From 4 Sleuths & a Bachelorette
Did you miss Chapter One Part One?
Chapter One Continued…
I was within two feet when he started singing the company’s wiener ditty. Wait a minute! That wasn’t a guy’s voice. Even with the drilling in the background, I could tell that lustrous voice belonged to a female. Holy jumpin’! Not just any female. That was Babette’s voice.
I twirled around and stared into the face of my once chubby friend, her tall, voluptuous figure hidden inside the foam costume, her eyelids sparkling with eyeshadow the color of yellow and green condiments. It wasn’t meant to look garish, but as a beautician, I would’ve toned it down a bit.
Her eyes widened. “Valentine!” Ignoring ogles from shoppers, she dropped the tray on the table beside her and pulled me in for a warm squeeze.
I gaped wordlessly past her shoulder, then back at her in her hot dog costume. “Why are you dressed as a wiener?” Oops. I really had to work on my quick tongue.
She picked up the tray again, offering me a sample, and filled me in on her job situation. “It’s not all bad,” she cooed, her mouth twitching into a thin grin. “I get these complimentary baby jars of mustards that my boss, Stanley, wants to charge customers for.” She pried open my bag with her free hand and tossed some inside. “Tightwad. He’d kill me if he saw me handing these out.”
She bit her luscious lips, and suddenly I was back to hot summer days, eating red Popsicles as kids, then giggling as Babette chased neighborhood boys for a fat kiss.
I bit into a mini sausage, and she smiled, trying to make light of things. “I even got a commercial spot dressed in this wienie.”
I gulped down the bite that seemed to stick in my throat. “Well, that’s…something.” I wanted to be encouraging, but what more was there to say when my friend was dressed like the Oscar Mayer wiener?
“Of course, Stanley negotiated a deal with my agent, ensuring he sat in on the whole production.” She rolled her eyes coolly, then slid the tray back on the table. “Cheapskate.”
Yikes. This was worse than I thought. How could Babette have sunk so low?
“Enough about me.” She pushed her face through the rubber hole to take a better look at me. “You look gorgeous as ever! Little Valentine, with her long, glossy hair, always made up adorably.” She grabbed my hands and held me out at arm’s length. “And here you are, dressed in pink, cute tutu and all.”
This was just like Babette. She didn’t see things through dull lenses. In her eyes, I was a ballerina with enough sparkle to light up a room. I looked down at myself. In truth, my sleeveless dress and light-to-dark pink skirt did have a sheer tutu effect. And okay, my glittery hoop earrings and spiked heels didn’t hurt the look. But Babette simply had a way of making you feel good about yourself.
A guy hauling a beer belly ambled up to us and gawked from the tray of wieners to Babette. “You work here? Or is someone else handing those out?”
Unruffled by his ignorance, Babette looked the guy square on, her voice laced with sarcasm. “Someone else is handing them out. He’s in the frozen food section dressed as a Fudgsicle.”
The guy grunted and hoisted up his pants. “Figures I’d get this kind of service here.”
“Awful, isn’t it?” Her smile was unapologetic. “If I were you, I’d hit the grocery store down the street. Tell them I sent you.”
The guy trucked off, and Babette’s face instantly lit up as if we hadn’t been interrupted. “Tell me all about that swarthy, tough detective you’re wildly in love with. I hear he’s hard-muscled and hot.”
I loved that our moms kept up with the finer details of our lives from the old neighborhood. Wouldn’t want to miss a chance at friendly gossip.
“Ooh, Michael Romero,” she gushed. “Even his name sounds sexy.”
I understood the sentiment. My breath caught in my throat at the mention of Romero’s name, sparking the memory of his intimate send-off when I’d told him I was going away for the weekend. But Babette was engaged, and this was all in fun. Or was it? Her words were sincere, and her eyelids were full of sparkle, yet she’d lost some sparkle, and the slight nervousness in her tone told me something was worrying her. Might’ve been her tightwad boss. Maybe it was her job.
Oh no. My pulse stopped cold in my veins. What if it was Charlie and her upcoming marriage? I hadn’t met this fiancé, but the last one was no prize. Babette didn’t have the greatest track record when it came to men, and I hoped, if she was taking the plunge again, that this time she was certain.
“We’ll catch up at the party.” I wolfed down another wiener and gave her a quick hug.
“Okay, but Valentine…please don’t announce it that I work here. I mean, most of you know, but I’d rather not publicize that I’m wearing this dreadful costume day in and day out.”
I might’ve screwed up on the decorations, and I might’ve ruined the wrapping on her gift, and I might’ve—wait. Where was I going with all this? Oh yeah. I could do this favor for Babette. “My lips are sealed. Just don’t forget to act surprised when you arrive later.”
She gave me a strange look. “Huh? I already know about the party.”
“I know, but it’ll be more fun when you walk in if you act shocked.”
She swung her hips back and forth in a seductive way. “If there’s one thing I can do, it’s act.”
It was almost six o’clock, and the front desk had heard nothing from the airline about my bag. This meant I needed to get creative on how I was going to beautify the party room.
The hotel assured me they had white tablecloths—a plus—and tall candleholders if I needed them. I had balloons I’d picked up at the grocery store. They had Dora the Explorer’s face on them, but it was either that or Bart Simpson’s thanks to Higgly Piggly’s noisy party section being under renovation, leaving me little choice. At any rate, Dora was a kickass little adventurer like Babette always was. And the balloons had a pink background. Good enough for me.
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The other small issue was the cake. The bakery’s decorator had gone home sick, and I didn’t get the cake I’d ordered. Well, I promised a cake for this party, and a cake was what I got.
I returned to the matter at hand and dumped the contents of my beauty bag onto the bed, taking stock of what I had. Combs. Scissors. Flat iron. Bobby pins. Nail polish. Ribbons. Hair extensions? Hmm. I’d planned on taking those out after Monday’s playtime visit with the hospital sick kids. I grinned. Cute tykes, even if I did walk out of Rueland Memorial half the time with nail stickers on my nose and lipstick on my cheeks.
I steered my gaze from my black bag to the flashy, hot pink shoulder bag I’d bought as Babette’s bachelorette gift. Unfortunately, the shimmery pink boa that once covered it was in a heap on the bed. Well, decorating the bag with it was a good idea at the time.
I went back to studying the hair extensions. They weren’t fabulous on their own, but if I had skewers to give them a spine, then stuck a wisp of boa down the middle and pinned a few glittery bobby pins on the hair ends, they might make attractive, cascading centerpieces. And at the end of the night, each guest could take home a handful of posh bobby pins. I rounded up little tubs of butterscotch conditioner that had also been floating around in my bag. Perfect. Another party favor.
Heck, Babette wouldn’t care if her gift wasn’t wrapped. More, she’d go gaga over the contents inside: massage oils, bubble bath, sexy slippers, mini bottle of champagne, and bag of red jelly beans—her favorite. To spruce it up, I staged the bag open and tied a ribbon through the straps into a fancy bow. It had Valentine panache, and Babette would love it.
The party room had an honest-to-god funeral-parlor feel. A fake fireplace leaned against one wall, abstract pictures hung on another, and functional drapes decked the windows. Mr. Clean could’ve done wonders with the stale smoke in the air, but at least the tablecloths looked clean, and the Dora the Explorer balloons brightened the place.
Good thing I’d given myself a squirt of my signature Musk perfume before leaving my room. I would’ve had to shoot myself if the smell of stale smoke followed me around all night.
I glanced at the buffet table where a female a few years older than I am in a light, baggy top and dark pants inspected trays of finger foods. She had mid-length brown hair bordering on frizzy, and from the back it looked like she was counting things off on her fingers. By her appearance, I guessed she was the caterer.
I zoomed in on the table. Aha! Fruit kabobs with bamboo skewers! Exactly what I needed for my centerpieces. I could almost hear the Mission Impossible music as I plotted how to pinch the skewers from the fruit tray without attracting attention.
I almost had my execution drilled in my head when the woman at the table turned slightly and licked her lips. She was quite adorable with big round eyes, and yowza, she was pregnant, really pregnant. Maybe she was having one of those pregnant-woman cravings I always heard about. But was she the caterer? An employee? A guest?
She turned back to the table, leaned over, and popped a cream puff in her mouth. No way! Now I knew she wasn’t an employee. Granted, this wasn’t the Ritz. If a worker filched a cream puff, who cared? Not me. I wasn’t here to snitch. I was focused on the fruit kabobs.
I took a cursory glance around the room to see what else was happening. A slim woman with short, curly blonde hair gave a casual look at the clipboard in her hand, then shrugged and exited the room. Merry Wrath perhaps?
The bartender was busy talking to an older woman sitting at the bar who was wearing a wig that looked on par with Mrs. Horowitz’s hair. She was sampling—or more like slugging—a serious glass of alcohol. I envied her. One glass of that stuff and I’d be flat out on the floor for the rest of the evening. Exactly why I wouldn’t be drinking tonight.
My gaze shifted back to the pregnant woman. Poor thing. Her unmanageable curly hair looked like it could use some TLC. Maybe once she was done popping cream puffs, I’d go over and hand her a few tubs of butterscotch conditioner. While I waited for her to vacate the food table, I plunked the fancied hair extensions into the tall candleholders that the staff had provided.
My insides bubbled with delight at the array. Forget the skewers. The glittery extensions flared up from the candleholders and cascaded out like fountains. It was a sight to behold!
I was about to pat myself on the back when the pregnant woman dusted the icing sugar from her hands, gave me a short wave, and waddled over. I turned around, wondering if she was looking at someone else, but there was no one behind me. Only the cake that I was hiding.
She stopped in front of me and extended her hand. “Valentine?”
“Yes?” I smiled and shook her hand.
“Kate Connolly. I’m a friend of Babette’s. I saw you decorating, and from everything Babette’s said about you, I knew this had to be Valentine.”
I wanted to ask if everything meant acting on instinct, getting into trouble, and regretting my mistakes, like purchasing the hunk of pastry behind me. Instead, I gave a faint, lighthearted laugh, curbing my nose from twitching like it always did when I was nervous or in danger.
“Thanks for handling the cake.” She peered over my shoulder. “Is that it?”
“Awesome. Would you mind if we put it on the buffet table with the rest of the food?”
I bit my lip, harried by the memory of what I’d gone through today. “Sure.”
I moved aside, and Kate looked down at the cake. “It says Happy Birthday Harry.”
“I know. Do you think Babette will notice?”
Kate giggled, then shifted her stare from the cake, to the funeral-parlor setting, to the motley crew that were beginning to arrive, and I knew she was wondering what else was in store for tonight.
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