Cora Felton was radiant. Cora always looked good, which was one of the reasons Sherry had chosen Cora's picture to grace the Puzzle Lady column. But tonight, in the presence of Raymond Harstein III, Cora was positively glowing. She blossomed in his notice, she basked in his gaze.
Sherry Carter was amazed. She had met some of Cora's husbands, but always after Cora had married them. This was the first time she'd witnessed a courtship, and it was an eye-opening experience. Cora was totally gaga. Seeing her aunt in love helped Sherry understand how Cora had fallen for some of the despicable men she'd managed to wed. The woman was giddy as a schoolgirl.
And on her finger was a ring with a diamond as big as the Ritz.
Cora and Raymond had just gotten engaged.
Much to Sherry's dismay.
"You are the most gorgeous girl in the world," Raymond assured Cora.
Sherry Carter shuddered. Her aunt was all decked out in a red satin number that was just a little too young on the one hand, and a little too narrow in the waist on the other. Cora looked perfectly respectable. But the most gorgeous girl in the world? Really.
If the truth be known, Sherry was not as upset with the assessment as with the assessor. Raymond Harstein III was, in Sherry's humble opinion, one of the most pretentious human beings she'd ever met. She didn't care for the way he talked, the way he moved, the way he tilted his nose, the way he carried his chin. She even resented the III in his name, although, presumably, that was Raymond Harstein Jr.'s fault, and not his. Be that as it may, Sherry Carter was not smitten, and it took only a single effusive, hyperbolic compliment to set her teeth on edge. Although, as a wordsmith, Sherry had to admit "the most gorgeous girl in the world" was not really hyperbole, just a gross exaggeration.
Cora, however, seemed to take the praise at face value. "Oh, Raymond," she simpered. "You spoil me."
It was all Sherry could do to keep from gagging.
"Not at all, my dear," Raymond declared, patting Cora on the hand, another gesture that Sherry deplored. Good lord, couldn't Cora see through this man? A lovesick schoolgirl of sixteen could see through this man. Surely her aunt had learned something in her umpteen previous marriages. How could she be so blind? When Raymond favored her with "Of course, you look lovely too," it was all Sherry could do to keep from leaping across the table and strangling him.
Raymond Harstein III was a slender man of indeterminate age, the difficulty of that estimation a testament Sherry ascribed to the effectiveness of Just For Men hair coloring. Raymond's dark brown hair was gray at the temples, which didn't fool Sherry one bit. She suspected him of having snow-white hair, dyeing it brown, and then touching it up with gray highlights.
As to the rest of it, Raymond Harstein III had blue eyes and a nose both pointed and rounded at the same time, as if the scurrilous gentleman was unwilling to commit to anything. A trim mustache, brown from the bottle, topped thin lips that never ceased to smile. He was dressed in a blue suit, white shirt, red patterned tie. Raymond always wore suits, ranging in Sherry's opinion from the cheap to the inexpensive, or in Cora's, from the practical to the thrifty.
"Thank you," Sherry told him now. "You're looking quite distinguished yourself."
Raymond made a self-deprecating gesture. "Please. I am a weed amongst blossoms, happy to be growing. So sorry your young beau couldn't join us. I should really get to know him if I'm marrying into the family now, shouldn't I?"
"Aaron's not really family," Sherry said.
"Ah, but he could be." Raymond's eyes twinkled. "If your aunt wouldn't mind sharing the spotlight. What do you think, Cora? How would a double wedding suit you?"
Sherry stiffened at the suggestion.
Cora threw back her head and laughed. "Fine by me, Raymond, but I'm afraid you don't know my niece very well. I don't think Sherry's inclined to accept a wedding proposal unless it's the bridegroom making it."
"Yes, yes, of course. Wouldn't want to usurp the young man's prerogative."
"Of course," Cora agreed. "But you should snap him up, Sherry, before that Becky Baldwin gets her claws into him."
For Sherry, that comment marked the point at which she knew her aunt really was out of control. Under normal circumstances, Cora never would have teased Sherry about her rival, Becky Baldwin, in front of a third person. The idea that Cora was treating Raymond as family didn't cut it with Sherry. As far as she was concerned, her aunt had gone completely round the bend.
A waitress with a notepad swooped down on their table. "Can I get y'all something to drink?"
Raymond immediately took charge, proceeded to relay all orders through himself--another habit Sherry detested. "And what would you like, my dear?" he asked her.
"I'll have a white wine," Sherry said directly to the waitress.
Raymond went on as if he hadn't noticed. "Excellent," he said. "A white wine for the young lady. Now, my dear, what would you like this evening?"
Cora hesitated just a moment before saying, "I'll have a Shirley Temple."
Raymond nodded his approval, relayed those instructions, and ordered a seltzer and lime for himself.
Sherry watched with growing horror. Raymond had taken exception to Cora's drinking, counseled moderation. For one who imbibed as heavily as Cora was in the habit of doing, this was a major step, and one of which Sherry would have ordinarily approved. The thought Cora was doing it for him rankled. Sherry sighed, glanced around.
They were dining in the Country Kitchen, Bakerhaven's homey, inexpensive, and popular restaurant, which featured a well-stocked salad bar and standard American cuisine. As usual, the tables and booths were quite full. Most of the customers were local, and many seemed to have taken an interest in their table. Bakerhaven was the type of town where most everybody knew everybody. A stranger such as Raymond Harstein III was indeed cause for comment.
"What do you think, Sherry?" Raymond asked.
As she hadn't heard a word, Sherry was hard-pressed to offer an opinion.
Luckily, Cora swooped to the rescue. "Oh, what does Sherry know about weddings? The poor girl's only had one, and that was an elopement. Trust me, this is not a big deal. The TV people probably won't even come."
Raymond frowned. "TV people?"
"Yes, the Channel 8 news team. They cover this town."
Raymond seemed amused, but Sherry could have sworn he was putting it on. "You expect your wedding to rate TV coverage?" he asked Cora.
"Our wedding," Cora corrected demurely. "No, I don't. I was just saying I don't expect them to come. Even though that reporter seems to have it in for me."
"A TV reporter? Why?"
"No reason. Just every time Rick Reed tries to cover me he winds up looking stupid."
Raymond's blue eyes twinkled. "You mean you make a fool of him?"
"No. I think he's just naturally stupid."
Aaron Grant came in the door. The young newspaper reporter looked around, spotted their table. He strolled over just in time to have his way blocked by the waitress with her tray of drinks.
"Hi, gang," Aaron told them. "Don't let me interfere with your dinner. Just dropped by to say hello."
"Would you care to join us?" Raymond invited. "We're just about to order."
"Thanks, but I'm working," Aaron replied. "I'm doing an interview."
"Having dinner with someone?" Sherry asked him.
"Just a drink. I'm interviewing an ambulance driver. I checked the bar, he's not there yet."
"Interviewing an ambulance driver in the bar?" Sherry said. "I would think that's a story in itself."
Aaron frowned. "I hadn't thought of that."
"Your readers won't either, unless you start off with a folksy, 'I caught up with so-and-so in the bar, and over a few pints of ale he told me,' " Sherry pointed out.
"You're very good with words," Raymond observed.
Sherry grimaced. "Runs in the family."
"That it does," Aaron said, with a knowing smile. Aaron was one of the few people in town who knew that Sherry, not Cora, was the real Puzzle Lady and composed the crossword puzzle column.
"Say, nice ring, Cora!" Aaron whistled. "Do I gather there is to be an announcement in the near future?"
Cora shot a glance at Raymond. "Yes, but don't put it in the paper. We haven't even set the wedding date yet."
"Really? Well, congratulations! This is wonderful."
"Thank you," Raymond said. He added tentatively, "You will sit on the announcement?"
"Sure thing. As long as it's just me. If my editor finds out and tells me to write it, that's another story."
"Just hold off as long as you can," Cora said. "Once it's published it's tabloid material. I don't really want to read about it in the National Enquirer."
Becky Baldwin came in, looked around.
Sherry Carter caught her breath. Sherry often did on seeing Becky Baldwin. Stunning as usual, in a purple pants suit, which could have served the young lawyer quite well had she had to appear in court, and could easily double as evening wear, Becky looked so good that had Raymond Harstein III pronounced her the most beautiful girl in the world, Sherry would have found it hard to refute.
Becky swooped down on their table, hooked her arm through Aaron Grant's, and said, "Well, here I am. Where do you want to do the interview?"
Sherry Carter arched her eyebrows at Aaron.
Cora Felton, boundlessly amused by Becky's announcement, pretended to cough into her napkin.
"Do you drive an ambulance, Becky?" Sherry inquired politely.
"Not that I am aware of."
"No, that's my other interview," Aaron said. "You're early, Becky. The ambulance driver's actually scheduled first."
"Yes, of course," Becky said. She turned her eyes to Raymond Harstein III. "I don't believe we've met. I'm Becky Baldwin. I'm the town lawyer."
Raymond Harstein III rose to his feet, crossed around the table to take her hand. He didn't shake it, however. Instead, he clasped it in both of his as if it were a precious thing. "Raymond Harstein III. Very pleased to meet you. You say you're the town lawyer? You mean you're the only one?"
"No," Becky told him. "Just the only one worth mentioning."
"I'll say." Raymond smiled. "I bet the young men invent excuses to hire you."
"Oh, please," Becky demurred. "What do you say, Aaron? If the ambulance driver's not here, why don't we go first?"
Aaron smiled sheepishly. He clearly wasn't comfortable walking off with Becky, but there didn't seem to be any alternative, short of sitting down to eat dinner.
"Run along, you two," Sherry said. "I'm sure you have lots to talk about."
"Do we?" Becky said archly to Aaron. "What did you want to interview me about, anyway?"
"Oh, we'll think of something," Aaron said breezily. In point of fact he was doing a piece on single career women, but he was damned if he was going to start explaining. Anything he said would only sound defensive.
"You better," Becky purred. "If you don't write an article, the paper won't pay for the drinks."
"The paper won't anyway," Aaron said. "What, did you think I had an expense account?"
Sherry's smile was becoming more and more frozen. Any more cute banter and she was going to scream.
"Sherry!" came a voice from across the room.
Sherry looked up, and was amazed to see Brenda Wallenstein, her college roommate, hurtling across the dining room floor.
Brenda was what the boys called pleasingly plump, a short, cute, comfortable dynamo, with a sense of humor to boot. Brenda and Sherry had been close and stayed in touch even after college. When Sherry had been going through rough times with her husband, there were many nights she had crashed on Brenda's couch.
Sherry's face lit up. She hadn't seen Brenda since she'd moved to Connecticut, but the sight of her old college chum always cheered her. She leaped to her feet, gave Brenda a hug.
"Oh, my goodness, it's good to see you. Brenda, it's been too long. It's nice in the country, but I miss my friends from New York. Not lumping you with my friends in general, I mean I miss you in particular. Oh, my goodness. Everyone, this is Brenda, my roommate from Dartmouth. You know my aunt Cora. This is my friend, Aaron Grant. He's a reporter. And Becky Baldwin, she's a lawyer. Aaron's about to interview her for the paper." Sherry flushed slightly. That was more information than she needed to give. "Brenda's a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital," she appended, as if to make up for it.
Raymond had stood up again.
"Oh, and Raymond Harstein III." Sherry looked at Cora. "Can I tell her?"
"If you can do it quietly."
"Yes, of course." Sherry lowered her voice. "Raymond and Cora are engaged."
"Oh, my God!" Brenda shrieked in excitement, then lowered her voice and hissed congratulations. Brenda had round cheeks, big eyes, long lashes. Her curly brown hair added to her perpetually bubbly look. "This is so amazing! And what a coincidence."
"Coincidence?" Sherry's mouth dropped open. But of course. How could she have missed it? Her friend was radiant, glowing, giddy--just like her aunt. "Brenda, are you kidding me? Do you mean it?"
Brenda nodded. "It's true. Can you believe it? Me. It finally happened to me."
Sherry shrieked, hugged Brenda again, and they were off, chattering like crows on amphetamines.
"Well, who is he?" Sherry demanded. "Do I know him?"
This time Brenda's laugh sounded somewhat forced. "Yes, you do. . . "
And in from the bar walked Sherry's ex-husband, Dennis Pride.
Sherry's heart stopped. A cold, icy feeling gripped her from head to toe.
It was too much to take in all at once.
The last time Sherry had seen Dennis he'd beaten her up. He'd defied a court order to do it. He still called her now and then, when he was on a binge. On such occasions Sherry would simply let the answering machine pick up.
Now here he was, standing in front of her, for the first time since her bruises had healed. Long enough ago that the only reminder was a faint trace of a scar remaining from her split lip.
"Dennis," Sherry said. "You shouldn't be here."
He winced, then smiled deprecatingly as if she'd committed a social faux pas. "Times have changed, Sherry. Things are different now. I'm different."
Dennis certainly looked different. The Dennis of old had hair to his shoulders, wore dirty T-shirts and ratty jeans, as befitted the lead singer of a rock group. Today, his hair was razor cut and styled, slightly long by normal standards, but practically a crew cut for him. He wore a navy blue sports jacket, a white shirt, open at the neck, and tan pants. His black hair glistened, his blue eyes sparkled, his white teeth gleamed. It was a shock to see him standing next to Aaron Grant. Aaron looked good. Dennis looked like a movie star.
Excerpted from With This Puzzle, I Thee Kill by Parnell Hall. Copyright © 2004 by Parnell Hall. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.