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The Winning Hand

Nora Roberts

  Chapter 1

  When her car sputtered and died a mile outside of Las Vegas, Darcy Wallace seriously considered staying where she was and baking to death under the brutal desert sun. She had $9.37 left in her pocket and a long stretch of road behind her that led to nowhere.

  She was lucky to have even that pitiful amount of cash on her, as her purse had been stolen outside a diner in Utah the night before. The rubbery chicken sandwich was the last meal she’d had, and she figured the stray ten she’d found in her pocket was the last miracle she could expect.

  Both her job and her home in Kansas were gone. She had no family and no one to go back to. She felt she’d had every reason for tossing her clothes into a suitcase and driving away from what had been, and what would have been, had she remained.

  She’d driven west simply because her car had been pointing in that direction and she’d taken it as a sign. She’d promised herself an adventure, a personal odyssey and a new, improved life.

  Reading about plucky young women who braved the world, carved a path, took risks and blithely accepted challenges was no longer enough. Or so she’d told herself as the miles had clicked away on the odometer of her ancient and sickly sedan. It was time to take something for herself, or at least to try.

  If she had stayed, she would have fallen in line. Again. Done what she was told. Again. And spent her life haunted by dreams and regrets.

  But now, one long week after sneaking out of town in the middle of the night like a thief, she wondered if she was destined for the ordinary. Perhaps she’d been born to follow all the rules. Maybe she should have been content with what life offered and kept her eyes cast down, instead of constantly trying to peek around the next corner.

  Gerald would have given her a good life, a life she knew many women would envy. With him, she could have had a lovely home tidily kept by a loyal staff, closets bursting with conventionally stylish wife-of-the-executive clothes, a summer place in Bar Harbor, winter getaways to tropical climes. She would never be hungry, never do without.

  All it required was for her to do exactly as she was told, exactly when she was told. All it required was for her to keep buried every dream, every longing, every private wish.

  It shouldn’t have been hard. She’d been doing it all of her life.

  But it was.

  Closing her eyes, she rested her forehead on the steering wheel. Why did Gerald want her so much? she wondered. There was nothing special about her. She had a good mind and an average face. Her own mother had described her just that way often enough. She didn’t believe it was so much a physical attraction on Gerald’s side, though she suspected he liked the fact she was a small woman of slight build. Easily dominated.

  God, he frightened her.

  She remembered how furious he’d been when she’d cut off her shoulder-length hair, snipping away until it was as short as a boy’s.

  Well, she liked it, she thought with a little spurt of defiance. And it was her hair, damn it, she added, pushing her fingers through choppily cut, toffee-colored locks.

  They weren’t married yet, thank the Lord. He had no right to tell her how to look, how to dress, how to behave. And now, if she could just hold on, he never would have that right.

  She should never have agreed to marry him in the first place. She’d just been so tired, so afraid, so confused. Even though the regrets and the doubts had set in almost immediately, even though she’d given him back the ring and apologized, she might have gone through with it rather than stand up under his anger and live through the gossip of a broken engagement. But she’d discovered he’d manipulated her, that he was responsible for her losing her job, for the threat of eviction from her apartment.

  He’d wanted her to buckle. And she’d nearly obliged him, she thought now as she wiped sweat from her face with the back of her hand.

  The hell with it, she decided and pushed herself out of the car. So she had less than ten dollars, no transportation and a mile hike ahead of her. She was out from under Gerald’s thumb. She was finally, at twenty-three, on her own.

  Leaving her suitcase in the trunk, she grabbed the weighty tote that contained all that really mattered to her, then headed off on foot. She’d burned her bridges. Now it was time to see what was around that next corner.

  It took her an hour to reach her destination. She couldn’t have explained why she kept walking along Route 15, away from the scatter of motels, gas stations, and toward that shimmering Oz-like skyline of Vegas in the distance. She only knew she wanted to be there, inside that globe of exotic buildings and shapes where lights were twinkling like a carnival.

  The sun was tipping down below the western peaks of the red mountains that ringed that glittering oasis. Her hunger had gone from grinding distress to a dull ache. She considered stopping for food, to rest, to drink, but there was something therapeutic about simply putting one foot in front of the other, her eyes on the tall, spectacular hotels glimmering in the distance.

  What were they like inside? she wondered. Would everything be glossy and polished, colorful to the point of gaudy? She imagined an atmosphere of sex and gambling, desperation and triumph, with an underlying snicker of naughtiness. There would be men with hard eyes, women with wild laughs. She’d get a job in one of those opulent dens of indulgence and have a front row seat for every show.

  Oh, how she wanted to live and see and experience.

  She wanted the crowds and the noise, the hot blood and the cold nerves. Everything, everything that was the opposite of what she’d had before. Most of all she wanted to feel—strong, ripping emotions, towering joys, vivid excitement. And she would write about it all, she determined, shifting the tote which, filled with her notebooks and manuscript pages, weighed like stone. She would write, tucked in some little room, looking out at it all.

  Stumbling with exhaustion, she tripped on a curb, then righted herself. The streets were crowded, everyone seemed to have somewhere to go. Even at dusk, the lights of the city winked and gleamed and beckoned: Come in, take a chance, roll the dice.

  She saw families of tourists—fathers in shorts with legs pink from the unforgiving sun, children with wide eyes, mothers with the frantic look of sensory overload.

  Her own eyes were wide, the golden brown glazed with fatigue. The man-made volcano erupted in the distance, drawing screams and cheers from the crowd who’d gathered to watch and making Darcy gape with glassy-eyed wonder. The noise smothered the odd buzzing in her ears as she was jostled by the crowd.

  Dazed and dazzled, she wandered aimlessly, gawking at the huge Roman statues, blinking at the neon, passing by the spurting fountains that gushed with shifting colors. It was a wonderland, loud and gaudy and unapologetically adult, and she was as lost and as fascinated as Alice.

  She found herself standing in front of twin towers as white as the moon and joined together by a wide, curved bridge with hundreds of windows. Surrounding the building were seas of flowers, both wild and exotic, and pools of mirror-bright water fed by the rush of a terraced waterfall that tumbled from the topmost spear of a mountain.

  Guarding the entrance to the bridge was an enormous—five times larger than life—Indian war chief astride a gold stallion. His face and bare chest were gleaming copper. His war bonnet flowed with winking stones of rich reds and blues and greens. In his hand he carried a lance with a diamond-bright tip that winked fire.

  He’s so beautiful, was all she could think, so proud and defiant.

  She would have sworn the statue’s dark eyes were alive, fixed on hers. Daring her to come closer, to go inside, to take her chances.

  Darcy stepped into The Comanche on watery legs and swayed against the sudden rush of cool air.

  The lobby was immense, the tile floors a bold geo
metric pattern of emerald and sapphire that made her head spin. Cacti and palms grew regally out of copper or pottery urns. Brilliant floral displays graced huge tables, the scent of the lilies so sweet it brought tears to her eyes.

  She walked on, amazed by the waterfall that rushed down a stone wall into a pond filled with bright fish, the sparkling light that shimmered from huge crystal-and-gold chandeliers. The place was a maze of color and flash, brighter and more brilliant than any reality she’d known or any dream she’d imagined.

  There were shops, the offerings in the windows as glittery as the chandeliers. She watched an elegant blonde debate between two diamond necklaces the way another might consider her choice of tomatoes.

  A laugh bubbled up in Darcy’s throat, forcing her to press a hand to her mouth to hold it in. It wasn’t the time or place to be noticed, she warned herself. She didn’t belong in such glamorous surroundings.

  She turned the corner and felt her head reel at the sudden brassy sound of the casino. Bells and voices, the metallic rat-a-tat of coins falling on coins. Whirls and buzzes and hoots. The wave of energy pouring out brought a rush to her blood.

  Machines were everywhere, shoulder to shoulder with their faces spinning with colors and shapes. People crowded around them, standing, sitting on stools, pulling coins from white plastic buckets and feeding the busy machines. She watched a woman press a red button, wait for the spin to end, then scream with delight as triple black bars lined up in the center. Money poured out into a silver bowl in a musical rush.

  It made Darcy grin.

  Here was fun, reckless and impulsive. Here were possibilities both grand and small. And life, loud, messy and hot.

  She’d never gambled in her life, not with money. Money was something to be earned, saved and carefully watched. But her fingers slipped into her pocket where the last of her crumpled bills seemed to pulse with heat against her skin.

  If not now, when? she asked herself with another bubbling giggle she could no longer quite control. What good was $9.37? It would buy her a meal, she told herself, gnawing on her lip. But then what?

  Light-headed, her ears ringing oddly, she roamed the aisles, blinking owlishly at people and machines. They were willing to take a chance, she thought. That’s why they were here.

  Wasn’t that why she was here?

  Then she saw it. It stood alone, big and bright and fascinating. It stood taller than she, its wide face made up of stylized stars and moons. The handle was nearly as thick as her arm and topped with a shiny red ball.

  It called itself Comanche Magic.

  JACKPOT! it proclaimed in diamond-white lights that flashed on and off and made her dizzy. Ruby red dots flowed along a black strip. She stared, fascinated at the number showing within the blinking lights.


  What an odd amount. Nine dollars and thirty-seven cents, she thought again, fingering the money in her pocket. Maybe it was a sign.

  How much did it cost? she wondered. She stepped closer, blinked to clear her wavering vision and struggled to read the rules. It was a progressive machine, so the numbers would change and grow as players pumped in their money.

  She could play for a dollar, she read, but that wouldn’t get the jackpot even if she lined up the stars and moons on all three lines. To really play, she’d have to put in one dollar times three. Nearly all the money she had left in the world.

  Take a chance, a voice seemed to whisper slyly in her ear.

  Don’t be foolish. This voice was prim, disapproving, and all too familiar. You can’t throw your money away.

  Live a little. There was excitement in the whisper, and seduction. What are you waiting for?

  “I don’t know,” she muttered. “And I’m tired of waiting.”

  Slowly, her eyes on the challenging face of the machine, Darcy dug into her pocket.

  With his gaze scanning the tables, Robert MacGregor Blade scrawled his initials on a chit. The man in chair three on the hundred-dollar table wasn’t taking his losses in stride, he noted. Mac lifted a brow as the man held on fifteen with the dealer showing a king. If you’re going to play for a hundred a hand, he mused as the dealer turned up a seven, you ought to know how to play.

  In a casual gesture, Mac lifted a hand to call over one of the tuxedoed security men. “Keep an eye on him,” Mac murmured. “He’s thinking about making trouble.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Spotting trouble and dealing with it was second nature for Mac. He was a third-generation gambler, and his instincts were well honed. His grandfather, Daniel MacGregor, had made a fortune taking chances. Real estate was Daniel’s first love, and he continued to buy and sell property, to develop and preserve, to wheel and deal, though he was into his nineties.

  Mac’s parents had met in a casino aboard ship. His mother had been dealing blackjack, and his father had always been a player. They’d clashed and they’d clicked, both initially unaware that Daniel had maneuvered their meeting with marriage and the continuation of the MacGregor line in mind.

  Justin Blade had already owned The Comanche in Vegas, and another in Atlantic City. Serena MacGregor had become his partner, then his wife.

  Their eldest son had been born knowing how to roll the dice.

  Now, just shy of his thirtieth birthday, Comanche Vegas was his baby. His parents trusted him enough to leave it in his hands, and he made very certain they wouldn’t regret it.

  It ran smoothly because he made certain it ran smoothly. It ran honest because it always had. It ran profitably because it was a Blade-MacGregor enterprise.

  He believed, absolutely, in winning—and always in winning clean.

  His lips twitched as a woman at one of the five-dollar tables hit twenty-one and applauded herself. Some would walk away winners, Mac mused; most wouldn’t. Life was a gamble, and the house always had the edge.

  A tall man, he moved through the tables easily, in a beautifully tailored dark suit that draped elegance over tough and ready muscle. The legacy from his Comanche heritage showed in the gold-dust skin pulled tight over his cheekbones, in the rich black hair that framed a lean, watchful face and flowed to the collar of his formal jacket.

  But his eyes were Scot blue, deep as a loch and just as unfathomable.

  His smile was quick and charming when a regular hailed him. But he kept moving, barely pausing. He had work waiting in his office high above the action.

  “Mr. Blade?”

  He glanced over, stopping now as one of the roving cocktail waitress moved to him. “Yes?”

  “I just came over from the slots.” The waitress shifted her tray and tried not to sigh as Mac gave her the full benefit of those dark blue eyes. “There’s a woman over at the big progressive. She’s a mess, Mr. Blade. Not too clean, pretty shaky. She might be on something. She’s just staring at it, you know? Muttering to herself. I thought maybe I should call security.”

  “I’ll take a look.”

  “She’s, well, she’s kind of pathetic. Not a working girl,” the waitress added. “But she’s either sick or stoned.”

  “Thanks, I’ll take care of it.”

  Mac shifted directions, moving into the forest of slots rather than his private elevator. Security could handle any trouble that threatened the smooth operation of the casino. But it was his place, and he handled his own.

  A few feet away, Darcy fed her last three dollars into the slot. You’re insane, she told herself, carefully babying the last bill when the machine spit it back at her. You’ve lost your mind, her pounding heart seemed to scream even as she smoothed the bill and slid it back in. But God, it felt so good to do something outrageous.

  She closed her eyes a moment, breathing deeply three times, then, opening them again, she grabbed the shiny red ball of the arm with a trembling hand.

  And pulled.

  Stars and moons revolved in front of her eyes, colors blurred, a calliope tune began to jingle. She found herself smiling at the absurdity of it, almost dreaming as the sh
apes spun and spun and spun.

  That was her life right now, she thought absently. Spinning and spinning. Where will it stop? Where will it go?

  Her smile only broadened as stars and moons began to click into place. They were so pretty. It had been worth the price just to watch, to know at least she’d pulled the handle.

  Click, click, click, shining stars, glowing moons. When they blurred, she blinked furiously. She wanted to see every movement, to hear every sound. Wasn’t it pretty how neatly they all lined up? she thought, and braced a hand against the machine when she felt herself begin to tip.

  And as she touched it, as her hand made contact with the cool metal, the movement stopped. The world exploded.

  Sirens shrieked, making her stagger back in shock. Colored lights went into a mad dance atop the machine, and a war drum began to beat. Whistles shrilled, bells clanged. All around her people began to shout and shove.

  What had she done? Oh God, what had she done?

  “Holy cow, you hit the big one!” Someone grabbed her, danced with her. She couldn’t breathe, flailed weakly to try to escape.

  Everyone was pushing, pulling at her, shouting words she couldn’t understand. Faces swam in front of hers, bodies pressed until she was trapped against the machine.

  An ocean was roaring in her head, a jackhammer pounded in her chest.

  Mac moved through the celebratory crowd, nudging well-wishers aside. He saw her, a slip of a woman who looked barely old enough to be inside the casino. Her dark blond hair was short and messily cut, bangs flopping down into enormous fawn-colored eyes. Her face was angular as a pixie’s and pale as wax.

  Her cotton shirt and slacks looked as though she’d slept in them, and as if she’d spent her sleeping hours curled up in the desert.

  Not stoned, he decided when he took her arm and felt the tremble. Terrified.

  Darcy cringed, shifted her gaze to his. She saw the war chief, the power and the challenge and the romance of him. He’d either save her, she thought dizzily, or finish her.

  “I didn’t mean—I only … What did I do?”

  Mac angled his head, smiled a little. A dim bulb, perhaps, he mused, but harmless. “You hit the jackpot,” he told her.

  “Oh, well, then.”

  She fainted.

  There was something wonderfully smooth under her cheek. Silk, satin, Darcy thought dimly. She’d always loved the feel of silk. Once she’d spent nearly her entire paycheck on a silk blouse, creamy white with tiny gold buttons, heart-shaped buttons. She’d had to skip lunch for two weeks, but it had been worth it every time she slipped that silk over her skin.

  She sighed, remembering it.

  “Come on, all the way out.”

  “What?” She blinked her eyes open, focused on a slant of light from a jeweled lamp.

  “Here, try this.” Mac slipped a hand under her head, lifted it and put a glass of water to her lips.


  “You’re repeating yourself. Drink some water.”

  “Okay.” She sipped obediently, studying the tanned, long-fingered hand that held the glass. She was on a bed, she realized now, a huge bed with a silky cover. There was a mirrored ceiling over her head. “Oh my.” Warily she shifted her gaze until she saw his face. “I thought you were the war chief.”

  “Close.” He set the glass aside, then sat on the edge of the bed, noting with amusement that she scooted over slightly to keep more distance between them. “Mac Blade. I run the place.”

  “Darcy. I’m Darcy Wallace. Why am I here?”

  “It seemed better than leaving you sprawled on the floor of the casino. You fainted.”

  “I did?” Mortified, she closed her eyes again. “Yes, I guess I did. I’m sorry.”

  “It’s not an atypical reaction to winning close to two million dollars.”

  Her eyes popped open, her hand grabbed at her throat. “I’m sorry, I’m still a little confused. Did you say I won almost two million dollars?”

  “You put the money in, you pulled the lever, you hit.” There wasn’t an ounce of color in her cheeks, he noted, and thought she looked like a bruised fairy. “We’ll deal with the paperwork when you’re feeling a little steadier. Do you want to see a doctor?”

  “No, I’m just … I’m okay. I can’t think. My head’s spinning.”

  “Take your time.” Instinctively he plumped up the pillows behind her and eased her back. “Is there someone I can call to help you out?”

  “No! Don’t call anyone.”