Home > Game of Gravestones (A Jane Ladling Mystery #3)

Game of Gravestones (A Jane Ladling Mystery #3)
Author: Gena Showalter

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

“Never say you’ll cross any line to win. Not out loud.”

Jane Ladling, Cemetery Girl

 

 

Jane Ladling lived by three rules. Well, two rules and a strong suggestion. Or semi-strong, bordering on incredibly soft. 1. Never fall in love. 2. Always be good to pets, family, and friends. And 3. Absolutely, under no circumstances, break rule number one.

Currently, she stood on a makeshift stage, shoulder to shoulder with her best friend and confidant, Fiona Lawrence, smiling and waving at party guests. Jane kept those rules front and center as her gaze continued to stray to a certain Georgia Bureau of Homicide Special Agent. No more than twenty feet away, he engaged in deep conversation with a rapt circle of townspeople eager to learn more about a recent case. The Woeful Widow and Mr. Art Amour. Solved by Jane herself, thank you very much.

The romantic setting didn’t help her endeavor. Soft music played in the background of a large, transparent tent with plastic walls. A structure that dominated the entrance to her landlocked cemetery, Garden of Memories. Moonlight and stars glowed overhead while a hint of magnolia and jasmine scented the air, soon to fade until the return of spring. Along the outside perimeter, trees swayed with a gentle fall breeze. Within, lanterns flickered with hazy light, illuminating gold and black balloon arches and twirling streamers. White pumpkins and glittery pinecones added a taste of autumn.

The roaring twenties themed soiree was in full swing.

“Mmm mmm mmm.” Fiona gave Jane a gentle nudge. “I see you’re as riveted to that boy’s hot buttered buns as I am.”

“Oh my gosh.” Caught staring! “We shouldn’t discuss his, um, derriere.” Jane’s cheeks flushed as she slid her gaze over Conrad Ryan for the thousandth time that evening. He wore a white button-down with dark slacks and a matching jacket, perfectly fitted to his lean, muscular frame. “But you aren’t wrong. Those buns are sizzling, aren’t they?”

Fiona fanned her cheeks. “I can feel the burn from here.”

Once, the sixty-two-year-old had been like a sister to Jane’s Grandma Lily. When the darling woman passed, Fiona became Jane’s rock. Despite their thirty-six-year age difference, they were like sisters, too.

“He should wear a sign,” Jane said. “Handle with care.”

As if he sensed the scrutiny, Conrad cast a glance over one broad shoulder. Thank goodness she looked up in time to catch his eye. He winked before refacing his audience.

But that was all it took. Jane’s breath caught and her heart thudded. Dang, he was beautiful. Tall and strong, with thick black hair, and whiskey-colored irises. A straight nose and firm jaw added to his incomparable appeal. The Rolex on his wrist hid the tattoos that peaked from the sleeves of his jacket.

The day they’d met, the Atlanta native had come to her hometown, and all but accused her of murdering a doctor. Since then, he’d wreaked complete havoc on Aurelian Hills—and her life! Perhaps not as much havoc as she’d wreaked upon his, but that was neither here nor there. Now they were kinda, sorta, well, dating. If you could date someone without going on actual dates with them. Which sounded weird. But hey, welcome to Jane’s world.

When you owned and operated an ancestral cemetery, weird became the norm. Besides, she and Conrad had enjoyed something a million times better than romantic dinners or trips to the theater. They solved murders together! Two so far.

Although, granted, Jane had done the bulk of the solving. Not that she was bragging or anything. Truth was truth. Conrad’s problem? He relied on clues and logic. Meanwhile, Jane utilized a far superior method. Conjecture. Everybody kept secrets. Suspect the worst from the beginning and work from there. Sure, she had no friends outside her inner circle, but who needed more of those when you had such an amazing assortment of confidants?

She ignored the sudden spike of longing that constricted her chest.

Anyway. Despite the special agent’s lack of imagination, he’d somehow wormed his way into her heart. Just the outer layer, though! Not the gooey center, where love bubbled and brewed. She would never, never, ever let herself love him. Or anyone! Break rule number one? No!

Her personal code had developed from a family curse. Like, a legit curse. But it only affected the women. Fall in love, lose the guy. An outcome as certain as death. Her mom had lost her dad. Grandma Lily had lost Pops. Her great grandmother Opal lost a husband twice! And on and on and on.

Not happening to me. Nope. Jane had lost too much already.

“How do I look?” Fiona asked, adjusting her costume. “To die for?”

Jane gave the gorgeous “Nana” a once-over. With Fiona’s salt-and-pepper hair pinned back, she put her dark, unlined skin on display. A drop-waisted gown highlighted a buxom figure. The cloche hat and long string of pearls completed the outfit.

“You steal my breath,” Jane said with a smile. “See what I did there?”

They shared a snicker.

To pad Jane’s meager family trust—among other reasons—she’d teamed up with the town’s premiere party planners, Charlotte and Audrey Berdize, to kick off Aurelian Hill’s first murder mystery party. The Case of the Hotsy-Totsy Bandit. Beyond this point, inside the cemetery itself, local businesses had set up booths to advertise, display and sell their goods and services while handing out clues. Including the Berdize sisters.

“Honestly, Fee, you look like you stepped from a picture of the 1920s,” Jane added.

“Classic. Timeless. Lovely.”

Her friend preened. “I gotta say, you took the words right out of my mouth about you, hon. You are classic, timeless, and lovely as well.”

“I am, aren’t I?” Jane responded with a teasing smile, fluffing her coiffed hair. After days of deliberation, she’d chosen a gold flapper dress, with dotted tulle and feathers. On her head perched a glorious fascinator hat. Both the fascinator and the cloche belonged to her extensive—and impressive—collection.

A buzz sounded from her phone, letting her know she’d gotten a new text. She sighed. No need to read the screen. She knew the message came from a Berdize sister. The pair had been reaching out every two minutes or so.

Jane checked–yep. Sure enough.

A-Berdize: Why haven’t you released the hounds into the wild already????

The guests were the hounds, she assumed. Her gaze strayed to the clock in the upper left hand of the screen. 8:16 p.m. She heaved another sigh. It wasn’t her fault the MC was late, preventing the players from receiving their first clue.

Rather than explain, she replied with a shrug emoji. Invited fewer questions.

As she returned the device to her pocket, a man in the corner snagged her attention. Anthony Miller, draining the contents of a flask, glaring at someone in the crowd. Jane stiffened. Had her former lawyer come to demand more money she didn’t owe him?

Fiona patted her hand. “Don’t you worry, dear. Sheriff Moore will be here in a hop, skip and a jump. Why, I bet he went to check on his deputies. They’re patrolling the city without him tonight and I think we can both agree he’s the brains in that operation. Once he starts emcee-ing, everyone will forget the wait. They’ll be too enraptured by his delicious voice to remember.”

Sheriff Moore. A gruff protector had stolen Fiona’s affections. Obviously.

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