoulder at the boys.

Even if he hadn’t already caught Jennie’s attention with the clandestine voice, he hooked her with the century-old house.


Mike stared at her blankly.

“The house. Is it Victorian? You know, before the turn-of-the-century?”

He shrugged. “I have no idea. I can make you a chemical concoction to blow it up though. Does that help?” He tilted his head, arching his left eyebrow.

“Touché,” Jennie said and grinned. “Victorian is best described as, well, fancy woodwork, often multi-colored, twelve-foot ceilings, brick chimneys, musty cellar, big attic.”

Mike nodded. “Oh, yeah. It’s got all that.”

She leaned forward, clasping her hands together as she mentally rearranged her schedule. None of her clients were expecting anything right now, and her weekends were still open. “I’d have to see what you want done. When do you need results?”

“Uh…in a month?” At least he had the grace to look remorseful.

Jennie stared at him. “I don’t do miracles. Why do you need this so soon? Are you doing it for a birthday or something?”

He hesitated. “Or something. Can you come by the house on Saturday? I’ll explain everything then.”

“Okay, but I can’t promise much. Where’s the house?”

The warning bell for class rang. Josh and Adam got up and handed the papers to Jennie.

Mike eyed the boys as they walked out of the room. “I’ll email directions.” He headed for the door, then stopped abruptly.

“Oh, one other thing. Do you have any family connections around here? I was told you were from Chicago.”

“As I’ve said all my life, I’m not from anywhere. My dad was in the military, moving all the time. Chicago was my most recent home, only because I could teach and get my Ph.D. too.”

Mike nodded, apparently pleased she wasn’t local. Jennie pondered that odd reaction after he’d left.


She forgot about Mike’s visit until her lunch hour, when Mae, who was the head librarian as well as her best friend, joined her in the teachers’ lounge. Despite her student teaching advisor’s recommendation to avoid “that den of gossip and misinformation,” Jennie had always joined her fellow teachers in the lounge. It was a needed break from the teen drama in the classroom.

Mae leaned back, pursing her lips, as soon as Jennie set down her tray of lasagna. “Josh Kowalzski said Garretson was talking with you before class this morning.”

“Geez. Can’t two teachers meet privately anywhere?” Jennie rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mike came by my room. He wants to hire me to do some history research, but he was very secretive. Didn’t really tell me much. He said it has something to do with a Victorian house. I’m supposed to meet him there Saturday morning.”

“Very mysterious,” Mae agreed. “What do you think he wants?”

“Who knows with him,” she said, eating between comments. “I’m surprised he talked with me at all, considering how little he does with the rest of the faculty.”

“He must have some social skills. First made it to the minor leagues in baseball, then he married Veronica Houseman, megawatt socialite.” Mae absently poked at her reheated leftovers. “Newspaper photos always made them look amazing together. She always seemed a bit cold to me, though. Wonder why they divorced.”

“Maybe you should go in my place this weekend and ask him.”

“I’m happily married, thank you. You, on the other hand, could use a social outing. It’s been years since you’ve had a decent relationship.”

“There was that guy. What was his name? You know, the one who took me boating.”

“My point exactly,” Mae said. “Girl, you need to open up some. Let someone know you.”

“It was a fishing boat.”

“So? Maybe he knew how to cook fresh fish. That’s not a bad thing. You got to open the door if you want to find a man.”

Jennie gave her friend a half-smile and shook her head. “I get it, Mae. But I’m pretty sure meeting Mike Garretson at some old house does not count as a door.”

“Darling, you’ll never know if you don’t answer.”

Jennie stood to throw away the remains of her lunch, tugging on the skirt hem. If this was what she had to wear to get some guy to notice her, she’d stick to history. Maybe she’d find some nerdy guy like her who enjoyed a walk in a cemetery or admiring the crumbling façade of a historical building.

Mike Garretson was not that guy. Still, she knew she wouldn’t trade this meeting with anyone. Her life consisted of school, research, and dinner at Mae’s on Sunday. This meeting had the potential of being the most exciting event in her life since finishing her house.


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