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Authors: Alyse Carlson

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BOOK: The Begonia Bribe
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“Well, first, we’ve convinced Kyle Lance to help us out. He’s agreed to be here all week, opening the show and then performing several times in the last two nights.”

“Kyle Lance, isn’t he . . .”

“Very famous, yes!”

Cam had meant to finish with “twelve,” but whatever his age, if he was actually very popular, she could work with that. “Okay, bad news?”

“We don’t have a choice about Telly Stevens as a pageant judge.”

“Because?” Telly Stevens was a morning talk-show host at WONK with a reputation for womanizing.

“Because if he isn’t, WONK won’t air the pageant.”

Cam grimaced, frustrated. “And we lose three-quarters of our sponsors if we lose WONK because they are set on air time. But why do they want him? He’s a sleaze.” Admittedly, a sleaze known well in Roanoke, but still a sleaze.

“He’s married to their executive producer.”

“Your
friend
the executive producer?” Cam asked. That sounded familiar, now that she heard it. It was probably the only reason he was still on the air, but it annoyed her that Evangeline hadn’t anticipated this. There was nothing to do about it now, though. “Got it. We’ll work with him. He fits our theme, anyway. What was the good news?”

“We have all our judges!”

Cam squashed back the comment that that was obvious.

* * *

T
he next several weeks flew by in a daze of planning and coordinating. As the eve of pageant week arrived, Cam was preparing for the large supper party for media, pageant staff, and judges, so she was double-checking her list from home when her phone rang.

“Cam, how’s everything going?” Evangeline asked.

“So far, so good.”

“I was just thinking about that comment from Nell. Can your dad come to tonight’s dinner?”

Cam sighed. If she were more honest with herself, she would have seen this coming. “I can check whether he’s available.”

When she hung up, she called him.

“Daddy?”

“Hiya, sunshine. How’s shakes?”

“Pretty good, but you’ve been given a special VIP invite for our supper tonight.”

“It’s not one of them fancy things, is it?”

“You know it is. It’s for the judges, main sponsors, media, and executive staff.”

“Who’d want a gaffer like me at a fancy supper party?”

“The request came from Nell Norton. She says . . .”

“She was a friend of your mother’s. I remember.”

“I think she’s just feeling sentimental—she’s married . . .” Cam wasn’t sure what made her blurt it, except it seemed her dad was a hot commodity among women over fifty.

“Well, of course. I remember Byron, too.” Cam thought that was Nell’s husband’s name.

“So you’ll come?”

“It would be antisocial not to, it seems.”

“Thank you, Daddy. I’ll have Annie pick you up about quarter to seven.”

“You do that,” he said before he hung up.

Cam shut her phone and stared at it.

* * *

S
he refilled her coffee cup and then went upstairs to see Annie. Her best friend was already planning on attending the supper party in order to take pictures, so Cam didn’t think it would be a problem.

“You want a hot date tonight?”

“I might. Who’s asking?”

“My dad.”

“Is he taking me to Disney World?” Annie jumped up and down as she said it.

“Just the same old party you were already going to.”

“Well, I suppose it ups my value to show up with a hot guy on my arm.”

“Excellent!” Cam knew her dad was one of Annie’s favorite people, so unlike with the other favors she asked—and there were a lot of them—she didn’t feel too guilty. “I told him you’d pick him up at quarter to seven.”

“Nice! An excuse not to be there too early.”

Cam shrugged. “I owe you one, in any case.”

Annie grabbed her chin and looked upward. “You owe me nine million and forty-three.”

“Probably.” She gave Annie a hug. “You really are the best,
best
friend ever.”

T
welve guests had grown to thirty faster than Cam could say “pretentious pageant,” and she found herself in the awkwardly familiar spot of greeting guests in the Patricks’ foyer. Both times she’d done this before, people had died, no matter how much she didn’t want to think about that. Instead of guests wafting in with the smell of honeysuckle and jasmine as they had then, they now carried the sweet aroma of the gardenia that framed the Patricks’ front walk.

Evangeline and Neil Patrick were shuffling about in the day room upstairs where the reception would be, and Cam expected Lydia Fennewick, the pageant chair and a friend of Evangeline’s, to arrive from the guest house any minute.

The first other guests to arrive were Trish Tait and Jenny Andrews, volunteers who would be helping with the pageant. Cam was glad. They’d make excellent minglers as the more prestigious guests arrived. Both were socially skilled, attractive, and committed to the pageant’s success. Cam sent them up the stairs to wait for the other guests.

Clancy Huggins, one of the judges and host of
Green Living
, arrived next with a pretty woman Cam didn’t know.

“Mr. Huggins! Welcome! I’m Camellia Harris, the event coordinator.”

“Miss Harris, lovely to meet you in person. And this is my dear friend, Jessica Benchly.”

Cam had half expected to hear the name Jessica Rabbit, with the unrealistic proportions and beauty of the woman, though Jessica Benchly was dark haired with large dark eyes. She casually hung on Clancy’s arm. Dear friend could have been literal or a euphemism—there was no way to know.

“Wonderful to meet you, Ms. Benchly. We’re having cocktails up in the drawing room.” Cam gestured toward the stairs, then had to turn back to the door as guests began to arrive in earnest: Nell Norton and her husband, Byron; Telly Stevens and his wife, Judith Towers-Stevens—the executive producer who’d insisted her husband judge, Annette DiFlor of Anna Banana’s Tween Fashions; Holden Hobbes and several more.

Cam had a headache. She’d been a part of a lot of formal festivities, but this one seemed to have a higher ratio of important people and fewer allies to help her when things went wrong. She wished her boyfriend, Rob, hadn’t had a dinner scheduled with his editor at the
Roanoke Tribune
, as it would have been nice if he could have been here for her. She felt like squealing when her dad and Annie finally arrived, though she knew Annie was only looking at this as a job. Her camera was draped over her neck to document the party.

After another half hour of greeting, Cam finally felt she was OK to join the guests upstairs.

Instead of air conditioning the grand, garden-view drawing room, the Patricks had thrown open the wall of windows and glass doors and had a half-dozen ceiling fans circulating the summer air. The delicious floral scent from the garden drifted in. Cam was glad the temperature was lower than they expected the rest of the week, which made this possible. It was warm but worth it. And the room provided the ideal angle to view the elaborate garden.

As she stood in one of the French doorways that led to the balcony, Clancy Huggins and Jessica Benchly climbed the balcony stairs from strolling the garden. Cam had been right that the mosaic effect of the garden below was that of an iris. There was a vast array of purple blazing star, iris, and gladiolus, shot through with yellow foxglove and white calla lilies. Nearest the fountain at the center was a delightful cluster of sunflowers, perfect for the stamen at the center of the flower. The bit of conversation she heard from Clancy and Jessica was about the specific strains of oleander and the variety of lilies Clancy admired, while Jessica favored the hibiscus.

As they passed her, Cam heard an ominous feminine growl from inside. “What is
she
doing here?” Cam looked for the source. Judith Towers-Stevens glared at Clancy and Jessica, then stormed away from her husband and caught Nell Norton’s hand. She changed faces like a chameleon as she began to ask recommendations for keeping a floral garden through August, which could be challenging in the Virginia heat.

Cam felt guilty for her relief that Judith Towers-Stevens could take care of herself, as a look to another French door and the hungry look of Telly Stevens explained why she was so angry. Her husband definitely lusted after his fellow judge’s date. She wished she could smack him upside the head, but it wasn’t like they didn’t know about his personality. And it was Judith’s fault Telly was involved—she’d insisted.

Cam tried to evaluate if there were other problems, though a romantic triangle among judges was problem enough.

She looked at her watch for comfort but didn’t find it. She wandered over to Annie with her new concern. “It’s not like Petunia to be late.” Petunia and Nick, Cam’s sister and brother-in-law, ran a small restaurant called Spoons, and Cam liked to hire them whenever RGS had catering needs, so they were expected at any minute.

Annie looked at her own watch and raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, technically, they aren’t late, though they’re pushing it. And Petunia is usually a little early.”

She walked out onto the stairway landing and realized the Spoons van was sitting on the street waiting for one of the guests to park so Nick could pull past and get close to the house. When the car had finally cleared, he pulled up near the front door. Cam ran down to greet them.

“Everything all right?” she asked.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Petunia sneered.

Cam started to help, but Annie pushed past. “Let me do it first. She won’t refuse me,” she whispered.

It was true. Petunia liked Annie a lot, in spite of Annie being Cam’s best friend and the daughter of a former state senator, a position Petunia’s reverse-snob tendencies would normally shun. It was largely because they both were a bit snarky, though Annie’s snark held significantly more humor than Petunia’s, in Cam’s opinion. But Annie also shared Petunia’s reverse classism.

Cam waited until Annie had grabbed a box without being yelled at before she joined. Petunia still glared but didn’t stop Cam from taking a tray.

“Dining room!” Cam called. She hoped they’d find it. The parties Spoons had catered at the Patricks’ before had been outside or upstairs. When Cam arrived at the room, she was relieved to see Petunia opening wine bottles and Nick heading back outside for the last bowls of fettuccine.

The table looked lovely. Cam had rarely seen a table that could comfortably seat thirty—most dining rooms couldn’t hold one—but this one had extra room. It was set elegantly with the Patricks’ fine china and crystal glassware.

“Are you two staying?”

Petunia shook her head decisively. “You’ll get the pans, won’t you, Cam?” Petunia blinked innocently. Cam found her sarcasm annoying.

“We’ll be back in about ninety minutes,” Nick said, taking his wife by the elbow. “We need to get the dessert, which is ice cream.” Cam knew it was for the best if they left anyway.

“Sheesh. Petunia’s crabbier than usual, isn’t she?” Annie said.

“No kidding,” Cam agreed. For Annie to say it, it had to be pretty obvious.

Cam started to follow Petunia to see if there was a real problem, but was intercepted by a very late Jimmy Meares—probably the parker who had been in Nick’s way. Jimmy was Kyle Lance’s manager. Kyle was the tween pop star who had agreed to help with the pageant, and Cam thought it was cheeky of Jimmy to show up without Kyle, but she led him upstairs. She waited about ten minutes before she called the guests down to supper as Annie took pictures to document the gathering.

* * *

I
n the dining room, Cam suggested seating as people came in. She hoped to avoid the judge issues, so she sat Clancy Huggins and Telly Stevens at opposite ends on the same side of the table. She tried to alternate sponsors, pageant staff, and media, hoping it would encourage camaraderie, and took the last empty chair between Barbara Mackay, the third judge, and Jimmy Meares for herself.

“He did
not
just spike his tea.” Evangeline’s voice was quiet, but she looked scandalized. Cam thought only she, Neil, and Barbara had heard, but all of them turned to see Telly Stevens pouring from a silver flask into his goblet of sweet tea.

Evangeline made a point of pouring wine. It wasn’t as if they were asking people to teetotal. There’d been cocktails upstairs, and Cam wondered why Mr. Stevens hadn’t just brought a drink down if he preferred bourbon over wine.

Each quadrant of the table had a large bowl of pasta and one of salad, along with garlic bread, fancy olives, and fresh Parmesan. Cam helped her neighbors get served before serving herself.

When everyone had full plates, she surveyed the table. For the most part, people looked content. Cam thought it was possible Telly had his hand on Trish Tait’s leg, but Trish didn’t seem to object, and Judith Towers-Stevens was engaged in conversation with Holden Hobbes, who Cam knew could be terribly charming.

She had to stop herself from rolling her eyes when her scanning reached her dad, down a few chairs on the same side of the table as she sat. Older women always latched onto him, and there he sat, with Lydia Fennewick on one side and Nell Norton on the other. Both looked completely enthralled by some story he was telling. Thankfully Nell was happily married, so this was just entertainment on her part.

Jimmy Meares mistook Cam’s leaning to look at her father as leaning toward him, and he leaned toward her in return so their shoulders touched.

Cam pulled back. She would not have been interested, even if she was available.

“There now. No need to be so jumpy. What’s your role in this little shindig?” he asked.

Cam frowned at him. “I
planned
this little shindig. I’m the event coordinator.”

“Oh! So you and I are sort of the same,” he said, pressing closer again.

His hair was slicked back and long enough to curl at the base of his neck. She supposed it was sort of a Hollywood casual formal thing. His eyes seemed a little too pleased with something.

“And why would you think that?” Cam asked, hoping she didn’t sound as annoyed as she felt.

“I’m the man behind the story—the planner—the one who makes it all happen.”

“Well, you have a talented artist to work with. I’m sure that helps.”

Annie snapped their picture, and Cam gave her the super-secret glare. Jimmy hadn’t even noticed; what’s more, he seemed not to have heard her.

“And it seems you’re the force behind this deal. We ought to get together and compare notes.”

“As tempting as that is, I’m afraid I have too much to do.” Cam stood and rushed out of the room, hoping she could think of some task to perform so she could return with a realistic story after Jimmy had cooled off.

She double-checked the dessert table. While they were eating, the staff was meant to clean up the sunroom so when Petunia and Nick returned with the trays of ice cream delights there would be room. The desserts were beautiful little squares, much like petit fours, but they had ice cream in them, so they were perfect for a warm day.

The room looked great. She’d known it would; she called Nick to make sure they’d be back by eight. When he answered, she heard an annoyed Petunia in the background, so she whispered to Nick, “Just tell her I only made the call as an excuse to get out of talking to an obnoxious rich person.”

Nick laughed. If anything would work on Petunia, that ought to.

She caught Giselle, the Patricks’ housekeeper, on the way back to the dining room and suggested she could open some of the bottles of red wine to let them breathe.


Oui
, mademoiselle,” Giselle said and rushed off.

Giselle was no more French than Cam was, but the staff at La Fontaine seemed to play at it to make their jobs more interesting. Cam supposed there was no harm if it worked.

“Everything all right?” Evangeline asked as Cam came back in.

“Of course it is, love. Cammi’s on top of everything.” Mr. Patrick patted his wife’s leg and smiled.

“I was just double-checking on dessert,” Cam said. “With ice cream, timing matters. Eight o’clock, they said.”

She sat down again, pulling her chair just a little closer to Barbara Mackay. She would explain later. Barbara worked for the same newspaper as her boyfriend, Rob, so Cam knew her slightly and she thought Barbara would understand.

Evangeline looked at her watch. “That’s in about ten minutes. Looks like we timed this just right. Do you think the servants are ready for us to get a glass of wine?”

“I know they are.” Cam smiled.

Evangeline stood and clinked her glass. “Everyone, there’s no rush, but when y’all are ready, if you could make your way back to the sunroom . . .”

A few people began to stand and move. Others, in pairs, lingered a bit.

“Why don’t you and Neil go ahead,” Cam suggested to Evangeline. “I can stay for the stragglers.”

Evangeline winked, then took her husband’s arm to lead the procession.

Jimmy Meares looked ready to stay put with Cam, but Cam ducked over for an urgent word with Annie, hoping it didn’t look too obvious.

“Is he gone yet?” Cam whispered.

“Wait for it,” Annie said. “Lingering look . . . and . . . he’s gone.”

“Thank goodness,” Cam said.

“He’s a little slimy.”

“Understatement,” Cam said.

She turned back around to see her dad standing, Lydia Fennewick clinging to his arm, laughing.

“It’s not his fault he’s a babe magnet,” Annie whispered behind her.

Jessica and Clancy rose, too, finally heading out, and Cam spotted the danger. This was what Telly had been waiting for.

Cam pounced. “Mr. Stevens! I hoped I might have a word.”

He looked irritable. “Now?”

“Just briefly. I wanted to double-check what you needed for interviews.” Telly’s manager had agreed that he would interview all contestants for the pageant promotion.

“Let’s walk and talk at the same time, shall we?” he said, taking a shot from his flask.

Cam nodded but made a point of moving slowly.

It wasn’t slowly enough, however, to miss seeing Judith Towers-Stevens pull on Jessica’s unoccupied arm, spin her around, and give her a slap.

BOOK: The Begonia Bribe
4.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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