Laura Childs

Dragonwell Dead

This book is dedicated to Tickle Bee.


Many thanks to Sam, Samantha, Bob, and Jennie. And to the many booksellers and tea shops who have not only carried my mysteries but recommended them. This whole crazy process—writing, marketing, selling—is so very much a contact sport.


Theodosia Browning stared at the fluttering green wall in front of her and frowned. She’d taken what she thought was the correct turn and still hit a dead end!

Biting her lower lip, Theodosia pushed back a swirl of thick auburn hair and considered the English hedge maze that surrounded her. It certainly hadn’t looked difficult when she and Drayton had wandered in on a lark some twenty minutes earlier. Yet here she was, confounded by this twelve-foot-high ivy maze that twisted and turned in all directions and held them unwilling captives on the grounds of Carthage Place Plantation.

Birds twittered overhead, an insect droned in her ear. And Theodosia could distinctly hear the laughter of guests floating above her. Pushing up the sleeves of her cream-colored cashmere sweater, Theodosia’s broad, intelligent face, with its peaches-and-cream complexion and intense blue eyes, settled into a perplexed yet slightly bemused look. Here she was, stuck in a puzzle maze when hundreds of guests wandered about freely so very close by.

“Any luck?” asked Drayton as he came panting up behind her. Drayton, who was sixtyish and dapper, had tagged along with Theodosia today, happy to partake in the annual Plantation Ramble out here on Ashley River Road. This was the spring weekend when a half dozen privately owned plantations threw open their doors to the public and invited local church and civic groups onto their grounds to host teas, flower shows, and rare plant auctions. This was also the weekend the camellias, jasmine, magnolias, and almost every other species of South Carolina flora and fauna were in full and glorious bloom.

“Another wrong turn,” Theodosia told Drayton. “Sorry.”

“Not your fault,” said Drayton, tilting his patrician gray head back to survey their leafy prison. “I thought it would be child’s play to wander through this old labyrinth.” He paused, as though pondering his words. “Obviously I was wrong.”

“What time is the rare plant auction?” Theodosia asked him.

“Three o’clock sharp,” said Drayton. He glanced at the ancient Patek Philippe that graced his wrist and grimaced.

“Which means I have barely ten minutes to figure out some sort of escape route. If I miss a chance to bid on a Cockleshell Orchid or even a Machu Picchu, I’ll never forgive myself!”

“I got you into this,” said Theodosia, trying to keep her game face on. “So I’m going to get you out.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” asked Drayton, curiosity evident in his voice. After all, he hadn’t figured a way out either.

Theodosia lifted her chin and let the warm afternoon sun caress her face. “We’re going to follow the basic tenets of any seasoned explorer,” she told Drayton.

“Which is?” he asked, cocking his head sideways.

“Navigate by the sun.”

“Ahh . . .” said Drayton.

“And,” said Theodosia, holding up an index finger, “I propose we use your watch as a compass.”

“Like they did in Civil War times!” said Drayton excitedly. “Well, aren’t you the clever one.” He pushed up his shirtsleeve, anxious to give Theodosia’s suggestion a try.

“Since we know the sun is in the southwestern quadrant of the sky, we’ll say southwest is somewhere between eleven and twelve.” Drayton made a couple mumbled calculations.

“So west is at one o’clock . . .”

“And east is at seven,” finished Theodosia.

Drayton’s face split into an eager grin. “I should have figured this out myself.”

Two dozen twists and turns later, they came upon a black wrought-iron grate set into the green turf.

“We passed this before,” said Theodosia.

“Indeed we did,” agreed Drayton. “I remember hearing the faint sound of running water.”

Theodosia leaned forward and peered down into the grate, but could see only darkness. “Must be an old well or cistern,” she mused as a low gurgling echoed in her ears.

“There used to be thousands of acres of rice fields around here,” said Drayton as they stepped around the grate. “With a very complicated series of rice dikes. So this is probably part of the old drainage system. After all, the Ashley River is just a mile or so over.”

“Had to be part of it,” said Theodosia. Back in the middle 1800s this entire area had served as the world’s leading producer of rice. Fine Carolina gold, as it was called, was sent out on clipper ships to countries all across the globe.

They rounded the next turn and stopped in their tracks.

“Well, I’ll be,” exclaimed Drayton, a slow smile spreading across his lined face.

“Success,” breathed Theodosia.

Not quite ten feet away was the entrance—or, in this case, exit—to the maze. A wrought-iron arch looped above a most welcome six-foot-wide gap in the hedge of ivy. The ornate scrollwork of the arch made it a companion piece, almost, to the grate they had inspected earlier.

“Good work,” Drayton told Theodosia, as he consulted his watch a final time. “And we made it with two minutes to spare.”

“Better hurry,” Theodosia urged as Drayton hustled off.

Just down the hill she saw that a large wooden stage had been erected specifically for this event. And crowds of eager bidders were jostling about, surveying plant-covered tables even as they jockeyed for a position on the semicircle of folding chairs that spread out around the stage.

“Where on earth did you run off to?” demanded the imperious voice of Delaine Dish. Attired in a flouncy white eyelet dress and large straw hat, Delaine stood poised behind a whitewashed tea stand that was festively strung with white twinkle lights and floral garlands.

“Long story,” Theodosia told her friend tiredly as she slipped into the booth.

“Here,” said Delaine, holding out a tall, frosty glass garnished with a fresh sprig of mint. “Your tea is quite excellent, but we’re woefully short on pitchers.” Consternation showed in Delaine’s violet eyes and on her flawless heart-shaped face.

Theodosia accepted the glass of sweet tea and took a sip. It was excellent, of course. Drayton, as master tea blender and clever visionary of all things tea at the Indigo Tea Shop, had invented this sweet tea recipe on the spur of the moment. In this particular instance, Drayton had combined delicately flavored Dragonwell green tea from China’s Chekiang Province with fresh-squeezed lemon juice and locally grown honey. And each glass served today was accented with the customer’s choice of fresh mint leaves, sprigs of lemon balm, or small stems of edible flowers.

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