Razzmatazz – Sample Chapters

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

“YOU LOOK LIKE you’ve lost the world….”

Kennie Sue Ledbetter looked up to the source of that velvety male voice and met the most sympathetic brown eyes she’d encountered in her twenty-four years.

For a few moments she forgot the distressing chain of events that had landed her in her current dilemma. The airport’s bustling crowd of passengers hurrying to catch their return flights after a weekend of glamour and gambling in Reno, Nevada, blurred into soft focus behind the elegant man standing before her. His hair was ebony, his teeth white and perfect against an equally perfect tan, and his rangy, athletic body was clad in—gracious!—a tuxedo. Aware that he expected a response, she choked out, “I beg your pardon?”

The stranger’s concerned expression transformed into a brilliant smile as he dropped into the molded plastic seat beside her. “I beg your pardon?” he repeated, gently mimicking her soft drawl. He motioned to another tuxedo-clad man, who was nearing the gate. The tall blond strode toward them. “Chris, I do believe we’ve found us a sweet little ol’ Southern belle.”

“Isn’t she stunning?” Chris, the blond, peered down at her as if she were some inanimate object in a storefront display.

“I am not,” she asserted quickly, blushing. “I mean, I’m not Southern. I’m Texan and proud of it.”

“Aren’t you all?” Chris asked.

“And I’m not…not….” She swallowed uncomfortably.

“Stunning? No, she’s right, Chris,” the first man agreed, his dark eyes twinkling with mischief. “Not a stunning bone in her body, I’m afraid.”

“Alex, must you be so rude? Of course she’s stunning—not to mention delightful.”

“Who are you?” Kennie glared at them both.

“I’m an incurable flirt, that’s what I am,” the blond responded genially. “Christopher Abbott, at your service.” He extended his hand, which Kennie pointedly stared at without responding. It was a smooth, strong hand. She was certain its strength was the pampered kind, imparted by hours of tennis or racquetball but not accustomed to hard work. His class ring flashed in front of her as he waited for her to respond, and Kennie stifled a groan. Yale. She was pretty sure it had to be the university and not the lock.

An Ivy Leaguer, of all things.

And the well-worn signet ring on his little finger suggested generations of equally blond, privileged Abbotts contributing to the arrogance of this one.

Just her luck, to meet a couple of wealthy Eastern playboys who were killing time between soirees. Kennie stared icily at him until he withdrew his hand with a shrug. Almost as an afterthought, he nodded toward his companion. “And this is Alex Carruthers.”

Kennie met Alex’s amused gaze, and for one melting moment she stopped breathing. He was gorgeous. She swallowed hard, fighting to keep her composure, and finally forced a strained “How do you do.”

“I repeat,” he said softly. “You look like you’ve lost the world.”

Kennie stiffened against the blue-cushioned seat back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He shook his head. “Those sad green eyes, the way you nibble your lower lip….”

She automatically licked her lip and found it slightly raw and sore.

“You look like someone who’s lost more than she could afford to lose.”

She bristled. “You mean, you think that I—that I gambled?”

“And lost.”

“Why, I never did such a thing! And if I had, I wouldn’t be fool enough to gamble away my last penny.” Kennie stood abruptly. He, too, rose, his face inches from hers, and Kennie found her lips level with his jutting chin. Tall, dark and gorgeous—just her luck. She raised her face to his. “I don’t know what you want, but if y’all don’t leave me alone, I’m gonna call the police!”

“Did you hear that?” Chris beamed. “The poe-leese. How charming!”

“And stop making fun of the way I talk.”

They stared at her in shocked innocence—or was it mocked? she wondered.

“Making fun?” Alex said.

Feeling his gaze sweep from her curly blond topknot, down her yellow shirtwaist, she folded her arms in an effort to shield her body from his assessment.

He smiled when he noticed the fuchsia toenails peeking from her high-heeled sandals. “Why would we ever make fun of someone so utterly delightful?”

“Look, Mr. Abbott—”

“Carruthers, but please, call me Alex.”

“You can call me anything.” The blond winked. “I promise, I’ll answer.”

Kennie clenched her fists in the folds of her skirt. “You’re missing the point, gentlemen,” she ground out through gritted teeth. “I don’t care who you are. I don’t know why you’re bothering me in the first place, but if you don’t—”

“You have a point, you know.” Chris spun on a shiny, black heel and faced Alex. “Now that she mentions it, I don’t even remember why we’re bothering the poor girl.”

“Of course you do,” Alex said impatiently. “We were walking by, arguing about the blasted slot machines….”

“Yes, and you spotted her sitting there, looking so helpless and alone….”

“I beg your pardon,” Kennie interjected firmly, “I’m not helpless!”

Chris smiled apologetically. “My friend merely wished to offer his assistance, and I knew it was fruitless to try to dissuade him, my dear girl, because he’s a sucker for lost children, sick puppies, and—” Chris shrugged poetically “—damsels in distress.”

“And I am none of the above,” Kennie said, wagging a slender finger with as much bluster as she could manage. “So you can go back to your slot machines.” She made a sweeping gesture from Chris to the bank of one-armed bandits lining the wall, then turned her frustration on his raven-haired companion. “And you can go adopt a cat, but just leave me out of it.”

“She has spunk, too,” the tall blond remarked, then pulled a fistful of coins from his pocket and strolled toward the slot machines to waste them, Kennie Sue noted with disapproval.

“I never doubted it for a minute.” Alex flashed her a dazzling smile.

“What do you want from me?” Kennie demanded, her nerves at the snapping point.

“Why, I don’t want anything from you,” Alex soothed her, “except the assurance that you’re not in any kind of trouble.” His features softened into a smile. “You aren’t, aren’t you?”

“Of course I’m not.” Kennie massaged her neck wearily. She was so tired. Too tired to play ridiculous cat-and-mouse games with two gadabouts. A voice blaring above them announced a flight to Dallas-Fort Worth.

“Is that your flight?” Alex asked.

“No, not yet.”

All around them, people gathered carry-on luggage and prepared to board.

He eyed the ticket jutting from the pocket of her dress, and his brows met in a frown. “Budget Express Airlines?” He plucked it out and examined it, then groaned. “Odessa to Dallas to Newark to San Francisco to Reno? Wasn’t there a more direct flight, er…Ms. K. Ledbetter?”

“It’s not a sin to fly a budget airline.” Kennie snatched the ticket from his meddling fingers. “I appreciate your concern,” she hissed, “but as you can see, I’m just fine. Tired, but fine.”

“Then why don’t I believe you?”

Kennie stared at the hard, lean angles of his face, his probing eyes. Because it’s not the truth, she responded silently, feeling as if he were reading her mind, reading her life’s story. Because I find myself wanting to tell it to you, and I don’t understand why.

“What does the K stand for?”

She looked up, startled. He indicated the airline ticket, and she sighed. “Kennie.”

“Kennie. What a lovely name.”

It certainly was…the way he said it.

Gently, Alex touched her elbow. “Why don’t you come tell me what’s bothering you?”

“No, I really couldn’t,” she insisted even as she allowed him to reseat her across from the bug-eyed “RODNEY DANGERFIELD Appearing Nightly at HARRAH’S” poster that had been mocking her for hours. “I’ll be fine once I get on my flight.”

“Just exactly what time is your flight?” he asked as he sat down beside her.

“Eight o’clock.”

He frowned at his watch. “You don’t mean….”

“Tomorrow morning.”

“But that’s almost eleven hours away.” He leaned toward her.

“I am aware of that fact, Mr.—I’m sorry—I’m terrible with names.”

“Alex.”

“Alex,” she said, the name unexpectedly soothing on her lips. Her breath caught someplace in her chest where it was doing her absolutely no good. You’ve got to get control of yourself, girl. It’s been a long day, but that’s no excuse.

She leaned her head back against the wall with a groan. “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”

“I know exactly how you feel….”

She could hear the wry tone in his voice without looking to see his half smile. “And to think,” she sighed, “this morning I was in Odessa, ready for a marvelous vacation in Reno—oh, brother. When will I ever learn?”

“This morning?” Alex gave her a stern look. “People don’t fly into Reno in the morning and leave the same night without being in some kind of trouble.”

“No, not trouble, not really.” She straightened in the chair. “I don’t have anywhere to stay, so I’m going back home.”

“That’s ridiculous. This town’s practically empty on Sunday night. You could get a room like that.” Alex punctuated his remark with a crisp snap of his fingers.

Kennie noticed they were supple and bare of rings. Void of adornment, his hands seemed stronger, more masculine, than his friend’s, as if his self-confidence transcended the need to advertise his privileged background. Nevertheless, he didn’t seem to have any clearer concept than Chris did of the way the other half lived.

She raised her chin higher. “Maybe you could get a room like that.” She snapped her fingers, the fuchsia-glazed nails sparkling with reflected light. “But rooms aren’t that easy to come by if you don’t have the money to pay for them.”

Alex cocked his head in confusion. “You came here without money for a hotel?”

“I won a contest, an all-expense-paid trip.” Kennie was unable to keep the acid out of her voice.

“But?”

“The MGM Grand has never heard of Honest Dub’s Used Cars or their contest.”

Alex looked confused. “Honest Dub?”

Kennie gave a short laugh. “The only car dealer in Tahoka Springs, Texas. I had the dubious honor of winning first prize at his fourteenth-anniversary Sell-abration, which was my choice between any car on the lot or three nights in fabulous Reno, Nevada.”

“It wouldn’t take much of a car to be worth more than a few days in Reno,” Alex remarked. “Especially when you’re flying Budget Express.”

“You haven’t seen Dub Callahan’s used-car lot.”

“So Honest Dub wasn’t so honest after all….”

Kennie shrugged. “I can’t believe Dub cheated me on purpose, but apparently he made the arrangements through a fly-by-night travel agency that somehow managed to botch things up.” She twisted her lips in sardonic amusement. “Though why I’m surprised, I’ll never know. It’s typical of my luck.”

“Ah…luck.” Alex nodded sagely. “A tricky thing at best. And you’ve been here all day waiting for a flight back to Texas?”

“Since two this afternoon.” She slid her glance over the crumpled Styrofoam coffee cups and empty potato-chip bags piled on an adjacent table.

“Look,” Alex insisted, “why don’t you let me take care of this? I can have you on the next direct flight to Texas, and none of this layover-in-Newark nonsense. Or, better yet, Chris and I could drop you off on our way to Atlanta. I’m sure his pilot could schedule a brief layover in Paducah…Springs?”

“Absolutely not.” Kennie blushed, embarrassed by how many humiliating details she’d already spilled out against her better judgment.

Alex studied her. “You mean you haven’t seen a thing of Reno? Shows? Casinos? Anything?”

She couldn’t restrain a weary laugh. “I saw the lobby of the MGM Grand. I can tell you one thing—it’s nothing like Western Bob’s Motel back home.”

“I can only imagine.” Alex smirked.

“In a way, even though it’s been a disaster,” Kennie went on, relaxing a little, “this has been kind of exciting. I mean, I’d never flown before. And I like to watch all the people. You can tell so much just by the way they act waiting for their planes: which ones came for a little fun and surprised themselves by winning, which ones are high rollers, and a few who obviously lost way too much.” She stopped suddenly, glancing at his face.

Alex angled his body toward her and propped his elbow on the back of his chair. Resting his chin on his fist, he leaned closer and smiled. “Then surely you understand why I had to stop and see if you needed help.”

“I suppose so,” she hedged. “But as I’ve told you, everything’s quite all right.”

Alex snorted in disagreement. “You call this—flying into Reno expecting a big vacation, and leaving before spending one night on the town—all right?”

Kennie shrugged. “If this is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I’ll have led an easy life.”

“Well,” Alex countered smoothly, his eyes taking on a devious gleam. “I refuse to accept that attitude. The least you deserve is dinner.”

“Dinner?”

He grinned. “And maybe a little dancing.”

Kennie eyed him suspiciously. Charming and thoughtful he might be, and evidently wealthy, to boot. But a stranger, still. “No, it’s really nice of you to ask, but I couldn’t possibly—”

“You don’t trust me.”

His direct statement caught her too off guard for her to soften the truth. “You’re darn right I don’t.”

“But why?” Alex spread his arms. “Do I look nefarious?”

“No,” she said, then added firmly, “but neither did Ted Bundy.”

He laughed. “I see your point. Unfortunately, I have no character witnesses readily available.” He cast a regretful look about the area and spotted his friend, who was still playing the slot machines. “Except, of course, for Chris, and I don’t suppose you’d accept his opinion of me.”

Kennie smiled in spite of herself. “No, I don’t suppose I would.”

Eyes twinkling, Alex reached inside his tuxedo jacket and pulled out a flat black case. “Perhaps some of my canine friends can provide me with references.”

Kennie took the case from him and popped open the lid. A bronze medallion lay nestled in black velvet. Circling the edge was an inscription: Friends of Man’s Best Friend. Alexander W. Carruthers—Friend of the Year was centered beneath an embossed terrier’s head. She returned it to him. “Oh yeah? And this proves exactly what?”

“That’s what brought me to Reno, to receive this award.”

“So. Dogs like you.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Dogs like everybody.”

“You’re right. You have no reason to trust me, or even the dogs. It was really only dinner I’m offering, but I certainly understand your reluctance.

And this was going to be how it all ended, her one chance at something special, at a break from—from reality, and boredom, and the same view out of the same window every day of her life?

Kennie found herself chewing her lower lip again. She should say no.

But he was so darned nice.

And so…so overwhelming.

The moment before he smiled, she sensed his awareness of her indecision.

And when Alex Carruthers smiled, Kennie felt a golden warmth melt the cold knot in her stomach as surely as the Texas sun melts a scoop of ice cream. And smiled back at him.

He held out his hand, and she took it, and stood, one heel settling on an uneven surface. She lifted her foot and glanced down at a golden coin winking up at her. “Someone must have lost this.” She stooped to retrieve it.

But Alex scooped it up first. Grabbing her firmly by the elbow, he pulled her to her feet again. He studied the strange coin. “Well, well, well…what have we here?” He flipped it over in his palm, then grinned. Quickly, he slipped the coin into his pants pocket. “Finders keepers. This seems to be my lucky day.”

“Lucky?” she breathed softly, too aware of his warm, gentle grip on her elbow.

“Very lucky. And you’d let a very lucky gentleman take you to dinner, wouldn’t you?” He dropped his hand and offered his arm instead. “How about it? Chris can chaperone, and we’ll have you back in less than two hours.”

“Two hours?” Kennie wavered, the thought of food making her weak with hunger. After all, she was supposed to be on vacation. And goodness knew she deserved something good after everything she’d been through in the past few months….

And the day she couldn’t handle a couple of city slickers like these was a day when she didn’t have a fierce left hook or mace in her arsenal.

“Chris!” Alex called.

The blond diverted his attention from the slot machine, his classic features crestfallen. “Not already!”

“We’re taking the lovely lady from Texas to dinner.”

Chris’s face brightened considerably, and he strolled toward them, rubbing his palms together. “Now, that’s what I call a wonderful idea, old friend.”

Uncertain, Kennie backed away, knocking her large canvas bag from its precarious perch on the edge of the table. It tilted sideways, spilling half its contents across the floor.

“Oh, dear!” She dropped to her knees, trying to shove everything back inside. But before she succeeded, Alex squatted beside her and grabbed two items from the jumble. Her gaze froze on his thighs which strained so powerfully beneath the perfectly-tailored cut of his trousers.

He cleared his throat, and blushing, she forced her glance to the can of Mace in his right hand, the air horn in his left. A quizzical arch shaped his brows. “You came prepared, didn’t you?” His and Chris’s laughter rang through the waiting area.

Though Kennie felt a crimson stain creeping up her neck, she managed to sniff haughtily. “You never know when someone undesirable might accost you in an airport,” she snapped, holding her bag open wide as he dropped them in.

“That settles it.” Alex grinned, pulling her back to her feet. “You wouldn’t be any safer with the Seventh Cavalry as an honor guard. You have no excuses—you’re going to dinner with us.”

Suddenly, Kennie felt a shot of adrenaline—or was it anticipation?—scooting through her veins. Trying to mask her eagerness, she narrowed her eyes in warning. “Two hours, and not a minute more.”

“My word of honor.” Alex flashed a perfect smile, offering his arm.

“Welcome to Reno—Sin City, U.S.A.,” Chris chimed in from the other side, offering his arm.

Kennie zigzagged a startled look from Alex to Chris to Alex again but had to respond to their infectious laughter.

As the three of them walked down the corridor, she caught a glimpse of their reflection in a plate-glass window.

Two tuxedo-clad Galahads on either side of a slender daffodil of a woman, guiding her toward the escalators, the main lobby, the waiting taxi cabs—toward what some tingling feeling told her would be a glittering, glamorous night to remember.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

 

“YOU REALLY SHOULD try the slot machines.” Chris and Kennie glided across the nearly empty dance floor, the small band providing a subtle Caribbean rhythm.

“I beg your pardon?” Kennie tripped, but Chris turned her bobble into a smooth dip. “I told you I couldn’t dance,” she sighed.

“And I told you, I can dance with anybody.” He shortened his steps, adjusting.

As Chris launched into a dizzying monologue about the number of blue-haired matrons and skinny adolescents he’d been required to dance with at society debuts and charity balls, Kennie cast an anxious glance at her watch, then across the restaurant toward their empty table. A nervous fluttering settled in her stomach at Alex’s absence, but she had no time to ponder where he might be, for Chris’s flamboyant movements forced her to concentrate on each step, each dip, each swirl. This was nothing like the Texas two-step, but her innate sense of rhythm and hours of Exer-Jazz helped her keep up.

“I’ll bet you’re hell on skates,” she muttered.

The tall blond smiled and shrugged, even that slight movement just another nuance of his fluid style as he guided them to the edge of the floor. “So, is Tahoka Springs near Dallas? Alex and I have friends in Dallas.”

“No. We’re about forty miles from Odessa.”

“Odessa.” He brightened. “Maybe you do know our friends. They have holdings out there, too. The Hunters? Emmaline and Budd?”

This time her missed step was too obvious to recover. “Of Horseshoe Oil?”

“You know them?”

“I know who they are. Everybody knows who they are.”

“Alex and Budd have been bridge partners for years. They’ve won a lot of—”

“You’re monopolizing the lady, friend.” Alex closed his hand over Chris’s shoulder. His smile was friendly enough, but a predatory gleam flickered in his dark eyes.

Chris released her with a grin. “If you insist, but she’s in for a disappointment. I’m afraid I’ve spoiled her for any other dancer.”

As Alex’s touch on her shoulder guided her back to the center of the darkened dance floor, she tried to tell herself that he was only another tuxedo, just an interchangeable part of this bizarre evening.

But the pulse rumba-ing in her chest didn’t agree.

“You know Budd Hunter?” she asked, still stunned. “Chris said that you—”

“We’re friends.” Alex’s voice was tense, edgy. “Chris has been trying to get you to go to the casinos, hasn’t he?”

“We-ell,” Kennie hedged.

Alex pulled her closer, his nose whisking against her curly blond topknot. “Is it my imagination, or does your hair smell like coconut?”

Kennie wrinkled her nose, then nodded. “No, it’s not your imagination.” Seeing his bemused expression, she laughed. “It’s my hair conditioner. It’s made with coconut oil.”

“I like it.” His tone was casual, yet his half-closed eyes seemed to probe for more than a casual answer as he asked, “Enjoying yourself?”

Kennie considered her answers, determined to keep the conversation impersonal. “It beats Reno-Tahoe International Airport.”

“And don’t you forget it, milady.”

“Hmmph.” She gave a very unladylike snort and tilted her face away from his.

“So, now you must tell me.” His expression danced with mischief. “Why did you agree to come?”

She felt a slow flush burning as his gaze wandered down her neck. “Just dumb, I guess.”

“You seem very smart, to me.”

“Because I let the first fast-talking men who approached me pick me up?” she snapped.

“Now, now. Don’t tell me you’re going to bite the hand that feeds you.” His fingers slid over her back, rippling the polished cotton against her smooth skin. A tremor skimmed down her spine, and she was helpless to determine whether it was foreboding or anticipation, or just a not-so-innocent response to his burning touch.

“When the hand starts feeding, maybe I won’t feel so much like biting.” Kennie craned her neck to see over his shoulder. “Haven’t they brought dinner yet? I haven’t got all night.”

“Of course you do.” Alex’s head dipped closer, and in the dim light the lean angles of his face took on a wolfish edge. “In fact, that’s exactly how long you have. All night.”

“You promised. Only two hours.” An old disjointed adage lodged in her mind: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Then he threw back his head and laughed, and the wolf was gone—leaving her breathless and wondering if she had imagined it.

“Yes, I promised, and I intend to keep that promise, if that’s really what you want. But shall we set the record straight?” His smile was still in place, yet his eyes sparkled with a tantalizing lure. “You have as long as you want to have.”

As long as you want to have…. Did he have any idea how enticing those words were? His actions mirrored his sincerity and concern, and she was reminded of Chris’s earlier remark in the airport. She could very easily picture this man hovering over a sick puppy or taking a lost waif under his wing…. But why was she haunted by the thought that there was more here than met the eye?

With Chris’s clean profile so clearly etched in her mind, Kennie found herself comparing the men and realizing her initial impression of Alex as part of a perfect pair was merely that—an impression. At close quarters, she couldn’t ignore the fact that his nose had an interesting bump, his cheek a tiny scar, his chin a determined thrust quite unlike his friend’s.

His tuxedo fit his wide shoulders and slender torso as if it were tailored expressly for him; everything about him, from head to toe, bespoke style and money.

But still…something jarred. His eyes never really relaxed; his mind always seemed to jump one step ahead. It was almost as if he wore elegance like a calculated veneer, and she was afraid to scratch the surface and see what was beneath it.

“I’m famished,” she announced, and broke from his arms. She tore her gaze away from his and saw that his seemingly aimless dancing had positioned them near their table. The aroma of hot bread wafted its way up to her, and her stomach clenched with hunger.

“Lord, yes, this is exactly what I need,” she moaned, sinking into the barrel-backed leather chair. Reaching across her salad for the steaming rolls, she caught the two men exchanging amused glances. “Well, you don’t have to stare. After all, it’s hours after any decent person’s suppertime.”

“I love a woman who knows her own baser instincts.” Chris lifted the champagne bottle to fill her glass.

“No.” Kennie covered her glass and the bubbly liquid splashed over her hand. Embarrassed, she jerked her hand away and groped for the napkin in her lap. “I don’t care for wine.”

“What a waste of a perfectly good year,” Chris lamented. Spying the sudden gleam in his eyes, Kennie tightened her hand into a fist. No telling what capricious whim had entered his head, and she wouldn’t put it past him to lick her fingers clean, all in the name of frugality.

But it was Alex who eased her hand out of her lap and gently stroked her fingers and palms dry with his napkin. “We’ll order you another drink. What would you like?” His nonchalant voice bore no detectable resemblance to the tingling feelings his ministrations were evoking.

A barmaid clad in a scanty silver lame mini-toga glided by, balancing a tray high over her head. Kennie glimpsed a tall, fruity concoction with orange slices and maraschino cherries suspended in its citrusy depths. She pulled her hand free from Alex’s and gestured toward the tray. “What’s that?”

Alex beckoned to the waitress, and she paused between him and Chris.

“The lady is interested in that drink.” Chris flicked a languid finger toward the tall glass.

“It’s the specialty of the house. Ambrosia punch. It’s similar to planter’s punch, with a dollop of coconut amaretto.”

“Ambrosia?” Kennie’s face lit up. “What a coincidence….” She looked longingly at the glass. “But this one is for someone else.”

“I’ll be glad to bring you one.”

But when Chris pulled a bill from his wallet and dropped it on the tray, the waitress dipped demurely and placed the drink in front of Kennie.

“Would you care for something else?” She smiled, retrieving the bill.

“Please bring the lady some iced tea,” Alex requested firmly, and the waitress nodded and glided back in the direction she’d come from.

“I’ve always had a weakness for redheads,” Chris confessed into his champagne. “Too bad we won’t be sticking around for a while.”

Kennie sipped the drink and sighed with pleasure. “Talk about food of the gods.”

Holding his champagne glass loosely, Alex peered at her. “You mentioned a coincidence.”

“Oh, it’s nothing you’d be interested in,” Kennie said, spearing a chunk of lettuce and dipping it into the green goddess dressing. “Just a little business venture I’m involved in.”

Alex leaned forward across the table. “On the contrary, I’m very interested. I’m always interested in coincidence.” He glanced at Chris. “I’m beginning to have a hunch about this night, friend.”

Chris snapped to attention. “A hunch? About what?” He scanned the table. “Wheat. Is that it? Here—have a roll.”

But Alex pushed the bread dish away, his concentration focused on Kennie. “What kind of business venture?”

Chris rushed on before he could get an answer. “You know you’re not interested in business, Alex. Now, what about that hunch? It’s bound to be something at this table…silver. Is it the silver?”

“The coincidence, Kennie,” Alex repeated.

Kennie felt a soft flush on her cheeks. “Oh, it’s really nothing. Just a little job I have until I can find something permanent.” She took refuge behind her drink, concentrating on draining it by half. “This really is wonderful. I’ll have to get the recipe for my mother’s Auxiliary.”

Chris waved a napkin in Alex’s face. “Cotton! That’s it, isn’t it?” But Alex brushed him off impatiently. “Coincidence, Kennie. Coincidence,” he pressed.

She rolled her eyes and sighed, closing both hands around her glass. “I’ve been selling cosmetics, that’s all. Lady Ambrosia cosmetics.”

Alex took the drink from her hands and sniffed it delicately. “Ambrosia punch…Lady Ambrosia cosmetics….” His face was transformed by a beguiling smile. “Coconut hair?”

Chris shot a jubilant finger into the air. “Orange juice! Citrus!”

“What a lovely coincidence,” Alex murmured, and handed back her drink, his fingers brushing hers.

“Lovely feeling,” Chris added, extracting a leather-bound notepad from his breast pocket.

She took another sip, a warm glow spreading through her body. “Yes, lovely.”

The rest of the meal passed in a golden, hazy glow. Chris’s attempts at interrupting them continued to fail, and Alex’s attentiveness to Kennie bordered on the obsessive. Kennie lingered over a gourmet coffee Alex had insisted she try. “Even the coffee tastes better here,” she sighed.

Chris signaled the waitress. “How about a round of that ambrosia punch you’ve been raving about?”

She was about to agree when Alex’s hand covered hers. His wicked smile belied the regret in his voice as he shook his head and spoke. “I made a promise to you, Kennie. And I’ve already broken it. We’ve been gone three hours.” The words hovered in the air between them, and when the waitress arrived he offered his American Express card.

He was going to do it! He was just going to take her back to the airport and leave her. Kennie’s spirits deflated. Wasn’t that exactly what she had asked for? And if she couldn’t have a few drinks at the only dinner of her only night of her only vacation…

A voice she hardly recognized as her own said, “But what about my punch?”

Alex paused. “Are you sure?”

A small, sparkling laugh bubbled up from deep inside her, and she raised her chin defiantly. “Positive.”

Chris grinned. “House drinks for everybody.” And then, innocently, he added, “Since everyone’s in such an agreeable mood, maybe you’d be interested in a visit to a casino?”

“Forget it,” Alex growled. “The lady isn’t interested. Especially not in slot machines.”

“I never said a word about actually gambling, did I?” Chris flung his napkin onto the table. “And I’m tired of you assuming that my only motivation for any good idea is those damn slot machines!”

“Histrionics will not sway me. No slot machines, and don’t try to deny that’s what you’ve been after all night.” Alex leaned back, eyeing Chris patiently.

“But Alex, the lady can’t leave Nevada without setting foot in one little casino,” Chris pleaded.

“Of course she can.”

“But she doesn’t want to,” Kennie declared firmly. Both men’s heads snapped toward her. “The lady wants to see a casino before she leaves.”

“See there!” Chris flashed a triumphant smile at his friend.

The drinks arrived, and Kennie raised her glass. “To my vacation, which as of this moment has approximately eight glorious hours to go.”

Chris’s glass clinked against it. “To tonight.”

Alex lifted his glass to join theirs. “To fate.”

 

~o0o~

 

An hour later Alex reached for Kennie’s hand and pulled her out of the taxi. “You’ve got a lot to cram into one night. But I think we might be able to catch one of the late shows, if we hurry.”

Kennie shivered in the cool night air, thousands of Reno lights sparkling in her eyes. He slid his hand up her arm to close on her bare elbow. “Didn’t you bring a wrap of some sort?”

“It never occurred to me that it would be so cool in the summertime.”

Alex curled his arm around her and drew her close. “Let’s walk down Virginia Street and see which appeals to you.”

“I swear, Alex, you have all the fun,” Chris complained. Then, with a mischievous grin, he thrust his arm over Alex’s and fell in step, wedging Kennie snugly between them. “Room for one more, eh?”

Kennie fought the silly giggle that threatened to spill out of her lips at the thought of having a handsome man warming either side of her, even sparring for her attentions. And then the giggle escaped, shimmering in the carnival night, preceding the three of them as they made their way down the street. “Do you know what I used to call ambrosia when I was a little girl? Amnesia. Every Christmas I carried this huge glass bowl of my mama’s best fruit salad to the dinner table, and every Christmas I announced it as the amnesia.”

“You must have been a beautiful child,” Alex murmured.

Chris did a little skip and hummed, “’Cause baby, look at you now.”

Caught somewhere between a delicious intake of breath and another spate of giggles, Kennie finally compromised with a little skip of her own.

“So the lady wants to dance?” Chris immediately swept her into a swirling spin. Alex followed beside them, shaking his head, his hands shoved into his trouser pockets, his jacket flaring behind his lean hips.

Faster and faster Kennie and Chris spun, oblivious to the few tourists still out and about so late on a Sunday night. The lights swirled in fiery arcs of red and orange and yellow and green and blue, until her feet barely skimmed the pavement.

Suddenly Chris halted. The green tint of his complexion had nothing to do with neon reflection. “I don’t think Dom Perignon and ambrosia punch mix,” he groaned.

Breathless, Kennie staggered until Alex’s strong arms encompassed her, his hard chest pressing against her cheek. “Nonsense,” he said over her head, his voice rumbling against her ear. “It’s the blasted frolicking that’s going to put you under if you don’t control your wild impulses.” Kennie raised her gaze to meet his. “Besides,” he continued softly, “I had the same combination, and I can assure you that what I’m feeling has nothing to do with champagne or punch.”

His head dipped lower, lower…. She closed her eyes and inhaled the heavy night scents of the city, the musky scent that was Alex’s, and felt the teasing pressure as his lips brushed against hers, brushed again, then his mouth captured hers. His arms surrounded her, his fingers trailed down the back of her neck, rubbing erotic circles on her skin. She felt light. Heady. Bubbly. And wonderful. She moaned softly into his mouth. His arms tightened, and his lips explored hers with an intensity that stole her breath, her thoughts.

And then, she ended it with a sharp shove and a scowl. Fun was fun, but this was ridiculous.

She felt the chill again.

Alex stared at her, his expression unreadable. Finally the spell broke as he grabbed her hand and led her down the strip. “I told you I had a hunch.” His voice was husky, his smile wicked. “And I always trust my hunches.”

“That was your hunch?” Chris grumbled. “Be a little more specific next time.”

“Why?” Alex asked pointedly, almost as if in challenge.

“Well….” Chris straightened and adjusted the lapels of his tux. “Well, what are we waiting for? We’re in Reno, where the sun never rises and there’s never a morning after—until, of course, the morning after.” He laughed as he strolled along behind them, then started whistling softly.

Alex stroked Kennie’s shoulder as they peered ahead at the array of casinos: the Eldorado, Fitzgerald’s, Harrah’s. His touch set off a tingling reaction that Kennie couldn’t possibly ignore. What had happened to sweet little Kennie Sue Ledbetter from Tahoka Springs, Texas?

Whatever it was, she liked it.

“Just get me back to the airport by seven-thirty,” she said breathlessly.

“By seven,” Alex amended. “We aren’t taking any chances.” He glanced at his watch, adding, “That leaves us only seven-and-a-half hours.”

“In case you two haven’t noticed,” Chris spoke up from behind, “we’re going to run out of strip soon. Where do you want to go?”

“Everywhere!” Kennie tossed back. “You decide.”

“Lady, you just made my day.” And before Alex could protest, Chris hustled them into the brightest casino on the block. “And now the fun begins.”

 

~o0o~

 

Hours later, after the Pointer Sisters’ frenetic midnight show and a dizzying tour of the casino, Kennie clutched Alex’s arm and leaned against him for support while they stood at a craps table with Chris. Chris had dragged them from blackjack to keno to this table, where he now seemed determined to lose a fortune.

“Come on. Throw the dice just once,” he begged her. “It’s no fun by myself.”

She shook her head vigorously. “I refuse to be responsible.”

“I suppose it’s too much to expect my oldest and dearest friend to let me in on one of his extraordinary hunches,” Chris groused.

“You’re absolutely correct. Too much to expect.” Alex grinned.

Chris shoved his chips toward the center of the table and pointed to the large black 12. As the croupier slid them into place with his long-handled stick, Chris leaned toward her beguilingly. “Now, Kennie Sue.”

“Now what, Christopher Quincy Abbott?” she retaliated, using the hated middle name he had volunteered during a toast at the casino bar.

He grimaced. “The least you can do is blow a little luck on the dice for me.”

After a moment’s consideration she pouted her lips and blew.

“Double sixes,” the croupier called. The small crowd responded with a pleased “aaah.”

“Do it again, do it again,” Chris urged her.

Kennie blew, and again, double sixes were thrown. The “aaaah was a little louder, a little more excited.

“Come on, lady luck. One more time….”

An obliging barmaid pressed another drink into Chris’s hands, Kennie blew another puff of luck, and—

Double sixes.

“Hot damn!” Chris shouted amid the cries of the crowd, and gathered in his chips. “You know what this means, don’t you?” He turned an exuberant face to Alex. “Her lips and my money, and I’ll break the bank.”

“What’s he talking about?” Kennie asked as she and Alex waited for Chris to convert his chips into change at the cashier.

Alex ran his fingers through his tousled hair. “The slots—what else?”

Chris turned away from the cashier with two buckets of change and didn’t make it ten feet before he started feeding quarters into a slot machine, his movements smooth and practiced. Kennie shook her head in disapproval. “I do believe that Christopher Quincy Abbott developed his grip on something other than a tennis racket.”

Alex sighed. “I’d hoped that this time I’d get him out of Nevada without a binge on the bandits.”

“Oh, dear. He has…a problem?”

“Not exactly. Just a weakness. Chris could pour money into the machines for a month and his bank account wouldn’t know the difference.” He shrugged, digging his hands deep into his pockets. “It’s the principle of the thing that bothers me.”

“I take it you don’t gamble.”

“I didn’t say that. Life’s a gamble, darlin’, but nowhere are the odds more against you than in a casino.”

Kennie watched Chris playing the machines. His brow smooth and unbothered, he whistled a lilting tune under his breath. She remarked, “If it weren’t for me, you’d have been gone hours ago.”

“Don’t blame yourself. It’s his money. And we don’t end up in Nevada very often, thank God.”

“I still feel responsible. Maybe we should go back to the airport,” Kennie offered, her attention lingering longingly on the bright lights and raucous noises of the casino.

Alex curled a strong finger, placed it under her chin and raised her face to his. “And cut your vacation short by four hours? Never.”

“What about the slot machines?” Kennie queried breathlessly.

“I’m afraid,” Alex murmured, “that if I don’t allow him to use your lips for luck, I’m going to find a use for them myself.”

A bone-melting lethargy oozed through her body. “And I’m afraid I might let you.”

Alex lowered his hand from her face. “Don’t tempt me, Kennie Sue.”

“Of course not. We mustn’t take any chances on ruining the most beautiful night of my life with—”

“Ruining?” His lips curled in a sly smile that told her he knew very well what direction her thoughts were wandering in. “I told you once, don’t try to con me. You’re destined to failure if you do. So, what’s next, pretty lady?”

“I believe I left that entirely up to you.”

“Well,” he sighed, pulling her under his protective wing, “I do believe we owe Chris a turn at the one-armed bandits.”

“Owe?”

“If it hadn’t been for his insatiable desire and devious mind, we never would have left the airport.”

“I see your point. And besides, my lips haven’t anything better to do….”

“Look, lady, don’t tempt me….” Alex growled, and Kennie broke away and strode toward Chris.

“Let’s go win a fortune,” she giggled, hefting a bucket of coins from the floor beside him. But strangely, she felt as if she’d left part of her breathlessly behind—that fluttering part that she couldn’t keep from responding to Alex Carruthers’s devilish charm.

“Happy to oblige.” Chris led her toward the shining banks of slot machines. After bypassing several rows, he headed straight for the monster machine in the middle of the room.

She watched Chris absentmindedly take a cola from a barmaid, his attention riveted on the mesmerizing gold bars and cherries and bells.

Chris set the buckets at his feet, rubbed his hands together, then plucked a silver dollar from the top. “Your move, lady.” He held it out, and Kennie obliged him with a strong puff of air.

Fascinated, she watched him deposit it, then yank the massive arm down. The windows revealed spinning images that gradually slowed to a stop. A row of dollar signs and cherries caused a slow kerplunking of coins to land in the tray. Chris beamed his satisfaction. “I told you we’d be great together.” He reached for another coin.

Feeling a sizzling sensation on the back of her neck, Kennie glanced behind her. Alex was watching her from a few feet away, leaning against a deserted bank of lower-denomination slot machines. His hair was tousled, his jacket unbuttoned to reveal a flat stomach beneath his wide satin cummerbund. He quirked an eyebrow. She felt a pang of longing. No, she thought, we’d be great together.

And she wasn’t thinking about gambling, either. Or maybe she was. Somehow, anything associated with Alex Carruthers seemed to be a gamble. A shiny coin appeared in front of her nose, and she blew automatically, reluctantly turning back to Chris and his obsession.

From his vantage point, Alex felt a familiar restlessness as he studied Kennie. Familiar, yet confusing. His palms itched and his stomach tightened with the strong sensation that accompanied his most powerful hunches, but he’d never experienced such feelings in a casino before. He despised casinos. Maybe it was the whiskey sour he’d had at the bar, or the punch or the champagne, and he was merely imagining his reactions, but he doubted it. Alcohol had never sent his senses wobbling like an out-of-kilter top before.

Chris and his buckets of money were attracting a small crowd. Alex glanced at his watch and frowned. This spectacle could go on for hours. They didn’t have hours if he was going to get Kennie to the airport on time. He watched Chris signal for another drink, and inspiration struck.

As the barmaid passed, Alex pulled a large bill from his pocket and waved it.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“My friend over there seems to be having a pretty good time,” Alex said easily, toying with the bill in his hand. “What’s he drinking?”

“Rum and cola.”

“Could you get the bartender to hit the rum a little heavier, ease up on the cola?”

“I think I could manage it,” she said, eyeing the bill that slipped from Alex’s fingers onto her tray.

“Thanks.”

Alex leaned back against the wall with a satisfied smirk. It shouldn’t be long before Chris was out of commission.

A few minutes later Chris grabbed the fresh drink and handed it to Kennie to hold for him. But instead of holding it, she raised it to her lips and swallowed. After the first sip she frowned, then shrugged and drank more. Alex winced. That was the last thing he’d wanted, he thought, grimacing. Better not to even think about what he did want, though it had everything to do with the luscious little lady fresh out of the Texas panhandle.

And that’s when it hit him. Hard, like a belly punch. That restless, singeing feeling was confusing, because he had never experienced it with a woman before.

Stunned, he plucked a Bloody Mary from the barmaid’s tray and drained it as if it were straight tomato juice.

These last two hours with Kennie Sue Ledbetter were going to be pure hell.

 

~o0o~

 

Kennie stirred uneasily in her sleep, wincing as a shaft of light hit her eyes. Wild, wild dreams…crazy dreams. Strange dreams…clanging bells, raining money, champagne. Laughter…wonderful, wonderful laughter. A fuchsia and yellow sunrise…a pink building. Too vivid to be a dream, too bizarre for reality. And the way her head felt, it was no wonder. Her temples throbbed; a bitter taste coated her mouth; her body felt as if it were weighted down with bricks.

Confused, she fought to peel her heavy eyelids open.

She squinted up at a splash of brilliant yellow wedged between two slashes of startling black. She blinked into the mirrored ceiling and the image came into focus: a bed and three people sprawled on it—

With sudden clarity she met her own disbelieving gaze, then whipped her head from side to side, and despite its rolling, roiling rebellion at the sudden movement, her mind identified the two rumpled, tuxedo-clad men on either side of her.

“Oh, my God!” Her voice cracked, and she scrambled across the bed, her feet kicking as they tangled in the sheets. Gasping, she tumbled over the foot of the bed and landed in a heap on the carpeted floor.

“What on earth have I done?” She barely recognized the raspy voice as her own. Panting, she strained to remember something—anything—that would explain how she had gotten into this room. She raised her left hand to massage her pounding temples, and a flash of gold caught her eye. Holding her hand at arm’s length, she recognized Chris’s signet ring on her fourth finger.

She sat up and peered cautiously over the edge of the bed. The sight of the two heads at the other end, one golden and one ebony, did little to console her.

Struggling to her feet, Kennie tried to reassure herself. She fought to stay calm, to remember what had happened. They were all dressed. Nothing catastrophic could have happened.

Her gaze traveled from the immense bed to the seating area on the opposite side of the luxurious hotel room. She didn’t know where she was. But she certainly knew where she was going—to the airport, where she should have stayed in the first place.

What time was it? She’d missed her flight! Where was her ticket? She panicked, then saw it jutting out from her pink canvas bag on an end table. She grabbed it and clutched it to her chest, relief pouring over her.

Now, just to get out of here.

So intent was she on reaching the door on the other side of the room, she didn’t see the bouquet of white roses that lay in her path until she stepped on them with her bare left foot. “Aaah!” She gritted her teeth in mid-gasp and grabbed the back of a sofa with one hand while she massaged her tender instep with the other.

Slowed but not waylaid, she scooped her purse up from the floor and kept going, scanning the room for her sandals. She grabbed one shoe from the floor and one from atop a large white book that sat on a cocktail table. She was halfway to the door when the book’s title registered in her dazed mind. She pivoted slowly and stared at the table, at the bulky white vinyl book, at its gilt lettering: A Remembrance of Our Wedding.

At the bouquet of white roses.

At the ring on her finger.

At the two men in bed.

And screamed.

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