Beautiful Bombshell: Chapter 6

Max Stella

The din of voices in the bar, glasses clinking, and sounds of ringing slot machines all around us was occasionally disrupted by the loud bursts of laughter by the world’s biggest wanker, Will.

“Wonder what it’d be like to get head from a male prostitute?” he mused. “Like, okay, assuming of course it wasn’t illegal, and you didn’t even know it was a guy. I bet that would be some good suction.”

I shrugged, feeling the humor of the situation bubble up inside me and burst out. “I bet it would be bloody fantastic.”

“Strong grip,” Bennett agreed, laughing.

“Bigger tongue for the equipment if you know what I’m saying,” I added.

“Well, fuck. Now you’re making me wish I’d given him a go.” Will picked up his empty drink glass and raised it for the waiter to bring another. “Where are we headed next?”

“Thought we could hit Tao, at the Venetian,” I suggested. “Or head back to the Bellagio?”

“Does anyone actually know where Henry is?” Bennett asked, looking around for only a few seconds before seeming to decide he didn’t care enough to get up.

But then Chloe and Sara appeared around a corner, arms linked and making a beeline for a blackjack table only about ten yards from the bar. Bennett straightened instinctively, drawing Will’s attention.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Will groaned, following Ben’s gaze. With mumbled thanks, he took his drink from the waiter. “They don’t even know you’re here, do they? Oh my God, they do. That’s why you’ve both been idiots all night. It’s like the four of you have subconscious homing devices implanted in your genitalia.” He sighed. “It all makes sense now.”

I stood at the same time as Bennett, stretching my arms over my head before tucking my dress shirt back into the waist of my trousers. Will could give me all the shit he wanted. I was going to Sara.

“If you don’t mind, gentlemen, it looks like I’ll be trying my hand at blackjack this evening.”

I made my way out of the bar and to the table where the girls were organizing their chips and being dealt in. Finding a seat next to Chloe, I met Sara’s eyes just a couple of seats down, giving her a little wink.

“Max,” she said, simply, smiling.

“Petal,” I acknowledged with a nod.

Pulling a few chips from my pocket, I had the croupier break them into smaller denominations and add me to the hand.

“I’m gonna win some money,” Chloe informed the table.

“I’d love to see that,” I murmured, frowning as the dealer laid down my faceup card. A five of hearts.

“As would I.” Bennett slid easily into the last empty chair at the table, on the opposite side of the half circle from Chloe and beside Sara. Between me and Sara was a skinny man wearing a ten-gallon hat and one of the most fantastic bits of facial hair I’d ever seen.

When I busted with a score of twenty-five, I turned to look at the man more closely. “Mate, that is a bloody brilliant mustache.”

He tipped his hat, thanking me before busting with a twenty-two.

Chloe held, and the dealer revealed that Chloe had both the ace and jack of spades. The house had a jack on the up card, but flipped the hole card: a king. The dealer paid out Chloe’s winnings before collecting the cards on the table with a sweep of her hands.

“Told you!” Chloe sang, dancing in her seat and blowing Bennett a kiss. “It’s my lucky night.”

He responded with a tiny lift of his brow.

Looking across the room to the bar, I found Will, who was sipping his drink and fucking around on his phone. He looked up and caught my eye after a moment, giving me a silent fuck-you face, and I waved, indicating that I’d be back soon.

The problem was, blackjack was fucking fun. Chloe was cleaning up, winning hand after hand. And although Bennett and I were systematically losing all of our money, it didn’t bloody matter. The dealer was easygoing, Sara’s laugh was infectious, and Mustache had started cracking the best awful jokes between each hand.

“Doctor walks into a room,” he said, running his fingers over his mustache and winking at Chloe. “Says hi to the patient on the exam table, goes to make note of something on his chart.”

The dealer dealt our facedown cards and we all looked at the table in time to see the next cards arriving faceup.

“He realizes he’s holding a thermometer and frowns. ‘Well, fuck,’ he says, ‘some asshole’s got my pen.’ ”

And because her sense of humor was always easy and gutter-loving, Sara completely lost it, falling onto the soft padded edge of the table in laughter and looking lovelier than I think she had all night. She was flushed from whatever she’d had to drink, but even more than that, she looked positively blissful. When she looked up and caught me staring, her smile straightened as if liquid heat had trickled into her veins, and she blinked down to look at my mouth. Going back to find her at the theater had been the best decision of my night.

Come to think of it, the only good one. I gave her a wink, licked my lips.

“You two going to fornicate or play some goddamn cards?” Chloe asked, having decided to stay with a nine showing; the table showed a six, and busted, hitting seven on top of a hole card of nine.

“Shut your gob, woman,” I hissed playfully.

“A young guy walks into a bar,” our new acquaintance started as the dealer cleared the hand, and fuck I’d decided this was the best man ever to have at a blackjack table. The dealer began the process of shuffling the decks. “He orders ten shots of whiskey. The bartender says, ‘Damn, kid,’ but lines them up anyway.”

I liked Mustache because of said mustache of course, but also the fact that he looked like he spent a lot of birthdays alone. He had a way about him that mixed ease and desperation, and yet here he was, cracking dirty jokes with perfect finesse with a bunch of half-sloshed strangers. I didn’t even mind his gaze turning dopey and loaded when he turned and smiled at Sara. Couldn’t blame the bloke; I had no choice but to fall for her; Sara was as irresistible as gravity.

“So here they are: ten shots in front of this skinny beanpole kid. The kid knocks them all back one after the other, barely blinking. ‘Wow,’ says the barman, ‘what’re you celebrating?’”

Sara was already laughing, and I turned to watch her in wonder. She would never stop being a tangle of mystery, this one, anticipating dirty jokes told by an eccentric stranger in Vegas.

Mustache chuckled, shaking his head. “‘My first blow job,’ says the kid. The bartender looks surprised and says, ‘In that case let me buy you another.’” He stopped looking over at Sara expectantly.

And with both hands in the air as if dancing in victory, Sara yelled, “Kid shakes his head. ‘No thanks, man. If ten shots won’t get rid of the taste, another won’t make a lick of difference!’”

Around us, laughter roared and I realized that we had begun to attract quite a crowd to the table. Chloe was on a roll, Mustache was aces, and at nearly two in the morning, we were clearly the table having the most fun in the casino. Sara and Mustache high-fived as the dealer began flipping out the cards, wearing an amused smile.

The card play turned into a blur of jokes and drinks; Chloe whooping in celebration was interrupted often by sound of Sara’s loud, hysterical laugh. With a jerk of awareness, I turned, looking for Will at the bar. It had been a long while since I indicated we’d be done soon, and I’d completely lost track of time.

He was gone.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket, glancing up with resignation at my two remaining twenty-five-dollar chips, and texted him, We’re set. Where are you?

He texted back a few moments later, Meet you at the Venetian. I’m getting head from a dude.

“Arsehole,” I mumbled, just as Mustache started a new joke.

But the sound of his voice beside me fell silent as a hand wrapped around my shoulder. “Mr. Stella.”

The table and the boisterous crowd went silent. I caught a look of concern on Sara’s face just as I looked up, turning to see a man wearing a dark tailored suit and a very serious expression.

“Yeah, mate?”

He wore an earpiece and an expression that communicated I was meant to take him very bloody seriously. “I’m going to have to ask you and Mr. Ryan to come with me, please.”

“What’s this about?” Bennett asked, laying his cards face down on the table. The crowd broke out into speculating whispers.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss it out here on the floor. I’ll ask you once again, gentlemen, to follow me. Now.”

Without further question, we stood, exchanging baffled looks and following the man away from the table. I turned, giving Sara an encouraging smile, mouthing, “It’s fine.”

What, after all, could we possibly have done?

The man in the black suit led us through a service doorway, down a long, empty corridor, and then through an unlabeled door. Inside the stark, white room was a metal table not unlike the one I’d started my evening with, and three metal folding chairs.

“Have a seat.” The man indicated that we each sit in one of the chairs, and then turned to leave.

“What’s going on?” Bennett asked. “We’ve followed you here readily out of courtesy. The least you can do is tell us why you asked us to leave the table.”

“Wait for Hammer.” The man nodded toward the remaining empty chair, and then left.

I settled back into my seat while Bennett stood, pacing for a few quiet minutes before sighing, and sitting down next to me again. He pulled his phone from his pocket and texted something, presumably to Chloe.

“This is a load of shit,” he grumbled.

I made a noise of agreement, but then stopped from saying more when we heard footsteps coming down the hall toward us.

Two guys walked through the door, both sporting dark suits, short-cropped hair, and hands the size of watermelons. Neither man was taller than me, but I had the distinct impression they had more hand-to-hand combat training than did I. Which is to say, some.

They stared at us for what seemed like full, heavy minutes of silence. Assessing. I felt sweat bead at my forehead, wondering if these men were the owners of the limo I’d . . . borrowed for my short romp with Sara. They were definitely either limo drivers or hit men.

Or, perhaps, they were undercover policemen here to reprimand us for hiring a prostitute. Had we actually paid for her? Could she be traced to us? Or . . . bollocks. Maybe Sara and I had been caught on camera and they were here to bust us for our public escapades earlier. I mentally filed through the phone calls I would need to make once booked on charges of public indecency. Lawyer, Sara, Mum, smug business partner, hysterical sisters. And then I saw the image of all the creepy mug shots in the paper of men and women arrested for fucking in cars, or on bridges, or on school grounds and realized this is why Sara and I kept our activities to Johnny’s club. There, we’d never see a man in a suit coming to reprimand us; Johnny would shut that nonsense down before the police even had time to enter the club’s coordinates into their GPS.

I glanced at Bennett, who, now that the men had joined the room, was sitting in his own chair looking as relaxed as he would be at the head of a boardroom table. He had one hand in his pocket, the other resting on his thigh, and was staring evenly up at the two men in front of us.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” I said, deciding someone needed to start the festivities. The guys were hulks, brutes, goons, getting their ideas for facial expressions from comic books or Tarantino films. It was almost too easy to want to have fun, just a little.

The first one to speak was the shorter of the two—though by no means short—and had a voice about as deep as a five-year-old girl’s. “I’m Hammer. This here is Kim.”

Beside me, Bennett Ryan was just drunk enough to say, “I appreciate the irony of that. On both counts.”

The man who introduced himself as Hammer stared at Bennett for a long pause before asking, “Any idea why we asked Leroy to bring the two of you back here?”

I answered, “Uh, no?” just as Bennett answered, “Well, it’s definitely not because we cleaned out the house.”

When he said that, and for the first time since we were brought back into the room, it occurred to me that we were more likely here for gambling-associated reasons than grand theft auto or public indecency. Instead of being booked and ultimately released, we were going to have our fingers broken one by one by a eunuch named Hammer and a brute named Kim. Brilliant.

Hammer smirked, saying, “Do you have any idea how many assholes like you we see back here? Out for a weekend with their STD-infested douche-bag friends, thinking they’ll use their brand-new copy of Card Counting for Dummies to clean out the house so they can go back and bang their ugly-ass girlfriends and impress them with the five hundred dollars they won?”

Clearing his throat with authority, Bennett asked, “Do we really look to you like two men who would find thrill in winning five hundred dollars?”

Kim, who was somehow both much larger and less intimidating than Hammer because of the rubies in both of his ears, lurched forward, slamming his fists down on the table, making the entire fucking room shake. I couldn’t help but notice that Bennett barely flinched at all. I sure as hell jumped; I’d been convinced the metal table was going to collapse on our legs.

“You think this is your motherfucking mommy’s house?” Kim growled, his voice as low and gravelly as Hammer’s was girlish. “You think you’re playing Go Fish at a fucking linoleum table?”

Bennett sat motionless, his face impassive.

The man turned to me, eyebrows raised as if I was meant to speak for both of us.

“No,” I said, giving my best, relaxed smile. “If we were at my mum’s house we would have been offered chips and Guinness.”

Ignoring my wisecrack, Hammer stepped forward. “What do you think the house does when we get card counters in here?”

“Mate, I wouldn’t know how to count cards even if I was trained by fucking Rain Man. The repercussions are beyond me.”

“You think you’re funny?”

I sat back in my chair, exhaling heavily. This was pants. “I think I’m baffled. I lost all my chips. Even if we were counting cards, we’re not exactly good at it, so I can’t quite suss out what we’re doing here.”

“The best counters let themselves lose sometimes. You think by counting you’ll only ever win?”

I sighed, leaning forward, my elbows resting on my knees. This was going nowhere with the continued rhetorical questions. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Hammer looked surprised, straightening. “Go.”

“I’ve never played blackjack in my life before tonight. This one?” I said, nodding to Bennett. “He negotiates drink prices when we’re sitting at a table and they’re already free. He doesn’t fucking gamble.”

Snorting, Kim said, “And yet here you are, in a two-deck pitch, you stand on s-seventeen, double after split.”

Bennett leaned forward, genuinely curious. “Was that English?”

For the first time since we walked in here, I saw the corner of Kim’s lips twitch as if repressing a smile. Or a snarl. I couldn’t actually be sure.

“I’m going to give you two choices,” Hammer said. “One, I break your fingers. Or two, I break your face.”

I blinked, feeling a brief moment of pride that I had correctly predicted our punishment. But something felt off. Just because I hadn’t played blackjack in Vegas before didn’t mean I had been living under a rock. Finger-and face-breaking seemed a touch off-protocol for a couple of guys suspected of counting cards.

“Let’s see your hands,” Kim said, patting the table.

“You’re delusional,” Bennett replied, laughing incredulously.

“I’ll start with the pinkie,” Hammer said, lips twitching. “No one needs their pinkie.”

“Get stuffed, all right?” I growled, feeling a disorienting mix of impatience and righteous indignation building in my chest. “Forget the accent, I’m a fucking American citizen, you arseholes—I know my rights. If you’re going to start talking about getting violent, get a fucking cop or lawyer in here.”

The door swung open, and bloody Will entered, clapping slowly. Ice trickled into my veins, and I leaned back in my chair with a harsh exhale.

“Oh, you wanker,” I sighed.

“It was perfect!” He smiled at Hammer and Kim, and I groaned, dropping my head onto my arms on the table. I should have known. “You were angry, but convincing,” he said to me. “You might have thrown in an indignant fist slam for full effect, but I really like what you did with the American-citizen bit. Really got me right here.” I looked up just as he tapped his chest, over his heart, eyes soft and praising.

While Hammer and Kim stepped to the side, laughing, Bennett stood, walking over to Will. For a second I wondered if he was going to punch him or maybe just kick Will in the goolies, but then I realized he was smiling. He looked Will in the eye for a count of about three, and then patted his shoulder before simply walking to the door. “Well played,” he murmured before disappearing down the hall.

Hammer and Kim moved to me, hands extended and smiles full and easy now. “Sorry, man,” Hammer said, laughing. “Mr. Johnny French called. Said we needed to help your friend Will even the score. Apparently you deserved some payback for acting like pussy-whipped little babies earlier?” He held his hands up, shrugging in a way that made me wonder whether he was officially associated with the mob. “We just wanted to fuck with you a little.”

“Seemed the easiest way to get you away from the ladies,” Will said, rocking on his heels.

I sighed, rubbing my face and feeling my heart rate slowly return to normal. All said, this was a pretty brilliant prank. “Well, while you had us back here, I’m pretty sure Chloe was out there cleaning up.”

“She did pretty well,” Will agreed. “Few thousand at least.”

“Come on,” Kim said, helping me up and slapping my back. “Go out there and get drunk.”

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, returning his handshake. “I’m staying the fuck away from cards.”

“I’m an American citizen!” Will yelled, and then collapsed into the couch in hysterics. It was probably the tenth time he’d made this proclamation in the past fifteen minutes.

“So,” I began. “You paid those men a hundred dollars to scare the piss out of us. How’d that work out for you?”

Ignoring me, Will pretended to wipe away a tear. “Your patriotic battle cry at the end is going to stay with me for all my days.”

“It was pretty amazing,” Bennett agreed.

We sat around a low glass table in a posh bar at the Bellagio, lounging on soft suede couches and sipping what felt like our millionth cocktail of the night. My inebriation snuck up on me; until this moment, I hadn’t really felt it. But with my adrenaline slowly slipping from my veins, and knowing the girls were safely somewhere in their beds, my limbs grew heavy with the effects of our adventures, and the accumulated alcohol.

All around us, the bar was quiet; it was well past three in the morning, and most of the people remaining were in the casino, or at one of the more wild bars.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a man approach our table. He wore a tailored suit, an earpiece, and had the distinct look of importance about him; the waiters made room for him, all offered him nervous hellos. Clearly someone of circumstance was headed our way, and since Will was seated at the table with us, I was disinclined to think he was fucking with us again.

“Gentlemen,” the man said, standing at the head of the table. “You must be Bennett, Max, and Will.”

We all nodded, sharing pleasantries.

“The elder Mr. Ryan has joined us in the high rollers room,” he then said. So that’s where Henry had gotten to. “But his phone is dead, and he asked me to come check on you. My name is Michael Hawk, and I’m the vice president of client relations here at the Bellagio.”

I chanced a look at my friends, to see when they registered that, with some people in his life, this man might be known as Mike Hawk. Will closed his eyes for a beat, swallowed with effort, and then opened them again, containing himself. Bennett nodded, and to my complete fascination, had to bite his top lip to repress any further reaction.

“I wanted to make sure that you were enjoying your night,” Mr. Hawk continued, looking at each of us in turn.

“It’s been fantastic,” I answered, unable to look away from Bennett. I hadn’t seen anything like this from him in at least a decade: his lip shook, he covered it with his finger, and his eyes started to water. Finally, he looked over to me . . . and then he absolutely fucking broke.

With a hand splayed over his face, Ben leaned back into the sofa and shook with laughter, just drunk enough, and tired enough, and full up to fucking here with the insanity of the night to completely lose his shit over some guy named Mike Hawk standing in front of us. Beside him, Will turned red before bending and covering his face with both hands.

“I’m sorry,” Will gasped from behind his fingers. “I don’t mean to be rude, Mr. Hawk. It’s just too much.”

Turning back up to the man beside our table, I smiled. “Thanks very much for checking in. Go ahead and let Henry know we’re sorted.”

Mike Hawk wasn’t a tall man, and he didn’t look as hard and intimidating as the casino executives in movies would lead me to expect. He was average height, with a round, friendly face and eyes full of understanding. He gave a little laugh, shaking his head before leaving us with, “Enjoy your stay, gentlemen.”

“I would like to state for the record,” I started once he’d left, “that I am the only fucking bloke at this table who was able to keep his arse together.”

“Mike Hawk!” Bennett practically yelled at me, dropping his hand. His eyes were red from laughing. “How am I supposed to keep it together over that? That’s like meeting a fucking unicorn.”

Will leaned over to high-five him, and then sighed, leaning his head back against the back of the couch. “Holy crap that may have been the highlight of the night.”

“The night is young,” Bennett said, recovering with only a slight slur to his words. He glanced at Will’s empty glass. “Have another.”

“No. It’s too late to get me drunk and have your wicked way with me.”

“Garçon!” I yelled, grinning. “A scotch for the curmudgeon. Bring the whole bottle if you would.”

“I told you, Max, I’m not drinking that.” Will turned his face away in mock anger. “It’s too damn late to pretend you love me.”

The waiter slid the glass of scotch in front of Will and, with a quiet clink, set the entire bottle beside it.

Will stared at me, at the bottle, and then shook his head. “No.”

“The thing is,” Will slurred, tossing a sloppy arm around my shoulders. “Women are tricky.” He waved the index finger of his free hand in front of my face. “How often do you meet one you can imagine just hanging out with like this?” He dragged the s out to about five seconds, and then lurched forward, reaching for his glass. It skittered away from his fingertips before he finally captured it with his palm.

“Just the one,” I admitted. “And even with Sara, it’s different than with you guys. I try to curb the swearing.” I rubbed my jaw, reconsidering. “Sort of.”

“You curbing the swearing is like me curbing the . . .” Will trailed off, thinking. “The something. I’m hungry.” He ran a hand over his face and looked at his watch. Likewise, I checked my phone. It was nearly five thirty in the morning. “Actually, I’m tired. Let’s meet for lunch at noon and start this fucking bachelor party thing over again tomorrow.”

The three of us stood, closed out our tab, and made our way toward the bank of elevators, each of us scrambling in our pockets to find our room key to show security.

We stood in silence as the doors opened. I was blissfully tipsy and ready for a good snog with my lady upstairs. I almost couldn’t wait to see what we could stir up tomorrow.

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