Enjoy this sneak peek of the new Annabelle Archer novel (#10 in the series)!
TO LOVE AND TO PERISH
“I’m not sure if I’m up for an OWP meeting, Annabelle.” My assistant, Kate, peeked at me from over the top of large sunglasses.
“We missed the last one,” I said, taking note of her bloodshot eyes and slightly tousled blond bob. “And the Organization of Wedding Professionals is a good way to network. Besides, the back-to-school meeting is always one of the most well-attended.”
“I don’t know why they call it back-to-school,” Kate said. “It’s not like weddings have anything to do with school. We don’t even get a summer break.”
She had a point. As wedding planners, we’d worked nearly every weekend straight through the summer. Even the usually slow months of July and August had been filled with brides who’d been boxed out of the popular spring and fall dates or had been looking for off-season deals.
“You know event people,” I said. “Any excuse for a themed party.”
“If they serve food on cafeteria lunch trays, I’m leaving,” Kate grumbled, hiking her hot-pink Kate Spade purse over her shoulder.
We’d walked inside the circular lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel after dropping my car off with the valets. The lobby buzzed with activity, and the line at the front desk was several people deep. Heels clicked on the marble floor as people rushed by us, and bellmen pushed brass carts laden with luggage toward the elevators.
I pulled out a black hair elastic and let my auburn hair spill down my back. Even though I spent most of my life wearing a ponytail, I tried to remember to let my hair loose at social events. Literally, not figuratively. I left the figuratively part to Kate.
Kate stamped her feet next to me, and the sound echoed off the dark tile floor. “I thought September in Washington was supposed to be warm. Indian summer and all.”
I glanced down at the black strappy stilettos that covered barely any of her feet. “You do know we got this cool weather a few days ago, right?”
Kate believed in style over substance and fashion over comfort, even if that meant shoes that left her feet exposed. She also believed in only wearing shoes that showed off her legs. That meant heels. High ones. I believed in not freezing my toes or breaking my ankles, so I chose shoes that were decidedly less sexy and perilous. Kate also felt this was one of the reasons she had so many more dates than I did.
“The weather’s too unpredictable,” she said as she raised a hand to cover her yawn. “I can’t keep up anymore.”
I gave her a pointed look. “Speaking of keeping up, do you think you can today? Or did you stay out too late last night?”
“I was networking,” Kate said as she followed me across the lobby toward the escalator leading downstairs, the sound of her heels sending sonar pings across the lobby.
I stepped onto the down escalator and twisted to face her. “How is a night of drinking considered networking?”
“I was out with the assistant crew.” She pulled a packet of Haribo gummy bears out of her coat pocket and extended it to me, shaking a few brightly colored bears into my open palm. Gummy bears were Kate’s go-to sustenance on wedding days, and she kept favor-sized cellophane pouches of them stashed in her pockets.
I popped the sticky candy in my mouth and enjoyed the momentary sugar rush, even though I knew the packet was a holdover from our wedding the past weekend. “That barely counts.”
The assistant crew was a group of women who worked for the city’s elite wedding vendors and had bonded over bridezillas and their single status. The group got together for cocktails once a month to share both wedding and dating advice. Even though I was single and had seen more than my fair share of bridal terrors, I didn’t join them. As the owner of the wedding planning company Wedding Belles, I was a boss, and the group was for assistants only. Plus, I was over thirty, unlike the twentysomethings of the group. Not that I minded. I had enough dealings with the under-thirty crowd just working with Kate.
“But I’ve got some good gossip for you,” she said as we reached the bottom of the escalator and stepped off.
I sighed. “You’re getting as bad as Fern.”
She shook a finger at me. “Au contraire. Our hairdresser friend makes up his gossip. Mine is 100 percent true.”
I paused in front of a round wooden table with a towering arrangement of yellow lilies. Rows of tented escort cards that looked like mini chalkboards were arranged in spokes beneath it. I scanned the first row of cards for my name and found “Annabelle Archer” written in calligraphy that looked like chalk. “Enlighten me.”
“You remember Cassie from the floral warehouse, right?” Kate plucked her mini chalkboard from the table. “She’s dating yet another guy from the warehouse even though we’ve all told her not to. And Sasha was telling us how horrible it’s been interning for Carolyn Crabbe.”
“Well, she’s not known for being easy to work for.” I kept my voice low as a few people approached to find their escort cards. Since this was a meeting of wedding professionals, there was a decent chance that Carolyn Crabbe, one of the most established wedding planners in town, would be in attendance. “Aren’t there two interns with her this year?”
Kate nodded. “Julia wasn’t there last night. Sasha said she missed work too, although if I had to work for the Queen of Mean, I might call in sick a few times myself.”
I didn’t want to say so aloud, but I agreed with Kate. Aside from being one of the grande dames of the Washington wedding planner world, Carolyn was known for her short temper and her fondness for berating anyone in her path. I’d had the misfortune of meeting her once at an OWP meeting. She’d wrinkled her nose when I told her the name of my company, given me the once-over, and then announced loudly that I should cut my hair if I wanted to be taken seriously.
I motioned for Kate to follow me down the hall toward the Oriental ballroom where a black lacquer bar had been set up in the hallway. Since we were early, only a handful of people stood in line, and an equal number stood nearby with drinks already in hand.
I eyed the cocktails in people’s hands: highball glasses filled with what looked like chocolate, strawberry, and white milk. “I get the back-to-school theme, but I hope they’re serving more than milk.”
A waiter approached with a tray of drinks. “Would you care for a rum milkshake?”
“At least they’re shakes,” I said as I took a boozy chocolate milkshake.
Kate shuddered. “Do you think they have anything virgin?”
“That’s a word I don’t hear you use often,” I said.
She rubbed her temples. “I’m too tired to zing one back at you.”
I patted her arm. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be teasing you.” I led her over to the bar. “Let’s get you some ginger ale.”
We made our way to a bar decorated with stacks of shiny-red apples, bundles of yellow pencils, and wooden rulers. They were hammering this back-to-school theme pretty hard, and I wondered if a mitzvah planner had been in charge. They were the masters of themed parties related to kids.
Kate sidled up to a woman with glossy black curls. “Hey, Sasha. Long time, no see.”
The young woman laughed. “Look at us both standing upright.” She raised the clear highball glass garnished with a wedge of lime that the bartender handed her. “Here’s to club soda.”
“Have you met my boss?” Kate asked, indicating me with a nod.
Sasha’s eyes opened wider and she held out a hand. “It’s so nice to meet you. Kate talks about you all the time.”
Uh oh. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. Kate could over-share when she’d had a few too many cocktails.
“Good things,” Kate said before I could ask.
Sasha glanced behind her. “You haven’t seen Carolyn have you?”
“Your boss?” Kate followed Sasha’s nervous gaze. “Are you trying to avoid her?”
Sasha leaned in and lowered her voice. “Always.”
We were close enough to the string quartet at the end of the hall that I doubted anyone more than a few feet away could hear us over the instrumental version of “The Wheels on the Bus.” I glanced over the growing crowd but didn’t spot Carolyn Crabbe’s blatantly blond hair. I did spot a magician who had the bad habit of trying to pull money out of my ears, so I angled myself away from his line of sight.
Kate ordered a ginger ale from the bartender while I took a sip from my glass and felt guilty for enjoying the chocolate drink as much as I did. I couldn’t even taste the rum, which I knew was dangerous.
“How’s your internship going?” I asked Sasha, sizing her up to be no more than a year or two into her twenties.
She cringed. “You wouldn’t happen to be hiring, would you?”
Kate drained half of her ginger ale in one gulp. “I’ve always wanted my own intern.”
As much as I loved the idea of extra hands, we barely had room for Kate and me to work in my home office. I moved to avoid a passing cluster of mommy photographers turned wedding shooters. “I wish we were, but we’re really a two-person wedding planning team.”
Sasha gave me a knowing smile. “When you aren’t solving crimes, right?”
I took a drink of milkshake and coughed. “Where did you hear that?”
Sasha glanced at Kate. “Kate might have mentioned some of your adventures with the police.”
I stared down Kate as I put a hand on my hip. I could only imagine how she’d embellished our previous involvement in a few criminal investigations. “I’m sure she did.”
Kate finished her drink and slipped the empty glass onto a passing waiter’s tray. “I may have casually mentioned we’d solved a few murders and we’re tight with a detective.”
“We’re tight with a detective?”
“Okay.” Kate let out a breath. “Some of us are closer with him, although I don’t know why since you’re stringing him along.”
“I’m doing no such thing,” I said, pivoting to fully face her. “Just because I haven’t committed to moving in together does not mean I’m stringing him along. We’re actually in a good place right now.”
“Two separate ones,” Kate muttered.
“Moving in together is a big step, and I’m not sure if I’m ready yet.” Had it gotten warmer or was it just me? “I’ve had my own place for years, not to mention the fact that we run Wedding Belles out of my apartment.”
“It’s not like he’ll be around all the time,” Kate said. “His work as a detective seems to give him as crazy a schedule as we have. At least if you’re living in the same place you’ll get to see each other more. When’s the last time you two managed to have a date where he didn’t get called out to work?”
She had a point. My boyfriend, DC police detective Mike Reese, had been working crazy hours since his department was understaffed, and it had been hard to find time that hadn’t been interrupted by a call from one of my brides or his police captain.
Kate gave me a pointed look. “I think this has more to do with Richard.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said, taking a goblet of water off a waiter’s passing tray and depositing my empty milkshake glass in its place. “Richard is my best friend. He’s certainly not competition for Reese.”
“Not in that way maybe,” Kate said. “But I think he’s got you freaked out because he’s so worried things will change if you and Reese get more serious.”
I hated that Kate was a little bit right. Richard had been my best friend since I’d moved to DC and started my own wedding planning company. He’d been slowly warming up to the detective, and part of my hesitation had to do with not wanting that warming-up process to stall. I pushed those thoughts from my mind.
“Do you two need to talk alone?” Sasha asked, ping-ponging her head between the two of us.
“No, we’re fine.” I moved closer to her as I was jostled from behind. The hall was becoming crowded as more people arrived, and the sound of small talk had risen to a din.
Sasha’s face froze as something caught her eye behind me. “I’d better go. Can’t be seen hanging with the competition.”
I twisted around but didn’t spot her boss, not that I was even sure Carolyn Crabbe knew who we were. Like most of DC’s event planning grande dames, she liked to pretend not to notice us.
Kate gave Sasha a wave as she moved away from us, then turned to me. “Do you think they’re serving beets again this time? I can’t stand beets.”
I guess we were done talking about my relationship with Reese, which suited me.
“The beet salad at the Reagan Building lunch was delicious,” I said. “Even Richard asked for the recipe.”
Kate stood on her tiptoes to peer over the crowd. “Do you think he’s coming today?”
“I doubt it. He has a ton of corporate events this week. He can’t spare the time for a networking lunch. Especially since I roped him into helping us on tomorrow’s wedding.”
I studied the crowd. Mostly other wedding planners. Quite a few even younger and newer than us. The young ones ran in packs, and I could see several gaggles of twentysomethings in trendy dresses moving through the hall. I spotted a group of male photographers wearing black and eyeing the young planners. I didn’t spot Maxwell Gray, a noted wedding photographer and the city’s most notorious lothario, and gave a sigh of relief. The floral designers were the most eclectic bunch: a hippy in a peasant dress who specialized in organic blooms, a burly bearded man in a purple paisley shirt who built all his own props, and a pair of redheaded twin sisters who’d become Instagram celebrities for their on-trend bouquets. Our go-to floral designers were nowhere to be seen, and at over three hundred pounds and wearing black leather and chains, they were hard to miss.
A waiter holding a clear Plexiglass painter’s palette filled with miniature cones of tuna tartare paused in front of us. We both took a crackly cone.
“Feeling better?” I asked, popping the entire miniature cone of spicy tuna into my mouth as Kate did the same.
“Ginger ale worked like a charm.” Kate tilted her head to one side. “Am I hallucinating, or are the strings playing the theme to Sesame Street?”
I swallowed the large bite of tuna tartare. “They may have taken the back-to-school theme a little far.”
Kate’s eyes widened. “Creepy magician headed our way.” She spun me around and gave me a push. “Hurry.”
I snaked my way through the tightly packed people, greeting those I recognized and trying not to run anyone over as Kate prodded me from behind. I reached a corner and rounded it. “Oomph.”
“Annabelle! Kate!” Our favorite wedding cake baker, Alexandra, stood in front of me, her long brown hair in a high bun dotted with pearl pins. She wore a snug-fitting red dress and black knee-high boots. You’d never imagine someone as thin and sexy as she was peddled buttercream and sugar flowers for a living. Even though she’d moved to Scotland a few years ago, she still flew in to do our important cakes and hit the beginning-of-season events. I knew we’d see her back again in December for the holiday parties. Not to mention our huge Christmas wedding.
Kate cast a look over her shoulder to locate the magician. “Okay, he stopped to talk to a DJ.” She stepped back and assessed Alexandra. “Great dress.”
Alexandra waved away her compliment. “Go on, you.” Her throaty voice belied a soft accent that held hints of Eastern Europe though she never claimed one country.
“All done with our cake for tomorrow?” I asked.
Alexandra’s face brightened. “It’s going to be gorgeous. Nine layers and covered in gold dust. I had to buy out the town. It’s much more glamorous than my other cake at The Mayflower.”
“You have another cake at The Mayflower Hotel on Saturday?” I said. When we’d booked our client’s wedding, the hotel had been ours. Obviously, things had changed. “A wedding?”
Kate frowned. “Two brides in the same hotel? Not good.”
I agreed with Kate. We never wanted our bride to run into another girl in a white dress on her wedding day. It ruined the feeling she was special. And if the other bride was prettier than she was or had a more fabulous gown? Disaster.
“However, the other wedding is small,” Alexandra said. “The cake is one of those chic little things covered in blush pink ruffles. Sweet but overdone.” She put a finger to her lips. “But don’t tell Carolyn I said that.”
“Carolyn?” I felt a growing knot in my stomach.
“Carolyn Crabbe,” Alexandra said. “To be honest, I hate working with her, but she offered me a huge amount of money to do this teensy cake. Besides, I was already flying across the pond for your wedding.”
“So we’re going to have to work around the Queen of Mean tomorrow?” Kate said under her breath. “This should be fun.”
It looked like our wedding’s difficulty level had just gone to eleven.
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