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A thud from the hallway outside her hotel room wrenched Lauren Bradley out of a light sleep. The ominous echo of it filled the dark room. Sleepy tendrils of a vague dream evacuated her mind in an instant, and she lay beneath the thick bedspread straining to hear past her pounding heart and the sound of the air conditioner.
A slow, muffled scraping froze the blood in her veins. That noise didn't sound like it came from the hallway. It sounded closer. Was someone in the room with her?
Don't panic. Officer Smith said it's important to stay calm.
Lessons from the self-defense class she had taken earlier this year flashed through her mind. If she was on her feet she would know exactly where to aim a crippling blow, but Officer Smith hadn't told her what to do if she was caught lying down. She drew her feet up toward her chest, preparing to defend herself against an attacker with a swift upward kick. Her ears strained to pinpoint the intruder's exact location in the unfamiliar room.
Another sound reached her ears, and this time she was easily able to locate the source. The handle of the connecting doorway to the adjoining hotel room gave a soft metallic click as someone attempted to twist the knob from the other side.
Her fear evaporated, replaced by a wave of disgust. That was no intruder inside her hotel room. That was Frank in the room next door.
Lauren threw the comforter off and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. When they'd checked into the hotel earlier, her obnoxious coworker had wagged his eyebrows when he'd seen that door.
"You know what they say, Lauren." He'd given a suggestive wink. "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."
Well, nothing was happening in Vegas this week. At least, nothing involving her. Even if she were to indulge in an office romancea colossal mistake the first time, and one she did not intend to repeat ever againFrank Labetti would be the last person on the face of the earth she would choose. She had barely been able to stomach sitting beside him on the plane, listening to his arrogant know-itall chatter during the four-hour flight from Atlanta.
She stomped across the carpet in bare feet and slapped a palm against the thick wood.
"Go to sleep, Frank." Her angry shout sounded sharp in the empty room. "It's two o'clock in the morning."
No sound from the other side of the door. When she'd left Frank downstairs last night, he'd already drunk so much at dinner that his words had been starting to slur and his voice had been even louder than normal. She'd headed for the elevator, and he'd veered toward the casino. Surely he wasn't just getting back to his room. If he'd been down there drinking and gambling all night, no way he'd be up and ready to go to the conference at nine in the morning. Not that she'd mind attending conference sessions on her ownshe'd prefer it, in factbut tomorrow afternoon they had to team up and present a workshop on test tools for realtime IP networks, and she couldn't do that alone. Frank might be obnoxious, but he was the technology expert in their company.
"Frank, you'd better be sober and ready to go in the morning." She loaded her voice with the threat of dire consequences if he wasn't.
A strangled moan sounded from the other side of the door. The sound tweaked a chord of concern in Lauren. Was he sick?
"Frank, are you okay?"
The only answer was a choking cough and a worrisome gurgle almost too faint to hear.
Lauren closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the door. Great. Just what I need. He's probably given himself alcohol poisoning. Instead of going to the conference tomorrow I'm going to have to spend my first day in Las Vegas babysitting the thirty-year-old coworker I can't stand.
Maybe she should just go back to bed, let him sleep it off and emerge when he sobered up. That was probably the wisest course of action.
Lauren started to turn away but stopped when a second cough came from the other side of the door, this one fainter. Her resolve weakened. What if he needed medical care? He might be a jerk, but she'd be a bigger one if she ignored a sick coworker.
"Frank, are you okay?"
Hesitant, she laid a hand on the doorknob. The other door, the one on Frank's side, was probably closed and locked. She ought to call the front desk and tell them she was worried about odd noises coming from his room. But this hotel and casino was a big place. At two in the morning it would probably take a while for them to find someone to send upstairs. What if Frank was really sick and needed help now?
Resigned, she drew on a pair of sweatpants and threw her jacket over her nightgown, unlocked the door and stepped back to swing it open.
Something tumbled to the floor and landed with a thud at her feet. Frank. For the briefest of moments she thought he had passed out leaning against the door. But then she noticed the wet, sticky streaks on the inside of the wooden door and the blood that saturated his shirt.
A scream ripped from her throat.
Music invaded Brent Emerson's dream, a familiar symphonic melody that pierced through his sleep-fogged brain. His cell phone. He cracked open one eye, and red numbers from the clock swam into view. Ten minutes past five.
For a moment he considered ignoring the call. The alarm would go off in another twenty minutes anyway. What could be important enough to rob him of the last few minutes of sleep?
A list of people who would call his cell phone at this uncivilized hour paraded through his mind. His sister. Mom. The nursing home where Dad lived.
Lord, no. Please keep my family safe.
He snatched the phone off the nightstand and pushed the button to answer the call.
"Hello?" Sleep made his words scratchy.
"Is this Brent Emerson?" The voice on the other end sounded vaguely familiar. Female. Not Mom or his sister. A nurse, maybe? His pulse quickened, pumping a shot of adrenaline to his brain that chased away the last of the sleep. Had something happened to Dad?
"Yes, this is Brent Emerson. Who is this?"
"It's Lauren. Lauren Bradley. From the office?"
An image swam into focus in his mind. An attractive young business analyst, slender, mid-twenties with honey blond hair, delicate features and intriguing green eyes. He'd interviewed and hired her three, maybe four months ago, and had only seen her from a distance since. That wasn't unusual; there weren't too many reasons for the vice president of information technology to interact with an entry-level business analyst, especially in a department as large as his.
Nor could he think of a reason for a business analyst to call him at home at five in the morning.
He sat up in bed and reached for the lamp on the nightstand. "What's up, Lauren?"
"Umm, well. I" She inhaled a shaky breath. "I'm in Las Vegas at the INTEROP conference."
Vegas? With the time difference, that meant it was ten after two there.
"You're up kind of late, aren't you?"
"Uh, well, there's a problem. I thought I should call someone from the office. I got your cell-phone number from the departmental directory."
Her voice wavered on the last word. Was she crying? Light flooded Brent's bedroom when he twisted the lamp's knob. Crying women always stirred up emotions in him that he'd rather not deal with.
"What's the problem, Lauren?"
"It's Frank Labetti. You you know Frank, right?"
A sob choked off the last word. She was crying.
He schooled his voice into a gentle tone. "Yes, I know Frank. He's there with you at the conference?"
"Yes. I mean, no. Not anymore. He'she's dead."
"What?" Brent was on his feet beside the bed before he realized he'd moved. "How did it happen?"
"He washe's beenshot." She was sobbing openly now, with no attempt to control it. "I found him in his hotel room a few minutes ago."
"Have you called the police?"
"Yes. They're on their way. There's blood, so much blood." She gave herself over to weeping.
A fierce protectiveness penetrated his shock-numbed brain. This was one of his employees, on a company business trip. His responsibility. Plus, she was a frightened young woman, all alone in a strange city.
"Lauren, listen to me." He poured strength into his voice. "You did the right thing calling me. What hotel are you staying in?"
She gulped a noisy breath. "The Hollywood Hotel and Casino, right on the Strip."
"All right. I want you to keep your phone with you. I'm going to make some calls, and then I'll call you back and let you know when I'm arriving."
"You're coming here?"
Hope flooded her voice, and something in his chest gave an odd lurch in response.
"Of course I'm coming. You don't think I'd leave you there to handle this alone, do you?"
"I'll call you back."
He disconnected the call and immediately punched in the number for his administrative assistant's cell phone. Rose was a pro when it came to finding flights. She'd either get him on the first flight from Atlanta to
Vegas, or she'd know the right buttons to push to commandeer one of the company jets.
While the call connected, he grabbed his travel bag from the closet. A list of people he needed to contact formed in his mind. Chuck, his boss and the president of the company. The director of the public relations department. His sister, to let her know he'd be out of town for a few days. He started throwing clothes and toiletries into the bag.
Shock seemed to slow his movements. Who would have a reason to shoot Frank Labetti? It must have been someone he met up with in Vegas, someone who turned out to be bad news.
Had Lauren been with them? Had she seen anything? Brent halted in the act of placing a T-shirt in the bag, his skin suddenly clammy at the thought. A pretty young woman in Las Vegas, alone and vulnerable, might be considered an easy target. Especially if she'd seen something incriminating.
Hold on, Lauren. I'm coming as fast as I can.