A Shoulder to Die On, the novelette that is the prequel to the River Sutton Mysteries series (coming soon!), begins in the backyard of the Pearce sisters’ childhood home.
This excerpt, straight from the beginning of the story, will give you a taste of what to expect from this cozy mystery.
A Shoulder to Die On
by Nancy Basile
Robin Pearce kept her eyes focused squarely on her opponents. They’d played their hands close to the vest, but she had their measure.
She and four other women, one being her sister, Jenn, sat around a glass-topped table on the back patio of her childhood home playing a hot game of Uno. Diet pops and boxes of square pizza slices from Pit Pony Pies littered the tabletop.
Although the sun was going down, her skin was moist from the humidity. River Sutton might lie in the West Virginia hills, but that didn’t mean the summers were cool and breezy.
Jenn had invited Robin to come for a girls’ weekend. Robin had assumed “girls’ weekend” meant just them, eating junk food and catching up. She hadn’t realized she’d RSVP’d for a reunion of sorority sisters. Jenn had history with the other women from their days as Kappa Eta Sigma sisters at West Virginia University, which was only two years ago. Robin only knew them from some of the stories Jenn had told her. They were turning out to be much warmer and grounded than she had expected.
She glanced Jenn’s way, then lay a green double-arrow card on the stack. “Back to you, Kasey.” Kasey’s honey-blonde hair cascaded down her back, and rested right above her buns of steel. Her mouth formed a permanent pucker, like she was always ready for a selfie.
“Hey!” Jenn nudged Robin with a tanned, toned shoulder, her blonde bob swaying around her pretty face. “Betraying your own sister? Not cool.” More than once in their lives, strangers had made crass jokes about their mother dallying with the mailman because the sisters looked nothing alike. Jenn was taller, more slender, more athletic, and had blue eyes. Robin had golden-brown eyes and an hourglass figure that was better suited for corsets than CrossFit. But it didn’t matter one ounce to them. They might as well be twins who were born three years apart.
With a smirk wreathing her face, Robin turned away from Jenn and winked at Kasey. “All’s fair in love and Uno.”
She brought her attention back to the game. Kasey kept her gaze on Angela and placed a green skip card on the pile.
“Oh, that’s cold,” Angela said. “Me sitting here with about five hands of cards.” Angela’s big, dark eyes narrowed. Her kinky hair was cropped close, which showed off her amazing cheekbones and full pink lips.
Next up was Colby. Colby’s skin was clear and creamy, and she wore minimal make-up that accented her hazel eyes and her bow-shaped mouth. Her maple-colored hair was thrown into a messy top-knot, but she still looked stylish. She discarded a green nine. Then Jenn jumped on the chance to take the game out of green territory with a red nine.
Around and around the game went until finally Robin called “Uno!” and no one could stop her from putting down her last card, a yellow two. Robin pumped her fists in the air, while the other ladies threw up their hands or flung their cards onto the table in defeat.
“Good game, everyone.” Robin began scooping the cards back into a deck, reaching past Colby and Jenn, who flanked her.
“I guess.” Colby took cards from Kasey and Angela, to her left, and handed them to Robin. “I wouldn’t have suggested it if Jenn had told me her sister was an Uno master.”
Robin laughed, quite pleased with herself, that fifth-wheel-feeling starting to fade. The Uno game went a long way toward breaking the ice between herself and Jenn’s sorority sisters.
“I can’t get over how beautiful it is back here. Someone has an eye for landscaping.” Colby swept her hand across the Pearce family’s backyard, with its flagstone patio, flower beds, potted ferns, and the sandy path that led to Morgan Creek, which was only a few feet wide, but swift, where the Pearce girls had had countless pirate and navy adventures as kids. “I’m a horticulturist at Rockefeller Gardens, and I’d kill to have some of these perennials in our gardens.”
“Our mom’s the one with the green thumb,” Jenn said.
“She’s made an oasis back here,” Colby continued. “And the trees are so healthy. I’ve had to use insecticides on ours because the wood-loving bugs go nuts.”
Angela grabbed a slice from a pizza box next to her on the table and tore into it. “This is so relaxing. Exactly what I needed after a week of grouchy seniors and panicky mothers.”
“What do you do, Angela?” Jenn had talked about her friends on the phone before, but details about them were fuzzy. Now that she’d met them, it would be easier to remember them.
“I’m a pharmacist at a big box store.” Her eyes closed as she chewed her piece of pizza.
“That must keep you hopping.” Robin inwardly cringed when she imagined dealing with every sniffling, wheezing, coughing customer who walked in from anywhere.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the questions people ask me.” Angela washed her pizza down with a swig of pop. “But you know what my favorite thing is?”
Robin shook her head.
“When they ask me if we carry some hinky remedy, and when I ask why, they say ‘my doctor told me to get it.’ Nine times out of ten, they tell me it’s some quack from TV.” Angela threw her head back and laughed. Jenn joined her while Robin and Colby shared a confused look.
Kasey leaned toward Angela, on her left, and playfully tapped her arm. “Hey, now. Some of those ‘hinky’ remedies actually work.”
“Right, right. Sorry.” Angela’s laughter faded, and she dragged her fingers under her eyes, wiping away any smudged eyeliner. “The herbalist would know better than I would about blue cohosh and echinacea and… what else?”
“Ha ha.” Kasey turned her attention to Robin. “There are hundreds of herbal remedies for all sorts of things. Do you use natural or holistic methods?”
“Sometimes.” Robin gave a noncommital shrug. “I try to keep an open mind.”
Jenn reached out on both sides to hold Robin’s and Angela’s hands. “You guys, isn’t this the best? I’m so happy you’re all here, whether you’re arguing or not.” She threw a pointed look at Angela, who shrugged it off. “It really means a lot to me to have you all here, in one place.” Jenn smiled like a hostess on a game show. Why was her sister turned up to full wattage? Something was up, but Robin didn’t have a clue what. The hand-holding and big smiles were a little too much for only a girls weekend. Robin made a mental note to corner Jenn and ask her the first chance she got.
Kasey picked up a slice from her paper plate, dabbed the excess grease from it with a napkin, and nibbled at a corner. “This was a great idea, Jenn. We haven’t caught up in a spell. It’s only been two years since we graduated from WVU, but it seems like a lifetime. How does that happen?”
Time was a funny thing, for sure. The days sometimes dragged, but the years flew by. Although Robin loved her work, when her day was nothing but meeting after meeting, she found herself playing games to stay alert, like seeing how long she could go without looking at her Apple watch. Her record was eight minutes.
On the other hand, five years in Cleveland had sped by with hardly any notice. It seemed like yesterday she moved into her apartment, a cock-eyed optimist ready to climb the corporate ladder.
“Right?” Colby tucked a few flyaway strands of hair into her hair band. “It seems like a lifetime ago that Jenn was snagging all the good guys for herself.” One side of her mouth lifted while she eyed Jenn from underneath her eyebrows.
“Oh, stop.” Jenn snorted and swatted the air since she couldn’t reach Colby on the other side of Robin. “It’s not my fault those guys were barking up the wrong tree.”
“Literally.” Angela rolled her eyes. “Some of them were total animals. They thought they could ‘turn you.’ What Neanderthals.”
Kasey leaned into Angela, bumping shoulders with her. “Don’t be bitter. We all know you had a thing for Jenn.”
Robin’s eyes popped. She had known about the guys fawning all over Jenn on campus, but not about any sorority sisters who had a crush on her. Was it wrong that she was proud of her sister for breaking so many hearts?
“Pfft.” Angela threw Kasey a bored look. “That was freshman year. Old news.” She briefly squeezed Jenn’s hand. “Then we became besties, which is way better. No drama, no break-ups. We’ll be friends for life.”
Jenn picked up her diet pop can and toasted Angela. “That’s right, sister. I remember when you told me our junior year that you’d had a crush on me. By then we were super close and it just seemed — I don’t know — insignificant?”
“Exactly.” Angela turned to Kasey and haughtily raised her chin. Kasey rolled her eyes and gave Angela a good-natured shove.
“Where did you go to college, Robin?” Angela lay down her slice on a paper plate, dusting off her fingers.
“I went to Marshall University.” Robin sipped her diet pop, then sputtered and hacked, flapping her hand in her face. Perfect timing for her drink to slide down the wrong pipe. She gasped, then croaked, “Went down the wrong way.”
“Robin’s super smart.” Jenn patted her on the back, but Robin waved her away. “She has this high-level corporate job in Cleveland analyzing website traffic.” She widened her eyes and nodded, like that settled something.
“No kidding.” Colby set her diet pop can down. “I have the unfortunate job of maintaining the website for Rockefeller Gardens, where I work. I’m forever trying to boost our rank in web search results.”
“Well, that’s my specialty,” Robin said. “I analyze a website’s traffic and search results ranking. I look for patterns and trends, what’s working, and what’s not. Then I make recommendations for how to get more targeted traffic. ”
“Gee, nerd much?” Kasey giggled. Robin pressed her lips into a tight smile. Kasey was only teasing, and she wasn’t the first person to joke about Robin’s job because she didn’t understand it.
“No, no, that’s cool,” Colby continued. “I’ll have to get your number before we leave. Although, I don’t know if we can afford you.”
“Probably not.” Robin winked and drained the last of her diet pop.
Jenn stood up and stretched, raising her hands to the darkening sky. “I say we clean up dinner and move into the house for dessert.” Everyone agreed, pitching paper plates and pizza boxes into a trash bag. Robin gathered the empty cans strewn about the table and headed for the kitchen.
She welcomed the silence when she shut the back door on the giggles and chatter. Her social skills were rusty. The only times she hung out in a group of women were at business conferences or lunch meetings. In those instances, she had plenty to say because everyone there worked in the digital industry. Chit chat about dating, clothes, and whatever else single women talked about was beyond her, while extroverted Jenn chatted like a champ, which is why she joined a sorority in the first place.
She had to admit, though, that Jenn’s friends were much sweeter than she had expected. On the drive from Cleveland, she had pictured mean girl comments and facetious comparisons. She was relieved that she hadn’t been subjected to any cat fights.
However, the pressure to keep up sparkling conversation was constant. Relying on inside jokes and old stories wasn’t an option for her, because she didn’t share their history. And telling them about spending late nights in the computer lab, pounding out code, would put them all to sleep.
Robin dumped the empty cans into the recycling bin under the kitchen sink, placing her palms on either side and leaning forward. She closed her eyes for a moment, listening to the birds chirping in the dogwood tree outside the kitchen window. She focused on the chirping and let the conversation outside fade into the background.
Why did Jenn invite her to a reunion with her sorority sisters? She better not feel sorry for her, like she’s lonely in Cleveland, or something. She wasn’t. Her idea of a perfect night was mac and cheese and an excellent book. She didn’t have close friends in Cleveland, but she didn’t need them. Jenn was only a phone call away.
Robin opened her eyes, turned, and checked the backyard scene. Jenn and her friends were busy gathering silverware and rehashing stories of their college days. Instead of hurrying back to them, she strolled down the hall to the guest bathroom and shut the door. Her shoulders were so tense they were up to her ears. She rolled them and tilted her head back and forth. Taking in a deep breath, she held it, then blew it out through pursed lips.
She splashed cold water on her face, refreshing her, like the delicious shock of diving into a pool on a scorching summer day. Because she didn’t wear as much make-up as Jenn and her friends, she didn’t have to worry about smearing anything.
She patted her face dry with a guest towel, then pulled the elastic from her thick, chestnut hair. Using her fingers, she fluffed her hair, swinging it around to cool her prickly scalp, then restyled her ponytail.
Rolling her shoulders one more time, she left the bathroom and joined the other women in the living room.
Hm, what could possibly go wrong? How does this chummy group of gals go from cute to corrupt? Divine to disastrous? Sign up for my email newsletter (if you haven’t already) to get the full story for free when it’s released on March 30, 2021.
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