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BAD BOYS WITH RED ROSES
By JANELLE DENISON TINA DONAHUE SHARON CULLARS
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLuke Kincaid strolled into the high-tech security offices of the Mystic Casino, where his surveillance team was busy watching the gaming area and keeping a lookout for any potential trouble. From any of the dozens of color monitors mounted on the wall they could observe the casino from every angle. All at once, if need be.
A quick sweeping glance at the images flickering on the monitors told Luke that it was a slow and unexciting Thursday evening. However, he knew by this same time tomorrow the casino and hotel would be filled with gamblers and guests descending upon Las Vegas for the weekend, and that's when the real fun began for his surveillance team.
"Hey, Kincaid, check out the hot babe on camera seventeen," Mike Barrett, one of his top security agents and Luke's good friend, said from behind him, his voice infused with amusement. "She's one of the many reasons why I love my job."
Luke smirked as he watched a money transfer take place at a craps table. He knew without looking at the monitor exactly what had caught his friend's attention. "I take it she's got a great ass, huh?"
"Oh, yeah," Mike replied appreciatively. "This one's world class. And she's got long legs that go on forever. Check her out foryourself."
Luke cast a cursory glance at the screen Mike had indicated. Sure enough, one of the security cameras was focused on a woman's backside as she strolled through the gaming area toward the blackjack tables. Because there wasn't a whole lot going on at the moment, he went ahead and took in the low-riding jeans hugging her hips, along with the endlessly long legs and super-fine ass tucked inside them, and was definitely impressed by her curves. She was wearing a pink camisole-type top that showed off the smooth skin along her back and shoulders and made him curious to see if the front view lived up to her sexy, head-turning backside.
To keep cool in the one hundred and ten degree summer heat, she'd piled her thick, curly golden blond hair on top of her head, but a few wispy strands had escaped and fluttered along her neck as she walked. He wondered how long her hair was, and how it would look cascading over her shoulders and down her back ...
"There's no ring on her left hand from what I can see," Mike said, interrupting Luke's thoughts as the woman slid into a vacant chair at one of the blackjack tables. "I'm off in less than an hour, and if she's still around I'm going to find out if she's free for dinner."
Luke shook his head and laughed, used to Mike's playboy tendencies. "Looks like you just found your flavor of the week."
Mike flaunted a cocky grin. "You're just jealous that I have a very active social life."
Hardly, Luke thought. "I do just fine socially, thank you very much."
While there was no denying that Luke enjoyed female companionship, he preferred to keep his personal life private, and his affairs short-term, physically satisfying, and emotionally uncomplicated. After giving himself so completely to one woman, only to be betrayed and devastated, he wasn't about to allow any female to have that much power over his heart and emotions ever again.
"Oh, man," Mike breathed in awe. "She might have the body of a temptress, but she's got the face of an angel. Take a look."
Luke lifted his gaze back to the monitor and realized that Mike had switched to a different camera, one that enabled them to view the customers straight on. At first glance, the woman looked vaguely familiar, prompting a jolt of adrenaline to kick up the beat of his heart. He immediately shook off the odd, unexpected reaction.
Then he looked longer. Harder. And felt a strong sense of unease sweep through him. One he was hard-pressed to ignore.
There was no way it was her. He told himself he was just imagining things, but the resemblance was so similar that he couldn't disregard the possibility.
"Give me a close-up of her face," he said to Mike.
His friend chuckled, and with a push of a few buttons on his keyboard, the camera panned in on the woman. "Nice to know you're not immune after all, Kincaid."
Luke ignored the lighthearted gibe, because as soon as the woman's features came into sharp focus he felt as if he'd been sucker punched right in his solar plexus. Disbelief constricted his chest as he stared at her lovely face, recognizing with too much clarity those light green eyes that were flecked with gold and deepened to a dark shade of jade in the throes of passion. And then there were those sensual lips that had the ability to curve into the sweetest of smiles one moment, and in the next make him weak with lust with the hottest, softest, most seductive kisses a man could ever hope for.
Her complexion was still peaches-and-cream smooth. As for that unruly, curly hair she'd pinned up, he knew exactly what it looked like down. He also had intimate knowledge of what the silky strands felt like wrapping around his fingers and trailing over his naked body ...
Even though his insides were already twisted into a huge knot, he couldn't stop his gaze from drifting lower, to the Vee of her lace-edged camisole top and the impressive cleavage he found there. Last he remembered, her small breasts had been a perfect handful. Judging by the plump flesh filling out her top now, it was apparent that she'd been a late bloomer and had grown into her curvaceous body with grace and style.
The past eight years had matured her from a young guileless eighteen-year-old girl who'd professed to love him forever to a stunningly beautiful woman that men fantasized about having on their arm ... or in their beds. The proof of that was in the effortless way she'd captured the attention of not only Mike, but the two men sitting at the table with her, and the dealer and pit boss as well.
"What the hell is Rachel Hudson doing here?" he muttered, speaking his thoughts out loud before he realized he'd done so in front of his good friend. He stiffened defensively, and waited for the inquisition to come. Mike cut a surprised glance Luke's way, his brows raised high. "You know her?"
Shit, Luke thought, knowing just how persistent Mike could be when his curiosity was piqued. Except his past with this woman was something he had no desire to talk about. To anyone.
Luke released a harsh breath before reluctantly replying, "Yeah, I know her."
Mike waited for an explanation, but when Luke kept quiet, his friend didn't hesitate to prompt him. "How about a few details, Kincaid? Like how do you know her?"
Looking back at the monitor and the blond woman who'd walked out of his life without any attempt to contact him, Luke felt the past collide with the present. "I was married to her," he said, and the initial shock that transformed Mike's expression was almost worth the pain of confessing the truth.
Mike's mouth opened, snapped shut, and then he shook his head and laughed. "Yeah, in your dreams," he said, still chuckling. When Luke didn't join in or admit to the elaborate tale, Mike grew serious, and uncertain. "You are joking, aren't you?"
Luke shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his khaki pants, wishing like hell he was kidding, because after eight years of silence this was a scenario he never would have imagined or predicted. "Do I look like I'm joking?"
Realization finally dawned for Mike. "Jesus, Luke. I've known you for what, six, seven years now? I never knew you were married."
"It was a long time ago," he said with a shrug that was more stiff than the I-don't-give-a-damn attitude he'd been striving for. "And it's not something I like to talk about."
"Obviously," Mike replied drolly. "How long has it been since you've seen her?"
"Eight years. Ever since she and her family moved from Las Vegas to New York." Luke redirected his gaze to a different monitor, one that focused on the poker tables, instead of the woman who'd caused him so much heartbreak.
"Wow. She's a long way from home." Mike's tone was infused with open speculation. "I wonder what she's doing here in Las Vegas?"
It was a question Luke didn't have an answer for. He supposed she could be here for a vacation. It was probably pure coincidence that she'd walked into the casino where he worked. But after so many years of being away, he couldn't help but wonder what had brought her back to Las Vegas ... and why now?
Needing to sort through his thoughts without his friend distracting him with a barrage of questions, and wanting to keep the other man busy so he didn't continue to ogle Rachel, Luke gave Mike something else to concentrate on.
"Keep an eye on that guy loitering around the poker tables," Luke said, pointing out a younger man trying to remain inconspicuous, but not quite managing the feat. "I'll be in my office if you need me for anything."
Luke left the main security offices, and once he was enclosed in his own private, personal space, he sat down at his desk and turned on the three monitors mounted on the wall in front of him. He keyed in a few codes, and the screens flickered then displayed three different angles of Rachel sitting at the gaming table-providing him with a front, side, and back view.
Of its own accord, his mind tumbled back to the first day of their senior year in high school, when he'd literally bumped into Rachel in the hallway as they were rushing to their second period classes before the tardy bell rang. He'd knocked the schoolbooks from her arms, and as they both bent down to pick them up off the floor they'd glanced up at the same moment.
He'd meant to apologize, but the instant their gazes met his mouth went completely dry. She had the most fascinating green/gold eyes, and her pretty face had been framed by soft, loose curls. Then she slowly, shyly smiled, and that's all it took for him to want her as his own.
Despite the fact that he came from the wrong side of the strip, so to speak, and that Rachel's father made no attempt to hide his displeasure over their relationship, they were inseparable and dated exclusively their entire senior year. Falling in love came naturally, and by the time they graduated high school they both knew somehow, someway they wanted a future together-even though Rachel had a scholarship to attend New York University in the fall. And wasn't it convenient that Randall Hudson had accepted a job transfer to New York so that the entire family could remain close to Rachel?
But that summer none of those issues had mattered, because Luke planned to surprise Rachel by moving to New York as well. He didn't have the money or means to attend a prestigious college, but he had drive and ambition and was determined to prove to Randall and Carol Hudson that he could support their daughter and give her everything she needed.
One Saturday evening in early August, just a week before Rachel was due to leave for New York with her family, the two of them were driving down the main strip, taking in the hotel marquees' bright, flashing advertisements and the lively outdoor entertainment. Once they reached the end of Las Vegas Boulevard, Luke glanced over to where Rachel was sitting in the passenger seat of his old, used Ford truck. Her window was down, and she had her arm propped on the frame as she enjoyed the warm summer breeze caressing her face and sifting through her unbound hair.
"So, what would you like to do tonight?" he asked as he continued driving toward downtown Las Vegas, where there was more action to be seen. "Anything special?"
On the right-hand side of the street, they passed the infamous Little White Wedding Chapel where many celebrities had gotten hitched at a moment's notice. Rachel glanced over at him, a breathtaking smile on her lips and a daring twinkle in her eyes. "Let's get married."
He never considered saying no. He was deeply, irrevocably in love with Rachel and wanted nothing more than to make her his wife and spend the rest of his life with her. It didn't matter that he currently couldn't support Rachel in the way her parents had provided for years, or that Rachel's father was going to be livid when he found out that they'd gotten married when he had much bigger plans for his daughter. No, nothing mattered except that Rachel wanted to marry him. He was certain that they'd figure out a way to make their marriage work. With or without her parents' blessing.
Less than an hour later they'd spoken their vows to one another in a modest ceremony, with the two of them wearing casual jeans and sneakers instead of a tuxedo and a wedding dress. Other than the single long-stemmed rose he'd bought for her, there were no flowers or frills or even a wedding band to slip on her ring finger. All they had, all they needed, was their love and an unequivocal desire to be husband and wife. Or so he believed.
He had only enough money for a night's stay in a motel and that's where they consummated their marriage. Unfortunately, the blissful honeymoon lasted less than twenty-four hours. As soon as Rachel's mother and father learned what they'd done, all hell broke loose, and the next thing Luke knew he was banned from the Hudson household and forbidden to see Rachel. A few days later, when Luke was presented with a monetary bribe from Randall that he flat-out refused, he was then served with the formal documents necessary for an annulment proceeding.
Since he was unable to get in touch with Rachel, he waited for her to contact him. But once the entire Hudson family moved to New York and a month passed without any word from her, Luke went ahead and signed the annulment papers.
That had been the end of his short-lived marriage, as well as a painful lesson learned: That a guy from the wrong side of the tracks wasn't good enough for an uptown girl like Rachel Hudson.
Shaking off the memories of the past, he pressed a button that enabled him to hear the conversations at the table, then he leaned back in his chair and watched Rachel play a few hands of blackjack, and win each one. The guy sitting next to Rachel on her right openly flirted with her, even going so far as to ask her to rub his chips for luck. With a light, musical laugh, she obliged him. While her own good fortune held out, the other man's did not. Before long, she was the only remaining player at the table, with a nice pile of chips in front of her to show for her blackjack skills.
The dealer, Pete, grinned at her. "Looks like you're Lady Luck this evening."
"Which is amazing." She glanced down at her winnings in awe, a light flush on her cheeks. "I haven't been this lucky in I can't remember when. It's nice for a change."
The young man began reshuffling the deck of cards for the next round of hands. "Do you gamble often?"
"Actually, no," she replied with a shake of her head, and took a drink from the bottle of water the casino waitress had delivered for her earlier. "I live in New York, which isn't exactly a gambling mecca."
"I'd have to agree with you there," Pete said as the cards arched easily between his hands. "So, are you here in Vegas for business or pleasure?"
The dealer's questions were idle chitchat to fill up the few minutes it took him to shuffle the deck, but Luke couldn't have asked for a better inquisition because he was just as curious to hear her answers.
"Actually, I'm here for both. A bit of business mixed in with some much needed R & R." She placed her bet on the green felt table, then bit her glossy bottom lip in a way Luke remembered well-a dead giveaway that she was feeling uncertain about something. "Say, maybe you could help me with the business part of my trip."
Pete raised a brow, his expression wary. Especially since he knew that security could easily hear their conversation. "Well, that all depends on what kind of business you're referring to."
"It's legitimate. I promise," she said, and laughed. "I'm an old friend of Luke Kincaid's. Last I heard, he was working here. Do you know how I can get ahold of him?"
Her request shocked the hell out of Luke-that she knew where he worked and that she was actually here to see him. For business, she'd claimed. He couldn't imagine what kind of business the two of them had to discuss after being apart for eight long, silent years.
He was completely confused. Undeniably baffled. And definitely intrigued.
Excerpted from BAD BOYS WITH RED ROSES by JANELLE DENISON TINA DONAHUE SHARON CULLARS Copyright © 2007 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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