The Champagne Conspiracy by Ellen Crosby is the 7th book in the Wine Country Mysteries series (Available November 1, 2016).
Winter has come to the Montgomery Estate Vineyard in Atoka, Virginia. Lucie Montgomery and winemaker Quinn Santori have decided to make champagne, a first for the vineyard.
But then Gino Tomassi, Quinn’s uncle, turns up on their doorstep one afternoon, demanding help in solving the mystery of what happened to Zara Tomassi, the first wife of his grandfather, who died in a San Francisco hotel in 1923 under suspicious circumstances. And it seems there’s no coincidence that her death came the day after President Warren Harding passed away in that same hotel. Gino needs answers before his blackmailer takes him for all he’s worth—or exposes an explosive family secret.
Lucie searches for what happened almost a hundred years ago as she delves into Prohibition-era Washington, D.C.—a town of bootlegging and duplicity, jazz clubs and speakeasies. But then the investigation turns deadly, threatening Lucie, her relationship with Quinn, and the vineyard, as they realize someone is still out there nearly a century later who will go to any lengths to keep the truth about Zara’s death a buried secret.
It all started with the dress.
I lifted it out of the old steamer trunk and it took my breath away. A gossamer concoction of sea green chiffon, hundreds of copper, silver, and pale green glass beads in patterns like a stained-glass creation from Tiffany, with a sexy zigzag hem of silver fringe that glittered, even by the light of the yellowed bulb that barely lit this dim corner of the attic. I had never seen it—you don’t forget a dazzling couture number like this—but it had been beautifully and lovingly preserved, as though one of my long-dead relatives expected to pluck it out of its hiding place and shimmy off to a madcap night of too much dancing and drinking and making out with some guy in the backseat of his roadster.
When I found it, I had been in one of my periodic bouts of overzealous cleaning, which usually happened when the stress piled up and I needed to do something to feel I could restore order and control to some part of my life. Somehow, sorting through boxes and trunks of the discarded detritus that had belonged to generations of ancestors usually did the trick.
Plus—and here is the more mundane reason—there was the coat drive in the middle of January. Francesca Merchant, who ran the day-to-day operations of my vineyard’s tasting room and managed all our events, had shown up at work a few days earlier and announced that Veronica House, the local homeless shelter and food pantry, was collecting winter coats. Any jacket or coat donated in good condition would be given to the guests who came to the center, especially the ones who insisted on sleeping outside in spite of the dangerous temperatures in this record-shattering arctic cold winter.
Donations of men’s coats were the most urgently needed, since the majority of people who used Veronica House’s services were homeless men. So I scoured the attic, searching for whatever had been stored there and forgotten by family members. I also wrote Frankie a big check.
When I gave it to her, I told her about the dress I’d found during my attic foraging. That afternoon the two of us were sitting on one of the big leather sofas by the fireplace in the main room in the villa, the rambling ivy-covered building where we poured and sold wine and hosted our indoor events. Frankie had just placed another log on the fire and we both had our hands cupped around steaming mugs of coffee to keep warm on a day when the highest temperature would still be only a single-digit number.
“You’ve got to show it to me,” she’d said, her eyes lighting up like a child at Christmas. “It sounds amazing. A real flapper dress. I bet it’s drop-dead gorgeous.
“It is. I’ve never seen anything like it. It must have cost someone an absolute fortune.”
“Let’s go see it,” she said. “I can’t wait another minute. Does it fit you?”
“I have no idea.” I set my cup on the heavy wooden coffee table.
“You mean you didn’t try it on?” She grabbed my hand and pulled me up. “Come on, you have to. And you’re giving me a great idea.”
We took my Jeep over to the house. By then I’d brought the dress downstairs and hung it on the back of the door to my closet like a guilty secret, along with a shimmery silver satin slip that was obviously meant to be worn underneath, since the dress was completely sheer. Whoever the owner had been had also owned the matching beaded headband. All that was missing was a long roped strand of pearls and a little silver flask filled with illegal hooch, since the dress had to be straight out of the Prohibition era.
“It’s perfect for you,” Frankie said the moment she laid eyes on it. “With your dark hair and fair coloring, you’ll look stunning in it.”
I was sitting on the old wedding ring quilt in the middle of my bed, watching her run a hand over the elaborate beading like a professional appraiser assessing its value, her head cocked as if trying to discern its provenance.
“I don’t think so, Frankie,” I said. “Look at that slip. It’s satin and it’s as fitted as a glove. No room to wiggle around in. It’s for someone who is really slim.”
Frankie spun around, hands on her hips, and gave me an admonishing I-dare-you look. “Like you.”
I shook my head. “It’s not a dress to wear anymore; it’s something to look at, like a work of art—”
But she had already taken the dress off its hanger and was holding the short silver slip with its spaghetti straps up against me. “Size looks just about perfect, if you ask me.”
“I don’t think—”
“I’ll leave the room, so you can try it on.”
I glared at her. “My bra is going to show under those itty-bitty slip straps. I’m wearing a red racer-back bra. It’ll look terrible with the green chiffon.”
“Enough with the lame excuses. So take off your bra. Come on, it was the Roaring Twenties. Women parked their corsets in someone’s bedroom when they went to parties, so they could be … available.” She gave me a roguish look. “Who needs underwear?”
“I … uh…”
“Come on,” she said again. “What are you scared of?”
“Nothing.” Just unnerved at how the dress seemed to have bewitched us both. “All right, give me a minute.”
She left and I got undressed. A few minutes later I said, “Okay. Just don’t come too near me. She must have smoked like a chimney. Now that I’m wearing it, the fabric reeks of stale cigarettes.”
The door opened and Frankie walked in, her hands flying to her mouth, which was open in a big round O.
Finally she said, “You perfect little jazz baby, you. Lucie, you look fabulous. I swear, that dress was made for you. Wait until Quinn—”
I held up my hand. “Hold it right there. What did you have in mind? Wear it the next time we’re bottling wine? Or maybe out in the vineyard spraying for powdery mildew?”
She wagged a finger at me. “No, no, no … I’ll tell you when you’re going to wear it. At our Valentine’s Day party next month. We’ll make it a Roaring Twenties dinner dance. Girls come dressed like flappers with rouged knees and beaded headbands and guys with pomaded hair and gangster suits with wide ties or knickerbockers and two-toned shoes.”
“What Valentine’s Day—”
She wasn’t listening. “And because I know you won’t turn me down, because you have a heart of gold that’s as big as all outdoors, we’ll make it a fund-raiser for Veronica House. We’ll do the villa up like a party out of The Great Gatsby, call it our ‘Anything Goes’ evening.” Her eyes had a dreamy, faraway look and I knew she had already mentally planned the entire evening, right down to the gin rickeys we’d drink and the Charleston we’d dance to. “It’ll be such fun, something to break up the winter doldrums. Everyone’s going to want to come.”
“It’s a good idea, Frankie,” I said, “but I’m not wearing this dress. It’s probably been in that trunk in the attic for nearly a century and, like I said, it smells like it.”
She came out of her reverie and snapped her fingers, a quick syncopated beat like jazz. “Not a problem. My tailor knows someone who specializes in cleaning vintage clothing. Leave it with me.”
“It’s too low-cut.”
“It is not. You always wear jeans and T-shirts or those long, flowing dresses that cover up everything. About time you showed off what a great figure you’ve got.”
“It’s so short.”
“You can see my foot.”
As well as she knew me, it was the one subject I couldn’t talk about without betraying how self-conscious I still felt about my twisted, deformed left foot, the one remaining injury I still dealt with after a car accident eight years ago.
Frankie was silent for a long moment, and when she spoke, her voice was gentle. “And what of it, Lucie? It’s part of who you are. Let me tell you, in that dress the last thing anyone’s going to be looking at is your foot. You need to stop being so self-conscious. No one else gives it a second thought.”
“I don’t know—”
“Wear it,” she said. “I mean it. We’ll keep it a secret from everyone, and when you walk into the room, you’ll wow ’em all.” She pressed her hands together as if she were praying and threw me a pleading look. “You need to move on. Do it in this dress. And, for the record, you’ve got great legs.”
Once upon a time, I’d been a runner. Cross-country in high school and college. I’d been good.
I gave her a lopsided smile. “Well, at least one great leg.”
She burst out laughing, and just like that I knew I was going to wear the dress at our Valentine’s Day Roaring Twenties Great Gatsby “Anything Goes” Veronica House dinner dance, like Cinderella going to the ball.
But I did draw the line at glass slippers.
* * *
THAT EVENING, I ASKED my brother, Eli, who was older by two years, if he knew whom the dress had belonged to. We had just put Hope, my sweet niece and his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, to bed and I had asked him to come into my bedroom because I wanted to show him something.
I took it out of the closet and held it up. “Any ideas?”
Eli gave me one of those looks men give women when they think you’re asking a trick question and they need to get the answer right. Then he stared at the dress, studying the sheer sea green fabric with its intricate beading, as if the answer might be spelled out in code in the beads. Finally he looked up and said, “Probably some woman who was related to us, if you found it in the attic.”
“Why, thank you, Sherlock. Aren’t you helpful? Which relative?”
“A skinny one.” He grinned and ducked as I threw a balled pair of socks at him. “Jeez, Luce, how should I know? Me and clothes? Come on. Ever since Brandi walked out on me, I have two requirements for what Hopie and I wear. No visible stains and it doesn’t look like someone slept in it.”
But the dress had worked its magic on my brother as well, because a short while later I heard him in the sunroom sliding effortlessly from one jazz number into the next on the Bösendorfer concert grand piano that had been our great-grandfather’s wedding present to our great-grandmother. The music of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin—swingy, upbeat tunes that the wearer of that dress would have danced to, doing the Charleston, or the Black Bottom, or the Lindy hop. I held up the dress against me one more time and, in the privacy of my bedroom, I hummed along to Eli’s songs and pretended to dance, imagining myself wearing that sexy, beguiling dress as I wondered what life had been like in the hedonistic, let-the-good-times-roll decade that had roared.
Copyright © 2016 Ellen Crosby.
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Ellen Crosby is the author six books in the Virginia wine country mystery series, which began with The Merlot Murders. She has also written a mystery series featuring international photojournalist Sophie Medina (Multiple Exposure and Ghost Image). Previously, she worked as a freelance reporter for The Washington Post, Moscow correspondent for ABC News Radio, and as an economist at the U.S. Senate.