wedding duress_front mech.inddWEDDING DURESS
April 2015
Berkley Prime Crime
ISBN-10: 042525786X
ISBN-13: 978-0425257869

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Librarian Tori Sinclair is tying the knot—as long as a murder doesn’t unravel her plans…

Tori is ecstatic to become Mrs. Milo Wentworth in a few days, but she has a lot to do before she sashays down the aisle. Favors need to be sewn, vows need to be written—and a mystifying murder needs to be solved.

When Beatrice, a fellow member of the Sweet Briar Ladies Society Sewing Circle, learns that her former nanny took a fatal fall in her new employers’ home, she suspects the death was not an accident. Now Tori’s spending her last days as a single woman untangling rumors and stitching together motives to find a killer. But can she nab a murderer and make it to the church on time?






Chapter One

One by one, Tori Sinclair watched each of her friends emerge from the bank of dressing rooms in a burst of autumn color, their chosen hues and styles stealing her breath as they stepped onto the semicircular platform and turned in her direction.

“You look absolutely”—she stopped, swallowed, and started again, her voice choked with emotion—“stunning.”

Leona Elkin’s flawlessly manicured hand fluttered to her chest just before she spun around to face the trifold mirror on the opposite side of the platform. “As we all know, there’s not a single color out there I can’t showcase, but that said, I have to agree with you, dear, Smoldering Blaze may well be one of my best.”

“Said no one ever,” Rose Winters groused from her spot in the center of the group. Sweeping a trembling hand to her left, the eighty-something matriarch of the Sweet Briar Ladies Society Sewing Circle met and held Tori’s gaze. “If you want me to take mine and Dixie’s in at the waist so they’re a bit more fitted like everyone else’s, I can do that, Victoria.”

“No. No. They’re perfect. You’re perfect. Everyone is perfect. I couldn’t be more pleased than I am.”

“Mine wasn’t supposed to be fitted neither, but the start of a new school year always means more cookie-eatin’ for my grandbabies and me.” Leona’s fraternal twin, Margaret Louise Davis, peeked down at her even plumper than normal Warm Cinnamon–hued self, shrugging as she did. “Don’t really matter none, I s’pose, on account of it bein’ your weddin’ ’n all. Anyone with a workin’ lightbulb in their noggin won’t be lookin’ at anyone ’cept you, Victoria.”

Slowly, Leona turned back, her lashes half-mast across her hazel eyes. “That may be true of Milo, but he won’t be the only man there . . .”

“Oh, put a sock in it, will you, Leona?” Rose stamped her thick-soled dress flats on the carpeted riser and scowled. “When Victoria said stunning, she was talking to all of us, not just you. And last I checked, there weren’t any dimwitted male thirty-year-olds on the guest list for you to play temporary sugar momma to, so all eyes will be on Victoria . . . as they should be.”

Lips twitched up and down the line as Leona’s mouth gaped, then closed, then gaped again.

Tori began a mental count to ten, reaching seven before Leona’s retort finally came.

“There is nothing stunning about an Old Goat in a Harvest Wheat”—Leona took in Rose from head to toe—“housecoat shuffling her way down the aisle at a speed akin to dripping molasses.”

Then, before anyone could react, Leona snapped her finger in the direction of the cameraman positioned just over Tori’s left shoulder. “You’re getting a good, long, close‑up angle of this one for the show, right, Skip?”

This one?” Georgina Hayes, clad in Dusky Sunset, echoed from her place at the opposite end of the line. “Do you mean Rose?”

The faintest hint of a smile appeared on Leona’s seemingly ageless face in conjunction with the answering nod she sought from her cameraman. “Skip knows what I mean, don’t you, gorgeous?”

The handsome twenty-year-old added a wink to his second nod and then ducked behind the Cable TV camera perched atop his shoulder.

Nina Morgan, Tori’s friend and fellow employee, blinked once, twice. “I—I. . . I’m not sure what to say right now.”

“I can think of a few things,” Rose muttered as she took Debbie Calhoun’s ready hand and stepped down off the platform, stopping briefly to address Tori directly. “If you want to go with eight bridesmaids instead of nine, I understand.”

Reaching out, Tori took hold of Rose’s hand and squeezed it gently. “It would be unfair of me to remove Leona from the bridal party after she’s already paid for the dress.”

A flash of amusement, magnified by Rose’s bifocals, temporarily eased the hurt Tori hated to see on anyone, let alone one of her dearest friends. “I wasn’t talking about Leona, Victoria.”

“I was,” she whispered back. “Now come on, Rose, you know how Leona is. Shake it off, okay? You earned my distinction of stunning just as much as everyone else.”

“Maybe in my earlier days, when I wasn’t wincing with every move I made.” Rose closed her eyes for a moment, only to open them as she turned toward her dressing room. “I’ll take this off now and hang it up.”

When the elderly woman was out of earshot, Dixie Dunn waddled across the platform in Muted Pumpkin to stand in front of Leona, hands on hips. “Must you always be so nasty? So—”

Hateful?” Georgina added. Then, holding her hand upward, Sweet Briar’s long-standing mayor began ticking off more options. “Mean? Thoroughly unlikable? Despicable?”

Leona sliced her hand horizontally in front of her neck to indicate Skip should stop filming and put away his equipment. Once she was sure he was otherwise occupied, she turned angry eyes in the mayor’s direction. “I’m hateful, Georgina? I’m mean?”

As heads began to nod across the platform, Leona took several long moments to include each and every member of the assembled bridal party in her death glare. “What about Rose? Did you hear the disparaging things she said to me just now? The way she implied men are only interested in me for my money?”

Georgina laughed. “And your point?”

Again, Leona’s mouth gaped.

Again, Tori began to count, this time making it to nine before being cut off by Beatrice Tharrington.

“Did I tell all of you my ace news?”

All eyes turned toward the soft-spoken, twenty-two-year-old British nanny, dressed in Quiet Barley, and waited.

Beatrice took a deep breath and then let it out, her greenish-colored eyes round with a kind of wonder and excitement that was rare for the otherwise shy girl. “My governess is coming, here—to Sweet Briar! To work for Jim and Julie Brady. I made the suggestion after they fired that rather cheeky Cynthia Marland and had no one to look after their three children. I suggested Miss Gracie as the perfect replacement and she’s actually coming! In fact, she’s due to arrive first thing in the morning. Isn’t that luvvly-jubbly?”

Margaret Louise’s eyebrows rose upward. “Luvvly-jubbly?”

Beatrice’s pale skin reddened just before her gaze dropped to her feet. “It means . . . lovely,” Beatrice whispered.

“I think it’s a wonderful expression,” Melissa Davis said from her spot on the edge of the platform. Then, turning to her mother‑in‑law, she added, “Sounds like something you might say, Margaret Louise.”

“Well, then, I reckon I might be addin’ it to my repertoire after today.” Margaret Louise winked at Beatrice. “Assumin’ you don’t mind sharin’ it with a loudmouth like me, of course.”

Debbie stepped forward in a burst of Soft Russet and touched a gentle hand to the young girl’s back. “When you said governess just now, did that mean this woman took care of you as a child, Beatrice?”

“Oh yes! Miss Gracie made my childhood magical,” Beatrice replied. “And now, because she’ll be with the Bradys, I’ll see her at the park and school events just about every day. It will be divine!”

“Certainly helps explain why you’ve been grinnin’ like a possum eatin’ a sweet tater ever since you walked through those doors.” Margaret Louise pointed toward the bridal shop’s front door. “I reckon it’ll be like havin’ your momma here, won’t it?”

Beatrice didn’t need to utter a word. Her face-splitting smile said it all.

“Would you like to bring her to the wedding as your guest? It might be a great way for her to meet people,” Tori offered. “In fact, at last check, every single teacher at Sweet Briar Elementary School will be at the reception, along with most, if not all, of the office staff. Miss Gracie can meet the children’s teachers and principal, and they can get to know her a bit, as well.”

“I shall ask her as soon as I see her.” Beatrice ran her hand down the front of her satiny dress and then rose up on the balls of her one-inch silver heels for a little twirl. “I feel like royalty in this dress, Victoria. Thank you so much for including me.”

For a moment, she was afraid Leona was going to widen her battlefield to include Beatrice, but whatever smart-aleck thought lifted the woman’s eyebrow halfway to her hairline remained unspoken, setting off a domino of relieved sighs around the room in the process.

Tori wished she could attribute Leona’s sudden self-restraint to some sort of spiritual awakening but she had a sneaking suspicion it was more likely due to the click of Rose’s dressing room door and the chance to get one last jab in where her true nemesis was concerned.

Leona, of course, didn’t disappoint. Lifting her body-hugging dress halfway up her calves to reveal her own four-inch version of the agreed-upon silver-colored shoe, the woman tsked audibly beneath her breath. “I’m so glad I don’t have to wear flats with a satin gown. It’s just so—so nursing home, don’t you think?”

“Hush, Twin!” Margaret Louise scolded amid a chorus of gasps from the rest of the bridal party.

“What?” Leona batted her false lashes with feigned innocence. “Did I say something wrong?”

“You opened your mouth, didn’t you?” Rose hissed as she shuffled across the room to Tori with her bridesmaid dress draped across her arthritic arm. When she reached her destination, the matriarch lowered her voice so only Tori could hear. “I tried to carry the shoe box out here, too, but I’m afraid I dropped it one too many times.”

“I’ll get your shoes and your dress to you tomorrow evening when I come to your house for my final fitting.” Tori liberated the dress from Rose’s arm and draped it, instead, across the back of her chair before turning to take her friend’s frail hands inside her own. “Thank you for coming today, Rose. You looked lovely.”

“I wouldn’t miss your special day for anything in the world, Victoria.” Tugging her left hand free, Rose cupped the side of Tori’s face. “Milo Wentworth is a lucky, lucky man.”

“And I am a lucky, lucky girl to be able to spend the rest of my life with a man like Milo and the truest, most wonderfully loving friends a girl could ever hope for.”

Tori captured Rose’s hand inside her own and held it against her skin more closely. “I love you, Rose.”

A single tear escaped from beneath Rose’s bifocals. “I won’t let this thing with Leona threaten your day, Victoria. You have my word.”

With the underside of her thumb, Tori wiped all residual wetness from the elderly woman’s cheek while doing her best to smile through the answering tears she, herself, refused to shed. “Thank you, Rose, that means a lot. But really, I can’t imagine anything threatening my wedding day.”