Excerpt: “A Wedding to Murder For”

A Wedding to Murder For

A Charlie Kingsley Mystery

“Charlie!” I immediately recognized the voice. It was my client, Dana. “Thank goodness you’re home,” she continued, her words careening through the phone in a rush. “I have an emergency, and I need your help.”

“An emergency?” I asked, tucking the receiver between my ear and neck, trying not to sound as skeptical as I felt. The last “emergency” Dana had was when she’d insisted her daughter, Cyndi, had been attacked by gargoyles. Of course, there had been no such incident, but that middle-of-the-night call was alarming, not to mention how it interrupted a good night’s sleep.

At least this time, it was the middle of the afternoon.

“Yes! You need to come right away. And bring your bag.”

“My bag?” I tried not to sigh. “Dana, remember, we talked about this. I’m not a doctor. I sell teas and tinctures.”

“Oh, you know what I mean,” she said, her words tumbling over one another. “Just come quickly.”

“If there’s a real emergency, maybe you need to call a real doctor,” I said.

“We don’t have time for a doctor,” Dana said, her voice impatient. “Just get here quickly. And don’t forget your bag.” The line went dead.

I looked at the phone and then over at Midnight, my black cat, who was watching me from his perch in the warm sun. We were in the kitchen, Midnight curled up in a chair in the sun and me at the counter, which was covered with a variety of dried herbs and flowers I used to create my teas. I grew most of my ingredients myself in my very large backyard. After I created my custom blends, I then delivered them to my clients, as I ran my business out of my house. “If it’s a true emergency, she needs a doctor,” I said to Midnight.

He looked at me and yawned.

“Yes, I agree. It’s probably not,” I said. “And I definitely have things I need to be doing. She isn’t my only client, you know.”
Midnight stared at me.

I sighed. “Fine. I’ll go. Only because I want to know what Dana thinks a cup of tea will cure this time.”

***

“Oh, Charlie. There you are. What took you so long?” Dana asked with a frown. She took a step back and gestured for me to come inside.

“It’s only been fifteen minutes,” I started to say, but immediately left it there. Dana was clearly not paying any attention to me, as she was examining her nails, instead, which had been professionally polished a delicate pale pink. “Is that a chip?” she muttered. “Well, never mind, no time for it now. Did you bring your bag?”

“If you mean my bag with tea and tincture samples in it, then yes, I brought it,” I said.

Dana rolled her eyes dramatically. “Charlie, sometimes you can be so difficult.” As usual, Dana was dressed to perfection in a simple-but-elegant red dress accentuated by a single strand of pearls. She bore a passing resemblance to Princess Di and did everything she could to play it up, including the way she styled her hair. I had forgotten how frumpy I sometimes felt next to her, with my worn, mud-stained jeans and oversized green shirt. I reached up to try and tame my wild, brownish-blonde hair and discovered a few remnants of dried flowers and herbs in it.

“Come, she’s waiting for you in the living room,” Dana said.

“Cyndi?” Cyndi was her teenage daughter, whose fashion sense was the polar opposite of her mom’s—Cyndi Lauper, all the way.

“Heavens, no,” Dana said, as she started walking through the house. “It’s my niece, Anastasia.”

“I didn’t realize you had a niece,” I started to say, but my words were drowned out by loud, petulant voices emerging from the living room.

“No, that’s not going to work. Don’t you see? It’s all ruined. How can we possibly go on?”
Dana’s face paled. “Oh, dear. Now what?” she muttered before rushing forward, her heels clacking on the smooth tile.

“Anastasia? Dear, what’s going on?”

I quickly followed, turning the corner that led to the living room, which revealed quite a scene. A tear-stained young woman sat on the couch, her mascara streaked down her face and her white-blonde curls falling out of a messy ponytail. I suspected she would have been quite attractive in normal situations, but her skin was so red and blotchy and her makeup so smeared, it was hard to see in the moment. On one side of her was a much older, less made-up, more exhausted version of Dana, trying in vain to comfort her. On her other was a third woman, who looked about my age—early thirties, or maybe a little older. She seemed almost as stressed and overwhelmed as the older woman. “Anastasia, I really don’t think anyone will be able to tell the difference,” she started to say, but Anastasia began shaking her head violently, which dislodged even more long curls.

“Jane, are you kidding me?” she screeched. “Everyone will know. The Duckworths are coming! Do you understand what that means? Of course they will know, and they’ll probably be laughing at me the entire time.” She burst into another round of tears as Jane looked helplessly on. She had mousy brown hair pinned back in a smooth, neat ponytail and wore a no-nonsense beige pantsuit that wasn’t particularly flattering.

“Anastasia, honey, what happened?” Dana asked, rushing in to hug the sobbing girl.

“Oh, Aunt Dana, it’s … it’s dreadful,” Anastasia said between hiccups.

“What? What is?”

Anastasia was too distraught to talk. She flapped her hand toward the coffee table, which was loaded with piles of thick, engraved paper. Dana craned her head back. “Oh, the invitations arrived. Is there a problem with them? Oh …” she wrinkled her brow. “I thought you had decided on ivory invitations. Those look like ecru.”

“See!” Anastasia burst out. Jane’s face shifted, as if she wished the floor would open up then and there to swallow her. “I told you everyone would know the difference between ecru and ivory! How could you make such a stupid mistake?”

The other woman—the older Dana—had picked up one of the invitations and was turning it over in her hand. “Dana, how can you tell the difference between ecru and ivory? They’re both basically white.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Mary Rose, it’s obvious. Just look at it,” Dana said as she patted Anastasia’s shoulder. “There, there. I’m sure we’ll work something out. Is it too late to order new ones?”

Anastasia hiccupped. “If we want them to go out in time, yes.”

Dana frowned slightly. “Oh, well. I’m sure we can work it out.”

“No, we won’t. It’s all ruined,” Anastasia wailed.

“Well, first, why don’t we take a moment to just breathe,” Dana suggested. “That’s the idea. Take a nice deep breath.”

Anastasia inhaled deeply, her breath hitching. “Much better. I want to introduce you to Charlie. She’s going to fix you right up.”

Anastasia raised her watery eyes to me and jerkily nodded her head.

“Oh, are you a doctor?” Jane asked, her voice hopeful. I sensed she might even be crossing her fingers, in the hopes that I brought some good drugs for the miserable bride.

“No, I make custom teas and tinctures,” I said.

Jane’s face fell.

“They’re wonderful,” Dana added, extracting herself from Anastasia. “I couldn’t sleep without them. Here, let me show you where the kitchen is.”

“I know where …” I started to say, but Dana grabbed me by the arm, quite painfully, I might add, and yanked me into the hallway. “We’ll be right back,” she sang out as she hauled me toward the kitchen.

“Do you see the problem?” she hissed in my ear. “Anastasia has been beside herself with all the wedding planning, and the closer we come to the wedding, the worse she gets. She’s going to be catatonic on her wedding day, at this rate. Can you give her something to calm her down?”

“I have just the thing,” I said, thinking of my lavender and chamomile blend. Normally, I would recommend that tea for right before bed, but based on what I saw, I had a feeling I needed my most potent blend. In fact, I decided to amp up the relaxation qualities with one of my tinctures.

Dana shot me a relieved smile and loosened her grip on my arm. “I knew I could count on you. She’s a good girl, but …” Dana shook her head. “This is all very stressful on her, marrying into the Duckworth family. And my sister is no help. She never did understand how to move in those circles.” Her voice, the one she used when she was in British Royalty mode, was haughty. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that dressing as Princess Di and faithfully following the Royal Family in celebrity gossip magazines did not make one an expert.

“Well, it’s a good thing Anastasia has you,” I said solemnly. “In fact, if you want to go back to the living room, I’ll take care of the tea and bring it in as soon as it’s ready.”

Dana pressed a hand against her chest. “Oh, I feel like you’ve lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. Thank you.” She turned, and I continued my way into the kitchen, listening to the heels of her pumps clicking away on the tile floor.

I expected the kitchen to be empty, but instead, I discovered Cyndi, Dana’s daughter, there. She was eating a peach as she leaned against the counter, dressed in ripped jean shorts and a hot-pink top.

“Ah, she sucked you into the madness, too,” she said in greeting as peach juice dripped down her arm. She lapped it up with a tiny tongue, reminding me of a cat. Like her mother, she had a full face of makeup on, and her hair was done, but that was where the similarities ended.

“I’m surprised you’re not in the living room helping with the wedding planning,” I said, putting my bag on the counter and rifling through it to find the tea I wanted. “Isn’t that the dream of every teenage girl? To get married?”

Cyndi rolled her eyes, as only a teenager could. “I have no intention of getting married,” she said archly. “And if I do, I’ll probably elope and do it on a beach somewhere. Or maybe Vegas.”

“You don’t want to get married here, and have your mom plan a nice, big wedding?” I asked as I filled the modern-shaped black tea kettle with water. Like the rest of the house, Dana had designed it with an ultra-modern, ultra-sleek look.

“Very funny,” Cyndi said. “If I wanted that, I’d be in the living room right now.”

I got the water boiling and went hunting for mugs. “I’m curious,” I said, switching subjects. “Is your cousin always so … high-strung?”

Cyndi took another bite of her peach, her brow furrowed as she thought. “I don’t know if that’s the word I would use to describe her. She’s always been interested in clothes and hair … that sort of stuff. She and my mom used to spend hours together.” She rolled her eyes again. “My mom loved styling her hair and putting on her makeup. But I never saw Anastasia as the Bridezilla type. My bad.” She took another bite of her peach. “Although,” she continued with her mouth full, “it’s possible she’s acting like she has the worst case of PMS because she’s psyched herself out over who she’s marrying.”

“A Duckworth, I’m gathering?” The Duckworths were the wealthiest and most influential family in Riverview, Wisconsin, which was about forty-five minutes away from Redemption. While they had their hand in nearly every type of business, they were most known for medical and pharmaceuticals. Even though the majority of people in Redemption didn’t concern themselves much with the day-to-day happenings of the Duckworths, everyone knew who they were.

Cyndi shot me a look. “Barely. And I do mean barely. I think James’s mother is some sort of cousin once removed or something. But, yeah, there will likely be Duckworths at the wedding, which is probably part of why she’s so nuts now. That, and her fiancé is going to be a surgeon.”

“Oh?” The water was boiling, so I started pouring it into a mug. “You think she’s trying to impress her fiancé?”

Cyndi shrugged. “All I know is if you really want to see high-strung, take a look at that whole family. They’re all wound way too tightly.” She tossed her peach pit into the garbage and wiped her fingers on her jean shorts. “I wouldn’t want to marry into it, that’s for sure. Way too much pressure. Definitely a heart attack waiting to happen. Mark my words—one of them is going to die an early death,” she said, her voice ominous as she sauntered out the door.

Even though I wanted to dismiss what Cyndi said as the words of an overly dramatic teenager, something unpleasant twinged in my gut.

No, I’m not going there, I told myself firmly. I’m here to make a cup of tea for Anastasia, and that’s it.

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