Chapter 1

"But Mo-om!" Gracie Greene said with frustration. "The party's at Mrs. Lane's house; she's a teacher, what's wrong with that?" She moved the cell phone away from her mouth slightly to look over at her boyfriend Kelly in the driver's seat and roll her eyes in an exaggerated fashion. Kelly just grinned at her.

"What's that, Mom?" She readjusted the phone. "No, there won't be any alcohol at the party; that's what I'm trying to tell you, a teacher would get in trouble for that," she explained as if to a child.

"Gracie, a teacher shouldn't be having an after-party at her home in the first place," her mother, Clarissa, replied in a calm voice. "Even if it is Homecoming and your team won the game. It doesn't set a good example and besides, if someone should get hurt she'd be liable."

"Mom, I really want to go. Everyone will be there; it's just sodas and snacks and I'm starving. The game was really exciting and we all jumped up and cheered a lot. The school party was boring, potato chips and CDs played over the PA system. I promise I'll leave by 1 A.M." Her voice had changed to a wheedling tone for the last sentence.

Clarissa laughed gently, and Gracie could picture her mother shaking her head in grudging acceptance. "I realize that you're all grown up at 17, and that this is a big night for you, but how about you leave at 12:30? That way you'll be home by 1:00. I presume you're still with Kelly?"

"Well, okay," Gracie reluctantly agreed. "Yes, I'm with Kelly. I've got my key, I'll let myself in so you and Clay don't need to wait up for me. And, thanks, Mom!" She flipped the phone closed.

Kelly put the car in gear and drove off. Gracie gazed at his face as they passed under several street lights in succession. Dark blond hair framed a rather long face softened by liquid brown eyes. He was several inches taller than she with a wiry body full of the kind of muscles you got from being active. They'd started dating last spring, just after her father's death.

My father's murder, she amended her thought. And you were the one who solved it. It was still hard for her to believe Bill Conover, her father's best friend, had killed him though he'd certainly had ample reason to be angry. Bill had learned that the son he'd thought to be his had in reality been the result of a college seduction by Charles Greene. Bill thought he'd planned the perfect murder, but Gracie had pieced together a number of little things that didn't quite make sense and uncovered the truth. Let's hope you never have to do that again!

"She'll still be up when you get home," Kelly said into the quiet.

"I know," Gracie replied. "She'll be reading a book or something so I won't think she was waiting for me, and she'll want to hear all about the game…and the party. But I don't mind, I know she does it because she loves me."

"My dad will be snoring in front of the TV when I get home, but it's the same thing," he said. "You ought to be glad you're not an only child!"

"You ought to be glad you're not the youngest child and the only girl," Gracie retorted.

"This must be the place," Kelly announced, making a quick end to the rejoinders. "Looks like we'll have to park at the end of the block. Geez, everybody really is here."

They parked and walked to Mrs. Lane's house, the only one with lights still on at 10:00 P.M. on a cool Friday night in November. They could hear the bass thump of a stereo rattling the windows. It was a one-story Spanish style, a red tile roof over white stucco walls with wrought iron grates at the windows. The front door stood open and they could see knots of their friends moving around.

Andrea Little opened the storm door as they walked up the steps. "Hi guys, come on in! Isn't this just the greatest house? I love the way she's carried the Spanish theme inside, don't you?"

Gracie looked around at the rooms to see white walls covered with swirls of plaster to make them look like adobe, floors of glazed tiles in a deep terracotta color, simple mission-style furniture scattered throughout, and lots of bright primary colors in artfully arranged accessories. There were oversized pots and baskets with primitive images woven in, pictures of simple peasants, dashing caballeros on horses and haciendas baking in the sun, and a beautiful serape striped in multiple colors hanging on one wall. "It's lovely," she said.

"I really like the clean lines and big open rooms, they make it feel open and airy like it was a hot summer's day," Andrea continued. Andrea was the artistic type and tended to gush about things no one else gave much thought to. She was a short and slightly chubby African American girl, very much concerned with her roots; she wore her hair in cornrows and always wore some kind of tribal apparel and loaded herself down with jewelry made from ebony and brass, or weird-looking seed pods and colorful beads. Tonight she had a small striped hat perched on top of her head.

"I wouldn't think this was quite your kind of 'primitive'," Serene Jackson said as she walked by. Her tone suggested she should have her nose disdainfully in the air.

"Doesn't mean I can't appreciate it," Andrea retorted to Serene's back. She grinned wryly at Gracie and Kelly. "The only fashion statement she cares about is that cheerleader's uniform."

"Ignore her," Gracie suggested. "Where's Mrs. Lane? I should at least say 'hello' to the hostess."

Andrea rolled her eyes. "She's in there, talking to all the guys," she said, pointing to the back of the house. "Try the queso, it's nummy, nice and spicy."

"Thanks," Kelly said. He took Gracie's arm to guide her across the crowded room; it was an old-fashioned gesture but Gracie rather liked it. It made her feel protected and cared for and she reflected that while Kelly wasn't the richest or best-looking guy in school he was always thoughtful and kind, which was far more important to her.

They walked up two steps into an even more crowded dining area. Gracie glanced at the food laid out on a folding table against one wall, but her mother had taught her to pay her respects to the hostess before eating. It looked like half of the football team was standing in the other corner of the room, holding paper plates and plastic cups. Gracie squeezed through a gap, dragging Kelly with her, to find the teacher in the middle.

"Hello, Mrs. Lane," Gracie said. "Thanks so much for having us all here tonight,"

"Hey, this isn't school!" one of the boys said in a smart-aleck tone. "We call her Maggie here."

Maggie looked at Gracie with some surprise, as if she'd been interrupted and wasn't happy about it. "Hello, um, Gracie." She raised an arm to gesture vaguely at the room, sloshing some of the contents of her cup onto the floor in the process. "Enjoy yourself. I know I am!" She smiled brightly and turned back to one of the boys. "That catch you made tonight was absolutely fabulous!"

Gracie felt Kelly pulling her out of the crowd and extricated herself. "I don't think she was interested in talking to you," he told her with a grin.

They headed for the food table, loaded up plates and filled cups. Students occupied every inch of the benches around the dining table; in one case a girl sat on her boyfriend's lap. They saw Amy Jones standing beside a large buffet, which gave her a place to set her cup while she ate. The couple headed that direction. Amy had brown eyes and long wavy brown hair, though she'd straightened it today and pulled it back from her face to help display a pair of dangly hot-pink heart earrings.

"Hi, Amy," Gracie greeted her. "I see you've found a good place to stay out of the way and people-watch."

"Hi, Gracie, hi, Kelly," Amy said, hastily swallowing a mouthful.

"Did you come with somebody?" Gracie asked.

"I got a ride with Jennifer," Amy said. "Wouldn't have missed this party, everyone's here." She seemed a little uncomfortable, as if she didn't quite know what to say. "Great game, wasn't it?"

"Sure was," Kelly agreed. "That run that Jake made was amazing! But the rest of the team helped set him up."

"Jake doesn't need help!" Amy declared with loyalty for the school's favorite football star. "He'll be able to take his pick of colleges next year, with a big, fat scholarship."

"Oh, they're looking at him now, especially after tonight," Kelly assured her.

"But he has to still be here next year, doesn't he?" Amy asked with some concern.

"Of course," Gracie told her. "He's got to finish high school in any case, but he should work on his grades a little or colleges might not be so interested.

"He does okay," Amy defended him. "And anyway, it doesn't matter; the coaches have ways to make up for grades if they want a player bad enough. Jake will go to one of the big colleges and then go pro. He'll be rich and famous." Her eyes sparkled at the thought of the privileged life the jock would likely lead.

Gracie's paper plate, typically heaped high with food, threatened to buckle at one edge and she hastily slid her other hand underneath. Kelly pushed aside a wrought iron candle holder to make space for her to set it on the buffet.

"Stupid paper plates," Gracie grumbled. "At least they'll degrade in the trash; these plastic cups will be there for years." Gracie was extremely concerned with environmental issues, making her last name of "Greene" highly appropriate. "You coming to school tomorrow to help recycle the stuff from the game, Amy?"

"Yeah, Madison told me you guys were gonna do that," Amy said. "Sounds kinda icky, but the money's going to help pay for school lunches for little kids whose families don't quite qualify for the free ones. That's a good thing to do."

"Some of their fathers are fighting in the Middle East," Kelly put in. "They're serving our country; we certainly ought to help support their families."

Gracie nodded. "Plus it keeps stuff out of the landfill, so it's a real win-win situation."

Loud laughter erupted from the other side of the room. The boys clustered around Mrs. Lane had apparently heard something particularly funny; they were doubled over or slapping thighs – or each other's backs – or pointing at one another, which only seemed to increase their merriment. Maggie Lane was laughing right along with them.

"Did you see that outfit she's wearing?" Amy asked, with a note of scorn in her voice.

"Sure did," Gracie answered. Maggie's fire engine red skirt only reached halfway to her knees, and the V-neck of her tight white sweater showed quite a bit of cleavage. Her dirty-blonde hair fell to her shoulders in gentle waves.

"I thought she wore short skirts to school," Kelly said, shaking his head. "I don't know who she's trying to kid, she's old enough to be our mother."

"Those guys don't seem to mind," Amy said ironically, giving her head a quick twitch toward the group.

"Pity she doesn't realize she's gained ten pounds since she bought that skirt," Gracie remarked. Both girls snickered.

"At least she's wearing her hair down; the way she wears it piled on top of her head in that bun-thing looks so old-fashioned," Kelly said.

"Why, Kelly!" Gracie laughed. "I didn't realize you'd noticed!"

Kelly shrugged. "She's not bad-looking for an older woman, but it seems out of place, like it makes her look stuffy or something."

"She probably thinks it makes her look more business-like and efficient," Gracie said. "Then she has those little ringlets over her ears like she thinks they add a feminine touch."

Amy leaned a bit closer. "Did you ever notice that they've always got earwax on them? I mean, she tries so hard to look sexy, but she doesn't pay attention to details. Kinda makes you wonder what else she doesn't clean!"

"Ewww." All three looked disgusted.

"She's divorced," Amy continued her litany of criticisms. "You think her husband left her because she cheated on him?"

"Who knows?" Gracie said. "People get divorced all the time for all kinds of reasons. My mom divorced my dad because he got too involved in making money and didn't have time for her."

Kelly gave her a look that clearly said he knew there were other reasons, like the string of pretty young girls her father had dallied with. But he knew better than to say anything in public.

"Anyway, you can't blame her for trying to look good and find another husband," Gracie said, always one to try to find the bright side of things.

"Yeah, right, husband!" Amy said. "I think she just wants to get laid."

Gracie was no prude but she knew she didn't yet understand all the complications of relationships, especially when they included sex. "Is that really so bad?"

"She can be a slut if she wants, but you'd think she'd stick to men her own age," Amy replied.

"Maybe she does, and she's just flirting with the guys on the team," Kelly suggested. None of these young people had any idea of the titillation a marked age difference could add to an affair.

"Do you think she'd do more than flirt with those guys?" Amy asked.

"I've heard things," Kelly volunteered. "But I never really believed it. Some guys will claim anything, if they think it makes 'em look cooler."

"Those other guys may be desperate enough to fawn after her, but Jake wouldn't have anything to do with her," Amy said loyally.

Out of the corner of her eye Gracie saw the storm door open, a familiar handsome face framed in the doorway.