A Seamless Murder
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With a needle and thread, Harlow Jane Cassidy is capable of magic. Her neighbors in Bliss, Texas, on the other hand, are capable of murder....
Any garment Harlow stitches together has the power to grant the deepest desire of whomever wears it. So when she’s asked to sew aprons for a local women’s group, Harlow must get to know each member. First up is Delta Lee Mobley, who doesn’t care much for Harlow’s family—or anyone else in Bliss, for that matter. Granting Delta’s greatest wish could only lead to trouble....
But trouble finds Delta all the same. The day after Harlow delivers her apron, Delta’s body is discovered in the cemetery. It seems one of the townsfolk harbored ill will toward one of their own. Harlow’s sleuthing skills are a cut above the rest, and with a few magical tricks up her sleeve, she is determined to cuff this killer once and for all.
Release date: January 6, 2015
Print pages: 320
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A Seamless Murder
Aprons aren’t couture garments. They aren’t even knock-off couture. But it was looking as though they were going to be my next project. Seven individual and unique aprons for the members of Bliss’s Red Hat Society chapter, to be exact.
I had to laugh. Last week I’d been creating a suit for a Fort Worth woman who wanted a highly tailored linen ensemble—not an easy task. But as my great-grandmother, Loretta Mae Cassidy, always said, success is something you have to work for. Harder than you may want to, most times. That linen suit pushed me to the edge of my ability, but I ended up on the other side a better dressmaker and tailor. In the end, the outfit could have competed with any high-end handmade Italian design—and come out on top. And I’d made it, not in Florence, Rome, Milan, or New York, but in little ol’ Bliss, Texas.
Now, standing on the sidewalk in front of Bliss’s United Methodist church, I agreed to create aprons for the local group—women who celebrated life at every age and who spent their time together in fellowship and friendship, and I was good with that. Working in the fashion industry in New York had taught me to expect surprises. Living back in my hometown of Bliss had taught me to embrace them. After my great-grandmother’s death, I’d moved home to live in her old yellow farmhouse right off the town square. I’d opened up Buttons & Bows, a custom dressmaking shop, and had since made two bridal gowns and countless bridesmaids’ dresses and homecoming frocks, as well as designs for town events such as period dresses for the Margaret Moffette Lea Pageant and Ball and a Christmas fashion show.
But at the moment I needed to focus on the bevy of red-hatted, purple-dressed women who had surrounded me. They had presented me with a task—to do something completely different from anything I’d done before.
I was ready for the challenge—or lack thereof, considering that an apron pattern didn’t require any advanced sewing skills. I homed in on Delta Lea Mobley, my neighbor—and apparently the leader of Bliss’s Red Hat ladies, all of whom currently stood in a half circle around me, looking expectant. Delta was a robust, rosy-cheeked woman with lots of soft curves, but her personality didn’t quite match. Although she looked like a middle-aged Mrs. Claus, there was no twinkle in her eye, no laughter in her voice, and no spring in her step. She had a serious demeanor and was known to get to the point in conversations—two characteristics that had helped her to gain a reputation as a no-nonsense businesswoman.
Her sisters, Coco and Sherri, on the other hand, had the same huggable shapes, but each had a joyful and friendly personality their sister lacked. Unfortunately, though, neither of them happened to be anywhere near the church or the big white-tag sale tent set up in the church parking lot. So I was stuck with Delta.
“Harlow, I know you’re a big-shot fashion designer and all, and at first we thought Jeanette Mayweather could make them, but her mother has pneumonia. Do you think you can handle making these aprons?”
So I was the second choice. Not surprising, given the animosity between my family and Delta’s. Nana’s goats had destroyed the Mobleys’ foliage more than once, and it chapped Delta’s hide that she had to share a property line with a goat farm. The granddam of Nana’s Sundance Kids herd had led the other goats straight into the Mobley yard on more than one occasion, and I’d had a few run-ins with my neighbor since I’d moved back to Bliss, mostly because of Nana’s goats. Delta; her husband, Anson; her daughter, Megan, and her husband, Todd Bettincourt; and her mother, Jessie Pearl Trapper, all lived next door to me. I knew I was responsible for the goats’ trespassing simply by association. At least in Delta’s mind.
“I thought—” She broke off, then waved her hands at the other Red Hat ladies. “We thought you could probably make aprons, too. I’m not sure how creative you can get with them. We want something more than burlap sacks, you know.”
“I’m not a big shot, Delta,” I said, knowing her abrasive attitude didn’t spill over to the other women in her Red Hat group.
Cynthia Homer, her ginger hair shimmering in the soft light of the morning, sucked in a bolstering breath. “We’re hoping you’ll be able to fit it into your schedule,” she said, shooting daggers at Delta. “We’d be honored if you’d do our small project, in fact. Just tickled pink.”
I ignored Delta’s mean streak and mustered up a healthy dollop of sweetness, dropping it into my voice. “I’d love to make y’all some aprons,” I said, knowing the moment I spoke that it was absolutely true.
The tense expressions on the women’s faces relaxed. Cynthia clasped her hands together. “Harlow Jane, that’s wonderful. They’re for our first ever progressive dinner. Of course, you’ll have to come to that, too. Bring that nice fellow of yours.”
I would gladly bring my boyfriend, Will Flores, anywhere, but I had no idea what a progressive dinner was.
“It’s a dinner party on the go,” Delta said. She must have recognized the confusion in my expression. “The dinner is broken into courses. We start with appetizers at one house, then move on to soup or salad at the next, and so on. By the time the evening is over, we’ve been to five or six houses and had a full meal.”
“It’s a dinner party on the move,” Randi Martin said. “Shakes things up a little bit.”
Cynthia extended her index finger and counted the women surrounding me, her mouth moving but no words coming out. “With everyone, that’ll be seven aprons. We need ’em finished a week from next Friday for the dinner. Can you do that?”
I barely stopped myself from sputtering. “Two weeks?”
They were just aprons, but still, I had other obligations. Although I could push off the good-luck outfit I was putting together for my grandmother for her upcoming Sundance Kids open house—that wasn’t for another month, and I hadn’t quite decided what to make for Nana that would suit her.
“That should be a piece of cake for you, Harlow,” Delta said, shouldering Cynthia out of the way. “Especially for something as pedestrian as aprons. Why, I’ve seen you whip out homecoming dresses and those bridal gowns in a matter of days. Aprons have to be the easiest thing on the face of the earth for someone with your sewing finesse.”
I couldn’t decide whether she was trying to be nice now and I’d just been imagining the healthy dose of sarcasm I’d heard in her voice a minute ago or if she really was just wickedly nasty. Maybe it was a genuine compliment and she was trying to butter me up, but I wasn’t sure.
What I couldn’t tell her was that my hesitation wasn’t due to how easy or difficult the aprons themselves would be to make. She was right. I could pull off a period dress in a day if I had to. My hesitation stemmed from my magical charm. I had inherited a family charm that enhanced my dressmaking skills, but I had to get a sense of someone’s personality before I could select the right design for them or even pick out the best textiles to use. Two weeks did not allow for much time to get a reading on seven women—not to mention that I had made a commitment to volunteer at the church tag sale.
“Of course, if you can’t do it . . .” she said, trailing off.
And just like that, I recognized that she was challenging me for some reason. She wanted me to fail.
“Oh, I can do it,” I said, realizing a second too late that I’d fallen smack into her trap, hook, line, and sinker.
She shook her head and directed her gaze toward the porch roof, as if she didn’t believe I could make seven complete aprons in time. “I don’t know. . . .”
“Well, I do.” This time I was fully aware that I was being played.
But Delta Lea Mobley would not get the better of me.
Or maybe she already had.
“If you’re sure,” she said, still not sounding convinced, but I noticed the corner of her mouth quirk up and her eyes crinkle just slightly, and a new thought crossed my mind. Maybe she really wanted me to make the aprons, and she just didn’t know how to get past the Mobley-Cassidy family feud.
“Enough, Delta, good Lord,” Cynthia said, batting Delta’s arm. Her jaw was set, her mauve-colored lips thinning with her aggravation. “They’re aprons for a dinner party, for pity’s sake, not Project Runway extravaganzas.”
“And Harlow said she can do it,” Georgia Emmons said. Georgia looked like a former beauty queen with her long eyelashes, thick auburn hair, and hourglass shape. She was like an ageless Mary Tyler Moore.
They were talking about me as if I weren’t right there front and center. I wanted to wave my hands and shout, I’m here! I can hear you! But instead I kept my mouth shut. I knew the Red Hatters were showing me their support, but I felt I had gotten a glimpse behind the curtain, seen a softer side of Delta. Or at least as soft as she was able to show me. She was always tough as nails, but she had a heart.
They were all so different, but the Red Hats united them, and I could tell they were a tight group of friends. Figuring each of them out and making their aprons would be a fun task, and I was already anticipating the challenges and end results.
“Right,” Bennie Cranford added. “We’re not walking the runway, it’s just dinner. Well, not really just dinner, with the down-home theme, but you know. This isn’t Dallas high society.”
Randi Martin hung back, clearly uncomfortable at the direction of the conversation. She wrung her hands in front of her without saying anything. Her short, spiked silvery hair made her long, narrow face look longer and more narrow, her tan skin accentuating the map of wrinkles. She’d enjoyed too much sun during her salad days, and now her skin was paying the price. “Harlow said she’d do it, so you can stop arguing,” she finally said, her voice small. If someone yelled,Boo!, I was afraid she’d clutch her heart and keel over. Still, most of the ladies acknowledged her with a nod. She had made a good point.
“You know me,” Delta said brusquely. “No holds barred. Life’s too short to not say what you mean. Harlow,” she said, turning to me, “I’m pleased you’ll make the aprons. Do us proud.”
“Delta thinks she should say every thought she has just the second she has it. Not always a good thing,” Cynthia said.
“No, it’s not,” Delta admitted. Under her breath, she muttered, “I’ve learned that the hard way,” but then she smiled.
“Water under the bridge,” Randi said, squeezing Delta’s upper arm.
Cynthia nodded. “Like Delta always said, this town leaks like a sieve. It’s a lesson learned. You have something to hide, you best do your business in Granbury or Glen Rose, or some such. There aren’t any secrets in Bliss.” Cynthia stepped closer to Delta, leaning in and lowering her voice a touch, although we could all still make out what she was saying. “You know that now.”
I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but that’s what came with years and years of friendship. It was almost like a secret language between tribe members, and no outsider could decipher the true meaning of what was being said.
After another minute of whispering, they turned back to me. “All set, then? Seven aprons by next Friday?”
“I’ll start planning them right away,” I said. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Harlow,” Delta said, recovered from whatever pall had slipped over her a moment ago, “I’ll see you later at my house. We can talk about my apron then.” I was happy to oblige, but I didn’t have time to say so before she turned on her sensible flats and marched off in the direction of the cemetery.
Throughout my childhood, my great-grandmother was an ever-present part of my life. She was even the person who had taught me to sew, but, more important than that, she had taught me that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to. She hadn’t wanted me to leave Bliss, but when I’d set off for college to study fashion design, she walked me to Mama’s car, planted a kiss on my tear-stained cheek, and said, “Darlin’, don’t let nobody trespass on your dreams.”
In our family, our magical charms varied from person to person, and hers had been to bring whatever she wanted into reality. It was a lot of power for one person, but Loretta Mae had always used it wisely.
When she’d finally given in to her charm, wishing I’d come home, she had known that Bliss was where I was meant to be. She’d known before I did. She just helped me get here a little faster than I might’ve done on my own.
Her homespun advice always came back to me at odd times. When I walked into Buttons & Bows yesterday to find I’d left the pillows askew, my workroom a mess of fabric, and the breakfast dishes in the sink, her voice sounded in my ear. When your refrigerator is full and your bed is fresh, you feel cared for when you walk in the door.
I’d spun around, thinking maybe it hadn’t been a memory of Meemaw I’d heard in my head but her effervescent voice in my ear. After all, she had stuck around as a ghost in the house she’d left to me, even if I couldn’t see her half the time and our communication was mostly limited to clanking pipes, cryptic words written in the steam on my bathroom mirror, and low moans.
But Meemaw hadn’t been whispering in my ear. She had been MIA, in fact, for two days. If I were a betting woman, I’d lay money that she was holed up in the attic looking through the buttons, lace, trims, and fabric collected up there. She didn’t need to come down for food, she couldn’t leave the house, and she didn’t sleep, so she was perfectly content escaping into the sewing world she’d left behind.
Now, as I stood on the sidewalk in front of the square white Craftsman-style house next door to mine, another of her wise sayings came back to me.Brighten someone’s day with your smile and your words.
I frowned. Talking to Delta Lea Mobley wasn’t going to brighten my day, so I wasn’t sure how my forced smile and falsely cheery words would brighten hers. But I had an apron to make. The first of seven, so there was no time for hesitation on my part. A Jeep drove past, pulling around the corner and into the side driveway. Like so many corner houses in the Historic District, there was no driveway in front of the house. It hid on the side, letting the house itself be front and center. I knew the Jeep belonged to Mr. Mobley, even though I had never actually met Delta’s husband. Was he a stronger personality than she was, or was he a carpet she walked all over?
I couldn’t put it off any longer. I marched up the brick walkway, past the mailbox, past the Aggies flag and the flowering shrubs, mounted the steps to the front porch, and knocked on the edge of the screen door. Delta could be sweet as pie when she wanted to be, but she’d held tight to her grudge against the Cassidys for so long, I feared that trying to let it go might do her in. She might look like a rose. She might smell like a rose. But underneath it all I’d seen a mess of thorns, and I didn’t know if her stem could ever be stripped clean.
There was no answer, so I knocked again, louder this time.
Still nothing. I opened the screen door and pressed my ear to the door listening for any signs of activity inside the house. It was utterly quiet. “Delta Lea Mobley,” I said to the empty porch, “if you stood me up, so help me I’ll—”
I raised my fisted hand to knock again, rapping my knuckles against the solid wood door. As they came down a third time, the door wrenched open. “You’ll what?”
I stumbled backward, my knee buckling and my ankle twisting, but I caught myself and straightened up, wondering just what kind of game Delta was playing. Had she been standing on the other side of the door listening to me grow frustrated? I wouldn’t put it past her.
“I won’t be making your apron,” I finished. I almost jammed my hands on my hips, but Meemaw’s voice echoed in my head. Smile, Harlow. Brighten her day. Pasting a smile on my face, I said, “But here you are, so let’s get started.”
There wasn’t much measuring to do. I just needed the waist, the length of her body from waist to knee, and another from waist to neck. What I ended up using would depend upon the vision I got for her. Half apron or full? Ruffled or tailored? Floral or striped? I didn’t imagine her spending much time in the kitchen, and when I looked at her now, my charm failed me. I got no image in my mind’s eye of what kind of apron would suit her. She was a mystery.
“You’re letting all the bought air out. Are you coming in?”
Her words were blunt, but the edges of her voice had a buttery softness. She was trying hard to be sweet. It just didn’t come naturally where the Cassidys were concerned.
I blinked, focusing on her standing there holding the door open wide. I’d been woolgathering, as Hoss McClaine, Bliss’s sheriff and my mother’s husband, would say. “Yes, coming.”
Inside I noticed two things right away. First, it was so dimly lit that I had to blink and strain for a moment before my eyes adjusted to the light. Anyone who stayed holed up in here a good part of every day would be in need of a healthy dose of vitamin D to replace lost sunlight. And second, the place was jam-packed with antiques. A veritable eBay store, right next door to my house. Who knew?
Delta weaved around the sideboards, ancient chairs, ottomans, and the rest of the scattered furniture, leading me deeper into the maze. “So you collect antiques?” I asked, making small talk.
She stopped short and looked at me over her shoulder. “My daughter, Megan, does. She sells items online and at local flea markets with a friend. Her husband got her into it, but she loves it.”
As she turned back around and walked on, I took it all in. Ornate hat trees, small chests, figurines, lamps, period chairs. It went on and on and on. Megan needed to clear out her merchandise right quick or they’d be overrun.
Delta rounded the corner, disappearing behind a table stacked with upside-down chairs, but I stopped to look at a curio cabinet filled with collectible figurines. One in particular caught my eye. It was a delicate ceramic woman. I wanted to say she was a dressmaker, but I couldn’t be sure.
“My mother collects those. Lladrós,” Delta said, coming back to me.
“They’re beautiful,” I said. The only things I collected were buttons, trims, fabrics, and the occasional old pattern, but these figurines were exquisite. Perhaps someday when I had more free time, I could start a new collection for myself. . . .
“They’re meant to stay in the family.” She considered me, and then looked at the Dressmaker, as if she’d made up her mind about something. “You’ll have to look more closely at them one day. Like everything in here, they have a story to tell. Now, are you coming?” she added, a slight abrasiveness returning. I suspected it was taking a great deal of resolve for her to be so nice to me, and it was wearing thin.
“Mother,” Delta said as Jessie Pearl came into view. “Harlow Cassidy is here to take our measurements.”
This time I stopped short. Our measurements? I’d signed on to make seven aprons for the Red Hat Society ladies. Now, just hours later, Delta was adding her mother to the mix. I had a sinking suspicion in my gut that if I wasn’t careful, I’d end up making double the number I’d initially agreed to.
“Um, excuse me, Delta?” I said, moving forward again, turning at the table and chairs. “I can’t—”
The words caught in my throat when I saw Jessie Pearl reclined in a blue corduroy easy chair that looked like it had seen better days. She looked like she’d seen better days, too. Her snow-white hair was usually curled and soft, but today it was frizzy and wiry. Her skin seemed to hang loose on the bones of her face, the wrinkles pulling it down. But it was her leg, wrapped in a heavy blue plaster cast, that took me off guard. I didn’t see Jessie Pearl very often, but the sight of her laid up with a broken leg made my frustration with her daughter over adding an apron to my task list evaporate.
“Miss Jessie Pearl, what happened to your leg?” I crouched in front of her, resting my hand on the arm of her chair.
The look she gave me made the hair on my arms stand up tall, as if it had happened just minutes ago. “Let me tell you,” she began.
Delta came to an abrupt halt in the doorway, turning on her heels. “She doesn’t need to hear the whole sordid tale, Mother. She’s here to talk aprons.”
“That’s right, Delta Lea mentioned you were going to whip some up for her Red Hat group. Although I still can’t figure out why, exactly. It’s just the women and their husbands.”
“And the pastor, and Jeremy Lisle,” Delta said.
“Ah, well, Randi doesn’t have a husband. Maybe one of them will be suited to her. ’Course maybe her being single is a good thing. Not all women are meant for domestic life.”
“Mother, that’s enough,” Delta said, a faint scolding tone in her voice.
Jessie Pearl lowered her chin to her chest and closed her eyes for a beat. “Randi’s very nice,” she amended, “and single is fine. No judgment here.”
She turned back to me, refocusing. “Anyway, mighty nice of you to make a bunch of aprons, Harlow Jane, even if it’s a bit ridiculous.”
The cat had my tongue for a few seconds before I mustered up a response. “It’s my pleasure, ma’am. It oughta be fun figuring out the perfect fabrics and patterns for all y’all.”
I cringed at the double y’all I’d thrown into the conversation. I’d all but lost my Southern accent when I’d gone away to college, but since being back in Bliss for the past year, I’d managed to pick most of it back up. It slipped in when I wasn’t looking, and it seemed here to stay.
I maneuvered myself onto the seat of a nearby chair to settle in for the story of Jessie Pearl’s broken leg. “Fridays are my chore day, you know. Every Friday I take mop to bucket and clean the floors. I do the bathrooms, dust the shelves, and once every six months, I flip the mattresses. Used to be that I had some help, but since we’ve all bunked up together, that stopped.” She gazed up at Delta. “Whatever happened to that girl who used to come in and help once in a while?”
“You know you scared her away, Mother,” Delta said, meeting my eyes and shaking her head. The message was clear. Jessie Pearl’s memory was slipping.
I came back to the statement that had caught my attention. “You flip the mattresses?” Meemaw had come from the generation of mattress flipping, too, in the days before Tempur-Pedic and pillow-tops. The concept wasn’t unfamiliar, but I had to admit that I’d never flipped a mattress in my entire life.
“Of course. Used to take the area rugs outside and would beat them to smithereens, too. I’ll tell you this: Young people today don’t know the meaning of clean. Why, Megan and Todd bring in these old antiques and wipe them down, but I tell them over and over it’s not enough. You have to get the corners and use lemon oil—”
“Mother,” Delta interrupted.
I sensed that this wasn’t the first time they’d had this discussion, and I also suspected they’d never quite see eye to eye on cleanliness. Jessie Pearl came from a different generation and did things differently. Meemaw had been the same way, and her sense of order and cleanliness, even amidst the creative chaos of a sewing room, had spilled over to me. But that wasn’t true for a lot of people, and it looked like Delta’s daughter, Megan, may have missed those lessons.
“So,” I said, getting back to the broken leg, “you were flipping a mattress?” I fluttered my hand so she’d continue even as I imagined the frail, elderly Jessie Pearl heaving a heavy mattress up and over. I couldn’t quite picture it.
“Mattresses have gotten a good sight heavier over the years, let me tell you.”
“I managed to flip Megan and Todd’s, although it’s a full-sized. I turned my own. It’s an old twin, nearly as old as me. Easy as pie.”
I knew she was exaggerating, but had she really been sleeping on the same mattress for as long as all that? I shot a glance at Delta, but she was focused on something in the kitchen.
“It was Delta and Anson’s big lump of a mattress that nearly did me in, do you know?” She curved the fingers of one hand and lifted it above her head as if she were trying to block an imaginary mattress from falling on her head.
“I’ve told you to leave it be,” Delta said, her head snapping back to look at us. “It doesn’t need flipping.”
Jessie Pearl balked. “You said no such thing. You said Anson wanted the thing flipped.”
Delta pivoted toward her mother. “Anson may have wanted it flipped, but you certainly don’t need to be the one doing it. Mother, you’re eighty-three years old. Your mattress-flipping, rug-beating days are behind you.”
A faint red blush stained Jessie Pearl’s cheeks, and her lips tightened, the lines on her face deepening into harsh crevices. “They’ll be behind me when I’m dead.”
I stared at Jessie Pearl wondering how I could have possibly misjudged her and the muscles she apparently had under the saggy skin of her arms. “So you lifted their mattress by yourself?”
She uncurled her fingers and fluttered them at me. “Pshaw. It wasn’t anythin’. You just have to work your way under one corner with your arm, then your shoulder. Once you’re under it, you climb on the box spring, lifting as you go, and then—” She clapped her hands as she said, “Bam!” I jumped. “It falls. Then you do it all again, only this time around, you have to pull it back up onto the box spring. It gets tricky, but I have a method.”
“That method stopped working when the mattress fell on you and you were trapped, you mean.” Delta still kept one eye on whatever was occupying her in the kitchen, but she seemed to have her full attention on our conversation. I got the impression she didn’t want to leave me and her mother alone where we could have an unmonitored talk.
“I’ve been flipping the mattresses for years and years. Longer than you’ve been in the world,” she said. “Haven’t I asked for help? Good thing for me Megan and Todd showed up when they did or I might still be under that bed and you’d all be talkin’ about me at Christian Brother’s Mortuary instead of talkin’ with me right here, right now.”
“We’re glad we showed up, too!” a man’s voice called from the kitchen.
So Todd was in the kitchen.
Jessie Pearl grinned, exposing the outline of her dentures. Her smile was contagious. “This time the dang thing felt like it was alive. I thought I was going to be smothered. Todd was trying to help, and I couldn’t even hear him. Megan screaming at him to hurry gave him the gumption he needed to heft it off of me.”
“It is a good thing they got here when they did,” I said.
“And now they’re makin’ supper for us tonight. Sweet, right? They’re the ones who need aprons. They’d actually use them.”
I ignored that hint, not wanting to take the apron count up to ten, and instead I focused on Delta’s hyperattentiveness to the kitchen. Had Todd and Mega
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