Florist Audrey Bloom, co-owner of the Rose in Bloom, creates fragrant bouquets for brides. But when a wedding goes fatally wrong, it’s up to Audrey to sniff out a killer . . .
Everything is coming up roses for Audrey when her dazzling creations are picked to be featured on a wedding reality show. The hot series is filming an episode about a bride who’s bonkers for bells, and Audrey’s bouquets of campanulas, calla lilies, and Bells-of-Ireland are perfect for the bridal theme.
But Audrey’s debut quickly becomes a hothouse of trouble. Her ex, Brad, shows up as a crew member on the show, threatening her blossoming relationship with Nick the baker. To make matters worse, when one of the show’s hosts is found dead in the bell tower of a historic church, all the evidence points toward Brad.
Now Audrey needs to weed out the real killer before someone else’s chance at stardom is permanently nipped in the bud . . .
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“Audrey, I . . .”
I stood on my front stoop, hand-in-hand with Nick Maxwell after one of our sporadic dinner dates. The moon cooperated, already aglow in the dusky sky, and a gentle breeze stirred the leaves in the trees—very welcome after the heat of the day. I closed my eyes, waiting for our good-night kiss.
Chester interrupted our romantic moment, scratching on the glass window and yowling for me to get inside and serve his every whim. (Did I mention Chester is my cat?) My neighbor Tom added percussion to the feline chorus, using the last remaining moments of daylight to tack up a Fourth of July banner a few feet away. Ah, the joys of apartment living. Then my phone started ringing in my living room.
“I should let you get that. Good night, Audrey.” Nick planted a chaste kiss on my forehead and gave my hand a squeeze before sending Tom a wave and walking back to his truck.
I leaned against the door frame for a moment and watched him go. I knew Nick was encouraged by the growth of the bakery, which now supplied fresh baked goods and breads to local restaurants. But his early hours had really taken a toll on our date time.
Meanwhile, my phone had stopped ringing. I opened my door as the answering machine picked up. A click showed that the caller declined to leave a message.
I bumped my behemoth of a window air conditioner up to the max, then made my way to the kitchen with Chester nipping at my ankles and weaving around my legs. I spooned out a half can of something labeled “Fresh Seafood,” but which smelled more like the Dumpster behind a sushi restaurant. He didn’t seem to mind. I managed to refill his water dish before the phone rang again.
I carried the receiver so I could stand in front of the roaring air conditioner, then lifted my ponytail so the chilled air hit the back of my neck. “Hello?”
“Audrey, where have you been? I’ve been calling all night.”
Letting my hair fall, I jerked into my full and upright position. “Hey, Brad.” Where I’d been was none of his business. Not anymore. Brad the Cad had blown his chance with me. I really needed to get caller ID.
“Listen, Audrey, I’m coming back to Ramble.”
Well, let’s call the town band and organize a parade, why don’t we? But instead of saying that, I sank onto the sofa. “Coming back?”
“Just for a visit. Well, work, really.”
“How nice for you.”
“Aw, come on, Audrey. I know you’re upset with me, but I hoped we could talk. Clear the air. There might be a job in it for you. A huge wedding.”
“Are you getting married?” A logical question, considering I made my living as a florist specializing in wedding bouquets at the Rose in Bloom, the shop that my cousin Liv and I owned.
A long pause was followed by a slow inhalation and exhalation. “No, Audrey. I’m not getting married. You were right. New York isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. I really messed up when I left you behind.”
I swallowed hard. For a long time I’d dreamed of hearing those words. And I’d rehearsed all kinds of reactions, ranging from running into his arms—hard to do over the phone—and stomping on his foot with my highest and spikiest pair of heels—equally hard to do over the phone.
“Yeah?” Okay, so that wasn’t one of the reactions I’d practiced.
“Look, I’m coming back with the whole film crew.”
“I thought the show you were working on was canceled.”
“It was. Who knew The Lumberjack Logs would turn out to be such a yawn? But a friend hooked me up with Fix My Wedding. I’m the production assistant. Might even make associate producer, with a little more experience.”
“And they’re coming to Ramble?” My ears perked up. Fix My Wedding had become one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Gigi Welch’s snarky treatment of brides brought them to tears as she mocked their original—and usually tacky—plans. Then her cohort, Gary Davoll, would sweep in like a fairy godfather and whisk the bride away, spoiling her like a princess. I won’t say the elaborate weddings they staged were much less tacky than the bride’s original plans, but the show had chemistry. And I could justify the hours I spent watching it by labeling the time as work—research for anyone in the bridal industry.
“Yep. And I might have had something to do with that.” Pride rang in his voice. “The original venue fell through. The bride in question is nuts—”
“Aren’t they usually?”
“Same old Audrey. Quick-witted and never letting me finish a sentence.” The tone in his voice was teasing and cheerful. It belonged to the old charming Brad I had dated, not the monster I’d recast him as since the breakup. I shifted my emotions to defensive mode. I would not fall for him again. I would not . . .
“Anyway,” he continued, “The bride is nutty about bells, and I told her about the hand-rung bell in the old First Baptist. I showed Gary and Gigi pictures of some of the other local assets, so they’re going to hold the wedding at the church and the reception at the Ashbury.”
Oh, lovely. The Ashbury. The restaurant where Brad dumped me. This was getting better by the minute. “And you said there might be a job for me?”
“Yes, I showed Gigi and Gary the article about you in the paper, and they thought the whole language-of-flowers thing was cute. Said a local florist with that kind of reputation might make the episode more interesting. Well, ‘quaint,’ they said, but you know Gigi.”
“And the bride’s crazy about bells?” My brain started turning. I’d seen bell-shaped vases that might work. Maybe campanula, also known as bellflowers, or any of the other flower varieties that resembled bells. Or was that too literal?
The meanings were suitable. Bellflowers signified constancy, a great meaning for a marriage, and the small white ones meant gratitude. Of course, the bluebell also could signify sorrowful regret, but maybe I could steer her away from that color. Not all of the bellflowers are commonly used by many florists, but I was sure I could get my hands on them if needed. And if I couldn’t, Liv was a whiz at acquisition.
“Yes, some fetish with bells,” he continued. “We’re busing in a bell choir to perform at the ceremony. Guests are ringing little silver bells instead of throwing rice. I think Gary is even arranging to have bells woven into her dress. Crazy, huh? But that’s why people watch the show. I hope you’re not overbooked and can squeeze in the wedding. Mom said the shop has been real busy.”
“When is the wedding?”
“Um, we’re coming next week. Like I said, the other venue canceled at the last minute. Can you do it? I know it’s the middle of summer. It has to be a busy time for weddings.”
Proving once again that Brad never paid attention. July might be a prime time for a wedding in many parts of the country. But in Ramble, Virginia, where most weddings were held at the old First Baptist, which lacked air conditioning, or outside in the gardens of the Ashbury, local brides tended to opt for late spring or early fall, when the temperatures were more manageable.
“I should be free. I’ll have to see if Liv can source the flowers for a quick delivery. It may cost a bit more.”
“No problem,” he said. “The show has deep pockets. We’ll make sure the cost of anything you need is written into the contract. Should be some nice publicity for your shop, too.”
“Of course, I’ll have to talk it over with Liv.”
“Last time I called Mom, she told me that Liv and Eric are going to have a baby. They must be tickled pink.”
“Or blue,” I said. “They want to be surprised.”
“That’s great. Give them my best. Or I can do it when I get into town. Oh, Audrey, I’ve missed you. I’m looking forward to seeing you.”
My stomach twisted. He sounded like the same old Brad that I had dated for a year. But did I really want to see him again? And where would that leave my budding relationship (pardon the floral pun) with Nick Maxwell?
“Yes, Brad, I’m looking forward to seeing you again, too.”
* * *
I inserted the mouthpiece into my tuba and drummed my fingers across the valves. Leaning back against the creaky wood chair only reminded me of the sweat running down my back. It was bad enough that Mayor Watkins decided the arriving film crew needed a formal welcome from the town band. That he’d decreed we be in our military-style uniforms—wool pants, wool coats with leather overlays and epaulets, and leather hats—on one of the hottest days of the year was more than I could take. At least we could play in the shade of the gazebo and not march down Main Street.
Welcome home, Brad, I thought. You almost got your parade after all.
Liv hopped up onto the special pedestal constructed to accommodate her petite frame (not a family trait I inherited), adjusted the music stand above her burgeoning belly, and tapped the stand with her baton. As the conductor, she hadn’t had to dress in the stifling uniform. Not that they came in maternity sizes, anyway.
“The film crew has been spotted about ten miles out of town,” she said, “so let’s get warmed up.”
A couple of groans from the clarinet section were followed by an anonymous, “We’re warm enough already.”
Liv smiled. “Sorry. I know those uniforms are torture. Tell you what, lemonade for everybody after this little shindig is over. My treat.” Liv nodded to Nick Maxwell’s cupcake truck stationed just off the town square, where the folk of Ramble were lined up to buy their sweet treats. Today they mainly walked away from the food truck with cold drinks.
A cacophony of woodwinds, brass, and percussion ensued as we tuned our instruments and the bassoonist tried to make a move on our newest piccolo player. When the band played a note to Liv’s satisfaction, we started cycling through the book of marches that we normally reserved for patriotic concerts. Knowing Brad, he’d arrive in town to the opening chords of “Hail to the Chief.” At least the music required enough focus that it took my attention away from the stifling heat.
It could not, however, still the butterflies doing aerobatics in my stomach over the prospect of seeing Brad. I was over him, surely, but the rational part of me decided it was a good idea to meet with him, put the past behind me, and let go of some of the bitterness I’d heaped over my heart as a bandage. Grandma Mae always said to never flog a dead horse. Since we never owned horses, dead or otherwise, I always assumed she meant we needed to let things go. So I’d determined to be cool, professional, and maybe even friendly to Brad. The cad.
We turned the page and started Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March” as the first truck crawled down Main Street and passed under the banner, which read, “Ramble Welcomes Fix My Wedding.” A handful of vans and cars followed, some with vinyl placards announcing the show. One, a giant recreational vehicle wrapped with Gary’s and Gigi’s oversized faces and the show’s logo, stopped in front of the town square.
The residents of Ramble rose from the sea of lawn chairs that circled the white gazebo.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two people exit the RV. A yell erupted that overpowered our music. We were right at a section where the tuba part had only a repetitive line on the downbeats, so I watched as Gary and Gigi held hands and ran toward the gazebo.
Only this was not the sleek cosmopolitan pair that I’d come to . . . I wasn’t sure what my emotions were toward Gigi and Gary. “Love” would be overstating it. I supposed I was merely entertained and amused.
But when they climbed out of their RV in Ramble, they looked like they’d dressed for an evening of line dancing in some country-western bar. Gigi had slithered into a pair of low-slung, skintight, faded jeans and wore a plaid shirt, tight to her bosom, unbuttoned to show considerable cleavage and tied up to expose a flat, tanned midriff. She popped a cowboy hat onto her loose-flowing black hair.
If she was a little bit country, Gary looked like he had just stepped off the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Fringe dangled from the sleeves of a sequined and embroidered pink cowboy shirt, accented with a wide Western belt, bolo tie, skinny jeans, and elaborately engraved boots. He doffed a ten-gallon—or maybe twenty-gallon—white hat, revealing his short ginger hair, and waved at the crowd as he climbed the gazebo steps.
Mayor Watkins, dressed in his conservative designer suit and tie, reached out and shook Gary’s hand, then gave Gigi a brief hug.
Then I found myself oomp-ing when nobody was pah-ing. Liv must have cut the band when I wasn’t paying attention, giving me an awkward solo. I avoided her eyes and rested my tuba on the floor.
The mayor held up his hands to mute the applause Gary and Gigi seemed to revel in. He then tapped the microphone.
“Please be seated,” he said to the crowd, amid a pulse of feedback.
He paused while the townsfolk lowered themselves into their squeaky and creaky lawn chairs.
“As mayor, it gives me great pleasure to award, this day, the key to the Town of Ramble to our most distinguished guests, Gigi Welch and Gary Davoll, hosts of the reality television show Fix My Wedding.” He handed the wood key to Gary and a small bouquet Liv had made for the occasion to Gigi. White lilies (purity and sweetness), pink roses (secret love), and alstroemeria. Some say the flower, also known as the Peruvian lily, symbolizes friendship anddevotion. Others insist it’s a symbol of prosperity and good fortune. In either case, the bouquet was stunning. The photographer from the Ramble On, the town’s local paper, flashed a picture of Gigi holding it.
While the audience applauded, Gigi grabbed hold of the other end of the key and Gary took possession of the flowers, hoisting them up like the Statue of Liberty bearing her torch. The audience laughed and the photographer snapped another picture.
When the applause died down again, Gigi and Gary stepped to the microphone.
“Hey, y’all,” Gigi said. “We’ve been so looking forward to this visit.” Although her back was turned to me, I could hear the broad smile in her voice. “My thanks to all the citizens . . . here. We’re looking forward to some good ole Southern hospitality. And hopefully some fried chicken and cornbread.”
Yeah, like that body ever actually consumed fried chicken. And I wasn’t sure they’d find it on the menu at the Ashbury, which boasted gourmet fare featuring locally grown organic produce, lamb and veal from local farms, and wine bottled by monks at a monastery in the surrounding hills.
I wasn’t sure if, even if this were fifty or sixty years ago, Ramble was ever the Hicksville they’d apparently expected to find. With the cultivation and grace the area derived from founding fathers such as Jefferson and Washington, and the influx of a more cosmopolitan influence from the DC transplants who built second homes and sprawling estates among the hills of the area, I can assure you that we all had indoor plumbing, wore shoes, kept most of our own teeth well into our thirties, never married our cousins, and didn’t subsist on possum, squirrel, or polecat.
A long, uncomfortable pause ensued, perhaps as the two scanned the audience and saw no sign of Ma and Pa Kettle or cows and horses loping down Main Street. Gigi looked to Gary.
“Anyway . . . ” Gary cleared his throat and fingered his bolo tie. “We look forward to spending time in Ramble while we film and getting to know you folks better. Thanks for watching the show.” He blew the crowd a few kisses, sending loud smacking sounds into the microphone.
For this we’d sweated for hours in the sun?
Liv raised her baton to start another march when tires squealed on Main Street.
“He’s a fraud!” A familiar-looking, buxom blonde hopped out of the driver’s seat of a decrepit van, then three other young women piled out of the same vehicle.
“Fraud, fraud, fraud,” they chanted while hoisting crumpled poster-board signs. At first I thought the signs read “Gigi and Gary fixed my wedding.” Only they’d crossed out “fixed” and substituted another word—one Grandma Mae had told us should never leave a lady’s mouth, or a gentleman’s, either.
Chief Bixby made his way over to the disrupting interlopers, followed by Ken Lafferty, Ramble’s youngest and most inexperienced officer. The rookie’s eyes were wide and he looked panicked.
He should be. I recognized the blonde. She’d been one of the first brides to have her wedding “fixed” on the reality show, and it had been a humdinger. The episode was still my favorite. As I recalled, the bride’s name was Jackie. Gigi had dubbed her “Tacky Jackie,” which was also the name of the episode. And she’d been a nervous wreck. Gigi and Gary “calmed her” with dinner and drinks, a spa day and drinks, cocktail testing, a quick belt after her fitting, followed by a wine-tasting with more drinks after. Jackie had spent most of the episode, including the wedding, sloshed out of her gourd.
The final scene of the show was generally reserved for couples gushing about the wonderful job Gigi and Gary had done. Instead, Jackie had taken a wild swing at Gary with a champagne bottle. He’d ducked and the bottle connected with the groom’s head instead. As the credits rolled, EMTs were trying to bring the groom back to consciousness while Jackie, her face a blob of mucus, was being restrained by the police. That one episode made Fix My Wedding an overnight sensation. I know it found a permanent place on my DVR.
While Chief Bixby worked at quieting the four women, another cluster of unfamiliar people carrying signs had made their way from the street to the perimeter of the gathering. What they lacked in numbers, they made up for with noise. One of them, a rather rotund young man in gray sweatpants and a sweat-soaked blue T-shirt, carried a bullhorn.
“We love Gigi. We love Gary,” he started, and his small group parroted his chant.
The two groups continued their contrary shouting, while the amused residents of Ramble looked back and forth between the two as if they were watching a tennis match.
The mayor whispered something to Liv, and she raised her baton. We quickly turned our eyes to the next march in the book. Coincidentally, it was “The Victors,” the march Sousa had acclaimed as the greatest fight song ever written.
I was grateful the music was so familiar. While we played, I was able to follow the action. A private security team marched up, dressed in black and wearing reflective sunglasses. They held their arms out as if ready to take a bullet as they escorted Gary and Gigi back into their RV. As they drove off, the police led Jackie and her cohorts back to their double-parked van and sent them on their way. The fan with the bullhorn set it down, and he and his crew took to swaying and clapping to the beat of the march, as if they were in some college pep rally.
Liv then led us in two more marches while the crowd settled and dispersed back to their homes and businesses.
I packed away my tuba before peeling off the sticky hat and fluffing my damp hair. “How bad is it?” I asked Liv.
“Not too bad. Kind of like you just stepped out of the shower. With everything else going on, I doubt anyone will even notice your hair.”
“Plenty for Ramble folks to yammer about. I don’t know what will get more attention: those outlandish hootenanny outfits or Jackie’s appearance.”
I had forgotten Liv didn’t watch the show. She was currently addicted to A Baby Story, but I wasn’t sure if it was easing her fears about her upcoming delivery or fueling them.
“Tacky Jackie was one of the first brides on Fix My Wedding,” I said. “The episode has a cult following.”
“And that blonde was Jackie? Who were the women with her?”
“Bridesmaids, I think.” I peeled off the leather overlay and shimmied out of the jacket, draping it over the back of my chair. The uniform would need a good airing out. I’m sure it didn’t look pretty, but at least my sweat-drenched tee felt cool by comparison. “We’d better get over to the food truck to pay for that lemonade you promised.”
“Nick will give me credit, I think. I have an in with him. He’s dating my cousin.” She paused and fixed me with her most penetrating gaze. Sometimes I think Liv has superpowers that allow her to follow which synapses are firing deep inside a person’s frontal lobe. “He still is dating my cousin, right? You don’t have any plans to reconcile with a former boyfriend or anything, do you? With Brad Simmons back in town . . .”
“No, but I did promise to meet Brad for dinner, just to clear the air. But only dinner.”
“No, nothing more,” I said, with perhaps a bit too much force. “Things ended so badly. I figured it would be a good idea to meet again, to part on a friendlier basis. Don’t you agree?”
“Maybe. As long as that’s what Brad has in mind, too, I guess it couldn’t hurt. Especially since you’re going to be working together. But make sure you get the scoop on Jackie. I imagine her presence here is going to make the filming more difficult.”
“It’s a reality show. I’m sure they’ll spin whatever happens into more ratings. It seems to me the controversy could only help them. But yes, I’ll get the scoop.”
We’d just stepped down from the gazebo when Brad’s mother waddled over from the small group of Ramblers still seated around the gazebo, probably talking about the recent excitement.
“Oh, Audrey . . .” Mrs. Simmons dropped her lawn chair, reached up, and planted her hands on my cheeks. “I told you he would come home. It will be so good to have you in the house again tonight.”
“I thought Brad was taking me out to eat.” I bent down to pick up her fallen chair for her.
“And I told him that was stuff and nonsense. Why go out when I can cook a perfectly good meal for both of you? Put a little meat on those bones. But don’t you worry. Right after supper I can sneak out. I know when two young folks want to be alone.” She winked at me.
“Mrs. Simmons, I—”
“Now, none of that, my dear. You know what I like to be called.”
“But it hardly seems appropriate to call you ‘Mom’ under the circumstances.”
“Circumstances change, hon. You’ll see. We eat at six. Oh, it’ll be so nice to see the both of you across the table. We’re having roast beef.”
I think she sang that last part about the beef. Then Mrs. Simmons pinched my cheek and practically floated away.
“Well, if Brad thinks this is just a friendly dinner,” Liv said, putting her arm around my shoulder and leading me toward the food truck, “he didn’t clue his mother in.”
The line was short by the time we arrived at the converted bakery truck. Nick stood behind the counter. He had draped a white apron over his baker’s whites, and sweat beaded on his face. A bandana tied around his forehead was damp. At least I wasn’t going to be the only one walking around with hat hair.
“Lemonade for two?” Nick said.
“Yes, and I need to settle my bill,” Liv said. “I hope you’ve been keeping track of the band members I sent over for lemonade.”
“No need.” Nick slid two frosty plastic glasses to the front of the counter, each with a twist of lemon on the side and a straw. “I’ll consider it my donation in the spirit of community service. I might even be able to deduct it.”
I took a sip. The sweet citrus washed away the vestiges of tuba-mouth. Before I knew it, I’d gulped half of the glass.
“Easy there,” Nick said. “And I saved you each a cupcake, too. Last ones. Key lime.”
“My favorite,” I said.
“They’re all your favorite.” Liv quickly peeled back the paper wrapper on hers.
“You should talk.”
I immediately regretted needling her. Liv had been exceptionally hungry since the beginning of her pregnancy. The weight was starting to stack up on her petite frame, and I suspected the post-pregnancy weight loss was going to be difficult.
“Hey, Audrey,” Nick said. “Now that the rally is over, I think I can manage some time off. You up for dinner tonight?”
“Tonight?” I searched my brain for an excuse. Nick and I had never discussed having an exclusive relationship, so it wasn’t like I had something to hide. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell him I was meeting my ex-boyfriend. “I’m sorry. I have . . . plans.”
“Oh.” His sad eyes reminded me of a puppy dog some ogre had kicked in the belly.
“I’ll have to take a rain check. It’s just that you’ve been so busy at the bakery that I didn’t expect . . .”
“I understand.” He forced a smile.
“I’m . . .”
“No, really, I do. But I will take you up on that rain check.” He smiled, and his eyes twinkled, sending a shiver down my sweat-drenched back.
“So how are we going to do this?” Amber Lee asked. Amber Lee was the first employee Liv and I had taken on at the Rose in Bloom. A retired schoolteacher and lifelong resident of Ramble, she was our connection to the town’s current gossip. Technically, she was my assistant, but her skill and dedication had proven she was ready for more responsibility. She had become our girl Friday and had made huge inroads into Monday, Thursday, and Saturday as well.
“The designated florist—that’s us,” I said, “shows the bride three possible bridal bouquets.”
“And she picks one.” Liv crossed her arms and leaned against one of the worktables in the back room of the shop. The space was cluttered, but in a cheerful and familiar way, each wall lined with shelves that exploded with colorful ribbon, vases, and every accessory needed to help the town of Ramble celebrate births and birthdays, young love, weddings, and anniversaries. And, unfortunately, to cheer sickbeds and honor the recently departed. But such was the flower business.
Shelby, one of our part-time employees, snickered. “The bride never gets a choice,” he said. “Gary always picks the bridal bouquets.”
“I see I’m not the only one hooked on the show,” I said. “That will come in handy.”
“Then how do they decide on the rest of the flowers?” Liv asked.
“They never get into that on the show,” Shelby said.
“But it was all covered in the paperwork Brad sent.” I plopped a large manila folder onto the work table. “Basically, after Gary picks the bridal bouquet, we construct coordinating sample bridesmaid bouquets, church flowers, and reception centerpieces, and Gary and Gigi will either okay or nix them. Hopefully they won’t nix them.”
“But that means we can’t nail down the designs until he picks the bride’s bouquet,” Amber Lee said. “How will we get the flowers delivered on time when we don’t know what we need?”
“That was the tricky part,” Liv said. “But I basically ordered everything we might need. Twice over.”
Amber Lee whistled. “That must have cost a pretty penny.”
Liv turned almost ashen, then she swung panicked eyes in my direction.
“Brad did say the show had deep pockets,” I assured her. “I’m holding him to that.”
“Anyway,” Liv said, “I ordered every flower that I could think of that resembled a bell and made sure we were well-stocked with roses, lilies, and all our staples.”
“So I think”—I paced the back room with my hands clasped behind my back, feeling suddenly like a schoolteacher—“if we give them three very different bouquets to choose from, that should satisfy the camera. I thought I’d construct a very traditional, almost Victorian bouquet. Liv, could you do something clean and modern? And I thought maybe . . . Shelby.”
Shelby’s eyes lit up at the mention of his name. The young man was a natural-born floral designer, even if he was still only partway through his horticulture studies at Nathaniel Bacon University.
“Shelby’s designs are artistic and innovative,” I said to the rest of our staff, before turning to him. “I hoped you could come up with something novel and maybe a bit edgy.”
“For the show? For real?” He clapped his hands gleefully.
“I have to approve it first.” Shelby’s designs often teetered on the border of genius, but sometimes took a left turn at practicality. “But yes, for the show.” I couldn’t help a small sigh. I would never stand in the young man’s way, but he had a bright future ahead of him—one that was sure to lead him away from Ramble.
“And, Amber Lee,” I said, “you have a very important role to play as well.”
“Let me guess. While all this other work is going on, you need me to run the shop.”
I caught my breath. Would she feel like she was missing out on all the glamour of the TV show? I hadn’t meant to exclude her, but I felt that I’d picked the best people to make three distinctive bouquets. “Do you mind?” I watched her face for the answer.
She smiled a broad smile. “I’m glad you have the faith in me. And I’m much happier behind the scenes. I may look like a diva, but I have no desire to play one on TV.” She fluffed her hair with one hand, pursed her lips, and struck a Hollywood glamour pose—almost an impossibility in the dowdy black Rose in Bloom aprons we all wore.
“But there’s more I’d like you to do,” I said. “The nasty part of this filming business is that the privacy rules mean we’re not allowed to discuss our plans with any of the other wedding vendors.”
Shelby raised his eyebrows about two feet. “Then how do we coordinate designs?”
“We keep our eyes and ears open.” I gave a careful nod to Amber Lee. “There’s nothing in the rules about information we might happen to overhear . . .”
She erupted into a full-throated laugh. “You’re making me a spy. You want me to exploit my connections in Ramble’s gossip network for the good of the company. Your grandmother would be . . .”
I inhaled quickly. What would Grandma Mae think of the plan? She was sweet, but also savvy and coy.
“Proud, I think,” Liv said. And in that instant, I knew it to be true.
“I’ll be happy to listen for clues on the wedding,” Amber Lee said. “I don’t think Ramble is going to be talking about much else, anyway.”
The bell above the front door jingled.
Amber Lee saluted. “Agent double-oh six and three-quarters reporting for duty. Licensed to grill.” She swooped out to greet the customer.
“And each of you is also deputized.” I nodded to Liv, Shelby, and then Darnell, our other part-timer. “You never know where information will come from. Just make sure we don’t give it out.”
“Uh, Audrey?” Amber Lee peeked her head back in the door. “Gary Davoll and Brad Simmons are here.”
“Game time!” I wiped a sweaty palm on my pant leg. “Show them back, please.”
I greeted them both with a smile and an offered hand, hopefully dry.
Brad, of course, had been in the back room any number of times when we were dating. He took my hand with a brief but tender shake, letting his fingers graze against my palm. I’d have to do something about that boy.
Gary had stopped mid-stride, placed his hands on his hips, and stared at the cacophony of colors and shapes lining the walls. “I’m glad we decided to film the floral segment at the Ashbury.” He poked at some green floral foam soaking in the utility sink. “This place is a mess.”
“It’s a working flower shop,” I said. “Unfortunately they tend to be a little more cluttered than the quaint sets used by Martha Stewart.” I offered my hand again. “I’m Audrey Bloom. We talked on the phone.”
“Ah, yes.” He stared at my hand for a moment before he gave it a brief shake. “I wanted to talk about the shooting schedule.”
“I was about to tell my staff that the bridal bouquets needed to be ready by Tuesday morning.”
“We’ve upped it to Monday.” Gary crossed his arms in front of him. “Some snag with the fashions not being shipped on time. Can’t be helped.”
“But that’s the day after tomorrow.” I have a special talent for stating the obvious.
“Will that be a problem?” He turned to Brad. “You said the local florist could be counted on, but I didn’t know it would be such a small operation. Maybe we should call in—”
“We can do it,” I insisted, surveying my staff. Liv dipped her chin in firm resolve. And Shelby bobbed his head enthusiastically.
“They’re really quite good,” Brad said.
“Tell me what you have in mind.” Gary hoisted himself onto a worktable and sat cross-legged.
“Three designs,” I explained, “each using bell-shaped flowers. One inspired by the Victorian language of flowers. Very traditional. The second design clean and modern. The third a little on the edgier side.”
“Audrey is known in the whole region for her designs based on the language of flowers.” Brad’s voice carried a smidgen of pride. “If you recall, a feature article that was carried by quite a few papers called her the botanical Dr. Dolittle.”
I resisted the urge to cringe at the mention of that unfortunate nickname. Made me sound like a nut who talked to flowers and fancied that they talked back. Rather, I liked discussing the meanings of flowers with prospective brides. Many had enjoyed creating their own personalized bouquets with flowers that held meanings that matched their personalities or characterized their relationships with their future spouses.
I scrutinized Brad’s face, wondering if he was poking a little fun at me with the Dr. Dolittle reference, but his expression bore no trace that he was teasing. I remembered his mother had told me she was going to send him the article written for the On. The story was later picked up by a news service and had generated a little business for us at the time, but things like that are quickly forgotten.
“Make sure you don’t ‘do little’ this time.” Gary snorted. “And tell me a little more about this flower language of yours.”
“The Victorians associated meanings with most flowers common to them at the time,” I began. “Bouquets often communicated messages, sometimes secret ones. Some of my brides find it interesting. If you think viewers would like it, I could explain what each of the flowers in the bouquets mean.”
“Maybe for the Victorian one.” Gary pulled out his smartphone and started scrolling through messages. “I don’t want to get bogged down with that jazz, but it could be an interesting side note. We’re shooting at eight on Monday. Be there an hour before. Three bouquets, but two identical versions of each one. Sure you can do that?”
“Absolutely! We’ll be there.” I resisted the urge to add “with bells on.”
Gary slid off the worktable and took one step toward the door, then stopped. He turned back to face me. “You’ll be there. One person.”
He shook his head. “Too many people clutter the shot and take the attention away from the flowers. Just you.” And then he was out the door with Brad in his wake.
“See you later, Audrey,” Brad called, as the door jingled once more.
I turned to Liv and Shelby. “I’m so sorry. I thought you’d each be on camera.”
“It’s okay.” Liv patted her belly. “Not the most flattering time for me to be on television, anyway. You know, the whole adding-ten-pounds thing.”
“I disagree.” I put an arm around her shoulder. “You’re rocking that baby bump.”
Liv smiled, but Shelby was silent for a moment. He finally shrugged his shoulders. “It’s okay with me, too.”
“I’ll try to mention your names, at least,” I added.
That drew a smile from Shelby.
“But now we’ve got to hurry.” Liv glanced at the wall clock. “That’s less than forty-eight hours away.”
“Hurry is what we do best,” I said.
* * *
Choosing what to wear for dinner with my ex and his mother turned out to be harder than picking the flowers for my Victorian-inspired bouquet. I vacillated between dressing up and dressing down. Part of me wanted to show Brad the Cad, the one who dumped me, that he wasn’t worth the effort, so I pulled out a comfortable pair of yoga pants and a tee. Then again, if I pulled out all the stops and slithered into a slinky dress, I could show him what he missed out on. In the end, I split the difference and left the tee and the drop-dead dress draped over my bed and opted for black pants and a flattering purple V-necked top. I took a quick shower to wash off the perspiration the day’s heat had caused, glad to get rid of the hat hair that I’d struggled with all day.
Dressed, but still toweling off my hair, I sat on the couch in front of the air conditioner. Chester hopped up, landed his bulky gray frame onto my lap, and nosed my chin. I guess it was his way of saying I was his woman. What did I need to mess with Brad for?
I took his furry head in my hands and stroked his ears just the way he liked. “I am not messing with Brad. Just having dinner with an old friend.”
Chester climbed up and rested his head on my shoulder, lying against me like a little baby before letting out a kitty sigh that smelled vaguely of rotting tuna.
“Oh, you’re one to judge. You’ve got it rough, don’t you?”
A knock sounded at my door. I rose without disturbing Chester.
Brad stood outside, smiling an iridescent smile, looking dapper in khakis and a stiff-collared polo with the Fix My Wedding logo embroidered on it. It looked like it just came out of the package. He held a box of chocolate truffles—the best gift for a florist, by the way. I let him in.
“Audrey, I . . . I thought you’d be ready,” he said, probably eyeing my dripping hair.
“Sorry,” I said, immediately a little ticked off. I’d forgotten how Brad’s obsessive punctuality grated on me at times. And I hated how I always groveled to explain and justify myself, but found myself doing it anyway. “I was working on the bouquet for Monday since Gary upped the taping. I may even have to go back to work on it some more tonight. I was only able to finish one of them. Amber Lee offered to replicate it, but—”
Brad let out a lungful of exasperation. “Sorry. Old habits die hard. Of course you were working. I’ll sit and get reacquainted with Chester while you finish getting ready.” Brad held his arms out for my cat, but when I tried to hand him over, he jumped out of my arms, leaving a cloud of fur and dander. He hit the floor on all fours with a thud, then scampered off into the kitchen.
“I’ll just be a moment.” I darted into the bathroom. While using a cool hair dryer, I reasoned with my reflection in the mirror. “Not a date,” I said, as I applied a little blush, but skipped the mascara and lip gloss. I added earrings and a scarf, then went back and added the mascara and lip gloss. “You’re an idiot. You know that, right?”
My reflection nodded. Glad someone agreed with me.
“Ok, let’s roll,” I called to Brad as I grabbed my purse and slid my feet into wedges.
“You look great, Audrey.” Brad followed me out the door. I turned the lock and pulled the door shut with a bang before Chester could come running and escape. He was never an outdoor cat, but he did like to explore the neighborhood, though usually not getting much farther than my neighbor’s truck tires.
“That’s not good for the locks, Audrey. You really ought to use the key.”
“So my landlord has told me.” I raised one eyebrow in challenge.
Brad’s smile dimmed slightly, but he grabbed my elbow and led me to his car. Only it wasn’t his car. It was a huge black Range Rover.
“Is this . . .?”
“It belongs to the show,” he said. “But I use it quite a bit.”
I sank into the seat and watched the town pass outside the windows. A few minutes of uncomfortable silence later, the top of the vehicle scraped the low-hanging branches of a mature apple tree as he pulled into his mother’s gravel driveway. Maybe it was a good idea we weren’t having dinner alone. So many things had been left unsaid when he left town. Our once-easy conversations were probably as extinct as the dodo bird, phone booths, and rabbit-ear antennas.
Mrs. Simmons greeted us on the porch, her pudgy face flushed, probably from cooking. By the time we’d mounted the steps, she’d enveloped me in a hug, then reached up to pinch my cheeks. “Audrey, so good to see you. You look lovely. So pretty in purple. Come in. The roast is almost ready.”
Ceiling fans were spinning rapidly, and the central air whined as it strained to keep up with the heat pouring from her kitchen. Fortunately, several enticing aromas also swirled through the space. Cooking a roast on the hottest day of the year? She must be really happy to see Brad.
At least I hoped it was Brad she was happy to see. Mrs. Simmons had never quite reconciled herself to the breakup, still wanting me to call her “Mom,” as she had asked me to do when Brad and I were serious and a proposal on the horizon had seemed a certainty. At least it had to everybody in the world except Brad.
“Dinner’s ready,” she said as she led us into the small eating area in the kitchen. I was surprised the table didn’t buckle under the full bowls and platters of food she placed upon it. A basket of fresh bread, a steaming platter of roast beef. A tureen of gravy. More bowls of hot vegetables. She had enough there to feed at least a dozen lumberjacks.
She coaxed Brad into saying the blessing over the food. Because their tradition was to hold hands while doing it, this sparked one of the first awkward moments of the evening. And as he held my hand under the table, I looked up into his blue eyes and could see only sadness in them.
Why was he sad? Sad to be here with me? Sad that he didn’t stay here with me? But the spell was broken when what seemed like three-quarters of a cow crash-landed on my plate.
“Thank you.” I avoided addressing her by name for fear of starting the controversy again. By the end of the meal, I was holding my stomach.
“I think it’s finally cooling down,” Mrs. Simmons said. “Why don’t you two go outside while I clean up a little? We’ll have coffee and dessert later.”
“Let me help you,” I offered.
“No, dear. I run a one-woman kitchen, and I’m just pleased to have you back.” She shooed me away with her dish towel.
Brad led me out onto the deck. The outside air was indeed growing cooler by the moment, a result of the town’s location in a valley near where the Blue Ridge and Appalachia meet. I never truly understood the meteorological hocus-pocus that caused the nights to be cool even on the hottest days, but the sudden change in temperature drew a shiver from me.
“Here.” Brad took off his coat and draped it across my shoulders. We sat on the old cushioned aluminum glider that overlooked the wooded backyard.
“This place hasn’t changed,” I said. “Your mom hasn’t changed, either.”
He reached out and took my hand. “We do have a lot to talk about.”
I yanked it back. I was here to put my negative feelings about Brad behind me, not to rekindle the positive ones. “How are you enjoying your job with Fix My Wedding? Are Gary and Gigi much like they are on the show? In real life, I mean.”
“You really want to talk about the show?” He used a finger to push back a stray lock of my hair and tuck it behind my ear.
“Yes, I really want to talk about the show.” I straightened up and put as much space as I could between Brad and me on the narrow glider.
Brad laughed and folded his hands in front of him before starting the glider in a gentle rocking motion. “Gary and Gigi are . . . entertainers. They’re a lot like they are on television, but a little less amplified, if that makes sense. They can be abrupt at times, but they’re extremely focused on the show.”
“The tabloids say they don’t get along.”
“The tabloids also say Elvis is an auto mechanic in Buffalo and that Michael Jackson transported down from another planet to study Earth culture.” He leaned his head back. “No, I’d say they get along fine. There’s an occasional squabble. Those two can fight like husband and wife. But they also have great chemistry, don’t they?”
“When I saw my first episode, I wondered if they really were married.”
Brad snorted. “I see you still have no gaydar. How have you survived all these years?”
“I don’t know. Maybe by trying to treat everyone I meet with the same kindness and respect.”
He smiled and took my hand again. “Nice sentiment.”
“But I have to admit, it hasn’t helped my dating life much.” I leaned my head back and watched the birds dart among the branches of the trees. “I did notice that Gary’s not as sweet in real life as he appears on the screen.”
“No, that part seems to be an affectation,” Brad said. “But if I had to describe Gary and Gigi, I think I’d call them professionals first. They have a job to do, and they do what it takes—become what it takes—to get the job done.”
“If Jackie sticks around, I imagine she might make that harder. Are you worried about her disrupting things?”
He shrugged. “Possibly. Not sure how she found us. We’re rather tight-lipped about our shooting schedule. After all, the show is pretty popular in its demographic.”
“Was it worth leaving Ramble for?”
Brad turned to me with that same sadness in his eyes. “I told you on the phone that I messed up. I was so focused on the job opportunity. I felt it was my last chance to . . .”
“I don’t know. Make something of myself? Run away from home? Keep Ramble from smothering my soul? I can’t explain it. It was like I was caught in a giant sinkhole that was swallowing me alive, and if I didn’t get out right at that moment, I’d never make it out at all.”
“But now you think you messed up.”
“Audrey.” Our gazes met and the twinkle in his eyes reflected the gathering stars. “I don’t regret leaving. Not at all. I regret not taking you with me.”
Brad traced my lips with his thumb before leaning in for a kiss—a long, slow, familiar kiss that I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed. “Come with me this time,” he whispered into my ear, then drew me into another kiss.
I lingered for a moment, feeling nothing but his lips caressing mine. Then an alarm bell sounded in my head. I grabbed his shoulders and pushed him away. “I could never leave Ramble. It’s not smothering . . . Well, it’s safe, it’s cozy, and it’s home. I have the shop . . . and Liv.” And I had something else, another important reason to stay, but that kiss seemed to have shorted my brain, and I wasn’t coming up with it at the moment.
Mrs. Simmons chose that second to walk outside and set a tray on the nearby patio table. “Coffee,” she trilled. “And lots of sugar because I remember that’s how you like it, Audrey. And sorry I didn’t have time to make dessert from scratch. But I got some lovely cupcakes from that Baby Cakes Bakery in town. Well, when I told that nice Nick Maxwell what I wanted them for, he made me promise to say hello to you, Audrey.”
I arrived at the Ashbury at seven a.m. exactly. A wood police barrier, manned by Ken Lafferty, closed off the private road leading to the historic inn. Even that early in the morning, a crowd of curious Ramblers gathered near the road. They craned their necks from behind the barrier, binoculars trained on the gazebo where filming was rumored to take place. Jackie and her bridesmaids sipped coffee while waving their signs halfheartedly. Then they put them down, probably when they decided the Rose in Bloom delivery vehicle didn’t contain anyone they needed to impress. As I approached, the crowd parted peacefully. Then Ken swung the barrier off to the side to let me pass and waved me through.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Bridal Bouquet Shop Mysteries
Bloom and Doom
“Bloom and Doom captivated my attention from the very first page...Beverly Allen writes wonderfully engaging characters in a lovely small-town setting. Audrey Bloom, the heroine, is quick-witted and clever as she unravels the mystery, which was a puzzler right up to the dramatic end. A thoroughly entertaining and engaging mystery! I can’t wait for the next one!”—New York Times bestselling author Jenn McKinlay
“It’s an engaging bouquet of mayhem and murder. What a delight for cozy readers!”—Erika Chase, national bestselling author of the Ashton Corners Book Club Mysteries
"Allen’s upbeat series debut reads smoothly and easily with excellent dialog and an immensely likable cast. . . . The flower business really stars in this cozy.”—Library Journal
"Provides readers with a fresh twist on the amateur-sleuth story."—Booklist
"A terrific start to a new series."—Suspense Magazine