Laura Fleming knows that love plays by its own rules. After all, she did the unthinkable and married a Yankee. But even she’s shocked to hear that her indomitable Aunt Maggie, a spinster closer to eighty than seventy, has eloped with Big Bill Walters. Laura, her husband Richard, and their baby daughter hightail it home, where Laura discovers the real motive behind Aunt Maggie’s marriage. Someone is trying to kill Big Bill, and Aunt Maggie plans to stick close enough to find the culprit—with Laura’s help.
Big Bill is Byerly’s wealthiest businessman, so it’s little surprise certain folks have a beef with him. In fact, there’s a stack of threatening letters going back decades to wade through. Claims of land theft and worker injury abound, plus Aunt Maggie’s one-time beau, Pudd’nhead Wilson, is back in town. Innocents are getting caught in the crossfire, and Laura concocts a risky plan to lure the killer into the open. But she’ll need to keep Aunt Maggie safe too, or Byerly’s oldest newlywed will soon be its newest widow…
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Wed and BuriedA Laura Fleming Mystery
By Toni L.P. Kelner
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2003 Toni L.P. Kelner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI looked down at the sheet-covered form and swallowed hard, grateful that my daughter Alice wasn't with me. She wouldn't have known what it was she was seeing, of course, but a seven-month-old baby has no business being around a dead body.
Even with the sheet concealing the worst, there was so much blood, and the smell ... I swallowed again and looked away.
My great-aunt was staring at the body, too, and I'd never seen her look her so pale.
"Aunt Maggie?" I said, and gently touched her back.
She looked at me, but I don't think she really saw me. Her eyes were still filled with that awful vision of death. Tears were streaming down her face, and she looked so much older than she'd looked that morning.
"This wasn't supposed to happen," she said in a disbelieving voice. "Bill said the house was safe. I wouldn't have gone to the carnival if I hadn't thought he'd be safe."
There was nothing I could say to her-I'd thought the Walters mansion was safe, too. When Big Bill Walters told me that somebody was trying to kill him, I'd been sure I could outwit whoever it was. Instead, I'd been the one outwitted. Maybe if I hadn't been so full of myself, we wouldn't have been standing next to a dead body.
Chapter TwoIt had been a very different scene when I drove up to the Walters house a few days before. Actually, the Walterses like to call their house a mansion, and I suppose it's a reasonable description. The long, curving driveway; the graceful columns in front; the veranda with white-painted cast-iron furniture and trailing vines; the many, many rooms decorated out of the pages of Southern Living-it all added up to a picture postcard of an antebellum mansion. The fact that it was built long after the Civil War doesn't mean that it's not a darned impressive place.
I parked the rental car in front of the house and stood waiting while my husband, Richard, maneuvered Alice out of her car seat. She was sleeping, thank goodness. My nerves were still frazzled from dealing with a seven-month-old on the flight from Boston, including having to nurse her on the plane. Of course, I couldn't blame my nerves solely on Alice. The fact was, something had happened in my family that I just couldn't believe, and I didn't think I would until I heard it from the horse's mouth.
I rang the doorbell and waited. The Walterses had a full-time housekeeper, and it was she who opened the door. Miz Duffield's expression didn't quite make me feel as if I should have gone to the back door, but it came close.
"May I help you?" she asked.
"Hi. I'm Laura Fleming," I said, though I was fairly sure she already knew who I was. "Is Aunt Maggie around?"
"I'll see if she's receiving visitors."
Miz Duffield did at least let us wait in the front hall rather than outside, but I couldn't shake the feeling that an alarm would go off if we stepped out of that hall while she climbed up the gentle spiral of stairs.
"Perhaps we should have called ahead," Richard said, shifting Alice to his other shoulder.
"Since when do we have to make an appointment to see Aunt Maggie?" I said stubbornly, but I wondered if maybe he was right. Aunt Maggie must have changed an awful lot since I'd seen her last, or she'd never have done what she'd done. There was no telling what she was like now.
A few minutes later, Miz Duffield started back down the stairs, but she was passed by a reddish-brown blur of fur that ran up to us and sniffed eagerly.
"Bobbin!" I said, and crouched down to pet her. Nobody is sure how many bloodlines are mingled in Bobbin, but visibly, the dominant breed is chow chow. Though Aunt Maggie had become a dog owner fairly late in life, she'd done so as forcefully as she did anything, and Bobbin instantly became her constant companion. Seeing the dog at the mansion made me feel better.
Once Bobbin finished inspecting me, she turned her attention toward Richard, and, realizing that Richard was holding a mighty interesting package, she hopped up on her hind legs to get a better whiff of Alice.
Miz Duffield had finally caught up with Bobbin, and said, "Is it safe for it to be around a child?"
I'd been wondering the same thing myself, but the woman's tone rankled. "Bobbin would never hurt a baby. Hold Alice down where Bobbin can see her, Richard."
He looked doubtful, too, but he did it. Bobbin looked at our sleeping child and wagged her tail happily. Alice picked that moment to wake up, and when she opened her eyes, there was Bobbin's muzzle right in front of her.
"It's all right, Alice," I said comfortingly, but I needn't have bothered. After the tiniest of starts, Alice bestowed one of her rare smiles on Bobbin.
"Would you look at that?" I said, exasperated. I'd only managed to get a dozen smiles out of Alice myself, and here she was, giving one away to a dog.
Then Aunt Maggie's voice echoed down the stairwell. "Irene, are you bringing them up here or what?"
Miz Duffield sniffed. "Your aunt will see you now," she said unnecessarily, and led the way up the steps, moving her skirt aside when Bobbin brushed past her. "Mrs. Walters-Mrs. Burt Walters-would never have allowed a dog in the mansion."
I almost felt sorry for the woman. Obviously, things had changed for her, too, and just as obviously, she didn't like it.
Aunt Maggie was waiting for us at the top of the stairs, and her appearance reassured me even more than seeing Bobbin had. Her short salt-and-pepper hair hadn't been styled, and she wasn't wearing even a hint of makeup. She had on a pair of red sneakers, blue drawstring pants, and a screaming yellow T-shirt with the slogan, "I don't know, and I don't care!" In other words, she was dressed the same as always.
"Hey, Aunt Maggie." I gave her a quick hug, which is generally about as much hug as she can stand, even from family. Richard settled for a peck on the cheek.
"Y'all must have just got in," Aunt Maggie said. "I wasn't expecting to see you until the party tonight."
"We just couldn't wait to introduce you to Alice," I said brightly.
Aunt Maggie gave me a look. "You just wanted to see if it's true, didn't you, Laurie Anne?"
"Well, I was a little surprised when Aunt Nora called to tell me the news," I admitted.
Aunt Maggie snorted. "I bet Alice here could have knocked you down with a feather."
"Half a feather," I said. "Is it ...? Did you really ...? I mean, did he ...?"
"Yes, Laurie Anne. Big Bill Walters and I really eloped last week."
I have no idea what expression froze onto my face, but whatever it was, it made Aunt Maggie burst out laughing. "Laurie Anne, if you could see yourself!"
Richard, who is far more gracious than I, said, "Please accept our best wishes. I hope you two will have many happy years together."
"Richard," Aunt Maggie said, "at our age, we don't have many years of any description left."
It wasn't their ages that had shocked me so much. Well, that had been part of it. I'm not exactly sure how old Aunt Maggie is, but rumor has it that she's closer to eighty than she is to seventy, and the same is true of Big Bill Walters.
Even without the unusual age of the newlyweds, there was the whole idea of Aunt Maggie getting married to anybody. She'd been badmouthing marriage ever since I'd known her, and had avoided far more family weddings than she'd attended.
Of course, I'd always assumed that Aunt Maggie would change her tune if the right man came along, but for her to marry Big Bill Walters, of all people!
Ever since the Walters family opened the textile mill that's the leading industry in Byerly, they'd considered themselves the town's first family, and they had enough money and influence to support that claim. Of course, being the top dog in Byerly wasn't really that big a deal-the whole city of Byerly isn't that big a deal-but the Walterses' constant putting on of airs had grated. We Burnettes, on the other hand, were as common as dirt, and plenty of us had been dirt poor, too.
It had been a big enough shock when Aunt Maggie and Big Bill started keeping company a few years back, and they had survived one breakup but I'd never expected them to get married. Dead relatives on both sides of the families must have been spinning in their graves, and the living ones were probably even more stirred up.
I realized I was still gawking, and pulled myself together enough to say, "We're very happy for you."
Aunt Maggie just laughed again. "Let's see this young'un you brought to meet me."
Richard handed over Alice, and for a woman who'd never had a child of her own, Aunt Maggie did a competent job of holding, jiggling, and tickling her. In return, Alice gave her a bigger smile than she'd given Bobbin, making me wonder what I was doing wrong.
After a few minutes' inspection, Aunt Maggie handed down her verdict. "She's a Burnette, all right."
Privately I agreed with her. Alice's nose, the shape of her eyes, those precious grins-all of them said "Burnette" to me. But out of loyalty to my husband, I said, "Richard's mother says her head is shaped just like his."
Aunt Maggie looked at Alice's head, then at Richard's, and shrugged. "If you say so. She is a right pretty little thing."
"Thank you." I knew that feminism insists that looks aren't the most important thing about a female of any age, but frankly, even I would be hard-pressed to find many praiseworthy traits in a seven-month-old. Besides, Alice was awfully pretty.
"I expect y'all want to come say hello to Bill while you're here," Aunt Maggie said, leading the way. "I think his office is down this way, but I haven't gotten this place figured out yet."
"Should I call him 'Uncle Bill' or 'Uncle Big Bill'?" I asked.
"Call him whatever you want," she said, "just don't call him late to supper."
Either Aunt Maggie had exaggerated the size of the house, or she got lucky, because she found Big Bill behind the first door she tried. He was in a good-sized room outfitted like an office, but a whole lot nicer than any home office I ever expected to have. No metal file cabinets and particle-board desks here-everything was rich cherry wood, with brass accents and a thick oriental carpet. The chairs and the couch were upholstered in gleaming burgundy leather you could sink into.
Despite the nickname, Big Bill wasn't really that big a man, but he still dominated the room. Richard, who knew about the theater, said Big Bill had stage presence, on and off the stage, and my aunt Daphine said he had an air about him. Whatever it was, the man had it in spades. He still had a full head of hair, even if it was snow white, and moved as vigorously as a man many years younger.
Big Bill smiled broadly when he saw us, and abandoned the stack of papers on his desk to come give me a kiss and shake Richard's hand. "Is this little Alice?" he asked, spying the baby Aunt Maggie was holding. "Why, she's just as pretty as her mother. Richard, you're going to have to beat the boys off with a stick."
"I've already ordered the barbed wire for the fence," Richard assured him.
Big Bill put his arm around Aunt Maggie. "We're awfully glad y'all made it in town for the reception. I didn't think you'd be able to come, what with the new baby."
"We'd planned to come around Thanksgiving anyway," I told him. "Aunt Nora has been dying to see Alice. In fact, when she first called to tell me about the reception, I accused her of making it up just to get us down here."
I thought Big Bill laughed a bit more at that than was called for.
"Is the reception going to be a big affair?" Richard asked.
"Lord, yes," Big Bill said. "I think Vasti has invited half the town."
"Make that the whole town," Aunt Maggie said. "She even let me invite some of my friends."
Big Bill chuckled. "Vasti's been as busy as a bee, making all the arrangements."
"I can imagine," I said. Knowing my cousin Vasti, she was getting others to do the actual work, but she did have a flair for organizing.
"I don't see what we need some fancy party for," Aunt Maggie said, making a face. "There's an auction tonight I'd rather go to."
"Not me," Big Bill said. "I'm looking forward to showing off my new bride."
Aunt Maggie snorted and pushed Big Bill's arm off her shoulder.
It wasn't the usual behavior for newlyweds, but I think I would have freaked out if Aunt Maggie had gone all lovey-dovey.
"Vasti just wants a chance to show off your house," she said.
"Our house, now," Big Bill corrected her.
Aunt Maggie muttered, "I suppose," looking remarkably unenthusiastic.
"It'll give both sides of the family a chance to get better acquainted," I said. I couldn't wait to see what Big Bill's highfalutin son Burt and even more highfalutin daughter-in-law Dorcas thought of their new relations. I didn't imagine that Dorcas was happy about having Aunt Maggie in the house. Ever since Big Bill's first wife had passed away, Dorcas had played lady of the manor, but presumably that was Aunt Maggie's job now. Dorcas's and Burt's only consolation must have been knowing that at Aunt Maggie's age, she wasn't going to give Big Bill any more children to compete with Burt. "Besides, we're all disappointed we didn't get to see the wedding."
"We didn't get married to put on a show," Aunt Maggie said.
"I know that," I said, "it's just that-" "Don't mind Maggie," Big Bill said, patting her shoulder. "She's just nervous about the party."
Aunt Maggie pushed his hand away again. "You know darned well what I'm nervous about, and it's not the dad-blamed party."
"Bill, I told you before that I thought we should call Laurie Anne, and you talked me out of it, but now that she's here, don't you think we should tell her?"
"We've been all through that," Big Bill said.
"That was before, but now it's been a week and a half, and we're not a bit further along."
"That's not true. I've got some definite leads."
"Leads, my tail end! You don't have the first idea of what's going on."
"Damn it, Maggie-"
"You watch your language around this child, Bill Walters," Aunt Maggie snapped.
"Maggie, that baby can't understand a word I'm saying."
"Maybe she can and maybe she can't, but I don't want little Alice's first words to be cuss words!"
She glared at him and he glared at her, and Richard and I just watched the two of them, wondering what in the Sam Hill they were talking about.
Finally, Big Bill backed down, but he wasn't gracious about it. "Fine. Tell them if you want to, but that doesn't mean I'm giving up."
"Tell us what?" I asked.
"The real reason Bill and I got married," Aunt Maggie said.
Richard couldn't resist saying, "He didn't get you into trouble, did he?"
I elbowed him, but Aunt Maggie ignored him.
Excerpted from Wed and Buried by Toni L.P. Kelner Copyright © 2003 by Toni L.P. Kelner
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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It has been seven months since Richard and Laura have given birth to their daughter Alice but they are still basking in the afterglow and are acting like typical doting parents. Laura has no intention of leaving her Boston home and going to visit her relatives in her hometown of Byerly. However, when she gets a call saying that Aunt Margie eloped with the town¿s wealthiest citizen Big Bill Walters, The Flemings hightail it to Byerly as fast as they can. When they arrive in the Carolinas, Maggie tells them that there have been three attempts made on her husband¿s life so they married so she can legitimately watch his back. Laura and Richard, who have solved many a murder case in Byerly, immediately tells them will find out who wants Maggie¿s husband dead. Over the years, Bill has made many enemies but nobody seemingly with a strong enough motive to kill him so Laura and the local police decide to bait a trap and see what they catch. Laura has so many relatives living in Byerly that they are each taking turns watching Alice while her parents investigates a crime. Lice steals the show without saying a word. Byerly is a small southern town located in North Carolina with an ambiance of genteel civility and welcome. Toni L.P. Kelner has written another delightfully adorable amateur sleuth tale. WED AND BURIED is a quirky, quaint, and refreshing novel. Harriet Klausner