Natural Instincts

by Luna Dey

AUTHOR'S NOTES: I'd like to thank Sarah for thinking up this great new AU, and allowing us to play in her sandbox. Another big thank you goes to our beta, Antoinette/RiverOtter. Your help and guidance is greatly appreciated.

DISCLAIMER: Mag7/Las Vegas alternate universe was created by Sarah (aka Midnight Profit) and is based on the "Las Vegas" TV series. This AU is not related to the Mag7/Las Vegas RPG created by Lisa O. and Ruby. Trilogy, MGM, and the Mirish Corporation own "The Magnificent Seven" characters. NBC Studios, NBC Universal Television, DreamWorks Television, and Gary Scott Thompson Productions own "Las Vegas." They are not mine. The only purpose of this story is for entertainment. No money is being made.

Vegas AU Bios
Glossary of Vegas Terms
Putting Together a Security Team (AU Intro)

Buck Wilmington looked around the adult pool area. One of his whales had called him and asked him to meet her there to discuss her desired activities while she was at the Montecito. As far as he was concerned the opening of the topless pool was one of the best ideas the Montecito planners had ever come up with.

"Hello darlin'." Buck grinned at a busty young blonde laid out in the sun. "Anything ol' Buck can do to make your stay a little more comfortable? Lotion maybe? I'm good with my hands."

She opened her eyes and looked up at him with a smug smile. "Not unless you have a death wish." She glanced past him and winked at someone behind him.

"This old fart bothering you Cherice?"

"Old fart? Who you callin' an old fart?" Buck turned to face the bulked up younger man, who sported biceps the size of tree trunks. "I might have a few more years on me, but I prefer to call it aging like a fine wine. I just get better with each passin' year." He looked the guy over from top to bottom, noticing the tiny speedo swim trunks. "Course fellas like you get to where you can't do it any more because the steroids shrink your peckers."

A stifled laugh brought his attention back to the blonde. "Now darlin', if you ever get tired of 'Mr. I wish I could' over there, you just give ol' Buck a call, 'cause I know I can." He winked at her, glared at her boyfriend, and returned to his search for his whale.

A couple more minutes searching and he located his client in one of the cabanas. Ms. Candice Fletcher might be in her early forties, but she was still one fine looking woman, and it was all Buck could do to stay focused on her face and not the surgically enhanced breasts she had on display.

"Buck, you are a dear to meet me out here," she purred. "I was loathe to get dressed to come inside. I do so love the freedom of being nude, don't you?" She stretched her arms over her head, causing her breasts to appear that much fuller.

"Well, I suppose that might depend on the circumstances." He sat down in one of the extra chairs to avoid an embarrassing display. "Now, what can I do for you, Ms. Fletcher?"

"Oh, please, call me Candy." She smiled coyly and fluttered her lashes. "Ms. Fletcher sounds like my mother."

"All right, Candy. What can I do for you?" Buck shifted in his seat and tried to look casual.

"I really need tickets to Wayne Newton tonight. I promised some friends we were going." She sat up, and reached to the small table between them to pour him a glass of champagne. "You can do that for me can't you Buckie?"

"Certainly." Buck's voice got stuck in his throat for a moment and he cleared his throat. "How many do you need?"

"Four. Oh, and I promised they could meet him after the show." She handed Buck the champagne and caressed his fingers as she let go of the glass.

"Of course you did."

"Can't you arrange that? The host at the Palms never had any trouble." Candy stretched back out in the chaise lounge and pouted.

"I didn't say that," Buck hedged. "I simply meant that of course that would naturally have to be part of the evening."

"Good." Her smile turned sultry and Buck swore he saw her wink at him. "I'll be in my room in about an hour. Bring the tickets there when you get them. I need to get ready if I'm going to meet Wayne Newton."

"Fine." Buck began to sweat. Where the hell was he going to get four tickets to a show that sold out months in advance in only an hour? "I'll see you then."

He set the untouched glass down and hurried out of the cabana. This was going to take some serious groveling and calling in favors. He waited only until he got out of earshot before he was on his phone searching for tickets.

Exactly one hour later Buck knocked on the door to the Regency Suite. When he heard a lady's voice tell him to come on in, he tried the door and found it open. "Ms. Fletcher?" He waited and got no answer. "Candy?"

"You are just in time." Candy walked out of the bedroom dressed only in a pair of thong panties and a bra that covered next to nothing. In her hands she carried two dresses and she held them up for Buck to see. "I can't decide which one to wear. What do you think?"

"They are both lovely." Buck tried to get out of picking one, and he tried not to stare at the buxom brunette in front of him.

"I know, but this is a special night. Here, let me put them on and then you can tell better." She stepped into the first dress and wiggled it up over her hips and finally slipped her arms through the openings. "Would you be a dear and zip me up please?"

"Sure." Careful not to touch her skin, he eased the zipper up and backed away.

Candy turned and struck a seductive pose. "What do you think of this one?" The dress revealed as much of her breasts as possible without crossing the line. It fit like she had been melted down and poured into it, and she looked stunning.

"Beautiful. That vibrant blue silk really suits you."

"Okay, now unzip me so I can show you the other one." She turned her back to him and waited for him to help her out of the dress. The second one was a scarlet red sequin, with a deep V-neckline and cut down so low in the back that it should have been illegal. It hit her several inches above the knees and had a high slit over one leg. "Well?"

"If you are intending to get Mr. Newton's attention, I'd say the red one should do it." Buck swallowed hard and glanced to the door wishing he could get out of there, but he couldn't do something that might offend a whale.

"You really think so? Good. I do too." Without a word she hurried out of the room and then came back with several pair of shoes. "What about these?" She slipped on a pair of red stiletto heels that looked painful to him.


"Only nice?" She frowned and took them off. "Try these." After several other pairs, she slipped on a pair of high-heeled strappy sandals that looked like they were covered in diamonds.

Buck let out a low whistle at the dazzling effect they had when combined with the dress, and thought that if most forty-something women looked like Candy Fletcher, he'd stop chasing younger women.

"These are the ones then. Thank you! You've been such a great help."

Before he knew what she intended she'd pressed herself to him and pulled his face down to hers for a heated kiss. He tried not to encourage her, and even went so far as to put his hands on her shoulders and try to separate them, but she continued to cling to him, running her hands through his hair, mashing and biting his lips, and squeezing his arms so hard that he knew he would have bruises. It was like being kissed by an octopus. When she finally let go, he stepped quickly away from her before she could change her mind and grab him again.

"Oh dear. I didn't mean to embarrass you. I just wanted to thank you for everything you've done." Her voice sounded apologetic, but she was definitely undressing him with her eyes.

"Well, thank you, but I was just doing my job." He pulled the tickets from his pocket and laid them on the table. "I hope you and your friends have a great evening."

The door was several feet away, but he reached it in two or three steps and bolted out into the hall, closing the door firmly behind him. He didn't slow down until he was in the elevator on his way down to the first floor.

Inside, he slumped against the wall. His arms hurt and unconsciously he rubbed at them, then tried to smooth out his rumpled hair. There was the distinct taste of blood in his mouth and he gingerly touched his swollen bottom lip, realizing that she had bitten it hard enough to draw blood. It always scared him when one of the married women did something like that, because any minute her husband could walk in and totally get the wrong idea.

When the door opened on the first floor he hurried out, head down, and ran straight into Nathan. "Oh, sorry. Guess I need to look where I'm going."

"That's okay." The hotel doctor studied Buck. "What happened to you?

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"Well, your lip's all swollen and bleeding, and you have welts on the side of your face." He stepped a little closer and stared at the wounds. "You want me to take a look at that?"

"Nah. It ain't nothing. Thanks anyway." Buck ducked his head and hurried on down the hall before Nathan could ask any more questions. Around the corner, he popped into the men's room and looked at his reflection in the mirror. He looked like he'd been in a catfight. The welts on his face confused him for a minute, and then he remembered feeling her nails scrape him at the same time she bit his lip. "Damn that woman," he muttered under his breath. "What the hell got into her to go actin' like that?"

One thing for sure, he couldn't go out on the floor looking like this. Letting the water run until it was as cold as it would get, he soaked several paper towels and held them against the welts on his face, wishing they would go away quickly.

Chris slammed his way into the surveillance room with Nathan hot on his heals. "WHERE THE HELL IS BUCK?"

JD jumped and twisted around to look at his boss, his mouth hanging open in shock.

"Don't know, but I'll see if I can spot him," Vin said.

"Find him," Chris growled, "and when you do you tell him I want him in my office immediately."

"I'm on it." Vin busied himself starting the facial recognition software and setting it to scan through the images from all the cameras. It came back with no match. "What the hell?"

"He's got to be here." JD started the program again just to be sure. Still no match. "I'll have it check for the last time he was seen."

After a couple minutes the image they wanted came up on the monitor, and it showed Buck ducking into the men's room around the corner from the elevators. "No wonder we couldn't find him. He must still be in there." Vin looked at the time stamp on the image. "He's been in there nearly twenty minutes. I'll go down and get him."

"No, I'll go." JD jumped up before Vin could and grabbed his jacket on the way out the door. He jogged down the employee corridors and slowed to a fast walk just as he exited onto the casino floor.

He wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted him when he opened the door. Buck stood there, bloody paper towels in the sink, and more wet ones pressed to the side of his face. "What the hell happened to you?"

"Nothing." Buck quickly gathered the used paper towels and tossed them into the trash bin. "Just a little accident."

"Doesn't look so little to me." JD tried to get a better look at his friend's face, but Buck kept turning away from him. "Uh...Chris wants you in his office."

"Tell him I'll be there in a few minutes."

"He said immediately, and he was madder than I've ever seen him." The last thing he wanted to do was to have to go tell Chris that Buck wasn't coming yet. "I really wouldn't make him wait, if I were you."

"Fine!" Buck snapped, and pushed out past JD. He moved briskly to the employees only door and avoided direct contact with anyone on the way.

JD practically had to run to keep up with him, and he burst into the corridor only a second or two behind Buck. He was worried about this man that he had come to think of as his big brother. It was always Buck that was looking out for him, and now he sort of understood why Buck got so obsessed when something happened to him. It was like having part of your family in trouble, and it was scary as hell.

The door to the surveillance room slammed open for the second time in the past fifteen minutes, and Buck stormed in followed closely by JD. He took the steps up to Chris's office two at a time and didn't even knock before opening the door and then slamming it shut behind him.

"Wow!" JD was stunned. "Wonder what that's all about?"

"Dunno, Kid." Vin glanced up at the glass wall of Chris's office and shook his head. "I reckon we'll find out when they want us to know."

"Where the hell have you been?" Chris yelled at Buck before he'd taken two steps into the office.

"I was in the can, as if it is any business of yours," Buck snapped back.

"Right now it is my business. Sit down." Chris watched his oldest friend collapse into one of the chairs in front of his desk, refusing to look up at him or Nathan. "Buck, we have one hell of a big problem, and this isn't the time for you to get pissy with me. Look at me!"

Defiantly, Buck raised his head and locked eyes with Chris. "What kind of problem?"

"You!" Chris stated. "We just came from Ms. Fletcher's suite, and she's nearly hysterical. She said that you attacked her."

"WHAT? You can't be serious?" Buck appeared stunned.

"She said that you walked in unannounced and caught her in her underwear, then tried to force yourself on her." Chris took in Buck's appearance and his heart sank. "She said that she managed to fight you off, by scratching and biting you, and that she dug her nails into your arms." He hated what he had to do next. "Buck, take off your shirt. I need to see your arms."

"Chris, you don't really believe this do you?" Buck's eyes pleaded with Chris to believe him.

"I don't want to, but I have to investigate this." He couldn't allow his feelings for this man to dictate how he handled the complaint. "Take off your shirt."

Buck stood up and unbuttoned the dress shirt he was wearing. His job as a host didn't always require suit and tie. When he pulled it off his shoulders there were red marks and early signs of bruising that were clearly from being grabbed.

"Chris, you know me better than that. I've never... NEVER...forced a woman." He closed his eyes a moment and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, he continued. "You know my past. Hell, my mama would rise right up outta her grave and throttle me within an inch of my life if I even thought about forcing a woman."

"I know, but look at yourself."

"Buck, your lip is swollen and it was bleeding when I bumped into you when you got out of the elevator. You had scratch marks on your face and you can still see red marks there." Nathan pointed out the obvious. "And you've got new bruises on your arms."

"I didn't force myself on her. Nothing happened, except she kissed me."

Chris took several deep breaths and tried to calm down more before saying any else. Putting Buck on the defensive would not help matters at all, and he really wanted to believe him, but things looked bad for his friend. "Okay. Tell me your version of what happened. Start at the beginning."

"She had me meet her at the topless pool to talk to me about show tickets she wanted me to get for her, and she told me to meet her at her room when I got them." Buck slipped his shirt back on and buttoned it as he talked. "When I got there and knocked she called out to me to come on in, so I did. Then she comes walkin' outta the bedroom in nothing but her underwear, carrying two dresses and asked me which one she should wear." He looked up at Chris and sighed. "Hell, you know how this job is. When it's a whale you do anything they ask you."

Chris nodded. He did know how that worked. He'd seen some of the whales ask Buck to do some really unusual things. He'd even heard Buck telling about one whale that had Buck come into the bathroom, where he was making out with two naked women in the Jacuzzi, so he could talk to him about setting up a trip to a strip bar. "Go on."

"She decided to try them on so I could see them, and had me zip and unzip them for her as she tried each one on. When she decided on a dress, she started pickin' out shoes." Buck shrugged. "So far it wasn't anything that unusual. I've had stuff like that happen before. But once she got things picked out she threw her arms around me and kissed me. Kissed me hard and wouldn't let go. I tried to push her away, but I couldn't be to rough about it. She's a whale for God's sake. She just kept getting rougher and bit my lip and scratched my face while she kept grabbing me and wrapping her arms around me. At some point she must have grabbed my arms too. I swear, Chris. I didn't do anything to her; she did it to me. I just figured she was one of those women who liked it rough."

"I've known you a long time, and I've never known you to do anything to hurt a woman," Chris said. "I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and not suspend you while we investigate this farther, but Buck, whatever you do don't do or say anything to any woman here that might be misinterpreted, and don't go into any of their rooms alone with them until we get this resolved."

"Okay. Whatever you say." Buck was clearly grateful. "Just find out why she's setting me up like this."

"We will. Do you have any other whales or VIPs to deal with tonight?"

"No, I've got everyone set up."

"Good, then take the rest of the evening off. That way if Ms. Fletcher comes out of her room she won't run into you so soon." Chris meant that as a dismissal and Buck took it as one. He hurried out of the office and left without speaking to Vin or JD.

"I don't get you," Nathan said. "You've got a woman making a complaint and everything points to Buck doing just what she said he did. How can you just let it go like that?"

"You haven't known him as long as I have." Chris really didn't want to go into Buck's history, but he knew it would help explain his decision. "This is between us, and doesn't leave this room. Buck can tell anyone else he wants to, but I won't spread his past around to everyone." When he saw Nathan nod in agreement, he continued. "When Buck was a kid, and on into his teenage years, things were so tough for his mom trying to raise him alone, that she supplemented their income by turning tricks. He saw what some of those men did to his mother, and there is no way in hell he would ever do that to a woman."

"Then what do you think is going on?" Nathan asked.

"I don't know, but I'm sure as hell going to find out."

JD impatiently knocked on the door for the third time when the door finally opened. "It's about time. I was beginning to think I was going to have knock it down."

"Sorry, Kid. I was in the bathroom." He stood there with his shirt unbuttoned where he had hastily pulled it back on to hide the bruises on his arms.

"Oh, sorry." JD pushed in past Buck who still partially blocked the door.

"Well, come on in why don't ya?" He wasn't in a very good mood and JD's assumption that he wanted company annoyed him.

"Don't mind if I do." JD flopped on the couch without being asked.

"Listen, Kid. I'm really not good company right now."

"No kidding! I can't believe you just stormed out of there tonight without saying a word to anyone." He was worried and didn't try to hide it. "What the hell's going on? I've never seen you act like this before."

"It's nothin' I care to talk about." Buck hoped JD would take the hint and go on home.

"When it's me that's upset you don't cut me any slack. You ride my ass until I talk to you about it." JD crossed his arms over his chest and made no move to get up off the couch. "I'm not going to leave until you talk to me."

Buck gave up and closed the door, resigned to the fact that he wasn't going to dislodge his young friend that easily. Tension was beginning to take its toll on him, and he rubbed his neck trying to ease the tightness in the muscles that he knew would eventually lead to a major headache.

"What happened to your face?" JD tried again

"I don't know why, but my whale is trying to set me up." He couldn't look the kid in the eyes, he was so ashamed of what he'd been accused of doing. "She told Chris and Nathan that I attacked her...that I tried to rape her."

"NO WAY!" JD's jaw dropped in shock. "There ain't no way you'd do something like that."

"Thanks, Kid." He smiled feebly and finally managed to make eye contact. "It's good to know that someone believes in me, despite what their eyes tell 'em."

"Anyone that really knows you knows you could never do something like that."

"Yeah well tell that to Chris!" He was still hurt that his old friend had insisted on inspecting his arms, and that he didn't immediately believe him when he said he didn't do it.

"Chris wouldn't believe that, Buck." JD insisted. "He's the boss, and he has to look into things, no matter which one of us is involved."

"Yeah, I know. But it still hurts." He slumped farther down into the overstuffed chair, and closed his eyes as he leaned his head back.

Another knock on the door made him groan in frustration. "Who the hell now?"

"I'll get it." JD jumped up and hurried to the door. He opened it to find Chris standing there.

"How's Buck doing?" Chris asked, as he stepped through the door and looked around the room.

"Buck's doin' about as well as can be expected considering he's just been accused of trying to rape a woman, and his best friend doesn't believe him when he says he didn't do it," Buck snapped at him from across the room.

"I never said I didn't believe you." Chris went straight for the couch and sat down on the end closest to Buck. "I said I had to investigate this, and I never said I was planning to investigate you."

"Huh?" Buck raised his head so he could look directly at Chris. "What do you mean by that?"

"I know you would never do something like this. At the very least you wouldn't risk your job." Chris held up a hand to stop any protests that might be coming. "If it were anyone else, I'd say it might be possible that things got out of control and went too far, but this isn't anyone else. I know you would never, could never, force yourself on a woman."

"Well you got a funny way of showing it, making me strip off my shirt like some kind of criminal." Buck wasn't quite ready to forgive Chris.

"Buck, Damn it! You know I had to do that considering what I'd been told happened." Chris sighed and ran his hand over his face in exasperation. "Don't you think it is kind of strange that she knows exactly what damage she did to you? You've been in on investigations before, and how often does the victim remember every detail like that?"

He was taken off guard for a moment, but then realized what Chris was trying to say. He hadn't ever doubted him, he'd doubted her. "Yeah. She was awfully precise."

"Exactly!" Chris relaxed now that Buck wasn't so defensive. "Most of the time the victim says something like 'I fought him', 'I hit him', 'I scratched him'. But she was very specific about where she dug her nails into your arms, and that she scratched the left side of our face in front of your ear. Not across the cheek or jaw, but in front of your ear, and she even indicated on her own face just where to find the scratches. It sounded too calculated."

"So what do you think she's up to?" JD asked.

"I don't know yet. But, first thing tomorrow I want you trying to find out anything you can about our Ms. Fletcher. Get Vin to help you." Chris leaned forward and patted his old friend on the knee as he got up. "We'll figure this out. You just hang in there."

Buck got up too and followed Chris to the door. "Thanks." He hung his head, embarrassed by his earlier behavior. "Sorry I jumped to conclusions. It just seemed like you were believing her lies."

"It's okay. I probably would have thought the same thing in your place." He put a hand on Buck's shoulder and gave it a light squeeze of reassurance. "Now get some sleep. You've got to work tomorrow."

Buck really did not want to go face everyone at the Montecito today. Nothing stayed secret there for long. The red marks on his face still had not faded completely, and his lip was still swollen, although not as much as the night before. He was glad for the long sleeves on his shirt, because they covered the bruises that had turned really dark through the night.

He pulled into a parking space and walked quickly toward the casino, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. He should have known that he couldn't get past Josiah. That man didn't miss anything, especially if it was trying to get in the front door.

"Afternoon, Buck." Josiah fell into step beside him.

"Hi." Buck didn't slow down on his trek to the door.

"No need to be in such a hurry." Josiah put a restraining hand on his arm, causing him to stop. "I just wanted to tell you that I don't believe you did anything wrong. We all know you like to flirt, and insinuate things, but we also know that it is almost all blow."

"Thanks, I appreciate the support." Buck nodded to the older man. "I just hope Chris can get to the bottom of this."

"Have faith, brother." Josiah wrapped an arm around Buck's shoulders. "We are all behind you on this."

"I'd better get inside." It was uncomfortable standing here trying to act like he was holding up all right, when he really just wanted to stay home until this all blew over.

Sandy looked up when he entered the lobby. Her usually bright infectious smile had been replaced by a nervous half smile. Buck ducked his head and walked on by without stopping. Normally he would stop and flirt with the pretty front desk manager, but he'd been warned not to do or say anything that might be taken in a sexual way, not that he'd want to with this accusation hanging over his head.

He headed straight for the surveillance room, deciding it was best to just hide out there when he wasn't needed to take care of his clients. There was another whale coming in today, another female, which made Buck's stomach churn from nerves.

"Hey, Buck!"

JD's exuberance grated on his nerves, but he bit his tongue and kept himself from snapping at him. "Hey, Kid." Buck looked at the monitors where JD was working and saw that he was already hard at work trying to find any information he could on Ms. Fletcher. It did his heart good to see that an effort was really being made to clear his name.

"Don't worry, if there's anything out there, I'll find it."

"Thanks." Buck's pager went off and he glanced at it, seeing that his whale was just checking in. "Gotta go. Whale's here." Before anyone else could say anything, he turned and headed back out the way he came in.

"We've got to find something to help him."

"Don't worry," Vin said. "Between us we can search twice as much." The phone rang, pulling Vin's attention away from the computer screen. "Hello."

JD listened and tried to figure out who it was from this end of the conversation. "That Chris? If it is tell him I'm still looking."

Vin covered the mouthpiece. "Nah, it's Miss Nettie." He turned his attention back to the call. "Sure, I think we can manage that.....I think it's a great idea.......we could use some kind of diversion here right now....uh huh. Get back with me tomorrow and I should have some information for you...Bye."

"What was that all about?" JD could never contain his curiosity.

Vin looked around to see who might hear and then leaned in close to whisper so he could be sure only JD could hear him. "You gotta keep this a secret."

"I can keep a secret when I have to," JD responded.

"Miss Nettie wants to have a surprise birthday party for Chris." He glanced around again and feeling safe started to talk again. "You know how he wouldn't let her do anything to thank him for his help with the Guy Royal episode. Well, this is how she wants to thank him for his help."

"Awesome! When's his birthday?"

"Day after tomorrow." Vin grinned at JD's excitement. "She's got the cake ordered and decorations bought, but she needs us to try to get a place here to have it, without him finding out."

"I bet if we ask Inez she'd let us have it at Mystique if we do it before it opens for the night," JD suggested.

"We'd have to find a way to get him in here earlier that day, or plan it to start just as soon as we all come in." Vin's mind was working trying to figure out if it could possibly work at Mystique. If not, then he'd have to get the events planner to let them use a meeting room.

"Mystique opens at six o'clock, so that would give us at least two hours," JD pointed out. "You know Chris, if we get him there for half of that we'll will be doing good."

"You got that right." Vin laughed, knowing his boss was not the party type. "How 'bout you talk to Buck, and I'll talk to Ezra and the others."

"I can do that." Movement from the direction of Chris' office caught his eye. "Shhh... he's coming."

Buck walked up beside the sixty-something woman standing at the reception desk. "Ms. Corillo?"

"Yes," she answered as she turned to see who had spoken to her.

"Buck Wilmington, Ma'am." When she offered her hand, he held it gently in his and bowed slightly, letting her know he was there to serve.

"Well, Mr. Wilmington, let me get my bags up to my room and then we can go over the arrangements you've made for me." She signaled to the bellman and Buck to follow her to the elevator.

Once upstairs the bellman opened the door to the Presidential Suite and let Ms. Corillo enter first, then followed with the luggage cart. Buck stopped at the threshold and hesitated about going in. As long as the bellman was in there it would be all right, but he'd be out of there in a couple minutes, and it would take a while to go over the plans he had for her stay.

"Mr. Wilmington. I don't intend to shout out the door to talk to you." Ms. Corillo tossed her purse on the table by the couch and then examined the large fruit basket that had been left for her in her room.

"I apologize, Ma'am." Deciding truth was the best policy in this instance, he opted to tell her at least part of the reason he was standing in the hall. "There was an incident yesterday, and I'm afraid that I'm not supposed to be alone with a guest in her room. If you don't mind, I can call someone to sit with us while I go over your plans."

"Oh, this is total nonsense. I have no objection to you being in my room." She sounded exasperated.

"I wish I could."

"So are you allowed to be alone with me if we go to a public place?"

Buck counted himself lucky that she hadn't threatened to pull her business and go to another casino, at least not yet. "Yes, ma'am."

"Fine, since I'm the one being inconvenienced here, you can treat me to an early dinner." She looked at him, brows raised, and waited for his reaction. When she didn't get one, she added, "I skipped lunch today and I'm famished."

"It would be my pleasure to take you to dinner." Buck started to relax now that the initial meeting was settled. "How about Wolfgang's?"

"That would be very nice." She waited for the bellman to finish unloading her things and gave him a tip, before she joined Buck in the hall.

They walked along quietly on the way to the restaurant, and managed to get seated immediately when they got there since it was still a little early for the dinner rush. Once settled and their orders taken, Ms. Corillo broke the silence between them.

"Now, tell me about this 'incident'."

It wasn't a question, and Buck wasn't sure how to get around it. "I doubt that it would be that interesting."

"I have a feeling that it will," she insisted. "Because you aren't acting anything like my friend Amanda told me. She said you were such an outrageous flirt and she loved every minute that she was here."

"Ma'am, it's personal."

"And I bet it has something to do with those scratches and that fat lip." She smiled at him and reached across the table to pat his hand. "Don't worry, I'm not out to get you in the sack or anything like that. But, even at my age it is nice to be flirted with. Makes you feel like you still got it." She laughed at herself, and then gave him a wink. "Now, tell 'aunt' C.C. what happened."

Buck couldn't help but laugh. "'Aunt' C.C.?"

"Well, I refuse to consider that I'm old enough to be your mother even though I undoubtedly am, but I'll concede to being old enough to be her little sister." The serious demeanor she displayed earlier was gone, and she seemed to be a genuine sweet little old lady, who just happened to like to gamble with the big fish.

At that moment their food was served and they waited until the waiter left before Buck opened up and told C.C. about what had happened the day before. He felt the first real relief from the weight on his shoulders since the whole mess started.

C.C. gave his hand another pat. "I can't believe someone could be that malicious. You're a sweet young man, and Amanda adores you. I trust her judgment."

"Thank you." Buck turned his hand over so he could hold her hand. "You have no idea how much that means to me right now."

"So, are you going to tell me who this bitch is?" C.C. Corillo turned out to be a no nonsense woman.

"You know I can't do that." He wished he could, but hotel policy was to not give out names of guests staying here, except under very limited circumstances, and this wasn't one of those circumstances. "I've said more than I should already, but you're such a nice lady, and I didn't want you to hear the rumors without knowing the truth."

"All right, since you won't give up any more dirt, tell me what you've planned for me." She smiled mischievously. "I'm ready to hit the blackjack table."

"C.C., I have you set up with our best dealer whenever you are ready, and the sky is the limit." He had arranged for another VIP and Ms. Corillo to have a private game with no limit betting. She also had an unlimited credit line with the casino. She was good for it, having inherited billions in oil money from her late husband.

"Now you're talking my language." She rubbed her hands together in anticipation. "I'm ready whenever you are."

"Then time's a wastin'." He stood up and helped her with her chair. "Let's get this show on the road."

C.C. didn't even want to detour to her room before heading for the casino floor. Buck led her to the blackjack pits and signaled to Ezra to join them. "C.C. this is our head pit boss, Ezra Standish. He'll see that you get everything you need."

"Ezra, this is C.C. Corillo." Buck watched as the two greeted each other.

"Ms. Corillo, I'm delighted to finally meet you." Ezra oozed southern charm from every pore. "We have a table ready for you right over here. I hope you don't mind that we have another VIP player with you."

"No, not at all. It's always more fun to play when you have other players with you." She followed Ezra to the table and took a seat. "So where is this other player?"

"He'll be here momentarily" Ezra pulled the old shoe from the table and put in a fresh one, loaded with several new decks of cards, already shuffled. "We gave him a complimentary drink in the bar to keep him happy until you joined us."

A couple minutes later Sir Lloyd Parker joined them at the table, still sipping the drink he'd brought with him from the bar. The two players were introduced to each other, and they both prepared to play.

"Cheryl will be your dealer tonight." He stepped back and allowed her to take her place at the table.

"I understand that you both have a line of credit." Cheryl looked at each in turn. "How much would you like to start with?"

Buck took Ezra by the arm and led him a short distance away. "Don't forget, no limits."

"I am aware of how to do my job."

"I know." Buck sighed. "I'm sorry. This whole mess from yesterday has me really on edge."

"I can certainly understand why." Ezra motioned to a spot a little farther away from prying ears. "I've heard all about what happened, and I agree with Mr. Larabee. Something isn't right about this. That woman is up to something and I smell a con. If I don't miss my guess, her next step will be to try to get money out of you or the casino."

"Do you have any idea how to prove it's a con?" Buck hadn't thought of the possibility that Ezra might have any advice for him. Now he felt so stupid for not considering it, after all, their pit boss used to be one of the best con men to ever hit Vegas.

"Not yet. But give her a little time to expose her hand," Ezra advised. "Once I see what she tries next, I'll have an idea what you are up against."

"Anything you can do is bound to help. Thank you." Buck breathed a sigh of relief. Another of their ranks believed him. Now they just had to find a way to expose Ms. Fletcher for what she really was.

"I should get back over there. Since I have Cheryl dealing, I have to keep tabs on the pits myself." He started to turn away but paused. "Patience, and all will work out in the end."

"Think I'll go take a turn around the floor," Vin told JD. "I really need to stretch my legs."

"Okay," JD responded without looking up from the article he was reading about the Fletchers. "Hey, would you bring me back one of those fruit drinks that Inez makes?"

"Which one? She makes a lot of fruit drinks." Vin asked as he put on his suit jacket.

"That orange pineapple one that she puts the vanilla ice cream in." He finally tore his eyes from the screen and turned his attention to Vin. "It's one she made up herself; it's called the mauna loui or something like that. It's even better when you can have it with the rum in it, but even without it, it's really good."

"Sure, I'll make that my last stop so it doesn't melt." He thought about it a minute and the grinned. "Sounds pretty good. I might have one myself."

Vin worked his way around the casino floor, stopping to check with various supervisors to be sure that everything was running smoothly, and in the process he told them about the tentative plans for Chris Larabee's birthday. JD would talk to Buck about the details after they got off work that night. That was one advantage of the two of them living in the same apartment complex. Ezra, Josiah and Nathan all thought the party would be a nice distraction from the situation with Buck. Not that they wanted to ignore it, but they all felt some stress relief was in order. He'd have to find a way to talk to Orin later.

"Inez?" Vin called out to the manager of Mystique. "You back there?" He knew she would be, because she always made sure to be there to oversee preparations to open for the day.

"Long time no see, stranger." Inez teased him as she came out from the back, drying her hands with a towel. "What can I do for you?"

"A couple things actually." He glanced around to be sure they were alone. "First, JD has a hankering for one of those fruit drinks of yours. He said it was a mauna loui or something like that. I know you aren't open yet, but do you suppose you could fix us both up with one of those?"

Inez grinned and nodded. "Of course! Anything for you guys in security." She started getting things together to make the drinks, non-alcoholic version of course. "You said a couple things. What is the other one?"

"Tomorrow is Chris' birthday, and Nettie Wells wants to give him a surprise party," he explained.

"I didn't know it was his birthday." Inez continued to work on the drinks while she talked.

"It's not something he would publicize." Vin glanced around again, noticing one of the kitchen staff near the door; he waited until the man had moved on before continuing. "Anyway, the problem is, she knows that if we try to lure him anywhere away from work, he'll get suspicious."

"And you want to have it here at Mystique?" Inez was just putting the finishing touches on the drinks.

"If you don't mind. We'd start it as soon as our shift starts, and we'd get cleared out and cleaned up before you open at six." He accepted the two cold drinks when she finished them. "You're invited, of course."

"You can have it here. Tell Nettie that she should get here early so she can get things in before he's up there where he can see the monitors." She paused to think a moment. "He comes in early sometimes, so she might want to get here around two o'clock. We can always sit and talk until time for the party."

Vin was relieved to have that settled. "I'll just have to find a way to keep him from seeing the monitor for Mystique. He'll wonder what Nettie's doing here, and he'll see the cake and all."

"That, I'll leave to you," she said. "I'm just in charge of sneaking her in."

"Thanks. I'll see you tomorrow at the party." Taking the drinks, he headed back to the surveillance room.

"Here you go, JD." Vin handed over one of the drinks, then in a whisper he added. "Mission accomplished.

"Cool." He took swallow of his drink. " that is so good."

Vin hadn't tried his yet and followed JD's example. He couldn't help it; he rolled his eyes in pleasure at the smooth light taste of the drink. It reminded him of soft orange pineapple sherbet, only better. "Gotta admit, you're right." He took another big drink and then glared at JD. "Now, you've gone and done it."

"What? What did I do?" He stared at Vin in confusion.

"You got me hooked on something else, I don't need." He grinned when JD started to laugh.

The phone rang, and Vin picked it up by the second ring. "Hello...Oh, hi Nettie." He glanced around to see where Chris was and noticed he wasn't in his office. "JD," he said, putting his hand over the receiver. "Help me keep an eye out for Chris."

"Okay." JD flicked on the facial recognition program and searched for their boss. "He's down on the floor talking to Ezra."

"Yeah, I can talk," Vin told Nettie, and ended up listening to her whole list of plans she'd made for Chris' party. When he finally got a word in he filled her in on what he'd gotten accomplished. "Inez says you might want to come in around two and so you are sure to be in before Chris gets to work."

"Oh, damn!" JD muttered under his breath and started searching the monitors for Chris, who was no longer with Ezra.

"I'm looking forward to it." Vin said. "See you tomorrow, Nettie."

"Why will you see Nettie tomorrow?" Chris asked from right behind his chair causing Vin to jump and spin around in his seat.

"Damn! We're gonna have to put a bell on you."

JD cracked up laughing at Vin's reaction, and Chris grinned.

"You didn't answer my question," Chris reminded him. "What's happening with Nettie?"

"Oh, nothing really," he hedged. "She just wanted to tell me something about Crazy Horse, so I'm going to run out there before work tomorrow."

"Something wrong with the horse?"

"Nah, he's just favoring one foot, and she says he's probably going to need to be reshod. Figured I'd go out and take a look." Vin hoped that answer sounded plausible enough.

"Ah, well at least it is something minor." He patted Vin on the shoulder and left to go up to his office.

"Gonna have to put a bell on him?" JD teased. "Now that was about as subtle as an atomic bomb."

C.C. Corillo relaxed in the shade of a large umbrella out at the wave pool watching the younger generation surfing and having a good time. She was kicked back on a chaise lounge wearing Bermuda shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops. No one would have suspected that she was a multi-billionaire.

"Well, I think he did it," one young woman said to her companion. "He's always hitting on me, and it's hard to get him to take no for an answer sometimes."

C.C.'s attention was drawn to the two young women who were stretched out sunning themselves a few feet away from her. She chanced a glance in their direction and thought she recognized them as Montecito employees.

"No way," the second young woman said. "I've worked here since just before he started here. He's all talk and bluster, but when it comes down to it, he a gentleman inside."

"You've got to be kidding. I don't see that in him at all." The first one shook her head and frowned.

"That's because you haven't given him a chance."

"And you have?"

"Yes, we dated a few times, and he was always a perfect gentleman."

"Yeah, well tell that to Ms. Fletcher. After yesterday I think she'd disagree."

C.C. smiled and sipped her drink. Ms. Fletcher. That could only be her old friend Margaret Fletcher or her daughter Candice, if she was a VIP guest here. She suspected it was probably the daughter. She always was a spoiled brat. Her husband couldn't even stand to stay with her, not even for all that money. The divorce was bitter and dragged out for months, but in the end Candice quit fighting, moved back in with her mother, and took back her maiden name.

Most likely the little tart made a pass at Buck and when he turned her down she decided to try to ruin him. She could be a bitter, vindictive little bitch when she didn't get her way.

Only one thing to do, try to find out for sure which Ms. Fletcher it was. C.C. gathered up her belongings and went back inside. She knew that either of the Fletcher women would definitely be booked into one of the finest suites. Now if only she could figure out a way to find out which one.

On her way back up to her room an idea struck and gave her a ray of hope. She let herself into her suite, dumped her things on the couch and went in search of her purse. Digging out her address book, she looked up Margaret Fletcher's phone number and gave her a call.

"Tilly? Hello, dear. Could you put Margaret on please?" She remembered Tilly from the last party she'd attended at the Fletcher estate. No one could ask for a sweeter person to have as a lady's maid. "It's Ms. Corillo, dear."

A couple minutes later she heard another familiar voice. "C.C.?"

"Yes. How are you Maggie?" She didn't want to immediately jump to the subject she really wanted to talk about, so she spent several minutes engaging in small talk before broaching the subject of Candice.

"Maggie, it's good to catch up on the latest, but actually I called to ask you something." C.C. did her best to sound like she was just asking a casual question. "How is Candice doing? I'd heard she had a rough time for a while."

"Well, I know I can talk to you, and you won't go splashing it all over the tabloids. Candy isn't doing too well."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do?" C.C. put on her best concerned act.

"No, I'm afraid not. She got so bad after the spectacle her divorce turned into she almost killed herself with drugs. She's been in an institution for the last two months, but her therapy is going well and we hope she'll be home soon."

"Maggie, I'm so sorry to hear that. Do you think it would be all right for me to send her some flowers?" She was rapidly becoming more concerned about Buck. Whoever was trying to frame him, could not be Candy Fletcher. C.C. scribbled down the address and intended to follow through with the flowers. Candy could be a little bitch sometimes, but she wouldn't wish being institutionalized on anyone.

The two old friends talked for a few more minutes and then wrapped up the call. Before she could forget, she called to order flowers and have them delivered using the assumed name they had Candy registered under.

"Now what?" she asked herself. It was getting close to dinnertime and she went to the closet to decide what to wear. It was never fun eating alone, but she wasn't one to go flaunting her money to attract fair weather friends. Too bad she couldn't think of a reason to ask Buck to eat with her again. She had enjoyed his company. If she were one of those snooty, spoiled, rich jackasses she could coerce him into joining her, but that wasn't, and never would be, her style.

Once dressed, she made her way down to Wolfgang's. It was a little later today, so she'd made sure to make a reservation. When she got there the maitre d' was seating other patrons, so she waited in the entry. The reservation book lay open on the stand, giving her an idea. She craned her neck to look at the book, but she had trouble seeing anything from that angle, so she took a chance and turned it to face her. She got lucky and listed for an hour later was a reservation for Candice Fletcher for table seven.

"Excuse me, Madam. That book is private." The maitre d' turned the book away from her. "How may I help you?"

"I'm sorry, I was just looking to see if my reservation was there, since it is five minutes after my scheduled time," C.C. said stiffly.

"Your name is?" he asked haughtily.

"My name is C.C. Corillo, and I can't say that I like your attitude young man." She struck a pose that she hoped conveyed indignation, and not indigestion.

Hearing the name, the maitre d's jaw dropped. "Madam, my sincerest apologies. If you'll follow me, I'll take you right to your table."

C.C. smiled behind his back, and figured he'd probably almost wet his pants when he realized he'd just talked down to one of the casino's wealthiest guests.

"Here we are, Madam." He helped her with her chair as he said, "Maurice will be your waiter tonight." He signaled a good-looking young man to come to the table. "Maurice, please see that Ms. Corillo gets anything she would like, compliments of Wolfgang's."

She indulged herself in the best items on the menu, and when her waiter brought her dessert, she decided to see if she could get a little information from him. "Maurice, I was wondering if you could tell me which table is number seven. That number has always brought me good luck, and I'm thinking of reserving that one for tomorrow to see if it changes my luck at the blackjack table."

"Certainly, Ms. Corillo. It is that table over there." He indicated a table in the corner just one table behind from her. "If you would like, I could have that reservation set up for you."

"No, I don't think so after all," she hedged. "I have this thing about sitting in corners. Probably comes from being sat in them so much when I got in trouble as a child." She winked at the young waiter, and he laughed.

She took her time eating her dessert and drinking a last cup of decaf coffee. At last she saw the maitre d' escort a couple to table seven and listened intently trying to see if she could catch anything that was said.

"If you will allow me Ms. Fletcher." He pulled out her chair and waited for her to sit down, then handed a menu to both of them. "James will be your waiter tonight." He motioned the young man to the table and then went back to the front. James was soon sent off to get a bottle of wine.

C.C. couldn't believe her luck in being seated so close. She took a leisurely sip of her coffee and continued to listen.

"We can leave after that meeting tonight," the man said.

"I'm nervous about that." The brunette leaned closer and spoke a little more softly. "The way most of the people who work here have been looking at me, this might not be as easy as we thought. I just hope no one knows Candy."

"You know I checked this all out. She's never been to Vegas. She's never been into gambling at all." The man gave her a stern look. "Now shut up about this, it's almost over."

C.C. decided she better not press her luck. The couple could notice that she was deliberately dawdling. Since her dinner was compliments of the restaurant, she dug into her purse for a generous tip, and left before she drew attention to herself.

"Have you found anything yet?" Chris leaned over JD's shoulder to check his progress. "There has to be something on this woman. If she's that rich, there's usually all kinds of information lurking around."

"We've found some articles, but so far, we haven't found any photos." Vin shrugged. "I don't get it. How can someone like that not have any pictures taken?"

"Well, it can't be because she's a dog and doesn't want anyone to see her," JD offered. "She's a knockout, even though she's over forty."

"Forty isn't that old." Chris frowned and gave JD a playful slap to the back of the head.

"Hey!" He rubbed the spot and gave his boss a dirty look. "You're starting to take after Buck now."

"So what kind of articles did you find?" Chris changed the subject.

"Not much really. She had a really bad divorce. There's a lot about that," Vin said.

"The only thing I found that was odd was that one of the articles described her as a blonde, but here she's brunette." JD shrugged again. "But we all know how women like to play with their hair color. Who knows, next week she might be a redhead."

C.C. Corillo headed straight for the blackjack pits looking for Ezra. Buck had told her yesterday that he would take care of anything she needed, and right now she needed to talk to the man in charge of security.

"Ms. Corillo?" Ezra's voice stopped her in her tracks.

"Just the man I'm looking for!" She motioned for him to follow her out of the middle of the crowd.

"You're a little early, but we can get your table set up for you in just a few minutes." Ezra double-checked his list, and his watch to be sure he hadn't read either wrong.

"No, dear. It isn't about that." She lowered her voice and leaned a little closer. "It's about Buck's 'situation'. I need to talk to the head of security."

"Ma'am. I assure you, that there is no reason to be concerned about your safety with Buck..."

C.C. raised a hand to stop him before he could continue that line of thought. "No, you don't understand. I have information about the woman who is accusing him."

Ezra stared at her, mouth agape. "How do you know who accused him? He didn't divulge that information did he?"

"No, absolutely not," she insisted. "I might be getting old, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve still. Now are you going to take me to the man in charge, or do I need to find someone else to?"

"One moment if you will please." Ezra keyed his headset. "Cheryl, take over for me. I need to be off the floor for a little while."

"This way, Ms. Corillo." He took her by the arm and steered her toward one of the employees only doors. Once inside, he led her down a series of corridors until they reached the surveillance room.

"Oh my!" She looked around the room at all the hi-tech equipment and the dozens of monitors. "I never thought it would be like this."

"It is quite a big job to provide security for a casino this size." He pointed to one bank of monitors. "Those are for the corridor cameras and those over there are for outside." He pointed to another set. "Those are for all the restaurants and clubs. But the main set is here." He pointed to the monitors where Vin and JD worked. "That large collection there shows various camera shots of the casino floor, and the two larger ones directly in front of them is where they can call up specific cameras from anywhere inside or outside, adjust angles, and zoom in, among other things."

"Ezra! Why are you conducting a tour of our surveillance room?" Chris stood at the top of the stairs in his office door and he wasn't looking happy.

"This is Ms. Corillo, she needs to speak to you. This is Chris Larabee, head of security." Ezra introduced them as he moved her toward the stairs. He didn't even wait for Chris to say it was all right to bring her up. "You'll want to talk to her. It's about Mr. Wilmington."

Chris stepped back to allow them to enter his office and closed the door behind them. "Ms. Corillo, nice to meet you. Please have a seat." He waited for her to get settled, and watched Ezra take a seat too. "Can I get you anything?"

"No, that won't be necessary."

"Okay, what about Buck?" Chris sat on the front edge of his desk, keeping the meeting informal.

"The woman who accused him is not Candice Fletcher." She saw the shock on his face and knew that he had no clue that he was dealing with an impostor. "And before you ask, no, Buck did not tell me who made the accusations. I overheard a couple of employees discussing it out by the pool."

"If she's not Candice Fletcher, then who is she?" Chris asked.

"I don't know. But the real Candy's mother is a friend of mine. I called Maggie and asked about how Candy was doing since her divorce. She had some kind of a breakdown and she's an inpatient at a mental health care facility, but that is private information. The newspapers haven't gotten hold of it yet, and I don't want them to get it from here either." She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Chris, daring him to break that confidence.

"They'll not learn that from any of us," he promised. "This woman has not only tried to ruin Buck, she's drawing on the Fletchers' name to establish her line of credit in the casino. How the hell did this get past us?" He glared at Ezra.

"Don't look at me. It isn't my job to clear them." Ezra took the chance to defend his reputation. "I set their credit lines based on the information I get about who they are, and according to this office and the front desk management, she was Candice Fletcher."

"I know. Sorry, I'm just not used to being caught totally off guard like that. Any ideas on how we can approach this?"

"Nothing other than watch her like a hawk and watch for any little slip up." Ezra sighed, and shook his head in frustration. "I can try to follow them to see if I can over hear anything."

"You'd probably learn more if you could get into their room," C.C. suggested.

"Yeah, well unfortunately, we can't just go letting ourselves in without cause." Suddenly, Chris grinned. "But I know someone who can."

"Okay, Nathan, knock softly, and then let yourself in." Chris watched the monitor, while Ezra waited just around the corner in case Nathan needed help. "Listen carefully, we need names if we can get them, or anything that might help us figure out who she is."

Nathan nodded toward the hallway camera to let Chris know he had heard him. He knocked softly, and then inserted his passkey and opened the door. He held down the transmit button on the headset control that he carried in his pocket. That way anything said in here would be transmitted to security.

"Bett, did you hear something?" a male asked.

"I don't think so, but I'll check." There was a rustling sound and then the bedroom door opened farther. "Who are you?"

The man in the bedroom yanked the door the rest of the way open and pushed her out of the way to get out. "What the hell are you doing in our room? Who let you in here?"

"I'm the hotel's doctor. I got a call that there was an emergency." Nathan sounded confident and calm despite being put in such a precarious situation. "No one answered, so I let myself in."

He addressed the woman directly. "You didn't call saying you were having trouble breathing?"


"You're not Mrs. Monroe?"

"No! You must have the wrong room." She sounded indignant.

"That or someone was pulling a prank on you," the man suggested.

"I apologize. I didn't mean to disturb you." He opened the door and started back out. "Oh, man. I transposed part of the numbers. I'm really sorry. I've got to go."

Nathan rushed out of the room and around the corner, where Ezra was waiting with the elevator door open for a quick get away. "Whew! I'm glad that's over. I know I said I would help with security when you needed me to, but you never said anything about breaking into rooms."

Chris laughed on the other end of the connection. "Yeah, well sometimes it comes with the territory. How did you like your first assignment as a spy?"

"Scary as hell, but man what an adrenaline rush." Nathan sounded exhilarated.

"Come on up here, we need to know what you saw in there."

"On my way."

After getting all the information he could from Nathan, Chris decided he needed to get out of the office for a little while before time for the meeting that he had scheduled with Ms. Fletcher's attorney. What had been a reason for real concern wasn't as intimidating now, but he'd feel a lot better if he could find out exactly who this woman was before going into that room.

He decided an espresso was just what he needed, but he didn't want to walk all the way back to the coffee shop. Mystique was a lot closer so he worked his way through the crowd to the front of the line, and he was let right in, to the displeasure of those who had been waiting in line for over an hour. Once inside, he had to navigate the maze of tables and people to get to the staff area where all the coffee machines were set up.

"So everything's set then?" Vin asked Inez just as Chris stepped into the waitress station, causing them to both look up.

"Yes, I'll be ready for you to pick me up as soon as we close." Inez smiled up at Vin. "I've never seen a meteor shower."

"I have. I used to sneak out to watch them when I was a kid."

"Meteor shower?" Chris hated coming in in the middle of a conversation.

"Yeah, I was telling Inez that this is the time of year when you can really see the meteor showers. She said she'd never seen one, so were going to get out away from the city lights and see if we can see any," Vin explained. "You want to come with us?"

"No thanks. When I get off, I'm ready to go home and sleep." He helped himself to a cup from the rack and fixed himself a double espresso. "Put it on my tab." He held up the cup, and headed back out through the crowd.

"Meteor showers?" he muttered under his breath. He'd never heard Vin talk about meteor showers before. The whole thought of Vin talking to Inez about meteors was totally bizarre. Hell, if they wanted to date, they didn't need to try to make up stories to cover it up with him, but he didn't blame them really. Nothing could be kept secret in this place.

"Get hold of Buck and tell him it's time." Chris had already contacted Orin Travis and the Montecito's attorney to remind them of the meeting with Ms. Fletcher. "Tell him to come to the conference room."

Orin and Justin Walters were already waiting there when he arrived. "Orin." He acknowledged the Montecito's owner. "Justin, sorry to have to bring you into this."

"That's what I'm here for." Justin pulled some papers from his briefcase and arranged them on the table. "You still sure this woman isn't really Candice Fletcher?"

"I have the word of a family friend that this woman isn't the real deal," Chris said.

"I'd feel better if we knew for sure who she is," Justin commented. "Still no luck finding out?"

"No, but JD and Vin are still working on it." Chris looked up when the door opened and frowned when he saw the phony Ms. Fletcher and her attorney join them in the room.

"Where is Mr. Wilmington?" the attorney demanded.

"He's on his way," Orin answered. "Sit down and show a little patience."

"Need I remind you that it was my client who was wronged, and that we are being exceedingly generous in having this meeting with you instead of involving the police?"

"You needn't remind me of anything," Orin shot back at him. "Mr. Dexter, you are messing with the wrong man. I have little patience with people who act like school yard bullies to get what they want."

The exchange was brought to a halt when Buck entered the room and took a seat between Chris and Justin. He'd been instructed not to say anything, to let Justin handle things, so here was hoping that he did as he was told.

"Now that Mr. Wilmington has seen fit to join us, let's get right to the point." Dexter pulled a document out of his briefcase and slid it across the table to Justin. "Mr. Wilmington attacked my client, and attempted to force himself on her. The only reason we have not already summoned in the police is Ms. Fletcher's desire to keep this out of the media. Since he was unsuccessful in his attempts, we are willing to forego formal charges if a reasonable settlement for her emotional and mental anguish can be reached."

Justin took several minutes to read over the document and then looked Dexter straight in the eye. "You expect us to agree to this without any proof that Mr. Wilmington behaved in an inappropriate manner? Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money to hand over for an accusation that is her word against his."

"I'd like to hear this woman's story first hand," Orin insisted. "I'll not agree to anything on secondhand information."

Chris suppressed a smile at Orin's stalling tactic. They just needed a little more time.


Vin turned to look at JD, stunned at his outburst. "What's your problem?"

"We've been focusing on finding pictures and information on Candice Fletcher." JD smacked his head with the heel of his hand several times. "Idiot, idiot, idiot!"

"What are you talking about?" Vin asked. "Of course we are trying to find stuff on Candice Fletcher. That's the whole idea."

"But we should also have been trying to find out about the woman that's actually here." Now that the idea hit him, he was mad at himself for not thinking of it sooner, it was so obvious. "We never did run her image to see if we could find a match."

"But there's nothing to match since we can't find a picture of the real Candice Fletcher." Vin was clearly getting annoyed.

"But we should run her image to see if it matches anyone."

Suddenly, Vin got what JD was saying, and grinned. "Well don't just set there, get it going."

They searched the Montecito's image files, and when they didn't get any previous matches there, they expanded to the network that all the casinos used to keep track of their patrons. They had come to an agreement to share that information, because the potential for financial ruin is so high in their business. Image after image flashed by so fast that the human eye couldn't focus clearly on any of them, but the software program could. It took several minutes before the images suddenly stopped, and there on the right side of the screen was a picture of the woman pretending to be Candice Fletcher. In that picture her name was Betty Trout, and right next to her was her husband, Barney Trout, who just happened to be going by the name, Thomas Dexter at the moment.

"We got 'em!" JD hit the print button and quickly printed out the photos and the information that went with it. They had been banned from the Nugget in Atlantic City for trying to scam the casino out of a large sum of money. As soon as the printer spit out the page, JD grabbed it and ran down the hall to the conference room.

He knocked on the door, opened it, and stuck his head inside. "Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt but I need to talk to Chris for a minute."

"We are in the middle of an important meeting. You don't just waltz in here and interrupt the proceedings," Dexter sneered.

"No one comes in here and reprimands my staff," Orin interjected. "You'll just have to wait for Chris, after all we do still have a casino to run. The world doesn't stop while we resolve your issue."

Chris excused himself and joined JD in the hall, closing the door to the conference room behind him. "Did you find something?"

"Yeah. We were going about it backwards." JD blushed, embarrassed that it took him so long to figure it out. "We needed to be looking for her not Candice Fletcher. We found her image where she'd been banned from the Nugget in Atlantic City for trying to scam money. And guess what...that man isn't her attorney, he's her husband." He handed Chris the printout. "It's all right here."

"JD, remind me that you need a raise." Chris took the paper and started back into the conference room. Before opening the door he stopped. "Oh, see if you can find out what's holding up C.C. We expected her here by now."

Chris resumed his seat, and handed the printout to Justin who read it and then showed it to Orin. "Sorry about the interruption, important Casino business."

Justin leaned close enough to whisper to Chris. "Are we still waiting for your star witness?"

Chris nodded, and then turned his attention back to the woman he now knew was Betty Trout. "If you would please continue your story for Mr. Travis."

Several minutes later a small voice in his ear got his attention. "C.C. has been stuck in traffic, but she should be pulling up in about two minutes." He couldn't respond, but then the guys upstairs didn't expect him too under the circumstances.

"This is getting absurd." Dexter stood up and slapped his hand back down on the settlement document. "You've heard from Ms. Fletcher herself. What more do you want?"

At that moment the door opened again, and C.C. Corillo stepped inside and held the door open for another woman about her age.

Chris nodded to the women, and turned back to Dexter with a smug half smile. "I want you to meet Margaret Fletcher, Candice's mother." He turned his attention to Betty Trout. "What's wrong? No hugs or kisses for your mother?"

"I'm sorry," Margaret spoke up. "I thought I was supposed to be meeting my daughter, but this woman isn't my daughter. I have no idea who she is."

"We didn't either until a few minutes ago." Justin slid the printout JD had brought them across the desk to Dexter. "Seems like you've tried this before, Mr. Trout."

"Buck, would you like to do the honors of opening the door and calling in our next guests?" Justin grinned at Buck when he jumped up so quickly that he almost knocked the chair over.

"All right guys." Buck signaled to the waiting men. "Come on in."

Orin stood up when Detective Luis Perez and two uniformed officers entered the room. "They are all yours gentlemen."

"We are glad to be able to take them off your hands," Luis said and gestured for the officers to take the two scam artists into custody.

They all waited and listened while the officers read the couple their rights and handcuffed them. Buck could not contain himself any longer, and he strode over to Barney Trout, stopping directly in front of him. "You are one sick son-of-bitch. Any man who would use his wife like that deserves to rot in hell. I hope they lock you up and lose the key."

Then he turned to Betty Trout. "You are a beautiful woman, but beautiful outside only. Inside you are as sick and twisted as your husband is." Buck was rigid with pent up rage. "You are a disgrace to the female gender."

Chris eased up beside him, and took hold of his arm. "Come on, Buck. They aren't worth it."

Buck gave up and followed Chris out into the hall. "Thanks."

"Sure, Buck." Chris patted him on the shoulder. "Any time."

At that moment C.C. Corillo and Margaret Fletcher joined them in the hall, and both ladies smiled when they saw Buck.

"C.C.! You must be my guardian angel." Buck hugged her so hard that he lifted her completely off the floor, and he kissed her on the cheek, causing her to laugh. "I don't know how to thank you."

As soon as he set her down, he caught up Margaret for a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek of her own. "Ms. Fletcher, thank you for coming all this way. How can I ever repay you?"

"How about buying a couple old ladies a drink, and we'll call it even."

"I would love to!" He glanced toward Chris who nodded, letting him know it was fine to go along with the women. "Ladies..." he held out an arm to each of them. "Shall we go?" They started down the corridor all three arm-in-arm. "You know, I'm going to be the envy of every man there, showing up with the two prettiest girls at the Montecito."

Chris watched them go, laughing at Buck's antics. He'd never change, and he couldn't resist saying, "he's baaaack!"

The sense of relief that swept over the Montecito when Buck was cleared of any wrongdoing was invigorating. There was so much excited chatter that you would have thought it was a holiday.

Chris grinned when he saw Buck wink at a pretty young woman, in a bikini. From the red tint of her skin she must be on her way in from the pool. When the woman walked away, giggling and casting coy glances at Buck as she went toward the elevator, Chris stepped up beside him. "Still haven't learned your lesson?" he teased.

"Yeah, well, Buck wouldn't be Buck if he acted any different," he said about himself.

"That's for sure." Chris laughed. "But you know we wouldn't have you any other way."

"Gee, thanks. I think." Buck frowned for a moment, but it didn't last long. He was in too good of a mood. "Hey, I've got a little time free, let's go get a couple of those fruit drinks, JD likes. I tried one the other day, and the kid's right. THEY'RE GREAT!"

Chris laughed at Buck's imitation of Tony the Tiger. "Sure, let's go. That's all I've been hearing about from Vin and JD for the last couple of days. They aren't going to give up until I try one."

When they reached Mystique, Buck opened the door and held it for Chris to go in first.


Chris stopped dead in his tracks and stared open mouthed at all the people assembled there. "What the hell?" He looked at Buck, brows raised in question.

"It's your birthday, stud. You don't think we would let it go by without doing anything do you?" Buck laughed and hugged Nettie who had rushed up to join them. "This sweet lady, wanted to give you a birthday party, and we all thought that was a great idea."

"How did you all manage this? Nothing can ever be kept secret around here." He stared around the room at all his friends, totally stunned."

"Guess that just goes to show that you don't always know everything that goes on around here, old man," Vin teased him. "Better get over there and blow out those candles before they set off the sprinklers."

"Smart ass," Chris grumbled under his breath but he was smiling as he said it.

"Yup, and got other smart parts too," Vin countered.

"Better make a wish," Nettie said.

Chris thought for a moment and then bent over to blow out the candles. He ran out of breath before he got all of them blown out, and Ezra helped him with the last ones. All around him his friends were singing happy birthday to him. Josiah's deep baritone could be heard clearly over all the others. Orin Travis and his wife Evie stood with their arms around each other as they sang. Off to the side JD and Casey sang together, but they had eyes only for each other. Nathan was grinning from ear to ear, clearly enjoying being included. Buck had to be smack in the middle of things, and on each side of him C.C. and Margaret had joined in the fun.

Inez was busy cutting the cake and handing out pieces topped with ice cream. Nettie was filling punch glasses. After the singing, his team gathered together, laughing and joking with each other. In the beginning he had wondered at times if they would ever become a team, but now he knew they had become a whole lot more. They were family....not just any family...they were his family and for the first time in over three years he felt at home.

"Hey birthday boy." Inez slipped up beside him and handed him a piece of cake. She kissed him on the lips and then slipped one arm around his waist.

"You are a little sneak." Chris teased her and gave her a one armed hug in return. "Let me guess, there were no meteor showers."

"No, but we fooled you," she said.

"It appears it doesn't take much to fool this old man any more," he chuckled and then looked at the cake on his plate. "Either I have to let go of the cake, or let go of you."

Inez laughed, grabbing the fork she fed him a bite of his birthday cake."

"Well, don't you two look cozy over here?" Vin winked at Inez and grinned.

"It's my birthday." Chris smirked. "It's my party. I'm the one that gets catered to, and I'm the one that gets the birthday kisses."

Buck grinned and gave his two companions a conspiratorial wink, before slipping through the revelers, attracting their attention as he passed by. He came up behind his old friend and tapped him on the shoulder. When Chris turned around he asked, "Is that so?"

"Absolutely," Chris replied.

Without warning, Buck caught Chris's face between his hands to hold him still, and planted a big kiss right on his lips. "Guess you're right. You do get all the birthday kisses. Happy Birthday, Stud."


#8 Chances Are