New York Times bestselling author Miranda James returns to Athena, Mississippi, with the first Southern Ladies mystery featuring Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce Ducote, two snoopy sisters who are always ready to lend a helping hand.
With the Mississippi sun beating down, An’gel and Dickce are taking a break to cool off and pet sit their friend Charlie Harris’s cat, Diesel, when their former sorority sister, Rosabelle Sultan, shows up at their door unexpectedly, with her ne’er-do-well adult children not far behind.
Rosabelle’s selfish offspring are desperate to discover what’s in her will, and it soon becomes clear that one of them would kill to get their hands on the inheritance. Suddenly caught up in a deadly tangle of duplicitous suspects and deep-fried motives, it will take all of the sisters’ Southern charm to catch a decidedly ill-mannered killer…
Release date: October 7, 2014
Print pages: 304
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Bless Her Dead Little Heart
Please visit Diesel the cat at facebook.com/DieselHarriscat.
Readers might be wondering how to pronounce the rather unusual names of the Ducote Sisters. Here’s a quick guide:
Miss An’gel’s name is pronounced “ahn-JELL.”
Miss Dickce’s name is pronounced just like “Dixie.”
Their family name, Ducote, is pronounced “dew-COH-tee.”
Miss An’gel Ducote fixed her houseguest with a gimlet eye. “I expect you to behave like a proper gentleman while you’re here.”
Diesel Harris regarded his hostess unblinkingly for a moment before he meowed.
Miss Dickce Ducote snorted with laughter. “Good gracious, Sister, you don’t need to lecture him on how to conduct himself. Diesel has better manners than some of the two-legged fools who’ve set foot in Riverhill.”
“True.” Miss An’gel pursed her lips as she continued to regard the large Maine Coon cat. “He is in unfamiliar surroundings, though, and I’ve heard that cats don’t like change. He might be upset because Charlie and the rest of the family have gone off and left him.” She pointed to the frayed Aubusson carpet that covered a third of their front parlor. “I’m not sure this can withstand accidents, if you know what I mean.”
“Really, An’gel. That rug has been on the floor for a hundred and twenty years at least and has withstood far worse.” Dickce shook her head. “Diesel is a smart kitty. He already knows where we put his litter box. He’s not going to make a mess on one of our priceless antiques.”
“That’s all well and good.” An’gel glared at her sister, at eighty the younger by almost four years. “Even if his bathroom habits are impeccable, what shall we do if he starts clawing the furniture?”
“If you were this worried about the contents of the house, why did you ever agree to keep Diesel? Most of the furniture survived the Civil War and troops of Union and Confederate soldiers at various times. How much damage could one cat do?” Dickce glared right back. “Frankly, I seem to recall that you volunteered to cat-sit. Charlie never once opened his mouth to ask you. In fact, he looked mighty startled when you said we’d be delighted, though he’s such a gentleman, he hid it immediately.” She sat back, arms folded over her chest, and waited.
There was no arguing with Dickce when she was in one of her contrary moods. An’gel suppressed a sigh as she threw up her hands in mock surrender. Before she could speak, Diesel warbled loudly and placed his large right front paw on her knee. An’gel stared down into the cat’s eyes, and she would have sworn he was trying to reassure her.
Dickce pointed at the Maine Coon. “See? He’s telling you he’s going to be extra-special good.”
The triumphant note in Dickce’s voice irritated An’gel, but she pretended it didn’t. Instead she stroked the cat’s head and told him twice she knew he was a good boy.
“Come sit with me, Diesel.” Dickce patted the sofa cushion beside her. “You can stretch out and nap with your aunt Dickce.”
Diesel pawed at An’gel’s knee again and meowed. He gazed up at her, and she had the oddest feeling that he was asking her permission. At least the cat was smart enough to know who was really in charge here. “Go ahead, it’s fine with me.”
The cat blinked at her before he turned to amble over to the sofa. He jumped up beside Dickce and settled himself with his head and front legs in her lap. Dickce stroked him and grinned at her sister when Diesel started to purr loudly.
An’gel picked up her glass of sweet tea and sipped at it. There was nothing better during the dog days of summer. Their housekeeper, Clementine, made the best sweet tea in Athena County, if not in the whole state of Mississippi. “The only reason I’m glad to see August come around every year is the fact that we don’t have any committee meetings to attend, any garden club functions to arrange, or any other social commitments. It’s nice to have a vacation.”
“It sure is.” Dickce nodded. “I keep thinking we ought to retire and live a quieter life, but I know we’d both be bored and ready to strangle each other in a month or two.” She laughed. “This is a big house, but probably not big enough to keep us from getting on each other’s nerves every other minute.”
An’gel chose to ignore that leading remark. “Besides, you know as well as I do that no one else will keep things organized and running the way we do.” She shook her head. “If the community had to pay someone to do what we do, the town couldn’t afford it.” She felt a cool breeze across her neck as the air-conditioner kicked in. How had earlier generations of Ducotes survived the hot summers without it? She took another sip of tea.
Dickce frowned. “Did you hear that? Just before the air went on. Sounded like a car drove up.”
“I heard it.” An’gel stood. “We weren’t expecting visitors this afternoon. I’m not in the mood to entertain.”
“Tell whoever it is to go away.” Dickce yawned. “I think I’d like to go upstairs for a nap.”
An’gel strode to the front window and pulled the heavy red damask drapes aside to peer out at the driveway. “I don’t recognize the car, and I can’t see who’s driving. Clementine is probably taking her break now. I’ll go.”
The bell sounded before An’gel reached the door. She opened it to find a woman about her own age standing there, finger on the bell, poised to ring it again. Her hair was an unnatural shade of red, and her wrinkled face was devoid of makeup. She didn’t look like a salesperson, but she did seem vaguely familiar.
“Good afternoon. What can I do for you?”
Startled, the woman took a step back. “My goodness. An’gel, it’s you, isn’t it? I never expected you to answer the door. Surely you have a servant to do that.” She smiled. “Aren’t you going to ask me in?”
An’gel peered at the woman’s face as she tried to recall who she was. Recognition dawned, along with the first stirring of dismay. What on earth was Rosabelle Sultan doing here? The last time Rosabelle had visited, about fifteen years ago, she had stayed three weeks—two-and-a-half more than she was welcome—and had departed with a substantial, and not-yet-repaid, loan.
An’gel stepped back and waved the visitor in. “Of course I am, Rosabelle. This is a surprise. Weren’t you living in California?”
Rosabelle opened her mouth to speak. Her eyes widened, and she dropped her purse. She pointed to a spot behind An’gel. “What on earth is that?”
An’gel turned and saw the cat. “That’s Diesel. Dickce and I are cat-sitting for a friend.” She stooped to retrieve the visitor’s purse and handed it back. “I know he’s large, but he’s a pet. He’s friendly and gentle. You don’t have to be afraid of him.” And if the cat has any sense, he’ll stay away from you anyway, she added silently.
Rosabelle clasped the purse to her side. “If you say so, but I’ve never seen a house cat that big before. Does he have some kind of glandular condition?”
Diesel moved closer and stood by An’gel. He stared at the visitor but did not approach her. An’gel had never seen him act like that, but she couldn’t fault his intelligence. Rosabelle never brought good tidings. Besides, An’gel realized, Rosabelle smelled funny, like a sweaty bouquet of roses.
“No, he’s a Maine Coon. They are large cats, and he is larger than usual, about thirty-six pounds. Nothing unnatural, though.” An’gel turned and gestured for her guest to follow. “Dickce’s in the parlor. Come along and say hello.”
“I’m so happy to find you both home,” Rosabelle said, sounding tired. “I’ve been driving for such a long time. I’m just glad I remembered the way.”
“Wasn’t that lucky?” An’gel murmured. She raised her voice at the parlor door. “Dickce, you’ll never guess who it is. Rosabelle Sultan.”
Dickce’s gaze locked with her sister’s, and her mouth twisted in a brief grimace. An’gel gazed stonily back. They would find out soon enough what their former sorority sister wanted. Then, with a smile, Dickce stood to greet the visitor. “My goodness, Rosabelle, what a surprise this is.”
“Dickce, I declare, you are just as darling as ever. I never did know how you and An’gel managed to keep your figures.” She dropped her purse on the floor and plopped down beside Dickce. “I always felt like such a lump around you two.”
An’gel could have told her how, but good manners precluded her telling a guest that she always ate like a pig at a trough. She eyed their visitor critically. Perhaps Rosabelle had reformed her habits, or had been seriously ill. She was thinner than An’gel ever remembered seeing her. Her dress was at least two sizes too large, and it had surely come off a bargain-store rack. The hem of the skirt was unraveling on the right side, and the material had the threadbare look of a long-used garment. Rosabelle must have fallen on hard times. An’gel took a deep breath. She and Dickce were going to be hit up for money—money that would never be paid back, if the past loans were anything to go by.
“Would you like some sweet tea?” An’gel recalled her duties as a hostess. “Or something else?” Like leech repellent, she added silently.
“Sweet tea would be fine.” Rosabelle leaned back and closed her eyes. “That might revive me.”
“I’ll go,” Dickce said. “You rest there, and I’ll be back in a minute.” She frowned at An’gel as she headed toward the door. “Where is Diesel?”
Startled, An’gel glanced around. “He was with me in the hall. He didn’t go outside. Maybe he went to see Clementine.”
Dickce glanced at their visitor, who still had her eyes closed. She pointed at Rosabelle and pinched her nose before she left the room.
“What brings you all the way to Mississippi from California?” An’gel resumed her seat. “I can’t believe you drove all that way by yourself.”
Rosabelle’s eyelids fluttered open, and she blinked at An’gel. “Oh, dear, I fell asleep for a minute there. I am plumb worn down to the bone from all that driving.” She covered her mouth as she yawned. “It took me several days to get here, but I had to come.”
“Do you have business here? I didn’t know you still had family in the state.”
“Nobody in Corinth anymore,” Rosabelle said, her eyes tearing up. “Everyone left years ago. No, I came because I had to get away from California.”
An’gel waited a moment but Rosabelle did not continue. “We haven’t had a word from you in many, many years, I reckon. Last we heard, though, you had remarried.”
“That was my second husband.” Rosabelle nodded. “Tom Thurmond. He was a dear man, but he died seven years ago. I married again a while after Tom passed.” She sighed. “Antonio Mingione. Handsome as the devil, but a rat. A complete and utter rat.”
“A rat? Where?” Dickce sounded alarmed as she arrived with a silver tray bearing a glass of tea and a pitcher. “Maybe Diesel will catch it for us.”
“Not that kind of rat,” An’gel said. “A two-legged one. Rosabelle’s current husband.”
“No, not current.” Rosabelle sniffled. “He died a year ago.”
“My goodness, how awful.” Dickce handed their visitor the glass and took her place on the sofa.
Rosabelle sipped at the tea. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be back here, where people know how to make sweet tea.” She drained the glass, and Dickce refilled it for her. “Thank you, so kind, like you always were. I could always rely on the Ducote sisters for their kindness.”
The sisters exchanged wary glances.
“We’ve always done our best.” Dickce patted the woman’s arm. “Sounds like you sure are in need of some kindness.”
“Kindness and sanctuary,” Rosabelle said. She burst into tears.
An’gel had seen this act before. No doubt the rat of a husband had run through her funds and left her destitute. The only way to deal with her was to be firm. “Buck up, now, and tell us what’s wrong.”
Rosabelle stared at her two hostesses in turn through streaming eyes. She looked so intentionally tragic, An’gel wanted to smack her.
“Come on, now,” Dickce said gently. “Whatever it is can’t be that bad.”
Rosabelle sniffed loudly and groped in the pocket of her dress for a tissue. “Oh, yes, it is. It’s murder.”
“Murder? What on earth are you talking about?” An’gel said.
Dickce spoke at the same time. “Who’s been murdered?”
Rosabelle glanced at each of them in turn. She drew a deep breath. “Me. I’m going to be murdered.”
Dickce suppressed a laugh. Rosabelle had a habit of uttering outrageous things in an attempt to garner sympathy, but claiming someone was trying to murder her was over the top, even for her. Dickce glanced at her sister. An’gel didn’t appear any more impressed than Dickce herself felt. The delicate but brief flare of An’gel’s nostrils demonstrated only irritation, not concern.
When she spoke, Dickce worked hard to keep her tone nonchalant. “Rosabelle, dear, why would anyone want to kill you, of all people?” Unless they were tired of you always begging for money and never repaying it, she thought.
“Dickce’s right,” An’gel said. “Someone would have to hate you tremendously to want to kill you. Surely no one hates you that much.”
Rosabelle whimpered and rubbed a hand across her face. “That’s just it. Someone does hate me that much.” She paused for a sobbing breath. “The trouble is, I don’t know which member of my family is behind it all.”
Dickce rolled her eyes at her sister. An’gel frowned. Dickce found it difficult to take their visitor seriously, but she knew An’gel would feel honor bound to listen to Rosabelle’s histrionics and try to make her see sense.
“Come now, pull yourself together.” An’gel’s brisk tone did not seem to affect Rosabelle’s soft sounds of distress. “What happened to make you think you’re the target of a murder plot?”
Rosabelle sighed and leaned back against the sofa cushion. “Little things. Little accidents.” She closed her eyes and whimpered yet again.
“What kind of accidents?” Dickce wondered if one of Rosabelle’s family members had tried to push her down the stairs. The temptation might be more than one of them could stand.
Rosabelle opened her eyes and stared at Dickce. “Oh, I know you both think I’m making this up, but I promise you these things happened.” She paused for a breath and glanced toward An’gel before she focused again on the younger sister. “Water on the stairs, for one thing. It happened three times, but luckily I spotted it each time and managed not to fall and break my neck.”
“Maybe your maid is sloppy,” Dickce suggested.
“I don’t have a maid. I can’t afford one.” Rosabelle sounded aggrieved. “Someone deliberately spilled water on the stairs—the marble stairs, mind you—so I would slip and tumble down.”
“That does sound odd.” An’gel frowned. “Were there other incidents?”
“There most certainly were.” Rosabelle sounded heated. “Food poisoning, not once, but twice.”
“You poor thing,” Dickce said, her sympathies aroused despite her previous skepticism. Perhaps there was more to this after all than simply Rosabelle’s constant need for attention. “Were you terribly ill?”
“I like to have died.” Rosabelle shuddered. “The first time, that is. The second time, I thought my coffee tasted too bitter, so I poured it down the drain. Even so, I drank enough of whatever the poison was to be sick for the rest of that day and part of the next.”
An’gel grimaced. “Oh, dear! Just how sick were you the first time? And do you have any idea what the poison was, or how you got it?”
“I was in bed for nearly a week,” Rosabelle said. “I have no idea what was in my food. All I know is, I woke up during the night after dining with my family, having convulsions and being horribly sick. Luckily my granddaughter Juanita, who was staying with me at the time, heard me and came to my rescue.”
Dickce asked, “Did anyone else get sick? Surely it was something you had for dinner.”
“That was why I knew it was a deliberate attempt to kill me,” Rosabelle replied, sounding a bit smug. “No one else was affected. I was fine before dinner, so one of my family must have slipped the poison into my food.”
“I would certainly be suspicious under those circumstances,” An’gel said. “Which members of your family had an opportunity to put poison in the food you ate?”
“My daughter-in-law, Marla, cooked the dinner. She could have done it for sure. She knows I think Wade married beneath him, and she takes every opportunity to be unpleasant to me when Wade’s not around.” Rosabelle tossed her head. “If I weren’t in polite company, I could tell you what I think of her with a single word, and I’m sure you can imagine the word I mean—it rhymes with witch.”
“Might she do a thing like that simply out of spite, just to make you a little sick for a few days?” Dickce asked. “What motive would she have to kill you?”
“She hates me, I tell you. She’s just nasty.” Rosabelle shuddered. “The kind of family she comes from, they’d stick a knife in your back without even thinking twice.”
An’gel said, “Could she have another motive besides spitefulness?”
Rosabelle stared at her hands in her lap. “My house. She knows I’ve left it to Wade in my will. It’s valuable property, though I might have to sell it because I’m so strapped for cash.”
Dickce wanted to ask how much the house was worth, but she knew An’gel would have a hissy fit with her later for doing such a vulgar thing. The house might be worth millions, she reckoned, depending on where the property was in California. Real estate out there was crazy expensive, according to what she heard on the news.
“Did anyone else have the opportunity to doctor your food?” An’gel asked.
Rosabelle nodded. “Oh, any one of them could, I suppose. Marla fancies herself a gourmet chef, so she plates everything instead of us serving ourselves at the table. Then she puts the plates on the table, and of course I always sit in the same spot, at the head. Anyone could have slipped in there and added the poison just before Marla called us all in to eat.”
“That does make identifying the potential culprit difficult,” An’gel said. “Though it sounds to me that Marla is the most likely party. She had more opportunity.”
“Did you end up in the hospital?” Dickce asked.
“No, Juanita is a registered nurse, and she took care of me.” Rosabelle gave a brief smile. “She’s a sweet girl, and she knows how I detest hospitals. She stayed with me night and day, my ministering angel.”
“Did this happen before or after the incidents on the stairs?” Dickce asked.
“Before,” Rosabelle replied. “If it had happened after those attempts, I would have been immediately suspicious. Looking back, of course, I realize it was the first salvo in the campaign.”
“I suppose that means you didn’t report the alleged poisoning to anyone or try to have anything analyzed.” An’gel picked up her tea glass, eyed it for a moment, then set it down again.
Dickce didn’t blame her. She felt a bit unsettled herself at the thought of food or drink right now. She also felt guilty for not taking Rosabelle seriously. For once, their guest’s right to sympathy appeared legitimate.
“How long ago did all this happen?” An’gel asked.
“Just the past couple of weeks,” Rosabelle said. “I decided the best thing to do was to disappear and take myself out of harm’s way while I try to figure out what my next steps should be.” She smiled weakly at each sister in turn. “Naturally I thought of you two as my haven from danger. You’ve always been such good friends, but I doubt my family would ever think of looking for me here.”
The sisters exchanged a wry glance. After a testimonial like that, how could they not respond graciously? Dickce nodded at An’gel to indicate she was okay with having Rosabelle as a guest.
“Of course you may stay with us,” An’gel said. “You ought to be safe here, and Dickce and I will put our heads together and help you figure out what is behind these nasty little incidents.” She stood. “I will talk to Clementine, and we’ll have a guest room ready for you right away.”
“Oh, thank you.” Rosabelle smiled. “I knew I could count on my old sorority sisters. You’ll never know how much this means to me.”
“You’re welcome,” Dickce said as An’gel left the room in search of their housekeeper. “Would you like more tea?” She gestured toward the pitcher.
“That would be lovely, thanks. I am a bit parched.” Rosabelle passed her glass to her hostess, and Dickce refilled it. Rosabelle sipped at the tea with her eyes closed. “I know I’m home when I’m drinking sweet tea like this.”
Dickce refilled her own glass and drank from it. “Yes, I know what you mean. It surely is a comfort.”
An’gel returned with Clementine. She introduced the housekeeper to Rosabelle.
“You just come with me, Miss Sultan,” Clementine said, her voice husky from decades of smoking. “We’ll get you settled in the best guest room upstairs, and you’ll soon be feeling right at home.”
“Thank you,” Rosabelle said as she stood. “I would love to have a nap, if y’all don’t mind. I’m bone weary from all that driving.” She followed Clementine toward the door but paused before they stepped into the hall. “I forgot about my bags.” She looked back and forth between the sisters.
Dickce suppressed a sigh. “Let me have your keys, and An’gel and I will get the bags in. Then I’ll move your car to the garage. We have space enough for it.”
Rosabelle rummaged in her bag and extracted the keys after a brief search. By that time Dickce had reached her, and Rosabelle handed the keys over without a word.
Dickce waited until Rosabelle and Clementine disappeared upstairs before she turned to her sister. “Do you really think a member of her family is trying to kill her?”
An’gel shrugged. “What she told us sounds serious, but a little part of me is still skeptical. We both know how prone she is to exaggerate to get attention.”
“That’s all she ever wanted to be,” Dickce said. “The center of attention.” She sighed and rattled Rosabelle’s keys. “Let’s unload the car.”
Twenty minutes later An’gel and Dickce were back downstairs in the parlor. Diesel had rejoined them the minute Rosabelle had gone upstairs. He had even followed them back and forth while they brought in the seven suitcases they had found in the car. Then he had ridden with Dickce to the back of house, where she had put Rosabelle’s dusty sedan in the garage. Now he lay on the floor beside An’gel’s chair, dozing.
Clementine stepped into the parlor to report that Rosabelle was sound asleep in her room. “Her head done barely lay down on that pillow, and she went right out.”
“Thank you, Clementine,” An’gel said. “I’m afraid our guest is going to mean extra work for you, but Dickce and I will try to see that she isn’t too demanding.”
“You never mind about that, Miss An’gel,” Clementine said. “I’ll manage. Now I best be getting back to the kitchen and seeing about your supper.” She turned and disappeared into the hall.
“If Rosabelle causes too much of a mess,” Dickce said, “we’re going to have to insist on getting some help.”
An’gel nodded. “We’ll fight that battle when we get to it.” She reached for her tea, the ice now melted, but her hand stilled at the sound of a vehicle approaching the house. She turned her head in the direction of the front window.
“Now what?” Dickce asked, exasperated at the thought of more company. She stood. “I’ll go this time.”
An’gel nodded. “Fine by me.” She picked up her tea and drained the glass.
Dickce reached the door before whoever it was could knock or ring the bell. She opened the door and stepped onto the veranda. The car, a Mercedes sedan, did not look familiar. Nor did the man who emerged from the driver’s side. Dickce could see another person in the car, perhaps a woman, though the hair was cut rather short.
The man, tall and thin, with a slight stoop, shut the door and approached the house. “Afternoon, ma’am,” he said when he reached the veranda. “Are you one of the Misses Ducote, by any chance?”
“Yes, I am.” Dickce decided that was enough until she knew what the stranger wanted.
“Then I found the right place.” The man nodded as if to emphasize the point. “My name is Wade Thurmond, and I’m looking for my mother, Rosabelle. Is she here by any chance?”
Dickce dithered over how to respond. If Rosabelle’s fears were true, the last person she would want to see was one of the relatives she suspected. Telling the truth could put Rosabelle in danger, though the thought of lying, even to a stranger, made Dickce uncomfortable.
Instead of answering Wade Thurmond’s query, Dickce posed one of her own. “Why should Rosabelle be here, of all places?” There, she thought, that might put him off the scent.
Thurmond scowled. “Because coming here to Mississippi all the way from California is exactly the harebrained kind of thing my mother would do. She talks about the wealthy Ducote sisters all the dang time, about how wonderful and hospitable you are.” He paused for a breath. “So when she bolted in the middle of the night, we all figured this is where she would head.”
Dickce felt a presence behind her and moved aside. An’gel stepped onto the porch. Thurmond offered an uncertain smile.
“Good evening, sir,” An’gel said, her tone polite but not welcoming. “Do I take it you are Rosabelle Sultan’s son, Wade Thurmond?”
“Yes, ma’am, I am.” Thurmond’s expression turned mulish. “I take it you’re the other Ducote sister. Well, I’m not intending to barge in on anybody, but me and my family are worried about my mother. She ran off, like I was telling your sister here, and we figured she came to see the two of you.”
Before An’gel could respond, Rosabelle yelled, “Hold on a minute,” from a point behind Dickce. Both sisters turned to see their guest coming down the stairs at a fast pace, her expression stormy.
By the time Rosabelle reached the front door, her bony chest heav
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