Blair Mallory Book 1: To Die For (Chapter One)

Most people don't take cheerleading seriously. If they only knew…

All-American girl, that's me. If you look at the pictures in my high school yearbooks, you'll see a girl with long blond hair, a tan, and a wide grin that shows off her perfect white teeth, courtesy of thousands of dollars spent on braces and fluoride washes. The teeth, that is, not the hair and the tan. I had the effortless confidence of the upper-middle-class American teenage princess; nothing bad could happen to me. After all, I was a cheerleader.

I admit it. Actually, I'm proud of it. A lot of people think cheerleaders are both brainless and snooty, but that's only people who have never been a cheerleader. I forgive them their ignorance. Cheerleading is hard work, a demanding blend of skill and strength, and it's dangerous. People frequently get injured, sometimes even killed, doing the cheers. Usually it's girls getting injured: guys are the tossers; girls are the tossees. Technically we're called "flyers," which is really silly because of course we can't fly. We're tossed. The tossees are the ones who fall on their heads and break their necks.

Well, I never broke my neck, but I did break my left arm, and my collarbone, and dislocated my right knee once. I can't count the sprains and bruises. But I've got great balance, strong legs, and I can still do a backflip and the splits. Plus, I went to college on a cheerleading scholarship. Is this a cool country, or what?

So, anyway, my name is Blair Mallory. Yes, I know: It's a fluff name. It goes with the cheerleading and the blond hair. I can't help it; it's what my parents named me. My father's name is Blair, so I guess I'm just glad they didn't tag me as a junior. I don't think I would have been Homecoming Queen if my name had been Blair Henry Mallory, Jr. I'm happy enough with Blair Elizabeth, thank you. I mean, show-business people are naming their kids things like Homer, for God's sake. When those kids grow up and kill their parents, I think all the cases should be ruled justifiable homicide.

Which brings up the murder I saw.

Actually it doesn't, but at least it's kind of logical. The connection, I mean.

And bad things do too happen to all-American princess cheerleaders. I got married, didn't I?

That kind of ties in to the murder, too. I married Jason Carson right out of college, so for four years my name was Blair Carson. I should have known better than to marry someone whose first and last name rhymed, but some things you learn only from experience. Jason was big into politics: the student council, campaigning for his dad the state congressman, his uncle the mayor, blah blah blah. Jason was so good-looking he could literally make girls stutter. Too bad he knew it. He had thick, sun-kissed hair (that's poetic for blond), chiseled features, dark blue eyes, and a body kept in excellent shape. Think John Kennedy, Jr. The body, I mean.

So there we were, the poster couple for blond hair and white teeth. And my body was pretty fine, too, if I do say so myself. What else could we do but get married?

Four years later, we got unmarried, to our mutual great relief. After all, we had nothing in common but our looks, and I really don't think that's a good basis for marriage, do you? Jason wanted to have a baby so we'd look like the all-American couple while he campaigned to become the youngest state congressman, which really, if you want to know, irritated the hell out of me because he'd refused to have a baby before and now all of a sudden it was a campaign plus? I told him to kiss my ass. Not that he hadn't kissed it before, but the context was different, you know?

I made out like a bandit in the divorce settlement. Maybe I should feel guilty; I mean, it isn't exactly a feminist thing to do. Stand on your own two feet, make it with your own accomplishments, that kind of stuff. And actually I do believe in all that; I just wanted to make Jason suffer. I wanted to punish him. Why? Because I caught him kissing my youngest sister, Jennifer, on New Year's Day while the rest of the family was in the den totally zonking out on bowl games. Jenni was seventeen at the time.

Well, being furious doesn't slow me down any. When I saw them in the dining room, I tiptoed away and found one of the disposable cameras we'd been using that day to record the occasion for Jason's campaign album-family stuff, celebrating a holiday, pigging out around a table loaded with all sorts of artery-clogging goodies, watching football. He liked to have pictures of my family get-togethers because my family is so much better looking than his. Jason used any edge he could get in a campaign.

Anyway, I snapped a really good picture of Jason and Jenni, with flash and all, so he knew I had him by the short hairs. What was he going to do, chase me down and tackle me in front of my father, and wrestle the camera away from me? Not likely. For one thing, he'd have to explain, and he knew he couldn't count on me to go along with his story. For another, my father would have drop-kicked him over the televison for daring to harm a hair on his namesake's head. Did I also mention that I'm Daddy's girl?

So I filed for divorce, and Jason gave me everything I asked for, on one condition: that I give him the photograph and negative of him and Jenni. Well, sure, why not? It isn't as if I hadn't had more than one copy made.

Maybe Jason thought I was too stupid to do that. It never pays to underestimate how dirty your competition will play. For that reason, I really don't think Jason will do well in politics.

I also told Mom that Jenni had let Jason kiss her. You didn't think I'd let the backstabbing little hussy get away with it, did you? Not that I don't love Jenni, but she's the baby of the family, and she thinks she should get anything and everything she wants. Occasionally she has to be shown differently. I've also noticed that her name rhymes, too: Jenni Mallory. It's really Jennifer, but she's never been called that, so it doesn't count. I don't know what it is about rhyming names, but they're bad news for me. The difference is, I forgave Jenni, because she's blood. No way in hell was I forgiving Jason.

So Mom took care of Jenni, who tearfully apologized and promised to be a good girl or at least show better taste, and my middle sister, Siana, who was in law school, handled the negotiations with Jason. The name "Siana" is supposedly the Welsh form of "Jane," but take it from me, the name really means "man-eating shark with dimples." That's Siana.

With the Mallory women in action, the divorce went through in record time without Daddy ever finding out exactly why we were all mad at Jason. Not that he cared; if we were mad, then he was mad, too, on our behalf. Wasn't that sweet of him?

What I got from Jason in the divorce settlement was a very nice little chunk of change, thank you. I also got the red Mercedes convertible, of course, but the money was the most important because of what I did with it. I bought a gym. A fitness center. After all, you go with your strength, and I know all about staying in shape. Siana suggested calling it "Blair's Beautiful Butts," but I thought that would limit the clientele and maybe give people the impression I also did liposuction. Mom came up with "Great Bods" and we all liked it, so that's what the former Halloran's Gym became.

I blew a bundle on remodeling and refurbishing, but when I was finished, the place practically screamed "high class." The mirrors were polished; the equipment was the best available; the bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers were completely redone; two saunas and a lap pool were added, plus a private room for massages. A member of Great Bods had a choice of yoga, aerobics, Tae Bo, or kick-boxing classes. If the yoga didn't mellow you out, then you could go kick ass without ever leaving the building. I also insisted all of my staff be trained in CPR, because you never know when an out-of-shape executive with high cholesterol will hit the weight machines in an effort to get back his teenage body overnight so he can impress his new secretary, and there you go: heart attack for the asking. Besides, it was an impressive thing to see in an ad.

All the money and the CPR training was worth it. Within a month of opening our doors, Great Bods was going great guns. I sold memberships by the month or by the year-with a discount if you paid for a year of course, which was smart because it hooked you in and most people will use the facility then because they don't want to waste their money. Cars in the parking lot give the perception of success, and, well, you know what they say about perception. Anyway, success breeds like a bunny rabbit. I was thrilled all the way down to my leg warmers-which some of those not in the know consider passe, but they're seriously out of touch with what makes your legs look great. High heels top the list, but leg warmers are a close second. I wear both. Not together, of course. Puh-leeze.

Great Bods is open from six in the morning until nine at night, making it convenient for anyone to fit a visit into his or her schedule. My yoga classes languished, at first, with only a few women enrolled, so I hired some buff and handsome college football players to attend yoga classes for a week. The weightlifting and Tae Bo crowd, macho to the teeth, rushed to do whatever it was my handsome young guys did to stay in such good shape, and the women rushed to be in the same class with those same young guys. By the time the week was over, yoga enrollment had quadrupled. Once the macho crowd discovered how tough yoga was, and its benefits, most of them remained-and so did the women.

Did I mention I took some psychology classes in college?

So here I am, several years later: thirty years old and the owner of a successful business that keeps me busy but also makes very nice profits. I traded the red convertible in for a white one, because I wanted to lower my profile a tad. It isn't smart for a single woman living alone to attract too much attention. Besides, I wanted a new car. Love that smell. Yes, I know I could have bought a Ford or something, but it really griped Jason's ass that I drove around town in a Mercedes convertible, which he couldn't do now because it would be bad for his campaign image. He'll probably die begrudging me that Mercedes. I hope.

Anyway, I didn't park the convertible in the public parking lot in front, because I didn't want dings all up and down the car. I had a private parking lot paved in back of the gym for the staff, with our own, much more convenient entrance; my reserved parking slot-which was plenty big so no other cars could get close-was right in front of the door. Being the owner has its perks. Being a gracious owner, however, I also had a large metal awning installed completely across the back of the gym, so we could park under it and be sheltered coming and going to our cars. When it rained, everyone was very appreciative.

I'm the boss, but I don't believe in lording it over my employees. Except for the parking slot, I didn't claim any special privileges. Well, I guess signing their paychecks gave me a huge advantage, and I did handle all the money and make all the final decisions, but I took care of them. We had a nice medical insurance package that included dental, I paid them a decent wage-plus they were free to teach private classes on their off days for extra money-and I gave them plenty of vacation time. For that reason, I didn't have a big turnover in staff. Some turnover is inevitable, because lives change and people move away, things like that, but I seldom had anyone leaving for another job in the same field. Continuity in the staff is good for business. Clients like to feel they know their trainers and teachers.

Closing time was nine P.M. and I usually stayed to lock up so my staff could get home to their families or social life or whatever. Don't take that as a sign that I have no social life. True, I don't date as much now as I did right after my divorce, but Great Bods takes a lot of my time and is important to me, so I take care of the business. And I get creative with my dates: we'll go for lunch, which is good if the guy turns out to be not as great as I'd hoped, because "lunch" is finite. You meet, you eat, you leave. That way if I don't care for my date, I don't have to fend him off or make lame excuses for not inviting him in. Lunch is a good concept, dating-wise. If I do like him, then other options open up, such as a real date after hours or on Sunday, when Great Bods is closed.

Anyway, on the night in question-I did mention that I witnessed a murder, didn't I?-I locked up, as usual. I was a bit late, because I'd been working on my gymnastic skills; you never know when you might need to do a backflip. I'd worked up a good sweat, so I had then showered and washed my hair before grabbing my stuff and heading toward the employees' door. I turned out the lights, then opened the door and stepped outside under the awning.

Oh, wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. I haven't explained about Nicole.

Nicole "call me Nikki" Goodwin was a thorn in my side. She joined Great Bods about a year ago and immediately began driving me crazy, though it took me a couple of months to notice. Nicole had one of those breathy little voices that make strong men melt. It made me want to strangle her. What is it about that fake Marilyn Monroe coo that men seem to like? Some men, anyway. Nicole laid on the false sweetness, too, when she talked; it's a wonder everyone around her wasn't bouncing off the walls on a sugar high. At least she didn't do the finger-twisting-in-the-hair thing.

But that was because I don't do it-unless I'm ragging someone, that is. Generally I'm more professional.

See, Nicole was a copycat. And I'm the cat she copied.

First it was the hair. Her natural color was kind of blondish, but within two weeks of joining Great Bods she went golden blond, with pale streaks. Like mine, in fact. I didn't really notice at the time because her hair wasn't as long as mine; it was only later when all the little details started falling into place that I realized her hair was the same color as mine. Then she started pulling it into a ponytail on top of her head to keep it out of her way while she worked out. Guess who also pulled her hair up like that while working out?

I don't wear much makeup while at work because it's a waste of time; if a girl glows enough, the makeup disappears. Besides, I've got good skin and nice dark brows and lashes, so I don't worry about going bare-faced. I do, however, have a fondness for glistening lotion that makes my skin take on a subtle sheen. Nicole asked me what kind of lotion I used and, like an idiot, I told her. The next day, Nicole's skin had a sheen.

Her workout clothes began to look like mine: leotards and leg warmers while I'm actually in the gym, with yoga pants pulled on when I was cruising around overseeing operations. Nicole began to wear leotards and leg warmers, otherwise bouncing around in yoga pants. And I do mean bouncing. I don't believe she owned a bra. Unfortunately, she was one of those women who should. My male members (I love saying that) seemed to like the spectacle, but all that jiggling and swaying gave me vertigo, so if I had to talk to her, I concentrated on maintaining eye contact.

Then she got a white convertible.

It wasn't a Mercedes, it was a Mustang, but still-it was white, it was a convertible. How much more obvious could she get?

Maybe I should have been flattered, but I wasn't. It wasn't as if Nicole liked me and was copying me out of admiration. I think she hated my guts. She overdid the fake sweetness when she talked to me, you know? In Nicole-speak, "Oh, honey, that's just the greatest pair of earrings!" really meant "I want to rip them out of your ears and leave bleeding stumps, you bitch." One of the other gym members-a woman, of course-even commented once, after watching Nicole sashay away, body parts bouncing, "That woman would like to slit your throat, pour gasoline over you, set you on fire, and leave you lying in the gutter. Then she'd come back and dance on your ashes after the fire was out."

See? I'm not just making it up.

Because I was open to the public, I pretty much had to allow anyone who wanted to join admittance, which was generally okay, though perhaps I should have made some of the more hairy members submit to electrolysis first, but there was a proviso in the membership agreement-which all members signed upon joining-that if three other members complained about said member's behavior, dressing-room etiquette, or a number of other transgressions, in any single calendar year, then the one being complained about wouldn't be allowed to rejoin when his/her membership expired.

Being the professional that I am, I wouldn't have booted Nicole's ass out just because she annoyed the hell out of me. It griped me, having to be that professional, but I managed. Being Nicole, however, she regularly annoyed, insulted, or generally pissed off just about every woman she dealt with during the day. She made messes in the locker room and left them for others to clean up. She made snide remarks to other women who weren't in the best of shape, and hogged the machines even though there was supposed to be a thirty-minute limit to an individual session.

The complaints were mostly in the form of bitching, but a few women came up to me with fire in their eyes and insisted on filing a formal complaint. Thank you, Jesus.

The number of filed complaints in Nicole's file was way more than three when her membership expired, and I was able to tell her-gently, of course-that her membership wasn't open for renewal and she should clean out her locker.

The resulting screech probably scared cows grazing in the next county. She called me a bitch, a whore, a slut, and that was just as a warm-up. The shrill invective got louder and louder, drawing the attention of just about everyone in Great Bods, and I think she would have slugged me if she hadn't known I was in better shape than she was and would definitely slug her in return, only harder. She settled for sweeping everything off the countertop-a couple of potted plants, membership applications, a couple of pens-onto the floor and flounced out with the parting shot that her lawyer would be in touch with me.

Fine. Whatever. I'd match my lawyer against hers any day. Siana was young, but she was lethal, and she didn't mind fighting dirty. We get that from our mother.

The women who had gathered to watch Nicole's tantrum broke into applause as the door closed behind her. The men merely looked bewildered. I was pissed because Nicole hadn't cleaned out her locker, which meant I'd have to let her back inside once more to retrieve her belongings. I thought about asking Siana if I could insist on Nicole making an appointment to empty her locker, and having a cop present to both witness the removal of her personal belongings and prevent another tantrum.

The rest of the day passed in a golden glow. I was free from Nicole! I didn't even mind cleaning up the mess she'd made, because she was gone, gone, gone.

Okay. That's the deal with Nicole.

Back to me leaving that night by the back entrance, et cetera, et cetra.

The streetlight on the corner illuminated the parking lot, but the shadows were deep. A steady drizzle was falling, which made me mutter a swear word because the street crud would get my car dirty, and the night was turning misty on top of that. Rain and fog are not a good combination. Thank goodness I don't have curly hair, so I never have to worry about frizz in circumstances like these.

If you ever have the opportunity to be an eyewitness to a newsworthy event, you at least want to look your best.

I had locked the door and turned around before I noticed the car at the back corner of the parking lot. It was a white Mustang. Nicole was waiting for me, damn it.

Instantly alert and faintly alarmed-after all, she had turned violent earlier-I stepped back so the wall was at my back and she couldn't catch me from behind. I looked in both directions, expecting her to come at me from out of the shadows, but nothing happened and I looked at the Mustang again, wondering if she was sitting in it waiting for me to leave. What was she going to do, follow me? Try to run me off the road? Pull alongside me and fire some shots? I didn't put anything past her.

The rain and fog made it impossible to tell if anyone was in the Mustang, but then I made out a figure standing on the far side of the car, and I saw blond hair. I reached into my bag for my cell phone, and turned it on. If she made one step toward me, I was calling 911.

Then the figure on the far side of the Mustang wavered and moved, and a bigger, darker shadow separated itself from Nicole. A man. Oh, hell, she'd brought someone to beat me up.

I punched in the 9 and the first 1.

A loud crack of noise made me jump a foot high, and my first thought was that lightning had struck nearby. But there hadn't been a blinding flash, nor did the ground shake. Then I realized the noise was probably a gunshot, and I was probably the target, and I squeaked in panic as I dropped to all fours behind the car. Actually, I was trying to scream, but all that would come out was this Minnie Mouse noise that would have embarrassed me if I hadn't been scared half to death. Nicole hadn't brought muscle; she'd brought a hit man.

I'd dropped my cell phone, and in the dark I couldn't see it. It didn't help that I was trying to watch all around me and so I couldn't really take the time to look for the phone. I just began sweeping the pavement with my hand, trying to locate it. Oh, shit, what if the hit man was coming over to see if he'd hit me with that first shot? I mean, I'd dropped to the ground, so thinking I'd been hit was reasonable. Should I lie flat and play dead? Crawl under the car? Try to get back inside the building and lock the door?

I heard a car engine start, and I looked up just as a dark four-door sedan cruised up the narrow side street and out of sight alongside the building. I heard it slow and stop at the intersection with the four-lane street, Parker, in front, then pull out into the fairly sparse traffic. I couldn't tell which way it turned.

Was that the hit man? If anyone else had been in the parking lot, surely he or she had heard the shot and therefore wouldn't be driving sedately away. The only sedate driver would be the shooter, right? Anyone else would have been getting the hell out of there, just like I desperately wanted to do.

Typical of Nicole to hire a sorry excuse for a hit man; he hadn't even checked to make certain I was dead. But even if the hit man had left, where was Nicole? I waited and listened, but there weren't any footsteps, nor the sound of the Mustang starting.

I got down on my stomach and peeked around one of my front tires. The white Mustang was still sitting in the parking lot, but there wasn't any sign of Nicole.

Nor were there any passersby rushing to investigate the shot or see if anyone was hurt. Great Bods was located in a good district, with small shops and restaurants nearby, but no houses-and the shops and restaurants catered mostly to the surrounding businesses, so all of the restaurants closed by six and the shops not long afterward. If anyone leaving Great Bods later than that wanted a sandwich, the closest place was about five blocks away. Until now, I hadn't realized how isolated that made the employees' parking lot at closing time.

No one else had heard the shot. I was on my own.

I had two choices. My car keys were in my pocket. I had two key rings because the sheer number of the keys I needed for the gym made the ring too bulky to carry around while I did errands or shopped. I could get to my car keys without delay, unlock the car with the remote, and hop in before Nicole could get to me-unless she was standing right on the other side of my car, which I didn't think she was, but anything was possible. But a car, especially a convertible, didn't feel substantial enough to hold off a psycho copycat. What if she was the one with the gun? A ragtop won't stop a bullet.

My other choice was to fish the big set of gym keys out of my bag, feel for the door key, unlock the door, and get inside. That would take more time, but I'd be much safer behind a locked door.

Well, I guess there was a third option, which was to look for Nicole and try to get the jump on her, and I might have if I'd known for certain she didn't have the gun. I didn't know, though, so no way was I playing hero. I may be blond, but I'm not stupid.

Also, fighting like that will break at least two fingernails. It's a given.

So I felt around in my bag until I located my keys. The key ring had a thingamabob in the middle that kept the keys from sliding completely around, so they were always in order. The door key was the first one to the left of the middle thingie. I isolated it, then, staying low, duck-walked backward to the door. The motion looks really awful but is a great exercise for the thighs and butt.

No one jumped out at me. There wasn't any sound at all except for the distant noise of occasional traffic over on Parker, and that was somehow spookier than if she had leaped, shrieking, over the roof of my car at me. Not that I thought Nicole could jump that far, unless her gymnastic skills were way, way better than she had let on, and I knew better than that because she was the type to show off. She couldn't even do a split, and if she'd tried to do a backflip, the weight of her boobs would have dumped her on her face.

God, I wished she'd tried a backflip at least once.

My hands were shaking only a little-okay, more than a little-but I managed to unlock the door on the first try. I practically shot through the opening, and really, I wish I had given myself another inch or two of clearance because I bruised my right arm on the doorjamb. But then I was inside, and I slammed the door and turned the dead bolt, then crawled away in case she shot through the door.

I always leave a couple of low-wattage lights burning at night, but they're both in front. The light switch for the back hallway was just inside the door, of course, and no way was I going so close to the door. Because I couldn't see where I was going, I continued to crawl along the hallway, feeling my way past the female employees' bathroom-the men's room was on the other side of the hallway-then the break room, and finally reached the third door, which was my office.

I felt like a base runner sliding into home. Safe!

Now that there were walls and a locked door between me and the psycho-bitch, I stood up and turned on the overhead lights, then picked up the phone and angrily jabbed 911. If she thought I wouldn't have her arrested for this, she had seriously underestimated how thoroughly pissed I was.