Lucky Ride: A Lucky O’Toole Novel
“Are you my mother?”
The girl standing in front of my desk could’ve been me—half a lifetime ago. Fresh-faced, a bit pale, thin and scared, she was tall to the point her shoulders stooped in compensation. Her jeans had that designer distressed look, but without the designer price—a hard life, hard earned. I pegged her at fifteen or a young sixteen.
I looked for the hint of a smile. I didn’t get one. “Not a question I’m used to getting in the middle of the night. But as an opener, it’s a killer.” I refocused on my preparations to leave—after a very long day, home called. Actually, to put a fine point on it, a bed and a hot French chef called, so I was in no mood for verbal thrust and parry.
“Not a question I use on everybody.” Still no smile. In fact, she looked serious to the point of pinched pain.
“Your mother? Me? Are you serious?” Heck, I wasn’t even close to ready to give up my childish ways. And that whole maternal thing…not even a tick of the biological clock. No one who knew me would attach parental to a description of me, at least not unless they were going for a cheap laugh.
Thankfully, I kept those shortcomings to myself. Running on fumes, with a short fuse, and a penchant for semi-mixing metaphors when tired, I considered that an epic win.
The girl looked hungry and scared.
Been there myself, I knew the signs.
If she wanted a meal and a soft bed, all she had to do was give me a hint. To her, asking for it would be impossible. I knew that, too.
Her strong voice and the tilt to her chin were straight out of my playbook under the chapter “Offense is the Best Defense” which made me feel a kinship. Though, had she asked, I could’ve told her it was rarely the best approach—except when dealing with my mother, Mona.
Mona was the exception to every rule.
I weighed how to handle the young woman in front of me. She seemed determined to make me work for what she wanted. Not the way to my soft underbelly. But her waifish act was clanging every rescuer bell I had.
Which always got me into trouble.
What can I say? I’m my mother’s daughter—but don’t ever expect me to admit it, like out loud or anything. When I’d finally admitted it to myself, I’d felt like leaping from a tall building. I’d take a running start if I had to admit it to someone else.
With a sigh, I leaned back in my desk chair and gave her my full attention. “I would’ve remembered had I had a child. I’m sorry.”
She absorbed that without a flinch. “Doesn’t mean you wouldn’t lie about it.” She tilted her chin higher.
That rankled—it shouldn’t, she didn’t know me. Clearly, this wasn’t about me—it was about her. But her insinuation felt personal. I squeezed my eyes shut, reaching for perspective and my ever-elusive self-control. I opened my eyes—she hadn’t disappeared. “A decent person wouldn’t lie about a thing like that.”
She gave a snort. “Right. Don’t know any of those decent types.” She looked me over. “You one?”
“Most days, or I’d like to think so at least.” Decency was a dying art these days, along with civility. I owed her both. My name is Lucky O’Toole and as the Vice President of Customer Relations for the Babylon Group, the holding company for a couple of major Vegas Strip properties, solving problems was not only the beating heart of my being, but also of my job. The girl clearly had a problem. “But perhaps I’m a bit delusional and decency eludes me. Anyway, you came here for a reason. Want to tell me about it?” Curiosity had a bad rap. But I wasn’t a cat, so it probably wouldn’t be lethal. She had me at the “mother” line. “You do know I’m not your mother, right?” Why did I need her to believe me? There was something about her… “You want to tell me why you’re here?”
She met my eyes for a moment then stared at the ground as if wishing a hole would open and swallow her. A hint of pink rose in her cheeks. “No.” She shifted as if moving the load that rested on her shoulders. “I mean yes, I want to tell you about it, but no, I know you’re not my mother. Sometimes you just want something so bad…” As her voice hitched, she looked at me through too-big eyes. Then she shook her head as if shaking away a dream.
I knew all about that, too.
She dropped the combative posture but retained the attitude—all in keeping with my age guesstimate. “Maybe you’re not my mother, but you know her.”
A different tack; a broader gene pool. “I know a lot of people.” Even some who would abandon a kid—not something that gave me a warm fuzzy. They say you are the average of the five people you hang out with the most. That didn’t give me a warm fuzzy either. Vegas was full of folks who would do the less than honorable thing for honorable reasons…or less than honorable reasons. And the trick was figuring out who was which. My job description included rubbing shoulders with both types all day, every day. This being Vegas where the game was paramount, and winning essential, I probably handled more of the less-than-honorable types, than the other, although I didn’t keep score. Some of their situational ethics was bound to rub off and damage my delicate psyche. Would that be a workplace injury? As I pondered the limits of Workmen’s Comp, I motioned to a chair in front of the desk. “Why don’t you sit?”
A kid. Alone. In need of a good meal…or several…and desperate enough to play the mother card. She was so not what I needed. Not now. Not today—New Year’s Day for a few more ticks of the clock.
Jet lagged and over-amped from chasing a couple of killers in China. A headache from too much birthday, a hotel, my own for once, that was so new, and a punch list so long that I felt like moving and not leaving a forwarding address—I wasn’t in the market for a dose of the downside of life.
But she was what I got and she plucked every heartstring I had. “What’s your mother’s name?”
The kid pulled her shoulders back and stood tall. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.” Of all the places she could’ve gone to for help, she wandered far to find me.
And, here in my new office, I wasn’t easy to find. The space still looked Spartan—I’d yet to put my personal stamp on it. What was that about?
Truth be told, while I reveled in having my own hotel, Cielo, which had just opened officially last night, New Year’s Eve, I missed my old office in the Babylon. I missed my staff—my chosen family. Hell, I even missed my foul-mouthed bird, Newton. Well, okay, the bird, not so much.
Such is change: something lost for something gained. Sometimes I wondered if it was worth the price.
Nervousness roiled my stomach. “I think you know, otherwise, why would you work so hard to find me?” She looked so heartbroken I took the sting out of my tone. “Stories and dreams are dangerous things. Once you let them out, they aren’t yours alone anymore,” I said, apropos of everything. “I get that. But you’ve got to give me something if you want me to help you.”
My words jarred something loose inside her. Her face cleared as she pulled out one fist that had been stuffed in a pocket. In her hand, she clutched a scrap of paper, which she thrust at me. “I’m telling you the truth. I don’t know my mother’s name, but here’s a picture of her. She looks like you but…smaller.” The girl colored at the not-so-subtle slight.
At a fully fleshed-out six feet, I didn’t think I needed to point out that everyone was smaller than me.
She lowered herself to perch on the edge of the chair across from me.
I wanted to help her. Hell, I wanted to help everybody. My personality hung on the steel framework of a hero complex.
We could analyze why, but that wouldn’t change the reality. Like my mother before me, I was a rescuer, and I was too stupid to pretend to be someone else. Well, okay, I wasn’t to stupid to try, just too stupid to pull it off. Give me a problem, someone in need, and I’d dive in without looking. The results were consistently spectacular if not always successful.
What was that definition of stupidity? Doing the same thing but expecting a different result?
Worse, I was living proof…although right now, dead on my feet, the living part was in question.
As I took the photo from her outstretched hand, I didn’t look at it. I kept my eyes on the girl’s face and tried to shake a nervous feeling.
Still afraid to meet my eye—disappointment is a devastating fear—she stuffed her hand back in her pocket and glared over my shoulder as emotions rolled through her in visible waves expressing the teenage I-don’t-give-a-fuck-but-actually-I-do-but-I-don’t-want-you-to-know-it thing. Of course, most days I lived in the same headspace, so I got it. Although lack of character was my only excuse.
I took a deep breath and stepped off the ledge.
The photo had been torn in half. The tear looked old, the edges yellowed. Only one person showed. A young woman, short shorts and halter top, hands on tiny hips, legs a mile long and, and that I’d bet hid a come-hither look.
“Wow.” The word escaped on all the breath I had.
You know her.
“You do know her.” Disappointment fled from the girl’s face, replaced by hope…and fear. The hope of a dream. The fear of it shattering.
I knew that, too. Genetic bonding could explain the whole sympatico thing. Stars whirled in front of my eyes. I felt a little woozy.
I struggled to find enough air to inflate words. “Know her?” At this moment that stuck me as odd. Did I know her? All of her or just the part I’d experienced? I would’ve carried that though further asking myself if we could ever really know someone, but that sounded like an excuse in divorce court, so I let it lie.
The girl’s posture had gone rigid—paralyzed with fear, hope, and all the other emotions that were too many catalogue or counter.
Memories blindsided me as I stared at the younger version of my mother. She’s been fifteen when she’d had me. Was the photo before or after? Hard to tell, but my first memory of her mirrored the version in the photo.
“Who is she?” The girl’s voice wavered. “You know her, I can tell.”
I snorted at the incongruity of all of it—my day, my life…all of it. “Yeah, I know her. Most days I want to kill her.” Today was one of them, but I left that part out. “In fact, I thought I knew everything about her until you handed me this.” I put the photo on the desk between us and pushed it back across toward her with a forefinger, as far away from me as I could get it.
She vibrated with need like a puppy. “Who—”
I cut her off. “My turn.” She started to argue. “If you want my help, I get to ask the questions.” I sounded in control, proving once again that bullshit artist should be the top skill listed on my résumé. Emotions surged. Logical thought shattered. Yet my voice remained calm, surprising the hell out of me.
Her shoulders came up around her ears. She lowered her chin. But that was all the fight I got. Good thing because I was loaded for bear. If she was playing me, attacking my family…
Since my brain had gone offline, flooded with all kinds of neurotransmitters all shouting for flight rather than fight, I started with the obvious. “Where did you get this picture?” Photos of my mother as a kid weren’t easy to come by. Mona was really picky about that. I’d never understood why. Oh, she had her limitations, but vanity wasn’t one of them. A fault, yes. A limitation? Not so much.
She girl shifted, leaning all the way back in the chair, which almost swallowed her. Her chin rested on her chest as she gave me the eye. “I’ve had it forever.”
“Long as I can remember.”
“Who gave it to you?”
“My grandmother.” She softened a bit when she mentioned her grandmother.
“She raised you?”
The girl nodded.
“What did she tell you?”
“That the girl in the photo was my mother.”
“Curiously, I got that.” Snark threatened to override civility—for me a constant struggle. “I’ll admit to foolish, but not stupid. Anything else?”
The girl looked as out to sea as I felt. “Only to look for her in Vegas and that she wouldn’t be as bad as she seemed.”
“Oh, I think your grandmother was a tad optimistic.” But she’d pegged Mona all right. Maybe she really had known my mother. And, if so, maybe she could shed some light. “Does your grandmother know where you are?”
Sadness pinched the girl’s face. “She died.”
“Two weeks? I’m not sure.” Her eyes glistened when she looked at me—a quick look, just enough to see the hurt there. “Life’s been…”
Her pain sucker punched me, taking my breath. I didn’t have much family but the ones I had were all still here, although the Big Boss wasn’t recovering from the gunshot as quickly as we all had expected. The shadow of worry drifted across my heart. Loss scared me. To lose the Big Boss… I cleared my throat, constricted by emotion. “Do you have anyone else?”
“Only the lady in the photograph, if you tell me who she is.” The girl clung to the frayed end of a short rope.
At least she held on. My rope shredded, dropping me into emotional free fall.
The girl looked tired and worried, a bit angry, and a lot lonely, but she also radiated scared. I couldn’t shake that. She was afraid of something. I knew it like I knew so much else bout the road she’d walked. Everything about her pulled me back to a place in time where I walked in her shoes and I didn’t like having to relive the whole uncertainty of it all.
For a young woman alone, danger lurked in every shadow. I knew exactly where she was coming from—I didn’t like that either. Too bad the past is the only immutable in life—I’d love to rewrite mine…and hers. But aren’t we the product of our pasts? Steel tempered and molded through experience?
Maybe, just maybe, the girl was afraid of being alone and I was reading too much into all of this. She’d said two weeks since her grandmother had passed. Perhaps all this was as straightforward as it seemed.
“Look, I know who she is. But, I need to know whether you’re telling the truth or not. Look at it from my point of view. It wouldn’t be too hard for someone to get ahold of a photo and come waltzing in here with a grand story.” I moved from behind the desk to sit in the chair next to her. As I did so I caught my reflection in a mirror someone had hung on the wall despite my best intentions to avoid decorating. Limp brown hair, wan skin taut with worry, high cheekbones—as Mona said, my only real asset—and blue eyes bloodshot and saucered with emotion. Curiously, I looked normal…at least for me.
I probably should worry about that, but, right now, larger worries demanded my attention.
Had Mona really walked away from this girl…her daughter?
Why? What would make a mother do that?
I knew Mona—she’d protected me with a fearless fierceness.
Why not this one?
So many questions—paths in a forest that led nowhere.
Reaching across, I squeezed the girl’s arm. “I know you’re scared and a bit out of your element. I get that. Been there myself. Curiously, at about your age.”
“Not like this.” The myopia of youth—like driving in the fog. Each one convinced they were the only ones ever to experience the pain of their existence.
“I’ll help you, but you’ve got to be straight with me. If you don’t tell me all that you know, this whole thing is going to be hard to piece together.”
Her lower lip started to quiver, which made her mad. She pinched her lips together, then gave me a curt nod.
Or at least I thought the nod was for me, but perhaps not—her eyes had a unfocused, far-away look. “Do you know where the picture was taken?”
“On my Gram’s farm.”
All the questions I wanted answered punctured my fear like shrapnel perforated skin. How to find the seeds of truth in her story? “Did your Gram own the farm” There’d be deeds and all, easily findable—pieces to the puzzle.
“Not outright. She was paying Mr. Dean off, she’d said.”
A privately financed sale. The deed wouldn’t be generated until she’d paid off the farm. Okay, scratch the deed trail.
“And your name? You haven’t told me your name.” Jesus! How had I forgotten the most obvious question of all?
The girl licked her lips as her gaze darted around my office like a trapped fly searching for an open window. “Tawny. Tawny Rose.”
The most obvious question, but also the easiest to dodge.
Tawny Rose. She’d named herself after a color of lipstick or a kind-hearted stripper.
Apparently the girl had an on-again, off-again affair with the truth.
But where did she get that photo?
“Okay…Tawny.” I didn’t try to hide my skepticism and slight amusement. “How old are you?”
“Sixteen.” Too young to be by herself, in Vegas, wandering casinos in the wee hours looking for her mother. A bad modern take on a Dickens novel.
I’d lived that life. I knew the empty-heart feeling.
Thanks to my mother.
What had she done?
If the present mimicked the past, in a nutshell, she’d abandoned me—then justified it by leaving me in the care of someone…sort of. A man—my boss—who I found out later…much later…was my father. Of course, she’d left me in dark about that little factoid—I’d thought I was alone. And now here we were, a happy little family with a past threatening to blow it apart at the seams.
Logic never trumps emotion. Isn’t that what I always said?
What were the legal boundaries of justifiable matricide?
And here I thought I had finally gotten my personal baggage down to a carry-on. Silly me. Apparently I still was packing a steamer trunk…or two.
My mother was a skilled emotional surgeon, slicing, dicing, leaving scars.
And that girl I used to be was still a part of me. And her pain gnawed, a tiny beast that could cripple one bite at a time.
Mona had cut and run once, she could’ve done it again.
Funny, but that possibility had never entered my reality—not until tonight when it walked thorough my door.
If Mother had walked away from this young woman, I’d kill her myself.
No one deserves that—especially not a kid.
No one should have to live through what I did.
Trying to focus, I leaned forward to stare at the picture on the edge of the desk. The photo was old, Mona very young, but I’d recognize her before I would myself. For as long as I could remember—except for those years where it had seemed she’d abandoned me in Vegas—Mona and I had been the Two Musketeers. Now she was married to my father—normal for most but an interesting turn of events for me—I hadn’t known about our family ties until recently. My newfound father, Albert Rothstein, aka the Big Boss, was the majority shareholder in the Babylon Group and a major player in Vegas. As such, he and my mother were targets for every grafter and con who could get this far.
Did Miss Tawny Rose have an angle? Was she pulling a con? Or did someone send her to undermine Mona’s political aspirations? I immediately eliminated the latter—Mona was the proof to old adage that if you gave someone enough rope, they would hang themselves. With Mother, political suicide was nothing more than a timing issue. Everybody who would care knew that already.
“You want to know who she is?” I asked the girl as I paused and took a deep breath.
This was Mona’s fight. I couldn’t protect her from this one. No this was a crack that would swallow her tiny, perfect, taut little ass. I know, I sounded like I’d like to see her get her comeuppance, but not really. Although there was a part of me that enjoyed seeing Mona swing over the abyss holding on for her life. Yes, shallow is my middle name. Not something I was proud of, but something I could live with.
God knew, she had a myriad of faults. Up to this point, the most important of which was being irritating as hell. But she was, above all, my mother, and that counted for everything.
The ties that bind. What I wouldn’t do for a knife.
The girl leaned forward, hanging on expectation.
“She’s my mother. Mona is her name.” I lifted my chin toward the photo that still lay on the desk like an accusation, “but I think you knew that.”
“Mona,” the girl whispered with hushed reverence.
Misplaced, but I wasn’t going to be the one to burst that bubble.
A flood of emotions widened her eyes. “I didn’t know.”
The were blue. Like mine. Like Mona’s.
“Mona.” This time a bit less reverent. “Your mother.” She angled her head as if seeing me anew. “And that makes us—” she said.
“—still trying to figure this out.” The words should’ve been sufficient to shut down that line of thinking, but I breathed a bit of cool into them for extra clarity. I do tend to overdo, but adjusting to the Big Boss as my father was hard enough. Then with the recent birth of twin siblings (you’d think after years in the bordello business, my mother would know what causes that), I was having a hard time getting my pea-brain around my burgeoning family.
“How did you happen to get to my office?” Of all the gin joints…I knew how Humphrey Bogart felt. “Who put me together with that photo?”
“I like your name.” Enigmatic to a fault, the girl gave me a half smile, surprising me and, from the look on her face, herself as well. There was more there, but the steely look in those baby blues told me I’d need a pickaxe.
But she had more to gain than I did, so that meant I held the cards. “Always play the odds, kid. You want your shot with Mona, then tell me why you like my name.” My voice went low, riding on a hard demand.
The girl felt it. “My grandfather, he drank. I didn’t know him well. He died when I was young. But there were times just before he’d pass out when he’d talk to himself. I don’t know why but I got the impression he was talking to someone he knew, someone who was no longer there. He called her Lucky Bean.”
“And that led you to me?”
“How many Luckys do you know? Your name is all over everything at the rodeo.”
“A long shot.” With a big pay off.
To her credit she didn’t rub my nose in it. Instead she focused on the photo. “Are you sure that girl in my photo is your mother? It’s not that clear and was taken a long time ago.” Emotion thinned her voice, but she looked like some of the pieces to a puzzle she wasn’t sharing completely had fallen into place.
“That’s Mona. Even then she was distinctive.” I wondered what she’d been like back then. Carefree, young, the future open and bright. How had she ended up a hooker in Pahrump? Why had I never asked?
“You favor her,” the girl said.
She did, too, but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. “Flattery will get you everywhere.” The angels on my shoulders whispered in my ears. Should I believe her? Should I not?
Whether she was telling the truth or not, that didn’t alter the fact she really looked like she needed help. And if what she said was true…
The good angel won. I so wouldn’t like myself if I didn’t get to the bottom of her story. But every oddsmaker in town would’ve taken that bet. I was a sucker for a hard-luck story.
Compassion, the upside to bad decisions. At least there was one.
The girl glanced toward the doorway then gave me the eye. No, not the eye, but more of a calculated once-over with the wariness and savvy of a youngster who had seen too much. But some of the kid peeked through in the hope and fear she tried to hide. Yeah, the girl was still in there—she didn’t have the tough shell and dead eyes of kid who lived on the streets.
She smelled of horses. The shavings that clung to her fleece jacket told me I wasn’t crazy. The rodeo was in town—the National Finals to be exact.
“What’d you do? Run away with the rodeo? I thought kids ran away to join the circus. Guess I’m hopelessly out of date.”
What little color she had left her face. “What?”
“You’re here with the rodeo?” I pressed.
She flinched like I’d hit her with a cattle prod. “How’d you know?”
I pointed to the shavings on her jacket.
Some of the tough melted away. “Yeah.” She brushed them off and they fluttered to the floor. She didn’t pick them up. “You got a cleaning crew.”
An explanation but hardly an excuse.
What was it they said about teenagers? Purposefully irritating so their parents would be ready to see them take wing and fly on their own? What, so they could fly around and poop on the rest of us? Or, worse, land in our laps?
I wouldn’t go back to being a teenager on a bet—a child trying to navigate a grown-up, bad-guy, world without a map. “Yeah, I have a cleaning crew. I’m a big cheese, don’t ya’ know?” All I really wanted to do was fold her in a hug and tell her life would be okay, that she’d get to be a kid awhile longer. But I couldn’t promise that, which made me sad and mad at the same time. “Have you eaten?”
Surprised flickered across her face. “No. Why?”
She wilted into the truth. “Starved.” Her eyes flicked to the doorway again.
“Are you expecting someone?” I narrowed my eyes. “Or maybe someone is following you, hassling you?” The streets were mean for a full-grown badass like me. They’d be hell for the wisp of a kid scared out of her shoes, but determined to pretend otherwise.
She met my eyes and held them. “No. No one.”
I didn’t believe her, but I let it go. If she had someone coming to shake me down, this was the wrong place to do it—security in Vegas hotels is unsurpassed. Well, other than letting sixteen-year-olds in without question. “You have a story and I want to hear it—all of it. I thought we could do it over some food.”
Tears sprung to her eyes. She gathered her fleece over the heel of one hand and swiped at a drop that had the audacity to trickle down her cheek. Without meeting my eyes, she nodded once.
Leaning forward, I raked together my phone and other minor detritus of my life, stuffing them in my Birkin. Then, I thought better of it, and pulled out my phone, pausing before I dialed. “Will the best hamburger in the world suffice? And maybe a milkshake?”
She looked like I’d offered her a king’s repast, which, considering Jean-Charles Bouclet, world-renowned chef would be doing the cooking, wasn’t shading the truth too much.
“Good then.” I hastily texted my chef and got an immediate, affirmative response, no questions asked. Gotta love a guy who was willing to open what I knew to be an almost closed kitchen for the asking. And I did love him. More than I knew and probably as much as he hoped.
The whole fiancé thing was so new I often blew by it when thinking of Jean-Charles Bouclet—my French chef. And, yes, my fiancé. Of course, when thinking about him, rational thought was a wish but rarely a reality.
Warmth rushed through me. I’d stopped trying to control my body’s involuntary reaction at the mere thought of my chef.
He’d be waiting. I flipped around the big sparkler on my left ring finger a few times as I tried to figure how to play this whole thing—an impossible task considering I was running on barely one cylinder, and that was misfiring. Maybe I too needed food.
Or maybe I just needed a hug.
“Come on, it’s just upstairs.” I gathered her up and, with my hand in the small of her back, escorted her through the outer vestibule of my office and into the hall. I took an immediate right to push through a set of double doors.
“Aren’t the elevators that way?” She asked with a nod down the hall.
“Yep, but you’re getting the VIP tour.” After shoving my card in the slot, I punched the button for the top floor and the machine whirred to life. Too bad my card wouldn’t shock my heart back to a normal rhythm.
We’d settled in for the ride in the service elevator, me staring at our reflections, the girl studiously avoiding them. Once the doors closed, she stopped doing her imitation of a rabbit ready to bolt.
“Mona is a hooker…or was.” I’m not sure why I stated it so harshly, maybe wanting to cut through the whitewash of the girl’s fantasy.
“Was? You mean she’s dead?” The girl looked stricken. The hooker part didn’t seem to faze her.
“No. Sorry. I thought I’d made that clear. She’s mean enough to outlive all of us. At present, she’s retired from her former profession.” And contemplating a political career, I thought. An abandoned child would sure derail Mona’s ambition train.
Life was like ice—one hard blow and the consequences radiated outward in unanticipated cracks.
“So you really think the lady in the photo is your mother?” I asked the girl for the thousandth time, hoping for a different answer.
The girl was half my age. Even though I was a bit thrown, I worked through the simple math. She would have been born while I was living in Vegas working at for my father and attending UNLV. Mother was still working in Pahrump at her eponymous whorehouse. We didn’t see each other often back then—I’d been pissed that she’d dumped me in Vegas. I hadn’t known she’d dumped me with my father—I felt like I’d been abandoned and my mother had become my least favorite person. We both weathered it but the hurts ran deep.
The girl squared her shoulders. “There’s only one way to find out. Where is she? My mother…Mona.”
As the elevator slowed, I pulled my phone out of my bag and squinted at the screen. I didn’t wear a watch for obvious reasons—in a casino, the time of day, or night, didn’t matter. It was later than I’d feared. “Probably asleep.”
No matter the personal cost, I wanted a happy ending for the girl—even though I doubted Mona qualified. But, she was better than no mother at all…some of the time.
The elevator whirred to a soft stop and the doors slid open. Neither of us moved, even though I could smell the luring aroma of charcoaling beef all the way out here.
As the doors started to glide shut, I thrust a hand out, stopping them. “Come on. Let’s get that food. I’m sure you have a lot more to tell me.”
The girl gave me the side-eye as she stepped by me. “I can find Mona without your help.” Her tone held a threat.
Jesus, did dealing with a teenager earn one a special place in Heaven?
“No doubt. But getting to her might prove a challenge.” I figured the photo would get Mona’s attention, and probably an audience with her as well, but with Mother, one never knew. Besides, the girl didn’t know that. Although, she had gotten to my office without having to explain herself to anyone. Yeah, the kid had skills. I’d be a fool to underestimate her. “Besides, the person leading the charge usually takes the first bullet.” That shut down any further argument, at least for the moment.
Jean-Charles’ restaurant was at the end of a short hallway. After serious, prolonged negotiations, we’d settled on JCB Prime as a name. He’d wanted just JC but to me that held a hint of blasphemy—not that many of us in Vegas knelt before an altar, but still. Jean-Charles had dug in his heels saying he wasn’t going to apologize for his initials, nor apparently shy away from any implication of a Divine blessing. I sorta got his point but I’d countered with, no matter the deity you prayed to, she probably wasn’t in the Vegas restaurant naming game. That argument, and concurrence from his mother, had carried the day. Yes, I called in the heavy reinforcements—all’s fair in love and war, and this was both. Such folly mixing business with pleasure. Even I knew that. But, even I didn’t listen to me.
JC had left the back door open a crack for us. A bit prophetic, I thought—the back door was the only way I’d be getting into Heaven. Anxious for a hug, I went first and dove straight into his arms almost before he had a chance to turn away from the stove.
Burying my face in the crook where neck met shoulder, I breathed him in as he held me tight. “Who knew hamburgers could be an aphrodisiac?” My lips moved against his warm skin.
He chuckled, a rumbling I felt before the sound registered on my heart. “I said that out loud, didn’t I?” Given we had an audience, I should’ve been embarrassed. But at my last birthday, I’d vowed to give up worrying about what other people thought of me.
That was all of twenty-four hours ago. I was still working on it.
I leaned back in his embrace so I could take the kiss I wanted. He didn’t disappoint and I drank deeply.
Before I was ready, Jean-Charles pulled back. “Are you going to introduce us or are you going to let your friend stand there in her discomfort?”
What was it about Jean-Charles that made conscious thought flee? Just a scant millimeter taller than me in reasonable heels, Jean-Charles looked resplendent in this chef’s whites, which hid a body that would drive Adonis to envy and me to distraction. How I would love to… I chewed on my lip as I let my mind wander.
Sex wouldn’t make this all go away, but it sure would make me feel better.
“Are you going to introduce us?” Amusement lit in his blue eyes. He knew what I was thinking.
Perhaps I should have blushed, but blushing was beneath the me I wanted to be.
I wanted him. We both knew it. He reciprocated. Everyone was happy. Albeit a bit frustrated at the moment.
“I’m sorry. Where are my manners?” I was usually so good at introductions and all the Emily Post stuff. Mona had seen to that. A hooker with refined sensibilities, Mona was never quite what one expected.
A surprise and an enigma.
Hormones and an emotional hand-grenade trumped manners so I gave myself a pass.
“Jean-Charles Bouclet, may I present…” A momentary blank—apparently I’d forgotten more than my manners. “Miss Tawny Rose.” I kept a straight face. Another epic win in a night filled with odd games.
Jean-Charles raised an eyebrow, but that was it.
“Miss Rose, may I present Jean-Charles Bouclet, my fiancé and a rather good chef who has a way with hamburgers and milkshakes.”
“And a way with you.” Tawny gave me a knowing look. Maybe she’d been on the streets longer than I thought.
“I don’t deny it. Jean-Charles, this is Tawny Rose.”
He bent over her hand making her blush. “Enchanté.” Then he invited us further inside before any awkwardness could get a foothold. “Come,” the meat is ready.” Turning back to his work, he scooped the patties off the coals, setting them on a rack to the side to rest. “I’ll be back in a moment.” Wiping his hands on a rag, he asked Tawny, “Chocolate or Vanilla?”
She gave a derisive huff.
“Chocolate it is. I had you pinned as a chocolate girl.” With a circling motion, he indicated a high-top table with three stools next to the stove. “You sit.” Then he disappeared into the restaurant, heading toward the bar.
To the side, Champagne chilled in a bucket of ice water. I chose a stool next to the Champagne.
The girl picked the one on the opposite side from me and nearest the door. “Pinned?” she asked after boosting herself onto the stool.
“Pegged.” I pulled out two flutes that Jean-Charles had upended into the ice as well, drying them with a bar towel looped through the handle of the bucket. I placed one in front of his stool and one in front of me, then I filled the flutes with Laurent-Perrier rosé—the good stuff. “English vernacular. He gets close most of the time.” Frankly, I found his struggle with idioms to be charming.
Apparently Tawny did as well. Color remained in her cheeks as she looked at me from under lowered lashes. “He’s…”
I detected a hint of reverence bordering on adulation. “Indeed.”
Somehow, my manners returning, I resisted the Siren call of the Champagne until Jean-Charles had returned with an extra-thick chocolate shake. He handed it to Tawny with a bow, making her giggle. He raised his flute in a toast. “To friends.”
“To family,” I said.
The girl looked surprised as we clinked glasses. Underneath my Pollyanna shell lurked a solid pragmatist. If Mona had done something stupid, which was totally within her probabilities, we’d do what we always did: bitch and moan then do the right thing.
Jean-Charles plated the food, one burger for each of us, two for the girl, then joined us, straddling the last stool. Silence reigned as we fell to eating like ravenous wolves. I couldn’t remember my last meal. Last night? A birthday celebration? Then Jean-Charles had taken his son, Christophe, home and I’d gone to work. And I was still there. Tonight, Jean-Charles had been consumed by preparing food for his clientele and probably hadn’t taken time to eat. And Tawny, or whatever her real name was, had the feral look of someone for whom food was hunted rather than provided.
Despite my hunger, I managed only a few bites before giving up.
“Is the food not to your liking?” Jean-Charles’s question rode on an undercurrent of concern. He knew my aptitude for gluttony. Only a personal apocalypse would put me off my feed.
“I don’t seem to have the energy,” I lied. Frankly, I just wasn’t hungry. Had that ever happened? I couldn’t remember. But apparently, I still thirsted for a liquid diet. I peered at the bottom of my Champagne flute. The rosé had evaporated—that was happening to me more and more lately.
“You have had no sleep, yes?” Jean-Charles asked. “And the adrenaline, it is gone now, no?”
How did anyone ever figure out how to answer those kinds of questions? Yes, I’ve had no sleep. Or no, I haven’t had any sleep. They were like the thing with the air conditioner. If you turned it up, did that mean you made it colder? Or was it the other way around? Clearly higher thought was beyond my current competence, so I simply nodded letting him jump to whatever conclusion he wanted.
Without being asked, he refilled my flute. I didn’t complain. Normally Champagne brought clarity. Of course, tonight would be the night that formula failed.
Jean-Charles finished his burger and the girl ate her two, telling me I’d figured her situation accurately, at least as far as sustenance went.
I pushed my plate toward her. “Here, finish mine.” Her milkshake mustache made me smile. She nodded, and kept eating. I sipped my Champagne, trying to restrain myself with a modicum of success, while I waited for her to finish.
Finally, she looked up from her food, her plate clean, her milkshake a memory. She cocked one eyebrow at Jean-Charles. “Dessert?”
“As you wish.” He gave me a wink as he backed off his stool then disappeared into the walk-in cooler. Jean-Charles, playing to every chef’s dream: a ravenous, appreciative customer.
I figured somehow I was going to get stuck with the bill. Not literally, of course, but I’d have a emotional chit to pay before the night was through.
The food had softened the girl’s feral look, so I decided to hazard more questions. “Can you tell me where you’re from?”
“Outside of Reno.”
She nodded. “My grandmother’s.”
“Where the photo was taken?”
“Yes, but long before I arrived.”
That math I could do for myself. “So the farm is yours now?
Surprise flickered. “A lawyer is figuring it out. He said it would take awhile.”
“Do you live there?”
“I did. Right now I’m traveling with the rodeo, as you guessed.”
“In what capacity?”
Her face started to close. “Just a helper.”
She eyed me like my IQ had suddenly plummeted. “The horses.”
I raised one eyebrow.
“I muck out the stalls and shit.” She rewarded me with an eye roll.
Rule Number One in the Amateur Interrogation Handbook: get under their skin. One and done. I resisted gloating as bad form. “Are you in school?”
“I finished early.”
“Finished? You mean graduated or left?” I’d keep pushing until I got stonewalled.
She looked down at her hands knotted in her lap. “I left.”
Pale replaced the pink in her cheeks. Her shoulders dropped as the attitude faded.
The truth. So very close, I could almost taste it. I leaned forward slightly. Grabbing her and shaking would probably not get the result I wanted, but it would feel really good. Instead, I summoned my last bit of self-control and waited. The need to tell me shimmered off her in waves.
I held my breath until I saw stars.
She pulled in a deep lungful of air. Her gaze locked onto mine. She opened her mouth to speak.
Jean-Charles breezed back to the table.
Tawny clamped her mouth shut and painted on a smile.
He slid a tray in front of us with a flourish. “A most excellent mille feuille. My pastry chef,” he put his fingers to his lips then made a kissing motion, “she is to kill for.”
The look I threw him flew by my pastry-enraptured chef like a knife in a circus act.
Good thing there weren’t any sharp knives within reach—this might be my circus, but it was not act. A few more moments and I would’ve had…something, maybe even a hint at the whole truth.
“To kill for?” Tawny, her chin still tucked, glanced at me.
“To die for.” I settled back, letting the rancor go—I’d get another chance.
“Yes, this.” Jean-Charles said completely unaware of just how close death was. He dealt each of us clean plates, then gave me a small piece per my usual request, and a whopper for our young guest.
So the kid was from Nevada. That surprised me—I was expecting someplace further away. Don’t know why other than folks who blindsided me in the past had tended to travel a great distance for the privilege.
Teddie had been born in Boston.
Teddie. Why was he first to spring to mind? And why did first loves hurt so much?
Jean-Charles hailed from Provence.
“Both your grandparents are gone. Do you have any other family?” I asked. Mona had never mentioned any family and I’d assumed she would’ve had she had any. Right now, life rubbed my nose in the fallacy of that assumption—or at least the very real possibility that Mona had kept secrets. Oh sure, I’d known she was famous for skirting the truth, but not from me. Not from her own flesh and blood, her own daughter.
How could I have been so naïve? So arrogant in my place in her life?
But hiding secrets? That never dawned on me. Stupid, in retrospect. Secrets were so a part of my mother’s way of dealing with reality.
“No one. Just the lady in the photograph. Like I said.”
“Mona,” I said to Jean-Charles to bring him into the conversation at least somewhat.
Jean-Charles eyebrows shot toward his hairline as he cocked his head toward the girl and gave me a questioning glance. I gave him a little shrug. He knew how to interpret it—if he was looking for more, that’s all I had.
“Other than your grandmother’s story, is there any other reason you believe she’s your mother?” I asked Tawny. I kept looking for a more solid answer, even though I knew she didn’t have one—or not one she would share with me anyway. Maybe she was holding the heavy artillery for Mona.
She paused with a forkful of pastry halfway to her mouth. “Like what? A letter or something?”
If I got the teenage nuance right, her tone told me she thought I was being lame. “A birth certificate?”
Her façade crumbled letting the scared come through. “I don’t have anything. No papers. Nothing to prove who I am or where I came from. My grandmother is gone. There’s no one else. All I have is that photo and a story.”
“Now that is a problem.” I knew there had to be documentation somewhere. The girl had been in school. Surely her grandmother had to produce something, some proof of identity to enroll her granddaughter. “Your school?”
“It was pretty casual.” She gave a shrug that implied a casualness not reflected in her tight, hard stare. “We lived in the country.”
Where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Maybe a trip was in order. The thought of getting on another plane… Tough people for tough times—not exactly the quote I was reaching for, but the sentiment rang true.
“Can you help me?” Her voice was small.
I wasn’t making any promises, not yet. Not until I knew more. What secrets had her grandmother been hiding? And why? And why tell the girl Mona was her mother? Was Mona just a random kid in an old picture that the grandmother used to give the girl a story, a family?
But where did she get the photo?
Random thoughts swirled around in my head—bats in my belfry. Clearly, I was losing it. “Any idea who else was in that picture? Why they were torn away and discarded?”
“No. My gram didn’t tell me much.” She looked over my right shoulder as if the tile wall behind me and above the stove was fascinating.
Liars look up and to the left. I read that somewhere. Or maybe my bud, Detective Romeo, with the Metropolitan Police Department taught me that. Lately he’d been teaching me more than I had him—a reversal in our relationship. Not sure I liked it, but that never stopped the Fates from interfering in my status quo.
Back to the girl. My right would be her left. Yep, she was lying. But about what?
Jean-Charles opened his mouth to speak.
I quieted him with a hand on his arm and a gentle squeeze. “Well, perhaps Mona can shed some light, but not now. It’s too late.” I ignored the crestfallen look. “We need to find you a place to stay.”
“I’m good. I’m staying with friend from the rodeo. What I’d really like to do is find Mona. That’s what I came here for.”
“I know. We both need to hear what she has to say. But haven’t you accomplished a lot for one day?”
She lacerated me with a slit-eye that reminded me of myself.
Kids. I resisted the eye roll. “You’ll have to trust me on this. We can’t just go blowing into her place in the dark before dawn and expect her to be anything other than homicidal. I know her; you don’t.”
“This is true,” Jean-Charles added.
“We will talk with her, that I promise.” If anything, I needed to see my mother’s face when she saw the girl. In that one moment, I would have a lot of answers. But not on a night where I wouldn’t recognize my own reflection, much less be able to recognize the sub-text and nuance my mother, the master, employed. Sleep would provide the armor I need to wade into battle with Mona. And I needed time to think, to strategize, to figure out how to out flank her.
And I needed to talk with my father. His take would be fascinating.
My mother might lie to me, but my father would shoot straight. Unless he had to protect Mona. In that case, he’d lie, or kill, if he had to.
Family. Weren’t they like the fifth level of Purgatory or something?
Tawny, looked terrified yet excited—that mix of adrenaline and fear the second before you leap with only a bungee attached to an ankle.
“I’ll go see her myself.” The girl was like a tick on a dog.
“Be my guest. Your funeral.” Mona was my one ace and I wasn’t above playing it.
Jean-Charles laughed, God bless him. Wise to my tricks, he played along. “Mona.” He gave a low whistle. “She’s got a nip, that one.”
“Bite,” I corrected with a side-eye at the girl.
“Yes, this.” Jean-Charles patted the girl’s hand. “And she is married to a very important man in this town. A man with many friends and many enemies.”
Okay, he was starting to overplay. “She’s not easy to get to,” I said, cutting off Jean-Charles, or making his point, as I preferred to look at it.
“Yes, this.” He leaned back and folded his arms across his chest.
“She can’t be mad at me, “ the girl whined. “I didn’t do anything!”
“She’ll certainly be surprised.” I wasn’t feeling the normal delight I had when I one-upped my mother—which was rare indeed. This drama had a human heart element to it that was tragic no matter how it turned out, or what the truth was. I quit overplaying my own hand. In my gut, I knew that, even though this was my problem, it wasn’t my fight. “But mad? I don’t think so. Not if you’re telling the truth.”
Turning she grabbed my arm. “But I don’t know if it’s true. It’s just what my gram told me.”
The sight of her. The plaintive unhappiness in her voice. I wilted. And I went with my instinct and wrapped her in a hug. She stiffened for a moment then relaxed into me. “It’ll be okay,” I whispered against her hair. “We’ll figure it out. You’re here now and family or not, we’ll take care of you.”
The girl needed a friend, a champion. I could do that. In fact, I needed to do that. Helping was Pavlovian with me—not ideal, but I’d learn to own it. I released her but kept and arm looped around her shoulders. “Let’s go. We’ve prevailed upon Chef Bouclet’s kindness long enough. Let’s get you a shower and some shut eye, then we can handle all of this tomorrow when our strength is at full throttle.”
“I’ve got a place, I told you that.” The girl backed off her stool.
“Well, if you’re with me, then whoever is looking for you won’t be able to find you.”
She froze, still as a statue. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“In my office, you were a twitchy as a rabbit in a greyhound race. Once we got into the elevators and came up here where no one else can come and no one would think to look, you calmed down. That tells me you’re running from someone.”
She opened her mouth, then clamped it shut, her eyes bugging as she looked over my shoulder.
“She’s running from me.”
I whirled around. Detective Romeo.
Standing in the doorway, he looked stern. Well, actually he looked only slightly older than twelve, his sandy hair a trifle long—something my youngest assistant, Brandy, probably had a hand in. His boyish face unmarred by the shadow of a beard. His overcoat hung on his thin frame like a shroud, while his cowlick stood at attention from the crown of his head, a flag waving in surrender.
When we’d first met over a woman who was pushed out of a tour helicopter at a very inconvenient time and altitude, he’d been a greenhorn. I’d taken him under my wing; showed him the ropes. While he still didn’t have the connections a Vegas brat like me had, he’d worked his way up the food chain to where he had the audacity to consider himself my equal. Although it galled, he was probably right. Either way, we had each other’s backs.
Regardless, somehow I’d been left off the invitation list to his graduation, so his new attitude still took be by surprise. “Well, don’t you sound officious and dull?” I put myself between he and the girl. I wasn’t aware of it until I’d done it.
Romeo looked nonplussed, tilting his head in an invitation to get out of his way.
Seriously? That was as effective as chiseling stone with a chopstick.
While I appreciated his competence, I missed his happiness. “You do know you can do your job and still actually like it, don’t you?”
His bluster melted a bit when he ran into the heat of my glare, which deepened when I saw who was with him.
Paxton Dane muscled in beside the young detective looking lean, luscious, and less than trustworthy. All traits that unfortunately I’d discovered the hard way. A long, tall Texan who had wooed me while he was still married, managed to get his estranged wife killed, then left.
Recently, he’d returned acting as if all was forgiven. I was still struggling with the distinction between forgiving and forgetting.
Thankfully, I hadn’t fallen for Dane’s act, nor succumbed to his charm. So I wasn’t struggling with forgiving myself…for once.
My history with handsome men would flesh out an entire line of Harlequin romances without the happy endings, but Dane wouldn’t be a chapter.
“Why is she running from you?” I asked the young detective.
Romeo waved my question aside, which usually meant he was committed to the wind-up before throwing the pitch.
Surprisingly, I found one last erg of patience.
“That girl, there.” He lifted his chin toward the girl who now cowered behind me. “We tailed her here, then Dane got security to trace where she’d gone in the hotel.”
“We got to your office, but you weren’t there,” Dane added.
I gave him a look intended to wither steel. “Brilliant deduction, Watson. Am I supposed to be impressed?” I made a mental note to put Dane on the list of undesirables at my new hotel.
“That’d be the day,” Romeo said out of the side of his mouth. “I’m really sorry, Lucky, but she needs to come with me.”
“She’s wanted for murder.”