“You’re serious? A weekend in Vegas?” Cleo stared at her best friend, Michele “Mitch” Trent, and grinned. “What’s the catch?”
“No catch. I have a couple of book signings to do, that’s all.” Mitch looked away, unwilling to meet her gaze, and Cleo knew instinctively there was something else involved, something she probably wouldn’t like.
“What aren’t you telling me, Mitch? I can always tell when you’re holding something back.”
“You make it sound as if I’m trying to trick you. I’m offering you four fun-filled days in Vegas, all expenses paid. The only thing you’ll have to do is dress up in a costume and help me at the book signings during the convention.”
Alarms went off in Cleo’s head. “What kind of costume and what convention?” She gave her friend her strictest kindergarten-teacher, no-nonsense stare. The look worked on everyone, and Mitch was no exception. Cleo crossed her arms and waited—yep, there it was: the squirm.
“An alien costume, and it’s a sci-fi convention, okay? Before you say no, listen to me. My publisher has made arrangements for four of its authors to be there, including yours truly. It’s a great opportunity for free publicity with people who live and breathe the genre. It’ll be fun. It’s not as if we have to spend every second at the convention. There are lots of other things to do.”
Cleo looked around Rachel, Nevada’s, alien-themed bar and sighed. She’d gotten used to the fascination people here had for UFOs and alien conspiracies. If she applied for a transfer to Alamo for the next school year, she’d be stuck right in the middle of alien-oriented tourism, but to volunteer for an entire weekend with people playing dress-up?
“Let me get this straight. You want me to spend the Independence Day weekend with you at a sci-fi convention in Vegas dressed up as some space creature?”
“That’s it. As I’ve got to go to Alberta to do the rest of the onsite research for my new book, it’ll be our only chance to get together until late summer. What do you say?” Mitch fidgeted, waiting none too patiently for her answer.
Cleo tried to get her slightly alcohol-befogged brain around the notion. She didn’t drink often, and doing so on an empty stomach hadn’t been a good idea, but lately her life had gone from bad to worse. She hated confrontations, and arguing with Dad this morning had left her edgy. If he’d told her ahead of time he wanted to host a Memorial Day barbecue for his students, she wouldn’t have made arrangements to spend the weekend in Rachel. With Mitch’s demanding writing schedule and book tours, they hadn’t had face-to-face time together in more than a year. Dad had expected her to change her plans, but damn it, she was his daughter, not his social convener. She was thrilled he wanted to do something, even if it was something as simple as this, but she was entitled to a life, too. She’d been looking forward to this holiday. She’d stopped on her way home from school, picked up the things he’d need for his party, then packed her bag. She’d left him a note wishing him a great weekend. She’d be back Monday. Before she could talk herself out of it, she’d headed for the Extraterrestrial Highway. She hadn’t hit Warp 7, but she’d definitely pushed the speed limit.
“I don’t know, Mitch. It sounds good, really it does, but Vegas? It isn’t my thing.”
“You don’t have a ‘thing.’ When was the last time you had fun? Since your mom died, you’ve become chained to that mausoleum you call home and a slave to your father.” Mitch put her hand up to stop Cleo from interrupting. “I know what you’re going to say—he needs you. Well, I need you, too. You’re my best friend, and I rarely get to spend any time with you.”
Cleo shook her head. “I miss spending time with you, too, Mitch, but life at home is complicated. You haven’t seen Dad since the funeral; he’s changed. He’s not that Indiana Jones, larger-than-life adventurer he was. He may look the same, but he’s lost his spark. He’s become withdrawn, retreating into himself and that strict moral code he has, and I’m worried about him. When the bottom fell out of my world, he was there for me—I want to be there for him now.”
“Cutting loose for one weekend isn’t going to change that. Think of the possibilities. We’ll be registered under my pen name, and my publisher has sworn never to reveal my identity. You can be anyone you want to be. What have you got to lose?”
“I’m all for going on vacation. I know I need a break, but you know how Dad feels about Vegas. He sees it as the sin capital of the world—murder, gambling, prostitution—his list goes on. And don’t forget I work in the bastion of fundamental conservatism—even a hint of something that violates the school board’s moral code could cost me my job. We had this discussion the last time you wanted to go to Vegas.” “The professor and the other Gordon’s Grove fuddy-duddies are in a time warp. My God. I’m not asking you to do something illegal or immoral, I just want you to relax and have fun. There’s nothing wrong with Vegas. Over thirty-six million people, including teachers, travel there each year. It’s not anywhere nearly as dangerous as Chicago, Detroit, or Los Angeles, and he’d have no problem with you going to any one of those cities. He just doesn’t want you spending time with me. He’s convinced I’ve become a bad influence. The week I spent at your place before your mom died was a disaster and you know it. All he did was glower at me. I write sci-fi novels, a crime for which he may never forgive me, but I’ll bet if I decided to do some time travel thing to Ancient Egypt, he’d be among the first to offer his expertise on the period.”
Cleo giggled, proof the beer Mitch had been plying her with was doing what her best friend hoped it would.
“He’d certainly want to make sure your research was accurate, but he doesn’t dislike you, Mitch. It’s the whole space rock Internet business you have going on the side that sets him off each time I bring up your name, not your three bestselling titles. Those are on the living room bookshelf.”
“Hey, it’s a hobby, and believe it or not, there are hundreds of people out there willing to pay big bucks for a chunk of authentic space rock, and each piece is certified and verified official. I’m not a shyster, but who am I to deny them? Is it really so different from guys trying to sell authentic Egyptian artifacts?” Mitch laughed and took another mouthful of beer. “Everyone needs a hobby. You take pictures, he digs up antiquities, and I collect space rocks. Why should one hobby be more acceptable than the other?”
“I don’t know, and I’m sick of arguing about it. I’m worn out. Between the high-maintenance kids in the class and Dad’s unrealistic demands, I’m drowning. Mom’s been gone almost three years now, and he’s just as lost today as he was the day she died. I miss her too, but I can’t live the rest of my life this way. After Dave the Slug, I swore I’d never let another man hurt me again. I’d be content to live life on my own, on my terms, maybe get a cat or two, but damn it, I want a husband, a family—a house with a white picket fence. I want to meet someone who makes my toes curl just by looking at me. Is that so wrong?”
“Wanting to find love and happiness is never wrong, and your mom would be the first to tell you that. She was the best. She’d want you to go to Vegas, and you know it.”
Cleo laughed. “You’re pushing your own agenda here, but you’re probably right. Mom wanted me to experience life. Dad stopped living the day she died, and I guess I have too. Do you remember when you dragged me into that hotel in L.A. four years ago just to have a look? We ended up fighting off those two would-be Ferengi merchants who wanted to brag about their share of the Divine Treasury while we practiced oo-mox, something that somehow would have required us to be naked, rubbing their lobes. Mom found the whole thing hilarious—even Dad could see the humor in it.”
Mitch snorted. “They weren’t talking about their lobes, and they were dentists from Cleveland. It wasn’t that bad; you could have had the whitest teeth in town. We had a few laughs—no harm, no foul.”
Cleo stared down at the long-necked bottle in her hand and picked at the label. “I guess I’m just picky. I’ve been doing some thinking about maybe moving out—not just getting my own place, but leaving Gordon’s Grove. Cutting the apron strings will be hard on both of us, but Dad isn’t going to move on as long as I’m there. He needs to stand on his own two feet and so do I. There’s an opening in Alamo for a third grade teacher in September. I have the state transfer application papers in my purse.”
“Oh my God, that would be wonderful.” Mitch grabbed her hands and held them. “But right now, I need a decision. I have to let my publisher know before midnight her time; that’s twenty minutes from now. Will you or won’t you?”
Cleo didn’t understand the draw of science fiction and its accompanying alien conspiracy theories, but you didn’t have to understand best friends, you just had to love them.
“You can be as demanding as my father! Yes, damn it, yes. I know I’m going to regret this.”
The Rio Hotel and Casino was amazing. She and Mitch had dinner at one of the onsite Italian restaurants, and were now enjoying drinks in the VooDoo Lounge at the top of the hotel, with its incredible bird’s-eye view of the Strip. Cleo stood in awe of her first view of Las Vegas at night. Her friend had her eyes focused elsewhere.
Mitch had wanted to get tickets to a Chippendale show that night, but they’d sold out. Cleo wasn’t too disappointed. There’d been a number of teachers suspended and fired across the country in the last couple of years for engaging in perfectly legal activities, like attending a male dancer show, because a parent or school official found out about it and thought it inappropriate. It was okay for them to indulge in those activities, but teachers were kept to a higher standard. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been aware of that when she’d chosen the profession. At the end of the workday, most people went home, and whatever they did, as long as it wasn’t illegal, didn’t matter. But teachers were teachers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. The old double standard was alive and well, especially in Gordon’s Grove.
Mitch had gone into the Chippendale gift shop and bought a calendar and a few other souvenirs. Cleo hadn’t dared. The last thing she wanted were souvenirs that would set Dad up on his soapbox with a sermon on ethics, morality, and everything wrong with today’s generation. As expected, he hadn’t been happy with her decision to come here, but at least he hadn’t nagged nonstop about it. He’d urged her to be careful and remember who she was and the values he’d instilled in her, and had slipped her a couple hundred dollars. She loved him dearly, but there were times when he drove her nuts.
“Mitch, for God’s sake. Stop ogling them,” she hissed when she saw her friend’s eyes openly fixed on the two hunky guys at a table not far from them. Their suits, definitely made-to-measure, enhanced their broad shoulders and although she tried to be more circumspect than her friend, Cleo couldn’t keep her eyes from straying that way either. While the blond was attractive, it was the dark-haired, dark-eyed hunk who sparked her interest.
He was clean-shaven, with a Kirk Douglas dimple. His sun-streaked hair and deep tan suggested hours of hard work in the sun, rather than twenty minutes in a tanning booth. He and his friend were engaged in an animated discussion, and she’d heard his laughter at least twice. It sounded honest, not forced the way some people did when they laughed to be polite. When he looked her way, she quickly averted her eyes. Damn.
More than a little annoyed at herself for being caught looking, her tone was sharper than she intended. “They’ll see you. You’re practically drooling.” She reached for her Witch Doctor cocktail and sipped.
“I want them to notice us, silly. That’s the whole point. It’s called flirting or have you forgotten that too? Besides, you’re just as guilty. I’ll bet you can tell me what color tie the guy’s wearing.”
“He’s not wearing a tie.”
Mitch nodded. “Uh-huh. Now who’s looking? Gorgeous guys like that are used to being checked out. Come on, live a little.” She turned away from her perusal of the men and took a sip of her martini.
“The bartender said some of the male dancers come up here to relax after the revue when they aren’t on duty fraternizing in the Flirt Lounge. Just look at them: tall, handsome, in phenomenal shape, and sexy as hell. They have to be Chippendales. Have you noticed they’ve been paying for each round with cash—small bills, no change. I read these guys can pick up as much as $800 a night.”
“Seriously? You’re letting your writer’s imagination run wild. This must be one of the most popular nightclubs in Vegas. I’m sure lots of attractive businessmen come up here for drinks. Many people carry small bills. I do.”
“Uh-uh. Don’t buy it. Those guys are wearing thousand-dollar suits. Why aren’t they running a tab? We are. I’m right, and you, with your old-fashioned notions of what’s acceptable for you and that outdated morality clause that hamstrings you, don’t want to admit it. I wouldn’t mind letting them entertain me.” Mitch licked her lips. “Seeing that blond in nothing but bowtie and white cuffs would definitely ring my bells … aw, damn.” Cleo’s heart echoed the sentiment.
Two women, one noticeably pregnant, joined the men, who’d obviously been waiting for them. The pregnant redhead kissed the blond, while the brunette whispered something in the other man’s ear that made him laugh uproariously.
“I should have guessed they’d be taken.” The disappointment was heavy in Mitch’s voice. “Come on, we might as well go down. It’s after midnight. If you want to check off all the sites on your to-see list, we’ll have to be up early tomorrow.”
“That works for me. Another drink, and I’d fall off my shoes.”
“You mean you’d fall off my shoes. We seriously need to do some shopping tomorrow. I think my aunt, the nun, is more stylishly dressed than you.”
Cleo frowned. It was true she hadn’t bought anything new in a while, but skin-tight clothes and stilettos weren’t on the acceptable dress code for elementary school teachers with a limited clothing budget. Living at home gave her a break on the rent, but she’d have that expense if she took the job in Alamo. Her black dress was a classic, and paired with Mitch’s spikes, she thought she looked chic and stylish. So far tonight, she’d managed to walk without a telltale wobble. It was better to leave while she still could. She stood and followed Mitch toward the exit.
The alcohol played havoc with her equilibrium, and Cleo moved carefully. The last thing she wanted to do was fall flat on her face. She looked straight ahead and tried not to notice milk chocolate eyes staring curiously as she made her way across the room. She moved passed the table, distracted by the intensity of his gaze. She’d almost made it to the exit when she realized she’d left the brochures about the Grand Canyon helicopter tours on the table. She turned to go back and get them, and watched in surprise as her dark-eyed hunk lifted his glass in mock salute and gave her an approving nod. She frowned. What kind of man flirted openly—even from a distance—with a woman when he had one sitting right beside him? She’d dated that kind of jerk. She had no intention of getting involved with another one. She pivoted on her heel and moved as quickly as she could toward the exit.
Cleo turned off the shower, wrapped herself in a towel, and went out into the suite. “Okay, I’m freshly showered, now what?” she asked Mitch. It was time to pay the piper for this long weekend getaway.
“Now, I paint you. Come on. The can says it’s good for six to eight hours and it’s best applied to clean skin right after a shower.”
“Why are you painting me? You said I was wearing a costume.” Cleo stared warily at the spray can in Mitch’s hand and the paintbrush and liquid sitting on the floor.
“It’s part of the costume. I have some too.” She removed the yellow rubber glove and lifted the sleeve on her robe to show off the mahogany skin on her arm and hand. “Don’t worry. It’s perfectly safe. I’ll use the liquid on your face.”
Cleo gasped as cold mist hissed from the can and chilled her skin. She tried not to twitch while Mitch covered most of her body in kelly green paint, and what little wasn’t covered in paint she hoped would be covered by her costume—in fact, she hoped the costume would cover a whole lot more. After the paint job, Cleo went into the bathroom to dry her hair, letting it curl and fall in waves down to her shoulders as Mitch had insisted. God, she hoped the green color came off her face easier than the green oil paint young Tyler had brought to school that had ruined her skirt and still stained the classroom floors.
“Okay. I think the paint’s dry. Where’s the costume?” She came out of the bathroom and jumped.
“Holy crap! You could have warned me.”
Mitch wore a long black wig, heavy brown makeup, and the facial ridges of a female Klingon warrior. Her body was shoved into a tight, black leather corset-styled top that accentuated her breasts and a long, leather skirt paired with heeled boots with silver toecaps. She had a knife of sorts shoved into her belt.
“Wow! You look fantastic. I could use one of the push-up bras from hell if I ever wanted to look sexy.”
“What are you talking about? You’re one of the sexiest woman I know, and you’re completely oblivious to it. Get your nose out of your father’s ancient history books and look at yourself in the light of the twenty-first century. I love you, girl, but sometimes you frustrate me.”
“Yeah, well, let’s agree to disagree on that. I don’t want to be noticed that way. There’s more to me than a set of boobs and long legs. I’m much happier out of the limelight. Now, are you going to tell me about your makeup?”
“It’s a mask. My friend Hailey works at Paramount and made it for me last year. It gets a little warm after a while, but it’s a lot easier than putting the makeup on each time.”
“I wish I had something like that. Where’s the rest of my costume? I’d better be wearing more than green body paint, blood red lipstick, and gold eye shadow.”
“It’s on your bed.”
Cleo stared at the scraps of fabric and jewelry on the spread.
“No way! There’s got to be more to it than that.”
The costume consisted of a burgundy silk bikini bra, a matching string bikini bottom with gold-colored sheer skirt panels front and rear, gold muscle bracelets shaped like snakes, and two-inch wide metallic fabric ankle shackles without the chain.
“You’ve got to be kidding. I’ll look like a semi-naked leprechaun. How does that fit into a sci-fi convention?”
“It happens to be one of the most popular women’s costumes. For the record, leprechauns wear green, and unless they’re some kind of mutants, they aren’t green. With my five-foot-four figure, the costume loses something, but on you, it’ll be awesome.” Mitch handed her a glass of wine. “Here, take a drink and relax. You showed just as much by the pool this afternoon.”
“Yeah, and whose idea was that? I don’t see why I couldn’t wear my black swimsuit this afternoon. You seem to forget about the moral turpitude clause in my contract. Lying around in the sun half-naked is pushing it. I certainly won’t be wearing that blue bikini to take the kiddies swimming at the local pool.”
“That clause is archaic, and you worry about it way too much—between your father’s ‘rules’ and the school board’s ‘thou shall not’s,’ you’re living in the past. Besides you needed a new swimsuit. Even my mother doesn’t wear a one-piece bathing suit like the one you had. I don’t even think my grandma would wear it. You chose the bikini—there was that gorgeous leopard one…”
“You mean the one cut down to my navel in front, and so high on the hips my ass hung out? No thanks. At least the bikini covered most of my boobs and butt.”
“Whatever.” Mitch rolled her eyes. “Let’s get you dressed. We need to be downstairs in twenty minutes.”
Mitch helped her put on what was surely the skimpiest alien costume in the universe. Cleo stood before the mirror staring at the creature looking back at her.
“I look like a mutant leprechaun belly dancer.” She took a sip of her wine. “It’s a damn good thing you didn’t show me this when you asked me to come. I’d have said no.”
“For the record, you’re not a mutant leprechaun; you’re an Orion slave girl. Men are powerless before you.Too bad that cutie from the bar last night can’t see you. You’re worth a dozen of the brunette he was with. Come here so I can spray the glitter on you.”
Two glasses of wine in quick succession were easing her embarrassment, but as she allowed Mitch to spray the liquid shimmer on her hair and body, she couldn’t resist one final complaint.
“Well, I’d rather wear what you’re wearing. If the air-conditioning is turned up as high as it was this morning, I’ll be an Orion slave icicle!”
“Seriously, Cleo, relax. Don’t be a prude. No one’s going to recognize you. I know you’re not used to showing so much skin, but you look fantastic, and the men will be drooling all around you. Every woman in the room is going to envy you. You’ll be the most sought-after slave girl here. ”
“God, I hope not. That’s the last thing I want. I feel like a chunk of meat on display for a starving man. You’re the extrovert, the one who wants to be the center of attraction. I’m not. I think that’s why we’re friends—because we’re so different.” Horror filled her eyes as she thought of something else. “Crap, I hope no one takes my picture. The last thing I need is to have someone see us on the Internet and recognize me. I’ll wear this tonight because it’s too late to find anything else, but we’re going costume shopping tomorrow. I’m sure we can find something a little less revealing.”
“Whatever you say, but I don’t think anyone’s going to recognize you.”
Cleo turned around and stood in front of the mirror. Her mouth dropped open in shock. Good grief.It’s even worse than I imagined. Thanks to the glitter, her skin reflected the light and looked alive, shimmering as she moved. Her hair shone the same way, and she looked alluring and mysterious. Her large, hazel eyes seemed more golden than ever. Mitch was right about one thing: she didn’t look like a kindergarten teacher from Gordon’s Grove. She looked like a sexy, alien siren. Just the look I want around a bunch of half-drunk Neanderthals. She remembered how decent guys had turned into absolute jerks at university costume parties.
“If it makes you feel better, you can stand behind the table replenishing the books as I sign them and handing out the bookmarks and the other swag the publisher provided. Come on, let’s go.”
Cleo followed her best friend out of the room. She shook her head. Why do I let myself get talked into these things?