by Maggie King
This seemed like a perfect mystery short story for Valentine’s Day season! How Do You Mend a Broken Heart? was first published in the Murder By the Glass anthology (Untreed Reads Publishing, 2021).
Trigger warning for suicide.
“You really think we’ll find ourselves a couple of rich husbands tonight?”
I laughed. “Just yesterday, you quoted from that book you love so much…something about rich men on the hunt for wives.”
My sister Kate fussed with the neckline of her black lace top and recited from memory: “‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’”
“That’s the one.”
“It’s from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.”
“You always were the bookworm of the family.”
Moments before, Kate and I had arrived at the very fancy Mavis I. Paxton House, home of the River Edge Club, a private social club for Richmond, Virginia’s elite. After spending a mint on tickets for the Springtime Is Sweet fundraiser, we wanted to look our best, and ducked into an elegant ladies’ lounge for a primping session before making a grand entrance in the ballroom. We had those prospective rich husbands to consider.
The pricey tickets benefitted The Pantry, a Richmond food bank whose mission was to feed those in need—a mission near and dear to our Aunt Pauline’s heart. Aunt Pauline was dying of pancreatic cancer and couldn’t attend the fundraiser, so she had asked Kate and me to drive down from Northern Virginia to support her favorite cause. We never could say no to our beloved aunt.
Kate said, “If we’re playing Jane Austen characters, I get to be Elizabeth Bennett, with first dibs on Mr. Darcy.”
Kate huffed her frustration. “They’re the main characters in Pride and Prejudice.”
Kate spent her high school years holed up in her room, studying and reading the likes of Jane Austen. I ran with a wild crowd and was lucky to graduate. Eventually, I found my talent in computers, but I still rarely opened a book.
“Aunt Pauline said we’d have our pick of rich guys tonight,” I said.
“Actually, Becca, she said I might find a rich husband and that tarty outfit you have on makes you mistress material.” Kate finished touching up her makeup, plopped down in a red velvet love seat, and leaned her head back against the fancy gold paper that covered the walls.
I smiled as I refreshed my Red Sin lipstick. Aunt Pauline always spoke her mind. I glanced at Kate. She sat with crossed legs, the slit of her slinky skirt revealing a daring expanse of thigh. “What about you with that slit up to your unmentionables? That’s assuming you’re even wearing unmentionables.”
“We won’t mention them,” Kate quipped. She fanned the fingers of her right hand, surveying her French manicure.
“I think I’m pretty modest tonight,” I said. “Just a hint of cleavage.” Although, I’d probably gone overboard on raising the hemline of my white satin form-fitting dress. I’d worn the same dress when I married Arnie. Arnie, my now ex, a champ in the bedroom and at the shooting range—useless anyplace else.
“Did you see that great-looking guy when we arrived?” Kate asked. “The one standing behind the registration table?”
“Yes! Gorgeous Man!” I held a hand over my heart, miming a swoon. “Wasn’t he to die for? Maybe he’s rich.”
“Let’s snag a dance with him.”
“Becca, do you ever wonder if that terrible business with Mama and Daddy caused Aunt Pauline’s cancer? I’ve heard that anger and resentment can do that. And she has a heap of resentment toward that man who lent Daddy that money.”
I fluffed my blond mane. “Let’s hope she’s an exception.”
When our mama was diagnosed with a rare lung disease, Daddy tried his best to take care of her, but the medications were expensive and not covered by insurance. Daddy worked as an accountant for a large property management firm, and his salary only went so far in helping Mama. Her own job as a housekeeper didn’t help much and didn’t last long after her diagnosis. When Mama died, Daddy lost his will to live without her and took an overdose of barbiturates.
Our parents shielded Kate and me from their money woes and gave us the bare minimum of information. Aunt Pauline filled in the grim details of how her hapless brother and sister-in-law took out a loan—a loan that sounded like a godsend at the time but turned out to be anything but.
“I’d known this man for many years from church and thought him the nicest guy in the world,” Aunt Pauline had said. “When I told him about Marcella’s illness and how Davey wanted to get the expensive medication she needed, this man was quick to offer to loan them the money. When Davey had trouble paying back the loan, this nice man turned from Jekyll to Hyde, pressuring him to embezzle from his company. I’m sure that’s what drove my little brother to his death.”
Tears spilled down Aunt Pauline’s face, but her voice dripped with sarcasm as she added, “The bastard graciously forgave the loan and didn’t go after me or you girls. Then he went overseas somewhere and became a missionary, of all things. Last I heard he died in a car accident in some African country. Good riddance.”
Kate and I made decent money—she as a professor of English Literature at a Northern Virginia college, and me as I.T. director for a Washington-area software firm—and we repaid Daddy’s employer the full amount Daddy had embezzled. I wish we’d known how desperate Daddy had been, but his pride wouldn’t have let him accept our help.
“Kate, let’s forget all about illness and heartbreak and have a good time tonight. We deserve a little fun. Maybe we will find ourselves rich husbands. Or, in my case, a rich lover.” I leaned against the marble counter and continued to assess my image in the huge mirror with the gold antique frame. Bouquets of yellow roses filled the room with sweet fragrance. The sconces flanking the mirror gave off flattering light that made the rhinestone pendants swinging from my ears sparkle. “If we found rich husbands, we could be wearing real bling and not fakes.”
“You’re right about that,” Kate drawled. “When did they start calling flashy jewelry bling?”
Kate stood. “Are you ever going to finish primping? This thing will be over, and you’ll still be here, admiring yourself.”
“Okay, okay.” After a final fluff of the hair and a quick check for lipstick on my teeth, I picked up my program and looped my too-big rhinestone-studded satin bag over my shoulder. The event called for an elegant evening clutch, but I carried too many items.
Kate preferred an understated style and kept her jewelry to a minimum. Discreet earrings and a cubic zirconia choker completed her accessorizing. She bore an uncanny resemblance to former Alaska Governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a look she capitalized on with designer glasses and tousled auburn curls.
“Daddy would have had a blast at this place,” Kate said as we walked out of the lounge. “He just loved to dance, didn’t he?”
“He sure did.” My voice caught. Even after three years, I still choked up thinking of Daddy.
Kate and I walked along a hallway, stopping at the various rooms to ooh and aah at the ornate marble fireplaces, crystal chandeliers, and Persian rugs.
“Where’s Gorgeous Man?” I asked as we passed the registration table.
“I’m sure he’s around somewhere. He’s hard to miss.” Kate pulled on my arm. “Let’s check out the silent auction.”
We continued walking. Healthy-looking ficus plants lined another hallway leading to an immense ballroom. An amped-up band set up on the raised stage played hits from my parents’ era. Red-flocked wallpaper covered the walls. My ex would have loudly proclaimed, “Man oh man, we’re in a bordello!”
Richmonders had turned out in droves to do their part in combatting the local hunger problem. Every style of dress met my eyes: jeans with button-down shirts, tailored suits, floor-length formals. Glittering gems dripped from the women. People sat at round tables, danced, or milled around, laughing and yelling at each other to be heard above the din of the band.
My abbreviated dress got the admiring looks I’d expected. But I remained focused on Gorgeous Man, specifically on his whereabouts.
“Where is he?” I looked around, but the only men I saw sported potbellies.
The silent auction tables took up one wall of the ballroom. Offerings included vacation stays, golf outings, wine baskets, gift certificates for online retailers, babysitting and landscaping services, to name a few.
I bid on a spa day and a basket of what was surely a lifetime’s supply of tea paraphernalia. A group of women tried to outbid each other on a three-week South American cruise. After bidding on a few more items, Kate and I left the auction area before we got carried away.
The Springtime Is Sweet fundraiser was aptly named, as it featured a dessert buffet in April. Kate and I scanned tables laden with a mouth-watering selection of sweet treats—cookies, fruit tartlets, éclairs, mini pancake stacks, parfaits, and more—provided by trendy Richmond restaurants and caterers. Everything was springtime pink, from the tablecloths to the huge bouquets that formed a backdrop to the array of desserts. Dogwood branches canopied a huge platter of grapes and strawberries.
We walked through a door that opened to a garden. Tables holding more desserts beckoned, but the acrid smell of tobacco smoke from high-spirited donors drove us back inside.
Kate and I filled plates with a variety of bite-sized items and found two seats together at one of the tables. With the floor-length tablecloth—pink, of course—I felt free to slip off my strappy sandals and give my feet a rest from my five-inch heels. My friends wore the things with great poise and balance. Apparently, I didn’t have the gene.
“It’s kind of ironic to have all this upscale food at a do to raise money for a food bank,” I said as I enjoyed some especially creamy cheesecake.
Kate laughed. “I hardly think the organization would attract all these people, many with money up the wazoo, if they served Twinkies.” She popped a lemon square in her mouth.
The band took a break, and a man wearing a tailored blue suit appeared on the dance floor. I grabbed Kate’s arm. “There’s Gorgeous Man!”
“Hello, everyone, I’m Jeremy Redman, CEO of The Pantry. Welcome to the Springtime Is Sweet fundraiser!” The crowd cheered. Jeremy went on to thank everyone for their generosity and reminded them of the silent auction and other opportunities to demonstrate even greater generosity.
He finished his spiel and started a short video promoting the good work of The Pantry. A couple of lively games followed. When the band started up again and the dance floor filled with twisting bodies energized by sugar highs, my eyes tracked Jeremy as he moved to the silent auction area.
Kate nudged me. “Now’s your chance. Go grab him. I’ll watch your bag.”
“How do I look?”
“Fantastic, for a tart,” Kate said with a wink. “Just freshen up your lipstick.”
After taking care of that task and finding my sandals under the table, I got up and approached Gorgeous Man.
“Hi, I’m Becca Highsmith.” I added a flutter of eyelashes.
“Jeremy Redman.” Bass voice, very seductive. His dark hair gleamed. He took my hand and kissed it, his lips soft and warm.
“This is a fabulous event.” I spread my arms as if to encompass the crowd.
He smiled and his eyes swept me, head to foot, lingering on my hint of cleavage.
When a slow dance started, Jeremy leaned close and, voice husky, asked, “Care to dance?”
I let a smile signal my agreement. Jeremy put his hand on my back as we made our way to the crowded dance floor. When he took me in his arms, I felt the fabric of his suit, soft against the firmness of his muscles. I closed my eyes and wished the dance would never end.
But it did end, and we slowly parted. With any luck, the lighting was dim enough that Jeremy couldn’t see my face flushing. When the band upped the tempo, we stayed on the floor for a faster dance.
I focused on staying upright on my sky-high heels, relieved that I didn’t take a spill. I tossed my blond curls in what I hoped was a provocative way, not one that made me look like I suffered from a fit. My earrings slapped the side of my face as they swayed and jingled. After three more dances, we laughingly decided to take a break.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Jeremy flashed a smile worthy of a toothpaste ad. His blue eyes sparkled brighter than any gem in the place.
“I’d love some white wine.”
While Jeremy went to the bar, I returned to the table where I’d left my bag. Kate talked to a man wearing a Stetson. Even over the earsplitting band, I heard the man’s loud guffaw as he called Kate “Governor.” Apparently, my sister was playing up her resemblance to Sarah Palin.
By the time Jeremy returned with two glasses of wine, I’d crossed my tanned legs, letting the skirt of my satin dress slide up my thigh alarmingly. I introduced him to Kate, and she in turn introduced the Stetson-wearing man, whose name I didn’t catch over the music.
Jeremy sat close to me—very close. I grabbed a program from the table and fanned myself. I’d never had such a response to a man I’d met minutes before, not even my ex. I wasn’t one for hookups on short acquaintance. But I could be persuaded. Just this once.
“Stop it, Becca!” I ordered myself. What would Mama say if she could see me now, acting like a wanton hussy?
Jeremy and I sipped our wine and gazed into each other’s eyes. He leaned close and whispered into my curls, “Becca, you’re absolutely gorgeous!”
“You’re pretty handsome yourself.” I hadn’t meant to sound like a husky-voiced woman from one of those old movies Mama and Daddy used to watch, but I suspected that I did.
“Can I offer you a tour of this place? It’s a beautiful building.”
“Ooh, I’d love a tour.” I bet he had more in mind than a tour…and that suited me just fine.
I tapped Kate on the shoulder. “I’m going on a tour.” I added a wink.
She winked back. “You two behave yourselves, now!”
Jeremy led me out of the ballroom, along the ficus-lined hallway, past the same ornate rooms that had attracted Kate and me earlier, and up a magnificent staircase to the second floor of the house. With one hand tucked in Jeremy’s arm and the other clutching my wine glass, I felt “on top of the world,” one of Daddy’s favorite expressions. I didn’t tell Jeremy that my mama had worked as housekeeper at the Mavis I. Paxton House for many years and that I knew the place inside and out. Let him play tour guide. I made murmurs of appreciation as we walked.
Most of the second floor functioned as office space for the River Edge Club. My favorite room was the library, a large space with floor-to-ceiling shelves of books on gardening and Richmond history.
“Oh, is that a library? I just adore libraries.”
Jeremy and I walked around the room, admiring the crystal chandelier that hung over a large table. Tall windows looked out on historic buildings. I kept up my golly-gee demeanor. Jeremy smiled.
Another hallway ended at a door that took us to yet another set of stairs. We ascended to the third floor and slipped into a large meeting room. Moonlight streamed through the windows, revealing rows of cushioned chairs facing a podium and pulldown projector screen. Framed floral prints covered the walls. I threw my bag on one of the chairs and set my wine glass on the floor.
Jeremy pulled me close. His kiss was gentle at first, then hard and searing. He ran his hands down my back, pressing his body against mine. My fingers raked his hair, silky as a Persian cat’s. We stayed like that for a few moments until I pulled away, panting.
“Inhaler.” I patted my chest. “Asthma.”
“Are you all right, Becca?”
“I will be,” I managed as I staggered to the chair where I’d dumped my bag. “You just got me,” gasp, “so excited,” gasp.
No doubt Jeremy cursed his luck in winding up with an asthmatic and was planning his escape. His next words confirmed my suspicion. “You know, Becca, I should probably get back downstairs—”
The first bullet went through Jeremy Redman’s chest. Right between the nipples. To be safe, I added another.
Thank you, Arnie, for all those times you dragged me to the shooting range. You weren’t so useless after all.
I tossed the rest of my wine on Jeremy, now sprawled on the floor, and dropped the empty glass in my bag, along with the Smith and Wesson M&P, blond wig, and torturous sandals. I hightailed it out of there.
Aunt Pauline died two weeks later, happy to see justice done for the death of her brother and sister-in-law.
“I hope Jeremy Redman burns in hell,” she had said when Kate and I visited her in hospice.
When Aunt Pauline had learned that Jeremy Redman was alive and well, not having died during his stint as a missionary, and now CEO of The Pantry, she decided she wouldn’t leave this world with “that bastard” still in it. She regretted being too sick to manage the deed herself, but found her nieces willing and able to be her surrogates. How could we deny our beloved aunt her dying wish? I only wish the guy hadn’t been so hot.
After fleeing the Mavis I. Paxton House, Kate and I drove around downtown Richmond, stopping at dumpsters along the way to deposit our outfits, shoes, Kate’s glasses, and Aunt Pauline’s wigs. I wanted to keep the satin dress for sentimental reasons but figured that with the gunshot residue, it had to go. Besides, it had done its job and done it well. Regretfully, I added it to the pile of refuse in the last dumpster. Aunt Pauline’s gun, wiped clean of prints, ended up in the James River. In case you’re wondering, Becca and Kate aren’t our real names.
Will the police ever catch up with us? In my dreams I hear the click of handcuffs as the cold metal squeezes my wrists. Could we get O.J. Simpson’s Dream Team of lawyers to defend us? That would take cash, and plenty of it.
The hunt for rich husbands goes on.
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Maggie is a member of International Thriller Writers, Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a founding member of Sisters in Crime Central Virginia, where she manages the chapter’s Instagram account. In addition, she serves Sisters in Crime on the national level as a member of the Social Media team. Maggie graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a B.S. degree in Business Administration, and has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer service supervisor. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cat, Olive.
Under the influence of Nancy Drew, Maggie penned mysteries for fun at a young age. As an adult, she belonged to a book group that inspired her to write the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries. maggieking.com