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Married for thirty years, the Henshaws were giving a party to celebrate this remarkable fact with their many friends and neighbors. Susan had reserved the venue, the historic Landing Inn in Oxford Landing, Connecticut, seven months in advance. She had agonized over every detail of the decorations and planned a menu that included family favorites as well as selections for guests who insisted on dieting or eating vegetarian. She had ordered six cases of Napa Valley Merlot, six cases of French Sauvignon Blanc, and five cases of Dom Perignon. She had taken ten minutes to buy Jed a new tie and had spent three days shopping in New York City before choosing the silver silk shift she wore. Her hair and makeup had been done by professionals just this morning. She had gone on a diet and actually lost seven pounds.
So why, she wondered, wasn't anyone paying any attention to her?
"Susan, honey? Is something wrong?"
She smiled as Jed slipped his arm around her shoulder. "Why? Do I look like something's wrong?" She brushed a sweep of hair off her forehead.
Jed knew exactly what she was thinking. "Your hair is fine. You look wonderful. Just a bit distracted. You were staring over the shoulder of that last couple we greeted."
"I was just wondering what's happening on the deck. Do you think they thought I was being rude?"
"Nope. I think they were too anxious to find the bar. Who were they, anyway?"
"Jed! After all the time we spent going over the guest list! That was the Freedmans. You know them. He was Chad's orthodontist, and she was the leader of Chrissy's Brownie troop for twoyears."
"Sue, that was over a decade ago. And I hope they weren't quite so anxious to get to the alcohol in those days."
"They're lovely people," Susan protested. "I did hear that he had been drinking a bit too much for the last few years, but Chad's teeth look wonderful. And Chrissy . . . Well, Chrissy was a bit too artistic for that troop. I remember when they were making little Christmas trees out of felt, glitter, and wire coat hangers, and Chrissy . . ."
"Susan, how many people did you invite to this party?" Jed interrupted his wife. "There's another large group coming in the door. . . . Ben! Good to see you!" Jed interrupted himself to greet an old friend and golfing partner.
For the next fifteen minutes, they were busy with the second wave of guests, many of them friends from the Hancock Field Club.
"Do you think we should check out there?" Susan asked when they were finally alone.
"On the deck behind the inn."
"Why?" Jed asked, mystified.
"That's what I've been saying, Jed. All of our guests have been heading there as soon as they finish saying hello to us."
"Maybe we should have had the bar set up in here," Jed suggested. He and Susan were greeting their guests in the low-ceilinged living room of one of the oldest inns in Connecticut. A half dozen massive bouquets of summer flowers had been placed around the long, L-shaped room to brighten up its dark paneling. When the inn was built, glass was expensive and homes were heated with wood, so the windows were small and few. Dozens of golden beeswax candles stood in rows on the three fireplace mantels, their glow augmented by dimand inauthenticlamplight.
"It's a beautiful room," Susan said, "but much more cheerful outside. I'm so glad it didn't rain."
"It wouldn't have dared rain on our party," Jed said, taking her hand.
She smiled up at him. "It did before. Don't you remember?"
"Oh, Jed, it rained the first night of our honeymoon. I was wearing a silk dressmy very first silk dressand I was afraid it would water spot when we ran from the car to the inn. Don't you remember?" she repeated.
"What I remember is snuggling in bed and watching the rain on the little porch outside our room. . . . Wait a second. I thought we were going to stay in the same room tonight as we did thirty years ago."
"That was what I planned to do, but the inn has been remodeled since then, and that nice little private balcony was turned into a deck which connects all the rooms at the back of the inn. I thought we'd prefer something a little more private."
Jed grinned down at her, and for a moment, she recognized the sexy college junior she'd fallen for almost thirty-two years ago.
"Susan! Jed, sweetie. Why are you still out here? The place is jammed. Certainly you're not expecting more guests." Jed's mother swept into the room. Claire was wearing a sensational yellow dress that appeared to have been made from hundreds of little fabric petals. It fluttered as she walked and barely skimmed her knees. Susan thought she looked wonderful and said so.
"Oh, Susan, you're so sweet! I knew you'd recognize it!"
Jed glanced over at his wife. "Well I don't, Mother. Did you wear it to our last New Year's Eve party?"
"Oh, Jed, of course not! Just like a man, right, Susan?"
"Well . . ."
"This is a summer dress, Jed," Claire continued. "A very special summer dress. Can't you guess? Don't help him, Susan."
Susan couldn't help her husband. She didn't think she'd ever seen this dress before, unless . . .
"Our wedding!" Susan cried, suddenly recognizing it. "You wore that dress to our wedding!"
"Exactly! Remember, you told me you were going to carry daisies, and I knew this was the perfect mother-of-the-groom dress the moment I saw it at Bergdorf's."
Susan felt her smile stiffening. Not only had Claire's dress been three times as expensive as her own cotton wedding gown, but Claire could still fit into it while it would have taken major alterations for Susan, despite her recent diet, to squeeze into her wedding gown.
But Jed, having drained his glass, didn't have fashion on his mind. "I gather you don't think we need to stay in here anymore?"
"Of course not. Come and join your guests out back. There's still a bit of sunlight, and the air is lovely. Everyone is having a wonderful time."
"I'd like to touch up my makeup first," Susan said.
Claire squinted at her daughter-in-law. "Excellent idea," she said. "Where's the ladies' room?"
"I was going to go up to our room," Susan explained. "Do you want to join me?"
"I think I'll spend a few minutes with your husband, if you don't mind." Claire tucked her hand under her son's arm and led Jed away as though he were still three years old.
Susan smiled as a young waiter entered the room carrying a silver platter covered with appetizers. He smiled back and held out the tray.
"Crab cakes with cilantro tartar sauce or grilled shrimp with pepper mole?"
"Both. I'm starving." Susan piled seafood on a cocktail napkin, thanked him, and trotted up the creaking stairway to the rooms above. She pulled an old-fashioned metal key from her pocket, unlocked the door, and entered the room.
There was nothing chic about the bedrooms at the Landing Inn, where antiques casually mixed with reproductions. The quilt on the bed had been made recently in China. The watercolors that hung on the flowered wallpaper had been painted by someone with little skill, no talent, and lots of enthusiasm for deep, rich colors. Susan particularly liked the orange line around the eyes of a hideously misshapen kitten playing with what appeared to be a dirty old rag; that painting hung on the wall over the antique spool bed she and Jed would share that night.
Susan and Jed had worn jeans and T-shirts to the inn, and these clothes were draped over the room's two chairs. Susan tripped over one of Jed's scuffed loafers on the way to the lovely chestnut dresser where she had left her makeup bag.
"Damn." She kicked the shoe out of her way, dumped the bag's contents on the dresser top, and peered in the mirror on the wall. A professional had applied her makeup this morning, and Susan kept wondering if she actually looked better or just made-up. Unable to decide, she shrugged at her reflection, ran a comb through her hair, stopped in the bathroom for a few minutes, and hurried back to join her guests.
The Landing Inn was known for its food, and the original dining area had doubled many times over the years. Now Susan walked through the lobby to the oldest area of the dining room, smiling as the sounds of her party increased. For a moment, she stood in the doorway and watched. Everyoneeverythinglooked wonderful.
"You certainly do know how to give a fabulous party!" Susan's best friend, Kathleen Gordon, appeared by her side. "And I love that dress!" Kathleen continued.
"You should. You helped me pick it out! But tell me the truth," Susan continued. "Is everything okay?"
"More than okay. The decorations are sensational. The food is better than sensational. Everyone is having a super time." The smile on Kathleen's face dimmed just a bit. "Well, almost everyone."
"Who isn't? What's wrong?"
"Susan, don't panic. It's just that . . . Well, were you expecting Doug and Ashley Marks to show up? I mean, I know you had to invite them, but . . ."
"Don't tell me they're fighting. . . ."
"No, in fact, they're acting as though they're on their second honeymoon. I don't think he's let go of her hand all evening."
Susan laughed. "Maybe he's afraid if he does, she'll slip something into his drink."
"That's just the problem. Everyone's watching them to see . . . Well, frankly, to see if something like that happens."
"So it wasn't the placement of the bar," Susan muttered.
"I wondered why everyone was rushing to the back of the inn."
"To see the Markses. They've been standing under that huge elm tree in the middle of the deck ever since they arrived. It's almost as though they're in a second receiving line."
Susan nodded. "Jed and I didn't have much of a chance to talk to them. They came early. In fact, a lot of our guests arrived just as the party began."
Kathleen nodded. "This is a great place, but if you don't arrive early, parking can be difficult."
But Susan wasn't interested in parking problems. "So I spend months and months arranging this party, and my guests are more interested in the Markses than in the Henshaws."
"Well, Susan, it isn't every day that you get to rub shoulders at the very same time with a woman who was just acquitted of attempted murder as well as with the man whom she supposedly tried to kill," Kathleen continued. "And it doesn't help that this is their very first public appearance since Ashley's trial ended."
"Susan, your mother's looking for you."
"Thanks, Deb. Did she say what she needed?"
"Susan, your son just told the funniest story. . . ."
"I hope it was clean."
"Wonderful party, Susanas always."
"Thirty years, Susan! Amazing!"
"I guess I have more stamina than anyone gave me credit for." Susan smiled to show she was joking and continued through the crowd toward the elm tree. She wanted to see for herself what Kathleen had described as the Markses' receiving line.
The Landing Inn, like many early Connecticut landmarks, was located on a river, and a large, multilevel deck extended from the back wall of the colonial building out over the rushing water. A half dozen trees grew up through holes in the decking, and Doug and Ashley were standing underneath the largest elm. Susan wondered if either of them knew it was known as the hanging tree. According to legend, a man had been hung from one of its strong branches after being convicted of murdering his wife. If they knew the story, it wasn't bothering them. Ashley was smiling and chatting with one of Susan's neighbors.
Susan, moving closer, heard Ashley's signature phrase. "Well, I have to tell you . . ."
Ashley, Susan reflected, always had to tell someone somethingfrequently something no one wanted to hear. This time, apparently, Ashley was talking about herself. Susan, along with many people nearby, moved just a bit closer.
"From the very first, our lawyer assured me I'd be freed. He says the police department in Hancock should be sued for conducting such a sloppy investigation. Of course I knew I was completely innocent, so I didn't worry. Not while I was in jail, at least. But just last night I woke up around three a.m. absolutely terrified."
"Why?" The question was asked in a breathless voice.
"Because of what our lawyer said. Are we safe in our beds if our police department is completely incompetent? I mean, really!"
Whether the general murmuring that followed could be taken as general assent was arguable, but Susan spied someone on the edge of the group who certainly would not agree with what Ashley was saying. She walked over to Hancock's handsome chief of police with her arms stretched out. "Brett, I didn't see you come in!"
"That's because I just got here a few minutes ago. We got lost on the way here," Brett Fortesque explained, kissing Susan on the cheek. "Jed said you were upstairs primpingand I must say, whatever you did worked. You look wonderful. If you weren't married already, I'd ask for your hand myself."
"Wouldn't Erika have something to say about that?" Brett had recently married Erika Deakin, an event that had thrilled all their friends.
"Only if she found outwhich she's not likely to do this week. She's been working late in the city each night, and what with the trial keeping me busy, we haven't been seeing very much of each other."
Susan glanced over at the Markses. "I guess the results of the trial didn't make you very happy," she said quietly.
"Actually, I wasn't surprised. I didn't think there was a case there. Not that that makes me happy. Someone poisoned Doug Marks, and just because he didn't die . . ." Brett stopped midsentence, and Susan realized he was looking over her shoulder at something. She turned and found herself face-to-face with the man they had been talking about. Doug Marks looked furious, his face so red that Susan wondered if he was in danger of having a heart attack or a stroke. She opened her mouth, realized she had no idea what to say, and shut it again.
"Don't worry, Susan. This is your party, and I certainly wouldn't ruin it by punching out this bastard in front of your guests."
"Not that I wouldn't like to. How anyone could possibly think that my wife would want to kill me . . ."