“It appears that she was murdered.”
A second gasp was followed by more silence.
“Beth, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Milo. It’s just . . . I don’t know, sad, you know? I mean she had a—I think she had a little girl, didn’t she?”
“That’s a shame.” Beth’s voice returned to its earlier purr, the sound tickling Tori’s ear despite its distance from the phone. “Oh, Milo, it’s so nice to be able to talk to you again. I’ve missed that so much since we broke up.”
“We broke up fourteen years ago, Beth.”
“We were together for a full year . . . ”
“A year that ended fourteen years ago,” he said gently.
“And I’ve missed it ever since.”
Tori tried not to roll her eyes as she snuggled closer against Milo’s chest.
“Then I hope you find someone as special as I have.”
Silence was followed by a third—yet different—giggle. “Then perhaps it’s time I get to know this special lady of yours.”
Milo glanced down at Tori, gestured toward the phone with his chin.
Realizing what he was asking, she sat up tall, her mind sifting through her various appointments and obligations for the rest of the week. “I have a little time tomorrow morning. I’m not due into the library until noon.”
He winked at her as he spoke into the phone. “Any chance you’re free tomorrow morning, say around”—he glanced at her for confirmation—“ten?”
“I can do ten. Where?”
“How about Debbie’s?” she whispered up at him.
“How about Debbie’s? The same place you met this morning.”
“Debbie’s? You mean that darling little bakery in town? Oh yes. That sounds lovely.” Beth paused. “Can she hear me right now?”
He held his lips to her forehead for just a moment before replying. “Yes, she can.”
“Wonderful. I’ll see you at ten, Tori, okay?”
He held the phone outward to allow her to respond and then cocked it toward his ear once again. “So you two are all set now?”
“We’re all set. Unless, of course, you’ll be joining us, Milo?”
“I’m afraid I can’t. I’ll be in the middle of third grade math at ten o’clock.”
Another giggle sounded in their ears. “Oh, that’s right. It’s probably for the best. I imagine it would be rather awkward for Tori to watch us together anyway.”
Milo met her silent question with the rise of his finger. “Watch us together? I’m not sure I understand, Beth.”
“Oh, Milo, c’mon. You know what I’m talking about.”
“Fourteen years is no match for chemistry, my love.”
She wrapped her hands around the ceramic powder blue mug and glanced at the clock over the door.
Beth Samuelson was late.
The simple fact that she was fifteen minutes late didn’t really bother Tori. It happened. To everyone. But after the things the woman had hinted at on the telephone the night before, all it served to do was give her more time to think.
It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Milo, because she did—or as much as she could given the fact she’d trusted once before only to be humiliated in a way she wouldn’t wish on anyone.
No, it had far more to do with the unknown and its impact on her psyche.
Sure enough, the more she tried to forget about Milo’s college sweetheart, the more the woman plagued her mind. The more she tried to take comfort in the things Milo loved about her, the more she noticed all the things Beth had that she didn’t. And it was driving her batty.
The sound of her cell phone broke through her woolgathering. Flipping it open, she held it to her ear. “Hello?”
“Good morning, beautiful.”
She grinned. “Isn’t this a nice surprise.” She glanced at the clock again, her mind immediately leaping to his day. “I thought you were in math right now.”
“I am. Alice took them outside for a few minutes just to give them a change of pace.”
“What are they working on today?” She lifted the mug to her mouth and took a quick sip.
“No wonder they need a break.”
“Oh, they’re not getting a break. They’re actually doing multiplication right now.”
“Alice is a whiz. The kids love her.”
Tori couldn’t help but smile. She, of all people, knew the wonders of a good assistant.
“So? Is she there?” His voice rumbled in her ear.
“No. Not yet.”
“I guess that’s no real surprise. Beth has been known to take the notion of fashionably late to a whole new level unless . . .” His voice trailed off.
“Forget it. It doesn’t really matter.”
She sat up straight, her curiosity aroused. “C’mon now, you don’t get to do that. Finish your sentence.”
A sigh filled her ear only to be thwarted by a reply she wished she hadn’t pursued. “Unless she was meeting me. Then she was never late.”
“Oh.” She took another sip, this time closing her eyes as the warm liquid slid down her throat.
“Please don’t pay any attention to what she said last night on the phone. There was no chemistry between Beth and I over dinner either night. None. Zip. She’s an old friend. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
An old friend.
An old friend he happened to have loved deeply at one time.
An old friend who had opted to end a relationship that meant the world to him.
“I know.” And she did. She just needed her head to stop messing with her heart.
The bell over the entrance to Debbie’s Bakery jingled and she looked up, her heart sinking at the sight of Beth Samuelson.
To call Milo’s college flame pretty would be an understatement of epic proportions. Beautiful didn’t truly cut it, either. Stunning, gorgeous, breathtaking—these, on the other hand, were far more accurate and equally ego crushing.
“Milo, I have to go. Beth just walked in.” Without waiting for a response, she flipped the phone shut and stood, her heart keenly aware of the simple black pencil skirt and white satiny blouse she’d chosen for the day—clothes that seemed almost dowdy compared to the form-fitting charcoal gray designer pantsuit that made every male in the room turn in Beth’s direction. Only in Beth’s case it wasn’t merely the outfit that caught their attention. It was the whole package—the sexy curves, the flirty smile, the long golden hair, the ocean blue eyes . . .
Swallowing over the lump of dread in her throat, she forced a smile to her lips. “Beth, hi. I’m so glad you made it.”
The woman nodded, her heels clicking across the floor in Tori’s direction. “I got hung up at the inn.”
Tori gestured toward the table she’d claimed. “Busy working on that logo?”
Beth deposited a large brown portfolio against the table leg then climbed onto the white lattice-back stool, her hair swishing against her back. “Logo?”
“The one for your company’s new name?” She sat up tall in an effort to catch Emma’s eye. When she did, she motioned the girl over. “Would you like something to eat, Beth?”
“I’m not much of a breakfast girl. But I’ll have a latte.” Beth turned to Emma and flashed her megawatt smile. “I’ll take a latte. Small.”
When Debbie’s employee had retreated behind the counter, Tori leaned forward. “It must be so exciting to run your own company, deciding everything from product to marketing and all aspects in-between.”
“I know a little bit about that with the library.” Tori pulled her mug closer to her body and inhaled slowly. “It’s fun and challenging all at the same time.”
For a moment Beth said nothing, her gaze pinning Tori as if she’d grown two heads. “You work at the
, don’t you?”
“I do. I’m the head librarian.”
“And you actually liken that to owning a business?”
Tori laughed at the surprise in the woman’s voice. “In some ways, sure. Just like you, I’m concerned with getting patrons in the door. And to do that, I have to do marketing of my own. Although it’s not usually done with commercials and full-page ads in magazines like you probably do.”
Emma reappeared beside their table, a baby blue ceramic mug in her hand. “Here you go, ma’am.”
“Thank you.” Beth leaned back in her chair as Emma set the drink in front of her. “I never heard of marketing a library.”
“The more people we have using the library, the more funding we receive.” Tori clasped her hands together and rested her chin on top. “The more funding we receive, the more programs we can offer.”
“Interesting . . .” Beth clicked her nails against the mug. “Does Milo enjoy hearing these sorts of things?”
She smiled, dropping her hands to the table as she did. “He does. He’s wonderfully supportive and he’s great to brainstorm ideas with, too.”
A quick laugh burst through Beth’s lips. “He’s great to do a lot of things with.”
Tori forced the smile to remain on her face even as her heart threatened to tug it downward at the innuendo in Beth’s words. “So tell me about your company.”
The woman studied her for a moment, her gaze moving from Tori’s hair to her face to her clothes. When the visual inspection was over, Beth pursed her lips ever so slightly. “Do you know
at all about fashion?”
“I know quite a bit, actually. I’ve been sewing since I was a little girl and I try to keep up on the latest fashions.”
The woman dropped her gaze to Tori’s attire once again. “Oh?”
Nibbling back the urge to say something unkind, Tori merely nodded.
In a flash, an unmistakable glow of excitement shot across Beth’s face. “Would you like to see my new designs? The ones that are going to put Spotlight Fashions on the map in the pageant world—and beyond?”
“Spotlight Fashions? I thought you were changing the name.”
Beth stared at her. “Changing the name? Where would you have gotten that?”
“Milo. He said something about you working on a new logo?”
“Oh. That. Well”—she grabbed hold of the leather portfolio and hoisted it onto the table—“I’ve had a change of heart.” With a yank of her hand, Beth unzipped the case and spun it around to give Tori a better view of the plastic-sleeved pages inside. “Wait until you see my latest designs.”
Pushing her mug to the side, Tori leaned forward, her attention captivated by the first dress in Beth’s lineup. “Oh my gosh, Beth, this is—this is gorgeous.”
Beth nodded, her hand sweeping across the first design. “Do you see the way the corset bodice is long and narrow, accenting the top of the waist?”
“I do.” Her gaze skimmed across the design, stopping to inspect various aspects more closely. “And I really love the sweetheart neckline and the gathered skirt.”
“Just wait. They get better.” Beth turned the page to reveal a dress fit for a princess. “Do you see this one? The scallop-edged neckline really draws the eye, don’t you think?”
“The ruched bodice is a nice touch as is the full princess skirt.” She leaned closer. “Will the skirt be detailed with beads?”
“Scattered, yes.” Beth turned to the third design. “Now this one is my favorite . . .” Her words trailed off as she stared at the drawing. “Don’t you just love the embroidered bodice and the charmeuse waist?”
“It’s beautiful.” Tori pointed at the bottom half of the dress. “Are those appliqués cascading down the skirt?”
Again, Beth nodded. “They are. And they look stunning against the full skirt, don’t you think?”
“Absolutely.” Page by page they studied each of the six designs, stopping to discuss the various touches that made each one memorable. “Beth, they’re gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.” She shook her head softly, the woman’s talent nothing short of mind-boggling. “Milo didn’t tell me you did your own designs. They’re amazing.”
“A woman’s got to keep a few secrets to herself just to keep them guessing, don’t you think?” Beth ran her hand down the last of the six designs and sighed. “Besides, until recently, I used a different designer.”
“Why didn’t you design your own stuff from the beginning?”
Beth paused. “Well, because I—I was concentrating on getting the company up and running. It would have been too much trying to design everything myself.”
“Oh.” She watched as the woman closed the portfolio and zipped it closed. “Okay. So when will you roll these out?”
“Soon. I’d hoped to have twelve but, well, six will do.”
“I can’t imagine six more. These”—Tori gestured toward the leather case—“are really spectacular. You have an amazing talent, you really do.”
“I know.” Beth giggled. “Now I just need to make sure everything is in place.”
“What do you mean?”
“When these designs hit, Spotlight Fashions will be
choice for pageant dresses.”