Christmas has arrived in Rudolph, New York, and Merry Wilkinson is looking forward to a much needed rest. But before that can happen, Luanne Ireland walks through her door. Luanne had asked Merry to help make decorations for her wedding, but has suddenly moved the wedding months earlier and is now demanding that everyone follow her lead, regardless of the cost.
But that cost is much higher than anyone anticipated. When Luanne's fiancé is found murdered at their proposed wedding venue, Merry resolves to restore peace and calm to the community of Rudolph. But the closer she gets to the killer, the more personal the case becomes, and Merry begins to worry that a death knell could ring in the New Year.
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I had not planned on spending the busiest day of the entire year trying to calm a frantic bride.
But on the morning of Christmas Eve, that's what I found myself doing.
Luanne Ireland stared at me across the table, wide-eyed, wanting, needing, my approval. "You're okay with this, right, Merry?"
I sipped my coffee to give myself time to think. She might want my approval, but I knew she'd go ahead whether she got it or not. "'Okay' might not be the right word," I said at last. "But it is your wedding, and you've obviously made up your mind."
She broke into a big smile, let out a sigh of relief, and fell back against her chair. "I'm so glad. I knew you'd be on my side. Once you tell Mom-"
"Me? I'm not telling your mother or anyone else. This was your decision."
"Yeah, I know, but I thought maybe we can sorta pretend it was yours." She gave me a crooked grin. "Mom won't get mad at you."
I shook my head. "Not gonna happen."
"But Valentine's Day, Merry! What could be more romantic? How could I possibly resist?"
I could think of plenty of ways she could have possibly resisted changing the date of her wedding, but I said nothing. The deed was, apparently, done. All was in motion, and I could do nothing but go along with it.
I glanced at the clock on the bakery wall. Nine twenty-seven; my coffee mug was almost empty and my breakfast muffin nothing but a handful of crumbs on a plate. Three minutes remained until my shop opened for the busiest day of the year-Christmas Eve.
I grabbed my bag from the back of my chair and started to get to my feet. "We'll talk about the details later, Luanne. I have to get to Mrs. Claus's Treasures for opening."
"You'll come with me, right? To Mom's, I mean. To tell her. Tonight. To tell them. We can tell Jeff and his family at the same time. They're joining us for dinner. They're staying in Rudolph over the holidays." She twisted the ring on her left hand, and the enormous square-cut diamond caught the light from the overhead lamps and threw sparks across the room. "Jeff and his parents tried to get in at the Yuletide, but they left it too late, and when they went to book, they couldn't get a room 'cause they're full over the holidays, so they're at the Inn on the Square. It's okay, I guess, but not nearly as nice as the Yuletide. That means the wedding news will be even more special now, right? They know the Yuletide's someplace special." Luanne's nervousness was expressing itself in a stream of babble. I had not the slightest interest in the accommodation arrangements of her fiancé and prospective in-laws.
I dropped into my chair with an audible thud. "You mean you haven't told the groom you've moved your wedding up five months?"
She ducked her head. "He's in meetings all morning."
"Oh, Luanne. This is too much." Too much for me to deal with, anyway. "Didn't you even check that he's free that day, never mind the rest of the wedding party?"
"Must be nice," said a voice behind me. "To be able to enjoy a lovely leisurely breakfast on Christmas Eve. Some of us work for a living."
"Most amusing," I said. "What's up?"
"Marjorie told me you were here, so I came to say merry Christmas." Vicky Casey, the owner and head baker at Victoria's Bake Shoppe, bent down and gave me a hug. She smelled of Christmas itself-sugar and cinnamon, spices and warm pastry. "Merry Christmas, Merry. Merry Christmas to you, too, Luanne. And congratulations. Mark told me he'll be cooking for your wedding. I know you'll love what he does for you. He likes the smaller weddings, says it's easier to prepare a good meal for everyone." She smiled at us. Obviously she read something on our faces, as she stopped smiling and said, "What? Has something happened?"
"About the wedding," Luanne said. "There's been a change of plans."
Vicky threw a look at me. "Oh. I'm sorry."
"No, no," Luanne said. "A good change. Really. I'm absolutely thrilled. So is Merry."
"Thrilled," I said dryly. "Absolutely."
Vicky threw me a questioning look, but she only said, "I'd better get back at it. See you tomorrow, Merry."
"Five o'clock. Don't be late."
"Late for Christmas dinner? Perish the thought."
Vicky slipped away, back into the mysterious depths of her kitchen.
Luanne ran her index finger across her empty plate, gathering up croissant crumbs. She sucked her finger, still avoiding my eyes. "I like the way she's done her hair. Christmassy."
That it was. Vicky's natural jet-black hair was shaved almost down to the scalp except for a long lock that hung over the right side of her face. That lock was usually purple. Last month she'd dyed it orange in honor of Thanksgiving. This month it was red with green streaks. Or green with red streaks. Vicky liked to make a statement with her appearance: a gingerbread tattoo on her right wrist, rows of piercings in her ears, more tattoos hidden beneath her work shirt and jeans. She was five foot eleven, a good six inches taller than me, and rail thin. I am not rail thin, and I don't make my living baking Christmas treats all day. Life is sometimes unfair.
I smiled to myself as I remembered the first day of kindergarten. Vicky had walked up to me, put her hands on her hips, peered down at me from her already impressive height, and announced that I would be her best friend.
And I still was.
Like every business owner and establishment in Rudolph, New York, Vicky and the bakery threw themselves fully into the Christmas spirit. A line was forming at the door: people in search of fortification before heading out for that last-minute frenzy of shopping, and others in search of the perfect apple pie, bread rolls, or premade sides to go with their Christmas dinner. Some people, I knew, had Vicky make their entire holiday meal. She often said she could do a nice side business in blackmail, if she was so inclined, considering the number of customers who wanted her to make their packaged meals appear truly homemade.
Speaking of the last-minute frenzy of shopping, I had to go. My assistant manager, Jackie O'Reilly, could open the shop, and Crystal Wong, the college student who helped out on her vacations, would be working today, but I hoped we'd be busy enough with those searching for that perfect last-minute gift that I'd be needed from the moment the front door swung open and, hopefully, hordes of eager shoppers spilled in.
"How about quarter after six?" Luanne said. "Jeff and his family are coming at six. That will give Dad time to serve a drink-or two, in the case of Jeff's dad. I'll get everyone settled and then you come in and give them the good news. I'll say how excited I am that you were able to pull off such a coup, and Mom and Mrs. Vanderhaven will have to be pleased. Jeff will go along with whatever I want."
"Me? Luanne, this wasn't my idea."
"I know," she said in a low voice, "but I'm hoping Mom won't have too much of a fit if you tell them about it. You're the expert, after all."
"Oh, Luanne. What can I say?"
I could say that I didn't want to have been roped into planning her wedding in the first place. I could say that the wedding I agreed to help design was going to be a small affair for seventy-five people in July. I could even point out that she and I had never been friends, but against my better judgment I'd agreed to help only because she begged me, Jackie more or less agreed on my behalf, and I could get my part done over the winter, which is the slowest time of the year at Mrs. Claus's Treasures.
"You can say yes," Luanne said, rapidly blinking away the tears forming in her big brown eyes. She dipped her head and strands of long sleek blond hair fell over her face.
This, I realized, was why I'd agreed to help her in the first place. Luanne could put on the poor me act better than anyone.
"No," I said. "I'm having dinner with Alan at his house tonight. Tomorrow we're having breakfast and present opening, my dad's birthday celebration, and then dinner at my parents', so Alan and I need that time alone. Just Alan and me and the dogs." I still didn't know how many people would be coming to Mom and Dad's for the holiday meal. It's unlikely they even knew.
"You can come to my place first, then go to Alan's."
"No," I said. "No. I'm sorry, Luanne. You have to deal with this yourself."
She looked at me through a waterfall of blond hair. Her eyes blinked rapidly. "I . . . I . . ." The tears dried faster than I would have thought possible, her posture straightened, her head came up, and a smile so enormous filled her face, I almost needed sunglasses.
I turned to see what had caused this sudden metamorphosis.
All I could see was my baby brother, Chris, crossing the bakery floor.
I jumped to my feet and he swept me into a hug. "You're here!" I said. "I'm so glad."
"I got in late last night. Too late to give you a call. I went to your store and Jackie said you'd left her a note to say you were having breakfast here this morning."
"Mom said she didn't think you'd be able to make it."
He grinned at me. Chris was five years younger than me. In the looks department, he took after our mother and her mother's Italian heritage. Olive skin, curly black hair, flashing black eyes. He was of average height, and I knew he only kept that trim, fit frame by regular workouts and being careful not to overindulge in beer and fries. "Our show opens New Year's Eve, but for once we're way ahead of schedule and Dave said we could take a couple days' break." Chris was a set designer on Broadway. My two sisters, Eve and Carole, took after our opera-diva mother, with show business in their blood and talent to spare. Chris and I, to put it politely, inherited our talent from our father. Meaning, we had none. But Chris had inherited the love of theater, and he was happy working behind the scenes. As a small-town gift-and-holiday-decor shop owner, I'm also happy with my life choices.
Luanne had risen to her feet and Chris turned to my companion with a smile. "Luanne Ireland. It's been a long time. How are you?"
She squealed and leapt forward to envelop him in a hug. Over her shoulder, I could see Chris blink in surprise. The hug went on for a long time before Luanne let go at last and stepped away. She beamed at him. "Oh, Chris. It's so wonderful to see you!"
"It's nice to see you, too," he said. "I see some of the old gang now and again in the city and I heard you're engaged. Congratulations."
She slipped her left hand behind her back. "Yeah, that. Thanks. What about you, Chris? Are you and your girlfriend here for the holidays?"
I gave her a look. She'd put a lot more emphasis into that question than it deserved.
"Just me," he said. "No one special in my life right now."
She swatted his shoulder. "Couldn't find anyone better than me, is that it?"
He shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. Now I remembered: Chris and Luanne had dated in high school. I didn't know why they'd broken up, and I'd never given it another thought. I'd left home for college by then, and teenage boys rarely discuss their romantic entanglements with older sisters.
"Merry, are you going to stand there all day? We could use the table." Marjorie, Vicky's aunt and head waitress, pointed to the line wending its way out the door.
"Sorry, we're done." I grabbed my bag and my coat in one hand and my brother's arm in the other and just about dragged him out of the bakery. Luanne scurried after us.
"I see Vicky won the trophy again this year," he said, pointing to the high shelf on which the two-foot-tall statue of a reindeer painted gold with a red light for a nose was proudly displayed.
"Don't remind me," I said, shrugging into my coat.
"Why not? Surely you're not jealous just because Vicky wins the best-in-parade trophy every year. Actually, she wins it twice every year, doesn't she?" Next to Rudolph stood a smaller trophy, the one handed out at the Christmas in July parade.
I muttered something impolite and Chris laughed, reminding me that he might be a handsome, loving, intelligent man with a great job on Broadway, but he was still an annoying baby brother.
We stepped out of the busy bakery onto the steps, and I wrapped my scarf tightly around my neck and pulled on my gloves. It was Christmas in Rudolph, and the snow-filled streets were merry. Fat, gentle flakes fell silently from the sky. Huge wreaths of fresh greenery trimmed with colored fairy lights hung on the imitation-gas lampposts, and lights and decorations filled the shop windows. A fully decorated and lit tree occupied the small square of grass outside the library. Farther down Jingle Bell Lane, a group of carolers in Victorian outdoor wear of frock coats and tall hats, or ground-sweeping coats and big hats and fur muffs, came out of Candy Cane Sweets. The notes of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" rang in the clear air, my mother's mezzo-soprano rising above the other singers. At the height of her career, Mom had been a soloist at the Met and had performed on some of the great opera stages of Europe. To say she had a voice that carried would be an understatement.
"Christmas in Rudolph," Chris said. "How I love it. I'm pushing hard for us to do A Christmas Carol next season at the theater. I wouldn't even have to use my imagination for the set. It could look exactly like this."
"That would be so marvelous." Luanne clapped her gloved hands. "I'd come to see that."
"If you do," he said, "I can make sure you get tickets. For you and your new husband."
"Pooh, him." She pouted. "He's an old stick-in-the-mud. Hey, I've just had the best idea ever! Why don't we meet later today for a drink, Chris? Just you and me. We can talk about the old times and toast our future. Our futures, I mean."