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Marriage, Monsters-in-Law, and Murder
An Ellie Avery Mystery
By Sara Rosett
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Sara Rosett
All rights reserved.
"Ellie, I need your help. Someone's going to get killed — I don't know who, but someone is gonna die," Summer said. "It may be me."
"That's a pretty extreme statement for a bride to make about her wedding," I said. When I first met Summer, my husband's younger sister, she had been a tad flighty and impulsive. She was also seventeen. Recently, she had settled down. Now twenty-six, she worked for a Florida state congressman and was engaged to Brian Abernathy, a contract lawyer.
"Okay, so I'm exaggerating a little bit, but only a little. They hate each other, they really do." The worry in Summer's voice came in loud and clear despite the hint of static on the hands-free device broadcasting her call from my minivan's dashboard.
I eased up on the brake and inched forward in the carpool line. "Who?"
"My mother-in-laws. Or is it mothers-in-law? I can't believe I have two of them. I'm beginning to appreciate the term monster-in-law."
"I thought you'd met them before."
"Yes." Summer's gusty sigh carried over the phone line. "But separately. Brian's mom, Yvonne, lives about an hour away on the Gulf so we've seen her a lot. His stepmom, Patricia, and dad live in Savannah. We all met for dinner last night, and it was a nightmare. That's why I need you. You're an organizer. You can help me figure out seating arrangements and, well, basically how to keep them apart. It could be a new niche for you, you know," she said in a wheedling tone.
"Keeping angry relatives apart?"
"No, wedding organizing."
"I don't know, Summer. I hate to say no to one of my favorite relatives, but I'm not a wedding planner."
"You wouldn't have to do any actual planning," she said quickly. "That's done. All the decisions have been made — invitations, food, bridesmaid dresses, hotel reservations, even the reception. Now it's just about checking and double-checking to make sure everything is delivered and set up. Detail stuff. You know I stink at that."
It was true. Summer took after her brother. Mitch always had the big picture in view. Unlike my husband, I was a detail person. I loved lists, and I especially loved lists with checkmarks. Finishing a to-do list really did make me happy. I'm weird that way.
"Anyway," Summer continued, "it could be a service you offer to brides, to give them peace of mind."
"Maybe an à la carte service," I murmured. I was always looking for innovative ways to grow my organizing business. Now that I wasn't the only organizer in North Dawkins, Georgia, I was more motivated than ever to explore new possibilities. I'd done many different types of organizing. Why not add organizing a wedding to the list? Helping Summer would be a good test run to see if the idea was feasible. "Okay, I'll help you out with the follow-up details and mother-in-law wrangling. You just need to keep them apart, you said?"
"Oh, thank you, Ellie. You have no idea how much better I feel. Yes, they're like two chemical compounds that are stable when they're separate, but put them together, and — boom! — they explode."
"So we're talking logistics." How hard could it be to keep two women apart during the rehearsal dinner and the wedding?
Summer said, "As far apart as possible. Dinner last night started okay, if a little awkward. There were lots of undercurrents and pointed looks, but things were tolerable until Yvonne — that's Brian's mom — mentioned her dress. She wants to wear red."
Surely I hadn't heard that right. "Did you say red?"
Summer's tone was exasperated. "Yes. Red. Her signature color, apparently. She always wears it."
"Well, I've heard that red is a bridal gown color in China," I said.
"But we're not in China, and she's not Chinese."
"Or the bride," I added. This might be harder than I thought.
Summer sighed. "I suppose I should have expected something like that. She's a little kooky. She teaches high school drama and spends her free time at the local community theater. She loves Shakespeare and is always dropping quotes into the conversation. Anyway, Brian's stepmom, Patricia, went ballistic. You would have thought Yvonne said she was going to show up naked. It went downhill from there."
"So what happened?"
"No actual punches were thrown, but it was close. Brian and his dad calmed everyone down. I told Yvonne that any pastel color would be fine."
"Do you know what your stepmother-in-law — Patricia, was it? — is wearing?"
"A blue Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress."
"Sounds appropriate," I said, eyeing the clock on the van's dashboard. One minute until the school bell rang.
"Of course. Everything Patricia does is perfect. Perfectly calculated." There was an abrupt silence, then Summer said, "Forget I ever said that. I can't believe I'm running on and on. I know you're busy, so I'll let you go."
"Summer, you can't stop there. If I'm going to help you, you have to let me know what I'm dealing with."
After a pause she said, "You're right. Okay, Yvonne is exotic and quirky. Patricia is rigidly controlled, and she's got one goal, to get into the cream of Savannah society. She spends all her time volunteering for causes and going to society galas."
"They have money?" I asked. Summer and I talked on the phone and e-mailed quite a bit, and the subject of Brian's family being well-off never came up. "I thought his family was ... I don't know ... comfortably middle-class."
"I did too. Until we drove up to Savannah for this dinner. Their house is a mansion. I'm not exaggerating. Thirteen bedrooms, fifteen baths, a pool with a separate pool house — and not a little dinky changing room with a shower. This pool house is bigger than your house, Ellie. They have three cars — a Jag and two Mercedes. Okay, I'm stopping because I'm beginning to sound like Patricia. She catalogued everything for us, house, cars, boat, and jewelry, even the place settings."
"I suppose when your bedrooms are in the double digits, you're doing pretty well," I said. "And Brian never mentioned this?"
The school bell rang, and kids flooded out the doors, a fast-moving tide of colorfully clad bodies surging to their appointed waiting zones on the sidewalk. The carpool pickup line worked like a well-oiled machine. Teachers and aides monitored the tsunami of students, communicating through walkie-talkies to summon the correct child to the pickup point at the front of the school when parents' cars pulled up.
"No, and when I asked him about it, he was surprised. Said he hadn't thought it was important." She blew out a sigh. "And he's right. It doesn't matter that his dad and stepmom are loaded. I love him for himself, not for his family or his family's money."
I'd met Brian once. "I didn't pick up on it either — the coming-from-money thing. He seems like a regular guy."
"Oh, he is. He didn't grow up with money. He told me all about it on our drive back to Tallahassee last night. His dad invented and patented a part that improves the water efficiency of sprinkler heads. If you see an underground sprinkler system, it has one of his parts on it. Up until about five years ago, before the invention caught on, Gus managed the electrical department in one of those big-box home improvement stores."
"And now he's attending society galas. Interesting."
"Only under duress. Gus doesn't really want to do anything besides improve his golf swing. He could care less about moving in the best circles. It's ironic that it was his golf buddy's cancellation that got us into the resort."
"Oh, is this about the honeymoon? Do you know where you're going?" The cars ahead of me moved, and I stopped even with the front doors of the school. The principal spoke into her walkie-talkie as she opened the minivan's door and waved hello to me.
"No, for the wedding," Summer said. "We were able to get into the resort on Camden."
My wrinkled forehead filled the rearview mirror. "A resort? I thought you were getting married on the beach."
"Well, we were. But how could we pass up Camden? It's beautiful and secluded. And it means a lot to Brian. His dad took him there several summers after the divorce. It was kind of their summer retreat."
"Wait. Camden as in Camden Island?"
"Yes. Can you believe it? To be able to get married at a historic Southern mansion on one of Georgia's most exclusive barrier islands — how lucky are we?"
"But you wanted a small ceremony, just family and close friends." I spotted Nathan, chugging along, his backpack bouncing with every step. Arms extended, he held a shoebox, which contained his show-and-tell item, an elaborate Lego spaceship. Livvy trailed along behind him and the aide, trying to read one book as she walked, while carrying several more in the crook of her arm.
"Originally, that was the plan," Summer said. Was there a note of wistfulness in her tone? If there was, it was gone the next moment as she added, "But the resort has everything, a spa, great restaurants, tours of the ruins of the original plantation house, lots of sports and activities. I guarantee that no one will be bored during the four days."
"Four days?" I asked faintly.
Nathan climbed in. "Hi, Mom. Justin brought a frog for show-and-tell."
Livvy dropped into her seat. "Hi," she mumbled, and turned a page.
"Is that Livvy and Nathan?" Summer's voice came from the hands- free device. "Hi there!"
Nathan bounced in his seat. Livvy looked up from her book. "Aunt Summer, is that you?"
Summer confirmed it was indeed her.
"A whole sentence," I informed Summer. "You should be impressed. Livvy actually stopped reading to talk to you." The kids buckled in, and I put the van in gear.
"I'm honored," Summer said. The kids had stayed with her for a few days during our last vacation. She knew how deeply Livvy could get into her books.
"So what's this about four days?" I asked.
"A long weekend over spring break. Guess what, guys?" Summer said, addressing the kids.
"What?" they chorused in their squeaky voices.
"Not only do you get to be my flower girl and my ring bearer, you get to spend four whole days on an island. You ride a ferry to get there, and it's really cool. There's a ruin, giant climbing trees covered with Spanish moss, and you can go swimming at the beach or ride a horse. It won't be during turtle season so we can have a bonfire on the beach one night. There's a huge pool and bike trails and even paintball."
"I think they're a little young for paintball," I said over the excited chatter from the backseat.
"Ellie, I feel so much better after talking to you. With you helping me, I know it will all work out."
"Glad I can help," I said, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. The organizing bit for the wedding wouldn't be a problem. I could do follow-up and confirmations, but dealing with the hostile mother and stepmother? I'd do my best, but I'd found that organizing people was a lot harder than organizing closets and schedules. "Send me the details on the wedding stuff," I said before we hung up.
And that's how I agreed to organize a four-day wedding for 250 people at Camden Island Resort.CHAPTER 2
"Where's the beach?" Nathan asked. "Mom, Aunt Summer said there was a beach." The Hot Wheels cars, action figures, books, and even the handheld electronic game console lay forgotten, strewn around the back of the van as Nathan strained against his seatbelt for a better view of Camden Island.
"The beaches are on the other side," I explained as the car ferry drew closer to the island.
We'd spent the majority of the short ferry ride from the mainland of Georgia to Camden Island out of the car with the kids draped over the ferry's railing as they licked ice cream cones. We were on spring break and the kids felt it was only right to begin our vacation with ice cream. Mitch agreed wholeheartedly and ordered a double scoop of dark chocolate. While he was normally an extremely healthy eater, ice cream was the one place Mitch indulged. Chocolate in any form is usually an automatic yes for me, but I had thought of the pale pink linen sheath dress I had packed for the wedding and requested a kid-size scoop of peach sherbet.
We were all in a vacation sort of mood. The kids were out of school for a week. Mitch had leave from the squadron for five days, and I had cleared my organizing schedule, except for Summer. Besides enjoying the wedding, following up on Summer's wedding tasks and keeping an eye on the mothers in the wedding party were the only things on my agenda.
I closed the thick white binder I'd spread out across the dashboard and tucked it into my large tote. "Did you get your list made?" Mitch asked.
"Yes. Today is all about getting the final head count to the catering staff, finalizing the seating chart, and reconfirming with the florist, the photographer, the minister, and the deejay."
Mitch shook his head. "I still can't believe Summer roped you into planning her wedding."
"It really hasn't been that bad." Summer had been true to her word. All the big decisions had been made. "So far, all I have had to do is make phone calls and send reminder e-mails. It's been easy."
"I have a feeling the hard part is about to start," Mitch said.
"The mother-in-law wrangling? Yeah, I am a little worried about that. Although, Summer says Brian has talked to both his mom and stepmom and they've agreed to a truce," I said doubtfully.
"You're afraid it won't hold?"
"Well, for a couple of hours, I'm sure they could do it, but four days ..."
"Whatever happens, I'll have your back."
"I know," I said, smiling at him.
"How much longer?" Nathan asked from the backseat. "I thought we had to get back in the car because we were almost there."
"We are," I answered as the ferry neared the island. "We're almost to the dock. Did you know we're on the first ferry of the day?" I asked to distract him. Until I became a parent, I'd forgotten the innate competitive nature of kids. Anything that could be claimed as first, oldest, or best was very important to the grade-school set. That news perked Nathan up, and I knew he was filing it away so he could inform various cousins of his arrival on the first ferry.
The car ferries usually ran three days during the week and daily on the weekends, but since it was spring break there were more runs scheduled. We'd caught the earliest one along with a few other people, who I assumed worked at the resort because of their bored expressions and lack of beach equipment visible through the windows of their cars.
Mitch winked at me as the ferry bumped against the dock. "If you'd been paying attention, Nathan, you'd know that this side of the island is mostly marsh."
I'd tried to read from the guidebook and tell the kids about the island on the drive over, but they hadn't seemed too interested in the history of Camden Island.
"I was paying attention," Nathan said. "It doesn't look like a bean to me."
Okay, maybe he had been listening. I glanced at Mitch and tried to keep the smile out of my voice as I said, "Shaped like a bean, honey. That means that the barrier islands are long and narrow. One side of Camden Island, the side next to the mainland, curves inland, but the side next to the ocean is more rounded. If you saw it from above it would look like a bean."
"Like a giant bean." Nathan wiggled in his seat. "And the forests are in the middle of the bean," he all but shouted.
Livvy's head, which had been bent over her book, popped up. "Would you be quiet? I can't read."
The cars ahead of us inched forward, down the ramp to the island. "Here we go," Mitch said, releasing the brake. "Hang on." His dramatic tone silenced the brewing fight in the backseat.
Mitch eased over a bump onto the ramp then punched the gas, and we sailed down to the asphalt road. A weathered sign with faded red letters on a white background welcomed us to Camden Island. The dock area consisted of a stand selling ferry tickets and a building with two gas pumps and a small convenience store with a sign proclaiming burgers, sandwiches, and ice cream could be found inside. The area had a no-frills vibe of a national park during the off-season.
"Nathan, how many roads are there on Camden Island?" Mitch asked.
"Very good. You were paying attention," Mitch said.
Excerpted from Marriage, Monsters-in-Law, and Murder by Sara Rosett. Copyright © 2016 Sara Rosett. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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