Instead of spending a nice, relaxing holiday with her fiance, Tori Sinclair has been drafted into Sweet Briar’s Christmas Decorating Committee. And the season has brought sad tidings as well: Charlotte Devereaux, a sewing circle founding member who unraveled after her storybook marriage fell apart, has passed away.
Charlotte’s last days were foggy, distressed, and feverish–except for the sketches she produced. One detail in particular jumps out at Tori and leads to a shocking revelation: Charlotte’s husband didn’t leave her–he was murdered! And as Tori gets closer to the truth, she will discover that just about everyone in town has got notches on the naughty list this year.
There were certain things that simply went together.
Milk and cookies . . .
Music and dancing . . .
Hugs and kisses.
You know, tried- and- true matches capable of withstanding the test of time and serving as beacons of normalcy when life got crazy. To mess with one of them was akin to turning one’s personal snow globe upside down and giving it a violent shake.
At least that’s what Tori Sinclair told herself as she lowered her uneaten candy bar into her lunch sack and sealed it up tight, her appetite suddenly depleted.
“Ain’t no need to quit your horrible eatin’ habits on account of me, Victoria.” Margaret Louise Davis dropped her polyester- clad body onto the concrete step just below Tori and released a weighted sigh. “I just need a little fresh air is all.”
“Margaret Louise? Are you—”
“And maybe a few nips of Gabe Jameson’s moonshine while I’m at it.”
She gestured over her shoulder to the stately brick structure at the top of the stairs. “Last time I checked, the Sweet Briar Public Library only offers books, exceptional customer service, and an occasional cup of coffee depending on whether Dixie is working or not.” Tori brought her hand back to her lap and leaned forward. “What’s wrong, Margaret Louise?”
The sixty- something woman shifted her plump form ever so slightly until her back was propped against the staircase wall. “Wrong? Who said anything was wrong?”
Extending her finger outward, Tori did her best to nudge her friend’s mouth into a smile but to no avail. “This did.” Margaret Louise’s brows furrowed as Tori abandoned her efforts. “Your smile. It’s gone.”
“You’re darn tootin’ it is.”
“Is it the kids?”
Margaret Louise shook her head. “My grandbabies are doin’ just fine.”
“Melissa?” Tori asked quickly as a flash of fear reared its head where the woman’s pregnant daughter-in-law was concerned.
“Melissa is fi ne. Carryin’ number eight like it’s her first.”
Tori’s shoulders slumped. “Phew. That’s a relief.”
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with Jake, neither,” Margaret Louise said, referring to her one and only son.
Tori studied her friend closely, trying to make sense of the nonsensical. “Then if it’s not the kids, and it’s not Melissa or Jake, what on earth has got you looking like . . .that?” Again, she pointed at the frown on her friend’s face.
“It’s not a what. It’s a who.”
And then she knew.
In fact, now that Jake and his family had been systematically eliminated as potential culprits, there was only one person who could possibly be responsible for Margaret Louise’s frown.
“What did Leona do now?” she asked even as her thoughts began filling in potential possibilities where Margaret Louise’s night- and- day- different twin sister was concerned.
“It ain’t Leona.”
Okay, now she was stumped. “Then who?”
“Name’s Maime Wellington. Though I’ve got me a few names that fit better.”
“Maime Wellington?” she echoed.
Margaret Louise merely nodded. Sadly.
“My sister always was far kinder than she should have been.” Leona Elkin climbed the first five steps of the library and sank onto the step beside Tori, her breath coming in soft little gasps. “Good . . . heavens, Twin. I realize one of us . . . wears jogging suits . . . on a regular basis . . . but I don’t clothe myself in Donna Karan . . . so I can . . . sweat my brains out . . . chasing you across the town square!”
Tori stifled the laugh that lay in wait halfway down her throat, opting instead to tip her head in the direction of the latest newcomer to her lunch- that- wasn’t. “Leona.”
“Victoria.” Smoothing her freshly manicured hands down the sides of her hunter green suit jacket, Leona pursed her lips around one final dramatic inhale before addressing her sister with a knowing look. “Avery Jordan isn’t thinking with his brain. And when a man isn’t thinking with his brain, he’s ripe for the picking.” Crossing her ankles and tucking them primly to the side, Leona batted her eyelashes ever so coyly. “If they weren’t, my passport wouldn’t be so well stamped.”
That did it. Tori laughed.
Leona turned a disapproving eye in Tori’s direction. “You disagree, dear?”
“Lulu is gonna be heartbroken when I tell her,” Margaret Louise moaned.
The mention of number five in Margaret Louise’s lineup of grandchildren brought her up short. “Lulu? What’s Lulu got to do with all of this? I thought you said the kids were fine.”
“They are. But I promised Lulu she could help this year. And since I told her that, that child’s been jottin’ down all sorts of decoratin’ ideas in that little notebook of hers. Course, there’s an inordinate amount of candy canes makin’ their way into the mix, but still, it’s a start.”
“Candy canes,” she whispered. “I don’t understand . . .”
Leona bent her fi ngers so as to afford a closer inspection of her nails. “Avery Jordan has replaced Margaret Louise on the Sweet Briar Christmas Decorating Committee.”
Tori drew back, images of her first two Christmases in Sweet Briar lining up in her thoughts one picturesque memory behind the other. “Replaced Margaret Louise? Is he nuts?”
“That’s one word for it, dear. Others would include; clueless, desperate, pathetic, and predicable. All of which I tried to share with my sister during our sprint across the Green, but none of which seemed to have helped,” Leona said.
“But w-why?” Tori sputtered.
Margaret Louise’s mouth dipped still farther. “Officially? Councilman Jordan thinks it’s time for a change.”
“And unofficially?” she prompted, knowing full well who would answer.
Leona didn’t disappoint. “Unoffi cially, Councilman Jordan met some little hussy on one of those Internet dating sites and she’d finagled not only an invite to live with him and his son, but also Margaret Louise’s prized role as Chairman of the Sweet Briar Christmas Decorating Committee.”
“O-kay.” She worked to take in everything she was hearing. “So he moved his girlfriend into his house. What does that have to do with Margaret Louise’s committee spot? Giving it to his girlfriend doesn’t make any sense.”
“It does if you’re Maime Wellington and you want so desperately to”—Leona hooked the index and middle fingers of both her moisturized hands in the air—“fi t in in your new hometown.”
“So she ousts the one woman who makes Sweet Briar look like something out of a Dickens classic?” Tori heard the disbelief in her own voice, knew it would be mirrored in that of every resident of Sweet Briar, except, perhaps, Councilman Jordan and his new live-in girlfriend.
“That ’bout sums it up.” Margaret Louise tipped her head back against the wall and looked up at the charcoal streaked clouds. “Why, I even offered to stay on and help in whatever capacity this woman needs but he said no. He said it might make it too hard for the other committee members to see her as the decision maker if I’m nearby.”
“Maybe that should tell him something.” It was all Tori could think to say.
Leona threw back her shoulders. “Which is why I volunteered to help this year.”
Tori choked on a swallow. “Y-You, Leona?”
“That’s exactly what I said.” Margaret Louise rolled her eyes. “After all, Leona’s first and only order of business when it comes to all things decoratin’ is to call a decorator. Who, in case you’re curious, Victoria, is number five on my twin’s speed dial.”
Leona made a face at her twin sister and then held it as she swept an offended glance in Tori’s direction. “I barely have room in my schedule for a pedicure this month and this is the thanks I get for keeping Maime Wellington on her toes? Doesn’t bode well for you, either, Victoria.”
“Me?” she echoed.
“Do you really think she volunteered alone, Victoria?” Margaret Louise asked.
She looked from Leona to Margaret Louise and back again, her mouth gaping at the reality. “You volunteered me for the Christmas committee? Are you crazy? The Holiday Book Extravaganza is coming up! I can’t take on any other responsibilities right now.”
Leona waved Tori’s worries away. “Don’t worry, dear. Rose and Dixie will be there to help us both.”
Tori worked to moisten her throat. “You volunteered them, too?”
Leona beamed. “Think of the fun we can have with the councilman’s little hussy . . .”
Propping her elbows onto her knees, Tori dropped her head into her hands. “Ugh. Ugh. Ugh, Leona. How could you do this?”
“Easy. I simply gave the councilman’s secretary our names and numbers. When she was done writing that all down, she welcomed us aboard.”
Tori pulled her head from her palms and rose to her feet, her thoughts ricocheting between the upcoming holiday book event and her own plans for a special Christmas with her fiancé, Milo Wentworth. “Leona, I can’t. I can’t do this. It’s too much.”
Leona, too, jumped to her feet, the click of her Prada shoes reverberating against the concrete. “Taking a few minutes out of your precious schedule to be my sister’s voice on the Christmas committee is too much for you?”
She felt her face warm as Margaret Louise lowered her gaze from the sky for the first time in ten minutes. “Leona, stop. Victoria doesn’t owe me anything. She’s got enough on her plate—”
“I’ll do it.” The words slipped between her lips, unfiltered. “I’ll do it. I’ll find a way to make it work.”
Leona’s smile returned. Only this time, it was dripping with self- satisfaction. “I knew Margaret Louise could count on you, dear.”
Before Tori could respond, Leona clapped her hands in rapid succession. “Ooooh, just think of all the new gossip we’re going to get for our sewing circle meetings. Things have gotten so drab in there lately with Rose always wincing, Dixie and you blathering on about the book fair, and Melissa talking about her pregnancy.”
“I just want to talk about decorations . . .” Margaret Louise’s words trailed off as the peal of her cell phone took over. Sighing, she retrieved the royal blue gadget from her purse and checked the caller ID screen. “It’s Rose.”
Approaching her mid- eighties, Rose Winters was one of Tori’s dearest friends. Equal parts prickly and sweet, the retired schoolteacher turned matriarch of the Sweet Briar Ladies Society Sewing Circle was a force to be reckoned with whether she was working in her garden, sewing away the hours, or hooked up to an IV drip pole for one of her rheumatoid arthritis treatments.
“Shhhh,” Leona said, quieting her voice as she continued. “Don’t tell her I volunteered her for the Christmas committee. I want to do that in person when I can watch the old goat’s reaction with my own two eyes.”
“Leona!” Tori reprimanded despite the smile that let the woman off the hook. Leona Elkin and Rose Winters were like oil and vinegar. If Leona wasn’t taking potshots at Rose, then Rose was taking some at Leona. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was almost always amusing.
Leona cocked her head and batted her eyelashes innocently. “What did I say?”
“Oh, put a sock in it, Twin.” Margaret Louise snapped her phone open and held it to her ear. “Is everything okay, Rose?”
Ever the grandmother, Margaret Louise slipped into nurture mode with quiet ease, casting away her personal troubles in favor of making everyone else’s life better. It was one of probably a zillion reasons why Tori treasured her so.
She studied the twins closely as Margaret Louise paid full attention to the voice on the phone and Leona stood idly by, trying not to get caught eavesdropping. Born on the same day, to the same mother, the women, who were three decades Tori’s senior, had little in common beyond their shared birthday. Where Margaret Louise was stocky, Leona was trim and toned. Where Leona tended to be prim and proper, Margaret Louise was loud and boisterous, always ready to have a good time regardless of their surroundings. Where Leona wore the latest styles and trends with an artist’s eye, Margaret Louise was lovingly disheveled at best. Where Margaret Louise could spend hours playing on the floor with one of her grandkids, Leona looked aghast at the mere mention of anyone under the age of thirty. And while Margaret Louise was content to live her long widowed existence surrounded by family and friends, Leona lived her never- married status to the fullest, winking and blinking her way toward free dinners and movies with just about any uniform- wearing male regardless of whether he was twenty or seventy.
“I didn’t realize she was that bad,” Margaret Louise said.
Something about the tone of the one- sided conversation she was hearing snapped her into the present. A quick glance in Leona’s direction told her she wasn’t alone.
“When is the wake and the service?” Tori felt the helpless churn of her stomach as Margaret Louise paused long enough for her tone to switch from dismay to disgust. “I wouldn’t imagine that worthless young man would make the arrangements . . .”
Another pause quickly disappeared. “Well, thank heavens for Jerry Lee. I’m not sure what Charlotte would have done these last few years without his guidance . . .Yes, yes, of course, Rose. We’ll let everyone know at tonight’s circle meetin’ . . . Yes, it’s at Georgina’s place . . .Do you need a ride? . . . No, Rose, I don’t think you’re an invalid.” Margaret Louise closed her eyes. “Yes, yes, I know you can get there yourself . . . Okay, I’ll pick you up at seven, then.”
Parting her short, stubby eyelashes, Margaret Louise snapped her phone shut and shoved it into her oversized tote bag- turned- purse. “Charlotte Devereaux died last night.”
The name, while oddly familiar, didn’t stir up anything specific. “Who’s Charlotte Devereaux?” Tori asked.
“Charlotte, along with Rose, Dixie, Georgina, and myself, founded the sewin’ circle for which you now belong, Victoria.” Margaret Louise huffed and puffed her way to her feet. “She retired from the circle ’bout five years ago when Parker up and took off.”
“Parker?” she repeated.
“Her husband of almost fifty years. Provin’, of course, that good men are as scarce as deviled eggs after a church picnic.”
“That’s why you never give a man more than five dates. Six tops.” Leona turned on the soles of her expensive heels and made her way down the steps. “They can’t hurt what they don’t have.”
Tori watched Leona swing her hips down the sidewalk and disappear behind a series of hundred- year- old moss trees, her destination either the antiques shop she owned on the town square or whatever lunch date she’d been invited to by some unsuspecting man. “Margaret Louise? That sister of yours is a piece of work.”
When there was no response, Tori turned back to her troubled friend and focused her attention where it was due. “Was Charlotte sick?”
Margaret Louise nodded. “She had Alzheimer’s and it was gettin’ pretty bad. I just didn’t realize she was so close to dyin’. If I had, I’d have gotten my hide over there sooner.”
She reached for her friend’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Hey. Go easy on yourself. Between your grandbabies and your mother, you barely have time to breathe. Besides, if she was as bad off as you say, she might not have even known you were there.”
A beat of silence was soon followed by a soft tsking sound. “Victoria, I can only hope you’re right. Because maybe, if she couldn’t remember nothin’, her heart wouldn’t have been hurtin’ so much at the end. That alone would have made her Alzheimer’s a blessin’.”
Despite the fact that she’d never met Charlotte Devereaux, Tori couldn’t help feeling bad for a woman who had spent her last five years on earth aching over a loved one’s betrayal. It just seemed unnecessarily cruel. “She was surprised when he left?”
Margaret Louise snorted. “More like shocked. We all were. She adored the ground that man walked on and we all thought the same thing ’bout him.”
Tori swallowed back the lump that threatened to make speaking difficult, her own experience in the blindsided-by-love department bringing Charlotte Devereaux’s plight much too close for comfort. “Tell me she at least had someone by her side at the end. Some children? A sibling? Someone?”
Hoisting her tote bag onto her arm, Margaret Louise turned in the same direction Leona had gone and made her way to the sidewalk below, stopping to readdress Tori at the bottom. “Considerin’ what she had by her side, as you say, Charlotte would have been better off on her own. Far, far better.”