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The Winning Hand, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  His brow lifted at her quick and violent refusal, but he only nodded. “All right.”

  “There isn’t anyone,” she said more calmly. “I’m traveling. I—my purse was stolen yesterday in Utah. My car broke down a mile or so out of town. I think it’s the fuel pump this time.”

  “Could be,” he murmured, tongue in cheek. “How did you get here?”

  “I walked in. I just got here.” Or she thought she had. It was hard to remember how long she’d walked around, goggling at everything. “I had nine dollars and thirty-seven cents.”

  “I see.” He wasn’t sure if she was a lunatic or a first-class gambler. “Well, now you have approximately one million, eight hundred thousand, eighty-nine dollars and thirty-seven cents.”

  “Oh … oh.” Shattered, she put her hands over her face and burst into tears.

  There were too many women in his life for Mac to be uncomfortable with female tears. He sat where he was, let her sob it out.

  An odd little package, he thought. When she’d slid unconscious into his arms she’d been limp as water and had weighed no more than a child. Now she’d told him she’d hiked over a mile in the stunning late spring heat, then risked what little money she’d had on a yank of a slot.

  That required either steel or insanity.

  Whichever it was, she’d beaten the odds. And now she was rich—and, for a while at least, his responsibility.

  “I’m sorry.” She wiped at her somehow charmingly dirty face with her hands. “I’m not like this. Really. I can’t take it in.” She accepted the handkerchief he offered and blew her nose. “I don’t know what to do.”

  “Let’s start with the basics. When’s the last time you ate?”

  “Last night—well, I bought a candy bar this morning, but it melted before I could finish it. So it doesn’t really count.”

  “I’ll order you some food.” He rose, looking down at her. “I’ll have them set it up down in the parlor. Why don’t you take a hot bath, try to relax, get your bearings.”

  She gnawed her lip. “I don’t have any clothes. I left my suitcase in my car. Oh! My bag. I had my bag.”

  “I have it.” Because she’d gone pale again, he reached down beside the bed and lifted the plain brown tote. “This one?”

  “Yes. Yes, thank you.” Relief had her closing her eyes and struggling to calm herself again. “I thought I’d lost it. It’s not clothes,” she added, letting out a long sigh. “It’s my work.”

  “It’s safe, and there’s a robe in the closet.”

  She cleared her throat. However kind he was being, she was still alone with him, a perfect stranger, in a very opulent and sensual bedroom. “I appreciate it. But I should get a room. If I could have a small advance on the money, I can find a hotel.”

  “Something wrong with this one?”

  “This what?”

  “This hotel,” he said with what he considered admirable patience. “This room.”

  “No, nothing. It’s beautiful.”

  “Then make yourself comfortable. Your room’s comped for the duration of your stay—”

  “What? Excuse me?” She sat up a little straighter. “I can have this room? I can just … stay here?”

  “It’s the usual procedure for high rollers.” He smiled again, making her heart bump. “You qualify.”

  “I do?”

  “The management hopes you’ll put some of those winnings back into the pot. At the tables, the shops. Your room and meals, your bar bills, are on us.”

  She eased off the bed. “I get all this for free, because I won money from you?”

  This time his grin was quick, and just a little wolfish. “I want the chance to win some of it back.”

  Lord, he was beautiful. Like the hero in a novel. That thought rolled around in her jumbled brain. “That seems only fair. Thank you so much, Mr. McBlade.”

  “Not McBlade,” he corrected, taking the hand she offered. “Mac. Mac Blade.”

  “Oh. I’m afraid I haven’t been very coherent.”

  “You’ll feel better after you’ve eaten, gotten some rest.”

  “I’m sure you’re right.”

  “Why don’t we talk in the morning, say ten o’clock. My office.”

  “Yes, in the morning.”

  “Welcome to Las Vegas, Ms. Wallace,” he said, and turned toward a sweep of open stairs that led to the living area.

  “Thank you.” She ordered her shaky legs to carry her to the rail, then lost her breath when she looked down at the sprawling space done in sapphires and emeralds, accented with ebony wood and lush arrangements of tropical flowers. She watched him cross an ocean of Oriental carpet. “Mr. Blade?”

  “Yes?” He turned, glanced up, and thought she looked about twelve years old and as lost as a lamb.

  “What will I do with all that money?”

  He flashed that grin again. “You’ll think of something. I’d make book on it.” Then, pressing a button, he stepped through the brass doors that slid open, and into what surely was a private elevator.

  When the doors closed again, Darcy gave in to her buckling knees and sat on the floor. She hugged herself hard, rocked. If this was some dream, some hallucination brought on by stress or sunstroke, she hoped it never cleared away.

  She hadn’t just escaped, she realized. She’d been liberated.

  Chapter 2

  The bubble didn’t burst in the morning. She shot awake at six o’clock and stared, startled, at her reflection in the mirror overhead. Testing, she lifted a hand, watched herself touch her cheek. She felt her fingers, saw them slide up over her forehead and down the other side of her face.

  However odd, it had to be real. She’d never seen herself horizontal before. She looked so … different, she decided, sprawled in the huge, rumpled bed surrounded by a mountain of pillows. She felt so different. How many years had she awakened each morning in the practical twin bed that had been her nesting place since childhood?

  She never had to go back to that.

  Somehow that single thought, the simple fact that she would never again have to adjust her body to the stingy mattress of the ancient bed sent a rush of joy through her so wild, so bright, she burst into giddy laughter, unable to stop until she was gasping for air.

  She rolled from one end of the bed to the other, kicked her feet in the air, hugged pillows, and when that wasn’t enough, leaped up to dance on the mattress.

  When she was thoroughly winded, she dropped down again and wrapped her arms tight around her knees. She was wearing a silk sleep shirt in candy pink—one of several articles of basic wardrobe that had arrived just after her dinner. Everything had been from the boutique downstairs and had been presented to her courtesy of The Comanche.

  She wasn’t even going to worry about the fact that the gorgeous Mac Blade had bought her underwear. Not when it was such fabulous underwear.

  She jumped up, wanting to explore the suite again. The night before, she’d been so punchy she’d just wandered around gawking. Now it was time to play.

  She snatched up a remote and began punching buttons. The shimmering blue drapes over the floor-to-ceiling windows opened and closed, making her grin like a fool. Opening them again, she saw she had a wide window on the world that was Vegas.

  It was all muted grays and blues now, she noted, with a soft desert dawn breaking. She wondered how many floors up she was. Twenty? Thirty? It hardly mattered. She was on top of a brave and very new world.

  Choosing another button, she opened a wall panel that revealed a big-screen television screen, a VCR and a complicated-looking stereo system. She fiddled until she filled the room with music, then raced downstairs.

  She opened all the drapes, smelled the flowers, sat on every cushion of the two sofas and six chairs. She marveled at the arched fireplace, at the grand piano of showy white. And because there was no one to tell her not to touch, she sat down and played the first thing that came into her mind.

  The celebratory, arrogant n
otes of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” made her laugh like a loon.

  Behind a glossy black wet bar she found a small refrigerator, then giggled like a girl when she saw it contained two bottles of champagne. With the music blaring, she waltzed into the bath off the living area and grinned at the bidet, the phone, the wall-mounted TV and all the pretty toiletries arranged in a china basket.

  Humming to herself, she climbed the curving chrome steps back to the bedroom. The master bath was a symphony of pure sensory indulgence from the lake-sized motorized tub in sensuous black to the acre of counter under a wall-sized lighted mirror. The room was bigger than her entire apartment back home.

  Tuck in a bed, she thought, and she could live happily right here. Lush green plants lined the tiled shelf beside the tub. A separate rippled glass shower stall offered crisscrossing sprays. Lovely clear jars were arranged on glass shelves and held bath salts, oils, creams with scents so lush she moaned in pleasure at every sniff.

  The adjoining dressing room boasted a walk-in closet that contained a robe and a pair of brushed cotton slippers with The Comanche logo, a triple-glass, full-length mirror, two elegant chairs and a table where fragrant flowers spilled out of a crystal vase.

  It was the kind of indulgence she’d only read about or seen in movies. Plush, sleek, shimmering with wealth. Now that her initial rush of adrenaline was leveling, she began to wonder if there hadn’t been some mistake.

  How could this have happened? The time and circumstances after she’d begun her long hike into town were all blurry around the edges in her mind now. Snatches of it came clear, the whirling lights on the machine, her own thumping heart, Mac Blade’s impossibly handsome face.

  “Don’t question it,” she whispered. “Don’t ruin it. Even if it all goes away in an hour, you have it now.”

  Biting her lip, she picked up the phone and punched in the button for room service.

  “Room service. Good morning, Ms. Wallace.”

  “Oh.” She blinked, looking guiltily over her shoulder as if someone had sneaked up behind her. “I was wondering if I could order some coffee.”

  “Of course. And breakfast?”

  “Well.” She didn’t want to take advantage. “Perhaps a muffin.”

  “Will that be all?”

  “Yes, that would be fine.”

  “We’ll have that up to you within fifteen minutes. Thank you, Ms. Wallace.”

  “You’re welcome, um, thank you.”

  After she hung up, Darcy hurried into the bedroom to turn off the stereo, switch the TV on and check the news to see if there were any reports of mass hallucinations.

  * * *

  In his office above the carnival world of the casino, Mac flicked his gaze over the security screens where people played the slots, bet on red or waited for their dealer to bust. There were more than a few diehards who’d started the night before and were still going at it. Slinky evening dresses sat hip to hip with jeans.

  Ten o’clock at night, ten in the morning, it made no difference. There was no real time in Vegas, no dress code, and for some, no reality beyond the next spin of the wheel. Mac ignored the whine of an incoming fax, sipped his coffee and paced the room as he spoke to his father on the phone.

  He imagined his father was doing virtually the same thing in the office in Reno.

  “I’m going to talk to her in a few minutes,” Mac continued. “I wanted to let her smooth out a little.”

  “Tell me about her,” Justin requested, knowing his son’s instincts for people would give him a clear picture.

  “I don’t know a lot yet. She’s young.” He kept moving as he talked, watching the screens, checking on the placement of his security people, the attitude of the dealers. “Skittish,” he added. “Looked like a woman on the move to me. Trouble somewhere. She’s out of her element here.”

  He cast his mind back, bringing the image of Darcy into focus, letting himself hear her voice again. “Small-town, Midwest, I’d say. Makes me think of a kindergarten teacher—the kind the kids would love and take merciless advantage of. She was broke and running on fumes when she hit.”

  “Sounds like it was her lucky day. If someone’s going to hit, it might as well be a broke, small-town kindergarten teacher.”

  Mac grinned. “She apologizes all over herself. Nervous as a mouse at a feline convention. She’s cute,” he said finally, thinking of those big, dark gold eyes. “And I’d have to guess naive. The wolves are going to tear off pieces of her in short order if she doesn’t have some protection.”

  There was a short pause. “You planning on standing between her and the wolves, Mac?”

  “Just steering her in the right direction,” Mac muttered, rolling his shoulders. His reputation in the family for siding with the underdog was inescapable. “The press is already hammering at the door. The kid needs a lawyer, and some straight talk, because the vultures circle right after the wolves.”

  He imagined the barrage of requests and demands that would come, begging for contributions, offering investments. A smattering of them would be genuine, and the rest would be playing one of the oldest games: Get the money and run.

  “Keep me up to date.”

  “I will. How’s Mom?”

  “She’s good. Hosting some big charity fashion show here today. And she’s making noises about dropping in on you before we head back East. A quick visit,” Justin added. “She misses the baby.”

  “Uh-huh.” Mac had to grin. He knew very well his father would crawl over broken glass for a chance to visit his grandchild in Boston. “So how is little Anna?”

  “Great. Just great. She’s teething. Gwen and Bran aren’t getting a lot of sleep right now.”

  “The price you pay for parenthood.”

  “I had plenty of all-nighters with you, pal.”

  “Like I said …” Mac’s grin widened. “You pay your money, you make your choice.” He glanced up at the quiet knock on his door. “That must be the nervous fairy now.”


  “Our newest millionaire. Come in,” he called out, then curled a finger when Darcy hesitated on the threshold. “I’ll keep you posted. Tell Mom I said hi.”

  “I’ve got a feeling you can tell her face-to-face in a few days.”

  “Good. Talk to you later.”

  The minute he hung up, Darcy launched into an apology. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were on the phone. Your assistant, secretary, whatever, came to bring me up, and she said I should just come in. But I can come back. If you’re busy … I can come back.”

  Patient, Mac waited until she’d run down. It gave him the opportunity to see what a meal and a good night’s sleep had done for her. She looked a little less fragile, incredibly … tidy, he decided, in the simple blouse and slacks he’d had the boutique send to her suite. And no less nervous than the evening before.

  “Why don’t you sit down?”

  “All right.” She linked her fingers together, twisted them, then stepped to a high-backed deep-cushioned chair in hunter green leather. “I was wondering—thinking … has there been a mistake?”

  The chair dwarfed her, and made him think of fairies again, perched on colorful toadstools. “Hmm? About what?”

  “About me, the money. I realized this morning, when I could think a bit more clearly, that things like this just don’t happen.”

  “They do here.” Hoping to put her at ease, he leaned a hip on the corner of his desk. “You are twenty-one, aren’t you?”

  “Twenty-three. I’ll be twenty-four in September. Oh, I forgot to thank you for the clothes.” She ordered herself not to think about the underwear, not to so much as consider that he was thinking of it. But color rose into her cheeks. “It was very kind of you.”

  “Everything fit all right?”

  “Yes.” Her color deepened. The bra was a lovely champagne color with edgings of lace, and was precisely her size. She didn’t want to speculate how he could have been quite so accurate. “Perfe

  “How’d you sleep?”

  “Like someone put me under a spell.” She smiled a little now. “I suppose I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I’m not used to traveling.”

  There was a dusting of freckles over her pert little nose, he noted, a paler gold than her extraordinary eyes. She smelled lightly of vanilla. “Where are you from?”

  “A little town, Trader’s Corners, in Kansas.”

  Midwest, Mac thought. Hit number one.

  “What do you do in Trader’s Corners, Kansas?”

  “I’m—I was a librarian.”

  Close enough for hit number two, he decided. “Really? Why’d you leave?”

  “I ran away.” She blurted it out before thinking. He had such a beautiful smile, and he’d been looking at her as if he were really interested. Somehow he had lulled her into the admission.

  He pushed away from the desk, then sat on the arm of the chair beside hers so that their faces were closer, their eyes more level. He spoke gently, as he might to a cornered puppy. “What kind of trouble are you in, Darcy?”

  “I’m not … I would have been if I’d stayed, but …” Then her eyes widened. “Oh, I didn’t do anything. I mean I’m not running away from the police.”

  Because she was so obviously distressed, he smothered the laugh and didn’t tell her he couldn’t imagine her getting so much as a parking ticket. “I didn’t think that, but people generally have a reason for running away from home. Does your family know where you are?”

  “I don’t have any family. I lost my parents about a year ago.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “It was an accident. A house fire. At night.” She lifted her hands, dropped them into her lap again. “They didn’t wake up.”

  “That’s a lot to deal with.”

  “There was nothing anyone could do. They were gone, the house was gone. Everything. I wasn’t home. I’d just moved into my own apartment a few weeks before. Just a few weeks. I …” She pushed absently at her fringe of bangs. “Well.”

  “So you decided to get away?”

  She started to agree, to make it simple. But it wasn’t the truth, and she was such a poor and guilty liar. “No. Not exactly. I suppose that’s part of it. I lost my job a few weeks ago.” It still stung, the humiliation of it. “I was going to lose my apartment. Money was a problem. My parents didn’t have much insurance, and the house had a mortgage. And the bills.” She moved her shoulders. “In any case, without a paycheck, I wasn’t going to be able to pay the rent. I didn’t have that much saved myself, after college. And sometimes I … I’m not very good with budgets, I suppose.”

  “Money’s not going to be a problem now,” he reminded her, wanting to make her smile again.

  “I don’t see how you can just give me almost two million dollars.”

  “You won almost two million dollars. Look.” He took her hand, nudging her around until she could see the screens. “People step up to the tables, every hour, every day. Some win, some lose. Some of them play for entertainment, for fun. Others play hoping to make the big score. Just once. Some play the odds, some play a hunch.”

  She watched, fascinated. Everything moved in silence. Cards were dealt, chips were stacked, raked in or slipped away. “What do you do?”

  “Oh, I play the odds. And the occasional hunch.”

  “It looks like theater,” she murmured.

  “That’s what it is. With no intermission. Do you have a lawyer?”

  “A lawyer?” The amused interest that had come into her eyes vanished. “Do I need a lawyer?”

  “I’d recommend it. You’re about to come into a large amount of money. The government’s going to want their share. And after that, you’re going to discover