It’s almost here! Couture and Curses is the second book in my A Touch of Magic Mysteries series. It started with Cupid in a Bottle (which you can get for FREE here) and the first full-length book, Newly Wed and Slightly Dead, was released last month.
Anastasia and Harmony’s adventures continue in this second book and today, I’m offering up the first chapter as a sneak peek!
When sparks and curses fly, more than just high-profile weddings are thrown into danger.
Every wedding-planning witch worth her wand knows that the dress must be an Aurelia custom creation. The magical fashion designer to the who’s who of the Seattle Haven is in high demand with a waiting list that would make most wedding planner’s eyes water.
Luckily for her clients, witch wedding-planner extraordinaire Anastasia Winters has inside access to the famed fashion designer and a knack for making deals. However, on an after-hours errand to pick up a dress, Anastasia finds herself walking into a battleground. When the dust settles, Aurelia is locked in the grips of a powerful – and seemingly unbreakable – curse, and Anastasia is the only one who witnessed the vicious magical attack.
When she starts having visions and nightmares, she knows she has to act soon or risk losing her friend and haven fashion icon, forever.
Autumn had settled over Seattle, bringing rain, wind, and a general gloom, but I was unconcerned with the dreary weather outside as I strolled through a lush forest of tropical flowers, lost in a fairytale wedding wonderland.
“Don’t you just love birds of paradise?” I asked, turning to smile at the most handsome man I’d ever met—outside the cineplex, that is.
Caleb returned my smile, but the sparkle of amusement in his aquamarine eyes told me he was humoring me. “Absolutely.” He gestured at an arrangement. “Especially those pink ones.”
I laughed softly. “Thoseare plumerias.”
“Oh.” He shrugged.
I took his hand and leaned into his side. Even in my four-inch Prada pumps, I had to crane my neck a little to look up at him. “Are you dying of boredom? Be honest.”
He chuckled. “Hey, I haven’t used the code word yet. I’m good.”
Against my protests, Caleb had insisted on accompanying me to the annual wedding convention show held in the Seattle convention center. We weren’t engaged—or anywhere near becoming so, no matter what my co-worker CeeCee might have said—but I had to attend the show for work and Caleb didn’t want to miss out on seeing me during his one free weekend that month. So, we’d agreed on a safe word he could use to pull the ripcord and bail out when he started to become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of glitter and romance.
We’d been wandering through the sea of silk vendor tents for several hours, and so far, the only thing that seemed to throw him was the barrage of questions that came when we admitted to fellow attendees and vendors that we weren’t planning a wedding together. They wanted to know why not, to reassure us that we were a striking pair, and a few people even pointed Caleb in the direction of the dozen or so jewelers who could help him decide what kind of ring to buy me.
For the most part, we laughed it off and came up with an excuse to extract ourselves from unwanted conversations. As a wedding planner with one of the top event planning firms on the west coast, it was easy for me to wiggle away from awkward situations under the guise of needing to meet with another vendor, conveniently located on the other side of the convention center.
It was my eighth year attending the show—my third as a full-fledged wedding planner with A Touch of Magic Events—and I knew the layout like the back of my hand. I also knew exactly how much time I could allot with any one vendor in order to be able to see everything there was to see and not miss the pinnacle attraction: the wedding gown fashion show.
“If I get too bored, I’ll hit up that Indian catering booth again and get another plate of curry.” He patted his flat stomach for emphasis and I giggled. “Though I’d formally like to request that we avoid any more flower booths,” he continued, flashing me a half grin. “I don’t think my nose can take in any more smells, something I wasn’t even aware was possible until today.”
“Deal,” I replied with a laugh, steering him away from the tropical flower display. “Your boss over at the agency likely wouldn’t be too happy if I broke their top tracker.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” he said, smiling.
I playfully frowned up at him. “You’re just being modest.”
Caleb worked for the Supernatural Protection Agency—the SPA for short—as a detective, and while he artfully walked the line between modest and confident, I’d seen him in action and knew firsthand how good he was at his job. As a mysterious hybrid between a wizard and a bobcat-shifter, he had a unique skill set. It served him well when chasing down bad guys, but he had the looks and manners that allowed him to effortlessly interface with witnesses and his co-workers with an efficiency that belied how difficult his job really was at times.
I checked my watch. “Stars, how is it already four o’clock?”
Caleb chuckled. “Time flies when you’re blinded by sequins?”
I laughed. “Just wait until the fashion show starts.”
He feigned a groan. “Guess I should have brought a pair of sunglasses.”
“It’s the best part,” I hurried to add. “And, it’s the last event of the day.”
Caleb’s eyebrows lifted and I smiled. That part seemed to appeal to him.
He was being a good sport, but I knew he was counting down the minutes till we could leave and head across town to Luna, where we had dinner reservations for two. We’d been at the convention center since ten o’clock that morning, and while we’d ducked out for a quick lunch, it had been a lot of walking and schmoozing. Not to mention the slight irritation of having a bunch of virtual strangers poking at our happy, new-couple bubble with hints that we should be joining the engaged masses. We’d started dating six months ago and were taking things slow—and happy about it, thank you very much.
“Let’s head over to the runway and make sure we get good seats,” I told Caleb, waving politely to the booth’s host as we left.
The fashion show was the central event of the entire weekend and I knew seats would be scarce. Out of fairness, the show’s organizers refused to take reservations and went by a first come, first seated approach.
We found seats in the third row and I saved them while Caleb went off in search of beverages. I smiled after him as the crowd of giddy brides and put-out grooms swallowed him up. Never in a million years had I thought I’d ever find someone willing to tag along to the veritable circus of the annual wedding convention. It hadn’t even crossed my mind as something to wish for when dreaming up a future partner. And yet, there he was, stepping into my life in the most unexpected of ways and filling some gap I hadn’t even known was there.
The whole thing was especially surreal considering we’d met in the middle of a murder investigation. The mother of the groom was attacked during the rehearsal dinner of a wedding I was planning, and the fallout threatened to upend my entire career. Caleb and his partner, Jessica, were the SPA agents to arrive on-scene and take over the case. Due to the high-profile nature of the investigation, I ended up working closely alongside Caleb while simultaneously trying to get my bride and groom back on the road to happily ever after in the wake of such a tragedy.
Yet despite the dark circumstances, I couldn’t help but be attracted to the handsome agent and by some stroke of luck, he returned my lovestruck feelings. We went on a handful of dates and it wasn’t long after the investigation closed that he asked me to be his girlfriend, which sounds a lot more after-school special than it really was.
The only real crimp in the whole thing was our dueling work schedules. Caleb’s life as an SPA agent meant odd hours, long nights, and constantly being on call. My work as a wedding planner didn’t comprise of defeating bad guys or squashing deadly plots, but the urgency often made it feel as though it did. My day planner was so overstuffed with notes that I had to put an elastic band around the cover to keep everything together. I supposed it was something of a metaphor for my life. I was type A and organized to the nth degree, but somehow there always seemed to be one or two aspects threatening to fly out of control if I wasn’t careful.
Which is what led us to having a date at the wedding convention in the first place.
Caleb returned with a frazzled look and two white paper cups full of a light pink punch. “It’s a zoo over there!” he said, sliding into his seat beside me. As he handed over my cup of punch, I saw he had a dark patch on his shirt sleeve. He caught my glance and frowned. “Yeah, I ended up wearing the first cup. The vendor next door was announcing some door prize, and the lady in front of me must have been the winner. She started jumping around, waving her ticket in the air, and, well …”
I cringed. “I’m sorry.”
“Not to sound Leave It to Beaver, but do you happen to know any cleaning spells?” he asked hopefully.
“Sorry, no,” I replied with a twinge of guilt. “Harmony knows kitchen spells, but she’s as much of a disaster as I am when it comes to laundry spells. We do things the old-fashioned way. You might try club soda.”
“It’s all right,” he said, taking a sip of his punch. He gave a surprised look of appreciation and quickly took another drink. “Stuff’s pretty loaded, huh?”
“Industry secret,” I said with a laugh. “Bride’s are a lot more fun when they’ve had a little bubbly. Soothes the nerves.”
Caleb chuckled. “I wouldn’t think alcohol and high-strung emotions would be a good mix.”
“There’s a fine line between relaxed and sloppy, but a seasoned wedding planner such as myself knows when to switch to seltzer water,” I replied, adding a wink.
The emcee came on over the speaker system and announced the lineup for the show. I cheered along with everyone else gathered, though I whooped a little louder for Aurelia Pierre. Or, as she was known in the wedding world, just Aurelia. She didn’t need a last name to be recognized. Her designs were sought out worldwide by brides from every supernatural walk of life. Whatever gown she sent down the runway would be the show-stopper, without a doubt. She’d been closing down the show for the past six years and no other designer even came close to stealing her thunder.
Last year, her gown had changed color as the model had strutted to the end of the catwalk, each fierce footfall setting off a new color change that ranged from ivory to dusty rose. Then, as the model had stopped, the fabric flashed to blinding white, revealing delicate beadwork complete with thousands of tiny beads and diamonds that glittered under the barrage of flashbulbs and sent the entire crowd to their feet.
I couldn’t wait to see what she did this year to top it—my imagination salivated just thinking about the possibilities. Most of my brides wore Aurelia gowns, giving me ample opportunities to see the witch at work. No matter how many of her creations I saw, she still managed to blow me away every year at the famed fashion show.
The lights surrounding the raised stage flickered and then dropped to near pitch black, just long enough for the hum of anticipation to swell, before the runway exploded in a flash of hot pink and the first model appeared. The crowd went berserk as the willowy blonde started down the catwalk, a mermaid-style ivory gown swirling around her with every purposeful step. When she reached the end, she spun and the gathered part of the dress that flared out at her legs shimmered like it was made entirely of diamonds. I smiled to myself at the not-so-subtle nod to Aurelia’s design the year before.
A brunette with a fluffy princess gown came next, the elegant straps and bodice of her dress covered with tiny white butterflies that soared away when she reached the end of the runway. The crowd oohedand ahhedand applauded like mad as the butterflies swirled and then disappeared into the rafters.
The next dress looked as though it were comprised entirely of flowers, sort of a vertical garden in motion, complete with a complicated hat that draped flowers over the model’s face like a veil. I wasn’t crazy about it, but judging by the crowd’s reaction, I was alone in that opinion.
The show went on for another ten minutes, each dress more elaborate or outrageous than the last. At least for those of us in the industry, it was obvious that the whole show was more of a competition between designers than anything else. Most of the brides I worked with were open to having magical elements on their big day, but opted for less fussy dresses. I supposed it was similar to what I’d seen in the human world. The avant-garde designs weren’t something you’d see somebody wearing down the sidewalks of even the most fashion-forward cities.
A shift in the music signaled the show was winding down and I clutched Caleb’s arm, near breathless as I leaned forward. And then, there it was.
Aurelia’s gown was unmistakably hers—a one-shouldered gown with a sleek silhouette, all in pale pink. It was beautiful and effortless, and moved like ripples over a pond made of silk, made all the more striking against the model’s ebony skin. When she reached the end of the catwalk, she gave a quick, mischievous smile and then twirled. The movement set off a shower of glittering sparks and when she stopped, a full skirt appeared, layers of pearlescent pink falling into place like petals of a lotus flower.
The crowd was silent for a full heartbeat, mesmerized by the pure perfection, before a swell of rushed whispers gave way to a roar of excitement as the crush of photographers erupted in a light show of flashes. While the model was still posing, the rest of the models reappeared in a single-file line for their final walk. Aurelia’s model made a cutting twirl, sending the petal-like fabric of her now-full skirt flying, and then sashayed off stage with the other models, leaving another round of cheers in her wake.
When the last model disappeared into the backstage area, the music faded and then abruptly stopped as the lights were snuffed out.
“Whew!” I exclaimed, sagging back against my seat. “That was incredible!”
“It was something,” Caleb teased.
I smiled and nudged him in the ribs with my elbow, then let him pull me to my feet when the house lights winked back on over the empty runway.
“Come on,” I said, “you have to at least admit you’ve never seen anything like it before.”
He chuckled. “I’ll give you that one. I’ll even go as far to say as the butterfly thing was pretty cool.”
I smiled. “I’ll make a convert of you yet.”
Caleb clasped my hand as we waited for the rest of our row to empty. “What’s our next stop?”
“I want to stop and say hello to Aurelia and then we can leave,” I told him, glancing at my watch. “We don’t have much time if we’re going to make our reservations.”
“Lead the way!” he crowed triumphantly.
I consulted my copy of the event map, double checking that the organizers hadn’t moved the fashion designers to a different wing of the sprawling exhibit hall, and then set off, steering us through the crowd to reach Aurelia’s booth. As we neared, we ran into a throng of people creating a virtual gridlock, clogging the wide aisle way between vendor booths. I popped up onto my tiptoes, straining to see what the hold up was. When a pair of angry voices cut through the murmur of the crowd, I realized the throng wasn’t a traffic jam, but rather, an audience set to watch a fight.
“I can’t fathom that you have the nerve to compare your cheap and tawdry knock offs to mine!” I cringed as I recongnized Aurelia’s furious voice at once.
“Oh, pah-leeze,” another woman said. “You’ve been nipping at myheels since design school!”
“Excuse me,” I said, gently prodding at the couple in front of me.
They didn’t move.
“You stolemy design, and as if that’s not bad enough, you put it in the show!” the other woman snorted. “Unbelievable!”
“You’re jealous, Kara, you always have been and this little stunt to embarrass me isn’t going to work,” Aurelia huffed. “If you’re so sure I took your design, then please, produce the original sketch and prove it.”
“I don’t have to prove anything,” the other woman spat.
Aurelia laughed. That’s when the sparks started flying.
“Excuse me!” I repeated with more emphasis, shoving a little harder to get the couple’s attention. The woman looked over her shoulder and gave me a cold look but when Caleb raised his SPA badge, she moved.
“SPA, clear the way,” he barked.
As people shuffled out of our way, I caught a glimpse of Aurelia, wand raised, a blast of magic flying from its tip. The blast sailed past the other designer, who ducked behind one of the mannequins in what I assumed was her own booth. A hole appeared in the mannequins chest and the crowd yelped and scrambled back, realizing the seriousness of the fight.
This wasn’t a cat fight; these witches were out for blood.
Caleb shouted, alarm straining his voice, and the lingering lookey-lous dispersed.
“Ladies! Enough!” he bellowed. “Wands down. Now!”
Aurelia and the other designer, Kara Kirk, shrank back into their respective booth’s and after a nasty glare, they both dropped their wands to the ground.
“That’s nice, thank you, ladies,” Caleb said, stepping between them. “Now, it’s my day off, but if any more spells go flying, I’m going to have to call in for backup and miss my dinner reservations, which isn’t going to convince me to lift a finger to help either of you when you go before the Haven Council.”
I rushed to Aurelia’s side. Her eyes lit up when she saw me. “Anastasia?”
“Are you all right?” I asked her, giving her a quick once-over. Despite her fashion prowess, I rarely saw her in anything flashy or elegant. Whenever I visited her studio with a client, she usually wore black leggings and some kind of earth-tone tunic or sweater dress and plain ballet flats. Her long brown hair hung just past her shoulders and always looked as though she’d had a fresh trim, the ends crisp in a single length. Today she wore a dark green wrap-dress and black flats, her only adornment a pair of small golden hoop earrings.
“I’m fine,” she replied, her voice terse as she continued glaring across the aisle. A snarl pricked at her upper lip and I turned to see Kara speaking with Caleb, gesturing wildly. “I can’t believe I let her get to me.”
The anger faded and Aurelia looked up at me. “I told the organizers I wanted to be on the other side of the convention center from her, but they insisted that all fashion designers were to be in the same block of booths.” She scoffed and crossed her arms. “They’re going to get an earful come Monday.”
“I’m so sorry,” I told her. “Is there anything I can to help?”
She shook her head. “I’ll be fine. As long as that agentdoesn’t arrest us both.”
I glanced at Caleb and smiled. “I think I can convince him to take it easy on you.”
She barked a dry laugh. “I certainly won’t object to you putting those sharp negotiating skills of yours to use on my behalf.”
“Well,” I paused to clear my throat, “actually, that’s my boyfriend. But he is a real agent!” I hurried to add.
Aurelia’s almond-shaped eyes went wide. “Boyfriend?”
My cheeks warmed as I nodded.
Aurelia clapped her hands once and shook her head, her smile spreading. “I didn’t know you were seeing someone, let alone an SPA agent!”
“It’s new … ish.”
Only a few trusted friends knew about Caleb. Besides my assistant, CeeCee, no one else at the firm even knew I was seeing someone. Caleb had sent flowers to my office on a few occasions, but I’d managed to shrug them off as being gifts from thankful clients to keep rumors from spreading.
“Job well done,” Aurelia purred, nudging me with her elbow. “You’ll let me know when we can start sketching up a dress for you. With your figure, we could make magic!”
“You always make magic,” I pointed out, not bothering to protest the offer. Aurelia was the type who wouldn’t take nofor an answer. Besides, it couldn’t hurt to have one of the haven’s top designers hellbent on making me a custom gown if and when the time came.
Caleb sidled over and gave Aurelia an apprising glance as if expecting her to hurl another spell at any moment. “We’re all right over here,” I told him, placing an assuring hand on his forearm. “No more drama.”
Aurelia gave a begrudging nod. “Thank you for stepping in. I got … carried away.”
Caleb gave her a stern look. “It might be appropriate to pay to replace the damaged mannequin,” he said, before quietly adding, “There’s a sentence I never thought I’d say,” under his breath.
Aurelia flapped a hand. “Yes, yes. Whatever will shut that hag up.”
Caleb cleared his throat but Aurelia wasn’t paying attention. Her expression lightened and a mischievous quirk plucked at the corners of her mouth. “I hear congratulations are in order. I’ve just heard you’ve managed to steal the heart of my favorite wedding planner.”
My eyes widened and a nervous laugh escaped my lips.
“I’m doing my best,” Caleb said good-naturedly, the heightened tension all but dissolved from his broad shoulders.
“Well, as you can imagine, I have quite the waiting list, but you say the word and I’ll bump Anastasia right to the front of the line and make her a gown that will knock you speechless!”
Caleb chuckled. “I don’t doubt it.”
My hand gripped Caleb’s arm a little tighter and I feigned a glance at my watch. “Oh, look at the time, we have reservations to make!”
Aurelia was still laughing as we scurried for the nearest exit.
Find out what happens next by pre-ordering your copy of Couture and Curses today! This book will release on March 22nd and will automatically load to your Kindle as soon as it goes live.