Lips, lips pressing down on hers. Kate’s eyes fluttered open and she found herself looking into soft, brown eyes that were liquid pools of concern. Kind eyes. Without thinking her arms went up around his and she found herself responding to him. Applause burst out from the bystanders around her.
“Stop!” she cried. At least she tried to stop him but she couldn’t get the words out as his mouth descended upon hers. She pushed him away opening her eyes once more. “Just, just,” she struggled to say something and burst into tears…
“It’s OK,” her rescuer said reassuringly putting a strong arm around her. “You’re going to be fine. An ambulance is on the way.”
“No,” she shook her head desperately. “That’s the last thing I want.”
“Really, it’s all right,” her tormenter said.
“But I don’t want to be saved!”
“You’re upset. That’s understandable,” her rescuer/tormenter said comfortingly. “You never expected to be hurt, to fall.”
“Yes, yes I did,” she said. “You weren’t supposed to save me!”
The man frowned at her, lines creasing a smooth forehead. He looked like a grown up version of Ken come to life. Only Ken had brown hair and this guy had dirty blonde.
Oh lord, no wonder her life was such a mess. Here she was trying to kill herself and she was thinking about how her rescuer looked. She tried to stand up.
“I’m fine. You can all leave now.” It might have been more convincing if her voice didn’t wobble slightly. Throwing herself off Vegas’s version of Venice’s famous Rialto Bridge had seemed a good way to end it all. At three AM even the Venetian hotels’ version of the famous bridge and square was decidedly deserted. Her actions, however, had drawn a surprising number of people out of thin air.
She looked at the assembled crowd in despair. It was a disparate group of late night revelers drawn together by tragedy averted, in this ersatz version of Venice. They wore everything from jeans and shorts to evening gowns and loads of bling. Vegas, at the best of times, was not a place that thrived on reality. And this was far from the best of times.
In fact it could safely be said to be the worst of times for her. And it was steadily getting worse. Although, how it could when you were trying to kill yourself in the first place was debatable. How pathetic that she couldn’t even manage to do that properly?
The crowd shifted, murmuring amongst each other. Clearly they wanted to stay and see what unfolded. She felt tears coming to her eyes.
“Alright, the ambulance is on the way now. Everything’s under control.
If you’d like to move along…” Look alike Ken spoke calmly, a voice of authority and listening to him the crowd exchanged glances, murmured to each other and began to disperse. She supposed she should be grateful. She wasn’t.
Now that she looked more closely she could see her rescuer was not just a Good Samaritan come to her rescue, he wore a security guard uniform. “Let me get you a blanket.”
“You don’t have to.”
He pulled a blanket out from a bag of supplies that had miraculously appeared on the ground before her. “I want to.”
“I guess this type of thing happens all the time?”
“Not really,” he said easily.
She felt herself start to shiver even as she protested that she really didn’t need a blanket, didn’t need any help.
“Of course not,” he said lightly. “I can see everything is going perfectly for you.”
She groaned. “You don’t understand. I’ve messed up. I, everything I’ve ever done.”
His calm, cool acceptance infuriated her. “I just thought it would be easier to end it. To – to…” Her legs wobbled like spaghetti. She started to shake even as he put the towel around her, drew her to his chest warming her, comforting her. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I just… “ she broke down crying uncontrollably.
JT held her close, feeling unaccountably protective of her. Oh, not just in the line of duty protectiveness, not just bird with a broken wing protective. There was something about those big, moss-green eyes when she’d looked up at him, at the lost loneliness he saw in them. “It’ll be alright,” he murmured pulling her closer. “You’ll see. Lots of people lose money in Vegas.”
“It’s not that,” she protested. “I …” once again she broke down into tears.
“The ambulance will be here any minute.”
“No, no. You have to stop the ambulance,” she said wildly.
“It’s just a precaution,” he said. “Routine.”
“I can’t afford it!”
“Your insurance will cover it.“
“I don’t have any,” she said brokenly.
He shrugged. “A family member then.”
She shivered. “There’s no one else.”
He looked at her more closely. True she was waterlogged and shivering but she didn’t look like your average street person. Five foot nothing, with mahogany brown hair and feather light, even with clothes weighted down with water, she looked – like heaven to JT. Which he had to tell himself, was distinctly unprofessional. And he was a professional.
“I don’t believe you,” he said easily. “Besides it’s nothing to worry about tonight. You’ll see. In the morning everything will look better.”
She looked at him doubtfully. “I suppose,” she said sighing. ”You must think I`m an idiot.”
“Not at all,” he said gallantly.
“So can you call off that ambulance?”
“Just give me a number I can call.”
“Why,” she said, looking up at him with the biggest moss-green eyes he`d ever seen. Momentarily he felt his heart jump in his chest and snuggled her closer.
“I need to make sure you`re OK…It`s my job.”
Now what? She`d checked out of her hotel room. Her boyfriend had already abandoned her. She had no money. She tried batting her eyes at him. “You can trust me.”
He shook his head. “I need more than that sugar.”
She lost it then, crying uncontrollably. “OK, OK, I don`t have anywhere to go but running up a big hospital bill isn`t going to help anything. It`s just going to make everything worse. Ohhh…”
Which was when an ambulance crew arrived. JT knew if he had an ounce of sense in his body he`d turn her over to them and be on his way. But for whatever reason he felt responsible for her. He turned towards the approaching paramedics now. “She`s a bit shaken up but otherwise fine.”
“You sure about that?” asked Dan.
“Sure as you ever can be,” he said easily.
The paramedic shrugged. “OK, you want to sign off on it she`s all yours.”
He signed quickly and watched as they left.
A shiver of relief went through her. “You won’t regret this.
“I’m not so sure of that,” he said sighing and pulled out his cell phone. “I need to make a few phone calls. The hotel will comp you a room for the night.”
“Thank you,” she said brokenly.
“You’ll see,” he said smiling at her. “Everything’s going to look better in the morning.”
Uh-huh. Still she had a feeling he wasn’t going to let her go unless she agreed. She nodded. “I’m sure you’re right.”
“I know I am,” he said easily, opening the door to the security cart they used to patrol the ‘streets’ inside the Venetian. “Jump in. I’ll give you a ride.”
Silently she began making up a list of alternative places to end it all. The Eiffel tower would be tragically ironic. And who was to say if it was accident or design if she threw herself off the ride at the Stratosphere. It always looked as if someone was going to fall from it anyway. There was the volcano at the Mirage. She was starting to feel better already.
Before she knew it she was back in a room at the Venetian. This one wasn’t as grand as the one she’d checked into a day ago with her boyfriend. Instead of overlooking the ‘streets’ of Venice it overlooked a grey wall. What had possessed her? She was not the type of person to consider suicide. Normally. But life had been anything but normal lately.
“I’ll be up to check on you tomorrow.”
“Afraid I’ll skip without paying my bill?”
“It`s on the house, remember? I just want to make sure you’re alright?”
“Bet you were a boy scout growing up,” she said, irritated.
“Sea Cadet,” he said neutrally.
He laughed. “Nobody grows up in Vegas.”
“Guess not,” she said ruefully. “So you’re from the east coast? Or the West?”
He shrugged. “Stick around and I’ll tell you over coffee tomorrow.”
“How’s 10:00 sound?”
”I’ll see you then,” she said smiling. “And I am grateful.”
Just not so grateful she wanted to stick around and hear Boy Scout’s life story.
By 8:00 she was up and out. With any luck by 10:00 she’d be dead and even though she’d spent considerable time the night before figuring out grand exits she’d decided a quick fall from the upper floor at the Venetian should end it once and for all.
She shivered slightly. Death was so final. But what did she have to look forward to? Watching Mr. Hagel personally put up a For Rent sign on her shop, the smug look on Donna Smith’s face when she realized Max was finally free? Or having to fire her mother and her sister because there wasn’t any work for them? She sat on the edge of the upper floor of the Venetian and dropped her feet over. One quick slip and that was it. The end of all her problems. She closed her eyes.
And felt her wrist grabbed roughly, hearing Boy Scout before she saw him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?! Do you have a death wish?” He swung her back to safety.
“Let me go!”
“No. I signed off on you last night. You’re not killing yourself on my watch.”
She sighed. “You’re a nice guy, but there’s probably at least a hundred other girls out there who are prettier, smarter and …”
“You are not killing yourself,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Since when have I become your responsibility?”
“Since I signed off on you last night.”
“And that makes you responsible for me for life?”
“At least while you’re in Vegas,” he said stubbornly. “Besides he’s not worth it.”
“It’s not because of a man,” she said stung. “At least not totally.”
“Come on. I said I’d buy you breakfast.”
“And then you’ll leave me alone!” she said hopefully.
“No,” he growled. “But I’ll let you convince me you’re the worst thing since sliced cheese.”
“Fine,” she said, groaning inwardly. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Before she knew it Boy Scout had them seated at a table tucked into the back of the Luxe cafe. “OK”, he said smiling at her. “My name’s JT. JT Sullivan. And yours’ is?”
“Kate,” she said irritated. “Kate McLaren. But you already know that.”
“I thought it might be nice to introduce ourselves more formally,” he said lightly as he started to order breakfast for them.
“Just coffee,” she protested.
“Breakfast`s the most important meal of the day,” he said grinning. “Besides you haven’t lived until you’ve had French toast at the Luxe. It`s to die for.”
“Don’t tease me,” she warned.
“Don’t eat it then,” he said shrugging. “But you’ll be missing out.”
She wavered as the waitress brought two heaping plates of French toast and fruit, bacon and eggs.
“I could live for a week on this.”
He waggled his eyebrows at her. “That’s my plan,” he said grinning at her.
“It still doesn’t solve my problems.”
“Tell me about them. I’m a good listener.”
How many times had she said that as applied the latest beauty treatment to a customer? “Today a For Rent sign is going up on my shop.” She flinched slightly. “And I gambled away the last of the payroll last night.”
He whistled softly. “You don’t seem the type to gamble away someone else’s paycheque.”
My boyfriend convinced me he had a fail-safe blackjack system that would get my money back and more.”
“Not quite so fail-safe?”
She shuddered. “I’ve never seen money disappear so fast in my life.”
“And the boyfriend?”
“OK, I’ve seen one thing disappear faster.”
He snorted. “I’d say that makes him the loser. You just found out before it was too late.”
“Maybe but that still leaves me without money to pay my staff and cover rent.” She winced. “And what makes it worse is they’re also my family.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“I own a salon in West Bend, Iowa. Did own a salon. Two years ago I made Entrepreneur Of The Year. This year – well let’s just say when the town unemployment rate is up over 80%, people don’t need the latest beauty treatment.”
“So really you’ve got nowhere to go but up.”
She shook her head. “You don’t get it. I’ve done everything to keep the salon going. It’s over.” Tears came to her eyes. “Only I don’t know how to tell everyone. Family, staff, friends — I’ve been telling everyone everything’s going to be fine for months now. I don’t know, I think I thought if I kept saying it, it would make it true. And now… How do I face them?”
“They must know how badly the town’s doing. And they must’ve guessed if your salon wasn’t getting bookings,” he said reasonably.
“I just kept telling them it would work out. And they believed me.”
He sighed. “OK, I get where you feel responsible and it’s going to be hard to admit the halo has slipped but maybe it’s time everyone had a reality check. You can’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
“But my mom works for me, my sister works for me.”
“Lesson learned. Never hire family.”
“It worked really well at first. My mom’s been a hairdresser forever and my sister graduated top of her class at beauty school.”
“People stop getting their hair cut when the economy tanks?”
“Not as quickly as they give up their mani or their pedis – but still, yeah. Instead of spending $100 for a cut and color every four weeks they stop dying their hair and get it cut every two months. Some of them try cutting it themselves.”
“I’m guessing the results aren’t pretty.”
She burst out laughing. “Mrs. Johnson accidentally dyed her hair bright purple. And it looked like she got it caught in the lawnmower.”
“They can’t close the salon without you there.”
“You haven’t met Mr. Hagel. He probably was up at 6:00 to make sure he got the For Rent sign up as soon as possible. According to him I’m the worst businessperson ever.” She sighed. “Only this time he’ll have proof he’s right.”
“I say you stay here.”
“In Vegas. Start fresh. There’s a million salons in town.”
“And an out of work esthetician from nowhere USA isn’t getting a job at the Canyon Ranch or anyone of the spas you see up and down the strip.”
“Because girls from all over the States send in videos trying to get jobs with them.”
“OK, I’ll get you a job waiting tables.”
“I’ve never waited tables before.”
“So, there’s a first for everything,” JT said grinning.
She should’ve refused. She should’ve gone home to face the music. But she didn’t have the guts. Instead she allowed JT to talk her into taking a job as a drinks waitress at a lounge on the strip. And then he took her to meet Lottie.
Lottie was a 300 lb. poker player with bleached blonde hair and acrylic nails painted screaming pink, fake eyelashes that looked as if they’d been taken off the nearest spider and a smile the size of Texas.
“So you’re Kate McLaren. JT tells me you’re looking for a place to stay.”
“That’s right,” Kate said.
“I got a small room downstairs, comes with a fold-down bed, TV, a desk and drawers. JT fronted me your rent money for the first month. I’ll expect next months` on the first. There’s a common area downstairs where fellow ‘guests’ hang out sometimes and you can use the pool outside, just make sure you clean up after yourself.”
“OK,” Kate said, realizing her voice sounded more like Minnie Mouse than her usual, self-assured contralto. But then again she wasn’t the confident, in-control person, she’d always pictured herself as either.
She turned towards JT. “Thank you. I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”
He smiled at her then, his smile warming up her insides as it washed over his face.
“Just try not to kill yourself in the next ten minutes.”
“I’ll wait at least twenty,” she deadpanned. Only when she turned back to go in she found Lottie’s expression had changed the moment the door closed on JT.
“I’ve known JT since he rolled into Vegas ten years ago. Closest thing I’ve got to family so now I’m laying down the ground rules. You do anything to hurt JT, including killing yourself and I’ll make sure you live to regret it.” She shook her head. “Don’t know what that boy sees in you but he must see something so I’m going to be keeping an eye on you myself. Don’t even think of skipping without paying JT back everything you owe him.”
Then Lottie smiled brightly at her and put her arm around Kate’s shoulders. “You follow those rules, we’re going to get along just fine. Get yourself set up downstairs then come on up and I’ll make you some coffee.” She looked at the clock. “Or maybe a drink.”
“I can’t wait,” Kate said. Great she had a landlord who was manic depressive on a moment to moment basis. Wasn’t she supposed to be the loony one here?
Was that too much to ask? It wasn’t as if she was planning on insanity for the rest of her life. Unless of course it was a very short life. But she’d been normal for so long. Was it too much to ask that she have a lock on the crazy part for a least one day? Then maybe she could think of sharing.
She’d just stay down in her room. So what if she didn’t actually have anything to put away. It was her room. Her own private six by ten oasis of privacy. Besides it’d give her a chance to write a letter to her Mom and her sister.
There was even a pad of paper for her to write on. Maybe it would be better to send an email. But she still she needed something to say.
Dear Mom and Sis
By now you’ve probably realized I’m not in town. And there’s probably a For Rent sign on the shop door. I meant to tell you. I really, really did. I just didn’t know how. Anyway the business isn’t doing well. In fact it’s terminal. I tried to win some money at the blackjack tables. Turns out I’m no better at gambling than I am at running a salon.
But I will pay you back. I’ll pay everyone back their wages. I never meant for this to happen. It’s just going to take a while to raise the money. I’ve got a job as a waitress. It starts tonight.
Your loser daughter and sister
Not exactly the upbeat tone she was trying for, she thought, feeling tears come to her eyes.
It wasn’t too late to kill her-self. Even if Lottie was threatening to drag her back from the dead and make her wish she’d never tried. Even if JT did seem to consider it a personal affront to his professional capabilities.
In the meantime she was going to be the best darn waitress anyone had ever seen. How hard could it be anyway? With a renewed sense of optimism she set off for The Hoe Down Bar and Grill.
“You want me to wear that?” The items in question consisted of skimpy denim shorts, cowboy boots, a gingham check T-shirt and cowboy hat.
“Yep. Oh and you’ll probably want to put your hair up in braids or a ponytail. It’s less distracting that way. What music do you want?”
“You know. For your bar dances.” Gina, at least Kate thought her name was Gina, made a gesture towards the bar where two waitresses were now up on top whirling and two-stepping to the sound of Big and Rich.
“Give me a minute.” She closed her eyes. How could JT suggest she work here? She`d kill him.
“You can make a lot of money if you put on a good show. I’ve made over $400.00 in a night.”
“You strip?” Kate asked weakly.
Gina laughed, a low, throaty sound. “No silly. We’re not that kind of bar.” She paused for a moment. “Did you see Coyote Ugly on video?”
“No,” Kate said realization dawning. “But I heard about it.” Along with the $400.00 tips Gina had mentioned. Suddenly dancing on the bar didn’t seem so bad after all.
She’d done line dancing during gym class and Irish step for years growing up, not to mention cheerleading and baton twirling. She could do this. Even if it was outside her comfort zone.
“Oh.” She thought, already putting together dance routines in her mind. “Black-eyed Peas, Brooks and Dunn, ‘It’s Going to be a Good Night, Boot Scoot Boogie.”
Gina shook her head. “OK, sister. If that’s what you want. Get your uniform on and I’ll meet you out front in ten minutes.
Which was when Kate again had second thoughts.
Thoughts Gina seemed to be aware of without her saying a word. “Have you ever worked as a waitress before?”
“Not recently,” Kate said defensively. “But I learn fast.”
Gina sighed. “I hate when Bob does this. OK, it’s going to be a fast learning curve or you’re out. We’ll give you a float of fifty dollars. Draft beers are $8.00, Heinekens and other speciality beers are $10.00. There’s a drinks price list on the bottom of your serving tray. You know how to carry trays of drinks?”
“Of course,” Kate stuttered.
“Alright then. I’ll give you tables five to nine to start with. Bartender’s name is Mike. Need any help just ask him. Oh, and he’ll give you a heads up when it comes time to do your dance routine. But first we’ll just give you some time to watch the other girls.”
“Sounds good,” Kate yelled over the roar of the crowds. How did anyone hear anything in all this? Not to mention the smoke making her eyes water. She made her way to the first table which consisted of four guys, half-drunk already and out for a good time. Fortunately they stuck to draft beer. Aside from a couple of rude comments it was a lot like handling a bunch of big kids.
She went to the bar and got the order.
“You’ll never make it if you do each individual table separately,” a sharp eyed waitress said, as Mike filled her order without comment.
“Thanks for the tip,” she said. “I thought I’d start slow until I got the hang of it.”
The other woman sneered. “Stay that slow and you’ll be out the door.”
Her cheeks burning she made her way back to the table, holding her drinks high as she’d seen the other waitresses do and wondering how she was possibly going to carry a fully loaded tray when even just the four felt heavy. She would do it though. If it killed her.
Which was when she spotted JT at the bar. At least she was pretty sure it was JT. He ducked his head when he saw her looking in his direction. She could swear he had a grin on his face. She was going to kill him the next time she got a chance. But for now she was too busy.
She started taking drink orders and time flew for the next hour. Suddenly Gina was beside her telling her she’d take over for a while and to just watch the girls at the bar. She tried to spot JT but he’d disappeared. It was just as well because as she watched a couple of the other girls dancing on the bar she realized she was in way over her head. She’d heard other performers say the trick was to get your butterflies flying in formation. Her butterflies were out of control and so far she was just watching from the sidelines.
One of the girls suddenly started juggling unopened bottles of beer while the crowd yelled encouragement. She was never going to be able to pull this off. Not in a million years.
“Don’t worry. Nobody expects you to do anything like that,” Gina whispered to her as she filled up a tray with drinks. “She was a professional circus performer in a past life.”
“Oh.” It was all she could say. What had she gotten herself into? And what had JT been thinking? Did she look like someone who danced on country western bars? On any bars? But $400.00? She could start paying her mom off, her sis. She could pay credit card bills and rent.
Before she knew it she was up on the bar with a girl named Karla. “Boot Scoot Boogie. OK, you dance that way, I’ll dance the other, when we get to the end we’ll two step back, you can do a couple of turns in the middle, then I will.”
“Sure, no problem.” Just because her mouth was dry and her heart felt like it was going ninety miles an hour, no problem at all. She could do this. She had to do this. For herself, for her family.
“Boot Scoot Boogie. “ The familiar sound of Brooks and Dunn filled the bar and she started line dancing down towards the end of the bar. She reached the end a couple of beats before Karla and stopped. What now?
She line danced in place for a minute while the crowd started to cheer and then caught Karla’s eye directing her to the middle again. She line danced to the middle, did a twirl and spun off the bar into … JT’s arms.
The crowd went wild as he caught her in his arms. She wanted the ground to open up and swallow her. She wanted to die. “Where did you come from?” she hissed.
“Just thought I’d drop in and check how things were going,” he grinned.
“You wanted a chance to laugh at me.”
“Not true,” he said putting her down as if she were a red hot potato.
“It is so,” she insisted, cheeks burning, and stormed off into the dressing room where she burst into tears. She had totally failed. What had made her even think she could pull this off?
Why had she ever thought she could do this? Hot tears poured down her cheeks. She wanted her old life back.
She wanted to be back in her salon arranging facial cleansers and scrubs, masks and beauty treatments. She wanted orderly neat bottles of products designed to make her customers feel beautiful and special. She wanted … anything but this.
Karla came running in. “Oh Wow that was the best ever! You’re the new girl.”
Kate just cried harder.
“No. You don’t get it. The crowd loved what we did. They loved how JT caught you. That was one of my best nights for tips ever!” She reached into her pockets. “Here, some of these are yours.”
“But I was a total failure.”
“Are you kidding? Most girls don’t even try to dance the first night. And like I said, the crowd loved you. We made a ton of tips.”
Kate looked at the pile of money Karla had given her. “How much is there?”
“Bout a hundred and fifty. I kept two but then I did more.”
“I thought you said they loved me.”
“They did.” Karla twirled around. “And they loved me even more. You want to come in early and work on choreography tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I love choreographing.”
Kate gave one last sniff. “OK. What time?”
Karla shrugged. “Twelve o’clock?”
“Sounds good. You want me to meet you here?”
She left the bar to find JT waiting outside for her. “Don’t you have a job?”
He just grinned at her in a slow, hot way that made something in the pit of her stomach burn. This was so not good. The last thing she needed in her life was a security guard who wanted to save her. Even if lately she did seem to need a lot of saving.
“My partner’s covering. I wanted to make sure you got home OK.”
“It’s only ten minutes away.”
“I’ll give you a ride.”
“I’d rather walk.”
“You know it doesn’t hurt to ask for help once in a while.”
“I never said it did.” She said annoyed. “But I can’t expect you to show up every night and give me a ride home.”
“Maybe not but you might be able to take a taxi or get a ride with one of the other girls.”
“What’s wrong with walking?”
“It’s not safe,” he said exasperated. “In case you haven’t noticed this is Vegas, not Palookaville, USA.”
“So. I’m not going to walk along dark back alleys. I know how to take care of myself.” She said hotly.
“If you did you wouldn’t be out walking the streets of Vegas, in the middle of the night,” he said frustrated.
She just glared at him. “So – what? Someone’s going to kill me?”
“Things happen,” he said grimly. “Why take a chance?”
She thought of how many times she’d tried to kill herself in the last couple of days. “I should be so lucky,” she said sarcastically.
He opened the door to his car. “Get in,” he said through gritted teeth.”
“Are you forcing me?”
“I could call the police and tell them you’re a danger to yourself,” he said trying to restrain his anger.
“Fine. You win.” She got in angrily slamming the door behind her.
He drove her home in silence. At Lottie’s, he stopped the car and opened the door for her. “Thank you so much JT. I really appreciate the ride home,” he said mockingly.
“OK,” she said. “You did a nice thing.” She gave him a shame-faced look. “You’ve done a lot of nice things. Just—“ Tears came to her eyes as she got out and ran up the steps to Lottie’s house.