Laura Durham

For Better or Hearse

Chapter One

[cover]"I barely escaped being sliced up like a sushi roll, Richard." My shaking hand pressed the cell phone to my ear as I paced the marble lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. "I'm not exaggerating, either. Chef Henri tried to kill me."

The only thing worse than working with a temperamental bride is dealing with a temperamental chef, and as one of DC's top wedding planners, I'd had my share of both.

"He refuses to serve the Peking duck as a passed hors d'oeuvre, but with all these additional guests we don't have room to do it as a station." I'd called my best friend, and arguably the city's best caterer, Richard Gerard, for some insight into the mind of a culinary despot. While I had a wedding at the Fairmont hotel, Richard had one at the Dumbarton House in nearby Georgetown. His guests weren't due to arrive for another hour, and I could hear the clattering sounds of set-up in the background.

Richard let out a high-pitched shriek. "We do not throw things, people. If I see anyone else tossing my imported Hungarian salad plates on the tables, heads will roll."

He switched to his most calming voice. "Now Annabelle, you know he has a valid point. The real art of Peking duck is in the carving."

I should never have asked for practical advice from someone who matched the food at a dinner party to the outfit he planned to wear.

"Richard, he chased me out of the kitchen with a knife and threatened to walk off the event if I ever set foot in there again."

"He's a chef. They're known for being dramatic, especially this one." A gasp. "Who put this cloth on the sweetheart table? I specifically requested the linen pintuck for the bride and groom, not the satin stripe."

I tapped my square-toed, black pump in rapid fire. "I've about had it with chefs. I knew Henri had a reputation for being difficult, but I had no idea he would be so evil."

"You think you've seen evil?" Richard gave a low whistle. "You should hear the stories his former employees tell."

I didn't have time for Richard's stories now. They usually involved at least one person wearing something "totally wrong for them" and ended up with Richard giving an impassioned speech worthy of an Oscar.

"Okay, I get it, but what am I supposed to do?" I walked to the heavy glass doors leading from the lobby to the Colonnade room and glanced at my watch. The guests would be arriving from the church in a few minutes, and I had a chef who had threatened to walk off the job if I questioned his creative control again.

"Where's Kate? Maybe she could bat her eyelashes at him and he'd be a little more agreeable." Richard referred to my faithful assistant. Faithful to me, that is, not to any man she'd ever known.

"At the church. Anyway, I think it would take a bit more than eyelash batting to calm Chef Henri down."

I walked into the Colonnade and smiled. I often described it to my brides as "dramatic, yet feminine," and it ranked as one of my favorite ballrooms in the city. Walled entirely in glass, it looked out onto an open air courtyard that had a massive granite fountain and brightly colored flowers that were changed according to the season. At the moment, they were vibrant autumn shades of yellow and orange.

Inside, waiters lit votive candles around the ledge of the raised gazebo that took up the center of the room. Garlands of red roses curved around the gazebo's whitewashed columns and tiny rosebuds strung on transparent thread hung between them to create a delicate curtain effect.

The bride had wanted to use elements from her Chinese background to personalize her wedding, so we'd incorporated lots of red, the Chinese color of celebration, and used signs from the Chinese zodiac in everything from the invitations to the ice sculptures. Huge mounds of deep crimson roses sat in the middle of each square table on crisscrossed red satin runners, and menu cards personalized with each guest's zodiac sign had been tucked into the napkins.

Two giant ice carvings, a tiger and a rabbit, rose up from huge blocks of ice and faced each other across the room. The ice tiger stood on its hind legs with his two front paws extended and represented the groom's zodiac sign, while the rabbit had been carved in profile on its hind legs and represented the bride's sign. The sculptures were lit from above with beams of white light, and they glistened like fine crystal. Despite my usual distaste for ice sculptures, I had to admit that the room was striking.

"I swear these waiters are going to push me over the edge. I don't think a single one read the look book I put together for this event." Richard's voice crackled at me through static. "Are you still there, darling?"

"I'm admiring my handiwork, that's all." I walked back out into the hallway that led to the Colonnade.

"Is this the same little wedding planner who didn't think she could compete with the grand dames of the industry only a couple of years ago?" A gasp. "Flat-fold napkins, people, not fan-fold. This is not a Rotary lunch."

I adjusted the flower arrangement on the marble credenza next to the ladies' room and cradled the phone against my shoulder. Glancing in the mirror above the flowers, I brushed a long strand of auburn hair off my face. I pinched my cheeks to give a bit a color and noticed that I actually had hollows now. The one advantage to having brides run you ragged—no time to eat!

"I've come a long way under your watchful eye, Richard."

"Don't mention it. Name your firstborn child after me and we'll call it even."

I laughed. "That's a safe promise since I haven't even had a date in months." To be completely honest, I hadn't had a real boyfriend since I started Wedding Belles four years ago.

"Don't be down on yourself, darling. You've had some nibbles." Richard reassured me, and then his voice rose to a shriek. "What are the frosted champagne flutes doing on the tables? They're for passing only. Did anyone read their timeline?"

"By nibbles do you mean the pastry chef who had a lisp or the bartender who ended up taking home a bridesmaid?"

"Those are bad examples, Annie. What about the detective we dealt with on that murder case?" Glass shattered in the background. "If they broke my etched glass water goblets, I'm going to die."

"Detective Reese?" I tried to play it cool, but I felt my face get warm at the thought of the dark-haired cop. We'd met when one of my former clients had turned up dead in the middle of the wedding reception and Richard and I had gotten tangled up in the investigation, much to the detective's dismay. I dismissed the fluttery feeling in my stomach when I remembered that I hadn't heard from the detective in the months following the case. Not that I'd expected to, of course. "When would I ever see him again? It's not like we run in the same circles."

Richard let out a breath. "Why wait for him to make the first move? Maybe you could happen to drop by the station and bump into him."

"That's not my style and you know it," I protested.

"I didn't know you had a style, darling."

I gave a fake laugh. "Very funny. What possible reason would I have to be at the police station? Unless I wanted to report one of my brides for harassment."

"Don't tell me bridezilla is still calling you at home all the time?"

"She called me last night at 11 o'clock to tell me that her honeymoon resort would be featured on a special segment of the news." I rolled my eyes. "I don't know how she got my home number in the first place."

Richard groaned. "I think that qualifies as grounds for a restraining order. When is her wedding anyway?"

"I'll be rid of her in November, if I survive her neuroses that long. Only a couple more months." My call waiting beeped in, and I recognized Kate's number. "I've got to run. That's Kate on the other line calling from the ceremony." I clicked over and could hear lots of voices in the background.

"I just loaded the last trolley with guests and we're on our way. The first one should be there any minute. The videographer is on it, so maybe she can get room shots before most of the guests arrive."

"Good thinking, Kate." I hurried toward the hotel lobby so I could spot the old-fashioned open-aired trolley when it arrived. "I'll see you when you get here."

I dropped my phone into my jacket pocket and took out my crumpled wedding timeline. The photographer had flown through the formal portraits, the limousines had been on time, and the bride had even been ready early. We were perfectly on schedule. I closed my eyes and let out a long breath. I knew not to trust the calm before the storm.

"Asleep on the job, are we?" A Scottish accent pulled me out of my momentary rest. My eyes flew open. His spiky blond hair and the tattoos that covered his arms were offset by a black muscle shirt and traditional red kilt. I wasn't an expert on formal Scottish attire, but I didn't think that leather, lace-up Captain America boots were usually part of the outfit.

The band. They had declined to go along with our theme, not that I could blame them. It wouldn't make much sense for an all-80's rock band called "The Breakfast Club" to dress like geisha girls. The band agent had assured me that not everyone in the band wore kilts. The rest of the foursome sported leather pants, feathered hair, and Miami Vice jackets. Not your typical wedding band by a long shot.

He watched me give him the once-over and grinned. "We're dressed and finished with our sound checks."

I glanced at my watch. "That was fast." Usually bands took forever to set up. Captain America gave me a wink. "We're good."

Uh-oh. Cute band guys were always trouble, especially if they knew they were cute. I could see it coming a mile away. By the end of the evening half of the bridesmaids would be all over this guy. I hope he didn't think I was falling for it. Before I could put on my I-mean-business wedding planner face, he reached out and touched my hair.

"Are you by any chance Scottish?"

"A bit," I found myself stammering. My usual composure had clearly abandoned me. "And some Irish."

He nodded and locked eyes with me. "I have a thing for redheads."

He turned and walked out of the lobby, looking back once to smile. My I-mean-business wedding planner face had been shot to hell, and I felt lucky just to keep my mouth from gaping open. The bridesmaids didn't stand a chance.

Usually Kate attracted most of the male attention at weddings with her bouncy, blonde hair and come-hither heels. I'd been able to steer clear with sensible shoes and a general disregard for primping. I pulled my hair back into a quick bun as I gave myself a mental shake. I didn't have time to get flustered by a bad boy musician who probably flirted with everyone. Even if he did have a thing for redheads.

"They're right behind me." Fern dashed through the front doors waving a hairbrush. He wore his dark hair in a tight ponytail, and I suspected he'd coordinated his red brocade jacket to go with the décor.

Fern had become known as the wedding hair guru in Washington because of his attentiveness to brides. He insisted on doing the final touches only moments before the bridal processional, and he always waited until after the ceremony to repair his masterpieces. Sometimes I feared that he would actually start walking down the aisle with the bride, hair spraying in time to the music.

Fern ran past me, blowing me an air kiss with one hand. "I have to find my equipment case before the bride arrives. I barely beat the trolleys over here."

Sure enough, the orange and gold Old Town Trolley pulled up in front of the glass doors, and guests began emptying out. I met the videographer as she came through the doors, battery-packs and wires barely peeking out from under her black suit jacket. One of the few female videographers in the city, Joni was also one of the most talented and the most chatty. I had to be careful or I'd find myself gabbing with her for half an hour.

"Hey, Joni. We're in a big rush. Could you get some shots of the courtyard before the guests wreck everything?" I pointed out the enormous arrangement of red tulips by the door to the outdoor courtyard and the masses of red rose blooms we'd floated in the fountain. "Then once you've got that, you can go inside to the Colonnade. The bride wants lots of detail shots of the ice sculptures."

"Wait until you see the footage I got of the bird loose in the church. I think the bride's aunt is still trying to get the bird poop out of her hair."

I cringed and made a mental note to look for the wet wipes in my emergency kit. I'm sure they could handle bird poop.

"Can you show me later?" I gave her a prod toward the courtyard where people were beginning to descend.

"Sure, just remind me." Joni also had the attention span of a fruit fly and she knew it. She hurried off past the guests, who were being distracted by the line of waiters offering trays of ginseng lemonade and green tea martinis, the specialty drinks for the evening. The pianist played tunes from "Madame Butterfly" in the background as guests mingled around the bar and moved outside to the courtyard. So far, so good.

Time to deal with Chef Henri. Taking a deep breath, I walked back into the Colonnade and went immediately into the kitchen, expecting to be greeted by the usual bustle of the waiters and grumbling of the chef. Nothing. All the waiters must be passing hors d'oeuvres, and Chef Henri had probably decided to go off somewhere to pout. Perfect. A hundred and eighty guests would be sitting down to dinner in less than an hour and I had no chef.

I stormed out the swinging exit door that led to the far side of the Colonnade and stopped short. Taking a few steps forward, I grabbed the back of a chair to keep my knees from buckling.

I had found Chef Henri.

I didn't know whether the blue tinge on his skin was connected to the blood that covered the lower part of his chef's jacket or was a result of his being impaled on the outstretched claw of the enormous ice tiger. All I knew was that he looked very cold and very dead.

 

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All content ©2005-09 by Laura Durham.

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