Chapter 1 & Chapter 2
“At work my mommy wears teeny-tiny, sparkly clothes.” Dexter, four going on forty, looked up from the chessboard, his expression innocent. “With red feathers. Did you know that, Mr. Harry?”
“Uh-huh.” Harry Ambrewster, M.B.A. with honors from Stanford, didn't have a lot of experience with babysitting. Still, he didn't think babysitters normally discussed teeny-tiny, sparkly clothes that a parent was wearing right this minute. Thinking of Lainie Terrell in her skimpy outfits made his palms sweat.
He wiped them on his Dockers and adjusted his glasses, determined to keep his mind on chess. After two nights of staying with Dexter while Lainie pranced on the Nirvana Casino stage, Harry had learned that babysitting involved lots of floor time, even when the kid was a bona fide genius.
Consequently Harry sat cross-legged on one side of the coffee table, while Dexter balanced on his knees on the other side, his small body sandwiched between the table and the couch. Actually, Dexter wasn’t all that small--more the size of your average six-year-old. That coupled with his intelligence made people assume he was much older. Harry could relate. He’d dealt with that a lot as a kid.
Dexter picked up his knight and moved it within striking range of Harry's queen.
Harry decided to give the kid a break. “Do you really want to move your knight there?”
“Yep.” Dexter leaned his chin on both fists. “Have you seen my mommy dance?”
“Sort of.” Lainie performed in four out of six numbers staged nightly at the Nirvana Casino. Harry had watched her so many times he had the numbers memorized, although he sat at a back table and hoped she had no idea he was such a regular. She might laugh. Better that she only know him as the boring accountant from payroll, a nerd in glasses who also happened to be a neighbor in her apartment complex.
“I wish I could see her dance.”
Harry tried to redirect Dexter's attention. “You do realize I’m going to capture your knight.”
“I know.” Dexter sighed. “But I really, really want to see the show. Mommy won't let me.”
“Mm.” Harry picked up Dexter's knight. He hated to beat the kid, but if Dexter didn't learn to pay attention, he'd get his ass whipped whenever he sat down at a chessboard, genius or not. “Well, she shouldn't let you go. The show is for big people.” Big people like Harry, who was inconveniently obsessed with a certain sexy showgirl.
He wasn't proud of giving in to his craving as often as he did. He should volunteer to be Dexter’s permanent babysitter, because then he'd be forced to spend his evenings playing chess with a four-year-old instead of secretly lusting after the kid's mommy.
Although Harry liked Dexter a lot, he wasn't ready to make that sacrifice and give up his reserved spot at that back table. Not yet. He was only filling in for the regular sitter this week because if he didn't, Lainie would miss too much work and get her long-legged self fired. Then she might leave Vegas, and Harry wouldn't be able to watch her dance anymore.
Logically, that would be a good thing. His fascination with her was doomed on many levels. For one thing, she was far too cool ever to be interested in an accountant. He was all computer spreadsheets and double-entry bookkeeping, while she was all fire and rhythm. His favorite dance number was called “Fever,” where she wore fishnet stockings and red satin rose petals over her –
Harry blinked. “Son of a b-bucket. How'd you do that?”
“I just –”
“Okay, okay. I see it now.” Talk about embarrassing. The kid might have more brain cells than the Sahara had sand, but Harry was no slouch in that department, either, and he had the kid by twenty-nine years. Plus, Harry had only taught Dexter the game two nights ago.
“I didn't checkmate you. You can still get away.”
“Right.” Harry made the necessary defensive move. Dexter's concentration was way better than his at the moment. Chess was one of the few competitive activities in which Harry was the alpha dog, and he'd obviously underestimated his opponent.
Dexter leaned over the board, and Harry noticed that his curly dark hair needed combing. Dexter had his mother's hair, but hers was long enough to reach her waist when she wore it down. And she had such a tiny waist. And such generous –
“You're not mad, are you, Mr. Harry?” Dexter lifted his head, looking worried.
Harry stared at him, astonished. “Mad? About what?”
“'Cause I almost beat you.”
“Good grief, no! Maybe I was mad at myself for not giving my full attention to the game, but I would never be mad at you for doing your best. That's what you're supposed to do.”
“So you'll keep playing?” He seemed very anxious.
“Of course.” Harry had decided the boy's gray eyes came from his father, because Lainie's were a mesmerizing shade of blue.
Dexter flopped back against the edge of the couch. “Whew. What a relief.”
He sounded so adult that Harry couldn't help smiling. A faint memory of his own childhood drifted in. He used to have trouble holding on to playmates for the same reason.
“Do people wimp out on you a lot, Dexter?”
The little boy nodded.
“Not really, but she doesn't like to sit still for very long.”
“Ah.” Just as Harry had suspected. High energy all the time. A guy like him, who lived mostly in his head, would bore her silly. And maybe he was afraid she’d bore him, too. Even if they clicked sexually, they might have nothing to talk about afterward.
That happened all the time with him – physical attraction, mental incompatibility. But the scholarly types he'd dated didn't turn him on. He was at an impasse.
“She likes it when we go play in the park, though,” Dexter said loyally. “And that's fun.”
“I’ll bet.” Theoretically Harry was all for playing in the park. But as a kid he'd never worked up any enthusiasm for slides and monkey bars, preferring to sit under a tree and work on logic puzzles. Lainie and Dexter had been coming back from the park, their eyes bright and their hair tousled, the day he'd stopped to talk to them on his way to his own apartment. Lainie had confessed her babysitting crisis and he'd leaped into the breach.
“But Mrs. Flippo won't play anything with me anymore, not even Chutes and Ladders. I said I'd let her win, but nope, no dice.” He tugged at his hair. “And who wants to watch TV all the time?”
“Indeed.” Harry felt himself weakening on the babysitting thing. This little guy was starving for mental stimulation. Harry empathized. Maybe that's why his own mother had given up on regular babysitters all those years ago and brought him to work with her.
Unfortunately, work for her had been exactly like work was for Lainie, and Harry had spent his formative years backstage at a casino just like the Nirvana. Doing his homework surrounded by flowery-smelling, nearly naked women had seemed normal at the time.
Looking back on it, he was pretty sure it was suboptimal for a little kid. There'd never been a question of his mom changing careers. She loved dancing – still did, even though she'd retired. In his experience, dancers were passionate about their work.
So he'd made it a practice not to date showgirls. Logic told him they weren't likely to give up their glitzy, exciting careers for nights of reading to the kids and playing chess with Harry. Then Lainie had come to work at the Nirvana and moved into his apartment complex. And just like that-logic had taken a powder. But he would conquer this infatuation that had temporarily caused him to act like an idiot, and once he did, he'd resume looking for Ms. Right.
Harry snapped out of his daze and discovered he was in a worse pickle than the last time. Unless he brought all his powers to bear on this chess game, this little sprout might actually beat him.
“While you're thinking, I’ll get the cookies, okay?”
Harry nodded, still studying the board. Because he wouldn't take any money for babysitting, Lainie had baked cookies for him. That was a true sacrifice in the middle of summer in Vegas. She must have turned the air conditioner to freeze to compensate for heating up the oven.
First she'd left him peanut butter cookies, then oatmeal, and tonight, the most seductive of all, chocolate chip. She couldn't know his weakness for chocolate chip.
“Here you go, Mr. Harry.” Dexter set a plastic plate loaded with cookies next to the chessboard.
Harry couldn't believe how distracting the scent of chocolate and cookie dough was. His mouth watered, and he couldn't keep his mind on the chess game. Lainie had made those cookies, and that was part of the problem. He smelled them and imagined her bustling about the kitchen in her short shorts and tight T-shirt, bending over to slip the pan into the warm oven, pausing to lick the spoon. . .
Dexter picked up a cookie and leaned over the board as he bit into it. A crumb fell on a white marble square. “Whoops.” He wet his finger and picked it up. “What are you gonna do?”
Harry surrendered to his urges and picked up a cookie. “Eat one of these.” The cookie was incredible. Some people overbaked them and burned the chocolate chips, but this one was totally perfect, the outside a little crunchy and the inside soft and gooey. He moaned with delight.
“My mommy makes good cookies, huh?”
Harry talked with his mouth full, something he never did. “She sure does.”
Dexter took another bite of his cookie and studied the chessboard. “I think it's time for you to castle, Mr. Harry.”
Harry had come to the same sad conclusion. And he wasn't even sure that move would save him. The kid had him on the ropes. “As soon as I finish the cookie.”
“Not yet, thanks.” Oh, what the hell, he might as well castle and be done with it. Then Dexter would edge in with his king, and in a couple of moves, it would be all over. Harry glanced at the clock, wondering if they had time for a rematch before he tucked Dexter in at eight-thirty.
Just as he'd picked up the rook, someone banged on the door. They hammered on it with a lot of force, like they were ready to break it down. Startled, he dropped the chess piece and scrambled to his feet, adrenaline pumping. This couldn't be good.
He started around the coffee table to get Dexter, and Dexter met him halfway, grabbing him by the legs. Harry lifted the little boy into his arms and held him tight. “It's okay,” he said, not believing a word of it.
“Open up!” yelled a guy with a nasal twang to his voice. “I wanna see my son!”
Dexter moaned softly in distress. “It's Daddy,” he whispered.
Harry gulped. Lainie had never mentioned a daddy. From the way Dexter was trembling, there was good reason for that.
“I know you're in there! I can see the lights are on!”
Dexter shrank away and buried his head against Harry’s neck.
“A man should be able to see his boy!” Dexter's father bellowed. “Dexter! Come on out and let me see how big you are!”
Harry figured the guy had to be drunk and he'd probably come around now because he knew Lainie would be working. Maybe he thought a babysitter would be intimidated into opening the door to him. Harry decided not to respond. Letting this cretin know that the babysitter was a man might rile him up even more.
“Dammit, I know you're in there. The law's on my side, y'know. A woman can't take a man's son away. Let me in, dammit!” Dexter's father pounded on the door hard enough to make it rattle in the frame.
Dexter winced with each blow and tightened his grip around Harry's neck.
Harry leaned down and murmured in Dexter's ear. “Don't be afraid. I won't let him get you.”
More pounding. “If you don't open this door, so help me, I’ll bust it down!”
Harry wished he had more confidence in the door. He wished they were on the first floor instead of the second. And he wished he'd taken that karate course he'd always thought about. First thing tomorrow he'd check it out. But that didn't help him right now.
Maybe he should dial 911, but Dexter's daddy could be through that door before a squad car pulled up. Besides, even if the police arrived in time, Harry didn't know if Lainie might be a mom on the run. Judging from this performance, she had a reason to run, but the courts could still put her in jail for it. Harry wasn't about to take that chance by alerting the cops.
“Okay, you asked for it.” The door reverberated with a heavy thud, as if the guy had just rammed his shoulder into the wood.
Keeping his eye on the door, Harry retreated down the hall toward Lainie's bedroom at the back of the apartment. He'd never been in there, but her floor plan matched his. People usually had heavy dressers in the bedroom, and that could serve as a barricade until Harry decided what to do next.
“I'm scared,” Dexter whispered.
“Don't be. I'm right here.” Even though Harry's blood was pumping way too fast, he tried to keep his voice calm. Lainie had obviously made a terrible mistake five years ago by letting this Neanderthal close enough to father her child. But Dexter shouldn't have to pay for that by being terrorized.
“He's very big,” Dexter said.
Not what Harry wanted to hear. “Well, I'm very smart.”
“So what are we gonna do, Mr. Harry?”
“'Think.” Somehow it didn't seem like enough. The moment called for boldness and daring. Harry wasn't the bold and daring type.
Inside Lainie's darkened bedroom, he glanced around and found a dresser. Unfortunately, the dresser was made of flimsy white wicker. Considering the drawers were probably full of lacy underwear, the dresser lost all potential as a barricade.
Another thud, louder than the first, echoed through the apartment.
“We could go out the window,” Dexter said.
“Uh, we're on the second floor.” Harry looked at the aluminum-framed sliding window. There was a good-sized tree outside, but the thought of climbing out the window and down the tree while holding Dexter made him queasy. If he dropped the kid . . .
“We could climb down the tree. Like Spider-Man.”
The crack of wood splintering narrowed Harry's choices. Lowering Dexter quickly to the floor, he closed and locked the bedroom door. Then he dragged the dresser in front of the door, for whatever time it might give them. After checking to make sure his car keys were in his pocket, he unlocked the window and slid it open. Warm desert air blew in and he realized his shirt was soaked with sweat.
The screen wouldn't come out without lifting the window from the frame, so he punched the screen free and it clattered to the ground below. “Okay.” He took off his glasses and tucked them in his shirt pocket before crouching beside Dexter. “We're going to climb out the window and go down the tree, like you suggested.”
“Right. Then what?”
“We'll take my car. Don't worry. We'll lose him. Are you with me?”
Dexter nodded so hard his hair wiggled.
“I want you to climb onto my back, wrap your arms around my neck and your legs around my waist. Then I want you to hang on like Velcro. Got that?”
“Yep.” Dexter glued himself to Harry's back and got a choke hold on his neck.
Harry adjusted the little boy's grip so the kid wouldn't strangle him during the climb. Then he stuck one leg over the windowsill.
“After we get in your car, where are we going?”
Harry doubled over so he could work both of them through the opening. “To see your mommy.”
* * *
In the midst of a dressing room filled with laughter, nakedness, and efficient movement, Lainie wiggled into her red rose-petal outfit for the “Fever” number. Halfway through the night's entertainment, the other dancers rode the crest of a performance high. Lainie wanted to throw off her uneasy mood and ride it with them. The crowd was friendly, sweetened up by the comedian the casino had recently hired. Jack Newman had turned out to be a good complement to the musical part of the show.
He'd also indicated an interest in Lainie. Years ago Jack would have been exactly her type, but ever since tangling with Joey Benjamin, she steered clear of party animals. More accurately, she steered clear of all men. She had a son to raise, and she lived in fear that somebody, someday, would try to take Dexter away from her. If she ever lost Dexter, she'd die, plain and simple.
She was smart enough to know that her profession could count against her if anyone challenged her custody, but she made more money dancing than she would clerking at a department store. Besides, she loved dancing. Still, a judge might not take kindly to a showgirl trying to be a mom. A boyfriend might make the picture even worse.
She'd been thinking of potential custody battles ever since last night when out of the blue, Joey had called her at work. If only she knew what he was up to. Six months ago he'd seemed more than happy to let her move from Atlantic City to Vegas. When she'd told him she'd waive her rights to child support, he'd seemed even happier. After six months of silence, she'd dared to think she'd cut Joey out of her life, and more important, out of Dexter's life.
And now this phone call. She wondered if he'd gone through the phone book or if he finally had access to some of his trust fund money and had hired a private detective to find her. Maybe it didn't matter. What mattered was that he'd begged her for another chance. She was through giving him chances, but she didn't want trouble, either.
He hadn't mentioned Dexter, hadn't even asked how he was. That didn't surprise her. When she'd told him she was pregnant, he'd wanted her to get an abortion. Practical as that might have been, she hadn't even considered such a thing. She'd been a little surprised at her strong protective instincts, because she hadn't thought she wanted a baby, but Joey's suggestion had horrified her, and she'd said so.
She could still hear his reply: Don't make the mistake of thinking I’ll marry you, sweetheart.
With that statement, he'd killed any remaining affection she'd had for him. Don't make the mistake of thinking I'd have you, she'd thrown out before turning on her heel. The relationship had gone downhill after that. But for Dexter's sake, she'd tried to keep things halfway civil. She believed kids should know both their parents if at all possible, and she'd hoped Joey would warm to the idea of being a father.
Instead, his drinking had become worse and he'd started to scare Dexter with his loud voice and threatening gestures. She'd had to rethink her strategy.
The dressing room door opened. “On stage for ‘Fever,’”called Tim, the stage manager.
Lainie hurried out with the rest of the ensemble.
“Where's your accountant been keeping himself?” asked a blonde named Gina as they filed onto the curtained stage during the intro.
“He's not exactly mine.”
“Sure he is. He never takes his eyes off you, and he's been at that back table almost every night, except just recently. I wonder if he's sick or something.”
Lainie shrugged. Explaining that Harry was home watching Dexter would start all kinds of rumors, and she didn't need rumors right now, not with Joey popping up again. Besides, Harry might not want anybody to know he was babysitting. Although he seemed to have a crush on her, he'd never asked her out, and he'd had plenty of chances.
Harry might be shy. She certainly hoped that was the problem. Unfortunately, shyness might not be it. He could be like a lot of guys – including Joey – who thought showgirls were exciting but not the sort of woman they'd take home to Momma.
Lainie would hate to find that out about Harry, because he seemed nicer than most, but the evidence was there. She wouldn't go out with him, of course, but he didn't know that. She wouldn't have minded being asked, for the record.
“Curtain,” Tim murmured from the wings.
Lainie smiled automatically, gratefully. As always, when the curtain swished open, it swept her worries into the wings where they belonged. For the few minutes of the number nothing existed but the joy of moving to the music, feeling the energy of the audience, taking the rhythm into every cell of her body.
How she loved this! Dancing before a live audience gave her a thrill greater than sex, which was a good thing, because she wasn't getting a smidgen of sex these days, unless she counted solo sessions with her vibrator. She'd created quite a fantasy life for herself during those sessions. Recently, because there was a rebellious streak in her, she'd thrust Harry, so to speak, into the role of her fantasy lover. Wouldn't he be surprised?
* * *
Harry had a much greater appreciation of monkeys as he hugged the tree branch and scrambled for footing on the tree limb. Dexter's breath rasped in his ear and the kid had reclaimed his death grip on Harry's neck, choking off his wind.
Inch by torturous inch, Harry worked his way backward, keeping his balance by using tiny nubs where smaller branches had been pruned. He calculated the limb was about a foot in diameter and angled to the main trunk at approximately forty-five degrees. Somebody used to this kind of thing would have no problem.
Harry wasn't used to it. His palms stung where the rough bark had cut into his hands. His clothes scraped the tree, and he'd already popped a button off his shirt where a stubby twig had caught in the front placket.
Through the open window he could hear Dexter's dad banging around inside the apartment. The noise sounded close, so Harry guessed that the guy was trying to get through the bedroom door.
“Mr. Harry?” Dexter was whispering.
Harry eased down another few inches before whispering back. “What?”
“I have to go potty.”
“Okay, but I have to go really bad.”
“Do your best.” Harry tried to climb down faster. He could remember being four years old and having to hold it.
His foot connected with the crotch of the tree. Looking down, he judged it was about five feet to the ground. Fortunately grass grew under the tree. “Dexter, I'm throwing my glasses down. Watch where they go, okay?”
“You're throwing your glasses? Why?”
“Because we're going to jump.” Harry tried to sound confident.
“Jump? Are you really, really sure about this?”
“Yes.” He launched himself from the tree. When he felt the momentum pitching him backward, which would mean landing on top of Dexter, he kicked his feet out behind him so that he belly-flopped into the grass. Dexter bounced down on top, which knocked the air right out of Harry. His lungs burned as he fought to breathe. He couldn't stay here very long.
“I can see your glasses.”
“But I peed my pants.”
When she was back in the dressing room following the "Fever" number, Lainie's spirits were greatly improved. That particular dance routine never failed to make her feel alive. The only downside to feeling so alive was that she missed sex all the more. She didn’t think it was natural for a twenty-seven-year-old woman to go this many years without an actual man in her bed.
Her fantasies about Harry only proved that she was getting hard up for male sex symbols. Still, to be fair, he might have a decent body under those preppie clothes. Plus there was something solid and reassuring about Harry, and feeling safe with a man had become very sexy to her.
Jack Newman was on stage next, so she and the other dancers had fifteen minutes for their costume change. After removing her elaborate headdress, Lainie took time to sip some bottled water before unfastening the front catch of her rose-petal bra.
A sharp rap on the dressing room door prompted her to fasten it again. Some of the women didn't care who saw them naked, but Lainie was one of the more modest members of the dance troupe. When she was dancing, she threw modesty out the window, but off-stage was a different matter.
Tim stuck his head in the dressing room door. “Lainie? Somebody to see you. Says it's real important.”
Instant panic left her shaking. She prayed Joey wasn’t standing outside the dressing room door. She had trouble speaking and had to clear her throat. “Did you. . . get his name?"
“No, but he has a little kid with him who looks like you.”
She bolted from the dressing-room stool and nearly knocked Tim over as she barreled through the door. What if Joey has Dexter? Then she stared in confusion at the man holding Dexter's hand. “Harry? My goodness, you're a mess! What happened?”
Dexter ran to her, and she dropped to her knees so she could grab him in a hug.
“Daddy was banging on the door,” he said. “He went bang, bang, bang, and he wanted to break it down!” He quivered in her arms.
“Oh, my God.” Gulping air, she looked over Dexter's head at Harry. He had dirt and grass stains all down the front of his clothes. His shirt was missing a button, he had dried blood on his hands, and his glasses were smudged. More startling than all that, his thick brown hair, always combed and parted perfectly, stood out in all directions. She'd never seen his hair mussed.
“We handled it,” Harry said quietly.
Lainie clutched Dexter tighter while she held Harry’s gaze. “Did you fight him? Please tell me you didn’t –”
“Mr. Harry was just like Spider-Man, Mommy!” Dexter struggled away from her and started waving his arms as he talked. “Mr. Harry and me, we climbed out the window and down the tree! We got away in Mr. Harry's car, and I helped find his glasses, but I peed my pants, so we had to go to Target and buy me new ones.” He took a deep breath and shoved his hands into the pockets of a pair of shorts Lainie had never seen before. “They have Pooh on the pocket.”
“Very cool.” Her throat closed up. She’d put her son and an unsuspecting guy in danger. She might never forgive herself for that. “I'm so sorry,” she said, looking at Harry. “I had no idea that Joey would . . .”
She couldn't finish the sentence, because it wasn’t true. She'd had some idea, and that would haunt her forever. When Joey drank, he became unpredictable, which was why she'd decided to leave. The minute he’d called yesterday, she should have quit her job and left Vegas. She'd underestimated him, glossed over the problem, tried to pretend nothing would come of his phone call.
“His name's Joey?” Harry asked.
“Yes. Joey Benjamin. We were never married.” She felt compelled to add that last part to somehow distance herself from Joey's behavior.
“Well, he's out of control,” Harry said in a low voice.
“I think he's been drinking beers,” Dexter said. “Lots and lots of beers.”
“Probably true,” Harry said. “I haven’t called the police, but if you think we should-”
“No. I'd rather we didn't do that. Not yet.” She thought of the spin Joey could put on things. She’d told him she was leaving for Vegas, but she hadn't asked him to sign papers giving her that right legally. And she should have, but she'd thought that might put too sharp a point on it. However, without his signature on something, he could accuse her of kidnapping Dexter and taking him out of New Jersey.
She couldn't believe Joey had suddenly become a doting father. That was totally out of character. Something else was going on, and until she knew what it was, she had to be careful. Joey might have the Benjamin money behind him. She didn't want to make a wrong move that would result in losing Dexter.
“Mommy, can I stay and see the show? I could go to bed early tomorrow night.”
“I have a better idea.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “What if I take the rest of the night off and we'll do something fun, okay?” Dexter's bedtime was the least of her worries. She had to figure out the best place to hide him until she found out what Joey wanted.
“Like what could we do?”
“We'll talk about it after we get in the car.” Obviously she couldn't go home. She calculated how much money she had in her purse and how much room was left on her credit card.
“Can Mr. Harry come?”
“I'm sure Mr. Harry has other things he needs to be doing.”
Harry shifted his weight. “The fact is, I –”
“You know, I hate to ask you even one more favor, but would you please stay with Dexter for a minute while I get my things?”
“Sure. But listen, Lainie-”
“I’ll be right back.” She headed off to find Tim and located him in the wings checking out Jack Newman's routine. “Tim, something's come up.”
Tim took one look at her face and frowned. “What's the matter, kiddo?”
“I have to leave. Right now. Family emergency. I hate to duck out like this, but –”
“The kid's yours, isn't he?”
“Yes. And I –”
“Don't tell me anything more, okay? I really like you, Lainie, and if you and that kid are on the back of a milk carton, I'm sure there's a good reason for it. That aside, if the police come asking a bunch of questions, I have to tell them whatever I know. So don't give me any more info. Just take off.”
“Thanks, Tim.” She hugged him and hurried back to the dressing room. Once there she grabbed her clothes off a hook and decided to cover her outfit with her purple raincoat instead of changing. She could mail the costume back to the casino once she was out of here, but right now every second counted. If Joey ransacked the apartment, he’d find paycheck stubs. He could be on his way over.
When she came back out, she smiled in spite of herself. Harry had crouched down in front of Dexter, and Dexter had crouched down, too, in imitation. So there they were, both hunkered down face-to-face in deep conversation. Her smile faded as guilt set in. Besides Joey, Harry was the first man Dexter had spent any quality time with, and Dexter seemed to be lapping up the attention.
She would be forever grateful to Harry, both for being a friend to Dexter and saving him from Joey at great risk to himself. Unfortunately, she might never see Harry again, which meant she'd have no way of repaying him. Knowing that, she wondered what on earth she could say to him now. Words seemed so useless. She wanted to do something nice for him, but nothing could be done under the circumstances.
As she approached, she heard them talking about queens and rooks, which meant they were discussing chess. For the past two days Dexter had talked of nothing else. Now that he'd be losing his new chess partner, she'd need to buy him a chess set, learn the game, and force herself to concentrate on it. That was one way she could make up for jerking him away from someone he'd started to care for.
As her heels clicked on the cement floor, both Dexter and Harry glanced up, and as if choreographed, they both stood and faced her.
She held out her hand to Dexter. “We need to go, Dexter, but first we should thank Mr. Harry for all he's done.”
“We could make him more cookies,” Dexter said. “He's crazy about your cookies.”
Lainie blushed, and to her amazement, so did Harry. “Cookies don't seem like enough,” she said. “But I can send you some, anyway. It's the least I can do. I should –”
“Send them?” Dexter peered up at her. “Why can't he just come up and get them? When we play chess?”
She looked down into Dexter's trusting gray eyes and hated having to quash his dream of endless chess games with his new hero. “You might not be able to play chess with Mr. Harry for a while,” she said. “But I’ll buy you a chess set and you can teach me how to play. We'll play every day. How's that?”
Dexter looked uncertain. “I don't think chess is your game, Mommy.”
“I’ll make it my game.” Feeling the pressure of time ticking away, she looked at Harry. “I don't know how to thank you. You've gone above and beyond, and I’ll never forget that. I'm sorry we have to leave so quickly, but I think we'd better be on our way. I'm sure you understand.”
“Lainie, can he recognize your car?”
She blinked. Of course Joey could recognize her car. It was the same one she'd had in Jersey, and she still hadn't painted the replacement fender white to match the rest of the car. Then there was her bumper sticker that said I HOPE YOU DANCE. That car would stand out.
“He doesn't know mine,” Harry said. “I kept a lookout, and nobody followed us when we left the apartment complex. I guess your chest of drawers is sturdier than I thought.”
“Never mind. I’ll explain later. But we need to use my car to get out of here.”
“That's a good idea,” Dexter said.
“It is,” Lainie said reluctantly. Although she didn't want to pile yet another obligation on top of all she owed Harry, she had no other plan. “Thank you. I accept.”
“Yay!” Dexter gave a little hop of glee.
“Mr. Harry's only going to drop us off,” she said.
“Drop us off where?”
Lainie had no answer for that. She was making this up as she went along.
“At my mother's,” Harry said before Lainie could think of an answer to Dexter's question.
Lainie stared at him. “Oh, I don’t –”
“You have a mother?” Dexter looked entranced by the idea.
“Alive, well, and living about twenty minutes away in Henderson. So let's go.”
Lainie's head spun. “You don't have to call her first?”
“I can give her a call on my cell while we're driving. It'lI be fine. Joey won't find you there and you'll have time to catch your breath and decide what to do.”
“Okay.” Lainie vowed she'd stay at Harry's mother's house for an hour, tops. A person could figure out a lot in an hour. Yet she had to admit her problems were bigger than she'd thought. She might be able to hide out in a motel for a while, but no way could she afford another car. Maybe she could pull off a leasing arrangement, though. Holding Dexter's hand, she started toward the stage door leading to the rear parking lot.
“You should go out the front way,” Harry said. “I’ll bring the car around.”
She paused, her brain still buzzing from the shock of what she had to do. “The front?”
“If Joey shows up here, he'd come to the back looking for your car. He'd assume you'd leave that way.”
“You're right.” She wasn't thinking straight at all, and she had to think straight. Dexter's future might depend on it. Thank goodness Harry was relatively calm. If it took her years, she'd figure out some way to make it up to him for all the trouble she was causing.
“Do you remember what I drive?” Harry asked.
“I do!” Dexter looked happier by the minute. “It's black, and the seats are made out of leather, which is from dead cows, you know. They're old and dead before they take off the skin. Very old and very dead. Leather's okay to sit on if you've peed your pants.”
* * *
As Harry stepped onto the asphalt heading for his Lexus, he realized he was doing something he never did. He was winging it. That wasn't his normal mode of operation. And here's where winging it had stuck him – taking Lainie, who was still wearing his favorite dance costume under her raincoat, over to Rona's house, where the two women would probably bond.
Anyway, bonding was what he'd come to expect from showgirls. Rona had insisted on buying a condo in Henderson's Emerald Lakes development because all her retired showgirl friends were buying there. They'd formed a five-member pack, calling themselves Temptresses in Temporary Suspension, or TITS for short. Knowing those women, Harry figured the acronym had come first and they'd stayed up nights drinking margaritas until they found words to fit.
So Lainie and Rona would bond, and then Rona would get all mushy over Dexter and start making broad hints about the grandchildren she might never live to see. Oh, yes. Winging was not his style, and this was why. In no time he'd created chaos.
But he couldn't let Lainie try to escape in her black-fendered car with its I HOPE YOU DANCE bumper sticker, not after listening to the fury in her ex-boyfriend's voice while he banged on her door. Maybe she'd kidnapped Dexter and brought him to Vegas. Maybe Harry was aiding and abetting a criminal. Well, some things were worth breaking the law over.
A car cruised by him on the way out of the parking lot. Harry glanced casually at the driver and discovered it was a woman, one of the cleaning crew. He waved and continued toward his car. He was parked six spaces away from Lainie's vehicle. Without looking directly at it, he let his gaze wander around the area. He didn’t want to appear as if he might be surveying the lot, in case Joey happened to be there watching for anything suspicious.
A blond guy climbed out of a gold late-model sedan. Could easily be a rental. Harry's heart hammered as the guy approached, a friendly smile on his face. He was about Harry's height of six-three, but he was built like a linebacker, while Harry was built like . . . an accountant.
“Evening,” the guy said, looking at Harry’s grimy clothes.
“Evening.” Harry's instincts went on alert. If this was Joey, and he'd figured out that Dexter and his babysitter had gone out the window, then Harry’s grass-stained clothes could be very incriminating.
“You work here?”
“I do. Groundskeeper.”
“Ah. The grounds must have put up a bit of a fight today.”
Harry laughed, as if Joey had made a great joke. “I’ll tell my wife that. Maybe she'll forgive me for being so dumb as to try trimming the palm trees in the entry with an extension ladder instead of calling in the cherry picker.” Harry held out both arms. “As you can see, the ladder fell.”
“Don't casino employees wear uniforms when they do that kind of stuff?”
“That's the other reason I’ll catch hell from the little woman. I was off duty, doing a little gambling, and one of the supervisors came over and started in about the palm trees. So I told him I'd take care of it. I'd had a couple of beers, so I thought I could take care of it, if you know what I mean.”
The blond guy nodded. “Been there, done that.”
“I mean it, man. My wife is going to kill me for ruining these clothes. They were a birthday present. Well, better go find my car. I never can remember where I've parked the damned thing.” Harry started off across the lot, away from his Lexus.
“Good luck,” the blond guy shouted after him. “Say, do you happen to know a dancer named Lainie Terrell?”
Harry nearly passed out. So it was Joey. Although he wanted to run, he made himself pause and scratch his head. “Is she a redhead?”
“Nope. At least not last I knew.”
“Then I guess I don't know her. I'm a married man, you know. I'm not allowed to check out the dancers.”
“Sure you are. What your wife doesn't know won't hurt her.”
“Yeah, but she knows everything. Well, see ya.”
“Right.” Joey turned and started toward the back door.
Harry kept walking in the opposite direction, but he located his electronic key in his pocket. Once he heard Joey knock and the door open, he turned and sprinted toward the Lexus. When the lock popped open he threw himself inside only to discover it was hard to start a car when you were shaking. He forced himself to slow down and managed to get the engine going. With a moan of relief, he yanked the car into reverse, backed out with a squeal of rubber, shifted again and floored the gas pedal.
Cars honked as he ploughed his way into heavy traffic. A quick right, and he pulled under the casino’s bright portico where Lainie and Dexter stood waiting. They hopped in the back seat.
“Duck down, both of you.”
They obeyed, while Harry maneuvered past a white stretch limo and scanned the portico for Joey.
“Come here, Dexter, and let me buckle you in,” Lainie murmured.
“Why are we hiding?” Dexter asked. “Is Daddy trying to find us?”
“I'm sure he is,” Lainie said.
As Harry pulled into traffic, still with no sign of Joey, he sighed in relief. No point in telling Lainie that Joey was so close. “Okay, I think it’s safe to sit up now.”
“Daddy scares me,” Dexter said. “He roars like a dragon. Why does he do that?”
Harry waited for Lainie's answer, wondering if she’d smear Joey's name.
“I think it’s because nobody taught him that he shouldn't,” Lainie said.
“You mean like his mommy? She didn’t teach him?”
“His mommy or his daddy. In any case, he missed out on some lessons when he was growing up.”
Harry's admiration for Lainie soared. She was putting the best light she could on a bad situation, for Dexter's sake.
“Well, somebody should tell him to stop,” Dexter said. “'Cause nobody will play with you if you act like that. Mr. Harry, can we listen to the radio, like we did before?”
“Sure.” Harry flicked on the radio, which was on the station Dexter had picked after much changing of channels on the way to the casino. Instead of music, Dexter had settled on an all-talk-show station. Twenty minutes ago the topic had been training your pet. Harry hoped it still was.
“. . . dealing with erectile dysfunction. Most men respond to direct stimulation of thc pe –” Harry hit the button and got country music. “I think we need some tunes! Right, Lainie?”
“Tunes are a great idea!” She sounded as fake and jolly as he did. “Let's sing along. Come on, Dexter. You know this one. We –”
“What's 'erectile dysfunction,' Mommy?”
Harry choked. The kid had even pronounced it correctly.
In the back seat, Lainie cleared her throat. “Well . . . um, it's not something you have to worry about, Dexter. You know, I really like these new shorts Mr. Harry bought you.”
“Me, too. Why don't I have to worry about erectile dysfunction? They said 'most men,' and I'm going to be a man when I grow up, right?”
“Right. But –”
“My mother has a dog,” Harry blurted out. It was the first thing he could think of.
“A dog?” Dexter's voice rang with excitement. “What kind of dog?”
“A cute little guy named Fred. He loves to lick your face.”
Dexter giggled. “I like it when dogs lick my face. It tickles. Mommy, can I play with Fred when we get to Mr. Harry's mommy's house?”
“If you're very gentle,” Lainie said. “Fred might not be used to children.”
“Fred loves everybody.” Harry was very pleased with himself for coming up with a subject to distract Dexter. “He has a little rubber ball, and he'd be so happy if you'd roll it across the floor for him.”
“I can do that. I would love to do that. But I still want to know . . . what's erectile dysfunction?”
“Hey, we're here!” Harry pulled up in front of his mother's two-story condo and noticed that Leo's Jaguar sat in the driveway, its pearl finish gleaming in the light from the street lamp. Oops. Apparently this was Leo’s night to pay Rona a visit. Harry had meant to call on his cell, but he'd been too busy getting away from Joey and dealing with Dexter's preoccupation with erectile dysfunction.
“The downstairs looks kind of dark,” Lainie said. “I hope she isn't in bed already.”
Harry figured that was exactly where Rona was, but not alone. “Oh, she likes to save on electricity. But let me give her a quick call, so we don't scare her when we ring the doorbell.”
“Harry, I think maybe we’d better –”
“No problem, no problem. I’ll just call her,” Harry said as he punched in the number.
His mother answered, letting him know she'd checked her caller ID when she called him by name. “Hello, Harry,” she said in her “This had better be important' tone.
“Hi, Mom! Hey, listen, I hate to bother you, but –”
“Then maybe you'd like to call back tomorrow? I'm, shall we say, somewhat indisposed at the moment.”
“You do? How could you know that?”
“I'm in your driveway.”
“Oh, for pity's sake, Harry. You're calling from the driveway? Didn't I teach you better manners than that?”
“Yes, you did. But this situation came up all of a sudden, and. . . well, I'm here with Lainie Terrell, one of the dancers at the Nirvana, and –”
“Say no more. We'll be down in two minutes.”
“Thanks, Mom, but there's something else you need to know. She –”
“Rona?” Leo said in the background. “Is Harry in some kind of trouble?”
Harry's mother didn't bother to cover the mouthpiece, which meant that she wanted Harry to hear her. “We can only hope so, Leo. He's there with a showgirl, which is a good sign. And if my luck is running, he's knocked her up.”