Event planner Kate Sweet is famous for creating the perfect happily-ever-after moment for her clients’ dream weddings. So how is it that her best friend has roped her into planning a bestselling horror writer’s book launch extravaganza? But the second Kate meets—or rather, accidentally maims—the drop-dead-hot Drake Matthews, her well-ordered life quickly transforms into an absolute nightmare.
Drake Matthews is tired of the spotlight and tired of his reputation as the Knight of Nightmares. He's really a nice guy! But he’s not prepared for Kate, a fearless agent of chaos in steel-tipped stilettos, or for that sweet sting of attraction he feels for her. She’s inspiring him to take his writing in a whole new direction—one that no one expects. Because now Kate and Drake are changing up the rules, and this plot twist might just surprise everyone . . . including themselves.
Release date: July 13, 2021
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 368
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How Sweet It Is
Kate Sweet touched her earpiece, activating the microphone. “Carl? You and the pumpkin are in position?”
“Roger that, Kate.”
“Perfect! The newlyweds are coming. Cue the bubbles.”
Kate shivered in the September air. It was the first day of fall, and if this weather presaged the winter to come, she figured she’d better break out the wool outfits now. The upside of the colder-than-average temps was the stunning fall foliage—a priceless backdrop to today’s afternoon wedding. Luckily, the outside portion of the reception was almost over. Just one more special touch.
An errant lock slipped out of her chignon, and she tucked it behind her ear as she fast-walked around the hillside estate in her stilettos—shoes that were made for anything except fast-walking around rocky, grassy grounds. Or fast-walking in general. But a full suit, complete with killer heels, was her trademark uniform as the owner of Sweet Events. She’d patterned the style, as well as much of her fledgling business, after an internship with her mentor, the late Maya Evert herself.
“Take it from me, people don’t respect a five-foot-one woman in flats,” Maya had said in her blunt way. “You want to be the boss? Dress like one. Use fashion to your advantage.”
Maya wasn’t wrong. It made a difference when you didn’t have to crane your neck during every conversation. Kate had eventually grown accustomed to working in tall heels and now considered them, along with her project plan spreadsheets, essential armor against chaos and one of the keys to her success.
Her personal phone buzzed, and she tugged it out. Fumbling with cold fingers to activate the readout, she skimmed a text message from her mom.
Mom: Was hoping to chat with you about the Sweet Surgery Center’s grand opening. Both your dad and I are in surgery now, but can we talk later? After your party?
“It’s not a party, it’s an event,” Kate muttered to herself, her breath fogging the air as she groaned and dropped her cell back into her pocket. She wouldn’t bother texting back. No emoji in the world was going to facilitate the message that she still wasn’t interested in joining the family medical legacy. Never had been. But the famous Sweet surgeons were nothing if not persistent. Kate shook her head, willing the thoughts of her family’s infinite disappointment in her career out of her head.
She had a happily-ever-after moment to deliver.
“Bubbles are on,” came her assistant’s voice in her ear. Kate rounded the corner to the flagstone patio of the ritzy Connecticut estate where the couple had chosen to have their special day, miles from New York City’s hustle. The bubble machines hidden in the bushes hummed to life as the couple and their well-wishers spilled out through the bank of French doors to the gorgeous autumnal vista.
“Oh!” the bride gasped, finally noticing that the air sparkled with a million tiny bubbles floating in the cool breeze. Everyone laughed, playfully swatting at the bubbles as the bride and groom posed for pictures amid the cascade, giggling and holding their arms outstretched, the chilly weather momentarily forgotten.
It didn’t matter how old you were, bubbles made everything fun.
“And now…for the ‘Aww!’ moment,” Kate murmured to herself, smiling in anticipation. This was her favorite part of the wedding—the tiny but impactful detail that turned the event from wonderful to blissful. She’d originally dubbed it the “Happily-Ever-After Moment” in her promotional materials, but her clients had described it as the “Aww!” moment, and that’s what stuck.
Right on time, the carriage pulled around the bend, making its grand entrance. The driver, dressed in white livery, had the reins of two gorgeous white horses in hand. The animals pranced up the lane, as if they knew this was their big moment. Guests lined up on the manicured lawn, cheering at the sight.
Kate grinned as the couple spotted the pumpkin-shaped carriage she’d rented. The bride squealed, pointing at the white wrought-iron frame, painstakingly wrapped in fall foliage and glimmering with thousands of twinkle lights. The woman gazed adoringly at her husband. Kate was too far away to read their lips, but it looked like she’d asked if he’d planned this. The groom nodded, and Kate saw his face turn red with embarrassed pleasure as his wife flung herself at him, hugging him fiercely around the neck.
“Bingo,” Kate whispered to herself.
The groom located Kate in the crowd and gave her a delighted thumbs-up. He’d been the one to secretly ask for a grand exit, wanting to surprise his wife. He’d left the details to Kate, though, knowing her fame for that “Aww!” moment.
Kate flashed a thumbs-up in return, and then the couple dashed over and closed themselves inside the intricate vehicle. Nothing said a Cinderella wedding like a nod to the classic fairy-tale carriage.
It wasn’t until the couple left the grounds, waving madly to the crowd, that Kate let out a huge sigh. She switched on her com.
“And…they are off the grounds and heading to the honeymoon suite. All set, Carl. We can start the tear-down of the outdoor chapel. Send the caterer and DJ my way for the checks. Great work!” Kate listened to her assistant’s congratulations, checking off the last of the events in the day’s agenda and closing up her Sweet Events planner with a satisfying snap. Just as the prancing horses carried the newlyweds toward their honeymoon cabin, her phone buzzed with an incoming call.
“They’re relentless,” Kate muttered, grabbing her phone. Her grimace relaxed into a smile as she read the phone’s readout, and she clicked to accept the call.
“Congratulations on another postcard-perfect wedding,” her best friend singsonged, not waiting for a greeting.
“Imani!” Kate laughed, picking her way around the last of the guests to enter the warmth of the estate house. She snuck to the back of the reception hall to snag a piece of wedding cake and a seat at an empty table next to an older couple. Pushing aside the table confetti—Shakespearean quotes about love printed on the back of paper designed to look like fall leaves—she dug into what would have to be her late lunch. “How’d you know it was perfect? Better yet, how’d you know I was done? You weren’t even here.”
“The itinerary you sent me said the couple would be leaving at three p.m., and it’s 3:02. Everyone knows that you always run on time and on budget. I’m really sorry I couldn’t be there to be an extra set of hands for you, Katie,” Imani said, using the nickname only she was allowed to get away with, having been best friends with Kate since grade school. “I know those massive weddings leave you running ragged, and I love any excuse to watch the Queen of Happily Ever Afters in action.”
“Carl and I managed just fine. The real reason I wanted you up here was to get you out of the city for a hot minute. I miss my old roomie and our girl talks. You know, the wild ones where you’d decorate my planner with inspirational quotes while I built a spreadsheet for your next career goal?”
“I’m still pissed you abandoned me. I mean, what’s a brand-new apartment complex on Long Island’s Gold Coast have compared to my tiny lofted box in Queens? You had the world’s lumpiest pull-out couch all to yourself, as well as my collection of gel pens, arranged for you in Roy G Biv order, and you up and left.” Imani paused her teasing, her voice wistful. “I miss Margarita Mondays.”
“Me too. My planner pages are deadly dull without you,” Kate said, dragging the tines of her fork through the cake’s icing, making a basket-weave pattern of eternal tic-tac-toe game boards.
“It figures. The one weekend you have a free Saturday night, I’m at an author event in LA.”
Kate quit mauling the cake and took a bite, closing her eyes to savor it. “Mmm. You’re missing out. The bride chose your favorite—a ginger spice cake.”
“No! Damn. Does it have buttercream frosting?” Imani groaned at the sound of Kate’s muffled assent. “Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with writers who have egos as big as their book contracts, there’s almost always a crisis on the weekend…which is sort of why I’m calling. I—I need some help.”
Although her best friend was thousands of miles away in California, Kate heard the hesitant dip in Imani’s voice. The last time Kate recalled her friend asking for help in that tone was six years ago when she’d had appendicitis and had to go to the ER for emergency surgery. The time before that was way back in high school when Imani had asked Kate if she could stay with her after Imani had lost her house—and her mother—in a tragic fire. Her best friend wasn’t a casual “ask a favor” type of gal.
Kate frowned, putting down her fork. She gripped the phone with one hand while flipping open her planner and readying to write with the other hand, her heart galloping with a sudden nervous shot of adrenaline. “Of course. Anything. Are you okay?”
“Oh, it’s not an emergency with me. Promise,” Imani said. “It’s work related.”
“You scared the crap out of me,” Kate hissed, releasing the breath she’d been holding. “Okay. What’s going on at work?”
“You know how you mentioned last week that a cancellation had freed up a huge chunk of time on your calendar? You’re clear until when, exactly?”
“Until mid-November. After months of planning and thousands prepaid in deposits, the Montagues decided to call off the wedding.”
“Yes!” Imani’s exclamation was so jubilant, Kate could imagine her fist-pumping on the other end of the line.
“Wow. You get promoted to top publicist working mostly with romance authors, and you’re suddenly jaded about love and marriage. What happened to my romantic BFF?”
“Who has time to be romantic anymore? Last time I checked, you barely had time to go speed dating with me.”
“What?” Kate snagged another bite of cake, laughing. “I stayed the whole time. Participated, just like I promised.”
“I call bullshit on that. You asked each guy exactly one question, and when he couldn’t give you the answer you wanted, you tuned out until it was time to switch.”
“Why waste time? I asked each of them if they could handle a woman with a rising career who wouldn’t be available most weekends or holidays for the foreseeable future. None of them had a good answer.” Kate grimaced at the memory. She’d been in a mood that night, and while drowning her anger in tequila had seemed like a good coping mechanism at the time, spending the next day cuddled up to Imani’s toilet bowl had not been fun. Shaking her head to clear the thoughts of her nonexistent love life, Kate refocused on the conversation. “Why is my lack of a client a good thing, and how does it relate to your work emergency? You don’t have a writer who needs a quickie wedding planned, do you? Because even I’d struggle to create a happily-ever-after moment in only a few weeks.”
“It’s not a wedding. It’s a book launch,” Imani said, and Kate’s eyebrows rose. She put down the fork to listen more carefully as her best friend continued. “Okay, hear me out. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime book launch, but our marketing point person for this had a family emergency and had to pull out. We’re crazy busy, and we need someone to step in and coordinate the event for us, like a contractor. Naturally, I thought of you!”
“A book launch?” Kate tilted her head, watching the reception crowd gather their coats and purses as she considered the idea. Romance authors wrote books that would draw fans—and potential clients—who’d appreciate a happily-ever-after sort of event. “Maybe that could work.”
Imani’s voice raced with enthusiasm. “You’ve been saying how you’ll need to branch out to win that event planning award—what’s it called?”
“The EVPLEX,” Kate supplied, intrigued. “But I don’t think a book launch will attract the attention of Evan Everstone and his committee any more than my weddings. Last year’s overall EVPLEX winner was the Met Gala.”
“That’s just it, it won’t be just a book launch! We’ve got carte blanche from our marketing partner to pull out all the stops with this event, because it’ll be in conjunction with the movie studio that recently optioned the author’s project. I mean, it’s a jaw-dropping, huge-budget, Evan Everstone and his EVPLEX–type of book launch. I just need a person to take the baton the rest of the way to the finish line.”
“When?” Kate’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. This was sounding too good to be true, which, in her experience, usually meant that it was.
“Um, well, it’s on Halloween.”
“Halloween? That’s only five weeks away!”
“Which is why we need you to step in. You are the Queen of Happily Ever Afters.” Imani’s tone was saccharine as she added, “If you can’t make this writer’s launch magical, nobody can.”
Kate had the feeling she was being oversold. But ideas of various love-in-autumn-themed launch events had already started filling her head. Given her experience, it would be a slam dunk, not to mention the fact that working during this unexpected lull in her planner would pay more bills than spending the time networking and passing out business cards at the area country clubs. If the launch tied in a movie deal based on the novel…this could only mean great exposure for her business. If she was ever going to expand beyond Carl and herself, she needed more clients and a broader portfolio of high-profile events.
Plus, Imani wouldn’t throw her under a bus. She was her best friend—one who never asked a favor lightly.
Thoughts of that gorgeous gold EVPLEX award on her shelf and gleaming forever on her website’s home page danced in her mind like the leftover bubbles on the breeze outside.
“You’ve got yourself an event planner.”
“Thank God!” Imani squealed. “You won’t regret it, especially after I tell you who you’ll be working with. Take a guess!”
Kate pondered, spearing one last bite of the dessert as she went through her mental bookshelf of the romance authors Imani represented. “Is it Leann Bellamy? I love her books.”
“No, better. It’s Drake Matthews!”
“Drake Matthews?” Kate sputtered cake onto the table, her tone loud enough to draw looks from the older couple still sitting at the adjacent table. She stood, dropping her cake plate onto the nearest server’s tray, and moved to an empty corner to hiss into the phone. “You’re putting me—the Queen of Happily Ever Afters—in charge of a book launch for the Knight of Nightmares himself? Are you nuts? Doesn’t he eat his meat raw and sleep in a coffin?”
“Oh, please. That’s all garbage that the press likes to trot out to sell stories. Drake is a regular-ish guy.”
“Regular-ish?” Kate asked. “What’s the ‘ish’ part?”
“You know—he’s got quirks, but he isn’t a creeper or anything. Besides, he’s hot.”
Imani was right about that. Drake Matthews’s handsome face had been plastered all over every tabloid and news show in existence a few years ago over some scandal that Kate couldn’t recall. She doubted whether anyone actually read the gossip about him. Most women were too distracted by the man’s mesmerizing amber eyes to care about any scandals.
“His looks aren’t the point,” she said. “There are no bubbles, pumpkin carriages, or a single happily-ever-after ending in any of his books. I’m not sure Sweet Events is the right fit for this job.”
“Quit stressing! You can totally handle this. Our previous point person did most of the heavy lifting already, pulling permits to renovate an old barn in the author’s hometown into a haunted house for his tenth book, a soon-to-be bestseller called Halloween Hacker. All you’ve got to do is make it epic! Instead of an ‘Aww’ factor, just make it an ‘AAAAAHH’ factor!”
Kate laughed at her best friend’s theatric shriek. “Fine. I’ll figure out something to do with this haunted house. I’ve never read his books, but I don’t live under a rock. Even the commercial for the movie adaptation of his Dark Dolls novel gave me nightmares. I know he’s got quite a cult following out there. How many are we expecting at this launch?”
Kate scowled. “There’s that half-word again. ‘Ish’ isn’t going to cut it. I need exact numbers if I’m going to pull off feeding and entertaining this crowd on Halloween.”
The garbled sound of a loudspeaker came through in the background of the call.
“My flight’s leaving. I almost forgot to tell you the other cool thing—the launch is in Western New York in the village of Wellsville, the same small town my grandma Gigi lives in, so we’ll have a local contact. I’ll email the address and our flight details to you in a second so you can start working on securing your travel plans to Buffalo. We’ll need to pitch it to him on Monday, which I know doesn’t give you a ton of time.”
“Today’s Saturday! That’s exactly no time, Imani!”
“I’m sure whatever you come up with will be…spook-tacular! And don’t worry—I’ll be there with you on Monday when we make the pitch to Drake in person.” Imani paused, and the phone cut out, as if there was another call coming in. “I’ve got to go. Um, just to let you know, we’re meeting him at his house.”
“At that creepy Victorian?” Kate shuddered, recalling the pictures online of the house Drake Matthews lived in—an old red Victorian mansion surrounded by a wrought-iron fence fashioned to look like an intricate spiderweb connected by bats at the entrance gates. “Shall I carry a wooden stake, or do you think wearing a necklace of garlic should be enough?”
“You’ll be fine,” Imani said, her phone cutting in and out as she spoke, giving her voice an eerie quality. “Oh, I forgot to tell you…be careful…terrifying! Watch out for—”
The call went fuzzy with static.
“Watch out for what?” Kate yelled. “What’s terrifying?”
But the call had disconnected.
With an exasperated sigh, Kate ripped the earpiece from her ear and stowed it in her coat pocket. Whatever her best friend had tried to warn her about would be a mystery until she saw her tomorrow at the airport.
She shrugged her shoulders. Imani was right. After working with overwrought mothers, fainting grooms, and jittery Bridezillas, how bad could one writer be?
It was almost midnight when Kate finally returned to her Long Island studio apartment. Since she’d taken over the wedding portfolio of Maya Evert’s company five years ago just before her mentor succumbed to cancer, Kate’s life had become almost nomadic. She often stayed on-site during pre-wedding events, and this summer’s wedding season had been like a full-on sprint. And fall wasn’t looking to slow down much. She’d barely been home since April, and the place smelled stale and lifeless.
Her eyes immediately went to the only living thing she owned, and she gasped.
Her succulent was dead.
Imani had gotten it for her as an apartment-warming gift when Kate moved out of Imani’s pad in Queens to Oyster Bay, presumably to make it easier for Kate to meet with her clients, who were mostly located in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties. Yet while the commute to various vendors and brides-to-be was a little shorter, the trade-off was a studio that seemed to take the new, gray-toned “it” color to a whole other level.
The apartment had a charcoal-gray couch that turned into a full-size bed, a teeny, lighter gray bar, and two gleaming steel barstools that sat on the end of the triangular-shaped, gray-and-white efficiency kitchen. While the locale, nudged up to Long Island’s Gold Coast, was perfect for her business, if Kate was being honest, she preferred Imani’s overstuffed place with its mishmash of styles and comfy chairs and colorful throw blankets folded on every available surface.
Imani’s place felt like living inside a hug.
This place felt like living inside a gynecologist’s office.
“Oh, no. You can’t die,” Kate groaned, dumping the rest of her water bottle into the drooping, sad plant. The liquid disappeared into the parched dirt so fast, you could hear the water bubble as it settled into the planter. “Imani said this plant would help me grow roots…now that’s all that’s left.”
She stared at the dead succulent as she emptied her travel suitcase. It was a fitting metaphor for this apartment. After almost three years here, she hadn’t hung a single picture—the only “art” was a wall-sized, two-years-at-a-glance calendar, filled with events written in color-coded dry-erase markers. It was to this calendar that she went, opening the windows flanking it to let in the brisk September night, erasing the Montague wedding and writing in careful print “Drake Matthews’s Book Launch.” She bit her lip as she circled the day of the event, wincing at how little time she had to prepare.
Kate powered up her laptop and had barely begun researching haunted houses when her cell phone buzzed. Hoping it was Imani calling back about the terrifying warning, she hit the button to answer before registering that the readout read Mom and Dad.
“Honey, I’m so glad I caught you,” her mom began. “We need to talk about the Sweet Surgery Center’s grand opening. Oh, and your father just heard from the dean at Cornell’s med school, and she said you lack only four classes and an MCAT score to be considered for admission. That’s twelve credits, including labs. Isn’t that great?”
“Mom, we’ve had this discussion,” Kate said, massaging the bridge of her nose. “I don’t want to be a doctor. Or a physician assistant, a surgery tech, or the receptionist of your future office. I majored in hospitality, got an internship after college with the hottest event planner on the East Coast, and inherited much of her massive client base because I’m good at what I do. I love my job, Mom.”
“I know you do.” Her mother’s voice had that patient tone Kate had come to hate since sophomore year when she’d renounced medicine as a career. “But I hate to see you throwing away your talent, honey. You have what it takes to make such a difference in this world! You completed your bio electives before you changed your major, so all you’d have to take is your organic chemistry courses. I’m sure you could fit four classes in between your…parties. Then, you could study for the—”
“I’m sorry, Mom.” Kate cut her off, her teeth gritted in a losing bid to keep her temper. “I just got in and I’ve got a big client meeting to prepare for on Monday. I’ve got to go.”
“I thought with the Montagues canceling their wedding, you’d have some time to at least enroll in one class over winter break,” her mother said, undeterred by her daughter’s deteriorating tone. “Besides, your father and I want to meet with you about the Sweet Surgery Center.”
Kate rolled her eyes at how fast the news traveled in her parents’ exclusive Lloyd Harbor social circle about the wedding plans of Nicholas Montague and his former fiancée crashing and burning.
“Actually, thanks to Imani, I filled the Montague spot—”
“Oh, how’s she doing? I haven’t seen that girl in ages!” Her mom interrupted with the most enthusiasm she’d mustered since the conversation started. “I’m so thrilled she got into Cerulean Books—it’s quite a coup, how fast she’s climbing the ladder. I know she’s not my own, but she did live with us for over a year, so I feel…invested.”
Kate stared at the ceiling, wondering if her mother heard the same irony Kate did in the investment she’d mentally made in Kate’s best friend, but not her own daughter.
Probably not. Irony wasn’t one of the things tested on MCAT exams.
“Imani’s great. Busy. And lucky for me, she just hooked me up with one of her—”
This time, Kate interrupted herself. If she told her mom it was an author, she’d insist on knowing who it was, and Kate would never hear the end of it. As it was, her parents still told their colleagues that while their youngest daughter was in medical school, their oldest was taking some “gap years” before committing to medicine. Better to keep the fact she’d be working with the Knight of Nightmares to herself—at least until she won the EVPLEX for it. Then she’d tell everyone.
“—one of her friends, and I’m doing an event for him,” she amended smoothly. “It’s only a few weeks away, and I’m meeting with the client on Monday, so I really have to run. Kiss Dad for me, and tell Kiersten that just because she’s in med school now doesn’t mean she’s too fancy to return my texts. I love you guys, and I’ll see you in a couple of months for Thanksgiving. I’m bringing the pumpkin pie, right?”
“Well, yes, but we wanted to—”
“Oops—got a call coming in. I’ve got to let you go. Kisses to you all!” Kate quickly disconnected before her mom could finish her sentence. Maybe by the time Thanksgiving came around, she’d have gotten enough kudos to announce that she’d be a contender for the biggest prize in her business? And maybe that would allay her family’s constant need to try to bail her out of this job?
Kate snorted. Not likely. But it was worth a shot.
She shook her head and pulled up a promotional YouTube video of the elusive Drake Matthews. He had what Kate thought of as a quintessential writer’s look—short, wavy brown hair, a strong jawline, and behind a pair of dark glasses, golden eyes that peered out at the world in an I’m-a-serious-writer sort of way. The video advertised Halloween Hacker, and after a few seconds of listening to the plot about a computer hacker who is slowly driven insane, Kate shuddered, clicking on the next video.
Immediately, she knew this was no promotional piece. The jerky camera movements hinted it was being captured by an amateur with a cell phone. The footage began with a man—she assumed it was Drake Matthews—signing a book, in front of a crowd of people, his back to the camera. Kate noticed the wrought-iron spiderweb gates behind him, and there was a blur of a brick-red house in the background—she guessed the video was taken right outside the Victorian mansion he owned.
Drake finished signing and turned toward the pe. . .
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