Leaving her home in Gracious Grove behind her, Rose is off to the annual convention of the International Teapot Collector’s Society. Her granddaughter Sophie is minding the tea house while she’s away. Rose is eager for tough cookie Zunia Pettigrew to appraise a prized antique teapot she believes may be a holy water vessel from China.
But when Zunia declares the pot a fake, Rose is really steamed. After Zunia’s found dead beside Rose’s dinged-in teapot, Sophie must rush to her grandmother’s aid and find the real killer—before Rose is steeped in any more trouble…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Cup of Tea
When the world is all at odds
And the mind is all at sea
Then cease the useless tedium
And brew a cup of tea.
There is magic in its fragrance,
There is solace in its taste;
And then laden moments vanish
Somehow into space.
And the world becomes a lovely thing!
There’s beauty as you’ll see;
All because you briefly stopped
To brew a cup of tea.
The dark-paneled meeting room of the Stone and Scone Inn was full on the first afternoon of the annual August convention of the New York State division of the ITCS, the International Teapot Collectors Society. Rose Freemont should have been listening to the speaker, but instead she examined her treasure. It was a homely thing, the metal teapot, battered and beaten, like a raggedy old man who has been buffeted about by the elements and fallen on hard times. But like that raggedy old man, it had a past, a purpose, and meaning. She turned it over and over in her hands, examining the patina, caressing the dent on its round belly and hugging it to her. There was something about the size of it and the intricacy of the decoration that hinted at a noble history.
That was what had inspired her to bring it to the convention in Butterhill, New York. She wanted to know more about it, and hoped to find some answers. In the past Rose had to attend without Laverne Hodge, her best friend and sole employee at her business, Auntie Rose’s Victorian Tea House, because someone had to keep the place open. They alternated years going to the convention and never got to enjoy it together, as such good friends ought. But this summer she and Laverne were attending with some of the other Silver Spouts, her teapot-collecting group in Gracious Grove, a small town nestled in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. She could thank her sweet granddaughter, Sophie Rose Freemont Taylor, trained restaurateur, for this time with her friends.
Sophie was still feeling the sting of the failure of her New York garment district restaurant In Fashion, but helping her grandmother at Auntie Rose’s was proving to be just the elixir she needed. It had put the spring back in her youthful step, and in return she had brought a zest and vigor to the tearoom that was dragging it, as Laverne said, kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. She had added items to the menu that were bringing in a new crowd without alienating the old crowd, an ideal situation for the tearoom.
Though some of her nonfood ideas were radical, like redecorating the entire chintz-and-roses tearoom—Rose cringed at the thought of the expense and work and business days lost—she liked her granddaughter’s enthusiasm. When Sophie first came back to Gracious Grove, Rose worried that the girl was too beaten down by defeat to care. But she was rebounding, and it was a revelation that having Sophie around was putting the spring back into her own octogenarian step.
She sighed as the voice, a background to her wandering thoughts, droned on. The lack of effective air-conditioning meant the room was getting stuffy, and she was far too old to go without air-conditioning for long on a hot August day. She nudged Laverne, sitting next to her. “Do you think she’s ever going to stop talking?” Rose whispered. The “she” who had monopolized the meeting so far was Zunia Pettigrew, president of the New York State division of the ITCS.
“Never,” Laverne snapped. “Loves the sound of her own voice too much.”
“So in short,” Zunia finally said, straightening to her whole five-foot height and completely missing the humor inherent in her words, “welcome to our annual convention.”
“That woman wouldn’t know short if she ran over it,” Laverne groused.
Laverne’s father, ninety-something Malcolm Hodge, who sat on the other side of his seventy-year-old daughter, snorted. “If she wants to know what short is, she could look in the mirror,” he murmured, in his dry-as-dust tone.
“I would like to introduce at this time Walter Sommer, our distinguished International Teapot Collectors Society president!” Zunia finished, and led a round of applause that was brief and scattered, as Walter stood, shook the creases out of his trousers and approached the dais.
Josh Sinclair, wide-eyed and at sixteen the youngest member of the Silver Spouts and likely the youngest member the ITCS had ever had, smirked at the exchange among his elders, but then pressed his lips together and sobered immediately. Rose smiled at his earnest demeanor. It was his first convention and required him to take a day away from his summer college courses, but how could his mother say no when he was a straight-A student? He not only kept up his grades but was in an accelerated course at high school, was the recording secretary of the Silver Spouts, and held down a part-time job editing digital content for the Gracious Grove newspaper.
He was one of those rare souls who knew from the age of five what he would become: a historian with a specialty in object conservation. He had already begun writing on the topic for the Gracious Grove Gazette, with a piece on the history of the Sinclair crest he found on a teapot left to him by his great-grandmother. Sophie had a lot in common with him in having an early determination to pursue a particular line of work. She had always known she wanted to be a chef. She called Josh an old soul in a new body and they had become somewhat unlikely friends.
As always deliberate and measured in his pace, Walter cleared his throat, examined his notes, collected them together into a neat pile, harrumphed and cleared his throat again. He then tapped the microphone, which squealed in dismay. The mic was hardly necessary, since the conference room of the Stone and Scone was a mere thirty feet long and twenty wide, more than adequate for the twenty-five or so attendees at the conference, but Walter liked to make a production out of his yearly appearance.
Walter Sommer, tall, slim and slightly stooped, had unusual green eyes and a thatch of white hair that lay obediently in a wave across his forehead. He was the president and one of the founding members of the ITCS, which had grown to include twenty-five regional or state divisional chapters that were in turn made up of local groups. Walter and his wife, Nora, another founding member, lived in Schenectady, and the New York State convention was considered by some as the “home turf” for the entire society. The only collectors club from the state that wasn’t there was the New York City'society, Big Apple Teapots, whose membership was too big to stay comfortably at the Stone and Scone. They boycotted the convention every year, preferring to hold their own chapter convention in New York City. Walter would also attend that event, since he was originally from the city himself, along with Zunia, state division president, and her husband.
He began to talk, welcoming each and every attendee and setting out the plans for the weekend. There would be three seminars, two the next day and one Sunday morning, on the history of tea, silver hallmarks as they pertained to silver teapots, and the development of tea vessels, form versus function. Saturday evening Walter and Nora would guide a group through a local art museum where art depicting teapots was on display. Sunday afternoon the convention would draw to a close in time for folks to get back to their homes before dark. Informal group gatherings over dinner in the inn were optional, with some folks preferring other area restaurants.
After introductory remarks he launched into the meat of his talk. He blathered about his year, traveling to the different chapter meetings of the ITCS, his and Nora’s trip to England to visit a teapot enthusiast with a vast collection, and his continuing passion for the hunt for new treasures. He launched into a detailed explanation of what the next year’s meetings would look like, how they would be organizing future conventions to coincide with special events in the upstate New York region.
The crowd was restless, but his wife, Nora, shot a warning glance at those who checked their cell phones, rustled around in their purses for a mint or chatted quietly. It was a silent look, but effective. A hush fell once more, a kind of drugged, weary stillness as Walter droned on and on and on.
* * *
Thelma Mae Earnshaw shifted in her seat and pulled her polyester dress away from her legs, where it stuck to her diabetic stockings and overheated skin. A late August heat wave and an under-air-conditioned conference room had her grumpiness ratcheting up to dramatic levels. Why in the good Lord’s name had she wanted to join the danged Silver Spouts so badly? Until three months ago she and Rose Freemont hadn’t spoken more than a few muttered words in sixty-some-odd years. Maybe she should have kept it that way, but now here she was a member of the teapot-collecting group. This little excursion took valuable time away from her tearoom, La Belle Époque, and forced her to leave the business in the inadequate hands of her sole employee, Gilda Bachman.
She looked around. There was Rose, beau stealer, one row ahead of her. Even though they’d made up, Thelma would always contend that she’d seen Harold Freemont, Rose’s late husband, first and had dibs. Sitting next to her was golden girl Laverne Hodge. Thelma wished sad-sack Gilda could be more like Laverne, who was steady, smart and a workaholic, even if she was on the shady side of seventy. Thelma’s granddaughter, Cissy Peterson, said she was too hard on Gilda, but Cissy was what the youngsters called clueless. Clueless; what did that mean? Without a mystery board game? She snickered and caught a dirty look from some frumpy-dumpy woman who put her finger to her lips like a librarian.
Her attention drifted to the others. Distracted once again, Thelma surveyed the group, wondering how she’d gotten mixed up with such an oddball assortment of folks. Who would think so many people in their small town of Gracious Grove would collect teapots? Her own collection wasn’t near as big as Rose’s, but she didn’t pay the earth for them, either, not like some folk with more money than brains—not naming names, of course, but if the flowery name fit . . . She tried to get her achy back more comfortable, and the chair creaked and squawked. Every eye in the place fixed on her, so she mumbled an apology as that Sommer fellow droned on. Back to teapots . . . Thelma figured if a spout was chipped or a lid was cracked, you just turned that side of the teapot to the wall.
She sighed. This place was hotter than a bordello on nickel night, like her daddy used to say just before her mama shushed him. Thelma wished she were up in her room lying down on the clean white coverlet with the window open. Most of the Silver Spouts club had decided to come and she was stuck rooming with that SuLinn Miller girl, a Gracious Grove newcomer and barely thirty, if she was a day. All she did was text on her phone and listen to music on her headphones. No conversation at all, so far, in the few hours they had been here. Except now she was sitting up bright and perky listening to that Walter Sommer fellow drone on about who knew what.
To distract herself from the boredom of listening to a fellow with the voice of a bumblebee, she examined the other Silver Spout members in attendance. There were the two old men—Laverne’s father, Malcolm Hodge, ninety-plus but still full of spit and vinegar, and Horace Brubaker, a vigorous ninety-seven. Rounding out the group was that young fellow, Josh Sinclair, who had a little single room down the hall. Since Thelma had just joined it was all new to her, but Rose and Laverne had explained that there were three other collecting groups besides the Silver Spouts in attendance at the New York State divisional convention: the Niagara Teapot Collectors Group, the Genesee Valley Tea Totalers and the Monroe Tea Belles. There should have been another but they were mysteriously absent, so far. Some were staying in the inn, while others were rooming with local collectors.
Thelma shifted in discomfort as Sommer groaned on. The room had rickety seating, dark paneling and no ventilation to speak of. If things didn’t get going soon at this danged convention she’d call Gilda and tell her to bring the car and pick her up. She regretted not coming in her own vehicle, but Cissy was beginning to make faint noises about Thelma not driving by herself anymore, so she had come with SuLinn. As if a couple of fender benders were such a big deal. Or a traffic ticket for going too slow—how stupid was that? Too slow was better than too fast. And who didn’t have a parking infraction or two? Or three. A ticket for parking facing the wrong way on a street? It just seemed silly to her that the driver had to park so they had to get out of the car into traffic. Why shouldn’t she park so she could get out of the car on the sidewalk, like a civilized person? What difference did it make on a quiet side street in Gracious Grove?
A couple of the folks were whispering to each other. Looked like a sweaty fellow in the front row and the New York division president were arguing about something. Thelma strained her neck to see, but was blocked by Rose and Laverne and the rest in front of her. Darn it, but they had stopped. That Zunia woman, the chapter president—Rose had pointed her out as they took their seats—had moved to sit away from the feller she’d been arguing with, but now she was shooting poisonous glances at a pretty red-haired girl who sat near the door, all alone and lonesome. She was Irish-looking, with that reddish hair and freckles all over. Poor kid sure seemed downhearted.
Thelma glanced ahead at Rose again, still clutching that dumb metal pot that she had bought at some dealer’s shop in Ithaca. You’d think it was solid gold or something, the way she mooned over it! Rose had told them all that there was going to be a “Stump the Expert” portion at the end of today’s talk; she was presenting her new prize to be looked over by Zunia Pettigrew. Rose said the Ithaca antiques dealer had told her it was likely Chinese, but Sophie, Rose’s granddaughter, had done some research and didn’t think it was.
Rose wanted to know if Zunia Pettigrew, who had a PhD in historical objects identification, could tell her about it. Thelma could have saved her the trouble and told her it was a hunk of junk, but everyone would get their unders in a knot if she said that. Folks just didn’t want to know the truth.
Walter Sommer wound up his lengthy speech by giving the floor back to Zunia Pettigrew, a sour-faced, dark little elf if ever Thelma had seen one. Zunia minced back up to the dais in her five-inch heels, thanked Walter effusively, and said, “And now we come to the most interesting part of the day! We will soon adjourn to the dining room for afternoon tea, but I see a few folks in the audience who have brought teapots for me to look at.”
A fellow in the front row stood and applauded, shouting, “Bravo for Zunia!”
“Who in tarnation is that fool?” Thelma muttered.
“Shh! That’s Pastor Frank Barlow; he’s a member of the Niagara Teapot Collectors Group, Zunia’s club,” Laverne whispered.
Pastor? Looked more like a crooked accountant at an audit, and sweating just as bad, too.
“Who’s first?” Zunia chirped, looking around. She smiled thinly at Pastor Frank, but it looked more like a grimace to Thelma.
* * *
Rose, who was excited that she was finally going to learn something about her teapot, was about to stand, but one of the Monroe Tea Belles was quicker and approached the lectern holding out a teapot in the shape of a cottage. Zunia took it, turned it around in her hands, then handed it back. “Well, of course, that is a Price Brothers teapot . . . Ye Olde Cottage. Very common. It’s cracked, almost worthless. Next!”
The Tea Belles member returned to her seat among her friends, her face slightly red and her shoulders slumped. Rose felt for her and eyed Zunia with distaste. The woman was voted New York State division president just a year ago. Laverne had attended that convention with her father, along with Helen and Annabelle, two of their friends, while Rose stayed behind to look after Auntie Rose’s Victorian Tea House. So though Rose knew Zunia slightly from her attendance at the convention the year before, she hadn’t been there when the choice was made to elect her with no opposition.
“Is she always like this?” Rose whispered to Laverne.
Her friend, dark eyes narrowed with anger, nodded. “Drunk on power. Only reason everyone voted for her last year was they were afraid not to. And there was no one else standing against her! Ran a smear campaign against Rhiannon Galway. Poor girl withdrew and Zunia was elected just like that.”
Rose nodded. She knew some of that from their discussions when Laverne came back from the convention last August. Rhiannon Galway, of Galway Fine Teas in Butterhill, was her supplier, making up packets of Auntie Rose’s Tea-riffic Tea Blend in bulk for her, a black tea blended with Chinese and Kenyan leaves, creating a strong yet mellow brew. But the girl was reserved and Rose didn’t know her well.
She glanced over at Rhiannon, who sat alone near the door, her lips compressed into a thin line and her gaze distant. Sophie had struck up a friendship with Rhi, as she called her. They were close in age and refugees from New York City, where Rhiannon had tried to open a shop to extend her mother’s tea business. It had failed miserably. Poor girl had been through a lot, it was rumored. No one quite knew what it was that Zunia had against her, but she had hinted at scandals that would hurt the image of the ITCS if they got out. According to Laverne it appeared that Rhiannon had backed down rather than force a confrontation, as if Zunia had some kind of hold over her.
She didn’t actually belong to any of the groups but was still a member of the society and acted as its tea supplier. That was a lot of business, when you considered that the ITCS had over a thousand members, many of whom ran tearooms or bed-and-breakfast establishments and so bought a lot of tea. As they arrived Rhiannon had handed out gift bags with various tea-related items, donated by her shop. However, it had been whispered among the groups, as they gathered before the meeting, that Zunia was going to try this year to oust Rhiannon as the official tea supplier to the ITCS, thus severing her only real connection to the society, since she was not a teapot collector, nor did she belong to a collecting group. No one knew why other than their run-in at the last convention the previous summer.
One of the Tea Totalers approached the dais and held out a bird-shaped figural teapot. Zunia took it and turned it over and over, her dark eyes pinched and her brow furrowed. “This is . . . uh . . . well, it’s definitely English. Victorian. Worth a couple of hundred, perhaps. Next!”
“Excuse me,” the woman, a tall, gaunt, gray-haired senior, said. “I believe you’re mistaken. The pot is clearly marked on the bottom ‘Bavaria’—in other words, German. I’m not asking the country of origin, I was merely wondering what era the pot might be from, and if you’d ever seen the pottery mark before.”
Zunia’s face, framed in a dark bob, reddened. She pushed the pot back into the woman’s hands and folded her arms over her prominent bosom. “If you’re going to argue about it, you can just sit down. Next!”
The whispers became a steady murmur. Even Walter looked uneasy, though little fazed him, Rose had observed at past conventions. He exchanged a glance with his wife, Nora, who sat in the front row of the audience. From Rose’s angle it appeared that she didn’t meet his glance, instead remaining stone-faced and unresponsive, staring straight ahead at the wood-paneled front wall. Zunia’s husband, Orlando, appeared anxious, scanning the crowd. His daughter, Emma, a sullen teen, tried to get up but he held on to her arm firmly with one hand, while he pulled out a handkerchief, flapped it open, wiped his red eyes and blew his nose.
Laverne nudged Rose. “You going up there or what?” she muttered. “Come on, old friend, you can best her.”
No one else appeared to have anything more, so it was now or never. Though she no longer cared what Zunia Pettigrew had to say, nor did she have much confidence the woman knew what she was talking about, she was not going to back down without even doing what she came to do. Rose stood and approached the lectern with her teapot presented.
Zunia stared at it, squinted, frowned and seemed reluctant. She finally took it from Rose and turned it over and over in her hands. She was a small woman, but with a big attitude. Rose had seen her quicksilver changes in temperament, from smiling and laughing to lashing out in anger. She looked sour in that moment, but perhaps the previous trouble had made her cautious. “What can you tell me about it?” she asked, glancing over at Rose as she thumbed the elaborate silvery braided decoration that overlaid the copper belly and spout. “I’d like to see how much you know.”
“I bought it from an antiques dealer in Ithaca. He thought it was Chinese, but my granddaughter doesn’t believe that’s so.” Rose hesitated. Sophie had done a lot of research, and believed that it was not a teapot at all, but a Buddhist holy water vessel. Rose had decided that she would have a teapot “expert” evaluate it, but now she thought she might not know anything more when Zunia was done than when she had begun. “One thing I do know is, it’s old. Silver over copper, we think.”
Zunia turned it over and over, squinted over at Rose, then picked up her jewelers’ loupe, examining the bottom closely. She then made a noise between her teeth. “Hah! Not an antique at all. The hallmarks are fake, even the patina is fake. It’s a cheap repro made in Hong Kong.” She shoved it back at Rose and looked around the room. “They’re designed to fool unwise collectors who don’t know what they’re doing. Is that it?” She looked around, as Rose stood stunned, with her piece cradled in her arms. “Then we can go to the dining room for afternoon tea.”
“Wait just a minute,” Rose demanded, arresting the crowd as folks obediently stood, with a rustle and murmur. The noise stopped, and it was as if the group collectively held its breath. “I may not have a degree, but this is no reproduction,” she said to Zunia. “It’s at least a couple of hundred years old, maybe more!”
The murmuring of the group began again, whispers and mutters of interest.
“Rose Beaudry Freemont, right?” Zunia said, eyeing her. “You always were a know-it-all.”
Rose heard Thelma snicker and shot her a look. As Zunia Pettigrew turned away, Rose snapped, “Don’t you speak to me like that, young lady!” and grabbed her arm to keep her in place.
“Ow, ow!” Zunia cried, jerking her arm away. “You hurt me! I won’t be manhandled. Orlando, will you behave like a proper husband and help me out here?!”
Orlando Pettigrew leaped up from his chair and moved toward the pair as his daughter, Emma, began to laugh. It was an unpleasant sound filled with malice, ugly from such a young girl. Rose caught Josh’s expression as he stared at Emma. He came from a happy family and seemed puzzled by the resentment Emma apparently had toward her stepmother.
“Zunia Pettigrew, I did not hurt your arm!” Rose said, refocusing on the chapter president. “For heaven’s sake, I’m eighty, and you’re fifty. I’m not strong enough to hurt you!”
“Fifty?” Zunia shrieked. “I’m thirty-eight, I’ll have you know. Fifty! Of all the insults . . .” She reached out, grabbed Rose’s shoulder and gave it a shove.
Rose staggered but found her footing as the room buzzed with shocked conversation and even an outcry of distress. Laverne stood, moved swiftly down to the aisle and then strode forward, saying, “Zunia Pettigrew, you calm down and don’t you dare lay your hands on Rose again.”
Walter Sommer stepped up to the embattled trio, stuck out both hands, palms outward, and cleared his throat. “Ladies, tempers, tempers!”
Rose, clutching her teapot to her chest, said, “Walter Sommer, as ITCS president, why don’t you tell Zunia Pettigrew to stop being such a petty tyrant?”
Walter shook his head, reached toward Zunia, then stopped, cleared his throat again, surveyed the chattering group with a sweeping glance, and said, “We will now adjourn to have tea and everyone will calm their nerves with the bewitching brew, as poets call it.”
His mixture of pomposity and oily solicitude was grating. Zunia tossed her head and stormed off, grabbing Orlando’s arm and dragging him after her as Emma followed, snickering at her stepmother’s anger.
The dining room at the Stone and Scone Inn was across the small, dark lobby from the conference room. Though about the same size, it was lighter and brighter, paneled in white wainscoting and with dusty gilt chandeliers dangling from the high ceilings. It would be set for dinner in just two hours, but in the meantime the inn serving staff had set it up for afternoon tea for the conventioneers. Round tables layered in white-and-pink damask tablecloths dotted the room; fresh flowers in bowls adorned the center of each table. The tea ware was restaurant-quality Villeroy & Boch, but at least it was patterned in green and looked fresh against the pink tablecloths.
The dining room, cooler than the convention room had been, was abuzz with chatter. Zunia and the other members of the ITCS national executive committee, which consisted of Walter Sommer, his wife, Nora, and other ITCS members from different chapters, sat at a table in the center. Penelope Daley, a large blonde woman with frizzy hair in a cut that emphasized a long jaw, was bent toward the pastor, talking at him. He cleaned his glasses and watched Zunia, who chatted with a pair of sixtyish twin sisters.
Rose and her group sat at a big round table near the back, her grand teapot, or whatever it was, on the table in front of her. Laverne examined a scone then spread it with fruit preserve and bit into it. “Not bad,” she mumbled. “Not as good as ours, but not bad.”
The tea, a strong mix of black teas, was excellent, of course, a special ITCS blend from Rhiannon Galway’s shop. It should have been refreshing but wasn’t doing the trick for Rose, who was still upset about the confrontation with Zunia. She tried to soothe herself by people-watching, a favorite pastime of hers. For the most part the groups stayed within their own tight circles. Rose knew many of the members but it was a superficial acquaintance, revived only every two years. It seemed that many of the members she had known for years had drifted away, canceling their memberships just in the past twelve months.
“I know it’s just Friday afternoon and that more will arrive tomorrow, but it seems to be a smaller gathering this year,” she said, and sipped her tea. “We’re missing at least ten or twelve ladies who used to arrive for the Friday introductory meeting every year. And one entire club is missing in action; where are the Catskill Collectors?”
“Remember I told you about the trouble Zunia had last summer?”
Rose nodded. Laverne had given her the whole scoop: Zunia Pettigrew, her sights firmly set on the chapter presidency, had taken over every meeting as if it were her due, even though she was a relative newcomer to the ITCS.
“I guess I forgot to also tell you that the CC group was especially critical of her, since their club founder was the outgoing chapter president. They threatened to quit en masse if she was elected and I guess they did just that.”
Saddened by the fracture in a formerly peaceful and fun-loving group, Rose scanned the room. One bad apple really did spoil the whole barrel, sometimes, she supposed. SuLinn Miller, a newer member of the Silver Spouts, was sitting at a small table near the door into the lobby chatting with Rhiannon Galway. SuLinn, who had recently moved to Gracious Grove with her husband, architect Randy Miller, had started out shy with no local friends. She now seemed to be getting into the swing of living in a small town, as opposed to New York City, where she was from. Sophie and SuLinn had become fast friends over the last couple of months. Rhiannon was in that same age group, which was perhaps why SuLinn gravitated to her in a group of mostly older folks, middle-aged and beyond.
Rose was grateful that her granddaughter had friends her own age in Gracious Grove. No one knew as well as Rose how Sophie had been shattered by the closure of her beloved restaurant. It had been the dream of a lifetime, and she had put every bit of her bountiful energy into it, as well as all her saved cash and every waking moment of her time. When it went belly-up, the other investors refused to do a thing to save it. Sophie’s own efforts to make the changes she felt In Fashion needed to survive the difficult New York City food climate weren’t enough and it crushed her. She had limped back to Gracious Grove and Auntie Rose’s Victorian Tea House with a wounded spirit, like a beautiful bird with a broken wing.
SuLinn and Rhiannon, as well as Cissy Peterson, who was an old friend from the summers Sophie spent in Gracious Grove as a child and teen, and Dana Saunders, another friend from that time, had given Sophie back the camaraderie that she had lost while working too hard and long on a doomed dream. Rose glanced over at Laverne, who was surveying the group with dark, intelligent eyes. Friends were the glue that held a lifetime of memories together. Rose would never have survived the loss—many years ago now—of her husband, and that of her son in the Vietnam War, if not for Laverne.
Her thoughts drifted back to her granddaughter and Jason Murphy, a local boy and Sophie’s first boyfriend when she was just sixteen and he eighteen. Rose never knew what went on between them when Sophie’s mom, Rosalind, came to get her to take her to boarding school that August, but she and Jason broke up on bad terms and were just now, thirteen years later, making amends. Rose had a feeling her granddaughter'still had a soft spot for Jason, now a professor of English at Cruickshank College, but Sophie didn’t talk about it much. As far as Rose knew they were just friends.
“Excuse me, Rose Freemont?”
Rose looked up to see the woman from the Tea Belles, the first to be put down by Zunia. “Hello! We’ve met here before, have we not?”
“Yes, two years ago, my first year at the ITCS convention. I’m Jemima Littlefield.”
She was a plump woman, in her seventies, Rose judged, with a lined, round face, a worried expression and a habit of wringing her hands. “Why don’t you sit for a moment, Jemima; rest your bones!”
She sat down next to Rose and said, “I was so happy to hear you put that awful woman in her place!”
“I don’t feel like I put her in her place,” Rose said. She looked across the room, where Zunia, with her circle of fellow committee members, was holding court, gesticulating and shooting malevolent glances around the room. “I should have held my tongue. No good comes of talking in anger.”
Laverne murmured, “Some women need to be told.”
“I wouldn’t have had the nerve to say what you did,” Jemima admitted to Rose.
At that moment the other woman who had brought a teapot to the talk joined them. She and Jemima greeted each other as old friends, with air kisses and pats on the shoulder, and she hovered over them as serving staff brought around urns of hot water to heat up the individual pots of tea at each table. “That woman is a poisonous menace,” she said, after introducing herself as Faye Alice Benson. “I know for a fact she is the sole reason the Catskill Collectors quit the ITCS. Zunia Pettigrew makes a bad enemy, though. I was not going to stir that particular pot, even though I had to say my teapot was clearly German porcelain. I don’t know if she is missing her glasses or her medication,” she finished, acidly.
“Certainly odd mistakes to make for someone claiming a PhD!” Rose said.
“PhD! Hah! Maybe a doctorate in faking it,” Laverne said, with a snort of derision. “She was never actually clear about what discipline the PhD was for, or where it was from.”
“Why don’t you run to replace her next year, Faye Alice?” Jemima asked.
“And have to work with that letch Walter Sommer? I don’t think so.”
“I think we would be safe from him at our age, dear,” Jemima said, suppressing a smile.
Laverne said, “Some men don’t care about a woman’s age. They just can’t help but try to lure the female of the species!”
Rose chuckled. “Speaking of age, is Zunia Pettigrew really thirty-eight?”
“No, you had it right,” Jemima said. “I know for a fact she is fifty-one, the same age as my eldest, Lesley. They were sorority sisters. When my Lesley heard the name Zunia, she knew just who I meant. How many folks have that name, after all? Said Zunia was always spiteful and not too bright. Constantly has plans and plots, but they never work out.”
* * *
While the crowd babbled, Thelma worked her way laboriously around the room, sitting down in a chair every once in a while to rest her feet. She had been sitting with the other Silver Spouts but had tottered away, working herself up into a righteous snit. Rose was doing her usual thing, gathering a group of folks who all hung on her every word and doted all over her. How she did it, Thelma would never know. She wasn’t that fascinating! But Harold Freemont, the best beau at the Gracious Grove Methodist Church picnic, sure thought so sixty-some-odd years ago and didn’t give Thelma another look once he saw Rose Beaudry, as she was then.
However . . . forgive and forget, Thelma repeated to herself like one of those man trees the young folks were always babbling about. Man tiaras. Man-whatevers. She hobbled through the room and listened in on a conversation among the group that called themselves the Tea Totalers. Dumb name. Did they even know what a teetotaler was? Nothing whatever to do with tea. With a low groan for her poor old feet, she sank into a chair near the table.
“Well, I say bravo to Rose Freemont for standing up to Zunia,” a thick-waisted middle-aged woman exclaimed. “If even one of us had the guts to do that last year, we wouldn’t be stuck with her as division president now.”
Thelma made eye contact with the speaker, and winked. “Zunia Pettigrew better watch out, you know,” she said, with a knowing nod. “That Rose Freemont, she’s a dangerous one. I’ve known her for over sixty years. Looks like a fluffy old lady, but tell that to the woman who died at her tearoom!” She clapped her mouth shut. She hadn’t meant to lie, but it was out before she thought twice. In fact, she had promised Cissy she wouldn’t lie anymore—the woman had died in her tearoom in May, not Rose’s, after all—but old habits die hard. She was so used to trying to sink Rose’s business it just slipped out, even though she had vowed to stop.
Six pairs of eyes widened; various painted-on or natural eyebrows rose. The speaker grabbed her sleeve and tugged her to sit closer, pushing out a chair so Thelma could shift over more easily. “Do tell! It sounds simply fascinating. I heard about a murder in a tearoom in Gracious Grove.”
All six women watched her and awaited her next words. She should correct the impression she had given, but, drunk with the interest of so many at once, she couldn’t help but go on. “Oh, I could tell you a thing or two about Rose Freemont,” she said, dropping another wink, like she had a fluttering eye problem. “Still waters run deep, you know!”
* * *
Across the tearoom Rose and Laverne were soon alone at the table; Josh was off talking to one of the young bus staff, SuLinn was still chatting with Rhiannon Galway, and Horace and Malcolm had gone to their room next to the conference room, after which they were going to take a walk—their daily constitutional, as they called it. Laverne yawned. “I am tired!” she said. “You wouldn’t think this would be more wearing than working all day at the tea house, but it is.”
“I suppose you get used to the work, but this is something different.” Rose glanced around, uneasy. “Laverne, I’m getting an odd feeling.”
“Not your heart, is it? Angina? Indigestion?”
“No, nothing like that. I mean, look around. Folks are staring. And whispering. What’s going on?”
Laverne scanned the gathering. “You’re right. Something is going on, and I don’t have a good feeling about it.”
Uneasily they both glanced around the room, alone in a sea of chattering folks.
Some were just plain busy with other mundane things. Orlando Pettigrew was swallowing a couple of tablets while arguing with his daughter, Emma, who had her arms crossed over her chest and her lip jutted out almost as much as her hip. Zunia stormed over to them and began to argue, too, gesticulating and waving her arms around, but Orlando just took out a kerchief and blew his nose. Pastor Frank was now sitting alone with Penelope Daley; he cast anguished glances toward Zunia, while Penelope earnestly talked at him, plucking his shirtsleeve and patting his hand to get his attention.
But the other collector groups were clustered together in one knot, and in the center was Thelma Mae Earnshaw. Rose got a troubled feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“What do you think Thelma is up to?” Rose asked her friend.
They watched the gazes cast toward them. When the other convention goers saw Rose and Laverne watching, they bent their heads back toward Thelma.
“I can’t imagine,” Laverne said. “That’s the scary part. I just can’t imagine. With Thelma it’s always something unexpected. That time she posted the notice in the Gazette that we were closed for renovations . . . Who would have expected that? Or the time she managed to imply that we had an E. coli scare.”
“Thelma’s problem has always been that she is impulsive. She was that way as a girl, and it never got better. But she’s promised to behave,” Rose said. Should she march over and find out? Rose wondered. That was ridiculous; she knew these people and Thelma didn’t. Surely nothing her irascible old friend said would be taken seriously. She sighed wearily; at any rate, she’d handle it tomorrow.
Over the last two months it hadn’t been easy bringing Thelma into the Silver Spouts, Rose reflected, and there wasn’t consensus when she proposed it. Two of their friends, Helen and Annabelle, were sitting out this year’s convention because Rose had invited Thelma to attend. Annabelle, in particular, found her upsetting; Thelma needled her constantly about her two late husbands, calling her the Black Widow and making insinuating remarks.
It had been too late to uninvite her at that point, and Rose regretted that her two old friends had stayed home. She didn’t quite know how to handle the trouble with Thelma yet, but would soon have to figure out what to do. She wouldn’t let her go on sowing dissension in the Silver Spouts, and she was afraid that might mean pitching her out of the group. “I think I need to go lie down,” Rose said.
“Do you want me to go over there and find out what’s going on?” Laverne asked, her striking face set in an expression of concern mingled with anger. Though they were as different in appearance as any two women could be—Laverne was tall, robust, dark-skinned and still dark-haired while Rose was short, round, pale and white-haired—they were similar in the ways that mattered. Both were hardworking, with a strong moral outlook, loved their families and were as close as the sisters neither of them had.
“No, Laverne, let it go,” Rose said, putting her hand on her friend’s arm. “Whatever it is, we can handle it tomorrow. Patience. Do you have the room key?”
“I do.” Laverne handed it over, a thick brass key on a numbered key tag. No newfangled key cards for the historic Stone and Scone Inn! “You go ahead and take the elevator and I’ll meet you up there. I’m taking the stairs.” Laverne climbed the stairs whenever she could, and claimed it was that same dedication to physical exertion that kept her daddy still relatively hale and hearty well into his centenary decade.
Rose grabbed her handbag, picked up her teapot, and they left the tearoom. The staircase was to the right of the check-in desk. Laverne headed to the stairs while Rose started toward the elevator, which was on the other side of the desk. A door slammed and the inn’s owner charged out from behind the check-in counter and crashed into Rose. Her teapot went flying and hit the floor, bouncing and rolling several feet.
“Oh my gosh, ma’am, I’m so sorry!” Bertie Handler, a short, fussy, fidgety man, raced after the errant teapot. He picked it up and rushed back to Rose. Laverne, who had paused to see if Rose needed help, started up the stairs as Bertie thrust the pot into Rose’s arms. “But it’s dented!” he mourned, touching the dimple with one finger.
“Don’t you worry about that,” Rose said, catching her breath. “It already had that dent in it.” At least she hoped it was the same one. Despite Zunia’s disparaging comments, she was still convinced the teapot was old and worth money; a new dent wouldn’t help its value. Although she had never been one to collect teapots because they were worth a lot, but because she liked them. This one gave her a sense of serenity when she held it, like it had poured a million cups of tea—or holy water—and heard a million prayers.
She put one hand on the inn owner’s arm and examined him with concern. She had known Bertie for a long time, but this year he seemed excessively nervous and looked like he was aging rapidly, his sparse hair changing from the sandy brown it had always been to gray. His pocked face was ashen, like he needed sunshine or iron pills. “You need to slow down, Bertie. Take it easier!”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Tempest in a Teapot
“An intriguing debut, brewed with a rich blend of tea and empathy.”—Virginia Lowell, national bestselling author of Cookies and Scream
“This light-hearted mystery becomes a page-turner of a read that I could not put down.”—MyShelf.com