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"Bree, wake up!"
A hand roughly shook Bree Dalton awake. Startled, she sat up with a gasp, blinking in the darkness.
Her younger sister was sitting on the edge of the bed. Tears sparkled on Josie's pale cheeks in the moonlight.
"What's happened?" Bree dropped her bare feet to the tile floor, ready to run, ready to fight anyone who had made her baby sister cry. "What's wrong?"
Josie took a deep breath.
"I really messed up this time." She wiped her eyes. "But before you freak out, I want you to know it's going to be fine. I know how to fix it."
Rather than be comforted by this statement, Bree felt deepening fear. Her twenty-two-year-old sister, six years younger than Bree, had a knack for getting into trouble. And she was wearing the short, sexy dress of a Hale Ka'nani cocktail waitress instead of their gray housekeeping smock.
"Were you working at the bar?" Bree demanded.
"Still worried about some man hitting on me?" Josie barked a bitter laugh. "I wish that was the problem."
"What is it, then?"
Josie ran a hand over her eyes. "I'm tired, Bree," she whispered. "You gave up everything to take care of me. When I was twelve, I needed that, but now I am so tired of being your burden"
"I've never thought of you that way," Bree said, stung.
Josie looked at her clasped hands. "I thought this was my chance to pay off those debts, so we could go back to the Mainland. I've been practicing in secret. I thought I knew how to play. How to win."
A chill went down Bree's spine.
"You gambled?" she said numbly.
"It fell into my lap." Josie exhaled, visibly shivering in the warm Hawaiian night. "I'd finished cleaning the wedding reception in the ballroom when I ran into Mr. Hudson. He offered to pay me overtime if I'd serve drinks at his private poker game at midnight. I knew you'd say no, but I thought, just this once "
"I told you not to trust him!"
"I'm sorry," Josie cried. "When he invited me to join them at the table, I couldn't say no!"
Bree clawed back her long blond hair. "What happened?"
"I won," Josie said defiantly. Then she swallowed. "At least I did for a while. Then I started losing. First I lost the chips I'd won, then I lost our grocery money, and then."
Cold understanding went through Bree. She finished dully, "Then Mr. Hudson kindly offered to loan you whatever you needed."
Josie's mouth fell open. "How did you know?"
Because Bree knew bullies like Greg Hudson and how they tried to gain the upper hand. She'd met his type before, long ago, in the life she'd given up ten years agobefore she'd fallen in love, and her life had fallen apart. Before the man she loved had betrayed her, leaving her to the sheriff and the wolvesorphaned and penniless at eighteen, with a heartbroken twelve-year-old sister.
But oh, yes. Bree knew Greg Hudson's type. She closed her eyes, feeling sick as she thought of the hotel manager's hard eyes above his jovial smile, of his cheerful Hawaiian shirt that barely covered his fat belly. The resort manager had slept with many of his female employees, particularly amongst the lower-paid housekeeping staff. In the two months since the Dalton sisters had arrived in Hawaii, Bree had wondered more than once why he'd gone to such trouble to hire them from Seattle. He claimed the girls had been recommended by their employment agency, but that didn't ring true. Surely there were many people looking for jobs here in Honolulu.
Josie had laughed at her, teasing her for being "gloomy and doomy," but as Bree had scrubbed the bathrooms and floors of the lavish resort, she'd tried to solve the puzzle in her mind, and her bad feeling only grew. Especially when their boss made it clear over the past few weeks that he was interested in Josie. And made it equally clear the one he really wanted was Bree.
But of course Josie, with her innocent, trusting spirit, never noticed evil around her. She didn't fully understand why Bree had given up gambling, and insisted they work only low-wage jobs for the ten years since their father died, keeping them under the radar of unscrupulous, dangerous men. Josie didn't know how wicked the world could be.
"Gambling doesn't pay." She kept her voice calm. "You should know that by now."
"You're wrong. It does!" Josie said angrily. "We had plenty of money ten years ago." She turned and looked wistfully at the window, toward the moonlit Hawaiian night. "And I thought if I could just be more like you and Dad."
"You were using us as role models? Have you lost your mind?" Bree exploded. "I've spent the last decade trying to give you a different life!"
"Don't you think I know that?" Josie cried. "What you've sacrificed for me?"
Bree took a deep breath. "It wasn't just for you." Her throat ached as she rose to her feet. "How much money did you lose tonight?"
For a moment, her sister didn't answer. Outside, Bree heard the distant plaintive call of seabirds as Josie stared mutinously at the floor, arms folded. When she finally spoke, her voice was barely audible. "A hundred."
Bree felt relief so fierce she almost cried. She'd been so afraid it would be worse. Reaching out, she gave her sister's shoulder a squeeze. "It'll be all right." She exhaled in relief. "Our budget will be tight, but we'll just eat a little more rice and beans this month." Wiping her eyes, she tried to smile. "Let this be a good lesson "
But Josie hadn't moved from the end of the bed. She looked up, her face pale.
"A hundred thousand, Bree," she whispered. "I owe Mr. Hudson a hundred thousand dollars."
For a second, Bree couldn't understand the words. Lingering tears of relief burned her eyes like acid as she stared at her sister.
A hundred thousand dollars.
Turning away, Bree started to pace, compulsively twisting a long tendril of blond hair into a tight ringlet around her finger as she struggled to make sense of all her worst fears coming true. She tried to control her shaking hands. Tried desperately to think of a way out.
"But I told you, you don't have to worry!" Josie blurted out. "I have a plan."
Bree stopped abruptly. "What is it?"
"I'm going to sell the land."
Her eyes went wide as she stared at her sister.
"There's no choice now. Even you must see that," Josie argued, blinking fast as she clasped her hands tightly in her lap. "We'll sell it, pay off the debt, and then pay off those men who are after us. You'll finally be free"
"That land is in trust." Bree's voice was hard. "You don't get possession until you're twenty-five or married. So put it out of your mind."
Josie shook her head desperately. "But I know how I could"
"You can't," she said coldly. "And even if you could, I wouldn't let you. Dad put that land into an unbreakable trust for a reason."
"Because he thought I was helpless to take care of myself."
"Because from the day you were born, you've had a knack for trusting people and believing the best of them."
"You mean I'm stupid and naive."
Controlling herself, Bree clenched her hands at her sides.
"It's a good quality, Josie," she said quietly. "I wish I had more of it."
And it was true. Josie had always put concern for others over her own safety and well-being. As a chubby girl of five, she'd once wandered out of their Alaskan cabin into the snow, hoping to find their neighbor's cat, which had disappeared the day before. Eleven-year-old Bree had searched their rural street with their panicked father and half a dozen neighbors for hours, until they'd finally found her, lost in the forest, dazed and half-frozen.
Josie had nearly died that day, for the sake of a cat that was found later, snug and warm in a nearby barn.
Bree took a deep breath. Her little sister's heart was as big as the world. It was why she needed someone not nearly so kind or innocent to protect her. "Are they still playing?"
"Yes," Josie said in a small voice.
"Who's at the table?"
"Mr. Hudson and a few owners. Texas Big-Hat, Silicon Valley, Belgian Bob," she said, using the housekeeping staff's nicknames for the villa owners. Her eyes narrowed. "And one more man I didn't recognize. Handsome. Arrogant. He kicked me out of the game." She scowled. "The others would've let me stay longer"
"You would have just lost more," Bree said coldly. Turning away, she went behind her closet door and yanked off her oversized sleep shirt, pulling on a bra and then a snug black T-shirt. "We'd owe a million dollars now, instead of just a hundred thousand."
"It might as well be a million, for all our chance of paying," Josie grumbled. "For all the good it will do them if I don't sell that land. They can't get blood out of a stone!"
Bree pulled on her skinny dark jeans over her slim legs. "And what do you think will happen when you don't pay?"
"Mr. Hudson will make me scrub his floors for free?" she replied weakly.
Coming around the closet door, Bree stared at her in disbelief. "Scrub his floors?"
"What else can he do?"
Bree turned away, muttering to herself. Josie didn't understand the situation she was dealing with. How could she? Bree had made it her mission in life to protect her from knowing.
She'd hoped they would find peace in Hawaii, three thousand miles away from the ice and snow of Alaska. She'd prayed she would find her own peace, and finally stop dreaming of the blue-eyed, dark-haired man she'd once loved. But it hadn't worked. Every night, she still felt Vladimir's arms around her, still heard his low, sensual voice. I love you, Breanna. She still saw the brightness of his eyes as he held up a sparkling diamond beneath the Christmas tree. Will you marry me?
Ugh. Furiously, Bree pushed the memory away. No wonder she still hated Christmas. Let other women go home to their turkeys and children and brightly lit trees. To Bree, yesterday had been just another workday. She never let herself remember that one magical Christmas night when she was eighteen, when she'd wanted to change her life to be worthy of Vladimir's love. The night she'd promised herself that she would neverfor any reasongamble or cheat or lie again. Even though he'd left her, she'd kept that promise.
Until now. She reached into the back of her closet, pulling out her black boots with the sharp stiletto heels.
"Bree?" Josie said anxiously.
Not answering, Bree sat down heavily on the bed. Putting her feet into her boots, she zipped up the backs. It was the first time she'd worn these stiletto boots since she was a rebellious teenager with a flexible conscience and a greedy heart. It took Bree back to the woman she'd never thought she would be again. The woman she'd have to be tonight to save her sister. She glanced at the illuminated red letters of the clock. Three in the morning. A perfect time to start.
"Please, you don't have to do this," her sister whimpered. Her voice choked as she whispered helplessly, "I have a plan."
Ignoring the guilt and anguish in her sister's voice, Bree rose to her feet. "Stay here." Squaring her shoulders, she severed the connection between her brain and her pounding heart. Emotion would only be a liability from here on out. "I'll take care of it."
"No! It's my fault, Bree, and I can fix it. Listen. On Christmas Eve, I met a man who told me how."
But Bree didn't wait to hear whatever cockamamy sob story someone might have fed her softhearted sister this time. She grabbed her black leather motorcycle jacket and headed for the door.
She didn't look back. She walked out of the tiny apartment and went down the open-air hallway to the moss-covered, crumbling concrete steps of the aging building where all the Hale Ka'nani Resort's staff lived.
It's just like riding a bike, Bree told herself fiercely as she raced down the steps. Even after ten years away from the game, she could win at poker. She could.
Warm trade winds blew against her cold skin. Pulling on her black leather jacket, she went down the illuminated paths of the five-star resort toward the beautiful, brand-new buildings used by wealthy tourists and the even wealthier villa owners, clustered around the edge of a private, white-sand beach.
My heart is cold, she repeated to herself. I feel nothing.
The moon was full over the Pacific, leaving a ghostly trail across the black water. Palm trees swayed in the warmth of the Hawaiian breeze. She heard the distant call of night birds, smelled the exotic scent of fruit and spice mingling with the salt of the sea.
Above her, dark silhouettes of tall, slender palm trees swayed in a violet sky twinkling with stars. Even with the bright full moon, the night seemed black to her, wide and endless as the sea. She followed the illuminated path around the deserted pool between the beach and the main lobby. As she grew closer to the beach, she heard the sound of the surf build to a roar.
The open-air bar was nearly empty beneath its long thatched roof. Hanging lights swayed in the breeze over a few drunk tourists and cuddling honeymooners. Bree nodded at the tired-eyed bartender, then went past the bar into a connecting hall that led to the private rooms reserved for the villa owners and their guests. Where rich men brought their cheap mistresses and played private, illegal games.
Opening the door, Bree stumbled in her stiletto boots.
Clenching her hands at her sides, she took a deep breath and told her heart to be a lump of ice. Cold. Cold. Cold. She had no feelings of any kind. Poker was easy. By the time she was fourteen, she'd been fleecing tourists in Alaskan ports. And she'd learned the best way not to show emotion was not to feel it in the first place.
Never play with your heart, kiddo. Only a sucker plays with his heart. Even if you win, you lose.
Her father had said those words to her a million times growing up, but she'd still had to learn the hard way. Once, she'd played with all her heart. And losteverything.
Don't think about it. But in spite of her best efforts, the memory brought a chill of fear. She'd been so determined to leave that life behind. What if she'd forgotten how to play? What if she'd lost her gift? What if she couldn't lure the men in, convince them to let her ante up without money, and get the cards she neededor bluff them into believing she had?
If she failed at this, then Bree felt a flash of sweat on her forehead. Running for the Mainland might be their only option. Or, since they had no money or credit cards and it was doubtful they'd even make it to the airport before they were caught, swimming for the Mainland.
She exhaled, forcing her body to calm down and her heart to slow. It's just poker, she told herself firmly. Your heart is cold. You feel nothing.