"Alyssa, Alyssa," he crooned hoarsely, holding her so tightly she could hardly breathe. "Honey, please don't act hastily. I don't want you to regret anything. I can handle Davis if he makes more trouble." "I'm sure you can. You handled him very well tonight. Whatever made you guess he had something to hide?" "I wasn't absolutely sure, but it was worth a chance. There had to be some reason why he was using you as a shield. An affair is an affair. If he didn't care about his wife finding out, why hide behind the wrong woman? I gambled that there must be more to the story than what he claimed." "And you won. As usual. You can be a little frightening, Jordan. My world isn't the only one where folks play rough, is it?" "Don't ever be afraid of me," he groaned into her hair. "No," she agreed gently. "Sweetheart, I meant what I said. Please don't do anything rash like quitting your job." "Afraid of having to support me?" she said, chuckling into his shirt. He shook her in soft punishment. "You know damn well that's got nothing to do with It. I'm willing to support you for the rest of your life. And protect you and make love to you!" "That's nice. Remember that when I show up in Las Vegas tomorrow night, okay?" He held her slightly away from him, lifting her chin so that she met his searching gaze. "One more time, Alyssa. Don't act hastily. We're two intelligent, quick-thinking people. We can go on juggling both worlds together indefinitely." "But I don't want to do that, Jordan." She pulled free of his arms. "Would you like a glass of cognac before we go to bed?" she asked, her eyes smiling at him. "No." "No cognac?" "No bed. I'm going back to Vegas tonight," he declared grimly. "Oh, Jordan." She sighed, knowing what he was doing now because she could almost read his mind. "I have to give you time to think," he declared, running a hand through his dark hair in exasperation. "I know that between the two of us we can make each other believe anything we want by morning." "Which is a polite way of saying you can seduce me into forgetting everything when I'm in your arms? That I can't possibly think straight while you're making love to me?" she teased tenderly. He shot her a narrow glance. "It works both ways, you know. Why do you think I had to come looking for you when you sent that message saying you couldn't make the Friday-night flight last week? I couldn't even pay attention to my work! All I could think about was you." Try to understand what that means, Jordan, Alyssa pleaded silently. Try to understand that maybe that means you're in love with me the way I'm in love with you! Aloud she said persuasively, "It's a long trip back to Vegas tonight." "Not as long as the trip getting here," he assured her grimly. "The thought of you tangling with Davis made me so damn furious I thought I'd go out of my head!" "I tried to tell you it wasn't necessary to come and protect me, but you hung up the phone before I could get the words out." "Believe me, it was necessary in spite of whatever you decide to do about your job tomorrow." He stood staring at her, and the helpless, vulnerable expression on his hard face made Alyssa want to cradle him in her arms and soothe him. But there was nothing she could do at the moment. Instead, her eyes were full of her love as she said simply, "Good night, Jordan. I'll find you at the casino. I'll be arriving sometime between seven and eight, I imagine." His mouth tightened as he read the determination in her, and he stepped forward, catching her possessively in his arms and kissing her hard. Then he was gone into the night.
The following evening, Alyssa drifted into the glittering casino sheathed in the black gown with the silver edging that she had worn the night she had met Jordan. She was every inch the sophisticated worldly lady gambler, a graceful figure of feminine mystery. Her rich auburn hair gleamed in the light of the heavy chandeliers, and the silver trim on her gown moved as if it were molten. In the depths of her sea-colored eyes, there was a beckoning and a longing and a promise that caught the attention of more than one male as she moved through the boisterous crowd. But each seemed to take one glance and recognize that the expression wasn't meant for him. A few turned their heads, curious to see which man would claim the promise in her. Alyssa was unaware of the reaction. She was scanning the crowd of elegantly dressed players, searching for only one face. Tonight none of the glitter or the brash luxury surrounding her appealed. Tonight nothing mattered except finding the man for whom she searched. It occurred to her as she made her way through the casino that she had never felt so free before in her life. Always there had been a predetermined goal, an end set for her by others. Her father had set impossibly high scholastic standards, hoping he had sired a genius to take his place. Her ex-husband had set her to work, luring her into marriage with the promise that somehow she could share the academic world through him, even though she wasn't quite up to the genius levels required to participate fully. When she had finally gone out on her own, the goal of success in the business world had, in a sense, been predetermined for her, also. It was the only route left to her by which she could prove herself. The fantasy world of the casino had been her escape for a while, but tonight she entered it knowing she no longer needed it Tonight she had come to free not only herself but the man she loved. Together they would build a new world all their own. If he loved her, too. That was the only hitch, of course, Alyssa reminded herself as she wound her way into the crowd, heading for the blackjack tables. Did Jordan truly love her? She was betting everything on the hope that he did. Never had the stakes been so high. She found him seated at a blackjack table, and for a long moment she stood silently watching him as he played. Dressed in the black and white of formal evening clothes, his lean, hard body made a subtly dangerous statement The overhead light gleamed off the Vandyke-brown hair that touched the crisp white collar of his shirt, and she knew when he turned around that the familiar golden eyes would be warm with their own inner fire. Standing very still a little distance away, she watched the smooth, sure movements of his long fingers as they placed bets and checked cards. Magic hands. He didn't rum around until the play had ended. Then he politely accepted his modest winnings and slid off the stool, starting toward her as if he had known she was there all along. He stopped a couple of feet away, eyes raking over her, from the black patent leather sandals to the crown of her aubum head. He had known she was there, watching him, she realized because he could almost read her mind. And she could almost read his. Almost That was the factor that made the next step so risky. Almost was not for sure. "Can I buy you a drink?" she murmured, knowing her outward composure probably hid the way her pulses were racing. He smiled, remembering, as she had, the way he had approached her that first night, "it's all right," she went on, eyes glinting with a trace of laughter, "I don't work for the casino." "No?" he questioned, coming closer by a pace as if drawn by invisible cords. The sound of his deep voice touched every nerve in her body. "No," she assured him softly. "It's quite safe to come and have a drink with me." "I'm not so sure about that," he said as he allowed her to take his arm and they headed toward the nearest lounge. "You look a little dangerous to me tonight." "But I don't work for the casino. I don't work for anyone, as a matter of fact" She felt his arm tense under her fingers. "That's one of the things I wanted to speak to you about," she went on bravely. "I resigned my job today." He seated her carefully and slid into the black leather booth beside her, his face intense. "You don't have to worry. I'll take care of you. Always." Her mouth crooked lovingly. "That's very generous of you, but it's not quite what I had in mind." He touched her wrist as it lay on the small table they shared, and Alyssa stirred faintly when the familiar thrill trickled through her. "What, exactly, did you have in mind?" he murmured. He was looking at her, she suddenly realized, as if he couldn't quite believe she was there. Had he really thought that in the end she would choose her job and her world instead of him? "I had in mind a new career for both of us, Jordan. Something quite respectable. You seem to be lured by the prospect of respectability." Alyssa held her breath after she made the statement. Would he want what she was going to suggest? The fingers on her wrist ceased their gentle tracing. "What are you suggesting?" "A consulting firm with a name like Chandler-Kyle. Or, if you insist, Kyle-Chandler. A firm which would offer statistical and probability consulting to business. One that would not get involved in government contracts where a reckless past might prove a hindrance. We would have to invest in some hardware, like a computer, and some of your skills might have to be expanded a bit in new directions, but on the whole I think that, between us, we have a lot of potential." "And if it didn't work out?" "Then we could always fall back on making our living by our wits, couldn't we?" she murmured, flicking a careless hand toward the active casino floor in front of them. "In fact, we might find gambling a useful way to drum up a little capital for our new business. We might also find it a pleasant way to spend our vacations." "In other words, you're suggesting we make a stab at having the best of both worlds?" "On our own terms. Which we can do if we don't work for other people who have prejudices against our particular talents." His fingers began to move again, drawing an intimate design on the vulnerable skin of her palm. His eyes never left her face. "Do you think I could hold up my end of such a consulting firm?" So that was it. Lacking the formal degrees, Jordan apparently lacked some confidence in his own abilities. Alyssa didn't. "I've been around enough mathematians in my life to know true ability when I see it. Believe me, Jordan, you've got it. You may not have a degree, but you seem to have acquired a formidable amount of training along the way. Between us we have the skills." He drew in his breath. "The skills to be respectable." "Yes." Damn it, what was he thinking? All at once, Alyssa couldn't read even a fraction of his mind. The heat in his eyes was almost overwhelming, however, and she tried to take heart from it. "And on our own we can still wander in and out of your fantasy on occasion?" he pursued thoughtfully. "If you like," she amended cautiously. Then he smiled, a brilliant, challenging grin that set all her fears to rest in one fell swoop. "Oh, I think I'd like that. This world of mine might be a hell of a lot more fun once I knew I wasn't trapped in it. You've got yourself a deal, Alyssa Chandler. We'll toss a coin to see whether the new firm's name will be Chandler-Kyle or Kyle-Chandler." "If you don't mind, I'd like to be the one who does the tossing," she murmured. He threw back his head with a laugh that drew several interested stares. "Don't you trust me, sweetheart?" "With my life," she responded immediately. "Oh, Alyssa!" Then he was puffing her hard against him, finding her mouth with his own in a kiss that swirled her helplessly into a loving, sensual world full of promise and hope and commitment His mouth moved on hers, draining every vestige of uncertainty from her and replacing it with sureness and spinning wonder. "Alyssa"—he breathed raggedly when he reluctantly lifted his head—"Alyssa, my sweet lady gambler. If you're willing to take a chance on me, I swear I'll never let you down. I'll give you everything I have to give." She swallowed and took the final risk. "Your love, Jordan? Could you give me a little of your love?" He shuddered, his eyes almost tortured. "My God! Don't you know you've had that from the first?" "Jordan"—she sighed, leaning her head down on his shoulder—"Oh, Jordan. Have I really? I love you so very much, you know ..." "I was beginning to hope you might when you talked of quitting your job last night, but I was almost afraid to start counting on it," he confessed huskily. "I didn't think you were afraid to count on anything," she taunted gently. "After all, you count so well!" "Some things, unfortunately, are true risks. Real gambles. They're a bit scary. Alyssa, if you really love me—" "You know I do." She lifted glowing eyes to meet his shattering gaze. She could have sworn that he moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue, as if he were actually nervous. "Then as long as you're proposing to make a respectable man out of me, I'm going to propose that I return the favor." "Make a respectable woman out of me?" "Will you marry me, Alyssa?" She caught her breath, her heart in her throat. "You . . . you always said you weren't good husband material." "I am now," he retorted confidently, even a little arrogantly, as if he were suddenly very sure of himself. "Marry me, Alyssa, and you can bet I'll make the best damned husband material around!" "It's a deal," she whispered.
* * *
Jordan flatly refused to even consider a Las Vegas wedding. And although Alyssa pointed out that if they got married there they would be able to spend their honeymoon in the bordello-red bedroom suite, he refused to reconsider. If they were going to be respectable, he declared, they were going to start off on the right foot. A quiet wedding with a real minister. He produced both in the small town in Oregon where he had his house on the coast. "Nice car," Alyssa observed politely as he drove her home from the minister's three days after he had swept her out of the casino and off to Oregon. Jordan winced as he handled the wheel of the silver Porche. "I forgot you told me that first night you were going to use your gambling winnings on a red Porsche. Well, don't worry, sweetheart. I'll buy you one." She chuckled. "I don't think we need two in the family. I'll just use yours. Unless," she added blandly, "you're afraid to have a wife at the wheel?" "I'll risk it," he said, grinning back. "After all, if you wreck it, you can always replace it with a few trips to Reno or Vegas." "Such an understanding husband," she drawled lovingly. He stretched out a hand and found hers, squeezing it tightly for an instant before returning his fingers to the wheel. "My wife. My very own wife." He sounded dazzled by the notion.