Las Vegas left its Christmas lights on all year round.
Wedged between a middle-aged man in high-waisted pants and a girl doused with Britney Spears perfume, Samantha Hart was wondering what mistakes she’d made in her life to lead her here.
The driver had the heat in the shuttle van cranked up in spite of the temperature outside hovering over the sixty mark. Spanish guitar music was blasting on the radio, and a tiny bobbling hula girl was stuck on the dash.
Sam closed her eyes and tried to ignore the rocking motions of the van and the trashy sweetness of the girl’s perfume. Between the bumps, the stink and the bright Nevada light, she was pretty sure she might throw up before the shuttle dropped her off.
As far as she was concerned the trip was already an unmitigated disaster, and she hadn’t even gotten to her hotel yet. Adding carsickness to the mix would turn it into a living nightmare.
“Yo,” grumbled the driver, making Sam lift her head. “Hard Rock?”
“Oh. Yes, thanks.” She collected her carry-on bag off the floor and hugged it to her chest, climbing over the portly gentleman blocking her path to the sliding door.
The shuttle driver met her at the back of the van and after some confusion managed to pull her wheeled pink suitcase out from the Tetris-style tower of luggage.
The minute she got inside the hotel, the temperature shifted and the smell of stale smoke bombarded her, causing her stomach to churn worse than before. She’d forgotten smoking was legal indoors in Las Vegas, and made a mental note to ensure she asked for a smoke-free room. Oregon was looking better and better every minute.
Inside the front door, the lights were low and several glass cases greeted her, exhibiting outfits from Slash, Prince, Tupac and a few others. More memorabilia hung from every flat surface, including polished guitars, leather jackets and a full wall of drum kits.
Adding to the sensory overload was the central gaming pit, a circle in the middle of the lobby with poker and blackjack tables and an assortment of brightly lit, obnoxious-sounding slot machines. The whole lobby buzzed with the alarms from the machines and the humming voice of dealers catering to the patrons willing to throw their money away. The girls running the blackjack tables wore pleated skirts no wider than a belt and low-cut tanks with the words Hell’s Belles written across them, their enhanced breasts spilling out the tops.
Sam found herself transfixed by the flagrant display of tits and ass. Back home these girls would be a spectacle, but here this was the norm. She didn’t think she’d be able to adjust to the Vegas culture if she was here for a month, let alone a week.
Sam dragged her suitcase up to the front desk, where a huge series of flat screens displayed information on the various restaurants and clubs the hotel had on site. All she wanted was a shower and a soft bed. She’d deal with figuring out what she was going to do in Vegas once she could think straight.
If Muriel wasn’t seventy-five and family, she would get her butt kicked for this.
“Good afternoon, welcome to the Hard Rock.” A cheerful young woman with a sleek blonde bob smiled at Sam as if this should be a happy trip.
“I have a reservation.” Sam hiked her purse up on her shoulder, snagging her long auburn hair, adding further injury to the insult of this so-called vacation.
“Absolutely. What was the name?”
The young woman’s eyes widened, and she gave Sam a once-over. “I’m sorry, you said Samantha Hart?”
“Yes?” For a moment Sam questioned herself. It had been a hellish travel day, and now she wondered if she’d given the wrong name. But Hart was the one she’d been born with, and as boring as Samantha was, it had been hers from day one. “Yes,” she repeated, more certainly this time.
“Can I see some identification?”
It wasn’t the request that had Sam scratching her head, since it was standard practice to give ID when checking in, but the girl’s flagrant disbelief that she was who she claimed had Sam thinking, What the heck?
“Okay.” Sam rifled through her purse. Finding her driver’s license, she handed it to the girl.
“My apologies for the formality, Ms. Hart. It’s standard procedure for us with VIP guests. I’m sure you understand.”
Sam reclaimed her ID, and it was her turn to gawk at the desk girl. Had she said VIP? Was it possible Muriel had managed to do something right for this trip? Considering all the screw-ups thus far, a VIP suite would be a nice apology. Perhaps it was a belated Christmas gift?
As long as it wasn’t getting charged to her credit card, Sam didn’t really care.
“Yeah. VIP. Sure thing.”
The girl waved over a bellhop, and he relieved Sam of her suitcase and carry-on. “Jeremy will show you to your suite. We’re here for you twenty-four-seven, and of course you can expect the utmost discretion from our staff.”
“Thanks. I think.”
Jeremy the Bellhop was off and running with Sam’s things before she had a chance to ask any more questions. In the elevator he pressed a button for one of the top floors, and Sam’s heart began to sink, her pulse elevating and a nervous sweat dewing her forehead.
What if this was going on her credit card?
The higher the numbers on the elevator ticked, the more uneasy she became, adding an extra zero to her total bill for every ten floors. At this rate she’d have to sell books until she was seven hundred in order to recoup her losses on this stupid trip.
Forget killing Muriel, that was too easy. By now the old woman had surely earned some kind of Chinese water torture, or an elaborate scheme involving bamboo shoots.
It was hard to be mad at the old woman, though. She’d apologized profusely so many times. And after about six hundred chocolate chip cookies, Sam was five pounds heavier and a lot less angry. Mistakes happened, but she was still stuck in Vegas nursing a nauseated gut as the floors got higher and higher.
The elevator finally stopped, and Sam’s imminent heart attack told her she’d be mortgaging her store when she got home. And her house.
Jeremy led her up to a glossy black door and swiped her keycard for her. He held open the door and wheeled her bag inside, then paused in the entryway, waiting. She handed him a five-dollar bill, and he gave her a look that was first confused before shifting to disgusted.
She was about to ask him if he was sure this was the right room when he turned heel and exited, leaving her alone and completely bewildered.
In the front hallway of the suite were glass windows with silhouettes of skinny, Bond-girl-type women dancing in suggestive ways. The whole room was painted red with accents of black in the furniture. Sam left her suitcase in the hallway and moved past the writhing women, who followed along the glass behind her as she went.
Inside, things got twisted.
The room was enormous. Easily the size of six standard hotel rooms put together. The sitting area contained several black leather couches and an assortment of fancy, modern accessories, but something about the whole setup felt off to her. The suite had a bordello quality but without any of the warmth, and the space made Sam feel dirty.
She found the bedroom with a lush queen bed, and the sight of its poofy white duvet almost made her forget her mounting concerns with the rest of the space. All she wanted to do was collapse face-first into the mattress and sleep for the rest of the afternoon.
Instead of yielding to her first instinct, she left the bedroom and walked to the opposite side. She passed a slate-gray shower, but another item caught her eye, making her double back.
Was that a…flogging post?
Sam gaped at the wooden x-shaped structure in the bathroom sitting next to what looked like a wrought-iron cage. Her eyes must be playing tricks on her. There was no way she was actually seeing torture devices in a hotel bathroom.
Backing out of the room, she couldn’t decide what she ought to do. Her logical mind was telling her to grab her bags and march right back down to the front desk, but another part of her was curious. She still had another big room she hadn’t seen, and she wanted to know if things got any weirder.
The biggest room was a second bedroom, but it was unlike any hotel bedroom she’d ever seen. The entire back wall of the suite was a giant bed. An orgy-sized giant bed, covered in rich black satin sheets, with the curtains open to a view of Vegas. At night the skyline was probably stunning, but right then all Sam could see was the massive bed.
Fifteen people could have slept in it, but she doubted people slept much in a bed like that.
Was this a practical joke?
Muriel had a weird sense of humor for a seventy-five-year-old, but this was a little out of her scope.
Sam whipped out her cell phone and dialed from memory.
“Happy Trails Travel, this is Muriel.”
“Do you have any idea what I’m looking at right now?” Sam whispered into the phone, like someone might be hiding behind the walls watching her every move.
“Sam-wich, is that you?” Sam’s great-aunt hadn’t stopped thinking of her as a seven-year-old, which made this room an even more implausible choice. “Did you get in okay?”
“I am standing in a sex dungeon, Muriel.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“This suite you got me at the Hard Rock, it’s perverted.”
“I booked you a standard king with a view.”
“This is not a standard king. Though the view would be impressive if I could stop staring at the massive orgy bed.” Her voice hitched up, edging on hysterical as she tried not to start giggling nervously.
“Young lady, that’s inappropriate.”
“This room is inappropriate. And now I’m guessing it wasn’t your idea of a joke?”
“Why would I book you a joke room? You know I already feel terrible about the date mix-up.”
The door beeped. Security must have figured out the mistake and was coming to wrestle her out of the room.
“I need to go, someone’s here. I’ll call you back.”
A male voice called, “Hey, you naughty girl, I’m here. Front desk said you already checked in, so I hope you’re ready for a spanking since you’ve been very bad—”
The words stopped short when a man walked into the room and saw Sam standing in front of the bed. He didn’t look like a security guard, and she sure as hell hoped the hotel staff didn’t greet guests in such a suggestive manner.
He was tall and solidly built, muscular in a way that looked damn good in a tight shirt, but not ridiculous. Curly dark brown hair and twinkling blue eyes paired well with the dimples in his cheeks that managed not to falter when he saw her.
“You’re not Samantha,” he announced, giving her a once-over that felt oddly intimate, like he was somehow able to touch her curves with his eyes.
“I am so Samantha,” she countered, weary of her identity being questioned, especially by strangers who had wandered into her personal space. “And who are you?”
“I’m Ethan Silver. And you’re in my room.”