Meow Matrimony chapter one

copyright Lisa J Lickel

From the Back of the Book:
Nothing will keep Ivy from getting married. Not even murder. 

Ivy Preston has waited a long time to get married. This time she plans to do more than make it to the altar. But when Ivy tries to do a good deed and stumbles over a body, she and her former fiancé, Stanley, are accused of the crime. Ivy hopes she’s not the only one who believes in their innocence.

Worse than being framed for murder, when one of her beloved kittens falls ill, Ivy must face her greatest fears. How will she ever parent a child if she can’t even take care of a cat. . .and for that matter, how will she be the type of wife her devoted fiancé needs?

Through the love and support of her mom, fiancé, and friends, Ivy is determined to clear Stanley's good name, and her own. With nuptials looming, Ivy hopes not only to find a killer, but to make it to her own wedding.

Chapter 1

“This is Ivanna in the morning,” the throaty voice from my car radio chanted. “Ready to sign off. Remember, North Star Candies…the way to enjoy the day. Who doesn’t adore North Star mocha fudge? Treats so light they’ll take you beyond the moon!”
“Hmm, North Star might have been the best around here,” I told my car radio. “Before Featherlight Confectioneries made caramel cashew with sea salt.” I pulled into my driveway, the cool sunny breeze whipping my hair when I opened the car door. Yippee! Not only was March arriving like a lamb, I had presents. My mail carrier Janie knew I’d stop in at home at lunchtime to check on the kittens, so she’d left the beautiful box from Emblem Paper Works on my front stoop next to my still tightly budded tulips. Sigh.
I put my hand over my fluttering heart and drooled once again over the wonderful, fabulous hunk of man who was going to marry me. The box of wedding invitations sitting there pushed me one step closer to the altar, which I vowed I was actually going to make stick this time. When I could touch the scrumptious, thick, silky paper and read the words, I was sure the wedding would finally feel real, and everything would be perfect this time. Adam Truegood Thompson, the man who loved cats and children, fed me gourmet coffee and chocolate, would take me, Ivy Amanda Preston, as his lawfully wedded wife. Mmhmm.
OK, quit dawdling, grab the box of invites, which technically wasn’t a present since I paid for them, and check on the man’s kittens which were currently in residence at my house so their father wouldn’t be tempted to harm a hair on their little heads. Sadly, the darling fluffballs broke the line of pure-bred Egyptian Mau cats when my silver, Memnet, got to, um, know his cat Isis, a smoke, a little better than we’d anticipated last fall. Mem and Adam were currently batching it at his place downtown.
I called “kitty, kitty,” as I dumped the box on my kitchen table, even though Isis always gave me the eye, like what was this crazy woman doing? when I tried to get her to come. She would appear when she needed me. Which was rarely. The four kittens, on the other hand, bumbled over. I squatted to play with them.
The invitations called to me during the time I created a peanut butter and rhubarb jam sandwich and ate. I studied the siren carton while I jingled my car keys and dithered whether to open it now or wait for Adam so we could look at them together.
Guess which side won?
I used the handy-dandy key I happened to be holding to slice through the packing tape. Uh-oh, that color blue edging wasn’t what I remembered in my order. Flutter went thunk in my chest. I reached with a quivering hand and matching lip to lift out the sample invitation left open on top of the neatly sealed packages.
“You are cordially invited to attend the nuptials of Miss Ivanna Lynn Pressman and Mr. Jason Albert Carter…”
Oh, no.
I double-checked the address on the box. Yup, my name, Ivy Preston, and my address, 312 Marigold Street, Apple Grove, Illinois.
I picked up the sealed package of invitations and turned it over. From the outside they looked the same as the open one. I guessed our names were close enough to confuse, but I still felt wounded and anonymous. Ivanna, hmm? Exotic, nothing like me. It couldn’t be…seriously? Ivanna from the radio show? I looked again at the invitation. Their wedding was the weekend before mine. Ours. At Ethereal Events, the same venue Adam and I had booked for the last Sunday in June. I know, a Sunday, but it was the closest we could get to the end of May, Mother’s preferred date.
Fortunately, the invoice had Ivanna’s correct address—on the south edge of Apple Grove—and I thought I’d do the neighborly thing and take them over to her after work rather than waste time sending them back through the mail. Besides, ouch, those things were expensive enough already. I grabbed some tape from the drawer and quickly slapped it across my key slash, called “farewell and behave” to the cats and rushed back out the door.
As I started my car’s engine, I reached for the radio button, ready to catch a little of the afternoon show on WWAG, Apple’s Grove’s little radio station. Ivanna could be home when I went there. Hmm…I might get to meet a celebrity. Anticipation would make the afternoon wing by.
I drove the few blocks downtown to Mea Cuppa, the coffee and book store Adam owned and at which I now helped. The Apple Grove store was one of a small chain based in Chicago. Pushing the back door open, I called, “Martha, I’m back,” to our shop assistant and my neighbor who worked three days a week. “Anything exciting happen?”
She was a bouncy mom of twin kindergarteners who was overjoyed to let her mother and her husband’s parents share grandparent duties while she earned some needed money.
“When does anything exciting happen around here?” she said with a little toss of her reddish-blond hair nicely shaped to her head. I envied anyone who had such control of her hair. Mine tended toward the wild musk ox side. “Just that new order from the book distributor. I had them set it by the office door.”
“Thanks! I had a special delivery at home, too.”
“Do tell!” She rubbed her hands together.
“Of course! Be right back.” I went to put my purse away in my office desk and returned to the wide open, high-ceilinged room with narrow creaky wooden floorboards to help her prep for the afternoon coffee rush. Today’s coffee special was mocha mint, and of course I needed to sample some so I could eagerly explain its engaging qualities to our clientele. The hot mugful went down smoothly and I regretfully decided against seconds. I told Martha about the invitations instead, to keep my mouth too busy to stuff in more calories. “So, if that’s OK with your schedule, I want to take off fifteen minutes early so I can still meet Adam at Tiny’s for a quick supper after I drop off the box at Ivanna’s house. Can you lock up?”
“Sure, boss.” Martha grinned and popped a square of chocolate fudge from Featherlight Confectionaries in her mouth. “I’ll just ask Mom if she can get supper ready.”
I ordered myself to stop mentally drooling over fudge and a mom who would cook dinner at the drop of a hat and think of my upcoming wedding dress fitting. “I can’t imagine what it would be like, having parents so close.”
The bell on the door played, “Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day,” as customers entered. Much as I wished my mom lived physically closer, having a two-hour warning, the drive from Maplewood where I’d grown up in northern Illinois south to Apple Grove, was a relief before her tornadic visits. Adam’s father had passed away years ago and his mother had Alzheimer’s. Sad.
At five forty-five, Colleen Bailey, our after-school helper, and Martha were ably handling customers so I breezed back into the late afternoon light. Sunset was five minutes away and would be romantic by the time Adam and I held hands at the buffet for our too-brief connection of the day. He had an evening meeting—when didn’t he?—with some committee or other of the city council. Part time mayor was really time and a half, but he was happy and I was proud of him.
I needed sunglasses for the drive west and south, the approximate direction of Ivanna’s neighborhood. New townhouses clashed with the gentility of Apple Grove’s historic center. Progress, though, trumped desperate clinging to the past, something Adam was attempting to work on by bringing new businesses and life to our little adopted city.
There it was—Ivanna’s address, the right hand of a two-story dark-sided and narrow-windowed building. I supposed it was modern classic, but I frowned at its bleakness. The tree in the front yard was spindly, with its “I’m new and insured the first year” store tag fluttering in the breeze. I knocked and rang the bell before depositing the box on the rubber welcome mat. Weatherman Bob at WWAG reported possible showers in the early morning hours, so I hesitated leaving it exposed. As I reached to test the knob, I noticed the interior door was ajar. Maybe I should push it open and shove the box inside. I didn’t even have to set foot in the entry.
With a peek up and down the street, deserted for the dinner hour, I gingerly eased the glass storm door toward me, then tentatively pushed the black-painted interior door inward. Not even a squeak added to the spooky tension. I grinned. I’d been reading way too many mysteries and detective dramas lately. “Hello! Just dropping this off!” I called as I slid the box forward, though I was certain no one was home.
Except the outstretched fingers on the floor I happened to see looked too real to spring from an overactive imagination.
I swallowed and pulled back, still on my knees on Ivanna’s stoop. If it was a crime scene, I shouldn’t go in. My heart raced and a sweat on my brow was going to make my hair frizzier.
But what if she was hurt or sick?
What if an assailant was lurking?
What if I was lying there and someone saw me on the floor?
What if it wasn’t her?
Apple Grove’s semi-warm and fuzzy almost detective Officer Ripple could reprimand me later. I pushed the door wider—it was already open, not locked, so I couldn’t be accused of breaking and entering—I hoped—and crawled one knee inside. “Hi! Just making a delivery!”
My caution blew back in my face. I’d never seen Ivanna from the radio show, but I recognized her as a former waitress at Tiny’s. She was mostly on her stomach with her legs slightly bent, splayed across her Italian green and gold marble-tiled foyer, red hair partially covering the white skin of her face. Under her pale gold silk blouse her abundant cleavage was kind of pushed up toward her throat and her cheek rested on the floor. I was so glad her eyes were closed. That meant she could be…
“Um, Ivanna? Miss Pressman? Are you all right?” I figured I’d better ask before I checked for a pulse. I didn’t see any blood. As I leaned across her outstretched arm to see if I could put a finger on her neck without touching anything else, I planted my left hand near hers. My skin prickled and I pulled back. A piece of candy, partially unwrapped, lay near her wrist. I reached for it, but stopped before my fingers left prints. Ripple’s stern cop voice sounded in my mind: “You didn’t touch anything, did you?”
I refocused on the very still body. Well, technically I didn’t know if it was—oh, just check for a pulse, Ivy, so you have something to tell the police. “Ivanna? I’m just going to…put my finger here…under your ear…”
There was plenty of time for her to open her eyes or start breathing before I made contact. But, no. Just as I figured…her icy cold skin did not thrum with any beat of life. WWAG was going to have to find a new morning show host.
I sat back and fumbled for my phone. While I dialed 911 and waited for the response, I studied Ivanna. Her mouth looked a little pinched, even in death. A slash of crimson red lipstick and matching polish on her long nails should have clashed with that shade of brassy hair, yet some blondish highlights kept the color from being gauche. The engagement ring on her outstretched hand had a positively vulgar two-carat diamond in an ornate swirly gold setting, posed like it was on display.
“What is your emergency?” the voice on my phone asked.
I explained with the fewest words possible and was directed to remain on the scene until officers arrived. “Sure, I will,” I said and hung up. The adrenalin rush wore off when I realized I’d be late to meet Adam and probably wouldn’t get to see him at all today. I held up my phone again, about to speed dial him, when I was distracted by the piece of candy on the floor. The wrapper bore the unmistakable winged design of Featherlight Confectionaries—the same kind my ex-fiancé Stanley Brewer sold since he’d switched companies. I stopped in mid-reach once again. I didn’t recognize this style of chocolate cube. This had a slightly bumpy texture, as if stuffed with delicacies. I knew them all since we sold that brand at Mea Cuppa, and this one didn’t belong.
Right—Adam. I got to my feet and stepped away from Ivanna. I was a little shaky and didn’t want to upset him if my voice quivered while explaining my peculiar situation so I sent him a text saying I was all right, but had run into a problem and wouldn’t make it. Plz call me l8r.
I didn’t hear any sirens yet so I looked around. The foyer was formal—opulent. Toward the far end a pass way opened to a large room. On the opposite side a door to a probable powder room stood ajar. Beyond the door was a shadowy passage—probably a hall. I tiptoed toward the living room. Just to see if anyone was lurking. Oh—all right, I was curious. My attention was immediately nabbed by a long off-white dress hanging from a sconce. It practically waved at me. I might have even felt a waft of moving air. The wedding dress, obviously. It was beautiful in a creamy, old-fashioned way, with pleated straps and delicate pearls sewn around the bodice and skirt. I couldn’t help comparing hers to mine. I had a few layers of under skirting to make my dress puff, so as to draw attention away from my not-exactly-hourglass-shaped figure. Hers was sleek.
Still no sign of the police. Near the dress an open folder rested on an end table. Yup—as I suspected, paperwork for the wedding reception. Menu plans, and…optional guest favors with surprise Featherlight Confectionaries candy samples apparently not available to the general public and new to Ethereal Events, the wedding venue.
I decided to text Stanley next. Why? Hmm…got me, except I wondered if I could find out more about the private candy.
What was keeping the police? I wandered closer to Ivanna’s wedding dress, which would sadly go unworn. I poked at the beadwork.
“Ahem…hey, Vanna?”
The male voice behind made me jump and twirl. A computer screen on a small coffee table behind me showed a headshot of a very attractive man with dark, thick wavy hair over totally cliché, I know, bedroom eyes and a four o’clock shadow.
“Who are you?” the man demanded, bedroom eyes turning six a.m. alert and alarming, practically shooting sparks of anger. “Where’s Ivanna?”
Thankfully the front door burst open at that moment. “Uh, excuse me, please,” I told the computer screen and rushed back to the foyer. Petite, blonde Officer Ann Dow was a straight-laced professional who I’d gotten to know when mystery boxes of chocolate appeared on my doorstep several months ago. Stanley had been trying to wiggle back into my life after leaving me at the altar, but his tactics were on the stalker side and made me nervous, so I called the police. Apple Grove was too small to need partner police patrols, though under the present circumstances I was not surprised to see Tim Ripple follow her in.
“Miss Preston,” Ripple said in my direction. He had initially been unappreciative of my help finding the former mayor’s killer last fall, although it wasn’t as if I obstructed justice. It wasn’t my fault if our cats hadn’t trusted him at first. Officer Dow studied Ivanna’s position and the room, reading the scene like a procedural. She checked for a pulse and grimly shook her head at Ripple. She also snapped a few photos while Ripple started in on me.
“Why were you in that room?” Ripple asked. He sighed dramatically with every fiber of his muscly five-ten, shorn brown-haired physique. “What all did you touch?”
“Nothing!” I held up my hands. “Really! Except the floor, the door frame, and uh…” I swiveled toward angry tones sounding from the living room I’d just exited.
Ripple nodded at Dow and both drew weapons. He frowned. “Who’s in there? Who were you talking to? Stay here.”
Dow eyed me and took up a position at the side of the entry to the living room while he bent low and duck-waddled in.
I followed, despite the warning, and Dow pulled me back.
“It’s her computer,” I whispered. “Somebody calling Ivanna.”
Dow scrunched her brows.
“VOIP,” I said, trying not to get too technical about my area of expertise, electronic communications. At her even more puzzled expression, I said quietly, “Voice Over Internet Protocol—Ivanna uses her computer like a phone.”
“Oh,” she whispered, cocking her head to listen to Ripple who was attempting to get information from the man on the computer without giving anything else away.
In any event, I was going to have to do a lot of explaining to a lot of people about a great many things. I shivered at another waft of cool air and turned back to stare absently at Ivanna’s body, keeping a healthy distance. Dow sent me a sympathetic glance and stood down from her ready position. Jason Clark, the man on the computer, as he finally admitted to Ripple, was poor Ivanna’s fiancé. Former fiancé. We listened to Ripple ask Jason questions. What did he know about Ivanna’s schedule today? Where had Jason been all day?
Even after Ripple convinced him to cooperate, I wondered about the legality of investigation by computer call. Short of the video court appearances from prisoners, such things weren’t always admissible evidence in court. I loved those procedural dramas.
“Sir, please come to the police station. Officer Dow will meet you there in thirty minutes to take a statement,” Ripple said.
“Statement about what? That sounds official. What’s going on? Why can’t you tell me now?” Jason asked, agitated all over again. I felt sorry for him.
“Don’t you have to notify next of kin first?” I whispered, and received a shush from Dow.
“It’s bad, isn’t it? I’m calling my attorney,” Jason’s voice said. The rest of his statement faded and squawked, then was gone. Ivanna’s computer probably needed to recharge.
Ripple reappeared as the front door swung wide to admit emergency medical techs with a stretcher. Dow took more photos, then Detective Reyes showed up with a toolbox. He spent a few minutes collecting samples around Ivanna’s body and the doors. Eventually Ripple allowed the EMTs to remove Ivanna’s body.
I glanced at the time on my phone and sighed.
“In a hurry?” Ripple asked, amusement dripping.
I drew myself up and acted like the drama queen he assumed I was after I called to report my friend Donald, the former mayor, had been kidnapped. Anyway, Ripple hadn’t believed me at first. We had since developed a friendly but professional relationship laced with mutual respect, especially since I’d been correct. Though I sincerely hoped meeting over dead bodies was not going to become normal routine for us.
“I had planned to meet Adam for supper,” I told him. “The mayor,” I added, mostly for my self-esteem.
Ripple gestured for me to precede him from the premises. “I’m sorry you had to find Miss Pressman like this.”
“Me, too. You think it might be some kind of accident, or natural—”
“Let’s not speculate. Do you want to give me your statement now? While Officer Dow meets Mr. Clark?”
Dow brushed past me out of the house. “That might be better, you know, while your memory is fresh.”
“You’re right.” I twisted my lips and patted at the embarrassing gurgles from my stomach, hunger resurfacing after the fright and sadness of the last hour.
“Come to my office,” Ripple said. “I’ll order sandwiches.”
How could I resist?