Enjoy this sneak peek of the upcoming Annabelle Archer cozy mystery. Available for pre-order now and will release on July 17th, 2018!
I stood underneath the high-peaked tent and gazed past the rows of wooden folding chairs to the lush green lawn. The massive house—built to resemble a Tuscan villa—sat at the top of the grassy slope, a long pool stretching out from its patio adorned with a statue of a Roman goddess at the far end. The white marble goddess already wore a floral wreath, evidence that my floral team had begun the pool area decor. I took my wedding day schedule from the pocket of my black dress and checked that off the timeline.
“So much for a mild summer,” I muttered, tucking a long strand of auburn hair back into my bun and raising my face to one of the fans tucked high in the corners of the tent. The warm air barely stirred from ten feet overhead. I would need to turn the fans to high before the two hundred plus wedding guests arrived and filled the tent. Even though the ceremony programs were printed on fans, I suspected they would be little help in the June heat.
I glanced at one of the white frilly programs already placed on the ceremony chairs face down so the fanned-out feathered back was the first thing the guests would see. I didn’t want to think back to how long it had taken me to find feathered fans to go with the wedding theme. Another reminder of why I hated planning themed weddings.
Since Washington, DC was a city known for understated and classic—people wanted to spend money without it seeming like they spent money— the closest my couples usually got to a theme was coordinating colors and perhaps syncing the cake and the favors. This bride and groom, on the other hand, had gone with the concept that “more is more” in insisting we recreate Carnival in Venice at the bride’s family’s home outside the city. We’d left “over the top” in the rearview mirror long ago, and at this point I felt grateful the bride hadn’t insisted on dredging her own Grand Canal in the backyard.
Two black-and-white clad figures waddled toward me from the house, their arms flapping at their side to help them keep their balance and their heads bobbing back and forth. I glanced down at my timeline again and put a check mark next to the line that read, “Penguins arrive.”
“Down here.” I waved my arms in the air so the handler could see me as I stepped out from under the tent to meet her, squinting in the bright sunlight.
The penguins came to a stop in front of me and I fought the urge to pet them, reminding myself these were wild animals even though they looked adorable. They were also the one element that wasn’t Venetian, but since the bride had collected penguins since she was a little girl, it had been on her “must have” list, despite my protests that wild Antarctic creatures were a bad idea on a wedding day.
“I’m Annabelle Archer with Wedding Belles. The wedding planner.” I extended my hand to the short-haired woman accompanying the penguins. “I think we spoke on the phone.”
The woman wiped her hands on the front of her gray cargo pants and shook my hand. “I know I’m a little early but I wanted to give myself time to find this place.”
“It’s a bit outside the city.” I cast my eyes over the sprawling estate with its wrought-iron gate, stately driveway lined with tall Italian cypress trees, and horse stables complete with rolling fields. It even smelled like we were far away from the city with the scent of cut grass—and the faintest trace of horse manure—in the air. “But look at the upside. There’s tons of free parking.”
She chuckled. “True. It’s better than hunting for a space in DC.”
“The bride decided against having the penguins carry the rings down the aisle.” I didn’t mention that I’d spent hours talking her out of this. After a bad experience with a pair of dogs running off with the wedding rings, I’d adopted a “no animals carrying expensive jewelry” policy.
“So just the photo shoot with the couple and mingling during cocktail hour?”
“You got it. We still have a couple of hours until go time, so why don’t you hang out in the house?” As if they heard me, the penguins turned and started waddling away. “I doubt your little guys like the heat.”
“I think they’re heading for the pool.”
I personally didn’t have a problem with the penguins taking a dip. “It’s salt-water. I think it’s safe.”
My assistant Kate did a double take as she passed the penguins on her way down the hill, stumbling a bit in her heels and catching herself before she tumbled the rest of the way.
“I forgot about the penguins,” she said when she reached me.
I tapped my schedule.
“I know, I know.” She flicked a hand through her blond bob. “I didn’t have time to memorize it yet, Herr Commandant.”
“Another date with the naval officer?” I asked, ducking back under the tent to avoid the sun.
She frowned. “He’s been deployed. No, last night’s date was with a lawyer who works at Langley.”
I tucked my schedule back in my pocket. “He’s a lawyer for the CIA?”
She put a finger to her lips and shot a glance over her shoulder. “I can’t talk about it.”
“You know he isn’t a spy, right?” I said. “They don’t send lawyers to infiltrate terrorist cells.”
“We don’t know that. What would be more of a surprise than a bunch of buttoned-up lawyers busting out the spy moves?” She leaned one hand on my arm as she stepped out of her heels and wiggled her toes.
“Not much,” I admitted, refraining from making a comment about the impracticality of wearing high heels to set up a wedding since I knew it would fall on deaf ears.
“Enough about my dating life.” Kate nudged me. “I want to hear the latest on yours.”
I hoped the flush of my cheeks from the heat hid the blush I felt at the mention of my love life. After a rocky start and a bit of on-again off-again action, I’d been seeing DC police detective Mike Reese steadily for several months. Things still weren’t smooth sailing since we both had crazy work schedules—especially since I was in the thick of my busy season—and not all my friends were as crazy about Reese as Kate was. My best friend Richard had been giving the relationship the cold shoulder since he’d decided my dating Reese meant I spent less time with him.
“Fine,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”
“Fine?” Kate reached into the pocket of her short, black sheath dress and produced a small cellophane bag of gummy bears. “That tells me nothing. Have you decided yet?”
I avoided her eyes. “I’ve been too busy to give it much thought.”
“If a smoking hot cop asked me to move in together, I wouldn’t take a month to tell him yes.” She held the candy bag out to me then shook a couple into my outstretched palm. Kate kept her energy up on wedding days by eating gummy bears and analyzing both of our dating lives.
“It’s complicated,” I said, popping a squishy orange bear in my mouth and savoring the rush of sweetness.
She tilted her head at me. “You mean Richard?”
“And work. We have been busy.”
Kate tossed a few gummies in her mouth then put the bag back in her pocket. “Unless Richard plans to keep you warm at night, I don’t think he should have a vote. This is your life after all.”
“I know, but Richard has been my best friend since I moved to DC. It’s hard to see this coming between us.”
“He’ll get over it,” Kate said “He may fast in protest for a while—or maybe cut out truffle fries—but he’ll survive.”
My hesitation had to do with more than my best friend, but it was hard to admit I was just as afraid of my life changing as Richard. I cleared my throat. “How’s the bride doing upstairs?”
“Good. She’s a little nervous so Fern’s calming her down with his patented blend of charm and dirty jokes.”
“As long as he’s not getting the bridal party drunk,” I said.
Kate hesitated. “Would you be fine with tipsy?”
I let out a deep sigh. “Are we talking him or the bride?”
Kate bobbled her head, which I did not take as a good sign.
“Hallelujah.” She threw her arms in the air as she spotted the lemonade station on the other side of the tent. “I’m dying of thirst. The only thing to drink in the house is champagne.” She held up a hand before I could speak. “And you know I follow your rule about not drinking alcohol at weddings.”
I followed her over to the long table with the two large glass beverage dispensers, one filled with traditional lemonade and one filled with raspberry lemonade—indicated by gilded signs hanging around the glass from sheer black ribbon.
“I thought the signature drink was a Bellini,” she said.
“It is, but I changed this station to lemonade. Do we really want guests getting drunk before the ceremony?”
“Touché.’” Kate took a champagne flute, filled it with plain lemonade and handed it to me before filling her own. “No Mason jars?” she teased, knowing my aversion to the rustic wedding trend.
“Not on my watch.” I took a sip and felt several degrees cooler as I swallowed the sweet drink.
“As I suspected,” Richard said as he strode down the hill toward us, his beige blazer flapping. “You two are drinking on the job while I’m slaving away in the kitchen.”
Kate downed her glass and refilled it. “How is it you never break a sweat when you slave away?”
I’d often wondered the same thing. Richard, owner of the renowned Richard Gerard Catering company and my best friend, had a talent for remaining spotless no matter the temperature or disaster.
“It’s a lot of work to direct my staff and manage the load-in.” Richard smoothed the front of his linen blend jacket when he reached us. “Simply because I don’t personally haul boxes does not mean I’m not working hard.” He took out a small mister and sprayed his face with—from what I could determine from the few drops that flew into my face—rose water then patted himself dry with a linen handkerchief and flicked a hand through his dark spiky hair.
“Of course it doesn’t.” I touched a hand to his arm, hoping to mollify him. We didn’t need Richard worked up this early in an event. “Would you like some lemonade?”
He eyed the glass jars. “Perhaps a drop. The sun is relentless.”
June in the Washington DC area could be mild or it could be sweltering. Unfortunately, on this wedding day we’d drawn the short straw.
Kate handed him a glass. “Bottoms up, sweetheart.”
Richard took a sip and dabbed his mouth. “So refreshing.” He set the empty glass on the table and put one hand on his hip. “You didn’t mention we were having an armed militia attend the wedding.”
“What?” I blinked at him a few times before snapping my fingers. “You mean the father-of-the-bride’s personal security detail?”
Richard pointed to a man in all black pacing the perimeter of the patio. “There are at least half a dozen of these guys and they’re all packing serious heat.”
Kate winked at him. “You sound so butch when you talk like that.”
Richard ignored her. “Isn’t this excessive for a guy who owns a pharmaceutical company?”
“It’s not just any pharma company.” I dropped my voice. “They got a major contract with DOD last year. Very hush-hush.”
“Department of Defense?” Kate asked. “What does a drug manufacturing company have to do with defense?”
I wasn’t surprised Kate knew the acronym off the top of her head. She’d dated men at every major government department and knew all the abbreviations by heart.
“And how do you know this?” Richard asked.
“You told me I should Google my clients.”
Richard beamed at me. “Look at you doing research on your clients. I’m so proud. I hope you charged them more when you found out.”
I headed out of the tent, gesturing for Richard and Kate to follow me. “You know I don’t raise my prices because someone is wealthy.”
He let out an exasperated breath. “Still so much to learn, darling.”
“Anyway,” I said, letting Kate lean on me as we trudged up the hill and her heels got stuck in the grass. “I figure what he’s manufacturing must be top secret and pretty deadly. Why else would he have guards following him everywhere? You don’t do that if you’re manufacturing ADD meds.”
Richard paled under his bronzer. “That’s a scary thought. You don’t think we’re in danger, do you?”
“Kate and I have been coming to the house for six months and we’ve never seen anything out of the ordinary, right?” I stepped onto the paving stones of the pool deck and waited for Kate to pull her shoes out of the ground.
She scrunched her mouth to one side. “I do see a pair of penguins swimming in the pool.”
Richard held up his palms as we watched the pair of animals splash in the water. “Don’t get me started on the penguins. You know my feelings on livestock at weddings, Annabelle.”
“Penguins are hardly livestock. You should be grateful I talked them out of the llamas.”
“Llamas? They must be out of their minds.” Richard looked heavenward. “I used to think it was absurd to have dogs in weddings. Now I long for the days when a cocker spaniel was the worst of our worries.”
I stepped back as one of penguins slapped his flipper, sending droplets of water onto the pool deck.
“Watch it,” Richard called out to the penguin, pointing to his shoes. “These are suede.”
“I don’t think he heard you,” Kate said. “He’s underwater.”
“There you are.” Fern stepped out one of the French doors to the house. “I need a little assistance.”
His dark hair was pulled into a tight man bun at the top of his head but it was the crease between his eyebrows I noticed. “What’s wrong? Please tell me another bride isn’t passed out cold.”
“Of course not,” Fern said, as if this had never happened to him before. “But she says to cancel the wedding and send everyone home. She doesn’t want to get married anymore.”
To be continued . . .