Authors: Ally Gray
© 2015 by Ally Gray
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
By Design Cozy Mystery book series is dedicated to my wonderful-beyond-words husband, Michael
oft music began
to play through the unobtrusive speakers, the sign that they were about to begin. All eyes turned to the young woman with the soft halo of cornsilk curls as she paused dramatically at the back of the large room. She stood, one hand linked through her father’s arm, the other nervously clutching a bouquet of wildflowers that her fiancé had lovingly handpicked for the occasion on the way over. When she looked out at the expectant faces of the assembled family members and friends, a small number since this was only the rehearsal, she didn’t see a single smiling face.
It had taken months—no, years, if she was being honest with herself—to get to this moment, and it was time in which the animosity between the two families had only escalated instead of been put to rest. The past few months had been filled with resentment, anger, and even hatred lobbed by almost everyone in the room.
But instead of feeling sad, Priscilla only felt… resolved. Determined. Even fierce. There would be time to mourn for her happy day later, the day that these people had all conspired in one way or another to take away from her, but right now in this moment, her eyes were fixed on Porter, standing waiting for her at the front of the room. She refused to see anyone else, but instead kept her gaze focused on his bright blue eyes. It was the only thing that distracted her from the ugly looks on the guests’ faces, but even that small detail made her laugh inside.
Priscilla had only taken one step towards the front when a wrinkled old hag on her side of the aisle leapt to her feet in a rush. All eyes turned to her as she threw her hands to her throat and clawed at her own neck for a moment before collapsing, falling in the aisle and almost completely blocking it. The bride continued to walk, unfazed by the woman’s dramatic display, and coldly stepped over the writhing old woman in order to reach Porter.
“Great Granny always said this wedding would happen over her dead body,” the bride said to no one in particular. “I’m glad to see she’s a woman of her word.”
Anastacia East and Events by Design were at the top of their game. Besides yet another incredible write up in one of the country’s leading lifestyle magazines, there had been a number of high-profile events that had gone off flawlessly, with their usual impeccable ability to shine. There were eighteen new events on the calendar for the upcoming two-week period, and the entire team was handling them with élan. Staff meetings were a breeze and her team members were the model of efficiency, and Stacy watched over all of it with pleasure.
Then the Hardys appeared. To be more precise, the Hardys and the Lancasters appeared. But it was mostly the Hardys. Although she couldn’t let the Lancasters off the hook completely, if she was being honest.
No, that wasn’t fair either. Stacy decided she could have handled
the Hardys or the Lancasters without batting an eye, and all would have been well. Instead, she was forced to deal with both families, since their star-crossed offspring had somehow met, fallen in love, and decided to marry, against their families’ wishes.
“How exactly do you plan to seat that many people who are not only not speaking to each other, but who actually have restraining orders against each other?” Jeremiah, the lead florist, demanded one day during an emergency planning session.
“I’ll handle it, just like I always do. I mean, just like
always do,” she reminded her staff. Instead of nodding their heads at her sage words and her in-charge tone of voice, they looked at each other around the table with fearful, uncertain expressions.
“Yes, but we don’t usually have to have a police presence at a wedding.”
“Watch what you say! The cops have been called to two different weddings in the last year and a half, remember?” Tori, the head designer, muttered, rolling her eyes. Stacy shot her a fierce glare; they’d solemnly sworn never to bring up those incidents at work, actually going so far as to swear on the phone book one day in Stacy’s office for emphasis. Rehashing those two horrible events while meeting for drinks after work was a different matter, but in the company’s offices, they were not to speak of the one murder involving a beauty queen and the one celebrity’s faked death that had come dangerously close to marring their reputation in recent times.
“That’s not going to be a problem this time! We will keep things under control just as we always do. I strongly recommend we keep the families as far apart as humanly or demonically possible, whichever applies in this case.” She dismissed them to return to their various jobs, then collapsed into her chair at the head of the table, her mind reeling with the images of an armed SWAT team trying to break down the door with a battering ram during this ill-fated wedding.
Her desk phone rang, and she looked across the room at it for a fraction of a second before returning to her professional self. She sat up taller, as though the caller could judge her posture through the phone, and reached for the handset, releasing a cleansing breath at the same time.
“Anastacia East,” she said in her most practiced Abigail voice. She waited for the caller to respond, but heard only the sound of frantic breathing while someone panted, struggling for air.
“It’s me,” the caller finally said, his voice coming through weakly across the connection. Stacy looked at the handset before laughing at herself silently, as though the phone could tell her what was going on.
“Nathan?” Stacy asked, looking at the caller ID on the phone’s multi-line console to be sure it was him. “Are you all right?”
“No! Help! I can’t breathe!”
“Oh god, Nathan! What’s wrong? What happened?” she demanded, the fear rising up in her. Besides being her boss, the nephew who’d inherited her former employer’s company but who wanted nothing to do with the high-stakes world of tasteful and awe-inspiring event and wedding planning, he was her casual… boyfriend. She still hated that word, and felt slightly cheap every time she let herself think too deeply about their relationship. They’d dated before she found out he was Abigail Prudell’s nephew, and she’d promptly broken it off once she learned he was related to her then still-breathing employer. It only became more important that she end things after he inherited Abigail’s business and became her new employer of record.
But over the course of the last year, she’d been unable to deny what she knew… she still cared about him. Maybe she even loved him. And he—glorious, hilarious, gorgeous he—felt the same way about her. While she wasn’t ready to make a stronger commitment than they currently had, she would never want anything bad to happen to him.
And his breathing—or lack of breathing, if the sounds coming through the phone were any indication—had her scared out of her wits.
“Nathan? Talk to me!” she demanded again, clutching the edge of her desk until her knuckles turned white.
“I… can’t. I can’t… breathe…”
“I’m calling 9-1-1, just tell me where you are!” she cried, but his choked cry of “no” stopped her from reaching for her cell phone to make the call.
“Noooo! I just… I’m…”
“What, Nathan? Please, just try to breathe… please…”
There was a long pause, interrupted by the sound of her office doors sliding open on their polished metal track. She nearly dropped the handset when she looked up and saw Nathan framed in the doorway, bent at the waist. She jumped up to run to him, but froze when she saw his attire.
“Oh my gosh, are you serious?! You tried that stupid workout program again, didn’t you?” she said, one hand on her hip and the other throwing the phone back in its cradle. “You know you can’t keep up with a Marine Corps boot camp workout, I don’t care how cool the infomercial looked!”
“I… I’m trying… to better myself,” he panted, standing up and grabbing his sides with both hands. “Today’s plan was… a five-mile run.”
“What? You’re not a runner! You’ve never run a day in your life! You can’t just go out and do five miles without building up to it! No wonder you sound like you’re dying!”
“I… I didn’t do… five miles. I did one… half.” Nathan stumbled into the room and collapsed on the chaise by the window while Stacy looked at him skeptically. This could be another one of his jokes, she thought, but then again, he did look really, really bad. Either he’d tried running like he claimed, or he’d come down with a raging case of food poisoning and was playing it off.
“You ran half a mile, and you’re dying? No wonder you don’t play on our softball team.” She brought him a bottle of water from the mini fridge inside a nearby armoire, along with one of the moist cloths that she kept in a silver ice bucket in the cabinet for brides who became too overwhelmed.
“I don’t play on the softball team… because the uniforms… are hideous,” he replied, starting to catch his breath now that he was half-lying on the chair. He pressed the cloth to his forehead and gulped the water greedily until Stacy reminded him to take it slow to avoid throwing up.
“And if you puke on this antique rug, you’ll be doing a lot more running… while I chase you with a heavy object!” She returned to her desk and tried to ignore the wheezing sounds coming from the corner. Nathan peeked out from under the cloth to see if he was going to get any more sympathy, but decided to try to recover on his own when it was clear that he wasn’t.
“So, employee of the month, what’s on the agenda for my company?”
Stacy shot him a murderous look, but ignored the remark because his color still didn’t look right. He rose up from the chaise, wincing as he grabbed the tops of both thighs for a moment, then came over to the desk, sidling around behind it to put his hands on her shoulders. She almost shrugged him off, but when he began to move his fingertips in firm circles across her back and neck, she nearly melted under the touch.
“Well, how about a wedding that’s destined to end over eighty years of in-fighting between two families? If we actually get them married, that is.”
“Come again?” he asked sweetly. “It sounded like you said wedding… and fighting… and married… and is.”
“I’m not kidding, Nathan. This is serious stuff.” She gave him a brief rundown of the fighting between the two families, pointing out that it went back generations.
“So you’ve decided to play matchmaker to the Montagues and Capulets? Or did you decide to test your skills with the Hatfields and McCoys first?”
“First of all, I’m impressed that you know who the Montagues and Capulets are. But no, this is serious. These two families, the Hatfields and McCoys—I mean, the Hardys and the Lancasters—have hated each other for generations, until two of their kids went off to the same large state university and happened to meet each other at a meeting of the kayaking club. By the time they figured out they were the same Hardy and Lancaster families who despised each other, it was too late. They were smitten, family feud be damned.”
“Hardys and Lancasters? Shouldn’t it be Yorks and Lancasters?” he teased.
“If you’re trying to turn me on with your impressive knowledge of obscure facts from history class, it’s totally working. Keep massaging my shoulders and tell me what you know about the Battle of Hastings, and there’s a very real chance you could get lucky tonight.”
“I’ll ignore the fact that you made it sound like there’s a chance I wouldn’t be getting lucky tonight,” he said with a sly look on his face before turning the conversation back to the feud wedding. “So why do the Hardys and Lancasters hate each other?”
“I didn’t want to pry, but to be honest, I’m pretty sure no one even remembers. I’m also ninety percent certain that anyone involved in the original incident is long dead. Either way, the families are beyond angry that this wedding is even happening.”
“So why are they hiring us? No offense, but we’re really expensive and we tend to play hard to get.”
“That’s the beautiful thing. Both sides are pretending like the other side is a bunch of low-class, hillbilly jerks, so they’re both trying to take the higher road and outdo each other. They actually fought over who was going to pay for the wedding cake. At last count, that cake was costing in the ballpark of fourteen hundred dollars, and they’re still fighting about who can afford a bigger cake. And when I say fighting, I mean several of them had to be bailed out.”
“The cops were here again?!” Nathan demanded. “Do we have a loyalty card with the bail bonds place or something? Ten punches and the eleventh bail is free?”
Stacy shook her head. “It’s nothing like that. Nothing we can’t handle.” She smiled grimly, more to convince herself than to convince him.