Know when to show your hand…and when to hedge your bets.
Randy Jansen can’t stand to just sit by and watch as a mysterious man throws money away on the roulette wheel, especially since Randy’s got his own bet going as to the reason this guy is making every play like it’s his last day on earth. The man’s dark desperation hits Randy right in the gut. Half of him warns that getting involved is a sucker’s bet, and the other half scrambles for a reason—any reason—to save the man’s soul.
Ethan Ellison has no idea what he’s going to do with himself once his last dollar is gone—until Randy whirls into his life with a heart-stealing smile and a poker player’s gaze that sees too much. Randy draws Ethan into a series of wagers that leads to a scorching kiss by midnight, but he isn’t the only one with an interest in Ethan’s vulnerability. Soon they’re both taking risks that not only play fast and loose with the law, but with the biggest prize of all: their hearts.
As the last of his chips slid across the felt, Ethan Ellison wiped his hand over his mouth, suppressing the urge to vomit.
“Bad luck again. Sorry about that.” The dealer, a middle-aged man with a thin silver mustache tickling his upper lip, glanced inquiringly at Ethan. “Can I get you some more chips, sir?”
With force of will, Ethan pushed himself up. “No. Thank you—no.”
He stared at the table, focusing not on the sea of numbers but on the red and black squares at the edge of the felt nestled between the words EVEN and ODD. A fifty-fifty chance, and I still couldn’t win, not even once. The pain in his head increased, and his throat began to close.
He started to turn away from the table, but he glanced at the dealer as he left, remembering the nicety of a goodbye at the last second. His smile fell as he caught an expectant look in the dealer’s eye.
Oh God. The man wanted a tip.
Ethan flushed and patted his pockets, more for a stall than because he thought to find anything there. He looked up guiltily at the dealer. “I—I’m sorry—” He searched more desperately now, in case he had something, anything left. Not so much as a dime. “I don’t have anything.”
The dealer’s friendly, hopeful expression vanished. He rolled his eyes, shook his head, and returned to stacking his chips.
Ethan faltered, feeling like more of a loser. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize—” Because I’m an idiot, a sorry, soppy idiot. He dug deep into his trousers then paused as he hit the bit of metal.
It wasn’t money, but once it had borne great, great value to Ethan. This little silver circle had been his everything, and now it was detritus in his pocket. The thought turned dark and bilious in Ethan’s wounded soul.
Ethan swallowed hard, pulled the object out, and laid it on the table. “You can have this.” At least his voice didn’t break as he spoke the words.
The dealer leaned over and inspected it. “Is it real silver, or what?”
Ethan stared down at the plain gray circle with the simple engravings which had once brought him such comfort. Now they made him feel foolish. “I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s yours.”
A hand came down on Ethan’s arm, weathered and stained with dark streaks as it closed over the discarded ring. A man stood beside Ethan, rangy and wild-looking with a head of shaggy hair and thick eyebrows. Sharp, dancing eyes met Ethan’s, and the stranger winked.
The dealer glared at the newcomer. “Hey—Jansen, you prick, that’s my tip.”
“It isn’t customary to give tips to a dealer when you do nothing but lose.” The stranger scooped up the ring, held it by the bottom of the circle, and shook it once at the dealer. “Unless you’re a prick.”
The dealer’s face turned stormy. “He gave it to me, you ass.”
“First prick, now ass.” The stranger lifted an eyebrow. “You coming on to me, Tyler?”
The confrontation made Ethan uncomfortable. “I don’t mind if he takes it.”
Those dark eyes pierced him, and Ethan felt as if he were being stripped right there in the middle of the casino floor, laid more completely bare than ever in his life. As if he were being measured, parceled out, and judged. And found, he suspected, very wanting.
The stranger turned to the dealer.
“Tell you what, Tyler.” The man’s voice was smooth as velvet but with a knife inside. “Let’s play for it.”
The dealer swore under his breath.
The stranger ignored him and leaned over the roulette table, his palms resting on the padded edge. “I’ll let you pick the game.”
The dealer stopped scowling. “Seriously?”
Ethan was done being ignored. “Excuse me, but who are you, exactly?”
“Randy Jansen. So. Tyler. You feeling lucky?”
The dealer looked hopeful. “Any game. You’ll bet against me in any game on the floor?”
“Anywhere in the casino.” Randy nodded at the main floor and smiled darkly. “Any game.”
Tyler drew back. “The fuck I’m playing poker against you.”
“Then name something else.”
Enough was enough. “This is hardly necessary. I gave the man my ring of my own free will.”
Randy still didn’t look at Ethan. “And now he’s going to bet against it of his own free will.”
“Any game,” Tyler repeated.
Randy stood straight and held out his hands, indicating his complete compliance.
Tyler pointed to the wheel. “Roulette.”
Randy shrugged. “Fine.”
He said this, but he didn’t seem happy, and Tyler was beaming. “Put it down and make your call. Red or black.”
Randy raised an eyebrow. “What about the zeroes?”
“We re-spin if they fall there. Or we split the odds. I get single, you get double.”
“No. Even or odd. And the zeroes are even.”
“You can’t pick even.” Tyler pointed at the table. “Not when you just gave it a two-number advantage.”
Ethan frowned. “But zero is even. And so is double zero.”
Tyler aimed a finger at him. “You stay out of this.” He turned to Randy. “Zeroes are out. They’re nobody’s.”
Randy almost looked bored, except for the focused concentration in his eyes. “They have to go somewhere because I’m only making one bet with you.”
Tyler glared at Randy then flicked a glance at Ethan. “Him. He gets both zeroes. If it lands on one of them, it returns to him.”
“Sounds fair to me.” Randy indicated the wheel. “Spin.”
Tyler hesitated, as if he suspected anything Randy readily agreed to would be an arrangement against himself.
Ethan saw a tall man in a tuxedo and an earpiece watching them carefully from a few tables over. “Are we going to get into some sort of trouble for this?”
Tyler followed Ethan’s gaze and winced. “Shit. Pit boss. Hold on, Jansen. We’re clearing this with Herod first.”
“Trust me. Herod is watching our every move.” He sat in the chair Ethan had vacated and nodded at the wheel as he let Ethan’s ring fall onto the felt. “Let the ball fly, and get this over with.”
Tyler spun the ball into the rotating wheel, and it traveled around and around, moving in opposition to the swirl of colors.
Randy leaned closer to Ethan. He still wasn’t looking at him, but Ethan knew he wasn’t speaking to anyone else when he said, “If I win, you’re having a drink with me at the bar.”
Ethan wanted to tell him what he could do with his drink, but something about the spinning ball stayed him. “And if the dealer wins?”
“Oh, then you’re having two.”
Ethan glared at him. “And what if I win?”
“Then I’ll let you decide how many.”
“What if I don’t want to have a drink with you at all?”
On the wheel, the ball began to bounce. Randy had tracked it, eagle-eyed, but at Ethan’s question his lips quirked, and that searing gaze was on his. “Then I suggest you think of what else you have to bargain with to win your way out of a trip to the bar.”
Randy returned his focus to the wheel, but Ethan stared, rattled, at the man’s arrogant head. There had been a knowing on Randy Jansen’s face going beyond arrogance. As Ethan huffed, trying to convince himself he’d imagined it, he felt a warm, brief touch on the back of his thigh. Startled, he looked down in time to see Randy’s hand falling casually to his side.
“You—” Ethan started, but there was a soft click as the ball fell into place. Randy smiled at the same moment Tyler swore.
“18.” Randy turned to Ethan, his smile tilting to rueful as he added, “Red.”
“You son of a bitch.” Tyler glared at Randy. “You rigged this.”
Randy gave him a withering look. “How, Tyler, did I rig your wheel?”
“I don’t know how, but I know you did, goddamn it.”
The pit boss, who’d watched the entire game from just a table away, stepped forward. “Is there a problem?”
“He’s cheating.” Tyler pointed at Randy.
Randy looked innocently at the pit boss. “I think your dealer could use a break. But ask him to place the dolly first, please.”
The pit boss frowned at Ethan’s ring lying on the table, but as he opened his mouth to speak, he paused before pressing fingers to his earpiece. “Hold on,” he said to the table, fixing his gaze on a random point as he listened, nodding occasionally. “Yes, Mr. Crabtree.” He turned to Tyler. “The play is fair. Place the dolly, dealer.”
Tyler’s face was red. “He’s cheating—”
“—and then report directly to the office. Mr. Crabtree’s assistant would like a word with you.”
The color drained from Tyler’s face.
The pit boss nodded again at the table. “Place the dolly, please.”
Hand shaking, Tyler moved the gold marker from the rail edge in front of him to the number 18.
Randy swiped the ring from the felt and stood, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out two blue-edged chips, passing one to the pit boss, flicking the other onto the table. “Have a good night, Tyler.” He turned to Ethan, and in front of the now-considerable crowd watching them, slipped his arm through the crook of Ethan’s own.
Too shocked to resist, Ethan let Randy maneuver him down the line of tables toward a series of archways beneath a glittering chandelier. As the crowd thinned out and they passed beneath a dark curve into a room lined with slot machines, the spell Randy had cast at the table broke, and Ethan pulled away.
“I’m not having a drink with you. I don’t know who you are, but I do know I don’t have to have a drink with you.”
He expected Randy to fight him, or mock him, or even, given the way this was headed, try to seduce him. But as if Randy could read his mind and wanted to make sure he thwarted him, he didn’t do anything Ethan expected. He held up his hands and smiled ruefully.
“You’re right.” He bowed and turned away.
For a second, Ethan could only stare. Randy ambled off, past the video poker machines, sauntering to the entrance of the bar attached to the casino.
Ethan could leave. He could be rid of this idiot once and for all.
The vision of his alternate future burned hot and dark and short, and Ethan went still.
Something else rose up through that bleakness, something as black as the mark on the table which had never, not even once, gone Ethan’s way.
Tightening his fists, and his jaw, Ethan glared. “Hey,” he called, and when Randy didn’t stop or glance over his shoulder, he swore under his breath and stormed after him.