Threadville, Pennsylvania, is famous for its fabric, needlecraft, and embroidery, so it’s only natural that it would become the home of the Threadville Academy of Design and Modeling. While Willow Vanderling has certainly never wanted to be a model, here she is, voluntarily strutting her stuff in a charity runway show in outrageous clothing, all to support the Academy’s scholarship fund.
But the lascivious, mean-spirited director of the academy, Antonio, is making the fashion show a less-than-fabulous affair. After Antonio plays a shocking prank on Willow and her friends that doesn’t exactly leave the ladies in stitches, he mysteriously winds up dead—and someone is trying to pin the blame on Willow.
Now, she must do whatever it takes in order to clear her name, even if it means needling around in other people’s secrets…
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Years ago, during the gawkiest of my teen years, well-meaning women gushed, “Willow, you’re so tall, you could be a model!” I knew they meant it as a compliment, but I’d had no interest in becoming a model. And now I was thirty-four, and I still didn’t want to be one.
So why was I stripping down to my undies and about to wear a series of peculiar outfits on a fashion show runway?
It was for a good cause, I reminded myself. The proceeds from the fashion show were going toward a scholarship fund for the Threadville Academy of Design and Modeling, TADAM for short, rhyming with madam. Scholarships at the school, which had opened only weeks before after amazingly speedy renovations during the summer, would mean that additional fashion design and modeling students would live in and visit Elderberry Bay, also known as Threadville. Our textile arts shops were thriving, but more customers were always welcome.
Besides, Ashley, the part-time assistant in my embroidery boutique, In Stitches, was a senior in high school. She wanted to learn fashion design here in Threadville where she could continue to live at home and work in my shop. Ashley’s talent should guarantee her a TADAM scholarship.
The shiny red polyester curtains surrounding our temporary dressing cubicles did not seem to belong in the luxurious conservatory where we were holding the fashion show, but at least we had some privacy.
Or did we?
A resounding slap came from the cubicle next to mine.
A man chuckled low in his throat. “If you think you’re going to be a model, you can’t be prudish about letting other people adjust your clothing.”
Curtains rustled. Shoes thwacked against the wood floor as someone strode away from the next cubicle.
I peeked out, but the man had disappeared. He must have walked down the narrow corridor between red-curtained cubicles and, from there, out onto the stage.
The conservatory, a Victorian glass confection, was warm and humid, and smelled of damp earth and rich, green vegetation. High above, panes of glass glowed orange, tinted by one of mid-September’s spectacular sunsets.
To my right, in the direction the man had gone, a woman yelled, “Places, everyone!” She sounded angry.
It was going to be a long night.
And this was only the dress rehearsal.
I pulled on slinky purple cropped pants and a matching peplum top that I’d made and trimmed with gold machine embroidery. I felt like a misplaced toreador in the outfit, which was gaudier than the clothes I usually designed and created for myself. Maybe, before I’d agreed to sew and model four outfits, I should have asked to see the sketches that Antonio, TADAM’s director, had said he’d provide. By the time I saw the sketches, I’d already committed myself and couldn’t back out.
A good cause, I reminded myself. The outlandish garments were to be auctioned off for the scholarship fund.
I slid my feet into fuchsia and gold sandals that Feet Accomplished, Threadville’s shoe store, had lent to the fashion show. Bravely, I joined the lineup of models in the walkway between cubicles.
And there was Madam TADAM herself, Antonio’s wife, Paula, who was also the academy’s administrative assistant. She was wearing a sagging straw-colored dress, wielding a clipboard, and glaring at the person immediately behind me.
I turned around. One of the modeling students, a tall blonde, appeared to be having difficulty walking in her flip-flops. Her face was red and her mouth was pinched. Was she the aspiring model who had slapped the man? Maybe she was merely grumpy about the flip-flops or the rest of her outfit. If I hadn’t been told that the clothes in the fashion show had been designed at TADAM, I’d have guessed that her skimpy shorts and halter top had been bought off the rack, and not in an exclusive boutique, either.
TADAM had begun classes less than a month ago, and none of the students could have had much time to prepare, which probably explained why most of the clothes on the student models didn’t seem very imaginative, especially compared to the outfits that my Threadville friends and I had made.
However, we were only in the Weekend Wear segment of the show. By the time we worked our way up to Glitzy Garb, the TADAM students’ work would probably shine.
Music played and the line began moving as models started down the runway.
Antonio’s voice boomed through the sound system. He used the words “lovely” and “beautiful” over and over again.
We shuffled forward.
The blonde behind me, who didn’t look old enough to vote, but was my height, about six feet, even in her flip-flops, whispered to me, “Stand still, and I’ll get your hair out of your zipper.”
My hair was shoulder length, light brown, and naturally straight. It was also flighty, and I’d managed to zip some of it into the back of my top.
The girl worked quickly, and I could turn my head without ripping out a hank of my hair. She no longer looked grouchy. Her smile was friendly, and her face had returned to pale pink with no splotches.
I whispered my thanks.
Paula clapped her hand on her clipboard and shushed us.
At the front of the line ahead of me, my best friend, Haylee, the owner of Threadville’s huge fabric store, disappeared onto the stage. Over the music, Antonio announced that the “lovely Haylee” had tailored her linen and silk golf shorts and shirt. A strange crunching noise—static?—interrupted his spiel.
A student went out between the blue velvet stage curtains, and then Haylee returned. As she passed, she gave me a high five along with a waggle of eyebrows showing that she was amused and maybe annoyed as well. She rushed off to change into her next outfit.
The girl in front of me wiggled out onto the runway, was described as “lovely” and wearing a “beautiful” outfit, and then it was my turn.
I slithered out between heavy blue plush curtains onto the lip of the stage. Carpeted in black, a runway stretched from the stage almost to the other end of the conservatory’s oval main room. In a polo shirt, khakis, and loafers, Antonio stood to my right, behind a podium perched precariously close to the edge of the stage. A light on the podium illuminated his notes and a line of what looked like fat, white beads.
Bending toward the microphone, Antonio announced to the nonexistent audience that the “lovely Willow” was wearing a purple outfit trimmed in gold stitching. I strolled down the runway. The sunset now bathed the conservatory in warm, almost magical pink tones.
Near the foot of the runway, one of TADAM’s male teachers leaned against the trunk of a palm tree, but his pose was far from casual. His arms were folded over his tight black muscle shirt as if he were attempting to contain an explosion. Glowering, he uncoiled, sprang forward to a camera on a tripod, and took a rapid sequence of flash photos.
What was I doing here?
Self-conscious and dazzled by the flashes, I pirouetted. As I traipsed clumsily back toward the curtains, the girl who had released my hair from the zipper passed me. Although I had stumbled, she seemed to float down the runway.
Antonio described her as the lovely Macey, popped one of the white “beads” into his mouth, and crunched down on it. His chomping, the noise I’d mistaken for static earlier, was amplified throughout the conservatory.
I batted the blue velvet curtains out of my way, glanced toward Antonio’s frowning wife, scooted into my dressing cubicle, and unzipped my top.
As I pulled it over my head, Antonio’s voice boomed out, “No, Macey! As lovely as you are, you’re not here to seduce anyone. Walk naturally, the way the lovely Haylee and the lovely Willow did.”
What a rude and discouraging thing for him to say to one of his students. My first impulse was to put on the comfy cutoffs and T-shirt that I’d worn to the dress rehearsal, walk out, and refuse to perform in the next night’s fashion show.
Publicly criticizing one of his students was bad enough, but comparing her unfavorably to Haylee and me, who had no interest in becoming models, was unconscionable. Besides, that photographer in the shadows had unnerved me, and my performance had been anything but natural.
Why was Antonio being so hostile to Macey? Would he treat Ashley the same way? Maybe I didn’t want her to attend TADAM, after all.
Breathing heavily, someone tiptoed into the cubicle beside mine. Hangers clinked, and one of Macey’s flip-flops sailed underneath the curtain into my cubicle.
A perfectly manicured hand with long, delicate fingers reached for it. “Sorry. I kicked too hard.”
“No problem.” Quickly, I stepped out of my sandals and pulled off the purple pants. Maybe Antonio was having a bad day. Ashley deserved a scholarship. Selfishly, I wanted her to go to school in Threadville so she could live at home and continue working part-time at In Stitches.
People padded past, going to and from the stage.
“Macey?” I recognized the voice. It was Naomi, one of the three women who had raised Haylee. Naomi owned Threadville’s quilt shop. “You did very well.”
“Thanks.” Macey’s dull reply lacked expression.
I poked my head out. All three of Haylee’s mothers were in the aisle between the dressing cubicles.
Edna murmured, “Macey, do you want us to tell Antonio that you were very good and will make a great model?”
“No, thanks.” The girl still sounded like she was trying to mask her emotions.
I turned my head toward her cubicle. “Would you like us to quit the fashion show in protest?” My stage whisper came out more harshly than I meant it to.
Naomi winced. “That could do more harm than good, Willow, don’t you think? To Macey.”
“I guess you’re right.” After Haylee’s mothers scurried away, I pulled my head back into my cubicle and muttered, “But I didn’t walk at all well. I have no idea what I’m doing out there.”
A shaky laugh came from Macey’s cubicle. “Thanks. Neither do I, but I’m learning.”
I contradicted her. “You were great!”
The second segment was Ambitious Attire. Antonio liked alliteration.
When he’d handed me the sketch of a dress and jacket, he’d said it was supposed to be a dress-for-success outfit for a businesswoman. He’d told me to make it light brown to match my hair. Although I’d fitted the dress and jacket carefully and had kept the shiny cocoa-toned machine embroidery to a tasteful minimum, I felt dowdy in so much brown. The pumps that Feet Accomplished had provided for me to wear with the outfit were the color of a churned-up mud puddle. Charming. And I couldn’t count on the sunset to enliven the outfit, either. The sky above the glass-roofed conservatory had faded from pink to sallow gray.
Antonio had told me not to carry a briefcase or handbag. “TADAM will supply a surprise,” he’d promised with a wink.
The shoes were too big. I clomped to the end of the lineup.
Macey crept up behind me. “You look fab.”
We’d passed all of the red-curtained changing cubicles, but a section of the stage behind the podium had also been curtained off in red polyester. A thirtyish woman with an enviable mass of shoulder-length auburn curly hair emerged from that larger cubicle. I’d never met her, but I guessed she was TADAM’s assistant director, Loretta. She carried several identical homemade cardboard briefcases covered in glossy white paint. Apparently, Antonio’s “surprise” was a fake briefcase for each of us to carry.
However, Loretta ran out of briefcases before she got to me. Her outfit was what I’d expect to see at a fashion design school—a stylish skirt and flowing jacket, both in delicious plum silk, worn over a carefully crafted mint green tank top. She frowned at my head and thrust a handful of hair clips at Macey. “Pin her hair up before she goes onstage,” she ordered. “And both of you, grab briefcases from the next two people who exit the stage.”
Macey’s hair was neatly pinned back, and she wore a blazing red dress underneath an unbecomingly bulky sweater in a shade of royal blue that clashed with the red so much that both garments seemed to jitter and twitch when I tried to focus on them. In one hand, she carried navy pumps like my brown ones. She set the shoes down, eased her feet into them, and whipped my hair into shape.
By the time that Haylee, in one of her expertly tailored pantsuits, came off the runway, Macey and I had each nabbed briefcases.
Using her clipboard to move one of the blue velvet curtains out of my way, Paula nearly sheared the covered, machine-embroidered buttons from my jacket sleeve. “You’re on.”
I couldn’t pick up my feet without stepping out of those extra-large pumps. Unlike any successful businesswoman that I’d ever seen, I trundled past the modeling student returning up the runway.
Antonio brayed, “With the simple removal of her jacket and the addition of a necklace, the lovely Willow transforms her beautiful outfit into one appropriate for a romantic dinner and evening on the town.” He popped a candy into his mouth but did not turn off the microphone. Crunch, crunch.
I was supposed to gracefully drop a chunky faux gold chain over my head and shrug out of the jacket to reveal the sleeveless dress. I hadn’t anticipated wrestling with the necklace, the jacket, and a cardboard briefcase at the same time, and my dropping and shrugging were anything but graceful. Finally, I unsnagged the chain from my hairdo and subdued the jacket.
The man in the black muscle shirt snapped dozens of pictures, and again appeared to find my performance lacking, which wasn’t surprising. With any luck, he and the next night’s audience would see very little besides that dazzling white briefcase. With it in one hand and my jacket in the other, I slid my oversized shoes around in a circle. Maybe the move passed as a slow twirl. I had to sort of skate back up the runway, which seemed longer than ever.
Backstage, Paula hissed at me, “Carry your shoes when you’re backstage. They make too much noise. And give that briefcase to the next person in line who doesn’t have one.” She scowled at Macey. “What’s keeping you? You’re supposed to be out there while the girl in front of you is still on the runway.”
Did Antonio and his wife treat all of their students this way, or only Macey? I wished I could stick around and encourage Macey when she came offstage, but I needed to change into my Distinguished Dressing outfit.
This was not to be formal—that was the last part of the show. This was supposed to be a cocktail dress.
It was, to say the least, a very unusual cocktail dress.
Following the sketch and instructions that Antonio had given me, I had concocted a tiered, ruffled, balloon-like mini-dress from white and baby blue organza, with tiny flowers machine-embroidered at the edges of the ruffles. He’d ordered white gladiator sandals for me to wear with the dress. Fortunately, they zipped up the back and I didn’t have to buckle twenty tiny straps. If Loretta gave me a shepherd’s crook with a bow, I’d pass for Little Bo Peep on stilt-like legs.
Fortunately, she didn’t, but she raced down the line, unpinned what was left of my glamorous hairdo after the “gold” chain had pulled tendrils from it, and arranged my hair in two ponytails, one above each ear. Glancing into the full-length mirror near the stage curtains, I mistook myself for a two-year-old in a fun house mirror, the kind that stretched one to a ridiculous height. With a wide and phony smile on my face, I paraded down the runway.
Antonio praised “the lovely Willow.” If I heard that description one more time, I’d throw a tantrum. He munched another candy loudly and then turned off the microphone.
Because the dress was short and I’d expected the runway to be high, but maybe not quite this high, I’d made a pair of ruffled organza bloomers to wear underneath the dress. At the end of the runway, I turned slowly, hoping the dress wouldn’t flare out and display the bloomers to that man in the muscle shirt and his camera. Trying not to channel Bo Peep, I strolled past Macey, who was in a sleek black dress hardly bigger than a bathing suit. Antonio turned on the mike, described the dress as sexy, and then boomed out that Macey should sway her hips more when she walked. The poor girl couldn’t win.
I rushed to my cubicle to put on my evening gown.
Antonio had sketched a tight velvet gown that was backless, came down in a V just below the waist in front, and featured a slit almost to the wearer’s left hip bone.
I had made the back and the V neck less plunging, or I’d have needed to glue the bodice on, and I had ended the slit mid-thigh.
Antonio hadn’t specified where I should add machine embroidery to this outfit. To emphasize the gown’s long lines, I’d edged both sides of the slit with a narrow geometric design. I had strayed from Antonio’s design another way, as well. I’d used reddish bronze velvet instead of the drab and unflattering olive brown that he had suggested.
I could no longer see the sky or focus on the glass panels forming the roof. Bright overhead lights illuminated the backstage.
I brushed out the girlish ponytails and let my hair hang to my shoulders. Along with the embroidered satin evening bag I’d made, I carried metallic gold stiletto sandals.
While I waited in line, Loretta teamed up with Macey to pin my hair into the world’s fastest French braid. I caught a glimpse of myself after I put on the heels and right before I went onstage. The dress fit well and looked, I thought, very good. Fortunately, the shoes were the right size. Imitating 1930s movie stars, I undulated down the runway. Reflections of fairy lights on trees inside the building sparkled from the conservatory’s glass panes.
Muscle Shirt again took scads of pictures. Ignoring him, I turned around and passed Macey in a dress that Cinderella might have worn—before the fairy godmother fitted her out with princess gowns.
Antonio gave me an approving smile, let his gaze drift over my curves, and murmured, “Nicely done, Willow!” He hadn’t turned off the mike, which meant that everyone else in the conservatory would have heard his too-intimate tone. Nauseated, I slipped behind the curtains and ran to my dressing cubicle to finally change into my usual evening attire—cutoffs, T-shirt, and sneakers.
Antonio called to us, telling everyone to come onstage. Standing in the spotlight on the runway, he said that we’d done marvelously, and that he’d make certain that, by the next night, his modeling students were as good as Willow and Haylee and “the other Threadville ladies.”
Edna muttered, “I wasn’t good. Whoever heard of a five-foot-two-inch model who wasn’t under the age of ten?”
Loretta said we should leave our outfits and shoes in our dressing cubicles for the next night. “And tell me if anything needs dry-cleaning, polishing, or freshening. The fashion design students will fix everything before tomorrow’s show.”
I decided that asking for replacements for the gigantic shoes would be too much bother for everyone. I would have to wear them for only a few minutes.
Antonio gave us instructions for the end of the next night’s show. As we came offstage after the Glitzy Garb segment, we would be handed a slip of paper stating which of our four outfits we were to wear to the awards ceremony.
“If the paper says nothing, that doesn’t mean you’re to come onstage stark naked.” He smiled to show it was a joke. “It means you don’t have to attend the awards ceremony.”
Maybe the awards were only for TADAM students. Giving Threadville proprietors awards for our creations would be silly. We’d been sewing for years, and Antonio had designed all of our outfits. The students were only beginning.
The paper, Antonio said, would also have a number on it. We were to file out in numerical order, with the first person going to the farthest reaches of stage left. He pointed. “Stage left is on your left when you’re on the stage and facing the audience. The second person will stay to her right, and so on down the line. And stand naturally, remembering that your outfit is of the utmost importance. But do smile.” He flickered a sample smile at all of us. “And after the awards ceremony, change back into your Glitzy Garb outfits, go around the corner to the TADAM mansion, and strut your stuff during the reception and the auction.”
I was beginning to feel like one of Little Bo Peep’s sheep. But I wouldn’t look much like a sheep in the revealing gown that Antonio had designed, and if the next evening was cool, I’d be strutting goose bumps and wishing I had a woolly sheep’s coat.
Antonio added, “You’re probably wondering how to return your Glitzy Garb outfit to us after the reception. You can change in the TADAM mansion if you like.” His leer warned me not to choose that option. “Or you can bring the outfit back here Sunday morning and leave it in your cubicle with your other outfits, along with a note about anything that needs repairs. Loretta will open the conservatory at nine on Sunday morning.”
Finally, Ashley, Haylee, her three mothers, and I escaped into the warm September evening. Above us, the sky was deep indigo velvet, sprinkled with diamonds.
I walked beside Ashley. Usually, she was exuberant, but tonight, the seventeen-year-old lagged as if something were bothering her.
Had Antonio’s behavior upset Ashley? I asked her, “Do you still want to attend TADAM?”
“It would be perfect.”
So that wasn’t what was bothering her. Still, I hadn’t appreciated the way Antonio and Paula had treated Macey, and the picture-taking teacher in the muscle shirt had freaked me out. “Going away to school could be good, too,” I suggested. “Though I’d hate to lose the best assistant I’ve ever had.”
Ashley stopped walking. “I don’t think I’ll be able to go away.” She gulped.
Hoping the women ahead of us wouldn’t hear, I asked quietly, “What’s wrong?”
She toed at grass sprouting between the concrete slabs on the sidewalk. “I haven’t told you this because, well, just because. My dad . . .” Her voice dwindled. She took a deep breath and started over. “My dad lost his job. My mom’s gone back to work and my dad is throwing himself into finding a new job. That means I need to spend more time looking after my little sisters and brothers. I don’t know how long it will take him to find a job. If I don’t get a good scholarship to TADAM, I may not be able to go to school anywhere.”
I offered, “You always have a job at In Stitches. Or a reference if something better comes along.”
She started walking again and looked away from me as if studying the pretty Victorian homes on her street. “Thanks, Willow. It would be hard to think of a better place to work than In Stitches.”
The same was true for me. I had tried another career, investment management, before moving to Threadville and opening In Stitches. Ashley had more design talent than most of the Threadville tourists who came every day for workshops and classes. She was smart, helpful, and eager to learn. I imagined someday attending her college graduation, along with her parents and all of her little sisters and brothers.
Would TADAM be good enough for Ashley? In addition to Antonio’s and Paula’s strangely hostile treatment of Macey, the school had seemed to come out of nowhere and had opened in a rush in mid-August. I supposed we should give it a chance to prove itself.
At Ashley’s front walk, I impulsively gave her a raise. She thanked me. Head down, she moseyed toward her front porch.
I caught up with the others.
“What’s wrong with Ashley?” Naomi asked.
I told them the girl’s news. We all agreed that we would do our best in the next night’s fashion show. We would help TADAM raise scholarship funds in the hope that maybe Ashley would benefit.
“And there’s that Macey, also,” Edna said. “Why did Antonio and Paula pick on her?”
“Did they pick on other students?” Haylee asked.
Haylee’s birth mother, Opal, answered, “Only Macey, that I noticed.”
“And she seemed like such a sweet child,” Naomi said.
“She was.” I told them that she’d been helpful to me, and I also described the slap and a man’s amused response.
“Who was the man?” Haylee demanded. “That creepy guy taking pictures of us?”
I admitted that I wasn’t sure. “I’ve never heard that photographer speak, and this guy was lowering his voice artificially, probably trying to sound sexy.”
“And probably not succeeding.” Still walking, Edna held up her left hand, flashing her sparkly engagement and wedding rings under the streetlight. “Men who think they’re sexy often aren’t.”
Haylee and I grinned at each other. Edna might think of her new husband as the sexiest guy in Threadville, but Haylee and I each had our own ideas about that.
Unfortunately, however, Haylee’s heartthrob was still mourning his late wife. I hoped he would eventually notice Haylee.
And my nominee for the sexiest guy in Threadville? Clay Fraser, owner of Fraser Construction. We both worked long hours, and except for our usual Tuesday evening volunteer firefighting practices, I hardly ever saw him. With any luck, he’d been too busy to hear about the fashion show the next night and wouldn’t attend it.
Haylee and her three mothers and I said good-bye on Lake Street. They headed toward their apartments, which were above their shops in a Victorian building. My machine embroidery boutique, In Stitches, was across the street in an Arts and Crafts bungalow with deep eaves and a large front porch. I could have reached the apartment underneath my shop by going through In Stitches, but this time, I unlatched the gate and walked down the hill through one of my two side yards to the patio, where I opened the sliding glass door and let my pets outside.
Sally-Forth and Tally-Ho, both part border collie, were littermates. Sally always made it her duty to herd the two tuxedo cats, Mustache and Bow-Tie, during their short visits to the great outdoors. She did a surprisingly good job of it, and soon the young cats were safely inside again, and Sally and her brother were racing around my hillside backyard.
In Blueberry Cottage, lights were on and windows were open. Clay and his company had renovated the quaint wooden structure after moving it up the hill from its original position, too close to the river and occasional floods. Edna’s mother’s spinning wheel whirred. Edna’s mother had helped plan the renovations to Blueberry Cottage. Since she’d insisted there should be space for her loom and spinning wheel beside the hearth, I hadn’t been surprised when she’d asked to be my tenant.
She was a good one, though I had the feeling she was aware of everything I did, day and night, and I had finally installed drapes in my apartment’s wall of floor-to-ceiling windows facing Blueberry Cottage.
Edna’s mother living in my backyard was almost like having a mother nearby. Or a grandmother. However, as Dora Battersby liked to point out, Opal and her best friends, Edna and Naomi, had only been seventeen when Haylee was born, and Dora was in her early seventies, rather young to be the grandmother of a thirty-four-year-old. She did like to supervise both Haylee and me, however.
Sally and Tally ended their playtime and came in. The dogs and I went to bed. Mustache and Bow-Tie spent a good part of the night doing their best to remind us that cats were nocturnal creatures.
• • •
In my shop the next day, Ashley and I gave two machine embroidery workshops, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. One of my favorite hobbies, the one I’d built into an online business and this retail shop, was using sophisticated software to create original embroidery designs. Each year, the machines and software improved, and no fabric that sat still for longer than a few seconds was safe from the avid embroiderers of In Stitches. Many of our students lived in and around Threadville, while others came almost daily on buses from northwestern Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio.
In machine embroidery, we used a stiff backing known as stabilizer to keep the fabrics in our hoops from moving around or bunching up. Ashley and I demonstrated a new super-sticky stabilizer. We used sticky stabilizer so we wouldn’t have to insert thick fabrics like fleece, corduroy, and terry in our hoops. Instead, we clamped the stabilizer in the hoop, removed the non-sticky backing, and stuck the cloth onto the gummiest part of the stabilizer. With this new stabilizer and its fiercer-than-ever grip, there was no question of accidentally pulling the fabric loose. We placed water-soluble stabilizer on top of the fabrics to prevent our stitches from disappearing in the wales, nap, and soft cotton loops.
While we worked and experimented, some of our students teased us to model the outfits we would be wearing in the fashion show that night.
“You’ll have to come to the show,” I said.
“We are coming,” they insisted, “but we can’t wait. Describe them.”
Smiling, I shook my head. Ashley made a zipping motion across her mouth.
After we closed the shop and Ashley went home, I fed the animals and took them out, ate a quick supper, trotted to the Elderberry Bay Conservatory, found my cubicle, and put on the lurid purple and gold pants set.
The sun again reddened the sky above the glass roof as I joined the line of models waiting to march out onto the runway. Beyond the heavy blue curtains spanning the front of the stage, chairs scraped against the ornate tile floor, and people chatted and called to each other.
Her clipboard in one hand and a man’s suit jacket in the other, Paula, who was again wearing a dress resembling a stretched and shapeless burlap bag, burst between the closed blue stage curtains.
In navy suit pants, white dress shirt, and gold silk tie, Antonio surged through the curtains behind her, grabbed her shoulder, and demanded, “Give it back.” His pants were held up with the same belt he’d worn the night before, one with a large, shiny square belt buckle.
Antonio’s wife whirled and came close to bopping her husband with that clipboard. “No way. You’re not gobbling candy and who knows what else during the show.”
Loretta joined Paula and stood almost nose to nose with Antonio. Loretta’s outfit was similar to the flowing silk of the night before, but instead of plum and lime green, tonight’s was a richer silk, in ivory. “If you must eat candy during the next hour, Antonio, stay backstage to wrangle the models and I’ll narrate the show.”
Like Antonio and Paula, she looked about to sprout a smokestack from her head.
If anyone was going to “wrangle” me, I preferred Loretta to Antonio with the roving eye. Roving hands, too? Was he the man that Macey had slapped the night before?
Paula must not have liked the idea of her husband wandering backstage among the models, either. She turned on Loretta. “You? You couldn’t—”
Antonio interrupted her. “Who’s the boss here?” He glared at Loretta. “I am, and if I say I’m going to describe the fashions for our audience, then I’m the one who’s going to do it.”
He lunged for the jacket that Paula held.
She dodged him. “I’ll hang your jacket backstage. If you must feed your addiction, come grab a candy between segments. I took them off the podium and put them back in your jacket pocket.”
Antonio must have become aware of the silent line of models watching the argument. He smiled at us. “Giving up smoking is harder than you think.” He glanced at his watch. “Showtime!” Jacketless, he strode out between the curtains. The crowd hushed. He welcomed everyone, then the music began and the first model tripped out to the runway.
Antonio’s descriptions were no more specific than they’d been the evening before. Everyone was “lovely” and wore a “beautiful” outfit. When it was my turn, I was glad that the lights in the conservatory were limited to the spotlights on the runway and the teensy lights tucked among the conservatory’s greenery. I didn’t see anyone I recognized. A video camera was on a tripod near the tallest of the palm trees, but no one was shooting flash pictures. Where was the sullen man in the muscle shirt?
Back in my cubicle, I changed into the brown dress-for-success outfit and carried the shoes to the line. Macey handed me tissues and pointed to the humongous brown shoes. “Stuff those into the toes of your shoes so you can keep them on.”
Shushing Macey, but speaking every bit as loudly, Loretta told Macey to pin my hair up again. She did, and then I headed for the spot where the stage curtains overlapped each other.
The tissues in my shoes cramped my toes. Stumbling, I brushed Antonio’s jacket off the chair, but when I stooped to hang it up, Paula nudged my backside with the clipboard. “Don’t worry about that. Just get out there!” Her whisper was urgent, as if we were in the midst of an emergency.
Out on the runway, I managed to smile despite fumbling with the necklace and the bright white briefcase, but this time, I looped the faux gold chain over my neck without tangling it in my hair.
When I came back between the curtains, Antonio’s jacket was hanging on the back of the chair again, but the chair was still in the way of models going to and from the runway. I silently moved it about a foot from the opening between the curtains, but not too far, I hoped, from Antonio if he developed a sudden desire for candy.
In my cubicle, I threw on the Bo Peep cocktail dress and gladiator sandals. I hoped that Loretta would leave my hair alone, but she again tied it up in ponytails high on the sides of my head.
Telling myself that my childish hairdo didn’t matter, I sashayed out onto the runway with an exaggerated sway of hips, turned, started back, and looked saucily over my shoulder. Who cared if everyone saw the ruffled bloomers I wore under the short dress? The outfit was ludicrous, and I saw no reason to pretend I took it seriously.
Applause, probably from our loyal Threadville tourists, broke out from the audience. I was afraid that Antonio might disapprove of my dramatics, but he winked.
Maybe I should have been more sedate.
I was more of a performer than I realized. During the Glitzy Garb segment of the show, I didn’t exactly ham it up in the slinky, slit-up-to-here-and-back-down-to-there velvet gown, but I didn’t walk like a prim schoolgirl, either, and I couldn’t resist a second pirouette on my way back up the runway.
Whistles came from the audience. My customers and machine embroidery workshop students were obviously having fun.
As I pushed my way between curtains, I again bumped into the chair holding Antonio’s jacket. Someone had put it back after I’d moved it.
Antonio’s wife handed me an envelope with my name scribbled on it. “Change quickly,” she demanded.
I slipped off my heels and zoomed to my cubicle.
Inside the envelope were three pieces of paper. The full page was a typed letter, signed by Antonio, thanking me for participating in the TADAM scholarship fund-raiser.
The half page was a printed voucher for a discount on evening classes at TADAM. Fashion design courses? They could be fun, and I might learn new skills.
On a torn quarter page, someone—probably Antonio, judging by his signature on the letter—had scrawled my name along with the words Distinguished Dressing.
Great. I had to go onstage during the awards ceremony, and I was supposed to wear that Little Bo Peep dress, the worst of all the outfits that I’d made and modeled.
Maybe I was winning a prize for the silliest cocktail dress? Or the most flirtatious look over my shoulder?
I put on the goofy dress, zipped up the gladiator sandals, and joined the line. TADAM students were in the front, while my Threadville friends and I were at the back. I was at the end, and would be the last model to file onto the stage. Good. I’d have less time out there to make a fool of myself.
Loretta glanced at my hair, shook her head, muttered something about not having time to fix it, and left my nice, though hasty, French braid in place. Phew. I did not have to go onstage in those silly ponytails again.
In front of me, Ashley wore the beautiful suit she’d made for the Ambitious Attire segment of the show. It was emerald green and featured one of her original freehand embroidery designs across the back, a true example of wearable art. If it were my size, I’d be planning to bid on it at the silent auction, but I towered over the seventeen-year-old.
Cheers erupted when the first model, Macey, stepped out onto the strip of stage in front of the blue velvet curtains. Encouraged by the support, we all gave our best performances as we brushed past the curtains, walked carefully into the spotlight along the edge of the stage, and smiled into the dark conservatory, lit only by twinkly lights.
We hardly deserved a standing ovation, but that’s what we got. Maybe it wasn’t an awards ceremony but merely a curtain call. Unsure of what to do next, some of us bowed and some of us curtseyed. The irrepressible Edna, in a bling-encrusted evening gown, put one hand above her head and twirled. All she needed was a set of castanets.
Antonio was at the podium, still not wearing his jacket. He’d managed to endure the show without noticeably crunching candy. He smiled and repeated “thank you” until the audience settled back into chairs and silence.
Antonio asked everyone to hold their applause and comments until all of the awards had been announced. When our names were called, we were to take two steps forward from the line—small steps, he cautioned us with a smirk, or we’d fall off the stage. Then we were to pirouette, carefully, to show off our outfits, and return to our places. We would pick up our certificates as we left the stage at the end of the show.
Macey won the award for the most improved modeling student. Another student was the most improved design student. There were awards for creativity, attention to detail, and appropriateness for the occasion.
Then he waved toward the Threadville ladies—in addition to Naomi, Edna, Haylee, Opal, Ashley, and me, there was Mona, who owned a home décor boutique. Antonio announced, “These seven women, who are not students at TADAM, have donated their time and talent to the fashion show, and for that we are forever in their debt.” He chuckled into the microphone. “However, between them, they’ve managed to commit what I like to call . . .” He chuckled again, a laugh that sounded both intimate and horrid. “‘The seven threadly sins.’”
A woman called out in a shocked voice, “What?”
Edna gasped and stared toward the back rows of chairs.
Was her mother in the audience? The voice had sounded like Dora’s.
Antonio held up a hand. “Hold your applause, please, until the end.”
I had not heard any applause, but people in the audience laughed, as if Antonio had been joking about the seven threadly sins that we had supposedly committed. Maybe he had been, but why did I suspect that his joke concealed at least seven deadly barbs?
Antonio turned his head toward the lineup of models. “Naomi, please step forward and show us the outfit you made for Weekend Wear.”
Antonio rested his forearm on the podium and purred into the microphone as Naomi modeled her ensemble. “Now, as you may be able to see, Naomi sewed together hundreds of little scraps to make her shorts and top. Hundreds! What threadly sin did that cause her to commit, do you think?”
No one answered.
“C’mon,” he cajoled, “can’t someone remember all of the deadly sins? Or are you all too busy committing them?”
A smattering of laughter greeted his little joke.
Antonio urged, “What would sewing a bunch of scraps together create?”
“Quilts!” Again, the woman near the back of the audience sounded like Edna’s mother.
Ignoring her, Antonio stabbed a forefinger into the air above his jet-black hair. “Stitching tiny scraps together would frustrate and anger anyone and would have to make that person commit the threadly sin of wrath!”
The audience laughed and clapped.
Next, Antonio called Edna’s name. Edna stepped forward and twirled, smiling. Her gown reflected lights in millions of tiny rainbows. “Edna has certainly followed my directions for creating Glitzy Garb,” Antonio proclaimed. “Just look at all the shiny things she’s attached to her dress!”
People murmured appreciatively.
“But here’s the thing.” Antonio flashed another of his conspiratorial smiles. “Has Edna left any sort of bling or bauble for anyone else in all of Threadville?”
Edna nodded her head vigorously. Her shop was full of every sparkly trim and notion that any seamstress or crafty person could desire.
“Impossible,” Antonio boomed. “She’s taken them all for herself! She’s committed the threadly sin of greed!”
Again, amusement rippled through the audience.
I tried to remember the other five deadly sins after wrath and greed. I was the seventh in line for this unusual honor. I doubted that wearing a ridiculous dress was a deadly—or threadly—sin.
Antonio called out, “Haylee!”
Obviously game for whatever fun Antonio was about to poke at her, Haylee waved and stepped forward.
Antonio leaned even farther forward. “Now, you’d think that all of the Threadville ladies would be accomplished at making clothes.” Each of his breaths thumped into the microphone and was amplified throughout the glass-domed room. “Haylee owns a huge fabric store. I examined the outfits she made, including this business suit. Every detail is perfect. Now, we know that Haylee hails . . .” He smiled to show he was repeating the sound for maximum effect. “From New York City. So she obviously brought the outfits she wore this evening with her when she fled to this Lake Erie shoreline. Since she could not have made the clothes herself—”
A woman in the back of the audience shrieked, “Yes, she did!” Edna’s mother, Dora Battersby, was definitely in the audience. Not only that, she was in full battle mode.
Again holding a hand in the “halt” position, Antonio went on smoothly, “I award Haylee the prize for committing the threadly sin of sloth!”
Antonio’s allegations were unkind and untrue.
What were the other deadly sins? I couldn’t think of even one. Opal’s turn was next, then Mona, and then Ashley.
Ashley was only seventeen. Whatever Antonio was going to claim about Ashley’s creation, I would do all I could to remove the sting.
I considered bolting from the stage and taking Ashley with me. Instead, I muttered to her, “Unless he says something nice to you, don’t believe him.”
Ashley whispered, “Don’t worry.”
Meanwhile, what would Antonio say to Opal? She stepped forward.
Antonio made a show of staring at her, drawing it out until audience members snickered. Finally, he spoke. “Now, I don’t know how Opal made her outfits, but she made every single one of them out of yarn or string. Macramé? Cat’s cradle? I don’t know how she did it, but the end result is dreadful!”
This time, Dora Battersby wasn’t the only heckler.
Antonio quelled them with a look. “And her Ambitious Attire ensemble, which she stitched together, she tells me, from granny squares, whatever those are, is the worst outfit of them all. No one will want to buy any of Opal’s creations. So by showing off her talents with a knitting needle or crochet hook—does that make her a hooker?” He smiled at his own joke, but no one laughed. “Whatever she used, Opal has committed the threadly sin of pride.”
Opal turned toward us. Bright red spots burned on her cheeks. She stepped into her place again, though.
Mona didn’t wait to be called. She leaped forward—not off the stage, fortunately—and gyrated in a circle while waving and smiling at the audience.
“Ahhhhh.” Antonio drew the syllable out. “The lovely Mona.” He licked his lips. “Her Distinguished Dressing cocktail dress is skimpy and very, very tight.” He fanned his face. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m a red-blooded male, so of course I like it. But because she makes my blood run faster, Mona has committed the threadly sin of lust.”
I was afraid that Mona might take offense, but wiggling her hips, she blew about a thousand kisses to the audience. This time, they didn’t try to contain their laughter.
“Play it for laughs,” I whispered to Ashley. “No matter what he says.”
She nodded and turned her head to give me an exaggerated wink. “I’m fine.”
But how could I help being concerned about her? She already had too much stress in her life. I had to protect her.
“Ashley,” Antonio called, “turn around and show us the back of your jacket.”
Smiling, Ashley spun and gave me another wink.
“Now, see there?” Antonio pointed at Ashley. “I told Ashley to create something that a successful fashion designer might wear to a business meeting. And she embroidered pictures of different items of clothing all over the back of her jacket. She’s obviously copying designs created by actual designers. So what threadly sin did she commit?”
No one answered.
“Don’t all speak at once,” he joked.
Dora Battersby yelled, “None!” I couldn’t see her in the darkness, but I smiled toward the back of the crowd.
“Envy!” Antonio crowed. “At her young age, Ashley has not yet found her own creative feet, and envy made her copy the work of others.”
Fortunately, Ashley’s back was still toward the audience. The corners of her mouth trembled.
I raised my chin and winked at her.
She tossed me a watery smile. Then, disobeying Antonio’s earlier instructions, she crossed in front of me and disappeared behind the curtains.
“Shame!” Dora hollered, echoing my thoughts. I wanted to run after Ashley and undo the damage that Antonio had tried to inflict on the girl, but I was the last person onstage to have committed one of Antonio’s seven threadly sins, and I wasn’t going to wimp out now. I’d rush to Ashley in a minute.
Behind me, Naomi whispered, “I’ll go.” She followed Ashley out of view.
Excerpted from "Seven Threadly Sins"
Copyright © 2015 Janet Bolin.
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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Praise for the Threadville Mysteries
"A great, fun series."—Fresh Fiction
"[An] enjoyable whodunit."—The Mystery Gazette
"[A] lovely tale...Charming."—Lorna Barrett, New York Times bestselling author
"Scintillatingly silly, yet serious...This delightful, lighthearted mystery will make even the most diehard curmudgeon chuckle with glee!"—Feathered Quill Book Reviews
"Willow and her friends will leave you in stitches."—Avery Aames, national bestselling author of the Cheese Shop Mysteries