Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything by Nancy Martin is the debut cozy in a fun new Texas-set series (available November 3, 2015).
Rich and flamboyant Honeybelle Hensley, the most colorful character in Mule Stop, Texas, dies a suspicious death and enrages the whole town by leaving her worldly fortune to the most undeserving recipient-her dog. The incorrigible Miss Ruffles is a Texas Cattle Cur, not a cuddly lapdog, and when Honeybelle was alive, Miss Ruffles liked nothing better than digging up Honeybelle's famous rose garden after breakfast, chasing off the UPS man before lunch and terrorizing the many gentleman callers who came knocking at cocktail hour.
But now Miss Ruffles is in danger, and it's up to Sunny McKillip, the unwilling dogsitter, to keep her safe. Sunny is new to Texas, and sometimes she feels as if she's fallen into an alien world. If it isn't the pistol-packing football fans and the sweet-talking, yet ruthless ladies of the garden club who confound her, it's the rowdy rodeo hounds and the tobacco-spitting curmudgeon at Critter Control who have her buffaloed. With a killer on the loose and a cowboy lawyer keeping a suspicious eye on her every move, Sunny needs all the help she can get understanding how Texans think. There's more to Honeybelle's death than meets this Yankee's eye, and Sunny has Miss Ruffles to protect, too. It's a bucking bull ride of an adventure for Sunny, and if she's not careful she might just get killed . . . or her heart lassoed.
You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.
When I first arrived in the town of Mule Stop, Texas, I developed a theory that Texans are always polite to each other because they figure everybody else is packing a gun. The checkout girl at the Tejas grocery store proudly told me she was descended from Bonnie Parker and carried a replica of the same .38 revolver Bonnie used in her shootout alongside Clyde Barrow—a fact the young lady disclosed at the same moment she handed me a brochure for the Cowboy Church, her place of worship, which was located at a former drive-in theater. Parishioners were invited to bring folding chairs if they didn’t want to sit on their horses or tailgates for the worship service.
I felt as if I’d landed from another planet. I still do. Texas has that effect on people.
Honeybelle Hensley’s memorial did not take place at the Cowboy Church, but rather at First Methodist, where the leading citizens of Mule Stop came early and packed the pews shoulder to shoulder to send the famously rich Honeybelle off to the Promised Land. When I hauled open the creaky oak door at the back of the sanctuary, every man and woman suddenly craned around with one thought in mind—that maybe it was all a big mistake and Honeybelle was showing up for her own funeral. They probably hoped she might drive that white Lexus convertible of hers right up the steps, tossing rose petals in her wake—or maybe silver dollars. Yes, big, shiny Texas silver dollars were more Honeybelle’s style.
But it was only me. Me, Ohio-born Sunny McKillip, hopelessly out of place, holding a rhinestone leash with Miss Ruffles at the end of it.
The sight of Miss Ruffles triggered a collective gasp.
At my side, Miss Ruffles growled deep in her throat. Softly at first, then with growing menace. Her body vibrated with barely suppressed rage. I knew what she was saying—that no puffed-up garden club lady in a hat from Dillard’s Easter collection was going to stop her from attending the service of the woman she loved more than anybody.
Posie Hensley marched up the aisle toward us, hat hiding her furrowed brow, but we held our ground.
Posie stopped short and in a hissed whisper, said, “You better not be here to make fools of us with that dog.”
“Miss Ruffles belongs here as much as anybody else.” My Yankee voice carried farther than I expected in the church, so I lowered it fast. “Maybe more.”
Posie blocked our way. She was Honeybelle’s very own daughter-in-law, an ex–Miss Texas finalist, thin as a lizard and just about as appealing. Even her peplum skirt had the look of a scorpion’s tail.
The whole congregation held their breath and leaned closer to hear her response.
She frowned and considered her social standing. Posie stood the biggest chance of stepping into Honeybelle’s role as beloved community leader and power broker—a despot with a drawl who made councilmen tremble—but only if she inherited Honeybelle’s considerable charm as well as her money. Aware that several hundred people could hear, she finally uttered the immortal words used in just about any tricky situation south of the Mason-Dixon.
With a sugary tone, she said to me, “Well, bless your heart.”
To those seated in the pews, she probably sounded like she was trying to stop a crazy northerner from making a fool of herself. And maybe she was right. The accompanying look in her eye made me think she’d rather boot me out the door and down the steps—with the dog, too.
If she could, Miss Ruffles would have rolled her eyes at such fakery. Instead, she lunged with a ferocious bark that echoed to the rafters. I barely held her back with the leash. To save herself, Posie jumped out of our way.
According to the American Kennel Club committee currently appraising the breed’s pending application, Miss Ruffles was a Texas cattle cur—a small but powerful dog with the speed and temperament for driving cows over a cliff, if need be. She stood about knee high, with a tough, brindle gray coat that bristled over her compact body. At one end, her tail was an ugly stub; at the other, her muzzle narrowed to a foxy point. The wide space between her pricked ears—one was floppy, the other constantly erect—made room for a quick, cunning brain. At home in Honeybelle’s mansion, she didn’t match the Chinese porcelain or the silk-upholstered furniture. In fact, she was often caught chewing the chairs. But Miss Ruffles had a habit of grinning when she panted, and her intelligent eyes conveyed more personality than most people. She liked to have fun, and she didn’t care who she annoyed to get it.
Out in the church parking lot, the marching band of the University of the Alamo struck up the first stirring bars of the school’s fight song. In farewell to the university’s biggest donor, they blared their music loud enough to rattle the church’s stained glass windows. To the blasts of their rousing tune, Miss Ruffles yanked me down the center aisle with the momentum of a marauding rhino. She headed straight for the only seats left in the whole church—in the front pew.
No bride could have drawn as much attention as Miss Ruffles did. No casket carried by a platoon of pallbearers could have instilled more feelings of doom, either. She had recently bitten the president of the University of the Alamo, and the whole town knew it. The VIPs sitting on either side of us visibly edged out of range of Miss Ruffles’s teeth. The garden club ladies—all wearing pastel ensembles with matching yellow corsages—were careful not to meet the dog’s malevolent eye. Their men, in summer suits with bolo ties and hand-tooled cowboy boots, held still as terrified deer until we passed them by.
Halfway down the aisle, Miss Ruffles almost wrenched my arm out of its socket. She dragged me over to a line of big men squished together with their hats in their hands and smelling strongly of hickory smoke. They were the proprietors of Bum Steer Barbecue, Honeybelle’s favorite lunch to serve on football game day. They sat still and frightened as Miss Ruffles gave them all a thorough sniffing before catching wind of the men sitting across the aisle—the pitmasters of Low ’N’ Slow, the competing barbecue joint that had been the choice of Honeybelle’s late husband, “Hut” Hensley. The pitmasters nervously eyed Miss Ruffles, so I tugged her away before she decided to sink her teeth into an innocent someone’s brisket-dripped boots.
Then Miss Ruffles caught sight of the easel at the front of the sanctuary. She stopped growling and dragged me forward until we stood before an enlarged, smiling photo of Honeybelle placed beside an Egyptian-style urn containing her ashes. The display was surrounded by enough flowers for a royal wedding.
For a long moment, Miss Ruffles stared up at the photo. Then she snuffled the bottom of the urn as if trying to recognize something of Honeybelle in her remains. I maintained a death grip on the leash—afraid she might seize the urn in her jaws and make a run for it. But she gazed up at Honeybelle’s likeness again, still and contemplative.
In the photo, Honeybelle smiled down on us with her distinctively beautiful twinkle. In life, she had been a woman to be noticed, to be passionately loved, to be reckoned with wherever she went. Probably dressed for an afternoon football game, she wore a cocked white Stetson with a yellow satin ribbon hatband, big white pearls, and diamond earrings the size of pinto beans. A corsage of yellow roses bristled on the lapel of her St. John suit. Her coquettishly raised eyebrow assured us all that she had successfully sashayed through the Pearly Gates and was sitting pretty, ready for her champagne cocktail. I was sure she was already holding court in heaven alongside Robert E. Lee, Clark Gable, and Dale Earnhardt. And probably Elvis, too.
I had arrived in Texas several months earlier to become the administrative assistant to the new dean of the local college. I was floored when he was suddenly fired—for falsifying his professional vita—and it just so happened I desperately needed a job at the same time Honeybelle decided she desperately needed a personal secretary. We shook hands on it, and the job morphed into a variety of duties until the next thing I knew I was really a personal secretary to Honeybelle’s dog. Honeybelle rarely went anywhere without Miss Ruffles, so one of my tasks was to bring both the dog and Honeybelle’s official presidential notebooks to the garden club’s annual election meeting in the church’s social annex. Which meant I was present at the showdown that broke her spirit.
And maybe killed her.
During the election portion of the meeting, Posie Hensley—yes, the very same daughter-in-law who appointed herself bouncer at the memorial service—stood up to make her pitch to become president of the club. Nobody took her bid for office seriously until in a clear voice she made a campaign promise to abolish the annual Lady Bird Johnson Bluebonnet Festival.
The club members sucked in a collective breath of shock at such a suggestion. Honeybelle had been sitting on the dais with her ankles neatly crossed and an expression that said her mind was confidently elsewhere, but at that moment, her face froze. Everybody knew the former first lady was Honeybelle’s idol. (Lady Bird came first. The late governor Ann Richards was a close second.) For decades Honeybelle had organized a festival in Lady Bird’s honor, railroading the whole club into creating bluebonnet centerpieces, giving away bluebonnet nosegays on a downtown street corner in the blazing heat, and showcasing Honeybelle herself in a bluebonnet aromatherapy workshop, public welcome.
After the moment of horrified silence that greeted Posie’s proposal, an epic squabble broke out. The longtime club members were Honeybelle’s loyal friends, but the younger generation wanted an end to Honeybelle’s era of tyranny.
“We want to keep Lady Bird’s memory alive!”
“With all this drought, we can hardly allot precious water to wild flowers.”
“The bluebonnet is Texas!”
Posie raised her voice to be heard above the hubbub. “Of course there’s nothing wrong with bluebonnets, and we all love Lady Bird more than pecan pie. But it’s time for a more environmentally friendly event. We should be encouraging our friends and neighbors to plant more ecological gardens instead of old-fashioned flowers that are a waste of water.”
“A waste of water!” Honeybelle cried.
“It’s not your fault, Honeybelle.” Posie hastily tried to cover her unfortunate choice of words. “You’ve never set foot outside of Texas, so you don’t know these things. The world has changed. It’s time we all planted succulents and were more responsible about water.”
“The bluebonnet is a native plant! Since when does a prickly old cactus look nicer than a pretty bluebonnet?”
The conflict raged for an hour. On the refreshment table, ice in the pitchers of sweet tea melted and the lemon shortbread cookies grew stale, as ladies who had been friends from the cradle or dated each other’s brothers or sons insulted each other. Stormy tears were shed, and plenty of shameful abuse hurled. Posie held her ground, though—a brave choice, because even a newcomer like me could see she stood to get herself blackballed if her effort failed.
Finally someone called for a vote, and Honeybelle just caved. She turned pale and sagged into her chair. Even her big blond hair seemed to deflate. For the first time since I’d met her, she looked her age. And while her friends waved smelling salts under Honeybelle’s nose, Posie got herself elected president of the club by a narrow margin.
With the gavel in her hand, she settled the dispute with a bang that sounded like an auctioneer dropping the hammer on a final bid.
The Lady Bird Johnson Bluebonnet Festival was canceled.
Honeybelle wavered to her feet. She had recently taken a fall and hurt her knee, and she wobbled on the cane that she had previously used more like a prop than a walking aid. “If you don’t have any respect for Lady Bird, it’s clear you have no respect for me.”
Tearfully, she resigned her membership and walked to the rear of the social hall with her head high and an embroidered lace hankie pressed to her nose. At the door, she paused and looked back as if expecting her friends to follow.
But nobody moved. After all, without the garden club, some of those ladies had no social lives whatsoever—no reason to pull on pantyhose or powder their cheeks except for church and Wednesday night Bible study.
As her sob echoed in the room behind her, Honeybelle made her solitary exit. When she hobbled out of sight, Miss Ruffles let out a howl that shook everyone in the room. Then Miss Ruffles bolted after Honeybelle, me scrambling on the end of her leash as if keelhauled behind a powerboat.
A week later Honeybelle’s private nurse, Shelby Ann—who had been hired to help after a previous tripping incident and stayed on for another year—insisted a dejected Honeybelle keep her Friday appointment with Estelle, her longtime beauty operator at the Ambiance Salon. Afterward, Shelby Ann left Honeybelle sitting on the front seat of her Lexus convertible so her hair wouldn’t get mussed in the wind while Shelby Ann ran into Pinto’s Pharmacy to fill a prescription. When she came back to the car, Shelby Ann said, she found Honeybelle slumped over her handbag, dead and gone. Miss Ruffles was chewing on the leather steering wheel, although Shelby Ann claimed the dog had been trying to blow the horn to call for help.
Shelby Ann, who had been an army nurse before she started working for Honeybelle, checked Honeybelle’s pulse, then got behind the wheel and drove the body directly over to Gamble’s funeral home, no muss, no fuss.
The news of Honeybelle’s sudden death shook the whole town. The university dimmed its lights in sorrow. The town council voted to celebrate Honeybelle Hensley Week as soon as April rolled around. To relieve their guilt for sending Honeybelle to her early grave, the garden club members slapped together a special memorial service for a few days after the family’s private funeral. There was a serendipitous opening in the church schedule on Saturday at First United Methodist—before Jessie Lee Markland’s wedding to a nice medical resident from Houston—so the club grabbed it. They also planned a light luncheon for afterward, when the members intended to announce a scholarship in Honeybelle’s name and to serve Honeybelle’s recipe for lime and crushed pineapple congealed salad one last time.
Because my own mother’s funeral still felt like an anvil in my heart, I had been glad not to be invited to the family funeral. But then Miss Ruffles stopped eating. After a first burst of enraged energy in which she chewed up the mail and left the bits for me to clean up, she did nothing but mope. The gleam in her gaze turned dull. I couldn’t tempt her to chase a ball. Before my eyes, she began slowly fading away.
Before Honeybelle’s death, Miss Ruffles had patrolled the house and property to protect Honeybelle from invaders. She traumatized the UPS man, lay in wait for the mailman. In perhaps her most important role, however, Miss Ruffles stood guard against Honeybelle’s many gentlemen callers. From the moment potential suitors rang the doorbell at cocktail hour, Miss Ruffles growled and sniffed and bared her teeth and otherwise warned off any overeager man who showed his face. Some never made it up the front steps. Being permitted to step over the threshold was a major milestone for the brave men who came courting the widow Hensley.
Now that Honeybelle was gone, though, Miss Ruffles was bereft. In the morning, she crept downstairs to crouch dejectedly for hours under Honeybelle’s desk. I was watching the indefatigable Miss Ruffles pine away. So off we went to the memorial service—probably my last act as personal assistant to Miss Ruffles.
As we stood at the front of the church in front of Honeybelle’s urn, Miss Ruffles said her final, silent good-bye. Honeybelle’s son, Hut Junior, cleared his throat to get my attention. Sternly, he pointed at the empty end of the front pew to tell us to sit.
Hut Junior was a well-fed Texan in a snug summer-weight suit. He looked every inch the new CEO of Hensley Oil and Gas, his mother’s lucrative company and now, after her death, presumably his. His boots were shined, his face closely shaved, his crew cut newly trimmed. He bore little resemblance to his vivacious mother, but a lot to his father and Honeybelle’s much-loved husband, the late, great college football coach Hut Hensley, who was buried in a massive tomb on the university campus. Hut Junior’s bulldog face rarely cracked a smile, not even at his wife as Posie slipped past Miss Ruffles and plunked down beside her husband. She wrapped her arm around his, either staking her claim to the richest man in the church or hanging onto the person who might save her if Miss Ruffles went on a rampage.
The glare Posie sent me could have warned off a rattlesnake.
Their sixteen-year-old son, Trey, slouched on the pew with his nose in a cell phone game. His cowboy hat was tilted down to show a Junior Rodeo patch instead of his face.
Ten-year-old Travis Joe perched on Hut Junior’s lap, wearing a bow tie and bouncing as if he’d skipped his morning Ritalin. At the sight of Miss Ruffles, though, Travis Joe let out a cry of dread and tried to climb to the higher safety of his father’s shoulder.
With some of her old spunk, Miss Ruffles turned and fastened a hard, predatory stare on the boy.
“Sit down, Miss McKillip,” Hut Junior said to me over the band’s music as he attempted to subdue his squirming son. “But if that animal becomes a nuisance—”
“I’ll take her out, I promise.”
Meaning something else, Trey muttered under his breath, “I’ll take her out.”
Posie slapped her son’s arm. “Hush, Trey. Honeybelle loved that dog. Show some respect for your grandmother.”
Trey heaved an intolerant sigh.
I tugged the leash, and for once Miss Ruffles obeyed me. I eased down onto the pew, and Miss Ruffles flopped down on the cool floor at my feet, still glaring at Travis Joe.
Miss Ruffles and I both knew there wasn’t any use trying to endear ourselves to Hut Junior. I figured he planned on sending me on the first bus back to Chagrin Falls as soon as the service ended. And I’d overheard what fate he had planned for Miss Ruffles.
I had accidentally eavesdropped while scrubbing one of Miss Ruffles’s mistakes out of the rug on the second-floor landing when he and Posie came like a couple of carpetbaggers to Honeybelle’s mansion two days after her death.
“Can you believe it?” he’d said to his wife while she stretched a tape measure on the marble checkerboard floor at the bottom of the graceful curved staircase. “Mama’s nursemaid, Shelby Ann, declined to come to the memorial service because she’s already on a world cruise! There’s a reason half the town called her Moneybelle. Mama overpaid everybody.”
Posie made a noise of agreement. “She’s been taking care of that crazy voodoo cook of hers for ages, and that ancient butler, too. They should have been sent away years ago.”
“And I can only imagine what salary she gave the glorified dog walker.”
Posie shushed her husband and told him to hold the other end of the tape measure. “We have to make sure my grandmother’s rug fits here. If it doesn’t, we’re going to take it to Dallas to get trimmed right away, because I want it here for my baby sister’s wedding.”
Hut didn’t remark upon the wedding, which I knew had been a big bone of contention in the family. Posie wanted her sister’s lavish nuptials to be held in Honeybelle’s beautiful rose garden and had pushed hard for it. But at the time of her death Honeybelle still refused to give permission. With Honeybelle out of the way, though, I supposed Posie intended to throw a big society wingding, after all.
Sounding strained, Hut Junior said, “We don’t have to move in here right away, do we?”
“Why not?” After a pregnant silence, she said, “Oh, sugarpie, don’t get all weepy again.”
He blew a honk into his hankie. “I have a hard time thinking about her being gone, that’s all.”
“I know, I know. But your mama has been hiding your light under a bushel for too many years. You’re gonna be the big boss now. And you deserve this house. Besides, after her wedding, my sister’s going to need a home, and I promised she could have ours. Don’t you want to live here? You can smoke all the cigars you want on the terrace, and the boys will love the pool. And the rosebushes! At last I’ll get to enjoy the roses. We’ll make the place even more beautiful than it is already, you’ll see.”
Hut didn’t respond to that. After a moment, he said more quietly, “If we’re going out of town for a rug, we should take that dern dog with us. I hate that dog. We could drop it off at a pound somewhere.”
“Get rid of it?”
“Do you want to be the one to start walking that wild animal? She’s dangerous. Not to mention obnoxious and … and … you know it’s the reason my mama kept falling. I ought to have insisted she get rid of it a year ago.”
“Oh, Hut, don’t get upset. Honeybelle loved you more than Miss Ruffles.” Posie dropped her voice, too. “I hoped maybe she hired the dogsitter so she’d have more time for you and her grandchildren. Now we’ll never know, will we?”
The dogsitter. She meant me.
The prememorial band music came to a climactic close. Reverend Jones appeared like a magician through the hidden door behind the church’s altar. Miss Ruffles lifted her nose and gave a growl. The reverend had visited Honeybelle’s house regularly, and Miss Ruffles loved to torment him. She nipped at his shoes until he danced on Honeybelle’s fine rug. Seeing him appear so suddenly in the church, she sat up and barked. The sound must have carried the length and breadth of the sanctuary, because another frisson of silence passed over the congregation. I grasped her collar, but she fought me—eager to get free and dash up onto the altar to get herself a bite of the reverend’s tasty socks. About to speak, Reverend Jones hesitated as if stayed by the cautious hand of God.
Hut Junior and Posie froze me with identical glares.
“I’ll take Miss Ruffles outside,” I whispered.
“Yes, you’ve made your point.” Posie fanned herself with the memorial program.
Suddenly I didn’t care that we were going to miss the service. I could see the trip to the church had already served its purpose. Miss Ruffles looked her old self again, full of vinegar and eager to make trouble. She had said good-bye to Honeybelle and was ready to rumble.
So we made a dash for freedom—not the way we’d come in, but by the side door that put us out on the parking lot side of the church.
As we stepped outside, a whole crowd of people looked up at us from where they hung around their vehicles—pickup trucks and dusty cars that had clearly come from the outlying cotton farms. There were no fancy ladies in department store hats here, no distinguished town leaders. These were Mule Stop people who had come to pay their respects to Honeybelle but hadn’t found places for themselves in the church.
At the sight of Miss Ruffles, the men removed their hats. A few ladies took out their hankies. One couple stepped forward. The woman bent down to pat Miss Ruffles.
The man held his hat to his chest and said to me in a strong voice, “Miss Honeybelle loaned me seven hundred dollars back when we needed it bad. She drove it out to our place in her convertible and pretended like she owed me poker winnings so our kids didn’t know the truth. She didn’t have to do that, but it saved our family, got us back on our feet. She was a real lady. We’re gonna miss her.”
His wife said, “We can’t believe she’s dead. Not our Honeybelle.”
“Maybe half the town wanted to bump her off,” the man went on. “Her being so bossy and all. But the rest of us loved her.”
A quiet line formed behind him, and one by one the silent mourners came forward. A lump rose in my throat as the people came closer to see Miss Ruffles, who never moved a muscle as they touched her. Here were people who had loved Honeybelle, and Miss Ruffles knew it.
As they said their good-byes, I found myself remembering something Honeybelle joked about one afternoon when I helped her balance her personal checkbook.
Flipping through a few ragged checks that had come in the mail, she said to me in her sweetest drawl, “If I die under suspicious circumstances, Sunny, please go to my funeral and decide who among my so-called friends likely killed me. Nobody likes repaying debts, do they? And they hate me for loaning money to them in the first place. So go to my funeral. Take Miss Ruffles with you. See if she can sniff out a murderer.”
I had remembered her words the day I heard she died. And I hadn’t been able to get them out of my head. The people who lined up to pat Miss Ruffles seemed very grateful indeed. But maybe Honeybelle had been right. Maybe someone had wanted to murder her.
Copyright © 2015 Nancy Martin.
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Author of 48 pop fiction novels in mystery, suspense, historical and romance genres, Nancy Martin created The Blackbird Sisters in 2002—- mysteries about three impoverished Main Line heiresses who adventure in couture and crime—as if “Agatha Christie had wandered onto the set of Sex and The City.” Nominated for the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery of 2002, How to Murder a Millionaire won the RT award for Best First Mystery and was a finalist for the Daphne DuMaurier Award. Nancy has also written the Roxy Abruzzo mystery series for St. Martin’s Minotaur, Foxy Roxy and Sticky Fingers.