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FBI Special Agent Lex Duncan was due on stage right after the Vegas investment banker who was strutting down the runway with a long-stemmed rose clenched between his straight white teeth.
"Now this, ladies" crooned the Bachelor Auction for Orphans emcee, a popular Las Vegas television host with dulcet tones of honey over gravel and butter-gold hair to match "is an investment banker with mutual interest in mind. What red-blooded woman wouldn't want this macho money man to manage her assets for the night? Who knows, ladies" the emcee lowered her voice conspiratorially. "There might just be some long-term profit for the right bidder "
Shrieks and hoots erupted from the invitation-only crowd of almost one thousand very well-heeled Las Vegas women as Mr. Investment Banker shucked his pin-striped jacket, peeled off his crisply ironed shirt and got busy showing off some serious sweat equity of his own, obviously earned by heavy capital investment in the gym. The bids started, kettle drums rolling softly in the background heightening the tension.
Lex swore and shot a desperate glance toward the glowing red Exit sign backstage. He felt edgier now than he had during his first FBI takedown of a violent felon. Somehow he'd ended up being slated as the last bachelor up for grabs tonight, and he was feeling the pressure. The men ahead of him had already driven bids all the way up to a whopping $50,000, which went to a rugged foreign correspondent whose "sword" was apparently mightier than his pena comment that had brought the house down as the evening eased into night, laughter oiled by the complimentary cocktails that were loosening the ladies'designer purse strings and heating libidos.
Whoever had staged this event in Las Vegas's legendary Ruby Room with its massive art deco clock, shimmering chandeliers, red tones and old black-and-white photos that alluded to the thrilling mystique of Vegas's dark mob past, knew exactly what she was doing.
For more than an hour before the auction had started, women clad in sleek barely there dresses with plunging necklines had sipped free drinks as they mingled with men, sizing up the "merchandise," whose duty it was to make smalland seductivetalk.
Lex had failed abysmally.
He was not one for platitudes, let alone parties. And volunteering for a bachelor auction rated way down there along with God knows what. He couldn't think of anything worse right at this moment. Those sixty-three minutes of schmin-gling, and yes, he'd counted every one of those minutes, had been pure torture. Lex was not one for high-maintenance women, either. Been there, done that, had the scars and divorce papers to show for it. If he ever married again, he swore it was going to be to a Stepford wife who understood his devotion to his job and charity work with at-risk kids.
The bidding out in the hall suddenly hit the $60,000 mark. The crowd of ladies exploded into raucous cheers, and the live band picked up the pace, ratcheting tension with a soft boom, boom, boom of drums. Lex tugged irritably to loosen his red tie.
His partner, Special Agent Rita Perez, had suggested red to get the blood pumping, she'd chuckled. She told him the color was a good foil to the classic dark FBI suit and white shirt. He was going to kill Perez for this. She was the one who'd coerced him into it in the first place.
It's for a good cause, Duncan. All proceeds will go to the Nevada Orphans Fund. Think of how it will help your boys.
He adjusted his holster, his body heating under his jacket as the crowd thunderously applauded the top bidder who'd nabbed Mr. Investment Banker for an insane $62,500. Lex was up next, after the Clark County skydiving instructor standing beside him backstage.
Think of the Orphans Fund .
"You ever see so much cleavage in one place?" said Mr. Skydiver, eyes fixed on the shimmering crowd of women as he peered around the curtain. "Mostly pumas, I figure."
"They're not all cougars over the age 45, check it out" Mr. Skydiver edged the heavy curtain back. "See? Hot pumas, single or divorced females between the ages of 30 to 40, all with serious cash to blow. Best way to meet a prospective date if you ask me." He jutted his chin toward the audience. "Each one of those women out there has had her bank balance vetteda marriage made in pure heaven."
Lex stared at him blankly. This guy thought he was going to find commitment here? "This is Vegas, buddy. Place of transience, slight of hand, trickery and sin."
"Ah, but magic happens in Vegas." Mr. Skydiver grinned, took a sharp swig from a small silver hip flask and offered the flask to Lex. "Dutch courage, in the name of Johnnie Walker?"
Lex shook his head.
Mr. Skydiver capped his flask. "Just ask any tourist," he said as he slipped the flask back into his pants pocket. "When that plane touches down at McCarran International, all rational thought goes clean out the window, and suddenly anything is possible. Yeah, Vegas will do that to you."
The guy had clearly gotten a little too intimate with Johnnie Walker. Lex made a mental note never to book a skydiving lesson with this dude, but he vaguely wished he had taken him up on the offer of a nip from the flask. The man looked enviably happy, and this was one time in his life Lex sure wouldn't mind numbing himself with a bit of false bravado. But before he could finish his thought, or change his mind and take up the flask, Mr. Skydiver was nudged abruptly forward by the bustling backstage coordinator taking his Johnnie Walker down the runway with him. And the next thing Lex knew, it was his turn.
"You're on, agent!" He was forced out from the protection of the curtain by the backstage boss.
His throat dried instantly.
Larger-than-life images of himself in various poses played out on a massive screen behind the emcee and the auctioneer. "Meet FBI Special Agent Lexington Duncan, girls!" Blinding stage spotlights swung his way.
Lex blinked into the glare. All he could see of the crowd was a dark blot stabbed by the occasional glitter of jewels and flash of sequins as women moved. He reached for his breast pocket and put on the sunglasses that Perez had insisted he bring.
"For the record," intoned the emcee. "Agent Duncan's weapon is disarmed. But who knows, he just might load his gun later for the right bidder." A murmur of excitement rippled through the women. Not quite the shrieks generated by Mr. Skydiver. Worry wormed into Lex as he took his first tentative steps down the runway. Maybe he was going to get lowballed. But the bids started instantly, flying fast and furious. Oh geez.
Heat prickled over his brow as he forced his legs toward the end of the ramp that jutted out into the sea of tables, a 007 theme tune mocking him. When he reached the end of the ramp, the music segued into a thumping sexy beast of a beat that thrummed up through his body from the soles of shined-up shoes making his heart constrict in time to the rhythm. His body grew hot. He yanked at his collar.
Oh, boy, was he ever going to kill Perez for getting him into this. He was going to get her right alongside with the mystery woman who'd organized this circus.
You don't have to do anything other than volunteer your time yeah, well there was his pride on the line now.
He could just imagine the guys in the field office tomorrow morning. He shoved his shades higher onto his face with a scowl he made no attempt to hide. Patience he had in buckets on a job. Not now. Now he'd lost every last ounce and wanted to get this the hell over.
Irritability powered his body movements as he strutted forward with the classic command presence of a cop. He got to the end of the ramp, flipped open his jacket, showing his holster and weapon.
The ladies went wild.
"Want to see Special Agent Lexington Duncan load that pistol, ladies? You've got to make those numbers real arresting in order to be taken down to the station, girls. Maybe he'll pat you down, or frisk you "
Bids rosehigher, hotter, faster.
Lex stalked back up to the top of the runway, getting more and more steamed. He took off his jacket, draped it over the emcee's podium. It was his little intrusion into her space, a psychological ploy. Another wave of hoots and hollers burst from the crowd at this apparent audacity. Women began to leave their tables and line the runway, cheeks flushed, eyes bright, music loud. Their hands were waving with cash, trying to reach up to stuff it into his pants.
A strange sort of energy caught him. This was what crowd hysteria did to one, he thought, loosening his red tie, unbuttoning his white shirt, knowing his muscles were getting amped from the adrenaline and well, yeah, the attention. He was male after all. Every man had his pride. And libido. Be damned if Lex's competitive edge didn't stab suddenly into his chest. Hell, if he was on the stage now, he might as well win, right? Why not get the top bid from that teeming excited mass of over a thousand women with more cash to burn than they knew what to do with.
For the orphans, Lex. Think of your boys. A small grin of satisfaction settled over his mouth. If "his boys" could see him now. He'd better do them proud. Yeah, he'd get his money's worth out of these pumas.
He slowed his swagger, put some muscle into it as he stripped off his shirt, tossed it to the crowd. His body was ripped and tannedhoned to peak perfection from daily training workouts, his twice-weekly coaching sessions with his kids under the hot desert sun, his eyes and reflexes keen from hours at the range. Under that conservative buttoned-up FBI exterior lurked a very different Lex Duncan, and it showedin the exuberant reaction from the crowd.
"Take it all off! Take it all off! Take it all off!"
The chant rose in crescendo, and the live musicians, adept at playing to their audience, worked the energy. Lex thrust even more swagger into his walk, tightening his jaw, squaring his shoulders aggressively. Under the glaring spotlights his tanned skin began to glisten. Paddles continued to shoot up around the hall, bids going alarmingly high with one suddenly hitting an all-time record.
"Ninety thousand dollars! We have ninety thousand from the bidder in silver at the back of the hall. Going once " The gavel was raised dramatically, poised to slam down with flourish. Lex squinted into the far recesses of the vast Ruby Room, trying to see who was prepared to plunk down such a serious chunk of change for a date with him, but the chandeliers had been dimmed and the spotlights blinded him.
"Wait! We now have ninety-five thousand from the lady in red at the table in front!"
His heart beat faster, he strutted harder. The music went louder. Yeah. He was going to nail ita top bid. Walk away from this with ego intact.
"Going once going twice " Called the auctioneer. "Oh, we have one hundred thousand! Again from the bidder in silver at the rear."
The atmosphere shifted suddenly, and a hot hush of tension pressed down over the crowd. The music all but stopped, just whispering kettle drums.
The auctioneer's voice took a quiet edge. "We have a bid of one hundred thousand dollars, ladies. Going once. Going twice "
Adrenaline quickened through Lex as he tried again to squint beyond the glare of the spotlights. This was insane. Then again, this was Vegas. Where people believed that everything had a price, any dream could be bought. Anything could happen. Maybe Mr. Skydiver was right after all. A small ripple of hot pleasure coursed through him. Someone wanted him bad, and that was good, because this entire event, this bidding war over him right now was going to buy some real programs for his "kids." Besides, how bad could one date get anyway?
It was Jenna Jayne Rothchild's turn to get steamed. Someone at the back of the room was giving her one hell of a run for her money, and she had zero intention of losing Special Agent Lex Duncan to anyone. This whole damn extravagant event had been created solely so she could nab him.
"Who the hell is that back there?" she whispered angrily through her teeth, eyes remaining fixed on the auctioneer.
"Mercedes Epstein," said Cassie Mills excitedly. "And oh, my God, Jenna, she's wearing Balduccio. A full-length silver Bal-duccio gown. It's like oh God, it's stunning. Even at her age."
Jenna, Vegas event planner extraordinaire and organizer of the Bachelor Auction for Orphans, shot a hard, fast look to the back of the massive ballroom. The chandeliers had been dimmed over the crowd of over a thousand womeneach one of them vetted and personally invited by Jenna because they had the wherewithal to plunk down substantial amounts of cash. But even in the darkness, Jenna could make out the shimmering silver-white chignon belonging to the gracious head of 62-year-old Mercedes Epstein. Diamonds glittered around the neck of the Vegas matriarch, and her gown was a silvery-lilac, like platinum. Like moonlight. The woman seemed to glow spectrally in the dark as if she possessed a mysterious inner phosphorescence.
"Crap," Jenna hissed, getting hot in her own low-cut designer gown. "What in hell does she want?"
"Your FBI agent, obviously" Cassie said with her dimpled grin.
"I didn't send her an invite!"
"Is there any lady out there prepared to up the ante to one hundred five thousand dollars for a night of her design with Special Agent Lexington Duncan ather side, for her protection?"
Jenna shot her paddle up aggressively.
She didn't like to lose. Not ever. Especially not to Mercedes Epstein. It was a female pride thing. Vegas may be chocked to the gills with transients and tourists, but Sin City still had it's hierarchy among the high-end Strip "locals." Mercedes, known for her charity largesse, especially when it came to child-related charities, was married to Frank Epstein, one of the most powerful men in Vegasno, make that Nevada. No make that one of the most influential men in the United States. He was worth billions on Wall Street and had funded the campaigns of many a senator, local sheriff and Vegas city councilor.
A small fist of cold tension curled through Jenna's stomach as she clutched her paddle. Frank Epstein also had a longstanding rivalry with her dad, Harold Rothchild. Mercedes could outbid her anydayand might just do it to annoy one of the Rothchild clan. But for whatever reason the matriarch was here, Jenna was so not losing to the woman.
This was her show.