For freelance writer Jaine Austen, working behind the scenes at a teen beauty pageant has shown her that sometimes beauty is in the eye of the murderer…
Teen contestant Taylor Van Sant has a talent for singing, but she can't write a song. So her über-pushy stage mom Heather has hired Jaine to pen lyrics the judges will love. Unfortunately, the hotel hosting Miss Teen Queen America is a dump, the cattiness is out of control, and Candace--the perfectly-coiffed, whip-cracking pageant director--is making even Jaine's life miserable. When Candace's assistant Amy is found bludgeoned to death with a silver tiara, there are more suspects than sequins on a pageant gown--and Heather is first on the list. Taylor begs Jaine to help clear her mom's name, but finding the culprit is going to be trickier than walking the stage in stilettos…
"Entertaining…cozy fun." --Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Death by Tiara
A Jaine Austen Mystery
By LAURA LEVINE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Laura Levine
All rights reserved.
I should have known something was amiss when I checked the address Heather had given me and saw she lived in Orange County.
Now there's nothing wrong with Orange County if you happen to like oranges and Disneyland and shopping plazas the size of third-world countries. But it's not exactly Nashville.
Why would a music industry star be living so far from the action, I wondered, as I made my way south along the 405 freeway. And I had plenty of time to wonder. After slogging along in traffic for almost an hour, I finally arrived at the town I shall call, for purposes of this narration, Alta Loco—a quaint conglomeration of gated communities and tanning salons nestled among the freeway off-ramps.
Driving past a succession of residential enclaves, each with a name more aristocratic than the next—Coventry Hills, Pembroke Gardens, Buckingham Villas—I finally arrived at the gated entry of Alta Estates, where a grizzled guard sat in a booth, reading USA Today.
Squinting down at my ancient Corolla, he growled:
"Deliveries through the back entrance."
"I'm not making a delivery," I huffed. "I'm here to see one of your residents, Heather Van Sant."
Eyeing me like I was a cockroach on a BLT, he picked up a phone and dialed. Soon I heard him saying, "Good morning, Ms. Van Sant. You expecting some gal in a crappy Corolla?"
Okay, so what he really asked was, "Are you expecting a guest?" But I knew what he was thinking. And I didn't like it one bit.
Having received permission to let me in, he grudgingly opened the gates and gave me directions to Heather's house.
Once inside Alta Estates, I drove past one cookie-cutter McMansion after another, all painted in various shades of beige, dotted with balconies and palm trees and gurgling fountains out front.
I found Heather's house and parked my Corolla, the only car on the street except for a gardener's truck. After fluffing my curls in my rearview mirror and checking to make sure there was no lipstick on my teeth, I made my way up a path past the requisite gurgling fountain to Heather's front door.
The doorbell set off a series of musical chimes, and seconds later I heard the sounds of clacking heels. The door swung open to reveal a statuesque beauty in tight capris and even tighter tank top. Raven hair extensions tumbled down past her shoulders, and surgically enhanced breasts stood at attention in her push-up bra.
Her face, with its pinched nose and pouty lips, had the slightly sandblasted look of someone who'd spent many a happy hour at her dermatologist's.
"You must be Jaine," she said, taking in my on-sale-at-Nordstrom outfit. I only hoped she couldn't see through my blazer and silk shirt to the elastic clinging to my waist.
"I'm Heather Van Sant," she said, holding out a ninety-dollar manicure for me to shake. "C'mon in."
I followed her along gleaming hardwood floors into a hangar-sized living room furnished all in white. The only pops of color were some hot pink throw pillows and a huge portrait hanging over the fireplace—of a younger Heather, wearing a tiara.
"That's me," she said, following my gaze, "when I was crowned Queen of the Gilroy Garlic Festival." Her eyes misted over at the memory. "That was the happiest day of my life," she sighed.
Then, snapping out of her reverie, she said, "Have a seat, won't you?"
I headed for an enormous white sectional and was just about to sit down on what I thought was a furry white throw pillow when suddenly the pillow let out a ferocious yap. Yikes. The little thing was a dog!
Sure enough, it suddenly sat up, barking furiously.
"Oh, hush, Elvis," Heather said, scooping him up in her arms. "Be nice to Ms. Austen.
"I think he likes you!" Heather beamed, oblivious to the death glare her doggie was shooting my way.
Making sure there were no other living critters nesting there, I lowered my fanny onto the sectional.
"Snack?" Heather pointed to a platter of supremely unappetizing celery and carrot sticks on her coffee table. With nary a dollop of dip in sight. How utterly depressing.
"No, thanks. I'm fine."
"I absolutely loved your plumber's song," Heather gushed, plucking a carrot stick, "and I just know you're going to write something fantabulous for Taylor."
Taylor? Good heavens! Was it possible that Taylor Swift had moved to Orange County with a former garlic festival queen and a dog named Elvis?
"Taylor, sweetheart!" Heather trilled. "Come downstairs and meet Ms. Austen!
"You're going to adore Taylor." Heather beamed at me. "She just oozes talent. Doesn't she, snookums?"
This last question was directed at Elvis, who replied with a mighty yawn.
"You're just oozing talent, too, aren't you, darling Elvis? Let's do a trick for Ms. Austen and show her how talented you are."
She plopped him on the floor and commanded, "Sit, Elvis! Sit! Sit!"
But the little devil just shot her a defiant glare and proceeded to take a poop.
"Oh, well," Heather said, staring ruefully at the tiny mess. "He was just one letter off."
With a weary sigh, she got up and headed for her kitchen. Seconds later she was back with paper towels to clean up the mess. When she'd disposed of Elvis's little present and there was still no sign of Taylor, Heather's brow furrowed in annoyance.
"Taylor!" she screeched at full throttle. "Get down here this minute!"
The screeching seemed to do the trick.
Soon a tiny slip of a teenaged girl came slouching into the room, clad in baggy sweats and carrying a book. Her dark hair was caught up in a messy ponytail, and a pair of round tortoiseshell glasses were perched on her nose.
Her feet slapped in flip-flops as she walked across the hardwood floor.
This was the "industry star" I was supposed to be writing for?
As if reading my mind, Heather piped up, "Taylor hasn't exactly been discovered yet, but she will be. Just as soon as she wins the Miss Teen Queen America pageant."
"Miss Teen Queen America?"
"It's a national competition for teens across the country. As I've been trying to explain to Taylor, beauty pageants are a gateway to a fabulous career as a model or show business performer. Or, as in my case, a very financially rewarding marriage."
She glanced down with pride at a diamond on her finger the size of a grapefruit.
Taylor plopped down into an armchair and opened her book. Which I now saw was Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. Most unusual fare for an Orange County teenager.
"Mom," she groaned, "how many times do I have to tell you, I don't want to be in this stupid contest?"
"Of course you do, sweetheart. You just don't realize it. Some day when you're singing to a sold-out audience at Caesars Palace, you'll thank me. And in the meanwhile," she added, eyeing Siddhartha with disgust, "will you please stop reading that silly book?
"She's always got her nose in a book," she confided to me with motherly dismay. "If she insists on ruining her eyes, I don't understand why she can't read something useful like Vogue."
Taylor slammed the book shut and glanced over at the plate of celery sticks.
"Veggies again? Can't I ever have something decent to eat around here?"
"Not if you want to be a size zero for the contest."
"I don't care about being a size zero. You're the one who wants me to be skinny."
"Anyhow," Heather said, ignoring Taylor and turning to me, "Taylor's going to compete in the local division of the Miss Teen Queen America pageant this weekend, and I need you to write her some snappy lyrics."
"This weekend?" I said. "That doesn't give me much time."
"Yes, I know it's awfully short notice. But at the last minute I decided to go with original lyrics to make Taylor stand out from the crowd. She's already got the most magnificent gowns. ... Wait! I'll go get them!"
As Heather rushed off to get Taylor's pageant outfits, Taylor turned to me with a hopeful smile.
"I don't suppose you've got anything to eat?" she asked. "I'm dying for something sweet and sugary with no nutritional value whatsoever. "
"One of my favorite food groups," I assured her.
I fished around in my purse and pulled out a package of M&M's I'd brought to keep me company on the drive down to Alta Loco.
"Help yourself," I said, handing them over. "I ate most of the red ones."
"You're an angel," she said, grabbing a handful. "My mom's driving me crazy with this silly contest. I'll never win the darn thing."
I wasn't so sure about that. Behind those tortoise shell glasses was a most appealing doll-like face.
"And besides, I don't want to be a beauty queen. I want to be a writer like you."
"Like me?" I beamed with pride.
"Well, not exactly like you. I don't want to wind up writing jingles for plumbers' Christmas parties. But I still think it's cool that you're a writer."
Just then we heard Heather's footsteps. Taylor quickly stashed the M&M's in her pants pocket as Heather returned with two gowns.
"What do you think?" she asked, holding out one of them, a bedazzling ice-blue beaded number. "Vera Wang. Fifteen hundred dollars."
Holy moly! Fifteen hundred dollars for a dress for a teenager to wear to a contest she didn't even want to enter? And people say I'm crazy for spending money on the Fudge of the Month Club.
"It's beautiful," I managed to sputter.
"And look at this one." She held up a neon Carmen Miranda extravaganza, complete with spiraling headdress made of plastic fruit.
(Class assignment: For those of you too young to remember Carmen Miranda, go watch one of her movies. Right now. No excuses. Pop quiz to follow at a future date.)
"Taylor's going to wear it for the talent competition," Heather said, ruffling the dress's tiered flounces. "Fantabulous, huh?"
I managed a faint nod.
"So what do you think, Jaine? You think you can write lyrics that will make my little princess sparkle?"
Me, write for a beauty pageant? Absolutely not. No way was I going to participate in an institution that objectified young girls by making them parade around in swimsuits, twirling batons and spouting about world peace. I have my standards, you know.
"I'll pay you five hundred dollars."
On the other hand, who was I to say no to world peace?CHAPTER 2
Back in my car, I checked my phone messages and was thrilled to find one from my boyfriend.
Yes, you read that right.
I, Jaine Austen—a woman whose spiciest romance in the last several years had been with Chef Boyardee—was actually dating someone! An adorable homicide detective named Scott Willis, with huge brown eyes and a most appealing Adam's apple. I'd met him several months ago while tracking down a killer (a stirring saga you can read all about in Killing Cupid, now available in paperback and on all the usual e-gizmos).
I knew he was my kind of guy when, on our first date, at a movie revival of Rear Window, he ordered extra butter for our popcorn. Afterward, we spent hours at a coffee shop yakking about our favorite Hitchcock movies. (His: Strangers on a Train. Mine: Shadow of a Doubt.)
What a treat it was to be on a date with a guy who (unlike my ex-husband, The Blob) didn't grab handfuls of sugar packets to take home and decant into his sugar bowl.
All in all, it had been a most gratifying encounter (especially the sizzling good-night kiss at the end). I thought for sure I'd hear from him again. But alas, I heard nothing. Nada. I was back in dating limbo.
I'd chalked the whole thing up to my bad dating karma when a few weeks ago, out of the blue, Scott called, apologizing profusely for his disappearing act. He said he'd had a reconciliation with an old girlfriend, but it hadn't worked out. This time, he was certain, the relationship was over for good, and he begged me to give him another chance.
I figured anyone who could recite all of Alfred Hitchcock's movies in chronological order deserved a second chance, so I said yes, and we've been dating ever since.
And by "dating," I mean we'd seen each other exactly four times. But in my world, that constitutes a whirlwind romance.
Now, in my car outside Heather's house, I listened to his message eagerly.
Jaine, I hope you're free Friday night for dinner with my parents. Let me know, okay?
Omigosh, he wanted me to meet his parents! Did that mean what I thought it meant? Was Scott getting serious about me?
I spent the whole drive home in a daze. I should have been thinking about lyrics for Taylor's song, but nary a syllable came to mind. No, all I could think about for the next thirty-seven miles was what it would be like to be married to Scott Willis and his heavenly Adam's apple.
The minute I walked in the door, Prozac glared up at me from where she was hard at work shredding a sofa cushion.
Where the heck have you been? Do you realize it's been a whole three hours and twelve minutes since my last snack?
She raced to my side and was about to launch into her patented Feed Me dance, weaving in and around my ankles with frenzied abandon, when suddenly she stopped and sniffed, her eyes narrowing into suspicious slits.
Wait a minute. I smell dog! You've been cheating on me!
Oh, dear. Clearly I'd picked up some of Elvis's dog hairs from Heather's sectional.
"I swear, Pro. Nothing happened. He didn't even like me."
An imperious swish of her tail.
As if. I bet you were cooing and cuddling and giving him belly rubs. To think of all the years we've been together, all the hair balls I've coughed up for you, all the dead spiders I've left in your cereal bowl. And this is how you repay me? I'm filing for divorce! Just as soon as I finish my snack—hey, speaking of my snack, where the heck is it?
And just like that, she was weaving in and out around my ankles, doing her Feed Me dance.
What can I say? Her mind tends to wander.
I'd just tossed her some Hearty Halibut Guts when there was a knock on my door.
I opened it to find my neighbor, Lance Venable, a stylish dude with a headful of tight blond curls and, at the moment, a huge carton in his arms.
Lance and I share a duplex in the slums of Beverly Hills, at the very edge of the 90212 zip code, light years from the mega-mansions north of Sunset.
"The UPS guy brought this while you were gone," he said, setting the carton down on the floor.
"It must be my new DVD armoire."
Tired of having my bedroom dresser littered with DVDs, I'd found a beautiful miniature armoire online and was looking forward to storing my treasured discs in faux antique splendor.
"What a stunner!" Lance gushed.
"How do you know? You haven't even seen it yet."
"Not the armoire. The UPS guy." His eyes lit up as they always do at the prospect of a love connection. "He's new on the route. You should've seen him in his UPS shorts. Calf muscles to die for!"
Something told me Lance would be ordering lots of packages in the weeks to come.
"So how'd it go with the famous music industry star?" Lance said, plopping down on my sofa.
I'd told him about my upcoming interview, back when I thought I'd actually be meeting someone in the music industry.
"And who was it, anyway?" he asked eagerly. "Lady Gaga? Madonna? Cher?" By now, his tight blond curls were practically quivering with excitement. "Did you get me an autograph? Free concert tickets? A photo suitable for framing?"
"Forget it, Lance. There was no music industry star. Some Real Housewife of Orange County wants me to write novelty lyrics for her daughter to sing in a teenage beauty pageant."
"Drat," Lance pouted. "I was counting on those concert tickets to get a date with the UPS guy. "
"Sorry to bust your bubble," I said, sitting down next to him on the sofa. "But on the plus side," I added, "I did get a call from Scott."
"The hottie detective?"
Lance had met Scott during the Killing Cupid affair, and was thrilled that we were seeing each other. Or, as he'd put it, "At last! You're having a meaningful relationship with someone of your own species!"
"He wants me to meet his parents."
"He does?" Lance sat up, excited. "This is major. The gateway to the wedding altar. The guy's practically proposing!"
"Lance, don't be absurd. Just because he invited me to dinner with his parents doesn't mean he wants to marry me."
"But it means he's getting serious."
Secretly, I couldn't help but agree.
Excerpted from Death by Tiara by LAURA LEVINE. Copyright © 2015 Laura Levine. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What a Beautiful Way to Go I’ve been reading Laura Levine’s Jaine Austen series from the very beginning, and loving every book along the way. This comedic mystery never fails to make me laugh at the wild situations that Jaine finds herself in. Death by Tiara is the latest in the series, and it is just as great as the others. Jaine’s latest freelance writing client is Heather Van Sant. She’s hired Jaine to write lyrics for her daughter Taylor. With visions of number 1 hits, fame, and fortune in her eyes, Jaine quickly agrees only to find out that these are lyrics that Taylor will be singing at the talent portion of the Alta Loco Miss Teen Queen America Beauty Pageant. Jaine is a little less enthused, but a job is a job, so she accepts. Heather pays for Jaine to attend the competition at the Amada Inn in Alta Loco. While there, Jaine witnesses altercations and bad behavior – and that’s the contestant’s mothers. It’s hardly surprising when someone is murdered, beaned to the death by the tiara that should have been used to crown the winner. With the police looking at Heather as a prime suspect, Jaine must put on her part-time semiprofessional PI hat to find the killer. These books are not as mystery heavy as some series I read. In addition to the murder, we get sub-plots involving Jaine’s love life (yes, she actually has a boyfriend in this book), her neighbor Lance’s love life (he has a new boyfriend, no surprise there), her parents (and I think their story tops the ones they’ve had before), and her cat Prozac (involving a contest of wills over a new piece of furniture). But there’s no need to fear, all of them are expertly juggled, and they make the pages fly by. Before the murder takes place, we get several potential suspects and hints of motive, but we quickly get more when Jaine starts to investigate. The spotlight shines on several believable suspects before we reach the logical conclusion. The characters are a bit over the top to truly be believable, but that is part of the charm of the series. We buy them as suspects and people in Jaine’s wacky world, and that’s all that matters. Which brings us to the humor. Between the crazy situations Jaine finds herself in over the course of the book, the lines she imagines Prozac is thinking at various points along the way, and Jaine’s first person narration, there are plenty of laughs throughout the book. If you aren’t laughing, you will certainly be smiling. Mixing all these elements together is a tough balancing act, but Laura has done it once again. Don’t pick this up unless you are in the mood for something light and fun, but when you want to laugh, there is no better book to turn to than Death by Tiara.
My friend has been trying to get me to read Laura Lavene’s book for months now. But something always came up in my TBR before I could get to one. Well, now I have read one, this book, and I am a fan! I have a lot of catching up to do! I fell in love with author Lavene’s writing style during the prologue of death by tiara. First off, she is hysterical! I knew if the mystery in this story was half as well written as the comedy, it would be a fantastic read…and it was! I spent hours immersed in mystery, a teen beauty pageant, and laughing until I cried. I’m so happy I wasn’t drinking my soda when I read protagonist, Jaine, make a plug for book 14 of this series, KILLING CUPID, or I would have done a spit take that would have done any sitcom actor proud. As for the mystery, is was well plotted and had me second guessing myself. To me, the ending of this book was truly unexpected. I just didn’t see the answer to this whodunit coming. I could find no fault in this book whatsoever. All I found was gifted writing that flowed across the pages so fluidly, I never wanted the story to end. DEATH BY TIARA may have been my first book in the Jaine Austen Mystery series, but it will not be my last!