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Harper stared at the sample menu in front of her and dug deep into her etiquette training to find a way to say, “Absolutely not,” in a way that would make the caterer in front of her feel complimented, not rejected.

“You certainly have fresh ideas, Mr. Choi.” There. That was a diplomatic start. She hoped it didn’t sound sarcastic since he looked to be her age, in his late twenties at most.

“Call me Zak.” He smiled at her. It was a good smile, toothpaste-ad quality, and with the laugh lines crinkling around his dark brown eyes, it could have been irresistible if Harper was looking for a man. But she wasn’t.

“But my clientele is very traditional,” she continued. And really, her office should have tipped him off. She’d designed it to look like an elegant Charleston sitting room. “I used a caterer last month for a garden party who put Dijon mustard in the potato salad and it created such a ruckus that it upstaged Beth Martin’s hundred-year-old hydrangeas. And that was a tragedy I’m not sure Miss Beth will ever recover from. So this…” she waved her hand to encompass the menu, “would push my clients too far. But I wish you good luck finding your client base.”

There was no way he was going to find a client base in Charleston with the edgy offerings he’d listed on his menu. At least not with the old money families Harper was targeting on her quest to become Charleston’s premiere event planner.

His smile dimmed, and he sat forward and cleared his throat. “I realize that most of this town still considers Julia Child revolutionary for introducing French cooking techniques, but that makes them ripe for the next food revolution. There’s a whole world waiting for them if they can evolve past coq au vin.”

Harper frowned. She happened to like chicken in wine sauce. The first time she’d had it at a sorority banquet, she’d felt a flush of luxury that was new to her, the little girl from scruffy Goose Creek who got Hamburger Helper on special occasions.

“Sorry.” She pushed the menu back across her desk, not sorry at all. “But your information isn’t correct. Charleston is full of innovative restaurants who have connected to a customer base that loves what they serve. But I serve a coq au vin crowd and I use caterers who serve coq au vin.” Even the name sounded fancy and French, and she liked the way it unfurled on her tongue, unlike . . . what was is it? She flicked her eyes over to his menu again. Ah, yes. Bulgogi. Her clients wanted a prime rib, reliably sliced and served with mashed potatoes. If they were feeling adventurous, maybe they’d walk on the wild side and make them garlic mashed.

His smile had disappeared, and his sharp cheekbones suddenly stood out without his smile to soften them. She wondered idly what his ancestry was. Based on the Korean influences in the menu he gave her plus his last name, she’d guess a Korean father, but he didn’t look full Korean. Maybe a white mother? They’d each done him a favor and passed on their best bits because even his scowl didn’t diminish his good looks. She wondered which one of them was to blame for his short temper.

“Thank you for coming in.” She pushed back from her desk to indicate that their meeting was at an end, but when he made no move to leave, she hesitated in an awkward half-crouch above her chair before sitting again. “Was there something else?”

“Do you know what foodways are?” he asked.

She blinked at him. “Is that . . . a grocery chain?”

His lips stretched in a quick smile, a mean cousin to the one he’d offered her only a few minutes before. “Foodways is the history of regional dishes. Port cities—like New York, where I’m from—are prime areas for cultural shifts in cuisines.” He made a short sound that was maybe supposed to be a laugh, but it wasn’t happy. “Usually. Looks like the oldest port in the country has the oldest taste to go with it.”

He ignored the menu she’d pushed back toward him and headed for the exit. “Good news,” he said as he reached for the handle. “Your branding is on point. No one is going to accuse you of being hip or fresh.”

He was halfway out the door before Harper pulled herself together enough to call in her Bridezilla-wrangling voice, “Pleasure not doing business with you!”

His answer was the jangle of the bell hanging over the entrance. Strange. It usually had a cheerful tinkle.
Whatever. Hip and fresh were code words for trendy. She was all about timeless classics. Who cared what he thought about that? She had enough to handle with her high maintenance clients. The last thing she needed on top of that was a high maintenance caterer.

Speaking of which . . . she glanced down at her watch. Fifteen minutes until the highest maintenance bride of all time appeared.

Harper sighed and pulled out the binder that grew thicker by orders of magnitude after each meeting with the lovely Dahlia Ravenel. It was possible she’d already put in more time planning this wedding than every other event she’d organized since she went solo three years ago. Combined. But Dahlia was a prize, the daughter of one of Charleston’s most prominent families, engaged to the son and scion of one of Charleston’s other prestigious families. This was the break she’d been working and praying for, the kind of society wedding that the The Post and Courier would splash on the cover of the local section with her name attached as the wedding planner.

Of all the types of events she did, weddings were her favorite. They were the biggest paycheck, and she had worked out the perfect network from florists to bakers, mostly other rising new vendors who had the same grit and hustle she did. The Ravenel-Calhoun wedding would be a windfall for all of them, a chance to break into the Charleston upper crust and enjoy the fruits of that very rich pie.

Assuming, of course, that she survived Dahlia Ravenel.

And that was by no means certain.

By the time the blushing bride arrived, the groom and maid of honor had already been sitting at Harper’s desk for twenty minutes making small talk. At least they were easy with each other. From the conversation, it sounded like the three of them had grown up together. The groom was Deacon Calhoun of the Garden District Calhouns, and Lily, the maid of honor, was Dahlia’s cousin, born to the same Charleston caste. If there was anything the silver spooners knew, it was how to keep a sparkling conversation going to gloss over any kind of awkward moment, like the tardiness of the bride who’d demanded their attendance in the first place.

Dahlia finally blew in on a gust of exotic perfume and chatter that burst out of her the second her foot was through the door. “Why didn’t anyone tell me that show about the vampires was so good?” she said, scolding her way to Harper’s desk, who rose to greet her. “I mean, that show makes Charleston almost seem as interesting and gothic as New Orleans. You’d never know we don’t have handsome vampires in every mansion. Speaking of,” she said swooping down to drop a kiss on Deacon’s lips.

“Did you just call me a vampire?” he asked, and Harper couldn’t tell if he was amused or confused by the comparison.

“A handsome vampire,” Dahlia corrected. “You know, charming with those dark, brooding good looks and a workaholic night owl. You’re a perfect candidate, Deacon.”

Deacon shook his head. “Are you telling me that you’re almost twenty minutes late for an appointment you made because you got distracted by a TV show?”

She fluttered down to the seat next to him and placed a hand on his knee. “Binge-watching, honey. I know it made me late, and I’m sorry about that, but it’s exactly the kind of escapism you need right now. You should try it, Deac.”

Lily, the maid of honor, had been watching this all with a half-smile on her face and now she patted Deacon’s other knee. “You’re not dark and brooding,” she said, which smoothed out the furrow on his forehead. “And Dahlia, if I have to start picking you up for all these appointments, I will. My shift at the hospital starts at two o’clock sharp. We probably better get down to business.”

Harper bet she could binge watch a reality show based on these three. She’d met with Dahlia and Lily once before but having the groom in the mix charged the situation with a new energy. Lily was the peacemaker and problem-solver, she could see right away. That meant she’d need to make Lily her primary ally in wrangling Dahlia, who had demonstrated a fierce commitment to the irrational. There was a shorthand in the way they all spoke and touched one another that would have given away their long friendship even if she hadn’t already sensed it before Dahlia arrived.

Harper opened her Ravenel-Calhoun binder. Dahlia had chosen her venue and colors at their previous appointment, when Mrs. Ravenel occupied the seat Deacon took now. That had been a bit of tug-of-war between mother and daughter until Mrs. Ravenel had put her foot down and refused to budge on the William-Aiken House. She’d had it reserved since Deacon and Dahlia had announced their engagement the previous year, and Dahlia had only just decided to balk. Harper knew why she wanted it: it was the most prestigious venue in Charleston, a gorgeous historic mansion on King Street with lush grounds and an airy ballroom. Harper, sensing an unconventional streak in her new client, convinced Dahlia that the bright tangerine-painted walls of the dining room added the touch of whimsy she craved.

That victory had seemed to reassure Mrs. Ravenel that the unknown wedding planner Dahlia had chosen was right for the job, but Harper wondered if Mrs. Ravenel even knew that Dahlia had come in to pick the rest of her vendors. If she were a betting woman, she’d put money on Dahlia blindsiding her mother with her next set of choices.

But Harper was not a betting woman because she had no money to lose. Every penny was tied up in the business and the lease she’d signed three months ago for her storefront on George Street to attract wealthier clients. She’d have to use all her considerable skills to direct Dahlia toward choices that would make Mrs. Ravenel happy enough to still sign the check for Harper’s services.

She put on her warmest smile and turned to the second tab. “With the venue decided, we need to choose a photographer. I work with the best in Charleston, and—”

She trailed off as Dahlia waved her words away. “My friend Sutton is doing it.”

Harper search her memory but came up blank. “I don’t think I’ve worked with her before.”

“You wouldn’t have. She gave up shooting weddings a while ago. Very artsy now, but she’s my best friend from school, and she agreed to come back to do my wedding.”

“That sounds great,” Harper said, her smile never slipping. “Artsy” worried her because she didn’t think it was a word Mrs. Ravenel would like. But worse, she received a bonus from the vendors she referred, and that meant she could kiss her photographer bonus goodbye. She’d had plans for that money.

Her plans would have to wait, but no hint of her disappointment crept into her voice as she turned to the next tab. “Let’s move right on to food.”

At this, Deacon straightened and leaned forward for a better look. Lily grinned. “You’re speaking his language.”

“I particularly love Burnham’s Lowcountry Caterers,” Harper said. “Their shrimp and grits are to die for and they do such an elegant presentation with their plating. They elevate our humble food into art.” The cranky caterer from the morning flashed through her mind. He might think Charleston needed shaking up, but the city was ripe with restaurants sporting James Beard awards and even a couple of Michelin-starred establishments. There were rising stars who innovated and chefs who’d made lucrative careers out of the simple goodness of traditional Charleston cuisine.

“I like shrimp and grits,” Deacon said, flipping to the next flier. “But who’s your steak specialist?”

Harper turned to the flier for Salthouse Catering. “They’re amazing with any cut of cow.”

Dahlia’s nose wrinkled. “Steak, honey? Really? Why don’t we just throw a cookout and serve up some burgers?”

Deacon sat back in his chair. “You took the words right out of my mouth. Why don’t we?”

Dahlia rolled her eyes. “Because we’re not doing the whole hipster redneck revival thing. So help me, if I see anything in a mason jar or bacon-wrapped anything, I will lose it.”

Harper privately agreed with her about the overdone “country living” aesthetic, specifically when it was used by wealthy debutantes who disdained real country living. But now Deacon was frowning.

“If there’s no bacon, I walk,” he said. He was kidding, Harper thought. And about the cookout too. Probably.
“Not only do I not want any bacon, I don’t love the idea of meat at the wedding either.”

Deacon drew a deep breath. “I think it’s great that you’re exploring vegetarianism, but you know the Calhoun men are going to drink through every bottle of bourbon at the open bar if they have to sit through a vegetarian wedding dinner.”

“Pescatarian,” Lily said as Dahlia was drawing breath to argue. “That could work as a compromise. What if you have seafood? Seared scallops, shrimp, that kind of thing, maybe even something wrapped in bacon for the carnivores, but no red meat or poultry. Could you live with that?”

Dahlia didn’t look thrilled, but she nodded. Deacon shrugged. “I could live with that.”

Harper admired Lily’s deft handling and jumped on the solution. “I know a couple of perfect catering options.” She popped the right menus out of the binder and handed one to each of them.
“Yum,” Lily said.

“Looks good to me,” Deacon said.

Dahlia only offered a groan.

“Is something wrong?” Harper asked.

Dahlia’s whole face scrunched like Harper had handed her raw sewage instead of a catering brochure. It was the first time Harper had ever seen her look anything less than stunningly gorgeous.

Dahlia pushed the menu back. “I’ve eaten food from all of these caterers at other weddings, and they’re all good and totally boring.”

Lily winced while Deacon shut his eyes for a few seconds. But Dahlia wasn’t finished. “I picked you because you haven’t done the weddings for every single one of my friends, but somehow I’m still having this thing in a boring old mansion, and now I’m going to be serving boring old food. I’m not boring,” she said, slapping her hand on the open binder. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is going to work.”

Lily was shooting her an apologetic look, Deacon’s face had gone blank, and Dahlia had hopped up from her seat and taken a step for the door when Harper panicked. She couldn’t let her leave and take her mother’s fat checkbook with her.

The words escaped her before she could think better of it. “If you’re willing to work with a Gordon Ramsay wannabe who has wild ideas about food, I’ve got the guy for you.”

Dahlia sat back down with a relieved smile. “Tell me more. I think I could be persuaded.”


Purchase Wedding Belles: A Four Part Novel on Amazon.