Stitch_Me_Deadly“Fans of the genre will take kindly to Marcy, her Irish wolfhound, Angus O’Ruff, and Tallulah Falls. This is a fast, pleasant read with prose full of pop culture references and, of course, sharp needlework puns.”  – Publishers Weekly

Chapter One

I stepped out of MacKenzies’ Mochas, the charming brown-brick coffee shop and café owned by my best friend, Sadie MacKenzie, and her husband, Blake. I clutched my jacket to me with one hand and my so far unsipped chamomile tea with the other. My throat had been getting scratchy, so I’d taken the opportunity to sprint over–their shop was just down the street from my embroidery specialty shop–at the first break in the rain.

I shivered. Even though it was only sprinkling now, it was a cold rain. But, then, who would expect tropical rain on the Oregon coast in January?

I spotted an elderly woman, dressed in black and carrying a bright yellow umbrella, making her way slowly to my shop, the Seven-Year Stitch. I quickened my step.

“I’m coming!” I called. I reached the door just before she did. As I held it open, I felt relieved that I’d put Angus, my Irish wolfhound, in the bathroom before stepping out. Had he bounded toward me in his usual fashion, this poor diminutive woman might have had a heart attack.

It’s rare that, at five foot nothing, I’m able to think of anyone other than a child as diminutive. But this woman was stooped and frail; and perhaps it was due to her black attire, but her skin had a deathly pallor.

“Thank you,” she said breathlessly, lowering her umbrella and stepping into the shop. She placed the umbrella in the corner. “May I sit?”

I followed her gaze to the seating area. “Of course.”

I took her elbow, fearing she might fall, and guided her to the Seven-Year Stitch sit-and-stitch area. It had two overstuffed navy sofas that faced each other. An oval maple coffee table sat between the sofas on a navy, red, and white braided rug. Red club chairs with matching ottomans completed the cozy square.

I helped the lady sit on one of the chairs. “Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m a bit light-headed is all.”

“Would you like some chamomile tea? It might help.”

She nodded weakly. “Yes…please.”

I removed the top and handed her the tea.

Her hand shook as she brought the hot liquid to her lips. She took one sip and then another before lowering the cup and speaking. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Is there anyone I can call for you?”

She shook her head. “I’ll be fine momentarily.” She sipped the tea again. “I’m Louisa Ralston, and I’m here to implore you to help me find ivy.”

I didn’t want it to appear as if I were hovering, so I sat on the edge of the navy sofa to Mrs. Ralston’s right. “What sort of ivy?”

She handed me back the tea, and I set it on a coaster on the coffee table. She opened her purse–a quilted black Chanel–and removed something wrapped in layers of white tissue paper. Then with trembling hands, she carefully unwrapped the tissue to reveal an embroidery sampler.

I drew in my breath. It was exquisite…and it was old. I’d say it was circa mid- to late 1800s.

“It’s gorgeous,” I said.

“Thank you, dear. My great-grandmother…made it…passed it down through the family for…” Her breathing became more laborious. “Please…help…find…ivy.”

I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, or why she’d come to my shop, but now didn’t seem like the time to split hairs. The poor thing really seemed to be in ill health. “Of course, I will, Mrs. Ralston. But, please, won’t you let me call someone to come and get you until you’re feeling better?”

She leaned forward as if to retrieve her tea and collapsed onto the floor.

I dropped to my knees beside her. “Mrs. Ralston?” I patted her hand. “Can you stand? Maybe I can help you move to this sofa until paramedics arrive.”

No response. And her hand was limp. I hurried to the counter, called 911, and explained the situation. The dispatcher instructed me not to try to move Mrs. Ralston and promised that emergency technicians would be there shortly.

I could hear Angus barking and whining in the bathroom, but I knew better than to let him out until after the paramedics had already come and gone. I also knew speaking to him to try to reassure him would only make things worse.

I returned to Mrs. Ralston’s side and continued trying to revive her. She was unconscious but breathing, and her pulse revealed a weak, irregular heartbeat.

Please hurry, EMTs.

Although it seemed to take forever, the paramedics arrived within ten minutes. Within fifteen, they’d given Mrs. Ralston oxygen, begun monitoring her vital signs, and loaded her into an ambulance en route to the emergency room. I had to hand it to Tallulah Falls’ emergency medical service professionals. They were excellent at their jobs.

I opened the bathroom door, and Angus jumped up on his hind legs to give me a hug. When he does that, he’s a foot taller than I am. I hugged him and told him what a good boy he was.

He dropped back on all fours, retrieved his chew toy, and trotted into the shop. Before he could discover the open container of chamomile tea and spill it all over my braided rug, I hurried to the sitting area and got the cup and Mrs. Ralston’s sampler. I placed the sampler on the counter and went to the bathroom to pour the remainder of the tea down the sink before tossing the cup into the garbage.

I returned to the counter and sat down on a stool. Standing near the cash register was Jill, who’s a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe.

I sighed. “Rough morning, eh, Jill?”

She simply smiled like she didn’t have a care in the world. That was because she didn’t. She was a mannequin, and she would smile even if the building were burning down around her.

Maybe I should paint a permanent smile on my face.

Batman’s archvillain, the Joker, sprang to mind.

Er, maybe not.

I picked up the phone and called Sadie. After explaining the situation, I asked if she’d mind watching the store and Angus for just a few minutes while I went to the hospital to check on Mrs. Ralston and return her sampler. Sadie said she’d be over as soon as she helped Blake get some tables cleaned up.

As I waited, I studied the sampler. It had the alphabet in Victorian-style letters–both upper- and lowercase–at the top, followed by the numbers one through ten. In the center of the sampler were a primitive house and trees, the kind of artwork you might find on a child’s stencil.

The sides were little squares made to look like quilt blocks, and at the bottom was a verse:

His friends were those of his own blood or those whom he had known the longest; his affections, like ivy, were the growth of time, they implied no aptness in the object.

I realized I’d love to make a pattern for it and stitch a copy to display in the shop.

I looked around at the pieces currently on display, all of which I’d made myself. The candlewick pillows on the sofas, dolls wearing dresses I’d sewn and embroidered, finished cross-stitch and needlework projects for every holiday and every season…. One more sampler couldn’t hurt.

Besides, a copy of this sampler would not only be beautiful, but it would also have historical significance. I could put a plaque with the finished piece giving a brief history of embroidery samplers in general and an account of this particular sampler. Maybe Mrs. Ralston would let me do that in memory of her great-grandmother. I planned on asking her when I visited her at the hospital.

I gently folded the sampler back into the tissue paper, taking care because the thread was faded and the cloth was delicate. I realized this beautiful piece of history should be framed and hanging in a museum somewhere. I made a mental note to suggest that to Mrs. Ralston…after I asked permission to copy the pattern.

Sadie strode through the door with a tall cup in her hand. “Your tea” she said, pushing back her hood to reveal  her dark hair. “Since you gave yours to the sick customer.”

I accepted the steaming cup gratefully. “Thank you so much.”

“Besides, you’ll need it to knock the chill off. The rain is coming down pretty hard again.”

“Thanks,” I said again. “I’ll be back as quickly as I can, Sadie.”

“Take your time. Things are slow at the shop this morning. I’ll have much more fun over here playing with Angus.”

At the sound of his name, Angus dropped his chew toy and loped over to Sadie. She vigorously scratched his head.

“By the way,” Sadie said, as I started out the door, “your tea came from the same pot as your customer’s. So if you start feeling queasy, call me, would you?”

“Yeah…and thanks for that shot of paranoia.” I hadn’t even thought that the tea could have had anything to do with Mrs. Ralston’s collapse.

“Well, hey, I’m just trying to be on the safe side.”

“The ‘safe side’ would’ve poured the tea out if there were any concerns about it,” I said, “not given it to the ‘safe side’s’ best friend.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I tasted yours, and it seems fine. Besides, you did say the old gal was sickly, which was why you gave her your tea in the first place.”

“Good point. I’m sure everything is fine…with the tea and with Mrs. Ralston.”

That statement would come back to haunt me–and to remind me that one was seldom “sure” of anything. Upon my arrival at the Tallulah Falls Medical Center, I learned Mrs. Ralston was dead.

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