All appears peaceful in sleepy Port Quincy, Pennsylvaniabut in this small town, old grudges die hard. . .
After dumping her cheating fiancé and cancelling the wedding, Mallory Shepard can't bear another disaster. So when the former bride-to-be unexpectedly inherits Thistle Park, a ramshackle mansion in her ex's hometown of Port Quincy, it's a problem she can't affordliterally. Abound with stray cats, peeling wallpaper, and nosy neighbors, Mallory is dying to sell it offonce she finally fixes up both the place and her messy life. . .
Turns out, Thistle Park has its charms. But the honeymoon phase is abruptly cut short when an unwanted visitor is found dead on the front lawn. Enlisting the help of her sister Rachel, Mallory vows to unveil the killer before she herself becomes married to the suspect list. . .
"I had great fun reading the adventures of nouveau sleuth Mallory Shepard as she wrangles corpses, kittens, and a cheating fiancé in this charming debut mystery." Laura Levine, author of Death by Tiara
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Engaged in Death
By Stephanie Blackmoore
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Stephanie Hayes
All rights reserved.
"I'm going to kill your mother," I whispered, meaning every word.
My fiancé, Keith, offered me an indulgent smile. His mother, Helene, had hijacked us again. I was ready to call off the whole damn wedding.
"You and me both, Mallory."
We were getting married in three short weeks. Keith, his mother, and I were at the country club where we were going to hold the reception, in the sleepy town of Port Quincy, Pennsylvania. I munched on fusty shrimp cocktail. The grandeur was decaying. We were going over the final details before the big day, and Helene, my soon-to-be-mother-in-law, was taking over, as usual. She'd spent the afternoon ordering people around and unraveling all of my work in the final hour.
I liked to plan things out. Some would say I had an unhealthy fascination with structure and order, arranging my life just so. In my twenty-nine years, I'd managed to plan my life with great precision. That was, until I ran into Hurricane Helene.
"This beef is too rare. Look at the blood when I cut into it. And this soup has too much sherry." Helene tossed her spoon onto her plate with a clatter. She glared at the small sample of food as if it were laced with poison. "I doubt you'll be able to fix this abomination of a meal before the wedding."
"I'm sorry, ma'am." The server whisked away the offending dishes. "I'll let the chef know."
Helene was dressed impeccably, as always, in one of her exquisite Chanel jackets. Pearls gleamed in her ears and diamond tennis bracelets sparkled on her bony wrists. Helene favored these and other signs of 1980s splendor: primary-color power suits, shoulder pads, and her signature gray Dutch boy haircut, always perfectly sprayed into place.
"Are you okay?" Keith rubbed my back. "You haven't eaten anything."
I touched his arm. "It's nerves, I guess. I'll definitely have some cake."
Just then, the manager of the country club rolled the cake into the ballroom. A bead of sweat ran down his nose and dropped onto the carpet. He glanced at Helene and quickened his pace. He set the cake before us, a perfect replica of the real thing, in three-tiered miniature. Pink sugar crystals glittered on a background of pale green marzipan.
"Everything will be ready. This will be a lovely wedding." He offered Helene a worried smile.
She sniffed in response as he cut small slivers of cake and positioned them on little china plates. "Just make sure my corrections are duly noted."
What Helene wanted, Helene got. Too bad I was the one paying for the wedding.
"Of course." The manager fled. He cast a massive eye roll Helene's way. After an hour of this, I'd barely been able to suppress them myself.
"This looks incredible." My voice held a falsely cheery note, trying to smooth things over and make everything copacetic.
I tucked into the small slice of cake, which looked delicious. Never mind that Keith and I had picked devil's food with raspberry filling and Helene had nixed our choice.
"Wedding cake is white," she'd decreed. She immediately changed our cake to lemon chiffon with buttercream filling. After fighting with her over every detail, I was willing to concede.
"You did a great job with all of this." Keith gave my hand a squeeze. "You should be a wedding planner."
"Thanks." I returned his smile.
The truth was, though I loved to execute a plan, I was annoyed I'd carried out Helene's version of a perfect wedding. I'd actually had fun when I'd forgotten it was supposed to be my own wedding. I'd relished meeting with vendors and getting every detail just right. More than once over the past year of planning I'd fantasized about becoming a wedding planner, especially when things got hairy at my law firm. The only problem was, I felt like Helene's planner, not the bride. But that wasn't what mattered. What matters is I'm marrying the love of my life in just a few weeks.
"This cake is too dry. It crumbled to bits and pieces the instant I touched it with my fork." Helene got up to find the manager when he wasn't instantly at her beck and call.
"What happened?" I gestured around the empty ballroom with a helpless wave of my hand. "We wanted to get married at the courthouse, with a small reception on Mount Washington, overlooking the city. Or take up my mom and stepdad's offer and get married at their house in Florida. How did we end up here?"
"We can still elope." Keith's eyes twinkled.
Before I could ask if he was serious, his cell phone began to vibrate, dancing sideways across the white tablecloth. I glanced at the screen. Becca Cunningham, a first-year associate he worked with.
"Gotta take this. It's for the Emerson case." Keith stood and dropped a kiss on top of my head. He walked out to the country club's deck, overlooking the swollen Monongahela River, leaving me at the mercy of his mother.
I frowned. Keith and I were attorneys at different firms. I'd met all of the young attorneys he mentored, and I didn't trust Becca Cunningham. She was gushy and obsequious and had failed the bar twice. Ever since Keith made partner this past spring, she'd latched on to him and his cases. I suspected she'd made herself indispensable to avoid getting fired if she didn't pass the bar this summer on her final attempt.
I glanced out to the deck, where Keith was talking on the phone, animated and pacing in the July sunshine. A shadow passed behind me as Helene returned to the table.
"Watch your weight, dear. We wouldn't want you to stumble in the home stretch and undo all of your hard work. You need to fit into that dress." Helene snapped me back to reality. She didn't mean the "dear" part. Her eyes were all ice and daggers.
I had gotten out of shape from working long hours at the firm and dining out. I'd recently slimmed back down to the size I'd been in college, thanks to all of the early-morning runs I'd been squeezing in these past three months. Still, I couldn't get rid of my stubborn little belly, a vestige of cortisol and stress and all-nighters at the firm, fueled by takeout and lattes.
My reply stuck in my dry throat, so I washed down the last bite of cake with a swig of champagne. "Don't worry, Helene. The dress will fit just fine." I seethed, but I was determined to be civil. This is almost over.Three weeks, three weeks, three weeks.
Helene's flinty eyes skipped over my now-empty plate to my stomach. She reached down and pinched my side through my thin cotton dress.
"Ouch!" I tilted back, hooking my chair's legs on the faded green and pink rose carpet, barely catching myself as I started to fall backward.
Helene threw up her bejeweled hands. "Just be careful. You need to look perfect, and I can tell you don't have an inch to spare."
Keith chose that moment to walk back in. His face fell. "Everything okay?"
"I was just complimenting Mallory on her discipline with her figure. She'll be a magnificent bride."
I didn't say anything but gave Keith the "let's get the hell out of here" stare. We wrapped things up and Helene moved in for her obligatory air kiss. She stalked out of the ballroom, leaving her trademark trail of Calèche in her wake. The aldehydic shards of her perfume seemed to hang in the air and pursue me after she'd gone, like an angry pack of hornets. I slumped back into my chair, air whooshing out of my lungs. I could feel the waiters at the country club relax.
"I really am going to kill her before the wedding. I'm sure of it."
"I apologize, Mall. She's out of control. But in a few weeks, we'll finally be married." We had left the country club and were safely in Keith's car. He leaned over the center console and squeezed my knee.
"I know. And that's what's important. She just commandeers everything."
Keith frowned and turned east, instead of toward the highway.
I took a deep breath. "I want to have a good relationship with your mother, and I'm trying. It's just ... where are you going? This isn't the way to the nursing home. I thought we were going to visit Sylvia."
We were barely out of the confines of Port Quincy, heading in the opposite direction of the nursing home where Keith's grandma Sylvia lived, situated halfway between Port Quincy and Pittsburgh. No matter how crazy my schedule was, I stopped in to see Sylvia every other Sunday. I brought her a National Enquirer and little pastries from her favorite bakery. We ate and drank tea from an elaborate antique set from the grand old house she'd given up and gossiped about the reality TV show she was so fond of. Sylvia moved around her suite with surprising agility, dragging her oxygen tank behind her. She showed me articles she'd cut out of the newspaper and called people in from the hallway to chat with us.
Once in a while, I convinced Keith to join me. Sylvia claimed Helene had placed her in the Whispering Brook nursing home against her will and I was the only one who ever visited. I wasn't entirely convinced about her first claim, but I really was the only one who stopped in other than Helene's grudging biannual Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve visits and the few Sundays Keith accompanied me.
"You'll see where I'm going. It's a surprise." Keith had a mischievous smile. "We can see Sylvia next weekend."
My visit with Sylvia was off the table. I frowned and settled back into the buttery leather seat of his BMW. Sylvia was my only family left in western Pennsylvania, now that my mother, stepfather and sister moved to Pensacola three years ago. Sylvia wasn't technically my family yet, but she treated me like her own granddaughter. And unlike Helene, she was genuinely excited to have me join the family. There was no love lost between Sylvia and Helene. Since Sylvia was ninety-nine, she felt entitled to speak her mind. I tamped down a smile, remembering how Sylvia had gone on a diatribe about Helene just two weeks ago. Sylvia was pretty hard of hearing, so her criticisms had echoed down the halls of the nursing home. It was Sylvia who had told me I should trust my instincts and elope if I needed to call off this crazy wedding whirlwind.
"Just thinking about Sylvia and how she's such a ... piston. You never know what she's going to say."
"She loves you, Mallory. And I do too."
I rolled down the window and breathed in the fresh summer air. We made several turns and ended up far into the countryside, passing a rabbit warren of new housing developments cut into the hillsides, all with counterfeit names casting for a British air: Carrington Manor, Chichester Glen, Manchester Heights, though there was neither a manor nor glen in sight.
We turned into Windsor Meadows, which featured the biggest homes under construction of all the housing tracts. The development was about half finished, and we wended our way up a sharply sloping hill, past large new salmon and taupe-colored brick behemoths rising out of the mud, all sleek gables, peaks, and triangles. All vaguely alike. They sat close together on narrow lots, and new grass struggled to grow in front of them. Keith navigated a dead-end street and parked with a flourish in front of an empty lot, muddy and bare.
"Voilà!" He exited the BMW and rushed around to open my door.
"What is this?" Panic rose in my voice. "Why are we here?" This wasn't part of the plan. I fingered my watch and wondered if I should have called Sylvia to let her know we wouldn't be visiting today.
Keith's smile, which was threatening to crack his face, broke into pieces. "My mother feels bad about the friction between the two of you. She wanted to do something nice, so she purchased this lot as our wedding gift. We can build to suit as soon as we choose which house we want." The grin came back, triumphant.
"But ..." I leaned against the car door, woozy and shocked. "We talked about this. I thought you wanted to stay in the city, close to work and close to our friends. We're more than an hour from Pittsburgh out here." I gestured around me, trailing off into silence. I didn't add, out here, right under Helene's surgically enhanced nose.
"I know what we talked about, but we'll be married, so we need to think of our future. We'll need a safer place for our future kids. I had such a great childhood in Port Quincy, away from all the craziness of the city." He frowned. "We thought you'd be happy with this."
"We? Which we are you talking about?" I couldn't keep my voice from shaking. "You and Helene? I would never choose this. I see this as a way for Helene to keep tabs on us, to control us and to turn us into Mr. and Mrs. Cul-de-sac."
Keith took a step back, crossing his arms. "What's wrong with being Mr. and Mrs. Cul-de-sac?"
I didn't reply.
"Wow. I guess I'm really off base. With your mom in Florida" — he pinched the furrow between his brows — "my mother can help out with the children once we have them. We have to be realistic."
I stared at him in shock. My mouth opened and shut like a beached fish gasping for breath. Living in a McMansion on the outskirts of Port Quincy was the last place on earth I wanted to be. If we were stuck in Helene's backyard, she could monitor us or, worse, direct our lives. I'd suffocate under the pressure. This wasn't part of the carefully calibrated plan for our future I'd envisioned. I felt ambushed.
"What about the commute?" I tried to keep my fury in check. I'd convince Keith with logic, if not emotion. "What about the fact you love living in the city? That I love it?" Despite growing up in the suburbs, I was a city girl now. I gazed beyond the edge of the housing development, where undulating green hills were dotted with black and white cows and brown horses. I couldn't imagine leaving our bustling city neighborhood for a pastoral retreat located ten miles past the boundary of a sane commute into town. "What about consulting me on major decisions?"
Keith began to sweat profusely and ran a hand through his thinning hair. "Do you honestly think you'll continue to work after we have children? Maybe at first, but c'mon, Mallory, are you really partner material? Do you even like practicing law? You could do something else. Something less stressful. Something you really want to do, when you figure that out. And you can do that from Port Quincy. I wasn't kidding about becoming a wedding planner."
The world began to spin. It was too hot, too humid, and too muggy. It was all too much. I closed my eyes against a wave of vertigo and slid down the car door, kneeling unceremoniously in the dust-covered road.
The ride back to the city was tense. We rode in silence until we reached our apartment building.
"My mother can sell the lot in no time if you're going to insist on being unhappy about her wedding gift. But let's not be hasty. You might realize it's a great idea and come around."
"I'm not going to 'come around' to this idea, Keith. I'm upset you'd make a big decision without even mentioning it. We're getting married in a few weeks, but sometimes it's like I don't even know you anymore."
We stopped at the mailbox in the lobby, and Keith extracted our mail, averting his eyes. "It's just pre-wedding jitters. Everything will be fine. I made a mistake. No, my mother made a mistake. You don't want to live out in Port Quincy. I get it. It was a bad gesture."
He handed me my portion of the mail, which contained the usual bills and advertisements and a large brown padded envelope. He reddened as he separated his mail, shoving a glossy brochure for Windsor Meadows behind a letter. We began the torturously slow ascent to our apartment in the old brass elevator.
I sat at the dining room table and put my head in my hands, rubbing my temples to ease out the headache that had been building since we left Windsor Meadows. Keith rubbed my shoulders and, after initially tensing up, I felt the stress and misgivings begin to melt away.
"I love you. I want nothing more than for you to be my wife. We'll figure out where to live together. Everything will fall into place." He nuzzled my neck, making me laugh.
"It was a big shock. I thought it was a practical joke."
"Let me make you some tea." He looked at me with tenderness and concern as he padded into the kitchen.
Excerpted from Engaged in Death by Stephanie Blackmoore. Copyright © 2016 Stephanie Hayes. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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