Ever since she moved to Sweet Briar, South Carolina, Tori’s been the talk of the tiny town. But she’s been so busy adding a children’s corner to the library, winning over the women of the sewing circle, and trying to forget her cheating ex that she hasn’t had time to even baste together a pillow, never mind pay attention to the local gossip. Then she finds the town sweetheart dead at her back door and everything else falls by the wayside…
To clear her name, Tori will have to rely on her new sewing sisters and stitch together the truth–or else she’ll be darned.
“Filled with fun, folksy characters and southern charm.”
—Maggie Sefton, national bestselling author of Cast On, Kill Off
“Sweet and charming . . . The bewitching women of the Southern Sewing Circle will win your heart in this debut mystery.”
—Monica Ferris, USA Today bestselling author of Threadbare
She wasn’t entirely sure whether it was the pull of the mahogany sewing box in the window, or a much-needed respite from the endless barrage of curious glances, but either way, Elkin Antiques and Collectibles seemed as good a place as any for a momentary escape.
Switching the paper sack of light bulbs to her left hand, Tori Sinclair pushed the glass door open, her presence greeted by a wall-mounted bell and a cocked eyebrow from the sixty-something woman behind the counter.
“Oh, I’m sorry are—are you not open?” Tori glanced back at the door, the inward facing “closed” sign in direct conflict with the irritation hovering above the clerk’s shoulders like vapors off scorching hot pavement.
“Of course, I’m open.” The woman stood statue-still as her gaze played across Tori’s pale yellow sundress and white strappy sandals, lingered on her light brown shoulder-length hair and heart-shaped face. “Can I help you with something?”
“I-uh, wanted to take a closer look at the sewing box in your window.” She pointed at the simple rectangular container that had piqued her curiosity from the sidewalk. “If I’m not mistaken, it’s from the late 1800s, isn’t it?”
The woman’s mouth gaped open a hairbreadth. “Why yes it is.”
Tori closed the distance between the entryway and the display in a few small strides, looking over her shoulder as she stopped beside the box. “It was built by a company in Kansas who specialized in furniture but occasionally dabbled in keepsake pieces, yes?”
The woman nodded, the gap between her lips ever widening.
“I thought so.” Tori ran a gentle finger across the backside of the box before coming to rest on the carved scene that adorned its lid. “My great-grandmother had one just like this. It used to sit on a hope chest in her bedroom and it was where she kept her favorite needles and buttons and ribbons. She’d gotten it as a gift from her parents.”
Slowly, gently, she traced the outline of the horse and buggy. “Only her box had a snowflake carved onto the lid.” She closed her eyes, focused on the feel of the design. “It’s funny but I can still remember how her box felt under my fingertips.”
“What happened to it?”
Tori turned to face the woman who’d left her countertop fortress in favor of blatant curiosity. “It was lost in a fire shortly after she passed away.”
A soft clucking sound broke through the white noise of memories in Tori’s mind, forcing her back to the here and now—and the unmistakable compassion that had chased aloofness from the shopkeeper’s eyes.
“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.”
Tori shrugged softly. “It’s okay. Seeing this one is kind of nice, even a little comforting.”
“I’m glad.” The woman reached out, tentatively squeezed Tori’s forearm with a finely wrinkled hand. “Memories are a wonderful way to link us with the past.”
“I agree.” Pulling her hand from the top of the wooden box, she extended it toward the woman. “I’m Tori Sinclair and I—”
“Tor—you mean, Victoria Sinclair? The new librarian?”
Startled, Tori nodded.
“Hmmmm. You’ve certainly been the talk of Sweet Briar these past few days.” The woman stepped backward as her words slipped away in favor of a second, and more thorough, inspection of her lone customer.
Tori shifted foot to foot in response, the fingers of her left hand inching the top of the paper sack more tightly into her grasp. “Then I guess that would explain the looks I’ve been getting all afternoon.”
“People around here aren’t used to seeing new faces, Victoria.”
That made sense in a small town like Sweet Briar, yet some of the looks she’d been getting were—
“It’s been good talk, right?”
“Mostly. But that’s neither here nor there, my dear.” The woman waved her hand in the air then brought it daintily to her chest. “I’m Leona. Leona Elkin.”
“Mostly? Is there a problem, Ms. Elkin?” she asked quickly.
“Leona, please.” The woman brushed her hands down the side of her long flowered skirt, stopping every few inches to swipe at a non-existent speck. “A problem with what?”
Leona’s hand moved from her skirt to her hair, smoothing back a few errant strands of salon-softened grey as she trained her eyes on Tori’s. “You?”
“You said, just now, that talk regarding my arrival has been good—mostly.”
Leona tipped her glasses downward and gazed at Tori over the upper rim, her brown eyes warm. “Don’t you worry about a thing. Sour grapes are sour grapes, they’re not worth fretting over.”
“Sour grapes? I don’t understand.”
After several long moments, Leona turned on her sensible off-white pumps and gestured for Tori to follow. “Your position at the library…it wasn’t vacant, my dear.”
“I-I don’t understand.” She knew she sounded like a broken record but she couldn’t help herself. If she’d done something wrong, she needed to know.
Reclaiming her spot behind the counter, Leona offered a soft shrug. “You’re replacing Dixie Dunn, a woman who’s been Sweet Briar’s one and only librarian for more years than you’ve been alive. Retirement wasn’t her idea.”
Tori gulped. “You mean this woman…this Dixie Dunn…was fired because of me?”
“Yes—I mean, no.” Leona pulled two oak chairs from behind the counter and slowly lowered herself onto one, her head bobbing at Tori to take the other. “To listen to Dixie tell it, she was fired because of you. But in reality it was time for her to go. She did things the way she’d been doing them for years. She balked at new programming, pooh-poohed any fresh ideas. The board wanted to bring in new blood. It just so happened to be yours.”
“I didn’t realize.” Tori gave into the lure of the chair, setting the bag of light bulbs at her feet as her left temple began to throb. “I certainly wouldn’t want someone to lose their job for me.”
“She was granted—or, maybe I should say—given retirement. If it wasn’t you, Victoria, they would have replaced her with someone. Unfortunately, they chose someone who isn’t,” Leona bent her knees to the side and clasped her hands in her lap reminding Tori of an elegant tea party minus the cups, saucers, and table, “southern.”
“I was born in the south,” Tori offered. “Tampa, to be exact.”
Leona peered at her over the top of her glasses. “Florida is not considered part of the south, Dear.”
“Florida is a melting pot. The south is not. You’re either a southern belle or you’re not.”
“And my not being a true southern belle is a problem?”
Leona pursed her lips together in contemplation before answering. “It can be. But let’s get back to that later. Right now I want to know more about you. Other than the part about being born in Tampa, bless your heart.”
Forcing her thoughts from a wounded Dixie Dunn and her own southern inadequacies, Tori smoothed her dress and relaxed her shoulders. “We lived all over when I was growing up—mostly the Midwest. I went to college in Chicago, falling in love with both the city and a particular someone during my years there.”
The woman clapped her hands gently. “Oooohhh. A romance in the big city. How enchanting.”
“It was…for a few years.” Tori looked around the walls of the shop, desperate for anything that could change the course of the conversation. While she considered herself a fairly open book most of the time, the stuff with Jeff was still too raw, too painful. “That mirror right there,” she pointed to an oval piece of glass encased in elegant silver latticework, “is beautiful. How much is it?”
The shopkeeper’s gaze traveled from Tori’s face to the wall beside the counter. “I love that piece too. But if I kept everything I love, I’d have no store and no home in which to put it.”
Leona trained her focus back on Tori, her smile disarming. “But I’d rather hear about the romance that soured.”
Or maybe not.
Defeated, Tori considered simply sharing the whole story. Right down to the humiliation she’d endured when Jeff had been caught with his pants down—quite literally—in the coat closet of the hall where their engagement party was being held. But she opted to keep that information to herself. Realizing the love of one’s life was a philanderer was hard enough, admitting it to others was something entirely different. Instead, she gave an abbreviated version that she hoped would satisfy without looking too evasive.
“I was engaged to a man whom I loved very much.” Tori glanced down at her entwined hands then back up at Leona Elkin. “Only I found out he wasn’t who I thought he was.”
That was one word for it.
She simply nodded, pulling her hands from the safety of one another to push a strand of hair from her face. “I couldn’t stay in Chicago anymore. I’d spent years picturing my life there in a certain way. And after he,” her voice dipped momentarily as she struggled to cap her words in a suitable way, “showed his true colors, I knew reality was never going to match the fantasy I’d envisioned.”
They sat in silence for a few long moments, each woman deep in thoughts the other could imagine but never know. Finally, Leona reached out and patted Tori’s knee. “You made a good decision. Change is not nearly as bad as lingering in water that’s become stagnant and cloudy.”
She liked that description, hoped the older woman was right. But either way, remaining in Chicago was simply not an option. Not if she wanted to reclaim her life.
“I never married,” Leona said as her eyes traveled to a distant place Tori suspected reached far beyond the walls of Elkin Antiques and Collectibles. The kind of place she, herself, had traveled to many times over the past few months.
“My twin sister, Margaret Louise, was always trying to get me to settle down. To stop traveling the world and have a family like she did,” continued Leona in a quiet voice. “But what she never understood—until recently—is that I didn’t share that same dream. I liked being on my own…learning…exploring…growing. I liked knowing that if I was going to be let down in some way, it would be by my own doing and no one else’s.”
It was Leona’s last sentence that made Tori sit up taller. The woman was right—absolutely right. If Tori’s dreams were going to come to an end, she’d rather it be of her own doing.
“I think that’s why I jumped at this job. Sure, I wanted to put as much distance between myself and Jeff as possible…but, just as much, I want to reclaim the path I’ve always envisioned for my life.” Tori stood and walked around the counter, her words growing in strength and animation. “Running my own library—it’s been a dream since I was a little girl. I have so many ideas, so many plans.”
“Be careful, dear, you’re in a small town now. A small southern town, to be exact.”
Leona’s caution halted Tori’s starry-eyed woolgathering in its tracks and she retraced her steps, stopping short of the chair she’d occupied just seconds earlier. “I don’t understand.”
The woman gestured toward the front windows of her shop. “Sweet Briar is a small town, Victoria. Virtually everyone in this town has lived here their whole life. And it’s those kinds of people—as wonderful as they are—who find comfort in stagnant waters. They like their food a certain way. They raise their children the way they were raised. They go by their given name not a cutesy shortened version. They,” she coughed quickly, then let her eyes dip to the camisole-like top of Tori’s sundress, “dress a certain way.”
“Is there something wrong with my dress?” Tori asked, perplexed.
“The hint of bosom is alright, Dear, but not before dark.”
Hint of bosom? What bosom?
Leona continued on, never missing a beat. “They judge people based on breeding and manners, not fancy degrees and one’s status as a world traveler. In fact, life begins and ends in Sweet Briar, Dear—what happens anywhere else is irrelevant.”
Nibbling her lower lip inward, Tori pondered Leona’s words. “But the library board wanted change, right?”
“Yes. But I’d suggest leaving some things as is—for familiarity sake. At least for a while. Until the town of Sweet Briar gets to know you better.”
The suggestion seemed fair enough.
“Thank you, Leona. I appreciate the advice more than you can know.”
The woman’s slow smile lit her face from within. “I know how exciting and scary it can be to start over somewhere new. I’ve only been here a few years myself.”
Tori sank back into her chair. “You? I just assumed, with the shop and everything, that you were a native of Sweet Briar.”
“No. Margaret Louise and her husband settled here over forty-five years ago. And while she wasn’t successful in convincing me to settle down and marry in my youth, she was able to talk me into retiring here so we could be closer to each other.”
“So you understand then, about being an outsider, don’t you?” Tori prompted, confused more than ever by the woman’s initial coolness.
“In a way. But having Margaret Louise and all of her children and grandchildren here gave me a different status from the beginning. It gave me a leg up, so to speak.”
A leg up.
“I can count on one hand the number of people who have moved into this town since I arrived five years ago,” Leona continued. “Callie Waters, Robert Dallas, Thomas Hayes, and Lester Norton. And every single one of us had a Sweet Briar connection already in place.”
“I had my sister…Callie was born here and determined to die here…Robert has Alzheimer’s and came to live with his son, the police chief…Thomas married our mayor…and Lester is Dixie’s son.”
Ahhhh. Those kinds of connections. The kind Tori simply didn’t have.
She felt her shoulders slump, knew her smile followed. Starting over didn’t sound so easy anymore.
“But you’ll find your place, I just know it.” Leona tugged Tori’s hands from her lap and held them gently in her own. “You have a happiness about you that will win everyone over. You just wait and see.”
“Even without a twin sister or an important parent or spouse to pave the way?” She heard the momentary uncertainty in her own voice.
“Even without them.”
“Even with the fact that my position at the library belonged to a woman who’d been there since it opened?”
Leona released Tori’s left hand long enough to wave her own in the air. “Sweet Briar may be a small, close-knit town, but Dixie’s ways are well documented. Just be yourself, make your changes at the library—slowly, and you’ll be just fine.”
The woman’s words lingered in her thoughts, chasing any uncertainty away. Leona was right. Tori had won people over all her life by simply being kind and helpful. There was no reason to think the residents of this small southern town would be any different. She was here to bring life to a library that had been operating in a decades-old rut. She wasn’t here to bring harm to life in Sweet Briar.
“Now, in answer to your earlier question, consider it a gift.”
Tori’s gaze followed the path Leona’s had taken, coming to rest on the mirror she’d admired while searching for a distraction to a conversation that had been nothing short of special. “I don’t underst—”
Rising to her feet, Leona closed the gap between her chair and the wall in six quick steps. “I want you to have this mirror. Consider it a housewarming gift from someone who understands the need for change.”
“I can’t accept that.” Tori stood, blinking furiously against the hint of moisture behind her eyes.
“You can, and you will. I insist.” The woman reached up, yanking the mirror from the wall and carrying it to the counter. “And if there’s one thing you don’t do in Sweet Briar, it’s argue with your elders.”
“Leona, thank you. So much. For this,” she ran her hand along the silver latticework trim that surrounded the mirror, “and for making me feel welcome. I guess I needed it more than I realized.”
“Well, I know I didn’t do a very good job of making you feel welcome when you first walked in and I apologize for that. You’d think with as much traveling as I’ve done in my life I’d be more open to strangers. But I guess five years of small-town living has rubbed off on me.” Leona wrapped the mirror carefully in bubble wrap and then handed it to Tori. “Now, whenever you’re feeling a little low or out of place, look at yourself in this and remember who you are.”
“I will.” With the mirror tucked under her right arm, and the sack of light bulbs back in her left hand, Tori made her way toward to the shop’s front door, the mahogany sewing box claiming her attention once again. “Do you sew, Leona?”
The shop owner stopped dead in her tracks, a quick laugh escaping her lips. “Not if I can help it.”
“Oh.” Tori’s gaze swung back to the box, the tug at her heartstrings overpowering. Maybe she didn’t have a living, breathing connection to Sweet Briar, but Sweet Briar certainly held a poignant one for her. “I’ll be back for that box once I get my first paycheck.”
“I look forward to it, dear.” Leona stepped around her and opened the door. “Now don’t you pay any more mind to looks you get from people in this town. Let them gossip all they want—it gives a purpose besides quaintness to all those picket fences everywhere. Besides, it’s not like you’ve killed anyone—the talk will die out.”