“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . .” A rumble of thunder in the sullen gray sky blotted the reverend's next words.
Nick Brodie pulled the collar of his coat up against the wind and impending rain, his gaze traveling to twelve-year-old Jimmy Evans, who stood rigidly in front of his father's grave.
Jimmy and his dad lived in a house not far from the place Nick had purchased a few months backâa log home he had been renting for years for weekend fishing trips. It sat on a secluded piece of property near Fish Lake, a rural Alaska community sixty miles north of Anchorage.
He'd met Jimmy one summer and hired him to work after school and on weekends to look after the place when he wasn't there and to do odd jobs around the property. The boy, big for his age and in many ways older than his years, had lost his mother in a car accident when he was six. Now his dad was gone, heart attack at forty-four years old. Go figure.
Nick felt a rush of pity for the kid who couldn't seem to catch a break.
The reverend's voice held a touch of that same sadness. “The Lord bless and keep this man, Alexander Evans, who has passed into your loving arms, be gracious unto him and give him eternal peace. Amen.”
Standing at the front of the small group of mourners, the boy walked up to the grave. The shaggy black hair, cocoa skin, and almond eyes came from his mother's Alaska Native heritage. But his above-average height and solid build came from his dad. The combination resulted in a handsome boy, still a little pudgy, but losing his baby fat as he grew toward manhood.
Reaching down, Jimmy picked up a handful of dirt and tossed it onto the casket, turned to see his aunt walking up beside him. Mary George was his mother's sister, a pretty black-haired woman in her late twenties, who would be staying at the house with Jimmy until the estate was settled and arrangements for her to become his legal guardian could be completed. Resting a hand on his shoulder, Mary led the boy away.
As the mourners dispersed, Nick turned into the wind and started walking back to the big black Ford Explorer he had parked at the edge of the cemetery. He flicked a last sympathetic glance at the kid, who walked forlornly toward the little white Subaru his aunt was driving. He didn't know much about Jimmy's family, but the boy seemed to like his aunt, and there was a chance they would be able to stay in the house at the lake.
Nick hoped so. If Jimmy didn't have to change schools, adjusting to his new life might not be quite as hard on him. Having lost his own mother in his freshman year of high school, his dad a few years later, Nick knew how rough life without your parents could be. If it weren't for his two older brothers, Dylan and Rafe, he would have been one lonely teenage kid.
He looked up at the sky as he slid behind the wheel. Lots of rain in September, even this early in the month. Next month, the snow would begin to fly. Even now, an icy wind slid down the sides of the towering mountains, soon to be white-capped through the long winter months ahead.
Nick started the engine and pulled off the shoulder onto the road. He had a couple of stops to make before he headed home, a crucial one at the cleaners.
His suits and shirts had been hanging in the closet since he'd quit the Anchorage police force five months ago. He needed them cleaned and pressed for the trip he was planning to make. Tomorrow he would be leaving Alaska, heading south for the vacation he had been meaning to take for years.
Until his older brother, Rafe, had shoved an airline ticket into his hand and demanded he use it, he'd only talked about going. Now that he'd made the decision, he couldn't wait to leave.
Thinking about the city he'd never seen but had wanted to visit for years, Nick found himself smiling. Before he'd quit his job, he'd been working as an APD homicide detective. An inheritance he and his brothers had received from the sale of the family ranch in Texas had given him the chance to explore other venues.
Nick had been more than ready. The last case he'd worked involved the murder of three young girls by a serial killer. The haunted looks in the parents' eyes, the unforgettable memories of those small, tortured bodies. The blood and death he'd waded through to solve the crime had been the straw that had broken the camel's back.
He was out of the murder business for good, and nothing was going to lure him back. Nick stepped on the gas, his mind already seeing the bright lights of Las Vegas.
The afternoon was almost gone. Jimmy Evans wandered through his house, thinking of his dad and the funeral, trying to work up his courage.
He needed to talk to Nick. Nick Brodie was the only one he could trust, the only person he could tell the truth about what had happened to his dad. But even if he did, Nick wasn't a cop anymore and Jimmy wasn't sure he would be willing to help.
Closing the door to his bedroom, he flung himself down on the mattress. Through the walls, he could hear his aunt in the living room, saying good-bye to the last of the friends who had been at his dad's funeral and come by the house afterward. Along with the cards and flowers, they'd brought salads and casseroles, enough to feed an army.
Jimmy wasn't hungry. Just the smell of food made him sick. He tried not to think of his dad, the way he had found him four days ago, leaning back in the chair in his office, his eyes open, staring at the ceiling.
A heart attack, the doctors said. But Jimmy didn't believe them. He knew the truth. Or at least he was pretty sure it was the truth. That was the problem. How could he be certain? And if it was the truth, what would happen to him if someone found out he was the one who had told?
His eyes burned. His dad was dead. He had to do something. Feeling lonely and heartsick, Jimmy stared out the window into the gray skies hanging over the mountains. Maybe he'd talk to Nick tomorrow, ask for his help. That would give him a little more time to think, try to work things out in his head.
Tomorrow, he told himself.
But when he went over to Nick's the next day, the house was locked up tight. Nick Brodie was gone.
There was no place like Las Vegas, Samantha thought. So many neon lights it hurt your eyesâeven in the afternoon. With the September weather finally cooling the temperature down from the hundreds into the nineties, the streets overflowed with tourists.
Giant electronic billboards flashed the names of the most famous entertainers in the worldâGarth Brooks, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, and half a dozen others. Even some who were no longer among the living, like Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, were immortalized in huge stage productions.
But Samantha Hollis wasn't in Vegas to enjoy herself. After a long day working at the Mandalay Convention Center, she pushed through the heavy glass doors of the hotel at five thirty p.m., heading for her room in one of the shiny gold towers.
Even indoors, the lights and sounds overwhelmed the senses, people at blackjack tables laughing as they raked in their winnings, or groaning at a loss, a group clustered around a crap table shouting for the player to roll a seven.
Samantha kept going, making her way toward the huge bank of elevators. Grateful when one of the doors slid open, she walked inside and pressed the button for the thirtieth floor. Though her day at the convention center had been productive, now she was paying the price. Her feet ached, and the constant clanging of the slot machines had given her a headache.
She'd only been in Las Vegas two days and already the place had lost some of its glitter. Probably because she was there to do a job, not have fun. The Super Pet Zoo was in town, the pet industry's biggest and most popular trade show. Samantha was part owner of The Perfect Pup, a chain of four dog-grooming salons in the San Francisco Bay area.
Her best friend, Abigail Dunstan, the woman who had started the company and owned the biggest portion, was back in San Francisco running the business while Samantha was away. Abby was the person who managed the day-to-day operations, made sure the quality of work remained high in all of the shops, made sure the dogs were properly groomed and the clientele happy.
Samantha was the marketing person. Her Internet savvy had grown the salon Abby had started from a single location to four, all of them extremely successful. It was only logical that Samantha should travel to Vegas, see what was happening in the industry, see what she could do to keep the company growing.
She just wished her friend was there with her. It would definitely have been more fun. But Abby had recently met someoneâMr. Tall-blond-and-handsome, Abby called himâand Samantha had a hunch he was the real reason her friend had insisted on staying behind.
The elevator door pinged. “Thirtieth floor,” said a computerized female voice. Samantha stepped out and headed down the carpeted hall, pausing only long enough to kick off her high heels and work the kinks out of her sore feet. With a sigh of relief, shoes in hand, she continued down the hall to her suite.
Since the convention center was in the hotel and attendees were getting a very low room rate, Samantha had decided to treat herself and stay in one of the sumptuous Mandalay suites. It had a marble bathroom with a big Jacuzzi tub, and she couldn't wait to get there, fill it, climb in and soak her aching feet, among other tired body parts.
She had almost reached her door when she saw a man walking toward her, big and brawny, weaving a little. His suit was wrinkled, his brown hair mussed and falling over a wide forehead. Obviously he was drunk.
She didn't like the leering grin that appeared on his flushed face as he spotted her and staggered in her direction. Samantha opened her purse and began digging frantically for her key card. She was still searching when the man stopped in front of her.
“Hello there, sweetheart. Aren't you a pretty little thing?”
She ignored him, kept on digging, couldn't find the damned card, prayed she hadn't left it in her room.
“Not talking, huh? I'm Howard.” He stuck out a meaty hand she ignored, finally let it drop. “Want me to help you find your key?”
“No, thank you.” For once, she wished her purse wasn't so big.
“Say, why don't we go downstairs and have a drink? There's a lot of great restaurants in the hotel. What do you say I buy you dinner?”
His words were thick and faintly slurred, though Samantha didn't think he was quite as drunk as he had first seemed.
“I have plans.” Like a soak in the marble tub and an early evening. “Please leave me alone.”
Pain-in-the-ass Howard's bushy eyebrows went up. “No reason to take that attitude.” He started crowding her, forcing her back against the door. She wasn't very big and he towered above her.
He moved closer, knocking the shoes out of her hand. “Come on, what do you say?”
“I told you to leave me alone.” Samantha set her palms on his barrel chest and tried to push him away. “If you don't leave, I'm going to call security.” She pushed, didn't budge him. “PleaseâI'm just not interested.”
“Come on, sweetheart, it's only a drink.”
He had her completely boxed in against the door, and though her heart was thrumming away, she was more angry than scared. There were hotel cameras everywhere. In another second, she was going to scream.
She might have done it if Howard hadn't suddenly been jerked away like a jumper on a bungee cord and slammed hard against the wall. In an instant, he was facing the opposite direction, spread-eagled, legs splayed, one of his beefy arms forced up behind his back.
“Time to go home, buddy. The lady has other plans.”
“What fucking business is that of yours?”
The second man, tall and broad-shouldered with wavy black hair, cranked the arm up higher, drawing a hiss of pain. “I told you the lady has other plans.”
“Don't hurt him,” Samantha said. “He's just drunk.”
The most amazing blue eyes she had ever seen swung in her direction. “He a friend of yours?”
“Heavens, no. I was just trying to open the door to my room when he walked up and started accosting me.”
Her rescuer turned back to good ol' Howard, who seemed to have realized the game was up. “Thanks to the lady, I'm letting you go and not calling the hotel police. If you're smart, you'll walk away, go back to your room and sober up.”
Howard stiffened. The arm behind his back got cranked a little higher. Howard hissed and nodded.
“Smart move.” Easing up a little, the black-haired man released the drunk and stepped away. With a last angry glance, Howard moved off at a loping stagger down the hall, heading back the way he had come.
“You okay?” her rescuer asked.
Dear God, he was handsome. With his blue eyes, high cheekbones, and straight nose, he was one of the best-looking men she had ever seen. The shadow of a late-afternoon beard along his jaw gave him a slightly dangerous appearance that only made him more attractive.
She managed to drag her gaze away from those arresting blue eyes and found her voice. “Thanks to you, I'm fine. Are you a policeman or something?”
“Used to be. Nick Brodie. Glad I could help.”
She smiled. “I'm Samantha Hollis. You came just in time. I really appreciate what you did. Most people would have just kept walking.”
“Not where I come from.”
“Really? Where's that?”
“Alaska. Up there, people help each other. Sometimes it's a matter of life and death.” He looked her up and down. “You aren't very big. That bastard was twice your size.”
“As I said, he was mostly just drunk.”
Trying to ignore the nerves she was beginning to feel, she opened the purse slung over her shoulder and started searching again for her key. She could feel those amazing blue eyes regarding her with interest.
“I hope I don't sound like the guy who just left, but is there any chance you might like to join me for a drink?”
Surprise had her gaze flashing back to him. “Seriously? You're here by yourself?” Impossible, she thought, for a man who looked as good as he did.
He shrugged a set of impressive shoulders. He was wearing jeans and a crisp white western shirt with snaps on the front, black shoes, though, not cowboy boots.
“I needed a break,” he said. “Besides, my brother bought me a plane ticket. I didn't have much choice. How about that drink?”
She should probably say no. She wasn't going to give him what he most likely wanted. On the other hand, a guy who looked the way he did wouldn't have much trouble getting laid.
And she did owe him for coming to her rescue.
Samantha looked up at Nick Brodie and smiled. “You know, after my wrestling match with King Kong, a drink really does sound good.”
Nick smiled broadly, all white teeth and sex appeal, and the bottom dropped out of her stomach. Oh, my. Maybe she was making a mistake.
“Sounds good,” Nick said. “Let's go.”
He wasn't sure why he'd asked her to join him. He wasn't really looking for female companionship. Or maybe he was, but hadn't found anyone worth the effort. He'd come to get away, see the city that had always intrigued him, relax, maybe gamble a littleânot too much.
Samantha winced as she shoved her feet back into her high heel shoes, and he remembered seeing them in the hall in front of her door where she had taken them off and dropped them.
He was afraid he'd scare her if he suggested she open the door, go in and get a different pair, but he wanted her to be comfortable.
“I got a hunch those shoes are hurting like hell. Why don't I wait for you by the elevator? Give you time to go in and change?”
The smile she gave him was so full of gratitude, he figured he'd scored another pointâbesides the one he'd gotten for pulling that big bastard off her.
She opened her purse, found the key she'd been searching for, flashed it in front of the lock and opened the door. “Thanks, Nick. I'll be right there.”
He frowned. The lady was way too trusting. He could have pushed her inside and done any damn thing he wanted. He thought she would have learned her lesson with the bruiser who'd been manhandling her.
His frown slowly faded, replaced by another smile. In an odd way, he found her naivetÃ© refreshing. Still, if he got a chance, he'd talk to her, make her understand the need to be careful with strangers. Clearly, his cop instincts hadn't faded, probably never would.
Time ticked past. Standing next to the elevator, he checked his watch. She'd been gone fifteen minutes when he spotted her coming down the hall. She'd changed out of her pale peach linen suit into a short black skirt, pink and black top, and another pair of heels, just as tall but open-toed and apparently more comfortable.
“Thanks for waiting,” she said. “I've been working all day. It feels good to get into something that isn't wrinkled.”
His eyes ran over her. “You look fantastic.” Damned if she didn't. With her heart-shaped face and warm brown eyes, he'd thought she was attractive. Now he could see she was way more than pretty, with a great figure, curves in all the right places, just a hint of cleavage above the neckline of her blouse. She had taken the clips out of her hair, letting the springy, light brown curls that hung down her back tumble softly around her face. He wanted to grab a fistful, see if it felt as silky as it looked.
They got into the elevator, rode it down to the casino. He'd chosen the hotel on the Internet, got a deal on the rates. His suite was a real treat, with a marble bathroom and views out over the city. They headed over to one of the numerous bars, one he'd visited last night that wasn't far from the elevators.
“How about right here?” he suggested. “It's not as noisy as some of the others.”
“Perfect.” She smiled. “And my feet get a chance to rest.”
He smiled back, led her into a quiet corner. Samantha ordered a glass of white wine while he went for a whiskey and Coke. He was mainly a beer drinker, but heyâhe was in Vegas.
The waiter brought the drinks and Nick took a sip, enjoyed the burn and the view across the table. The more he looked at Samantha, the more he liked what he saw: pert, slightly upturned nose, big golden-brown eyes, full pink lips, and smooth skin with just a touch of rose.
He watched her sipping her wine, took another drink of whiskey. “You said you were working. So what do you do?”
Samantha smiled and he felt a little kick. “I'm part owner of a chain of dog-grooming parlors in the San Francisco area. Four so far. The Perfect Pup. I'm the marketing person. I'm here for the Super Pet Zoo, hoping to get some new ideas. We're planning to expand.”
He imagined her trimming a poodle or washing a big St. Bernard and fought not to smile. “A dog-lover and a businesswoman. Nice combination.”
“Actually, it's not what I set out to do in life. When I was a kid I wanted to be a vet, but I ran out of money before I finished college. I took a job with a friend and it morphed into a career. What about you? You said you
a policemanâpast tense. What are you doing now?”
“At the moment, nothing. I was a homicide detective. I got tired of dealing with criminals and murder. I'm figuring out what I want to do.” Which could be anything that didn't involve violence, blood, and death.
She glanced around the bar, at the modern architecture, high ceilings and glass chandeliers, at the red lights illuminating the endless bottles of liquor in the back bar. In the distance, Nick could hear the sounds of the casino, the ringing of slots, the spin of endless wheels.
“Then maybe you came to the right place,” she said. “There's plenty to do here to get your mind off the bad stuff you've been dealing with.”