Chapter One

In less than a year, I went to three weddings and one funeral. By late May (at the second wedding but before the funeral) I had decided it was going to be the worst year of my life.

The second wedding was actually a happy one from my point of view, but my smile muscles ached all the next day from the anxious grin I’d forced to my lips. Being the daughter of the bride felt pretty peculiar.

My mother and her fiancé strolled between the folding chairs arranged in her living room, ended up before the handsome Episcopalian priest, and Aida Brattle Teagarden became Mrs. John Queensland.

In the oddest way, I felt my parents had left home while I had stayed. My father and his second wife, with my half brother, Phillip, had moved across the country to California in the past year. Now my mother, though she’d still be living in the same town, would definitely have new priorities.

That would be a relief.

So I beamed at John Queensland’s married sons and their spouses. One of the wives was pregnant—my mother would be a stepgrandmother! I smiled graciously at Lawrenceton’s new Episcopal priest, Aubrey Scott. I oozed goodwill at the real estate salespeople from my mother’s business. I grinned at my best friend, Amina Day, until she told me to relax.

“You don’t have to smile every second,” she whispered from one corner of her mouth, while the rest of her face paid respectful attention to the cake-cutting ceremony. I instantly rearranged my face into more sober lines, thankful beyond expression that Amina had been able to get a few days off from her job in Houston as a legal secretary. But later, at the reception, she told me my mother’s wedding wasn’t her only reason for coming back to Lawrenceton for the weekend.

“I’m getting married,” she said shyly, when we found a corner to ourselves. “I told Mamma and Daddy last night.”

“To—which one?” I said, stunned.

“You haven’t been listening to a word I said when I called you!”

Maybe I had let the specifics roll over me like a river. Amina had dated so many men. Since she’d reached fourteen, her incredible dating career had only been interrupted by one brief marriage.

“The department store manager?” I pushed my glasses back up on my nose the better to peer up at Amina, who is a very nice five feet, five inches. On good days I say I am five feet.

“No, Roe,” Amina said with a sigh. “It’s the lawyer from the firm across the hall from the place I work. Hugh Price.” Her face went all gooey.

So I asked the obligatory questions: how he’d asked her, how long they’d dated, if his mother was tolerable…and the date and location of the ceremony. Amina, a traditionalist, would finally be married in Lawrenceton, and they were going to wait a few months, which I thought was an excellent idea. Her first wedding had been an elopement with myself and the groom’s best friend as incompatible attendants.

I was going to be a bridesmaid again. Amina was not the only friend I’d “stood up” for, but she was the only one I’d stood up for twice. How many times could you be bridesmaid to the same bride? I wondered if the last time I came down the aisle ahead of Amina I would have to use a walker.

Then my mother and John made their dignified exit, John’s white hair and white teeth gleaming, and my mother looking as glamorous as usual. They were going to honeymoon for three weeks in the Bahamas.

My mother’s wedding day.

* * * *

I got dressed for the first wedding, the January one, as though I was putting on armor to go into battle. I braided my bushy, wavy brown hair into a sophisticated (I hoped) pattern on the back of my head, put on the bra that maximized my most visible assets, and slid a brand-new gold-and-blue dress with padded shoulders over my head. The heels I was going to wear were ones I’d gotten to go with a dress I’d worn on a date with Robin Crusoe, and I sighed heavily as I slid my feet into them. It had been months since I’d seen Robin, and the day was depressing enough without thinking of him. At least the heels probably hiked me up to five foot two. I put on my makeup with my face as close to the illuminated mirror as I could manage, since without my glasses I can’t make out my reflection very well. I put on as much makeup as I felt comfortable with, and then a little more. My round brown eyes got rounder, my lashes got longer, and then I covered them up with my big, round tortoiseshell glasses.

Sliding a precautionary handkerchief into my purse, I eyed myself in the mirror, hoped I looked dignified and unconcerned, and went down the stairs to the kitchen of my town-house apartment to gather up my keys and good coat before sallying forth to that most wretched of obligatory events, the Wedding of a Recent Former Boyfriend.

Arthur Smith and I had met through a club we both attended, Real Murders. He’d helped on the homicide investigation that had followed the murder of one of the club members, and the string of deaths that followed this initial murder. I’d dated Arthur for months after the investigation was over, and our relationship had been my only experience of a red-hot romance. We sizzled together, we became something more than a nearly thirty librarian and a divorced policeman.

And then, as suddenly as the fire had flared, it died out, but on his side of the hearth first. I had finally gotten the message—“I’m continuing this relationship until I can figure out a way to get out without a scene”—and with an immense effort I’d gathered my dignity together and ended our relationship without causing that scene. But it had taken all my emotional energy and willpower, and for maybe six months I’d been crying into my pillow.

Just when I was feeling better and hadn’t driven past the police station in a week, I saw the engagement announcement in the Sentinel.

I saw green for envy, I saw red for rage, I saw blue for depression. I would never get married, I decided, I would just go to other people’s weddings the rest of my life. Maybe I could arrange to be out of town the weekend of the wedding so I wouldn’t be tempted to drive past the church.

Then the invitation came in the mail.

Lynn Liggett, Arthur’s fiancée and fellow detective, had thrown down the gauntlet. Or at least that’s how I interpreted the invitation.

Now, in my blue-and-gold and my fancy hairdo, I had grasped it. I’d picked out an impersonal and expensive plate in Lynn’s pattern at the department store and left my card on it, and now I was going to the wedding.

The usher was a policeman I knew from the time I dated Arthur.

“Good to see you,” he said doubtfully. “You look great, Roe.” He looked stiff and uncomfortable in his tux, but he offered his arm properly. “Friend of the bride, or friend of the groom?” he asked automatically, and then flushed as red as a beet.

“Let’s say friend of the groom,” I suggested gently, and gave myself high marks. Poor Detective Henske marched me down the aisle to an empty seat and dumped me with obvious relief.

I glanced around as little as possible, putting all my energy into looking relaxed and nonchalant, sort of as if I’d just happened to be appropriately dressed and just happened to see the wedding invitation on my way out the door, and decided I’d just drop in. It was all right to look at Arthur when he entered, everyone else was. His pale blond hair was crisp and curly and short, his blue eyes as direct and engaging as ever. He was wearing a gray tux and he looked great. It didn’t hurt quite as much as I’d thought it would.

When the “Wedding March” began, everyone rose for the entrance of the bride, and I gritted my teeth in anticipation. I was pretty sure my fixed smile looked more like a snarl. I turned reluctantly to watch Lynn make her entrance. Here she came, swathed in white, veiled, as tall as Arthur, her straight, short hair curled for the occasion. Lynn was almost a foot taller than I, something that had obviously bothered her, but I guessed it wasn’t going to bother her anymore.

Then Lynn passed me, and when I saw her in profile I gasped. Lynn was clearly pregnant.

It would be hard to say why this was such a blow; I certainly hadn’t wanted to become pregnant while I was dating Arthur, and would have been horrified if I’d been faced with the situation. But I had often thought of marrying him, and I had occasionally thought about babies; most women my age, if they do want to get married, do think about babies. Somehow, just for a little while, it seemed to me that I had been robbed of something.

I spoke to enough people on the way out of the church to be sure my attendance registered and would be reported to the happy couple, and then I skipped the reception. There was no point in putting myself through that. I thought it was pretty stupid of me to have come at all; not gallant, not brave, just dumb.

* * * *

The funeral came third, a few days after my mother’s wedding, and, as funerals go, it was pretty decent. Though it was in early June, the day Jane Engle was buried was not insufferably hot, and it was not raining. The little Episcopal church held a reasonable number of people—I won’t say mourners, because Jane’s passing was more a time to be marked than a tragic occasion. Jane had been old, and, as it turned out, very ill, though she had told no one. The people in the pews had gone to church with Jane, or remembered her from her years working in the high school library, but she had no family besides one aging cousin, Parnell Engle, who was himself too ill that day to come. Aubrey Scott, the Episcopal priest, whom I hadn’t seen since my mother’s wedding, was eloquent about Jane’s inoffensive life and her charm and intelligence; Jane had certainly had her tart side, too, but the Reverend Mr. Scott tactfully included that under “colorful.” It was not an adjective I would have chosen for silver-haired Jane, never married—like me, I reminded myself miserably, and wondered if this many people would come to my funeral. My eyes wandered over the faces in the pews, all more or less familiar. Besides me, there was one other attendee from Real Murders, the disbanded club in which Jane and I had become friends—LeMaster Cane, a black businessman. He was sitting at the back in a pew by himself.

I made a point of standing by LeMaster at the graveside, so he wouldn’t look so lonely. When I murmured that it was good to see him, he replied, “Jane was the only white person who ever looked at me like she couldn’t tell what color I am.” Which effectively shut me up.

I realized that I hadn’t known Jane as well as I thought I had. For the first time, I really felt I would miss her.

I thought of her little, neat house, crammed with her mother’s furniture and Jane’s own books. I remembered Jane had liked cats, and I wondered if anyone had taken over the care of her gold tabby, Madeleine. (The cat had been named for the nineteenth-century Scottish poisoner Madeleine Smith, a favorite murderer of Jane’s. Maybe Jane had been more “colorful” than I’d realized. Not many little old ladies I knew had favorite murderers. Maybe I was “colorful,” too.)

As I walked slowly to my car, leaving Jane Engle forever in Shady Rest Cemetery—I thought—I heard someone calling my name behind me.

“Miss Teagarden!” panted the man who was hurrying to catch up. I waited, wondering what on earth he could want. His round, red face topped by thinning light brown hair was familiar, but I couldn’t recall his name.

“Bubba Sewell,” he introduced himself, giving my hand a quick shake. He had the thickest southern accent I’d heard in a long time. “I was Miss Engle’s lawyer. You are Aurora Teagarden, right?”

“Yes, excuse me,” I said. “I was just so surprised.” I remembered now that I’d seen Bubba Sewell at the hospital during Jane’s last illness.

“Well, it’s fortunate you came today,” Bubba Sewell said. He’d caught his breath, and I saw him now as he undoubtedly wanted to present himself: an expensively suited, sophisticated but down-home man in the know. A college-educated good ole boy. His small brown eyes watched me sharply and curiously. “Miss Engle had a clause in her will that is significant to you,” he said significantly.

“Oh?” I could feel my heels sinking into the soft turf and wondered if I’d have to step out of my shoes and pull them up by hand. It was warm enough for my face to feel damp; of course, my glasses began to slide down my nose. I poked them back up with my forefinger.

“Maybe you have a minute now to come by my office and talk about it?”

I glanced automatically at my watch. “Yes, I have time,” I said judiciously after a moment’s pause. This was pure bluff, so Mr. Sewell wouldn’t think I was a woman with nothing to do.

Actually, I very nearly was. A cutback in funding meant that, for the library to stay open the same number of hours, some staff had to go part-time. I hoped it was because I was the most recently hired that the first one to feel the ax was me. I was only working eighteen to twenty hours a week now. If I hadn’t been living rent free and receiving a small salary as resident manager of one of Mother’s apartment buildings (actually a row of four town houses), my situation would have been bleak in the extreme.

Mr. Sewell gave me such elaborate directions to his office that I couldn’t have gotten lost if I’d tried, and he furthermore insisted I follow him there. The whole way he gave turn signals so far in advance that I almost made the wrong left once. In addition he would wave and point into his rearview mirror, waiting to see me nod every time in acknowledgment. Since I’d lived in Lawrenceton my whole life, this was unnecessary and intensely irritating. Only my curiosity about what he was going to tell me kept me from ramming his rear, and then apologizing picturesquely with tears and a handkerchief.

“Wasn’t too hard to find, was it!” he said encouragingly when I got out of my car in the parking lot of the Jasper Building, one of the oldest office buildings in our town and a familiar landmark to me from childhood.

“No,” I said briefly, not trusting myself to speak further.

“I’m up on the third floor,” Lawyer Sewell announced, I guess in case I got lost between the parking lot and the front door. I bit the inside of my lip and boarded the elevator in silence, while Sewell kept up a patter of small talk about the attendance at the funeral, how Jane’s loss would affect many, many people, the weather, and why he liked having an office in the Jasper Building (atmosphere…much better than one of those prefabricated buildings).

By the time he opened his office door, I was wondering how sharp-tongued Jane could have endured Bubba Sewell. When I saw that he had three employees in his smallish office, I realized he must be more intelligent than he seemed, and there were other unmistakable signs of prosperity—knickknacks from the Sharper Image catalog, superior prints on the walls and leather upholstery on the chairs, and so on. I looked around Sewell’s office while he gave some rapid instructions to the well-dressed red-haired secretary who was his first line of defense. She didn’t seem like a fool, and she treated him with a kind of friendly respect.

“Well, well, now, let’s see about you, Miss Teagarden,” the lawyer said jovially when we were alone. “Where’s that file? Gosh-a-Moses, it’s somewhere in this mess here!”

Much rummaging among the papers on his desk. By now I was not deceived. Bubba Sewell for some reason found this Lord Peter Wimsey–like pretense of foolishness useful, but he was not foolish, not a bit.

“Here we are, it was right there all the time!” He flourished the file as though its existence had been in doubt.

I folded my hands in my lap and tried not to sigh obviously. I might have lots of time, but that didn’t mean I wanted to spend it as an unwilling audience to a one-man performance.

“Hoo-wee, I’m sure glad you managed to turn it up,” I said.

Bubba Sewell’s hands stilled, and he shot me an extremely sharp look from under his bushy eyebrows.

“Miss Teagarden,” he said, dropping his previous good-ole-boy manner completely, “Miss Engle left you everything.”

* * * *

Those are certainly some of the most thrilling words in the English language, but I wasn’t going to let my jaw hit the floor. My hands, which had been clasped loosely in my lap, gripped convulsively for a minute, and I let out a long, silent breath.

“What’s everything?” I asked.

Bubba Sewell told me that everything was Jane’s house, its contents, and most of her bank account. She’d left her car and five thousand dollars to her cousin Parnell and his wife, Leah, on condition they took Madeleine the cat to live with them. I was relieved. I had never had a pet, and wouldn’t have known what to do with the creature.

I had no idea what I should be saying or doing. I was so stunned I couldn’t think what would be most seemly. I had done my mild grieving for Jane when I’d heard she’d gone, and at the graveside. I could tell that in a few minutes I was going to feel raw jubilation, since money problems had been troubling me. But at the moment mostly I was stunned.

“Why on earth did she do this?” I asked Bubba Sewell. “Do you know?”

“When she came in to make her will, last year when there was all that trouble with the club you two were in, she said that this was the best way she knew to make sure someone never forgot her. She didn’t want her name up on a building somewhere. She wasn’t a”—the lawyer searched for the right words—“philanthropist. Not a public person. She wanted to leave her money to an individual, not a cause, and I don’t think she ever got along well with Parnell and Leah—do you know them?”

As a matter of fact, I am something rare in the South—a church hopper. I had met Jane’s cousin and his wife at one of the churches I attended, I couldn’t remember which one, though I thought it was one of Lawrenceton’s more fundamentalist houses of worship. When they’d introduced themselves I’d asked if they were related to Jane, and Parnell had admitted he was a cousin, though with no great warmth. Leah had stared at me and said perhaps three words during the whole conversation.

“I’ve met them,” I told Sewell.

“They’re old and they haven’t had any children,” Sewell told me. “Jane felt they wouldn’t outlast her long and would probably leave all her money to their church, which she didn’t want. So she thought and thought and settled on you.”

I thought and thought myself for a little bit. I looked up to find the lawyer eyeing me with speculation and some slight, impersonal disapproval. I figured he thought Jane should have left her money to cancer research or the SPCA or the orphanage.

“How much is in the account?” I asked briskly.

“Oh, in the checking account, maybe three thousand,” he said. “I have the latest statements in this file. Of course, there are a few bills yet to come from Jane’s last stay in the hospital, but her insurance will pick up most of that.”

Three thousand! That was nice. I could finish paying for my car, which would help my monthly bill situation a lot.

“You said ‘checking account,’” I said, after I’d thought for a moment. “Is there another account?”

“Oh, you bet,” said Sewell, with a return of his former bonhomie. “Yes, ma’am! Miss Jane had a savings account she hardly ever touched. I tried a couple of times to interest her in investing it or at least buying a CD or a bond, but she said no, she liked her cash in her bank.” Sewell shook his receding hairline several times over this and tilted back in his chair.

I had a vicious moment of hoping it would go all the way over with him in it.

“Could you please tell me how much is in the savings account?” I asked through teeth that were not quite clenched.

Bubba Sewell lit up. I had finally asked the right question. He catapulted forward in his chair to a mighty squeal of springs, pounced on the file, and extracted another bank statement.

“Wel-l-l-l,” he drawled, puffing on the slit envelope and pulling out the paper inside, “as of last month, that account had in it—let’s see—right, about five hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

Maybe this wasn’t the worst year of my life after all.