The prime suspect is the last person to see Ryan alive: his dog walker Alison Sahira, coincidentally the sister of Nikki's own boyfriend. Nikki is sure Alison is innocent, but Alison is also harboring a dirty little secret that could derail the careers of a lot of A-listers. Sorting through a tangled web of lies and innuendo, Nikki is racing to find the truth--before she becomes the next target on Hollywood's deadliest new hit list. . .
"Fun. . .Nikki shows her usual crime-solving flare." --Publishers Weekly
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The Dead and the Beautiful
By CHERYL CRANE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Cheryl Crane
All rights reserved.
"I swear on my great-grandfather Geronimo's soul," Marshall Thunder, voted Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine, vowed. He held his hand up in some sort of Boy Scouts' honor gesture.
Nikki chuckled as she approached the gaggle of women who surrounded the blockbuster movie star under one of the large white tents on the Beverly Hills lawn. He was wearing a black Louis Vuitton tux. Victoria Bordeaux's fall garden party, in her backyard on Roxbury Drive, was not a casual affair.
Garden party. It was a deceiving misnomer, as far as Nikki was concerned. A person ought to be able to wear shorts and a cute tank top to a garden party. Instead, Marshall was wearing a tux and she was in a vintage floor-length Jacques Tiffeau silver-metallic gown.
"Don't listen to a word he says," Nikki said as she caught Marshall's twinkling eye. "He's the biggest gossip I know and you can't trust his sources."
He only got better looking with age; he was a six-foot-two Native American with hunky muscles and a face so handsome he could make women swoon. He did make women swoon. And a number of men.
"Geronimo was Apache," Nikki continued. "Marshall is full-blooded Iroquois."
Instead of defending himself, or disputing the facts, Marshall just laughed and raised his crystal Baccarat champagne flute to her. "One of our gorgeous hostesses and my BFF, ladies. Does everyone know Nikki Harper?"
The young women who surrounded him, all gorgeous blondes, greeted her.
Nikki smiled the smile, the one ingrained in her since childhood. "Mother's so pleased you could all come," she said through the smile. It wasn't fake, just ... well rehearsed. Victoria, who had been a silver-screen star for four decades before her retirement from film, had always insisted on perfect manners from her children and her staff. Even at forty-one, Nikki felt as if she was still, sometimes, under her mother's thumb, particularly in situations like this. She was not an A-list party kind of girl and never felt quite in her element at these kinds of gatherings, even though she'd been attending them since she was a toddler.
But a girl did what a girl had to do. For her mother. And for her livelihood. Nikki was in the business of selling multimillion-dollar mansions in Beverly Hills. And to do so successfully, she needed wealthy clients, both buyers and sellers. So here she was, mingling, smiling, and making contacts, while at the same time trying to make certain all of her mother's guests were made to feel welcome.
Which reminded Nikki why she'd come in search of Marshall in the first place. "Marshall, you know Jeremy's sister, Alison?" She glanced at her side to find her companion gone.
She'd been there just a second ago....
Nikki turned to see Alison standing a couple of feet behind her, red-faced, obviously thrilled and embarrassed at the same time to even lay eyes on the Marshall Thunder. Nikki wondered if speaking to him might put Alison over the edge. Marshall had fans who became hysterical at the sight of him, mostly from the ropes at red carpet affairs. She hoped her boyfriend's sister wouldn't be one of those women. Nikki didn't have time to tend to fainting women; Ashton Kutcher had hollered to her across a champagne fountain that he needed her advice on a piece of property going up for sale in Malibu.
"Alison," Nikki whispered, gesturing impatiently that she should step forward. The smile reappeared. "This is my dear friend Marshall. I know you've heard me talk about him."
"Is there anyone who doesn't recognize Marshall Thunder?" a honey blonde with hair extensions and serious breast enhancement gushed. There was an echo of feminine giggles.
Alison took a hesitant step forward, brown-eyed gaze downcast. She was wearing a beige handkerchief dress that neither fit nor was flattering. Nikki couldn't imagine anyone who could look good in the flimsy, shapeless, colorless sheath, and felt badly that she hadn't offered to help Alison shop before the party. "This is Alison Sahira, Jeremy Fitzpatrick's sister," Nikki introduced, hoping that Jeremy's name might win Alison a place among the women, at least for a few minutes. Nikki had several people she needed to say hello to, and then there was Ashton.
Nikki flashed Marshall a look that said, Take her. Please.
He arched a dark eyebrow. It was a gesture so overused, and yet he was so good-looking, it worked for him.
"Alison has a new business. 90210 Dog Walking. I won't say who she's working for"—Nikki looked one way and then the other, as if to be certain no one was listening—"but I understand that one of her clients made quite a hit last season in a hot tub scene on Casa Capri," she said in a stage whisper.
Marshall's dark eyes got big and his hand shot out to catch Alison's. "Darling, let me get you some champagne." He drew her closer. "You're working for Diara Elliot?"
Obviously a friend of Marshall's was a friend of theirs and the women gathered around Alison.
Alison glanced at Nikki uneasily, then back at Marshall. Like everyone else who worked in Beverly Hills, Alison was concerned about client confidentiality, but Nikki could tell by the look on her face that she'd give up national security secrets to Marshall if he asked. "I ... I don't think it's a secret. I walk Mr. Melton's dog, so I guess, technically, I work for him."
"So you see them all the time." Marshall's eyes danced. "Tell the truth. Out every night partying? Crazy fights? Cops at five in the morning?"
"No, no, nothing like that." She blinked. "A-Actually, they're a pretty quiet couple. Just regular people. Mostly they stay in, that or have dinner at home with their friends."
"Borrring," Marshall groaned, making an exaggerated face. "So whom else do you work for? Tell us something juicy!"
Nikki met Marshall's gaze over Alison's shoulder. Thank you, she mouthed.
He grinned and returned his attention to Alison, eager for any gossip that he could pry out of her. Marshall was a gossipmonger. He loved all of the tabloid magazines, fanzines, and nightly entertainment shows on TV, even if it was about him. But he loved firsthand gossip best.
Nikki moved on. She had no doubt Marshall would entertain Alison for a while and when he was ready to pass her on to another guest, he'd do it with such aplomb that she would feel as if she were their guest of honor, instead of the hostess's daughter's boyfriend's sister.
Nikki grabbed a French canapé as a tuxedoed waiter walked by and she popped it in her mouth. It was a delicious tidbit of toasted sourdough bread, sockeye salmon, and a paper-thin slice of lemon. Scrumptious. She eyed the waiter as he made his escape and calculated when she could intercept him again. It was five-thirty in the afternoon and the only thing she'd eaten that day were a few grapes she'd stolen off a caterer's tray, midmorning.
Licking her fingertips, Nikki glanced around. She thought she'd heard someone call her name, but the pool area and grassy lawn, with its monstrous white tents, bubbling fountains, and twinkling lights, was so loud she could barely hear herself think. Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood was at Victoria Bordeaux's party this afternoon, and it sounded as if they were all talking at once. They were so loud that the big band music coming from near the west gate could barely be heard.
She spotted her dear friend, Ellen Mar, through a wave of tuxedos and grass-length gowns. Ellen was standing with a good-looking guy Nikki vaguely recognized but couldn't place.
Ellen was making quite a stir on The Food Network. As a new chef on the cooking network, she was already one of their most popular, doing a crazy show where she made one kind of food look like another, like roasted turnips that looked like miniature lemon meringue pies or cream puffs disguised as turkey sandwiches.
"Ellen." They kissed cheeks for real—no air-kissing for them.
"Nikki." Ellen was a drop-dead gorgeous biracial woman with mesmerizing blue eyes. And she was wearing a remarkable Tom Ford gown. "Do you know Ryan Melton?"
Aha, Ryan Melton. Now she recognized him. He was shorter than Nikki (six foot in her measly two-inch heels—she was a wimp when it came to heels, especially in grass) but very good-looking in a bad-boy kind of way. He reminded her of Ryan O'Neal from his Love Story days. He had blond hair that was a little too long; he was wearing Gucci sunglasses and a hip, two-toned black Ralph Lauren tuxedo. "It's so nice to meet you, Ryan," she said politely, offering her hand and the smile.
She did know him, but not personally, only of him, from the cover of Variety magazine. And People magazine. And Men's Health ... and the list went on.
Nikki dug into the cobwebs of her mind and tried to pull up what real info she had on Ryan Melton. He had been a nobody who had become somebody. He was the arm candy husband of TV star Diara Elliot, who was playing a role on the wildly popular TV drama Casa Capri, Victoria's new TV drama. Hence his coveted invitation to her mother's party. He'd never have rated an invitation on his own. Mother didn't recognize his form of celebrity. Ryan had tried some modeling; he was too short. He'd tried some acting; he couldn't. He'd opened a restaurant; it had failed. Mostly, it seemed, he was good at being the trophy husband of a famous actress. But he was cute.
"Nice to meet you, Nikki." He held her hand a beat too long before releasing it. She could tell he was one of those guys who got along on his looks. There were plenty of them in L.A.
"Your mother has a gorgeous place," he went on. "We're over on Mulholland, but Diara and I have been talking about looking at a bigger place. I don't suppose your mother would consider selling? I'd love a Roxbury Drive address. Very classy."
"I'm afraid this house isn't for sale." She glanced up at the two-story Paul Williams Georgian. Victoria wouldn't leave here until the EMTs carried her out on a stretcher. She returned her attention to her guest. "Houses go pretty quickly on Roxbury's 1000 block, but if you want to give me a call sometime, we can have a look. I'm with Windsor Real Estate."
"I know." He gave what she suspected was his version of the smile. Acquired much later in life than Nikki's, she could tell.
His wife of four or five years, Diara Elliot, had become a household name ten years ago, when she was a teenager and working for Disney Studios. Diara, Kameryn Lowe, Julian Munro, and Angel Gomez, called the Disney Fab Four, had been America's darlings in a sweet sitcom set in a private school ... somewhere. Nikki had never seen the show, but she knew, from flipping through the channels, that it was still popular, even though the last original episode had aired five or six years ago.
Nikki knew all about syndication. It had paid for her boyfriend Jeremy Fitzpatrick's college and dental school, and would put his children through college, and his grandchildren as well. Jeremy had been a child star, then a teen idol, before leaving the footlights of L.A. for a normal college life on the East Coast. Only now he was back, his wife was dead of cancer, and she and Jeremy ... It was complicated, but what relationship wasn't?
Nikki made herself refocus on Ryan. He'd said something to her and she'd missed it. Her right heel was killing her. She rarely bought uncomfortable shoes, but the 1960s peep toes she found in a vintage clothing shop on Santa Monica had been too amazing to turn down. And too cheap. Her frugality came from her mother. She smiled at Ryan.
Fortunately, he went right on talking. "I can introduce you, if you like," he said.
While trying to stand on her left foot and rub the right heel inconspicuously under her gown, Nikki glanced in the direction Ryan and Ellen were looking.
If there was a designated beautiful people area at the party, Ryan's wife and friends were standing in it. Or maybe it just followed them from place to place.
Ryan's wife was tall and blonde. Of course she was; Hollywood was blonde. And tall. And thin. The young stars, and their spouses, were all gorgeous with toned, spray-tanned bodies draped in designer gowns and tuxes. They had their heads together in an obviously serious discussion. They were probably deciding what nightclub they'd go to tonight, after the party.
"Diara," Ryan called. "Come say hi," he said to Nikki and walked away. Leaving her no other option except to follow.
"I'll catch you later," Ellen called, going in the opposite direction.
"I want you to meet Nikki Harper." Ryan pressed his hand to the small of his wife's back. Diara was pretty; she reminded Nikki of a taller version of Scarlett Johansson.
Diara slipped something into her handbag, a cute little silver Badgley Mischka that hung from the crook of her elbow. She offered her hand. "It's so nice to meet you, Nikki. Your mother talks about you on the set all the time."
Nikki wasn't entirely sure she was being genuine. Her mother hadn't had much to say, good or bad, about Diara. The twenty-six-year-old blonde was too inconsequential a person for Victoria to have an opinion on. Everyone knew the term new money. In Victoria's eyes, Diara and her friends were new talent.
"Nice to meet you." Nikki shook Diara's hand.
Ryan introduced Nikki to the other three of the Disney Fab Four and their spouses. They all shook hands, exchanged greetings. Her first impression was that everyone in the group was pleasant and ... very young. Two other things stood out. Julian Munro's wife, Hazel, had red hair that was almost exactly the same shade of red as Nikki's own. Victoria called it strawberry blonde. Nikki also noticed that Kameryn Lowe's husband, Gil, looked so much like star Angel Gomez that they could have been brothers.
"Oh, gosh, Nikki, your hair is gorgeous," Hazel gushed. "Who's your colorist? Please don't tell me it's Eduardo at Christophe's! I'll kill him. I just went with this shade." She stroked her shoulder-length bob. "He said it would look gorgeous on me. Don't tell me it was what he had left in the bottle after your appointment."
Nikki laughed. She liked Hazel at once; she was polished and plucked, but she stood out in the group. Maybe because she was the only woman in the Fab Four faction who wasn't a blonde.
"No need to harm Eduardo. This is my natural color." She ran her hand over her hair, pulled back in a simple, sleek ponytail. She'd glammed it up with a 1920s rhinestone Art Deco brooch to cover the elastic hair tie.
"Your natural color? You've got to be kidding me." Hazel looped her arm through Betsy's. "Can you believe that's Nikki's natural color?"
Betsy was holding on to an emerald green fox fur Sang A handbag as if she was afraid Nikki was going to grab it and run. Which was not likely. It was one of the uglier designer bags Nikki had spotted that day. And there were some seriously ugly, seriously expensive bags wandering around. The thing in Betsy's hand looked like a little green Shih Tzu hanging from a gold ring.
"Natural?" Betsy said. She kept glancing at Gil and Angel, who had their heads together again. She sounded nervous. At meeting Nikki?
That was even less likely than the possibility of Nikki stealing her $1,500 fuzzy wristlet. Nikki was so unintimidating in a town of intimidation that complete strangers were always sharing intimate information with her.
"I can't believe that's your natural color," Hazel went on, looking more closely.
Nikki smiled, feeling uncomfortable under the women's scrutiny. "I do highlight it once in a while," she confessed. "Myself. With one of those boxes of highlighter from the drugstore."
"You do it yourself!" Hazel gasped in awe.
Only one person on earth called Nikki by her given name.
Nikki gave the two women a wry grin. "Will you excuse me?"
"Nicolette, darling. Do you have a moment?"
Though the words were spoken kindly, it wasn't really a question. It was a command. It meant, come here now.
Excerpted from The Dead and the Beautiful by CHERYL CRANE. Copyright © 2013 Cheryl Crane. 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a delightful mystery full of juicy Hollywood insider gossip. I loved Nicki Harper, but her mother Victoria steals the scene whenever she appears. I thought the mystery was well done, but the setting and the characters make this book a keep for me. I'm buying copies to give as holiday gifts. Funny and read-to-the last page fun.
Reviewed by Samantha Rivera for Readers' Favorite Nikki Harper always seems to be wherever trouble is. It seems she can never escape the paparazzi as the daughter of a famous actress; but she also never seems to shake off the watchful gaze of Detective Dombrowski, especially since she keeps turning up at his murder scenes. This time, Nikki has been thrust into the spotlight when her boyfriend’s sister is accused of murder. Everyone seems to believe Allison did it, everyone except Nikki that is, and she’ll do absolutely anything to prove that Allison is innocent. Having Allison just proved 'not guilty' won’t do it for Nikki; she has to completely clear Allison's name and quickly, before the murderer comes back in The Dead and the Beautiful. Nikki Harper is the daughter of a famous actress which, of course, puts her out of the league of most people. But when you read about the troubles she’s having in her life, you’ll find yourself relating to her. Of course, when she talks about the fancy clothes and amazing parties you’ll definitely wish you were her as well. This story, however, isn’t just about the lavish lifestyle because the mystery of it all will definitely pull you in. After all, this time the murder victim is someone that seems universally adored by everyone and the circumstances surrounding his death just don’t seem real. The secrets that people in Hollywood will kill to keep are the focus of this excellent book by Cheryl Crane. You’ll definitely be intrigued and stunned to find out the real story behind the stars of the world.