“You,” she said on a breath.
“Me.” His enticing blue eyes traveled up and down the length of her, one eyebrow raised in frank admiration. “You obviously didn’t do your homework.”
Outrage surged through her system. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were yesterday? Why did you let me embarrass myself like that?”
The smirk disappeared, to be replaced by a mild expression of boredom. “There’s no need to be embarrassed. I always try to size up the competition.”
Doyle walked toward her, his large hand extended. The light in his eyes now hinted not so much at merriment as it did danger. She caught a whiff of her favorite men’s cologne by Michael Kors. She’d bought it for an old boyfriend once, but it smelled way better on Liam, as if it were an extension of his persona.
His entire ensemble, designer suit, pressed pants, and navy blue paisley tie, reeked of power and privilege that drew her like a moth to a flame. Damn, she’d always been a sucker for a man in a good suit. Get a hold of yourself, Kate. He’s hot, but so is the Devil.
He kept his hand out. “Please allow me to introduce myself properly. I’m Liam Doyle.” His gaze drifted toward her neckline and back up again. “I think you’ve heard of me.”
Wishing she didn’t have to, she took his hand. Electricity shot through her and that damned perspiration appeared on her upper lip again. His grip was that of a man who took what he wanted, when he wanted.
She held her head high. “Kate Callender.”
He held her hand for a moment, his gaze locked on hers. He then gestured toward the counter, where a teak tray was laden with biscuits and what smelled like expensive coffee. No Folgers crystals for this guy. “Coffee?”
“No, thank you.”
“So we’re done with the niceties, then?”
“I didn’t come here for niceties.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place.” Liam sat on one of the couches, motioning for her to do the same. She continued to stand. Something in his wolf-like gaze hardened even further. “Ms. Callender, why are you picketing my casino?”
His direct question set her even more on edge. She cleared her throat. “I have a right to protest what I see as wrong.”
His grim smile might have made a grown man sweat, but she didn’t look away. “Let me put this another way. Las Vegas is home to numerous casinos. Why mine?”
“If I’m trying to make a point, it only stands to reason I’d pick the most popular casino. I suppose I should congratulate you. Only open for two days, and Vice is already a hit. You must be so proud.”
“Yes. Despite having my grand opening spoiled.”
“Oh.” She inclined her head in mock sympathy. “I’m so not sorry.”
He peered at her, narrowing his eyes. “Are you a Bible-thumper?”
Despite her unease, she laughed. “Do I look like Hilary Clinton?”
He looked her up and down, as if her vocation were scrawled somewhere on her and he simply needed to find it. “Aspiring actress? This is probably a publicity stunt to get you viral on YouTube? Trying to get an audition here as a showgirl? Sorry, I don’t use them. The whole concept is dated and demeaning to my female clientele.”
Okay, he got some points for that statement. “I’m not a dancer. I’m a singer.”
It was his turn to laugh. Despite the bitter tone, his deep timber called to her. “Same difference.” He stood. “I’m not auditioning you, Ms. Callender, as fun as it would be to get you on the casting couch.” And there he lost those points again. “Have a nice day.”
“Wait! I’m not trying to get an audition. You need to listen to me.” In a nervous reaction, she fingered the pearl choker at her neck, the one thing she had left of her mother. The one thing her father hadn’t pawned.
Doyle turned back to her, one brow raised. “No, I don’t.” He eyed how she gripped her choker. “So you can take your fake pearl necklace and your sneakers and your attitude and go home.”
Her attitude? “No. You let me up here. I’m not leaving until you hear me out.” She let go of the choker and let her hands fall to her sides. “And my pearls aren’t fake.”
“Why are you here, Ms. Callender? Did you lose money at one of my casinos on your last night out with the girls?”
She didn’t want to dignify that with a response, but a smug statement like that couldn’t go unchallenged. “I’m not a gambler.”
He leaned against the armrest of the cushy couch and surveyed her through hooded eyes. “Ah, and now we come to the crux of the matter. So, you’re a do-gooder. Let me guess. Gam-Anon?”
“Never heard of them.”
“That doesn’t mean we don’t exist. And unfortunately, there are lots of us. Far too many. What does that tell you, Mr. Doyle?”
Liam’s lips twitched into a smile that appeared slightly more friendly than his poker face, as if he enjoyed their banter. He loosened his tie, but his focused gaze continued to grate on her nerves. She stared at the strip of indigo silk at his throat, and was struck by a bizarre and unbidden image.
Her, on his bed. Her hands bound with his expensive tie.
The strange pounding in her head must have been her racing heart. Where did that come from? Focus, Kate, focus.
“I’m not just here because it’s something I believe in. I’m here because my group gets bigger every goddamn week,” she said, concentrating on the task at hand, rather than Liam Doyle’s bed. Lisa’s sad face appeared in her mind, as well as those of her children, the ones who’d spent the last two nights crying for their daddy. Kate blinked away the tears which threatened and aimed her burning gaze at Doyle. “I don’t respect your work, Mr. Doyle. And I don’t respect you.”
From the furrow of his brow, Kate thought she’d struck a nerve. His tanned skin seemed paler. After a moment, he said, “So you’re trying to take down my casino with a one-woman picket line? No offense, but I’ve seen better protests at a garage sale.”
“I’m trying to create awareness.” Kate stood, having already had enough of their uncomfortable conversation. “I’m not a fool. My intention is not to shut down Las Vegas, or your casino. That’ll never happen. But if I can make a small dent in the wallet of the Strip’s wealthiest hustler during his opening week, then maybe people will take notice. Have you never thought about the addictions riding your customers? Have you ever spent time chatting with the compulsive gamblers downstairs? Because I bet you’d hear a lot of stories. And believe me, the worst ones are the ones they don’t tell.” She paused for breath. “My friend’s husband is probably down there right now, feeding your slot machines instead of his kids.”
“Hold on. Don’t pin that on me.”
“Oh? Who do I pin it on?”
“Look, if you want a donation, I already make plenty. Believe me, I make regular donations to people like Gam-Anon. You know, legitimate charities.”
“I’m not here for money, but clearly you are.” The words spilled out of her, kick-started by adrenaline. “You’re a wealthy man. Did you have to open casinos? Were they such a passion for you? Couldn’t you have opened, I don’t know, a supermarket chain instead? Or was that not sexy enough for the great Liam Doyle?”
His lips compressed. Had her comment hit home? Good.
“You have no right…”
“I have every right.” Her face was burning now. “If I can save even a few lost souls from places like this, then I’ll sleep a whole lot easier.”
She had to get out before she started crying. She wanted to leave with her head held high. Leave him thinking. She turned and headed for the elevator, but he grabbed her hand before she could get away.
Kate yanked her hand out of his grip. “How do you even sleep, Mr. Doyle?”
His eyes bored into her. “Like a rock. But that crown of thorns must keep you up at night.”
She tried to appear like she was still in control, but that had hurt. “You just keep telling yourself that.”
Kate marched to the elevator and punched the button. As the door opened, she threw a look back at him.
“By the way, I will be back. I’ll show you how many lives have been devastated by your casinos.” She walked into the lift, even though she felt like running. She didn’t look back.
Liam called out to her. “Watch your step, Ms. Callender. I don’t forgive and forget.”
She channeled her last ounce of bravado before the doors shut. “You really should see someone for that. I hear being an asshole can be terminal.”
Once the elevator began its descent, Kate leaned against the back of the small space and closed her eyes, winded by her hostile exchange with Doyle. She didn’t open them again until the door opened.