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Dyed and Gone
An Azalea March Mystery
By Beth Yarnall, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Beth Yarnall
All rights reserved.
It was like being drop-kicked into a Lady Gaga video.
Although I'd never actually seen a Lady Gaga video, I was pretty sure the k-k-k-ker-ay-zee I was currently witnessing would measure up.
Techno music pulsed from oversize speakers, competing with the fevered, carnival-barker voice hawking the latest, state-of-the-art revolution in hairstyling. A string of models, looking like refugees from the forest scene in the Wizard of Oz, shuffled onto the stage, wearing formfitting bark dresses, their hair wired and twisted to resemble bare tree branches. Lights flashed on the main stage, slicing across the gender-neutral forms posed modern-dance style, their hair geometric origami, symbolizing the effect of time and space on society.
Or some such ridiculousness.
I was in Las Vegas with my best friends, Vivian Moreno and Juan Carlos, to attend the North American Salon Trade Expo, or NAST-E, as Juan Carlos called it. As hairstylists, this event was our Cannes Film Festival. If the festival were held at the overblown Las Vegas convention center and the movies were hairstyling presentations so ludicrous it was like New York Fashion Week had thrown up, then rolled around in the notions department of a craft store.
Juan Carlos and Viv had talked me into coming all the way from Southern California to Vegas, practically twisting my arm the whole way here. They'd insisted that the free casino booze, stroke-inducing lights, and ching-ching-ching of the slots were the perfect antidote for what ailed me.
I'd been dangling at the end of a string of very poor romantic choices and losing my grip fast when Vivian had burst into my apartment the day before yesterday. She'd yanked the TV cable right out of the wall, ending my three-day, tear-inducing Hallmark channel marathon.
"Please tell me you haven't bid on any more of those horrible flower dresses," she'd said, hands on hips. This wasn't the first time she'd rescued me from floral disaster.
My guilty gaze flew to the laptop on the coffee table in front of me propped up by a stack of bridal magazines, my finger hovering over the return key. "Ah, no?" Not yet, anyway.
"Azalea!" She rushed over to where I sat on the couch and looked at the screen. "Oh, for God's sake. That's the ugliest one yet." She closed the computer, sat down next to me, and pulled my Buy Now hand into hers. "You can't bury your feelings in sappy movies and vintage Laura Ashley dresses. You're getting out of here. Now. Pack a bag."
How did she always seem to know when I was at my lowest? This particular low had been courtesy of a toohot-to-be-legal cop who'd done the old I'll-call-you thing and then didn't. The jerk.
Juan Carlos had skidded to a stop in the entryway. He'd leaned on the doorjamb, one hand over his heart, huffing and puffing as though he'd run a marathon instead of up my three front steps. "Please tell me we got here in time to stop Laura Ingles Wilder from adding to her Little House on the Depressed Prairie collection."
"Just," Vivian replied. "You're coming with us," she told me. "You've already booked out the time at the salon for the trip, so no rescheduling appointments. Think of this trip as a cleansing."
True. I had marked the time off my busy schedule. All three of us had, which was a feat in itself, as our salon was the busiest in the summer. Still, I wasn't sure I could bring my mood up enough to actually enjoy myself.
"Exactly," Juan Carlos chimed in. "Out with the no good, rotten, no-calling-back bastard and in with free drinks, questionable bets, and mile-high buffet plates."
I thought of the dress I'd been seconds away from buying, with its lace collar, flounced skirt, and two-inch-thick shoulder pads, and I knew they were right. I was at the lowest of lows. Plus, I was pretty sure I already owned that dress in blue.
"Fine," I said, confident with the knowledge that the dress was on my watch list, so if this trip didn't work out, it could still be mine.
So there we were, standing at the back of an audience filled with hairstylists from all over North America and parts of Europe, all watching as Dhane, the sexy signature artist for the hip new Scandinavian hair-product company, Hjálmar, prowled the hair show's main stage. He'd become famous enough in our world to garner a single moniker like Prince or Madonna, and seeing him in person, I could understand why.
Gripping Viv's and Juan Carlos's hands, I tried to suppress the excitement rising up the back of my throat. They'd been right. This was exactly what I needed. We had four whole days ahead of us with nothing to do except immerse ourselves in the latest hair-styling trends and products. For the first time in weeks, I was actually looking forward to something.
"So, when I weave my client's hair, the foils represent the spiritual labyrinth of man's quest to fit into the social mores created by society's inability to intellectualize a person's individual creativity, thereby transferring their reality onto me, the artist. Correct?" Juan Carlos asked with a face straighter than a preelection politician promising lower taxes.
"Uh-huh," Vivian answered absently, standing on tiptoes, trying to see over the crowd, her focus fixed on the black-clad man strutting back and forth across the stage.
Decked out in her usual black and white with a red flower pinned in her hair, Vivian looked like a Mexican Betty Boop, all petite curves and what-of-it? attitude. I could never match her attitude, but I had almost as many curves as her. Even though she was a few inches shorter than me and a few shades tanner, we were often mistaken for sisters, which I thought was more due to our closeness than our resemblance. Other than both of us having dark hair, we looked nothing alike. Even though I could only hope for cheekbones like hers, I consoled myself with the fact that my lips were fuller.
"And if I buy their DVD with the bonus, one of a kind, life-altering weaving combs, I'll be taking back my power as an artist. Is that right?" Juan Carlos inquired further.
I clapped a hand over my mouth, trapping the laughter. This was going to be the best weekend ever.
"Yes. Yes." Viv waved him quiet. Putting a finger to her deep red lips, she emphasized her point. "Ssh!"
"I see." Juan Carlos stroked his clean-shaven chin as if giving this philosophy great thought. He was trying a new look, very Mad Men, with his dark, shiny hair parted and combed to the side and a vintage, man-about-home cardigan sweater with a collared shirt and slim-fit slacks.
The crowd of hairstylists around us watched, enthralled, as more tree people sprang up from the stage like, well, trees, and Dhane, now on bended knee, wound up his pitch to convert every stylist in the room to the Hjálmar, eco-friendly way of doing hair.
"Oh, Mother Earth, forgive us." Lightning cracked on the screen behind him. The expected thunder shook the floor, making my feet tingle, my exhilaration rising to a new level. "We've killed your trees, your plants, your animals." Images of dead animal carcasses as big as Volkswagens appeared on the screen behind Dhane. "We've desecrated your oceans and streams." Now they showed sea creatures, birds, fish, and other aquatic wildlife, dead or covered in oil. "Please, forgive us." His laser-blue eyes bore down on the crowd from the three Jumbotrons high above the stage, clearly gearing up for the big finale. "We've studied. We've learned. We give you ... Hjálmar!"
The stage plunged into darkness, the only light coming from the giant H of the Hjálmar logo intertwined with healthy, living plants and wildlife on all four screens. The crowd surged to its feet, the applause, whistles, and shouts loud enough to drop fowl from the air. The house lights came up. I guessed there wouldn't be an encore. Not that he needed one.
An announcement came over the loud speakers, a sexy female voice with a Swedish accent. "Thank you for sharing the Hjálmar vision. Dhane will be presenting the Stylist of the Year Award at the North American Styling Awards sponsored by Hjálmar."
The North American Styling Awards, or NASA, was the most prestigious beauty competition in North America and was considered the hair-styling equivalent of winning an Oscar. As last year's winner, Dhane would naturally present the award to this year's top stylist.
We made our way, herdlike, out onto the main floor of the convention center. Row upon row of manufacturer booths gridded the room, each one promoting the most high-tech, necessary styling tools, products, and equipment a salon or hairstylist would ever want.
Juan Carlos was the first to break our stunned silence. "Holy TV evangelist! I've got the strongest urge to repent. I feel like I've been to church. I'll bet I'm healed. Oh my God! I can't feel my bunions anymore, and my shoes fit better." He examined his hands as we walked. "Ah, darn, I still have that nick on my middle finger from when I was cutting my client Courtney's hair, and she jumped up to chase after her sleazo boyfriend who walked past the salon with another girl." He showed me his cut finger.
"Bummer. Did she catch him?"
"She did." He rubbed the cut. "It was worth it. I got a new client out of it."
"The other girl had the nastiest hair, so I took pity on her and booked her the following week."
I gave him a look and shook my head.
"I want to check out the Hjálmar booth. Come on." Vivian grabbed my sleeve. I grabbed Juan Carlos's sleeve, creating a chain. Vivian towed us toward the center of the grid, where the big names in hair-care products like Paul Mitchell, Wella, and Sebastian had booths.
The Hjálmar booth was at the center, a choice spot, and was set up like a cosmetics counter in a department store. It was oval in shape and about as long as a double-car garage. The guys and gals behind the counter pranced and posed with the put-out pouts of Abercrombie and Fitch models.
Huge posters hung above the racks of product in the center, featuring more emaciated, disenfranchised youths leaping through meadows, holding various Hjálmar products, their clothing fluttering in the breeze. But these posters were nothing compared to the much larger ones of Hjálmar's star stylist, Dhane. His vivid blue eyes stared down at us from on high as if surveying his kingdom. His gaze was mesmerizing. Looking too long at him made me kind of dizzy.
"Is it me, or do the center of his eyes spin like a pinwheel?" I asked.
"Azalea," Juan Carlos whispered, hitting me in the arm to get my attention, repeatedly, annoyingly.
"What?" I barked, turning to see what he was so wound up about.
Juan Carlos's attention was fixed on the figure headed our way, parting the crowd like Moses.
Dhane strode purposefully as a captain would to the helm of his ship. He was flanked by suits who I assumed were Hjálmar executives, his pale shoulder-length hair rippling behind him. Seeing him up close was nothing like seeing him onstage or in a picture. I'd thought he was attractive. I was wrong.
He was stunning. Beautiful. But it was the careful, fragile beauty of a delicate orchid, easily marred or crushed.
Juan Carlos made a sound like a balloon losing air. I knew the feeling. If I'd been capable of more than staring gawk-eyed and gape-mouthed, I might've thrown myself at Dhane's feet.
Dhane spotted us and made a slight change of direction, heading our way. Juan Carlos hit my arm again, like I hadn't been watching every move Dhane made. Vivian shifted her stance, putting out a hip, and patted her hair. What in the what? I glanced back and forth between Vivian and Dhane, my brows bunching tighter together with every step he took. Did they know each other?
Dhane reached us and my first thought was that he was taller than I'd imagined he'd be. My next thought was thoroughly naughty and completely unrepeatable.
He grasped Vivian's hands, kissing both in turn. "My Vivian." His accent was much more pronounced in person, sounding vaguely European and kind of forced, as though he'd practiced to get it just right. "I'd know you anywhere."
"It's been a long time." Vivian smiled, batting her eyelashes at him.
My brows bounced up and I stared in openmouthed astonishment. Vivian did know Dhane. From where? When? How? And why in the hell didn't I know about this?
"And yet you look the same. How is this possible?"
Vivian giggled. Giggled! Viv didn't do smitten teenager. Not even when she had been a teenager. Um, hello! Somebody was forgetting all about her boyfriend of three years back home.
Juan Carlos nudged me out of the way, hinting at an introduction. But it was as if Dhane and Vivian were alone in the room, their gazes so entwined not even Juan Carlos's throat clearing and posturing could break their bond. It took a sharp nudge in the shoulder from Juan Carlos for Viv to return to us.
"Oh, sorry. Dhane, I'd like you to meet my friends. This is Juan Carlos. He's a stylist at my salon and a dear friend."
Dhane kept ahold of Vivian's hand while extending his other to shake Juan Carlos's. "Pleasure to meet you."
"Mine, too," Juan Carlos purred.
"And this is Azalea, my best friend and business partner."
Dhane turned his brilliant blues on me. Were it not for the hand he'd clasped, I'd have swooned like a lovesick boy-band fan. "Azalea, so nice to meet you at last."
At last? I looked a question at Vivian. Boy did my best friend have a lot of explaining to do.
"How long are you in town?" Vivian recaptured Dhane's attention, leaving Juan Carlos and me to exchange looks of confusion and conjecture.
"I am to stay for the awards and then return to Europe for another event." They were in the vortex again, just the two of them. "Will you meet me later?"
Dhane smiled, and I could have sworn a choir of angels sang. "We have much to discuss, no?"
One of the executives tugged Dhane's sleeve. "She's waiting. We have to go."
Dhane cast him an annoyed look mixed with something else — fear, maybe?
"A moment," he told them, then turned back to Vivian. "I am looking forward to spending time with you." They exchanged cell phone numbers and a lingering good-bye.
Vivian, Juan Carlos, and I stood shoulder to shoulder, watching Dhane leave. The crowd that had gathered made room for his departure, surreptitiously casting furtive glances at him in that way you do with celebrities when you recognize them but don't want to pester them. A few gave Vivian curious looks, no doubt wondering if she was someone they should recognize. A few others didn't bother to hide their jealousy before they turned their backs and followed Dhane.
I shoved Vivian's shoulder. "Why did I not know that you knew Dhane?"
Juan Carlos joined in. "I cannot believe it! I should shun you. This is unforgivable ... but I might consider forgiveness if you tell all. And I do mean all."
Vivian spun away, leaving us to scramble after her.
"Come on, Viv. How'd you meet him? How long have you known him?" I would have continued peppering her with questions, but she stopped me with a, "Ssh" and a, "Not here."
Juan Carlos and I followed her out into a hallway and down a corridor to a small, out of the way windowed alcove with a view of the famous Las Vegas strip.
"Okay, you can't repeat what I'm about to tell you, got it?" She seemed nervous, casting furtive glances around as though she were about to give up state secrets or something.
Juan Carlos and I bobbed our heads. In that moment, we would have traded our finely honed, ridiculously expensive hair-cutting shears to hear what she had to say.
"All right." She cast a wary eye around us, making sure she wouldn't be overheard. "I met Dhane when I was sixteen during the summer I went to stay with my aunt Tita in Wichita."
So just before Vivian and I had met in beauty school. I felt a little pang of jealousy at the thought that Dhane had known her longer than I did.
"She'd just had twins and my mom sent me to help her, since all of our family is in California." Vivian paused. "I really shouldn't be telling you this. I promised."
"We won't tell. We swear." I glanced at Juan Carlos to get his agreement.
"Absolutely," Juan Carlos agreed. "Even if you dipped me in hot oil and pulled my fingernails out one by one. Or did that water-torture thing with the drips on the forehead, my lips would stay sealed. Cross my heart, hope to die —"
Excerpted from Dyed and Gone by Beth Yarnall, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2014 Beth Yarnall. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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