Wild Card ONLY
a Leaving Las Vegas novel by Aleah Barley
Las Vegas showgirl Gina Malloy isn’t looking for trouble when she walks in on a shady backroom deal, but when the bullets start flying, she grabs the bag full of stolen loot and hits the road out of town. Of course, she didn’t count on the bad guys tailing her, or the sexy detective who comes to her rescue.
Detective Gabriel Finn is no one’s knight in shining armor. A former priest, he just wants to drag the witness’s butt back to town. Instead, he gets a tough as nails woman who’s all grit and heart. When a pair of thugs take a shot at her, he decides the best way to keep her safe is to stay out of Las Vegas and launch his own investigation.
Take one long-legged showgirl, a former priest turned detective, and a couple of mafia thugs. Mix carefully. The results should be explosive.
Title: Wild Card
Series: Leaving Las Vegas, #3
Author: Aleah Barley
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Length: 204 pages
Release Date: April 2016
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An Excerpt from:
by Aleah Barley
Copyright © 2016 by Aleah Barley. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
The Rollio wasn’t the largest casino on the Strip or the grandest.
But it was Gina Malloy’s favorite.
She’d started as a backup dancer in one of the smaller lounges and worked her way up through the ranks. Now she was twenty-eight—old for a dancer—and her feet hurt when she got out of bed in the morning. Her back ached, and her legs were sore no matter how many hot baths she took.
She wouldn’t trade it in for the world.
Still, it would be nice to get out of work early for a change. She checked her watch. Two in the freaking morning, and she still needed to drive home.
First though, she was going to grab some caffeine. She cut across the employee parking lot, the asphalt scraping against her bare feet. Zippy’s, the twenty-four-hour diner on the corner, was crowded even in the middle of the night. She slid her feet into her heels—an uncomfortable thing to do after the night’s performance—and waited in line to order her coffee.
“I’ll take a half-caf vanilla latte.” She smiled at the woman behind the counter.
“You’ll get a coffee, black.” Irma had been working at Zippy’s since long before Gina had started at the Rollio. She wore a pink frilly apron over her T-shirt and jeans and glared at tourists with the fire of a thousand suns. Her head cocked slightly to the side. “You can pour the milk yourself, but I think it’s curdled.”
“Sounds fair.” Gina rifled through her bag, looking for her wallet. Zippy’s might not make the best coffee in Las Vegas, but it was strong enough to tar roads and cheap as hell. Seventy-five cents for a one-size-fits-all to-go cup. There wasn’t a better deal between the Strip and the trailer park Gina called home.
Her wallet was missing. She must have left it in the dressing room. She frowned and dug a trio of quarters out of the bottom of her bag and slid them across the counter.
“Aren’t you going to tip?” Irma asked.
“Fine.” Gina dug some more and found a wrinkled dollar bill. She slapped it down on the counter beside the change. The news crackled overhead. “Anything going on I should know about?”
“The usual. There’s traffic all over town. Some guy tried to hold up one of the casinos down near the airport. The fool got halfway to the cage with a gun before a pair of security guards jumped him.”
“Idiot.” Gina sighed. In Las Vegas two things were certain—security guards and surveillance. “Anything else I should know about?”
Irma snorted. “I don’t have all night.”
Gina turned and headed out of the diner. Her high heels clicked against the concrete sidewalk as she headed back toward the parking lot of the Rollio.
It had taken her less than twenty minutes to get her coffee, but in that time, the parking lot had emptied out, with most of the dancers heading to the nearest nightclub. A few years earlier, she would have been with them. Now, she just wanted to get home.
She dug into the pocket of her short-shorts for her employee badge and then let herself in through the back door.
The normally busy backstage area was eerily silent. The last performance had ended two hours earlier. The ushers had cleaned the auditorium. The crew had broken down the set. The whole place had been swept, polished, and emptied.
She hustled into the dancers’ changing room, rummaging through the pile of sequins and feathers at her dressing table until she found what she was looking for. Her slim red wallet must have slipped out onto the floor while she was changing. She tucked it into the side of her bag then started to leave.
“Damn it, Donovan.”
She’d barely made it out of the dressing room when a voice interrupted her progress, echoing through the narrow backstage hallways.
“What are we doing here?”
Gina froze. Hell. Her badge might have worked on the door, but that didn’t mean she had permission to be at the Rollio after hours. Her teeth dug into her bottom lip. She pressed herself back into the dark dressing room doorway. She should leave—slipping quietly out the back door—before she was caught and fired.
“You wanted to talk. This is as good a place as any.” The speaker—Donovan—prowled forward, moving into a small pool of illumination provided by one of the emergency lights near the stage door. He was a whip-thin man with dark hair. His face was half shadowed, but there was no mistaking the cut of his expensive suit or the glint of metal in his hand.
A gun. Gina swallowed back a yelp. The man was carrying a gun.
“You don’t need that,” the other man said nervously.
“Think of it as insurance.” Donovan sniffed. “Now talk.”
“I got you what you wanted,” the other man whined. “It wasn’t easy. I want more money.”
“You’ll get what we negotiated.”
“I’ll get double or you won’t get the merchandise.”
“You really think it’s worth that much?” Donovan asked, his doubt palpable. “Show me.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then the second man rounded the corner so close to Gina, she thought her heart might explode. He was a big man in light-colored pants and a dark uniform shirt. In the shadowy light, it was hard to make out details, but Gina would have had to be blind to miss the flash of handcuffs at his waist or the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department badge on his shoulder.
Her breath was coming faster. Her skin felt prickly. She needed to get out of here before something happened, but her legs refused to move. Damn it. She wasn’t going to be fired. If they caught her, they’d shoot first and ask questions never.
It pissed her off. Her hands curled into fists. She hadn’t clawed her way out of a Southern California trailer park, overcome her less-than-savory past, and forged a career in one of the toughest cities in the world just to get shot in the dark by a dirty cop.
He had to be dirty. Honest cops didn’t skulk around in casino back rooms.
The cop put a large bag down on the scuffed linoleum floor. He slid it forward. “I’m not the only one who’s going to need a payoff. It’s not just about turning a blind eye to your clients’ escapades. People are going to notice this is missing. They’ll be looking.”
“There will be nothing for them to find, right?”
“Of course not. I know what I’m doing.”
What the hell was in the bag? It didn’t matter. All Gina could think about was getting the hell out of there. She needed—
“Fifty thousand dollars.” Donovan stuck his gun into his waistband and pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket. The envelope was thick, an inch or two. Did it really hold fifty thousand dollars?
Gina’s heart skipped a beat. Fifty thousand dollars. It was more money than she’d ever seen in one place. Enough to start a new life somewhere…or make good on the debts of her old one. With fifty thousand dollars, she could pay off the loan on her house, buy a freezer full of ice cream, and put a down payment on a new car.
More importantly, she could have a financial cushion. Something to break her fall when her legs finally gave out and she couldn’t dance at the Rollio anymore. Something to keep her safe when the wolves came howling at the door.
Donovan bent over to look at the bag’s contents. Whatever he saw made his muscles clench and his jaw tense. “If I find out you’ve made a copy, or left something out—”
“Don’t worry,” the cop assured him. He shifted uncomfortably, his gaze never leaving the envelope. “That’s it…and a little extra, just like we talked about.”
“Want to hear how I got it out of lockup? It was pretty clever.”
“I don’t need to know.” Donovan straightened. “You’ve earned your money.”
“I told you. I want double.”
“You’ll get what we agreed upon, like the other times.”
“The other times were different.” The cop’s deferential tone vanished when they started talking about the money. “This isn’t just a slipup here or there. It’s—”
“It’s merchandise.” Donovan repeated the word. “Don’t think it’s anything else or you might find yourself…indisposed.”
“Merchandise that’s worth a lot to your boss.” The cop took half a step forward, clearly balking at the threat in the other man’s tone. “He wants to go free. I want three times what you promised me. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars—in cash—or I go straight to my lieutenant.”
“You think we don’t have him in our pocket, too?” Donovan snorted in disgust. There was a moment’s pause and then a sigh. His shoulders relaxed, as if he’d just made a decision. “Okay. You’ll get your money. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars in cash.”
“Tonight,” the cop said. “I want to be paid tonight.”
There was a long pause. “How about a compromise?” Donovan’s voice was deep and silky. “You’ll take the fifty thousand we originally agreed upon tonight, and I’ll get you the rest in the morning.”
“Then I’ll keep a little something back until you deliver.” The cop nodded toward the bag. “Insurance, like you said.”
“That would be unwise.” Donovan surged toward the other man, stepping neatly over the bag on the floor. His movement forced the cop back toward the far wall.
Gina swallowed hard. The men were still too close for her to make a move, but if they just moved a few more steps, the path to the back door would be clear. Her high-heeled feet itched to race across the linoleum. A cold sweat broke out between her shoulder blades.
The moment both men’s backs were turned, she made her move, creeping out of the dressing room and into the dark hallway. The shadows enveloped her, but she still felt exposed.
The door was less than thirty feet away.
All she had to do was run.
But the bag was really, really close.
Whatever it contained was worth at least fifty thousand dollars. It could change her life…and her life definitely needed changing. Her mortgage was underwater, her car was falling apart, and a lifetime spent working her ass off had left her with nothing but sore feet and broken dreams. Grabbing it was a risk, truly, but compared to other things she’d done in her life—leaving her hometown in the middle of the night and heading to Las Vegas with nothing but the clothes on her back—it was nothing.
The men were talking now, their voices too low for Gina to make anything out. She kept her movements slow. When she finally clasped the bag’s thick cloth handles between her hands, she could feel her heart beating triple time. Success.
Now, all she had to do was sneak away before anyone noticed the bag was missing—
Bang. The gunshot reverberated through the narrow hallway, echoing loudly in the sharp corners. The sound was enough to make Gina’s legs falter.
Gina started to run.
If the world was ending, Finn didn’t want to hear about it. He already had a full schedule for the day. He was going to sleep, drink, and—if he felt up to it—put in some time making the little speed bag dance down at the boxing gym.
Tomorrow, he was going to do the exact same thing.
He was on vacation, damn it. Involuntary, sure, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t use the rest.
Unfortunately, his boss didn’t think the same way. Captain Howard had scheduled a meeting at seven o’clock in the morning. There’d been two cups of coffee waiting in his office when Finn arrived. The coffee was horrible: strong, dark, and sour, as if the big machine it was brewed in hadn’t been cleaned in years.
“Damn, I’ve missed this.” Finn took a long sip. “What am I doing here?”
“There was a shooting last night.” Captain Howard pushed a brown file folder across his desk. “Body dumped in the desert.”
“Yeah, and? I’m not assigned to violent crimes. Hell, I’m not assigned anywhere.” The LVMPD had made sure of that. “I’m on vacation.”
“It’s called mandatory rest and recovery, Finn. You were shot twice.”
“The second one was just a scratch.” Finn rubbed his arm. The first bullet had buried itself deep in his shoulder. He’d been in surgery for hours and the doctors said he might never recover full range of motion. He’d been working out at the gym every day since the shooting—on top of his scheduled physical therapy. Sometimes it hurt like hell but he was starting to see results. Really. Maybe. “What do you want?”
“The dead man’s a cop.”
That changed things a little bit. Finn frowned. “Anyone I know?”
“Gunnar Taub.” The captain’s gaze flicked to one side. “You rode shotgun with him, back when you were a rookie.”
“It’s not like we bonded. He was an asshole.” Finn couldn’t put it any nicer. “I transferred at the first opportunity.”
“People liked him.”
“People can be idiots.” The man had been a thug and a bully. Finn had reported him twice for bad behavior—once for excessive force and once for scamming cocktail waitresses out of drinks at the Rollio—and both times, the other man had come out smelling like roses. The moron. “He gave the force a bad name.”
“Maybe.” The captain shrugged. “Maybe you’re just too fucking picky. Either way, the public thinks a good cop was shot under mysterious circumstances. This isn’t the Mendoza case—we’re not dealing with the legal eagles at Wilson, Dasher, and Smythe—but there’s some definite pressure. The chief is putting together a task force to investigate.”
“And you want to put me on it?”
“The task force is looking at Taub’s friends and family, going over all his old cases. They don’t need a wild card like you shuffling around and spoiling the game. I want you to do something else.” The captain shoved the folder a little bit closer. “There was a break in at the Rollio’s theater last night. Security didn’t find much—they figure it was some horny kids trying to steal panties from the dressing rooms.”
“The Rollio was Taub’s favorite hangout. You think the two incidents are related?”
“I wouldn’t bet on those odds,” the captain snorted. “Security cameras show Taub going into the Rollio around two last night. They didn’t catch him coming out.”
Finn frowned. “I thought those cameras saw everything.”
“Normally they do.” There was a slight pause. “Now, according to security logs, the last person through the backstage door was a dancer named Gina Malloy. Funny thing. No one’s seen Malloy since last night’s performance. Officially, it’s too early to classify this as a missing persons case, but that doesn’t have to stop someone from taking a personal interest…say, a police detective who’s almost fully recovered from his last case.”
Finn flipped the folder open. A woman’s face stared back at him. He wasn’t an expert on feminine beauty, but she was absolutely perfect. His heart hammered in his chest. Gina Malloy had hazel eyes, a smattering of freckles across her heart-shaped face, and lips that could drive a lesser man to distraction.
“You came to the wrong guy.” He pushed the photo back in Howard’s direction. “Women don’t like me.”
The captain snorted. “Does anyone like you?”
Finn considered the question. He had to think all the way back to his previous life in Chicago. “Babies,” he finally said. Cherub-faced infants in christening gowns. “I like babies. They like me.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“I’m serious.” At the church, he’d been a favorite with new mothers because their babies always stayed calm in his arms. “It’s a gift.”
The grizzled police captain held perfectly still for a long moment. His cropped gray hair gleamed in the low lights. His expression was hard, making his entire face look like one big callus. Then he laughed. “Remind me to have you over the next time my sister-in-law’s in town. Her kid’s a brat. Always drives me crazy.”
“Good to know.” Finn inclined his head toward the file. The photo was a candid shot—Gina hadn’t posed for it—and she looked happy. Her curved body was poured into a soft white T-shirt, and a pair of worn jeans skimmed those memorable legs. There was a smudge of dirt on the end of her nose, and her rich auburn hair curled wildly around her face. “Why not turn this over to the task force?”
“It might not be important.”
“If it’s not important…” Finn frowned. He was a freaking homicide detective. He was supposed to be hunting down murderers, not chasing showgirls. “I want to come back to work, Captain.”
“Was Taub corrupt or just bad?”
It was a blunt question. Finn shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I don’t know if he was corrupt… Maybe.”
Probably. It would make sense.
“Then maybe it’s better for you to find this woman instead of his buddies.” Howard opened a drawer. He pulled out a familiar badge and placed it squarely on the desk between them. “Track her down, talk to her, and bring her back. If she knows something…” He let out a long sigh. “If she knows something, then we’ll deal with it. Is that clear?”
Good enough. Finn snatched up the badge. It was just a symbol, but—damn—the familiar weight felt good in his hands. “Crystal.”