They walked past the roped-off baccarat table where elegantly attired men and women lost their money to a croupier in a tuxedo, and Jordan smiled. "One thing you get for your money at baccarat is a classy environment," he observed. "That's about all you get. With the rules so completely established by the house, I have yet to figure out a way to better the odds in that game," Alyssa said sadly. Jordan, shrugged. "I doubt that anyone has. Theoretically, the house edge is only a little over one percent in baccarat, but there isn't any room for skill or mathematics, and people lose quite steadily. It holds no appeal for real gamblers or people like you and me, but that doesn't seem to stop a lot of folks from wanting to play." "It's because of the image," Alyssa decided wisely. "What with everyone having to dress to the hilt to play and the croupier and the ladderman in tuxes and the whole area cordoned off, it makes one feel elegantly European and rich. The illusion is everything in gambling." Jordan glanced down at her. "So it is. But you and I see past the illusion, don't we? Our magic is possible because we see the mathematical structure behind the fagade and we have a feel for it." "Yes, I suppose so." They were in the elevator now, and Alyssa shivered at the inevitable approach of passion. They were talking of math and probabilities and gambling, and all she could think about was what it would be like in a few minutes when Jordan took her in his arms. It was a dizzying, reckless sensation that made it difficult to think with anything remotely resembling her usual logic. When they stepped out into the corridor that led to the bordello-red bedroom, Alyssa swayed slightly, and when Jordan's arm immediately came around her, she leaned gratefully into his strength. Amazing, she thought contentedly. "What's amazing?" Jordan asked, opening the door to his room. Alyssa blinked up at him, unaware she had spoken aloud. "You are," she explained politely as he led her inside. "And why is that?" His smile was one of anticipation and passion and gentleness as he pulled her close. The golden eyes seemed to go molten, and Alyssa thought she would melt under the heat of them. "Because you're so strong, so solid, so real," she heard herself whisper as she lifted her arms to encircle his neck. "Illusions aren't supposed to be so very real." Her lashes had fluttered shut as she raised her mourn for his kiss, and so she did not see the hardness that appeared in the depths of his gaze. "Alyssa," Jordan growled softly as he picked her up and carried her over to the round bed, bathed in desert moonlight, "don't ever make the mistake of thinking I'm not quite real. Don't put me in the category of illusion, honey, or you will find yourself taking what will undoubtedly be the first genuine gamble of your life. And I guarantee you will lose." But Alyssa was too wrapped up in this new world of sensation to heed the warning.
The jet heading back to Los Angeles International had just reached fifteen thousand feet when Alyssa remembered the dinner party she was scheduled to give the following Friday evening. With that memory, reality came flooding back. Instinctively, she turned in the seat, straining to glance back in the direction of Las Vegas, but the glittering city in the middle of the desert was already out of sight Jordan would have caught a cab back to his hotel. In another couple of hours, he would be preparing to go to work. The night shift, she decided in wry humor. Her lover worked the night shift at his job. And when she was with him, she had done the same But real life was a respectable position with a sophisticated research and testing firm. Working the night shift in Vegas was a weekend illusion, a dangerous fantasy that had somehow become incredibly alive during the past couple of days. Alyssa turned back in her seat, staring blindly at the magazine in her lap. She had allowed herself to be utterly and completely seduced by her fantasy this weekend. Never in her life had she succumbed so totally to the spell of a man. Never had she been the type to become involved in weekend flings or one-night stands. The knowledge that she had done exactly that during the past couple of days left her feeling dazed and a little out of control of herself. This wasn't a side of herself that she knew or understood. She lowered her lashes uneasily as she contemplated the unsettling facts. Even though she had gone over some invisible edge this weekend, she had only herself to blame. Hadn't she been dancing closer and closer to the precipice each time she'd gone to Las Vegas during the past few months? No, damn it, she hadn't been in this kind of danger until this past weekend, she corrected herself forcefully. There had never been a man involved in her fantasy. There had been no temptation or seduction of that sort whatsoever. Not until she had encountered Jordan Kyle. And Jordan Kyle was unlike any other man she had ever met. Since that disastrous year of her marriage to Chad Emerson, Alyssa knew she had found it relatively easy to keep from becoming entangled in any truly serious emotional commitment. She'd had enough to do proving herself in the business world. But humiliation at her own stupidity still surged to the surface occasionally when she thought about that painful year and a half after her graduation from college. Her father had done his best to raise her, she realized. But he'd been so hoping for a mathematical prodigy to more or less take his place in the upper reaches of the academic research world that he'd firmly guided his daughter into math. Alyssa hadn't minded. She loved the subject and had a flair for it. But having a flair was not the same as having a true genius for it. Reluctantly, because she longed to please her father, she'd focused more and more on applied mathematics rather than pure mathematics. Applied math was the kind that was needed on a day-to-day basis in the working world. From her end of the spectrum came the statisticians, the engineering mathematicians, the practical math people, without whom ail the work of the geniuses such as her father would have been wasted. People in applied math were the ones who took the brilliant discoveries and techniques and turned them to useful purposes in the areas of accounting, computers, engineering, insurance and a thousand other fields. The geniuses wound up teaching and conducting research at the finest universities in the country. She knew her father had been vastly disappointed when it became evident that she wasn't going to follow precisely in his footsteps, and it hurt Aiyssa to know she had failed him. But in her senior year of college, she thought she had found a way to pacify him. That was when Chad Emerson had first started paying attention to her. From a very practical point of view, it was often far easier for a graduate in applied math to get a paying job right out of college than for one with a more theoretical background. Chad Emerson, for all his brilliance, apparently had had a very down to earth grasp of that basic fact He'd also fully appreciated the unquestioned eminence of the man who was her father. Joseph Chandler could be a tremendous asset as a father-in-law. He held an important post at a fine university. Chad had wanted to assure himself of not only getting Into the right graduate school but of making the right contacts. Being brilliant was great, but politics always helped. Alyssa had gone along willingly with the whirlwind courtship Chad had instituted. Her father had been enormously pleased after meeting the young man she proposed to marry. If his daughter wasn't quite smart enough to take a place in the stellar list of brilliant mathematicians, she was smart enough to marry someone who eventually would. Knowing she had pleased her father and flattered by the overwhelming attention of a fellow student whom she had admired from afar, Alyssa had agreed to Chad's proposal of marriage. It occurred to Alyssa on occasion that she'd never really set her own goals. For years, her father had established them for her, and later, married to Chad and working to pay his graduate student fees, she had attempted to gain her satisfaction through helping her husband attain his lofty goals. And there was some satisfaction along that route. Being with Chad, entertaining his brilliant friends, gave her a sense of participating in the elite world of mathematicians, a world she'd always been taught to respect For a time, Chad had seemed content with his admiring wife, whose practical ability had won her an excellent paying position right out of college. Joseph Chandler certainly fulfilled his duties as a proud father-in-law, helping his daughter's husband get into the graduate school of his choice and making certain he was brought to the attention of the right people. But a year and a half after marrying her, Chad was offered a teaching assistant's post at the university. He had been recognized by the people who mattered. Along with the new position came introductions to new people. Perhaps it was inevitable that Chad would eventually meet a woman who was more suited to his intellectual level. In any event, he evidently felt he no longer needed Joseph Chandler's support or a hardworking wife. He had divorced Alyssa to marry a beautiful and unquestionably brilliant faculty member who would undoubtedly take over the furthering of his career. It had all been for the best, Alyssa had told herself a thousand times since then. She would never have felt entirely comfortable in Chad's environment There would always have been that feeling of inferiority with which to contend, that knowledge that she could never compete with his brilliant friends. And there was no doubt that from her very humble, very practical point of view, it hadn't been pleasant learning that Chad had basically seen her as a meal ticket and her father as an added asset. But all the common sense in the world didn't alleviate the feeling of rejection that struck her like a hammer when her former friends, the ones Chad had cultivated, no longer found her particularly interesting. It was Chad's intelligence and upward mobility in the academic world that had drawn them. They had nothing in common with his wife. And all the common sense in the world couldn't dispel. She notion that she'd somehow disappointed her father for not being able to hold on to Chad. She'd brought a brilliant mathematician into the family, a man who could have been a true son to the elder Chandler, only to lose him. Alyssa's reaction had been abrupt and single-minded. If she wasn't good enough for the academic world, she'd damn well prove she could hold her own in other spheres! Namely, a sphere where her brand of math was appreciated, sought after and paid for. She dedicated herself to the business world, where she had since proved more than able to rise steadily to the top. In the area of statistics and probability theory, she had shown real flair, and Alyssa was determined to be as successful at her job as Chad and her father were in their worlds. She measured her success by the salary and title she held. They were the only gauges she had. Her father had been accidentally killed in an automobile crash just about the time Alyssa was starting to demonstrate her true abilities. She'd never known for sure whether or not he had really respected her progress in die corporate world. Not knowing had seemed to make it ail the more imperative to succeed. She had driven herself relentlessly for the past two years. Then, a couple of months earlier, because of Ray and Julia Burgess, she had discovered the world of gambling. It had proved a wonderful escape from the self-inflicted pressures under which she worked. What would Chad or her father have said if they had ever learned that her one area of "genius" in the realm of mathematics had proved to be an intuitive ability to play cards and roll dice? She didn't really have to wonder. They would have been thoroughly disgusted. But the fantasy world of gambling offered her exactly what she had been needing. It freed the cheerful, fun-loving, playful side of her personality. It was when she was in that world that the mischievous smile lit her eyes, and sometimes that smile carried over into her real world when she returned. She needed the escape. She needed to throw herself into the exciting fantasy where her one true talent reigned supreme. She had known from the beginning, of course, that her "escape" represented a very real threat to her carefully built career. And the goals of that career and its accompanying life-style were too much a part of her to even consider abandoning them. The trick, she told herself, was to keep the fantasy world separate from her real world, and she'd been quite successful at managing that feat. Perhaps she even took a certain pleasure in managing it Even Alyssa wasn't fully aware of the hidden smile that played in her eyes these days when she took on the challenge of juggling her two lives. The excitement of her new, secret world had put a flare of energy into her life and a subtle recklessness into her way of looking at things. Until this weekend, however, she had thought she had both under full control. Jordan Kyle had taught her differently. He had materialized out of her fantasy and had at once made it far more real and therefore more dangerous than she would have dreamed possible. What did he really think of her? The world of gambling was still largely a man's world. When women played, for example, it was assumed they played with some man's money. No Las Vegas gentleman would be so ungallant as to allow a woman companion to risk her own money! The attitude toward women in places like Las Vegas and Reno was as traditional and conservative as that of mythical small-town America. Women fit either into the category of showgirl-hustler or wife-mother. A woman who manipulated the world of gambling, who dealt with it on its own terms and won, would have been almost impossible for either the gambling establishment or most men, in general, to understand. And if they did understand, they would have invariably seen her as a threat But Jordan Kyle had been the exception. Was that why she had found herself so easily seduced by him? He had admired her ability. Alyssa closed her eyes, trying to sort out her memories of the weekend. There had been an incredible enticement in the knowledge that he had known from the first exactly what she was doing and had fully appreciated her peculiar "talent" When his own talent had proved to run along exactly the same lines, she had been fascinated. Together they were like a pair of mathematical magicians sharing secrets no one else knew. Added to the intellectual attraction had been a level of passion utterly new to her. Never had she known the sheer, raging excitement she had discovered in the arms of her golden-eyed gambler. And because of that combination of irresistible lures, Alyssa knew she wanted to return to Las Vegas the following weekend. The dinner party on Friday night, however, was important in her other life, her real life. It was important career-wise because she would be entertaining her boss and his wife among others, and it was important socially because she would be seeing friends, maintaining a normal round of activities for herself. For what she had found in Las Vegas was an alluring illusion that must not be allowed to interfere with the reality of her weekday world. If It did, it would destroy that world. And she had worked so long and so hard . . . She sighed, leaning back in the seat and resting her hand protectively on the zipper bag that contained her winnings from the past few days. She would have to phone Jordan and explain that she would not be on the Friday-night flight, after all. But there shouldn't be much problem in booking a Saturday-morning flight, she reassured herself. Alyssa was exhausted by the time she located her small compact car at the L.A. airport and drove home to Ventura. The pleasant town on the California coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara had been home to her now for the past four years, ever since she had accepted the position with Yeoman Research. She had been lucky enough to find a beach-front house to rent Her present salary was high enough now to allow her to afford the luxury. Someday that salary would be high enough to allow her to buy the red Porsche, too, she reminded herself wryly as she parked the compact in the garage and slowly climbed out If she got that promotion, for example, she might be able to make the down payment But it had proved more interesting to acquire the Porsche with gambling winnings. The automatic garage door mechanism hissed the door shut behind her as she let herself into the small, neat house through the kitchen entrance. The cottage faced the sea, and on clear days one could see the Channel Islands just off shore. She had taken full advantage of the view, orienting the furniture around it The beach-front atmosphere had been maintained with a color scheme of white and yellow and natural woods. Luxuriantly green