Wedding Duress (Southern Sewing Circle Series #10)

Wedding Duress (Southern Sewing Circle Series #10)

by Elizabeth Lynn Casey

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Overview

“The Southern Sewing Circle will win your heart.”—Monica Ferris, USA Today Bestselling Author

Librarian Tori Sinclair is tying the knot—as long as a murder doesn’t unravel her plans…

Tori is ecstatic to become Mrs. Milo Wentworth in a few days, but she has a lot to do before she sashays down the aisle. Favors need to be sewn, vows need to be written—and a mystifying murder needs to be solved.

When Beatrice, a fellow member of the Sweet Briar Ladies Society Sewing Circle, learns that her former nanny took a fatal fall in her new employers’ home, she suspects the death was not an accident. Now Tori’s spending her last days as a single woman untangling rumors and stitching together motives to find a killer. But can she nab a murderer and make it to the church on time?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425257869
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/07/2015
Series: Southern Sewing Circle Series , #10
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 287,355
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 4.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Elizabeth Lynn Casey is the author of the bestselling Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries, including Taken InRemnants of Murder, and Let It Sew.

Read an Excerpt

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1

One by one, Tori Sinclair watched each of her friends emerge from the bank of dressing rooms in a burst of autumn color, their chosen hues and styles stealing her breath as they stepped onto the semicircular platform and turned in her direction.

“You look absolutely”—she stopped, swallowed, and started again, her voice choked with emotion—“stunning.”

Leona Elkin’s flawlessly manicured hand fluttered to her chest just before she spun around to face the trifold mirror on the opposite side of the platform. “As we all know, there’s not a single color out there I can’t showcase, but that said, I have to agree with you, dear, Smoldering Blaze may well be one of my best.”

“Said no one ever,” Rose Winters groused from her spot in the center of the group. Sweeping a trembling hand to her left, the eighty-something matriarch of the Sweet Briar Ladies Society Sewing Circle met and held Tori’s gaze. “If you want me to take mine and Dixie’s in at the waist so they’re a bit more fitted like everyone else’s, I can do that, Victoria.”

“No. No. They’re perfect. You’re perfect. Everyone is perfect. I couldn’t be more pleased than I am.”

“Mine wasn’t supposed to be fitted neither, but the start of a new school year always means more cookie-eatin’ for my grandbabies and me.” Leona’s fraternal twin, Margaret Louise Davis, peeked down at her even plumper than normal Warm Cinnamon–hued self, shrugging as she did. “Don’t really matter none, I s’pose, on account of it bein’ your weddin’ ’n all. Anyone with a workin’ lightbulb in their noggin won’t be lookin’ at anyone ’cept you, Victoria.”

Slowly, Leona turned back, her lashes half-mast across her hazel eyes. “That may be true of Milo, but he won’t be the only man there . . .”

“Oh, put a sock in it, will you, Leona?” Rose stamped her thick-soled dress flats on the carpeted riser and scowled. “When Victoria said stunning, she was talking to all of us, not just you. And last I checked, there weren’t any dimwitted male thirty-year-olds on the guest list for you to play temporary sugar momma to, so all eyes will be on Victoria . . . as they should be.”

Lips twitched up and down the line as Leona’s mouth gaped, then closed, then gaped again.

Tori began a mental count to ten, reaching seven before Leona’s retort finally came.

“There is nothing stunning about an Old Goat in a Harvest Wheat”—Leona took in Rose from head to toe—“housecoat shuffling her way down the aisle at a speed akin to dripping molasses.”

Then, before anyone could react, Leona snapped her finger in the direction of the cameraman positioned just over Tori’s left shoulder. “You’re getting a good, long, close-up angle of this one for the show, right, Skip?”

This one?” Georgina Hayes, clad in Dusky Sunset, echoed from her place at the opposite end of the line. “Do you mean Rose?”

The faintest hint of a smile appeared on Leona’s seemingly ageless face in conjunction with the answering nod she sought from her cameraman. “Skip knows what I mean, don’t you, gorgeous?”

The handsome twenty-year-old added a wink to his second nod and then ducked behind the Cable TV camera perched atop his shoulder.

Nina Morgan, Tori’s friend and fellow employee, blinked once, twice. “I—I . . . I’m not sure what to say right now.”

“I can think of a few things,” Rose muttered as she took Debbie Calhoun’s ready hand and stepped down off the platform, stopping briefly to address Tori directly. “If you want to go with eight bridesmaids instead of nine, I understand.”

Reaching out, Tori took hold of Rose’s hand and squeezed it gently. “It would be unfair of me to remove Leona from the bridal party after she’s already paid for the dress.”

A flash of amusement, magnified by Rose’s bifocals, temporarily eased the hurt Tori hated to see on anyone, let alone one of her dearest friends. “I wasn’t talking about Leona, Victoria.”

“I was,” she whispered back. “Now come on, Rose, you know how Leona is. Shake it off, okay? You earned my distinction of stunning just as much as everyone else.”

“Maybe in my earlier days, when I wasn’t wincing with every move I made.” Rose closed her eyes for a moment, only to open them as she turned toward her dressing room. “I’ll take this off now and hang it up.”

When the elderly woman was out of earshot, Dixie Dunn waddled across the platform in Muted Pumpkin to stand in front of Leona, hands on hips. “Must you always be so nasty? So—”

Hateful?” Georgina added. Then, holding her hand upward, Sweet Briar’s long-standing mayor began ticking off more options. “Mean? Thoroughly unlikable? Despicable?

Leona sliced her hand horizontally in front of her neck to indicate Skip should stop filming and put away his equipment. Once she was sure he was otherwise occupied, she turned angry eyes in the mayor’s direction. “I’m hateful, Georgina? I’m mean?”

As heads began to nod across the platform, Leona took several long moments to include each and every member of the assembled bridal party in her death glare. “What about Rose? Did you hear the disparaging things she said to me just now? The way she implied men are only interested in me for my money?”

Georgina laughed. “And your point?”

Again, Leona’s mouth gaped.

Again, Tori began to count, this time making it to nine before being cut off by Beatrice Tharrington.

“Did I tell all of you my ace news?”

All eyes turned toward the soft-spoken, twenty-two-year-old British nanny, dressed in Quiet Barley, and waited.

Beatrice took a deep breath and then let it out, her greenish-colored eyes round with a kind of wonder and excitement that was rare for the otherwise shy girl. “My governess is coming, here—to Sweet Briar! To work for Jim and Julie Brady. I made the suggestion after they fired that rather cheeky Cynthia Marland and had no one to look after their three children. I suggested Miss Gracie as the perfect replacement and she’s actually coming! In fact, she’s due to arrive first thing in the morning. Isn’t that luvvly-jubbly?”

Margaret Louise’s eyebrows rose upward. “Luvvly-jubbly?”

Beatrice’s pale skin reddened just before her gaze dropped to her feet. “It means . . . lovely,” Beatrice whispered.

“I think it’s a wonderful expression,” Melissa Davis said from her spot on the edge of the platform. Then, turning to her mother-in-law, she added, “Sounds like something you might say, Margaret Louise.”

“Well, then, I reckon I might be addin’ it to my repertoire after today.” Margaret Louise winked at Beatrice. “Assumin’ you don’t mind sharin’ it with a loudmouth like me, of course.”

Debbie stepped forward in a burst of Soft Russet and touched a gentle hand to the young girl’s back. “When you said governess just now, did that mean this woman took care of you as a child, Beatrice?”

“Oh yes! Miss Gracie made my childhood magical,” Beatrice replied. “And now, because she’ll be with the Bradys, I’ll see her at the park and school events just about every day. It will be divine!”

“Certainly helps explain why you’ve been grinnin’ like a possum eatin’ a sweet tater ever since you walked through those doors.” Margaret Louise pointed toward the bridal shop’s front door. “I reckon it’ll be like havin’ your momma here, won’t it?”

Beatrice didn’t need to utter a word. Her face-splitting smile said it all.

“Would you like to bring her to the wedding as your guest? It might be a great way for her to meet people,” Tori offered. “In fact, at last check, every single teacher at Sweet Briar Elementary School will be at the reception, along with most, if not all, of the office staff. Miss Gracie can meet the children’s teachers and principal, and they can get to know her a bit, as well.”

“I shall ask her as soon as I see her.” Beatrice ran her hand down the front of her satiny dress and then rose up on the balls of her one-inch silver heels for a little twirl. “I feel like royalty in this dress, Victoria. Thank you so much for including me.”

For a moment, she was afraid Leona was going to widen her battlefield to include Beatrice, but whatever smart-aleck thought lifted the woman’s eyebrow halfway to her hairline remained unspoken, setting off a domino of relieved sighs around the room in the process.

Tori wished she could attribute Leona’s sudden self-restraint to some sort of spiritual awakening but she had a sneaking suspicion it was more likely due to the click of Rose’s dressing room door and the chance to get one last jab in where her true nemesis was concerned.

Leona, of course, didn’t disappoint. Lifting her body-hugging dress halfway up her calves to reveal her own four-inch version of the agreed-upon silver-colored shoe, the woman tsked audibly beneath her breath. “I’m so glad I don’t have to wear flats with a satin gown. It’s just so—so nursing home, don’t you think?”

“Hush, Twin!” Margaret Louise scolded amid a chorus of gasps from the rest of the bridal party.

“What?” Leona batted her false lashes with feigned innocence. “Did I say something wrong?”

“You opened your mouth, didn’t you?” Rose hissed as she shuffled across the room to Tori with her bridesmaid dress draped across her arthritic arm. When she reached her destination, the matriarch lowered her voice so only Tori could hear. “I tried to carry the shoe box out here, too, but I’m afraid I dropped it one too many times.”

“I’ll get your shoes and your dress to you tomorrow evening when I come to your house for my final fitting.” Tori liberated the dress from Rose’s arm and draped it, instead, across the back of her chair before turning to take her friend’s frail hands inside her own. “Thank you for coming today, Rose. You looked lovely.”

“I wouldn’t miss your special day for anything in the world, Victoria.” Tugging her left hand free, Rose cupped the side of Tori’s face. “Milo Wentworth is a lucky, lucky man.”

“And I am a lucky, lucky girl to be able to spend the rest of my life with a man like Milo and the truest, most wonderfully loving friends a girl could ever hope for.” Tori captured Rose’s hand inside her own and held it against her skin more closely. “I love you, Rose.”

A single tear escaped from beneath Rose’s bifocals. “I won’t let this thing with Leona threaten your day, Victoria. You have my word.”

With the underside of her thumb, Tori wiped all residual wetness from the elderly woman’s cheek while doing her best to smile through the answering tears she, herself, refused to shed. “Thank you, Rose, that means a lot. But really, I can’t imagine anything threatening my wedding day.”

Chapter 2

Sometimes, when she was staring up at the ceiling waiting for sleep to win out over her latest crazy day, Tori would imagine her fiancé’s face.

His burnished brown hair, cut short on the sides . . .

His tall, lean frame that towered eight inches above her own five foot five . . .

His brown eyes with the little amber flecks that lit up the moment he saw her . . .

His dimples that melted her knees every time he smiled at her . . .

By the time she completed her inventory, she would invariably be so content and so at peace, she’d drift off to sleep if for no other reason than to make another day with him come sooner.

“I wish there was a way we could freeze this place so it never changes,” she said, tightening her hold on his hand. “It’s everything I always wanted for my life.”

Milo glanced down as they continued walking, their destination still a mystery to Tori. “You mean Sweet Briar?”

“No. I mean the way it is right now—between us. It’s so good, you know?” She met the handsome third grade teacher’s curious gaze and responded with a happy shrug. “Since I got back from New York with the crew, things have been—”

“Don’t say it.” Milo’s laugh started deep inside his chest before receiving backup support from his lips and dimples. “You’ll jinx us.”

She turned with him as they reached the corner and stopped outside the gated area to Sweet Briar’s newest park, the limited number of squeals from the recently completed maze of play forts catching her by surprise as much as the destination itself. “You’re an elementary school teacher! Are you sure you want to be here?”

“With you? Absolutely. Unless you pick a fight with someone . . .”

“It doesn’t look like there’s anyone to fight with,” she quipped.

“That’s because most of them are either still eating dinner or getting ready for an early bedtime, I imagine.” Milo lifted the latch and pushed open the metal gate, his opposing hand guiding her through its opening via the small of her back. “I’ve been wanting to push you on the new swings ever since they finished this place.”

Tori spun around and wrapped her arms around his neck, the happiness she felt at that moment overpowering. “This is what I’m talking about. This place where all we have to really think about is how we want to spend the next day together . . . and how the bridal party is going to look on our wedding day . . . and how, exactly, to best word the joy you bring me in my vows. It’s the way it should be all the time.”

“And we’ll do our best to make it so.” He kissed her gently and then disengaged her arms from his neck so he could take her hand once again and resume their trek across the playground to the swings. “So, tell me, how did the fitting go this morning? Did Leona’s TV crew manage to stay out of the way so you could do what you needed to do?”

“There was really only one camera guy and he was so unobtrusive I actually forgot he was there most of the time.”

“And the different dress colors? Did they come together the way you wanted?”

“Oh, Milo, they were gorgeous,” she answered. “It was as if I had the most brilliant autumn leaves standing in front of me.”

“I’m glad. But you have to know it’s you I can’t wait to see.” Milo raked a hand through his hair, releasing a half moan–half grunt as he did. “I just want to stand next to you, in front of all of our family and friends, and finally start the rest of our lives together.”

“And two weeks from today, we’ll do just that.” She heard the breathless quality of her voice but could do little to stop it. Their wedding couldn’t come soon enough in her book. “I’m doing my final fitting at Rose’s tomorrow evening. After that, all that’s really left are a few final touches here and there.”

“Do you want me to pick up both rings at Brady’s?” he asked. “Because I can if that makes it easier.”

“Oh no, getting our rings is part of the fun.”

They picked their way around a small grove of trees and a smattering of empty picnic benches to reach the clearing and the endless play equipment it hosted. “My mom said your folks are coming in from South Africa the night before the ceremony? Is that right?”

“I think so. That’s where their last postcard was from anyway.” She felt the grass give way to a soft, rubbery material beneath her shoes as she closed in on the swings and the romantic image Milo had stoked inside her thoughts the moment he shared his intentions for their evening. “And Charles is coming in from New York earlier that same day. From what I’ve been able to gather, there’s quite the pull going on between Margaret Louise and Leona as to who will be hosting him while he’s here.”

“I finally get to meet the infamous Charles . . .” He laughed.

“Yes, yes you do. And boy, are you in for a treat.” She claimed the first of five swings and positioned her grip around the chain-link ropes tasked with supporting her as she glided through the air. Slowly, push by push, she pumped her legs, the cool autumn air refreshing against her cheeks. “Oooh, it’s been a long time since I’ve been on a swing like this.”

“And?” he prodded.

“It’s fun!”

“Good. Count on it becoming a regular occurrence, my soon-to-be wife.”

“I shall—”

“Victoria? Milo? Is that you?”

She stopped pumping her legs and looked to her side to find Beatrice and her charge, Luke, pointing and waving from halfway across the playground. Lifting the tips of her fingers ever so slightly, she did her best to return the wave while Milo grabbed hold of the chain and brought her to a full stop.

“We didn’t mean for you to stop,” Beatrice said, her petite hand atop Luke’s shoulder. “We were just surprised to see you here, is all.”

Luke hopped from foot to foot, his smile nearly reaching his ears. “I’ve never seen a big person on the swings before.”

“Even us big people like to play and have fun, don’t we, Milo?” At Milo’s agreement, Tori gestured in the direction from which Beatrice and Luke had just come. “So what were you two playing on?”

“We just got here, didn’t we, Miss Bea?” Without waiting for a response, Luke continued on, his excitement evident in every crack and crevice of his six-year-old being. “But we’re gonna play in the new fort.”

Milo smiled down at the boy, nodding as he did. “That sounds like fun, Luke.”

“It is! Sometimes we pretend it’s a castle, but today, it’s gonna be a boat, isn’t it, Miss Bea?”

Beatrice straightened, threw her shoulders back, and released her gentle hold on Luke’s back long enough to give the little boy a proper salute. “Aye, aye, Captain!”

The youngster’s answering laugh disappeared in favor of a soft but strangled sound followed by a distinct “uh-oh.”

Beatrice pulled her hand from Luke’s shoulder and moved it to the base of his chin, guiding his gaze until it met back up with hers. “Luke? What’s wrong? Is your tummy acting up again?”

Slowly, the boy extended his right index finger to guide their collective attention from his face to that of a lone figure standing just inside the tree line, staring in their direction. “It’s her again, Miss Bea. And she’s got that mad face just like before.”

Tori looked from the woman she didn’t recognize, back to Beatrice and Luke, the change in the boy’s demeanor impossible to miss. “Who is that, Beatrice?”

An unfamiliar cloud passed across Beatrice’s face just before she repositioned her grip on Luke, pulling him closer. “Perhaps we should play captain-of-the-ship back at the house, Luke, what do you say?”

For a moment Tori was virtually certain the six-year-old was going to protest, but when he looked toward the far side of the park again, his nod of agreement came easily. “Okay, Miss Bea.”

Reaching out, she grabbed hold of Beatrice’s arm. “Wait. I don’t understand. Why are you going back home to play when you just got here?”

“It’s simply too nice of an evening to have a row.”

Again, Tori looked toward the woman on the far side of Luke’s treasured fort before reengaging eye contact with her friend. “Beatrice, I’ve known you for almost two and a half years now, and I’ve never known you to fight with anyone.”

“And I shant with Cynthia, either. But I don’t have to utter a word to get her started.”

“Cynthia? Who is Cynthia?”

“Cynthia Marland. The Bradys’ former nanny.”

“And . . .”

“And she’s unhappy with her firing.” Beatrice leaned close to Tori and Milo, dropping her voice to a whisper. “But she deserved to be fired. She was a horrible, horrible nanny to those poor children. All she cared about was the shiny objects Mr. and Mrs. Brady gave her to use—the car, the fancy phone, and the like.”

“Reenie almost died!” Luke supplied.

Beatrice lifted a finger to her lips and shook her head. “Luke, we must not spread gossip. It’s not nice. Besides, Reenie is fine now and my special Miss Gracie is going to take good care of her and her sisters just like I promised you. Remember?”

If Luke answered, she didn’t hear, because she was too busy trying to process everything Beatrice had said. “Is Reenie one of the Brady kids?”

Milo nodded. “Reenie’s older sister, Kellie, is in my class. From what I heard in the faculty lounge after school, Reenie has a seizure disorder that requires medication. Only the medication was never sent in with the child on the first day of kindergarten. Three days into the first week, she had a seizure. Not having the proper medication at the right time nearly killed her.”

“And this Cynthia was part of that?” Tori asked.

“Ultimately it’s the parents’ responsibility, of course, but as the person hired to look after the needs of the children while the parents are working, yes, Cynthia certainly shoulders a large chunk of the blame, as well.”

“Wow.”

Beatrice leaned still closer. “And that was just the final incident, Victoria. There were others along the way that should have had her out the door long before now.”

“Why didn’t they?” she asked.

“That, I cannot explain any more than I can the hiring of half the nannies in this town. Some of them—like Amanda and Stacy—are just bloody awful.”

A quick peek at the trees showed Cynthia hadn’t budged. To Beatrice, Tori said, “Okay, but why is this Cynthia person upset with you?”

“The same reason Amanda and Stacy are upset with me, too.” Beatrice closed her eyes momentarily, swallowing as she did. “Because it was my phone call to Mrs. Brady that prevented Cynthia from getting the second chance she was talking about on the playground last week. And it has some of the other families starting to rethink things, too.”

“Your phone call?” she repeated. “I don’t understand.”

“When I heard Cynthia talking about a second chance, I was worried about the children. If this woman could be so careless once, she could be careless again. I wanted Mrs. Brady to know that the Nanny Go Round Agency wasn’t the only choice.” Beatrice looked down at Luke and smiled. “So I told her about Miss Gracie, didn’t I, sweetie?”

“Miss Bea?” Luke’s shoulders drooped in reaction to a conversation that had already gone on far too long for a captain in search of his ship. “Can we go home and play boat now? Please?”

“Of course, Luke. And then, it’s straight on to bed. We want to be waiting at the airport when Miss Gracie arrives, don’t we?” Beatrice smiled shyly at Milo and quickly brought him up to speed on the news she’d shared with Tori at the bridal shop. “Miss Gracie was my governess as a child and she’s absolutely wonderful.”

“I get to hold a sign with Miss Gracie’s name on it at the airport tomorrow morning,” Luke added, beaming. “I used my bestest writing and I didn’t make the R go all backwards like I usually do!”

“Good work, Luke.” Milo collected a high five from Luke and then slipped his arm around Tori’s waist and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Let’s let them get back to their evening, okay?”

Tori reached out, rested a quick hand on Beatrice’s lower arm, and smiled. “I’m glad you’re going to have some family here now, Beatrice.”

More family,” the nanny corrected as she zipped Luke’s lightweight jacket a smidge higher in preparation for their walk back home. “Luke and his parents are my family here in the States, as are all of you in the sewing circle. Miss Gracie being here will be like adding a mum.”

Chapter 3

Slowly, Tori fingered the hand-sewn lace and tiny seed pearls that adorned the fitted top, her gaze jumping ahead to the satin bottom that rained to the floor of Rose’s sewing room in a classic A-line style.

“Oh, Rose,” she whispered. “It’s . . . it’s like something out of a fairytale.”

“A fairytale that’s ’bout to happen for real in thirteen days, Victoria.” Margaret Louise stepped back to afford a better frontal view of Tori and then nudged Rose with a gentle elbow. “Why, I reckon that’s the purtiest dress I’ve ever seen.”

Rose grabbed hold of a two-tier step stool she’d positioned off to the side and used it to help lower herself to the ground and the hem of Tori’s wedding dress. Once there, the elderly woman pulled a pin from between her lips and tucked it into one tiny section. “Other than this—which will take but a moment to fix—I think it fits perfectly.” Rose peered up at Tori. “How does it feel?”

Again, Tori looked down at the detail work and then at her reflection in the full-length mirror. “Rose, it couldn’t feel more perfect.”

“You done good, Rose,” Margaret Louise said in agreement. “Real good.”

Brushing a quick hand across her eyes, Rose merely nodded before struggling back to her knees and, eventually, her feet. “Is it everything you envisioned for your special day, Victoria?”

She turned from the mirror to take Rose’s hands inside her own, the trembling she found there more than a little alarming. “Rose? Are you okay? You’re shaking.”

“I just want you to be happy with the dress.”

“Happy doesn’t even come close to describing how I feel in this gown, Rose. I mean, look at me, I’m . . .” She stopped, swallowed, and tried again, her predisposition toward modesty losing out over her current Rose-created reality. “I’m . . . beautiful,” she finished in an emotion-infused whisper. “Absolutely beautiful.”

Rose’s lower lip disappeared behind her bridge only to reappear in time with a slow, but definitive smile. “I couldn’t say it better myself.” Then, pulling her hand from Tori’s, Rose waved it toward the hallway. “Go into my room and take it off. I’ll put an extra stitch or two in that spot at the hemline and you can take it home with you.”

She spun back toward the mirror for one last look. “I’ll take it off, but I’d like to leave it here so you can help me into it on my wedding day.”

Rose looked down at her trembling hands and made a face. “I’m not sure how much help I’ll be with the buttons.”

“We’ll take it one button at a time.” Tori gathered the bottom half of her dress in her hands and made her way down the hall, stopping as she reached the door to Rose’s room. “Margaret Louise? Could you find the right channel on the TV so we can watch Leona’s show before we have to call it a night?”

“You betcha.”

*   *   *

By the time Tori returned to the main part of Rose’s tiny home, her friends were seated on the sofa in front of the television with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn. The familiar jingle of Leona’s new Cable TV show faded into the background as Leona’s prerecorded voice took over with its familiar welcome.

“Have you always wanted to dress like a princess? Have you always wondered how you can turn heads by merely choosing the right outfit at the right time? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Over the next twenty minutes, I’ll teach you to dress with style by inviting you into Leona’s Closet.”

The music picked up for a beat or two then faded as the station went to commercial.

“I still can’t believe your sister has a TV show,” Tori said as she rounded the backside of the couch and claimed the vacant spot between her two friends. “It still seems so . . . so . . .” She cast about for the best way to describe her feelings but was beaten to the punch by Rose.

“Ridiculous?”

“Now, I didn’t say that,” Tori protested around the laugh she couldn’t quite muffle.

“Well, I sure did.”

The trio of commercials highlighting local establishments in and around Sweet Briar ended and brought Leona front and center once again. Only this time, instead of just her voice, the camera panned in on Margaret Louise’s twin sister and the red velvet chair that had become her televised throne.

“Hello, everyone, and welcome to my show, Leona’s Closet. For those of you who have been here before, I can see—thanks to the many pictures and e-mails I’ve been receiving these past few weeks—that many of you are taking my advice to heart.

“We still have a lot of work to do, of course, but we’ll get there if it’s the last thing I do.”

Leona clasped her flawlessly manicured hands atop her lap and smiled at the camera, taking a moment or two to add a few seductive blinks of her eyes. “This week I’m taking you all on a field trip . . . to a fitting I attended for an upcoming wedding in Sweet Briar.”

Tori leaned forward on her cushion, plucked a few pieces of popcorn from the waiting bowl, and watched as Leona-on-the-chair morphed into Leona-in-her-Smoldering-Blaze-bridesmaid-dress-at-the-bridal-shop. “We’ve all been to weddings and seen the catastrophe that is synonymous with bridesmaid attire, but as you can see in this shot, there can be a few noteworthy exceptions.”

Step by step, Leona took her audience through every nuance of her dress and the way it came together to further enhance her natural beauty. Then, as the bridal shop picture faded to reveal Leona holding court on her chair once again, they were taken through various body shapes and the styles each one demanded.

“Let’s take a look at a few of my fellow bridesmaids to see what I’m talking about.”

This time, when they went to a shot from the bridal shop, Leona remained on half the screen.

“For those of you who frequent Debbie’s Bakery in downtown Sweet Briar, you know that Debbie Calhoun is surprisingly slender and petite. Her dark blonde hair and pale blue eyes would normally not be a candidate for wearing Russet. But because of Debbie’s skin color and infectious smile, she pulls it off well.

“And then there’s my sister, Margaret Louise Davis, who manages to make Warm Cinnamon inviting in her own way.”

Tori glanced to her right and smiled. “Well, look at you, Margaret Louise. Not only did you score a mention on Leona’s show . . . she’s actually saying something nice.”

“Well, I’ll be . . .”

One by one, Leona took her audience through the bridal party and the various dress styles and colors each wore. While she didn’t gush about anyone the way she’d gushed about herself, Leona managed to find a detail or two about each dress that complemented the body type it adorned.

Dixie . . .

Melissa . . .

Georgina . . .

Beatrice . . .

Nina . . .

As Nina’s image disappeared from the right side of the screen, Leona took over, her eyes bright with anticipation. “Which brings us to the final bridesmaid and the final segment of our show—Who Dresses You Anyway?

Tori felt her jaw slack as the enormity behind Leona’s words took root.

“All over this country,” Leona continued in her scripted lead-up, “people are dressing in ways that embarrass not only them but also those of us who are forced to look at them across the office, across the restaurant, across the street, across our very own living room . . . and, sadly, at weddings, too.”

“Don’t do it, Twin,” Margaret Louise admonished from behind the plump hand she’d slapped against her mouth. “Don’t you dare do it . . .”

“There are, of course, the young women who feel the need to leave nothing to their date’s imagination when they go out to dinner.” Leona tilted her head to indicate a snapshot of a woman’s body clad in short shorts and a tube top that covered little more than the essentials. “To these women, I say, tease them with hints. Make them wonder. Make them imagine. Make them yearn. It staves off boredom.

“Then, lest we forget, there are the women who dress like men. To them, I simply ask, why?

Tori and Margaret Louise released a sigh in tandem, only to have Leona’s next description hitching their breath once again. “And finally, there are the women who simply don’t get the concept of a mirror. Or if they do, they don’t care.”

Leona and her chair disappeared from the screen in favor of a full shot of Rose in her Harvest Wheat bridesmaid dress and sensible silver flats.

She tried to make sense of what she was seeing, tried to rationalize it away as some sort of bad dream, but when her focus invariably shifted in Rose’s direction, Tori knew it was all too real.

“As God is my witness, when I get my hands on my sister’s neck, I’m gonna—”

The return of Leona’s voice pulled their collective focus back to the television and the impeccably dressed woman commanding its screen once again. “To women like this, I have but one simple piece of advice: Do the world a favor and invest in a mirror.

“For everyone else, I’ll be back next week with even more do’s and don’ts from Leona’s Closet.”

Chapter 4

Tori relinquished the plate of white chocolate brownies to Georgina’s trusted housekeeper, Betty, and followed the mayor down one hallway and across the next. The constant chatter that usually guided her feet toward the correct room on any given Monday night was noticeably absent.

“We are meeting tonight, aren’t we?” she asked, hiking her sewing bag higher on her shoulder.

Georgina’s answer came via a nod and a direction-gesturing finger that led her to the sunroom and the five very quiet members of the Sweet Briar Ladies Society Sewing Circle it was tasked with hosting for the evening. Stopping in the doorway, Tori took in the room and the unfamiliar semicircular seating arrangement it offered.

“You can sit anywhere you want except there.” Georgina’s finger shifted direction to indicate a lone chair positioned at the mouth of the semicircle, its only real view the faces of the women who barely looked up in acknowledgment of Tori’s arrival. “That one is being saved.”

Debbie looked up from the piece of pale blue material stretched across her lap and nodded toward the vacant spot to her left. “There’s room right here between Melissa and me if you’d like.”

Crossing the room with tentative steps, Tori accepted the bakery owner’s invitation and settled herself into place, conducting a mental inventory of the room’s occupants as she did.

Margaret Louise . . .

Dixie . . .

Melissa . . .

Debbie . . .

Beatrice . . .

“Where’s Rose?” she asked. “And—”

The melodic peal of the doorbell and the gnashing of teeth to her left and right cut her off mid-question.

“The rat has arrived,” Dixie said from between clenched teeth.

Margaret Louise’s head and shoulders shifted against the back edge of the couch she shared with Dixie, her normally boisterous voice void of anything resembling humor or lightness. “Okay, everyone, it’s time to paint your butt white and run with the antelope.“

“We’re ready,” Debbie and Melissa said in unison while Beatrice’s chin dropped closer to her chest.

Georgina gave one final look around the room and then crossed to her own chair beside Margaret Louise. “I think I’ll just let Betty show her in rather than exert the effort it would take to greet and escort her myself.”

Confused, Tori leaned into whisper territory with Debbie. “What’s going on? Who’s here?”

“Tell me you really don’t need me to answer that . . .”

“I—wait. Leona is actually coming?” she clarified more loudly than she’d intended.

“Why wouldn’t she?” Melissa interjected. “Aunt Leona never thinks she does anything wrong.”

“I reckon she’s ’bout to think differently real soon.” Margaret Louise pushed her sewing project off her lap and replaced it with two tight fists. “Why, I’ve always known my twin was prickly, and maybe even a bit mean at times, but this? Why, she’s as crooked as a hound dog’s hind leg and twice as dirty.”

Melissa nodded along with the rest of the women in the room then pointed at her mother-in-law. “What she said.”

“It’s high time Leona got an earful or two about the way she treats people,” Debbie said, scooting forward on the couch. “It’s just not right.”

Slowly, Beatrice’s chin parted with her chest to reveal a tentative yet hopeful smile. “Guess what, Victoria?”

She slid her gaze in the direction of her young friend. “What?”

“Reenie, Kellie, and Sophie are delighted with Miss Gracie.”

“Reenie, Kellie, and . . .” The words trailed from her mouth as the staccato sound of Leona’s heels in the hallway kicked off a mashing of lips and grinding of teeth across the room.

“The Brady children,” Beatrice said by way of whispered explanation before returning to the scout patches she’d chosen as her sewing project for the evening.

Georgina grabbed a pair of dress slacks from the table to her left and positioned the hem of one leg across her lap. “No one look at her, no one acknowledge her,” the mayor hissed from between clenched teeth. “When she squirms, we let her have it with both guns blazing.”

In true domino style, one head after the other tilted downward to focus on whatever project was being tackled by each person—Luke’s scout uniform, Georgina’s dress slacks, Dixie’s pillow, Debbie’s latest apron, Tori’s candy pouches for the wedding guests, denim overalls for Melissa’s youngest, and something delicate and blue just getting started in Margaret Louise’s capable hands.

“Good evening, everyone,” Leona said as she breezed into the room with a Chanel handbag on one arm and a bow-laden bunny under the other. “I’m sorry I’m late but it simply couldn’t be helped. Paris had her fitting for her extra special bow for Victoria’s wedding and the fabric the girl had used was completely and utterly beneath my standards.

“I mean, truly, could you imagine my precious Paris wearing cotton for an event that clearly demands the finest silk?”

The only sound Tori detected in the room came from her own throat as she swallowed and then stole a peek in Leona’s direction.

Sure enough, she was rewarded for her attention with a glare that was subsequently shared with the top of each and every head in the room.

When the panoramic death glare was complete, Leona addressed her nose-twitching sidekick. “This is why I’ve spent so many hours discussing the finer points of manners with you, my precious angel. They make a person stand out in a world that’s growing ruder by the second.”

Margaret Louise laid her needle atop the pale blue fabric and, pinning her sister with a stare, addressed her son’s wife with her words. “It’s a shame how many folks think the do as I say, not as I do mentality works, ain’t it, Melissa?”

“It sure is,” Melissa said as she, too, found a holding place for her needle. “Especially when it almost never works.”

“Kids learn more from observation than they do words.” Debbie smoothed her hands across the apron taking shape across her thighs and then sighed. “So if a parent is nasty, the offspring tend to be nasty as well.”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Elizabeth Lynn Casey and the Southern Sewing Circle mysteries

“Filled with fun, folksy characters and southern charm.”—Maggie Sefton, national bestselling author of Yarn Over Murder

“Sweet and charming…The bewitching women of the Southern Sewing Circle will win your heart.”—Monica Ferris, USA Today bestselling author of The Drowning Spool

“Elizabeth Lynn Casey has created wonderful, caring characters and placed them in a beautiful place.”—Escape with Dollycas

“[A] wonderfully crafted series.”—Dru’s Book Musings

“Visiting with the charmingly eccentric folks of Sweet Briar is like taking a trip back home.”—Fresh Fiction

“An excellent read for crafters and mystery lovers alike. Elizabeth Casey has a knack for threading together great story lines, likable characters, and surprises in every page.”—The Romance Readers Connection 

 

Customer Reviews