A face to die for, p.6
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       A Face to Die For, p.6

         Part #6 of Forensic Instincts series by Andrea Kane

  Directly over the fireplace hung an intricately designed gilded mirror—one that was worthy of Snow White herself—that reflected back the beauty of the room and made it seem twice the size. The walls were the palest of pink, the front desk was the color of rose quartz with rivulets of gold ribboned through it, and vases of fresh flowers were arranged on all the tabletops. Along with the flowers, there were bridal magazines and photo albums of recent Shimmering Weddings events—all there to be viewed while the bride awaited her personal wedding planner.

  The pièce de résistance was the gracefully hung gold and crystal chandelier, whose dozens of tiny light bulbs cast a diffused, shimmery glow throughout the room. The employees all joked that the lighting was what had given Shimmering Weddings its name.

  “Hi, Gia.” Laurel Sweeney’s musical voice greeted Gia as she approached the desk. Laurel was a head-turner—an unapologized-for requirement of Ashlyn’s for all her employees—with rounded curves, huge blue eyes, and a smile that could melt a Greenland iceberg. She was the ultimate definition of a Southern belle, in her late thirties, with tawny blonde hair arranged on top of her head in a sleek chignon. She graced the front desk, greeting each bride as if she were the only person on earth, and she did it with an honest, natural charm that made her efforts all the more appealing. She had an equally warm and generous heart, and Gia was crazy about her.

  “Hey, Laurel.” She approached the desk, greeting her colleague with the open, non-business side of her that she carefully meted out. Wedding planning was a cutthroat business, and despite the pleasant comradery the office employees shared, each one was ambitiously battling her way to the top. Gia’s high level of success and overt approval by the boss represented the ultimate threat. So, friendly or not, Gia kept a thin wall of self-protection up between herself and the other four wedding planners in the group.

  Laurel was different—and not only because she wasn’t a competitor but because she was a sweetheart.

  “You look stunning, as always,” Laurel was saying. Gia was dressed in an ivory and black silk sheath dress and black sling-backs, with small gold hoop earrings and a matching bracelet. She was a firm believer that you had to look successful to be successful.

  “Thanks, but it’s all a façade.” Gia’s expression was rueful. “I feel like a squashed tomato.” She leaned forward, speaking in a conspiratorial whisper. “I had to unwrap the maid of honor’s legs from around the groom’s cousin’s hips at Saturday night’s affair.”

  “No.” Laurel’s blue eyes went wide with shock. “Right there at the wedding?”

  “In the coat closet. Minutes before the ceremony started. They were doing a full-court press.”

  “Oh my.” Laurel pressed her palms to her face. “I can’t imagine how you handled that.”

  “Not in a friendly manner,” Gia replied. “I was ripping pissed. Once they had their clothes back in place, I had seven minutes to fix the maid of honor’s gown, hair, you-name-it and get her in the procession line. Not a fun time.”

  “You’re amazing. I would have run to the ladies’ room and cried.”

  “That’s because you are a lady. This girl was not.” Gia waved away the memory. “Tell me about your weekend. I’d rather discuss something cheerful.”

  Laurel laughed. “Well, mine was indeed saner than yours. Lots of sunning and gardening. I brought in strawberries from my fruit garden. Be sure to have some. They’re sinful.”

  “Thank you.” Gia sighed. “Sunning. Relaxing. That sounds like heaven. Ah, well… I’ll savor your strawberries and live vicariously through you.” Another more exaggerated sigh. “Since I have no life.”

  Laurel rolled her eyes. “Now you cut that out, because you’re not fooling anyone. You love your job. You thrive on solving your weekend debacles. And you could have any mouth-watering gentleman you wanted if you took the time to notice them. They certainly notice you.”

  “I’ll bear that in mind.” Chuckling, Gia turned and began walking down the hall to the semicircle of offices in the rear. “Is she in?” It was a rhetorical question. Her boss was always in. She worked even more obsessive hours than Gia.

  “She’s in, she’s alone, and she’s waiting for you like a sentry at the gates,” Laurel called after her. “So you’re good to go.”

  “Thanks.” No surprise there. Ashlyn could smell money a mile away. And this week Gia had delivered a bundle of last-minute, super-lucrative extras.

  She rounded the bend, waved at her counterparts as she passed their offices, and paused outside the enormous corner office with the gold plate that read: ASHLYN CUSHING, PRESIDENT.

  Gia put her ear against the closed door and listened attentively. Good. No ongoing phone calls.

  She gave a brief knock. “It’s me, Ash.”

  “Come on in.”

  After turning the door handle, Gia stepped into the massive office that, despite its warm rose coloring and obvious personal touches, was Ashlyn’s business domain. Her sweeping cherry desk was the size of Rhode Island, its matching swivel chair was a decadent suede, and all the file cabinets and occasional tables were made of cherry identical to that of the desk, all hand-crafted, and all of which cost a small fortune. Her computer system was state-of-the-art. Its components were the only items on her pristine desk, other than a canister of pens, a few writing tablets, and a stack of current client files perched on the right-hand corner.

  As for the personal touches, they consisted of pricy paintings hanging on the walls and equally pricy sculptures on the side tables, in addition to intricate crystal pieces on her window ledge—all collected during various trips abroad. That was as personal as it got. There were no family photos or sentimental items, because Ashlyn was single, married to her career.

  Now, wearing a chic midnight blue Armani suit, Ashlyn smoothed a blonde hair into place and sat back in her reclining suede chair—or her throne, as the planners liked to call it. She interlaced her fingers on the desk, tilted back her chin, and gazed expectantly at Gia.

  “Good morning. I’m glad you’re here. I could use some good news—I’ve been doing billing and paying vendors all weekend and I have two major client meetings later today, neither of which I expect to be cakewalks.”

  “Do you know one that is?” Gia asked.

  “No.” The two women shared a smile of understanding.

  “Well, hopefully this will make your morning brighter.” Gia plucked out final tallies on this weekend’s weddings and placed them in front of her boss. “I think this constitutes good news.”

  Ashlyn glanced down, and a triumphant smile curved her lips as she skimmed the totals at the bottom, silently adding them up. “It certainly does.” She looked up, giving Gia a proud nod of approval. “You’ve outdone yourself. Brava.” One pale brow rose. “How bad was it?”

  “Electrical outage, mangled bridesmaid’s gown, and coitus interruptus. A day in the life.”

  Ashlyn burst out laughing. “I don’t even want to know the details. I might not hold down my cup of Laurel’s strawberries.”

  “Probably not,” Gia agreed. She placed the final reports on Ashlyn’s desk. “Besides the checks, what’s important are the rave reviews our clients gave us. We’ll be getting three d
efinite and two probable referrals. All from clients who have assured me that price is not an object. In fact…” Gia glanced at her watch. “Potential bridal client number one will be arriving at ten thirty for our first meeting. She’s bringing her mother, her future mother-in-law, and her sister.”

  “Then I’ll let you go to your office and prep.” Ashlyn rose and walked around the desk to give Gia’s hands an unexpected squeeze. “You really are a wonderful asset. I see a big promotion on the horizon—and not too far in the future if you keep up this track record.”

  “Thank you, Ashlyn. That means a lot.” Gia squeezed her hands back, once again feeling that tinge of guilt. Ashlyn was a great boss, but the junior partnership she was alluding to was not what Gia had in mind for her future.

  She left Ashlyn’s office and headed down the hall to her own home base—a small, cozier copy of Ashlyn’s office, with the addition of a half-dozen family photos and an upholstered rose and gold lounger. Gia adored that lounger. It doubled as a stylish sitting area for her clients and an I-desperately-need-to-take-a-break relaxation spot for her when the day was spinning out of control. Now, she shut her door and blew by the lounger, heading for her desk and her upcoming meeting.

  She’d just begun glancing through her notes when her cell phone rang. She glanced down at the caller ID and smiled.

  “Hi, Mom,” she answered.

  “Am I interrupting a meeting? Or maybe a circus?” Maria Russo’s voice was tinged with humor.

  Gia chuckled. “No, the wildness is temporarily over. And I don’t have a client meeting for an hour. So what’s up? Are you and Dad okay?”

  “The usual. Dad is working too hard, running from New Rochelle to the Bronx and back since he doesn’t fully trust anyone to manage the delis without him, and I’m working too hard taking care of his billing and collecting.”

  Nick Russo owned two small Italian delis, where you could get anything from a hot or cold sandwich to a full takeout meal—cooked to order from scratch—to homemade desserts that would make your mouth water. And Maria was not only the baker, she was the accountant. They had a few great cooks and sandwich makers, but, like Gia, her parents were control freaks.

  As a result, the Russos were far from rich, but they were doing okay, particularly for this lousy economy. They lived in a modest house in New Rochelle—a house they’d bought twenty years ago after leaving Bozeman to move back east. Talk about a bad fit. The Russos were about as well-suited for life in Montana as they were for life on the moon. But Gia had been adopted after an endless wait, and her parents were off-the-charts protective. Her mother had read that Montana was a much healthier environment for a child to grow up in. Thus, the move.

  They’d hated the West from the start. Far from the city they loved and, more importantly, from the extended family they loved, they’d lasted eight years in Bozeman before relocating back home.

  Gia had no problem adapting. Even though she’d really liked the open space and cold air of Montana, she loved New York more. Her parents often took her to the City to see the sights, and the pulse of the Big Apple gave her a rush of excitement even then. Plus, she was surrounded by doting relatives—eight aunts and uncles and twelve cousins, which made the situation the best of the best.

  Even now that she was on her own, she’d stayed close to home. Her parents’ house was about a twenty-minute drive from Gia’s place in Rye, and Gia went there at least twice a week for dinner or to hang out and watch a weeknight Yankee game.

  She understood that her parents would have wanted a big family. But it wasn’t meant to be. Gia was their miracle. So they’d poured all their love into her. And she’d blossomed from that love.

  Given how close they all were, Gia knew her mother and father to a tee. And right now, there was an undercurrent to her mother’s voice that Gia picked up on right away.

  “Okay, Mom, what is it?” she asked. “You didn’t just call to say hi. You sound like a kid who’s asking for an extra portion of ice cream and is nervous about what her mother would say.”

  “That would be you, Gia, not me,” her mother retorted good-naturedly. “Ice cream was always first on your list. Did you think I didn’t notice the spoon marks in the part-used gallons—the ones you tried to smooth over?”

  Gia flinched. All these years, she really thought she’d pulled one over on her mother with that one. “Guilty as charged.”

  “Same here.”


  “Meaning I have a favor to ask of you.”


  Maria sighed. “Uncle Frank’s sixty-fifth birthday is coming up next month. Aunt Silvia wants to do something special, not just a backyard barbecue. Your name came up, and she was wondering if you might have any suggestions.”

  Gia burst out laughing. “Translated: Could I please come up with the most awesome birthday theme ever and then pick the place, take care of the arrangements, and pull off the whole celebration sometime in the next few months.”

  “July ninth,” Maria clarified. “I think it’s a Sunday. But it’s also Frank’s lucky date, whatever that means. Silvia wants to have it then.”

  “Even better. I now have six weeks to make our entire family happy with as little infighting as possible.”

  “I’m sorry, sweetie. I know you’re swamped. If you can’t, you can’t.”

  “Of course I can.” Gia was wildly racking her brain, trying to figure out when she was going to get the time to scope out venues and hire top-of-the-line vendors on such short notice. But this was her family. She’d find a way. She only prayed she didn’t have a Sunday afternoon event that day. But if she did, she’d work her uncle’s party around it.

  An idea flashed through her mind, and she locked it in as a winner. Uncle Frank was an avid boat lover. He spent two weekends each summer visiting Mystic, Connecticut, to see all the magnificent historic ships. And he spent the rest of the summer weekends sitting on a beach on the ocean side of New Rochelle, viewing sleek yachts leaving from the marina.

  Perfect. Uncle Frank would feel like a king if he celebrated his sixty-fifth on a lavish private yacht filled with family and friends. Gia could organize that with a few targeted phone calls. She had business relationships with more than one private yacht company, and they had vessels ready for just this type of event. Time to call in a favor.

  Gia smiled with satisfaction. She’d make the necessary phone calls right after her morning client meeting ended.

  Which reminded her…

  “Mom, I have to go now. I’ve got a pile of notes to review before my first bride comes in. But I’ve got an hour or two in between appointments, and I’ve also got an idea. I’ll get right on it. Tell Aunt Silvia that we’ll give Uncle Frank the celebration of a lifetime.”

  Her mother’s sigh of relief was audible. “Thank you so much, sweetheart. I don’t know how I would have told Aunt Silvia no.”

  “Me, either. Let’s be frank. She would have ripped you a new one. So, let’s keep that from happening. Love you.”

  Gia hung up, quickly entering the date into her iPhone calendar, even as she scanned the day for conflicts. She had the Pollman wedding at seven o’clock that evening at t
he Westchester Country Club. She couldn’t have planned that one better. New Rochelle to Rye. One afternoon event, one evening event. Now she could work the times of the two parties so they rolled smoothly from one to the other, rather than clashing and causing wild pandemonium. Gia wouldn’t let her parents down. But she also couldn’t let her clients down.

  Of course, she could send Liz to the Pollman affair in her place. Liz Watts, another planner at Shimmering, had her own clients, but she also assisted Gia at many events where one planner, no matter how proficient, wasn’t enough. She was quite good in her own right and would soon be a confident, in-demand wedding planner who rivalled the rest of the staff. Still, assisting at an affair wasn’t the same thing as running the show. And if there was some major complication, which there almost always was, well, that would be on Gia’s shoulders.

  Besides, even if things went smoothly, the fact was that the Poll-mans had been referred to Gia, they were attached to Gia, and they expected Gia to run their wedding. And frankly, Gia couldn’t blame them. It was way too late in the game to send in a pinch hitter.

  So she’d book the yacht from twelve to five. That would leave her ample time to give hugs all around and ease from one event to the other. Her mother would explain that Gia had to run to another job. She’d listen to the grumbling about how Gia worked too hard and should think about settling down with a husband and kids. And her mother would know just what to say to smooth things over.

  A husband and kids would be nice. Someday. When she had a chance to breathe.


  Twin Cities Animal Clinic

  Minneapolis, Minnesota

  “Dr. Dani?”

  Jessie Long, the practice’s newest and most enthusiastic vet tech, popped her head into the examining room where Dr. Danielle Murano was fiddling with the buttons on her white lab coat while reading over the file for her next appointment.

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