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Las Vegas Strip by Laura Breck 1 Chapter One "Don't move your lips when you talk," her sister said from under the blanket in the back seat. "They might be watching you." Valerie Kane's grip on the steering wheel tightened as she turned into the dog park's empty lot. Through stiff lips, she answered, "We're here." She pulled into a spot as far from a light as possible, shifted into park and killed the engine. "I'm a little nervous." "Is your hood up?" Monica asked. She looked out the windshield. "Hood?" Her sister heaved a sigh. "On you, not the car." Oh, crap, she needed to focus. She tugged the drawstrings of her hooded sweatshirt. "Yeah, it's up." She looked around to be sure they were still alone, and caught a glimpse of the lights of the Las Vegas strip twinkling blissfully in the distance. A tingle of anxiety ran through her. "Are we doing the right thing?" Her sister reached between the seats and gripped her arm. "We don't have to do this, Val. If you have any doubt, just start the car and let's go." Taking a deep breath, she zipped up her hoodie. "No. We promised. I can do this." She pressed the unlock button on the doors, then glanced back. Monica was well hidden, and was lying on the bag containing their cousin’s blackmail payment. Her sister whispered, "Just go really fast and get back here. Wait, first roll down the windows so I can hear you if you scream." Scream? There was no reason to scream. No one was here. This was just a package pickup. Her sister was being overcautious. She pressed the four window buttons. "Here I go." Opening the door, she jumped out quickly. If they were watching she didn't want the interior light to give away her identity. Tonight she was a body double for their cousin, an Academy Award winning actress. The blackmailers specified they wanted the actress to make the pick-up and delivery, but Valerie and her older sister, Monica, let their cousin talk them into doing it. Would the blackmailers be fooled? She and her cousin did look similar, long, straight black hair and light skin, although she was twenty years younger than the actress. She jogged across the grass, her shaky legs slowing her. The park measured a half-mile square, and though the sun was down, the temperature had to be in the eighties. Dressed in layers to look heavier, her body heated quickly. At regular intervals she slowed and scanned the area. She saw no one and her jitters eased. Then a surge of adrenaline pumped through her. She was doing something risky, finally, in her too-safe, over-protected life. And it felt as invigorating as a ride on a roller coaster. It took a few minutes to reach the middle of the park where a water fountain stood next to a couple trees. She stopped a yard short and looked around, hearing only crickets chirruping and her heart whumping. She walked up to the fountain and squatted, reaching under the lower bowl set at dog's height. She felt it, a package taped to the bottom, and tore it loose. It was heavy. How much cash was in it? Above her, branches rustled and a large bulk dropped from the tree three feet Las Vegas Strip by Laura Breck 2 from her. A man, all in black, a foot taller than her and at least a hundred fifty pounds heavier grabbed her arm, looming over her. She screamed, an instinctive shriek of primal fear. He shook her. "Shut up." He looked at the homes surrounding the park. "Someone will call the police." She heaved in a huge breath to scream again, and heard Monica yelling as she ran toward them. "I've called the cops! And I've got a tazer!" A dose of reassurance steadied her. "Let me go." She yanked her arm, but he held tight. The man looked from her sister to her, then back again. "Shit." He grabbed the package from her and shoved it in his pocket, then pulled her hood off her head. He jerked her around so her face was in the moonlight. "Who are you? Why are you doing this?" Okay, he knew she wasn't the actress, but it didn't take a huge I.Q. to figure out what she was doing. "You told us to pick up that envelope," she pointed a shaking finger toward his pocket, "and deliver it with our blackmail money." Her voice sounded weak. "I told you?" He kept an eye on Monica's approach. "I'm not the…" He shook his head. "Okay, just tell me where you're delivering the money." “What?" Through her panic, she recognized his accent. Italian. She studied his face, well defined features, shoulder length black hair sticking out of his cap. She should be able to pick him out of a lineup. He shook her slightly. "I asked you where. Where are you dropping off the money?" "You should know. You wrote the instructions.” "Don't act innocent. I'm not the blackmailer." He put his hand into his pocket. "You are." She stared at his pocket, expecting to see a gun. "No, I'm not." Her voice went squeaky. "I've got a bag with money in it too." She pointed stupidly to the car. "To be delivered--as instructed--with the money you just took from me." He pulled out a camera, held it close to her face and snapped. The flash blinded her. She heard Monica's footsteps running toward them. "Let go of her!” She sounded breathless. A siren whirred a few blocks away. He leaned close to her face. “This isn’t over, princess. I'll find you.” He ran off at a ninety-degree angle to her sister's path. Monica reached the fountain and collapsed on the ground. "You okay Val?" "Yes." She rubbed her arm where he gripped her. "Crap, he's going to the car." Monica sat up and they watched him run, unable to do anything to stop him. His camera's flash went off three times as he took pictures of the license plate and the interior of the car. Then he ran out of the lot and vaulted over a brick wall into the neighborhood. Monica collapsed again. "I thought he was going to steal the car." "He should have. The money's in there…" Now his actions really confused her. The siren grew louder. "Come on, let's go before the cops get here." Las Vegas Strip by Laura Breck 3 Her sister waved her hand in the air. "No hurry. I reported shots fired," she pointed to the homes behind them, "in Desert Highlands." Valerie's knees weakened as the adrenaline left her body. She knelt next to Monica. "Good thinking. But can they trace the call?" Monica held up her cell phone. "When our cousin talked us into this caper, I bought a disposable." "You're so smart." Valerie reached for it. "We should shut it off so the police can't track us here." She looked worried. "Can they do that?" Valerie made a helpless gesture. "How should I know? I'm a psychologist, not a CIA operative." The police car drove by the park and pulled into the housing development. "Come on, let's go. Blackmailer might come back if he realizes the cops aren't here." "Damn." Monica got up slowly. "Didn't think of that." They jogged back to the car and drove as fast as she dared out of the lot. Valerie headed downtown. "That was a strange conversation. He said he's not the blackmailer." "Then what was he doing there?" "I don't know. Read the letter again." Her sister took the photocopy from her pocket. "An hour after sunset tonight. The dog park in Henderson. Get the envelope of cash from the low fountain in the middle of the park. Drop it and your money downtown in the newspaper box outside the pawn shop by the Golden Nugget. Wear gray sweats, hood up, and drive a black Corolla." "So," Valerie pressed fingers to her throbbing temple. "Why would he ambush me here?" "Maybe he planned to kidnap our über-famous cousin." "He had to know she wouldn't come alone, no matter what the letter instructed." Monica crossed her arms. "Yeah, well the letter also said it was only a pickup, no contact with the blackmailers. We just risked our lives." "I know. We were pretty stupid to agree to this." Monica groaned. "Betina should have hired a private detective, made them up to look like her." She shrugged. "I didn't think it would be dangerous." She held up her hand and it shook like a jackhammer. "I've never done anything like this before in my life." Her sister laughed humorlessly. "Oh, I know you haven't. Jeez, in school you wouldn't even stay up past lights-out. Now, all of a sudden, you're the new 007?" After a minute, Monica asked, "Did you tell Troy what you were doing tonight?" "No." She rolled he eyes. "He would have tried to talk me out of it, or insisted on coming along." "He would have been better protection than I was." "Yeah, and when the blackmailer recognized him, he'd be involved in this mess too. Everyone knows Troy's face. He has a Super Bowl ring, for God's sake." "I bet he could have tackled the blackmailer, or thrown a rock or something and knocked him out." She looked at her sister and they both grinned. "Great visual, Mon, but he and I Las Vegas Strip by Laura Breck 4 haven't been dating long enough for me to spring something this bizarre on him." Troy's adorable smile popped into her mind. Last night, she'd straightened his soft, blonde hair with her fingertips. He'd kissed her and tried to rub her breast--too soon--and she'd pushed him away with a smile. Monica said, "This was bizarre. I haven't done anything this risky since high school." A shiver of fear coursed through Valerie. "I thought for sure we'd be safe. There was no one around. And I'm a fast enough runner that if anyone came after me, I could outrun them." She smacked her hand on the steering wheel. "I didn't even think of looking up in the trees." "Don't blame yourself. I didn't see him either." "But he saw me. He took my picture. If he goes to the police--" "Uh-uh. The way he ran when he heard the siren? No way." "What if he recognizes me? Reports me? I could lose my license." "Ooohhh." Monica made it sound mournful. "What?" "Your photo was in the paper last week with Troy." Valerie let out a squeak. "Hopefully Blackmailer's not the kind of guy who keeps the society pages sitting around." "He didn't look like it. Mmmm, did you see the body on that guy? I thought your quarterback was built, but that man was buff." She stared straight ahead. "I didn't notice." Her sister looked at her sideways. "I don't believe that for a minute." Yes, she'd noticed as he ran through the park, but when he'd veered toward their car, all thoughts of his perfect anatomy disappeared. "Anyway," she changed the subject, "he took the envelope of money that I was supposed to pick up." "Just leave a note in the bag with Betina's money." "Oh, sure. Dear Mr. Blackmailer, the funniest thing happened to the package you told me to pick up. A big guy jumped out of a tree…" But wasn't he the blackmailer? This was all so baffling. She turned off the freeway into downtown. Monica crossed her arms. "Okay, smart ass. What's your suggestion?" She couldn't think of a better idea. "Go ahead and write a note, but make it sound apologetic. I don't want to screw this up." Valerie pulled up to the curb, Monica finished the note and jumped out, opened the newspaper box with three quarters, stuffed the bag in, and they drove off. She headed to the rental return on Decatur and dropped off the car her cousin rented under another name. They took a cab to the Wynn casino, changed in the ladies room, and went out a back door to their cars. Valerie stopped and grabbed her sister’s arm. "Mon, I'm so glad you were with me tonight. I would have been a wreck without you." "You were really brave, Val. I just hope it's over…for good." She held up her hands in surrender. "I do too. I want to get back to being quiet, unassuming Dr. Kane." Monica got into her truck. "You're dull, boring and predictable, little sister, but I like you that way. It's safer for both of us." Valerie smiled as her sister pull out of the lot. Then she got into her dull, boring Las Vegas Strip by Laura Breck 5 and predictable SUV, locked the doors and headed west toward home. In her rearview mirror, the lights of the strip that usually calmed her, made her stomach flip. Somewhere out there, Blackmailer was staring at her picture and searching for her identity. His voice repeated over and over in her mind, “I’ll find you.” *** A week later Valerie hefted her laptop case from her SUV and walked across the parking lot outside The Omelet House--a quaint, no-frills old-Vegas icon--to attend a breakfast meeting with the city's taskforce for the homeless. She'd agreed to sit on the committee as an advocate for the runaways at the teen shelter where she volunteered. "I'm here for the mayor's committee," she smiled at the hostess, who pointed to a round table in the corner where the other six members sat. As she took her seat, the mayor asked, "What's it going to be today, Valerie?" Their running joke was that they had a mission; to try each of the omelets on the menu, and there were forty of them. She scanned the menu. "The Green Hornet." The mayor read from his, "Avocado and shrimp. Sounds good to me too." After they ordered, the waitress set a plate of warm pumpkin bread in front of each of them. Valerie inhaled the homey smell, her mouth watering. She took a bite as the mayor stood and called to someone walking past. "Antonio! Where've you been hiding?" She looked up, still chewing. It was him, Blackmailer! One hand on the elbow of a beautiful young woman, the other holding a leather jacket over his shoulder. Valerie almost choked. Oh, God. This could turn ugly. And in front of the committee--her reputation was in jeopardy. She should grab her bag and leave, but she was boxed into a corner. A ripple of panic gripped her chest. The mayor told the committee, "Antonio relocated here from Italy--what was it-- four years ago?" "Actually, five." He grinned. "I've survived five long years in Las Vegas." "It's a tough city for someone with so many vices." The mayor smiled at the committee members and lifted his eyebrows. Antonio said, "I've added a few to my repertoire since I met you, Oscar." That got a loud laugh from the mayor and a few people at the table. But Valerie just stared, her heart skittering wildly. Was blackmail one of his vices? His gaze flickered over her, then shot back to her face. Recognition sparked in his eyes. A slow, decadent smile lifted the corners of his mouth as he stared intently. She held her breath. This was how it felt to be a deer in the headlights. Then he looked away and ignored her. She swallowed her pumpkin bread and started breathing again. Eyeing his biceps and pecs in the black Harley t-shirt, she let her gaze slide down his perfect body, down his long legs in black jeans. Then back up to the compelling features of his face. Long hair that brushed his shoulders, an aquiline nose, but his lips kept her attention. Cruelly sensual. Forcing herself to stop staring, she appraised his date. Tall, blonde, leggy and gorgeous. Showgirl? Antonio smiled at the girl. “Sherry, have you met our mayor?" Las Vegas Strip by Laura Breck 6 Valerie bit her lip. What a smile. If he’d smiled at her that way in the dog park, she would have told him everything. Sherry pumped the mayor's hand. "Mayor, sir, I work at the MGM and we all, all of us in the dance line, just love you. We all vote for you every time." "Thank you, dear. You are absolutely one of the loveliest girls I've ever met." She batted her eyes and purred, "Thank you." "And," the mayor continued dramatically, "one of the front-line staff who makes our wonderful city of Las Vegas the greatest city in the USA." "You are too kind, Mayor." "Please," he patted her arm, "call me Oscar." The mayor began introductions. "Valerie Kane, Psychologist to the Stars,” he alluded to her clientele of famous performers. "This is Sherry…" The mayor looked at Antonio, who smiled at the showgirl. Jeez, he didn't even know his date's last name? "Sherry McAvoy," she said. Valerie stood and reached across the table to shake the girl's hand. "Good to meet you." The mayor continued, "This is Antonio Daniato, AKA Grey Thornton, whose newest novel has been on the New York Times best-seller list for a month now." Valerie immediately recognized his penname. "We’ve met before, unofficially. So, you're Grey Thornton.” She held out her hand. He squeezed a little too hard and his eyes narrowed. Was it a warning? She nodded slightly and pulled her hand from his. She wouldn’t expose him if he kept her secret. He looked as relieved as she felt. She didn't want to make a scene in front of the mayor. "Good to see you, Ms. Kane." The mayor piped up, "Dr. Kane. Best psychologist in Las Vegas, in my wife's opinion." Everyone laughed at the mayor's stab at humor, but Valerie barely heard the joke. Amazing. Grey Thornton. She lowered herself into her chair and watched as the mayor introduced Sherry and Antonio around the table. She'd read a few Grey Thornton novels. Their graphic, violent nature, the erotic sex-without-love scenes and unhappy endings didn't make her a fan. Why would a writer, a popular writer, need to blackmail her cousin? It couldn’t be for the money, could it? Maybe they’d been involved romantically, and he wanted revenge. She’d ask her as soon as she could make a call. The mayor jokingly invited Antonio to join their meeting. "Subjects that might interest you, Daniato." He looked at Valerie. "What is your agenda item today, Doctor?" She cleared her throat. "We're discussing how runaway teens are affected by legal prostitution and nude dance clubs." The mayor said, "Valerie's our expert." "Really?" Antonio looked at her, his face radiating anger. "She doesn't look young enough to be a runaway. In which area does your experience lay, Doctor?" Her eyes popped wide open and her face heated instantly. Did he just ask her if Las Vegas Strip by Laura Breck 7 she was a prostitute or a nude dancer? What happened to their unspoken truce? What did she say to make him angry? Everyone at the table looked at her then looked at Antonio. The silence was deafening. Then the mayor cleared his throat. Oh, crap. She needed to diffuse the situation quickly. She forced a laugh, "I realize you're teasing, Mr. Daniato, but you’d better watch your step. In this town you never know who has Mafia connections...oh," she smiled at the mayor. "Sorry Oscar." The group laughed, but Sherry looked confused, and the mayor leaned closer to her. "In my wasted youth, I worked as an attorney for...businessmen who were rumored to have connections to the Mafia." One of the committee members added, "Rumored, but never proven in court." Oscar shrugged, grinning slyly. "No comment." Valerie's forced smile slipped as she looked into Antonio's eyes. She couldn't read the meaning in his intense stare, but she couldn't look away--and neither did he. His date broke the spell by sliding her hand into his and rubbing the side of her breast on his arm. "We should get going, Antonio." He shook the mayor's hand and nodded to the committee in general. With one last glance at Valerie, he escorted Sherry from the restaurant. She watched them leave, feeling the aftermath of his gaze. He was angry. He knew her name. And he was obviously volatile. Damn, this wasn't turning out to be a very good day. She blinked and brought herself back to what the mayor was saying. "That was interesting," he commented to no one in particular. She shrugged and said the first thing that came to her mind. "He and I had a…an animated discussion recently. He must still be a little worked up." "You're quite the diplomat, Dr. Val," the mayor winked. She smiled. Oscar had been a family friend since she was a child. He was a kind, gracious man and she liked him more every time they spoke. She couldn’t say the same for Antonio Daniato. He was an ass. And the ass was sitting on the back bumper of her SUV when she left the restaurant a half hour later.
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