Louisiana hat designer Missy DuBois has had a longstanding love affair with antebellum architecture. So when the Sweetwater mansion goes on the market for a fraction of what she’d expect, she’s tempted to set up shop surrounded by alabaster columns and gleaming mahogany. The Southern connections only deepen when the real estate agent turns out to be Missy’s old sorority sister Mellette Babineaux.
But when Missy drags her best friend Bo along to the mansion for a second look, they barely make it past the live oaks before they discover Mellette dead in a shed. Now, for the sake of her college friend, Missy starts investigating everyone from a superstitious Cajun caretaker to a Rolls Royce-driving billionaire—and finding that lots of closet space can mean lots of skeletons, too.
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Something Foul at Sweetwater
By Sandra Bretting
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Sandra Bretting
All rights reserved.
Heaven only knows I should have brought back a tote sack full of beignets that day, like I'd planned, and not a sales flyer for the old Sweetwater mansion down the road.
But how could I resist something so full up on Southern charm first thing in the morning? Especially when I rounded the last curve before Dippin' Donuts and saw a For Sale sign waving at me from the property's front lawn, like a friendly neighbor saying hey.
I swerved off the road, my tires spitting pea gravel and chalk dust, for a better look. Ever since I moved to Louisiana to open a hat shop, about a year and a half ago now, I'd been mesmerized by the antebellum mansions that seemed to sprout from the soil here every so often, like elegant daylilies planted in the sugarcane fields by mistake.
This particular mansion sat high on a hill. Two regiments of live oaks lined the front walk, their limbs bearded in wispy Spanish moss and their branches arching until the boughs touched. Beyond this leafy keyhole sat the mansion, which was held aloft by at least half a dozen alabaster columns. Bright August sun glanced off a column to the east, as if God wanted to shine a spotlight there, while the rest of the pillars patiently awaited their turns.
Best of all, a Plexiglas box full of flyers rested against the For Sale sign. My granddaddy always said it didn't cost nuthin' to look, so I scrambled out of my VW and retrieved a flyer, which was written in fancy cursive type:
Historic mansion for sale. Built in 1850. Jewel in the rough!
Which was all well and good, but not the most important thing. I found that two paragraphs later:
Owners willing to finance. $250,000.
Well, that couldn't be right. A house this grand — surely on the National Register of Historic Places and surely as pretty inside as out — should go for double or triple that amount. A builder would kill for the columns alone, not to mention the expensive iron railing that curled along a widow's walk on high.
Between all that and a wide plank veranda that circled the ground floor like a hoop skirt, the flyer must be lying.
Ambrose needed to see this. Given my best friend was already at his design studio and waiting for me to bring him some beignets, though, I'd have to choose my words carefully and not go running off at the mouth. I dialed his cell and patiently waited through a few rings.
"Hi, Missy. What's wrong?"
Unfortunately, that was the greeting you got when you'd called your best friend so early on a Monday morning. "Nothing's wrong. Any chance you're up for a little drive?"
"Why?" A suspicious pause. "You didn't run out of gas again, did you?"
"No, nothing like that. I was driving along, minding my p's and q's, when I saw that old mansion on the road to the doughnut store. You remember the one? Only now it's got a For Sale sign in the front yard, and I'm pretty sure it's a sign from heaven."
His sigh said more than any words could. "Missy, everyone knows those old houses eat money. Best thing you can do is walk away."
That was my Ambrose — practical to a T. Whereas I believed more was more and never less, Ambrose was of a different mind. Bless his heart.
In Bo's defense, he couldn't see the forest-green shutters that book-ended perfectly spaced windows or the attic dormers that gazed over the manicured lawn with obvious approval or how the whole shebang culminated in an actual widow's walk. Breathtaking, it was. Simply breathtaking.
"That's the thing." I added my own pause for special effect. "The price is right here on the flyer. Could be a typo, but it's a sight less than what they charge for new houses around here."
"Missy." Out came the voice he used when he tried to protect me from myself. "Think about it. Do you know how much it'd cost to cool a place like that all summer?"
"No." I hadn't even considered the more practical matters, like air-conditioning or heaters or keeping the grass green. "Wait a minute. Someone walked out on the front porch. Wonder if they'll let me in?"
"Gotta run. Meet me back at the rent house," I said.
Ambrose and I shared what the locals called a "rent house" down the road, although one day I hoped we'd share a whole lot more.
I tucked the cell into my skirt pocket and hurried up the lawn. "You-hoo! You there."
The stranger froze. Judging by the crook of her pale neck and a wispy ponytail she'd feathered over one shoulder — which reminded me of the silvered moss — the old gal was about eighty or so.
"Are you the owner?" My voice boomed in the morning quiet, but I didn't want the stranger to hightail it back inside before we could speak. "I see it's for sale. I'm renting a house down the road with my best friend, and I've driven by your property a thousand times."
I was rambling, but by this time, it'd be plum rude of her not to acknowledge me. That was why what happened next startled me so. Instead of giving me a proper greeting and ushering me inside the house, like any good Southerner would, this old gal turned tail and ran back through the door lickety-split, as if I'd waved a Smith & Wesson high in the air and not a real-estate flyer.
Well, I never. Southern hospitality, my foot!
I stalked to the front door and began to knock, since I never did truck with bad manners. It swung open after a moment, but only because it was manned by someone new. This woman looked to be about my age — or as I liked to say, on the north side of thirty — and she wore a green business suit with matching shoes. Her face seemed vaguely familiar.
"I'm sorry about Ruby," she said.
"I should hope so." It wasn't this woman's fault I'd run into the rudest person I'd yet to meet in Louisiana, but the old gal had wounded my pride. "I only want to peek inside."
"Of course you do. Come on in."
The stranger waved me in, which caused a tangle of bracelets on her wrist to jingle like wind chimes. "Sorry again about Ruby."
The sting of the slight faded, though, the minute I walked through the front door. Hardwood floors glimmered beneath my feet like still water on a bayou, and the walls wore rich panels of striated mahogany. A needlepoint tapestry of herons two-stepping somewhere in the Gulf covered an entire wall, the gentle S curve of the birds' necks like a wavy line of sea foam.
"It's so beautiful!" I said.
"The house was built in 1850. That's before the Civil War."
Slowly my eyes adjusted to the dim light. "I know all about these old mansions."
I'd been hired to work for a bride at one of them some six months back. Unfortunately, I ended up smack-dab in the middle of a crime-scene investigation before everything got put to rights again, but I ended up loving the mansion even so.
Now small details began to emerge from the furnishings around me. Bits of silk dangled from the tapestry's hem like marsh grass, the baseboards beneath it wore decades of scuff marks, and even the front door didn't quite meet up with its frame. No matter.
"A wedding planner hired me for a ceremony at Morningside Plantation," I said. "'Course, this mansion's a lot smaller, but that's just as well. I never thought people actually sold these old houses."
"Well, you're lucky. This one's owned by a trust and they're in a hurry to get rid of it. Are you interested? I'm the Realtor here. Name's Mellette. Mellette Babineaux."
She thrust out her hand, which set off the bracelets again and also called up the smell of menthol cigarettes.
"Why ... I know you." I shook her hand, amazed to meet someone from my past right here in Louisiana. "I'm Missy DuBois. You went to Vanderbilt, right?"
"I did indeed. Thank goodness for those academic scholarships."
"But you were in a sorority too. Weren't you were the chapter president of Pi Phi? I was a coupla years behind you."
She seemed pleased to be recognized. "Ain't that the berries! We're sorority sisters. My godmother paid for that, hallelujah."
"Do you ever get back to Nashville?" I asked.
"'Fraid not. Work keeps me too busy. You?"
"The same. I still have T-shirts from the parties, though. Boxes and boxes of them. Can't quite make myself toss 'em in the garbage."
She smiled wistfully. "I only bought a few. What did you say your name is again?"
"Missy. Missy DuBois. I moved to town about a year and a half ago."
Her eyes widened. "Are you the gal who opened a hat shop in town? People told me that store wouldn't last more than six months, but look at you! It's been a sight longer and it seems to be going great guns. Amazing we haven't met before now."
"Well, not to brag, but Crowning Glory turned a year old at Christmas." Which felt wonderful to be able to say. When I found out Southern plantations all along the Great River Road attracted brides like flies to honey, I set myself up making hats, veils, and whatnot for wedding parties. Ambrose owned the shop next to mine, where he made custom gowns for brides and their maids.
"You're gonna make us all proud," she said. "Maybe you could speak to our alumnae group sometime. We meet once a month at the Junior League."
I was about to respond when the older woman who'd been so rude to me earlier emerged from the shadows.
"There you are," Mellette said. "Ruby here is the caretaker. Unfortunately, today's Monday. You know what that means, don't you?"
I racked my brain but came up empty. "Can't say that I do."
"It's bad luck to be visited by a woman first thing on Monday morning," she said. "In some parts of the bayou, that is. Silly superstition, if you ask me. As if that would make a difference."
Ruby quickly cut her eyes at Mellette. "Ya bes' not be sayin' dat, madam."
Why, I'd know a Cajun accent anywhere. I'd met a gardener at a wedding a few months back who stretched out his vowels like this old gal.
"You must be Cajun," I said. "French Creole, right?"
"Born in des parish."
Before I could speak again, Mellette turned.
"Where are my manners? Ruby, go get our guest some sweet tea. This humidity is going to be the death of us all. Guess we should expect as much come August."
When Ruby didn't hop to it, Mellette's smile hardened. "Today, preferably."
That made the old woman finally back away, but not before she cut her eyes at the real estate agent.
"That one's a pill," Mellette said, once Ruby was gone. "Wouldn't be surprised if she's got a voodoo doll back at her house that looks exactly like me. Bless her heart. Now, let's start in the drawing room and we'll work our way up."
I followed along as Mellette led me from one room to the next. The rooms were small by today's standards and desperate for some fresh paint and spackle, but other than that, I couldn't see any major flaws. And thick crown molding covered the walls, not to mention cut-crystal wall sconces that reflected light onto them like dusty diamonds.
"I have to ask." I couldn't hold my tongue any longer. "Why the low price? It should go for double or triple that amount."
"There's a bit of work to be done." Mellette shrugged. "And there's been some talk about voodoo ceremonies or some such. Not that this particular mansion had slaves, mind you, because it didn't."
Funny she felt the need to answer a question I hadn't even asked. After a bit, we wandered back to the staircase, where Ruby finally stood with my tumbler of sweet tea.
"That voodoo's all nonsense. Right, Ruby?" Mellette asked.
"If'n ya say so." Ruby handed me the sweating tumbler. "Nobody be doin' dat stuff 'round here no more."
"Well, that's good." I accepted the tumbler and took a sip. Just the way I liked it ... as sweet as honeysuckle. "Although it's hard to imagine why they'd pick somewhere so pretty to do it in the first place."
"Da place don' much matter, missus. It's all in da charms. Wot ya can do wit' da amulets an such."
"Ruby, you know that's a bunch of hooey," Mellette said. "Let's not give Missy here any crazy ideas, okay?"
It's a little too late for that. "So, when's the last time they had one of those voodoo things around here?"
"Years. Decades." Mellette tried to sound nonchalant, but her pinched face gave her away. "The house has been vacant for many years now. That's why the trust is selling it. They know it needs work, but the heirs don't want to keep it, so it's ripe for the picking. Did I mention there's even a studio out back?"
"You don't say." I followed her gaze to the window. "What kind of studio?"
"Look." She pointed to a whitewashed cottage that lay just beyond the glass. Pink swamp roses ambled over a pitched roofline, and purple verbena ran wild through an abandoned vegetable bed meant to hold carrots or cabbage. I fully expected seven dwarfs to emerge from the bottom of the Dutch door with pickaxes slung over their shoulders.
"It's a great place for someone to work on projects," Mellette said. "There are sweet little hidey-holes like that all over this place."
My heavenly days. The cottage would be perfect for a design studio! Even though the roof sagged some and the door was all catawampus, I could block and stitch and steam hats out there to my heart's content.
"Yep, imagine all the privacy you'd have," she added.
"You can say that again! But I need to talk to my best friend first. Maybe bring him out here for a tour. I trust his opinion on everything."
"Fine by me," she said. "But I suggest you get a move on if you want this place. Someone's bound to come along and scoop it up."
No doubt she was right. Places like this only came along but once in a blue moon. Maybe I could convince Ambrose to come over and tour the house with me and then I could bend his ear about all the wonderful ways we'd renovate it.
Although the morning had gotten off to a sour start, something great might come of it yet.CHAPTER 2
If the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, then everything I needed lay in a greasy bag of beignets I'd placed on the car seat next to me. One taste of that powdered sugar and choux paste and Ambrose would say yes to anything I proposed. Even to buying a derelict mansion so we could renovate it side by side.
My VW pitched and rumbled on the journey home, the sack of beignets bouncing along. Compared to Sweetwater, the little rent house we shared up ahead looked tiny.
Tiny, but quaint. It had bubblegum-pink walls and a used-brick fireplace, and it reminded me of something Barbie would own if she and Ken ever settled in the deep South. Best of all, I'd planted bee balm next to the front gate when we first moved in, and now hummingbirds and butterflies flitted around the place in abundance. I passed several as I made my way through the gate and into the house.
I slowed as I approached the kitchen. Here, sunshine warmed the butter-cream-yellow walls and splashed across a farmhouse table that went back two generations. That was where I found Ambrose, hunched over a plate of scrambled eggs and Jimmy Dean sausage.
"Look at you," I said. "And here I thought you'd starve to death."
His knife clattered onto the plate. "Hey, there. Where've you been? I thought we'd meet up an hour ago."
Today he wore my favorite polo: the lapis one that brought out his eyes. As we said down South, "I can't-never-could" resist a man with long eyelashes, and his reminded me of Bambi's.
"Here's the thing." Our farmhouse table had benches instead of chairs, so I plopped down next to him and laid the beignets between us. "I got to tour the Sweetwater mansion with a real estate agent. Boy, did I learn a thing or two."
"That so?" To be honest, his beautiful eyes kept leaving my face to scope out the oily sack on the table.
"It goes all the way back before the Civil War. Turns out a trust owns it, and they're looking to sell cheap. Do you know they only want two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for it? Never in my life did I think a house like that could be so inexpensive."
"Does it have a roof?"
I shot him a look. "Of course it has a roof. You've seen it. And real hardwood floors on the inside. Looked like mahogany to me. Point is, someone could fix up that place like nobody's business if they had half a mind to do it."
"So it's falling down, right? Maybe that's why they don't want very much for it. Sounds like a lot of maintenance to me."
If there was one thing my Ambrose was allergic to, it was maintenance. Didn't much matter if it involved our shops back in town, this old rent house or his brand-new Audi Quattro. He had a hard time looking beyond the elbow grease. Whereas I was the exact opposite. Give me a paintbrush, a rotary sander, and a crescent wrench, and I was happier than a dead pig in the sunshine.
"But you've always told me it's good to have a hobby," I said. "This is something we can do together, now that our businesses have taken off."
Excerpted from Something Foul at Sweetwater by Sandra Bretting. Copyright © 2016 Sandra Bretting. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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