Sun January 20th, 2013
Excerpt for bookshelf--TASTE FOR TROUBLE
TASTE FOR TROUBLE
by Susan Sey

CHAPTER ONE

Jilted brides were nothing new to Belinda West. A girl didn't churn out two wedding cakes a weekend for ten plus years without witnessing every disaster that could possibly befall a wedding party. Nothing about a groom making a last-minute break for Cozumel--with or without the bride's sister--surprised Bel anymore.

But it always surprised the bride. That was the part Bel didn't understand. Because when your groom wasn't totally on board with the whole marriage thing, there were signs. There were always signs. And if Bel, the total stranger manning the cake table, could see them, surely any bride paying even the tiniest bit of attention could see them too.

Which meant either these women weren't paying attention to the details (something for which Bel had little sympathy) or they were willfully ignoring them (something Bel didn't even comprehend.)

Then she got jilted. On live TV.

It wasn't like she'd been sleepwalking through the day with a wedding planner at the helm, either. No, indeed. She'd tackled her wedding personally, and with the same soft-spoken, detail-oriented implacability she'd used to transform herself from a semi-solvent wedding cake baker into the Kate Every Day baking maven. The series of segments she'd shot on baking your own wedding cake had been among the highest rated all season. Kate herself had taken Bel out to lunch when the numbers came in.

And had rewarded her by putting Bel's wedding at the heart of the season premiere. The live season premiere.

Kate's trust lit on her like a butterfly--so delicate and tentative as to be sensed rather than actually felt--and Bel devoted herself to living up to it like the heir apparent she aspired to be.

Her wedding, she was determined, would be perfect. She planned. She predicted. She envisioned. She managed. She checked details, then doubled checked. Triple checked. No decision was beneath her notice. And on paper, in rehearsal, in theory, everything was perfect.

But in reality? Somewhere between hand-picking the cottage-white, rustic-finish, wooden-not-metal folding chairs and personally glue-gunning three hundred and forty three red-foil-wrapped, dark-chocolate hearts to the hand-lettered place cards, something had gone terribly wrong.

Which meant, as Kate had frostily pointed out later, that somehow, inexplicably, Bel had missed something. Something important. A harbinger of doom had passed right through her hands unidentified. The proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing.

No, Bel thought darkly. That wasn't entirely true. She'd seen the signs. She just hadn't understood them.

Annie had been right. She should have paid attention to the swans.

CHAPTER TWO

Earlier, at Kate Davis' Hunt House

Bel was sitting in front of some sadist posing as a hairdresser when her assistant Annie appeared in the mirror behind Bel's shoulder.

"There's a problem with the swans," Annie announced. "You need to come with me."

"Don't move," the hairdresser/sadist said. Bel didn't move. The woman rewarded her by stabbing one last hairpin directly into Bel's scalp. Bel breathed through the pain and thought of perfect wedding pictures.

"There," the woman said, giving the yard of tulle she'd just attached to Bel's head a satisfied little fluff. "That ought to hold it."

"I should hope so," Bel murmured, but smiled at her reflection. Then she spun the chair to face Annie and her smile spread into something delighted and genuine.

"Well, look at you. If that dress isn't perfection," Bel said with satisfaction. She wasn't ordinarily a gloater but Annie had put up a vicious stink about wearing lilac satin. And maybe it had been a risk, mixing Annie's edgy, tattooed, art-school vibe--not to mention her Lucille Ball red hair--with a delicate Easter egg of a dress. But nobody could argue with the results.

Annie rolled her eyes, which Bel ignored.

"Didn't I tell you it would be perfect?" Bel said. "You look like Marilyn Monroe." She tipped her head and squinted. "Well, if Marilyn Monroe was a red-head and recovering from a rockabilly phase. Where have you been hiding those curves, anyway?"

Annie crossed her arms over that surprising chest. "Can we please not talk about this dress? It's a testament to our friendship that I'm wearing it at all. But if anybody should happen to see me in it on TV, friendship be damned. I'd have to exercise my connections. My Uncle Luigi is a made man, you know."

Bel cocked a brow. "You'd have me whacked over a dress?"
"I'd think about it. Now come on."

"What? Where?"

"The swans."

"What about them?"

But Annie was already out the back door and trudging down the gentle, grassy slope overlooking the pond. Bel tucked the yard of tulle cascading from her head under one arm and followed her out the door.

The heat hit her like a sweaty embrace, hot and thick with summer's last kick. Her oxford button-down clung damply to the instant film of sweat on her back. Thank God she hadn't been through makeup yet, she thought. Or been sewn into her dress. Still, with the flowers to approve yet and the cake to assemble...

She glanced at her watch, a beautiful gold and silver Hermes bangle. She didn't usually indulge her taste for glitter even now that she could afford the occasional splurge, but timeliness was the closest thing she had to religion. She checked her watch hundreds of times a day. Why not look at something pretty?

What she saw there now had her mentally nudging a few bullet points around her to-do list and picking up the pace. "I know you think the swans are a bit much," she said to Annie's back, "but trust me. What seems over the top in person works just fine on the small screen. Swans are a time-honored symbol of fidelity, and having a pair on the pond during the ceremony makes a beautiful statement."

"They're making a statement all right." Annie stopped in the shade of the white canopy under which the ceremony would take place in--Bel checked her watch again--one hour and fourteen minutes. "But from what I'm seeing, that statement is less look at our beautiful love and more holy hell, we're taking sniper fire."

"What?"

"See for yourself." She shot a purple fingernail toward the pond.

Bel frowned at Annie, then out at the glassy blue pond upon which glided two gorgeous swans. Except they weren't gliding. They were jerking around in irregular zigzags, heads low, eyes slitted and suspicious. Every now and then one of them blatted out an affronted honk.

Her stomach dropped. "What on earth? They were fine! Two hours ago they were fine. What happened?"

"Hell if I know." Annie's lips were a grim line. "When I brought the tent people out here to set up the arbor they were fine, like you said. Then I stopped back a few minutes ago to see if the techs had the lighting levels down for the ceremony and there they were. All...disturbed."

"Okay." Bel pulled in a deep breath of warm, wet air that did nothing to clear away the buzz of anxiety trying to fill her head and erase her thoughts. "Just give me a minute here. I have to think."

"Bel, listen." Annie's voice softened, and she put a hand on Bel's arm. "I know you were heart-set on this but I just don't think it's going to work."

"No, it will," Bel said. "I can fix this." And she would. She'd sunk countless hours of painstaking preparation into this afternoon. Rearranging a single minute of it on the say-so of a couple of deranged birds went against everything she believed. Everything she was. Bel had a plan. And the swans, by God, would get on board. Then everything would be fine. Better than fine. Perfect. Everything would be perfect. She'd make sure of it. "They'll have to be tranquilized."

"What?"

A hot breeze snatched at her veil which yanked unmercifully at her scalp but she breathed through the pain. Her veil was beautiful. It was perfect. It was exactly what she'd envisioned. So it hurt like the fires of hell. So what? Perfection cost, yes, but Bel didn't mind paying. The swans might do well to remember that.

She tucked the end of the veil carefully under her arm and said, "Annie, please. I still need to approve the flowers, assemble the cake, and get through makeup. Then I have to okay camera placement for the ceremony itself and get sewn into my dress. I don't have time to counsel a pair of traumatized water fowl out of whatever neuroses they've hatched in the past two hours. They'll need to be tranquilized. Can you get the breeder on the phone?"

Annie stared at her from under a short chop of bangs. "You want to drug fidelity and everlasting love into a photogenic stupor? That's just wrong, Bel. It's all wrong. Can't you see that?"

"Don't be melodramatic." Bel dug her iPhone from the front pocket of her shirt and began scrolling madly for the swan guy's number. "They're just swans, for heaven's sake. The world's not going to come to an end if we--"

"This isn't about the damn swans!" Annie shouted. "Will you listen to me?"

A shock of surprise lifted her stomach, and her fingers froze mid-scroll. Because Annie had just shouted at her. Annie. As Bel's personal assistant and best friend, Annie told her no all the time. Of course she did. Every time Bel tried to double-book herself, overshoot the budget or work through another weekend, Annie was right there with the not-so-fast. It was her job to tell Bel no. But that was the thing. That was why Bel adored and appreciated her. Annie was good at no. Calm, efficient, practical. Annie's no was utterly drama-free.

And Annie had just shouted at her.

"Of course." Bel put her phone away. "I'm listening."

Annie's eyes slid toward the water, then back to Bel's. "You can't do this," she finally said, twin spots of color burning in her pale cheeks.

"Do what?"

"Marry Ford. I'm serious, Bel. This is a sign. You can't go through with this."

Bel's eyebrows came together. "Because my swans have some kind of stress disorder?"

"Because you don't love him. And he doesn't love you."

Love. The word dropped a cold stone of distaste into Bel's stomach. The very last thing in the world she wanted was to be in love.

"Ford and I have something better than love," Bel said, her voice carefully calm and assured. The breeze snatched her veil out of her grip again, lifted the tail and dropped it on top of Annie's firecracker-colored head. Annie swatted it away.

"Better than love," she said, her mouth a skeptical knot. "Like what?"

"Like compatibility," Bel said. She unwound Annie from her veil and pinned it under her arm again. "Similar temperaments, goals and lifestyles. A great deal of mutual respect and affection. We have a partnership, Annie. A good, lasting one. Marriage simply takes it to the next level."

"I hate how you do that. Make it sound so rational and justified." Annie gave her head a hard shake. "No. Compatibility, my ass. It's cold-blooded and it's wrong and you know it. People need to be loved, Bel. High esteem and great affection just don't cut it. You're cheating yourself, and worse, you're cheating Ford."

"Cheating? Please." Bel gave a weary chuckle. They'd covered this ground ad nauseum. But how were you supposed to explain reasonable prudence to the fearless? "Love is nothing more than an excuse to be fickle, impulsive and selfish. People shouldn't build a lunch date around it, let alone a marriage. I don't feel deprived, and I doubt very much if Ford does either."

"Only because you've convinced him that this is as good as it gets. And it's not." She spat the words like they were poisonous. "I don't know who hurt you so badly, Bel, who broke your heart or whatever. And if you don't want to get over it, fine. Your choice. But this is bigger than you. Now Ford's in it, too, and he's a sweet guy. He deserves better."

Bel stared at her assistant through the early September sun that poured down in rich, buttery waves. It bathed the afternoon in exactly the sort of light Bel had known it would. The pictures would be perfect. So would the cake and the flowers and her hair and the dress and the three hundred and forty three guests arriving in an hour. They, along with the entire Kate Every Day at-home audience, would see that perfection. Would bear witness while Bel finally achieved the life she'd been planning since that day twelve years ago when she'd stumbled onto an episode of Kate Every Day while waiting for her mother to come home.

Her mother hadn't come home--not for three days that time--but that was all right. By the time she did, Bel had found a new home. An imaginary one, sure, but at least it was available every day from three to four, eastern. Kate Every Day had taught Bel everything she knew about the good life and how to build it.

And after today's ceremony, Bel's life would be very good indeed. She'd have job security, a solid relationship, and a stable, predictable life. She'd have a future that stretched out toward the horizon in a beautiful, straight line. Everything was going to be perfect. And she wasn't about to let some rogue waterfowl--or her best friend's disapproval--get between her and that future.

"Annie," she started.

"Oh, God, the be reasonable voice." Annie slumped inside all that purple satin, defeated. "Okay, fine. Here's me being reasonable. Ready?"

Bel's lips twitched in spite of herself. "Ready."

"You're my friend, Bel. I care about you and I want you to be happy." She fixed Bel with shrewd, troubled eyes. "But I don't see how that's going to happen when you don't love your husband."

Affection flooded her and Bel let go of her veil. "Oh, Annie." She snatched the shorter woman into her arms and hugged her hard. The veil streamed out in the breeze and pulled viciously at her scalp but she didn't care. "I love you. Is that good enough?"

"No." Annie pulled back and glared. "Because you love Ford just the same way."

"Of course I do. He's my other best friend."

"Yeah, well, most people want to feel something a little warmer than friendship for the guy they're going to sleep with for the rest of their lives."

She grinned cheerfully. "Not me." She checked her watch and stopping grinning. "Oh, yikes. Annie, listen. Thank you for yelling at me. I know you love me and want what's best for me, but you're going to have to trust me on this. Ford and me? We're good. We really are. And we really, really don't have time to discuss it anymore. The swans--"

"--are a sign," Annie said through her teeth.

"No, they're not. They're just--"

She stopped when a golf ball sailed over the box hedge that separated their lawn from the neighboring estate. It whistled in from the east and detonated in the pond like a hand grenade. The swans wheeled madly and sent up a chorus of betrayed honks.

Bel and Annie stared speechlessly.

"Oh my lord,"Bel said finally. "Was that a golf ball?"

"Looked like." Annie squinted into the pond. "Well. This explains a few things."

TASTE FOR TROUBLE by Susan Sey

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