Hat designer Missy DuBois caters to the sophisticated Southern bride at her hat shop, Crowning Glory, on Louisiana's Great River Road. Hired to craft a veil for a socialite getting married at Morningside Plantation means Missy can bask in the height of antebellum atmosphere. But when the bride is found dead in a women's bathroom, Missy finds herself entangled in one unceremonious murder.
The list of suspects includes a gaggle of bridesmaids shedding nary a tear and a family with no shortage of enemies. It seems anyone at the mansion may have done away with the bride-to-be. While Missy has Southern charm to spare, she's going to need more than manners and a manicure to put a hat pin on this murderous affair.
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Murder at Morningside
A Missy DuBois Mystery
By Sandra Bretting
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Sandra Bretting
All rights reserved.
Time rewound with each footfall as I began to climb the grand outer staircase at Morningside Plantation. The limestone steps, burdened with the history of five generations, heaved their way toward heaven.
At the top lay a wide-plank veranda supported by columns painted pure white, like the clouds. By the time I took a third step, the digital camera in my right hand began to dissolve into the sterling-silver handle of a lady's parasol. The visitors' guide in my left hand magically transformed into a ballroom dance card bound by a satin cord.
Another step and the Mississippi River came into view as it flowed to the Gulf, languid as a waltz and the color of sweet tea. Could that be a whistle from a steamboat ferrying passengers past the plantation? If so, a turn and a wave wouldn't be out of the question once I reached the top of the stairs, and good manners would dictate it.
I was about to do that when I realized the whistle was only my friend's cell and not a Mississippi riverboat. "Ambrose! Turn that thing off. Honestly."
"Sorry." He shrugged. "I always forget you were Scarlett O'Hara in a past life."
The mood was broken, though, and the sterling silver in my hand returned to plastic, while the linen dance card hardened to a glossy brochure. Ambrose patiently waited while I finished climbing the stairs.
Whenever we're out and about somewhere new, my best friend likes to go all out. Today he wore a striped bow tie and seersucker jacket from Brooks Brothers. Never let it be said Southern men didn't know how to dress. Of course, as a wedding-gown designer, he had more fashion sense than most, and his favorite motto was one could never be too rich or too fabulous, even though we both had more fabulous than money at this point.
"It's almost time for the tour," Ambrose said.
I wasn't ready to release the fantasy, though. "Isn't it magnificent?" The veranda wound around the entire first floor, broad enough for a dozen wooden rocking chairs, most of which faced east. Black storm shutters framed the windows, like dark lapels on a white dinner jacket, and they matched an enormous front door with beveled glass. Suddenly the door swung open, as if to welcome its lost owners home.
"Welcome to Morningside Plantation." A girl, probably a coed at nearby Louisiana State, appeared. "My name's Beatrice, and I'll be leading the four-thirty tour." Her pleated skirt and starched collar were almost enough to make me cry with happiness, though I refrained. "Looks like you're my only guests today. Feel free to pretend you're staying here in the spring of eighteen hundred and fifty-five. By the way, I love your hat. Blue is my favorite color."
It was lapis, but no need to nitpick. Obviously she had a good head on her shoulders. "Thank you. I made it."
The girl ushered us through the foyer and into a glittery ballroom. Every curtain, the ceiling and the floors, not one but two fireplace mantels, all of it had been gilded to within an inch of its life. A parade of professional-looking wedding portraits marched along the mantels.
"May I have your tour tickets, please?" Beatrice asked.
"I was told the tour was included with our reservation." Not that I wanted to speak for Ambrose, but I'd been the one to book our stay at the plantation. As soon as the bride asked him to design a custom gown and then turned around and asked me to create a one-of-a-kind veil, I called up to reserve our rooms for the weekend.
"You're staying at the plantation?" Beatrice waved her hand. "Then you're right. It's all included." She drew closer, as if she wanted to share an important secret with me. "After the tour, I hope you'll peek around. There are nooks and crannies everywhere. Some people even say the mansion's haunted." She smiled slyly before resuming her tour-guide pose. "This ballroom was painted pure gold on the orders of Horace Andrews. Even though the Victorians loved their color, he didn't want a bunch of bright colors to distract from his daughters' beauty."
I must have looked a tad incredulous, because she rushed on. "That's what they say, anyway."
"Is that the lady of the house?" I pointed to an oil painting above one of the mantels, which showed a gloved woman in a silk bodice who looked to be about my age. Or, as I liked to say, on the north side of thirty. She even had the same auburn hair and emerald eyes.
"Yes, that's Mrs. Andrews. She had twelve children before she died."
Before Beatrice could say more, the front door flew open and in stomped an elderly gentleman. He was on the verge of a good, old-fashioned hissy fit.
"Y'all don't deserve a say in this wedding!" he said to a young woman who'd slunk in behind him.
The girl looked to be the right age for his daughter. She wore flip-flops and a wrinkled peasant blouse, and she buried her head in her hands. Well, that lifted the blouse an inch or two and exposed her bare stomach.
Lorda mercy. It seemed the girl and her fiancé must have eaten supper before they said grace, as we said here in the South, because an unmistakable bump appeared under her top. She looked to be about four months along, give or take a few weeks, and I could see why her daddy wasn't too happy with her right about now.
After a piece, she lifted her chin and glared at him. "I hate you!" Her voice rippled as cold as the river water that ran nearby. "I wish you were dead." She stalked away.
I fully expected the man to cringe, or at least follow her. Instead, he merely glanced our way and shrugged. After a minute, he pivoted on the spectacle he'd caused and casually strolled away, leaving a bit of frost in the air.
"Oh, my. Why don't we continue?" Beatrice said.
Poor Beatrice. She obviously wanted to divert our attention elsewhere. It couldn't have been every day one of her hotel guests wished another guest was dead. She hustled us farther into the ballroom, as if nothing had happened, all the while explaining the history of Morningside Plantation.
Turned out one of the grandest plantations in the South almost didn't make it through the Civil War. If it hadn't been for some Union soldiers who couldn't bear to see it destroyed, the mansion might have been shelled like its neighbors. All I could think of was hallelujah for chivalry and those cavalrymen's romantic natures.
"As I mentioned, the Andrewses had twelve children. One of them, Jeremiah, died in the war. Some of the maids swear they've seen a soldier patrolling the halls after dark."
Now, I've read my share of stories about ghosts — mostly in the National Enquirer at the Food Faire — but they always haunted musty graveyards or neglected attics and not elegant ballrooms painted pure gold. "But this place is much too pretty to be haunted."
"The house used to be a plantation with a bunkhouse for slaves. Think about it ... there are probably hundreds of restless spirits here."
First deceased Confederate soldiers and now wandering ghosts. It was all becoming a bit much. "We'll be sure and let you know if we have any visitors tonight. Won't we, Ambrose?"
Before my friend could reenter the conversation, though, someone else's cell rang.
"I'm sorry." Beatrice reached into a pocket and pulled hers out. "Looks like it's the front desk. Do you mind if I let you explore this room on your own for a few minutes? It's not what we usually do, but this shouldn't take long."
I covered my joy with a quick nod. "Of course not. We don't mind at all. Take your time. We'll be fine until you get back."
She hustled away and quietly shut the door behind her.
Gracious light! If she believes we'll actually stay in one place, she is one brick shy of a load.
I quickly grabbed hold of Ambrose's arm. "C'mon, Bo. Follow me." I counted to three and then opened the door and stepped into the hall. Ever since we'd walked through the front door, there was one other room I'd been dying to see. It'd called to me from the foyer. Only, I couldn't do much more than peek at it through the doorway until now. The coast was clear. I tiptoed down the hall with Ambrose in tow, until it appeared.
The dining room. Dripping in yellow paint with matching curtains, it looked like a pat of melted butter. A gleaming mahogany table had been set for fourteen with bone china, crystal stemware, and delicate bowls for washing one's fingers. Had a room ever looked so magnificent?
I pulled a mahogany chair away from the table and delicately perched on its silk cushion.
"Missy!" Ambrose frowned at me, though he probably wished he'd thought of it first.
"I'm not hurting anything." Lord knows the chair had lasted more than a hundred and fifty years, and it surely would last another hundred or so whether I enjoyed it or not. It was meant to be sat on. But much as I hated to admit it, the carved chair-back did not feel good against my spine, and I rose again. "You wouldn't like it. Hard as nails."
I moved past the offending chair to a pair of windows. With elaborate gilt cornices and silk tassel tiebacks, they looked like something from an old-fashioned movie theater. Couldn't help but notice the picture-perfect May weather outside. Almost nice enough to compete with the gorgeousness inside.
I was about to mention it to Ambrose when something caught my ear. A low voice, quick with anger, its fierceness surprising. Whatever could someone possibly find to argue about in such a glorious place? The curtain sheers lifted easily enough and there was Beatrice, with her back to an azalea bush and her cell to her ear.
"I told you no." For someone who was supposedly dealing with the front desk, she sounded awfully mad. "Don't call me until after the wedding. You know what you have to do."
Ambrose quickly joined me by the window. "Well, well. What have we here?"
"Sounds like this place has more drama than wandering ghosts." All I could think of was hallelujah ... and pass the finger food.CHAPTER 2
A warm glow prodded me awake the next morning as sunshine seeped through the curtain sheers in my room. What a fantastic way to be wakened, watching everything lighten from rose to cotton candy to baby-girl pink, with nothing better to do than sit back and enjoy the show.
Time for my wake-up call to Ambrose. Normally he was up long before I was, and he'd have finished the Times-Picayune by the time I called. The scenery must have slowed him down, though, because he didn't answer when I dialed his room, or maybe he'd already left for the morning. Either way, I gave up after five rings.
I gathered my things and walked into the bathroom. A claw-footed bathtub sat next to a marble double sink. Once I figured out how to use the bath's handheld sprayer, after spritzing the sink, I came to like it. Easier to wash shampoo from my long hair and twice as quick.
Someone knocked on the door to my room as I stepped out of the tub.
"Hey, Missy. You up yet?" It was Ambrose, of course.
"Give me a minute," I yelled. Guess he'd had time for the paper and a morning stroll. Luckily for him, I can put on my face and fix my hair in fifteen minutes flat. I grabbed a towel and stepped into the bedroom. "Do you mind if we walk around a bit before breakfast?" I asked, as I towel-dried my hair. There was a good chance he might say no. He'd already been out and about, and Ambrose wasn't charitable about much else getting in the way when it came to his stomach.
"Would you like that? Well then, that's what we'll do."
It warmed my heart he could put my happiness above his appetite. "You're the best!"
We walked down the hall a short while later. Ambrose had convinced me the night before to wear my mint-green shorts that matched his, so we looked like two juleps walking down the hall. That was the wonderful thing about having a fashion designer for a best friend. Tons of fashion advice worth its weight in gold lamé.
No sooner had we walked down the stairs and reached the landing when someone rushed past.
"Lorda mercy!" I said.
The girl stopped and turned, her face flushed to high heavens. "I'm so sorry. Excuse me."
It was Beatrice, our tour guide from the day before, wearing a felt hat called a cloche from the Roaring Twenties and a beaded dress to match. Whatever could Beatrice be doing running around the hall looking like an old-time flapper?
"Beatrice, is that you?"
She finally slowed and took a deep breath. "Yes. Sorry if I startled you. I'm very late."
I tried not to stare, but her hat was terribly intriguing. Lace embellished the felt and a petersham ribbon decorated its side. The milliner had done a bang-up job of balancing the ribbon against the angle of the brim, something I knew a thing or two about.
So many people took a fancy to the hats I whipped up for Derby parties and whatnot while I was a student at Vanderbilt that I decided to open a hat shop right here on the Great River Road. And not just any hats. My specialty was designing custom veils and fascinators for brides, who were a sight more difficult to manage than your average customer. Bless their hearts. Part of me always wished I'd majored in psychology at Vanderbilt and not fashion design.
After a few years in Tennessee, I shipped my grandma's chifforobe to Bleu Bayou and scouted for a storefront. Before long, Crowning Glory opened next door to Ambrose's Allure Couture, and the rest, as they say, was history.
"Are you giving another tour?" I asked.
"It's not a tour." Beatrice laid her hand against her heart. "I need to open the tearoom for our hat competition. Those ladies don't like to be kept waiting."
Glory be! I'd stumbled upon a hatbox full of potential clients. The good Lord did work in mysterious ways. "You don't say."
Of course, sometimes a hotel placed a limit on the number of people who could participate, so I could be setting myself up for a big dose of disappointment. "I don't suppose you have room for one more, do you?"
"I'll have to check. We stopped taking reservations yesterday, and I'm not sure how many the front desk got. All I know is I'd better be done with the tearoom by eleven or I'll be in big trouble." Her eyes narrowed a smidge. "I'm not even supposed to be here today."
"Then why are you working?"
"I need the money. You know how it is."
I gave a heavy sigh. "Do I ever. On the plus side, that hat of yours is amazing." And that was the God-honest truth. The black felt didn't look out of place, even in daylight, and it suited her dark hair and almond-colored eyes. Of course, the milliner did pick out the easiest fabric to work with when she chose felt, which was ten times easier to block than straw or fabric, but I couldn't fault her for that.
"Thank you." Her frown disappeared. "I guess the wedding this weekend has me flustered. Everything has to be perfect."
"Are you a friend of the bride?" Ambrose asked.
"I wouldn't say that." In fact, she didn't seem to want to say much more, because her eyes darted past us as if looking for a way out of the conversation.
"Then you must be a friend of the groom," I said.
"It's complicated. Let's just say I don't think there should be a wedding. I've got to go now or I'll be really late. Mr. Solomon told me to be done with the room by eleven." She turned away and hustled past us as quick as anything.
"Did that seem strange to you?" Ambrose asked, once she disappeared.
"Sounds like she doesn't agree with the wedding." Or the bride. "Though I can't imagine why." At least we had complimented her hat. "C'mon, Bo. Let's get some eggs in you before you faint." We headed for the restaurant, which was located at the south end of the property.
After a few minutes, Ambrose reached for my arm. "Wait a minute. You know you should go to the hat competition. There's no telling how many new customers you could get."
Sweet of him to say, what with his empty stomach and all. "Of course, you're right. It would be fun to look around." I'd entered a few hat contests in my day, and both times I'd won the grand prize and a handful of new clients. "Do you think I have time?"
"You won't know until you try. I'll check with the front desk while you go and get fixed up. How about that lapis one you wore yesterday?"
Only my Bo would know the difference between lapis and plain ol' blue. "I brought even nicer ones." In fact, my parabuntal straw would be perfect. And it matched my spring shift with wildflowers that bloomed across the front. "You sure you don't mind?"
"Not at all. You hop upstairs, and I'll go put you on the list."
Excerpted from Murder at Morningside by Sandra Bretting. Copyright © 2016 Sandra Bretting. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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