Las Vegas, Nevada
He'd known all day that something was about to go down, something life-changing and entirely new. The knowledge had prickled in his gut and shivered in the fine hairs on the nape of his neck throughout the marathon poker games played in his favorite seedy, back-street gambling joint. He'd ignored the subtle mind-buzz as a minor distractionit didn't have the usual elements of actual danger. But now, with a wad of folded bills his winningsshoved into the shaft of his left boot, Dylan Creed knew he'd better watch it, just the same.
Down in Glitter Gulch, there were crowds of people, security goons hired by the megacasinos to make sure their walking ATMs didn't get roughed up or rolled, or both, cops and cameras everywhere. Here, behind the Black Rose Cowboy Bar and Card Room, home of the hard-core poker players who scorned glitz, there was one failing streetlight, an overflowing Dumpster, a handful of rusty old cars and, at the periphery of his vision, a rat the size of a raccoon.
While he loved a good fight, being a Creed, born and bred, Dylan was nobody's fool. A tire iron to the back of the head and being relieved of the day's takefifty-odd thousand dollars in cashwas not on his to-do list.
He walked toward his gleaming red extended-cab Ford pickup with his customary confidence, and probably looked like a hapless rube to anybody who might be lurking behind that Dumpster, or one of the other cars or just in the shadows.
Someone was definitely watching him; he could feel it now, a for-sure kind of thingbut it was more annoying than alarming. He'd learned early in his life, though, just by being Jake Creed's middle son, that the presence of another person, or persons, charged the atmosphere with a crackle of energy.
Just in case, he reached inside his ancient denim jacket, closed his fingers loosely around the handle of the snub-nosed .45 he carried on his frequent gambling junkets. Garth Brooks might have friends in low places like the Black Rose, but he didn't. Only sore losers, crooks and card sharps hung out in this neighborhood, and Dylan Creed fell into the latter category.
He was within six feet of the truck before he realized there was someone sitting in the passenger seat. He debated whether to draw the .45 or his cell phone in the split second it took to recognize Bonnie.
Bonnie. His two-year-old daughter stood on the seat, grinning at him through the glass.
Dylan sprinted to the driver's side, scrambled in and lost his hat when the little girl flung herself on him, her arms tight around his neck.
With his elbow, Dylan tapped the lock-button on his armrest.
"Daddy," Bonnie said. At least, in his mind the kid's name was BonnieSharlene, her mother, had changed it several times, according to the latest whim.
"Hey, babe," Dylan said, loosening his grip a little because he was afraid of crushing the munchkin. "Where's your mom?"
Bonnie drew back to look at him with enormous blue eyes, thick-lashed. Her short blond hair curled in wisps around her ears, and she was wearing beat-up bib overalls, a striped T-shirt and flip-flops for shoes.
I'm only two, her expression seemed to say. How should I know where my mom is?
Dylan turned, keeping one arm around Bonnie, and buzzed down the window. "Sharlene!" he yelled into the dark parking lot.
There was no answer, of course, and he knew by the shift in the vibes he'd been picking up since he stepped through the back door of the Rose that his onetime girlfriend had bailed. Again.
Only this time, she'd left Bonnie behind.
He wanted to swear, even pound the steering wheel once with his fist, but you didn't do things like that with a kid around. Not if you'd grown up in an alcoholic cement mixer of a home, like he and his brothers, Logan and Tyler, had, jumping at every thump and bump. And there was more to it than that: besides the fact that he didn't want to scare Bonnie, he felt a strange undercurrent of exhilaration.
He seldom saw his daughter, thanks to Sharlene's gypsy waysthough she always managed to cash his child-support checksand being separated from Bonnie, never knowing what was happening to her, ached inside him like a bruise to the soul.
Bonnie settled into his lap, laid her head against his chest, gave a shuddery little sigh. Maybe it was relief, maybe it was resignation.
She'd probably had one hell of a day, given how the night was shaping up.
Dylan propped his chin on top of her head for a moment, his eyes burning and his throat as hot as if he'd tried to swallow a red-ended branding iron. He leaned forward, turned the key in the ignition, shifted gears.
Logan. That was his next thought. He had to get to Logan. His brother was a lawyer, after all. And while Dylan had the money to pay any shyster in the country, and he and Logan were sort of on the outs, he knew there was no one else he could trust with something this important.
Bonnie was his child, as well as Sharlene's, and by God, she deserved a stable home, decent clothesthe getup she was wearing looked as if it had doubled as a dog bed for a year or twoand at least one responsible parent.
Not that he was all that responsible. He'd been a rodeo bum for years, and now he was a poker bum. He had all the money he'd ever need, thanks to a certain shrewd investment and a spooky tendency to draw a royal flush once in practically every game, and he'd done some high-paying stunt work for the movies, too.
Compared to Sharlene, for all his rambling, he was a contender for Parent of the Year.
He didn't find the note and the shabby duffel bag on the backseat until he got out to South Point, his favorite hotel. Holding a sleepy Bonnie in the curve of one arm while he stood waiting for a valet to take the truck, he read the note.
I'm having some problems, Sharlene had scrawled in her childlike handwriting, slanting so far to the left that it almost lay flat against the lines on the cheap notebook paper, and I can't take care of Aurora anymore. Aurora, now? Jesus, what nextOprah? I thought giving her to you would be better than putting her in foster care. I went that route, and it sucked. Don't try to find me. I've got a boyfriend and we're hitting the road. Sharlene.
Dylan unclamped his back molars, shifted Bonnie's weight so he could take the ticket from the parking guy and then grab the duffel bag. He'd have his own gear sent over from Madeline's place, where he usually crashed when he was passing through Vegas. Madeline wouldn't like it, but he wasn't about to take his two-year-old daughter there.
South Point was a sprawling, brightly lit hotel. Dylan stayed there whenever he came to the National Finals Rodeoif Madeline, a flight attendant, was on one of her overseas runs or seeing somebody else at the time and the establishment was family-friendly.
He and Bonnie were family.
There you had it.
After he'd booked a room with two massive beds, he ordered room-service hamburgers, French fries and milk shakes. While they waited, Bonnie, only half-awake, lay curled on her side on the bed farthest from the door, her right thumb jammed into her mouth, her eyes following every move he made.
"You're gonna be okay, kiddo," he told her.
She looked so small, and so vulnerable, lying there in her ragbag clothes. "Daddy," she said, and yawned broadly before pulling on her thumb again, this time with vigor.
"That's right," Dylan answered, turning from the phone to the duffel bag. Inside were more clothes like the ones she was wearing, a kid-size toothbrush with the bristles worn flat and a naked plastic baby doll with Ubangi hair and blue ink marks on its face. "I'm your daddy. And it looks like we'll be doing some shoppin' in the morning, you and me."
There were no pajamas. No socks. No real shoes, for that matter. Just two more pairs of overalls, two more sad-looking T-shirts, the doll and the toothbrush.
Rage simmered midway down Dylan's gullet. Damn it, what was Sharlene doing with the money he sent to that post office box in Topeka every month? He knew by the way the substantial check always cleared his bank before the ink was dry that her grandmother picked it up for her, the day it came in, and overnighted it to wherever "Sharlie" happened to be.
He had his suspicions, naturally, regarding Sharlene's spending habitscocaine, animal-print spandex, tattoos for the fathead boyfriend du jour, if not herself. Bonnie, most likely, had subsisted on fast food and frozen pizza.
Dylan's jaw tightened to the point of pain; he consciously relaxed it. None of this was Bonnie's doing. Unlike him, unlike Sharlene, she was innocent, forced to live with the consequences of other people's mistakes.
Not anymore, he vowed silently.
Much as he would have liked to put all the blame on Sharlene, he knew it wouldn't be fair. He'd known whoand whatshe was when he'd slept with her, nearly three years ago, after a rodeo, in a town he couldn't even remember the name of now. They'd holed up in a cheap room and had sex for a week, then gone their separate ways. A few clueless months later, Sharlene had tracked him down and told him she was expecting his baby.
And he'd known it was true, long before he'd even laid eyes on Bonnie and seen her resemblance to him, the same way he'd known he wasn't alone in the parking lot behind the Black Rose.
Listless with fatigue and probably confusion, Bonnie merely nibbled when the room-service food came, and then fell asleep in her overalls. Was she still on formula or something? Should he send a bellman into town for baby bottles and milk?
He sighed, shoved a hand through his tangled hair.
In the morning, he'd take Bonnie to a pediatricianafter buying her some decent clothes so the doc wouldn't put a call through to Child Protective Services the minute they walked infor a routine exam and to find out what the hell two-year-olds actually ate.
When he was sure Bonnie was sound asleep, the bedspread tucked around her, he called ...