Mallory’s fine—really—handling the wedding arrangements for her ex, Keith. But his fiancée, Becca, has at the last minute decided to switch from a Japanese-cherry-blossom theme to a Gone with the Wind theme. She wants to honor her ailing grandmother, who owns an impressive collection of GWTW memorabilia—and who is fiercely at odds with the groom’s mother over the nuptial plans.
But among other complications, Becca gets into a fight with an old childhood rival over a replica Scarlett O’Hara wedding gown. She wins the dress—but soon becomes a murder suspect when the other woman is found dead in Becca’s swimming pool. And it’s up to Mallory to solve the mystery behind this unhappy occasion, before a different kind of civil war breaks out . . .
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"You're either a saint or completely crazy." My sister Rachel put down her wand of electric-blue mascara and tried to catch my eye in the rearview mirror. "You can still back out, you know."
I kept my eyes on the road, a slalomlike dip of pavement retreating from our Italianate mansion B and B, toward the other side of the town I'd come to call home. Port Quincy, Pennsylvania, rose up before us at the top of another steep hill. Pretty Painted Lady Victorians flanked both sides of the brick street in shades of lilac, butter yellow, and petal pink, like little girls in Easter dresses. The turreted and gingerbread buildings gave way to wide Craftsman bungalows and squat Cape Cods. Ruby geraniums, winking black-eyed Susans, and lush magenta impatiens bloomed in profusion in front yard flowerbeds. The sky was an overturned bowl of rich robin's egg blue, with a scrape of cirrus clouds scattered like feathers. I rolled down the window of my ancient tan Volvo station wagon, a vehicle I'd christened the Butterscotch Monster. The air was sweet and warm, carrying the scent of a recent rain. It was a gorgeous mid-May afternoon. Summer would soon be upon us, but spring still held sway, the world around me dewy and fresh and new.
"I think I'm a little bit of both." My heart rate accelerated as I turned to follow the road next to the roiling Monongahela River, away from Port Quincy and toward the countryside. "I can't just leave Becca hanging. What I would have given to have some help standing up to Helene last summer." I shivered despite the warmth of the late-day sun and recalled when I'd been in Becca's position. When I'd been engaged to Keith Pierce, Port Quincy's favorite son, about to go through with my inflated albatross of a wedding. Back when I was an attorney. Before I'd found out about Keith's cheating, called off the wedding, and inherited his grandmother's mansion, Thistle Park.
So much had changed. I was now a wedding planner and B and B purveyor, working with my sister to make brides and grooms' dreams come true. I loved my new career and my life in Port Quincy. I felt like I'd found my true calling, and had the good fortune to stumble upon a place I could call home. The only glitch was occasionally running into my ex-fiancé, Keith, his mother, Helene, and his new fiancée, Becca Cunningham.
"Well, I know I wouldn't even give Becca the time of day, much less plan her wedding to Keith." Rachel had moved on to the lipstick portion of her car face-painting routine, and carefully applied a swath of rose gloss to her lips.
"She extracted a promise in a moment of weakness." I'd tried to help the man I'd once thought I'd marry, and the woman he'd been cheating with, elope just this past February. But a blizzard stymied their plans to jet off to St. Kitts. Becca had acquiesced to Helene's demands for a big Port Quincy society wedding, and I'd taken pity on the bride. I was once in her position, fulfilling Helene's every wish for my wedding, against all my own wants and desires. I'd felt sorry for Becca, and though she was once the other woman, no one should have to stand up to Helene without reinforcements. I squared my shoulders behind the seatbelt and glanced at my sister. "We're lucky in a way that the Norris party canceled their big day. We can get Keith and Becca's wedding out of the way, and in two weeks, this will all be behind us."
The bride and groom were on a waiting list to be married at my B and B, and had accepted the slot from the last-minute cancellation. Their nuptials were to be the first week of June, and then I'd be done with them for good.
Rachel rolled her eyes in apparent disbelief at my proclamation as we reached the housing development of mega McMansions nestled in the rolling green countryside. I reached the cul-de-sac Keith and Becca called home and stifled a giggle. I parked the Butterscotch Monster behind Keith's familiar navy BMW in the circular driveway and cut the engine.
"Holy heck." Rachel dropped a compact of bronzer in her lap and yelped as a spray of tan talc covered the worn leather bench seat.
"I warned you." I couldn't tamp down the grin I felt spreading across my face as Keith and Becca's hulking colossus of architectural wonder stood before us. The bride had designed the house, a busy collection of cubes and rectangles jutting out at improbable angles. The house was a dark red-brick edifice that would rival any creative toddler's LEGO construction. Floor-to-ceiling glass block windows glimmered in long, unpredictable slices peeking out from under a shiny copper roof. Severe and precise topiary huddled next to the structure in random groups.
"If this is a clue to Becca's wedding style, we may be in trouble." Rachel dusted off the last bit of bronzer from her berry-colored leather miniskirt and craned her head to take in every inch of the modernist structure.
"It gets better. Wait'll you see the inside." I advanced up the wide brick path to the double-lacquered front doors and took a deep breath before I rang the bell. It was flung open a nanosecond later, and I found myself face-to-face with a woman I'd never met before.
"You must be Mallory. I'm so glad to meet you." I found myself being gathered up in an impetuous hug on the threshold of the house, and I smiled as the woman next embraced my sister.
"I'm Becca's mother, Jacqueline Cunningham. Her father and I are so thrilled you're able to accommodate Becca and Keith so much earlier than we were expecting." I tried to listen to Becca's mother and take in my sister's reaction to the interior of the house at the same time. Rachel's pretty green eyes grew round as she did a double take.
The inside of the house was a study in nineteen eighties' boudoir finery, with yards of white, cream, and ecru chintz and silk. Gold and seafoam green accents were scattered throughout the cavernous open floor plan, and everywhere the eye landed, there was peach. Peach tile, peach ceilings, and peach pillars. Even the kitchen cabinets were a shade of apricot. It took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the glow of the room. A room that had my nemesis, Helene, written all over it. I wondered how Becca liked living in this split-personality house, where she'd designed the outside but had to acquiesce to her fiancé's mother with regard to the inside decor.
But I wouldn't be dealing with Helene today. Becca and Keith were keeping it a secret from the reigning queen bee of Port Quincy that they were to be married in two weeks' time. She would never consent to having the wedding at Thistle Park, and they were going to reveal their plans to marry the day of the wedding. I wasn't sure how I was going to keep their ceremony under wraps, but I would try. I didn't want to face the wrath of Hurricane Helene.
Rachel and I followed Jacqueline through a maze of white and peach furniture to the sleek black deck at the back of the house. I shielded my eyes as we stepped outside, briefly noting the spare obsidian rock garden beyond the low, rectangular pool. It was before Memorial Day, but the wide expanse of blue water looked to be up and running and ready for swimmers.
"You're finally here." Becca leaned down to give the side of my face a cool air-kiss, and I stifled a wince as she pulled away. We weren't friends, if not exactly enemies either, but I didn't need to exchange pretend pleasantries.
"I'm glad we were able to move your wedding up," I said in a neutral voice.
Becca gave Rachel a curt nod. The bride-to-be had donned a pretty pink sundress for the occasion, her large princess-cut diamond front and center as she folded her left hand over her right. She wore her ubiquitous flats, the better to attempt to match Keith in stature now that she was engaged. Her hair was its usual fall of shiny flaxen tresses, her trademark stripe of dark roots standing out at her part.
"You must have a lot of cancellations if you were able to accommodate us so quickly," Keith Pierce stated with a glint in his eye. My once fiancé was clad in his best prepster wear for this wedding planning meeting. He wore a navy blazer with gold buttons, a pink check dress shirt to complement Becca's sundress, and he completed the outfit with khakis and boating shoes. A bead of sweat dripped down from the bald spot forming atop his head and landed on his shoulder with a plop.
"This is the first cancellation this year," I responded, trying and failing to remove the frosty tone in my voice.
"And we're glad that luck was on our side to move up the wedding." A sprightly woman of an indeterminate age, somewhere between eighty and ninety, clutched my arm with warm, gnarled hands. She had a slight stoop, bringing her height under five feet, but her grip was firm. A full, fluffy corona of shocking white hair graced her head, and her blue eyes twinkled merrily like those of a young woman.
"I'm Alma Cunningham, Becca's grandmother," the woman gushed. "And this is my son, Rhett."
A short, portly man shuffled forward to grip my hand in a surprisingly hard shake.
"Pleased to meet you, Mallory." Becca's father had a little button nose, an amused smirk, and the same twinkling eyes as his mother. His hair was a longish iron gray, the ends nearly brushing his shoulders. He reminded me a bit of the Quaker Oats man. I couldn't help but swivel my head from Rhett Cunningham to his wife, Jacqueline. Becca definitely favored her mother. Jacqueline Cunningham and Becca towered over Rhett by an easy foot. Both mother and daughter had a sophisticated, if brittle kind of grace. Jacqueline wore a coral shift dress, her frame willowy and tanned and toned.
"And I'm Samantha, Becca's sister." A slight, short woman seemed to emerge from the shadows, dressed simply in a black tea dress and strappy sandals. "Pleased to meet you." Her lips parted and she gave a bright smile, and it was then that I saw her resemblance to Becca. Samantha favored her father and grandmother, with her short frame and twinkling blue eyes. But her hair was dark, the color of Becca's roots.
"My twin sister, actually." Becca slung an arm around Samantha and bestowed her with a winning smile.
"Twins?" Rachel squinted at the sisters.
"Fraternal," Samantha qualified. "I've been overseas in Colombia, working as a human rights attorney," she added. "I couldn't make it back for my cousin Whitney's wedding last October. It's so good to be home for Becca's." I found myself warming quickly to the sweet woman, who obviously loved her twin sister.
"Shall we get started?" Keith's droll voice cut through the air, and he glanced officiously at his Rolex.
I accepted the chair Rhett pulled out for me and opened the book of ideas I'd fashioned for Becca and Keith.
"You wanted a Japanese cherry blossom–inspired wedding, to mirror your backyard, but also to take advantage of the grounds at Thistle Park." I pulled out a photograph of the gazebo at the back of my property. It was festooned with cherry blossoms and stands of orchids, lit from within by red-lacquered lanterns.
"Oooh ..." Becca shimmied in her chair as I slid the book toward her. Keith continued to look unimpressed, but I felt all my misgivings melt away. Becca seemed pleased with my vision, and I relaxed by degrees. I was going to give Keith and Becca a beautiful day, and maybe earn some karma points.
"The wedding will be a joint catering effort between our cook and the restaurant Fusion. For appetizers, we'll have sushi." Rachel took over the food portion of our planning reveal. "Dinner will feature ginger beef short ribs, coconut curry risotto, and Thai chili mint chicken."
"And the cake will be a five-tiered cherry and almond vision in pink."
The doorbell chimed somewhere deep within the house, solemn and gonglike.
"We've arranged for a small replica of the meal from Fusion for you to taste."
Rhett licked his lips appreciatively as Rachel and I emerged several minutes later with trays of food bearing appetizer-size bites of the wedding menu.
"And what about the dance floor?" Becca set down a half-eaten spring roll and delicately touched the sides of her mouth with a cherry-blossom- patterned napkin. "I don't just want a boring white tent."
Ah, that's more normal.
Becca's usual imperious tone had returned. I knew it was only a matter of time.
"We'll rent tents with a bamboo-thatched roof, and the sides will be mosquito netting," I smoothly promised. I pulled out the brochure of the company in New York that had agreed to let us rent the tents at extremely short notice. "They'll be translucent and will look lovely with the torches we'll place around the grounds."
Becca seemed to love the idea despite herself.
"And what about —"
"Well, well, what do we have here?"
Becca went silent as all our heads swiveled in unison to take in Helene Pierce, standing in the doorway of the deck in her trademark Chanel bouclé jacket. Her face was a mask of barely controlled rage, her pageboy fanned out above her ears like a king cobra.
"I see you opened the pool before Memorial Day," she tsked as she made her way to the table. "A savage move, but not unexpected."
"Mother —" Keith rose to greet Helene, carefully stepping in front of a seated Becca, as if to shield her. Becca frantically grabbed at the idea book of her wedding and shoved the large tome under the table.
"And what is this?" Helene quickly retrieved the book and did a cursory flip-through, her papery cheeks growing red and mottled under her peach blush.
"This looks like Thistle Park." Her voice was quiet and quaking, the volcano about to erupt. "And just when were you planning on carrying out these clandestine plans to wed?"
"In two weeks," Samantha answered brightly. She seemed to have misunderstood Helene's hot face for excitement, not barely controlled anger.
"Not on my watch!" Helene tossed the idea book into the pool, where it broke the smooth expanse of blue and sent up a splash. "And at Thistle Park no less? You," she turned to me, her index finger a mere inch from my nose. "You are behind this, once again?"
"Calm down, Helene." I took a step back from my once-mother-in-law-to-be and bumped into Rachel, who sent Helene a powerful glower. "Perhaps if you had been a bit more understanding, Becca and Keith would have included you in their plans." Helene was a pistol, but I didn't think she'd ever resort to fisticuffs, no matter how mad she got.
"Why, you little —" Helene lunged for me. I'd miscalculated.
A flash of white materialized at my elbow, and I barely comprehended the wooden cane that nimbly tapped Helene behind the knees, setting her off-balance. Helene grabbed at my elbow as she went down, and nicked the edge of the large silver tray laden with appetizers instead.
The beautiful plated pyramid of elaborate sushi returned to its marine beginnings and toppled into the pool with a satisfying splash. Edamame and a rainbow of sushi rolls bobbed upon the waves like a mini school of fish come to the surface. The contents from upended bowls of wasabi drifted around in the water like green algae.
And above it all was the frantic caterwauling of the woman I'd almost once called mother-in-law. She continued to carry on, splashing and screaming, channeling the melting witch in The Wizard of Oz.
"I can't swim! Help me!" She bobbed under the water again and resurfaced, gasping and gulping in huge breaths of air. Her signature gray pageboy finally succumbed to the effects of the water despite a prodigious amount of hair spray. Wet clumps of hair hung limply on either side of her face.
"You're in the shallow end. Just stand up." Becca's voice was spasmodic and high-pitched. I wondered if she was all right, then I realized she was trying to hold back gales of laughter. She finally gave up and began to hysterically giggle, tears rolling down her face, leaving inky trails of mascara.
Keith looked at his bride in disgust and shrugged off his navy sports coat. "I'll fish you out, Mother." He leaned over the edge of the pool and meekly offered his hand to Helene. She grasped it like a drowning woman and nearly pulled her son into the pool. He hoisted her up and out of the water, careful not to get himself too wet. Helene stood quaking with rage, a puddle of cold water forming below her now-ruined pale blue suede kitten heels. Rivulets streamed down the sleeves of her sodden wool bouclé Chanel jacket, and her plaid skirt clung to her frame.
"This is all your fault, Mallory Shepard." She crooked her index finger in my direction, the large sapphire wobbling. I took a step back and bumped into Rachel. It was our cue to leave.
"Let's get out of here."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gown With the Wind"
Copyright © 2019 Stephanie Hayes.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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