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Title: Rules of Engagement
When her fiancé is shot in an apparent assassination attempt, private investigator Lexi Graves’ world is thrown into chaos and turmoil. With the list of suspects growing by the minute, and the hit man still on the loose, there’s no way Lexi can sit idly by Solomon’s bedside and hope he survives when she could be out hunting for the person or persons responsible.
After taking charge of Solomon’s private detective agency, Lexi enlists the help of her friends and family in her effort to bring the perpetrator to justice. Investigating, however, will lead Lexi into some areas of Solomon’s life that he purposefully left behind and unveil some startling revelations about the man she loves. With the situation becoming increasingly dangerous, Lexi has no choice but to unravel his past and ask a surprising source for help in her quest to discover why Solomon was targeted. Yet with her successive questions come some shocking answers and a conspiracy far bigger than Lexi could have ever anticipated.
When Lexi knows everything, and the mysterious details of Solomon’s past become clear, she can only wonder if anything in her life will ever be the same again.
"It's a mystery," said Solomon. His dark eyes pierced me with the kind of look that I was sure he usually reserved for a special type of criminal. I may have been many things but I wasn't that brand of criminal. At the top of my list of personal identities I, Lexi Graves, was a private investigator, an occasional lawbreaker, and a snappy dresser. Not to mention, John Solomon's fiancée, his number one employee at the Solomon Detective Agency, and maybe a little too hot for my own good. I was also deeply humble but that fell to the bottom of the list.
I paused and looked up at my soon-to-be husband and frowned. "What is?"
"How someone your size can eat so many wedding cake samples."
Scowling, I looked down at the tray our wedding planner had placed in front of us. He was right; it was a mystery how all the samples managed to disappear.
We sat in a pretty, but not overly feminine room, strictly reserved for clients, at the rear of the salon. One of the reasons we chose it was because it was only a few blocks away from the agency. The walls were painted a soft sky blue and all the furniture was French in style although thoroughly American in manufacturing. Framed photos of happy couples in their wedding finery dotted the walls; and the big, glass-fronted armoire contained all kinds of wedding fripperies a soon-to-be bride like me might want to snap up: jeweled hair combs, a pair of sky-high heels in white satin, and long strands of cultured pearls. Solomon was dressed for the occasion in a pair of nice slacks, a gray shirt and a tie. I was more casual in my jeans and a sky blue blouse with little scallops across the front. I had a sneaking suspicion that I probably blended very well into the background.
When the cake tray first arrived, we saw samples of two dozen flavors, each cut into neat, little squares, just large enough for the two of us to demolish with the delicate, silver forks our wedding planner had so graciously provided. Lemon, carrot, chocolate, fruit, with every buttercream frosting I could think of were attractively presented to entice us. We were allotted two slices of each flavor, one for Solomon and one for me. Unfortunately, when it came to cake, I wasn't a very good sharer. Nor, apparently, was Solomon. Not when it came to wedding cake! I'd never seen him indulge himself like that although he did look very satisfied. Now the tray held nothing but a few crumbs, the scant remains of the decimated but very tasty cakes. "They're really good," I sighed, shamelessly licking my fingers.
"And now you're not even sharing the buttercream frosting," complained Solomon.
I held out one sticky finger and he licked it. "That's my favorite," he said, his eyes closing in bliss.
"Duly noted. I will be sure to inform the wedding planner that our cake should taste like a human finger dipped in vanilla buttercream. I doubt our guests will like it but your happiness is uppermost in its importance to me."
Solomon cracked a smile, then laughed.
Francesca White came highly recommended by several of my mother's friends who had recently managed to get their offspring married. Knowing my skills were better directed towards catching criminals and purchasing online bargains than choosing the perfect flower arrangement, the idea of hiring a wedding planner looked like a very good solution. Plus, I feared that if Solomon were left to all the decision-making, he might opt to give us more adventure than I was already anticipating on my wedding day. Naturally, I didn't hesitate to hire Francesca. So far, it was a decision I didn't regret. We might not have set a date for the nuptials or even the reception venue, but we were pretty close to making a decision on the cake, something that ranked very high in my list of favorite things about weddings, and life, in general. Thinking about it though... I slowly pushed the empty cake tray away. "I do want to fit into an elegant, form-fitted dress," I said.
"You haven't even been to a bridal shop yet," pointed out Solomon. He stopped and glanced at me as if I might surprise him. "Or have you?"
"No." Not this week anyway. I rather cleverly solved a wedding dress theft ring, one which involved my best friend, and newest sister-in-law, Lily, and it resulted in her receiving her dream wedding dress. At least, now I knew which bridal gown shops I would visit with my entourage. That consisted of whomever would have been too insulted if I didn't invite them. I narrowed my list down to my mom, (especially after she offered to buy the dress), Lily, and both of my other sisters-in-law, Traci and Alice. I was still debating whether or not I wanted my sister, Serena, there. For the sake of family relations, however, the answer probably would end up being yes. But if that suddenly caused a tulle-shaped meltdown from yours truly, it would definitely be her fault!
"Delgado says Serena bought her dress," said Solomon.
"I think she bought two." I sighed. My ever-efficient sister wasted no time, as usual. Our engagements occupied a similar time frame but Serena was way ahead of us in her wedding planning. "Since when do you two sit around talking about bridal gown shopping?" I wondered.
"It passes the time while we clean our guns."
"If you wore face masks, you would be really multi-tasking."
Solomon blinked. "Balaclavas?"
"I was thinking oatmeal or mud. A little pore cleansing and skin brightening."
"I don't know what those things are."
The door clicked open before our wedding planner entered. "Sorry, for stepping out," said Francesca. "One of my brides had a meltdown. I advised her not to buy a dress a size too small but did she listen? No! It's lucky for her that I can get her dress to a brilliant seamstress. What did you think of the... oh! I see you really liked the cake." Her eyes widened at the sight of the fully decimated cake tray.
"He did that," I said while pointing at Solomon.
"Sharing is caring," said Francesca, shaking her head at him in a mock reproach. Solomon took a deep breath. "I hope you both remembered to mark the cards with your favorites," she said, reaching for the two little cards that were strategically placed on the tray next to the cake. "Let's see. Everything on this card is marked ten out of ten! And on this one... okay, you both loved everything. That's great. Just great. But what do you love the most?"
Solomon looked at me and smiled.
Francesca sighed. "You two are so perfect," she squealed as she clapped her hands together. The sudden noise in the peaceful salon made me jump. "I just know your wedding will be wonderful but we do need to start making some decisions. The venue, for example, as well as the date. And what about the flavor of the cake?" she asked, firing her questions in rapid succession.
I glanced ruefully at the remaining crumbs and wondered if anyone would mind if I licked the tray. "I can't decide," I said. "Just make it round."
"Not the flavor, but okay." Francesca glanced at Solomon. "Perhaps I should ask you for your favorite flavor and then maybe we could decide about the decorations and perhaps, how many tiers?"
"Lexi doesn't cry."
"Not those kind of tears... Oh, very funny," she said, and Solomon smiled.
I laughed. "We aren't being very helpful, are we?" I asked.
Francesca rounded the back of my chair and pulled out the vacant chair, settling herself not quite opposite and not quite between us. "Lexi, Solomon, I don't want to rush you into any decisions. You haven't set the date yet so we have lots of time to work out all the finer details. When you do decide on a date, everything else will just fall into place. Things will start to stand out, a favorite choice will rise from the options I gave you or you'll see something you want and I'll make it happen; and that's what we'll go with. Remember, although you want the wedding day to be perfect in every way, the wedding day is just the fun stuff; it's the marriage that's most important."
"There're just so many options," I said, suddenly feeling overwhelmed. I never thought of how much it took to plan a wedding. I'd been to countless weddings and involved in several bridal parties. I'd also been a bridesmaid more than once and helped host bachelorette parties, but none of them was as difficult as planning my own. I naively assumed it would be as easy as pointing to something and making a snap decision, but I was wrong. There was so much more to do; things that I never even thought of. Sneaking a glance at Solomon, I wondered if he felt the same way although he looked very relaxed.
"I will make a note to provide you with less options. As I get to know both of you better, I will be able to narrow down your interests and tastes, thereby offering you the best options that suit you both. If you need to come back for a second cake tasting, I can arrange that too. Remember, this is the fun part!" chirped Francesca.
"That might be a good idea," I decided, trying to recall when I last worked out at the gym. If we ate more cake, we would eventually come to a decision, but I would also need to work it off. Solomon, however, was lucky. No amount of calories could make a dent in his six-pack abs. Just another one of the unfair things in life.
"Why don't you both take a few days to think about the cake flavor and let me know what impressed you the most?" she suggested. "And I can give you some brochures with styles and themes that you can take a look at and see if you like any of them. We can discuss your inspiration and if you have a mood board, bring it in. We partner with several great bakeries and many other businesses in the area."
"That sounds great," said Solomon. "Although I think I prefer simple."
"Absolutely great," said Francesca. This time, I thought her smile looked a little sprayed on. It didn't surprise me. Simple could mean anything. I wasn't even sure what Solomon meant. "Follow me and I'll get you those brochures."
"What's simple?" I whispered as Solomon and I both rose, following Francesca from the pretty room into the main part of the shop that formed the wedding salon. This room was painted cream and a mannequin in the window wore a lacy, vintage dress. Pink, white and red roses were dotted around the salon. Francesca went behind one of the twin French-style desks and plucked a handful of glossy brochures from a bookcase.
"No comedy..." he started.
"I love comedy!"
"Not if it's ball-and-chain motifs or little figures of brides and grooms manhandling each other at the altar."
"Okay, point taken."
"Nothing towering up to the sky."
"We had better make a decision on the flavor or that could happen."
"Nothing garishly colored."
"In three fell swoops, you ruined my perfect cake!" I laughed at Solomon's quizzical face. "Simple it is," I agreed, "and round."
"I have no idea," I said, "I just like the idea. Plus, 'make a decision on something today' was at the top of my to-do list."
"Here you are," said Francesca as she thrust several more glossy brochures into my hands. I turned them over, looking at the beaming brides and proud grooms. "So you two work together at a detective agency, huh?" she inquired. "That must be interesting."
"It is," said Solomon.
"We get some very interesting cases," I added, sensing that she wanted to know more even if she didn't explicitly say so. "It's a very diverse job."
"Is it all honey traps and lost pets?"
"No, we don't cover the former and only occasionally, the latter. Many of our cases involve a criminal element," explained Solomon. "Usually, we're the last option for our clients."
"Hmm." Francesca paused, looking at her feet, and her eyes clouded. Before I could ask if she were okay, she brightened and her big smile reappeared. "Thank you again for choosing White's Wedding Planning and I look forward to helping you create your perfect wedding."
We shook hands, exchanged our goodbyes, and left. After we closed the door to the sound of the tinkling bell above it, Solomon said, "Must be nice to have that kind of stress-free job.”
I hooked my arm in his as we walked to our cars. My previous appointment had been at the agency, and Solomon's was a security job in Bedford Hills, a rich neighborhood on the periphery of town and also, in the opposite direction. That was why we'd arrived separately. "Why's that?" I wondered.
"We meet people under dire circumstances and do our best to help them, even if it doesn't always make them happy. She helps people during the very best time of their lives, when they're the happiest they could be. Must be nice to work on that end of the spectrum once in a while."
"I bet she gets lots of thank you cards," I said. We got an occasional thank you card, but more often, our clients liked to fade away and quietly move on with their lives. I couldn't blame them. Like Solomon said, people only came to us after they had exhausted all their other options. Usually in desperation, they contacted us as a last resort. It was great to give our clients the answers they sought, although not all were good ones or the ones they wanted to hear. Solomon told me once the business of private investigating was not to make anyone happy, but to give our clients the truth and it was up to them whether or not they wanted to hear it or accept it.
"And Christmas cards," said Solomon.
"We get some occasionally," I said. A couple of past clients did send nice cards that were still stuck to the cork board installed above the coffee station in the office. They served as a nice reminder that we provided a valuable service; a far nicer reminder than the boxes of closed files still waiting to be archived, although they were good advertising too.
"Are you heading back to the office now?" asked Solomon.
I nodded. "I have some case notes to wrap up. I hope you have something big for me next."
"Maybe." He winked and I pretended to gasp. That is, the gasp was real but there was no need to stroke his ego.
"Where are you going?" I asked, guessing it wasn't the office.
"I need to check up on a job one of the risk assessors is handling."
"Hence, the tie?" I asked. "You look very nice."
"What? This old thing?" Solomon winked. "The job might take some time but I think I'll be home around seven. Should we order take out?"
I thought of all the cake we'd just eaten. "You're already thinking about food?"
"Where did you put all that cake?" I asked, making a show of patting him down. The parts of him that wouldn't get me arrested for public indecency anyway.
"That was nothing. A mere snack." He laughed when I found a ticklish spot before catching my hands and pulling me closer. The sweet kiss he gave me tasted of buttercream. "I'll call if I'm going to be late," he said.
I opened my car door and slipped inside the black VW, waving as Solomon jogged across the street to his own black SUV. Reaching for my cellphone, I found my pocket empty. Checking my purse, then my jeans pockets, then all along the sides of the seats, I muttered, "Damn," knowing it must have slipped out at the wedding planner's studio. I grabbed my purse and hopped out, hurrying back to the salon as a light drizzle began to fall from the gray clouds passing overhead. The bell tinkled again when I pushed the door open, and I looked around.
Francesca stepped out of the room we'd just vacated. "Looking for this?" she asked, holding my cellphone aloft.
"Yes!" I blew out a relieved gasp. "I knew I last had it when we were in here. It must have slipped out of my pocket.
"I just found it on the floor when I heard the bell. I'm glad you realized you left it but I would have brought it to your office if you hadn't come back," she said.
"I appreciate that," I said as I took it.
"Lexi?" she started hesitantly before waving a hand dismissively. "Oh, never mind. It's nothing."
I watched her face, noticing the frown lines and worry in her eyes, two things the falsely bright smile couldn't quite conceal. I knew if I asked Francesca if she were okay, she would brush me off. Instead, I said, "Tell me what's wrong."
She hesitated before saying, "Is it that obvious?"
"Something's going on with my assistant and I don't know what to do. It's probably nothing..."
"But your gut tells you otherwise?"
"How can I help?"
"I thought, maybe, well, because you're a private investigator, maybe you could suggest something I can do to find out what is really going on. She's been pretty secretive and evasive."
"She's normally open?"
"Oh, yes. Usually Keira is great, but lately... I just have a bad feeling."
"Why don't you tell me about it and I'll see what I can suggest?"
"Okay." Francesca drew me into the backroom and shut the door. We pulled out two chairs and sat at the table while I waited for Francesca to begin.