Living in the red-hot now is how Rhonda Deagan survives. Onstage, this sexy Goth stripper always stays on top, no matter how much her real-life dreams shatter. So why not risk a scorching fling with a gorgeous groomsman after her best friend's wedding? Too bad Blake Cameron is in someone's lethal sights. And saving this cool-headed investigator's life just put Rhonda on the run with him--and on his personal, oh-so-seductive hit list…
For Blake, figuring out who doesn't want him dead is easier than keeping his new raven-haired friend safe. The only way he can buy time to out-think their pursuers is to hide them both in the aristocratic world he thought he'd escaped. But there's no escaping the incendiary attraction between him and Rhonda. Walking the knife-edge between desire, lies, and naked truth may be their best chance to live--if it doesn't cut too deep to survive…
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Sin on the Run
Women of Vegas
By Lucy Farago
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Lucy Farago
All rights reserved.
Rhonda didn't do color. And if the lace wasn't black, why wear it? But considering that everything in her wardrobe was basically graveside vintage, she understood why no one had taken her objections seriously. But ... lavender was something you dried, then shoved in your underwear drawer.
She needed to snap out of her mood. This was Maggie's wedding day. Like it or not, she'd agreed to be a bridesmaid. But even here, in the bride's room of the church, she couldn't shake the feeling. Although her gown fell to her toes and the high, halter neckline covered the scar on the back of her neck, she felt more exposed now than she ever had dancing on stage.
She glanced down at her once black, now lavender fingernails. Stranger's hands. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Who was that person? Gone was the Goth persona she wore like a second skin. Hell, since Maggie had forbidden her from wearing black panties, even her butt didn't feel like her own. She wiggled uncomfortably, remembering the lavender thong covering her girl parts.
Her skin crawled with the dread of everyone seeing her like this, and she prayed she wouldn't sweat through the silk fabric. She listened to the chatter of the other women in the room and told herself to stay calm. Maggie's three closest friends made up the rest of the wedding party. They were hardly shrinking violets, so Rhonda counted on people paying more attention to them than her. Then, of course, there was Maggie.
Rhonda's boss, and the closest thing she had to family, was getting married. And the hottie waiting for her in the church would make any woman consider taking that long, miserable walk down the aisle. If these lovebirds could survive a serial killer, then they could survive anything. Rhonda touched the puckered slices on her neck, a reminder that she, too, had survived. If she'd made it through being left for dead and two surgeries, she could make it through a quick skip down the aisle of a very full church and bear witness to her friend's big day.
She found a chair in a corner to watch the other women fuss over Maggie's hair and veil. Somehow she doubted Maggie's father, Reverend James Hopewell, would approve of the crass jokes being tossed around. To Maggie's credit, she ignored the ones at her expense. That was Maggie, always a lady. Unless you were threatening one of her dancers. If you didn't behave in her club, your ass was hers. Rhonda smiled. She couldn't imagine what her life would have been like if she hadn't found Maggie's club.
In Vegas, raunchy strip clubs were in abundance. Sure, some looked nice on the outside, some even looked nice on the inside. It was the bowels of the club a girl had to watch out for. But luck had been on her side the day she walked into Heart's Desire. And she'd lived in Vegas long enough to know that luck and good fortune went hand in hand.
"Ronnie, you okay back there?"
She caught Maggie's reflection in the full-length mirror. "Sure. Why wouldn't I be?" She hoped that sounded cheery.
"Because, Ms. Deagan," Wendy answered for Maggie, "we stripped you down, no pun intended, and girlie-girled you up." Wendy smiled smugly and unapologetically. The accountant didn't believe in beating around the bush. Facts were facts, she'd say. Somehow, that woman could tell a cop he was a complete ass for trying to give her a ticket one minute, and the next, he'd be asking for her number.
"Girlie?" Alice chimed in before Rhonda could defend herself. "Hell, Elvira there looked like she had a part in The Walking Dead. We made her human again."
"We're in a church," Maggie reminded her.
"And your point?" Alice asked, wide-eyed and innocent.
Even on her wedding day, her friends loved to push Maggie's buttons. Honestly, Rhonda was honored to have been included in this mishmash of odd women who'd do anything for each other.
"Her point is that if you don't pull the wild, wild west out of your Texas ass, Maggie will unleash the wrath of God upon you," Shannon answered with such a sweet smile and fake southern accent that everyone, including the bride, laughed.
"Yeah, that's it." Maggie slapped Shannon's hand away from her hair. "Enough already. Stop fussing. You did a great job."
"Seriously Mags: stop fussing, stop cussing. Anything else you'd like to control? Rhonda, tell us. How'd you do it? How'd you manage not to succumb to her tyranny?" Shannon asked with a well-practiced straight face.
Actually, it hadn't been easy. A time or two, she'd considered taking Maggie's offer for help to quit stripping and return to school. But clock hands only turned one way and she was no longer the young girl who wanted to help the world. "I learned to tune her out." Rhonda could tune out anything. She had to. It was the only way she'd make it through her performance. "Besides, she's more bark than bite. If she likes you, that is."
"Yes, and aren't the four of you lucky I like you?" Maggie spun her index finger in the air, indicating their group.
"Oh, bull —" As Maggie glared at her, Alice groaned with an unrepentant grin. "Bull hockey. You love us."
"Keep telling yourself that. Truth is, I tolerate all of you. Except Ronnie. Her, I love." Maggie smiled at Rhonda.
But it was more than a smile, and as the women continued to exchange jabs, friendly and not so friendly, Rhonda had never been more grateful. That smile carried more weight than words. Maggie did love her. And Rhonda loved Maggie too. Only it went beyond simply love. It was respect. When her father's drinking had reached a new low, Rhonda had made the difficult decision to kiss her EMT job good-bye and start stripping to pay his bills. It had been humiliating. Other women might think of Rhonda as cheap, slutty even. Not Maggie.
But she wasn't going there. Not today. Today was a happy day, and damn it to hell, she was going to keep it that way. She glanced at Maggie. Did swearing in your head count as blasphemy in a church?
Someone knocked on the door.
"If that's you, Christian, get lost. It's bad luck and you know it," Shannon shouted.
Rhonda believed in luck, good or bad. People talked of fate. But fate meant a predetermined event; luck was a chance happening, whatever the universe felt like tossing your way. And the universe tended to screw Rhonda over.
Dean, the wedding coordinator, stuck his head inside. "It's only me. Five minutes, ladies." He waved, then closed the door.
"Okay, last call. How do I look?" Maggie turned away from the mirror.
All four replied, "Beautiful." As if there had been anything else to say.
Rhonda wouldn't compare herself to any of these women. They were successful, respected individuals. They had a bond no one could break and God help anyone who tried. Maggie had risked her life to save Shannon from the hands of a serial killer. Had the tables been reversed, Shannon would have done the same. Rhonda couldn't hold a candle to them. She wasn't a lawyer, a designer, or accountant, and least of all, she wasn't a person who dedicated her life to help the women whom society kicked to the curb. She was just a stripper whose bad luck had killed her mother, whose father used booze to cope, whose childhood had been flushed down the toilet because she needed to be a parent to that father.
Rhonda reached into the large octagonal cardboard box and took out the white magnolia bouquet intended for the bride. She passed it to Shannon, who handed it to Maggie. The two women smiled a wordless exchange.
"Don't you make me cry," Maggie scolded her maid of honor.
"There you go being pushy again. Considering how long it took me to like Christian, now I feel sorry for the guy."
"He's lucky to have her," Rhonda said. They all were.
Telling herself no way was she going to join in the tear fest, Rhonda proceeded to give each bridesmaid her small, pink magnolia bouquet. Inhaling the flower arrangement in her hands, she led the way out of the bride's chambers and into the rectory.
Dean waited outside the entrance of the closed nave. After the final touches to Maggie's dress and veil, the processional march began. Two large oak doors were drawn apart and Rhonda positioned herself at the end of the aisle. Before her, a church overflowing with people waited. She told herself to relax. No one cared about her. They were here to watch Maggie. Praying she wouldn't trip and draw attention to herself, Rhonda held the bouquet in a vise-like grip. Taking her cue from Dean, she began the unnerving walk down the aisle.
Rhonda refused to meet anyone's gaze, even when the girls from the club tried to get her attention. They would chalk it up to nerves. Anyone who'd had a nightmare that involved being naked in public would understand. She had no armor to protect herself, no wall of black, no layers of makeup to hide behind. At rehearsal, she'd counted the steps and knew the exact number to her spot. There, her back would be to the congregation, and all eyes thankfully on the happy couple.
She practiced this in her mind. At twenty steps she'd look up to see the groom, smile and take her place. Seventeen ... eighteen, the quick beating of her heart made it difficult to count. Nineteen ... twenty, she looked up. But it wasn't just Christian she saw. Beside him stood his best man, Blake Cameron. Distracted, she missed her cue to step to the side. When their eyes met, the man smiled. Then her feet forgot how to walk. She stood there, like a dummy, until Christian quietly cleared his throat. Mortified, she slid into her place.
Maggie had warned them. She'd told them Blake was Scottish and so beautiful they wouldn't believe it. Given that he and Christian were once special agents, she'd conjured up a Jason Statham-type guy, hot and a little rough looking. But with rich blond hair most women would kill for, and eyes that made you picture him naked and in bed with you, he was anything but rough looking.
Both men and all of the groomsmen worked for ICU, a private investigation unit specializing in missing people or objects. Every man standing up for Christian was either ex-military or ex-FBI. Maggie had said Ryan Sheppard, their boss, handpicked his teams, each man chosen for a set of skills. So the man standing next to Christian was chosen for what? Being so pretty he made women jealous?
Alice took her spot beside her, then Wendy, then Shannon. Together they turned, as the change in music cued Maggie and her father's walk up the aisle. Unable to resist, Rhonda snuck a peek at the breathtakingly beautiful man, but Christian blocked her view. She'd bet angels broke into a chorus of Hallelujah and a light brighter than anything on the strip had shone when he walked into a room. And she wasn't totally exaggerating. He had a face meant only for gods, and not likely forgotten.
Maggie reached the top of the aisle. Christian took her hands, accepting her from her father. Then they all turned to face the altar. Rhonda should have kept her eyes on the beautiful couple. Instead, the bluest eyes on earth were staring back at her — Blake's. Her mouth went dry.
Alice shifted slightly, temporarily blocking Rhonda's view. When she tried to discreetly look past her, she caught Alice's opened-mouthed expression. Wendy followed, and lastly Shannon, who looked as in awe as the rest of them. Even with a lawyer's ability to mask her expression, it took Shannon a few seconds to recover.
For the rest of the ceremony, right through to the teary "I do's," Rhonda centered her attention where it should be, on the bride and groom. She concluded that Christian's best man was like an Hermès bag. Nice to look at and appreciate the workmanship, but never in her wildest dreams would she ever own one. Not unlike looking at a chocolate sundae, knowing you'd never eat it but tormenting yourself with how good it would taste.
Maggie and Christian shared a hot kiss that should have embarrassed the bride with her father sitting in the front pew. Afterward, everyone clapped and followed the bride and groom out of the church. Last in line, Rhonda couldn't see her chocolate sundae, now three couples ahead. If she didn't stop thinking about him as dessert, she was in serious trouble. At least she could be grateful for one more thing. With Blake in the wedding party, no one would pay attention to her. She could be the invisible bridesmaid, a little blob of lavender silk.
Pictures were scheduled at the Bellagio fountains, where Rhonda did her best to disappear into the background. She didn't know why the man unnerved her, only that he did. Thankfully, any free time Blake had was occupied with other women vying for his attention.
Unfortunately, Alice managed to snag her arm. "Come talk to Christian's best friend."
"I can talk to him later," Rhonda said, dragging her heels.
"Talk to him now," she argued and pulled her along. "I need your opinion on something." She waved Blake over with her bouquet.
The beautiful scenery that the Bellagio spent millions creating paled in comparison to his smile. "Yes, love," he said, coming toward them. "What can I do for you?"
Holy Hannah, that accent. Of course he has an accent. He's Scottish. Rhonda resisted the urge to fan herself with her flowers.
"This is Rhonda Deagan. Ronnie, Blake Cameron."
Hoping her palms weren't sweating, she extended her hand. "Nice to meet you," they said in unison. Alice seemed to be waiting expectantly for something. But what, Rhonda didn't know.
"How was your flight?" she asked, thankful her mouth worked.
"Good. I think. I slept right through."
"Blake." Christian waved him back. "Come settle a bet."
Blake groaned, rubbing the back of his neck. "Coming," he answered and returned his attention to the women. "Every time I'm asked to settle a bet, I come out the loser. Ladies ..." He nodded and made his way back to Christian and the other groomsmen.
Wendy joined them and Alice waited for him to leave before zeroing in on Rhonda. "Well? Which one of them looks better naked?"
"Excuse me?" Maybe she hadn't heard right.
"Blake or Christian, silly," Wendy said, her voice low.
Rhonda frowned. Had the women lost it? "How many of those have you had?" she asked, pointing to the glass of champagne in Alice's hand.
"Enough, little girl, that I want to know which one of those perfect specimens of men has a hotter body."
"I won't bother pointing out that your friend just married one of those men and you two caring what they look like naked is wrong. What I want to know is how you think I'd know how to answer your question."
"Rhonda, come on. We know you know. Give," Wendy insisted.
Rhonda took the glass away from Alice and set it on a passing waiter's tray.
"Hey, I'm not drunk," she protested. "Just curious."
"Well, that's cool and I'm sure every woman within a twenty-mile radius is also curious, but as I've never seen Blake naked ..." She'd have definitely remembered that holy event.
Alice lowered her head. "Yes, you have," she whispered. "He's the other agent who worked with Christian at the strip club. You know, the dump you worked at before Maggie's."
They'd all agreed to keep Christian's undercover assignment as a stripper to themselves, Maggie having warned them not to bring it up around her new husband. Rhonda had worked at the same club where Christian had been trying to shut down a human trafficking operation. The night of Rhonda's attack, she'd been excited to remember where she'd recognized him. Wanting to rush off and tell Maggie had led to her careless disregard for her own safety.
"I don't recognize him." He'd be hard to forget. Had two agents been assigned to that case?
"He'd have been undercover. Maybe he was in disguise?" Alice offered.
Wendy gave Alice's arm a not so friendly swat. "What kind of disguise can you wear while you're taking your clothes off, dummy?"
Rhonda knew exactly how someone could disguise himself, or herself. Her father wouldn't have had the care he'd needed had Rhonda not learned to hide behind the hair and makeup.
Alice folded her arms, nodding in Rhonda's direction.
Wendy's eyes grew like saucers. "I am a dummy. You look so different."
Rhonda offered her a smile and for the first time since this morning, she relaxed a little. The uncomfortable feeling of being on display eased. If Wendy had forgotten, maybe no one else would reconcile the lavender-toting bridesmaid with the woman famous for the Mistress of the Night act. Maybe for today she could just be Ronnie?
"Okay, back to the hotties," Wendy said. "Which one?"
Rhonda glanced back at Blake, honestly not remembering having seen him with Christian. "That was years ago. Are you sure he had the same assignment? It would be hard to overlook a guy who's that perfect."
Excerpted from Sin on the Run by Lucy Farago. Copyright © 2016 Lucy Farago. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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