Mama & Earl’s happily-ever-after seems like a sure thing, but all bets (and nuptials) are off when they get to the Burning Love Wedding Chapel. Their Elvis-impersonating minister has left the building . . . permanently. And even worse, Liv’s cousin, Little Junior, is suspected of his murder.
With Mama’s happy ending on the table and Little Junior about to lose it all, the stakes are higher than ever. Liv and her best friend, Di, must hit the Strip to find the real killer before he finally plays his ace...
“High energy, dead bodies and exposed lies. . . . A must read."
—RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars, on Death Crashes the Party
“A wonderful cozy mystery.”
—Suspense Magazine on It’s Your Party, Die If You Want To
“Readers should welcome this look at a very Southern lifestyle, complete with appended party plans.”
—Kirkus Reviews on One Fete in the Grave
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Landing in Las Vegas was somewhat akin to touching down in Oz. We'd barely left the tarmac before being greeted by the flashing lights and ringing music of the airport slot machines. It was all we could do to drag our menfolk away from the siren call of the one-arm bandits. Mama, my mother-in-law Miss Betty, my best friend Di, and I took our respective partners by the hand and pulled them away. I elbowed my husband Larry Joe in the ribs and caught my mother-in-law giving her husband Daddy Wayne a you'd-better-behave look.
"Really," Mama said, admonishing her fiancé, Earl. "Can't y'all wait until we get to a real casino? I think there are more exciting things to see in Las Vegas than the inside of an airport."
Being in a not-married, still tentative relationship, Dave was the only man who got let off the hook. Di brushed her hand against his and he interlaced his fingers with hers. I shot Larry Joe a knowing look, which he returned with a smirk. As close friends of the couple, we'd had a ringside seat for their on-again, off-again romance, which certainly looked on-again at the moment.
We'd journeyed to Las Vegas for Mama and Earl's wedding. Her original plans for the nuptials had included a gondola ride out to a small island in the man-made pond on Earl's farm. And swans. And a guest list nearly as large as the population of Dixie, Tennessee, the small town we all call home.
As a professional party planner by trade, I could have accommodated a gondola of sorts, and probably the other items on her wish list, as well. But now Mama had moved on to a whole new wedding vision. She and her congenial groom were to be married in a classic Vegas chapel with a minister dressed as Elvis. Dixie's proximity to Memphis meant I could have found an Elvis impersonator without much difficulty. But the chapel where Mama and Earl's wedding was booked had three Elvis-style ministers on-site every day until midnight, which is definitely convenient.
We headed to the baggage carousel to collect our checked luggage. In addition to a small carry-on Earl was toting for her, Mama had checked a large suitcase, cosmetic bag, and the equivalent of a steamer trunk — the kind of case on rollers traveling salesmen use to transport their samples. To say she has a lot of baggage would be an understatement fraught with emotional connotations. She never travels light, but Mama was especially overpacked this trip because she and Earl planned to rent — or buy, at the right price — a Winnebago and set off on their honeymoon from Las Vegas for a tour of the Southwest.
The rest of us retrieved our average-sized luggage, while Dave and Larry Joe helped Earl with Mama's belongings. Mama and Miss Betty had to swat at Daddy Wayne's arm when he attempted to help the other men with the load. My father-in-law had had a heart attack about a year ago and all of us, especially my mother-in-law, now keep a close watch on his health.
We hauled our gear to the curb out front and waited along with other travelers for the shuttle to arrive and deposit us at our hotel. The shuttle driver put up a fuss over the size of Mama's largest case, but Mama gave him one of her mean, squinty looks. He sized her up, with her face set like flint, and apparently decided she wasn't someone he wanted to tangle with. He acquiesced and used bungee cords to strap the case behind the driver's seat.
Before we even pulled away from the curb, Mama had struck up a conversation with a woman from Georgia, who had made the trip to see her new grandchild. She was not happy that her daughter had chosen to live in Sin City, and even less thrilled with her "no-account, deadbeat son- in-law."
Mama cut off the chatty Georgian with the not so peachy attitude, saying she had to phone her nephew to let him know we'd made it in. My first cousin, Little Junior, is the only son of Mama's only sibling, Uncle Junior. My uncle lives in Phoenix, but his son currently lives in Las Vegas. Everyone on the shuttle could hear my mama's side of the conversation.
"Little Junior, this is your Aunt Virginia. We've made it in and are on the way to the hotel now. ... Your cousin Liv, her husband Larry Joe, and her in-laws Wayne and Betty McKay, and a couple of friends of ours. Oh, and my fiancé Earl, of course. No, no. We're on the complimentary shuttle. Is he? Well ... Can you come to the hotel tonight or will we see you tomorrow ...? Okay, that sounds wonderful. Just give me a buzz. Love you, too, darlin'."
Mama put her cell phone back in her purse and announced, "Little Junior is going to come to the hotel this evening. I can't wait to see him. Said his daddy is going to try to drive up from Phoenix for the wedding. I'll believe it when I see it."
It was the first time in Las Vegas for all eight of us. On the ride from the airport, we gawked like the tourists we were as we passed palm trees, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and some of the biggest hotels I'd ever seen. In addition to Mama's loud southern accent, I overheard snippets of conversations among other passengers speaking Spanish, and what I guessed to be Japanese.
The shuttle stopped at the front entrance under the large portico of our big, but not too big, nice but moderately priced hotel-casino. I'd like to be able to take credit for booking it. Since I'm a professional planner, a task like this one would normally get dumped into my lap. But Mama and Earl had enlisted a travel agent to handle all the arrangements, saying they didn't want to impose, especially after my assistant Holly and I had already put a lot of work into planning the wedding in Dixie that they had decided to cancel. It was true I had taken some time away from my business, Liv 4 Fun, to work on Mama's eccentric wedding ideas. But I had put even more time into tracking down a killer after Earl had been arrested for a murder he didn't commit.
I had given up the wedding-planning portion of my business a couple of years ago — too much drama — but still occasionally got roped into planning a wedding for family. However, I'd rather plan a wedding any day, even for my high maintenance mama, than to look for a murderer, especially when the accused is someone I care about. With Earl's name cleared and the real killer behind bars, I was determined to enjoy our trip to Las Vegas, despite my mother and all her baggage.
A porter loaded our luggage onto a large cart. Earl, who was picking up the tab for the travel and accommodations for the whole entourage, checked us in and handed us our key cards. We followed the porter up to our block of rooms on the sixth floor to drop off our bags. The guys were itching to get down to the casino. But Daddy Wayne wanted to hit the early bird special at the hotel buffet, and Mama was hungry, so the casino would have to wait. I wanted to stretch out on the bed for a bit after the long flight, but clearly I was not in charge of the schedule.
"Everybody freshen up a bit and we'll meet by the elevators in fifteen minutes," Mama said, disappearing into her room without waiting for a response. I knew that Mama's room had a connecting door to Earl's room — for after the wedding. She felt it was important to explain that to me for some reason. I also knew that Di had a connecting room with Dave because Mama told me when she booked the hotel she didn't know what arrangements would be convenient for them. Frankly, I didn't know either, but felt certain they could figure that out for themselves. But Mama being so accommodating to that arrangement seemed a bit out of character for her. She'd been full of surprises lately — from announcing her engagement without warning a little over a month ago to deciding to get married in Las Vegas instead of having a more traditional wedding in Dixie.
After a quick stop in the bathroom to use the facilities and apply some fresh lipstick, I decided to allow myself the luxury of stretching out on the bed with my feet up for five whole minutes. My head had just hit the pillow when my phone dinged that I had a text. I was sorely tempted to ignore it, but couldn't resist checking to see who it was. It was from Holly, my invaluable assistant at Liv 4 Fun.
I hate to interrupt your vacation, but please call when you have a moment.
Holly's not the needy sort, so I knew she wouldn't ask me to call if it wasn't important.
"Hi, Holly, what's up?"
"How's glorious Las Vegas?"
"We just arrived. We're going down for an early dinner in a few minutes."
"I'm sorry to bother you. ..."
"Don't be silly. It wasn't really fair of me to leave town when we have a big event scheduled this week. So, what's going on?"
"I'm afraid we've hit a huge snag with the banquet and sock hop," Holly said.
"We've lost our venue."
This was huge. Having the band cancel, or a vendor not come through with decorations, or transportation issues was a headache, but there were work-arounds for those problems. Losing the space where an event was to be held at the last minute, especially for a large group — in this case a high school class reunion — was a major setback.
"How could that happen? Did Sindhu and Ravi have a fire?"
Sindhu and Ravi Patel owned and managed the only hotel in Dixie. They were professional, dependable, and they were also personal friends. I couldn't imagine a scenario, other than fire or flood, in which they would cancel an event booking.
"No fire, thankfully, but just as catastrophic for us, I'm afraid. The health department has shut down the restaurant and there's no possibility of it reopening before next week," Holly said, exhaling a mournful sigh.
"No way? Not even if we offer to pitch in with repairs?"
"I'm afraid not. I already offered to bring in reinforcements. Floor and drain repairs to address 'imminently dangerous backflow' require ordering materials, two days' worth of work, and at least a full day for the concrete to set and dry. That's in addition to a full day of moving out appliances and doing a steam cleaning of the walls to address a 'serious accumulation of grease' behind the appliances. Then the health department will have to do a new inspection before they can get approval to reopen."
"That sucks," I said, summing up our situation as eloquently as I could manage.
"Ravi apologized profusely and offered to give an additional discount to the Class of 'Sixty-Eight members who would be staying at the hotel, on top of the good room rate he had already provided. I told him that wouldn't be necessary. He and Sindhu will be taking a financial hit with the restaurant's closure, plus plenty of disgruntled guests who won't be getting the breakfast special. I guess I should have checked with you about that. ..."
"No, no, Holly, you made the right call. We just have to figure out what to do now."
"Well, we know the country club is already booked, since that was our first choice. I checked with the hotels in Hartville and their dining and meeting rooms are already booked."
"Since they're having the sock hop at the high school immediately afterward, we can't hold the banquet in Memphis or Jackson, even though that would open up a lot more possibilities," I said.
"Not on our budget."
"That's true," I said, recalling how the reunion committee had wanted to hold a tight line on expenses so as many classmates as possible could afford to attend.
"And we can't move the dinner to the school gym," she noted.
The gym was out for a variety of reasons: no kitchen, lack of space, and most germane, it had taken a major campaign just to get the school board to agree to the sock hop, and that included several caveats.
Larry Joe walked over and tapped on his watch to remind me it was feeding time for Mama and his dad. I got up, slipped my shoes back on, and grabbed my purse. I trailed behind my husband into the hallway, still talking to Holly.
"Do you think Earl would let us use his tractor barn?" Holly said, obviously feeling desperate.
"We'll save that as a last resort," I said. "In the middle of August, I think we want to stick with an indoor, air-conditioned venue."
"I know. Plus, we need a space with a kitchen. George is still willing to prepare the dinner, if we can provide a space for him to work in."
I thought for a long moment.
"Try the VFW, the Elks Lodge, and the Moose Lodge — and any of the churches with larger parish halls that would allow us to serve alcohol on church property."
Between dealing with my high maintenance mama and troubleshooting event difficulties back home, I had a sinking feeling this might turn out to be the most stressful vacation ever.
Daddy Wayne was impatiently holding the elevator door open for me as I ended my call with Holly.
"Liv, your cousin is going to meet us in the lobby beside the grand staircase," Mama said as our whole group piled into the elevator. Everybody was there right on time. I think we all were being solicitous of Mama, since we were here for her wedding. And in general, it's easier to just humor her.
We stepped out of the elevator and everyone fell in line behind Mama, who made a beeline toward the lobby staircase. She can move with remarkable speed when she wants to, for someone of her age and girth.
The last time I remembered seeing Little Junior he was a pimple-faced teenager who stood about five-foot-three. He looked about the same height now, but the acne on the sides of his face had been replaced with muttonchop sideburns. Jet black hair lapped his collar and heavy gold aviator glasses completed his pint-sized Elvis wannabe appearance.
Mama, who's nearly six feet tall, squealed and scooped her nephew into a bear hug, then released him, took a step back, and cupped his face in her hands. "You are a sight for sore eyes," she said, before planting a big kiss on his forehead. "It's been too long."
"You too, Aunt Virginia," he said, gazing up at her. "I'm so happy about your upcoming marriage. I wish you both every happiness. Where's the lucky groom?"
Earl stepped up and offered a handshake to my diminutive cousin. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Little Junior. Call me Earl or Uncle Earl, if you're so inclined."
I had the distinct impression he'd prefer to be called just Earl.
"Congratulations, Uncle Earl. You're getting a real treasure in my aunt Virginia. She's as sweet as pun'kin pie."
"You remember Larry Joe and his parents, Wayne and Betty McKay. And these are our dear friends, Di Souther and Sheriff Dave Davidson, who were a big help during Earl's recent troubles."
After hugs and handshakes all around, Earl said, "Virginia and I are taking everyone to supper." Turning to Little Junior, he continued, "Son, this is your town. Where should we go to eat?"
Little Junior said it would be hard to beat the buffet right here in the hotel. This obviously pleased Daddy Wayne, who was pacing back and forth impatiently. "And, if you don't mind, I'll ask my girlfriend, Crystal, to join us for dessert when her shift ends."
"That sounds like a plan. We'd love to meet her," Mama said.
Little Junior texted Crystal as we walked toward the restaurant. My father-in-law was sprinting toward the buffet, but just before he reached the finish line, Earl edged past him and told the cashier to put all nine of us on his credit card.
"I don't feel right letting Earl pay for everything, including meals," Larry Joe said to me in a hushed tone.
"I know, me too," I said. "But Earl has a heart of gold, and he's almost as stubborn as my mama. I don't think there's any point in trying to argue with him. We'll just have to think of something extra nice to do for Mama and Earl — we'll call it a wedding gift."
My husband nodded approvingly.
Daddy Wayne headed for the feeding trough before all of our party had even made it through the turnstiles.
"I swear you'd think Wayne hadn't eaten for days, the way he's behaving," my mother-in-law said, looking embarrassed. "Son, you need to help me rein in your dad a bit. I know he's on vacation and it's okay for him to splurge a little. But I don't want him clogging his arteries after having those stents put in."
"Mama, we're only going to be here for a few days, so don't worry yourself," Larry Joe said. "Even if he goes completely off the rails with his diet, I don't think he can do too much damage in such a short time. But we'll try to pick some healthier places to eat and avoid the all-you-can-eat buffets after tonight."
The waiter pushed together two tables to accommodate our group. The large restaurant was a little noisy for conversation, but we didn't have any trouble hearing Mama or Little Junior over the din. As his Elvis appearance suggested, Little Junior was a bit of a performer. He regaled us with his plans for a career in show business. Mama listened with rapt attention and said very little, which is unusual for her. But she's always doted on her only nephew. I'd always assumed it was because she had two daughters, so he was like the son she never had.
Excerpted from "Til Death Do Us Party"
Copyright © 2018 Vickie Fee.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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