Marriage, Merlot & Murder – Gemma Halliday

“Everything has to be perfect,” I muttered to myself for what was probably the hundredth time that day. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was prepping Oak Valley Vineyards, my family’s small winery in Sonoma, to host our first wedding since I’d taken over its management. While I’d been lucky enough in the last few months to book a couple of private parties at our large outdoor venue overlooking the picturesque vineyard—and even most recently hosted a Food and Wine Festival—I can’t say that any of the events thus far had gone off without a hitch. Or ended up bringing in the kind of revenue that Oak Valley sorely needed to avoid being gobbled up by the corporate giants of the region. But I had hope that our future as a wedding venue looked rosy, as the first couple in over a decade to rent our space for their nuptials would be arriving for their final walk-through and rehearsal. Hope I tried to hold on to as I glanced at my prerehearsal checklist. Table linens for the reception—check. Centerpieces arrived—check. Chairs set up for the outdoor ceremony—check. “You okay, Emmy?” my best friend, Ava Barnett, asked, leaning on the bar top in our tasting room. “Sure, why?” “You’re muttering to yourself again.” Ava grinned at me. I couldn’t help smiling back. Ava had known me since childhood, and if anything could counteract my nerves, it was her optimistic spirit and easy-going vibe. Both of us being only children in our families, we’d been more like sisters than just friends, some saying we even looked alike.

Though, while we were both the same age (twenty-nine. Ish.), Ava’s long blonde hair had a thickness and shine to it, while mine tended more toward frizzy or, on a good day, wavy with a chance of curls. Ava was also a few pounds lighter than I was, due to her love of the outdoors and my love of all things chocolate and/or bacon–covered. And while my style was usually more jeans and T-shirts, Ava always looked fresh and fashionable in her collection of boho dresses and skirts. Today’s outfit: a long, semi-sheer floral skirt paired with an opaque mini underneath and an off-the-shoulder blouse that looked both easy and elegant at the same time. Ava had graciously offered to take the day off from running her downtown shop, Silver Girl, where she sold her handmade jewelry creations, to help me prep the winery for the big day. “I just want everything to be perfect,” I told her in defense of my muttering. “I know. And it will be.

The bride and groom wouldn’t have booked your space for their ceremony if they didn’t love it,” she reasoned. “And what’s not to love? A wedding at a charming hillside vineyard in the heart of Wine Country is something that most girls only dream about.” Her smile widened. “This is a total fairy tale scenario.” “As long as you don’t mean one of the Grimm Brothers’ variety,” I countered, stooping to pick up a broken piece of cork off the floor behind the bar. “We have less than an hour to finish putting up the decorations before the wedding party gets here.” “Which Conchita is already working on,” Ava reminded me. “But the altar still needs some last minute adjustments,” I added. “Which Hector promised he would do in the morning,” Ava responded. “And what about the Eddie Factor?” Ava grinned.

“You got me there. There’s nothing I can do about the Eddie Factor.” Eddie Bliss was my lovable but completely inept winery manager who, no matter the occasion, always seemed to break, drop, or spill something. I made a mental note to keep him busy elsewhere when our guests made their arrivals. Like possibly Alaska. “But,” Ava offered, “maybe I can have him help Jean Luc with the—” “Stop right zere, mademoiselle!” I looked up to find Jean Luc, my sommelier, emerge from the back door as if on command. He was tall, slim, and wore a sculpted black mustache to rival any cartoon villain’s. “Zee Eddie is to be nowhere near zee pouring during zee event!” he said, his French accent thick. “You have my word,” I assured him quickly. “But the bride and groom will be here soon, and I’ll need them to confirm that we have their order correct before the reception tomorrow.

Could you grab the bottles from the cellar that we talked about yesterday?” I asked, mentally checking off the next item on my list. “Of course.” He bent forward in a slight bow that bordered on comical, though his mustache twitched as he walked away. “Though I still zeenk it’s a travesty that zey want to pair Pinot Noir with zee lobster,” he muttered under his breath, just loud enough for me to hear. “A Chardonnay would be much better.” I felt my mouth curve into a smile again as I watched him go. Having grown up in the Bordeaux region of France, my sommelier knew his wine pairings better than most guests—possibly even better than I did, though I had been trained by the CIA. (Though, not that CIA. The Culinary Institute of America.) “He’s not wrong,” I said, winking at Ava.

“But it’s what the groom requested.” And considering we were in the low-to-no tourist season here in Sonoma, when many small wineries went from struggling to belly up, whatever the guests wanted, the guests got! Case in point: the decor the bride had requested, going with a floral fairy tale theme that had been a challenge to pull off in Northern California in the winter. I’d had to enlist the help of no less than three local florists to find “spring” flowers in January. While Jean Luc was in The Cave, as my grandmother had affectionately dubbed our wine cellar, Ava, Conchita, and I made quick work of the few remaining items on my list, ensuring that every wisteria garland, tulip bouquet, and calla lily cascade was perfectly placed. I was just setting the last centerpiece on one of the tables when I heard tires crunching the gravel in the parking lot outside. “They’re here!” Ava exclaimed, her blue eyes wide with excitement. She scurried around one of the reception tables to peer out the window. I didn’t respond, too busy trying to quash the nerves bundling in my stomach. I risked a quick peek in the mirror behind the bar counter to check my reflection. My own blonde strands were a bit on the frizzy side today, and I found myself wishing I had a brush handy.

I quickly combed through a few tangles with my fingers and rubbed away a small smudge of mascara beneath one of my pale blue eyes. A quick smile showed me that my lipstick thankfully hadn’t smeared on my teeth. So I at least had that going for me. Here we go, I thought as I turned away from the mirror. I took a deep breath to ease the tightening sensation in my chest. Then I squared my shoulders and pasted a wide smile on my face as I marched out into the bright afternoon sun to greet my clients. Two cars had pulled to a stop in the gravel lot at the top of our oak tree–lined drive. A distinguished looking older gentleman climbed out of the driver’s side of the first car, a shiny black Mercedes. The man was tall but thick around the middle, with a full head of silver hair and dark eyes that crinkled at the corners as he squinted in the sunlight. He stepped around to the passenger side and held out his hand to a woman with sandy blonde hair in an elegant, knee-length black dress and pearls.

Based on their sophisticated appearance, I presumed they were Mr. and Mrs. Somersby, the bride-to-be’s parents. Parked next to the Mercedes was a flashy red Jaguar. Four figures climbed out of the little sports car to join the middle-aged couple in the gravel lot. Though I’d never seen the tall man and the woman who seemed engrossed in her phone who emerged from the back seat, I did recognize the man with dark, slicked back hair who slid out from behind the driver’s seat, as well as the pretty, slimwaisted brunette in a lacy, cream-colored dress who came to stand next to him. She took his hand with one of hers and waved cheerfully to me with the other. “Hi, Emmy,” the brunette called, flashing me a bright smile. I returned her wave. “Hi, Juliet,” I replied with the same enthusiasm.

Alfred Campbell and Juliet Somersby were the bride- and groom-to-be, and their happiness this weekend was my top priority. Money aside, it was a true pleasure to help the young woman celebrate her big day. In my interactions with Juliet leading up to this weekend, I’d found her to be sweet, genuine, and the complete opposite of the bridezillas I had originally feared when venturing into weddings. She was classically beautiful in a way that reminded me of Anne Hathaway, with shoulder-length brown hair, long lashes, and wide doe eyes, and while I knew her trust fund meant she’d never had to work a day in her life, she served on the board of several charities, her latest being a project to help provide warm clothing during the winter months to the homeless in San Francisco. Juliet’s bubbly personality and excitement for her nuptials were infectious, and I couldn’t help but grin as the happy woman pulled her fiancé toward me from across the parking lot. Ava stood next to me as the engaged couple and their guests closed the gap between us. “I can’t believe the big day is finally here,” Juliet said, her tone giddy. She released her man’s hand and stepped forward to give me a hug. “Thank you for everything, Emmy. I just know that tomorrow is going to be perfect.

” That made one of us. “No thanks necessary,” I told her. “It’s worth it just to see the smile on your face.” Of course, the check that would soon be hitting my bank account didn’t hurt, either—especially since it would allow me to make payroll for another month. “I hope you’ll recommend Oak Valley Vineyards to your friends whenever they’re ready to walk down the aisle,” I added. “Of course we will.” Juliet beamed at me. She turned and swept her arm toward the older man and woman. “Emmy, these are my parents, Edward and Meredith Somersby.” I stood up a little straighter as I regarded the older couple.

They were footing the bill for the weekend’s festivities, so I wanted to make a good impression. As I’d learned from Juliet, the Somersbys hailed from Atherton, an exclusive area just south of San Francisco that dripped with old money. Edward’s grandfather, Joseph Somersby, had founded a chain of luxury hotels that spanned the West Coast, which was why it had come as a surprise that Edward’s only daughter, Juliet, had chosen to book her ceremony at my vineyard instead of one of their several locations that boasted breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. Not that I was complaining, of course—locking in a highprofile family like the Somersbys for Oak Valley Vineyards’ debut wedding was sure to attract the attention of more potential clients. As long as everything goes well, that anxious voice in the back of my head reminded me for the fiftieth time. I ignored my doubtful inner monologue and offered Mr. and Mrs. Somersby what I hoped was a cordial smile. “I’m so pleased to meet you both. I’m Emmeline Oak, owner of the Oak Valley Vineyards.

You can call me Emmy.” I shook Edward’s hand when he offered it. “A pleasure,” he said stiffly. Mr. Somersby squinted at the Spanish style buildings behind us that made up the main inner workings of the winery. They’d originally been built by my greatgrandfather, but generations since had added on and improved here and there. Edward nodded to himself as if indicating that the venue’s appearance met his approval. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to see where my money’s going,” he told me, lifting his chin. “Can you give us a quick tour of your establishment?” “I’d be delighted,” I replied, nodding politely. I’d spent my childhood playing in the old building with its tanned façade, stone accents, and a tiled terra cotta roof, and I was proud to call it both my place of business and my home.

I gestured to Ava, who was still standing beside me. “First, I’d like for you to meet my friend and associate, Ava Barnett. She’ll be serving as my assistant wedding planner this weekend. We’re here to make this a memorable experience for your whole family, so if there’s anything at all that we can do for you between now and tomorrow’s festivities, please don’t hesitate to ask.” “Nice to meet you all.” Ava gave the group a friendly wave. “Congratulations, Juliet and Alfred,” she said, offering the younger couple a bright smile. “The pleasure is all mine.” The groom flashed a blindingly white smile Ava’s way. “You can call me Freddie.

” He took Ava’s hand and pumped it up and down, his grip on her fingers lingering just a tad longer than might have been necessary. I tried not to judge the groom too quickly. Most of my dealings had been with Juliet, and I’d only had the opportunity to meet Freddie Campbell a couple of times—both of which had been brief. He was classically tall, dark, and handsome, but beyond that I knew very little about him or his background. Juliet had said he was some sort of entrepreneur, but it was all kind of vague. Freddie released Ava from his grip and took a step back, sweeping his arm toward the other man who had arrived in the Jaguar with Juliet and him. “This is my best man, Baker Evans.” Baker was a few inches shorter than Freddie and quite a few pounds heavier—a fact accentuated by his round features and small, dark eyes set behind thick glasses. His dress shirt strained against his belly, his dark hair shaggy in a way that spoke of the need for a haircut more than a fashion choice, and his nose sat slightly crooked in a face that was marked with the scars of teenage acne. He gave Ava and me a curt nod and a shy smile.

Next to him, the final member of their party, a woman with short black hair in a stylish pixie cut and a phone that seemed attached to her hand like an appendage, cleared her throat and looked impatiently at Freddie. The groom’s polished smile lost some of its sparkle. “And this is Natalie,” he added, his tone going just a tad flat. “Natalie Weisman,” the woman said, stepping forward to shake first my hand and then Ava’s. “I’m Freddie’s cousin. And I’m also one of Juliet’s bridesmaids,” she emphasized, nodding toward Juliet. “I told Jules here that if Freddie was really going to throw in the towel on bachelorhood and settle down, I want a front row seat.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Juliet stiffen. Edward and Meredith also stared at the woman in silent disapproval. I had the impression that the Somersbys weren’t fans of Freddie’s outspoken cousin—not that it seemed to bother the woman.

Natalie continued to look at Juliet with a taunting smile. “Poor Julesy. Doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into with this one.” “Well, then,” I said, hoping to break the sudden tension in the air. “Now that we’re all acquainted, Ava and I will walk you around the property before the rest of the wedding party arrives for the rehearsal. Right this way, please.” I motioned for the group to follow me into the tasting room. Ava and I spent the next forty-five minutes escorting the engaged couple and their entourage around Oak Valley. We showed Juliet the rooms where she and her bridesmaids would do their hair and makeup for the ceremony, as well as several of the more scenic locations around the property that were perfect for taking wedding photos. My ten-acre plot of land boasted a breathtaking view of the countryside and also featured a charming terrace courtyard in the back that was bordered by thriving rose bushes.

Despite the dismal state of our finances, I was proud of how well Hector had managed to maintain the landscaping. I was hoping that tomorrow I could convince the wedding photographer to cut me a deal on a few promotional images of the property to post on our website and social media pages. “Ooh!” Juliet squealed when we stepped out onto the second-floor balcony, which overlooked the vineyard, bathed this time of year in warm hues of orange and gold. She squeezed Freddie’s hand. “We have to do some pictures up here! I feel like I’m in a scene from a romantic movie.” She exhaled a happy sigh. “The view is absolutely breathtaking.” “Breathtaking,” Freddie agreed smoothly. Though I couldn’t help but notice that the only “scenic view” he was taking in was that of Ava’s backside as she leaned on the railing. I wasn’t the only one who noticed the groom’s wandering eye.

I flicked a glance toward Edward Somersby and found him scowling at his soon-to-be son-in-law. Behind him, Freddie’s cousin, Natalie, smirked at the groom. “Yoo-hoo!” A man’s lilting voice echoed up the stairs from the tasting room. “Is there a blushing bride in the house?” Juliet’s eyes lit up. “Andrew!” She released Freddie’s hand and started across the balcony, heading for the stairs that led back down to the first floor. “The rest of the wedding party must be here,” she called over her shoulder. I checked my watch. The rehearsal was scheduled to begin in twenty minutes. “Perhaps we should head outside to the ceremony space?” I suggested. I followed Juliet toward the stairs, and the others trailed after us.

A tall man with red hair and freckles was leaning against the tasting room bar. At the sight of him, Juliet shrieked and skipped across the room to fling her arms around his neck. “I’m so glad you finally made it!” she cooed. “Dahling, I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” the newcomer told her, his voice laced with a slow drawl. “Can you believe I’m getting married tomorrow?” Juliet giggled. The man sent a glance over Juliet’s shoulder, his gaze settling on Freddie as the rest of us walked toward him. His brows bunched. “No, baby girl. I really cannot,” he replied, and I thought I detected a hint of disdain in his tone. Juliet released the man and turned around to face the rest of us.

“Emmy, this is Andrew Phillips, one of my best friends from college. He’s—” Her forehead wrinkled. “You know, I’m not really sure what to call him. He’s not exactly a bridesmaid.” She giggled. I closed the gap between us and shook Andrew’s hand. “Nice to meet you. I believe the official term for a man in the bride’s party is the bride’s attendant or bridesman,” I explained. I glanced at Freddie and his best man, Baker. “Though, I do know that all the men in a wedding party were originally referred to as bridesknights.

” To prepare for my role as wedding planner for the weekend, I’d pored over a few chapters of a book about wedding history and traditions, and I’d gleaned several interesting tidbits. “I think I’ll stick with groomsman, thanks,” Baker said. Andrew grinned. “Oh, not me, honey. I’ll be a knight. Very medieval chic.” “How about a toast before we head outside for the rehearsal?” Freddie suggested. He looked at me. “You have champagne?” “Of course.” I nodded to Jean Luc, who was stationed behind the bar, and made a mental head count of the group.

“Seven glasses, I believe.” “Oui,” Jean Luc agreed and pulled several slim flutes down from our glass fronted cabinets. Fortunately, we’d chilled several bottles of champagne in preparation for the wedding party to arrive. While I was excited to showcase our own varietals at the dinner, I knew bubbly was the toasting beverage of choice for the occasion and had purchased several cases from a local winery who specialized in sparkly wines. Once Jean Luc had the glasses poured, I quickly distributed one to each person in attendance. Andrew gave a low whistle of appreciation as I moved through the group, his gaze fixed on Jean Luc. “Speaking of knights, I think I just found my Prince Charming.” He leaned close to my ear. “Who is that Hottie McTottie in the tight pants?” he asked, inclining his head toward the Frenchman. I stifled a laugh.

“That’s Jean Luc Gasteon,” I replied. “He’s our sommelier.” “French and a hottie.” Andrew licked his lips and reached over to grab Juliet’s arm. “Girl, is he just my type or what?” “He is cute,” Juliet agreed. I didn’t have the heart to tell Andrew that he wasn’t Jean Luc’s type, which, from what I had gathered, was waifish French women with refined palettes and an appreciation for a good glass of Bordeaux. I handed Andrew his champagne and then offered a flute to Juliet. She held up her hand and politely waved me off. “Oh, no thank you,” she said, giving me a demure smile. “I really shouldn’t.

” “Why not?” Natalie teased. “Do you already have a bun in the oven?” She eyed Freddie, a wicked grin curving her lips. “What do they call that, cuz—a shotgun wedding?” Juliet tensed, and her smile evaporated. “No—it’s nothing like that,” she stammered, sounding embarrassed. “It’s just that I’m a total lightweight, and I want to have a clear head for tomorrow.” She dropped her gaze to her feet, frowning. “Give her a break, cuz,” Freddie said, admonishing his cousin. He placed a protective arm around his bride-to-be. Luckily her tension seemed to drain at his touch. I glanced at the Somersbys, who’d been silent throughout the exchange.

Edward was still scowling, and Meredith wore the same placid expression she’d had since exiting her Mercedes. What either of them was thinking was a mystery. “Perhaps we should say a few words to our friends and family,” Freddie said, addressing the room. He beamed in the faces of his future in-laws’ stoic presence. “What a good idea,” Juliet agreed, her smile back in place as she stared up at her groom. “Thank you all for being here with Juliet and me as we begin this happy new chapter of our lives together,” Freddie began. He glanced at his fiancée before returning his attention to the others. “We’re both honored that you’ve chosen to bear witness to the commitment that we’re making tomorrow. So, let’s raise a glass to all of you.” The members of the little group lifted their drinks—everyone except Edward Somersby.

He continued to frown at the groom while the others clinked glasses and then took sips of their champagne. Freddie took a long pull from his own glass and then set it down on the bar. He turned to Juliet and gently gripped her face with one hand, tilting it upward to so that she was looking at him. “After tomorrow, it’s just you and me, babe,” he said, kissing her lightly on the lips. “Nothing is going to stand in the way of our happy ending.” CHAPTER TWO “Emmy? Are you in there?” Ava’s voice accompanied the soft knock on my office door the next morning. I quickly finished applying my lipstick and checked for loose strands of my hair, which was pulled back in a sleek, professional-looking bun. Rising from my desk chair, I smoothed a wrinkle in my purple silk blouse and tucked the bottom into my gray pencil skirt. Then I hurried over to the door and opened it. “What do you think?” I asked Ava as I let her into the room.

“Does this outfit say ‘awesome wedding planner’?” I held up my headset and clipboard as I twirled around in a slow circle. She grinned. “Girl, it screams it,” she said, giving me a thumbs-up. “You look fab.” “Thanks.” I beamed at her and then turned back to the desk and grabbed a second headset, which I held out to Ava. “I got one for you, too. You’ll need it so we can communicate during the ceremony and reception.” “So official.” She took the earpiece from my outstretched hand and offered me a latte in its place.

“Okay, boss lady,” Ava joked, “put me to work. Let’s get this wedding party started!” I sent her to wait out front for the servers we’d hired for the reception dinner to arrive while I made my way to the rooms where the bridal party was getting dressed. According to the schedule I’d printed for myself (and that I’d already triple checked, of course), the ceremony was set to begin shortly, and I wanted to make sure Juliet had everything she needed before she walked down the aisle. “Juliet, it’s Emmy,” I said, knocking softly on the door. “Can I come in?” “Sure,” she called in response. I turned the doorknob. “I just wanted to see how everything was coming along—” I stopped short when my gaze landed on the bride, who was standing with her back to me as she faced the floorlength mirror on the opposite wall. Juliet was a picture of elegance in her sleeveless white gown with tiny pearl beads and feathered accents woven into the bodice. Her dark hair was braided and pinned back in an elegant updo, secured with a pearl encrusted barrette. Even her makeup was flawless.

“Wow. You look gorgeous,” I told her, and I meant it. Juliet beamed at me through the mirror. “Thank you.” Twin spots of rosy color appeared on her cheeks. “I feel like a princess,” she added with a giggle. “And you look like one too, baby girl,” Andrew cooed from beside her. Juliet continued to stand still while Andrew and one of the bridesmaids tied the silk ribbons on the back of her dress. In the opposite corner of the room, Natalie was seated on the black leather loveseat, looking disinterested as she sipped a mimosa and scrolled on her phone. Andrew finished tying one of the ribbons and then straightened, glancing at the self-absorbed woman in the pixie cut.

He gave me a dramatic eye roll. “Clearly we’ve been all hands on deck here getting ready.” I grinned, though Andrew’s sarcasm seemed to be lost on Juliet as she nodded enthusiastically. “Mom and Dad were both in earlier too—they wanted to see the dress before the ceremony.” I checked my watch. “The bridal party should begin lining up for the wedding procession in about five minutes,” I told Juliet and her entourage. I met her gaze through the mirror. “I’ll go find your father and make sure he’s ready to walk you down the aisle.” “Perfect! We’ll be outside in just a few minutes,” she promised as I slipped out of the room. I made my way over to the meadow where the ceremony was to be held, behind the winery’s main building.

Hector Villarreal, my vineyard manager, had built a gorgeous wooden gazebo for the occasion, placing it at the far side of the meadow, with the backdrop of the vine covered hills behind it. The entrance to the structure was decorated with garlands made of delicate white flowers and bright green vines, and several dozen white folding chairs were set up to face the ethereal scene. We’d worked hard to create a picturesque location for the ceremony, and I had to say, the end product was not too shabby. Guests had already begun to arrive. Some had taken their seats, while others milled about and greeted one another. I spotted Edward and Meredith Somersby standing among the crowd, chatting amiably with another couple near the back row of folding chairs. As I walked up the stone path toward them, I navigated around several guests starting to trickle toward their seats as the big moment neared. In fact, one tall man with sandy blonde hair practically ran into me, his eyes so focused on the phone in his hand he barely noticed me. “Sorry,” he mumbled, gaze shifting from me to the screen in rapid succession. “No problem,” I told him, mentally rolling my own eyes at how attached to their screens some people were.

I said a silent prayer that he at least put it away during the ceremony. One thing I could not control would be a trilling cell phone in the audience as the bride and groom said their nuptials. I tried not to let that thought stir up a new bundle of nerves as I approached the Somersbys. “Sorry to interrupt,” I said, going for a courteous tone as I reached the couple, who were still engaged in a conversation with a pair of guests. “But it’s almost time for the ceremony to begin.” I met Edward’s gaze. “Would you mind following me to meet up with the bride?” Mr. Somersby nodded. “Of course.” He placed his hand on the small of his wife’s back and leaned over to give her a peck on the cheek.

Then he bid farewell to the man and woman they’d been chatting with and turned away, falling into step beside me. “Are you ready to give your daughter away?” I asked in an effort to make small talk. Edward scowled. “To Freddie? Not at all.” He sighed. “But I suppose I don’t have much of a choice in the matter, do I?” I paused, not quite sure how to answer that question. “She seems very much in love with him,” I said carefully. His expression softened. “I know. I just want my little girl to be happy.

” “Well, she appears very happy,” I said, hoping to ease some of his uncertainty. “I just saw her a few minutes ago in the bridal suite, and she was practically glowing.” “She usually is.” Edward beamed. “My Juliet is an angel.” My heart warmed. It was clear the man truly loved his daughter. We fell silent as we passed the three groomsmen, in their matching gray tuxes, making their way to line up beside the pastor at the entrance to the gazebo—Baker and two men who’d been introduced to me the previous day as old high school friends of Freddie’s. I found Natalie, Andrew, and the two other bridesmaids—one a petite blonde and the other a slender brunette with a chin-length bob and blunt bangs—grouped together under a sprawling oak tree just outside the main building. The women were dressed in sleeveless chiffon gowns in a gorgeous plum color, and Andrew wore a silk shirt of the same deep purple hue with gray dress pants and a matching gray bowtie.

He was helping the bridesmaid with the bob with last minute adjustments to the flower pinned in her hair, and Natalie was engrossed in something on her phone, fingers typing away as she generally ignored her surroundings. Juliet glided up behind the others just as Edward and I reached them. He beamed with pride as he wrapped his daughter in a warm embrace. “Are you sure you want to go through with this, pumpkin?” I heard him ask in a low voice. “There’s still time to change your mind. Your mother and I would support your decision, of course.” “Stop it, Daddy!” Juliet pulled away and gave him a playful slap on the arm. “Of course I’m sure. I’ve been waiting for this day my whole life.” Her brown eyes shone with excitement.

“I’m about to marry the man of my dreams.” Edward gave a small grunt in response, though it didn’t sound exactly approving. “Emmy.” Ava’s voice crackled in my ear. “Excuse me,” I said to Juliet and her father, taking a step away from the group before I answered. “I’m here,” I replied into the headset, adjusting it so that I could hear her better. “What’s up?” “Small snag.” Those nerves I’d been trying to squelch all day came back full force. “How small is small?” I asked in a hushed tone. I glanced to the bride and her father, who were waiting impatiently.

“Can you meet me by the tasting room entrance?” she asked, the urgency in her voice not making me feel any better. “I’m on my way,” I told her. I pulled the headset down around my neck as I walked back over to Juliet and the others. “I just need to run to the tasting room for a moment to check on something,” I said, keeping my tone even. “Is everything okay?” Juliet asked, a frown forming between her slim eyebrows. I pasted on my most reassuring smile. “Of course. Just dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s,” I said with maybe a little too much chipperness to be believed. Edward Somersby frowned at me. Then again, I was starting to think it was his default expression.

“I’ll be back before the ceremony begins,” I promised and then quickly hurried away before anyone could question me further. I spotted Ava as soon as I rounded the corner to the tasting room entrance. She was waiting for me in the doorway, leaning against the threshold and nervously tugging at a strand of her blonde hair. “What’s wrong?” I asked, though I was afraid to hear the answer. Ava chewed her lip. “Just promise you won’t freak out, okay?” “Words like that don’t exactly inspire calm or confidence,” I replied, feeling my palms grow sweaty. A dozen worst case scenarios crashed through my head. “Did the photographer not show up? Did the band cancel?” “No.” Ava quickly shook her head. “The photographer is here, and the band is unloading their gear in the parking lot.

” She sucked in a breath. “But I can’t find the groom.” I closed my eyes and thought a dirty word. “Please tell me you’re joking.” “I wish I were.” She grimaced. “Emmy, I’ve looked practically everywhere, but I can’t find him.” “I saw the groomsmen taking their places. He’s not with them?” She shook her head. I frowned, mentally chastising his best man for not keeping better tabs on Freddie.

“You tried calling him?” I asked, flipping through the pages on my clipboard until I found the contact sheet that contained the phone numbers for every member of the wedding party. “Several times,” Ava responded. “And?” I asked, punching the number into my own phone just for good measure. “Goes straight to voicemail.” I pursed my lips together, listening to my phone give me the same results. “He’s probably got it shut off for the ceremony,” I reasoned. “Smart. If he was at the ceremony,” Ava pointed out. “He’s not in the groomsmen’s room? Maybe making last minute adjustments?” She shook her head. “First place I looked.

He’s also not at the bar downing liquid courage, not greeting guests, and not at the altar next to his best man like he’s supposed to be.” I could hear the growing concern in her voice that matched my own feelings as I remembered his wandering eye the day before. “You don’t think he could have done a runner, do you?” I asked, hating to even voice the thought out loud. Ava bit her lip. “I thought of that, but his car is still here.” She hiked her thumb over her shoulder toward the parking lot. “Then he’s got to be here somewhere,” I concluded. Ava’s brow pinched. “What do you want me to do?” I swallowed. “All right. Let’s just try to stay calm and figure out where he went,” I said. I closed my eyes and took a few cleansing breaths. “Okay, go fetch the best man,” I instructed Ava. “And then stall the ceremony for as long as you can. I don’t want the bride to suspect that anything is wrong.” “Got it.” Ava gave a quick nod and took off around the corner. I entered the tasting room and nervously paced the floor as I waited for her to return with Baker Evans. I prayed Freddie would not leave that poor girl at the altar. I couldn’t bear the thought of how heartbroken Juliet would be if he’d decided to bail on her at the last minute. After a few minutes that felt like an eternity, Baker finally poked his head through the doorway. “Your assistant said you wanted to see me, Miss Oak?” “Yes, please. Come in,” I told him. “Is there some sort of delay?” he asked, glancing at his watch as he stepped fully into the room. His gray suit was a tad too tight for his frame, and his hair had been slicked back from his face in a way that only served to accentuate his round features. “Uh, sort of,” I hedged. “Have you seen Freddie?” I asked, trying not to sound as frantic as I felt. He shook his head. “No—not since I left the bed and breakfast a couple hours ago.” “A couple hours ago?” I blurted out, the franticness starting to rise. “You mean he never showed up at the groomsmen’s room at all?” Baker had the good grace to look sheepish. “I know it’s kinda in my job description to keep tabs on the groom, but when I left he said he’d be right behind me.” “A couple hours ago,” I emphasized. He shrugged. “I figured he just needed a little alone time before taking the plunge, right?” He grinned at me as if I was in on the joke. “Right.” I forced down the lump of panic that filled my throat. “So, you haven’t seen him at all since you arrived at the winery?” “No.” Baker frowned. “Why?” I inhaled slowly and then pushed it back out. “We’re having trouble locating him,” I admitted. The frown deepened. “You mean he’s missing?” I nodded. “He didn’t say anything to you about…” I paused, not sure I should even float the idea. “…getting cold feet?” But thankfully Baker shook his head. “No. I mean, why would he? Juliet’s great.” “She is great,” I agreed. “And she’s waiting very patiently right now. Are you sure you have no idea where Freddie could be? He didn’t mention anything to you?” But the man just shrugged. “Sorry.” He paused. “Do you want me to help you look for him?” I sighed and shook my head. “No, actually, I want your help stalling the ceremony. Ava’s with the bride, but if you could just reassure the guests that we’re, uh, just experiencing a slight delay but we’ll be starting shortly?” Which I hope sounded a lot better than we’ve misplaced the groom. Baker nodded curtly then turned back toward the meadow. I took a deep breath and tried to think. If Freddie’s car was there, he had to be on the grounds somewhere. Retracing Ava’s steps, I double checked that the red Jag was, indeed, in the parking lot. I even looked in all the windows on the off chance Freddie was taking a pre-wedding nap in his car. Negative. I had much the same result rechecking the groomsmen’s room, the side lot, and the kitchen, where I was happy to at least see servers had shown up. Conchita, my house manager, was dutifully instructing them on how to describe each of the canapés she and I had spent the last week preparing. But no sign of the groom. Getting desperate, I even checked the men’s restroom. No Freddie. I was just about to give up and admit we’d really truly lost him, when my headset crackled to life again. “Emmy?” Ava’s voice asked. “Tell me you found him?” I pleaded into the microphone. “No, sorry,” she responded. “But one of the bridesmaids—the one with the brunette bob—her boyfriend said he thought he saw a couple people heading toward the terrace a little while ago.” The back terrace was where I normally held small dinner parties and more intimate events, though for this occasion we’d decorated it with potted flowers and lush greenery to provide a spot for wedding party photos to be taken before the reception. “Was one of them Freddie?” I asked the obvious question, already backtracking toward the terrace. “He wasn’t sure. But I thought it might be worth looking.” “Absolutely, thanks,” I told her, jogging in my heels down the small stone pathway that led to the courtyard. My heart was pounding in my chest as I rounded the shrubbery. Short of casing the vineyard behind the meadow where the ceremony was being held, we’d checked everywhere else on the property with no sign of Freddie. I mentally crossed my fingers that I’d find him on the other side of those bushes. But as the terrace came into view a moment later, I regretted that wish. My body froze, and I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. Lying in the middle of the roughhewn stones, sprawled facedown and unmoving, was Freddie Campbell. And judging by the bottle of expensive champagne on the ground beside him, covered in blood, he would not be saying his vows that day. Or any day. Freddie Campbell was dead.

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