Royal Secrets

Royal Secrets Book Cover

The Royal Wedding Chapel of Las Vegas…

Where dreams come true, and are just as easily destroyed…

Immersed in the regal world of weddings and romance, Lily Lavender grew up believing in brides, grooms and happily-ever-afters. A direct descendent of the British royals, it seemed her destiny and royal birthright to someday assume a position as wedding coordinator in their family-owned wedding chapel business. But when her mother Mimi’s third marriage eventually fails, Lily’s dreams of her own happily-ever-after quickly fade. She’s no longer interested in a life of assisting brides walk down the aisle into a life of disillusionment and possible divorce. Lily turns her back on The Royal Wedding Chapel and leaves Las Vegas to fashion a life of her own.

Years later, Lily—now a single mom—discovers her teenage daughter has run off to Las Vegas, lured by Mimi to help run the chapel. Determined to save her daughter from the broken dreams of Sin City and the nonsensical world of which family fairy tales are made, Lily returns to Las Vegas. But nothing prepares Lily for the royal drama which awaits her… or the sins and secrets she stumbles across that threaten to close the chapel and ruin her family forever.

 

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Reviews

 

A well-crafted story that will pull you in quickly and keep you turning the pages until you have reached the end. I’ve read every one of Paterka’s books, and her storytelling skills keep improving every time.”  ~ W.C. Hall, Amazon Reader

 

If you’re after a feel-good read with twists along the way, then this book is for you!” ~ Author Sophia Valentine

 

Kathleen Paterka has written a lovely novel which again has a realistic storyline and of course had that twist in the tale.” ~ Janine K. Kimberley, Amazon Reader

 

Author Kathleen Irene Paterka weaves an entertaining tale that engages the reader in following the dysfunctional family dynamic and relationship of three generations of women, and the royal bonds that bind them together.” ~ Jersey Girl Book Reviews

 

Kathleen Irene Paterka delivers another wonderful novel…  a great book for anyone that loves a story about female relationships, as she gets to the heart of these relationships. This was a wonderful story, and I loved how Paterka defines family. Above all, that is what this story is about.” ~ Annie McDonnell, Amazon Reader

 

 

Excerpt

 

 

Prologue

There’s a reason they call this town Sin City, my mother told me long ago when I questioned her about something I’d heard at school that day. But when I asked about the secrets part, Mimi had refused to explain. “You’re much too young to hear about such things, Lily,” she said and left it at that.

I wandered away, a confused eight-year-old, my head filled with even more questions. How could Las Vegas be full of sin and secrets when it was filled with so much sunshine? Growing up in this town, in the ornate, spacious villa behind Mimi’s Royal Wedding Chapel near the center of the Strip, I saw the glitz and glamour. It shimmered and sparkled like the beautiful brides in their wedding gowns gracing the aisles of the chapel. Peeking around the pews, I saw their glowing faces, heard the vows exchanged, witnessed the beginnings of so many happily-ever-afters.

And then I grew up.

It took a while—around the time Mimi’s third marriage, the one to Jack’s father, collapsed—for me to discover the truth. Las Vegas is full of sin and secrets. Most of them stay in Vegas, left behind to be cleaned up by maids and blackjack dealers who sweep away the debris. Others get carried home like guilty luggage, busting up marriages and businesses and causing bankruptcy.

I’m forty years old, and that naïve little girl I used to be disappeared long ago. She learned that happily ever after is merely an illusion and that sins and secrets can weigh just as heavy on your heart as our family’s heirloom tiara can weigh on your head. The dazzling crown, in the special display case behind bulletproof glass in the lobby of the Royal Wedding Chapel, gleams like the fortune it is worth. But the antique combs pinch and the diamond diadem is a burden. How my grandmother managed to keep the jewel-encrusted crown on her head when presented to the Queen is the stuff of which family legends are made. With my grandfather descended from British nobility and in distant line for the throne, the tiara is a priceless treasure, proof of our family’s heritage.

As far as I’m concerned, though, that tiara is exactly where it belongs: safely behind glass, viewed from a distance. It glitters and sparkles, but the pain isn’t worth it. Dare to wear it, as I did once, and—just like the secrets hidden in Sin City—the pain and guilt will tear you down. I’m lucky I managed to yank it off in time.

And I refuse to allow that tiara to ruin my daughter’s life the way it almost ruined mine.

 

 

Chapter One

 

“As usual, Lily, you are overreacting. Tori is fine. She’s here, and perfectly safe with us. Why do you see this as such a problem?”

I bite my tongue and count to five before saying something I’ll only regret. My mother stockpiles emotions like a professional arms dealer. The less ammunition I provide, the better the chances we’ll survive this war of words. “Tori needs to learn that she can’t just run off whenever she feels like it.”

“She didn’t run off.” Mimi’s voice marches over the phone. “She drove.”

My stomach twists. As usual, Mimi is twisting my words. We’re supposed to love our mothers… and I do. It’s just that sometimes—more often than not—she drives me crazy. I pace my living room, halting before the floor-to-ceiling windows, and stare out into the gathering dusk. The ocean is a calm, mirrored sea. Far off in the distance, the twinkling lights of San Diego dot the darkening landscape. For the life of me, I can’t understand how Tori could turn her back on the beauty of the California coast for the harsh glare thrown off by the lights of Las Vegas.

I gather a deep breath and force myself to turn away from the view I’ve come to love. “Put yourself in my place. How would you feel if you got a call from your teenage daughter’s school and discovered that she’d ditched her classes? That she’d taken off for Las Vegas? That she’d driven across the mountains and crossed the desert, alone in her car—which, by the way, I totally did not agree with Jack and Ed giving her in the first place.”

Jack and his father had never even asked me before surprising her with that car. “For God’s sake, Mimi, she doesn’t even have a driver’s license yet. Anything could have happened.”

“But it didn’t.”

“But it could have.” My voice shakes as my mind once again starts considering the possibilities. Tori running off the road and crashing down the mountainside. Having a flat tire in the middle of the desert. A group of guys out cruising for a good time and coming upon my daughter.

I shudder and push the thoughts away. “I’m sure if it had been me, you would feel the same.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You, behind the wheel of a car? You hate driving. Besides, you grew up in Las Vegas. Why on earth would you drive somewhere you already lived? And for that matter, I will never understand why you decided to leave. Everything a person could want is here in this town.”

Not true. I don’t want Mimi breathing down my neck.

“It is time you faced facts, Lily. My granddaughter has moxie you’ll never have, which she showed by walking out of class.”

I tamp down my frustration. Much as I hate to admit it, Mimi is right. Tori and I are nothing alike. Never in a million years would I have dreamed of cutting school or taking off alone in a car before I had my license. Even then, I never would have climbed behind the wheel to drive those mountain curves, let alone cross the long dry stretch of desert highway before hitting the outskirts of Las Vegas.

“She didn’t walk out. She never showed up.”

“That is beside the point,” she brushes off my protest. “Tori has a soul for adventure. Celebrate her for the free spirit she is and give the child a little credit.”

Which is exactly what Tori is… a child. At least for another four months, until she turns eighteen. A vision from late last night flashes to mind. Tori, sprawled on her bed, iPod buds dangling from her ears, texting madly as I stopped in to say good night. Her bedroom is a scattered mess of clothes, shoes, and jewelry. She is just a child; a seventeen-year-old-woman-in-waiting who believes she’s all grown up.

Hands off. That’s been her motto the past few years. But it’s hard for any mother—especially a single mom—to maintain a distance. Sometimes, not often, I find myself wondering if things would have been easier with her dad at my side. Then I push away the thought. I don’t need a man. Especially not that man. And for now, Tori is still underage and still my responsibility, regardless whether she—or Mimi—likes it or not.

“Put her on the phone. I want to talk to her. She hasn’t been answering her cell, and she hasn’t responded to my texts.”

Mimi hesitates. “I think she might have gone to bed,” she finally says.

And I think not. Tori’s always been a nighttime person. Plus, she’s in Las Vegas, the city that never sleeps.

“She isn’t there, is she?” I take a wild guess, though I don’t need my suspicions confirmed. I have a very good idea exactly where my daughter is.

“Are you calling me a liar?”

Choose your battles wisely, Ed always told me, and I know I’ve lost this one. Mimi will lie, steal, and cheat when it comes to protecting those she loves. Tori shot to the top of her grandmother’s list the day she was born.

“Never mind,” I say. “I already booked my flight. It arrives at eleven tonight. Could you have someone pick me up at the airport?”

“You’re determined to spoil her little vacation, aren’t you?” Mimi’s voice bristles.

“She isn’t on vacation, she’s in summer school. Tori signed up for those courses—”

“Under protest. Don’t try to pretend you didn’t force her into it. She told me all about it.”

I push away the frustration and heaviness of two generations conspiring against me. “Will someone be there at the airport for me or should I call a cab?”

“I’ll send Jaabir with the car. But you are making a big mistake, Lily. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. You are much too hard on that child. Tori is a smart young woman, and I don’t understand why you insist she sit through classes in the summertime. Chemistry and physics have nothing to do with the real world.”

“Tori needs those courses to get into college. A good college.” That will be her ticket out, just like it was mine.

“Maybe she doesn’t want to go to college. Have you considered that? Not everyone is college material.”

“She is going to college.” But not in California or Nevada, either. I didn’t have the courage to put up a fight when Mimi insisted I stay home and attend the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. But I am determined that will not happen to my daughter. I want Tori in a college someplace far from here and far away from Mimi. My daughter is vivacious, charming, and exceedingly bright, but she’s also stubborn and headstrong, exactly like her grandmother. A college out East would be best. Her SAT and ACT scores this spring were high. Enrolling her in summer school for advanced placement courses gives her a heads up on her senior year. She can do it if she tries. Tori could have the world, if she’d only make the effort.

But after the little escapade she pulled today, I have a sinking feeling she won’t be inclined to apply herself.

I know what Tori wants. I’ve always known. She fell in love with all things royal—the family tiara and the family business—on her second birthday. That was the day Mimi plucked our family’s treasured tiara from its velvet pillow behind glass in the Royal Wedding Chapel and placed it on my daughter’s blond curls. I should have stopped her. I should have yanked the tiara off her head before it was too late. But just like my grandmother Lillian when presented to the Queen, Tori managed to keep it on her head.

That day was the beginning. Her happy cooing and delighted clapping left Mimi thrilled and me appalled. I should have known being pronounced a real-life princess, descended from British royalty, would inspire her dreams. But the last thing I want is Tori’s life ruined by Mimi’s world of happily-ever-after nonsense. Mimi would have her believe that life can be perfect, that weddings are the end-all-and-be-all, and the Royal Wedding Chapel is the only game in town.

But while Tori is nearly an adult, she still has a little girl’s dreams. And what my daughter doesn’t realize is that her dreams aren’t her own.

They belong to Mimi.

+ + +

 

Half an hour later, I stumble out the door, lugging my suitcase and laptop. The air is sweet with the scent of flowers hanging in the night breeze and the tangy ocean air blowing in across the beaches of Del Mar, not more than a half mile from our cozy two-bedroom house. It’s Friday night, and rush-hour traffic is against me as I wind my way down the highway into downtown San Diego and the airport.

Parking at Lindbergh Field is crowded with people headed out for the weekend. Travelers snake their way through the maze of ropes cordoning off different areas. I make my way through security and pop two Dramamine as I board the jet. My nerves are already jangled from me thinking about Tori. How could she have left? Why did she do it? What am I going to say to her? I dread another Mother-when-are-you-going-to-learn-that-I’m-growing-up conversation. The jet rumbles down the runway with me white-knuckling it as we lift off and head out over the Pacific, due west. Finally the jet makes a hard bank and we make the turn. My Dramamine kicks in as we climb through the night, high above the mountains. Somewhere due east, in the vast arid nothingness below, Las Vegas awaits.

The flight doesn’t take long. I straighten in my seat as the jet begins its final approach. The glow from the Vegas Strip lights up the night sky, and I catch a glimpse of the famous landscape, punctuated by Luxor’s sky beam and the shimmering green of the MGM Grand, the gaudy Rio, the palatial Bellagio. My stomach sinks as I spot the sprawling brilliance of Caesar’s Palace, where one night long ago, a dream danced with decadence and nearly destroyed my life.

My fingers grip the armrests as we drop from the sky. I wait in my seat as the jet quickly empties out. Flying into Vegas is always the same. Everyone looks forward to hitting the town, hitting the casinos, hitting it big. But unlike everyone else, I’m in no rush. I am not looking forward to confronting Tori, arguing with Mimi, or seeing Jack.

Damn it. I am going to wring that man’s neck if I find out Tori let him know she was on her way. The least he could have done was call and tell me. I’ve texted him twice and he’s not responding.

The noisy chime of slot machines greets me as I head across the half-empty baggage claim area toward the luggage carousel, only to just miss my suitcase. Too tired to chase it, I watch it make another lazy foray around the track, circling its way back to me.

A man pushes forward and makes an easy grab for it.

“That’s my…” I sputter to a stop as I catch sight of muscular arms, flashing black eyes, and a swarthy face heavy with a ten o’clock stubble. A familiar face. A friendly face.

Jaabir grins. “Hitting the Dramamine again, Lily?”

Laughing lightly, I give him a quick hug. “What can I say? I hate flying.”

“You’re on the ground now, girl. Here, I’ll take that.” He points to my laptop, which I willingly surrender. Mimi’s chauffeur and chapel handyman has strong arms, beautiful olive skin, and one of the biggest hearts I know. Born and raised in Detroit by parents who emigrated from Iran, Jaabir is a first-generation American who thrives on capitalism as well as sunshine. Five years ago, he decided he’d had enough with the snow and headed for Las Vegas. As far as I’m concerned, one of the smartest business decisions Mimi ever made was to hire him on the spot when he showed up at the Royal Wedding Chapel in search of a job.

Jaabir scans the luggage carousel. “Just the one suitcase?”

“Traveling light,” I say. “Have you been waiting long?”

“I just finished my last run when Mimi called and said that you were flying in and I should pick you up. I decided to head over here to the airport rather than go back and face the Queen Mum’s wrath.”

“Is she that upset?” I know convincing Tori to come back home won’t be easy, but Mimi can be a fierce adversary. If the two of them have joined forces, I’ll need every resource I can muster.

Jaabir’s face spreads in an easy smile. “Come on, the car’s just outside the door.”

“You left the limo in the parking lane? What about security?” I struggle to keep up as he strides through the baggage area and heads for the exit. “Aren’t you afraid they’ll tow it?”

“Do you actually believe anyone would dare tow Mimi’s car?” He throws back his head with a deep throaty laugh and points out the chapel’s gleaming white limo waiting at the curb behind a long line of taxis.

The wind and heat hit my face as the door whooshes shut behind us. It feels like walking into a hair dryer turned on full blast. It’s nearly midnight, but the temperature must still be hovering in the nineties. By noon tomorrow, it could well be 115. Las Vegas, especially in the summer, isn’t any place a sane person would choose to live. Then again, I’ve always wondered about Mimi’s mental health.

My luggage safely stowed in the back and me riding shotgun, Jaabir pulls away from the curb. Palm trees line the road as we head for the Strip.

“It’s good to have you back home. We miss you, Lily.”

I throw him a fast smile. “I miss you all, too.” Just a little white lie. I don’t miss Mimi’s nagging.

“How long are you staying?”

“Just for the weekend. Tori and I will drive back Sunday. I have work, and she has school.”

“Ah, yes.” He inches the limo out of heavy traffic and pulls onto a side street, picking up speed as he drives parallel to the Strip, headed in the direction of downtown. “The little teenage renegade.”

“She knows better than to pull a stunt like she did today.” I settle back in my seat. The lights of Las Vegas fly by in a blur as the traffic lightens. “Tori agreed to sign up for summer classes. She needs to finish what she starts. She needs to learn that you can’t run away from things.”

“School is important.” Jaabir nods, scratches his chin. “You’re a good mom, Lily. The two of you will work things out.”

“I hope so.” I’ve never been good at confrontations, and I’m not looking forward to the one looming with my daughter—especially if she’s enlisted Mimi in the fight. I glance at Jaabir; his hands are steady on the wheel, eyes focused on the road. He’s been taking night courses toward his college degree and he understands the importance of a good education. Maybe he could help me talk some sense into Tori. She loves Jaabir. He’s always treated her like one of his little sisters, and she gobbles up his attention the way I would have if he’d worked at the chapel while I was growing up.

“Maybe you could talk to her,” I suggest. “Tori always listens to what you say.”

“And face the wrath of Mimi?” He flashes me a quick grin. “Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t have my degree yet. I need this job.”

The limo rounds a corner, flies across an intersection, and swings through the chapel’s gates into the cobblestone entrance of the place I called home for so many years.

I climb out and glance around as Jaabir unloads my luggage. As usual, the chapel’s entrance is lit brighter than Buckingham Palace. Behind the Queen Victoria Chapel Court Garden with its outdoor wedding gazebo, Mimi’s villa is ablaze with lights. Everything looks the same… but not. The back of my neck prickles, and I lift my hair, knotting it in a high ponytail. Something doesn’t feel right. But it isn’t the heat or the wind blowing off Sahara Avenue that touches off the eerie sense inside me that something is wrong.

Why is the courtyard separating the chapel from the house so dark and quiet?

And why is Francesca hurrying across the cobblestones, wringing her hands?

“Thank God you’re home.” She envelopes me in a tight hug. A plump little woman who’s served Mimi forever as cohort, colleague, and confidant, Francesca seems strangely unhinged. “I thought you would never get here.”

Jaabir rolls my suitcase around the car. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Mimi.” Francesca pulls away. Her eyes are puffy and red, as if she’s been crying. “She tripped and fell on the steps going into the courtyard.”

“She fell?” My pulse quickens as I glance toward the villa. Mimi’s bedroom window is glowing. “Is she all right? Is Tori with her?”

Francesca’s hands flutter around her neck, like butterflies adrift in the desert breeze. “No, Tori is with Jack and Ed. And Mimi is gone. They took her away.”

“Who took her? Jack and Ed?” I ask.

“No, the ambulance crew.”

“Ambulance?” Jaabir stumbles on the cobblestone and catches himself on the hood of the limo. “Mimi’s in the hospital?”

Francesca nods. Her nose is red and her thinning auburn hair, in its usual bun, has started to unravel. Wisps of hair fly around her head like tiny red wasps. “They left about fifteen minutes ago. At first I thought I would go with her, but then I decided I should wait for you.”

Fresh tears well in her eyes. “I think she broke her hip. It all happened so fast. Mimi was in terrible pain. She kept moaning and trying to get back on her feet, but she couldn’t, even with my help. When I told her I was going to call 911, she started swearing. I knew she was furious with me, but I didn’t have a choice. I ran back to the house and made the call.”

“You did the right thing, Francesca.” I manage to choke out the words, though my mouth feels like it’s full of cardboard and my heart is pounding in my chest. “You couldn’t just let her lay there on the sidewalk.”

She shakes her head. “No, you don’t understand. Mimi wanted me to fetch her some clothes and fix her hair before I called 911. But I told her that she looked very pretty, and that the doctors would understand. She was wearing the bathrobe you gave her for Christmas. So elegant, and such a beautiful rich silk.”

Suddenly I am furious. Even during a crisis, Mimi is her normal pretentious, arrogant self. The woman never gives a thought to anyone save herself. And I am immensely sorry for Francesca, standing before me in a mismatched pair of slacks and top. Any other evening, she would be immaculately dressed. She always takes her cues from Mimi. The two of them have been together for nearly forty years, working to build the Royal Wedding Chapel into the elegant bridal business it is today. Mimi even invited Francesca to live in the villa after Husband Number Two died, granting her a small private wing just behind the chapel’s courtyard. Francesca is like one of the family. Thank God she was here tonight when Mimi needed help.

I push away the growing guilt that I wasn’t.

Jaabir guides Francesca into the back of the limo. I climb in beside her, sinking down into rich white leather, smooth and soft as buttercream frosting on a wedding cake.

“All day, I had the strangest feeling that something was going to happen,” Francesca says. “Mimi was acting odd even before she fell.” She hesitates, then smiles for the first time. “Though she did calm down when the ambulance crew arrived.”

No doubt. Either they gave her some nice narcotics to dull the pain, or the emergency crew consisted of attractive young men. Mimi’s appreciation for the sight of a good-looking man hasn’t dimmed in the least just because she’s a grandmother and eligible for Social Security benefits.

“It all started with that man who showed up this morning without a bride and without an appointment,” Francesca continues as Jaabir guides the limo out of the parking lot. “He and Mimi were shut up in her office for more than an hour. He threw off our entire schedule. Then Tori unexpectedly showed up in the middle of a ceremony. Then you called, Lily,” she says, turning to me, “to announce you’re flying in tonight and taking Tori home. Oh, I’ve never seen Mimi so mad. All hell broke loose after your phone call.”

I sit in silence, my thoughts whirling. It’s not difficult to imagine Mimi ranting and raving about anything—or anyone—who dares to counter her well-laid plans. The Queen Mum expects noblesse oblige from her entire entourage of family and friends. Those who do not curry the royal favor face the threat of losing the Queen’s approval and being banished from court. I’m familiar with the position. I’ve held it for years.

“And she had the most horrendous headache after dinner,” Francesca adds. “I remember thinking how odd it was. Mimi never has headaches.” She draws a deep breath. “But she couldn’t calm down, even after she had a nice warm bath and dressed for bed. Then I made us both a cup of tea, a nice Earl Grey, her favorite. That seemed to revive her spirits. We were in the kitchen, drinking tea, waiting for Jaabir to bring you home from the airport, and we started chatting about the weddings scheduled for tomorrow. That’s when Mimi decided to run over to her office for one last check.

“I tried to talk her out of it, but you know your mother. She never listens. Not that I blame her. One of the brides has been phoning for weeks. I tell you, Lily, that girl has been a nightmare. First she switched rooms, then she switched flowers. But with Tori here and you on your way, Mimi wanted to make sure everything was in place. She wouldn’t even finish her tea. I could tell she was in one of those moods, so I told her to go and that I would tidy up. But just as I reached the sink, I heard a sound like a muffled cry, and then a crash.

“Oh, Lily, it was horrible.” She cringes, remembering. “I didn’t know what to think. I thought maybe someone had been hiding in the courtyard and Mimi had been attacked. But when I got to the door, I found her lying at the bottom of the steps with the flower pot smashed in pieces around her. She was very groggy. She couldn’t tell me what had happened. The only thing I can think is that she missed the first step. But I still don’t understand why she didn’t flip the floodlights. The courtyard is dark, even during a full moon. Then again, electricity costs money and lately Mimi keeps harping on how we need to be more conservative and trim costs. Maybe that’s why she didn’t use the floodlights.”

“She didn’t because she couldn’t,” Jaabir says from behind the wheel, his face darkening in a deep scowl. “I cut the power in the courtyard this afternoon. She asked me to switch out the lights for energy-efficient ones, but I didn’t have time to finish.”

He smacks the palm of his hand against the steering wheel. “Why is she always in such a hurry? She knew the courtyard would be dark. Why couldn’t she wait?”

“You know Mimi,” I say. “The word wait isn’t in her vocabulary.”

“I know it’s her hip,” Francesca frets. “By the time the ambulance got here, she was in such pain she couldn’t even talk. My cousin fell and broke her hip last spring. She spent nearly three months doing rehab in a nursing home. What if that’s what happened to Mimi? Neither of us is getting any younger. I’ll be seventy next spring and Mimi isn’t far behind me.”

My heart sinks. As if I need a reminder. Time marches on, even for the Queen Mum. Is tonight the beginning of a future filled with fragile bones, cataracts, hearing aids, and liver spots? Mimi has always been all business, but I cannot visualize her as one of those women who successfully manages to embrace the business of aging gracefully.

“I bet when we get to the hospital, we’ll find her sitting up in bed, swearing up a storm, and driving the nurses crazy,” I say. “You know how dramatic Mimi is. She’s never been one to suffer in silence. This could simply be a sprained ankle.”

“No, it’s more than that,” Francesca says, fingering away some fresh tears. “The EMTs wouldn’t say much, but I know they were concerned. Why else would they be in such a hurry?”

“This is my fault,” Jaabir mumbles from behind the wheel. “I should have known she’d do something like this. I should have flipped the power back on.”

“Quit blaming yourself. This is not your fault. Both of you need to calm down.”

Keep calm and carry on. That’s what the English people were told during World War II. Too bad Mimi never embraced that as her motto. Perhaps if she had, she would have stayed in the kitchen with Francesca, finished her tea, and none of this would have happened. Plus, Mimi wasn’t even born until after WWII. She didn’t visit London until the late 60s while on a whirlwind backpacking trip through Europe. It was during the height of flower power and free love that she met my father, Lawrence Lavender, Husband Number One. He swept her off her feet and within a matter of days convinced her to marry him. Always one to do exactly as she pleased, she quickly accepted and lived in England for nearly a year… until the fatal car accident that robbed a pregnant Mimi of her husband and me of the father I would never know. Then, in true Mimi fashion, she picked up the pieces and left the country that is half my heritage, never looking back, never to return.

“And what about tomorrow?” Francesca says. “We have two weddings booked.”

“Only two? But tomorrow is Saturday.” When I was growing up, Saturdays meant a whirlwind of weddings. The chapel is open throughout the week, but Saturday still remains the day most brides choose to be married.

“Things have been slow lately,” she says. “I’ve told Mimi we should advertise more, maybe update our website. But she refuses. She says the chapel is doing fine and that we will carry on with business as usual.” Her voice drops. “But I think she’s wrong. Things aren’t fine.”

Only two brides on a Saturday in June? I don’t think things are fine, either.

“The other chapels in town don’t seem to have a problem,” she continues. “Then again, their websites are nicer than ours. Or maybe it’s because they have a younger staff. Of course, we still have our reputation, which brings in some business, and we still get phone calls. But so many of the brides I talk to on the phone end up not booking. And some of those girls are so rude; they hang up without bothering to say thank you or good-bye.” She bites her lip. “I try not to take it personally, but I feel bad for Mimi. The chapel is her life, and she’s losing business. Girls are still getting married, but they’re not getting married at Mimi’s chapel.”

The Royal Wedding Chapel has been a fixture in the Vegas community for decades, and its reputation for elegance and opulence has served Mimi and the business well. When I was in my mid-teens, she recruited me every weekend. Forced to man the reception desk, I answered the phones and worked with the walk-ins while she and Francesca handled the ceremonies. But once I started college, Ed stepped in and pled my case, and for whatever reason, Mimi listened. Thus ended my career in the family wedding business.

I’m still not sure why she allowed me to step aside. Even after Ed moved out and they divorced, she never pressed me back into service. Nowadays, Jaabir chauffeurs bridal couples to and from their hotels in the stretch limo while Francesca runs the music and Mimi officiates at each ceremony.

And if my mother gets her way, she’ll have Tori behind the reception counter, working the phones, handling the appointments, and serving as a licensed minister as soon as she reaches legal age.

“What about Tori?” I ask as the limo speeds along the side streets. “Does she know about Mimi?”

Francesca nods. “I phoned after the ambulance left. She’s probably already at the hospital.”

Tori and who else? The mere thought of Jack being with her starts a slow burn simmering in my stomach. Hopefully Ed had the sense to accompany them or we could be facing fireworks in the waiting room. I love Ed, and I’m always glad to see him, but his son Jack is a different story.

“I suppose we’ll have no choice but to call in a substitute minister.” Francesca pauses, worry clouding her eyes. “I hope we’ll be able to find someone. And what if Mimi isn’t well enough to do the weddings next week?” Her face is in another free fall. “What if—”

“What if you quit worrying about things?” The last thing I need is Francesca worrying herself sick over minor details. “Everything will work out.”

She tsks-tsks her way out of silence. “Mimi will hate paying the extra money for a substitute minister, but I suppose it can’t be helped. This is an emergency.”

“Mimi will understand.” And if she doesn’t, I’ll make sure she does. When you’re in the bridal business, the first rule of order is to make sure emergencies are covered by a backup plan. Las Vegas means brides—all kinds of brides. Plain or gorgeous, sweet or demanding, drunk or sober, when a bride and her groom show up at the Royal Wedding Chapel, they expect a minister on site who will be able to marry them. The bridal business can be messy, but you don’t mess with brides. A bride in meltdown-mode is not a pretty sight.

“Tomorrow’s weddings will go smoothly,” I assure her. “Wait and see.”

She squeezes my hand. “I can’t imagine what we would do without you. You are such a blessing.”

Poor Francesca. She has no clue. Things are calm for now, but the who-what-when-where-and-how we’ll get through tomorrow’s weddings is beyond me. We can’t cancel the bookings, and I’m not licensed to conduct the ceremonies. Mimi tried every trick in the book when I turned eighteen to get me to apply for a certified officiate’s license. Just in case, she insisted, but I wouldn’t budge.

I still don’t think I would have had the courage to stand up to Mimi if it hadn’t been for Ed. His advice to follow my heart and get out of the wedding business paid off with me graduating summa cum laude with a degree in finance. I was recruited straight out of university into their corporate training program by the international casket company I’m still with today.

Coffins? Funeral parlors? Mimi accuses me of mocking her happily-ever-after business by having allowed myself to be hired into the death business. But I’m happy where I am. I’m head of my department and successful at what I do. I’ve always preferred dealing with numbers; you can trust them. Unlike people, they don’t cheat, steal or lie.

There’s a good reason I’ve never been married. I’m the last person who should stand before two people, urge them to join hands, and pronounce them husband and wife. Let someone else handle the happily-ever-after nonsense. As for the Royal Wedding Chapel, it’s Mimi’s passion, Francesca’s paycheck, and—if Mimi gets her way—Tori’s inheritance. But the last thing I want is Tori making the same mistakes I did. I love Ed bunches, but hanging around Mimi too long can break your heart.

So can hanging around Jack.