For a dead woman, Loralyn Baker looked pretty damned good.
In life, she’d never been one to shy away from the make-up brush, and, as usual, Loralyn’s contouring was spot on that evening. The blush of her cheeks nicely accented the pink satin lining of her rosewood casket. However, as Detective Avery Smith admired the ornate bouquet of pink and red roses blossoming across Loralyn’s taffeta dress, she couldn’t help but notice a single lock of platinum hair, so strikingly out of place and falling across her forehead. Given that everything else about Loralyn was immaculate, Avery had a pretty good idea as to when the hair had escaped her bouffant do.
“In all my years as a funeral director, I have never… Ladies, I must say I am shocked and appalled at your behavior.”
At the sound of the stern voice, Avery turned away from Loralyn to stare grimly at Rutherford Millican. His decades of dealing with bereaved families were legendary in Bethel Springs, Alabama. She watched him—his cheeks flushed and nostrils flaring—smooth a finger over an eyebrow before brushing what looked suspiciously like a tuft of carpet from the breast of his slightly wrinkled three-piece suit. Rutherford was obviously a man used to keeping his emotions firmly in check, but tonight he was perilously close to losing his aplomb.
“I plead the fifth.”
Avery flicked her eyes from Rutherford’s ruddy face to that of her grandmother’s, who was glaring obstinately at the funeral director of Millican and Sons Funeral Home. “I plead the fifth,” she repeated staunchly.
“Really, Grandma?” The attempt to keep the anger out of her voice failed miserably.
“Don’t sass me, young lady.”
“Oh, we’re a long way past sass.” Avery shook her head. “Tell me that all of this is some enormous joke. A prank that got out of hand? Give me something to work with here, Grandma, because I’m stumped.”
Mildred Smith stole a glance at Loralyn’s corpse before meeting her granddaughter’s eyes. She pursed her lips and then crossed her arms, the movement causing a pair of disposable powder blue gloves to fall out of the pocket of her sweater. Avery noticed for the first time that—wearing a pair of too-big black jeans that looked suspiciously like a pair she last saw in her own closet, along with a black hoodie over a black shirt—her grandmother had apparently dressed for the occasion.
“I plead the fifth,” she proclaimed again, quickly putting her foot over the glove.
“For God’s sake, stop saying that.” Avery looked from her grandmother to the petite woman, similarly dressed in black, standing by her side. “What about you, Miss Jane? Would you care to explain what on earth happened here tonight?”
Jane Green had been the Bonnie to Mildred Smith’s Clyde for as long as Avery could remember. She, at least, was gracious enough to look guilty as she brushed a hand through her pinkish-blonde hair. She flushed a deep pink and waved an arthritic hand in the air. “Well, dear, you see…”
“Dang it, Jane,” Mildred snapped with a quick scowl, “don’t you say another word. They can’t make you testify against yourself.”
Avery took a threatening step forward. “She’s not testifying. And somebody better start talking before I ask about the two for one special here at Mr. Millican’s funeral home.”
“I’m sorry,” Rutherford said, clearing his throat, “but we don’t have anything like that.”
Seriously? Avery held back the urge to roll her eyes, closing them instead in tandem with a long sigh. “It’s an expression Mr. Millican. I realize that—just…never mind.” She took her grandmother by the arm, motioning for Jane to follow, and led them to the far side of the room. “All right, Grandma,” she growled, “give it up. What the hell went on here tonight? I thought you and Mrs. Baker were friends. What could possibly cause to you to do such a thing?”
After a brief exchange of glances, Mildred gave a disgruntled shake of her head. “Go ahead and tell her, Jane, I can tell it’s killing you not to.”
“Well, dear…” Jane drawled, her voice rising a few octaves higher than normal. “You know that your grandmother, along with Loralyn Baker and Pearl Moody, has entered the County bake-off every Fall for the past thirty-seven years and, for the last thirty-two of those years, Loralyn’s peach cobbler has won the blue ribbon. Every single year since 1985.”
Unsure of where she was going with this, Avery nodded and motioned impatiently for her to continue. “Well, we’ve all been trying to get ahold of that recipe since Jimmy Carter was the president, but she keeps…” Jane darted her eyes to the casket on the other side of the room. “She kept it locked up tighter than dick’s hatband. Tighter than Fort Knox. Tighter than a nun’s…”
“I get it, Miss Jane,” Avery said, her lips tight. “Go on, please.”
“Well, Loralyn always said she would take the recipe with her to the grave, so some of us got to talking about what a shame that would be and well, one thing kind of led to another, and—”
“Hold up.” Avery flashed a hand in the air. “Are you seriously trying to tell me that the two of you molested a corpse in some harebrained attempt to get a peach cobbler recipe?”
“Have you ever had her peach cobbler, dear?”
Actually she had and it was pretty damn good, but this wasn’t the time to admit that to either Bonnie or Clyde.
“Are kidding me?” Hearing the sound of her voice echo through the near-empty room, Avery realized too late that she had yelled the words. “Are you fuc…” She took in a deep breath and glanced over her shoulder to see Rutherford very conspicuously not looking in their direction. Avery lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. “Are you kidding me? What the hell were the two of you thinking?”
“It wasn’t just us,” Mildred scowled, crossing her arms. “Pearl Moody had the same idea we did and was climbing in the back window when we got here. In fact, she’s the reason the casket tipped over in the first place. If she hadn’t been in such an all-fire hurry to make sure we didn’t find the recipe before she did, I wouldn’t have tripped over and fell against it.”
“So where’s Pearl Moody now? I haven’t seen any sign of her.”
“Mrs. Moody’s daughter, uh, collected her just before you arrived,” Rutherford called out from across the room, destroying any notion Avery might have had that she was keeping her voice down.
“And what a mood that one was in,” Mildred muttered.
“I know!” Jane bobbed her head. “You wouldn’t believe how upset that girl was, all the carrying on she did. My stars.”
“Oh, I can imagine.” Avery rubbed at the throb that had setup in her forehead. “Why don’t we continue this conversation at home?”
“Yes, dear,” Mildred said sweetly, reaching out to pat her granddaughter’s hand. “You look awfully tired. You know, I’ve been telling Jane that you really don’t get enough rest.”
Showing what I thought was great forbearance, Avery elected not to point out exactly who was behind her 3 a.m. trip to the town funeral home. Instead she just sighed and nodded, just catching the quick glance that Mildred cut to Jane. The cop in her didn’t trust didn’t trust the look that passed between them, but she would have to deal with that later.
Avery turned back to face Rutherford. “Sir, I can’t even begin to apologize for what’s happened here tonight. Obviously my grandmother and Miss Green are overcome with grief from the loss of their very dear friend and acted extremely inappropriately. I assume,” she continued, mustering a conciliatory smile, “that based on the fact that Mrs. Moody has already been, er, released to her daughter, there’ll be no issue with us being on our way too. I’m sure I speak for all us when I say that we’d all like to just forget that this…unfortunate incident ever happened.”
Based on his expression, Avery knew that Rutherford Millican was not likely to forget the night that two seventy-five year-old women dumped a corpse onto his funeral home floor anytime soon.
“Well…” he stammered, his eyes darting repeatedly to the casket and back to Mildred, who was obviously trying—and not really pulling it off—to look like the innocent old lady Avery knew she most certainly was not. Rutherford teetered for a moment longer and then, moving toward Loralyn’s casket, nodded his head. “Yes, you do have a point.” Stopping just short of the rosewood box, he looked back in her direction. “As you say, Mrs. Moody has left with her daughter.” The side of his lip curled up in what appeared to be his attempt at a smile. “And I suppose they are technically being released into police custody.” He was obviously a man unaccustomed to the action and Avery found the end result was…well, creepy.
“Thank you,” she said, more to the world at large than Rutherford Millican. For once, it seemed, there was going to be a quick and easy end to her grandmother’s antics. Avery glanced in her direction just in time to catch the triumphant twinkle in the old woman’s eyes.
“Although, her family may.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Miss Baker’s family,” Rutherford repeated as Mildred’s smile faltered. “So long as they don’t wish to…” He paused to clear his throat. “…press the issue.”
Avery suppressed a groan. So much for quick and easy.
“What family?” Jane said quickly in what Avery was sure she thought was a whisper. “I didn’t think Loralyn had any family.”
“Don’t be stup—er, I mean,” Mildred began and then, flashing a saccharin smile in Rutherford’s direction, seemed to remember her act. “Of course she had a family. Don’t you remember all those times we’d get together with Loralyn and, uh, quilt? Why, she would speak so fondly of them.”
On the off chance that Loralyn was about to roll over in her casket and fall back out on the floor at that outrageous statement, Avery took an unnerved step away from the coffin. In thirty-four years, the closest she’d ever seen her grandmother come to sewing of any kind was the time Mildred had bought an oversized crochet needle at a yard sale to use as a combination wine-slash-beer bottle opener.
From the look on his face, Avery had the feeling that Rutherford wasn’t buying the story either, but was either too polite—or possibly too scared—to call her grandmother out on it. “Miss Baker’s niece,” Rutherford said, as if that should explain everything.
Avery gave him a confused glance. “I’m sorry. What about her niece?”
“After the, uh, incident,” Rutherford explained, glancing down at Loralyn one last time before closing the lid on her casket. “I felt compelled to call Miss Baker’s family. Her niece—great-niece, actually—is on the way right now.” Plucking another piece of carpet fiber from the sleeve of his jacket as he stepped away from the casket, he continued, “So long as Miss Baker’s niece doesn’t object, then I think we should be able to put this…this…whatever this is behind us.”
“So long as I don’t object to what?”
Avery turned in the direction of the throaty voice to see a crisply-dressed woman standing in the doorway. In her black pencil skirt and gray poplin blouse, she might’ve just stepped out of a board meeting of a Fortune 500 company. Or maybe off a New York runway. Unfortunately, Avery thought, she looked to be the type who not only knew she looked good, but used it to her advantage.
“Oh, Miss Reinhart,” Rutherford took a step forward. “I apologize for calling you out like this. I know you’d much rather be with family during this time than dealing with this.”
Loralyn’s great-niece gave a curt nod as she surveyed the scene. “I’m still not exactly sure what this is. You were rather vague on the phone.”
I bet he was. Even though Avery had pretty much seen it all from her grandmother over the last…hell, her whole life, Avery had to admit Mildred had outdone herself this time.
Avery heard a quick whisper from behind and then her grandmother was bounding forward, nearly bowling Rutherford over as she pushed past him with lightning speed, Jane hot on her heels. “Oh, sugar, I am so sorry about your aunt,” she crooned, placing a hand on the woman’s arm. “I can only imagine what you’re going through right now. Loralyn’s death is a great loss to us all.”
One penciled eyebrow arched as the woman looked down at the hand. “Thank you, Miss…”
“Smith. Mildred Smith. Your aunt was a dear, dear friend.”
“Very dear,” Jane piped in, rising on her tiptoes to look over Mildred’s shoulder.
“I see.” Her slow nod told Avery that Loralyn’s niece, thankfully, very much did not see what was going on.
“Oh yes, sugar, and I’m afraid that’s what happened here tonight.”
Avery held back a grin. Well, this was going to be good.
“Mmhmm. See, well…I’m actually embarrassed to say this.”
“Oh please, Grandma, I’m sure we’d all love to hear what you have to say,” Avery drawled, crossing her arms.
The woman darted her gaze in Avery’s direction, her eyes narrowing as though just noticing her presence. Avery found herself feeling uncharacteristically self-conscious under the scrutinizing regard of the attractive redhead and shifted from one foot to the other. Having just stepped out of the shower when she’d gotten Rutherford’s call, Avery had literally thrown on the first thing she’d come to before running out of the house. She was sure that she looked more than a little out of place standing there in a faded Tragic City Rollers t-shirt and cut-off sweats, her still-damp hair falling in tawny spirals around her shoulders.
The comment also earned Avery a glare from her grandmother.
“Well, Jane and I have been beside ourselves with grief and just had to pay our last respects to Loralyn.”
The woman turned her attention back to Mildred and Jane. “I don’t understand. At this time of night? The funeral is in the morning.”
“So it is…” Undaunted, Mildred continued on, “…but, um, Jane here has a touch of dementia.”
“I do?” A frowning Jane cocked her head to one side.
With a slow shake of her head, Mildred patted Jane on the shoulder. “You see? The poor thing gets confused so easily.”
“I’m sorry,” Loralyn’s great-niece said, looking more than a little confused herself. “I’m really not following you. What does this have to do with your being here at the funeral home?”
“Oh sugar, you see, Jane sometimes has, um, spells. Especially early in the evening. I had the darndest time getting her here and when we finally arrived, the visitation had already ended. I made a quick stop by the ladies room, and, while I was in there, Jane got lost in the funeral home and set off some alarms. Mr. Millican found her and was nice enough to let us come to the back room here to say our goodbyes to Loralyn.”
Rutherford’s eyebrows lifted nearly to his hairline. “I was?”
“Yes, you were,” Mildred answered with a nod and a look that verged on threatening. “Anyway…in all the confusion I misplaced my car keys and, when I told Mr. Millican that I needed to call family for a ride home, he mistakenly called you instead of my granddaughter. I’m so sorry to have bothered you, especially at such a trying time as this.”
“You do realize it’s three o’clock in the morning?”
Mildred’s eyebrows rose dramatically. “Is it? My goodness, how time does fly.”
Loralyn’s great-niece blinked at Mildred a few times and then, Avery was somewhat surprised to see, nodded politely. Avery wondered if she recognized the story for the complete bullshit it was? If she did, Avery didn’t see any sign of it. The woman stared at Mildred, her expression blank, before saying, “I’m sure my aunt would have appreciated your visit tonight.” She turned back to face Rutherford. “Well, if you don’t mind Mr. Millican, I do have several things to attend tonight.”
Like getting some sleep maybe? Avery could see she was obviously eager to be done with the entire incident. Having the good sense not to argue with the explanation, however farfetched, that Mildred had given to Loralyn’s great-niece, Rutherford began to usher everyone out of the room, turning off the light as he shut—and locked—the door behind us. “Of course, of course. I’m so sorry to have bothered you this evening over something so…” He glanced at Mildred and once again cleared his throat. “…trivial.”
“We’ll be on the way, as well,” Avery said, steering her grandmother and Jane toward the exit and away from Rutherford and Miss Reinhart. “Don’t think this over,” she hissed at them as she pushed open the funeral home’s heavy glass door.
The cool night air felt like heaven against her face. With a tired sigh, she motioned in the direction of her car. “I’m parked over there.” Seeing her grandmother toss Jane a grin that bordered on triumphant, Avery frowned. “We’re going to have a long talk about this once we get home.”
“Oh, I’m sure we will,” Mildred said with a tired sigh and a roll of her eyes. “C’mon, Jane,” she continued, looping their arms together before brushing past Avery. “We’re going to catch our death standing out here in this cold night air.”
Cameron Reinhart wheeled her rental car out of the darkened parking lot of Millican’s Funeral Home and headed back to her great-aunt’s house, where she’d be staying until she managed to wrestle Loralyn’s affairs into some kind of order. With her mother two weeks into an around the world cruise, there was literally no one else to do it. Though it meant calling in every favor she had with the producers of her show, she had finally received their grudging permission to take a couple of weeks off from the filming schedule to settle the estate and get the house on the market. Even with that, she’d gotten two text messages today alone asking when she’d be back.
Pulling up to a four-way stop, Cam glanced up at the rear-view mirror and caught her own reflection staring back at her with a distinct smudge of mascara under one eye. Outstanding. She fumbled in her purse for a tissue to wipe away the offending smudge and sighed. Thank God she’d had the presence of mind at that hour of the morning to apply any makeup at all. With any luck, the little black mark under her eye hadn’t been noticeable.
At that time of the morning, hers was the only car on the road. The faded glow of streetlights gave rise to looming shadows around the yellow brick, 1970s style buildings that dotted the downtown area. Had she not been engrossed in ghosts of the past, Cam would have found the effect wonderfully eerie.
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…” Cam muttered with a shake of head before continuing on through the intersection. Avery Fucking Smith. What were the odds of seeing her at the funeral home at this ungodly hour of the morning?
Avery had been a year ahead of Cam in school. She’d been a sophomore and already polished and popular when Cam was a lowly, awkward freshman. An outstanding basketball player, as well as an academic standout, Avery was always accepting some award or another during assemblies at Bedford County High School. At lunch, she had always been surrounded by a large group of friends while Cam struggled to find a warm body to sit next to, usually winding up with poor old Jennifer Douglas. Jennifer, between being the not-so-proud recipient of what had to be the world’s largest orthodontic appliance and having curly, muddy-blonde hair that frizzled in the Alabama humidity, had been as much of a social outcast as Cam.
As for Cam, she was new to Bethel Springs, having been exiled to Alabama just prior to her freshman year of high school, a casualty of her parents’ divorce. Theirs had been a completely unamicable separation, and, in the aftermath, her mother had decided to return to her childhood home to regroup. Though Cam had vociferously disagreed with the move, her wishes had, as usual, been ignored. Separated from her friends, the mall, and any semblance of decent Chinese food, she may as well as have been on a different planet—one inhabited by smelly, camo-wearing boys who slid her sidelong glances and tried to cop a feel when in the hallways during class change, and big-haired girls who giggled and made faces over Cam’s accent and stylish clothes.
She endured the three years she and her mother had spent in Bethel Springs as gracefully as she could, but had vowed never to return. The only high spot of the entire ordeal had been the enormous baby dyke crush she’d developed on Avery Smith—who had no idea she was even alive. Avery was everything she wasn’t. Strong, independent, and—with her caramel-colored hair and sinfully dark eyes—totally gorgeous.
Even after that torturous time was finally over and she was allowed to return to civilization, Cam had never forgotten Avery Smith. Over the years when she’d talked to her great-aunt over the phone, Cam had occasionally and with casual indifference asked about her. Loralyn, world class gossip that she had been, dutifully reported on Avery, along with some of the other students she had gone to school with—not that Cam gave a damn about any of them. Although, she had stayed somewhat in touch with Jennifer Douglas, who finally had finally gotten rid of her dental hardware at the end of junior year and gone on to be the valedictorian of their class. Cam remembered seeing on Facebook sometime back that she’d married a local businessman and now ran her own accounting firm.
Avery, Great-Aunt Loralyn had reported about three years ago, returned to Bethel Springs after having lived in Georgia for a while, and had taken a job at the local police department. Accordingly to a slightly scandalized Loralyn, Avery was unmarried and openly gay. Looking back, Cam wasn’t sure which of the two her aunt had found more appalling.
“Not that I’m prejudiced, you understand,” Loralyn had told her after doling out the juicy gossip. “To each her own, I’m sure. But I did tell that grandmother of hers what I thought about her being so out in the open with it. The old bitch told me to mind my own business and asked me why I was so interested in her granddaughter’s affairs,” Loralyn had huffed. “Do you know she had the nerve to ask me if I was hoping to date her myself! Why, I never.”
She’d had to stifle her laughter and not let her aunt know how amused she was by the remark. Sharing that aspect of her personal life with Great Aunt Loralyn had not been something that Cam had ever felt comfortable doing. Loralyn had always been too much a product of the Old South. Cam’s parents, for their part, had taken the announcement about her sexuality with the same causal indifference they’d always shown toward her. What was scandalous in rural Alabama was just another day in Los Angeles, she supposed.
Not that she had much a love life these days, Cam thought grimly as she pulled into the driveway of Loralyn’s house. Instead, she was concentrating more on her career, which had finally begun to take off. Cam had her own show on the E! Network, and so far, it had gained quite a following. She’d finally made it. Achieved at least a few of the things she’d wished for all those years ago as a freshman in high school. She had to work at it, of course. Not like Avery Smith, who was so effortlessly gorgeous that, standing there in the funeral home wearing nothing but a pair of old workout clothes, she still looked better than Cam with her three-hundred-dollar hair and Versace skirt.
Speaking of which… It occurred to Cam that she should rethink her outfit for the funeral tomorrow. She did have that black dress that she had put aside as too sexy to wear to a funeral. Maybe she’d pull that out again and take another look at it. After all, Cam mused, she might be seeing Avery again tomorrow and, if she did, she’d need all the confidence she could possibly get.