October 2, 2012
Bliss, Texas, is gearing up for its annual Winter Wonderland festival, but when a mysterious Scrooge ends the merriment with murder, it’ll take more than a ghost from Christmas past to set things right.
INCLUDES SEWING TIPS
Read on for a preview of the next captivating mystery in the Magical Dressmaking Series
By Melissa Bourbon
Mrs. James, Mrs. Abernathy, and I stood in the foyer of the Denison mansion, the centerpiece of Bliss’s historic district. “The traffic light on Henrietta Street is out,” Mrs. Abernathy said.
“Really? I just came over on Henrietta. Not a soul on the street and the lights were working just fine,” I said.
She leveled her cool gray eyes at me. “You know how it is around here. The power goes out so randomly. It can be on at our house, but the neighbors next door are on a different grid and theirs will be off.”
Zinnia notched her thumb toward the general direction of the backyard and Henrietta. “Are you listing a house over there?”
Mrs. Abernathy gave a restrained little laugh. “My, but aren’t the two of you inquisitive. We’re doing renovations on a place over there, Zinnia. Still in the early stages,” she added, “but by late spring they ought to be all set.” She slipped her raincoat off and hung it on one of the hooks on the antique coat tree, pausing to look in the mirror and smooth her windblown blond hair. Her black slacks and boxy cream blouse did nothing for her robust figure. I had a flash of her wearing an asymmetrical lavender sweater, buttoned at the top, lavender pants, and instead of the square blouse, a tailored cut with darts and a flared hem.
“Something wrong?” Mrs. Abernathy’s voice shook me out of my designing mode and back into the present. She gave me a good once over, her gaze hitching on the light streak in my chestnut hair, a Cassidy family trait.
“Not a thing,” I said, smiling, wishing I could make a garment for her that would soften her uptight demeanor. But my Cassidy charm would never benefit Helen Abernathy, if she had anything to do with it. Which was just as well. When I designed a garment for someone, it transformed them, letting their heart’s desire be realized. The problem was that there were no checks and balances for my gift. If someone wanted something badly enough, I couldn’t stop it from happening any more than I could stop a tornado from brewing in an otherwise silent sky.
She frowned, but didn’t say anything else, instead turning her attention back to Zinnia James. “All the floors were redone–”
“Hand-scraped pecan.” Mrs. James ran the tip of her boot over the grain of one plank.
“Just like we discussed.”
As part of Bliss’s Historic Society, Mrs. James, along with Will Flores, had been overseeing some minor renovations of the Denison Mansion. Abernathy Home Builders had done the work, and the bills had been paid by one of the town’s most prosperous families, the Kincaids. The house would go back on the market after the holidays, but in the meantime, Nate and Josie Kincaid were letting the Historic Society use it for the annual holiday event.
Mrs. Abernathy headed to the staircase, laying her hand on the wood banister. “Come up here. I want to show you the bathtub.
We followed her up the mahogany staircase to the second story. The click of our heels against the newly redone floors echoed, the rolling thunder outside getting louder as we ascended, and a draft circling down the hallway. My great-grandmother’s ghost had taken up residence in my old yellow farmhouse off the town square and I’d recently discovered that all the Cassidy women hung around for a good long while after their passing. Were we an anomaly? I looked down over the railing and into the open space below wondering if the spirit of Charles Denison, or his wife, Pearl, were hanging around this old place.
“Quite a house, isn’t it, Harlow?” Mrs. James whispered from behind me.
No signs of any ghosts. Just my imagination at work.
I rejoined Mrs. James and Mrs. Abernathy at the door to the bathroom. A brand new claw tub replica was the highlight of the big, square room. “Perfect,” Mrs. James said. She went in to take a closer look, stopping to examine the pedestal sink, the ornate mirror, and the silver vanity looking glass and brush set on display on an antique dresser.
I was more enamored with the Victorian dressing gown hanging from a crystal knob on the back of the door. I moved closer to fawn over the details. Hand embroidery along the yoke, a shirred front panel with fine, hand embroidered scalloped edging sensuously left open from the breastbone tie to the waist, and a cherry blossom damask pattern in the silk skirt. It was beautiful.
“I’d like to see the runway for the fashion show,” I said, following Mrs. James and Mrs. Abernathy back into the hallway.
“The walkway to the tent will start just outside the kitchen,” Mrs. Abernathy said, but Mrs. James interrupted. “First the Widow’s walk.”
Mrs. Abernathy shook her head. “The rain…” She trailed off as Mrs. James, not waiting for Mrs. Abernathy to lead the way, headed for the second flight of stairs and started up.
Mrs. Abernathy turned back to me with a thin smile. “To the Widow’s walk,” she said, then turned on her flat heel and followed.
Good thing I’d left my coat and hat on since we’d be stepping back out into the cold.
“Was it repaired?” Mrs. James asked.
“Of course it was,” Mrs. Abernathy said, speaking slowly for emphasis and stretching out the one syllable words into two.
Mrs. Abernathy turned, stopping Mrs. James before she could open the door to the platform. “What?”
“From down below, it didn’t look like it.”
Mrs. Abernathy’s cheeks paled. “Impossible.”
She reached past Mrs. James, turned the doorknob, and pulled. A gust of freezing wind shot through the opening. I folded my arms over my chest as I pushed forward, outside, and braved the cold. Mrs. James had her jacket on, too, but Mrs. Abernathy shivered.
Out on the small platform, Mrs. James immediately stopped short. She quickly turned back to look at Mrs. Abernathy. “Doesn’t look fixed to me.”
“But…” Mrs. Abernathy shoved past me and looked at the banister. An entire section was missing, the jagged edges of the painted wood all that remained. Just below the flooring where the roof sloped downward, shingles were torn off. The white tent covered the majority of the yard. A narrow enclosed walkway led from the house, connecting it to the tent. My gaze kept going down, down, down, suddenly stopping.
I spotted a mound of red, half hidden under a shrub to the side of the walkway.
I pointed. “What’s that–?”
The women leaned forward to see what I’d spotted. Mrs. Abernathy let out a high-pitched choking sound. Her hand flew to her mouth and she turned her back on the sight.
I peered through the downpour, trying to see what had upset her. “What is it?” I shouted over the rat-a-tat-tat of rain on the roof above us and the booming thunder in the distance.
Mrs. James pressed in next to Mrs. Abernathy. “Is that a boot?” She leaned further over the gaping hole in the banister.
A boot? My heart shot to my throat. “No,” I said with a moan, just as Mrs. James’s foot slipped on the wet wood. She lost her balance and lurched into Mrs. Abernathy. Mrs. Abernathy careened forward, grabbing hold of the ragged end of the banister.
“Help!” She teetered on the edge of the Widow’s Walk. Mrs. James had regained her balance and gripped Mrs. Abernathy’s arm. I stepped to the right, trying to edge my body in front of hers to stop her from falling, but her foot slipped out from under her. Her body tumbled against mine, knocking me forward as she fell backward. She landed with a thud on her behind, but her legs jutted out in front of her, kicking my feet out from under me.
I felt myself flying, my legs in the air for a brief second before they crashed against the roof, tearing shingles away. Someone screamed. Me? Mrs. James? I couldn’t tell.
Rain pelted my face. The back of my head thudded against the roof and everything went fuzzy. And then I was falling, headed straight for the red mound below.
Faces flashed like an old-fashioned picture show. Meemaw. Nana. Mama. My brother Red. My nephews Clay and Cullen. Mrs. James. Libby Mcafferty. Gracie Flores. Will.
The people who loved me, and who I loved…
And then I crashed. It wasn’t the hard, bone-breaking collision of a body against the ground, but a soft landing against something pliable, almost like a trampoline, and it cradled me, cupping my body as I sunk into it.
I tried to shake away the clouds in my head, peering up at Mrs. James’s horrified face. Her arm was stretched over the broken railing, as if she were still trying to catch me.
Just as I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Abernathy behind her, her back pressed against the door, I lurched, the fabric of the tented walkway that held me giving way. It pitched and a second later I was sliding, then falling, until I hit the ground.
Right next to the lump of red we’d seen from above.
I gasped for air, afraid to move. Blinking away the veil of fear from the fall, I peered up at the Widow’s Walk. Mrs. James and Mrs. Abernathy were gone.
Everything was fuzzy, but I tried to take inventory. I wiggled my toes in my boots. Moved my fingertips. Shifted my hips.
Finally, I turned my aching head, just a touch, to look at what I was laying next to.
I registered the fur-lined coat, red and white hat, and black belt.
Remembering what Mrs. James had said up on the Widow’s Walk, my gaze slowly traveled down until I saw black boots. A wave of nausea filled my gut. Not a what, I realized. I had stumbled upon another body