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He was watching her again.
Fear razored through her belly like the slash of a switchbladeswift, hot, deep. It rippled through her awareness, stripped away her composure, shattering the illusion of safety she'd so desperately built.
Leaving her weak, defenseless, exposed.
No. Amanda Patterson wheezed air past her strangled throat, pressed her palm to her rioting heart. She wasn't weak, not anymore. And she refused to be vulnerable again.
She jerked her gaze past the line of stretch limos, inhaled deeply to steady her nerves. Cars idled by the casino on the gridlocked Strip, their horns blaring, stereos booming. Neon lights beckoned and flashed. And people streamed past, an endless parade of humanitylaughing, fearless people out to have fun on a warm April night.
She let out her breath, eased the death grip she had on her wrist, forced her shoulders to relax. She was imagining things. Wayne wasn't watching her. He wasn't even in Las Vegas. Her ex-husband was in Maryland, in prison, exactly where he belonged.
She was safe. Safe. She was thousands of miles away from Wayne, rid of him forever. She was in a new house, getting a new job, starting a new life.
Her sister, Kendall, finished paying the taxi driver and flashed her a smile. "Ready to rock?"
She dragged in another breath, tugged up the corners of her mouth. "You bet."
Kendall tilted her head. Her thick, honey-brown hair slid over her sculpted dancer's arms. "What's wrong? You're not worrying about Claire already are you?"
Her sister knew her too well. "No, of course not. Mrs. Schmidt seems great."
"She is great. And you warned her about Claire's allergies a dozen times. So stop worrying. Claire willhave a great time. Mrs. Schmidt will spoil her to death."
To death. Amanda's heart squeezed. Dread shivered through her veins, but she shook off the gloomy thought. This was ridiculous. She was safe. Her three-year-old daughter was safe.
And she wasn't going to let her old fears ruin her new life.
"Then what is it?" Kendall probed. "It better not be Wayne because if you're going to let that creep"
"It's not him. And I'm fine, really," she lied, embarrassed to let her sister know how rattled she was, how hard it was to quell that horrible feeling that he was spying on her, controlling her, even after all these months.
Kendall studied her with those perceptive hazel eyes.
Then her mouth softened. "Nothing's going to happen. You know that, right?"
"Right." She wouldn't let it. No matter how badly she'd mucked up the past, she owed her daughter a safe and stable life. Heck, she owed it to herself. She'd endured a hellish marriage, the terror of being stalked.
Now she was done with the past, done with the paranoia and fearand on to a much better life.
She straightened her shoulders, tugged the hem of the tight red minidress Kendall had insisted she wear and tried for a lighter tone. "But getting arrested for indecent exposure isn't exactly what I need right now. Are you sure this dress is legal?"
Kendall tossed back her head and laughed, her trademark exuberance drawing the gazes of passing men. "Mandy, this is Vegas. The place where anything goes."
"Yes, I know, but"
"But nothing. That dress is fabulousalthough I still say you should have lost that ugly purse. Now, come on," she continued when Amanda opened her mouth to defend the huge, battered bag. "Lighten up. This is your lucky night out, remember?"
"Luck. Right." She latched on to Kendall's arm, turned toward the arched entrance to the famed Janus casino. "But walk slowly. I'mnot used to these skyscraper heels."
"You're not used to having fun. Which is exactly why we're here. You're going to let loose for oncegamble, meet some hot men, have a ball."
Amanda grimaced. She had no intention of meeting men, hot or otherwise. She knew her limits too well. But Kendall was determined to light up the town, and the least she could do was try.
"Wait until you see this lobby," Kendall added as they walked by a gleaming Bentley, then climbed the marble steps. "You're going to love it. It's right up your alley."
"My alley? Since when is gambling my thing?" She'd never placed a bet in her life.
"You'll see." The uniformed doorman swung the door open, and Kendall shot Amanda a knowing smile.
Amanda dutifully followed her inside. She gave herself a mental pep talk, tried to resist that constant urge to scan the crowds and monitor her surroundings for Waynea habit born of the need to survive. But she didn't need to worry about Wayne anymore. And she was not going to let him ruin this night.
She stepped past the doorway into the lobby, looked up and abruptly stopped. A huge, vaulted ceiling soared above her. Beneath it towered an enormous stone aqueduct, its tri-level arcades a marvel of ancient times.
"Oh, my," she murmured, and every thought of Wayne fled her mind. Captivated, she twirled in a circle, ignoring the people streaming around her, intent on absorbing every detailthe statues of Roman emperors, the decorative medallions and columns, the chariot perched on a marble dais.
"I told you," Kendall said while Amanda still gaped, trying to take it all in.
"You were right." This place was amazing. Fabulous. She felt as if she'd been dropped into ancient Rome.
Her gaze lingered on the colorful murals, the display of early black-glazed pottery, and the closet archaeologist in her thrilled. Whoever designed this place deserved an award. She couldn't believe how authentic it looked.
A woman brushed past, jostling her, and Amanda staggered to stay on her feet. She knew that she needed to move, that she was blocking the entrance, but she couldn't seem to budge. She wanted to absorb everythingthe gurgling fountains, the flickering torches on the walls, the lions pacing restlessly behind glass. Lions. She shook her head, incredulous. This place was unreal.
Then her eyes settled on a plaster relief of Janus, and the tight ball knotting her belly began to slide loose. Janus, the Roman god of doorways and gates, endings and beginningsthe perfect symbol for her new life.
And for the first time in ages a sliver of optimism surged inside her, a long-buried glimmer of hope. She really was going to be all right here. She'd find a new job. Her daughter would thrive. She'd finally find the peace she deserved.
She smiled then, inhaling the soothing scent of moisture from the splashing fountains, the heavenly aroma of roses and gladioli brimming from urns. Still smiling, she turned to join her sister. The tang of a man's aftershave teased her nose.
Her heart tripped. She stumbled, anxiety drumming through her. She glanced around, frantic to find the source of the scent, but a crowd formed around her, blocking her view.
Calm. Stay calm, she urged herself sternly. Wayne wasn't here. This had nothing to do with him.
She hauled in air, struggled to swallow around the tension gripping her throat, determined not to overreact. She stepped to the side, tried to work her way through the noisy throng to find where her sister had gone. But the people shifted and trapped her in.
"Get out of my way," a man in a white shirt shouted beside her, and his rough, raised voice agitated her nerves.
"The hell I will," another man answered.
Amanda glanced up, caught the first man's glowering face and took another step back. They were too close. Too close. Trying to beat back the onrush of panic, she cleared her throat. "Excuse me."
They ignored her. Her anxiety building, she prodded the nearest man with her elbow, intent on getting past. But another whiff of aftershave curled through her senses, and her heart made a frenzied throb.
Stop it, she lectured herself. She had no reason to be afraid. This man had nothing to do with Wayne.
And these people were not going to hurt her. She had to get over the irrational fear, this wrenching need to escape.
She pivoted, wobbled on her too-high heels, determined to get free of this mess. But then a fistfight broke out. Someone shoved. The white-shirted man pushed back, sending the beefy man into her side. Thrown off balance, she gasped, dropped her purse, and nearly fell. The contents of her handbag spilled over the floor.
Her hands trembling, urgency making her head light, she knelt, scooped up her cell phone and keys. The man in the white shirt squatted beside her. "Sorry," he muttered, his voice gruff. His aftershave assailed her, setting off a spurt of panic, unleashing a bone-deep reaction she couldn't control.
"Just leave it. Please. It doesn't matter," she pleaded, needing him to move far away. But he snatched up her wallet and tissues with his thick, stubby fingers, and stuffed them into her bag. Desperate now, unable to meet his eyes, she grabbed her purse, clutched it to her chest and rose.
"Break it up!" someone shouted as she turned and stumbled away from the arguing men. She searched through the crowd for her sister, found her waiting a few yards away.
"There you are," her sister said. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing." Her voice came out high and rushed, and she sucked in a calming breath. "I just got bumped and my purse spilled."
"I told you not to bring that bag."
"I know." She reopened the drawstring top, pawed through the jumbled contents, double-checked that her wallet was there. Relief flooded through her, and she blew out her pent-up breath.
"Well, try to keep up this time," Kendall said, and shook her head.
Feeling foolish, berating her loss of control, she trailed her sister across the room. So she'd smelled Wayne's aftershave. Big deal. He'd worn a popular brand. She'd let her imagination run away from her.
And she had to stop it. She couldn't keep letting him do this to her. Every time she thought of him, he won.
But as they crossed the enormous lobbypast the restless lions, past the Roman arches leading to intriguing gardens and bathsthat feeling of trepidation crept through her again, as if eyes were boring into her back. She straightened her shoulders, determined not to assume that submissive hunch, and tried to shrug the sensation off. But it only intensified, crawling up her spine, her neck, growing stronger with every step.
Her temper flared. This was ridiculous. She didn't deserve this constant fear. She had to put an end to the lunacy now.
"Wait a minute," she said to Kendall. Defiant, she stopped, whipped around.
And met the dark, searing eyes of a man.
But not the one who'd bumped her. This man stood apart from the rest, his feet planted wide, his hands braced low on his hips, like an ancient conqueror surveying his realm.
His thick black hair gleamed in the lights. Heavy beard stubble shadowed his jaw. He had black, slashing brows, taut, masculine cheeks and a mouth so sensual it made her breath catch. A black suit gloved his tall frame.
He was handsome, rivetingshockingly so. But more than his dark looks commanded attention. He had a stillness about him, a feral intensity that exuded intelligence, authority, power.
Her heart thumped, made a funny zigzag in her chest. The word predator flashed through her mind.
The edge of his mouth kicked up at her blatant inspection. His eyes smoldered even more. Then his own gaze dropped, making a long, slow slide over the length of her, trailing a firestorm of heat in its wake.
Her knees trembled. A zap of awareness sizzled her blood. And a completely different type of tension arose in her nerves.
Her face burning, she whirled back toward her sister.
"Whoa, when I said hot men, I didn't mean that hot," Kendall said.
"What?" Breathless, mortified that she'd responded so outrageously, she grabbed her sister's arm and hauled her away.
"You know who that was, don't you? That was Luke Montgomery. The Luke Montgomery. Oh, for goodness sakes," Kendall said when she shot her a blank look.
"Don't you know anything? He's the billionaire who owns this place."
"You're kidding." She'd been ogling a billionaire? How ridiculous could she get?
"No, I'm not kidding. And I can't believe you haven't heard of him. He's been in the news for weeks. You know, because of that woman who was murdered, that casino heiress, Candace Rothchild?"
"No." Amanda slowed to navigate the steps into the gaming pit. She'd been too worried about her own precarious situation to follow the news.
Her sister paused at the bottom of the stairs and huffed out her breath. "You're hopeless. It's a good thing you're in my hands now. I'll get you caught up on tabloid gossip and have you living in sin in no time."
"Great." A wry smile nudged the corner of her mouth. "Just what I need. My own personal guide to corruption."
Kendall grinned back. "Hey, don't knock it."
"I'm not." Her sister might not lead a conventional life, but she did know how to have fun. And at least she hadn't screwed everything up like Amanda had.
Determined to forget all that, she glanced around at the flashing lights and jangling machines, the kaleidoscope of colors and noise. "All right, what's first?"
"Slots. Once you win a little, gain some confidence, we'll graduate to blackjack."
Amanda sighed. She was pathetic. Even her sister knew she couldn't just plunge in and enjoy herself. She had to be coaxed in slowly, teased into having fun.
Her sister took her arm, led her down the aisle to a couple of empty stools. "Here. These machines are loose. They pay out more often."
"How do you know that?"
Kendall propped one slim hip on the stool, squirmed to keep her own short dress from creeping up. "They do it on purpose. They figure if you win here, they can lure you back to the tables and steal your shirt. Now sit down and listen up."
Amanda slid onto the next stool over. She placed her purse on her lap, her amusement growing as her sister gave her a crash course on gambling with slots.
Not that her sister's expertise surprised her. Growing up, Kendall had been everything Amanda was notconfident, popular, outgoing. She'd been the star of every party, the diva on every stage. And she hadn't been afraid to pursue her goals. The day after high school ended she'd hopped on the first bus to Vegas and landed her dream job dancing in a show.
Whereas the far-too-cautious, ever-responsible Amanda had become a teacher and married Wayne.
"Got it?" Kendall asked.
Amanda pulled her thoughts from the past. "I think so." She tugged a twenty dollar bill from her wallet and fed it into the machine, saw the credits appear.
"Here goes." She inhaled, selected the maximum number of coins, and pushed the button to spin the machine. Bars whirred, then stopped. More credits appeared, and she widened her eyes. "Hey, I won."
"I knew you would." Kendall's smile was smug. "I told you your luck was going to change tonight."