Book Excerpt: Pleating for Mercy

Pleating for Mercy

A Magical Dressmaking Mystery

 

Chapter 1

Rumors about the Cassidy women and their magic had long swirled through Bliss, Texas, like a gathering tornado. For 150 years, my family had managed to dodge most of the rumors, brushing off the idea that magic infused their handwork, and chalking up any unusual goings-on to coincidence.

But we all knew that the magic started the very day Butch Cassidy, my great-great-great-grandfather, turned his back to an ancient Argentinean fountain, dropped a gold coin into it, and made a wish. The Cassidy family legend says he asked for his firstborn child, and all who came after, to live a charmed life, the threads of good fortune, talent, and history flowing like magic from their fingertips.

That magic spilled through the female descendants of the Cassidy line into their handmade tapestries and homespun wool, crewel embroidery and perfectly pieced and stitched quilts. And into my dressmaking. It connected us to our history, and to each other.

His wish also gifted some of his descendants with their own special charms. Whatever Meemaw, my great-grandmother, wanted, she got. My grandmother Nana was a goat-whisperer. Mama’s green thumb could make anything grow.

Yet no matter how hard we tried to keep our magic on the down-low—so we wouldn’t wind up in our own contemporary Texas version of the Salem Witch Trials—people noticed. And they talked.

The townsfolk came to Mama when their crops wouldn’t grow. They came to Nana when their goats wouldn’t behave. And they came to Meemaw when they wanted something so badly they couldn’t see straight. I was seventeen when I finally realized that what Butch had really given the women in my family was a thread that connected them with others.

But Butch’s wish had apparently exhausted itself before I was born. I had no special charm, and I’d always felt as if a part of me was missing because of it.

Moving back home to Bliss made the feeling stronger.

Meemaw had been gone five months now, but the old red farmhouse just off the square at 2112 Mockingbird Lane looked the same as it had when I was a girl. The steep pitch of the roof, the shuttered windows, the old pecan tree shading the left side of the house—it all sent me reeling back to my childhood and all the time I’d spent here with her.

I’d been back for five weeks and had worked nonstop, converting the downstairs of the house into my own designer dressmaking shop, calling it Buttons & Bows. The name of the shop was in honor of my great-grandmother and her collection of buttons.

What had been Loretta Mae’s dining room was now my cutting and work space. My five-year-old state-of-the-art digital Pfaff sewing machine and Meemaw’s old Singer sat side by side on their respective sewing tables. An eight-foot-long white-topped cutting table stood in the center of the room, unused as of yet. Meemaw had one old dress form, which I’d dragged down from the attic. I’d splurged and bought two more, anticipating a brisk dressmaking business, which had yet to materialize.

I’d taken to talking to her during the dull spots in my days. “Meemaw,” I said now, sitting in my workroom, hemming a pair of pants, “it’s lonesome without you. I sure wish you were here.”

A breeze suddenly blew in through the screen, fluttering the butter yellow sheers that hung on either side of the window as if Meemaw could hear me from the spirit world. It was no secret that she’d wanted me back in Bliss. Was it so far-fetched to think she’d be hanging around now that she’d finally gotten what she’d wanted?

I adjusted my square-framed glasses before pulling a needle through the pants leg. Gripping the thick synthetic fabric sent a shiver through me akin to fingernails scraping down a chalkboard. Bliss was not a mecca of fashion; so far I’d been asked to hem polyester pants, shorten the sleeves of polyester jackets, and repair countless other polyester garments. No one had hired me to design matching mother and daughter couture frocks, create a slinky dress for a night out on the town in Dallas, or anything else remotely challenging or interesting.

I kept the faith, though. Meemaw wouldn’t have brought me back home just to watch me fail.

As I finished the last stitch and tied off the thread, a flash of something outside caught my eye. I looked past the French doors that separated my work space from what had been Meemaw’s gathering room and was now the boutique portion of Buttons & Bows. The window gave a clear view of the front yard, the wisteria climbing up the sturdy trellis archway, and the street beyond. Just as I was about to dismiss it as my imagination, the bells I’d hung from the door on a ribbon danced in a jingling frenzy and the front door flew open. I jumped, startled, dropping the slacks but still clutching the needle.

A woman sidled into the boutique. Her dark hair was pulled up into a messy but trendy bun and I noticed that her eyes were red and tired-looking despite the heavy makeup she wore. She had on jean shorts, a snap-front top that she’d gathered and tied in a knot below her breastbone, and wedge-heeled shoes. With her thumbs crooked in her back pockets and the way she jiggled one foot back and forth, she reminded me of Daisy Duke—with a muffin top.

Except for the Gucci bag slung over her shoulder. That purse was the real deal and had cost more than two thousand dollars, or I wasn’t Harlow Jane Cassidy.

A deep frown tugged at the corners of her shimmering pink lips as she scanned the room. “Huh—this isn’t at all what I pictured.”

Not knowing what she’d pictured, I said, “Can I help you?”

“Just browsing,” she said with a dismissive wave. She sauntered over to the opposite side of the room, where a matching olive green and gold paisley damask sofa and love seat snuggled in one corner. They’d been the nicest pieces of furniture Loretta Mae had owned and some of the few pieces I’d kept. I’d added a plush red velvet settee and a coffee table to the grouping. It was the consultation area of the boutique—though I’d yet to use it.

The woman bypassed the sitting area and went straight for the one-of-a-kind Harlow Cassidy creations that hung on a portable garment rack. She gave a low whistle as she ran her hand from one side to the other, fanning the sleeves of the pieces. “Did you make all of these?”

“I sure did,” I said, preening just a tad. Buttons & Bows was a custom boutique, but I had a handful of items leftover from my time in L.A. and New York to display and I’d scrambled to create samples to showcase.

She turned, peering over her shoulder and giving me a once-over. “You don’t look like a fashion designer.”

I pushed my glasses onto the top of my head so I could peer back at her, which served to hold my curls away from my face. Well, she didn’t look like she could afford a real Gucci, I thought, but I didn’t say it. Meemaw had always taught me not to judge a book by its cover. If this woman dragged around an expensive designer purse in little ol’ Bliss, she very well might need a fancy gown for something, and be able to pay for it.

I balled my fists, jerking when I accidentally pricked my palm with the needle I still held. My smile tightened—from her attitude as well as from the lingering sting on my hand—as I caught a quick glimpse of myself in the freestanding oval mirror next to the garment rack. I looked comfortable and stylish, not an easy accomplishment. Designer jeans. White blouse and color-blocked black-and-white jacket—made by me. Sandals with two-inch heels that probably cost more than this woman’s entire wardrobe. Not that I’d had to pay for them, mind you. Even a bottom-of-the-ladder fashion designer employed by Maximilian got to shop at the company’s end-of-season sales, which meant fabulous clothes and accessories at a steal. It was a perk I was going to sorely miss.

I kept my voice pleasant despite the bristling sensation I felt creep up inside me. “Sorry to disappoint. What does a fashion designer look like?”

She shrugged, a new strand of hair falling from the clip at the back of her head and framing her face. “Guess I thought you’d look all done up, ya know? Or be a gay man.” She tittered.

Huh. She had a point about the gay man thing. “Are you looking for anything in particular? Buttons and Bows is a custom boutique. I design garments specifically for the customer. Other than those items,” I said, gesturing to the dresses she was flipping through, “it’s not an off-the-rack shop.”

Before she could respond, the bells on the front door jingled again and the door banged open, hitting the wall. I made a mental note to get a spring or a doorstop. There were a million things to fix around the old farmhouse. The list was already as long as my arm.

A woman stood in the doorway, the bright light from outside sneaking in around her, creating her silhouette. “Harlow Cassidy!” she cried out. “I didn’t believe it could really be true, but it is! Oh, thank God! I desperately need your help!”