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Excerpt/BECOMING LULU

Chapter One

“So, I’m assuming now you want me to transform your friends into cute little vampirette bridesmaids?” Louise waited for the inevitable eye roll, and her favorite client didn’t disappoint.

“Oh, ‘L’.”

“And you’re positive this is the look you want?”

“It’s brilliant.” Ashley let out a little sigh as she examined her face in the mirror. “If I’m going to be Mrs. Jax and fit into his world, then, yes, I need to look like this. At least for now. What’s the harm in becoming what he needs me to be? I want to.”

Louise watched as Ashley moved her head from side to side inspecting her pale face, her black rimmed eyes, her eyelids now covered in a shade of deep indigo.

“I don’t even recognize myself. I think it’s extraordinary. What’s wrong with playing the part? I mean, it’s a perfect complement to Jax’s band, right?” She nodded at her reflection, seemingly satisfied with her rationalization. “I have to be ready for the moment he becomes famous.”

“According to Band Buzz it shouldn’t be long.”

Ashley leaned in nearer to the mirror. “He’s so close. And the PR guy he just hired thinks a surprise midnight wedding in Hollywood is really newsworthy. Of course he’s leaking info as we speak.”

Newsworthy. Interesting reason for a wedding. But, according to the San Diego Union Tribune, Jax—the band and the man—was indeed on the edge of discovery by the masses. Well, at least the west coast.

“Hey, ‘L’, maybe Rolling Stone will show up and we’ll both get our fifteen minutes of fame. And…” Ashley paused for effect, then continued, saying, “I’ve got plenty of your business cards if anyone wants to know who my makeup artist is.”

Sweet Ashley. And wouldn't that be a kick? She could use a little fame and fortune of her own. Her skin care salon could definitely use the publicity. At the moment she was barely keeping her head above water and, especially lately, it felt like the competition was closing in. Fast.

Almost all of the businesses in the busy Pacific Beach neighborhood adjacent to San Diego had done major storefront facelifts over the five years she’d been there eking out a living. Unfortunately, Skin Deep was stuck with its original, now sadly outdated, façade and interior. Louise knew even calling her shop "shabby chic" was an exaggeration. Skin Deep needed an extreme makeover more than the clients who walked through her doors six days a week.

Still, running her own business was worth all the hard work and long hours. She loved being in charge of her environment. Able to pick and choose the products she used and sold, she’d stuck with mostly natural products when she could, but still carried the latest and greatest in make-up, making sure she followed trends and kept herself informed. And someday, she believed in the deep recesses of her heart, it would all pay off. Eventually. But could she last that long?

She took another long look at Ashley. This retro-goth or vamp—or whatever this particular dramatic look was called these days—was such a contrast from Ashley’s everyday appearance. Normally the young woman was the epitome of the stereotypical California fresh-faced coed.

Ashley had practically grown up within the walls of Skin Deep, coming in for the extraction of comedones the instant she hit puberty. Louise had seen Ashley through her turbulent acne-prone teen years, watching her blossom into a smart, beautiful, independent young woman.

“How’s your mom doing?” Louise asked.

Ashley’s full lips pulled into a pout. “Pretty well. I’m glad you and I talked before I brought it up with her. I took your advice and just told her everything at once. I think it’s the first time I ever stood up to her completely. She’s so used to me being the sensible one—I was anticipating a major melt down when I told her about the baby, but she was fine.”

“She’s going to miss you.”

“Oh, I’ll be in San Diego a lot—Jax plays here so much. So don’t think you’re getting rid of me.” She caught her gaze in the mirror. “You’re one of my best friends, ‘L’. You know that.”

“You’re young enough to be my daughter.”

“I know. But you’re different. You listen.”

“Your mom listens too.”

“But she’s obligated to play the mom role. Which I understand. She even made me promise like you did that I wouldn’t fall into the trap of losing my identity in order to support Jax and his career.”

“It’s good advice.”

“Hey, you’re preaching to the choir, here. I just graduated with a degree in Women’s Studies and Psychology, you know.”

“It’s different when it’s your own heart, Ash.”

“I’ll be careful. Promise.”

A week ago when Ashley had asked if she could bring her four bridesmaids in for a group makeup appointment in preparation for a hastily planned midnight wedding ceremony for that next Saturday night, Louise had cleared her busy schedule for the afternoon, taking a huge hit to her income. Now as she walked Ashley out to the waiting area, she watched as her bridesmaids all applauded with great enthusiasm. Excitement bubbled over until they simultaneously seemed to realize they had slipped out of the roles they normally presented to the outside—adult—world. All quickly fell back into rigid, blasé poses.

As Louise observed the faces of Ashley’s girlfriends, eagerly waiting for their own transformations, she knew her biggest challenge would be working around the various piercings: the silver eyebrow rings and the barbells of spiders and skulls, the diamond nose studs. Labrets adorned two chins—studs of hearts with amethyst centers worn by all the "it" girls since a music video heartthrob had declared this particular labret his ultimate turn-on, Ashley had informed her.

Ashley’s gal pals were also Jax—the band—groupies, each with gelled back dyed-black hair pulled into identical long ponytails. One by one each followed Louise into the small makeup room—more accurately a large closet with good lighting—and she flawlessly applied the same pale foundation, indigo eye shadow, and thick black eyeliner.

As the wedding party now stood together in the reception area, Louise decided the group did look all the world like a quintuplet of rather cute vampires—albeit very expertly coiffed and flawlessly made-up—lovely creatures of the night.

“Here’s a lipstick for each of you,” she said, passing out silver tubes which the young women immediately opened and applied without even bothering to find a mirror.

"I told you she could do it,” Ashley gushed. “Oh, 'L', you’re amazing."

Smiling at Ashley’s heartfelt praise she scrutinized the pert young faces staring back at her. And though each of the vampirettes still worked very hard to maintain feigned seriousness, every pair of eyes betrayed a shared delight in their makeovers.

Louise watched the corners of each blood-red mouth turn up just a little. Though she wouldn't have necessarily chosen this particular look for the young women—all in their early twenties, she guessed, and all of them young enough to be her daughters—it hadn’t been that difficult to set her own opinions aside to face the challenge.

“How much do I owe you?” Ashley reached into her purse and pulled out her mother’s credit card, something Louise had seen her do at each and every previous appointment at Skin Deep.

“Consider it my wedding present.” She winced a little as soon as the words slipped past her lips, part of her wishing she could snatch them back. But no matter how much she needed the money it was worth it to see Ashley’s eyes dancing. Ashley’s mom was hardworking, with three little ones at home from a somewhat rocky second marriage. And she was reasonably sure Ashley’s mother had no idea what the fee was these days for the typical wedding party makeup appointment.

If she had charged for the makeup session, she probably could have earned enough to reupholster at least a couple of the tattered reception chairs, which were starting to become a liability as the tips of the springs poking up were starting to snag clients' clothes. Her most recent pleas to her absentee landlord for a remodel had yet again fallen on deaf ears, of course. He’d simply reminded her that her lower than average rent meant she was responsible for all the upkeep, which included any sprucing up the place needed. She made a mental note to start checking the resale boutique down the block for some wooden chairs to replace all the reception chairs before she got any more complaints.

But Ashley and her bridesmaids didn't even sit down in the scruffy chairs, and instead huddled together and held hands, daring to quietly giggle in anticipation of the night to come. Then Ashley broke away, stepping toward Louise and holding out a small black envelope.

"I just wanted to give you this. Um, I thought you might want to at least consider…well, you're so cool that…."

Ashley's voice finally trailed off completely as Louise took the envelope from her and opened it. Instead of a tip, which she kind of hoped it was, when she opened the card she saw it was a gift certificate for a mini-tattoo at Avalon Tattoo.

“Oh, Ash, thanks.” Louise was amazed at how her young client saw her so differently than she saw herself.

Actually, the idea of a tattoo was even a little intriguing, but she quickly pushed the thought aside. For one thing, if she actually did consider getting some kind of body art, it would no doubt be on a part of her body she wouldn't feel comfortable showing to some needle-toting stranger. There was no way she would bare the top of her chunky thigh for an Avalon artist to get to. Or any other part of her anatomy, for that matter. Maybe she could ask at the tattoo parlor if she could just cash in the certificate.

"Well, we better get going," Ashley said, sighing happily. "We have to get dressed—we found these great matching black lace mini-dresses.”

Louise pulled Ashley to her for a quick hug, careful not to smudge her face against her shoulder. "Have fun. This is your moment, remember."

"I know. I still can't believe it's really happening. Thanks so much, 'L'." 

Louise released the young bride-to-be and when she looked at her, she swore Ashley was just barely holding back joyful tears. Odds were against her and Jax, but if anyone could make it work, Ashley just might.

As the group was getting ready to leave in one harmonious knot of escalating hormones and happy anticipation, through the front window Louise saw Adrian walking up the sidewalk.

As he opened the salon door, he looked like he'd just walked off the beach, which is probably exactly where he'd come from—tan, confident, and definitely a head turner in his Hawaiian-print long surfer shorts, no shirt, no shoes, and enticingly bleached-out blond hair. Her neighbor—avid surfer by day and self-employed accountant by night—lived a perfect lifestyle, designed so he never missed the opportunity to try and catch the perfect wave. At least he stopped at the welcome mat and wiped his sandy feet before closing the door behind him.

“Look at you all!” He grabbed Ashley by the hand and twirled her around in a little circle.

Louise watched as the vampirettes made eyes at Adrian. Poor girls. They didn’t know he wasn’t at all attracted to their pert little breasts and long, lean legs.

“Where are you ladies off to?”

“Ashley’s wedding. In Hollywood,” the vampirettes answered in unison.

“Hey, stick around for a few and let me look at you.” Then he turned toward Louise. “Hi, gorgeous.” Then his blue eyes darkened a couple of shades, his tan face actually paling a little as he took a step toward her. “Got something for you, but promise you won’t be mad at me.”

"Like I could ever be mad at you," she told him. Even though she was being sincere, her brows shoved together. There was something almost grave about his expression. And why did he seem almost relieved that they weren’t alone?

Immediately she reached up with one hand to massage out the wrinkles on her forehead. It was her latest compulsion—slowing down the inevitable signs of aging she finally admitted to herself were starting to show on her soon-to-turn forty-one-year-old face.

A week ago she had meticulously examined her forehead and the skin around her eyes before she began her daily cleansing and makeup regimen. Then she'd popped four antacids to deal with the resulting indigestion as her hastily consumed South Beach vegetable quiche cup breakfast turned into a sour lump in her stomach. It was her fourth attempt to get past Phase One of the diet program.

Since that enlightened—though—nauseating, moment, she'd vowed to adopt a perpetual, relaxed, poker face. No sense deepening the fine lines that were already there—the tiny rivulets nastily fanning out from the corners of her eyes, the out-and-out rivers streaming parallel across her forehead and growing deeper by the day.

Widening her eyes and lifting her eyebrows a tiny bit, she forced her facial muscles to relax, hoping for minor wrinkle damage, then reached for the plain white envelope Adrian had tossed on the desk as though it was poisonous to the touch and he couldn't bear to hold it another second. She watched him wipe both hands on his shorts as though trying to get the last of the venom off his palms.

She picked up the envelope. It was addressed to Louise Brookes, but had Adrian's address on the front. That was strange. Sure, occasionally they got each other's mail—she'd slip his GayTimes under his door and he'd shove her Epidermis News magazine under hers—but their addresses had completely different street names, let alone numbers, because of her salon being on the corner. How could her name but his address have ended up on the envelope?

When she turned the envelope over, she noticed it had already been opened.

"It was in my stack and—"

Adrian's voice ended rather guiltily and she looked up to see him staring intently back at her. Was he actually perspiring? Adrian never perspired. She battled the fresh desire to frown, doubtful the resulting mouth wrinkling was warranted. "God, Adrian, relax."

She dismissed his reaction as Adrian-drama. Why was he getting so worked up?

Looking beyond him to Ashley and the vampirettes, she noticed they stood in a line-up almost as though posing for Adrian, either still trying to gain his interest or maybe practicing for any paparazzi they might run into later tonight. Still, all eyes were on her…waiting.

Examining the envelope again, she thought a moment. Probably just the cable company or something, and they got the address wrong during a drive-by as they hunted for the absence of cable wires already running into houses. She'd refused to give in to temptation, to get sucked into those high monthly fees for dozens more stations that never seemed to offer anything worth watching anyway.

She lived in the small studio apartment above her salon, and the added monthly charges for full blown cable would push her rent into the danger zone. The status quo was all she could handle. And not a penny more.

Though it seemed like it was always an uphill battle, her goal had been the same since she’d finished her esthetician training. Show her mother she could indeed be financially independent, and prove to her she had enough savvy to compete in the cutthroat skin care salon business.

Shifting her gaze back to the anxious Adrian, she lifted the flap of the envelope, then looked down at it as she pulled out several pale purple pieces of stationery, breathing in the rich scent of lavender as she unfolded them. She started reading the gold-embossed calligraphy style lettering:

Dear Ms. Brookes:

Congratulations!  Your photo is among the ten semi-finalists chosen for this year's Glow Girl competition, and your $1000 cash prize will be awarded to you after a mandatory photo session, and after all other requirements have been met. You'll find instructions in the enclosed documents, and more details will be provided at the photo shoot. Please look over the enclosed forms, sign them, and bring all with you to the shoot:  Crystal Pier, 9 a.m.

Then she stared at the date. The photo shoot was tomorrow.

The letter ended with large purple letters:

And, Ms. Brookes—you glow, girl!

Louise dropped into a chair to reread the words. There had to be some mistake. Semi-finalist? In a beauty contest? She swallowed hard as she tried to lubricate her suddenly parched throat.

"You're pissed," Adrian said.

“What is it?” Ashley asked.

“I entered her into a contest—”

Louise cut him off with a glare.

“The Glow contest,” he continued, at least looking away from her.

“Oh, I read about that in the UT,” Ashley said. “You’re perfect, ‘L’. With your perfect skin—”

“Are you both nuts?” She didn’t quite mean for her voice to come out so loud.

Adrian took a step closer to the vampirettes, probably hoping she would think twice before coming at him to wring his neck.

“You should do it,” Ashley encouraged.

“Right,” Adrian chimed in.

Louise didn’t even know what to say. She and Adrian had been friends for five years, literally since the day she’d moved in. How could he have done something like this?

“Do it,” Ashley said again. “You better call me—leave a message or text me—and tell me what’s going on. Shoot, now I wish we didn’t have to go.”

Louise watched Ashley’s mouth morph into a pout as she and the others headed toward the door to leave. She turned around at the last second, having taken the rear of the gaggle of girls, and said, “Call me. I mean it.”

“Bye, hon’. Have fun.”

As they left, Adrian backed toward the door as though recognizing his chance to escape. “How about I go get us some dinner? Rubio's?"

She glared at him, then pulled her lips into a straight line, hoping to at least scare him a little. "Okay. Then we'll have a little talk about how wrong this was—"

"I'll just quick get a shirt and some flip-flops, and be right back.” She watched as he bolted outside, then ducked into his cottage next door and came out wearing a tee-shirt and sandals. He didn't even look back before he headed for her favorite Mexican food eatery.

If he thought fish tacos and a couple Negra Modelos was going to soften her up, he was wrong. He had some definite explaining to do.

***

As Louise sat waiting at her kitchen table, having finished reading the Glow Girl paperwork for the fifth time, she heard the salon door open and close below, and then the sound of Adrian's footsteps thumping up the narrow stairs that led to her apartment.

"Hi, doll. I got us both Especials—I had a coupon. And I picked up some chocolate cappuccino gelato for dessert."

She decided to give him the silent treatment as she sat at the table with her arms folded across her chest, watching him put away the Italian ice cream, her absolute favorite, then help himself to colorful Fiesta ware plates from the cupboards and move the food from the takeout containers onto them. He put the heaping dishes on the table, then added silverware and bright yellow cloth napkins. Next he opened two beers and put one next to each plate, then filled a silver metal bucket with ice to keep the rest of their beers nice and cold. He'd brought home a six-pack, obviously hoping to dilute her anger.

Adrian expertly worked around the pale purple pages that she'd strategically placed in the middle of the kitchen table, as if they weren't even there. He was probably hoping if he ignored them, they might just disappear.

Fat chance.

Finally he sat down across from her and took a long draw of the creamy dark beer. He looked adorably domestic, of course, even though there was still a little guilt coloring his expression.

"Oh," he mumbled as he got up from the table and stepped toward the refrigerator. "I'll get some more limes—I know you like extra ones for the fish." His voice was overly bright and merry, and she realized just about the right amount of time had gone by for her anger to indeed have toned down a little. Adrian knew well the benefits of stalling.

With his back to her and with the added light of the open refrigerator door, she noticed a reddening on the back of his left arm that hadn't been there before. A very fresh bruise. It appeared as though someone had grabbed his arm and squeezed it. Hard.

As she leaned over to get a closer look Adrian spun around and tossed two limes in the air toward her. "I'll get a knife," he said.

Louise grabbed for the flying fruit, then sucked in her bottom lip and bit on it, squelching the urge to start an old argument that would only spin quickly out of control. "You run into Dylan while you were out?" she asked.

"As a matter of fact I did, little Miss Psychic. He says hello and happy birthday."

Dylan was Adrian's beau-of-the-season and Louise hadn't liked him from the start. She’d begun thinking of him as The Evil One. Adrian had met him over Spring Break but had kept him a secret until Memorial Day.

"I know you're still mad, but can we eat first?" he asked.

She sighed, nodded, and put her napkin in her lap. He'd brought her favorite Rubio's combination meal: two fish tacos, spicy black beans on the side, lots of fresh tortilla chips and roasted chipotle salsa. The beer he'd picked up was his favorite—and hers, since he'd introduced her to it. It had become a preferred choice to have with Mexican food, and she'd discovered she absolutely loved dark beers—the thicker and creamier the better.

She pushed aside the calorie and carb calculations that automatically started running in her head, deciding to forget it and just enjoy the meal. Though she'd pretty much given up on dieting, per se, she did go on and off any number of trendy diet plans—her bookshelves were full of them—when she felt motivated enough to give it another go.

When they'd finished their tacos, Adrian opened second beers for them both and then cleared the dishes, putting them in the sink. He even wiped off the table, lifting up the otherwise ignored Glow Girl contest papers to get at some tortilla chip tidbits.

She was definitely feeling the effects of the alcohol. Probably a good thing. At least for Adrian's sake. "Okay, start at the beginning. And remember how vulnerable I am right now. I'm about to step into a brand new demographic, Adrian. Now I’m in my forties."

"I know, but that's kind of why I did it, hon’. I saw a notice for this contest. They were looking for all different types and ages of women," he emphasized, "for a new advertising campaign. And according to the contest rules, what they wanted most were glowing faces."

"So, you thought of me."

"You know that picture I took of you when you did that three-day breast cancer charity walk last year?"

She did remember. It was two whole jean-sizes ago—probably twenty five pounds or more, she guessed—and she'd been in love for the final time. That’s one reason her face had glowed that day, the other reason was from having fun with thousands of other women who’d banded together for a good cause.

Not long after that weekend she'd sworn off dating and men, concluding neither was worth the pain and trouble. It had been the last straw.

"Well, you have to admit you were luminous in that picture. I don’t care what you think, either. You have a gorgeous face, and you’re even more beautiful on the inside, which counts," he said, tipping his bottle back to finish off his beer.

It was her favorite photo of herself, she had to admit, and she'd even thought of using it for her newspaper display ads. Sadly, she'd never quite saved up enough money to upsize, which would have been needed to add enough space for a photo.

"Go on," she said.

"Well, that's about it. I entered your photo and used my address because I wasn't even going to tell you unless you got selected. A month ago I learned you were in the running for the semi-finals, so I waited to see what would happen."

"And you know how wrong this is, right?"

"Why? Why is it wrong to think you might have a shot? Jesus, Louise, lighten up a little. It's a thousand dollars, may I remind you—hmm…thank you, Adrian comes to mind—and you've been whining a lot lately about wanting to do some redecorating or more advertising. After taxes, that's not bad money."

Adrian knew quite well how strapped she was for cash most of the time because he'd been doing her books for the five years they'd known each other. She looked into his pleading, slightly defensive eyes and felt herself cave a little. "But there are strings attached to that money, my dastardly, but good-intentioned, friend."

He frowned and reached for the papers still in the middle of the table. "I just read the first page."

Louise finished her second beer while Adrian read the details she'd already perused ad nauseam.

"Well, there's the mandatory photo shoot…tomorrow. Sorry about the timing." He looked up to gauge her acceptance of his meager apology for springing this on her, let alone having it all happening on her forty-first birthday.

She pointed back to the papers, jabbing her finger in the air, trying to keep him on task.

"Okay, okay." He read for a few more seconds, then said, "Uh-oh."

He must have reached the part about the bathing suit.

 

Chapter Two

Louise opened her third beer herself. Adrian's mouth was still open like a codfish, and she actually felt a tiny bit sorry for him. But the feeling passed.

"Oh, Louise." His voice came out in a dramatic whisper. "They…they implied it was m-more…oh, I don't know…more like facial stuff, or hand lotion or something."

"To get…that…one thousand…lovely dollars…"  She said the words slowly, careful to not let her words slur, though she was actually feeling quite pleasant now. Two Negra Modelos made for a wonderful anesthetic, the perfect end-of-a-crazy-day attitude adjustor.

"…there is a mandatory bathing suit photo session." Adrian finished the sentence for her, his voice all somber and defeated.

When he finally looked at her, horror all over his face, she laughed. All of a sudden it was just funny. She imagined the photographers' reactions as she sashayed onto Crystal Pier wearing the only bathing suit she owned: a simple, strapless black one-piece—the size fourteen now more than a little snug since she always gained weight most in her boobs and her butt.

She hadn't worn a bathing suit in public since…God, she couldn't even remember the last time. And there was nothing that would make her even consider doing it.

Not even a thousand dollars.

Adrian's eyes grew wider as she figured he was trying to decipher her mood, trying to decide if her hysterical laughter was the funny-ha-ha kind or the get-ready-to-run kind.

"Louise, I—"

"Don't worry, Adrian, I'm not doing it."

"But—"

She arched her left eyebrow in a challenge, daring him to speak, then opened the last beer and handed it to him.

"It was a lovely gesture, Adrian, and I know your objective was nothing but good—but you know what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions." Her inebriated brain seemed only to be able to think in clichés but she simply didn't care anymore.

"But—"

"It's over, Adrian. It's done with." Louise got up and went to the sink to run water on her much loved vintage dishes, one of her weaknesses—she was an absolute sucker for retro dishware and antique teacups. She waited a while for the water to get hot, but it stayed ice cold.

She turned the knob all the way hot. Still ice cold. Then she heard a rattle, a long moan, and the telltale sound of water gushing out from somewhere.

Adrian was already heading down the stairs when she turned around. She had to stop a second to steady herself a little before she ran for the lower level.

Downstairs, she found him standing in front of the utility closet just off the reception area. He'd pulled open the door, exposing the hot water heater, which had already dumped its entire contents onto the floor.

"I think something broke or cracked or something," he said.

Louise watched as water seeped out from under the ratty red wool area rug in the reception area, puddling beyond the carpet's edges and onto the black and white linoleum floor.

Adrian speeded past her and out the door, calling back over his shoulder, “I’ll be right back with a mop and bucket.”

"Not now. Please?" She whispered her plea, wiggling her toes in the water. The water heater was ancient, and she'd suspected for a long time it was on its last leg. Lately it had seemed like it just turned itself off periodically—sometimes the pilot light went out and she'd have to wait hours for the water in the tank to reheat. She'd been dreading the day when it would finally quit altogether and had been figuring that in another month or six she'd be able to replace it with a bigger, more suitable one, or maybe even get one of those energy efficient, but expensive, tankless systems.

Even though it affected her business, her very livelihood, her landlord was never going to agree to get a new water heater. She realized she was quickly getting stuck between a rock and a hard place with no way out.

There was no way she could thrive in a different space and stay near the beach. She was stuck right where she was. Stuck with a crappy lease agreement that she’d signed anyway. A bad deal. A bad decision. Something her mother delighted in pointing out whenever she could slip it into the conversation, reminding her that she should have consulted her before she’d gotten herself into such a mess.

The worst of it was that she knew her mother was right. But she’d fallen in love with the area, and she’d believed if she worked hard enough, cared enough, she could make it work.

But her definition of making it work had almost immediately slipped into goals more like keeping the bill collectors at bay and keeping her nose above water.

Replacing the water heater would throw everything out of whack. Her very careful balancing act was about to fail, sending her world tumbling out of control.

Adrian rushed back into the room with an industrial sized bucket and string mop, and she tipped her head back, blinking back the tears. She wasn’t about to give in. She watched as he mopped up all the water, squeezing it out into the bucket, dumping the contents into the nearby sink.

When they’d gotten the majority of the water up, he lifted one corner of the area rug. “This is history,” he pronounced. “Dumpster?”

She nodded and they dragged the old rug outside. The water had brought out an unidentifiable, truly obnoxious odor. The trouble was, the rug was hiding a multitude of sins underneath: lots of lifting floor tiles, and those that weren't lifting were cracked and dingy, the white ones now more a sickening yellow color.

Mopping up the rest of the remaining water, the tiles at least were clean. Adrian met her disgusted gaze with a matching one, but the smart man didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. She knew the reception area was a mess, and now it was even worse.

“Done?” he asked, his voice all soft and sounding as defeated as she felt.

She nodded and while he took his mop and bucket home, she climbed the stairs and then sank into one of the kitchen chairs.

Then, picking up the contest papers with shaking hands, she pictured the new water heater the money could buy.

Impossible.

She’d be a laughing stock, for one. It would be completely humiliating, for two.

Closing her eyes, she allowed her thoughts to ricochet in her head, finally isolating one crazy idea. She could just show up and take the money and run, couldn’t she?

Maybe.

Fervently she reread the paperwork. By the sound of it, maybe she actually could.

She picked up the phone and dialed Adrian. “I’m going to do it. Come back over here and help me strategize before I change my mind.” The next sound she heard was the dial tone, and she rubbed her forehead a little while she waited for Adrian to appear. That third beer had been a big mistake.

She opened her eyes when she heard him bounding up the stairs.

"I brought you this," he said, his eyes dancing as though he’d found buried treasure.

She didn’t need treasure, though. What she needed was a nice little miracle right about now.

Adrian held out a colorful piece of hand painted silk, dangling it and swishing it in the air like a matador. She remembered when he'd bought it. They'd both been between relationships and had gone together to the annual art festival in Laguna Beach. They'd done that a lot throughout the years. He'd step in when she needed or wanted an escort or even just someone to run around with, and she'd do the same for him.

He'd flirted unmercifully with the guy manning the booth where the long scarves, shawls, and pareus were displayed. That guy had actually lasted about six months, one of Adrian's longer relationships. She thought maybe the physical distance between San Diego and Laguna Beach had helped keep things rolling along. She'd come to the conclusion that when boyfriends were too close and boundaries weren't clear, it was only a matter of time before it all fell apart. She and Adrian were much too much alike when it came to the affairs of the heart.

"Listen, Louise, there's nothing in those papers that says anything about not wearing a cover-up. What color is your suit?"

"Black."

"Go put it on. Just do it. Humor me."

She was too tired to argue, and was back in a few minutes with her suit on underneath her pink terrycloth bathrobe.

"Open," he said, pointing to her waist.

She loosened the tie, and shrugged out of her robe. It fell with a thud to the floor. Even in front of Adrian she cringed.

He folded one corner of the pareu diagonally, deftly wrapped the silky cloth around her hips, keeping the fold on the inside, made a double knot on one side, and let the long end hang free.

"There. What do you think?"

The cloth felt wonderful against her skin and he had actually created an interesting look, the silk mostly draping over one leg. At least it hid her thighs and masked her tummy bulge.

"Stand up straight. Shoulders back. Point the girls forward," he said, pointing at her boobs.

She obeyed, then checked her reflection in the glass of the sliders that led to the tiny balcony off the kitchen.

"I think you're stunning, girlfriend."

Presentable at least.

Her butt was covered completely. Her arms looked okay. As long as she kept them snug against her sides, they didn't appear to jiggle too much. Her boobs barely fit the soft cups of the suit, though. She reached both hands up and adjusted the built-in bra a little bit. Better. Now the tops of her breasts pillowed above the upper edge of the suit, looking a little sexy…maybe.

"Suck in your tummy a little more," Adrian directed, "and keep your shoulders back, push your chin forward, lift it a little, and now tilt your head to the left. Put both hands on your waist and splay your fingers out a bit."

She did as he asked and watched herself in the glass. She knew immediately it was the same pose from the winning photo.

Can I really do this?

"Visualize it, Louise. Brand spankin' new oversized water heater. Maybe enough left over for a new rug. You can do this. You can act however you need to in order to get what you want. We do it every day, when you think about it. You’re a beautiful girl, and that inner beauty is right there. They’ll see it. I promise."

He was going overboard, as usual, but it didn’t matter. All she had to do was get into the process far enough to take the money and run…straight to Home Depot. Adrian made it seem plausible. She could just show up. Do the photo shoot. Sign some papers. Take the check. It would be over. Done with.

"You want me to go with you?"

She turned toward him and gave him a look. "Oh, yeah. You can bet your ass you're coming with me."

Louise untied and removed the silk and handed it to Adrian, then put on her bathrobe.

When he started rubbing his hands together like this was going to be something wonderful, she gave him a look. “Cut the enthusiasm, my friend, and go home before I change my mind.”

He stuck out his lip in a little boy pout. “It could be fun, you know.”

“Home.” She pointed to the stairs and gave him a nudge, following him so she could lock up after him. The only goal she had now was to stop thinking about the contest and get some beauty sleep. After the huge meal and three beers, she'd need it.

When they reached the salon door, she watched a vehicle slow on the street and then pull into the short, buckling concrete driveway reserved for Skin Deep clients who were brave enough to drive into it. Usually only those who had vehicles with high clearance or four-wheel drive had the nerve to pull into it, though. Most of her clients preferred the safer alternative of curbside parking even if it meant they sometimes had to park a block or two away.

"Unexpected company?" Adrian asked as he stepped up close behind her and looked over her shoulder.

The woman getting out of the dilapidated station wagon was one of her fellow Humane Society volunteers. She'd met the woman at a weekend spay and neuter clinic many years ago and they'd become good friends. The white-haired spitfire had won her heart instantly when she'd talked about her many years of service and how she was proud to be known as The Cat Lady of San Diego.

"Muriel, what are you—"

"Oh, Louise, I'm so glad you're home. I know you're not on the schedule to foster any kittens right now but this litter definitely needs your gentling. I'm afraid they won't…make it until our next kitten adoption…if you know what I mean."

Louise groaned. Could the end of this day get any more stressful? "What about—"

"I already checked with Audrey and she's leaving on vacation tomorrow. And you know I'd take them if I could, but I've got a houseful and, besides, two of them are…calicos."

Muriel had a major dislike of calicos, having had one too many experiences with the finicky breed. When Louise had pressed, Muriel had laughed and said they reminded her too much of her older twin sisters, long since gone but not forgotten for their finicky personalities and tendencies toward being a bit mean spirited.

"But—"

Muriel ignored her and spun around, dashing back to her car, quickly returning with a cat crate and setting it down at Louise's feet.

Though she knew it was a mistake to look, she dropped to her knees on the sidewalk and tilted her head to peek inside the door grate.

It was a litter of five very young, very skinny kittens. A fluffy orange tabby, a black longhair, a black and white shorthair with markings that made it look like a little cow, and two calicos.

"I'm pretty sure they're all girls except the orange one," Muriel said. "I'm just glad we got 'em. We spayed the mom and released her already. At least the male can be neutered soon, and the girls can be spayed before adoption and won't continue to pop out more feral kittens in your neighborhood."

Louise watched the trembling pile of fur in the far corner of the crate. The kittens were absolutely silent. Ferals usually were. The tiny creatures were doing what their moms taught them: stay quiet and still and wait until danger passes. Good advice for feline or human.

They looked terrified. And pitiful.

"So, you'll take them?"

Louise nodded, then stood up.

"I'm afraid I only have a couple days of donated formula. I know it's expensive, but do you think you can manage?"

Kitten formula was pricey and by the look of the litter, they'd be on it for at least three weeks. It would be another hit to her already tight budget.

"You're a sweetheart, dear. I knew you'd do it." Muriel gave her a kiss on the cheek and rushed back to her car. No doubt the Cat Lady of San Diego had more tasks on her ever lengthening list of animal-related charity work.

Louise sighed. She was such a pushover. Even Muriel knew it.

A skittering sound inside the crate made her drop again to the sidewalk and peek inside the crate. The orange tabby had disentangled himself from the furry pile and was trying to climb the side of the crate, his little feet pawing at the smooth sides.

"You want me to carry the crate up?" Adrian asked.

"No. Go to bed. One of us can at least get some beauty sleep."

"You're sure?"

"Go…go. I’ll see you in the morning. I’ll be borrowing your shower, so either get up early or leave the door unlocked." She waved him away, then picked up the crate and dragged it upstairs to deposit it in the bathroom. Then she pulled supplies out of the linen closet and set up the cramped space with a short-sided litter box, and a layer of soft blankets she kept for fostering. She mixed some water with the powdered formula and poured it into a shallow dish.

Finally satisfied she had everything ready she opened the door of the crate, then eased herself out of the bathroom to leave the kittens alone in the dark to begin acclimating to their new environment and hopefully discover their dinner.

Now wide awake, she headed for the freezer and the untouched chocolate cappuccino gelato.

Hell, it was after midnight and officially her birthday. Why not?

I'll just eat my half.

She zapped the container in the microwave for a few seconds to soften it, then got a long-handled iced tea spoon and sat down at the kitchen table.

Who am I kidding? They'll all probably fall over in hysterics when they see me—and realize their mistake in about a half a second. Yup, somebody's head is gonna roll when they see that a fat girl is in their precious little contest.

She dug her spoon into the gelato and took a big bite. The utterly decadent Italian ice cream melted on her tongue and sent delicious fudgy-coffee flavors swirling around in her mouth and finally down her throat.

She still couldn't believe she’d talked herself into continuing with the next step. Well, it had been the broken hot water heater, actually, that was the final nail in her XL coffin. She sighed, then took another big bite of gelato. Adrian was a good friend and she should probably appreciate him more. Always there when she needed him, it was like he had some kind of misery-radar or something and just showed up the minute she needed a friend.

Waves of fresh guilt washed over her as she took a few more bites of gelato.

She was really worried about him this time. Dylan was not a nice man, but every time she'd tried to bring it up with Adrian, he'd reminded her of their promise to butt out of each other's love lives.

Well, she hadn't had a love life for him to butt into for a long time.

A really long time.

She took another big bite.

And it seemed like her libido was all over the place too. She’d go from feeling extremely horny to not even thinking about sex. Or maybe the peri-menopause that had already reared its ugly head was to blame, wreaking episodic havoc with her periods and her hormones. Some recent months had been like PMS on steroids.

She pushed her spoon into the gelato as she considered how long it had been since she'd had sex, knowing the answer but delaying the admission.

Between sex and chocolate, there were definitely times she’d choose chocolate. Added calories, sure, but without the humiliation and heartbreak that seemed to follow eventually…which is what had happened in every relationship she'd ever had, it seemed.

Maybe she was just one of those women who was just meant to be alone. Maybe she'd just have to put on her big girl panties and deal with it. What was the modern term for old maid? Purposely independent and unencumbered, maybe? Selective? Autonomous by desire?

The spoon scraped the bottom of the pint and she just shook her head. Might as well just finish it off. Not enough to save for Adrian anyway.

 

Chapter Three

"Must you be so damn perky in the morning?"

An hour ago she’d asked Adrian that very same question when he’d cheerfully answered her knock on his front door when she'd arrived to use his shower.

When she’d finished—skillfully avoiding his perky little self—and returned to the salon, she’d left the door open so he could let himself in. Now, here he was in her kitchen right on time, bright eyed and full of vim and vinegar, while she sat at the kitchen table in her robe, bent over and looking into a hand mirror she'd balanced against the ceramic napkin holder she’d impulsively bought last week at one of the shops in the Spanish Village at Balboa Park. The potter had given her a song and dance about being “this close” to not being able to pay his co-op space rent. Now each time she looked at it she reminded herself she needed to be more disciplined and to stop being such a doormat.

“I could hardly sleep,” Adrian said. “I don’t care what you think, I’m excited.”

She ignored him and finished spreading foundation on her face with a wedge-shaped sponge. When she finally looked up at him she noticed he'd brought her a coffee from the Starbucks on the corner. Nice touch. And by the aroma, he'd gotten her favorite: a grande hot mocha. Breakfast of champions…and the only breakfast she planned on having since she'd chowed down her birthday gelato mere hours ago.

And there was a gift bag dangling from one wrist.

"Did you think I'd actually forget?" he asked when she raised an eyebrow at him.

With a flourish he put the iridescent silver gift bag on the table next to the basket of makeup supplies she'd brought out from the bathroom, unable to utilize the mirror in there with the kittens skittering about, terrified out of their tiny minds.

She put down her sponge and reached for the bag, but she already knew what was inside.

They'd been exchanging the same gift over the last five years: a tee-shirt with a drawing of a skeleton wearing a fancy hat and sitting on a park bench. The caption read, "Still waiting for Mr. Right."

She'd given it to Adrian for his thirtieth, and he'd loved it. But she hadn't seen the humor in it when she'd received it the next year on her own birthday. She'd been deep into a relationship at the time…one Adrian had been unable to hide his burning disapproval of. And, in the end, he'd been right about the slime bucket.

Now it was a tradition—no matter what their personal lives were like at the moment.

"Thanks. You shouldn't have."

"Well, your real gift is the silk, of course. You can keep it after today."

She remembered what he'd paid for it. "You sure?"

"Of course. It's all yours. "You doing your hair up or down?" he asked, standing next to the table with one hand perched on his hip.

"Don't care. Down, I guess. If it's windy it will help cover my face."

"Stop—"

"Look, Adrian, I'm just doing the basics here. A little concealer…to cover the dark circles under her eyes from her nearly sleepless night due to her gelato-binge-induced-indigestion…sunscreen, foundation, a little lipstick, and I'll spritz and scrunch my hair and that's it. It doesn't matter, remember? I’m just going so I can take the money and run. That’s it. So, let’s not make this into something it’s not, okay?"

His competitive nature was surfacing, and she knew it was hard for him not to push her to do her best. But this was different. She was in it to get it over with, get home, and get to Home Depot and order the biggest damn water heater she could afford.

He let out a little sigh. "You're right." He put the folded silk on the table, along with a bulging tote bag. "How are the kittens?"

"Fine, I guess. I haven't really done much but put out a little formula. I'll deal with trying to hold them tomorrow. I still can’t believe I caved so easily and took them." Then she shuddered uncontrollably, her shoulders twitching as a shiver raced up her spine and ended at the nape of her neck.

"What's wrong?"

"Oh, God! You think this is what I'll be doing when I'm fifty-one? Seventy-one?"

"What?"

"Adrian, be honest with me. Do you think I'm a Cat Lady in training?" The question was quickly followed by a mental picture of herself driving Muriel's old junker, dropping off crates of kittens all over San Diego county and begging people to foster them.

"Louise. Get a grip. Look at that face. You are not The Cat Lady. You were just being nice."

She shuddered again, then forced herself to look in the mirror. Really look. "Get me some tweezers out of the bathroom. In the drawer. Hurry!"

She picked up the mirror and brought it close.

Adrian carefully cracked open the bathroom door and slipped inside. She could hear him through the closed door rummaging in the cabinet drawer, probably giving the kittens little heart attacks.

By the time he returned, she'd zeroed in on the problem.

"Louise?"

"I can't believe this is happening…today."  She took the tweezers from him. "Mother always claimed the first true sign of aging in women is when you find five little black hairs on your chin." She repositioned the mirror, stretched her neck, and started tweezing.

She winced as she began removing each of the offenders.

"You going to name them?"

She stopped long enough to glare at him. "This isn't funny, Adrian."

"C'mon. It's not the end of the world."

Maybe not, but it was the beginning of it. The end of any pretense of youth. In a rush of emotion, she understood—at least a little bit, maybe on the cellular level—her mother's preoccupation with continually trying to tap into the fountain of youth.

Now it was happening to her, and there wasn’t a bloody thing she could do about it.

With the perpetrators tweezed and dispatched, Louise reapplied foundation to her chin. Then, using a big soft brush, she dusted on a coat of loose powder to give her face a perfect matte finish. She gave her chin an extra swipe, then picked up the mirror to be certain she hadn't missed a stray chin hair.

"You going to wear your suit?"

"I'll throw on a sundress over it. And you are in charge of the silk," she said, handing him back the cloth so there was no chance it would be forgotten and left behind. He laid it on the top of the tote bag. "I'll get dressed and be out in a minute. Then we can go."

When she returned a few minutes later, the coffee had cooled down enough to chug. After she'd emptied the cup and tossed it into the trash, she declared, "I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be."

***

As they walked the short distance to Crystal Pier, Louise's stomach started protesting the chugging of her birthday mocha. Not only was her stomach gurgling and burbling, but with every step she could feel her tummy extending with the buildup of oh-so-not-wanted acid and gas.

If the bloating continued, she'd look even fatter. Not a good scenario as she began to imagine herself slipping out of her sundress and getting the pareu onto her hips in lightening speed.

"You wouldn't have any antacids on you, would you?"

Adrian reached into the canvas tote bag he'd brought along and whipped out a bottle.

"What else do you have in there?"

"Emergency kit, everything you could ever need," he promised, grabbing her elbow and steering her around a woman who'd stopped in the middle of the sidewalk in front of them to reapply her lip gloss.

The woman was beach-boardwalk-gorgeous, of course, completely at ease wearing a micro-mini denim skirt and a bathing suit top of shimmery white microfiber…what size was she—four, maybe?…tall, even if she hadn't been wearing six-inch strappy gold sandals…her legs and arms an even, dark bronze, her hair long and blond and Barbie-doll straight.

As she looked back at the woman over her shoulder—another Glow Girl candidate?—Louise watched her do an elaborate "model hair toss" as though preparing herself for the camera. Or maybe that's just what people did when they had perfect hair.

Louise didn't have the tossing kind of hair. It was more the scrunch and go kind. The hope-for-the-best kind. The kind that got curlier the closer she got to the ocean or if the humidity was on the rise. She'd grown it out over the last several years so her brown waves hung well past her shoulders, much to the chagrin of her mother who believed the older a woman got the shorter her hair should be.

Barbie-doll, still behind them but quickly catching up with her leggy strides, was the kind of picture-perfect, obvious choice for the Glow Girl contest. Again Louise felt there must have been some mistake with her making the cut. And, if there was, that was fine too. She'd already planned to simply demand her winnings. No matter what. She was starting to enjoy the sense of bravado she felt, how she was somehow miraculously able to face this, running completely on adrenalin and too little sleep.

Twisting off the bottle's lid, Louise popped four antacids into her mouth and chewed vigorously, trying to get them into her system before she actually reached the beginning of the line in front of the Glow Girl check-in table. The registration table sat at the entrance to Crystal pier like a barrier separating the haves and the have-nots of the world of beauty.

"Excuse me," the blond said as she stepped around her and Adrian, then parked herself in the line directly in front of Louise.

It was painfully obvious the young woman assumed Louise couldn't possibly be waiting to check in, and was simply one of the many spectators that were filling the area.

Louise rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders when Adrian checked her reaction. It was fine. She was in no hurry anyway.

On the pier some of the other contestants gathered into a dynamic little mob on the other side of a roped-off area, talking to what looked like a reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune. Or maybe from The Reader.

A local TV station had just arrived and was setting a camera up in front of a silk-screened fabric backdrop of cloud-filled blue skies with a giant stylized Aztec sun in the center, potted palm trees positioned on each side, the words "Glow Girl" along the top edge.

Do they honestly expect me to pose for television cameras?

She didn't remember anything about that in the papers she'd read and signed.

Before she could have a heart attack at the thought, Barbie-doll finished in front of her. And without even sending a glance her way, Blondie stepped up to the George Hamilton look-alike manning the entrance to the pier.

Louise forced herself to move a step forward.

"Can I help you?"

Taking a deep breath, Louise handed over the stack of purple papers to the young woman sitting at the table. The antacids had finally kicked in so at least she didn't have to deal with people looking around to figure out why they were hearing rolling stomach thunder above the sound of the water lapping gently at the pilings below.

Except for the fact she was about to step into her own personal nightmare, it was a beautiful southern California beach day. The sand on either side of the pier was filled with bathing beauties of all ages. Kids were building sandcastles and burying themselves in the sand near the water, teens were running into the waves with boogie boards, and the fragrance of suntan lotion filled the air.

On any other day, she would have smiled and congratulated herself for living in paradise.

Not today.

"Oh," muttered the young woman reading the papers Louise had presented. She looked about twelve with her unblemished face and not a wrinkle or laugh line in sight.

You just wait, chickie, until that day when you go flying for your tweezers. She should probably do her a favor and warn her to keep them handy because as soon as forty rolled around it was only a matter of time before—

Louise felt Adrian's elbow nudging her in the ribs. "I'm sorry, what do you say?" Apparently the young thing had been speaking to her.

"I just said that I'm Brittney, and I'll be around to answer any questions you might have later, get you some bottled water or whatever. Everything looks fine with the paperwork, and you can go right through the stanchions behind me and onto the pier. We'll be getting started soon. Oh, and the UT's on your right interviewing some of the girls…”

Did the woman really have the audacity to lump her in with ‘the girls’?

"…and KSUN just arrived so you can hang with the other contestants and get some air time if you hurry."

"Thanks."  Right. Air time.

"Oh, and here's your Glow Girl necklace. You need to be wearing this at all times."

Louise took the necklace and held it up to get a better look. There was a sun pendant dangling from a gold chain. It felt and looked expensive. Definitely not a swap meet special, but more a Tiffany's exclusive.

Louise handed the necklace to Adrian and lifted up her hair. He put down the emergency tote, then reached in front of her and quickly put the chain around her neck. For the umpteenth time she had the thought of how glad she was that he was there. Her own fingers were shaking so badly that doing the clasp would have been impossible.

The pendant rested just above her ample cleavage, and she rested her fingertips on the face of the sun she hoped would be a good luck talisman for her. Please let me not make a complete ass of myself today. It was the mantra that had been running through her brain since she'd opened her eyes that morning.

"Restroom?" she asked Brittney. Though she certainly wasn't in any hurry for television air time, she did have to pee so badly her molars were starting to float. Definitely should have skipped the mocha. And the escalating jitters she was feeling made her pretty sure Adrian had had a triple shot of espresso added to her birthday treat. While she had been standing there, trying to avoid Brittney's initial stare of disbelief, she'd felt a delicious caffeine rush tingle along her scalp. She felt so deliciously wide awake she couldn't imagine ever wasting time sleeping again.

"That restaurant's opened up for us," Brittney explained, pointing to the adjacent eatery. "You can use the restroom inside, do your makeup, and change into your suit."

Louise smiled at the thought that Brittany assumed there would be more makeup this morning. Hah. What the girl didn't get was her well thought out strategy of deliberately presenting a plain Jane to the contest officials. It was her ticket out. They'd take one look, determine her unsuitability, and hand her a check. Buh-bye. So far, so good.

"Thanks. All right if my friend Adrian goes with me?" 

Brittney stood and reached out her hand toward him, taking advantage of the opportunity. "Hi, Adrian." She said his name, drawing out the syllables like she was tasting each letter. Brittany had been ogling Adrian since she'd finished checking the Glow documents. Which was fine with Louise. Having him along was two-fold. He offered the best moral support a fat girl in a bathing suit could ask for, plus he provided delicious eye candy for all the unsuspecting females in the immediate area, helping keep the focus away from her.

The next thing Louise felt was Adrian's hand on her arm as he nudged her away from the table, then walked her through the stanchions and over toward the restaurant where, thankfully, only a few people had gathered.

"You can wait here," she told him.

"But I need to put this on you." He reached into the tote and pulled out the silk.

"Adrian, I'm not taking this dress off until I absolutely have to. Let's wait and see when that actually is, okay?"

He shrugged, then walked to the railing and leaned against it looking immediately stunningly handsome—more like People magazine’s sexiest man of the year than her best friend.

He looked carefully casual chic. The tight Levis he wore were a trademark of his, revealing bronzed skin through well-placed tattered areas, and his holey jeans never failed to draw glances from both genders. At first she'd been surprised he'd worn a long-sleeved t-shirt instead of a tank top, which was one of his other trademarks.

Then wondered if his shirt choice, on the already warm day, maybe was to conceal the bruises she'd noticed last night. The red had probably turned black and blue by morning. The man deserved happiness, and she was certain Dylan was so the opposite. Sometimes she really wondered about Adrian’s self image. Most of the time he appeared to have everything under control. This time, though, something was wrong. And now their stupid pact to refrain from meddling in each other’s loves lives kept her from pointing out the obvious: that what he needed was someone to appreciate him and cherish him, just as he was.

And The Evil One was just not that kind of guy.

But, maybe she was just overreacting. Being overly protective. She couldn’t be certain Dylan was actually abusing him. Not without confronting Adrian. And she was pretty sure he would deny there was a problem anyway.

She was stuck, waiting and observing.

But, still…even if they had a pact, she absolutely would not keep quiet if she thought he was in any real danger. He’d do the same for her, she knew.

At least marginally satisfied she’d thought it through enough, she looked away from Adrian and continued on her own toward the restaurant.

Near the door several men were gathered, some wiping camera lenses with tiny squares of cloth, others adjusting gear that hung around their necks.  Each of them glanced up every second or so in the direction of three contestants who stood in front of the KSUN camera, being interviewed live for the station’s morning show.

Closing her eyes for a second, she almost reeled from the overwhelming fresh blast of nervous tension. When she opened them again, one of the photographers had stepped over to hold open the door for her.

He was the proverbial tall, dark, and handsome type and his direct attention sent a fresh wave of nerves through her. The guy wasn’t really classically good-looking, but boyishly cute with great hair that feathered away from his clean-shaven face, his dark eyes holding her gaze as she found herself unable to look away.

Her heart hammered in her chest and she took in a quick breath, sucking in her stomach and pushing her shoulders back as she heard Adrian’s voice in her head reminding her how to stand.

Somehow she managed to smile and nod, then picked up her pace a little so she could disappear inside the restaurant and find the ladies room. And retreat from the photographer’s stare.

All she could hope for was to not get assigned to him. Too cute. Too young. There was no way she could imagine him focusing his camera on her, even though part of her certainly wouldn’t mind watching him during the process. She had to admit she found him attractive—the stuff of beefcake calendars and TV reality bachelor shows.

Once her eyes adjusted to the dim light inside the building, she saw the restroom sign pointing around the corner and walked toward it. Pushing open the bathroom door she went into the only unoccupied one of the two stalls. The other, she could see by the gold strappy sandals, was occupied by Barbie-doll.

The next thing Louise heard was the unmistakable sound of Blondie hurling into the toilet. Her own stomach threatened to do the same, gagging at the sound of the woman's violent retching, but she fought the urge and instead tipped her head back and took deep breaths while she emptied her bladder, hoping the woman would be gone by the time she was finished.

No such luck.

When Louise finally unlatched the door, the blond had strewn a boatload of makeup on the counter and was leaning forward toward the mirror, her face a pasty white.

Their eyes met in the mirror for a split second and she decided the woman pretty much looked like death warmed over. Then she saw the blonde’s turquoise-colored eyes lower and land on the Glow Girl sun pendant around Louise's neck.

Another couple of seconds passed and she couldn’t help but wonder if her fellow contestant was even aware of the earlier line-cutting incident. Probably not.

"Oh," the blond murmured, as she returned her attention to her reflection in the mirror. "Hey, I'm sorry about…earlier. I'm Desiree. And I'm not bulimic." She added the last comment a little too quickly.

“No problem. I’m Louise,” she said as she reached into her pocket for her lipstick. But the woman was right. Bulimia had been her first thought. Many girls in her high school had used throwing up as their personal diet plan and she'd even tried it a time or two. During her senior year she'd caught her mother hurling after a big meal and though her explanation had been that she was getting the flu, Louise had wondered if it was one way she'd kept the weight off all her life. But she'd never asked her. It was just too…confrontational. And, besides, she couldn't quite come to terms with the idea of her mother truly having an eating disorder.

"God, I look like shit," Desiree said.

Louise glanced down at all the bottles and jars on the counter. It was enough for an army of Barbie-dolls. With the wide array of paraphernalia scattered about, Desiree should have no trouble transforming herself back from the living dead.

"Look at you," she continued, leaning back and turning toward Louise. "Your skin's flawless. You probably put on a little foundation this morning and walked out the door, right? It takes five fucking coats for me to cover up my freckles, and then two more to even out my skin tone. Too many years of birth control pills—now I have permanent pregnancy mask." 

Louise didn't know what to say. Desiree was obviously a card-carrying member of the TMI club.

"Louise, I'm so fucking nervous I can't even think straight."

She watched Desiree's fingers tremble as the woman turned away and reached for a sponge and a bottle of expensive, individually custom-tinted foundation. Louise was familiar with the brand. The company charged two hundred dollars just for the consultation.

Louise watched Desiree skillfully began reapplying her makeup, realizing she was probably in the presence of the Glow Girl.

She just had the look. Blond. Beautiful. Perfect, slender body. A captivating smile.

But as Louise washed and dried her hands, she watched Desiree’s face pale once more and she went back into the stall to toss her cookies once again.

"Should I go find a soda or something?" she asked her after the heaving finally stopped.

Desiree sighed loudly, then moaned a little. "Would you? Only diet, though."

"I'll be right back.

Louise shoved open the door of the restroom, then jogged toward the dining area, her breasts bouncing under her dress. No one was in sight as she went behind the mahogany bar in the lounge area where she quickly located a clean glass, scooped up some ice, then spotted a can of Diet 7-up. She also grabbed a handful of soda cracker packets.

By the time she returned to the restroom, Desiree was out of the stall and was sitting on the floor, her back against the wall.

Now she really did look like crap. "Here. Eat something. Now." Louise dropped the crackers into Desiree's lap, then opened the soda and poured some into the glass.

When Desiree looked up, Louise could see she was holding back tears as she nibbled on the edge of a cracker.

"Why are you being so nice to me?"

"It's not like I'm competition for you, you know."

Desiree's lips spread into a thin line as she considered Louise's declaration. "The Glow Girl has to glow. Look at me. I'm dull. You're the one who's glowing."

"Shut up and sip," Louise said, sinking to her knees to hand Desiree the glass.

"Thanks." Her voice was barely audible as she sipped on the soda and finished a second cracker.

A soft knock sent Louise scrambling to her feet. When she opened the door a crack, she saw Adrian's concerned face staring back at her.

"Hey, doll. They're calling for the contestants and I was worried…"  He pushed open the door as Desiree was getting up from the floor. He caught Louise's gaze with his own, his eyebrows raised.

"Adrian, this is Desiree," Louise said, giving him a 'just don't ask' look.

"Hi, Adrian." Desiree, looking much better now that she actually was keeping something in her stomach, smiled at him.

Louise smiled too. Nothing like a good-looking guy in the room to help a woman perk up.

"You two better finish up," Adrian said. "They're gathering everyone in that fancy tent at the end of the pier to assign photographers."

"Louise, promise you'll stick close to me." Desiree's voice came out sounding more like a troubled teen than the twenty-something she probably was.

She nodded, then waited for the woman to touchup her foundation and lipstick and mascara, amazingly pulling herself together in about five minutes flat.

As the trio made their way onto the pier, it was obviously going to be one of those perfect southern California days. At least weather-wise. Cloudless sapphire sky. Very little smog. Temperatures were already rapidly rising, but a breeze off the ocean guaranteed to keep things comfortable.

Perfectly lovely day for any normal person, perfect awful day for her. Louise felt the knot in her stomach tightening.

"Chin up," Adrian whispered near her ear as they walked past the crowd gathered on the public side of the stanchions.

"Right," she answered, but lifted her chin anyway and threw back her shoulders just a little, then sucked in her stomach more out of habit than anything else.

Desiree paused and actually turned toward the throng of onlookers and blew a kiss, Marilyn Monroe-style. Then she waved one of those perfect beauty pageant waves.

She'd walk to the tent with her, but after that, she decided, Desiree was on her own.

At the end of the pier the space had indeed been transformed. A long patch of bright green Astroturf covered the wooden planks and led into an elaborate white tent that looked like those the Hollywood celebs used for their garden parties and secret weekend weddings.

Very few people were on the pier itself, other than guests who were staying in the quaint cottages that lined each edge of the pier. The pier’s exclusive blue-roofed cottages promised inhabitants a night sleeping ‘over the ocean’ with the soothing sounds of the ocean waves beneath them. Now the cottage guests, who'd been diligent enough to have made reservations probably six months to a year ago, were peeking out doorways or craning their necks from their private patios to see what was happening.

Focusing again on the fancy tent, Louise assumed that's where all the photographers had gone, plus most of the media-types, all probably waiting to pounce on the contestants. A shiver went up her spine and she willed her feet to keep moving forward, to not give in to the growing urge to turn and run away.

"Here, Louise." Adrian handed off the tote bag filled with everything she supposedly might need, or so he'd claimed. Wrong. Not unless the bag contained something to make her heart stop racing and her stomach from doing calisthenics.

And an instant magical way to lop off twenty or thirty pounds in the next five seconds.

She took the bag and watched as Adrian walked toward the designated friends and family area, then glanced toward the bevy of beauties waiting at the tent's entrance, each fingering their new status symbol: the Glow Girl sun necklace. After someone did a quick head count out loud, it seemed that all the contestants were accounted for. She and Desiree had been the last to arrive.

The other contestants twittered like finches and as Louise and Desiree found a spot at the edge of the little flock, Louise closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe.

When she felt a forward movement she opened her eyes again, but the crowd had simply shifted. Most had repositioned themselves into an appropriate model-stance, one foot forward, one hand on a hip, Angelina Jolie en masse. It was a stance she certainly hadn't perfected, so instead she pushed her shoulders back a little and just tried to stand as straight as she could. Didn't good posture give the illusion of losing five pounds?

Glancing at the group of women, it was obvious that whoever had done the selecting had, at least by appearances, managed to choose a wide variety of skin color, hair color, and ages. It was a veritable melting pot of politically correct estrogen.

Everyone but Louise was either model-thin or pretty darn close. It was pretty obvious she was the token fat girl.

Finally real forward movement began and she felt Desiree's fingers brush her own.

"Louise, thanks again. You don't even know me, and if you did you probably wouldn't have…anyway, thanks for being nice to me. I honestly don't think I would have made it without you."

Fresh guilt washed over her as she finally began to believe in Desiree's sincerity. Was it really possible this beautiful woman next to her was actually more nervous than she was?

"Hey, no problem," she whispered. "Good luck in there. You're going to be great. You look wonderful—prettiest one in the group."

"Oh, Louise, thanks. You're so sweet." Desiree leaned forward and gave her a quick hug, then released her and turned around to join the crowd as they all eased into the entrance.

Inside the tent, Louise noticed the Glow Girl backdrop with the stylized Aztec sun in the center had been relocated inside, and now sat next to a stage where a podium and microphone was being set up.

Along the opposite side of the tent, spotlights illuminated various free-standing carpeted panels displaying large framed photographs of all kinds: glamour shots, landscapes, seascapes, even some pet portraits. It appeared each of the photographers had been given some space to showcase their work, maybe a perk for getting involved in the contest.

Some of the photographers she’d noticed outside the restaurant earlier were standing at the far end of the stage, talking with media types.

The man who'd opened the door for her stood at the edge of the group, confirming he was indeed one of the event's photographers. He was leaning away from the little group, shifting from one foot to the other as though he was either uncomfortable with all the media attention or eager to have his turn at the interviewer's microphone. She couldn't be sure which.

Once again she made a silent plea to the universe that he wouldn't be assigned to her. After a quick perusal of the group of photographers, she put her hopes on being matched with the short, bookish guy with the thick glasses or, better yet, the chubby one with the shaved head and crooked moustache. Either one would make it so much easier when it came to stepping out of her sundress and into the silk scarf she planned to wrap around her hips as fast as humanly possible.

Turning her back to the photographers, one of the photo exhibits drew her full attention. They were all nature photographs, each enlarged to gargantuan size, obviously meant for a very large room. Mansion-sized. Perfect for the types of cathedral-ceilinged houses her mother sold in La Jolla and Del Mar.

Walking closer, she noticed that next to the nature shots was a display of stunning black and white architectural photos—windows and doorways from the historic Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego, sharply shadowed rows of exterior columns from a building in Balboa Park, a shot from underneath the Coronado bridge. They were exquisite. She could imagine if they covered the walls of her salon her mother would approve; they'd fit well with the basic black and white theme she’d talked her into when Louise had secured the space and was getting it ready. Each of the photographs had a shiny black enamel frame, providing a stark but elegant border.

"You like them?" A low voice near her ear startled her.

She turned her head just enough to check out the owner of the voice. It was Mr. Tall-dark-and-handsome. Her cheeks warmed as she waited for the control to return to her lips and voice.

"Stunning," she finally said. "Yours?"

"Those are mine," he said, tipping his head toward the adjacent display of the large nature photos that had pulled her over in the first place.

She stepped away from him, suddenly wanting to put some space between them because her skin was tingling in a most annoying way. She shook it off. Probably just a fresh set of skin-crawl from that morning's overdose of caffeine.

Now standing in front of the display board holding his photographs, she scrutinized the largest one which featured the delicate arms of a desert ocotillo plant in full bloom, crimson blossoms on every slender branch. What made the picture distinctive was that it had been shot from the point of view of a creature—perhaps a lizard—at the base of the plant.

"Anza?" she asked, trying to fill the heavy silence by guessing the desert location.

"Right." He let out a little sigh. "Can't seem to break out of my nature boy phase."

In each of the photographs it was definitely the perspective that was creatively unique in his work. It was almost as though he'd somehow embedded himself within the scene or the focal object—looking out from the inside rather than simply looking at the subject and taking the shot.

"Contestants and photographers, please approach the stage." The announcement was jarring and quickly brought her out of the dreamy state the remarkable photographs had created.

"Looks like the show's about to begin. See you later."

She took in a deep breath and said, "Right."

By the time she turned, though, he'd already started walking toward the gaggle of photographers gathered at one end of the small stage.

Her nightmare was about to begin.

END OF EXCERPT

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