Wedding Bel Blues is the first book in the new Bel McGrath Mysteries Series (Available May 31, 2016).
Are they tying the knot?
Belfast McGrath has spent the last fifteen years avoiding her big, bustling, brash Irish family. But when her five-star culinary career goes up in flames, she retreats to Foster’s Landing—where she’s immediately tapped as her cousin Caleigh’s maid-of-honor. It’s a perfect recipe for disaster…especially when Bel learns that the wedding preparations included Caleigh having one last one-night stand.
Or the noose?
When Caleigh’s lover plunges from the second-floor balcony during the reception, Bel can’t help but think his death was no accident. Soon Detective Kevin Hanson, who just happens to be Bel’s long-ago love, arrives on the scene—looking hotter than ever. Heartbreak and homicide hardly help Bel to feel more at home, but if she is going to make a new beginning for herself, including putting the past behind her, she must first steer clear of a cold-hearted killer.
It never bothered me when Caleigh McHugh, my first cousin on my mother’s side, insulted me when we were teenagers. We had been competing with each other since we were kids, and today, her wedding day, was no exception.
Because I was pretty sure that my IQ was higher than hers and since I come from a family that has always valued brains over beauty—well, most of the time—her insults didn’t really hurt. “You look plushy in that dress, Bel,” Caleigh said, giving me the once-over, making sure she looked better than I did.
“I’m not sure that’s even a word,” I said to her, smoothing down the front of the raw-silk monstrosity she called a maid-of-honor dress. “But I’m pretty sure I know what it means.”
“It means ‘zaftig.’ ‘Curvy,’” she said, trying desperately to recover.
I was fine with that. But you’re the only one who seems to care. For me, if being the same size as Caleigh McHugh, standing before me in her size 0 wedding gown, meant giving up my beloved Blue Moons and my favorite bakery’s chocolate-chip scones as well as my own coq au vin, count me out.
We were standing in the bridal suite of the historic mansion that my parents own overlooking the Hudson, where Caleigh was to marry the robotic but filthy rich Mark Chesterton in under an hour. The guy seemed nice enough, but would I have picked him for Caleigh? Not in a million years. My cousin usually went for the bad boy, the guy your mother warned you about, your older brothers keeping an eye on in case he got too close. Older brothers, as I had come to learn—as I had four of my own—were the original restraining order.
My mother, queen of the Manor, as I liked to call her, had shooed the bridal party out of the room, along with her own sister, Aunt Helen, the mother of the bride. As maid of honor, I had the pleasure of being at Caleigh’s beck and call, a role that was my birthright, apparently. I had learned long ago that letting Caleigh be the star of the show was sometimes my sole reason for being.
One last person remained in the room, Caleigh’s mother’s boyfriend, Frank, a man of few words but someone who seemed overcome by the events of the day, events that hadn’t even begun yet. “Beautiful,” he pronounced, tears filling his eyes as he clomped out of the room, his dress shoes clearly new and, from the looks of it, terribly uncomfortable.
“Caleigh, look away from the photographer, but smile,” I said. The photographer gave me a side eye; I had obviously stepped on his toes here. I had forgotten how difficult it was for Caleigh to do two things at once. But here, in the bedroom, and not in the safe confines of the kitchen where I had once spent the better part of my days bossing people around, I still fell into my old role as chief cook and bottle washer/battle-axe. “I don’t think you should look at the camera every time,” I said, even though I knew that telling Caleigh not to look at the camera was akin to saying “don’t think about pink elephants.” See? Happens every time.
“You’ve been back what? Two months, Bel? And you’re already bossing everyone around,” Caleigh said. “We know what we’re doing here.”
“You do?” I asked. “Then I hope you enjoy a wedding album of photos that make you look like you’ve just seen a ghost,” I said. I looked at the photographer. “With all due respect, Jacqui,” I said to the tall, thin, African-American man with the camera.
“It’s pronounced ‘Jock-quee,’” Caleigh whispered urgently.
Duly noted. “My cousin’s got a great smile,” I said. “Do you think we could get a couple of shots where she doesn’t look like she’s going to a funeral?” I asked.
“And you are?” he asked, looking up at me from the crouch he had folded into, all the better to get a shot of Caleigh’s one physical flaw, the weak chin that melted straight into her short neck.
I held out my hand. “Belfast McGrath. ‘Bel,’ for short. Cousin of the bride.” He accepted my hand in a limp approximation of a shake. “Maid of honor.” He had already photographed us and knew the pecking order of the bridal party so the snub was for my benefit and mine alone.
When it was clear that my suggestion for some new poses had fallen on deaf ears, I gave up and took my place by another window, looking out at the setup below, the giant tent that would accommodate the cocktail part of the reception, the artfully decorated area where Caleigh would marry Mark, he of the trust fund, summer home in Nantucket, apartment in New York, house in Bronxville, and ability to give Caleigh the life she always wanted. She had strong-armed the chef, a guy named Goran Cilic, a Croatian ex-pat who was talented but had no finesse in the kitchen and whose grumpy manner made him the bane of every other member of the staff, into making a few items for the cocktail hour that were outside his comfort zone, including mini lobster tacos, something with quail eggs, and yet another thing that required gold leaf as a garnish. I wish she had asked me; I could have whipped up two-hundred-and-fifty canapés that would have brought tears to her eyes but she hadn’t asked. Goran didn’t want my help either, but he needed it, so I had shown him how to make a special chicken liver mousse recipe that Caleigh had seen on Barefoot Contessa. It took all I had not to tell him how to cut a filet properly at Caleigh’s tasting because, as my parents had told me numerous times, Goran had been known to throw more than one tantrum.
I scanned the crowd below. My four brothers were in attendance as were all of their wives, my brothers assembling with their instruments next to the platform where Caleigh would marry Mark. The boys couldn’t cook, but they could play Irish music like it was nobody’s business, a trait that had been lost on me. Arney, the oldest, played the piano accordion and Cargan the fiddle, a skill that had taken him all over the United States and the United Kingdom; he was that good. Derry was our resident drummer, and Feeney did double duty as the lead singer and guitarist. Each and every one of my brothers was a diva in his own right and many a wedding had ended with Dad breaking up a fight over their “creative differences.”
Their fights were epic. Creative differences bring about a lot of emotion apparently. I said a silent prayer that in addition to Goran’s good behavior in the kitchen we would also have a pleasant day in which my four siblings played the music, smiled for the crowd, and packed up their instruments without anyone being the wiser that Feeney had pulled a butter knife on Arney the night before at the rehearsal dinner in retaliation for Arney’s dismissal of Feeney’s suggestion that they begin their first set with “Everybody Plays the Fool.”
And people wonder why I was reluctant to come home after fifteen years away.
I spied my mother and father down below, both looking serious, but probably just unhappy that Caleigh wasn’t having a Catholic nuptial Mass. Mark was a Protestant—something that my parents only said in a pointed whisper—denomination unknown, so whatever service was being held for the joining of the couple, it wouldn’t “count,” “counting” for attending Mass on Sunday being the sole reason for having a wedding after three o’clock on a Saturday.
In my devout Catholic parents’ book anyway.
A handsome guy approached my father and shook his hand, my dad looking surprised to see him. No hug was exchanged, an odd thing, because my dad hugs the UPS guy when he brings my mother’s almost-daily Zappos deliveries to the house. Next to them was Caleigh’s uncle Eugene. “I didn’t know you’d invited Uncle Eugene,” I said. “He’s allowed to travel now?” I said.
Caleigh let out a pointed sigh. “Of course he’s allowed to travel. He was never convicted,” she said.
News to me. Uncle Eugene was her late father’s first cousin, so technically not my uncle or blood relation but we called him “uncle” regardless. He had fled the bucolic confines of Foster’s Landing what seemed like a hundred years ago. I was little when he left, I remember that, maybe six or seven. I also remember that his abrupt departure had something to do with guns. Lots of guns. And the Irish Republican Army, which was a big deal in the eighties and whose existence was acknowledged in my house but never spoken about. So, how did I remember Uncle Eugene? He was hard to forget. He was as small as a man could be without being considered a little person but had hands that looked like they belonged to a much bigger man. He had a shock of white hair. Freckles to beat the band.
And one leg.
I never did find out the reason for Uncle Eugene’s missing leg but had seen his prosthetic, something that had haunted my dreams when I was young. I remember my father taking us to Eugene’s place over in the Hadley section of the Landing and whispering feverishly to the five of us—four boys and me all crammed into a Volkswagen Vanagon—“don’t look at his leg!” As a result of that directive, Arney, on the one hand, the oldest and hence the most obedient and polite of our entire squad, spent most visits at Eugene’s with his eyes closed shut, not trusting himself to look away from the visual pull of a prosthetic foot in a sneaker, a whisper of a plastic ankle just above a short sock. Feeney, on the other hand, always asked to play with the prosthetic, a request that Uncle Eugene was thrilled to honor.
From what I knew, Eugene had been in Ireland all this time, so seeing him at the wedding was a surprise. “I don’t know why you’re surprised, Bel,” Caleigh said, adjusting her veil while looking in the mirror. “He’s staying in the Manor.”
“Yes, he arrived last night.”
That’s why I hadn’t seen him. After coming home, a broken engagement smarting like a lemon in the world’s deepest paper cut, I had stayed holed up in the apartment in the building adjacent to the Manor after the rehearsal dinner. Being at a wedding so soon after my own was supposed to take place was completely demoralizing.
Caleigh read my mind. “This must be hard for you,” she said, showing uncharacteristic sensitivity. “I mean me, this gorgeous dress…”
“The wedding?” I asked. “This?”
“Yes, this,” she said. “You’ve always been good at compartmentalizing things, Bel. It’s your gift, I think.”
That was her nice way of saying that I could ignore the obvious, pretend that things that were happening really weren’t. That I could go to a wedding so soon after mine had been canceled and act, just for a few hours, like nothing had ever happened. We McGraths were good that way. Maybe it was a gift.
I turned to look out the window. “Who’s the guy down there?” I asked Caleigh, still fussing with her veil. “Tall, dark hair, good-looking?”
“You’ve just described every single one of our cousins,” Caleigh said. “Not a clue.”
“Nice suit? Fancy shoes? Shiny?”
“Him or the shoes?” Caleigh asked.
“Um, the shoes,” I said.
“Bel, I don’t know. Now could you come over here and help me?” she asked, her hands wound up in yards of tulle so diaphanous that it almost wasn’t there.
I took one last look at the guests below. The guy was cute. I’d have to find him later, ask Dad for an introduction. With my luck, the guy was my second cousin once removed.
“Please, Bella, some footage with the bride, please?” Jacqui asked, pointing to the phone in my hand.
“It’s Bel. And you want video footage of you and Caleigh?” I asked.
“Yes, please. For my Web site.”
Oh, now you need me, I thought. Jacqui and Caleigh preened for the camera, making small talk that basically centered around how gorgeous she was, how talented he was. He did some acrobatic photograph taking, jumping up and catching Caleigh as she did some supermodel turns, the requisite duck lips that graced every single photo of everyone on social media. If they kept it up I would be too nauseated to eat Goran’s famous pigs in a blanket that I saw circulating on trays below, and that did not make me happy.
Caleigh had declared professional videographers “tacky” and was only having still photographs. I was surprised by that. Maybe Francis Ford Coppola was busy today and that’s why there was no one filming every minute of what to me was a wedding nightmare.
Aunt Helen knocked and stuck her head through a crack in the door. “Caleigh, we’re ready downstairs.”
I adjusted the fake diamond necklace around my neck; Mom had lent it to me that morning, keeping the matching fake diamond earrings for herself. It had a habit of slipping, as cheap jewelry is wont to do, showing the clasp at the nape of my neck.
Uncle Jack had died two years earlier and since Caleigh was an only child, it was Aunt Helen’s duty to “give her away,” as the family said. Dad had volunteered but had been summarily dismissed, as he often was by Caleigh and Aunt Helen. I would gladly have given Caleigh away when we were children, but I was stuck with her, me an only daughter and she an only child. We were paired up from birth, our birthdays only a few months apart, and we grew up alongside each other, me getting brainer and chubbier by the day, she going from a not-so-ugly duckling into a beautiful swan who needed help with math. I kept my phone camera trained on her as she swept out of the room in her twenty-five-thousand-dollar dress and into the hallway, standing at the top of the stairs for a moment. She turned around and looked at me, forgetting I was filming.
“I’m doing the right thing, right, Bel?” she asked, her face under the mask of makeup she wore looking just like it had had when she was twelve and I was her best friend in the Landing. Or anywhere, for that matter, her e-mail pen pal in France, the presumed fourteen-year-old Jean-Louis, turning out to be a forty-seven-year-old guy named Darryl who lived in Poughkeepsie.
I put the phone down. I would have to edit that question out later so that Mark Chesterton never knew that Caleigh McHugh had doubts about him. Good thing I was a nice person. “You are, Caleigh,” I said. I didn’t want to marry Mark, but that didn’t mean that Caleigh shouldn’t. “He’s a great guy. You’ll be really happy together.” Okay, Bel, cool it, I thought; any more with the platitudes and she’d be on to me. “Second thoughts?” I asked, seeing her pale beneath the little spray of freckles across her nose, the bronzer on her cheeks. “It was a mistake. A onetime thing,” I said, referencing a secret she had begged me to keep, the black-and-blue fingerprints on my upper arm a testament to the force with which she had pleaded. We made our way down the stairs, through the foyer and to the door that led to the long aisle.
“No. No second thoughts,” she whispered, glaring at me as if I were the one who had professed doubts about marrying the guy standing at the end of the carpet runner that bisected the two sets of chairs for the guests: his on the right, hers on the left. I spied the cute guy who had been talking to my father, and he gave me a quick wink as a greeting. He was definitely not from these parts, as we say here in Foster’s Landing; the cut of his suit and his shiny black shoes gave him away as someone from the other side. The “old country.” Ireland’s 32. I smiled back and then turned my attention back to Caleigh, making sure my nervous cousin looked like the princess she always wanted to be on her wedding day, fixing her veil, spreading her train out behind her.
I gave her a hug and told her I loved her. Because I did, when all was said and done. We were family, and although we had had a bit of a rocky relationship over the years, I would do anything for Caleigh, even lie and tell her that what she had done two nights before was no big deal. Water under the bridge.
Caleigh smiled at me through her tears and I knew I had calmed her down. No one would know that she really looked like she wanted to vomit right before she stepped out the door of Shamrock Manor and that deep down, as she had confessed to me the night before over a bottle of really cheap white wine—okay, maybe two—she knew that she maybe had cheated on Mark, more than a little bit, just the night before.
Copyright © 2016 Maggie McConnon.
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MAGGIE MCCONNON grew up in New York immersed in Irish culture and tradition. A former Irish stepdancer, she was surrounded by a family of Irish musicians who still play at family gatherings. She credits her Irish grandparents with providing the stories of their homeland and their extended families as the basis for the stories she tells in her Belfast McGrath novels.