Playing the odds, p.2
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       Playing The Odds, p.2
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         Part #1 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “It’s rare for anything or anyone to interfere with my concentration.” As he spoke, he leaned closer. Serena tensed her muscles. “You have the eyes of a witch. I’m a superstitious man.”

  “Arrogant,” Serena corrected steadily. “But I doubt superstitious.”

  She saw the smile in his eyes only as his face dominated her vision. “Don’t you believe in luck, Serena?”

  “Yes.” And a good right jab, she added silently. She felt his fingers slide beneath her blowing hair to cup the base of her neck. His mouth lowered toward hers. Somehow the warm flutter of his breath caused her lips to part and her concentration to waver.

  One hand still held hers, and he circled the palm with a finger as if to remind her of the feel of his lips on her flesh. Fighting the growing weakness, Serena drew back, aiming for his vulnerable, unsuspecting stomach.

  Less than an inch away from her target, her fist was captured in a hard grip. Frustrated, she struggled, only to hear his quiet laugh again. “Your eyes give you away,” he told her, holding her still. “You’ll have to work on it.”

  “If you don’t let me go, I’ll …” The threat trailed off as his lips brushed hers. It wasn’t a kiss, but a temptation. Her tongue came out to moisten her lips as if in anticipation of something darkly sweet and strictly forbidden.

  “What?” he whispered, touching his mouth to hers again with a lightness that had the blood pounding in his head. He wanted to crush and devour almost as much as he wanted to savor. Her lips were damp, and she smelled faintly of the sea and summer. When she didn’t answer, Justin traced the shape of her mouth with his tongue, committing it to memory while he absorbed the flavor and waited.

  Serena felt the thick, liquefying pleasure seep into her. Her lids were too heavy and fluttered closed; her muscles relaxed. The fist still curled in his hand went limp. For the first time in her memory her mind went blank—a clean slate on which he could have written anything he desired. She felt the tiny arousing pain as he nipped into her full bottom lip, and her mind filled again. But not with thoughts.

  His body was against hers, hard and lean. His mouth was so soft, softer than she thought any man’s could be, like the brush of fine silk against naked flesh. There was the faint scent of tobacco, something rich and foreign, and the smell of him without the interference of cologne. He whispered her name as she had never heard it spoken before. The boat listed, but he swayed with it as easily as she as he gathered her closer. With no more thoughts of resisting, Serena let her arms curve around his neck, her head dropping back in invitation.

  Justin felt an almost savage need to plunder as he gripped her hair in his hand. “Open your eyes,” he demanded. While he watched, the heavy lids opened to reveal eyes misted with pleasure. “Look at me when I kiss you,” he murmured.

  Then his mouth crushed hers, ruthless, ravaging. He could hear his own heartbeat raging in his chest as he plunged deeper. He discovered tastes, endless flavors, in the recesses he explored as her tongue answered with equal urgency. His eyes were only slits while he watched the misty pleasure in hers smolder into passion then become opaque. On a moan they closed, and his own vision blurred.

  Serena felt desire grip her as if it had claws. Wants, needs, secrets, were exposed in one tumultuous explosion. Even as she hungered to fulfill them, she realized he was a man who could strip her to the soul. And she knew nothing of him. Frightened, she struggled to free herself, but he held her close, his lips clinging until he was done. In some sane portion of her brain she realized he would always take without regard for willingness.

  When she was free, Serena took time to catch her breath. Justin watched her again with that strange ability he had for absolute stillness and absolute silence. There would be no reading his eyes. In a habitual defense Serena turned her fear into anger.

  “If you read your brochure, you’ll see that your passage fee doesn’t include your pick of the crew.”

  “Certain things have no price, Serena.”

  Something in his tone made her tremble. It was as if he’d already put his mark on her, a mark she wouldn’t easily erase. She backed into the shadows. “Stay away from me,” she warned him.

  Justin leaned back on the rail, keeping his gaze on her silhouette. “No,” he said mildly. “I’ve already dealt the cards, and the odds always favor the house.”

  “Well, I’m not interested,” she hissed. “So deal me out.” Turning, she clattered down the stairs that led to the next deck.

  Slipping his hands into his pockets, Justin jingled change and smiled. “Not a chance.”

  Chapter 2

  Serena slipped into a pair of khaki shorts, then crawled under her bunk to find her sandals. According to her calculations, most of the passengers who would disembark for the day on Nassau would have already done so. There was little chance of being caught in the crush or of having to weave her way through the waiting cab drivers and tour guides on the docks. Since it would be her last trip there, Serena wanted to play tourist herself and pick up a few souvenirs to take home to her family. Cursing the sandal that had somehow tucked itself into a far corner, she squiggled farther under the bunk.

  “You’d think I’d learn to be neat after living in a closet for a year,” she muttered, wiggling back out again.

  When she lay full length, she could touch each side wall of the cabin. In the other direction she had about two feet to spare. Beside the bunk there was a tiny mirrored dresser bolted to the floor and a cubbyhole that passed for closet space. She’d often thought it was a lucky thing she didn’t suffer from claustrophobia.

  Still on the floor, she pushed the sandals on her feet, then began to check the contents of the tote bag she would carry. A wallet and sunglasses. Well, she couldn’t think of anything else that was necessary, Serena reflected as she jumped lightly to her feet. Briefly she considered asking one of the other dealers if they wanted to join her, then rejected the idea. She wasn’t in the best of moods, and it wouldn’t take anyone who’d worked closely with her long to notice it, and perhaps ferret out the reason.

  The last thing Serena wanted to discuss was Justin Blade. In fact, she added smartly as she pulled a khaki tennis cap over her hair, the last thing she wanted to even think about was Justin Blade with his cool green eyes; long, unsmiling mouth; and ruthless good looks.

  When Serena realized she was thinking about him, she left her cabin in an even poorer mood. Only nine more days, she reminded herself as she ignored the elevator and marched up the steps. She could put up with anything for nine days.

  With a smirk Serena remembered the salesman from Detroit who had haunted her table throughout a cruise the previous spring. He’d gone so far as to follow her down to the crew’s quarters and try to talk his way into her cabin. She’d dispatched him by claiming her lover was the chief engineer, a swarthy Italian with biceps like cinder blocks. Serena’s smirk faded. Somehow she didn’t think that tactic would work with a man like Justin Blade.

  As she climbed upward, the threadbare carpet of the crew’s decks was replaced by the bold red and gold pattern that graced the rest of the ship. Ornate light fixtures lit the landings rather than the plain glass shields of belowdecks. Coming out on the main level, she exchanged a quick word of greeting with other members of the crew still on board.

  Two men lounged on either side of the gangway—one in the crisp white uniform of the first mate, the other in casual cruise wear. As usual, they were arguing intensely but without heat. Serena caught the eye of the cruise director first, a small Englishman with sandy hair and boundless energy. She winked at him, then planted herself in between the two men.

  “What diplomat put the two of you on gangway duty together?” she asked with a mock sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to play referee again. What is it this time?”

  “Rob claims that Mrs. Dewalter is a rich widow,” Jack, the Englishman, began in his rounded tones. “I say she’s divorced.”

  “A widow,” the first mate started again, foldi
ng his arms. “A beautiful rich widow.”

  “Mrs. Dewalter,” Serena mused.

  “Tall,” Jack began. “Short, sculptured red hair.”

  “Built,” Rob added.

  “Philistine,” Jack put in mildly, then addressed himself to Serena. “A rather gamine face.”

  “Okay,” Serena said slowly, getting the picture of a woman she’d seen briefly in the casino the night before. “Widowed or divorced?” she inquired, well used to the picky arguments between the two men. “What about rings?”

  “Exactly.” Rob pounced on the question with a smirk for his associate. “She wore rings. Widows wear rings.”

  “So do bubble-brained first mates,” Jack pointed out with a glance at the signet ring on Rob’s hand.

  “The point is,” Serena interrupted before Rob could retort. “What sort of rings? A gold band? A jeweled circle?”

  “A chunk of ice as big as a hen’s egg,” Rob told her, giving Jack another satisfied sneer. “Rich widow.”

  “Divorced,” Serena disagreed, bursting his bubble. “Sorry, if we go with the percentages, Rob, that’s the most likely answer. Hen’s eggs are rarely worn for sentimental value.” After patting his cheek in consolation, she gave him a snappy salute. “Permission to go ashore, sir!”

  “Get out of here.” He gave her a quick nudge. “Go buy a straw mat.”

  “My plans exactly.” With a laugh, she jogged down the narrow iron steps to the dock.

  The sun was brilliant, the air moist and balmy. Serena bargained with a few boys who loitered on the docks hawking shell necklaces and decided it wouldn’t be such a bad day after all. She had hours before her to do as she chose in one of the prettiest tourist spots in the Bahamas.

  “Three dollars,” the lean-limbed black boy told her, holding out handfuls of dark-shelled necklaces. He wore only a pair of shorts and a medallion that was slowly oxidizing. His partner held a small portable radio to his ear, moving lithely to the scratchy reggae beat.

  “You pirate,” Serena said good-naturedly. “One dollar.”

  The boy grinned, sensing a true haggler. “Oh, pretty lady,” he began in his high, sing-song voice. “If I could, I would give you the necklace for only your smile, but then my father would beat me.”

  Serena lifted a brow. “Yes, I can see how abused you are. One dollar and a quarter.”

  “Two-fifty. I gathered the shells myself and strung them by the light of a candle.”

  With a laugh Serena shook her head. “The next thing you’ll tell me is you fought off a school of sharks.”

  “No sharks near our island, my lady,” he said proudly. “Two American dollars.”

  “One and a half American dollars because I admire your imagination.” Digging into her tote, she drew out her wallet. The money was out of her hands and into the pocket of his shorts in the blink of an eye.

  “For you, pretty lady, I will risk a beating.”

  Serena chose her necklace, then found herself giving him another quarter. “Pirate,” she murmured as he grinned at her. Slinging her tote over her shoulder, she started to walk away.

  It was then that she saw him, standing alone on the dock behind her. Serena wasn’t as surprised as she thought she should’ve been. But then somehow she’d known she’d see him. He wore a plain beige T-shirt that made his skin seem nearly copper and a faded pair of cutoffs that accentuated his lean, muscular thighs and rangy build. Though the sun was glaring fiercely, he wore no tinted glasses or other protection. He didn’t seem to need it. Just as she was debating whether she should simply walk by him, he came toward her. He moved lightly, with the grace of a hunter—a man, she thought for no specific reason, who was more accustomed to sand or grass than asphalt.

  “Good morning.” Justin took her hand as though the meeting had been arranged.

  “Good morning,” she returned frostily, refusing to give him any satisfaction by tugging on her hand. “Didn’t you sign up for any of the tours?”

  “No. I don’t care to be directed.” He began to walk toward town with Serena in tow.

  Biting back words of fury, she spoke in a calculatedly pleasant voice. “Several of the tours are very worthwhile. They’re really the best way to see the island in the limited amount of time we’re in port.”

  “You’ve been here before,” he said easily. “Why don’t you show me?”

  “I’m off duty,” Serena stated crisply. “And I’m going shopping.”

  “Fine. Since you’ve already begun,” he said, glancing down at the necklace she still held in her hand, “where do you want to go next?”

  She decided to give up diplomacy altogether. “Will you please go away? I plan to enjoy myself today.”

  “So do I.”

  “Alone,” she said pointedly.

  Stopping, he turned to her. “Ever hear about Americans sticking together on foreign soil?” he asked as he took the necklace from her fingers and slipped it over her head.

  “No,” she returned, wishing she didn’t want so badly to smile.

  “I’ll explain it to you while we take a carriage ride.”

  “I’m going shopping,” she reminded him as he led her toward town.

  “You’ll have a better idea where to buy what after a ride.”

  “Justin.” Serena matched his stride because it was better than being hauled. “Do you ever take no for an answer?”

  He appeared to think this over before he shook his head. “Not that I remember.”

  “I didn’t think so,” she muttered, then stood eyeing him stonily.

  “All right, let’s try it this way. Heads we go for a ride, tails you go shopping.” Reaching into his pocket, he drew out a coin.

  “Probably has two heads.” Serena frowned suspiciously at the quarter.

  “I never cheat,” Justin said solemnly as he held the coin between his forefinger and thumb for her inspection.

  She could refuse and simply walk away, Serena considered, but she found herself nodding. The odds were even. With a practiced flick of the wrist, Justin sent the coin spinning in the air, nabbed it, then flipped it over on the back of his hand. Heads. Somehow she’d known it would be.

  “Never bet against the house,” Serena mumbled as she climbed into a carriage.

  As the horse began its meandering clip-clop down the street, Serena thought about maintaining a dignified silence—for about thirty seconds. Knowing herself well, she was forced to admit that if she hadn’t wanted to get into the carriage, she wouldn’t have gotten into it. Not without a fuss. So instead of a dignified silence, Serena dropped her tote bag on the floor of the carriage, ignoring the charm of the narrow little street, and stared at her companion.

  “What are you doing here?”

  He tossed an arm over the seat, his fingers skimming over her hair. “Enjoying the ride.”

  “No smart answers, Justin. You wanted my company, and you’ve got it unless I decide to scream assault and jump out of the carriage.”

  He eyed her for a moment, first in curiosity, then in admiration. She’d do just that. He dropped his fingers to the nape of her neck. “What do you want to know?”

  “What are you doing on the Celebration?” Serena demanded, shifting away from the pleasure his fingers brought her. “You don’t strike me as the type of man who’d go on a relaxing tropical cruise.”

  “A friend recommended it. I was restless; he was persuasive.” His fingers brushed her neck again. “What are you doing on the Celebration?”

  “Dealing blackjack.”

  His brow rose at her answer. “Why?”

  “I was restless.” In spite of herself, Serena smiled.

  The driver started his monologue on the highlights of the island, but noted that the couple wasn’t interested in anything but each other. He clicked his tongue at the horse, then remained silent.

  “All right, where are you from?” Serena asked, looking for a starting point. “I have a habit of placing people in regions, and I can’t plac
e you.”

  Justin smiled enigmatically. “I travel.”

  “Originally,” she persisted, narrowing her eyes at the evasion.

  “Nevada.”

  “Vegas.” Serena nodded. “You’ve spent some time there. I imagine it’s a good town for people with the right skills.” When he only shrugged, Serena studied his profile. “And that’s how you make your living? Gambling?”

  Justin turned his head until his eyes met hers. “Yes. Why?”

  “There were only two gamblers at that table last night,” Serena mused. “You and the man from Georgia, though he was a milder sort.”

  “And the others?” Justin asked, curiosity piqued.

  “Oh, the Texan just likes the game; he doesn’t put that much thought into it. The blonde from New York thinks she’s a gambler.” Because the gentle swaying of the carriage was soothing, Serena smiled a little and relaxed. “But she can’t keep up with the cards or the odds. She’ll end up dropping a bundle or winning on sheer luck. The other man from New York watches the cards but doesn’t know how to bet. You have the concentration that separates a gambler from a player.”

  “A very interesting theory,” Justin reflected. With a fingertip he slid Serena’s sunglasses down the bridge of her nose so he could see her eyes without interference. “Do you play, Serena?”

  “Depends on the game and the odds,” she told him, pushing the glasses back up. “I don’t like to lose.” From the look in his eyes she realized they hadn’t been speaking of cards, but a more dangerous game.

  Smiling, he leaned back again, gesturing toward the right with his hand. “They have beautiful beaches here.”

  “Hmm.”

  As if on cue, the driver began his spiel again, giving a running commentary on the island until he brought them back to their starting point.

  The streets were filled with people now, the majority of them tourists with bulging shopping bags and cameras. Both sides of the road were lined with little shops, some with their doors open, all with their windows crowded with displays. “Well, thanks for the ride.” Serena started to climb down, but Justin circled her waist with his hands and lifted her lightly.

  He held her an inch above the ground for a moment while she gripped his shoulders for balance. Her lightness surprised him, making him realize that her sexuality and style had blinded him to how small she was. His fingers became abruptly gentle as he set her on the ground.

  “Thanks,” Serena managed after she’d cleared her throat. “Enjoy your day.”

  “I intend to,” he told her as he took her hand again.

  “Justin …” Serena took a deep breath. The time had come, she decided, to take a firm stand. That brief instant when he had held her had reminded her how foolish she had been to relax even for a moment. “I took your carriage ride, now I’m going shopping.”

  “Fine. I’ll go with you.”

  “I’m looking for souvenirs, Justin,” she said discouragingly. “You know, T-shirts, straw boxes. You’ll be bored.”

  “I’m never bored.”

  “You will be this time,” she told him as he began to meander down the street, his fingers laced with hers. “I promise.”

  “How about an ashtray that says Welcome to Nassau?” Justin suggested blandly.

  Valiantly she swallowed a chuckle. “I’m going in here,” Serena stated, stopping on impulse at the first shop they came to. And, she determined, she would stop at every shop on Bay Street until she successfully drove him crazy.

  By the time her tote bag contained musical key chains, assorted T-shirts and shell boxes, Serena had forgotten she had wanted to be rid of him. He made her laugh—the gentlest seduction. For a man she had instinctively termed a loner, Justin was easy company. Before long Serena had not only stopped being resentful, she’d stopped being wary.

  “Oh, look!” She grabbed a coconut shell that had been fashioned into a grinning head.

  “Elegant,” Justin stated, turning it over in his hands.

  “It’s ridiculous, you fool.” Laughing, Serena fished out her wallet. “And perfect for my brother. Caine’s ridiculous, too … Well, not all the time,” she added scrupulously.

  The aisles of the straw market were crammed with people and merchandise, but not so crowded that Serena couldn’t worm her way through in search of treasures. Spotting a large woven bag overhead, she pointed. Justin obligingly lifted it down to her.

  “It’s nearly as big as you are,” he decided as she took it from him.

  “It’s not for me,” Serena murmured, studying it minutely. “My mother does a lot of needlework; this should be handy for carting it around with her.”

  “Handmade.” Serena glanced down at the large dark-skinned woman in a rocking chair, smoking a little brown pipe. “Myself,” she added, patting her generous bosom. “Nothing made in Hong Kong at my stall.”

  “You do beautiful work,” Serena told her, though the woman already interested her more than the bag.

  Lifting a large palm fan, the islander nodded majestically and began to stir the sultry air. Serena was fascinated to see a ring on every thick finger. “You buy something pretty for your lady today?” she asked Justin with a flash of white teeth.

 
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