Melissa made a face. “You know my mother-in-law.”
And she did. Thankfully. In fact, since moving to Sweet Briar, the sixty-something woman had become one of Tori’s dearest friends both inside and outside of the Sweet Briar Ladies Society Sewing Circle. The sometimes loud, sometimes opinionated woman had shown her nothing but loyalty and kindness through some of her darkest days, including a bout as a murder suspect. It was the kind of friendship she worked hard to reciprocate.
“I’ve got it!”
Melissa’s eyes rounded in surprise. “What?”
“What do you think of having the party in the children’s room? The kids could use the dress-up trunk and put on little shows based on the stories we read to them.”
“I don’t know. Could we really use the room?”
Tori nodded. “With a donation to the library, and my assurances the room will be cleaned afterward, I’m sure the board will grant permission. And if we have it after hours on Sunday, it won’t conflict with our patrons at all.”
Feeling the excitement start to build, she continued, giving words to the ideas cycling through her head. “We could have Debbie make a cake highlighting Sally’s favorite story, and we could bring in a few tables and chairs and set that part up outside under the moss trees.”
Melissa sat up. “It would certainly be different . . .”
“And relatively cheap,” Tori added.
“Kids love to play dress up.”
“And, if we got our hands on a video recorder, we could even tape their performances to be watched during cake time and then send a copy home with each child as a memento from Sally’s party.”
“That’s it! That’s perfect.” Jumping up from her chair, Melissa ran around the table and threw her arms around Tori. “Oh, Victoria, thank you! You just saved two lives.”
“Mine . . . and Ashley’s.”
“Sally would love you no matter what kind of party she did or didn’t have. You need to remember that, okay?” Tori grabbed the pile of party books and stood, the last part of Melissa’s statement bringing a smile to her lips. “And as for this Ashley woman . . . perhaps we should keep any and all rope away from Margaret Louise that day. Just in case she can’t hold back the urge any longer.”
“That’s a good idea. Though, keeping it out of sight from the rest of the moms who come to the party might be a good idea, too.”
“Why is that?” she asked.
“Because Margaret Louise is one of many who has had enough of Ashley Lawson.
Shifting the plate of homemade gingerbread cookies to her left hand, Tori knocked on Dixie Dunn’s front door, her hand making a crisp rapping sound against the trim.
“Oh, thank goodness I’m not the only one who’s late.” Beatrice Tharrington stepped onto the weather-beaten front porch beside Tori, a foil-covered plate in her hand. “Luke was being a little devil this evening. Didn’t want me to leave.”
“Isn’t Monday evening supposed to be special time with his parents?”
Beatrice nodded. “It is. But he’s gotten a might bit attached to me.”
“And this surprises you?” She looked from Beatrice to the screen door and back again, the sound of footsteps in the distance her only indication the knock had been heard above the gossip that was as much a part of the group as needles and thread.
“It does, indeed. I’m just the nanny.”
“Just the nanny?” she echoed as she sized up the only other member of the group who didn’t sport a southern accent. “You make Mary Poppins look inattentive.”
A flush rose across the British nanny’s young face. “Victoria, you shouldn’t say such things.”
“Why? It’s the truth.” She glanced back toward the door, the footsteps growing still louder. “I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve made a meeting at Dixie’s house.”
“I wish I could say the same.”
Startled, she met Beatrice’s shame-filled eyes, her mouth unable to form words before a retraction was offered.
“Oh, Victoria, can we please pretend I didn’t say that? It was . . . unkind. And most unfair of me to say.”
She reached out, gently squeezed her friend’s hand. “It’s already forgotten.”
“Well look who’s here. I thought for sure you weren’t coming since we were supposed to start ten minutes ago.”
Beatrice’s face flushed still deeper. “Dixie, my apologies for being late. Luke got rather upset when it was time for me to leave and I felt it only fair to help settle him down for his mum.”
Dixie nodded, her crop of white hair barely moving as she turned her scowl in Tori’s direction and waited.
“I had a few last minute things to tie up at the library this evening before I could break away.” Tori stepped back as Dixie pushed the screen door open and motioned them inside. “Then it was just a matter of running home and grabbing the cookies and my supplies and—”
“It’s simply a matter of getting better organized, Victoria. Why, when I was head librarian, I had the door locked every day at five o’clock on the dot.”
Biting back the urge to toss around words like
, she simply smiled instead, her propensity toward good manners winning out. Besides, some battles simply weren’t worth fighting. Especially when the other side was elderly and still carried a grudge where her forced retirement was concerned.
Dixie’s nose scrunched. “Do I smell gingerbread?”
“You do. I made some this morning before work.” Tori held the plate in the host’s direction.
“I made gingerbread flowers.”
“Oh.” Dixie sniffed and reached for Beatrice’s covered plate instead. “And what did you bring?”
Beatrice gulped. Loudly. “I helped in Luke’s classroom this afternoon and lost track of time. Before I knew it, it was too late to whip anything up on my own. So I stopped by Leeson’s Market and ordered up a few blueberry scones.”
A soft yet noticeable cluck emerged from Dixie’s mouth followed by a sigh to end all sighs. “Things are certainly different these days, aren’t they? Good manners and grace have simply gone right out the window.”
“Yes, apparently, they have.” Tori looked down as a sheet of white paper was thrust into her free hand. “What’s this?”
“That, Victoria, is an example of organization.”
“It’s our agenda for the evening.”
She looked from the paper to Dixie and back again, the reality of what she was hearing and seeing taking root in some dusty corner of her brain. “An agenda? For sewing circle?”
Dixie turned on her penny loafers and headed down the hallway from which she’d just come, the flick of her hand an indication they should follow. “That’s right. It will keep us on task.”
Setting the gingerbread cookies on the kitchen table along with the various offerings from her fellow circle members, Tori hurried to follow, her brain processing the words on the page in her hand.
7:00 p.m. Arrival
7:10 p.m. Sewing commences
7:30 p.m. Moderated discussion
7:40 p.m. Return to sewing
8:00 p.m. Dessert
8:15 p.m. Final round of sewing
8:30 p.m. Departure
“It’s like this all the time when we meet here,” Beatrice whispered as they fell in step with each other, their hostess leading the way amid grumbles about the perils of tardiness. “It’s why I said what I said earlier.”
“And no one says anything?”
Beatrice’s too-thin shoulders rose and fell. “Margaret Louise and Georgina speak at will anyway. So, too, does everyone else. But it’s met with eye rolling and exasperated sighs from Dixie.”
“No wonder she’s irritated with us,” Tori said midchuckle. “We’ve arrived when sewing is supposed to be commencing.”
Dixie looked over her shoulder, her chin grazing the bold floral print of her housecoat. “Shhh . . .”
“Good heavens, Dixie, who are you hushin’ out there?” Margaret Louise’s voice bellowed into the hallway, earning a sigh from Dixie in the process.
“It’s just us,” Tori said as she rounded the corner and drew to a stop in the doorway of what appeared to be Dixie’s version of the Sweet Briar Public Library, right down to the rickety table and chairs Tori had thrown out shortly after taking over the position of head librarian. “Is that the same—”
“Come sit with me, dear, I’ve saved you a spot.” Leona Elkin lowered her latest travel magazine to her lap and patted the rusty folding chair on her left, her voice dropping to a level only Tori could hear. “It
one and the same. Only she’ll deny plucking it from the trash in favor of something much more martyr-like. And if you inquire, she’ll find a way to go at you for throwing it away in the first place. Need I remind you of the way Dixie likes to accuse you of stealing her job out from under her?”
“Roger that?” Leona looked over her glasses at Tori. “I’m fairly sure that’s not one of the acceptable southern responses I’ve tried so hard to teach you this past year.”
“Lots of people use that expression, Leona.”
“Where? In”—the sixty-something woman curled the corner of her lip upward ever so slightly—“
“No. Everywhere. Including the south.”
“And who in the south might say that?” Leona demanded in a whisper.
“You mean the uncle who lives in Florida, dear?”
“Yes, exact—” And then she stopped, Leona’s protest playing through her thoughts before the woman even uttered a word.
“For the thousandth time, dear, Florida is not the south.” Raising her voice for everyone to hear, Leona took command of the conversation, steering it into calmer waters. “Margaret Louise has been telling me all about the party you and Melissa are planning for Sally this weekend.”
“Would you believe my twin is thinkin’ about helpin’?” Margaret Louise bellowed.
Tori swung her gaze back and forth between the mismatched pair. “You do realize it’s a child’s party, don’t you, Leona? That means
will be there.”
“I can wear earplugs if necessary,” Leona countered as laughter erupted around the room.
Dixie tapped her watch. “It’s not seven thirty yet.”
“Oh, stuff a sock in it, would you?” Rose Winters, the group’s oldest member, stamped her foot against the linoleum floor. “This is sewing circle, not story time.”
Dixie’s face turned crimson. “But if we talk we won’t get our work done.”
“And the sky won’t fall down around our ears, Dixie.” Rose leaned forward in her chair and released a cough that nearly shook the room, her failing health not missed by anyone in the room. Least of all, Rose. “I’ve only a dozen years left if I’m lucky and I don’t plan on living them by the hands of a clock.”
The former librarian opened her mouth to speak only to let it snap shut, any protest she could offer stifled by the large eyes staring at her from atop a pair of bifocals. “Now that’s better.” Turning to Tori and Beatrice, Rose continued, the sharp edge to her voice all but gone. “It’s nice to see you this evening.”
Tori flashed a smile at the woman. “And you, too, Rose.”
Georgina Hayes’s wiry figure perked up from behind one of the group’s portable sewing machines, a sympathetic smile on her face. “Victoria, how are you faring with this Samuelson woman in town?”
“Samuelson woman?” Leona set her magazine down once again. “Who’s that?”
Willing her voice to remain even, she shrugged. “Beth Samuelson is Milo’s old college girlfriend.”
“What’s she doin’ in Sweet Briar?” Margaret Louise asked.
Tori looked down at the tote bag in her lap. “She’s here on business.”
“Is that what they call it now, dear?” Leona drawled, her gaze locked on Tori’s.
“Leona!” Georgina reprimanded. “There’s no need to get Victoria all worried about something silly. Milo adores her. You know that. I only brought it up because she came into the town hall today to ask for directions and happened to mention knowing Milo.”
“Is she pretty?”
“Leona!” Rose stamped her foot. Hard. “What difference does that make?”
“It’s okay, Rose.” Tori inhaled every ounce of courage she could muster in order to answer the question as accurately as possible. “Actually, Leona, she’s beautiful.”
“That don’t mean nothin’.” Margaret Louise shot a daggered look in her twin sister’s direction before turning a softer one on Tori. “Besides, you can’t tell much ’bout a chicken potpie ’til you cut through the crust.”
“That’s true,” Debbie Calhoun echoed.
“In Leona’s case we’ve already cut through the potpie right down to the ill tastin’ insides.” Rose’s voice elevated above the chatter in the room, earning a gasp from Leona and laughter from everyone else.
“Oh, quit your gaspin’, Twin. You had that one comin’.” Margaret Louise stretched her pudgy hands over her head and worked to stifle a yawn. “Good men may be as scarce as deviled eggs after a church picnic, but Milo is a good man. Just like my son, Jake.”