Why on earth do people get married? And why, why do I offer to help them do the deed? Why do I promise "Elegant Weddings With An Original Flair," as it says on my business card, when I know damn well how many things can go wrong at once? "Made in Heaven Wedding Design, Carnegie Kincaid, Proprietor." Tonight, the proprietor was ready to resign.
So far, on this rainy Sunday night in June, the florist's truck had had a flat, the groom's grandmother had had a fit, I was missing one waiter for the reception, and the four-year-old ring bearer had hidden the ring in her underpants. Twice. And now, moments before their procession down the aisle, one of the bridesmaids was sneezing. Explosive, rapid-fire, high-decibel sneezes. The other bridesmaids were smothering hysterical giggles while Diane, the bride, was developing a deer-caught-in-headlights stare. We were approaching meltdown.
The bride, the bridesmaids, the ring bearer and I were clustered outside the ballroom of Sercombe House, one of Seattle's Victorian mansions-for-rent. The mahogany doorway ahead of us framed a festive and expectant scene, with fluttering candle flames and masses of pale pink English roses, delivered dangerously late but lovely all the same. The string quartet played Haydn--loudly, thank God. The judge winked at the groom. The guests beamed in anticipation. And Susie, a plump little blonde gone very red in the face, kept on sneezing.
"I'm so sorry," she gasped. "I don't know what . . . aaahhh--"
"Here!" I shoved another handkerchief at her. "It must be your bouquet. Are you allergic to flowers? Don't try to talk, just give it to me. Quick!"
I examined the offending bouquet. English roses, stargazer lilies, stephanotis. No telling what was setting Susie off. I yanked the pink satin ribbon from around the stems, held back a spray of lilies, and pitched the rest of the bouquet in a nearby wastebasket. "Nickie, take the ring away from Tiffany and give it to me."
Nickie Parry, the maid of honor and my next bride-to-be client, gave me the gleaming gold-and-black enamel band so that I could thread the ribbon through it and tie a big loopy bow.
"Susie, you are now the ring bearer." I handed her the ring and bow, and we waited. Two more small sneezes . . . a couple of sniffles . . . blessed silence.
"Excellent!" I stooped to present the lilies to Tiffany. "Here you go, Tiff, now you're the flower girl. It's a very special job. And Michelle, change places with Susie so she ends up close to the bride, OK?"
"Whatever." Michelle rolled her eyes and I imagined, not for the first time, strangling her with the bride's garter. She was a cousin of Diane's, in from New York, cadaverously thin and heavily sardonic. She'd made it clear that weddings, especially hick Seattle weddings, were a ridiculous bore, especially when it was suggested that she take out her nose ring for the occasion. Her boyfriend, a densely pierced and tattooed youth, obviously shared her opinions. As far as I was concerned, they deserved each other.
Michelle belched abruptly, and I guessed from the fumes that the bottle of champagne I'd brought to their dressing room earlier must have gone mostly down Miss Sophisticate's throat. I felt my back teeth grinding.
"OK, everybody line up. Susie, are you all right now? Great. You all look fabulous."
They did, too. Diane loathed what she called "those pastel jobs with bows on the butts," and I agreed--baby-blue chiffon is best seen on babies. So I'd had long-skirted evening suits made up in black damask, with pearly white blouses underneath the peplum jackets. In effect, a lady's tuxedo. Every man ever born looks good in a tux, and so does every woman, if she gets the chance.
The Haydn wound up, and the processional, the Bach Cantata BWV 140, began. I sent little Tiffany and then the first two bridesmaids down the aisle, then the glassy-eyed Michelle, then Susie, still flushed but no longer erupting, and holding the ring-and-ribbon with formal care, as if we'd planned it. Then the maid of honor, then the bride stepped forward . . . accompanied by a hideous ripping sound, so loud that the entire back row of guests craned around to look. She hastily sidestepped away from their line of sight. Another rrrrip. The beaded hem of her gown had snagged on a nailhead and torn free from the fragile silk of the skirt, leaving a two-foot length trailing along the floor.
"Do something!" Diane's already pale face had gone even paler.
"I'm doing it." I was already on my knees behind her, whipping out my pocket sewing kit. Had I replaced the straight pins since the last time I'd used it? I had. I was pinning frantically when I heard a soft, kindly, sickeningly familiar voice.
"Oh, dear. Yet another little problem. Can I help?"
I looked up and forced myself to smile at Dorothy Fenner. Dear silver-haired Dorothy, the best-known wedding consultant in the Northwest. So aristocratic and yet so maternal. So well versed in etiquette, so well connected to the rich and famous. So very similar in appearance to Meryl Streep. And for three years now, so very successful at acing me out of potential clients. Nickie Parry's would be my first really big society wedding, and dear Dorothy had only missed landing the contract for it because she'd been on a Mediterranean cruise for the last month. She was strictly a guest here tonight, her husband being a colleague of the groom's father, but she kept popping up and pointedly offering help as one thing after another went awry.
"There's no problem, Dorothy," I said gaily. "OK, Diane, all set."
"But it's crooked!"
I stood up and glared. "All eyes will be focused on your radiant face. Now go."
She went, but Dorothy didn't.
"Carnegie. I thought you should know." Dorothy always pronounced my name as if it had quote marks around it. (My late father was a big fan of Andrew Carnegie, having educated himself in the public libraries funded by the old robber baron. As a kid, I'd hated my weird name, but now I figured, why should a skinny five-foot-eleven redhead even try to be inconspicuous?) "Carnegie, that Mary woman managed to get in."
Crazy Mary was a tiny, silent, bug-eyed old woman, dressed in charity clothes and lugging a shopping bag, who wandered the streets of downtown Seattle. Some people said she was secretly rich, and others that she was homeless, but everybody knew Mary's hobby: attending fancy weddings. She never said a word or caused a problem. She just appeared and disappeared, like a little bird seen from the corner of your eye.
"Well, she won't hurt anything, and she'll probably leave soon. Please sit down, Dorothy."
As she did, I checked the crowd for Crazy Mary. Sure enough, she was there near the back, hunched in her chair, the shoulders of her shabby jacket dark with rain. Who knew what weddings meant to her, or what memories lay behind those unblinking eyes? Dorothy Fenner had twice, to my knowledge, had Crazy Mary thrown out of weddings she was managing. I couldn't bring myself to do it, and I was sure Diane wouldn't mind her presence. As if she'd heard my thought, Mary turned, cocked her head at me, and smiled softly. I smiled back, nodding, and in unison we turned our gazes back to Diane, who had just reached the head of the aisle.
I love this moment. Young and trembling or calm and not-so-young, seed pearls or tie-dye, intimate ceremony or extravaganza, this first public appearance of the bride always makes me misty. There's all the romance that Western culture can bestow: the idea of the fairy princess, Cinderella, the one and only true love. Not to mention the sheer theater of making a solo entrance in a knockout costume. But it was the courage that caught at my never-married heart. To publicly say, He's the one; I pledge my life to his life. All the divorce statistics in the world can't tarnish that moment. That's the real reason why I help people get married. I'm a sucker for romance.
So I lingered while Diane, bright as a sunrise, took her place beside her chosen man. The candlelight gleamed on her gown and in her eyes, and Jeffrey looked, as all bridegrooms should, like the luckiest fellow on earth. I sighed, dabbed at a tear, and slipped back through the fine old oak-floored dining room into the mansion's kitchen. I had to track down a pair of antique crystal goblets sent over by the groom's grandmother this morning, thus setting off the old lady's tantrum. And I had to ask Joe Solveto, the caterer, where the hell that third waiter was.
The kitchen was crammed with hors d'oeuvres but empty of Joe or anyone else. My stomach growled fiercely at the fans of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, ranks of crisp snow pea pods piped with velvety salmon mousse, and clusters of green grapes rolled in Roquefort. The wedding cake, three tiers of chocolate hazelnut glory, was already in the dining room, but the old marble countertop along the kitchen wall held a parade of cut-glass dishes piled with petit fours and chocolate-dipped apricots. Surely I could pluck just one apricot from its dish, one tiny cream puff from its pyramid, one oyster from its bed of crushed ice, without disturbing Joe's fearful symmetry. . . .
But no, first things first. I stepped out to the back porch and squinted into the drizzly night, hoping to see the waiter's headlights. Sercombe House sits high on a hill, with terraced flower beds stretching down the lawn. The parking lot behind the house had filled. Parked cars were now lined up nose-to-tail the whole length of the steep drive leading down to the highway, where a mossy old brick wall bordered the property. I could see my modest white van, nicknamed Vanna White, just uphill from Nickie Parry's candy-apple-red '66 Mustang.
The car had been a college graduation gift from Nickie's father. Douglas Parry owned several department stores, a few Alaskan fish canneries, and a good chunk of downtown Seattle. He was so very fond of Nickie that he'd said the three magic words about her wedding: Money No Object. Fifteen percent of Money No Object was going to put me firmly in the black, for the first time since I'd started Made in Heaven. I wondered idly if my parking brake was set--I'd hate to dent that Mustang--but I wasn't willing to brave the downpour to find out.
Someone else was out in the rain, though: a heavyset figure was striding downhill just beyond the Mustang. His long raincoat flapped as though he were shoving something into a pocket. Car keys, probably. But he was heading away from the house, not toward it, so he couldn't be my waiter. Well, we'd have to manage with only two. I turned my back on the hissing of the rain and went inside to find Grandmother's goblets.
I had better luck on this count. The crystal in question, facets winking in the light, had been unwrapped and set on a high shelf out of harm's way. Also out of reach, even for me, so I pulled over a wooden chair and stood on tiptoe. Just another inch . . . A startling blast of damp air lifted my skirt. Already off balance, I turned abruptly to see a handsome, frowning man enter through the porch door and shake the rain from his windbreaker. My third waiter. The chair wobbled, then tipped over with a clatter, sending me in a harmless but ungraceful leap to the checkerboard tile floor. I saved myself from sprawling flat at the cost of a cracked fingernail and my dignity.
He reached out a hand. "Are you all right?"
"Of course I am," I snapped, brushing off my dress. The broken nail launched a run in my left stocking. Damn, damn, damn. "But you just barely made it. Where's your tie?"
He looked down at his heathery sweater, and then down at me. I'm over six feet tall in dress shoes, but he was six four, with wavy chestnut hair and the most distinctive green eyes I'd ever seen on a waiter or anyone else, the glass green of a breaking wave.
"This was the best I could do," he said coolly. "I just came from the airport."
"The best you could do!" I kept my voice low, but green eyes or not I was angry. "Black slacks, white shirt, black bow tie. I was very specific! Look, I need those glasses up there."
"Yes, ma'am." He mounted the chair, reached up, and handed the goblets down to me. He had broad, tanned hands, still chilly from the rain where they brushed my fingers.
"Thanks," I said. "Now let's find the others."
"Right here, Carnegie." Joe Solveto's cunningly mussed sandy hair and narrow, theatrical face appeared in the stairwell leading up from the basement-level pantry. He brandished an unopened champagne bottle. "We're popping the corks downstairs, but this is the special stuff for the happy pair. I see you found the goblets. Excuse me, sir."
Sir? Joe relieved me of the glasses and pressed on into the dining room, quickly followed by all three waiters, in their white shirts and black bow ties. Number Three must have arrived during Susie's sneezing attack. I felt a blush rising from the asymmetrical neckline of my jade silk dress. It was my one haute-couture rag, and my favorite outfit for weddings: gracefully appropriate for day or evening, generously cut to allow mad dashes to my van in case the best man forgot his tie or the maid of honor her lipstick, and equipped with pockets in which to thrust my hands when embarrassed. Which I was, and did.
"You're a guest. I'm very sorry. I--"
"My fault." He had a light tenor voice, surprising in such a large man, and slightly crooked front teeth that showed when he smiled and saved him from being male-model perfect. Not that one objects to perfect strangers. "Obviously I came in the wrong door," he was saying. "Have I missed everything?"
"Yes. No." Deep breath. "The ceremony is almost over, but you can slip in the back if you go through the dining room and to your right. I am sorry."
"No problem," he said, smiling as he walked by. "You can order me around anytime."
I stood bemused for a moment, muttering "Who was that masked man?"
Then I got back to work.
Excerpted from Veiled Threats by Deborah Donnelly. Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Donnelly. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.