When the reality show My House in History comes to Laurel Springs, Pennsylvania, savvy seamstress Daria Dembrowski sees a business opportunity. The show follows two elderly sisters' quest to restore their colonial mansion, and that means a heap of work for a seamstress who specializes in historical textiles. Although one of the old women is a bit of a grump, Daria loves the job-until she discovers one of the researchers dead, and the whole project threatens to unwind.
As a series of historical crimes pile up, from a stolen Paul Revere platter to a chilling incident of arson, Daria must find the killer quickly, for her life is hanging by a thread.
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"What do you think? Do I look like an eighteenth-century lady?"
I stepped back to survey my client's gown and overall appearance. Straight sleeves ending in a cascade of white organdy and lace — check. Flowered lavender petticoat falling over a hoopskirt stiffened with real whalebone — check. White linen fichu covering the stooped shoulders — check.
Orthopedic athletic shoes — not so much.
"You look gorgeous, Miss Priscilla," I said. "General Washington himself would bow and kiss your hand if he could see you."
She inclined her head and dropped a deep curtsy, no mean feat for a woman of eighty-odd years. "Of course, General Washington would never see this dress, my dear. This is only a house dress, after all." She straightened up and held herself still and erect as I knelt at her feet and pinned up the endless hem.
A sigh escaped my lips at the thought of the hours of hand sewing ahead of me. I contemplated breaking my cardinal rule and running the hem up by machine instead of setting it in by hand, but I knew I wouldn't. I wasn't willing to sacrifice those little touches of craftsmanship that set my work apart. My historical sewing business, A Stitch in Time, was taking off nicely, and I wasn't about to let any shoddy shortcuts drag me down.
My pins slid into the silky fabric. I'd stepped back in time on this job. The wooden floorboards I knelt on dated from the mid-1700s. Their lustrous surface was wavy from the passage of years and many a booted foot. The spacious living room had been emptied of its twentieth-century furnishings, leaving only a few graceful antiques. A drop-leaf table balanced the two tall windows, which were still covered by nothing but mini-blinds. A small arrangement of wingback chairs grouped around an occasional table stood before the cozy hearth. A tall chest of drawers in dark mahogany wood stood on spindly legs against the opposite wall.
Priscilla Compton, the quiet, reclusive mistress of this estate, was a tiny woman in her eighties. Content to sit knitting on her front porch, dressed in long calico gowns, she'd been a fixture in our small Pennsylvania town for a quarter of a century, almost the entirety of my lifetime. As a child, I'd always thought of her as the crazy old lady in the haunted house on the hill, practically a ghost herself. Nobody bothered much with old Priscilla Compton, until she gained notoriety through the reality TV show My House in History. Now the whole town watched while she transformed her home to its original eighteenth-century condition.
"When you get the hem pinned up, my dear, shall we talk about the curtains?"
I bit back a smile. Priscilla always called me "my dear," as if I were her beloved granddaughter rather than a hired seamstress. She probably didn't even know that my name was Daria.
"Yes, curtains. Were you thinking heavy, or light and airy?" I slid in the final pin and scrambled to my feet. I paced around her, checking the drape of the skirt. Perfect. "You can slip that off now, and I'll have it hemmed up by tomorrow." I moved to unfasten the row of hooks and eyes on the back of the bodice, and helped Priscilla ease the gown off her shoulders.
She pulled on her everyday clothing, a simple gown of sprigged muslin that fell to her ankles. "Light and airy for the parlor, I believe. Professor Burbridge has the drawings we're working off of. Such a delight to have a learned historian on our team, isn't it, my dear?"
Her enthusiasm for the project was what delighted me the most. "I'll check in with the professor later."
"Will you be around this evening, my dear? The new attorney is coming to meet all of us. He's a delightful young man who Ruth has hired to tell us what all the lovely things in this house are worth."
I glanced around the living room, noting the silver tea service arranged on the antique side table, and the framed coat of arms above it that proclaimed the honor of the Compton line. They were only a few of the "lovely things" that filled Compton Hall. The newly hired attorney would have plenty of work to occupy himself in this house.
I smiled at Priscilla. "I'll probably leave around dinnertime. Maybe I'll get the chance to meet the new attorney tomorrow."
I bundled up her gown, gathered up my pincushion and sewing gauge, and turned to leave the room when an insistent knocking sounded on the front door.
"Oh, dear, the door must be locked. Poor Ruth gets so upset when she can't get in." Priscilla gathered up the flowing folds of her skirt in her knobby hands and made her slow way toward the door. She paused with a hand to her chest as the knocking continued. "Just open the door for her, would you, my dear?"
I hastened to the door, still clutching my sewing implements. The wood shivered under the force of the knocking outside. I opened it to reveal a tall and very thin old woman on the step, gold-tipped cane poised to assault the door again. She wore a fur coat on this muggy August afternoon. Straight, blunt-cut gray hair fell just below her long earlobes, which were dragged down by heavy pearl earrings. Those oversized earlobes were the only resemblance I could see between Ruth Ellis, widow of the late philanthropist Thurman Ellis, and her older sister Priscilla. She drew herself up to a formidable height and frowned down at me.
"I could have finished one of Tolstoy's novels standing out here." She brushed past me into the foyer, pulling tight brown gloves from her hands. "Where is my sister?"
I felt an absurd urge to curtsy and say, "Follow me." Instead, I indicated the living room with a wave of the hand. "She's just in there. She's waiting for you."
She shot me a sharp glance. "And getting older every wasted minute." She headed across the foyer, leaning heavily upon her elegant cane. I was dismissed.
I shrugged, and headed for the stairs. Priscilla had set me up in the sewing room on the third floor to do her historical sewing, so I could do all my work on-site. It was certainly more convenient for fittings, and I could get my cardio workout from all my trips up and down the curving staircase. I felt a sense of self-importance at being a seamstress-in- residence.
The sewing room was lovely. A small room compared to the rest of the mansion, it still eclipsed my fitting room back home. Faded floral wallpaper covered the walls, and a white-painted chair rail encircled the entire room. A small oak side table held a large bowl that was probably silver under its layer of brassy tarnish. An antique treadle sewing machine occupied the place of honor opposite the door. The head was incredibly well preserved, despite the layer of dust that had coated it when I first arrived two weeks earlier. I'd cleaned and oiled the whole machine, replaced a belt or two, and adjusted the tension until the needle rose and fell smoothly with the tap of a foot. I'd made a deal with Priscilla that I could use the treadle machine for any seams that wouldn't show, reserving the hand stitching for hems and other details on the outside of each garment. It was a compromise between her desire for authentic details in the process of refurbishing her life to reflect an eighteenth-century way of life, and the need for speed in the transformation. The TV show's schedule dictated the frenzied pace of the work.
I settled down to my hemming, my needle flashing through the silky fabric. The time sped by as I toyed with the idea of making myself a quick homespun gown to wear while working at Compton Hall. I was wondering what sort of sandal one would wear with an eighteenth-century gown and apron when my phone rang. Welcoming the break, I scooped up the phone. It was my renter and roommate, Aileen.
"Hey, your four o'clock appointment is here, wondering why you ran off with her wedding gown."
Fiona! I couldn't believe I forgot about her fitting. I could hear Fiona's soft voice protesting in the background, seemingly ignored by Aileen.
"So, are you on your way home, or what?" Aileen said.
I gathered up the silken gown with one hand and stuffed it into my spacious shoulder bag. "Yes, yes. Tell Fiona I —"
"Tell her yourself," she cut in. I could hear fumbling, and then Fiona came on the line.
"I never said you ran off with my wedding gown, Daria."
I chuckled. "Of course you didn't. That's Aileen for you. Fiona, I'm so sorry I forgot your fitting. I can be home in twenty minutes, unless you want to reschedule."
"No, I can wait. Don't worry, I've got hours of reading to get through, so it's no trouble."
I was already out the door and hurrying down the stairs. "Bless you. I'll be there as soon as I can."
I heard the shouting as soon as I hit the first floor. Despite my haste, I paused in front of the living room door, my heartbeats accelerating like they always did at the sound of raised voices. Could Priscilla be in the middle of an argument? I couldn't picture it, any more than I could picture the First Lady yelling at her children in public. I could hear the querulous tones of Ruth Ellis, ridden over by a man's deep voice.
"I won't be silenced!"
No chance of that — he was shouting loud enough to disturb the next-door neighbors. I jumped out of the way as the door flung open and Professor Burbridge stormed out.
Burbridge's face was mottled with anger. A tall, thin man save for his prominent paunch, full of boundless, caffeinated energy, he slammed past me without acknowledging my existence. His sparse black hair shot with gray stuck out in all directions, churned up by a frustrated hand. His ever- present tweed coat with the leather elbow patches was flung over his shoulder, and he clutched a bulging leather briefcase in one hand. I could hear him muttering, "I have every right — they can't stop me. ..." He stormed up the stairs and disappeared down the second floor hallway.
Obviously not a time to ask him for historical drawings.
I hesitated in the front hall, wondering if I should check to make sure Priscilla was okay. But with Fiona waiting at home, I couldn't risk the delay. I hurried out the door, checking the lock to make sure the door was unlocked this time.
I halted on the doorstep when I saw what was happening outside. Priscilla's Japanese maple trees were famous in town, rising fifteen feet to frame the front of the house around the living room windows with their scarlet leaves. But not today. I watched in horror as Jamison Royce from Laurel Landscape Arts, who had been hired to renovate the gardens and landscaping, tossed an uprooted maple tree onto a growing pile. He was tearing out every one of Priscilla's prized Japanese maples!
"What are you doing?" I gasped.
A big man in his middle fifties, Royce looked me over with a shrug. "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm pulling up these plants." He wiped his hands on his dirt-covered jeans, adjusted his odd-looking work cap with flaps that covered his ears, and turned to tackle the one remaining maple tree.
Royce leaned on his shovel, pushing the blade into the ground at the root of the tree. He scratched his chin, which was covered by an unfashionably long beard. "Japanese maples didn't exist in Pennsylvania gardens in 1770. We're going back in time here, remember? Out with the new, in with the old." He spaded up a load of dirt. "Seems a shame, but it's all about the money, now isn't it? Money and fame, fame and money. Can't get enough of either, can we?"
The Japanese maple appeared to shiver as he laid hands on it to rip it out of the ground. Fragile red leaves showered down by my feet. The soft murmur of voices drifted out the open window around the corner of the house. Ruth and Priscilla seemed to be talking earnestly. For an instant I wondered if Priscilla really knew what was happening to her beloved maples. But I didn't have time to find out. I only had two minutes to make it to the bus. "What's going to happen to these trees?"
"I'm hauling them off to the dump. You want one?"
"Yes! I have to run — can you save me one or two? I can collect them this evening."
He nodded with a shrug. "Suit yourself. I'll leave you a couple by the side door. If they're still there in the morning, they're history."
I called my thanks over my shoulder and sprinted for the bus stop. I made it in time for the 4:05 bus and got home barely within the twenty minutes I'd promised. It was only a five-minute drive from the Highlands where Compton Hall overlooked the Schuylkill River valley to the tree-lined downtown neighborhood where I lived, but the bus took much longer. It was the price I had to pay for my enduring fear of driving. True, I'd saved my life in a wild car chase through the streets of Laurel Springs not one month earlier, but I still hated driving with a passion. Me behind the wheel of two tons of steel was an accident waiting to happen, and I knew it. Best to simply say, "I don't drive," and deal with the consequences. In this case, they weren't severe — merely a few extra minutes of studying for a forgiving client, and a little more egg on the face for me. I could live with that.
As I dashed up the cockeyed concrete steps to my front porch, I could hear the heavy bass beat of the band coming from the basement. Aileen and the Twisted Armpits must be in full swing. Poor Fiona; I'd forgotten to warn her about the noise. I hurried into my fitting room, the formal dining room of my nineteenth-century three-story house.
I paused on the threshold. Despite the muffled booms from beneath the floorboards, Fiona had fallen fast asleep in one of my comfy chairs, her book open on her chest. During a pause in the band's clamor I could hear Fiona's soft breathing. With her smooth brown curls swept back from a broad forehead and her mouth slightly open in sleep, she looked far too young and innocent to be an honors law student, much less a bride-to-be. She exuded peace and serenity. Not wanting to catch her in such a vulnerable state, I backed out of the doorway and stepped right onto the tail of my long-suffering cat. Mohair yowled and streaked off into the kitchen in an orange blur, and I jumped and dropped my shoulder bag with a clatter. No worries about having to wake Fiona now! I gathered up the spilled contents of my bag and entered the room with a cheery hello.
Fiona got to her feet and greeted me with a smile. "I must have dozed off there. So much for catching up on my reading."
"So sorry for forgetting about you." I rummaged through the rack of wedding gowns hanging in the corner, and pulled out the plastic-wrapped hanger labeled "Fiona Tuckerman." "It's a big day — you get to put this on for the first time." I pointed her to the curtained-off corner reserved for changing. "Don't worry about the back — I'll fit it for the buttons today."
While Fiona changed I took a minute to set some hot cider to bubbling on the sideboard, breathing in its spicy aroma. In my experience, brides-to-be were happier with my work when they felt relaxed, a neat trick to achieve between the normal stresses of wedding preparations combined with a metal band rehearsing in the basement. I hoped to scale back on my wedding gowns as the historical sewing increased, but I had yet to achieve that level of specialization.
Fiona emerged from the changing area, clutching the bodice of her dress so the whole thing wouldn't fall right off her. I quickly pinned up the back and steered her to the three-way mirror. She turned and swayed and admired the shining folds of her wedding gown. She'd chosen a custom- made design based on drawings I'd done from her specifications. The gown featured a striking strapless neckline with diagonal shirring through the bodice to provide the only ornamentation. The wide, flowing skirt trailed on the floor in just a hint of a train. The heavy satin glowed with a luster of its own, needing no adornment of lace or sequins. It was a sophisticated, lovely look that well suited this professional young woman.
I gave Fiona a few minutes to admire the possibilities, and then instructed her to stand still while I marked the back for the line of satin-covered buttons. When she winced, I nearly dropped the whole pincushion.
"Oh, no, did I poke you?"
She gave me a puzzled glance over her shoulder. "No, I'm good."
A second later she flinched again. I wasn't even touching her. "Is everything all right, Fiona?"
"It's just, that noise. How can you stand it?"
It was my turn to look puzzled, until I registered the howling emanating from the basement where the Twisted Armpits held sway. The unrelenting bass of the band had become such a backdrop to my daily life that it didn't bother me anymore. "I guess I've gotten used to it. I'll ask Aileen to knock it off for a few minutes."
Excerpted from "Historically Dead"
Copyright © 2017 Greta McKennan.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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