Ace of Hearts – Chapter One
You know your career’s reached a new low when you’re booked for eight weeks in Vegas.
I stare at the giant neon marquis with my name in lights as the limo pulls up to the Bellissimo Casino and Hotel. I don’t care if the Bellissimo is the swankiest, hippest place in Sin City, it’s still Vegas. The shithole performers go to for low stress, easy money. Usually after they’re burned out.
So why the hell am I here twenty months after the release of an album and less than fourteen hours after the last performance of a grueling tour?
Because Hugh, my asshole manager, sold me out.
And now my parents, Hugh and I are in a world of trouble only I can fix.
Anton, my bodyguard, gets out first, then offers a hand to help me. I ignore it, because, yeah–I’m twenty-three, so fully capable of getting out of a car on my own, and not prissy enough to want help, although I appreciate the gesture. I climb out and shake down the skirt of my strappy, babydoll dress, which I paired with a beat up pair of brick red Doc Martens, and pop my earbuds out, the RadioHead album still playing.
A forty-something woman in a blue dress and heels clips out of the door, making a beeline for Hugh. Behind her, a huge, broad-shouldered man stands just outside the gold-trimmed door watching.
That’s not unusual. I’m the popstar, after all, but it’s the way he watches that sends rockets of warning shooting through my veins. His unimpressed, quiet observation and fine Italian suit give him away.
He’s Tony Brando, the man who now owns me.
I recognize him. He showed up to my concert in Vancouver, and again in Denver.
He’s the reason we’re here, despite the fact that I’m three hours from a total collapse, about to lose my voice and in desperate need of some alone time.
Of course, even if the mob wasn’t after me for millions of dollars, Hugh probably would still have me booked until the next century. My well-being never factored into his or my parents’ plans for my career.
I told Hugh two years ago I needed a break. Time to find my muse again and make the music that catapulted me into stardom in the first place. I wanted to hole up in a studio to record my next album, which would fix the cash flow problem my parents were in after some bad investments last year.
But Hugh had a sure-fire scheme.
An idiotic, dangerous plan that my parents and I blindly trusted him to execute.
“Welcome, Ms. Heart. I’m Angela Torrino, director of events. The Bellissimo is so thrilled to have you, as you can see.” She gestures to the hundred foot neon sign out on the strip with my name in lights.
I shake her hand and try to force a smile. Try not to glance at the pinstriped suit lurking behind her.
Hugh trots around and takes over, as always. “Thanks for making the arrangements, Ms. Torrino.” He pumps her hand. “Now, if you can get us access to the stage, we’ll start loading in so Pepper can rehearse before her performance tonight.”
Right. Rehearse–now. Because lord knows it’s a sacrilege to actually have one day of rest after traveling before I perform. Or even an hour.
I follow Hugh and Ms. Torrino toward the hotel/casino doors, Anton right behind me and slightly to my left.
Ms. Torrino stops to introduce Hugh to the large man in the doorway. Brando ignores her and steps forward. His movements are graceful for a man at least six and a half feet tall and over 250 pounds. His gaze is clearly on my face, and not in the wow-I’m-meeting-the-famous-young-rockstar-Pepper-Heart way. No, it’s more a big bad wolf surveying his prey.
His gaze skims on my mouth, then lower, to my braless breasts and on down my bare legs. Then back up again and a more leisurely pace, finally resting on my eyes.
I’m pretty sure he likes what he sees, but he doesn’t leer. The smirk on his mouth is more one of satisfaction, like I’m a fine wine that’s just been delivered to him and he’s savoring my scent.
My stomach knots.
“Ms. Heart, this is Antonio Brando, one of the Directors of Operations here at the Bellisimo,” Ms. Torrino chirps from behind him. I’d like to say his big scary visage makes him ugly, but it would be a lie. Even with the light lines of scars marring his rugged jaw, forehead, and left cheek, he’s beautiful. Like some sort of Roman demi-god sent to Earth to rip apart men and conquer women until the lowly humans have all been tamed.
He doesn’t offer his hand. I don’t either. In fact, I give him my best fuck you stare–the one I usually reserve for Hugh.
“I’m looking forward to your show tonight.” His baritone moves through me, vibrating right between my thighs.
I really wish my body didn’t have this reaction to his closeness, because I’d much rather hate the man than be turned on by him. But he’s massive masculine power; he radiates quiet confidence and control.
Yes, there’s an undercurrent of violence to him that sends shivers running down my spine.
I clamp my lips together because I can’t think of anything to say that won’t get my kneecaps broken. And I’m pretty sure that happens here–the Bellissimo is owned and run by the Tacone crime family. Besides, and more importantly, I don’t want him to hear the state of my voice. It’s almost gone. I’ve been sick for weeks now and I honestly don’t know if I can make it through this last stint in Vegas.
Hugh bustles to my side and grabs my elbow in that controlling way of his. “Come on, let’s get you to that stage so you can rehearse. I want no flub-ups tonight.”
I put my head down and follow, not because I agree that I need the rehearsal time, but because I need to get away from Brando’s searing regard.
As fast as possible.
Hugh’s grip tightens on my elbow as we move through the casino. “Do you want to get us all killed?” he hisses in my ear, his breath stinking of sour coffee.
“I thought you already took care of that,” I rasp in my most dry, bored tone–the one that sets him off on a rampage. Then I tune out the lecture as Bellissimo guests call out my name and start snapping photos. I grin and flash them the peace sign as we walk through casino on a long parade from the front door to the concert hall where my tour bus is parked in the way back. Of course we could’ve just pulled around there to begin with, but this is Hugh’s strategy of making sure everyone knows there’s someone famous in the building–hyping the show. My band members and roadies have the luxury of slipping in the back in peace.
I honestly don’t mind, though. I love my fans. They’re the reason I write music. The reason I sing.
A group of rowdy frat boys jostle too close, getting into my space to snag selfies with me. Anton barks for them to back up, shielding my body with his, but suddenly casino security swarm around us, forming a protective bubble.
“I don’t know, she only has one bodyguard,” one of them speaks into a comms unit, then, “You got it, Tony. We’ll stay with her at all times.”
I twist around to see my huge keeper. He’s walking casually behind us, his lips moving as he gives orders to his staff. Our gazes meet and lock, his dark, promising.
My heart picks up speed.
I want to march back and say all the things I bit back when we met outside, but it’s like the Earth is rumbling beneath my feet. The Tetonic plates shifting and moving, rearranging.
I may have thought I could handle Vegas. Handle my obligations at the Bellissimo. Get in, get out; hold my breakdown until it’s over. But now that I’ve met Tony Brando, I know I’m in way over my head.
It’s hard to imagine I’ll survive this gig with my soul intact.
Merda. Pepper Heart is nothing like what I expected. I figured her for a party girl–a spoiled young rock star who’d pissed her money away like water. Either that, or a child in need of growing up, maybe whose parents or manager had grossly mismanaged her career and finances. And the latter may still be true, but Pepper is neither a child, nor a vapid starlet.
She’s every bit a woman.
A beautiful woman with slender, muscular legs like a ballerina. Youthful, braless–fuck yes, braless--tits that shift under her sweet little babydoll dress like they’re begging to be licked. She has a fluffy, platinum bob over a pink underlayer and heavy black eyeliner around those eyes. Those eyes were what stripped me of my judgment about her. Big, deep, the color of warm caramel: they are full of pain.
And if I see that asshole manager of hers grab her by the elbow like that again, I’m going to yank his tie so tight his eyes pop out.
I swear to la madonna.
I order my guys to keep an eye on her at all times, because I don’t like the fact that she only has one bodyguard, and fans who want to get up close to that ripe little body of hers.
I trail behind her entourage at a distance, telling myself I’m just making sure they’re fulfilling their obligations to me. To Nico. And Junior.
Pepper Heart owes a shit ton of money to the Tacones and it’s my job to make sure she pays it off. I’d say she’s lucky she has the talent and following for me to squeeze, but it’s not luck. Junior Tacone knew what he was doing when he let her borrow 900K to produce and release her last album and world wide tour–which sold sluggishly. He knew we could put her to work at the Bellissimo. Forever, if we need to.
The sweet little songbird’s in my cage now.
And fuck if I don’t wish she was the spoiled brat starlet drinking and partying her way through her tour. Because I don’t like to squeeze a woman.
I have a big fucking problem with it, actually.
It’s always been my sore spot.
The don warned his son Nico about me when he sent us off to Vegas together, years ago. When Nico decided to make a name for himself away from Chicago. Don Tacone said, “Trust Tony. He’ll be your most loyal soldier. Just don’t ever ask him to hurt a woman. And don’t you ever hurt a woman. Or else all bets will be off.”
The don knew. He turned a blind eye as I worked to right the wrongs of my childhood. Bloodied my hands and my soul vigilante style.
So I hope to God Pepper’s shows sell out, we get her debt paid and send her out of here unscathed.
Because I don’t want her to know the kind of violence I’m capable of. What I’ve done since I sold my soul to the devil Don Tacone.
I stop one of the cocktail waitresses. “Deliver a bottle of our finest champagne to Ms. Heart’s dressing room with my compliments.”
It’s not because I feel guilty.
It’s just to smooth things over between us. A gesture of welcome, to show her she’ll be treated with respect, so long as she does as she’s told.
Definitely not because I give a shit what she thinks about me. Or because that sexy little glare she gave me when we were introduced got me harder than a rock.
I shouldn’t celebrate the fact that she’s not afraid.
Putting her at ease is definitely not part of this job.
Ace of Hearts by Renee Rose
(Las Vegas Underground, Book 3
“I savor Renee Rose’s books as if they were the finest of champagnes” ~USA Today Bestselling Author Sierra Cartwright
THE SWEET LITTLE SONGBIRD’S IN MY CAGE NOW.
She owes the Family money. Big money. And I’m the guy
they sent to put the squeeze on her. So now she’s playing at my casino.
Strutting around on my stage in her tight little shorts. Killing me softly.
I promised she’ll be treated with respect, so long as she does as she’s told.
But I didn’t count on her barging in my office and tempting me,
begging for a taste of my authority.
I didn’t count on her getting under my skin.
And now the last thing I want is to see her debt paid.
Because then I’d have to set her free…
Note: This steamy stand-alone romance is the third in USA Today bestselling author Renee Rose’s Vegas Underground series. No cheating, no cliffhangers.