"I don't know what to do about him," Carly Jacobsen complained to her friend Michelle as they paused to accommodate a group of Japanese tourists wanting their pictures taken with real live Las Vegas showgirls. "He's stubborn, opinionated and just won't listen."
"A typical male, in other words."
She muffled a snort. "Yeah." Her feet were killing her, but she smiled prettily for the camera and tried not to feel like an Amazon as she towered above the tourists. Thank God she and Michelle were wearing the silky brunette twenties-era flapper-style wigs from the final act instead of the towering headpieces from an earlier number. That made them only a foot taller than everyone.
"Look at it this way," Michelle murmured over the shut-terbugs' heads. "At least you can be grateful he's got four legs instead of two like the guy I live with."
"There is that," she agreed. "Rufus has been one tough pup to train, but at least I have some eventual hope he is trainable."
"Which is more than you can say for most men."
"Right." Carly had never had any interest in living with a man. And yet... "On the other hand, you get regular sex. I only have the dimmest memory of what that was like."
They struck a couple more poses before easing away from the tourists, who bowed, smiled and murmured their thanks. Carly flashed them a genuine smile in return. She really liked the Japanese. They were polite, and that was very much appreciated, because she didn't see lovely manners every day in her business. Especially among the male half of the population.
"You wanna stop for a drink?" Michelle asked as they crossed the casino a moment later.
"No, I'd better get home. I've got hungry pets to feed." Leaving Michelle at the little lounge they often frequented, she headed toward the dressing room to change into her street clothes before going home. She'd been dancing in la Stravaganza, the big production show at the Italian-themed Avventurato Resort Hotel and Casino, for so long now that she rarely heard the sounds of the casino around her any longer. But she was particularly tired tonight after spending the early morning hours wrestling with the dilemma of Rufus. He was the newest of her babies, as she called her rescued pets, and fretting over how she was going to get him past his recalcitrant behavior had made it all but impossible to fall asleep. He simply refused to be trained. And thanks to her new neighbor, she was very much afraid that the clock was ticking on the mutt's fate.
So now every clang and clatter of the electronic slots, every rattle of the balls in the roulette wheels and triumphant yell or commiserating groan of the gamblers crowding the casino floor kept time with the headache beginning to throb behind her left eye. Which perhaps explained why, when a petite white-haired lady clutching a bucketful of silver dollars slammed into her with an oversize handbag, Carly, who was generally sure-footed as a mountain goat, staggered backward.
A little clumsiness would have been the end of it, except she'd just climbed the two stairs that divided the high-stakes slot machines from their humbler brethren. Her stumble back sent the heel of her right T-strap stepping off into space, and, unbalanced, she grabbed for the railing while automatically tightening her core muscles to lift her shoulders back into alignment with her hips.
Her fingers brushed the railing but it slid through her grip. And although she straightened enough to keep from back-flopping, she landed in a graceless heap on the floor, her right leg twisting beneath her.
An obscenity hissed through her teeth as pain exploded in her ankle.
There were exclamations all around and a vague sense of people crowding close. Someone bent over her. "Are you all right, miss?"
She looked up at a man with light brown hair, backlit by the garish lights of the hundred-dollar slots at the top of the stairs. When his face swam into view, she noticed in a hazy sort of way that he was extremely handsome.
He could have been a troll for all she cared, since she could barely see through the pain clouding her vision. Besides, what she did manage to focus on was enough to tell her he lacked the edginess that usually attracted her -- that certain something that turned men into what her friend Treena referred to as Got Testosterone? guys.
His face was also merely one of many. Pulling her gaze away from him, she saw that several people were gathered around gawking at her. But not, she noted, the little old lady who had knocked her on her ass.
Damn fanatic gamblers.
Studying her with concerned eyes, the man who'd inquired about her well-being crouched down next to her. "Is anything broken?"
She gingerly untangled her legs until she'd freed her trapped ankle, her breath catching as the shifting weight sent a fresh shard of pain zinging around her foot. "No. At least, I don't think so. I twisted my ankle, though." And it hurt so damn bad it was all she could do not to whimper. She was never at her finest when injured.
A guy young enough to think multiple piercings and black eyeliner and lipstick were actually a fortunate fashion statement pulled his gaze away from the generous stretch of her legs long enough to nod. "Yeah. It's swelling up."
"Needs ice," someone else agreed.
"So," murmured a portly man in a pair of Sansabelt pants that were hitched well above his natural waistline, "could I get my picture taken with you?"
"What is going on here?"
Carly's blood pressure immediately spiked. Shit. She knew that last voice. It was deep and accented, and God knew she'd heard its disapproving timbre directed at her on more than one occasion these past few weeks. It belonged to Wolfgang Jones, second in command of the Avventurato's Security and Surveillance department.
And her recently moved-in, pain-in-the-ass, next-door neighbor.
Carly peered at the approaching man through the forest of legs surrounding her and conceded that, if she had to be absolutely honest, Jones didn't have an actual accent. Still, there was something about the precision with which he formed his words that made you just know his thoughts probably didn't wind through his brain in English.
She would have snorted if she wasn't already concentrating on not mewling like a soaked-to-the-skin kitten. But, please. Like the name Wolfgang hadn't already given the game away?
He muscled his way through the crowd, tall and lanky, blond and built, managing to irritate her beyond measure simply by breathing the same air she did. This was the man who had her worried sick over Rufus. All too aware, however, of the public behavior the Avventurato expected from its employees whenever they were on the premises, she pressed her lips together to keep the snarl she felt forming in the back of her throat from slipping out.
Sometimes, though, representing the hotel and casino really bit.
From the expression that flashed across Jones's deep-set eyes, she was pretty sure he wasn't any happier to see her than she was to see him. Still, he waded through the crowd, then turned in front of her to face the people gathered around.
"Go about your evening, folks," he said with his habitual stern, I-am-God-therefore-you-will-obey-me haughtiness. "I will take care of this situation." Then, turning back, he squatted down in front of her in his faultlessly tailored black suit, charcoal Egyptian-cotton shirt and pearl-gray silk tie, without an apparent doubt in the world that the tourists would do exactly as he'd bid them.
Which they did, dammit. God, he was vexing.
He had a reputation around the casino for being a guy who got things done, though. Considering their recent history, she hated to admit that Jones had any redeeming qualities at all, but she had to concede that if he gave even half the attention to his work that he was currently...