License to Thrill
Nothing but nothing scared Charlee Champagne except black widow spiders and wealthy, long-legged, brown-eyed, handsome men with matinee-idol smiles and a day’s growth of beard stubble.
In her five years as a Las Vegas private investigator, Charlee had never once lost her cool. Being alley-cornered at midnight by a stiletto-wielding transvestite produced nary a wobbly knee. Getting dragged ten feet behind a robbery suspect’s Nissan Pathfinder had created not a single spike in her pulse rate.
And just last week she’d averted disaster when she’d calmly faced down a halfdozen gangbangers and convinced them the banana in her jacket pocket was actually a forty-five-caliber Grizzly Magnum.
Cucumbers had nothing on Charlee.
But something about mean mama black widows and rich, long-legged, brown-eyed, handsome, matinee-idol-smiling, beard-stubble-sporting men slid right under her skin and wreaked havoc with her bravado.
She had earned both phobias legitimately. The spider heebie-jeebies dated back to an ugly outhouse incident in rural Wisconsin when she was twelve. She had never looked at a roll of toilet paper in quite the same way since.
Her second fear, however, was a bit more convoluted. At the same time George Clooneyesque men terrified her, she was wildly, madly, impossibly attracted to them.
And the scars from those mistakes, while less noticeable than the half-dollar-sized hole in her left butt cheek, were a sight more painful than any spider bite.
As a self-defense technique, she’d developed a highly honed sense of respect for her phobias. So when the hairs at the nape of her neck spiked that Wednesday afternoon in late March, she snapped to full alert.
She sat cocked back in front of the computer in her two-woman detective agency located in a downtown strip mall, her size ten, neon blue, Tony Lama boots propped up on one corner of the desk and her keyboard nestled in her lap. She was completing the final paperwork on a missing person’s case where she had successfully located a six-year-old girl snatched by her father after a custody dispute didn’t go in his favor.
Immediately, her gaze flew to the corners of the room. No sign of a black widow’s unmistakably messy cobweb. Slowly, she released her drawn breath, but the prickly uproar on the back of her neck persisted.
From the corner of her eye she spied movement on the window ledge. Something small and black and spindly-legged scurried.
Her boots hit the cement floor and her hand grabbed for a makeshift weapon, coming up with a well-thumbed, trade paperback copy of Find Out Anything About Anyone.
Pulse pounding in her throat, she advanced upon the window.
The cool cobalt taste of fear spilled into her mouth. Her legs quivered like she had a neurological disorder. Instant sweat pearled into the delicate indentation between her nose and her upper lip.
She had to force each step, but finally she hovered within killing range. She raised the book over her head, sucked in her breath for added courage, and stared down at the intimidating creature.
No telltale red hourglass.
Hmm. Charlee narrowed her eyes.
Not a black widow after all. Closer scrutiny revealed the creature wasn’t even black.
Just a fuzzy wolf spider.
Oh, thank heavens.
Relieved, she sank her forehead against the window-pane and let the book fall from her relaxed grasp.
And that’s when she spotted him.
Zigzagging his way through the parking lot—looking utterly out of place in the Las Vegas desert in his rumpled Armani suit, dusty Gucci loafers, and a red silk tie that appeared to cost more than Charlee’s last tax refund check—meandered a fear far greater than a whole pack of poisonous arachnids.
Like a battalion of marines at roll call, her neck hairs marshaled to five-alarm status. She stumbled back to her desk, jerked open the bottom drawer, retrieved a pair of Nighthawk binoculars, fixed the scopes on him, and fiddled with the focus.
Hair the color of coal. Chocolate brown eyes. A five o’clock shadow ringing his craggy jawline. Handsome as the day was long.
Her heart tommy-gunned. Ratta-tatta-tat.
Charlee gulped. Please let him go to the Quickee-Lube-Express next door. Or better yet, the massage parlor on the corner.
No such luck. He headed straight for the Sikes Detective Agency, a determined look on his face. The one thing she still had going for her—he wasn’t smiling. Charlee’s hand trembled so hard that she fumbled with the binoculars.
She had to do something. Quick.
For some unfathomable reason, guys like him were often attracted to her and she never failed to fall for their smiles and swagger. Call it a genetic deficiency. Her mother, Bubbles, God rest her soul, had been the same way.
When Charlee was seven, Tommy Ledbetter, the devastatingly cute son of the man who owned the used car dealership where her grandmother Maybelline worked as a mechanic, had lured Charlee behind the garage for a rousing game of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours.
She had obliged when he threw in a pack of Twizzlers as an added bribe, only to be caught red-hineyed by Mr. Ledbetter. Tommy, the wimp, had declared the whole thing Charlee’s idea. Maybelline had gotten fired over that embarrassing incident.
Then when she was fourteen and Maybelline was tending bar at an exclusive country club in Estes Park, Colorado, Vincent Keneer, whose father owned part interest in the Denver Broncos, stole a kiss from her on the ninth green. She was in seventh heaven for a few hours only to later overhear him laughing with his friends. “Getting Charlee to kiss me was easier than turning on a light switch,” he had bragged.
Charlee’s temper had gotten the better of her and she’d shoved Vincent into the deep end of the pool with his cashmere vest on. Maybelline lost that job too for refusing to make Charlee apologize.
And then when she was nineteen…
She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. No, she refused to relive that excruciating memory. Some cuts sliced so deep they never healed.
What was it about her? She must secrete some kind of take-advantage-of-me-then-break-my-heart pheromone. Or maybe it was like how cats seemed to know when you were allergic to them and they singled you out in a crowd and insisted on crawling into your lap.
Why buck the odds? She needed all the help she could muster. Charlee snatched open the desk drawers in a desperate search for any kind of a disguise. Nabbing a pencil from the cup beside her printer, she harvested her hair off her shoulders, wound the thick mass into a twist, and anchored it to the top of her head.
Frumpy. Think frumpy.
If he so much as cracked a grin, even a little one, she was a goner.
Okay, librarian hair wasn’t enough. She needed more. Charlee scuttled over to Maybelline’s desk and rummaged through the contents.
Ah-ha! Her granny’s spare pair of thick, black bifocals oughtta do the trick.
Charlee jammed the glasses on her face, grateful for the twofold shield. Now, not only would she look un-flirtworthy in the heavy frames, but also while peering through the blurry lenses she would be unable to fully ascertain his level of cuteness. She hazarded another quick peek out the window, but had to peer over the top of Maybelline’s glasses in order to see him without getting dizzy.
Who was this guy?
He stopped when he passed her cherry red 1964 Corvette convertible in the parking lot and ran a lingering hand over the fender like he was caressing a woman’s inner thigh. Charlee’s stomach fluttered as if he’d stroked her and her muscles tightened a couple of notches below her turquoise belt buckle.
Nah. She was ninety-nine percent sure she’d mailed her car payment, even though she did have a tendency to get so wrapped up in a case she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep or post her bills. Besides, the dude looked nothing like a repo man. Actually, he resembled a refugee from an investment banker caucus.
Or an escapee from a corporate law office.
Oh, no. Was Elwood in the pokey again and looking to her for bail money? Charlee shook her head. As if her no-account daddy could afford the services of a guy who dressed like a GQ cover model.
Her accountant Wilkie had warned her that being sued was an eventuality in her line of work and he’d encouraged her to take out more insurance. But between keeping the business afloat and bailing out her old man when he was in between his Elvis impersonating gigs and had succumbed to the lure of another get-rich-quick scheme, she didn’t have a lot of spare cash left over for frivolous things like insurance.
The guy had almost reached her door and Charlee, roosting on the verge of hyperventilation, did not know which way to jump. She stepped right, then left, ended up doing a strange little mambo, and finally jammed the binoculars under a chair cushion. She even considered ducking into the closet until he went away.
But what if he wanted to hire her? Business was business. She’d just completed her only pending case and she needed the money.
Yeah? So tell that to her stomach spinning like a whirligig in gale force winds. In the end, she leaped behind Maybelline’s desk and feigned grave interest in her blank computer screen.
The silver cowbell over the door tinkled.
Be strong. Be brave. Be badass.
Ah, damn. He possessed the deep, smoky voice of a late-night radio announcer. Charlee lifted her head and forced herself to look at the man standing in the doorway.
“Good afternoon,” she replied, her tone a couple of degrees above frosty. No sense making the guy welcome. If she was rude enough, maybe he would take a hike.
The top of his head grazed the cowbell, causing it to peal again.
Dear God, he was at least six feet three, maybe even taller. And no wedding band graced the third finger of his left hand. Charlee tumbled as if she were on an Alpine ski run, a beginner who had taken a wrong turn and ended up on the black diamond expert slope with nowhere to go but down, down, down.
“Is there something you need?” she asked, making sure she sounded extra snippy and squinting disapprovingly at him through Maybelline’s bifocals.
“Yes, ma’am,” the paragon drawled in a smooth Texas accent.
In spite of his slightly blurry appearance, he was outrageously good-looking, right down to his straight white teeth. They had to be bonded. Nobody’s natural teeth looked that perfect. His suit—while slightly wrinkled—fit like a dream, accentuating his broad shoulders and narrow hips.
He smelled like the wickedly wonderful blend of expensive cologne and the faint but manly musk of perspiration. His beautiful black hair was clipped short, making one statement while the dark stubble on his jaw made another.
Charlee wanted to rip off the borrowed glasses and feast on him like Thanksgiving turkey. The desire scared her to the very marrow of her bones.
Something sparked in his deep brown bedroom eyes and she caught a glimmer of sudden heat when their gazes met—or maybe it was just that Maybelline’s glasses needed cleaning.
He sauntered toward her, oozing charisma from every pore.
Charlee forgot to breathe.
And then he committed the gravest sin of all, knocking her world helter-skelter.
The scoundrel smiled.
Mason Gentry gave the woman behind the desk his best public-relations grin. The grin—and the Gentry name—opened doors. Accustomed to getting what he wanted, Mason wanted one thing and one thing only.
To track down the floozy who’d lured his grandfather Nolan—along with a half-million dollars in family company funds—to sin city.
Mason’s primary aim? Locate Gramps, drag him home to Houston (hopefully with the money still intact), and get back to the investment deal he’d been in the process of bringing in before his older brother, Hunter, had taken over and sent him after their grandfather. He was still seething about the injustice. Why did Hunter earn the plum jobs while he got scut work?
Oh, yes. One other thing. Nolan’s unexpected and larcenous departure had forced Mason to postpone his engagement party.
He’d planned to ask his girlfriend of three years, Daphne Maxwell, to marry him this weekend in exactly the same fashion his father had proposed to his mother. Over veal parmigiana at Delveccio’s, with fifty of their closest friends joining the festivity.
At the thought of Daphne, Mason’s spirits lifted. For once in his life, he would have one up on his brother. He would be married to the perfect high-society wife.
Everyone in his family loved Daphne. She was refined, cultured, and sophisticated, with a myriad of business contacts and a pedigree she could trace back to the Mayflower.
Daphne was everything he’d ever looked for in a wife. They had the same values, the same friends, and they wanted the same things from life. So what if there wasn’t much sexual chemistry. A good marriage consisted of so much more than fireworks.
“What do you want?” the woman demanded, squinting up at him from behind an ugly pair of glasses, her long black hair spilling haphazardly from an awkward bun secured to her head with a pencil.
Could she be the woman he was searching for?
He remembered the paper in his pocket. He’d found Maybelline Sikes’s name and this address scrawled on a notepad in Gramps’s bedroom. The nameplate on the desk said Maybelline Sikes, but she didn’t look like a Maybelline.
She looked like nothing but trouble with her determined little chin set and her smoldering emerald eyes flashing a challenge. Unlucky for her, Mason adored a challenge.
She wore an unflattering western-style shirt, faded jeans with a rip at the knee, and the most gawd-awful neon blue cowboy boots he had ever laid eyes upon. Not a shred of makeup graced her face. Granted, with her long, dark lashes and full raspberry-colored lips she didn’t need cosmetics to look good, but she did not fit the image of the busty, brash, blond femme fatale in stilettos and pearls he’d concocted in his head.
Nor had he expected her to be a private detective. Really, she was way too young for Gramps. But then again, gold diggers came in all shapes, ages, and professions.
“I’m waiting.” She arched an eyebrow and he noticed she clutched a pen so tight her knuckles were actually white. The lady was not nearly as composed as she appeared.
Mason draped one leg over the corner of her desk and leaned in close until they were almost nose-to-nose, his intent to intimidate.
“I want to know where my grandfather is,” he said, continuing to smile but narrowing his eyes so she would understand he meant business.
“And I want to know now.”
She sank her top teeth into her bottom lip and unflinchingly returned his stare, but despite her bluster he could tell from the brief flicker of uneasiness flitting across her face she wanted to back away.
“You’re gonna have to be more specific. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He shouldn’t have noticed the long, smooth curve of her neck, but he found his gaze lingering on the pulse point jumping at her throat. She was nervous. Oh, yeah. But very adept at cloaking her uneasiness. He couldn’t help but admire her grace under pressure. He had reduced many an inefficient employee to tongue-tied stammers with his silent stares. But she wasn’t buying his bluster.
“Nolan Gentry. Where is he?”
She laid the pen down, steepled her fingertips, and blinked owlishly at him from behind those hideous glasses. “Let me get this straight. Do you want to hire me to find your missing grandfather?”
“He came here to meet you. Are you telling me you haven’t seen him?”
“I’m sorry, mister, I don’t even know who he is. Or who you are for that matter.”
“My name’s Mason Gentry. I’m an investment banker from Houston and I’ve come to retrieve my grandfather”
“What does that have to do with me?”
She met his eyes. Their glares slammed into each other.
Hot, hard, defiant.
She was a tough one all right, but he didn’t miss her telltale gulp and the determined way she clenched her jaw. No matter how composed she might appear, the woman was afraid of him.
“Aren’t you Maybelline Sikes?” He tapped the name-plate.
“No. I’m not. I’m her granddaughter.”
Instant relief rolled over him. His grandfather had hightailed himself across the desert to see the woman’s grandmother, not her. Why the knowledge lifted his spirits, he had no clue. What did it matter whether it was the granddaughter or the grandmother who was after Nolan’s fortune? The results were the same.
“So what’s your name?”
“Beg your pardon?” he asked, not sure he’d heard correctly.
“Charlee Champagne,” she repeated.
For no particular reason the phrase Good Time Charlee popped into his mind’s eye along with a very provocative image of a tipsy Charlee boogieing with a lampshade on her head and wearing a very naughty black silk nightie. He could see the picture all too clearly. Perturbed, Mason shook his head to dispel the unwanted mental photograph.
Charlee sighed and then spoke as if she’d recited the details many times before. “My mother was a dancer at the Folies Bergère and had her name legally changed to Bubbles Champagne. She and my father were never married. What can I say? She was a bit frivolous. Any more questions?”
“Do you know where I can find Ms. Sikes?”
“She’s gone on her annual fishing retreat and she can’t be reached, but let me assure you she most certainly is not with your grandfather.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Maybelline hates men. Especially rich ones.”
“Who said my grandfather is rich?” Mason didn’t believe her for a second. No doubt she was covering for her grandmother.
Charlee waved a hand at his Rolex. “Like grandfather like grandson.”
“So, you’re claiming your grandmother can’t be reached?”
“No claiming to it. It’s the truth.”
“No cell phone?”
“She can’t stand ‘em. Says they give you brain cancer.”
“Nope. That’s the whole point of the trip. Uninterrupted peace and quiet.”
“I think you’re lying.”
Charlee shrugged. “Believe what you want.”
“It’s imperative I speak with Ms. Sikes,” Mason said in a controlled, measured manner. He was through fooling around with Miss I’m-Going-To-Be-No-Help-Whatsoever Champagne. He wanted his grandfather found. “If Ms. Sikes can’t be reached by electronic means then I will go to her fishing cabin. Give me directions.”
“What?” His glare intensified. Sweat pooled around his collar. In his mad, twenty-four-hour sprint from Houston to Vegas, he hadn’t even bothered to change from his business suit and he was broiling like filet mignon at a backyard barbeque.
That’s what happened when you allowed single-minded focus to overcome common sense. Stubborn persistence was his biggest flaw and his greatest strength. His father often joked Mason was like an obstinate snapping turtle, never knowing when to turn loose.
“You heard me.” She raised her chin, daring him to call her bluff.
He stared openmouthed. He wasn’t accustomed to being refused anything. Testiness was his first instinct but something told him venting his frustration would be the wrong tactic to take. She’d most likely dig into her view. He could see she had a bit of snapping turtle in her too.
Forcing a smile, he slipped an amiable tone into his voice. “I think maybe we got off on the wrong foot. Why don’t we start over?”
“My grandfather Nolan disappeared out of the blue with a substantial amount of money. We found a note in his room indicating he was on his way to meet your grandmother here in Vegas. We’re really concerned about him. He’s been behaving a bit out of character lately. I need to speak with your grandmother to find out if she has heard from him.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Maybelline left strict orders not to be disturbed. I can’t help you.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?”
“Take your pick.”
“So that’s the way it’s going to be.”
“Maybelline will be home in a couple of days. You can speak to her then. In the meantime, relax. Have fun. See Vegas. Enjoy a holiday.” Under her breath she muttered, “With that stick-up-your-butt attitude you certainly look as if you could use one.”
No way was he waiting a couple of days. In a couple of days Nolan and Maybelline could run through the half million at the craps table.
Besides, in a couple more days Hunter would have the Birkweilder deal—his deal—sewn up, and would be busily collecting accolades from their father without giving Mason credit.
He gritted his teeth and fell back on his third line of offense. When authority and charm fail, there’s always money. He removed his wallet from his jacket pocket, unfolded the expensive leather case, and pulled out a crisp new Benjamin Franklin.
“How much is the information going to cost me?” He slapped a second hundred on the desk.
Charlee gasped. He could practically feel the anger emanating off of her.
What? Two C notes weren’t enough. Obviously, she was as greedy as her grandmother.
“Three hundred?” Mason added another bill to the stack.
“Are you trying to buy me off?”
“Let’s make it an even five.”
“Buddy, you can just keep peeling until your wallet is empty, because I’ll never tell you where Maybelline is. There isn’t enough money in the world.”