Slay Bells Ring

by

Nancy Robards Thompson

It’s one thing to write a mystery, but when your daughter is the suspect — you solve it.

Wedding planner Jenna Bell doesn’t panic when the groom is a no-show to the ceremony – even though he is her former high school sweetheart and this wedding is the small town’s event of the year. However, when he turns up dead and she is falsely accused… well, yeah, now it’s the time to panic.

Jenna’s mother, Maddie, puts her cozy mystery writing skills to use to try to clear her daughter’s name, stepping on by-the-book Chief of Police Jackson Bradley’s toes in the process. No matter how enticing he finds her, he doesn’t want this writer-turned-amateur-sleuth interfering with his murder investigation.

With nearly all of Hemlock, North Carolina, picking sides and the town’s own Gossip Brigade churning out the rumors, Maddie discovers the mystery isn’t very cozy when it hits this close to home.

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~ Jenna ~

“A little to the left,” I say to Alicia Lopez, the assistant manager of my mom’s shop, Blissful Beginnings Bridal Boutique.

Alicia came in early to get a jump on trimming the storefront windows, decking them out for Christmas. I’m standing outside on the sidewalk, helping her with placement of the decorations since my first appointment isn’t until later this afternoon.

I’m an event planner. I operate my newly minted company, Champagne Wedding and Event Designs, out of an office in my mom, Madeline Bell’s, shop.

Alicia pantomimes the question, My left or your left?

I hold up my hands to double check my directions, then point. “Your left.”

She lugs the white and silver mesh reindeer into place between two bridal gowns we’re showcasing amid a backdrop of twinkle lights and shimmery silver snowflakes.

“Perfect!” I say as I rub my hands together in a futile attempt to warm up. My wool coat is no match for the arctic blast that blew in this morning. If the Hemlock Today reporter gets it right, this is the start of a downward winter weather spiral. It’s time to break out the parka.

I’m momentarily distracted from my hypothermia when Alicia flips the master switch and hundreds of white twinkle lights ignite. The sparkle and splendor of the bridal wonderland she has created warms me from the inside out.

“Oh! How pretty,” Mom says as she joins me on the sidewalk in front of the shop.

“Isn’t it?” I say. “Alicia is so creative. Look at the way she’s draped the lights and snowflakes. The twinkling makes it look like falling snow.”

We both sigh at the romantic picture she’s created. Through the window, other gorgeous wedding gowns are visible, but the most beautiful of the lot are featured on sleek white mannequins scattered throughout the store. The other dresses wait on the built-in hanging racks for their perfect bride to discover them. There’s a ballet-pink velvet Victorian chaise longue in the middle of the shop. It’s draped with veils, blingy jewelry, jewel-encrusted shoes, and other accessories. Freestanding full-length mirrors, encased in ornate gold frames, reflect the crystal chandeliers and pale pink walls.

It’s a shop fit for a princess.

“I can’t remember the last time I had a date and this window makes me want to try on bridal gowns,” I say.

“You’re working way too much,” Mom says. “You should be dating. Why aren’t you dating?”

“By the way…” I make a show of looking at my watch. “It’s nice of you to join us this morning, seeing how the shop opens in two minutes.”

“I know. Sorry I’m late. I lost track of time.”

“Too busy flirting with the chief?” I bat my eyes at her.

Mom’s cheeks color. “Jenna, we don’t flirt. He’s just a friend and a good source for the police procedural elements of my books.”

In addition to owning the bridal boutique, Mom is an aspiring cozy mystery writer. She hasn’t published anything yet, but I have faith that she will. She works hard enough. Every morning before she opens the shop, she goes to the Briar Patch Bakery across the street and writes two pages of her book.

Jackson Bradley, Hemlock’s new chief of police, has been an eager expert source. It’s no wonder. Mom is a babe. She looks cute today in her puffer coat and cobalt blue tunic, which she’s paired with black leggings and boots. She’s pulled her dark hair into a low ponytail. It shows off her cheekbones.

“How is Studly Do-Right this morning?” I ask.

“Chief Bradley is fine.” She gives me side-eye and pulls open the shop door.

I follow her inside.

Everyone knows the chief is interested in her.

In all fairness, I don’t know that the chief realizes he’s interested and my mother pretends to be oblivious. I’d love to see her happily in love. Of, course, she doesn’t want to talk about it. Even though it’s been eight years since my dad’s accident, she still considers herself married.

Plus, she’s far more interested in dissecting my nonexistent love life.

“By the way,” she says as she unlocks the cash drawer and puts the day’s money in it. “Mrs. Gott asked me to convey her condolences. She’s devastated that you’re not marrying Riley Buxston.”

She tries to deliver the line with a straight face, but she can’t suppress a laugh when she sees my horrified expression.

“She’s convinced you’re not going to survive the weekend.”

I roll my eyes. Riley Buxston and his fiancée, Grace Marie Taylor, are my clients. They’re getting married tomorrow. Riley and I used to date, but that’s ancient history.

“Why can’t everyone mind their own business?” I ask.

“That’s the beauty of small-town living,” my mother says.

“Why do they assume that I’m torn up? It’s ridiculous. I agreed to plan the wedding. I wasn’t coerced into it. Does the Gossip Brigade think I’d take the job if I was heartbroken?”

“Maybe they think you’re doing it so you can have the inside track for sabotage?” Alicia says as she pulls Windex and paper towels from the cabinet under the wrap stand.

I snort. “That’s a great business plan. A surefire way to grow my client base.” Then I sigh. “I hope the gossip hasn’t gotten back to Grace Marie. I feel so bad for her.”

“Do you think she’s heard?” Alicia asks.

“I hope not,” I say. “This nonsense just started a couple of days ago.”

“Yeah,” Mom says. “Isn’t that when Grace Marie got into town?”

I cringe. “You’re right. Why do people have to act so ugly?”

Since Grace Marie lived in Atlanta until this week, some considered her an outsider, despite Charles and Patricia Buxston pronouncing her good enough for their precious Riley.

The Buxstons were paying for the wedding. It would be an expensive and prestigious event.

Grace Marie’s mother passed away when she was a teenager, and, according to Patricia, the bride’s father doesn’t have the means to throw the type of wedding Patricia wants for her son. So, Patricia and her husband, Charles, opened the vault. The stipulations were that the wedding had to be in Hemlock, not Atlanta; Patricia got final approval of everything, including Grace Marie’s gown; and Grace Marie and Riley had to agree to move to Hemlock.

It was a lot of power to bargain away, but Grace Marie seems to be just as happy to turn over the decision making to Patricia, who has made sure the wedding has all the proper touches. Added bonus, Grace Marie is off to a stellar start in the role of dream daughter-in-law.

At first, I was surprised that Patricia had hired me to plan the wedding—surprised, but grateful—the Taylor-Buxston wedding is Hemlock’s social event of the year.

Soon, I realized that Patricia was making a point. She wanted me to know that this wedding could’ve been mine if I hadn’t broken her darling boy’s heart. It might have been annoying if she hadn’t been so hilariously blatant about it.

“Just two more days and it will be over,” I say. “But, right now, I need to call Patricia and touch base about a couple of things. Or should I call Grace Marie instead? If I sense any awkwardness about the recent gossip, it’ll give me a chance to address it. Wouldn’t it be awful to hear people gossiping about your husband-to-be and his ex-girlfriend? To know people think he should’ve married the ex, not you?”

“It’s a good idea to call her,” Mom says. “Get a read on the situation now so you can be proactive if need be. The good thing is, the Gossip Brigade will settle down after Grace Marie and Riley are married. They’ll move on to something else.”

I’m on my way back to the office to call Grace Marie when the bell on the door jingles.

“You have some explaining to do, Jenna Bell.” Grace Marie’s Southern accent drips venom, and her ice-blue eyes look positively murderous. Tall, athletic Riley slinks in behind her with a hangdog look on his face, as if this is the last place he wants to be but he can’t escape his fiancée’s invisible leash.

Obviously, she’s heard the gossip.

“Good morning, Grace Marie.” My smile feels too bright. “I was just about to call you.”

In my peripheral vision, I catch Mom exchanging a look with Alicia.

“Let’s go into my office where we can talk,” I say to Grace Marie and Riley. Even if there are no other customers in the shop, I do not want my client to pitch a hissy fit on the sales floor.

I’m relieved when Grace Marie and Riley follow me past the racks of billowing tulle, lace, and satin. Grace Marie’s angry footsteps are swallowed by the plush Persian rug that covers the hardwood floors.

“Would you like some coffee?” I offer as I shut the door behind us. The office I share with my mom isn’t as fancy as the shop itself. In addition to our two desks, which are shoehorned in, the room is cluttered with boxes of brochures, complimentary bridal magazines, catalogues, and fabric samples.

Grace Marie wrinkles her pert nose and flounces. “I did not come here for a coffee chat, Jenna.”

Her stylish, long wool coat looks brand new. I wonder if it’s a gift from Patricia. The bloodred color matches her lipstick and is a striking contrast to her blonde hair and ivory complexion. Grace Marie may not come from money, but she is adapting well.

She lowers herself onto one of the chairs across from my desk. That’s when I notice her hands are trembling.

“Grace Marie, what’s wrong?” I ask in my most concerned voice. “How can I help?”

“What’s wrong?” she sputters. “Are you kidding? If you want to help, stay away from my fiancé.”

She’s heard the gossip. Still, I play dumb.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me.” Grace Marie sniffles. Her eyes are brimming. “It’s pretty low for the wedding planner to move in on the groom, don’t you think?”

End of Excerpt