Skin Deep

A blinding blitzkrieg of flash bulbs greeted soap opera star Jordan Bellamy as he stepped from the revolving door into Palm Springs’ elegant Arroyo Plaza Hotel lobby. Cool confidence hugged him as he turned to receive his Edenville co-star Alizia March as she emerged from the door’s next pie-slice shaped section. He then acknowledged the barrage of lights for the first time with a quick squint and a slight dip of his head. He took Alizia’s hand and, together, they pressed forward smiling at and posing for the mix of cooing star-struck fans and demanding paparazzi.

“I love you, Jordan,” shrieked a young female voice, “even if you play that evil, conniving Casey Horton.”

“I don’t play him. I am him,” the actor said with a sinister smile.

The fan laughed.  “No, you’re not.”

“Oh, but I am, dear. In fact, I am plotting a shocking scheme right now, as we speak.”

“No, you’re not,” the young woman repeated, as she looked into Jordan’s eyes. It sounded like both a statement and a question. “You can’t be.”

“Can’t I?” the actor said with a wink.

Next to them, another Edenville fan gasped, “Oh my god, you’re so beautiful, Alizia.”

“Thank you, sweetie,” Alizia cooed, as she patted the plain, plump, woman’s hand.

“Over here!” demanded a gruff middle-age male photographer as he rudely pushed his way between two awe-struck college-age girls who stumbled out of the way, the look of adoration never leaving their faces.

In an effort to avoid the sharp flashes bombarding him, Jordon looked up over the cameras. Above them and their stabbing lights he noticed a large banner hanging from the lofty ceiling. “Welcome, Miss American Beauty Roses” it blared in bold red and gold. He looked down again at the crowd and squeezed Alizia’s hand.

As their eyes adjusted to the frenzied bright bursts of light around them, Jordan and Alizia began to see details of the people greeting them. They saw faces, smiles, bouquets of roses, and T-shirts. Then they realized the T-shirts the people wore also had faces on them, faces with smiles, faces surrounded by roses. People in the crowd were wearing shirts featuring photos of their favorite Miss American Beauty Rose contestants.

“We love you, Kelli!” announced a pair of pink cotton shirts. An outline of Minnesota surrounded the smiling wholesome blonde beauty flirting from the front of them. “Vienna is #1!” bragged a shirt with a photo of a raven-haired beauty adorning it. The outline of South Carolina rested on Vienna’s heart. “Katie…Nevada’s Beauty Rose” stated a third shirt. Katie’s picture beamed from inside the over-sized dot over the “i” in her name.

Guiding Alizia through the gauntlet of fans and photographers, Jordan reached an unexpected open space and spotted a wall of elevator doors to the left. He tried to steer his co-star toward them when he noticed a beaming African-American woman blocking their path. She was carrying a microphone. A pale stocky man with a shaved head stood next to her, a video camera hiding his face. It was aimed at Jordan and Alizia.

Jordan involuntarily jerked Alizia’s hand. “It’s D’Ebony Jones from E-Scene,” he whispered.

“I know. Smile.”

“Look who’s here,” D’Ebony bubbled. “Two of the pageant’s judges. Casey and Gina from Edenville. But off the set they’re Jordan Bellamy and Alizia March. How are you two?”

“Fine, D’Ebony,” Jordan responded, a well-practiced smile on his face. “Hello E-Scene viewers,” he added as he gazed directly at the camera.

“We’re just so excited to be here, to be a part of this new event,” Alizia added with cheerleader enthusiasm. “I think it’s wonderful how the Association of American Florists created this beauty pageant…I mean scholarship program.”

“That it is, Alizia,” D’Ebony concurred with artificial enthusiasm. “So, what will you two be looking for in the first Miss American Beauty Rose?”

“Her inner qualities,” Alizia replied. It was a programmed, practiced response. “Since all the girls are so beautiful, we have to find that special quality that sets her aside. But,” she cut short the spontaneous interview, “we have to jet; we’re late for a judges briefing upstairs.”

“Well, we certainly are looking forward to seeing you Saturday night,” D’Ebony obliged as she stepped to the side.

“See you then,” Jordan answered as he led Alizia toward the elevators. Two stern-faced security officers blocked their path.

“You’ll need your pageant ID bracelets beyond here, folks,” the taller man pointed out.

“Oh, of course,” Alizia cooperated as she reached into her bulky straw bag. “How forgetful of me. Here’s yours, Jordan,” she said offering her partner a stretchy burgundy bracelet with a rose-shaped ID badge hanging from it. The security officers eyed the badges, smiled with approval, and then parted, allowing the actors access to the elevators. The broad-shouldered men quickly closed ranks behind the two celebrities, protecting them from any aggressive fans or paparazzi. Jordan pressed the elevator call button.

“The meeting is on the mezzanine, isn’t it?” Jordan asked as they waited. “And our suites are on seven?”

“Yep,” Alizia replied as an elevator to their left arrived. As the duo turned toward the elevator, a strikingly handsome man emerged from it and began to walk toward them. He was at least six feet tall, had jet-black hair, gray eyes, and a strong masculine jaw line. He also had a burgundy rose-shaped pageant ID card hanging from his left wrist. He wore a white t-shirt that confidently boasted “My Michelle, the American Beauty Rose.” Below those words was a picture of a stunning, smiling, fair-haired young woman. A ring of baby roses encircled the picture. The man’s gaze drifted past Jordan and then abruptly landed on Alizia.”

“Oh. Wow!” he exhaled under his breath just loud enough for Jordan to hear as the man’s eyes flickered recognition. He smiled at the actress as he walked past her.

“My god, Lizzie, did you see him? He was hot!” Jordan panted under his breath as they stepped toward the open elevator door.

“Sssshhh!” Alizia ordered as they entered the car. They stood in silence, waiting for the door to close.

When it shut and their privacy was assured, Jordan dismissed her order. “No one heard me, Lizzie. We’re alone.”

“Well, just watch what you say and where you say it, Jor,” Alizia reminded her co-star. “And, yes, he was hot.”

“I wonder how much he wants his Michelle to win this thing.”

“Who?”

“Michelle. His girlfriend. The chick on his shirt,” Jordan explained.

“Yeah,” Alizia exhaled with a giggle as the elevator rose to the mezzanine. A moment later the door opened and they stepped out and into a greeting area in front of several meeting rooms. The room in front of them was marked “Contestant Interviews.” Its entry was wide, allowing the two actors to peer in. It appeared to be an empty banquet hall or ballroom. To its left was a room redundantly designated “Media & Press.” Several men and women stood in front of it, chatting and laughing. Muffled voices from within the room buzzed behind them.

A doorway on the far side of the contestant interview room drew Jordan’s attention. A “Judges’ Chamber” sign was posted next to it. “That’s it, “Jordan deduced as he took Alizia’s hand again. He took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”

They strode across the interview room and stepped into the Judges’ Chamber, scanning it as they entered. A bar was set up along the left wall with a separate barista station just feet from it. A long mahogany table sat across the room, opposite the refreshment area. A dozen high-backed chairs, luxuriously upholstered in royal blue, surrounded it. Two men and a woman stood at the far end of the table, studying an open folder on it. One of the men looked up as Jordan and Alizia stepped forward.

“Aaahh,” he greeted. “Welcome to the Miss American Beauty Rose Pageant. I’m Armando Montalban, president of the Association of American Florists.”

“Oh, it is so nice to finally meet you, Armando. I’m Jordan and this is Alizia March.” He reached out to shake Montalban’s hand as he neared him.

“Well, I know that, Jordan. No need to introduce yourselves. I must say it is wonderful to have you here and actually meet you. No more going through your agents. The other judges should be arriving momentarily.”

“We’re already here,” a gruff man’s voice called from the doorway, correcting Montalban. In unison, the startled cluster of people at the table turned toward the unexpected voice. Stepping quickly across the room was iconic ’70s fashion designer Duardo Rossini, his pastel blue silk suit whispering hushed greetings as he approached. Trailing him was a petite, elegant African-American woman, perhaps in her sixties, who, because of her rose-red stiletto heels, was struggling to keep up with him. She pouted a look of exaggerated frustration.

Alizia smiled serenely. But her excited words to Jordan, whispered through ventriloquist-like lips, betrayed her calm exterior. “Oh my god. It’s Rossini!”

“Yeah,” Jordan snapped back. “But look who is with him.”

“Who is she?”

“Who is she? Jordan repeated in under-his-breath shock. “That is LaTrice Terry. Broadway legend LaTrice Terry. We’re judging this pageant with Rossini and LaTrice Terry!”

“How are you?” Montalban erupted with joy as the duo arrived at the table. “Have you met the other judges? Jordan Bellamy and Alizia March from Edenville. Duardo and LaTrice. And over here we have,” Montalban motioned toward the man and woman who had been at the table with him when Jordan and Alizia had arrived, “we have award-winning Rose Parade float designers Daphne and Scott Nickerson. We’re only waiting for Ivano, and he’s in the building.”

As the gathering of judges greeted and fawned over each other, a tall, slender man with a tight, white ponytail slid into the room. He silently sidled over to the group. “I’m here,” he announced with the slightest hint of a Russian accent. “Finally.”

“Ah, wonderful,” Montalban replied. Does everyone here know Ivano, Palm Springs’ greatest hair stylist?”

The other judges smiled and nodded as if they knew the man. None did. But they greeted him as if he were a long lost friend. The group’s excited chatter and sporadic laughter filled the meeting room like instruments tuning up in an orchestra pit.

“So, I suppose,” Montalban interrupted the din after several minutes, “we should start the instructions.”

***

The Arroyo Plaza’s five-star restaurant Shade was buzzing with pageant personnel and contestants’ families when Jordan and Alizia entered the elegant dining room that evening. Clusters of people impatiently socialized in the restaurant’s foyer and in the bar as they waited for their reserved tables to become available. The two Miss American Beauty Rose Pageant judges, however, did not have to wait.

“Ah, Miss Marsh, Mr. Bellamy,” the maitre d’ greeted them as they approached his station. “Please, come this way,” he requested as he motioned toward a private alcove along the rear wall. “Your table is ready.” As Alizia followed him, gliding between Shade’s many tables, heads turned in her direction. Many of the diners recognized the star; many were merely stunned by the unknown woman’s elegance and beauty. She smiled as she passed through the room, glancing only occasionally at those around her. Jordan followed. His gait, however, was not as graceful as hers as he awkwardly, disjointedly stopped, twisted and turned, and stumbled as he acknowledged the many receptive onlookers. He offered some quick handshakes, gentle pats and hushed hellos. As he straightened up to refocus on where he was going, Jordan noticed a man peering quizzically in his direction from a table near the far wall. The man was handsome, dark-haired, and light- eyed. In an instant Jordan Bellamy realized that the man, this handsome man, was the same man who had brushed past Alizia and himself earlier as they awaited the elevator. Jordan glanced back at him and acknowledged the man’s gaze with a quick smile.

“I hope this table meets your approval,” the maitre d’ offered as he reached their alcove, subtly separated from the main dining area by a row of tall leafy plants. He stopped and motioned toward the table. Alizia also stopped. But Jordan, neck craned and still focused on the man, did not stop. He stumbled, instead, bumping into Alizia’s back.

“Oh, sorry, babe,” he sputtered as he stepped around the plants to the far side of the table. “Yes, this is fine.” As the maitre d’ seated Alizia, Jordan made certain the man at the table by the far wall was in his line of sight through the greenery.

As the two actors perused their menus, Jordan continually checked to ascertain if the man were still there. He was just being served his meal when Jordan and Alizia’s waiter arrived. He was a middle-aged man whose demeanor reflected years of experience. “You have decided?” he asked.

The moment the waiter left the table, orders scribbled on a notepad in his head, Jordan slyly smiled and leaned in toward his co-star. “I believe I have found him, Ms. Marsh,” he whispered. “Our guy. Our pigeon. Our experiment. Our opportunist. I’ll be right back.”

“Oh, Jor,” Alizia whined so quietly only two leaves from the row of lush plants separating her from the other diners heard. “Don’t.” But it was too late; Jordan had risen, taken a deep breath, and exited their alcove aiming directly toward the man. The man looked up as Jordan neared. He struggled to rein in his surprise and smile.

“We ran into you earlier, didn’t we? Are you here for the pageant?” Jordan asked, faking ignorance. The vision of the man’s t-shirt curving over his defined chest danced in Jordan’s memory as he asked the fraudulent questions.

“Yes…to both questions,” said the man. My girlfriend…fiancee…is Miss Ohio, Michelle Krasny. Her parents and I are here to support her.”

“Ah, cool.”

“And you’re here alone tonight because?”

“Oh, her parents went to Desert Hot Springs to see some old friends of theirs. High school friends. They’re having dinner with them.” The man paused a moment. “Um, that is Alizia March you’re with? Right?”

“Well, of course,” Jordan answered with a chuckle.

“She’s beautiful. She would win this contest hands down,” he gushed like a junior high boy watching a college cheerleader. “Oh, don’t tell Michelle I said that.”

“You’re safe with me.”

“Oh,” the man interrupted, a wrinkle of guilt creasing his forehead, “You’re not like an item, are you? I’m not stepping on your…”

“No. No. Don’t worry about that,” Jordan reassured the apologetic man. “This gig is purely professional, set up by our producers to promote the show. Hey, would you like to meet Alizia?”

“Well, sure.”

“OK, tell you what. Alizia likes to eat without interruptions. So why don’t you come up to our suite later? Say 8:30. I’ll introduce you. We’ll have a drink.” Jordan looked at the man quizzically. “Hey, how can I introduce you? I don’t know your name.”

The man smiled embarrassedly and began to laugh. It was a deep, sonorous laugh. “I’m sorry. I’m Dave. Dave Doyle.”

“And I’m Jordan Bellamy.”

“I know,” Dave said with a final hearty chuckle. “Who doesn’t? Anyway, it’s nice to meet you…officially, Jordan.”

“OK, then. It’s set. Eight-thirty, Suite 7A.” Jordan stood. “I should get back to Alizia. We’ll see you later.”

As soon as he returned to his table and seated himself, Jordan looked directly into Alizia’s eyes and whispered, “We got him. He’s coming up at 8:30.”

“What’s this ‘we’ stuff? I ain’t involved in this,” Alizia countered with a smile. “This is your project, your baby.”

                                                                       ***

Dave Doyle stood frozen in front of the hotel room door. He stared at it, focusing on the gold 7-A. He peeked at his watch. He raised his right hand to knock, but stopped in mid-movement. Instead, he rechecked his watch. Bold digits announced 8:31. Dave took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and knocked. The first two raps were timid, weak, lacking confidence. The next three were louder, more authoritative. He took a step back and tried to shake the nervous tension from his upper body.

Inside the hotel suite Jordan Bellamy responded to the five rapid knocks by striding toward the door. “Who is it?” he called when he reached it.

“Dave. Doyle. Dave Doyle,” the visitor sputtered. He smiled. It was an awkward smile, the kind one has when trying to conceal nervousness.

“Ah, Dave,” Jordan greeted as he opened the door. “Welcome.”

Dave’s jittery smile instantaneously morphed into a look of surprise. Jordan stood in the doorway draped in a loose, powder blue bath robe. It was plush, calf-length, and strategically tied to reveal well-defined pecs and tight, flat abs. Dave’s gaze quickly darted from Jordan’s hairless chest to his face and then over his shoulder into the room.

“Come on in,” Jordan invited. “I was just about to get into the hot tub. Join me. The wine is already poured.”

“Oh, well…I thought…I couldn’t. I don’t have anything to wear,” Dave bumbled with startled discomfort. The unexpected greeting had clearly unnerved him. “Is Alizia here?”

“No. She isn’t. I’m sorry. She’s meeting with Ivano, the hair-stylist who’s a judge with us. Something to do with extensions or falls or something. You know. Girl stuff.”

“But, I thought…”Dave stammered, “…OK, then. Well, since Alizia isn’t here, I should go.” He looked around the room and then out to the deck. A small, two-person hot tub filled the corner, a small table next to it. A wine bottle and two glasses filled with a light, white wine sat on it. “I didn’t want to interrupt your hot tub.”

“You wouldn’t be interrupting it, Dave. You’d be joining me. It would be a good way to meet an Edenville fan.”

“Joining you? I can’t. I didn’t bring a suit,” Dave repeated his protest. This time it was more emphatic, more confident.

“You don’t need a suit. I don’t have a suit. Jacuzzis, saunas, all those things are better without suits. That’s the way they were meant to be used.”

“I couldn’t. That would be just too…

“Dave, do you want Michelle to win this pageant?”

“What?”

“Do you want Michelle to win this pageant?” Jordan repeated more sharply.

“Well, of course I do.”

“Then join me in the hot tub.”

“But…” Dave’s protest weakened. “I’m not…I can’t…” he faltered as the true intent of Jordan’s seductive demand became clear.

“If you want Michelle to become Miss American Beauty Rose, Dave, you will take your clothes off and follow me into the hot tub, Jordan advised a third time. This time, however, his threatening tone was tinged with sexual urgency. “Remember, Alizia and I are two of seven votes on the panel. And she’s with another judge right now.” He waited a beat and then turned, walked toward the tub, dropped his robe exposing his back side, stepped into the hot water, and sat.

Dave Doyle watched Jordan in stunned silence, realizing, with great discomfort, the dilemma he faced. Jordan began twisting his head back and forth, tilting it, stretching his neck muscles. He sunk a bit lower in the hot water and released a long, deep, sensuous “aaaahhh.” Dave, his discomfort growing, turned and looked at the door. He turned toward Jordan again and peered at the man, weighing his options.  Jordan stared straight ahead, knowing his visitor was studying him, evaluating the situation. Jordan said nothing. Although tense silence paced between the men, Dave was certain he heard a perturbed, impatient, “Well…?” emanate from the tub’s steamy vapors.

A sense of hopelessness, resignation, inevitability, seemed to take over Dave’s body. He stepped toward the deck. He stopped and took a deep breath. He began to unbutton his shirt. When he had opened the last one, he took it off and dropped it on a chair. He pulled his shoes off without untying their laces, too nervous to struggle with them. He tugged off his socks, hopping from one foot to the other as he did it. He unbuckled his belt, unzipped his fly, dropped his trousers, and stepped out of them. He stood facing the hot tub in his snug gray boxer-briefs, his penis clearly outlined in them. As Dave fearfully slid his underwear down his legs and stepped from them, Jordan stood up and turned toward the naked man. Jordan gazed at Dave’s crotch, smiled with approval, and reached for the two wine glasses on the table. He lifted them up and offered one to the self-conscious, confused, and frightened Dave.

“To Michelle,” Jordan toasted as Dave reached the tub.

                                                                     ***

The tension and excitement in the Arroyo Palms Hotel Grand Ballroom was as thick as a luxurious European facial moisturizer as the three finalists for the first Miss American Beauty Rose anxiously stood, hand in hand, at the center of the room’s crowded stage.

“Our second runner-up,” announced pageant emcee and Los Angeles radio personality Ryan Riviera, “is North Carolina’s American Beauty Rose LaShawnee Jackson.” Applause and cheers filled the hall, with an unusually loud burst of shrieks erupting from a cluster of the North Carolinian’s family and supporters near the right wall.

As LaShawnee Jackson exited the stage, Dave Doyle stared at the two beautiful women remaining on it, embracing each other and giggling nervously. He focused for a moment on the taller, raven-haired contestant, confident in her flowing red evening gown. Then Dave fixed on the other woman, the blonde in the form-fitting white dress, the woman with the Ohio’s American Beauty Rose sash draped across her, the woman for whom he would do anything. He looked down at his feet, guilt racing across his face, and folded his hands in prayer in his lap.

     “Oh God, I hope I did the right thing,” he pleaded. “She must never know.” Then he peeked to his left, to Michael and Rochelle Krasny who stood with a mix of parental pride, excitement, and disbelief on their faces. “And they must never find out what I did. Promise me that, God,” he prayed. Dave Doyle looked up, stared at the stage, clenched his fists, and awaited the announcement of the winner.

“And that leaves two,” continued Riviera. “In the event that the winner can not fulfill the duties of her title as Miss American Beauty Rose, the first runner-up will take over.”

Riviera purposely waited a moment before continuing. Excited tension filled the auditorium. A whispered hush roared through it. Dave Doyle swallowed. Jordan Bellamy and Alizia March, sitting at the front-row judges table, subtly, knowingly peeked at one another. She turned away, a flash of shame smearing her lips. Jordan’s gaze drifted toward the stage and the final two contestants as his heart pounded. His expressionless stare covered up his evil soul’s satisfied chuckle.

“The first runner-up is…Ohio’s American Beauty Rose Michelle Krasny. Our first Miss American Beauty Rose is Tennessee’s Lindy Lee Weller!”

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