Authors: Carmen Faye
Getting rid of the man who screwed you over was about as painful as losing the man who got screwed over by you. When Rip left, I was angry. When the anger faded, I was exhausted and I slept. When I woke up and found all that money he’d obviously left me, I was convinced that I’d done the right thing. And now, a day later, I felt lost and irritated and alone, and I couldn’t get my mind off him.
Which was ridiculous, because if there was anyone who deserved to be forgotten about, it was Rip.
I sighed and looked at myself in the mirror, brushing out my wet hair after a shower. It wasn’t as if he’d exactly done something so terribly wrong that he didn’t deserve my time of day. But I couldn’t get involved with people who had a beef with the law. This wasn’t a safe world. Gambling and spending nights in casinos with people that toed the line of immorality wasn’t the kind of thing you did without thinking it through.
You had to watch yourself. And Rip obviously had to keep looking over his shoulder. How could I look after myself if I kept feeling like I had to look after him, too?
I switched on the hair dryer and blew out my hair. The noise was welcome, something to drown out my thoughts, noise that canceled out the noise in my head.
I chose tight blue jeans and tan boots with a white tank top and a tan jacket that looked like a blazer. I braided my hair and twisted it around itself so that my hair had a classy look. Golden jewelry, makeup, and I was sexy and upper class again.
Harlan Gold was the perfect place for a distraction tonight. The glittery interior, with its whispered suggestion of potential, promised to distract me and get my mind back in the game.
I ordered a drink from the bar—Long Island iced tea because the tequila in it called my name—and made my way to the blackjack tables. The night was still young. It was earlier than usual, but that only meant I had more time to drink and gamble before heading home again.
A man with a beard was playing the table and generating a lot of interest. He had flare. He won with grandeur. He lost with a curse. He swept the crowd up and carried them into the game with him, and he was fun to watch. I stood to the side and sipped my cocktail, watching his technique.
Of course, he wasn’t counting. He understood the game, no doubt, and this wasn’t his first time playing. He relied on luck, the way most gamblers did, and he lost now and then.
At some point, he noticed that I was watching and he must have liked it. He started glancing at me every time he won, kicking up his flare a notch, eliciting a response from the crowd. I smiled when he looked at me.
When he won a good hand, he stood up, moving his chair back in the process, and held his hand out to me.
“Play with me,” he said. “Don’t let me have all the fun alone.”
He wasn’t my type. Beards put me off, and I didn’t like people who made themselves the center of attention. But my blood was boiling—both with the alcohol and the events the day before—and everyone looked at me with so much expectation. I agreed. I didn’t take his hand—that was pushing it too far—but I sat down on the empty seat next to him that no one else had dared occupy.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Richard,” he said. “Richard is my name, and blackjack is my game.”
How cliché. I nodded at the dealer, and he dealt me in. I sucked on my cocktail and watched the cards as he started dealing out. My counting was something I could rely on. I could count in my sleep.
Richard lost some money, and he seemed irritated by it now that I was playing. I won my hand and smiled at him sweetly.
“I think it’s a fluke,” I said.
He nodded, smiling. I could practically see him thinking that it had to be a fluke. No doubt he’d chosen me because he’d hoped that I would lose and make him look good. Men always seemed to underestimate me.
“Have you played before?” he asked, after I pulled in more money twice in a row.
I shrugged. “I like to try everything, see what I can win. I’ve given everything in here a shot.”
He nodded. I finished my cocktail. I was lightheaded, and I couldn’t feel my legs. Richard waved at a waiter, and a moment later, I was brought a refill.
“You didn’t have to do that,” I said.
He smiled at me. “I wanted to.”
I was aware that he was flirting. I was aware of how he looked at me. I just didn’t care. I wasn’t interested in getting involved with anyone again. On top of that, I had enough alcohol in my system to feel nothing when it came down to emotions…because tequila did that to me. It was why I’d ordered the cocktail in the first place, even though I didn’t care for the taste.
I watched the dealer again as he laid out the cards. I knew what was next and pushed up my bet.
Only to lose.
I frowned. This wasn’t right, I should have won that one. I ran through the numbers in my mind again, but suddenly it felt like they were dancing around and I couldn’t get a grasp on them. It was as if they kept slipping away just as I reached out to them.
I focused on the cards again, giving it all my attention. The dealer looked up at me, and he frowned. He looked around, nodded, and then carried on.
I kept my focus on the cards. I wasn’t going to let the next one slip through.
Suddenly, there was security around the table and someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Will you come with me, please?” a security guard asked. He was big with a black suit on and a wire up his neck that led to an earpiece. He mumbled something and then looked at me with a steely stare.
I gulped down the last of my drink and started gathering my chips.
“Don’t worry about your chips. We’ll return for them,” security said, as he pinned me with that stare. I nodded slowly and got up.
He took me by the arm as if I was someone who would bolt. And damned if that didn’t float around in my mind.
“I can walk by myself,” I said. He loosened his grip but didn’t let me go, which made me sure he was scared I would run. And made me wonder why the hell I wouldn’t.
We walked through a door at the back of the casino, and once we were on the other side, he let go of me. He gestured with his hands to the right, suggesting I go first, and I did.
We moved through a maze of tunnels before we finally ended up in front of a large, heavy door.
“What is this?” I asked. The alcohol made me feel like my voice sounded funny, and I struggled to form my words properly.
“Mr. Jerrill would like a word,” he said. My stomach sank, and I sobered up just a little. Antonio Jerrill was bad news. Everyone who knew the casino knew this. How had I ended up back here?
The door opened, as if we’d been expected. I recognized Jerrill’s bodyguard. He gestured for me to enter the office and dismissed the security who had brought me. When the man behind me turned and left, I wanted to ask him to stay. I didn’t feel safe with two men in a room, especially if it was Antonio and his bouncer.
“Miss Sunder,” Antonio said. He wore a white suit that made his slicked back hair stand out, and he had a mustache growing on his lip that looked like a worm.
How did he know my surname?
“I’m told that you’re cheating in my casino.”
“My dealer let me know that you’re counting cards. I pulled up the footage, and I have to admit you do look suspicious.”
He nodded toward a flat screen TV against the wall that had different angles of the casino in black and white squares on it. He held up a remote, and one square enlarged. It was footage of me, staring at the cards mouth moving. It really did look like I was counting.
I pressed my palm against my forehead. The alcohol was really getting to me. “I’m sorry,” I said.
Antonio nodded slowly, not taking his eyes off me. “This isn’t the first time you’ve been looking for trouble in my casino,” he said.
“I only started counting recently,” I said. If I looked like such an amateur on screen maybe he would believe me. Antonio laughed and stood up, walking around the table. He sat down on the edge of the table and folded his hands in front of him.
“I’m not talking about your counting, Alexandra,” he said. The way he used my name made it sound like a threat, not a name. A threat or a curse word. “I’m talking about your associate.”
I started shaking my head, but Antonio lifted his hand and I stopped.
“Don’t play dumb with me. I know you know whom I’m talking about. He’s been in here a couple of times, been telling people his name’s Ben Reeker.”
Blood drained from my face, and the alcohol started to fade quicker and quicker.
“I have it on good authority that Ben Reeker isn’t his real name, although he’s been pretending that it is.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. In moments like these, it was better to deny anything than to say something that would make the whole thing worse.
“Tell me, do you know a man named Ted? He hangs around here from time to time.”
I shook my head, and this time it wasn’t a lie. Antonio nodded as if he believed me, too.
“Well, Ted is very easily persuaded. And he knows your buddy. Rip Peterson.”
My stomach plummeted, and I felt like I was going to throw up.
“He left,” I said hoarsely. “He fled the state, and I don’t have contact with him anymore. There’s nothing else I can give you.”
“You see, Alexandra, this is where I disagree. I know that you’ve been spending time with Rip outside of the casinos. I have contacts around town and rumor has it that you two are in cahoots. And I want my money.”
I frowned. “I don’t have any money,” I said. The bag on my floor with all the money—more than I thought it should have been—popped in my mind.
“Don’t lie to me,” Antonio said. He got up and walked back around the desk again, opening the drawer. He retrieved a black metal gun. Flight or fight response kicked in, and I didn’t think straight. I headed for the door.
The henchman grabbed me by my twisted braid and yanked me back. I yelped, and my hands flew to my hair to try and lessen the sharp pain.
“John, it’s okay. She’s not going to run. Are you, Alexandra?”
He had the gun pointed at me, and I shook my head, feeling like if I gave the wrong answer he was going to shoot me.
“That’s what I thought. Rip stole a lot of drugs from me that I want paid for.”
What? I closed my eyes and shook my head before opening them again. Closing my eyes with a gun in my face seemed like stupid move, but it made me feel oddly distant.
“What drugs?” I asked.
Antonio shook his head. “He’s been in my stash of drugs. He keeps stealing from me, and yesterday he got sloppy and John here caught him.”
“Then where is he?” I asked.
Antonio looked irritated. “He got away. But now that I have you, I can get my money back.”
He walked toward me with the gun in his hand. He stopped so close to me that our bodies nearly touched. The bouncer stood behind me, and I was sandwiched between the two men.
Antonio dragged the cold metal of the gun down my cheek and a shudder passed through my body.
“I’m going to get that money back, even if I have to kill for it,” Antonio said, and there was no doubting he was serious. A sob racked my body, and I felt like an idiot for showing weakness and starting to cry like a girl. This was not going to end well for me. Rip was far, far away, and he wasn’t going to come back. Antonio wanted money that I would never be able to give him, and I had just been caught counting.