Bel McGrath loves her work as a wedding chef. But with her latest event set to take place at Shamrock Manor, she just can’t seem to catch a break. The Casey wedding has left her with ten thousand greenbacks in the hole, a missing staff member, and a dead groom. Now, in between Guinness beers and pub brawls, Bel must find a way to crack the case—even though what she should be cracking are eggs into the batter of the wedding cake. A good Irish girl’s work is never done. . .
What begins as local town fodder for an episode of “Wedding Gone Wild” is turning into “Gangsters with Guns.” With the Casey family spiraling out of control, and billable McGrath hours being lost by the minute, Bel is definitely in too deep. With all these shenanigans, she barely has time to obsess over her new boyfriend and her own unsolved mystery from years ago! Time is running out on getting the next couple down the aisle before the so-called luck of the Irish takes a deadly turn… Bel of the Brawl will keep Maggie McConnon’s fans, new and old, guessing.
CREDIT: From Bel of the Brawl by Maggie McCannon. Copyright ©2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
When we were kids, we used to say that if heaven did indeed exist on earth, it had taken the form of Eden Island.
Set in the middle of the Foster’s Landing River, a little tributary that flowed into the mighty Hudson, it was lush and green with spongy ground cover that protected the ecosystem below its surface. My friends and I knew the island well, had walked every inch of its pristine landscape, taking great care to remove the dead cigarette butts and empty cans from overnight expeditions that the local police department turned a blind eye to, mostly because they themselves—homegrown all— had spent a night or two there looking up at the stars, a little buzzed, marveling at both the good luck and the horrible misfortune they had to be growing up in a river town like Foster’s Landing with everything and nothing to offer.
It had rained a lot the year I graduated from high school, so much so that Eden Island was the only one in the little cluster of islands still above ground that year, but even there the water was creeping over the island’s banks, closing over the edges of the little land mass, making its way toward the trees that sat in the center like a copse of sentries protecting their territory.
That early summer morning years ago, not long after our high school graduation, followed a night fuzzily remembered at best, when I was still a teen who forgot to wear sunscreen (much to my mother’s chagrin), was always covered in bug bites, and wore a bathing suit under my clothes most of the time. That morning I woke up and turned onto my side, surprised to find myself outside and exposed to the elements. I could hear a little rumble of thunder in the distance and feel a light rain falling between the hanging leaves, the ones so low I could almost touch them. The moss beneath my cheek was cold and damp and provided a soft cushion for my throbbing head. My sweatshirt—foster’s landing high school swim team—was soaked through. I sat up, feeling the back of my head for a wound that I was sure was there but found nothing; this pain was just a result of having slept outside and having had maybe a go or two at the keg that some older kid had brought. This time, my usual go-to, a plate of greasy diner eggs and sausage, wouldn’t allay the queasiness that the briny smell of the small river brought to my nose, nor the shakiness in my legs.
I looked around, alone in familiar surroundings but with a feeling of dread spreading icy tendrils through my limbs. “Hello!” I called out, wondering about the whereabouts of the rest of the usual quartet that accompanied me everywhere—Amy, Kevin, Cargan. The island wasn’t big, maybe six hundred feet across, an eighth of a mile long, and a quick check of the perimeter on all sides told me that I was alone.
In those days, I wore Keds that were always threadbare, having been white and clean for about a week before my pinkie toe started to peek out from first the right one, then the left. They were beside me, soggy and soiled. I searched the pockets of my cutoffs and found a damp dollar bill and the key to my house but nothing else. I looked out across the northern edge of the island and stuck a tentative toe into the water: high tide. The water barely came up to my knees when I waded in, and determined to get home before the real rain came, the thunder rolling and rumbling closer to the spot where I stood, I strode across the expanse toward the other shore.
From the trees behind me, I imagined a rebuke. “Where you going, Bel?” they seemed to ask as they swayed and rocked in the wind, getting increasingly violent as the thunder reverberated, this time a little closer. I waded in deeper, my sneakers skidding and slipping on the rocks below. “Where you going, Bel?” the trees seemed to ask again, their cadence not unlike Kevin’s when he’d asked me the same question the night before, the one that was buried in the deep recesses of my brain. Where I was, why he had asked, and where I had been going were all questions I couldn’t answer. A thought went through my clogged brain, the synapses firing slowly but, in this case, deliberately.
I have to say I’m sorry, I thought, for the first, but not last, time.
The water was cold, colder than it should have been for June. It was all that rain making it chilly, bracing. Up to my thighs now, the water rushed from Sperry’s Pond to the north, where rapids had stranded more than one overly brave kayaker out for a relaxing paddle on a gorgeous summer day, the kind of summer days that normally I lived for. I waded closer to the shore, turning back once to make sure I really had been alone on the island. My addled mind was playing tricks on me, and a place I loved was quickly turning into somewhere sinister and foreboding, a place that I needed to escape.
Finally, because it was easier, I began to swim, short strokes while bent at the waist, the current getting stronger, the wind picking up. The shore, which always seemed so close when I was on the island with my friends, seemed far away now that I was alone. Unreachable. I pushed through the water, my legs—short but swimmer’s legs nonetheless—doing the work, my arms splashing at the water but really not helping my progress across the expanse. I pulled off my sweatshirt, noticing a purple handprint around my right bicep and Kevin’s words as he caught me as I stumbled out of my kayak yesterday—“That’ll leave a mark!”—ringing in my ears.
Where was everyone? Most importantly, where was Amy? I had left my best friend on the shore the night before, telling her she would be sorry and that I would never speak to her again, but a night on the beach, alone and wet, had convinced me that I had overreacted, that it hadn’t been as bad as I thought. Maybe she hadn’t looked at me the way I thought she had after kissing Kevin—my boyfriend—right in front of me. But the truth was that she had. I held on to the hope that Amy never would have ended the night without finding me first. We were a team. A duo. We were never apart.
When I finally reached the shore, out of breath and soaked to the skin, a clap of thunder exploded directly overhead and the spot where I had lain just moments earlier was struck by a bolt of lightning so thick and sustained that I knew I would have been killed had I not awoken when I had. Something had roused me; I had no internal clock. Anyone who had seen the number of tardy markings on my report would know that I was never on time, ever. I looked back across at Eden Island, squeezing the water out of my sweatshirt and putting it back over my head.
Where am I going? I wondered. I decided I didn’t know.
I lay on the shore, looking at the murky sky overhead. It would be raining steadily soon but it didn’t matter; I was already wet. Behind me, footsteps approached but I was too tired to be wary. The person crouched by my head and held out a hand.
“Ready to go home, Bel?” my brother asked, the sight of him bringing tears to my eyes.
“I had a horrible night, Cargan.”
He had, too; he had been up all night. It was written on his face.
“I know,” he said. “Let’s go. Mom and Dad are worried sick. We’ve been looking for you for hours.”
“I was right there,” I said. “I was right where you left me.”
He shook his head, his dark hair wet and flopping onto his forehead. “No. You weren’t.” He leaned over and hugged me, and the sound of a great sob—his or mine, I wasn’t sure—disappeared in the latest clap of thunder. Over his shoulder, I spotted my other brothers—Arney, Derry, and Feeney—clamoring down the hill behind the Caseys’ house toward the river, their voices loud and raucous, excited. I had been found.
In the distance, there were sirens and voices, coming together in a panic-filled cacophony. I looked at my brothers for the answer to the unspoken question, the worry on Cargan’s face in particular still there in spite of the fact that I had been found.
Only Cargan spoke. “We found you.”
There was something more, something ominous. It was written on his face.
One tear slid down his face. “But Amy Mitchell never came home.”
It was a long time ago and I was a lot younger. Today, I sat at the edge of the water by Shamrock Manor, my parents’ catering hall, and looked out, hoping that I would see her again. I knew I wouldn’t; in my heart of hearts, I knew she was dead.
But still, all these years later, she was my sister from another mother, my confidante, my best friend. She was Amy Mitchell, the girl who never came home.
When wedding planner Kelsey McKenna goes to the Wine Country Wedding Faire, the last thing she expects to do is take on new clients. After all, she’s just there to help out her friend Brody and maybe score some free cupcakes. But when a young couple in a pinch asks for her help, she just can’t say no.
There’s only one problem: they’d been working with Babs Norton, the self-proclaimed Queen of Wine Country Weddings—and things did not end well. Kelsey wants to make sure there are no hard feelings, but unfortunately she never gets the chance. When she goes to Babs’ office, she finds the wedding planner dead on the floor.
Babs’ high-strung assistant Stefan knows exactly who killed Babs: Kelsey. At least, that’s what he very publicly accuses her of at Babs’ funeral. When Kelsey decides to do a little sleuthing to clear her name, she uncovers a myriad of secrets and lies. And when a second wedding planner is attacked, Kelsey begins to wonder if she might be next.
Set against the stunning backdrop of California wine country, Marla Cooper’s Dying on the Vine is a mystery brimming with gossip, wine, and, of course…murder.
CREDIT: From DYING ON THE VINE by Marla Cooper. Copyright ©2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.
There was an air of excitement as brides-to-be and their entourages streamed through the front entrance of the Wine Country Wedding Faire. Some of them were hoping to find a venue that was somehow both rustic and modern. Some were looking for a baker who could make their wedding cake look like the one they found on Pinterest. Some were searching for a magical bridesmaid dress that would flatter both their childhood best friend and their supermodel-tall college roommate.
I just wanted to find a parking space.
I’d promised my friend Brody Marx that I’d hang out with him at his booth during the midday crush at the biggest bridal event in Northern California.
“Join me,” he’d said. “It’ll be fun,” he’d said.
I’m sleeping in, is what I should have said.
It was going to be hard work. It was going to involve hours of standing. It was going to mean smiling until my cheeks hurt. But I had to admit, it was a good place to network, and, hey, free cupcakes.
Maybe while I was there, I could even get to the bottom of why it was a “faire” instead of a “fair”—like the extra e makes it extra classy or something.
After circling the parking lot for several minutes, I was finally able to squeeze between two huge SUVs wedged into spots that were clearly labeled “Compact Only.” I grabbed the box of brochures Brody had asked me to bring and balanced them on my right hip for the hike to the entrance.
I smiled to myself as I thought of all the reasons I love my job as a wedding planner. I got to be there for the happiest day in someone’s life about twenty times a year. I got to travel to destinations all over the world and rack up thousands of frequent-flier miles. And now I was about to spend the day with one of my favorite people. Life wasn’t all bad.
“Kelsey, where have you been?” Brody hissed the second I got to his booth. “Did you get my text?”
“Well, hello to you, too,” I said, foisting the box of brochures into his arms.
“I’m up to my ears in happy people,” he whispered, jerking his head toward the mob surrounding his table. “They’re nuts!”
“Sorry I’m late,” I said. “There was a—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He thrust the box back into my hands. “Go put these out on the table for me while I run to the bathroom, okay? I don’t want to be known as the wedding photographer who wet his pants.”
“I don’t know, I think it has a certain panache.” I set the box on the floor as he sprinted toward the back hall.
A pretty brunette and her fiancé were thumbing through one of Brody’s albums, oohing and aahing over his editorial-style engagement photos. “Where were these taken?” the bride asked me. “I want this same backdrop!”
I craned my neck to look at the shots, but I didn’t recognize the setting. “I’m not sure, but Brody will be back in a second. He’s the photographer.”
“How much does he charge?” asked the brunette’s fiancé. “Let me find you a rate card,” I said, searching the printed materials Brody had laid out on the table. Why hadn’t he given me an orientation before he’d bolted for the men’s room?
“Is he available the first weekend in November?” asked an eager-looking redhead.
Now, where had he put his calendar? I smiled and held up a finger. “Um, if you could just give me one second. . . .”
Before I could explain, the girl looked at her friend and whispered, “He needs to get a new assistant.”
You got that right, lady.
I took a deep breath, did a quick assessment of who was serious and who was just window-shopping, and got busy answering questions. I found his appointment book, scheduled him two consults, and was fairly sure I’d even managed to sell one couple his most expensive photography package. He so owed me for this.
I saw Brody down the row, snagging a stuffed mushroom from a caterer who was offering samples. This was no time for snacks. I darted over to Brody and grabbed him by the arm, pulling him back toward his booth. “Break time’s over. Sorry, but they’re like a pack of rabid wolves over there!”
“Now you see what I’ve been dealing with all morning.” “Well, don’t worry,” I said reassuringly. “I’m here now.”
He slowed down long enough to give me a quick squeeze. “Thanks, Kelsey. This’ll go a lot easier with you here.”
“Don’t mention it.” I stopped in my tracks as I noticed a booth down the row that rented out special-occasion kilts for betrothed Scots. “Ooh! Can I talk in a Scottish accent if I get bored?”
“If you must.”
I nodded. “I think I must. We should both do it!” “Aye, then. Haud your wheesht, lassie.”
I stopped and looked at Brody. “Haud my what now?”
“I was speaking Scottish.”
“That’s not Scottish. That’s, like, pirate or something.” “Fine,” he said, ducking back behind the table. “We’ll work on it later.”
The next few hours passed quickly as Brody and I hit our stride. By midafternoon, I’d become an expert on every detail of his photography business and I was kind of enjoying working the crowd.
“Hey, Kelsey,” Brody said, wiggling his finger at me. “Come here for a second.”
I pretend-scowled at him, then turned to the couple I’d been talking to. “Excuse me, I’m being summoned.”
“This is Haley Bennett and Christopher Riegert,” he said, motioning to a couple in their late twenties. Haley was a cute blonde with a pixie cut and bright red lipstick, and Christopher had faux-nerdy glasses and a bushy beard. Together, they looked like an indie rock band from Brooklyn.
“Nice to meet you,” I replied with a smile. “Whatever he told you, it’s not true.”
“I told them you were awesome,” he said, “but you’re right, I take it back.”
“Oh, well, in that case, you should listen to everything Brody says.”
Haley giggled as she shook my hand. “You guys are such a cute couple.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “We’re not—”
Brody laughed and put one arm around my shoulder. “Oh, come on, darling, don’t be that way.”
I wriggled out of his grasp, laughing, and punched him in the arm. “Cut it out! That’s how rumors get started.”
“She’s just mad because I hog the blankets,” Brody said, a twinkle in his eye.
I blushed a little, despite myself. I was always surprised when people thought Brody and I were dating. I mean, sure, he was good-looking, but it was so obvious that I wasn’t his type. In fact, I was off by a whole Y chromosome. No reason to let that stand in the way of a beautiful friendship, though.
“These two are getting married in Napa and they need a wedding planner,” Brody said. “And Kelsey here is a wedding planner, and a fabulous one, at that. What a coincidence! Talk amongst yourselves.”
“So, any chance you’re free on the eighteenth?” Haley asked hopefully.
“What month?” I asked.
“Next month. In four weeks.”
“Four weeks? That’s soon.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” The bride-to-be looked chagrined. “Most of the planning is already taken care of, so all we need is a day-of wedding coordinator. Do you do that sort of thing?”
“I do offer a day-of package, but I’d have to check my calendar.” I thought about my assistant Laurel and how she’d been dying to take on more duties. We could probably divide and conquer. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you call my office tomorrow? I’m sure I can figure out a way to make it work.”
“That would be amazing!” Haley said, her face beaming a radiant smile.
I liked her. And I had to admit, these quick little meet-and- greets were a great way to prescreen clients, kind of like speed dating. We made an appointment for the very next day.
The afternoon flew by and the crowds finally started to thin out a little. Brody even let me take a break, after extracting a promise that I’d bring him back one of the signature cocktails they were serving at the bar.
“One lavender lemonade with vodka, coming up!” I said as I darted away.
The line was long but seemed to be moving quickly. As I joined the queue, I recognized a Silicon Valley couple I’d met earlier at Brody’s table. They’d spent quite a while flipping through Brody’s sample albums, and if I remembered correctly, they’d let out quite a few appreciative murmurs.
“Hi,” I said. “You having fun?”
“It’s fun, but the crowds are kind of getting to us,” the bride- to-be said. “I had to promise Raj a beer to keep him from abandoning me.”
“It’s enough to make you want to elope,” her fiancé said. “Well, hang in there. The drinks should help.”
The bride looked at me and tilted her head. “You were at the photography booth, right? Great work.”
“Thanks!” I said. “I mean, it’s not my work, but I’m glad you liked it. Did you get a business card?”
“I think so,” she said, lifting up her official Wine Country Wedding Faire tote bag. “Although who knows if I’ll ever be able to find it in all this.”
“Maybe we should get his number just to be sure,” said Raj. I whipped out my iPhone, eager to help Brody land the gig.
“Here, I can give it to you.” I read off the numbers as Raj punched them into his phone.
“Well, well, well. What have we here?” said a man’s voice from behind me. I turned around to find myself facing Stefan Pierce, an assistant to one of the most prominent wedding planners in Northern California, giving me a look that could have wilted a bridal bouquet.
Dang it. If I’d only seen him coming, I could have avoided him. Over the years, I’d run into him occasionally at industry events like this one, and it was never a pleasant experience. He’d always been fairly obnoxious, but even more so since he’d landed a gig working for Babs Norton, the self-proclaimed Queen of Wine Country Weddings.
“Hello, Stefan,” I said. “I was just—”
“Trying to steal a client?” he said. He tried to sound lighthearted, but there was a definite edge to his voice.
“No! Not at all. I’m here helping Brody and they were interested in using him.”
“Mmm-hmm,” he said as he looked me up and down. “These two have already signed a contract with Babs, so they won’t be needing your help.”
Did he really think I was trying to woo a client away from him and Babs? “Seriously, Stefan, I was just giving them Brody’s number.”
“It’s true,” Raj said, holding up his phone as proof.
Stefan pressed his lips together in his best imitation of a smile. “Babs and I will make sure they connect. Thanks, anyway.” And with that, he steered the couple off toward a display of place settings, as the bride gave me an apologetic look over her shoulder and the groom looked longingly toward the bar.
I took a deep breath and counted to ten. No way was I going to let Stefan get under my skin. Why would he consider me competition, anyway? Babs wasn’t threatened by me. She threw absolutely amazing weddings for anyone who could afford them. I mean, it’s not exactly like we attracted the same clientele.
I blew out a deep breath. Shake it off.
I returned to Brody’s booth, drinks in hand, to finish out my shift.
“Guess who I just ran into?” I asked. “Stefan Pierce.”
“Ewww,” Brody said. “The ‘Ankle Biter’? I’m sorry.”
I laughed. I’d forgotten about the secret nickname Stefan had earned among many of the local wedding vendors because of his frequent tendency to behave like an irate Chihuahua. Why Babs had hired the petty, temperamental Stefan I’d never know, but they seemed to get along fine. She told me once that she appreciated what she kindly referred to as his “tenacity.”
Thank God I had time to slurp down my spiked lemonade, because twenty minutes later who should appear but Babs Norton herself, followed by Stefan and the couple I’d talked to at the bar. “Hello, Kelsey,” Babs said, air-kissing me once on each cheek. “These two wanted to speak to your photographer friend again before they left.” She arched one eyebrow at me. “Stefan tells me you met them, as well?”
“I did, yes.”
Babs pulled me aside as the couple chatted with Brody at the end of the table and Stefan hovered nearby. “Well, I can’t blame you for trying,” she said, whispering theatrically. “They’re loaded.”
I shot Stefan a look. “I promise you, Babs, I was only trying to give them Brody’s phone number when we got interrupted.”
Stefan crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Just in the nick of time, or so it appeared.”
“No harm,” Babs said, gesturing to her attack dog to stand down. “There’s no way you could have known they were working with us.”
Stefan snorted, then said under his breath, “Besides, they were looking for something a little more . . . refined than what you typically do.”
“Now, Stefan, Kelsey does perfectly lovely weddings,” Babs said before I could protest. “We have different styles, that’s all.”
“Thanks, Babs,” I said. I think.
“If you say so,” Stefan muttered. He looked dejected that she hadn’t commanded him to chomp on my Achilles tendon.
I thought it was time for a good old-fashioned change of subject. “So, where’s your booth?”
Babs laughed merrily. “Oh, I’m not an exhibitor. Heavens.”
“Hardly,” said Stefan, puffing out his chest. “We have plenty of business as it is.”
“I only came by because I’m a featured sponsor,” Babs said, waving her hand in a flourish. “Didn’t you see the grand prize? It’s a wedding planned by me, and it’s going to be absolutely fabulous!”
Of course. Heaven forbid Babs Norton should have to do anything so pedestrian as peddle her services at a bridal-fair booth. “That’s terrific,” I said, trying hard to sound enthusiastic. “I’m
sure you’ll make some couple very happy.”
Babs turned back to the couple. “Okay, kids, I have Brody’s information. We have a lot we need to accomplish today, so let’s not dillydally.”
Stefan lingered behind long enough to get in the last word. “Good luck finding some new clients.” His sarcastic tone told me he didn’t really mean it. “But in the meantime, stay away from ours.”