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If one more person told her that her thirties were going to be the best years of her life, she was going to spend that decade in prison, doing hard time for murder.
Silver Rothchild realized her pasted-on smile was slipping and reinforced it quickly.
Thirty years old. Gamblers all over Las Vegas must be losing their shirts tonight betting over whether or not she'd live to see this birthday. A few years ago, no one would have bet a plugged nickel on her chances of making it this long.
She had to admit that her twenties had been one heck of a wild ride. The holier-than-thou crowd was offended at any hint that she'd actually had fun jet-setting around the world, rocking out in front of huge audiences as a pop singer, partying till dawn and pulling dozens of crazy stunts, any one of which should have killed her. But the fact was, a lot of it had been a blast. Self-destructive in the end and rendering her jaded and cynical far beyond her years, but a blast, nonetheless.
Of course, she'd done a lot of growing up since then. She'd buried enough of her friends by now to know the dangers of the lifestyle, too. Since those days she'd sworn off harmful substances, and she'd made a concerted effort to drop completely off the celebrity radar. Heck, she'd made an appearance in a celebrity magazine a few months back in a "where are they now?" article. How pathetic was that? Thirty years old and she was a has-been.
"You okay, snookums? You look like roadkill."
"I hate it when you call me that," Silver muttered to Mark Sampson, her bodyguard and ostensible boyfriend of the past several months.
"It's cute. Like you and your perky little"
She stepped away from his hand ashe made a clumsy grab at her rear end and hissed through her fake smile, "Stop acting like white trash."
"Now, snookums. Be nice. Wouldn't want me to get all mad and accidentally say something to them reporters over there about our arrangement."
She sighed. He was right. She was the one who'd made the offer to him in the first placeshe had no business getting bitchy with him over it. She looped an arm through his and guided him out to the dance floor. Dance nasty in front of Mark and he'd forget all about his threat. Men were such incredibly simple creatures.
Not particularly enjoying either the song or gyrating around in as slutty a fashion as she could muster, she was vastly relieved when a sharp vibration tickled her right hip. Her heart leaped in anticipation. Could this be the call?
Shouting over the blaring music, she yelled at Mark, "Phone! I've got to take this call."
He nodded, turned to the nearest half-naked bimbo without interrupting his own hip-thrusting Elvis impersonation, and kept on dancing.
She found a secluded corner behind a potted palm in the hall outside and pulled out her brand-new crystal-encrusted cell phone, a birthday present from her stepsister, Natalie. She hit redial quickly.
"Hello, this is Silver Rothchild"
"Silver! Hi, this is Debbie, from Dr. Harris's office."
Her blood pressure jumped twenty points right then and there. Oh, God. It was the call. Her test results were back. She let out a long, steadying breath and steeled herself to hear the news either way. "Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I'm sorry I couldn't stick around the office to wait for the results, but I couldn't be late for my own birthday party."
The nurse at the other end of the phone laughed. "Well, I've got a birthday present for you, Silver. Your results are positive. You're going to have a baby."
The word washed over her and through her like a warm and gentle blessing, calming all the way down to her soul. Her most cherished dream had finally come true.
"Silver? Are you there?"
"Uh, yes. I'm still here. That's that's fabulous!"
Jubilation erupted in her heart all of a sudden, an elation that wouldn't be contained. She let out a whoop of joy that startled a couple walking past.
"You'll need to set up an appointment for next week. We need to do a sonogram and get you started on prenatal vitamins. And of course, the doctor's going to want to talk to you about managing your blood pressure. As you know, this pregnancy poses a certain risk, given your tendency to high blood pressure. Write down any questions you have as they occur to you or you'll forget them during your appointment."
"Right. I'll call back first thing in the morning."
Silver floated out from behind the palm tree, her feet several inches above the floor. Her hand stole to her flat belly. A tiny human being was growing in there! It was miraculous.
"There you are, Silver!" a female voice called out with a hint of irritation from down the hall. "Your father wants to give you his birthday present. You'd better hurry before he changes his mind."
Silver spied her perfectly groomed stepmother, only four years her senior, coming her way in a pair of high heels that mere mortals wouldn't dare attempt. But Rebecca, in true trophy-wife fashion, was a former model and wore the four-inch stilettos like they were an extension of her magnificent legs.
Okay, so sue her. She was jealous of her glamorous stepmother's height. It sucked being five foot two in a town full of six-foot-tall show girls. She looked like a twelve-year-old compared to them.
"I'm coming, Rebecca," Silver called.
A spark of curiosity grew within her. What had her father cooked up for her birthday? He'd been so mysterious about it. Usually, she could coax any secret out of him. But this time, despite her very best cajolery, he hadn' t given so much as a hint of what her birthday present was other than the fact that it was going to blow her mind.
It took a lot to blow her mind. Like right now. She was pretty blown away by the idea of a baby of her own. She loved kids. Always had. Born into another life, she'd have been a schoolteacher in a heartbeat.
As it was, her life had gone in a radically different direction. She'd always been a good singer, and with Daddy's money and the resources of a show town like Vegas behind her, she'd been trained into a polished performer. A few Rothchild connections in the music biz, and voilà, she'd become a recording artist and pop star. Whether or not she'd deserved it was open to debate. At twenty-two, she hadn't cared if she'd stolen the dream of someone more talented and less connected. But now now she wondered about it sometimes.
Given a do-over of her life, it might be interesting to see if she could've made it in the music business without any help at all from her father. Of course that was easy to say with a wall full of gold records and the fame and fortune to go with them.
Not having to fake a smile this time, she joined her party once more.
"There's our birthday girl!" her father boomed.
She made her way to him through the crowd of well-wishers. She hugged several of her longtime partners-in-crime who'd managed to survive their youths and grow up to one degree or another. There was no sign of Mark, for which she was abjectly grateful. Had he actually been her boyfriend, she'd have been furious that he'd vanished to who-knew-where with who-knew-whom. But now that she was pregnant, it was a good thing she'd taken the precaution of setting up their arrangement.
Her father gave her a hand up onto the raised dais along the back side of the room. Wait till he found out he was going to be a grandpa. Once he got over the initial shock and got done lecturing her about not being married, he'd be tickled to death. At least, that was the plan. Harold was fiercely loyal to his family, but could be mercurial. Which was to say, he could be a died-in-the-wool son of a bitch. It made him a great casino mogul, but at times, it made him a difficult father to deal with.
Silver acted appropriately amused as a giant, black-frosted cake was wheeled in. The Rothchild Grand's pastry chef had outdone himself, decorating the beastly thing with miniature fondant coffins, plastic wheelchairs, and tiny blue marzipan bottles of Geritol. It really was ghoulish. As if she needed the reminder that she was no longer twentysomething and in the bloom of her youth.
Then the toasts began. Oh, they were meant in good fun the references to slowing down, growing up, and getting old. But the underlying message of it all was much, much worse. She'd become safe. Bland. Boring. To her, that was a thousand times worse than turning thirty. Where had the adventurous Silver gone? The one who dared to take the music business by storm? The one who didn't give a damn what anyone else thought? Who chased all her dreams, no matter how far-fetched?
The only thing that kept her from waxing suicidal at the black balloons, funeral dirge in lieu of "Happy Birthday," and nonstop old age jokes was her delirious secret. They could say whatever they wanted. She was finally going to have a baby.
When the birthday roast was finally over, her father raised his champagne glass. "A toast to my lovely daughter. May her next ten years be as successful as her last ten, and a lot less hard on this old man's heart."
The crowd laughed, and on cue, she looked appropriately abashed. For all his ranting and raving over the years to get her act together and grow up, he could really get over her twenties any day now. She had. She hadn't done anything to frighten or embarrass him in nearly seven years, but he still took every opportunity to remind her what a screwup she was.
That was Harold personified. Never missed a chance to sink a barb into someone if he could. Some people said it was impossible to love and hate a person at the same time. Obviously, they'd never had him for a stepfather.
Of course, now that she was turning thirty, she probably could get away with distancing herself from him and his overbearing ways. Maybe she should consider moving out of Las Vegas. Out of Nevada, even. Heck, out of the country! It was a shocking thought. Daring. But it took root in her head as surely as a baby had taken root in her womb. A new start. No ties to her past. No Rothchilds. No Harold.
Her father was speaking again. " better thirtieth birthday present than to give my beautiful and talented daughter a special engagement at the Grand Casino ."
Engagement? At the Grand? Her perform again?
Silver's mind went blank. She wanted to resurrect her career almost as bad as she wanted this baby. And he was going to give her a shot? In total shock, she looked up at her father.
She whispered, "Are you serious?"
He laughed heartily. "As a heart attack, kiddo."
"My own show?"
"Yup. Seven nights. On the big stage. Orchestra, backup dancers, pyrotechnics, the works."
She flung herself into his arms and did something she hadn't done since she'd been a little girl. She burst into tears. Even he was startled by that.
"Hey now, what's this, kiddo? You're not unhappy, are you? I can cancel it"
Oh, Lord. Was pregnancy weepiness kicking in already? Or maybe she was just overwhelmed by being broadsided with two such enormous pieces of news in quick succession. "No! I'm overjoyed, Daddy. It's incredible. I've dreamed of restarting my career for years I don't know how to thank you you're the best "
Who'd have guessed he was capable of such a thoughtful and generous gesture? Maybe Candace's death had affected him more than she realized. Her stepsister's recent murder had hit everyone in the family hard.
Damn. Just when she'd resolved to cut the apron strings for good, he went and did something amazing. Something that would keep her firmly in Las Vegas for some months to come, preparing and rehearsing for her show. The guy's timing was uncanny, as always. Just let the thought of leaving cross her mind, and boom, he roped her back in.
He patted her back awkwardly. "No more tears."
She sniffed and smiled up at him damply. Regardless of his motives, it really was an incredibly generous gift.
Quietly, so the audience wouldn't hear, he said, "One condition, though. You stay out of trouble. Out of the bars and nightclubs. No wild partying, no more stunts, no more of your pop-star shenanigans. And stay out of the freaking tabloids." A hard edge entered his voice. "You go back to your old ways, and I'll yank this rug out from under you so fast your head spins. Understood? Keep it clean, and I'll give you another shot at singing. Screw this up, and I'll see to it nobody ever hires you again."
Ahh. That was more like the Harold she knew and loathed.
Careful to keep her voice even, she said, "That seems fair enough."
Oh, God. The baby. He'd just ordered her not to go off and do anything impulsive or wild or that would land her in the tabloids like, oh, getting pregnant out of wedlock. And if he or the tabloidsfound out the real circumstances of this baby's conception, the media would have a field day with it.
A baby or her career? How was she supposed to choose between those?
She took a deep breath. If she played her cards right and Mark didn't go and do anything stupid, maybe she could have them both.
Or maybe she could lose everything.
Army Captain and Delta Force Team Commander, Austin Dearing, stepped out of the taxicab into the blast furnace heat of Las Vegas. Jeez. And it was only May. He'd hate to see this place in August. Of course, after living in full body armor in parts of the world where daily highs frequently topped one hundred twenty, Vegas wasn't so bad. But he was still grateful to step into the air-conditioned cool of the Rothchild Grand Hotel and Casino.
He looked around the gaudy lobby curiously. He liked his creature comforts well enough, but the job he'd been sent here to do overshadowed his appreciation of the beautiful, leggy women cruising the joint, sharklike, in search of fresh meat. In his world, this was what was known as a target-rich environment.
A silicone-enhanced bleach-blonde purred at him, "May I help you, sir?" She was almost tall enough that at six foot four, he didn't have to look down at her.
"I'm looking for Harold Rothchild."
A startled look flickered across her face, but she replied smoothly enough, "Is Mr. Rothchild expecting you?"
"Yes, he is."
"One moment, sir."
She pulled out a cell phone and made a discreet phone call. "He's at his daughter's birthday party at the moment. Would you care to wait in his office?"