The New York Times bestselling author of the Cat in the Stacks mysteries is back with more of those sleuthing Southern belles, the Ducote sisters...
An’gel and Dickce Ducote, busy with plans for the Athena Garden Club’s spring tour of grand old homes, are having trouble getting the other club members to help. The rest of the group is all a-flutter now that dashing and still-eligible Hadley Partridge is back to restore his family mansion. But the idle chatter soon turns deadly serious when a body turns up on the Partridge estate after a storm...
The remains might belong to Hadley’s long-lost sister-in-law, Callie, who everyone thought ran off with Hadley years ago. And if it’s not Callie, who could it be? As the Ducotes begin uncovering secrets, they discover that more than one person in Athena would kill to be Mrs. Partridge. Now An’gel and Dickce will need to get their hands dirty if they hope to reveal a killer’s deep-buried motives before someone else’s name is mud...
Release date: September 6, 2016
Print pages: 304
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Digging Up the Dirt
Miss Dickce Ducote wanted a clear view of her sister An'gel's face when she broke the news. She wished there were a discreet way she could set up the video camera on her cell phone to record the moment. Then she could threaten to show it to the rest of the Athena Garden Club to annoy her sister. An'gel needed to be wound up occasionally, Dickce thought. Older sisters could get to be a little too stuffy otherwise.
Miss An'gel Ducote looked up from where she knelt at the edge of the flower bed, trowel in one gloved hand, while the other hand brushed back a stray lock of gray hair. She grimaced. "What is it, Sister? You've obviously got something to tell me. You're practically bouncing on the ground."
Dickce gave her a sweet smile. "I've been talking to Arliss McGonigal, and you'll never guess what she told me." She paused to make sure she had her sister's complete attention.
"If you don't get on with it," An'gel said, "I'm going back to work on this bed." She brandished the trowel. "I have four more azaleas to plant here."
"Hadley Partridge is back in town." Dickce watched her sister's face with avid interest.
"That's not much of a surprise," An'gel replied, her tone cool and her expression unchanged. "Hamish died three weeks ago, and he had no other family besides his baby brother. Hadley's probably here to oversee the sale of Ashton Hall."
Dickce had felt sure that news of an old beau's return would rattle her sister at least a tiny bit, but An'gel remained as infuriatingly unflappable as ever.
"That's where you're wrong." Dickce had another round of ammunition to use. "Word is, Hadley has come home to Athena for good. He's going to restore Ashton Hall and the gardens. In fact, he's planning to be at the garden club board meeting this very afternoon."
Whatever reply An'gel might have made to that news went unsaid, though Dickce did have the satisfaction of seeing a brief smile from her sister.
A reddish-brown streak on four legs zipped through the space between the sisters. Hot on the cat Endora's trail came Peanut the Labradoodle. Endora came to a sudden halt about six feet away from where An'gel knelt, turned, and hissed at the dog. Peanut skidded to a stop an inch out of reach of Endora's swinging paw. Cat and dog stared at each other a moment, then Endora was off again with Peanut right behind.
"They've already been around the house at least four times." An'gel shook her head. "Where they find the energy, I have no idea."
"They're children, comparatively speaking." Dickce laughed. "Not old women like us." On a beautiful day like this, however, Dickce felt younger than her eighty years. An'gel, four years older, made as few concessions to the passage of time as possible, Dickce knew. That included ignoring overt references to her age.
An'gel turned back to the azalea she was about to transplant. "Hadley will be welcome at the garden club. Forty years ago he was one of our most active members."
"And the only man." Dickce chuckled. "I bet he'll be surprised to see his old harem gather around him."
An'gel snorted. "What a silly word. Harem. You have a salacious mind sometimes, Sister."
Nettled slightly by An'gel's tone, Dickce snapped back. "Forty years ago you had one, too, Sister. I seem to recall you were pretty interested in Hadley yourself back then, despite the age difference."
An'gel's shoulders stiffened for a moment. She turned to glare up at Dickce. "Your imagination always did run wild. I seem to recall that you were the one who used to hang on Hadley's every word." She sniffed and turned back to her azalea. "Besides, you're older than he is, too."
"Only by five years," Dickce retorted. Then she couldn't help herself. She started laughing. She and An'gel sounded like teenagers squabbling over a boy.
An'gel continued to glare for a moment, then she, too, began to laugh.
When the merriment ceased, Dickce said, "Hadley was always too darn gorgeous for his own good."
"And everyone else's," An'gel said in a wry tone. "He's about seventy-five now, and he's probably lost all his looks. He liked the high life too much even then. Bound to be well past his glory days."
"Well, I guess we'll find out this afternoon." Dickce turned to head into the house but had to pause to let Endora and Peanut whiz by again. "Surely they'll get tired of that before long. See you at lunch, Sister." She walked away, and An'gel finished moving the azalea to its new home.
Dickce hit the brakes, and the Lexus skidded into a spot between a newish-looking BMW and a ragged-looking, elderly Jaguar. Dickce put the car in park and shut off the engine with a sly smile at her sister.
"Your driving is getting worse." An'gel unbuckled her seat belt, her hand a bit shaky.
"You said you didn't want to be late," Dickce retorted. She pointed to the digital clock on the dash. "We're actually ten minutes early."
"The way you drove, we could have been extremely late," An'gel said as she stepped out of the car. "As in dead."
Dickce ignored that little sally. "I don't recognize the BMW. Do you suppose that's Hadley's car?"
"Either that, or Reba's bought Martin a new car." An'gel shook her head. "The way she spends money on her son, they must be printing it in the attic."
"Maybe Martin has a job we don't know about." Dickce grinned as she followed An'gel up the brick walk to the two-story colonial-style house that belonged to Barbie Gross, current president of the Athena Garden Club.
"If he has, it will be the first one in twenty years." An'gel stepped onto the small porch and rang the bell. "He seems allergic to work."
The door opened, and Barbie Gross nodded in greeting. Barbie, her hair as black as it was the day she had her first dye job at forty, exhibited her trim figure in a black Chanel pantsuit with a sleeveless top. Her tanned, firm arms had resulted from hours of gardening and lifting weights, Dickce knew. It didn't hurt, either, that Barbie was nearly twenty years younger than An'gel.
"Come on in, girls." She grinned. "Dickce must have driven, because you look a little shell shocked, An'gel."
"I always think she'll slow down a bit." An'gel grimaced. "I live in foolish hope, obviously."
Dickce paid no attention to them. "We saw Sarinda's car. Who's in the new BMW?"
"Arliss," Barbie said. "She picked up Lottie." She led the way into her spacious living room, where two women, one blond, the other a redhead, appeared absorbed in conversation.
". . . lay odds on who gets Hadley into her bedroom first." The redheaded woman snickered, and the blonde, evidently having noticed the new arrivals, poked her companion and shook her head slightly.
"Hello, Arliss." Dickce nodded at the redhead, and An'gel echoed her. Then they greeted the blond woman, Lottie MacLeod.
Dickce examined the two quickly. Arliss McGonigal had chosen a simple shirtwaist in polka-dotted blue silk. Her flame-red hair owed more to a bottle of henna than to nature, and strategic nips and tucks from a surgeon kept her looking at least a decade younger than her seventy-five years. Lottie MacLeod wore her blond ringlets short, and they framed a face with a pert nose, a generous mouth, and eyes that seldom missed anything. Lottie favored Chanel like her best friend, Barbie, but Lottie's shorter, plumper figure appeared better in a pencil skirt rather than a pantsuit. Dickce thought the pale blue dress flattered Lottie's coloring nicely.
"Where's Sarinda?" An'gel set her handbag on a table that stood in front of the wide picture window. Dickce did the same, and the sisters seated themselves in chairs that faced the sofa occupied by Arliss and Lottie.
"Touching up her makeup," Arliss said. "With Hadley Partridge due here any minute she's determined to look as flawless as possible."
"You seem to have spent a good deal of time on your own." Barbie laughed, and Dickce thought the sound seemed tinged with malice.
Arliss tossed her head. "I require very little makeup. Unlike some women who put it on with a trowel." She glared at Barbie.
The claws are coming out sooner than usual. Dickce suppressed a giggle. Garden club board meetings always entertained her, and this one promised to be a corker. She wished Hadley would hurry up and get here.
Barbie regarded Arliss with a cool gaze. "You must give me the name of your plastic surgeon, dear. He seems to have worked absolute miracles for you."
Lottie chuckled, but quickly covered her mouth with one hand. Her gaze darted back and forth between her best friend and the manifestly peeved redhead.
"Can't you two rehearse a new scene once in a while?" An'gel glanced sharply at the two combatants.
Dickce looked toward the door to see Sarinda Hetherington, her ruby-red dress cut low to show off her ample cleavage, enter the room. Sarinda had her long blond hair piled high in order to show off her elegant neck, the product of a top-notch plastic surgeon in Jackson. She, unlike Arliss, never hid the fact she'd had work done.
"Who's rehearsing?" Sarinda asked.
"Arliss and Barbie, who else," Dickce said with some asperity. "That's a gorgeous dress, Sarinda. Did you find it on your last trip to New York?"
"Thank you, Dickce." Sarinda ran her hands down the skirt. "Yes, I did. I found a wonderful new designer. Remind me later, and I'll give you her name." She eyed Dickce for a moment before she chose a chair nearby. "She can work wonders for small bosoms."
Dickce didn't bat an eyelash before she responded. "I see she works wonders with thick waists as well."
Both Arliss and Lottie chuckled at that remark, and An'gel shot her sister a quelling look. Dickce resisted the temptation to stick out her tongue at An'gel.
"I let myself in," a voice announced from the doorway. Everyone turned to greet the latest arrival.
Reba Dalrymple, Dickce noted with waspish amusement, had worn a short skirt today, the better to show off her long, beautiful legs. How a woman of nearly eighty managed to keep her legs looking like that was a secret Reba never shared. Dickce wasn't in the least surprised to see the short skirt. Reba was obviously determined that Hadley Partridge would have a good look at her two best assets.
Reba approached the sofa and seated herself between Arliss and Lottie. "Isn't Hadley here yet?" She glanced around the room.
"He ought to be here any minute," Barbie replied. "As I recall, he was always punctual."
"Yes, he was," Arliss said. Lottie and Sarinda echoed her. Then they all glared at one another.
Dickce had to suppress another urge to giggle. She hadn't been far wrong earlier when she referred to Hadley's harem. They were all-including An'gel and herself-excited to see Hadley again. If he turned up bald and overweight, they would all probably faint from the shock.
The doorbell rang, and Dickce noticed that all heads turned immediately toward the doorway. Barbie hurried from the room. Dickce could hear the voices of Barbie and the latest arrival, and the newcomer sounded like a man. She could hardly bear the suspense while they waited for Barbie to bring Hadley-surely it was Hadley-into the room. She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them, there he stood.
An'gel felt her heart flutter the tiniest bit at the sight of Hadley Partridge. Dickce had teased her earlier in the day about her attraction to Hadley, and she had tried to shrug it off as coolly as possible. She had to admit to herself, however, that she was eager to see the most handsome man she had ever known. He'd always had too roving an eye for An'gel to take him completely seriously when he flirted with her. According to the Athena rumor mill he'd had affairs with any number of women, some of them in this room. The moment she'd heard about his return, however, she began to speculate what he would look like after forty years, whether the old easy, notorious charm would have remained intact. Or whether he had come back to Athena a broken-down wreck of a man, after decades of dissipated living.
The flutter moved down to her stomach as she stared at Hadley, who had paused in the doorway to observe the room. An'gel noted that the hair once jet-black had turned completely white, but the mane appeared as thick as ever. Hadley had never worn his hair to fit any fashion, and now the flowing locks brushed his neckline. He had obviously spent many years in the sun, and the tanned skin contrasted nicely with the hair. He wore black pants and a densely knitted, dark blue sweater that complemented his dark eyes and white hair perfectly. His slow, seductive smile emerged as he beheld the women who had waited so tensely for his arrival.
Hadley strode into the room, arms open wide. Barbie, her gaze firmly fixed on Hadley's back, stumbled in behind him and almost knocked over a table. She caught herself and the table in time, but barely, An'gel noted with amusement.
"Good afternoon, dear ladies." Hadley stopped about three feet away from the assembled group and treated them all to another expansive smile. His hands dropped to his sides. "You don't know how wonderful it is to be home again. And to be greeted by friends who by some miracle are just as gorgeous as they were the day I left Athena those many years ago."
An'gel heard several sighs, including one from her sister. She might even have sighed herself, but she would never admit it to anyone.
"Oh, Hadley, it's wonderful that you're back home." Sarinda propelled herself up from the sofa to leap into Hadley's arms. Evidently startled by the sudden movement, Hadley took a step back. Sarinda stumbled, and Hadley reached out to halt her fall. She ended up in his arms, her intention all along. An'gel suppressed a snort of irritation.
Hadley bestowed a quick kiss on Sarinda's cheek before he led her firmly back to the sofa. Sarinda resumed her place, but An'gel noted that the blonde's gaze never left Hadley's face. He kissed both Arliss and Lottie on the cheek quickly before he approached An'gel.
Was it her imagination, or did his eyes light up as he gazed into hers? An'gel couldn't remember the last time she had blushed over anything, but now she was convinced her face had flushed. Dickce would rag on her for the rest of her days.
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