Vegas Heat is the story of the Thornton dynasty. . .of Fanny Thornton, who takes over Babylon, the family's magnificent Las Vegas casino, when her ex-husband Ash falls desperately ill. . .of Fanny's twin sons, Sage and Birch, one content in his conventional life, while the other's search for happiness leads to tragedy--and renewed hope. . .of Fanny's daughter Sunny, betrayed by her husband, fighting a battle no woman should ever have to face. . .of her daughter Billie, whose devotion to the Thorntons' children's clothing empire has kept her from finding love. It is also the story of Fanny's relationship with enigmatic businessman Marcus Reed--and the poignant, powerful quest for acceptance that drives the members of these two unforgettable families. . .
"A fascinating family saga." --Romantic Times
About the Author
Hometown:Summerville, South Carolina
Place of Birth:Hastings, Pennsylvania
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Those in the know said Babylon was a one-of-a-kind gambling casino. Those same people said the Thornton family, owners of the casino, had overextended themselves. The big question on the Big White Way was how Ash Thornton, a man confined to a wheelchair, a man whose body was racked with pain twenty-four hours a day, could hope to operate Babylon.
The windowless counting room, an inner sanctuary where the money washed through daily, bore testament to how well the wheelchair-bound man managed. For Ash the ultimate thrill was being immersed in the sight, smell, and touch of money — tons of money, stacks and bundles of coins so heavy he had been forced to buy a hydraulic lift to move it all around the counting room.
It was amazing to Fanny that rather than counting the money, Ash had the cash bundled according to denomination and weighed. Her daughter Sunny had told her a million dollars in $100 bills weighed 20 1/2 pounds; a million dollars in $20 bills weighed 102 pounds. A million dollars in $5 bills weighed 408 pounds.
There was even a name for the electronic coin-weighing scale, the Toledo Scale. Sunny had laughed, a tinge of hysteria in her voice, when she said a million dollars in quarters from the slots weighed twenty-one tons. A fortune passed through Babylon every day of the year, so much money that it had to be weighed instead of counted.
What was she doing here? I'm trying to justify my mother-in-law's faith in my ability to safeguard the Thornton family fortune, Fanny told herself. I'm trying to help her family and to keep my own family intact,
Fanny Thornton hated the opulent, decadent casino. Today, she should have called ahead to arrange a meeting someplace else, made a luncheon reservation as far away from this fool's paradise as possible. She knew that floor Security had announced her entrance the moment she walked through the door. Ash was probably watching her from one of his top-secret peepholes. Birch and Sage were probably on their way to intercept her while Sunny sat with her feet propped up on an open desk drawer, awaiting her arrival. She, too, would have been notified that Fanny Thornton was in the casino. The big question to all of them would be, why?
Knowing what was ahead of her, Fanny quickened her step, refusing to look at the acres of slot machines and banks of poker tables. Directly in her line of vision, striding toward her, were her handsome twin sons, dressed in dark suits and pristine white shirts. They could have posed as Wall Street bankers. They were smiling, but only Sage's smile reached his eyes.
"Mom! What brings you down here? Try and work up a smile or the customers will think Babylon hasn't been kind to you." Birch leaned over and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
"Mom, it's good to see you." Sage hugged her as he gave her a smacking loud kiss. "Do you have time for lunch or at least a cup of coffee?"
"I have the time. How's your father?" Her voice was polite, nothing more.
"Is that one of those questions that doesn't require an answer or is it one of those questions whose answer doesn't matter?" Birch asked as he cupped her elbow to lead her through the casino.
Sage laughed, a sound of genuine merriment. Birch's features tightened.
Fanny looked from one of her sons to the other. The twins were like night and day. Sage was loving, open, warmhearted, and always the first one to ask "what can I do to help?" He was so much like her he scared her at times. Birch was cool, noncommittal except where his father was concerned, selfish, and arrogant, possessing all the same traits his father was known for.
Fanny shook off her son's hand, a motion that caused Birch's lips to tighten. She didn't care. She had every right to expect loyalty from her children. "If it's your intention to lead me to your father's office, forget it. This may surprise you, but I don't require an escort."
"Mom, why are you always so difficult when you come here?" Birch asked.
Fanny stopped in mid-stride. "That's a very amusing statement, Birch. I've been to this casino exactly twice in eighteen months. The first time was at the grand opening. The second was when Sunny fainted and Sage called me. The first time I was here I spent so much time smiling I thought I would end up with TMJ. My second visit was spent putting cool cloths on Sunny's forehead. Perhaps you have me mixed up with someone else."
"Mom, Birch didn't mean ..."
"Yes, Birch means exactly what he says. I don't like this place. I have never liked it, even when it was on the drawing board. Those feelings have not changed. The only reason I'm here is because of business. Now, if you don't mind, I can find my way to Sunny's office by myself. Fetch your father, please."
"Mom ..." Birch watched his mother walk away, her shoulders stiff, her ears closed to whatever he wanted to say.
"When was the last time you called her just to say hello, how are you?" Sage asked. "She hasn't forgiven us for choosing up sides two years ago. I can't say that I blame her. It was the worst kind of betrayal. You know it, and I know it. We're damn lucky she even talks to us."
"This is bullshit. We're running a business here. There's no room for 'he said, she said, I don't like this and I don't like that' crap. What's the point in calling, she's never home. She's always off somewhere with Simon."
"Uncle Simon, Birch. Show some respect. Mom can do whatever she pleases. She doesn't owe us explanations. She's fifty-four and she's independent. She makes more money than this casino does. Go ahead, defend that one."
"I don't have to defend anything. I don't kiss ass and take names later like you do, Sage."
"Where the hell did that come from? Mom walks in here and she has every right to do so and that invisible alarm goes off. Dad gets in a flap, Sunny goes white in the face, and you look so damn brittle it wouldn't surprise me to see your face split wide-open. Am I the only one who's normal around here? Scratch that, and add our sister Billie to the normal list. Don't forget for even one minute where the money came from for this fancy-dancy casino. Or is that what's eating you?"
"Let's not get into this now, Sage. I'll get Dad and meet you in Sunny's office. Where do you suppose Uncle Simon is? Dad calls him her shadow. He says they're joined at the hip. Actually, he didn't say hip."
"I know what he said. I was there. That crap is getting really old, Birch. Why can't you accept things for what they are? You're turning into Dad's clone. I just want you to know I hate what I see."
"Ah, the good son. Mom's good son. I'm the bad seed, is that it? Because I hate it that our uncle has taken over Mom's life? Dad hates it too. He still loves her."
"That's about the biggest crock I've ever heard. You're even more stupid if you believe it. You need to start lining up your ducks, Birch, before it's too late."
"Jesus, Sage, that almost sounds like a threat."
"It's whatever you want it to be," Sage said, turning on his heel. "I wouldn't make light of this to Dad. Whatever it is that brought Mom here must be serious. Hey, isn't that our little sister making her way in our direction?"
"What the hell! Is this a family reunion?" Birch demanded.
Sage grinned. "I think it's one of those things that's going to require a family vote. Billie, you're lookin' good!" He hugged his sister. Birch did, too, but not with the same enthusiasm.
"You handsome devil! You still beating the women off with a stick?" Billie teased as she tweaked Sage's cheek. "If you'd wipe that scowl off your face, Birch, you'd be just as handsome. What's up? Mom just said to be here at noon."
"Your guess is as good as ours."
"How's our little mother to be? I can't believe Sunny is going to have a baby."
"Dad can't believe it either," Sage said. "He's taking it personally He thinks Sunny is having this baby to embarrass him. He won't allow her out on the floor."
"You heard me. You wouldn't believe the crap that goes on here."
"Sure I would. Sunny takes it?" Billie said, her eyes wide with disbelief.
"She doesn't want to make waves. She says she learned her lesson that time when we all turned on Mom. In addition, I don't think she's feeling all that good. Tyler asked me to keep a close eye on her. I worry about her. If she doesn't shoot off her mouth, something is very wrong. Birch ... Birch seems to take some kind of perverse pleasure in baiting her. It's taking a toll on her, Billie. So, enough about us, how are you doing? You still seeing that guy?"
"Yes, and don't ask me any more questions. My love life is my own. Tell me about yours."
"Her name is Iris. She said her mother named her after her favorite flower. She reminds me of Mom. Really down-to-earth, wants a family. She just got a professorship at the university. She's so smart she makes me look like a dummy." Billie hooted with laughter. "Sunny says Rainbow Babies is making so much money you guys can't count it fast enough."
"Kid clothing sells. We're doing well. Why does it have to be us guys versus you guys? I hate that, Sage."
"Because that's the way it is. This family has always been divided, and it will probably remain that way as long as Dad calls the shots around here. I don't see any changes on the horizon."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Sure, have dinner with me and Iris over the weekend. I'd really like you to meet her. Bring along what's his name." Sage dropped his voice to a whisper as they approached the door to Sunny's office. "Billie, I want out of here. I gave it my best shot, but it isn't good enough. This was supposed to be a four-way operation, but Dad and Birch call the shots. Sunny and I are just their flunkies. I hate getting up in the morning knowing I have to come here."
"Then do something about it. The Dutch have a saying, Sage. If you can't whistle on your way to work, you don't belong in that job? Do you whistle?"
"Hell no, I don't."
"There you go. Is there anything I can do?"
"If there is, I'll call you. I just know this is going to be one of those spill-your-guts things. Everyone is going to say things they'll regret later on. The wedge will become wider. One of these days we're going to be strangers to one another. Wanna bet?"
The door to Sunny's office opened. Billie said, "Mom, you look wonderful. Sunny, you look terrible. Are you taking your vitamins?"
"Of course I'm taking my vitamins. I'm married to a doctor. I just called down to the conference room to get it ready. We're going to need to spread out. The kitchen is sending up coffee and sandwiches. How's what's his name?" Sunny asked, leading the way out of her office.
"What's his name is just fine, thank you. So, Mom, what's this all about?" Billie asked as she linked her arm with her mother's.
"Family business. Serious business. I'm going to stop by the offices later. I haven't seen Bess in three weeks."
"Sunny's Togs and Rainbow Babies aren't the same without you. Bess misses you, Mom. She's just like you and Aunt Billie. You really are lucky to have such a good friend."
"I know that. We're like sisters. Actually, we're closer than sisters. I'm worried about Sunny, Billie. Has she said anything to you?"
"Only that she's taking her vitamins. Get her out of here, Mom. There aren't any windows, she's indoors all day, sometimes for twelve hours. It doesn't look to me like she gets any thanks for all her hard work either. Wouldn't it be something if she had twins?"
"Bite your tongue, Billie," Fanny said.
"Are you going to give us a clue as to what this meeting is all about, Mom?" Sunny asked. "Pop's smack in the middle of winding up all the details for the World Series Poker Championship. The emperor of Las Vegas as he's called these days, will view this meeting as a thorn in his side."
Fanny snorted. The World Series Championship was what Wimbledon was to tennis — the oldest and most prestigious of all the tournaments. Players came from all over the globe to compete. For three straight weeks, twenty-four hours a day, people would line up and play, right up to the main event, the $10,000 buy-in no-limit tournament that would last four days until a new champion was crowned.
"Fanny, what a pleasant surprise."
Fanny stared at the man in the wheelchair, the man who had once been her husband. She felt her shoulders straighten. There were no regrets. Not now, not ever.
He was impeccably dressed, manicured, and coifed. "Whatever this is about, Fanny, can we make it quick?" he said, not looking at her. "I'm up to my ears with the final details for the championship. There aren't enough hours in the day." His voice was syrupy, the way it always was when he thought he could charm her, wheedle her into doing what he wanted.
"Dad, I offered to help," Sunny said. "Sage ..."
"Forget it, Sunny. The customers don't want to see your big belly. It's a turnoff. Men don't want reminders of home and hearth when they come to paradise."
Fanny sucked in her breath when her daughter's eyes filled with tears. "That was unnecessarily cruel, Ash, and you need to apologize to your daughter."
"It's okay, Mom." Sunny said.
"No. It is not okay. It wasn't okay when your father said the same things to me years ago and it's not okay now. This is not your casino, Ash. It belongs to the Thornton family enterprise. Sunny has a role here, and if you forgot what it is, I can have my attorneys refresh your memory. I also don't give a damn about your championship gambling tournament. Now, I came here to discuss something very important."
"You're really trying to stick it to me, aren't you, Fanny? Where's Simon? Shouldn't he be here?"
"Why is that, Ash? He doesn't belong to this immediate family even though he is your brother. But, to answer your question, I don't know where he is. Before we get down to the reason I'm here, outline what Sunny can do to take part of the burden off your shoulders. Now, Ash."
"Mom, it's okay. Really it is."
"Ash? Birch? Sage?" Fanny said. The three men stared at Fanny, blank looks on their faces. "I see, no one knows what's going on. Well, we'll change that right now. Sunny, you are in charge of the championship. You will report to Billie and me at the end of each workday. If it's too much for you, hire some help. Now that we've settled that little matter, let's get on with it."
"Just a goddamn minute, Fanny You can't waltz in here and tell me how to run this business."
"I just did. We've moved on, Ash. What part didn't you understand?"
"You're deliberately screwing this up, Fanny. The minute you get your fingers on something it goes to hell."
"I made a decision, Ash. When I do that, I don't look back, and I don't back down. If I did, I wouldn't be in business, and you wouldn't be sitting here in this ... this obscene den of opulence. As I said, I came here for a reason. I'm giving you all the courtesy of asking your opinion. I'll weigh what you have to say very carefully." Fanny drew a deep breath as she stared at the faces of her family.
"What is it, Mom?" Billie asked gently.
"Billie Coleman needs our help. As you know, your grandmother Sallie bought into Coleman Aviation years ago. The stock has been holding its own until now. Ash, I know Moss talked to you about the plans for his new plane before he died. I also heard you say you would help in any way you could. Simon also agreed. The Colemans are tapped out. They have nowhere else to turn. They've come too far now to let it all settle in the dust. I think we should do all we can to help Aunt Billie bring Moss's dream to life the way we all worked to make this dream possible for you, Ash. I'd like to hear your thoughts."
"Charity begins at home, Mom. What have the Colemans ever done for us? Uncle Seth didn't give a damn about Grandma Sallie. His own sister. I don't plan on forgetting that," Birch said.
"What happens if they go belly up?" Ash asked. "Where does that leave us, Fanny? What exactly do you want from us? Our cash flow isn't that strong. Or are you saying you want to mortgage everything. That's it, isn't it? Jesus Christ, Fanny, we could lose everything on some cockamamie dream of Moss's."
Fanny's heart hammered in her chest. She waited.
"Aunt Billie is family. Families stick together. If this is a yes or no vote, then I vote yes," Sage said.
"Me too," Billie said without hesitation.
The score was two to two. If Sunny didn't vote, it would be up to Fanny to break the tie. The turmoil on her daughter's face tore at her heart. Once before Sunny had taken a stand and made a decision she couldn't live with.
"What are you waiting for, Sunny?" Ash demanded, his eyes boring into his daughter.
Fanny shivered at Ash's tone as she too waited for her daughter's response.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Vegas Heat"
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Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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