Sky High by Susan O'Brien is the 2nd cozy in the Nicki Valentine mystery series about the single mom and new P.I. (available September 29, 2015).
Single mom and rookie P.I. Nicki Valentine rarely gets time off, so attending a wedding with her superhot colleague Dean sounds dreamy. But things turn nightmarish when the groom—a soon-to-be transplant donor—disappears, and Nicki and Dean commit to a partnership they never planned.
Together, they examine the groom's unfulfilled promises, including one to his mom, a psychic medium with an unusual health need. As family secrets emerge, Nicki must face questions about her late husband, whose long-ago betrayal still threatens to cloud her judgment.
With support from her pole-dancing best friend, her always-on-call family, and the loves of her life (her two kids-and possibly Dean), Nicki must uncover the groom's demons while conquering her own.
It had been a year since I’d seen my blazing hot PI instructor, Dean, but that didn’t stop us from planning a wedding date. Neither did the fact that I was intimidated by his sun-kissed looks, investigative experience, and relatively commitment-free lifestyle. We’d narrowly avoided mixing business with pleasure (intense pleasure, I can only imagine), because he’d moved overseas to consult on a high-risk, high-paying security project.
Dean had helped with my first case, and we’d shared a celebratory kiss when it was solved. But before much could develop, he was lured away, and I was back to being a stressed, widowed mom of two. We kept in touch by flirtatious email, and when I joked about needing a date to a wedding, Dean said he’d be back just in time. I’d almost fainted. Or swooned.
Now we were in a church pew, wondering why the nuptials were running late. The service was packed with whispering guests who glanced back and forth between the empty narthex and the candlelit altar, where The Reverend Liz Minter, my beloved aunt, would soon unite her goddaughter Mia and the groom, Bruce, in holy matrimony.
Anticipation was becoming impatience, and Aunt Liz’s deep breathing and nervous tapping on her prayer book were proof.
That worried me more than anything else. Liz rarely lost her cool.
“I’ll be right back,” I told Dean. “I just need to make sure everything’s okay.”
He flashed pearly whites and wished me luck. Mentally shooing a butterfly swarm in my stomach, I stood and tightened a black wrap around my shoulders and strapless red dress.
I approached the side chapel door, where Liz stood alone. She wore simple white vestments and sensible black flats. Understated and perfect for a sixty-five-year-old Floridian who only needed her silver bob and sparkling green eyes as accessories.
“Where’s Bruce?” I asked quietly.
She shook her head. “That’s what I’d like to know.” She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “He’s late. The groomsmen, the police, and some relatives are out looking for him. Mia insisted on staying in case he arrives.”
“What?” I mouthed. The wedding was scheduled for six o’clock, and the last time I’d looked at my phone, it was six thirty. A dinner reception was planned at a nearby hotel. “What are you going to do?” I asked. Serve communion to tide everyone over?
“Believe it or not, I’ve never been in this situation before,” Liz said. She had a collection of strange wedding stories, and tonight threatened to be an unwanted addition. “Can you check on Mia while I address the congregation?”
“Of course,” I said without moving. I hardly knew Mia, since we’d only seen each other a few times over the years. My invitation had been a courtesy because I was so close to Aunt Liz.
“Don’t worry. You’ll do fine,” she said. “She’s downstairs with her bridesmaids. Just go through the narthex and turn right. You’ll see the steps. And remember, it’s Bruce’s mom on the laptop.”
Bruce’s mom was attending by Skype. She was gravely ill and needed some sort of transplant. Bruce hoped to be the donor, and the family was keeping the details private. Surely Liz would know about any medical emergency, so I doubted that explained his disappearance.
I squeezed Liz’s hand and headed back down the aisle, whispering “Be right back” to Dean as I passed.
“I apologize for the delay,” Liz announced behind me. “Mia and Bruce have waited a lifetime for this, so a few more minutes won’t hurt. Let’s join in a hymn while we wait.”
She cued everyone to stand, and the organist launched into a familiar, enthusiastic tune. I felt the hopes of the congregation rise, and I hummed along briefly, wishing I could ignore the sinking feeling in my gut.
I hurried down the stairwell, glad I’d worn flats. No matter how my best friend Kenna tried to talk me into heels, I wasn’t budging. I’d never learned to walk in them, and I was certain they’d cause a trip—straight to the ER. Fine. Save the heels for the bedroom, Kenna had advised. Right. As if my comforter and body pillow would be impressed.
I wanted to reach Mia as soon as possible in case she heard everyone singing. If she was already bewildered, music wouldn’t help.
The parish steps opened into a wide, empty corridor echoing with high-pitched wails. Hesitantly, I peered into Sunday school classrooms until, through a cracked door, I saw Mia and three pink-adorned bridesmaids surrounding a flower girl.
“I wanna throw flower petals!” the preschooler howled. It was wrong to celebrate a child’s tears, but I was relieved they weren’t Mia’s.
I pushed open the door and smiled at the group.
“Nicki?” Mia said.
I was glad she recognized me. We hadn’t seen each other in years, and I rarely dressed up. I knew her by the blond hair, princess dress, and veil.
“Mia. You look beautiful! I’m so sorry to interrupt, but Liz sent me to check on you.”
She lifted her train and took careful steps toward me.
“Everyone, this is my cousin, Nicki.”
She gestured to the bridesmaids, the flower girl, and an older woman on a cell phone in the corner. That had to be Mia’s mom.
Cousinwas generous. We weren’t related except by our love for Liz. After Kenna, Liz was my closest confidant.
Hellos were murmured, including a wave from Bruce’s mom on a nearby laptop. No one looked happy.
“How are you doing?” I asked, not sure what to say. I glanced at the flower girl, who had upgraded to whimpering. A bridesmaid was patting her back.
“Terrible. I have no idea where Bruce is.” Her hands trembled as she clasped them in front of her lacy bodice.
“I’m so sorry. Could he be stuck in traffic?”
“I don’t know, but his car isn’t at the hotel where we stayed. His friends and family are looking everywhere—the hotel, his condo, my condo. And the police are checking nearby roads and accidents. No one can find him.”
That wasn’t good. Car trouble was better than any alternative I could think of.
“When was the last time anyone talked to him?” I asked.
“Let’s step outside,” she whispered. I got the sense she didn’t want Bruce’s mom to hear our conversation. I also thought she was trying desperately not to cry.
I ushered her ahead of me and made sure her train didn’t catch on anything. As I lifted it, I noticed her white satin slippers. Perfect for dancing—if she ever got to celebrate.
When we were out the door, I closed it softly.
“I don’t know what to do,” Mia said, blue eyes watering. She dabbed them in time to prevent a mascara and eyeliner waterfall. Then she fanned her face. “I’m terrified something awful happened to Bruce, but I don’t want to freak out his mom. He would never leave us like this. You know she’s really sick, right?”
“Yes, but I don’t know the details.”
“It’s too complicated to explain. But the last time anyone talked to Bruce was at his bachelor party last night. He and I thought it was bad luck to talk before the ceremony, and he was supposed to meet his friends here at four thirty. They didn’t want me to worry, so no one told me he was late until I finished taking photos with my bridesmaids and it was the guys’ turn.”
I wanted to ask a million more questions, but Liz was waiting for an update.
“I hate to ask this, but what do you think Liz should tell the congregation?”
Mia pressed fingertips to her temple and blew out a long breath. “I don’t know.”
I pictured the tense sing-a-long occurring upstairs.
“How about sending everyone to the reception and meeting them after we find Bruce?” I said with false optimism. “Liz can marry you there, so it’s really just a change in venue.”
She gazed down the hall, perhaps imagining Bruce rushing in at the last minute. I got my hopes up and looked too. No Bruce.
“I don’t think I have another choice,” she said with a sniffle. “The church is only reserved until seven, and I don’t want to send everyone home. A lot of guests are staying at the hotel anyway.” She patted her eyes again.
“If anyone can make this work, it’s Liz,” I encouraged.
We smiled at each other. Although we were virtual strangers, Liz was a powerful bond.
“We’ll come and get you after everyone leaves,” I said, realizing “we” included Dean. Our date was about to become more awkward than I’d ever feared. Or maybe not. So far, working together was what we did best.
I returned upstairs but stopped myself short of walking down the aisle. It wasn’t my place, at least not today.
Instead, I went through a side entrance and padded past pews, smiling at anyone who looked my way. I admired the friendly expressions most mustered while singing their umpteenth hymn. Dean, I noticed, was a trouper, joining right in—or at least mouthing the words.
When I got to the front row, I locked eyes with Liz, scrunched my nose, and shook my head. No Bruce yet. I hoped she understood.
She nodded to the song’s rhythm and smiled as it ended.
“Please be seated,” she told everyone. “While I check on things, please take a moment to pray for Mia and Bruce’s happy future.”
The organist played background music while Liz took my hand and led me into the sacristy. The only other time I’d been “backstage” was at her church in Siesta Key, Florida. The areas were similar—each stocked with every imaginable supply: goblets, pitchers, linens, flower arrangements, and more. Countless drawers and cabinets, some of them locked, held unknown necessities. There was a sink and drying rack for washing communion supplies.
“What’s happening?” Liz whispered, resting one arm on a counter.
“Is your mic off?”
She fiddled with a switch on her lapel and confirmed it was.
I filled her in and watched her reaction carefully: wrinkled forehead, raised eyebrow, thoughtful frown. The “head to the reception and hope for the best” plan was growing on her.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“It’s our only option.”
“That’s what Mia said, too.”
“This is unbelievable,” Liz muttered before closing her eyes. Out of respect, I closed mine too. “Please, God,” she pleaded. “Let Bruce be okay.”
She reached out and squeezed my hands.
“Let’s do this,” she urged, as if we were headed into a championship game. I wasn’t sure about my role, but if she was coaching, I was playing.
I followed her out, and we parted after reverencing the altar. As she began announcing the plan, I scooted in next to Dean, who gave me a questioning look. I read it as, WTF? But knowing him, it probably meant, What’s wrong, and how can I help? He had a history of going above and beyond.
The woman next to me tapped my shoulder.
“Is everything okay?” she asked quietly.
“I hope so. I’m the priest’s niece.” I pointed at Liz, who was giving directions to the hotel.
“I’m Raina, Mia’s college roommate from Maryland State. This is my husband Evan. Do you know what’s going on?”
“No,” I answered honestly.
“I know Bruce’s mom is sick. Is she okay?”
“I think so,” I said.
By now, Liz was done, and I was disappointed I’d missed what she said. Whatever it was hadn’t panicked the crowd.
“I’m Nicki, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you.” Raina stood and smoothed her dress. “I guess we’ll see you at the reception.”
Dean and I stood too.
“This is my friend, Dean.”
“I’m Raina,” she said demurely as she stuck out her hand, which she hadn’t for me. Her husband smirked and introduced himself to both of us. Dean’s heat wasn’t lost on anyone. Even Liz was a little bug-eyed when they met.
Dean said a friendly hello and rested a hand on my back, radiating tingles that rose like champagne bubbles to my head.
“See you at the reception,” I said, turning toward the aisle with Dean. We needed to talk privately. Would he go ahead of me to the hotel? Or wait while I helped Mia and Liz? Or just go home? “I’ll explain everything downstairs,” I told him.
He kept his hand in place as we inched toward the narthex with the crowd. We were both quiet, and I assumed we were doing the same thing: listening to hushed comments float through the air. Everyone was stunned by the turn of events. I heard, “Poor Mia,” “I hope he’s okay,” “Do you think he got cold feet?” and a blunt, “What an ass.”
It was like an accident scene, complete with worry, questions, anger, and heightened energy. Thankfully, there was no visible wreckage.
The crowd moved through the church’s massive oak archways and doors, but I turned down the interior steps, hoping only Dean would follow. A stooped, elderly gentleman fell in behind us, but I redirected him. I felt like putting up crime scene tape.
Before venturing back to Mia, I stopped at the stairwell’s base and smiled at Dean.
“I’m really sorry about this,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry. Tell me what you know.”
“Basically, the groom didn’t show up, and no one knows where he is, including the police. His bachelor party was last night, and apparently that’s the last time anyone saw him. His car is missing, too, and a search party is looking for him.” I told him about Bruce’s mom and Mia’s concern for her.
“What a nightmare.”
“Ever had a case like this?” I asked, only half-joking. Dean was a PI, but his specialty was technical surveillance countermeasures—also known as debugging.
“No. I’ve heard of runaway brides, but this is a new one for me.”
“You don’t have to stay,” I assured him. “This night could be a disaster.”
Or a miracle, I thought. I imagined Bruce showing up sweaty and disheveled, saying his car had broken down and his cell phone was dead, so he’d jogged to his bride. Cheers would rise from the crowd, and the couple’s vows would burst with romance and meaning.
“I can leave and pick you up later to give your family some privacy. But I don’t mind staying and helping out.”
That sounded good to me. It also sounded like he wanted to be there, and that meant a lot.
“Thanks. I’d love that.” I took a deep breath and reached for his hand. “So, ready to see Mia?”
“Whenever you are,” he said.
I pretended I was and led the way.
* * *
In the short time since I’d seen her, Mia had changed—meaning she’d put on jeans and a fitted, pink T-shirt, while her wedding gown hung forlorn on the door, its train buttressed up the back. Her makeup was jarring without the dress, and her updo was half down. She looked like a distraught actress who’d just come offstage. One who wanted to go home—not to an after-party. Everyone else was still in costume, silent.
“You guys go to the reception,” she mumbled to no one in particular. “I can’t do it.” Tears streaked her cheeks with dark makeup, which she wiped carelessly while stuffing her bouquet into a white trash bag, hopefully to preserve it, but maybe not. I cringed. Maybe Dean’s “uncomfortable” was already here.
“Where will you go?” a bridesmaid asked quietly.
“To Bruce’s mom’s. The police will meet us there. I’ll text you if I need anything.”
Bruce’s mom nodded on the laptop and wiped her eyes with a tissue. “Yes, sweetheart, come here. Bring anyone you’d like.”
Light, quick footsteps in the hall were followed by Liz rushing in to give Mia a long, tight hug. “Honey, I’m so sorry.”
If Mia was anything like me, I knew what was next: a downpour. Liz’s caring nature—plus her commitment to confidentiality—helped people let go. Really let go.
I turned to sneak out, but Mia caught my eye.
“Stay,” she insisted. I paused mid-step. “I need to talk to you.”
I wished it was about something simple, like transporting her flower arrangements to the reception in my minivan. But I knew it wasn’t. She didn’t even know I had a minivan. She also didn’t know that the last time I’d found a missing person, I’d had beginner’s luck—plus help from a retired FBI agent with a soft spot for endangered kids. Since then, I’d focused on simple, safe pre-employment screenings from the comfort of my home. My new PI firm, Sky Investigations, had barely gotten off the ground.
“Please help me find Bruce,” Mia said. “I can’t live without him.” My heart went out to her, but I believed the police were her best resource. Then she added, “And neither can his mom.”
Aunt Liz gave me a pleading look.
Oh, dear. I wasn’t confident about giving Mia much more than the laundry sorter I’d picked from her wedding registry, but I’d do what I could. I just hoped no one would regret it.
Copyright © 2015 Susan O'Brien.
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Susan O’Brien has been passionate about reading and writing since childhood, when she started a neighborhood newspaper and escaped tween stress with mysteries. Since covering her first big story (the birth of gerbils next door), she has worked with USA TODAY,PI Magazine, The Parent Institute and others. Her debut mystery, Finding Sky, was an Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel.