Hearts & Haunts
When a rival wedding planner is murdered with one of Ava’s bridal shoes at the Hearts Forever Fair, she’ll need everyone’s help—including an angry ghost with a tragic past—to help her prove her innocence and bring the culprit to justice.
The Hearts Forever Bridal Fair is the biggest wedding event in Georgia, making it the perfect time to unveil my new gown designs. It’s also my chance to take Aunt Willa’s business to the next level. The hotel hosting it may be haunted, but not even the spirits who require my assistance will keep me from achieving my goal.
A group of conspirators just might, though, especially after my biggest competitor ends up with a bridal shoe’s stiletto lodged in his throat. When our antagonistic past becomes a hot topic, and my fingerprints all over the murder weapon, I’ll need my guardian angel, cantankerous cat, and an eccentric ghostly detective, to help prove my innocence.
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Enjoy this excerpt!
The Nottingham Hotel stood majestic and ominous against the cloudy sky. Three stories of turn-of-the-century Gothic architecture imposed itself above me as I stood in the parking lot with Persephone floating lazily at my side. A drizzle had begun, the chill of the morning trying to sneak under my coat.
“Tallulah was born here in nineteen twenty,” my guardian angel tells me. “The Roaring Twenties. The economy was booming, and they were filled with too much champagne and plenty of debaucheries.”
“Are you speaking from experience?” I tease.
Rosie is gathering boxes from the back of our van, her dark hair blowing in the wind. She snugs the belt of her raincoat tighter and places a stack on the cart provided by the hotel. I need to help her, but I’m sure by the look on Persephone’s face the crash course in history isn’t over.
“Her father, Emanuele, built the hotel,” she continues. “Everything was great until he died while Tallulah was still young, and she had to take care of her mother. It fell into disrepair, yet it was the only thing they had. After World War II, they reopened, but it was slow going. Times were still hard. On any given month, they only had a few guests. Eventually, they rebranded and called it a health resort to help men returning from the war deal with their mental issues.”
Another van pulls in. We’re getting ready for the Hearts Forever Bridal Fair taking place over the next four days. Wedding suppliers from all over the state will be coming today to set up booths, and tonight kicks off with a wedding gown runway event.
I hardly want to be standing here, appearing to be talking to myself, since no one can see Persephone, but I don’t have much choice. “I know you want me to help this ghost.” I turn slightly, so the folks in the van can’t see me staring at the hotel and talking to air. “But I do have a bridal fair to attend.”
“Mary Mae, Tallulah's mother, passed in 1950. Tallulah died at age eighty-four. She never married, and unfortunately, she’s never crossed over. She has haunted the subsequent owners and guests ever since. Trust me. If you don’t get this ghost to cross to the other side, your bridal fair is going to be a hot mess.”
Rosie wheels the cart around the side of the van. “Can I get a little help here?”
I leave Persephone and push the cart toward the back entrance. Along with all the suppliers, brides from the tri-state area will also be attending. Some will stay in the hotel, along with the various wedding consultants and reps from the bridal supply businesses.
Blue skies are predicted for later in the week, but at the moment, I’m heading into a haunted mansion with a rainstorm about to break.
“Everything okay?” Rosie asks, glancing up at the imposing structure. I follow her gaze and notice a shimmering white presence in the far top floor window.
“Of course,” I lie. “Couldn’t be better.”
A medium sized man with a messy goatee and scuffed up shoes props open the service door and lends a hand, wiggling the cart over the threshold and inside. “Welcome, welcome.”
He’s beaming from ear to ear, and I imagine he’s quite happy with the fact the fair had to be moved here at the last minute. He’ll be making a chunk of change from this, considering those who’ll be staying here this weekend and attending the event. “My name is Baldwin. Please let me know if you need anything.”
I push the heavy cart down a long hall with antique sconces that give off a yellowy glow. We pass a large atrium and courtyard with planters and concrete statues of angels, fairies and various animals. The coordinator of the fair, Victoria Jenkins, in a smart black blazer, white shirt, and black skirt, peers over dark-framed reading glasses and opens her metal document holder. “Name?”
“I’m Ava Fantome, and this is Rosie Rodriguez. We’re Enchanted Events.”
I’m sure Victoria remembers me from previous bridal fairs, but I understand her need for coordination. I recall her Type A personality, and respect it. It’s precisely what’s required for an event this size.
She shuffles efficiently through the papers, finds the one with our info, and slides it under the metal clip on the top of the holder. With a silver pen, she checks several boxes, then hands Rosie a packet of information. Slipping our form back inside, she motions down another hall to a pair of open doors. “Vendors are to set up in the ballroom. Please have your booth ready and available for inspection by three. The runway event begins at seven sharp, and since you’ll be participating with a selection of your gowns, Miss Fantome, you and your models will be expected to be in the dressing area located behind the stage by five.”
Not only have I expanded Aunt Willa’s business, I now have my own line of bridal gowns that I’m excited to unveil tonight. Rosie takes the packet from Victoria, and I heave on the cart to get it rolling again. “Thank you very much,” I call over my shoulder. She’s already moved on to the next vendor in line.
Rosie rubs her tummy, and I see how tired she looks. “You up for this?”
She nods. “I never had this much morning sickness with Mike. I’m not used to feeling so out of sorts.”
We enter the grand ballroom. It’s larger than I imagined, even after seeing the size of the hotel.
This room is easily three times bigger than the Thornhollow Country Club, where most local events are held. Previously, Hearts Forever was planned to take place at one of the local school’s gyms, but when the roof started leaking two days ago, there was no way to make that happen. The Nottingham Hotel, and its grand estate that covers several acres of rolling hills, a lake, and an old horse barn and paddock, is the largest building in the county that could be rented on such short notice.
Unfortunately—at least for me—it comes with a healthy dose of spirits.
Rosie removes a map with the layout and points to a section along the far wall. Tape on the floor denotes each vendor’s area for their tables and displays. We move to the one marked for us. As we begin unloading the boxes, I notice a man wheeling in a covered hanger with the words Southern Bride written in fancy script on it.
My pulse skips, and I look around for my former boss. I knew they’d be here, but I hadn’t thought about seeing Darinda since I quit my job in Atlanta to move home and take over Aunt Willa’s business.
The dark-haired man is my height and very thin, but dressed to the nines in a suit and bow tie. He bosses around a young woman who looks harried and cuts him a few nasty glares when he’s not looking.
Salvatore Luxton was my underling and a pain in my backside for many years at the sizable company. He stands and directs his helper with a pretentious air, and my heart goes out to her. I’m sure he hasn’t changed one bit, and before I can turn away, he catches me watching them.
He claps his hands together once and calls out, “Avalon!”
“Great,” I moan under my breath.
Sal promptly sashays over and tries to grab my hand. I pick up a large book filled with invitation samples and hold it in front of me like a shield. “Hi, Sal. How’s it going?”
His dark eyes laugh at me, knowing exactly what I’m doing to keep him at a distance. “This is absolutely a disaster,” he says, “holding such a classy event in this old hotel. Why that little dive, Thornhollow, right down the road? It doesn’t even have a decent restaurant. I can’t imagine staying three nights in this place.”
He glances at the towering ceiling, sniffing at the chandeliers. Several are missing bulbs, and even more have errant holes where the elaborate glass teardrops should hang.
“I rather like it.” I’d say anything to contradict him, and I call up what the brochure said. “This place has a lot of character. It was once as grand as the Biltmore estate up north, and people came from all around to vacation here.”
My argument falls flat when the chandelier above us flickers and goes out.
Regardless, I’m undaunted. “By the way, Thornhollow is my hometown.” I’m sure he knows this. “There’s a great restaurant called The Beehive Diner, though it’s probably beneath your standards.”
Sal frowns up at the light that has thrown us into a shadow. “Yes, well, thank you for leaving Southern Bride.” He leans in as if he has a secret to tell. “I’m second in charge now, having been promoted to your former position.”
He’s all smiles, and I feel Rosie hovering behind me. Her shoulder touches mine, a show of solidarity, “Ava’s talents were certainly wasted there. Have you seen the announcement?”
He feigns confusion. “Are you finally getting married?”
A sore spot in the wedding biz—not, in fact, being married.
Rosie brushes that off. “She has a line of wedding gowns coming out, and she’s doing the big reveal tonight!”
Sal straightens. He peers at the cart and our boxes. “Where are they?”
“You’ll get to see them on the runway, like everyone else.” I turn away to let him know I’m done with this conversation. There’s no way I’m allowing him to have an early peek.
He takes the hint, says a churlish goodbye, and returns to his striped area. As Rosie and I set up our double tables and shake out the cloths to cover them, she once again grabs her belly and takes off, green around the gills.
I hope she knows where the restroom is. I debate following her to make sure she’s okay. The next few days may be quite interesting for both of us if her hormones don’t settle down.
As I continue to set up the display of our services, the ghosts of the past vie for my attention, flickering in and out like a TV with poor reception. Most are caught in time loops, replaying events that happened many years ago. Some dance and laugh; others appear heartbroken and down on their luck.
It’s not hard for me to imagine what it was like in the beginning, when the estate was intact, and the rich and famous attended parties, events, and weddings here. I bet it was amazing when decorated for Christmas, and I’m sure people came to get away from it all at times. They spent summer vacations dipping in the pond, took long walks on the beautiful grounds, and watched the changing of the leaves in the fall.
Seeing the original architecture, especially in the ballroom, inspires me. I’ve been working on a second line of dresses, based on templates from this period, to give modern-day brides a classy, sleek option. I think about the one I designed at Christmas for myself, and how I’ve been dreaming of marrying the guy I’m in love with.
Thinking of Logan and his sexy smile puts me in a much better mood. At least until Victoria announces she has to switch several vendor locations. She’s been schmoozing reps, and the next thing I know, Sal and his young assistant are next to Rosie and me.
When Rosie finally returns, she makes a face at the new arrangements, and I have to hold my tongue as I overhear Sal say, “Guess we’re next to each other. Won’t this be fun?”
I ignore him, and Rosie follows my lead. Once again, I check to make sure she’s feeling okay, and she assures me she’s fine. We unpack the last of our items and begin dressing the mannequin we brought. This dress has been in the front window of The Wedding Chapel already. Rosie and I named it the Bellamy. She helps me adjust the waist as the skirt cascades elegantly to the floor.
Sal stops what he’s doing and looks it over. “Is that one of yours?”
I shift a stack of the thin but eye-catching catalog of my designs that Gloria, Rosie, and I have put together. The woman who sews the gowns has been an integral part of getting me ready for this debut tonight, and we’re all very proud of the photoshoot.
I step in front of them so he won’t see it. “Yes, it is. I’ve already taken orders for it, and I suspect it will be a bestseller.”
Mama and her best friend, Queenie, show up in a cloud of Estee Lauder and Southern manners. I hug them, my attention dragged from Sal. They go on and on about the building, the booths, and how proud Aunt Willa would be of me right now. Really, it’s such a show, I almost flush with embarrassment, but honestly, it feels nice, too.
We put the finishing touches on everything, and, as if the hotel is cooperating, the chandelier above flickers back to life. Rosie claps her hands, and I send up a thank you to Persephone, because I have a sudden intuitive hit that she played a part in it. As the four of us chat about going to get lunch, I hear Sal’s assistant say, “They’re beautiful. I bet Darinda will want to carry them.”
Sal snickers. “Don’t be ridiculous. They’re amateurish at best.”
With horror, I realize he’s nicked a catalog and seen everything. Steaming, I’m about to turn on my heel and go off on him, but before I can, Rosie makes a funny noise. I glance over to see her face contort.
None of us are fast enough, and Rosie knocks into the table in an effort to run from the booth. Her hands fly out to stop the catalogs from sliding off, her foot catches the table leg, and as she attempts not to fall, she vomits all over the gown.
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