Stepping outside on a Saturday morning, Gavin Hartfield, the creator of Charmed Occasions, the wedding and event-planning company within the Southern Charm Bed & Breakfast, touched the Bluetooth wireless earpiece that wrapped around his ear to reset it. Then he adjusted the microphone.
A trio of calls with immediate hang-ups buzzed his phone.
He pulled it out and checked the screen. The area code was from Atlanta, his previous hometown.
There was one person who kept harassing him, no matter how many times he changed his number.
A flicker of a panic attack increased his heartbeat.
Again. All of this. All over again.
He wanted the bastard to leave him alone.
“No. No. Concentrate on the wedding. They deserve your full attention—not an asshole who can’t let go.”
“Help! Gavin! You there?”
Wincing at his assistant’s voice, Gavin wanted to rip the entire headset away. “Yes. I’m here. Use the volume control. Please.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Victor MacArtney said. “Better?”
“Yes. What did you call for, Victor?”
“The family member acting as the cameraman for the virtual part is here. His name is Ryan. He wondered if he could follow you for all the pre-wedding stuff to show the family and guests waiting in their online group.”
“I’ll meet him inside. Have him wait by the entrance.”
“Gotta keep some of our secrets and tricks. Right?”
“Will do, boss.”
Shrugging off the earlier panicky sensation, he checked his tablet to update the list and timings for the wedding of Michael and Charles. Since the pandemic had changed everything, they’d pushed back their wedding multiple times until it was considered safer, when everyone would have been vaccinated. Once they’d chosen this Saturday, they were determined to exchange their vows and rings. They’d selected Occasions’ smaller package with a gazebo wedding and a brunch reception. The rest of the extended family, friends and co-workers had been invited to a virtual party in a Discord group that would be livestreamed by Ryan. The grooms kept the ceremony and reception areas subdued, simple, with a few splashes of flowers and a single pale-blue accent color against the natural background. It suited the older couple, who were both in their early forties. Now he needed to make their dream wedding come true on this July morning.
“Gavin, we have a problem!” Victor said while racing over.
Gavin wondered what disaster Victor had created this time. “Where is Ryan?”
“Left him inside like you said.”
“What is that?” Gavin focused on what Victor held in his hand.
Victor held up the battered birdcage. “One of the birdcages fell while the lighting team tried to hang it in the gazebo. A few pieces of metal snapped. Luckily, Jude hadn’t added the flowers or that would be another disaster. Ryan didn’t film anything. Would make it even—”
“Don’t even go there.”
“Yeah. True. What should we do?”
“First, calm down. There is always a solution. You must learn that part of the job.”
“Okay.” Victor spun the damaged item between his hands.
Gavin inspected the cage and realized they couldn’t repair it. They would have to discard the item. Okay, minor disaster, but there’s always a solution. Focus on that. “There’s no fixing this cage.”
“What’s the solution?”
Gavin tapped open the inventory program and scrolled to figure out his options. “Okay. Aisle 3, Bin C. There’s a matching cage that’s a little smaller, but it’ll work. Toss that one, remove it from the inventory list and get the replacement.”
“Please tell them to be extra careful. Those are our only white cages. We’ll have to be on the lookout next time we go shopping. And don’t go through the main entrance. Avoid the camera.”
“Promise. Keep out of sight until it is all fixed and perfect. Understood.” Victor raced off.
“What next?” Gavin waved to the violinists. While he talked to Victor, the pair of music students had arrived and begun practicing. They’d worked an Occasions wedding before and knew the drill. Then he returned inside to weave his way to the kitchen.
“Morning, Malcolm, how are we progressing?”
The sous chef, Malcolm Bissete, chopped and diced with a massive chef’s knife. If Gavin used one of those, he would be afraid of losing a finger. “I’m not going to be filmed. Right?”
“The camera guy is waiting by the front entrance. I’ll keep him contained. This was agreed upon between Occasions and the grooms.”
“Okay. Too busy to deal with that nonsense. Stupid pandemic.”
“I know. I know. At least we get to go back to some normalcy.”
“True. Anyway…progress check. Right.” Mal didn’t look up throughout the entire conversation but kept his attention on his work. “Cocktail hour is done and ready.” He scooped the ingredients to a bowl. “The cocktails will be made fresh to order. Zak is on his way and will mix everything. Unlike me, he knows what he’s doing.”
Mal went to the warming oven, plucked out a couple of pieces, plated them and passed it to Gavin. “These are the egg-white tartlets with bacon, Gruyère and sun-dried tomatoes. The other is the mini-French toast. I added dark maple syrup, so it bakes into the bread. Nothing should bother your lactose issue. Both grooms requested alternative milks.”
“I missed one of my favorite parts of every event—the tasting element.”
“Still not going to share with Victor?”
“Nope. Not guilty, either.” Gavin savored the hors d’oeuvres Malcolm had created to satisfy an early morning hunger before the actual brunch—something to offset the morning dip into alcohol. The cocktail hour would be celebrated with an option of mint juleps and Bellinis, along with coffee and tea. While the grooms and wedding party finished the pictures, the guests could enjoy some delicacies. “Wow. These are delicious!”
Malcolm slid over a cup of fresh coffee, doctored to Gavin’s taste. “Appreciate it.”
“What else is ready?”
“Katie’s delivery guy dropped off the cake. It’s waiting in the walk-in fridge. Simple but elegant, like one of the grooms, Charles, wanted. Katie loved how it came out and will add it to her social media pages.” Mal pointed to another workspace. “I’m finishing the salad wraps and grilled vegetable tartlets. The frittatas are baking. The scones are done.”
“Perfect. You rock.” Gavin polished off the rest of the French toast, loving the flavor combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and maple syrup.
“It’s a small event, so there isn’t much to make. It’ll be the same with Sunday’s reception. I enjoy these little ones. I’m not running around like crazy to get everything done.”
“There are going to be more of these smaller events until everything settles down.”
“And people become comfortable in larger ones.”
“Life came to a stop and changed. Now we need to figure out a way back,” Gavin said between sips of coffee. “Just wondering. What are you going to do when Dorian finishes school and returns home? Will you keep helping with the event side?”
“I’ll return to restaurant cooking with the occasional event-planning stuff for the larger groups. The restaurant side is my passion.”
“What?” Gavin frowned in a playful, teasing manner, complete with the sad puppy-dog look that collaborated with his baby-blue eyes. “Don’t you like working with Victor and me?”
“Not the puppy-dog eyes! No! No. Stop that.” Mal snapped his towel at Gavin. “You’re evil, man, just plain evil. Not going to sway me. Nope.”
Gavin grinned while he dropped the look when he knew he’d gotten to Mal.
“Hey, I adore you, honest. I don’t mind helping with the events if I’m needed, but I’m a restaurant kitchen guy. It’s in my blood. I love the craziness of a busy evening.”
“Understandable.” Gavin finished the coffee and pushed the dishes back across. “I’ll let you get back to things. Let me know if anything changes.” He tapped his earpiece. “Unless you run into Vincent, then tap me on this.”
“Always.” After a flourish of the towel, Malcolm tucked it back around one of his apron’s ties.
Gavin left the kitchen with a fresh burst of energy. Heading through the main restaurant, he studied a couple of people from the local businesses dressing the closed-off area for the reception. Pale-blue tablecloths with sand-colored napkins and chair covers united the area. A bounty of fresh flowers in shades of cream and pale blue added a beautiful fragrance. He loved everything the florist, Jude Sebastian, designed.
Taking a moment to adjust a couple of items and locate a missing placement, he returned outside. There he found Jude and his team setting up the last of the exterior floral arrangements around the gazebo and aisle. The lighting team finished adding pin-style lights around the gazebo that went with the strings of fairy lights. The natural morning sunlight would brighten the rest of the setting.
Though he discovered the second birdcage hanging, he couldn’t locate his assistant.
Gavin tapped his headset. “Victor, where are you?”
“Helping Charles with his outfit. We have a loose button and a wobbly belly,” Victor replied. “Don’t worry. Ryan is still in the front entrance area.”
“Okay. Keep me updated. I’ll pick up our cameraman and check on the grooms next.”
Gavin stepped closer to the dark-haired florist where he was tucking pale-blue and cream flowers into the birdcages. “Hey, Jude.” Memories of the Valentine’s Day surprise he’d created for Jude at Dr. Elliott Sheffield’s request to reveal their new home flashed through him. It had been one of his most memorable moments.
“Morning, Gavin. Wonderful day for a wedding.” Jude shifted his attention from the cage and flowers toward Gavin. He let out a low appreciative whistle. “Looking pretty dapper this morning. I like the paisley suspenders.”
Every single time they met, the florist commented on Gavin’s combination of bow ties and suspenders. They were his look, his trend and something he’d started with his first wedding. In a way, they remained his good-luck charms. If he needed to go a bit more formal, he had a collection of vests and a few coats more reminiscent of earlier centuries. There was a touch of steampunk style to some of his wardrobe. Today, he’d chosen gray-checked pants with a long-sleeved white button-down shirt. Due to the steamy early-July morning, he’d rolled the sleeves up his forearms then set off the look with gray paisley suspenders and matching bow tie.
“How many pairs of suspenders do you have?”
“Lost count a while ago,” Gavin admitted. “Same with the bow ties. At least a couple hundred, if not more, of each type.”
“Damn. How are we to know what set to get you for your birthday?” Jude let out a low whistle. “Sheesh. You probably have every single style and pattern.”
“No, not everything. Still missing a few sets, and more are always being revealed and designed. My collection is always growing. I’m not stopping anytime soon. There’s some higher-end ones I didn’t pick up.”
“Do you have a wish list?”
“Still can’t get Doc Elliott to try them?”
“Nope. Claims they get in his way in the ER.”
“Silly doctor of mine,” Jude said. “He prefers his boring scrubs.”
“He’s still a keeper. Does he have a twin?”
Jude laughed and shook his head.
“Damn. Too bad he broke the mold.”
“Oh, I’m not giving him up for anything.”
“Don’t blame you.” Gavin cupped his fingers under one bloom that was tucked into a stylized vase set on a pedestal. “These are gorgeous.”
Jude caressed one petal with a fingertip. “The one you’re touching is a morning glory. I adore that sky-blue color. The others are a combination of white mini cala lilies and ruffly double tulips. It took a bit of luck for me to find these white hybrid nerine lilies. They’re the perfect addition to intersperse among the foliage. After sending the grooms a picture, they became excited and gave me a bit of extra budget to find them.”
“I remember their excitement about it.”
“Crazy how that happens. Anyway, I chose Italian ruscus, eucalyptus and fern combinations to finish off the centerpieces and accents. Smaller versions are on the tables,” Jude said. “The grooms chose a boutonnière of a single morning glory flower and two strands of Italian ruscus. I delivered those earlier.”
“Other than tulips, I have no clue about what you just said. Tell me more.”
With a chuckle, Jude pointed to the different white flowers while he named each one. Then he did the same with the foliage—a touch of green to add to the plain palette. After the explanation, he let out a sigh and stretched from side to side. “Man, am I beat.”
“It’s barely seven.”
“Been up since four to finish these. Plus, Elliott got called in for an emergency. I’d hoped these crazy nights were gone after the pandemic, but nope. That’s life with a doctor. Whenever Elliott gets up, Dawson barks and asks for a trip outside. Though not part of his training, I relaxed on things since I don’t need the canine support as much. To top off the craziness, Sigi meows for someone to fill his food bowl right that very second or he will tell everyone of the injustice,” Jude grumbled. “Crazy feline.”
Gavin chuckled at the latest rant over Doc Elliott’s gray cat, Sigmund, a former stray who had adopted the doctor. Dawson, Jude’s Medical Alert companion, was a sweetheart of a Golden Labrador. “Yikes, sounds like you need a nap.”
“After we’re done with the set-up, I’ll grab a catnap at home…probably with the cat,” Jude said.
“What about Dawson?”
“At home I keep things relaxed. He can pass out on his doggy bed like the good boy he is. The cat could care less about boundaries.” Jude shoved a hand through his dark hair. “Even with a nap, my day remains full. I need to finish the final touches on tomorrow’s flowers, and I have a few other orders to fulfill.”
“Better to be busy than have nothing to do.”
“Tell me about it. I’ll take a busy day any time. While the Charm went through renovations, I wasn’t sure the shop could remain in business. Things got dicey. Then the pandemic hit and… Seriously, I thought I would lose the entire store, but—”
“You kept things alive.”
“It was strange. One commenter of my Facebook page asked if he could purchase a basic arrangement online and pick it up curbside. There were a hundred comments wanting to do the same. I wasn’t anything like those massive online stores, just a small local business, but Elliott nudged me to do it. Took a week to create a few arrangements, take pictures and post them to the website. Got a dozen orders the first week. Then it increased every week. It was”—Jude shook his head, tears in his sky-blue eyes—“amazing.”
“Something special that happened throughout downtown.”
“Our town knows how to come together in a crisis.”
“With business returning to Occasions, I get to keep you hopping.”
“Don’t get me wrong… I love it, and I’m never going to complain. It’s just a hectic schedule. Customers don’t want me to remove the online site. I get requests and orders every week. When you mix what’s happening at my store with Elliott’s schedule, yeah, not much time in between everything.”
“Hope you guys can figure out something.”
“Luckily, the shop is earning enough to hire a couple of more people, so I hope it will lighten things. I want to hire another flower artist.”
“Other than being rundown, how have you been feeling?”
“A helluva lot better.” Jude wasn’t bothered at all by the question he must hear multiple times every day. Most folks in Breeze knew about Jude’s seizure and diabetic conditions. “This glucose monitoring device is a wonder machine. I have lots of energy and not a single seizure in six months.”
“Good to hear things are settling down health-wise.” Gavin glanced around. “Where’s Dawson?”
“Curled up on the higher porch.” Jude pointed in a different direction, then let out a whistle of three altering tones.
A soft bark replied. A golden furry head appeared by the railing. A bright-blue vest shaded his upper body.
“Napping on the job, huh?” Jude teased his furry pal.
Gavin chuckled at the pathetic sound. “Looks like he found a sunny spot.”
“Of course… It’s his newest pastime adventure. He hasn’t had much to do since Elliott and my diabetes coach stabilized me.”
“Not that you mind.”
“Nope. I don’t mind him having some lazy times. He’s always a working dog.”
“Jude, we need you,” one of his assistants called out.
“You’re being hailed. Talk to you tomorrow,” Gavin said.
“We’ll be here with a different palette. Vibrant roses and massive flamingo-pink peonies. I enjoyed collaborating with those ladies.”
Gavin could say the same about the female couple exchanging vows during a sunset wedding the next day. They were a true delight to help create their dream day. The ladies worked together with Gavin, even with their different opinions. For this event, however, he communicated with Charles far more often than Michael.
With everything nearly completed, Gavin headed inside. Bracing himself, he adjusted his bow tie and fixed one of his sleeves. Putting a smile on his face, he walked toward the front reception area where Victor had left the cameraman, Ryan.
“Hey, everyone,” a young man called out while he turned with an iPhone held out on a selfie stick. “Here is Gavin, the fabulous event planner for Charmed Occasions. He designed everything with Charles and Michael. Hello, Gavin, I’m Ryan, the narrator of our livestream. Could you say hello to our virtual guests and explain a bit about the Southern Charm B&B and Charmed Occasions?”
“Hello, Ryan. Welcome to the Southern Charm Bed & Breakfast.” Gavin waved to the camera. “Hello to all the guests of the wedding of Charles and Michael. I wish all of you could be here in person, but I understand the concerns. It’s a bright, warm Saturday morning here in Shore Breeze, Florida. Southern Charm is based in a southern antebellum-style home.” He continued with an explanation about the building, the location and both businesses. “Now that the boring stuff is over, we’ll get to the fun part. Ryan, could you swing the camera around our grand front reception area.”
“Sure. Here we go, folks,” Ryan said while he moved the selfie stick.
“This is the front reception area of the Southern Charm. The guests can gather here before the celebrations. Our local floral designer, Flowers in the Breeze, added arrangements along with touches from Blissful Cloths. Here is our sign with the grooms’ names and wedding date. There is another sign offering directions for locations, plus a guest sign-in book,” Gavin explained. “Occasions adds these extra touches to all our events.”
The front doors opened.
“Hello, Whitney,” Gavin greeted the local wedding officiant, Whitney Becker, when she stepped inside. “This is Ryan. He’s filming the livestream for our virtual guests. Everyone, this is our officiant, Her Honor Whitney Becker.”
“Hello, Gavin, Ryan and everyone online. I hope you’re all having a wonderful day.” Whitney waved to the camera.
Gavin motioned out of view to hold off the filming. From his understanding, the grooms had specified things to Ryan, after Charles’ cousin had requested to be the cameraman.
Recognizing the symbol, Ryan took over the narration and headed off.
“Something new to get used to,” Whitney said.
“Yet another part of our new reality.” Gavin moved them farther away. “How are you this morning, Whitney?”
“Doing wonderful. You’re looking sharp as ever. How are you holding up?”
“Hanging in there, like always. A couple of hiccups, but everything is progressing,” he said. “Would you like some coffee and scones? It’ll be another half-hour.”
“That would be awesome. I need another hit of caffeine—especially since I’m going to be on camera.”
“Malcolm will hook you up with the good stuff. Don’t worry. You’ll do great…like always.”
“Thanks. I’ll find my own way.” She waved a hand. “Such a flatterer.”
“An honest one.”
Then his earpiece buzzed.
He received word that Jude and Blissful Cloths had finished. Everything was ready outside with a few things left for the reception.
With that over, he waved Ryan back to continue filming.
Together, they greeted some guests. Still cautious, he kept his distance and waved, though he handed over business cards when a few requested his information. They were welcome to head outside and enjoy the morning. At the same time, he reminded them about Ryan, the camera and the sign-in book.
When they left, he connected with one of Charles’ groomsmen to alert them to the early arrivals. They would oversee seating the guests and making them comfortable.
“Time to check in on our grooms,” Gavin said to Ryan and the camera.