USA Today Bestseller
Print edition published
August 2006
E-book edition
August 2013

Nerds Like It Hot

A cruise for single geeks isn’t makeup artist Gillian McCormick’s idea of a great time, but as the sole witness to a murder, she needs to disappear before the killer comes looking for her. With P.I. Lex Manchester along to guard her and a Marilyn Monroe disguise replacing her usual plain-Jane persona, what could go wrong?

Everything, when the passenger list includes a hit man, a cross-dressing sociopath, and a boatload of lusty nerds. Lex has his hands full keeping Gillian safe, especially when he longs to have his hands full of Gillian, who turns out to be a very convincing Marilyn look-alike!

Chapter 1 & Chapter 2

“Gillian, darling, it’s Cora. Four out of five women surveyed say that nerds are amazing in bed. You simply must go on this cruise with me. Kiss, kiss.”
Gillian erased Cora’s voice mail from her cell and picked up her makeup kit. She’d stayed at the studio later than usual to tidy up the makeup room, knowing tomorrow she’d be working on Theo Patterson, who was terminally fastidious. He was also a royal PITA.
Matter of fact, she could hear raised voices coming from his dressing room right this minute, which wasn’t surprising. He treated people with all the finesse of a belt sander. Now that he’d landed the Tony Curtis role in the Some Like It Hot remake, he’d be worse. Unfortunately, he’d requested her because she’d done a decent job on him for his last film.
Looping the strap for her makeup case over her shoulder and grabbing her purse, she headed down the hall. The argument taking place in Theo’s dressing room was partly obscured by the construction noise and laughter of the tech crew hard at work on tomorrow’s set. Gillian had an early call in the morning, which meant she needed to stop by Cora’s on her way home, bid her friend bon voyage and convince her that she’d have to go cruising alone.
Times were tough, and if Gillian tried to get the time off, she would be fired. Cora should understand that. She used to be in the business. But ever since she’d heard about this nerd-themed cruise sailing out of Long Beach, she’d been all hot for them to go together. She’d even booked a double in hopes Gillian would wrangle four days of vacation time.
But no matter how dateless Gillian felt at the moment, she wasn’t desperate enough to accompany an eighty-two-year-old woman on a cruise full of nerdlings of all ages. Cora thought Gillian would find her soul mate, which was more than a little insulting. Just because a girl wore glasses and kept her checkbook balanced didn’t mean she was a nerd or that she wanted to date one.
Besides, an August cruise guaranteed that passengers would be running around in bathing suits. Gillian wanted to lose at least ten pounds before anyone, even a clueless nerd, saw her semi-naked. Ten pounds weren’t going to disappear in less than twenty-four hours, which was when the nerd boat sailed.
As Gillian approached Theo’s dressing room, the angry voices became more distinct.
“You have the talent of a salamander!” shouted whoever was in there arguing with Theo. “I was supposed to get that role!”
Neil Rucker? Everyone said he’d left for Barbados in a total snit after losing out to Theo for the role of Joe. Apparently Neil and his snit had returned.
“My dear boy, I have more talent in my left nut than you have in your entire scrawny body.”
Gillian knew she shouldn’t eavesdrop, but this was too juicy to pass up. Besides, she had a professional interest in the fight. If it got physical, she’d be responsible for covering up the damage on Theo’s pretty face in the morning. Maybe she should hang around behind the wardrobe rack in the hall and see what developed.
“Be careful, Theo.” Neil lowered his voice. “Remember who you’re talking to.”
“Hey, Mafia boy, if you’re trying to threaten me with your gangsta connections, save your gin-soaked breath. I refuse to be intimidated.”
Gillian had to give Theo credit. Or maybe his ego was making him stupid. Mysterious accidents still happened in L.A., and Neil’s stepfather Phil Adamo was a constant shadowy presence in town.
“I don’t need my stinkin’ stepfather, if that’s what you mean. Watch out, asshole. I have a stiletto and I know how to use it.”
“Put down my Jimmy Choo this instant. And get yourself a better scriptwriter. That’s the worst line I’ve ever heard in my life.”
“May it be the last line you ever hear!”
“I’m so scared.”
Okay, that was enough. Gillian moved from her hiding place. Time to intervene before somebody got hurt. But as she started toward the door, she heard a sharp crack, a groan, and the sound of something heavy falling to the floor. Like . . . Theo?
The dressing room door opened. Gillian had a split second to decide whether to confront Neil about whatever had happened in there or slip back behind the rack of clothes. She thought about Neil’s stepfather and slipped behind the rack. Once Neil had left, she’d go help Theo.
Neil hurried down the hall carrying a purple pump with a five-inch metal heel. Gillian recognized it as part of Theo’s audition outfit. Theo loved those shoes. He would never have let Neil walk out with one of them unless he was in no position to argue, which meant he’d been hit in the head or in the balls.
Gillian crept quietly around the rack of clothes and into Theo’s dressing room, all the while trying desperately to recall her first aid course from high school. She vaguely remembered you were supposed to cover an unconscious person. So if Theo happened to be unconscious, she’d cover him with something, and once she was sure Neil had left the building, she’d sound the alarm.
Neil was more than a little bit scary, and she didn’t want some member of the tech crew to act like a hero and try to detain him. The cops could take care of it. Then again, maybe Theo wouldn’t even want to call the cops and risk the bad publicity.
But when she stepped inside the dressing room and found Theo lying there with his eyes rolled back in his head and his chest not moving at all, she realized he wouldn’t have anything to say about bad publicity ever again.
She lost track of time as she stood there staring at Theo, dead in his purple dressing gown. He’d been naked under it, which left her with a problem as to where to rest her gaze. She didn’t want to look at his eyes, which were totally creepy, but the bloody spot on his temple where the heel of the shoe had landed wasn’t much better.
That left the rest of him, and the robe had twisted when he fell, revealing far more of Theo Patterson than she’d ever wanted to see. Well, she had been slightly curious about whether the rumors were true, that his bad behavior was compensation for a tiny dick. Score one for the gossip mill.
Gradually the shock of seeing Theo dead gave way to an icky sense of horror. Neil Rucker had killed Theo Patterson with the metal heel of a purple Jimmy Choo, and she was the only person who could testify to that fact. She was as brave as the next person, which meant not very.
Because she’d seen all versions of The Godfather, she knew that a witness to a murder committed by the stepson of a known mob boss was a marked woman. Gillian had never aspired to that. Her name prominently displayed in the film credits was one thing. Being famous among gangsters was something else again.
None of her first aid would do Theo any good, so why hang around? Let someone else find Theo, someone who would have no idea who had done this thing. Later she could make an anonymous phone call, maybe use a voice scrambler. She didn’t know where a person bought a voice scrambler, but that was a minor detail. First she had to vamoose.
Backing slowly out of the dressing room, she turned and ran smack into somebody. She steadied her glasses and looked up, afraid that Neil had returned. One glance at the swarthy complexion of the heavy-set man told her that this wasn’t Neil. But it might be somebody from Neil’s underworld.
“Uh, excuse me, I’m late,” she said. Lame, but all she could think of. She was lucky anything came out when she felt as if she’d swallowed a large cocktail olive whole.
The man looked at her closely. “Are you okay? You look upset.”
“I’m terrific! Just very late! Bye!” She hurried off, her makeup case banging against her side as she race-walked to the exit.
“Wait!” The man called after her. “I want to ask you something!”
“No time!” She didn’t stop until she was out the door and tucked into her Saturn with the locks depressed. The adrenaline rush made her shake so bad she couldn’t find her keys, and once she did, she couldn’t seem to get the key in the ignition.
She’d finally started the motor when the swarthy guy burst out of the back door of the studio. Gillian put the car in reverse and peeled out. Damn it, somebody had witnessed her being a witness. She’d sat through enough movies to know the solution to that problem. She had to disappear.

* * *

“You have to do more than disappear.” Cora paced the living room of her condo, martini glass in hand. “You have to transform yourself in the process.” She turned to Gillian with a dramatic sweep of her red caftan. Age might have added a few extra pounds, but it hadn’t altered Cora’s regal bearing. She could pass for a woman twenty years younger. “You realize that you must go on this cruise tomorrow, darling.”
“What can the cruise do for me?” Gillian had asked Cora to serve her a martini in an eight-ounce tumbler. No point in messing with classy stemware at a time like this. Her Saturn was parked inside Cora’s two-car garage, so unless she’d been followed, she was temporarily safe.
“The cruise is a vehicle to get you out of the country,” Cora said. “From there you can go anywhere.”
“Like South America.” Between the gin and the idea of fleeing to South America, she was getting light-headed. She thought of her mother living back in Trenton. She’d have to visit her in disguise. She’d have to send her coded messages through Cora until the coast was clear, which might take years.
Cora studied her with a critical eye. “You need to cut your hair shorter, go blonde.”
“Oh, Cora, I don’t know. Blonde looks good on you, but I don’t think that I –”
“Nonsense. You’ll look fabulous. With a different wardrobe and contacts instead of glasses, you’ll make a perfect Marilyn.”
“Monroe?”
“Absolutely, darling. I’ve thought so for ages. You’ve been hiding your light under a bushel.”
“And I want to keep on hiding it! The mob wants to wipe me out!”
“All the more reason to take your look in the opposite direction, turn yourself into a blonde bombshell. We’ll start with your hair.”
Gillian stared at Cora. Cora’s hair, currently honey-colored and cut in a short bob, always looked salon perfect. “You know how to do that?”
“My dear, I’ve been doing my own for years. Now go into my bathroom and change into the robe hanging on the back of the door.”
Gillian took another gulp of her drink. “Couldn’t I just buy a wig?”
“No. Wigs come off. And besides, you aren’t leaving this house until you look like somebody else entirely. We’re about to make Gillian McCormick vanish into thin air.”

* * *

After Cora finished Gillian’s dye job, she left her in the bathroom to shower and shampoo. Now was the perfect time to make a critical phone call. She walked into the bedroom she’d converted into an office and reached for the receiver of her retro forties-style phone. Pulling off her clip earring, she tucked her hair behind her ear.
A disguise would help Gillian, and the cruise was handy as a get-away plan, but Gillian could use more than that. She needed a couple of bodyguards on the cruise. Fortunately Cora knew exactly who to call, two friends who would drop everything if she needed them.
When she connected with Lex Manchester’s voicemail, she hung up and tried Dante Fiorello’s number. Then she crossed her fingers and prayed that Dante would pick up. This was no time to play phone tag. She wanted to hire both men before Gillian had a chance to object.
Gillian probably hadn’t thought of the monetary ramifications of this flight out of the country, but Cora had. She’d dip into her retirement savings to hire the two-man PI team and pull out another chunk for Gillian to survive on until she’d established herself in a foreign country. In order to convince Gillian to take the cash, Cora was prepared to lie about the vastness of her savings.
Ever since she’d met Gillian on the set of a fundraising TV special, Cora had felt an affinity with the girl. There were a million reasons why they’d clicked, including Gillian’s inherent kindness. Marilyn had been kind like that, and Gillian’s uncanny resemblance to her made the connection even stronger.
Gillian was too young to recreate the friendship Cora had shared with Marilyn, but she was exactly the right age to substitute for the granddaughter Cora had never had. Cora had always suspected foul play in Marilyn’s death. She hadn’t been able to save her friend all those years ago, but she would by-God save Gillian now.

* * *

Crouched beside his partner in the bushes next to a ranch-style house in Ventura, Lex felt the vibration of his cell phone and ignored it. Instead he concentrated on the three-inch gap in the curtains which gave him a restricted view of the master bedroom. Lucky for him the gap was directly opposite the bed where his client’s naked wife lay moaning beneath the sweaty body of the pool boy.
“Fake moans,” Dante said under his breath. “Too evenly spaced.”
Lex shot him a warning glance. They’d managed to creep up to the open bedroom window undetected, which was a miracle considering Dante had tripped on the brick edging surrounding the flowerbed. Lex had counted on a closed window and a working air conditioner, but apparently he had neither, so he and Dante had to be quiet.
Dante wasn’t a quiet kind of guy, nor a coordinated kind of guy. That was a dangerous combo when trying to skulk under an open window. Fortunately, the two people on the bed were making plenty of their own noise, but that didn’t mean Lex condoned unnecessary conversation.
Dante was all about unnecessary conversation. Consequently, in his school days he’d practically lived in the principal’s office. Most times Lex had been dragged in there with him, as an accomplice. Some things never changed.
Lex checked his digital camera to make sure the flash was off before raising it above the window ledge. As he rested his finger on the shutter button, the Hallelujah Chorus erupted from the vicinity of Dante’s belt.
Lex’s four-letter response was drowned out by the yelping of the couple on the bed and the sound of feet thumping to the floor. Lex took off, followed closely by Dante and his musical cell phone, the cell phone he’d forgotten to turn off before leaving the car. Lex was ready to kill him.
They vaulted the low patio wall and ran to the Toyota parked at the corner. Lex jumped into the driver’s seat and started the car, not really caring whether Dante was coming or not. But his partner managed to hop in and slam the door before Lex stomped on the gas pedal and peeled out.
Dante unclipped his now-silent phone from his belt and leaned against the seat with a sigh. “Cora. Might as well call her back.”
“Might as well. The assignment’s totally FUBAR.”
“Sorry, man.”
“Ah, well. What’s a couple grand, anyway?” They both knew what it was – the difference between paying the office rent or losing the lease. Theoretically they could operate without an office, but in Lex’s opinion, doing business in a Starbucks wasn’t the best way to inspire client confidence. Tipping off a cheating wife that she was being watched wasn’t the best professional move in the world, either.
He should never have let Dante sweet-talk him into opening their own PI firm. He should have continued working for Aetna, even if investigating insurance fraud had become more boring than watching the home shopping channel. At least he’d had a steady paycheck.
Dante had always been his nemesis, and this latest thing was so typical, Dante treating him to the Hallelujah Chorus in the middle of a stakeout. What a ridiculous situation. Ridiculous, embarrassing, and . . . more fun than he’d had in years. In spite of himself, Lex began to grin. The missus and the pool boy must have thought the Day of Judgment was upon them.
He glanced over at Dante, who was in earnest conversation with Cora. Good old Cora. She must have been something in her heyday, but at the time she’d moved into the Pasadena neighborhood where he and Dante had grown up, she’d retired from the movies and had seemed content to live on her savings.
Lex and Dante had taken turns mowing her lawn in exchange for stories of Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow and Betty Grable. These days they both kept in touch for old times’ sake. Instead of the Pepperidge Farm cookies she’d given them as kids, she now mixed them killer martinis.
Dante snapped his cell phone closed. “She has a job for us.”
“A job?” Lex couldn’t imagine. “Doing what? Did her lawn guy quit?”
“Very funny.”
“Maybe not. At this rate we should probably switch to landscape work.”
“Look, I’m sorry about the cell phone thing, okay? Do you want to hear about Cora’s job or not?”
Lex sighed. “Hit me.”
“A friend of hers, Gillian McCormick, needs someone to watch out for her.”
“Gillian McCormick. I’ve heard Cora mention her. Are we talking bodyguards?”
“Something like that.”
“Do we do that?” Lex wasn’t clear on what a bodyguard assignment entailed, and he liked to be clear about his responsibilities.
“We do now. I told her we could be there in about an hour, give or take depending on freeway traffic. We can meet Gillian and work out the details.”
“Yeah, but – ”
“Look, it’s not like we have a ton of clients, okay? So Cora wants us to do this, and I said we would. She’s paying well. And we could use the income.”
Lex controlled the urge to point out that they wouldn’t need to be taking jobs they weren’t quite qualified for if Dante hadn’t screwed up their latest assignment. “I suppose we can protect one lone woman, with two of us keeping an eye out. Who’s after her?”
“The Mafia.”
Lex almost ran a red light. In the nick of time he slammed on the brakes. “What?” Visions of severed horses’ heads danced in his brain.
“Gillian was a witness to a murder. The mob will probably want to eliminate her to protect its own.”
Lex stared at him. “Do you hear yourself? Murder. Eliminating people. That’s hardly in the same league with taking candid shots of a wayward spouse, now, is it?”
“Are you chicken?”
“Hell, yes! This is way bigger than we are.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“I’m speaking for both of us, Dante. You’re a very recent graduate of a crash course in private investigation procedures, which you barely passed, I might add, and I’m fresh from the exciting world of insurance fraud. We don’t do gangsters. I love Cora as much as you do, but she needs to hire somebody else. Somebody who has a freaking idea what the hell they’re doing.”
“She wants us.” Dante glanced at the intersection. “Green light. Go.”
Lex checked traffic and pulled through the intersection. “You need to call her back and tell her we’re not qualified.”
“Not going to. We can do this. And we get a cruise out of the deal. When was the last time you went on a cruise?”
“Never. I’ve never been on a cruise.” The idea made him shudder. “They make you play games like bingo and shuffleboard. I would hate a cruise.”
“Too bad. You’re going. Cora’s arranging it. Gillian will be on the cruise, and when we get to Mexico, she’ll jump ship and head off to South America, where she’ll hide out until the coast is clear. Once she leaves the ship, our job will be over and we can party all the way home. In the meantime, we’re supposed to keep her safe.”
“On a cruise? There will be a gazillion people to worry about!”
“Did I mention Cora’s paying really well?”
“How well?” Lex really didn’t want to go back to Aetna on his hands and knees.
“We’ll be able to cover our rent for six months. And I know how you hate doing business out of Starbucks.”
“Okay, so maybe this isn’t such a disaster.” The prospect of financial stability eased Lex’s panic. “The mob might not even figure out Gillian’s taking the cruise. I mean, there must be a shit-load of Mexican cruises leaving from Long Beach these days.”
“And we’ll finally be on one! All expenses paid! Babes in bikinis, umbrella drinks, limbo contests, more babes in bikin—”
“We’re supposed to be working, remember?” Lex sighed. “No drinking, and no babes. Especially no babes.”
“What detective shows have you been watching? Magnum always had a babe.”
“Is that why you wanted to be a private eye?” When Dante didn’t answer, Lex groaned. “I should have known.”
“I don’t see a thing wrong with my motivations. And you need to watch more detective shows.”
“I need to call Aetna and get my job back. I’ve gone into partnership with a nut job who thinks he’s Magnum.”
“You can’t quit now. You promised Cora.”
“No, you promised Cora. But you’re right. We have to do this thing for her. After that, I’m calling Aetna.”
Dante smiled. “No, you won’t.”
“Watch me.”

Top

Chapter 2

Neil had a bad feeling he’d been followed to the movie studio. When he’d come out the back door he’d spotted the black sedan parked next to his Porsche. His stepfather’s goons always drove black sedans. It had killed him to leave the Porsche, but he’d had no choice.
Breaking into a run, he’d hopped the first bus that had appeared. He’d been forced to transfer three times, but eventually he’d made it to Nancy’s apartment and let himself in. A quick peek through the blinds had revealed a deserted street with no telltale black sedans cruising by. Excellent.
So far nobody, not even his stepfather’s henchmen, had made the connection between Neil and Nancy Roth. Nancy’s existence was his little secret, and he’d worked hard to keep it that way. She was a total turn-on, the most exciting thing in his life, and he wasn’t about to lose her.
He glanced down at the purple stiletto he’d carried all the way here. Great shoe. Too bad he hadn’t snagged the other one so Nancy could wear them. Probably too risky, but he would have loved the irony of that. Instead he had to destroy the shoe, which seemed like more of a crime than offing Theo.
Might as well get it over with. He had places to go and people to see. The night was young. Taking the shoe into the kitchen, he flipped on a light and pulled a medium-sized knife from the block sitting on the counter. Then he started hacking.
Ten minutes later, he’d nicked his thumb twice and all he had to show for it was a two-inch square of purple suede grinding away in the garbage disposal. This could take all night, and he still wasn’t sure what to do with the metal heel once he’s destroyed the rest of the shoe.
Neil looked at the stiletto with a mixture of frustration and respect. “Damn you, Jimmy Choo! You make one hell of a pump!” Maybe he should try incinerating it, but he had no lighter fluid.
There was a bottle of rum in the liquor cabinet, though. That should work. Soaking the shoe thoroughly as it lay in the sink, he found some matches, struck one and held it over the shoe. The resulting flame was spectacular, so spectacular that he leaped back from the sink.
Was that smell from the shoe burning? Or was he . . . on fire? Shit! A spark singed his scalp as he ran to the bathroom, threw on a light and looked in the mirror. His hair was burning!
Spinning toward the shower stall, he turned on the spray and stuck his head under at the same time the cell phone clipped to his belt played the tune he dreaded more than any other sound in the world. His stepfather was on the line.
He could let it go, of course. But ignoring a call from Phil Adamo could have serious consequences, both personal and financial. Mopping his hair with a towel, he put the phone to his ear.
Phil wasn’t the kind to waste his breath on pleasantries. “You were seen.”
“Seen where?” His heart pounded as he tried to think of how he’d get out of this one.
“You know damned well where.” Phil’s voice was icy with rage. “I should tell your mother, but I won’t, because it would kill her. Now listen, and listen good. I’m ordering you to leave the country. There’s no way I can smooth this over. You’ve gone too far.”
Sweat trickled from his armpits down his ribs. “So, one of your guys saw me. What’s the big deal?”
“Not one of my guys. One of the studio’s makeup artists.”
“How do they know that?”
“Enrique bumped into her coming out of Theo’s dressing room after you left and she was carrying her makeup case. A couple of phone calls, and we had an ID. So I’m telling you, and I’m not going to tell you again, leave the country. Enrique and Hector are taking care of the body, so the cops won’t have evidence right away, but we don’t know what the witness will do.”
“Who is she?”
“No dice. You get nothing on this.”
“Can’t you take care of her?”
Phil’s voice was calm but deadly. “I haven’t decided yet. It would seem like the expedient thing, yet I keep telling myself that she doesn’t deserve to die because you are a vindictive little creep. So there’s no firm decision on that yet. I want you out of the country, Neil.”
“What about Mom?”
“I’ll tell her you landed a role in an Italian film and you had to leave immediately. She’ll be fine. Give it a year and then get in touch with me. I’ll let you know if it’s safe.”
Neil gulped. A year was like forever. No way was he staying out of the country for an entire year. He had a life. He had friends. He had Nancy. And he liked L.A. just fine. No reason to give that up because some makeup artist happened to see him conk Theo over the head. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll hop a plane for Rio tonight.”
“I mean it, Neil.”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll throw a few things in a suitcase and head out.”
“See that you do.” The phone went dead.
Neil controlled the urge to throw it. Instead he walked back to the kitchen and surveyed the smoldering mess in the sink. God, it smelled worse than his hair, but it wasn’t recognizable anymore. Wrinkling his nose, he pulled the trashcan from under the sink and scooped the remains of the shoe into it. Then he tied the plastic ends of the garbage bag together. Garbage pickup was in the morning. He’d drop the bag in a dumpster before he went to bed.
Returning to the bathroom, he switched on the makeup mirror and opened a drawer. Several of Nancy’s friends at the club worked for the studio. A few drinks, a few laughs, and Nancy would have the information about which makeup artist might have been working late tonight.
Neil took his time shaving, although he’d never had much of a beard. Then he trimmed off the singed ends of his blond hair. Not a great job, but the wig would cover up the damage. Later tonight he’d give himself a buzz cut. After cleansing his face, he began putting on his favorite color of foundation.
Fifteen minutes later, a woman dressed in a slinky black dress that complimented her auburn hair strolled out of the apartment and climbed into a cab. Nancy Roth was ready to party.

* * *

Maybe it was martinis on an empty stomach, or maybe it was because she wasn’t wearing her glasses, but Gillian thought she looked a teensy bit like Marilyn Monroe, after all. Sitting in front of Cora’s dressing table mirror with a bath towel around her shoulders, she admired the platinum curls and the makeup Cora had expertly applied. Her image was a little fuzzy, as if the cinematographer had chosen a soft lens approach.
After years of putting makeup on other people, Gillian had enjoyed having Cora do the honors. But the longer she sat there, the heavier the makeup felt on her skin. Thank God she wasn’t an actor who had to wear this stuff all the time.
“Darling, you’re gorgeous. I knew you would be.” Cora picked up her martini glass and took a sip as she surveyed her handiwork. “You could win a look-alike contest, hands down. Even that little mole of yours is in the right place.”
“I have to admit, I look halfway decent.” She took a drink from her tumbler. “But that could be the gin talking.”
“Nonsense. You’re fabulous. By the way, do you own a pair of contacts?”
“They’re at home. I don’t really like wearing them.”
“Well, we can decide that later, I suppose. But I love your hair this way. You should have gone blond years ago.”
Gillian shook her head. “Too much work. My hair grows fast. I’ll have dark roots in no time. You know me. I’m all about low maintenance.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Cora drained her glass and put it down on the glass-topped dressing table with a precise click. “It’s like painting every wall in your house white.”
“I like white walls.” Gillian glanced around at the pink walls of Cora’s bedroom and realized that might have sounded rude. “Not that other colors aren’t nice. But with colors you have to bother with a different kind of touch-up paint for each room. With white, you’re set for the whole house.”
Cora waved a hand heavy with rings. “You’re young. You don’t have to worry about the ghastly effect of white walls on your skin tones. But I still can’t see how you can live with all white. Don’t you crave more excitement than that?”
“No.” Her father had been the one who’d craved excitement – from climbing mountains to diving with Great Whites. His addiction to thrills had exhausted her mother with worry and frightened Gillian to death.
He’d made quite a name for himself as a daredevil. He’d tried wing-walking one sunny fall day, and the rollercoaster ride had been over, for all of them. “I like things calm,” Gillian said.
Cora gazed at her in sympathy. “That’s too bad. I don’t foresee a lot of tranquility in your immediate future.”
“Me, either.” Gillian had tried not to think about what lay ahead, but everything about it frightened her. She didn’t know the first thing about running off to a foreign country and creating a whole new identity. “Cora, I don’t even speak much Spanish.”
“You’re a smart woman.” Cora patted her arm. “You’ll pick up what you need. Once you’re settled somewhere, you can contact me.”
“But won’t they trace me through you?”
“Not if we use my lawyer’s address. I’ll keep you up to date on the case. As soon as I think it’s safe for you to come home, I can let you know.”
Gillian nodded. Cora expected her to be brave, so she’d be brave.
“Right now, we need to get your wardrobe together,” Cora said.
“Should I try to go back to my apartment?”
“Absolutely not. You’re staying with me until we sail. We’ll get someone to sneak in and grab whatever you need, like your passport.”
“I actually have that in my purse. I like carrying it as an extra piece of ID, just in case. I wouldn’t mind having some of my other stuff, although I don’t know who we can send over there. I don’t want to risk asking one of my friends, in case someone’s . . . waiting.” The idea gave her cold chills.
“I wouldn’t ask any of your friends.”
“Then who?”
“Oh, I have some ideas. Anyway, when I was talking about your wardrobe, I meant it’s time for you to choose from what I have.” She walked over to a closet and drew back the bi-fold doors to reveal a long rack of clothes arranged by color. “I don’t have the figure for these anymore, but you do.”
“I don’t know, Cora. I’m not a skinny person.”
“You are not a fat person, either. A size ten, right?”
“Yes, I am most definitely a size ten.” The booze had loosened her tongue. “And every day I work on women who are a zero! Or maybe, if they’ve retained water weight, they move all the way up to a two, perish the thought. And then they complain about being a balloon.”
“Anorexic, the lot of them. Pay no attention to them, Gillian. Did you know that if Marilyn could waltz back in here today at the age she was when I knew her, she’d wear about a ten or maybe even a twelve?”
Gillian thought of Marilyn stretched out on that red drapery, the famous nude shot. She’d been perfect. “You’re just trying to make me feel better.”
“I am, but I’m also telling you the God’s truth. And it’s not speculation. I worked with her. We were friends. We wore the same size and we traded clothes sometimes.”
“That’s . . . amazing.” To Gillian, Marilyn was some sort of mythical creature. She couldn’t imagine her as a real woman who swapped clothes with friends. “Do you have something in there that belonged to her?”
Cora nodded. “One dress. After she died, and there was all the hullabaloo about her, I thought of selling it, but I wasn’t sure how to authenticate that she’d worn it. I didn’t really want the hassle of trying to prove what I knew to be true.”
“Which one?” Gillian shouldn’t be feeling so star-struck. She worked with famous people all the time. But a dress that Marilyn had worn . . . .
Walking to the closet, Cora took out a garment bag and unzipped it. Inside was a silver sheath studded with rhinestones around the scooped neckline. “This one. I think you should wear it on the cruise.”
“I couldn’t do that.” Gillian grabbed her glasses from the dressing table and put them on. Even blurry, the dress looked incredible, but once it came into focus, her mouth watered with dress lust. Mostly she didn’t care about clothes, but this dress called to her.
“I’m not offering to let you take it to South America, but I would love to see you wearing it at the Captain’s Dinner on the cruise.”
“I don’t think so, but it’s amazing of you to offer.”
Cora laid the dress, still in its garment bag, on her king-sized bed. “You have until tomorrow night to decide. In the meantime, let’s move on to some of the other outfits. We’ll start with the basics. I have several bathing suits. Let’s see which one shows off your assets to best advantage.”
“Cora, in case you don’t remember, I’m not trying to attract attention on this cruise. I’m trying to blend in.”
“I don’t think you understand my strategy. If you try to blend in, you’ll look exactly like what you are, a timid makeup artist hoping to be inconspicuous.”
“I’m not either timid! I’m conservative!”
Cora looked amused. “Semantics, darling. One person’s timid is another person’s conservative. In any case, if Phil Adamo’s men track you down, I want them to find someone who couldn’t possibly be Gillian McCormick. You’ll be too flamboyant, too blonde, too out there to be the woman they’re looking for.”
“I may need a personality transplant.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” Cora smiled at her. “A few months ago, I researched your father, since you’ve been so adamant about not mentioning him. The Internet is a beautiful thing.”
Gillian flushed, as she always did whenever someone connected her with Duke McCormick. He’d demonstrated to the world that he was both self-centered and foolish. “Well, I’m nothing like him!”
“You’re too smart to believe that. You know there’s a part of you that’s very much like him, which is what you’re so afraid of.” Cora’s voice softened. “Don’t fight that part of you. It may be what keeps you alive.”
Gillian didn’t want to hear that. She’d tried so hard not to think about the fact that her life was in danger. She held out her glass. “I think I’ll have another martini.”
“Of course.” Cora took the glass, but instead of leaving with it, she reached into the closet and unhooked three hangers. “While I’m gone, try these on.”
Gillian had to admit the one-piece bathing suits in jewel tones – one red, one peacock blue and one purple – had babe potential . . . on someone else. “Thanks, anyway, but I don’t want to get into the whole bathing suit scene.”
Shaking the hangers, Cora made the suits shimmer and dance. “You might not, darling, but the person you’re going to be on the cruise definitely would. She’d prefer the red. Start with that one. I’ll be right back with your drink.”
Gillian accepted the trio of bathing suits. “Better make it a double.”
“Don’t be silly. You’ll look marvelous. I’ll be right back.” Cora swept through the bedroom door and closed it after her.
“I’ll look like a ripe tomato,” Gillian muttered as she dumped the suits on the bed. Then she took a deep breath. Okay, she’d squeeze herself into the red suit to make Cora happy. But there was that silver dress lying there, too, the dress that had once belonged to Marilyn.
She wouldn’t agree to take that dress on the cruise, not when it was so valuable. But if she didn’t take it, then she’d never have a chance to try it on, because she’d be hiding out in some peasant village in the Andes plucking chickens for a living, or whatever peasants did to earn money in the Andes.
When she thought of what her life might become once she left the cruise ship, she became very depressed. A depressed person who was also feeling a wee bit fat would be crazy to try on a bathing suit in that condition. No, instead she should zip herself into a silver sheath that had once belonged to Marilyn, who had worn her size.
Although Gillian looked for a tag, she couldn’t find one. That made sense. The dress was probably custom made. The thought gave her goosebumps. Without a tag, she had no idea what the material was.
Taking off her glasses, she laid them on the table and pulled the dress over her head. As it slid smoothly onto her body, she imagined that the material had been woven from some magic substance that had no name. It hugged her hips as if it had been sewn just for her. She really was Marilyn’s size, and that thrilled her to her bare toes.
Pulling the side zipper up without sucking in her breath, she adjusted the scooped neckline and walked over to the free-standing floor mirror in the corner of Cora’s bedroom. Marilyn. She stared in disbelief. She really looked like Marilyn Monroe. Same hourglass figure, same generous bust, same soft blond hair.
Bracing her hands on her knees, she leaned forward so she could see better. Glasses would ruin the fantasy she had going. Puckering her lips the way she’d seen Marilyn do in film after film, she let her eyelids droop in that slumberous, sexy way that was all Marilyn.
Then she ran her tongue slowly over her red lips. This whole gig was turning her on. If a man were to walk in the room right now, she’d put the moves on him, no problem.
Was that Cora’s doorbell ringing? Gillian was so fascinated by her new Marilyn persona that she couldn’t bring herself to care. When she shifted her shoulders, the dress undulated just enough to show off her cleavage. No wonder Marilyn had been able to transfix every man in the room. In a dress like this, Gillian could, too. She would be unstoppable.
“Gillian?” Cora knocked on the door. “Are you decent?”
Gillian snapped out of her trance and visions of Marilyn disappeared like smoke. “Why?”
“There’s someone out here I’d like you to meet. If you’re wearing the bathing suit, you can throw on a bathrobe.”
“You want me to meet someone?” That made no sense. “I thought I was supposed to be hiding out.”
“You are.” Cora hesitated. “I’ve hired a couple of bodyguards to go with us on the cruise. I didn’t consult you because I know you wouldn’t have wanted me to spend the money, but I have plenty stashed away, and I – ”
“Bodyguards?” Gillian began to shiver. “You really think the mob will follow us on the cruise?”
“Probably not, but – ”
“You do!” Gillian walked over and wrenched the door open. “The cruise isn’t that safe a getaway, after all, is it?”
Instead of answering the question, Cora stared at Gillian. “My God, you were made for that dress. It’s astonishing how much you look like her.”
“Do I look enough like her to keep from getting killed?” Adrenaline shot through Gillian’s system, making her feel reckless. “Because if you hired two bodyguards, you must think that’s a distinct possibility!”
“Not at all. I just believe in covering all our bases.”
“Maybe I should forget the cruise. Maybe I should just get in my car and drive . . . somewhere. I could go up into the mountains, or head for the desert. I could crisscross the country, never staying in one place more than a night.”
“Gillian, you – ”
“No, listen. On my own, in the car, I could bob and weave like a rabbit. I think this cruise will turn me into a sitting duck!”
Cora grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a little shake. “Hey! Get hold of yourself. You don’t want to take off on your own, with no one to look out for you. That’s crazy.”
Gillian didn’t really want to run away by herself, but what if she ended up trapped out in the middle of the ocean with a hit man on board? “Who . . . who are these guys you hired? Are they any good?”
“They’re pure gold. I’ve known Lex and Dante since they were kids. I would trust them with my life, and you can trust them with yours.”
“That sounds better.”
“Of course it does. Now come out into the living room and meet them, so we can start making plans.”
Gillian glanced down at the dress she’d put on. “Like this?”
Cora surveyed her with a loving eye. “Yes, darling. Exactly like that.”
“Let me get my glasses.” She started back toward the dressing table where she’d left them. “The better to see them with.”
“Humor me, Gillian.” Cora walked over and took her hand. “Every time I look at you, it’s like having Marilyn back again. Leave the glasses off a little while longer, okay?”
Truth be told, Gillian was curious about what sort of reaction she’d get from the bodyguard types when she walked into the room. Without her glasses she wouldn’t have a real clear idea, but she’d hear if anybody gasped. She’d like to make a man gasp at least once in her life.
“Okay.” She squeezed Cora’s hand. “I’ll humor you.”

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