Jenn McKinlay

New York Times Bestselling Author



Chapter One

“Here comes the bride,” Melanie Cooper sang as she held a bouquet of multicolored snapdragons in front of her as if she was walking down the aisle.
“Practicing for your own wedding?” Angie DeLaura asked her.
“No, just yours,” Mel said then she smiled. “For now.”
Best friends since they were twelve years old, it was no surprise that Mel was Angie’s maid of honor as Angie and their other childhood friend Tate Harper would tie the knot in just one week.
Today, Mel and Angie had left Fairy Tale Cupcakes, the bakery they co-owned, in the capable hands of their employees while they ran around town, finalizing payments to vendors and making sure everything was a go for Angie and Tate’s big day. At the moment, they were paying for Angie’s flowers, Calla lilies, with their stems wrapped in aqua and pewter ribbons.
“Annabelle? Hello!” Angie called. She rang the bell on the counter and peered at the back room. “What do you suppose is keeping her?”
“No idea,” Mel said. She admired the brilliant yellow petals on a huge sunflower. So pretty.
“Okay, so after we pay the florist, who’s next?” Angie asked.
Mel put the snapdragons back in their display bucket and checked her smart phone where she kept her to do list updated.
“We need to pay the photographer and the caterer.” She glanced at Angie. “Are you really having them make Jell-O? ‘Because Crème Brulee can never be Jell-O’.”
“’I have to be Jell-O’,” Angie said. For emphasis, she tossed her long, curly brown hair over her shoulder.
“My Best Friend’s Wedding,” they identified the movie quotes together and then laughed.
Since middle school, the three friends, Mel, Angie, and Tate, had shared a love of sweets and movies. Now as adults they tried to stump each other with random movie quotes and in the case of serving Jell-O at their wedding, Angie chose it deliberately. She wanted Tate to know she was his comfort food, his Jell-O, which he had always loved much to Mel’s cordon bleu dismay.
“Do you think we should leave and come back?” Angie asked Mel. “Maybe she’s on her coffee break and forgot to lock the door.”
“Maybe.” Mel frowned. She didn’t want to admit she was starting to get a hinky feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Annabelle Martin’s flower shop sat in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale. Despite the small size of the space, it was full to bursting with blooms, both real and silk, as Annabelle’s talents with flowers was legendary. In Scottsdale, Arizona, a wedding was just not a wedding unless Annabelle did the flowers.
“But even if Annabelle stepped out, why isn’t anyone else here? Doesn’t she have four assistants?” Mel asked.
Angie nodded and Mel saw her big brown eyes get wide and Mel knew she was thinking the same thing that Mel was. Angie swallowed and in a soft voice, she said, “Maybe something happened to her?”
They stared at each other for a moment. Over the past few years, they had suffered the misfortune of stumbling upon several dead bodies. Given that Angie was one week from saying “I do” it would just figure if they found a body now.
“This can’t be happening,” Angie said. “Not now.”
“Don’t panic,” Mel said. She blew her blonde bangs off of her forehead. Being a chef, she kept her hair nice and short to keep it out of the food, because nothing said “Ew” like finding a hair in your frosting.
“Don’t panic?” Angie cried her voice rising up a decibel with each syllable. “Why would I panic? It’s only a week until my wedding, you know, the most important day of my life to date.”
“Breathe.” Mel squeezed Angie’s arm as she scooted past her and around the counter. “I’ll just check in back and make sure everything is okay.”
A curtain was hanging in the doorway to the backroom. She knew from being here before that the backroom housed all of Annabelle’s supplies as well as a kitchenette and her office. It was a tiny space and she had to turn sideways to maneuver through the the packed shelves.
Vases of glass, steel, and copper, baskets, ribbons, glass marbles, florist wire in all sizes and colors, all of it, was stuffed onto the shelves until they looked as if they’d regurgitate the goods right onto the floor.
Mel shimmied her way past until she cleared the shelves and reached the work table in back. A couple dozen purple irises were scattered across a sheaf of floral paper as if someone had just left them out of water and gasping for air.
Annabelle loved flowers, they were her passion. Mel couldn’t imagine that she’d have just left these here to rot. Mel felt the short cropped hair on the back of her neck prickle with unease.
Where was Annabelle? What could have happened to her? Mel closed her eyes for a moment trying to dredge up the courage to circle the table and see if Annabelle was there, lying on the floor, unconscious, bludgeoned, bloody, bleeding out even as Mel stood here shaking like a ‘fraidy cat.
“Hello? Annabelle? Are you here?” Mel called.
There was no answer. She opened her eyes. She was just going to have to see for herself. She took a steadying breath and stepped around the work table. She glanced at the floor. It was bare. The breath she’d been holding burst out of her lungs just as the sound of a toilet flushing broke through the quiet.
Mel whipped around to face the back hallway just as Angie came barreling through the curtain into the backroom.
“Any sign of her?” she asked.
“Maybe,” Mel said. She stared down the hallway, listening to the water running in the bathroom. Please, please, please, let it be…
“Well, doesn’t that just figure?” Annabelle asked as she strode toward them. “It’s quiet all morning and then the second you go to the bathroom someone shows up.”
“You’re okay!” Mel cried. Impulsively, she threw herself at Annabelle’s big boned frame and hugged her tight. “You’re not dead.”
“Oh, honey.” Annabelle hugged her back. “You need to calm down, maybe take a vacation or something.”
Mel let her go with a nervous laugh. “Ha, you’re right. I must be working too hard.”
Annabelle fluffed her close cropped curls and then turned to Angie with a hug and a smile. “And how is our bride? Seven days to go! Are you ready?”
“More than,” Angie said. “I’m excited for the wedding but I’m even more excited to have it over and be Mrs. Tate Harper.”
Annabelle clasped her hands over her heart and sighed. “Of all the events I arrange flowers for wedding are my favorite. Yours aren’t here yet but come on, I’ll show you what I just got in.”
Annabelle scooped up the irises and put them in water and then led them to the front of the shop. While she and Angie oohed and aahed over some of the fresh flowers, Mel took a moment to get herself together. Clearly she had some issues if her first thought when Annabelle hadn’t been available was that she was dead. Seriously, what was wrong with her?
She had been around an inordinate amount of death over the past few years. She wondered if perhaps it was her own fault. Maybe she found all of these bodies, maybe bad things happened all around her, because she went looking for them. The thought disturbed Mel on a lot of levels.
“Did that daisy do something to offend you?” Annabelle asked.
Mel looked at her in question and Annabelle pointed to Mel’s hands where just the stem and one petal were left of an orange gerbera daisy that Mel had been systematically stripping the petals off of without realizing it.
Snatching off the last petal, Mel said, “He loves me. Phew!”
Angie looked at her as if she thought Mel was drunk or crazy or drunk and crazy. Mel shrugged. Annabelle gave her a concerned look and took the stem out of her hands and threw it in the trash.
While Angie paid Annabelle for her flowers, Mel picked up the petals and then paced up by the front of the shop. She didn’t trust herself not to destroy any of the lovely arrangements and kept her hands in her pockets just in case.
With a wave, they left Annabelle and her flowers to head to the photographer’s studio. It was across Scottsdale Road, on a small side street, nestled in amongst the trendy restaurants and art galleries.
“Okay, what gives?” Angie asked as soon as the door shut behind them.
“What?” Mel asked.
Angie widened her eyes and said, “Come on, you know what. You started shredding flowers in there. What was that all about?”
“Nothing. I just had this random thought,” Mel said. “It was silly.”
“Good then you won’t mind sharing.”
Mel pursed her lips. Angie was a badger. There was no way she was getting out of this.
“Fine, if you must know—“
“I must.”
They paused at the corner to wait for the crossing light.
“I just thought it was weird that my first instinct when Annabelle wasn’t readily available was that she’d been murdered. I mean that’s weird, right?”
Angie squinted at her. “There’s more isn’t there?”
Mel blew out a breath. “Okay, it also occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, the fact that I am always looking for something bad to have happened is what makes it happen.”
The light turned and the walk signal lit up. Angie opened her mouth to speak, closed it, then took Mel’s arm and pulled her across the street.
Once they stepped onto the curb, she looked at Mel and said, “Now that is nuts.”
“Is it?” Mel asked. “I mean isn’t there a whole philosophy that says whatever you put out there comes back to you.”
“So, you think that by putting out thoughts of dead bodies or worst case scenarios that’s what makes them happen?”
“Yeah, maybe, no, I don’t know.”
“Listen, we’ve definitely had some crazy stuff happen to us since we opened the bakery but don’t you think that it’s because we work in a service industry with a whole lot of different people with all sorts of bad and good things happening in their lives?” Angie asked. “I mean, how many weddings, birthdays, retirement parties, etc., have we baked cupcakes for and nothing bad has happened? Quite the opposite, in fact, the person has had the greatest day ever.”
She began walking and Mel fell into step beside her.
“You’re right,” she said. “Maybe I just have a little post traumatic stress going because the bad when it’s bad is so very bad.”
Angie nodded. “I’m sure that’s it, but since my wedding is coming up in a matter of days, why don’t we just hedge our bets and you just keep picturing happy things in that head of yours.”
“Like puppies and kittens?”
“Yeah, or go big with unicorns and glitter bombs,” Angie suggested.
Mel laughed. Angie was right. She needed to chillax. Probably, she was just nervous about the wedding. She was maid of honor, after all, which carried a lot of responsibility. Not that she thought Angie would pull a runner, but it was Mel’s job to get her to the church on time, dressed appropriately, and to be prepared to crack some skulls if anyone interfered with her best friend’s wedding.
“Okay, glittery unicorns it is,” Mel said.
“That’s my girl.” Angie paused in front of the photographer’s studio, pulling out her phone to check the time. Mel glanced over her shoulder and noted that they were right on schedule. Excellent.
Blaise Ione, the photographer, was a friend of Tate’s from his days in high school marching band. After graduation, Blaise had gone to art school and lived in New York City for several years, but when his aging mother needed him, he had come home to Scottsdale to be nearby.
Blaise was a hardcore hipster and wore his short hair bleached white and paired it with his large Andy Warhol glasses, striped skinny pants, and pointy toed shoes. He was exuberant, enthusiastic, and always made Mel laugh. She knew the wedding was safe in Blaise’s hands.
Although it was a small space, Blaise made the most of it with huge portraits decorating the black walls, and mid-century modern furniture that made a statement as well as being a place to sit. Mel studied one of the chairs through the window that looked to be molded out of cement. The statement she got was ‘this is uncomfortable so move along’, which knowing Blaise was exactly what he wanted it to say.
Angie pulled open the door and a gong sounded somewhere in the back of the space. Leave it to Blaise to have an unconventional door chime.
“Blaise? Hello?” Angie called out.
Mel moved toward the wall to study the portraits. Blaise had done Tate and Angie’s engagement pictures and they were spectacular, managing to capture the long time friendship that had morphed into romantic love between the couple.
Mel’s favorite shot had been taken in black and white in an old movie theater with Tate and Angie sharing a bucket of popcorn, the red and white stripes on the bucket were the only pop of color in the photo, as they gazed at each other with all the love in their hearts. It made Mel water up every time she saw it.
Oh, and here it was on the wall! Blaise had added it to his display. Mel felt her throat get tight.
“Oh, hey, I didn’t know he was going to put that up,” Angie said as she joined her. “That’s my favorite.”
“Mine, too,” Mel said. “Wow, it keeps hitting me that in a few days, you’ll be married to Tate.”
“I know, right?” Angie grinned. “Say it again, it makes me dizzy.”
“In a few days, you’ll be married to Tate.” Mel laughed and hugged her friend close. “I am so happy for you both.”
“Thanks,” Angie said. “Man, I can’t believe I spent all those years thinking he was in love with you.”
“Idiot.” Mel’s voice was teasing when she said it and Angie laughed and said, “Yep.”
They sighed and then glanced around the studio. There was no sign of Blaise. They glanced at each other and Mel shrugged.
“Blaise, hello,” Angie cried out. “It’s Angie, your favorite bride.”
Silence greeted them. Mel felt the hair on the back of her neck begin to prickle. No, no, no! She wasn’t doing that again. She pictured a unicorn prancing through the studio. It didn’t really help.
“Probably, he’s in the bathroom,” she said.
“Yeah,” Angie agreed. “I’ll just poke my head in the back.”
“Okay,” Mel said. Under her breath, she began to chant, “Unicorns and glitter, unicorns and glitter, come on, unicorns and glitter.”
Angie got halfway to the back and turned around. “Come with me.”
Mel nodded. She followed Angie to Blaise’s office in the back corner. It had no windows that looked into the studio just a door painted with black chalkboard paint where people could scrawl messages for him. Several messages in different colored chalk were there now, including one in bright blue that listed Angie’s name and the time, so he had been expecting them.
Angie knocked on the door. There was no answer. She rapped again. Still, nothing. She reached down and grasped the handle, turning it and pushing in the door.
The office was a cluttered mess with papers and proof sheets and pop art tchotchkes littering every surface. A life-sized self portrait of Blaise was on the wall opposite and Mel almost greeted the picture instead of the man.
“Blaise, hey, are you napping on the job or what?” Angie asked.
Blaise was in his office chair, with his back to them as he faced his very large computer screen. The screen saver was on and the pattern was undulating all over the display. Mel followed it for a second but then realized that Blaise sitting in front of the computer while the screen saver was on was wrong. So wrong!
“Blaise!” she cried.
She stepped around Angie into the room to get a look at the photographer. He was sitting upright, staring at the computer with vacant eyes, his lips tinged with a faint shade of blue. Mel reached out to touch his hand. It was icy cold. There was no pulse. No rise and fall to his chest.
Blaise Ione was dead.