Death Among the Doilies: New Excerpt

Death Among the Doilies by Mollie Cox Bryan is the 1st Cora Crafts Mystery, featuring crafting tips and a murder or two (Available August 30, 2016)!

For thirty-something blogger Cora Chevalier, small-town Indigo Gap, North Carolina, seems like the perfect place to reinvent her life. Shedding a stressful past as a counselor for a women’s shelter, Cora is pouring all her talents—and most of her savings—into a craft retreat business, with help from close pal and resident potter Jane Starr. Between transforming her Victorian estate into a crafter’s paradise and babysitting Jane’s daughter, the new entrepreneur has no time for distractions. Especially rumors about the murder of a local school librarian.

But when Jane’s fingerprints match those found at the grisly crime scene, Cora not only worries about her friend, but her own reputation. With angry townsfolk eager for justice and both Jane’s innocence and the retreat at risk, she must rely on her creative chops to unlace the truth behind the beloved librarian’s disturbing demise. Because if the killer’s patterns aren’t pinned, Cora’s handiwork could end up in stitches…

Chapter 1

Did Jane just say “police station?”

“What did you say?” Cora Chevalier said, then typed on her laptop: Every detail—from the mundane cleaning of the chestnut floors and ordering of broom straw and beeswax, to crafting centerpieces and designing class curriculums—has been attended to.

No wait—attended to? Was that right?

“Cora!” Jane said, bringing her attention back to the voice on the phone.

“I’m sorry, Jane,” Cora said, turning away from her computer. “Writing about our first craft retreat takes more focus than blogging about crafting paper lanterns or making bird feeders out of old teacups and saucers. I’m in the zone. But you have my full attention now. Did you say you’re at the police station?”

“Yes. Please pick up London from school. We’ll talk about this later,” Jane said, with exasperation in her voice. Cora’s best friend throughout childhood, and now her partner in a new business, Jane and her daughter lived in the carriage house on the property.

“But wait—” Cora said, but Jane was already gone. Cora pictured her sophisticated-looking, long-legged friend sitting at the police station, surrounded by Barney Fife types. A totally unfounded image, of course; she’d never even seen a police officer in her new hometown. They now lived in North Carolina, which was also where the fictional Mayberry was located, but Indigo Gap was no Mayberry.

Why was Jane at the police station? What was going on? It was odd that she couldn’tget away to pick up her daughter from school. Why wouldn’t the police allow her to pick up London?

Cora pressed save on her blog post, glanced at the clock on her computer, and realized she’d need to hurry if she was going to fetch London. She dreaded going inside the school. Because she wasn’t an actual parent, she wasn’t allowed to collect her from the car. For being in such a small town, the school was extremely concerned about security. Maybe it had something to do with the recent suspicious death of the school librarian.

Cora left her attic apartment, which also housed her makeshift office, and walked down the narrow half flight of stairs to the third story. The door opened to a wide hallway. Four bedrooms, already prepared for the guests, were located here. The lemon scent of polish tickled Cora’s nose as she took in the gleaming chestnut floors before descending the next flight to the second floor, also shiny and smelling clean and fresh. She moseyed down the half flight to the landing before the main story, where she always paused to take in the stained-glass window, its colors vibrant or soft depending on the time of day. Crimson, gold, and shades of blue glass pieces formed an image of Brigid, goddess or saint.

After moving into her new home, Cora had done some research on both the history of the house and St. Brigid and discovered that Brigid was a goddess in ancient Ireland. She was the goddess of poetry, fire, the hearth, and crafts, an appropriate deity for a craft retreat. Through the centuries in Ireland, the myth later became tangled with stories of the abbess and much later, the saint. These stories became so enmeshed that it was difficult to tell the Brigids apart.

Cora loved to muse about Brigid and thought of her as her patron goddess. The original owners of the house must also have had a strong connection to Brigid, as they had immigrated fromKildare, Ireland, where St. Brigid’s Cathedral still sat.

Cora ambled down the rest of the stairs to face a mess in the foyer. She was knee-deep in a shipment of broom straw, which she navigated her way around. Their first guest teacher, Jude Sawyer, an award-winning broom maker, hand selected and ordered the straw for the upcoming weekend retreat.

Now, where had she left her purse? Cora worked her way around the boxes and moved toward the kitchen, which was in the back of the house and where she usually left her purse.

Ah-ha! She spotted it on the kitchen counter. She grabbed her crocheted bag and turned to leave, running smack into Ruby, the woman who came with the house. Literally. She was grandfathered into the mortgage. She’d lived in the gardener’s cottage for years and wanted to stay. Luckily for Cora and Jane, she was a gifted herbalist and fit right in with their plans for the old place.

“Oops!” Cora said, dropping her purse and bending over to get it.

“Where are you off to in such a hurry?” Ruby said, sounding accusatory.

“I’m off to pick up London. Something’s come up with Jane.” Cora was again thinking of Jane at the police station—she wanted to laugh the image off, but ominous feelings tugged at her.

What the heck was Jane doing there? Where was the police station, anyway? Cora had witnessed much of Jane’s troubled past and hoped this incident was not a harbinger of more trouble heading her way.

“Okay. I need to talk with you,” Ruby said, following Cora to the door.

“Sure,” Cora said. “But can it wait until I get back?”

“I suppose. It’s about the beeswax shipment. They sent me the wrong stuff.”

“Great.” Cora sighed as she slid in her car. “Just what we need. We’ll take care of it later.”

Ruby stood with hands on her hips, shaking her head as she watched Cora drive off.

“Take a deep breath, girl,” Cora told herself. She’d smooth things over with Ruby after she picked up London. Ruby, a slightly stooped white-haired woman of a certain age, used specific suppliers for her herbal crafts. But if Cora was going to pay for them, she thought she should get a say in it. Simply one of the little hiccups in establishing a new business, Cora told herself. There had been plenty—and she expected more.

Getting the place in shape and up to code had been a challenge, but things were finally coming together. The paper-craft room was almost finished. The fiber-arts room still needed a lot more work. And her first three-day retreat was scheduled to start Thursday night with a welcome reception. Classes were to be led by Cora herself, a guest teacher, and Ruby. Nine women registered to stay, plus three locals signed up for the classes. Cora couldn’t have been more pleased with the number. Oh sure, they could take more crafters, but for their first retreat, nine was manageable.

Cora parked the car in the school lot, and noted the snaking line of cars full of harried parents. She was impressed with herself, as she’d reached the school a few minutes early. Cora had been to the school before and knew the earlier she arrived, the better. She walked into the office and was met by a well-coiffed receptionist. “Can I help you?” the woman asked.

“I’m here to pick up London Starr.”

“Are you on her approved list?” She gazed at Cora over the top of her glasses.

“I think so,” Cora said. Something about the woman’s tone made her self-conscious. Her perfectly made-up face and hot-pink nails tapping impatiently on the desk didn’t help matters.

Cora tried to remember if she’d even brushed her hair today. At least she had gotten dressed earlier than usual because of the expected deliveries. She wore her favorite 1970s vintage blue baby-doll dress with leggings and red tennis shoes. Nothing wrong with what she was wearing, yet this woman spewed bad vibes. Was it Cora’s unruly red hair? She ran her fingers through her bangs and tucked a few strands behind her ear.

“Name?” said the receptionist.

“Cora Chevalier.”

“Yes, Ms. Chevalier. You are on the list,” the receptionist said, after checking her computer files.

Cora stood a little straighter, now that she’d met with official approval.

“Ms. Teal?” the receptionist said into the phone. “Please send London Starr to the front office. She’ll be right down,” she said to Cora and went back to her work on the computer.

Cora shifted her weight, looked at the clock, and folded her hands together in front of her. The office behind the receptionist buzzed with end-of-school-day activity. Phones were blaring, backpacks were handed over, and weary office workers glanced at the clock.

Soon the door flung open and there stood London, holding Ms. Teal’s hand. When she spotted Cora, the girl ran toward her.

“Cora!” she said and hugged her, but then immediately asked, “Where’s Mommy?”

Cora was just about to blurt out the news when she realized that everybody in the little school office was within hearing range. Best not to say, Your mom’s at the police station.

She reached for London’s hand. “Let’s go, sweetie. We’ll talk in the car.”

Chapter 2

Indigo Gap was exactly the kind of small town Cora dreamed about moving to when she envisioned a major change in her life. Time had almost forgotten Indigo Gap. Located in the mountains of western North Carolina, it had been bypassed by major transportation systems—like railways, highways, and so on. While the town had moved forward with some things—like electricity and plumbing, thank goodness—many of the original streets and much architecture from its founding days in the early 1800s still existed. Even a few of the stone streets had been left alone—now closed off to cars, but not to pedestrians. As Cora drove toward her new home on the other side of town from the school, she reminded herself that though this place was perfect for her new life, it was a small town and she certainly didn’t want the rumor mill cranking about Jane being at the police station. That’s all she needed.

One bad incident could mean disaster for her new business—and for those who took a chance with her.

London had forgotten her earlier question about her mother and did nothing but sing to the Stevie Nicks track playing in the car. Cora smiled, approving of the child’s good taste in music. Cora adored London’s singing—the unbridled, off-key gusto that only a five-year-old offered.

Jane was still not home when Cora and London arrived. London hopped out of the car with her Frozen backpack sliding off her shoulders, the blue of the bag almost matching the girl’s eyes.

“Why don’t we go into the kitchen and get you a snack?” Cora said.

“Do you have any of those peanut butter cookies?” London glanced at Cora, and then she twirled down the back sidewalk.

The cookies London wanted were not cookies at all but rather Cora’s special peanut butter–oatmeal protein balls. The protein balls offered no added sugar and were full of vitamins and protein. What London didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, Cora mused. The two of them walked around to the back of the large Victorian home. Cora pushed open the iron gate, which was original to the property, and sauntered down the flagstone sidewalk and up the stairs to the back door of the screened-in porch. London led the way—or rather skipped and danced the way, singing her own tune.

“What did you learn in school today?” Cora said, opening the back door.

“I met the new librarian. The old one died, you know, so we had to get a new one,” London said, flinging her backpack onto a kitchen chair.

“What’s the new one like?” Cora asked, reaching into the fridge to get the “cookies.”

London started to reply, but was interrupted by the doorbell.

“I’ll be back,” Cora said. Was she expecting another delivery? She didn’t remember. She thought she had everything she needed by this point.

She headed down the chestnut-floored hallway to the front door. The floors alone had almost convinced her to buy the house when she had first toured the place. The inspector said that because of all the chestnut used in the house, it would be the last place standing in town if a disaster ever occurred.

She opened the door to find the caterer for the retreat. Uh-oh. She had forgotten about their meeting. “Hi, Ms. Day, come in. Please excuse the boxes. I just got in a shipment of broom straw.”

“No problem, Cora. It won’t take long to go over and finalize these menus,” Darla Day said. She was a young woman with a crisp and clean look, with a personality to suit. She wore a light blue oxford shirt, tiny pearl earrings, and a gold chain with a heart-shaped locket.

“I was hoping Jane would be here, but I’m afraid she’s indisposed,” Cora said. At the police station. “In fact, her five-year-old is in the kitchen. I need to check in on her and I’ll be right with you. Please take a seat in the sitting room,” she said, gesturing to the room she had taken such pride in furnishing with overstuffed chairs and couches, big pillows on the floor and around the fireplace, and the arts and crafts made by herself or other generous crafters. The Moroccan-tiled mosaic table was a gift from one of the women in the shelter. A lush chocolate-colored macramé wall hanging hung over the fireplace. Hand-loomed earth-toned rugs were scattered through the room. When Cora mentioned her dream of opening a craft retreat, crafters donated their work—she never asked. Somehow, the room came together as a sort of upscale shabby-chic space that beckoned with warmth and cozy ambience.

“London?” Cora called as she entered the kitchen.

London peeked up over her picture book. “It’s a good story, Cora.” The child didn’t want to be bothered.

“I’ll read it later but now I have a meeting in the sitting room. Do you want to come in there with me?”

London’s eyebrows lifted as if to say, “I’m reading, why don’t you leave me alone?” This was a child who had never been treated like a child. As much as Cora loved Jane, she felt Jane had always expected a bit too much from her daughter.

“Or will you be okay here?” Cora asked.

“I’m good,” London said, and popped another protein ball into her mouth.

Well, okay, then.

Cora left her alone, went into the other room, and sat down next to the caterer on the big velvet sofa. “Now, what do you have for me to review?”

“Local wine and cheese for the opening reception,” Darla said, and presented her with an itemized list and a contract to sign.

After reading everything over, Cora signed her name, trying not to let the cost give her heart palpitations. They were not set up to cook and serve food to large groups of people—yet. The kitchen left a lot to be desired. The retreat fee included a welcome reception, plus three lavish brunches. On the last night, they scheduled a dessert party. Cora hoped this arrangement placed her in good stead with some other local cafés and restaurants. Her guests would be venturing out for their own meals from time to time, even though she planned enough food for the brunches that they could possibly snack on the rest of the day. Snacks were important to creativity.

“We’re getting as much local produce in for your brunches as we can. But what about the dessert party? Do you want to go with a chocolate theme or a seasonal theme—apple pie, pumpkin pie, and so on?” she asked. When Darla said chocolate, a youthful expression came over her face. Cora then wondered if Darla was younger than her first impression implied.

Cora thought a moment about her dessert choices. Her first inclination was always chocolate. But the retreat was advertised as a fall harvest and Halloween retreat. “Will we have plenty of apple and pumpkin food otherwise?”

Darla nodded. “Chocolate then?”

Cora couldn’t resist. Her French roots made chocolate a necessity to her life. At least that’s what she told herself.

A commotion erupted in the kitchen, and Jane’s voice came trailing down the hall.

“You didn’t need to worry about me, sweetie, I was just at the police station being fingerprinted,” Jane said as she entered the room, with London in tow.

Darla lifted an eyebrow as she caught Cora’s eye.

“Jane,” Cora said. “I’m so glad you were able to make it. This is Ms. Day, the caterer for our retreat.”

Jane held out her hand. “Nice to meet you,” she stammered.

Darla nodded. “Well, actually, I think we are about done here.” She stood, shook Jane’s hand, never making eye contact, then immediately began gathering her things and shoving them into her bags. “We’ll see you Thursday. Call me if there’s anything you need before then,” she said.

“Okay,” Cora managed to say before Darla hightailed it out the door.

A flummoxed Cora turned toward an equally confused Jane.

“Was it something I said?”
 

Chapter 3

Later, after London was asleep, Cora and Jane sat in the studio of the carriage house, shared some wine, and chatted about the day. Eager to know the details about Jane’s visit with the local law officers, Cora accepted Jane’s invitation without argument.

“You’ve done so much work on your place. It’s coming along,” Cora said, taking in the old house that had been almost uninhabitable when the two of them found the property. London and Jane made their home upstairs, which had been refurbished into a two-bedroom apartment with a small kitchen and bathroom.

“It’s perfect for us,” Jane had said. “You know I love you, but I don’t want to live in the same space with you,” she had joked.

Which was fine with Cora. She cherished her attic apartment in the big house. It offered plenty of room for her and her cat, Luna. The property came with several outbuildings, and Jane was enamored with the carriage house from the start. The place oozed charm, with its sloping, pointy roof, and window seat on the top floor. The upper level jutted out, which provided a quaint overhang, enough for a bit of a front patio, with columns on each side and gingerbread railings posted into the ground. The large front double doors were solid wood and easily fitted with modern locks. With the carriage house freshly painted in colors approved by the historical commission, it resembled a fairy-tale cottage.

“So, why were you at the station?” Cora asked.

“It was not a big deal, really,” Jane said. “My fingerprints were taken because of my volunteer work at the school. They want all substitutes and volunteers to be fingerprinted now. As a parent, I think it’s a good idea.”

“But I thought you already had that done,” Cora said.

Jane sipped her wine, then nodded. “Yes, but there was a problem with them. They smeared or something. So this time I had them done on the computer. They came out much better. But according to the computer I still failed. Something about the ridges in my fingers being too smooth? But the officer said he’d explain it to the head honcho at school. So I should be cleared to keep volunteering, even with my lack of a clear fingerprint.”

“Whew,” Cora said.

“You didn’t think I was in trouble, did you?” Jane leaned forward, her long dark hair falling across her shoulder.

“Not like that,” Cora said. “I was worried about . . .”

“Neil,” she finished for Cora.

Cora nodded reluctantly. Neil was Jane’s ex-husband and London’s father. He was a violent man whom Jane and London had been lucky to escape.

“Don’t worry about him,” Jane said. “Seriously.” Her almond-shaped dark blue eyes looked sincere. “He’s out of our lives for good.”

But she had said that at least twice before. Once, when she first came to Cora for a place to stay. Then, last year after she had gone back to him—for the last time. Cora understood it as textbook behavior, but that didn’t make it easier to witness in anybody, but especially her best friend.

And people wondered why Cora was reluctant to date. As a counselor at a women’s shelter, she had seen it all. And what she saw was not good.

“You know what you have to worry about?” Jane said. “Besides the fact that we are going to have a bunch of people traipsing around here in a few days?”

“What’s that?” Cora leaned back into the couch cushions, glancing at the pottery placed methodically throughout the room. The first floor of the house would be a shop someday soon, with the kiln and studio in the back. She was beginning to see it. Who knew an old carriage house could hold such possibilities?

“The new librarian at the school,” Jane said with a wide grin on her face.

“What? Why?”

“He’s hot and exactly your type.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I have a type?”

“Eh, you know, bookish. He wears these nerdy glasses, has dimples to die for, and these eyes that are like, um, I don’t know, jade green, or something. I thought about you immediately,” Jane said.

Cora couldn’t help but grin. As if she had time to date. “That’s hilarious. You know what my life is like.” Blogging, crafting, getting the house ready, organizing retreats, and so on—Cora barely had time to sleep, let alone have a social life.

“Yeah, you’re busy right now. But once things get going and you can hire more people, you can make time for a guy. C’mon. You’re thirty-two years old. Live a little, girl. It’s time to move on.”

Cora knew exactly what Jane was leading up to—or rather who she was leading up to. But Cora certainly didn’t want to talk about Dante. It didn’t help. Not now.

“Let’s hope the shop is up by Christmas,” Cora said after a few seconds, deliberately changing the subject. “You could sell a lot of pottery. Maybe I’ll have something to sell by then, too.”

“I know you’re changing the subject. But whatever. I’m telling you there’s a librarian with your name all over his book-loving, luscious body. It’s up to you what you do with that information,” Jane said with a twisted grin.

“With that, I’m going to call it a night,” Cora replied. “Now that you’ve got my love life figured out, what else is there?”

Jane laughed—a rippling, musical, girlish laugh. Jane was a woman who only laughed when she meant it.

“Let’s get to those boxes first thing in the morning. We can unpack and get the room set up. How’s that sound?” Cora asked.

But Jane’s answer was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Who could that be?” she said.

Cora opened the door to see Ruby, standing with her hands on her hips.

“Did you forget about me?” Ruby said. Her jaw was clenched.

“No, I thought we’d chat in the morning. I was just leaving. I’m so tired,” Cora said. “Would you like to come over for breakfast? Both of you? I’ll make a big breakfast, we can go over some details, and get those boxes unpacked.”

Ruby’s stance softened a bit. “That sounds good. I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

As Ruby and Cora started to leave, two police officers walked down the path toward the carriage house.

“Is this where Jane Starr lives?” one of the officers asked as they approached.

“Of course,” Cora said. Ruby stood back, silent.

Jane poked her head out of her house. “Can I help you?” she said to the officers.

“We need you to come to the station with us,” one of them said.

“What? There must be some mistake. I was just there this afternoon,” Jane said.

The other officer stepped forward. “I’m sorry, Ms. Starr. We’ve been sent to bring you in for questioning for the murder of Sarah Waters.”

“The school librarian?” Ruby blurted out.

“What?” Cora said. “There must be some mistake.”

“No, ma’am,” the officer said, and he turned to Jane.

“Jane?” Cora said, as if she might have an explanation.

“I don’t know what’s going on here!” Jane said, quietly, but forcefully.

“I’ll come with you,” Cora said.

“No, stay with London,” Jane ordered, her dark eyes wide.

Cora reached out and grabbed Jane’s hand. “I won’t leave you.”

Jane’s face tightened with terror. How could she let Jane go alone to the police station?

Ruby stepped in and rescued them. “I’ll stay with London. And I’ll call my son.”

“Your son?” Cora said. “Why?”

“He’ll meet you at the station. He’s a lawyer. Don’t say a word to these guys until you’ve talked to my Cashel,” Ruby commanded.

 

Copyright © 2016 Mollie Cox Bryan.

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Mollie Cox Bryan, author of the Cora Crafts Mysteries and the Agatha Award-nominated Cumberland Creek mystery series, is also an award-winning journalist and poet. She currently writes and crafts in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband and two daughters. Please visit her at molliecoxbryan.com, where you can sign up for her exclusive newsletter. For scrapbooking, recipes, and other crafty-freebies, join her on Pinterest at pinterest.com/molliecoxbryan.

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