Review to a Kill: An Annabelle Archer Wedding Planner Mystery
By Laura Durham
“This rain is going to ruin the view of the White House.” I threw open one of the french doors that led to the Hay-Adams Hotel’s narrow balcony overlooking both Lafayette Park and the most famous address in Washington, DC.
The gray clouds that hung over the city had been sending a steady mist of rain since the morning and, as it was now midafternoon, my hopes for a sunny wedding day, along with my hopes for a happy bride, were dwindling fast. I stepped onto the balcony and let the fine droplets settle on my skin. I breathed in the fresh scent of rain and felt glad it had washed away the pollen haze that had been hanging over the city for the past week, even if it did have to happen on the one day I needed clear skies. I ignored the clattering noise of the wedding band setting up behind me and took a moment to soak in the relative peacefulness of standing nearly ten stories above the city on a sleepy, rainy Saturday.
I reached into the pocket of my dress and felt for the packet of gummi bears my assistant, Kate, had given me earlier in the day. I popped a few into my mouth and savored the sugar rush. They were probably the only calories I’d get until much later that night so I didn’t feel guilty about them. I held up the Cellophane candy packet to Buster, one half of my floral designing duo, and jiggled it.
He shook his head, pulling at his brown goatee with his fingers. “I’m too stressed to eat right now.”
“Don’t worry. It might clear up,” I said, dropping the candy back into my pocket and patting Buster on his thick tattooed arm. I didn’t fully believe what I said but, as the owner of Wedding Belles, one of DC’s top wedding-planning companies, I’d learned that is was crucial to keep my creative team positive on the wedding day. Even if that meant lying to them.
Buster raised his eyebrows and the motorcycle goggles he wore on his forehead followed. “It’s hard to pull off a springtime in Paris theme when it looks like a hurricane’s brewing outside.”
“Don’t you think you’re exaggerating a bit?”
Buster was usually the more even-keeled half of the floral design duo from Lush. His partner, Mack, was equally tattooed and leather-clad with a dark red goatee instead of a brown one but, generally speaking, the more emotional of the pair. I hoped Buster’s nerves didn’t mean that Mack was in a full-scale meltdown.
I turned from the view to look for Mack and glanced over the ballroom that had been transformed into springtime in Paris. One of the biggest selling points for holding a wedding at the Top of The Hay, the name for the iconic hotel’s rooftop ballroom, was the two walls of glass french doors that wrapped around the L-shaped room and provided both natural light and a stunning view. It was the perfect pick for a bride wanting any type of garden theme, and it had been a natural fit for our bride who wanted to recreate Paris in the spring. Whitewashed Eiffel Towers were interspersed between the towering arrangements of pink tulips on a runner of grass that extended the length of the long, rectangular tables. A tiny easel sat at the top of each place setting with a guest’s name painted over a pastel impressionist background, and white ladder-backed chairs wore pale-pink tulle skirts.
“There you are,” I said as I spotted Mack walking toward us under the hanging flower garden that Buster had installed in the ceiling alcove over the dance floor.
Mack dodged a hanging tulip. “Well, I delivered the bride’s bouquet.”
“And?” I asked, not sure if I wanted to know the bride’s reaction.
Mack flopped down in a nearby chair. “Let’s just say that if I cursed, now would be the time I’d pick some choice words about our bride.”
I cringed. Mack and Buster were members of a Christian biker gang, and I’d never heard a swear word leave their lips.
Buster closed the french doors. “She didn’t like the collar of nerines around the tulips?”
“Who knows what she hated more?” Mack tugged at a loose thread on his black leather vest. “She said it gave her a headache.”
“The scent of it?” I asked. “I thought you specifically chose flowers with no scent.”
“I did,” Mack said. “She approved every flower in the whole wedding, remember?”
“How could I forget?” I recalled every painstaking moment of the planning ordeal with Tricia, from bringing blooms to her house for her to sniff test to sending her MP3 files of every song the band played so she could eliminate songs that were in a key she found irritating to having the chef forward her the ingredient list for every bite that would be served so she could identify offending foods.
“So she’s not going to carry it down the aisle?” Buster asked.
“She’s not going to walk down the aisle.” Kate stood in the open doorway across from us, her hands on her hips and the toe of one high heel thumping on the carpet.
I closed my eyes and dropped my head for a second. “Not this again.”
“Yep. She claims the stress has made her too sick to attend her own wedding.” Kate strode across the room, her blond bob bouncing with each step. She had long legs that she preferred to show to their full advantage with short skirts, even on a wedding day, so her fitted black dress stopped several inches north of her knees. When she reached Mack, she sat in the chair next to him, crossing her legs so that her dress rose even higher on her thighs.
“How can she be stressed?” I asked. “We’ve done everything for her.”
“Beats me.” Kate shrugged. “But I never understood all the syndromes she claims to have.”
Buster held up one finger. “There’s the hypersensitivity to light.”
“And migraines brought on by the scent of lilies,” Mack said. “And garden roses and peonies and lily of the valley.”
Kate snapped her fingers. “And don’t forget that anything louder than a speaking voice can make her swoon.”
“Why is she having a wedding in the first place?” Buster asked. “It’s filled with all the things she claims make her sick.”
Kate lowered her voice. “She’s an attention whore. Why else would you be such a hypochondriac?”
“She’s a rich hypochondriac,” I said. “And what better way to get more attention than a big wedding?”
“Not if you don’t show up for it,” Mack said.
I shook my head. “I’m sure she’s bluffing.”
“She probably needs some of the patented Annabelle Archer Zen,” Kate said. She loved to tease me about being able to calm down even the most nervous brides just by being around them. So far, though, Tricia Toker had pushed the limits of even my Zen energy.
I sighed and mentally steeled myself for the bride’s histrionics. “I’ll go check on her. Fern should be done with everyone’s hair by now.”
“Fern is not done because Fern can’t work under these conditions.” The hairstylist to Washington’s most elite, and all of our brides, stood in the doorway of the ballroom with a can of hairspray in one hand and a round brush in the other. Since Fern always tried to dress to the theme of the wedding, he wore a navy and white striped boatneck T-shirt with white pants and a navy beret. I noticed that his beret had slipped from its earlier jaunty tilt, and strands of dark hair had escaped from his low ponytail. He threw his brush on the floor. “Fern quits.”
I held Fern’s hand as we rode down the hotel elevator, listening to the soft pings as we passed each floor. It had taken a significant amount of convincing to get him into the elevator with me, and I held his hand partly to comfort him and partly to make sure he wouldn’t make a dash for it when the doors opened.
I took a deep breath to brace myself for the impending interaction with the bride and inhaled the scent of designer hair products that surrounded Fern. I knew it was a mixture of the ones he wore on his own hair and the ones he used on his clients. The only time I ever smelled like expensive hair product was when I allowed Fern to do my hair, which wasn’t often enough for his liking.
I squeezed his hand. “I’m sure it’s not so bad.”
Fern arched an eyebrow at me. “How am I supposed to put her hair in a high bun if she doesn’t like to feel pressure on her head?”
“Haven’t you been her stylist for years?” I leaned against the brass rail that ran the short length of the elevator’s back wall and stepped out of my black heels. I’d left my flats upstairs and would switch back into them once I’d seen the bride. I liked to look dressy for the client but couldn’t bear to be in heels for an entire wedding day as Kate could.
“Yes, but she only gets her hair cut once every six months or so, and I basically go to her house, wave the scissors over her head, fluff it up, tell her she looks divine, and leave.”
“And she pays you for that?” I shook my head. “I’m in the wrong business.”
Fern squeezed my hand. “I could have told you that a long time ago, sweetie.”
“How do you deal with a client who’s making up all these issues?” I asked Fern. His years as a hairdresser to the elite had given him an incredible level of patience and insight into people.
“Her mother clued me in years ago and asked me to play along, so I do.” Fern twitched his shoulders. “I have clients with genuine sensory issues and actual chronic fatigue syndrome so it’s not hard to tell that Tricia’s illnesses are fabricated. It’s sad she feels like she needs to do it.”
“I guess.” After a tortuous planning process, I had a hard time feeling too sympathetic but I knew Fern had a point. A person had to be seriously damaged to pretend they were always sick. Plus, I’d learned early on in planning weddings that the most difficult people usually were the most unhappy with themselves.
“I’m sure we can figure this out,” I said as the elevator door opened and we faced a wooden accent table with a white orchid plant. “Can you convince her to wear her hair down?”
Fern led me to the right and down the hall to the very end where the largest suites in the hotel were situated. He paused in front of a cream-colored door with an engraved gold plate that read the Jefferson Suite in cursive. “I suppose I could be persuasive if I wanted to be.”
“Trust me.” I knocked lightly. “You want to be.”
A woman with a silvery-blond helmet of hair opened the door. “Thank heavens you’re here, Annabelle.” She pulled me inside. “Where have you been?”
I reflexively glanced at my watch even though I knew I’d been upstairs for less than thirty minutes. “I had to check on the ballroom setup, remember?”
The bride’s mother nodded. “That’s right. You told us that, didn’t you? It’s just that Tricia is having such a hard time dealing with all these disasters.”
“What disasters?” I asked. I looked around the spacious suite, which was decorated sumptuously in shades of ivory and cream. Twin sofas topped with oversized fringed cushions were flanked by a pair of soft chairs. A mahogany dining room table surrounded by upholstered chairs sat behind them. A wooden sideboard held the remains of breakfast. Champagne chilled in an ice bucket. And the maid of honor, and only attendant, sat in the makeup chair by a row of tall windows.
So far every vendor had been on time and every delivery had been accurate. We weren’t missing flowers or dealing with late makeup artists or even a late breakfast delivery. After the challenges of the planning, everyone was on their toes. And counting down the minutes until it was over.
Fern dropped my hand and took a few steps toward the closed door that led into the attached bedroom, where I assumed the bride was resting. “Why don’t I check on her?”
As Fern walked away I took Mrs. Toker’s hands in mine. Sometimes mothers needed someone to listen to them, and I could validate feelings until the cows came home. “So tell me about these disasters.”
The mother of the bride gnawed at her lower lip. “Well, the rain for one.”
“You know I can’t control the weather, Mrs. Toker,” I said. “And we chose an indoor venue for the precise reason that Tricia didn’t want to worry about the weather if we did a tented wedding.”
The mother nodded like her head was attached to a trip wire. “We just wanted this day to be perfect. After her illness and her father’s death, Tricia deserves a day all about her.”
From what I’d seen over the months of planning, every day was all about Tricia. And I had a hard time believing that the girl had become as spoiled as she was only after her father’s death a little over a year earlier. A girl had to be indulged all of her life to be ruined as badly as Tricia Toker.
Even though her extreme hypochondria was clearly something she’d honed over years, this was the first time I’d had a bride use undiagnosed illnesses to get attention, controlling every person she knew and manipulating them with equal parts guilt and pity. But even so, she’d alienated almost everyone she knew so that only a few diehards like her mother, fiancé, and maid of honor remained at her side. That was also the reason that her guest count was less than one hundred and a decent number of the guests were from her late father’s company. I assumed they were attending out of respect for the parents and to stay on the mother’s good side as she’d taken over the running of his business.
Fern poked his head out of the bedroom. “The bride’s asking for you.”
I left Mrs. Toker chewing on her thumbnail and went into the dark bedroom. I could make out the form of the bride reclining on the king-sized bed, and as my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, I saw that she still wore her bathrobe. I tried not to focus on the fact that, according to my schedule, she’d be walking down the aisle in less than an hour. We’d never had a bride get married in a bathrobe, but there was a first time for everything.
“Did you want to talk about the flowers?” I asked.
She waved a hand at me. “No. They’re fine. It was the florist’s cologne that set off my migraine.”
I knew Mack didn’t wear cologne, but I didn’t dare argue with her if she’d made peace with her bouquet. That put us one step closer to walking down the aisle.
“Get Madeleine in here, too,” the bride said to Fern.
I heard him sigh as he called to the maid of honor. I leaned back so I could see through the open doorway and into the living room. The petite strawberry blonde hopped down from the makeup stool and hurried into the bedroom.
“Do you need anything, Tricia?”
The bride took a deep breath and exhaled. “I know you hate wearing your hair pulled back because it makes you look like a ferret, but I need you to wear it up since I’m going to have my hair down now. I want to be the only one with loose hair.”
Fern and I exchanged a look. This was officially the first time I’d ever heard a bride tell a bridesmaid that she looked like a ferret. It was not the first time I’d had a bride try to make a pretty bridesmaid look worse than her, though. Tricia wasn’t plain. Her dark hair and ice blue eyes made her striking, but she wasn’t delicate and pretty in a feminine way like her friend.
I glanced at Madeleine, who looked nothing like a ferret, and whose eyes were unblinking. Madeleine nodded and forced a smile. “Of course, Tricia. Whatever you want. It’s your wedding day.”
Tricia beckoned her only attendant over and grasped her hand. “Madeleine has been my best friend since our freshman year in college. Madeleine and Dave and me. The Three Musketeers, remember?”
Madeleine laughed. “All for one and one for all.”
Fern and I laughed politely, but I wondered why either of us needed to be present for this moment.
Tricia sat up slowly, propping herself on her elbows. “By the time Fern finishes your bun, I should have recovered enough to do my hair.”
“Do you need me?” I asked, taking a step toward the door. “I was going to check on the ceremony setup downstairs.”
“You can go.” Tricia rubbed her temples. “But don’t send me Kate again. Her bouncing makes my head pound.” She reached for her phone on the bedside table and began typing with her thumbs.
For the thousandth time since answering Tricia’s initial phone call, I regretted ever meeting her.
Fern walked me to the door and kissed me on the cheek. “At least this hussy doesn’t have a problem with flouncing.”
“I’ll be back up in thirty.”
“She’ll be ready or she’ll be dead,” Fern whispered in my ear.
“Talk about a Sophie’s Choice.”
He winked. “You’re telling me.”
As I pulled the door to the suite closed behind me, my cell phone starting singing “Pachelbel’s Canon” from inside my pocket. I pulled it out and answered before I noticed the name of the caller.
“Wedding Belles, this is Annabelle.”
“It’s me.” Me was Richard of Richard Gerard Catering, my best friend since I’d started my wedding-planning business more than six years earlier and he’d taken me under his wing. Richard was known for his impeccable style, his cutting-edge cuisine, and his love of designer clothes. I must have brought some sort of balance to his life because I didn’t own one clothing label that met his approval, I could subsist on Diet Dr Pepper and takeout Thai for weeks, and my style would be called casual at best. “How’s it going with Too Tired Tricia?”
“Very funny,” I whispered as I walked down the hallway to the elevator. “I think we’re going to get her down the aisle.”
“I’d hope so considering the budget on this one.”
“You know I would have brought it to you if I could have,” I said. “But the hotel was the best fit.” Richard’s catering company only did catering for mansions, museums, and historic sites that didn’t have their own kitchens.
“Don’t mention it. It’s nice to have a weekend off for once. Anyway, I don’t think I could take the stress of waiting to see what she writes.”
I paused in front of the elevator bank. “What who writes?”
“The bride,” Richard said. “Didn’t I tell you that she has quite the reputation in the culinary world?”
“She’s a culinary writer?” I didn’t think she did anything since she was both wealthy and busy pretending to have chronic fatigue syndrome.
“No. She’s famous for her poisoned-pen reviews. She’s panned just about every restaurant in town.”
I felt lightheaded and put my hand out to the wall to steady myself. “Why didn’t you mention this earlier?”
“I just put two and two together.” He paused and cleared his throat. “But I’m sure that’s just restaurants. I don’t think she’ll write bad reviews about her own wedding.”
I glanced back at the door to the Jefferson Suite and remembered her typing away at her phone. “I hope you’re right.”
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