Authors: Laura Alden
Praise for the Series
Foul Play at the PTA
“Beth Kennedy gives amateur sleuths a good name. . . . For those of us who appreciate good characters, it’s just as satisfying as her first book.”
—Lesa’s Book Critiques
Murder at the PTA
“Alden has strong talent and a well-skilled use of language that brings the story alive and gives vitality to each character . . . an excellent start to a new cozy series.”
“A terrific debut.”
Murder at the PTA
is well worth your time.”
Also Available from Laura Alden
Murder at the PTA
Foul Play at the PTA
PLOTTING at the PTA
AN OBSIDIAN BOOK
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First published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library,
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This one is for you, Dad.
I love you.
Jack Schnell, 1931–2011
t’s time,” my best friend’s voice said into my ear.
I glanced at the clock in my mother’s kitchen. Nine thirty. The breakfast dishes were done and my two children were in the living room with Mom playing a card game. All was right with the world on this third day of spring break. I shifted my grip on the cell phone. “Why now?”
“No time like the present,” Marina said airily. “Gather ye roses while ye may. A rolling stone gathers no moss, you know.”
Today, clearly, was cliché day. “There won’t be roses for another six weeks.” I looked out the window at the snow in the front yard. “And up here at my mom’s, probably not until July.”
“But you don’t live up there in the wilds of northern Michigan, now do you? You live in a civilized part of Wisconsin where winter is forbidden after March the second. Down here the birds are singing and the bees are buzzing and the flowers are getting all perky.”
I was pretty sure she was quoting a musical, and I was also pretty sure she was quoting it incorrectly, but since I had no proof I let it go. “What, exactly, is it time for?”
“You know.” She’d deepened her voice, making it sound almost ominous. Which was a good trick for a woman who had a hard time putting two serious sentences back to back.
“You need to make a decision.”
“And lots of them. Should Jenna get tutoring in hockey? Should Oliver take swim lessons? Should I enroll Spot in obedience training? Should I start carrying more toys at the store?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about and you know it.”
I did, but I’d avoided thinking about it for months, so a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt. There were a tremendous number of things I didn’t know; what to do about the handsome Evan Garrett was only the tip of the iceberg.
“How long have you dillydallied around this issue?” Marina demanded.
“Nine months, tops.” Just short of a year, if you counted back to the first time I realized Evan was more than just a friend. But now I was getting the itchy feeling that he was going to propose and I wasn’t at all sure that would be the best thing for my children.
Sure, their father and I had divorced amicably two and a half years ago. Sure, they got along with Evan, and sure, they seemed well adjusted, but what if I was wrong? What if a new marriage rocked them sideways onto a course from which they’d never recover? What if—
“You’ve been moaning and groaning about this for years,” Marina said.
“I . . . have?” Not a good day for her math skills. Evan had moved to Rynwood less than two years ago.
“Tell me when I’m wrong,” she said.
“Ready and willing.” I leaned back into an inside corner of the kitchen counter, making sure to get a good view of the lake. My parents had moved here when I was seven, and twenty-odd years after leaving for college and never really coming back, I still missed seeing blue water outside the kitchen window.
“You want to make some changes in your life.”
Who didn’t? “Correct.” I squinted out at the lake. Frozen tight from stem to stern. Happy April.
“You want to move from the Beth you are to the Beth you could be and want to be.”
Had she been listening to morning talk shows again? “Correct.”
“Then it’s time to quit talking and start doing,” she said, and I could almost see her nodding, her light red hair flopping around and her ponytail scrunchie going loose. “Tell you what,” she said. “We’ll make it a contest. Whoever puts up the best numbers wins.”
Suddenly, all became clear. “You’re talking about losing weight, aren’t you?”
“What else would I be talking about?”
“Nothing,” I said quickly.
There was a short silence. Marina Neff, mother of four, wasn’t fooled for a heartbeat. “No weasel answers, Beth Kennedy. I want the truth.”
“Oh, dear.” I put on a worried voice. “Sounds like the kids are starting World War Three. Gotta go.”
“You are the world’s worst liar. Tell your aunt Marina all about your misinterpretations of the topic at hand.”
I toyed with the idea of complete fabrication. I’d thought she was talking about my occasional desire to go back to college. I’d thought she was talking about my constant desire to stand up to the PTA vice president, Claudia Wolff. Unfortunately, the odds of getting away with a lie were slim to negative ten thousand. “You could have been talking about Evan.”
“Ah-ha,” she said. “Yes, I suppose I could.”
“But you weren’t.” And since distraction was my second-best friend, I brought her into the conversation. “What’s the prize for this contest? I’m not going to play for bragging rights, you know.”
“Ooo, good point. It has to be good enough to be worthwhile, but not so expensive that you’ll go green with jealousy when I get it.”
“What makes you think you’re going to win?”
“Because,” she said, “I’m ready to put my nose to the grindstone. Willing to burn the midnight oil and put my shoulder to the wheel.”
“You sound motivated.”
“And do you know why? No, you do not. The answer to that question is, after all, the reason for this phone call. I, dear heart, am finally going to Hawaii.”
My yelp of excitement caused both of my children and my mother to turn to look at me. I smiled and waved, and they returned to their vicious game of rummy. “Really truly?” I asked. “You’re not making this up just to get me exercising, are you?”
“Would I be that manipulative? Okay, I could, yes, I could, but not this time,” she said. “No, my little chickadee, a mere twenty-seven years, eight months, and seventeen days after our marriage, I am being taken to the land of luaus, pineapples, and sunsets. The DH is finally earning the title of Devoted Husband.”
Hah. If any two people in the world were made for each other, it was Marina and her husband. Sure, he was the classic introverted engineer and she was the stereotypical fiery-tempered redhead, but their personalities mushed together like potatoes and gravy.
“What are you going to say when Evan proposes?” Marina asked.
My powers of distraction must have deserted me in my time of need. “What makes you think he’s going to?”
“So young,” she said, “yet such an annoyance to those of us who are interested in your life. Of course he’s going to ask. Why else would he have spent the last two weekends at your house trying to figure out where that roof leak was coming from?”
“He’s just trying to be helpful.”
Marina snorted. “No one is that helpful unless he’s after something. He’s going to ask you to marry him one of these days. My money’s on soon.” I made a noise of demurral, but she overrode me. “Soon,” she repeated. “And what are you going to tell him?”
She was my best friend, so there was only one answer I could give her. The truth. “I don’t know,” I said. “I really don’t.”
* * *
Early Saturday morning, Mom was in the kitchen packing a traveling lunch that would feed a family of ten. I schlepped suitcases and stuffed animals and blankies and tote bags from porch to car. Eleven-year-old Jenna helped by moving things from the front entry to the porch and eight-year-old Oliver helped by opening and shutting the door against the cold April wind. My sister Darlene helped by standing next to the car, huddled in a parka with the hood pulled low over her forehead.
“Now that you’re leaving,” Darlene said, “may I say that coming up here in April is insane?”
I shoved the duffel bag filled with dirty clothes far forward in the trunk and didn’t bother turning to look at my favorite sister. “I just couldn’t go another day without seeing your smiling face.”
“Try selling that to someone who might believe you. And, anyway, you saw me at Christmas.”
Darlene and her husband lived a few minutes away from Mom, and all three had come down to spend Christmas in Rynwood. My brother Tim and his son Max had also shown up, and it had been a lovely holiday in spite of my mother’s eloquent sniffs about my housekeeping. The downside was that my mother had finally met Evan.
She loved him, of course. Who wouldn’t love a man who was movie star handsome, had more money than most mortals from his former career as a corporate lawyer, and cleared the dinner dishes off the table without being asked?
A gust of wind hurried across the lake and buffeted the both of us. My lithe, athletic sister tucked her chin to her chest and rode it out, rocking back and forth. I grabbed the edge of the trunk and wished I’d put on warmer gloves.
The gust moved on and Darlene pounced with another question. “Are you going to marry that Evan, or what?”
If I were the conspiracy-believing type, this would be when I started thinking that my friends and family were ganging up on me. But since I believed in conspiracies about as much as I believed that long hours of playing video games would help children succeed in business, I chalked Marina’s and Darlene’s questions up to coincidence. I gave Darlene the same answer.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? You’ve been going out with this guy for what, a year, and you don’t know?”
“Nine months,” I murmured. And here I’d always thought I was the math idiot in the family.
“How can you not know what you want?” she pressed. “What if he asks tomorrow? What are you going to tell him?”
“I’m not sure the kids are ready for a stepfather,” I said.
“Twiddle.” Darlene tried to tuck her dark hair behind her ears. Since she was wearing thick wool mittens this didn’t work out very well. Her fine strands stuck to the mittens and flew out around her face. “Jenna and Oliver are so starved for a father figure that even Roger noticed how much time they spent hanging around our house this week.”
I’d noticed it, too, and had put it down to the fact that Roger had been cooking maple syrup. Darlene’s husband worked in construction and spent much of the winter on short hours, which meshed well with his hobbies of hunting, skiing, and maple syrup cooking. The kids had been enthralled with syrup creation and it had been hard to drag them away from the sugar shack at mealtimes. “They love their uncle Roger,” I said, “but they might love maple syrup a little bit more.”
Darlene put her hands deep into her coat pockets, her knuckles poking large indentations through the fabric. “What are you scared of?” she asked.
“Disease, accidents, and inappropriate friendships.”
“Marina’s not that bad.”
I picked up a heavy cardboard box crowded with Mason jars filled with maple syrup and put it in the trunk. She knew perfectly well that I was talking about Jenna and Oliver.
“No, really.” Darlene shook back her hood. Her gaze was steady and calm, which could mean only one thing. She’d turned serious. “What are you scared of?”
I couldn’t tell her the truth, which was that on some level I was scared of pretty much everything, so I just shook my head.
“Try not to be so scared, Beth,” she said. “It’s a dumb way to live.”
“Can’t help it.” Once in a decade I could lie to Marina and get away undetected, but my big sister knew I’d been scared of the dark until I was twelve. She also knew that, at age six, I’d hid behind her so I didn’t have to talk to strangers. She also knew that the main reason I’d become a journalism major wasn’t so I could be an investigative reporter à la Woodward and Bernstein, but to become an editor so I could read all day and not talk to anyone. How I’d ended up the owner of a children’s bookstore I wasn’t quite sure.
“You can too help it.” Darlene watched me stow a suitcase. “Just make up your mind to stop being such a ’fraidy cat.”
Maybe I could make it a mantra, or something like that. Be brave. Be unafraid. Be courageous. You have no reason to fear.
But then all the reasons to be scared came rushing back. Though the sky was blue, my world darkened and tightened and clutched at me and reached out for my children and—
Darlene looked at me. “You’re thinking about those murders, aren’t you?”
I shook away the black thoughts. “How do you do that? You’re creepy.”
She laughed. “Anybody with half a brain could see what you’re thinking. You’re more transparent than a window that’s just been washed.”
“A murder is worth being scared about.”
“Only if you’re the victim. You were smart enough to not become one of those, remember?
the bad guys are in prison. Plus, what are the odds of yet another murder happening in that little town?” She spread her hands wide, palms up.
If I’d been a math whiz like our brother, Tim, I’d have been able to calculate those odds in my head. Or if I had a financial genius husband like our older sister, Kathy, I’d have been able to ask him. But since I wasn’t, and didn’t, I had to think Darlene’s question through.
Rynwood was located directly east of Madison, Wisconsin, a city with a crime rate much below the national average. The fact that Rynwood itself, a town of five thousand, had suffered two murders in the last two years could only be a statistical anomaly.
I looked at Darlene. “You know, you’re right.”
“Of course I am.” She nodded smugly. “I’m your big sister and I know best.”
Before I could point out some of her many errors in judgment, my children pounded out of the house.
“That’s all, Mom!” Jenna called.
“Nothing’s left,” Oliver said.
“Did you both use the bathroom?” They nodded vigorously. “Then give your aunt Darlene hugs.”
While the three of them were midclutch, my mother came outside. “Don’t forget this.” She set a green cloth bag onto the porch. “Your lunches.”
“Thanks, Mom.” I picked up the bag and almost dropped it. “What’d you put in here? A twenty-pound turkey?”
“Oh, this and that.”
I peered into the bag. Sandwiches. Soda, wrapped with layers of newspaper to stay cold-ish. A plastic container of pasta salad. Another one of coleslaw. Another one of broccoli salad. Another one full of what looked to be cut-up carrots, celery, cucumbers, and peppers. Clearly, my mother didn’t think I fed my children enough vegetables.
“Drive carefully,” she said. “Call me when you get home.”
“Yes, Mom,” I said automatically. “Kids, did you hug your grandmother?”
They ran over for round two, then I gave her a quick embrace. “Saddle up, buckaroos.”