Three girls huddled together, looking down at the body of an unconscious man. He was slumped on the ugly, threadbare brown carpet tiles in an awkward heap, his face to the ground. And he wasn’t moving.
“Is he dead?” breathed nine year-old Deeley McKenna, her dark eyes huge with shock. She bent down as if to touch him, then flinched at the last moment, pulling her hand back.
“He isn’t supposed to be dead!” Devon exclaimed in panic. She was thirteen, and trying valiantly to seem poised, as befitted a new teenager, but it was the flimsiest of facades: she was just as horrified as Deeley at what they had just done.
“He deserves whatever he gets,” Maxie, the oldest of the three, said grimly, her jaw set hard.
“How do we tell?” Devon asked, pushing her hair back from her face.
It was immediately obvious that the three of them were sisters. They had the same heart-shaped faces, the same thick dark hair growing back from widow’s peaks; the same big dark eyes and full, pink lips, the same smooth, creamy skin. Devon, the middle sister, was already a beauty, with her curvy figure and wide, photogenic cheekbones. And she knew it. Even in these dire circumstances, she couldn’t help looking up every so often to check out her reflection in the mirror on the far wall, as if she couldn’t quite believe how stunning she was.
“I read in a book you can hold a hand mirror to someone’s mouth to see if they’re still breathing,” suggested Maxie, always practical.
But none of the girls moved to follow up this suggestion. Instead, Deeley’s small hand slipped into Maxie’s, reaching for comfort from her beloved big sister. Maxie had always fulfilled the maternal role for her younger siblings; Deeley looked up to Maxie with absolute trust and love. Now Deeley’s pretty, round baby-face was pinched with fear, and she clung to Maxie, her one rock of certainty in a terrifyingly unstable world.
“I’m scared, Maxie,” she said in a tiny voice. “I’m really scared. We didn’t mean him to be dead, did we?”
“Don’t worry, Deels,” Maxie said, squeezing her little sister’s hand tight. “It’ll be all right. I’ve thought of everything.”
With stronger features than her sisters, Maxie was striking rather than beautiful. And at seventeen, she already looked like a woman, tall and confident. It was no wonder Deeley and Devon followed wherever she led.
“Shall I get a mirror, then?” Devon asked eventually. “To, you know, check if he’s - ”
She tailed off, unable to finish the sentence. Maxie shivered despite herself.
“I suppose it’d be better than checking his pulse,” she said.
“He was so nice!” Deeley blurted out, tears beginning to well up in her huge brown eyes. “He always read me a bedtime story… and he bought me the bike for my birthday, the one I wanted for ages and ages, from the Argos catalogue, brand-new, with the basket and everything… and he was teaching me how to ride it… ”
“Deeley!” Maxie snapped. “You know what he did!”
“I’m sorry, Maxie… ” Deeley was sobbing now. “Don’t be cross, please don’t be cross… ”
She threw herself against her big sister, wrapping her arms tightly round Maxie’s waist, clinging to her like a limpet.
“Don’t snap at her, Max,” Devon said quickly. “She didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I know,” Maxie said, stroking her little sister’s glossy dark hair from the crown to the two thick plaits she had carefully done herself that morning. Deeley was still clinging to her as desperately as ivy twined round a tree, unable to stand up on its own.
Maxie reached out her other hand to Devon, who took two quick steps around the prone body on the floor to wind her fingers through Maxie’s.
“We’re in this together,” Maxie said firmly, her voice strong. “All for one and one for all. Like we agreed. Okay?”
“Yes, Maxie,” Deeley mumbled into her sister’s cheap acrylic sweater, which was now damp with her tears.
“Yes, Maxie,” Devon said, swallowing hard.
“We’ll do whatever we need to do to keep ourselves safe,” Maxie said. “That’s the most important thing. We’re sisters. We stick together. That’s what sisters do.”
Deeley loosened her grip and pulled back to look up at her big sisters, her round cheeks pink and tearstained, but her face still deliciously pretty.
“We do stick together,” she said fervently. “Always. Promise?”
She darted her stare urgently back and forward between Maxie and Devon, her expression fervently serious.
“Promise!” she insisted.
“Promise,” Devon said, smiling, despite the desperate crisis, at her baby sister’s childish plea.
“Promise,” Maxie echoed. “And you both have to promise never to tell anyone about what we did today. Whatever happens.”
Deeley held up two fingers and drew them over her throat, her eyes wide with resolve as she said:
“Cross my heart and hope to die, Maxie. I promise.”
Devon chimed in, nodding as Maxie continued, staring now at the body lying on the floor:
Seventeen years later
This is the life, Deeley thought, stretching out her long, long legs on the lounger till her toes were dangling off the end. She was pleasantly tired from her Pilates session that morning, a dynamic workout on the Reformer followed by roll-downs on the Tower that had left her back feeling almost as great as it had from the hot stone massage the day before. Carefully, she turned over, making sure her toes didn’t touch the lounger; she’d just had her nails done, and not only did she want to avoid smudging them, Nicky would throw a fit if she got hot-pink nail polish on the white towelling fabric that covered the lounger. He was ridiculously fussy that way.
Warm sunlight licked along her back, deliciously relaxing; it was like being bathed in liquid gold. Deeley was careful not to sunbathe at the height of the day, and to always use factor 30 sunblock. You couldn’t live in LA without having a dermatologist, and you couldn’t have a dermatologist in LA without being lectured constantly about the damage sun did to your skin, especially when you were as naturally pale as Deeley. But it felt so lovely to a girl who’d spent the first twenty-two years of her life in cold, rainy Britain, that Deeley couldn’t resist slipping out after four in the afternoon, when the sun was lower in the sky, to soak up some rays and zone out, completely de-stressing.
Because my life is so stressful, of course! she thought, self-aware enough to tease herself. No-one knows how hard I have it!
Squinting her eyes open through the dark lenses of her YSL sunglasses, she looked across the glittering blue water of the infinity pool to the glass-walled house beyond, whose low structure wrapped around two sides of the swimming pool. Juan, the pool boy, was desultorily fishing a few floating leaves out of the water. Through the open sliding glass door, Deeley could make out the lean figure of her boyfriend Nicky: wearing a snug white t-shirt and HOM briefs, he was sprawled in a leather armchair, fingers splayed on the armrests, as the manicurist who had just painted Deeley’s nails sat on a footstool below him, painstakingly working almond oil into his cuticles.
Big night tonight, Deeley reflected happily. We both need to look perfect.
Randie, Nicky’s assistant, pushed open the sliding glass door a little further, stepping out onto the terrace. Like most women who worked as assistants to celebrities, Randie was a little overweight by LA standards, and frumpily-dressed: the first rule of her job was never to upstage her employer – or his girlfriend. Her loose chinos and baggy Gap t-shirt indicated that she was much too busy organising all the myriad details of Nicky and Deeley’s hugely important lives to take any trouble with her own appearance.
‘Hey,’ Deeley said, raising her head a little and smiling at Randie.
‘Hi!’ Randie flashed her a bright smile, showing no hint of resentment that Deeley was sunbathing blissfully, a tiny pink Hello Kitty bikini bottom the only item of clothing on her perfect, lightly-tanned body, while Randie was hard at work, a BlackBerry in one hand, a phone wedged between her shoulder and her ear, her slightly sweaty forehead furrowed in concentration. ‘Just FYI,’ Randie said, clicking away at the BlackBerry, ‘Serita’ll be here in an hour or so to finalise Nicky’s outfit for tonight, okay? And then she’ll come over and dress you. Plus, I managed to snag Hervé to come do your hair and makeup – how cool is that!’
Hervé was one of LA’s top makeup artists, always in demand.
‘He’s booked solid, so he won’t have much time, but it’s huge that he’s coming at all, right?’ Randie was beaming with her success.
‘Fab!’ Deeley sat up, not bothering to cover her high, firm breasts with her hands. ‘Hervé makes me look amazing!’
She pictured the silver-sequinned vintage Cardin sheath that Serita, their stylist, had picked out for her. Wrist-length sleeves, but, to balance them, a stratospherically short hem, putting her long, gloriously slim legs on display. Serita had chosen Marc Jacobs gold platform slingbacks to go with the dress; Serita loved to mix up her metals. Just imagining how great she’d look in the photos, Deeley beamed complacently.
‘Great! So everyone’s in the loop!’ Randie pivoted with a rubber squeak of her practical Converse trainers, and darted back inside the house again, another item ticked off her long list.
Deeley heaved a deep sigh of contentment, swinging her legs, contemplating the perfect shine on her toenails and the flex of lean muscle in her calves. She was at her peak, she knew; old enough to work a red carpet with total confidence, dressed to the nines, and young enough to be able to wear even the craziest, most fashion-forward outfit a stylist chose for her. And that was crucial, because as the girlfriend of Nicky Shore, the latest, hottest male TV star, it was Deeley’s job to make it into the weekly fashion roundups in the gossip magazines. If at least one photo of Deeley smiling gloriously at the cameras on Nicky’s arm didn’t make it into InTouch, US Weekly, or Star on a weekly basis, Carmen, Nicky’s publicist, would rip Deeley a new one.
Juan, the pool boy, had put down his leaf-catching net by now and was squatting by the side of the pool, dipping in the thermometer to test that the water was at the perfect temperature. His white trousers pulled over his buttocks, showing off their round, firm contours, and making it very clear that he wasn’t wearing any underwear. His bicep, swelling the sleeve of his tight white t-shirt, flexed as he lifted the thermometer from the water, turning it to take a reading. Sensing her eyes on him, he swivelled slightly, turning to glance over his shoulder, his dark slanting eyes meeting hers for a brief moment, before he looked back at the thermometer again.
Deeley watched from the lounger as Juan stood up, stretching out his solid, muscled back, walking over to the shed where the pool equipment was kept. Juan was built like a fireplug: square, every inch of him stocky, solid muscle. And Deeley had a big thing about muscles.
She made just enough noise standing up from the lounger, slipping on her Hawaiiana flip-flops, so that out of the corner of her eye she saw Juan pause, turn, and watch her as she picked up her towel, slinging it over her shoulder, walking bare-breasted round the pool, flicking her fingers in a wave at Nicky through the glass doors as she went. He lifted the hand the manicurist wasn’t working on, flashing her his adorably sweet smile even as he said something to his trainer, Sean, who was busy at the marble kitchen counter, loading carrots and spinach into the big white juicer.
‘Want one?’ Nicky called, nodding at the juicer.
‘No thanks,’ Deeley called back, smiling at Sean as she passed, heading for the far side of the pool and the long sprawling extension to the house, separate but equally luxurious. She paused as she reached the sliding glass door, her hand on the latch, making eye contact, making sure that her message was clearly received and understood; then she pushed the door open and stepped over the threshold, kicking off her flip-flops, throwing her towel on the slate floor, heading for the Italian-mosaic bathroom, a riot of tiny pink and gold glittering tiles and gold-framed mirrors.
It had been almost five years living in the height of luxury in LA, and Deeley still couldn’t get over how amazing American water pressure was. The huge rainforest shower poured down like a tropical storm; she was drenched within a couple of seconds of stepping under it. She took a bottle of Pucci bath oil from the glass shelf, uncapped the stopper and poured some over her shoulders, the green floral scent perfect for her mood, for a golden LA afternoon. Deeley closed her eyes, the water cooling her sunwarmed skin, breathing in the perfumed oil, smiling to herself.
And when she opened them again, Juan was standing in the doorway.
The bedroom was thickly-carpeted, and he was in deck shoes; even without the shower beating down on her, Deeley wouldn’t have heard his approach. Blinking the water out of her eyes, she took a step forward, letting the full force of the drops pound like a massage on her shoulders. She raised her hands and pushed back her heavy hair, the weight of it settling down her bare spine. And then she met Juan’s stare full-on.
His dark eyes were slitted as he looked her up and down. Juan’s face might have been hacked roughly out of sandstone; his features were as blunt and solid as his body, entirely expressionless. Deeley’s gaze dropped below his waist, and she noticed with approval that at least his body was showing appreciation; through the tight white trousers, his cock was fully erect, pointing at her as best it could, fighting with the thin layer of fabric.
She took one further step forward, and that was all it took. Raising her eyebrows, she hooked her thumbs into the bikini bottom she still wore, and lowered them a half-inch, her eyes fixed again on Juan’s, challenging him now. With one quick movement, Juan dropped to his knees in front of her, his hands reaching for the ties of her bikini and flicking them undone, his mouth hot between her legs as the bikini bottom fell to the floor. He had been out in the sun all day, and was warm to the core, his hands coming up to grip her buttocks, pull them further towards him, tilt her to his mouth, equally hot against her skin; Deeley moaned out loud as his tongue started to flick against her, tracing around her, closing in slowly but surely exactly where she wanted it, her moans rising in volume as he closed his jaw while never stopping the constant motion of his tongue.
She flung her arms above her head as if she were reaching for something, but there was nothing for her fingers to grasp; the walk-in shower was huge, and there was no way she could touch the tiled walls. Instead, her uplifted hands met the shower full-on, water cascading from the tips of her fingers down her arms, over her breasts, down her flat stomach as she bucked and heaved against Juan’s mouth, his tongue, fighting to get where she wanted, where he was inevitably taking her, the shower so loud that its steady downpour drowned out the ever-increasing noise she was making, the screams that reached their climax as she did, coming again and again. Juan’s thickly muscled arms were more than strong enough to hold her, stop her slipping on the tiled floor as the orgasms hit her in swift succession, rippling her body into an arched bow. She drove her pelvis into Juan’s mouth in quick frenzied beats, determined to wrench every last moment of pleasure that she could from what he was doing to her, until her legs gave way completely and, gasping, she collapsed against him.
Deeley’s eyes were closed, her body throbbing with the aftermath of her orgasms, as Juan pushed himself to stand up, Deeley hanging over his shoulder. He didn’t bother to switch off the shower; he carried her into the bedroom, threw her down on the bed, where she landed starfished out, eyes still shut, as he rummaged in the drawer of the bedside table and pulled out a condom. She heard his zipper dragged down, his trousers being kicked off with his shoes, the condom wrapper being torn open, and braced herself; what had just happened had been about her.
What was about to happen would be all about Juan.
She was so wet from his mouth and from her multiple orgasms that Juan’s hard cock slid right into her in one stroke, provoking the first sound she’d heard him make this afternoon, a deep grunt of primitive male satisfaction. And then he was pounding away at her in a fast, frantic rhythm. Deeley opened her eyes; he was above her, arms braced on either side of her, the dark curls low on his bull-like forehead dampening with sweat as he worked away, his lips drawing back from his teeth in a grimace, his thick stocky torso thudding into her as he worked himself to his own orgasm. No variation of stroke or speed, no sophisticated techniques, just a machine-like piston stroke, slamming into Deeley again and again and again as she lay there, spread wide for him, knowing that nothing was expected from her. No participation, no moans of encouragement, though she was gasping deep in her throat with every stroke.
He was almost there, Deeley could tell; his strokes weren’t speeding up, but his grunts were growing louder, his cock swelling as he worked away at her. His upper lip curled into a sneer as he finally froze for a split-second, juddered against her, and let out a long groan of satisfaction as he spilled himself. Deeley felt his cock jerking inside her and closed her eyes to let the full, delicious, final rush of sensations flood through her, her own body throbbing in response to his.
It was through a haze that she felt Juan kneeling back, carefully pulling himself, plus condom, out of her, and padding into the bathroom to dispose of it. Still in a haze, she felt the creak of the mattress as he sat down heavily on the side of the bed to pull on his trousers and shoes.
He didn’t even bother to take his socks off, she thought, smiling to herself. Pretty much the definition of a quickie.
Juan stood up, looking down at her. She opened her eyes fully, still smiling, and fluttered her fingers at him as a goodbye; he nodded at her in return, one swift acknowledgement of what they had just done, his face again impassive. This was the most communication she and Juan ever had during one of their encounters; from the first time onwards, they’d barely exchanged a word during or after, being much too busy concentrating on the act itself. Smoothing down his t-shirt, he walked briskly from the bedroom. She heard him slide the glass door shut, considerate of her nakedness.
Dreamily, Deeley rolled over on her front, savouring the aftermath, her nerve endings still shimmering with pleasure.
That was such a good call - the best beauty treatment is really great sex. I’m going to look amazing in the photographs tonight…
* * *
‘You got laid, didn’t you?’ Hervé challenged her, his eyebrows shooting up as he swivelled her chair till her face was fully in the light. ‘You little slut! You totally got laid today! Don’t lie to me, sugar. I can always tell.’
Deeley smirked as Hervé plonked his huge makeup travel case on her dressing table and plugged in his heated rollers.
‘It does half your work for you,’ she pointed out. ‘You shouldn’t complain.’
‘Oh, I’m not complaining,’ Hervé said. ‘I’m just jealous. You’re glowing like a nuclear reactor.’
He looked over his shoulder at Serita, who was bustling in with a garment bag over her arm and a Samsonite pull-case containing the shoes and jewellery she’d picked out for Deeley.
‘Serita, angel? Hair thoughts?’
‘Down, down, down,’ Serita said in her breathy-baby voice. ‘Cascading down the back, super-simple but with lots of body. Like she did a hair commercial and then fucked the director.’
‘Don’t say another word,’ Hervé said happily. ‘I totally get it.’
Serita was extracting the silver Cardin dress from the garment bag as worshipfully as if it were a just-discovered Old Master painting. She laid it on the bed and stood back to survey it, clasping her heavily-ringed hands at her bony ribcage.
‘To die for!’ she sighed. ‘I mean, completely!’
‘Oh, that’s gorgeous,’ Hervé agreed, patting base carefully onto Deeley’s face.
‘She’s got such a lovely figure,’ Serita said happily, looking over at Deeley in her silk kimono wrap. ‘I mean, she’s not exactly skinny – forget sample sizes for this one! But she’s perfectly in proportion. The tiny waist! And those boobs! I love dressing those boobs! I mean, I’d hate to have to do it all the time, but every so often, it’s so much fun!’ Serita concluded happily. ‘It’s like picking out clothes for a gigantic Barbie!’
‘Tits and ass - Can change your life - They sure… changed… mine!’ Hervé warbled happily.
‘A Chorus Line,’ Serita said, setting a gigantic bangle and a pair of diamond earrings on the dressing table. ‘I love that movie.’
During her first months in LA, Deeley had been totally thrown by the way stylists, makeup artists and personal trainers talked about their clients as if they weren’t even present. Now, she was so accustomed to it that she didn’t blink an eye. Which was useful, because Hervé was presently employed in gluing individual lashes to her lids to transform her already naturally-thick eyelashes into a miracle of nature.
To hear Serita and Hervé talk, Deeley reflected, you’d think that she was a plus-size model, instead of 5’8’ and an English size 10-12. Though mind you, nowadays that probably would make her a plus-size model, she thought, amused. By contrast, Serita was so skinny that her chest, shown off by the low V of her neckline, looked like a slatted window-blind.
‘But you know, this is what straight men like,’ Hervé said, finishing his eyelash application and standing back, squinting, to make sure they were even. He gestured at Deeley’s body. ‘Tits and ass. All the married guys in LA cheat on their skinny wives with pole dancers with some meat on them. And she’s perfect for Nicky!’ Hervé added cheerfully, starting to wind Deeley’s hair round the rollers. ‘How hetero does a man look with this on his arm? I mean, she’s like some lifesize blow-up doll!’
Serita, kneeling in front of Deeley, strapping on the gold platform slingbacks, giggled madly.
Even though Deeley might not particularly relish being compared to a blow-up doll, when she was finally allowed to see herself in the full-length mirror, she had to admit that Serita and Hervé had done her up in a way that belied their words. The silver dress, fitted to hug every curve, clung to her like a lover; Serita’s styling genius meant that the dress, though sexy, managed to avoid being vulgar. The sequins slid over Deeley with a dull sheen echoed in the soft gold of the high heels and the antique bangle; diamond studs glittered in the thick waves of Deeley’s hair, which an artful colourist had lightened to a rich deep caramel. Her dark eyes looked huge, and, to tone down too much overt sexiness, Hervé had cleverly painted her lips a subtle shade of golden coral.
‘Wow,’ Nicky said from the doorway. ‘You look brilliant, Deels!’
Deeley pivoted elegantly on one heel, flicking her hair back, one hand on her hip, facing her boyfriend. In a light grey Tom Ford suit, so snug at the waist that only a lean gym obsessive could wear it, buttoned over a white silk shirt, Nicky was handsome enough to take anyone’s breath away. His tan set off his tight gold curls and bright blue eyes, and his smile was heart-melting. The icing on the cake was that Nicky’s smile was genuine; he really was as nice, sweet, and as gentle as he appeared. Deeley beamed back at him in utter contentment at her good luck.
‘Love you, Nicky,’ she said happily.
‘You too, babe,’ he said fondly.
‘Oh my God,’ Sean, Nicky’s trainer exclaimed, appearing behind Nicky’s shoulder. He slung one arm around Nicky’s shoulder, looking Deeley up and down. ‘Deeley! You’re sex on a stick!’
‘Well, got to bustle!’ Serita said, nipping out of Deeley’s bedroom, pausing to kiss Nicky on the lips as she went. ‘Too fabulous, both of you. I could kill myself now and die happy.’
‘Remember to touch up the lippy in the limo,’ Hervé reminded Deeley, packing up the last of his equipment. He winked at Sean and Nicky on the way out, his heavy makeup case bumping over the metal of the doorframe.
‘And you two – stay pretty, okay?’ he added appreciatively.
‘Aww,’ Sean cooed, planting a big kiss on his lover’s full pink lips. ‘He will if I have anything to do with it!’
‘He’s a sodding slave-driver,’ Nicky sighed. ‘I was running up and down the stairs at the Hollywood Bowl all morning! And the bastard made me do all sorts of things this afternoon - ‘
‘Oh, I just bet he did,’ Hervé tossed over his shoulder as he trundled his case around the swimming pool. ‘Careful, hon! That stuff’s packed with calories, you know…’
Deeley, Sean and Nicky cracked up at this perfect exit line.
‘Hervé’s a trip,’ Sean said, grinning widely.
‘And he’s not completely wrong, is he?’ Nicky said flirtatiously, sliding his hand down to squeeze Sean’s bottom.
‘Oh, please! No kissing and telling!’ Sean squealed as Nicky pinched him.
‘Hello.’ Nicky rolled his eyes. ‘What do you think Juan was doing in Deeley’s place this afternoon? Taking the temperature of her bathwater?’
‘God, Deeley, you lucky thing,’ Sean said enviously. ‘Dirty pool boy sex. Yum yum.’
‘I have to get it somewhere,’ Deeley pointed out, turning to check herself out in the mirror again. ‘I mean, it’s not like my boyfriend’s going to give me one any time soon, is it?’
‘I hope not!’ Sean giggled.
‘Oh, darling, I think you’re safe there,’ Nicky said, wrapping his arm round Sean’s waist. ‘I mean, if I’ve had Deeley across the way for five years and haven’t laid a finger on her yet, I’m not exactly going to be consumed with mad passion for her now, am I?’
Sean grinned at Deeley, his perfect teeth white against his warm brown skin.
‘Nah,’ he said cheerfully. ‘If you’re not getting a hard-on looking at her all dressed up like that, I’d say you’re one hundred per-cent homo.’
‘Ssh!’ Nicky lifted a finger to his lips. ‘Stop it! We’re off to the Dyslexic Teen Aids benefit in an hour, and I have to put my best hetero face on! Let’s go have a glass of champagne. It always helps me lose my inhibitions and grope Deeley on the red carpet.’
‘Vodka and diet soda,’ Sean said sternly. ‘Champagne has too many carbs.’
‘Ah, fuck,’ Nicky sighed as a voluptuous raven-haired woman in a red silk sheath and four-inch spike heels stalked into the room.
‘Lovely way to say hi, Nicky,’ she said.
‘Carmen, you know I wasn’t - ‘ Nicky started nervously. Everyone in Hollywood was intimidated by Carmen Delgado, publicist to the stars, and iron hand in the most elegant of iron gloves.
‘I was joking, pretty boy,’ Carmen said, raising her perfectly-plucked eyebrows at him. ‘When I’m cross with you, believe me, you’ll know.’
Carmen took in Deeley in her silver and gold glory, and her red-lipsticked mouth pursed into a whistle of approval.
‘Very hot,’ she commented. ‘Serita and Hervé do earn their money.’
‘Really,’ Sean gushed, only to have Carmen swivel and fix him with a steely stare, making it more than clear, without speaking a word, that the opinion of a personal trainer weighed with her about as much as that of a tabloid journalist.
‘I need a moment here, okay?’ Carmen said.
‘With me?’ Deeley said, taken aback.
She barely had any dealings with Carmen now, apart from the odd briefing session where Deeley was summoned to hear Carmen’s feedback on how she was coming across in the press. In the beginning, when Deeley and Nicky had first moved to LA, and Nicky, as the star of a much-hyped new series, had hired Carmen to manage his image, Carmen had been at the house all the time. Coaching Nicky on how to handle the press. Re-styling him into something less ‘English poof’, as she charmingly put it, and more US-friendly. And working out a whole backstory for him and Deeley: how they met, how long they’d been together, what their plans for the future were.
It had been a fairy story for Deeley. She’d met Nicky in London a year before they came to LA: that much was true. But, contrary to their meet-cute version of events (Nicky had seen her walking in a London park, picked some flowers and given them to her in tribute to her beauty, then begged her for a date) they’d actually bumped into each other on the dance floor at GAY. They’d happily bumped and ground for the rest of the night, swapped numbers and been friends and fellow-clubbers ever since. Nicky was a struggling actor, with some decent stage and TV work on his CV, but desperate for his big break: he’d been over to LA for pilot season the year before, acquired an agent, even shot a pilot, but nothing had seemed to come of it, and he returned to London, dispirited.
And then the miracle happened. Nicky’s pilot had killed with the focus groups. He played a sexy chef-cum-private detective, who had a different gorgeous love interest each episode, but whose real passion was for his Siamese cat Mitzi. Originally turned down by straight male studio execs, the pilot had been picked up by a female one who had immediately seen Nicky’s appeal. And now, five years later, Cooking Up Murder was a smash hit; it was going into syndication, which meant untold riches for everyone associated with it.
Nicky couldn’t have known, of course, how big Cooking Up Murder was going to be. But he had panicked at the thought of hiding his sexuality all alone in LA, knowing there was no way the public would accept an unknown gay actor as the latest TV heartthrob. So he had turned to his friend Deeley, who photographed like a dream, and, as Serita and Hervé had just said, with her killer curves, would make any man by her side look like the most red-blooded of heterosexuals.
Carmen, all business, had promptly applauded Nicky’s good sense and drawn up a contract for Deeley to sign. An initial bonus, bed and board, her own car, and a yearly allowance index-linked to Nicky’s salary; Deeley had signed it without even reading it through. No way could she be worse off than she had been back in London, living in a crappy shared flat in Acton, waitressing and working as a hostess at trade shows to scrape a living, constantly having to fend off the groping hands of male employers. Well, that was one hazard she certainly wouldn’t have in her role as Nicky’s devoted girlfriend.
It had been utter bliss. Carmen had told Deeley she needed to lose some weight, and she’d freaked, but Pilates, plus the low-carb eating plan Nicky was on, had melted off some pounds without her even trying, and comments on the online gossip columns were so positive about Nicky’s girlfriend having ‘real curves’ that Carmen had backed off. In interviews, Nicky was usually asked about what he liked in a woman, to which he would blushingly confess that maybe he was old-fashioned, but he loved that Deeley wasn’t a stick insect. In fact, he would add - to the delight of the entire female readership - he’d be even happier if she put on a few more pounds.
It was all going absolutely perfectly. And when Nicky had fallen for Sean and moved him into the house, it had been the easiest thing in the world; the success of the Nicky/Deeley love fest had meant that no fan would ever believe that Sean was anything but Nicky’s trainer and nutritionist.
So why was Carmen looking at Deeley as if she was about to fire a bolt pistol into her skull?
Deeley sat down slowly on the chair in front of her dressing table, her legs suddenly feeling weak. Carmen’s piercing stare had that effect on people. Strange, because Carmen was a stunningly good-looking woman; but you didn’t notice the attractive pattern of a cobra’s scales when it reared up in front of you and fixed you with a beady stare.
‘So! Five years!’ Carmen said, smiling.
The smile’s even worse than the stare, Deeley thought nervously.
‘Congrats! Job very well done!’ Long black earrings glittered in the dark mass of Carmen’s curly hair as she paced the room, pulling out a cigarette packet from her diamante-encrusted Judith Lieber clutch. ‘Nicky’s straight as a ruler - ’ she lit her cigarette – ‘not only is Cooking Up Murder still killing in the ratings - ’ she shoved the packet back into the clutch and took a long drag on her cigarette – ‘plus, Nicky’s first two features are doing fantastic box office!’
In the summer hiatuses from Cooking Up Murder, Nicky had taken second lead in an action movie and played the love interest in a Kate Hudson rom-com that had had rave reviews. His movie career was well on the way.
‘So - ’ Carmen pointed her cigarette at Deeley, who flinched back from the glowing point being waved in her face – ‘time to upgrade his personal life. You two of you have been an item for five years. More than long enough.’
Every muscle in Deeley’s body froze.
‘Do you mean you want us to get married?’ she managed to get out, though she could barely move her lips.
Nicky and she had talked about this in the past. California had a community property divorce law that split everything down the middle, which would be so disadvantageous to Nicky he wouldn’t consider it. But they wouldn’t have to get married in California; they could elope to Hawaii, say, and make sure that Deeley had signed a cast-iron pre-nup. Deeley had fantasised about it; the dress, the photos, the glamour of it all. They could have IVF kids down the line. She’d thought she would be with Nicky forever; why would he want to swap her for another girl, when he, she and Sean all got along so well? Nothing in Deeley’s messed-up childhood had given her any belief in true love or lasting relationships. Being settled with her lovely Nicky, cocooned in luxury, her only job to look beautiful at premieres and parties, was a far better life than she had ever thought she could achieve.
And Deeley knew that Nicky wouldn’t come out, not as long as he had any kind of viable acting career. Other actors might be doing it, but not Nicky. Being a star was more important to him, and you wouldn’t make it to the A-list as an out gay man. Not yet, anyway.
Carmen’s expression changed. To Deeley’s absolute horror, Carmen looked… pitying.
‘Oh, sweetie, no,’ Carmen said, rolling her eyes. ‘No, no, no. Look, you have a killer face and body – I suppose you don’t need brains as well, do you?’
Deeley bridled furiously, but Carmen was already continuing:
‘Upgrade, sweetie. That means someone of a higher status. Get it?’ She gestured to the ceiling with her cigarette to emphasise her point. ‘Nicky definitely needs to be with a woman - officially. We’ve sold him as one of the good guys. Lovely girlfriend by his side. Needs to be in a relationship to be happy.’ She took a long drag. ‘Works very well – he plays a Casanova on TV, but off-screen, he’s a devoted boyfriend. The women eat it up with a spoon.’
He is a devoted boyfriend, Deeley thought ironically. Just not to me.
‘So this is what’s going to happen,’ Carmen said, sitting down on the loveseat and crossing her superb legs. Her stiletto heels, reaching halfway up her calves with a complicated arrangement of buckles and straps, looked like a cross between fetishwear and deadly weapons. ‘Nicky, regretfully, decides that you’re not The One.’ She raised her manicured hands and put quotation marks around the last two words. ‘It’s been five years – make or break. Does he propose, or does he regretfully move on? Beep! He picks Door B. Very sad, but these things happen. He has to be honest about his feelings.’
She looked around for an ashtray, didn’t find one, and tapped her ash into a half-full water glass instead.
‘So,’ she continued, ‘a natural period of grieving takes place. Various starlets try to console him. He goes on some dates, but it never pans out. Until!’ She smiled like a crocodile. ‘Until he and Jennifer Downs star in an action thriller at the end of the year! Jennifer will be heartbroken too. Her engagement to Joe Jeffreys hasn’t worked out, and they’ve called it quits. Again, the right thing to do, but not easy. Nicky and Jennifer console each other, bond over their breakups. Next thing you know – bing! They’re an item. They’re engaged. And this time, it goes all the way – they get married. Jennifer’s The One. Happily ever after, with a big shiny red ribbon round the package.’
It was common knowledge among the small inner circle of actors and movie-makers in Hollywood that Jennifer Downs, beautiful, Oscar-winning Jennifer Downs, was not only gay, but in a long-term relationship with Carmen herself. Deeley knew this perfectly well. She also knew, through the gossip mill, that Carmen had set Jennifer up with Joe Jeffreys, A-list movie star, to counter any speculation about Jennifer’s sexuality. You didn’t get more macho than Joe. He was like the male Deeley.
‘What about Joe?’ Deeley asked; she couldn’t help being curious.
‘Get this!’ Carmen grinned. ‘He’s in love! For real! Whole big redemption story – she had quite a past. We’re making her into an actress now - it’ll play really well. They’re already engaged. Secretly, of course.’
She tipped her cigarette into the water glass, where it hissed out.
‘It’s all planned out,’ she said. ‘You get your five-year bonus – it’s in the contract – and Nicky’ll kick in a nice little resettlement sum for you as well.’
‘Resettlement?’ Deeley whispered.
‘You’re going back to the UK, sweetie. That’s the story. You were in LA to be with your man, and it hasn’t worked out. So you need a fresh start. It wouldn’t look good to have you kicking round LA at a loose end. God knows what you’d get up to. We can’t have you falling in and out of clubs on the Strip. Nicky’s got a classy rep to maintain.’
Deeley sat up straight, her eyes burning with indignation.
‘How dare - ‘ she started furiously, but Carmen cut her off.
‘Please,’ she said, standing up, flicking her hand at Deeley in dismissal. ‘I roll over three girls like you before my morning espresso, okay? You’ve done a great job, and you’ll get paid for it. But let’s face it, you’re – what, twenty-eight now?’
‘Twenty-seven,’ Deeley muttered angrily.
‘Way over the hill in starlet years. Time to take your earnings, go on home and snag yourself a rich husband who lets you decorate the place like Barbie’s love nest,’ Carmen said snarkily, glancing round her at the pink decor. ‘Oh, and fuck pool boys. I hear that’s your type.’
‘I didn’t exactly have much choice who I had sex with, did I?’ Deeley snapped, jumping to her feet in fury. ‘I had to be really discreet for Nicky!’
‘Whatever,’ Carmen said over her shoulder, already on her way to the door. ‘Just remember, that contract you signed is iron-clad. Breathe a word about what really happened with you and Nicky and you’ll have to pay back every penny of what you got over the last five years. Plus I’ll have you arrested. Keep your mouth shut and you’ll be well taken care of.’
She turned in the doorway, spearing Deeley with a last terrifying black stare.
‘And don’t go crying to Nicky. It won’t change anything and it’ll just make him uncomfortable. Believe me, he’s a hundred per-cent on board with all this. You know how ambitious he is. Who do you think he’s going to listen to – you or me?’
And with a toss of her black curls, Carmen was striding away round the pool to the main house, her spike heels tapping out a metallic tattoo on the stone paving.
Deeley sank back into her chair, her heart racing like an express train. In the space of a few minutes, her life had been turned completely upside down. Everything she had taken for granted had been picked up by Carmen and thrown into the dustbin.
She looked around at her beautiful suite of rooms, decorated to her exact specifications; it was a bower fit for a fairy princess, all pink and gold and lavender. How dare Carmen call it a Barbie love nest? It was really sophisticated! Deeley glanced lovingly at the fuschia velvet love seat, piled high with sequinned and beaded throw pillows; at her canopied bed, taffeta curtains tumbling down from a central rose in the ceiling and held back with silk tasselled ties. Her Italian pink-and-gold mosaic-tiled bathroom, with its claw-footed bath, was like something out of a film. So was the dressing table she was sitting at, every little girl’s dream, mirrored glass with a silver chair in front of it, laden with expensive perfumes.
But all this was no longer hers. She had just been a temporary tenant, and now she was being evicted.
Tears sprang to her eyes, but she had to blink them back to avoid ruining her makeup. No matter how upset she was, she knew that she was expected to leave with Nicky tonight, walk the red carpet, put on a perfect front, until Carmen instructed her otherwise. Carmen was holding that extra end-of-contact money over her head, and she’d be watching to make sure Deeley earned it.
What am I going to do? Deeley thought frantically. Where am I going to go? She didn’t have any ties in London any more; she’d left everyone and everything behind to start a new, glamorous life in LA with Nicky. The people she’d known in London had just been club friends, girls who shared the run-down flat in Acton with her, fellow hostesses at trade shows trying to climb the greasy pole of success, all of them elbowing each other out of the way for a shot at an opportunity. No-one she cared about or had bonded with enough to keep in touch with them when she moved half a world away.
She turned slowly in her chair, staring at herself in the dressing table mirror. In the full view, and the two smaller wings on either side, she looked as stunning as ever. Her genetic inheritance was excellent. Her mother had been a complete disaster as far as her maternal responsibilities went, but she had passed on her stunning features to all three of her daughters. Deeley had the big dark McKenna eyes, the smooth creamy McKenna skin, now gently gilded by the LA sun, and the thick dark McKenna hair, lightened to shades of toffee and caramel. Deeley leaned into the mirror, looking for crow’s-feet, lifting her hair to see if there were any lines on her forehead.
She couldn’t see any. And even though she was wearing smoothly-blended base and foundation, courtesy of Hervé, when she squinted up her eyes, she still couldn’t spot any lines. But Carmen’s words had sunk into her like heavy lead bullets. Twenty-seven - twenty-eight… way over the hill in starlet years.
Not being able to stay in LA was the killer. She loved it here. Everything was so easy. She wafted along on an invisible cushion of money and fame, every door opening to her without her even having to lift a hand.
But it won’t be so easy when you’re not dating Nicky, a little voice inside her head told her. You can kiss goodbye to the automatic tables at Nobu and Katsuya and the Ivy. And you won’t get the gold-star treatment in Fred Siegel if you don’t have a no-limits platinum Amex to flash around. If you stayed on here, you’d be last week’s news as soon as you broke up with Nicky. You’d be lucky to get offered a place on one of those shitty VH1 ‘Celebreality’ shows.
The thought of doing something like that made her shiver; how she and Sean and Nicky had loved to watch those shows, all curled up on Nicky’s huge wraparound beige suede sofa, laughing at the fame-hungry contestants. What a slide down the ladder it would be to humble herself by stooping to them now.
Forget it, Deeley, the voice snapped. Carmen would never let you do a show like that; it’d make Nicky look like shit. That contract you signed must have been thirty pages thick. I bet it’s got more sub-clauses than the Bible.
She kept staring at herself, trying to assess her worth, because that was how she’d always calculated her value. Looks were all she’d ever had; her older sisters had got all the brains in the family. Snag a rich husband, Carmen had said, but Deeley couldn’t help seeing that as prostitution. Having sex with someone you didn’t fancy because he had tons of money – what else was that? She shivered again at the thought. It felt as if the world was closing in around her, squeezing her down to nothing. No options at all. Whatever money Nicky gave her wouldn’t last long, she knew; she was terrible with money, always had been.
And then she thought of her older sisters. Maxie. Devon. They’re both back in London, and doing really well. They’ve really made something of themselves.
Deeley hadn’t seen either of them for years. Longer than the time she’d been in LA. What had happened that day in the front room of Bill’s council house in Riseholme – that day she tried never to think about – should have brought them closer together than anything, bonded them for life. But for her, at least, that hadn’t happened. Never the brainy one, Deeley had dropped out of school at sixteen and headed to London, where Maxie and Devon were already living; but they’d been too busy establishing their careers, building their glamorous lives, to have much room for a younger sister with no greater ambition than to go out dancing every night. When Nicky had whisked her off to LA, Deeley knew that both her sisters had thought it was just the right place for her. And since then they’d barely been in touch.
It was Deeley’s fault as much as theirs. She’d been swept away by Nicky’s amazing lifestyle and never looked back. She hadn’t even gone back to London for Devon’s wedding to Matt Bates, the England rugby star.
Well, it’s time to build some bridges. I need Maxie and Devon now. Maxie always looked after me… she’ll help me till I get on my feet in London, I’m sure she will.
After all, we promised to stick together - whatever happened... didn’t we?
excerpt from Bad Sisters, by Rebecca Chance
Release date 4 August 2011.