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Playing The Odds

Nora Roberts

  Chapter 1

  There was always a great deal of confusion, more noise and a touch of panic to flavor the arrival of embarking passengers. Some were already a bit travel weary from their flight into Miami, others were running on the adrenaline of anticipation. The huge white ocean liner, the Celebration, waited in port—their ticket to fun, relaxation, romance. When they crossed the gangway, they would no longer be accountants, assistant managers, or teachers, but pampered passengers assured of being fed, spoiled and entertained for the next ten days. The brochures guaranteed it.

  From the rail of the observation deck, Serena watched the flow of humanity. At that distance she could enjoy the color and noise, which never lost its appeal for her, without being caught in the inevitable tangle of fifteen hundred people trying to get to the same place at the same time. The cooks, the bartenders, the cabin stewards had already begun the orgy of work that would continue, virtually uninterrupted, for the next ten days. But she had time. Serena relished it.

  These were her idle moments—before the ship pulled out of port. She could remember her first experience with a cruise liner. She’d been eight, the youngest of the three children of financial wizard Daniel MacGregor and Dr. Anna Whitefield MacGregor. There had been first-class cabins, where the steward had served her hot buns and juice in bed. Serena had enjoyed it the same way she enjoyed her tiny cabin in the crew’s quarters now. They were both an adventure.

  Serena remembered, too, the day she had told her parents of her plans to apply for a job with the Celebration. Her father had huffed and puffed about her throwing away her education. The more he had huffed, the more pronounced his soft Scottish burr had become. A woman who had graduated from Smith at the tender age of twenty, who had then gone on to earn degrees in English, history and sociology didn’t swab decks. And even as Serena had assured him that wasn’t her intention, her mother had laughed, telling Daniel to let the child be. Because at six-foot-three and two hundred and twenty pounds, Daniel MacGregor was helpless against what he called his females, he did just that.

  So Serena had gotten her job and had escaped from what had become endless years of study. She’d traded her three-room suite in the family mansion in Hyannis Port for a one-room broom closet with a bunk on a floating hotel. None of her coworkers cared what her I.Q. was or how many degrees she’d earned. They didn’t know her father could have bought the cruise line lock, stock and barrel if he’d had the whim, or that her mother was an authority on thoracic surgery. They didn’t know her oldest brother was a senator and the younger a state’s attorney. When they looked at her, they saw Serena. That was all she wanted.

  Lifting her head, she let the wind take her hair. It danced on the breeze, a mass of blond, the rich shade of gold one found in old paintings. She had high, slanting cheekbones and a sharp, stubborn jaw. Her skin refused to tan, remaining a delicate peach to contrast with the violet-blue of her eyes. Her father called them purple; a few romantics had called them violet. Serena stubbornly termed them blue and left it at that. Men were drawn to them because of their uniqueness, then to her because of the elegant sexuality she exuded without thought. But she wasn’t very interested.

  Intellectually, Serena thought a man was a fool if he fell for a shade of irises. It was a matter of genetics, after all, and had little to do with her personally. She’d listened to accolades on her eyes for twenty-six years with a kind of detached wonder. There was a miniature in her father’s library of his great-grandmother, another Serena. If anyone had asked, she could have explained the process of genetics that resulted in the resemblance, down to the bone structure and eye shade—and the reputed temper. But the men she met were generally not interested in scientific explanation, and Serena was generally not interested in them.

  Below her, the crowd flowing up the gangway was thinning. Shortly the calypso band would be playing on the lido deck to entertain the passengers while the ship prepared to sail. Serena would enjoy staying outside, listening to the tinny, rhythmic music and laughter. There would be a buffet laden with more food than the well over one thousand people could possibly eat, exotic drinks and excitement. Soon the rails would be packed with people wanting that last glimpse of shore before all there would be was open sea.

  Wistfully, she watched the last stragglers come on board. It was the final cruise of the season. When they returned to Miami, the Celebration would go into dry dock for two months. When it sailed again, Serena wouldn’t be on it. She’d already made up her mind that it was time to move on. When she’d taken the job on the ship, she had been looking for one thing—freedom from years of study, from family expectations, from her own restlessnes. She knew she had accomplished something in the year on her own. Serena had found the independence she had always struggled for, and she had escaped the niche so many of her college friends had been determinedly heading for: a good marriage.

  And yet, though she’d found the freedom and independence, she hadn’t found the most important ingredient: the goal. What did Serena MacGregor want to do with the rest of her life? She didn’t want the political career both her brothers had chosen. She didn’t want to teach or lecture. She wanted excitement and challenges, and she no longer wanted to look for them in a classroom. They were all negative answers, but she knew whatever it was that would fill the rest of her life wouldn’t be found by floating endlessly in the Bahamas.

  Time to get off the boat, Rena, she told herself with a sudden smile. The next adventure’s always just around the corner. Not knowing what it would be only made the search more intriguing.

  The first long, loud blast of the horn was her signal. Drawing back from the rail, Serena went to her cabin to change.

  Within thirty minutes she entered the ship’s casino dressed in the modified tux that was her uniform. She had pulled her hair back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck so that it wouldn’t tend to fall all over her face. Her hands would soon be too busy to fool with it.

  The chandeliers were lit, spilling light onto the red and gold art deco carpet. Long curved windows allowed a view of the glassed-in promenade deck, then the blue-green stretch of sea. The remaining walls were lined with slot machines, as silent as soldiers waiting for an attack. Fussing with the bow tie she could never seem to get quite right, Serena crossed to her supervisor. As with any sailor, the shifting of the ship under her feet went unnoticed.

  “Serena MacGregor reporting for duty, sir,” she said crisply.

  Turning, a clipboard in one hand, he looked her up and down. Dale Zimmerman’s lightweight boxer’s build skimmed just under six feet. He had a smooth, handsome face he dedicatedly tanned, winning crinkles at the corners of his light blue eyes and sun-bleached hair that curled riotously. He had a reputation, which he assiduously promoted, of being a marvelous lover. After his brief study of Serena, his grin broke out.

  “Rena, can’t you ever get this thing right?” Tucking the clipboard under his arm, Dale straightened her tie.

  “I like to give you something to do.”

  “You know, lover, if you’re serious about quitting after this run, this is going to be your last chance for paradise.” Tugging on her tie, he lifted his eyes to grin into hers.

  Serena cocked a brow. What had begun a year ago as an ardent pursual on Dale’s part had been tempered into a good-humored joke about Serena’s refusal to go to bed with him. They had become, more to his surprise than hers, friends. “I’m going to hate to miss it,” Serena told him with a sigh. “Did the little redhead from South Dakota go home happy?” she asked with a guileless smile.

  Dale’s eyes narrowed. “Anybody ever tell you that you see too much?”

  “All the time. What’s my table?”

  “You’re on two.” Taking out a cigarette, Dale lit it as
she walked away. If anyone had told him a year before that a classy number like Serena MacGregor would not only hold him off but make him feel fraternal, he’d have recommended a good psychiatrist. With a shrug he went back to his clipboard. He was going to regret losing her, Dale reflected, and not only because of his personal feelings. She was the best damn blackjack dealer he had.

  There were eight blackjack tables scattered throughout the casino. Serena and the seven other dealers would rotate from position to position through the rest of the afternoon and evening, with only a brief, staggered dinner break. Unless the playing was light, the casino would stay open until two. If it was heavy, a few tables might stay open until three. The first rule was to give the passengers what they wanted.

  Other men and women clad in tuxedos went to their stations. Beside Serena the young Italian who had just been promoted to croupier stood at table two. Serena gave him a smile, remembering that Dale had asked her to keep an eye on him.

  “Enjoy yourself, Tony,” she suggested, eyeing the crowd that already waited outside the glass doors. “It’s going to be a long night.” And all on our feet, she added silently as Dale gave the signal to open the door.

  Passengers poured in. Not in a trickle—they rarely trickled in the first day of a cruise. The crowd would be thin during the dinner hours, then swell again until past midnight. Dress was casual—shorts, jeans, bare feet—the uniform for afternoon gambling. With the opening of the door Serena heard the musical sound effects of arcade games already being fed on the promenade deck. Within minutes the sound was drowned out by the steady clatter of slots.

  Serena could separate the gamblers from the “players” and the players from the “lookers.” There was always some of each group in any batch of passengers. There would be a percentage who had never been to a casino before. They would simply wander around, attracted by the noise and the colorful equipment before they exchanged their bills for change for the slots.

  There were some who came for fun, not really caring if they won or lost. These were the players—they came for the game. It usually took little time for the looker to become the player. They would shout when they won and moan when they lost in much the same way the arcade addicts reacted.

  But always, there were the gamblers. They would haunt the casino during the trip, turning the game of winning and losing into an art—or an obsession. They had no specific features, no particular mode of dress. The mystique of the riverboat gambler could be found in the neat little grandmother from Peoria just as it could be found in the Madison Avenue executive. As the tables began to fill, Serena categorized them. She smiled at the five people who had chosen her table, then broke the seal on four decks of cards.

  “Welcome aboard,” she said, and began to shuffle.

  It took only an hour for the scent of gambling to rise. It permeated the smoke and light sweat that drifted through the casino. It was a heady scent, tempting. Serena had always wondered if it was what drew people more than the lights and green baize. The scent and the noise of silver clattering in the bowls of the slot machines. Serena never played them, perhaps because she recognized the gambler in herself. She’d decided long ago not to risk anything unless the odds were on her side.

  During her first shift she changed tables every thirty minutes, making her way slowly around the room. After her dinner break it began again. The casino grew more crowded after the sun set. Tables were full, and the roulette wheel spun continuously. Dress became more elegant, as if to gamble in the evening required glamor.

  Because the cards and people always changed, Serena was never bored. She had chosen the job to meet people—not the cut-out-of-the-same-affluent-cloth people she’d met in college, but a variety. In that she’d accomplished her goal. At the moment she had a Texan, two New Yorkers, a Korean and a Georgian at her table, all of whom she’d identified by their accents. This was as much a part of the game for her as the cards she slid onto the baize. One she never tired of.

  Serena dealt the second card around, peeked at her hole card and was satisfied with an eighteen. The first New Yorker took a hit, counted his cards and gave a disgusted grunt. With a shake of the head he indicated that he’d stand. The Korean busted on twenty-two, then rose from the table with a mutter. The second New Yorker, a sleek blonde in a narrow black dinner dress, held with a nine and a queen.

  “I’ll take one,” the man from Georgia drawled. He counted eighteen, gave Serena a thoughtful look and held.

  The man from Texas took his time. He had fourteen and didn’t like the eight Serena had showing. Considering the possibilities, he stroked his chin, swilled some bourbon, then motioned Serena to hit him. She did, a tad too hard with a nine.

  “Sweetheart,” he said as he leaned on the table, “you’re just too pretty to take a man’s money that way.”

  “Sorry.” With a smile she turned over her hole card. “Eighteen,” she announced before she settled the betting.

  Serena saw the hundred-dollar bill on the table before she realized someone had taken the Korean’s vacant stool. Glancing up, she met a pair of green eyes—cool, depthless, direct. She stared, trapped in that instant of contact into seeing nothing else. Cool green, with amber rimming the iris. Something like ice skidded down her spine. Forcing herself to blink, Serena looked at the man.

  He had the lean face of an aristocrat, but this was no prince. Serena sensed it instantly. Perhaps it was the long, unsmiling mouth or the rough sweep of black brows. Or perhaps it was simply the inner warning that went off in her brain. A ruler, yes, but not royalty. This was the type of man who planned ruthless coups and succeeded. His hair flowed over his ears thick and black and down to the collar of a white silk shirt. The skin stretched taut over the long bones of his face was as tanned as Dale’s, but Serena didn’t think he worked on the tone like her supervisor. This man faced the elements without a thought for fashion.

  He didn’t slouch like the Texan or lounge indolently like the man from Georgia, but rather sat like a sleek, patient cat, always coiled to spring. It wasn’t until one rough brow rose slightly in question that Serena realized she’d been staring.

  “Change a hundred,” she said briskly, annoyed with herself. With deft movements she slipped the bill into the slot of the table, then counted out chips. When the bets were placed, she dealt the cards.

  The man from New York glanced at the ten Serena had showing and hit on fourteen. He broke. The new player held on fifteen with a wordless gesture of his hand. She broke the other New Yorker and the Georgian before the Texan held on nineteen. Serena turned over a three to go with her ten, dealt herself a deuce, then broke with twenty-three. The man with the dangerous face drew out a thin cigar and continued to play silently. Serena already knew he was a gambler.

  His name was Justin Blade. His ancestors had ridden swift ponies and hunted with bow and arrow. Serena had been right about the aristocracy, though his bloodline wasn’t royal. Part of his heritage came from simple French immigrants and a dash from Welsh miners. The rest was Comanche.

  He hadn’t known a reservation, and though he had brushed with poverty in his youth, he was well accustomed to the feel of silk against his skin. Accustomed enough so that like the very wealthy, he rarely noticed it. His first stake had been won in the backroom of a pool hall when he’d been fifteen. In the twenty years since, he’d played more elegant games. He was, as Serena had sensed, a gambler. And he was already figuring the odds.

  Justin had entered the casino with the notion of passing a few hours with a mild game. A man could relax with small stakes when he could afford to lose. Then he’d seen her. His eyes had passed over other women in sleek dinner dress, the gleam of gold and sparkle of jewels, and came to rest on the blonde in the mannish tuxedo. She had a slender neck, which her hairstyle and the ruffled shirtfront accentuated, and a carriage that shouted breeding. But what was more, what he had sensed in his loins, was a blatant sexuality that required no movement, no words on her part. She was a woman a man w
ould beg for.

  Justin watched her hands as she dealt. They were exquisite—narrow, long-fingered, with delicate blue veins just under the surface of creamy skin. Her nails were oval and perfect, with the gleam of clear polish. They were hands suited to fragile teacups and French pastries. The kind of hands a man burned to have on his skin.

  Lifting his eyes from them, Justin looked directly into hers. With the faintest of frowns, Serena stared back. Why was it, she wondered, that this dark, silent man brought her both discomfort and curiosity? He hadn’t spoken a word since he’d sat down—not to her nor to any of the others at her table. Though he’d been winning with professional consistency, he didn’t appear to gain any pleasure from it. He didn’t appear to be paying any attention to the game if it came to that, she told herself. All he did was stare at her with that same calm, watchful expression.

  “Fifteen,” Serena said coolly, indicating the cards in front of him. Justin nodded for the hit and took a six without the slightest change of expression.

  “Damn if you don’t have the luck, son,” the Texan stated jovially. Glancing at his own meager pile of chips, he gave a quick grimace. “Glad somebody does.” He wheezed as Serena dealt him the card that eased him out at twenty-two.

  Turning over twenty for the house, she collected chips, then slid two twenty-five dollar markers to Justin. His fingertips covered hers over them. The touch was light but potent enough to have her eyes flashing up to his. Watching her steadily, he made no move to take his hand from hers. There was no pressure, no flirtatious squeeze, but Serena felt the response shoot through her as though their bodies rather than their fingers had pressed together. Calling on all her control, she slowly brought her hand back to her side.

  “New dealer,” she said calmly, noting with relief that her shift at that station was finished. “Have a nice evening.” She moved to the next station, swearing to herself she wouldn’t look back. Of course she did and found her eyes pinned to his.

  Infuriated, she allowed herself a slight toss of her head. Her expression became challenging. For the first time that evening she saw the long mouth curve in a slow smile—a smile that barely shifted the angles and planes on his face. Justin inclined his head, as if accepting the challenge. Serena turned her back on him.

  “Good evening,” she said in a clear voice to the new set of players.

  * * *

  The moon was still high, cutting a swath of light across the black water. From the rail Serena could see the white tips of waves as the ship moved in a fast sea. It was after two a.m., and the deck was deserted. She liked this time of the morning, while the passengers slept, before the crew began its early shift. She was alone with the sea and the wind and could imagine herself in any era she chose.

  She breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of salt spray and night. They’d be in Nassau just past dawn, and while in port the casino would be closed. She would have the morning free to do as she chose. She preferred the night.

  Her mind drifted back to her working hours, to the silent gambler who’d sat at her table, winning and watching. She thought he was a man women would be drawn to but wasn’t surprised that he’d been alone. A solitary man, Serena mused, and strangely compelling. Attractive, she admitted as she leaned farther out to let the wind whip at her face. Attractive in a dangerous sort of way. But then, it was in her blood to look on danger as a challenge. Risks could be calculated, percentages measured, and yet … And yet Serena didn’t think the man would follow the neat path of theory.

  “Night suits you.”

  Serena’s hands tightened on the rail. Though she’d never heard him speak, though she hadn’t even heard his approach, she knew who stood behind her. It took all her effort not to gasp and whirl. While her heart hammered, she turned to watch him come out of the shadows. Wanting her voice to be steady, she gave herself a moment while he stopped to stand beside her at the rail.

  “Did your luck hold?” she asked.

  Justin kept his eyes on her face. “Apparently.”

  She tried, and failed, to place his origin through his accent. His voice was deep and smooth and without inflection. “You’re very good,” she stated. “We don’t often get a professional in the casino.” There seemed to be a quick flash of humor in his eyes before he drew out a slim cigar and lit it. Smoke stung the air, then vanished in the wind. Serena relaxed her fingers on the rail, one at a time. “Are you enjoying your trip?”

  “More than I anticipated.” He took a slow, thoughtful drag on the cigar. “Are you?”

  Serena smiled. “It’s my job.”

  Justin leaned back against the rail, resting his hand beside hers. “That’s not an answer, Serena,” he pointed out.

  Since there was a name tag on her lapel, she only lifted a brow at his use of her name. “I enjoy it, Mr.—”

  “Blade,” he said softly as he ran a fingertip down her jawline. “Justin Blade. Remember it.”

  Serena refused to back up though the lightning response of her body to his touch surprised her. Instead, she regarded him steadily. “I’ve a good memory.”

  With a trace of a smile he nodded. “Yes, that’s why you’re a good dealer. How long have you been doing it?”

  “A year.” Though he removed his fingertip, her blood didn’t cool.

  Surprised, Justin took a last drag on his cigar, then crushed it under his foot. “I would have thought longer from the way you handle the cards.” Taking her hand from the rail, he studied the back, then turned it over to look at the palm. Soft, he thought, and steady. An interesting combination. “What did you do before?”

  Even as her brain told her retreat would be wise, Serena allowed her hand to remain in his. She sensed strength and skill in the touch, though she wasn’t certain of the aspect of either. “I studied.”


  “Whatever interested me. What do you do?”

  “Whatever interests me.”

  She laughed, a low, sultry sound that whispered along his skin. “Somehow I think you mean that quite literally, Mr. Blade.” She started to remove her hand, but his fingers closed over it.

  “I do,” he murmured. “It’s Justin, Serena.” His eyes skimmed the deserted deck, then the dark, endless sea. “This isn’t the place for formality.”

  Common sense told her to tread carefully; instinct drove her to provoke. “There are rules for the crew when dealing with passengers, Mr. Blade,” she said coolly. “I need my hand.”

  When he smiled, the moonlight glittered in his eyes, like a cat’s. “So do I.” Lifting it, he pressed his lips deep in the center of her palm. Serena felt the aftershock of the kiss in every pore. “I take what I need,” he murmured against her flesh.

  Her breathing had quickened without her being aware of it. On the dark, empty deck he was barely more than a shadow with a voice that might have been pressed through honey, and dangerous eyes. Feeling her body yearning toward him, Serena restrained it with a quick flash of temper.

  “Not this time. I’m going in; it’s late.”

  Keeping her hand firmly in his, Justin reached up to pull the pins from her hair. As it tumbled over her shoulders, he tossed them into the sea. Stunned by his audacity, Serena glared at him. “Late,” he agreed, combing his fingers from the crown to the tips of the thick, blond mane. “But you’re a woman for the dark hours. I thought so the moment I saw you.” With a movement that was too quick and too smooth to be measured, he had Serena trapped between his body and the rail. Her hair flew toward the sea, pulled by the wind, her skin as pure as marble in the moonlight. Justin discovered the need was stronger that he had realized.

  “Do you know what I thought?” Serena demanded, struggling to keep her words from jerking. “I thought you were rude and annoying.”

  He laughed, a rich quick sound of amusement. “It seems we were both right. Should I tell you it very nearly distracted me from my game, wondering how you tasted.”

  Serena became very still. The only movement came from
the rich strands of gold that danced around her face. Then her chin rose; her eyes darkened with challenge. “A pity,” she said quietly as she curled her hand into a fist. Passenger or no passenger, she determined, she was going to give him a good swift punch, just the way her brothers had taught her.