The day started like any other day for Layla; her mother caught her filching food from the main house refrigerator and attacked. She didn’t come in swinging, though. It was more a thoughtful demolition of carefully planned and timed attacks.
With the aqua refrigerator open, Layla bit into an apple and eyed the Chardonnay in the door. Too early. She kept her back turned to her mother. Layla, darling, she would always begin. Then, bam, she’d cut more efficiently than Layla ever could herself.
“The Purple People Eater” came on the radio at that moment, static crackling over it, and as Layla turned to face her, her mother cringed. Vivian Rosas hated modern music.
“Layla, darling. I’ve made you an appointment with a doctor in the city. He’s very confident he can help you.”
Mouth full of apple to annoy her mother, who liked to pretend she’d been born and bred with class, Layla asked, “Help with what?”
Vivian, in her attempts to appear as if she’d come into the world elegant and perfect, wore a long, violet silk dressing gown with a full skirt. It would’ve cost a fortune. Despite the nightwear, her mother’s ebony hair was already carefully coiffed into a high bouffant.
“Your father and I have grown concerned since the incident at his hotel.”
“It wasn’t a big deal, Mother. I’ll find somewhere else to while away the never-ending glamour of my days.”
Her mother’s lips tightened. “You’re isolated. You have no friends, no prospects for a husband. You stay in the pool house with all the windows blacked out.”
“It’s a dark room. You can’t exactly throw open the curtains and let the sun shine in.”
At this point, her mother pulled a paring knife from the drawer and slowly began to peel the skin from an apple. So, this would be one of those arguments. When her mother truly attacked Layla, she made certain to leave something sharp in view. First, she would tear Layla to ribbons with her words, then leave some pointy object around so Layla would start slicing for relief.
“We believe you may benefit from the treatment Dr. Smythe is using with great success. It makes one forget all about the unpleasant thoughts that turn a well-bred young woman into a monster,” Vivian said.
Apple skin, a building spiral, piled up on the counter. Her mother had a strict policy against cleaning up after herself in any way. Leave it for the help, she believed, ignoring she was only a generation removed from “the help.” Layla’s voice came out a bit hoarse, which she hated. “I’m not going to the doctor.”
“But, Layla, darling, we don’t need your consent. Not if your father has you declared incompetent.”
“He would never do that to me.” Unspoken between them lay the truth that her mother would absolutely do such a thing.
“Maybe not before. But this hotel business has him worried. Imagine, his daughter persona non-grata in his own casino.”
“It’s not his; if it was I could still go there whenever I liked.” The knife gleamed wet with apple juice on the counter, within easy reach. “I have to go. I have somewhere to be.” Anywhere but here, with that knife.
“But where could you possibly have to go? You have no friends. You flit around Vegas doing God knows what—taking photographs of people without their consent, apparently.”
And then the lie materialized. Layla didn’t think about it, just recognized the awful clawing of panic in her stomach. Her parents would put her in some institution and let them shock her brain until she could be led around like a docile pet. “I have a date. I’m seeing someone.”
“Really?” Her mother drew the word out, disbelief dripping from each syllable. “What does he do?”
“He works. At his job.” From her place at the fridge, Layla tossed the apple core toward the sink. Ordinarily, she’d never leave extra work for those who worked in the house, especially Mrs. C. The housekeeper had been nothing but kind to her. Right now, though, she couldn’t walk toward that counter, toward the knife that called to her.
“Fascinating, darling. And what, exactly, is his job?”
“I’m late, Mother. I’ll tell you all about him when I get home. Or whenever I next see you.” She’d overslept this morning. Normally, she made it in, ate a bite, chatted with Mrs. C, and lit out before her mother ever woke from a liquor-induced slumber.
Layla rushed out the back door, stopped in the pool house, also known as her current residence, and grabbed her camera bag. She slung it into the front seat of the convertible and screeched down the driveway. Only one thing would ease the anxiety crawling all over her skin right now.
Jace strode quickly toward the more secluded bungalows in the rear of the casino with his newest over-eager employee. The kid was the son of a shareholder, shipped out here from New York. Luckily, Jace had been given explicit instructions—train him, give him no special treatment. If the kid wanted to move up, he’d have to prove himself to Jace.
So far, he’d tried a little too hard to please. The trick was to meet the demands of the big shots who stayed here while remaining on equal footing with them. They didn’t trust you to be discreet or to take a bullet to keep them safe if you acted like some squealing teenager meeting her idol for the first time.
“All right, kid, listen. See this area? You’re in charge of making sure nobody except Mr. Stone and his guest come back here. Period.”
“What about the other guests?”
Jace had to be careful how he worded things. Stone and his bodyguard had been coming to stay at The Desert Palms for two years now because Jace protected their secret. A secret that could destroy Stone and the other man’s lives if even a whiff of it got out.
“Mr. Stone has rented the bungalows on either side of his. There aren’t any other guests. He does this all the time. Not a big deal. You stand here. You keep your mouth shut. You see nothing. You signed that confidentiality contract, remember?”
There wasn’t a chance the kid would screw the casino over by going to the press about the affair. Unfortunately, there was every possibility that he would quit in disgust once he realized why Stone needed so much privacy. It was 1958, but some things never changed.
“I—yes. Yes, sir. But…” The kid’s eyes darted past Jace’s shoulder and back in a nervous dance.
“What? Was I unclear?”
“But what about that lady on the roof of the casino?”
Jace twisted and squinted. The sun hung behind her, but he could make out a lithe figure, elbows resting on the wall of the second-story roof. When she shifted, the sun glinted off glass. “What the… Are those binoculars?”
She shifted again, and he could make out what was in her hands. “Damn it! That’s a camera. Go get her and bring her down here, now!”
Jace started for the bungalows. Best thing until the kid got to the roof was to act casual and try for damage control.
“Hey, you! Get down here!” the kid called out.
Shooting a glare behind him, Jace pulled up short. The woman stood and took off like a streak.
“I said go get her,” he said through clenched teeth.
“I thought this would get her attention faster.”
“Well, it did. And now she’s leaving. If you want this job, you’d better catch her. Actually, don’t engage her. Just follow, discreetly. Then come back and tell me where she goes. You got all that?”
A quick nod, then the kid took off like a racehorse. Hell, at least he was fast. Idiot.
Jace tapped his fist against his head, forcing his brain to focus on how to handle this. If she was press, he could threaten her with jail for trespassing. Still might not work. Those people acted like they had the moral high ground, even when they skulked around and invaded people’s private lives. But what else could it be? A rival hotel, trying to figure out how Jace managed to always get the biggest star in Hollywood to come to this hotel nearly every weekend? Yeah, maybe.
He’d figure out how to handle it when he knew what he was dealing with. Until then, he strode toward the middle bungalow and knocked on the door. It took a good three minutes before Douglas Stone answered the door wearing only a pair of chinos. “Jace? What’s going on?”
“We had an intruder, and I noticed your curtains are open a bit.” Just enough for a really good lens. “We’re handling it, but I wanted you to be aware.”
“Were they on the grounds back here?” Mr. Stone rocked back on the heels and rubbed the back of his neck. He tried to look past Jace’s shoulders.
“No, not on the grounds. Try not to worry. I’ll take care of everything.”
“You always do. Thanks, buddy.” He clapped Jace on the shoulder and shut the bungalow door.
Thanks, buddy. He had to get every trace of those photos back. Stone was a good guy. What he did in his private time was his own business. And, just as bad, if what Stone did on his own time, in this hotel, got out… Well, Jace could forget about his job. He’d be lucky to get a job sweeping up the floors. And he’d never maintain the contacts he needed to build his own hotel and casino someday.
Jace headed back to his office in hopes one of the guys on the floor had seen something. A thin girl, dark hair, with a camera. That’s all he had. The sun had been at her back. He truly had no idea who he had to find.
After Jace questioned two of his guys, the idiot kid came back. His white button-up soaked with sweat, he’d loosened his tie so much he could easily have slipped it over his head. Jace sent the man from the floor out. “Tell me you know where she is. Tell me that, or I swear I’ll hang you by that ugly tie of yours until you’re dead.”
“I followed her home. Don’t think she even realized I was tailing her.” The kid gulped for air between sentences. “Got an address.”
“Then I guess you get to live. What is it?”
“Do I still work here?” The kid stood frozen, his eyes huge.
“Not if you don’t write that address down in the next five seconds and get out of my face.”
The kid did it and scooted out the door. Jace needed to learn his name.
At his desk, Jace studied the address. A nice area, expensive houses. Definitely not the press, then. That was some relief. Whatever happened with the photo, it wouldn’t be front-page copy tomorrow. Probably.
Jace dialed the PI he used to handle delicate problems. Truthfully, he used the PI more than he would ever have expected. But that was the job—solving problems, cleaning up messes, and keeping secrets. And, damn it, he was good at his job. Unfortunately, this was already one of those days that included all three at once.
Killing time, he walked the floor, he monitored the tables, he checked in the bar to make sure no one got out of hand. The longest two hours of his life. Finally, his secretary paged him over the PA, and he jogged down to his office.
“The house belongs to a Benito Rosas, goes by Benny. Sound familiar?”
Jace jotted the name down. “Never heard of him.”
His PI loved to drag out good information, like a housewife sharing gossip over the fence. “Full-blooded Italian, parents-from-the-old-country type. He owns about thirty percent in The Lucky Star Hotel and Casino. Likely for a very close friend of his who’s connected to some heavy hitters in New York.”
“That’s not good news. But he’s not who I saw.”
“He has a daughter. Layla Rosas. Single, but there was a fiancé. Lives with her parents. It’s all I’ve got, Jace.”
“You don’t know what she does? Is she a journalist?”
“She doesn’t do anything. She sure as hell ain’t no journalist.”
“Thanks. I’ll be in touch if I need anything else.” Jace dropped the phone back onto the cradle. Layla Rosas. Why had this nobody been hanging around here? He was willing to bet she’d landed the shot of the decade. Journalist or not, she couldn’t have been on that roof pointing her camera at Douglas Stone’s window by accident.
He intended to find out. First thing in the morning, give her time to think she’d gotten away clean. Then he’d surprise her on her own turf.
Jace drove south of Vegas the next morning. The sun already beat down in shimmering waves of heat. Without all the nighttime traffic, the trip only took twenty minutes. The address wasn’t hard to find. A new house, all square shapes and big windows. Not so nice he had to worry about gates or a guard, so that helped.
He parked his car beside the curb and walked up the long sidewalk, landscaped on both side with round rocks and hearty cacti. Jace rang the bell and waited. Eventually, a matronly lady with orange hair corkscrewed in all directions, wearing an apron and glasses on a chain, answered the door. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see Layla.” He hadn’t expected the need to bypass any doorkeepers, so to speak, and he quickly decided a tone of familiarity was his best bet.
“And can I tell her the purpose of this call?”
Yeah, she wasn’t giving an inch. “We’re close friends. Jace Russell.”
Her gaze skimmed him with disdain, and she leaned a shoulder against the door. “How come I’ve never heard of you?”
“Well, here’s the thing, we’ve been keeping things private.” His PI had told him she was single, so intimating they were a little more than friends might bring him face-to-face with her. It would be best to shake her up, surprise her on her own turf. But if this didn’t work, he could always camp out front at the curb in his car.
“Hmm. So, you’re the man she mentioned to her mother?”
“I sure hope so!” Jace burst into a conspiratorial laugh, and just like he hoped, the woman laughed with him.
“Come on, then.” The housekeeper turned and walked straight back through the house, never stopping to see if he followed, to a wall of windows and a sliding glass door. “Layla’s either by the pool or in the pool house.” She gestured that way and shut the door behind him.
He walked a little down the rolling lawn until he saw the thin, dark-haired girl lounging in a chair beside the pool.
He had to play this carefully if he wanted the negatives back. The trick would be figuring out what this oddball, Layla, wanted.
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