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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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