There she was, their next victim…only she didn’t really look like the other wedding planners.
That was not necessarily a bad thing.
On the edge of Beverly Hills, at the corner of 3rd and Fairfax, Marnie Banks, their next victim (as Eli McCain liked to think of them, for reasons that would soon be apparent to Ms. Banks), walked into the original Farmer’s Market wearing a red baseball hat.
At least she followed instructions.
From the back seat of the Lincoln Town car, Eli watched her stroll deeper into the market. She had a bag over one shoulder and wore a pair of snowy white sneakers. He didn’t know a lot about women’s fashions, but he didn’t think the shoes jived with the rest of her outfit. She was supposed to be dressed in simple, banging around clothes, not like she was headed for a school teacher convention. Her pants reminded him of the something his mom would wear, and her blouse was buttoned almost to her hairline.
Whatever—she’d done what they’d asked, worn the red hat and sneakers, and was presumably on her way to buy a piece of fruit so she could be distinguished from all the other school marms that might be lurking in the market.
She turned right and whoa—that was a long tail of coppery red hair falling out the back of her baseball hat. At least now Eli understood what the hell she was talking about when he’d called her to set up this interview.
He and his partners were, inexplicably, interviewing wedding planners to coordinate a very high-profile wedding. Yes, Thrillseekers Anonymous, the premier L.A. boy’s club, was going to add a wedding planner to their ranks.
It was a convoluted story and one Eli didn’t like to think about, but the long and short of it was, when he’d called Marnie Banks to give her the rundown of how the interview for this gig would occur—including the red hat, piece of fruit, sneakers and casual clothing—she hadn’t questioned any of it. Unlike the other three candidates, who seemed a little freaked out by the prerequisites, this one instantly began to chatter like a flock of magpies about how mystery and stealth were absolutely necessary to pull off the wedding of two mega-stars.
Eli appreciated the fact that she seemed to take their unusual request in stride, and ticked off the prerequisites for the interview. At the end of the list, she’d asked, “Could I make just one teeny-tiny suggestion?”
“Just a little one. I mean, fruit, shoes—I get that. But what would you say to a black hat instead of a red one?”
Her question had stumped him—he could not imagine what the color of the hat had to do with anything. “Why?” he’d asked after a moment. “What’s wrong with a red hat?”
“My hair is red.”
She said it very matter-of-factly, as if it was perfectly obvious what the color of her hair meant to anyone. Eli was so baffled that he could not respond. As he was trying to work through what she could possibly mean, she’d clarified, “A red hat would really clash with my hair.”
He told her to hang on a minute, then covered the phone with his hand and stared blankly at the wall.
“What?” Cooper, one his partners, asked, peering at him suspiciously. “Is she a whack job?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. But she thinks a red hat would clash with her red hair.”
“What do you mean, clash?” Cooper demanded hotly, looking as confused as Eli felt.
“I think she means that they don’t go together. Like green and…hell I don’t know, whatever green doesn’t go with.”
Cooper blinked. “Get out.”
Eli frowned, uncovered the phone. “No,” he said sternly to Marnie. “Red hat.”
“Okay! Just thought I’d ask. It never hurts to just ask, right? I’ve never been shy about asking, because I fig—“
“Marnie? Is that you?”
The older woman’s voice on the line startled Eli, and apparently Marnie, too, for it was the first time she’d shut up since he’d called.
“Mom! I’m on the phone!”
“Are you? I thought I heard the phone ring! Well, sorry for the intrusion, honey. Bye now.” The phone clicked off.
“I am so so sorry about that,” Marnie had gushed. “How embarrassing!” She laughed, a little too hard. “You know how mothers are.”
She lived with her mom? “Right,” he said, mentally adding a check in the con column. “So, are we straight? You know what, when and where?”
“Great. See you then,” he said, and hung up.
He turned around and folded his arms across his chest and frowned thoughtfully at Cooper. “She’s chatty. Not good.”
Cooper winced. “But they’ve all been kind of chatty, haven’t they?”
Good point. But this one…Eli didn’t know why, but he had the feeling that this one was different than the others.
He was right, he thought now, as he settled in to wait for her to re-emerge with her fruit. She was certainly different than the others in physical appearance, and in the best way possible. She had an athletic build. A nice athletic build. Long legs. Strong back. A nice ass and that excellent, dark copper hair. Hopefully, she could survive the interview.
About fifteen minutes later, she reappeared holding an enormous casaba melon that looked like it weighed thirty pounds.
He had told her, very explicitly, to purchase a piece of fruit that could be seen by the casual observer—he’d meant like a bright orange. Apparently she thought he meant they were blind.
She stopped next to a trash can, balanced the melon on top of it, swung the bag off her shoulder, and bent over to rummage around inside.
Eli glanced at his clock. It was a minute to two, the appointed time. She was punctual—another point in her favor. He told the driver to pull up to the curb, and as she continued to rummage, Eli got out, leaned up against the back fin of the car, hands in pockets, waiting. She finally stood, slung the bag over her shoulder, and heaved the melon to her chest again. That’s when she noticed Eli standing there and did a strange little hop-in-place.
“Ah…yeah,” she said, smiling a little. “That’s me!”
“Great. You can get in,” he said, and opened the door of the Lincoln.
Still smiling, she dipped a little to see inside the car, her maple-colored eyes squinting.
“Why don’t you just dump the melon?” he suggested.
She jerked her gaze from the car to the melon she was holding, then to him. “Dump the melon?”
“But I paid seven bucks for it.”
Why? “Okay, so keep the melon,” Eli said. “You wanna get in?”
“Okay!” She straightened and looked at the Lincoln. For a very long moment.
Expressionless, he watched her. She was having the same reaction that the others had, and in hindsight, he thought that maybe this wasn’t the best approach to hiring a wedding planner.
“Ah…” Marnie took a tentative step forward and bent at the waist, trying to see inside the Lincoln again. “You’re the Thrillseeker guy, right?”
“Right. You mind getting in before we call attention to ourselves?”
“Do you have a name?”
“Yes. Eli,” he said, looking behind her. You could never be too safe—if she’d told anyone about this and the rag press got wind of what they were up to, they’d be all over the girl. And him.
Marnie took another step forward. “You are the dude with the same Thrillseekers outfit that is arranging the wedding of Vin—”
“Yo—“ he said, cutting her off before she could utter the names of the two biggest superstars in America. “No names, remember?”
“Oh. Right.” She peered inside again, then at him again with those big maple eyes. “And it’s perfectly understandable, given that you’re dealing with a super secret wedding—well, technically, a second attempt at a super secret wedding—“
“Ah…I think that would fall under the category of no names,” he reminded her. “Just get in, will you?”
She stepped closer, directly next to him. Eli detected a very pleasant scent as she peered inside. “The windows are black on the inside.”
“That’s right. We have clients who don’t like anyone to know they’re inside.”
“Oh,” she said, as if a light had just popped on inside her head. “Right, right.” She dipped under his arm and carefully put one long leg in the Lincoln, bent to have another look, then reluctantly slid the rest of her body inside. Eli shut the door and walked around to the other side and got in beside her, and locked the doors.
“Are you locking the doors?” she cried with alarm.
“You can unlock them from your seat,” he said, nodding at her seat controls.
“Right, okay,” she said, squinting at all the buttons on her door.
Eli waited until she had found the unlock button and tried it once or twice. When she settled back, apparently satisfied that she could flee if necessary, he asked, “Okay?”
“Okay,” she said firmly. “I’m good.”
“Yo,” he said to he driver, and pushed a button to roll up the window between the front and back seat. The driver pulled away from the curb, and Eli settled back.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched Marnie Banks remove her red hat and perch it atop the casaba melon between them, fuss with her hair a minute, then try to see out the thick, smoky glass. But she bored of that and settled back again, turning slightly in her seat to face him. “So!” she said brightly, all her reservations apparently gone. “Your name is Eli, is that right?”
“Riiight. Do I detect a bit of a drawl? Where are you from, Eli?”
“Ah! I love Texas! My uncle used to live in Austin. Great place. I love the music scene, do you? And the lakes! I had the best time at that huge lake down there, what’s the name? Tavish? No, Travis. Travis, that’s it. So what part of Texas are you from?”
Oh God, she was chatty. “West. We’ll arrive at our destination in half an hour.”
“Okay,” Marnie said, and picked up her bag, looked inside. “Would you like an orange?” she asked, and pulled one out, stuck it under his nose to show him. “I picked some up at the market. I figured as long as I was there, I might as well pick up a few things,” she said cheerfully.
Eli glanced down. The orange was enormous, almost the size of the melon. “No, thanks.”
The orange disappeared. She put the bag down and straightened her blouse. She was really pretty, he thought. Not gorgeous or reed thin like the Hollywood types he was used to working with, but a lot prettier than a school marm and definitely a lot curvier.
She glanced up, but did not seem to notice Eli checking her out. “I’m from L.A,” she said. “Born and raised.”
Eli shifted his gaze forward.
“I used to be in high tech,” she said, casually propping her arm on the melon and crossing her legs. “I was doing pretty well until my company went bankrupt.”
Eli said nothing.
“That’s why I’m a wedding planner!” She laughed. “Yep, I finally got the opportunity to jump into the wedding business with both feet when I got laid off. But I’d wanted to do it for a long time, you know. I figured the high tech thing really wasn’t for me,” she said with a sniff. “I’m really better suited to planning weddings then designing web pages. Honestly? Getting laid off was the kick I needed to jump right in there and start doing it. And then I heard about this wedding!” She suddenly twisted toward him again. “So how do you know them? Vincent Vittorio and Olivia Dagwood, I mean. I knew this would happen, by the way. I read in People that they started seeing each other again on the set of The Dane?.”
That much was true. Eli had worked that movie, and it was the second affair they’d had. The first one had ruined their marriages. And then they’d broken up over a make-up girl. When Vince dumped the make-up girl, their second affair had been pretty much in the open, and Olivia’s quickie divorce from the dancer she’d married while Vince was doing the make-up girl pretty much sealed the deal.
“I guess it goes without saying that this would be a fabulous boost to my portfolio,” Marnie waxed dreamily, and faded back into her seat.
“So how is your portfolio?” Eli asked idly as the driver slowed for a red light.
“What do you mean?”
What did she mean, what did he mean? How should he know what he meant? “I guess I mean how many weddings have you done?”
“Oh. How many?”
What else would be in a portfolio?
“Well none, technically,” she said firmly. “I mean, this potentially could be my first solo wedding, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been involved. Oh no—I’ve done puh-lenty of apprenticeships,” she said, sweeping her arm out to show just how puh-lenty, “so I feel perfectly capable of handling this wedding. I interned with Simon Dupree. I bet you’ve heard of him. He is the most famous event coordinator in all of—”
“Relax,” Eli said easily. “You can give the rundown of your experience when we reach our final destination.”
“But what do you think? Do you think that sounds okay?”
“Does what sound okay?”
“My pitch,” she said, coloring a little.
“Yeah, I guess,” he said with a shrug. What he knew about wedding planning was absolutely zilch. Jack was their resident expert, because his sister had used one to plan her wedding. They order the flowers and help with the dress and shit like that, he’d told them. Frankly, the less Eli talked about weddings, the better, and he was only doing this one under official protest.
“What is our final destination, anyway?” Marnie asked, trying to see out the window again.
“Where the audition will be.”
“Audition!” She laughed at that.
Eli glanced at her again. “What’s funny?”
“That just sounds funny. Like I’m going to have try out or something,” she said, and laughed again.
She had no idea. Eli suppressed a smile.
“So what’s the deal with the Thrillseekers?” she asked. “Anything you can tell me about them? What they’re like?”
“Well…they don’t like to talk a lot,” he said, and looked at her meaningfully.
“Really?” Marnie asked with a charming smile, missing his point completely. “That’s too bad. I like to talk to people. Don’t you? I like meeting new people and hearing about them and what they do. I guess that’s why I’m such a good wedding planner. I really listen to the bride and groom and try and make their vision of their perfect day come true,” she said, and blithely launched into all the ways she did that.
With a small sigh, Eli folded his arms and stared forward.