The Murder Between Us by Tal Bauer

“You got it.” They pulled away and merged into the neon buzz of the Strip. Lights flickered across Cole’s features, pink and blue and strobing yellow carving into and out of his eyes, over his cheekbones, and falling from the cliff of his jaw. His pupils shone as he stared at Noah, watching him for the length of the drive.

Which wasn’t long. Gregoire pulled into the meandering drive of the Aria, one of the handful of five-star luxury resorts on the Strip, and brought them to the lobby’s front door. “Welcome back, Cole,” Gregoire said, hopping out of the driver’s seat to grab their door.

Noah’s eyes darted around the Cadillac SUV, the Aria’s entry, and Gregoire, before returning to Cole. What was happening? They’d purposely shied away from personal details, Noah because he didn’t want to drag his professional life into this night and Cole because… Because he didn’t want to admit he had a private driver and was staying at the Strip’s most luxurious address? Who was he?

Dizzy, Noah slid out of the SUV, holding on to Cole’s hand for a moment before squeezing and letting go. Cole, ever the gentleman, smiled and fell in step a half second ahead, enough so that he could grab the door for Noah as they made their way into the Aria.

What was he doing here? He looked around at the soaring ceilings and the multistory fountains, wreathed in paper lanterns, that filled the football-field-length lobby. High heels click-clacked, echoing on the marble. The noise in the Aria was more subdued, more dignified, than at the bar and casino in Noah’s hotel. Of course, his hotel was nothing but a three-star, where anyone who came to Vegas could stay. At the Aria, you probably needed a credit check just to book a room.

“Can I buy you a nightcap?” Cole beckoned him toward the late-night bar, a cloistered, private enclave that opened onto a patio surrounded by a lagoon bedecked in flickering lanterns. Candles floated on the water’s surface, bobbing in the neon lights of the Strip reflected off the Aria’s mirrored exterior.

They were alone on the patio. In the silence and the darkness, Cole took Noah’s hand again and led him to a table at the water’s edge. A server appeared, and Cole ordered a split of champagne. Noah didn’t know his champagnes, but what Cole ordered sounded exceptionally French, and it wasn’t any label he recognized from the grocery store aisles. He must have fallen into a fairy tale sometime this evening. How else could he explain this night? Cole, and everything that had happened?

Maybe he was asleep. Maybe he’d wake up drooling on himself as CNN droned in the background.

He squeezed Cole’s hand until it hurt. Cole squeezed back.

“You’re from the Midwest, right?” Cole asked after a moment.

Noah started. “I am. How did you know?”

“I have a weakness for men from the Midwest.” Cole winked. “There’s something indefinable about midwesterners. Something very Norman Rockwell. The stereotype, of course, is the hard worker, the show-me, take-no-bullshit uprightness, but it’s more than that. I think midwesterners are…” Cole bit his lip. “Genuine. In a way that can be hard to find nowadays.”

“Where are you from?” He half expected Cole to say the Aria, that he lived here in the penthouse. Or he was the owner. Stranger things had happened. Never to Noah, but there was a first time for everything.

“I live on the East Coast now, but I was born in Orange County.”

Was he an investment banker? Did he work on Wall Street? Or maybe he had a private practice somewhere wealthy, a psychologist’s office where he listened to the stay-at-home mothers of Manhattan or Westchester County weave their troubles. Listened to stockbrokers scream into his couch pillows and cautioned them not to jump. He probably made and lost in an afternoon what Noah earned in an entire year. Vegas. Where you can meet anyone. “And now you’re in the Aria?” Noah imagined a room here for a week was all of his monthly salary.

Cole smiled. “I appreciate the best and finest things in life.” His gaze lasered into Noah as he sipped his champagne. Cole’s thumb brushed over the back of his hand.

“Do you like older guys?” He squinted, scrunching up his face before glancing at Cole.

“I like you.”

Noah swallowed.

“Did you have a good time? And did tonight answer any of your questions?” Cole’s thumb kept running over his knuckles. The waterfall at the dark end of the lagoon trickled, its burbles and babbles the backdrop in this corner of Vegas seemingly carved out just for them. Who knew—maybe Cole had paid to keep the bar open for them alone?