Shameless

Mezcaya/ Central America
El Jefe terrorist compound

Lt. Col. Phillip Westin, burly ex-Marine, wasn't dead.

Hell.  He almost wished he was.  Solitary confinement — it made you crazy.

Groggily, he chafed at the ropes binding his wrists and ankles.  Beneath the restraints his skin burned from too much rubbing.

He tried to roll over, but he was so weak, he could only lie face down in the dark, gasping.  The windowless walls seemed to close in upon him. He wanted to scream . . . or worse . . . to weep.   One minute he was burning up; the next he was shivering and whimpering on his cot like a baby.  The cramps in his legs and arms knifed constantly.

Where the hell was he?  Remember!  Try to remember.  His thoughts were slow and tortured.  It took him a while to realize that he was lying on the same dirty canvas cot deep in The Cave that served as the dungeon underneath Fortaleza de la Fortuna.  The fortaleza was a terrorist compound in Mezcaya run by a particularly dangerous group of thugs who went by the name El Jefe.

Westin had been captured a few weeks ago shortly after he'd run Jose Mendoza, one of the terrorist ringleaders, off a mountain road and killed him.  Too bad Mendoza's illegitimate son, Xavier Gonzales, didn't have a forgiving nature.

Westin blinked but couldn't see a thing.  The damned dungeon was blacker than the inside of an ape's behind.

His head throbbed where Xavier had smacked him with a rifle butt yesterday.  Phillip's throat was dry.  He was thirsty as hell.  Dehydrated probably.

Xavier and his unkempt dirty bunch of thugs had captured him and beaten him senseless and then gleefully trussed him like a pig for slaughter. 

He was going to die.  At dawn.  A single bullet to the head, the final coup de gras.  An hour ago Xavier and a couple of short, teenage captors reeking of body odor had strutted inside The Cave like a bunch of bantam cocks in a barnyard and kicked him with their black, muddy combat boots.

"Gringo, como estás?They'd prodded him with their assault rifles and made cruel jokes in Spanish rather than in their Mezcayan dialect.  They'd flipped coins to see who'd get lucky enough to pull the trigger.  Xavier, the youngest and the most lethally handsome, had slid a .45 out of a black holster and dried it off on his sleeve.

"You kill my father, so you die, gringo.  You have no right to be in my country."

"Your drug money was making inroads in my town, bastardo.  My town."

The kid was dark with a permanent Mezcayan tan.  With one brown hand he'd lifted a cigarette to his pretty mouth; with the other he'd carefully centered the cold barrel on Phillip's forehead.

"Your town?"

Xavier's eyes were scarily irrational in his pretty-boy face.  His finger had pulled back the trigger ever so slightly.  "Bang.  Bang, Gringo.  Yourtown is going to be my town."

Before he could argue, the thick, acrid cigarette smoke from the kid's cigarette had made Phillip wretch.  Hell, maybe puking up his guts had saved him.  Instead of firing his gun, Xavier had burst out into hysterical laughter and shrieked, "Cobarde.  Coward."

Then the bastardo had danced a little jig.

"Tengo sed.  I'm thirsty," Phillip had said.

Xavier had smiled that pretty smile.  "So — drink this!" He'd pitched the cigarette into the vomit in front of Phillip's face.

Bastardos.  His death was a game to them.  Phillip Westin, ex-Marine, had been handpicked for the Alpha Force.  His usual style was spit and polish perfect.

He wouldn't be a pretty corpse.  He wouldn't even rate a body bag in this hellhole compound that was hidden deep in Mezcayan mountains and rain forest.

There'd be no military honors at his funeral.  No funeral, period.   No beautiful woman to weep over his grave back home in south Texas.

Suddenly a blond goddess — no, a witch — seemed to float above him in the misty black.

Oh, God . . .  Just when he was weak, wet, and shaking and puking with fear, he had to think of her  — the icy, trampy witch who'd walked out on him.  Usually, the witch was satisfied to haunt his dreams.  When he was awake, he was disciplined enough to keep his demons and witches at bay.

But he was weak and cold . . . so cold and feverish a spasm shook him . . . and so scared about dying he could think only of her.

"Anger slammed him when her sulky, smoky voice began to sing the love song she'd written about their doomed relationship.

He jerked at his ropes, and to his surprise they loosened just a bit.  "Go away!  Leave me alone!" he yelled into the darkness.

The perverse phantom draped her curvy body against the black wall and sang louder.

"Nobody but you.  Only you."

"Shut up," he growled even as every cell in his body began to quiver as his fingers fought to free his hands.

"I had to say goodbye . . . but everywhere I go . . . there's nobody in my heart . . . only you . . ."

Her husky voice had his head pounding.  He dug his fingernails into his palms.  Suddenly to his surprise, he jerked his right hand free of the ropes.  "Damn you, shut the hell up!"

"And yet I had to say goodbye,the witch crooned.

"Tramp!  You're just a one-hit wonder.  You know that, don't you?"

That shut her up, but she didn't go away.  Instead, that sad, vulnerable expression that could tie him into knots came into her eyes, which shone brilliantly in the dark. Her golden hair fell in silken coils around her slim shoulders.

Hell. She looked like a little lost sex kitten in need of a home and a warm bed.  His home.  His bed. 

Oh, God, all she had ever had to do was look at him like that and all he wanted to do was hold her and protect her and make love to her.  What would he give to have her one more time before he died?

Everything —

His gut cramped as he clawed his cot with his free hands.  He remembered exactly how her hair smelled, how her skin smelled, how her blue eyes flashed with tears if he got too domineering.  She'd had a fearsome talent for gentling him.

Escape.  He had to escape.  When he bent over to untie his ankles, her pouty lips parted.

His hands shook.  He closed his eyes and tried not to remember how small she was or how perfectly she'd fit him.

Think of something else!  Like getting out of here!

But when he swallowed, he tasted her.  One taste, and he was as hard as a brick.

Somehow he got the ropes around his ankles loose, but when he tried to stand, the black walls spun, and he fell back onto the cot.  Weak as he was, his groin still pulsed with desire.  Hell.  The proximity of death was the best aphrodisiac.

Damn Celeste Cavanaugh.  He'd asked her to be his wife, to marry him.  What a damn fool he'd been to do that.  Hell, he'd picked her up in a bar.  No, damn it.  He'd rescued her from a bar brawl.  She'd been a nobody from the gutter, the prettiest, sexiest little nobody in the whole world with a voice like an angel.

He'd lifted her out of that life, given her everything, and treated her like a lady.  She'd moved in, and they'd played at love and marriage.  Why the hell hadn't she bothered to tell him about her ridiculous ambition to be a country western star?  Why hadn't she at least given him a chance to understand it?

"As soon as she'd gotten on her feet, she'd run to Vegas with another man.  Phillip had come home from a dangerous mission to the Middle East to rescue his buddies.  His homecoming had been delayed because he'd been captured and had had a narrow escape.  But once home again, he'd thrown his seabag down at the door, stalked through the house, calling her name.  God, all those days and nights he'd been a hostage, trapped in that cell, he'd been burning up for her.  Just like now.

She'd left him a letter on his pillow.

"I met a man who's going to get me an audition with a world-famous producer, Larry Martin.  I'll call you from Vegas." She'd said her stage name was Stella Lamour.

There had been more letters in the mailbox from Stella.  After he'd read and re-read those letters, every word carving his heart out, something had died inside him.  Maybe his feelings. 

Forget her.

But he couldn't.  Seven years later, she still starred in all his wet dreams.

When he died down here, she wouldn't even know.  The bastardos would sling his bloody corpse into the jungle, and he'd rot. 

In this rain and heat and mud, he'd be fertilizer in less than a month.

You're an ex-Marine.  Forget her.

When he tried to stand again, he passed out and dreamed he was back home in Texas, dancing with her at the Lone Star Country Club while his Marine buddies cheered and clapped.

He regained consciousness to heat that was as thick and dark as a sauna, to no-seeums eating him alive.  To explosions and heavy boots stomping down some corridor.

Dawn.  Time to die.

Was there a weepy, pink light sifting through the single crack in the ceiling or was he hallucinating again?

Shouts in Spanish were followed by more heavy footsteps.  Then the lock on the heavy door clicked.  The door banged.  Flashlights danced in the dark, blinding him.

"Xavier?" Westin squinted.  Terror gripped him like a fist. He felt so weak and vulnerable he muttered a quick prayer.

Cobarde. Xavier's contempt still stung.

In those last fleeting seconds before certain death, Phillip's life flashed before him in neon color — his lonely childhood in his parents' Houston mansion with all those rooms that echoed as a solitary little boy walked through them in search of love.

Nobody had wanted him . . . until Patricia, his college sweetheart.  For a time she'd seemed so perfect, but in the end she hadn't wanted him enough to understand his determination to see the world and become a Marine.

Neither had Celeste.  Both his loves had left him.

The flashlight zeroed in on his face, blinding him again.  What was the use?  He held up his hands in surrender.  All he said was, "If you're going to kill me, just be done with it."

Cobarde.

"Not tonight, sir," said a familiar, respectful voice that slammed Westin back to his days in the Marines, back to the Gulf War.  Phillip's eyelids stung when he tried to stand.  Once again his legs crumpled beneath his weight.  The lights spun, and he nearly fainted.

"Friends," came that familiar, husky voice that made Phillip's eyes go even hotter.

"Tyler . . ."

Westin blinked.  Ty Murdock, his handsome face painted black and green, his night vision glasses dangling against his broad chest, towered above him like a warrior god.

"Tyler —"

Phillip was trying to stand but was falling again when Tyler's strong arms grabbed him and slung him over his broad back in a fireman's lift.

"You're going home," a woman said.

"Celeste?"

Before the beautiful woman could answer, Phillip fainted.

He was going home.  Home to Celeste.

* * * * *

When he opened his eyes, they were beyond the compound, hunkering low in the tangle of bushes on the edge of the lavish lawns.  Dimly he was aware of the pretty woman cradling his head in her lap.

"Celeste?"

He was sweating and freezing at the same time.

"An eternity later he looked up and saw a chopper coming in hot, kicking up dust and gravel before settling on the ground.

"A rock that felt like a piece of hot metal gouged Phillip's cheek.

"Damn."

Then Ty was back lifting him, up . . . up . . . into the chopper.  They took off in a hurry.  They were going home.

Home to Celeste.

He shut his eyes and saw Celeste . . . blonde and pretty, her eyes as blue as a Texas sky.  She was crying, her cheeks glistening.  The image, even if it was false, was better than a funeral.

 * * * * *

Phillip's hand shook as he lifted the razor to his cheek.  Westin stared at the gaunt face with the slash across his cheek.  It had been seven days since the rescue, and he was still as weak as a baby.

When the infirmary door slammed open, he jumped like a scared girl, panicking at the sound of boots, because they reminded him of Xavier.  The razor fell into the sink with a clatter.

In the mirror, the dark-haired stranger with the hollowed-out silver eyes was pathetic.  By comparison the darkly handsome man who strode up behind him was disgustingly robust.

"Mercado?"

Ricky flashed his daredevil grin.  "Good to see you up and about."

"Yeah." Westin had to grip the sink with tight fingers so he wouldn't fall.  No way was he walking back to the hospital bed.  No way would he let Mercado gloat at how wobbly he was.

"After this, you'd better lay low, amigo.  You stirred up a hornet's nest."

"You think I don't know that."

"El Jefe's big.  And not just down here.  They're well connected in Texas."

"Why the hell do you think I came down —"

"These guys won't give up.  They'll be gunning for you and yours."

"There is no yours.  She left me, remember?" Phillip shut up.  He didn't want to talk about her.  Still, Mercado was one of the few who knew about Celeste.  Most of his buddies believed he'd never gotten over his first love, Patricia, the classy girl he'd loved in college — the proper girl.  It was better that way, better not to cry on their shoulders about a trashy singer he'd picked up in a bar and been stupid enough to fall for. 

"Yeah, and Celeste's the reason you've had a death wish for seven damn years."

"Shut up."

"You're forty-one, amigo."

"You make that sound old."

"Too old for this line of work."

"This was personal.  You know that.  The bastards were moving into Mission Creek.  They were using kids to run guns. Kids —"

"Why don't you go back to your ranch?  Find a nice, church-going girl, get married and hatch some rug rats."

"Sounds like fun.  What about you?  You straight?  Or are you gonna run arms for the family?  What the hell were you doing down there?"

Mercado scowled.  "Saving your ass."

"You had some help."

"What does it take?  A declaration written in blood.  Like I told you — I'm straight."

"You'd better be."

His face and eyes dark with pain, Mercado shut up and stared at the floor.  Phillip felt instant remorse.  "Ty told me you were useful in the Mezcaya rescue," Phillip admitted.

"I'm surprised he said —"

"He did.  Thanks. I owe you . . . for what you did for Ty.  And for me."

Suddenly Westin was no longer in the mood to question the character of a man who'd helped save him.  The heated exchange had left him so weak, Mercado's dark face began to swirl.  His fingers couldn't seem to hold onto the sink.

"Oh, God," he muttered as the gray tiles rushed up to meet him.

Mercado lunged, barely catching him before he fell.

"Find that nice girl," Mercado muttered.  "Lean on my arm, old buddy, and we'll get you back to bed."

"Hell.  I don't go for nice girls.  I like >em hot and shameless."

"Maybe it's time for a change of pace . . . in your old age."

"Old age?" Stung, Phillip almost howled.  The truth was, a ninety-year-old was stronger than he was.  Oh, God, why was it such a damn struggle to put one foot in front of the other?  When he finally made it to the bed, he was gasping for every breath.  He let go of Mercado and fell backward.

His head slammed into the pillow.  Even so, they both managed a weak laugh.

"Get the hell out of here, Mercado."

"Forget shameless.  Find that church-going girl, old man."

Mercado waved jauntily and saluted.  Then the door banged behind him, and he was gone.

* * * * *

Stella Lamour grabbed her guitar and glided out of the storeroom Harry let her use as a dressing room.  After all, a star had to have a dressing room.  She tried to ignore the fact that the closet was stacked with cases of beer, cocktail napkins, and glasses . . . and that the boxy, airless room gave her claustrophobia when she shut the door.

Some dressing room . . . Some star . . .

"As Stella approached the corner to make her entrance, she cocked her glossy head at an angle so that her long, yellow hair rippled flirtily down her slim, bare back.  At thirty-two, she was still beautiful, and she knew it.  Just as she knew how to use it.

"Fake it till you make it, baby," Johnny, her ex-manager, always said.

Fake it?  For how much longer?  In this business and this city, beauty was everything, at least for a woman.  Every day younger, fresher girls poured into Vegas, girls with big dreams just like hers.  Johnny signed them all on, too.

Hips swaying, Stella moved like a feral cat, her lush, curvy, petite body inviting men to watch, not that there were many to do so tonight.  There was a broad-shouldered hunk at the bar.  He gave her the once-over.  Her slanting, thickly-lashed, blue eyes said, you can look, but keep your distance, big boy — this is my territory.

Johnny Silvers, her no-good manager, who liked fast cars and faster women, had taught Stella how to move, how to walk, how to hold her head, how to look like a star — how to fake it.

Some star.  The closest she'd come was to warm the crowd up before the real star came on stage.

Now she'd sunk to Harry's.

Harry's was a dead-end bar in downtown Vegas, a hangout for middle-aged retreads, divorcees, widowers, alcoholics, burned-out gamblers — a dimly lit refuge for the flotsam and jetsam who couldn't quite cut it in real life and were too broke to make their play in the hectic, brightly lit casinos on the strip.  They were searching for new lives and new loves.  Not that they could do more in Harry's than drown their sorrows and take a brief time-out before they resumed their panicky quests.

In a few more years, I'll be one of them, Stella thought as she grimly shoved a chair aside on her way to the bar.

Her slinky black dress was so tight across the hips, she had to stand at her end of the bar when she finally reached it.  She'd put on a pound, maybe two.  Not good, not when the new girls kept getting younger and slimmer.

Mo, the bartender, nodded hello and handed her her Saturday night special — water with a juicy lime hanging onto the edge of her glass.  She squeezed the lime, swirled the glass.  Wetting her lips first, she took a long, cool sip.

"Aside from Mo and the single, shadowy male figure at the other end of the bar, Harry's was empty tonight.  There wasn't a single retread.  So the only paying customer was the wide-shouldered hunk she'd seen come in earlier.  She knew men.  He was no retread.

There was a big arms-dealer conference in Vegas.   For some reason, she imagined he might be connected to the conference.  He was hard-edged.  Lean and tall and trim.  He had thick, brown hair.  She judged he was around thirty.  Something about him made her think of the way Phillip looked in his uniform.  Maybe it was the man's air of authority.

Just thinking about Phillip made her remember another bar seven years ago when she'd been a raw kid, singing her heart out, not really caring where she was as long as she could sing.  She'd gotten herself in a real jam that night.  Lucky for her, or maybe not so lucky, as it turned out, Phillip Westin had walked in.

Just the memory of Phillip in that brawl — he'd been wonderful — made her pulse quicken again.  It had been four drunks against one Marine, a Marine whose hands were certified weapons.  In the end Phillip had carried her out to his motorcycle, and they'd roared off in the dark.  He'd been so tender and understanding that first night, so concerned about her.  What had impressed her the most about him was that he hadn't tried to seduce her.  They'd talked all night in a motel and had only ended up in bed a couple of days later. 

The sex had been so hot, they'd stayed in that motel bed for a week, making wild, passionate love every day and every night, even eating every meal in bed, until finally they were so exhausted, they could only lie side by side laughing because they felt like a pair of limp noodles.  When they'd come up for air, she'd said she'd never be able to walk again.  And he'd said he'd never get it up again.  She'd taken that as a challenge and proved him wrong.  Oh, so deliciously wrong.  Afterward, he'd asked her to marry him.

She'd said, "I don't even know you."

And he said, "Just say maybe."

"Maybe," she'd purred.

Maybe had been good enough for Phillip, at least for a while.  He'd been living on his elderly uncle's ranch alone and supervising the cattle operation, because his uncle, who had been ill, was in a nursing home.  Everything had been wonderful between Celeste and Phillip, until suddenly Phillip had received a call and had gone off on a mission.  Alone on the ranch, she'd gotten scared and had felt abandoned and rejected just like she had when her parents had died.

If the days had been long without Phillip, the sleepless nights had seemed even longer.  She hadn't known what to do with herself.  She wasn't good at waiting or being alone.  Then officers had turned up at the door and said Phillip was missing in action.  She'd been sure Phillip was dead, just like her parents.  When Johnny had driven into town, saying he'd make her a star, saying Larry Martin, the Larry Martin wanted to produce her if she'd just come to Vegas.  The rest was history.

All of a sudden her throat got scratchier.  She swallowed, but the lump wouldn't go down.

How could she sing . . . tonight?  To a man who reminded her of Phillip.

She asked Mo for another water, but if anything the cold water only made her throat worse.

Did it matter any more how well she sang?  This was Harry's.  There was only one customer.  She picked up her guitar and headed for the stage.

Just when she'd thought she couldn't sink any lower, she'd lost her job two weeks ago, and the only guy Johnny could convince to hire her was Harry, a loser buddy of his.

"I can't work at a lowlife place like this," she'd cried when Johnny had brought her here, and, first thing, a cockroach had skittered across her toe.

"You gotta take what you can get, baby.  That's life."

"I'm Stella Lamour.  I've done T.V.  You promised I'd be a star."

"You've got to deliver.  You're just a one-hit wonder.  Wake up and smell the roses, baby."

She'd kicked the roach aside.  "All I smell is stale beer."

"My point exactly, baby.  You gotta fake it till you make it."

"I'm tired of faking it and not making it.  You're fired, Johnny."

"Baby —"

"Stella Lamour, the one-hit wonder."  He'd laughed at her.  "All right.  Fire me.  But take the job, baby — if you wanna eat."

She'd taken the job, but it was harder to pretend she would ever make it as a singer.

Now Stella turned on the mike and got a lot of back feed.  When she adjusted it, and it squealed again, the broad-shouldered man at the bar jammed his big hands over his ears but edged closer.  Again, the way he moved reminded her so much of Phillip, her pulse knocked against her ribcage.  Oh, Phillip . . .

Don't think about the past or Phillip.  Just sing.

Why bother?  Nobody's listening.

"I'll start off with a little number I wrote," she purred to Mo and the man. "Back in Texas."

The customer stared at her intently as if he liked what he saw.

"I wrote this seven years ago before I came to Vegas." She fiddled with the mike some more, and then she began to sing.

"Nobody but you.  Only you.  And yet I had to say goodbye . . ."

She forgot she was in Harry's.  She was back on the ranch on Phillip's front porch where the air was hot and dusty, where the long warm nights smelled of grass and mesquite and buzzed with the music of cicadas.

"I thought love cost too much," she purred in the smoky voice she'd counted on to make her famous, to make her somebody like her mother had promised. "But I didn't know."

Then she realized she was in Harry's, and her failures made her voice quiver with regret.

"Everywhere I go, there's nobody but you in my heart.  Only you."

Somehow she felt so weak all she could do was whisper the last refrain. "And yet I had to say goodbye."

Phillip was the only good man, the only really good thing that had ever happened to her.  And she'd walked out on him.  Big mistake.  Huge.

She'd wanted to make it big to prove to Phillip she was as good as he was . . . that she wasn't just some cheap tart he'd picked up in a bar and brought home and bedded . . . that she was somebody . . . a real somebody he could be proud of.

She frowned when she heard a car zoom up the back alley.  Oh, dear.  That sounded like Johnny's Corvette.  The last thing she needed was Johnny on her case.  Sure enough, within seconds, the front door banged open, and Johnny raced through it on his short legs.  His thick chest was heaving.  His eyes bulged out of their deep pouchy sockets.  The poor dear looked like a fat, out-of-shape rabbit the hounds were chasing, but his florid face lit up when he saw her.

"Baby!"

Oh, no.  He definitely wanted something!

"You and I are through," she mouthed.

Johnny lit a cigarette.  Then his short, fat legs went into motion and carried him across the bar toward her.

He was a heavy smoker, so running wasn't easy.  When he reached this state, he gasped in fits and starts, which made his voice even more hoarse and raspy than usual.

 

"Take a break, baby . . ." Pant. Wheeze.  "I've got to talk to you." Puff. Puff.

 

Fanning his smoke out of her face, she turned off the mike and followed him to her end of the bar.

Johnny ordered a drink and belted it down.  He ordered a second one and said, "Put some booze in this one, you cheap son-of-a — "

"Johnny, you can't talk to Mo like — " 

Mo slammed the second drink down so hard it sloshed all over Johnny's cigarette.  Mo was big, a lot bigger than Johnny.  He had a bad temper, too.  When his face darkened the way it did when he had an impossible customer and had to play bouncer, Stella was afraid he'd pound Johnny.

"Easy, Mo," she whispered, wondering why she was bothering to defend Johnny, who'd brought her so much bad luck.

Mo whirled and went to tend his other customer.

Johnny lit another cigarette.  "Thanks, babe." Wheeze.  Gulp.  "I need money fast."

"I don't get paid till Monday." She clamped a hand over her mouth.  "It's none of your business when I get paid."

"I got you this great new gig. Your ship's about to come in.  You gotta help me, baby."

"That's what you said when you stole my royalties to buy those stolen tires and to pay your —"

"How was I — No-o-o.  Baby!" Puff.  Wheeze.  "I borrowed a little cash to pay a few gambling debts.  That's all!  Honest!  Now a couple of unreasonable guys are making unreasonable demands on a poor guy trying to make his top girl a star —"

"I'm not your girl anymore!"

"Are you going to help me or not?" He was so charged with fear his eyes stuck out on stems.

When would she ever learn?  She hated herself for being such a softie.

 

"How much?"

"You've gotta a big heart.  You can't say that about many girls in Vegas."

Just as she slid her fingers into her bra and pulled out what little money she had, the front door banged open, and two men in black, who instantly made her think of snakes, and she hated snakes, oozed inside.

"You'd better pay me back this time."

"Sure, baby."

When the snakes yelled Johnny's name, he grabbed the money and ran out the back way, screaming, "She has it."

The two men raced past her after him.  There was some sort of scuffle.  The men shouted.  Johnny squealed in pain.  Then his supercharged, fancy black Corvette drove away fast, tires spinning gravel.

She was asking Mo for more water, when the two snakes slithered quietly up behind her, grabbed her arms, and shoved her against the bar.

"Hey, take your hands off me!"

Both of them had black, beady eyes, snakes' eyes.  When their hot eyes drifted up and down her body, her heart raced.

"Johnny says you and he . . . He says you've got our money." The man who held her had olive skin, a big nose, and lots of pimples.

"I don't know what you're talking about." She began to shake.  Everybody in Vegas knew guys like this didn't play around.

"Nero has methods to freshen a girl's memory," the other snake said.  "We're in the collection business.  We specialize in gambling debts.  Our customers lose.  They borrow.  If they don't want to pay, we motivate them.  End of story."

The taller man was potato-pale.  Gold-rimmed glasses pinched his nose as he stared at her breasts.   "Name's The Pope.  You're cute.  You could work off some of Johnny's debt . . . if you get my drift."

"How much money does he owe you?" she whispered.  Her heart was really knocking now.

The Pope named a preposterous sum that made her gasp.

"Johnny says you rolled the dice for him," The Pope whispered.  "He says he gave you our money.  Pay us, and we're out of here."

"I don't have it."

"Then get it.  If you don't, we hurt you.  Understand, sexy girl?" Nero said, pinching her arms.

She shivered.  Oh, dear.  They weren't kidding.  Her eyes flew to the front door and to the back.  She had to run.  But before she took even one step, they read her mind.

"Oh, no you don't —"  Nero grabbed her by the hair, intending to haul her bodily out the door with him.  She bit his hand and then screamed for help.

On a howl of pain, he let her go.  Since The Pope was blocking both exits, she ran toward the ladies' room.  Nero would have chased her, but the wide-shouldered customer, who reminded her of Phillip, had sprung from the bar, stuck out a booted foot out and tripped him.

"The lady said to let her go," said a hard voice as the short, dark thug went sprawling into chairs and tables that toppled on top of him.

"Stay out of this.  The witch owes us money."

It was an exciting conversation.  She would have loved to have stayed and listened, but it didn't seem smart to stick around.  There was a window in the ladies' room just big enough for her to squeeze out of.

Once she made it to the ladies' room, the shouts from the bar got louder.  Mo must have tackled the other guy.

"You a cop?" The Pope yelled.

"He's got cop's eyes.  He moves like a cop, too —"

"We gotta blow this joint."

"What about her?"

"Later —"

"As Stella stood on the toilet and opened the window, a gun popped in the bar.  In a panic, she shoved her guitar through the window.  Then she scrambled out of it herself, only to lose her hold on the window frame and fall so hard, she nearly broke her ankle.

She got to her feet, straightened her ripped skirt and then fluffed her hair.  When she reached down to get her guitar, it wasn't there.

"A large hand curved out of the darkness, and she jumped about a foot and then moaned in pain because she'd landed with all her weight on her bad ankle.

"Easy.  I won't hurt you."

The big, handsome guy from the other end of the bar, the one who'd tripped Nero, held out her guitar.

She grabbed it and hugged it to her chest.

"Need a ride?" he asked in a hard, precise voice.

"As a matter of fact —" She blurted out her address.

"You can't go home.  Can't stay in Vegas either.  Not with those guys after you.  They'll kill you . . . or worse."

She gulped in a breath and then followed him to his sedan that was parked in the shadows.  "But — "

"Do you think those guys are going to quit if you can't give them what they want."

She swallowed.

"Honey, they know where you live."

"You're scaring me."

"After he helped into the front seat, he said, "Didn't your mama ever teach you never to ride with strangers?"

"I didn't have a mama."

He shut her door.  "Everybody has a mama."

When he slid behind the wheel, she said, "I was five when she died."

"Too bad." He started the engine and revved it.

"You don't know the half of it.  Foster homes.  Cinderella.  The whole bit.  Only without the prince.  But when I was little I used to sing with my mama on stage.  She told me I was going to be a star.  And . . . and I believed her.  But she died . . ."  Her voice shook.  "On a cheerier note, if you're a bad stranger, I can always beat you up with my guitar."

He laughed as they sped away.  "That'd be a waste of a good guitar and my head."

"Thanks for saving me."

"So, where to?"

"The bus station."

"And then?" he persisted.

"Texas." She was surprised by her answer.  Texas?

"Is that home?"

"Not exactly.  But I have an old boyfriend with a hero complex." Phillip — he was the only man she knew tough enough to save her if those guys ever caught up with her.  Oh, dear.  Phillip   —

"The poor sucker your song's about.  You left him, didn't you?"

"He'll still help me." He would.  She knew he would.

 

"What if he's married?"

"He's not."

"And you know this, how?"

She stared out the window at the bright glitter of Vegas.  She wasn't about to admit she'd kept tabs by reading the Mission Creek newspaper online, so she bit her lips and said nothing.

When they got to the bus station, he got out with her and carried her guitar to the ticket window.  Pulling out his wallet, he said, "You gave your sleazy manager all your money, didn't you —"

"No, but I left my purse in my . . . er . . . dressing room."

He counted out five one-hundred dollar bills.

"I don't need nearly that much."

"It's a loan." He handed her his card.

"I'll pay it back.  All of it.  I really will . . ."

His face was grim as she read his card.  "A.T.F.  You're A.T.F." Her voice softened when she read his name.  "Cole Yardley."

"Good luck," was all he said before he strode away.

"Thank you, Mr. Yardley," she whispered after him.  "Thank you." Although he'd refused to open up, something about him made her long for Phillip.

She broke the first hundred and bought a one way ticket to Mission Creek, Texas, where Phillip now lived.  Phillip's uncle had died, and he'd inherited the ranch and made it his home.

Oh, Phillip