Everyone in Sweet Briar, South Carolina, knows former high school football stars Jake Davis and Noah Madden. The two were fierce rivals once and now, twenty years later, the dueling quarterbacks haven’t lost their luster. So townsfolk are surprised when Jake and Noah team up for a business venture. And there’s only one suspect when Noah turns up murdered.
Margaret Louise, Jake’s mother and one of the founding members of the sewing circle, isn’t about to take the attack on her son’s reputation lying down. In fact, she’s in full mama-bear mode. And Tori and the rest of the Sweet Briar gang are more than willing to help her sharpen her claws to catch a killer.
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Wentworth Tucking her tote bag beside her feet, Tori Sinclair glanced over at the sixtysomething woman beaming at her from behind the sun-faded steering wheel.
"I really appreciate the ride, Margaret Louise." Tori reached up, grabbed hold of the seat belt, and fastened it across her lap and shoulder. "Saves Milo the hassle of having to drop everything just to pick me up."
Peeking into the rearview mirror, Margaret Louise Davis yanked the station wagon to the left and pressed down on the gas. Hard. If she noticed the way the back of Tori's head smacked against the headrest, she didn't let on. Instead, she turned left out of the parking lot, her smile widening with each additional number gained on the speedometer. "I don't think there's anything that sweet husband of yours wouldn't drop for you, Victoria."
"And knowing Milo, you're probably right. But he's already doing me a huge favor. On his Saturday, no less." Tori tried not to grimace as they sped around the corner. "I just hope whatever is wrong with my car isn't anything too expensive. I kind of went a little crazy on our trip to Heavenly, Pennsylvania, last month, you know?"
At the end of Main Street, Margaret Louise turned right and then left at the next four-way stop. "Bring it to Jake. There ain't nothin' he can't fix."
"But he has a business to run and I don't want to take advantage." And she didn't. Just because Jake was Margaret Louise's son didn't mean he should have to drop everything to work on her car.
Margaret Louise waved Tori's protest aside as if it were a pesky gnat. "I love you. Melissa loves you. And all eight of my grandbabies love you. That right there is why Jake would move your car to the front of the heap. Well, that and the fact he's just the sweetest, most wonderful son a mama can ask for. Been that way since the day he was born. No fussin' and no troublemakin'. Ever."
"Spoken like a proud mama."
"There ain't no prouder, Victoria." At the next stop sign, Margaret Louise stayed on the brake. "Victoria? Would you mind if we stop out at the garage before I bring you home? All this talk about my boy is makin' me want to give him a hug."
She felt the smile as it raced across her face. "Hugs are good."
"Woo-ee." Margaret Louise looked both ways and then found the gas pedal with a heavy foot. "Wait 'til you see his place, Victoria. Jake calls it state-of-the-art. I call it fancy-real fancy."
There was no denying the way Margaret Louise's natural enthusiasm for life bubbled over the moment the subject of her son, his wife, or their eight children came up. Even if the woman didn't utter a word, the love she had for them was as tangible as the polyester warm-up suit covering her plump form.
Tori swung her attention off the road in front of them and back onto her friend. "So the renovations are done?"
"Yes siree, Victoria. And it sure looks mighty purty out there now."
"And the partnership with Noah is working out okay?" Tori asked.
It was quick. And it was fleeting. But there was no missing the way Margaret Louise's smile faltered in response.
Again, Margaret Louise waved at the air with her hand, only this time it was a tad bit less emphatic. "Don't mind me, Victoria. I'm just a mama bear with a memory that won't quit. But I'm workin' on it. For Jake's sake."
"I know I wasn't living in Sweet Briar when Jake was in high school, but I also know that was a long time ago. Surely an old football rivalry is long dead and buried." Though, even as the words left her lips, Tori knew she was speaking from a place of ignorance. Sweet Briar was a small town. A small southern town, for that matter. Ninety-five percent of the residents had been born there, as had their fathers and mothers before them. It was a dynamic she found both endearing and, at times, a little disconcerting, too.
Sure enough, Margaret Louise stiffened in her seat, her gaze firmly fixed on the road. "You might think that, Victoria. But defeat don't always go down easy. Especially when it was suffered in front of friends and family the way Noah's and Noah's mama's and daddy's was. Memories like that don't just fade away."
"Eighteen years isn't exactly fading away, Margaret Louise. Life goes on, you know? They're grown men, with jobs. And, in Jake's case, a family." Tori reached across the seat and squeezed her friend's shoulder. "And, from what I can see, Noah has done pretty well for himself since high school. Because here's the thing: the clubs you belonged to and the awards you won in high school might have mattered at that time, but in the real world no one really"-she stopped, mentally called back the word she was seconds from uttering, and opted to get the point across with a slightly softer touch-"thinks too much about it, you know?"
Margaret Louise said nothing as she turned right at the end of the block. There, in front of them, loomed the new sign for Jake's Garage-bright and eye-catching. "I guess, if nothin' else, Jake's business will increase now that Team Noah won't be drivin' clear into another town just to have their cars fixed."
"Team Noah?" Tori echoed.
"The folks who favored Noah as quarterback that last year were called Team Noah. The folks with workin' eyes were Team Jake." The car slowed as they approached the building but resumed its normal speed as a quick perusal yielded a closed sign on the door and no sign of Jake's car in the lot. "Well, I'll be darned. Looks like that hug is gonna wait 'til I drop you off after all, Victoria."
She was pretty sure she nodded in response, but really, her thoughts had yet to fully leave the previous conversation. "So these teams were essentially made up of family, I take it?"
"Family, friends, people in town. Everyone picked a team. Though it ain't any coincidence the nicer folks are Team Jake."
"Are?" she repeated, only to pause as Margaret Louise made a U-turn in the middle of the road and headed toward Tori's side of town. "You say that like these teams still exist."
"Because they do." Margaret Louise swerved to avoid a squirrel, her eyes darting between the road and Tori. "And they're just as loyal and adversarial now as they were then."
"You can't be serious."
"Ask Leona sometime. Bein' a business owner in this town gives her a front-row seat to the inner workin's of Team Noah. Why, she can tell you a story or two 'bout Team Noah that'd curl your toes."
Tori winced as they narrowly missed yet another squirrel, and then looked back at the driver. "What's your sister and her business got to do with this?"
"Noah's money is all over this town these days. And as for Leona, she's Team Jake by default on account of bein' kin."
"Okay, slow down. You lost me on the money part . . ."
Margaret Louise opened her mouth to speak but closed it as Tori's phone began to ring. Reaching down, Tori fished it out of the center compartment and glanced down at the screen.
"It's Charles. Do you mind if I take this? He was on tap for checking on Rose this morning, and I want to see how it went."
"Put him on that speaker thingy so I can hear, too. Saves him another call that way." At Tori's raised eyebrow, Margaret Louise shrugged. "I'm worried 'bout her, too, Victoria."
Nodding, Tori hit the green button and the speaker button in quick succession. "Hey, Charles. I'm in the car with Margaret Louise. She's giving me a lift home from the library."
"Puh-lease tell me you are wearing your seat buckle, sugar lips. You know how that woman drives . . ."
"I am, I do, and . . . you're on speaker."
Silence filled the station wagon as she exchanged glances with a clearly amused Margaret Louise.
"Why, Victoria, it's gotten mighty quiet on Charles's end, wouldn't you say?" Margaret Louise teased. "Maybe our resident Yankee has gone and found some crow-flavored Pixy Stix?"
Charles cleared his throat, coughed, and then repeated the sequence once again. When he was ready, he spoke, his voice a poor disguise for the embarrassment he was still working to overcome. "I, uh . . ."
"How was Rose this morning?" Tori asked.
If relief wasn't an audible emotion before, it was now. The only thing missing was the visual of Charles's shoulders as they sagged against the wall he was undoubtedly leaning on in the back room of his new shop, Snap. To. It. Books & Café. His rush to take advantage of the shift in conversation, though, sufficed. "Honestly, Victoria, I'm worried."
Tori felt her body stiffen. "Worried? Why? What happened? Is Rose okay?"
"Nothing happened, per se. She just seemed to have a harder time moving around her place than she had even at last week's sewing circle meeting."
"And she wasn't movin' 'round good then, neither."
Tori nodded along with Margaret Louise's words even as her gaze skipped to the dashboard clock. "I'm going to be bringing a dinner plate over to Rose later this evening, so that'll give me a chance to see if there's any improvement." The words tasted bitter on her mouth as the reality she'd been trying to ignore the past few weeks loomed large.
Rose Winters's health was failing, plain and simple. Yes, Tori could continue to chalk it up to the cooler than normal spring temperatures, but Leona had been really good about keeping their shop, SewTastic, at a comfortable temperature. And Tori could continue to explain away Rose's hit-or-miss attendance at the sewing circle's weekly meetings as a few repeated bouts of fatigue, but even that made no sense. When Rose wasn't doing anything but staying home, there really was no reason for her to be so tired.
She could feel Margaret Louise looking at her, but she refused to make eye contact. If she did, she knew the tears she was trying so valiantly to keep from her voice and her cheeks would finally win.
"You'll give me a ring after you see her, won't you, sugar lips?"
"Well, I better get back out on the floor before closing time." Charles sighed, then hesitated, and then sighed again. "Margaret Louise?"
"I adore you. You know that, don't you?"
"I do. That's why I reckon I'll swing by and pick you up just as soon as I deliver Tori back to that sweet husband of hers." Margaret Louise winked at Tori just before she slammed on the brakes at the next four-way stop. "Why, maybe we can drive clear out to Breeze Point and see us a movie . . ."
"I-I have plans with your sister tonight."
"Oh?" Margaret Louise taunted.
"I . . . yeah . . . we're . . . um . . ."
Tori savored the emotional reprieve offered by Charles's hemming and hawing and grinned back at Margaret Louise.
Margaret Louise winked and turned up the pressure a notch. "Because my car can fit three people, you know . . ."
"Uh . . . we're . . ."
Tori hit mute just long enough to give in to the laugh she could no longer keep at bay. "You can almost hear him sweating, can't you?" she whispered.
"Wait! We're . . . um . . . having a photo shoot with Paris," Charles said as Tori un-muted the call. "Yeah, that's what we're doing. And it . . . um . . . has to be . . . um . . . in her own environment!"
"You sure? 'Cause I got me a full tank of gas and I'm revvin' to go somewhere."
"No. No. I'm good. I-I'll have to take a rain check on that revvin'."
"How 'bout tomorrow, then?"
Charles's silence hung heavy in the air before it was broken by something that sounded suspiciously like a clap. "I'm sorry, ladies . . . a . . . a customer just came in. So as much as I hate to cut this short . . . I have to go."
And then he was gone, Margaret Louise's answering chuckle the only sound that remained.
"So you know?" Tori asked.
The car slowed as they turned onto Tori's street. "You mean 'bout the paper bags he breathes into every time he's sittin' in my backseat?"
Tori swallowed, unable to speak.
"What do you think I am, Victoria? Three pickles shy of a quart? Course I know." Margaret Louise sideswiped the curb in front of Tori's house and slid the car into park. "It don't make no sense, if you ask me. I don't drive any faster than anyone else."
Tori resisted the urge to snicker and, instead, offered a noncommittal shrug. "Well, thanks for the ride. It was a huge help."
"Anytime, Victoria. You know that." Margaret Louise released her hold on the steering wheel long enough to capture Tori's chin between her fingers. "I know you're worryin' somethin' fierce 'bout Rose. We all are. But the only thing we can do is exactly what we're doin'. Keepin' a close eye on her."
"But what if something happens when none of us are there to help?"
"She has her phone in her sweater pocket at all times, Victoria. She'll call for help."
But what if she falls and knocks herself out?
What if she's too weak to dial?
What if . . .
Tori shook the troubling thoughts from her head and took a long, deep breath. She'd taken enough of Margaret Louise's time already.
Plucking her bag off the floor, she opened the passenger-side door and stepped onto the sidewalk. "Thanks again."
"You get that out to Jake this evenin', you hear?"
Tori followed the path forged by Margaret Louise's finger and sighed when she saw her car in exactly the same spot it had been in when it started making weird noises that morning. "It's Saturday night, Margaret Louise. He's already gone home for the day, remember? Besides, he's probably got a long list of customers ahead of me."
"Knowin' my Jake, he'll be back at the garage after dinner tyin' up one loose end or the other. Been doin' that for years." Margaret Louise returned her hand to the gearshift and her foot to the gas pedal, but stopped short of actually engaging either as she smiled out at Tori. "And you ain't just a customer, Victoria. You're as good as family. Jake knows that."