Sin on the Strip
Women of Vegas, Book 1
September 2015
Lyrical Press Books

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What happens in Las Vegas always burns bright, especially after hours. In this sizzling new series, the city's 24/7 glitz hides one woman's darkest nightmares—and one investigator's seductive secrets...

Control is everything to gorgeous Maggie Anderson. Her exclusive club gives abused and troubled women a refuge from Vegas's merciless streets—and helps her reclaim her shattered sense of freedom. But now someone is brutally murdering those she fights so hard to save. And baring her deepest fears to the one man who insists on protecting her could be the one move she won't survive…

Elite private investigator Christian Beck knows this particular serial killer's MO—and his own wrenching failure to find him—all too well. But staying two steps ahead of Maggie's determination to uncover the truth pushes his well-honed skills past the limit—and ignites his most naked instincts. Now every clue is a lie, each irresistible desire a lethal trap. And the closer he and Maggie get, their shattering secrets will either save them—or torch their lives to glittering ash…

Excerpt from Sin on the Strip


C
hapter One

Maggie Anderson had dealt with her share of harrowing experiences since moving to Vegas. Sin City’s seedier reputation had challenged her more times than she cared to remember—and wished for all that was holy she could forget. But this was the worst. For once in his sanctimonious life had her father been right? Was she ill equipped to help these women?

After five minutes of stalling in her car, staring at the bland stucco façade, she gave up searching for composure and made her way up the concrete path to the Clark County Coroner’s office. Twice she attempted to open the heavy tinted glass door, but it won out over her nerves. Clenching her teeth, she smacked the handicap pad. A knot lodged in her throat at the thought of identifying Heather’s body, of coming face-to-face with her failure to protect one of her girls. Of a broken promise.

As she walked through the doors, she clutched her purse with trembling hands, refusing to let even the front security guard see them shake. She gave him her name and the purpose of the visit.

"Please wait," he politely instructed and made a phone call.

The lobby looked like any other county office, clean and sparse, but knowing what lay inside gave the building an air of malice. Some might think the sensation ridiculous, but this wasn’t like paying your respects at a funeral home or cemetery. Here, family didn’t come for a loving farewell or an end-of-life rite of passage. This building demanded answers from death, even if you weren’t ready to hear them, never mind wishing you never had to ask the questions.

Maggie flinched as the elevator doors sprang apart. She blinked, surprised and relieved to see her friend. "Horace? You shaved your head."

Lieutenant Cooper ran a hand over his clean scalp. "You were right," he said, a sheepish grin taking ten years off his fifty. "A cop should be scary."

She hadn’t meant to twist the truth, but she hadn’t been able to think of a delicate way to get the man, who had come to mean so much to her, to lose the comb-over. "You look good," she offered, managing a smile.

"My wife sends her thanks.... She also sends her condolences."

Maggie nodded. "Thank you."

"I’m sorry too," he said. "And I’m real sorry I couldn’t give you the news in person."

Midnight phone calls were never good, and from the tone in Horace’s voice last night, she’d braced herself for the worst. In the drawn out seconds between "Maggie, I’m sorry" and "there’s been a murder", she must have swallowed her heart ten times over. Prepared as she was, she was still horrified when the Lieutenant’s sentence ended.

"Just tell me you’re going to catch who did this."

"We’re working on it," he assured her. "We’ll get the asshole."

She prayed he was right. Keeping the women, who worked for her at the club away from trouble, and trouble away from them, wasn’t easy. The street was an eager villain, only too happy to end the lives of anyone simply trying to survive. Last night, Maggie had discovered that diligence wasn’t enough. She wanted to scream. Heather didn’t deserve this.

"I don’t know if it will help, but I have some good news for you. They have Hannah. She’s back at the group home with the rest of the kids."

"Where was the little miscreant?" she asked, thankful the wrong person hadn’t found her. Volunteering at the group home was as rewarding as it was challenging, but this newest addition had a way of pushing her luck, and Maggie’s patience.

"Bus station. She made the mistake of offering a trade of services to the bus driver. She’s lucky the guy had scruples. This is her second parole offense, Maggie. She's on an order to reside. One more and she is back in lockup." He rubbed a hand over his bald head. "Damn, I like that kid, but it’s taking that one a long time to learn."

"It’s what she knows," she said, feeling the need to defend the runaway.

"Yeah well, she's lucky we found her before she had time to call Devan. At least secure custody would her out of his stables."

"But it would introduce to kids far worse than she is. She's a survivor. She'd adapt and not in a good way. I'll talk to her tomorrow."

Maggie might not be front line anymore, but she could at least help another kid from ending up dead, leaving this world believing no one cared. Heather had been like Hannah once, unconvinced a group home was a better alternative to secure custody. She too had taken the hard road. But this was Vegas. As cliché as it was, if you didn’t know when to fold ‘em….

A kid like Hannah and that old cliché had taught Maggie a valuable lesson. The war was fought in the trenches—the streets. Five years ago it had been Maggie on those streets. She clutched her purse closer to her, both ashamed and grateful. Ashamed the streets had become the snapping jaws of her nightmares; grateful the club allowed her access to women, who like Heather, had once been like Hannah, beaten down by others until they believed they were worthless.

"I’m glad you’re here," she said.

"I’d never let you do this by yourself. Ready?"

"No." How exactly did one prepare for this?

He wrapped his burly arms around her. Beer belly and all, she was grateful for the affection. The man was like a father to her, but unlike her father, Lieutenant Horace Cooper stuck by her, even when she screwed up.

They stepped into the elevator. An anxious twenty seconds later, a ding opened them onto a brightly lit basement. The hollow sound of her heels against the speckled terrazzo broke the eerie silence, and added to her trepidation. As they reached their destination, a sick antiseptic smell made her already queasy stomach lurch. Then he asked her to wait outside the steel doors.

Half content to delay the inevitable, half terrified that if left alone she’d break down and cry, she snagged his jacket sleeve just as he pushed against the door. "Are you leaving me?"

"I need to see if they’re ready for you," he replied, easing out of her grasp and giving her shoulder a comforting squeeze.

She’d reached out without thinking, but the relief from those reassuring hands had been worth even this tiniest of meltdowns. "Okay." 

"Don’t worry, Maggie, I’ll be right back."

She paced the narrow hallway, her silk blouse doing little to chase the chill away. She shivered from the cold, and the realization that only the living would care about the frigid temperature on this floor.

True to his word, Horace returned quickly with an apologetic smile. "Mags...." He cleared his throat. "I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the viewing screen, well, it’s under repair."

A wall clock filled the silence as she waited for him to elaborate, each tick making her stomach roll. Finally, she understood his meaning. "Seriously?" She’d done this once before, but from pictures, to ID a dealer she’d seen selling to one of her runaways. He’d tired to rip off the wrong people.

"You...we have to go into the room," he said in a tone meant to rally courage.        

She had ten—nine women who counted on her. She could do this. "Let’s go then." Squaring her shoulders, she followed him through the door. Although she was even colder in this room, she forced her arms to her side, determined to face this head-on.

Seated behind a chrome modular desk, the medical examiner looked up. "Ms. Anderson, give me a minute, please." He signed whatever document he’d been reading, then stood. A short man in his fifties, he removed wire-framed reading glasses and tucked them in the breast pocket of his grey lab coat. A plastic card clipped to it identified him as Dr. Ronald Wilson.

"I’m sorry for your loss."

"Thank you."

He gave her the kind of comforting smile someone gives at funerals, then moved to a sterile wall of steel cubicles. "I’ll warn you," he said, his back to her, "this is never what people expect."

What exactly did people expect? The person to be as they were when last seen? She wasn’t that hopeful, and certainly not that naive. Not anymore.

He unlatched one of the small doors to slide out the heavy gurney. On it lay a body covered in a white sheet. Her throat refused to cooperate when she attempted to swallow. Her brain warned her what she was about to see would bring back the nightmares. But instincts be damned, she owed this to Heather.

Few understood why Maggie didn’t work at a shelter for women, her father included. But too often women, and Heather had been one of them, believed that they deserved the crap that life tossed their way, believed no one cared.

Maggie cared. She’d helped Heather take a new road, promised her a better life. Help was foreign to some and for others. For others, asking for it was a show of weakness. Unfortunately, wads of five-dollar tips were a poor substitute for self-worth. Many, like Heather, turned to drugs or alcohol, or worse, ended up dead. Maggie wanted to get to them before their fates were sealed, because no one had reached out when it counted. Although a bright future had been cruelly snatched away from Heather, even in death, she had to know Maggie still cared.

She nodded to the coroner.

"I’ll draw the sheet enough for you to identify her face. No need for you to see the rest."

Before Maggie could think about what he meant by that, he did as he said.

She looked down at the metal bed holding the body of a once beautiful young woman. Her skin now a light gray, her lips tinted blue, so quiet...so still...devoid of life. The girl she knew was gone. If Juan Desilva had made good on his threat five years ago, Maggie would have been on such a gurney. Unable to prevent the selfish thought from popping into her head, she shuddered. Would her parents have stood on this very spot, identifying her body? If Horace hadn’t shown up when he had, they would have.

“Maggie, is this Heather?” Horace’s voice snapped her out of the morbid thoughts.

She gave herself a mental shake and nodded. Now wasn’t the time to wallow in useless what ifs.

An empty shell was all that remained of Heather. Hard work had put the slums of her past behind her, but graduating college wasn’t meant to be. Maggie forced herself to believe Heather had gone to a better place.

And God or no God, whoever did this would pay.

                                                 

Christian Beck swore under his breath, his fingers barely making any headway on the knotted muscles in his neck. Three aspirins later and still his headache pounded. He knew why. The son of a bitch he’d been tracking had killed another woman. If the prick wasn’t stopped, another would follow. Frustration gnawed at him, crawled into his skull and made the pain splinter. He considered a fourth aspirin.

Fresh off the plane, he’d been driving to the police station when Lieutenant Horace Cooper returned his call, letting him know that Maggie Anderson, the woman who ran the strip club, would be identifying the body. After all these years, he’d caught a break and he wanted to jump on it before his old buddies at the agency got to her first. So here he waited, outside the Coroner’s office, impatiently leaning against the hood of his rented car. The black sedan wasn’t his style. He preferred the freedom of a Jeep, top off. But wheels were wheels, and he hadn’t the energy to go through the trouble of exchanging it.

He thought about taking his jacket off, but figured he’d try the professional approach first. Maybe she’d be more apt to talk. If she was legit it might work: if not...  His five-year stint as a special agent had taught him people that bartered sex for money tended to be tightlipped. He’d never met one who didn’t have something to hide. That included the lying prick that’d fucked with Claire’s murder investigation twenty-five years ago. He wasn’t going to let that happen again. He’d nail his sister’s murderer, his family at last finding justice…closure.

He scrolled through the emails on his phone, eager to see if his team had any updates. Nothing. He shoved it into his pants pocket, resisting the urge to crush it for sheer release. Eager for answers, he adjusted his shades, then pulled at his tie as the hot Vegas sun toasted his head. He was raised in Louisiana sunshine and could handle the heat. He just hated ties.

The doors of the Coroner’s office parted and a middle-aged man stepped aside to allow a woman to pass. As they continued down the narrow path, she nodded in response to whatever comforting platitudes the man offered.  Lost in her own thoughts, her gaze was glued to the ground. He understood. Staring at the remains of someone you once knew would drain the color out of anyone’s face, no matter how stiff the spine.

Minus the stilettos, she was the type you brought home to Mom; not his of course—his didn’t take visitors, not even him. The young woman wore her hair tied back, and when the sun caught the golden strands, a halo of light crowned her head. He grunted. Did angels have legs that went on forever? Hers sure did. She was too pretty, too demure for his tastes, but those legs...

Dressed in a tapered black skirt and white blouse, she wasn’t the one he was waiting for. The woman looked all Wall Street, not like the sleazy club managers he’d come to know. But as he shifted his weight to get comfortable, he realized the duo was headed in his direction.

"Mr. Beck?" the man inquired.

Taking a hard look at the guy, now seeing the badge clipped to his waistband, Christian nodded. "Lieutenant Cooper?" He shook the man’s hands, his eyes darting between the pair. What the hell?

"After we talked, I figured you’d be waiting for us. This," the lieutenant said, placing a hand at the small of her back, "is Maggie Anderson, a close friend of the victim."

The woman glanced around as if unaware they’d left the building. Color slowly swept into a complexion his grandmother would have called peaches and cream. "Like fine antique porcelain," she’d have said, and for the first time in his life, he understood what she’d meant.

Raising a hand to her brow, she shielded her eyes from the blinding sun and squinted in his direction. After several seconds, he realized he was staring, something Grandmother would have frowned on. Damn, this was Maggie Anderson? Christian had imagined a middle-aged, bottle-bleached blonde with too much lip liner and implants. Not Pollyanna in heels. But he’d hardly call her a friend of the deceased. She was one in a long line of people who made money off these women.

Shit, something wasn’t right. The few women he’d known who’d survived to manage a strip joint had been ex-strippers. What the hell was her story?

Cooper finished the introductions. "This is Christian Beck, an acquaintance of the department."

"Ma’am." Christian offered his hand. She hesitated a moment before taking it. She had a firm grip for a woman. Her nails were manicured and polished clear. They weren’t the gaudy talons he’d imagined. He mentally kicked himself for making a rookie mistake—never fall victim to the expected. "I’d like to ask you some questions, if you don’t mind?" He kept his tone even, friendly.

"Are you a detective?" she asked.

"No, ma’am, private investigator." The muscles in his back twitched, his shirt beginning to cling to his damp spine. Noticing she still blocked her face from the sun, he said, "Why don’t we go somewhere else, less bright?" Marring that delicate skin with a sunburn would be a sin.

"I don’t talk to PIs." She glared at Cooper, a spark of panic in her eyes. "Horace?"

"I won’t keep you long," Christian offered, curious what had made her suddenly nervous. Like it or not, he needed her cooperation to find the missing pieces. Regardless of what the Feds thought, this was the killer he’d spent his screwed up childhood wishing dead, and most of his career trying to make sure that happened. Yes, twenty-five years was a long time, and professionally he had to admit there was a slight chance he was wrong. But his gut told him the MOs were too alike to be coincidental. Something had put this scum on hiatus, but he was back.

"Don’t worry," the lieutenant replied, squeezing her hand. "It’s not what you think."

What exactly had gotten her panties all knotted up?

"He works for ICU," explained Cooper. "Look, let’s all go to the coffee shop down the street."

The public knew Ryan Sheppard’s Investigative Collection Unit as an elite organization for hire for those with money. Sheppard’s private investigators were some of the best in the country, if not the world. The public also knew Sheppard as an entrepreneur, playboy jet setter. What they didn’t know could fill a wing in the New York Public Library.

She didn’t look happy but walked with Cooper to her car.  

"Well, well," he muttered. Why did it surprise him to find out Pollyanna drove a Deutto? It seemed running a strip club paid well. Was there more behind Ms. Anderson and Heart’s Desire than a run of the mill club? Glancing over at the sweet red sports car, he figured, much, much more.  

Maggie clutched the steering wheel, her heart at last beating an even cadence. Why would a private investigator want to talk to her?

Horace knew investigators made her nervous. She should have asked more questions, instead of freaking out. Who hired him? Did he know who she was? Her attention had to stay focused on Heather’s death and her responsibility to the other women. His snooping was an unwelcome distraction.

The first to arrive at the coffee shop, she waited for Horace. Mr. Beck had caught the red light, so time was short. "Talk, who is this guy?"

"I don’t have all the details, but the captain believes he can be a benefit to this case. As long as he doesn’t break the law, I have to play nice," he said, gritting his teeth. "Besides," he admitted, "ICU is a top-notch agency with offices all over the world. They've been able to do what others couldn't."

She guessed they were too expensive for Joe Shmoe. "That means someone who wanted her cheating husband followed, taped and put on television wouldn’t hire them?"

"Right," he said, failing to hide a grin. "As far as I know your father doesn’t figure into this. I’ll let Beck explain the rest. Let’s go inside."

So no one was using her to get to her father? Tarnishing his reputation would be big news that would sell a lot of papers. And ruin all her efforts at the club. She’d be a magnet for wannabe starlets, women who would use the publicity Heart’s Desire would draw to get their names in the paper, not girls who needed her help.

Through the large store window, she saw the PI park his Nissan Maxima. Horace showed her to an oversized armchair in a secluded corner, then headed for the front counter. Mr. Beck strode in just as Horace passed her the paper coffee cup, one she almost dropped when she got her first good look at the man.

At the coroner’s office, the sun had all but blinded her. She’d seen the tall silhouette of an athletic man. Her fried, overloaded brain hadn’t registered how attractive he really was. His expensive suit and the way it draped his leanly muscled body said he worked out. But the surfer-boy tan and an unshaven face contradicted the straight-laced facade. Wavy hair the color of melted chocolate tapered down his neck and over the collar of a white shirt. Most of the men she’d hired in the club had had their noses broken at one time or another. She liked that. It made them look tougher, meaner, better to toss someone out for not following her rules. But this guy’s was straight, fitting perfectly with his knee-knocking, dark brown eyes. That, however, didn’t make him look any less dangerous. There was an edge to him, like looking at a shiny, new butcher’s knife, knowing if you didn’t handle it right, it would slice you.

If this were a bar, her girlfriends would be vying for a piece of him, betting on who got to kiss those Brad Pitt lips first. But this wasn’t a bar. Hotness aside, his don’t-screw-with-me expression, played up by frowning dark eyebrows, screamed trouble. Maggie tried not to squirm under the narrowed-eyed intensity of his gaze.

"Sit, Mr. Beck." Horace motioned to a chair on the left of Maggie, placing the coffee he’d sprung for on the small table between them.

As Mr. Beck set the manila envelope he’d been holding on the table, she got a whiff of something sweet. Chocolate? She sniffed to be sure, but the scent had faded. Maggie tipped her head in his direction. He returned her perusal, making her cross her legs to avoid fidgeting.

Okay, if, and that was an if she wasn’t a hundred percent willing to part with, but if he wasn’t out to ruin her father, what did he want? "So, how are you involved in this case?" Having had some time to think about it, she added, "Who hired a private investigator? Heather was killed last night, and she didn’t have family." None who’d want to find her.

The two men regarded each other as if they knew something she didn’t and were reluctant to let her in on the secret. She didn't like it.

"Ms. Anderson, I work for a company called ICU—"

 "Yes, I know."

"Patience, Ms. Anderson." He reached for the envelope, pulled out a newspaper clipping and handed it to her.

Not appreciating his tone, she snatched the article out of his hands and read. The police didn’t have many clues and were asking for assistance in the strangulation of a twenty-year-old woman found nude in the bathroom of a motel. They suspected prostitution, but couldn’t confirm it. Not much else was written.

She hadn’t caught this piece in the paper. Reading these kinds of stories grew increasingly more disturbing, but still, it wasn’t like her to have missed it. As hard as it was to swallow, if a girl was killed on the streets, Maggie wanted to know the circumstances. Knowledge was power, power the women could take back. She also kept her eyes and ears open for reports about missing runaways or news such as this. Then she reread the article, noticing it was dated six weeks ago from a Sacramento newspaper.

Deep furrows etched Horace’s forehead, his lips drawn in a tight line. It didn’t take long to make the connection. "This case and Heather’s...they’re related?"

Horace shrugged. "The department, the FBI, and Mr. Beck here, all believe so."

It appeared drugs, abuse, and desperation weren’t enough hurdles for these girls. A murderer had to be added to the bullshit life dealt them?

Two girls, one murderer?

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