Berry Purple Betrayal
Interior designer Hadley Sutton has an eye for style, an ear for gossip, and a nose for trouble.
Following a months-long interior design project at the town’s iconic ivy-wrapped mansion, Hadley finds herself at the top of the suspect list when she’s accused of killing the owner of the sprawling estate. Even worse, that list belongs to her flirty friend, Officer Dennis Appley.
Then evidence mounts against Hadley after a life-altering revelation leaves everyone stunned. Soon the entire town turns against her, jeopardizing the new life she’s built in Darlington Hills. Determined to prove her innocence, Hadley delves deeper into the mystery while working at Walnut Ridge, keeping her conniving competitor at bay, helping Carmella solve a surprising act of vandalism, and pursuing a budding romance with her boss’ brother. And with Officer Appley hot on her heels, she uncovers centuries-old secrets buried deep within the Ladyvale Manor that lead her closer to the truth—and danger—as the real killer will do anything to keep Hadley from learning what actually happened.
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“Okay, here’s the plan,” I told Aunt Deb. “We mosey over towards the piano, then you insert yourself into their circle of gossip and distract them while I pull Irma aside and have my words with her.”
The Ladyvale Manor buzzed with excitement as party guests marveled at the newly restored home, which had caught fire in early May. Given all the oohs and ahhs in the room, it was unlikely anyone would hear Aunt Deb and me. But I held my voice to a whisper anyway. “It will be impossible for Irma to ignore me if I’m standing six inches from her face.”
Aunt Deb narrowed her eyes conspiratorially. “I’ll go tell them about the time Hal Stenner ripped the backside of his cargo pants. It was his first time out with my hiking club, and he was showing off in front of the ladies by climbing over a barbed fence instead of walking around it. Well, the fence won and we all learned Hal wears SpongeBob boxer briefs. It’s a long story, so you’ll have plenty of time with Irma.”
“Perfect. Ripped pants are a great conversation starter. Let’s just hope Hal doesn’t overhear your story.” I hadn’t seen him this evening, but I was sure he was on the guest list. Irma had invited half the town to this event.
Aunt Deb swished a hand at me. “Oh, Hadley. It doesn’t matter if he hears me talking about him. Hal’s ego is healthy enough to survive a bit of gossip.”
Irma Murdoch, homeowner of the Ladyvale Manor, laughed with her friends by the piano. She wore a two-button blazer, skirt, and suede heels. Her entire outfit was a deep forest green—the same color as the money she owed me.
Irma had hired me this summer to redecorate her first floor after reparations were made to the rooms damaged during the fire. It was a job unlike any other. Most of my clients wanted me to make their home look more modern; Irma wanted a fresh look that stayed true to its original American Federal style.
I’d spent all my free time this summer at the Ladyvale Manor. On top of my day job at Walnut Ridge and work for another client, I worked alongside carpenters and electricians in her home, often walking directly from my day job to Irma’s and staying there until ten or eleven each night. I sacrificed sleep, social time, and a trip to visit my parents in Japan so I could meet Irma’s seemingly unachievable deadline of early August.
But I pulled it off. I transformed Irma’s home from eighteenth-century drab to eighteenth-century chic in less than three months. Irma was planning to open the Ladyvale Manor to the public for tours beginning Labor Day weekend, which was two weeks away.
Not only that, but her home was also set to become a TV star in the next couple of months. A cable history channel was producing a series about old homes in the country, and the Ladyvale Manor would be the star of the show.
The home had become a social media sensation ten years ago after a group of tourists snuck onto the property, snapped some photos of the ivy-wrapped façade and labyrinth of hedges, and posted them online. Darlington Hills instantly became a top tourist destination in Virginia, and thousands traveled here every year to stand outside the wrought-iron gates and take photos of the estate. Now, for the first time ever, they would be able to see the enchanting home from inside the gates.
With the home’s new mahogany floors, ornate plaster ceiling, and meticulously curated antique furniture and artwork, the Ladyvale Manor now radiated elegance and sophistication—just in time for the tourists and TV crews.
And Irma hadn’t paid me a dime for my work.
A tuxedoed server carrying a tray of champagne paused in front of us. Aunt Deb lifted a glass and thanked him.
“Maybe you should leave out the part about Hal’s SpongeBob underpants,” I suggested.
“Good idea.” Aunt Deb zipped her lips, then unzipped them to take a sip of champagne. “Mmm. You should try some. I do believe it’s the best I’ve ever had.” She held up the glass and swirled it gently. “It’s even better than the bubbly I served when I married your uncle, God rest his soul.”
I sighed. “That means it’s expensive. And if Irma has enough money to buy expensive bubbly and throw a party for half of Darlington Hills, then she has enough to pay me.” I kept my voice low. Even though I was angry at Irma, I didn’t want to make her look bad in front of her guests.
I typically required a hefty deposit from clients before starting a job, but Irma had asked me to waive the deposit and instead invoice her toward the end of the project so she would have more time to sort out her fire claim with the insurance company. I had agreed, thinking there was no chance whatsoever that the woman living in Darlington Hill’s iconic estate would refuse to pay me.
On my last day of working for her, I found out just how wrong I was when I found my invoice crumpled in her kitchen trash can.
“Ready?” I turned my toes toward the piano.
She grabbed my wrist. “Wait! We can’t go now.”
“Why? Cold feet?”
Her blue eyes blazing, Aunt Deb turned her focus to the entry hall. “Because your boyfriend just arrived.”
I followed her gaze to where Reid stood in the entry hall. He was searching the crowd, presumably for me. “He’s not my boyfriend.”
“Of course he is. What else would you call him?”
I took a step toward Irma, not wanting to have the boyfriend conversation with Aunt Deb right now. After moving to Darlington Hills earlier this year, she had deemed herself my personal relationship manager. She’d backed off a little after she started dating Roy Sanders, the town’s police detective, but I was certain she wouldn’t stop playing matchmaker until I was slicing through my wedding cake.
“Reid is…a friend,” I whispered. “He’s my man-friend. A friendly man-friend.”
Aunt Deb blinked. “A what? That’s not an option on Facebook’s relationship status menu.”
“Well, it should be. Better yet, Facebook should have an option for on again, off again—with an emphasis on the off again—relationship because she’s too busy designing homes and not getting paid and he’s too busy renovating his big boat.”
Aunt Deb’s shoulders dropped. “So you don’t want to say hi to your boyfriend?”
“I do, but not right now. I want to talk to Irma before the party crowd gets any bigger. Irma hasn’t returned any of my calls or emails. This might be my only chance.”
Lifting her chin, Aunt Deb snapped her attention to the crowd by the grand piano. “You talk to Irma as long as you’d like. I’ll entertain her friends until she hands you a check. Nobody cheats my niece out of her hard-earned money.”
We crossed the room in silence. When I’d invited Reid to the party, he gave me a noncommittal response of “hopefully,” which I had interpreted as a big fat no since he’d been so busy overseeing repairs to his paddlewheeler boat, the Sutherland, this summer.
So I was equally surprised and thrilled to see him at the party. It took every ounce of self-control to not turn and steal another glimpse of him in his chest-hugging black button-up shirt and grey slacks. I didn’t need him revving my heart even more.
I took two deep breaths, clearing my mind of everything except what I planned to say to her. My message was really quite simple: I did the work, she said she was happy with it, and now she was obligated by the contract she signed to pay me.
Aunt Deb slipped between two ladies and raised her glass as though she were calling for a toast. “How is everyone this lovely evening? Isn’t this place amazing? Oh, and Rosie, you look stunning in red.”
I recognized Rosie and several others in the crowd, who were members of the local historical society. They’d come over a few times this summer to advise Irma and me on various furniture pieces and artwork to ensure the home would retain its eighteenth-century American Federal style, with delicately carved wood furniture, muted wall colors, and prominent patriotic symbols. Irma had taken most, but not all, of their advice.
As Aunt Deb inserted herself into the circle of gossip, I slipped around the other side of the circle, standing between a draped table holding an ice sculpture of a swan, and a mahogany lyre-back armchair with a purple velvet seat cushion.
Irma claimed to like purple for its uplifting energy, but I sensed she also appreciated its close association with royalty. If I hadn’t advised against it, she would have wanted the entire house decorated in various shades of the color.
I stepped behind Irma and tapped her shoulder. Like my aunt, she was in her mid-fifties and had auburn hair, but Irma had springy ringlets without any silvery strands.
Irma’s pleasant smile vanished when she saw me. “Oh! Hadley…I didn’t realize you had joined our conversation.” Her smile returned, along with a surge of color to her pasty white cheeks. “Thank you for joining my celebration this evening. Have you helped yourself to some champagne?” Irma raised her own glass as though ready to toast me.
“How about the lobster cheese pinwheels? They are positively divine.”
“I’ll have to try them before I leave. But right now, I’d like to chat with you about my invoice. I know you’ve been busy planning this party, but—”
“I can’t talk about this now. It’s not a good time.” Her eyes darting around the room, she took several steps away from her friends. The historical society’s president and vice president had just joined Irma’s friend circle, probably hoping to visit with their hostess. I would need to make this quick.
“It’s a good time for me, considering that you won’t answer my calls or respond to my emails. Per the contract you signed, you are required—”
Squeals of laughter erupted from the circle behind us, followed by a chorus of comments about Hal’s SpongeBob underpants. I suppressed a giant eye roll. Not only was Aunt Deb distracting Irma’s friends with her story, she was also unintentionally recruiting more ladies for her hiking club. Come Monday, the club would likely have half a dozen new members who wanted a shot at seeing Hal’s skivvies.
“I’d like to leave this party tonight with a check in-hand,” I continued, keeping my voice low. “Not only did I waive the down payment I usually require, I also waited three months for payment so you could sort things out with your insurance company. And judging from the fancy champagne, ice sculpture, lobster rolls—”
“—lobster pinwheels,” she corrected.
“Anyway, if you’re able to throw a party this extravagant then you can certainly pay me for my work.”
Irma took a step closer, dropping her voice even more. “I have more important financial obligations right now than your invoice. You have a steady job at Walnut Ridge, so you’ll be fine.”
“More important obligations? Like what? Lobster pinwheels?” My voice rose, despite my best attempt to keep it low. Several pairs of eyes turned toward Irma and me. Unlike the curious glances from two women in front of the ice sculpture, the third set was teeming with hostility. They belonged to Gayle Nuñez, my number one competitor in Darlington Hills, who was now walking toward us.
Great. My time alone with Irma was about to end. Hopefully Gayle’s tight pencil skirt and high heels would delay her arrival.
“If it’s necessary, I can set up a payment plan so you can pay monthly installments,” I offered. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than no money at all.
She waved her hand dismissively. “No, thank you.”
“I’m not offering you a cup of tea,” I shot back. “I’m trying to work this out with you so I don’t have to hire an attorney.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be compensated eventually.”
I stepped back, recoiling from her words. “Eventually? How about today?”
“Everything okay, ladies?” Gayle’s perfectly sculpted eyebrows drew together as she shifted her gaze between us.
More likely than not, Gayle was ticked off Irma had hired me for the redesign project instead of her. Irma hadn’t even interviewed Gayle for the job; she said she hired me solely on the recommendation of my other client.
“Gayle?” Irma’s wide eyes told me there was a good chance she hadn’t invited her to the party.
“Irma.” Gayle’s frosty tone revealed exactly why Irma hadn’t put her on the guest list.
Irma owed Gayle money too.
“Hadley and I just finished talking,” Irma said, taking a step away from Gayle and me.
“No, we didn’t.” I stepped to the left, blocking Irma’s path to her friends.
Gayle swept her gaze over my burgundy linen dress. Her expression changed to one of amusement, as though there was something funny about what I was wearing. Although I would never claim to have the best fashion-sense, my neighbor and good friend Carmella did, and she was the one who had found this dress and insisted I order it. She said it would enhance the red tones of my light brown hair and make my brown eyes look more vibrant.
“Is that what they’re wearing in New Orleans these days?” Gayle asked.
“It’s what everyone is wearing,” I said confidently, even though I had no idea if that was true. I’d have to ask Carmella.
“Ladies, you’ll have to excuse me,” Irma said. She turned away from us, grabbed a fork from a plate someone had left on the piano, and clinked it repeatedly against her champagne flute.
Irma was proposing a toast? Right now?
The room grew quiet as everyone turned their attention to Irma, and guests from the adjacent rooms made their way into the formal parlor. Reid, standing against the opposite wall, threw me a warm smile. My shoulders relaxed and I unclenched my fists. I’d done what I came here to do, although it accomplished absolutely nothing, and now it was time to focus on Reid. Maybe I’d try talking to Irma again after the party.
“I’d like to thank everyone for coming this evening,” Irma said, her gravelly voice clearing as she spoke. “Tonight, we’re celebrating not only the successful reparations of this historic home, but also a new beginning. Darlington Hills opened its doors ten years ago to tourists wanting to admire the beauty of this home and our town. Next week, I will open my gate to tourists and invite them into my home to help make our lovely town’s history come alive.”
Applause filled the room. Irma pulled a piece of paper from the front pocket of her blazer. She unfolded it, then reached inside the other pocket and frowned.
“And the excitement isn’t over yet,” Irma said once the applause dwindled. She refolded the piece of paper and held it up. “I have one more announcement to make and something special to read aloud. Except—would you believe it?—I seem to have forgotten my glasses. So please, enjoy some more champagne and hors d’oeuvres and join me here again in ten minutes.”
Sliding the paper back into her pocket, Irma whipped around to face me. “My glasses are upstairs in my bedroom, probably on the desk. I need you to retrieve them for me.” Without waiting for a response, she turned to rejoin her friends.
Gayle glided by me, giving me a dainty finger-wave. “By the way, sweetie, Irma will never pay you. I could have told you that, but sometimes we must learn things the hard way.”
“Oh, I’ll make sure she does,” I called out, not minding if Irma overheard me. What made her think it was acceptable to cheat people out of their money? And now she thought I would actually retrieve her glasses after she had nonchalantly declined my offer for a payment plan?
If I’d been holding a champagne flute, it would shatter under the pressure of my clenched fists. I needed to calm down, to get lost in Reid’s honey-brown eyes or perhaps a lobster pinwheel. Or both.
But Reid was talking with a group of men on the far side of the room, and Aunt Deb was telling Irma’s friends about how her dog, Chip, now rides in a doggy backpack on her morning hikes.
I stepped around the purple lyre-back chair and eyed the spiral staircase in the entry hall. Retrieving Irma’s glasses would give me a good excuse for browsing through her bedroom. What I was looking for I didn’t know, but she’d essentially given me an invitation to snoop.
An invitation I would graciously accept. Maybe I’d find her checkbook or a bank statement and catch a glimpse of her balance.
The two-story entry hall was nearly empty now, apart from an anxious-looking woman in red-rimmed glasses standing with a man by the front door. They were having a hushed conversation that involved jerky hand movements and impatient toe-tapping. I made my way across the polished marble floor and climbed the wooden staircase, nearly tripping over myself when the grandfather clock struck the first note of the Westminster chime.
It was 7:45 p.m., so the clock struck eleven more notes after the first. The antique had been in Irma’s family for multiple generations and although its left side was damaged during the fire, I had successfully removed most of the smoke stains and salvaged the family heirloom.
I reached the top of the stairs, which opened into a small landing that overlooked the entry hall, then paused to glance over the wooden balcony rail. The man and woman who had stood by the door were gone and the space below was empty. The chiming had ceased, but I still heard its eerie echoes.
Irma’s bedroom was at the end of the long hall, just past her home gym, which held a treadmill, exercise bike, and yoga mats. I peeked around inside before continuing to her bedroom.
Sure enough, Irma’s glasses were on her desk. I walked past them and headed for her nightstand, which held only a lamp and book about the colonial period in Virginia’s state history. I switched on the lamp, then tugged on the nightstand’s pull handle. The small drawer held an array of leather-bound journals, pens, and sticky notes with handwritten to-do lists—none of which mentioned anything about paying me.
The closet door to my left, open wide enough for a cat to slip through, beckoned me to come. I had a weakness for sticking my nose where it didn’t belong, and snooping had become somewhat of a pastime in recent months. Glancing out the door to Irma’s bedroom, I slipped into her closet and flipped on the light.
Irma liked shoes, apparently. Her expansive closet was lined with shelves that held dozens, if not hundreds, of pairs of shoes. Many were new without any scuffs or dirt on the bottom, and most were designer brands. Now I understood what her “other financial obligations” were. I was less important than a shoe.
Sighing, I headed for Irma’s desk. It held a brass lamp, widescreen computer monitor, and heaps of scattered papers. I lifted her glasses from a yellow spiral notebook.
I had “retrieved” them, as Irma had called it, as though I were an obedient golden retriever.
Dozens of brightly colored flags protruded from the top of the notebook. I checked the doorway again, then flipped to the page of the first red flag. It was filled with sloppy notes about Virginia’s history, possibly from the book on her nightstand. The next flagged page featured a long list of names and dates, written in a blue pen that appeared to be running out of ink. At the top, the word “thaumaturgy” was scribbled in pencil.
I pulled my brows together. What an odd word. I’d never heard it and wasn’t sure if it was made up.
Returning Irma’s notebook to the desk, I thumbed through a nearby stack of papers, hoping to find some clue as to why she refused to pay me. Was it because she couldn’t, or because she didn’t want to?
Halfway through the stack, my eyes landed on a dollar sign followed by a one and then a bunch of zeros printed at the bottom of a sheet of paper. Ten thousand dollars. Yet another invoice that would probably go unpaid. Or not, if she deemed it an important financial obligation.
At the top of the page, a logo featuring a small black tree was encircled by the company’s name, Elite Evergreen Services.
Whew! Landscaping services cost a fortune for an estate this size. I hoped the landscapers hadn’t already done the work for Irma because they probably wouldn’t receive a check anytime soon.
The brassy quarter-hour clang of the grandfather clock sounded, making me jump back in surprise. Irma’s stack of papers flew from my hands.
How had fifteen minutes elapsed already? I lunged toward the ground, grabbing and stacking the papers as fast I could. I’d lost track of time, and Irma would demand to know what had taken me so long. She had asked her guests to return to the formal parlor in ten minutes, which meant everyone was waiting on me.
I thrust the papers back onto the desk, then started toward the door.
Irma’s glasses. Where had I put them? I ran back to the desk, lifting papers frantically.
Shouting erupted from somewhere outside the bedroom. I stopped to listen. Was it coming from downstairs?
No, it sounded much closer.
Between the final notes of the Westminster chime, echoes of a woman’s shrill voice filled the room. Her words grew louder, higher pitched with each passing second.
The shouting turned to screaming, and then it stopped.
I raced towards the stairs, the clock’s explosive gongs sounding with each step. Eight steps, eight gongs, eight o’clock in the evening.
The landing at the top of the stairs was empty. The clang of the final gong faded as desperate screams bubbled up from below.
I grasped the balcony rail and looked down. Irma lay directly beneath me, her neck turned at a terribly unnatural angle.
Party guests huddled around Irma, half of them attending to her, the other half staring up at me.