Tea maven Theodosia Browning and her tea sommelier, Drayton Conneley, are catering a Victorian Christmas party at a swanky mansion in downtown Charleston. Drucilla Heyward, the hostess, is one of the wealthiest women in town.
As the champagne flows and the tea steeps, Drucilla is so pleased with the reception by her partygoers that she reveals her secret plan to Theodosia. The Grande Dame has brought the cream of Charleston society together to reveal that she is planning to give her wealth away to various charitable organizations. However, before she can make the announcement, Theodosia finds her crumpled unconscious in the hallway. It looks like the excitement has gotten to the elderly womanexcept that there is a syringe sticking out of her neck.
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'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house, a Victorian Christmas party was stirring in a genuine Victorian mansion at one of the swankiest addresses in all of Charleston, South Carolina. The original owner of the mansion had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the current resident, a certain Miss Drucilla Heyward, was signatory on a bank account that contained more money than the GDP of a small European country.
Picture it this way: a group of well-heeled women in St. John Knits and low-heeled Manolos, wearing stacks of bangles, diamond-stud earrings, and subtle hints of Chanel No. 5. All quite tasteful and genteel as they sipped Lapsang souchong from bone china teacups.
The men at the party leaned toward portly and were beginning to get ruddy faced from nipping brandy. The rent-a-bartender in his snug red rent-a-jacket was pouring Hennessy X.O tonight, so that was what they were drinking. Talking stock markets and sailboats and business and family, dressed in conservative Corneliani suits from M. Dumas & Sons on King Street, here and there a few of them sporting tartan plaid vests or Christmas bow ties.
And down the hallway, in the palatial dining room . . .
Theodosia Browning would never consider herself a member of this well-heeled, fairly insular group. But she knew what they liked. Which is why she'd orchestrated a spectacular menu for tonight's party. Rare roast beef on rye with dabs of horse radish, steamed blue crabs pulled fresh from local tidal creeks, Capers Blades oysters on the half shell, goat cheese crostini, and spicy chimichurri steak bites.
And then there were the tea sandwiches.
"I hope the guests love these little sandwiches as much as I do," Theodosia said as she arranged her offerings on polished silver trays.
"The crab salad on brioche?" Drayton asked. As Theodosia's tea sommelier at the Indigo Tea Shop, he was also her partner in crime for tonight's catering gig.
"And lobster salad accented with fresh tarragon. Haley whipped up both fillings using her famous homemade mayonnaise recipe-or receipt, as she calls it."
"Yum," Drayton said. "No wonder Miss Drucilla asked us to serve champagne along with Lapsang souchong." He paused. "I do love that tea. The gently twisted leaves impart such a delicious smoky flavor."
"I'd say it's all rather perfect," Theodosia said.
She stepped back to admire their buffet table, an amazing amalgam of food, flickering candles, crystal vases filled with red and white roses, and some silver angel figurines that had somehow snuck their way in. As proprietor of the Indigo Tea Shop on Charleston's famed Church Street, Theodosia was used to serving cream teas, luncheon teas, and afternoon teas. But anytime she could land a fancy catering job-and this one sure was fancy-it was a happy addition to her shop's bottom line. Theodosia also knew that happy, satisfied guests often led to new bookings, which led to more business for her tea shop. And, really, wasn't that a good no-brainer kind of marketing?
Theodosia normally wore T-shirts, khaki slacks, and a long black Parisian waiter's apron. But tonight she was glammed up in a red velvet hostess skirt and a pink ruffled blouse that set off her complexion to perfection. Her English ancestors had blessed her with fair peaches-and-cream skin, startling deep blue eyes, and an inquisitive face. And some distant-distant relatives (from perhaps even farther north?) had gifted her with masses of curly auburn hair. In her mid-thirties now, Theodosia had worked in marketing, traveled a bit, dated enough men to know what type she preferred, and set up her own tea shop. In other words, she knew enough to be dangerous.
Drayton Conneley, also a born-and-bred Southerner, was sixty-something, a tea fanatic, and most definitely a world traveler. Drayton was smart, stylish, droll, and exacting (some might say demanding) in everything he did. His tastes ran from Shakespeare and Dickens to Baroque music, and he lived in a historic old house-in the Historic District, of course-that had once belonged to a Civil War doctor. Tonight he wore black slacks, a Brioni jacket, and a red-and-green-plaid bow tie.
"Can you believe this place?" Drayton asked, glancing around the dining room. "It's like something out of Architectural Digest. Only the castle and manor house version."
"If the Great Gatsby lived in Charleston," Theodosia said.
And who could have argued with her, given that they'd arranged their buffet on a twenty-foot-long antique Sheraton table in a dining room where a marble fireplace occupied most of one wall, a crystal chandelier hung overhead from a domed ceiling, and colorful hand-painted Venetian scenes decorated the walls? Lavish garlands entwined with red roses, greenery, and fairy lights highlighted the tall, narrow windows that looked out over the back gardens, and an enormous fifteen-foot-high gilded Christmas tree sat next to a glass-fronted cabinet that held silver and crystal treasures.
"You hear that?" Drayton asked.
Theodosia stopped to listen for a moment. A string quartet had begun to play a rousing rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" in the front parlor.
"That's our cue," Theodosia said. "When the music starts, we're supposed to light the candles and pop a few champagne corks."
"Happy to oblige," Drayton said. He grabbed a bottle of Mo‘t & Chandon, twisted off the metal cage, placed a towel around the cork, and eased it out. There was a gentle resounding POP.
"I'm thinking we should open four or five bottles," Theodosia said. "Once the music concludes and the guests come streaming in . . ."
The rest of her words were drowned out by a loud, unpleasant buzz that seemed to blast out of nowhere. The sound not only startled her; it filled her ears like a hive of angry hornets.
"What's that?" Drayton asked. Only the noise was so loud, Theodosia wasn't able to hear him; she could only read his lips and see the consternation on his face.
Suddenly, Miss Drucilla fluttered into the room, wearing a coral silk caftan and dripping with diamonds. She held up a finger, darted around a corner, and then, mercifully, happily, the buzzing stopped.
"What was that?" Drayton cried.
Miss Drucilla returned, and her laughter filled the room.
"Oh, don't worry, kittens. It's only my crazy security alarm. Sometimes it pops off for no reason at all."
At eighty-five, Miss Drucilla Heyward was still a force to be reckoned with. Tiny as a bird, pixie white hair cut short to show off her favorite Tiffany Victoria earrings, she was spirited, fun-loving, and social to the max. She served on the board of directors of the Charleston Opera Society and the Charleston Symphony, and contributed money to dozens of charities. She was also known to occasionally join the men after dinner to smoke a cigar and enjoy her whiskey straight.
"Thank you," Drayton said. "But what an awful sound."
"Kind of gets your attention, doesn't it?" Miss Drucilla said.
Though she was still, technically, Mrs. Everett Heyward, she was generally addressed as Miss Drucilla. That was how it was done in the South. Women of a certain age and charm often had the moniker Miss added to their first name: Miss Kitty, Miss Abigail, Miss Drucilla. Like that.
Miss Drucilla surveyed the table. "I love it," she said, clapping her hands together. "Everything's perfect."
"Thank you," Theodosia said. "And I sure do love-I mean, really love-your jewelry."
Miss Drucilla brandished an arm. "Look here. I even wore my Verdura cuff tonight. Took it out of the vault just for this special occasion."
"Gorgeous," Drayton said. "A show stopper."
"That's not all you took out of the vault," Theodosia said. She couldn't help but notice the array of diamond rings that glittered on Miss Drucilla's tiny fingers.
"Oh, these?" Miss Drucilla fluttered her hands to show off her rings, sending brilliant flashes of light everywhere. "Tonight I'm wearing five diamond-and-gold rings in honor of Christmas-you know, like the song." She giggled as she half sang, "Five gold-en rings." Then she folded her hands to her chest and added, "All were gifts from my dearly departed husbands, Gerald, Charles, and Everett. All three of whom I've managed to outlive. Knock on wood."
"Love the manicure, too," Theodosia added.
Now Miss Drucilla studied her fingertips. "Jolene over at Fantasy Salon did them. Kind of trendy, don't you think? Tipped my nails with fourteen-carat gold."
"Fun," Theodosia said.
"But not all that expensive. Anyway, enough with my tiny indulgences." Now she leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "I've decided to part with some of my money. That's why, along with a bunch of friends and neighbors, I invited executive directors from six of my favorite charities tonight. They're all going to be getting a wonderful Christmas present."
"That's fantastic," Theodosia said. She served as a board member for Big Paw Service Dogs and knew firsthand that nonprofits were constantly on the lookout for funding.
"Okay, you two open a couple more bottles of champagne, and in a few minutes, I'll start herding my guests in," Miss Drucilla said. And she hurried off in another quick burst of energy.
"She's amazing," Theodosia said to Drayton. "I hope I have that much energy when I reach her age."
"You will," Drayton said. "Look at your aunt Libby. How old is she now?"
"Eighty-three," Theodosia said.
"And she still gets up at five every morning to feed the birds."
"I guess that's called commitment," Theodosia said as a loud bray suddenly filled the air for a second time.
"There goes that annoying alarm again," Drayton shouted, pursing his lips in dismay. "I hope Miss Drucilla punches in the code before the security company gets nervous and sends an armed response." He touched his bow tie and fidgeted. "That's all we need: a couple of rent-a-cops rushing in to upset our lovely buffet."
"Everyone going head over teakettle," Theodosia said. But even as she tried to make herself heard, the alarm continued its terrible buzz.
"Can't they hear that in the parlor?" Drayton asked.
"Apparently not. Probably because the quartet's still playing."
Drayton walked around the table to shout in Theodosia's ear. "Well, that noise is driving me batty!"
"I'll see what I can do," Theodosia said. She nipped around a corner, intending to run down the wide center hallway that served as a sort of art gallery and led to Miss Drucilla's front parlor.
But Theodosia had taken only a single step when she saw a crumpled body sprawled halfway down the hallway on the marble tile floor. Then she recognized the filmy coral caftan and cried, "Oh no!" running as fast as her high heels could carry her.
"Miss Drucilla!" she cried, bending over the small body. But the woman lay ghostly still.
Is she breathing? I don't think . . .
Theodosia sprinted back to the dining room.
"Drayton!" she cried. "Miss Drucilla's fallen down and I'm afraid she might have had a stroke or something!"
"Dear Lord!" Drayton went running while Theodosia stepped into the butler's pantry, located the security system panel, and randomly hit a couple of buttons. That seemed to do the trick, thank heavens, and stopped the noise. Then she rushed back out, shouting for help as she ran down the hallway, dropping to her hands and knees next to Drayton. And poor Miss Drucilla.
"What do you think? Did she have a stroke? Is it her heart? Is she even breathing?" Theodosia asked.
"I don't know," Drayton said. "She's facedown and all crumpled up. I'm afraid to move her."
Theodosia's cries had alerted a dozen or so guests and now they poured into the hallway, one man immediately pulling out his phone and calling 911, directing the dispatcher to hurry up and send an ambulance.
Thank goodness. Theodosia breathed a huge sigh of relief. At least help was on the way.
"Passed out," another man behind her said. He spoke with a high voice and sounded concerned but calm. "Probably too much excitement."
"Let's try to turn her over, make sure she's breathing," Theodosia said. She was keenly aware of the buzz of voices behind her and realized that more party guests had spilled into the hallway.
"Theo?" a woman's voice called out. "What happened?"
Theodosia allowed herself a quick glance over her shoulder and saw her friend Delaine Dish, her brows puckered, expression solemn, eyes scared and jittery.
"I don't know," Theodosia said. "She just collapsed. She's . . ."
"Slide your hands under her shoulders," Drayton said. "We'll try to change her position and see if we can make her more comfortable."
"Okay," Theodosia said. Miss Drucilla was hunched up and still facedown. Not moving a single muscle.
Drayton was deeply shaken but still gamely hanging in there. "Okay. Ready?"
Theodosia nodded. She tried to gather Miss Drucilla up gently, like you would a sleeping child, then turn her over carefully.
"Oh my, I'm not sure about this." There was a momentary hesitation as panic flared in Drayton's voice. "We'd best be careful."
"Let's try to shift her very gingerly." Theodosia knew something had to be done-and fast. But as she started to move Miss Drucilla, the woman's head lolled heavily onto one shoulder and her eyes remained tightly shut, as if she'd experienced some terrible horror.
"Okay . . . easy." Drayton was trying his best but Miss Drucilla's face was a washed-out pale oval, and there was a terrible finality about her.
"Drayton!" Theodosia cried as they began to slowly turn Miss Drucilla. "Look at . . ." Theodosia's heart lurched crazily, and she gasped, words logjamming in her throat. Finally, she lifted a trembling hand and pointed.
Reacting to the shock on Theodosia's face, Drayton widened his eyes with worry. Then he saw what she was pointing at.
"Oh no," he groaned.
Someone had plunged a bright orange syringe deep into Miss Drucilla's throat!
Screams rose up from the guests who had clustered in close. Then the entire group began to shout en masse!
"What's stuck in her throat?" one man demanded.
"Get back. She needs air!" another man cried.
"Did she faint?" a woman asked. Standing at the back of the pack, she jumped up and down, desperately trying to get a look.
"What happened?" another voice trembled.
Their shrieks and cries rose in an unholy cacophony that was almost as bad as the faulty alarm system.
Pauline Stauber, Miss Drucilla's personal assistant, was the first person to batter her way through the wall of stunned onlookers and drop to her knees. "Oh no," she cried. "What happened? What's . . . what's that stuck in her throat?"
Theodosia was still cradling Miss Drucilla's head. "Don't touch her," she warned. "Don't touch anything." Then, "Who are you again?" She'd been introduced to the woman some three hours earlier, but couldn't remember what part she played in the household.