Playing the odds, p.11
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       Playing The Odds, p.11

         Part #1 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  She opened her eyes, and they were glazed with pleasure, dark with need.

  “You’re my woman.” He slipped inside her and nearly lost control. “There’ll be no going back for you now.”

  “Or for you.” Her eyes lost focus as the two of them began to move together.

  Justin struggled to comprehend what she had said, but she was moving faster. Burying his face in her hair, he swirled toward the madness.

  Dawn streamed through the wide window in a flood of rose-gold light. With Justin’s head still nestled at her throat, Serena watched it play over the length of his back. It looked like what she felt like, she discovered. Bright and rich and new. Was there a better way to watch the sunrise than with your lover’s body warm on yours? Sleep … She felt no need for it. She knew she could lie like this for hours with the sun growing brighter and the sound of his breathing gentle in her ear. With a sigh sweetened by contentment, she ran her hands up his back.

  At her touch Justin lifted his head. With their faces close he looked at her, letting his eyes roam feature by feature until there was nothing in his mind but her face, flushed and soft from loving. Without a word he lowered his mouth to hers in the butterfly touch he used so rarely. Gently, almost reverently, he brushed kisses over her eyelids, her temples, her cheeks, until Serena felt unexpected tears rise in her throat. Beneath his, her body felt fluid and free.

  “I thought I knew what it would be like,” he whispered, touching his lips to hers again. “I should have realized with you, nothing’s as I expect it.” Raising his head again, he traced a fingertip under her eye. “You should sleep.”

  She smiled and brushed at the hair on his forehead. “I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again. I know I never want to miss another sunrise.”

  He kissed her lightly, then, rolling from her, brought her close to his side. “I want you with me, Serena.”

  Content, she snuggled closer. “I am with you.”

  “I want you to live with me,” he corrected her, tilting her chin up so that he could see her eyes. “Here. It’s not enough to know you’re in a room down the hall.” Then he paused, running his thumb over her lips. “There’ll be talk downstairs, speculation.”

  Resting her head on his shoulder again, Serena began to trace a finger across his chest. “Talk won’t stop downstairs once your name’s linked with Daniel MacGregor’s daughter,” she told him.

  “No.” She heard the change in tone and knew that if she looked, his eyes would be unfathomable. “The press would find the relationship interesting, considering my background and reputation—as opposed to yours.”

  “Justin …” She trailed a finger down the center of his torso, then back up again. “Are you asking me to live with you or warning me not to?”

  For a long moment he was silent while Serena continued to trace lazy patterns over his chest. “Both,” he answered at length.

  “I see. Well”—she turned her head so that she was free to nibble on his neck—“I suppose I should think about it.” She felt a quiver of response as her hand ran low over his stomach. “Weigh the pros and cons,” she continued, working kisses up his jawline. Shifting, she lay across him, her face just above his. “I don’t suppose you could run through the pros and cons for me.” With a smile she pressed her lips to his. “Just to refresh my memory.”

  “In the interest of helping you make an intelligent decision,” he began, sliding a hand down to her hip.

  “Mmm-hmm.” But even as he sought to deepen the kiss, she moved, finding the vulnerable spot below his ear. “Did you know I was captain of the debate team my senior year at Smith?”

  “No.” His eyes shut as the heady sensation of being seduced took over.

  “Give me a subject,” she said, sliding her fingertips down his ribs, “and the time for … research,” she added as she nipped gently at his throat. “And I can argue either side of the issue. Now, as I see it …” She gave a sigh of pleasure as she pressed her lips to the fast, jerky pulse at the base of his throat. “Living with you entails a great many inconveniences.” His hand roamed over her hip, slipping between her thighs. Serena slid farther down his body, frustrating him.

  “Serena—”

  “No, I have the floor,” she reminded him, then flicked her tongue over his chest. “I’d lose my privacy, and a great deal of sleep,” she said, reveling in the quickening of his breath as she boldly explored his body. “I’d risk the inevitable gossip and speculation of my new employees as well as the press.”

  As muscles bunched and flowed under her hands, beneath her seeking lips, she lost her train of thought. Like the marble sculpture of the chieftain, she thought hazily as her blood began to pound. “You’d be impossible to live with,” she concluded, lost somewhere between her own initiative and the savage beauty of his naked body. “Demanding, infuriating, and because I find you so incredibly attractive, I’d never have a moment’s peace of mind.”

  She moved back up him, letting her body please itself by rubbing sinuously against his on the journey. Her smile was slow and seductive as she saw his eyes were fixed on her face. “Give me one good reason why I should, after considering all that, live with you.”

  His breathing wasn’t steady, but he couldn’t control it. The hand that grabbed her hair wasn’t gentle, but he couldn’t stop it either. “I want you.”

  Serena lowered her lips until they were an inch from his. “Show me,” she demanded.

  Even as her mouth came down to his, Justin was rolling her over roughly, beyond reason. He thrust into her quickly, wrenching a cry from her that turned to gasping moans as he drove her harder and faster. With mindless, grasping greed he took and took, but the hunger only seemed to feed upon itself, growing and swelling as her legs and arms tangled around him. He was drenched with sweat, trapped in those soft white limbs, unable to breathe, unable to break free. And it was her name that shouted over and over in his mind.

  His body seemed to shake with the sound, threatening to explode with the desperate repetition of her name. Then the word shattered into tiny fragments. He knew he would never be rid of them, then he knew nothing but the shuddering relief of fulfillment.

  Dazed, he slept, with his body and mind tangled with her.

  * * *

  The phone woke him barely four hours later. Beside him, Serena stirred, sighed and mumbled an oath. Keeping one arm around her, Justin stretched out the other and plucked up the receiver.

  “Yes?” Glancing down, he saw that Serena had opened heavy eyes to stare at him. He brushed the top of her head with his lips. “When?” Seeing him tense, she pushed up on her elbow. “Have they evacuated? No, I’ll handle it … I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

  “What is it?”

  Justin was already out of bed and heading for the closet. “Bomb threat in Vegas.” He grabbed the first thing that came to hand—jeans and a cashmere sweater.

  “Oh, God!” Serena was scrambling up, searching for her lingerie. “When?”

  “The phone call said it would detonate at three thirty-five Vegas time unless we deliver a quarter of a million in cash. That doesn’t give us a hell of a lot of time,” he muttered, snapping his jeans. “They’re still evacuating.”

  “You’re not going to pay.” Fury in her eyes, Serena pulled the chemise over her head.

  Justin watched her in silence for a moment, then smiled—as cold and sharp as a knife. “I’m not going to pay.”

  As he strode into the next room, Serena dashed after him. “I’ll be down as soon as I change.”

  “There’s nothing for you to do.”

  The elevator doors were already opening as she grabbed his arm. “I’ll be with you.”

  For an instant his features softened. “Hurry, then,” he told her, giving her a quick, hard kiss before he stepped into the car.

  In less than ten minutes Serena was rushing through the reception area into Justin’s office. He glanced up as she entered but gave her no more than a nod as he continued
talking in quiet tones into the phone. Kate stood beside the desk, her hands clenched, her usually composed face strained. “Miss MacGregor,” she said curtly without taking her eyes from Justin.

  “Could you fill me in, please?”

  “Some nut claims he has a bomb rigged somewhere in the Vegas hotel. He’s supposed to have a remote device that will set it off in”—she glanced at her watch—“an hour and fifteen minutes. They’re evacuating, and the bomb squad’s sweeping the place, but …”

  “But?” Serena prompted.

  “Do you have any idea how big that hotel is?” Kate demanded in a shaking voice. “How small and deadly a bomb can be?”

  Saying nothing, Serena walked to the bar at the far end of the room and poured a snifter of brandy. She brought it back to Kate, pushing it into her hands. “Drink this,” she ordered.

  With a shudder, Kate tilted the snifter back until it was empty. “Thank you.” She pressed her lips together a moment, then looked back at Serena. “I’m sorry. My husband lost an arm in Vietnam—a booby trap. This …” She let out a long breath. “This brings it all back.”

  “Come on, sit down,” Serena said more gently as she urged her onto the sofa. “There’s nothing to do now but wait.”

  “Justin’s not going to pay,” Kate murmured.

  “No.” Serena shot her a surprised look. “Do you think he should?”

  Kate dragged a hand through her hair. “I’m not objective about things like this, but”—she brought her eyes to Serena’s again—“he has so much to lose.”

  “He’d lose more than money if he paid.” Turning, Serena ranged herself behind Justin. She touched him only once, briefly, a hand on his shoulder. As Kate looked on, he reached up and caught Serena’s fingers in his. The gesture told her more than a thousand words.

  Why, he loves her, Kate thought, stunned. It had never occurred to her that Justin Blade would be vulnerable to any woman. Even as Kate studied his face, she wondered if he knew he was.

  “He set off a charge in one of the basement storage rooms.” Justin let the phone drop to his shoulder a moment.

  “Oh, God, was anyone hurt?”

  He looked up at Serena with eyes that told nothing of his thoughts. “No. There’s damage, but it’s fairly minor. He called in to tell the police that one was just a bonus to prove he wasn’t bluffing. He wants the money dropped off at three fifteen, Vegas time.”

  Serena dropped a hand to his arm. “What are you thinking, Justin?”

  “I’m thinking he’s cutting it very fine for someone who’s after a quarter of a million. I’m wondering if that’s all he’s after. When he called the hotel, he asked for me by name.”

  Serena felt a new ripple of unease. “A lot of people know you own the Comanche,” she began. “Or it’s very likely someone who once worked for you, or knew someone that did.”

  He shifted the phone again. “We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?” And there was something in the quiet words Serena recognized. A threat of violence, a promise of revenge. “How many more people left in there?” Justin demanded into the receiver. “No, I want to know the minute everybody’s out.”

  “I’ll get some coffee,” Serena said.

  “No.” Rising, Kate shook her head. “I’ll do it. You stay with him.”

  Serena looked at the trim gold clock on his desk. Five forty-five. Moistening her lips, she gripped the back of Justin’s chair and waited.

  His eyes drifted to the clock as well. Less than an hour, he thought. And he was helpless. How could he explain that the hotel was more than concrete and stone to him? It had been the first thing he had owned, his first home after his parents had died. It symbolized his independence, his success, his heritage. Now he could only stand by and wait for it to be blown apart.

  Was that the reason for the feeling in his gut that the threat was directed at him personally? Running a hand over the back of his neck, Justin decided that made more sense—and yet his instincts told him differently.

  “It might be a bluff,” Serena’s voice came calm and strong from behind him. Justin felt the sharp wave of frustration pass. Holding out a hand, he waited for her to come around the chair and slip hers into it.

  “I don’t think so.”

  She pressed his hand between both of hers. “It would be wrong to pay. You’re doing the right thing, Justin.”

  “It’s the only thing I know how to do.” He gave his attention to the voice over the phone. “Good. The guests and staff are out,” he told Serena.

  She sat on the arm of his chair while they both watched the clock.

  Kate came back with coffee, but it sat untouched on the desk while they waited. As the minutes ticked by, Serena could feel the tension coming off Justin in waves. He sat silently, the phone in one hand. She tried to imagine the complexity of a search in a hotel the size of Justin’s Vegas Comanche. How many hundreds of rooms, Serena wondered, how many thousands of closets and corners? She wondered helplessly if the sound of the explosion would carry through the receiver. And how many other times, she thought, has Justin’s fate rested on the caprices of luck? This time, she told herself as she placed her hand back on his shoulder, fate would have to beat them both.

  Because she was watching them, Serena saw the sudden rigidity in the fingers that lay on the desk.

  “Yes.”

  To keep herself from asking questions, Serena bit her lip as Justin listened to the voice over the phone.

  “I see. No, not that I’m aware of. Yes, I’ll be there as soon as possible. Thank you.” Hanging up the phone, he turned to Serena. “They found it.”

  “Oh, thank God.” She dropped her forehead onto his.

  “From what I was just told, it would have taken out the casino and half the main floor. Kate, book me on the first flight to Vegas.”

  “Justin.” Serena stood from the arm of his chair and found her legs were oddly weak. “Do they have any idea who?”

  “No.” For the first time he noticed the coffee mug on his desk. Lifting it, he drank half of it down. “I have to go out, smooth over things in the hotel and talk to the authorities. I’ll be back in a couple of days.” He rose and took her by the shoulders. “It looks like my new partner’s going to have a trial by fire.”

  “I’ll be fine.” Rising on her toes, she brushed a kiss over his mouth. “And I’ll take good care of our hotel.”

  “I’m sure you will,” he said, then drew her closer. “I don’t like leaving you just now.”

  “I’ll be here when you get back.” She reached up to frame his face with her hands. “Don’t worry, just come back soon.”

  He lowered his mouth to hers and lingered. “Go get some sleep,” he suggested.

  “Oh, no, this is my first full day on the job.” His face was calm, but she could feel the tension in him. Instead of the endless questions she wanted to ask, Serena made herself smile and pull away. “I have quite a few things to do—tour the hotel, inspect the kitchen, go through the files in my office, arrange to have my things moved to our suite.”

  The our hit him forcibly, leaving him a little stunned. “Do that first,” he demanded, taking her hands again. “I want to know you’re in my bed, Serena, I—”

  “You’re on a plane in forty-five minutes, Justin,” Kate interrupted, poking her head in the doorway. “You’ll have to hurry if you want to make it.”

  “All right, have a car brought around.”

  “Justin.” With a half laugh Serena tugged on her hands. “You’re breaking my fingers.” There was something in the look he gave her—part wary, part stormy—that had her smile fading. “What is it?”

  Had he been going to tell her he loved her? he thought with a quick flutter of panic. Had he been going to say the words before they had fully registered in his mind? “It’ll keep,” he said at length.

  “All right.” And because she wanted to erase the tension from his face, she smiled again. Then, throwing her arms around his neck, Serena pressed he
r mouth to his. “Be miserable without me, please.”

  “I’ll do my best. Kate has the number if you need me.”

  “Justin, your car’s here.”

  “Yes, all right.” He gave Serena a last, bruising kiss. “Think of me,” he ordered before he strode away.

  Taking a deep breath, she sat in the chair, still warm from him. “Do I have any choice?” she wondered aloud.

  Chapter 9

  Over the next week Serena immersed herself in the routine of the Comanche. It was, she decided, her first major investment that hadn’t been carefully chosen by her father, and one she was determined to understand intimately. She didn’t mind a few speculative looks, the occasional murmured word behind a hand as she inspected the public rooms or pored over the books and files and records. She expected them. She spent her days learning the hotel from top to bottom, her evenings in the casino or her office in the capacity as manager. The nights she spent alone in Justin’s suite.

  Over the week she discovered two things. The Comanche was a slickly run organization that catered to people who had money to spend. It gave its clientele the best—for a price. And second, Justin’s absence was a blessing in disguise.

  She had little time to miss him with her hours packed with things to do. Only late at night when she found herself alone did Serena fully realize how much she’d grown to depend on him. For a word, a touch, his presence. But alone, she had the opportunity to prove to herself and to her staff that she was both competent and serious about running the hotel. Serena made the most of it.

  Her background served her well. Over the years she’d become accustomed to patronizing fine hotels, and she knew what a client looked for from check-in to check-out. Her year on the Celebration had given her another perspective. She understood the problems that plagued the staff—from fatigue to boredom to shortages in the linen count. The first day she had won over Nero and Kate. By the second, Serena had swayed the chef, the night manager and the housekeeper. She considered each one a major victory.

  Behind the trim pecan desk in her office, Serena went over the current week’s schedule of her croupiers. Directly in front of her the panel was open, giving her a broad view of the casino. She found she enjoyed the twin feelings of isolation and companionship. Since the day had barely started by casino standards, she planned to give her paperwork another two hours, knowing if she were needed, the buzzer on her desk would sound, lighting up the location of the trouble. Then she’d work the floor. If she kept busy until weariness took over, she wouldn’t be tempted to pick up the phone and dial Justin’s number in Vegas.

  He was a man who needed room, who didn’t make promises or expect them. If she were to win in the end, Serena knew she couldn’t forget that. If she were patient, there might come a time when he’d be comfortable loving her. With a quick laugh she shook her head. She’d never be comfortable loving him. Nor did she choose to be.

  Rubbing the back of her neck, Serena frowned down at the schedule. It could be made less complicated, she mused, if they hired one more croupier as a floater. That would make the hours a bit more flexible and …

  “Yes, come in.” Without glancing up, Serena continued to look over the list. With a floater to pick up the slack, she mused, she could juggle the shifts. Then suddenly a spray of violets landed on the paper in front of her.

  “I thought that might get your attention.”

  Feeling her heartbeat speed, Serena looked up. “Justin!” She was out of her chair and racing into his arms before either of them expected it.

  As his mouth came down to hers, he realized it was the first time he’d seen that spontaneous, unrestricted joy on her face. And it was for him. The fatigue of a long flight, the tension of a week, melted from him. “What is it about a woman,” he asked her, “that makes it so good to hold one?”

  Smiling, she tilted her head back. The closer study of his face brought concern. “You look tired.” Her fingers rose to smooth away the lines of strain around his mouth. “I’ve never seen you look tired before. Was it very bad?”

  “I’ve spent more pleasant weeks.” He drew her back to him, wanting to fill himself with the feel of her, the scent. Later, he thought, he’d tell her of the neatly printed note he’d received. Another threat, without detail or reasons, just a promise that it wasn’t over. “I did what you asked,” he added, running a hand over the smooth flesh the low back of her dress exposed.

  “Mmm. What?”

  “I was miserable without you.”

  She didn’t laugh as he had expected, but tightened her arms around his neck. Fighting back tears, she pressed her lips to his throat. “You didn’t call. I waited for you to call,” she whispered. Appalled by her words, Serena pushed out of his arms, swallowing tears and shaking her head. “No, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I know you were busy.” She lifted her hands, then helplessly let them fall. “And—and so was I. There were a million things …” She turned to shuffle papers on her desk. “We’re both adults, and independent. The last thing we need is to start putting chains on each other.”

  “You ramble when you’re nervous,” Justin commented.

  Whirling, Serena glared at him with hot, furious eyes. “Don’t make fun of me.”

  “Odd that I would have missed that killing look,” he said as he came to her. Taking her face in his hands, he held it gently, his eyes on hers. Serena felt her anger drain to leave her weak and pulsing. “Serena,” he said on a sigh as his mouth closed over hers.

  The tender kiss grew hungry quickly. She felt the need pour out of him to match her own as their lips clung, parting only to seek new angles, deeper pleasures. Longings of a week intensified so that there were two pairs of hot, avid lips searching, two pairs of urgent hands roaming. On a jerky breath Justin crushed her against him. No woman, he thought dimly, had ever made him suffer like this.

  “Oh, God, I want you, Serena. I want you so that I can’t think of anything but having you.”

 
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