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"9-1-1! Colleen, I've got a 9-1-1 in the Bawl Room!"
I cringed at the crisis call blaring through my earpiece. I hated emergency calls, especially when everything was about to start. To pull off the perfect wedding, just like when invading an enemy country during wartime, you have to run on a strict, unbendable time schedule. There was no room for deviation. A 9-1-1 call was the equivalent of a ticking time bomb, set to blow up the whole operation.
"On my way," I said. "Any bloodshed?"
"None so far," my assistant Charity Quinlan replied, her small voice breathless with urgency. "But it's coming. Get here. I don't know how much longer I can keep them from killing one another."
I shot from my command post at the back of my hometown church in Heaven, New Hampshire, and sprinted down the long corridor toward the kid's section, affectionately known as the Bawl Room, which was the staging area for the soon-to-start wedding I was in charge of. The small space was given this moniker because it was where parents of unruly children shuttled their little miscreants when their behavior disrupted the congregation during Mass. My sisters and I had been banished to the room every Sunday of our childhood.
I took a calming breath in front of the closed door — a door that did nothing to muffle shrill, raised, and angry voices — and ran a hand across my quaking abdominal muscles. They'd been throbbing and pulsing like a precision quartz timepiece from the confining, belly-flattening, spandex undergarment I wore to mask the extra eight pounds I'd recently packed on.
I said a silent prayer to St. Gabriel, the patron saint of strength. "Breathe," I whispered, making it a plea. "Just breathe."
Placing a broad smile across my face, I pushed through the door and entered into a tempest I regarded as the tenth circle of Hell: ex-wives.
Two lavishly dressed women — one in her fifties, the other ten years younger, and both trying desperately to look in their thirties — stood, dyed stiletto to dyed stiletto, glaring at one another. Both had fisted hands planted on their hips, shoulders hunched, perfectly coiffed heads bent, ready to do battle.
"Who do you think you are?" one screeched at the other. "You're not her mother. You're nobody in this wedding, just my ex's current squeeze of the second, so back the hell off. Now!"
The woman being shrilled at, all six foot of her in icepick heels, leaned forward and pulled her outlined, lipstick-enhanced mouth back into a perfect teeth-baring snarl. She jabbed one of her french-manicured tips at her aggressor and ground out, "I've been married to him longer than you were, bitch, and you know it, so who you calling squeeze of the second, because from where I'm standing, you were more like a mistake who got knocked up than a wife any day of the week."
The elder of the two was set to pounce, aiming for her rival's perfect camera-ready face so I did a quick little jog and insinuated myself between them.
"Ladies." My gaze ping-ponged from one to the other. "Please. The wedding is about to begin. We can't have this kind of behavior."
"She started it," the actual mother of the bride, Mary Ann Stively said, pointing at her ex-husband's current wife. "She says she should go down the aisle after me because she's married to my loser ex —"
"Who's the father of the bride," JoEllen, wife number two, said. She turned her back on wife one and faced me. "You're the wedding planner, Colleen. You know proper protocol says I should go down the aisle right before the party, since I'm married to the father of the bride. I looked it up, read all about wedding etiquette and procedures."
"In what? Your current edition from slut-of-the-month book club?" Mary Ann spat.
JoEllen's eyes slitted under penciled eyebrows standing stationary on her unlined and unmoving forehead, a paralytic effect — I surmised — from years of Botox injections.
"Why, you —" She inched forward and tried to reach by me, but eight years of track in school and four more in college gave me a decided advantage in swiftness. I blocked her, my arms splaying out at my sides so she couldn't go around me.
My left eye started to twitch — never a good sign — and I knew I had to set this situation to rights. Now. The wedding was scheduled to begin in less than ten minutes.
"Mrs. Stively." Both women stared at me. "Um, the current Mrs. Stively."
JoEllen pulled herself up to her towering height and gave her paid-for breasts a good forward thrust. "What?"
"I know you feel you deserve to walk down right before the wedding party —"
"— but I'm sorry. Whatever you've read stating that was the correct procession is incorrect. The actual mother of the bride is the one who immediately precedes the party. Unless, of course she's not present or deceased. Then it would be proper for a stepmother to be the last person down the aisle before the attendants and bride."
JoEllen slanted a deathly glare at Mary Ann. I swear I could hear her brain running through scenarios on how to commit murder in the next five minutes.
"Now, I need you both to take your places so we can get this wedding started. Stop arguing and let's go."
I'd dealt with these two overbearing women many times in the past few months and knew neither would give an inch, or relinquish control, of their own accord. Since they continued to stand rock-still, daggers zipping between them, I did what I always do in situations like this and got physical.
I grabbed the first Mrs. Stively firmly by the forearm and gave her a good yank while motioning to Charity, who'd been cowering behind a pew, to do the same to Stively spouse number two.
Charity, at a spit above five foot, was no match for the lengthy, stilettoed second wife, but what she lacked in height, she more than made up for in determination. With a firm hand draped along JoEllen's back, Charity began walking, propelling the woman forward.
"Can you believe that bitch?" Mary Ann asked as I escorted her down the long hallway to the back of the church where the bridal party waited. I continued to hold her forearm in a grip of steel in the event she planned to escape and go back to punch her replacement.
"Forget JoEllen," I commanded. "It's your daughter's day. Focus on her. You don't want Annie to remember this day filled with problems or fights. You want her to have the most wonderful memories of her wedding, don't you?"
Before she could reply, I steamrolled right over her. "Of course you do. Fighting with JoEllen serves no purpose and will only upset Annie. Take a quick, deep breath if she annoys you again and ignore her. Believe me, you'll feel better for it."
I knew I was telling a bald-faced lie.
Mary Ann and JoEllen both wanted to scratch the other's eyes out, and today's incident was another in a long line of antagonistic outbreaks since Annie had retained me as her wedding planner. The two Stively wives despised one another for various and obvious reasons. Their only compatible redeeming value was their mutual unconditional love for the bride-to-be.
In the vestibule, the melodic strings of a Mozart concerto serenaded the waiting congregation.
Annie Stively's parents had spared no expense on their cherished only daughter. From a twenty-thousand-dollar, custom-made, hand-stitched, lace and satin gown complete with a five-thousand-dollar tiara and train, to the five-hundred-dollar-an-hour stretch limousine waiting outside the church entrance, prepared to whisk the happy couple off to their reception a mere five minutes away, Dr. and the two Mrs. Stivelys set out to give their little princess everything she desired in a wedding.
With my help, they had.
"Mom? JoEllen? What's going on?" The bride glanced from her mother to her stepmother, concern creasing her flawless brow.
"A few last-minute details we needed to go over," I answered before either woman could. "They wanted everything to be perfect for you. It's all settled now, correct, ladies?" With an arched and determined glare, I all but dared them to contradict me.
Both women, with uncharacteristic placidity, nodded.
"Good. Now, let's get you all lined up, and we can get this beautiful girl married."
I went into command mode, corralled the wedding party into their appropriate places, and gave the all-start command. "Let's roll."
Once the bridal party was in place around the altar and the two warring Mrs. Stivelys were seated, I gave the command for the violinists to start and Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D drifted through the air.
I stood behind one door, Charity the other. On my count, we threw open the doors wide at the same time. A collective wave of sighs blew through the church as the first view of the stunning bride broke through. While she floated up the aisle on her father's arm, my photographer darted ahead of them, filming, as they slowly made their way to the altar. Charity and I closed the doors behind us and slipped into the last pew to watch the wedding.
At the front of the church, Dr. Stively stopped, lifted his daughter's veil, and then kissed her cheek. I could hear dueling sniffling from the front pew, Mom and Stepmother each trying to outdo the other in the waterworks department. Once Dr. Stively took his seat between his first and second wives, the congregation sat as a unit.
"Did you check to make sure the best man has the rings?" I asked Charity, looking toward the stable of tuxedoed ushers at the altar. The groom's younger brother looked as if last night's bachelor party had been a rousing success, evidenced by the pasty tinge to his skin, the railroad track redness covering the whites of his eyes, and the none-too-subtle tremor in his hands.
"He does," Charity replied.
"Did Devon bring the basket with the bird seed?"
Off to one side of the altar, I spied my trusty and talented photographer being as unobtrusive as possible while he captured the happy event through his lens.
"Kolby has everything he needs?"
When I slanted her a look, Charity grinned. "And before you ask, I already called the inn. Everything is ready. The champagne is chilling, and the band is warming up. Maureen told me to tell you not to fret. She's got it all covered. No worries."
Two of the most overused and least accurate words in the English language, especially when speaking about a wedding.
With as deep a breath as I could manage (I really was going to throw in the towel with this pseudo-girdle and cut back on the carbs instead), I sat back and watched the ceremony I'd put together, and prayed the rest of the day would go on without any further problems or arguments between warring family factions.
What's that old saying? Man makes plans and God laughs?
Yeah ... the story of my life.
* * *
Eons later, I collapsed onto one of the comfortable sofas in the inn's library.
"I think I've aged five years today." I kicked my shoes off and plopped my feet up on the ottoman. Flexing and extending my toes to get some circulation back into them, I glanced out the huge bay window across from me to view the inky darkness engulfing the inn.
"What time is it?" I asked Charity.
My assistant was supine on a neighboring couch, her tiny, shoeless feet elevated on the arm panel. "Almost midnight."
"I'm turning into a pumpkin right now. I'm beyond bushed."
"Breakfast is at eight," Charity reminded me. "Are you staying here tonight or going home?"
"She's staying here," Maureen announced from the doorway. My youngest sister leaned against the doorjamb, a dishtowel in her hands. "You're not driving home when you're this tired," she said to me. "You can crash here too, if you want," she offered Charity.
"I'm good, Mo, thanks. I've got a ride." The little pixie sat up, stretched her arms over her head, and yawned. "Devon's driving me home as soon as he's finished cleaning up the bar."
"He's done," Maureen said. She came into the room and sat down next to me. "He's saying good night to the crew."
"Kolby still here?" I hadn't seen my photographer since the wedding cake had been cut more than two hours ago.
Maureen grinned. "I just saw him in the kitchen, charming some leftovers from Sarah."
"He doesn't need to charm Sarah into anything," Charity said, her perfect little mouth turned down at the corners. "She'd lie down in the street and make like pavement for him if he asked."
One of my sister's delicate auburn eyebrows elevated a tad, but she kept silent. I was about to question the origin of Charity's snarkiness but stopped when my weekend helper slash part-time bartender came into the room.
"Hey, kid, ready to go?" Devon Church asked Charity.
She bounced off the couch and grabbed her shoes. "Do you want help in the morning?" she asked me while slipping into them.
"No. I'm good. Sleep in and enjoy your day off. Both of you. This is the last weekend we're not double booked until after the holidays. Get some rest now, because you're gonna need it."
Theatrical moans blew from them both.
When I was alone with my sister, she gave voice to the question that had been running through my mind for a while.
"What's going on with Charity and Kolby?"
"I don't know. They've been circling around one another for the past month or so. It's weird."
"Nothing happened between them? No fight or ... something else?"
"Honestly, I don't want to ask. As long as they do their jobs, which they have been, I don't care if they've had a disagreement. I have enough to manage on a daily basis with running the business and looking after Nanny Fee. I don't want to add worrying about warring employees to the mix."
Maureen stayed silent, something she was good at. The old expression "still waters run deep" described the baby of my family to a T.
"Come on." She stood. "Let's get to bed. I've got to be up at five to start cooking for all these people, and I need at least three hours sleep so I don't fall into the oatmeal."
I lifted my arms, and she tugged me up.
"I can't feel my feet."
With a chuckle, she slipped her arm around my shoulders and walked me to the back staircase, toward her private apartment. "I have zero sympathy for you, sis. You know nothing good comes from wearing those ridiculous shoes."
"But they're so pretty," I said. Okay, I'll admit, it was more of a whine than an actual declaration. We'd had this discussion too many times before, and I wasn't in the mood to debate the value of heels with a woman who thought modern shoe design began and ended with flip-flops.
Washed and clad in an old, faded T-shirt I found in Maureen's dresser, I climbed into the bed in her guest room fifteen minutes later and sighed.
I'd moved my wedding planner business from Manhattan to my hometown a little over a year ago after the death of my younger sister Eileen, Maureen's twin, from breast cancer. I'd been based in New York, and when Eileen got sick, I'd shuttled back and forth to Heaven weekly to help my sisters in any way I could. With business obligations, employees to take care of, and a gone-south personal relationship, it had been a trying time.
Maureen and Eileen, identical twins, owned and operated Inn Heaven, a sprawling Victorian mansion they'd bought for a song and turned into a successful bed and breakfast three years ago, right before Eileen's diagnosis. My older sister Cathleen also resides in Heaven. She's a lawyer and the town's justice of the peace, a profession she inherited from our father, Judge Fintan O'Dowd, when he retired from the bench.
The loss of our sister from the devastating disease had torn my family apart. My parents, unable to stand living in the same town where their child had grown and then died, migrated to South Carolina to escape the heartache, leaving in their wake the anger and frustration of their remaining daughters, and Nanny Fee, my ninety-three-year-old grandmother.
When I'd decided to stay in Heaven, my sisters agreed to help me run my wedding business. I'd been worried moving it from Manhattan would signal its demise, but it had, in fact, not only thrived, but grown.
Out-of-town weddings where everything was provided in what we call "one-stop shopping" had become quite popular of late, as my full calendar of weekends proved.
I set the alarm on my phone to wake me so I could be present when the Stively-Matthers enjoyed a last breakfast together before the newlyweds left for their honeymoon.
With a heavy and weary sigh, I snuggled down under the quilt and closed my eyes. A silent prayer for no breakfast bloodshed from the combatant ex-wives club played like a silent movie in my head.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dearly Beloved"
Copyright © 2018 Margaret-Mary Jaeger.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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