The Murder Between Us by Tal Bauer

The hallway was empty, not a soul in sight up or down its cavernous length. It was that in-between time for Vegas. Too late for families, too early for the partygoers. All the people who weren’t going out were in for the night, and those who were still going were going to last all night.

But not him. No, he was just going to have one drink. One look.

One, two, three steps. Noah shook out his arms, rolled his shoulders. Strode down the hall. He could do this.

He couldn’t do this. What had he been thinking?

The casino, if possible, was even more packed than earlier. The floor was brighter, louder. The slots were screaming, electric jangles and digital bells roaring. Neon and strobe lights slammed into him. Men and women, couples and groups, surged. Laughter and shouts rose from the gambling pit, the cocktail tables, the crowds by the slot machines.

He was adrift in a sea of humanity. No one else was alone like he was. Everyone he saw had someone. Friends, a significant other, a partner. Someone they were with. Except him.

The bar was dead ahead, a giant circle of raised marble in the center of the casino floor. He beelined for it, sliding into an open space and leaning on his elbows. He squeezed his eyes closed. What was he doing? He should go back to his room and turn on CNN. Again.

“Hey, honey!” A slim hand landed on his shoulder. Noah jerked, twisted—

It was the waitress from earlier. Her name tag, pinned low on her breast and drawing the eye to her cleavage, said Rachel. She leaned into his side, beaming, and one of her stocking-clad thighs rubbed against his leg. “Uh—” he stammered.

“Ditch your friends?” Her gaze flicked down, taking in his change of clothes. Her eyes seemed to ignite, and her smile, when she looked up, was different. Hungrier. “Hanging around for a bit, sexy?”

Noah swallowed hard. “I… I don’t know.” He shook his head. He couldn’t think. She was too close. Her breasts were pushing against his arm. As gingerly as he could, he shifted away, putting centimeters between his body and hers. “I only came down for one drink.”

As quickly as she’d lit up, she became completely uninterested. She shifted away and flicked her hair, sending her long, black tresses over one shoulder. “If you’re here for a drink, Philippe will get you one.” She caught the bartender’s eye and jerked her chin to Noah, then pushed back from the bar top. “Enjoy your night.”

“Have a good night, too,” Noah tried to say, but he was speaking to her back as she strode away, smiling at new people, taking drink orders effortlessly and batting her eyes at the men with the tallest stacks of chips in front of them at the blackjack tables.

“What’ll it be?” a gruff voice barked. Philippe, behind the bar, was six feet of solid muscle. He had long hair pulled back in a ponytail, and his black T-shirt wasn’t just tight, it was stretched so thin Noah could almost see the individual fibers struggling to hold on to their atomic bonds. Philippe glowered down at Noah, rubbing his hammer-sized hands in a bar towel.

“Whiskey, please. Jameson on the rocks.”

Philippe nodded and poured his drink silently, then slid it across the bar top. “Twenty-four dollars.”

Jesus. He didn’t know which to be more confused by, the outrageous price or Philippe’s hostility. How had he pissed off two people in less than a minute? You’re not in Kansas anymore. Or Iowa, even. He opened his wallet, thumbed out thirty dollars, and slid the bills to Philippe. Philippe pocketed the cash and walked off.

And then Noah was alone again, sandwiched between two groups of businessmen who had passed tipsy an hour ago and were howling at stories that were being told louder and louder. Elbows jostled him, and a man in a blue sport coat backed into his hip, barely grunting an apology before Noah spread his arms and tried to stake out his territory a bit better. Maybe he should take his drink and go. Walk. Find somewhere else to be. Hell, he could sit in front of a slot machine and get ignored by Rachel and have a better time.

Or he could go back upstairs.

So much for his big try.

Sighing, he slumped forward, head down, fingers twirling his glass on the marble bar top. Ice sloshed and slipped in and out of the amber liquid.

This wasn’t him. He wasn’t this uneasy, this out of his element. He was forty years old, not fourteen. Too old, maybe, for this. He gave himself a silent toast—Hey, you tried, have a participation trophy—and downed the rest of the whiskey.

He caught sight of a man staring at him across the bar. An attractive—Jesus, he was really handsome—man. His blond hair shone under the bar’s lights, and his head was tilted to the side, just so. A tiny smile played on his lips as if he was laughing at some inside joke he and Noah shared.