A Surprising Scenario
The after-dinner crowd was exiting the Crystal Phoenix Hotel and Casino’s revolving rooftop restaurant, the Crystal Carousel.
Temple and Matt still stood at the head table, watching the last stragglers file up to Temple’s aunt Kit and Aldo Fontana farther down the table, congratulating them on their surprise engagement announcement. The nine bachelor Fontana brothers had been a Vegas institution until Temple’s novelist aunt from Manhattan, sixty and scintillating and devotedly single all her life, had hit town and hit the eldest Fontana brother, Aldo, "in the eye like a big pizza pie," as the old song went. That’s amore.
The dinner had celebrated Temple’s public relations triumph for her employers at the Phoenix: solving the murders at the Red Hat Sisterhood convention and saving the hotel from Bad Press Hell.
"We still could have said something about us," Matt whispered to her.
That "something" would have been the surprise announcement that Miss Temple Barr, Vegas’s premier freelance PR woman and occasional crime-solver, was engaged to be married to Mr. Matt Devine, more widely known as "Mr. Midnight" on a syndicated late-night radio counseling show.
This engagement had been more than a year in coming, since Matt, an ex-priest, had first come to Vegas searching for an abusive stepfather. He had subleased a condo in the same building Temple had lived in with her significant other, the missing magician, Max Kinsella, aka the Mystifying Max.
A lot had happened in a year. Max had returned after almost a year away, but Temple had already sympathized with the handsome ex-priest trying to settle old family matters and exchange his longtime celibacy for an enduring new love.
It had looked like Temple might be the one until Max—Temple’s earlier, tempestuous love—had turned up again. But Max was a man with a secret mission. A counterterrorism operative since his teens, a man with a price on his head was in no position to maintain a serious relationship, even with Temple trying her best to warm the embers of her old love.
Now, Max was mysteriously missing. Again. Now, Matt and Temple had committed the sin of full emotional and physical commitment. She had the engagement ring. All that was left was to arrange the church ceremony, blessing and legalizing their love.
Temple the woman could live with that. She would always love Max and wish him well, but a girl had to move on. Matt was a dream of a man, not only attractive, but decent and caring in the extreme. And she’d secretly wanted him, bad, for a long time. Ever since Max, for good secret agent reasons, had abandoned her so long for her own safety.
Temple the crime-solver chafed at the idea that Max could vanish for good and all this time, and she’d never know why. Or where. Or whether he was alive or dead.
Matt squeezed her hand. "A Sacajawea dollar for your thoughts." He knew where her feminist sentiments lay. But he didn’t need to know her still-raw regrets about Max.
She needed to tell Max her decision herself. She needed to say good-bye.
"Hey." A couple was coming up to address her and Matt, not the official lovebirds.
Some couple. It was Lieutenant C. R. Molina’s two top homicide detectives, the seasoned Morrie Alch and the petite but per sis tent Merry Su.
Su sparkled in her black sequin-trimmed riding jacket and thigh-high-slit slim black skirt. She looked like the Dragon Lady and had been acting that way toward Temple since Molina had asked the PR woman, and not Su, to go undercover as a teenager at a reality TV show shot in Las Vegas, on which Molina’s teen daughter was a contestant.
Alch, always the diplomat, drew Matt into conversation and edged away as if glad to escape his partner’s company for a bit. Su was a tenacious detective, but she could be abrasive. Temple understood that. Short, petite women like her and Su had to compensate somehow. Temple did it with an extensive high-heel collection. Su did it with nerve.
"I suppose," Su said, "you miss your pal Lieutenant Molina being here."
"Hardly my pal," Temple said. She and the tall, no-nonsense lieutenant had wrangled over Max and why he went missing and whether he’d committed an unsolved murder on the way out of town for more than a year.
Still. She would have loved Molina being in the audience when her engagement to Matt was announced. The half-Latina detective might have harbored a hankering for the dishy Polish-American ex-priest. They were the same religion, after all, and Molina had never married and must be pushing forty. Temple was on the cusp of thirty-one, and Matt was thirty-four.
Su smiled, always a bad sign. "The lieutenant hasn’t been in to work the last couple of days."
"Really," Temple said, unwilling to admit she was interested.
"The flu, they say."
"The Iron Maiden of the LVMPD never is out sick," Su continued.
Temple wasn’t surprised. Molina had never let up in her vendetta against Max. They’d even duked it out mano-a-mana (if there was such a thing) in a Strip club parking lot. Molina had finally caught Max and he needed to get away fast because he knew Temple was in danger of becoming the next Stripper Killer victim.
Su’s piquant face had a sly, triumphant look.
Payback time for Temple, a rank amateur, copping a prime undercover assignment she had wanted. It didn’t matter that it had frosted Molina’s tortillas to ask such a favor of an antagonist. Temple had gotten the job, not Su, who was as capable of looking sixteen as Temple was, if that was an advantage when one was almost thirty-one and aching to be taken seriously in life and love.
Su leaned close to whisper, at just the right level of Temple’s left ear.
"The rumor is that the lady lieutenant flipped and eloped with that hunky magician you used to call yours. That’s why Max Kinsella is missing. She is too! They’re off together on a quickie marriage license and making whoopee in some cheap motel."
Temple fought to look unruffied. No. Max would never— Molina would never—but look at Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Men like a challenge, and nobody liked a challenge more than Max. Strong women like stronger men. And Molina was a strong woman.
It made a kind of crazy sense.
Temple’s pulse was pounding in her . . . temples. She moved away from Su, who slunk into the waning crowd like a snake relieved of its poison. Temple was aghast. Disbelieving. Stunned. Betrayed. Jealous.
She looked for Matt, for a glimpse that would restore stability, remind her how much she loved and desired him.
He wasn’t there. Nobody still lingered at the head table. Everybody had drifted away without her noticing.
It wasn’t just Max anymore. It was everybody.
She gazed around.
The entire room was empty.
She was alone at the banquet table with its abandoned dessert plates and crumpled peach linen napkins.
This was a nightmare!
She needed somebody to tell her so, and nobody was there for her.
Not even the malicious Su anymore.
Max and Molina. Max and Carmen.
Temple swallowed. She wanted to shout the word, but she couldn’t.
She couldn’t move. Couldn’t speak, shout.
This was a nightmare.
She blinked her eyes open in the dark.
A warm hand was on her arm.
"Are you all right?" Matt’s voice came from the dark. "You were making almost strangling noises. Temple?"
Was she all right?
Obviously not, if she was still dreaming about Max.
Maybe this dream was the real good-bye. Her unconscious had paired Max with her worst enemy, the woman of her nightmares, and bid him adieu. Said good riddance to them both.
That was it. The dream was a sign any feelings for him were over. All gone. Gone with the Molina.
So revolting! Ugh.
"You’re cold," Matt said, tightening his grasp. "Let me warm you up."
Excerpted from Cat in a Sapphire Slipper by Carole Nelson Douglas
Copyright © 2008 by Carole Nelson Douglas
Published in September 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.