(unedited and subject to small changes) ©jmblake
You either love Las Vegas, or you don’t.
Love, as in deep in your soul, craves all-you-can-eat buffets, lives for the unrelenting sun, jumps up to join drunk off their asses tourists in spontaneous sidewalk dance challenges, and enjoys super tight traffic jams—love.
You hate it. Once was enough for you. Your friends threw up all weekend, you lost your rent money in a dodgy casino, got groped in the club, and that buffet gave you food poisoning. Excessive cigarette smoke permanently damaged your voice, and an Elvis impersonator stole your cell phone. You never want to come back to this overbaked hell hole again.
Me? I’m in the middle.
There are things I like about Vegas, like the shopping, people watching, and the pool scene. Give me an air-conditioned mall and a hot cabana boy, and I’m all set.
As for the things I hate—well, some of the items on that list have happened to me.
So when my best friend, Riley (who incidentally looooooves Vegas), invited me to tag along to a convention she was attending, I hesitated —big time.
“Come on, Vivi! Who turns down an all-expense-paid trip to Vegas? It’s VEGAS, baby.” She did some sort of weird hair flip and finger snap. “We won’t do anything crazy, I promise.”
Sure we won’t. I think we are still banned from that one place.
“Riley…” my voice sounded pitiful, a mix of horror and absolute terror. “The last time you said that I wound up in a cast for a month.” I held up my arm and twisted it at an odd angle. “And you still have that scar on your stomach.”
“Vivi, c’monnnnn,” she moaned in exasperation. “You used to be so much more adventurous than this!” Her pretty face roils in exasperation.
“Yeah, and look at the trouble it got me into. My mom still side-eyes me whenever I go near a computer. I nearly fucked everything up, Riles.”
“So maybe you got into some shit once or twice. We are young; we should be fucking things up.” She shrugs in that adorable/annoying way that normally gets her out of everything.
“First of all, Riley Mansour, we ain’t that young. And it’s not once or twice, either. It’s every freakin’ time we go anywhere, and you know it.”
“It’s not every time…” She suddenly finds my recycled countertops fascinating.
“Yes, it is.”
“We had a lovely time when we went to Costa Rica.”
“We got on the wrong bus because you thought the driver was cute, and I got bit by that weird spider. My ass swelled up, and I could only sit sideways for a month.”
“Well, ok, I forgot about that. New York was a grand adventure, though.”
“Riley, we got stuck on the subway for six hours, and I had to pee into a cup in front of thirty-five strangers. And that weird man kept the cup.”
“Oh. Yes, there was that. What about Los A….”
“Don’t you even think about bringing up Los Angeles. Or New Orleans. Or Milan.” Her mouth clamped into a thin line and she mean-mugged me. That look stopped affecting me years ago.
I’ve been friends with Riley since the third grade. We met when her family moved to Seattle from Miami in the middle of the school year. Her father is a big-time doctor who took over a high-profile spot at Virginia-Mason and had to report immediately. Her mom wanted the kids to finish the school year, but Dr. Mansour wanted his family with him, regardless. So Riley and her two brothers barreled into our elementary school like rocks in an avalanche.
They were wild—all of them.
On Riley’s first day, she exploded into the classroom; a wild dervish of tangled blonde braids, gleaming white teeth, and scraped-up knees. She plopped into the seat next to me, holding out a dirty hand. “Hi, I’m Riley Starla Mansour. I’m pleased to meet you.” I tentatively held out my hand, and she pumped twice with a crooked smile. “I’m Vivienne.”
“Cool. Let’s be best friends, ok? I like your hair. There’s a lot of it. And your shirt is cool, too.” She scooted her chair a little closer and tugged on my sleeve. “Vivienne is a big name. You got a nickname or something?”
“Well, my dad calls me Vivi, though my mom hates it.” I stared at her pierced ears and rubbed on my naked lobes. My mom was very old school in many ways; pierced ears were akin to the devil to her.
“Really? Well, I like it. Imma call you Vivi from now on. Where are we sitting at lunch?” She prattled on and asked me a million questions, even after our teacher Mrs. Sullivan shushed us a dozen times. She strutted straight over to the popular kids’ table at lunch and held court like she’d been doing it for years. She and her brothers were all one year apart, so they were all in the same school for the time being. They sat with us too, both loud and funny, with a large swatch of mischievous. They started a spitball fight twenty minutes into the period, and I couldn’t help but scream in horror and delight along with everyone else, which is why I got pulled into detention with the Mansour kids two hours later. It wasn’t the first or last time Riley and I got into trouble together.
“I swear to God, Riles, you better not pull me into any shit this weekend. I have a piece that I need to finish and sketches due to the university in a week.” I gave her my sternest look, which she brushed off with an eye roll and grin. I’m curled up on the couch, waiting for her to finish the margaritas for our weekly Netflix night.
“Yeah, yeah, the artist must work and all that shit,” she mocks with a terrible British accent. “It’ll do you good to get out of that garage for a little bit. Your skin is starting to look like a nasty shade of dead.” She prances over to the couch and scoots herself into an opposite spot, our feet touching in the middle. She hands me my drink, complete with a swirly straw.
I take a deep sip, the sweet burn sliding down my throat. “I am not that pale, fool. And I get out all of the time.”
I don’t, but whatever.
Riley snorted so hard that she almost choked. “No, you don’t. I don’t know what I will do when you have your next showing. I’ll have to find a new best friend for a few months.”
It was my turn to snort. “Well, maybe when we’re in Vegas, you can start interviewing. Prostitution is legal there, isn’t it?” Her loud screech makes me laugh, and I duck the pillow thrown at me. “It’ll be fun, Viv. Innocent fun. I’ll wow them at the convention, and you can park your pasty ass at the spa: a little dinner, a bit of the pool. Then we come back home, and life goes back to normal. No reason to worry,” she winks at me and grabs the remote. I glared at her in suspicion, but she won’t meet my eyes.
I should’ve known better.
There was no way Riley Starla Mansour would have a tame time. Ever.
Sure the first day was great.
Riley is a medical rep who specializes in non-invasive heart surgery equipment. She is unsurprisingly the top producer in her company, and it’s normal for her to attend conventions where she woos both the public and private sectors. She had meeting after meeting, including a late dinner with a military representative. Most of the day, I was on my own, so I took my sketch pad and computer down to the grotto and got some of my work done. I soaked up some SPF one thousand sun, and when the pool got a little rowdy, I ordered room service up to our suite. Riley texted that she was meeting up with some other reps for a few drinks, and I fell asleep early on those high-thread-count sheets.
I woke up the following day, and she was already gone; day two of the convention is when the high-profile deals are made. So I went to the spa, where the masseuse clucked her teeth at the state of my back muscles. She worked out every kink and knot, and I won’t deny that I fell asleep drooling. Riles texted me while I was getting dressed, telling me where to meet her for a late dinner. I ignored her plea to wear something “steamy” and slid on my favorite black jumpsuit. The restaurant was in a hotel further down the strip, so I hailed a rideshare, not sure I could make it in my high heels that far. The driver was chatty, and we both laughed at a group of bridesmaids in thongs running across the boulevard. I thanked him for the ride and let Riley know I had arrived. She messaged back quickly to meet her at the bar, and I narrowed my eyes in thought. I crept into the restaurant, and sure enough, Riley was at the bar, surrounded by about ten guys. Judging by their suits, they must be convention attendees too. I sigh deep in my soul and creep forward. Two of the guys turn as I walk up, and both do a double-take.
“Riley, you didn’t tell us you had a beautiful sister.” I give the biggest internal eye roll.
I can’t count the number of times that people have said that. It’s a testament to how unobservant humans are—Riley and I look nothing alike. She’s tall and willowy- in heels, she is an absolute killer. Her skin has a natural tan that never fades, and her sparkling eyes are a rich hazel color.
I’m about seven inches shorter, curvier, and have blue eyes.
She is blonde by birth—I’m blonde by bottle.
Her chin is elegant and round—I have the dreaded butt chin, the middle dented with a giant dimple.
And yet people insist that we are related.
I slither through the crowd and plant myself next to her, signaling the bartender desperately. I’m not good in situations like this—and I’m really not good at what I can tell is coming next.
“So…,” One of the suits maneuvers his way next to my side with a smirk. “What can I get you to drink?”
He’s not a bad-looking guy in a cookie-cutter type of way, all tight pique polo and custom suit jacket. The overconfident film over his eyes, however, sets my teeth on edge. “Nothing, thank you. I’m just going to have water.”
The bartender overhears me and slides a sweating glass a few inches from my elbow. Cookie-Suit smiles wider and leans in closer. “Sweet. I love a girl who can pace herself. We might have a long night ahead of us.” His breath tells me that he is definitely not pacing himself. I fight the grimace I can feel growing and crowd closer to Riley. She turns her head and sees that I am imitating a third set of limbs, making a deft move that effectively cuts me off from everyone else while still making me part of the group.
“Guys, this is my best friend, Vivi. Vivi, these are the guys.” She gestures her hands at them dismissively while I wave awkwardly. The whole lot of them are staring at us like juicy seals surrounded by starving killer whales, and I gulp loudly. Riley snickers softly and grabs my hand. “Thanks for the drinks, guys. We have reservations to make.” They all groan in disappointment, but she blows them kisses and sashays away, pulling me along like a downed kite.
“You can breathe now, weirdo. They weren’t going to bite you, you know.” She shakes her head in amusement as we walk through the casino to a swanky place on a mezzanine. The maitre’d shows us to our table, pushing our chairs and draping napkins over our laps.
“I know it, but I still hate that shit. I’m no good at that stuff, Riles. I never know what to say. I’m not clever like you are.” I sip the wine slid in front of me and shrug.
“Vivi, you are the smartest, most talented woman I know. You have every man that meets you willing to eat out of the palm of your hand, and yet your instinct is to throw the food at them and run. I’ll never understand it.” She sits back in her chair, slim arms crossed over her chest in judgmental affection.
“It’s not every man, fool. And I wouldn’t run if I thought they were interested in me as a person and not a fuck doll. That guy back there had my bra size figured out in ten seconds flat. I felt like a cheap piece of meat. And his eyes weren’t right.” I shudder as she throws her hands up in exasperation.
“Vivi, what do you expect? You are a stupidly gorgeous woman with a banging body. No amount of baggy material can hide it, despite what you think. Any red-blooded man that spots you will want to know your bra size. And how are they going to get to know you if you won’t talk to them? And don’t get me started on the eye thing….” She ticks off her points by finger and ends with a finger snap.
“Have I ever been wrong about the eye thing?” I fling back. “Craig the psycho mailman, Rodney the Rat, that guy from Colombia City….” I tick off my own list as she bursts out laughing.
Ever since I was little, I have this weird ability to read people’s eyes. Not in a tarot card, tea leaves type of way, but a remarkable instinct. I can meet someone for the first time and tell if I can trust them or not, if they are good people, or if there is something dark inside of them. My dad always said that it was the artist in me, a particular way of dissecting a face. Regardless, I never ignore the feelings I get—and ninety percent of the time, neither does Riley, though she loves to tease me.
“All I’m saying is that you’ve got to chop down those giant redwoods surrounding your vagina at some point. That poor girl is probably oxygen deprived.” Her voice carries over to the table next to us, luckily filled with women, who snicker loudly. I hiss at her and throw my napkin at her face.“Will you shut up? They probably think you mean my pubic hair, you ass.”
She giggles uncontrollably, and I eventually join in. The girls at the following table introduce themselves; soon enough, Riley and I have been invited to new a club with them. They slip us two VIP passes, which Riley squeals at —me not so much—and promises to see them later. I open my mouth to object and am glared right out of my shoes.
“Don’t even think about it. We are going.” Dammit.
God, I hate Vegas.
I sip my club soda and glare at the dance floor for the thousandth time.
After an excellent dinner (Riley knows me well enough to know that filling my belly is the way to my surrender), we rushed back to the hotel so that Riles could change out of her black business suit. She tried to get me to change into some scandalously small piece of fabric masquerading as a dress, but she gave up once my eye started twitching. My tried and true jumpsuit will be just fine, thank you. Somehow Riley yanked and pulled a piece of red elastic into an outfit (yes, I made her do the bend-over test. Besties and all that) and slipped on a pair of matching stilettos. Her naturally straight blonde hair was slick and shiny, delicate lips painted like a siren. My one concession to her pleading was a quick dab of mascara and clear gloss, though she grumbled again about how pale I was. Once we hit the hotel lobby, a love-struck concierge hustled over, offering us the use of the VIP car service. Riley flicked a lock of hair over her shoulder with a giant smile and thanked the poor guy with a syrupy sweet voice. I rolled my eyes until I could see back to Seattle, shaking my head at the wink she gave me.
I’m not falling for it this time, sista.
The new club is at the north end of the Strip, where there are surprisingly large tracts of open land among the older, dustier hotels. The limo driver drops us off in front of a sleek white building where sunburned tourists are mixed with scantily clad club-goers, and even a few ‘just married’ couples. A topless male valet hands Riley out with a flourish and me with slightly less enthusiasm. There is a prominent metal figure in the center of the driveway, and before I can examine it further, Riley drags me inside.
“We are here to have fun, Vivi. If I let you near that statue, you’ll be here until the morning.” She keeps pulling at me until we reach a dark, pulsing hallway, lights already flashing from a distance. She hands over our gifted passes, and a shadowy bouncer directs us to another hallway where another bouncer awaits. He examines our passes with a flashlight while demanding our identification. He alternates the light between the cards and our faces before slipping glow-in-the-dark bracelets tightly onto our wrists.
“Sisters?” He raises a brow at us- Riley grinning like a loon and me shaking my head in disgust.
“Gee, what gave it away?” Riley snorts at my sweetly sarcastic response, though the guy looks confused. I stamp past him, with Riley on my heels.
“I’m sure in the dark we look alike, Viv,” she shouts above the music. The whole floor is packed, with the oversize round bar dominating the space. Several booths are scattered, strategically placed so that while there is an illusion of privacy, you can still see other people. The DJ is suspended by a cabled stage directly over the balcony, red neon lights strobing with every movement he makes. There are dozens and dozens of bodies writhing and squirming, some on beat, some not.
“This place is hell on earth.”
“What was that, Vivi?” Riley is already jiggling inside her shoes, hips twitching like an electric shock coursing through her system. The “Toxic Pony” remix starts blasting through the speakers, and she looks at me pleadingly. I sigh deep in my soul and hold up my hand for her clutch. She squeals and practically throws it at me as she grinds her way to the dance floor. She glances back briefly, and I point at the bar while she nods happily. I find an empty seat and ask the central casting bartender for a club soda.
That was two hours ago.
Since then, Riley has made three brief appearances, one to slam back a series of shots with two guys, another to secrete her phone on her person, and another to take a sip of water. In between, I have had to fend off a whole of host men who either thought I needed company or thought I could give them an in with my best friend, who is the life of the party.
Two of the guys were pretty decent, though, not batting a lash when I solemnly explained that I was allergic to liquids and the containers they came in. The third and fourth were comically opposite; one with shifty beady eyes and a wiry, nervous body. His hair was double-gelled, flakes flying off with every gesture of his head. I watched as one landed on the rim of my glass and barely held back my gasp of horror. I shook my head wildly and scooted my chair back as far as possible without toppling over.
“Say you wouldn’t wanna put in a word with your friend, would ya?” He hiccups, HICCUPS- ambling off before I can even answer him.
I sigh some more.
The bartender babysits me with sympathy and doesn’t blink when I ask him for a pen and a stack of napkins. I stare at him hard for a few seconds before quickly sketching out a drawing of him. I hand it to him, and he grins in delight. I smile slightly as he tapes it to the wall by the cash register. He slides me another club soda, and I spend another hour plucking out faces and bodies to draw.
Guy Four is giant all over; huge head, thick neck, big feet. Everything. As his beefy arms are straining against his shirt, he does the worst fist pump dance I have ever seen, and I must have said it out loud because he leans in close and whispers, “You wanna see where else I’m huge?”
I can feel my lips quivering and really try to hold it in but fail. A honking laugh pops out of my throat and won’t stop coming. His face turns murderous for a moment before he scrapes me with a look that should shoot me into the sun. I’m still snickering as he stalks away, and I quickly draw him with his square face in a pout. I show it to the bartender, who cracks up and tapes that one to the wall, too. I glance to my right and see a guy smiling at me—in that way. You know which way. The one that tells you that this guy is about to lay the creepiest vibe on you imaginable; all Ken doll harmless, while the hair on your arms stands up in warning.
“Your pretty talented and pretty, sweetie.” (SWEETIE??) “Think you could make one for me?” I scowl at him while an evil smile stretches across my face. The pen moves quickly over the napkin before I toss the finished product to him. His smarmy face creases in disgust before he glares at me coldly. He stands up slowly before crumbling the napkin and throwing it to the floor.
“Bitch,” he spits out before taking one last look at my face. I raise my eyebrows in question as he follows in Guy Fours’ direction. My friend, the bartender (his name is Thorin. I asked him if his parents were Lord Of The Rings fans, and he just smiled at me mysteriously,) whisked away my empty glass, replacing it with a wink. I’m starting to get hungry, wondering how bad it would be if I got pizza service delivered to the bar, when I see a movement out of the corner of my eye. A strong, tanned hand smoothes the crumpled napkin, a deep rich chuckle dancing across my skin.
“I can’t decide what’s worse— that you made him a worm with a widow’s peak or that you made him a worm with horns and a widow’s peak.” There’s an underlying teasing note to the voice, a hint of familiarity. I keep my eyes on my phone, but my mouth ticks a little in satisfaction.
“Probably the teeth. I made sure to add that chipped fang he’s got in the front,” I sip my fizzy water.
A loud laugh pops over the music, slightly hoarse but rich and natural. Against my better judgment, I take a peek and freeze in my seat.
So here’s the thing. Remember how I’m not good with men? Oh, I have male friends and colleagues, and I’m super close with Riley’s brothers, but actual hit-on-you men?
The man sitting to my side is everything I panic over. He’s tall—even sitting, he towers over me. His dark hair is thick and straight, cut short on the sides but long enough to tug on. His face—Jesus— his face is a chiseled combination of complex masculinity, and boyish charm—with plenty of confidence sprinkled in. His eyes are liquid dark with abundant, plush eyelashes and brows, nose straight. His lips are thin yet shapely, and they dance in amusement as I pick him apart. I’m sure my mouth is open like a flopping carp. I quickly take in the rest, a fitted jacket over a slim t-shirt, matching pants clinging to his muscular thighs. I gulp loudly and face forward again. There is no way a man this beautiful isn’t either taken or up to no good.
“Maybe I can get you to autograph this? I’m sure it’ll be worth something someday.” He slightly waves the white inked paper at me, “And since you never work in print, I can claim exclusivity.”
My head snaps around, and I stare at him. “What do you mean I never work in print?”
His filthy gorgeous head tilts, and his smile spreads; damn, his teeth are perfect too. “You are V. Woods, aren’t you? I was at your last showing in New York. And I would never forget a face like yours.”
My whole head flames up like a Roman candle, though I try to brush it off. “Um, yes?”
His eyes crinkle—dammit he has the crinkle thing—and he rests his head on a fist. “Sorry if I just made this awkward. I’m just a huge fan of your work, and I’m just shocked you manage to fly under the radar the way that you do. You didn’t even have a headshot on your program.”
“Yeah, I don’t go to the showings for publicity; I just like to hear what people think. There are few enough women metal sculptors as it is—and I want my work to speak for itself. I’m almost never recognized anywhere.”
He nods solemnly, though his eyes are aggressively flitting across my face. “I understand that. I only figured out who you were when two critics from the NYT discussed a piece, and you looked murderously at one of them. Only the artist would look at someone like that,” he chuckled. “I asked the curator if it was you, and he confirmed. You disappeared before I could meet you, and now here you are. Right in my clutches.”
I remember those critics too. One of them asked me to get him a drink and then to meet me in the men’s room. Grrrrrrr. We chat for a bit about some of my past work and I tell him briefly about my current commission. He’s funny as well as a heartbreaker. Ugh. Lethal combination.
After a few minutes, my phone vibrates insistently on the counter, and I swipe it open absently.
Riley: WHO IS THAT????
Riley: Whatever he wants u to do—DO IT. ALL OF IT!!!!
Riley: OMG that body! Please tell me you aren’t snarling at him???
Riley: VIVI????? ANSWER ME!
I look toward the dance floor and see Riley gesturing at me like a crazy person. I snicker and type back:
Vivi: He knows who I am. We are just chatting
Riley: Girlllll. Chatting would be the last thing on my mind. And he is looking at you like you are a Snickers that satisfies.
I snort and glance at him. He is watching me intently; for once, I’m not creeped out.
“Friend?” He nods at Riley.
Ohhhhh points, points, points he gets for not asking if she is my sister. “Best friend. She’s here for a conference, and I tagged along, though I have weird feelings about Vegas.”
“Sounds like a story I’d love to hear. Do you want to get out of here? I promise I’m harmless.” His smile says he’s full of crap, but I grin anyway.
“I don’t even know your name. And we try not to leave each other if the other has been drinking,” I shrug apologetically.
“I understand. My name is Trace, by the way. Trace Scanlan. I’m six foot two and weigh two hundred and ten pounds. I’m thirty-one years old, single, and my teeth are all my own. I work for a tech firm and split my time between the Bay and Seattle. I’m an only child, and I’m allergic to pineapple. I already know that you are an outstanding artist, and your first name starts with a V, hopefully not Veronica, as that was the first girl who broke my heart.” His dark brows shoot up in expectation, waiting.
“What if I say that it is Veronica?” I tease him gently with a grin.
“That’s my favorite name in the whole world.”
I burst out laughing and shook my head. I grab my phone again and type.
Vivi: He wants me to leave with him, and shit do I want to.
Riley: WHAT? If you don’t leave right now, I will KILL YOU.
Vivi: Sober sister, remember?
Riley: I will leave right now. MEN LIKE THAT DO NOT EXIST.
Riley: I am not even drunk. And I’m taking the limo. I’ll be fine.
Riley: Bye! Use condoms!
I feel a whirl of wind and see the fleeing back of my best friend as she waves her clutch over her head in triumph. Trace cracks up next to me; his smile widens in victory.
“Ready….?” He waits with his hand out for mine.
“Vivi. My name is Vivi.”
Vivienne Micheline Duplantier to be precise.
The only child of Denis Duplantier and Suzanne Duplantier neé Barban.
She was raised in Seattle and only left when she attended RISD, while her best friend, Riley Starla Mansour, attended Brown University a mile away. Both girls went home after graduation, briefly moving into the same condo building.
Up-and-coming metal sculptor, very much growing in demand as her pieces become more prominent. Last year she netted over a quarter of a million dollars in sales and the promise of more to come with her latest project.
I spotted her at once, though I would have noticed her immediately without the benefit of studying her file. While Riley is a bright flashing firecracker—all long limbs and slim figure—Vivienne is a slow-burning stick of dynamite. Though I was expecting it, she’s petite with a bundle of abundant curves and hollows. She’s probably one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, objectively. Her eyes are an azure blue, tinted with the tiniest hint of green, high intense cheekbones, and that mouth.
A man could go insane dreaming of ways to use those plump, deep pink lips. Her skin is luminous and clear, though a trifle pale, and the unprofessional part of me wants to nibble on that dimpled chin.
I watched her from only two seats away, her determination to stay in a self-imposed bubble working in my favor. A few of the assholes who approached her were indeed pigs- one even attempting to slip something in her drink. The others were of my doing—wanting her to be so repulsed that my smooth introduction would go over like a warm blanket. My men kept her friend occupied on the floor, though I knew enough about their relationship to know that Miss Mansour would favor my pursuit.
I’ve been ordered to use ‘any means necessary’ to get her to do what we desperately need from her. My boss told me that while dropping pictures of her one by one on the table. Some were regular action shots, though the last few were more intimate and candid.
I got the hint.
My name is Trace. But everything else is a dark, conniving lie. In my line of work, meeting people on a lie is an everyday occurrence. They roll off my tongue like slick, oily rain that permeates everything they touch. I memorized every inch and word of her file, studying it until I came up with the perfect plan. The rest was a given, of course. I’m always chosen for assignments like this because of my looks. I’ve weaponized them enough in the past, and little Miss Vivienne is no less susceptible.
I could see she was attracted to me as expected and maybe even flustered by the attention. Her sweet uncertainty tweaked the guilt in my gut, but I buried it deep down and pushed on. I had about twenty tricks up my sleeve, but as expected, Miss Mansour swooped in and helped make her decision. Her vivid eyes searched mine for assurance, and I ensured that mine bled absolute sincerity. She took my hand with a giant smile, and I tightened my grip around her slim fingers, murmuring about how much I wanted to get to know her and how much she could trust me.
Even if it isn’t true.
Even though I already know everything about her.
Even though I’m about to ruin her life.
** Y’ALL!! I cannot wait for you to get into this! Just a little while longer!!!