When Charlie Harris decides to go back to school, he and his Maine Coon cat, Diesel, find themselves entangled in a deadly lovers quarrel on campus in the latest installment of the New York Times bestselling series.
In addition to his library duties and his role as doting grandad, Charlie has enrolled in an early medieval history course offered by young, charismatic professor Carey Warriner. Charlie feels a bit out of place- his fellow classmates are half his age- except for Dixie Bell Compton, another ‘mature’ student. When Charlie hears an angry exchange between her and their professor, his interest in piqued. He’s even more intrigued when she shows up at his office asking for a study partner. Charlie turns her down and is saddened to learn just a few days later that Dixie has been killed.
Charlie wonders if Professor Warriner had anything to do with Dixie’s death. Warriner is married to a fellow professor who happens to be a successful author. There are rumors on campus that their marriage was on the rocks. Was Dixie's death the result of a lovers’ triangle gone bad? Charlie soon discovers that the professor’s wife may have some secrets of her own and his suspect list is only getting longer.
As he and Diesel step further into the tangled web of relationships, someone else is viciously killed. Whose jealousy finally erupted into murderous rage? Was it a crime of passion or is there another more sinister motive? Charlie races to unravel this mystery: and to draw out the culprit, he may just have to put his own life on the line…
About the Author
Miranda James is the New York Times bestselling author of the Cat in the Stacks Mysteries, including Six Cats a Slayin', Claws for Concern, and Twelve Angry Librarians, as well as the Southern Ladies Mysteries, including Fixing to Die, Digging Up the Dirt, and Dead with the Wind. James lives in Mississippi.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Miranda James
What did you get yourself into?
That thought had run through my mind several times for the past few days, but never so often as it had during the ten minutes I waited for class to start.
Staring at the eager young faces and listening to the chatter of voices rise and fall around me, I felt increasingly out of place. I had not failed to notice the covert glances, the occasional grimaces, and the what is he doing here tilts of the head in my direction. Not much subtlety.
Stop being so self-conscious, I chided myself. You have every right to be here, even if you are three decades older than the rest of the class. Focus on why you’re here and remember the excitement you felt when you finally decided to do this.
Good advice, I realized, and I felt the tension begin to ebb away. I had long been fascinated by medieval history and sometimes wished I had majored in history, rather than in English, during my undergraduate days here at Athena. I had heard great things about the young professor who taught this course on the history of England from the end of the Roman occupation until the Norman Conquest. He offered a second course that picked up with the aftermath of the Conquest through the accession of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII. When I saw the course listed for the spring semester, I decided to give myself a belated Christmas gift and sign up to audit it. If all went well with the first course, I would sign up for the second one the next time it was offered.
Dr. Warriner’s courses always filled quickly, I had learned. I managed to squeak in before the class closed admissions. I hope he lived up to his reputation because I was so interested in the subject and anticipated filling in the gaps in my knowledge.
A late arrival caught my eye when she slipped into an empty seat to the left a row ahead of me. A voluptuous blonde with a head of curly hair, she appeared to be in her thirties. Still younger than I, but at least there would be one other older student in the class. As if she felt my speculative glance on her, she turned to look my way.
A cool, assessing gaze met mine. She smiled briefly, then turned back to face the front of the classroom. That one glance revealed a stunning face, makeup so expertly applied that she appeared cosmetics-free. Perhaps Dr. Warriner’s reputation had drawn her in as well, I mused. Or she might be a graduate student.
Conversation ceased suddenly as a tall, muscular man strode into the room to the front of the classroom. Had I not already seen Carey Warriner around campus a few times, I would have been more struck by his appearance. I heard the slow exhalation of sighs around me, and I glanced around. The female students raked him with their eyes, and I understood why. Warriner was easily the most handsome man I had ever seen in the flesh.
Broad shouldered, he stood at least six foot four and had the dark hair and eyes often referred to as black Irish. His chiseled features brought to mind the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Sleeves rolled up to expose bronzed forearms, he favored the class with an engaging smile as he surveyed the room. Perhaps it was my sometimes overactive imagination, but I thought the smile slipped briefly when his gaze rested on the attractive blonde to my left.
The smile quickly returned, however, and he perched on the corner of the long table at the front of the classroom. “Good afternoon, everyone. I am Professor Warriner. Welcome to my course on the history of early medieval England.”
His beautifully modulated baritone elicited a few more audible sighs from around the room, and his smile broadened. He appeared appreciative of this reaction. He reached for a folder he had laid on the table beside him.
“First things first, of course,” he said. “Let’s get the dull stuff out of the way. When I call your name, please raise your hand.”
He extracted a piece of paper from the folder and began to read the names. The blonde lifted her hand to the name Dixie Belle Compton. Talk about a Southern name, I thought. Dixie Belle. I noticed that Warriner did not look at the students when he called this name. Perhaps he already knew her? That would explain the brief change of expression.
So engrossed in contemplating this, I nearly missed my own name. I jerked my hand up, and Warriner nodded. He soon finished his roll call and laid the paper aside. He rose from his perch and went to the board. Here he wrote his e‑mail address. Turning back to face the class, he said, “You will use this to submit your written assignments. You will find the syllabus for this course, if you haven’t already, on my page in the history department website. This course requires a substantial amount of reading, some of it translations of primary sources, others are monographs by historians covering particular subjects.” He paused to the sound of a few subdued groans.
“This course is no sinecure,” he continued. “If you don’t know the meaning of the word, I suggest you look it up. You will have to work, and work diligently, if you expect to do well in this class. If you aren’t willing to work, I suggest you go ahead and drop the class today.” He paused for a moment as he assessed the class with a measuring glance. “I am passionate about my subject, and while I don’t expect my students to share my passion to the same degree, I do expect dedication to your work in this course. There will be no online instruction in this course. I prefer the old-fashioned methods, and that means I expect to see you in class at every scheduled meeting, on time, and ready to participate. Do not be late.”
Warriner’s uncompromising expression did not daunt me. In fact, I admired his standards, well familiar with them from my own college years here, thanks to several of my toughest professors. I had to admit to a certain amount of surprise, however, because of the prevalence of online education these days and the use of chat rooms and so on for group assignments.
I heard the rustle of movement around me. No doubt a few students were squirming a bit, and I wondered how many of them would return for the second class. Might as well weed out the less serious students right away.
“Now,” the professor said, “on to the scope of this course. We begin with the departure of the Romans in the fifth century of the Common Era. We will not discuss in detail why the Roman Empire abandoned its province of Britannia. That is the subject of a course taught by my colleague Professor Fischer.”
A hand shot up from the front row.
“Yes, what is it?” Warriner asked.
“Um, I was wondering, you know,” a lanky young man said, his words hesitant, “if you’re going to talk about King Arthur? I mean, you know, this is the period when he lived, right? Once the Romans left, you know.” He stammered to a halt, and he appeared to shrink under the now-harsh gaze of the professor.
Warriner stood and folded his arms over his chest. He surveyed the room before he again focused on the student with the question. “This is not a course on fantasy and myth. A professor in the English department teaches a course on English folklore. I suggest you take that if you want to read about Arthur and his knights.” He paused briefly. “Now, back to reality. There well could have been a warlord in the aftermath of Roman withdrawal who attempted to take control of parts of Britain, but if he existed at all, he was nothing like the legends that have grown up around the fantasy of Arthur.”
I felt the tension in the room. Perhaps the young man had hit a sore spot with Warriner by asking his question. Based on my own reading, admittedly limited, I agreed with the professor, as much as I enjoyed tales of Arthur and the Round Table. I loved the movie Excalibur, for example, but I viewed it as fantasy, as I did Mary Stewart’s enthralling Arthurian tetralogy about Arthur that I had read years ago.
Warriner suddenly smiled, and the tension I had felt dissipated. “I get a similar question every time I teach this course,” he said to the student, “and thank you for getting it out of the way so quickly. Now we can begin to focus on the real meat of the course.”
The professor spent several minutes discussing the assignments for the course, from assigned readings and the reports to be written about them, the number of tests, including the final exam, and the research paper due by the end of the course. Students could choose their topics, but he must approve them, and for those who needed help, he had a list of suggestions they could consult.
He paused for questions, and after he had answered three, he began his lecture. I had my pen and notebook ready. Many of the students, I had already observed, had brought laptops or tablets with keyboards with them. At first I found the clicking and tapping of keys and screens distracting, but I quickly became absorbed in Warriner’s lecture. My hand began to cramp after about twenty minutes. As accustomed to the keyboard as I was, I had not written this much by hand in years. I decided I would bring my laptop from now on.
I did my best to keep up with my note-taking, but occasionally I found myself so intent on the lecture I forgot to write anything. Warriner spoke with passionate interest in his subject and shared fascinating details about life in fifth-century Britain. His lecturing style made the past come alive, and I enjoyed every moment that he spoke. The bell rang far too soon.
“We’ll continue the topic on Friday,” Warriner said as students began to gather their belongings and stow away their devices.
I flexed my cramped writing hand and then massaged it. While other students filed out of the room, Warriner did not move from his position at the front of the room. I glanced up to find him regarding me. “Mr. Harris,” he said, “I would like to talk to you, if you have a moment.”
“Certainly.” I stuffed my notebook and pen in my briefcase and rose from the desk to join him at the front of the room.
Warriner perched again on the table and regarded me with a frown. For a moment I wondered if I had somehow offended him, or if he didn’t care for older students in his classes.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
The professor shook his head. “Not at all. I am wondering, however, why you are auditing my class rather than taking it for credit. Though we have not met before today, like everyone at Athena I am aware of your reputation for assisting in local murder investigations. Surely you’re not intimidated by the intellectual demands of the course.”
“No, it’s not that,” I said, somewhat defensively. His tone had not been dismissive or in any way negative, and I suddenly realized that my initial reaction was due to my own insecurities, not to his remarks. “I haven’t been in the classroom for over twenty-five years, and though I am thoroughly interested in the subject, I’m not sure I want to work that hard.”
“Doing well in this course takes effort and ability,” Warriner said. “Don’t underestimate yourself. I think you should consider taking the course for credit.”
I shrugged. “I’ll think about it, but I don’t believe I’ll change my mind. If you’d rather I dropped the class because of that, I will, though I’d be deeply disappointed.”
Warriner flashed a smile. “No need for that. How about this? You turn in the first two assignments, let me see what you can do with them. If neither of us is satisfied with the results, I won’t push you into taking the class for credit, and you can audit.”
I considered that for a moment. I wondered why this mattered to him, but I had to admit he intrigued me with his offer. “All right, I’ll do that.”
“Good.” Warriner nodded and rose from the desk. “Then I’ll see you here on Friday.”
I nodded and turned away. At the door I almost ran into Dixie Belle Compton, who had apparently been lingering there. She brushed past me and strode into the room. She jostled my arm, and I dropped my briefcase. She didn’t pause in her progress, and I suppressed a rude comment.
As I bent to pick up my briefcase, I heard Warriner say, in a savage but carrying undertone, “What the hell are you doing in my class?”
I didn’t wait to hear Ms. Compton’s response to Carey Warriner’s question. I grabbed up my briefcase and headed rapidly down the hall. I couldn’t help speculate, however, about Warriner’s behavior. That he and Ms. Compton knew each other was obvious. I wondered how they knew each other, and how well. The tone the professor used had sounded both nasty and angry. What prompted it?
Not your business, I reminded myself. I walked quickly from the social sciences building back to my office in the antebellum mansion that housed the library director’s office, along with the archive and rare book collection. I would do better to focus on my work than to speculate idly on the private lives of people I barely knew.
Diesel ran out of the administrative suite as I approached the outer office where my friend Melba Gilley, the director’s administrative assistant, worked. My Maine Coon child, as I sometimes thought of him, warbled and trilled to let me know he was glad I hadn’t abandoned him after all. He walked beside me back into Melba’s office, chattering all the way. No doubt he was regaling me with his activities with his buddy Melba.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m back to take this rascal off your hands.”
Melba looked up from her computer to grin at me and the cat. “He’s been a perfect gentleman, as always. Haven’t you, sweet boy?”
Diesel trotted forward to rub his head against Melba’s outstretched hand. He looked at me, his expression smug—or so I interpreted it.
“I’m sure he has,” I said. “I appreciate your looking after him while I’m in class.”
“Glad to do it,” Melba replied. “How was the class?”
“Fine. He’s an excellent lecturer.” I debated whether to tell her what I had overheard between the professor and Ms. Compton. If anyone in town knew of any connection between professor and student, Melba would.
“He has a great reputation,” Melba said, rubbing along Diesel’s spine. “He’s about the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen, but he doesn’t act like he’s the Lord’s gift to women, I’ll say that for him.” She giggled. “Not like some men I know who aren’t anywhere near as good-looking as that man is.”
I laughed. “There were plenty of young women in class today, and I heard them sighing when he walked into the room.” I hesitated again, about to mention the other mature student, as we were called, as I found to my chagrin. Melba forestalled me.
“His wife is every bit as beautiful as he is,” Melba said. “From everything I’ve heard, she’s nice, too. Teaches medieval English lit, I think.”
“Irene Warriner.” I nodded. “I believe she’s a specialist in Anglo-Saxon literature.”
“Everyone says they’re devoted to each other.” Melba looked hesitant.
“You’re obviously dying to tell me something,” I said. “What have you heard to the contrary?”
“Do you know Viccy Kemp?” Melba asked, but continued before I could respond. “She’s the administrative assistant in the history department, and she and I go back a long way together. I had lunch with Viccy last week, and she brought along Jeanette Larson, who’s the admin in the English department.” She paused to look at me expectantly.
“I’ve spoken to Ms. Kemp,” I said, “when I went by to ask a question about auditing the class. I don’t know Ms. Larson.”
“They’re just about two of the biggest gossips on campus.” Melba wrinkled her nose. “They’re like this.” She twined two fingers together. “Anyway, what one of them doesn’t know, the other one does, and they don’t hesitate to talk about it to anyone who’ll listen.”
“And you were listening.”
Melba shrugged. “I couldn’t very well tell them to stop talking.”
Not when you were dying to hear what they had to say. I prudently kept that to myself, however. “Go on,” I said. “What did they have to say about the Warriners?”
“Jeanette said that Carey Warriner has taken one of the English professors to lunch several times lately,” Melba said. “She wasn’t talking about his wife. It was Barbara Lamont.”
I shook my head. I didn’t recognize the name. “Maybe they’re just friends.”
“Could be,” Melba said. “But then Viccy chimed in to say that Irene Warriner has been going out to lunch with one of her husband’s colleagues in the history department, Daniel Bellamy.”
“I don’t know him,” I said. “I haven’t met him, but I read one of his books on Regency England.” I laughed. “You know, that’s probably the reason Irene Warriner is having lunch with him. The Regency connection.”
Melba shook her head, obviously puzzled. “What are you talking about? What Regency connection?”
“The Regency period in the early nineteenth century when George the Third was mad and his son served as his regent,” I said.
“Okay,” Melba said, “but I still don’t see the connection.”
“Remember that book by Lucy Dunne I gave you a few weeks ago?” I asked.
Melba nodded. “I haven’t gotten to it yet. What about it?”
I grinned. “I can’t believe I know something you don’t about someone on campus. Lucy Dunne writes historical romances set in the Regency period. Lucy Dunne is Irene Warriner.”
“Well, I’ll be,” Melba muttered. “I had no idea she was a writer. Guess I’ll have to read that book next. So I guess you think Dr. Bellamy is helping her with her books?”
I nodded. “Stands to reason, doesn’t it? The period she teaches is many centuries earlier than the Regency, and he is an accomplished historian. The Lucy Dunne books are excellent, and I think you’ll enjoy the one I lent you.”
“Why doesn’t she write about what she already knows?” Melba asked.
“The market is better for Regency- and Victorian-set romances,” I said. “At least, according to Jordan Thompson, and she ought to know. Jordan told me not long ago that she—Irene Warriner, I mean—had recently signed a big contract for more books. She didn’t know how much, but apparently it was at least a healthy six figures. So she must be doing really well with her books.” Jordan Thompson owned the local independent bookstore, the Athenaeum, and I had always found her extremely helpful and knowledgeable about books of any genre.
“Okay, so maybe that explains Mrs. Warriner having lunch with another man besides her husband,” Melba said, “but what about her husband having lunch with another woman?”
“Could be something similar, I suppose, but I don’t know what Barbara Lamont’s specialty is.” I had a feeling this one might be more difficult to explain than the Warriner-Bellamy connection.
“Hang on a minute, and I’ll look her up.” Melba turned to her computer and started tapping at the keys. After a few clicks of the mouse, she evidently found what she wanted to know. “Barbara Lamont teaches twentieth-century American literature,” she announced. “Her specialty is Edith Wharton. Also Henry James, it says here.”
“Maybe Carey Warriner is a big Edith Wharton or Henry James fan. The two of them knew each other, I believe,” I said. “There are probably a dozen reasons—perfectly innocent reasons—that the two of them might have lunch together. Men and women can be friends without there being anything more than friendship between them. Like you and me, for example.”
“I know that,” Melba said. “And I pointed out that exact same thing to Viccy and Jeanette, but they don’t believe it. According to Viccy, Carey Warriner has a roving eye.”
I debated again whether to tell Melba about the incident between Carey Warriner and my fellow student Dixie Belle Compton. I decided I wouldn’t. No need to fan the flames of gossip any further, although I knew Melba wouldn’t share it with her friends if I asked her not to.
“That may well be,” I said, “but as long as it doesn’t interfere with his duties as a teacher in the class I’m taking, I’m not going to spend any time thinking about it.”
My tone must have been sharper than I realized, because Melba shot me an injured look.
“You don’t need to get all pious on me,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to sound that way.” I offered a rueful grin, and her expression lightened.
“I can’t stay mad at you, Charlie.” She laughed. “If you weren’t interested in what I know about people, you wouldn’t hang around here listening to me, now, would you?”
“‘A hit, a very palpable hit,’” I quoted—my daughter Laura’s influence, for she liked to quote Shakespeare, and I had picked up the habit from her.
Melba ignored my little sally and glanced around her feet and mine. “Where’s Diesel?”
I squatted to look under her desk. My cat was snoozing on the carpet. “He’s napping.” I stood. “Come on, boy, let’s get upstairs to the office. Time to get some work done. It’s already two thirty, and you’ll be leaving in an hour.”
Diesel emerged from beneath the desk and yawned. He paused to stretch before he trotted to the door. “See you later,” I said as I followed him out of the office and up the stairs.
I unlocked the door and turned on the lights. Diesel headed for his litter box and water bowl, both placed discreetly out of sight in a corner behind a low range of shelves. After a quick check of my e‑mail, having found nothing that needed an immediate reply, I set to work cataloging more Southern fiction given to the rare book collection the previous year.
As a librarian, I loved nothing better than cataloging old books. I never knew what surprises lurked between their pages. I had found old tissues, bookmarks of various kinds, more than a few pressed flowers, and many inscriptions and annotations. The latter made each book a special object to me, and not simply a generic copy of a title like its many fellows printed at the same time. Occasionally a book contained a review by a previous reader, either written in the book itself or on a card stuck between the pages. My favorite of these reviews, found several weeks ago inscribed in the front flyleaf of a novel was Utter hogwash, but good hogwash nevertheless, followed by initials and a date.
I focused on the task at hand and spent a pleasurable hour cataloging while Diesel napped in the wide window embrasure behind my desk. He loved this particular perch because there were trees outside the window. I heard the occasional muttering when he spotted a bird or a squirrel, but he was smart enough to know that he couldn’t reach the creatures. Muttering at them seemed to satisfy him, for which I was grateful. He had on occasion gone hunting in the backyard at home and brought me trophies, like small lizards, mice, and unlucky birds. Although I thanked him for the gifts, I quickly disposed of them, much to his consternation.
My cell phone rang a few minutes after three thirty, moments after I had put away the book I had finished cataloging. I recognized the number as that of the bookstore, the Athenaeum—Jordan Thompson or one of her staff no doubt calling to tell me they had books for me.
Jordan Thompson greeted me, and after an exchange of pleasantries she informed me that she had several items for me. “Plus, when you get here, I’ll tell you about a special event we just added today. I know you’ll want to attend.”
“What is it?” I asked, intrigued.
Jordan laughed. “I’ll tell you when you come in. Bye.”
I would have gone by the bookstore anyway this afternoon. I never could resist the lure of new books, but Jordan’s comments added piquancy to my decision.
Melba was not at her desk when Diesel and I reached the ground floor, so we headed out the back to the small parking lot next to the building. I had driven to work today instead of walking as I usually did because I had an errand to run. Conveniently for me, that errand would take me to the town square, where the bookstore was situated. I decided I’d go to the bookstore first.
For once I found a parking space directly in front of the bookstore. I held the car door open for Diesel, and he jumped to the pavement and onto the sidewalk with alacrity. I had already told him we were going to visit his friend Jordan, and he was looking forward to the treats she never failed to provide.
I swung the door to the bookstore open, and Diesel loped inside. I paused, however, my attention caught by an announcement taped to the inside of the door, facing outward. Lucy Dunne would be appearing at the store this Saturday evening to sign her newest release, A Night of Dark Deceptions. Appearing with the author would be noted Regency expert Dr. Daniel Bellamy of Athena College, for a discussion of the historical background to Ms. Dunne’s books.
So much for romantic intrigue between the two professors, I thought. They had been lunching to discuss their presentation at the bookstore. What a perfectly ordinary—and innocent—explanation. I’d have to text Melba about it later.
When Diesel and I walked into the kitchen after our bookstore visit, we found Azalea Berry, my housekeeper, singing to the latest addition to my family. Ramses, an orange tabby kitten about five months old, watched Azalea while she worked and sang at the stove. His tail twitched almost in time to the rhythm of the old hymn.
Azalea broke off when she realized Diesel and I had entered. I tried not to chuckle. This wasn’t the first time we had caught the housekeeper singing to the kitten. Unlike Diesel, Ramses didn’t go to work with me. The kitten was far too mischievous, and even with Diesel’s willing help, I’d never accomplish much in the office while trying to keep track of Ramses.
After greeting Azalea and Ramses, I set my bag of books on the kitchen table. Somehow, I always managed to bring home two or three times as many books as I intended to purchase when I entered the bookstore. Jordan always had just one more I really should consider. Given that she had rarely steered me wrong over the years, I didn’t often demur when she told me I needed to read a particular title. She knew my likes and dislikes well.
“Has Ramses been behaving himself?” I watched Diesel and the kitten greet each other. My large Maine Coon considerably dwarfed his adopted sibling. Ramses rubbed his head against Diesel’s chin, and my big boy allowed this. He tolerated the kitten’s antics better than I had expected.
“Oh, he’s always trying to get into something,” Azalea said. “I had to put him in time out at least three times today. He is a scamp, but he is mighty entertaining to have around.”
Azalea’s time out for Ramses consisted of shutting him in the utility room with his food, water, and litter box for about ten minutes at a time. She swore it was effective—at least for a few hours.
“You can’t get bored with Ramses around,” I said. “Is he still trying to climb into your bag?”
In addition to her leather handbag, Azalea always brought a large woven straw bag, the contents of which remained a mystery to me. Ramses had been fascinated by this bag from the get-go and tried to get into it at every opportunity. He had even sneaked into it and gone home with Azalea several times without her realizing it until she reached her house. After the first time, Azalea told me not to worry about retrieving him. She would keep him overnight and bring him back the next morning.
“Every chance he gets.” Azalea chuckled. “Reckon I ought to put it up in a high cabinet somewhere, but that little imp would probably still find a way to get into it. The good Lord only knows why he likes that bag so much.”
“With cats, you never know.” I chuckled. “They get these fixations sometimes, but most of the time, they do wear off.” Privately, I thought Ramses liked Azalea better than he liked me, though he was affectionate enough with me. Azalea was the one who slipped him treats, however. That little belly showed no signs of diminishing anytime soon.
A couple of times I had almost suggested the idea of Ramses’s going to live with Azalea, but while she tolerated the kitten on the occasional sleepover, I wasn’t convinced that she wanted him as her own. Before I could give the kitten away, however, I felt I needed to consult the young person who had first given Ramses to me. I wouldn’t want him to think I hadn’t appreciated his gift. The next time he dropped by to visit Ramses and Diesel I would broach the idea with him, I decided.
Diesel headed for the utility room, and Ramses, shadowlike, accompanied him. “I’m going to put these books away in the den,” I said to Azalea. “Have you heard from Laura or Alex today?”
“They both dropped by a little while ago with the babies,” Azalea replied. “Thank the Lord Miss Alex is doing so much better. She’s looking almost back to her old self again.”
Alex, married to my son, Sean, struggled with postpartum depression after the birth of their daughter three months ago. Thanks to the help of a therapist and the support of family and a live-in nanny, Azalea’s niece, Alex had improved significantly. Charlotte Rose Harris, whom we all called Rosie, was thriving. Her cousin Charlie, aka Charles Franklin Salisbury, the son of my daughter, Laura and her husband, Frank, was several months older. Laura thankfully hadn’t suffered the way Alex did. Both mother and child were healthy and happy.
“Too bad Diesel and I missed them,” I said. “It’s been a few days since I’ve seen either of the babies.” Every time I gazed down into those small faces, I felt a sense of wonder. My grandchildren, I thought, still a bit bemused by the fact that I was a grandfather.
“Little Charlie and Ramses played some,” Azalea said. “Made Miss Alex laugh, and that was good.”
I smiled at that. “Yes, that’s great.” I picked up the sack of books and carried them with me to the den. My cell phone rang while I pulled my purchases out and stacked them on the desk. I answered the call, happy to see by the caller ID that Helen Louise Brady was on the line.
“Hello, love,” I said. “How are you? Worn out from the lunch crowd?” Helen Louise owned one of the most popular lunch spots in Athena, a French bistro on the town square.
“Mais oui,” she said. “I’m getting too old to be on my feet this much.”
“Now, now,” I said teasingly, “you’re several months younger than I am, and I’m not old.”
Helen Louise laughed. “True, but you sit at your job. I don’t.”
“These days I do.” During my years in the public library system in Houston, Texas, I spent much of my time on my feet. I was happy now to have a more sedentary job, working with archives and rare books.
“Maybe it’s time to think about adding another part-time worker for the lunch shift,” I said. “Business is holding steady, isn’t it?”
“Thank the Lord, yes,” Helen Louise said. “With college classes back in session, it’s better than ever. I’ve been thinking about putting an ad on the website and in the local paper. I should bite the bullet and get it done.”
She had been saying she was cutting back on the hours she worked ever since she hired a full-time manager and another full-time staff person. Some weeks she did manage to take time off, but she had a hard time letting go of control of her business. I understood that. She had worked hard to establish it and took great pride in her accomplishment, as well she should. She needed time for a personal life, though, and as that personal life involved me, I was definitely in favor of her cutting back. I didn’t want to pressure her, however, because I knew it had to be her decision.
“I think it’s a good idea to place those ads,” I said. “You’re run off your feet during busy times, and you don’t want customers to feel like they’re kept waiting too long for service.”
“You’re right.” Helen Louise sighed. “Thanks for always helping me put things in perspective, sweetheart. Having you there for me makes all the difference.”
“That works both ways,” I said. “Are you going to be free for dinner tonight? I’m not sure what Azalea has on the menu, but it’s bound to be good.”
Helen Louise chuckled. “Lure me away from work with good old-fashioned Southern cooking, is that your game? This time, it’s going to work. Yes, I’ll be there around six.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll let Azalea know, but I’m sure she’s cooking enough for the two of us and several more besides.”
We said good-bye, and I headed back to the kitchen to tell Azalea that Helen Louise was coming for dinner.
My boarder Stewart Delacorte, a professor of chemistry at Athena, arrived home around five thirty.
“How was the second day of classes?” I asked after he greeted the four of us in the kitchen.
“No more exciting than the first day,” Stewart muttered darkly. “I’m getting too old to put up with freshmen anymore. They seem to be getting younger and younger, and more ill-mannered every year.”
“You said the same thing last year,” I said in a mild tone.
“And I’m another year older,” Stewart replied, obviously intent on being grumpy.
“Retire then,” I said without much sympathy.
“I’d like to retire from teaching freshmen,” he said. “The juniors and seniors are fine, and I’m happy with my crop of graduate students this year.”
“Then talk to the department chair and ask not to teach the freshmen again.” We went through a similar routine at the beginning of each new semester. Even Diesel, normally sensitive to any kind of intense emotion, ignored Stewart in this mood. Instead he focused on slapping at Ramses.
I knew Stewart needed to blow off a little steam, so I played along. In another week he would be in a better mood, after terrifying the freshmen in his classes into what he considered proper classroom behavior. He was a tough professor, I had heard from more than one source, but I knew that his students had a high rate of acceptance into top graduate programs and medical schools.
Suddenly Stewart grinned at me and Azalea. “Thanks for listening. I’d better run up and get Dante out for his walkies. Haskell won’t be here for dinner. All deputies got called in for some kind of meeting. He couldn’t tell me what the meeting is about.” He headed out of the kitchen, and moments later I heard him run up the stairs. He, Haskell, and Stewart’s poodle, Dante, occupied a suite on the third floor of the house.
I sniffed appreciatively while I set the table for three. To judge by the aroma wafting from the oven, Azalea had made one of her staple chicken casseroles with the addition of rice, cheese, spinach, and mushrooms. A good old rib-sticker, as my father would have called it.
Helen Louise arrived a few minutes after Stewart returned from walking Dante. Azalea set the casserole on the table, along with salad and hot, freshly baked rolls. After ensuring that we were all happy with the meal, Azalea retrieved her purse and the straw bag—sans Ramses—and headed out the door. I had tried in the past to get her to have dinner with us. I knew she and my late aunt Dottie had often shared meals, but for whatever reason, she always declined.
After a few minutes of the usual polite dinner-table chitchat—along with the surreptitious offerings of chicken to Diesel, Ramses, and Dante—Helen Louise asked me how my first day as a student had gone.
“Fine,” I said. “The professor is a great lecturer. I can see why his classes are so popular.”
Stewart shot me a look of feigned disbelief. “You mean he actually has something interesting to say? Students aren’t there just to ogle the movie star of the history department?”
I rolled my eyes at Stewart.
Helen Louise laughed. “I’m sure Charlie isn’t there to ogle, so the professor must be good.”
“I have no doubt some students are there to sigh and gaze at Warriner,” I said. “He is handsome, I grant you, but he has a brain.”
“Like me.” Stewart sighed in dramatic fashion.
“I’ll come to one of your classes and ogle you.” Helen Louise batted her eyelashes at Stewart.
He grinned. “I have a better idea. Let’s go to Charlie’s class with him and ogle Warriner. He is almost too beautiful to be real.”
“I’ve seen him,” Helen Louise said. “He and his wife come into the bistro on a regular basis.”
“That’s interesting,” Stewart said. “Whenever I’ve seen Mrs. Warriner out and about, she’s always with another man. Their body language makes me think they’re really into each other. Touching each other’s arms and gazing at each other without talking.” He shrugged. “Makes me wonder about the state of her marriage.”
Helen Louise glanced down at her plate. When she looked up again, her expression was troubled. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but she’s come into the bistro a few times recently with another man. I’ve noticed the same kind of behavior.”
I put down my fork. “Irene Warriner is a novelist and writes as Lucy Dunne, you know. She’s doing a talk with Daniel Bellamy, a history professor whose specialty is Regency England, for the bookstore soon. I’m sure they were just meeting to discuss their program.”
Stewart shook his head. “I know Dan Bellamy. The man I saw her with is someone else entirely.”