Agony of the Leaves
In the latest novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Scones & Bones, Indigo Tea Shop owner Theodosia Browning finds herself in hot water when a body surfaces at the grand opening of Charleston’s Neptune Aquarium…
The opening of the aquarium is a major Charleston event, and Theodosia has been hired to cater the private party to honor dignitaries and big-buck donors. Things are going swimmingly—until Theodosia discovers a body entangled in a net, drowned in one of the aquarium’s state-of-the-art tanks.
To make matters worse, the victim is Theodosia’s former boyfriend, Parker Scully. The EMTs think Parker’s drowning was an accident, but when Theodosia notices what look like defense wounds on his hands, she realizes that someone wanted Parker dead. The police aren’t keen on her theory, so if she wants Parker’s killer brought to justice, Theodosia will have to jump into the deep end and start her own investigation…
Elegant green tendrils of kelp swayed in graceful, undulating motions as grouper and sea bass peeked out from their leafy sanctuary. Bulletshaped tuna, the Indy car drivers of the sea, zoomed through the vast tank like silver streaks.
“Fabulous,” Theodosia murmured, as she watched, fascinated, separated from the fivehundredthousandgallon tank by more than fourteen inches of tempered glass.
It was the grand opening of the Neptune Aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina, and Theodosia Browning, proprietor of the Indigo Tea Shop, had been tapped to cater tea, scones, and tea sandwiches for the openingnight private party to honor dignitaries and bigbuck donors. Except, right now, she’d briefly escaped the black tie party and retreated to the Ocean Wall exhibit, where she was off in her own sweet reverie, marveling at the kelp garden and coral reef. She was aware of distant voices and slight chatter somewhere overhead, but right now, in this particular space, Theodosia was able to pretty much block them out.
“I thought perhaps I might find you here,” a genteel male voice called to her.
Theodosia pulled her attention from the enormous tank and spun on her hotpink suede stilettos. “I felt the need to escape,” she said, smiling and shaking her head. “But if you need me . . .” She smoothed the front of her short black cocktail dress as Drayton Conneley, her catering manager and master tea blender, tapped his foot and smiled a benevolent smile. Probably, Theodosia decided, Drayton had come to fetch her and drag her back to the festivities, which pretty much involved all the donors heartily congratulating each other for the enormous checks they’d written to finance this stateoftheart aquarium. Although Theodosia was a huge believer in supporting museums, arts organizations, and various charities, she was not so enthusiastic when it came to boasting about it.
“Actually,” said Drayton, “Haley’s managing the tea table rather nicely.” Drayton was six feet tall, graying, and sixtysomething, impeccably dressed in a narrow Europeancut tuxedo with a red and midnightblue tartan cummerbund. “Besides, there are three other restaurants serving tonight, as well. All plying the aquarium’s donors and dignitaries with excellent canapés, pâtés, and fresh seafood.” Drayton posed and cocked his head in a quirky magpie gesture. “Although seafood appetizers do seem like a strange contradiction, considering our surroundings.” He moved a few steps closer to the tank and peered into the dark, briny depths. “Amazing, isn’t it? To actually recreate the ocean floor and reefs?”
“It’s mesmerizing,” Theodosia agreed, as she caught a glint of her own reflection mirrored in the tank’s outer wall. Blessed with masses of auburn hair, a fair English complexion, high cheekbones, and full mouth, Theodosia cut an eager, elegant figure. Her inner workings, however, were a bit of a dichotomy. While Theodosia possessed a Southern lady’s gentility and grace, she was also fiercely independent and courageous. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for her rights, take her place in the business community, accept any challenge that was thrown at her, and champion the occasional underdog. It was this unflagging courage and disdain for inertia that made her cornflowerblue eyes fairly dance with excitement. “I could gaze into this tank forever,” she murmured, partly to Drayton, partly to herself.
Theodosia had been born with a love of the sea as well as all living sea creatures, from enormous humpback whales to minuscule anemones. And each year, when tiny leatherback hatchlings crawled out of their nests on Halliehurst Beach, Theodosia helped shepherd these newborn turtles across the treacherous sand, where hungry shorebirds hovered, and into the safety of the sea.
And, of course, living in Charleston, a city built on a grand peninsula that enjoyed the crashing, lashing waves of the Atlantic, put Theodosia in almost constant touch with water. If she wasn’t speeding across the dizzying Cooper River Bridge, she was enjoying the local bounty of briny shrimp and fresh oysters, or jogging with her dog, Earl Grey, at White Point Gardens on the very tip of the peninsula. At the very least, Theodosia was able to inhale the intoxicating scent of sea salt on the warm breezes as she bustled about her little tea shop on nearby Church Street.
“Haley’s been giving me some rather stern lectures concerning sustainable seafood,” Drayton smiled. “Apparently, it’s acceptable for bluefish and yellowfin tuna to be served in her luncheon crêpes and chowders, but Chilean sea bass is strictly verboten.”
“Contrary to what people have believed for centuries,” said Theodosia, “there just isn’t an unlimited supply of fish in our oceans.”
“Pity,” said Drayton, “how we humans tend to muck things up.” He touched an index finger to the thick glass, then turned even more serious. “You know, don’t you, that the folks from Solstice are here tonight?” Solstice was the restaurant that Theodosia’s former boyfriend Parker Scully owned and ran. A popular bistro that offered tapas and a wine bar.
Theodosia nodded. “I know.”
“I hope that’s not why you’re dodging all the champagne and merriment.”
“It’s not,” Theodosia told him. She gave a shrug, easy to do in her cute oneshouldered number. “Parker and I are just fine.” She and Parker had had their talk, a very frank discussion about ending their twoyear relationship, and now things were simpatico. At least she assumed they were. “I’m cool, he’s cool,” she told Drayton.
“Excellent,” said Drayton. He peered down his aquiline nose. “Then I suppose you’ve already spoken with Parker tonight?”
“No, just to Chef Toby.” Toby Crisp was the executive chef at Solstice, the one who created tapas for the bar and lowcountry cuisine for the dining room and kept the kitchen humming. “But I’m positive Parker’s around somewhere. I’m sure I’ll run into him.”
Drayton stepped away from the glass, then hesitated. “Our burstinghisbuttons executive director, David Sedakis, is slated to give a welcoming speech in another ten minutes or so.” He glanced down and tapped his watch, an antique Patek Phillipe. “Actually, five minutes.”
“And you’re thinking it would be politically correct if I were there,” said Theodosia, “since Sedakis also sits on the board of your beloved Heritage Society?”
“Your applause would be most welcome.”
“Then I’ll be there.”
Drayton gave the short half bow of a fencing instructor and quickly departed, while Theodosia, in no hurry to rejoin the boisterous crowd, turned her attention back to the Ocean Wall.
What was the hypnotic pull, she wondered, that the sea had on her? She bent forward and touched her cheek against the coolness of the glass. Probably, she decided, it harked back to sailing on her dad’s J22—sluicing through the waves, running the slots between Sullivan’s Island and Patriot’s Point. She could practically picture the yellow spinnaker booming and billowing like mad, feel her hands on the wheel, recall that her dad’s strong hands had hovered just inches away.
Theodosia was alone now, both parents long dead. In fact, her only living relative was her Aunt Libby, who lived at Cane Ridge Plantation. But she had Drayton and Haley, who were practically family, as well as an entire contingent of dear friends and customers who congregated almost daily in her tea shop.
I’m lucky. I’m one of the lucky ones.
Her eyes closed and a smile drifted across her face as a wave of gratitude swept through her, stirring her heart.
Because these days . . .
Something pecked at the glass. A gentle tap. Theodosia didn’t so much hear it as sense a vibration.
Her eyes opened slowly, her curiosity roused. She stared into the tank.
For a few seconds, Theodosia couldn’t quite figure out what she was staring at. Or what was staring back. The thickness of the glass magnified and distorted whatever creature was peering at her.
She tilted her head, curious. Then, like a morning mist suddenly burning off, her eyes focused and she was able to see exactly what was happening.
A face bobbed close to hers! A human face! Papery white skin leached of color, eyes rolled back so far that only the whites were visible.
Theodosia clapped a hand to her mouth, horrified but unable to look away. Her rapidly darting eyes took in the entire bizarre scene of a man gently bobbing in the tank, hopelessly entwined in some kind of net. His facial expression was a death grimace. Then, a floating, almost disembodied hand seemed to slowly rise up and scratch tentatively at the glass.
Oh no! Please, no!
Theodosia’s world suddenly lurched crazily on its axis. Because bizarrely, horrifically, she recognized the signet ring on the dead man’s left hand!
If she hadn’t, Theodosia wouldn’t have known it was her former boyfriend!
“Parker?” she gasped.
Her legs turning to jelly, panic coursing through her, Theodosia sank to her knees as the horror of what was happening, here and now, closed in around her like a dank rag dripping with chloroform. Her respiration came in short, biting gasps, but the air didn’t seem to be getting to her lungs. She felt close to blacking out as a strange darkness, oppressive like a damp, threatening fog, threatened to overtake her.
Balling both hands into fists, Theodosia beat futilely against the glass wall. How could this happen? How could this be happening? Her former boyfriend bobbing like a cork before her very eyes!
Clawing at the glass now, Theodosia let loose a low moan as Parker’s body twisted in the netting that wrapped around him, scattering fish like frightened lemmings. Could they sense his death, too? Did they feel her shock and dread? Were they absorbing the sound waves of her desperate beating against the glass?
It was only when a moray eel made a lazy circle about Parker’s head that Theodosia thought to scream out loud.
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