Authors: Jeanette Murray
Copyright © 2012 by Jeanette Murray
Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Claire Brown
Cover image © Taxi/Getty Images
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To my family, for their support
and unwavering faith in me.
Timothy O’Shay was positive of one thing.
He would be dragging his friends’ drunken asses out of a ditch before morning if things progressed the same way the rest of the night.
“Twenty!” Dwayne crooned next to him. Whenever D drank, his southern accent only became thicker until it was all twang. If someone wasn’t careful, they could easily take Dwayne for an idiot. Big mistake.
“Twenty-one. Sorry, sir,” the blackjack dealer said in a monotone voice before sweeping a crestfallen Dwayne’s chips away.
Somewhere else in the casino, a siren alerted to a slot machine winner. The sound seemed to rub the loss in Dwayne’s face as he scowled more.
“You’re going to lose everything you have on the last night in Vegas,” Jeremy warned. Not drunk, but plenty buzzed, he seemed to be slowly working his way toward the hammered side of life.
Since Tim had zero intention of using his last night of pre-deployment leave on babysitting their drunk asses—again—he shoved Dwayne until he tumbled out of the chair. “Grab some food to soak up the keg in your stomach. I’m not hauling you around by your shirt collar for what’s left of leave.”
Tim loved his friends like brothers. Meeting them in The Basic School was the best thing that had happened to him, to all of them. But often their fondness for free-for-all fun led to more problems than good times. Tim’s tendency toward moderation and keeping a cool head kept them out of hot water more than once.
“Tim, let me borrow a few more bucks.”
“And watch you lose my cash as fast as you lost yours? Hell no.” Tim made another modest bet and watched as he broke even with the dealer. Unlike Dwayne and Jeremy, Tim was about to leave Vegas with the exact amount of cash he entered it with. Moderate play and moderate drinking ensured he never played too deep.
Moderate. The story of his life. Hard to shake the “play it safe” feeling when your entire life in the Marines consisted of just that. But then again, if he wasn’t willing to play nanny to the two boobs he came with, they’d all be knee-deep in shit.
“Bet your own cash, then. It’s our last night,” Jeremy reminded him as he doubled down on his next hand.
“I am betting my money, Jer. And I’m doing just fine without a drunken Statler and Waldorf in my ear.”
“Statler and who?” Dwayne asked.
“The Muppet hecklers, you idiot,” Jeremy shot back.
“Both of you knock it off,” Tim started. “I’m not going to—” He cut off, turning his head to follow a woman who passed behind the table, headed toward the slots. She was tall, her head high, and she floated more than walked. A thick mass of chestnut curls rioted down her back, almost covering her bare shoulders.
“Tim. Earth to Timmy.” Jeremy waved a hand in front of his face.
Tim slapped it away and snapped, “What?”
“You’re daydreaming and the dealer’s waiting.”
“Oh, sure. Right.” Trying to find the brunette again, he shoved some chips out in front without counting. Jeremy whistled and Dwayne muttered a curse, but he didn’t take his eyes away from the hunt. She must have slipped down an aisle of slots.
And why did he care? One woman, one night. In the end it amounted to nothing.
“Holy shit,” Jeremy breathed next to him.
Dwayne slapped his shoulder. “That was some playing, bro.”
Huh? Tim looked down and saw that instead of his normal modest bets, he’d shoved almost three hundred dollars in for the hand. And won.
Holy shit indeed. He could have lost three hundred dollars and never even realized it. A cocktail waitress bent over to hand Dwayne the whiskey he’d ordered. Tim grabbed the glass first and tossed the drink back. The burn down his throat only ignited the adrenaline that was blazing low in his gut.
One shot wouldn’t kill him. He wouldn’t lose control from one shot.
“Do it again,” Dwayne encouraged. His friend was starting to sound less sloppy, more like his normal good ole country boy self.
“Are you crazy?” Tim asked. “I could have lost that entire thing!” And why, when the thought should have been a cold wake-up call, did the fear thrill him, just a little?
“That’s why it’s called gambling,” Jeremy pointed out. “Don’t be a pussy. Do it again.”
“You two are nuts.”
Jeremy grabbed his wrist in a tight grip. “If you lose, I’ll pay you back every penny,” he muttered in a low voice.
“What the hell has gotten into you?” Tim started to scrape his chips into the palm of his hand. Maybe he could catch up with the hot brunette before she got too far away. Playing all or nothing wasn’t his style. Never had been. Measured risks made him a good officer and kept his ass out of trouble.
“Place your bets, gentlemen,” the dealer intoned over the clang of another winning alarm bell somewhere in the slots section. Where his anonymous woman had disappeared to. Where he was heading.
“You have spent the entire trip playing nanny. And don’t pretend you haven’t.”
“Someone has to,” Tim grumbled. And yeah, it grated just a little that even if he wanted to have fun, it wouldn’t be possible. Not with his two friends always being the first to sign up for Party Mascot.
“And we love you for it. But it just occurred to me that while you’re babysitting, you’re not having as much fun.” Jeremy took the glass of Jack and Coke and pushed it in front. When Tim stared at him, he motioned to the glass. Tim took a sip, then a gulp.
“Place your bets.” The request was more forceful.
“Hold on,” Jeremy shot back, then faced Tim. “Do this. You’re my best friend. You need to live. For one fucking night, stop thinking about what can go wrong. We have seven months in Afghanistan to worry about that. Have fun and let go. Don’t be a pussy; just go for it.”
Let go. It sounded like heaven. And really, if Jeremy was going to pay him back, was it really that much of a risk? For one night, he could act a fool like his friends normally did and worry about the consequences later.
He took all of one second to debate. He stole Dwayne’s shot of tequila, ignoring Dwayne’s protests, and tossed it back, adding to the burn of whiskey. Then he shoved his pile of chips forward.
“Do you hear that?”
Skye McDermott turned to her best friend, Tasha, and asked, “What?”
“That noise. Coming from the tables. Sounds like someone’s going to win big,” her friend replied.
Skye checked her watch and tried to remember what time the show started. “That happens. It’s a casino, after all,” she pointed out.
“Do you wanna go watch?” Jessie asked.
Skye watched as she came up broke on the slot and swiveled on the stool. “This is girls’ night out. Do you really want to spend it watching some fat, balding CPA have a lucky streak at cards while he pinches the waitresses’ butts?”
“Girls’ night out. As in the three of us. And two want to go. GNO is a democracy,” Tasha said with a smile. “Come on. If it’s boring we’ll come back.”
Skye heaved a sigh but followed in their wake, winding through the rows of slot machines. Just go with the flow. There was likely a reason her friends were so insistent, even if they’d never find out. Fate was weird that way, and like an experienced cardsharp, she didn’t always show her hand.
Pulling her hair off her neck for a moment, she gave another sigh—this one of pleasure—as the cool casino air hit her hot skin. The curse of thick curls. She debated pulling it up in a ponytail but didn’t bother. She pulled a few strands loose that were caught in her large hoop earrings.
“Can someone remind me why we didn’t go elsewhere for our GNO anyway?” Jessie asked. “How much of a night out is it if we hang where we work?”
“We work at Cloud Nine, the restaurant. Just because it’s inside the casino doesn’t mean we work here on the floor,” Skye reminded her. “And it’s good to show support for our employer.”
“Spoken like a true manager,” Tasha teased, then stopped short. With a wide grin splitting her beautiful face, she pointed. “Now tell me. Does that look like a balding CPA?”
Skye glanced around her and saw the blackjack table causing the commotion. A crowd had formed in a semi-circle, completely enamored with the action. And no wonder.
Three men sat at the table meant for eight, but only one was actually playing the game. The one on the left was the largest of the three, his height evident even though they were sitting down. His grin was a bit loopy, as if he was fighting off a good drunk. The one on the right was smaller for sure, more lean than large. He was concentrating hard on the dealer’s hands, as if memorizing every move. His body almost quivered with anticipation with each card pulled.
But the man in the middle grabbed her attention and held on tight. Military short, light brown hair, eyes that took in everything, and a mouth that she could watch for hours. He wasn’t handsome in an obvious way. And nobody would dare call him pretty. But he was tempting all the same. He looked… relaxed. One arm draped over the back of the tallest one’s chair, the other rested on his thigh. No tense energy, no anxiety, as if it was no big deal that he’d just laid down a two-hundred-dollar bet on a ten-dollar table. And he played with reckless abandon. No rhyme or reason. No pattern.
He lost a hand, and his smile quirked to one side as if to say,
Can’t win ’em all
. When he won, he grinned like there was no point in playing it cool. He didn’t play to the small crowd. In fact, the whooping, cheering horde of people behind him ceased to exist in his world. He was simply having fun for fun’s sake. The lack of a plan, the absolute abandon that he played with was more attractive than his pile of chips. His easy laughter was infectious, and she found herself smiling along.
“The guy has absolutely no method to the madness,” Jessie said in a murmur. Of the three women, she would be the one to know. Jessie was obsessed with poker and all things related. Skye didn’t often gamble. Not with cards, anyway. Her philosophy was that life itself was the big gamble. Everything else sort of paled in comparison.
“I’ll take the big sexy one on the left,” Tasha said. She was almost rubbing her hands together with glee.
“I want the lean, mean one on the right,” Jessie replied. Then without waiting for her, they slipped through the crowd, abandoning Skye behind the dealer.
Those two were man-eaters. Some women might pick a man out of a crowd and only dream of snagging him. These two made it an actual habit. She watched while they weaved through the tight crowd until they stood behind the shoulder of their designated men.
Skye rolled her eyes. There went the designated girls’ night. The poor boys had no chance. Not that they’d mind getting caught. Nobody ever minded getting tangled in Tasha and Jessie’s web.
After a moment, she watched Tasha lean over, her breasts close to the big one’s face as she shook hands with the table’s other two occupants. The tallest, of course, looked like he’d entered heaven. Then her friend nodded her head, and man in the middle glanced up.
The look of instant recognition shook Skye. It was as if an electric shock ran through her from fingertips to toes, and she had to rub her arms to settle the goose bumps that rose. Positive she’d never met the man before in her life, Skye was tempted to check over her shoulder. But instead she couldn’t escape the man’s gaze. It was intent, focused, like she had a target painted on her forehead and he was ready to take aim.
Something both alarming and somehow serene sounded in a corner of her mind. Like this was a significant moment, to pay attention. Skye never ignored those warnings. Like déjà vu, people all too often dismissed things that they find were important later.
So when the man smiled and motioned for her to join them, it never occurred to Skye to say no.
Fate is never wrong, her mother used to say. It’s just waiting for you to catch up. After being dragged to the blackjack tables by her friends, she couldn’t ignore that Fate had a reason for her to meet this man.
She slowly made her way through the crowd, apologizing and weaving until she stood behind the man in the middle, waiting for him to finish his hand.
Jessie grabbed her arm, as if anchoring her there. “Skye. Finally. This is Dwayne, that’s Jeremy, and this one with the impressive winning streak is Tim.”
Tim turned around, his eyes searching her face. Did he feel that same moment of instant recognition too? Was he trying to place her, make sense of the feeling?
“Skye?” he asked. His deep voice flowed down her spine, gave her the shivers. When was the last time a man’s voice—a man’s
—gave her such an immediate physical response?
That would have been the week before never.
She shrugged. “It’s whimsical, I’m told.” Then she grinned when he laughed. She liked his laugh. Quick, full, rich like chocolate.
“So, Whimsical Skye, are you here to be a good luck charm?”
“Looks like you’re doing pretty well for yourself without my help,” she pointed out.
He shrugged, as if the cash in front of him wasn’t the point, and drank half of whatever was in the glass in front of him. “I’m having fun.”
Ah, she liked that answer. She liked
. “In that case, I’d love to be your good luck charm for fun.”
Tim motioned something to the dealer that had the crowd—and his friends—groaning.
“You’re giving up? Tim, come on, man!” the one named Jeremy said. “You were on a roll!”
“I think I’m going to roll a different direction,” Tim murmured just loud enough for Skye to hear.
She shivered in response. Her night out was turning into much more than she ever expected. Not that she was complaining. Between relationships, things could be lonely. A little weekend fling might be a nice, uncomplicated way to spice things up for the moment.
Mom was right. Follow the signs, follow Fate. When you least expected it, She dropped something you didn’t even realize you needed right in your lap.
Tim pushed his chips forward to the dealer, exchanging them for a smaller, more manageable handful of large denomination chips. Seeing that he was done, the crowd had already dissipated. Vegas tourists had the attention span of a second grader without his ADHD meds. Skye stepped back to give Tim some room, but he grabbed her hand before she got too far away.