Fashion, Rosé & Foul Play – Gemma Halliday

“Flash me some teeth,” I said, aiming my camera at my best friend, Ava Barnett. Usually she was the one playing photographer for me, snapping pictures at events I attended or hosted to help promote my winery, Oak Valley Vineyards. Tonight, however, I’d pulled out my trusty old camera bag, and it was all about her and the amazing jewelry she made at her jewelry boutique, Silver Girl. She tossed her blonde hair and gave me a bright smile as she held up her wrist, displaying a silver charm bracelet with tiny gemstone accents. Then she pursed her lips, making a duck face and goofing with the camera in a way that had me laughing behind it. “You’re a natural born model,” I told her, snapping a couple more pics. “Shh.” She put her finger to her lips. “Don’t say that too loudly around here. Someone might wrangle me into a skimpy dress.” The two of us were in the Grand Ballroom of the local golf club, the Sonoma Links, which had been transformed into a makeshift backstage area for a charity fashion show being hosted there that evening. The air was electric with pre-show energy—hairdressers, makeup artists, designers, and models buzzing in all directions to make sure every button, zipper, accessory, frill, curl, and eyelash was positioned perfectly. The event featured fashions from two notable San Francisco designers who were showcasing several pieces from their latest collections, which would then be auctioned off with all proceeds going to help local children’s charities. Thanks to Ava’s father being a longstanding club member, she’d also gotten a key spot in the show—loaning all of the jewelry that the models would be accessorizing their custom outfits with. It was a huge opportunity for her, one that meant mass exposure to the type of clientele that would put her store on the map—country club members with deep pockets and addictions to shiny things.

“At least you could fit into one of the skimpy dresses,” I noted, watching a particularly short red outfit walk by us on a long legged creature who was at least three sizes smaller than I. “Please,” she said, waving me off as she smoothed imaginary wrinkles from her vintageinspired outfit. Black, salmon, and complimentary green lengths of fabric formed the skirt, while the black halter-type top did its best to contain her ample chest. “You know we’re the same size.” Which might technically be true—both of us owning wardrobes in size eight. Though Ava’s eight was more of an athletic, lithe shape that spoke to her love of outdoors, while mine was more of a soft, comfortable eight that spoke to my training as a chef…and regular enjoyment of the fruits of my own labor. Plus, her padding was up top, while mine tended to drift lower. Case in point—the little black dress I had on for the occasion, which was fitting just a little more snuggly than I would have liked in the hips. And waist. And bust.

Might be time to concede a size ten soon? “Oh, get a picture of the earrings Jada is wearing, would you?” Ava asked, pointing behind me. I spun, glancing in the direction she indicated, spotting the tall, slim, dark haired model, Jada Devereux. Her skin was a warm tan, and her stunning blue eyes were pale and wide, giving her an unexpected exotic look that was captivating in person. Her long, shiny hair was sleeked back from her face to showcase the dangling silver earrings accented with small crystals that caught the light with her every movement. Beside her I noticed Carl Costello, one of the designers being featured that night, using a roller to whisk away stray lint from her skintight navy jumpsuit. Like his model, he was also dressed in navy—in a turtleneck sweater and rhinestone studded blazer paired with white leather pants that clung to his stocky legs. Costello had been a fashion icon for years, his classic designs and chic silhouettes gracing runways from Paris to Milan as well as major department stores around the country. While his style was a bit more formal than my own—and a bit pricier than my meager bank account would allow—he had an uncanny knack for flattering a woman’s shape. Once he seemed satisfied that his subject was lint free, he gave Jada a wink and an affectionate pat on the cheek, having to lift just slightly on his tiptoes to do so. “Mr.

Costello, do you mind if we snap a picture?” I asked as Ava and I approached the pair. Costello turned his attention from his model, a bright smile taking over his round features as he spotted Ava. “Of course, my dahlings. Ava, these earrings are to die for. Très magnifique!” “Thank you,” Ava said humbly. “I’m just glad I could find a piece to accent your jumpsuit.” “Well, that you did! She looks stunning, doesn’t she?” he asked, standing back and admiring Jada as if she were a work of art. Jada smiled softly, expertly turning her head to just the right angle to show off the earrings. “She does,” I had to admit. Though, I had a feeling the model would look stunning in a paper bag.

I shot off a couple of up-close pictures of the earrings. “Do you mind if I grab one with you and Ava as well?” He waved his hands in dramatic fashion. “Yes, yes, of course. Quickly, though, babies. I’ve got to track down Gia.” “Track her down?” Ava asked, moving to pose next to Jada. “Is she missing?” Her blonde eyebrow drew down in concern. Concern I understood, as Gia Monroe was the show’s closer, slated to wear the highlight of Ava’s jewelry collection—a heavy, hand forged silver chain ending in a teardrop pendant holding a large, princess cut emerald. It was one of the most extravagant and expensive pieces Ava had ever made, having created it just for the occasion. Usually her designs ran more toward boho chic than gem encrusted, but knowing the type of crowd that would be in attendance that day and the type of exposure her designs would get, she’d gone all out.

A hundred thousand dollars all out, to be exact, just to purchase the green gem itself. An investment she was hoping to make back and then some with the sale of the necklace, as well as the demand for more that she hoped the show would generate. “No, no,” Costello said, waving off her concern as he stepped to the other side of Jada and draped an arm around her middle. “I’m sure she’s probably just holed up in her dressing room.” “Sipping champagne,” Jada added, speaking up for the first time. Costello laughed. “Yes, well, that’s Gia. Champagne and caviar all the way, right? Smile, dahlings!” He showed off a row of sparkling white veneers, and I quickly snapped off a few shots of the trio. As soon as I was finished, Costello turned back to Jada. “Quick, kisses for luck, babies, and I’m off.

” He dropped air kisses on either side of the ladies’ cheeks before giving me a little wave and going off in search of his champagne sipping starlet. Jada watched after him for a moment before giving us a nod and smile and fading into the sea of humanity bustling backstage. “Do you think I should check on Gia too?” Ava asked, biting her bottom lip. “I’m sure she’s fine,” I said. “But if it would make you feel better, it wouldn’t hurt to get a picture or two of you with the necklace before the show.” Only, before we had a chance to follow in Costello’s footsteps, a woman hailed Ava from across the room. “Yoo-hoo! Silver Girl!” The voice belonged to the other designer being featured that day, Daisy Dot. She was tall, almost as slim as her models, and sported wild frizzy hair that was colored in alternating pink and blue stripes, reminding me of cotton candy. Her outfit was a clash of bright, bold prints sewn in a seemingly random pattern that somehow all worked together—much like the outfits her models were wearing. Where Costello’s esthetic was sleek and classic, Daisy Dot’s was loud and exuberant in such a way that you couldn’t help but smile when you looked at it.

While Daisy was old enough that a swath of white hair mingled with the pink and blue, she was new to the fashion scene, having emerged as a breakout star on the hit reality TV competition show, On the Runway. I knew because I’d watched every episode of her season and, like the rest of the viewing public, had fallen in love with her big personality and quirky designs. I tried not to be star struck as she made her way through the increasingly chaotic backstage area toward us. “You—you’re the jewelry woman, right? Silver Girl?” she asked, reaching Ava’s side. My best friend nodded. “Yes, Ava Barnett. It’s a pleasure to work with you, Ms. Dot.” Daisy threw her head back and laughed. “Daisy, please.

And the pleasure is all mine. I love discovering emerging artists.” She turned her attention to me. “Are you a jeweler as well?” “No,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m just here to support Ava.” “This is Emmy Oak,” Ava said, properly introducing me. “She runs Oak Valley Vineyards. It’s a winery just outside of town.” “A winery! Now you’re speaking my language,” Daisy said with a wink. “Don’t suppose you smuggled any of your wares backstage? I could really go for a glass of rosé right about now.

” I laughed. “No, sorry. But I’m sure there will be plenty of refreshments at the reception after the show.” She shrugged. “I suppose I’ll live until then.” “Though, if you’re in town for the weekend, please do feel free to stop by the winery,” I offered. “I’d be happy to give you a personal tour.” “Oh, honey, that’s an offer I can’t pass up.” She winked again before turning to Ava. “Listen, Silver Girl, would you mind having a look at the necklace Amanda is wearing? I don’t think it’s lying quite right.

” “Of course,” Ava agreed, following as Daisy led the way to where her models were starting to line up for the show. “I have to say, I’m a huge fan,” I told Daisy as we approached her model, Amanda, a redhead wearing a large, hand forged silver collar. “I watched you on On the Runway.” “Well, thank you.” Daisy did an exaggerated bow. “I try my best to infuse a little fun into fashion.” She glanced over to where two of Costello’s models stood in tailored pantsuits. “A lot more fun than that snoozefest Boring-ello, huh?” She chuckled at her own joke. Luckily, I was saved from answering, as she turned her attention to her model, directing Ava to make some small adjustments to the clasp on the necklace in question. I hung back, letting Ava do her thing, enjoying the front row seat to the beautiful, one-of-akind creations around me.

By the time Ava had the necklace lying across the model’s clavicle just how Daisy had envisioned, I could see the rest of the models lining up as well—Jada in her navy jumpsuit beside two other tall women in sleek skirts and well-constructed blazers, clearly walking for Costello. Several of Daisy’s colorfully clad ladies were also in line, the makeup and hair teams having shifted from their stations to last looks before the ladies emerged onto the outdoor runway. I did not, however, see Gia and the emerald necklace among them yet. I could see the frown on Ava’s face as she moved down the line, checking the jewelry on each model, clearly noticing the same absence. “I’ll go make sure Costello found her,” I assured her, stowing my camera in its small black bag for safety. Ava nodded. “Thanks,” she said as I stepped away. The weather this time of year was perfect for an outdoor show, and the Links had set up a long runway down the south lawn, leading from the large Grand Ballroom that had been converted to the staging area, through the several dozen wooden folding chairs set out for eager audience members. Off the interior of the ballroom, I found what looked like a smaller storeroom, now converted to a private dressing room with the name Gia Monroe taped to the outside. I moved my hand to knock but stopped as I heard voices on the other side.

Raised ones. I paused, not sure if I should intrude. “…you know what that means,” yelled one voice—clearly female and presumably Gia’s. “…dare threaten me?” came the reply. Male. And a voice I recognized, having just heard it earlier. Costello. I felt a frown form. Threaten was a big word. Despite not initially meaning to eavesdrop, I leaned forward, straining to hear the reply.

Unfortunately, through the thick wooden door, I was only able to make out snippets of it. “…big talk,” Gia yelled. “…old man!” Whatever they were arguing about, it was getting heated. The volume of Costello’s response rose so high that I made out every word. “Careful what you wish for, dahling. It might be your last!” I was trying to interpret the meaning behind that when the door in front of me was suddenly flung open, Costello charging out so furiously that he almost plowed right into me. I stepped to the side to avoid a collision, but he barely acknowledged my presence, his pudgy face red, his jaw tense, as he stalked toward the rest of the models. I waited until he was clear before peeking into the dressing room through the open doorway. If she’d been affected by the exchange with the designer, Gia didn’t show it, calmly perched on the edge of a tall chair, long legs crossed one over the other in a flowing, floor length silver gown with a slit so high you could almost see her lady bits. In her hand she held a slim champagne flute, and on her lips sat a smirk of satisfaction.

Whatever the exchange between the two had been about, she clearly felt she’d had the last word. Though, all of that felt secondary as I spied the large, sparkling emerald necklace clasped around her neck, safe and sound and ready to dazzle the jewelry buying elite of Sonoma Valley. “Uh, Gia?” I asked. She turned a pair of bored brown eyes my way. “Yes?” “Everyone else is lining up for the show now.” She gave a small shrug of her slim shoulders. “So?” “So, maybe you should join them…?” I trailed off, feeling very out of my element. She gave a small laugh. “Sweetie, I don’t know who you are, but the show will start when I get there.” With that, she slipped off her perch, gracefully crossed the few feet to the door, and slammed it in my face.

Well, that went well. I tried not to take it personally as I retraced my steps back to the staging area, where Ava was just finishing adjustments on a pair of bracelets around the wrist of a beautifully androgynous model in a tutu and halter top. “Is Gia coming?” Ava asked, the frown still etched on her face. I nodded. “She’s dressed, and the necklace looks stunning,” I assured her. She smiled, some of the worry easing out of her. “Good. She had me nervous.” Me too. But I didn’t voice that.

“She’s a professional,” I said instead. “I’m sure the show will go off without a hitch.” I glanced up, noting the stage manager was signaling for the ladies to get in position to walk. “We should probably go find our seats.” Ava nodded, wishing the model in the tutu good luck. Then she slipped her arm into the crook of my own as I hoisted my camera bag onto my shoulder and we made our way back through the ballroom. We stepped out a side door and inconspicuously joined the growing crowd assembling outside to watch the show. The Links Club had done a great job creating a fashion week atmosphere. The wooden planks that had been constructed for the runway were polished and gleaming beneath the lights erected for the event. Club patrons chatted excitedly to one another as they took their seats, trading in their usual tennis skirts and polo shirts for cocktail dresses and slacks.

As we took our seats, the music began to pulse, signaling the start of the show. All chatter subsided, all eyes on the large curtain erected at the head of the runway. I could feel the audience’s collective anticipation as they leaned forward to catch sight of the designs…and hopefully mentally calculate their bids for the outfits afterwards. The air buzzed with excitement, and murmurs of approval washed through the crowd the moment the curtain separated. One by one, the models strutted down the runway, fierce expressions on their faces. Costello’s clean lines and tailored cuts were the picture of elegance, and I saw several heads nodding their approval. In contrast, Daisy’s models looked flirty, fun, and casual, causing smiles to ripple through the audience. In addition to Daisy’s funky prints, her current line featured a diamond shaped cutout in the back of each outfit as a signature look that tied her wacky collection together. She had also paired each outfit with long, elegant gloves and a wide brimmed felt hat—adding to the eclectic vibe. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Daisy’s collection was almost mocking Costello’s—taking a jab at traditional sophistication.

Either way, the effect of the juxtaposition of their styles was lively and entertaining, offering something for every taste. I held Ava’s hand as I watched several women point out the jewelry to their companions. I hoped they were making notes to purchase after the show. The whole spectacle was over much too soon, ending with Gia, bursting through the curtain right on cue. I let out a sigh of relief as she sashayed onto the runway in a long, flowing gown that billowed beautifully behind her. I heard a collective gasp from the crowd, followed by applause. At least some of which I hoped were for the stunning necklace showcased in the scooped neck design of the dress. I had to admit, the way the light reflected off the emerald was almost magical. I lifted my camera, taking several pictures that I knew Ava could use on her social media pages to draw in clients not in attendance at the actual event. “She looks gorgeous,” I whispered to my friend.

Ava squeezed my hand, her eyes not on the runway but on the crowd’s reaction. “Let’s hope they all think so too.” “They will,” I promised. I gave her a grin and squeezed back. As the show came to a close, all of the models joined Gia on the stage, and Costello and Daisy both made the walk down the runway to thunderous applause. “Thank you all so much for coming to support such a worthy cause,” Costello said into a microphone as he reached the end of the runway. “We hope you’ve enjoyed the look at our latest collections and will bid generously in the auction to follow the reception.” More applause followed as Costello did a deep bow and Daisy curtsied. “And,” Costello added, straightening up again, “we would both like to thank Ava Barnett of Silver Girl for the loan of the magnificent jewelry you’ve seen our models wearing today, all of which will be available for sale in her shop downtown and online.” He blew a kiss in Ava’s direction, and I felt her relax beside me for the first time that day.

She smiled and waved as the eyes of the crowd went her way. “Advertising doesn’t get better than that,” I mumbled to her. “Let’s just hope the sales follow,” she said. But the smile on her face looked much more optimistic. As the designers and models left the stage, we waited a few minutes for the crowd to thin out. Guests slowly rose from their seats, making their way toward the lounge where a cocktail reception preceded the live auction. If there were two things the Links Club set enjoyed, it was spending money and drinking. Tonight I hoped they indulged in both. I hoisted my bag onto my shoulder, and we followed the crowd to the brightly lit lounge, where servers in the blue polos bearing the club logo were already circulating the room with trays of red and white wine. I snagged a couple glasses of white from a passing waiter, handing one to Ava as we made our way through the crowd.

“This is well deserved,” I told her. “Cheers to a great show.” She took the glass, clinking gently against mine. “Thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you.” “You could have,” I argued. “But it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.” She laughed. “Agreed,” she said, taking a sip from her glass. “Let me go collect the jewelry and get it in the safe, and then we can really celebrate.

” “I’ll help,” I offered, following her toward the hallway that led to the Grand Ballroom. The mood backstage was even more celebratory than the one in the lounge, the collective breath everyone had been holding now exhaled on a successful finish. We passed a few models heading toward the lounge—changed from their designer duds into street wear. I didn’t see Daisy or Costello anywhere and assumed they were likely in the lounge chatting up their designs pre-bidding. Several of the crew seemed to have dispersed already as well, a couple makeup artists cleaning up brushes and models lingering as they changed into lower heels. The Silver Girl jewelry the models had shed was laid out on a low table near the back wall. Ava made quick work of putting each piece back into the velvet lined box she’d brought it in and checking it off her inventory list. A few were still unaccounted for as we began, but they trickled in as she packed pieces away until almost every velvet lined box was full. “Just one piece left,” Ava finally said, looking up from her list. “Gia’s emerald.

” I glanced across the room to the closed dressing room door bearing her name. “Well, she took her time getting ready. Maybe she’s just as slow undressing.” Ava picked up the last box, a large, square one. “Think we should rush her? I’d really feel better once this is all locked up in the club safe.” “It is your necklace,” I pointed out. Ava nodded, and I followed her to the starlet’s dressing room door, where Ava rapped sharply. “Gia?” she called. No response. We waited a beat, but I heard nothing on the other side of the door to indicate that she’d heard us.

Ava tried again. “Gia? It’s Ava Barnett—the jewelry designer? I need to lock up the emerald necklace now.” Still nothing from the other side of the door. Ava pursed her lips together. “Maybe she’s not in there?” I glanced around the largely empty backstage area. “Where else would she be?” I asked. “You don’t think she’d wear the necklace to the reception, would she?” Ava asked. I shook my head. “She’d know better.” As much as Gia had struck me as a diva, she had seemed like a professional on the runway.

I couldn’t imagine her walking out with someone else’s jewelry like that. “Gia?” Ava tried one last time, accompanied by another knock at the door. When no answer resulted, she put a hand on the knob and twisted it. She glanced at me. “Unlocked.” She pushed the door open. “Gia, are you—” But that was as far as she got before her voice froze in her throat, catching and turning into a strangled sort of gasp. One I echoed as I spied Gia. She lay faceup on the floor, her long legs crumpled under her at an odd angle, her big brown eyes open and staring at the ceiling, mouth frozen in a grimace of horror as the heavy chain she’d been so artfully wearing earlier sat tightly tangled around her neck. It was clear why Gia hadn’t answered our knock.

Gia Monroe was dead.

.

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