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The Wedding Gamble
By Cindi Myers, Lewis Pollak, Keyren Gerlach
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Cindi Myers
All rights reserved.
Spending her twenty-sixth birthday in Vegas had sounded like a great idea, Laura Nichols reminded herself as she stared at the row of slot machines across from her table. Three blue-haired women in shapeless baggy T-shirts sat in front of the machines, stabbing the Repeat Bet button over and over. It would have been a great idea if anyone had remembered it was her birthday.
"Laurie, you're not wearing your tiara! You have to wear your tiara!" Her sister Rachel admonished her from the other end of the table. Rachel wore a rhinestone- studded crown atop her perfect, golden curls, and a satin sash across her chest read "Kiss the Bride."
Laura picked up the cheap plastic tiara inscribed "Bridesmaid," nestled it in her mouse-brown mane, and forced a smile. "Having a good time, Rach?"
"I'm having a fabulous time!" The bride-to-be held aloft a plastic martini glass full of some neon green concoction. The trio of other bridesmaids — all friends of Rachel's whom she scarcely knew — raised their glasses also, some of the sticky neon drink slopping onto the table as they clumsily clinked a toast.
One of the slot machines went off — a wailing siren accompanied by flashing lights. All three of the blue-hairs started screaming. Laura squeezed the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, fighting a stabbing pain in her head.
"Are you really a bride?" Two frat-boy types in polo shirts and khaki shorts stopped by the table and grinned at Rachel and her friends.
"Not yet, I'm not," Rachel said. "The wedding's next week."
"But your sash says 'Kiss the Bride,'" the shorter, and apparently dimmer, of the two said.
"It's my bachelorette party," Rachel said. "I'm collecting kisses."
"How about kissing me?" the taller man said.
"Sure." Rachel closed her eyes and puckered up.
Laura winced as the frat boy laid a sloppy kiss on her sister. How many of those drinks had Rachel had?
"Headache?" One of the bridesmaids, Molly or Millie or Maggie — something with an M — studied her. "Does your head hurt?" she asked.
Laura rubbed her temples. "Yeah. Those sweet drinks always give me a headache. And all the noise." And being here in Vegas with her sister and her sister's friends instead of home celebrating her own birthday.
"This'll help." Molly-Millie-Maggie took a bottle from her purse, shook out two pills, and passed them across to Laura. "You'll feel better in no time."
She stared at the tiny white pills. "I don't know ..."
"It's just aspirin. One of those, you know, generics. They work great." She passed Laura a fresh drink.
She shrugged. Generic aspirin had to be safe, right? If she was going to get through the rest of this night, she needed something. She popped the pills and swallowed them down with a sip of the vodka drink.
"Oh no!" A wail from the other end of the table threatened to drown out the clanging slots.
"What's wrong?" Laura raised her voice to be heard.
"I broke a nail." Rachel, stricken, held up the middle finger of her left hand to show the tip of one artificial nail hanging like a hinge.
"Nail glue will fix it," one the bridesmaids said, precipitating a frantic search through everyone's large designer bags. Laura watched as the four women emptied makeup, smart phones, iPods, prescription bottles, candy bars, and condoms onto the table. No nail glue.
"I've got some in my room," Rachel said. "Laurie, hon, would you be a dear and run get it for me?" She slid a room card down the table.
"Rachel, the hotel is three blocks away." Three blocks through Vegas Strip traffic.
"You can get the nail glue and meet us at Excalibur. We'll head over there now." Rachel rose, the others moving with her as if connected by strings. "We'll wait for you there." Then they were gone, tripping out of the bar in their strappy sandals, neon drinks in hand.
Laura stared at the room card. She was tempted to go back to her own room, crawl into bed, and not get out until the wedding next week. She wouldn't say Rachel was a classic Bridezilla, but as the perfect little sister marrying the perfect man in the perfect storybook wedding, she was more than a little insufferable. And she'd had so much to drink tonight that tomorrow she wouldn't even remember the nail glue.
But Laura would remember. She sighed. That was the trouble with having a conscience. As the older sister, she'd been looking after Rachel since she was born — no time to stop now. She pocketed the key and made her way out of the dim bar onto the circus of the Las Vegas strip on a Saturday night.
For a small town girl from Davenport, Iowa, Vegas was sensory overload. Too many people, too much noise, and confusion. She'd been up since dawn for their red-eye flight from Chicago. All she wanted was to lie down and take a nap. She studied the mini Eiffel Tower of Paris, the fountains of the Bellagio, and the billboards advertising the latest and greatest Vegas shows.
A wall of people surged past her on the sidewalk. A cacophony of honking horns, blaring rock music, high-pitched squeals, and the drone of vendors hawking various wares made her head ache even more. The air smelled of car exhaust, popcorn, and sweat. She felt mildly disoriented as she squeezed into the traffic flow, dodging a beefy young man who tried to shove a flyer into her hand and a woman selling bottled water. Above the noise of the crowd, she heard the cannon fire from the Treasure Island pirates show and the throbbing bass of a car idling on the street in front of the Bellagio.
She stopped and looked around, trying to get her bearings. She and Rachel and the other bridesmaids were staying near the middle of the Strip. Should she turn left or right here? She'd always been terrible with directions, and she was suddenly so fuzzy-headed. Had the main hotel entrance been directly on the Strip, or on one of these little cross streets?
She turned left, and found herself on a small side street that ran between the hotels. "The Ultimate Vegas Wedding Chapel," declared a silvery neon sign overhead. She stopped to gape at the thirty-foot high rendition of Elvis in all his rhinestone glory beside the chapel's front door.
"Excuse me, Miss. I wonder if you could do me a big favor?"
She heard the words, but they didn't really register. The man who spoke wore a fashionably cut pin-striped suit and shiny black shoes. His black hair fell across his forehead, and he looked at her with the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. He was gorgeous. Was he talking to her? And why was his head bobbing around like that? "What did you —?" she mumbled, her own voice sounding far away.
"I need you to do me a favor." He took her elbow and gently urged her toward the door of the chapel. "It won't take but a moment, and it would really help me out."
He kept glancing over his shoulder, as if watching for someone, but when his gaze shifted to her, it held the most earnest, pleading look.
He really was good-looking, and apparently he needed her help with ... She wanted to touch his hair. Why did she keep losing her train of thought? "Okay, it never hurts to help," she giggled.
"Wonderful." He slipped his arm around her and walked her all the way into the chapel. A woman in a white, sequined evening gown handed her a bouquet of silk roses, and a second formally-dressed woman pinned a lace veil in her hair.
"Don't you look lovely," the second woman cooed.
"What?" Laura fumbled the veil out of her eyes. "I don't —"
"It's okay." The handsome man's voice was soothing, his hand on her arm gentle. "If you could just help me out here. Pretend you're madly in love with me."
She laughed. "That shouldn't be hard. You're gorgeous." Had she really said that? She ought to be mortified, but all she felt was a pleasant, floating sensation. And this man was being so reassuring with his arm around her, so strong and comforting. He held her as if she was some delicate, fragile thing. So nice ...
"Thanks. You look great." He took her hand, and she heard him say, "If we could just hurry this up a bit."
The door to the chapel opened, and two men in dark suits entered. They locked eyes with the man by Laura's side, and one of them curled his lips in an expression that was more sneer than smile. She gasped and stumbled back in fear. The men looked so angry. "Abruzzo," the sneering man growled.
"Can't talk now," Laura's escort said, slipping his arm around her waist. "I'm busy."
His arm felt good around her, the muscles hard beneath the fine fabric of his suit jacket. She leaned against him, partly because it felt so good, and partly because she was having trouble keeping her balance. She hadn't had that much to drink. Maybe she was just tired. Yes, if she could only lie down for a minute and close her eyes ...
"Are you okay?" Her escort's expression filled with concern.
"Great. I'm doing great," she said, but the words came out garbled.
"Everything will be fine," he said. "I promise I'll take care of you."
That would be nice, having someone take care of her. She was so used to looking after other people ...
Loud music made her jump, and the young man urged her toward the front of the room. The song sounded so familiar. She began to sing along. "Dum, dum, dee-dum."
A man in a sequined suit stood at the front of the room, a microphone in his hand. Not Elvis, she realized, but Liberace. Liberace? And that song — the wedding march? She closed her eyes. As dreams went, this was one of her most bizarre.
"Darling, wake up." The handsome man spoke very close to her ear, his breath warm. He smelled like expensive aftershave. Very nice. She smiled.
"Say 'I do,'" the man whispered.
"I do," she said. Obviously, this was some kind of play or something. One of those audience participation things, where they dragged people out of the audience on stage. But where was the audience? She turned to look for them, but nearly fell over. The man's arm steadied her, facing her forward once more.
Liberace mumbled something she couldn't quite make out. Everyone's voices came to her through a fog. Had there been something in that last drink? Or maybe those aspirin ...? She shook her head, trying to clear it, but only managed to knock her veil askew.
"Now we just need to take care of the paperwork." The handsome man guided her to a table at the back of the room and put a pen in her hand. "If you'll just sign here."
"What am I signing?" she asked.
"The marriage license," Liberace said. "We want to make this all legal now, don't we?"
She giggled. This was definitely a dream. She'd just go with the flow and see what happened next. Feeling as if she were floating somewhere near the ceiling, she scrawled her signature across the paper. "You were wonderful," the man said, and kissed her cheek.
She touched the side of her face, where his lips had brushed her skin. "What happens now?" she asked.
"Come with me. I promise you have nothing to be afraid of."
"No, I'm not afraid." Nothing about this man inspired fear. He made her feel safe and content. Very happy. But so, so tired. She closed her eyes to rest for just a moment and drifted back into blackness, into a dream where she was lying in a handsome man's strong arms. A man with the bluest, saddest eyes she'd ever seen.
* * *
David studied the beautiful woman in his arms and a tsunami of guilt washed over him. Laura Nichols was young, maybe in her early twenties. With the clear complexion and subdued makeup of a small-town girl-next-door. What the hell had he been thinking, involving someone like her in his troubles? Yes, he'd been desperate to do something — anything — to keep those two thugs from putting a bullet in the back of his head, but he never should have recruited a civilian to help. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
"Is she going to be okay?" Liberace — or rather, the guy who played Liberace at this wedding chapel — frowned at the woman.
"Just a little jet lag." He offered a weak smile and headed toward the exit. "She'll be fine once she's had a little rest." Or once he poured a gallon of coffee in her. He hadn't realized she'd been so out of it until it was too late.
He stepped out of the chapel onto the crowded sidewalk. No one even blinked at a guy carrying a woman past them. Just another vacationer who'd partied too hard. At least Victor and Charlie had wandered off to plague someone else. Had they really bought his story about being in Vegas to get married? All he needed was for them to believe him for a few more days. That would give him enough time to persuade Tommy Zacolli to do the right thing and testify against his old man. David had been chasing Frank Zacolli for too long, and he'd never been so close to reeling him in before. He'd risk everything to close this case.
Except now he'd risked an innocent woman. He settled her more securely in his arms. She sighed and curled into him. Her breasts pressed against his chest, and he was aware of her firm, rounded bottom against his arms. She had lush curves and such a sweet face.
He'd find a way to make this up to her. "Taxi!" he yelled.
He'd have to find a way to explain her to his bosses, as well. This would be one more black mark to add to his file. The words from his last employee review were burned into his memory: "Impulsive. Acts rashly."
Only the fact that — so far, at least — his methods had yielded good results had saved him from getting canned.
A yellow cab screeched to a halt in front of him. David struggled to prop Laura between him and the car in order to open the back door. She murmured something unintelligible and sagged against him, her left breast conveniently filling — and overflowing — his hand. "Is she drunk or sick or what?" the cabby asked when David had poured his bride into the back seat and climbed in after her.
Or what? She didn't reek of alcohol, but she'd definitely over-indulged in something. She didn't act particularly ill, just spacy and maybe tired. "Jet lag," he said.
The cabby looked doubtful. "Never seen jet lag like that."
"It's a severe reaction. She'll be fine once we get to our hotel." He gave the name of the place just off the Strip where he was staying.
"If she gets sick in my cab, you pay a cleaning fee," the cabby said.
David prayed the woman wouldn't get sick. And that she didn't decide to sue him once she woke up. Asking a stranger for a favor was one thing, but marrying someone you'd just met was a whole other level of screw-up. He'd told himself anything was better than being shot; now he wasn't so sure.
* * *
Laura woke to a beam of bright light shining directly in her eyes through a gap in the hotel room's drawn drapes. She groaned and rolled over, then blinked and stared. This was not her room. This was a much nicer room than hers was, with sleek, modern furniture and a separate seating area.
She sat up and saw the man — a vaguely familiar, very good-looking man — who sat in the chair beside the bed, studying her intently. The intensity of his gaze unnerved her. Who was he? And what was she doing here, in bed with him watching her? Oh God — she'd heard about things like this. Men who kidnapped women off the streets and made them into sex slaves. The women were always like her — quiet, small town girls the men thought they could take advantage of. Icy panic gripped her, and she opened her mouth to scream, but in two strides he was on her, his hand clamped over her mouth. "It's okay," he said. "I won't hurt you."
He had the same pleading blue eyes she remembered from her dream. Well, she'd thought it was a dream. The details were coming back to her now: there'd been something about a chapel and a wedding ... he'd been afraid and needed her help. This morning a shadow of dark beard dusted his jaw, but that only made him more handsome. "Promise you won't scream?" he asked, his voice gentle even if his hand on her mouth was not.
She nodded, and he removed his hand and stepped back. "How are you feeling thismorning, Laura?"
"How do you know my name?"
"You told me last night." He moved to a side table where coffee service waited. He filled a cup from a silver pot. The enticing aroma of coffee drifted to her. "Cream or sugar?"
Excerpted from The Wedding Gamble by Cindi Myers, Lewis Pollak, Keyren Gerlach. Copyright © 2013 Cindi Myers. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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