GroomedMurder

Chapter One-GROOMED FOR MURDER

GROOMED FOR MURDER– Chapter One

“Have you seen Cher?” Fern asked as he hurried up to me with a round brush in one hand and a can of industrial strength hair spray in the other.

I took a deep breath and got a whiff of the high-end hair products that had become the society hairstylist’s signature scent. “I’m sorry. Did you ask me if I’ve seen Cher?”

Fern sighed. “Cher Noble. Our drag queen officiant.”

You know you’re busy when you almost forget you’ve hired a drag queen Cher impersonator to perform the wedding ceremony. I snapped my fingers. “Of course. How could I forget?”

Fern raised an eyebrow at me. My go-to hair guru usually looked impeccable on wedding days, but I noticed a strand of dark hair had escaped his low ponytail and dangled in his face. Then again, the day’s humidity wasn’t doing anyone’s hair any favors. Luckily, my own long auburn hair was holding steady in a tight bun on the top of my head, but it had taken almost every bobby pin in my emergency kit to hold it in place.

I glanced down at the wedding day timeline with my “Wedding Belles” logo printed on top. “She should be on-site, but I haven’t seen her yet.”

Fern stepped aside to let a massive urn filled with garden flowers walk between us and flicked a bit of pollen off his gold lamé blazer when a lily brushed against him. If I didn’t know the attendants were wearing gold sparkly dresses, I would have found his outfit out of place in the garden setting, but today’s wedding was all about garden meets glam and, as usual, Fern’s outfit—a shiny gold jacket with a large silk rose boutonniere—was on point. His ability and desire to coordinate with wedding decor never ceased to amaze me. I didn’t have nearly his style—nor did I care nearly as much—so I stuck with classic black dresses on wedding days, while he’d been known to wear seersucker suits paired with bowties, Indian saris, and full kimonos.

Fern blew the errant strand of hair off his face. “If you see her, could you please tell her I’m in the vendor room with the groomsmaids?”

“Will do. We’re not calling them bridesmaids?”

“We don’t have a bride, now do we?”

He had a point. I suppose it didn’t make sense to have bridesmaids for a wedding with two grooms. I watched Fern rush back inside the Meridian House, and I returned to surveying the ceremony setup in the garden.

Even though the day was typical for spring in Washington, DC—a little cool and threatening rain—we were going ahead with the outdoor plan. Two huge stone garden urns overflowing with flowers flanked a massive tree at the end of the grassy lawn, and white wooden folding chairs extended back from it in two even rows. At the back of the chairs we’d built a long wooden bar with smaller floral urns on each end and placed a massive silver bowl in the center filled with ice and several magnums of pink champagne. Glass champagne coupes sat on silver trays ready to be filled and handed to guests once the ceremony ended.

I pivoted and looked into the linden tree grove where guests would walk after the ceremony ended and after they were handed a glass of pink bubbly. The branches of the tall spindly trees were beginning to bloom and create a canopy of green over the pebbled area extending off the back of the historic home. We’d suspended industrial-style pendant lights between the trees and had arranged modern white lounge furniture on the raised terrace behind the fountain. It was pretty now, but it would look magical once the sun had set and the lights lit the garden with a soft glow.

“Annabelle!” My assistant’s voice drew my eyes to the large glass doors leading into the house from the linden grove. Kate stood at the top of the short flight of stone stairs descending into the garden, tapping one black high heel and flicking her blond bob away from her face.

I crossed the bed of small pebbles toward her since I knew it would take Kate twice as long to get to me in her absurdly high heels. I wore flats during setup for exactly this reason. “What’s up?” I said once I’d reached her.

She handed me several bright-red gummy bears, which I knew was her way of softening me up. “The groom wants to add a short reading to the ceremony.”

I popped the squishy candy into my mouth and enjoyed the rush of sweetness before answering her. “Now? The programs have already been printed.”

She shrugged one shoulder. “That’s what I told him.”

“Which one is it?” I asked.

Kate took a packet of gummy bears from her dress pocket and shook a few into her palm. “Which reading is it?”

“No. Which groom is it?”

She raised an eyebrow at me. “Take a wild guess.”

I didn’t need to. Since we’d started planning Stefan’s and Jesse’s wedding six months ago, Stefan had been nothing but a high-maintenance diva. Working with him had made me regret complaining about bridezillas. Those girls were amateurs compared to this.

As the owner of Wedding Belles, the wedding planning company behind some of Washington DC’s most elite society weddings, I’d seen my share of dramatic brides, difficult mothers, and attention-grabbing bridesmaids. I thought after seven years of weddings for the powerful and power hungry, I’d seen it all. I was wrong. Every decision had involved tears, ultimatums, and sometimes prescription medication. And that was just on the Wedding Belles side of things.

I put a finger to my left eye, which had begun to twitch since working with Groomzilla. “So who does Stefan want to do this reading?”

“He says it’s fine if Cher Noble does it.” Kate shoved the rest of the gummy bears into her mouth and wadded up the empty cellophane packet.

I took a pen out of the pocket of my dress and made a note in the margins of my schedule. “As soon as I see Cher, I’ll be sure to tell her. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess Stefan does not have a copy of the reading with him.”

Kate swallowed her mouthful. “You guess right. He says we can find it online. It’s Supreme Court Justice Kennedy’s final paragraph in his ruling on gay marriage.”

I knew the passage since several of our same-sex couples had used it since the ruling. Luckily, it was short. “I’ll write it out for Cher and tell her to stick it in at the end. Anything else?”

Kate studied me. “You really should get your eye checked out. Or maybe wear a patch.”

I put a hand over my lid and could feel it fluttering. “You mean like a pirate? That wouldn’t be distracting at all.”

Kate tilted her head. “If you wore your hair down and flipped it over one side of your face you could pull it off. Although I do like your boss bun.”

“I’m sure it will go away once this wedding is over,” I said, lowering my voice as a waiter passed by with an armful of black-and-white chevron-patterned linens. “It’s the Stefan effect.”

“At least Jesse is a doll,” Kate said, “although I’ve yet to figure out why he’s marrying Stefan.”

“Stefan is a power gay,” Richard said as he came up behind Kate.

I dropped my hand from my eye and assessed Richard’s tailored black suit, gunmetal-gray shirt and tie, and perfectly spiked brown hair. Even though he’d been in the kitchen for the past hour getting ready to cater the wedding, you’d never know it. Not a splatter on him. “Which is?”

“You know he’s one of the partners of the restaurant company that owns all those trendy new places in New York. They opened one here last month.”

“I knew he was in restaurants,” I said.

Richard shot his eyes heavenward. “Annabelle, you have got to start Googling your clients. Anyway, Stefan is rich and stylish and au currant.”

“If that’s French for ‘colossal jerk,’ we’re already well-aware,” Kate said.

Richard arched a brow at her. “Stick to French kissing, darling.”

Kate craned her neck behind her to look inside the house. “I would if there was anyone on-site worth kissing. Speaking of hotties, is the photographer here yet?”

“You mean the married photographer?” I asked.

Kate winked at me. “I only look. I never touch.”

I knew firsthand that rule only applied to married men. The single ones were fair game, and she did plenty of touching. I followed her gaze, although I was not searching for the cute photographer. Through the glass doors I could see waiters carrying racks of glassware into the dining room and several burly men in all black rolling dollies across the foyer. A pair of guys stood on ladders adjusting lighting, while a tall, thin man walked by with a guitar case.

Richard ignored Kate. “I don’t know why you two are complaining. I’m the one who had to have three tastings with them. One of them only to taste sauces.”

“I know,” I said. “Kate and I were at every one of them. You didn’t have to go with them to drag queen brunch to audition officiants.”

“I kind of liked that part,” Kate said.

“You liked the bottomless mimosas,” I reminded her. “I’m surprised you remember much of the experience.”

“I remember most of it,” she mumbled.

Richard tapped his fingers on his arm. “How many times have I suggested you put a set number of meetings in your contract?”

I ignored him because he’d given me the same advice many times, and each time I’d brushed it off. I hated Richard being right as much as he reveled in it.

Kate held up both hands. “Can we all focus on being happy it’s almost over?” She dropped her voice so only I could hear her. “And on Monday morning, you and I are changing our contract.”

“On Monday morning, I’m sleeping in,” I said.

Kate nudged me, her voice still a whisper. “Why? Is Reese sleeping over?”

“No. Maybe. I mean, I don’t know.” I felt my cheeks warm. Kate meant Mike Reese, DC police detective and my still-new boyfriend. After months of stops and starts, we’d finally been seeing each other steadily, although I didn’t feel comfortable talking details. Especially not in front of Richard, who had been my best friend for years and who tended to get a bit jealous now he had to share me with Reese.

“What’s this?” Richard asked.

“Nothing.” I shot Kate a look as I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time. “We have one hour until early-bird guests may start to arrive.” I turned to Richard. “Is the kitchen almost ready?”

Richard gave me a withering look. “When is my kitchen not ready? The doll who runs the house let me in an hour early.”

Kate’s eyes lit up. “Is Mary here yet?”

I held up a finger. “I love her too, but no socializing until we are completely ready.” I flipped through my schedule where I’d checked off vendors as they’d arrived for setup. I could hear the band doing a sound check inside, so I didn’t need to ask if they were ready. “So it looks like the only vendor not checked in is the officiant.”

“Would she happen to be over six feet tall with shoulders like a linebacker, black hair down to her waist, and wearing a sequined cocktail dress?” Richard asked.

“That should be Cher Noble,” I said. “I hope to God there aren’t two people here who fit that description.”

“It’s a gay wedding, Annabelle,” Richard said. “You never know. Anyway, I saw your drag queen du jour heading into the library about twenty minutes ago. She asked me if it was okay for her to rehearse in there.”

I felt a momentary flutter of panic when I heard the word “rehearse.” I’d seen Cher Noble’s act on stage at drag queen brunch. If she was planning on putting on a similar show, we were in for an irreverent wedding ceremony. “Are you sure she didn’t head into the room with the piano?”

He shook his head. “No, but both grooms have been in and out of that room putting things at their head table. I’m about to bar them from leaving the getting-ready room. You know how I feel about clients wandering around setup.”

I knew Richard’s thoughts on almost everything since he rarely had an unexpressed one.

Kate put a hand on my arm. “I’m sure Cher’s going over the script Stefan gave her. Why don’t we go check in with her and give her the additional reading?”

“I’ll come with you.” Richard produced a sheaf of papers from his inside jacket pocket. “I need to do a final pass of the tables and make sure the seating matches the floor plan.”

Kate led the way through the marble-floored loggia and past the table displaying escort cards arranged in rows around a towering floral arrangement. A woman in gardening gloves stood next to the table pulling loose tulips from a collection of orange buckets at her feet, clipping the ends off the stems with floral clippers, inserting floral wire into them to keep them straight, and adding them to the urn. I glanced at the number of blooms left in the buckets and wondered if she could really fit them all in the container without it collapsing from the weight. We reached the large wooden double doors leading into the library, and Kate and I each took one antique brass handle and pulled hard.

The doors swung open to reveal a room with sage-green walls and built-in shelves filled with leather-bound books. Two tall arched windows on the opposite side of the door filled the room with light, although the ornate chandelier in the middle was turned off. Five round tables surrounded by ladder-backed reception chairs filled the room and were topped with lush arrangements of spring flowers, making the space smell like a garden.

“She’s not here.” Kate stepped inside and rested her hands on the back of a chair.

“Maybe she finished rehearsing.” Richard stepped around us and began counting off chairs with his pointer finger.

“Fern was looking for her,” I said, leaning over and adjusting one of the gold laser-cut table numbers protruding from a flower arrangement. “Maybe she’s with him.”

Richard paused as he reached the middle of the room, pressing a hand to his chest as he stared down at the floor. “She’s right here.”

“What?” I looked at Richard’s stricken expression as Kate and I rushed over to him.

Kate clutched my arm as the figure of the drag queen came into view. She lay sprawled faceup on the parquet floor, her long dark hair fanned out around the shoulders of her royal-blue sequined dress and a hot-pink feather boa wrapped tightly around her neck. From the purple tinge of her face and the placement of the boa, it looked like Cher Noble had been strangled.

Richard shook his head. “And with her own boa no less.”

I looked away so I wouldn’t be sick and pressed my fingers over my eye as it began to twitch furiously.

GROOMED FOR MURDER will be released on April 30th. Pre-order now and get the pre-order price of 99 cents!

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