Playing the odds, p.9
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       Playing The Odds, p.9

         Part #1 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  Daniel ground his teeth and scowled at the receiver.

  “Your word, Daniel.”

  “All right, all right. I wash my hands of it, but the minute I hear that you’ve—”

  “Good-bye, Daniel.”

  Justin hung up, satisfied that he had paid back his benefactor in spades.

  Chapter 7

  Justin kept his office suite on the ground floor of the Comanche, connected by a private elevator to his penthouse rooms. He found the arrangement convenient: his working hours were sporadic, and there were times when he had no desire to pass through the public rooms of the hotel. The elevator was a practicality, as were the small television monitors in the far corners and the two-way glass concealed behind the mahogany paneling on the sidewall.

  Because he demanded complete privacy in his own offices, Justin worked in a large room without windows and with only one entrance. His experience in a cell had given him a long-standing aversion to closed-in places, so to compensate, he’d decorated his working area carefully. The furniture was light-colored—maize, oatmeal, biscuit—to give the appearance of airiness. The paintings were large and full of color. A desert scene caught in the last dying streaks of sun, the stark unforgiving peaks of the Rockies, a Comanche brave in full gallop on a war pony. The color, and the lack of it, gave Justin an illusion of freedom that counteracted the restlessness he sometimes felt when he found himself trapped behind a desk.

  At the moment he was reviewing a stockholders’ report that would please anyone holding shares in Blade Enterprises. Twice Justin caught himself reading and retaining nothing, and forced himself to begin again. Serena’s two weeks were up and so, he discovered, was his patience. If she didn’t phone within the next twenty-four hours, he’d be on his way to Hyannis Port to hold her to her end of the bargain.

  Damn, he didn’t want to go chasing after her, Justin thought as he tossed the report back onto the desk. He’d never chased after a woman in his life, and he’d already come uncomfortably close to doing so with Serena since the beginning. He played his best game when his opponent made the offensive moves.

  Opponent, Justin mused. He’d rather think of her that way. It was safer. But no matter how he thought of her, he went on thinking of her. No matter what he struggled to concentrate on, she was always there, just at the back of his mind, waiting to slip through the guards. Every time he thought of having a woman, Serena was on his mind, almost close enough to touch, to smell. Desire for her completely obliterated desire for anyone else. Frustrated, hungry, Justin had told himself to wait it out. Now, he decided, he’d waited long enough. Before the night was over, he would have her.

  As Justin reached for the phone to arrange for transportation north, a knock sounded at his door. “Yes.”

  Warned by the tone in the one syllable, his secretary poked only her head through the doorway. “Sorry, Justin.”

  With an effort he directed his temper away from her. “What is it, Kate?”

  “Telegram.” She entered, a sleek, willowy brunette with a low-toned voice and sculptured features. “And Mr. Streeve’s been hanging around outside. He wants you to extend his credit.”

  Justin took the telegram with a grunt. “What’s he in for?”

  “Five,” she said, meaning five thousand.

  As he tore open the envelope, Justin swore softly. “Jackass doesn’t know when to quit. Who’s on the floor?”

  “Nero.”

  “Tell Nero Streeve’s good for one more, then he’s cut off. With luck he’ll recoup a couple of thousand and be content with it.”

  “With his luck he’ll be trying to trade his shares of AT&T for chips,” Kate retorted. “Nothing worse than the spoiled rich who’re temporarily short of fluid cash.”

  “We’re not here to moralize,” Justin reminded her. “Tell Nero to keep an eye on him.”

  “Okay.” With a shrug Kate shut the door behind her.

  Absently, Justin reached for the button that would slide the paneling clear of the two-way mirror. It would be wise if he kept his eye on Streeve as well. Before he could press it again, Justin’s gaze fixed on the message line of the telegram.

  Have considered your offer. Will arrive Thursday afternoon to discuss terms. Please arrange for suitable accommodations.

  S. MacGregor

  Justin read the brief message twice before a smile tugged at his mouth. How like her, he thought. Short, to the point and beautifully vague. And well timed, he added, leaning back. It was already past noon on Thursday. So, she was coming to discuss terms, he considered. Some small knot of tension unwound at the base of his neck. Drawing out a cigar, Justin lit it thoughtfully. Terms, he reflected. Yes, they’d discuss terms, keeping that area coolly businesslike.

  He’d meant everything he had said to her when he’d offered her the position. In his opinion, Serena was well qualified to handle his staff and customers. He needed someone on the floor who could make independent decisions, leaving him free to travel to his other operations when it became necessary. With the rest of the hotels to oversee, he couldn’t afford to spend all of his time supervising the casino. Blowing out a thin stream of smoke, Justin decided to make the job worth Serena’s while. And once that was settled …

  Once that was settled, he thought again, she’d have to deal with him on a personal level. His eyes became opaque, his long, thin mouth set. This time there’d be no Daniel MacGregor playing the benevolent third party with an ace up his sleeve. Tonight he and Serena would begin a very private two-handed game. Justin’s eyes cleared with a quick laugh. Winning was his business.

  Picking up the phone, he punched the button for the front desk. “Front desk, Steve speaking. May I help you?”

  “This is Blade.”

  The clerk automatically came to attention. “Yes, sir.”

  “A Miss MacGregor will be checking in this afternoon. Serena MacGregor. See that her bags are taken to the guest suite on my floor. She’s to be brought directly to me.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Have the florist send some violets to her room.”

  “Yes, sir. A card?”

  “No.”

  “I’ll take care of it personally.”

  “Good.” Satisfied, Justin hung up. Now all he had to do was wait. Picking up the stockholders’ report again, he gave it his complete attention.

  * * *

  Serena handed the doorman her car keys and took her first long look at the Comanche. Justin hadn’t gone for flashy or opulent, but had managed an excellent happy medium. The hotel was an open, V-shaped tower done in a drab adobe shade that brought a touch of the West to the East Coast. Serena approved the architecture, noting that nearly all the rooms had a view of the ocean. The drive circled around a two-level grottolike pool with its own miniature waterfall. Coins glistened in the bottom. Obviously there were plenty who were willing to risk some loose change for good luck.

  Beside the main door was a lifesize Comanche chieftain in full headdress. No dime-store Indian, Serena mused, but an exquisite sculpture in black-veined white marble. Giving in to the urge to touch it, she ran a fingertip down the smooth stone chest. How like Justin not to choose the ordinary, she thought as she let her eyes drift up to the marble face. Was it her imagination, or was there some resemblance there? If the eyes were green … Shaking her head, Serena turned away.

  While her bags were being unloaded, she used the time to take a look at the boardwalk.

  Famous names in huge letters on white billboards, bold neon signs, quiet in the late afternoon light, huge hotel after huge hotel, fountains, traffic, noise. But it wasn’t the same as Vegas, she decided. And it was more than just the absence of mountains and the sound of the sea in her ears. There seemed to be more of a carnival flavor here. This was still a resort, she concluded, with a beach at the back door. One could smell the gambling, but it carried the moist salt spray of the Atlantic with it and the laughter of children building sand castles.

  Adjusting the strap o
f her shoulder bag, Serena followed her luggage inside. There was no red carpet or glistening chandeliers, but rather subtle mosaic tile and indirect lighting. Both surprised and pleased, Serena noticed huge leafy plants in pottery jugs and wall hangings that clearly depicted the life and culture of the Plains Indians. Justin’s heritage was more a part of him than he realized, she thought as she wandered toward the registration desk. She could hear the familiar sound of slot machines muted by distance and the click of her own heels on the tile floor. Passing a bill to the doorman, she turned to the desk clerk.

  “Serena MacGregor.”

  “Yes, Miss MacGregor.” He gave her a quick welcoming smile. “Mr. Blade is expecting you. Take Miss MacGregor’s bags to the guest suite in the penthouse,” he told the bellhop, who was already hovering at her side. “Mr. Blade would like you to come right to his office, Miss MacGregor. I’ll show you the way.”

  “Thank you.” Nerves began to jump in her stomach, but Serena ignored them. She knew what she was going to do, and how she was going to do it. She’d had two weeks to work out her strategy. During the long drive from Massachusetts to New Jersey, she had gone over everything again and again. Once or twice she’d nearly given in to the urge to turn the car around and drive back north. She was taking an enormous risk with her future, and with her heart. Sooner or later she was going to be hurt. That was inevitable. But there was something she wanted in Atlantic City—and his name was Justin Blade.

  She pressed her hand to her stomach once quickly, as if to push the nerves away as the desk clerk opened one of a pair of thick wooden doors marked Private. The brunette at an ebony desk glanced up in inquiry before her eyes rested on Serena.

  “Miss MacGregor,” the clerk announced.

  “Yes, of course.” Kate rose with a nod. “Thank you, Steve. Mr. Blade’s expecting you, Miss MacGregor, just let me tell him you’re here.”

  So this was why the boss had been on a short fuse, Kate concluded, giving Serena a cool, appraising look as she lifted the interoffice phone. She took in the long golden hair swept back at the temples with two ivory combs; the strong, elegant features accented by large violet eyes; the slim figure in a raw silk suit a few shades darker than irises. Very classy, Kate decided, and as Serena met her stare without flinching, added—and no pushover.

  “Miss MacGregor’s here, Justin. Of course.” She cradled the receiver, giving Serena a smile that stopped just short of friendly. “Right this way, Miss MacGregor.” Leading the way, Kate opened another door. Serena paused beside her.

  “Thank you, Miss …”

  “Wallace,” Kate responded automatically.

  “Thank you, Miss Wallace.” Serena took the door handle herself and gently closed it behind her. Kate stared at the knob a moment, realizing she had been expertly dismissed. More intrigued than annoyed, she went back to her desk.

  “Serena.” Justin leaned back in his chair. Why had he expected something to change? he wondered quickly. Somehow he had thought he’d be prepared for the onslaught of feeling simply seeing her brought to him. Every hour of the past two weeks vanished in one instant.

  “Hello, Justin.” She prayed he wouldn’t offer his hand, as her own palms were damp. “You have quite a place here.”

  “Sit down.” He gestured to the chair in front of his desk. “Would you like something? Coffee?”

  “No.” With a polite smile she crossed the room to sit in a chair of buttery buckskin leather. “I appreciate your taking the time to see me right away.”

  He only lifted a brow at this. They’d circled each other for a while, he mused, like a pair of boxers studying defenses in the early rounds. “How was your flight?”

  “I drove,” she answered. “It was something I missed doing this past year. The weather was lovely,” she added, determined to keep the trite conversation going until her nerves settled.

  “And your family?”

  “My parents are fine. I wasn’t able to see Alan or Caine.” Serena gave her first hint of a genuine smile. “My father sends his best.”

  “He’s still among the living then?”

  “I found more subtle ways of revenge.” With grim pleasure, Serena thought of the broken cigars.

  “You’re adjusting to land life?” Unable to resist the urge, Justin dropped his gaze to her mouth for a moment. It was untouched by lipstick and faintly moist.

  “Yes, but not to unemployment.” She could feel the brush of heat across her lips and the answering warmth that kindled in the pit of her stomach. She found herself wanting to go to him, to take whatever he would give on whatever terms he offered. Just to be held again, to have those lean, clever hands touch her. Carefully, she folded her own in her lap. “That’s what I want to talk to you about.”

  “The position of casino manager’s still open,” he said easily, though he took his time bringing his eyes back to hers. “The hours are long, though I don’t think you’ll find them as all-consuming as on the ship. Generally, there’s no need for you to be on the floor before five, though naturally you can adjust that from time to time if you need an evening off. There’s a certain amount of paperwork, of course, but for the most part you’d be directing the staff and handling the customers. You’d have your own office on the other side of the reception area. When you’re not needed on the floor, you can supervise from there. There are monitors,” he continued, gesturing. “And a more direct view.”

  Justin pressed a button, releasing the paneling. Serena glanced through the glass to watch the crowd in the casino, gambling, talking, wandering, in silent movie effect. “You’ll have an assistant,” Justin went on. “He’s competent, but not authorized to make independent decisions. A suite of rooms is included in your salary. When I’m away from the hotel, you’ll have complete authority over the casino … within my framework of rules.”

  “That seems clear enough.” Unclenching her hands, Serena made herself relax. She gave Justin a mild, friendly smile. “I’d consider taking over the managerial duties of the casino, Justin … as your partner.”

  She saw a flicker, but only a flicker, of surprise in his eyes before he leaned back. With anyone else it would have been a gesture of relaxation. With Justin it seemed a preparation for action. “My partner?”

  “In the Atlantic City Comanche,” she returned calmly.

  “I need a manager for the casino, Serena; I don’t need a partner.”

  “And I don’t need a job, or a salary for that matter,” she countered. “I’m fortunate enough to have financial independence, but I’m not of a nature to stay idle. I took the job on the Celebration as an experiment. I don’t need to take another job for the same reasons. I’m looking for something I have a bit more of a stake in.”

  “You said once you were considering looking for work in a casino when you left the ship.”

  “No.” She smiled again and shook her head. “You misunderstood me. I was thinking of opening my own place.”

  “Your own place?” With a quick laugh he relaxed again. “Do you have any idea just what that involves?”

  Her chin came up. “I think I do. I’ve just spent a year of my life working and living on what was essentially a floating gambling resort. I know how a kitchen’s run to accommodate over fifteen hundred people, how housekeeping keeps ahead of the linen supply and how to stock a wine cellar. I know when a dealer’s feeling under par and needs to be relieved, and how to convince a customer to find another game before he gets nasty. There was little more for me to do on that ship than learn. And I learn very quickly.”

  Justin considered the coldly furious tone of her voice, the hard, determined light in her eyes. She could probably do it successfully enough, he decided after a moment. She had the guts, the drive and the bankroll. “Taking all of that into consideration,” he began slowly, “why should I take you on as a partner?”

  Rising, Serena walked over to the glass. “Do you see the dealer on table five?” she asked, tapping a finger against the window.

&
nbsp; Curious, Justin rose and joined her. “Yes, why?”

  “She has excellent hands—fast, steady. It looks to me as though she’s worked out a very comfortable rhythm without appearing to rush the players along. She doesn’t belong working midweek afternoons. You need dealers like that during the heavy traffic. The croupier at the crap table looks bored to death. He needs to be fired or given a raise.”

  “Clarify that one for me.”

  Because there was a touch of humor in his voice, Serena grinned up at him. “Given a raise if he takes the hint to be a bit more personable. Fired if he doesn’t. Your casino staff should reflect the same attitude as the rest of the hotel staff.”

  “A good point,” he admitted. “And a good reason for wanting you as my casino manager. It doesn’t cover your partnership.”

  Serena turned her back on the silent world behind the glass. “A few more reasons then. When you’re needed out west, or in Europe, you’ll know you’re leaving someone in charge who has a vested interest—not only in the casino, but in the whole operation. I did a bit of research,” she added. “If Blade Enterprises continues to grow at its current rate, you’ll have to have someone help shoulder some of the responsibility. Unless, of course, you chose to work twenty-four hours a day making money without any time to enjoy your success. The money I’m willing to invest would give you enough fluid cash to sweeten your bid on that casino in Malta.”

  Justin’s brow rose. “You have done your research,” he commented dryly.

  “We Scots never do business blindfolded.” She gave him a satisfied smile. “The point is I have no intention of working for you or anyone else. For half interest I’ll run the casino and pick up the slack in other areas when necessary.”

  “Half,” he murmured, narrowing his eyes.

  “Equal partners, Justin.” She met his eyes on level. “That’s the only way you’ll get me.”

  Silence came quickly and completely, and Serena forced herself to control her breathing to a slow, even rate. She wouldn’t let him know how nervous she was or let herself think how easy it would be to forget pride and run into his arms. What had begun the last time they had been together had been quietly accomplished during their separation. She’d fallen in love with him when he hadn’t even been around to tempt her. But he wouldn’t know—she wouldn’t allow him to know—until she was ready.

  “Suppose you take some time to think it over,” she said at length. “My plans are flexible,” Serena went on as she walked to retrieve her purse from the chair. “I’d intended to look into some property here while I’m in town.”

  When Justin’s fingers curled around her arm, Serena made herself turn slowly. He was going to call her bluff; she was certain of it. And when he did, she’d have the choice of folding, or riding it out.

  “Anytime during the first year that I decide it isn’t working, I can buy you out.”

  She struggled against a shout of laughter. “Agreed,” she told him quietly.

  “I’ll have my lawyer draw up a draft of an agreement. In the meantime you can get your feet wet in there.” He jerked his head toward the casino. “You should have a week or so to change your mind.”

  “I have no intention of changing my mind, Justin. When I make a decision, I stick to it.” Their eyes met again in a long, cautious stare. Serena held out her hand. “A deal, then?”

  Justin glanced at her hand, then slowly closed his over it. He held it, as though making a pact, then brought it to his lips. “A deal, Serena,” he said. “Though we might both be sorry for it.”

  “I’ll go up and change.” She drew her hand away from his. “I’ll work the casino tonight.”

  “Tomorrow’s soon enough.” Justin moved ahead of her to the door, closing his fingers over hers on the knob.

  “I’d rather not waste time,” she said simply. “If you could introduce me to my assistant and a few of the croupiers, I should manage from there.”

  “Whatever you want.”

  “Give me an hour to change and unpack then.” Wanting to break contact, Serena twisted the knob.

  “We have other things to talk about, Serena.”

  The words seemed to flutter along her skin. Aching with need, she turned back to him. “Yes,” she said quietly. “But I’d rather we cleared up the business preliminaries first, so it’s clear one thing has nothing to do with the other.”

  Watching her, Justin caught the collar of her suit between his thumb and forefinger. “I’m not sure that one hasn’t very much to do with the other,” he murmured. “And that both of us aren’t fools for pretending otherwise.”

  The pulse at the base of her throat began to hammer visibly. But even as he noted it, her voice became strong and clear. “We’ll both find out soon enough, won’t we?”

  With a slow smile, Justin dropped his hand. “Yes, we will. I’ll see you in an hour.”

  * * *

  It was going to be hard work, Serena discovered quickly. Every bit as hard as her work on the Celebration. But this time, she mused as she glanced around the crowded, noisy casino, she had her own stake. She signed her name to a cash receipt one of the croupiers brought her and felt a small glow of pleasure. Part of the life pulsing around her at that moment belonged to her.

  Adjustments would take time, she reminded herself as she noted a few speculative glances aimed her way. When Justin had introduced her as his partner, Serena had almost heard the wheels turning inside each brain. She would simply have to prove herself qualified for the position no matter what happened between her and Justin personally. Rule number one was confidence. Rule number two was
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