Blissful people made Pete Toleffson want to puke. Normally, he spent his days getting bad guys convicted and saving good people from being victimized. He considered that world to be the real world and “bliss world” to be something like a parallel universe for the clueless. Blissful people lived in la-la land. Blissful people needed to be rapped upside the head.
Which was unfortunate because his brother Cal was currently the most blissful person in Konigsburg, Texas. Well, maybe the second most, after his fiancée, Docia Kent.
Pete studied his brother as he sat smiling beside him in the booth at the Dew Drop Inn. Cal was so blissful he made Pete’s teeth hurt. At least Docia hadn’t come in yet. The two of them together could induce sugar shock.
Pete felt like telling them to get a room, but they already had one, or rather they had a house together on the edge of town. Pete was staying in Docia’s old apartment above her bookstore in downtown Konigsburg. Of course, his residence in Docia’s apartment was strictly temporary. He was only here for the wedding. After that he’d head back home to Des Moines and the real world again.
Konigsburg was closer to something out of Disney. He kept expecting to see cartoon bluebirds twittering around over Docia’s head, and maybe a couple of bunnies hopping along at her feet. A far cry from the Polk County Attorney’s office.
Pete took a swig of beer and ignored the urge to check his cell phone messages that he felt every time he thought about being an assistant Polk County Attorney.
Guts up, Toleffson. They’ll get along without you somehow.
A buzz arose from the corner of the room behind him, accompanied by the dull thonk of a dart hitting the wall. Pete turned and squinted through the gloom. If he really looked hard he could just make out the target. God only knew how somebody could actually see enough to hit anything in the dim light of the Dew Drop.
For the life of him, Pete couldn’t figure out why Cal was so fond of the place. The Dew Drop was a joint, a dive, a honky tonk. Hell, he’d helped to close down better places than this when he got court orders for the Des Moines vice cops.
He turned back for another swallow of beer. Across the table, Cal’s friend Wonder Dentist (and what the hell kind of nickname was that?) was squinting at the far wall too. “Bullseye. Ellison’s been practicing, I see.”
Cal grinned at Wonder. Cal grinned at everybody. Pete wondered briefly if he ever stopped grinning these days. Maybe at night, in bed. But then, considering he shared that bed with Docia, maybe not.
Pete surveyed the Dew Drop denizens, what he could see of them. Even though the late afternoon sun had still been shining when he’d entered the bar, only a few dim beams penetrated the smeared windows at the front. The chandeliers overhead weren’t much help since half of the bulbs looked to be burned out. A dive. A dump. Depressing as hell.
Pete clenched his hands on the table in front of him. He did not need to check his messages.
Cal raised his chin. “There she is.”
Docia Kent stood framed in the doorway, red hair curling around her shoulders in tendrils, her denim shirt knotted beneath her breasts.
Pete sighed. Cal had all the luck. If he’d seen a woman like Docia Kent sitting in a dump like the Dew Drop, he’d have thrown her over his shoulder and headed for the hills, which, apparently, was more or less what Cal had done.
Docia started toward their table, trailed by a couple of other women Pete could barely see. Hard to notice other women when Docia was around. When they got closer, Pete recognized the first woman as Wonder’s girlfriend, Allie Maldonado.
He’d been introduced to the other woman, and now he ransacked his memory for her name. Jane something. Okay, Janie Dupree, the assistant manager of the bookstore. Docia’s maid of honor.
Pete sighed again. He was going to have to listen to wedding talk. He’d listened to wedding talk for the past two days, ever since he’d arrived in Konigsburg. Not that he begrudged Cal or Docia their wedding, but did they have to discuss it so much?
Docia slid into the booth beside Cal while Allie slid in beside Wonder. That left Janie Dupree perching on the edge of the seat beside Wonder and Allie, given that Pete, Cal and Docia were taking up the other side. Putting three very tall people together side by side was probably not a good idea. If they’d been on a boat they’d have capsized by now.
Pete frowned. He was shoved up against the wall to make room for Cal and Docia. Did couples naturally expand to fill any extra space? Them and their stupid happiness?
“I got the cake topper,” Allie cooed. “It’s perfect.”
Docia’s eyes narrowed. “The one Janie found? Or Mama’s?”
Allie chuckled. “Janie’s, of course. That china bride and groom your mama wanted would have thrown the cake proportions all to hell.”
Allie owned the bakery that would produce the cake for The Wedding. Somehow whenever anybody mentioned The Wedding, Pete always thought in capital letters.
“A cake topper?” Cal frowned. “What’s a cake topper?”
Wonder pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Think about it, Calthorpe. It’ll come to you.”
Janie Dupree smiled. “It’s the thing that goes on top of the wedding cake. Flowers or hearts or bells or—”
“Twenty-inch porcelain figurines of the bride and groom.” Docia sighed. “Lladro. Limited edition.”
Janie leaned forward, patting his hand. “It’s okay. That was Reba’s idea, but I found something a lot smaller. Docia likes it.”
Cal blew out a quick breath. “Good to know.”
Janie Dupree had a nice smile, Pete reflected. He hadn’t noticed before. Of course, he hadn’t really paid much attention to her at all before. Which was probably a mistake since he was the best man and she was the maid of honor. He was probably supposed to be working with her on something. Planning stuff. Whatever the hell a best man was supposed to do.
He clenched his hands on the table again. No cell. The office could get along without him. He probably should be directing all his attention to The Wedding anyway.
Behind him he heard another muted thonk followed by a chorus of groans.
“So you got the topper.” Janie turned to Allie. “What about the matchbooks?”
“Those too.” Allie sipped the glass of wine Wonder had ordered for her. “They even managed to spell ‘Docia’ correctly.”
Docia grinned. “‘Cal’ too?”
“I think so.” Allie’s eyes danced. “‘C-a-l-e’ right?”
“That’s my boy.” Docia patted his hand, smiling.
Pete felt slightly nauseated.
Janie Dupree blew out a quick breath. “Great! That’s two more things off the list.”
“You have a list?” Pete stared at her.
“Of course!” Janie’s brow furrowed. “I can’t keep it all in my head. Don’t you have a list?”
“Not for this!” Pete grimaced. He had a list for the office. Which he’d left back in Des Moines.
“But…” The furrows in Janie’s brow grew deeper. “What about the stuff you’re responsible for? How do you keep track?” Her bright brown eyes studied him, her expression grave.
Pete was suddenly—uncomfortably—aware that everyone in the booth had turned his way. He shrugged. “What’s there to keep track of? If Cal wants me to do anything, he can yell. I’m here to serve.”
Janie’s lower jaw dropped a fraction.
There was a moment of silence at the table, then Allie guffawed. “Fantastic. Have any of you males thought to check out what exactly happens at a wedding? Or were you going to wait until the day before?”
Cal looked affronted. “Hey! I’ve been keeping up. Docia fills me in on what’s going on. I figure if I need to do anything, somebody will let me know.”
“Sounds reasonable to me.” Wonder took another swig from his bottle of Spaten.
Janie, Docia and Allie exchanged glances. “Testosterone gives them wedding immunity,” Allie muttered.
Wonder nodded. “Good thing too. Do you really want a bunch of men trying to decide what kind of music to have at the reception? Hell, you’d probably end up with either ZZ Top or Metallica.”
“Personally, I’d favor Ray Wylie Hubbard, but that’s just me.” Cal turned to Docia. “I’ll do anything you need me to do. Don’t worry about it. It’s going to be the wedding to end all weddings.”
“Would that it could,” Wonder muttered. Allie narrowed her eyes at him.
Cal paid him no attention, keeping his gaze on Docia. “Dinner at Brenner’s tonight? I know you had something you needed to talk to Lee about.”
“Right.” Docia leaned across him to Pete. “You want to join us? Brenner’s is that restaurant we took you to the other day—Lee’s the owner and chef, remember?”
“Right.” Pete managed a faintly sour grin. Brenner’s had the best food he’d tasted in at least five years. If he went there, he might not worry about the office anymore. On the other hand, he was so used to worrying about the office he wasn’t sure he wanted to try out another mood just then. “You go on. Maybe I’ll catch up with you later.”
Cal grinned happily. Pete gritted his teeth.
Docia turned to the other side of the booth. “You want to come, Janie? Lee’s got some new tapas to try out for the reception.”
Janie shook her head. “Not tonight. Mom’s waiting dinner for me.”
“I’ll come,” Allie said, decisively. “I need to talk to Lee anyway. We have to firm up the cake logistics. You want to come, Steve?”
Beside her Wonder gulped down the last of his Spaten. “Taste testing with Lee? Any time.”
Janie stood to let them slide out of the booth as Cal and Docia joined them. Cal turned back to Pete. “Come on down when you finish here.”
For a moment, Pete thought he saw a flash of concern in his brother’s eyes. His jaw tightened. Cal was four years younger—his little brother, no matter how tall and broad he’d turned out to be. Concern from him wasn’t acceptable. “Yeah, okay,” he growled. “Shouldn’t take long.”
Cal’s brow furrowed, then he shrugged. “Okay, then, see you later.”
Docia was already headed for the door, Allie at her elbow. Pete watched Cal catch up to her so that he could open the door before she got to it. She turned slightly to look back at him, her lips curving up in a faint smile as their gazes met.
Well, goddamn. He hated being jealous of his little brother.
Across the table, Janie Dupree cleared her throat.
Pete started. He hadn’t noticed she was still there.
Janie gave him a smile that didn’t entirely reach her eyes and wasn’t nearly as charming as Docia’s. “I thought maybe the two of us should touch base, just to make sure we’re taking care of all the things that need to be done before the wedding.”
Pete picked up his bottle of Bud, feeling a slight prickle around his conscience. “What ‘things’ would those be?” He took a long pull, letting lukewarm beer slide down his throat.
Janie’s smile tightened to a thin line. Her eyes narrowed further. “You mean you weren’t kidding? You really haven’t got a clue about what you’re supposed to do?”
“I know what I’m supposed to do,” Pete snapped. “I’m supposed to stand next to my baby brother, carry the ring for him and stay out of the way. Like I said, if he needs anything else, he’ll let me know.”
Janie looked down at the table top, tapping her fingers in a tight rhythm. “Carry the ring? Do you even know what their plans are about a ring bearer? Why do I bother to ask—obviously you don’t. At one point they were going to use Cal’s dog.”
The beer bottle almost slipped through Pete’s fingers, but he managed to catch it before it hit the table top. “His dog? That rodent?”
Janie’s eyes blazed. “Pep is not a rodent. He’s a sweetheart. He may be a Chihuahua, but he’s got the heart of a tiger.”
Pete raised his hand, leaning back slightly. “Okay, okay. He’s a champ. But you’re telling me they’re going to have the dog carry the ring instead of me?”
“They talked about it.” Janie shrugged. “I think they changed their minds. The point is, you need to find that stuff out. It’s your job.”
Pete’s shoulders tightened. His job. Actually, his job was handling a case load that would have flattened the average county attorney. His job was putting low-life assholes where they couldn’t do any more damage and making sure they stayed there. His job—which he currently wasn’t doing because The Wedding had demanded all his time.
“My job,” he said through gritted teeth, “is to do anything Cal asks me to do and otherwise stay out of the way, like I said.”
“You’re not going to help at all?” Janie’s hands were spread on the table in front of her. Her eyes bored into him like laser beams—he figured he should have been a pile of ashes by then.
He shrugged. “Hey, if you think something needs to be done, go to it. Doesn’t look like you need any help from me. You’re doing a hell of a job here, tiny.”
He watched Janie Dupree’s hands turn to fists. She almost looked like she might slug him. For a moment, Pete wondered if that last crack had gone too far. She wasn’t all that short. Maybe five feet or so. Instead of slugging him, she pushed herself up from the booth and stood looking down at him, her lips a grim line. Then she turned and stalked toward the door.
Oh well, just another client he’d disappointed. These days that was par for the course.