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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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