Dying on the Vine: New Excerpt

Dying on the Vine by Marla Cooper is the 2nd book in the Kelsey McKenna Destination Wedding Mysteries series (available April 4, 2017).

When wedding planner Kelsey McKenna goes to the Wine Country Wedding Faire, the last thing she expects to do is take on new clients. After all, she’s just there to help out her friend Brody and maybe score some free cupcakes. But when a young couple in a pinch asks for her help, she just can't say no.

There’s only one problem: they’d been working with Babs Norton, the self-proclaimed Queen of Wine Country Weddings—and things did not end well. Kelsey wants to make sure there are no hard feelings, but unfortunately she never gets the chance. When she goes to Babs’ office, she finds the wedding planner dead on the floor.

Babs' high-strung assistant Stefan knows exactly who killed Babs: Kelsey. At least, that's what he very publicly accuses her of at Babs' funeral. When Kelsey decides to do a little sleuthing to clear her name, she uncovers a myriad of secrets and lies. And when a second wedding planner is attacked, Kelsey begins to wonder if she might be next.

CHAPTER 1

There was an air of excitement as brides-to-be and their entourages streamed through the front entrance of the Wine Country Wedding Faire. Some of them were hoping to find a venue that was somehow both rustic and modern. Some were looking for a baker who could make their wedding cake look like the one they found on Pinterest. Some were searching for a magical bridesmaid dress that would flatter both their childhood best friend and their supermodel-tall college roommate.

I just wanted to find a parking space.

I’d promised my friend Brody Marx that I’d hang out with him at his booth during the midday crush at the biggest bridal event in Northern California.

“Join me,” he’d said. “It’ll be fun,” he’d said.

I’m sleeping in, is what I should have said.

It was going to be hard work. It was going to involve hours of standing. It was going to mean smiling until my cheeks hurt. But I had to admit, it was a good place to network, and, hey, free cupcakes. Maybe while I was there, I could even get to the bottom of why it was a “faire” instead of a “fair”—like the extra e makes it extra classy or something.

After circling the parking lot for several minutes, I was finally able to squeeze between two huge SUVs wedged into spots that were clearly labeled “Compact Only.” I grabbed the box of brochures Brody had asked me to bring and balanced them on my right hip for the hike to the entrance.

I smiled to myself as I thought of all the reasons I love my job as a wedding planner. I got to be there for the happiest day in someone’s life about twenty times a year. I got to travel to destinations all over the world and rack up thousands of frequent-flier miles. And now I was about to spend the day with one of my favorite people. Life wasn’t all bad.

“Kelsey, where have you been?” Brody hissed the second I got to his booth. “Did you get my text?”

“Well, hello to you, too,” I said, foisting the box of brochures into his arms.

“I’m up to my ears in happy people,” he whispered, jerking his head toward the mob surrounding his table. “They’re nuts!”

“Sorry I’m late,” I said. “There was a—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He thrust the box back into my hands. “Go put these out on the table for me while I run to the bathroom, okay? I don’t want to be known as the wedding photographer who wet his pants.”

“I don’t know, I think it has a certain panache.” I set the box on the floor as he sprinted toward the back hall.

A pretty brunette and her fiancé were thumbing through one of Brody’s albums, oohing and aahing over his editorial-style engagement photos. “Where were these taken?” the bride asked me. “I want this same backdrop!”

I craned my neck to look at the shots, but I didn’t recognize the setting. “I’m not sure, but Brody will be back in a second. He’s the photographer.”

“How much does he charge?” asked the brunette’s fiancé.

“Let me find you a rate card,” I said, searching the printed materials Brody had laid out on the table. Why hadn’t he given me an orientation before he’d bolted for the men’s room?

“Is he available the first weekend in November?” asked an eager-looking redhead.

Now, where had he put his calendar? I smiled and held up a finger. “Um, if you could just give me one second.…”

Before I could explain, the girl looked at her friend and whispered, “He needs to get a new assistant.”

You got that right, lady.

I took a deep breath, did a quick assessment of who was serious and who was just window-shopping, and got busy answering questions. I found his appointment book, scheduled him two consults, and was fairly sure I’d even managed to sell one couple his most expensive photography package. He so owed me for this.

I saw Brody down the row, snagging a stuffed mushroom from a caterer who was offering samples. This was no time for snacks. I darted over to Brody and grabbed him by the arm, pulling him back toward his booth. “Break time’s over. Sorry, but they’re like a pack of rabid wolves over there!”

“Now you see what I’ve been dealing with all morning.”

“Well, don’t worry,” I said reassuringly. “I’m here now.”

He slowed down long enough to give me a quick squeeze. “Thanks, Kelsey. This’ll go a lot easier with you here.”

“Don’t mention it.” I stopped in my tracks as I noticed a booth down the row that rented out special-occasion kilts for betrothed Scots. “Ooh! Can I talk in a Scottish accent if I get bored?”

“If you must.”

I nodded. “I think I must. We should both do it!”

“Aye, then. Haud your wheesht, lassie.”

I stopped and looked at Brody. “Haud my what now?”

“I was speaking Scottish.”

“That’s not Scottish. That’s, like, pirate or something.”

“Fine,” he said, ducking back behind the table. “We’ll work on it later.”

The next few hours passed quickly as Brody and I hit our stride. By midafternoon, I’d become an expert on every detail of his photography business and I was kind of enjoying working the crowd.

“Hey, Kelsey,” Brody said, wiggling his finger at me. “Come here for a second.”

I pretend-scowled at him, then turned to the couple I’d been talking to. “Excuse me, I’m being summoned.”

“This is Haley Bennett and Christopher Riegert,” he said, motioning to a couple in their late twenties. Haley was a cute blonde with a pixie cut and bright red lipstick, and Christopher had faux-nerdy glasses and a bushy beard. Together, they looked like an indie rock band from Brooklyn.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied with a smile. “Whatever he told you, it’s not true.”

“I told them you were awesome,” he said, “but you’re right, I take it back.”

“Oh, well, in that case, you should listen to everything Brody says.”

Haley giggled as she shook my hand. “You guys are such a cute couple.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “We’re not—”

Brody laughed and put one arm around my shoulder. “Oh, come on, darling, don’t be that way.”

I wriggled out of his grasp, laughing, and punched him in the arm. “Cut it out! That’s how rumors get started.”

“She’s just mad because I hog the blankets,” Brody said, a twinkle in his eye.

I blushed a little, despite myself. I was always surprised when people thought Brody and I were dating. I mean, sure, he was good-looking, but it was so obvious that I wasn’t his type. In fact, I was off by a whole Y chromosome. No reason to let that stand in the way of a beautiful friendship, though.

“These two are getting married in Napa and they need a wedding planner,” Brody said. “And Kelsey here is a wedding planner, and a fabulous one, at that. What a coincidence! Talk amongst yourselves.”

“So, any chance you’re free on the eighteenth?” Haley asked hopefully.

“What month?” I asked.

“Next month. In four weeks.”

“Four weeks? That’s soon.

“I know. I’m sorry.” The bride-to-be looked chagrined. “Most of the planning is already taken care of, so all we need is a day-of wedding coordinator. Do you do that sort of thing?”

“I do offer a day-of package, but I’d have to check my calendar.” I thought about my assistant Laurel and how she’d been dying to take on more duties. We could probably divide and conquer. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you call my office tomorrow? I’m sure I can figure out a way to make it work.”

“That would be amazing!” Haley said, her face beaming a radiant smile.

I liked her. And I had to admit, these quick little meet-and-greets were a great way to prescreen clients, kind of like speed dating. We made an appointment for the very next day.

The afternoon flew by and the crowds finally started to thin out a little. Brody even let me take a break, after extracting a promise that I’d bring him back one of the signature cocktails they were serving at the bar.

“One lavender lemonade with vodka, coming up!” I said as I darted away.

The line was long but seemed to be moving quickly. As I joined the queue, I recognized a Silicon Valley couple I’d met earlier at Brody’s table. They’d spent quite a while flipping through Brody’s sample albums, and if I remembered correctly, they’d let out quite a few appreciative murmurs.

“Hi,” I said. “You having fun?”

“It’s fun, but the crowds are kind of getting to us,” the bride-to-be said. “I had to promise Raj a beer to keep him from abandoning me.”

“It’s enough to make you want to elope,” her fiancé said.

“Well, hang in there. The drinks should help.”

The bride looked at me and tilted her head. “You were at the photography booth, right? Great work.”

“Thanks!” I said. “I mean, it’s not my work, but I’m glad you liked it. Did you get a business card?”

“I think so,” she said, lifting up her official Wine Country Wedding Faire tote bag. “Although who knows if I’ll ever be able to find it in all this.”

“Maybe we should get his number just to be sure,” said Raj.

I whipped out my iPhone, eager to help Brody land the gig. “Here, I can give it to you.” I read off the numbers as Raj punched them into his phone.

“Well, well, well. What have we here?” said a man’s voice from behind me. I turned around to find myself facing Stefan Pierce, an assistant to one of the most prominent wedding planners in Northern California, giving me a look that could have wilted a bridal bouquet.

Dang it. If I’d only seen him coming, I could have avoided him. Over the years, I’d run into him occasionally at industry events like this one, and it was never a pleasant experience. He’d always been fairly obnoxious, but even more so since he’d landed a gig working for Babs Norton, the self-proclaimed Queen of Wine Country Weddings.

“Hello, Stefan,” I said. “I was just—”

“Trying to steal a client?” he said. He tried to sound lighthearted, but there was a definite edge to his voice.

“No! Not at all. I’m here helping Brody and they were interested in using him.”

“Mmm-hmm,” he said as he looked me up and down. “These two have already signed a contract with Babs, so they won’t be needing your help.”

Did he really think I was trying to woo a client away from him and Babs? “Seriously, Stefan, I was just giving them Brody’s number.”

“It’s true,” Raj said, holding up his phone as proof.

Stefan pressed his lips together in his best imitation of a smile. “Babs and I will make sure they connect. Thanks, anyway.” And with that, he steered the couple off toward a display of place settings, as the bride gave me an apologetic look over her shoulder and the groom looked longingly toward the bar.

I took a deep breath and counted to ten. No way was I going to let Stefan get under my skin. Why would he consider me competition, anyway? Babs wasn’t threatened by me. She threw absolutely amazing weddings for anyone who could afford them. I mean, it’s not exactly like we attracted the same clientele.

I blew out a deep breath. Shake it off.

I returned to Brody’s booth, drinks in hand, to finish out my shift.

“Guess who I just ran into?” I asked. “Stefan Pierce.”

“Ewww,” Brody said. “The ‘Ankle Biter’? I’m sorry.”

I laughed. I’d forgotten about the secret nickname Stefan had earned among many of the local wedding vendors because of his frequent tendency to behave like an irate Chihuahua. Why Babs had hired the petty, temperamental Stefan I’d never know, but they seemed to get along fine. She told me once that she appreciated what she kindly referred to as his “tenacity.”

Thank God I had time to slurp down my spiked lemonade, because twenty minutes later who should appear but Babs Norton herself, followed by Stefan and the couple I’d talked to at the bar.

“Hello, Kelsey,” Babs said, air-kissing me once on each cheek. “These two wanted to speak to your photographer friend again before they left.” She arched one eyebrow at me. “Stefan tells me you met them, as well?”

“I did, yes.”

Babs pulled me aside as the couple chatted with Brody at the end of the table and Stefan hovered nearby. “Well, I can’t blame you for trying,” she said, whispering theatrically. “They’re loaded.

I shot Stefan a look. “I promise you, Babs, I was only trying to give them Brody’s phone number when we got interrupted.”

Stefan crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Just in the nick of time, or so it appeared.”

“No harm,” Babs said, gesturing to her attack dog to stand down. “There’s no way you could have known they were working with us.”

Stefan snorted, then said under his breath, “Besides, they were looking for something a little more … refined than what you typically do.”

“Now, Stefan, Kelsey does perfectly lovely weddings,” Babs said before I could protest. “We have different styles, that’s all.”

“Thanks, Babs,” I said. I think.

“If you say so,” Stefan muttered. He looked dejected that she hadn’t commanded him to chomp on my Achilles tendon.

I thought it was time for a good old-fashioned change of subject. “So, where’s your booth?”

Babs laughed merrily. “Oh, I’m not an exhibitor. Heavens.

“Hardly,” said Stefan, puffing out his chest. “We have plenty of business as it is.”

“I only came by because I’m a featured sponsor,” Babs said, waving her hand in a flourish. “Didn’t you see the grand prize? It’s a wedding planned by me, and it’s going to be absolutely fabulous!”

Of course. Heaven forbid Babs Norton should have to do anything so pedestrian as peddle her services at a bridal-fair booth.

“That’s terrific,” I said, trying hard to sound enthusiastic. “I’m sure you’ll make some couple very happy.”

Babs turned back to the couple. “Okay, kids, I have Brody’s information. We have a lot we need to accomplish today, so let’s not dillydally.”

Stefan lingered behind long enough to get in the last word. “Good luck finding some new clients.” His sarcastic tone told me he didn’t really mean it. “But in the meantime, stay away from ours.

 

Copyright © 2017 Marla Cooper.

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Marla Cooper was astonished when, at the age of 18, she realized people could actually get paid to write things. So she switched her major from business to advertising much to the relief of her accounting professor and began her career as an advertising copywriter. After moving to San Francisco, she became a freelancer so she could take advantage of perks like working in her pajamas, and now she writes a little bit of everything, including travel writing, web copy, and even the occasional haiku. While ghostwriting a book on destination weddings, she found inspiration for her first novel, Terror in Taffeta—the first in a series about a destination wedding planner.

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