Authors: Karen Chester
It seemed everyone involved in running this
party disliked Tony, although she was the only one he had publicly humiliated
in front of his guests and many potential clients.
As she scurried back through the house, she
felt a sudden spasm in her abdomen and paused to press a hand to her belly. Oh no,
was she about to fall victim to this bout of poisoning too? Resting her head
against a wall, she tried to recall everything she’d ate or drank this evening.
She’d snacked on this and that, and taken a sip of a few things, too busy to
notice, her mind focused on the smooth running of the party. She couldn’t
remember any details, she realized. The only thing she was sure of was that she
hadn’t drunk any alcohol, although the toxin could have been in the mixers or
the glass or even the ice.
The spasm passed, so she forced herself to
carry on. When she reached the great room, she saw that several EMTs had
arrived and were busy assessing patients and strapping a few into gurneys. The
party atmosphere was completely ruined by now, but at least help was at hand. Relief
washed over her but quickly disappeared when she spotted the two police officers
with Tony. One was a mature-aged man perhaps in his forties whom she didn’t
recognize, while the other, a trim, neat woman under thirty, was someone Emma wished
she didn’t recognize either.
Emma didn’t believe she had many enemies.
She’d always been popular in high school and college, and generally found it
easy to make friends. She wasn’t the one who’d broken up their relationship,
that had been Steven’s doing. And it was Rowena, her business partner, who had
defrauded their clients and run off with all the money, not her. No, Emma
believed she was on the whole a nice person. But even the nicest person could
have a nemesis, and for her that nemesis was Sherilee Ackerman. Emma could
never pinpoint exactly why she and Sherilee didn’t get along, but ever since middle
school when Emma had accidently bumped off Sherilee as class president, they
had never seen eye to eye.
Twelve years on the east coast meant Emma
had virtually forgotten about Sherrilee until, two weeks after her return to
Greenville, Sherilee had booked her for speeding, and the old antagonism had
sprung to life again.
Now, as Sherilee approached, there seemed
to be a glint of schadenfreude in the officer’s eyes.
“Hello, Emma,” Sherrilee said coolly as she
took out notepad and pen. “Care to tell me what went wrong this evening?”
Emma’s hands curled into fists, and the
ache returned to her stomach. “I’m not sure. People just started collapsing.”
She drew in a breath. “Why are you here? I thought it was the food and health
authorities’ responsibility to investigate food poisoning.”
Sherilee lifted a shoulder. “Just following
orders. Besides, this might be more than just accidental, seeing as how people
got ill so quickly. It could have been deliberate poisoning.”
poisoning? That was so much worse. Emma’s stomach heaved, and sweat broke out
on her brow from the effort of keeping herself composed.
“Are you feeling okay?” Sherilee’s composed
gaze swept over Emma, making her acutely aware of her crumpled dress and her
hair coming loose from its knot. In contrast, Sherilee looked crisp and competent
in her polycotton blend police uniform. “You don’t look too good.”
“I’m fine,” Emma retorted. No way did she
want Sherilee feeling sorry for her.
The officer’s gaze shifted past Emma’s
shoulder, and some of her frostiness dissolved. “Hey, Fletcher. What are you
doing here? We didn’t call in the sheriff’s department.”
Emma’s heart descended into the nauseous
whirlpool in her stomach. Could this night get even worse? Apparently, it
could. Now, not only did she have her nemesis questioning her, but her old high
school boyfriend had arrived to witness this entire debacle.
Owen Fletcher stopped in front of the two
women. For such a tall man he was surprisingly light on his feet. A deputy
sheriff with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, he wasn’t in uniform tonight,
though his black cargo pants, dark shirt, close-cropped hair and square jaw
exuded a law enforcement air.
“Evening, Emma,” he said, grave and polite,
before turning to Sherilee, his voice lightening. “I’m not here on official
business. Mom called me to pick her up. She came with a friend, but Marcie needs
some medical attention.”
“Oh, no,” Emma blurted out. She hadn’t even
noticed Owen’s mom at the party, that was how harried she’d been. Now, she felt
even worse. She’d always liked Owen’s mom; she hoped Ingrid didn’t think she’d
been snubbing her. “I’m so sorry, Owen.”
He looked at her with a quizzical
expression. “I hear you’re the one who organized this whole shebang.”
His eyes were deep mocha brown, and once
upon a time they had lit up whenever he saw her. Now, they were wiser and
warier, but still they held a hint of sympathy, and his was the first friendly
face she’d seen in what felt like hours.
“It’s probably the last shebang I get to
organize, if Tony Barnet gets his way,” she muttered, folding her arms around
On the other side of the room, Tony had
been monopolizing the other police officer for several minutes, talking
earnestly and a couple of times pointing accusingly in Emma’s direction. Jordan
was nowhere to be seen.
“Barnet thinks you’re responsible for
this?” Owen briefly glanced at Tony before addressing Sherilee. “That can’t be
Sherilee shrugged. “We’ve just started
investigating. We can’t jump to conclusions.”
“But Tony already has,” Emma said. “I
suppose he expects you to march me off in handcuffs.”
“I’m a professional, Emma,” Sherilee said
with just a hint of a smirk. “I won’t arrest you just because Mr. Barnet
insists you’re the culprit,”
Another painful wave twisted her stomach,
but Emma compressed her lips, determined not to show any weakness in front of
these two people.
“What, does he think I’m trying to harm
him?” she scoffed. She really had had enough of Tony Barnet and his bullying.
“Honestly, if I wanted to hurt Tony, I can think of plenty of better ways than
poisoning his guests.”
A look of alarm flickered across Owen’s
face. She was familiar with that expression. He’d always been the steady,
reliable one, whereas she’d been the reckless girlfriend leading him astray. It
was a wonder they’d ever got together in the first place.
But then her vision blurred as another
attack suddenly gripped her, and this time she couldn’t hide her agony. Doubling
up, she let out a groan as her stomach heaved ominously. Panic fogged her
brain. Her body couldn’t wait any longer to get rid of the toxins, the nearest
bathroom was miles away, and she was already responsible for the ruining of one
priceless Persian rug. She couldn’t afford another one.
So she did the only sensible thing. She
grabbed a crystal vase filled with expensive orchids and tossed the flowers to
the floor. She began to gag. Bending her head over the vase, she had no choice
but to allow her body to take over. Through her misery, she heard an outraged
yell as someone stormed up to her.
“That’s Waterford crystal, you dimwit!”
Tony Barnet screamed. “You’re puking in my Waterford crystal!”
“If you change your
mind, please call me. Yes, I understand. Of course, the safety of your guests
is paramount. Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. Goodbye, Mrs. Lawson.”
Sighing, Emma ended the call, rested her
elbows on her desk, and buried her face in her hands. That was the second
cancellation in as many days, and she was beginning to fear each time her cell
phone rang. A clatter of heels on the wooden floor brought her upright just in
time to see Caitlyn trip into her office.
“Brought your mail,” Caitlyn sang, waving a
pile of letters in her manicured fingers.
“Oh, thank you, sweetie.”
Today Caitlyn’s nail varnish was candy
cotton pink to go with her skintight pink leggings, fondant white top, and
scarlet four-inch heels. The twenty-two-year-old was her part-time assistant
mainly owing to the fact that Emma’s office shared the same building as the
hair salon where Caitlyn worked as a manicurist. When Emma had moved back to
Greenville determined to set up her own event planning business, her first
requirement had been to hire some office space, something affordable but not
something that screamed bargain basement. That was not the image she wanted for
The timber, two-story Victorian house that
stood on the edge of Main Street was quaint and charming, with white paint and
colorful window boxes. Lulu’s Salon occupied the first floor, but a compact
upstairs room made an ideal, bargain-priced office for A Perfect Party. From
the little lace balcony Emma could either look down the length of Main Street
or across the roof tops to the glistening waters of Shamrock Lake.
Caitlyn had been very excited when Emma had
set up office upstairs and had volunteered to collect her mail, answer calls,
and make coffee for visitors, so hiring the perky girl on a part-time basis seemed
only fair. But today even Caitlyn’s cheeriness failed to lift Emma’s spirits which
drooped even further as she went through her mail.
“Bills,” she sighed, opening and tossing
them one by one onto her desk. She froze as she read the last one. “Oh
goodness, I don’t believe it! Is he serious?”
“Is who serious about what?”
“Tony Barnet. He’s sent me an invoice for
carpet cleaning. Eight hundred dollars! How can he do this?”
“Oh, that’s too bad.” Caitlyn made a moue
of sympathy as she twirled a lock of hair around her fingers. “Are you going to
Muttering an unsavory word, Emma crumpled
up the invoice and threw it across the room.
“Not before I have a word with him,” she
“Ooh, you’re brave.” Caitlyn shuddered. “I
wouldn’t be game to argue with him.”
Emma pushed to her feet. The truth was, she
couldn’t afford to part with eight hundred dollars, not when two clients had
cancelled this week and no new enquires had come in ever since that disaster on
Saturday, four nights ago. News of the incident had spread through Greenville
and around Shamrock Lake like proverbial wild fire, and Emma had copped more
than a few snarky remarks and pointed stares. Like it or not, she was now infamous
for ruining Tony Barnet’s important housewarming party, and vomiting into his
two-thousand-dollar crystal vase. That was
the reputation she’d
envisaged building when she’d returned to Greenville.
“I can’t worry about Tony Barnet now,” Emma
said as she packed her tablet into her roomy tote bag. “I have an appointment
Thank heavens Madison White hadn’t
cancelled, although it was probably a bit late to switch planners when her and
Sean McCluskey’s wedding was in a month.
Emma followed Caitlyn downstairs, then
jumped into her little white Toyota hatchback to make the drive out to
Madison’s parents’ house. The journey took her away from Greenville’s town
center and along the perimeter of the lake. Spring had arrived, and orange
poppies and mauve lupines flowered in the fields. But just as she was starting
to enjoy the scenery, her car began to cough and jerk alarmingly. She pulled
her foot off the gas, anxiously peering at the dials in the dashboard.
please, don’t break down now
, she silently pleaded. After a few more
splutters, the engine seemed to recover, and the clanking noise coming from the
What a relief. The last thing she needed
now was a busted car.
Reminders of her dismal bank balance
weighed on her as she approached her destination. The Whites lived on Wineglass
Bay, one of the oldest and most exclusive suburbs in the entire lake area, in a
magnificent stone-and-timber mansion that Madison’s great-grandfather had built
when the family had first settled in the region.
Emma steered her car down a long gravel
driveway lined with rose bushes and pulled to a halt near the entrance. Her
modest hatchback looked out of place here, but so did the hulking, gray pickup
truck next to her, emblazoned with the name ‘McCluskey’s Auto Repair’ in bold
white writing on its sides.
She was glad to see the groom-to-be, Sean
McCluskey, was here for the meeting. He hadn’t attended many, apparently happy
to leave the wedding details to Madison. A lot of grooms were like that, in
Emma’s experience, but she believed the best weddings were when the groom was
more involved. Of course, she had no idea if that made for better marriages.
Maria, the Whites’ housekeeper showed her
into the library where Madison, Sean, and Cynthia White, Madison’s mother, were
Madison jumped up as soon as Emma entered.
“Hi, Emma. So great to see you.”
Emma greeted her and the other two. Madison
was bouncing with nervous energy, flicking her long dark hair over her shoulder
and fidgeting with her necklace. Her white cropped ankle pants and
ruffle-sleeved top were simple and expensive, complementing her slim, graceful
figure and light tan. She worked as an intern at a local tourism organization,
but Emma doubted Madison would ever need a paying job. Her mother’s family were
old money, and her father was a successful businessman himself.
Sean, on the other hand, was Madison’s
complete opposite. Anyone who lived long enough in Greenville would eventually
get to hear of the McCluskeys. If the Whites were old money, then the
McCluskeys were old outlaws. There were dozens of McCluskeys living in the
area, and one or other of them always seemed to be in trouble with the law.
Sean, though, appeared to have broken the
mold. He might have had his run-ins with the law when he was younger, but now
he had turned over a new leaf. He ran his own auto repair shop, kept his nose
clean, and had somehow managed to convince a princess like Madison to not only
go out with him, but also to accept his marriage proposal. Emma had known Sean in
high school. She’d always liked him and was happy to see him doing so well.
“So what’s on the agenda today?” Madison
asked as she rocked back and forth on the couch while Sean slouched next to
“Why don’t we start by finalizing the
menu?” Emma said. She hauled her tablet out of her bag and set it on the low
table between the couches.
“Isn’t this exciting?” Madison squeezed
Sean’s arm and wriggled about. She seemed on edge, Emma thought. All brides got
nervy as the big day drew near, but Madison seemed unusually high-strung.
So did Sean, now that she thought about it.
But his mood appeared less excitable and more dour. He nodded vaguely as he bit
his thumb, his mind clearly on other things.
“Sure, babe,” he muttered.
“Here’s a sample menu I thought you might
like.” Emma handed the tablet to the couple. “Why don’t you two look over that?
We can start with what you want for appetizers.”
Madison leaned forward to study the menu,
but Sean was gazing off into the distance. She pinched his knee playfully.
“Hey, coochie pie. We’re supposed to be doing this together.”
He blushed—as any man would at being called
‘coochie pie’ in public, in Emma’s opinion—and shook his head. “Sorry. It’s
just that I’ve got a lot on my mind at the moment.”
Madison’s face puckered up in concern. “Aw,
what’s wrong? Anything I can help you with?”
“Uh, no. It’s nothing.” He cracked his
knuckles, the popping sound explosive in the library.
Sitting across from the happy couple,
Cynthia White frowned. She’d been quiet ever since they sat, but Emma didn’t
miss that grimace or the disapproving look aimed at the tattoos stamped on
Madison’s mother was the epitome of
elegance. Artfully colored blonde hair framed a sculpted face while a taupe
silk dress draped over her thin frame. She toyed absentmindedly with a long
rope of pearls hung around her neck. Pearls were a fast favorite of hers, and
she never appeared without a necklace or bracelet of them. The creamy, subtly
colored jewels suited her restrained personality. Emma had never witnessed
Cynthia raise her voice or lose her temper, yet she got the impression that
beneath that cool veneer, Cynthia’s emotions ran deep.
“I’m going to ask Maria to make some
coffee,” Cynthia drawled, rising fluidly to her feet.
“Oh, by the way, Mom, Sean’s staying for
lunch,” Madison said.
Cynthia paused midway to the door and
pursed her lips. “Very well.”
She sailed out of the room without another
word. But Emma had seen enough to confirm her suspicions. Cynthia did not
approve at all of Sean McCluskey, and she must be dreading the thought of her
precious daughter, her only child, marrying him. No big surprise there, Emma
mused as she watched Madison and Sean poring over the menus. Not many families
here in Wineglass Bay would enjoy being linked with the infamous McCluskeys.
The only surprise was that Cynthia and Howard White had allowed the wedding
preparations to progress this far.
But why was she thinking along these lines?
Emma chided herself. Maybe the Whites saw how much Sean meant to Madison and
were happy for their daughter, even if they might have chosen a different
son-in-law. Happy, reasonable families did exist.
“Let’s go with the lobster,” Madison said,
pointing enthusiastically at a photo on the tablet screen. “It looks delicious.”
“And pricey,” Sean muttered, a slight frown
furrowing his brow. “Couldn’t we go with shrimp instead?”
Madison pulled a face. “Shrimp cocktail?
That’s so dated, Sean. Why can’t we go with the lobster?”
“I’m only trying to economize here. The
budget’s already blown out twice and we haven’t got the final figure yet.”
“If the budget’s worrying you, then I can
talk with Daddy.” Madison tossed back her hair. “He said he’d be happy to bail
us out if we need it.”
Sean clenched his fists. “Yeah, I’m sure he
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean he’d jump at the chance to show you
how much money he has, how he can provide for you so much better than I can,
how you’re making a mistake with me.”
“How can you think that? Daddy made the
offer because he’s generous and he loves me, but you twist it into something
“Oh, come on, Maddie!” Sean jumped to his
feet. Neither he nor Madison seemed to care that Emma was sitting there. “Stop
trying to fool yourself. We both know your parents loathe the sight of me. They’ve
been hoping you’d dump me for months! Admit it.”
Emma wished she had a cloak of invisibility
so she could disappear from the scene. So her suspicions about the Whites were
right. Madison and Sean’s argument affected her more than she’d anticipated. To
her, they were like star-crossed lovers from the opposite sides of the track
who were going to succeed against the odds. And that comforted her. Though the
failure of her own relationship had left her bruised and jaded, Madison and
Sean had given her hope. But now, cracks were appearing in their once united
Madison’s chin quivered, and her eyes swam
with tears. She lowered her head, allowing her curtain of hair to block her
from Sean’s view. But Emma could still see her face, and her tortured expression
gave away the fact that she couldn’t refute Sean’s accusations.
“I hate it when we argue,” she whispered.
Sean’s face fell, and he hurried to her
side, pulling her into his arms. “Me, too, babe. I don’t know why we’re
fighting over a few dollars. Of course we can have the lobster.”
“No, you’re right. We need to trim
expenses. We’ll go with the shrimp.”
“We’re having the lobster. I insist.” He
squeezed Madison’s shoulder before glancing at Emma. “Can you make a note of
that, Emma? We’re going with the lobster appetizer.”
“Oh, Sean.” Madison choked up. “You don’t
“Anything for you, babe.”
Emma remained silent as she jotted the
choice in her notebook. Going with the lobster would cost them more than just a
few dollars more, so she hoped Sean could afford to pay for it.
Cynthia returned, and when she saw Sean and
Madison cuddling on the couch, the frown returned to her brow. She flicked
irritably at her immaculate skirt as she reseated herself.
“Please get on with the menu.” She squeezed
her pearl necklace and ran the beads through her fingers. “I’m sure Emma
doesn’t have all day.”