Talk about a great notion! As a fund-raiser to save a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse and stop an ambitious developer, the ladies of the Historical Society of Millbury, Pennsylvania, are producing a Hunky Men of Millbury calendar. Daisy is delighted to lend her support, and the female population of the village is abuzz with anticipation.
But after Daisy’s close friend Cyril doesn’t show up for his photo shoot and the calendar photographer is found dead, it’s beginning to look like the days may be numbered for the men of Millbury. Can a cryptic verse on an antique sampler help Daisy pin down the killer before another pinup runs out of time?
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Read an Excerpt
It’s not every day you have the opportunity to see the best-looking men of your acquaintance naked. Almost never, in fact. And after tonight, I doubted I ever would again.
The shoot for the Men of Millbury calendar had been going on all week in the carriage house of a local estate. It was a fund-raiser for the Millbury Historical Society and we were desperately trying to save an old farmstead once inhabited by one of the founders of our nineteenth-century village. However we were up against a builder who was intent on knocking the house down and putting up a slew of cookie-cutter condos on the accompanying thirty acres unless we could stop him.
We’d done the bake sale route. Now we needed some serious cash.
“Having fun, Daisy?” Mr. February, who also happened to be my very handsome husband, Joe Daly, came over and wrapped his arm around me.
I grinned and leaned into his embrace.
Not only did we want to save the character of our quaint neighborhood situated in bucolic Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but if we prevailed, the rambling farmhouse would be turned into a community center, providing badly needed recreation space for the local children.
Somehow my best friend, Martha, secretary of the society and a fiery redhead, had convinced these twelve brave souls to take it all off for the sake of historical preservation. Perhaps the fact that it would benefit the children had been the motivating factor, and not so much Martha’s salesmanship or, should I say, relentless arm-twisting.
“It’s crazy out there tonight,” Joe said to me. “Think you might need a couple of bouncers for the next guy.”
There was high excitement in the air. Tonight we would see the crème de la crème.
Dark and dangerous Detective Serrano, in the flesh.
Although these guys weren’t completely baring it all. Depending on the way they made a living, the photographer had used a discreetly placed object to cover the family jewels, like a fire helmet, a barbershop chair, or a farming implement.
We were working in the garage of the carriage house, a beautiful space with heavy wooden timbers overhead and whitewashed walls. It was even heated, which was a definite plus on a wintry night. It would certainly have been easier to produce this calendar in the summer, when we could have used outdoor locations, but seeing as it was early November, the clock was ticking to get it printed and into stores in time for Christmas.
By the way, I’m Daisy Buchanan, the fiftysomething-year-old proprietress of Millbury’s antiques and sewing notions store called Sometimes a Great Notion. Actually I’m fifty-eight, but fifty-something sounds better. I’d kept my maiden name of Buchanan when we married. Joe was secure enough in his masculinity that he didn’t have a problem with that, or with sitting bare-bottomed on his lovingly restored vintage bicycle.
All in all, this project had been a lot of fun. Our models had been pretty good-natured about the whole thing. Privately, I think they’d quite enjoyed the fuss.
Tonight Joe had helped us by hauling in bales of hay and stacks of gourds into the garage, because first up under the lights was Mr. October, a former mailman whose hobby was growing giant pumpkins. He was in his early sixties now, but still in good shape thanks to years of extreme gardening. The plan called for him to hold a pumpkin in front of the essential bits, and there’d been lots of cheerful ribbing going on.
“Hey, that’s a mini pumpkin!” he’d yelled, still fully clothed, when Martha handed him his prop. “I’m gonna need a bigger one than that!” Martha had finally given Mr. October a large enough pumpkin to satisfy his manly ego, and she swept over to us, carrying a clipboard and trailing Cyril Mackey in her wake. I wasn’t sure what the clipboard was for, seeing as we only had two models to keep track of, but I didn’t dare ask.
She was wearing a gold wrap shirt, harem-style pants in a black-and-gold Japanese design, and high heels. The shirt gapped dangerously over her impressive curves, and I hoped the little snap fastener at her cleavage was up to the challenge, ready to give its all for God and country. Her bright red hair was twisted up into a thick knot, showing long shimmering earrings.
If need be, the photographer could always use her as another light reflector.
Eleanor Reid, president of the society and my other best friend in the world next to Martha, also sidled up to us, her gray eyes sparkling with anticipation. She wore her usual all-black attire—a long-sleeved baseball shirt and yoga pants—which actually seemed to fit tonight with her role as photographer’s assistant. Her white hair was cropped mannishly short.
“There’s a huge crowd outside those garage doors,” she said in her husky voice. “All kinds of women from the village, not just from the Historical Society. Like a rock concert or something. Far out, man. I feel like I’m back at Woodstock.”
“How did you ever talk these guys into this, anyway?” Joe asked Martha. “I mean, I know I was a pushover, but it can’t have been that easy with everyone.”
“Well, some were easier than others,” she said with an arch look at Cyril, the cantankerous owner of the local salvage business.
He glared at her. “I still don’t know how I feel about taking my kit off in front of a bunch o’ gawping women.”
Cyril was originally from Yorkshire, England, and until recently, a bit of an outcast whose wardrobe left a lot to be desired. The village was still intrigued as to how he and Martha, a wealthy widow, had embarked on their strange and precarious new romance.
I grinned at them. As a former cheerleader, prom queen, and trophy wife, Martha had spent a lifetime perfecting her stage presence. Even in her early sixties, she was still a knockout. Cyril, despite his tough demeanor, had swiftly gone down for the count.
“Come on, man, be a sport,” Joe said. “We’ve all sacrificed our pride for a good cause.”
Cyril took his tweed cap off and ran a hand through his thick gray hair before jamming the cap back on his head. “I know, and that old bugger what owns the place has already scarpered to the bloody Outer Banks. So I hope a lot of people buy this damn calendar, and right quick.”
He was correct that the current owner of the historic property had no real emotional attachment to Millbury anymore. The only thing he cared about was getting a nice fat check to fund his retirement. He’d simply sell to the highest bidder.
I gave Martha a hug. “You did such an amazing job putting this together. And Cyril, don’t worry. We’ll keep our eyes closed, I promise.”
No women were allowed to stay for the actual shooting, well, except for the designated photographer’s assistants—Martha, Eleanor, and me.
“There have to be some perks of sitting through the insufferably dull Historical Society meetings,” Martha had declared when she’d made the arrangements.
Far from my words providing comfort, Cyril’s expression turned even more dour, if that was possible. But I knew there was no question he would come through. Cyril was nothing if not dependable.
At the rear of the garage, there was a wooden screen behind which the model could change. To protect his modesty as much as possible, we kept our backs turned until he was posed with his strategically placed item, and only came forward when requested to reposition something on the set or to hand Roos a new roll of film. The photographer was going old-school instead of using digital because he said he preferred the result.
Joe clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, Cyril, after tonight, you’ll be the last one, and then the ladies can get this calendar into production.” He cleared his throat. “So, Daisy, where’s Serrano?”
“Mr. July should be here any minute,” I said, not even bothering to check my watch. Serrano always showed up on time for his rendezvous.
“Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” Eleanor inhaled as if already catching a hint of his intoxicating aftershave in the air. “Ah. The hot detective. Every woman’s fantasy.”
Martha shook her head. “No. Trust me, dear. At our age, it’s a fantasy to have someone cook for you every night. Like Joe does for Daisy.”
My husband had blossomed into quite the gourmet cook, seeing as Millbury didn’t have a restaurant, only a diner that closed at 3 p.m. He’d convinced me to take early retirement two years ago from teaching high school, and we’d moved into our former vacation home, a Greek Revival on Main Street. Joe had settled comfortably into country life, but it had been harder for me, and when I bid on a steamer trunk full of sewing notions at the local auction, it had been the inspiration to open my store. And my salvation.
So not only was I a resident, but as a store owner, I was doubly interested in what happened to our little village.
At that moment, the photographer, Alex Roos, strolled past our group, performing the habitual stretching moves that signified he was finished shooting in his crouching pose. “People, people, how’s it going?” He flashed a wicked grin at Eleanor, showing capped teeth that were startlingly bright against his tanned skin. She blew him back a kiss. Martha just shook her head.
Roos wore black jeans, pointed emerald-green snakeskin boots, and a black leather vest that showed off his wiry surfer’s body covered in myriad tattoos. His hair was cut in a Mohawk style, about an inch long, like the bristles on a silver-backed antique brush, and so blond it was almost white, the way some fair-skinned children get after a summer spent playing outside.
And like a soft brush, it seemed to invite the touch of your fingers.
“Today’s cock, tomorrow’s feather duster,” Cyril muttered. He would have probably spit on the ground if he was back in his junkyard and not in this garage that was nicer than a lot of people’s living rooms.
The lanky photographer had caused quite a stir himself around these parts during the week he’d been shooting. Even without knowing he was from California, it was clear to see he was an exotic bird among a flock of country fowl. It was rumored he’d had almost as many liaisons as there were months in the calendar, including a dalliance with one of the married women. There was more than one jealous significant other who would be glad to see the back of him when he left town.
I narrowed my gaze at him. Was he really wearing eyeliner? In spite of his affectations, I had to acknowledge that he did have some strange sort of charm. But give me Joe’s wholesome good looks or Serrano’s dark and debonair sex appeal any day.
Roos clapped his hands together. “Okay, peeps. Time to rock ’n’ roll. Next set, please.” While I swept the garage, and the others removed the pumpkins, Joe loaded the bales of hay back into Cyril’s truck.
“I’m going to catch a ride back to Millbury with Cyril, so I can let the puppy out,” he said as he kissed me good-bye and handed me the keys to our old Subaru station wagon. “See you later, babe.”
As I watched Joe and Cyril pull away in the truck, I blew out a breath against the guilty flutter in my chest for the imminent arrival of our next model.
Eleanor had borrowed a fake brick wall from the local theater, and the plan was to back the detective’s Dodge Challenger on an angle into the garage and create the illusion of a grimy alleyway with a couple of garbage cans and some moody lighting. Serrano would stand partway behind the open driver’s door, pointing his gun at an imaginary assailant.
“Now, aren’t you glad we talked you into joining the society?” Eleanor said as we maneuvered the wall into place.
“Yes,” I answered dutifully, grunting as I pushed.
“Well, it was about time you joined, seeing as you were a history teacher, after all,” Martha said, peering at us over her clipboard.
Okay, Tom Sawyer.
While Eleanor and I worked, and Martha supervised, I could feel the tension building, like the pressure in the air before a summer thunderstorm. The mailman was nice enough to look at, but he was nothing compared to the main attraction.
At the sound of a powerful muscle car rumbling up the driveway, we scrambled to open the garage doors. We stepped out of the way as Serrano executed a swift three-point turn and slid the gleaming black vehicle into position. He got out and, with a respectful nod in our direction, headed over to talk to Roos, exuding authority with every movement. I could see there would be none of the usual banter that we enjoyed when he stopped by my store in the mornings for coffee and baked goodies.
Tonight was a necessary evil he obviously wanted to get over and done with as efficiently as possible.
He was wearing a dark gray suit that complemented his closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Serrano had the perfect physique—muscular, yet lean—to wear a suit, and wear it well.
Eleanor narrowed her gaze in his direction. “God, I can’t wait to see that man with his shirt off.”
Neither, apparently, could the crowd of women waiting outside, who had rushed into the garage now and were leaning against the car, trailing their fingers over the warm hood and giggling in feverish anticipation.
Detective Serrano was a transplanted New Yorker, like Joe and me. He was the hottest, most exciting import into Millbury in years, and he spent as much time fending off the local females as he did catching criminals.
Somehow I’d become a bit of an amateur sleuth, thanks to my, um, inquisitive disposition, and I’d helped him solve a couple of cases, whether accidentally or on purpose.
His ice-blue eyes surveyed the scene, taking in everything, missing nothing.
“It’s a good thing it’s cold enough to wear gloves tonight, or he’d have a heart attack at the fingerprints on that paintwork,” I murmured.
To say that Serrano was slightly anal was like saying Philly sports fans were somewhat enthusiastic about their favorite teams.
Suddenly there was a loud beeping outside, like someone leaning on a truck horn with both hands.
“What on earth is that terrible racket?” Martha exclaimed.
“Oh, probably Sally McIntire’s husband, here to pick up his wife,” Eleanor murmured, cocking her head toward a lithe, well-endowed blonde hanging on to the photographer. “She’s been flirting with Roos all week, and I hear her old man is mad with jealousy.”
We shooed everyone out again, including the reluctant Sally, and I closed the doors to a chorus of groans. While Serrano took his jacket off and laid it on the backseat of the car, Alex Roos adjusted the lighting. Martha dusted the car with a sheepskin cloth, and Eleanor and I pulled the garbage cans into place.
We stood back to admire our tableau.
Suddenly I spotted faces popping up outside the row of windows at the top of the garage doors. The groupies must be giving one another piggybacks to try to steal a peek.
I got up on a stepladder, and Martha handed me pieces of seamless black background paper that I taped carefully over the square panes so that not a crack of light shone through.
The stage was finally set.
“Okay, ladies.” Roos clapped his hands. “I think I can handle it from here. Good night. Thanks a million for your help.”
Eleanor sucked in a breath, but she couldn’t really object, not with Serrano standing right behind him. The photographer had obviously been given strict instructions to clear the scene.
One by one we trailed into the house.
“Damn that Roos. Now we can’t see anything either,” Eleanor grumbled as I pulled the door to the kitchen closed behind us. “What a spoilsport. And why the hell did you have to be so efficient and cover up all the windows, Daisy?”
The tastefully remodeled carriage house had the same heavy ceiling beams as the garage, but the whitewashed walls and exposed stonework were softened with paintings of rustic subjects like a folk art pig, and there were top-quality Persian area rugs covering most of the stone floors. It was a simple layout. A huge sleeping loft and a sitting room above, and a good-size living room, dining room, and kitchen with walk-in fireplace downstairs.
Ruth Bornstein, the owner of this estate, was standing at the maple wood kitchen counter making a fresh pot of coffee. She had more connections than a crocheted shawl and had talked the photographer into doing the shoot for a cut-rate price. The gorgeous fieldstone building served both as his studio and temporary living quarters.
She grinned at our downcast expressions. “Don’t despair, my friends. All is not lost.”
Ruth made a beckoning motion, and we followed her to an alcove off the kitchen that was set up as an office. It also housed a closed-circuit TV system. She poked the power button on the computer monitor and it flickered into life, showing a quadrant of pictures of the front of the house, the back door, the main gate, and the interior of the garage.
There was quite a bit of pushing and shoving so everyone could get into a good viewing position before the show started.
We didn’t have long to wait.
Serrano didn’t bother going back to the changing area to don a robe or a towel like the other guys. He simply pulled off his tie right where he stood and stripped off his shirt while we held our collective breath.
Even in a grainy black-and-white image, the hard-muscled body was awe-inspiring.
“Good God,” Martha said.
The nighttime gray hues accented the rippled stomach and strong biceps that flexed as he moved, like a prowling mountain cat that wastes no energy, but is a focused, tightly coiled killing machine.
I swallowed, but there was no moisture left in my throat.
As Serrano slowly reached for his belt buckle, he glanced in the direction of the security camera, and it seemed as though his eyes met mine. Roos triggered the strobes to test the light meter near Serrano’s face, and the resultant flash made my heart bounce.
With shaking fingers I turned the monitor off, suddenly ashamed of myself.
Serrano was my friend, above all else, and not only was I betraying our friendship, but his hard-won trust in me with such giddy, schoolgirl behavior. “We shouldn’t be spying on the man like this. We’re just a bunch of sick old women getting our jollies.”
“And you’re jolly annoying.” Eleanor pouted and slumped back in a chair, crossing her arms over her narrow chest.
“Daisy, why don’t you come up to the house with me and visit with Stanley while the shoot is going on?” Ruth urged.
“Okay.” My heart was still racing.
“We’ll clean up here when it’s all over, dear,” Martha said to Ruth. “Don’t you worry about a thing.”
As we left the room, I thought I could hear the whir of the monitor starting up again.
I grabbed my coat from the kitchen, and Ruth and I walked the short distance up the curving driveway toward the magnificent main house.
The original section was from the eighteenth century, with random width floors and fireplaces in most of the rooms. It had been added on to over the years, and the newer wings had the same sage-green siding as the carriage house. The carefully tended rose gardens, tennis court, and pool were situated behind with breathtaking views of the countryside, and verdant acres rolled away in every direction.
The wind whipped across the land, and even though we were only open to the elements for a minute, I felt my body temperature plummet. I huddled down inside my jacket and walked faster.
Ruth’s husband had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago. Before his illness, Joe and I used to join the Bornsteins occasionally for dinner during the summers when we vacationed in Millbury. Stanley Bornstein had been a successful chemist for one of the large pharmaceutical corporations based in Montgomery County. He’d made a fortune for the company, and for himself, and had retired in his early fifties.
I’d always thought of him as a highly intelligent, fascinating man. Brilliant, in fact.
And now he barely knew his own name.
Ruth hung our coats in the foyer closet and then took a deep breath. “Daisy, you haven’t seen Stanley in a while. I don’t want you to be upset, but he . . . Well, he’s gotten much worse lately. He probably won’t recognize you.”
“That’s okay.” I smiled up at her in reassurance. I’d never seen the tall, elegant Ruth not perfectly coiffed, and tonight was no exception. She wore a long ecru flowing sweater over a silk top and dress pants, together with a necklace of intertwined gold rings. Her bobbed hair was dyed a rich chocolate brown, and her dark eyes were enhanced with eyeliner of the same shade.
She’d always looked years younger than her husband, even before he got sick, but in the light cast by the chandelier there were fine lines of exhaustion drawn around her eyes and mouth that even the most expensive night creams couldn’t erase.
I followed her upstairs. We passed a guest bedroom on our way, and I caught a glimpse of some of Ruth’s things. When we walked into the master bedroom, I could see why. The imposing cherry four-poster bed was gone. It must have been dismantled and stored somewhere else and replaced by a metal hospital bed.
I’d steeled myself for this, but I had to press my lips together to hide my shock at Stanley’s wasted appearance. He’d always been a slim guy, but now he was incredibly thin, his cheeks sunken and gray hair standing up in wisps on top of his head.
His hands looked like bird claws resting on the starched white sheets.
“Stanley, Daisy’s here to see you,” Ruth said.
He didn’t turn his head.
It must have been six months since I’d last seen him. At that time he seemed to know who I was, although he couldn’t quite follow the thread of the conversation. He kept asking Ruth about someone named Mickey. Turns out that Mickey was the cocker spaniel he’d had as a kid.
There were sheets covering the mirrors on the dressing table and also draped over the closet doors. Ruth followed my gaze. “Sometimes we see imposters in the room,” she said softly.
I bit my lip and nodded.
An array of medicines stood on the bedside table, and a nurse sat in an armchair next to the bed, knitting a pink-and-orange scarf. She got to her feet with a grunt.
“He wouldn’t let me change him, Miz Bornstein,” she said, pursing her full lips together.
“I’ll do it, Jo Ellen. You were right not to push matters. Evenings are always the worst time.”
Stanley coughed, a painful dry wheeze.
“His sinus infection is getting real bad again, too.” The nurse shook her head. “Doctor was here earlier to do his blood work and said he’s probably gonna need another course of antibiotics.”
“I’ll pick up the prescription tomorrow.” Ruth walked over to the table and trailed a graceful hand over the bottles. “Did you give him his meds?”
“Yes, Miz Bornstein.”
“And did you sign off on the chart?”
The nurse glanced at me. She stopped short of rolling her eyes, but she may as well have. I gathered they’d been through this routine many times before.
Ruth touched a hand to my shoulder. “Daisy, I’ll be right back. I’m just going to see Jo Ellen out.”
They walked out of the room, and I sat in the chair next to the bed. Even though I didn’t know much about how to deal with a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s, I knew I should talk to Stanley as normally as I could. If there was a part of him that could still comprehend, I wanted to respect his dignity.
I tried to ignore the faint odor hanging in the air that reminded me of the early days of teaching, when some of the little kids didn’t always make it to the bathroom in time. I wondered how long he’d been lying here like that. Surely Ruth paid the nurse well enough that she could have handled the task, difficult and unappealing as it admittedly was.
I struggled to think of something to say.
Throughout the house there were hundreds of books. He’d been such a vibrant, educated man. There were even two bookshelves on the back wall of this huge master bedroom.
I’d always relished our conversations about novels we’d enjoyed, the current state of world affairs, and even news of his chemical research. He had a way of explaining things that made it easy to understand.
We also shared a passion for quirky historical facts.
“Hey, Stanley, did you know that Charles Dickens always faced to the north when sleeping?” I said to him, hoping to see some sort of familiar answering spark in his eyes. “That the first novel ever written on a typewriter was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Or that ketchup was sold in the 1830s as a medicine?” He used to tease me about my penchant for putting the tomato condiment on anything and everything.
He stared unblinking at the ceiling.
Never mind not recognizing me; it was as if he couldn’t hear me at all.
I sighed, remembering one time when the four of us had gone out to dinner, right before he retired. Stanley insisted on taking the bill when it came to the table because Joe and I had treated the time before. But then he took so long figuring out the tip that Ruth pulled out her own credit card. Stanley was furious at his wife, and it was an uncomfortable scene, to say the least. She’d excused the episode afterward by saying he’d been under a lot of stress at work.
Now I wondered if Stanley had retired because he’d had a premonition that something might be going wrong.
His thin fingers plucked restlessly at the sheet, and he turned to look at me.
“I know you.” His face crumpled and he started crying. “It’s your birthday, isn’t it? That’s why you’re here. And I forgot your birthday.”
“No, no, it’s not my birthday. It’s okay. Really.”
“Card. I should have bought you a card.”
I tried again to tell him it wasn’t my birthday, but he wouldn’t be consoled. In fact, the more I protested, the more agitated he became. Desperate, I looked around. There was a small writing desk near the window with a stack of expensive cream-colored writing paper.
A memory flashed into my head of making Mother’s Day cards with the elementary school children, cutting hearts out of paper doilies and decorating borders with snippets of lace, sequins, and buttons.
“Okay, you know what, Stanley? You’re right. It is my birthday. So let’s make a card. What should I put on it?”
But he lapsed into silence once more.
I hurried over to the desk, folded a piece of letterhead adorned with an embossed B in half, and selected a fountain pen from the marble cup. I knew he liked dogs, so I drew a stick figure of a dog that looked a bit like my golden retriever mix puppy. I added a bunch of flowers and wrote Happy Birthday inside.
I went back to the bed and sat next to him. “Look. Here it is. Do you want to give it to me now?”
I held it out, but he suddenly gripped my wrist so tightly that the paper fell from my fingers onto the stiff sheets.
“Help me, Daisy,” he said in a hoarse whisper, his eyes focused and very bright. “She’s trying to kill me!”
“What?” I sucked in a breath.
Soft footsteps sounded in the hallway, and Stanley slumped back against the pillows.
“Everything all right?” Ruth came back into the bedroom, worry etched across her beautiful face.
“Yes, fine,” I said, forcing a smile. “Stanley was just giving me my birthday card.”
For a second she frowned, and then she nodded in understanding.
I cleared my throat and gestured to the bedside table. “Um, I was wondering, Ruth. All those drugs. What do they do?”
She explained that some were to try to delay the progression of the disease as long as possible, some were for anxiety and depression, and some were sleep aids or antipsychotics.
I glanced over at Stanley for any kind of signal, but after his startling pronouncement, he was staring blankly at the ceiling again.
“Seems like an awful lot.” The sea of brown plastic bottles all looked exactly the same to me. “Must be hard to keep them straight.”
“That’s why I have a checklist.” Ruth sighed. “Jo Ellen’s a wonderful nurse, but she and I butt heads sometimes. She has her own way of doing things, and it’s not always the way I’ve instructed. Like signing off on giving him this medicine.”
A little while later, I got up to leave. If Stanley needed changing, I wanted to give them some privacy.
We walked downstairs, and when we got to the foyer, Ruth hovered in front of the door as I slipped on my coat. “Thank you for your kindness, Daisy. About the birthday card, I mean. It’s easier to go along with him than argue. It just gets him more upset.” She ran a hand across her forehead. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked you to come over here. I guess that selfishly I wanted you to see . . .”
I swallowed against a lump in my throat. “What you have to deal with every day? Oh, Ruth, it’s okay. And I’m so sorry.” I hugged her and she hugged me tightly in return, like she never wanted to let me go. I rubbed her back a little to comfort her, feeling the bones of her spine through the silk. “You can share anything you want with me. This must be such a huge burden.”
She nodded, but didn’t speak again.
When I left the main house and walked back down the driveway, snow was falling. Huge, feathery flakes that tickled my nose and brushed against my eyes. The carriage house was dark now, and my car was the only vehicle parked outside. Our photogenic detective must have made for a quick shoot, or maybe Roos wanted to hurry things along and get down to the Sheepville Pub for one last fling.
I turned and looked up at the main house and toward the master bedroom, where light still blazed from its windows.
What the heck was that all about? Should I take the wild statement of a delusional man seriously? Was someone really trying to kill him?
I couldn’t believe it.
I swiped the feathery dusting of snow off my windshield and tried to shrug off my unease as I slid into the cold driver’s seat.
* * *
The next morning, as I opened up Sometimes a Great Notion, I was still troubled.
My store was situated in a former Victorian residence a short distance down on Main Street from our house. Joe and our good friend Angus Backstead, the auctioneer, had made several improvements to the interior, including installing two display windows that jutted out onto the black-painted front porch. The former living room and parlor had been opened up into one space, but I’d kept the dining room intact for consultations with customers. There was a small kitchen and a powder room in the back.
I went through my usual routine of starting the coffee brewing and turning the stereo on, but instead of 1940s jazz, I slipped in a CD of Sinatra’s Christmas songs.
It was time to decorate the store for the holidays, too. I’d stockpiled some suitable merchandise and I clambered onto one of the wide windowsills. My work outfit consisted of a plain T-shirt and comfortable jeans, as I often had to lug boxes around or go up and down the stairs more times than I wanted to count. I’d twisted my hair up into a knot to hide the insidious gray roots that were creeping through the brown, applied some lip balm, and that was about as good as it got.
An antique wooden children’s sleigh would fit well in one corner, and I filled it with boxes that I’d wrapped with scraps of pretty vintage fabrics and decorated with old millinery trimmings, like rosettes and silk flowers. I put a tiny blue spruce tree potted in a red Transferware footed serving bowl in the middle of the window and a stack of hatboxes, each tied with some gold ribbon and a piece of white netting, in the opposite corner.
Refreshing the displays was usually one of my favorite things to do, but today my mind was still replaying the scene in Stanley Bornstein’s bedroom. He’d suddenly seemed so lucid, so intent on trying to get his message across. But what the heck should I do about it, if anything?
And which “she” had he been talking about?
I hated to entertain even a moment of doubt about Ruth. Not only had we been friends for years, but she was a pillar of Millbury society, always ready to help a needy cause.
Although if it was the nurse who had frightened him, why hadn’t Stanley confided in his wife?
I sighed and went over to the other window, where I created a mini dining tableau using a gorgeous Irish linen tablecloth and napkins, some mercury glass candlesticks, bundles of silver flatware tied with holly-patterned ribbon, and a set of six ruby wineglasses.
My store was mainly geared toward sewing notions and fabrics, but I allowed myself the leeway to pick up other interesting items at auction. Everything sold in the end.
A collection of vintage evening bags filled with tiny baubles, spools of thread, and mother-of-pearl buttons completed the festive design.
I’d just lit a couple of clove-scented candles and placed them on top of the Welsh dresser that held my antique linens when the doorbell jangled.
“Good God, it’s cold out there,” Martha said as she hurried in, with Eleanor close on her heels.
I nodded. “I think it’s going to be a hard winter.”
It was snowing out on the street, and a few flakes sparkled on Martha’s shoulder-length hair. She was wearing a voluminous crimson-colored wool jacket that made her look like an older, more imposing version of Little Red Riding Hood, and she was carrying a foil-covered plate. I wondered what deliciousness lay underneath.
Martha was a fabulous baker. She said it was her way of relaxing—to spend hours in her kitchen whipping up artistic treats—and she was a fearsome competitor at the local Bake-Offs. But because she didn’t need those tempting creations sitting around at home, she brought them in every day for my customers.
“That maniac Tony Z popped out with a sprig of mistletoe when we walked by,” Eleanor said. “He kissed me before I could stop him. On the mouth. Do you believe that?”
The Millbury barber had had a crush on Eleanor for years, but she’d never taken his pursuit seriously. Tony Zappata, or Tony Z as we called him, was certainly an ardent suitor. He’d gone so far as to get himself arrested by singing arias outside her bedroom window at night.
I smiled and poured coffee into three mugs. I added cream and three heaping spoonfuls of brown sugar to the first one and handed it to Martha.
“He’s persistent, I’ll give him that.” Martha nodded her thanks as she shivered and sipped her warm beverage.
“So is poison ivy, but that doesn’t mean you want it to stick around,” Eleanor snapped. She hadn’t bothered to wear a coat on her short trip across the street, and she swiped at the snowflakes dotting the sleeves of what looked suspiciously like an extra small men’s tailored black shirt.
Eleanor owned a store across from mine on Main Street called A Stitch Back in Time, where she restored and restyled vintage wedding gowns. She only worked when she felt like it, which wasn’t very often, but in some mysterious manner she always seemed to maintain an exceedingly comfortable lifestyle.
Enough to put gas in her red Vespa and chilled Beefeater in her martini glass, anyway.
“You two are rather late this morning,” I said. They were usually here on the dot of ten, when I unlocked the door to Sometimes a Great Notion.
“We were trying on the dress again.” Eleanor made quote marks in the air with her fingers.
Martha and Cyril were planning to attend the Give a Buck Charity Ball in December, which raised money for wildlife rescue in Bucks County and the surrounding areas. I’d been hearing about this ball gown for months. Eleanor had agreed to alter it, and as far as I could calculate, this must be the sixth fitting.
“Those seams are at their absolute limit, and I’m not going to take them out one more time,” Eleanor declared. “It’s getting ridiculous.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
I slid a mug of black, unsweetened coffee down the counter toward Eleanor, and she sucked down half of the contents in one gulp.
“I can’t help it,” Martha finally said with a sigh. “You know how I eat when I’m under inordinate stress. I wish I was one of those people who waste away because of their troubles, but anxiety has the opposite effect on me. It just makes me feel like consuming everything in sight.”
As loyal a friend as I wanted to be, even I had to secretly admit that Martha’s normally voluptuous figure had ballooned a bit over the past months.
I quickly took the plate of treats out of her hands. “Well, what the heck are you so stressed about?”
She blew out another sigh that was so full of exasperation, angst, and high tension that she could have taught a master drama class at the Sheepville Players. “It’s Cyril. My dear Cyril. I keep hoping the man will propose, but he never does.”
“Marriage is a fine institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” Eleanor said. “Sorry. Old joke.”
Martha ignored her and spoke directly to me. “Each time I think the perfect opportunity arises, I hold my breath, but nothing ever happens. I’m beginning to think he never will.”
“Sure he will,” I said, mentally crossing my fingers. “He’s just taking his time working up to it. He’s not the kind of guy who can be rushed.”
Cyril Mackey was a difficult character, but he really did care for Martha. A couple of months ago he’d shown me the weather vane he was planning on giving her for Christmas. He’d spent hours and hours on careful restoration, and the result was spectacular. You didn’t do all that work for someone you didn’t love. Plus it proved he was capable of long-term planning for the relationship.
But I didn’t think Cyril was the type of man who would want to be asked for his hand in marriage, so I prayed he popped the question before Martha’s impatience got the better of her.
“You realize if you married him that it would make you Martha Mackey, don’t you?” Eleanor snickered as she peeled back the foil and snatched a handful from the mountain of spice cookies.
“Those are supposed to be for Daisy’s customers.” Martha glared at her. “And don’t be absurd. I’ll still be Martha Bristol.”
I could sympathize. I’d kept my maiden name for that very reason, not relishing the prospect of going through life as Daisy Daly.
“Let’s hope to God that he musters up the courage before Christmas,” Eleanor whispered in my ear.
Martha had wandered over to the children’s section of the store. She selected a vintage lunch box and brought it to the counter. She placed a linen napkin on the bottom of the box, piled the rest of the cookies on top and was about to pop one in her mouth when she turned to see Eleanor and me watching her.
She blew out a long breath. “Okay, okay, you’re right. That’s it. I’m going to put myself on a strict diet between now and December fourth. No more treats for me.”
She handed the cookie to me. I handed it to Eleanor.
“Or there’ll be hell to pay.” Eleanor took a big bite and chewed with relish. She ate like a teenage boy after football practice, drank like a dehydrated rugby player, and never gained an ounce on her slim frame.
I decided to change the subject. Quickly. “So. Did you guys enjoy the rest of the show?”
“We didn’t watch any more.” Eleanor’s expression turned glum. “You made us feel too guilty. Ruined the whole thing.”
I smiled and set some fresh bay leaves and eucalyptus on the counter. I gathered together bunches of the aromatic greens to make a wreath.
“You know, it’s been quite a week so far,” Martha said. “Starting with the cute little barber. Even though he was the first to take his clothes off, you didn’t have to ask him twice.”
“The man’s an exhibitionist.” Eleanor sniffed.
“I must say, I’d never realized how well-built he was,” Martha continued. “I mean, he’s short and everything, but very nice-looking. Especially with his clothes off.”
“I suppose.” Suddenly Eleanor brightened. “Hey, remember when Angus mooned us?”
“Ew, yes!” I said. Our irrepressible auctioneer had loved every second of his fifteen minutes of fame.
The door banged open, and Alex Roos strode in. He wore a long black trench coat, black leather pants, and a bright aqua-colored V-neck shirt, together with a lemon-and-blue scarf tossed around his neck.
“My mains!” he said to us, flinging his arms wide. “How’s tricks?”
Martha looked at me and shrugged one plump shoulder. She’d told me once she couldn’t understand half of Roos’s West Coast expressions. To Martha, it was like he was speaking another language.
“Did you get what you needed last night?” Eleanor asked, and then she smirked. “With Serrano, I mean.”
“Oh yeah, awesome. He’s a cool dude.”
“And do you need any help with the shoot today?” She didn’t sound as enthusiastic as she had for the night before.
Roos winked at her. He was such a raging flirt, it seemed that he couldn’t help himself, no matter what the age of the female. “Nah, we’re not shooting at the studio. We’re going to an undisclosed location, but if I told you where, I’d have to kill you. My man Cyril is all about his privacy.”
Martha planted her hands on her ample hips. “Oh for God’s sake, he’s making such a fuss about one dinky little photo.”
Roos chuckled and glanced around the store. “Daisy, this place is epic, man.”
“Thanks. Come take a look at this.” I showed him the box in the back that Joe kept filled with an interesting mix of odds and ends for any male customers that happened to visit. I’d taken an old MAIL sign, crossed it out, and written MALE. Everything was priced at five dollars.
He sorted through eagerly and held up one of the vintage cameras.
Excerpted from "Lie of the Needle"
Copyright © 2015 Cate Price.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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