Authors: Melissa Bourbon
“I can go with you,” I said.
“No, no. I’ll give you two lovebirds some time together. I’ll meet you back at the house, Harlow.”
Will put his elbows on the table and leaned closer to me, winking. He liked Orphie’s plan. With good reason. He and I hadn’t had much time alone lately. He’d been traveling for his job as city architect, and I’d been wrapped up in my collection and Mama’s wedding. “Can you find your way back?” I asked her.
She waved away the question. “Of course. I’ll probably be there before you.”
I laughed. That almost sounded like a challenge. “I don’t think so.”
She smirked. “Uh, Manhattan, remember? I can walk a ten-minute mile . . . in stilettos.”
Slight exaggeration, but probably not by much. I liked to stroll, but Orphie kept a rapid pace, and even did half marathons, something I’d never even thought about doing.
We agreed, both of us uncertain if the models would show, if the photo shoot would go on, or what else might happen that afternoon. “See you in a little while,” I said as she put Maximilian’s book in her oversized bag.
“Yep, in a little while.” She threw up her hand in a quick wave, her high heels clicking against the bakery’s floor as she walked out, leaving Will and me alone, the pall of death still hovering over us.
Will left to go back to work and I walked home, waving to my friend Josie through the window of Seed-n-Bead, the bead shop she owned as I passed. The shop was a-buzz with customers, so I kept walking, lost in thought. The fact that Orphie had taken Maximilian’s book still bothered me. Was she a kleptomaniac? Had she discovered some secret about our former boss? Or maybe she was a woman scorned. Oh no. Surely she hadn’t had an affair with him?
I strode down the sidewalk of Mockingbird Lane, heading for my house. I passed under the arbor that was the focal point of my front yard. The wisteria was leafing, fuzzy pods forming and sprouting from the branches, swaying as I walked under it and along the flagstone path. Midori was at the front door, one hand on the doorknob. Jeanette stood beside her. Midori muttered something to Jeanette as they turned to wait for me.
“Did you get some lunch?” I asked, mounting the porch steps.
“Oh yes, at the cute little bed-and-breakfast off the square. It’s where we’re staying, too. We had scones and tea and these amazing little sweet potato fries.”
I knew just the place she was talking about. Hattie and Raylene had bought the old house and spruced it up. Now Seven Gables was the nicest bed-and-breakfast slash teahouse in Bliss. “And that homemade poppy seed jelly?” I said. “It’s delicious, isn’t it? It’s Raylene’s specialty.”
We made idle chitchat, stalling before stepping inside and into the pall of death that still hovered in the house. When we couldn’t wait any longer, I opened the door, stepping in, Midori and Jeanette close on my heels. We all seemed to move slowly, knowing that going back inside would bring Beaulieu and his death right back to the forefront of our minds. As if it had gone anywhere but there.
Everything was in order, but I couldn’t shake the sinister feeling of knowing that a man had died right here.
There was no sign of Lindy or Quinton, but Orphie showed up a few minutes later. “Got what I needed,” she said, patting the shopping bag she held under her arm.
Good girl. After Midori and Jeanette went back to Seven Gables, we could package up the stolen book and drop it at the post office. Signed, sealed, and delivered.
“No sign of the models?” I asked. If the shoot was off and the article was nixed, there was no reason for any of them to come.
“They came this morning,” Midori said. “Too many people for this little shop, so we left them at the bed-and-breakfast.”
So they were here whether they wanted to be or not.
Midori scurried around, packing up her garments to keep them safe and sound. “No photo shoot today,” she’d told me. “I ran into Ms. Reece at the bed-and-breakfast. She said she has a call into her editor for further instructions.”
We all nodded, not surprised. How could they run an article about three up-and-coming designers when one was now dead?
Jeanette roamed around aimlessly, lost without barked orders from her boss. “You can pack up Beaulieu’s garments, too,” I suggested. I picked up his messenger bag.
“He never lets anyone hold this,” she said, taking it from me.
“I understand.” I didn’t like anyone handling my sketchbooks or sewing kit. They were as personal to me as Madelyn’s camera and her Epiphanie camera bag.
Orphie and I sat at the dining table making felt beads for the wedding party while Midori and Jeanette moved around like zombies. “Ask them to leave,” Orphie whispered after a solid thirty minutes passed.
I tilted my head and frowned. Mama had raised me better than that. No good Southern woman would kick out her guests, especially ones who’d just suffered a shocking loss.
Orphie read my expression and shrugged. “Southern hospitality, yes, but you’re also a martyr,” she said. “Suffering in silence.”
She had a point, but I couldn’t change my upbringing any more than a zebra could change its stripes. Instead of answering her, I pushed the wool rovings, bits of unprocessed combed and carded wool from New Zealand sheep, toward her. I had them in every color of the rainbow. We gathered them in small chunks, saturated the tufts with warm soapy water, and rolled them into tight balls between the palms of our hands. We made different sizes, laying them out on the dining table as they’d be strung on a strand of yarn. “This is all there is to it?” Orphie asked as she finished another round.
“Once they’re dry, we attach decorative beads to them, then use a thick needle to string them onto the necklace.” I put down the tuft of raw wool I’d been ready to dip, went to the old secretary desk just outside my workroom, returning a second later with a finished necklace. “They’ll all look like this,” I said.
Jeanette came to the table and sank down. She fingered the marble-sized wool beads I’d laid out. “These are so cool,” she said, lifting the necklace and holding it around her neck. Her fingers trembled, the only sign that she was upset about what had gone on today.
“Jeanette? Are you okay?”
She fumbled with the handmade clasp on the necklace, her lower lip beginning to quiver, her eyes tearing. “I . . . I can’t believe he’s really d-dead.”
I couldn’t, either, but there it was.
Before I could say anything else, the clinking of glass against glass drew my gaze upward. My chandelier was a handmade Southern contraption made of a dozen old, clear-glass milk bottles. Each one was capped with a galvanized top and perched in a circular galvanized frame. Lightbulbs clustered in the center; the glass of the bottles, embossed with the words “farm-fresh milk,” diffused the light. Meemaw had her tricks . . . and this was one of them. Sure to get my gander every time, but I couldn’t very well call her out in front of the women in the shop. So I ignored the clinking of glass. Ignored the hairs rising on the back of my neck. The old glass bottles were irreplaceable. If Meemaw broke them, so help me . . .
“Meemaw!” I said under my breath.
“Beaulieu’s probably haunting this place,” Orphie said, eyeing the swinging chandelier.
Jeanette gasped, her pallor more ashen than it had been a moment ago. “Do you think so?” she asked softly.
I flashed a scolding glance at Orphie. “It’s not haunted,” I said. But inside, I thought that if Beaulieu was hanging around from the afterworld, he’d be in good company.
We finished all the beads, laying them on a folded bath towel to dry, and Jeanette and Midori finally left. I put the extra wool away, rinsed the bowl of soapy water, and took a few minutes to straighten the kitchen. Mama had left out the pitcher of lemonade, glasses from the morning littered the butcher-block counter, and fingerprints smudged the butter yellow front of the replica vintage refrigerator.
When I returned to the front room, Orphie was chewing on her thumbnail, Maximilian’s book lying on the table in front of her.
“Are you ready to mail it back?” I asked her, hoping she’d come to her senses.
She shook her head. “I want to show you something first,” she said, sliding the book toward me, the embossed “M” with a gold circle around it like an eye on a magic tome.
I laid my own hand on the cover, half expecting a jolt of energy to zap me.
Her guilty expression vanished, but she cast her eyes down toward the book, skittering them to one side, then the other. As if the fashion police were going to make a sudden appearance right here in Buttons & Bows and arrest her for theft. “Take a look,” she said.
I lifted open the smooth black cover and braced myself for whatever big reveal I’d find, but the first page held simple pencil sketches of a costumey bustier. It looked like something Lady Gaga might wear, but not the average woman. Still, there was nothing earth-shattering. Nothing that filled me with concern.
I turned the pages and reveled in Maximilian’s creative mind. The book wasn’t all that different from my own sketchbooks. I recognized a lot of the designs. As Orphie had said, this particular book had to be a few years old. Anything worth producing had been done, and now Maximilian, like every designer, was probably pushing his boundaries and figuring out how to stay fresh and relevant with new designs.
I kept turning the pages, looking at sketch after sketch of rough drawings. Angular figures. Color palettes and fabric patterns. Descriptions of garments and words scrawled across the sheets. Bold. Edgy. Color blocking.
“Do you know how easy it is to steal someone’s designs?”
My gaze snapped up to meet hers. “But why would anyone want to do that? That’s what I don’t understand, Orphie. Don’t you want to create your own collections? Show what you can do?” Orphie’s aesthetic was unique and utterly her own, so why had she stolen from Maximilian? She might not have his experience—or his bankroll—but she had her own point of view, and that was harder to come by than anything else.
I leaned closer to her, my hands gripping the edges of the book. “Orphie Marie Cates, what are you talking about? You’re not what?”
She pushed her hair behind her ears. “I admit, when I took the book, I didn’t know what I was thinking, but then I saw—”
“Look,” she said, nodding to the book again.
“I’m looking. They’re his sketches. So?”
She didn’t blink. Didn’t drop her gaze. “Look,” she repeated.
“Orphie, blast it, what—”
“Harlow, just look.”
I pulled it closer. I still didn’t see what she was worked up over, but that didn’t stop the anxiety from pooling inside me. “Can’t you just tell me?”
Her nostrils flared slightly as she drew in a breath. She spun the book around, flipped through the pages, and then turned it around to face me, again, tapping it with her index finger. “Right there.”
I took a good look. More of Maximilian’s designs, some sketched in pencil, others in ink, all rough, yet detailed enough to show his point of view and design elements. “Okay . . . ,” I said, still not seeing anything alarming. I pushed my glasses up, squinting in case that helped. I looked at the most familiar design. Just like Diane Von Furstenberg’s signature wrap dress, this one-shoulder bodice with horizontal darts at the bustline was classic Maximilian.
I looked at Orphie, hating to even ask the question that tickled around the edge of my thoughts. “Is this . . . this isn’t . . . you didn’t . . .”
didn’t,” she said, a sad note in her voice. Because we both knew that just because she hadn’t used this particular design by Maximilian, she might have used others. She’d taken the book, after all.
“So what—” I stopped short again, but this time it was because I could picture the design in my mind, crafted in a brightly colored piece of chiffon and attached to a black skirt. A wide silk waistband created a visual break between the two pieces and created an hourglass silhouette. “It’s Beaulieu, isn’t it?” My voice was hardly louder than a whisper. “I saw it in his garment bag. But how . . . ?”
She tapped her finger to her nose, as if we were playing charades and I’d just made a correct guess. “People say he’s derivative, but it’s more than that. He stole his ideas, Harlow. Remember when we worked for Maximilian and Beaulieu would come around?”
“They were friends,” I said.
“Were they? Or was Beaulieu just after what he could get?”
I stared at her. “So you think Beaulieu stole Maximilian’s designs, too?” The moment that last word left my mouth, I cringed and bit my lower lip. Too. That one little word lumped Orphie together with Beaulieu as an unethical designer, if not a full-on thief. Which, even if Orphie was, I hated saying the very idea of.
“It’s true,” she said, giving my hand a squeeze and looking as if she could read my mind. “I did it. I’m no better than he was.”
“Yes, you are. You’re returning it.”
“I know. I will.” She nodded, but didn’t seem to want to talk about what she’d done. I didn’t blame her. It was easier to focus on Beaulieu.
I jumped into the discussion with both feet. “If he altered the designs enough that it wasn’t blatant, no one would be able to accuse him of stealing the ideas.” She nodded, exhaling heavily. Her relief was obvious, so I kept going. “What if he’d ingratiated himself with Maximilian to get design ideas, and Maximilian figured it out?”
“I’ve seen some of Beaulieu’s stuff,” she said. “They’re too close to be coincidence.”
“Okay, but why wouldn’t Maximilian call him on it?”
“And what, risk losing public favor when he has no proof?”
“Or,” I said, “maybe he
call him on it. Maybe that’s why Beaulieu stopped coming around.”
I glanced toward the kitchen to where Beaulieu had been found on the floor, dead. That niggling feeling that something just wasn’t right about him dying so suddenly returned full force. But that didn’t make sense. If anyone were to kill Beaulieu over stealing designs, it would be Maximilian, and he wasn’t here.
Not every death was murder, I told myself. Still, the thought stayed with me.