No doubt about it—Cosmo Fortune was a royal pain in the ass.
Mickey stepped back into the anonymity of the stage’s curtained shadows, aware that alerting the wily old coot to his presence would be a mistake. Instead, he rifled his jacket pocket for the familiar shape of the pain reliever bottle. Withdrawing two oval tablets, he popped them in his mouth and swallowed without water. With luck, they’d cut off the headache before it turned horrific.
Stress seemed to induce the blinding pain, and today had been nothing but stressful. Cosmo had failed to deliver the goods. Worse, that two-bit magician had lied to him, and Mickey was damned if he’d cover Cosmo’s ass anymore in this mess. The old guy was a bad liability, and Mickey wasn’t buying any more of his stories. He needed answers—and he needed them tonight—or someone was going to get hurt.
Yeah, like King Kong gnawing on his skull wasn’t enough.
His fingers drummed against his thighs as he waited for his quarry to finish his performance. Cosmo tried to make you think his brain power had receded like his hairline, mumbled his way out of messes with his folksy charm, and all the while he juggled his numerous little dealings with the same precise arcs as those flaming torches he now wielded onstage.
Well, this was bound to be Cosmo Fortune’s last show for a while. Quite a while.
The magician’s deft fingers conjured a dove from within the folds of his black cape. Capes had gone out with Liberace, Elvis, Houdini, for God’s sake. Amid sparse applause, the dove fluttered upward until it disappeared in the bright stage lights.
Careful, bird. Don’t be giving your boss any ideas.
Mickey glanced at his watch. Time was quickly becoming his enemy. Well, at least enemies were more predictable than friends in this game. He’d tried to befriend Cosmo, and look how that had turned out. Dangerous to have friends when you played every hand against the other.
He’d been doing that ever since he arrived in Vegas. His lifestyle didn’t allow for friendships. Not anymore.
Beyond the footlights, the half-filled auditorium resounded with sketchy applause and a few hoots as Cosmo Fortune took a bow. His assistant, scantily clad in a blue satin tutu, hauled a white rabbit roughly the size of a cocker spaniel off the draped table, handed the animal to Cosmo and all three took another bow. Finally, the curtain dropped.
Mickey marched forward to take the trickster’s pudgy arm. A strong smell of Axe aftershave wafted up from the magician and made Mickey’s headache bare its teeth again. He blinked against the flash of pain, imprinting the image of Cosmo’s mad-doctor hair and silver goatee, which always made the guy look like a cross between an aging Wolfman and a munchkin.
Cosmo’s impish golden eyes lit in recognition. “Mickey, my boy! Here, take Edgar—”
“Keep that damned carnivore away from me.”
Cosmo blinked. “It was an accident he bit you that time.”
“Like I’m going to believe anything you say,” Mickey said under his breath as the assistant came to lift the rabbit against her globe-shaped breasts. “We need to talk, old man.”
“Sure, sure.” Cosmo tried to pull away, but Mickey knew better than to loosen his grip. With a shrug, his captive relaxed and grinned as if this were all an elaborate game. “Let’s go see Iris. We’ll break her loose from that fancy party she’s attending. I tell you, you’re just the man for her.”
“I’ve met Iris and she ignored me.” Damn his matchmaking eyes. “Let’s go.”
“Oh, I can’t go without Edgar.”
Mickey gritted his teeth. The old guy could slide off a topic faster than a drunk off a barstool. Maybe a little psychology was in order. “You know, perhaps I should meet your daughter again. Let’s go find her. We can talk on the way.”
“Delightful!” Cosmo smiled, crooked as a coyote. His free hand riffled his hair and improved munchkin to Einstein.
Mickey released his hold, and the magician whipped off his cape and traded it to the lovely assistant for that damn rabbit. Its round red eyes watched Mickey while its nose and whiskers twitched in disdain. The silver collar with glittering fake rubies only made him look more like a rich brat.
So, you fur-coated hasenpfeffer, you think I’m no smarter than Elmer Fudd, eh? Mickey’s lip curled at the thought of dumping the creature on the freeway, or leaving it in the desert to fend for itself. The overfed animal would probably die if it missed a meal.
The assistant nuzzled the rabbit’s face. “Don’t keep Cosmo out too late, Edgar.” She eyed Mickey with open distrust. “You neither.” With a wink to her boss, she turned on her heel and shook her hips down the hall.
“She gave up a successful dancing career to work with me,” Cosmo said as Mickey ushered him to the door.
Mickey looked back over his shoulder at the woman. With that figure, she’d probably left a lucrative exotic dancing career, and what she saw in the aging Casanova eluded him.
They stepped from the backstage entrance to the tiny service lot and Cosmo pointed to a beat-up Cadillac in champagne pink. “I’m parked over there.”
“Great, but we’re taking my car.” Mickey nudged him toward a dark nondescript Prelude. What he intended to do didn’t need extra advertising.
“I don’t know why you don’t like Edgar.” Cosmo folded himself and the rabbit into the passenger seat.
Mickey closed the door on them and scanned the lot as he walked around the car. “No witnesses,” he muttered to himself. He climbed into his seat and drove along a mile of service roads to get to Las Vegas Boulevard. Once he was headed toward McCarran Airport, he allowed himself a smile. “You know why they sent me, right?”
“I can imagine.” The old man didn’t sound afraid at all. His pasty hand stroked the rabbit’s white back.
“Where are they?” Mickey slowed as he approached a stoplight. Beyond the intersection, the metal skeleton of a new hotel under construction rose from the desert, its moonlit silhouette clawing the sky like some black specter. “You shouldn’t mess with these guys. I thought I made that clear.”
“Why should I give over the goods before I’ve gotten my payment?”
“At this point, you should hand them over before I have to wrest them from your dead fingers.”
“You wouldn’t kill me, my boy.” But for the first time, Cosmo didn’t sound quite so blissfully sure of himself. “Didn’t they send you with my money?”
“They sent me with a gun, Cosmo.”
“But I always thought you liked me, my boy.”
“Yeah, well, given a choice, I like myself a whole lot better.” Mickey disobeyed all the traffic barrels and drove through a tight opening in a cement barricade onto the hotel construction site. A flick of his wrist dimmed the headlights, and the car eased forward, guided by an amber glow. He wove through heavy machinery before drawing to a stop near a large crane and a row of giant concrete tubes.
Hopefully, Cosmo’s silence meant he understood the severity of his situation. “Well?” Mickey cut the engine.
“Killing me will do you no good. I don’t have them on me.”
From his inside breast pocket Mickey withdrew a pair of leather driving gloves and took his time pulling them over his calm fingers. Unnerving his prey—this he knew how to do. “But you’ll tell me where you’ve stashed them.”
“You can’t force me.” The first trace of fear glimmered in the magician’s eyes, and he clutched the rabbit to his chest.
Mickey cocked a brow. “Come on, Cosmo. Like it wouldn’t be a bonus for me to shoot the rabbit first?”
As if he understood, Edgar tried to burrow into Cosmo’s tuxedo jacket.
“I don’t need to force you,” Mickey continued smoothly. “You’ll talk, because tonight, old man, you’re going to do a final disappearing act. And if you don’t tell me where those jewels are before you do, I’m going to pay a visit to your daughter Iris.” Mickey withdrew a gun from his shoulder holster and checked the empty chamber. “And when I’m done with her, I’ll visit your other two daughters.”
Cosmo’s chin fell limp. “How did you know?”
“Oh, come on. You were the one who taught me to study my adversary when I joined this little operation. Now I make it a point to learn everything about anyone I do business with. You’re nothing but a common grifter, Cosmo. You’re in way over your head with these guys.”
“I know,” Cosmo whispered.
Mickey drew a breath and eased his shoulders back. Ahh, the headache had disappeared. “Then what’s it going to be, my friend? Remember, you won’t be here to protect those little girls of yours. The best thing you can do is tell me where to find the jewels so I have no reason to visit any of them.”
The magician huddled in his seat and clung to the rabbit like it was a talisman against evil, but Mickey saw the telltale glistening of sweat in the older man’s thinning hair. Come on, give it over. Any moment, Cosmo would break and tell him what he wanted to know. And maybe, just maybe, no one would get hurt.
Mickey stole another quick glance at his watch. In less than an hour he needed to contact his employers, a group of men who didn’t understand failure. They certainly never forgave it.
With a little exhalation of breath, he looked over at Cosmo, prepared to strong-arm him more if necessary.
But the magician suddenly shoved the rabbit at Mickey’s face. “Take Edgar—I’ve gotta whiz!”
Mickey tried to get the rabbit off his chest and arms, but the animal held on with the tenacity of a bobcat. The oversized back feet kicked at him, digging in with long claws, and to his chagrin, he dropped his gun. He bent to the floorboard to retrieve it, and the damn rabbit bit him in the thigh. “Sonofabitch!”
By the time Mickey found the gun and locked the rabbit in the car, his headache had returned with a vengeance.
And Cosmo Fortune had disappeared.
* * *
The problem with wearing her hair up at these functions was that she never could guarantee the style would stay intact. Iris glanced around the crowded hotel ballroom. No one was watching her except some guy near the door who’d obviously crashed the black-tie affair. With his leather jacket and beat-up jeans, it wouldn’t take long for security to escort him out.
Pity, he was vaguely familiar and kind of sexy, in that tall, dark and dangerous sort of way. Not that he was her type. No, she wasn’t about to make the same mistake her mother had when she fell in love and married a Vegas magician.
Iris touched the back of her head, her smile firmly in place as she re-anchored three loose bobby pins.
Wending his way through the crowded party, David approached with two glasses of white wine and handed her one. “Do you need to go to the powder room to fix your hair?”
“I can’t tell. Do I?” She turned her head and awaited his judgment. David liked things perfect and orderly, just like she did. He led a normal, trustworthy and uncomplicated life, and that’s why she’d accepted his marriage proposal two weeks before. She tightened her left fingers, to reassure herself that she hadn’t forgotten to put on the engagement ring.
“Actually, it looks fine,” he said. When Iris faced him, he raised his glass. “To the most beautiful woman in the room.”
David really was sweet, and he openly adored her. Handsome in a blond news-anchor sort of way, he looked polished and well combed with just the right hint of tan. He’d made a success as junior partner at the law firm and made friends with his easy-going charm—important attributes to launching his political career. The man was practically perfect.
She rose on her toes to kiss him, but David stepped back. “You’ll ruin your lipstick.”
“Right.” She smiled up at him, and he bussed her on the cheek. Much better for both of them.
She clinked her glass with his, and they sipped in unison. She pursed her lips at the white wine.
“Is the Chardonnay all right? I know you’d prefer red.” His tone was apologetic, which only made her feel worse. She never wanted to say or do anything to drive him away. She needed—craved—David’s normalcy. A life with someone like him would make up for all the years when she hadn’t been able to count on her father.
“No, this is just what I wanted.” She sipped again with better control. She’d asked for white wine to protect her expensive ivory dress.
David waved to three men she didn’t know. “Smart choice. Red wine and that dress could be a disaster.”
Another trait they shared—smart choices. David was perfect for her in so many ways. She sipped her wine with a smile to assure him she was content.
After all, the illusion was as close as some people got to the real thing.
“Excuse me a minute.” He leaned close to her ear. “Those gentlemen all contributed to my campaign fund. Give me three minutes with them, then join us.” He left before she could answer.
Iris scanned the partygoers in the crowded ballroom, but didn’t see anyone she wanted to make small talk with for three minutes. Political events made her nervous, though she did her best to hide it from David. She intended to be the model wife for him, and she’d do whatever was necessary to further his career. She sipped her Chardonnay, alone.
A tingling at her neck warned her someone had approached from behind. Warm fingers whispered up her bare spine to rest at her nape.
“One of your pins is loose.” The male voice lured her—rich, dark, and promising the same jolt as a good espresso. “Allow me.”
His fingers slid about her neck, past her ears, sending alarms from every nerve ending. Her entire body shivered with heat, a sensation beyond anything she’d experienced before. A pin slid deeper into her hair, but his touch lingered. She liked how it lingered.
Not a good sign.
Stifling the unwanted anticipation, Iris turned to thank the mystery man and send him about his business. Instead, her lower lip slackened as the party crasher withdrew his hand. At close range, his chin and cheeks were chiseled like the local mountains while his nose bent a little to the left, as if he’d broken it once. Dark hair curled slightly around his ears, and a day’s growth of beard carpeted his jaw. The smell of leather and oil and desert dust clung to him.
“Personally, I’d rather see your hair down,” he said.
“It’s an awkward length, tends to look mussed up.” Wait—had she actually responded to such a personal remark?
A slow grin crinkled his blue eyes. “I’ll bet it looks fine mussed up. I bet you do, too.”
What an absurd thing to say—even for a come-on. No good would come from that gleam in his eye, or the way his upper lip curved. “Do we know each other?”
“No need to get frosty on me,” he said, the smile unchanged. “As a matter of fact, your dad introduced us in passing about a month ago.”
Any curiosity about him ended right there. Her gaze darted toward the door. “Cosmo’s not with you, is he?”
“No, ah, I saw him earlier tonight.”
David spoke up over her shoulder. “Iris, is everything all right?”
Iris shot the crasher a glance, daring him to make this situation anything less than perfect. She smiled at David. “Everything’s fine.”
“Friend of yours?” All three tuxedo-clad businessmen had followed David over and, from the tone of his question, the chubby one was hoping for a scene.
“No—” The single word came from Iris and Cosmo’s friend at the same time.
Surprised, Iris paused. She’d rather not mention her father’s name as it tended to ruin her evenings with David. Maybe it was best if this guy explained his connection to Cosmo.
“Not a friend. I’m her cousin, Mickey, and you must be David. Oh, I’ve heard all about you.” He offered his hand.
David shook it, though he didn’t smile. Not that Iris blamed him. He’d only ever met her father, but that was enough to put David off her whole family.
“You’re a Fortune, then?” David asked.
“No, we’re related on her mom’s side. Kincaid’s the last name.”
To her astonishment, Mickey shook hands all around, as if he were one of the social elite shooting the breeze. Except, dressed in his leather and denim, he looked manlier, wilder, hotter. For God’s sake, the man was a chameleon, a con man who could probably fit in anywhere with anyone.
David’s brow wrinkled in uneasiness. “I thought your mother was Russian.”
“She was.” She raised her brows at Mickey.
He had the audacity to wink at her. “Yeah, my mom was her sister, but she ran off with an Irishman. I mean, what are you going to do?”
Before anyone could reply, he took her glass of wine and handed it to David. “Hold this, will ya, Dave? I need to talk to Iris about a little family matter. I’ll bring her back in a sec.”
“What are you doing?” Iris nearly stumbled as he pulled her away from the group.
“Enjoying a few quiet moments without his kind looking down their noses at us.” In a twinkling, he had her on the edge of the dance floor. “Dance with me.”
The orchestra was playing a Sinatra-style ballad while couples swayed in slow and sensuous rhythms. Iris balked. “Don’t you think that’s a little provocative for cousins?”
“Interesting choice of words, because you really don’t want to provoke me tonight.” Mickey hauled her against his chest and folded his arms around her. “Let Dave and his buddies make what they want out of this.”
Iris squirmed, but though his grip didn’t hurt, he also wouldn’t loosen it. Continuing to struggle would only create the dreaded scene she always hoped to avoid.
“Fine. What’s this family matter you wanted to discuss?” She followed his steps, or rather the gentle swaying of his hips.
His grip relaxed. “Your dad stiffed me tonight.”
“Ran off on me. We’ve been negotiating a little business, and he disappeared tonight without delivering.”
Iris closed her eyes. Cosmo and his crazy schemes. It was a miracle he stayed out of jail. “What’s he into this time? Counterfeit casino chips? He lift someone’s wallet?”
“Try ten million in jewels.”
“Ten mi—” Her eyes flew open, and she choked out a laugh. “He’s not stupid.”
“No, he’s very clever, isn’t he?” He leaned in, his breath warm against her ear. “Just like you—successful fiancé, successful business—what are you hiding?”
Ripples of electricity shot through her. She stiffened in his arms, making him back off. “I’m not hiding anything.”
“No?” He raised a skeptical brow. “Then when you talk to Cosmo, tell him his friend Mickey is waiting. I’ll try to help him.”
Iris considered him. Mickey didn’t look like the kind of guy who waited around for others. “You’ll help him?”
“Yeah.” The eye contact, the easy smile, the relaxed posture while he held her—they all added up to honesty.
She wasn’t deceived. Mickey Kincaid was good, maybe even better than Cosmo, but she sure didn’t trust him.
“Mind if I cut in?” David stood on the dance floor with two security guards. All the other couples had stopped dancing.
“Sure,” Mickey replied easily. “I’ve got to run anyway.”
“That’s probably best,” David said.
Iris looked into Mickey’s eyes. He still held her so close she could feel the heat rise off the planes of his solid chest.
“Give Uncle Cosmo my message, will ya, Rissie? And call me if you need me.”
It took a moment for her to register that he’d used Cosmo’s pet name for her. “Do I have your latest number?”
Mickey leaned down to her ear again, and this time his moist lips nibbled her earlobe.
Her brain must have shut down, because she didn’t stop him.
“You won’t need it. I’ll be watching you,” he whispered.
He released her abruptly, pulled off by the security guards. Already, they were escorting him from the ballroom, from the hotel, probably from the Strip.
“Iris, what was that all about?” Despite any irritation David might feel, he escorted her from the dance floor and handed her a fresh glass of wine.
“He was looking for Cosmo.” She sipped the chilled wine to cool herself. Damn. Chardonnay, again. Determined to salvage the evening, she smiled, back in control.
And then her cell phone chirped from within her tiny handbag.
“Now what?” Forcing a smile, David took her glass. “I ask for one night with you, and I get a circus.”
She pulled the phone from her bag and silenced the ringer. “Sorry.” Normally she’d put it on vibrate, but there was no way to wear the phone with this clingy dress.
“If it’s your father, don’t answer it.”
Puzzled by the number on the little screen, she shook her head. “It’s my security company for the shop.” She flipped the phone open and covered her other ear to block out the party noise. “Iris Fortune.”
“Ms. Fortune, this is Belinda with SecureLink Systems. We need to verify that you entered your premises after hours.”
“Your pass code was entered into the security system to shut off the alarm at eleven-fifteen. The system was reset at eleven-twenty. Was that you?”
Iris blinked. The only other person who knew her pass code was Cosmo. He’d gone into her store tonight, but why? And how did Mickey fit into it all? “Yes, Belinda, that was me.”
“You know you’re supposed to call the data desk and tell them when you make an after-hours entry.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I was in a hurry. I appreciate you following up with me.”
“Very good, Ms. Fortune. We’re here to serve you.”
“Thank you.” Great, now she was lying to her security company. Iris closed her phone, grateful David had turned away to watch the orchestra. She thought of calling Cosmo, but no, there was no point in overreacting to some stranger and his version of what Cosmo might be up to. Tomorrow would be soon enough to sort out this whole mess.
No matter how hard she tried, Cosmo always managed to ruin her evenings. Iris let out a breath and touched her hairpins until assured she had it all together.
* * *
It had been far too long since he’d had a woman.
Mickey noted the security uniforms around the room then shifted his stance to lean against the oversized column out of their lines of sight.
Naturally, he’d responded to the feel of Iris pulled up against him. Watching her now, that clingy white dress encouraged his imagination to take flight.
She was one stellar creature. A real class act.
And totally off-limits for more than the obvious reasons. As Cosmo’s daughter, he’d never be able to fully trust her. With that red-gold hair and those brandy-colored eyes—not to mention those great natural tits—she’d lure a man into making mistakes.
Mistakes could get a guy killed. Look what happened to Brian.
Look, don’t touch was clearly the way to proceed with Miss Fortune. Then he recalled her scent, musky and exotic with promise, as he’d tasted her ear. Definitely better not to eat, drink or breathe around her, either.
He’d have to watch her, no way around that. Who was calling her at this hour if not Cosmo? The tricky bastard must have given her the goods for safekeeping, though she acted cool as can be about it. No, it was too convenient. Cosmo had stashed a load of stolen gems, and his daughter owned an upscale jewelry store.
Had she fenced the stuff for him? Was that Cosmo’s angle? Stiff the bosses and try to sell the stones and make a real killing? He was about to learn all about killing firsthand.
Mickey flagged down a passing waiter and pressed a twenty into the guy’s hand with a few whispered directions. His gaze returned to the stoic David, lost in conversation with more tuxes. The guy was an idiot. Beside him, Iris waited, elegant and regal in her patience. A woman like her wouldn’t wait forever—not patiently, anyway. A woman like her demanded promises, grand gestures, sacrifices.
He shook off the pointless memories as the waiter approached Iris and handed her a glass of red wine. Mickey didn’t know anything about wines, but he could tell she didn’t like that white stuff. He’d asked the waiter for something big, bold and red.
Her body tensed at this unexpected gift, then her gaze followed the waiter’s hand as he gestured in Mickey’s direction.
Mickey blew her a kiss.
Stupid. But he could very well be dead before dawn, so what more could he lose?
* * *