"The greatest fear dogs know is the fear that you will not come back when you go out the door without them."
—Stanley Coren, dog psychologist
Do you, Jessica, take this man, Nicholas, to be your lawfully wedded husband . . ." Every woman wants her wedding day to be perfect, and so far mine had been exactly that.
The setting couldn't have been lovelier—a sprawling estate on Long Island's North Fork that had been the home of a prosperous sea captain back in the 1800s. These days, it was available for private events, which meant that today Nick and I had the charming three-story Victorian mansion, the expansive lawn, and the exquisite gardens all to ourselves.
The day couldn't have been more pleasant, either. The delightfully warm June sun shone down on my soon-to-be husband and me as we stood beneath a graceful wooden archway decorated with gauzy white fabric and colorful wildflowers. Behind us, more than a hundred friends and family members looked on. Off to the left was a large white tent set up for the wedding feast, complete with a three-tier cake.
And I was certainly dressed like the heroine in a story- book, the type that ends "and they lived happily ever after." My wedding dress was straight out of a fairy tale, made from flowing ivory silk and cut in a flattering empire style. One of my closest friends, Suzanne Fox, had applied my makeup in a way that made me look as if I were glowing. She'd also twisted my straight, dark blond hair into an elaborate updo, leaving a few loose strands to frame my face. The finishing touch was the cluster of white flowers she'd fastened to one side of my head.
As for the groom, he looked positively debonair, thanks to a well-cut tuxedo that made him look as if he were dashing off to the Academy Awards. And while I'd grown used to the lock of dark brown hair that was constantly falling into Nick's eyes, for this special occasion he'd apparently used some magic potion to tame it.
True, a few butterflies had been doing the hokey-pokey in my stomach before the ceremony. Yet everything was going exactly as planned until the moment I found myself standing in front of the judge.
I could feel the eyes of my guests boring into me as I clutched a bouquet of the same white flowers as my hair ornament. At the moment, I desperately hoped the profusion of petals hid the fact that my hands were trembling.
". . . For better or for worse, to love and to cherish . . ."
Not that I had any doubts about marrying Nick. Not at this point. He was the love of my life, and looking back over the years we'd been together, I realized that even though we'd had our share of ups and downs—or possibly more than our share—I'd never stopped feeling that he and I simply belonged together.
It was just that there was something so momentous about actually uttering those two words—I do. While I could picture myself being married to Nick, I was still having trouble getting over that one last hurdle . . .
"From this day forward," the judge intoned, "for as long as you both shall live . . . ?"
It was time. This was it. So I opened my mouth, prepared to say those life-changing syllables, when the peaceful scene was shattered by a piercing scream.
Instantly, everyone froze.
Nick turned to me, wearing a puzzled look. "Jess?" he asked questioningly.
It seemed he just assumed that the desperate cry for help had come from me.
"A-a-a-ah!" we all heard again, the horrible cry cutting through the warm June day like a bolt of lightning. "No! No!"
Maybe it's because as a veterinarian I'm used to handling emergencies, but before I had a chance to mentally form the phrase "ruining your own wedding," I whirled around, hiked up my long skirt, and raced back down the aisle. I was only vaguely aware of the chaos erupting around me as guests rose from their seats, glancing around with worried looks.
"It's coming from the house," I said to Nick.
The fact that he was right beside me, racing toward the house so speedily that his tux could have been made of Spandex, assured me that I?was doing the right thing. "It sounds like somewhere on the first floor," he said breathlessly.
Even though I was wearing heels, I managed to reach the front door just seconds after Nick. The two of us rushed inside, exchanging a look of concern over the unmistakable sound of gasps and sobs.
"The kitchen!" I cried, sprinting down the hall.
I wondered if I'd be able to move faster if I kicked off my silly Barbie shoes, especially since I was now dealing with polished hardwood floors instead of the back lawn's velvety-green grass. But I didn't want to waste any time. Instead, I skidded around the corner toward the kitchen doorway, not knowing what I'd find.
I certainly didn't expect it to be a man lying completely still on the tile floor with what looked like an extremely sharp knife sticking out of his chest. And from the pallor of his skin and the dullness of his eyes, he appeared to be dead.
My first thought was that he couldn't have been part of the catering staff, since he wasn't wearing black pants and a white shirt the way the food preparers and waiters were.
In fact, from the way he was dressed—a blue-and-white-striped seersucker suit, a lemon-yellow necktie, and white patent-leather loafers—I concluded that he had to be a guest. But he certainly wasn't anyone I'd told my future mother-in-law Dorothy to add to the list of invitees.
"Do you know who he is?" I asked Nick, my voice a near-whisper.
He shook his head. "I never saw this man before in my life."
It was only at that point that I realized someone else was in the room. A young woman was cowering a few feet away from Nick and me, the expression on her face one of complete shock. Her shiny black hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail and she was dressed like a penguin, leading me to the conclusion that unlike the man on the floor, she did work for the caterer.
I also assumed she was the screamer.
"What happened?" I asked her.
"I—I don't know!" she gasped. "I went downstairs to the wine cellar for about ten minutes. I guess I was the only person in the house, since it looks as if everybody else sneaked outside to watch the ceremony. We're not supposed to, but whenever it's time for the bride and groom to say 'I do' we can't help it. Anyway, when I came upstairs just now, this is what I found!"
She paused to take a deep breath before whispering, "Do you think he's dead?"
"It looks that way," I replied gently.
Her expression still stricken, she pulled a cellphone out of the pocket of the tailored black pants she wore under a crisp white apron emblazoned with the caterer's logo. As she punched in three numbers, she stepped away to a back corner of the kitchen. That left Nick and me with the unfortunate dead man.
"Who is he?" I asked, my head spinning as I tried to make sense out of what I was seeing. "From his clothes, he doesn't look as if he works for the caterer. Besides, if he did, the woman who found him would have recognized him. I don't think he's affiliated with the estate, either, since when I booked it someone would have mentioned that he'd—"
I stopped midsentence. I'd just become aware of the sharp clicking of high heels, the uneven rhythm making it sound as if they were worn by someone who wasn't used to teetering around on them.
Which meant my future mother-in-law had joined us.
"What's going on in here?" Dorothy Burby demanded. Distractedly, she smoothed the fabric of the ill-fitting blue-gray dress she'd chosen to wear on this lovely summer day on which her son was getting married. I was hoping she'd thought wearing such a drab dress was the embodiment of sophistication—even though part of me feared she was in mourning over her son's choice of a mate.
"For goodness' sake, Jessica," she added shrilly, "you can't just leave your guests sitting out there in the hot sun! This is supposed to be a wedding, so I don't understand why—"
She gasped, then slapped her hands against her cheeks.
"Good heavens!" she cried. "What happened to Cousin Nathaniel?"
"Cousin Nathaniel?" Nick and I repeated in unison.
"That's right." Dorothy fumbled inside the small rhinestone-studded clutch she was carrying and pulled out a pair of what I assumed were reading glasses. She planted them at the end of her nose, then leaned over the ill-fated man's body and peered closely at his face.
"That's Cousin Nathaniel, all right," she declared. Sighing loudly, she said, "I'm the one who invited him. I had to. He's family."
"You mean I'm related to this guy?" Nick asked, amazed.
"Of course," Dorothy sniffed. "He's Ruthie's son. You know, Gladys's sister's boy. But goodness, just look at poor Cousin Nathaniel now!"
From the confused look on Nick's face, I got the impression he didn't know any more about who Ruthie or Gladys were than he did about the man I was now thinking of as Poor Cousin Nathaniel.
"Who's Ruthie—and who's Gladys?" he asked, blinking.
"Ruthie was my first cousin—which makes Nathaniel my first cousin once removed," Dorothy replied, still staring at the dead man. "I never knew Ruthie all that well. I knew her sister, Gladys, a little better, since she was a lot closer to my age. Of course, both Ruthie and Gladys are gone now. In fact, Nathaniel's the only one left from that branch of the family."
A vague memory was surfacing from one of our endless phone conversations about the guest list: Dorothy mentioning that she felt obligated to invite some distant relative she hadn't seen in ages. At the time, I remembered thinking something trite like, "The more the merrier."
With a sigh, she added, "It's been so long since he's had any contact with our part of the family that I never really expected him to show up."
I bet he wishes he hadn't, I thought grimly.
It was at that point that I realized it would be more appropriate for me to use the past tense when referring to Poor Cousin Nathaniel.
"I'll be darned," Dorothy went on, shaking her head in wonderment as she continued studying the lifeless body lying in front of us. "He looks good. I mean, better than I would have expected. I haven't seen him in—I don't even know how long it's been. But it's so like Ruthie's side of the family to ruin somebody's wedding. I bet the egotistical so-and-so didn't even bother to bring a present!"
The fact that this particular guest might not have increased my ever-growing collection of small appliances didn't seem to matter much given the fact that he wouldn't even be around to eat a piece of wedding cake.
"But who could possibly have done this?" Nick cried. "Surely it couldn't have been one of our guests!"
"I'm pretty sure everyone we invited was sitting out there on the folding chairs," I said, mentally running through the guest list.
Dorothy nodded. "While I was waiting for the ceremony to start, I counted heads to see if everyone who'd said they were coming had actually shown up." Frowning, she said, "I couldn't figure out why I came up one short, but now I know. Nathaniel must have come into the house for some reason."
That meant that every one of the people Nick and I had invited to our wedding had an alibi. I was relieved, since the idea that one of our friends or family members could possibly have had anything to do with this was too horrible to contemplate.
I'd barely had a chance to digest that thought before people began rushing at us from all directions. The rest of the catering staff crowded into the room first. Only seconds afterward the guests began streaming inside, their furrowed foreheads and clouded eyes completely out of sync with the bright flowered sundresses and pastel-colored sports shirts they wore.
I was about to tell them all to calm down and to back away from what was now a crime scene when Dorothy grabbed my arm. She yanked me over to a granite counter at the back of the kitchen. I couldn't help noticing that it was covered with tiny quiches and scallops wrapped in bacon, neatly arranged on silver trays.
Excerpted from Murder Had a Little Lamb by Cynthia Baxter. Copyright © 2009 by Cynthia Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.