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Bagpipes, Brides and Homicides : Liss McCrimmon Mysteries, No. 6
Moosetookalook, Maine, has never seen so many bare legs walking its streets. It could only mean one thing: the Western Maine Highland Games are in town for the weekend. But instead of wondering who'll win the hammer throw, everyone's asking who got kilt...
Even if Liss MacCrimmon, soon to be Mrs. Dan Ruskin, spends her days running the Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, all she wants is a simple white wedding as she walks down the aisle accompanied by her father. When it comes to weddings, however, her mother, Vi, has another idea about tradition. Instead of white, Vi sees tartan, tartan, and more tartan.
What bonnie luck then that Liss and Dan's wedding is scheduled on the same weekend as the Western Maine Highland Games. What could make a nuptial weekend more memorable than a hammer throw or medieval reenactment group to go along with the tossing of the bouquet? How about a charming college professor found slashed to death by his own reproduction of a broadsword?
But who'd go medieval on a professor, no matter how nutty? Turns out the deceased had plenty of enemies, including a line of female conquests stretching back to the dark ages, a band of picketers protesting his historically questionable theories, and a strapping collegiate with a howdy-doody smile. And topping the suspect list is Liss's own father, Donald "Mac" MacCrimmon!
As much as Liss tries to keep her fingers out of the sleuthing cake, she finds herself again dead center of a Moosetookalook murder mystery. If Liss doesn't solve this one, and quick, she might never say "I do," let alone "'til death do us part."
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July 31, 2012
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Excerpt from Bagpipes, Brides and Homicides by Kaitlyn Dunnett
Liss MacCrimmon's mother's idea of "helping out in the shop" consisted of rearranging every bit of merchandise sold at Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. True, Violet MacCrimmon dusted as she went, but the overall result was chaos. By the end of the first week of her parents' visit, Liss no longer knew where anything was. If an entire rack of ready-made kilts could disappear--she'd finally located it tucked away behind a large display case-- Liss feared that the search for any of the hundreds of smaller Scottish-themed gift items she kept in stock might last hours, even days.
"Mother, please!" Liss exclaimed, fighting the urge to pull at her hair in the best cartoon-character tradition. "I know you're trying to be helpful, but I like that section of the shop the way it is."
"Nonsense," Vi said. "Nothing is ever so perfect that it can't be improved."
She disappeared behind one of the bookcases that gave the illusion of privacy to the shop's "cozy corner," an area furnished with two overstuffed chairs and a coffee table. There customers could make themselves comfortable while they examined Liss's offering of novels set in Scotland or featuring characters of Scottish descent and volumes of nonfiction with a Scottish theme. There were a few histories and biographies, but for the most part Liss stocked cookbooks, instruction manuals, and coffee table books full of pictures. The how-to books covered everything from dancing the highland fling to preparing your own haggis.
The lemony scent of furniture polish wafted across the showroom, making Liss's nose twitch even as her hackles rose. Vi MacCrimmon was accustomed to getting her own way. She'd only recently retired after teaching world history to junior high school students for thirty-five years. Nothing fazed her, least of all objections from her only child. There was no stopping her, short of seizing her bodily and shoving her out the door.
For a brief moment, Liss toyed with the idea of doing just that. Vi was five inches shorter than she was and proportionately petite. But Liss reassessed the idea as one of those comfortable, overstuffed, heavy chairs shot out from behind a bookcase and traveled a good two feet beyond. Vi kept her figure with ruthless workouts at a local gym. For a woman of fifty-eight, she was in great shape.
And you are almost thirty years old, Liss reminded herself, not thirteen. It was absurd to revert to the behavior of her childhood simply because her mother hadn't changed one iota in all the years they'd lived apart. Besides, there was something more important at stake here than the arrangement of displays in her place of business. Liss's parents had returned to Moosetookalook because she was about to get married. Unchecked, Vi's meddling wouldn't stop with the Emporium. She'd already talked her daughter into making major changes in the wedding plans. Liss had no doubt but that Vi had other "improvements" in mind.
Grimly determined to reclaim control of the situation, Liss marched across the shop and flattened her palms against the soft fabric of the easy chair. Putting her back into it, she shoved. A loud scraping sound made her wince and fear for the state of her hardwood floor, but she didn't stop until she'd returned the cumbersome piece of furniture to its original location.
Vi turned from one of the bookcases, a dust cloth in one hand and a spray bottle of furniture polish in the other. Her frown was a formidable weapon and she knew how to use it. Liss had to squash the impulse to back away, apologizing with every step. She held her ground, but it was a near thing.
Her mother's eyes were pale blue behind stylish glasses and her hair was still the same dark brown as Liss's. At first glance, Vi looked a good ten years younger than she was. Liss reminded herself that Vi's hair needed help to stay that color. Then she looked closer, homing in on the lines inscribed in her mother's face. They were deeper than she remembered.
Liss faltered. Both her parents were getting older. One day, perhaps sooner than she expected, given that all four of her grandparents had all died before they reached the age of seventy, she wouldn't have her mother to complain about anymore.
Vi frowned. "Is something wrong, honey?"
"Sit down, Mom." Liss sank into the chair she'd just manhandled and pointed to the other. Giving direct orders rarely worked on either mothers or cats, but that had never stopped Liss from trying. This time, she lucked out.
Vi hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and sat. She placed the polish and the dust rag on the coffee table with exaggerated care before she folded her hands in her lap. The pose put Liss in mind of the deceptively prim heroines of Regency romances. In common with those dauntless females, Vi attempted to appear demure but the expression in her eyes shattered the illusion.
Fixed on Liss, Vi's steely stare sent her daughter straight back into adolescence. It might be irrational, but Liss felt exactly as she had the time she'd been caught sneaking back into the house at three in the morning. She'd been fifteen and determined to attend the midnight showing of a movie her girlfriends had been raving about. All these years later, she couldn't remember the title of the film, but she'd never forget how devastated she'd been by her mother's disappointment in her.
She cleared her throat. "The shop looks lovely, Mom. It hasn't been this clean in months. But I don't want to change the cozy corner. It's always been kept just this way."
If there was one thing Vi MacCrimmon understood, it was tradition. Throughout Liss's childhood, Vi had been the one who'd drummed her Scottish heritage into her head, all the while encouraging her to take up traditional Scottish crafts and skills. Because of Vi, Liss had won prizes for dancing at Scottish festivals all over New England during her youth and had gone on, after two years of college, to pursue a career as a professional Scottish dancer.
The curious thing was that Vi didn't have a single drop of Scottish blood in her veins. When she'd become Mrs. Donald MacCrimmon, however, she'd wholeheartedly adopted her new husband's family background. She'd become more Scottish than any native-born Scot. That was hardly surprising, Liss supposed. At the time of their marriage, he'd owned and operated Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium in partnership with his sister. The store had been opened thirty years before that by Liss's grandparents.
"I was just trying to help." Vi sounded more reproachful than apologetic.
Liss read the subtext with the effortlessness of long practice. It was: Do you kick puppies, too? She squirmed in her chair. What was it with mothers and guilt? She felt like the worst kind of bully when all she'd done was ask Vi to cease and desist.
Stop rearranging my shop, she thought. Stop trying to take over my life!
Aloud, she said none of that. She kept her voice as soothing and conciliatory as she could manage. "I know you mean well, Mom. And I appreciate all you've done here. But you didn't come back to Maine to clean the cobwebs out of my shop. Look outside. It's a beautiful day. You and Dad should go for a drive. Maybe visit old friends."
"Well, I suppose there are one or two people I'd like to see," Vi mused, "and there are some wedding details that need attention."
Alarm bells sounded in Liss's head. Loud ones. "Everything is right on schedule, Mom. I've checked off nearly every item on all my to-do lists." Liss was a champion list maker.
"But you haven't taken care of the most important item. Here it is the end of May, with your wedding scheduled for the twenty-fifth of July, and you still haven't found a wedding dress." Vi leaned forward, her expression earnest and concerned. She took Liss's right hand in hers.
"I'm thinking about it." Put on the defensive, Liss felt her muscles tense. She willed herself to relax. This was her wedding. She had to stick to her guns.
"You said you liked my suggestion of a Renaissance- style gown." Vi gave Liss's hand a squeeze, then released it.
"I did. I do." Liss had the feeling that she was digging herself deeper into a pit with every word. Agreeing with her mother was always risky. "I just haven't decided which one I like best. I've narrowed it down to two choices, both pictured in that magazine you sent me." It had arrived in the mail shortly before Vi herself had turned up on Liss's doorstep.
"Well, then, I have the perfect solution. I know a wonderful seamstress who can make your dress. She can incorporate whatever elements you want."
There had to be a catch, Liss thought, but she couldn't find one. "That's a wonderful idea, Mom, but are you sure she'll be able to take on a commission like that on short notice?" Liss regularly dealt with kilt makers and they always needed eight to ten weeks to deliver the finished product. Her wedding was exactly eight weeks and one day away. That was cutting it very close.
"Oh, yes." Vi's face wore a smug smile. "I've already talked to Melly about it on the phone. That's her name: Melly Baynard. If you really like the idea, I'll drive down to Three Cities this afternoon and discuss the dress with her face to face."
Three Cities, actually only one city, wasn't very far away, perhaps an hour and a half by car, but Vi sounded much too willing to take on the chore. "Maybe I should be the one to go talk to her," Liss suggested.
"Oh, I don't mind. It's been years since I've seen Melly. We went to college together. Back in the dark ages," Vi added with a self-deprecating chuckle. "I've been dying to spend some time with her and catch up on what she's been doing. The only things I know for certain are that she's currently the wardrobe mistress and costume designer for the theater department at our old alma mater, and that, since it's summer semester now, she isn't as busy as she would be during the school year."
Translated, that meant Liss's mother had already made arrangements for Melly Baynard to make the wedding gown. Liss's first instinct was to balk at the idea. Then she remembered that old adage about not cutting off your nose to spite your face. She didn't have a better idea, and in her mind's eye she could envision the perfect dress. Her mother was right. It needed to be custom made.
Decision reached, she stood. "Okay, Mom. Go talk to her. I'll give you the pictures from the magazine and write notes right on the pages to make sure there's no confusion about what I like and don't like."
That, she reasoned, would keep her mother's contributions to the design at a minimum. It was too much to hope that she'd entirely keep her fingers out of the dress pie.
Beaming, Vi bounded up from her chair and leaned across the coffee table to give Liss a quick hug. For a moment, Liss was engulfed in the scent of violets, Vi's signature perfume. A peck on the cheek followed.
"This is all that's wonderful, darling. I promise that you won't be sorry."
As she watched Vi waltz out of the Emporium, humming cheerfully to herself, Liss wasn't so sure about that.
Ten days later, Liss had almost all of the contents of Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium back where they belonged. The pieces of her life were another matter.
She got up early on that Tuesday morning, slipped into workout clothes, and trotted three doors down the street to a newly opened business called Dance Central. Before she got started on the exercise program that had once been a daily part of her routine, she executed a spin and a few moves from a Scottish step-dance in front of the floor-toceiling mirrors.
The reflective surface extended the length of one wall and gave her a clear view of every flaw in her out-of-practice performance. The body in the skintight, long-sleeved black leotard was still good--five-feet nine-inches tall, lithe, and slender, if a few pounds heavier than it had been during her pro career--but the knees would never be the same. The long scar across one showed plainly in the glass.
Liss shifted her focus upward, meeting blue green eyes framed by pale skin and shoulder-length dark brown hair.
She made a face at her reflection and turned her back on it. The rosin she'd stepped in with her dance shoes, to prevent sliding on the wooden floor, made a faint whooshing noise as she walked.
Sandy and Zara Kalishnakof, old and dear friends from the days when she'd made her living as part of a Scottish dance troupe, had moved to Liss's hometown, Moosetookalook, Maine, after the company disbanded. They'd bought a building on the town square, settled into the upstairs apartment for living quarters, and turned the storefront into a dance studio. The first classes had begun just a bit more than a week earlier, on the first day of June.
Sandy and Zara gave lessons to both children and adults in a variety of disciplines, everything from ballet to competitive ballroom to break dancing. All the offerings had attracted a satisfying number of pupils. It had helped that there were no other dance teachers nearby. And that dance competitions had recently become so popular on TV.
Even before Dance Central officially opened, Zara had been urging Liss to join her private workouts, both for the exercise and for the companionship. Liss hoped to make it a habit, but so far she'd been lucky to manage three days out of seven.
"So how are the wedding plans coming?" Zara asked.
"The idea of eloping is starting to sound better and better," Liss said as she headed for the barre set into the wall opposite the mirrors.
"Wedding jitters?" Zara was a slender, green-eyed redhead of the carrot-top variety. She sat on the floor, bent double over long legs encased in hot pink tights. They were stretched out straight in front of her. Since her forehead was now resting on her knees, her voice was muffled. "I had them right before Sandy and I tied the knot. But I'm glad we went through with our small family wedding. It wouldn't have been the same without his folks there."
"I could handle a small family wedding." Liss extended one of her own legs along the barre and bent at the waist, reaching for her toes.
It had been just over two years since her knee had given out on her during a performance, ending her career as a professional dancer at the age of twenty-seven. She'd regained her mobility but she'd never again be quite as agile as she'd once been. Her left leg would always be a little weaker than the right. If she tried to go back to dancing to earn a living, she'd have been like a football player who insisted on playing after he'd had a knee or ankle replaced.
Athletes who kept going too long paid a terrible price when they finally retired--more surgery and lots of pain. Liss hadn't seen the point in either when both could be avoided. She'd come back home, joined her Aunt Margaret in the family business, and settled down to start a new life.
She hadn't expected it to include love and marriage, although she had no complaints about that aspect of things. Her fianc?, Dan Ruskin, was just about perfect. What flaws he had, she could live with. Her only complaint was that actually getting married seemed to be so darned complicated!
At times, eloping did seem very appealing. Back in February, on Valentine's Day, their good friends Sherri Willett and Pete Campbell had done just that. Rather than cope with her divorced parents and his controlling mother, they'd taken Liss and Dan along for witnesses and gone to a local justice of the peace. The only other person invited to the ceremony had been Sherri's seven-year-old son, Adam.
"Why does planning a wedding have to be such a hassle?" Liss mumbled into her knee.
"Now, Liss--surely the worst hurdles are past. You're all set on the venue, right?"
Liss gave a short bark of laughter, switched legs, and resumed stretching. "Some venue! We're getting married at the Western Maine Highland Games instead of in a church because my mother decided it was fate that the date Dan and I picked and the weekend of the Scottish festival were the same."
"You agreed," Zara reminded her.
"I had no idea what I was getting into. I was a little distracted at the time. And ever since my folks got here-- weeks ahead of time--my mother has been slowly but surely taking over everything. First it was the dress, then the cake. Now she's gotten it into her head that Dan and I should jump the broom!"
"It is a fine old Scottish tradition," Zara teased her.
Liss groaned. "I should never have let her talk me into a historical theme for the wedding in the first place. When she first suggested it, it sounded romantic, like something out of a fairy tale. I was always a sucker for Disney's Cinderella when I was a kid." She sighed. "Even after I realized that Mom had something more medieval in mind, I thought I'd be fine with it. The modern versions of the gowns are gorgeous, and I liked the idea of a circlet of flowers instead of a veil. But now--Mom doesn't just want the broom in the ceremony, she wants the sword and the anvil. It's too much."
Changing positions, Liss began a series of pli?s.
"What Mom has in mind is a complete revamping of the wedding ceremony to include the medieval Scottish tradition of handfasting. Along with anvil, sword, and broom, it involves--literally!--tying the hands of the bride and groom together with silken cords or ribbons."
"I get the anvil," Zara said, "because in the old days a blacksmith could perform the wedding ceremony. And I know the bride and groom jumping over a broom is sup posed to bring good luck to the marriage. But what's with the sword?"
"According to some sample ceremony Mom found online, the groom is supposed to drop to his knees and offer the wedding ring to the bride on the tip of his sword."
"Get your mind out of the gutter! The sword is supposed to symbolize his promise to protect her."
"A real sword?"
"A real sword. I'd be lucky not to cut off a fingertip trying to get the ring off the blade."
A bemused look on her face, Zara paused in her routine. "Then what? Do you put the ring on your finger yourself?"
"Oh, no. There's far more to it than that." Liss's pli?s began to more closely resemble deep knee bends than a graceful ballet exercise. Just thinking about the details Vi had dropped on her ratcheted up her tension level. "The bride just holds on to the ring while she takes the sword. Then she makes like the queen of England conferring a knighthood. You know--touch the blade to the left shoulder, then the right shoulder, then the top of the head."
"I don't think the queen does the top of the head."
"Whatever!" Liss scowled as she realized she'd lost count of how many pli?s she'd done. "Anyway, then the bride returns the sword to the groom and gives the ring back to him, too, so he can put it on her finger."
"Still on his knees?"
"Probably. Mom didn't say."
"How about his ring?"
"The bride presents it to him inside a chalice. The groom takes the ring out and hangs on to it while he pours wine into the chalice, which the bride is holding for him. Then he drinks a toast to her before he hands the chalice back to her. Then he returns the ring so she can put it on his finger."
"While balancing the chalice?"
"Just a tad chauvinistic, don't you think?"
"That's the least of the reasons why I'm not doing it. Tradition is all well and good, and I'm sure some couples would find all the trappings of a medieval wedding romantic, but my Cinderella fantasy stopped at the dress. Besides--kneeling in front of me with a sword? There's no way Dan would ever agree to that! I had trouble enough convincing him to wear a kilt."
Zara stifled another giggle. "Chill," she advised. "You'll work it out. Compromise with your mother. And don't worry about Dan. He's crazy in love with you. He'll go along with whatever you decide you want to do."
"On some things, sure. Like agreeing not to wear earplugs when the bagpiper plays." Dan was not a fan of Scottish music. "And he did manage to convince his brother to get with the program. Sam didn't think the best man should have to wear a kilt just because the groom was going to."
"What was Sam's problem?" Zara asked between stretches. "Bowlegged?"
Liss had to smile at that as she left the barre. "Trust me, all the Ruskin men have excellent legs."
She settled herself on the floor and began another series of bends from a sitting position. Zara was right, she admitted to herself after the first set. Dan had been more agreeable than she'd expected. She knew he'd have felt far more comfortable wearing a tux. She might have been persuaded to let him if he'd made an issue of it, but it was too late to change their minds now.
The kilts would arrive at the shop sometime this week. She hoped Dan would wear his a bit around the house, so he'd get used to the feel of it. It would help that the Black Watch tartan was very dignified. It had a nicely macho military connection, too, since the Black Watch was an infantry battalion in the British Army, a part of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
Zara scooted closer and curled her legs beneath her, tailor- fashion. Liss envied her ease of motion. Once upon a time, she'd been able to move just as smoothly. Now her knee made an annoying crackling sound when she bent it at too much of an angle, and it started to ache if she stayed in one position for very long.
"You fuss too much, Liss. Everything is going to be just fine. And after the wedding, you and Dan will be married. Trust me when I say that makes it all worthwhile."
"Yeah, but I have to survive till then. I just hope Mom doesn't come up with any more inspired ideas."
For the rest of the exercise session, Liss made a concerted effort to shake off her gloomy mood and stop grumbling. By the time she returned home, in spite of the steady drizzle of rain that greeted her the minute she stepped outside Dance Central, she felt much more cheerful. A quick shower, another cup of coffee, and a few minutes of playing with her two cats, Lumpkin and Glenora, completed the cure. She was about to slip out the back way, cross the narrow strip of lawn and the driveway that separated her house from Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, and enter the shop through the stockroom door when her mother burst into the kitchen.
"Everything is ruined!" Vi MacCrimmon wailed.
Liss stared at her in bewilderment. It wasn't like Vi to lose her composure. "What happened?" she asked, catching her mother by the arm and steering her toward the kitchen table.
Once there, Vi sat, propped her elbows on the placemat, and buried her head in her hands. "Disaster," she moaned.
"Mom!" Concern had Liss speaking more sharply than she'd intended. "Snap out of it. Tell me what's wrong."
Vi reared up, eyes flashing. "Those idiots at the fairgrounds have cancelled their contract with the highland games!"
Liss blinked at her in surprise. "Can they do that?"
"They say there's a conflict--some other group with a prior claim to that weekend. Oh, what does it matter how or why? If there are no Western Maine Highland Games, then there is no Medieval Scottish Conclave, and if there is no Medieval Scottish Conclave, then your beautiful wedding will be ruined." Once again her voice rose to a wail.
" 'Oh'? Is that all you have to say?"
"It's not a disaster, Mom. Dan and I can always be married in the church." For her mother's sake, Liss tried to sound disappointed, but inside her head she started doing a happy dance.
"Absolutely not! I won't see all my plans ruined!" Vi got to her feet and starting pacing.
"Now, Mom, be reasonable. If the games are cancelled, what choice do we have?"
It was the wrong question to ask. Liss knew it the moment the words left her mouth.
A determined expression came into her mother's eyes. Her jaw hardened. She stiffened her backbone and squared her shoulders. Then she glanced at her watch. "You'd better be off to work, Liss. You don't want to be late opening the shop."
"There's no rush." That was the advantage of being her own boss. "What are you up to, Mom?"