ANGEL AND THE BADMAN
2: CAT AND MOUSE
She muttered a frustrated, "Damn it..." under her breath, and then a much louder, "John! Come fix this thing, will you?"
A movement caught out of the corner of her eye distracted her, and Riley looked up from her uncooperative espresso machine to see Blanche striding toward her. She threw a quick glance at Cort, saw his hungry eyes track the striking blonde across the café. His stare never wavered; he watched her with an intense concentration that reminded Riley of a cat at a mouse hole. All that was missing was the twitching tail. She set down the carafe, frowning, and mumbled another quiet curse. She'd had the impression it was going well between them, now she wasn't so sure.
When Blanche reached the counter, Riley asked softly, "Everything okay, hon?"
The woman nodded. "I was just going to ask you the same thing. Listen, Riley…I'm sorry if I came off bitchy back there. I didn't mean to sound so..." She paused, searched for the right word, and finally settled on, "…hard. It wasn't because of you." She shook her head. "I like Cort, but he's...a really fast mover. I wanted to keep things from getting too intense." She bent over the counter to whisper, "Handsome as all get out, though. A man that good-looking can get away with a lot."
Riley grinned. "You can say that again," she agreed. "Did he ask you to dinner?"
Blanche straightened, shook her head. "I didn't give him a chance to," she confessed, then fell silent when a man came out from the kitchen and joined Riley behind the counter. Her eyes narrowed, and her smile faded into a speechless gasp. Whoever he was, he looked enough like Cort to be his brother. The more she examined his face, the surer she was that there had to be blood between them.
Riley astonished her when she slid her arm around his waist and said proudly. "I don't think you two have met. Blanche Donovan, this is my husband, John Biebe."
John said, "Hey Blanche. How you doing?" and reached out a hand, his eyes smiling.
He sat in the booth, his body curved in a careless lounge. His gaze was on Blanche, but he kept his face expressionless to conceal his thoughts…until she leaned over the counter. Hot eyes dropped to her ass, fine in tight blue jeans, and his cock stirred. Cort licked his lips and wondered if he could get into those jeans tonight.
Sweet Jesus...that was one sweet piece of tail.
Abruptly, Blanche straightened and vigorously shook her head. Cort's eyes narrowed in suspicion. What had Riley said to her? He slid upright in the seat, his eyes glued to the two women. Things went from bad to worse when John Biebe walked out of the kitchen, a screwdriver in his hand. He cursed under his breath and slid out of the booth.
As Blanche reached for John's offered hand his eyes drifted over her shoulder and his friendly smile faltered, and she knew that Cort had come up behind her. Before she could move or turn, a hand, warm and big, slid along her waist.
She knew it was him without looking. He smelled so good…Blanche thought of fresh air and cool water, tinged with the scent of expensive liquor. As his palm scribed slow caressing circles, her skin heated and tingled. Her body betrayed her, urging her to lean back against his chest, relax in arms she knew wanted to hold her. His mouth hovered so close to her ear, his low whisper might just as well have been a kiss
"Angel?" Whiskey-scented breath drifted across her cheek and soft whisker-framed lips brushed the lobe of her ear. "Let's go someplace quieter to talk."
He was so damned cocksure of himself. Of her. A half turn of her head brought them cheek to cheek. "Just where would this someplace quiet be?" she asked and waited, fully expecting him to suggest his room. As soon as he did, she was going to blast him.
Cort leaned even closer. "How about Mexico, darlin'? I know a sweet little place just outside of Rosarito." Blanche went still as his voice purred in her ear, describing paradise. "White beaches, turquoise sea, a little adobe villa with a patio and lemon trees. The breeze blows all day long, and the sunset takes your breath away, it's so pretty. Now don't that sound peaceful and quiet, Angel?"
It sounded peaceful and beautiful…and described in that low drawling voice, like the best idea she'd ever heard. It also sounded like the biggest line of bullshit she'd ever heard, a line that demanded a quick put down.
Blanche quirked her mouth in falsely polite regret. "I've only got..." she checked her watch, "...about two hours before I have to go to work. So as nice as that sounds, no thanks."
Across the counter, John Biebe snorted a laugh, and even Riley covered a grin with her hand.
A shade of annoyance passed over Cort's face. Some of the sparkle faded from his eyes and his smile faltered. He shot a glare at John, but his big warm hand still caressed the curve of her waist.
"Then darlin', how about we take a little ride in the desert. I'll have you back in time. Let me show you how magical a night can be."
Blanche flinched as his fingers slipped under the hem of her knit top and caressed her skin. Electricity....it felt just like electricity. A sizzle of pleasure rippled through her as Cort's bold tongue slid along the shell of her ear and his hand sensuously caressed the curve of her waist. She stood still, every muscle in her body loosening. He was coming on way too strong, but for a fleeting minute Blanche considered it. A man who could do this to her with just his voice and a caress was worth considering.
And then she became aware of Riley and her husband, staring with undisguised interest at her and Cort. They were getting quite a show. Riley smiled, but her husband wore an expression of faint disgust. Suddenly embarrassed, Blanche felt the heat of a blush color her cheeks and throat.
Yes, she'd love to ride out in the desert with him. Sit on a blanket, count the stars. Listen to him talk in that growling whiskey and honey drawl, kiss that beautiful mouth.
But she wouldn't. It was too soon for midnight tête-à-têtes in lonely places. She didn't even know his last name. Had no idea who he was, what he did for a living. He could be anyone from anywhere, a criminal. Las Vegas was full of transients and men who walked on the wrong side of the law. Dangerous men who took what they wanted and didn't look back. Blanche knew that better than most.
Wet and warm, his tongue lapped her earlobe. Blanche stiffened her spine. Enough. One more minute of this and she'd fall like a house of cards. It was time to shut him down.
She leaned away, curving her back so that she could look into his face, and a grinning Cort slid his free hand around her waist and supported her while he kept her hips tight against his. Thigh to thigh, he felt the heat of her along his legs. His eyes grew heavy-lidded and sparked heat through a curtain of thick lashes. The thrill of victory hovered close, and he nudged her cheek with his nose, his deep voice a coaxing drawl, "C'mon' Angel. Just for a little while."
Blanche smiled, promised it all with her eyes, felt him swell against her lower belly in response. And then she deliberately stepped back, forcing him to release his hold.
"Maybe when I know you better," she purred. She reached into the pocket of her jeans, withdrew a twenty dollar bill and a yellow parking stub. She laid the cash on the counter and slid the stub back in her pocket.
"Will that cover my tab?" she asked Riley, nodding at the twenty.
"Uh, more than cover it," Riley said. "Hold on, I'll get your change."
Blanche shook her head. "No. Keep it, and give Cort another drink." She picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder. "I really have to go. Have a good night, everyone..." she said pleasantly, and then leaned in and gave Cort a private whisper that sent a jolt into his loins, "...especially you, darlin'..."
Cort watched her as unbelievably, she turned and strode away. He fought back a quick surge of temper, and at the same time, choked off the urge to laugh. Couldn't decide if she was a cock-teasing bitch or a woman worth chasing. As she left the café, he jerked his chin at Paco Benning, who sat alone at a table near the door. "Follow her," he mouthed silently, and the man flipped his Ray Bans down over his eyes and pushed out of the door, two steps behind Blanche.
Riley said tentatively, "Uh...Cort?"
"Do you want that drink?"
He turned to her, covering his disappointment with a meant-to-charm grin. "Yeah, I do."
She poured the shot, slid the cup to him. "She's always in and out of here, Cort. You'll see her again," she soothed, misreading his mood.
Cort raised the cup and knocked back the liquor in one swallow. "You're damn right I will," he muttered, and to Riley and John, it sounded almost like a threat. He set the cup down on the counter and without a word of goodbye, stalked out.
Outraged, John watched Cort leave the cafe, indignation contorting his normally pleasant expression. Who the fuck did the bastard think he was? The lady said no...where did he get off sending a guy to follow her?
"Baby..." he pecked Riley's cheek, "...I'll be right back."
"John, don't." Riley caught his sleeve. "It's not our business."
He covered her hand with his and patted. "Right back, baby. One minute." John vaulted the counter and strode through the door. He looked in the direction Cort had gone, saw him stalking down the mezzanine, and took off at a trot until he was close enough to be heard above the nerve-jangling din of ten thousand slot machines. "Cort! Hey, hold up."
The man stopped and turned, scowling impatience written on his face. "What?" he said flatly.
"What my ass," John growled. "Don't give me that shit. What the fuck are you up to?"
Cort rolled his neck, bit back the hot words that formed in his mouth. "Biebe, go back to your coffee house and get the hell off my back."
John didn't miss the implied insult. Cort was a player, a high-roller. John was just small time, a nobody in the Vegas scene. He was supposed to feel inferior. Well fuck that. John Biebe didn't feel inferior, not to a bastard like Cort Davis, not to anyone.
He took a step closer, gritted through his teeth, "The lady said no. Call your thug off. Leave her alone."
"My thug?" Cort's eyes turned cold, he leaned menacingly close. "This ain't your business, Galahad. Back off."
A lesser man might have had second thoughts about crossing him, but John didn't intimidate easily. He hissed a warning, "I'm telling you to leave her alone. What happens in the Cafe is my business."
"That so?" Cort's eyebrows rose as he made a show of looking around. "Well, right now I ain't in your cafe. And if I want to see the lady, I fuckin' will."
He didn't give John a chance to reply, he walked away and didn't look back. Left Biebe, that fuckin' prick, to glare after him. Cort was seething, furious. Goddammit, no one could stop him from taking his shot at Blanche Donovan. If he had to live in the goddamn café to get to her, he'd do it. Cort grinned to himself as a thought occurred. It actually might be fun to hang out there more often...it would drive Biebe crazy. He kinda liked that red, frustrated look on his face.
John Biebe...fuckin' Sir Galahad. Christ, what crawled up his ass? Hitting on a woman wasn't illegal. That's all he'd done...made his move on a gorgeous blonde. A gorgeous, interested blonde...Cort knew when a woman was receptive to his overtures, even if she pretended otherwise. Biebe was out of practice if he thought Blanche Donovan didn't want to play.
His grin turned wicked. And play they would, Angel and him. For as long as he wanted them to.
He'd reached the entrance of the hotel lobby. Laughing, Cort walked out into the tawdry brilliance of the Vegas strip.
Blanche picked up on the tail almost as soon as she crossed the mezzanine. The slick in the silver studded leather jacket was stuck to her like glue. At first she worried, wondering who he was. She could have gone straight to casino security, but he seemed vaguely familiar and non-threatening. After several good looks at him, she remembered where she'd seen him before. With Cort. She was both irritated and amused...this was really taking things too far. Cort had made a move her competitive nature wouldn't allow her to let pass. So she tested Slick, slipping into the casino between rows of slots, disappearing into the midst of a crowd where she could watch him frantically search for her. Blanche shook her head in disgust. If this guy was the best Cort could do, she was disappointed in him.
With plenty of time before her game, she wandered aimlessly though the casino, even sat at a slot for awhile, idly playing Deuces Wild Poker. Slick hovered twenty feet behind her, his reflection wavering but visible in the chrome framing the machine. "Let's hope you never really need to tail someone," she said aloud, shaking her head at his incompetence. By the time half an hour had gone by, she'd dropped fifty dollars and was getting bored. A glance at her watch told her there was no time left to play games with Cort's hopelessly inept tail. She had someplace to be and she didn't want him following her there. Blanche got up from the machine and went straight to the ladies room.
Safe in a place where no man could enter unnoticed, she took her good old time. Freshened her lipstick, powdered her nose, spritzed perfume. From her voluminous bag, she pulled out an LAPD ballcap and tucked her long hair up and through the strap in a ponytail. Rolled up in the bottom of her purse was a short black suede jacket; she put it on and zipped it to the collar, completely covering her knit top. Using the tail's own trick, she put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, then examined her reflection in the mirror. Whispering to herself, 'Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses...' she smiled in satisfaction. The change was enough to fool an asshole like Slick.
Impatiently, she waited another ten minutes just to panic him and his boss, and then she strolled out of the ladies' room. He was nearby, leaning against the side of a slot machine, his head down, cell pressed to one ear, his free hand cupping the other. He wasn't talking, he was listening, and she saw his nervous tension. It didn't take a brain surgeon to guess who it was, giving him hell on the phone.
Slick didn't see Blanche duck past him and disappear behind a row of tall slots. She lengthened her stride, put some distance between them. And as soon as she was certain she'd lost him for good, she headed for the poker pit.
The high rollers were up in Heaven...the private room up a flight of stairs where the table stakes were as high as wealthy men wanted them to be. Someday she'd play there, as soon as her reputation grew and she got herself some backers. But for now, she played limited bet poker in the pit separated from the casino floor by a low wall, guarded by a casino employee at its velvet roped entrance. Scanning the tables, she found her favorite dealer, Mario, at number six. There was one vacant chair at his table.
Blanche whispered and nodded toward six, tipped the guard. He escorted her to the table and held her chair while she sat down. Mario gave her a quick nod of greeting and kept on with the deal. She used the time to watch the other players for tells, picked up a few. The man in chair four tapped his pinky on the backs of his cards when he was going to raise the bet. Chair three wet his lips nervously before he folded. When the game ended, Blanche handed over a wad of twenties and Mario slid a stack of twenty dollar chips toward her...a thousand dollars worth of twenty dollar chips. She tossed her ante into the pot and settled down to play poker.
She was feeling lucky.
Four hours later, Blanche cashed in and signed a generous tip chit for Mario. She walked away from the table exactly seven thousand six hundred and seventy dollars to the good. Not bad money for a few hours work. She was jazzed, high, adrenalized, and knew she wouldn't be able to sleep for hours. What she needed was a quiet place to unwind before she went home. She thought of the Café Biscotti, wondered if it was open all night, and if Cort would still be there. She grinned. Probably not, but she wasn't going to make sure. Not after she'd gone to all the trouble of losing his tail. Let him stew awhile, she'd find him when she wanted to.
A glance at her watch told her it was just after three. She left the casino by the main entrance and sent the valet for her car. Maybe she'd take that drive in desert tonight after all. Crank her Bose sound system and let the big dogs out to run while the wind whipped her hair around her face. Count the stars and gaze at the moon 'til the sun came up. And decide if she wanted to get involved with a handsome bastard who had enough juice to order someone to follow her. A sexy beast with deep set eyes and more than his share of charm.
Cort rested on the bike, his legs splayed to the pavement, his impatient eyes on the main entrance of the casino. To keep himself amused, he spent the time wondering why he kept a jackass like Paco around. Had to be his soft heart…he had one, though not too many would believe it. It was better that way.
He'd lost his temper and torn Paco Benning a new asshole, threatened to fire him, and sent him off with a snarled, 'Get the fuck out of my sight.' Cort didn't want him around anymore tonight. He was going to take that ride out to the desert and watch the sunrise over the sand dunes. And by Christ, he wouldn't watch it alone.
Two hours he'd prowled the casino, sure Blanche was there somewhere, and eventually found her at the poker tables. Backing off far enough to be just another face in the crowd, Cort watched her play. She was good. Her face remained expressionless; she gave nothing away, lost and won with equal aplomb. She was cordial but not talkative with her fellow players, did nothing to distract the dealer. Even from a distance he could see her coolly observing the others at the table, noting every little twitch and tic. He reckoned she was a pro who lived off gambling. A pro with a touch of the con about her.
Cort grinned to himself. Blanche Donovan was a wild one, all right. Just like him.
The night was cool and clear. He looked up at the sky, even though he knew it was a waste of time. Too much light pollution…you couldn't see real stars in Vegas no matter how hard you squinted. Had to go out of the city for that, miles away from the fifty billion kilowatts of electricity the casinos burned night and day. Out in the desert, it was dark enough to see million of them, scattered across the sky like diamonds on black velvet. He preferred starlight to the garish neon of the Strip.
He shuffled his booted feet, dug in his jacket pocket for a cigarette and fired it up with a wooden match cupped in his hands. Cort didn't care for lighters. He preferred the old-fashioned way of striking the match, liked the hissing flare of flame. Acrid sulfur fumes rose to his nostrils and he dragged on the Marlboro, exhaling pale smoke that was quickly blown away by the night wind. He squinted and checked his watch. Christ, it was almost three. Where the hell was she? He knew she'd come out this way because of the parking stub. He'd seen it when she slapped that twenty down on the counter, just before she left the Biebe's place.
He grinned again. She was a sassy one. Sassy as hell.
At 3:15 she appeared in the wide door of the casino, the baseball cap gone, her hair wild around her face. He liked her walk, that long almost arrogant stride, the tight little swing on her back porch that was a temptation to any man with eyes. He watched her hand the ticket to the valet, who ran off to get her car while she waited in safety. Under the bright overhead lights, her hair turned to molten gold. Cort licked his lips, remembering the scent of it.
In minutes the valet was back with a black Mustang convertible. The top was down and the kid hopped out without opening the door. Cort laughed out loud when Blanche did the same, lifting one long leg after the other into the car, sliding down the seat to land with a thump behind the wheel. She tossed the kid a tip and gunned the Mustang, tore out of the circle drive with a squeal of tires.
Oh yeah...he wanted this one. Wanted her bad.
He kicked the Low Rider into life, felt the deep vibration of the motor between his legs, and pulled out onto the Strip to follow his Angel. He knew where she was going. He'd given her the idea.
Blanche took the 15 north out of the city then headed east toward Sunrise Mountain. Once she was past the turnoff to Nellis Air Force Base, the traffic thinned out to an occasional car going towards Vegas. She had Springsteen in the player, a compilation she'd made herself of all her favorites. The Boss was pounding Born to Run, and Blanche sang along with him at the top of her lungs. The song was perfect for her, for this night, for the all but vacant highway in front of her. The Mustang cruised at ninety. She felt wild, rebellious. As free as the wind that whipped her hair across her face.
She first noticed the rider behind her on a long stretch of lonely road fifteen miles from the mountain. The single headlight was a steady presence that slowly closed the gap between them. Blanche began watching the rearview more than the road ahead. She watched long enough to get nervous.
There was a pistol in the locked glove box. She needed to put more distance between her and the biker, pull off, and get the gun closer to hand. Maybe she was paranoid, but better safe than sorry. She wondered who it could be...the guy who'd tailed her earlier? Or someone who'd seen her cash in after the game and marked a lone woman as easy prey?
Or was it Cort?
Would he go that far to get her alone? Blanche had a healthy sense of self-esteem, but she couldn't believe she was worth a middle-of-the-night chase into the desert. Not to a man who could have just about any woman he wanted, and especially not after she'd shut him down in the Café. But maybe she was all wrong about him. Maybe she'd pissed him off enough to want a little revenge. Sweet Jesus, maybe he was a criminal. She bit her lip. A rapist, a killer...
She narrowed her eyes and glanced in the rearview again. She'd pushed the Mustang to ninety-five and the car was flying over the pavement, but that lone headlight was even closer than it had been just a minute ago. She dialed down the volume on Springsteen and heard the deep throated rumble of a Harley's engine.
Shit. She floored the Mustang, saw the digital readout shoot past one hundred. The bike kept up.
Truly afraid then, Blanche realized that whoever was back there, he was coming for her. And there was nothing ahead for miles but dark vacant highway.
It had gone wrong. Gone from fun to dangerous. Fuck, she was doing over a hundred in a convertible...with the top down. All he wanted was to catch up to her, charm her, spend a little quiet time with an Angel out in the desert. Kiss her pretty mouth; sweet talk her into to lying down with him under the stars. But he didn't get a chance to do so much as say hello, and now she was on the run, two minutes from Panic fucking City. Jesus Christ, that car was flying, and so was he. Every night bug that smacked his face felt like a pop from a pellet gun.
He could still catch her. The bike had plenty left, he could easily overtake Blanche, let her see it was him and realize there was no danger. Then she'd drop down to a safer speed. Something told him she wouldn't be too happy to see him, though. Something told him she'd be pretty goddamn pissed...
The smart thing to do was give it up. Let Angel go, wait for another chance to get her alone. Cort always did the smart thing...he'd learned long ago that muscle only went so far, and some people couldn't be forced no matter what he did. He downshifted, throttled back until the gap between his Harley and the Mustang widened. And when Blanche had gained enough of a lead, he swung a U turn in the middle of the highway and started back toward Vegas.
Blanche checked the speedometer...108...and looked in the rearview again. The bike had definitely dropped back. She flicked her eyes between the windshield and the rearview, prayed that a deer or jackrabbit wouldn't pick this moment in time to leap in front of her car. At 108 miles per hour, there wouldn't be much left of either of them to scrape off the pavement, and this chase scene from a bad movie would be over.
It was risky to split her attention, but she kept the rider in sight. As soon as he pulled the U turn in the middle of the highway, she relaxed and let up infinitesimally on the gas until the speedometer dropped down to 95. All she had to go by was the moon, but it had cast enough light to see his distinctive profile. Cort. It had been Cort behind her all this time, scaring the hell out of her. She couldn't believe the fool had chased her at over 100 miles an hour without a fucking helmet to protect his head.
Cort couldn't just leave it; he had to make sure she was all right. He turned off highway 147 at the Sunrise Mountain Natural Area, gunned the bike up a hardscrabble rise with a 360 view. Sooner or later she'd come back this way. He could watch for her from the hilltop, make sure she was on her way home.
He was gone. She eased off the gas, brought the Mustang down to a safe 75. As her speed decreased, her temper rose. Who the hell did he think he was, sending someone to tail her, then following her himself? If this was his idea of romance, it was pretty lame.
She pulled off to the side of the road and leaned across to the glove box, unlocked it, and removed the pistol. She checked the loads...five shells, the hammer on the empty chamber. No such thing as a safety on an 1890 Colt .44. And keeping this antique nearby was the only way she could carry a gun. Blanche decided to keep the sixshooter at hand until she was safely tucked up in bed in her double locked, alarmed, and big dog-protected house.
She pressed the button and put the top up on the Mustang. She'd lost her desire for a long ride in the desert. Blanche laid the Colt carefully on the seat beside her, pulled onto the highway, and turned back towards Vegas. Seething over his stunt, she decided that come afternoon, she'd pay another visit to the Cafe Biscotti, and if Cort was there, ask him just what the hell he thought he was doing.
Cort switched off the bike and set the kickstand. Pulling a bottle of water from his saddlebag, he squinted up at the stars. There were millions of them, sparkling pinpricks of light in the night sky. It was a perfect night, made for lovin'. And he was out there alone.
He swore out loud, drained the water, flung the bottle out into the desert then dug in his jacket for a smoke. He waited for the black Mustang to come back down the highway, and did his best to ignore the lust-induced heaviness throbbing in his crotch.
...to be continued