Book excerpt

Gone with a Handsomer Man

Teeny Templeton Mysteries

Michael Lee West

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One
 
All I ever wanted in life was true love, a set of copper cookware, and the perfect recipe for red velvet cake. The last thing I wanted was to end up on Charleston’s six o’clock news, accused of murder and a slew of other crimes.
It started Monday, the first week in June, when I thought I’d gotten the dates wrong for my cake baking class. Numbers don’t usually stick in my mind. This one did because it was my twenty-ninth birthday, and my fiancé, Bing Jackson, surprised me with the darlingest gifts—pastry bags, a fifty-three-piece Wilton Supreme Cake Decorating Set, and eight prepaid classes at the Vivienne Beaumont School of Cake Design.
Before we left Bing’s house in Mount Pleasant, he opened a bottle of Moët and we toasted our upcoming wedding. Then we drove across the river into downtown Charleston and turned down East Bay Street. He pointed to a redbrick building with a giant neon cupcake sitting on the roof.
“Teeny, this is where you’ll be every Thursday from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m.,” he said. “Classes start June fourth—that’s only three days from now.”
A lot of women might have gotten suspicious over the exact details, but not me. Bing was all about timing. Thanks to the giant clock inside his head, he’d never been late to a real estate closing or open house. His Rolex was just for show.
“Teenykins, I signed you up for this class because I want you to make our wedding cake,” he said. “But I don’t want something traditional. How about an eighteen-hole golf course? You can do sand traps and little spun-sugar balls.”
“You bet.” I threw my arms around his neck. We were getting married in August—only ten weeks to go—and my thoughts were already skipping ahead to the wedding. Maybe I could make the groom’s cake, too, something unusual like a giant tee or a Big Bertha driver.
On Thursday night, I put down the top on my beat-up turquoise Oldsmobile and drove from Bing’s house across the Cooper River. The school’s parking lot was empty and I began to fret. Was I Miss Vivienne’s only student, or had I arrived a tad early?
I leaned toward the rearview mirror and combed my windblown hair—it’s long and blond, prone to tangles. Normally I didn’t drive with the convertible top down, but my air conditioner was broken. I grabbed my cake decorating kit, along with the enrollment packet, and walked to the door. It was locked, and a memo was taped to the glass. Due to circumstances beyond Miss Vivienne’s control, classes had been rescheduled and would commence next Thursday.
I walked back to my Olds and drove back to Mount Pleasant. When I passed a grocery on Ben Sawyer Boulevard, I did a U-turn and angled into the parking lot. I came out with an apple walnut salad with raspberry vinaigrette, a wedge of brie, and a cheesecake sampler. Nothing beats fresh, simple food on a sticky hot summer night in Charleston.
It was almost eight o’clock when I turned down Rifle Range Road. The sky curved above me like an oyster shell, ribbed and grainy. Even though it was still daylight, the moon was on the rise, moving through the clouds like a dropped pearl. Long before Mama left for good, she used to say a full moon cleared troublesome matters of the heart, wiped the slate clean, and resolved unfinished business.
My heart wasn’t burdened in the least as I sped down the highway. I turned into Jackson Estates, a new subdivision the economy had flattened. Bing owned all thirteen acres, and his green stucco house sat in the rear, surrounded by peach trees and empty lots. A real peaceful setting. But the minute I pulled into the driveway, I knew something was wrong. First, my bulldog, Sir, didn’t shoot out of the doggie door to greet me. Second, a white BMW convertible was parked under the mimosa. The license plate read SOSEX-E. Not a good sign. Not at all.
From the backyard I heard laughter, the high, twittery girlish kind. I stayed in my car, trying to get a deep breath, but the air was thick and moist. The last thing I needed was an asthma attack. I grabbed my inhaler and took a puff; then I got out of the car.
Weeds brushed against my legs as I walked around the house. Our badminton net stood in the middle of the backyard. A boom box sat on the patio table, and Muse was singing “Ruled by Secrecy,” which isn’t about cheating but ought to be. I started to holler for Bing when a naked brunette ran across the grass and swung her badminton racket at the birdie. I ducked behind a peach tree and saw Bing and a tall redhead race toward the net. They were naked, too.
I sucked in air, and it whistled through the thin gap between my front teeth. For weeks now, Bing had been pressuring me to do something kinky, but I had no idea he’d wanted a trifecta. Tears stung my eyes as I looked at the women. They had perky chi-chis, no tan lines, and no cellulite.
Me, I’m a little too short and curvy, with brown eyes and the aforementioned blond hair. When I was a little girl, Mama would get drunk and call me Possum Head. Sometimes she’d get on a roll and point out my major failings: my elbows were too far down, my teeth resembled a picket fence, I was too sweet and gullible, and my hair looked like something that grew in the Okefenokee Swamp. After she’d sober up, she’d hug me and say, “Teeny, nobody’s perfect. Besides, you’ve got a good heart.” Now that heart dropped to my navel and tapped a code: run, Teeny. Run.
The redhead grabbed the birdie. She was all legs and hair. Instead of hitting the birdie with her racquet, she giggled and threw it over the net. It was a prissy throw, but the brunette sacked the hell out of it. Bing took off running, his dangly parts swinging.
I’d stood in line at Target to buy that badminton set. Bing had fussed when I’d called the white thing a birdie. He’d told me to call it by its proper name, a shuttlecock. Speaking of which, his privates jiggled violently as his racquet smashed into the birdie. It shot over the brunette’s head and thumped into my herb garden.
“You get it,” the brunette told the redhead, then she struck a pose—hand on her hip bone, one leg bent at the knee, like she was a contestant in the Miss Tall Gal Pageant. The redhead squatted beside the rosemary bush and glanced around for the birdie. She wasn’t a knockout like her friend, but she was graceful.
Bing slipped under the net, his straight blond hair falling into his eyes, and placed the edge of the racquet under Miss Tall’s chin. Her head tilted back, and Bing kissed her pouty, bee-stung lips like he’d never kissed me.
I flattened my palms against the warm grass. A tear hit the back of my hand. St. Andrews Episcopal was reserved for our August fifteenth wedding. It wasn’t too late to cancel, right? I’d found true love once. I didn’t expect to find it again. But I didn’t have to settle for this. I could still opt for those copper pans and a good cake.
My bulldog sniffed Miss Tall’s leg. She kicked him and Sir yelped. That did it. I wouldn’t let this skank abuse an innocent dog. I swallowed back tears. Things weren’t perfect between me and Bing, but I had no idea he was a man-whore. There’s no canary in the coal mine for cheating men.
The redhead held up the birdie and looked past Bing, straight into my eyes. “Hey, there’s a girl watching us,” she yelled.
I ducked low as Bing and Miss Tall broke apart. I’m mostly a calm person, but I wanted justice. I could break off a switch and beat their bony asses. But girls like that worked in a team. I’d end up in a body cast.
“This is private property,” Bing cried. “Leave now, and I won’t call the police.”
“You can call Jesus, for all I care,” I said.
Sir’s head twisted when he heard my voice. I gazed up into the dark branches, each one loaded with unripe fruit. I grabbed a low branch and shimmied up the trunk—not so easy in shorts. My legs would be a scratchy mess.
“Who is she?” asked the redhead. She walked toward the net.
“My fiancée,” Bing said.
“I thought it was a dwarf,” said Miss Tall.
I couldn’t argue with her. I’m barely five foot two. When I was a kid, I was short in a noticeable way. It’s how I got my name.
Bing tipped back his head. “Teeny, why are you in a tree?” he hollered up.
“Why are you naked?” I called down.
Sir ran to the tree and barked. I pulled off my engagement ring and threw it at Bing. He jumped back, like I’d hurled a watermelon. That gave me an idea. I grabbed a peach. In a month it would be ripe, but now it was hard and heavy. I reared back and tossed it at Miss Tall. She ducked and it hit Bing’s shoulder. “Hey!” he cried. “Cut that out.”
“Screw you,” I yelled and lobbed another fruit. It smacked against Miss Tall’s hip. She screamed and threw her racquet at the tree. I grabbed another peach and aimed it at her mouth, but she ducked again. The fruit hit the boom box; it fell over and the music stopped.
I tossed another and another. One peach smashed the redhead’s nose. Her chin snapped back, and blood trickled out of her nostrils, streaming over her lip. Bing stepped in front of her and spread his arms, shielding her.
I fired down two more peaches. One whizzed over Bing’s head, but the other slammed into his nether region. He screeched and doubled over. The redhead hung back, crying over her busted nose, but Miss Tall looked ready to fight. I threw peaches as fast as I could. It was like the old days when the pickers’ kids and I had fruit fights.
“Dammit, Teeny. Get the hell out of that tree,” Bing cried. Though he was still bent into a C, he herded the women to the patio, into the house. Even the dog went. I stayed in the tree until Bing came back. He dared me to move as he put on his clothes.
The police arrived a few minutes later. I started to climb down, but my hair caught on a branch. Bing’s entourage came out of the house. The women had gotten dressed. The redhead pressed a bag of frozen brussels sprouts to her nose.
“You’re going to jail,” she yelled.
“I’m not the criminal,” I said.
“This is prespousal abuse,” Bing cried. “Nobody hits me.”
I didn’t get scared until two policemen advanced toward my tree. One was tall with pointy ears and the other had a caterpillar crawling on his lip. Then I saw it was a moustache. The pointy-eared cop ordered me to climb down. While I tried to explain about the naked women and my snagged hair, Bing yelled, “I’ll get my chain saw.”
He walked toward the garage. “Bing, no,” I cried. In my mind, peach trees meant love, shelter, and comfort. I’d grown up on a peach farm in Bonaventure, Georgia. Bing knew how I felt. The engagement was broken, but the tree should stay in one piece.
The mustached cop looked up at me. “Lady, it’s against the law to hit people with peaches.”
“Too bad I didn’t yank them baldheaded,” I said.
“This ain’t funny,” the caterpillared cop yelled.
Bing returned with the chain saw. I was in trouble now. Even though this was Mount Pleasant, I totally expected to get slapped with the death penalty. A mighty buzz filled the air as Bing leaned toward the tree. Bark churned in the air as the blade cut a wide kerf. The trunk cracked and leaned sideways. The cops lowered it to the ground and handcuffed me.
Needless to say, the wedding was off.


 
Copyright 2011 by Michael Lee West

Michael Lee West is the author of six novels, including Crazy Ladies, Mad Girls in Love, American Pie, and She Flew the Coop, as well as a food memoir, Consuming Passions. She lives with her husband on a farm in Lebanon, Tennessee, with three bratty Yorkshire terriers, a Chinese crested, assorted donkeys, chickens, sheep, and African Pygmy goats. Her faithful dog Zap was the inspiration of a character in Mermaids in the Basement