Authors: Ally Gray
© 2015 by Ally Gray
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
By Design Cozy Mystery book series is dedicated to my wonderful-beyond-words husband, Michael
what anyone says, I still say the answer is no,” Jeremiah declared, flouncing back against the upholstered chair and crossing his arms in front of his chest, glaring at the faces of his colleagues one by one around the conference table. “It’s tacky, and low class, and it’s not what Abigail would have wanted.”
“Now, I have to disagree,” Tori argued hotly. “Abigail was nothing if not the poster child for avant-garde expression. She was a forward thinker, and she was always on top of the latest styles. She was a trendsetter in this business, that’s for sure. I think she would say that this is the 21
century, and if this is where the wedding industry is headed, then we’ll not only help take it there, we’ll lead the way.”
There was a smattering of applause from some of the others at the table at Tori’s speech. Jeremiah shot daggers at her with his topaz blue eyes, eyes that were completely wasted on a lead florist who wasn’t even gay despite what he happily let many of the staff believe. Stacy could only hope his wife really appreciated those eyes.
“I don’t care,” he repeated. “It’s just disgusting. And on Halloween? How original.”
“Now hold on,” Stacy interrupted, raising her hands for quiet from her seat at the head of the table. Even after all these years, it still surprised her most of the time when that gesture actually worked. Everyone became silent and turned to see what she had to say.
“If this is really what the bride wants—and I can only guess that the groom is in on it, too—then it is our obligation to stage the most perfect wedding that we can. That was the founding principle that drove Abigail’s every waking thought, and probably most of her sleeping thoughts, too. Our clients will have the perfect event, or we will die trying. Am I right?”
Heads nodded around the table, and even Jeremiah had to look away lest he get sucked into the pep talk.
“But a Goth wedding, Stace? Black candles? Black roses splattered with fake blood? A black aisle runner with yards of spider web tulle? Are you serious? Just what exactly have we been sucked into, no vampire pun intended?”
“I don’t pretend to understand it, but it’s what the bride wants. Her parents haven’t objected—” Stacy began.
“That’s because her parents haven’t told that little brat what to do since the day they got her to pee on a potty,” Jeremiah said, pretending to mutter behind his hand but actually speaking at full volume.
“As I was saying,” Stacy continued, shooting her lead florist a warning look, “the family is on board with the design, the bride and groom have made their wishes clear, and therefore, we have a job to do. Tacky or low-class or creepy or not, this business isn’t always going to be fingertip veils and oceana roses. Every once in a while, there’s gonna be a pasty white girl with black lipstick and a nose ring walking down our carefully crafted aisle, and it’s our job to make sure her undead day is perfect!”
This brought more agreeable applause, mostly from the newer department heads who were just so thrilled to be working for the prestigious Events by Design firm that they would have worked while simultaneously being set on fire and eaten by ants, just for the privilege of being associated with the most famous event planning firm in the country.
“Fine. But I draw the line at the rehearsal dinner slash séance that she and the groom are planning,” Jeremiah said, grinning smugly at the detail that hadn’t been shared with the group.
“You’re not serious,” Tori said, looking at him over the tops of her completely fake reading glasses. Ever since her last boyfriend had dumped her for not being intellectual enough—her opinion, not his, formulated due to the fact that she was an event stylist and he worked for NASA—she’d taken to wearing them. She preferred the red tortoise shell pair whenever there was a meeting or other event that required actual critical thinking or the possibility of big words.
“Deadly serious,” he replied, drawing out his words to make sure their meaning was clear. His pun elicited groans from those who’d worked with him longest. The newcomers still looked shell shocked from the idea of having to stage a séance and communicate with the dead while serving up thematic finger foods.
“Has the bride indicated a specific deceased individual they hope to commune with at this event, or are they just throwing darts at random ghosts?” Stacy asked in a professional tone, ignoring Jeremiah’s “you can’t be taking this seriously” look.
Tori flipped through her notes, the glasses getting in her way as she looked down. Finally her assistant leaned forward from her place along the wall and handed her a sheet of paper which she skimmed before reading aloud.
“Yes, it’s a specific ghost named Agnes Myra Fearnot, who is said to haunt the Blanchard House where the wedding will take place. According to my notes,” Tori said, emphasizing the fact that she even had notes, “Agnes Myra Fearnot, born back in 1789 in England, came to the Americas when her father bought land for a tobacco plantation, was set to be married in 1806 to her long-time beau who followed her family to this country. She apparently died on her wedding day, and still haunts the Blanchard House where the wedding should have taken place.”
A hushed silence filled the room as the staff members, people who by their very professions made beautiful weddings happen to complete the love stories of others, basked in the tragic romance of dying on one’s wedding day and refusing to give up the ghost.
“Agnes hanged herself on her wedding day when her groom failed to appear. She believed he’d just stood her up, which was humiliating enough, but when the family and the guests finally got word that he’d been killed in a brothel the night before the wedding, Agnes took her own life.”
“So they want to get married in front of a ghost at the site of what would have been the ghost’s wedding? Doesn’t that go beyond morbid and move into the realm of sticking it to a dead lady? Kind of like, ha ha, I’m getting married and you’re not?” Mandy, Stacy’s assistant, asked.
“It sounds like it on paper, but it gets better. They’re actually going for a double whammy of self-centeredness. Not only will they be the first couple to marry at Blanchard House since this horrible event happened, a feat that should take no small amount of string pulling on the part of Daddy Governor since the Blanchard doesn’t do weddings, but the bride and groom somehow believe that having their own wedding there will finally put Agnes to rest. They are sacrificing their own more ‘traditional’ wedding day in order to help her cross over to the other side.” Tori looked at the astonished expressions of disbelief from her co-workers and added, “Hey, don’t look at me. Those were her words, not mine.”
Stacy surveyed the group of highly skilled professionals around the conference table. This particular wedding would eat her alive down to her last nerve, she was sure of it, but Abigail had never made a habit of telling the governor no, regardless of who it was sitting in the fancy capital throughout her sixty-some years running the company.
“Okay, so let’s discuss logistical challenges. What’s first?” Stacy asked.
“Well, none of the caterers in our usual call list are willing to do this one,” a voice piped up from the end of the table. “And Chef Pierre has also said he’s planning an out of town trip to coincide with the wedding.”
“Really? How does he have the date already since we haven’t nailed down the venue?”
“He said it doesn’t matter when this one is…he’ll be out of town. Between us, he did make the sign of the cross and spit on the ground when I mentioned the séance.”
“You’re kidding! I never pegged him as the superstitious type. He looks like he can take on a ghost.”
“Actually, he’s from Bayou La Batre, and his family goes all the way back to the first French settlers in the region. Between that good old Catholic upbringing and his ancestors intermarrying with Haitians who were brought here against their will, he’s more Creole than anything else. He’s about as voodoo as anybody on staff,” Jeremiah interjected.
“Okay. So we don’t have to have food at this wedding, eating is totally overrated anyway. What’s the next challenge?” she asked sarcastically, taking notes. Tori watched her pen flick across the paper and copied the habit.
“Well, even if you find someone to bake us a cake, black food coloring tastes horrid and will stain everyone’s teeth. They’ll be beautiful in all the pictures and videos. Then there’s the little problem of the black roses,” Jeremiah said. “They don’t show up black in photographs because of the way the strobe reflects off the plant cells. They show up kind of purple, so your bride will be screaming that the visual keepsakes and all photographic evidence of her special day were ruined. We can spray paint the roses, but that would have to be done about three hours before the wedding since the fumes really will kill people at this event. They have to have time to dry and air out.”
“Okay, crappy flowers… duly noted,” Stacy said, scribbling on her paper. She looked out of the corner of her eye and caught Tori watching her. She shook her head with a pleading look, silently begging her best friend to return to her old flighty, already intelligent self. “What else does that leave us? Don’t hold back, we might as well get all the complaints out in the open right now.”
The team looked around the table nervously, aware that their fearless leader’s patience was wearing thin. They suddenly all burst out talking at once, their voices rising in both pitch and volume as they argued with each other and fought to be heard. Stacy sat back in her chair and watched the fray, not even trying to decipher their words. She rested her pen against her knuckles and waited for them to get it all out of their systems.
“Do you feel better now?” she asked the group when the volume finally returned to something close to polite levels. Several heads nodded, and most of her staff members wore sheepish expressions. “Good. Now, I understand this wedding is going to be difficult. It’s going to try our patience, but even worse, it’s going to be a real test of our professionalism. But the reality is we have bills to pay, and most of those bills are the salaries of the people in this very room. And while this is a quite successful company—a fact that is only true because of your hard work and willingness to strive to be the upper crust of this industry—we won’t keep our doors open long if the rest of society finds out we turned down the governor.”
Stacy looked out over her employees’ heads and squared her shoulders, pulling herself up to her full posture. She smiled at them lovingly.
“Having said that, if there is anyone who just feels like they cannot participate in this wedding due to their religious convictions or their spiritual beliefs, then you are welcome to excuse yourself from this event, and there will be no hard feelings.”
No sooner had the words left Stacy’s mouth than Jeremiah jumped up from the table and bolted for the door. She screamed his name in a very un-Abigail way, freezing him in his tracks.
“Get back here, Jeremiah. I didn’t mean that for real. You’re all totally stuck with this wedding!”
up from her desk when she felt a sudden, strange chill come over her. It was an odd feeling, one that felt like déjà vu mixed with dread. She looked towards her office door to see if anyone was passing by, but the hallway was empty. She started to shrug it off and get back to work but screamed instead when a movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention.
Stacy recovered almost immediately in the way that only years of maintaining a carefully crafted mask of decorum had taught her. She turned to introduce herself but stopped short when she saw the woman who somehow managed to enter her office and stand beside her desk without being noticed. She had to be six feet tall if she was an inch, and was dressed in gauzy layers of floor-length robes that were open in the front to reveal a maroon and purple jersey dress. Layers of strange necklaces weighed down her boney chest, and piles of bracelets and rings on each finger added to the weighty look she had. Naturally black hair that was so dark it was almost blue was piled in tiny ringlets on top of her head, with a few curls here and there escaping the bun and hanging around her face like vines. She looked like the exact embodiment of the character this particular bride was trying to be, but fell short of miserably. Where Anna Catherine was awkward and gangly and looked like a rebellious child playing a very angry game of dress-up, this woman was almost elegant, in a dark and frightening kind of way.
“Um, hello. I’m Miss—”
“I know who you are. I know all about you,” the woman answered without breaking her piercing gaze. “And you’d best be careful, there’s a shadow following you right this very moment.” The woman didn’t look at all alarmed about her revelation, but was more matter of fact about it than anything. She might as well have told Stacy she had a piece of broccoli in her teeth for all the care she showed.
“I’m sorry, what? A shadow?” Stacy asked, looking around stupidly as if she could see this thing behind her.
“Yes. You’ve angered someone. The shadow is following you and right this very minute has its tendrils around your neck. Do you suffer from asthma symptoms? Because it might actually be this shadow, choking the life out of you instead,” the woman offered, still carrying on the conversation as though it was about the price of lettuce at the market and not Stacy’s throat being squeezed by invisible hands.
“I’m sorry, and you are?”
“I am Lady Persephone. I have been called on to conduct the channeling before the wedding.” She looked around the room, indifferent to the questioning look on Stacy’s face.
“My, but you do love to repeat other people. Do you have a single original thought?” the medium said in an accusing tone. Stacy shook it off and worked on her yoga breathing for a moment. “If I had to venture a guess, I’d say this particular shadow is a resident of the Blanchard House. You’ve angered Miss Agnes’ spirit, and she’s talking about leaving. The others are not happy about that, even ones who are so far away. They can communicate, you know.”
Stacy narrowed her eyes and thought before speaking again. Finally she pointed to one of the wingback chairs in front of her desk, bidding the woman to sit down. Lady Persephone, as she called herself even though Stacy doubted that was her name, sat down, her back so erect she looked almost regal.
“How may I help you today?” she asked sweetly, folding her hands and giving the medium her full attention, as much as it pained her to do so.
“I am here to warn you. The spirits are unhappy, and it’s all because of you.”
“Wait, why would you agree to do this if the ghosts are angry about it? I thought you were hired to do this whole rehearsal dinner entertainment thing.”
“Excuse me, but my work is not ‘entertainment.’ I provide a valuable service to people who are lost, helping them to move on towards the light.” Persephone was obviously put out, and the last thing Stacy needed was for her to cancel on the governor’s daughter over some offhanded insult.
“I’m sorry, that came out wrong. I didn’t mean to imply your work was not important, I merely meant that the guests might view it as some type of performance staged for the dinner.” The woman bristled, apparently having not considered that possibility. “But really, if this has been upsetting, why are you participating?”
“The channelers in my family have been trying to help Miss Fearnot for generations, but the owners of the estate are not interested in what’s best for her. They only care about billing their little bed and breakfast as ‘haunted,’ and how they can capitalize on her misfortune. She wants to move on,” Persephone said, leaning towards Stacy and dropping her voice to a whisper. “There are others, too. They want to move on, but they are trapped here. They cannot go to the light until the door is opened.”
Stacy was mesmerized by the woman’s words, and even felt a momentary twinge of guilt over her story before shaking it off as all part of her charade.
“If this is what it takes to gain access to the house and help her find her way to the afterlife, then I’ll do it, no matter how cheap and ridiculous they make this event out to be.”
“Okay then!” Stacy responded brightly. “What can I help you with?”
The woman reached into her exotic handbag and retrieved a piece of paper. She slid it across the desk to Stacy. “These are the things that I will need. These instructions must be followed exactly, or it will all have been a waste of time. And if the evening does not go as planned, your bride, her father, and your firm will look absolutely ridiculous. I’m sure that would not be good for business, am I right?”
Stacy looked up from the strange list of objects and requests and met the woman’s knowing gaze. She thought about the implications of her words, and weighed how closely they came to blackmail. She finally closed her eyes and nodded.
“Good. Then see to it that everything is in place. You do your job, and I’ll do mine. Now I must go to prepare for the event. It takes a lot of strength to commune with the spirits, so I shall need my rest. I will need a letter from your office stating that I’m to have access to the Blanchard House and to Miss Fearnot in order to get to know her better and earn her trust.”
“Of course. We don’t actually have permission to use the Blanchard House at the moment, but we’re still working on it. As soon as we do, I’ll have my assistant write that up immediately. And… um, thanks for coming in and helping Anna Catherine have the wedding she’s dreamed of.”
“Make no mistake, Miss East, I am not here for that spoiled little pretender and her ludicrous party.” She stood to go and nodded curtly. “My only concern is for the ghosts.”