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Fawn Morrison glided across the atrium of the crowded country-music theater, enjoying the glances aimed in her direction. So what if the stares weren't all filled with admiration? Those jealous women could learn to apply makeup the right way and emphasize their few positive qualities. Everybody had at least one or two. Almost everybody.
With a grin and a wink at the old geezer who stood behind the ticket counter, Fawn eased herself past a group of chattering people and strolled toward the ATM machine in the corner.
Some of these people probably thought she was one of the entertainers in the production--she'd never looked better in her life. She wore a calf-length gown of blue silk that Bruce had selected, telling her it matched the color of her eyes. The plunging neckline raised a few eyebrows, and the thigh-high slit had almost caused an accident out in the parking lot. She sure wasn't in Las Vegas anymore. Branson, Missouri, seemed like a different planet. Hokey, maybe, but she kind of liked this place.
As she waited for the cash to click out of the machine, Fawn enjoyed the sight of her reflection in the mirrored wall. She looked hot. Sophisticated and grown-up. She'd come a long way in eight months--from earning money the hardest way, to flouncing through the casino in her cutesy little monkey outfit, smiling and calling "Keno, Keno, Keno" like a brain-injured parrot, to riding in limousines and living in luxury, eating lobster and drinking champagne.
All because she didn't mind a balding man with a paunch, and pockmarks on his face.
Okay, sure he'd been acting a little wacky the past couple of days, but what did that matter? He couldafford to act wacky. Besides, he knew how to treat a lady--if the lady didn't expect him to open doors for her and if she didn't mind a burp or two during the dinner conversation.
She used the entry card and stepped into the elevator reserved for special guests, then rode up to the seventh-floor penthouse suite--Branson didn't have skyscrapers like Vegas. It didn't have casinos, either, and smoke didn't hang in the air like a cloud of poison.
Bruce was talking on his cell phone when she glided through the door. She allowed it to close with a muted clunk, and he glanced around at her. She smiled as she slid the thin spaghetti strap of her blue beaded purse from her shoulder and placed it on the counter by the minibar.
His gaze darted away and his fingers whitened on the tiny phone. "No, Vin, I told you what I'd do if you didn't stop the purchase."
Fawn sighed as Bruce paced to the other end of the carpeted great room. Okay, so he didn't seem as distracted by her hot looks as the old geezer at the counter downstairs.
He lowered his already deep, gravelly voice. "I've got everything I need to...no, you listen. I don't need the cash from this deal, I was just doing you a favor, but I'm not risking no lives for this." He grunted and held the phone out from his ear.
Fawn heard the angry rant all the way across the room, and she winced at the threat in that voice. Bruce frowned at her, then put the phone back to his ear. The lamplight made his face look as white as mashed potatoes. "No? Well, you didn't tell me about their new little discovery, did you? How many other investors know your dirty little secret? I'm not taking the heat for--"
He sighed and glanced over his shoulder toward Fawn, then disconnected with a push of a button. "Stupid jerk can have his little temper tantrum on his own time. Sorry you had to hear that, Princess. You got back fast." The edges of his voice softened as his gaze caressed her.
"What am I, your errand girl now?" she teased in the husky, seductive voice she'd practiced for months before she ever went to Las Vegas. She crossed the room in slow, easy strides and reached up to trail a fingertip along his shoulder, then rubbed at the bristles on his chin.
He jerked away as if she'd zapped him with electricity.
She pouted at him. "Did you get the show tickets?"
"They're in my purse."
"And the cash?"
Bruce nodded, though she couldn't be sure he'd even heard her words. He reached into the front pocket of his slacks and pulled out a beautiful steel cigarette lighter, strolling slowly, thoughtfully, over to her purse on the counter. He opened the purse and slid the lighter into the tiny zippered pocket inside, then zipped it shut.
"I don't smoke," she said.
He sighed, the plump lines of his face drawing down with concern. "Whatever you do, don't lose the purse."
"You know I won't." Two weeks ago, some loser had tried to lift it from her shoulder, and he'd nearly lost his future children. He'd limped away, hopefully wiser.
"Are you done being serious?" Fawn asked. "Can we go play now?"
The question brought another frown. Bruce chewed on his lower lip for a moment, then pointed toward the satiny cushions of a Victorian love seat beside the wall of windows that overlooked Branson. "We've got to talk."
She blinked up at him. This was a new thing with Bruce since they'd flown here from Vegas two days ago.
He seemed to want to talk a lot more, and he'd barely touched her since they arrived. Although in one way that was a big relief, in another way...
"Have a seat, Princess," he rumbled.
She smoothed the silk dress beneath her and sat, making sure the slit fell away and revealed her leg. She patted the cushion beside her. He ignored her gesture, pulled a chair from the dining set and sank down across from her, hands on his knees as he leaned forward and narrowed his heavy-lidded eyes.
She quietly sucked in her breath. Was she getting dumped?
"First of all, that isn't a lighter, it's a computer data storage device. It's called a flash drive, and that's all you need to know for now. Hopefully, you'll never need to know."
"But what if I do?"
"Just remember that it has important information in it--information that lives could depend on. If anything happens--"
"Anything like what?"
He closed his eyes. "Don't ask me that. Please. You're smart, and you'll know. If anything happens, find someone you know you can trust and give them the flash drive."
"You're not making sense."
"Just remember what I said. I'm asking you to do the right thing." He gave her a firm look, and she forced herself to behave like a lady and shrug, as if that would be no problem. "Second of all," he said, "I've got to tell you something, Princess, and this won't be easy." He straightened and shoved his right hand into the pocket of his gray slacks. "But first, I got a little present for you." He pulled out a small jewel case.
"Is that another storage device?" she asked.
He smiled gently--sadly. "It's a ring."
The air escaped her lungs in a loud whoosh, but before she could react, he lifted the lid.
Quietly and slowly, Fawn started breathing again. Okay, no huge solitaire diamond, nothing like that. What he pulled from the case was a beautiful gold ring encrusted completely by heart-shaped pink-red stones. He raised her right hand and slid the ring onto the little finger. It fit perfectly.
"Rubies?" she whispered.
"Vietnamese." He cupped both his hands around hers for a short second, then hesitated, watching her. He chewed on his lower lip again, then scooted his chair back and stood to pace across the floor. "How old are you, Princess?" He swiped at beads of sweat on his shiny scalp, watching her the way a horse would watch a strange object in the road.
Her stomach suddenly felt icky. "You know I'm twenty-three. I told you I didn't care much about--"
"Know what I think? I think I'm old enough to be your dad."
She tried hard not to react. Don't let on. Don't stutter. You're past that now. "I thought you said you were thirty-five." Her voice sounded smooth even to her own ears. In control. "That would mean you were...what... twelve when I was born?" She forced the corners of her lips upward.
He stalked across the room and back, once again rubbing his scalp. "You know what? I've got a daughter who's fifteen." He stopped and looked at her. "Haven't seen her in five years, but every time I see a kid around her age, I think about her." He gestured toward Fawn's hand. "I got my girl a ring just like that."
Fawn watched him without moving, barely daring to blink.
"Why is it I think more and more about my daughter when I look at you lately?"
She leaned back in the sofa and crossed her legs, keeping her spine perfectly straight. "You saw my driver's license."
"I've seen enough fake ID cards in my lifetime to fill the public library in Las Vegas.You know what, Fawn? Even though I don't see my kid, if I knew a big fat guy my age was shacking up with her, I'd shoot the loser right in the face. Why isn't your dad chasing me down?"
She couldn't prevent the scowl, or the gut response. "What dad?" The words bit into the air, making Bruce blink.
He wiped at the sweat again. "Are you even legal?"
"Of course I'm legal." She was old enough to drive. That was legal.
He reached down and fingered several strands of the blond hair that curved past her shoulders. "What year did you say you were born?" His voice strained tightly in his throat.
Get back in the act. Quick! She forced a husky laugh. "Bruce, don't be silly. Of course I'm flattered...I think. But I can't help it if I remind you of your daughter. Do I act like some little sixteen-year-old?" Please believe me, Bruce. I can't go back to the Keno job. And I sure can't go back to the street.
"Not when you're awake, except when you bite your nails."
She held up her perfectly groomed hands. She'd had a manicure just yesterday. "A woman needs her little vices. You should be glad mine are so innocuous." That was the right word, wasn't it? Bruce wasn't exactly an English professor, and tossing in an intelligent-sounding word now and then helped keep him guessing.
He continued to stare at her, as if he couldn't quite remember the true color of her eyes behind the brown contact lenses--lenses that, according to the advertisement, made her look friendlier and more approachable. More exotic as well.
Or maybe he was trying to make a decision about something. Fawn held her breath for a long moment, until the sound of a horn blast reached through the sliding glass door that opened onto the lanai.
Bruce glanced toward the door, then at his watch. "I want you to run another errand for me, Princess."
She pouted again. "So I really am your errand girl?"
"Let's just pretend that you are for now, okay?" He reached down and patted her cheek. "I think you can handle playing a role."
Article 02: Untitled
She watched him for a moment, fighting back a horrible fear that skittered through her stomach like a line of swarming termites. With as much cool as she could project, she reached for her purse on the counter. "Tell me what you need, oh master."
She endured his gaze. She would not beg. "Did you withdraw the cash limit?" he asked. "Only from one card. I don't know why you suddenly want all this--"
"Use the other card and withdraw that limit, too, but don't do it downstairs. I want you to take a taxi to an address I'm going to write down for you."
She didn't argue. How could she? He was trying to get rid of her. "You'll be here when I get back?" she asked, voice soft, conciliatory.
"I'm not leaving you, Princess, but I have some work to do, and I've got to be alone to do it."