Exactly how did a girl go wild?
Valerie Kendrick sat at a bar overlooking the poker tables at the elegant Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, toying with the drink she’d thought she ought to order since she was supposed to be living it up this weekend. It wasn’t happening, though. Despite her grand effort to distract herself from all the disappointments back home, she only felt lonelier than ever while wandering the glittering casinos.
Clearly, neither drinking nor gambling were going to make her feel any better. Instead, what she needed was — was —
She had no idea. How did a woman put her self esteem back together?
Swirling her Margarita glass on the bar counter, she gazed down at the poker players half a level below her. All of them, bar one, appeared desperate to get rid of their money. The one, a man with tousled dark hair and a square-cut face, appeared discreetly determined to acquire more of it. He wore a lazy smile and had an arm hooked over the back of his seat, but he couldn’t hide his lurking competence.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Valerie played with her straw and kept watching. The soft gray cashmere sweater the guy wore only seemed to emphasize the roughness of the man underneath. He had an air of knowing a thing or two. A real card shark.
He was fascinating. Virile, excitingly dangerous, outrageously handsome. He was like a precious gemstone, out of her price range. Still, it was fun to watch him, to fantasize…
Heck, if a man this compelling ever showed interest in her, she could get over Peter for sure.
Laughing silently at herself, Valerie was still watching the man when her cell phone trilled down in the depths of the purse she’d set against her shin.
“No.” Valerie wasn’t on call this weekend and the answering service wasn’t supposed to forward messages. Neither should she feel the slightest obligation to take a call from a patient, even if it were just some sweet, innocent child in need —
“I give up.” Valerie was still new enough as a pediatrician to be a sucker, she supposed. Lifting her purse, she dug inside for her phone. “Hello?”
“What are you doing, answering?” demanded the voice on the other end. “Your phone is supposed to be turned off. You’re supposed to be too busy having a good time to answer.”
Not a patient, after all. “Cherise.” Valerie smiled.
“Don’t talk to me,” ordered Cherise, who seemed to do a lot of ordering, both in and out of her role as nurse practitioner at the clinic where they both worked. “Close your phone and turn it off.”
Unwilling to hang up now that she had her best friend on the line, Valerie lied unabashedly. “But then how could I tell you my exciting news?”
Cherise paused. “You have news?”
Valerie’s mouth curved at the note of disbelief in Cherise’s voice. For all her cheerleading for a new and livelier phase in Valerie’s life, Cherise didn’t believe it might actually happen.
Her friend’s accurate lack of faith in her sparked a devil in Valerie. She found her gaze turning toward the lounging wolf in the cashmere cardigan, recklessness personified. “I am right now looking at the man I’m going to spend the night with,” she claimed.
There was a longer pause from Cherise. “Really,” she finally said.
“Really,” Valerie retorted, Cherise’s humoring tone making the devil inside her jump up and down. “Didn’t you tell me I was supposed to go wild on this stag trip of mine to Vegas? Didn’t you tell me I was supposed to make up for Peter announcing his engagement to that little — that is, to poor little Cindy Parker?”
“Well,” Cherise temporized. “I did think you needed to get away. And I do think it’d be good for you to see there are other fish in the sea, as it were…”
“And isn’t the best way to do that by finding some stud muffin to soothe my bruised ego?”
“Well, it sure wouldn’t hurt to look…”
“So. I’ve looked. And I’ve found.” Indeed, Valerie watched, intrigued, as Cashmere, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, threw three chips toward the center of the table. He did it with a casual air of challenge, an air Valerie suspected was intended to provoke the older man seated to his left. It worked. The older man shot Cashmere a sour glance and pushed six chips toward the center of the table.
“Uh huh.” Cherise was audibly smirking. “So tell me, what does your stud muffin look like?”
“Let’s see…” Valerie enjoyed the view as Cashmere set his own, matching three chips onto the felt. He was calling the older man’s bet, the one he’d incited him to make. “He’s got hair like a cup of rich coffee. Eyes the color of a stormy sea, and a build like — like — ” How to describe the air of carefully leashed strength, the compact reserve of pure masculinity? “He’s got a build like a street tough,” she finally decided.
“Mm, sounds yummy.”
“Very yummy.” Valerie watched the two men set down their cards. The older man’s face turned red. Valerie saw him spew what appeared to be swear words, get up from his seat, and stomp away. Cashmere calmly swept the chips from the center of the table toward himself. “And I think he’s a good poker player, too,” Valerie mumbled.
“What? I didn’t catch that.”
“Nothing.” The man’s poker talent didn’t matter. Valerie wasn’t actually about to take up with a card shark. Nor was the card shark about to notice her. Not only was he professionally interested in his game, but a man this intriguing probably already had some equally fascinating woman with whom he was involved. Or could get one with a snap of his fingers.
“Well. Fine. You go for it, girl.” Cherise’s tone indicated she didn’t believe for one instant Valerie was going to pick up some stranger she’d met in a casino in Las Vegas.
The little devil inside Valerie made one more enthusiastic jump, then hung her face sheepishly. Cherise was exactly right. Valerie didn’t do things like that.
Although the truth was, sometimes she wanted to. Or rather, she wanted to own the female confidence necessary to pull off such a maneuver. She wished she could be the sort of woman whose mere presence could make a man walk across the room to meet her. One day she’d like to be the sort of woman that an interesting, desirable man would choose above all others.
Instead of the sort of woman a man rejected in order to take up with, and soon get engaged to, somebody else.
“I’ll be waiting for all the details on Monday,” Cherise told Valerie.
“Mmmm. As if I’d kiss and tell.”
Cherise laughed. “Good one. Now I’ll never know.” Laughing again, she rang off.
Valerie sighed and set her elbow on the bar. With her cheek in her palm, she let her eyes rest on the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Throwing three more chips onto the felt, he said something that made the other players at the table laugh.
Valerie smiled. All right, so watching wasn’t very wild, but maybe it was just what she needed. Fortunately, a wolf like he would never notice a little sparrow like herself. That was the advantage of being a sparrow. He’d never notice. She could watch as long as she liked.
Roy noticed her the minute she sat down at the bar. She had dark, glossy hair, the face of a pure-hearted angel, and a tantalizing hint of feminine curves beneath the clinging sweater she wore.
Understated and classy, she clashed mightily with the glitz of the flashing slot machines on the betting floor.
It was funny what caught a fellow’s attention when he’d achieved his life goal the week before. He was sitting here at a low stakes hold ’em table because he’d thought it would be more fun — more fun! — than entering one of the games where he won hundreds of thousands of dollars on a regular basis. And now he was getting distracted by a girl-next-door kind of woman who was sipping a Margarita at a speed that could not possibly induce intoxication.
Roy shook his head. Yeah. A nice girl.
Oddly enough, the nice girl had commenced staring at him. He could see it out of the corner of his eye. He could feel it, like a pair of fingertips, delicately touching here, and then there.
Frenchie, a dealer Roy knew well, was raising an eyebrow at him. It was rare Roy had to be told the action was on him.
Drawing in a breath, Roy slid his cards toward the muck. It was only after he’d completed the action that he realized the cards he’d just folded. Ace-king suited.
He experienced a moment’s shock he’d thrown away such a hand, then leaned back in his seat. No doubt about it, he really was distracted. A week ago, this wouldn’t have happened. No mere woman would have been able to slip through his concentration. The Queen of England wouldn’t have been able to slip through. A week ago, he’d still been focused. He’d known exactly what he’d wanted — and had gotten it. He’d hit the magic number of dollars in the bank, precisely what he’d told his father all those years ago he was going to earn by the time he turned thirty-five.
Yes, he’d achieved what he’d set out do.
Now he had no idea what he wanted any more.
Roy tapped his thumb against his thigh. Or maybe he did know what he wanted. Sensing the woman’s eyes still upon him, he felt a stirring low in his gut. It was not an unpleasant sensation, like the stretching of muscles that hadn’t been used in a while.
For a nice girl.
The dealer was looking at Roy again, who hadn’t realized he’d been dealt a new set of cards. Like an idiot, he made everyone wait while he peeked at what he had. Then it was as if he hadn’t even registered the measly three-five unsuited, but was still betting his last hand. He threw in three chips.
Did I just do that? Roy stared at his stupid bet lying on the table, then heard four other players match it. Not even a chance of stealing the blinds.
The dealer laid down the flop. A king, a ten, and a nine. Leaning back, Roy eyed the cards with a mixture of irritation and amusement. Now that it was too late, the numbers crunched in his head, falling over each other like ice in a glass until they fell into perfect alignment, each cube sitting straight on top of the others. He then knew, taking into account how many players were left in the action and how many cards were left in the deck, the precise odds of somebody making a straight, a high pair, or a flush.
He also knew that somebody was not going to be him, and yet he threw three more chips into the pot. As a completion to the motion, he lifted his gaze toward the bar.
She had her youthfully round cheek resting on one hand, like she had all the time in the world, and would waste as much of it as she wanted studying him.
Heat flashed through him. He’d never had a woman look at him the way this one was…like he was some rare kind of gem.
She blinked. Apparently she’d only just realized he was looking back at her. Her gaze shifted abruptly and she executed an awkward swivel back to the bar, where she poked her straw up and down in her Margarita.
Roy felt his lips curve. Any lingering paranoia he might have harbored disappeared. She hadn’t been trying to get his attention; she didn’t know who he was. Not an operator, but a simple tourist — a nice girl, curious about the big, bad gamblers of Vegas.
With no potential for taking the pot, and with no excuse now that the woman was no longer looking at him, Roy nevertheless tossed six chips onto the table. He looked back at the woman.
So she was curious about big, bad gamblers, was she? Well, he could educate her. Wasn’t he the biggest, baddest gambler around? Roy felt a strange urge, a kind he almost never had, to do something impulsive.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the fourth community card, the turn, bring another king onto the table. The numbers tumbled over each other again in his head. Odds were good somebody had trips, or even a full house. With the mighty strength of his three-five unsuited, Roy tossed six chips into the pot.
It wasn’t a word with which he had any familiarity. Since age seventeen, he’d carefully scripted and strategically planned his life in order to meet his goal. Every action had been taken to prove his father wrong. Roy wasn’t useless. He wasn’t stupid.
He’d earned thirty-five million dollars.
But now that he’d completed his proof, he was without a script. He was free to decide to do something…for no good reason at all.
The Girl Next Door lifted her Margarita glass and took a sip, not daring to look Roy’s way again. Shy, huh? He didn’t think he’d been around too many shy women, in fact, probably none.
The river card, the fifth and last community card, was a deuce, which was certainly no help to Roy, but he threw in another six chips. To his left, a player with a beard turned over a king and a nine; he had a full house. There were groans around the rest of the table as the chips began sliding King-Nine’s direction.
Roy stood up.
“You want to buy more chips, Mr. B.?” Frenchie looked over at him, confused. He’d never seen Roy bow out of a game when he was down in the money.
“No, thanks, Frenchie. I…have something else to do.” Actually, he had no idea what he intended, beyond saying hello. But Roy felt his smile grow as he tossed a chip Frenchie’s way, then slid his two remaining dollar chips into his trouser pocket. He felt decidedly buoyant as he stepped away from the table.
If ever there was a great time to do something for no good reason at all, it had to be now.
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