4 Stars! "Offbeat and eccentrically charming...a warm, funny and beguiling read." ~ Romantic Times Bookclub ~
Excerpt of Chapter One:
Revenge is a dish best served cold.
—Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782), Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons)
When Pietra Lang's granddaddy had an affair, it was infidelity. But when her grandmother found out, it became murder . . ..
Or so Eugenié's chicken bones said.
Pietra, better known as Pete to her friends, might have grown up accepting the Cajun housekeeper's mysticism, but a message about an old murder was a doozie to pull out from the great beyond, even for Eugenié Thibodeaux. Pete squinted at the mangled chicken carcass scattered on the kitchen's wooden cutting board, trying to divine more than good soup stock. She failed.
"Bones don't lie," Eugenié said.
Maybe they do.
The uncertainty niggled at Pete.
Eugenié's foresight was usually half a bubble out of plumb but seldom entirely off beam, like the summer the bones told her Pete would meet up with someone tall, dark, and good-looking. She did. He turned out to be a horse.
At any other time, Pete would've jogged upstairs and pried the straight scoop from her grandmother. That wasn't possible now though, since the old gal had died yesterday. She had been a woman steeped in potent Southern roots, emotional, unpredictable, touched with charisma, and given to histrionic flourishes. Not much about her antics could surprise Pete anymore.
Still . . ..
"And this murder'll be revealed when?" Pete asked the housekeeper.
Eugenié shrugged and scraped the chicken pieces into a steaming pot, the multi-colored glass bracelets on her wrists tinkling an exotic rhythm. Her funeral white turban and caftan made her dark eyes intense and fathomless within her smooth brown face.
She might have been fifty or eighty, Pete couldn't say. She'd worked for the family for thirty years and never seemed to age.
"Bones don't tell when, missy, just what."
That could mean five minutes or fifteen years from now, so Pete quashed her curiosity and planted her feet squarely on the temporal plane.
"My schedule's packed," she said around a mouthful of warm buttermilk biscuit. "What with the family coming in, the Fourth of July committee giving me fits, and burying Grandmother, no way I can squeeze in a scandal or anything else right now. No time."
"Everything has a time," Eugenié said, nodding. "You'll see." Then she made a shooing motion with her hand. "Now, scat! I got me plenty of hungry people to feed . . . and haul them catfish outta my kitchen."
Pete shoved away from the granite counter top, telling herself not to be ridiculous. She neither put stock in the housekeeper's predictions nor ignored them.
Then again, given all the wrinkles in the Lang family, she had good reason to feel a nagging sense of unease.
Homicide in a prominent Southern family was definitely juicy news, the stuff of prime-time sudsers. And watershed scandals were nothing new to the Langs.
They had made their money the old fashioned way-- they inherited it--and that was a strike against them in the media, for no matter how justified an act might be, wealth equaled power and, to some people, guilt.
Temperatures neared ninety-five degrees and climbing in Langstown, a small town nestled in the Panhandle. Live oaks. Southern Baptists. Quiet money.
Outside, the air was thick and stifling. Barely any breeze moved through the red, white, and blue bunting that festooned the upper balcony railings of Grandmother's home in celebration of the upcoming holiday.
The one-hundred-twenty-year-old antebellum house was Pete's pride, her first project in Langstown to be restored to the grandeur and romance of the Old South. At that moment, seventy-five of the town's most influential were enjoying her handiwork as they milled about deep in the shade of the wide verandas or beat the summer heat in the air-conditioning that billowed starched organdy curtains through the opened French doors.
They had dropped in to pay their respects as much as to rhapsodize over Eugenié's homemade beignets served with café au lait. Later, there would be barbecue ribs, ham, Cajun slaw, macaroni salad, and enough cakes, cookies, and pies to induce insulin shock served on banquet tables spread with red-checkered tablecloths under the shade of towering live oaks. So it was a sure bet no one was leaving short of an earthquake.
Pete had slipped into an unadorned black cotton sheath dress to play hostess, a role she'd relinquish to her mother Racine once her private plane landed from Los Angeles. A devotee of Our Lady of Accessories, Racine lived to hobnob.
She also believed in marrying well and often, a philosophy subscribed to by her older daughter, Phoebe, but one not shared by her younger daughter. Her greatest regret was that Pete had yet to land herself a captain of industry.
The year Pete turned thirty, Racine finally accepted that her younger daughter loved working in historical restoration and would likely never leave the sleepy rural community. That same year Racine revised her matrimonial hopes for Pete down to simply a man with a pulse.
Once Pete had greeted the mourning visitors, she roped her long-time friend Albert into helping her lug the cooler full of heavily iced catfish filets down to the old boathouse where Grandmother's fish freezer sat. The July Fourth committee, which Pete chaired, planned a catfish fry as part of the town's annual Independence Day activities, but Eugenié needed the fridge space in the house for the extra guests.
Albert was both a curiosity and a fixture in Langstown. He lived in Tallahassee but often made the ninety-minute drive to play escort whenever Pete represented the family at a county fund-raiser or a historical society function.
The two of them got along so well because they were kindred spirits. Down through the years, they'd both subjected themselves to blind dates, even when they knew the inevitable outcome would still be two people looking for something other than what they'd found.
Today, he wore his usual Hawaiian print shirt and Sperry Top-Siders with no socks but had opted for dark cargo shorts and a black armband as concessions to her grandmother's recent passing. They crossed the manicured carpet grass and down the winding crushed oyster-shell pathway, Albert struggling with his end of the heavy cooler, thanks to a two-pack a day habit, while Pete led the way.
Three of her grandmother's dogs tagged alongside, on the lookout in case one of the pond mallards ever decided to launch a frontal attack. She'd named the mutts after her favorite all-female group, the Andrews Sisters.
A walker/yellow lab mix was the alpha, while the ancestry of the other two was in doubt beyond a bit of terrier, a lot of dark fur, and a shared fondness for shredding lacy underwear. Pete had learned to like Jockey thigh-highs in self-defense.
Behind them, the whir of car tires crunching over the gravel driveway mixed in with muffled voices, the metallic slam of car doors, and the constant whine of crickets. A pair of squawking mockingbirds strafed a blackbird that was too close to their nest, and a hound dog bayed somewhere off in the woods, probably scenting a deer. The mouthwatering aroma of smoked ribs saturated the air.
Good God," Albert wheezed, sweating freely. "Whose idea was this? I'm in no shape for manual labor."
"C'mon, couch potato, just a little farther."
"I prefer divan diva, if you don't mind." And on that note, Albert stubbed his toe on a protruding shell but quickly recovered. "Geez, I think I dropped my 'nads back there."
"Don't worry about it," Pete said, trudging on through a swarm of no-see-ums. "You don't use them anyway."
"Like you can talk. I know nuns who see more action."
"Don't go there, you sound like my mother."
"At least I'm looking. You? You're doing nothing but biding time with that bean-pole mortician."
The sun beat on Pete's face and melted her makeup. She could feel it sliding down her cheeks. Gauging by the sticky feeling under her arms, her deodorant wasn't putting up much of a fight either.
"Vonnie Miller's a nice man," she said. "Safe."
"Safe is the last thing a man wants to be called, unless it's being said at his parole hearing. Trust me, toots. Keep looking. You can do better. The right man is out there just waiting for you to find him."
How often had Pete heard that? Too many to count. Racine quoted the trite saying like scripture, especially around the holidays.
"So how come I have to do all the looking?" Pete said. "Why can't he look for me for a change?"
"Fat chance of him finding you here in the boondocks."
About then, the plastic handle slipped out of Albert's sweaty grasp. He swore and jumped to save his toes as his end of the cooler slapped the ground with a grating screech, forcing Pete to either drag the cooler or stop. She stopped.
One of the blue-haired guests you-hooed to Pete from the upper veranda and waved. She shaded her eyes, recognized Mrs. Conroy, one of her grandmother's friends from the Eastern Star, and returned the wave.
"What's the old bag barking about?" Albert asked.
"I have no idea," Pete said, nodding and smiling as if she understood the woman's every word. "Probably another pitch for her grandson, the air-traffic controller from Memphis."
"Good looking guy?"
"A salad bar of neuroses."
"Never mind then," Albert said. "But while we're on my favorite topic . . . spill your guts about Danny Benedict. Have you seen him yet? Is he as gorgeous as his pictures? I want all the details."
"Yes, yes, and he's not your type."
While he consoled himself with a smoke, Pete slid the black scrunchie off her wrist and bunched her brown hair at the back of her head to lift it off her damp neck. The humidity had turned her new 'do into a mass of frizz.
She debated how much to share with Albert.
He knew Benedict was a high-powered divorce lawyer. They'd seen pictures of him in People magazine, usually with some celeb's ex-wife stuck to his side like a hair on a biscuit. But Albert didn't know Benedict came to meet with Pete's older brother Jackson.
Jackson intended to ditch his wife of ten years so he could marry his podiatrist. Since he was up for reelection to the state legislature in November, he understandably decided it was more politic to keep this business low profile.
The problem was that Albert and Jackson disliked each other, had done so from day one. Whenever they were in the same room, it was like watching two dogs square off in the middle of a junkyard. So, as much as Pete adored Albert, low profile meant not sharing that tidbit with him.
Thinking back on meeting Benedict at the hospital, she recalled casually elegant clothes, an expensive shirt and creased slacks, smoky brown eyes and a sensuous mouth; the kind of man her grandmother would say could walk into a room and tame women like snakes.
"Benedict's okay," Pete said, "if you like the tall, blond, and devastating sort."
Albert snorted. "It would be tough, but I could force myself to get used to it."
"I'm sure his dog loves him, too."
Another puff and Albert flipped his cigarette into the boxwood bushes, so Pete hefted her cooler handle and continued toward the boathouse.
"The man didn't have to come to the hospital," she added more to herself than to Albert, "but he did. He's okay."
Out of her league was more like it. She was a plain, ordinary woman with plain, ordinary tastes. From what Pete had read about Benedict in the gossip sheets, she was no match for a man who kept a string of glamorous women and waltzed through them faster than kudzu through the backyard.
Up ahead of her, the boathouse overlooked a spring-fed lake that had been stocked years ago with large-mouthed bass, bream, shellcracker, and bluegill. Pete never cared for fishing, but as a kid, she used to come down to watch the wood ducks fly in at dusk to nest in the reedy wetlands on the far edge.
Now as she approached, a hungry bass exploded on an unsuspecting frog that snoozed close to the seawall. The surface of the murky water churned foamy white for a second then quieted into gentle ripples.
The building itself was a rustic, gloomy catchall outbuilding, seldom used since Granddaddy Lang had passed away the decade before, except by mud daubers and doves that homesteaded the opened rafters. In his day, it was rumored, the boathouse was often the scene of stolen kisses and illicit rendezvous with women of abandoned character who seemed intent on picking the gold out of his teeth.
The design was utilitarian — Pete's favorite euphemism for functional and butt ugly. Apparently, Grandmother had liked it that way, since she had refused to include the outbuilding during the restoration of the big house.
Pete never understood why. Too many memories, perhaps. Now that the old gal was beyond fussing, Pete made a mental note to spruce up the façade to give it more character, more integrity with its surroundings.
She unlocked the metal door and stepped gingerly past spiders and grinch-green tree frogs waging a turf war over the clutter of sprinkler parts and rusty fishing lures that littered the warped wooden shelves. The place smelled old and musty, like the inside of an unwashed running shoe.
"Ye gods and little fishes," she said, "when do you suppose was the last time this place was cleaned out?"
"We'll herd the livestock later," Albert wheezed with an impatient hand wave. "Open the freezer, toots. Chop, chop. I'm dying here."
"You sound like an old fud."
"Knowing you has made me an old fud."
"Yeah, yeah, the wailing wall is around back."
Then Pete turned and yanked open the ancient upright freezer, and stopped short.
"Oh, my aching . . .."
Her mouth worked, but no more words came out.
She slammed the door shut as quickly as she'd opened it, then swallowed hard.
"What now?" Albert griped.
"Did you have a good breakfast?" Pete said after a moment.
"Grits and eggs, my usual. Why?"
"You may be seeing it again."
Then, afraid to look, afraid to confirm what she'd seen, Pete inched the door open until it swung wide on its hinges.
And there it sat, her worst nightmare and Eugenié's damned chicken bones in the flesh.
Of everything that could be leftover in her grandmother's freezer, the last thing Pete expected to see was the barefooted bleached-blonde who was defrosting inside.
excerpt of For Pete's Sake by Geri Buckley
Copyright © 2004, Geri Buckley
all rights reserved
Now available! Be sure to look for this contemporary romance wherever paperbacks are sold.