by Cheri Ritz
Successful Chicago-based artist Lauren Hansen is on a layover in Las Vegas before heading to what was supposed to be the vacation of a lifetime with her partner. Until, that is, that partner became an ex.
Recovering from a nasty break-up herself, workaholic Penny Rothmoor agrees to meet Lauren for dinner, but only out of a sense of obligation to her mother.
One thing leads to another, and soon Penny finds herself on a plane, jetting off to meet Lauren for a week on the beautiful island of Hawaii—but strictly as friends, of course.
As the bikini-clad duo relaxes and gets to know each other better, they begin to realize that there’s more to enjoy in Hawaii than just sun and sand—and that king-size bed is looking awfully inviting. What is it about the words “no strings attached” that are sure to create a tangled mess of desire, mind-blowing pleasure, and the pain of separation?
Penny Rothmoor liked things to be in order. As she surveyed the hustle and bustle around her, she straightened her back and then straightened the lapels on her jacket. She loved being a part of her family’s casino in her role as Operations Manager. This was where she belonged: next in line to head up the Rothmoor Towers Casino dynasty.
“I think this constitutes abuse. This is like the tenth hand in a row I’ve lost. What are you trying to do to me, Rothmoor?”
“Ha, ha.” Penny snapped out of her reverie in time to cut off her best friend’s grumbling. To smooth things over with the other patrons she added, “Comedian Mara Antonini everybody. Catch her act tonight at the Laffmoor Comedy Club upstairs.”
Mara scooped up her last few chips and slid off her perch. “Sorry, I had to say something. You had that intense ‘I’m a boss’ look you get sometimes. I was just trying to lighten the mood.”
“There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s work.” Penny stuck out her chin defiantly.
“Loving your job is one thing, but acting like a robot is a whole other thing.” To emphasize her point Mara broke out in a jerky stiff-armed dance, but just as suddenly she sobered up and her mouth fixed into a frown. “Don’t turn around. Bryce just walked into the casino.”
“What the hell is he doing here?” Penny’s fingers grasped the green felt on the edge of the blackjack table. After the way her ex had destroyed their relationship and humiliated her in the process, she couldn’t stand the thought of even looking at him.
“Oh man, he’s heading this way,” Mara confirmed.
“Penny, I need to talk to you,” Bryce announced in his deep dopey voice, making her back go as stiff as the drink she would need after this confrontation.
Penny quickly sized up the situation as she met him with a glare. While this was probably a conversation they should have in private, the chances of her dragging Bryce’s solid six-foot-four frame out of the area without causing a scene were slim. She had to keep her cool, act professional, and solve the problem with a quick exchange of words. “You have a lot of fucking nerve showing your face in this casino. I have nothing else to say to you.”
Bryce shrugged his beefy shoulders. “Your phone isn’t working and I think I left some stuff in our…your suite. I want it back.”
Her phone wasn’t working because she’d changed her number shortly after their breakup. She was totally done with Bryce Kellar. “I assure you I’m not going to keep any of your action figure collectibles or some ratty old Beta Nu T-shirt. Should I unearth one of them in my suite, I’ll return it immediately. Please leave and don’t come back to the Rothmoor ever again.”
“You’re pissed because I quit my job here.”
“You went to work for a competitor and took a decent chunk of the casino’s security staff with you.”
“I had to do something,” he scowled. “I have a life here now. I moved to Las Vegas to be with you and then you became completely emotionally unavailable.”
“Emotionally unavailable?” Penny curled her hand around a stack of poker chips on the table beside her. Her jaw clenched in anger the same way it had the afternoon she returned to her suite midshift to find Bryce in bed with one of the dancers from the Rothmoor Revue. She struggled to keep her voice down and her temper in control. “You cheated on me…again.” To her horror she watched as the fistful of chips bounced off Bryce’s broad chest and rained down onto the casino floor at her feet. She hadn’t even realized she’d thrown them, but the gasps of the patrons seated around the blackjack table confirmed that the incident hadn’t gone unnoticed by others.
Bryce was still gaping at her in surprise when Penny felt her father’s strong, calming hand on her shoulder.
“Mr. Kellar, I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave the casino.” Her father’s voice was firm but not unkind as he continued, “Penny, please go to the boardroom. I’ll meet you there momentarily.”
~ ~ ~
Penny paced the length of the boardroom in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows. Not even the breathtaking view of the glittering casinos and flashing neon signs of Las Vegas, the city she grew up in and loved, could make her stomach unclench after the blow she had just been dealt.
She glared at Timothy in his neat, classic-fit, tailored suit. “I don’t need time off. I can separate my work and personal life just fine.” She held her head up high and swallowed hard against the panic rising in her throat. She had always been proud to be a part of the success of the family business, and her job was everything to her. An uncomfortable tingle traveled up her neck and into her cheeks. It hurt that her boss was ordering her to take time off work. The fact that her boss was also her father made it feel like the ultimate betrayal. “Why the hell isn’t my father standing up for me?”
“This is your father standing up for you.” Timothy smirked at her mention of family ties, the one advantage at the casino he could never take from her. He leaned forward with both hands on the conference table, causing his bright red tie to swing limply in front of him. “Your fiancé left his position as head of security at the Rothmoor and took half of our security staff with him. Bryce Kellar left the Rothmoor’s employ because you broke things off with him. Revenge for being dumped. Your reputation was already on shaky ground for bringing him on board here in the first place, but then you went and made a scene on the casino floor today. It’s like you’ve totally snapped. Your father is worried about you.”
God, Timothy was a snotty bitch when he wanted to be. A weight settled on her heart at the mention of her love lost. She and Bryce had been together off and on since they were in college nearly ten years ago. During the off times she had dated other guys and girls, but somehow she always ended up giving Bryce one more chance. This last attempt with Bryce had felt like the real deal. Sadly, being older and wiser didn’t make them any more able to make their relationship work this time either. She searched Timothy’s face, hoping to see even the faintest glimmer of understanding in his eyes or a hint of humanity, but he held true to form. Cold ass, stab you in the back, spit on your neck snake. Would it seriously kill him to show a little compassion for her situation?
“We both ended our relationship. It was a mutual decision.” Penny’s shoulders tensed. She didn’t need to explain herself. It was none of his business. It was none of anyone’s business. She clenched her jaw as she struggled to keep her emotions in check in front of Timothy. She didn’t need to snap again. “Don’t paint me as the bad guy here.”
“I’m not painting you as anything.” Timothy straightened his posture, pushing at his jacket to shove his hands in his pants pockets—the picture-perfect combination of smooth professionalism and smarmy narcissism. Of all the people in his employ, why did her father have to choose Timothy to deliver the news? Of course none of it was Timothy’s fault. He was just the messenger, but he was quickly becoming the target of Penny’s wrath at the indignity of the situation, especially since he seemed to relish the duty of delivering it. “This has nothing to do with how I see you and your breakup with Bryce.” His voice took on a haughty, staccato edge that made Penny cringe. “It’s your father’s belief that right now the best thing for you to do is lie low and let this all blow over. Take some time off. You’re still getting paid, so just relax and enjoy it. In a couple weeks when things have quieted down and returned to normal, we’ll bring you back.”
Relax and enjoy it? A couple weeks? Penny’s blood boiled at Timothy’s cool, calm tone. He wasn’t the one who would be stuck jobless, lost and useless, watching reruns of Family Feud and eating leftover takeout because there was no point in getting dressed and leaving the suite. He would be at the Rothmoor, probably doing her job as Operations Manager and gaining the upper hand on her in the business while she sat idly by. “You’ll bring me back when things return to normal? Are you fucking with me?”
“No, Miss Rothmoor.” Timothy’s voice took on a precise crispness that indicated he was out of patience with her. She was more than familiar with the tone. “I assure you that I am in no way fucking with you. This is your father’s final decision. You are officially off duty as soon as you deliver those to the front desk.” He gestured lazily at three brown boxes piled on the opposite end of the table before spinning on his Brooks Brothers wingtips and leaving her speechless and temporarily jobless in the conference room.
Delivering boxes to the front desk. There was no doubt in her mind that he had thrown that task in purely as a kick to her gut while she was down.
The elevator dinged cheerfully in the hallway, reminding her that life in the casino was going on without her already. She drifted back to the tall windows that showcased the Vegas skyline. In the dusky shades of early evening, the glow of neon lights began to come alive. Sparkling and shining, they beckoned gamblers to come out and play. Come take a chance. Her gaze ran down the strip, following a tiny car on the street below as it passed so many favorite places in her hometown. She waited for the surge of energy the view usually inspired in her, but this time she came up empty. She sighed and turned her back to the window, focusing instead on the portrait of her great-grandfather that hung above the massive conference table. From his perch on the wall, it seemed like he still kept an eye on what went on at the casino he built so many years ago.
She’d facilitated a hundred meetings in that conference room as Lead Floor Manager at the Rothmoor and now she was being asked to stay away. Her scalp prickled with shame. What would her great-grandfather think about that? From what Timothy had said, she had really let her father down with the scene she’d made in the casino. What if he decided she was no longer needed? What if she was replaceable? She dismissed the thought as preposterous even as it crossed her mind. She was damn good at what she did. But still…
What would she do to fill her days for the next couple weeks? Ironically, she now had time to plan that wedding that she and Bryce had just called off. She rubbed at her temples in an attempt to soothe the tension throbbing there. Truth be told, she was already missing her job much more than she missed him.
She sucked in her breath and fought the tears prickling at her eyes. She still had to walk out of the office suite, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to do it a sobbing mess. She clicked on her phone and stabbed at the keypad. She needed a plan, even if it were just for the immediate future. She needed to get out of the casino.
Fortunately, her best friend Mara picked up on the first ring. “Blue Balls Deli. No one beats our meat!”
“Mara, I…” she choked out. She would not cry. Not at work.
“Hey, are you okay?” Mara’s tone shifted to soft and concerned, despite the rowdy voices in the background on her end. “I can’t talk for long here.”
“I know, I know.” Penny blinked back the tears still threatening to fall. Mara Antonini wasn’t just her best friend, she was also the headliner at the Rothmoor’s comedy club. “You have a show starting in like, minutes. I know that. I was being stupid. I’m looking for someone to get a drink or ten with. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Whoa, back it up.” Just the sound of Mara’s voice was a comfort. “Why aren’t you working? And why are you drinking? Penny, what the hell is going on?”
“I’ve been…” What was the word for her situation? Suspended? Laid off? “I’ve been asked to take a break from work.”
“What? Why? That doesn’t make any sense.” Mara sounded as stunned as Penny felt.
“Because of the whole thing with Bryce today. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to drink.” She sniffled. “Can you meet me after your show?”
“I can—” Mara began hesitantly. “But aren’t you forgetting something?”
Penny swiped a thumb under each of her eyes. She still needed to pull it together before she could leave the conference room. She took another deep breath to steady herself. “No, I know you have two shows tonight.”
“I was referring to your dinner date with that old friend of your mom’s.” Mara’s voice took on the sound of worry. “Honey, it’s not like you to forget stuff like that. You’re really shaken up, aren’t you?”
Dinner with Lauren Hansen. Fuck. Penny had totally forgotten. She didn’t even know the woman, but she had reached out after hearing Penny’s mother had passed last year. “Ugh. Yeah, you could say that. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing right now.” She shook her head in an attempt to clear it. “Okay, I’ll go to dinner with Lauren, get that over with, and be at Game of Flats by nine thirty. Text the other girls and tell them to meet me.”
“You got it,” Mara confirmed. “And you try to relax. We’ll get this all figured out. Gotta run. See you tonight.” She clicked off the call.
Taking control of the moment had given Penny the boost she needed to get out of the conference room without completely falling apart. She slipped her phone into her pocket, threw her shoulders back, and stuck her chin out, summoning the old, “fake it ’til you make it” mindset of her younger years. She would deliver the boxes to the front desk, go to her suite for a change of clothes, meet Lauren for dinner, and then drown her sorrows at Game of Flats with her friends. All she had to do was stick to the plan and everything would be okay.
Lauren Hansen stood all alone by the baggage carousel. She hitched her purse up on her shoulder and hummed We Got The Beat, the last song she had listened to on the plane. She tapped her foot and surveyed the crowd of fellow travelers around her. Most of them seemed to be paired up, if not part of a group. With a sigh she returned her gaze to the parade of bags. The trip was not going at all as she had imagined it when she’d sat at her computer months ago looking at photos of sunny resorts and happy couples, but she was doing her best to forge on just the same. Back then she was planning a trip for two. As she stood watching other people’s luggage file by on the moving belt, she was a solo act. If there was one thing she had learned in her fifty years on this Earth, it was that plans were always subject to change.
When she had booked the trip, she had been part of a couple celebrating their ten-year anniversary and marking the occasion with a trip to the Waverly Winds Resort on the island of Hawaii. That was before Carolyn betrayed her. Before Carolyn announced she didn’t want them anymore. Before Carolyn walked out on her and their life together. Before Lauren was alone.
Suddenly, taking the trip by herself seemed like a very stupid idea.
She could just grab her bag, march herself to the counter, and book a flight back home to Chicago. She had a gallery showing for her photographs right after she was scheduled to get back from the vacation anyway. She could skip the trip and spend the time preparing, over preparing, really, since everything was already lined up and set to go. Of course, Penny Rothmoor was expecting her for dinner. She could just cancel on that as well. Hell, she didn’t even know the woman.
Lauren’s rust orange suitcase slid out of the chute and onto the belt, one bright spot in a sea of black bags. She snapped back to reality. She needed to get outside. She would be able to think more clearly in the fresh air.
Ten minutes later she was standing on the curb, but she was in no real hurry to hail a cab. She squinted against the brightness of the sun, but the heat on her face had a soothing effect. Her shoulders relaxed as a layer of tension melted away. May weather in Las Vegas was a whole different ballgame than May weather in Chicago. She had heard it was the month when the temperature there took a turn from comfortable spring to the blazing hot heat of summer. The scorching sun above was most certainly a testament to that. Lauren had left behind overcast skies and a chilly morning back home. She had shoved her Anne Klein tweed topper jacket into her carry-on when her flight had landed. She doubted she would need it for the remainder of her trip.
A family of travelers spilled out of the airport and rushed toward a waiting van by the curb. Couples climbed into cabs, anxious to reach their next destination. A group of boisterous golf buddies loaded their suitcases and club bags into the back of a black town car.
All the while Lauren stood by herself. She took a deep breath of the warm Las Vegas air. Should I stay or should I go? Her brain had moved on to another song. The sun on her face felt damn good, and she allowed a few more bars of the song to run through her head while she stood there on the sidewalk considering her next move. The choice really was hers.
As if on cue, her phone rang, announcing her assistant James was trying to reach her. Lauren clicked on the call but didn’t get in a word before James started in on her. “You were supposed to call me as soon as you landed. Is everything okay? You had me worried sick. Are you in Vegas? Is it true what they say about the dry heat? I hope you packed your moisturizer. I don’t know if my skin could take it.” He finally paused to take a breath.
“I’m fine, James, and it’s a glorious day here in Nevada.” She couldn’t resist a little poke at him. “I was just wondering if this vacation was a good idea. Do you think I should just scrap it and come back home?”
“What? You better be joking,” he scolded. “You need this vacation. You deserve it. You’ve been working yourself into the ground. No. You will vacation and come back to me relaxed and rejuvenated, just in time for opening night.”
“You’re bossy today. It makes me miss you.” She laughed at James’s chattering and gave a stiff nod to the airport security officer walking the length of the loading area.
“Well, stop missing me and start vacationing. I mean it. We’ve talked this through a million times. There’s nothing to be done here before the show opens, and I don’t need you overthinking and overstressing and messing with perfection. That kind of thing is very bad for the complexion. Get your ass directly to Hawaii. You’re on vacation.”
Hearing James’s voice had given her the boost she needed to push forward with the original plan. He was right, of course. She was likely to drive him mad if she was just hanging around in Chicago, second-guessing everything they had set in place for the show. She pulled a deep breath of warm air into her lungs and boosted her bag on her shoulder. Onward and upward it would be. She put her hand in the air to hail a taxi as she responded to her assistant’s firm instruction. “I guess I have no choice. I’m on vacation.”
Penny scooped the pile of boxes into her arms. She could see over the top, and they weren’t heavy, but they were awkward in her grasp. With a deep sigh, she balanced them against her chest and wedged herself through the door of the conference room into the hallway.
As if the whole mandatory vacation thing wasn’t shameful enough, being sent off with this final, lowly task was a big kick in the ass. All the way down to the front desk too. She would be bumbling through the middle of the lobby with the doomed boxes stacked in her arms. If one toppled off in front of everybody, she would feel like a fool. She could have gotten a dolly from maintenance and wheeled the pile down, but that would have just stretched the task out longer. All she wanted to do now was be done. Damn Timothy! She wouldn’t miss working with him one bit while she was off.
She stepped out of the elevator and into the buzz of action that was a typical Friday afternoon at the Rothmoor. She circumvented the queue of guests checking in, being extra careful to avoid the tourists milling around gawking at the impossibly high ceiling and Old Hollywood gilded décor. Bobbing and weaving through the crowd of gamblers heading straight to the casino floor to dance with lady luck, she made her way toward the front desk. All she needed to do was deposit the boxes with the smiling face on duty there and she was free. Well, if she put a happy spin on being asked to leave her job temporarily and called it freedom. But less than twenty steps away from delivering the boxes to their destination without incident, someone bumped into her from behind, startling her just enough to cause her to lose her footing.
The offending tourist called out an apology to her as he continued on his way, but she barely heard it. In her effort to keep herself upright, Penny jostled the boxes in her arms and to her horror, she felt herself losing her hold on them. All she could do was watch as they tumbled to the floor. Stress and frustration from the events of the afternoon bubbled up inside of her. A shudder rippled through her shoulders and she pressed her eyelids shut tight as she dropped to her knees to gather the packages. She had made it that far through the disaster of a day without crying, and she wasn’t going to start now. “Son of a fucking—”
“Do you need a hand?”
The heat already building in Penny’s cheeks from her embarrassing case of the dropsies ratcheted up a notch. Her mini-meltdown had been overheard. So much for her reputation as an upstanding professional. It had pretty much been blown to hell in one damn day. She looked up to decline the stranger’s offer, but the words caught in her throat as she saw the beautiful woman gazing down at her.
Amusement flashed in the woman’s olive green eyes and a smile played at her lips, a striking contrast to the strict bun her auburn hair was fixed in. Her long jewel-tone print skirt swirled around her legs like flower petals opening to blossom as she bent down to assist. “Let me help, Penny.”
Surprise caused Penny’s breath to hitch again as the woman called her by name. She studied her face carefully as the brunette reached for a box. Soft wisps of hair that had fallen from her bun framed a tanned face that had a smooth complexion except for joyful laugh lines at the corners of her kind eyes. The woman was a Grade-A knockout, but it was her bright open smile that held Penny’s attention and pinged in her mind as a familiar sight. A warmth stirred within her—a memory of happiness and comfort and her mother’s voice. As she rose again with two of the boxes in her arms, it struck her. She recalled the photograph of her mother and this woman, two grinning kids arm in arm, mugging for the camera.
“You’re Lauren Hansen.”
“Yes, I am.” She stood posed with one of Penny’s stray boxes hitched up on her hip. A smirk crossed her lips and her cheeks appled. “I wasn’t sure you would recognize me.”
“I remember you from a picture my mother used to have framed on her vanity. And, of course, from your website.” The burn in Penny’s cheeks traveled down her neck. First she lost her cool in the middle of the lobby. Second, she did so in the presence of her mother’s oldest friend, who also happened to be gorgeous, and finally, she flat-out admitted that she had creeped her online.
“Oh my God. Are we supposed to be meeting now? I thought we were doing dinner.” It suddenly occurred to her that maybe she had been mistaken about the time she and Lauren were supposed to meet. After all, Lauren was there in the lobby of the Rothmoor, still smiling kindly in spite of Penny’s stumbling, bumbling, and embarrassing confessions of cyberstalking.
“Relax.” Lauren shifted the box on her hip and rested her free hand on Penny’s shoulder. “I’m early. I figured I would stroll around and take in the sights at the Rothmoor until it was time for us to meet. I’m not really much of a gambler, but I’m a huge fan of people watching. I’ll be fine. A place like this offers endless possibilities for it.”
I can’t let her do that! This is one of my mom’s dearest friends. Penny needed to get herself together and turn on her manners and charm. She drew in a deep breath and stuck her chest out. She fixed a smile on her face that wouldn’t betray the fact that she was dying on the inside over the whole work thing. She had a duty to her family that went beyond her job at the casino. That duty included honoring her mother in any way possible, even playing the hostess with the mostest. “Why don’t you come up to my suite? I’ll make us drinks, get changed for dinner, and we can be on our way. Do you like brandy?”
“I don’t want to impose.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I mix a mean sidecar, and besides, hanging out in my suite beats the heck out of watching tourists pump quarters into slot machines. Trust me. I do both regularly, so I know.”
~ ~ ~
Lauren took a sip of her sidecar and paced the length of Penny’s living room. The furniture was stylish and new, but the walls were surprisingly bare. She wrinkled her nose at the only knickknack propped on the mantle—some weird, clown mask thing. It certainly didn’t attest much to Penny’s sense of style. Penny looked so much like her mother, but Shelly would have had a thing or two to say about the décor in this suite, and it wouldn’t have been positive.
Lauren smiled fondly at the thought of Shelly and some of her wild outfits and her sense of style from when they were young—bright, bold prints often worn mishmashed together, ripped denim jeans and jackets, and lord, the hats. The 80s truly were totally awesome. Shelly couldn’t have possibly had a hand in decorating her daughter’s suite—the stark white walls, the lack of art. Hell, even the throw pillows on the couch were a bland black and white. Maybe it had to do with some sort of rebellious nature in Penny. She chose the opposite of what her mother would have opted for completely out of spite, as daughters sometimes did.
Lauren swished the brandy in her mouth before swallowing, allowing it to tingle on her tongue and the inside of her cheeks. Shelly might not have remained the colorful, bright-print girl she was when they were younger, once she grew up and became Michelle Rothmoor. For all Lauren knew, those years of being a Rothmoor could have completely changed her style. Tamed it.
Lauren’s eyes prickled with threatening tears at the regret and guilt she felt for letting their friendship fade over the years. She hadn’t even known Shelly was sick. She had come back from a trip to Italy to hear of her friend’s passing. James had seen something about the Rothmoor family on the Internet and recalled the wife of the casino owner had been a friend of hers. She had missed the funeral while she was out of the country.
She wasn’t even sure when she’d last spoken to Shelly. She had sent a gift when Penny was born, but that was thirty-two years ago. The women still talked on the phone regularly back then. Then they both got deeper and deeper into their own lives. Shelly raised her child and Lauren established her art career. I’ll call next week turned into next month, then next year. Before she knew it, decades had gone by. When Lauren had learned her best friend from all those years ago had lost her battle with cancer, she thought the least she could do was reach out to Penny and offer her condolences. It was her only hope for closure with a friend she had held so dear for so long, despite the distance between them.
“I’m almost ready,” Penny called from her bedroom.
“Take your time. I’m just…admiring your suite.”
“You mean wondering why the place looks so damn empty.” Penny laughed as she set her glass on a side table and took a moment to fasten her earring in place. “I’m sorry. It’s not usually like this. I’m between décors.” Her expression suddenly clouded with sadness. “I’m in between lots of things it seems. Want another drink?”
The shift in Penny’s mood wasn’t lost on Lauren. Poor girl, she sounded like she needed someone to talk to. Lauren had the whole night in Vegas ahead of her with no plans other than her dinner with Penny. If Shelly’s daughter needed an ear and a shoulder to cry on, Lauren would be that person. She owed Shelly that much. She sucked the last of the liquid out of her own glass before holding it out in front of her. “Sure, I’ll take another.”
~ ~ ~