Perhaps if she simply avoided eye contact.
Thea James turned her back on the partygoers, paying attention to the dessert buffet instead. The Quilt-Without-Guilt Guild had surpassed their Christmas potluck standard. Among a bounty of petite cakes, cookies, puffs, and bars, Thea found her own offering, a plate of blueberry tartlets. They appeared untouched. Strange. She pulled them to the front of the culinary display.
“Thea! Why are you hiding out in the desserts when I need your help?” The familiar voice of fellow guild member, Heather Ann Brewster, hinted at desperation.
Turning with reluctance, Thea morphed into hospitality mode. “Blueberry tartlet?”
“What?” Heather Ann viewed the diminutive dessert, gave a small shudder, and then had the grace to look apologetic. “Ah...no, thanks. I haven’t browsed the appetizers yet. Anyway, I can’t think about food now. I’m too upset.”
Thea shoved her reluctance aside. “What seems to be the prob- lem, Heather Ann?” This time.
“You know the publicity banner we had made? The one adver- tising the quilt show next weekend? The one supposed to be hang- ing over the entrance to Old Town?”
“Supposed to be hanging over the entrance? I thought they put it up yesterday.” Thea calculated the days left until the show opened. Today was Sunday, and tonight’s kickoff quilt show soirée started the festivities. The main event was scheduled for next Saturday. Folks needed to be aware of the date so they’d attend en masse.
“City utility workers were supposed to put it up. Oh, and it’s beautiful, Thea. In bold letters it says, ‘1st Annual Blocks on the Walk Quilt Show, Pioneer Park’ and the date.”
“Good . . . very good. So why isn’t it hanging up?”
“I had the letters made in red, too. Sort of reminds me of Janny Rice’s redwork quilt, you know? Perhaps she’ll place with hers. Beautiful embroidery.” Heather Ann seemed lost in the vision, green eyes staring at nothing.
“Heather Ann. Focus, hon. You said there was a problem. As the quilt show chairperson, I want to help.” Well, that was a lie. Helping was overrated. Thea wanted to eat some desserts. And she wasn’t the chairperson. Another fib. Rather, the co-chair, along with Prudy Levasich.
Where was the elusive Prudy, anyway? Probably showing off her twin sister, Trudy, visiting from the East Coast. The co-chair’s co-twin. If Prudy stuck around now and then, she could co-solve these problems with Thea.
“You have to do something! The Larkindale City Planning Commission won’t let us put up the banner.” The desperation returned to Heather Ann’s tone, sending her voice to a higher key.
“It’s not up to code. They said the banner needs holes cut in it so the wind will f low through and not blow it down.”
“Makes sense. Without the holes, it could act more like a sail,” Thea said. “Can’t you cut some?”
“I guess.” Heather Ann looked uncomfortable. “But I don’t know how big to make the holes. Or how many. The banner was expensive. I don’t want to ruin it.”
“Very responsible.” Thea considered the options. “I have an idea. Call the Larkin Lake Resort. They’re always putting banners up for some event. The Fly-Fishing Derby. And the Daisy Pedal Bike Race, right?”
“Oh, you’re good.” Heather Ann’s expression turned eager, like a puppy about to score a treat.
“Whatever size they advise, be sure you use the white space and don’t cut into those big red letters you chose. That way people will only see the letters and not notice the holes.” Thea gave Heather Ann an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “Sound okay?”
“Sounds great. Thanks so much, Thea. I’m on it.” Heather Ann dashed away, blonde ponytail bouncing, presumably to make the call.
Or grab a few appetizers.
Which seemed an even better idea to Thea.
“Well, aren’t you just the CEO. Or is that dictator?” Renée Fowler pushed up against Thea in jest, as she used to do when they were teens.
“Oh, stop.” Thea grinned at her best friend since fifth grade, recently returned home from a long honeymoon tour of Europe.
She had missed Renée terribly. But something seemed off between them. Had the travels changed Renée? She certainly looked different. More elegant. Her brown hair, cut in Paris, was styled in a fashionable pixie cut. But weren’t her large gray eyes filled with disapproval now? Or was the still single Thea a little jealous of her friend’s marriage and new life?
Thea studied the crowd. “A wonderful turnout, don’t you think? I’ve been watching for him but have yet to see Dr. Cottle. Did he already check in?”
“How would I know, Thea?” Renée asked. “I may own the Inn, but I don’t keep up on what time every guest walks through the door.”
Not a hint of a thank-you for recommending Renée and Howie’s Heritage House Inn as lodging for their illustrious judge and guest speaker, Dr. Niles Cottle. Typical treatment from Renée since her return to Larkindale.
Thea waved to a friend of Gram’s. “Everyone seems to be enjoy- ing themselves. And no better place to do it than in Mary-Alice Wentworth’s garden. Exquisite, isn’t it?”
Glorious roses edged a pavestone patio, which surrounded a sparkling pond, highlighted by the spectacular fountain in the pond’s center. Water poured endlessly from an urn held by a grace- ful granite lady. The effect was more than tranquil. It was hypnotic. Tables with bistro chairs dotted the grounds, and this evening’s attendees alternately chatted in groups or relaxed with a cool drink. A number of quilts were displayed near the walkway, staging a quilt show preview and adding a folksy feel. Thea’s mother’s string quar- tet played various classical selections with so much enthusiasm the occasional sour note went unnoticed.
Except maybe by Renée, who now winced as if she had stepped on a nail.
Uh-oh. Thea grabbed the dessert plate and shoved it at her friend. “How about a nice blueberry tartlet?”
“Tartlet?” Renée’s distasteful look increased. “What’s in the fill- ing? And look how thick the crust is, Thea. You must use very cold dough to make a f laky crust.”
Crestfallen, Thea placed the plate back on the table. “Tasted good to me.”
“They probably are good, for Larkindale. I do like the antique serving plate though,” Renée said. “My tastes have refined so much from my exposure to other cultures. Like what I’m wearing, for instance.” She smoothed out her simple black dress. “In Europe, everyone wears something elegant like this. Understated, you know? Your dress is much too frilly. Too yesterday.”
“Oh.” Thea’s cheeks burned. Was it no longer okay to like yes- terday’s fashions best? Her vintage cocktail dress had been a steal from the family’s antique store, James & Co. Antique Emporium. Certain the cut was f lattering to her figure, Thea also thought the cobalt color and purple tulle overlay brought out the periwinkle blue in her eyes. Both Mum and Gram had agreed.
“But the pouffy skirt is a great illusion. One’s not sure if it’s so full because of your curves or the dress’s design.” Renée put a hand on her hip and once-overed her friend. “I could never pull it off. It would just hang on my slender frame. But those strappy sandals are cute. A nice change from your clogs.”
Thea was beginning to wonder why she was friends with Renée. And where was Dr. Cottle?
Thea studied the gathering again but didn’t see him. Their host- ess, Mary-Alice, was also missing. Perhaps she was inside greeting him this minute.
Leaning toward Thea, Renée said, “Here comes your Cole Mason. So handsome. Did you see him chatting with Mayor Suzanne Stiles for more than a half hour? You better watch out, Miss Thea. Step it up or you’ll remain Miss Thea for a long, long time.”
“He’s not my Cole Mason, and he can talk to whoever he likes!” Thea almost hissed at her friend as Cole approached them. His rov- ing reporter role tonight was to cover the quilt show kickoff soirée for the Larkindale Lamplight’s society pages. Surely he wouldn’t report any petty problems from putting on the show. It could result in a definite damper on attendance at the official opening.
Moving past a sullen Renée and closer to Thea, Cole f lashed his disarming dimples. Then appearing stunned, he stopped and said. “You look so . . . nice! Am I writing about the wrong subject for the Lamplight? How about a full-page spread of you in your dress?”
Renée rolled her eyes.
“No comment,” Thea said, laughter in her voice. “What are you planning to cover?” Making her a feature story was not an option. He had to be kidding. Especially if she looked as chunky in her dress as Renée seemed to say. And the camera added what? Thea sucked in her stomach.
Cole’s attention had diverted to the treat table. “What do you call this delicious-looking sweet?” He plunked a pink petit four on a faux-china plate. “I don’t want to get the name wrong in my article.”
Relieved, Thea named each dessert. Cole listed it in his note- book and took still shots with his smartphone. Without embarrass- ment, he snuck a few more tempting treats.
“And this . . . ,” she swept her hand in front of the tartlets with a f lourish, “is what I made. Blueberry tartlets. Care to sample one?”
So far, Renée stood silent. But apparently she’d reached her etiquette limit. “You don’t want to eat those, Cole. They’re made by our peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich queen here. Need I say more?”
“Good recommendation. I’ll take two.” Cole stacked the tarts on the last empty spot on his plate.
The tiny triumph tasted like sugar. But Thea wondered if Renée, with her newly acquired European sensibilities, was right. “Perhaps I should have used raspberries instead of blueberries,”Thea said. “Might have looked more appetizing.”
“I doubt it,” Renée said. “Probably would have looked like coddled blood.”
Coddled blood? Coddle? What was familiar about that word? Then Thea shivered, remembering Dr. Cottle was still a no-show. What if something horrible had happened to him?
She surveyed the party once more. Mary-Alice’s favorite nephew appeared to have captivated a small audience, his hands in motion, probably spouting his expertise on the family quilt, “Larkin’s Treasure.” The string quartet sawed with vigor. Thea spotted Prudy hard at work, gabbing with the guests. Or was it Trudy? Thea’s Aunt Elena, along with a few others, admired a magnificent Grandmother’s Garden quilt displayed on the walkway.
But no Dr. Cottle.
Cole’s voice cut through her concerns. “You know, these look so good, I think I’ll take another one in case we run out before I’ve had my fill.” He balanced another tartlet atop the others and winked at Thea.
Renée blew out a sigh. “You are quite the risk-taker, Mr. Mason.” She waved a dismissal and strolled toward the mayor, probably for a little update on her conversation with Cole.
That’s it. That’s all I can take. I’m leaving before one more person says boo to me.
Cole’s hand brief ly touched the middle of Thea’s back, stopping her f light, his dark eyes inquisitive. “Are you quite sure she’s your best friend?”
No. She wasn’t sure anymore. But what could she say? Thea groped for a reason for her friend’s bad behavior. In the search, she found an emptiness she couldn’t name.
“Renée’s . . . not been herself since she got back from Europe.” “A lingering case of jet lag. That’s probably it,” Cole said.
Thea looked up, grateful for his kindness.
“So where’s the famous Dr. Cottle?” Cole asked, changing the subject. “I’ve heard he can read the stitches on a fastball from the nosebleed section at Yankee Stadium.”
“So they say. He’s a major leaguer on quilts and quilting in our state,” Thea said. “In fact, I should go see if there’s been any word of him. Folks came tonight to hear his talk about the Wentworth legacy quilt.”
“You go then. I’ll pacify myself with a blueberry tartlet.” Cole stuffed a whole one in his mouth and started chewing, pleasure written all over his face.
Did he like it or was he trying to cheer her up? Maybe she didn’t want to know.
Thea excused herself and strode purposefully toward the house. No eye contact. No eye contact. No eye contact. She managed to slip through the French doors, muting her mother’s Mozart, and put- ting a wall between herself and the problems outside.
She closed her eyes. See no evil.
Beyond the glass door, a distant voice called out, “Has anyone seen Thea?”
She clicked the door closed.
Hear no evil.