Read an Excerpt
Vegas Vixens (Book Two)
By J.L. Hammer, Laura Stone
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 J.L. Hammer
All rights reserved.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Lily Sanborn adjusted the towel to cover the lower portion of Sal's unclad body and refocused on massaging the stiffness from her client's massive shoulders. "For an old guy, you sure are built. I bet you used to be a weight lifter." She thought for a moment and ventured, "No wait, make that a linebacker in college football."
She tossed back her waist-length ponytail threatening to slip over her shoulder and leaned the weight of her petite body into him to apply more pressure. Air expelled from his throat and created a deep moaning sound. Without missing a beat, her fingers kneaded one ham-sized arm then the other. Exhaustion from way too much overtime hovered nearby, and she blinked away the blur threatening to impede her vision. Sometimes she worked for so many hours straight that the bland walls of the ten-by-twenty room started to close in on her.
Although the rhythmic pace of her hands never ceased, her mind drifted outside of these walls to a white stretch of sandy beach that met a cloudless blue sky. She could almost taste the fruity, alcoholic beverage against her lips and feel the salty, warm breeze touching her skin. Time to work, not to daydream. "Your wife will arrive later this afternoon. We need to get you dressed."
Sal didn't respond, but she hardly expected him to. Finally his muscles relaxed enough, and she brushed her hand over the bulk of his bicep. His skin held a rosy hue and felt firm to the touch. Perfect. She glanced over her shoulder at the gauge in the glass cylinder of the embalming machine, the level of pinkish-red fluid barely noticeable. "Almost done."
Lily always liked to think of her clients as alive rather than corpses lying on cold slabs. Peaceful Memories Mortuary was their last stop, and she wanted to send them off looking their best. Their souls had either taken a one-way ticket to Heaven or went the opposite route to go pop and sizzle in Hell's eternal wok. "No devil for you, Sal; you were a good man. You have a wife and grown children who are eager to kiss you good-bye."
Unlike my own father whose roaming eye left only bitterness, and nobody, not even his children, would bother to kiss him good-bye. An American gigolo, her maternal Chinese grandmother called him, with his handsome, Anglo features. She shook her head at the unwanted thoughts. After removing the embalming fluid tube, she dried off and powdered the nearby skin. Once the incision was sutured, she flexed her cramping, gloved hands. Lily's stomach growled, but at this point, her schedule was far too busy for a lunch break. Maybe after Mr. Salazar left.
"Ms. Viv, you're up." She strolled over to another client on a hydraulic, stainless-steel table, her protective scrubs swishing with her movements. She maneuvered the freshly washed body into a floral dress. The ventilator that hovered above her head whispered as it removed the toxic fumes and provided clean air.
The double doors opened, and Rae, the receptionist, stepped in. Her black, shoulder-length hair — almost as dark as Lily's — gleamed from the overhead light. "Is Ms. Vivian Thorndike ready?" Her bold gaze assessed the bodies.
"Almost, I just need to finish makeup and hair, and she'll be ready for the casket."
"Good, I'll relate that to the director." Rae's pert nose scrunched up. "I don't know how you can work in here. It smells."
"Part of the job." Lily shrugged her shoulder.
"So, how'd your date go with Mr. Bow Tie?"
"You just had to be nosy and introduce yourself."
"Of course, I did." Mischief danced in Rae's green eyes. In her late twenties like Lily, Rae lived in the same mobile home park and had conveniently strolled over when Lily's date had driven up.
"You should take a more active role in your own dating life and keep your nose out of mine." Lily's brows lowered. "You've had like what, one date since I've known you ... and it's not due to the lack of men asking."
Six months ago Rae had moved to Vegas. Lily found it very odd that her friend never talked about family, never had visitors, and in the time it took to boil water, Rae's belongings could be packed up, and it would look like she'd never occupied her trailer.
Rae looked away and shrugged. Then she smirked, which appeared a bit forced. "It's more fun to hear about dates than experience them, so stop dodging the question. Spill it, and I want details."
"It was boring." Just thinking about dinner last night made Lily sleepy.
Rae laughed. "Well that's a shocker. Why did you turn down that hunky guy last week and agree to a date with a nerd who had the personality of cardboard? No offense, but after one minute, I figured out an evening with him would be a flatline."
"What's with all the questions? My date's looks were acceptable, and that hunky guy, as you called him, was just a flirt. He had a tan line where he'd taken off his wedding ring." A cheater just like her father. More than one stupid woman had shown up at Lily's childhood home unwilling to accept they had been dumped after falling for Father's charm. Mother had never gotten mad, just patted the sobbing lady on the shoulder and offered her hot tea. Lily's mouth tightened as she rolled a squeaking metal cart next to Ms. Viv. She inventoried the makeup and grooming items.
"Hmmm. Good catch. Didn't even look for a tan line," Rae said. "So, I'm on grandmother duty tomorrow, right?"
"Yes, and thanks again." Lily wouldn't have even considered going on vacation if she wasn't convinced her grandmother, who'd helped raise her, would be looked after. Not only did Lily resemble her grandmother in her youth, with the same fair skin, high cheekbones, and almond shaped eyes, but she'd become her caregiver of sorts. Lily missed her plush condo, but G-ma refused to leave her friends at the park and for some odd reason wasn't bothered by the rattling trailer as airplanes landed at the neighboring airport. Maybe after her vacation to Belize, Lily would stop clenching her teeth.
"Don't mention it." Rae straightened the sleeve of her blouse to cover more of her sun-kissed skin. "I still can't believe your friend called off her wedding and is taking you on the honeymoon."
Lily shrugged. "Frankie still insists Wes doesn't want to marry her. People in love act dumb. It's obvious Wes is crazy about Frankie." He did save her from a ruthless loan shark — or was it Frankie who saved Wes? Lily had heard so many versions of the event she couldn't remember.
"You think she'll really carry out her threat?"
"She already refunded Wes's ticket, and I purchased mine. I don't know what's up with those two, but that's their problem. Right now, I just want to get a tan and down some cheap umbrella drinks." Lily lifted her hand in the air. "And do whatever else you do in Belize." Maybe the fresh air would chase away the smell of formaldehyde that seemed to follow her like an aura.
"Don't blame you one bit, but be careful. I watched a documentary about how Belize isn't just paradise for tourists, but also for drug dealers."
"Well, I guess they need a vacation, too." Lily brushed a layer of foundation onto Ms. Viv's discolored skin.
"That's not what I mean." Rae lowered her voice as if the corpses might overhear. "It has a dark side. The police can't adequately patrol all those jungles, and the drug cartels are moving in."
"I'm not going there to buy crack. I'm going to relax, hopefully on a beach."
"Were the final words of the American tourist."
Lily paused from applying makeup and peered over. "Would you like to be my next client?"
Rae laughed and planted a hand on her curvy hip, making Lily's straight figure seem almost boyish. "You hate working overtime. Well, be sure to keep your cell phone handy, because your grandmother doesn't like me. Do you know the last time I came over, she hit me with a broom?"
"Your crow tattoo is bad luck. It would be just as bad if you'd strolled into her living room arm in arm with the Grim Reaper." All G-ma's quirks took some getting used to.
"That's weird. It's just ink on my skin."
"Weird or not, you can't win over G-ma if you've been added to her evil list." Lily flipped a dismissive hand in the air. But the good news was that G-ma would be so busy trying to keep the bad out of the house, she wouldn't have time to miss Lily.
"My favorite band's The Black Crowes." Rae's brows furrowed. "Can't you just tell her that?"
"Won't make a difference." Lily studied the photo of Ms. Viv. With gentle strokes, she styled her client's wispy, gray hair. "Just let her whack you with the broom. It makes her feel better."
"I'm not letting her hit me, and I'm not getting the tattoo taken off. If I'm supposed to keep an eye on her for the next two weeks, what should I do about her carrying a broom?"
Lily stared at Rae. Sometimes people were clueless. "Simple. Duck."
The low ring from the wall phone diverted their attention. Lily removed her gloves and tossed them in the trash. With a few short strides, she snatched up the handset and gave her token greeting. "Embalming, Lily."
Rae waved and walked back out the doors.
"Hey, it's Frankie," a familiar feminine voice announced.
"Your ears must have been ringing. I was just talking about you."
Silence stretched over the line before Frankie said, "Wes and I made up."
"I knew you would." A smile lifted the corners of Lily's mouth only to drop as she envisioned her vacation slipping away. "So the wedding's back on?"
"Err ... not exactly. You know Wes, he's still nervous about marrying again, so we decided to wait six more months. I guess I pushed too hard about the marriage thing."
Lily shifted the phone. "So what's the plan? Want me to bow out so you two can go together?"
A long pause followed. "No, it would cost too much now to buy his ticket. Um, I feel really bad about this, but I can't go without him ... so, Lily, you'll have to go on my honeymoon solo."
* * *
Mountain Pine Ridge, Belize
Cooper Deforest shifted in his cushioned chair and tried his best to pretend he wasn't having iced tea on the balcony of a drug lord's two-story mansion. Birds chattered amongst the palm fronds as moisture from the May humidity made Cooper's dirt-streaked clothes stick to him, which was a complete contrast to Maximo, who looked like an aristocrat in a crisp, white suit. Neither man had touched the two plates of fruit that rested on the tempered glass of the patio table.
"Belize is paradise, wouldn't you say?" Maximo rested against the chair and scanned his vast empire guarded by a dozen armed militia and a high-voltage fence.
Cooper had heard the rumors circulating about how Maximo had assassinated his rival and fed his remains to the jaguars at the local reserve. Now at age thirty, just five years younger than Cooper, he'd become the youngest and most feared drug lord in the country. And what was astonishing, at least in Cooper's mind, was that Maximo had graduated from a university in Spain only to return to his native country to build a criminal empire.
Before Cooper could speak, Maximo continued. "Belize is a land for the people, without all the brainwashing you get from governments like your own."
Cooper seriously doubted Maximo had sent two armed men to the village for the suggested meeting to get his opinion on government. "I agree. Belize is a beautiful country."
Standing off to the side, Maximo's head of security known as the Samoan crossed his meaty arms, his expression: impassive. The scar slashed down the man's bronze cheek, along with his shaved head, added to his intimidation factor.
Maximo's scrutinizing gaze raked over Cooper. "If I had to make a guess, I'd say you're from California."
"I am." Cooper wasn't too impressed, given he had tan skin, blond hair to his shoulders, and more often than not people thought he should be brandishing a surfboard rather than a doctorate.
"Doctor, do you know why you're my guest this afternoon?"
"Can't say I do."
"We have a problem. Your research is getting too close to my land holdings."
Cooper adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses and tried his best to ignore the rapid pounding of his pulse. Without a doubt his research was important, lifesaving even, but he was wise enough to know not to taunt death. "Well, I think we can find an easy solution."
"You Americans do consider yourselves the solvers of the world's problems. Please. Enlighten me." Maximo propped an elbow on the table and rested the three remaining fingers on his left hand against the temple of his close-cut brown hair.
Although Maximo spoke calmly, his posture had tensed. Cooper fought to keep his nerves from showing. He'd lived most of his life in third world countries, and although he'd been in stickier situations than this — with a gun pointed to his head and an ultimatum to leave the country or die, or as a teenager barely escaping his house that had intentionally been burned to the ground — that didn't stop a trickle of sweat from sliding a serpentine path down his back. "I could really use your advice on the best places to conduct my research. If an area is dangerous, maybe steep terrain or predators, I won't go there." Cooper held his breath.
A smirk spread across Maximo's clean-shaven jaw. "You are correct. There are lots of dangerous places, and I wouldn't want you or one of those villagers you trained to get hurt."
Cooper's hands flexed at the thought of one of the villagers being injured. This man held too much power. People shouldn't have to live in fear, but from experience he knew it happened all the time. Cooper listed off seven areas where he'd planned to conduct research. He gained approval on three.
Maximo gestured toward the acres of jungle that rose and fell with the curves of the hilly terrain. "Doctor, I didn't gain my empire by showing kindness, and I don't give second chances."
Cooper decided then and there that he would stop using the villagers to assist with his research. Too risky.
Maximo removed an orange slice from the plate closest to Cooper and placed it near a spider monkey perched on the railing. It snatched the food, flipped its furry tail in the air, and turned away. "The only reason you weren't just shot and left for the jaguars is because I am aware of who your father is ... but don't test my kindness."
"I'm just here to do my research, and then I'll be on my way."
The monkey on the rail staggered, capturing Cooper's attention. A strange guttural sound emitted from its furry body, and it pitched forward over the balcony. A piece of the orange rind plopped on the slate floor. Cooper slid his gaze to the remaining fruit on his plate and then to Maximo's bland stare.
A tense moment stretched out. Cooper kept his expression neutral, not wanting his real reactions of fear and anger to fuel a power trip for this sick-ass who'd killed a helpless animal and could have killed him as well.
"Fate was on your side, Doctor. How easily you could have been tempted by the decadent fruit and died a painful death."
Cooper couldn't respond. He hadn't been tempted by the fruit, but with the high humidity, he'd almost taken a drink of the iced tea.
"You're cool under pressure. I could use a man like you to get things out of the country."
Great, a job offer from a drug dealer. The cascading water from the sculpted fountain now sounded as loud as a roaring waterfall. "My research leaves time for nothing else," Cooper said.
Maximo lowered his thick slash of brows and Cooper tensed, waiting for a knife to plunge into his chest or a bullet to plow into him. The Samoan widened his stance. With a snap of Maximo's fingers, Cooper would be dead and everyone knew it. Maximo stood, the chair scraping across the floor. "Do you think you have a choice?"
Maximo walked through the French doors, opened for him before he broke stride. Cooper stood. The Samoan approached and tossed a white envelope.
It bounced off Cooper's chest and hit the table. "I'm not interested."
In a fluid motion, the Samoan unsheathed a hunting knife from the waistband of his trousers. The razor-sharp blade glinted from the rays of the morning sun. "Exactly what I was hoping you'd say. Either take the envelope, and get in the vehicle, or I'll gut you, keeping you on the verge of consciousness, and then bury you alive."
Shit. Not in the mood to die today, Cooper snatched the envelope and strode toward the outside staircase in the direction he'd come. The envelope seared like a hot coal into his hand. He needed to finish his research and get out. Once in the vehicle with the two bodyguards who'd brought him, Cooper bounced around in the backseat as they drove down a dirt road etched through the jungle. Overhead, the canopy blocked out most of the sunlight. Cooper knew one thing for sure: after what he'd just endured, he needed a strong drink and sure could use the distraction of female company. Sometimes a man just had to celebrate life.
Excerpted from Deadly Trouble by J.L. Hammer, Laura Stone. Copyright © 2015 J.L. Hammer. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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