Two years ago, I returned from a trip to LA shortly before we got our Christmas story prompt and challenge words. One of the words that year was flamingo, and somehow my trip and that word sparked a fun, steamy story I called They Shoot Flamingos, Don’t They? It was a blast to write that story, and I’ve always intended to revisit that world. So for this year’s challenge, I’m doing a prequel to Flamingos, flashing back to the previous Christmas when Cynthia and Derek met. In Las Vegas, because of course. Since this will be another long short story, I’m breaking it into two parts. I hope you enjoy it and come back next week for part 2!
Regarding the story prompt, our heroine receives an unexpected gift in the form of an open bar tab…you’ll see what I mean. And the challenge words I’ve used in part 1 are: blinking, warm, seed, bittersweet, bauble, invitation, coat, sticky, aversion, and challenge.
They Shoot Lounge Lizards, Don’t They? A Christmas(ish) Tale, Part 1
There had to be a better way to get a date.
I sucked down the last few bittersweet drops of my Jack Daniel’s Black Label—neat, thank you very much—and tapped my phone to consciousness to check the time. My could-be loverboy from LoveStruck was officially fifteen minutes late. That’ll teach me to swipe right on anyone willing to meet for a drink on Christmas Eve in Vegas.
It was a shame, too. And a waste of my slinkiest black dress. Johnny Cisnero—his stage name, if you can believe it—was tall, blond, and pretty in a show-businessy, veneer-toothed kinda way. Midwest boy who got lost in LA for some years, just missing out on a few good breaks before moving to Vegas and taking to the lounge singer circuit. Not that he’d told me any of that in the handful of text messages we’d exchanged since yesterday. I have an aversion to deep discussions over text. Besides, I have other sources for deep background.
After two years of training at one of the government’s more clandestine agencies and three years of kick-ass field work, if I do say so myself, I’d worked my way right up into management. There I called the shots and watched someone else execute the moves. Turns out, I’m not much of a voyeur. The agency and I parted ways mostly amicably three months ago, long enough for me to be out of the loop about the short-term operations that are their specialty. But I still have access to their database to help me steer clear of dirtbags who might take an interest in what I used to do for a living.
And if all else fails, there’s always the mace concealed in one of my high-heeled boots and the small-gauge pistol tucked into the other.
“For what it’s worth, he’s an ass.”
Startled, I glanced behind me at the man who had gotten the drop on me. No one ever used to get the drop on me. Three months and I was already getting rusty. And worse, the man with a voice like fine whiskey—deep, smooth, with a bit of heat in the finish—was hella hot. Thick brown hair, long eyelashes, clean-shaven jaw that revealed a tiny scar under his left dimple. And don’t even get me started on his bespoke black suit. If I had to guess, as I sometimes did, I’d estimate he was 6’2” with 40-inch shoulders and a 30-inch waist. Damn, I hoped he wasn’t a Russian cutout.
“Who’s an ass?” I asked. Smooth, Cynthia. Apparently, all my game was disappearing along with my ops skills.
“Whoever was supposed to meet you.” Tall, dark, and delicious glanced at the phone in my hand. “Which app?”
You can tell a lot about a person based on their dating app of choice. Mine said “pretending to look for love while really interested in a hook-up.” I laid my phone face down on the bar. “It doesn’t matter,” I answered.
When he grinned, his dimple deepened and the scar disappeared. He inclined his head to the barstool next to me. “May I?”
I was pretty sure it was a terrible idea. Not because he was a bad guy. My gut told me he had his secrets, but they weren’t dangerous ones. And while I always told my girlfriends to never trust their first instincts except when those instincts said “don’t get on the elevator with him” or “turn around and run”, my own intuition was well-honed and had never yet been wrong.
I shrugged. “Whatever.”
My feigned indifference didn’t deter him. Or maybe he was able to see through my bullshit and knew that after a couple of lame pick-up lines, I’d be his for the taking. After a quick trip to the ladies’ room where I would run a background search on him with my phone. Hence, the bad idea. A night with this guy could lead to a mad crush, which was the last thing I needed to throw into the directionless mess that was currently my life.
Up close, his dark red tie had a relief pattern. Pine trees. “Festive,” I said, pointing at it.
“You too.” He glanced at the red baubles I’d chosen for my necklace and earrings. They were fakes, but good ones. “So, you know the drill,” he said, and I nearly fell off my barstool. “Tell me, what’s a beautiful woman like you doing alone on a night like this?”
I composed myself. Sat up straight. Stared down at the sticky residue in the bottom of my empty glass. “Getting thirsty.”
Shit. Did I really say that out loud?
His laugh—low and seductive like his voice—confirmed that I had. “What are you drinking?”
He didn’t gloat over my unintentional double entendre. I could kiss him for that. At some point very soon, I probably would. “Whiskey.”
I met his unflinching gaze and tried hard not to blink. “The most expensive one they have.”
He nodded and slid off the barstool. He got the attention of the bartender a few feet away from me, and had a quick conversation I couldn’t hear. He sat back down beside me, and seconds later the bartender arrived with new glasses and a very interesting looking bottle.
“I didn’t ask if it’s their most expensive one, but it’s close,” my new favorite come-on artist said. “And it’s my favorite.”
The bartender poured a finger of whiskey into each glass—mine neat, new guy’s over one perfect cube of ice—and left us to our own devices.
“I’m Derek,” new guy said, as if he knew I was calling him new guy in my head. “Derek Winston.”
It had the ring of a real name. “Cynthia,” I said, returning the favor of what I perceived was honesty. No last name, though. I’m not a total idiot when I’m drinking and hitting on strangers.
We clinked our glasses and I brought the glass to my lips. The first whiff of it was heavenly. I don’t know much about whiskey other than what I like, and I knew I’d like this one. We both took a long pull of our drinks and smiled as heat turned to honey turned to smoke on our tongues.
“Wow,” I said.
“Wow,” he repeated, but he was watching the way I licked my lips and I was pretty sure he didn’t mean the drink. “So, Cynthia, you were about to tell me all about yourself, starting with what brings to Vegas on Christmas Eve.”
Civilian that I now was, I didn’t have to give him a cover story. “Product of a single mother who likes to celebrate all the winter solstice holidays. We don’t have any particular attachment to any of them, she’s busy with work this year, and I’ve always wanted to see Vegas.” All true. With all the crazy-ass places I’d seen working for the Agency, they’d never once sent me to sin city in the desert. “How about you?”
He took another drink and glanced down into his glass before looking into my eyes again. Trying to prove his honesty. Establishing trust. “I was on the west coast for work and about to catch my flight back east for the family celebration when I found out the potential business associate who’s been blowing me off for weeks wanted to take a meeting. In Vegas. On the 24th.”
That sounded sketchy as hell. “What kind of business associate is this?”
He grinned, making the scar near his dimple disappear again and fine lines appear around his eyes. He was thirty-ish, probably. “The kind who got rich and famous shooting orange balls into tall baskets. The kind who might finally agree to an endorsement deal with my company.”
“So you’re some kind of deal-maker for a sports-related company?” I thought I had that right. Maybe not, though. I really should get out more. In my defense, I was used to flirting with marks after memorizing their entire dossier.
He pulled a card out of his fine-fitting suit coat and handed it to me. “Founder and CEO of Bespoke Sportswear.”
Bespoke. Like his suit. Like he’d read my mind. Which was the theme of a number of acts in this town, but not one that was playing in this swanky bar. My bullshit meter ticked up just a notch. “You don’t actually make tailored workout gear, do you?”
“At our accessible price point? No. But if we sign this deal tonight, we might launch a much more expensive line with Mr. Basketball’s name attached to it.”
I glanced at his business card, then tucked it into my tiny black purse. Plenty of information on there to help me do my background search. “Should I be impressed?”
“I’d like that.” This time his grin had a hint of leering in it. “But before you get too hot and bothered over the self-made man thing, you should know my uncle gave me a million dollars for seed money. I did pay him back after two years, turned a nice profit the year after that, and have been doing fine ever since.”
Just the right mix of self-assurance and self-deprecation. My meter ticked up another notch. If this was a spy game, I wanted no part of it. Time to move this along. “Is this where you present me with an irresistible invitation to join you in a private corner booth?” I batted my eyelashes just for extra effect.
He leaned closer. “I’d love nothing more.” His voice had gone from honey to molasses. Or quicksand. Deep enough for a girl to drown in. “But the concierge just gave me the signal that my business associate’s car just arrived. He’ll expect me to be in the private lounge by the time he gets there.”
If he wasn’t who said he was, my rusty skills had tipped my hand. If he was the real deal, my flirt game was way off. Unless… Was it possible in this day and age that he was telling the truth?
He slid off the barstool and took my hand. His fingers were long, his palm broad, his skin warm. “Thank you for your lovely company. I hope you thoroughly enjoy your first time in the city.”
When he let go of my hand, I just barely stopped myself from standing up and following him. “Thanks,” I managed to stammer at his back.
A few feet away from me, he turned around.
“Cynthia, have you ever seen the volcano?” he asked.
“The what?” I had seen exactly three volcanoes up close and personal, in different parts of the world. Not as part of my job. As bonus side trips during time off earned for work well done.
“There’s a hotel with a volcano out front that erupts every hour, on the hour,” he said. “I like to stay at that hotel when I’m in town.”
Jackpot, all cherries. “I haven’t seen it. Do you recommend it?”
“It’s a must-see tourist attraction. If you were there, say, tonight, at the last show, I’d enjoy watching it with you.”
I forced myself not to smile or laugh or otherwise embarrass myself with over-exuberance. This guy might be for real, which meant I stood a chance of being rewarded for being such a naughty girl all year. “I’ll check my itinerary, see if I can fit it in.”
“Here’s hoping,” he said.
I was so engrossed in watching him walk away, I didn’t notice the small, jet-black stone he’d left on the bar next to my glass until he was gone. Volcanic rock, if I wasn’t mistaken.
The bartender came to clear our glasses, then laid his hands flat on the bar and flashed me a warm smile. Warmer than it had been when I’d appeared to be a woman drinking alone in a slinky dress on Christmas Eve. “What else can I bring you?”
I picked up the smooth stone, tested its weight in my hand. “Nothing. I think I’ve spent enough of my nest egg tonight.”
The bartender glanced in the direction of the door, where Derek had just left. “Your friend said to put anything you want on his tab.”
Trying to get me drunk, was he? Challenge accepted. “In that case, I’ll have another of whatever you poured me last time. Make it a double. And I’d like to look at a dinner menu.”
If a man was stupid enough to leave me in a swanky hotel bar with an open tab, I was smart enough to make him buy me dinner.