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Judith Grover McMonigle Flynn tipped her head to one side, picked up a black marking pen, slid drew ant on the formal portrait of AuntToadie. The effect couldn't have pleased Judith more if she'd added the final stroke. to a van Gogh.
"Nice," remarked Serena Grover Jones, admiring her cousin's handiwork. "How about blacking out a couple of her teeth?"
Turning the eight-by-ten photograph facedown on the coffee table, Judith grimaced. "Enough's enough. Especially when it comes to AuntToadie. I have never understood how Uncle Corky has put up with her all these years."
Cousin Renie considered. "He traveled a lot on his job with the engineering firm. Since he retired, he still travels a lot. Separate continentshelp, I guess."
Judith leaned back on the off-white sofa in the large living room of Hillside Manor. On a Tuesday afternoon in early February, thebed-and-breakfast was empty. Except for St. Valentine's Day, these were the dull months at the B&B, from the second week of January untilthe third week of March. Judith didn't mind. In the four years since converting her family home into a hostelry, business had increasedsteadily. The catering sideline was also doing well. She'd never get rich, but with any lack and a great deal of hard work, she'd never be poor.Again.
Setting aside the box of family pictures, Judith picked up her mug of hot chocolate. "Todie never liked me," she declared, sipping slowly."When I was a kid, she always said the rudest things to me. My least favorite nickname was Lardbucket."
Renie snorted. "She never liked any of her Grover in-laws. Toadie called me BuckyBeaver. And then she'd laugh, like it was soooo funny.Mean old hag." Leaning forward on the matching sofa, Renie waved a finger at Judith. "She never said things like that around Uncle Corky.He would have yanked her chain."
Judith arched her dark eyebrows. "Would he? Uncle Corky's a dear, and he loves to bluster. But at home, I always figure Aunt Toadie keepshim on a tight leash."
Renie looked pained. "Could be," she allowed. "I'd hate to think it. So what's the drill for Friday night?"
Flipping open a leather-bound notebook, Judith scanned the page. "It's Uncle Boo's birthday. He's seventy-five or a hundred andseventy-five, depending on whether or not he's been legally dead for years."
"He has. Uncle, Boo hasn't moved since Truman was in the White House."
Judith nodded, running her long fingers through her silvered black curls. "Right. The only time Uncle Boo gets excited is when he sees aspaceship land next to his gazebo. Anyway, the party starts at six o'clock with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres for the Major Mush employees.If Aunt Toadie has her way, they'll be given glasses of cheap white wine and soggy cheese balls, then hustled out the door around seven aftersinging an off-key rendition of 'Happy Birthday, You Tight-Fisted Old Coot.' No cake. No punch. No fun. Next comes the family party."Judith rolled her dark eyes while Renie groaned. "This will not be fun, either, unless you enjoy being in the company of our most revoltingshirttail relations."
Renie now waved both hands. "Hey, we aren't guests, we're drudges. We can stay in the kitchen and get secretly crocked, which is the onlyway I can stand Aunt Toadie and a whole lot of Lotts. No wonder Uncle Corky went off on safari! He'd rather be eaten by two-toed slothsdim spend an evening with his in-laws."
"They don't have sloths in Africa," Judith remarked absently, her eyes still oil her page of notes. "Dinner at seven, followed by feudalwarfare, or whatever that quarrelsome bunch of Lotts does when they get together. Hey, coz," she said suddenly, gazing earnestly at Rome,"I'm sorry I got you into this. I thought Arlene would be back from Palm Desert by now."
Renie shrugged. "No apologies necessary. My workload is in pretty good shape right now. I finished all my annualreport graphics lastmonth. The next crunch won't come for another two weeks, when they start going on the presses." Renie's job as a graphic: designer allowedher to work at home, but Judith knew that winter was always her busiest time. The cousins had hardly seen each other from New Year's untillate January. "It's not your fault that the Rankerses decided to stay on an extra week," Renie went on. "They've got a grandson in southernCalifornia now. You can't blame Arlene and Carl for wanting to spend some extra time with the little guy."
Judith inclined her head. Arlene Rankers was a good neighbor and an even better friend. She was also a crackerjack cohostess in the cateringbusiness. The original plan had been for Judith and Arlene to cater Uncle Boo's birthday party. But over the weekend, Arlene had called totell Judith that they wouldn't be returning home to Heraldsgate Hill until the second week of February. Judith had taken the news in stride,even though it meant juggling her Friday night guest list, which so far showed three of her five bedrooms booked. Happily, Joe Flynn hadannounced he'd fill in for his wife. He was off duty for the weekend and would take an extra day on Friday. He liked to cook, so fixingbreakfast for the guests would be no trouble. He would enjoy making appetizers for the five o'clock sherry hour. His job as a homicidedetective threw him in with people who were considerably less savory than his wife's B&B guests.Major Vices. Copyright © by Mary Daheim. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.