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Petit Morts #6: Pretty Ugly

Pretty Ugly cover

Pretty Ugly by Jordan Castillo Price

Series: Petit Morts #6
Length: Novelette - 16,250 words - 53 page PDF
Cover artist: Jordan Castillo Price - see larger cover
ISBN: 978-1-935540-15-1


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Buy the Bundle and Save • Petit Morts Dozen

Hue Tint & Shade, Moolah and Moonshine, Spanish Fly Guy, Pretty Ugly, One Less Stiff at the Funeral, Wishink Well, Happily Neverafter, London Eye, Spirits and Second Chances, Loose Change, Media Naranja, Immortal Coil

$35.88 $24.99 (save a massive 30%!)
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Summary

Just because Dominic Mann personally lacks beauty doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate it. His keen eye has made him one of the most celebrated and sought-after photographers in Nashville.

The grand re-opening of the Cypress Mansion is an event for Nashville’s truly elite, and Dominic is the official photographer of the evening. Not that he’d need that excuse to introduce himself to up-and-coming singer Johnny Palomino and grab a few shots…but it doesn’t hurt.

Dominic hopes to take his flirtation with Johnny to the next level at the Cypress Mansion tea, where they’ve arranged to meet. But what greets Dominic in the mirror the next morning is such a shock, he’s almost late for the party.

No one at Cypress Mansion is acting like they notice anything different. Or do they?

 

Excerpt

A sweltering September Tennessee afternoon had settled into a cool, hazy night. When Mimi Van der Berg appeared at the top of the grand staircase, Dominic could have sworn she was glowing.

The light in Cypress Mansion was nothing at all like the light in Hoboken by which Dominic had learned to shoot. Here in Nashville, the days were tinted gently blue, unless it was raining, in which case the light took on a subtle, cool, diffuse quality. Twilight gave a delicious carnation cast to white skin, and a striking amber highlight to black. And evening—which should have been the same as anywhere else in the civilized world, lit as it was by ambient incandescent bulbs and his cherished Nikon SP900 speedlight—held a magical radiance he had never seen anywhere but Nashville.

He stood in the foyer shoulder to shoulder with everybody who was anybody in the Cypress Estate Preservation Society. On one side, he brushed elbows with a tall historian in a tuxedo, and on the other, a twenty-something kid in a string tie and a spray tan.

Dominic braced his elbow against his chest and captured a shot of Mimi just as she drew breath to welcome her exclusive guests. He might not be able to capture the exact quality of the light, but he’d damn well try.

Mimi was a vision in orange, crowned by a severe silver wig. Most women her age—mid-eighties if she was a day—would have chosen a traditional black dress, or maybe a muted earth tone, if black made them feel as if they were celebrating their husbands’ funerals prematurely. Not Mimi. Orange was a difficult color to wear, but standing there, framed by the meticulously restored banisters, Mimi beamed down at the throng as slender and graceful as a daylily.

Dominic couldn’t think of any other person who’d attempt a wig like that, aside from Lady Gaga. But Mimi Van der Berg worked it as if she’d been born with it.

“Welcome, one and all, to the grand re-opening of Cypress Mansion.” Her accent was southern, and incredibly genteel. There was a hint of throatiness to her voice, not from cigarettes, but possibly bourbon. “We at Cypress Mansion are opening our doors for the first time since February, when the restoration of the dish pantry and the family dining room began.”

If Dominic had retained an assistant, he would have positioned that lucky soul to Mimi’s side with a gold reflector to smooth out some of the less flattering shadows. But since most people had a hard time acting natural with a crew of assistants and interns around them, Dominic usually worked alone. It just meant he needed to look more closely for the opportune shots.

“While last spring’s unprecedented rains delayed some of the restoration, thankfully Cypress itself escaped the flooding with minimal damage.”
Toward the foot of the stairs, a hand popped up out of the crowd as if someone was gauche enough to interrupt Mimi’s speech with a question. Light from the overhead chandelier glinted off shiny black plastic: a cameraphone.

Mimi gestured toward the door without breaking stride. “It would have been such a shame if harm had come to this mansion. Cypress is a rare and wonderful example of the Italianate style, which was very popular in the North at a certain dark time in our history, but is quite uncommon in Tennessee.” Just as Dominic, who was a Yankee through and through, was wondering if he should look dutifully ashamed of the Franklin-Nashville Campaign even though his predecessors had been scattered throughout Europe at the time, an extremely tall and disturbingly broad man in a tuxedo and an earpiece pushed past him, and escorted the woman who’d attempted the Hail Mary shot with the cameraphone toward the exit.

“I am truly delighted to present the fruits of the labors started by the Society in 1973 with a viewing of the latest renovation, made possible by all of you. Won’t you please join me for a glass of wine in the family dining room?” Dominic took another shot of Mimi descending the staircase like American royalty. As she reached the bottom, and the crowd shifted to give her plenty of room, she added, “If you’d like a photographic memento of the evening, call the Society’s secretary Monday morning and have him put you in contact with Dominic Mann who, of course, you all know. Mr. Mann is tonight’s official photographer.”

She beamed in Dominic’s general direction, and he captured a shot of her with the chandelier in soft focus behind her. “Mr. Mann’s latest photographs of the upstairs library appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, so his work should certainly be adequate for all of your needs.”

Mimi swept her imperious gaze over the crowd, daring someone else to attempt an unauthorized snapshot. No one dared. Satisfied, as always, with weight of her own authority, she turned and led the way to the new restoration.

Dominic passed through the main hall, the downstairs library, the map room and the women’s parlor, all of which he’d photographed for the Cypress’ website when he first moved to Nashville. He didn’t remember the rooms themselves so much as his images of them. If a piece of bric-a-brac that appeared in one of his photos had been moved to a new position, he noticed. And yet, overall, the place felt unfamiliar, museum-like, and not particularly welcoming.

He’d never been beyond the women’s parlor. Along the walls of the narrow hallway, prior inhabitants of the Cypress stared down at him, stiff and pale-eyed, from tintype prints. In the exterior shots, the building looked much like it did today—minus the group of townhomes and bungalows that had sprouted up around the building in the 1920’s, when Lydia Van der Berg had sold much of the grounds to pay off her late husband’s gambling debts. He passed beneath Lydia’s silvery stare, and emerged into the newly renovated family dining room.

The addition of the word “family” to the dining room had conjured up images of relatives relaxing together, passing plates of scones and offering to top off that mint tea. That wasn’t the case. This “family” dining room seated twenty, and was filled with enough faux-Italian scrolling metalwork to shock the Pope.

Dominic braced his elbow and poised his camera, but instead of shooting right away, he looked. At times like those, the camera was more of a prop for him, a way to let the people around him know not to disturb him, because he was looking.

The other members of the Cypress Society streamed around him, their numbers doubled as they reflected in the gilt-framed floor-to-ceiling mirror on the opposite wall. Dominic spotted himself in the center of the reflection as the only person who was still, and turned to scan the rest of the room before he picked his mirror image out of the crowd in any great detail. He’d lived with himself long enough to know exactly what he’d see. Immaculately tailored suit. Passably fit, for a guy in his forties. And plug ugly.

Dominic turned away from the mirror. There was a buffet against the west wall brimming with wine. Beside it, Carlton Jeffrey from Jeffrey Imports & Exports stood, scanning the crowd, most likely anticipating who would call him Monday for a case of the Pinot they sampled at tonight’s event. His gaze lit briefly on Dominic, then hurried on without lingering. Such was the way of one-night stands that never had enough momentum to develop into anything more.

Dominic allowed his attention to slide past Carlton—no hard feelings, pal—and on to the second buffet on the north wall. The top groaned under a spread of flowers and fresh fruits, and among that precisely coordinated swath of color and shape, on gleaming silver pedestals, the star of the show: chocolates.

He snapped a few shots of the crowd filling the room, then turned away from Carlton, and away from the mirror (wondering how the family dining room had become an obstacle course of avoidances) and made his way against the tide of cocktail dresses and suits to the chocolate buffet.

The spread couldn’t possibly have been laid out by an amateur. Dominic knew all the top food stylists in town. He tried to place the work. Ashford? No, not formal enough. The Robinson Sisters…if it was them, it was the most graceful arrangement he’d seen them do yet.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Mimi drifted up beside Dominic and looked upon the buffet with such pride, he wondered briefly if she’d arranged it herself. That wasn’t Mimi’s style, though. Mimi didn’t do things herself; she hired skilled artisans to do them for her. “That young man is a genius. When Blanche Montague sold her shop, I braced myself for some terrible chain store to open in its place. But Sweets to the Sweet blends in with those lovely old Victorian storefronts just like it’s been there for three generations.”

Dominic framed a shot of the candy, and clicked. Immediately he spotted another. And another. It seemed as if he simply couldn’t find a way to aim his camera that didn’t result in a dynamic, engaging composition.

“Pretty as it may be, we’re celebrating the restoration tonight,” Mimi reminded him, “not the catering.” Dominic lowered his camera. He felt slightly dazed.

A young couple approached the buffet and helped themselves to a piece of candy. They did it furtively, as if they felt guilty for touching it, but simply couldn’t help themselves. “It’s so good,” the girl whispered to her beau as they sank back into the crowd with their guilty pleasures.

“And where is your date for this evening?” Mimi inquired. “I specifically invited you to bring someone.”

“Nah.” Dominic’s Jersey accent contrasted with Mimi’s soft southern cadence as if it was another language entirely. “I just wanted to focus. It’s too distracting to have someone tag along to a shoot.”

“I see.” It was perfectly clear that she did. “Forgive my candor, Dominic, but there’s no reason at all that a man of your quality should need to remain single.”

“Quality.” Dominic laughed out the word before he could stop himself. “Is that the southern equivalent of a great personality?”

Mimi didn’t deign to answer. “You never know. Maybe you’ll find something in common with a member of the Society. We have our fair share of ‘bachelors,’ you know.”

Dominic knew. He’d entertained one or two of them, though none had ever seemed interested in a repeat performance.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Mimi said. “You have plenty of important connections. A younger man might be very appreciative if you help him launch his career.”

The very thought of it made Dominic cringe inside. “How about you cut me a break, Miss Mimi? What can I say—I’m an incurable romantic.”

Mimi was not deterred. With a subtle gesture of her chin, she indicated a young man nervously sipping his wine in the corner. “I could introduce you to him. Actor.” She cut her eyes to another nubile gentleman admiring a painting. “Or him. Artist.”

Dominic couldn’t think of any way to tell Mimi, who was twice his age, and who undoubtedly counseled her female friends it was perfectly acceptable to marry for money rather than love, that her matchmaking left him embarrassed rather than intrigued. Some guys in his position wouldn’t think twice about being served some fresh meat. They figured a little hookup was their due after a few decades of building their careers. Not Dominic. Looking into a set of sparkling young eyes and realizing the attraction was not about him, but the idea that he was a coveted rung on the ladder to fame and fortune, made him feel like a pathetic old troll. “C’mon. When you say Cyrus, those kids think you mean Miley, not Billy Ray.”

Mimi swept the room with her regal gaze, and stopped cold. “That one. Trying to break into music. Johnny Palomino—he’d be perfect for you.” A broad-shouldered brunet in a vintage western-cut suitcoat stood with two guys in tuxedos, smiling modestly. The coat was a real showstopper, black with a piebald yoke framed in red piping, and the aspiring musician wearing it carried off his flashy finery like it was his birthright.

One of the tuxes bookending him owned a radio station; the other, a dark, broad, goateed man whose waistline was putting a strain on his cummerbund, Dominic didn’t recognize. “Palomino’s handsome,” Mimi said, “but look at the corners of his eyes. He’s got to be at least thirty—a little long in the tooth for a breakout act. I’m sure he’d be appallingly grateful to have some head shots taken by the illustrious Dominic Mann.”

Dominic opened his mouth to dismiss Mimi’s suggestion out of hand—but he couldn’t. Johnny Palomino had stolen his breath away. Dominic had grown up among plumbers and hockey and meatball hoagies. Cowboys were the stuff of fantasy; they might as well have been superheroes or Martians.

Sexy Martians.

“You see? There’s someone out there for everybody.”

Mimi began to raise her arm to summon the would-be singer over, but Dominic stopped her. “Wait. Not yet. Just lemme see if….”

“He already knows who you are, darling. Everyone here does.”

“I know, I know. I was just hoping it’d feel a little more natural if I tried to strike up a conversation myself.”

“Do have one of the waiters flag me down if you change your mind.” Mimi primped her lustrous silver wig. “I’ve always thought ‘natural’ was highly overrated.”

The Whole Shebang

The Petit Morts Series

#1: Hue, Tint and Shade by Jordan Castillo Price
Yellow is as yellow does.

#2: Slings and Arrows by Josh Lanyon
It's a fine line between "secret admirer" and "stalker".

#3: Moolah and Moonshine by Jordan Castillo Price
If you ever go to France, watch out for those ticklers.

#4: Other People's Weddings by Josh Lanyon
Pulling off the perfect wedding can be murder.

#5: Spanish Fly Guy by Jordan Castillo Price
A new twist on liquid courage.

#6: Pretty Ugly by Jordan Castillo Price
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...usually.

#7: Sort of Stranger Than Fiction by Josh Lanyon
They always say to write what you know.

#8: One Less Stiff at the Funeral by Sean Kennedy
Chocolate makes everything better. Even a eulogy.

#9: Critic's Choice by Josh Lanyon
It was a dark and stormy night. No, really, it was.

#10: Wishink Well by Jordan Castillo Price
You can't get something for nothing.

#11: Happily Neverafterby Jordan Castillo Price
All's well that ends well.

#12: London Eye by Clare London
Give credit where credit is due.

#13: Spirits and Second Chances by Sean Kennedy
The past can come back to haunt you.

#14: Just Desserts by Josh Lanyon
Pick your poison.

#15: Loose Change by Sean Kennedy
If there's one thing you can always count on, it's change.

#16: Media Naranja (Other Half) by Clare London and Jordan Castillo Price
There's someone for everyone.

#17: Immortal Coil by Jordan Castillo Price
Love is more than skin deep.


 

Reviews

The ending was masterful and delightful: not a shock, but a clever, poignant twist, reinforcing my sympathy for Dominic and what he’d experienced. It stresses the nature of beauty as a package rather than an ideal, an emotional impact rather than a two-dimensional picture. - Pettyprose, Brief Encounters Reviews

 

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