Excerpt of For Better Or Hearse

Chapter One

“I barely escaped being sliced up like a sushi roll, Richard.” My shaking hand pressed the cell phone to my ear as I paced the marble lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. “I’m not exaggerating, either. Chef Henri tried to kill me.”

The only thing worse than working with a temperamental bride is dealing with a temperamental chef, and as one of D.C.’s top wedding planners, I’d had my share of both.

“He refuses to serve the Peking duck as a passed hors d’oeuvre, but with all these additional guests, we don’t have room to do it as a station.” I’d called my best friend, and arguably the city’s best caterer, Richard Gerard, for some insight into the mind of a culinary despot. While I had a wedding at the Fairmont Hotel, Richard had one at the Dumbarton House in nearby Georgetown. His guests weren’t due to arrive for another hour, and I could hear the clattering sounds of setup in the background.

Richard let out a high-pitched shriek. “We do not throw things, people. If I see anyone else tossing my imported Hungarian salad plates on the tables, heads will roll.” He switched to his most calming voice. “Now Annabelle, you know he has a valid point. The real art of Peking duck is in the carving.

I should never have asked for practical advice from someone who matched the food at a dinner party to the outfit he planned to wear.

“Richard, he chased me out of the kitchen with a knife and threatened to walk off the event if I ever set foot in there again.”

“He’s a chef. They’re known for being dramatic, especially this one.” A gasp. “Who put this cloth on the sweetheart table? I specifically requested the linen pin-tuck for the bride and groom, not the satin stripe.”

I tapped my square-toed black pump in rapid fire. “I’ve about had it with chefs. I knew Henri had a reputation for being difficult, but I had no idea he would be so evil.”

“You think you’ve seen evil?” Richard gave a low whistle. “You should hear the stories his former employees tell.” I didn’t have time for Richard’s stories now. They usually involved at least one person wearing something “totally wrong for them” and ended up with Richard giving an impassioned speech worthy of an Oscar.

“Okay, I get it, but what am I supposed to do?” I walked to the heavy glass doors leading from the lobby to the Colonnade room and glanced at my watch. The guests would be arriving from the church in a few minutes, and I had a chef who had threatened to walk off the job if I questioned his creative control again.

“Where’s Kate? Maybe she could bat her eyelashes at him and he’d be a little more agreeable.” Richard referred to my faithful assistant. Faithful to me, that is, not to any man she’d ever known.

“At the church. Anyway, I think it would take a bit more than eyelash batting to calm Chef Henri down.”

I walked into the Colonnade and smiled. I often described it to my brides as “dramatic, yet feminine,” and it ranked as one of my favorite ballrooms in the city. Walled entirely in glass, it looked out onto an open air courtyard that had a massive granite fountain and brightly colored flowers that were changed according to the season. At the moment, they were vibrant autumn shades of yellow and orange.

Inside, waiters lit votive candles around the ledge of the raised gazebo that took up the center of the room. Garlands of red roses curved around the gazebo’s whitewashed columns, and tiny rosebuds strung on transparent thread hung between them to create a delicate curtain effect.

The bride had wanted to use elements from her Chinese background to personalize her wedding, so we’d incorporated lots of red, the Chinese color of celebration, and used signs from the Chinese zodiac in everything from the invitations to the ice sculptures. Huge mounds of deep crimson roses sat in the middle of each square table on crisscrossed red satin runners, and menu cards personalized with each guest’s zodiac sign had been tucked into the napkins.

Two giant ice carvings, a tiger and a rabbit, rose up from huge blocks of ice and faced each other across the room. The ice tiger stood on its hind legs with his two front paws extended, and represented the groom’s zodiac sign, while the rabbit had been carved in profile on its hind legs and represented the bride’s sign. The sculptures were lit from above with beams of white light, and they glistened like fine crystal. Despite my usual distaste for ice sculptures, I had to admit that the room was striking.

“I swear these waiters are going to push me over the edge. I don’t think a single one read the look book I put together for this event.” Richard’s voice crackled at me through static. “Are you still there, darling?”

“I’m admiring my handiwork, that’s all.” I walked back out into the hallway that led to the Colonnade.

“Is this the same little wedding planner who didn’t think she could compete with the grand dames of the industry only a couple of years ago?” A gasp. “Flat fold napkins, people, not fan-fold. This is not a Rotary lunch.”

I adjusted the flower arrangement on the marble credenza next to the ladies’ room and cradled the phone against my shoulder. Glancing in the mirror above the flowers, I brushed a long strand of auburn hair off my face. I pinched my cheeks to give them a bit a color and noticed that I actually had hollows now. The one advantage to having brides run you ragged—no time to eat!

“I’ve come a long way under your watchful eye, Richard.”

“Don’t mention it. Name your firstborn child after me and we’ll call it even.”

I laughed. “That’s a safe promise since I haven’t even had a date in months.” To be completely honest, I hadn’t had a real boyfriend since I started Wedding Belles four years ago.

“Don’t be down on yourself, darling. You’ve had some nibbles,” Richard reassured me, and then his voice rose to a shriek. “What are the frosted champagne flutes doing on the tables? They’re for passing only. Did anyone read their timeline?”

“By nibbles do you mean the pastry chef who had a lisp or the bartender who ended up taking home a bridesmaid?”

“Those are bad examples, Annie. What about the detective we dealt with on that murder case?” Glass shattered in the background. “If they broke my etched-glass water goblets, I’m going to die.”

“Detective Reese?” I tried to play it cool, but I felt my face get warm at the thought of the dark-haired cop. We’d met when one of my former clients had turned up dead in the middle of the wedding reception and Richard and I had gotten tangled up in the investigation, much to the detective’s dismay. I dismissed the fluttery feeling in my stomach when I remembered that I hadn’t heard from the detective in the months following the case. Not that I’d expected to, of course. “When would I ever see him again? It’s not like we run in the same circles.”

Richard let out a breath. “Why wait for him to make the first move? Maybe you could happen to drop by the station and bump into him.”

“That’s not my style and you know it,” I protested.

“I didn’t know you had a style, darling.”

I gave a fake laugh. “Very funny. What possible reason would I have to be at the police station? Unless I wanted to report one of my brides for harassment.”

“Don’t tell me bridezilla is still calling you at home all the time?”

“She called me last night at eleven o’clock to tell me that her honeymoon resort would be featured on a special segment of the news.” I rolled my eyes. “I don’t know how she got my home number in the first place.”

Richard groaned. “I think that qualifies as grounds for a restraining order. When is her wedding, anyway?”

“I’ll be rid of her in November, if I survive her neuroses that long. Only a couple more months.” My call waiting beeped in, and I recognized Kate’s number. “I’ve got to run. That’s Kate on the other line calling from the ceremony.” I clicked over and could hear lots of voices in the background.

“I just loaded the last trolley with guests and we’re on our way. The first one should be there any minute. The videographer is on it, so maybe she can get room shots before most of the guests arrive.”

“Good thinking, Kate.” I hurried toward the hotel lobby so I could spot the old-fashioned open-aired trolley when it arrived. “I’ll see you when you get here.”

I dropped my phone into my jacket pocket and took out my crumpled wedding timeline. The photographer had flown through the formal portraits, the limousines had been on time, and the bride had even been ready early. We were perfectly on schedule. I closed my eyes and let out a long breath. I knew not to trust the calm before the storm.

“Asleep on the job, are we?” A Scottish accent pulled me out of my momentary rest. My eyes flew open. His spiky blond hair and the tattoos that covered his arms were offset by a black muscle shirt and traditional red kilt. I wasn’t an expert on formal Scottish attire, but I didn’t think that leather, lace-up Captain America boots were usually part of the outfit.

The band. They had declined to go along with our theme, not that I could blame them. It wouldn’t make much sense for an all-eighties rock band called “The Breakfast Club” to dress like geisha girls. The band agent had assured me that not everyone in the band wore kilts. The rest of the foursome sported leather pants, feathered hair, and Miami Vice jackets. Not your typical wedding band by a long shot.

He watched me give him the once-over and grinned. “We’re dressed and finished with our sound checks.”

I glanced at my watch. “That was fast.” Usually bands took forever to set up.

Captain America gave me a wink. “We’re good.” Uh-oh. Cute band guys were always trouble, especially if they knew they were cute. I could see it coming a mile away. By the end of the evening half of the bridesmaids would be all over this guy. I hope he didn’t think I was falling for it. Before I could put on my I-mean-business wedding planner face, he reached out and touched my hair.

“Are you by any chance Scottish?”

“A bit,” I found myself stammering. My usual composure had clearly abandoned me. “And some Irish.”

He nodded and locked eyes with me. “I have a thing for redheads.”

He turned and walked out of the lobby, looking back once to smile. My I-mean-business wedding planner face had been shot to hell, and I felt lucky just to keep my mouth from gaping open. The bridesmaids didn’t stand a chance.

Usually Kate attracted most of the male attention at weddings with her bouncy, blond hair and come-hither heels. I’d been able to steer clear with sensible shoes and a general disregard for primping. I pulled my hair back into a quick bun as I gave myself a mental shake. I didn’t have time to get flustered by a bad boy musician who probably flirted with everyone. Even if he did have a thing for redheads.

“They’re right behind me.” Fern dashed through the front doors waving a hairbrush. He wore his dark hair in a tight ponytail, and I suspected he’d coordinated his red brocade jacket to go with the decor.

Fern had become known as the wedding hair guru in Washington because of his attentiveness to brides. He insisted on doing the final touches only moments before the bridal processional, and he always waited until after the ceremony to repair his masterpieces. Sometimes I feared that he would actually start walking down the aisle with the bride, hair spraying in time to the music.

Now, the ceremony over, Fern had beat a hasty retreat from the church to the Fairmont. He ran past me, blowing me an air kiss with one hand. “I have to find my equipment case before the bride arrives. I barely beat the trolleys over here.”

Sure enough, the orange and gold Old Town Trolley pulled up in front of the glass doors, and guests began emptying out. I met the videographer as she came through the doors, battery packs and wires barely peeking out from under her black suit jacket. One of the few female videographers in the city, Joni was also one of the most talented and the chattiest. I had to be careful or I’d find myself gabbing with her for half an hour.

“Hey, Joni. We’re in a big rush. Could you get some shots of the courtyard before the guests wreck everything?” I pointed out the enormous arrangement of red tulips by the door to the outdoor courtyard and the masses of red rose blooms we’d floated in the fountain.

“Then once you’ve got that, you can go inside to the Colonnade. The bride wants lots of detail shots of the ice sculptures.”

“Wait until you see the footage I got of the bird loose in the church. I think the bride’s aunt is still trying to get the bird poop out of her hair.”

I cringed and made a mental note to look for the wet wipes in my emergency kit. I was sure they could handle bird poop.

“Can you show me later?” I gave her a prod toward the courtyard, where people were beginning to descend.

“Sure, just remind me.” Joni also had the attention span of a fruit fly and she knew it. She hurried off past the guests, who were being distracted by the line of waiters offering trays of ginseng lemonade and green tea martinis, the specialty drinks for the evening. The pianist played tunes from Madame Butterfly in the background as guests mingled around the bar and moved outside to the courtyard. So far, so good.

Time to deal with Chef Henri. Taking a deep breath, I walked back into the Colonnade and went immediately into the kitchen, expecting to be greeted by the usual bustle of the waiters and grumbling of the chef. Nothing. All the waiters must have been passing hors d’oeuvres, and Chef Henri had probably decided to go off somewhere to pout. Perfect. A hundred eighty guests would be sitting down to dinner in less than an hour and I had no chef.

I stormed out the swinging exit door that led to the far side of the Colonnade and stopped short. Taking a few steps forward, I grabbed the back of a chair to keep my knees from buckling.

I had found Chef Henri.

I didn’t know whether the blue tinge on his skin was connected to the blood that covered the lower part of his chef’s jacket or was a result of his being impaled on the outstretched claw of the enormous ice tiger. All I knew was that he looked very cold and very dead.

Chapter Two

“A horrible crime has been committed!” Fern’s shrieks carried across the room. Could he see across the room to where I stood in front of the dead, now dripping chef? “Where are you, Annabelle? My styling case has been stolen.”

“I’m on the other side,” I managed to call out. I could hear Fern’s indignant footsteps, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the impaled chef to turn around.

“Who do I speak to about lodging a complai . . . ?” Fern’s voice trailed off as he walked up beside me. “Oh dear. Tell me this isn’t the chef you had a fight with.”

My mouth dropped open. “How did you know I had a fight with him?”

“Kate told me after you called her at the ceremony.” He cocked his head to the side. “He doesn’t look very good, Annabelle. Is he dead?”

I nodded my head and took a deep breath to keep from getting sick. I usually felt faint when I had to get my finger pricked at the doctor, and the sight of this much blood made my legs feel like cooked spaghetti.

“Poor fellow.” Fern’s expression was somber, then he nudged me with one elbow. “I must admit, honey, I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“I didn’t do it!” I cried as I looked away from the body. “I found him like this.”

Fern put a hand to his temple and slumped against me. “Well, that’s a relief. I was going to suggest some anger management courses, but if you’re sure you didn’t . . .”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “I’m sure.”

“Of course I didn’t really think you could do something like this. Even with all that stress you’ve got pent up from a severe lack of sex.” Fern shook his head. I knew my lackluster love life scandalized him more than the dead body. “It would take a lot of strength to kill someone this way. What kind of ice sculpture is this?”

“A tiger. The groom’s sign from the Chinese zodiac.”

Fern walked close to the body. “So he’s impaled on the tiger’s arm?”

“The claws.” I motioned to the sculpture without looking. “You can’t see them anymore, but the tiger had big claws.”

Fern raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t seem very safe.”

“We didn’t expect anyone to fall on them,” I explained, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice.

“I hate to break it to you.” Fern put his hands on his hips. “I don’t think he fell. He had to have been pushed.”

My head started to pound. “I need to sit down.” I walked to the nearest table and pulled out a chair to collapse into. As unpleasant as Henri had been to me, I felt horrible that he had been murdered and a bit guilty for thinking such mean thoughts about him.

“Where is everyone?” Kate’s voice carried from the doorway, and then I saw her blond head bobbing toward me. I nudged Fern to stand in front of the ice sculpture, so she wouldn’t start screaming at the sight of the corpse.

Kate barely glanced up as she plopped down in the chair next to me and dropped her pink Kate Spade bag on the floor. She shrugged herself out of the jacket that covered the backless dress I’d forbidden her to wear. “Now don’t get upset, Annabelle, but we might have to fly into the ointment.”

“You mean a fly in the ointment?” Kate’s ability to mangle even the most common expression scared me. Lately some of her word concoctions had started to make sense, which scared me even more. “We already have one.”

“Why?” Kate’s eyes widened. “Is Chef Henri still being impossible?”

Fern stepped away from the ice sculpture. “I wouldn’t say that exactly.”

Kate saw the body and jumped up, promptly losing balance on her stiletto heels and stumbling to the side. She gave a yelp as she fell, and I lunged to catch her. Fern moved neatly out of the way as the two of us went down, arms flailing. I lay on my back, assessing the possibility of serious injury, until I heard a familiar Scottish accent.

“Should I ask what you’re doing down there or assume that you have everything under control?” I looked up at the kilt-wearing bandleader, who had one eyebrow raised and appeared to be stifling a great deal of laughter. Fabulous. He was a smart-ass, too.

“You could give me a hand if you have nothing better to do,” I grumbled.

He winked at me as he pulled me up. “I can’t think of anything that could be better.”

Did women really fall for this? Kate, still on the ground, cleared her throat loudly and stared at the Scottish equivalent of David Bowie. Apparently they did.

Fern ignored Kate’s protests as he pulled her up, and then turned to me. “What’s with the kilt? I thought you said this wedding had an Asian theme.”

“He’s with the band,” I explained, trying to keep the impatience out of my voice. Fern gave me a knowing look and nodded.

“What’s with the kilt?” Kate practically screamed. “How about what’s with the dead guy?”

“That’s the chef.” Fern put an arm around Kate. “The one Annabelle had the fight with, but she swears she didn’t kill him. Between you and me, I don’t think she has the strength to do it, anyway.”

“I’m still in the room, you know.” I rubbed my temples where my head had started to pound.

Kilt-boy inspected the corpse closely. “This isn’t part of the decor?”

Fern gasped. “What kind of weddings do you have in Scotland?”

“American weddings are supposed to be really different and outrageous. Don’t you have Renaissance themes and the like?”

“That’s a very small, off-beat part of the population,” I explained. “We certainly don’t have murder- themed weddings. Not in Washington, at least.”

“Can we continue this discussion somewhere away from Chef Henri?” Kate backed away, her voice trembling. “This is horrible. He’s blue.”

Fern shuddered. “I’m sure the ice is cold.”

“I don’t think frostbite is what got him.” Kate rubbed her arms as if trying to warm herself. “I can’t believe he’s dead, even if he was impossible to work with.”

I glanced at the pale lips and flat, expressionless eyes, then looked away and took a long breath. The man who had been such a terror to me earlier hardly seemed imposing now. Chef Henri had been far from beloved, but I wondered who hated him enough to do this.

“Annabelle, are you in here?”

“Richard?” I didn’t know whether to be relieved or concerned. Richard usually didn’t decrease the drama in a situation. “I’m on the other side of the gazebo.”

“My event doesn’t start for another hour, so 1 came over to try to help you out with Chef Henri . . .” His words trailed off as he came into view of the spectacularly lit chef impaled on an ice tiger that was being inspected by a heavily tattooed Scotsman.

“Now, Richard,” I said, then stopped. I didn’t know where to begin. In this case, it was as bad as it looked.

“Oh my God.” He put both hands to his head, without disturbing the dark, choppy hair that I knew he’d painstakingly arranged to look messy. “Can you explain this catastrophe?”

“Don’t worry,” Fern reassured him. “He’s with the band.”

Richard didn’t take his eyes off the spectacle in front of him. “How long has he been here?”

Fern turned to me. “When did the band arrive?”

“I’m talking about the dead body hanging off that ice monstrosity.” Richard kept his voice level, but his face had started to turn an unpleasant shade of pink under his spray-on tan.

“I found him like this a few minutes ago,” I said. “I meant to call the police right away but Fern came in, then Kate got here, then the bandleader found all of us—”

Richard held up a hand to silence me. “So the police haven’t been notified yet? Shall I help you move him onto the dance floor so guests could dance around him?”

Fern’s eyes widened. “Oh, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

So much for sarcasm. Richard cast his eyes heavenward and muttered under his breath.

“I’m telling you, Richard, we just found him,” I insisted. “He can’t have been dead very long.”

Richard walked up to the chef as he pulled out his cell phone. “Are you people out of your minds? He’s melting. I’m going to call the police before there’s nothing left but a body balancing on an ice cube.” He leaned in close to the corpse. “Is this Henri?”

“You mean the chef I had the big fight with that everyone seems to know about?” I glared at Kate, who began busily inspecting the carpet. “Yep. You can call me Miss Motive.”

Richard closed his phone and the color drained from his face. “I didn’t recognize him.”

Fern gave a sad shake of his head. “He doesn’t look his best, I’m sure. Which is a shame, because with the right haircut I’ll bet he could look quite attractive.”

“I know he wasn’t the most popular chef in town but I didn’t know anyone hated him enough to do this.” Richard’s voice caught in his throat. “This is not good, Annabelle.”

“Thank you for noticing. At least no one from the wedding has seen him yet.”

“Um, Annabelle.” Kate tugged on my sleeve.

I turned around and found myself face-to-face with the bride. Crap. She let the cathedral-length veil that had been draped across her arm drop to the floor, and her dramatically made-up eyes were fixed on Chef Henri. I could be pretty sure this wasn’t how she’d pictured her wedding day.

I opened my mouth to reassure her that everything would be fine, but I was too late. For such a petite, demure-looking girl, she could really scream. My hair stood on end as I clutched my hands over my ears, and I feared the glass walls of the room would shatter at any moment.

Richard jumped at the noise, and his phone flew straight up in the air. Reaching back to catch it, he stumbled into the corpse and the ice tiger teetered precariously on its base. As the massive sculpture began to lurch backward, Richard grabbed the chef to keep it from falling. The bride stopped screaming abruptly and her knees buckled as she sank to the floor. Fern caught her by the veil before she hit the ground.

“I think I might be sick.” Richard put one hand over his mouth as the other clung to the dark, wet strands of hair that were once part of the dead chef’s tragic comb- over.

“Hold on and I’ll push from the other side.” The bandleader took a few long strides around the ice sculpture.

“Stop right where you are,” a deep voice boomed from behind us. I spun on my heels and saw a uniformed police officer with a hand above his holster. “Nobody move.”

I looked on helplessly as the bride’s veil gave way and she hit the carpet face first with a soft thud, leaving Fern holding a handful of white tulle. Richard let out a barely audible squeak before Chef Henri’s hair slipped through his fingers and the giant ice tiger crashed to the ground, corpse and all.