Leslee Stanton Nix—aka “Nixy”—thought moving to small-town Lilyvale, Arkansas, would be about as thrilling as watching paint dry. But keeping up with her retired Aunt Sherry and her troublemaking housemates—collectively known as the Silver Six—has proven to be as exciting as it is exasperating.
To kick off the grand opening of their craft shop, the Handcraft Emporium, Nixy and the Silver Six invite Doralee Gordon to teach a gourd painting class. Doralee’s spirit gets squashed when her ex-husband crashes the class with his new fiancée, but things really get messy when the bride-to-be later turns up dead. Now it’s up to Nixy and the Silver Six to use their melons to find the killer—before someone else gets painted out of the picture...
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"Nixy! Nixy, child, we're waiting for you."
"On my way," I yelled down the stairs from my apartment.
I paused long enough to eye myself in the large oval mirror in the small entryway. Yep, I'd applied mascara to both sets of lashes. That should've been a given, but I'd been known to miss a set. Especially since I'd gone makeup-free for the past month. No point in primping when I'd spent my waking hours sanding, staining, and sealing nearly every surface of this old building. I'd even learned to wield a power sprayer to paint the twelve-foot-high walls and ceilings, and exposed ductwork. We'd installed three new fire-rated entry-exit doors, two roll-up service doors, and security cameras and alarms. We'd also made improvements to the kitchenette and bathroom in back of the store proper. Now the place shone, and we were ready for our grand opening.
By the way, I'm Leslee Stanton Nix, known to pretty much everyone as Nixy. The "we" who were waiting for me were my Aunt Sherry Mae Stanton Cutler and her five housemates, collectively known as the Silver Six. They lived together in Sherry's farmhouse and were closer than blood family. The Six were in their late sixties and early seventies, but they'd worked every bit as hard and long as I had to renovate the twenty-seven-hundred-square-foot building that housed my apartment, the storefront, and the workroom. They were every bit as invested in the success of our new folk art and crafts gallery as I was. Oops. Not a gallery. The Six thought "gallery" sounded too highfalutin, aka expensive, for Lilyvale. We'd settled on naming our enterprise The Handcraft Emporium.
"Nixy! Doralee will be here in twenty minutes!"
I clambered down the interior staircase leading to the building's back room. This space was as wide as a three-car garage, though not as deep, and it served as Fix-It Fred's workshop. However, we'd decided to use it as an arts and crafts classroom as needed. This evening it was needed for our Gorgeous Gourds class.
Fred scowled at me. "You know you sounded like a thundering herd trompin' down them stairs, don't you, missy?"
"Thundering herd?" I echoed, grinning.
"You laugh, but steep as those steps are, you're gonna fall and break a bone someday when nobody's here to help you."
"Point taken, Fred. I'll slow down."
"Nixy, child, how do we look?" asked Sherry.
I realized the Six stood in a line, as if for inspection as our former U.S. Navy nurse Maise Holcomb-who stood beside the others with her shoulders proudly thrown back and her eyes front-would say. We'd decided on a kind of uniform for the store, and so had ordered both short-sleeved forest green polo shirts and aprons in the same color, each with Handcraft Emporium embroidered in white above the left breast. Tonight Dab, Maise, Fred, and I wore the shirts while Sherry, Aster, and Eleanor wore the aprons. Most of us paired the emporium wear with blue jeans and tennis shoes. Dapper Dab-Dwight Aloysius Baxter, to be precise-and Fix-It Fred Fishner had donned their typical gear with their shirts. For Dab, polyester pants and loafers, and overalls for Fred.
Elegant Eleanor Wainwright was the exception to casual. A beautiful black woman with an ageless complexion, her style ran to timeless, tailored outfits, much dressier than the rest of us usually wore. Tonight she'd paired blue linen slacks, a matching blouse, and low-heeled pumps with the emporium apron, and still looked like she belonged in a fashion magazine. I imagined she'd wear only the apron. Never the polo shirt. And that was fine by me.
In fact, to borrow a Fred-phrase, I'd bet my last nuts and bolts the shirts and aprons would fall by the wayside sooner than later. Probably even mine, but the Silver Six were rocking them tonight.
I smiled at them in turn. "Y'all look fantastic, but are you comfortable?"
"I am," Dab said.
"I do believe the aprons and shirts turned out quite well," Eleanor declared.
Aunt Sherry ran her hand down the front of her apron. "These are wonderfully soft, too."
"I'm so glad we went with the hemp fabric," Aster Parsons added. Aster was Maise's sister, our throwback hippie, and all-things-herbal expert. She carried lavender oil mixed with water, and sprayed at will. "Hemp is sustainable, you know."
"We know, and this color will hide dirt and dust smudges," Maise said.
"Considering how thoroughly y'all have cleaned, I don't think we'll get too dirty," I soothed. "Does the shirt work for you, Fred?"
"I ain't used to working with a collar around my neck, but it's okay."
Fix-It Fred was a walking hardware store in bib overalls. Tonight's dark denim pair partly covered the embroidery on the polo shirt, but he did look spiffy. The many tools he stuck into each of his dozen pockets stood soldier straight.
Maise clapped her hands. "Time's ticking. Is everything shipshape for the class?"
I looked over the room setup. Two four-foot folding tables were in place for Doralee Gordon, the gourd class instructor. She'd face the wall separating the workroom from the store. Two similar tables held refreshments at the back of the room. Four eight-foot solid wood tables, which Fred used for workbenches, were positioned in a semicircle to give all the students a good view of Doralee. The arrangement accommodated sixteen students, four per table, a roll of paper towels at each place.
We'd scrounged a variety of barstools to use for classes, and duct-taped green plastic dollar store tablecloths to catch paint spills. Fred's table surfaces were pretty much beyond harm, but Eleanor had insisted that the tablecloths gave them a clean, unmarred, less well-worn look.
"It's perfect, Maise. We only have eleven paid students, including you, Sherry, and Fred, but this gives us room for walk-ins." If we had any. I hoped we would.
Sherry patted my arm. "Even eleven is a good turnout for our first guest instructor. It will take time to build a following. Besides, it's June. People are taking vacations."
"I hadn't thought of that."
"Chin up, child. It's all good."
I blinked at Sherry's use of slang, then blinked again as all the seniors but Fred headed through the door into the emporium proper.
"Where are y'all going?"
Sherry gave me a wave. "I told Doralee to park out back, but we'll be mingling in the store, where I can watch for her in case she forgets."
"And we're still training Jasmine," Maise tossed over her shoulder as she and Aster scooted out. "We'll send her back to help Doralee unload."
Eleanor followed. "I do believe that girl is a splendid addition to the business. She'll bring in the younger crowd."
"Maise assigned me to pass out name tags as the students arrive," Dab said as he strode out, his pants riding on his bony hips.
When the door closed behind the exodus, I chuckled, knowing that their true mission was to fuss over and rearrange their individual art displays.
I cocked a brow at Fred. "You're not going out front?"
"Nope, out back. Got all my tools and projects locked up," he said, gesturing at the wall of richly patinated pine cabinets, some open-shelved, some with doors and padlocks. "I told Ida Bollings to park in the lot out there, so I'll go keep a lookout for her."
"You're seeing Ida, Fred?"
He winked. "What can I say? I got a weakness for dames with hot wheels."
"Wheels as in her big blue Buick or that new walker she's sporting?"
"Both. Besides, she's bringing her famous pear bread."
With that he clanked-clunked his walker, loaded tool belt fastened to the front of it, out the new door that led to the alley and the parking lot just beyond it. I didn't know how much Fred needed the walker to steady his steps versus how much he simply wanted to keep all his tools near to hand. I did know he lifted the walker more than he scooted it. He'd developed the arm muscles of a weightlifter to show for it. And it tickled me that he had a thing for Pear Bread Lady Ida.
When the door closed behind Fred with a solid thunk, I noticed I'd left the nearby door that led up to my apartment open. I crossed to shut it, then turned to gaze around the room. I took a deep breath, basking in the quiet for a moment.
The last month had been exhausting, and the next week would be another whirlwind. Thank goodness Jasmine Young was doing a work-study program through the Business and Marketing Department at the technical college, and had chosen to do it with us. With skin the color of rich chocolate, she was enthusiastic about crafts and eager to learn the business, and all for minuscule pay, store discounts, and free classes if she wanted to take them. Since she had opted to take tonight's class from six thirty to eight thirty, Dab, Eleanor, and Aster would man the store.
Doralee Gordon should be here any old time now. I sure hoped she'd bring all the supplies she'd need. She'd seemed well organized when I confirmed the class details by phone, and what I'd seen of her art pieces lived up to her business's name: Hello, Gourdgeous. But if she'd forgotten anything key to teaching the class, we'd have a roomful of unhappy students.
Tomorrow we'd celebrate the first day of our grand opening and host a week of prize drawings, demonstrations, and discounts that we hoped would bring in buyers as well as lookers. Since three of the Silver Six, including Aunt Sherry, were folk artists themselves, they knew hundreds of other folk artists and craftspeople in our little part of southwest Arkansas and all over the state. A gratifying number of those artists had agreed to have their work sold in the emporium. In fact, we'd had such an overwhelming response, the store was well past full and verging toward cluttered territory.
Okay, so maybe only I found the space cluttered. I'd worked in a Houston fine art gallery where we carefully balanced featured pieces with negative, blank space, so being in the stuffed emporium made me feel claustrophobic early on. Now I was getting used to the shelves and display tables cheerily overflowing, Sherry's baskets hanging from the ceiling, quilts bursting with color hanging on racks, and several dress forms crowding the floor in a quirky formation. We even arranged some of the crafts on lipped benches out on the sidewalk. I'd worried about thefts, but Sherry had assured me the goods would be safe. And Aster spritzed me with her infamous lavender water to calm me. An outside security camera would've been more practical than lavender, but we'd had three installed inside. One provided a partial view of the sidewalk, which would have to do for now.
Still, with the crowded condition in the store, and artists counting on sales to boost their incomes, I sure hoped we sold a lot of merchandise during the grand opening. We needed to launch the store on Friday and Saturday with a super big bang because we'd be closed on Sunday. That's the day Sherry Mae had decided to rededicate the Stanton family cemetery. Aster had already smudged the graveyard to clear negativity by burning sage, cedar, lavender, and something else I couldn't recall now. Sherry, though, had wanted a formal blessing, and had sweet-talked her Episcopal priest into doing the honors. She'd also insisted on holding an outdoor reception following the short ceremony. Her farmhouse sat on half a city block, so she'd invited the whole town to attend.
I hoped for a much smaller turnout. I still shuddered, remembering why we were blessing the cemetery at all, and I didn't want to spend the afternoon rehashing those events of just eight weeks ago.
I glanced at the oversized wall clock hung near the stairway to my loft apartment. Dang, where was Doralee? I'd barely finished the thought when Jasmine flew through the store door wearing her emporium T-shirt and nearly bouncing with excitement.
"She's here, Miss Nixy. Just pulling around back."
ÒGood to meet you, Nixy, Jasmine,Ó Doralee said with a firm handshake when we met at her SUV. ÒThis is my gentleman friend, Zach Dalton.Ó
"Nice to meet you both," he said, meeting my gaze, then Jasmine's, his voice on the soft-spoken side, but pleasing.
"I hope you don't mind me bringing him to the class," Doralee continued. "He's going to act as my assistant, and then we're making a weekend of it in Lilyvale."
"Are you staying at the Inn on the Square?" I asked as her gentleman went to the back of the car to begin unloading. Jasmine joined him.
"Yes. We haven't checked in yet, but I understand we don't have to. Not in the usual way, I mean."
"You're right." I knew Clark and Lorna Tyler, the owners of the Lilies Caf and Inn on the Square, so I knew the drill. "Just enter the code Lorna e-mailed you at the alley door and go up the stairs. A small jog to the left, and you'll be in the hall. Your name will be on the door of your room and the key will be inside."
"Good to know, thanks. I'd better help unload."
I followed, and took the handle of one rolling bin while Jasmine took the second one. Zach carried the large box of gourds. The box was awkward, but not heavy, Doralee said.
"Even a box of large gourds is fairly lightweight."
Sherry had told me Doralee Gordon was fifty-five, but her chin-length golden brown hair and her cheerful smile made her look younger. Zach was probably in his early to mid-fifties, too. Trim and handsome, he dressed as country-casual as Doralee, and had kind hazel eyes almost the same color as hers. As he helped us arrange class materials on the tables, he worked quietly, but was quick to smile. He exuded a Zen-like calm that balanced Doralee's high-energy chatter.
When all the bottles of paint, the brushes, and handouts were set on the tables, Doralee greeted not only Sherry and the gang, but also the students as they came in. We'd made stick-on name tags printed in large block letters so the students wouldn't be anonymous faces. Doralee took advantage of our efforts and began to call people by name.
The class filed into the workroom, friends chatting with each other. I'd been a bit surprised when Maise, Sherry, and Fred had opted to take the class. I hadn't wanted them to pay at all, but when they protested the freebie, I insisted on giving them a discount rate. I was curious and a bit concerned about Sherry wanting to learn gourd art. She'd always crafted baskets. Perhaps she wanted to branch out or away from her basket weaving due to the macular degeneration, but I hadn't asked for her reasons. I did notice she'd let her hair fall over her left eye, and with her bangs blocking that eye, she could focus better using her right one.