Read Diva Online

Authors: Jillian Larkin

Diva (3 page)

Gloria glanced at the box and sighed. Really, she didn’t have to think about her decision for too long. “Have you got a garter in there somewhere? No self-respecting flapper would leave her prison cell without one.”

“Oh, congratulations, darling!” the pixielike woman in the silver Chanel dress gushed. “You have
no
idea how utterly elated my girlfriends and I were when we saw the news in the
Times
.” The woman stood across from Gloria near one of the tiny tables covered in fine blue tablecloths that were arranged around the dance floor at the Conch Shell, a hopping beachfront restaurant. The life preservers, colorful shells, and anchors that hung on the wood-paneled walls were a playful nod to the ocean lying just beyond the restaurant’s back patio.

“We toasted your release right then and there at the newsstand!” the dame went on, practically yelling over the roar of the band playing hot jazz on the stage beyond the dance floor. “Champagne would’ve been best, but at nine in the morning, a flask of gin had to do.”

The woman speaking was a tiny wisp of a thing—shorter than the petite Gloria, even—and very, very beautiful. Her dark brown hair was pinned to the side to reveal spectacular
diamond earrings and even more spectacular cheekbones. Her nearly black eyes glowed with an aloof sophistication.

A year before, a woman this glamorous wouldn’t have been caught dead talking to a bluenose deb like Gloria. But now she was one in a long line of starlets, journalists, and artists all eager to congratulate Gloria on her sudden release from prison. Gloria felt an instant sense of
belonging
among these impossibly charismatic flappers and swells. A far cry from the first time she’d entered the Green Mill back in Chicago, when she hadn’t even bobbed her hair.

Before Gloria reached the mahogany bar when she first arrived, a black man in a crisp white shirt, black vest, and blue bow tie had appeared beside her with a dirty martini. “Giggle water’s on the house for you tonight, darlin’.” He gave her a nod. “It’s a brave thing you done for Jerome Johnson,” he whispered. “Something none of us’ll ever forget.”

“Thank you,” Gloria had said. She had finished the drink quickly and set the glass down at the bar—just in time for a handsome man in a seersucker suit to sweep her to the dance floor, where she moved through the steps of the Baltimore Buzz, amazed she could remember them. Gloria glanced at the sparkling dancers around her, smoke filling the air and spinning in endless curlicues as it flowed up to the ceiling fans above. There was glitter, glamour, and music—and Gloria was at the center of it in her brilliant Paquin dress and flawless makeup. What else could a girl ask for?

Well, besides her fiancé.

It had only been when she’d caught the eye of the only grim-faced fellow in the crowd that she had remembered she
didn’t
belong here. She had come here with a bureau chaperone, and she had a mission: Find Forrest Hamilton and grill him for information.

The man, Terzy, had tapped his watch and continued scowling at Gloria. She’d excused herself from the dance floor and started to search for the handsome host of the party, but enthusiastic admirers like her pretty new friend here weren’t making the task easy.

“You’re such a darling, darling,” a young brunette not much older than Gloria said to her while sipping from a silver flask.

“As are you,” Gloria replied.

“Well, I know. But really, you’re truly a dear.” The brunette had a heart-shaped face and almond-shaped eyes. She swayed back and forth, the fringe from her dress swishing ever so slightly.

“And your name is …?” Gloria asked.

Just then, a curmudgeonly man stepped out of the crowd to stand next to her new acquaintance. His light brown hair was shot through with gray, and his wrinkles made him look ten years older than he probably was. He seemed old enough to be her father.

“Ruby, I told you not to go wandering off like that,” he said in a gravelly voice.

A bit of the light went out of Ruby’s sparkling eyes. “Oh, sorry, dear.”

The man sniffed and straightened his brown bow tie. “Just remember that these are
your
friends.”

“You’re in the theater business, too, Marty. It’s not like producers and actors are different animals.”

“No, they’re different
species
.”

Ruby suddenly seemed to remember Gloria. She gave a bell-like laugh and her cheeks got rosy. “Oh, how rude of me! My darling, dear new friend, this is my husband, Marty Hayworth. Marty, this is Gloria Carmody. You know.
The singer
.”

Marty acknowledged Gloria with a gruff nod. “From the tabloids.”

“You’re a Broadway producer?” Gloria couldn’t imagine Marty with such a glamorous job; he was about as flat and dull as his wife was incandescent. “Have you produced anything I would’ve seen?”

Ruby smiled graciously. “Well, he produced my first show. We finished our run a few weeks ago. Maybe you’ve heard of it—
The Girl from Yesterday
.”

Oh my!
Gloria had read all about the show in the
Manhattanite
s Clara religiously sent her, one every week. Ruby had received nothing but love-letter reviews for her portrayal of the ingenue Violet, a fierce but vulnerable young ballerina-turned-cancan-dancer in Gilded Age Paris. Ruby was a bona fide star at the beginning of an exciting career.

This brunette who’d had too much to drink and thought Gloria was her newest and dearest friend was Ruby Hayworth?

As much as Gloria hated to admit it, she was insanely jealous.

Her chaperone, Terzy, stared at her from across the dance floor and twitched in an alarming way. Was he trying to wink? Finally Terzy beckoned with his pudgy arm.

“I’ve heard fantastic things about that show!” Gloria smiled at the Hayworths. “You’ll have to excuse me—but I promise to be in the front row when your next musical opens.”

“I’m not sure when or what that will be,” Ruby replied. “But I’ll make sure the box office boys set aside a ticket for you, darling.”

Terzy narrowed his eyes at Gloria when she reached him in the middle of the crowd. “What are you cooling your heels with the starlet for?” The short, stout FBI agent hunched over his glass of seltzer and glared at the riotous guests. “Just talk to this Forrest character so I can get home and go to bed.”

“Have you seen him?” Gloria had taken every possible chance to scan the room for the man from the picture since she’d arrived, but she hadn’t caught sight of him yet.

Terzy hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “Open your eyes.”

Through the open back doors, Gloria saw a few couples at patio tables, loudly toasting the sea. Beyond them, sitting alone at one of the smaller tables, was Forrest. He was bent over a little notebook, scribbling, his brow furrowed in concentration.

Gloria took a deep breath, more nervous than she’d ever been onstage. Her entire future with Jerome hinged on her ability to get Forrest to spill his secrets. She took her red lipstick out of her purse and smoothed it over her lips. Every battle required a little war paint.

With a nod to Terzy, Gloria walked out onto the candlelit patio. After the noise of the party, the clacking of her heels against the flagstones seemed too loud. Gloria could hear the waves crashing in the distance but couldn’t see them; it was dark out here. A wind blew her dress taut against her legs.

Forrest smiled as she approached. He was even handsomer in person. Gloria had been right about the dimples.

He quickly stretched a black ribbon across the binding of his leather notebook and closed it. “It’s a bit embarrassing, I know, sneaking out to write at my own shindig. But I always get my best ideas when I’m at parties.” He cocked his head toward the dancers inside. “How much closer can you get to a musical in the real world?”

It was the sort of thing Gloria would think but stop herself from saying, worried she’d sound pretentious. But with his earnest gaze, Forrest didn’t seem like a phony.

“Aren’t you a little young to be a Broadway producer?” Gloria asked. Up close, he looked barely older than she was.

“Nope. Being a producer only has one job requirement: money. And you can get your hands on that at any age. If you’re smart.” His brown eyes skimmed right over her sparkling green dress up to her face. With a black silk headband
over her newly waved and bobbed hair and chandelier earrings, Gloria knew she looked good. “Aren’t you a little young to be an ex-con?” he asked.

“Trouble’s a lot easier to find than money,” Gloria countered. “And unlike money, sometimes trouble comes looking for you.”

“Ah, but yours is a special kind of trouble that only a special kind of dame could get into,” he said, laughing. He pulled a chair out for her. “Have a seat, rest your gams. I guess we can skip over introductions and right into congratulations. To you on your release from the big house and to me on the new show I’m financing.”

“You’re producing a new show?” she asked as she settled in beside him.

“That’s why I threw the party.” He lit a cigar with a gold-plated lighter, and the spicy smell of it filled the air. Cigar smoking was a habit Gloria had always associated with older men, but it suited Forrest just fine. “It’ll be called
Moonshine Melody
. It’s my third show, and
hopefully
my first success.” His gaze drifted away from her and back toward the crowd.

“What makes you think this one will be any different?” she asked, her tone playful.

Forrest pointed through the back door: Ruby was dancing with a young, good-looking fellow in a white suit. When she danced, Ruby had a charisma that made everyone else within ten feet disappear. “
That’s
what,” Forrest said.

“Ruby Hayworth?”

“The one and only. Manhattan would pay good money to watch Ruby Hayworth read the paper.” There was more than artistic admiration in Forrest’s face as he spoke.

“Stars like that don’t come cheap, I bet,” Gloria said. “You sure you can afford her?”

“Money’s no object for me, I’m happy to say.”

“But how is that true, if your other shows weren’t successful?” She’d hoped to be a little craftier about working this question into the conversation, but if she didn’t get Forrest talking, Terzy was going to drive her straight from this party back to prison.

Forrest’s dark eyes narrowed, but his face lost none of its good humor. “Why so interested? Are you thinking of becoming a producer?”

“Sure,” Gloria said with a flirtatious smile and a silent apology to Jerome. “Sounds like a pretty great gig, especially if I could be rich whether or not my shows did well.”

“It doesn’t really work that way. I haven’t been able to make much money at all off my shows.” He stretched his arms behind his head and gave a lazy smile. “I’ve actually lost a lot. But I’ve got to keep trying, right?”

“Why, though, if you’re losing money?”

“What else should I spend my wealth on? Why use money to buy useless baubles when I can use it to
make
something?”

“Most men your age think parties and baubles are more worthwhile than musicals.”

“Well, they’re free to think that. But personally? I love musicals,” Forrest proclaimed.

“But if you’re not making money off them, then where does all your wealth come from?” She scooted her chair closer to him. “It’s nothing illegal, is it?”

Forrest gave her a pitying look. “Oh, Gloria, you’re not very good at this at all, are you?” Gloria blinked, and he gave her another dimpled smile. “Tell you what, after this a bunch of us are driving out to stay at my mansion in Great Neck. It’s got so many rooms that I don’t think I’ve seen them all yet. Why don’t you join us?”

Gloria raised her eyebrows and looked at Terzy where he leaned against the doorjamb wearily. He glanced over at her and Forrest frequently and obviously.

Forrest laughed. “I know why you’re here, honey—the feds sent you and that stuffed shirt over there to spy on me.” Gloria swallowed hard. How did Forrest know? “But I don’t care about that; I’ve got nothing to hide. You’re a singer, right? And you seem like a swell dame who’s been cooped up for the past six weeks and could use a spot of fun. What do you say?”

Gloria glanced at Terzy, then back into Forrest’s good-natured eyes. If she went back with Terzy now, she’d have a whole lot of nothing to tell Hank. Jerome wouldn’t like her staying at another man’s house, but what better opportunity would she get to learn more about Forrest and free herself and Jerome of Tony Giaconi’s murder for good?

She stuck her hand out for Forrest to shake. “Count me in.”

CLARA

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