The Winning Hand, Page 3Nora Roberts
you have friends you’ve never heard of, and people who want to offer you a terrific opportunity to invest. The minute your story hits the press, they’ll crawl out of the woodwork.”
“Press? Newspapers, television? No, I can’t have that. I can’t have that,” she repeated, springing up. “I’m not going to talk to reporters.”
He bit back a sigh. Yes indeed, he thought, this one would need a hand to hold on the walk through the forest. “Young, orphaned, financially strapped librarian from Kansas walks into Comanche Vegas and drops her last dollar—”
“It wasn’t my last,” she insisted.
“Close enough. Her last dollar in the slot and wins a million-eight. Darling, the press is going to do handsprings with a lead like that.”
He was right, of course. She could see it herself. It was a wonderful story, just the kind she wanted to write herself. “I don’t want it to get out. They have televisions and newspapers in Trader’s Corners.”
“Hometown girl makes good,” he agreed, watching her. Suddenly he realized something else was putting panic into her eyes. “They’ll probably name a street after you,” he said casually.
“I don’t want this to get back there. I didn’t tell you everything.” Because she had no choice but to hope he could help, she sat again. “I didn’t tell you the main reason I left the way I did. There’s a man. Gerald Peterson. His family’s very prominent in Kansas. They own quite a bit of land and many businesses. Gerald, for some reason, he wanted me to marry him. He insisted.”
“Women are still free to say ‘no, thank you’ in Kansas, aren’t they?”
“Yes, of course.” It seemed so simple when he said it, she mused. He would think she was an idiot. “But Gerald’s very determined. He always finds a way to get what he wants.”
“And he wants you,” Mac prompted.
“Well, yes. At least he seems to think he does. My parents were very pleased that he was interested in me. I mean, who would think I’d catch the eye of a man like him?”
“Are you joking?”
She blinked. “What?”
“Never mind.” He waved it away. “So Gerald wanted to marry you, and I take it you didn’t want to marry him. What then?”
“A few months ago, I said I would. It seemed like the only reasonable thing to do. And he just assumed I would, anyway.” Ashamed, she stared down at her linked fingers. “Gerald assumes very firmly. He doesn’t hear the word no. It’s like a genetic thing.” She sighed. “Agreeing to marry him was weak, and stupid, and I regretted it immediately. I knew I couldn’t go through with it, but he wouldn’t listen when I tried to tell him. There was the whole ring thing, too,” she added with a frown.
Fascinated and entertained, Mac cocked his head. “Ring thing.”
“Well, it was silly, really. I didn’t want a diamond engagement ring. I wanted something different, just … different. But he didn’t hear that, either. I got a two-carat diamond, which was properly appraised and insured. He explained all about the investment value.” She shut her eyes. “I didn’t want to hear about the investment value.”
“No,” Mac murmured. “I don’t imagine you did.”
“I wasn’t expecting romance. Well, no, yes, I was, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen. I thought I could settle.” She looked past him, past the screens. “I should have been able to settle.”
“Because everyone said how lucky I was. But I didn’t feel lucky. I felt smothered, trapped. He was very angry when I gave him back the ring. He barely said a word, but he was furious. Then he wasn’t. He was very calm and told me he had no doubt I’d come to my senses shortly. Once I did, we’d forget it had ever happened. Two weeks later, I lost my job.”
She made herself look back at Mac. He was listening, she realized with some surprise. Really listening. Hardly anyone really listened. “They talked about budget cutbacks, my performance evaluation,” she continued. “I was so shocked that it took me a little while to realize he’d arranged it. The Petersons endow the library. And they own my apartment building. He had to have known I’d come crawling back.”
“Sounds to me like you gave him a good kick in the ass. Not as much as he deserved, but a solid shot.”
“He’ll be humiliated, and very, very angry. I don’t want him to know where I am. I’m afraid of him.”
Something new and icy flickered into Mac’s eyes. “Did he hurt you?”
“No. Gerald doesn’t have to use physical force when intimidation works so well. I just want to disappear for a while. He only wants me now because he can’t tolerate being refused. He doesn’t love me. I simply suit his needs in a wife. Neat, quiet, well educated and behaved.”
“You’d feel better if you stood up to him.”
“Yes.” She lowered her gaze. “But I’m afraid I won’t.”
Mac considered a moment. “We’ll do what we can to keep your name out of it. The press should run with the mystery woman angle happily enough for a while. But it won’t last, Darcy.”
“The longer the better.”
“Okay, let’s deal with the basics. I can’t distribute the money yet. You don’t have any identification for one thing, and that makes it sticky. You’ll need to get some. Your birth certificate, driver’s license, that sort of thing. So we’re back to a lawyer.”
“I don’t know any. Just the firm back home who handled things for my parents, and I wouldn’t want to use them.”
“No, they wouldn’t do, not for a woman who wants to start a new life from scratch.”
Her smile bloomed slowly, drawing his attention to the shape of her mouth, the full bottom lip, the deep dip centered in the top one. “I guess that’s what I’m doing. I want to write books,” she confessed.
“Really? What sort?”
“Love stories, adventures.” She laughed and leaned back in the cushions of the chair. “Wonderful stories about people who do amazing things for love. I suppose that sounds crazy.”
“It sounds rational to me. You were a librarian, so you must love books. Why not write them?”
She goggled first, then her eyes went bright and beautiful. “You’re the first person I’ve ever told who’s said that. Gerald was appalled at the very notion that I’d consider writing at all, much less romance novels.”
“Gerald’s an idiot,” Mac said dismissively. “We’ve already established that. I guess you’d better buy yourself a laptop and get to work.”
Staring again, she pressed a hand to her throat. “I could, couldn’t I?” When her eyes began to fill, she shook her head quickly. “No, I’m not going to start that again. It’s just that a life can change so completely and so quickly. The best and the worst. In a blink.”
“You’re handling this very well. You’ll handle the rest.” He rose and missed the startled look she shot him. No one had ever expressed such casual confidence in her before. “I’m not sure it’s ethical, but I can contact my uncle. He’s a lawyer. You can trust him.”
“I’d appreciate it. Mr. Blade, I’m so grateful for—”
“Mac,” he interrupted. “Whenever I give a woman almost two million dollars, I insist on a first-name basis.”
Her laugh burst out, then was quickly muffled by her hand. “Sorry. It’s just strange hearing that out loud. Two million dollars.”
“A fairly amusing number,” he said dryly, and her laughter stopped instantly.
“I never thought—I mean, about your part. What it means to you, this place. You don’t have to pay me all at once,” she said in a rush. “It can be in installments or something.”
On impulse he reached down, cupped her chin in his hand and studied her face. “You’re incredibly sweet, aren’t you, Darcy from Kansas?”
Her mind washed clean. His voice was so warm, his eyes so blue, his hand so firm. Her heart did one long, slow twist in her chest and seemed to sigh. “What did you say? I’m sorry?”
He skimmed his thumb over her jawline. Fairy bones
, he thought absently, and catching himself wondering about her, he dropped his hand. Don’t go there, Mac, he warned himself, and stepped back.
“The Comanche never makes a bet it can’t afford to lose. And my grandfather doesn’t really need that operation.”
“I’m joking.” More delighted with her than ever, he roared with laughter. “You’re easy. Much too easy.” They’ll eat her alive, he thought. “Do yourself a favor, keep a low profile until my uncle starts the ball rolling. I’ll advance you some cash.”
He moved behind the desk and unlocked a drawer where he kept the petty cash. “A couple thousand should hold you. We’ve arranged for credit at the shops here for you. I imagine you’ll want to make arrangements to have your car towed in.” Expertly he counted out hundreds, then fifties.
“I’m having a little trouble breathing,” Darcy said weakly. “Excuse me.”
Mac glanced up, watched in some alarm as she lowered her head between her knees.
“I’ll be all right in a minute,” she told him when she felt his hand on the back of her head. “I’m sorry. I’m being an awful lot of trouble.”
“No, but I’d definitely prefer it if you didn’t faint again.”
“I won’t. I was just a little light-headed for a second.” When the phone rang, she jolted, then sat straight up. “I’m taking too much of your time.”
“Sit.” He pointed, then snatched up the phone. “Deb, tell whoever it is I’ll get back to them.” He hung up again, narrowed his eyes and felt a genuine wave of relief that her color was back. “Better?”
“Much. I’m sorry.”
“Stop apologizing. It’s a very annoying habit.”
“I’m—” She pressed her lips together, cleared her throat.
“Good.” He picked up the stack of bills and handed it to her. “Go shopping,” he suggested. “Go play. Get a massage or a facial, sit by the pool. Enjoy yourself. Have dinner with me tonight.” He hadn’t meant to say that, hadn’t a clue where it had come from.
“Oh.” He was frowning at her now, which was only more confusing. “Yes, I’d like that.” Feeling awkward, she rose and pushed the bills into her pocket. She hadn’t brought the lovely little shoulder bag the boutique had sent her, because she’d had nothing to put in it. “I don’t know what to do first.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just do it all.”
“That’s a wonderful way of thinking.” Unable to help herself, she beamed at him. “Just do it all. I’ll try that. I’ll let you get back to work.” She started for the door, but he went to it with her and opened it. She looked up again, groping for the right words. “You saved my life. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s the way I feel.”
“You saved it yourself. Now take care of it.”
“I’m going to.” She offered her hand, and because it was irresistible, he lifted it to his lips.
“See you later.”
“Yes. Later.” She turned and walked away without her feet touching the ground.
Mac shut the door, then, dipping his hands into his pockets, stood staring at it. Darcy the Kansas librarian, he mused. Not his type. As far from his type as they came. The little pull he felt, he assured himself, was just concerned interest. Almost brotherly.
It was the eyes that were doing it, he supposed. How was a man supposed to resist those big, wounded fawn eyes? Then there was the shy little hesitation in her voice followed by those quick bursts of enthusiasm. And the genuine sweetness of her. Nothing saccharine or cloying, just innocence, he supposed.
Which circled right back to the point. Not his type. Women were safer when they knew how to play the game. Darcy Wallace didn’t have a clue.
Well, he couldn’t very well hand her the money then toss her into the fray without a shield, could he?
Just steer her in the right direction, he promised himself, then wave goodbye.
With this in mind, he went back to his desk and picked up the phone. “Deb, get me Caine MacGregor’s office in Boston.”
It was a different world. Perhaps even a different planet. And she, Darcy thought as she stepped cautiously into the sparkling boutique, was now a different woman.
The Darcy Wallace who so often had her nose pressed against the window of such pretty places was now inside. And she could have whatever she wanted. That gorgeous beaded jacket there, she thought—not daring to touch it—or that fluid column of ivory silk.
She could have them, both of them, all of them. Because the world had turned upside down and somehow had shaken her out and dumped her right on top.
She stepped in a little farther, peeked into a long glass display cabinet. Beautiful, sparkly things. Foolishly wonderful decoration for ears and wrists and fingers. She’d always wanted to wear something that sparkled.
Odd, she’d never felt that special thrill she’d expected when she’d worn Gerald’s ring on her finger. His ring, she realized now. Of course, that was it. It hadn’t really been hers at all.
“May I help you?”
Startled, she looked up and nearly backed guiltily away from the display. “I don’t know.”
The woman behind the counter smiled indulgently. “Are you looking for anything special?”
“Everything seems special.”
The indulgent smile warmed. “I’m glad you think so. We’re very proud of our selection. I’d be happy to help you if I can, or you can feel free to browse.”
“Actually, I have a dinner tonight, and nothing to wear.”
“That’s always the way, isn’t it?”
“Literally nothing.” When the clerk didn’t appear especially shocked by this confession, Darcy drummed up the courage to go on. “I suppose I need a dress.”
“Formal or casual?”
“I have no idea.” Realizing the quandary, Darcy scanned the gowns and cocktail suits on display. “He didn’t say.”
“Dinner for two?”
“Yes. Oh.” She turned back. “It’s not a date. Exactly.”
Willing to play, the clerk angled her head. “Business?”
“In a way. I suppose.” She pushed at the hair that was tickling her ear. “Yes, that must be it.”
“Is he attractive?”
Darcy rolled her eyes. “That doesn’t begin to describe him.”
“You’d have to be dead ten years not to be. But it’s not that sort of … thing.”
“Maybe it could be. Let’s see.” Lips pursed, the clerk studied Darcy through narrowed eyes. “Feminine but not fussy, sexy but not obvious. I think I have a few things you might like.”
The clerk’s name was Myra Proctor. She’d worked at the Dusk to Dawn Boutique for five years since she and her husband had moved to Vegas from Los Angeles. He was in banking, and she had worked in retail most of her adult life. She had two children, a boy and a girl. The girl had just turned thirteen and would surely make her mother’s hair gray. Though, at the moment, Myra’s hair was a sleek auburn.
Darcy learned all this because she asked. And asking helped put her at ease while Myra approved or rejected outfits.
One cocktail dress, beaded jacket, evening purse and sparkly earrings later, Myra gave her a gentle nudge toward the salon.
“You ask for Charles,” Myra advised. “Tell him I sent you. He’s an absolute genius.”
“What,” Charles demanded when Darcy sat in the cushioned silver salon chair, “happened to your hair? An industrial accident? A near-terminal illness perhaps? Mice?”
Wincing, Darcy cowered under the stark white cape that had been draped around her. “I’m afraid I cut it myself.”
“Would you remove your own appendix?”
She could only hunch her shoulders as he glowered down at her with searing green eyes under dark, beetled brows. “No. No, I wouldn’t.”
“Your hair is a part of your body and requires a professional.”
know. You’re right. Absolutely.” The back of her throat began to tickle and she swallowed gamely. It wasn’t the time to laugh, however nervously, she reminded herself. Instead she tried an apologetic smile. “It was an impulse, a rebellion actually.”
“Against what?” His fingers dove into her hair and began to knead and tug. “Being well-groomed?”
“No. Well … there was this man, and he kept telling me how I should wear it, and how it should be, and it made me mad, so I whacked it off.”
“Was this man your hairdresser?”
“Oh, no. He’s a businessman.”
“Ha. Then he has no business telling you how you should wear your hair. Cutting it off was brave. Foolish, but brave. The next time you want to rebel, go to a professional.”
“I will.” She took a deep breath. “Can you do anything with it?”
“My dear child, I’ve worked miracles with much worse.” He snapped his fingers. “Shampoo,” he ordered.
She’d never felt more pampered in her life. It was so beautifully indulgent to lie back, to have her hair washed, her scalp massaged, to listen to the birdlike murmurs of the shampoo girl. Even when she was back in Charles’s chair, she felt none of the stomach-quivering anxiety that often rode hand in glove with a haircut.
“You need a manicure,” Charles ordered, snipping away. “Sheila, squeeze in a manicure and pedicure for—what was your name, dear?”
“Darcy. A pedicure?” The thought of having her toes painted was so … exotic.
“Hmm. And you’ll stop biting your nails immediately.”
Chastised, Darcy tucked her hands under the cape. “It’s a terrible habit.”
“Very unattractive. You’re fortunate, though. You have thick, healthy hair. A nice color. We’ll leave that alone.” He brought a section of hair up between two fingers, snipped. “What do you use on your face?”
“I have some moisturizer, but I lost it.” Selfconsciously she rubbed at her nose.
“The freckles are charming. You’ll leave them alone, too.”
“But I’d rather—”
“Are you picking up the scalpel?” he asked, arching one of his thick, black brows, then nodding, satisfied, when she shook her head. “I’m going to do your face myself. If you don’t like the look, you don’t pay. If you do like it, you not only pay, you buy the products.”
Another gamble, Darcy thought. Maybe she was on a roll. “Deal.”
“That’s the spirit. Now …” He angled her head, snipped again. “Tell me about your love life.”
“I don’t have one.”
“You will.” He wiggled those eyebrows. “My work never fails.”
By three, Darcy walked back into her suite. She was loaded down with purchases, and still floating. On impulse, she dumped everything on the sofa and dashed to the mirror. Myra had been right. Charles was a genius. Her hair looked pert, she decided with a chuckle. Almost sophisticated. Though it was even shorter than she had dared cut it, it was sleek and just a little sassy.
Her bangs didn’t flop now, but spiked down over her forehead. And her face … wasn’t it amazing what could be done with those tubes and brushes and powders? They couldn’t make her a raving beauty, but she thought—she hoped—she’d stepped up to the threshold of pretty.