FREE Chapter Bats and Bling a Presley Thurman Cozy Mystery

Chapter 1

“You seem especially nervous today. What’s up with you?” Katy asked.

“How could I not be nervous? Veronica Knapp is coming in to try on dresses for the fashion show. That woman is scary,” I said and laughed, but I wasn’t entirely joking.

Veronica was scary, in the way only uber-wealthy women who can break your business with one well-placed negative comment can be. I had a lot riding on her opinion of me and my boutique, and I couldn’t afford for anything to go wrong.

I’m Presley Thurman, thirty-something average redhead and owner of an upscale boutique called Silk located in Chicago, which is also where I live. Katy is my best friend and, for now, employee. Though, I consider her more a partner than employee. I don’t know what I’d do without her. She was in the process of selling her hair salon in Hunter’s Hollow, the town where we grew up, which was proving to be more difficult than she anticipated. Katy had moved here ten months ago to help me get Silk off the ground. It had been given to me by the former owner in an uncommon act of kindness on his part, but had amassed a pile of debt that I was slowly working to pay off. It had been scary to go from working in human resources, to managing Silk, to owning my own business. It was hard work, but I loved every minute of it. I felt I’d finally found my true calling.

Veronica Knapp—one of my best customers, in the sense that she spent a ton of money at Silk—had this odd love for Halloween. For the last five years she had organized a Halloween-themed charity ball to raise money for the children’s wing of a local hospital, which just happened to be run by her husband, a world-renowned pediatric surgeon. This year she’d asked me if I would organize the fashion show; I would supply the dresses, and she would supply the talent. It was a great opportunity for Silk to get exposure among an elite set of people who would be great potential customers, but if I didn’t pull it off it could also mean death for Silk.

“I just want this fashion show to turn out perfect, Katy. Veronica has a lot of influence in the community, and being the sponsor of this show could really boost our business. Having a booming holiday season would be great to help pay off this debt and ensure we have a great merchandise line up for spring.”

“I know. I’m only teasing you; you really have nothing to worry about. The dresses and coordinating jewelry are in the backroom, packed and ready for transit, and the shoes are right where we left them last night at closing time, in those clear boxes by the door. You haven’t forgotten anything. Stop wringing your hands or you’ll get arthritis in your old age.”

I eyed said boxes and forced a slow breath through my lips, hoping my heart rate would follow suit. She was right, of course. The shoes were sparkling and so perfect for the collection it was as if the owner of the store down the street had read my mind before he’d stocked up. Who knew small businesses could be so in tune with each other?

“The whole collection is perfect,” Katy continued while I calmed down a fraction. “There’s no way she won’t love them. She’s going to be wowed and Silk’s going to explode with business.”

I sighed. “I hope you’re right.”

“I am. Now put a smile on that face. She’s here.”

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I looked out the front window to see that Katy was right. A black Lincoln Town Car had pulled up in front of our building and I saw Veronica getting out. A tall, thin, brunette in a black mink coat and sky-high black patent leather heels, definitely designer, she wasn’t the most high-maintenance customer we had at Silk, but she wasn’t the easiest to please, either. I was a little worried about not only meeting, but also exceeding her expectations, which was what I wanted to do. I wanted to impress not only Veronica, but everyone else at the show. Success could mean a lot of business for Silk and, although business was picking up slowly, we needed the sales. Getting out of debt meant I could sleep easier at night. I currently felt like I was one step away from bankruptcy half the time and it wasn’t a good feeling. I’d been tight with money before, but this was on a whole different level.

Veronica swept into the store with such a flourish I almost expected an entourage of people to follow her in. She looked around haughtily before settling her gaze on me and Katy. Her eyes narrowed and her lips flattened out in a white line. She was making me incredibly nervous. I started to have a feeling that something was wrong, only I didn’t know what.

“Good to see you, Veronica. Can I take your coat?” I asked, thinking she must be roasting in that thing. It was October in Chicago, but it was in the fifties today. Not exactly mink coat weather.

She carefully took the coat off and handed it to me gingerly, like she wasn’t exactly sure if she wanted to turn it over to me.

“Katy, can you take Veronica to the dressing room where we have the dresses we pulled for the show while I hang this up?” Turning to Veronica, I said, “I think you’ll like what we have for you. Katy will get you started, and I’ll be right back.”

Veronica didn’t bother to acknowledge what I said but did follow Katy while I went and carefully put the coat in the closet in our backroom. I locked the door to the closet, not wanting to take any chances with the coat. When I came back out and went to where they were to be in the dressing room, I only saw Katy. I gave her a questioning look.

“She’s already trying some things on,” she whispered.

“Did she seem to like what we pulled?” I whispered back.

“Yeah. As much as I think she admits to liking anything. I don’t get the sense that she’s much for spreading praise.”

A few seconds later, Veronica stepped out of the dressing room in one of our designer evening gowns. All beaded lace, the thing had to weigh twenty pounds, and it looked amazing on her. I would kill to be that tall and thin, which was the only body type that could pull off this particular gown. I started to comment when I heard all sorts of commotion. I poked my head out of the dressing room area to see four of my other good customers and three ladies I didn’t recognize walking across the floor.

“Is Ronnie here?” one of them called.

I wouldn’t in a million years have thought of someone calling Veronica Knapp ‘Ronnie.’ It made me want to giggle. Just showed people weren’t always who they seemed on the surface.

“Tilly, is that you?” Veronica squealed.

First the nickname Ronnie, now squealing like a schoolgirl. This was not the Veronica I knew. Maybe she wasn’t as scary as I thought. She seemed almost normal with the way she was acting right now.

The ladies came over and started talking to Veronica, completely ignoring me and Katy, which was normal behavior that I was quite used to. It was very interesting, being around people who talked amongst themselves as if you weren’t even there. They were good at ignoring ‘the help.’

“Ya’ll have any champs?” one of the ladies whom I didn’t know asked me. By the sound of her voice, she wasn’t a native Chicagoan, but rather more South Carolina or Georgia, I assumed, listening to her drawl.

“Champagne? We don’t, but we do have a nice chardonnay, or a merlot if you prefer,” I said.

She frowned. “I suppose that will have to do.”

“I’ll go get it, Pres. You stay here with them,” Katy said, giving me a smile and a wink, knowing I was as eager to escape as she was and that she was beating me to it.

“These are the ladies walking in the show,” Veronica finally said, acknowledging my presence and making introductions.

The lady with the southern drawl was from Georgia, so I was right. She was aptly named Darcy. Darcy Beaufort. Which went perfectly with her Southern accent.

“I’m so glad you are all here. I have something I’m dying to show you,” Veronica said, still acting giddy. I was starting to like her more and more.

Her friends gathered around, and she reached in her purse and pulled out a small box. I couldn’t see that well from my angle, but it looked like a jewelry box. Maybe for a bracelet? She took the top off and pulled something out of the box, holding it up for everyone to see. It was a brooch. A very expensive-looking, diamond-encrusted brooch in the shape of a bat.

“Is that a bat?” Katy whispered as she came up behind me with a couple of bottles of wine and some glasses on a tray.

“I believe so,” I whispered back.

“Ladies, here’s your wine,” I called out to get their attention.

I started pouring and passing out the glasses. “Veronica, that is a beautiful piece of jewelry,” I said, and leaned in to get a closer look as I passed her a glass of chardonnay.

She held it out so I could see it better. I knew Veronica liked Halloween, but this brooch was really over the top. “Did you have this made?” I asked, thinking there was no possible way this was an item she randomly found in a jewelry store.

“Yes. It’s a one-of-a-kind piece,” she said. “Garrett’s on 5th Avenue made it for me. I designed it myself.”

It didn’t surprise me at all that it was a custom piece. An expensive piece of bat jewelry wouldn’t be my first choice but to each his own, and Veronica did love Halloween.

“I am going to wear it at the show, so you need to find me something that will be a good backdrop for it,” she said. “That midnight-blue evening dress is pretty, but it’s not what I think this brooch needs.”

“Okay. I’m sure we can find something.” I left the ladies to their wine, with Katy keeping watch, while I went out to the sales floor to pull a few more dresses that might provide the appropriate backdrop to the piece of jewelry. At the same time, one of my best sales people, Yvette, surprised me by coming through the door.

“What are you doing back here?” I asked.

It was after normal business hours. I had thought it would be easier with Veronica and her friends coming in to not also have regular customers so we could focus all our attention on them, which is what they’d expect. Yvette had left an hour ago when we’d closed the store.

“I forgot to steam the dress for Mrs. Parks and she’s coming in first thing tomorrow morning to pick it up. I didn’t want to leave it for someone else or take the chance it wouldn’t be ready for her. You know how she gets.”

“That’s sweet, Yvette. But you didn’t have to come back for that. Katy or I could have done it if you’d just called.”

“I don’t mind.” She walked into the backroom, hung up her coat, and turned on the steamer. “I knew you’d be busy with fashion show stuff.”

“In that case, will you give this a quick once-over first, then bring it to me in the dressing room? It’s for Veronica Knapp.”

She nodded. “I’ll make sure it’s steamed perfectly.”

“Thanks,” I said, and went back to the fitting rooms to rescue Katy, once again congratulating myself for hiring Yvette. She was a real go-getter, unlike some other sales staff I had hired in the past.

A few minutes later Yvette was handing me the dress, which I slid over the door to Veronica. When she came out, I breathed a sigh of relief. This was it, the dress that would be the perfect showcase for her bat brooch. There was no way Veronica wouldn’t think so. Silver silk with a lace overlay and crystals all over. It sparkled and shimmered, but not enough to detract from the brooch Veronica had pinned on. I cringed a little to think of the probable holes the pin had left in the fabric, but that was a small price to pay for the exposure this event could give us. Maybe I’d get lucky and Veronica would like the dress so much she’d want to buy it. My plan was to offer the ladies a deep discount on the dresses they each wore for the show, so they’d feel compelled to purchase them.

“This is perfect, Presley,” Veronica said with uncharacteristic niceness, putting my mind completely at ease about whether or not she liked the dress.

I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear, and I would have liked to jump up and down as well, I was so excited, but I refrained. Didn’t want them to think I was crazy.

The other ladies had finished trying on their dresses and making their selection for the fashion show by this point, and Katy was hanging the ones they had chosen back on the dressing room rack. I’d picked right the first time for almost everyone, and that gave me a great sense of satisfaction. I loved my job and liked to think I was pretty good at it too.

“Ronnie, we need to hurry,” Darcy said in her slow drawl. “Our dinner reservations are in thirty minutes, and you know how Connie is when she doesn’t get dinner on time.”

“Okay, I’ll hurry. Unzip me,” Veronica said to me, turning her back so I could get to the zipper.

I unzipped and unbuttoned the top button, and she went in and quickly changed back into her clothes. Coming out, she handed me the dress and then put the brooch back in the box. She started to put it in her purse when she paused. “You have a safe here, don’t you?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Here, take this, then. I don’t want to put it in my purse and take it to dinner. It’s way too valuable to be knocking around in there. Just lock it up and I’ll come back to get it tomorrow.”

“I don’t know…” I started to say, not really keen on the idea of it knocking around in my safe, either. I didn’t want to be responsible for it in case something happened.

“Oh, just take it,” she insisted, shoving the box in my hand. “Lock it up and I’ll come back tomorrow. We need to talk about music for the show, anyway. I have some ideas.”

I was sure she did. So far, throughout the whole planning process, Veronica had known exactly what she wanted.

On that note, after I retrieved Veronica’s fur coat, the ladies swept out of the store, chattering away as they left. I looked at the box and then looked at Katy.

“How much do you think that thing is worth?” she asked.

“More than either one of us can afford, I’m sure. Let’s get this thing locked up. It’s making me nervous out here in the open.”

We walked back to the safe and I did the right-left-right thing and the door came open. I started to put it in the safe but couldn’t resist looking at it one more time so I lifted the lid. Nestled in a bed of silk in the box, the bat just glistened. For a bat, it was very pretty.

“There must be twenty diamonds in that thing,” Katy said peering over my shoulder.

“There’s a lot, that’s for sure. This thing is amazing looking.” I snapped the lid shut and put it in the safe, spinning the dial. “I don’t think I will sleep until she picks this up tomorrow.”

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Amy Reade: The Worst Noel

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