Claire and Dan Claiborne suspect there’s a catch when rich and stingy Mrs. Shelby Bell invites them to stay at the Bell Sands, her oceanfront resort east of Biloxi, Mississippi. Sure enough, Claire and Dan arrive at the hotel to be greeted by torrential rain and a beauty pageant spinning madly out of control.
Instead of sunshine and surfside romance, it’s more stormy weather for the Claibornes as they attempt to discover who’s sabotaging Miss Gulf Coast. When the beauties are threatened by a series of beastly homicides, Claire and Dan get too close to the truth and the murderer cuts them adrift in a boat on the Gulf of Mexico, at the mercy of yet another killer…a hurricane named Babe.
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Lee may have handed over his sword to Grant at Appomattox, but no Southern woman ever surrendered her treasured tiara. Whether this crown symbolizes status, wealth or beauty, there is distinct protocol regarding its display. For example, while entirely permissible for a lady to wear a tiara with her bathing suit, only some tacky bubba-belle would be caught dead wearing one with her birthday suit, when it wasn't even her birthday. And if she hadn't already been dead by the time I caught her, I just might've killed her myself...
"Claire!" Dan bellowed. "You downstairs anywhere, darlin'?"
It was a sticky-hot, New Orleans September Tuesday afternoon, and I had decided to christen my new peach satin bikini in the swimming pool.
"Out here!" I called back, and Dan came through the kitchen door, which opened onto the flagstone terrace. As always, the sight of him made my pulse quicken, even today when his tie had wilted at half-mast, and the seersucker suit, summer uniform of all Southern lawyers, clung damply to his burly contours. I propped my elbows on the pool ledge and arched backward to give him a good view. "Come on in, honey, the water's fine."
Dan smiled and set his briefcase on the green wrought iron table. "The water ain't the only thing that's fine," he observed, and proceeded to do a slow striptease until he was down to those tantalizing, button-fly Italian silk boxer shorts he wears in hot weather. When he stepped casually out of them, delicious shivers rippled through me despite the heat. My husband is just over six feet, broad, powerful and furry. Because I'm small and blonde, my friend Charlotte calls me Fay Wray.
Dan plunged in and swam underwater beneath me, grabbing my bathing suit top in his teeth like a hungry shark. He slung it out of the pool and before I could escape, became an octopus, laughing as he trapped me between mighty thighs.
"Well, thank you for that lovely Sea World encounter," I told him. "But I'm real disappointed. I guess the big old whale's not going to jump out of the water this time."
Dan's strong legs tightened around me. "Guess again," he invited. And sure enough, there was Shamu . . .
* * *
Later, when he'd poured us each a tall Meyers's Dark on the rocks with lime, we sat outside and talked. Dan told me the reason he'd come home early was that his big trial, involving a patent on some kind of pulp processor at a paper mill, had been continued until the end of October, so he 'd immediately jumped at the unexpected chance to take a few days off.
"And, Lord!" He rattled the ice cubes in his glass emphatically. "I am ready for it!"
I knew exactly how he felt. Life had been tres intense of late. We had been married, divorced, and remarried, with a few murders sandwiched in between.
"Only thing is, Claire," Dan drained his rum. "Will I get in your way if I just hang around here and catch up on my reading and generally make myself useless?"
After our second wedding, Dan had sold the big house on Octavia Street. Not so much because of the bad memories, but because it didn't hold enough good ones to pick up and start over with. Presently, we lived in the upstairs portion of an authentically restored townhouse off St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District of New Orleans. The ground floor contains my beauty shop, Eclaire, filled with tapestries, terra cotta and pine, allowing clients to bask in an ambience more French country cottage than hair salon.
Eclaire's E comes from my first name, Evangeline, which my Danish au pair mother got from Mr. Longfellow's poem. So caught up in that Acadian fantasy was she that she lived it, marrying a Cajun fisherman named, yes, Gabriel, and dying with him on his shrimp boat in a storm out on the Gulf of Mexico when I was a baby.
On Eclaire's apricot-washed, rough plaster walls hang large oil portraits by local artist Ambrose Xavier, the subjects of which are all clients of mine wearing hairstyles created by moi. When Ambrose replaces the paintings quarterly, the previous models get a chance to purchase their own portraits at a substantial discount.
An eight-foot stone wall encloses the backyard, where herbs and roses planted around the pool mingle their luxuriant fragrances to create a dry, subtle perfume Eau d'Eclaire, as I'd come to think of it.
Occasionally, I toyed with the idea of trying to capture and bottle that elusive, mossy essence. It would be quite a coup, to have a salon with its own signature perfume. But then I'd recall my recent confrontation with the dark, dangerous side of the billion-dollar fragrance industry - - which, let me tell you, does not smell pretty at all and decide Eau d'Eclaire could wait.
When Dan returned from a trip to the kitchen for more ice and slices of lime, I assured him his concern about getting in my way was totally unfounded. "As a matter of fact, baby, your timing is perfect!" I announced, as he topped off my drink. "I have just finished doing all my regulars, so they won't be needing me for at least two weeks. Plus, Renee left for Houma today. Her sister Yvonne's getting married and she's bridesmaid, remember? Then after that, she's scheduled to take her State Boards in Baton Rouge."
I was very selfishly relieved when Renee's boyfriend Beaudine Guidry, a second-string linebacker for the Saints, got his contract picked up by the New York Giants, and she'd decided not to get married and go with him. My invaluable assistant possessed all the makings of a true artiste, and once she had her license, she could start building her own following.
Rather, she could soon as we got a new manicurist. Right now, in addition to assisting me, Renee Vermilion was also temporarily doing nails since Angie, our original manicurist, had been one of the recent murderees.
When I told Dan I was taking a small vacation of my own, his blue eyes gleamed in the gathering dusk. "Now, that is good news. Maybe I'll get to catch up on something else besides reading?"
Although our second wedding ceremony and reception had been nothing less than a mega fais-do do, we'd only managed a forty-eight hour honeymoon in the Pontchartrain Hotel penthouse after several months of celibacy. Since then, both of us had been working six days a week, which left a whole lot to be desired. Dan was right. It was definitely time for a nonstop ride on the love train.
"Shall we take a little excursion somewhere?" he went on. "Or just unplug the phone and " At that very moment, the instrument under discussion buzzed like the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Dan grimaced and picked up the receiver. "Hello," he spoke reluctantly, and listened. "Yes, she's right here," he continued, surprise in his voice. Covering the mouthpiece he hissed, "Claire, it's Mrs. Shelby Bell."
Puzzled, I took the receiver from him. What on earth could "Hell's Bell," as Renee and I had nicknamed her, be wanting? On her last visit to the shop, she'd made her next appointment for October 1, since she and Mr. Shelby Bell would be away at the Mississippi Gulf Coast hotel they owned, the Bell Sands Resort.
Too bad I never thought to ask why she'd be there all that time after the tourist season was pretty much over.
"Claire, honey!" trilled Mrs. Bell, at her Suzanne Sugarbakeriest. "You know what? Mr. Bell and I were just sitting here on our divine balcony overlooking the waves, and we got to talking about you and Dan. And I said to Shelby, 'Shelby, why don't we invite those two precious people to come stay with us? As our guests, of course. Bless their little hearts, they've been through so much lately, and just getting married again, and all. Why, the Bell Sands would be just what the doctor ordered!'"
"And what did Shelby say?" I asked, when I recovered my voice. Mrs. Bell is a totally self-centered, smart-mouthed, big-haired brunette, who's filthy rich and tighter than the bark on a tree. Since Eclaire 's opening, I had spent many hours on that big brunette hair, and she'd always kicked up a fuss about the bill. Now, here she was offering us an all expenses paid holiday? Quelle fishy!
"Why, my big old Shelby was all for it. Of course." She purred like a cream-sated Persian cat.
Big old pussywhipped Shelby, I thought, and stifled a giggle as Mrs. Bell continued.
"In fact, it was his very own idea it might be a whole lot of fun if we just sent our whirlybird over for y'all." She paused. "Say, tomorrow afternoon?"
"Why that's extremely. . . generous of you both," I hedged. It was also extremely short notice. "I'll . . . just mention this to Dan and . . . and let you know."
"Well, honey, why don't you just go ahead and mention it to him right now?" she suggested in a steely coo. "I'll hold on."
Dan had lit a big citronella candle while I was talking to Mrs. Bell. By its glow I could see him smile when I covered the receiver and explained.
He arched a thick eyebrow at me. "Now, Claire, we both know this sounds too good to be true. But on the other hand, it also sounds too good to pass up. Don't you agree, baby?"
"Well, I'm definitely curious to find out what's really going on. And it would be a change of scene," I conceded.
Dan took the phone . "Good evening, Mrs . Bell? It' s Dan Claiborne. Claire was just telling me " he listened. "Well that's real kind of you folks, and we do accept. With pleasure, I might add . . . no, don't bother to send your um, whirlybird . . . it's a nice drive up the 90, take our time . . . that's right. Early afternoon." He listened some more, and frowned. "Bring what? Uh-huh . . . I'll tell her . . . you, too."
Clicking off the phone he looked across at me and chuckled. "For better or worse, the deed is done. What about we pack first, then go get some barbecued shrimp at Manale's? I'm starving."
My chair bumped upon the stones as I pushed away from the table. "Suddenly, I got a real bad feeling this is going to be even worse than we think," I said.
"Oh. Incidentally, honey." Dan pressed his lips together, trying to hide a smile. "She wants you to bring your 'adorable little tool kit with all the scissors and things' as she put it."
I couldn't help but laugh. Trust Hell's Bell to concoct the perfect scheme to get a free touchup out of me! Probably I should take it as a high compliment since the Bell Sands' Bella Salon was run by Ricky Gomez, a pretty big name in these parts. Quite flattering, really, that she'd grown so dependent on Claire Claiborne she was willing to import her. Oh, well, I thought, a little smugly. Some big hair maintenance was a small price to pay for our much-needed second honeymoon.
And so it would have been, if a shampoo and blowdry or two or even three or four had been all Mrs. Shelby Bell wanted.
Excerpted from Redneck Riviera by Sophie Dunbar. Copyright © 1998 by Sophie Dunbar. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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