Shell-shocked detective Natalie Rothchild wasn't sure what stung moreknowing that her twin had paid dearly for flaunting their fortune at a Las Vegas hot spotor prying information from the man who went AWOL after promising her forever.
In between lame excuses and darkly possessive glances, casino security expert Matt Schaffer revealed how the bejeweled tabloid queen sashayed down the red carpet before she died. Yet he couldn't say whether Natalie was dealing with a crime of passion or a family foe on a wild rampage.
Would the two ex-lovers partner up to solve this horrific crimeor would they give the sizzling heat of Sin City a run for its money?
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Excitement vibrated through Candace Rothchild's veins.
She could literally feel her adrenaline accelerating. Creating a rush. It was always this way when she stepped out in front of the cameras. Being the center of attention even anticipating being the center of attention created a high that few drugs, legal or otherwise, could equal. Ever since she could remember, Candace thrived on the limelight, ate it up as if it was a source of energy for her.
Unlike her twin sister, Natalie, whom she considered a dull, placid being with little imagination or flair, Candace positively bloomed when attention was thrown her way. The bigger, the better had always been her motto.
To this end, she always made sure that she was picture perfect. She wore the latest fashions, had the kind of figure women would kill for and men remembered long after she had passed out of their lives. If, at times, that necessitated starving herself and spending outrageous amounts of money, well, so be it. It was all worth it. She wasn't cut out for the tranquil, humdrum life. Which meant the role of doting mother, to sons she hardly knew and had less time for, wasn't for her. The only plus from that end was that the tabloids were forever attempting to guess who had fathered them and if, indeed, it had been the same man in both cases.
Beyond that, the childrenMick and David, named after her favorite singersheld no interest for her. Far more important was that there was always another premiere, another function, another occasion to be photographed and fawned over. At times, she would imagine average, desperate women hungrily devouring the tidbits of her life, fantasizing about the men she'd bedded, all in an effort to leave, however briefly, their own drab lives behind.
She was doing a public service living this way, Candace told herself, a smirk twisting her ripe, collagen-full lips. She gave those poor, hopeless women something to dream about.
Why, she was positively noble, if you gave it any thought, Candace silently congratulated herself as she gracefully slid out of the backseat of the limousine and onto the red carpet that was unfurled before The Janus. This opulent casino, where tonight's charity gala was being held, was Luke Montgomery's most extravagant enterprise to date. Never mind that Luke and her father were rivals the way only the nouveau riche could be in Las Vegas, where the stakes that ran highest were not always found on a blackjack table.
The gala Luke was hosting centered around an international jewelry convention. On display was a breathtaking collection of gems that had been donated by various members of the rich and famous, all in the name of charity. The price of admission was high but only in terms of what the average person could afford.
The sum meant nothing to Candace. Money had never been a problem for her. Sustaining her high had beenbecause she needed to stay in the spotlight in order to survive. Without it, the insecurities that lingered in the background began to encroach, darkening her world and threatening to sink her into a nether region fraught with madness.
So she did what she could to ensure that she would never descend to those levels. She surrounded herself with glamorous people and basked in the glow of the limelight the way no one else could.
Charity or not, Candace had no gems she was willing to part with. She never met an expensive bauble she didn't immediately love. And tonight, she was sporting the best of the best, a legendary diamond that, according to a rumor she'd heard, had been in her family for several decades. The Tears of the Quetzal. Only gems of quality had names, she thought with a smug grin.
Her father, Harold Rothchild, thought the ring was safely under lock and key. But then, he had no idea how determined she could be. Or how clever. Like everyone else, he had underestimated her. His problem, she thought carelessly.
Besides, what good was jewelry if you couldn't wear it? Couldn't flaunt it and make others look at it enviously? None, that's what. Jewelry had to be seen to be appreciated.
And its owner envied.
Candace looked down now at the ring on her hand. The incredible multifaceted diamond captured all the light in the immediate vicinity and flashed it back onto her in bursts of green and purple. It was as if she had a star on her ring finger. Rumor had it that there was a curse attached to it.
All nonsense, she was certain. The so-called curse was started by her father, or maybe Grandpa Joe before him to keep people from making off with the gem. But she wasn't ignorant like the rest of her pathetic family.
She had no concerns about a curse, only about the attention wearing the priceless gem could garner her. She stood for a moment as the limousine pulled away, letting those in the immediate vicinity drink in the sight of her. She gave the appearance of being taller than she was, helped, in part, by stiletto heels. The long, clinging scarlet gown she wore would have been eye-catching under any circumstances. On her it was doubly so, and she knew it. Cascading platinum hair completed the picture. She was a knockout.
She was alone tonight. Deliberately so. She wanted to be unencumbered as she scanned the sea of men this gala had lured. She wanted to be free to scan them and to bring the one that pleased her most back to her condo. Her sons had been packed off with the nanny for an overnight visit with the nanny's sister and nephewswhich left the terrain open for her. There would be no disapproving nanny, no annoying children popping up at inopportune times to ask even more annoying questions.
She was in the mood for something new tonight. Something different. Exotic, perhaps.
A smile slipped over her lips as she slowly made her way along the carpet, her pace timed to the flashes that were going off, marking her passage. Photographers called out her name and vied for better positions in order to snare the "perfect" photograph.
In a pinch, Candace mused, she might not mind reverting back to the tried and true. Like Luke Montgomery. In his time, he'd been very hot in bed. Hot enough to leave an impression on her in his wake, even now. Not an easy feat considering the number of lovers she'd had over the years. Her collection had begun at the precocious age of fourteen when she'd surrendered her virginity, already rather compromised, to the family chauffeur. Paolo, as she recalled, had been poor, but beautiful.
And very, very skilled in the ways of lovemaking.
She wondered where Paolo was these days. Her father had gotten rid of the driver the moment he'd found out about the affair. Harold Rothchild had indignantly threatened the man with prison, but even she'd known that the threat was empty. Ever conscious of their reputation, her father wanted nothing more than to avoid any sort of public scandal that reflected poorly on the family.
She'd given him quite a run for his money, she thought, turning her face up so that the lighting caught her just so.
"Poor Dad, you should have raised prize-winning roses, not daughters," she mused under her breath.
Recognizing them, she paused to pose for several national magazine photographers. One hand on her hip, the otherthe one with the ringdelicately placed just beneath her collarbone and above the deeply plunging neckline that left only the tiniest speck to the imagination. Of the two of them, she wondered which was more of a disappointment to her father, she with her penchant of attracting every photographer within a fifty-mile radius, or Natalie, who worked as a police detective, for God sakes. How mundane and common can you get?
"This way, Candace. Look this way!" a deep male voice called out urgently.
The voice, she noted, sounded vaguely familiar to her, although she doubted she could place it as she turned in the direction it had come from.
And then she smiled more brilliantly. She was right. She had recognized the voice. Recognized the man as well, although she couldn't remember his name.
Something beginning with a P she thought, although she couldn't be sure. Or maybe it began with a B. But then, it didn't matter if she remembered them, only that they remembered her, and by the look on this one's face, he most certainly did remember her.
They'd slept together, hadn't they? she thought. He looked like her type. Tall, muscular, with an olive complexion, thick black hair and high cheekbones that gave him almost an aristocratic look. She might have mistaken him for one of the invited guestsif not for the camera he was clutching.
But he was exotic looking and she really was in the mood for someone exotic.
"What have you got for us, Candace?" he called out, elbowing his way forward ahead of the gaggle of photographers. Grumbling and curses marked his forward progress.
"A lot of sugar," she answered in a breathless voice that made her sound as if she were channeling the spirit of the late Marilyn Monroe at her zenith. "And, of course, this."
"This" was the ring that she now held up like a courtesan in the court of King Henry VIII waiting to have her hand kissed. A satisfied smirk graced her lips again. A flurry of cameras went off, capturing the image and the moment.
But her attention was only focused on the photographer with the aura of danger about him. Winking, she bent forward, giving him, she knew, ample view of her endowment.
"Didn't we ?" Candace deliberately let her voice trail off even as her eyes held him prisoner in their blue gaze.
His smile, she caught herself thinking, was incredibly sexy as he answered in a low voice, "Yes, we did. I'm flattered that you remembered."
It was the perfect thing to say to her and he knew it, even as he maintained his innocent expression.
Candace did her best to recall the details of their couplingand failed. "I'm afraid your name " She shrugged playfully, a laugh escaping her carefully made up lips. "I was never good with names."
"Patrick," he supplied politely, snapping another photograph. She preened. "My name's Patrick Moore."
"I knew it was something that started with the letter P," she declared triumphantly.
It took effort for the photographer to keep his true feelings from showing on his face. It took even more effort to keep from telling this two-bit slut what he thought of her and her whole degenerate family. But then, that would have been counterproductive to his plan. He hoped that by supplying her with the name he was going by these days, it would keep her from thinking too much. From remembering.
But then, he comforted himself, her brain usually oscillated between being fried or being pickled. Neither state was conducive to remembering pertinent details, like the ones that would blow his cover.
"Is the ring yours now?" someone else, obviously at least mildly familiar with the ring's chain of ownership, called out to Candace.
She didn't bother trying to hide the condescending glance she sent toward the photographer. Her laughter echoed with victory.
"It's always been mine," she announced.
Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of Luke just within the entrance. Six foot two, lean and muscular, with dark hair she remembered running her fingers through, he looked incredible. A touch of nostalgia surfaced. He always did look good in a tux.
Looked damn good out of one, too, she thought with a lascivious smile.
"If you gentlemen'll excuse me," she murmured to the reporters. And then, because she hated the prospect of facing the night in an empty bed, she glanced back at the exotic reporter. It never hurt to have an ace in the hole. "Maybe we can get together later. I'll fill you in on what I've been doing lately. For your tabloid," she added with a wink as she patted his face, her ring sparkling and throwing off beams of light with every movement.
"I'd like that," he told her.
She expected nothing less. "Yes, I'm sure you would. I'm staying at"
"I know where you're staying," Patrick Moore cut her short.
She smiled, inclining her head. "Clever boy," she murmured.
With that, she sashayed off to the casino, every step a calculated movement guaranteed to make men's mouths water.
Once inside, Candace began to move just a tad faster. If she'd retained her present pace, the object of her pursuit, Luke Montgomery, would have put too much distance between them. She very much wanted to hook up with the gala host. Men of power were like an aphrodisiac for her, and Luke Montgomery, despite his humble beginnings, was now regarded as one of Vegas's movers and shakers. Nothing she liked more than being on the winning team.
She had, she liked to think, a lot to bring to the table.
"Luke," she called out to him. When he didn't appear to hear her, Candace raised her voice, temporarily abandoning Marilyn Monroe's sexy, throaty whisper for pragmatic reasons. There was still no response.
The third time she called out his name, Luke stopped walking. He could feel his shoulders tensing. He'd heard her the first time and had hoped that she would just give up.
He should have known better.
Damn that shrew anyway. He wanted the focus of this gala to be on him, his newest casino and the charity he was sponsoring, in that order. Nowhere in that hierarchy did he want to include a vapid, superficial bleach-blonde.
But if he didn't acknowledge her, he knew she was going to cause a scene, and that was the last thing he wanted tonight.
So Luke turned around, a perfunctory smile of civility on his lips worn for the benefit of anyone who might be passing by.
"Hello, Candace," he said as soon as he crossed back to her. Towering over the woman, he all but quietly growled, "I don't seem to remember sending you an invitation."
A careless laugh met his statement. "I'm sure it was just an oversight." Candace possessively threaded her arms through his. Being so close to Luke vividly reminded her of the last time they'd been together. Though she'd never said anything, she'd considered settling down with him. At least for a while. A lady-killer who lived up to his reputation, he was a magnificent lover who always left her wanting more.
Because she sensed that this gala meant a lot to him, she tried to get on his good side by saying, "This certainly has the looks of being quite a successful event."
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