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This is unedited. Please excuse the typos. My editors will clean it up before release. I like sharing my work in progress to give readers a sneak peak behind the curtain. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 is on my website.

Chapter 3

After her brother left for work, Raina went upstairs, pulled out her laptop and returned to the kitchen table. She got on the cloud service and looked through the storage drive until she found the file for the venues. She took a big sip of coffee and made calls. A couple of hours later, she leaned back in the chair and stared at the ceiling. What a wasted effort. 

There was no venue big enough to host a wedding party their size and with availability this coming weekend. Raina rubbed her temples. And lucky for her—she had to deliver this unwelcomed message to the bride and the family. 

Thiswas not her idea of a vacation from managing the Venus Café. She was supposed to meet up with cousins and friends—to visit, to eat at her favorite restaurants, to play with her niece—anything but this. She groaned out loud.  

Other than the date, Matthew wouldn’t commit to any actual plans for their wedding. No, he said he would do whatever she wanted. But he didn’t sound excited about anything. She had a feeling he wanted something intimate and small. Not that he ever uttered those words. Thiswas how she'd translated his grunts and bland smiles. Unlike Raina, he didn't have to worry about disappointing his family.

“Are you okay?” Po Po asked, entering the kitchen And holding several small packages from her shopping trip. She set them on the countertop but brought the pink pastry box over to the table.

Raina straightened and untied the pink line around the box of goodies. “Do you need help with the rest of the stuff?”

Po Po waved dismissively at the packages. “They’ll keep. You know I don’t buy groceries.”

Once her husband’s business took off, her grandma had employed a cook for over forty years. After a decade of putting up with burned and undercooked food, her husband had felt the expense had saved their marriage. As the daughter of a wealthy rice merchant in China, Po Po had never heard enjoyed spending time over a stovetop. She even jokingly referred to the gap between the countertop and the refrigerator as the Grand Canyon. 

Raina bit into a pork bun. Yum. Thiswas as good a time as any to deliver the bad news. “If the winery is still closedon Saturday, Jung-yee would have to wait six months for the next available venue.”  

“Then the winery better open on Saturday,” Po Po said, grabbing an egg tart from the box. 

“I don’t think this is up to us to decide. We should set up a phone tree so that if we have to call off the wedding, we can disseminate the news quicker. The out-of-towners would need to cancel their flights and hotels.” 

Po Po shook her head. “We should help the police along.”

Raina gaped at her grandma. She couldn’t be serious. “Someone executed the victim.” 

“I don’t see how this is any different from plain old murder.”

“I don’t have time to investigate a murder. I’m the new wedding planner, remember?” 

“Lucy can take care of the wedding. She’s usedto planning launch parties. The two of us need to focus on what we do best”—she wiggled her eyebrows—“finding a killer.”

Raina didn’t want to encourage her grandma, but a part of her wanted the thrill that only came from unraveling a murder. The last few months of managing the café and making plans with her fiancé had been blissful…and dull, dull, and dull. Even her grandma got out of town to seek a different adventure in Lucy’s hometown.  

“Well?” Po Po asked, bouncing on the chair with her excitement. “Should I pull out my new murder kit?” 

Raina bit her lower lip. Her grandma often thought of herself as a Miss Marple in training. She would rather jump in head first and worry about the danger later. It would be much safer for Raina to take the reins. It wouldn’t hurt to ask a few questions. Po Po could get a flash of excitement without putting either of them in danger. Easy peasy. 

“We should check out the crime scene. Maybe talk to the vineyard owner to see what he thinks will happen on Saturday,” Raina finally said.

“You are not arguing with me?” Po Po asked.

“No. I’m saving my breath to warm my stomach,” Raina said. She loved this Chinese proverb. When there was no point in arguing—like at the moment with her grandma—she was better off saving the effort. 

Po Po beamed and patted Raina’s cheek. “You’re such a good girl, Rainy.”

Being a good girl was what got Raina into trouble in the first place. She couldn’t seem to say no to her family. Some people might call her a doormat, but her family was important to her. And they haven’t yet asked anything she wasn’t willing to give.

Besides, she hadn’t promised they would investigate the murder, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask a few questions. With Matthew busy with her cousins today, and she had no real plan. 

She opened her laptop again and typed a suspect list.

Husband. What happens to Arianna’s money upon her death? 

Business partner or money manager. What about the angel loans? Who else borrowed money from her? Does the borrower have to make payments to the husband now?

Po Po peered over Raina’s shoulder. “Trying to follow the money trail, huh? It’s a start until we find out more.”

“I’m not sure how we can get the husband to talk to us.”

“Can we pretend we’re Arianna’s business partners?”

“That’s not a bad idea. Let me ask Lucy to pull up information on Arianna through the PI proprietary databases.” Raina hit the save button and pulled out her cell phone. 

“I’ll be back in a jiffy. I got to get into my disguise. I’m thinking of going with the harmless little old lady look,” Po Po said.

Raina’s studied her grandma. Her face was a well-traveled roadmap, but her silvery pixie haircut, skinny jeans, and off-the-shoulder blouse gave her a matured urbane look. Her grandma certainly looked too hip to be a little old lady. “Why do you need a disguise?”

“First, the knitting needles make a handy weapon. Second, nobody notices an old lady in a crowd. Third, I can ask all the questions I want because I’m bored and nosy.” Po Po gestured at Raina’s outfit. “And you pull off the broke grad student look wonderfully, my dear.”

Raina glanced at herself. She was wearing a well-worn T-shirt from Matthew and baggy shorts. She looked nothing like the young professionals in the city. Too bad it wasn’t a disguise.

While Po Po was upstairs, Raina texted Lucy. Her foster cousin replied immediately to say she was on it. It was mighty convenient, having a private investigator in the family. Lucy could probably investigate the murder more professionally than Raina and Po Po, but she had a wedding to plan. And she already got plenty of excitement with her day-to-day work.  

Raina texted the bridal party members to remind them to bring their outfits to the family dinner tonight. She wanted to drop the dresses and tuxedos off at the dry cleaners as soon as possible. 

Blue texted her back. 

Can you stop by my office this morning? I need to talk to you. 

Raina frowned at the message and replied. 

No can do. Busy all day. See you tonight at the family dinner. 

Her phone vibrated underneath her hand before the message got sent. It was an incoming message from Blue again. 

I can’t make it tonight. Too much work before the wedding and honeymoon.  

Raina raised an eyebrow at the text message. She could swing by his office, but she didn’t want to give off the impression that she was still available at his beck and call. 

Before she could make up her mind, her phone vibrated again. She sighed and opened the message app. 

I need to talk to you about the murder. 

#

The drive to Blue Diamond Construction was uneventful. Po Po complained about missing her weapons of destruction. Her arsenal of spy gear was in the condo at Gold Springs. The “murder kit” only had a magnifying glass, a notebook, and pepper-spray.

Po Po snorted in disgust and tossed everything back into the drawstring bag. “It’s cheap Chinese junk. My high school kids could get us something better than this. It’s just too bad they’re on vacation or out of town. I hate summer break. Kids these days need to hit the books harder, not slack off for months.”

Her grandma sponsored a math and science club at the high school in their town. The sole goal of this club was to create gadgets for her grandma in exchange for a college scholarship. In reality, the club provided a haven for talented but troubled kids. And Raina was often roped into providing snacks for this ravenous pack.

Raina kept her eyes on the road. “I guess we must do this the old-fashioned way. Maybe it was Colonel Mustard in the vineyard with the revolver.” She pressed her lips together to keep the laughter from escaping.

“Uh-huh. You think this is funny? Wait until you’re in a tight spot, then you’ll wish the kids were still in school.” Po Po slipped the murder kit in Raina’s purse. “Here you go, Sherlock.”

Raina pulled off the main road and onto the side street that led to the industrial park in South San Francisco. The concrete tilt-up buildings with wide roll-up doors and loading docks were islands in a sea of asphalt. Vegetation was limited to a hedge and an anemic tree by the front door of each building. The endless asphalt pavement was broken up by perimeter fencing. 

When Raina and Po Po walked into the building, the receptionist was filing her nails and streaming a movie on the computer screen. Mrs. Santos had worked at the construction office for over thirty years. Her husband sold the business to Blue and promptly passed away. She showed up one morning to help out and stayed ever since. Raina didn’t know if Mrs. Santos was even collecting a paycheck.

Mrs. Santos was a fading Hispanic woman of average height. She was probably the same age as Po Po. Her face looked like an apple-head doll at the county fair and surrounded by a thinning halo of fluffy white hair. She had on a thick shawl around her thin shoulders even though it was the middle of summer. What Mrs. Santos lacked in physical presence, she made up for with her broad smile and booming voice.

Raina gave her grandma a sideways glance. Even in her little old lady disguise—Po Po even wore a shawl much like Mrs. Santos—her grandma didn’t give off the same frail vibe. Interesting. It must be the exercise classes from the senior center.

“Rainy! I’m so glad to see you again. What can I do for you?” Mrs. Santos said.

“Is Blue available? He’s expecting me to drop by,” Raina said.

Mrs. Santos waved Raina toward the inner office. “I don’t know if he’s in a conference call, so knock first before going in.”She returned to filing her nails.

“Why don’t I wait for you right here?” Po Po said, pulling a chair up next to Mrs. Santos. 

“I’m sure whatever he has to say, could be said in front of you,” Raina replied.

“I know, but I want to watch the show,” Po Po said, blinking a Morse code with her eyes.

Raina couldn’t interpret the message, but it was a good idea for them to split up. Her grandma might get information from the receptionist. “Okay, see you in a bit. Just don’t teach Mrs. Santos anything naughty.” 

Mrs. Santos smirked. “Oh, please. I was a hot blood Latina once. I could show your granny a move or two.”

Po Po beamed and leaned forward. “I would like to see the moves.”

Raina turned away from the two retired women and rolled her eyes. Great. Her grandma didn’t need any more help in the naughty department. 

She strolled down the short hallway and passed the conference room, the small break area, and restroom. Blue’s office was in the rear of the building next to the warehouse area with the loading dock. He stored the building materials back there until he needed to move them onto the job site. Blue wasn’t in the office, so Raina strolled through the double doors into the warehouse. There was no sign of movement.

“Anybody here? I’m looking for Blue,” Raina called out.

“Back here,” Blue said.

Raina headed in the direction of his voice. When she rounded a bank of metal shelves, she saw Blue pulling open the lid of a shipping crate with a crowbar. The muscle on his arm rippled with the movement. He had on a faded white T-shirt and blue jeans. His long black hair was tied back into a ponytail. His work attire made the tuxedo version that much more appealing. 

He set the crowbar on the shelf next to him and pull off the lid. Nestled inside the Styrofoam was a refrigerator. She couldn’t tell what brand it was, but from the way it was packaged, she knew it was expensive. Probably custom made.

“Twenty thousand dollars,” Blue said, glancing over at her.

Raina whistled. “Kitchen remodel?”

He nodded and leaned the lid against the crate. “Some people have more money than sense.”

“So you want to talk about the murder?” She didn’t bother hiding the skepticism in her voice.

He studied her for a long moment. He hooked his thumbs on the pockets of his jeans. From all outward appearance, he looked relaxed. But she knew him well enough to notice the tension in his hazel eyes.

She softened her voice. After all, at one point, she cared for this man. “How can I help?”

“The victim is Arianna Cobbs. She’s an Angel for small businesses,” Blue said. 

Raina nodded. Thiswasn’t new information to her. She knew from experience it was better to let people talk at their own pace.

“She’s my Angel.” Blue swallowed. “And right before her death, she called in her loan.”

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P.P.S. You can always request your local library to purchase this book after it releases. I'm shocked to find my books at a library in the Netherlands!

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Sneak Peek: Smoldering Flames – Chapter 2

This is unedited. Please excuse the typos. My editors will clean it up before release. I like sharing my work in progress to give readers a sneak peak behind the curtain. Chapter 1 is on my website.

Chapter 2

The next few hours flashed by in a blur. Jung-yee changed into her regular street clothes, and the photographer packed it in for the day. He’d tried reassuring the bride that he got a few good shots, and he could take some more on the day of the wedding next weekend. Raina helped the other bridesmaids packed up the various props they’d brought for the photo shoot.

The local police showed up half an hour later. The winery owner left to round up his staff for the police. When Po Po showed up in the sitting room to give her statement, Raina breathed a sigh of relief. She never doubted that Po Po was in any danger, but she didn’t want her grandma contaminating the crime scene by playing detective. When the police were finally satisfied with their statements, the wedding party was allowed to leave. Everyone rushed to their vehicles and departed like roaches under a flashlight beam.

Matthew opted to stay behind to offer his assistance to the local police rather than to come home and deal with the fallout from the disastrous photo shoot. Smart man. And in reality, the local police probably couldn’t use his help even if they wanted to. Bureaucratic paperwork and all. He would be a lookie-loo among the uniforms. If Raina had the choice, she rather hang out with him.

After a trip through the drive thru for dinner, Lucy dropped Raina and Po Po off at the Victorian. As her foster cousin pulled away from the driveway, she waved. Gigi popped her head up from the passenger seat and gave them a huge doggy grin. Lucy had offered to keep the dog in her apartment and out of everyone’s hair. Lucky dog.

When they walked into the house, Mom was on the speaker phone with Jung-yee’s mom and another aunt. From the frazzled look on her mom’s face, Raina could tell the news had already made its way to the rest of the extended family.

Raina marched from the living room to the kitchen. No way was she dealing with this until she had food in her stomach. Po Po followed without a word. Mom tried to bring the phone into the kitchen after them, but a curt word from Po Po banished Mom back into the living room. They could still hear the conversation in the kitchen, but at least they could pretend it didn’t existed. Nothing like eating a greasy burger to the tears of a Chinese drama. And oddly enough, it felt like home.

After several minutes of stuffing her face in silence, Raina asked, “How did Gigi end stumbling onto the crime scene?”

Po Po paused with a French fry suspended in midair. “We were playing catch, but then she ran off. And when she came back into sight, she was dragging a plastic lawn chair and running like she had the devil behind her.”

“And you didn’t see anyone suspicious?”

“I wasn’t paying attention. I wanted to get to Gigi before she runs into the photo shoot,” Po Po said. “I ruined the whole thing, huh?”

Raina patted her grandma’s hand. “It will turn out okay. We were halfway through anyway. There must be several good shots. I mean how many wedding photographs do you need.”

Po Po snickered. “For Jung-yee, probably an entire book. I think the girl has self-esteem issues.”

Raina snorted. Uh-huh. Jung-yee had been the bane of her childhood, competing with her on every level. As if Raina could compete on her dad’s government salary. She didn’t miss those days at all. And now her cousin was marrying her ex.

“It’s not about you, you know,” Po Po said.

“What are you talking about?” Raina asked, wondering if she missed something in the conversation.

“Jung-yee isn’t marrying Blue to get to you.”

“I never said she was,” Raina answered, wincing inwardly at her peevish tone.

She didn’t have feelings for Blue any more. She was annoyed at the situation. Weren’t there an unspoken family code to keep exes out of the family? She shouldn’t be forced to make niceties with an ex-boyfriend at family unions for the rest of her life.

Mom took this moment to come into the kitchen, saving Raina from an awkward conversation she didn’t want to have.

“Your aunt is afraid they would be forced to change the venue,” Mom said, dropping into a chair next to Po Po on the kitchen table.

“Last minute like this?” Po Po asked.

Raina did some mental calculations in her head. “I think we should be okay. The police would finish processing the crime scene by Tuesday at the latest. So by Thursday, the winery should be back to business as usual. This would still give the vendors Thursday and Friday to get the manor house ready for the wedding on Saturday.”

“As long as there’s no more catastrophe after this,” Po Po added.

Mom grimaced. “The wedding planner quit. And your cousin had another meltdown.”

Raina gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. Oh, this was awful. With hundreds of guests—and with the potential threat of finding a new venue—her cousin needed all the help she could get. “What will happen now?”

Mom straightened and gave Raina an unblinking stare.

Raina’s heart sank. Whenever her mother had given her this look in the past, it had always ended with a job that tested the limits of Raina’s patience. “Please tell me you didn’t.”

Po Po’s head swiveled between her daughter and her granddaughter. “Did what?”

Mom licked her lower lip. “Do you want your family to be disgraced in front of everyone?”

“No,” Raina replied grimly.

“Do you want to see your cousin happy?”

Raina paused to consider this answer. She didn’t particularly care one way or the other, but she wouldn’t want to see her cousin unhappy. “No,” she mumbled.

Mom smiled in triumph. “I knew you would do your duty.”

“What duty? Po Po asked.

Raina’s sighed. It was just her luck. “I’m the new wedding planner.”

***

By the time Raina woke the next morning, she was resigned with becoming the de facto wedding planner. She knew her cousin would do the same for her when push came to shove. Despite the squabbles, her family had always pulled together when it counted. And Raina would not be the one to fail her family.

Even when her cousins had tried to sue her for the three million dollar inheritance, they had remained cordial the entire time, letting the lawyers handle the process. She didn’t hold a grudge against them. After all, if she had inherited one dollar from their grandfather like they did, she probably would have joined the lawsuit too. It was all water under the bridge now.

Besides, most of the planning was already done. Raina probably only had to stand aside while the professionals did their job on Saturday. With a bounce in her steps, she headed downstairs for breakfast.

Winter a.k.a. Win—yes, their parents had a sense of humor—was home from college for the summer and worked at the family international shipping company as a forklift driver. He bit into his bagel and cream cheese like he hadn’t eaten in several days. His other hand flicked through the news feed on his tablet. If this wasn’t the death toll of the printed newspaper, she didn’t know what was.

Her brother was medium height, but he still had the lanky look of a growing teen. He had inherited the curly black hair from their father’s side of the family as Raina did, but he kept it cropped close to his head. His eyes were a dark chocolate brown ringed in thick sooty lashes. Raina would need two types of mascara and half an hour to produce the same look. And nothing could salvage her hair—she looked like a walking cotton candy on a good day. It was a good thing she was no longer in the dating scene. Give it a little more time, and she might stop shaving her legs.

As Raina put a bagel in the toaster and poured her coffee, Win called out, “Rainy, you got to look at this.” He held out his tablet. “I think this is the woman from the vineyard.” He sounded excited, but to an invincible twenty-year-old, death happened to other people.

She took the tablet and scanned the article. The headline read: Former child star found dead in a vineyard. There was a snapshot of the flashing lights from the police and emergency vehicles pulling off the main highway and onto the vineyard. The decorative boulder with the cast plaque proudly displayed the estate name. Talk about bad PR.

The article was brief. Arianna Cobbs had disappeared two weeks ago. Her husband had insisted Arianna wouldn’t walk away from her life with nothing more than her purse. However, the police didn’t suspect foul play at the time of her disappearance.

Raina handed the tablet back to her brother. “Well, there’s definitely proof of foul play now.” She grabbed her breakfast and joined Win at the table.

Win tapped on the tablet, his eyes scanning the headlines. “Hey, she’s an Angel.”

Raina looked at her brother blankly. From the way he emphasize the last word, she could tell he meant angel with a capital A. “What does this mean, an Angel?”

“She loans seed money to small startups or businesses.”

“Oh, she’s a venture capitalist,” Raina said.

“No, a venture capitalist is usually a firm, and their loans are always over one million. As an Angel, she loans out her personal money. It could be as low as ten thousand dollars.”

Raina frowned. When did her little brother get so smart? “How do you know all this?”

Win shrugged. “When you live in the land of startups, you learn these things pretty quickly. I have a friend who got an Angel investor. He’s making bespoke gamer keyboards in his parents’ garage.” Her brother launch into a detailed account of the keyboard and its features.

“Uh-huh,” Raina said, mentally reviewing her to-do for the week. Drop the dresses off at the dry cleaners, locate a backup venue—

Win’s eyes widened. He leaned forward, tapping on the table to get Raina’s attention. “Hey, Sis. I just had a thought. Once the reporters find out how Arianna died—and I don’t see how the police can hide this—the reporters will be all over the grounds. We might not have a wedding on Saturday.”

Raina groaned, rubbing her temples. She’d had the same thought, but it sounded more likely when someone else voiced it out loud. “I don’t need this stress.”

“And it’s unlucky to get marry at a crime scene.”

Not that Raina didn’t want to see her cousin happily married, but she could do without the wedding. “Maybe Jung-yee might call off the wedding.”

“I doubt it. Our cousin is determined to get marry before you do.”

Raina rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I know. Little Miss Competition has to win.”

“It’s hard to measure up to you. Jung-yee can’t help it if she feels like you’re perfect.” Win gave her a cheeky grin. “But it sucks to be you, Sis.”

She smacked him playfully in the arm. “Hey, learn to respect your elder."

"You're not that old. You’re only forty."

"I'm not even thirty yet, you snot-nose brat.”

Win put his plate and mug in the dishwasher. "Close enough.”

“What you mean I’m perfect? I have a part-time job and a one-bedroom apartment. That’s not much to aspire to.”

“You’re engaged to the love of your life, have two degrees, and only need to work part time to pay the bills. And you get to play Indiana Jones on your spare time with your work at the university. Most people around here have to work a full time-job and a part-time one. You got the dream life.”

Raina cocked her head and studied her brother. “You can have the same if you move away from San Francisco. It’s the ten thousand dollar a month mortgage payment that is making everyone feel like they’re just getting by.”

Win shrugged. “I still have plenty of time to think about that later. Have a good day, old maid.” He chuckled as he left the kitchen.

Raina was still smiling when she got up to put away her dirty dishes. She’d always had an easy relationship with her younger brother, unlike the persnickety one she had with her older sister. Sometimes it felt like the two of them were from separate families. She shook her head, hoping to dislodge her sister from her thoughts. This wasn’t the time or place to worry about it. Her first priority was to make sure this wedding takes place without a hitch.

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​P.S. For my Smashwords fans, this book will be available on Smashwords a few days after release.

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Smoldering Flames – Chapter 1

This is unedited. Please excuse the typos. My editors will clean it up before release. I like sharing my work in progress to give readers a sneak peek behind the curtain.

Chapter One

As Raina Sun studied the groom—who was her ex-boyfriend—he continued to track her fiancé’s movements under hooded eyes in the manor house’s backyard. The bridal party and a handful of family members loitered around the space and picked at the snacks set out for them, waiting for the call to be photographed with the bride and groom. The rolling green hills of the winery made a stunning backdrop for wedding photos, but Raina felt dread settling into her stomach. 

Sebastian Luc, “Blue” to his friends, was dressed in his white tux with a turquoise bow tie. The color set off his hazel eyes, turning them into an interesting shade of blue with golden flecks among all the brown eyes in the bride’s Chinese family. He flashed the deep dimple on his right cheek when he thanked the photographer and walked “off stage,” leaving his bride, Raina’s cousin, to pose by herself.  

His gaze scanned the crowd, and his hand brushed a lock of his black hair off his forehead. As with all mixed children, his height and Eurasian features looked exotic among the Wong family, like a peacock among a gathering of swans. His gaze locked in on Raina’s fiancé again like a homing pigeon, and he made his way to join the men gabbing by the drinks cooler. 

A hand waved in front of Raina’s face. She blinked, breaking off her thoughts. She turned to Lucy Fong, her grandma’s foster granddaughter. “I’m sorry. What did you say?” The two of them were sitting underneath the pop-up shade canopy on the lawn, a few feet away from the main crowd.  

Lucy grinned at her. “Your wedding will come soon enough. You don’t need to keep your eyes on your man. No one will steal him from under your nose at a family gathering.” 

Raina flushed. She wanted to march up to Blue and demanded to know why he was marrying her cousin and watching her fiancé like a salivating dog. He wasn’t gay, so why the sudden interest in Matthew? But this would probably get her into more trouble than it was worth. “Did you ask me something?” 

“I’m here if you want to talk about it,” Lucy said. 

Like the groom, Lucy was also half-Chinese. Her black hair was in a pixie cut with red streaks. The fringes of her bangs highlighted the brown eyes and delicate cheekbones of the heart-shaped face. Her foster cousin was close to five foot eight inches with her heels. Her hideous designer bridesmaid dress matched Raina’s, but her height turned the geometric print ball gown into a thing of beauty.  

On Raina, the dress added fifteen pounds to the hips. The bodice was full of daisies—the 3D kind that protruded from the fabric—and flattened what little chest she had. She would have looked more attractive walking around in a burlap sack and a Hawaiian lei. And to make her torment complete, all these outfits would have to be dry cleaned before show time next weekend, and it was her job to take care of it. 

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Raina said, forcing a smile on her face.  

From a distance, she could hear Gigi yipping. Her grandma was pet sitting the Boston terrier. Unfortunately, the dog complained whenever she was within smelling distance of Raina. “I better go inside for before Gigi’s barking get on everyone’s nerves.” 

Before she could take a step toward the house, Gigi charged into the middle of the group, her leash dragging a lawn chair in her wake. When she looked behind her, there was panic in her face. As the dog ran to get away from the plastic chair, she crashed into bridesmaids and photo equipment alike.  

Po Po, Raina’s maternal grandma, ran after the dog. “Gigi! Stop girl. Stop.” 

“Holy Toledo,” Lucy muttered next to Raina. 

“We need to help Po Po,” Raina said. 

Lucy shook her head. “Not my monkey, not my circus.” She didn’t bother hiding the grin on her face. 

Raina laughed. “You’re so bad.” 

“Po Po would have filmed the entire thing with her cell phone and post it up on YouTube. She’s lucky I have restraint,” Lucy said. 

Gigi ran away from the patio and onto the lawn. The leash towed a lawn chair, tablecloth, and a watermelon fruit basket. The dog’s tongue lolled out of her mouth. Her eyes were white with terror. Oh, the poor baby.  

“We need to get the dog before my cousin has a hernia,” Raina said. Lucy followed her lead.  

They spread out, hoping to box her in with Po Po coming up from the rear. 

“Somebody needs to get this dog off the lawn,” Cousin Jung-yee shouted. Her reddened face and flashing brown eyes made Raina picked up her pace.  

Gigi swiveled her head toward the bride. The dog made a wide arc on the lawn to change direction. Po Po launched to cut the dog off, but all she got for her effort was a face full of grass and the watermelon fruit basket. As the Boston terrier charged toward the bride, the plastic chair legs dug into the lawn, clumps of lush green grass followed in her wake. 

Jung-yee’s eyes widened. She grabbed the full skirt of her dress to run away from the animal, but her three-inch heels got tangled in the train. She screamed as she fell to the ground. “Help—” 

Before she could finish, Gigi was on Jung-Yee. She pounced on the bride and licked her face, wiggling her tail so excitedly that her bottom got ensnared in the tulle fabric around her. The lawn chair and tablecloth waited behind her like silent servants. While Gigi hated Raina, she loved Jung-yee with an equal passion. Too bad the love was unrequited. 

The patio went silent. Po Po stopped short at the sight. She gave Raina a look of horror, changed direction, and fled back into the house.  

Raina stopped running and tiptoed toward the mess. She didn’t want to spook the dog and cause her to blaze another trail of destruction. “Come here, Gigi. Be a good girl.” 

“Get her off of me!” Jung-yee said. “Get this beast off me.” She pushed ineffectively at the dog. 

Lucy trotted toward, scooped up the dog, unclipped the leash, and headed toward the house. “I’ll keep Gigi out of everyone’s hair,” she said over her shoulder. Smart woman. If Jung-yee got her hands on the dog, there was no telling what would happen. 

Raina and Blue got to the bride at the same time. Each of them took an arm and hauled her off the ground. Jung-yee was sobbing by this time. Her once sleek up-do was a tumbling mess around her face. Mascara ran down her checks. She was trembling, though Raina couldn’t tell if it were from suppressed her anger or defeat. 

“It’s okay. We’ll have this clean up in no time,” Blue said, wrapping his bride-to-be in his arms. He kissed her hair while she continued to sob. 

Raina untangled the train and brushed off the grass and dirt. Her cousin would have to change into her red Chinese dress for the rest of the photo shot. As she straightened another section of the dress, her hands hovered over the fabric. There were red paw prints on the skirt. 

Jung-yee pushed away from her fiancé, ran a finger under each eye—not that it helped—and straightened her back. “Brittany! Call the make-up and hair people. See if they can come back within the hour. Thank you.” As the operations manager for her father’s chain of Chinese restaurants, she was used to issuing commands. Though her voice wobbled, it didn’t make her any less formidable.  

Raina bent over the paws for a closer look. The liquid looked thick and dried to a deep burgundy. 

Jung-yee’s gaze swept down to her skirt, and she grimaced. “I need a club soda before the stain sets.” She brushed at it, and her fingers came away red. Her face turned to horror. Her hand trembled. “What..” 

Raina swallowed. “It’s blood.” 

***

Raina backed out of the bedroom, closing the door softly. She took a deep breath, thankful she was in the hallway instead of dealing with a weeping bride inside. She didn’t blame her cousin for the melt down, but she don’t want to get caught in the crossfire.  

Even with the help of a wedding planner, the time and expense of planning a party for over four hundred guests was stressful. Chinese weddings were never a small event because the parents either had a large extended family or a network of friends and associates. Leaving someone off the guest list could be interpreted as a lost of face and start a family freud. And to top it off, the elders didn’t believe in RSVPing for weddings. It was always a toss up as to how many guests actually show up. Everyone gave a red envelope filled with money to help offset the cost. If an absent guest forget this gift, the host family might take offense.

Politics were nothing compared to the intricacies surrounding a Chinese wedding, and the expectations between host and guest. Sometimes it had little to do with celebrating the love between a bride and groom. And with her cousin’s perpetual need to be more Chinese than everyone else, the stress must be the size of Texas.

Raina sighed. Her poor cousin. Even though Jung-yee had spent their entire childhood competing in an one-sided match, Raina wouldn’t wish this on her worst enemy. She hoped the cleaners would be able to remove the bloodstains. But where did the blood come from? Everyone looked hale and hearty. There was enough blood to look like someone had a stab wound. She shivered at the unlucky thought and pushed it aside.

She smelled her fiancé’s unique scent—a sage and clean water body wash—and spun around to find E. Matthew Louie approaching her. He was named after his father but went by his middle name. And after decades of calling her fiancé Matthew, she sometimes forgot he even had a different first name.

He was in a white tux with a silvery gray bow tie. As a courtesy to Raina, he was made a groomsman—an honor he had tried to get out of since day one. He had stayed away from the months of planning, but he had to make an appearance for the photo shoot this morning and the family dinner tomorrow.

His normally amused gold-flecked brown eyes were dark with concern. “How is Jung-yee doing?”

“She has calmed down a bit, but she’s still weeping. Were you able to track down the source of the bloodstains?” she asked.

He shook his head. “The guys and I went through every inch of the front and back lawns and patio. The bridesmaids went through the house. We couldn’t find anything that would account for the bloodied paw prints.” He raked a hand through his thick black hair. “We should broaden our search beyond the proximity of the house.”

Matthew was a police detective in their small town of Gold Springs. He was also an ex-Marine who did little side jobs, though Raina didn’t know his clients. She suspected one of them was her uncle, the criminal lawyer. Her fiance approached an investigation methodically, leaving no stone unturned. There were times when Raina’s spaghetti on the wall approach drove him nuts.

“Did Gigi hurt herself running?” Raina asked.

He shook his head again. “I found Lucy with the dog in the sitting room. After she cleaned Gigi’s paws, there was no trace of a wound.”

Now this was even more intriguing. “Did you speak to Po Po?” Raina asked.

“No one has seen your grandmother. We tried calling her, but she’s not picking up her cell phone.”

Raina’s eyes widened. What if the blood came from her grandma? She frowned. Her grandma had ran rather rigorously after the dog.

As if following her train of thought, Matthew said, “I don’t think so. Your grandma was too feisty to be suffering from blood loss.” He chuckled. “Did you see the way she tried tackling the dog?”

Raina grinned at the memory. The look on her grandma’s face when she ended up with the watermelon fruit basket was priceless. “Has anyone checked the barn or wine cellar?”

“I don’t even know where they are located. This winery is ninety acres.”

“They’re down the hill, beyond the first rows of grapevines. They process and bottle the grapes in the barn, and the wine is stored temporarily in the cavernous cellar underneath it. They also have three aging caves. They gave us a tour of the facility when we first checked out this venue.”

Matthew looked at the heels on Raina’s feet. “Do you want to change shoes before traipsing through the dirt?”

Raina wiggled her toes. If they find the source of the blood, she wouldn’t want to stain another dress. “Give me five minutes. I want to change into something more comfortable.”

He grinned. “Do you need any help?”

“No, thank you. If someone is hurt, showing up an hour later isn’t much help.”

He wiggled his eyebrows. “Who needs an hour. I could get done in two minutes.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’m familiar with those two minutes.”

“Hey! Those were the best two minutes of your life.”

She laughed. “If you say so.”

Raina disappeared into the room next door, which was used as a dressing room by all the bridesmaids. She got into her regular clothes—a T-shirt and capris. It took her two minutes to get out of that dress.

When she stepped back into the hallway, Matthew glanced up from his cell phone. His face was ashen and his lips were pressed into a thin line.

“What happened?” Raina asked, stepping up to her fiancé and wrapping an arm around his waist.

Matthew’s frown became even grimmer. “Your brother just texted me. One of the field hands found a body among the grapevines. Gigi’s bloodied paw prints led the worker to the crime scene.”

“Does anyone recognize the victim?”

He shook his head. “She wore a tank top and yoga pants. She wasn’t an employee.”

Raina blinked. And if the victim were a member of the owner’s family, someone would have recognized her. “How did the woman died?”

“A single bullet between the eyes. She was executed.”

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