Lucky Break: A Lucky O’Toole Novel
Me, getting married. I still couldn’t believe it. We hadn’t set a date, but still… married!
When Jean-Charles asked me to marry him, I had said yes.
One simple word. I’d said it a million different times, in a thousand different contexts, with no life-altering consequences … well, except for the whole Teddie thing. That hadn’t worked out quite as I’d hoped, but about like I’d feared.
He’d loved me and left. If I’d listened to more country music, maybe I could’ve avoided that.
For good or for ill, I paused one last time in front of the full-length mirrors in my closet that caught all sides. Normally, I avoided the things like I avoided my mother, both for good reason. At six feet and, shall we say it, fully fleshed-out, I fell far short of my mother’s dream that I would become a dancer on the Vegas Strip. Alas, I became something much worse, a hotel executive, specifically the Vice President of Customer Relations at the Babylon, Vegas’s premier Strip property. But, despite my lofty rung on the corporate ladder, Mona still made me feel guilty that I didn’t live down to her expectations.
Why is it we all want what we can’t have?
As if hearing her lead-in or something, Mona breezed into my boudoir. “Well, don’t you look every inch the virginal bride?” Mona said with her barbed tongue planted firmly in her cheek.
Resplendent in a rich shade of burnt orange organza that darkened and lightened as she moved, one shoulder bare, the bodice fitted, the skirt flowing, she looked every inch the hotel magnate’s wife. To further fill her days, she also was the mother of month-old twins and a candidate for public office—the County Commission—if the voters didn’t wise up soon. With the vote almost a year away, she was ahead in the polls, which frightened the hell out of me, but also made me grudgingly proud. My 24/7 job would never allow the time for a family and a job as servant of the people—I don’t know how she did it. The wear-and-tear showed in added crow’s feet and a subtle weariness dimming her normal wattage. Her brown hair was pulled into a chignon with tendrils of hair left to softly frame her face. The baby weight had almost disappeared. What was left softened her angular features and rounded her in an appealing, maternal way. Recent motherhood had made her even more stunning, a cross I bore. Her blue eyes, round with hurt and accentuated with black liner, put me on guard. “Red does suit you,” she added as she eyed me with the calculation of a children’s beauty pageant momzilla.
I’d chosen a strapless sheath of fire engine red with tiny gold threads running through the bodice just in case the red was too subtle. The five-carat emerald-cut diamond sparkled on the ring finger of my left hand. Every now and again I’d look at it just to make sure. Still, I couldn’t believe it.
Me. Getting married.
Holding onto my mother’s shoulder, I used her to steady myself as I donned first one low-heeled strappy Jimmy Choo, then the other. “Is this a social call?” I asked my mother, knowing her wounded doe-eyes provided the answer, but hoping just this once she’d let her bet ride. But she’d gone out of her way, making the trip from the Babylon, so the odds were against me.
“What?” She feigned offense. “Lucky, you act as if I don’t want to check on my daughter every now and again.”
Yes, my name is Lucky. Last name O’Toole, and, to be honest, I have no idea where either name came from and I’m too scared of the answer to ask. “Well, since this is your first visit in ages, it does make me wonder.” I leaned close to the mirror to check my make-up one last time. I still wasn’t used to the whole lipstick, powder, blush routine, but I did like the result. Especially the shadow and eyeliner that accentuated my blue eyes—even if they still carried a hint of shell-shock in them. I applied one more swipe of pink gloss, then pressed my lips together. “I know you well enough to see an ulterior motive lurking behind your innocent act.”
She gave me a hint of a smile, a kid caught with Black Cats at school. “I want to talk to you about Jean-Charles.”
“None of your business.”
She ignored my frosty tone and eyes that had gone all squinty. “Are you sure about this? Are you sure Jean-Charles isn’t one of those boomerang things?”
“Boomerang?” The visual was interesting. “You mean rebound things?” I corrected before my brain kicked in, shutting down my mouth. She knew perfectly well what she meant—and she misspoke to get me to engage. Would I never learn?
“Exactly. You’re not over Teddie and what he did.”
“So you don’t want to talk about Jean-Charles; you really want to talk about Teddie.”
“And your father.”
That one whirled in out of left field, tripping my heart. “The Big Boss? He’s okay, right?” Ever since he had that heart scare not too long ago, I hadn’t been able to shake a feeling of impending doom. A dose of mortality to puncture his Mount Olympus aura.
“Of course, he’s fine.” Mona shrugged that suggestion away, a horse shaking off a fly. “It’s what he’s doing to Teddie.”
This was my night, Jean-Charles’s night. Tonight’s party celebrating the opening of Jean-Charles’s restaurant, J-C Vegas, would be the kickoff to a ten-day celebration of the grand opening of my very own hotel, Cielo. And she had to bring Teddie into it. I gave her a look that I hoped would instill terror. “Curiously, Mother, when Teddie left he ceased being my problem.”
Mona rolled her eyes.
“Did you just roll your eyes at me?” A hand on my hip, I felt like the parent here. “Really? Keep doing that and maybe you’ll find a brain in there somewhere.”
I grabbed my purse, a sweet little evening bag in red and gold to match my dress—who knew love could turn this tomboy all girly-girly? If I started giggling, I’d hate myself. Mona dogged my heels as I strode through my bedroom and into the main room of my apartment. “Now where did I put my wrap?”
Mona’s voice held the tinny notes of a whine fraying my already on-edge nerves. “Lucky, you have to deal with Teddie.”
Taking a deep breath, I counted to ten … twice. My gaze wandered around the room as I drank it all in: the view of the Strip through the wall of windows, the white walls, the burnished wood floor, the white leather furniture and the splashes of color on the walls—original paintings depicting the glory of the Mojave. My home. My sanctuary. Me. “I have dealt with Teddie, Mother. Done. Over. Finished.”
“But your father.” Mona trotted after me breathless. “He’s cancelling Teddie’s contract.” My father had offered Teddie his former theater to develop and stage a new show—one based on Teddie as a singer rather than The Great Teddie Divine, Vegas’s foremost female impersonator, his previous gig. I was glad that was behind him. I’d tired of him rooting in my closet for “costumes” and stretching out my shoes. Especially my shoes.
When my father had invited Teddie back into the fold, he hadn’t consulted me. Both of my parents considered it their duty to meddle in my life. Up to now, they’d been irritating but not hurtful. Jerking the contract out from under Teddie, that was a knife to the heart. Teddie would wither and die without his audience. And, no matter what he’d done, how much he’d disappointed me, I didn’t want to see him broken. Punishment, like revenge, wouldn’t ease the pain. Oh, maybe in the short term … but I didn’t want my future to be burdened with guilt. The high road, Lucky. The high road.
I stopped and whirled on Mona, almost meeting her nose-to-nose. “What do you mean ‘cancelled his contract’?”
She drew up, shoulders back, chin at a defiant angle, the look in her eyes a slap—a trait she’d taken from my father. He wore it better and could back it up. “Teddie’s out with no place to go, and it’s all your fault.”
This time I rolled my eyes. And I knew that no matter how many times I did it, I wouldn’t find a brain in my hollow head. “Of course it’s not my fault. I don’t know anything about it. So, stop doing that.” Wow! Apparently I had shucked some emotional armor and exposed a backbone.
“You have to fix it.” Mona wrung her hands. She used to campaign against Teddie, telling me he’d leave me for a life on the road. She’d been right. He’d broken my heart. And now he and my mother were best friends? Unlike her daughter, he had lived down to her expectations, so I guessed she had a soft spot. There was all sorts of wrong in that. “Without you and Teddie being an item,” her eyes slipped to the ring on my finger and then back to mine, “your father has less incentive to keep him around.”
“Don’t be silly, Mother. This is all about money. You know the Big Boss.” With a hand on one hip, I eyed Mona, as I plotted my battle strategy. Brush her off or look into the problem? Which would be the least painful path? To ignore her would bring out her inner piranha. She’d keep biting off chunks of my resolve until I finally caved. Easier to get it over with. “I’ll look into it, Mother. First, I have to know what the deal is and why the Big Boss is cancelling it.”
Mona opened her mouth, but I heard Teddie’s voice.
“He got a better offer.” Teddie strolled in from the kitchen looking like a million bucks before taxes. Spiky blond hair, blue eyes rimmed with lashes most women would sacrifice body parts for, broad where he should be, trim where he shouldn’t, a tight ass, and a voice like honey, the guy was a walking, talking, singing pheromone.
I whirled on my mother. “You asked Teddie down? So you two could gang up on me? Tonight?” Teddie’s apartment connected to mine through a back staircase, which used to be convenient. Now it was a violation … and a betrayal. I narrowed my eyes at my mother and wondered what the punishment for matricide was these days. If everyone’s mother was like Mona, it couldn’t be that bad. But everyone couldn’t be so lucky.
Mona didn’t look sorry. “A stacked deck is the best kind,” she said, parroting her husband.
She met me glare-to-glare. “This is business.”
“My business, I should think,” Teddie said. “Look, if it’s any consolation, I didn’t want to mention this at all. My presence here is as much a part of Mona’s set-up as your help is. But, here it is, short and sweet. Your father cancelled my contract because Holt Box said he’d do thirty weeks a year for five years, coup of epic proportions getting him to come out of retirement. He’ll be a huge draw for the Babylon, much more than I would.” Although Teddie adopted a casual air, he was angry. It boiled just below the surface. His smile was taut with the effort to cover it.
I was blindsided. Ten years ago Holt had left country music at the peak of his career, devastating his legions of female fans and making himself into the stuff of legend.
And now the Babylon was hosting his coming-out-of-retirement tour? How could the Big Boss have inked such a deal without me being in on it? Considering my parents made me and my life their business, I didn’t have to think on it too hard. In a way, Mona had been right. It was my fault, of a sort. Business and pleasure, almost impossible to separate, and my father didn’t have enough confidence in me to do so.
Grudgingly I admitted, in this case, he was probably right. If I’d been left to negotiate the Holt Box deal, I would’ve been hard-pressed to do so. But that wouldn’t stop me from letting my father know how I felt … about all of it.
Promises were promises.
And when it came to love, I didn’t need him riding in on his white horse to vanquish the unworthy. Or to save me from my own mistakes.
Teddie had a lot riding on his new show; he’d put his heart and soul into it. And he’d given up his spot on his newly rejuvenated tour. Finally, the rage burbled to the surface, coloring his face and hardening his voice. Holding up his hand, he stopped the platitudes I was going to offer—I didn’t have anything else, and he knew me well enough to know it.
“Don’t fret, not that you would. Your father had the legal right to do what he did.”
“Being legal doesn’t make it right.”
Teddie’s anger cooled. “You always tilt at windmills, don’t you? One of the things I love about you. In a gray world you see black and white.”
I left it to the Harvard boy to fill in all the rest. Principles applied to life and love.
Hiking up the flaps of his tux jacket, he stuffed his hands in his pockets. “This whole thing is my own damned fault. In such a hurry to get back here, back to—” He gave me an open, vulnerable look that tore at my heart. “But that was a pipe dream. In my haste, I agreed to stuff Rudy went apoplectic over.” Rudy Gillespie was his entertainment lawyer, one of my good friends, and married to an even better friend, Jordan Marsh—the Hollywood heartthrob who had finally come out, dashing hopes of young women worldwide.
I knew what Teddie had left out, what he wanted to say: He’d been in a hurry to get back to me. Back to us. After having thrown me over for a line-up of groupies.
Trust, an emotional Humpty-Dumpty.
“Don’t forget Holt Box had a hand in all of this,” added Mona.
Teddie’s anger sizzled as it flared anew. His shoulders rose toward his ears, as his face closed. “Yeah, that dude is on the top of my hit list.”
“If you want to kill him, don’t do it tonight. Murder has such a chilling effect on fun and frivolity.” I spied my gold pashmina on the couch. Grabbing it in one swoop, I headed for the elevator. One advantage of having one of the top floors was a private elevator that fetched me from the middle of my great room. “I’m late. And, Teddie, I’m sorry. I really am. I’ll see what I can find out. But right now I need to go. You two have a fine time. It’s well past pumpkin time and I’ve got to hurry.”
“Holt Box will be there tonight?” Teddie’s voice lost any hint of nice.
“What rock have you been living under?” I wrapped the pashmina around my shoulders—Decembers could be cool in Vegas. “He’s cooking with Jean-Charles. Apparently he loves to cook, has a cookbook out or something, I don’t know.” In my world of late nights and early mornings finding a meal involved finding the time to grab something quick and convenient. “Holt asked to assist. Jean-Charles said yes.”
“And you went along with it?”
“Not my purview. And, trust me, having him in the kitchen during the opening might sound like a great media play, but it’s been a nightmare of epic proportions. For weeks, gaggles of female predators looking for their hunk of country music flesh have been stalking the well-guarded perimeter of the Cielo property.”
Too late, I realized I’d added fuel, igniting Teddie’s slow burn into a raging inferno. Hate flushed his face, a new look. I didn’t like it, but I got it.
Mona chose that moment to wade back in. “I have Paolo waiting downstairs.” She studiously analyzed her fingernails as she dropped that little bombshell.
“But, I have Paolo waiting downstairs,” I said as the realization that my mother could now overrule me at the hotel hit me like a bucket of ice water. I jabbed at the elevator button. Thankfully, the thing was waiting.
The doors opened and I stepped inside, followed by Mona and Teddie, rounding out our awkward trio.
When the doors closed, Teddie’s reflection half-smiled at mine, an appreciated effort to cut through the ugliness. Still, I felt he was contemplating burying a knife in my back. How fun to have all of the blame and none of the authority.
In the closed space, the subtle aroma of very good Scotch, or very bad bourbon, competed with his Old Spice cologne. Apparently he’d gotten a head start—some joy juice to deaden the downside.
From the look on his face, I could tell he wanted to change the subject as much as I did.
“Now, that is a dress,” he said, a hint of warmth melting the ice in his tone.
While he looked appreciative of the wrapping, I knew he liked the package as well. A bit of sad longing brushed over my heart. We’d been so good together. Until we weren’t. His smile dimmed when he caught the flash of my ring. He reached around my shoulder, pulling me close, shoulder-to-shoulder in a one-arm embrace. Catching me off guard, I fell into him. My hand braced against his chest; the other grabbed his waist as I struggled to get my feet back underneath myself.
“Sorry,” Teddie said, not sounding the least bit as he helped me right myself.
Mona, looking a bit uncomfortable, had put as much space as possible between her and me, which wasn’t much given we were in an elevator. Teddie stood close enough that I could feel the heat radiating off of him. Anger? Passion? Didn’t know and didn’t care. Straightening my gown and my thoughts, ordering the outside to cover the muddle inside, I focused on the party ahead and ignored both of them as the elevator whisked us downstairs. As we pushed into the night, Paolo was indeed waiting by one of the Babylon’s limos wringing his hands.
He snapped to attention when he caught sight of me. A small man with jet-black hair slicked back, an always-impeccable uniform, a normally ready smile, and enough energy to light Vegas for a year, tonight Paolo looked uneasy. Another hapless male fallen prey to Mona’s charms, and I’m sure her veiled threats. He rushed to open the back door for me. “Oh, Miss Lucky, Paolo is so very sorry. Mrs. Rothstein …”
“I know, threatened to boil you in oil or something. Don’t worry. It’s fine.” I stopped before I disappeared into the dark confines of the car. “Just ignore them,” I whispered. “Maybe they’ll go away.”
Paolo nodded, his smile forced, terror in his eyes.
He situated Mona next to me and Teddie in front, then slid behind the wheel, I checked the clock. Ten minutes until a press conference my father had arranged. If I wasn’t there, heads would roll.
I toggled the switch that would allow Paolo to hear despite the glass window raised to cocoon the back. “Paolo, the time.”
“Yes, Miss.” Paolo pressed his cap on tight as he gripped the wheel, his knuckles white. “Hold on.”
I reached for the looped strap near my left ear and held on.
Mona tapped me on the leg to get my attention, like we’d been having a nice conversation and I’d gotten distracted. She recoiled when I looked at her with my not-so-happy face.
“This is my night, Mother. How dare you?”
She looked crestfallen, her best gambit. I didn’t cave.
Teddie lowered the window separating the front seat from the rear compartment. “Lucky, I’m sorry. Mona said—”
I held up my hand, cutting him off. “Playing the hapless stooge in a game run by women is getting old, and it is not attractive. You know Mona. And you know our rules. We are friends, but you are not allowed in my apartment unless you have a specific invitation from me.”
“At least you’re talking,” Mona said with more than a little gloat. “This is wonderful,” she said with bright eyes.
A bit late to wise-up, Teddie ignored her. “Mona said you’d be okay with it.”
“Mona lies,” I said, transfixing my mother with a stare. But Teddie knew that already. “Paolo, step on it before I kill somebody.”
Tires squealed as he did as I asked, fishtailing the big car onto Koval, then accelerating south. The forward momentum of the large car pressed me back in my seat and scared Mona into quiet.
In less than five minutes, with several tourists terrified but still breathing, Paolo turned up the grand drive to Cielo. Huge trees lined the curved entrance, giving the hotel a secretive feel, as if one had to be in the know to find the place. Like The Mansion at MGM, Cielo was a decadent hideaway for those who valued their privacy or just needed a respite from the constant pulsing energy of the Strip. The front entrance, normally protected by large gates and armed security, stood open, ready to receive all tonight. Protected under a copper porte cochere, and softened with pots of riotous flowering plants, the entrance was welcoming and warm with understated elegance. The architects had bent under my supervision and used rock, wood and other natural building materials where possible. The effect was stunning, warm and welcoming like a Japanese sanctuary. Frosted glass with images of reeds etched into them separated the large space into smaller vestibules. When the hotel officially opened, hosts would greet each guest, escorting them to a desk where the registration process would be handled with a glass of Champagne. The waterfall on the far wall lent a comforting sound as well as humidity, to the parched desert air. Yes, the place had turned out exactly as I’d hoped.
When the Big Boss and I had bought the property out of foreclosure, I had imagined this, dreamt of it, but never really thought I’d pull it off. The building, which we’d taken down to the bare bones, then built out, adding on where we could, had housed one of the grand dames of Vegas past, The Athena. Irv Gittings, the former owner, would never recognize what had been the diamond in his crown. Life had taken a hard turn for Ol’ Irv. The rest of us moved on, and he went to jail.
Through the glass, I could see Jean-Charles just inside the front entrance talking to a group of reporters. Resplendent in his chef’s whites, the trousers black-and-white striped, he looked at ease amid the well-liveried crowd milling about the lobby in their formal dress. His brown hair curled softly over the collar of his jacket. Trim, with broad shoulders and a slightly formal bearing, he made my heart melt.
When the limo eased in next to the curb, he moved to meet us as if he’d been watching, which he probably had. He opened the door, extended a hand, and pulled me into his embrace. Flash bulbs popped as I lost myself in his kiss. For a moment the world disappeared, and it was just the two of us. “You are late,” he whispered against my cheek. “I was worried.”
I kept my arms looped around his neck. “Shanghaied by my mother. I’m sorry. Shouldn’t you be upstairs?”
He gave me a Gallic shrug and an irresistible smile that lit his robin’s-egg-blue eyes. “This is more important.”
“There’s just something about the French. Romance oozing out of every pore,” Mona cooed.
Even though her words sounded benign, I felt the prick of her jab.
Apparently, Jean-Charles didn’t; his eyes warm, never drifted from mine. “You look good enough to eat. This is right, non?” On a never-ending quest to learn American idioms, Jean-Charles never missed a chance to trot one out. Tonight, he got it right. Most of the time, not so much, with charming consequences.
“High praise indeed from a master chef.”
He beamed, until he caught sight of Teddie with Mona now leaning possessively on his arm, claiming her horse in this race. “Your mother and her games.” While the words were light, his tone was not. “Mona, how good to see you,” he said, slipping into a well-honed insincerity.
Mona smiled, unaware of the frost chilling his words.
“Theodore, I didn’t know you were attending.” Jean-Charles acknowledged Teddie but didn’t extend a hand as he ushered us all inside. “Your father is waiting. He is a bit angry.”
“The reporters, they only want to talk to you.” He led me to the half-circle of chairs bookending a couch and lighted for the media. “I will be upstairs. The food …”
“Needs your attention.” I gave him a quick kiss. “Go. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I watched him as he worked his way toward the elevators, admiring the ease with which he made each person he spoke with shine … like they felt like the most important person in the world. Where did sincerity end and civility begin? With the French, it was hard to tell. So polished. So smooth.
“Lucky?” A light touch on my arm rescued me just before I slipped into insecurity.
Kimberly Cho, one of the P.R. people who had been helping me with a sticky problem at the Big Boss’s Macau property, looked up at me, her eyes a bit too wide, her normal polished perfection a bit ruffled. “Do you have a moment? It’s important. I won’t take much of your time.” Her black hair drawn back in a soft chignon, her porcelain skin lightly blushed, her eyes kohled, she’d chosen a one-shoulder sheath of exquisitely embroidered Asian silk in turquoise. I envied the ease with which she carried her elegance. Although short and trim, she had the presence of someone much taller. “You know I wouldn’t ask unless it was important.”
“I know.” I checked the time. I glanced at my father, a light sheen on his face from the heat of the kliegs. The interviewer and her attendants shifted nervously—everyone waiting on yours truly. “Will it wait until after my interview? Everyone is waiting.”
Her hand shook as she tucked in a strand of hair that had the audacity to wander loose. “There’s this man. A very bad man. You must be careful.”
“I knew him. From before.” Her eyes stared past me. Her face went slack.
“Kimberly, what is it?”
When her eyes again shifted to mine, they looked dead. “Be careful.” With a nod, she backed away.
“Find security, then meet me at the elevator,” I called after her. “We’ll ride up alone. You’ll have my undivided attention, and we’ll have some privacy.”
I turned to go. Something in the way she looked bothered me. The paleness of her skin, the slight haunted look in her eyes. She wasn’t scared; she was terrified. Why did I let her go? I whirled around to call her back.
She was gone.
I scanned the crowd. Nothing.
I couldn’t wait any longer. Kimberly would be waiting at the elevator, I told myself as I painted on a smile and mentally shifted, grinding a few gears and threatening to throw the transmission.
My father waited, his smile firmly in place, his eyes questioning. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he said, half-joking.
“Once-removed.” At his confused look, I said, “A friend, she looked troubled.”
“You can help her.” My father stated that like a certainty.
Helping people, solving problems, was a yin and yang kind of thing. Sort of like the push and pull of life. I loved helping people, then I resented them for needing too much. Drawing boundaries was not a tool in my toolbox.
“I’m sorry I cut it rather close,” I said, settling myself. A perfunctory peace offering as a young man worked to find a place for the mic on my minimal bodice.
Seated next to my father, with Teddie and Mona stashed somewhere in the back of the crowd, the lights hot and unforgiving, I felt like a captive awaiting interrogation. While I was often the spokesperson for the Babylon, I wasn’t used to having the spotlight turned on me, on my personal life. Everyone wanted to see my ring, which I though odd, and an invasion of a sort.
My father chuckled at my discomfort. Tonight, sharp in his tux, his salt-and-pepper hair perfectly groomed, his square jaw thrust slightly out as if begging for a fight, my father looked every inch the hardscrabble hotel magnate he was.
“Throwing me to the wolves, how ungallant of you,” I pretended to grouse.
“It’s your show, kid. I’m old news.”
According to those present, I had managed to sidestep the most invasive questions, keeping the interview on topic, and I didn’t offend anyone in the process. A clear win in my book, but I didn’t remember much of it. Panic derails any ability I might have to remember clearly. The pain was so great, if I remembered it I’d never do it again.
Pain and pleasure—emotional triggers separated by perception.
Having Teddie around scratched at the thin scab over the tear in my heart. I wished he’d leave, which, had I chosen to listen, should’ve told me something. But I didn’t.
I paused to speak with a few colleagues and old friends. Even though two million people lived in Vegas, in many ways it still was a small town. The power elite, the casino owners and representatives, the few local professionals peddling regulatory connections or perhaps insight earned from years in the business, and the requisite attorneys to create messes where there were none and the P.R. people to repair the damage—it was a small group. We hung out at the same parties, knew the same people, fought the same battles, often on opposite sides. But if one of us succeeded, Vegas succeeded. So, when the contests were over, the winner declared, we all settled back into being wary combatants always looking to realign allegiances to better our positions. Nerve-wracking and exhausting. The Big Boss was a pro, I an unwilling acolyte, strictly third-string.
At the elevator, I waited, surprised Kimberly wasn’t lurking close by. Since we’d talked, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was in some sort of trouble. Silly, I kept telling myself. But I’d seen enough trouble to know how it looked, and how it felt, worming its way inside, coiling, cold and dreadful in the pit of your stomach.
I’d seen it, felt it, when I’d talked to Kimberly.
She didn’t show. Get a grip, Lucky. As I stepped into the cab of the elevator, I shook off the odd feeling. Okay, I pushed it aside and tried to ignore it.
I had a party to work and a man’s arm to grace. So nice for once not to be in charge, to be able to relax and enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor.
Amazingly, no one pushed in with me and I had the elevator to myself as I rode to the top floor. Teddie and Mona had left me to the media wolves, preferring to be early at the party. Mona loved to stake out the best spot in a room. From there she would work the party like a well-seasoned debutante. The thought of Mona with the high-society crowd made me smile. Teddie’s parents wore the blue-blood taint, and Mona had put them where they belonged. I wished that kind of moxie, that ability to dissect someone without them realizing it, was genetically transferred, but no such luck. Either that or it had skipped my generation. Either way, I came out on the short end.
Pressing my back to the cool metal at the back of the elevator car, I let it hold some of my weight as the doors slid shut, cocooning me inside.
I used the quiet to breathe, the smooth ride to make a mental transition from being the lead dancer to a member of the corps. As the elevator slowed, I brushed down my dress, arranged my hair, wiped under my eyes, and relaxed … ready to enjoy the part of the evening where Jean-Charles could showcase his brilliance and I could stay out of the limelight. The doors opened. My luck held—the hall to the restaurant was empty.
Visible through the glass doors, a Van Gogh hung on the wall, spotlighted perfectly, the personification of perfection and elegance of execution—like Jean-Charles and his cuisine. Jean-Charles and I had had a bit of a tiff over the painting—actually, it was the ace up my sleeve that I held until Jean-Charles had capitulated on a few expensive requests. He’d been played, and he’d handled it well.
Somehow we’d managed to be business partners as well as a team in life. I had no idea how we’d dodged the bullets that flew at us from every direction, but we had.
The noise of a party in full swing buffeted me as I pushed through the double glass doors fronting the elegant foyer. A few steps to the right and around a corner, then I stepped into the crowd. I loved seeing the Vegas glitterati turned out for a formal gathering. A quick scan of the room confirmed everyone who was anyone or who thought they were someone was here, including the political contingent. Not the governor, but some Gaming Commission members, as well as the mayor of Las Vegas and a few local politicos. If I remembered correctly, the lieutenant governor had hinted at putting in an appearance. With campaigns ramping up toward next year’s elections, he just might. That would make sure we got some press in Carson City and Reno, never a bad thing. Even though the northern part of the state was further from Vegas than L.A., San Diego, and Phoenix, those folks still popped down for a taste of the bright lights.
The men looked brilliant in their fitted formal wear. The women, many of them powerful businesspeople in their own right, dressed to showcase figures and surgery, rather than their innate loveliness and quiet competence that made them truly interesting and set them apart. Superficiality—a Vegas thing that didn’t make me proud.
Most days I felt like I waded alone in my quest for something a bit more solid than pretty outsides and relationships measured in hours. As Teddie had likened it, Don Quixote and his windmills, considering this was Vegas, where one could try on a different life for the weekend.
Excited voices competed with lively tunes from a quartet in the corner. Sinatra. My Way. Perfect. Mouth-watering aromas drifted from the kitchen each time a waiter pushed through the swinging doors. The tables and chairs had been hidden away, leaving the expanse of wooden floor open for gathering, dancing, and whatever. Bar tables with high stools ringed the floor, except that the far wall of windows overlooking the glory of the Strip was left unobstructed. The dark green walls, the wooden beams overhead, the brass sconces casting a warm glow, and the wrought-iron light fixtures above, each with a tiny flame in glass where a light should be, gave the space the comfort of a French country house, just as Jean-Charles had wanted.
“Food is pleasure,” he told me, “to be enjoyed and shared with good friends. I want my customers to feel like friends here.”
From the looks of it, he’d accomplished that in spades.
Many turned to greet me as I worked my way across the room. Mona and my father were encircled against the far wall of windows, the multicolored lights of the Strip backlighting them. My former assistant and now the Head of Customer Relations at the Babylon, Miss P, nuzzled her intended, the Beautiful Jeremy Whitlock at a table in the corner. Their wedding was set for Christmas Eve, only a few days from now, it would be the first to be performed at Cielo. Brandy, my assistant, had corralled a few important media-types, presumably stroking their egos as she spoon-fed them the story we’d like to see printed.
Still no Kimberly Cho. I tried not to be worried. But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake the feeling that tonight was going to be anything but routine.
Waiters passed trays of delectables, which I waved away for the moment. Me? Passing up a feeding opportunity? I was either sick or the apocalypse was imminent. I should wear tight clothes more often. Perhaps one day I’d fit comfortably in them and pigs would fly.
The Babylon’s head bartender, Sean, appeared at my elbow with a flute of bubbly. “Schramsberg rosé. Medicinal. Chef’s orders.”
That I didn’t wave away, thanking him with a smile as he stepped back behind the bar. I spied Jean-Charles across the room and began working my way toward him.
The back of a man walking away from me caught my eye. For a brief moment my heart went cold.
Irv Gittings? It couldn’t be. An old, old flame, back when I was young and stupid, the thought of him usually had me reaching for a deadly weapon. One of my proudest accomplishments had been to play a large role in seeing him put behind bars a few months ago. There were nights I fell asleep picturing the problems he would be having in the general prison population. He’d tried to frame the Big Boss for murder, and then steal the Babylon from him. A capital offense in my book. And this was Nevada, one of the last outposts of the Wild West, where the death penalty was considered fitting punishment.
The guy easing out of the kitchen and striding away from me was dressed like Irv used to: a white dinner jacket with the crested gold buttons glinting on the sleeve as he raised his hand and a red tie that I could just catch a corner of as he angled away. The cut of the jaw, the arrogance in the exaggerated shoulder-back posture … I narrowed my eyes. No, not Irv. Shorter, maybe. And hair more pepper and less salt than Irv’s. But close enough to be spooky. I got ahold of myself. Irv couldn’t be here. He was playing games with the inmates at Indian Springs.
Jean-Charles was engaged in animated conversation with a couple I didn’t recognize when I stepped in next to him. Without missing a beat, he snaked an arm around my waist and pulled me close. Pausing, he introduced me. His fiancée! I never tired of hearing it, and, to be honest, it still shocked and delighted me each time he referred to me that way. With the pleasantries over, he picked up the conversation where he’d left off. Parking my head lightly near his, I let the words recede and my thoughts wander.
Just the nearness of him tingled me in places long dormant if not near dead.
Teddie was nowhere to be found. A minor blessing, all things considered. I didn’t know why he came anyway. Nothing but bad for him here. He’d left this life. We’d moved on. I’d moved on, despite what my mother said.
The unease from my brief talk with Kimberly Cho had lessened to a low thrum, like distant traffic, my joy eclipsing that niggling feeling that something was off. Of course, being bushwhacked by Mona and Teddie hadn’t exactly started my evening down a smooth path. Swaying to the music just a bit, making Jean-Charles grin as he tried to concentrate on the people in front of him, sipping my Champagne, I began to relax into the joy of life.
Big mistake. Tempting Fate had never worked out well for me.
Detective Romeo materialized at my elbow. Nodding to the others, he leaned in close to my ear. “We have a problem.”
“Nope,” I said, enjoying the happy bubbles that tickled my nose as I took a big sip of my Schramsberg. Then they tickled and warmed all the way down, settling into a nice pillow of contentment somewhere deep inside. “No, Romeo, we do not have a problem.”
“Lucky, this is serious. And yes, we have a problem.” He tugged on my arm, sloshing a bit of my Champagne. After counting to ten, twice, I gave him my full attention.
Even though spit-and-polished in a slim-cut dark suit and Hermès tie, his sandy hair cut and combed, even his recalcitrant cowlick bending to propriety, he looked a little ragged around the edges. His blue eyes dark, his smile absent, a frown puckering the skin between his eyes, he looked at me as a friend, which doused that warmth I’d been enjoying.
This was personal.
Brandy, my assistant and his girl, squeezed his arm. Her eyes big as saucers, she remained mute. Not good.
As I disengaged from my chef, handing him my glass of Champagne, I gave him a reassuring smile. This was his party, his time to shine, and whatever it was Romeo was dragging me into, I’d keep it to myself.
Yeah, I’m a dreamer.
Weaving through the crowd, I noticed security was guarding the exits. At this point, I doubted anyone wanted to leave as the party was just getting started, so the fact that they couldn’t hadn’t yet caused any alarm.
“Lucky. Come on.” Romeo, one hand on the kitchen door, motioned to me with the other.
I joined him. “What’s going on?”
“You are not going to like this.”
“You always say that.” I followed him into the kitchen.
Two steps inside, I stopped in my tracks. “And you’re always right.”
Holt Box lay on the floor, a red stain spreading across his chest, soaking his chef’s whites. His face, slack. His eyes, sightless. His skin losing the ruddy flush of oxygenated blood.
Teddie stood over the body, holding a knife.
My father pressed to his side, blood on his hands.