Chapter 1

I do love the fall in Byerly. Some Bostonians I know say that leaf-peeping in New Hampshire is wonderful, but as far as I’m concerned, the colors in North Carolina are just as pretty. I almost wished it was a longer walk to the church.

As Richard and I crossed the stretch of grass that separated Aunt Maggie’s house from the Byerly First Baptist Church, I saw that the parking lot was already half full and the door to the hall was wide open. Half a dozen people turned to smile and nod as we walked by, and a woman called out, “Hey there! How are y’all doing?”

“Who was that?” Richard asked in a low voice as we passed.

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” I said, smiling and nodding back at the folks.

“You are sure that we’re at the right family reunion, aren’t you?” Richard said.

“Fairly sure,” I said, wondering if it would be possible to wander into the wrong gathering. Then I caught sight of a familiar face. “We must be in the right place. There’s Yancy Burnette. You remember him, don’t you? He spoke at Paw’s funeral.”

We exchanged nods with him, but I don’t think he knew quite who Richard and I were, so we kept going.

“Why don’t you wear name tags?” Richard asked.

“I suggested that once,” I said, “but Paw said there wasn’t any need. What difference does it make who’s who? We’re all family, one way or another.”

“There will be people here we actually know, won’t there?”

“You know doggone well there will be.” My so-called immediate family included five aunts, two uncles, eleven first cousins, three second cousins, and two cousins by marriage. It was just that my grandfather’s brothers and sisters had all been prolific, meaning that there were lots of more removed cousins to keep track of.

It had been a few years since I had come to the annual Burnette reunion, but when this one was scheduled during Boston College’s fall break so Richard could take time off, I thought that it would be a good time to come down.

“Shall we go inside?” I asked.

“ ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,’ ” Richard quoted. “King Henry V, Act III, Scene 1.”

“Richard, you’re not going to quote Shakespeare all day, are you?”

“Who? Me?”

“These people already think you Yankees talk funny, and a college professor is particularly suspect. Let’s not encourage them.”

“Perish the thought,” he said innocently, and we went inside.

As Aunt Maggie would have said, the people were so thick that you couldn’t have stirred them with a stick.

“What a crowd,” Richard said. “I didn’t know there were this many people in Byerly.”

“They don’t all live in Byerly,” I said. “Some are in Dudley Shoals or Granite Falls or Saw Mills. A few moved up to Hickory.”

“All the way to Hickory?” Richard asked, sounding amazed. “Goodness gracious.”

“The kitchen is over there,” I said, ignoring his sarcasm. “Why don’t you go drop off the lasagna?” He was carrying the pan that was our donation to the upcoming feast.

“I don’t mind if I do. It’s getting heavy.” He made his way through a crowd of women clustered around the doorway.

I looked around to see who else was there, but didn’t see anybody I knew. Then a voice made itself heard over the roar of conversation.

“Laurie Anne? Is that you?” my cousin Vasti squealed.

I managed not to wince. “Hi, Vasti.”

“Hi? Is that the way people act up North? You come give me a great big hug.”

As hugs went, it was no great shakes, but then Vasti had to be sure that her dress didn’t get wrinkled. “What a pretty outfit,” Vasti said, “but I think it’s missing something.” She reached into her pocketbook and pulled out a bright red button with white letters that said BUMGARNER FOR CITY COUNCIL. “Let me put this on.”

I obediently stood still for her to pin it to my dress. “How’s the campaign going?” I asked.

“Pretty good, but I’m still worried about Big Bill Walters. He hasn’t endorsed Arthur yet and it’s only a little over two weeks until the election! I don’t know why he won’t go ahead and formally approve Arthur. Everybody knows that he’ll do a wonderful job.”

“I imagine it will work out, Vasti.”

“I sure hope so.” She turned and saw someone coming in the door. “Aunt Nora!”

“Hey there, Vasti,” Aunt Nora said, and gave her a quick hug. “It’s awfully good to see you, Laurie Anne. Just let me hug your neck.”

I hugged her neck, and the rest of her besides. Plump and an inch or so shorter than I am, Aunt Nora looked like the stereotype of an aunt. She was just as nice as she looked, and right much tougher.

“When did you and Richard get into town?” Aunt Nora asked. “I was hoping to see you at church.”

“We didn’t get to Aunt Maggie’s house until after eleven last night, so we had to cook this morning.” Actually, Richard had made the lasagna while I watched, but that was close enough.

“I’ve got something for you, Aunt Nora,” Vasti said, reaching into her purse for another button.

“Thank you, Vasti,” Aunt Nora said, “but I’ve already got a button on. See?”

“So you do,” Vasti admitted. “I think it’s so important for all of us to support Arthur as much as we can.”

“Where is the future city councilor?” I asked.

“Arthur had some campaigning to do, but he’ll be here shortly.”

“What about your mama? Daphine is coming, isn’t she?” Aunt Nora asked.

“Of course she’s coming,” Vasti said. “She’s just running late. Look, there’s Uncle Ruben and Aunt Nellie. I haven’t given them their buttons yet.” Vasti clattered away.

“Why wouldn’t Aunt Daphine come?” I asked Aunt Nora.

“I just hadn’t spoken to her lately, and I wasn’t sure,” Aunt Nora said.

“Why not?” I asked. My four aunts usually talked to one another at least once a day. “You two aren’t feuding, are you?”

“No, nothing like that. She’s just been acting kind of funny lately. Not like herself.”

“Really?” Aunt Daphine was one of the more stable personalities in the family. “Is something wrong?”

“I’m just not sure, Laurie Anne.” She looked around the crowded room. “We’ll talk about it later, all right?”

I nodded, feeling uneasy.

“I haven’t seen Aunt Maggie,” Aunt Nora said. “Didn’t she come with y’all?”

“She said she wasn’t ready yet, so we should come on without her. Where’s the rest of your crew?”

“Willis and Buddy are outside somewhere, but Thaddeous had to go get his date.”

“A date? Really? You know what that means.”

Surprisingly, Aunt Nora did not look pleased. “You don’t believe that old tale, do you?”

“It’s always happened that way before. Vasti brought Arthur, Linwood brought Sue, and I brought Richard. Plus all of your generation brought their boyfriends before they got married. If a Burnette brings someone to the reunion, they end up married.”

Aunt Nora shook her head. “I don’t know that it would be a good idea this time. Thaddeous barely knows Joleen and they’ve only gone out once before now.”

“One date and he’s bringing her to the reunion? She must be something special.”

“Just wait till you meet her,” she said, still shaking her head.

Richard finally made it out of the kitchen and came to give Aunt Nora a hug.

“What took you so long?” I asked.

“Comparing recipes. The ladies in there had to have a taste of the lasagna when I told them that I made it myself, and then they wanted the recipe.” He looked terribly smug. “I don’t know if there will be any left by the time lunch is served.”

“Then I better go get myself a bite right now,” Aunt Nora said. “I’ll see y’all later.” She headed for the kitchen.

“So who else is here that I know?” Richard asked. “I don’t want to miss out on any hugs.”

I looked around the room. “There’s Aunt Nellie and Uncle Ruben,” I said, and we started walking in their direction.

“ ‘This is the short and the long of it. The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene 2,” Richard said.

“Now stop that,” I said, but he just grinned. Admittedly, Aunt Nellie was a full head taller than Uncle Ruben, just as her shiny black hair and dark eyes were a sharp contrast to his light brown hair and pale blue eyes, but I didn’t think that it was polite to mention it.

We exchanged greetings and hugs, and Uncle Ruben said, “I hear the water isn’t too good up there in Boston. The harbor filled with garbage and all.”

“It is pretty bad,” I admitted. “We buy bottled water ourselves.”

“It’s a big health concern these days. Have you ever considered a water filtration system? It could save you a lot of money in the long run.”

Now I knew what money–making scheme they were involved in this time. “Actually,” I said, making up an excuse as I went along, “our lease forbids us from doing anything with the plumbing.”

“This doesn’t go on your plumbing,” Aunt Nellie said. “You screw it onto your faucet.”

“Well,” I said, trying to think of something else. “I don’t think—” Then a trio in red, blue, and yellow arrived to save me.

“Mama! Stop trying to sell those filters. This is a family reunion, remember?” Carlelle said. At least I thought it was Carlelle. With the triplets, sometimes I wasn’t sure. They all had the same buxom builds, hazel eyes, and brown hair curled into the same elaborate hairstyle. They usually dressed alike, too, although at least they were in different colors today.

“You too, Daddy,” Odelle chimed in. “Laurie Anne and Richard did not come all the way to North Carolina to talk about dirty water.”

“We just thought they might be interested,” Aunt Nellie said. “What with the fluoride in the water, and all.”

Ideile said firmly, “I’m sure they’ll call you later if they want to talk about it.” Then she relented a bit, seeing that her parents looked so disappointed. “Let’s us go see Cousin Herman. His trailer isn’t on city water, so maybe he’d want one of your filters.”

“Is that right?” Uncle Ruben said. “Then maybe I should mention it to him. We’ll see y’all later.” Ideile led the two of them away.

“Sorry about that,” Carlelle said. “You know how they are when they get started on a new project. Sometimes I think they’re more like the children and we’re more like the parents.”

“Thanks for rescuing us,” I said.

“That’s all right. We were in such a hurry to distract Mama and Daddy, that we didn’t even say hello like we should.”

That meant more hugs, of course. I was glad the sisters were wearing different colors so I wouldn’t hug one more than she was entitled to.

Richard asked, “Was setting them after Cousin Herman altogether kind?”

Odelle grinned. “I never did like Herman.”

“Did you hear Thaddeous is bringing a date to the reunion?” I asked.

“Really?” the two sisters said in unison.

“I didn’t know he was dating anyone serious,” Carlelle said.

“Aunt Nora said he and Joleen had only gone out once before now,” I said.

“Not Joleen Dodd?” Odelle said.

“I don’t think Aunt Nora mentioned her last name.”

“You don’t suppose it could be Joleen Dodd, do you?” Carlelle asked Odelle.

“I know he’s been mooning after her ever since she started working at the mill, but I didn’t think she’d give him the time of day,” Odelle replied.

“I don’t know why not. She’ll go out with anything else in pants,” Carlelle said.

“If he’s got enough money to suit her, that is,” Odelle said. “And Lord knows a wedding ring doesn’t stop her.”

Richard finally broke in to ask, “Who is Joleen Dodd?”

“She’s the receptionist at the mill,” Carlelle said.

“I assume from your reaction that she is not a nice lady,” Richard asked.

Odelle snorted. “Not any kind of a lady, if you ask me.

“Trouble looking for a place to happen,” Cartelle added.

“She doesn’t sound like Thaddeous’s type,” I said doubtfully, “but I know he wouldn’t bring just anyone to the reunion.”

“Maybe it’s not the same Joleen,” Richard said.

“I don’t know of another Joleen in Byerly,” Carlelle said. “We’ll go track down Aunt Nora and ask her. Bye now.”

They moved off quickly.

“Why all the fuss about Thaddeous bringing Joleen Dodd to the reunion?” Richard asked.

“Don’t you remember the Burnette tradition?” I asked. “Every time one of us brings a date to the reunion, that person ends up married into the family.”

“How could I have forgotten?”

“I should think you’d be scarred for life from the first time I brought you to the reunion.” Uncle Buddy had wasted no time in telling Richard that he was destined for the altar. Richard had turned white as a sheet, and didn’t quote Shakespeare for the rest of the day.

“You could have warned me ahead of time,” Richard said mildly.

I grinned. “My mama didn’t raise no fool. I knew a good thing when I saw it.” It seemed an appropriate time for a kiss, and Richard evidently agreed.

“Look at the lovebirds,” Vasti’s unmistakable voice said, and I looked up to see her and Arthur. “Still acting like they’re on their honeymoon after all this time.”

“Thou—,” Richard began, but when I glared at him, he changed it to, “Hello Vasti, Arthur. Or should I say Councilor Bumgarner?”

Arthur grinned his best politician grin. “Just Arthur will do fine. No call to put on airs around here. Besides, I haven’t won the election yet.”

“But everybody knows you’re going to win,” Vasti said. “Oh! I haven’t given Richard his button yet.” She pulled out a badge from her bag and handed it to him.

“Thank you,” he said, pinning it on. “I’m just sorry I can’t help stuff the ballot box on your behalf. What’s the opposition like?”

“There isn’t any,” I said.

Richard raised one eyebrow. “Then why the concern?”

“Because of Big Bill Walters,” Vasti said as if it were the most obvious thing on earth.

“Byerly’s town council doesn’t have a set number of members,” I explained. “If somebody wants on the council, he just runs on a yes–or–no ballot. The trick is that if Big Bill Walters doesn’t want you on the council, you’re not going to make it. And you have to campaign to make sure he knows you’re sincere.”

“I see,” Richard said, though I could see that he thought it was strange. I thought so, too, but that’s the way it was done in Byerly.

“These small town elections probably don’t seem very important to someone from Boston,” Arthur said.

“On the contrary,” Richard said. “It’s the local politicians that really make a difference in this country. When you need something done, you should always start in your own town.”

“I hear that,” Arthur said approvingly.

I grinned. I had been a little worried the first time I brought my Northerner boyfriend to meet my family, but he had charmed them all. “Just plain folks,” had been the final verdict.

“So how are things up your way?” Vasti asked. “Are you still teaching school, Richard?”

“Richard doesn’t just lecture,” I said sharply. “He’s also writing articles. His paper discussing the third murderer in Macbeth was just accepted for publication.”

“Is there much money in that?” Arthur asked.

“Not a penny,” Richard said.

“Scholarly journals don’t actually pay,” I added. “You write papers for the prestige and to get noticed. That’s how you get tenure and research grants.”

“Not to mention the spread of knowledge,” Richard said.

I sighed inwardly. When would I learn not to get so defensive when I was in Byerly? “It’s a very important paper,” I said lamely.

“Isn’t that interesting?” Vasti said, but her expression said plainly that she wasn’t the least bit interested. “Have y’all seen Thaddeous yet? I hear that he’s bringing a date.”

“News does spread quickly,” I said. “I don’t think they’re here yet, but I’m getting pretty curious.”

“Curious?” Vasti said. “That’s not the half of it. If he brought her to the reunion, he must be planning to marry her.”

“Now don’t you go telling that poor girl about the Burnette curse,” Arthur said. “You’ll scare her off.”

Vasti frowned. “It’s not a curse—it’s a tradition. It worked out all right for you, didn’t it?”

“I’m not complaining,” Arthur said quickly.

“You know,” Richard said speculatively, “I’ve been thinking about this tradition. Now the way I understand it, if a non–Burnette comes to the reunion, he or she ends up married into the family. Right?”

“That’s how it works,” I said.

“Do they always marry the one that brought them, or do they get to pick and choose?”

Arthur hooted. “Pick and choose! That’s a good one.” He slapped Richard soundly on the shoulder. “Richard, you’re all right for a Yankee.”

“I’ve always thought so,” Richard acknowledged.

Just then Vasti gasped. “Oh my goodness!”

“What?” I turned in the direction she was staring. Our Great–Aunt Maggie had arrived, and she had dressed to impress. In her own way, that is. She was wearing her usual blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, but her sneakers were the really impressive part of the ensemble. They were hot pink high tops with purple tiger stripes.

She came over. “Hey there, Vasti. Now isn’t that a pretty outfit you’ve got on.”

“Why thank you, Aunt Maggie,” Vasti said, but she just couldn’t make herself pronounce the return compliment that good manners demanded.

“You look very nice, too,” I finally said.

Aunt Maggie snickered. “Laurie Anne, your mama taught you right, you know that. I was going to wear a dress but I couldn’t find not one thing in my closet that was fitting to wear, and I didn’t see the point of buying something I wasn’t going to wear but the once.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

“I love your shoes,” Richard said, and darned if he wasn’t serious.

Aunt Maggie held up one foot so he could get a closer look. “They got a whole batch of them down at the Thrift Store, brand new, and they only charged me four dollars for them. I couldn’t pass that up. What’s your shoe size, Richard? I could see if they’ve got a pair that will fit you.”

“I wear a ten,” Richard said.

I could just see him wearing shoes like that to lecture on Shakespeare at Boston College. He was never going to get tenure at that rate.

“How about you, Laurie Anne?” Aunt Maggie said.

“No, thanks. I just bought a new pair of sneakers.” Then, to change the subject, I asked, “Have you been here long?”

“Nope, just got here. I swear I don’t see hardly a soul that I recognize. I don’t know why I come to this thing anyway. I have to pay rent for my booth even if I don’t show up.” Aunt Maggie usually spent her weekends at the local flea market, selling paperback books and all kinds of knick–knacks.

“I’m sure folks will be glad to see you,” I said.

“If they’re so all fired glad to see me, why don’t they come visit instead of waiting until the reunion to hug onto me. Besides, I didn’t bring anything to eat, and I shouldn’t show up empty–handed.”

“There’s plenty of food here already. And no matter how much you fuss, I know you enjoy the reunion.”

“Well, I guess you’re right,” Aunt Maggie admitted. “It is right nice to see all of us in one place. Those of us that are left, anyway.”

I nodded, knowing she was thinking about her brother, my grandfather. The last time I had come to Byerly was when Paw was in the hospital, the victim of a brutal attack. When he died, Richard and I had set about finding out who killed him.

“Well,” Aunt Maggie said, “I think I’ll go see if there are any other old folks around. I’ll talk to y’all later.” Then she said to Vasti, “Have you got any more of those buttons for Arthur? I forgot to put mine on.”

I know Vasti was trying to decide whether or not she wanted Aunt Maggie to wear a button with those sneakers, but she smiled and said, “Of course. Here you go, Aunt Maggie.”

Aunt Maggie pinned it on, winked at me, and headed into the crowd.

Once she was gone, Vasti said, “Arthur, if I ever start dressing like that, I want you to lock me up in the nut house and throw away the key.”

I said, “Vasti, you know she only wears sneakers like that to get a rise out of people. If you’d quit noticing, she’d quit wearing them.”

“How on earth could I not notice those shoes?” Then Vasti gasped again, even more dramatically, and said, “And would you look at that!”

“Now what?” But this time, I couldn’t blame her for her being taken aback. Our cousin Thaddeous, as usual the tallest man in the room, had just come inside the hall with a woman on his arm. And what a woman she was.

“Can you believe what she’s wearing?” Vasti said in a shocked tone.

Obviously Thaddeous had not told Joleen what people wore to the reunion. The men were in suits, and other than Aunt Maggie, who was old enough to make her own rules, the women were wearing nice dresses. In contrast, Joleen had poured herself into a pair of blue jeans and wriggled into a bright red tube top that didn’t look like it was quite up to the strain. The only thing that kept the outfit decent was the thin cotton shirt she had put on over the tube top. Though it was unbuttoned, it was tied around her waist and at least covered some of her freckled pulchritude.

“Does she really think she’s fooling anyone?” Vasti asked. “Her hair has got to be dyed.”

Dyed or natural, her red curls were impressive, especially the way she had teased them up several inches above her head.

I guess Thaddeous saw us watching, because he smiled and came our way. He was smitten all right. I could tell from the way he was walking that he thought this lady was the best thing since sliced bread.

“How’s everybody doing? Good to see you two in town,” Thaddeous said, and exchanged hugs with me and Richard.

“Joleen, I want you to meet my cousin Laurie Anne Fleming and her husband Richard.”

“Just Laura,” I said, knowing that it was a losing battle.

Thaddeous went on. “And this is my cousin Vasti Bumgarner and her husband Arthur. This is Joleen Dodd.”

“Hey,” Joleen chirped.

“Nice to meet you, Joleen,” I said, and Richard said something comparable.

“Joleen,” Arthur said, drawing the name out. “That’s an awful pretty name. Wasn’t there a Dolly Parton song about a lady named Joleen?”

“I believe there was,” Vasti said sweetly. “The Joleen in that song was a homewrecker, wasn’t she?”

“I guess that song was before my time,” Joleen said, smiling just as nicely as Vasti was.

It wasn’t a nice thing to say, but I couldn’t really hold it against Joleen. Vasti did tend to bring out the worst in people.

“Vasti, it looks like you’ve fallen down on the job,” Arthur said. “Thaddeous doesn’t have a button.”

“You are so right,” Vasti said, and produced yet another one.

“And how about one for Joleen?” Arthur added.

“I don’t think Joleen has anyplace to put one, Arthur,” Vasti said.

“That’s all right,” Joleen said. “I’ll pin it onto my pocketbook strap.”

Vasti had to hand her one after that.

We chatted for a few minutes, and then Thaddeous said, “Well, if y’all will excuse us, I want to go introduce Joleen to some of the rest of the folks.” He strutted off, Joleen on his arm.

Arthur said, “Come on, Richard. I bet these two want to have a little girl talk.”

“Then let us make an honourable retreat.”

That sounded suspiciously Shakespearean to me, but at least Richard omitted the attribution as he and Arthur retreated.

I wish I could say I was above idle gossip, but I wasn’t. I wanted to talk about Joleen nigh about as much as Vasti did.

“Can you believe that?” Vasti said. “I have never seen anything like that at the Burnette reunion. I’m pure ashamed for her to be wearing one of Arthur’s buttons.”

“Well, every vote helps,” I said. “I just can’t imagine Thaddeous dating a woman like that.”

“When it comes to women, men don’t have the sense God gave a milk cow,” Vasti said with far more cynicism than her age allowed for. “They think with what’s in their britches, not with their heads.” She shook her head ruefully. “I don’t know if I can ever call that one ‘Cousin.’ ”

“Come on, Vasti. We’ve just met her. She may be very nice. I mean underneath it all.”

“Laurie Anne, with what she’s wearing, there’s nothing underneath that we can’t see.”

I resisted the impulse to giggle. “Besides, we don’t know that Thaddeous is serious about her.”

“Then why did he bring her here?”

I had no answer for that. Thaddeous knew the family tradition as well as we did. No wonder Aunt Nora was concerned.

“Look!” Vasti said. “She’s going to the bathroom. Come on!”

I’d like to be able to say that I only went along because of the death–grip Vasti had on my elbow, but to tell the truth, I was fairly curious myself.

Joleen was in one of the stalls by the time we got in there, so Vasti and I killed time by pulling out brushes and working on our hair. After a minute, Joleen joined us and somehow managed to tease her bangs into standing up just a little bit higher.

“I just cannot get my hair to do right today,” Joleen said. “It won’t stand up worth a flip.”

Actually I thought Joleen could teach a few things about hair to the punks who stood around Harvard Square, but knowing that this would not be considered complimentary, I settled for saying, “I know what you mean.”

I was counting on Vasti to subtly bring up the subject of Joleen’s relationship with Thaddeous, and I didn’t have long to wait.

“So Joleen,” Vasti said, “have you and Thaddeous been dating long?”

That was about as subtle as Vasti ever got.

Joleen said, “Not really, but I’ve had my eye on him for a while now. I finally got him to ask me out this weekend, and when he told me about your reunion, I let him know right quick that he could bring me along if he wanted to.”

I was impressed. I couldn’t think of anything that would induce me to come to someone else’s family reunion. Coming to my own was bad enough.

Joleen plucked one last hair into place, and said, “You know Laurie Anne, I hear you and I have something in common.”

“What’s that?” I asked. It certainly wasn’t our figures, I thought ruefully. Hers was much bigger than mine in all the favored places.

“Computers. You know about computers, don’t you?”

“I’m a programmer, mostly database management stuff.” I modestly refrained from mentioning my degree from MIT.

Joleen went on, “I use a computer in the office up at the mill.”

“No kidding. What kind of system are you working with?”

“Just a little one. What do they call it? A PC? Mr. Walters has me type up his memos with it.”

“Those are nice,” I said politely. Trust Burt Walters to buy a computer and then use it as a glorified typewriter.

“Sometimes I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Always crashing and stuff, and then I have to start all over again.”

“They can be ornery,” I agreed.

“You know, Laurie Anne,” she said in a confidential tone, “I’ve been having a little trouble with my computer. Maybe while you’re in town you could come by the mill and take a look?”

“Maybe,” I said vaguely.

She put her comb away. “Well, I better go find Thad before he thinks I’ve run out on him.”

“Thad?” I said to Vasti as soon as Joleen was gone. I had never known Thaddeous to allow anyone to call him anything short of his full name. But then, I had never known him to date anyone quite like Joleen before.

Vasti shrugged her shoulders. “Men are so stupid,” was all she said.

Once out of the ladies room, we spotted our husbands in a cluster of other young men. As we approached, I heard someone saying, “Pick and choose? I’d sure like to pick and choose!” There was some hearty male laughing, which dwindled when they saw me and Vasti. Vasti gave me a look that said as plain as day, “Didn’t I tell you that men are stupid?”

Richard extricated himself from the group and joined me while Vasti went to pull Arthur away and hand out more buttons. “Having a good time?” I asked.

“Very nice. How about you? Have you obtained any information on Joleen yet?”

“Not much yet, but give Vasti another hour or so.”

“You are, of course, above such concerns.”

I stuck my tongue out at him in reply. “Who shall we mingle with now?”

“Actually, I think they’re about to start serving lunch,” he said.

Sure enough, women were trotting to and fro placing platters and bowls on a line of tables down the center of the room. A line of eager Burnettes was already starting to form, and we took a place at the end.

Though everybody insists that we Burnettes get together each year purely for companionship and that the meal is only for convenience, the amount of time that goes into preparing the food tells the real story. Though there is no formal competition, I’ve heard more than one aunt crow when her dish was the first one emptied and others looking crestfallen when they had leftovers to take home.

Richard and I did our best to make sure nobody felt left out. I loaded my plate with ham, fried chicken, pulled pork barbeque, macaroni and cheese, snap beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, cole slaw, a hunk of cornbread, and one of Aunt Nora’s biscuits. The lasagna Richard and I had brought was gone before I could get any.

“I guess I’ll have to come back for dessert,” I said once my plate was stacked as high as I could manage.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Richard said, looking at his plate.

“You can suit yourself, but I’m not about to pass up Aunt Daphine’s apple cobbler.” I looked around at the rapidly filling tables. “Tell you what. Give me your plate and I’ll find us a place to sit while you go get us some iced tea.”

Richard agreed, handed me his plate, and I snagged the last empty table. I wasn’t alone for long, because Vasti appeared almost instantly.

“I found out all about Joleen Dodd,” she said triumphantly.

“What did you find out?” I asked.

“Joleen and her mama only moved here about three months ago. They’re from somewhere in South Carolina, but they left town in a hurry because the mama is in the middle of a nasty divorce. Her third husband, by the way, and not Joleen’s father. Burt Walters hired Joleen right away and made her receptionist even though there were three local girls applying for the job. I think we can guess why.” She raised her eyebrows significantly. “Everybody is surprised that she’s dating Thaddeous, because the men she’s been dating up to now have all had a whole lot more money than any Burnette.” She tried to look modest when she added, “Except for me and Arthur, of course.”

“Maybe that means she really likes him,” I ventured. “Thaddeous is an awfully nice fellow.”

“Laurie Anne, I don’t think ‘nice’ is what Joleen Dodd is looking for. In three months she’s already made herself quite a reputation.”

“You found all that out in a hurry,” I said, pretty impressed.

“Actually, I knew part of it already. I just didn’t realize who Joleen is because of her last name. Joleen’s mama is Dorinda Thompson, who works for my mama down at the beauty parlor. And with these two, like mother, like daughter.”

“Dorinda can’t be too bad,” I said, “or Aunt Daphine wouldn’t have her working for her.”

Vasti just shrugged. “Mama hasn’t been feeling too well lately.”

Richard arrived with our iced tea right about then.

“Is it terribly crowded over by the drinks?” Vasti asked him. “I am so thirsty, but I haven’t been able to get anywhere near there.”

“Why don’t you—” Richard began to say.

I nudged him under the table and interrupted with, “Why don’t you go check, Vasti? I’m sure the crowd will have died down by now.”

“I suppose I’m going to have to,” she said, giving Richard another chance to offer her his iced tea. By now Richard had taken my hint, and took a long swallow himself. “I guess I’ll see you two later,” she said and headed for the side of the room away from the drinks.

“I could have given her my drink,” Richard said once she was gone.

“I know you could have, and with just about anybody else I would expect you to, but you know how Vasti is. If you got her a drink, then she’d want you to go get her food. If she had her way, she’d never have to tend to herself.”

After that, we dedicated our attention to our plates. Vasti eventually wandered back over with her own plate, and then complained that all the good stuff was gone by the time she got there. I would have been more sympathetic if I hadn’t seen her talking to half a dozen different people before going to serve herself.

“That was wonderful,” I said, sopping up the last bit of gravy with the last piece of biscuit and popping it into my mouth. “Now I’m ready for dessert. Vasti, which end of the table did Aunt Daphine put her apple cobbler on?”

“Mama didn’t bring any this year.”

“She didn’t?”

“She said that she hadn’t had time to bake, so she bought an apple pie at the grocery store.”

“Really?” I was going to have to track down Aunt Daphine after this. I couldn’t imagine her not having time to make apple cobbler for the reunion. Where was she anyway? I hadn’t seen her yet.

Despite my disappointment over Aunt Daphine’s cobbler, I managed to console myself with helpings of pecan pie and chocolate cake. Richard, despite his earlier protests, also managed to squeeze in a couple of desserts.

After everybody had eaten enough to bust a gusset, Yancy Burnette stood up to make the announcements of family news he had been gathering sill year. The Burnettes had seen three marriages, one divorce, four births, and two deaths over the previous year. There was a moment of silence for the two we had lost: Paw and a third cousin.

Then they gave out prizes for the youngest and oldest attendees and for the attendee who had come the furthest. Aunt Maggie, after much protestation, accepted the designation of oldest and her prize of a shawl, but refused to put it on over her jeans. Richard and I got the prize for coming the furthest, which was no big surprise. Our only competition would have been if my cousin Augustus had gotten leave from the Army to come home from Germany. Our prize was a set of glass ash trays.

“But we don’t smoke,” Richard said in a low voice.

“I know,” I whispered back. “We’ll give them to Aunt Maggie to sell.”

After that, a couple of musically–inclined Burnettes took turns playing the guitar and singing gospel songs. Richard and I sat and listened for a little while, but then decided to go visit some more. I still wanted to see what was going on with Aunt Daphine.

We finally found her at a corner table with Aunt Nora.

“Well!” I said in mock exasperation. “It’s about time you showed up.”

I expected her to respond in kind, but all she said was, “Hey there. How are you two doing?”

“Just fine.” We hugged, and Richard and I sat down at the table with them.

Aunt Daphine asked the usual questions about work and life in Boston, but even though she listened politely, I could tell that her heart wasn’t in it. She didn’t look good, either. Not exactly sick, but there were dark shadows under her eyes that hadn’t been there the last time I had seen her and her cheekbones, usually her most striking feature, jutted out as if she had lost weight. Even her hair, usually a shiny brown, looked listless and indifferently styled. That was a bad sign for the owner of a beauty parlor.

Aunt Daphine quickly ran out of questions, and excused herself to go to the restroom.

“Aunt Nora,” I said once she was out of earshot, “what’s the matter with Aunt Daphine?”

“I wish I knew, Laurie Anne, but she won’t tell me a thing.”

Now I was really worried. If Aunt Nora didn’t know what was going on, something had to be bad wrong. “Hasn’t she spoken to Vasti?” I asked. Even if she had told Vasti something in confidence, Vasti wouldn’t have been able to resist dropping hints.

But Aunt Nora shook her head. “She won’t talk about it to anybody. Ruby Lee, Nellie, Edna—all of us sisters have been taking turns with her, but we might as well be talking to a stone wall. I was hoping that maybe you could try to get something out of her if you’re going to be in town long enough.”

“We’re staying a couple of weeks,” I said. “I don’t know if it will do any good, but I’ll try.”

“Good,” Aunt Nora said. “So, did you two meet Thaddeous’s new girlfriend?”

“She sure is something,” I said, then hesitated. “They aren’t really planning to get married, are they?”

“Lord, I hope not,” Aunt Nora said, and then looked embarrassed. “I shouldn’t say that. I barely know the girl. It’s just that she’s not the kind of girl I expected Thaddeous to bring home.”

She started to rise from the table. “I better head on into the kitchen and help with the washing up.”

“Aunt Nora,” I said, “you have been helping with the washing up at every reunion for as long as I can remember. Don’t you think it’s somebody else’s turn?”

“Shoot, it doesn’t take but a few minutes.” She started toward the kitchen, but turned back with a grin. “Besides, you hear the best stories over the dishes.”

“Do all Burnette women gossip?” Richard asked.

“No more than the men,” I retorted. “Besides, it’s not gossip if you’re really interested in the people you’re talking about.”

“I think Webster would have a few questions about that definition,” Richard said.

I ignored the comment. “Come on. I’m sure there must be a neck around here that we haven’t hugged yet.”

I guess I wasn’t really looking where I was going, because I nearly ran into a man coming our way. It was my cousin Linwood. He stopped short and gave me a fierce look.

“I might have known that you’d be here,” he said.

“Hello Linwood,” I said as evenly as I could. Even though Linwood was more heavyset than his late father had been, that straw–colored hair and the expression on his face made him look an awful lot like Loman.

“Planning to get somebody else shot?” he asked, but before I could answer, he added, “I suppose you made sure that they didn’t mention my daddy when they were telling who died this past year.”

“Shut up, Linwood,” Linwood’s wife Sue said as she came up behind him. He glared at me with those nearly colorless grey eyes for a long couple of seconds, then stomped away.

“If looks could kill,” I murmured, grateful for the arm Richard put around me.

“Don’t mind him,” Sue said. “I tried to talk him out of coming today, but he said that he has a right to come and he was going to. I’ll make sure that he doesn’t say anything else to you.”

“Thanks, Sue,” I said. “I know it’s awkward for Linwood, and for you, too.” Linwood’s father Loman had been involved in Paw’s death, and he ended up dead, too. Linwood had it in his head that it was my fault, and there didn’t seem to be anything anybody could say to change his mind.

Sue shrugged, and pushed a stray piece of sandy blond hair back from her face. “Shoot, there ain’t nothing nobody can say that can bother me. Linwood’s just touchy these days, especially since he lost his job.”

“I didn’t know the mill was laying people off.”

“It wasn’t no layoff—Burt Walters fired him,” Sue said matter–of–factly. “It was Linwood’s own fault, too. People around town are willing to forget about Loman, but Linwood’s not. He picked one fight too many, and Walters told him to take a hike.”

“That must be tough on you two, what with the new baby and all.” Crystal had just been born in September, and they already had Jason and Tiffany.

“We’re doing all right,” Sue said. “I wanted to thank you for that outfit you sent the baby. It’s right pretty.”

“Where is Crystal, anyway?” I asked. “We haven’t seen her yet.”

“Edna’s showing her off,” she said, referring to Linwood’s mother.

“Sue!” Vasti squealed as she appeared from somewhere. “You’re not wearing a button.” Without waiting for permission, Vasti pinned a badge onto Sue’s dress. “That’s a real pretty dress you’re wearing. You can hardly tell that it’s a maternity dress.”

I winced. Sue never had been a thin woman, but with Crystal only a couple of months old, I would have thought that Vasti could have resisted teasing her just this once.

“Hey there, Vasti,” Sue said unenthusiastically.

“The Retort Courteous,” Richard said under his breath.

“How do you like my new outfit?” Vasti asked, preening. “I think it matches my eyes real well.”

“The Quip Modest,” Richard said. Neither of my cousins seemed to hear him, but I nudged him anyway.

“Since when are your eyes striped?” Sue said.

“The Reply Churlish,” from Richard.

“I mean the dress sets off my eyes nicely,” Vasti said.

Richard said, “The Reproof Valiant.”

Vasti went on. “After all, some of us do try to color coordinate our wardrobes.”

“The Countercheck Quarrelsome,” Richard said. I nudged him again.

“Maybe you can come coordinate my clothes sometime,” Sue said.

“The Lie with Circumstance.”

“Now you don’t need me for that, Sue,” Vasti said. “You always look real nice.”

“The Lie Direct,” Richard said with glee.

“What was that, Richard?” Vasti asked.

“Nothing,” I answered for him. “Come on, Richard. Let’s go say hello to Aunt Ruby Lee.”

Undaunted, Richard said, “As you like it.”

Aunt Ruby Lee was still legally married to Conrad Randolph, but since he was in jail and the divorce was in the works, her ex-husband Roger Bailey saw no reason to waste any time in trying for a second chance with her. He had his arm around her shoulder, just like old times, which led me to believe that he just might succeed. I couldn’t blame him. With her blond hair, blue eyes, and generous figure, Aunt Ruby Lee was the prettiest of my aunts.

“Laurie Anne! Richard!” Aunt Ruby Lee said. “I am so glad you two could come.” She hugged us both, and then Roger hugged me and shook Richard’s hand.

“How are you doing these days, Roger?” I asked.

“Mighty fine,” he said with a big smile. “Spending time with Ruby Lee has reminded me of what I’ve been missing. Let me tell you, Richard. A good woman is the most important thing you can have in your life, and that’s a fact.”

“You’ll get no arguments from me,” Richard said.

“You two boys just cut that out,” Aunt Ruby Lee said. “You’re going to have both me and Laurie Anne blushing in a minute.”

“And what’s wrong with that,” Roger said. “Laurie Anne, I’ve been trying to talk your aunt into letting me make an announcement this afternoon, but she’s being shy.”

“Oh?” I said innocently. So they were talking about getting married again.

Aunt Ruby Lee shook her head firmly. “It’s too soon to make that kind of announcement, Roger. How would it look, when things with Conrad aren’t official yet?”

“I don’t give a hoot about how it looks! I’m in love with the prettiest woman on this earth, and I want everybody on earth to know it.”

“If you don’t lower your voice, everybody in Byerly is going to know about it,” Aunt Ruby Lee scolded him, but I could tell that she didn’t really mind. She was in love again, too. After her last marriage ended the way it had, I was glad to see her so happy.

We chatted a little longer before drifting off to visit with more cousins. The festivities were starting to wind down when Thaddeous came over.

“Laurie Anne? Can I talk to you for a minute?” Thaddeous said.

“Sure. What’s up?”

“I need a favor.”

“Name it.” I meant it, too. After my last trip to Byerly, I owed Thaddeous more than any favor was going to repay.

“Actually it’s for Joleen. She just told me about it, and she’s so worried that she started crying on my shoulder. She’s in a lot of trouble at work, and I was hoping you could help her out. Somebody must have done something to her computer, and it’s not working like it’s supposed to. She’s afraid that Mr. Walters will fire her if he finds out.” He lowered his voice. “Walters has been trying to make time with her, and he was right put out when she told him that she isn’t that kind of girl. He’s been looking for an excuse to get rid of her ever since.”

“I don’t know what kind of system she’s got,” I warned, “but I’ll be glad to give it a try.”

He beamed. “I really would appreciate it. Do you think we could go over there today? That way we can get it fixed up before Mr. Walters comes into the office tomorrow morning. I’m afraid Joleen wouldn’t get a bit of sleep tonight if she was worrying about it.”

“Sure thing. The reunion is about over anyway. Let me check with Richard, and find Aunt Maggie to tell her.” I conferred with Richard while Thaddeous conferred with Joleen. After a round of goodbyes and a quick stop at Aunt Maggie’s to pick up what I needed for the rescue operation, we piled into the car Richard and I had rented to drive out to the mill.