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Liz Stanfeld was sure of one thing: it was too damn hot for a wedding.
That single thought kept repeating itself in her head, like her own private mantra, and it kept her spirits high throughout the long hours that she labored in the yard of her Oakwood, Wisconsin, home. As morning gave way to afternoon, through mowing, edging, weeding, digging, and planting, over and over she found herself offering up a heartfelt prayer of thanks to whatever force of nature was responsible for this sweltering heat. This was the day her ex-husband was getting remarried, and the temperature was downright unbearable.
Liz was on her hands and knees in one of the six flower beds in the backyard, pulling out the last remnants of spring's flowering bulbs and digging dozens of holes and filling them with salmon and white double impatiens. Sweat was running into her eyes, and she paused to shuck off her garden gloves in order to subdue several strands of dark brown hair that had escaped the loose ponytail into which she'd tied it that morning. She wiped her sweaty hands on her brown cotton shorts and pulled her oversized T-shirt down over her no longer svelte hips, then squinted up at the sun. She had purposely left her watch in the house, but she guessed it must be about two o'clock by now. The ceremony started at three.
Liz gleefully imagined the blushing bride being overcome by the heat and swooning. Of course, the girl was only twenty-three and an aerobics instructor, but what the hell, this was Liz's daydream and if she wanted swooning, by God, there would be swooning.And after all, Peter was thirty-eight and had always preferred cold weather. Liz envisioned him in his scratchy tux, sweating profusely. Let's think, she mused. What other horrors could she wish on the happy couple? Maybe Amanda's finger would swell so badly that Peter wouldn't be able to slip the ring on it. Maybe the air conditioning at the hotel would go on the fritz in the middle of the reception. Maybe Peter's BMW would overheat on the way to the airport. Why, the possibilities were absolutely endless.
Liz took a deep breath and replaced her gloves. She really didn't harbor any ill will toward her ex, she thought as she thrust her small spade fiercely into the soft earth and scooped out another plug of dirt. He was entitled to get on with his life, just as she had gotten on with hers. She would have preferred, however, that he not find eternal happiness with the blond Bennington graduate he'd begun screwing several months before their marriage fell apart. Of course, at the time Liz had been blissfully unaware of those activities. With hindsight, though, she had to admit that she should have suspected something was up.
It had been terribly out of character for Peter, who had always been a night owl, to suddenly take such an avid interest in exercising that he joined a six a.m. aerobics class. "To help stave off middle-aged spread," he'd told her. And the activity had seemed to do him a world of good. His disposition was better than it had been in years, and he'd dropped ten pounds within weeks. Fool that she was, Liz had encouraged him to continue with the classes. Little did she know that his weight loss and soaring spirits were largely the result of some one-on-one maneuvers between him and the pert instructor.
The announcement that Peter wanted a divorce had come completely out of left field. He'd unexpectedly called Liz one morning and asked if she were free for lunch. They had met at their favorite Italian restaurant, the place where they'd gotten engaged. Peter always did have a warped sense of humor. Over a nice glass of white wine and a delicious fettuccine Alfredo, as he'd passed the garlic bread, he had dropped the bombshell that after much soul-searching he'd decided he simply didn't want to be married anymore.
It was all rather civilonce Liz got used to the idea, that is. Oh, she had taken it hard at first, had yelled and threatened and questioned him about his motives, but through all her tantrums, Peter had stuck to his story that no, there was no one else, he just didn't want to be tied down. And sucker that she was, Liz had believed him, right up until the bright morning exactly one week after their divorce had become final when she'd opened the paper and on the society page had seen a photo of someone who looked startlingly like Peter looking down all starry-eyed at a ravishing young blond woman. With disbelief that had quickly turned to disgust, Liz had read that Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Thomas, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and West Palm Beach, Florida, were happy to announce the engagement of their daughter, Amanda Louise, to Peter Huntington, executive vice president of Huntington Construction Company, one of the Midwest's largest construction firms. A June 15 wedding in Milwaukee was planned.
As she had dropped the paper on the floor and raced to the bathroom, retching, Liz had thanked God she had followed her instincts and moved out of the city. It was difficult enough to cope with the situation from thirty miles away. If she'd stayed in Milwaukee, it would have been unbearable. Once it had become clear that Peter was intent on going through with the divorce, Liz had begun to reassess what she wanted out of life. Although she hadn't come up with a definite answer, she knew for sure that she didn't want the continued long hours and high pressure of her litigation partner's position at Harrigan and Gilchrist, Wisconsin's largest law firm. The property settlement she'd received in the divorce had ensured that at age thirty-five, she would never have to work again if she didn't want to, so to the great surprise of her friends and colleagues, she had resigned from Harrigan and taken a position as an assistant district attorney in the predominantly rural county of Horicon. While the new job paid only a fraction of her former partner's draw, it offered reasonable hours and little stress, thanks to the area's low crime rate. To complete her break with the past, she bought a stunning contemporary home in Oakwood, twelve miles west of Horicon's county seat.
After seventy-five years, during which Oakwood had remained an unincorporated wide space in the road with a general store, a blacksmith shop, and a tavern, the real estate boom and easy-money years of the late 1970s and early 1980s had put the community on the map. Young professionals, awash in cash and deploring the cramped spaces and lack of safety in their city neighborhoods, had flocked north to build their elegant homes.
The new urban settlers also proved to be good at town planning. The minimum lot size in the village was one acre, and Oakwood Hills, the area's premier address, boasted a two-acre minimum. A multitude of other deed restrictions also operated to keep out undesirables. The planning scheme had served its intended purposeamong its twenty-five hundred residents, Oakwood counted a Milwaukee Brewers shortstop, a Milwaukee Bucks guard and a United States senator. A quaint business district had sprung up on the southern end of town, with tony restaurants, an espresso bar, antique and gift stores, and a number of high-end specialty clothing shops.
For Liz, the move to Oakwood was an important step in putting her life back in order. She basked in her newfound independence and her new home. Gardening became a passion, and she was amazed at how much satisfaction could be derived from cutting the grass with her new Sears riding lawn mower or watching her flower beds deepen in beauty as the months passed.
Most of all, Liz loved Oakwood's friendly, smalltown atmosphere. It seemed that everyone she met went out of their way to make her feel welcome. As a result, Liz felt a sense of belonging that had been sorely lacking in the city. She had recently been nominated to fill a vacancy on the planning commission, the village's most prestigious committee. She was touched that the village trustees thought enough of her to bestow such a coveted seat on a newcomer. She was eager to assume her duties so that she could give something back to the community and, by encouraging orderly growth, ensure that Oakwood would continue to offer a quality standard of living for future generations.
Liz was almost done planting the last of the six flats of impatiens when she heard a familiar voice behind her. "How many times have I told you to wear a hat when you're working out in the sun? All I can say is don't come crying to me when you get skin cancer."
"You know how much I hate hats." Liz turned and gave a little wave to her best friend, Esther McMillan, and her two children. Five-month-old Ariel rested comfortably in a Snugli attached to her mother's chest, while three-year-old Cameron trudged sturdily along under his own power. On leave from a tenured position as a history professor at a private college, Esther was tall, svelte, and blond, and Liz was certain her chum had somehow managed to look gorgeous even in the throes of labor. Dressed in lightweight cotton pastels, mother and children looked as if they had just stepped out of an Impressionist painting. Only Esther's sharp tongue belied her genteel bearing.
"I don't care if you despise hats," Esther scolded, adjusting her own floppy chapeau. "Have you ever seen someone in the advanced stages of melanoma? It's not a pretty sight."
Liz smiled. It was Esther who had encouraged her to make the move to Oakwood. During the dark days of the divorce, when their friends were dividing themselves up between her and Peter like so many pieces of china, Esther and her husband, Bob, had been the first to land solidly in Liz's column. Liz had been extremely gratified but also a bit surprised, since the McMillans' ties to Peter predated the marriage. Bob McMillan had been Peter's broker for years, and Liz knew that taking her side had cost Bob's firm a great deal of money. But the two of them had served as Liz's anchor through the whole sordid affair, always ready to lend a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on, or a snifter of brandy.
The McMillans had moved to Oakwood Hills five years earlier, and when Liz had mentioned to Esther in passing that she, too, was thinking of leaving the city, Esther had immediately arranged for her friend to go through half a dozen houses that were for sale. Liz had made an offer on one of them the following day. While she occasionally had twinges of nostalgia for her historic home in the city, she quickly shrugged them off. She would create her own history here.
Liz stood up, brushing the dirt off her knees. "I'm all finished," she announced proudly, peeling off her gloves and tossing them on the ground. "Planted two hundred of those little suckers today. Not bad, huh?"
"Looks great," Esther agreed, extricating baby Ariel from the Snugli and setting her down in the grass. "I just hope the sun doesn't fry them before they've had a chance to take hold."
"They should be okay," Liz said, leaning down and tickling the baby's fat chin. "It's fairly well shaded here."
"I helped plant flowers yesterday," Cameron informed Liz gravely. "Big red ones."
"That was nice of you," Liz said, patting the little boy on the head. "I'll bet your mommy was real proud of you."
"Mommy was thrilled," Esther laughed. "Especially when he got the bright idea that we could make the geraniums go much farther if he pulled each bud off and planted it separately. Luckily I caught him before he decimated my entire crop."
Liz worked her shoulders up and down. The long hours of crawling around on the ground had left her aching and sore. "Say," she said casually, "what time is it getting to be?"
Esther glanced down at her watch. "Quarter to three."
Liz nodded. "The quarry should be entering the church right about now."
Esther made a face. "Didn't I tell you to try to block the whole thing out of your mind? Peter is ancient history. He's not worth getting upset over."
"I know," Liz said hastily. "I haven't been dwelling on it. After all, there's nothing like gardening to help take out your frustrations. Why, this morning when I was using the clippers to chop off the last of the tulips, every time I made a cut I imagined I was slashing away at a different part of Peter's anatomy. It was great therapy."
"That's the spirit!" Esther congratulated her. "Say, why don't you let Bob and me take you to dinner tonight, to make sure you don't sink into the doldrums?"
"Thanks for the offer," Liz replied, "but Harry's taking me out."
"Oh," Esther said, the corners of her mouth turning down. "I see."
In his official capacity, Harry Washburn was the Horicon County District Attorney and Liz's boss. Unofficially, he and Liz had been dating for the past six months, much to Esther's dismay. Liz crossed her arms in front of her. "Let's not get into another one of those discussions," she said, her eyes narrowing. "I know you don't particularly like Harry, but he has a lot of nice qualities. He's kind, he's gentle, he's attentive"
"So's my dog," Esther interrupted, "but that doesn't mean I want to date him." Seeing Liz's mouth turn down, she put up her hands in a defensive gesture. "Okay, okay. Sorry. If you're happy, I'm happy."
"I'm happy," Liz assured her.
"Good," Esther said, patting her friend on the shoulder. "It's your funeral. Well, have a nice dinner. I'll talk to you soon."
When the McMillan entourage had left, Liz returned her garden tools to the garage and tossed the empty plastic flower flats into a trash container before going in the house. She went up to her bedroom, stripped off her dirty clothes and tossed them into the hamper, then stood under a tepid shower for several minutes, until she felt her body temperature returning to normal. She lathered gobs of lotion on her sunburned skin, ran a brush through her hair, and pulled on a clean pair of shorts and a baggy top before walking barefoot back down to her bright, airy kitchen.
She opened up the refrigerator and for a long moment stared with disinterest at the half a dozen cans of mineral water lined up neatly on a shelf before wrinkling her nose and slamming the door again. She had gained fifteen pounds during the divorce, and while she had managed to shed about half of them, those last eight pounds seemed to be hanging on like an albatross around her middle. Still, she had put in a strenuous day, and she deserved a treat. She opened the freezer compartment and pulled out a half gallon of banana split ice cream. She set the carton down on a counter, pried off the lid, and began to eat out of the carton. That was one of the nice things about living alone. There was no one to scold you about your bad habits.
Liz had savored four or five spoonfuls when the portable phone on the nearby island squawked. She helped herself to one more delicious mouthful before padding across the bleached-oak floor to answer it.
"Well, Elizabeth, I'm surprised to find you home," a rather abrasive woman's voice announced.
Liz rolled her eyes. "If you didn't think I'd be home, Mother, why did you bother trying to call?"
The older woman ignored the sarcasm. "So, how are things going?"
"Fine," Liz replied noncommittally. Tucking the phone under her chin, she walked back to the counter, replaced the lid on the ice cream carton, and popped it back into the freezer. Then she opened the cupboard above the fridge and pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniel's. She got out a glass, poured a good inch of the liquor, hesitated a moment, poured in a bit more, and took a sip. It burned all the way down, yet was strangely refreshing. She took another swallow. The burning sensation eased a bit, and she began to feel more mellow.
"Well, I was just puttering around the house, and I got to thinking about you," her mother pressed on, "and, wondering how you were and, you know, wondering if you were all right" There was a pregnant pause.
"Of course I'm all right," Liz said innocently. "What on earth would make you think I might not be all right?"
Mrs. Stanfeld expelled her breath loudly. "You know very well what I'm referring to," she retorted. "The wedding."
Liz took another sip of bourbon. "What makes you think I would give a damn about the wedding?" she said crossly. "I haven't given it one moment's thought."
"Well, I just thought you might be feeling a little down in the dumps today," her mother persisted. "And there would certainly be nothing unusual if you were feeling upset. After all, you were married to the man for seven years."
Liz could feel herself begin to do a slow burn. Mona Stanfeld had simply adored her son-in-law and could not understand how Liz had managed to let such a perfect husband get away without a fight. Liz often wished there had been some way her mom could have been awarded to Peter as part of the property settlement. "You got me, Ma!" Liz exclaimed, downing another swallow of booze. "I didn't want to tell you, but actually I'm so despondent and so anxious about what's happening that to find out I have someone standing by at the wedding as we speak, equipped with a cellular phone. We really shouldn't be tying up the line, because they're going to be calling any minute to give me a blow-by-blow description of the entire ceremony. I can't wait to find out who catches the bouquet."
"Really, Elizabeth," her mother said in a frosty tone. "There is no need to be impertinent."
Before Liz could respond, the call waiting signal cut in. Thank you, thank you, Liz silently mouthed to whatever god controlled the phone lines. "See, Ma? What'd I tell you? Here comes my call. Gotta go. Talk to you soon. Say hi to Pop. 'Bye." She clicked off before her mother could lob another retort and briskly answered the incoming call. "Liz Stanfeld."
"Liz?" a deep male voice asked. "I'm sorry to bother you at home"
"That's all right, Harry," Liz cut in with a deep sigh, as she took another sip of bourbon. Then she frowned. "Say, you're not calling to cancel our dinner, are you?"
"No," Harry Washburn hastily replied. "We're still on for tonight. Actually, this is a business call."
"Oh?" Liz said curiously.
"Yes. I was hoping you'd be able to meet me down at the sheriff's department."
"No problem. What's up?"
"They found Jeremy Barker's body this afternoon."
"Oh, God!" Liz felt her stomach lurch. "I'm on my way." She dropped the phone back on the counter, tossed the rest of the bourbon down the sink, and hurried upstairs to change her clothes.