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Behind every badass man is a woman who does one of two things: either she turns him into a more badass man, or she mellows him out when he needs it.
An extraordinary woman can do both.
Dahlia walked into the jewelry store on Village Center Circle. The gorgeous, young blond behind the counter greeted her.
“Good morning, Mrs. Millward. Great to see you again. How can I help you?”
The girl was new, which in this store meant she’d been here less than two years. Many of the jewelers and even counter people had been here well over a decade, the old man in the back, since the store opened in the early 1970s.
“Good morning, darling. I have a party to attend, and I need some very special jewelry.”
The girl’s face brightened. Dahlia knew why. The girl knew she was going to make a sale, and it would be a large one. But Dahlia also knew the commission would probably not go to her.
She walked to the counter anyway.
“Bradford said he had something new.”
The girl brightened even further, if that was possible. “We do have a new line of diamonds, acquired carefully from Africa—”
Dahlia cut her off, but politely. “Thanks, darling. I know. And I do appreciate you trying to tell me more about them. But I have only a limited time.”
“Certainly.” The new blond moved to a phone and dialed a number. Dahlia saw her lips moving but couldn’t hear what she said.
“He’ll be right out.” The girl, Dahlia could not remember her name, moved to one of the other counters, straightening and cleaning the items in the case there.
“Dahlia!” an enthusiastic man in a checkered suit, an eye-popping and grotesque purple and pink plaid that made her eyes hurt, rushed out of the back room. He was thin, too thin really, and wore thick, black rimmed glasses.
He didn’t look like a man in his sixties, and his nerdy, flashy look also didn’t give away his brilliance and skill either. But he was both.
He’d been in Vegas for a long time, one of the safest havens for a gay man in the eighties when communities had either been fully accepting or openly hostile.
There had been little middle ground at that time, and Bradford had found his home in this jewelry store. She often wondered if he ever left, or if he actually lived somewhere in the back.
She’d invited him several times but had never seen him at one of her husband’s many parties. She knew the reason: he sold jewelry to everyone in every organization, legitimate and illegitimate. He couldn’t be seen taking sides.
“Hey gorgeous,” she said.
“Oh, keep that gorgeous talk to yourself,” he said. He leaned over the counter, and she leaned to meet him. He kissed her lightly on each cheek.
“It is great to see you. Do you have something for me?”
“I do,” he said. “I actually designed a special piece for you. If you love it, I’ll put the finishing touches on it.”
“I do have a special event coming up.”
“Two weeks? That’s an eternity for me. Let me grab my sketches.”
“Okay,” she said.
He disappeared and reappeared seconds later with a velvet cloth and a large piece of paper.
He laid first the felt on the counter, and then lay the paper on top of it.
Dahlia inhaled sharply.
The design was gorgeous, a combination of gold and diamonds, and even mixed with a little Onyx. “Can I see a sample of the gold?”
“Sure,” he said. There was a sparkle in his eyes. He knew he’d impressed her.
Bradford disappeared for a second, and then reappeared. Over one delicate hand he held a dangling gold chain, not too thick, but not thin either, just the kind she liked best.
She took it carefully from him and laid it across the chocolate skin of her wrist, next to a bracelet purchased here, one with a similar gold color, and several diamonds inset in an intricate pattern.
Custom creations were the only way to go.
She looked back at his sketch. The design showed two playing cars, both clubs, fanned like they were on a table. The top one was a queen, regal in design, a noble woman with sharp cheekbones and a soft chin staring forward. The intricate detail in something that would be so small would be exquisite.
“The eyes will be yellow diamonds,” he told her. “White diamonds will make up the clubs, with an onyx in the center. Rubies will decorate the queen’s dress, here, here, and here.”
He pointed, but she grabbed his hand as he did.
“No, not rubies. Emeralds. Green, please.”
“Of course,” he said, gripping her hand with his own.
“What will the pieces be?”
“I figured a matching set. A pendant on a necklace, like this one,” he said, flipping the paper over to another sketch. “And a bracelet and earrings based on the same idea.”
“I love it. Do it. I trust your artistry.”
The man smiled at her, and Dahlia smiled back. The occasion she was purchasing this for was more special than he could know, but she didn’t want to share it with him.
Or anyone just yet.
What she liked most was that the queen was over the ace in the design. The ace was in the background.
It revealed the truth of her situation, a truth that would soon become evident to others as well, others who did not know her other than as an extension of her husband. It was a foolish myth.
One she would be busting very soon.
“I’ll get to work, darling,” he told her, taking his hand away.
“Can I pick it up next Thursday?”
“Of course,” he said.
She left, headed to her Mercedes in the parking lot, a convertible, and one of three vehicles that were hers, not Ace’s. She could have had a driver, even more expensive cars.
But she liked to drive, and she had her own taste in vehicles.
Her husband thought he knew her tastes, everything about her. He was about to learn differently.
* * *
Bradford headed for the back room as soon as she left. He picked up a phone and dialed a number.
“Do you have any hearts?” a voice answered.
“Yes,” he said.
“Queen of Clubs.”
“Two weeks,” he said, and hung up.
* * *
“You’ll be the perfect one to find Jack,” Ace told her.
Cynthia, real name Janice, cover blown, sat in a plush chair that under other circumstances would have been comfortable. A polished expanse of walnut stretched between her and the man behind the desk. Behind him, a bank of monitors showed every location in what appeared to be a large casino. Every now and then the images changed as one or more screens switched cameras.
A couple showed the street outside, the boardwalk behind the building, the sidewalks on the side.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “You know who I am, who I really am?”
“You know who I work for?”
“I know who you think you work for. The Nevada Gaming Commission, the FBI, and maybe someone else?” the last part turned into a question.
Janice ignored it. “Despite all that, all you want me to do in exchange for my life is to find this guy named Jack?”
Janice knew him. She’d seen him once. Scars all over his right side, walked with a cane, kept his hat low and sunglasses on all the time.
There was always a dog with him. A Doberman? She thought so.
He’d been with Red Hat, the dude who’d thrown money at her outside—where had she been?
It didn’t matter. Exhaustion struck her like a pillow, soft, comforting, and inspiring sleep.
Ace smiled as he watched her process her situation. “Yes, that is the deal.”
“And if I don’t find him?”
The man shrugged. “You know the stakes. You have resources at your disposal. Use them.”
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