Congratulations! If you clicked over from my newsletter, you are entered in the drawing for a signed paperbacks. Nothing more to do. Below is the first chapter of book 12 in the Annabelle Archer Wedding Planner mystery series. Happy Valentine’s Day!
THE TRUFFLE WITH WEDDINGS
“That’s the last of it, Annabelle,” my assistant Kate said as she carried a cardboard box into my apartment and dropped it on the floor with a thud. “I’m just sad we have to carry it all back down again in a few days.”
“It may only be candy, but I still don’t think it’s safe to leave it in your car until the wedding on Saturday.” I eyed the collection of white cardboard boxes now scattered around my living room floor and rubbed my arms for warmth after carrying boxes in from outside.
She sank onto my yellow overstuffed couch and relaxed her head so her blond bob draped over the back. “It’s not like it was going to melt. First of all, it’s February and it’s below freezing out there, and secondly, it’s all hard candies.” She pulled her head up and grinned. “Wait a second. Did we order gummies for them?”
“If gummies come in all red or all pink, then we ordered them.” It wasn’t long ago that I’d placed the order for about twenty different varieties of pink and red candies to be displayed on our client’s “candy bar”–everything from Twizzlers to giant baby-pink gumballs to Red Hots to strawberry-flavored rock candy.
As the owner of Wedding Belles, one of Washington, DC’s top wedding planning companies, I’d put together my fair share of candy displays. Despite being a fad that had come into fashion years ago, brides and grooms still loved having a table covered with giant glass apothecary jars filled with candies for guests to scoop into bags and take home as favors–even if Kate and I had grown weary of it. The only upside, as Kate saw it, was when the clients stocked their display with gummy bears, which were her go-to wedding day snack, and the thing that gave both of us the needed sugar boost to make it through the reception.
She sat forward and began nudging the boxes with the toe of her black high-heeled boot, squinting at the labels on the side. “Please tell me they got the Haribo Happy Cherries.”
I sighed as I headed for the kitchen and the cup of coffee I’d abandoned when Kate arrived. “Somehow I don’t think cherries scream ‘love’ enough for Amelia.”
“I’m going to scream something before this wedding is over, and it’s not going to be about love,” Kate grumbled. “I mean, I get it. Valentine’s-themed wedding the day before February 14th. You don’t pick that date unless you’re either obsessed with the holiday or enjoy paying twice as much for your flowers. Do I smell coffee?”
I peered over the open divider between my living room and galley kitchen, took a sip of my now lukewarm mocha-flavored coffee, and filled a mug for Kate from my French press. “I thought Valentine’s Day was your holiday. Isn’t Cupid your patron saint?”
Kate laughed. “Far from it. Cupid’s known for his arrow hitting the mark. I, for one, am too young to settle down with just one guy. Not that it isn’t great for some people.”
I walked back into the living room and handed her a steaming mug of coffee. “Subtle. Real subtle.” I knew she meant me and my boyfriend, Detective Mike Reese. He’d moved in a couple of months earlier, and I was still adjusting to the fact that I had a serious boyfriend and one that never left. “I thought you liked Reese.”
Kate sipped her coffee, her hands wrapped around the sides of the mug for warmth. “I do. He’s great.” She glanced around the room, her eyes catching on one of his blazers slung across a dining room chair and a Sports Illustrated open on the glass-topped coffee table. “I don’t know if I’d be able to narrow my field down to one.”
Kate had always enjoyed an active social life, and I’d long since given up trying to keep track of the men she dated. I took the upholstered chair across from her, tucking my feet up under me. “How large of a field are we talking?”
She wagged an eyebrow at me. “So far I have three dates for Valentine’s Day.”
I almost choked on my coffee. “Three? On one day?”
“Don’t look at me like that.” She sat forward and put her mug down. “It may have gotten a little out of hand, but Fern’s promised to help me manage it.”
“How reassuring,” I said, letting the sarcasm drip from my voice. Fern was our friend and go-to hairdresser who dolled-up all of our brides on their wedding days. He was known for precision cuts, meticulously themed outfits, and statement jewelry. He was not known for lowering the stress level of any situation, so I couldn’t imagine how he would make juggling three dates anything less than a circus.
“I just hope I have the energy for three dates in a row after our wedding. What time do we end again on Saturday?”
“Midnight,” I said. “The usual. Unless the bride decides to extend.”
Kate held her fingers up to make air quotes. “I’m sure she will, because everything will be ‘Ah-mazing.'”
We’d dubbed our Valentine’s Day bride ‘Ah-mazing Ah-melia’ because she declared everything to be amazing and spoke like an Instagram caption complete with hashtags.
“Enough about my Valentine’s plans,” Kate said. “What do you and hottie cop have on the books for your first official V-D?”
Leave it to Kate to make the Hallmark holiday sound like something salacious. I felt my cheeks warm and brought my mug to my lips to cover them. “We haven’t talked about it. I’m sure we’ll do something low-key here.”
Kate’s eyes opened wide. “Are you telling me you haven’t gotten anything for him yet? No card? No tasteful lingerie? No edible underwear?” She tapped her wrist even though she wore no watch. “Ticktock, Annabelle. It’s already Tuesday. Less than a week to go. You don’t want to be stuck digging through the dregs of the kinky underwear bin.”
“What? No, of course not. What kinky underwear bin?” I held up a palm. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.” I instinctively looked toward the door, glad no one could hear through the thick walls of my old apartment building. “Do I need to remind you that Valentine’s Day is about love and romance?”
“I wish you did. I feel like I’ve had about as much Valentine’s Day romance as I can handle by planning Ah-melia’s wedding. It’s been nine months of tracking down cupid wings for flower girls and doves that can fly in heart-shaped formations. I am over it.”
I knew what she meant. The bride had gone all-in on her theme, and I was feeling the Saint Valentine saturation myself. Maybe that was why I’d been putting off discussing plans with Reese. It felt strange to talk about romance when I planned it for a living. Of course, that didn’t explain why he hadn’t mentioned anything. I hoped he wasn’t one of those men who refused to celebrate the holiday on the principle that it was a made-up day to sell cards and candy.
“Only a few more days,” I said, holding up my mug in salute, “and we won’t have to see anything red or heart shaped for a while.”
Before I could take a drink, my door flew open and Richard staggered in holding two large white shopping bags. As he set the bags on the floor, a red heart-shaped box tumbled out of one and onto the rug covering my hardwoods.
“Et tu, Brutus?” I asked as my best friend and arguably the city’s best caterer, Richard Gerard, unwound the gray cashmere scarf from his neck to reveal a pristine three-button suit in the same shade of gray with a pale-pink shirt and a gray tie.
“Are you two still sitting around gabbing?” He shook his head. “Some of us have been out making deliveries since nine o’clock.”
Kate peered at the clock on my wall. “It’s only ten, and since when do you make deliveries?”
I angled my head at him. “Kate’s right. Don’t you have a terrified and beleaguered staff who do that for you?”
Richard narrowed his eyes at both of us as he bent to pick up the box. “I make deliveries when I’m going for the personal touch. You know I need to drum up more business after I was blackballed from the list.”
The list Richard referred to was the “Best Of” list that came out in Capital Weddings magazine’s January issue. Richard Gerard Catering had been on the list every year and had often received the “top vote getter” star beside its name, but this year he had been left off completely. Richard had not taken it well.
Kate leaned over to get a better look at the box in his hands. “So you’re giving Valentine’s Day bribes?”
“Gifts,” he said, smoothing the tag attached to the box. “A custom selection of gourmet chocolates from Fleurir.”
“How many of those do you have in there?” Kate asked.
Richard touched a hand to his dark choppy hair. “Enough for every event venue in the city.” His eyes darted to me. “And Annabelle convinced me to add one for the editor at Capital Weddings. I delivered that one yesterday.”
I stood up with my mug and headed for the kitchen, squeezing his arm as I passed him. “I told you the editor was nice. Did you get to see Marcie when you dropped it off?”
Richard nodded. “For a moment, and she was perfectly polite. At least that horrible Marcus wasn’t anywhere in sight.”
Richard had once fired Marcus, who had then gone on to work at Capital Weddings. Richard suspected Marcus was behind him being removed from the “Best Of” list as an act of revenge.
“I’ll bet she fired him,” Kate said. “She didn’t seem happy with him the last time we were there.”
“She probably wasn’t happy in general because we made such a scene,” I called over my shoulder as I set my mug in the kitchen sink. Actually, Richard had been the one to make the scene, but I didn’t want to call him out on it.
“Well, you can ask her when you see her at Love Brunch today,” Richard said. “She mentioned yesterday she was attending. And you know who else I saw when I was at her offices? Brianna from Brides by Brianna.” He wrinkled his nose. “Probably trying to toady up and get on the list. Tragic really.”
I didn’t point out he was doing the exact thing, as I knew he would not appreciate being compared to one of the newbie planners he considered a ditzy upstart. I peeked my head through the open space between the kitchen and living room. “Don’t you mean Love Lunch?”
“Nope.” Richard pulled back the French cuffs of his shirt to reveal his ever-present Cartier watch. “This year it’s a brunch. It starts in an hour.”
“What?” I rushed out of the kitchen. “Why didn’t you say something earlier when you noticed me wearing leggings and a ratty sweater?”
Richard blinked and gave me the once-over. “I thought it was one of those shapeless sweater dress creations you tend to favor, darling.”
I groaned and took off for my bedroom.
“Don’t forget the color we’re all supposed to wear this year is pink,” Kate yelled.
This holiday was going to be the death of me.
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