In the thick of a hot, muggy Atlanta summer, all Ditie Brown wants to do is keep her kids occupied and get them ready for school in the fall. When her ex-boyfriend, Phil Brockton, shows up for a Civil War reenactment, she thinks it might be fun and educational for the kids. Plus, her best friend Lurleen wants to put on the costumes and get in on the action, and Ditie isn’t one to rebel.
But things go south after a cannon misfires, resulting in the death of Phil’s med school rival. Was it an accident or something more sinister? Ditie soon realizes the past rarely stays buried, and her digging reveals longstanding enemies, killer motives, and new jealousy. When another reenactor is “accidentally” shot, the pressure is on for Ditie to solve the murders—or else her friends may be history . . .
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Car horns bleated, tempers flared, and people were as prickly as the sweat that beaded on their bodies. It was the usual muggy July in Atlanta, Georgia.
Every summer I wished for a condo by the sea, but the kids seemed content with the public Glenlake Pool in Decatur, ten minutes from our house. I made sure they got in the water every day it wasn't raining.
We'd just returned, and the shade of my giant magnolia gave us a moment's relief from the oppressive heat. Jason, age five, was becoming a swimmer, and Lucie, almost nine, already was one.
Four months since the death of my childhood friend Ellie — their mother — Lucie was beginning to act like a kid again and not a second mom to Jason.
"Stop hitting me with your water wings, Jason. It's not funny. Make him stop, Aunt Di."
"Jason, come here. Let me have those wings. You hardly need them anymore."
Jason looked at me as if he were debating the possibility of running into the house, but I was too fast for him. As a pediatrician, I knew how to capture children, if not with my charm, then with the speed of a firm hand.
I took the water wings and scooted him inside to take a bath.
"You can use my shower upstairs, Lucie."
I entered the house two steps behind them. The swim had been refreshing but already I was perspiring from the sultry air.
The air conditioning took my breath away. I started when I saw Mason settled on my sofa with my dog Hermione lounging beside him. I didn't work Fridays, but Mason did.
"Why aren't you tracking down murderers?" I asked.
"I got time off for good behavior." He must have seen me shivering. "I hope it's not too cold in here." He held out his hand and tugged me, wet suit and towel, onto his lap. Hermione jumped down — she wasn't fond of anything or anyone that might get her wet. Mason wrapped a throw around me.
"That will get soaked," I said.
"You have a dryer — I'll take care of it."
"Really, why aren't you at work?"
"I pulled two all-nighters. They'll call me if they need me. Right now, I just wanted to see you." He pushed my short dark curls away from my face. "You look good enough to eat."
I probably did look like a nice plump muffin, but no matter how I looked, Mason made me feel gorgeous. I slipped off his lap, so I could see him clearly.
"What are you up to?" I asked.
"A man has to be up to something because he wants to see his girlfriend in the middle of the day?"
"Yes, if that man is a detective with the Atlanta Police Department."
For a moment, Mason looked hurt. "You really don't know what day this is?"
I searched my memory and shook my head. "It's not my birthday or yours. Jason had his, and Lucie's is in September. I give up." I looked into his warm gray eyes, rubbed his bald head and gave him a kiss. "I really don't care why you're here, I'm glad you are."
"It's exactly four months since we met," he said. "You forgot."
"I'll never forget that," I said.
It was the worst night of my life and my children's lives. It was the night their mother was murdered. Mason Garrett, the detective on the case, gave me the news. He was kind and gentle, and my view of him had never changed.
I cuddled up to him, wet bathing suit and all.
"I can't believe it's only been four months," he said. "I feel as if I've known you all my life."
"I feel the same way."
"You mean that?"
As soon as I said that out loud, I realized where Mason was headed. When would be the right time to ask me to marry him or at least to move in together? The children, I'd say, as I said every time he brought up the issue. The children needed stability right now, no new upheaval.
We were spared this conversation by Jason who ran into the room with his mitt in one hand and a bat in the other.
"You didn't wait for me to run your bath," I said.
"Uncle Mason is here," he said, as if that justified never taking a bath again. "Wanna play ball?"
"You got a ball?" Mason asked looking around.
Jason searched the room. "Hermione," he shouted.
My wonderful patient shepherd-collie mix trotted into the room, head held high with a softball in her mouth.
"Jason," I said. "I told you to put that up where Hermione couldn't get it. She thinks it's her toy now and she'll chew it up.
Jason pulled it from her mouth. "It's fine, see?"
It was fine except for a few toothmarks.
"If it gets chewed up," I said, "the next one comes out of your allowance."
Mason stood up. "I think we men better leave, before your Aunt Di starts yelling at us." He ushered Jason out in front of him.
Hermione trotted after them into the front yard. From the porch I watched Mason lob the ball to Jason who threw it back with the fierce attention of a five-year-old. After Lucie appeared, ready to play shortstop, I went inside and took a shower. I was barely dressed when I heard Hermione barking.
Mason shushed her and said, "Can I help you?"
"Is Ditie available?"
I recognized a familiar voice.
I ran downstairs and out to the porch, a towel in one hand, trying to do something with my curly hair.
Before me stood Phil Brockton IV ... in a Civil War uniform. Despite my best efforts not to notice, he looked incredibly handsome. Six feet tall, one hundred eighty pounds, straight brown hair that fell casually over one eye — elegant in his gray uniform.
"Phil? I thought you were going to call when you were coming to town for a reenactment."
"I did call and emailed as well, but you never responded, so here I am."
It was all true. Phil had emailed me a few weeks earlier and given me the date he was coming. I hadn't responded because I didn't know what to say. He'd called, and I'd deleted the message almost as soon as I received it. Somehow I'd managed to 'forget' those communications.
"I'm on my way to a pre-battle planning party and thought I'd stop by," he said. "I hope you can come to the Battle of Resaca tomorrow. It's the biggest of the Atlanta Campaign reenactments." Before I answered, I introduced him to the three people clustered around me.
"Philip Brockton, this is Mason Garrett and these are my children Lucie and Jason."
"Your children?" Phil looked shocked.
"Long story. They're my children now and forevermore."
Mason and Phil reluctantly shook hands.
"You're the boyfriend police detective, right?" Phil asked.
Mason raised one eyebrow and nodded. "You're the doctor obsessed with the Civil War who took off for New York abruptly after residency."
This wasn't going well.
Phil looked at me. "What have you told this guy about me?"
"Never mind," I said. "Why are you here, Phil?"
"When I didn't hear back from you, I assumed you hadn't gotten my messages. I'm hoping you can come tomorrow. For old time's sake."
"Like Civil War old time's sake?" Mason asked. "Or something else."
I gave Mason a look meant to say I could fight my own battles. Phil was the only man I ever thought I might marry before Mason. He'd stood me up seven years earlier — not at the altar — but by leaving town and moving in with an oncology nurse.
"Why didn't you just call me again today?" I asked.
"I thought you might be avoiding me, and I wanted to see you. Can you come tomorrow? All the action starts in the afternoon, around two." He looked at the family group. "Everyone's invited."
I wasn't sure he meant that. It sounded more like his polite Southern upbringing speaking. "I don't know, Phil."
"A lot of the old gang from med school will be there — Harper and Ryan Hudson, Sally Cutter, Andy Morrison. I don't know if you remember Frank Peterson — he was in the class ahead of us, but he and I stayed friends."
"To be honest, Phil, the only person I'd really like to see is Andy. I haven't kept up with your other friends, and didn't Sally drop out of school second year? I'm surprised you're still in touch with her."
"We're friends, and she loves this reenactment stuff. Please come."
I looked at Mason. He didn't look happy.
"I'm not sure I can."
Why couldn't I just say no? What was wrong with me? He'd hurt me more than any man ever had before or since. Did I need him to take responsibility for what he'd done? I'd fallen hard for Phil. Do you ever get over your first love or do you always imagine how it might have ended differently?
I felt an old longing mixed with hurt.
"I'll see if Lurleen can stay late with the kids, and I'll have to see if I can leave a little early from the refugee clinic. I work there Saturday mornings, so I don't know if I can make it."
"You'll have a great time. Maybe we could visit before things get started."
Phil left and Mason turned to me. "Are you seriously thinking about going tomorrow? I thought you were over this guy. Do you still have feelings for him?"
I looked at the children, who were staring at us.
"Let's go inside," I said. "I think we all need to cool off."
I headed for the kitchen. "How about some lemonade? We'll make it fresh. Jason, get me six lemons from the bowl by the sink. I'll cut and you can squeeze, Lucie."
Standing in my cool white kitchen with its tin ceiling and gray quartz countertops helped me calm down. It was always my go-to place when I needed comfort. I ran my hand over the marble island and waited for Jason to bring me the lemons.
Mason remained in the welcoming archway between my kitchen and breakfast room, but there was nothing warm in his look.
I turned to him. "Maybe you can find a family movie for us to watch unless you need to check in at the office."
Mason didn't say a word, just headed for the family room.
Lucie leaned toward me and whispered. "Something's wrong, isn't it Aunt Di? You have that look."
"You know, the look you get when you're worried and don't want us to know. You get those wrinkles in your forehead and your mouth goes all serious."
"Lucie, it's nothing to worry about." I hugged her. "It's just that a man I knew years ago turned up on my doorstep, and it shocked me a little."
Jason was walking toward the island trying hard to balance lemons in his small hands, intent on not dropping any. I placed them on the chopping board, and he counted them out.
"Look Aunt Di, six."
I smiled at him. "Perfect."
"That man who came to see you," Jason said, "was he wearing a costume for Halloween?"
"That's months away," Lucie said, "in October."
I could see Jason's lip start to quiver. He never liked being criticized by his sister.
"He was dressed in a Confederate Civil War uniform," I said. "He came to Atlanta to play a part in a pretend battle."
Jason looked completely bewildered.
"Jason, you remember how much Danny likes to talk about the Civil War, the war that took place over a hundred and fifty years ago."
Danny was the live-in boyfriend of my best friend Lurleen, and he'd become an important part of the children's lives.
"Uncle Danny calls it the War of Northern Aggression," Lucie said proudly, "where the Northern states got mad at the Southern states and everybody fought everybody. We read about it in school, and they called it the Civil War."
"I love Danny like a brother, but we don't see eye to eye about everything. The Southern states wanted to leave the United States and form a separate country. You've heard about Abraham Lincoln?"
"Lincoln was president and he didn't want the United States to fall apart," I said. "He fought a war to save it and eventually to free the slaves."
I'd lost Jason halfway through the conversation. He'd wandered off to the living room and was trying to teach Hermione a new trick — walking on her hind legs to get a treat. She was a big dog, and this was unlikely to work no matter how sweet the treat.
I cut the lemons in half, and Lucie squeezed them into the pitcher. We added sugar and ice water and stirred like crazy. Lucie tasted it and agreed it was sweet enough. We put together a tray with glasses of lemonade and some homemade ginger cookies.
I poked my head into the family room where Mason was watching TV.
"Twilight double header," he said when he saw me. "Just started. The Braves hit a home run." He glanced at the kids. "I can find a movie if you'd rather."
"No need," I said.
Jason scrambled up on the couch. He was never one to miss a baseball game or time with Mason. I left them with the cookies and lemonade.
Lucie and I sat on the porch swing outside. Hermione flopped at our feet. Majestic, my orange cat who lived up to her name, settled on Lucie's lap.
Lucie stroked his head, and neither of us spoke. I was grateful for the time to think.
Phil Brockton shows up expecting me to drop everything to watch him play soldier. Just like old times. When I could be of use to him he wanted me around. He even let me think he loved me. But, no matter what he'd felt, I had loved him. I thought he was like my father — smart, funny, and compassionate.
I sighed, and Lucie looked at me.
"It's nothing," I said. "I guess I'm bothered that Dr. Brockton showed up."
"Did you love him, Aunt Di?"
"Whatever made you ask that, honey?"
"You have that look you give Uncle Mason sometimes."
"Good grief, Lucie. Do you spend every minute studying my face?"
Lucie blushed. "It's not hard, Aunt Di. Even Uncle Mason says he can tell what you're thinking before you say a word." Lucie sat quietly for a moment. She started picking at the wooden planks in the porch swing.
"What is it, Lucie?"
"It's just ... if you loved him once, maybe you still love him. Uncle Mason wouldn't like that, and I wouldn't either."
"Not to worry, Lucie. I'm no longer in love with Dr. Brockton."
I hoped that was true.
"And you are in love with Uncle Mason?" she asked with the tiniest grin.
"Say, I think you have a wobbly tooth in that mouth of yours. Let me check."
I poked around in her mouth and tickled her until she was giggling so hard she nearly fell off the swing onto Hermione. Majestic had jumped ship at the first sign of a disturbance, and Hermione had the good sense to move away.
Mason must have seen us through the bay window in the family room because he and Jason came outside a moment later.
"I can't leave you guys alone for a minute," Mason said as he closed the screen door. "I expected more of you, Hermione."
She trotted up to Mason in hopes of a good rub, which she got.
Lurleen and Danny arrived moments later, and we made plans for an ad hoc dinner. Danny and Mason would grill steaks. I would handle the salads, and Lurleen would watch the kids. She was always my backup. When her aunt died and left her a fortune, she'd quit her job at Sandler's Sodas and spent almost as much time with the kids as I did.
Over dinner I told Lurleen and Danny the story of Phil's abrupt arrival and his request that I watch a Civil War reenactment on Saturday.
"Boy," Danny said, "would I love to see that!"
Danny looked like a kid at that moment, all six feet four inches of him.
"You could come along if you don't have work to do," I said.
Danny was a former cop and now private investigator who set his own hours. "I'm free tomorrow."
I turned to Lurleen. "It'll be a longer day for you. I probably won't get home until after five."
"I don't mind," Lurleen said. "No offense, Danny, but the idea of watching grown men play war doesn't really interest me."
"It's not playing war, Lurleen, it's creating living history," Danny said.
"Ah, mon Dieu," Lurleen said. She returned to her unique version of French when she got frustrated.
"I'll try to leave the clinic around noon and get to Resaca about one," I said, "but you can probably go earlier if you want, Danny." Mason had been silent throughout the meal. I looked over at him.
"Would you like to come?"
"Can't. I have to work tomorrow."
His response was curt, and I didn't have any inclination to draw him out.
Danny and I made plans to meet on the battlefield.
Mason barely said two words to me when he left at the end of the evening. Worse than that he didn't kiss me good night. Could he really be jealous of a relationship that had ended seven years ago? Or did he know me well enough to recognize my ambivalence.
* * *
My supervisor Vic had no problem with my leaving the clinic early. I arrived at Resaca shortly after one. It was hard to imagine a bloody fight in such a pastoral setting with rolling hills dotted with pine trees. I'd never seen a reenactment, and the idea intrigued me now. In med school it was the last thing I had time for.
Perhaps having a boy of my own made me realize something new about the excitement of guns and battles. I suppose, to be honest, the idea of seeing Phil once more in uniform also intrigued me. Phil was a handsome man, and I didn't mind seeing a handsome man in uniform. I tried hard to convince myself that was the extent of my interest in him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Into the Frying Pan"
Copyright © 2019 Sarah Osborne.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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