Actress Dakota Craig is set to tie the knot with her famous musician boyfriend at Mallory’s Pennsylvania B&B on the most romantic day of the year. Best of all, the whole thing will air on the reality TV show I Do. But the maid of honor has dropped out of the wedding party—by dropping dead.
A lot of people insist the show must go on, so Mallory’s investigation keeps getting sidetracked by everything from a meddling mother to a foot of snow to a side project making arrangements for a high school Winter Ball. But if she doesn’t catch the noxious culprit, the bride might wind up with a funeral wreath instead of a bouquet . . .
Praise for Engaged in Death
“I had great fun reading the adventures of nouveau sleuth Mallory Shepard as she wrangles corpses, kittens, and a cheating fiancé in this charming debut mystery.”
—Laura Levine, author of Murder Has Nine Lives
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"The groundhog didn't see his shadow!" My sister, Rachel, turned from the television with a look of anguish marring her pretty face. I would've expected her to be upset if the furry little guy had seen his shadow.
"What's the problem? I could do with an early spring." We were deep into the snowy season, and I was ready to take a break from burrowing under blankets each night and donning winter boots each day. I loved an excuse to curl up next to the fire with a good book and a cup of hot cocoa, but I'd be thrilled when warmer weather arrived.
"Dakota wants a winter-themed wedding. We need the snow to stick around." Rachel pulled back the heavy gray velvet drapes and peered outside, her eyes anxiously sweeping the grounds.
"I don't think we have anything to worry about," I soothed, joining her at the window. "Everyone knows that groundhog stuff isn't reliable."
Outside was a veritable winter wonderland. A lacy lattice of intricate, icy crystals spread across the library window like a delicate doily. Beyond the glass, the evergreen trees seemed to groan with the weight of a thick blanket of snow straining each branch. Tracks from deer and raccoons were the only patterns etched upon the smooth expanse of white ground. The newly risen sun reflected off the snow with slicing, blinding rays. It was a beautiful, cold, clear February day.
"I just want it to be perfect." My sister spun around and aimed the remote at the television. She turned off the footage of Punxsutawney Phil and paced the room. I was as anxious as her, but didn't want to show it. The crew for the celebrity wedding reality show I Do was going to arrive in minutes, and I wanted to show off my B and B, Thistle Park, at its very best.
We were hosting the wedding of actress Dakota Craig, recently anointed America's newest sweetheart. Dakota had fallen into obscurity after starring in a teen soap opera, and had risen, phoenix-from-the-ashes style, this past year with a string of acclaimed film roles. Everyone loved a comeback kid, and Dakota was it. She was also a humble, generous woman, if the emails and phone calls we'd been exchanging these last few months to plan her wedding from afar were any indication.
Her fiancé, Beau Wright, was the reigning king of country music. I'd always thought of him as something of a lothario, and there had been a lot of speculation about his hurried engagement to Dakota. But he'd been gracious and polite in the few dealings we'd had planning his nuptials. I couldn't say the same for Dakota's mother, Roxanne, who behaved like a stage mother on steroids.
My cell phone buzzed in my pocket.
"Is it the crew? They're officially late." Rachel crowded next to me to peer at the screen. I stifled a groan.
"It's Helene again." Helene Pierce was once almost my mother-in-law, until I'd called off the wedding to her son. I counted my lucky stars nearly every day for that decision.
"How many times has she texted this morning?" Rachel arched a perfectly plucked brow.
"This is the fifth. Not counting the three phone calls and two emails from her. All before the sun came up. I haven't even had my second cup of coffee." I typed back a hasty but professional reply to her query and hit SEND. I jammed my cell phone back into my dress pocket. I promised myself I'd take a sterner line with my arch nemesis turned client. "She knows the crew of I Do is arriving today. She's trying to rattle me."
And it was working.
I wondered for the thousandth time what I'd been thinking when I'd agreed to throw a modern-day debutante ball, free of charge, for the posh Dunlap Women's Academy, at the behest of Hurricane Helene. The Winter Ball was to be held in two days, encroaching on filming for the reality show. It would be a tight turnaround, not one I'd ever agree to in saner moments. But I had needed a mammoth favor, and Helene had granted my wish as the worst incarnation of a fairy godmother a girl could have. And now she'd called in her chips. I was at her constant beck and call. Thank goodness Helene was rattling me from afar. She was ensconced in her second home in Boca Raton. And although being nearly two thousand miles away kept her from popping in unannounced, she still harangued me each day via Skype, text, and phone to check on my plans for the Winter Ball.
"Did we take on too much?" I turned to Rachel in a moment of panic. The start of a headache began to spread between my eyes. "How will we pull off the Winter Ball, finish planning Dakota's wedding, and film for I Do?"
Rachel waved her hand and dismissed my worries, but her keen green eyes told a different story. "You pulled off Whitney and Ian's wedding in a month, all while renovating the house. We've held half a dozen weddings since. You could do this in your sleep."
I took a steadying breath and slowly let it out. "I'd just feel better if everyone were on the same page with the Winter Ball plans. The Winter Ball Committee directed me to ignore Helene's choices, and she's going to go ballistic when she finds out." Not only had I had to listen to every whim, concern, and demand from Helene, I'd also had to keep her in the dark about not honoring those wishes. It turned out I wasn't the only enemy Helene had. Her adversaries at the school had used her absence and snowbird status to undo all her plans for the ball. I checked my watch and let out a gust of air. "And I wish there were more time between the Winter Ball and Dakota's wedding."
Rachel snorted. "You didn't really have a choice. Let's just make lemon slushies out of the crummy lemons we've been given."
My sister was right. Being featured on a popular reality show was just what we needed to advertise our B and B and wedding-planning business. Rachel and I had spent the last two weeks with a bowl of popcorn between us, watching every previous episode of I Do. We were nervous about appearing on television and wanted everything to go off without a hitch. The show was edited to highlight drama between the wedding planners, venue owners, celebrity couples, and the host of the show, Adrienne Larson. But I was determined for the Thistle Park B and B to come across in a good light, with minimal shenanigans.
"Besides," Rachel continued, bringing me back to the present, "we have an unlimited budget for this wedding. It's going to be spectacular." Her eyes gleamed with Gatsby-esque plans for Dakota and Beau's big day.
"We have to take their personal style into account, Rach," I reminded my sister. "Dakota isn't a fan of bling and razzle-dazzle, as far as I can tell." The bride's selections had been tasteful and restrained, and seemed to value sentimentality over opulence. But Dakota's measured choices hadn't stopped Rachel from living vicariously through her, and she'd suggested some over-the-top details that Dakota had politely declined. Roxanne, Dakota's mother, was all too willing to advocate for a flashy wedding. I'd logged some tense time already during conference calls with the bride and her mother. I'd deftly deferred to Dakota, and Roxanne had eventually come around. Still, the wedding plans so far seemed to be a compromise effort between dueling mother and daughter, and I hoped Dakota was genuinely happy.
"Ooh!" Rachel whipped around from the window, her wavy, honey-kissed tresses fanning out behind her. "I see a van coming down the driveway."
The two of us raced from the library to the front hall and stationed ourselves expectantly at the front door. I smoothed down the checked black and plum merino dress I'd donned for the occasion and tucked an errant curl behind my ear. Rachel shimmied the skirt of her spangly navy shift down a few inches and fluffed out her hair.
"This is it," I whispered to my sister.
"Our chance to put the B and B on the map!" We practically wriggled with excitement and barely contained ourselves from flinging open the heavy front door until the cheerful clang of the bell sounded.
"Mallory and Rachel, wonderful to finally meet you." The woman perched before us on the front porch was adorned in icy blue finery. She wore an exquisitely tailored Alexander McQueen coatdress in a vivid periwinkle. It probably cost more than my whole wardrobe. Lozenge-sized aquamarines graced her earlobes. Her tiny feet were ensconced in creamy suede, red-soled, high-heeled boots. I stared at them with incredulous eyes. I couldn't figure out how she'd made it from the production team's van and up the front walk without a single drop of moisture falling on the buttery leather. A jaunty fawn-colored cloche hat protected her shining, perfect cap of flaxen hair. She swept into the hallway and removed white angora gloves. She gave my hand a firm shake, with cold fingers.
"You must be Adrienne. Welcome to Thistle Park." I ushered the host of I Do into the front hall, where Rachel stared at her designer outfit with eyes agog. Adrienne Larson had impeccable taste, an artist's eye, and a will of steel. She'd earned the moniker of Ice Queen through subtly vicious yet outwardly polite battles with wedding planners and celebrity brides on I Do. I admired her choices and the suggestions she made on the show, and secretly hoped she'd approve of the wedding plans I'd come up with. But I also hoped she wouldn't meddle too much. Adrienne was a formidable figure on screen, and not one I wanted to tangle with anytime soon. I'd vowed to outmaneuver her overbearing suggestions about Dakota's wedding.
The rest of the crew filed in, and introductions were exchanged. The director, Xavier, was deferential and pleasant, his blinding white teeth on full display as he smiled and shook our hands. The light crew and cameramen didn't seem ruffled by Adrienne's presence. After a few minutes, I relaxed. We gathered in the parlor before a roaring fire and chatted with the crew over croissants, fruit, and coffee. We were about to start a tour of the house when a familiar black Accord advanced up the driveway.
"Garrett's here," I mused to Rachel. "I wonder what's up." I eagerly threw open the door before he had a chance to ring the bell.
"What a lovely surprise." I tilted my head back to receive a brief kiss and smiled at my boyfriend.
"I can't stay long. I'm dropping Summer off at school." Garrett's usually warm voice was tense and distant. I took a step back, but held the lapel of his black wool overcoat.
"Is everything all right?" I tried to tamp down the edge in my voice.
"I just realized something. Last night, I watched an episode of I Do." His gorgeous hazel eyes were pained.
I laughed and let go of his coat, the tension broken. "Totally not your style, but I appreciate you checking in to see what I'm up against the next two weeks."
A wave of panic seemed to wash over Garrett. The laughter died in my throat.
"I should have watched it sooner. Mallory —"
"The TV crew is here. I saw their van." Garrett's thirteen-year-old daughter, Summer, peeked her head around the massive front door. Her heart-shaped face was surrounded by a cheery red ski hat. Her eyes were eager and bright.
"Summer, I told you to stay in the car." Garrett's voice was clipped and strange. I stared between him and his daughter, confused. She scooted around the open door and stood in the front hall, seeming to search for someone.
A plate crashed in the parlor.
Summer ran to Adrienne and almost knocked her over with the force of her embrace. Adrienne hugged Summer back with impossible fierceness and slowly raised her tear-stained eyes. They were heavy with a mixture of sadness and elation.
"Mom! You came back!"
* * *
The air in the room was heavy and stifling. All was still as Adrienne wiped her waterproof mascara with a tissue and Summer gazed at her with a look of adoration. My eyes darted back and forth between Summer and Adrienne at one end of the room, and Garrett before me, as if I were taking in an Olympic Ping-Pong match. Summer and Adrienne continued their hug, and Garrett's stunned visage took on an increasingly perturbed cast. He'd initially appeared flummoxed and stricken, but his disbelief was quickly distilling into lightning-hot annoyance.
"Summer." Garrett's voice was a strange, strangled mixture of anger and eerie calm. "You're going to be late for school."
I couldn't believe he was focusing on the mundanities of getting to school on time when Summer was calling Adrienne Larson her mother. I didn't know the specifics, but I knew enough. Thirteen years ago, Summer's mother had run off to Los Angeles a mere two weeks after Summer was born. She'd left Summer with Garrett and only seen her daughter a handful of times since. I had known Summer's mother's name was Adrienne, but I hadn't realized the host of I Do and Garrett's onetime love were one in the same. And from the look of shock on Garrett's face, he hadn't realized it either. Garrett rarely spoke of Adrienne, and when he did, it was with much angst, even after all these years.
"But, Dad, Mom just got here. I'd like to stay and see the show being filmed." Summer's hazel eyes sparkled as she pleaded with her father. Adrienne gazed at her daughter, her mauve lips composed in a straight line. She placed a delicate hand possessively on Summer's shoulder and raised her chin. She shot Garrett a look of defiance, almost daring him to say no.
I took a step closer to Garrett in a silent show of support and struggled to process what was happening. I had a hard time reconciling the Adrienne I'd heard of in the context of abandoning Summer and Adrienne as the host of I Do. The way Summer keenly and fiercely clung to the woman she'd called Mom was muddying my views, too. Garrett's perception seemed addled as well. He appeared to be weighing his options.
I could see how Garrett and Adrienne's good looks had both contributed to Summer. She'd gotten her platinum hair, heart-shaped face, and ethereal manner from Adrienne. But their styles were diametrically opposed, with Adrienne clad head-to-toe in her trademark light blue, save for the red soles of her Louboutins. Summer had a casual tomboy affect, and just this past July had consented to chop off the inky black hair she'd dyed.
I studied Garrett. From her father, Summer had inherited her prodigious height, a smile that crooked up on one side, and soft hazel eyes that more often than not held dancing laughter but could also be smoldering and serious. Right now, Garrett's eyes looked anything but amiable. He went with the simplest way of diffusing tension.
"We can discuss spending time with your ... mother on the way to school. C'mon, Summer, you don't want to be late." Garrett's voice was at once stern and pleading. Summer reluctantly gave up her spot next to Adrienne, but not before she graced her with another fierce hug. She crossed the parlor with a wistful glance for her mother and stood beside Garrett.
"See you later, Mom?" Summer's eyebrows rose in anticipation, and Adrienne let out a merry peal of laughter.
"Yes, sweetheart, we'll be seeing a lot of each other."
Summer lit up at her mother's pronouncement and doled out another electric smile, her magenta braces flashing.
"I'll see you at the car." Garrett offered his daughter a warm smile, and she seemed to relax, the tension of the moment gone. Summer gave me a hug on her way to the front hall. She left her father to face off with Adrienne.
Garrett waited until we could hear the heavy mahogany front door slam shut.
"You have a lot of explaining to do, Adrienne." Garrett's words came out in a strained string of hisses, yet he managed to remain barely civil. "For example, how did it happen that Summer seemed to know you'd be here, but I'm just finding out now?"
Adrienne's pale petal lips lifted up in a lilting smile. Her cool demeanor was back, her nerves unflappable. The only sign of the scene that had just taken place was a little bit of smeared mascara at the edges of each eye. "If I'd told you beforehand, I'm sure you'd have arranged for Summer to be out of town, or otherwise unavailable."
Garrett shook his head, a lock of nearly black hair gracing his forehead. "That's not true, and you know it. Summer would give anything to see more of you, though I'm not sure why. If you'd contacted me, I would have arranged for you and Summer to have plenty of time during your stay in Port Quincy. I would never do anything to keep you two apart. You've done enough of that yourself over the years for me to have to contribute to your disappearing act." I could practically see the frost in the air.
Adrienne gasped and a delicate hand fluttered to her throat. The director, Xavier, came to her side and placed a fortifying hand on her arm.
Excerpted from "Murder Borrowed, Murder Blue"
Copyright © 2018 Stephanie Hayes.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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