Lucky Catch: A Lucky O’Toole Novel
Love and lust—two four-letter words men often confuse.
More specifically, a certain man . . . the man standing in my doorway.
My heart tripped, then steadied.
Thinner than I remembered, he still had that tight ass, those broad shoulders, spiky blond hair, soulful baby-blues, and a sippin’-whiskey-smooth voice that could warm me to the core, despite my best efforts to douse the fire.
Despite serious reservations about turning a platonic friendship into something . . . not platonic . . . I had let him lead me into the deep, dark waters of love. And being an all-or-nothing kind of gal, I’d done a half gainer off the high dive and things had not gone swimmingly.
And now he was back.
As I looked at him and tried to compose myself—it just wouldn’t do to let him see the splash his return made—I wondered how I’d ever get my heart back. The empty hole in my chest echoed with longing, leaving me winded.
My office phone jangled, giving me an excuse to avoid Teddie for a few moments longer. I grabbed the receiver. “Customer relations, Lucky O’Toole speaking. How may I help you?”
“We have a problem.” Detective Romeo with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department started in without preliminaries—not a good sign.
“What’s this we shit, Kemosabe?” I tried to make light. Apparently I failed miserably.
Romeo’s tone hardened. “Dead body. Back lot. Somebody wrapped her head in plastic and killed her with a smoking gun. You’re going to want to see this one.”
“Dang.” I rubbed a hand over my face. “I never want to see that kind of thing. You know that.” I looked up and locked eyes with Teddie, who stared at me, his eyes dark and troubled.
“Trust me on this one.” He took an audible breath, then let it out slowly.
“Okay. Give me fifteen minutes. I’ve got to take Christophe Bouclet back to his father.”
“I’ll meet you there. This one’s bad.”
As if they all aren’t bad. “Meet me where?” My only answer was the hollow echo of a disconnected line. Romeo had hung up—he knew how much I hated that little bit of rudeness.
I narrowed my eyes at the prime example of the Y chromosome set standing in front of me.
Teddie knew me well enough to take a step back. “Romeo?” he asked with a forced lilt to his voice.
I set the receiver back in its cradle, but refused to let Romeo and Teddie get me all worked up. Problems, I could handle—as the vice president of Customer Relations at the Babylon, Las Vegas’s most over-the-top Strip property, problems were my job. And, if I can say anything about myself, I’m good at my job.
Now, to the most immediate problem. “Teddie, why are you here?”
Ignoring my glower, he continued, sounding like an old friend stopping by to reminisce. “Your office door was open,” he began in a casual tone, as if the earth still rotated on the same axis. “I expected to find you in your old office. What are you doing back here in this construction zone? Not VP digs. Congrats. By the way.” Teddie paused when his eyes came to rest on the young boy in my lap who clutched a crayon and concentrated on the drawing in front of him. I saw questions lurking in Teddie’s eyes. Thankfully, he didn’t voice them, choosing instead to give me a tentative grin.
A dagger to the heart.
A frown was the only response I could muster as my pulse pounded in my ears and I struggled to remain outwardly calm.
“This early in the morning I expected to see your staff out front,” he continued, ignoring the fact that this whole situation was fraught with possibilities of homicide. “But the desks were empty. Since you and I are . . . friends . . . I didn’t think you’d mind me wandering back here to find you.”
What was I going to say? “Get the hell out” seemed a bit extreme. And “no, we’re not friends” would have been too hard to admit. Offering to shoot him the next time he wandered in unannounced also seemed a bit aggressive. Maybe. I opted to duck-and-weave. “If I minded, would it matter?”
Teddie’s smile dimmed and he jammed his hands in his pockets as he shifted from one foot to the other, his shoulders hunched around his ears.
I took a deep breath and blew at a strand of hair that tickled my forehead. “To be honest, you were the last person I expected to darken my doorway this morning. Weren’t you just in Prague or Moscow or someplace half a world away?”
“I quit the tour and jumped a plane.”
Taking a step inside the doorway, he was brought up short by the look on my face. His arms wide, pleading, he said, “I had to see you.”
I wasn’t buying it. He always was a bit of a drama queen which, now that I thought about it, went with the whole female impersonator gig—I’d just never noticed it before—or it had never bothered me before.
Ever the performer, he adopted just the right tone—pleading without the whine. “You won’t take my calls. You won’t answer the messages I send you. You haven’t even acknowledged the song. What did you expect me to do?” He let his arms fall to his sides.
“Expect?” My voice was flat, hard, pounded thin by the hammer of his insensitivity. And the song he mentioned? Every time I heard the thing, he bludgeoned me anew. Didn’t he understand that? “Teddie, I expected you to stay gone.”
Hurt flashed across his face as we stared at each other and time slowed to a crawl. He looked like he wanted to explore the subject further, but wisely altered course. “Got a new friend, I see.” He nodded toward the boy.
Christophe squirmed under Teddie’s scrutiny, then leaned back and looked up at me. While I counted to ten and prayed for self-control and a noninflammatory response, I bent down and gave the boy a kiss on the head. He smelled like baby soap, and with good reason—last night we’d used a gallon of the stuff.
That was before I’d spent the night with his father.
“Christophe Bouclet.” My eyes found Teddie’s, then skittered away and back again. Knowing me, I had “guilty as sin” written all over my face. But, Teddie’d been the one to leave. So why did I feel guilty?
Life had just gotten way more than complicated.
I had absolutely no idea where to start or what to do. To be honest, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that, once started, I wouldn’t finish by grabbing Teddie by the neck and squeezing the life out of him. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. My cell phone sang out at my hip, saving me from a long future making license plates at the invitation of the great state of Nevada. Actually it was Teddie doing the singing. In a weak, masochistic moment, I’d installed as my ringtone a snippet of a song he’d written not only for me, but about me as well. Yes, that song . . . the one he’d mentioned and I’d avoided. He’d titled it “Lucky for Me.”
Apparently he loved irony.
At the first few notes, Teddie’s eyebrows shot up. I hastily reached for the device and silenced it with a stroke of my thumb. I gave him a steely stare, challenging the surprise that widened his eyes. Never wavering, I pressed the phone to my ear. “O’Toole,” I barked.
“How do you make a thousand turkeys disappear?”
“What?” I held the phone in front of me and squinted at the display, trying to bring into focus not only the tiny digits, but life as well. The number belonged to Jerry, the voice belonged to Jerry, but the question came out of left field—even from the Babylon’s head of Security. “Jerry, this really isn’t a good time.”
“Tell me about it.” He chuckled. “I got turkeys down here—the real things. A thousand of them.” Chaos in the background filtered through the connection. “You know anything about them?”
I glanced up at Teddie—turkeys seemed to abound today. And to think, Thanksgiving was still a few days away.
“Lucky, girl, are you there? We could sure use your help.”
As the Babylon’s chief problem-solver, turkeys like the one standing in my office doorway were my specialty. However, my expertise did not necessarily extend to the feathered variety.
I put the phone back to my ear. “I’m here, but I’m confused. Where are you? And, just for clarification, what kind of turkeys are we talking about?”
Jerry replied in a rushed voice, “The basement, Level Two. Your mother . . .”
The light dawned. “Oh God, she didn’t?”
“She did.” This time he burst out laughing. “Mona, she is some piece of work. Better get that woman down here. And tell her, if she plans on feeding the hungry on Thanksgiving, she’d better bring her double barrel and a shitload of buckshot.”
“Some people are alive solely because it’s illegal to shoot them.”
Jerry laughed. “Your mother . . .”
“. . . is their fearless leader,” I said, finishing his thought. “But, you aren’t seriously considering turning a pregnant woman loose in the basement with a loaded shotgun, are you? Remember what she did to the sheriff?”
“Any other ideas?” Jerry’s voice sobered a bit.
“Fresh out.” I glanced up at Teddie—a frown creased the skin between his eyes as he watched Christophe, who was working intently on his drawing. “And since answers on this end seem to be in short supply, I’m invoking one of my three vice president lifelines and am phoning a friend. That would be you, by the way.”
“But I called you,” Jerry reminded me.
“A mere technicality that is not enough for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Mother is your problem. I’ll get her down there. You figure out what happens next. If you kill her, just let me know where to send flowers.” I flipped the phone shut, terminating the call before he could guilt me into more. My vintage Versace suit and Loubous were hardly turkey-taming attire. And I didn’t really trust myself around Mona right now, especially with a gun within easy reach.
Today was Monday . . . in every way.
My eyes met Teddie’s and my heart tightened. Would I ever be over him? Christophe stilled in my lap.
“It’s okay, sweetie.” I gave the boy another hurried peck on the top of his head. “Ignore the man in the doorway. He’s leaving.” With both hands under Christophe’s arms, I lifted him, slithered out from under him, then deposited him back in the chair. “And so are we.”
The boy wiggled his legs underneath him. Kneeling, he bent back over the picture he had been drawing when we’d been so rudely interrupted. “I’m drawing a picture of you and Papa and my happy-face pancakes.” He gave me a look designed to melt my heart. God help womankind in another ten or twelve years. “See?” He pointed to one figure. “ You have Papa’s shirt on.”
I sighed. Like I said, a Monday in every way. “That’s wonderful, dear. It was fun, wasn’t it?”
“Tomorrow we will make pancakes again?” A demand framed as a question—his father had the same habit.
Allergic to authority, real or implied, I don’t know why it didn’t irritate me. Maybe it was the French accent. Who knew? I smiled and ruffled his hair. “Of course. Now, I’ve got to take you to your father.” I rounded up wayward crayons and stuffed them back in the box. Then I eased the paper from his grasp and carefully tucked it into a drawer. “Let’s finish this later, okay?” Turning, I presented my back. “Climb aboard.”
He jumped in exuberance, his legs encircling my waist. Holding a bit too tightly around my neck, he choked off the air. I loosened his arms and settled him on my hips. “Good?”
He nuzzled in, his mouth next to my ear. “Oui!”
“We’re off, then.” My eyes, full of challenge and probably a bit of hurt, met Teddie’s as I moved to brush by him. I could see in his face the warning had registered. He opened his mouth to speak. I put a hand to the center of his chest to move him out of the doorway—the connection hit me like a sucker punch. I struggled to keep my composure. “Don’t.”
Clamping his mouth shut, Teddie did as I asked and stepped aside.
I let my hand drop. Why had I touched him? I knew every curve and angle of his body by heart. Closing my eyes, I could remember the feel of him, as real and immediate as if we’d never stopped. But we had stopped. Well, he had stopped. Apparently my heart, not to mention other parts, hadn’t gotten the memo. Pulling air into my lungs in a vain hope that some would find its way to my head, I opened my eyes and gave a half-smile to the man who had stolen my heart. Then I eased past him, careful not to touch him again.
My old office, which was adjacent to my new one but lacked the whole construction zone motif, was empty, as was the outer office. The bird still slept under the nighttime cage cover. I’d never been so glad to find my staff absent and my foul-mouthed feathered friend muzzled for the moment.
Teddie followed me.
“Go away.” I threw the words over my shoulder as I burst through the outer door, then turned and hurried down the hallway toward the stairs.
“Giddy-up!” Christophe shrieked.
Teddy was hard on my heels. “We need to talk.” He reached for my elbow.
His hand fell away as I stopped. Taking a deep breath, I turned. Christophe fisted a hand in my hair.
“What do you want, Teddie?”
“Is that boy the new French chef’s?”
“His son, yes.”
An emotion, one that didn’t look pleasant, pulled Teddie’s lips into a thin line. “You didn’t waste much time.”
I rolled my eyes. “You know me, never let a warm bed cool.” Turning, I resumed my stalk down the hall. Teddie knew me well enough to know that wasn’t even close to being true. The sad truth was, he probably knew me better than I knew myself, which put me at a distinct disadvantage.
“Lucky, you shut me out.” Teddie dogged my heels. “Would you stop for a minute?”
“Go away, Teddie. Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk to you.” I tossed the verbal arrows over my shoulder. “I have nothing to say.” Okay, that was a lie—I had a ton to say, but now was not the time, especially with a five-year-old on my back. Besides, I didn’t like to be ambushed.
Apparently my verbal darts had finally penetrated his thick skull. When Teddie spoke again his voice held a quiet, plaintive tone. “I couldn’t stay away.”
With Teddie I had never known where the act ended and sincerity began. I still didn’t, but I’d built up immunity to the whole show. “Pity.” My phone rang at my hip, but, with both arms full of little boy, and my thoughts gyrating wildly, I had more than I could deal with already, so I ignored it. “Lucky for Me” jangled into the sudden silence. Thank God ringtones were only a few seconds long.
Christophe laid his head on my shoulder, his fingers entwined in my hair. The poor kid had traveled halfway around the world from his grandparents’ farm in Provence, arriving last night, then had been too excited to sleep for long.
“Especially when your father called.” With pitch-perfect comedic timing, Teddie could deliver a punch line better than Jerry Seinfeld.
I threw on the brakes mid-stride—Christophe didn’t move. “What?”
Obviously taken by surprise, Teddie skidded to a stop. He stepped in front of me, then, at the look on my face, took a step back. Everyone in my sphere knew, when my eyes got all slitty it usually meant “run.” Foolish man, he stood his ground. He even squared his shoulders. “Your father called.”
“I heard you the first time.” Teddie couldn’t be lying, could he? That would be way too stupid, even for him. “Why did he call you?” I left the last word hanging, poised, like a wrecking ball beginning its arc.
“He offered me my old job back.”
“Really?” I tried not to let him see the effect of that low blow. Betrayed by my own father and blindsided by Teddie—could life get any better today? My father was the owner of the Babylon and, as such, complicated my life immeasurably, but usually not quite this boldly. I chewed on the inside of my cheek. “And?”
“We’re working out the terms, but I think we have a deal. He made his offer contingent on your approval.”
“So that’s really why you’re here, to get my blessing.”
Careful not to upset the resting boy, I stepped around Teddie and strode to the elevators. I angrily poked the down button, even though I knew the speed with which the elevator would appear bore an inverse relationship to the fervor with which I punched. Teddie’s perfect reflection eased in beside my rather ordinary one. Light brown hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones, angry scowl, a hint of hurt under a layer of homicide—not my best look.
“That’s not why I’m here.” Teddie’s voice held a softer tone, inviting, cajoling.
Reeking of self-serving insincerity, his plea was too little, too late. I cocked a disbelieving eyebrow at his reflection.
He shrugged, apparently deciding that truth might be the salve to soothe the wound—he was wrong.
“Okay, it’s part of the reason I’m here. But you are the main reason.”
“I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.” Sarcasm dripped from every word. “So, being a rock star wasn’t enough? Now you have to come back here to mess with my magic?”
His voice dropped. “I love you.”
“Low blow.” Thankfully, the elevator doors eased open. I stepped inside, then turned and put a hand out, stopping him from following me. Unwilling to be singed again, I pulled my hand back before it made contact.
“Not now, Teddie. Maybe not ever.”
Maybe? Where the hell had that come from?
The doors slid shut, saving me from further humiliation as tears welled in my eyes.
“Damn!” I shouted, the word echoing in the empty elevator. Christophe’s head popped up and his body jerked in surprise. “Sorry, honey.”
“I don’t like that man. He made you mad.”
I took a deep breath and calmed myself down as I dabbed at the corners of my eyes with the knuckle of my forefinger and sniffed back further emotion. “He’s a nice man and he didn’t make me angry. I had expectations he didn’t live up to—my fault, not his.” Saying the words was easy, believing them, not so much.
The boy’s quizzical look reflected back to me in the polished metal doors. His face peering at me over my shoulder reminded me of an angel whispering in my ear. Stranded in the quicksand of my own confusion and ambivalence, I wished he had words of wisdom, but he was just a boy.
“Maybe he is like a puppy who has been scolded—he bites even though he is the one who has been bad.”
Wow. That stopped me for a moment. My experience with children had been limited, but I guessed that whole out-of-the-mouths-of-babes thing had some truth to it. “You’re probably right.” I hitched him higher on my hips. “Teddie can be quite charming. You’ll like him . . . everybody does.”
“But you don’t?”
“I like him, but with us, it’s a bit more complicated.” I rolled my eyes at myself. Relationships. I totally sucked at them. Pasting on a smile, I contemplated who to kill first—my father, Teddie, Mona—I wasn’t sure the order mattered. Of course, I could line them up and rid myself of the lot of them all at once—a Thanksgiving Day Massacre. Tempting.
“Ms. O’Toole,” a disembodied voice asked—the eye-in-the-sky, our omnipresent security system, “Mr. Jerry asked me to find you. He said you weren’t answering your phone.”
“One can run but one can’t hide?” I asked the voice.
“No, ma’am, I’m afraid you’re screwed,” the voice said, then paused awkwardly. “That probably isn’t how I’m supposed to talk to a vice president, is it?”
“Well, since this vice president just yelled a not-so-nice word to an empty elevator in the presence of a youngster, I’d say you were well within propriety.” The elevator stopped and the doors eased open. A middle-aged couple stood there, waiting to enter.
I stayed where I was. “Now, did you want something?”
At first the couple looked taken aback, as if I were talking to them. Then they leaned forward slightly and glanced around the empty elevator.
“Yes,” came the voice. “Mr. Jerry is apoplectic. He said to tell you that your mother is not answering her phone.”
Stepping to the side and holding the door, I motioned the couple inside. At first they hesitated, but then they moved past, eyeing me as they did so. “What floor?” I asked them.
“Twelve,” the lady responded.
I punched the appropriate button, then answered the voice. “Tell him I’ll be on my way after I make a quick stop in the Bazaar, and I’ll bring Mona if I have to shoot her with a tranquilizer dart and throw her over my shoulder.”
Letting loose the doors, I stepped out. As the elevator closed, I overheard the man say, “A tranquilizer dart. I wonder if she would do the same to Irene?”
I paused for a moment staring at myself in the elevator doors, gathering my wits, or what was left of them. Irene? The man’s comment to his female companion certainly triggered an interesting visual.
Vegas, where two is a date and three is . . . an even better date.
Carefully, I shifted the boy on my back. Once again Christophe’s head had sagged onto my shoulder, his eyes fluttering, then remaining shut. The ability to sleep anywhere—if only I could bottle some of that.
Thanksgiving was three days away—an eternity in my world. The holidays were supposed to bring families together, to let bygones be bygones, giving us a chance to relax in the presence of folks who—short of homicide—couldn’t get rid of us.
I wasn’t feeling the magic.
Apparently I was the lone lump of coal floating in a sea of the milk of human kindness—or I was the only sober one in a sea of well-oiled humanity. Excited voices swirled around me as I turned and strode through the lobby. As they waited for the next check-in clerk, travelers in their Bermuda shorts, sundresses, sandals, and goose bumps rubbed their bare arms, some cuddled against the chill. Most swilled the free champagne passed by cocktail waitresses in their barely there togas with gold braid belts, strappy Gladiator footwear with five-inch heels, pearly smiles, and other Vegas assets properly displayed.
Vegas’s location in the middle of the Mojave Desert fooled most folks into thinking summer was a year-round season. Not true. Winter could be windy and chilly. Today was a perfect example—a cool breeze wafted in each time someone pushed through one of the multiple sets of double-glass doors forming the Babylon’s grand entry, letting in a taste of the out-of-doors. To be honest, I welcomed the change in the weather—while my life kept me teetering on the brink of insanity, twelve months of hundred-degree days would shove me right over.
For a moment I let myself absorb some of the crowd’s energy and enthusiasm. Glancing at the ceiling, I smiled at the Chihuly blown-glass hummingbirds and butterflies arcing in flight. A dozen skiers bombed down the indoor ski slope sheltered behind a wall of Lucite on the far side of the lobby. Multicolored cloth tented above reception. Equally colorful mosaics decorated the white marble walls and floors hinting at the Babylon’s Persian motif. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a problem to solve—everything hummed with precision. Darn.
Guess I had to deal with Mona and her turkeys.
Then a dead woman and a smoking gun, which sounded like the perfect recipe for a migraine.
I eased Christophe to one hip as he slumbered, freeing a hand. With a practiced motion, I grabbed my phone from its holster and flipped it open. My thumb found Mona’s button. After the fifth ring, I started to ring off when she answered, her voice breathless.
“Lucky, honey. This isn’t a good time. Your father and I . . .”
“TMI, Mother.” I stifled a shiver of revulsion. No matter how old I got, how worldly I became, there was just something so . . . disturbing about picturing my parents inter-coitus. “And, come to think about it,” I grimaced at the unintentional pun as I once again shifted the boy who clung to my back like a monkey, “are you supposed to be having S-E-X in your condition?”
“S-E-X? Why are you spelling? And what are you talking about? We’re hanging pictures.” She stifled a giggle.
“Right.” I shifted the phone to my other ear, holding it with my shoulder, then put a hand on my hip, nearly taking out a cute Marine as he dodged around me.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he said as he shot me a grin.
Even though the “ma’am” thing rankled, I allowed myself a moment to admire his ass as he hurried on.
“Mother, Jerry needs you downstairs. Basement Level Two.”
“Honey,” her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, “can’t it wait?”
I tried to picture Jerry, his well-armed staff, and a thousand turkeys. “No, I don’t think so. Jerry needs your help with the turkeys you ordered.”
Mona’s voice turned brusque. “Oh, well, I already had the staff clear enough room in several of the walk-ins. I don’t see what he needs me for.”
“I think he wants to blindfold you and stand you against a wall.” I started laughing; I couldn’t help it. “Seriously, Mother. I know your heart’s in the right place. But couldn’t you at least have ordered the turkeys already dressed?”
“But Chef Omer said he would make the dressing.”
The sea of humanity in the lobby flowed around me as I let my head drop forward. My emotions, ragged and somewhat irrational, burbled up. I didn’t fight them. Instead, I relinquished myself and laughed until I cried. It was the only non-self-destructive antidote to Mona and a day that, with Teddie’s sudden reappearance and Romeo’s little bombshell, had taken a hard turn toward abysmal. And to think, it had started so well. Warmth suffused me as I pictured my chef in his shorts and a smile. “Mother,” I managed to squeeze the words out with what little air was left in my lungs. “‘Dressed’ means plucked, gutted, and ready to stuff.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line, which gave me time to compose myself somewhat. I wiped my tears on the shoulder of my blouse—I never did like the color of this one anyway—then I bit my lip as I fought down another burble of laughter.
“You mean they’re . . . alive?” Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Mona apparently still had a bit of an edge.
“Mmmmm.” That was the only sound I trusted myself to make.
I took a deep breath. “Mother, at your behest, the press is coming tomorrow. And you’ve given the go-ahead to Crazy Carl to invite all of his fellow storm drain dwellers for the big feast on Thursday. The staff is ready to go, but I feel pretty sure they’ll mutiny if you expect them to behead, gut, and pluck a thousand turkeys.”
“But what should I do?” Her voice sounded small, imploring . . . like a child’s.
Wise to her game, I refused to play. “You need to get down there ASAP. After that, I haven’t a clue. You wanted to campaign for an appointment to the Paradise Town Council. You wanted to ‘change the world one homeless person at a time,’ which I believe were your exact words. You wanted to run this show. Well, run it.”
“Lucky, you’re not being very helpful,” she harrumphed.
“I know.” As I terminated the call, I couldn’t wipe the gloat off my face.