Sample Chapter


 When life hands you lemons, you’re supposed to make lemonade. Theodosia Browning had adopted a slightly more creative approach. She was smack dab in the middle of hosting a fanciful Limón Tea Party.

 Picture this if you will; Five dozen Southern ladies dressed in gauzy florals and wearing hats and gloves. All seated at elegant tea tables in the fairytale setting of an actual lemon grove strung with hundreds of white twinkle lights. Postcard perfect, yes? Now add in a delicate waft of lemon-scented tea, large glass bowls amply heaped with fresh-picked lemons, and lemon scones served as the first course. For the piece-de resistance, a fashion show was about to begin and a camera crew was on hand to capture all the highlights of the runway. Naturally, the usual gaggle of high-strung designers, stylists, and business partners paced about nervously in the background.

 A lot to contend with. Almost too much for Theodosia. It was one thing to serve morning and afternoon tea at her charming Indigo Tea Shop on Charleston’s famed Church Street, another to juggle a major event such as this Limón Tea Party. 

 “Grab another pitcher of lemonade, will you?” Theodosia said to Haley, her young chef and baker. “And that silver ice bucket as well.” 

 Theodosia blew a wisp of curly auburn hair off her face as she stood in the kitchen of the Orchard House Inn, home to South Carolina’s only lemon orchard. All the food and beverages were being staged here with the help of Drayton, her tea sommelier, Haley, her chef, and two additional wait staff. And each course was (thankfully!) going out on time. Seemed to be anyway.

 “That woman is driving me batty,” Drayton said as he measured out scoops of lemon verbena tea. A natural orator, each of his syllables was rounded and carefully cadenced.

 “You’re talking about Delaine?” Theodosia asked. She gazed at him with crystalline blue eyes that were complemented by a peaches and cream complexion and an abundant halo of auburn hair. With her slender, athletic build, Theodosia always gave the impression that she was infused with energy and about to come uncoiled.

 “Delaine always drives me crazy,” Drayton said. “That’s nothing new. No, I’m talking about her overbearing sister, Nadine. The woman is positively outrageous. Not only is she bullying the poor models, she’s been braying out orders to the film crew. And seriously ragging that dilettante of a film director whose name escapes me at the moment. My fear is that our lovely guests might pick up on the dissonance and frenzy wafting through the air.”

 Haley looked up from where she was stacking lobster salad tea sandwiches on three-tiered trays. “You mean bad vibes?” Haley was sylph-like and blond, cute as a button, and in her early twenties – still easily impressionable. 

 “Precisely,” Drayton said.

 Theodosia glanced out the window over the sink and saw Nadine rushing around, waving her arms, looking as if she were jacked up on an entire bottle of Ritalin. 

 “Tell you what. You and Haley make one more round with scones, tea, and lemonade, then carry out the tea sandwiches. I’ll go see if I can wrangle Nadine.”

 Theodosia, ever the peace maker, didn’t want trouble. She also didn’t want Drayton to lose his cool. He was her steadfast, sixty-something tea sommelier and right hand man who rarely got ruffled. But today he was edging toward it. Not that you could tell. In his cream-colored silk jacket and pale pink bow tie he was the picture of a Southern gent dressed for a lovely spring afternoon. Not a wrinkle in sight, nary a hair out of place. 

 Walking across the grass, Theodosia tilted her face up slightly to catch the warm sun. This was such a fun idea to host a tea party in an actual lemon grove on John’s Island, just a few miles outside Charleston’s city limits. The Orchard House Inn was the perfect spot, a lovely plantation-style B and B with a chef’s kitchen and plenty of parking. And to think that the inn’s owners had actually imported all these trees, planted them, and then carefully nurtured them so that they were all producing edible fruit. Quite amazing.

 Theodosia walked past the fluttering white tent that served as a temporary dressing room and where a dozen underfed models were squeezing their slim bodies into leggings and halter tops. She passed a small shed where a maintenance man in green overalls was stowing a rake and noticed the film director fidgeting with a camera on a tripod. Even though the day was warm, the director – she remembered his name was somebody Fox – wore a dark green Burberry blazer with a linen scarf looped lazily around his neck. 

 Theodosia smiled to herself. Like he was at the Cannes Film Festival ready to pick up an award instead of filming an afternoon tea and fashion show. 

 Finally, a few steps into the lemon orchard, she found the two sisters, Delaine and Nadine, locked in a heated argument. Delaine Dish was sputtering like a manic gopher, her face turning pink as she lectured her younger sister, Nadine.

 “You always send the sportiest looks down the runway first,” Delaine shouted. “Then work your way up to the more fashion conscious outfits.” Delaine was the high maintenance owner of Cotton Duck, one of Charleston’s premier clothing boutiques. She was also a semi-socialite, confirmed gossip, and veteran of countless fashion shows. Today Delaine wore a flouncy rose-colored skirt with a matching, tight-fitting peplum jacket

 Nadine, grim-faced and posturing awkwardly in her yellow dress, barely acknowledged her own sister.

 “Ladies,” Theodosia said, breaking into their conversation. “Please don’t tell me we have a problem.”

 Delaine spun to face her. “A problem? There’s always a problem when Nadine’s involved.”

 Nadine’s expression turned even more sour. “You’re always accusing me of being stupid,” she sneered at Delaine. “Well, Lemon Squeeze Couture is my project and I’m creative director. So I’d appreciate it if you’d kindly back off!”

 While Delaine was size zero skinny with flowing dark hair and a heart-shaped face, Nadine was her polar opposite. Light blond close-cropped hair, Zaftig figure, and a temperament more mercurial than Delaine’s. If that was even possible.

 “Please,” Theodosia said. “Let’s all take a deep breath here.” Yes, it may have been Theodosia’s tea party, but these two ladies had the potential to turn it into Wrestlemania if they continued to go at it tooth and nail.

 “B-b-but the timing,” Delaine began. “With so many moving parts . . . you want everything to be perfect. The food, the fashion . . .” 

 “Relax,” Theodosia said in what she hoped was a soothing tone. “For one thing, the tea party is nothing to worry about. Drayton and I have done this a million times. As far as the fashion show goes, it looks as if all the models are dressed, glammed up, and eager to strut their stuff.” She forced a smile. “Why don’t you both take a deep breath, sit down, and enjoy the show. I have a feeling it’s going to be terrific.”

 Nadine’s waxed brows shot up as she fought to pull her pink-glossed, over-injected lips into an unhappy line. “So you say, but this is an enormous challenge for me. It’s not just the kickoff event for Charleston Fashion Week, it’s the very first time my partners and I have staged an actual Lemon Squeeze Couture fashion show!”

 Theodosia sighed. Lemon Squeeze Couture was a new line of workout clothing, or as Nadine preferred to call it – athleisure wear – that was debuting today at the Limón Tea Party.   

 And just to throw a monkey wrench into things, adding a film crew had been a last-minute addition cooked up by Nadine’s two business partners, Harv and Marv. They suddenly had their hearts set on a fun, bouncy fashion video that could be set to music and played on the Lemon Squeeze Couture website. Not a bad idea entirely, just a little late in the game.  

  Theodosia consulted her watch and waved a hand as a bumble bee buzzed lazily past her head. “Tell you what,” she said. “We have ten minutes before the fashion show is scheduled to start. Delaine, why don’t you check on the models. And Nadine, perhaps you could take a quick break. I know you have people from the press here, so before you speak to them maybe you could grab a glass of lemonade and . . .”

 “Chill out,” Delaine snapped.

 Nadine, her nose out of joint because of the confrontation with her sister, walked to the back door of the Orchard House Inn. Still steaming with anger, she hesitated for a moment, then pulled open the screen door and stepped into the empty kitchen. It was large with lots of metal shelves stocked with stew pots, stacks of fry pans, and sheet cake pans. Acres of counter space held what remained of today’s tea party bounty – extra three-tiered trays and pans mounded with lemon cream scones covered in plastic wrap. Six blue coolers that had recently held a myriad of tea sandwiches stood empty. There was also a scatter of tea tins, tea pots, and tea accoutrements.

 Nadine didn’t give a fig about tea or tea sandwiches. What she really wanted right now was a cigarette to help settle her nerves – and who cared if this was a no smoking zone? Who was going to know? All the tea people were running around like crazy chickens serving the guests while her silly, domineering sister was trying to take over the show and ingratiate herself with her business partners. Hah. Delaine always had been the pushy one.

 Dipping into her skirt pocket, Nadine grabbed a half-empty pack of Marlboro Lights, shook one out, and lit up. She inhaled greedily, then exhaled slowly. Tried to calm her jangled nerves as well as her intense worry over the fashion show. And just as her shoulders started to unkink, just as she was beginning to relax, she heard, on the other side of the door that separated the kitchen from a rather large parlor, two people arguing. 

 Curious now (Nadine was always curious), she wondered if it might be her erstwhile business partners, Harv and Marv, sniping at each other yet again. She tiptoed over, put an ear to the door, and heard . . . 

 More arguing. Insistent and growing increasingly heated with every passing moment. Still, the voices were pitched so low it was virtually impossible to make out actual words.

Could they be talking about me? Nadine wondered as her paranoia kicked in big time. 

 She hadn’t been getting along all that well with Harv and Marv. They’d finally tumbled to her utter lack of knowledge concerning fashion and their new product launch. Once that had happened, once she’d been unmasked, it seemed as if they were constantly shouting and ranting at her about one thing or another. And it was upsetting to Nadine. Could she help it if she was a neophyte when it came to design and sales and marketing? Sure, she’d embroidered some of her resume (okay, most of it), but for goodness sake, she was trying to contribute. Could she help it if she lacked actual know-how about manufacturing and distribution? What about all the sweat equity she’d poured in? Surely that must count for something!

 Listening harder, trying to discern exact words, Nadine leaned closer. And as she did, bumped her forehead against the swinging door, causing it to emit a loud creak. At that exact same moment, Nadine lost her balance and – doggone high heels! – teetered hard against the door.

 The door swung open, causing her to practically fall into the parlor.

 Embarrassed, cartwheeling her arms to try and regain her balance, Delaine stared at the two people and recognized them instantly. “Oh jeez,” she sputtered. “I’m so sorry. I was just . . .” Before she got halfway through her apology, her eyes fell on a large black duffel bag stuffed with . . .

Oh no.

 Realizing she was suddenly in serious trouble, Nadine spun about frantically, hoping to beat a hasty retreat. 

 Too late. 

 As she lurched back into the kitchen, legs churning, veins coursing hot with adrenaline, something sharp struck the back of her head. It was an exquisitely well-defined pain, almost like the sting of a hornet. The sudden assault made her cry out. Then, a millisecond later, the pain was excruciating, as if the entire back of her head was on fire. Nadine wondered what strange thing had just happened as a million jumbled thoughts spun crazily through her brain and she crashed to the floor. 

 And the very last thing Nadine was cognizant of before she winked out for good, for all eternity, was being dragged . . . dragged into a place that was cold and dark and sticky.

An Afton Tangler Thriller

Lemon Curd Killer
Coming Soon