“If we decorate the gazebo as the altar and line the chairs in front of it coming this way…” Valentina Vargas, owner of Vargas Events, points along the grassy backyard of our latest client’s home. The Prescotts. The affluent orthodontist, Deidre, her cardiothoracic surgeon husband, Robert, and their daughter, Taylor.
“Taylor wants the altar there,” I say, pointing to a cluster of ferns farthest from the back door and directly opposite the gazebo. Because a knee-high bush, rather than a vine-covered canopy, is every bride-to-be’s romantic dream.
Taylor has been insistent on marrying by the ferns. I’ve yet to discover if they have some personal meaning to the dental student—if she thrives on being edgy and different, which I doubt considering she looks like every other polished young woman I’ve encountered, or if she simply enjoys annoying her parents. I’ve a feeling it’s the latter. There have been an amazing number of arguments between her and her mother about colors, flowers, and the guest list. Every suggestion Taylor has made has not only been different or odd, but it’s been the complete opposite of what her mother insists on. Like white carnations rather than lilies or orchids or a midthigh length ivory sheath that looks more like a slip worn under clothing rather than a gown spun of the finest silks and chiffons that would make the Fairy Godmother weep with pride. So far Deidre hasn’t won a single battle. I’m hoping she’ll succeed on the ugly slip. I may not be fashion conscious, but that thing is beyond ridiculous.
The actual weird part, however, is that, in the short time I’ve worked for Valentina, I haven’t known her to insist on anything that wouldn’t make her clients happy, even if it’s a thirtieth birthday party themed around Dora the Explorer or if they want a chocolate fountain shaped like a penis. Yes, that happened last month at a female bank manager’s retirement party. So it surprises me that Valentina’s been hesitating on Taylor’s wishes all week. Maybe it has something to do with Deidre and Robert footing the bill even though Taylor hired us.
Val blinks several times and nods. “Yes, of course. She’ll walk from the house to the altar, which will be over by that shrub—not the beautifully designed gazebo. Which makes no sense to me. The gazebo is a perfect altar, Gianna.”
I agree, but don’t reply.
This is my second wedding with Vargas Events. The first one was super easy. The bride loved all of Valentina’s suggestions, and I basically just stood around and observed a lot. I’m still in training. I thought I’d be on my own by now. Maybe not with a wedding but something small, like an office party. When Val hired me a few months back, I was her only other employee, and then there were suddenly three more planners, all with experience, and she spent more time showing them how she likes things done than with me.
Even in my personal life, I don’t know weddings well. Sure, I’ve been a maid of honor for my cousin as well as my sister, but both affairs were smaller and not this lavish. I’m not the girl who owns a closet full of pretty shoes or thinks shopping for clothes is fun. I prefer true crime podcasts, eating cold pizza for breakfast, and talking to dead people. Yeah, I can see and communicate with ghosts. Sometimes I wonder if I should work in the morgue, but working as an assistant wedding planner beats scooping macaroni and potato salad into plastic cups and thinly slicing hunks of ham and turkey in the family deli.
I’m hoping I can prove to Valentina that I’m good with clients or that I have a good eye for color, but as it turns out, this wedding has not been as easy as the last. And the element neither of us expected is that instead of getting my first Bridezilla, we have a Momzilla.
“There you are.” Deidre glides down the back steps with her elbows bent and her hands up, palms facing out. She looks like she’s about to shimmy to the right and start dancing. But this woman, with her wheat-colored hair coiffed into a low bun, the string of pearls around her wrinkling neck, and her salmon pink skirt suit, is not a person who “gets down.”
She crosses the back patio, teetering in the pointiest pair of taupe pumps. I glance to Val’s black pumps, which match her black pantsuit, her black, winged eyeliner, and her straight, glossy black hair, and then to my own black ensemble with pants, tunic, and ankle-high, side-zippered boots. According to Val, black is a professional woman’s theme.
She commented on my love of chunky-heeled boots a week ago. I guess she didn’t think they were a big deal during the winter, but now that we’re into spring, she doesn’t find them appealing. It’s not that high heels aren’t pretty. It’s just that they’re painful, and my balance isn’t the greatest. Plus, Ma always complains about her bunions. As a kid, I thought she said Funyuns and got super excited, only to discover it was a growth on the side of her foot and not delicious onion-flavored snacks. I don’t want either on my feet.
“Gianna, Taylor is looking for you,” Deidre says before grabbing Val’s arm and pulling her toward the gazebo. “I’m going to talk to my daughter again about the altar, but in the meantime…” Her voice fades as they walk off.
I look up to the two-story, five-bedroom, seven-bathroom structure the Prescotts call a home and wish Deidre had mentioned which of the house’s eighteen rooms Taylor is in.
The double French doors lead into the gourmet kitchen with its state-of-the-art appliances, oak cabinetry, and granite counters. Every time I enter this room, I think of Ma and how thrilled she’d be to cook Sunday dinner in here. The housekeeper, Yolanda, is at the sink washing bell peppers. She doesn’t glance my way as I step inside.
I walk past the stainless steel refrigerator and along the hall that leads to the foyer. I stop at the first doorway to my left and raise my hand to knock but think better of it. This is Dr. Prescott’s study, which I had learned by accidentally entering it my second day here while he was on an important phone conversation. Needless to say, I am not his favorite person right now. After the study is the dining room to my right and the den to my left, by the wide staircase. The formal living room is past the dining room, by the front door, and there’s a conservatory, aka sunroom, off the den. I decide to hit the living room first.
As I round the corner, I spot Felicia Gellar standing by the front windows. She’s Deidre’s slightly older psychiatrist sister. There are no underachievers in this family.
She has her cell phone up to her ear, and she softly says, “Call me later. I love you.”
I clear my voice so that I don’t startle her, but she whips her head around with a wide-eyed stare and looks guilty as heck. Unlike her sister’s love of classic couture, Felicia resides in a lot of stretchy knits. Today is a navy sweater and pants set that fit her loose and relaxed like pajamas.
“Hi, Dr. Gellar. I’m looking for Taylor. Have you seen her?” I ask.
Felicia shakes her head. “No, sorry.”
I smile and head across the foyer into the den. Neither this room nor the one I was just in has a television. I can’t imagine being home and not watching TV. I grew up on it, from cartoons to teen dramas to crime shows.
Someone is standing in the den, peeking into the conservatory. From the back, it takes me a second, but then I realize it’s Lexi, Taylor’s best friend and maid of honor.
She must not hear me as I approach because she doesn’t make any movements to suggest so, and as I step up right behind her, she flinches and swings around. Her cell phone is in one of her hands, and the other is clenched into a fist. “You scared me,” she says and looks away.
“Sorry. I’m looking for Taylor. Have you seen her?” I ask.
Lexi in heels is an inch shorter than me, which is saying a lot since I’m only five-two. She wears her light brown hair down and free. This young woman inherited the wildest-looking mane. I can’t tell if it’s naturally frizzy or if Lexi purposely teases it out. For some odd reason, it suits her petite stature though.
“I gotta go.” She runs off into the foyer and out the front door.
What was that about?
I start to leave too but hear a sound from inside the conservatory. I push the door open more and see Taylor in Stefan’s embrace. Well, this is, um, interesting.
They sense me immediately and jerk away from one another.
“Your mother said you were looking for me,” I say when Taylor glances my way.
“Yes, I wanted to ask you to come to my bridal shower tonight,” Taylor says and flings her super straight, honey blonde hair off her bare shoulders. She’s dressed the most casual I’ve seen since working here, in low-waisted jeans and a white peasant top. Usually her wardrobe consists of dresses and miniskirts.
Stefan curtly excuses himself and brushes past me.
“Um, what?” I’m confused. Since when do brides invite their planners to their showers?
“Yeah, I know. It’s last minute. Sorry about that. Owen’s mom has been sick, and this is the first time she’s able to attend, which is why we held off having the shower until now. Mother is having a cow, saying that tradition dictates the shower is held more than a week from the wedding, but I don’t care about that.”
Her lack of concern for traditional etiquette is exactly why these two have been bickering for months. Taylor doesn’t seem to mind the arguments though. Sometimes she’ll walk off with a smirk on her face. Another reason I think she’s doing it on purpose.
“So will you come? Please.” Her already large eyes are wide, and the excitement on her face is undeniable.
How can I say no to that? But just the same, I ask, “Why me?”
“Why not? You’re my age, and you seem cool.” Her smile doesn’t waver as she utters that weird reasoning.
“Okay.” I’m certain my frown is obvious. I feel my brows pinch together. But Taylor just keeps smiling.
As if it’s possible, her grin grows wider. “Is that a yes?”
“Sure, I’ll come,” I concede. There’s no reason to say no, and I fear that Val will be annoyed if I upset a client.
She claps her fingers together and bounces on her red pumps three times. I’m waiting for Toto to run into the room. “It starts at six, and since it’s last minute, please don’t worry about a gift. We really don’t want for anything.”
She turns on her heel and walks out of the conservatory through the rear door that leads to the backyard.
She may have all she needs, but I wonder how the groom, Owen, would feel about his future wife in the arms of Stefan, his best man.
* * *
Instead of taking a lunch break and returning to the Prescott estate, Val says I can leave for the day. There isn’t much to do. Most of the arrangements and other setup won’t begin until closer to the following weekend. Today is Friday, and Taylor’s wedding is in two Saturdays. I won’t be surprised if I’m on part-time days for most of next week.
I head straight to my family’s deli and hope Ma is still there. I don’t have a lot of knowledge in the bridal shower department either. Yeah, I’ve been to a couple—the last one is where I met Valentina—but I have no idea what to buy a stranger. Her registry has to include items that are way over my budget. And no matter what she says, I can’t attend without a gift. Like the bride, I may not follow traditional etiquette, but I know that’s a faux pas Valentina would never forget.
I pull into the gravel-filled parking lot behind the deli and see not only Ma’s car but my sister Izzie’s too. Good, now I can get two opinions. Ma works the morning shift at the deli, and Pop comes in soon to take over. Izzie and I have worked shifts at various times of the day in the past. I left when Valentina hired me, and Izzie is taking it easy since she’s seven months pregnant.
There are two doors back here. I park near the one that leads up to my one-bedroom apartment, above the family store, and head into the back entrance of Mancini Deli through the other one.
I must have startled Izzie because she flinches when I step onto the worn linoleum. I seem to be causing that a lot today.
She has a forkful of lasagna aimed at her face and a chunk of Italian bread in her other hand. A small frown appears on her forehead before she shovels the dripping cheese, pasta, and meat sauce into her mouth and says, “You scared me, and why do you look so troubled?”
“The bride invited me to her bridal shower. It’s tonight. I don’t know what to buy her or what to wear. These are very rich people. I don’t want to look wrong. What do you think?”
Izzie sets her fork and bread down on the aluminum table and turns fully toward me. Her baby bump presses against her light blue shirt. Without taking her eyes off me, she swallows and shouts, “Ma?”
The kitchen door swings, and Ma comes in from the front of the deli. A full-length navy apron, with the name of the store stitched in red in the top left corner, covers her mom jeans and short-sleeve paisley blouse. The aprons are new, and she and Pop are especially proud. They are nice.
She pulls off one disposable glove and scratches her forehead where the edge of a black mesh hair net rests. It flattens her dark, naturally wavy strands. She hates those things, so I wonder if a customer has complained about hair in their food. Then I wonder what else I’ve missed since working with Valentina.
“Gianna, sweetie, are you here for lunch?” Ma asks.
Since I don’t yet make a lot of money planning events, Mancini Deli has been my go-to lunch spot, my grocery store, and my midnight snack pit stop—all for 50% off. I’m getting sick of deli meat and mayonnaise-soaked salads.
“Gianna wants to know how to look like a girl,” Izzie says.
“Haha, very funny. I look great.” I open my arms and glance down at my outfit and notice a tiny grease stain at my collar. It’s far from designer wear, and it may not be the most flattering cut on my curvy body, but it’s not as casual as I’d like, so there has to be a plus in there.
“You’re beautiful,” Ma says, but she’s my mother and is required to think I’m special.
Izzie fills Ma in on the invite.
“We’ll go shopping when Pop comes in. He’ll be here within the hour.”
Izzie’s eyes light up. “Shopping that doesn’t involve maternity wear? I’m so in.”
I glance down at her feet. “Are you sure you’re up for it?”
She has on a pair of brown flats. Any other time, my five-foot-four sister wouldn’t be caught dead standing under five-five, which means there’s a one-inch heel on her house slippers. But after almost tripping a few months back, she decided safety is more important. Just never mention how she suddenly looks shorter.
“Are you kidding me?” she asks. “This will be fun.”
Normally I’d do anything other than shop for clothes at the mall. My idea of buying new pieces means clicking a few buttons on the internet and having it shipped to me. It’s easy when you live in T-shirts and leggings and buy from the same place all the time. This, however, is different. I need help. From the looks on their faces, I know they’re going to turn this into an event I didn’t organize.
There’s no way I’m walking around the mall in these clothes. I want to change into sneakers and my usual attire, so I tell them I’ll be back, step outside, and head to my door. My phone rings. I fish it from my purse and see Julian’s sexy face smiling up at me. We agreed to take things slow since we’d broken up and gotten back together once already, so a midday call is unusual. He should be at work over at the law firm Carter, Hamilton & Levine.
“Hey,” I say, inserting my key into the downstairs door’s lock.
“Where are you?” he asks.
I run up the stairs, unlock my main apartment door, and toss my keys onto the breakfast bar. “I just walked into my place. What’s up?”
“Go to your front windows and look out.”
I cross the small living space and see Julian standing on the sidewalk across the street. Even from this distance, I can make out his toothpaste commercial grin. He stands tall and straight. There’s no slouching with this man. He waves up at me and, into the phone, says, “Come on over. I want to show you something.”
“Okay. Let me change.” What is he up to?
I toss on my shopping attire—black leggings, a pink T-shirt with sparkly lettering that says Boss Babe—grab my purse and keys, and walk around the building and across the street.
I met Julian Reed, private investigator and fixer, although I didn’t know that last bit at the time, two years ago when I was living with my cousin in Connecticut. I moved back home to South Shore Beach, New York last fall, and Julian followed me. We were broken up at the time, so his following didn’t sit well with me at first, but I soon grew fond of him being here. Now, I’m downright grateful. We may be taking it slow, but every nerve ending in my body is screaming for me to jump into his arms and kiss him hard.
I refrain though. Partly because I don’t want to send him the wrong message, and partly because I’m positive Ma and Izzie are watching us from the deli’s front window. And while it would make Ma especially happy if I say “I do” this moment and instantly birth grandbabies on the curb, I’d feel embarrassed making out with him in front of them. Yes, I am still twelve at times, and double yes, I’m certain one kiss would turn into a smooch fest.
“Why are you standing on the street corner? Have you decided to expand your career into prostitution?” I cock a brow.
He juts out his hip and tilts his head back so that he’s looking down at me. “You think this pose will make all the ladies come hither?”
I wiggle my finger at his white shirt collar. “Maybe if you unbutton a few. Give them something to look at.”
He holds back a smile and points to the corner store, which is empty and has been for months. “I’m hanging up my shingle.”
“I don’t think prostitutes need a storefront.” I purse my lips and tap a finger against them, still playing along.
“How about Reed Investigations?” he asks.
“Seriously? You’re starting your own PI firm? Why? When will you have time for it?” I rattle off my questions fast, surprised and thrilled for him. He’s been talking about this for a while, but I didn’t think he was serious. I know how much he loves working for the law firm.
He walks to the door and holds it open for me. “I’m stepping back from the law firm.”
“You’re quitting being a fixer?” Now I’m elated.
“Not fully, no.”
“At least not until I have enough clients to leave. Mr. Hamilton pays me very well.”
As he should, considering what Julian does for the man’s clients.
I didn’t learn the fixer part of his job description until well after we’d broken up and he had followed me to Long Island last fall. Mr. Hamilton has affluent clients, and when they need something handled, Julian is called in to deal with it. That includes everything—including moving dead bodies from a client’s home. As far as I know, that’s only happened once, and I don’t know if Julian would do it if he thought the client was guilty. Either way, it’s the main reason we’re taking things slow. It is hard to wrap my head around him tampering with evidence, especially if it leads to possibly hurting someone.
We step inside, and there’s a slight stale, musty odor, as if fresh air hadn’t entered the space in a while. The office space is empty, clean, and not very large. There are two doors along the far wall. The one to the right has a sign on it that says Restroom.
I haven’t been paying much attention since returning home, but growing up, this place had been the home of a tiny pet store that only sold hamsters and gerbils, a place for homemade jewelry, and during high school, it was a candy shop. That had been my favorite merchandise. Pop mentioned how the last renters had a health store that mainly sold vitamins and protein powders. They went out of business right before I returned home.
“Look,” Julian says and jaunts off to the door on the left. “I’m not sure if I want this to be my office and the front to be the waiting area or if I’ll just make this storage.”
The back room is a tiny space. He could fit a desk and chair and maybe a couple of filing cabinets, but I’d feel claustrophobic in there, even with the single pane window.
“It makes more sense to use the front room, unless you plan on hiring a receptionist,” I say.
He winks at me. “Want a job? I can’t pay you yet.”
I chuckle and step back into the main room. “That’s so tempting.”
What I don’t say is that, other than the money, it actually sounds appealing. I don’t know if I’d want to work for him, but lately I’ve been wondering if the party planning business is actually for me.
I look out the front windows. They’re large and wide, and there’s a perfect view of Mancini Deli and my apartment windows above. I imagine, at night, you could see inside my living room if I had the blinds up and lights on.
“So why did you pick an office on this corner?” It can’t be a coincidence. He shrugs but doesn’t look at me. “I like this spot.”
And it has nothing to do with where I live? “Yeah, uh-huh.”