Authors: Colleen Collins - Hearts in Vegas (Harlequin Superromance)
She raised her martini to him in a quiet salute.
“Know the kind of car they’re giving away?” Drake asked.
Braxton shook his head no. “Haven’t heard.”
The world shrank to a distant memory.
As a kid, Braxton had a poster of that Shelby on his wall. That slick red ’Stang was the last thing he saw before falling asleep and the first thing he saw when he woke up.
He’d named his hamster Shelby.
Practiced drawing the Shelby, over and over, with red felt pen, putting his best sketch on homemade Christmas cards.
Begged his parents to let him change his name to...
“Did’ya hear me, Brax?” Drake asked.
“That’s no car,” Braxton murmured. “It’s a road-eating monster.”
Drake laughed. “So you still want one of those, eh?”
“Want? Bro, I
What does a guy have to do to win this thing? Because now that I know it’s the giveaway prize, I’m ready to lose every ounce of dignity I’ve ever had and win that baby.”
“Be like one of those strippers you used to manage at that club,” Val offered. “As naked as the law allows and flashing moves that’ll make those ladies hotter than a bunch of June brides.”
He thought about those strippers at Topaz who’d lie on their backs and scissor-kick their legs in the air, or hang upside down on poles by the sheer strength of their thighs, doing contortions that were probably illegal in most states.
He, on the other hand, could barely keep time doing a two-step.
“I’ll, uh, need to work on my moves.” He looked at Grams. “How naked are guys getting?”
“You can’t show your...” Searching for an appropriate word, she looked at Richmond.
“Hampton,” he suggested.
She frowned. “Who calls it that?”
“It’s a euphemism that originated in London, migrating to the states in the early twentieth century, I believe.”
“Eighty-six years old,” she muttered, “and I’m
learning new things.” She looked back at Braxton. “You can’t show your Hampton, dear.”
“I have a G-string,” Li’l Bit offered out of the blue.
Followed by a moment of stunned silence that lasted longer than the one after his
“No, thanks,” Braxton said.
“No, dude, I’m not offering it to
I’m thinking of entering this gig myself. Helping people get wheelchairs, man, that’s copacetic. Already got a car, so don’t care if I win that Shelby. It’s just...ever since Xela—” he swallowed hard “—broke up with me, I haven’t had a date. It’d be nice to meet someone....”
He carefully folded a piece of pizza like a sandwich and wolfed down a bite.
Braxton had heard about Xela, a massage therapist Li’l Bit had met five or six years ago while attending law school in Brooklyn. When she left for Las Vegas, he ditched his plan to be a lawyer and followed her, only to be dumped when Xela ran away with a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. Although Li’l Bit was heartbroken, his process service business, Boss Services Inc., had started to thrive, plus he’d grown attached to the senior dogs at the Canine Retirement Ranch project where he volunteered, so he had decided to stay in Vegas.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea that you enter the auction,” Grams said. “With so many single ladies, there might be someone special who can help you forget Xela.”
Li’l Bit chewed, nodding sadly.
“It’s an opportunity for you, too, bro, to meet some new ladies,” Drake said, “and get your mind off that blonde.”
“What blonde?” his mom asked.
“Some Lauren Bacall type came into the office,” Val explained, “and shook up Brax somethin’ awful.”
Still shook him up, too. More than that Shelby ever could.
He’d spent the past few days trying to find out her real name. Had read through Dmitri’s background report several times, searching for any mention of an American woman in her late twenties who worked for one of his organizations, but found nothing.
On his way over in the taxi, tired of playing phone tag with Dmitri, he’d texted him, suggested they meet tomorrow, Monday, just name when and where. Wherever Dmitri was, she had to be; after all, they were associates.
He tugged his phone from his jacket pocket, checked if the Russian had responded yet. No.
Putting the phone away, he heard Li’l Bit asking, “Think I can get into Manwich shape by Friday? Not
Manwich, man, just Manwich enough.”
“You’d need to cool it with the pizza, for starters,” Drake answered, “as well as the popcorn and beer and...”
“Dude,” he said, pushing away his plate, “I’m on it.”
This had to be a joke. But no one was laughing. Not even smiling.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for,” Li’l Bit continued, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, “an opportunity to get righteous. Good news is I already have some killer dance moves. Just need to get into shape, man. Maybe I’ll take up walking.”
“Or,” Grams said, “maybe Drake will let you use his discount at the Bally’s gym this week. Braxton can work out with you, show you how to use the equipment.”
What? How’d he become the sacrificial personal trainer? Oh, yeah, just how he wanted to spend his free time, getting Ganja Joe into shape.
“Discounts are for family members only,” he said. “No substitutions.”
Grams looked disappointed. “What a shame. Especially since Li’l Bit is just like a member of our family.”
Just like a member of our family
. Had she really said that?
“He sure is,” Val chimed in. “I’ll never forget how he gave Drake and his sweet dog a place to stay after his house burned down.”
Et tu, Val?
“Tell you what,” Drake said, all serious and helpful, “I’ll call Pete—he manages the fitness center at Bally’s—ask if he’ll do us a favor. Tell him I’d like to give Li’l Bit my discount this next week...how we’re trying to help him get into shape for Gram’s fund-raiser. Pete’s a great guy. I bet he’ll turn his head on that family rule.”
Li’l Bit looked as though someone just told him Xela had dumped the acrobat and was asking if Li’l Bit was still single. “You’d do that for me, man? Give up your gym pass for a week?”
“Yeah,” Drake said, holding up his hand, “I’d do that for you.”
As they slapped high fives, Braxton downed the rest of his wine. He’d finally gotten his head on straight about this auction, and now this. Since when did helping others also mean helping a chubby stoner get into shape? As if that was even possible in five days.
He looked around, wondering why every single person at the table was looking back. “What?”
“Li’l Bit just offered to teach you some dance moves,” Grams said.
“Winner’s gotta know how to shake it, bro,” Drake said, “and if you want a chance at that Shelby...”
Had everyone at the table dropped acid? Because they had to be hallucinating if they thought
“Look,” he said, “no way I’m—”
A squeal drowned out the rest of his words.
“The baby’s kicking again!” Val took Drake’s hand and put it on her tummy. “Feel that, honey? He’s gonna be a punter for the Saints!”
Everyone shifted focus to Val, who was excitedly gushing about every sensation.
“Been so bloated lately,” she said, picking up her glass of ice water and holding it to her flushed cheek, “sometimes I’m not sure if it’s gas or kicks.”
Li’l Bit began asking rapid-fire questions about what it was like to be pregnant, making Braxton wonder if the weed was wearing off, with Val answering in way more graphic detail than Braxton had ever wanted to know. Worse, his mother was offering tidbits about
experience when she’d been pregnant thirty-four years ago.
While that TMI Q&A session charged on, Grams started singing “One for My Baby,” which inspired Richmond, Mister Reserved, to shed his introverted ways and join in. Which wouldn’t have been bad except he sang about as well as Braxton danced.
Meanwhile Drake, his hand on his wife’s belly, was describing the latest kick to total strangers at the next table. Surprisingly, they seemed interested.
Braxton looked around, wondering when the pod people had taken over his family. Li’l Bit, well...they’d taken him over a long time ago.
As though picking up on Braxton’s thoughts, Li’l Bit looked at him, fresh tears welling in his eyes, and got up from his seat.
“Brax, man, you’re like a brother to me,” he said, heading around to Braxton’s chair, opening wide his arms. “Helping me out like this ’n all.”
“Don’t you have more childbirth questions to ask Val?” he mumbled.
Stopping at Braxton’s chair, Li’l Bit leaned over and smothered him in a hug. “I love you, my brother.”
His face pressed against the words
Life Goes On, Man,
breathing in a funk-cloud of marijuana, Mai Tai and pizza sauce, Braxton knew he’d been beaten.
By his own family.
Braxton was making scrambled eggs and toast when his mom shuffled into the kitchen, wearing the fluffy white robe embroidered with a large pink
on the front that he and Grams had given for her last birthday.
“That dog barked half the night,” she muttered, staring blearily at the cuckoo clock, except it had a chicken instead, that clucked once every hour, but it hadn’t clucked in years. “Nine-thirty. You’re usually long gone by now.”
“Got a meeting at eleven...going into the agency after that.” He whisked some eggs in a stainless-steel bowl. “Want breakfast?”
“You know me,” she said, ambling toward the coffeepot. “Go for the gold.”
She’d always told her sons that breakfast was gold, lunch was silver and dinner was lead. Which meant they needed to eat a hearty breakfast to kick off the day, a nutritious lunch, but don’t stuff yourself at dinner because it’ll go onto your gut. He was pretty good with the first two, not so good with the last. At least he worked out regularly.
After yesterday’s brunch, those words were like lead, too. Li’l Bit had already texted him
about exercising together. Same message—
—which Braxton assumed meant five-thirty today, but who knew what mysteries lurked in that stoner’s brain.
He’d respond later. Hopefully, he’d be in a better mood about being railroaded into this personal-trainer gig.
“Didn’t know we had chives on hand,” his mom said, pouring herself a cup of coffee, “or sourdough bread.”
“Got up early and went to the store.” He retrieved a carton of milk from the fridge and set it on the small table. The kitchen was long, but so narrow that everything was within a few steps.
“Eggs, toast and strong coffee.” His mom smiled. “Benny’s breakfast special.”
thing he ever cooked for breakfast.”
“That’s what made it special.”
They shared a laugh.
When Braxton had lived life in the fast lane, he’d loved the heady excitement, the constant rush of color, sounds and people.
Now he realized how much he’d missed back then. Now he valued taking it slower, sometimes wishing the people he loved would stay put and never change. To always be like they were in the photos here, frozen forever in sunlight, always smiling.
“Nice to have breakfast with someone,” his mom said, forks and knifes clinking as she retrieved them from a drawer. “With your grandmother spending every night at Richmond’s, I’m on my own in the mornings. Felt odd at first...waking up to an empty house....”
“At least Grams and Richmond will be living on the same block. You can always walk down there, join them for a cup of coffee.”
“Yes,” she said brightly, heading to the table, “I can certainly do that. And they’ll be dropping by to borrow my car off and on because Richmond’s beloved BMW is acting up again. Anyway, tell me about this eleven-o’clock meeting—is it with that fellow who’s offering you a job?”
“Dmitri. Goes by Dima.”
“Dima,” she repeated, arranging the silverware on the table. “Almost sounds like
“He comes across like a heavenly messenger in that due-diligence report. Worse thing he’s done is get a speeding ticket two years ago.”
She sat down and poured milk into her coffee. “Val told me this blonde works for Dima.”
“Drake says she’s not the sole reason you’re interested in the job, though.”
“You don’t know her name?”
“Or anything else about her?”
Whisking the eggs, he slid her a look. “Are you worried that she works in security or private investigations?”
Her lips tightened. “Well, she did drop off that background report. Your father, your brother, your sister-in-law, even
have prepared such reports, and all of you work in investigations and security.”
His mom had never approved of her husband’s profession in security, always feared he’d get hurt on the job, but Benedict Morgan, a former Chicago cop, had loved his job at Bally’s. Liked helping people, liked nailing the bad guys, liked making the world a safer, better place in his own small way.
Dorothy did, however, share her husband’s idealism. When they’d met in the mid-seventies, she was considering going to law school to be a human-rights lawyer—the last thing she expected was to meet a rough-around-the-edges cop who asked her to marry him on their first date. Yet they fell madly in love, two people who shared a passion for justice, even if they quibbled over the details. When the twins came, Dorothy Morgan discovered a career far more rewarding than any she had imagined—being a mom.
“I don’t know her job title,” Braxton said, “but I didn’t see the bulge of a gun under her jacket, so who knows...maybe she’s a lawyer.”
She made an approving noise. “Lawyer. Respectable profession. Good income. Wonder what her last name is....”
“Oh, just thinking how Val likes to combine her and Drake’s last names. Morgan-LeRoy. Has a ring to it.”
“Whoa, hold on.” He turned off the burner, stuck two pieces of sourdough bread into the toaster. “I just met her, and you’re hyphenating our names?” He crossed to the fridge. “Strawberry jam or blueberry?”
He grabbed it, set it on the table.
“It’s just...from things your brother and others have said, you’re so smitten. Don’t know if I’ve ever seen you like this over a girl.”
“Smitten is a world away from hyphenating my last name, Mom.”
He turned away, busying himself with distributing the scrambled eggs onto two plates. Nice—his brother and other family members were yammering behind his back about being smitten, but since when did that mean a guy was ready to say “I do”?
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something,” his mom said.
“Yeah?” He looked over his shoulder.
“Just because your grandmother’s moving out—” she absently played with the collar on her robe “—doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, too. I’ll be fine.”
That hitch in her tone didn’t sound fine, though.
Then it hit him.
Felt odd at first...waking up to an empty house
In the thirty-five years she’d lived in this house, she had never been alone. Not for more than a night, anyway. Had to be scary, facing a life of solitude at sixty-six years old. This was probably what she had confided to Li’l Bit in an unguarded moment. She’d no doubt regretted telling him the instant the words slipped from her mouth, so she insisted he keep it a secret.
Braxton knew why. Dorothy Morgan didn’t like to let down her guard, because she didn’t want people to catch a glimpse of her worries and hurts. If he’d learned anything from his past, it was that when you finally let down your guard and admitted your flaws and mistakes, people would stand by you. Those that didn’t, eff ’em. You didn’t want them in your life anyway.
He wished he could magically plant that philosophy in her heart and brain.
After cornering the eggs with toast, he served their plates and sat down opposite her. “Be present at our table, Lord,” he said quietly.
As they ate in silence for a few moments, he mulled over how to ease her concerns. She had so much pride—
prides herself on her pride,
his dad used to say—so Braxton wanted to say this right, because God forbid anyone ever treated Dorothy Morgan like a pity case.
“Ordered something a few days ago,” he said casually.
Actually, he hadn’t ordered it yet, but he’d been thinking about it.
“A five-foot outdoor Scrabble board.” He took a sip of coffee, watching her over the rim of the cup.
She blinked. Several times. “
“Actually, it’s a five-by-five square.”
“Why? So it can be seen from outer space?”
He laughed. “It’s made of concrete squares. Doubles as a patio floor. Figured I’d put it near the grill so when you throw your springtime barbecue parties, everyone can play outdoor Scrabble, too.”
She nodded approvingly. “Inventive.”
“Be a while before it’s ready, though. Need to build a wooden frame, pour the concrete, score it into squares....”
going to do this.”
“But...you don’t like building things.”
More like he sucked at it big-time, but trust a mother to cast it in a kinder light. “Maybe I want to make up for that D-minus I got in wood shop.”
“Oh, my,” she said, glancing at the kitchen clock, “I remember when your father found those report cards....”
As a freshman in high school, Braxton had tried to make a canoe paddle in wood shop. Several mangled pieces of wood later, he’d finally created one. While showing off for some girl, he’d wielded it like a sword and accidentally hit it against a wall, breaking off its shaft. Semester projects were due, so he sanded down the blade and called it a breadboard.
In the same class, Drake had created a cherrywood bumper pool table that placed first at the state competition.
When semester report cards arrived, Braxton, ashamed he’d received a D-minus in wood shop, especially as Drake, The Wood Shop King, got an A-plus, hid both cards in the back of the kitchen cuckoo clock. Not a well-thought-out plan, as within hours, the chicken stopped clucking.
Which led to his dad taking off the back of the clock and finding the crumpled report cards. One look at the grades, and Benny Morgan figured out the reason for the clock-stuffing. He didn’t get mad, just told Braxton that if he ever felt embarrassed for not being as skilled as somebody else, he needed to focus on his own accomplishments.
Maybe your brother is a talented carpenter,
his dad had said,
but you can cook circles around him.
His mom spread some jam on her toast. “I still have that breadboard, you know.”
“I know.” He’d seen it on her dresser, polished and on display as if it were some kind of art piece.
“Back to this supersize Scrabble board. How long will it take to make it?”
“I have to build the wooden frame—yeah, I know, but if I can build a canoe-paddle-breadboard, I can build a square frame—pour the concrete, score it, other stuff.” He wrapped up quickly. “I dunno...a few months?”
She thought about it for a moment. “However long it takes, just tell me what needs to be done. I used to help your dad on his house projects, you know.”
“This cement,” he continued, glossing over her offer, “needs to be checked often, like all the time, something about it drying just right because if it doesn’t...” He grimaced at the horrific results, although he didn’t have a clue what would really happen. “It’d be a hassle to drive back and forth all the time...cost of gas and all.... Makes more sense if I stay put until the Scrabble board is done. Think you can put up with me for a couple more months?”
He sprinkled some salt on his food, priding himself on how casually he’d tossed off that line, as if it were an afterthought. Damn, he was good.
When he looked up, he saw something he hadn’t realized had been missing—a light in his mom’s eyes.
“Well,” she said, sitting taller, “I suppose I can put up with you for a while longer.” She speared a bite of scrambled eggs. “These are excellent, by the way. You’re quite the chef.”
He wished he had a camera so he could capture this moment of her happiness, frozen forever, always smiling.
* * *
Monday morning, Frances parked her leased Benz outside a warehouse on West Sunset Road. This industrial park reminded her of the setting in some doomsday flick with its rows of mostly deserted concrete-block buildings, broken asphalt roads and barren desert. Okay to visit during the day as a few companies still maintained offices here, but only a fool would visit here at night when it turned into a dark no-man’s-land.
The gray clouds looked ominous, although she questioned the forecast of snow.
Not sure what to expect on her “first day on the job,” she’d dressed for comfort in slouch pants, a long-sleeved thermal shirt, beige quilted jacket and running shoes. She’d left her hair loose, which she realized was going to be a mistake, as the wind was going to whip it into a froth.
Grabbing her shoulder bag, she exited the car. Ducking against a blast of cold air, she told herself her shivers were from the chilly temperatures, not preshow nerves. But who was she kidding? She was scared.
She steeled herself with some mental attagirls.
Of all the undercover jobs you’ve worked, you know this one—being a jewel thief—inside out.
These Russians found you, so there’s nothing suspicious about your involvement.
You’re not going into this alone
Last night over the phone, Charlie told her he was working on renting one of the empty offices in this warehouse. He hoped to give it some bogus business name and staff it with two Vanderbilt investigators who’d be there every day, Monday through Friday. If she ever needed help, all she had to do was hit 7 on her phone keypad, a speed dial to their phones, which also automatically generated a text message with her location in case she couldn’t talk.
A few minutes later, she shoved open the heavy glass door and entered the warehouse.
Inside was a wide hallway with doors on either side. No central heating for the cavernous building, only in the offices, so this corridor was on the chilly side. She paused, pulled a brush from her bag and attempted to tame her hair. Her hair won.
As Frances headed down the hallway, her running shoes squeaked against the linoleum tiles. She recalled the names on a few of the doors from her last visit—Quick-Silver Courier Service, Kings Natural Products, Bergstrom Exports.
Toward the end of the hallway was the door labeled 1F, the Russian’s leased offices. Taped on the door was a computer-printed sign she hadn’t seen last Thursday when she’d picked up the envelope for Braxton.