Friday, July 8, 2016

Wedding Cake and Big Mistakes by Nancy Naigle Excerpt

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Welcome to Adams Grove…where the wedding cakes are sweet, but the recipe is murder.

For years, Carolanne Baxter dreamed of a life beyond Adams Grove. Being the daughter of the town drunk was no picnic, so when college offered her a chance for escape, she took it. Now Carolanne has returned home, finally ready to make amends with her father, Ben, and to celebrate the wedding of her best friends Jill and Garrett. Of course, the fact that Connor Buckham, her sexy new law partner and Garrett’s best man, happens to be the same guy the town matchmaker named as Carolanne’s perfect match…well! That’s just icing on the cake.

But Carolanne’s hopes for a fresh start are dashed when a dead body surfaces during Jill and Garrett’s wedding reception…and Ben Baxter becomes the prime suspect. The murder throws the town into uproar, threatening to destroy the tentative peace between father and daughter—and to derail the budding romance between Carolanne and Connor. Has the matchmaker’s perfect streak come to end? Or will the truth finally bring Carolanne the happy ending she’s dreamed of for so long?



Someone had apparently forgotten to give Jill Clemmons the dress-your-bridesmaids-tacky memo. Even in the wavy reflection, the gown Jill had picked out for Carolanne Baxter to wear in her wedding was not only stylish, but the color was perfect against Carolanne’s redhead complexion. She twisted in front of the antique full-length mirror in her bedroom. It wasn’t often that Carolanne embraced the softer side of things, and for a fleeting moment, in a dress as fancy as this, she could almost picture herself as a bride. She placed her hands in front of her as if holding a bouquet and paced slowly forward.
A wick of heated panic swam up her spine. What am I thinking? She shook the fake bouquet from her hands and lunged toward the bed to grab the matching shoes from their box. She stepped into the shoes, sucked in a steadying breath to push those thoughts from her mind, then threw open the bedroom door and stepped into the living room, where Jill and Milly waited for her big entrance.
“What do you think?” Carolanne felt as awkward today as she had years ago back in Miss Bobbie’s beginner ballet class.
Jill sprang to her feet. “You look beautiful.”
The wrinkles in Milly’s eighty-odd-year-old face seemed to smooth away as her mouth spread into a grin. “Stunning. Absolutely stunning, dear.” She crossed the room and rose on tiptoe to kiss Carolanne on the cheek.
Carolanne felt the waxy remains of Milly’s signature color. She was infamous for leaving her red-orange lipstick tattoo behind.
Milly pulled her hands up on her hips. “I swear if I hadn’t already seen Jill in her gown, I’d be worried to death you’d outshine the bride.” She ran her hand along the delicate fabric—pinching and tugging to check the fit. “It’s gorgeous.”
“Too bad they shipped the wrong shoes.” Carolanne extended her leg out to the side, showing off the sexy strappy rhinestone numbers they’d sent by accident instead of the platform peep-toe pump she’d picked out. “But I admit I do like these!”
“Me, too,” Jill said. “And they aren’t making us pay the difference. Happy accident, if you ask me. If that’s the biggest catastrophe that I have in the wedding process, I’ll be thrilled.”
“The dress will need to be hemmed just a smidgen.”
Milly tsked. “I can take care of that. It looks like a perfect fit otherwise.” She took a step back and eyed Carolanne from head to toe. “You’ve never looked more beautiful.”
Carolanne rolled her eyes. “With no makeup? I sure hope I’ve looked better.”
“You never did need makeup,” Milly said. “With your hair down like that, you look just like your momma. Teresa was such a beauty—inside and out.”
A flash of loneliness stabbed at Carolanne. I wish Mom were here today.
Jill reached for Carolanne’s hand. It was a bond they shared. They’d both lost their mothers at a young age. Jill’s grandmother, Pearl, had been their guiding light, but now Pearl was gone and Carolanne was sure that’s exactly what Jill was thinking about right now, too.
Milly placed her hand against Carolanne’s cheek. “Your momma was a kindhearted gal. Everyone loved her. She’d have been so proud of you.”
Milly stood there with her hand on Carolanne’s cheek for an awkwardly long moment.
Carolanne glanced over at Jill, but she was no help. Carolanne glared at her. Once they started laughing, they’d never stop. It had always been that way.
Then, like someone had squirted her with dose of WD-40, Milly sprang into action, rustling through her flowered sewing box, whipping out old-fashioned hem clips and her pincushion, an old chubby tomato-shaped one. She shuffled over to the desk, grabbed the footstool, and dragged it to the center of the floor. “Can you step up on this in those shoes without breaking your neck?”
Carolanne lifted the dress as she walked toward Milly and stepped up onto the stool. “I can.”
“The dress, the color—it’s all perfect,” Jill said, clapping her hands.
Carolanne smoothed the skirt and spun, letting the fine layers of fabric swirl around her legs. “I love it.”
Jill held her hands to her heart. “I couldn’t have dreamed it more perfect.”
Carolanne gave Jill a look. “You’ve had that giant binder of pictures and lists for your wedding since we were in junior high. Since before you had a groom. This perfection is exactly what you dreamed of.”
Jill shrugged. “OK, OK. So it’s just as I planned, but it’s even better in real life.”
Milly tucked pins between her lips and tugged on the dress. “Are you standing straight?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Carolanne said.
“Hold still.” Milly lifted the hem of the dress, letting it fall naturally.
“I feel seventeen again.”
“Your prom dress wasn’t near as lovely as this one, but I’ll never forget how excited you were about going to that dance. You were so darn wiggly I liked to never have gotten that dress hemmed.”
“Too bad I didn’t get to go to the dance. All that time you spent on that dress—for nothing.”
“It wasn’t for nothing. I loved every minute of sewing that dress for you.”
Even after all these years, Carolanne remembered every little detail of that night and how her father had ruined it for her by pulling one of his drunken stunts. Why is it so easy to remember the bad things?
“That was a long time ago. The future is much brighter. For you. Your dad. All of us,” Milly said through the tight-lipped hold she had on the pins in her mouth.
Jill pretended to whisper to Carolanne. “Be glad she doesn’t have to mark any more than your hem. I swear my heart couldn’t take another hour of her nearly stabbing me or worrying about her swallowing those pins.”
“My hearin’ ain’t gone yet.” Milly’s voice raised a notch in a slight tone of defiance. “Jill fussed the whole time I marked her dress. And I might remind you, missy, that it wouldn’t have taken so long if you hadn’t lost that weight, causing me to have to take in the gown a whole size. Not an easy task with all that beading, either.”
“She looked like a catfish with all those pins hanging out of her mouth.”
Milly raised a brow and aimed her question at Jill. “Have you ever heard of anyone swallowing pins?”
Jill set her chin in a stubborn line. “Well, no. But it could happen. Tell her, Carolanne. It could happen.”
“Oh no,” said Carolanne. “I’m not getting in the middle of this.”
“I swear you are just like Pearl,” Milly said to Jill.
Carolanne stifled a laugh.
“And I love you, in spite of that,” Milly said. “You’re just like your grandmother when it comes to bossing folks around and controlling every little detail. But I guess someone’s got to do it.”
“Speaking of details,” Carolanne asked Jill, “are there any other maid of honor tasks I need to take care of for you before this weekend?”
Jill shook her head. “No. We’re actually ahead of schedule. My 4-H girls volunteered to work on the tulle bags of lavender after the meeting, so you’re off the hook for that.”
“I like that.” Carolanne made a quarter turn and a mental note that she should get involved with some of the groups in town like Jill had. It was something she’d meant to do, but here it was a year later and she’d yet to do it. “I like it even more that I didn’t have to tie all those ribbons.”
“See, if I weren’t so good at organizing tasks, we’d be up to our armpits in last-minute to-dos.” Jill pointed to Carolanne. “You’ll be thanking me when I’m helping you plan your wedding.”
The thought of a wedding of her own sent her pulse spinning like an ice-skater, and not in a good way. She’d never let her happiness revolve around someone else. Seeing the crushing blow disable her dad when Mom died still hurt, and that wasn’t a risk she was willing to take. “Don’t you be wishing that on me. You know how I feel about marriage.” Carolanne could tell by the dreamy-eyed look on her best friend’s face that Jill was ignoring every word she’d just said.
“When you find the right guy, you’ll be dying to walk down that aisle. Mark my words.”
That’ll be the day. If there’s one thing I don’t need, it’s man troubles. “I’m perfectly happy just the way I am.”
The front door swung open, and Carolanne jumped. Both Milly and Jill turned to look.
Connor Buckham ambled into the apartment without ever looking up from the newspaper he carried in his hand. “What’s fourteen letters for neighborhood? It starts with an ‘n’ and has an ‘o’ in the middle.”
Milly shifted a knowing look in Jill’s direction. “What? You just walk right in with no good morning?”
Carolanne knew exactly what they were thinking.
He lowered the newspaper, looking confused and a bit flustered. “Oh? Sorry.” The fine starched sheen of his blue-and-white-striped shirt made his eyes look even bluer, if that were possible. “I didn’t know you had plans—company—this morning. Sorry.” He glanced at Milly. “Good morning, Miss Milly.”
Connor nodded to Jill, but when his gaze landed on Carolanne, his mouth dropped wide open. “Wow. He-llo-oo, beautiful.” He lowered himself into one of the chairs, never taking his eyes off her. “You didn’t tell me you were in the fairy godmother business, Milly. What have you done to my law partner?”
Carolanne raised her hands to her hips. “Ha-ha. Aren’t you a funny guy?”
“Hey, if the shoe fits.” Connor winked. “A little Cinderella humor for you.”
“Not funny.”
“No? Are lawyers even allowed to look that good?” He motioned to Jill and Milly for concurrence. “In fact, if you dressed like that in court, I bet you’d never lose a case.”
“I’m warning you,” Carolanne teased. “You better quit teasing me, or I’ll have Milly stick you with those pins like a voodoo doll.”
He pretended to back up in fear. “Well, seriously, I’m just saying that I’ve never seen you looking this pretty in the morning. It’s nice.”
“Just how often do you see her at this early hour?” Jill turned toward Carolanne. “And you, you’ve been holding out on me.”
Carolanne shook her head, but before she could defend herself, Milly chimed in. “I thought Carolanne renting the apartment up here next to yours over y’all’s office was just convenient until her house was done. No wonder she’s been such a good sport about the delay.”
“And I thought all along it was because she was my best friend,” Jill added with an air of defiance.
Milly wagged a finger at the two of them. “This little early morning visit, it’s a regular occurrence, isn’t it? Maybe there’s a little something you want to share with us?”
Carolanne felt the rush of heat flood her chest and cheeks. “You two can just stop right there. It’s not what you think.”
“No?” Milly raised a brow. “Are you saying Connor is some sort of pervert who just walks into apartments uninvited?”
Connor interjected. “She knew I was coming over.”
Jill’s mouth curved as if on the verge of laughter. “Seems like Pearl was right about you two, after all.”
“Not that again.” Connor held up his hand to silence her. “It’s just coffee. The two of us get together for coffee. That’s it.”
“Sounds cozy,” Jill said. “Even Garrett and I don’t have coffee together every morning.”
“You’re not helping, Connor,” Carolanne groaned.
Connor rolled the newspaper in his hands. “Well, you and Garrett don’t work in the same office like we do. Besides, she makes great coffee.”
“Isn’t that thoughtful?” Milly arched a brow. “Carolanne would make a beautiful bride, wouldn’t she, Connor?”
“Well, you do look real pretty.” With a smile, he added, “And tall.”
“I’m in heels and standing on a stool.” She pulled the dress up high enough to expose her feet and the stool. She instantly regretted the movement when Connor’s face lit up like a kid peering into the window of a candy store. She dropped the hem, wishing for closed-toe pumps instead of the sexy strappy shoes she was wearing.
“Your toes look pretty, too.” He tilted his head slightly, like he was sizing her up, and that made Carolanne even more uncomfortable. “Your hair—it looks good like that. You never wear it down.”
“Stop!” She ran her hand through her hair, wishing she’d pulled it up this morning. “Connor, you’re just trying to egg on Jill and Milly now. You’re not funny. Jill, would you tweak the thermostat? It’s hot as heck in here.”
“I wasn’t being…” Connor’s voice trailed.
Jill headed to the thermostat, muttering, “It’s the sexual tension sparking up the heat in this place, if you ask me.”
“Sounds like Pearl’s magic is kickin’ in.” Milly pinned the hem of Carolanne’s dress. “And it’s about time. I’m not getting any younger, and neither are y’all.”
Carolanne silently cursed Pearl for making that silly claim at the end of her video will about Connor being a perfect match for her, because Jill had taken up where Pearl had left off, playing matchmaker of Adams Grove.
Carolanne let out a long breath, then almost too loudly said, “Neck of the woods.”
“What?” Jill and Connor both said at the same time.
Carolanne rolled her eyes. “Your answer. The crossword. Fourteen letters. Another name for neighborhood. Neck of the woods.”
Connor raised his paper and started plugging in the letters. “Damn, it fits. How do you always know these answers?”
“Lucky guess.” Carolanne pivoted to the right at Milly’s poke to her calf.
One more pin and Milly stood, still clenching at least five more between her thin lips. “All done, sweetie. Step down and let me see what we’ve got.”
Connor jumped to his feet and held out his hand to help Carolanne down from the stool.
What are you up to? She hesitated, then placed her hand in his and stepped down.
“Isn’t that sweet?” Milly tsked. “I didn’t know you had that in ya, Connor.”
Connor leaned toward Milly. “I didn’t know Carolanne had this in her. Did you?”
Carolanne swatted his arm. “It’s just a dress. Quit making such a big deal about it.”
“Well, excuse me for noticing how pretty you look.”
An awkward silence fell over the room.
Jill snapped her fingers. “I almost forgot. I have another surprise for you, Carolanne. This one is even better than the dress.” She crossed the room to Carolanne’s side and took her hands in her own. “Garrett shifted both of his crews to your place. They’ll be done with your house this week.”
Carolanne squeezed Jill’s hands. “Oh my goodness. That’s almost a month sooner than he’d promised.”
“I know. Isn’t it great? You should be able to start moving your stuff in just a couple of days. You’ll be the first official resident of Bridle Path Estates.”
Connor looked stunned. “So soon?”
“That’s awesome news,” Carolanne said. “I’ll have to get some boxes. Get on the schedule for the truck. I’m not even ready. It doesn’t matter. I’ll get it done. I can’t believe it. Finally!”
“I know. We’ll practically be neighbors,” Jill said. “You can do coffee with me at the artisan center. I can’t wait.”
“What about coffee with me? You’re not going to miss me?” He held up his finger and thumb in a gesture of a tiny bit, and squinted. “Not even a little?”
“Maybe a little.” She smiled playfully. “But you’ll miss me like crazy.”
Milly took the last pins from between her lips and poked them back into the pin cushion. “We’re all set, sweetheart.”
Carolanne gave her a hug. “Thank you so much for doing this for me.”
“It’s my wedding gift to Jill. Go, change, and I’ll get out of your way.”
“Don’t rush on my account.” Connor headed to the kitchen and filled his coffee mug. “I’ll leave y’all to do your girly stuff.” He sipped his coffee, calling out a good-bye as he closed the door behind him.
Carolanne rushed off to the bedroom to change, then came back with the dress in a garment bag. “Here you go,” she said, handing it off to Milly.
Milly draped it over her arm. “Connor’s smitten. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
Carolanne squared her shoulders. “He is not.”
“Yes. He most certainly is. Did you see the way his mouth hung open when he saw you in that dress?”
“It’s the dress.”
Jill folded her arms across her chest. “No. It was you. And what is this with him making himself all at home—coming and going from your place? Something hot is in y’all’s future.”
“Stop it. We’re friends. Just like he is with every other girl who grew up in this town.” Carolanne knew Connor lumbering into the apartment was going to fuel their romantic hearts. OK, well, he didn’t really lumber. Why was it she still thought of him as the overweight kid from school? The only thing big about Connor Buckham these days was his lumberjack-size arms and tight abs. Oh, and that snoring. She could hear that from across the hall some nights.
“He’s a great guy,” Jill said, “and it’s clear he’s crazy about you. What’s not to love?”
“Don’t throw that L-word around so casually. Connor’s a huge flirt. That’s why we all loved him in school, even now, but not like that.”
“Now he’s a grown man—a fit, hot, and successful man—and he’s not flirting with everybody. He’s flirting with you. Flirting of that kind is very different.” Jill hugged her arms across her chest. “Admit it. It’s romantic.”
“No. It’s not romantic. You’re romantic—a die-hard romantic.” Carolanne knew she was venturing down a blind alley when it came to shaking Jill off this subject. When it came to love, Jill Clemmons was like a hound on a rabbit trail.
“Friendship’s a great foundation for a relationship,” said Milly. “Look at Jill and Garrett.”
“That’s different. We’re not that kind of friends. It’s business between us. He barely dates since his mom died, and you know I’m not going to be running down the path of sharing my life with someone else. I like making my own decisions and living by my own rules.”
“You need to let that go,” Milly warned. “That’s your baggage talking. Leave the past where it is and move on.”
“I have dealt with it. I’ve totally moved on,” Carolanne said. Why do I have to defend myself?
“Well, you don’t really deal with stuff, you kind of ignore it,” Jill said. “I’m sure it was a coping mechanism as a little girl, but eventually, you do have to deal with this stuff.”

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