Jessica Sterling’s candlelight-themed nuptials promises to be the perfect kick-off to the summer’s first official holiday weekend. Stella’s thrilled to have been chosen to provide the decorative centerpiece for the wedding ceremony: a two-foot-tall scented unity candle—a symbol of the happy couple’s love. But it looks like the bride-to-be’s uncle won’t be walking his niece down the aisle after he’s found dead. The murder weapon is Stella’s seemingly indestructible candle, now split in two.
When a beloved local bartender is arrested, Stella’s sure a visiting police captain running the case made a rush to justice. With superstitious brides-to-be canceling orders and sales waxing and waning at her store, the Wick & Flame owner decides to do some sleuthing of her own. Abetted by a charming reporter and challenged by the town’s sexiest cop, Stella’s determined to shine a light on the truth and uncover a killer who’s snuffing out her own flame.
About the Author
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Friday morning, I woke up before the first ferry's horn sounded its arrival to Nantucket Island, my hometown. I greeted the day by feeling around my bedsheets until I found my phone. Its bright light kicked in to tell me it was five thirty a.m., and to display a message I'd anticipated for weeks: "Memorial Day Weekend!" Following the announcement was a to-do list that I'd already committed to memory. The exciting days ahead signified the start of the retail high season, and the weekend of Jessica Sterling's wedding. As owner of the Wick & Flame, a small store in town where I make and sell candles, I'd been working on the wedding for two months, since my oldest friend, Emily Gardner, Nantucket's top event coordinator, introduced me to her client. I fixate on every angle when I undertake a project and Jessica Sterling's wedding was no exception.
"I want something historic. Something that captures the spirit of Nantucket, but isn't too cheesy," the bride-to-be had said to me on our first meeting. "I've picked the Melville Inn for the venue, and now I'm thinking about a candle theme."
I nodded professionally, as if this type of proposal came my way every day, but I felt I'd won the lottery. To put it in perspective, the candy store in town has hundreds of orders for chocolate-covered cranberries when the party season hits, but no one has ever had a candle-themed event. I was dying to lead the design, and I was honored to be part of Jessica's fairy- tale wedding. So big was this opportunity, that in my memory I gave my pitch in a flashy conference room with cushy chairs and a PowerPoint presentation. In reality, we were at The Bean, my favorite coffee shop in town.
That day, I proposed something traditional, yet original: a unique wedding scent, inspired by the couple's love, and the wedding's seaside venue. My thought was to infuse the scent into two featured items.
First, a unity candle.
"What's a unity candle?" Jessica had said. I explained that it's a candle that symbolizes a couples' love, which is lit during a wedding ceremony. She liked it.
Second, I proposed to infuse the scent into votive candles to give as party favors to all of the guests. To my delight, Jessica loved both ideas, and gave me the job. We ended our first meeting feeling giddy about the weekend. So giddy that we clinked coffee cups to toast our success. I will never forget the moment that Jessica raised her chai latte.
"You have my votive confidence," she said.
We laughed at the pun, but I took her words seriously.
Following our meeting, I mapped out designs to ensconce the wedding in candlelight, from the simple Siasconset Chapel down the road whose perfect motto is "a lantern held by a friendly hand," to the party tent that would be erected on a picturesque field across from the Melville for the evening reception, to the guest rooms and facilities throughout the inn. Only the ivory-colored votives and unity candle would carry the personalized scent, while the other candles would be dyed pastel shades to match the wedding's color scheme of purple, blue, and pink. Heaven. Really. I'd recommend the idea to anyone, and not just because I'd like the business.
Now, I stretched my arms above my head and wiggled my toes, enjoying the memory of my biggest sales pitch, but moving on to the tasks at hand. In fact, now that Friday had come, I noticed that the morning air held a hint more of the sea than the scent Jessica had signed off on from the five samples I had created for her. I hated to admit it, but one scent in particular struck me as a better match to the weekend weather than the one she had chosen. It had a touch more sea salt and a dash more of white tea. It was late in the game for making changes, but I knew my customer. Only two days ago, Jessica had rescheduled the start of her rehearsal dinner so that she could hire a flock of doves to fly dramatically into the sunset. She was going for perfection. So was I.
I calculated how late I'd be up if I remade over two hundred gift candles and a unity candle, then I tossed off my blanket and sprinted across my squeaky floorboards to the kitchen of my one-bedroom apartment where I grabbed an iced coffee from my fridge. As I closed the door, a sign reading Leftovers, made out of macaroni, slid from its magnet. People like to name their houses on Nantucket. It's a thing. You'll see quarter boards, inspired by sailing ships of yore, hanging on one house after another with names like "Serenity" and "Why Worry." My pasta quarter board was lovingly made by my cousin Chris's young son. Chris is a contractor, and the historic house outside of town that he and his wife bought and lovingly restored came with an old carriage house out back, which they turned into a garage with my apartment on top. It's a one- bedroom with a living room and small kitchen, and other than painting it a soft blue throughout, it's mostly decorated with the items it held the first day I dropped my bags there, seven years ago, after I graduated from college. Hence, the name of my home (and often, the contents of my fridge).
After throwing on my jeans and a thick sweater, I jumped into my red VW Beetle, still zipping up my boots. I cursed the back window that last weekend suddenly refused to close about the last three inches. The weather had been nicer during the week, and I'd forgotten to take the car to be fixed, but now it was c-o-l-d. So cold, it took a minute for my phone to register my fingers as I dialed Emily to let her know I was heading over to my store and then to the Melville. In addition to offering my services to bring anything to the inn this morning, I wanted to make sure that Emily and I stayed on the same page. There was no room for surprises in her meticulously planned event. The call went to voice mail, but it was only six in the morning. Pulling out of the driveway, I left a message.
When I reached town, the streets were quiet and the morning fog still hung low. The vibe would be very different in a matter of hours, when tourists arrived for Memorial Day weekend along with a mob of sailing enthusiasts who come each year for the island's one-of-a-kind annual sailing competition, called FIGAWI, which stands for "Where the #%$! are we?" (Correct pronunciation: where the fug ah we?) The race started decades ago as a dare between two friends, who at one point got lost en route to the island, hence the name. It is now an international sailing event that brings a great boon to local retail. Some folks go into shock over the onslaught of visitors, but the business girl in me looks forward to FIGAWI all year.
Rounding onto the bumpy cobblestone pavement of Main Street, which I like to describe as offering a full-body massage when experienced in my car, I saw my cousins Ted and Docker, who run a private trash removal business. They looked like they were loading nautical supplies into the back of their truck, which seemed a funny thing to do on Main Street, but they often have unusual jobs.
I waved. They waved. My family, the Wrights, have been a fixture on the island for as long as anyone can remember. Only my mother, Millie Wright, had the itch to leave. Like one of Nantucket's legendary whaling captains, my mother would disappear for months at a time while in her twenties, only to return with treasured oils and extracts to make perfumes, her passion. One day she returned home, opened a perfume store and settled, for a stretch, with a different kind of treasure.
"It was a treasure that trumped them all," she used to say. "My little Stella Wright."
I used to love to hear her say this to me. I always felt different from the Wrights with my unruly dark hair and olive complexion, which is at odds with their infamous red hair and fair skin. And whereas they're all willing to laugh things off, I can have, I admit, a bit of a temper when push comes to shove.
Nearing the Wick & Flame, I slowed my car, not that there was traffic, but because I passed Officer Andy Southerland and I knew the cops in town were on the lookout for traffic violations during the busy weekend. As I drove by him, he smiled. I smiled, too, then lifted a finger to my eye and pointed to him to let him know I was on my feet today. It got a laugh, and he returned the gesture.
Andy and I have had a lifetime of friendly antagonism that I've never quite shared with anyone else. We are twenty-nine now, but we've been at it since seventh grade, when I alone smelled a gas leak during a science lab, and Andy called me The Hound. Having spent many afternoons connecting a customer to their perfect scent at my mother's store, my sense of smell had become keen, to be sure, but that afternoon exemplified my talent's pros and cons. On the con side, a teenager does not aspire to the nickname Hound. It suggests a dog, not something you want to be thinking about when you're buying your first mascara. But my classmates howled like dogs to thank me that day in science, and that was that. I still stand by my comeback. I'd like to think I squared my shoulders when I turned to Andy and said, "That's Miss Hound, to you. And be careful. I bite."
They were fighting words. Later that week, he put a frog in my lunchbox. I retaliated by sticking gum in his hair. As they say in the movies, it was the start of a beautiful friendship. Who would ever guess that a guy who loved pranks and teasing seventh-grade girls would choose law enforcement as a career? When I opened Wick & Flame, he offered a conciliatory change of my nickname to The Candle Girl.
"That's Candle Lady," I had responded, shoulders definitely squared by then.
A moment later, I parked in a legal spot in front of the Wick & Flame. Unlike half the stores in town, I keep my place open year-round, but I'd put extra care into my current store window in anticipation of the weekend. As I retrieved the store keys from my back pocket to let myself in, I thought how my brightly colored display was at odds with the dreary morning sky, but I hoped my color palate would make people think of summer days ahead and indulge in a candle or two.
I entered my store where I was greeted by a cacophony of scents, from wild lilies to mango peach to basil and mint. I straightened a new display I'd added last week. It featured a unity candle similar to the Sterling's creation, and it had a small advertisement underneath for personalized wedding scents. Like the Sterling's candle, my display was about six inches in diameter and a full two feet tall. I'd recently found a stronger wax than the coconut bases I usually use, so I could build height while maintaining strength. Word had already spread about the Sterling's nuptials, and I was working on an unprecedented six weddings for June. I hoped by the end of the weekend, a few more people might consider my services. My rent had recently gone up and, quite frankly, I needed the business.
From a room behind the cash register where I also hold candle-making classes, I grabbed a small vial with a sample of the sea salt and white tea oils I had in mind for the alternative scent. In two hours, I'd be back at my shop to greet the Candleers, a self-named band of some of my favorite characters in town, for our last class of "Color Infusions 101." The clock ticking, I popped back into my car and headed out to the Melville.
I've always said that if I had the money for a big wedding, and a man I wanted to marry, I'd love a wedding at the Melville. The inn opened its doors two years ago as a sophisticated, but somehow still understated, inn at a quiet point of the island. Originally an old white elephant of a home, the inn had been renovated and expanded to almost one hundred rooms, which are beautifully appointed with New England dÉcor and antiques. A row of French doors at the back of the inn opens to a swimming pool, followed by a rolling lawn where guests can play croquet while sipping cocktails from Adirondack chairs. The property ends at the harbor where the Melville's private launch takes guests across the sparkling waters in to town, thereby skipping the winding road that takes three times as long to drive. Oh, and the food! The inn has a restaurant, Ahab's, where the aroma of the dishes, and I am saying this as someone who's biased, is as irresistible as the scented candles I make at the Wick & Flame.
Had I known what I was driving toward, however, I might have decided the Sterling scent we had chosen was perfect as it was.CHAPTER 2
Jessica Sterling was an early riser, too. Or maybe she had as long a to-do list as I had. Either way, I was glad to find her awake when I arrived at the Melville about thirty minutes later. She was having breakfast with her mother at Ahab's. Jessica is a couple of inches taller than I am, and I played JV basketball in high school. Her hair has that golden color that is so bright she looks like a light bulb going off. Her mother is equally tall and gray haired, but an elegant gray that tells you to mind your manners. I had been told by Emily that she was addressed as "mom" by Jessica and "Mrs. Sterling" by everyone else, including Jessica's fiancÉ, Joe Handler.
Some locals have it in for rich people who come to their island. They think they'll be snobs, or disrespectful. Funny thing about being a local on Nantucket is that you can be either a big fish in a small pond, or invisible to the seasonal visitors. Jessica, however, was not the type to see through anyone. She's a good egg. I was dying to meet her fiancÉ, Joe. He was certainly a lucky guy. I imagined he must be some sort of Disney-looking prince with a British accent and maybe small children, waifs, hanging off of him, whom he had saved from peril while wearing a custom-made James Bond — type suit. I don't know. It was a slow spring.
Something about the body language between Jessica and her mother made me pause at the entrance to the restaurant rather than interrupt them. Both mother and daughter had presumably rolled out of bed for an early coffee, but what would have been sweats and whatever T-shirt was on the floor for me, they were in outfits that were perfectly pressed. Jessica was wearing her now infamous engagement ring, which shined ruby, emerald, sapphire, and diamond reflections across the room. The ring did not fit Jessica's approachable personality, but it was a family heirloom and Emily had told me it meant a lot to Mrs. Sterling that she wear it. I like the idea of a huge gaudy ring, but maybe that's because I don't have to lug one around on my finger every day. Ah, who am I kidding? I think I could manage that kind of problem.
"It's not that I think Joe's a bad man," Mrs. Sterling was saying to her daughter. Her brow was furrowed over her coffee cup. "I just hope he's strong enough for you. And, I don't see why you two had to do so much of the wedding yourselves. A mother should be in on everything, even if the groom was a surprise choice."
"I know you're disappointed, Mom," said Jessica. "It breaks my heart. But we won't let you down."
On the one hand, I was suddenly aware that I was walking in on a private conversation. On the other hand, I couldn't walk away from the smell of freshly baked goods and brewed coffee. I inhaled the welcoming aromas.
"Stella," Jessica said with a big smile, perhaps one of relief at my arrival.
It was too late to make a quiet exit. Jessica waved at me and I crossed the room to their table.
"Good morning," I said, shaking hands upon introduction to her mother. "I woke up thinking of you."
"Why doesn't that surprise me? Stella is stellar," said Jessica to her mother. I immediately liked the pun much better than Hound or Candle Lady.
"Hopefully still stellar when you hear me out," I said, as if I were used to the nickname. "I noticed the air is a bit crisper this weekend than we anticipated, and I'm wondering if you would prefer Option Three from the samples we tested for the scented candles. Since we're linking the island to the wedding and the couple, I'll gladly remake the gifts and unity candle, and have them to you this afternoon. No extra costs for you."
Jessica reached behind her and grabbed an unused china cup and saucer from an empty table.
"Sit," she said, and patted an empty chair at their square table.
Jessica poured a steaming cup of coffee that looked delicious and pushed it toward me.
"I love that candle, Stella. I expect that it will remind me forever of this special weekend." Jessica suddenly got a little misty. "In fact, I'm planning to order more so I can light them every year on Joe and my anniversary and we can tell the kids all about our wedding."
"I already made you extras," I said, waving off my own set of waterworks. "You're sure you still like it?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder's No Votive Confidence"
Copyright © 2019 Christin Brecher.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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