Authors: Peg Cochran
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Amateur Sleuths, #Women Sleuths, #Jersey girl, #wedding, #Mystery, #New Jersey, #female sleuth, #Cozy, #Amateur Sleuth, #church, #Italian
Lucille pulled into her mother’s driveway and came to a stop. She turned around and leaned over the seat.
“I’ll only be a minute.” She crossed her fingers. Hopefully her mother would be ready.
Lucille went up the walk and rang the bell. No answer. She tried to peer through the frosted glass panels on either side of the door, but the foyer was dark. Maybe the bell was on the blink? She knocked once, twice, three times.
Still no answer.
Lucille dug the spare key out from under the mat and opened the front door. “Ma?”
“Ma, where are you?”
“I’m in the rec room.”
“Can you come up here, Ma? We’ve got to get going.” Lucille glanced at her watch quickly. “We’re already late as it is. You don’t want to miss nothing, do you?”
“I can’t come up.”
“What’s the matter? You hurt yourself?”
“What do you mean not exactly?” Lucille started down the stairs and came to a halt on the bottom step. “Holy shit!”
“What the hell are you doing?”
Lucille’s mother was strapped into a pair of electric blue boots and was hanging upside down from some strange contraption. Lucille stopped short at the sight.
“It’s called inversion therapy. Supposed to stretch out the spine. Remember that inch the doctor said I’d lost? Well, this here is supposed to help me get it back again.”
Lucille shook her head. “How are you supposed to get off that thing by yourself?”
She picked up the instructions lying on the floor. “The balance is so precise, simple arm movements are all that’s needed to control the extent of the rotation,” she read out loud.
Lucille’s mother snorted. “Simple, my eye. Watch this.” She moved her arms slightly and the table swung to 45 degrees, then upright to 90 degrees and finally full circle again to completely inverted. “What am I supposed to do? Jump off?”
“Where did you get this thing? I thought you sold all that crap you bought on QVC?” Lucille’s stomach plummeted as if she were on some kind of roller coaster. She sent up a prayer to St. Regina, patron saint against impoverishment. A year ago her mother’s QVC addiction had nearly put them in the poor house. She thought her mother had learned her lesson. She couldn’t have gone back to her old habits after everything that had happened. Besides, she was still attending the Shopaholics Anonymous meetings over in Summit.
Lucille’s mother looked sheepish. “This was in the back of one of the closets. I guess I missed it.”
Lucille grunted. “Well, never mind. We’ve got to get you off of that or we’re not going to arrive at the rehearsal dinner until dessert. This is Bernadette’s big moment. I don’t want to spoil it for her.”
“Where did she meet this Taylor anyway? And what kind of name is that? It’s a last name, not a first name.”
“Bernadette was waitressing at the Beacon Hill Tavern, and Taylor used to stop by with his friends. I guess he and Bernadette got to talking, and one thing led to another.”
Lucille’s mother fixed her with an eagle-like stare. “Sounds fishy to me.”
“We can’t afford to look a gift horse in the mouth,” Lucille said as she spun her mother upright. “Bernadette’s pregnant, and the father is overseas in one of those foreign countries you hear about on the news all the time. And he don’t have no plans to marry her either.”
This time Lucille’s mother grunted.
Lucille wrestled with the straps on one of the gravity boots. “We’ve got to get a ring on her finger before this baby’s born.”
The parking lot was full when Lucille pulled into it. She noticed the JoFra Pest Control van with the dead roach on top and “You Got ’Em—We’ll Get ’Em” written on the side, parked in the back. She breathed a sigh of relief. Frankie and Bernadette were already there. She angled the Olds into the closest space she could find. The car was getting old but Lucille refused to give up on it. She loved the contrast of the red leather with the white exterior. Okay, so it was a little worn in places, and it tended to stall at lights. It still had four wheels and went forward. That was enough for Lucille.
Millie and Louis slipped out of the backseat, and Lucille held the door for her mother and put out a hand. They all stood for a moment looking up in awe at the Pantagis Renaissance. It was lit up like a Christmas tree and reminded Lucille of one of them cruise ships they were always advertising on television.
Millie and Louis looked slightly overwhelmed as they entered the private room the Grabowskis had rented for the occasion, but Louis soon found his way to the bar and Millie stationed herself next to a tray of hors d’oeuvres, her hand darting out as stealthily as a turtle’s head to grab one.
Lucille looked around the room at the chandeliers dripping with crystal, the elegant table settings and the masses of fresh flowers. The hall at St. Rocco’s was going to look like nothing compared to this. She wished she and Frankie could have afforded a similar setup for the wedding reception but it wasn’t possible. Besides, Bernadette would be just as married whether the reception was at the church hall or at some five-hundred-bucks-a-plate wedding palace. And that was all Lucille cared about.
It was embarrassing enough that Bernadette was going to be walking down the aisle with a huge belly. Back in Lucille’s day, girls who were in the family way went to stay with a “cousin” or “aunt” for the nine months and didn’t return until after the baby was born. Now they had a whole section of maternity wedding gowns at the bridal shop she and Bernadette went to. Lucille didn’t hardly know what to make of it.
Frank was at the back of the room talking to some guy in a navy blazer and a pair of pants with some kind of print on them. Lucille squinted. They looked like ducks, but she couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to buy a pair of slacks printed all over with ducks. She sidled up to the bar and ordered herself a highball. She didn’t normally drink—maybe a glass of wine with Sunday dinner—but this was a special occasion.
Donna DeLucca—Lucille still thought of her that way even though she’d been Donna Grabowski for more than twenty years now—was wearing a beige lace dress with a plunging neckline. Her hair was done and so were her nails, and there were huge diamond studs in her ears. Well, it was fine for her, Lucille thought, she had the money for stuff like that. She glanced at her own hands. She’d meant to trim that ragged nail on her left thumb but had never gotten around to it. She dropped her hand quickly and took a big gulp of her drink.
Alex Grabowski was talking to a group of people, one hand in his pocket jingling his change and the other holding a glass of champagne. Taylor was standing next to him, a sulky, disinterested look on his face. He was wearing an ascot, something Lucille had only ever seen in old black-and-white movies on television. There was something about the kid that Lucille couldn’t put her finger on. Someone in the group must have said something funny, because Taylor laughed, and his hands fluttered up around his face.
Lucille searched the room for Flo. Flo was still miffed that Bernadette was marrying Taylor and not waiting for her son Tony who was, after all, the father of Bernadette’s baby. She couldn’t seem to get it into her head that Tony wasn’t waiting for Bernadette either—he told her he didn’t want to get married and that was that. It didn’t help that Taylor stood to inherit a lot of money, and Flo was a tiny bit jealous. Or that she hated Donna DeLucca’s guts and had ever since Donna purposely hit Flo in the head during a game of dodgeball in phys ed class. Flo had sprouted a magnificent shiner the day before the big homecoming dance that even an inch-thick layer of concealer couldn’t cover up.
Flo would come around. She and Lucille had been best friends since second grade. Lucille just needed to give her some time. It was a good sign that she hadn’t turned down the invitation to the rehearsal dinner. Lucille’s new turquoise dress seemed rather dowdy compared to Flo’s, a leopard-print wrap dress that showed way too much cleavage and plenty of leg. But that was Flo for you—she wasn’t about to hide her light under no bushel.
Suddenly someone began clanging a fork against the side of a glass. Lucille strained to see over the crowd. It was Alex. Slowly everyone quieted down.
Alex Grabowski smiled at everyone and raised his glass of champagne. “Welcome, everyone, to our little dinner tonight.”
Little? Lucille thought it was anything but. Waiters in short black jackets and bow ties were scurrying around like ants filling water glasses and placing salads at each of the place settings.
“This is a very special occasion,” Alex continued. “And we’re glad you’re all here to celebrate it with us. If you’ll find your seat, dinner will be served shortly.”
Lucille glanced at one of the tables. There were fancy place cards with everyone’s name written on them in elaborate script. Lucille went from table to table until she found hers. She breathed a sigh of relief. Frankie was next to her. She ran a finger around the neck of her dress. All this elegance was beginning to make her sweat.
Alex Grabowski took the seat on Lucille’s other side and Donna sat down next to him. Maria, Donna’s sister, was on her other side. She was older than Donna and was out of high school before Lucille started. She’d never married, which Lucille thought was a shame. But she had a good job, and Donna had told Lucille that she had her own condo. She was wearing a plain dress—not sexy like Donna’s—in a pretty color. But she had a kind of sour look about her that ruined the effect.
Bernadette and Taylor were seated next. Lucille could just see them over the floral centerpiece. Bernadette immediately picked up her fork and began eating her salad, her hair falling across her face like a curtain. Flo was across the table from Lucille, giving her a squinty-eyed look. Lucille squinted right back at her.
“What’s the matter?” Frankie poked her. “Got something in your eye?”
Lucille shook her head and quickly busied herself with her napkin. She stared at the array of silverware beside her plate then glanced over at Donna. Donna was fiddling with her place card, and Lucille waited patiently until Donna picked up the first fork to the left.
Lucille did the same and tucked into her salad. Suddenly she was starving. She’d been running around all day and hadn’t had time for more than a leftover piece of coffee cake, a half a sandwich she’d found in the fridge and a Snickers bar. She glanced at Taylor, and he was fussing with his first course, prissily picking bits off the lettuce leaves and discarding them on the plate underneath. Lucille noticed he had long, delicate fingers and his nails were shiny. She had heard of men getting manicures and having their nails buffed, but it wasn’t something she had ever actually seen before.
Flo was looking at Taylor’s hands, too. She looked over at Lucille and smirked. Lucille shot her a dirty look back and bent her head over her salad.
Waiters were clearing away their empty plates when Alex clapped his hands together. He put an arm around Bernadette and pulled her toward him. Bernadette looked like she wanted to sock him, and Lucille held her breath.
“What an occasion, huh?” He glanced around the table and beamed. “These two great kids getting married.” He hugged Bernadette closer and Bernadette rolled her eyes. “We’re not losing a son, we’re gaining a daughter, right, Donna?”
Donna gave a tight smile.
Alex gave a loud guffaw. “We wondered if Taylor would ever settle down. He was always hanging out with his friends and claimed he had no time for girls.”
This time Flo smirked at Lucille in earnest.
“But he was just waiting until the right girl came along, and his mother and I couldn’t be happier.”
Donna gave another rigid smile. Lucille wondered if she’d had some work done. Her skin was stretched as tight as a piece of plastic wrap over a bowl of leftovers.
Alex began talking to Flo, and Lucille saw him reach into his back pocket. He got out his wallet and pulled out a card, which he handed to Flo. He looked around the table and waved his wallet. Lucille imagined it was stuffed with twenty-dollar bills.
“I had my pocket picked last week,” he said. “The bastard got my wallet and all my credit cards.”
“I had to run to the mall to get him another one,” Donna said. “Then I spent hours on the phone canceling the cards and arranging for new ones.” She made it sound as if the whole thing had completely exhausted her.
Lucille felt around under the table with her foot for her purse. She would hate to lose her wallet. She had a baby picture in there of Bernadette that couldn’t be replaced and one of herself and Frankie, back when they were still dating, taken in one of those photo booths on the boardwalk down in Wildwood. It was all faded now, but looking at it still brought back good memories.
Waiters slid the main course in front of them. Lucille had opted for the steak—although on the menu they were calling it filet mignon. Sounded like a good name for a horse, not a piece of meat, but she had to admit, it looked tasty.
Everyone was quiet as they began their main course. Lucille glanced over to where her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and Louis and Millie were sitting with a fierce-looking white-haired woman dressed in head-to-toe black. Lucille recognized her as Old Mrs. DeLucca—as everyone called her—Donna’s grandmother. She was about to turn one hundred and couldn’t see or hear none too well.
Seeing Louis and Millie reminded Lucille that she’d meant to talk to Donna. She leaned across Frank and pointed her fork at Donna.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you. When are they going to start the construction on Louis and Millie’s house? They been staying with us, and things are getting a bit cramped if you know what I mean.”
Donna paused with a bite of salmon halfway to her mouth. She looked at Lucille and then at her husband.
Alex gave Lucille a big smile that didn’t fool Lucille for a minute. He clapped her on the back.
“Lucille,” he said with an overabundance of enthusiasm and a flash of professionally whitened teeth. “Didn’t Donna tell you?”
Donna glared at her husband.