Marriage and Murder
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The Devil is in the details . . .
Cletus Byron Winston wishes to marry Jennifer Anne Donner-Sylvester (aka The Banana Cake Queen) posthaste! He’s spent the last year wanting nothing more than for the celebrations to be brief, libations flowing, and BYOB (bring your own blueberries). His future mother-in-law has other plans, plans his intended has been willing to indulge, much to Cletus’s chagrin. Therefore, so must he. To a point. But truth be told, he wouldn’t mind if the meddlesome matriarch disappeared, at least until the nuptials are over.
On the night of Cletus and Jenn’s long-awaited engagement party, just when the surly schemer is of a mind to take matters into his own hands, a shocking event upends everyone’s best laid plans and sends the small hamlet of Green Valley into complete disarray. The final months leading up to Cletus and Jenn’s matrimonial bliss are plagued with chaos and uncertainty. Will Cletus and Jenn finally make it to the altar? Or will murder and mayhem derail their happily-ever-after?
And most importantly, who done it?
‘Marriage and Murder’ is the second book in the cozy mystery series Solving for Pie: Cletus and Jenn Mysteries. It is best read after Winston Brothers #3, ‘Beard Science’ (which can be read as a standalone) and Solving for Pie: Cletus and Jenn Mysteries #1, ‘Engagement and Espionage.’
Release date: March 2, 2021
Print pages: 300
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Marriage and Murder
“I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
“This is all very . . . fancy.”
“How do you mean?”
My eldest brother glanced around us, at the long tables covered in shining silk tablecloths, white porcelain dishes, sterling (I checked the back) silver flatware, ornate centerpieces nickel-and-rust-colored metalwork hearts, and up at the pearlescent handblown glass chandeliers strung above.
I followed his eyes to their last destination and mumbled, “I reckon it’s a little fancy.”
“Where’d Jenn’s momma get all this stuff? Last time Sienna and I had dinner here, it looked totally different.”
Here being the Donner Lodge dining barn—and I meant barn in the loosest sense of the word. The building had never been used as an actual barn, nor had it been built with the intention to house live animals. Just dead ones. For consumption.
Jethro scratched the back of his neck, looking down at his clothes. “Should I go home and change?”
“You should always strive for change, Jethro. But your garments are perfectly adequate.” Plus, we were more or less wearing the same thing: black pants, button-down suit shirt—his gray, mine red because I’d been explicitly instructed to wear a red shirt—no tie.
If he went home and changed, then he’d pressure me to as well, and I didn’t want to change. I’d already changed three times today, which was one more than my absolute maximum: from my PJ’s to my work clothes, from my work clothes to clean jeans and flannel to help set up, and from that perfectly acceptable outfit to my present stuffier attire. Of note, changing back into pajamas at the end of the day didn’t count, especially if I opted to sleep in the buff.
Jethro’s pained eyebrow pinch told me I’d failed to persuade him. “What about that guy?” He lowered his voice, gesturing to a fella across the room in possession of a silver tray. “He’s in a tuxedo. Should we be wearing suits?”
“That man is a waiter, Jet. You want to dress like a waiter, go for it.”
“Point is, the waiter is in a tux. I don’t think Sienna knows it’s formal dress, but I could be wrong. Whatever. You didn’t tell anyone this would be so fancy, Cletus.”
More than just the waitstaff were beginning to materialize in the fancy barn. As such, I lowered my voice, “I didn’t know it would be so fancy, Jethro.”
He crossed his arms, disbelief persisting. “How is that possible? You know everything about everybody, and you’re telling me you didn’t know your own engagement party was going to be—”
“A stuffy shindig? A bourgeois bash? A hoity-toity hellscape? No. I did not.”
Jet seemed to be bracing himself for an outburst of nerves or anger. He knew surprises tended to muddle and aggravate me.
I’d arrived here at 3:10 PM after a full nine-hour shift at the auto shop, fatigued and looking for a beer just to discover Jenn’s momma’s event planning had ventured beyond the pale. Far, far beyond the pale, to the land of excessive extravagance and profligacy.
The decorations, the sit-down, seven-course meal, the string quartet. Okay, fine. I could’ve shouldered the burden of such trappings. But who in their right mind wants to sit down for five hours and eat portions the size of dimes and quarters when hunger could be satiated by a plump sausage in five bites and three minutes?
I don’t know. I’ve never met the person. What a monumental waste of time.
My main issue had been the guest list, which I hadn’t been privy to—nor had I requested access to—until fourteen minutes ago. Good Lord, the woman had invited everyone in East Tennessee and all their neighbors but none of their children. An intimate engagement party is what she and Jenn had promised me last year when the wedding planning had begun. This evening would be as intimate as an orgy in Times Square and would likely be better attended.
Jethro exhaled loudly. “Well, we need to do something, and quick.” He examined his clothes. Again.
“I agree.” Meanwhile, I eyeballed the chandeliers. “You still got that baseball bat in your car?”
After a moment’s pause, he hit my arm. “No, Cletus! I didn’t mean wreck the place.”
“That was said in jest, brother. Obviously, I’m not taking a bat to the chandeliers. Besides, what did you mean?” I finally allowed some of the exasperation I’d been sitting on this afternoon to manifest.
“I meant we need to do something about what we’re wearing.”
“You’re starting to sound like Roscoe. Clothes shouldn’t make the man, ain’t nobody care if your shirt has a designer label or a generic one.”
“But Diane will care if your family are the only ones present not in suits and formal dress.”
I waved him off, grumbling, “Do what you want, but I'm not changing.” Besides, what could I do? The time for the doing of something had passed. “Serves me right, I reckon,” I mumbled.
“Serves you right? For what?”
I shrugged, pressing my lips together to seal them. I didn’t want to admit the truth; I’d been ignoring the wedding and all the planning associated with it, including tonight’s ostentatious affair, because doing so had served both altruistic and selfish interests (but mostly selfish). And now I’d been slapped in the face with a brouhaha bombshell, paying the price for my lack of attention.
“You look unhappy.” He eyed me anew.
“So what if I am? If it makes the woman happy, then . . .” I narrowed my eyes on the heart centerpieces, wondering if the welding had been Shelly’s handiwork. They were quite impressive, to say the least, and looked like they belonged in an art gallery or a museum, not on tables in a faux-barn.
“Which woman are we talking about?” Jethro questioned. “The future wife or the future mother-in-law?”
I glanced at the gaggle of folks filtering in through the wide barn doors. Thus far, I recognized 90 percent of those present. But I wouldn't say I was exactly friends with these people. In short, I wouldn't invite a single one of them—except Jethro, of course, maybe the sheriff and Janet James, perhaps the tuxedoed waiter—to my birthday. Nor would I attend any of theirs if invited.
Thus, Jethro’s question had been exceptionally pertinent. This party wasn't what I wanted, and I felt certain it wasn’t what Jenn really wanted either. But the planning of it sure had made Ms. Donner happy. The woman had been positively glowing since Christmas in particular, her happiness leaked out of her like spring showers on fertile soil, and the entire Donner Lodge was feeling the impact of her incandescent bliss. Business was booming, her staff blooming, and I was happy Jenn’s momma was happy.
But more importantly, I was ecstatic Jenn’s momma was distracted.
Diane had stopped crying over her failed marriage and she’d ceased plotting the demise of her ex-husband ever since we’d handed over the reins for the wedding, exponentially more so since the holidays. The divorce papers had finally been signed and her ex had all but disappeared from our lives—though I made it my business to keep tabs on the man—Jenn’s momma had buried herself in party planning, seemed to find joy in being exhausted by details.
In turn, Diane Donner’s distraction had made me very, very happy.
’Til right now.
Jethro placed a hand on my shoulder, redirecting my attention to his. “I've never known you to be unhappy and do nothing about it.”
“Well, you've never known me to be on the precipice of marriage either. In marriage, sacrifices must be made. Compromises.”
Jet’s eyebrows ticked up as his hand fell away. “You? Compromise?” He looked truly flabbergasted.
“I am capable of compromise.” I sniffed, checking to see if the bar had opened for customers. It hadn’t.
“When have you ever compromised?”
“Just wait and see.”
I’d—somewhat cheerfully at the time—resigned myself last year to the fact that the entire wedding would be a compromise, back when Jennifer and her momma had suggested Diane take over. Looking around at the opulence now, I suspected the next few months leading to the actual wedding would be more akin to complete surrender than a compromise.
This chafed like wet pants on a ten-mile hike.
“All right then, start compromising with what you’re wearing. Diane Donner sees us dressed like this, she’ll have a conniption. We got to go home and change.” This last part he said on an urgent whisper.
I made a noncommittal sound. There must’ve been over fifty guests here already, and this thing didn’t technically start for another ten minutes. Soon we’d be surrounded with hangers-on and the grating sounds of snobby southern small talk, which is like Yankee small talk except there’s significantly more “Bless their little hearts” and sharing of recipes.
“Cletus. For the last time, we can't wear what we have on. Look at them—not the waitstaff, Sheriff James and Jackson. They’re in suits, they got jackets. The only jacket I have in my car is a leather one.”
“What? You don't want to look like Indiana Jones during my engagement party?” I didn’t look at the sheriff or his son, not wanting to inadvertently make eye contact with the Deputy Jackson James, an action that might be misconstrued as an implied invitation to join us. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to interact with acquaintances at present.
“Listen, this is what I'll do.” Jethro put his hand on my shoulder again. “I’ll send a text message to everybody on my way out, let them know this thing is fancy dress, and pick up our suits from the homestead. Then I’ll come right back, and you can change.”
“I don't want to change, Jethro,” I said stubbornly. “I've already changed too many times today. I'm not changing again.”
“Come on, Cletus. Be reasonable.”
“Hey guys.” Jackson James’s approaching voice had me lifting my eyes to the ceiling after Jethro mouthed the words, Be nice.
I didn’t get a chance to mouth back, Or what? before Jackson drew even with us, asking, “Where are your jackets? Folks are arriving.”
For the love of all tarnation—
“I’m on my way to go grab them,” Jethro cut in, locking my eyes in a death stare. “We just finished helping with the setup. And so now I'm driving back to the homestead to go get our suits. Goodbye.”
With that, the eldest of my brothers turned on his heel and marched out of the faux-barn toward the parking lot, leaving me with Jackson and his skinny tie.
I looked him down and up, not hiding my perturbed hostility. “Where and when did y’all get the suit memo?”
“How did you know to wear a suit?” I spoke slowly, carefully. If I had to repeat myself a third time, I was liable to grab his head and shout in his ear.
“Oh, well, I just assumed.” One side of his mouth smiled, the other side communicated wariness, like my question might be a riddle. “I've never known Mrs. Sylvester—I mean, sorry, Ms. Donner—to throw a shindig that wasn't suit and tie required.”
I nodded faintly, considering his words and all the information he’d just disclosed, likely without meaning to do so.
Fact: Jackson had attended one or more Diane Donner “shindigs” prior to now.
Fact: I had never attended a Diane Donner shindig prior to now.
Fact: I had never been invited to a Diane Donner shindig prior to now. But Jackson had.
Fact: The Jameses and the Donner-Sylvesters were friendly previous to the divorce in the sense that they attended parties together, which—I supposed—made sense. Being a shrewd person of business, Jenn’s momma would want to court the sheriff’s good favor as often as possible. Whereas my momma and our family hadn’t any favors to offer someone like Diane Donner. Until recently.
“Plus, you know, Ms. Donner tries to one-up herself. Momma always has to buy a new dress each time. It’s expected. Since this is the first Donner Lodge party in years, I figured it’d be something intense.” He glanced around, taking his time to register all the splendor. “I was not wrong.”
I didn't like the idea of Jackson knowing more than me about anything, let alone Jenn’s family’s customs. Therefore, I offered a terse grunt and looked at the bar again. Finally! Open for business.
“Excuse me,” I said, stepping around the blond officer and making a straight line for the promise of whiskey.
“I saw Jenn yesterday at the station.” Jackson’s voice followed me. I didn’t need to look over my shoulder to know he followed me as well.
“Was she under arrest?”
“What? No.” Jackson laughed between saying hi to the folks I brushed past. “She was bringing bakery stuff to the deputies and staff who couldn’t make it tonight ’cause they’re on duty.”
Upon reaching the bar, I held my thumb and index finger about two inches apart and said, “Whiskey. Neat. And a lot.”
Patty Lee, who sometimes filled in at the Donner Lodge but mostly tended bar at Genie’s, her momma’s place up the road, gave me an apologetic smile. “We’re only serving beer and wine tonight. Ms. Donner’s orders.”
No . . . whiskey?
Beer and wine only?
I made a mental list of whiskey brands I enjoyed in order to calm myself and did my utmost to keep the pitch of my voice steady as I said, “Patty. I can see the whiskey. It’s right behind you.”
She grimaced, looking undecided.
“Put it in a mug and I’ll say it’s tea. No one has to know.”
After another moment’s hesitation, and before I had to threaten her with blackmail, she nodded. “Fine. But don’t tell anyone else. Got it?”
“It shall remain our secret until the day I die.”
Her lips tilted to the side like the solemn vow amused her, but she nodded and turned.
Jackson stepped up next to me, chuckling. “Nervous?”
“Okay. If you say so. But for the record, I’d be nervous.”
If Jackson hoped I’d ask follow-up questions, he’d be sorely disappointed. My plan—now that my drink was en route and I’d begun to overcome my initial shock at the grandeur of the evening—was to find an inconspicuous locale, then hover and blend until duty called. I would use the time to drink whiskey and ruminate. A solid plan.
But before I could grab my drink and dash, my brother Billy’s unmistakable tenor reached me just as he did. “There you are.” Billy placed a hand on my shoulder after giving Jackson a quick nod of greeting. He then lowered his voice. “Where’s your jacket? Do you need a jacket? I have an extra in the car, and a tie.” Of course Billy wore a suit. He always wore a suit these days.
I wasn’t usually one to make faces, preferring to keep my thoughts to myself unless situationally necessary to achieve specific aims. But right now? After arguing the point with Jethro for ten minutes and being surrounded by a sudden swell of strangers?
I made a face. “I don’t want one of your suit jackets. Thank you.”
“You don’t even need to change,” he said, calibrating his voice to entirely reasonable, earning him a glare.
“Here’s your tea, Cletus.” Patti set a teacup and saucer on the bar top and turned to Jackson and Billy. “Can I get y’all any beer or wine?”
I picked up only the teacup, having no use for the saucer.
“I think I’ll take some of that tea. My throat’s a little scratchy,” Jackson teased.
Patti looked unimpressed. “We’re all out of tea, deputy. How about a beer?”
Billy used their exchange and his hand on my shoulder to steer us away. “Roscoe can bring one of your jackets, he was just getting out of the shower when I left.”
“For the last time, I am content with my present attire. Cease and desist, s'il vous plaît.” I didn’t have to lower my voice as the cacophony of chatter had mushroomed, the faux-barn filling with people and their inconsequential discussions.
“Jethro already harassed me about it. My mind is made up. I am not in the mood for more brotherly pestering.”
I should’ve known this would be an ostentatious affair as soon as Diane and Jenn turned down my donation of homemade moonshine and superior boar sausage last month. But, again, I hadn’t been paying attention to anything much these days other than Jenn’s magnificence.
Within my woman exists such a vast quantity of magnificence, I shouldn’t be chastising myself for being blinded by it.
Billy sighed, shoving his hands into his pockets, looking me over as though assessing my state of mind. “Are you nervous?”
That earned him another glare, but I was saved from answering by a ruckus followed by a whispering hush rippling over the crowd. Something by the faux-barn’s main entrance had seized everyone’s attention, even Billy’s.
My brother’s concerned expression cleared almost at once and a soft, appreciative-looking smile took its place. “Well, look at her.”
“Who?” I snuck another deep gulp of my whiskey.
“What?” I craned my neck to peer over those gathered, and I spotted her instantly, breath catching in my lungs, the sight similar to the effect of sunlight on snow.
She stood at the big doors next to her momma, smiling graciously at people as she greeted them, welcomed them, and the knot in my stomach eased, my troubles and muddles and irritation forgotten. She looked genuinely relaxed, happy. Seeing Jenn happy always improved my mood.
But her being relaxed and happy was likely not the source of Billy’s soft appreciation nor the crowd’s gentle hush. Her exterior, her hair, the dress she wore and how it fit, the artful makeup were likely culprits.
Jenn’s long brown hair had grown even longer this past year. She’d said she wanted to grow it long for the wedding and planned to cut it after. Presently, she wore it loose and wavy around her shoulders, which were bare. A single strap on each side held up the fire-engine red fabric that wrapped around her body like a second skin.
The dress—which, as a point of note, I heartily approved of—was basically a cloth tube starting under her arms and ending at her mid-calf. She looked sophisticated and classy as hell. The neckline was a straight line mostly above her breasts, the top curve of them just visible. So add sexy to sophisticated and classy and you’d have it right.
Also, her breasts looked fantastic, which I had no choice but to notice. A pleasant topic for my planned rumination.
“I swear, she gets more beautiful every day,” Jackson said, suddenly next to me again and sounding a little winded. “You’re a lucky, lucky man, Cletus.”
“Beautiful is not the correct word,” I mumbled on autopilot, but not because I disagreed with him per se.
Objectively, Jennifer was stunning, and sexy, and beautiful. Absolutely.
Now imagine if you will being in love with someone who is objectively stunning, and all the sorrow and joy that accompanies true, deep, abiding love. In her I saw flaws and strengths others would never see, secret parts of her known only to me, and my private knowledge of this stunning woman elevated her from the one-dimensional being implied by the pithy descriptor beautiful to someone quantum, cosmic in nature.
To Jackson, she may have been merely beautiful. To me, she existed as a multi-dimensional angel and devil, owner of my heart, my joy and my pain, light-years beyond beautiful, or celestial, or exquisite. Because when I saw Jenn, I saw all of her, all versions of her, and all our history, and all the wonderous and frightening possibilities of our future.
Beautiful was not the correct word.
Especially not in that particular dress.
“Yes! She wore it.” Sienna appeared out of thin air and inserted herself next to me. She then placed a big old kiss on my cheek and wrapped her arm around mine, squealing a little. “Doesn’t she look amazing? I told her it was perfect. And here you are, in your red shirt. Good on you, Cletus.”
Tearing my eyes from Jenn, though it physically hurt, I inspected my sister-in-law. She wore a fancy dress too. Despite Jethro’s fretting, Sienna must’ve received the memo. “You’re responsible for that dress?”
“I wouldn’t say responsible.” She seemed to debate how best to answer. “Unless you consider ‘responsible’ being the one who commissioned the designer to make it and being the one to pay for it? Then, yes. I am responsible.”
Sienna, who I already adored, was now my second favorite person in the world. “I’ll be sending your thank-you gift post haste.”
“As you should.” She winked. “Now shouldn’t you be over there? Go get her!”
I returned my attention to where Jenn and her momma—who I realized was also in a red dress, just a tamer, more matronly one—stood greeting folks, making their way through the crowd like royalty at a coronation, and I rocked back on my heels. A renewed string of disquiet wrapped around my chest and squeezed.
“They got it covered.”
Sienna barked a laugh. “Cletus. You’re the groom. You have to.”
Was she out of her mind? If I went over there, I’d have no choice but to do one of two things:
A) Sweep Jenn off her feet. Leave. Maybe we’d go to my car—I’d brought one of the Buicks—or perhaps we’d abscond to one of the lodge’s swanky cottages overlooking the mountains. Then I’d make love to her. Then we’d make love to each other. Then, perhaps if she wasn’t too tired, I’d make love to her again. A solid plan, but perhaps not what she’d hoped for this evening.
B) Talk to people I barely knew about subjects other than cars, sausage, or my superior banjo playing and pretend to care about their inanity.
Of the two scenarios, the latter was the most likely. Therefore—
“Pass.” I’d rather sit through a lecture on climate change delivered by flat-earthers than be forced to chitchat with no ulterior gain.
“Don’t look like that.” Sienna’s face fought a grin at something she saw on mine. “This is your night—yours and Jenn’s. People want to wish you well and tell you how excited they are for you.“ She looked to Billy as though to seek his help.
He gave Sienna a stare which was likely inscrutable to her, but which I read as, Don’t look at me. Cletus does what he wants.
About that, he was right. I didn’t want this, I didn’t sign up for it, I didn’t subscribe to it. I wasn’t angry at being caught unawares and unprepared, not anymore, not now that I’d seen Jenn and how happy this spectacle seemed to make her. But acceptance didn’t mean I felt moved to participate.
I took another gulp of my whiskey, finishing it.
“Is that—is that whiskey?” Sienna made a frustrated sound, pulling her purse up and digging around in it. “Ugh. You boys. You’re lucky you’re so cute. Here—” she held out two breath mints and took the empty teacup “—if you’re nervous, just say so.”
I accepted her mints and wrinkled my nose at the bitter cooling effect on my tongue against the lingering heat of the liquor. “I’m not nervous.”
I wasn’t nervous. I was avoidant. There’s a difference.
And, honestly, I was still of half a mind to scoop Jenn up in my arms and just flat-out leave. I appreciated the dress, I absolutely did. It was splendid, and Jenn was magnificent in it. But the dress being what it was, and Jenn being who she was to me, should I venture within its gravitational field, I wouldn’t be responsible for my actions. Best I didn’t venture too close, else the urge would become overwhelming.
“Uh oh.” Jackson stood straighter, his eyes sharpening. “Farmer Miller is here.”
I followed the deputy’s line of sight and, sure enough, Farmer Miller—or I guess just Mr. Miller given the current state of his non-farm—was threading through the crush of people, on a collision course with Jenn’s momma.
“I’ll get Boone, and we’ll stop him without causing a scene. Maybe Evans is here?” Jackson said, sounding resigned to his fate, and set off through the crowd.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong with Farmer Miller?” Sienna placed the empty teacup on a tray set up behind us to receive used dishes.
It was Billy who explained, likely because I was too absorbed by the alluring picture sublime happiness painted on Jenn’s features. “Well, you know that trouble last year? Where Kip Sylvester—you know, Jenn’s daddy—bought all those farms and promised to lease them back to the former owners? Kip was going to open a farm stay business. He promised the farmers they could stay on their property and host guests. Experience minded tourists, like spend a week on a working farm sort of thing.”
“Ah, yes. I met Jenn’s father once. He made a lasting impression, like those tuna eyeballs I ate in Japan that one time, or the smell of an LA dumpster on fire. And I’ve also heard of this farm stay tourism phenomena. Interesting idea,” she said, sounding like she didn’t actually find it interesting. Sienna loved living at the homestead with Jethro and their progeny, but I knew she had no interest in keeping animals other than as pets.
They had a dog. He was cute. His name was Morty. We’d bonded. But I digress.
“Except the farms are no longer actual working farms. The farmers sold off most of their livestock, keeping just a few animals to make the experience feel authentic.” Billy gestured to where Diane and Jenn stood talking to Scotia Simmons and her husband. I kept my attention trained on Jenn to ensure Scotia didn’t say anything untoward that might dampen my lady’s happiness.
Billy continued, “Which is why Diane had the opportunity to buy all of Miller’s cows at auction last year. He sold off almost everything, keeping just a few goats for the tourist experience.”
“Didn’t she buy the cows for a ridiculous amount of money? That was—when? Over a year ago, right?”
“Yes. I believe she purchased them in the month of January last year. We’ve had those Guernseys for going on fifteen months.” Mention of the cows had me reluctantly looking away from Jenn so I could elucidate for my sister-in-law. “Once upon a time, they may have belonged to Farmer Miller, but now the lodge has the Donner Dairy.” I couldn’t help the pride in my voice. The Donner Dairy had been my brainchild and—like my brain—it was a beautiful thing.
“I know all about the dairy, the milk is outstanding. But did the other thing ever happen?” Sienna plucked two glasses of red wine off a tray as a server walked by, handing one to Billy. “The farm stay business?”
“Thank you.” Billy accepted the wine she offered. “No, Kip turned all the farmers out of their houses—Danvish, Miller, and a few others had already signed and sold—and hasn’t done a thing with the farm stay business.”
“Kips has been a little busy,” I muttered.
“The farmers are—excuse my language—pissed,” Billy said. “As are Kip Sylvester’s investors. He basically took their money and did nothing with it.”
I didn’t volunteer that Kip had done quite a few somethings with the money. For one, he’d paid his legal bills. For another, he’d bought himself and his girlfriend a big house in Maryville.
But I did say, “And Miller wants his cows back. He’s been trying to get Diane to sell them back since last spring, even offering the colossal two hundred thousand purchase price Diane paid. But she won’t budge and has sought a restraining order against Miller.”
I’d counseled Diane at the time not to seek the restraining order and instead to try to forge a partnership of some sort with Miller.
With regards to Jenn’s father, the court had granted a restraining order for both Diane and Jenn, which was good indeed. However, he and his lady friend—Elena— had been given just probation for their assault of Jenn last year. The prosecution had negotiated a guilty plea in return for a sweetheart deal of time served, no additional jail sentence. Much to my chagrin.
Then again, the deal had saved Jenn from having to testify in court. His admission of guilt had also greatly favored Diane in the divorce settlement, with Kip getting exactly zero of the Donner Lodge or Diane’s substantial portfolio. Just half the value of their house, the small vacation house and big boat in Key West, and that’s it.
He’d disappeared for a time after, only to reemerge in downtown Green Valley the day after Jenn and Diane’s restraining orders expired. The degenerate was planning something, and I felt certain it had to do with the farms he’d hoodwinked away from their rightful owners.
Don’t get me wrong, Nancy Danvish in particular held a good measure of my ire due to her—albeit ignorant—part in what happened last year. Nevertheless, she and Miller, the other farmers who’d been duped, and Kip Sylvester’s ring of investors had all been sorely cheated by Jennifer’s father. They were still angry, incensed even. I didn’t care about their woes, but I did care about justice. If Diane had sought to use their collective wrath against Kip, the common enemy, she could’ve destroyed him once and for all.
Sadly, Jenn’s momma was and would always be a reactionary, acting before thinking, where Kip Sylvester was concerned. Diane fundamentally lacked the foresight, patience, and sinister strategic acumen required to bring her ex down. At some point, I’d have to step in, organize folks, and just make it happen.
After the wedding.
“Oh! So Diane Donner has a restraining order against the farmer whose cows she bought? And that farmer is here tonight?” Sienna looked at me with wide eyes, engrossed.
“No. The restraining order against Miller wasn’t granted,” I clarified, sneaking another peek at Jenn. She still looked happy. Good. “Miller hasn’t made any threats against Diane, so the court ruled against her. I think he just really wants those cows back. But Miller has made threats against Kip.”
“Kip Sylvester.” Billy supplied the cretin’s full name once more.
“Kip Sylvester, Jenn’s father,” Sienna said, like she was trying to untangle all the ways folks in our small town intersected. “Kip was also the principal of the high school, right? Before running off with the school secretary, Elena Wilkerson—”
“Wilkinson,” Billy gently corrected. “And Elena’s sister is the one in jail for hitting Diane over the head and leaving her for dead last year by Old Man Blount’s bee boxes.” Billy sent me a quick glance, not voicing that Elena’s sister had also been the one who held Jenn and I up at gunpoint in Jenn’s house. The woman’s fifteen-year prison sentence included her attempt on our lives.
“So Miller doesn’t like Kip Sylvester.” Sienna took a sip of her wine, looking around at the crowd thoughtfully.
“No one likes Kip Sylvester,” I said. “Miller, Danvish, the Hills, Leffersbees, Badcock, Gangersworth, Lees, Lamont, Paytons—the list goes on and on.” It really did go on and on. I couldn’t think of a single person in Green Valley or the surrounding areas who didn’t wish ill on the man.
“He’s got a lot of enemies in these parts. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll stay far away.” Billy glanced down at his glass, studying it, and I knew he had his own private thoughts on the matter.
We stood in contemplative wordlessness for a brief moment, and I again took the opportunity to seek out the sight of Jenn. She was now engaged in discourse with my big dumb brother, Beau. For the record, I meant dumb in the best sense of the word, sweet and loyal, like a dog. He and his lady friend, Shelly Sullivan, held her attention, and Shelly must’ve said something funny because Jenn—
“Oh my God.” I heard Sienna suck in a surprised-sounding breath a split second before she gripped my arm, clearly startled.
I covered her hand with mine. “Are you okay?”
“Cletus!” She stepped in front of me, blocking my view of the rest of the room. “If Kip Sylvester has so many enemies”—her unmistakably alarmed gaze arrested mine, and then jumped to Billy’s—“then why is he here?”
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