About the Author
J.A. Jance is the New York Times bestselling author of the Ali Reynolds series, the J.P. Beaumont series, and the Joanna Brady series, as well as five interrelated Southwestern thrillers featuring the Walker family. Born in South Dakota and brought up in Bisbee, Arizona, Jance lives with her husband in Seattle, Washington, and Tuscon, Arizona. Visit her online at JAJance.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Deadly Stakes Prologue
Even for June, it was ungodly hot as Gemma Ralston pulled into a nearly deserted parking lot and slid her Mercedes SLK into a spot just in front of the brick-and-mortar offices of Video-Glam. Despite the name, Video-Glam appeared to be anything but glamorous. The office was located in a mostly dead and partly repurposed strip mall at Indian School and Forty-third Avenue. Video-Glam occupied a single storefront at one end of the complex. At the other end, two units had been combined to serve as a Spanish-language Baptist church. In between were three empty units, their boarded-up windows a colorful catalog of three-foot-high graffiti.
For a moment, Gemma sat in her car with the engine running, wondering if she wanted to bother going inside. From the outside, it didn’t look the least bit promising, even though the membership consultant at Hearts Afire, a dating site for “mature singles,” had assured her that Video-Glam was the only place in Phoenix that they would recommend as a source for uploadable videos.
“It’s like Glamour Shots,” the young woman had told her, “only with, like you know, videos instead of just pictures.”
That comment had told Gemma a lot about the age and general qualifications of her membership consultant without engendering a whole lot of confidence in the process itself.
She was considering putting the SLK in reverse and backing out of the lot when a car pulled in beside her. It was a dusty green Subaru months beyond needing a complete detailing. A collection of doggy nose prints on the inside of the back side window obscured the interior of the car but let the world know that a large dog of some kind was often a backseat passenger.
The woman who hopped out of the driver’s seat, a bedraggled thirtysomething, matched the car in every way. She looked harried and overworked and, from the way she hotfooted it inside, most likely late for an appointment. She was dressed in a pair of faded black sweats topped by a worn football jersey from Glendale High School. The whole woebegone outfit was underscored by a pair of blue rubber flip-flops. Stringy dishwater-blond hair was pulled back with a scrunchy. As far as Gemma was concerned, the woman looked like crap.
Gemma’s first thought was that this was someone desperately in need of a little glamour. Her second thought was along the lines of “If that’s the competition, I’m home free.”
Based on that, Gemma couldn’t help being a little curious if anyone at Video-Glam would be able to wave a magic wand at the poor unfortunate creature who was standing in front of the reception desk just inside the front door. Without really thinking about it, Gemma switched off the ignition, grabbed a small suitcase with her changes of wardrobe off the passenger-side floor as well as her out-of-season mink from its place of honor on the passenger seat.
Once inside, Gemma saw that the woman from the dusty Subaru was still ahead of her at the reception counter and in a full-scale case of hysterics. “I know I have to move on,” she sobbed, dabbing at her tears. “But I just don’t know how to do it. I’ve been out of the dating scene for so long that the whole idea scares me to death.”
“You’ll be fine,” the much-pierced young woman behind the counter reassured her, passing along a box of tissues. This was evidently a situation she had dealt with on more than one occasion. As the weeping woman blew into one of the offered tissues, Gemma noticed the pale spot on the skin of the woman’s ring finger from which, most likely, a wedding band had been recently removed.
Gemma felt a tiny stirring of irritation. It made no sense that she’d be in remotely the same boat as this unfortunate creature. If Charles had simply manned up and done what she had expected him to do—which was live up to his potential—things never would have come to this pass. He had told her that he would one day be a surgeon, and that was what she had expected. Had he done so, Gemma would have gotten a reasonable return on her investment, and she wouldn’t have had to dump him. Instead, after one stupid mistake—and one lost patient who probably wouldn’t have survived anyway—he had backed away from surgery and become a raving do-gooder. The money he made looking after Alzheimer’s patients was far less than she had planned on. And since all these patients were going to die, too, what was the point?
Gemma had decided to cut her losses and look for greener pastures while she could. Fortunately, she was starting over with a lot more going for her than Ms. Flip-flops, standing as if frozen in front of the receptionist, who slid a credit card and a receipt across the counter. The woman signed it and stuffed her copy in her purse. At that moment, another young woman, this one dressed entirely in black, stepped through an interior door into the reception area.
“Oh, hi, Noelle,” the receptionist said. “Here’s your stylist, Rachel. She’s the one who’ll be helping you today. Just go with her and don’t worry about a thing.”
Looking more than a little lost, Rachel allowed herself to be led away while Gemma stepped up to the receptionist and tossed her fur on the counter in front of her.
“Is she here for Hearts Afire?” Gemma asked, nodding toward the door where Rachel and her stylist had disappeared.
“Oh, no.” The receptionist’s smile was one step short of a purr. “We do videos for several different sites. If you’re with Hearts Afire, you must be Gemma.”
Gemma had to beat back her first inclination, which was to say, “Ms. Ralston to you.” She nodded. “I’m here for my ten o’clock,” she said, pulling out her Amex card.
“You’re aware of our charges?” the receptionist asked. “You’re paying for the shoot only, as well as your initial upload. We keep the videos on file, and you’re charged a nominal fee each time you ask to have them uploaded on another site.”
“Yes, yes,” Gemma agreed impatiently. “That’s fine.”
Now that she was here, what she wanted more than anything was to get the process over and done with, sort of like going to the dentist for a root canal. She already knew it was going to be bad. The only question was how long it would take.
The receptionist ran Gemma’s card, then passed back the card and receipt as the interior door opened again and yet another black-clad young woman appeared.
“This is Roxanne,” the receptionist announced to Gemma. “She’ll be your stylist today.”
Roxanne was young—probably not over twenty-five—but as Gemma examined the young woman’s hair and makeup, she could find nothing to complain about. Roxanne was naturally good-looking to begin with, and her carefully applied makeup and precision-cut bob added to her appeal. So maybe, Gemma thought hopefully, with any kind of luck, with someone like that doing the styling, it wouldn’t be all that bad.
Gemma picked up her coat and suitcase and allowed herself to be led into the next section of the building, which turned out to be a tiny but exceedingly well-equipped beauty salon. There were four stations in all, two for hair and two for makeup. Off to the side was a walled-off section with a door marked WARDROBE.
“Most people stop here first and choose their outfits. That way we can be sure we have the right makeup,” Roxanne explained, pointing toward the door. “Once you choose what to wear, we’ll select which of our backdrops you’ll want once we get to the studio.”
“I don’t need any of that stuff,” Gemma told her stylist. “I brought my own.”
As they walked by the wardrobe door, Gemma noticed that Rachel, the dishwater blonde, was inside trying on a Harley-Davidson jacket. A discarded stack of obviously fake furs lay on the floor beside her.
At a table outside the wardrobe, Gemma opened her valise and laid out her three different outfits. Eventually, they settled on her favorite, a chartreuse silk sheath that came complete with a pair of high-heeled strappy sandals.
Roxanne nodded approvingly and then brought up a series of photos on a laptop. One showed a summery garden through the rail of what was evidently a front porch. “We have a porch swing that we use with this one,” she said. “That will be perfect with the dress.”
“What should we use for the mink?” Gemma asked, wanting to be certain Roxanne understood that her coat was the real thing, not some rip-off fake.
Roxanne clicked through a series of photos. “What about this one?” she said, pausing on what looked like a snow-covered Swiss chalet. “I think this one will do it justice. Believe it or not, we have some perfectly wonderful faux snow back in the studio that looks just like the real thing.”
By the time they finished background-shopping, Rachel had emerged from wardrobe, and the change was nothing short of miraculous. Noelle had evidently persuaded her to skip the Harley-Davidson jacket in favor of a sapphire wraparound dress with a plunging neckline and simple, flowing lines that evidently could be adjusted to fit almost any figure. The flip-flops had disappeared, replaced by a pair of classy pumps dyed to match the dress. The wardrobe department at Video-Glam apparently had a whole selection of shoes in all kinds of sizes to go with the very adjustable dress.
Roxanne went to work shampooing Gemma’s hair. When she was finished, Gemma noticed that Rachel’s formerly drab locks had been lightened by some kind of rinse and were trimmed swiftly but deftly. Once the new cut had been blow-dried, combed, and sprayed, Rachel looked like a different person entirely. The revised hairdo was followed by the meticulous application of makeup that took a full ten years off her face. Watching from the sidelines while her own hair was being shampooed and styled, Gemma couldn’t help but be impressed. The sophisticated look made Rachel a different person, smiling and laughing and maybe enjoying herself for the first time in a long time. But the change in appearance didn’t change the fact that Rachel had arrived for her shoot in a filthy Subaru with dog snot all over the windows.
“Noelle’s really great,” Roxanne commented. “She’s especially good with the broken birds. She makes them look good, but she also makes them feel good.”
“What about me?” Gemma asked.
Roxanne stopped and gave Gemma an appraising look. “I don’t think you’ve ever been a broken bird,” the stylist said with a laugh. “By the time I’m finished with you, though, you’ll be spectacular.”
Which turned out to be the case. Roxanne made no effort to adjust Gemma’s already perfect haircut, but she did put just the right amount of curl and body into it, and the skillfully applied makeup left Gemma smiling and nodding at her reflection.
“You like?” Roxanne asked.
“Very much,” Gemma answered.
When Gemma’s makeover was complete, Roxanne led her into the greenroom, where it was time to hurry up and wait. Rachel had disappeared into the studio before Gemma’s makeup was finished. While she waited, Gemma pulled out a hard copy of the script she intended to use. It was supposed to be three to five minutes long and would be transferred to a teleprompter before the actual filming. She had struggled with what to say. She wanted to hit all the right notes—breezy, fun, lighthearted. She didn’t want people to think she took herself too seriously. Guys who were interested in fun and games weren’t looking for serious.
“I’m Gemma,” the script read. “With a name like that, it’s only natural that I have a soft spot for gems, two in particular: emeralds because they match my eyes, and diamonds because diamonds really are a girl’s best friend.”
It seemed to her that simple introduction made it clear she was looking for someone with dollars in his wallet that he’d be willing to spend on her. Cubic zirconia? Thanks but no thanks! Not her type.
The script continued, “I’m looking for companionship, but I have no interest in getting married again.” (Lose out on her hard-earned alimony? Not on your life!) “And I’m definitely not interested in kids. If I had wanted kids, I would have had my own. If you’ve got kids, I’m sure they have mothers who don’t need any competition in the motherhood department. I’ll be glad to meet your kids, but I don’t want to raise them or take them away from their real moms.
“Without kids or marriage on the table, my age is none of your business. I believe in being open-minded as far as age is concerned, in both directions, up and down. If you’re looking at this video and thinking I’m probably too old for you or too young, then you’re probably right. So let’s not even go there.
“By now you’re probably wondering, So what does she really want?
“In a word—fun! I’ve spent enough of my life knowing that tomorrow would be a repeat of today. I want to be able to expect the unexpected. I want adventure. A white-water rafting trip down the Colorado? I’m there. An African safari? Yes; have passport, will travel. A sunset walk along a sandy beach, yes. A quiet evening of reading books in a snowbound cabin? Yes to that, too. Maybe you’re into long-distance bicycling and would like to help me train. I’d also like to try my hand at ballroom dancing and bowling.
“In other words, the boring day-to-day stuff is fine for me to do by myself, but when I’m with you—whoever you are—nothing that sounds like fun is off the table, and the sooner we get started, the better.”
Noelle emerged from the studio looking perplexed. “Sorry for the delay,” she said. “Rachel looks great, but she keeps freezing up the moment the camera starts recording. It shouldn’t be long, but the director was wondering if you brought along a copy of your script. If so, he wants me to start loading it into the teleprompter.”
“No problem,” Gemma said, smiling and handing it over. “I’ll be ready when you are.”
With that, she settled in to wait. She knew she looked good. She knew that before long, she’d have men groveling at her feet, but she also knew who to thank for it—her grandmother Natalie Hooper.
Gemma didn’t remember the roach-infested hovel from which her grandparents had rescued her as a two-year-old, although her grandmother, also known as Nana, had told her about it so many times that she could see it in her mind’s eye. Two days after Gemma’s second birthday, Nana and Papa had gone to war with their drug-addicted daughter, Caroline.
Born with what should have been a silver spoon in her mouth, Caroline Hooper was the daughter of a small-town physician and a stay-at-home mom. Money was never an issue in their Lake Havasu home. In grade school and junior high, things were fine. Caroline got good grades and was considered an exemplary student, but once she got into high school, that all went south. By the time she turned fifteen, she was a pot-smoking dropout. By the time she was eighteen, she had an out-of-wedlock baby and a serious drug problem. For a time, Natalie and Daniel Hooper had done what they could to care for both their struggling daughter and her baby girl—paying rent and utility bills; sending money and gift certificates for groceries.
Caroline had told them that she was having a birthday party on Gemma’s birthday, and it would be too complicated to try to include her parents. Two days later, Natalie and Daniel had turned up unannounced, expecting to deliver a stack of tardy birthday presents. They knocked, but no one answered, even though they could hear Gemma crying from somewhere inside. Finding the door unlocked, they let themselves into a nightmare. The apartment was filthy. The place was littered with empty pizza boxes. Cockroaches scurried out of...
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