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Suspicion©

Copyright 2017 Donya Lynne

Phoenix Press LLC

ISBN: 978-1-938991-43-1

Cover by Reese Dante https://www.reesedante.com/


This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment and may not be resold or distributed without the author’s express consent. Contact the author at donya@donyalynne.com.


References to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual events, persons, or locales, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Licensed material is being used for illustrative purposes only and any person depicted in the licensed material is a model.


Contents

Preface

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Books by Donya Lynne

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About the Author


Preface

Suspicion was originally written as a Kindle Worlds novella in Aleatha Romig’s Fidelity Kindle World. As such, this story contains elements of Aleatha Romig’s copyrighted works that are part of her Infidelity Series, and it is published with the permission of Aleatha Romig, information about whose books are found at www.aleatharomig.com/infidelity-series.


After the Kindle Worlds platform was shut down, I was given back the rights to this story so I could publish it on my own for all my readers to enjoy.


It isn’t required that you read the Infidelity Series (not about cheating) to enjoy this book, but I personally think you would find tremendous enjoyment from reading Aleatha’s 5-book series along with this book. And while you’re at it, dig into all the other books that were written as part of this Kindle World before the platform closed. It’s such an amazing collection of stories, featuring many talented authors.


On that note, I’d like to thank Aleatha Romig for inviting me to write in her exciting Fidelity Kindle World so that I could discover this fun and sexy little story filled with twists, turns, lies, and deceit.


Dearest reader, may you enjoy getting lost in Suspicion, where some of the best poker faces are some of the prettiest.


Donya


Suspicion

Some poker faces are prettier than others


Chapter 1

Max

People think poker is a sexy game. They watch movies like Casino Royale and Runner Runner and see the money, the bling, the excess, and they base their reality on the fantasy. Every man is as dashing as James Bond, and every woman is a supermodel wearing a skintight red dress with a plunging neckline.

I’m not saying poker can’t be sexy. It can, especially when you’re winning big. But when you’re not, you’re like a homeless person standing on the corner, shaking your plastic cup of coins, holding a sign: Hungry. Homeless. Please help. God bless. Nobody wants to be near you. Women don’t want to fuck you. Men don’t want to buy you drinks or be your friend (because if women don’t want to fuck you, there’s no leftovers for them. See how this works?). When you’re losing, you’re on an island by yourself.

In the real world, poker is more about cards, crowded tournament rooms, and plastering on your poker face. Women don’t factor in unless they’re sitting at the table with you. As another player. Not as the red-dress girl who comes up behind you, bends over to distract the other men with her cleavage, and kisses you for good luck.

Which is why the flash of blond hair, long legs, and a little black dress from across the room catches me by surprise.

I look up, but as fast as she was there, she’s gone.

Good thing, too. I’m deep in the middle of a hand. The last hand, if I play it right, which means I don’t need any distractions. The fact I allowed a pair of sexy legs to break my concentration means I need to work harder on my game if I’m going to make it as a pro. But what can I say? I’m a leg man. Long, supple legs are my weakness.

Pulling my focus back to the baize table and the pair of cards sitting facedown in front of me, I fondle a stack of chips, mentally berating myself for my lack of discipline. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been sitting here for almost four hours and have to piss like an elephant (do you still think poker is sexy?). All it takes is one small slip, and I’ll lose the advantage I’ve spent the entire game cultivating.

Speaking of pissing, a lot of poker players would be pissing in their pants if they were holding the hand I am right now. Four kings. Not much beats four kings. Four aces, a straight flush, a royal flush. That’s it. And the community cards make it mathematically impossible for my opponent to be holding any of those. My bet is he’s sitting on an ace-high flush, but not even that can’t beat my cowboys.

“Call.” I toss a stack of chips toward the center of the table, keeping my expression as stony as Mount Rushmore.

Times like this are when discipline and skill are most important. Skill is how I’ll make my opponent think he has a chance. Skill will make him believe his hand is stronger than mine. That’s the only way I’ll keep him throwing money in the pot.

Since the deal of the first hand, I’ve studied my opponent with the thoroughness of a pathologist conducting an autopsy. I know his patterns. His habits, mannerisms, and quirks.

His tell. When he bluffs, the skin around his right eye tightens.

He’s not bluffing now.

But he is concerned. He eyes me and his stack in turns, delaying his bet.

I wait.

We stare each other down.

I shuffle a stack of chips. The plastic pieces click together in a rapid-fire ripple of sound. Cli-i-i-i-i-i-ck. Like a tiny machine gun. You can hear the same sound all over the room as other players do the same with their chips. You can’t call yourself a real poker player if you don’t know how to shuffle a stack of chips.

I continue shuffling mine, waiting for my opponent to grow some balls and raise me.

In poker, you don’t just play the hands of everyone else around the table. You play their fears, habits, and patterns, so you have to pay attention. You have to watch the cards that get played and analyze how your opponents bet with those cards. Eventually, patterns emerge.

Patterns reveal weakness.

Weakness can be exploited.

But as important as it is to play against your opponent, it’s just as important to remember you’re also playing against yourself. While you’re studying the others around the table, they’re studying you. A smart player remembers this and finds ways to keep his opponents guessing.

I continue shuffling my chips, calm, showing nothing, keeping one hand over my cards.

Another minute passes before he finally raises my call.

Just like I knew he would.

A less skilled player in my shoes would do something foolish right about now. He’d pump his fist or show off by shoving his chips into the center of the table like he’s got something to prove . . . and immediately scare his opponent into folding and drag this game on even longer.

Instead, I blink. That’s as much emotion as I’m willing to reveal.

Restraint is the name of the game. It’s what will make my opponent think I’m bluffing, which is a good thing. I want him to think I’m sitting on two pair, maybe three of a kind, at most. That’s how I’m going to get him to give me his money.

Smoke and mirrors. That’s all poker is. An act. It’s a game of suspicion. You can never trust the people you’re playing against, and they can’t trust you.

While I make my opponent sweat, my gaze travels over his attire. We couldn’t be more opposite in appearance. He’s wearing a black baseball cap backward and has on a faded Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt that looks like it’s been washed a hundred times too many. I’m wearing a black silk button-up, untucked over crisp dark denim, and polished Italian loafers. The collar of my shirt is open, revealing the small silver locket I rarely take off. My long fade is brushed back from my forehead, styled the way a lot of men are wearing their fades now. In other words, I’m put together.

The way I’m dressed is part of my game. It’s part of who I am as a player.

Classy.

Refined.

Legitimate.

I may cheat in every other aspect of my life, pulling scams and cons on unsuspecting marks, but poker is the one place I’m honest. It’s the one area of my life I won’t taint with deceit. I want to earn my place at the biggest tables, not cheat my way into them.

After giving my opponent enough time to sweat his bet, I straighten and put my hands at the rear of my stack.

“All-in.” I slowly—tentatively even—push my chips toward the center of the table. If he bites, the pot will be fifty thousand dollars.

Gasps go up from the crowd that’s gathered around the table. Going all-in always gets a powerful reaction from the railbirds.

The money is a drop in the bucket of my net worth, but the win has even greater value. A win is validation I don’t need to pull cons anymore.

Winning today proves that I’ve got what it takes to do this for a living . . . and do well. This isn’t the first time I’ve crafted a win at a Vegas tournament. It’s not even the second. In the last two years, I’ve won three Texas Hold’em tournaments and placed in the top five of eight more, and that’s playing just a few times a year.

Imagine how much money I could make if I played every week or even every day. For that matter, imagine the payday I could have by earning my way into the World Series of Poker, which is next year’s goal.

Maybe then I’ll be good enough to deserve the heart of a woman like the one I met by the pool in Del Mar last month. Charli. With an I. I talked to her less than five minutes, but I could tell she was a class act. A woman who wouldn’t fall for a con artist like me. A woman who would never get involved with a criminal.

If I’m going to win the heart of a woman like that, I need to change my ways. That’s one reason I’m here. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve decided not to wait any longer to get out of the racket.

The corners of my opponent’s mouth pinch. He wasn’t expecting me to go all-in, but he’s too proud to fold and fight back with a short stack. He still has faith—or perhaps it’s fading hope I see in his eyes—in the losing hand he’s holding.

It doesn’t take long, and he calls my bet. All our chips are in the middle of the table.

When I flip over my kings, he chuffs and shakes his head, showing the ace-high flush I assumed he had with an air of defeat.

“When you went all-in, I knew you had four. I just knew it.” He sighs and pushes away from the table. “I just didn’t want to believe it.”

I stand at the same time he does and reach for his hand. “Good game,” I say.

“You, too.” He eyes the cards again as if he still can’t believe he got outplayed then meanders away from the table.

I catch Shaun’s eye at the rail. He’s been milling through the crowd and scouting the ladies for the last hour, no doubt working his angles to make off with anything from a couple of free drinks to a small fortune. I join him.

“Well played,” he says.

“Thanks.”

“How much did you end up winning?”

I glance briefly at the chips the dealer is organizing on the table. “Fifty.”

His eyes go wide. “Nice. Considering it wasn’t the game you came here to play.”

I unbutton my cuffs and start rolling up my sleeves. I’ve been dying to do that for the last two hours.

“Sometimes the smaller games can still have big payouts.”

I feel like I’m talking to someone I barely know. Then again, things have been tense between Shaun and me for a couple of weeks, ever since I told him I wanted out of the con game.

He didn’t take the news well. He’s also in denial and thinks I’ll “come around,” as he puts it.

“Drinks to celebrate?” He gestures in the direction of the bar. “On you, of course?”

I grin. “Of course. Just let me cash out.”

I want to celebrate. I really do. There’s a balloon of excitement inside my chest that’s been expanding for the past four hours. With each hand I won, and with each chip I stacked in front of me, the balloon grew bigger. I just want to pop that bastard and go crazy. Maybe hire a pair of strippers to give me a private performance in my suite while I pour Champagne over their breasts and drink it off their nipples.

This is it. This is what I’ve waited for since I was a kid. A chance to live a legitimate life. I have every reason to let loose and get truly toasted right now.

But I can’t do that with Shaun. Not anymore. Not after how things went down between us two weeks ago.

As I take the chance to hit up the restroom while my winnings are being tallied, my mind drifts back to the conversation Shaun and I had a couple of weeks ago. The conversation that changed everything between us.

“What the fuck, Max?” Shaun had said as we sat at the poolside bar. “You want out? Where the fuck is this coming from?”

It had been almost two weeks since the incident with Charli with an I. He’d been scoping the ladies around the pool, scheming over which one to mark. It didn’t matter which woman he chose. They were all wealthy or they wouldn’t have been there. Del Mar is a place for people who shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, not people who fill their wardrobe from the racks at Walmart.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while, Shaun.” I kept my gaze in my drink. “Sooner or later, our luck is going to run out, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison or on the run. My heart’s just not in it anymore. If I’m being honest, it hasn’t been in it for a couple of years.”

“What are you going to do for money if you quit?”

Without hesitation, I said, “Poker.”

He stared at me like I’d just told him I was going to run off and join a monastery and devote my life to Jesus. Then he let out a bark of laughter. “Poker? Come on, Max, you can’t make a living playing poker.”

Apparently, he hadn’t been paying attention to my poker earnings. “Shaun, I made over one hundred thousand dollars last year at the tables. I made over sixty thousand the year before that. On top of what I’ve already got in the bank, I could easily live off my poker earnings for the rest of my life.”

The amused gleam in Shaun’s eyes vanished. “What about me? I pulled you into this thing. We’ve been partners since we were kids. Now you want out? What am I supposed to do for money?”

“You’ll do fine.” I glanced around the bar at all the rich, beautiful women. “You’ve got a goldmine here, one you can have all to yourself if I bow out. Just think, you won’t have to split the earnings with me, anymore.”

“You know I’m not as good at talking my way in and out with these women as you are.”

“You’re good enough. Plus, you’ve got hacking to fall back on.”

But Shaun wasn’t hearing me. “Is this about that girl? The one from a couple of weeks ago with the big tits and the floppy hat.” He shifted on his barstool and narrowed his eyes on me. “The one by the pool. The one that guy claimed was his wife when we both know he wasn’t?”

I glanced away, my brow tight. “Charli.”

“His name was Charlie?”

“No. Her. Her name was Charli. With an I.”

For some reason, I felt the need to qualify the spelling of her name, which more than gave away that she was exactly the reason for my sudden change of heart, even though it wasn’t so sudden in my mind. Like I said, I’d been thinking about getting out of the game for a while. The incident with Charli had just been my breaking point.

But there was more to it than that.

I never told Shaun I’d been paid to mark Charli. Two nights before, some guy in an expensive black suit caught me in the bar while Shaun had been working a rich socialite on the other side of the room. The guy asked me if I wanted to make a quick ten thousand. I didn’t ask his name, and he didn’t offer it. He didn’t ask for my name, either, but I got the impression he knew who I was. That he knew everything he needed to know about me, including how to find me in the future.

I didn’t care if he was a member of the mafia, a crime syndicate, a drug cartel, or just a guy with a vendetta. All I cared about was that he wanted to give me ten thousand dollars to talk up an attractive woman.

It’s been a month since that day, and I’m no longer as cavalier as I was about taking all that money for such a seemingly simple task.

What if what I did got Charli with an I hurt? Or worse?

Just once, I’d like to be the hero who rescues the girl from a guy like me instead of the letch she needs to be rescued from. At least then I wouldn’t have to worry that my actions got an innocent woman caught up in something that did her harm.

Too bad my conscience hadn’t been as present that night. Then again, the guy in the suit seemed to know more about me than I knew about him, and he seemed prepared to hold my past over my head if I didn’t do what he wanted.

When I told Mr. Black Tailored Suit I was in, he slipped me the cash and two pictures. One of Charli and one of the dark-haired man who swooped in and claimed he was her husband. The instructions had been clear: Go after Charli and make sure the man saw me.

Easiest ten thousand I’ve ever made.

And the most troubling. Who would spend that kind of money to manipulate a meeting? And why?

More importantly, whatever happened to Charli?

I saw her a few more times with that man in the days that followed, and then she was gone. So was he. I haven’t seen either of them since, but the memory still haunts me.

“I knew it,” Shaun said. “You went and fucked everything up over a pair of tits and a sweet little ass.”

I frowned at him. “That’s not it, and you know it.”

“Don’t I? I’ve known you since you were eight, Max. You’ve always been the one who gets too personally involved with the mark. You’ve always been the one with a conscience.”

“One of us had to have one.”

Shaun scowled at me then shook his head, dismissing me with a shrug as he turned back to his drink. “You’ll get over this like you’ve gotten over everything else. Give it a month, and you’ll come back to your senses. In a few weeks, you won’t even be thinking about her, anymore.”

“Time isn’t going to change my mind, Shaun.”

I wanted to tell him this wasn’t about Charli, but, in a way, it was. She’d made me see myself—really see myself and who I’d become—for the first time in years. She had reminded me of what life had been like before my parents died, when my future was wide open and full of hope. Before doors started closing on me.

I wanted those doors to open again.

Shaun slid off his barstool and dropped a couple of bills on the bar then turned and paid me a cursory glance. “If you walk away from our partnership, Max, you’ll regret it.”

Without waiting for me to respond, he gave me a stern, disappointed look then left me sitting there, alone.

I’m still not sure if he was threatening me or if he was only stating his version of the facts. Like he didn’t have faith I could survive on my own after the two of us had relied on each other for almost two decades.

If he was trying to intimidate me, it won’t work. I’m not the kind of man who will be cowed by a petty threat, and Shaun knows it. Now, it’s time to make him see I wasn’t merely blowing smoke or having some kind of mental breakdown two weeks ago. If he’s not prepared to take me seriously, that’s his problem, because, one way or another, by tomorrow, I’ll be free. Or as free as I can be, because I’ll never be completely free of my past. But I can write a different future. One where grifting doesn’t play a role.

With a resigned sigh, I thank the dealer, tuck my cash voucher into my wallet, and start for the bar.

The slot machines beep, buzz, and ring, their bells and whistles drowning out the murmur and laughter from the gamblers hoping to strike it rich. I feel like I’m in a massive video arcade. The kind that went out of business in malls everywhere when I was a kid. Only this arcade is for adults and can make you wealthier than you ever imagined or drain all hope from your heart. More than one gambler has leaped to his death after a bad night at the slots.

The problem with slot machines is that they take no skill. Unlike poker, they’re all luck. When luck closes the door on a slot machine, there is no window to skill your way back through. With poker, that window will always be open when luck runs out.

I find Shaun inside iBar, sitting at the curving stretch of speckled granite that wraps around the center of the room. He already has a martini in his hand.

The interior of iBar is dark with neon blue and pink lights accenting the shadows. Like everyplace else in Vegas, there’s an overly glamorized feel to the décor that hints at the mafia roots that gave birth to the city. It’s like a gregarious mafia housewife who talks with a loud Jersey accent vomited animal print and contrasting colors everywhere, only with a touch of class.

“Johnnie Walker,” I say to the bartender as I plant myself in one of the white rounded bar chairs beside Shaun. “Blue label.” I nod at the tall bottle of scotch on the top shelf, behind rows of the cheaper stuff.

Shaun lifts his martini for a sip. “Nice haul back there.” He nods in the direction of the poker room.

“Thanks.” I refuse to rub my success into what I can sense is still an open wound, especially since I’m about to let the guillotine fall.

Shaun has always sucked at poker. He’s too emotional. Terrible at bluffing. He does better at blackjack, which requires a different strategy than poker.

But he’s not good enough to go pro.

Shaun’s more of a computer guy. A hacker. That’s always been his end of our partnership.

But pulling scams through black hat operations isn’t the only way we’ve made money. For Shaun, there’s not enough risk and excitement in emptying out some poor schlep’s bank account by online infiltration alone. He needs to supplement his hacking scams with ones that are more personal. Ones that require more risk. Especially those that allow him to get close to pretty women.

With our good looks and charm, we’ve been able to con women to buy our drinks, pay for our hotel rooms, loan us money—which they never get back, by the way—and a whole lot more.

And don’t even get me started on what we’ve been able to accomplish by getting a woman into bed. It’s ridiculous the shit we’ve been able to obtain from women who don’t seem the least bit suspicious of a man they’ve only known a few hours. Bank account numbers, credit card information, social security numbers, addresses. All while she’s sleeping or in the shower.

I could make a fortune teaching women—rich and poor alike—how to protect themselves from getting conned. If poker doesn’t work out for me, maybe I’ll consider it. Wouldn’t Shaun love that?

But as easy as it’s been to get women into our beds, Shaun and I have different ideas about relationships. He’s perfectly content to fuck his way through the female population for the rest of his life. For him, the goal is money, not love.

That’s not my goal. I actually want to find someone special. I’ve always wanted that, even when I was playing the field. I’d like to settle down, buy a house, have kids, and then bring them up right. The way my parents would have done with me had they not died.

The bartender sets my drink in front of me.

Shaun raises his half-empty glass. “Salute.”

“Cheers.” I clink my glass to his.

We both drink, and then an uncomfortable silence engulfs us.

In the past two weeks, the dynamic between us has morphed into something toxic. Like octopus ink, it’s clouded the waters and made it hard for us to find each other. We’re no longer partners. Maybe we’re not even friends, anymore. Perhaps the distance between us has grown so great we’ve become more like mere acquaintances.

Shaun takes another long swig of his martini, draining his glass. He sets it on the bar and signals for the bartender to bring him another.

“I guess you are good enough to play professionally,” he says quietly.

I hear a mix of resentment, anger, and reluctance in his voice.

“Yeah, I am.” For some reason, I feel the need to tread carefully here.

Shaun sighs, but the sound comes off more like disappointment than resignation. “We had a good run while it lasted.”

I nod and sip my whiskey, my hackles up. I feel like there’s a but coming. A big one. He’s too restrained. Too quiet. Too cocked, locked, and loaded.

“But you owe me, Max.”

And there it is, spoken in a tone more corrosive than battery acid.

My throat constricts. “Owe you?”

He turns to me. “That’s right.”

The dark gleam shadowing his eyes stiffens my spine, bristling my skin. “What makes you think that?”

He takes his fresh martini from the bartender and sets it in front of him. “Don’t forget, Max, I know a lot about you. I could make your life hell.”

So this is how he’s going to play. By threatening to blackmail me.

“Are you telling me you’re willing to throw away seventeen years of friendship, all because I want out?”

He pays me a cursory sidelong glance then lifts his martini to his lips. “You’re the one walking out on us, so I’d saying you’re throwing away our friendship.”

As a surge of rage blasts through me, I sling back the rest of my Johnnie Walker then slam the stout glass back on the bar. With the fiery burn of the whiskey fanning out through my body, I spin on my barstool, facing Shaun head-on. “I never said I wanted our friendship to end. Can’t you just accept this has gone on long enough? I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m done.”

“You’re done when I say you’re done.”

I ricochet backward. Is this really the same Shaun I’ve been friends with since I was eight years old? The same person who gave me an identity and a purpose? The same guy who said he’d always have my back?

I never knew his friendship came with a stipulation: We’re only friends if you do what I want.

“What are you saying?”

He slowly turns his glass on the bar, rotating the base with his fingertips as he glances across the room. “See her?” He lifts his chin.

I follow his gaze to an ebony-haired beauty surrounded by bodyguards and an entourage worthy of Taylor Swift.

“Yes. So?”

“See that ring on her left hand?”

Who doesn’t see it? The diamond is the size of a quarter. And I don’t need a jeweler to confirm it’s worth an insane number of millions, either. The truly wealthy put off an aura that feels completely different from that of someone who’s only pretending to be rich. You can almost see the dollar signs evaporating off their skin, floating around them like tiny ghosts. They even smell like millionaires. And I can pick up the stench of crazy-insane cash flow coming off this diva from all the way across the room.

“What about it?”

Shaun’s eyelids slide over his eyes as he drops his gaze to the bar. Then he turns and looks at me. A challenging glance. One that says he thinks he owns me. Like I’m his bitch or some shit.

“I want you to steal it for me.”

“Why should I?”

“Consider it insurance.”

“Insurance for what?”

“That I won’t reveal to the authorities what I know about you.” He flicks his hand dismissively in front of him then shrugs. “Or, if you’d rather, you can call it a down payment on your buyout clause.”

“Buyout clause?”

“To get out of our partnership.”

“A down payment implies you’re going to want more.”

“See, you are a smart guy.” He lifts his glass.

Yes, I’m smart. I’m also not a pushover. Not since I was a kid. I’ve never responded well to threats and ultimatums, and I won’t start now.

“I know about you, too, Shaun.” I hug my empty shot glass between the fingers of both hands. “You’ve got as much to lose as I do if I start talking to the authorities.”

“Yes, but I’m the hacker. I have more access than you do. I can create crimes where there are none. I can manufacture evidence that would put you away for life.” He shrugs and takes a sip of his fresh martini. “Or I can make it all go away.” He says it like he’s granting me a favor. “For a price. And right now, the price is that ring.” He flicks his gaze toward the diva.

I study him as he slowly sets down his glass. Is he bluffing? He knows as well as I do that law enforcement has their own hackers these days. White hat hackers who can ferret out the truth from his lies. The question is, would the government want to spend that resource on defending me? Or would they simply be grateful to have me in custody, where I couldn’t harm anybody else?

“I may not be as good a hacker as you are, Shaun, but I’m not running blind, either. I know my way around a computer. I’ve picked up a thing or two watching you, listening to you talk. I’ve pulled my own cyber jobs. Are you sure you want to push me on this?”

The skin around his eyes tightens as he takes a drink, but he doesn’t look at me. “Get the ring, and I’ll consider calling it even.”

“What if I refuse?”

The muscles in his jaw clench. “Then you can forget about having a career in poker, unless they allow you to gamble in prison.” He casts me a sidelong glance then downs the rest of his martini before setting the empty glass on the bar with a firm clink. He pushes off the seat and meets my gaze. “Well?”

“Well, what?” In less than five minutes, I’ve gone from thinking we could maintain our friendship and look back on this someday with a laugh, to hating him.

“What’ll it be, Max? The ring? Or prison?”

I focus on his face. On the lines that form around his eyes and mouth. The way his jaw continues to work like he’s grinding his molars. My gut tells me he’s bluffing, but I can’t be sure.

“I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t think too long.” He signals to the bartender then points to me and says, “He’s paying for my drinks.” To me he says, “I’m sure you don’t mind.”

I scowl, but I won’t give him the satisfaction of making a scene. Not over a couple of stupid drinks. “Not at all. What are friends for?”

For a moment, Shaun says nothing. He doesn’t move. He almost appears stunned, as if hearing me call him a friend briefly reminded him of how close we used to be, and now he has to face the truth that that time in our lives is over. Then he squares his shoulders, reclaiming his power position, and nods once. “Good.” As he turns away, I catch the way his eye flinches. “Bring me the ring in the morning,” he tosses over his shoulder.

With that, he saunters out of iBar. A cocky air wafts after him, leaving me to fume over his edict.

I never agreed to court the diva with the ring, nor did I agree to steal her bling, yet Shaun is betting I’ll do what he wants. He thinks his threats about going to the authorities scare me.

Should I be scared? Maybe, maybe not. Shaun has to know that if I go down, he goes down, too. As do a whole lot of dirty politicians, thanks to my real insurance policy.

I absently stroke my locket between my thumb and fingers then pull the deck of skull-and-crossbones playing cards from my pocket. I flip open the narrow lid on the box and tip it into my palm. The cards slide out, landing on my hand with a comfort that feels like family. The soft-touch card stock is smooth under the pad of my thumb as I caress it the way I would a lover’s pliant, plump lips.

As I begin to shuffle, I weigh my options.

I can do as Shaun wants and seduce the ebony-haired beauty in the corner. I could send her a drink to help me get past her bodyguards. Or, like James Bond, I could simply approach her table with the swagger of a secret agent and ask her if she’d care to join me for dinner.

No, that won’t work.

Only one thing gets through to a woman like her. A woman whiffing of entitlement and the kind of snobbery reserved only for the most gluttonous of gold diggers. This is a woman who was born into money, raised by money, and loves money. If I don’t show her I can fund her expensive tastes and lavish lifestyle, she’ll sniff and turn up her nose like I smell of bad dog food, not giving me another glance. But if I walk up to her table waving a stack of hundreds, I could have her on her back by midnight.

I could tell her anything I want. I have a dozen aliases I can throw at her. Aliases she’ll never be able track back to me when she tries to find the handsome man in the black silk shirt who stole her disgustingly gigantic ring. That is, if she can pinpoint me as the thief. I’m good at making it look like someone else committed the crimes I’m responsible for.

I flip the bottom card of my deck to reveal the joker.

Slipping the card back into the stack, I continue shuffling, hardly thinking about the way I split the deck and riffle the cards together with the deftness of a professional dealer. The motions are second nature. As reflexive as breathing.

Shuffle-shuffle.

The biggest problem with my off-the-cuff plan to steal the diva’s ring is that Vegas has cameras everywhere. The authorities would be able to find me fairly easily to question me about the ring, and while I have ways to throw off the police and turn their attention elsewhere, I would rather not take the risk. Especially since this will affect my mindset for the tournament I came here to play in two days.

Which is the second biggest problem with trying to steal the ring. I didn’t come here to pull a con. I came here to play poker. If I steal that ring, I’ll have to withdraw from the tournament. I wouldn’t be able to risk being seen by the diva’s people.

Then Shaun wins.

I split the deck and flip over the half in my right hand. The joker stares up at me.

I turn the cards facedown again and riffle them together. A quick shuffle later, I tap the top card and flip it over. The joker again.

What are the odds Shaun is bluffing about everything? Not just his ability to hack me into a crime, but that he’ll go to the authorities if I don’t give him what he wants? The slight hesitation at the end of our discussion, as well as the way the muscles around his eye ticked as he turned away, leads me to believe stealing the ring is a ruse. I don’t think he really wants the ring. I think he’s after something else. Or maybe he just wants to prove he still holds influence over me. If I’m able to procure the ring, so much the better, but my gut says the ring is a secondary objective here.

What game is Shaun really playing?

More importantly, do I want to play it?

Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just get up, go to Shaun’s room, and tell him to fuck off. I’m not going to allow my one shot at freedom to be held for ransom. This is my life, and Shaun can just—

“Are you a magician?”

I stop midshuffle and turn to my left.

And immediately stop breathing.

Blond hair, black dress, long legs.

It’s the woman who flashed through my peripheral vision earlier.

The one who broke my concentration long enough to entice me to glance across the room when I should have been focusing on playing poker.

I’ve seen beautiful women. I’ve slept with plenty of them. But this work of art in the little black dress who just slid into the seat next to mine is so far beyond beautiful I’m not sure there’s an adjective adequate to describe her.

“Uh . . .” I glance down at my cards, which are poised on the counter with half the deck still split between my thumbs. I release them, and they make a riffling sound as they fall into divided stacks. I gather them in one hand. “No. I’m not a magician. I mean, I am . . . I could be . . . but I don’t . . . uh . . .” Fuck me, but could I be any more tongue-tied? I need to get my shit together before she thinks I’m some kind of Rain Man protégé who’s come to Vegas to count cards.

She laughs, and I want to wrap the sound around me. I’m sure this must be what angels sound like.

I’m too awestruck to speak.

She sets her pocketbook on the bar and bites her plump bottom lip, making me want that lip between my teeth instead of hers. “Is that a yes or a no? I can’t tell.”

“Huh?”

She laughs again, waving her delicate hand through the air. “Never mind. It will just have to remain a mystery.”

Love at first sight has never been something I believed in, but this intoxicating twentysomething is making me reconsider my opinion.

I force myself to recover from my temporary verbal paralysis and rewind our brief conversation. What did she ask me again? Oh, that’s right. She wanted to know if I was a magician.

I fan the cards out on the bar in front of her. “Pick a card.”

“So you are a magician?”

I smile evasively and bob my head patiently in the direction of the cards. “Go ahead. Pick one.”

Her bright, playfully cautious smile reveals straight, white teeth, as well as two adorable dimples. “Okay.” She briefly scans the cards then plucks one from the middle.

“Look at it, but don’t let me see.” I gather the remaining cards and hold them in my left hand.

Amusement sparkles in her brown eyes as she secretly tilts the card and peeks at it. Her eyes remind me of doe eyes. Large, dark, innocent.

“Got it?” I ask.

“Uh-huh.” She holds the card facedown on her lap.

I extend the deck toward her. “Go ahead and slide it back into the deck anywhere you like.”

“Are these marked cards?” she asks, uttering a soft laugh as she slides the card into the stack.

“No.” I pull the deck toward me and begin shuffling. “This is just a regular ol’ deck of cards you can buy at the store.”

“Skulls and crossbones?” She eyes the box sitting on the bar. “I doubt I can find those at the store.”

“Okay, so I bought this deck online. Point is, there’s nothing special about them.” I continue shuffling then stop, split the deck, and set one stack on the bar. “Pick up the top card.”

She does as I instruct then frowns at the card she’s holding. “This isn’t my card. I had the—”

“Of course it isn’t.” I lift the other stack of cards still in my hand, showing her the one on the bottom. “Your card is right here.” I pull it out. “It was the eight of clubs.”

It was an easy trick to pull off, but she gasps anyway, taking the card from me. “How did you do that?” She flips it over as if that will reveal a clue as to how the trick works.

“It’s magic.” I take the card from her, place it with the rest, and then slide the deck back inside the box.

She rests her elbow on the bar, partially facing me with her head tilted to the side, her cheek resting on her hand. “Then you are a magician?” The look she gives me says she expects me to answer this time.

“No.” I give a little shake of my head then tuck the deck inside my pocket. “But I wanted to be one when I was a kid.”

“I think you missed your calling.” Another one of her soft, angelic laughs flutters from her throat. “You’re obviously talented.” She attempts to catch the bartender’s attention but fails. “So, what stopped you? If you wanted to be a magician, why aren’t you one?”

“Uh . . .” My gaze drifts toward the dark-haired diva and her moon-sized diamond ring.

Before I’ve even learned this stunning blonde’s name, my past as a con man has reared its ugly head. How am I supposed to tell her that I didn’t follow my dream of becoming a magician because, at the age of eight, I began pulling cons?

This is what I meant earlier about how I’ll never be free. One way or another, my past is always going to interfere. I can’t tell the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met that I’m a con man. A criminal. A fucking dirty lowlife who scams people out of everything from drinks to jewelry to money. She’d be off her chair and out the door faster than a junkie spends his last dollar on a dime bag.

“Let me guess,” she says, saving me from outing myself (because there’s something about this girl that makes me want to tell the truth), “you realized there’s no money in magic.”

I force a smile and lift my gaze. “Something like that.”

As our eyes meet, a sense of calm washes over me, followed immediately by an odd effervescence. Like a million microscopic bees have been released inside my body. She has an aura that makes her appear backlit, even though no light shines on her. There’s just a brightness about her. As if God has laid His hand on her and led her to this very spot beside me for a reason.

About a year ago, I was dealt my first royal flush, the highest hand possible in poker. A hand so rare some players go their whole careers without being dealt one. That was the one and only time I almost lost my shit. The first time my poker face cracked. If only that had been the final hand in a tournament game, it would have been poetic.

Staring into my mysterious lady’s eyes, I feel the same as I did holding that royal flush. Completely captivated, totally smitten, and lost in the rapture of the moment. Screw holding my poker face.

I grin. A crooked, cheesy, confused kind of grin like the ones little kids get on their faces when they catch their parents kissing.

I’m buzzing for real, and it has nothing to do with the shot of whiskey I drank five minutes ago.

“My name’s Max.”

Her brown eyes sparkle as she smiles again. I could live in her smile. “I’m Nash. Well, Natasha. But my friends call me Nash.”

How does one get to be Nash’s friend? Because I want to apply for the job.

“Do I qualify as a friend?”

Her cheeks flush and her lashes flutter as she shyly lowers her gaze. “I don’t know. I only just met you, Max. I’m not sure if we can call ourselves friends when I only just learned your first name.”

“Potential friends then,” I suggest.

She raises her eyes to mine and blinks slowly, as if she’s as captivated by me as I am by her. As if she’s looking into the eyes of God the same way I am, only I never knew God was a beautiful woman with whiplash legs and a five-alarm body.


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