Playing the odds, p.5
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       Playing The Odds, p.5
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         Part #1 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  Serena went quickly, knowing it took only a moment to change a mind.

  Chapter 4

  Because she thought it would be deserted, Serena chose the veranda deck aft. Anyone still on board would more likely opt for the larger pool area, with its proximity to the Lido Bar and Grill, for sunning. Most of the passengers would be seeing the sights in San Juan, walking the brick streets in the historical section, exploring forts, snapping pictures of the surrounding mountains. Anyone who dribbled back during the day wasn’t likely to disturb her on the quiet rear deck.

  She’d nearly overslept, forgetting she was slated to help Dale figure last night’s take. Because it had been dawn before Serena had finally drifted off, she’d managed only four hours sleep before the alarm had shocked her awake. With her work finished for the morning, she’d come to lie in the midday sun and bake the tiredness from her body.

  Serena didn’t want to think, as she had during those long, quiet hours between three a.m. and dawn. She knew she was too weary to dwell on what had happened the previous evening, but even as she stretched out on a deck chair, everything came back to play in her head. What was it that happened to her every time Justin’s lips touched hers? Whatever it was, Serena had sworn she wouldn’t let it happen again, then had been helpless to prevent it. What was it about him that kept pulling her along, dragging her closer to the edge of something fatal? Each time it became more difficult to remember to back away.

  Serena released the halter strings to the top of her bikini and settled back. It might be smarter all in all, she decided, to give the whole business some serious thought rather than to dance around it. If there was one common thread running through the MacGregor clan, it was that they were realists. Face a problem head-on, and mow it down. That, Serena thought with a quick grin, should have been their clan motto. So, for the problem of Justin Blade.

  He was dangerously attractive. Dangerous, Serena concluded, because the attraction had hit her in the first instant and hadn’t abated in the least. And it wasn’t merely his looks, she mused, adjusting her sunglasses. Looks could easily be discounted. It was that strength and the sex and the quietly domineering style. All three challenged her to match him, point for point. It was, very simply, an irresistible combination to a woman who rarely chose the easy path.

  Did she like him? Serena gave an automatic snort, then became thoughtful. Well, she asked herself again, did she? The answer came with the memories of an easy afternoon in Nassau, that quick shared joke in the casino, the natural way her hand fit with his. Perhaps she did like him, Serena admitted uncomfortably. A little. But, she pushed her sunglasses more firmly on her nose and shut her eyes, that wasn’t the point. The point was, what was she going to do about him for the next five days?

  She couldn’t hide. Even if it had been physically possible while they were both on the same ship, Serena’s pride would never have allowed it. No, she would have to deal with him … and with herself. The idea that she could spend some time with him, learn to know him a bit better, could no longer be classified as harmless. If she were honest, Serena would have to admit that she had known from the outset that there was nothing harmless about Justin Blade. That took her full circle, back to the basic attraction. And this, she decided as she rolled over onto her stomach, wasn’t solving anything.

  She had only a few more days aboard the Celebration before she headed home for an extended visit. Unemployed. Wrinkling her nose, she shifted until she was comfortable on the thick plastic strips of the lounge. With the rest of her life to decide upon, what to do about an encounter with an itinerant gambler should hardly take precedence in her thoughts. It was only, Serena concluded, because she was allowing it to. Now that she had admitted that she found Justin both attractive and interesting, that should be the end of it.

  Her course was really quite simple—treat him as she would treat any other passenger. Polite and friendly. Well, she amended, dropping her sunglasses on the deck, not too friendly. And no more side bets, Serena added firmly before she shut her eyes. The man’s luck was phenomenal.

  And the sun was much too warm, the deck much too quiet to think about complications. Sighing, she pillowed her head on her hands and slept.

  Warm and soothing … These sensations drifted through her, causing Serena to sigh again. Hazy thoughts of floating naked on a raft while the sun stroked her skin brought a small sound of pleasure to her lips. She could have floated endlessly, without destination. She felt a freedom—no, an abandonment. She was alone in a blue sea, or perhaps in a dense green jungle. A secret, solitary place where there were no restrictions. There the sun caressed her body like lover’s hands.

  She could feel its stroking, bringing hot, sleepy pleasure … languid fingers of sunlight … lazily arousing … delicately seducing …

  The brush of a butterfly against her ear made her smile. Serena lay still, not wanting to disturb it. Soft as dew, it fluttered to her cheek, resting a moment, as though it had found a pungent blossom. With a final sweep of wings it whispered her name at the corner of her mouth.

  How strange, she thought with a tiny moan of pleasure, for a butterfly to know her name. Shifting her shoulders toward the gentle caress on her back. Serena commanded her eyes to open, wanting to see the colors of those soft wings. She saw only the cool depthless green of Justin’s eyes.

  For a moment Serena stared into them, too content to be confused. “I thought you were a butterfly,” she murmured as she closed her eyes again.

  “Did you?” Smiling, Justin touched his lips to the corner of hers a second time.

  “Mmm-hmm.” It came out as a long, lazy sigh. “How did you get here?”

  “Where?” Enjoying her gentle stretching beneath his palm, he continued to stroke her back.

  “Wherever we are,” Serena murmured. “Did you float on a raft?”

  “No.” He knew from the rhythm of her breathing, by that brief look into her dark, misty eyes, that she was already aroused, disoriented enough to be completely pliant. Her absolute vulnerability touched off twin urges to take and to protect. As each one fought for supremacy, Justin brushed a kiss over her bare shoulder. “You’ve been dreaming.”

  “Oh.” Serena didn’t see why it mattered as long as those wonderful, warm caresses continued. “It feels good.”

  “Yes.” Justin traced a fingertip down her spine. “It does.”

  The touch brought a quick shudder, a more concentrated arousal. Serena’s eyes flew open. “Justin?”

  “Yes?”

  Abruptly awake and throbbing, Serena lifted herself up on her elbows. “What are you doing here?”

  Briefly, his eyes passed over the small swatch of material that tenuously clung to her breasts. “You already asked me that. With your skin you shouldn’t lie in the sun unprotected.” He slid his hand down her back, spreading the cream he’d applied. When his fingers pressed near the base of her spine, she caught her breath.

  “Stop it!” she demanded, furious that her voice was shaky.

  “You’re very sensitive,” he murmured. The desire in her eyes had flared quickly, darkening and widening even as she struggled against it. “It seems a pity we’re never at the appropriate spot at the appropriate time.”

  “Justin.” Serena shifted away from his hand, barely remembering to hold the top of her bikini in place. “I really wish you’d let me get some rest.” As she sat up, she meticulously tied her halter strings behind her neck. “I had to get up early this morning, and the casino opens as soon as we leave port tonight.” Stretching out again, she dismissed him. “I want a nap.”

  “I want to talk to you.” He shifted lightly on the balls of his feet where he had crouched beside her, then rose.

  “Well, I don’t—” She broke off as her gaze traveled up long muscular legs to narrow hips encased in brief black trunks, to a hard, lean torso. It was a body that hinted at strength and sinew and speed. Quickly, Serena averted her gaze, reaching behind her to adjust the back of the deck chair.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” she finished, popping her sunglasses back on her nose. “Why don’t you go visit San Juan like everyone else?”

  “I have a proposition.”

  “I bet you do.”

  Without waiting for an invitation, Justin nudged her legs over and sat on the end of the chair. “Business.”

  Serena slid her legs farther away so that her skin wouldn’t rub against his and distract her. “I’m not interested in your business. Go get your own chair.”

  “Isn’t there a rule about crew being rude to passengers?”

  “Report me,” she invited him. “It’s my last week on the job.”

  “That’s what I want to talk to you about.” Justin ran a lotion-slick palm along her thigh.

  “Justin—”

  “Good.” He smiled at her furious face. “I have your attention.”

  “You’re going to have a fractured nose if you don’t leave me alone,” she told him, exasperated.

  “Do you always have such a difficult time concentrating on a business discussion?” Justin asked mildly.

  “Not a legitimate one.”

  “Then we shouldn’t have any problem.”

  Flopping back on the chair, Serena eyed him from behind the tinted glasses. She spotted the jagged white scar along his ribs. “That looks as if it was nasty,” she said with a cool smile. “A present from a jealous husband?”

  “A bigot with a knife.” His answer was as cool as her question, devoid of emotion.

  A pain shot into her, sharp and unexpected. It caught with a gasp in her throat as she could almost see the blade slicing into flesh. “That was a stupid thing to say. I’m sorry.” She glanced at the scar again, nearly sick from her own careless words. “It must’ve been serious.”

  Justin thought of the two weeks drugged in the hospital ward, then shrugged. “It was a long time ago.”

  “What happened?” She couldn’t prevent herself from asking, perhaps because some intimate part of her shared the pain without knowing the cause.

  Justin studied her for a moment. He didn’t think about the incident anymore. Perhaps he hadn’t given it more than a cursory thought in fifteen years. Still, it was, like the scar, a part of him. It might be better if she knew. Taking a towel from the deck, he wiped his hands.

  “I was in a bar in eastern Nevada. One of the regulars didn’t care to breathe the same air as an Indian. I had a beer to finish, so I suggested he breathe somewhere else.” A very cold, mirthless smile touched his mouth. “I was young enough to find some enjoyment in the prospect of a brawl. At eighteen a fistfight relieves a lot of frustrations.”

  “But you didn’t get that scar from a fistfight,” she murmured.

  Justin lifted a brow in acknowledgement. “Most things tend to get out of hand when liquor’s involved. He was drunk and feeling mean.” Almost absently, he ran a finger down the line of the scar in a habitual gesture he thought he’d conquered years before. “It started predictably enough—words, shoves, fists—then he had a knife. He was probably too drunk to realize what he was doing, but he had it into me.”

  “Oh, God.” Automatically, Serena reached out to take his hand. “That’s horrible. Why didn’t someone call the police?”

  It flashed through his mind that despite the wealth, the extensive education and traveling, she’d lived a sheltered life—perhaps because of it. “Things aren’t always done that way,” he said simply.

  “But he stabbed you,” she said with a mixture of logic and revulsion. “He must have been arrested.”

  “No.” Justin’s gaze remained as calm and steady as his voice. “I killed him.”

  At the flat statement, Serena’s hand went limp in his. Justin could see her eyes grow wide and shocked behind the tinted glasses. He felt her instant, automatic withdrawal. Then just as quickly, her fingers tightened on his again. “Self-defence,” she said with only a trace of a tremor in her voice.

  He said nothing. All those years ago he had needed that kind of simple, unquestioning faith—during the pain of his hospital days, the cold, solitary fear in his cell awaiting trial. There’d been no one then to believe in him. No one to give him back any portion of the hope and trust he had lost during those endless, empty days. As she cupped his hand between both of hers, something moved inside him and crept out of a long-closed lock.

  “I grabbed for the knife,” Justin said at length. “We fell. The next thing I knew I was waking up in the hospital, charged with second-degree murder.”

  “But it was his knife.” There was quick outrage in her voice and no question. “He attacked you.”

  “It took a while for that to come out.” Justin could remember every hour, every minute of the waiting—the smell of the cell, the faces in the courtroom. The fear and fury. “When it did, I was acquitted.”

  With how many other scars? Serena wondered. “No one wanted to testify for you,” she said instinctively. “The others in the bar that night.”

  “I wasn’t one of them,” he said flatly. “But they stuck to the truth when they were under oath.”

  “It must have been a frightening experience for a boy to go through.” When Justin only lifted a brow, Serena tried to find a smile. “My father would say that a man’s not a man until he’s thirty, or maybe it’s forty. He isn’t always consistent.”

  How well he knew, Justin thought. He was tempted to tell her then and there about his relationship with Daniel, but he made himself stick with his original plan. Justin Blade was consistent. “I told you about this because if you accept my offer, you’d probably hear snatches of it anyway. And I’d rather you had it from me all at once.” He saw that he had her curiosity now, which was better than her attention.

  “What kind of offer?” she asked warily.

  “A job.”

  “A job?” Serena repeated, then laughed. “What do you want to do, set up a floating blackjack game with me as dealer?”

  “I had something a bit more stationary in mind,” Justin murmured as his eyes drifted down. “Just how secure are those skinny little strings?”

  “Secure enough.” She barely resisted the urge to tug at them. “Why don’t you tell me exactly what you have in mind, Justin…. Straight.”

  “All right.” Abruptly, the humor left his eyes. They were cool again and level on hers. “I’ve watched you work. You’re very good. Not just with the cards, but with people. You’re a quick judge of the players, and your table is nearly always full, while some of the others thin out regularly. In addition to that, you know how to handle a player when he’s annoyed with the cards or had a bit too much to drink. All in all,” he added in the same impersonal tone, “you’ve got a lot of style.”

  Not certain what he was leading up to, and not wanting to be too pleased by his words, Serena moved her shoulders carelessly. “So?”

  “So. I’ve a use for someone with your talents.” His expression didn’t change when her eyes narrowed. Justin merely folded his legs under him and watched her, looking, Serena thought, a bit too much like his infamous kidnapping ancestor must have looked.

  Pushing her glasses on top of her head, Serena stared straight back at him. “What sort of use?” she asked coolly.

  “Managing my casino in Atlantic City.” He had the satisfaction of seeing incredulity cover her face.

  “You own a casino in Atlantic City?”

  Without seeming to move at all, Justin rested his hands lightly on his knees. “Yes.”

  Serena frowned at him through narrowed eyes. He thought, amused, that her trust didn’t come as easily this time, then slowly she let out a breath. “Comanche,” Serena murmured. “There’s one in Vegas, too, and in Tahoe, I think.” Leaning back, she closed her eyes. So the itinerant gambler turned out to be a very wealthy, very successful businessman. “I should have known.”

  Even more amused by her reaction, Justin relaxed. He’d first thought of offering her a job during the morning in Nassau. Then it had been part whim, part busi
ness. Studying her strong, elegant face, he knew it was already more than that, more than it should be. That was something he would deal with—after he’d arranged things.

  “I fired my manager just before I left,” Justin went on, not waiting for Serena to open her eyes again. “A bit of trouble with the take.”

  She opened them now, her brows arching. “He cheated you?”

  “Tried,” Justin corrected her mildly. “No one cheats me.”

  “No,” Serena agreed. “I’m sure they don’t.” She drew her knees up so that they would no longer be touching, then wrapped her arms around them. “Why do you want me to work for you?”

  Justin had the uncomfortable feeling she knew it was more than he’d said, even though he himself wasn’t certain of all the reasons. He was only sure that he wanted her in his world where he could see … and touch her. “I’ve told you,” he said simply, too cautious to stroke her skin again.

  “If you have three successful hotels—”

  “Five,” he corrected her.

  “Five.” She gave him a slight nod. “Then I can’t imagine you as a man who runs his business on impulse.” Or anything else on impulse, she added silently. “You must know that managing a casino like yours is a long way from dealing cards on a cruise liner. You probably have twice the tables we do and a take that would make our little profit look like bubble gum money.”

  Justin allowed himself a smile. It was true enough. “Of course, if you don’t think you can handle it—”

  “I didn’t say I couldn’t handle it,” she retorted, then scowled at him. “You’re very clever, aren’t you?”

  “Think about it,” he suggested, hooking his finger around one of hers. “You said yourself you have no definite plans after this cruise.”

  No definite plans, she mused. Just a vague notion about opening her own place. She still wanted her own place, but wouldn’t it be logical to manage someone else’s until she learned a bit more? “I’ll think about it,” Serena said slowly, hardly noticing that Justin’s thumb was moving lightly up and down the length of her finger.

  “Good.” With his free hand he reached up, idly plucking a pin from her hair. “We can have dinner in San Juan and discuss the practicalities.” Letting the first pin drop, Justin drew out another.

  “Will you stop that?” Annoyed, Serena grabbed his wrist. “Every time I see you, you’re tossing my pins away. I won’t have one left by the end of the cruise.”

  “I like it down.” He ran his fingers through the loosely secured bun and scattered the rest of the pins. “I like to see it fall down.”

  Shoving his hand away, Serena scrambled up. When he used that tone, a smart woman kept her distance. “I’m not having dinner with you in San Juan or anywhere else.” She snatched up the dashiki she’d worn over her suit. “And I believe I’ve thought long enough about your proposition.”

  “Afraid?” Unfolding his legs, Justin rose in a smooth, catlike movement.

  “No.” She met his eyes calmly, so that he would understand she spoke the truth.

  “Good.” Pleased with the strong, stubborn look, he cupped his hands around the base of her neck. Fear was too ordinary and too easily defeated. “But take a few days to think this over. The business offer is exactly that. It has nothing to do with you and me being lovers.”

  The firm kneading of his fingers at the back of her neck had nearly seduced her into relaxing. His words had her eyes flashing. “We’re not lovers.”

  “We will be,” he said, holding her still with one hand as he stepped closer. “Soon. We’re both people who take what we want, Serena. We want each other.”

  “Why don’t you put your ego down for a while, Justin? It must be getting heavy.” When his hand went to her lotioned back to press her closer, she remained stiff, unwilling to struggle, unwilling to lose.

  “Gamblers believe in fate.” Though her back was straight and unyielding, he felt the soft give of breasts against his chest. Only a narrow band of material separated flesh from flesh. “You’re as much a gambler as I am, Serena MacGregor.” Lowering his head, he nibbled along her jawline. “We’ve both got to play with the hand we were dealt.”

  How long could she resist that honeyed tone and clever mouth? Already Serena could feel the hammer of her heart against her ribs and the heavy fluid weakness in her limbs. If she resisted, she would lose. Perhaps … Her brain began to cloud, and frantically she forced the silken mists away. Perhaps this time she would play the game his way and earn a draw. Fighting her own need to surrender, she took a dangerous gamble.

  Slowly, softly, she ran her hands up his naked back, letting her fingernails lightly rake his skin. When his mouth pressed against her throat, her knees nearly buckled, but she bit down hard on the inside of her lip. Pain would help her keep control. She rubbed against him sinuously, while her fingers crept up to trace patterns on the base of his neck. His heartbeat began to thud, racing with hers.

  His mouth grew hungry, but she turned so that his lips fell anywhere but on hers. If he kissed her, locked her in one of those deep, mindless feasts of mouth on mouth, she’d be lost. His breath raged unsteadily over her ear, wrenching a moan from her. Serena squeezed her eyes tightly, struggling not to feel all the things he could so effortlessly make her feel. She pressed her lips to his throat, telling herself that it wasn’t for the taste of him, but only the next step in the game. She wouldn’t be weakened by the dark male flavor, by the feel of muscle taut and strong under her hands. This time—this time, she promised herself, she’d bring him to his knees.

  She heard him groan, felt the light quiver run through him as he crushed her against him. Too astonished by the newly discovered power to be pleased with it, Serena merely clung. He whispered something low, in a primitive tongue she didn’t understand, before he buried his face in her hair.

  Her heart urged her to stay as she was, warmed flesh to warmed flesh. Could it feel so right if she didn’t belong there? If her body had not been fashioned for this, could they fit together so unerringly? If her mouth had not been made for his, would it heat at even the thought of a kiss?

  No. Serena caught herself before the weakness could spread too far. She wouldn’t let herself be ruled by a need … or by a man.

 
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