Tiaras & Terror Sneak Peek

CHAPTER ONE

 

"Boo!" A cloaked figure wearing a green monster mask jumped out at me from behind a rack of maxi dresses. The ghoul began to groan as it staggered toward me, arms outstretched and French-manicured hands reaching for my throat.

I stepped out of the way and rolled my eyes. "Frankenstein, huh? Interesting choice, Jamie," I said dryly. "I figured you'd have gone straight for the mermaid costumes."

The monster halted. My friend and co-worker, Jamie Parker, pushed the mask off her face so it was resting atop her short, sandy hair. Her ocean-colored eyes were wide with excitement. "You ordered mermaid costumes? Why didn't you say so?"

I gave her a wry smile. "I just did."

Grinning, Jamie brandished her cloak a few times before taking it off and setting it back on its coat hanger. She held out her arms again, fingers splayed. "Okay. Gimme!"

I chuckled. "They're still in the stockroom if you want to give me a hand unpacking them. We also need to restock the vampire fangs and witch hats."

It was mid-October, and I was busy preparing the shop where I worked, the Happy Hula Dress Boutique, for Aloha Lagoon's upcoming Halloween celebration. In just over a week, tourists would be flocking to our little island town to take part in the annual Alohaween Festival. Much like Lahaina's renowned Halloween bash on the island of Maui, Aloha Lagoon's autumn festival drew revelers from around the world. Our celebration lasted a full week, beginning with a ghoulish beauty pageant and a Halloween parade through downtown. Numerous costume parties, haunted house attractions, and other spooky events took place throughout the week, leading up to huge block party. Streets were closed to traffic from late afternoon until midnight on Halloween to allow costumed residents and visitors to walk freely through downtown while enjoying live music, food, a jack-o-lantern carving contest, and more festive activities.

Alohaween was my favorite week of the year, and as the new manager of Happy Hula, I'd campaigned to have our little shop take part in the fun by stocking an assortment of costumes and accessories to sell to the guests of the Aloha Lagoon Resort, where the boutique was located. Of course, considering the owner of Happy Hula, my Aunt Rikki, was also an avid lover of the huge Halloween celebration, it hadn't taken much convincing.

"Oh, I'm definitely gonna need this!" Jamie exclaimed, lifting a purple seashell bra out of one of the boxes in the stockroom. "Maybe I'll buy one of the red wigs and go as Ariel this year."

I grinned at her. "You're going to wear the same costume all week?" I teased. "Most people have a different getup for every night during Alohaween."

She shrugged. "I stand by my decision." Her gaze shifted to another open box full of authentic-looking grass hula skirts. Smirking, she grabbed a skirt and traded the seashell bra for one made of coconuts. "On second thought, maybe I'll grab a backup costume just in case. How would I look in these?"

"You ladies need a hand?" Luka Hale, our part-time stockroom worker, poked his head through the door. The teenager's acne-scarred face colored as he caught sight of Jamie holding up the coconut bra to her chest. "Or I could come back," he said, his tone sheepish.

I waved him forward. "No, that's okay," I told him. "Come on in." I gestured to a stack of boxes in the far corner. "Can you carry those witch hats out to the front? Restock the shelf but save one for the window display. I'd like to switch up the costumes on the mannequins."

Luka nodded and set to work loading the boxes of hats onto a dolly. Jamie and I used another rolling cart to wheel out the shipment of grass skirts and three boxes of mermaid accessories.

There were a handful of resort guests browsing the store as we emerged from the stockroom. The little seashell chimes above the entrance tinkled as a pair of shoppers entered and began browsing the racks of dresses on the other side of the shop. Jamie excused herself to man the cash register a few minutes later when they headed up to the front counter to make their purchases.

Luka and I continued to unload the boxes of costume pieces onto our large Halloween display. While Happy Hula's normal offerings, which included tropical-themed designer clothes and beachwear, still took up most of the sales floor, a corner near the front of the shop had been rearranged to accommodate the costumes. A black banner that read Happy Halloween! in orange lettering hung over the assortment of capes, masks, and other spooky accessories.

"Enjoy your stay at the Aloha Lagoon Resort," Jamie chirped to two customers. They exited the store, one of the ladies pausing to hold open the door for a tall, slender woman with black hair.

"What's up, witches?" Harmony Kane, the store's assistant manager, called as she sashayed in. She breezed past the costume display, grabbing one of the tall, pointy black hats as she went. She stopped to lean against the front counter, and her lips curved in a pleased smile. "You're looking at the future Miss Undead Hawaii," she said proudly. "I dropped by the Hana Hou Theater to register on my way here."

"That's the Halloween beauty pageant, right?" Luka asked, crouching down to unload the last of the witch hats.

She nodded. "This year's theme is ’All Things Undead’—so, zombies and vampires, mostly. Ticket sales for the competition are going to a local charity that's raising money to help the homeless." Her smile turned eager. "But there's a three-thousand-dollar cash prize for the winner that totally has my name on it."

"Cool." Luka bobbed his head and gave her a thumbs-up. "Good luck, Harm." He stood and dusted his hands off on his khaki shorts before loading the empty boxes onto the dolly and wheeling them back toward the stockroom.

Harmony flipped her enviably straight black hair. "Of course, it's going to take a lot of makeup to make me resemble something that crawled out of a graveyard, but I think I can swing it." Her gaze shifted to me. "You know, anyone can enter the pageant, Kaley. Maybe you should give it a try." She flashed me a wicked grin. "You wouldn't even have to try very hard. With that pasty complexion, you've got a natural corpse look going on."

I bit back a scowl. Only half-native Hawaiian, I'd gotten my dark brown hair and eyes from my dad—but I'd inherited my mother's fairer skin tone. Until recently, I'd been living across the country, where I'd spent most of my time managing another small dress shop in Atlanta, Georgia. All those long hours indoors certainly hadn't done my sun-starved complexion any favors. I'd moved home to Kauai after my recent divorce, and the past few months back on the island had given me a nice tan.

Still, Harmony loved to tease me, a habit she hadn't been able to kick in the nearly two decades I'd known her—not that she was trying very hard to stop. We had an unpleasant history that dated back to our grade school days. To say I'd been less than thrilled to learn that Aunt Rikki had hired her to work at Happy Hula was a colossal understatement. At my aunt's insistence, though, I'd grudgingly tried to make nice with the Queen of Mean ever since I'd accepted the position as manager of the upscale dress boutique.

A few dicey situations had forced us to forge a flimsy alliance at times, but we were still far from friends. Some days, it seemed like the only reason Harmony showed up to work was to see what new way she could get under my skin. She never missed an opportunity to make a joke at my expense, but I did my best to turn the other cheek. I'd found the most effective way to deal with her was not to engage in her snarkiness. Not out loud, at least. I may or may not have called her a few dirty words in my head every now and then.

"Do you have your costume yet, Harm?" I asked to change the subject.

Harmony frowned, no doubt disappointed that I didn't seem fazed by her insult. "Not yet," she admitted, crossing the sales floor to look through a rack of black and gray shrouds. "I only came into the boutique early so I could do a little shopping before my shift." She was scheduled to be the afternoon manager on duty so I could take off for a date.

Harmony ran her hand along a tattered ballroom gown, her expression thoughtful. "I was actually thinking of going with a zombie beauty queen look." She plucked a patchwork dress from the rack and examined its stitching. Then she held it up in front her chest and went to stand in front of one of the full-length mirrors at the edge of the Halloween display. "Or if that's too on the nose, maybe I could be Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas," she added, admiring her reflection.

"Was she actually a zombie, though?" Jamie asked, cocking her head. "I'd think that blue chick from the Corpse Bride would make more sense. Or maybe you could go as a vampire bride instead."

"A Tim Burton character?" a woman's disdainful voice rang out from across the store. "Honestly, Harmony. If that's the best you can do, then winning this pageant is going to be even easier than I thought."

Harmony stiffened and slowly turned away from the mirror. I followed her gaze and spotted a young woman who had been casually browsing the shoe displays for the past fifteen minutes. She looked like a beauty queen, with a heart-shaped face, wide blue eyes framed by curly lashes, and soft blonde curls that fell past her shoulders. I glanced back at Harmony to find she'd plastered one of her usual arrogant smiles across her tanned face. This time, however, there was a hard look in her eyes.

"Jade," she said in a sweet tone that sounded fake. "I didn't know you were back in town."

The blonde woman gave an airy laugh. "Not that it's any of your business, but I'm here to handle a family matter," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "What fortunate timing that I made it just in time to register for the pageant, though. You know I'd never miss a chance to show you up on stage." She grinned. "It'll be just like old times." The woman crossed the sales floor and casually riffled through a box of skull masks. "Maybe you should consider wearing one of these in the pageant, Harm. It would be an improvement over your real face."

Ouch. While a tiny part of me enjoyed seeing Harmony on the receiving end of someone's put-downs for once, I couldn't help but flinch. The insult was brutal. Maybe Harmony had finally met her match. I exchanged a glance with Jamie, whose tight expression said she was also uncomfortable.

If the barb had wounded Harmony, she didn't let it show. "That's funny coming from the girl with the nose job that makes her look like Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter movies," she fired back without so much as batting an eyelash. She hung the patchwork dress back on the rack and took a few steps toward the blonde. She sneered. "By the way, how much money did you have to beg your daddy for to get that botched Botox job done on your lips?"

Jade's eyes narrowed. "Probably more than your whole family's worth these days, from what I hear," she replied, a wicked smile slowly curving those Botoxed lips.

Harmony clenched her jaw. "Well, at least I didn't have to sleep with one of the judges the two years that I won the Miss Aloha Lagoon Pageant," she said coolly. "I earned that crown fair and square—just like I'm going to win Miss Undead Hawaii next week."

The blonde barked a laugh. "Right. Good luck with that," she said in a sarcastic tone. She strode purposefully across the sales floor toward the costume display. "Fake blood, huh?" she mused, picking up one of the little plastic packets of red liquid from a bin next to the vampire fangs. "You know, this could come in handy for my costume—but I wonder just how realistic it is." She held out the packet to Harmony. "You work here, don't you, dear? Maybe you can help me test it out." Before Harmony could react, Jade tightened her fist around one end of the fake blood packet, squeezing it so hard it burst. A stream of red liquid sprayed across Harmony's cream-colored blouse. "Oops," Jade said, her blue eyes gleaming.

Harmony shrieked in surprise and outrage. "This is Kate Spade!" she squawked, frantically digging through her purse for something she could use to try to salvage the designer top. Coming up empty-handed, she dropped her bag back down to her side and stared at Jade, her face turning as crimson as the fake blood. "You did that on purpose."

"Did I?" Jade shrugged, offering Harm a look of mock innocence. "Try to prove it," she challenged.

Harmony charged at the other woman, hands balled into fists and a furious look in her eyes. I scrambled forward, stepping between them before she could do something she'd regret. As much as I'd have loved an excuse to fire my grade school bully, I couldn't stand by and let her attack a customer—especially when there were other shoppers there to witness it.

"You're going to have to pay for that, miss," I said, turning to face Jade.

The blonde woman shifted her gaze to me. "Of course," she said sweetly. Her malicious smile widened. "I'd be happy to." With that, she turned and sauntered toward the cash register.

I met Jamie's gaze. Nodding in understanding, she took off after her to ring up the ill-used purchase.

Jade handed her several bills. "I don't need a receipt. And you can keep the change—that was so worth the money." She turned and gave one last snide look at Harmony. "See you at the pageant, sweetie," she said, wiggling her fingers. The three of us watched her strut out of the store and disappear into the crowded courtyard.

"Whoa." Jamie gave a low whistle as she came to stand beside Harmony and me. "That was pretty hard to watch. That chick is a nightmare." She glanced at Harm. "Who was she?"

Harmony didn't look at her, too busy glaring daggers at the door where the blonde had just been. "Her name is Jade Monroe," she said through clenched teeth. She scowled. "She used to compete against me on the pageant circuit when we were younger. Jade beat me in the Miss Aloha Lagoon competition my last two years—not that she deserved the crown. She's a cheat." Harmony's hands curled into fists again. "But if she thinks she's going to win Miss Undead Hawaii, she's in for a rude awakening. Nobody's getting in Harm's way this time, not even that scheming skank."

Jamie snickered. "Harm's way—I see what you did there."

I couldn't help but chuckle myself. Harmony Kane had her own bully? I just loved the karma.

Harmony jerked her head. "It's not funny," she snapped, shooting us both a withering look. "That woman is the devil in high heels. In the last Miss Aloha Lagoon Pageant, she purposely sabotaged my act for the talent portion of the competition. She swapped the tape for my dance performance, and it completely threw off my choreography." She grimaced. "Have either of you ever tried to do a hip-hop routine to the 'Chicken Dance'?"

I cringed. "Yikes."

"That is bad," Jamie agreed.

Harmony huffed, placing her hands on her hips. "And now she's ruined one of my favorite blouses." She sulked, looking gloomily down at the stains on her top. Then she drew in a breath and forced it out again, her scowl slipping back into place. "This is the last straw. I'm not going to just sit here and let her bully me out of winning another pageant." Her eyes narrowed to thin slits. "I'm going to make Jade Monroe wish she'd never come back to Aloha Lagoon." She spun on her heel and stomped away.

To find out what happens next, pre-order your copy of Tiaras & Terror, coming October 9th!

Check out the other great books in the multi-author Aloha Lagoon Mystery series.

© Anne Marie Stoddard 2017