She couldn’t help but stare as the woman resumed her path toward the dessert table. Little by little the wall was crumbling around Dixie’s tough-as-nails façade, their common love of children and books forging a bond between them she hadn’t thought possible. Yet there it was. And she was glad.
“Must I really open the door myself, dear?”
Whirling around, she felt the smile before it even completed its trip across her mouth. “Leona, hi!”
She closed the gap between them with two quick strides. “Oh, sorry. I got sidetracked by Dixie.”
“Dixie?” Leona asked as she, too, stepped inside. “Is she nailing herself to a cross again?”
“No, she’s not.” She heard the disbelief in her voice, felt the contentment that chased it away. “It’s getting better. It really is.”
“I told you it would, didn’t I?”
She looked a question at her friend.
“Don’t furrow your brow at me like that, dear. It’ll encourage wrinkles.”
“Wrinkles? Who’s got wrinkles?” Georgina’s voice bellowed through the screen just before she yanked open the door and stepped inside. “Are you badgerin’ Victoria again, Leona?”
She rushed to head off a tiff before everyone could be present for the show. “I set up the dessert table just inside the kitchen door. Feel free to set your dishes down and find a seat for the evening.”
“I’m here, I’m here.” Debbie peered through the screen, her hair pulled into a high ponytail that only accentuated her already high cheekbones. “Jackson had a lot to say at the dinner table this evening so things ran a little late.”
“As good a reason as any, I’d say.” She pushed the door open once again, her nose seeking out the woman’s covered plate. “Something from the bakery?”
Debbie shook her head. “From my secret stash.”
She drew back. “Secret stash?”
“Those are the recipes I try at home. Some make it onto the menu at the bakery, some stay exclusive to the Calhoun household. The kids usually decide which recipes stay exclusive.” With a flip of her finger, Debbie lifted a section of the foil and held it up for Tori to see. “Anything chocolate and gooey tends to stay exclusive.”
“Chocolate? And gooey?” she echoed.
“That’s not what I brought.”
She felt her shoulders slump then caught the glint of amusement in Debbie’s pale blue eyes. “Hey! That’s not nice.”
Debbie laughed. “But it was fun. You should have seen your face.”
“Ha ha. Besides, Margaret Louise has chocolate.”
“She may. But I bet she doesn’t have gooey.”
“Okay, go. Go put your stuff on the table.” She trailed behind her friend, breaking off in the direction of the women already seated in the living room. “So how is everyone this evening?”
“I think the better question is how are
, dear?” Leona tilted her head forward and pinned Tori with a stare from atop her glasses.
She swept her gaze across a wide-eyed Georgina, an abnormally subdued Margaret Louise, a distressed Rose, and a hard-to-read Dixie before focusing on Leona once again. “What? What’s going on?”
“You didn’t act fast enough, dear.”
“Act fast enough? On what? What are you talking about?”
“Milo. And that little hussy he’s picnicking with around town.”
“Must you always be so insensitive, Leona?” Rose snapped before patting the empty cushion beside her. “Come now, Victoria, come sit by me.”
“It sounds to me as if it was a good thing Milo was with that woman this afternoon,” Dixie mused. “He may have stopped something horrible from happening.”
Debbie stopped midway into the living room, her hands no longer carrying the exclusive treat. “Did something happen at the school?”
“This has nothing to do with the school.” Georgina gestured Debbie toward a folding chair to her right and then drew forward in her own seat, prompting the others to do the same. “Now ya’ll know I’m not the one to go’round spreadin’ rumors, so you better listen close the first time.”
Leona rolled her eyes skyward as Georgina’s voice grew hushed. “Seems someone has been lurking around Milo’s college sweetheart since she arrived in town. She’s been followed in the parking lot of the inn, she’s heard the sound of someone trying to pick their way into her room—”
Georgina nodded in her direction. “And she had a threat written across her windshield with soap.”
“Good heavens! Why would someone want to do that?”
“Because she’s trying to get her former knight to climb back on his horse and ride to her defense.” Leona lifted her chin and grabbed for the stack of magazines Tori had left beside the plaid armchair. “And Victoria here is allowing it to happen.”
“I think your shirt is missin’ a few buttons there, Twin.”
Leona looked down at her silk blouse. “No, it’s not.”
Margaret Louise snorted. “It’s an expression, Twin.”
Slowly Leona fixed her gaze on her sister. “Are you trying to say I don’t know what I’m talking about?”
“No, I think she’s saying you’re nuts,” Rose interjected. “And I have to agree.”
“Oh shut up, Rose,” snapped Leona.
Tori held up her hands. “Actually, I have to say Leona is right. Mostly about the first part, and maybe even a little about the second part, too.”
Leona twisted her mouth and nodded. “At least you’re aware. Though why you’re letting it happen is beyond me.”
“What am I supposed to do?” She grabbed her sewing box and stack of felt from the alcove off her living room and made her way over to the empty spot beside Rose. “Buy her a one-way ticket out of Sweet Briar?”
“That would be a start.”
Rose stamped her foot on the floor. “What are you talking about?”
“Milo’s former girlfriend. Though”—Leona stopped flipping pages long enough to meet Tori’s gaze—“if Victoria continues to sit back, the former tag may disappear.”
Debbie looked up from her own pile of multi-colored felt. “That’s not a very nice thing to say, Leona.”
“The truth hurts. Always has, always will.”
“Guess that explains why you wince every time I call you old,” Rose mumbled just loud enough for Leona to hear.
Before the fur could start flying, Tori held up her hands. “I believe Leona is right in her belief that Beth Samuelson is trying to get Milo back. I also believe she’s right when she says Beth is trying to do it by playing the damsel in distress.” She set the wooden sewing box at her feet and the pile of felt in her lap. “Let’s be honest: we all know Milo is a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. And no gentleman is ever going to sit back while a woman is in peril. Even if it’s a bunch of—of hooey.”
Leona’s eyebrow rose yet her mouth stay closed.
“Hooey?” Georgina asked. “You really think she’s making stuff up?”
“I know she is.” She proceeded to fill the circle in on the events of that afternoon, describing in detail the entire picnic scene. When she got to the part about the stranger in the woods and Beth’s hidden smile, Leona nodded.
“That stranger never would have been in the woods if you hadn’t arrived on the scene, dear.”
“I think you’re right.”
Georgina waved her hands back and forth. “Wait. What kind of person would make up these kinds of claims?”
“A woman who is desperate to correct a gross error in judgment,” Leona stated from behind her magazine.
“But what on earth could actually come from makin’ that kind of stuff up?” Margaret Louise held up two pieces of felt—one light brown, the other dark brown. “Chocolate chip cookies?”
Heads nodded around the room as Tori entertained the best answer for the first of the two questions. But Leona beat her to the punch. “What can come when a woman makes such claims? Attention? Protective arms? A shoulder to cry on?”
“An opportunity to sleep in their bed?” The second the words left Tori’s mouth she realized the error of her ways.
“Did you just say what I think you just said, dear?” Leona finally asked.
“If you think I said she’s staying in his bed, you’re right.”
The woman’s perfectly pouty lips dropped open, as did the thinner and less made-up versions sported by the remainder of the group.
“That’s it. Milo is off my list of nice people,” Margaret Louise sputtered.
“You won’t find me offering to read to his class anymore.” Dixie shook her head sadly. “And here I thought that man knew the meaning of the word
“Lousy, good for nothing man.” Rose reached for Tori’s hand and gave it a gentle pat. “You can do better, Victoria. Just give it time.”
“Wait. Stop. Please.” She pulled her hand from the felt she was sorting and held it up. “Beth is staying with Milo because of a threat she found on her windshield. And she is staying in his bed. But Milo is sleeping on the couch because he’s not interested in turning back the hands of time no matter how badly Beth may want to.”
“You believe that?” Leona barked.
“I do. Because I have faith in Milo and the relationship we’re building.”
“Leona, enough,” spat Dixie. “Since when is trust foolish?”
“I would think Victoria of all people could answer that question best.”
“It’s not foolish, Leona. Not in a relationship with any staying power, anyway. And Milo and me, we have staying power. Which means I have to trust what he says until he shows me differently.”
“Having that woman in his home overnight isn’t showing you differently?”
“No, Leona. It’s showing me what I already know to be true. Milo is a special guy—the kind of man that cares about the people in his inner circle. How can I fault him for exercising the very quality that I love about him?”
“With ease. This is his college sweetheart we’re talking about.”
college sweetheart, Leona. That’s the part you’re missing.”
“Seems to me you’re missing the part about his bed, dear.”
“So what are you going to do?” Debbie asked, her quiet voice a sudden reminder of the evening’s missing members.
“I’m going to bide my time until I feel I should say something to Milo. Doing it any sooner might make me come across as some sort of green-eyed monster. Besides, it’s quite likely she’ll disappear on her own once she releases those designs of hers into the wild.”
“What do you mean?” Dixie asked.
“Her designs are spectacular. And I
mean spectacular. In fact, I’d be willing to say they’re the kind of thing that will jettison her career to the next level—a level that will take her far away from Sweet Briar, South Carolina.”
“Let’s hope you’re right.”
She shrugged in Leona’s direction. “And if I’m wrong, I’ll deal with it at that time. In the meantime, I’m going to focus my attention and my efforts on a much more pressing issue.”
“What? Was he spotted buying a diamond ring for this woman? Is that what it’s going to take to wake you up?” Leona drawled.
“Leona!” Rose stamped her foot again. “Must you be so—so—”
“Rude?” Dixie offered.
“Evil?” Margaret Louise countered.
Rose cleared her throat. “I was thinking more along the lines of awful. Like that woman at Sally’s party.”
“Ashley Lawson,” they all chorused.
“Yes, that one.”
Handing a piece of muted pink felt to Rose, Tori nodded her head at the group. “Which brings us to the pressing issue I was talking about. Melissa and Beatrice are not here tonight because they’re overwhelmed by the stress of this murder investigation and the fingers being pointed in their direction via Regina Murphy. And after the run-in I had with her at Leeson’s this weekend, I can’t say that I blame them.”
“Run-in?” Georgina echoed.
“She’s absolutely convinced one of us killed Ashley.”
“You must admit, the timing of her strangulation in respect to Sally’s party certainly makes you wonder.”
All eyes turned on Debbie.
“Do you think one of us did it?” The surprise in Rose’s voice was tough to miss.
Debbie shrugged. “One of us in this room right now? I doubt it.”
“What are you saying?” Margaret Louise dropped her needle into her lap. “You think Melissa or Beatrice is guilty of murder?”
“No. But the members of this circle aren’t the only ones who were at that party. Nor are we the only ones to come up against that woman’s sharp claws.”
Tori thought back over everything Dixie had said in her office the day before, the woman’s comments about Samantha Smith stirring up more than a few questions and suspicions. “I have to agree with Debbie.”
“You’re thinking about that Smith woman, aren’t you?” Dixie asked as her hand stilled in the middle of threading her needle.
“I am,” she confirmed. “Especially in light of what she said to you after the incident at the library.”
“What did she—”
Rose jumped in, cutting Georgina off. “Said to
? How about what she said to that blonde thing that showed up halfway through the party?”
“Blonde thing? You mean, Regina?”
Rose nodded. “Right after Regina gave the rest of you a talking to about the things that were being said, that short-haired brunette pulled Regina aside and gave her an earful. I wasn’t able to make it all out on account of my hearing disappearing faster than Leona’s youth, but I know this much—she despised that Lawson woman even more than the rest of you.”
“I didn’t despise Ashley,” Tori said. “I didn’t even really know her.”
“Well Margaret Louise certainly despised her, and so did Debbie.”
Neither woman bothered to argue.
“And let’s be honest, Dixie, you weren’t a fan, either.”
Dixie nodded. “Agreed.”
“And Leona, you weren’t wild about her the night of the party—”