Playing the odds, p.4
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       Playing The Odds, p.4

         Part #1 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  heaving himself out of his chair.

  Justin stayed for dinner, and became rich. He renamed his hotel Comanche, then made it into one of the finest hotel-casinos in Vegas. He bought a dying property in Tahoe and repeated his success. Within a decade he had five thriving gambling hotels and interests in a variety of enterprises throughout the country and Europe. In the ten years since their meeting in the tower room, Justin had been to the MacGregor home dozens of times, entertained Daniel and Anna in his own hotels, and fished with their sons. But he’d never met the daughter.

  “Bright girl,” Daniel would say of her from time to time. “But won’t settle down. Needs a good man—you should meet her.”

  And Justin had steered clear of the not so subtle matchmaking attempts. Or so he’d thought.

  “The old devil,” he murmured, shrugging into the shirt.

  It had been Daniel who had pushed him into the cruise. Get away from the pressure, he’d insisted. Nothing like good sea air and half-naked women to relax a man. Because he’d been restless, Justin had considered it, then had been trapped when Daniel had mailed him the tickets with a request for a case of duty-free Scotch.

  So the old pirate was still wheeling and dealing, Justin thought, amused. Daniel would have known that Justin would spend time in the casino on board, and left the rest to chance. With a quick laugh Justin began doing up the buttons of his shirt. Chance, he reflected, with a stacked deck. What would the old man have to say if he knew his friend and business associate had been wrestling with his daughter that afternoon with the predominant notion of getting her into his bed? Exasperated, Justin ran a hand through his hair. Daniel MacGregor’s daughter. Good God.

  Justin grabbed his jacket from the closet, then closed it with a bang. It would serve the cagey devil right if he had seduced his daughter. It would serve him right if he avoided her for the rest of the trip and never uttered a word about meeting her in the first place. That would drive the Scotsman up the wall. Justin caught his own reflection in the mirror, a dark, lean man in black and white.

  “And if you think you can stay away from her, you’re out of your mind,” he muttered.

  When he walked into the casino, Serena was standing near the small black-and-white monitor talking to the blond man Justin recognized as her supervisor. She laughed at something he said, then shook her head. Justin’s eyes narrowed fractionally as Dale ran a finger down her cheek. Justin knew what it would feel like—soft and cool to the touch. Dale grinned, then straightened her bow tie as he spoke to her in undertones. Even recognizing the emotion as petty jealousy, Justin had trouble controlling it. In a matter of days Serena had made him feel desire, fury and jealousy—emotions he normally kept in perfect balance. Cursing her father, he walked over to her.

  “Serena.” He caught the quick stiffening of her shoulders before she turned. “Not dealing tonight?”

  “I’ve just come on from my break.” She should have known the twenty-four hour respite wouldn’t last. “I didn’t see you in here last night. I thought perhaps you’d fallen overboard.” Hearing Dale’s sharp indrawn breath, Serena turned back to him. “Dale, this is Justin Blade. When I didn’t fall for his charm at the beach in Nassau, he tossed me into the water.”

  “I see.” Dale extended his hand. “I’ve never tried that one. Did it work?”

  “Shut up, Dale,” Serena said sweetly.

  “You’ll have to excuse her,” Dale told Justin. “Sea life makes some of us surly. Are you enjoying your trip, Mr. Blade?”

  “Yes.” Justin glanced at Serena. “It’s been quite an experience so far.”

  “You will pardon me,” she said with exaggerated politeness. “I have to relieve Tony.” Turning, she stalked over to table five. Because gritting her teeth hurt her jaw, Serena forced the muscles to relax. She gave the three players at the table a professional smile, which iced over as Justin took a vacant stool. “Good evening. New deck.” Breaking the seals, Serena shuffled the cards together, doing her best to ignore Justin’s calm, steady stare. He stacked what she estimated to be two hundred dollars’ worth of chips in the slot in front of him, then lit a cigar. After giving the cards a final snap, she determined to see if she could clean him out.

  “Cut?”

  Justin took the thin sheet of plastic she offered. As Serena slipped the cards into their clear holder, he pushed a twenty-five-dollar marker forward. She checked the table to see if all bets were placed, then began.

  At one point Serena had him down to three chips and was feeling a grim satisfaction. Then she dealt him double sevens, which he split, counting twenty on one hand and twenty-one on the other. Steadily, he built the five chips to ten. When it came time to rotate her table, he infuriated her by moving with her. Serena renewed her vow to clean him out.

  For the next twenty minutes she hardly noticed the other players. She could see only Justin’s unfathomable green eyes or his hand as he stood pat or took a hit. Though she was determined to beat him, his chips gradually multiplied.

  “I got blackjack!” The shout from the college student at the end of the table broke her concentration. Serena glanced over to see him grinning. “I won three dollars!” he told the casino at large, holding up the three light blue chips like a trophy. He was, Serena concluded, pleasantly drunk. “Now …” He slapped the three chips back on the table, then rubbed his palms together. “I’m ready to gamble.”

  Laughing, she reached for the cards again, but her eyes met Justin’s. She saw humor, the first expression she’d seen in them for hours, and warmed to it. For a moment she wanted to reach across the table and touch him, run her fingers through the thick, soft hair that surrounded his lean face. How could the simple light of laughter in his eyes make him seem so important?

  “Hey!” The college student lifted his beer in a toast. “I’m on a streak.”

  “Yeah, of one,” his girlfriend said dryly.

  The interruption cleared Serena’s head. Lifting her chin, she reached for the cards. One smile wasn’t going to make her forget she was here to beat him. “Possible blackjack,” she said as she flipped over an ace for herself. “Insurance?” The college student’s girlfriend plunked down a chip. Justin didn’t move. Turning up the tip of her hole card, Serena was satisfied with a three. It would give her plenty of room. “No blackjack.” She glanced at Justin’s cards, pleased to have dealt him a poor count. “Sixteen. Hit or stand?” He merely motioned with his forefinger for a card. Serena had to bite back an oath as she turned over a four. “Twenty.” He passed a hand over the cards to indicate he was satisfied.

  And so you should be, she thought resentfully, turning up a jack to break the next player. Just freak luck, she told herself, bumping the college student up to eighteen. “Four or fourteen,” she announced as she turned over her card. With her eyes on Justin’s, she pulled another. “Six or sixteen,” she said as if to him alone. She bit back another oath as she drew the three of clubs. “Dealer stands on nineteen,” she stated, knowing Dale would throw her overboard if she took another hit. “Pays twenty.”

  Raking in all the chips but Justin’s, she then slid another twenty-five-dollar marker over the baize. She thought she caught another glimpse of laughter in his eyes as he dropped it into his slot, but this time it didn’t warm her.

  Smoke hung in the air, too thick to be completely banished by the cooling system. Serena didn’t need to glance at her watch to know she’d been standing on her feet for nearly ten consecutive hours. Gradually, the clatter from the slots began to lessen, the first indication that the late shift was almost over. The couple at the end of the table, looking heavy eyed, began discussing the stopover in Puerto Rico the next day. Between them they cashed in five dollars’ worth of chips before they left.

  A quick glance around showed Serena that all but three of the tables were empty. There were only two players left at hers, Justin and a woman she identified as the Mrs. Dewalter who had captured Jack’s and Rob’s attention. The redhead was pay
ing a great deal more attention to Justin than to her cards. Feeling spiteful, Serena decided the diamond on her hand was vulgar, and nearly grinned when she broke her at twenty-three.

  “I guess this isn’t my game,” the redhead said with a sulky pout. She shifted toward Justin so that her considerable cleavage was in full view. “You seem to be tremendously lucky. Do you have a system?” Running a finger down his sleeve, she smiled. Serena wondered how she would like her nose pressed into the green baize.

  Amused at the obvious tactic, Justin allowed his eyes to roam up from the deep plunge of her bodice to her face. “No.”

  “You must have some secret,” she murmured. “I’d love to hear it … over a drink?”

  “I never drink when I play.” He blew a stream of smoke past her shoulder. “One interferes with the other.”

  “Bets?” Serena said just a tad too sharply.

  “I believe I’ve had enough cards this evening.” Letting her thighs brush Justin’s, the redhead rose, then dropped a hundred dollars’ worth of chips into her purse. Serena had the small satisfaction of knowing she’d started with four. “I’ll be in the lounge,” she told Justin with a last lingering smile before she turned away.

  “Better luck next time,” Serena said before she could stop herself. She turned back to find Justin grinning at her.

  “Cash me in?”

  “Certainly.” Then he’ll go chasing after that redhead with the size-38C personality, she thought furiously. Quickly, she stacked and counted his chips. Seven hundred and fifty dollars, she calculated, and only became more angry. “Dale’s busy. I’ll take care of this myself.”

  Watching her stride away, Justin tried to remember her father. It wasn’t easy.

  Serena came back with a stack of crisp bills and a white slip attached to a clipboard. Swiftly, she counted the money out, then passed it across the table. “You had a profitable evening.” After slipping the paper into the compartment under the table, she reached for the cards. Justin took her wrist.

  “Another hand?” he asked, enjoying the quick jump of her pulse beneath his fingers.

  “You’ve already cashed in,” she pointed out, and tried to tug away. He tightened his grip.

  “A different bet, between you and me.”

  “I’m sorry; it’s against the rules to have side games with the passengers. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to close up the table.”

  “No money.” He watched her eyes narrow in fury and smiled. “A walk on the deck if I win,” he said smoothly.

  “Not interested.”

  “Not afraid to go one on one, are you, Serena?” The hand that attempted to remove his from her wrist paused. “You still have house advantage,” he said quietly.

  “If I win,” she began, then carefully removed his hand, “you’ll keep away from me for the rest of the cruise?”

  He considered the question. It was, after all, a much wiser course than the one he was pursuing. Taking a last puff on his cigar, he crushed it out. It wouldn’t be the first time he left his fate to the cards. “Deal.”

  He glanced at the two and five in front of him, then at the ten Serena had showing. Nodding for a hit, he drew a queen. His first thought was to stand, but another glance at Serena showed him she looked entirely too pleased with herself. He’d have bet every dollar in his pocket she had an eight or better in the hole. Keeping his eyes on hers, he gestured for another card.

  “Damn!” She tossed down the four of diamonds and glared at him. “I swear, Justin, one day I’m going to beat you.” Disgusted, she turned over the jack she had in the hole.

  “No.” He rose, slipping his hands into his pockets. “Because you’re trying to beat me, not the cards. I’ll wait for you outside.”

  Dale glanced over to see his best blackjack dealer sticking her tongue out at the back of a passenger.

  Leaning back against the wall, Justin watched Serena through the glass doors of the casino. He thought he could almost see the combination of annoyance and frustration simmering around her. He felt much the same way himself. With a shrug he reminded himself that he had left it up to chance. The bet could have been as easily lost as won.

  Idly, he fingered a twenty-five-dollar chip still in his pocket. Some might say he’d had an unusual run of luck. Then again, he mused, it might have been luckier to have lost that final bet. If he continued to see Serena, his life wasn’t going to be uncomplicated.

  He might have been able to ignore the feeling of having Daniel MacGregor looking over his shoulder if he could have convinced himself that taking her to bed would get her out of his system. But those were very long odds. She was the first woman Justin had ever known who had threatened to become a permanent part of his thoughts.

  And what would she say, he wondered, if I told her her father had arranged the entire scenario from his fortress in Hyannis Port? A smile curved the corners of his mouth. She’d skin the old man and hang him up to dry, he concluded. Watching Serena walk toward the doors, Justin decided to save that little bombshell for another day.

  “I suppose you have a right to smile,” Serena said coolly as she let the door close behind her. “You’re on quite a winning streak.”

  Justin took her hand and in an unexpectedly courtly gesture kissed her fingers. “I intend for it to go on a lot longer before it’s broken. You’re really quite beautiful, Serena.”

  Disconcerted, she stared at him. “When I’m angry,” she finished, struggling not to be charmed.

  He turned her hand over and kissed her palm, watching her. “Really quite beautiful.”

  “Don’t try to throw me off by being nice.” Unconsciously, she laced her fingers with his. “There’s nothing nice about you.”

  “No,” he agreed. “Let’s go out. I imagine you could use some fresh air.”

  “I agreed to take a walk.” Together they began to climb the stairs. “That’s all I agreed to.”

  “Umm-hmm. And the moon’s nearly full. How’d you do tonight?”

  “The casino?” When he opened the door, the wind rushed in, delightfully warm and clean. “Better than usual. We’ve been operating at a loss since spring.”

  “Too many nickel slots—cuts your profit margin.” He slipped an arm around her waist as Serena looked up at him. “You’d make more at the tables if some of your dealers were sharper.”

  “It’s hard to stay sharp when you work up to sixty hours a week for peanuts,” she said ruefully. “Anyway, the turnover’s constant. Most of them have six weeks training tops, working up from cashier to croupier, and a large percentage of them don’t stay more than a couple of runs because they find out it’s not the floating vacation they thought it was.” Without realizing, she hooked her arm around his waist as he matched his stride to hers. “This is my favorite part.”

  “What?”

  “Late at night when the ship’s quiet. You can’t hear anything but the sea. If I had a porthole in my cabin, I’d leave it open all night.”

  “No porthole?” His hand began to move rhythmically up and down her back.

  “Only passengers and officers have outside cabins.” She arched against his hand, sighing as it soothed her tired muscles. “Still, I wouldn’t trade this past year for anything. It’s been like finding a second family.”

  “Your family’s important to you?” he asked, thinking of Daniel.

  “Of course.” Because she found it an odd question, Serena tilted her head back to look at him. As he angled his to meet her eyes, her lips nearly skimmed his jaw. “Don’t do that,” she murmured.

  “What?” And the word, soft and quiet, whispered over her parted lips.

  “You know very well what.” Dropping her arm, she moved away from him toward the rail. “My family,” she said more steadily as she turned, resting her arms across the wood, “has always been the most important part of my life. The loyalty is sometimes uncomfortably fierce, but necessary to all of us. What about you?”

  She looked totally and unconsciou
sly intriguing, her soft curves hidden yet enhanced by the mannish tux, her once tidy hairstyle being whipped apart by the wind. Her face was tilted back so that a splash of moonlight marbleized her skin.

  “My family …” Struggling to pick up the thread of the conversation, he moved to stand in front of her. “I have a sister, Diana. She’s ten years younger; we’ve never been close.”

  “Your parents?”

  “They died when I was sixteen. Diana went to live with an aunt. I don’t think I’ve seen her in practically twenty years.”

  Serena’s automatic wave of sympathy was immediately quelled. “That’s disgraceful!”

  “My aunt’s never approved of my profession,” he said dryly. Though she never questions the money for Diana’s support, he mused, moving his hands to the buttons of Serena’s jacket. “It was easier for Diana if I didn’t interfere.”

  “What right does your aunt have to approve or disapprove?” Serena demanded, too inflamed to notice how deftly he was unbuttoning her jacket. “She’s your sister.”

  “My aunt’s a firm believer that gambling is the devil’s work. She’s a Grandeau, from the French part of the family.”

  Serena shook her head at his logic. “So what are you?”

  “Blade.” His eyes locked on hers. “Comanche.”

  His face was very close, closer than she had realized. Though she felt the wind flutter through the thin fabric of her shirt, she didn’t yet understand what he had done. Serena found herself swallowing as his eyes held hers. Had there been a threat in those two words, or had it been her imagination?

  “I should have known,” she managed. “I suppose I let your eyes throw me off.”

  “From the drops of French and Welsh blood that slipped through. My father was almost pure, and my mother descended from the line of a Comanche brave and a French settler.” Slowly, his eyes never leaving hers, he pulled loose the tie at her throat. Serena swallowed again but didn’t move. “The story goes that one of my ancestors saw a woman with golden hair alone near a creek bed. She had a basket of laundry and was singing as she washed. He was a fierce warrior who had killed many of her people to protect his land. When he saw her, he wanted her.” Justin released the buttons of her blouse, one by one. “So he took her.”

  “That’s barbaric,” she managed over a suddenly dry throat. “He kidnapped her, stole her away from her family—”

  “A few days later she sunk a knife into his shoulder, trying to escape,” Justin continued quietly. “But when she saw his blood on her hands, she didn’t run. She stayed and nursed him and gave him green-eyed sons and daughters.”

  “Perhaps it took more courage to stay than to use the knife.”

  Justin smiled, noting the tremor in her voice and the steadiness of her eyes. “He gave her a name that translates to Prize of Gold and never took another woman. So it’s a tradition: when one of my people sees a woman with golden hair who he wants—he takes.”

  His mouth crushed down on hers, whirling her quickly into passion. With his hands he dove into her hair, dislodging pins that danced in the wind before they fell into the waves below. Serena grabbed his shoulders, almost afraid she would follow the pins, plunging down into the dark, fast water. For surely this was how it felt to spiral down, helpless, from a high point toward the unknown. Her heart was racing even before his palm covered it, a contact of hard flesh against soft—man against woman.

  On a moan she tightened her grip, as if he were a lifeline in the sea that had gone suddenly from calm to tumultuous. Forgetting her smallness, he took her into his hand, abandoning both gentleness and reason. No man had ever dared touch her that way; perhaps that was why she allowed it. He dared, without request, without practiced words of seduction. It was a force, consuming them both—an impulse too old and too basic to be denied.

  Her body throbbed to be touched. While her thoughts tangled, it took over, showing them both what she needed. The wild, ruthless kisses that raced down her throat only made her crave more. The warm, smoothing breeze from the sea became like small flames to heighten her fever. She drew the moist air into her lungs and felt it turn to fire.

  The hand at her breast kneaded, tormented, while the other slipped up her naked back to find some tiny point near her spine. A press of his finger turned her legs to jelly. She gasped as she arched against him while waves of unbelievable pleasure ran through her.

  “No.” Serena’s voice sounded thin and far off. “No, don’t.”

  But he pressed his lips to hers to devour her trembling protests. Her mouth was too hungry to heed the warning that had sounded in her brain. It clung to his, relishing the light flavor of salt spray. Whatever magic his fingers held, it dominated her now. She would give anything he asked, so long as he never stopped touching her. Digging her hands into his hair, she dragged him closer without noticing the fine mist of dampness that lay on it.

  When her lips were free, with his buried at her throat, she could do no more than breathe his name. The moistness on her face went unfelt; all her senses were bound up in what his hands and lips could bring her. Then he was moving, and she swayed as he took her away from the rail. Weak with desire, Serena leaned against him while he stroked her hair.

  “You’re getting drenched,” Justin murmured, but couldn’t prevent his lips from brushing over the damp crown of her head, couldn’t prevent himself from breathing in its fragrance. “Let’s go in.”

  “What?” Dazed, Serena opened her eyes and saw the fine curtain of rain. “It’s raining?” As the cool water revived her, she shook her head. She felt she had been in a dream, to be wakened by a brisk slap in the face. “I—” Pushing away from him, she ran a hand through her hair. “I …”

  “Have to get some sleep,” he finished. He had come too close, Justin discovered, to taking her, like a maniac, where they had stood.

  “Yes.” Feeling raindrops on her bare flesh, Serena clutched her jacket together. “Yes, it’s late.” Her eyes were still clouded and confused as she glanced around the deck. “It’s raining,” she repeated.

  There was something about her abrupt vulnerability that made Justin want her more than he had moments before, and made it impossible to take her. Sticking his hands into his pockets, he balled them briefly into fists. Damn Daniel MacGregor, he thought fiercely. The Scotsman set a fine trap with prime bait. If he took her now, it would almost certainly destroy his relationship with a man he’d come close to loving. If he didn’t, he would only go on wanting her. If he waited … well, that was a gamble.

  “Good night, Serena.”

  She stood irresolute a moment, wanting to race inside to sanity, wanting to fall into his arms and madness. Taking a deep breath, she clutched her jacket tighter. “Good night.”

 
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