Lucky in Love: A Lucky O’Toole Novella
“Did you know my wife is seriously into chicks?”
The guy was brave, I'd grant him that. Approaching a woman in a bar with that line was no small feat, even in Vegas.
Waiting for an answer, the guy looked at me through clear, intense eyes as he leaned in close, bracing himself with an elbow on the bar. He tipped his almost empty flute of Champagne at a woman at the end of the bar. “That's her.”
He was a handsome man, reddish-brown hair, a tan, and well-turned out in creased jeans that looked and fit like European, and one of those new style shirts with the subtle embroidery. Hip but not annoyingly so. “Two's a date, three's a fantasy?”
“Something like that.” The guy's eyes settled on his wife with a warm glow. “She's got the magic touch, if you know what I mean.”
His wife, the chick magnet, glanced in our direction, flipping highlighted golden hair her shoulder as she shot me a come-on look through lowered lashes. She too sipped champagne as she pretended to be interested in the men who swarmed around her.
“I guess it's great for you—if she shares.” Never one to judge, I kept my tone impassive, my expression bland as I pushed myself backwards off my barstool. Standing, I brushed down my pants. “You two are stunning. And I appreciate the offer. But, as an only child, I never learned to share. I keep what's mine.”
“You're missing a good time.” The guy's eyes widened a bit as his gaze lazily traveled the length of me.
Most men didn't expect a woman over six feet, so I was used to it—not that I liked it. “I'm sure I am.”
“Another time, perhaps?” The guy wasn't going to quit.
I didn't know whether to be flattered or… what? I'd never tried a threesome and I remained confused by the whole appeal of the voyeuristic girl-on-girl men seemed to dig. “Thanks, but not my style.”
“Pity,” he remarked after taking a sip of champagne, then once again raking his eyes down the length of me. I hated it when guys did that—being very visual myself, I didn't enjoy being the subject of their mental picture show.
I gave him a weak smile. “Sorry, no.” Separating sex from emotional attachment sullied both. The only thing those two cared about was how I looked naked—not enough attachment for this gal.
At my sign, the bartender closed out my Diet Coke tab for the evening—I was currently suffering through day twenty-two of the Lucky O'Toole Self-Betterment Program. Unfortunately, this sate of austerity severely limited my beverage of choice, Wild Turkey 101, and thus did very little for my over all appreciation of humankind.
Turning on my heel, I headed for fresh air to clear my head before I did something I would be proud of but would regret in the morning.
As you might have guessed, my name is Lucky O'Toole and as the Head of Customer Relations for the Babylon, Las Vegas' most over-the-top resort/casino, I hang out in bars. A lot. And, in a city where the action doesn't even pretend to get going until at least ten thirty and doesn't really ramp up until the wee hours, I put in twenty-hour days way more than I would like. Today was one of those days. But, as the Chief Problem Solver at the Babylon, I'm in charge of keeping people out of trouble—and staying out of it myself. Tonight, trouble lurked at my shoulder—not good in light of my dangerously low levels of self-control. I could feel bad karma stalking me, ready to sink its teeth into my jugular. And I had no one to blame but myself.
You know how you make a decision to do something months, or even years in advance, never thinking you would actually have to follow through? Well, over a year ago I mortgaged my soul to the Devil and now he had come to collect. What did I do that was so bad? I agreed to host the final competition of the reality show “The Forever Game,” where carefully selected couples would vie to win a Las Vegas wedding extravaganza. Had I known the host, Trey Gold, could inspire women the world over to shoot first, and ask questions later, I would have reconsidered. Now it was too late.
After months of auditions around the country, the final four couples were en route to my hotel. The insanity had already begun.
To make matters worse, all of the frivolity would be televised live—reality TV at its finest.
I really hate reality. And, personally, putting reality on TV is like covering a cockroach in chocolate and calling it a “gourmet experience.” But, nobody asked me.
Lost in thought, I didn't notice my mother, Mona, until she caught me at the top of the steps leading from the bar down to the casino floor. “Where have you been?” Her tone was accusatory as usual—a sharp arrow tipped with guilt.
Stumbling on the first step, I grabbed the handrail. “Fielding offers from a couple interested in a threesome. Apparently the wife thinks I'm cute.”
That stopped Mother for a moment. Long and lean, her body rippled under a spandex sheath of silver lame, a little looser than her normal painted-on attire. Her bare legs, hinting at an athleticism she didn't have, ended in five-inch stilettos, also of silver. Fine bones and a plastic surgeon on speed dial kept her whittled into an envious shape. With her brown hair piled on her head, wispy tendrils tickling her well-kohled eyes, and her lips painted a pouty pink, she was the mother from Hell. Beside her, I became interesting scenery on the fringes of her stage, adding color, but little substance. Her eyes wide, brown saucers, she put a hand on my arm and leaned around me,
“Really? A threesome? Are they cute?”
She chewed on her lip, a hint of mischief in her eyes. “It sounded interesting, that's all. Sue me.”
“Convincing District Attorney Lovato to prosecute you would be even better. Come to think of it—he owes me a favor.” I groused. Mother had been manageable when she was ensconced at her whorehouse in Pahrump—sixty miles of very uninviting desert between us. But with her in the hotel, perpetually under foot, I lived on the verge of matricide.
“Really, Lucky. You need to get out more. Make more friends.” Mona gave me that look that mothers reserve for recalcitrant two-year-olds. “And those clothes, they take boring to a whole new level.”
“Silver lame is frowned upon in the boardroom, Mother, even in Vegas.” After successfully navigating the steps, I pulled myself to my full height, brushed down my slacks, hiked-up my belt, and took a deep breath.
“Well, I hope you've taken my lingerie advice to heart,” She hooked her arm through mine, pulling me close as we ambled across the casino. “Women who say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, aim a few inches too high.”
“You should know. But I wouldn't waste your energy worrying about my sex life. Frankly, I don't have the energy.”
She leaned in, her mouth close to my ear to be heard above the music and laughter of a casino full of gamblers chasing a dream. “How are you going to find Mr. Right if you don't sample the fare?”
“Seriously, you want me to play with a husband pimping his wife to get chicks? I really see a lot of upside there.”
“Of course not.” Mona shot me a dirty look. “But…”
“And you haven't forgotten Teddie, have you?” I pulled my mother out of the way of a man fist-pumping and bellowing. I couldn't tell if he was happy or not, but since he ordered drinks for everyone, I assumed he was money ahead.
“Teddie wants to be a rock star. He'll break your heart.” Mona stated with certainty as if the whole world could see the train-wreck coming.
“Who'll break your heart?” The melodious voice set every nerve afire.
I turned to look into the smiling baby blues of the gentleman in question. “You.”
“Moi?” Teddie fell back, a hand pressed to his heart. “Mona, you wound me to the core. Lucky is my life.” He wrapped me in his arms, pulling me to him. Our bodies pressed together, the world fell away. When he captured my lips with his, then deepened the kiss, my heart skipped, then raced, spreading warmth. Too bad he was a budding rock star with a future on the road. Nothing like one huge pothole in the rocky road to love.
When I came up for air, I met the scolding eyes of my mother.
“I may not know much,” she whispered as Teddie broke away to greet a fan, “but I do know men.”
She had made men her life's work. Hopefully the years had taught her a thing or two, but I wasn't going to bank my future on it. Besides, manipulation was Mona's middle name. “This time you're wrong.”
Teddie captured my hand as his attention returned. “You guys don't want to hit the lobby. It's a circus.”
“Three rings. I'm the Ringmaster,” I reminded him.
“Well, there's safety in numbers, right?” He extended an elbow.
I hooked one arm through his and the other through Mona's. Side-by-side we marched toward the lobby. For some reason I felt like Dorothy skipping toward Oz, full of misplaced confidence.
A wall of energy hit us as we stepped into the lobby taking my breath away like a punch. Built of marble and multi-colored inlaid mosaic, the lobby was a grand cavern invoking a Persian paradise. A flight of blown-glass hummingbirds arced across the ceiling. Fabric in rich hues tented over the reception desk, spanning the length of the far wall. Adjacent to it, behind floor-to-ceiling glass, a mountain of man-made snow beckoned those weary of the heat of the Mojave. For a small ransom, anyone could slap on a pair of K-2s and slip down the slope. Angling away from Reception was the opening to the Bazaar, world class shopping at its excessive best. From Ferraris to Ferragamos, the Babylon had it all. A placid stream wound its way through the expanse. Lined with shrubs and flowering plants, populated with regal swans and a few ducks of different hues, and crossed at convenient intervals by arching footbridges, the waterway was the Babylon's rendition of the Euphrates minus the silt.
Tonight, the front of the hotel with its grand sweeping entranceway drew the focus of a burgeoning crowd, who nudged and shifted like cows at feeding time. Everyone craned to catch a glimpse of the finalists basking in their fifteen minutes of fame.
I pulled my little trio to a halt before we got trampled. “I just don't get this whole reality TV thing—ringside seats to a disaster from the anonymity of our living rooms.”
“Oh, honey, it's everybody's chance at a dream.” My mother squeezed my arm as she shivered with apparent delight.
“After you throw your teammates or housemates or mates in general and your dignity…oh, and your values under the bus.”
“It's the real world.” Mona actually looked like she believed it. Logic never was her best thing—probably a coping mechanism. But, she did have a point: Civilization had abandoned civility in so many ways.
“This? The real world?” I unhooked my arm from hers as I caught sight of my assistant, Miss P, heading my way like a laser-guided missile. “I'm insulted. This is magic—smoke-and-mirrors.” I waved my free arm over the crowd. “A carefully crafted illusion that, even if only for a weekend, we can all be who we want to be and have anything or anyone our hearts desire.”
“What does your heart desire, Lucky, my love?” Teddie whispered in my ear. Before I could answer, he let go of my arm and was instantly swallowed by a swarm of fans. He whipped out a Sharpie and began decorating various adoring females buzzing around him.
Momentarily distracted from thoughts of reality TV, I watched all the sweet young things pressing their soft flesh to his in a not-so-subtle display of availability—my reality. How he resisted, I couldn't fathom. How I would handle his temptations in the future was equally murky. A problem for another day.
Miss P trundled to a stop in front of me. “Lucky.” A statement, not a question.
Right voice, wrong person. I squinted and refocused. I still hadn't gotten used to the hip and trendy, spiky-haired, version of my old frumpy right-hand-man.
“I've been calling you,” she continued with more than a hint of exasperation. “Why don't you answer your phone?”
“For some silly reason, I thought I might take a moment to regroup without being hounded. I don't know what I was thinking.” I grabbed my phone from my hip and thumbed-off the silent switch. “Besides, I was momentarily distracted by an offer to join a threesome.”
Miss P looked at me over the top of her cheaters for a beat. “Do I need to call the paramedics?”
“Not necessary—my rapier wit is only set to stun today.” That didn't get even a hint of a grin. I was going to have to either change my act or take this one on the road.
With the middle finger of her right hand she nudged her glasses farther up her nose as she raised her head to look at me full-on, oblivious to the gesture she had just shot me. “The limos are five minutes away.”
“Reroute them to the Kasbah.” My tone clipped the wings of any argument.
“The crowd is reaching the boiling point—security won't be able to hold them all back. Not good television and not the image of the Babylon I want to have splashed in prime time around the globe. I've already scrambled the TV crews to the VIP entrance.”
“And Trey Gold?”
My eyes went all slitty and Miss P took a step back. “Just the mention of that troglodyte's name triggers my gag reflex. Why they picked him to host a show about love is beyond me. Jerry is riding herd.” I glanced around to make sure no one listened in—I didn't need that sound bite to be flashed around the world. “I've authorized the use of lethal force, but I suggest we be there to meet the limos. Bloodshed would be bad for business.”
Mona leaned in as Miss P angled toward the Kasbah and its private VIP entrance. “Ooooh, blood.” She shivered in anticipation. “The reality fans will eat that with a spoon.”
Shrouded in a carefully crafted myth of secrecy, The Kasbah served as the lap of luxury for the Babylon's most well-heeled guests. Accessed through a long hallway that led to a set of large bronze doors, the Kasbah was zealously guarded by the most unctuous on our staff.
“Sergio, is everything ready?” I asked as I breezed into the hallway and swept our front desk manager up in my wake. Sergio was our resident expert in kowtowing without being obsequious.
“Of course, Ms. O'Toole. You have but to ask.” Sucking-up was also part of his repertoire. Given the fact that he had the body of a Greek God, the face of an angel and silky black hair that hung across his forehead setting off his doe-eyes, I didn't mind. Although, he was a trifle fussy for my tastes.
Passing through a pair of double doors large enough to hold back an invading horde and maybe even a rabid pack of paparazzi—we had yet to throw the crossbar, but you never knew—we entered a world of rarified air. Tall palms and shorter flowering trees flourished in the huge atrium, stretching their branches in salutation to the sun that streamed in through the bubbled glass ceiling high above. Following a path through a maze of individual bungalows, each one complete with a private pool and enough personal staff to keep even the most demanding sheik relatively content, we worked our way to the private drive-up entrance.
While the inner sanctum of the Kasbah had been quiet and serene, this entrance was anything but. Men shouldered cameras, trailed by minions managing the cables. Onlookers paused and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of whatever it was the group had gathered for. The small crowd had clearly reached the tipping point, attracting more and more like a positively charged atom gathered electrons until the whole thing became unstable, an explosion waiting to flatten the surroundings.
Glancing over the mass of humanity, I saw Jerry's bald head sticking up above the milling throng and I made a beeline for him. As Head of Security, Jerry was always my friend in time of need—and a great equalizer.
Pushing my way through the thickening crowd, I managed to snag his sleeve. “Status?”
When Jerry looked at me I could see the whites of his eyes. “Combustible, but the limos should be here any minute.
We've got two couples per car.” He glanced down at a clipboard. “The first car, Couple Number One, will be Gail
Fortunato and Rocco Traveneti. A couple of kids from the lower east side.”
“At least they're not from the Jersey shore and they don't call themselves The Circumstance or something.”
“I think you mean The Situation.” Jerry gave me a sheepish grin.
“Whatever. Don't tell me you watch this stuff.”
“Keeps the wife happy,” he said a bit quickly, his gaze shifting from mine.
I filed the topic for future ribbing.
“The second couple. Couple Number—”
“Two, I get it.”
Used to my short fuse, Jerry didn't miss a beat. “Couple Number Two is Walker Worthington and Buffy Bingle.” How he said that with a straight face, I don't know.
“Bingle. I would've changed that name for sure.”
“Somehow that loses its punch coming from a gal named Lucky.”
“Point taken. But Bingle? I'd bet my next month's salary she's a scrapper with mean playground skills.”
“You're the expert.” Jerry grinned at me. He knew I wore my rough-and-tumble upbringing as a badge of honor.
As advertised, a limo rounded the corner then eased to a stop at the curb. Jerry and Miss P held back the crowd while Sergio and I stepped to the rear door of the car. Somewhere I had lost Mona, but I didn't have time to worry about that now.
“Everybody outta my way.” The grating voice of Trey Gold, several decibels too high, echoed over the crowd. “You people, move!”
Reluctantly, they did as he ordered.
Red-faced, mopping his brow, which glistened despite the pancake makeup in an unnatural shade of orange, Mr. Gold pushed to my side. His jet-black hair, unmarred by even a hint of gray and spiked with gel, clashed with the lines on his face. His cruel mouth curled in an imitation of a smile that didn't reach his eyes. Even in my low heels I had him by almost a foot. Although with his broad shoulders and well-camouflaged paunch, he most likely outweighed me. A fact, which, swine that I am, gave me particular delight.
“O'Toole, glad to see you decided to put in an appearance. Just can't resist seeing your mug on TV, right?” He wheezed as if the short push through the crowd had been almost more than he could bear. He dropped the mike he'd been holding close to his face down to his side. His fake smile disappeared. “This is my show, O'Toole. Don't you forget it. Stay out of my way.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could get a word out, he reached an arm across my middle, pushing me out of his way. “Step back, girlfriend, and watch a master at work. You might want to take notes.”
“Girlfriend?” My voice dropped an octave or two, my eyes got all slitty. “I'd slit my wrists if I was your girlfriend,” I hissed.
Oblivious to everything but the seductive eye of the camera, Trey cranked up the wattage of his smile, turned to the cameras, and began babbling about the contest and the first couple, as he reached for the door handle on the limo.
Seething, I was contemplating instruments of torture, when Jerry grabbed my arm. “Later. Remember, we don't get back…”
“We get even,” I finished the familiar mantra. As I said the words, I felt myself relaxing. The Babylon was my world; I made the rules. Trey Gold was in my playpen now and he would get his comeuppance. I didn't know how, I didn't know where—I just knew for sure.
Glad that for once the spectacle wasn't my responsibility, I crossed my arms and watched it unfold. Couple Number One had the stage. Mr. Traveneti stuck his head out of the limo first, his body followed. He reached back and grabbed the hand of his future mate, Ms. Fortunato. I liked that.
Trey stuck the mike in Rocco's face. “Welcome to Vegas. What do you think so far?”
As expected, Rocco was short, stout, dark hair, dark eyes…Italian. And young. But his smile was warm and dimples creased his cheeks when he smiled. “It's cool.”
Trey waited a second too long, expecting more, then he shifted the mike to Ms. Fortunato. “Gail, your impressions?”
Gail still squeezed Rocco's hand—I could see her knuckles turning white, but she appeared unruffled at all the attention. Her red hair was unexpected, as was her peaches-and-cream skin and blue eyes. Trim and toned, wearing casual clothes and low heels, she matched Rocco's height and his easy manner. “We're still sort of in shock, you know?”
She and Rocco stepped aside, making room for Couple Number Two.
Stepping out of the limo first, Walker Worthington reeked of the Upper East Side and stuffy boardrooms in a three-piece suit and Windsor-knotted silk tie. With his gray hair trimmed almost military short, his hard eyes and taut mouth he was not the reality contestant I expected. Before he could help her out, Ms. Bingle clambered out of the limo and bounced to his side. Blond, twiggy, gawky with carefully contoured Tetons, pouty smile and vacuous gaze she screamed “perky”.
God help me.
Trey was a bit more reserved when he approached Mr. Worthington. Guess the buttoned-up big shot had a bite.
“Impressions of Vegas so far?” Apparently Mr. Gold was a one-question wonder.
Walker's eyebrows snapped into a frown. “All show, no substance.”
I leaned into Jerry. “At least he's discerning.” I grabbed Miss P, who had been standing silent guard at my side this whole time, by the elbow. “Enough of this sideshow. Let's make a last minute readiness cruise through the bungalows.”
Even though I knew of at least five trips she'd made to check the preparations for our contestants, Miss P followed me without a word as I plowed my way through the crowd. People quickly shoved their way into the vacuum we left, erasing any evidence that we'd ever even been there.
The Bungalows at the Kasbah were a permanent fixture on every list of the Best Hotel Rooms in the World. Oversized, opulent yet comfortable, with hot-and-cold running foot slaves, the price of admission included much more than wealth. Of course, our high-rollers made it in—although the rooms generally were awarded based on a lottery of pecking orders. At a weekly meeting, our high-end casino hosts each listed their players who would be in town, how much they regularly kept in play, what their limit was, and then the Head of the department made the room assignments. The players with the most potential profit to the hotel got the best room with the best perks. Fairly mercenary, I admit, but while the Babylon might be a playground, it was above all else a business. And as a business, it was profit or die—especially in the highly competitive world of separating the rich and famous from their money.
The key was to provide just enough pleasure and perception of freebies—or comps, as we referred to them—to keep the gamblers at the tables. All was negotiated, generally up front. A player would agree to gamble for so many hours, putting a specific minimum of action through the House. In return, we would offer discounts on losses, free use of the airplane, the Ferraris, fourth row center tickets to the best show in town—everything, constrained only by the limits of imagination and the legal system. Although I'd heard whispers of the latter being exceeded at some hotels, I'd never done it myself—and woe to any of my staff who put the hotel on the line by overstepping.
Adding insult to injury, this contest had thrown the pecking-order thing out the window. I had exerted my executive privilege and commandeered the very best of the Bungalows, which did little to endear me to the staff as well as some of our Kasbah regulars. Bruised egos would have to settle with opulent digs on our thirtieth floor—the über concierge floor. While the rooms didn't match the bungalows, the service was every bit as spectacular—the floor even had a private chef and a twenty-four-hour kitchen, all at no cost.
We stopped in front of Bungalow 5. “Who's in here?”
“Veronica Salter and Guy Handy.” Miss P rattled the names off without consulting her clipboard—apparently these two were memorable. Guy Handy sounded like a stage name for a stripper in a gay club, but I was wise enough to keep that observation to myself.
“Any special requests?” I asked as stepped into the room and wandered, looking for imperfections. I fingered a fold in the heavy damask drapes.
Miss P snorted, politely. I hid my smile.
“Vichy Water, sin gas, Belgian truffles, 70 percent cocoa, Louis XIII,” she paused as I whipped my head around. “No, not the Black Pearl,” she said in answer to my silent question. “Just the regular $1500 dollar per bottle swill plus Steuben brandy glasses, the tear drop pattern, a case of Chateau Lafitte,” she glanced down again, “nothing younger than 1985, Irish linens, Turkish towels, heated, of course.”
“Of course.” I ran my fingers across the top of the mahogany desk. Dust-free and spotless. “How did you find the tear-drop Steubens? The barware part of that pattern was discontinued before I was born.”
“You deserve a raise.”
“You just gave me one.”
“You deserve another.”
“You expect me to argue?”
“That would be overachieving.” With one arm I circled her shoulders as we walked toward the door. A huge vase of unusual flowers caught my eye, and I abandoned Miss P. “Blue roses? Rare. I'm assuming another special request?”
Miss P nodded. If she was put-out, she hid it well.
“Interesting.” I turned the vase a quarter-turn, then stepped back. “Better?” At Miss P's nod, I once again circled her shoulders. “Did you know they signify unattainable love?”
“Really? I'm not even going to ask how you know that.”
“My mind is a steel trap for worthless information.”
“A walking, talking encyclopedia of little known facts—next Trivial Pursuit game, you're on my team.” A hint of a grin sneaked out as Miss P stopped to inhale the fragrance from fresh-grown roses. “Unattainable love, you say? Probably a good thing, considering.”
“Yes, I'd say someone is a wee bit high-maintenance, or just enjoying the power trip.”
As I stepped back to allow Miss P to proceed me through the door into the common area, a well-heeled woman burst through. Tall, austere, her dark hair pulled back from her face and secured at the nape of her neck in a Tiffany hair clasp—the same one I had given several members of my staff last Christmas. Dark suit, gray cami, black Loubous—the Gloria's with the crystal heels that I lusted for—a oversized Breitling in no-nonsense stainless steel—cheekbones so sharp they could cut meat, and dark eyes that never stopped moving. She peeled off one white glove, finger by finger as she strode around the living room of the bungalow. I hoped she hadn't heard my assessment.
Content to wait—while I didn't like overbearing people any more than the next guy, I appreciated a woman who walked into a room like she owned it, commanding attention.
After a quick tour, she stopped in front of me. “Are you with the hotel?”
I stuck out my hand, “Lucky O'Toole, Head of Customer Relations. I assume you are Ms. Salter?”
She took my hand in her long, thin cool one. I hoped my palms weren't sweaty. “A pleasure. This is lovely. Thank you.”
I dipped my head then motioned to Miss P. “This is my assistant, Miss Patterson. I can assure you, she is the oil in this machine. All of this is her doing. We both are at your service.”
Veronica Salter shook Miss P's hand as well. So, she had manners to match the uniform. Done with the preliminaries, she turned to me as she worked off the other glove. “A manger who casts the glow on her employees. You and I will get along just fine, Ms. O'Toole.”
“Lucky, is it?” She arched one perfectly plucked eyebrow, then her lips curled into a grin. She was warmly pretty when she smiled. “Then you must call me Vera.”
“I can't make any promises—generally such familiarity with our guests is frowned upon.”
“Honey, I am no guest. I'm a paid contestant in this dog-and-pony show.”
“Vera, where do you want all your shit?” The voice was masculine, but with a whiney quality that sent a shiver of distaste through me. “I mean, what?” he continued. “Am I one of those Roman slaves or something? What are they called?”
“Cretins?” Vera asked sweetly, a hint of honey dripping nicely from the two syllables.
I had to turn away and bite my lip. The man in question looked like Malibu Ken with his blond hair, tan, buff bod, white shirt open one button too many, fitted slacks and worn loafers with no socks. Well-dressed, but lacking the polish of the well-heeled. Blue eyes, comfortable face, broad where he should be, he was male pulchritude at its finest—except for the pouty mouth.
“Cretins?” The man stretched out the word and scowled like a first-grader struggling with phonics. “No, I don't think that's it.”
“Don't think, honey, just put the stuff in the bedroom.” Vera glanced at me, a question in her eyes.
“Back there, through the double doors.” I pointed to the far end of the room. We both watched the man I assumed was Guy shoulder two trunks and head for the bedroom. I guess he'd beaten back the army of valets we had waiting in order to do his lady's bidding.
“Don't ask,” Vera said, turning her attention back to me. “I have a habit of picking poorly.” She glanced again at Guy as he maneuvered the luggage and his bulk through the double doors. The man-and-luggage mountain barely fit through the doublewide opening. “He is sweet, but not the right one.”
“You and I have more in common than meets the eye.”
“Really?” Her mask slipped a little revealing the lonely lady underneath—she sounded wistful and a bit sad. “You are kind to say so.”
Somehow, squeezing her in a hug seemed inappropriate, so, fresh out of ideas or words, I remained mute where I stood.
“Mr. Handy is an actor—the latest in a long line.” Vera explained as she shrugged out of her suit jacket and handed it to the butler who had been lurking outside the door and now rushed to her side. “He's not even a very good thespian, but he can remember his lines. We had no idea we'd get this far.”
I wondered what she would do if she actually won.
Miss P and I left Vera and Guy to work out their arrangements—with the help of their personal butler and two bellmen. We hurried to check the last bungalow before the guests arrived. Bungalow Four was a mirror image of Vera's bungalow but with vases of riotous orange tulips instead of the roses.
I took a quick turn around the space while Miss P waited just inside the doorway. “Tell me about this couple.”
“Couple Number Four,” Miss P consulted her clipboard. “John Farenthall and Melina Douglas. He's a plastic surgeon and she is a newscast producer at the ABC affiliate in Houston.”
“Plastic surgeon? Interesting.” I plucked a leaf that had turned brown from the stem of a day lily. “And Melina, what a beautiful name.”
“Thank you.” The voice, warm and smooth, startled me.
I turned to find myself staring at a tall woman, almost my height, dressed in a simple bright yellow shift, gold sandals and a wide smile that lit her whole face. Her skin was the color of rich coffee with a dash of milk. She wore her hair cropped short, which accented her fine features and large, expressive eyes.
I extended my hand and once again made the introductions.
Pleasantries exchanged, Melina clasped her hands and held them to her chest as she wandered the room, her face holding a kid-at-Christmas, delight. “This is lovely.”
“There you are, darling.” A voice boomed from the doorway.
Tall and lean, John Farenthall was the perfect matching bookend to Melina. His skin a rich mahogany, his eyes alight with a hint of mischief, his already warm smile deepened when he saw his future bride.
She extended a hand to him, which he stepped forward to take. “Isn't this perfect?”
“I'll say.” His eyes hadn't drifted from Melina.
When she looked at him and caught his meaning, she ducked her head shyly. “Would you quit? Look.” She gestured around the room. “Amazing, isn't it?”
He pursed his lips and nodded. “It'll do.” Which elicited a giggle from his intended.
“We were conned into this, you know?” he said, turning to me. “Our families conspired against us, entering us in the competition. We never would've done it on our own.”
Melina stepped closer to him, snaking an arm around his waist as she looked at me. “With John trying to get his practice up and running and my eighty-hour weeks, our family despaired of us getting married. They threatened us with bodily harm if we didn't play along.”
“Woe be it to anyone who crosses my mother,” John added with a grin.
Melina looked a bit stricken at the mention of her future mother-in-law; when her happy-face slid back over her features, her eyes didn't mirror the smile. “And here we are.”
“Well, welcome,” I eased toward the door, herding Miss P in front of me. “If we can enhance your stay in any way, please let us know.”
I took a deep breath and shook my head as I closed the door behind us, leaving John and Melina to themselves.
“Interesting cast.” Miss P remarked.
I shrugged in agreement. “Let the games begin.”
“Speaking of games, where do you want me to park Mr. Gold?”
“Put him in Room 30145.”
Miss P looked at me for a moment. “Buttering him up, are we?”