Read Gambling with Gabriella (Menage MfM Romance Novel) (Playing For Love Book 2) Online
Authors: Tara Crescent
seven hours since my nephew, Noah, was kidnapped by his biological father.
I’ve spent most of those last seven hours here, in my office, on the penthouse floor of the Grand River Casino, where I work as the head of security, pacing the plush grey carpet till I’m convinced my shoes are going to wear the pile out. Monitors on the wall flicker with images of the casino floors and elevators, but I’m not watching.
I fight the urge to smash my fist into one of them. To scream and yell, to do anything to dampen my fear for my nephew. Sweet Noah, who is obsessed with Legos, who has just started to learn to swim. I promised him I’d teach him to ride a bike this weekend, I remember absently. The shiny cobalt blue bike still sits in the corner of my suite. Blue is Noah’s favorite color.
He’s only five.
Dominic Crawford, my best friend and owner of the Grand River is hunched next to me, his ear pressed to his phone, his eyes unseeing as he looks out of the window onto the bright lights of Atlantic City. “When was he released?” I hear him ask whoever he’s talking to. “Why wasn’t I notified?”
Ed Wagner, Noah’s biological father, was released from prison yesterday. We should have been informed. I had protocols in place when Ed got out, plans to protect Noah from his father. The father that hasn’t set eyes on his son since Chloe’s death. The father who was never any kind of parent at all, but is still listed on the birth certificate because my sister, Chloe, was stupid and sentimental that way.
Chloe’s gone now. Noah’s the only member of my family left alive.
Somewhere, a link has failed. I fight the sneaking suspicion that I’m to blame for this. Ed Wagner had parental rights that I should have terminated, but I hadn’t acted, secure in the knowledge that Wagner was too busy surviving his jail sentence to pay attention to his son. I had warned the daycare never to release Noah to anyone other than Dominic or me, but I hadn’t accounted for temporary summer care workers who hadn’t known what to do. I should have hardened my heart when Noah asked me where his daddy was, and I should have never shown my nephew photos of his father.
“Noah called him daddy,” Olivia, the woman who runs the daycare explained earlier, almost in tears. “He ran towards this man to hug him. Patty didn’t know…”
What can I say to that? Can I tell Olivia that my drug-addicted sister had no sense of judgment, and she’d been convinced that her boyfriend Ed was father material? Can I tell her that I’m terrified that the courts will rule in favor of the biological parent over the uncle who has always been there for Noah?
At my side, Dominic has finished his conversation. Judging from the way the phone is flung onto the couch, I’m assuming his attempts to locate Ed Wagner have gone no better than mine.
“No luck yet,” he confirms. He holds my eyes. “We’ll find the fucker, Carter.”
“I know.” I have to hold on to hope. I have to believe I’ll find Noah before Ed Wagner starts using again. My sources tell me he was clean in jail. But outside? He’ll get sucked in again, like he has before, time and time again. The same way my twin-sister Chloe was sucked in, until she died of an overdose.
“Carter,” he repeats. “Calm down. Noah’s not in danger. As much as I hate to admit it, Ed was a good enough father before Chloe died. And he’s not doing drugs anymore. All our sources tell us that.”
“And then he walked away,” I point out. “He disappeared and left me to take care of Noah. Are you forgetting that?”
“I’m not.” His voice is calm. “I’m not defending Ed Wagner. But you are only choosing to remember what you want. Ed called Noah every week. He didn’t abandon the kid - he left him with you while he went and tried to get his life straight.”
If Dominic wasn’t my best friend, I’d be tempted to punch him. “I’m not listening to this,” I say flatly. “I don’t need to hear you defend Ed. If my sister had never met that asshole, she’d still be alive. You know that as well as I do.”
The office phone on the desk rings loudly, startling both of us. Dominic shakes his head. “Ignore it,” he suggests, but I’ve already reached for the instrument. “What is it?” I ask. Though I’m not working tonight, the security staff have seen me make my way into my office, and they know that if I’m around and they have a concern, I’m usually available to respond.
“Carter, we need an authorization for a player to join the back room,” Linda, the woman in charge of the high rollers says. “Monitor One.”
This is routine stuff. The back room has the high-stakes tables, and we don’t let people play there until we know they can handle the heat. When the blind is more than a thousand dollars, the losses can rack up alarmingly fast. Two years ago, a guy lost fifty grand one night at the New Sun, just down the road from us. He walked outside into the cool night, put a gun to his head, and blew his brains out. Ever since then, no one gets an auto-entry into the back room.
I turn my head to look at the screen Linda has indicated, and my eyes lock on to a woman that my body remembers, even after five months. I click my fingers to get Dominic’s attention and gesture to the screen. “Brunette dressed in green,” I say to him, covering the receiver with a hand so my conversation is muffled from Linda. “Looks familiar?”
He focuses on the image, then a slow grin covers his face. “Well, well, what do you know?” he says. “Runaway Ella in my casino.”
“Linda says she wants to get into the high-stakes games.”
I watch his expression change as he puts it together. “She’s a poker player? You think Ed will go to Bulldog?”
“It’s a backup plan,” I reply. “Just in case we can’t locate Ed in the next forty-eight hours. If Ella will go for it, of course.”
He grins. “From the impression I got of her, she didn’t seem like the kind to back away from a challenge.”
Though I’m consumed in worry for Noah, I still remember that night. She’d been fiery.
. She’d been open about her desires and she’d played no games. She’d wanted both of us and she hadn’t been afraid to tell us that.
And when we’d woken up in the morning, she was gone. No note. No contact information, and no way to find her again.
She should have been a passing fancy, but I haven’t been able to forget her. “What’s her name?” I ask Linda, knowing that she would have checked the woman’s identification before placing the call.
“Gabriella Alves,” she says. “New York license.”
That makes sense - we had met her in a bar in midtown Manhattan.
“Can she play poker? Did she play on the lower tables?”
“She did.” Linda sounds grudgingly impressed. “Girl did pretty damn good.”
I make my decision. “Can you have someone escort Ms. Alves to my office, Linda? I’d like to talk to her.”
She sounds confused, but she agrees. “Of course, Carter. Right away.”
ven though it
is a mere two hours from the city, I have only been to Atlantic City once. But last night at Piper’s restaurant, Wendy had made an offhand comment about one of her clients, a woman she was representing in a divorce. “Her husband claims he’s spent all their savings playing poker at the high stakes tables at Grand River in Jersey. Of course, it isn’t true - he’s just hiding his assets. Idiot.” She’d snorted in derision and moved on to talk about something else, but I wasn’t listening anymore.
Atlantic City. Of course. A small glimmer of hope had pierced through my veil of gloom. In a casino, I wouldn’t need Sammy’s tacit approval to play. It might be a way out of the jam I was in.
Early this morning, I’d called my boss Nathan. “Can I take a week off?” I’d asked him, knowing he wouldn’t have a problem with it.
“Absolutely,” he had said readily. “Going somewhere?”
“I’m just going to rent a car and putter around the area,” I’d replied. “Maybe go to Atlantic City?”
“Scouting out a different place to live?” he’d asked me with a knowing tone in his voice.
“Haven’t you heard? The company is planning to open an office there. Cheaper than Manhattan and a lot of our work is done over the phone and the internet anyway.”
I’d rolled my eyes. Nathan would find it a tough sell to get people to move away from New York. I couldn’t imagine the men and women I worked with voluntarily exiling themselves away from the excitement of the big city.
“Keep your phone on, just in case something comes up,” he had requested. “And I’ll see you back in the office Monday? You can take more time if you want. There’s not a lot going on.”
s I wait in a small
, yet luxuriously decorated private room, I get angrier and angrier. By the time ten minutes have elapsed, I’m spitting mad, ready to rip these fucking Atlantic City security goons a new one.
I know what this is about. People see a woman win some games, and they get nervous. When I asked to move to the high stakes tables out back, the dealer had told me she needed to call it up to the head of security. She’s been gone fifteen minutes. No doubt, she’s stalling. The guys who play at the high stakes table don’t like to lose to a woman.
So far, I’ve won three thousand dollars. It’s nice, but I have to speed this up. I need the high-stakes tables. The Grand River is the only casino in the town with them, and they only run the games three nights a week. I’ll need to win, and win steadily, for more than one night to make up the gap. I don’t have a lot of time and I still have ninety five thousand, five hundred dollars to win.
Tapping my feet impatiently, I look around the room. I typically don’t visit casinos. I find them dim and depressing spaces, filled with seniors gambling away their social security money. Of course, Sammy’s rooms are hardly the height of cheer, but at least there, no one is exploiting the loneliness of old people for gain. Just suckers like me.
But the decor in this space is unlike any casino I’ve been in before. The walls are a deep charcoal grey, with modern art paintings dominating the space. The couches are red and the lighting is warm and golden. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was in someone’s living room. Somebody wealthy, and with impeccable taste.
Finally, the platinum blonde comes back. “Mr. Hughes, our Director of Security would like to talk to you,” she tells me. “Please follow me.”
My anger returns full force. This Mr. Hughes is going to get a piece of my mind.
he elevator opens into a large
, open space, with floor to ceiling windows that look out on the street below. Ready as I am to open my mouth and start yelling, I ignore the gorgeous room. I move forward, indignant, my tirade quivering at my lips, then I halt dead.
Because the men that face me?
The two guys from my unforgettable one-night stand five months ago.
Dominic and Carter.
In front of me.
I gape. I can’t help it. If I could have a redo of the moment, I’d say something. Instead, I squeak.
At that noise, both of them grin and the full force of their sex appeal washes over me. I thought I remembered how magnetic the pull towards them had been, but I’ve been wrong. My dreams, which have kept my bed warm since that night, have dulled the sharpness of the images. In front of me, these guys exude a heat that I can barely withstand.
You have to,
a voice in my head speaks.
You cannot succumb to them. That way lies only pain.
“Gabriella Alves,” Dominic speaks, if his name is really Dominic. I’d called myself Ella that night, reassuring my conscience that I wasn’t exactly lying. His lips tug up and his eyes gleam as they run over me. “You look good.”
He does as well. His dark, wavy hair still grazes the collar of his shirt. His face is covered with a five o’clock shadow, one that I ache to brush against. I remember doing that. I can still feel the way his stubble prickled against my skin, how it felt against my inner thighs as his mouth covered my…
I scold myself.
I turn towards Carter. He too looks better than my memories. His red hair is shorter than I remember, but his eyes have a predatory look that I’ve seen repeatedly in my dreams.
At that look, the one that brings back all the sensations of being pleasurably trapped between their bodies, I finally find an ounce of common sense. “Which one of you is Mr. Hughes?” I ask coolly.
Carter speaks. “That's me.”
Dominic steps forward. “We should introduce ourselves properly,” he says with a wry smile. “I'm Dominic Crawford. I own the Grand River. And Carter is the head of security.”
He owns the Grand River? Fuck. He’s loaded, and that’s putting it mildly.
“Did you just bring me up here to say hi?” I ask bluntly. I’m feeling prickly, but I don’t know why. Perhaps it's a belated sense of self-preservation.
Carter jumps in before Dominic has a chance to reply. “Why do you want to play in the back rooms?” His voice sounds strained, abrupt.
I look up. I tend to charge into situations, speaking before I have a chance to think. But hearing the tension in his voice, I pause and pay attention. Something is going on here. They haven’t brought me here just to catch up.
When I stop to think, my instincts are pretty spot-on. And right now, they are telling me that something is wrong.
“I need money,” I answer Carter’s question. “Why else would I be in a casino?”
I gulp. No one knows of the stolen nights spent under the harsh glare of cheap lighting, in the stark back rooms where I play poker. I haven’t told my best friends, the women I hang out with every week on Monday nights. None of my boyfriends ever knew, nor do my parents. Yet somehow, my tongue doesn’t trip over itself, and I feel no pressure to keep this secret from the two of them. “I lost a lot of money in an underground game of poker. I have two weeks to come up with it.”
Sammy’s unvoiced threat I keep secret. Fake Elvis and Mr. Clean do not belong in this conversation.
Of course, these two men would know that there are
to owing money to the loan sharks that circle in the underworld. They exchange glances at each other, and I sense an air of suppressed excitement. “How much are you on the hook for?” Dominic asks.
We are still standing in the center of the room. For the first time, I look around. The woman downstairs called it Carter’s office, but this office is easily the size of a large apartment. Here, the red couches from downstairs have been replaced by comfortable leather chairs and sofas. There’s an array of monitors on one wall, beaming up images from the casino floor. A floor-to-ceiling window provides views of the streets below. The coffee table contains two glasses, filled with an amber colored liquid that I’m guessing is Scotch.
“Do you live here?” I ask Carter, stalling, trying to avoid revealing that I’m almost a hundred thousand dollars in debt.
He shakes his head. “How much money, Gabriella?” he asks, repeating Dominic’s question
“Ninety eight thousand and five hundred dollars.”
I’m prepared for their condemnation, but it’s not forthcoming. Carter’s shoulders have slumped with relief, and Dominic sits up, his eyes gleaming with a nameless emotion. “So you need money in a hurry,” he says. “I have a deal for you.”
“Do you think I’m going to sleep with you for it?” I snap at them. Too late, I remember my resolution not to jump to conclusions, to think before I speak.
Dominic’s eyes turn heated. “You’ll sleep with us because you want to,” he says, his voice low and gravelly. His words send an arrow of molten lust straight to my pussy. “But that’s not what I’m talking about at the moment.”
He waits for Carter’s curt nod before he continues. “We have a situation on our hands. Earlier today, Carter’s nephew Noah was kidnapped by his father, a junkie called Ed Wagner. We have people looking for Ed, but so far, they haven’t been able to find him.” There’s a trace of frustration in his voice.
Carter picks up where Dominic left off, and he adds some clarity to the story. “Ed Wagner’s spent the last six months in a prison in upstate New York,” he says. “He hasn’t seen Noah for three years.” That comes out through gritted teeth. “But Noah knows who his father is. He’s been asking questions about Ed, and I’ve been honest with him, as much as I’ve been able. I’ve told him his father’s away.” His face clenches. “The last few months, Noah’s kept asking when his father’s coming to visit, and because I couldn’t break his heart, I told him that Ed was going to visit soon. My mistake. Today, Ed picked Noah up at his daycare. We can’t find him.”
My heart aches in sympathy. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must be to be in Carter’s shoes. Yet I’m not sure how they think I can help, and the idea of being caught in the middle of a custody dispute holds no appeal for me. When I respond, I keep my voice non-committal. “Where do I come in?”
“Ed plays poker in places we can’t reach,” Dominic responds. “Now that he’s out of jail, we are hoping that he’ll want to get back in a game. Help us with this, and I’ll wipe away your debt.”
A hundred grand, just like that.
It must be nice to be that rich.
Yet I don’t really know Dominic and Carter and it takes the kind of trust in men that I don’t have any more to take what they are saying at face value. Why would this Ed Wagner guy kidnap his own son? “You think I can reach him at the poker game?”
“Noah’s only five, Gabriella,” Carter breaks in bleakly. “He’s just a kid.”
And just like that, looking into his eyes, my hesitation vanishes. Carter can’t fake the depth of pain in his eyes and the heartbreak in his voice. No one can. They don’t think I’m going to help, but they are wrong. I’d do it for free, if only to erase the desperate worry in their gazes.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing dangerous,” Dominic assures me. “Infiltrate the game. See if you can get Ed to reveal where he lives.”
Why would a perfect stranger tell me where he lives, especially if he’s hiding from someone? If I were Ed Wagner, I’d be very, very careful. I’d be terrified of the shimmering anger in Carter’s eyes.
Then I get what they haven’t spelled out. “You want me to seduce Ed and get him to take me home.”
“We’ll be right behind you,” Carter says. There’s reluctance in his voice, and his eyes won’t meet mine. I can tell he doesn’t want to get me involved. He doesn’t like this plan.
Yet he has no choice, and neither do I. Carter needs to find his nephew and I need money to pay off Sammy’s goons. I’ve already made up my mind that I’m on board. “I’ll do it,” I say. “Of course I’ll help.”