In Vegas, even the pianos were fake.
Michael Chang stared at the rigged grand and flicked on the iPad that controlled it, but couldn’t bring himself to start “playing.”
“This is never going to work.”
“Sure it is,” his brother said as he pushed Michael to sit. “Just pick a song and fake it.”
“I’m a numbers guy. We don’t fake stuff.” He glared at Jonathan. “That’s left to you creative types.” Which is why Michael was CFO of his family’s publishing business. He could manipulate dollars to pounds to yen in his head, but was clueless on anything that couldn’t be boiled down to raw digits.
“Just smile pretty, roll your fingers over the keys, and listen. Everybody who’s anybody in publishing is here. They all wander to the bar. And they’ll definitely spill their guts to the piano guy.”
His brother grinned. “Maybe. But you lost the bet, so you get to fake-play.”
“On a Knicks game? Please. You just took a sucker bet.”
Michael sighed and scrolled through a few selections on the tablet. At least the piano was angled into a corner. Hardly anyone could see his hands or the pad that controlled the huge instrument. There were seats along the curve of the grand and a large tip jar that would never get filled. Not with him playing. But all in all, the setup was decent enough to fool the average drunk.
“Just talk up anyone who comes by. Buy them free drinks. They’ll start spilling the beans easy.”
“Then you do it,” Michael grumbled.
“I play guitar, remember? I can’t fake keys to save my life. You, on the other hand, went to piano camp four years in a row.”
“Does not a maestro make.”
“Potato potahto. Just remember to get the goods on Chuckles.”
Michael sighed. They were in Las Vegas, at the publishing industry’s biggest conference event, and somebody had to investigate their suddenly brilliant editor Charles, aka Chuckles. Michael didn’t have a problem with the man. After all, he was bringing in business like never before. It was his brother Jonathan who was suspicious because, frankly, the middle-aged blowhard wasn’t that bright. Or didn’t seem to be. Which left everyone wondering how the man was coming up with such amazing young talent and innovative marketing campaigns.
“People are going to recognize me,” he muttered.
“With your hair ragged and in a tight tee? Mom wouldn’t even recognize you. You were born in a three-piece suit.”
“I gotta go, bro. You’ll be fine. Chuckles loves to preen, and he’ll do it near the bar. Which will bring people here to complain about him, too. Trust me, this is the spot to lurk.”
Actually, a dark corner with a parabolic microphone was the way to lurk, but that wasn’t going to be possible here. “Next bet you lose, I’m putting you in a tutu on the front stage.”
“Man up, bro.” His brother laughed as he touched the opening song for Michael to “play,” then gave him a light punch on the shoulder and wandered away.
The first notes rang out, and Michael had to scramble to put his fingers on the keys. What the— Oh, shit. The Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” Awesome piece. Impossible to fake-play. His hands started dancing across the keyboard, his fingers landing nowhere near the notes he was supposed to be pressing.
“Shoot me now,” he said. “Two pops, right in the head. I’ll go fast.”
No such luck. Instead, people turned and smiled at him while he tried not to sweat. In this tee, it would show right through.
Next song was his selection, and he slowed it to a jazzy Coltrane. He relaxed when no one scowled at him or screamed “fraud!” Fake-playing wasn’t so hard when the lights were low and hardly anybody was there. But that was going to end quickly.
Sure enough, the last of the workshops let out and a steady flow of professionals appeared. At least three of his employees hit the bar, but not one gave him a second glance. Good. Then, just as Jonathan had predicted, Charles sauntered in with a full posse. The man was pulling out all the stops. His hair was gelled smooth, his tweed jacket screamed fatherly editor, and he gestured as he spoke with a silver pipe. Seriously? Even Michael’s father had never been so pompous, and the elder Chang had lived to expound on the “state of publishing today.” And yet even Michael could see that the image worked. Charles’s smile was warm, his laughter genuine, and people flocked to him like he was the answer to all their editorial questions.
Michael tried smiling at the group. He needed to lure them nearer the piano so he could eavesdrop. No such luck. They went straight for the bar. Now what kind of music would the blowhard like? He was pondering that when he heard a girlish voice right beside him.
“I’m so sorry, Thea. You’re an amazing editor and a really nice person, but Chang Smart Books offered me more money.”
Michael’s head snapped up at the name of his company. A young woman twisted her hair as she spoke to a frumpy woman who looked like she was getting sucker punched. He knew the feeling, and so his sympathies were immediately engaged.
“More money?” the woman said. “You know, I developed this whole marketing plan—”
“Which is so sweet,” the girl said with a nervous giggle. “But he showed me this amazing plan. A rollout with these really creative ideas. And let’s face it, Charles just has more money to do these things. More clout, you know?”
“Charles Dixon?” the woman asked, her words choked off.
Well, well, well. Maybe his brother wasn’t a total loser, because hanging out at the piano was definitely helping get the dirt on their employee.
“Yeah,” the girl said with an awkward shrug. “Um, he’s waving me over. Between you and me, he’s kind of a jerk, but he knows business, you know?” And off she went to join Charles’s posse.
He wanted to grab the girl and find out exactly what she’d been promised, but that wasn’t possible from behind the piano. Which meant he had to get the sucker-punched editor relaxed enough to spill.
“Wow, if looks could kill…” he said, trying out his best sultry voice. It didn’t work. The woman blinked owlishly at him, then turned around as if searching for somewhere else to sit. Fortunately for him, there wasn’t one. It was belly up to the stools around the piano or leave altogether. Miracle of miracles, she sighed and took the step closer.
“Were you talking to me?” she asked. Damn. Talk about sexy voices. She had it in spades. It hit him low in the belly and sat there revving everything up.
“I was. And I think you need a drink. My treat.” He waved at the waiter, then returned his attention to the keyboard. Can’t forget he was supposed to be playing Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.” A request from one of his own editors, which made him question her taste. “What’s your pleasure?” he asked, the words taking on an erotic note in his head.
Obviously, he was rusty in the charm department. Or more accurately, he’d never developed the skill. He spent so much time on the road that he’d given up dating completely. No one he knew stuck around at home enough for a relationship, and one-night stands had never been his style. But he’d been sexy in school, right? At least he remembered dating in college, less so in graduate school. Like riding a bike, he hoped. “Let me guess. Chardonnay? Merlot?”
He blinked. “Bold and unexpected. I like that.” He nodded at the waitress who’d been waiting at her elbow. “So what did he do to you? Steal your lunch money? Run over your dog?”
She winced. “Worse. He’s making me all too aware of my limitations.”
He pursed his lips. “Limitations? No way. What happened to ‘I am woman, hear me roar’?”
She laughed, another sultry sound, then she leaned forward onto the piano to watch him play.
Hell no! He sucked at this fake-playing. He angled his body and rethought his choice of attire. Tomorrow was going to be a big pirate top with long lace cuffs to hide his hands. Who cared what it did to his masculinity? But at the moment, he was stuck with distracting the lady from his hands.
“Come on, give. What’d he do? I hear he’s kind of a jerk.”
“Really? From your vast experience in publishing?”
He shrugged. “People talk to the piano player.” He hoped.
Another woman sidled up, putting a twenty-dollar bill on the piano, adding a song request and a wink. Jesus, how did these players handle playing, talking, and schmoozing tips all at once? He was on the verge of a meltdown. Meanwhile, his best lead on Charles was starting to walk away.
“I should let you work,” frumpy editor said.
“Stay right there!” he said too sharply. “I mean…” He winced. “Give me a minute.” He focused on the keyboard and what he remembered of the song. The lighting in here was all wrong for him to read the score on the tablet so he just moved his fingers and prayed no one was looking at his hands.
“Raspberry Beret” ended, thank God. He glanced at the woman’s request. Michael Bublé. Yuck. Instead, he tapped in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name” and locked gazes with his quarry. Thankfully, while he’d been fumbling, the waitress had brought her drink. She’d started sipping as she resettled on a stool.
“I’m Anthea Danelle, editor in chief at Fresh Fiction Publishing.” Her smile widened. “But my piano player friends call me Thea.”
Was she flirting? He hoped so. Now if he could just remember how to flirt back. “Got lots of piano men in your life?”
“Not yet,” she said as she tipped to the glass to her mouth, and he lost himself for a moment in the sight of her lips parting and the flash of her tongue. WTF? He never noticed things like that. He sure as hell hadn’t noticed any of the other women who’d been coming up to the piano with song requests complete with an “accidental” brush across his arm or pecs. But this woman had him interested. Maybe because she shrugged out of her shapeless blazer to reveal a tight tank over full breasts. Sadly, a fuzzy knitted scarf thing hung limply about her neck, but there were enough curves to catch his attention. He might be a workaholic, but he wasn’t dead. She had a nice shape.
“Spill,” he said. “What did the pompous ass do to you?”
She blinked at him. “You seriously want to know?”
“Of course.” Shit, he really sucked at this undercover stuff. “I just want to hear about your day.”
She pursed her lips. Damn, another distraction. Then she shrugged and gestured over to where Charles was holding court. “Just look at him. He’s dressed like Mr. Moneybags because that’s what he is. His company has bucks they throw his way because he brings in the books. The good ones poised on the verge of breaking big with the right campaign behind them.”
“Authors you cultivated?” A piano man wouldn’t be able to make that leap, but he could. Especially since he’d reviewed Charles’s latest wins on the plane over here.
She nodded glumly and a strand of her honey-blonde hair fell out of its bun. “My last four, to be exact. No, wait. Make that five.” She frowned as she looked at the girl who’d sucker punched her. “And every one has become a huge success.”
Curiouser and curiouser. “How’s he luring them away?”
Thea shrugged, and that was it for her hairdo. Most of her curls tumbled down in soft waves about her face. Pretty. More than pretty, it gave him thoughts of…
“Aren’t you supposed to be playing something?”
Oh, shit! He stabbed the iPad. Damn it. Michael Bublé. At least someone in the audience would be happy. Meanwhile, he looked back at her. “You were saying? How did he get your authors?”
“With his style and his flash, I guess. And by making me look like an idiot.” She took another drink, then cursed under her breath. With a grimace she pulled off the fuzzy knitted thing and dropped it to the floor. And Michael grinned because she definitely had a nice shape: full breasts, creamy skin, and a tease of lace from her bra.
“You don’t look like an idiot to me,” he said, his voice thicker with lust.
“Oh yes I do. I talk about nurturing talent, he chuckles like a paternalistic uncle and talks about how it’s a business, and he’s got the savvy that I don’t.”
“Does he?” Michael wondered aloud. “Have the savvy?”
“Well, he knows how to spout the right stuff, that’s for sure. And he looks the part, too.” She looked down at herself and grimaced. “I need a makeover.”
“It can’t be just looks.”
She sighed and shook her head. “I don’t think it is, and I have my suspicions, but…”
But what? Damn it, she wasn’t talking and he could already tell she was too professional to just say things to anyone. Which meant he needed to get closer to her. As he keyed in the next song, he gestured to the waitress.
Step one: get Thea good and liquored up. Step two: charm her into talking. How exactly he was going to do that he hadn’t a clue, but he had to give it a shot. Especially since she looked like his best chance of getting the lowdown on Chuckles.
An idea popped into his head. “You know, I could help you with that.”
She looked up from her new vodka glass. “What?”
“The new look part.” He might be a numbers guy, but he knew how to dress classy, or at least find people who were the real experts in style. And he’d love to get a better look at her body. “Wait until I get off?” he asked. He hadn’t exactly meant that double entendre, but what the hell. With her hair tumbled around her shoulders and her lips cherry red, some things just came out sexual.
She smiled at him, her mouth curving slow and sensuous. “Why not?”
Perfect answer. Until he started thinking deeper about it. How was he going to find out what he wanted and keep on the ethical side of this impersonation? It’s not like he could sleep the information out of her. And yet, for some reason, his dick was all on board with that idea.