Theodosia’s Honey Bee Tea was an elegant affair set in Charleston’s new Petigru Park amid newly planted native grasses and a community beekeeping project. But when a phony beekeeper shows up and sprays toxic smoke at the guests, the party erupts in chaos. Worse yet, a shot rings out and Osgood Claxton III, candidate for state legislature, falls to the ground—dead.
Holly Burns, the gallery owner who asked Theodosia to cater the tea, is understandably heartbroken. A man is dead, her guests are angry and injured, and the paintings that were on display are left in tatters. When the police don’t seem to have a clue, when old-line politicos don’t want questions asked, Holly begs Theodosia to run a shadow investigation and help restore her gallery’s good name.
Between hosting a Wind in the Willows Tea and a Glam Girl Tea, Theodosia questions everyone that had a bone to pick with Claxton. This includes Booker, an angry outsider artist; Lamar Lucket, Claxton’s political opponent; and Mignon Merriweather, the dead man’s soon-to-be ex-wife. But the investigation becomes a political hot potato following a second murder, the revelation of a messy affair, a chase through a swamp, and a vandalized shop.
INCLUDES DELICIOUS RECIPES AND TEA TIME TIPS!
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It was politics as usual. Or unusual in this particular case. Because tea maven Theodosia Browning had never hosted a tea party before where a superambitious, overcaffeinated politician had suddenly leaped from his chair to deliver a boastful, impromptu speech.
Of course, it was election time in Charleston, South Carolina, and politicians were thick as flies in a hog barn. Which is why Osgood Claxton III was rambling to an acutely bored audience about his prodigious accomplishments and why they should surely award him a seat in the state legislature. It was also why Theodosia hovered nervously at her tea table while her team readied scones and tea sandwiches.
"He's trying to hijack Holly's event," Theodosia murmured to Drayton Conneley, her tea sommelier and trusted friend. They were gazing out at the dozen or so tables that had been set up in Charleston's gorgeous new Petigru Park, getting ready to plop fresh-baked glory bee honey scones on all their guests' plates.
"This has the makings of a train wreck," Drayton agreed. He touched a finger to his yellow bow tie as if to punctuate his sentence.
Theodosia turned sharp blue eyes onto Holly Burns, the owner of the Imago Gallery, who was seated nearby. As Claxton droned on, Holly's face turned blotchy and her jaw went rigid. Clearly, she wasn't one bit happy.
Oh dear. This was, after all, Holly's outdoor tea party in honor of the relaunch of her Imago Gallery. Dozens of art lovers, patrons, and artists lounged at the elegantly appointed tables while, all around them, large colorful paintings were displayed on wooden easels. A brilliant yellow sun shone down and a cool breeze wafted in from Charleston Harbor to stir the park's newly planted native grasses. Hives from a community beekeeping project were stacked like bee condos a safe distance away.
"I'm going to go over there and try to disarm that walking, talking dictionary," Theodosia said to Drayton. A self-made tea entrepreneur who'd made it on her own terms, Theodosia was confident, nimble at handling tricky situations, and unimpressed by boastful politicians. Her ice-chip blue eyes matched her tasteful sapphire earrings while masses of Titian red hair swirled around her lovely oval face. Theodosia also possessed a gracious manner that was poised yet purposeful.
"Watch your step with that fellow," Drayton warned. "He's powerfully . . ."
"Connected. Yes, I know he is," Theodosia said as she grabbed a pink floral teapot filled with Darjeeling tea, fixed her mouth in a bright smile, and headed directly for the red-faced, overbearing politician.
Osgood Claxton III saw her coming and seemed to lose focus for a moment. He blinked, trying desperately to sputter out a few more words. But that tiny hesitation was all Theodosia needed.
"Mr. Claxton," Theodosia said with a warm lilt to her voice. "Bless your heart for expounding on your many qualifications. Now that we're all familiar with such prodigious talents, you must surely take your seat so my staff and I can begin serving our delicious luncheon of honey scones and tea sandwiches."
Theodosia grabbed a quick breath, faced the forty or so guests, and continued, not allowing the startled Claxton a moment to jump back in. "As you all know, Holly Burns has recently upped the ante at her marvelous Imago Gallery." She smiled as Claxton reluctantly slumped in his seat. "Along with a new partner, and a higher profile in Charleston's thriving art scene, Holly now represents an amazing group of talented and well-known South Carolina artists."
There was a spatter of applause and Holly half rose in her chair to wave and acknowledge her guests. She had long dark hair, was skinny as a wet cat, wore armfuls of clanking silver bracelets, and jittered with anxiety. With dozens of potential art buyers and a few wealthy collectors among her guests, today would prove to be a make-or-break day for her.
Theodosia continued. "And lucky for us, we have on display here"-she gestured at the paintings resting on their easels-"a number of intriguing and colorful paintings-works by Holly's new artists that are here for your appreciation and careful perusal." There was more applause and then Theodosia added, "So please sit back and enjoy this special Honeybee Tea as we fill your teacups with our house blend of Honey Child tea and serve our first course of fresh-baked glory bee scones. Following that, we'll present a tempting array of tea sandwiches that will include honey ham on rye, shrimp with tarragon on crostini, and chicken salad on brioche."
As Drayton poured tea, Theodosia and her young chef, Haley Parker, slipped from table to table, serving scones, dropping off bowls of Devonshire cream, and encouraging guests to drizzle some of their specially sourced raw honey onto their scones.
When the guests were all sipping and munching (even Osgood Claxton III seemed to be making short work of his scone), Theodosia wiped her hands on her apron and gazed about contentedly. This is what she did, after all-and she did it rather well. Yes, Monday through Friday you could find her at the Indigo Tea Shop, a devastatingly adorable tea shop on Church Street. But she also reveled in catering special event teas. And this Sunday's tea, her themed Honeybee Tea, seemed to be going off without a hitch. The weather was gorgeous, Petigru Park was clearly the perfect venue, and there were already small red stickers on several of the paintings-which meant they'd been earmarked as either on hold or sold-a feather in Theodosia's cap as well as Holly's.
As a former marketing executive, Theodosia loved nothing better than to spin out new ideas. These included event teas, tea trolley tours, even catering gigs. She'd draw up a business plan, work out all the nits and nats, then bring the whole shootin' match to fruition. Right now she was making plans for a line of organic, tea-infused chocolates that would be sold at the Indigo Tea Shop. Two of the brand names she was considering were Church Street Chocolates and Cacao Tea.
"This is going well, yes?" Drayton said to her. He'd just made the rounds pouring tea and looked elegant in his cream-colored jacket and matching linen slacks. Sixty-something and always projecting the manner and bearing of a true Southern gent, Drayton was a tea sommelier and a skilled orator and served on several boards of directors.
"I just got a quick read from Holly and she's over the moon," Theodosia said. "She believes she's already made several sales to a few serious collectors and that the Imago Gallery is finally on the right track to success."
"Holly was smart to hook up with that silent partner. Jeremy something . . ."
"Slade. Jeremy Slade."
Drayton nodded. "Right. The one who gave her the infusion of cash."
"She lucked out," Theodosia said. Then she gazed across the tables and said, "Oh bother."
"What?" Drayton said.
"Bill Glass just showed up." Glass was the publisher of Shooting Star, a local tabloid that specialized in gossip, unfounded rumors, and glossy photos of the nouveau riche acting badly. Today, Glass was wandering among the tables, taking photos, and doing a skillful bit of glad-handing. His razor sunglasses were pushed up on his forehead and he wore a khaki photographer's vest, sloppy brown pants, and red high-top tennis shoes.
"He's not exactly the vision you want to see at a tea party, but he's harmless," Drayton said. "Besides, most people are thrilled to see their picture in his little rag of a magazine."
"Maybe," Theodosia said.
Haley nudged her and said, "Time to put out the sandwich trays?" Haley was twenty-six, petite, and blond with stick-straight hair. But underneath her sweet appearance, she was a little martinet. And it was woe to the baker or fishmonger who tried to deliver day-old goods to Haley's kitchen.
"Let's do it," said Drayton. "While everything's so perfectly fresh."
"Right down to my edible flowers," Haley smiled.
Theodosia had just placed a three-tiered tray stacked with tea sandwiches on one of the tables when a woman glanced past her, pointed, and said, “Will you look at that. One of the beekeepers just showed up.” She sounded amused.
Theodosia looked over at the colony of twelve white hives where a man (she thought it was a man) in protective gear was aiming a smoker at one of the hives.
"Going to harvest some honey," another guest said, excitement coloring her voice.
"Good thing he's wearing that bee getup, the protective jacket, pants, veil, and whatnot," a man said. "Dealing with beehives is quite an art."
Now more guests had turned in their chairs to watch.
"This really is quite charming," the man's companion said. "It must be part of the event."
"Has to be," another person at the table chimed in.
Theodosia knew this hadn't been planned. It was completely serendipitous that one of the beekeepers had shown up at this exact moment. All the same, she was pleased because it made for an exciting diversion. Especially since the event had been promoted as a Honeybee Tea and the invitations had even made mention of the park's community beekeeping project.
Unfortunately, two tables over, Claxton had jumped to his feet again. He was suddenly spearheading a round of applause for the beekeeper, whipping up the crowd's enthusiasm.
"Not him again," Drayton muttered as he came up behind Theodosia.
"The man's incorrigible," she said. "Looks as if he's trying to take credit for what's really a city-funded project."
They watched Claxton vigorously thrust both arms in the air in a V for Victory sign as the guests cheered.
"He thinks the applause is for him," Theodosia said.
Everyone watched as Claxton puffed up his chest, practically busting the buttons on his vest. Then he turned with a flourish and faced the beekeeper.
"Great job," Claxton called out to him. "Phenomenal project, these bees."
He took a few steps in the direction of the hives as the beekeeper moved forward to greet him.
"You see what your city officials can do when they put their mind to it?" Claxton said loudly. "Native grasses planted in this park, all these wonderful hives. Come on over here, Mr. Beekeeper, I want to shake your hand."
The beekeeper advanced on Claxton, his helmet obscuring his face, his smoker held at waist level. It looked a lot like a stainless steel watering can, Theodosia decided. Only with a shorter spout.
As Claxton reached a hand out, the beekeeper snapped his smoker up to eye level and a faint motorized hum suddenly sounded. Then the beekeeper aimed the smoker directly at Claxton's face and sent a milky white vapor spewing out at him.
"Wha . . .?" came Claxton's startled, garbled response as he was suddenly engulfed in a thick white cloud. Terrified, Claxton began to stumble about aimlessly, his face turning red as he started to choke. It was a dry, raspy AR-AR-AR, as if he was unable to pull in a single sip of oxygen. Then, eyes rolling back in his head, knees beginning to buckle, Claxton batted his arms frantically, as if to ward off the continuing billows of smoke.
Or was it smoke? Theodosia wondered a split second later. Because everyone in Claxton's vicinity was suddenly coughing and choking like crazy and rubbing their eyes.
No, it has to be some kind of toxic bomb.
The cloud drifted across the tea tables, threatening to engulf everyone. Dark shapes darted back and forth as they fought to escape. Visibility was almost down to zero.
Undaunted, Theodosia covered her mouth with her apron and ran smack-dab into the fray.
"Everybody! We have to get away from this right now!" she cried. Then she raised a hand in a wild gesture. "This way!"
Coughing and crying, shouting and screaming, many of the guests were openly weeping from the toxic fumes and stumbling toward Theodosia as she tried to lead them away from the smoke.
Haley suddenly appeared next to Theodosia, eyes bleary and red, tears streaming down her face. Her cell phone was clutched in her hand.
"Did you call 911?" Theodosia choked out as she led her flock to safety.
"Talking to them now," Haley cried. "They want to know what . . ."
"Toxic fumes, tell them some kind of toxic smoke bomb." In the melee, with people all around her, Theodosia lost sight of Haley for a few moments. Then she found her again. "Are they coming?" she asked.
"They're coming." Haley had to shout to be heard above the cries and screams.
"Tell them to send ambulances, EMTs, everything they've got." Theodosia looked around. "We probably have a couple dozen injured people here."
"The dispatcher wants to know who released the . . ."
"I think it was just the one guy," Theodosia shouted back. "A phony beekeeper who . . ."
That noise-an explosion, really-rattled Theodosia's teeth and rocked her back on her heels. But her brain instantaneously sorted out exactly what she'd heard.
A gunshot? Oh my Lord, I think it was. I know it was.
Wiping her eyes, squinting into the filmy cloud that was slowly starting to dissipate, she saw the phony beekeeper standing there. He had a gun clutched in his right hand with Claxton's body sprawled at his feet.
The beekeeper's protective suit still obscured his identity, and he held the smoker in his other hand. But it was his attitude that chilled Theodosia to the bone. He seemed to gaze at Claxton's body in a gloating, self-satisfied manner. Taking pride in his kill as well as the terrible panic he'd brought about.
The phony beekeeper cocked his head, as if making some sort of critical decision. Then he spun on his heels and began to sprint awkwardly across the park. He obviously had one single burning thought in mind-get away from this place fast!
At the same time, a nugget of white-hot rage exploded inside Theodosia's brain. She took in Claxton's prone body-the man had to be dead-as well as the tearful guests that milled about, still looking panicked. And she was gripped by one all-consuming thought-run the killer down!
Not having access to a weapon, not even thinking all that clearly, Theodosia grabbed the first thing she saw-a tall glass vase filled with bright yellow jonquils. Tucking the vase under one arm, Theodosia took off running.
“Stop!” Theodosia cried as she pounded across the vast expanse of green parkland in hot pursuit of the phony beekeeper. She leaped across a bed of daylilies and dodged a small copse of dogwood. She saw that, up ahead, the phony beekeeper was running badly. He was hindered by his bulky suit and the clanking smoker that banged against his legs. So, little by little, as Theodosia chased after him, she was beginning to close the gap.