DOWN AND DIRTY, Book 2 in the Rough and Tumble Series
October 21, 2014
On the outskirts of Sin City there’s a rough and tumble saloon where the women who are brave enough to enter can mingle with men that are equally magnetic and dangerous. And in this town, no one’s afraid to get a little dirty…
Billionaire playboy Bennett Hughes’ black sheep reputation is well-earned, but that doesn’t stop him from wanting the respect of his family—even if it means tracking down his brother’s gold-digging one-night-stand to earn it. But when Ben finds his intended target to be the opposite of what he expected, his chance at redemption ends in an accidental quickie marriage.
Despite her history, ex-showgirl Liz Palazzo believes in love at first sight, something she thought she experienced with Ben. Determined to put her party-girl reputation behind her, Liz vows to be the best wife ever—even if her husband seems set on keeping their union a marriage of convenience.
But as the sparks fly and their connection grows, Ben starts to wonder if Liz might be the one person who can make him a better man—or if the former bad girl just wants him for his money…
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Excerpt from DOWN AND DIRTY
Just before Liz Palazzo leaned back on her chaise at the Mandalay Bay European-style pool and closed her eyes, she caught a glimpse of a man who’d walked into the pool area.
Or, rather, the hunk of total burning love who’d wandered out from reality and straight into her sights.
Hub-ba. That was her heart talking, and it’d never shouted so loud at her, never forced her to her lose a pulse-beat in a way that made her think she was never going to get her body started up again. But when her heart did get back to business, so did her brain, processing everything about the new arrival.
His hair was the type of blond that reminded her of eternal youth, like in old movies with Brad Pitt, who’d seemed so immortal and shining gold. Even from here, Liz could tell his eyes were blue—the shade of runway lights in the dead of night when she used to drive to McCarran Airport to watch the planes take off to places other people got to go. He wasn’t dressed like anything special, just the white shirt and long shorts of a tourist, but she could only sizzle for what she imagined was under the clothing: wide shoulders, gym-honed arms and chest and abs, an ass that would feel like granite if she gave it a good squeeze…
Phew. Funny how, one second, the world had been just a fun little playground for her and her friends, but the next…
But there was something more about the man that made him extra interesting. It was like he…walked alone? Carried himself apart from everyone else?
Odd, to get that kind of impression about him…
Liz ripped her gaze away from the new arrival, who had been checking her out, too. She shouldn’t be acting interested in the man anyway. Let him come to her if that was in the cards because, not to be vain, that’s what males always did—at least at first. She’d been relying on her looks to attract others her whole life, and so had her mother, so she knew the drill. In fact, they’d banked on those looks since she was a baby chick trying out for commercials and going to ballet, tap, and jazz classes, so why stop now?
It was the after-attraction part that usually gave her problems, but that could come later.
Heart twirling, she chanced another gaze over to where the blond stud had been standing. He’d be a nice change of pace from the group of tourists she’d met earlier today—a group that’d come in to the pool just to gawk at all the breasts—even if they’d bought her and the girls a slew of martinis.
Just one look and she wanted more. Much more. There was just something about him…
He’d gone to the bar by the hot tub, taking a seat, his back to her. Hmm. Had she only been imagining the way his gaze had lingered on her when he’d first entered? Why hadn’t he sidled on over here like any other red-blooded male would’ve done by now, even if it was just to sit by the pool a few feet away to ogle her bared breasts?
That heart of hers—the one that’d been so giddy a few seconds ago—thudded, slowing down.
Was he…not so much into women? Or just not so much into her? Or maybe…
Liz smiled. If he was playing it cool, she could play it right back. And if he was meant to be more than a guy who’d wandered into the pool area, life would find a way to get him over here.
Liz gave him a few minutes. Then a few more, the top-forty music playing away, along with the laughter of her fellow ex-showgirls in the pool. Then, peeking open one eye, Liz checked to see if the man was still at the bar, if he had turned around in his chair to face her yet. Boobs were boobs, and they were here for him to see. Come on already.
But he was having a drink, laughing with the bartender.
He was taking much too long to get with the program.
Oh, well, sometimes destiny needed a kick in the butt to get going.
Sitting up on the chaise, she tied her bikini top on since bar etiquette demanded it. She put on her wedge sandals, resisting the urge to take a picture of the man for her many Facebook friends and instead moved right to the bar.
God, was it possible that she could smell the soap on the hunk’s skin from two seats down? The shivers all over her arms made her think that kind of chemical magic was possible.
The bartender recognized her, and he smiled. “Martini straight-up with gin, vermouth, and two olives.”
Liz smiled back and perched on the chair. Was Manly Man looking?
Nope, dammit. Maybe he wasn’t that into girls. Just her luck.
But the longer she subtly checked him out from beneath her lashes, the more her blood high-kicked its way through her.
Liz had never been shy, so why did the cat have her tongue now?
When he picked up a cigarette lighter from the bar where he’d set it next to his drink—a Manhattan?—she recognized the image on the casing: black Cleopatra hair, kitten-with-a-whip pose.
“Bettie Page,” she said, seeing her opening with him. Thank you, Destiny.
The man gave the lighter a good look, then nodded. “So it is.”
“I had a friend who was into her, for pure kitsch value, of course.” A costume designer from the years she’d worked on Blaze! at the Oceana, a dead hotel-casino on the Strip that’d closed down six months ago, after she’d retired.
“This belonged to a friend,” said the man. “He gave it to me before he left on a long trip.”
Forthcoming. She liked that in a man.
She extended her hand. “I’m Liz.”
He gave her a look that she couldn’t comprehend for a moment—something between ice and fire, disinterest and…more? But before she could decide, it went back to neutral.
“Ben.” He shook her hand.
Her skin came alive, a burst of whirring sparks spinning through her fingertips and up her arm, popping in her chest and spangling lower until her belly fizzed.
He disengaged, going back to his lighter, fiddling with it. She didn’t see any cigarettes nearby.
“You need a smoke?” she asked.
“I’m not in the habit.”
“Good.” So she was anti. Sue her. “I mean, I don’t have any cigarettes to give you.”
“Then why’d you ask?”
Wow, he was to the point, but he’d said it with a slight grin. As she sat there deciding what that meant, she slid down in her chair ever so slightly.
“I’m only being polite,” she said with her own smile as the bartender brought her martini.
The man drained his cocktail, and Liz nodded to the bartender, ordering another for him.
When he glanced at her, she shrugged. “It’s on me.”
For some reason, his mouth went tight, but then the bartender brought his next cocktail, and he raised a glass.
“To Bettie Page,” he said.
She met his glass with hers, and they both drank. She watched him the whole time, his mannerisms feeling so familiar and not-so-familiar.
When she finished sipping and laughed a little, he loosened up.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing really.” She peered at him, her heartbeat racing again at the blue of his eyes. “It’s just that you remind me of someone…”
This time when his smile disappeared, Liz knew there had to be a good reason.
Had Liz Palazzo caught onto him?
Ben had never been in a situation where he needed to be anyone but himself, and he wasn’t sure he was pulling off this Joe-Blow-on-vacation imitation right now. Maybe it’d been a bad idea to pretend to be someone else so he could get into her good graces, finding out what she’d done with the money she’d taken from his brother’s room during their one night stand. Getting her to sign the non-disclosure agreement that was weighing in his pocket.
Was she an avid tabloid reader and she knew who he was? Or worse, was he somehow reminding her of Jameson? He and his brother weren’t dead ringers for each other, but was Ben more like him than he’d thought?
Either way, Liz Palazzo had a way of looking into Ben that made him shift in his seat. He itched to get back to his comfort zone, start up the old flirting machine, slipping his Rolex onto her wrist and whispering sweet nothings into her ear to distract her from everything else. Shiny things—and sinful ones—had always distracted him.
But she’d come over here because she’d been attracted to Joe Blow, not because he was buying a saloon full of people drinks or giving away expensive watches to one-night stands. For once, that felt kind of good, even if he was obviously just a poolside flirtation.
She was giving him a sultry look, the tips of her mouth lifted in a pink smile that was slightly and, yes, even adorably tipsy.
“Yup,” she said lazily. “You’re familiar, all right.”
Every nerve cell was alive, zinging with awareness, with a lust that nearly took his common sense over. Beautiful woman, interested woman, his kind of woman. Up close her eyes were even more vivid than in the phone picture, neon violet promises.
He gripped the Bettie Page lighter Cash Campbell had given him. It’d been as much of a sure conversation-starter as he’d been hoping. “How could you have seen me before when you just met me?”
“Oh, it’s not necessarily you I’ve seen.” She leaned on the bar with both arms, flashing the tops of those perfectly round breasts that’d fit right into his palms like they were made to be there.
Damn, he really wanted to strip off that bikini top. But this wasn’t the moment to be lusting when maybe she was about to tell him he resembled Jameson. Was his cover already blown?
She gave him another smoking hot look, stroking her finger over the stem of her martini glass. His very own misbehaving stem pulsed, and he looked away from her and at his drink.
Focus. This is how Jameson got into trouble with her, too.
Her voice was as smooth as the lapping pool water in the background. “You on vacation?” she asked.
“I am. You?”
“You could call it that.”
“Sounds like you have a story behind this trip.”
There it was—a smile from her, a getting-to-know-you-over-drinks step in the right direction. One of Bennett’s—and obviously Ben’s—specialties.
“We all have our stories,” she said with a careless shrug. “Mine just happens to include a man who didn’t quite work out for me. And that’s why I must drown my sorrows today.”
Was she referring to Jameson?
Besides being a little buzzed, she was being flip about her story. Surprisingly, there was even a sadness there, too. But how could she have given a crap about Jameson if she’d stolen from him?
At least she was talkative, but then again, most people he met at bars were like that. Booze, the social lubricant of choice for lonely people…or maybe just people who went to places like this to not be lonely.
Ben glanced at her again as she sipped her cocktail, one pinkie up. When she placed the glass back on the bar, she sighed, resting her head in her hand while she gave him another considering glance from beneath her lashes. Damn, they were long. They looked natural, too.
“And what’s your story?” she asked.
Relieved that she’d dropped the whole you-remind-me-of-so-and-so thing, he pocketed the lighter. “No story. As I said, I’m here for a few days of relaxation.”
“On your own?”
Forward, wasn’t she? He liked it, but he tamped that down, too. He was also beginning to suspect she’d never seen him in the tabloids. Was this working?
“Yes, all on my own.” He smiled back at her. “Where’s that man you’re running from? Is he somewhere around?”
“Heavens, no. I wouldn’t say I’m running from him, either. He flicked me out of his condo like I was an insect. A perfect storybook fantasy ending to our time together.” She stretched out her body as she leaned on the bar, emphasizing those breasts, the luscious curve of her back. “Anyway, it’s my friend Anita’s birthday, so we decided to live it up here for a few days. It’s a treat for us locals to come to the Strip like this.”
They were swerving off topic, so he tried to get them back on it. Maybe, after she downed that martini, he’d buy her another so she would give him even more of her story. “This definitely isn’t the kind of place the ninety-nine percent can come all the time.”
“Well, luckily, I’ve been making a lot of friends who like to buy girls drinks.” She nodded toward his Manhattan. “Consider yourself special, though. Right now, the tab’s on the man who left me high and dry.”
Jackpot. “What do you mean?”
She wound her red, bobbed hair around a finger, her gaze easing into his, pinning him, making his heart throb painfully, right along with other spots that couldn’t control themselves.
No wonder Jameson had brought her home.
“What I mean,” she said with that sad inflection again, “is that some people can only express affection with money. This man I’m talking about? He was one of them. We weren’t together long at all, but before we parted ways, he gave me a gift.” She shook her head and laughed. “God, I’m talking way too much. Martinis, you know?”
God bless martinis. “No, this is interesting. People don’t just give out money every day.” Or Rolexes. Not unless they were trying to buy something.
It didn’t matter right now, because Ben had clearly pressed a button in her and she raised a finger to make a point.
“The gift was a nice gesture. Really. I’d been talking to him about all my plans for the future, and he told me to put some money toward them. That was a nice thing to do, right?”
Oh, she was good. “And what’re your plans, Liz?”
She perked up. “I’m going to own a restaurant someday—after I pay off some debts.” She hesitated, as if she didn’t want to reveal that much about herself. “Anyhow, how’s that for someone who used to eat brown rice and vegetables all the time? My place will be sexy and silky with the best steaks in town, an old school joint the Brat Pack would’ve gone to back in the day. Vegas is missing all that now, you know? The leopard-print lounges with vintage Hollywood pictures and ferns, the elegant drinks…”
He recognized the same glint in her eyes that Kat had gotten when she’d told him she’d always wanted to hang out at Mandalay Bay. He’d given in to Kat’s whim, but he couldn’t find a similar sympathy for Liz Palazzo.
Jameson had given her a parting “gift.” Bullshit. And even if Ben loved the idea of bringing back some old school to Vegas, he couldn’t afford to care for her so-called plans.
A gift. Yeah, good one.
She was laughing, obviously acknowledging again that she was being chatty. Maybe she was just one of those people who got attached to others right away, though. It’d explain how easily she’d hooked up with Jameson and gone to his rental property without getting to know him first.
“I have this philosophy,” she said. “Life is written in the stars. I met him because he was supposed to help me realize my dream.”
“So this man…” Ben said, steering the conversation once more. “He must’ve given you a big gift if it was meant to help you start up a restaurant. Those don’t come cheap.”
“Oh, he said it was only something to get me going. See, after he got wasted, he just dug in his pocket and, boom—there it was, a wad of rich man’s carry-around cash. He put it on the kitchen table, like he was serving it right up to me on a platter.” Another shrug, another sip of her martini. “Then he passed out, but I’m pretty sure it was his intention to kiss me off that way. When I tried to wake him up in the morning, he told me to get out, so I did.” She drew in a breath, straightened up in her chair. “Seriously—you don’t want to hear me crying into my drink. That’s not what Vegas is for!”
He didn’t answer, because what he was hearing about Jameson’s “gift” flew in the face of what his brother had told him. Who should he believe—his own flesh and blood or this barfly who was buying him drinks with Jameson’s money? Vegas was full of con people, and she might’ve been no exception. Hell, a lot of cons even hung out at the R&T with him.
Maybe, with all the women he sweet-talked, he was even one of those himself.
“Anyway,” she said, “I’m totally saving that money.”
“For your dream?” And the debts she’d mentioned?
“You got it. But my girl over there”—she gestured toward the pool—“does deserve some birthday love, too. Still, after this, it’ll be buckle-down time with the finances.”
If he didn’t know any better, he might think that Liz Palazzo was feeding him a tale about her monetary woes, priming him and shaking him down for free drinks or a night on the town, making him feel like a big man for helping a girl out. But he wasn’t dressed like someone who could throw bills around the Strip—not like Bennett Hughes would’ve been.
She wanted something else from him entirely…
Just as he almost started getting way too excited about that, five water-slicked women bounded over to them, their bikini tops on.
One with rosy-tan Latina skin and long dark hair that trailed in a wet, curly bundle over her shoulder dropped into the seat on the other side of Liz. “What’s cookin’, hot stuff?”
Liz gestured to Ben. “Anita, Ben. Ben, Anita.” She indicated the other three females who clustered near Anita. “Darcie, Parisa, Mai, and Carolann.”
He recognized the girls who’d been in the pool when he’d walked in, and all of them had showgirl figures, tall, slim and sculpted. However, none of them could compete with Liz Palazzo of the perfectly round, pink-tipped breasts
“Hey, Ben,” they said together, then ordered cocktails from the bartender.
Ben’s dander rose at the thought that the drinks were on Jameson, but he smiled at Anita as she threw down a bright blue shot of something foo-foo and slung an arm over Liz’s shoulder.
“Not that we want to interrupt, but it was time to wet the whistles. I, myself, intend to take full advantage of being served instead of serving!”
Liz gestured to all of them. “Waitresses.”
As the other girls turned to chat with the bartender, Anita nodded. “Except for Liz, here. She was the last of us to retire from our main gigs because she was featured in her job, but she says she’s going to be slinging drinks in a lounge soon.”
A featured showgirl, huh? It meant that Liz had been paid more and higher esteemed, although showgirls didn’t get paid all that much.
But it was time to play dumb. “You’re all too young to retire from whatever it is you were doing.”
Anita slid a glance to Liz, and if Ben knew anything about girl communication, she was asking a question.
How much did you tell him?
If only she knew how freely the information had flowed.
Liz took another drink, then said, “We were all showgirls once upon a time.”
Anita said, “We don’t tell every guy we meet. Some of them don’t know how to handle it. What a pain.”
Liz clinked glasses with Anita. “And some guys get way too into the whole showgirl mystique—”
“Because they want to screw a Vegas icon so bad they don’t know how to deal—” Anita said over Liz.
“And they ask these questions you wouldn’t believe. But we can trust Ben to be mature about it, Ani.”
“Excellent,” her friend said, hunkering down on the bar by crossing her arms and addressing Ben from around Liz. “So you’re not gonna ask dumb questions?”
“Let’s see…‘What’s it like to be naked in front of a crowd?’ ‘Do you put ice cubes on your nips before you go on stage, like they did in Showgirls?’ What they come up with is downright nervy.”
“So we get to know guys before we spill the truth.” Liz smiled, probably thinking about how much she’d already said to Ben.
It was interesting that she’d been way more forthcoming about her love life woes while holding back on her own identity. But maybe she was doing the same thing he was—keeping the most important part of herself back.
Don’t get too intrigued, he thought.
Anita braced a hand on Liz’s shoulder. “We’re the last of a dying breed, aren’t we, chica?”
Liz swirled the alcohol in her glass. “Yup. The big revues are being squeezed out by all the Cirque du Soleil this-or-that. You don’t see shows anymore with sixty showgirls in a cast. If you’re not a novelty act then…”
Anita made a cutthroat motion and made a sound effect to go with it.
It was time for some buddying up. “I think I saw Jubilee!, Folies Bergere, and Blaze! more than a few times. It’s too bad about the closures.”
Anita jumped. “We were in Blaze! before the Oceana closed.”
Ah, the Oceana. He’d spent more than a few nights there. Talk about old school. The hotel-casino had been run by a guy who was as mob as they came, and it’d held on for as long as it could before the corporations had fully taken over Vegas.
He looked down to feel Liz’s gaze on him, her smile lackadaisical, her finger circling the rim of her martini glass as if she was picturing doing…things…to him. Dammit.
Then Anita clutched Liz’s shoulder, drawing her attention away from him. Dammit about that, too.
“I like this guy,” she said. As the bartender slid her another shot, she reached out and tossed back that one, too. She licked her lips and smiled. “He could be a friend.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Liz said, grinning.
Excitement pierced him, needles in his skin, and he wasn’t sure if it was because he was getting closer to sussing out the truth of Jameson’s “gift” to Liz Palazzo and then having her sign the non-disclosure agreement, or if it was because of the libidinous gleam in her eyes.
Anita peered at him, then at Liz, a secretive smile on her lips. Then she backed away from them. “We’re going to the rooms for some shut eye and room service, Lizzie. Got to conserve energy for happy hour.”
She gave Ben a little wave, then turned to her friends, telling them to drink up.
Liz remained at the bar. Her martini glass was empty, but she shook her head at the bartender, refusing a refill.
“So, Ben,” she said. “What’re you doing after this?”
Her friends walked off with final smiles at him. It was as if he’d been welcomed into the club and Liz had been left to close the deal.
This was all too easy, even as “just Ben.”
“I didn’t have any big plans.”
“Wonerful.” She tripped over the word and put her fingers to her mouth, laughing. She tried again. “Wonderful.” She nodded. “The girls and I are going to Bordello early, way before it opens. Did you know you could rent it out for private parties?”
Jesus, was she telling him that she’d rented out the club herself? There was no way she had enough money…unless she’d snagged twenty-thousand dollars from more men than Jameson recently. To make matters stickier, the Hughes family had helped in developing Bordello, which was a part of a new, chrome-and-glass complex down the Strip called Haven. It had three hotel-casinos, shopping venues, and over thirty restaurants and bars.
“I did not know,” he said, trying to stay loose, not giving himself away.
“Well, if you’re up for it, we’ll have an upstairs table starting at four o’clock. I know—early for a party, but it’s happy hour, right? Just tell the hostess that you know Liz Palazzo.”
“Maybe I will.”
God. Just an upstairs VIP table at Bordello required connections and hefty tips, or a rental fee that could go upwards of a thousand dollars. Or you had to buy at least one five-hundred-dollar bottle of vodka to start out.
All in all, this was some birthday for Anita, and some “buckle down and save” for Ms. Palazzo, with her big hopes and dreams for an old school dinner club. She had to have been feeding Ben a story for the last twenty minutes, gaining his sympathy so he’d buy drinks for the rest of the night for her. But how could she think he’d be able to afford it? Was she used to squeezing cash out of men, like some of the regulars at the R&T did with tourists during their backroom poker games?
His doubts about her pinged, but when she stood to her full height, flexing that amazing, creamy body, his mind went as blank as Jameson’s probably had.
And when she bent close to whisper to him, he turned to a pillar of seething desire.
“I’ll be watching for you,” she said, her breath tickling his ear.
He couldn’t tear his gaze away as the gold digger left, her hips swaying, catching the attention of every male in the vicinity as she went to her chaise and fetched her bag. She went to the exit, winking at him on the way out before she donned a pair of sunglasses and disappeared.
Ben turned to his drink, needing to put out this damned fire before he really ventured into the inferno tonight…
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From the book: Down and Dirty (A Rough and Tumble Romance, Book Two)
By: Crystal Green
Imprint and Series: Harlequin Blaze
Berkley InterMix Digital First
Copyright: Chris Marie Green
R and TM are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
For more romance information surf to: http://www.eHarlequin.com