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Amber Rose wanted out of the con-artist life. Counting cards in Vegas high-stakes poker games was not the way she wanted to liveeven if it did bring in money she desperately needed to pay for her Alzheimer's-stricken father's medical bills and keep him in a top-notch nursing home. But now she'd saved enough to find another way. She glanced around the crowded, smoke-filled casino, where she'd arranged to meet Marshall Banks, her soon-to-be ex-partner. The Bellagio was his favorite hotel on the Strip and she hoped the atmosphere would put him in a good mood for when she delivered the news.
Amber glanced at her watch. Though it felt like hours, only five minutes had passed since she'd arrived. Relax, she ordered herself, when she finally caught sight of Marshall across the room.
She couldn't help but notice many appreciative female eyes followed him as he cut through the crowd. With his black slacks and colorful striped dress shirt, and dark, slicked-back hair, he epitomized Vegas glitz and studly Andy Garcia-like appeal. Women had always been drawn to Marshall. As a young, impressionable teenager, Amber had been one of them. How could she not have a crush on her father's top protégé?
Sam Brenner had been a gambler extroaordinaire, a man Amber had been in awe of. He was everything Vegasbig and large, dynamic and exciting. He'd adored his daughter and he'd seen to it she had everything she'd ever needed. Since he was often traveling the gambling circuit, leaving Amber with his parents, she'd extended her awe and love to her dashing father to her hometown, Vegas. She reveled in the glitz and glamour that emanated from it in waves.
The shine had long since come off Marshall, though, and these days she saw her soon-to-be ex-partner for the man he really was. A middle-aged con who made his living by gambling and cheating, simply because he could. Amber's reasons for getting into the life had been less self-serving, yet she couldn't deny they shared a mutual investment in their partnership.
"Hey, beautiful." Marshall stepped up beside her and pressed a cool kiss to her cheek. "How are you this morning?" he asked, interrupting her introspection.
"I'm just fine." She pressed her fingers together to keep from fidgeting or tipping her hand before she was ready.
"Can I get you a drink?" Marshall asked.
She frowned at his question. "Isn't noon a little early for cocktails?"
"Come on, babe, relax. It's Friday. The start of the weekend." He flagged down a waitress. "Johnnie Walker Black for me. And a chardonnay for the lady."
Chardonnay was Amber's drink of choice when she and Marshall were acting the part of gambler and his bimbo. Amber didn't want anything to do with the charade now.
She waved her hand in the air. "Nothing for me."
With a nod, the cocktail waitress turned and walked away.
Marshall immediately cocked his head to one side. "Something wrong?" he asked Amber.
She shook her head. "No, it's just that it's awfully early in the day." Even for a Friday.
He pinned her with his astute stare. "What's your problem? You usually don't give a damn what I drink or when as long as we have a gig planned that'll bring in some cash. And I already told you we're set for tomorrow night. Relax." He reached out a hand to smooth her long curls.
She forced herself to release a calming breath. He was right. She'd never questioned him about his drinking before. From the moment she'd asked him to join her in her mission to raise big money by revisiting the tricks her father had taught her in her youth, she'd always let him do his own thing. Amber didn't want him drinking now because the more alcohol he downed, the more volatile he could become when he heard her news.
She might as well get it over with. "About tomorrow's game." Amber clenched and unclenched her fists. Her palms were damp and she resisted the urge to wipe them on her dark dress.
His wary gaze turned his irises coal-black, but Amber wasn't afraid. He usually possessed enough charm to cover his explosive temper. Usually.
"What's wrong?" he asked again.
"I won't be there."
"That's a bad joke." He frowned, the scowl marring his features. "You know I can't win without that photographic memory of yours. What could be more important than the game?"
How to explain honesty, morality and guilt to a man who didn't worry about those things? Amber bit the inside of her cheek, wondering how to phrase things so he'd understand.
She met Marshall's unnerving gaze. "I'm not coming tomorrow because I'm finished with card counting. With this life."
She'd always loved the highs and challenges that high-stakes gambling offered, but she also needed to like the person she viewed in the mirror each morning. And she had, until she was forced to leave the career she loved to look after her father. As a concierge in Beverly Hills, Amber had had a legitimate job that offered her enough challenge to satisfy her reckless streak. She'd found the best in life and she wanted it back. And since she'd saved enough money to take time and find another way to pay for her father's care, she intended to do just that.
"Finished? Come on, baby. Be real." Marshall laughed from deep in his chest as his eyes wandered over her. "Like I just said, we're a team, you and I."
"Not anymore." At twenty-four years old, she'd learned that she preferred to come by her excitement honestly.
"Oh, really?" He folded his arms across his chest, his body language telling her he wasn't buying one word. "Where else are you going to get the tax-free cash to pay for that fancy place your old man is in?" He leaned in closer as he spoke.
The suddenly too-strong scent of his distinctive cologne assaulted her senses and she pulled back. "That's my problem, not yours. I'm just telling you our days as partners are over. I'm out."
"The hell you are." He grabbed her arm tight.
She shook him off and shot him a deadly look. "Do not touch me like that again. Ever." She rubbed her sore arm. "I've made my decision and nothing you say or do is going to change my mind."
"Sorry, babe. I have too much riding on tomorrow night to indulge you," he said through gritted teeth. He took a step toward her, clearly intending to scare her into changing her mind.
No sooner had he wrapped his hand around her forearm again than someone stepped beside them. "Is something wrong here?"
Amber jerked toward the sound of the sexy male voice and was literally blown away. Good-looking was too mild a word to describe the dark-haired stranger whose gaze bore into hers with genuine concern.
"Everything's fine." Amber didn't want this man to get into an argument with Marshall, who seemed primed for a fight. As long as they were in public, her ex-partner wouldn't do more than make a show of manhandling her.
"Doesn't look fine to me." The stranger deliberately stared at Marshall's hand on her arm.
Amber would have shoved Marshall away, but she knew she'd only set him off and cause more trouble for the stranger who seemed determined to play white knight.
"I don't see what business it is of yours," Marshall said, all bluster and machismo.
"I'm making it my business." Her rescuer shoved his hand into his back pocket and pulled out a wallet, flashing a badge. "I heard the lady ask you to keep your hands to yourself. So either you're deaf or just plain stupid. Care to tell me which?" He shoved the small leather billfold back into his pocket just as fast.
Marshall immediately released his grip on Amber's arm. "Hey, no harm," he said, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender as he took a step back.
"Really?" The other man squared his shoulders, which seemed to grow broader beneath his navy T-shirt. "Why don't we ask the lady if that's true. Did he hurt you?" His caring voice softened as he spoke to her, wrapping around her like a warm caress.
She met his gaze. "I'm fine now." She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from saying anything that might incite more trouble between the men.
Marshall nodded in agreement. "See? Just a lover's quarrel. Isn't that right, babe?"
Nothing could be further from the truth. Her goal had been to extricate herself from Marshall. She wasn't about to let him pull her back in. Or lead her sexy savior to the wrong conclusion about them.
She shook her head. "Actually we are I mean, we were business partners. But we aren't anymore," she said.
The stranger's blue eyes narrowed. "Then I guess there's nothing left to discuss, is there?" he pointedly asked Marshall, dismissing him.
Marshall shifted on his feet.
Amber knew no one could make him leave if he wanted to stay, but the stranger had flashed a badge.
So Marshall turned away, but not before sending Amber a warning glance.
He wasn't finished with her yet.
Michael Corwin watched the dirtbag walk away, making sure the other man left the casino before turning his gaze toward the beautiful woman he couldn't help but rescue.
"Are you really okay?" he asked.
She cocked her head to one side. A cascade of blond curls fell over her shoulder as she glanced at him. "I'll live," she said wryly. "I could have handled Marshall myself. But thank you for stepping in." Appreciation and what looked like admiration glittered in her clear blue eyes.
As a detective, it was in his nature to be protective, but as a man he'd been drawn to the alluring woman who'd obviously needed his help. "You're welcome."
She studied him intently. "You aren't a Las Vegas cop, are you?"
He raised an eyebrow at her astute observation. "Boston, Massachusetts. What makes you ask?"
"The accent clearly says you aren't a local. Marshall would have realized it himself if he'd been composed enough to breathe." She extended her hand. "I'm Amber. Pleased to meet you."
"Mike Corwin." He shook her hand and felt the jolt all the way through his body, settling right in his groin. Unexpected, but not unwanted, he thought. "Do you have a last name, Amber?"
"It's Rose. Amber Rose."
He raised an eyebrow at the exotic-sounding name. Added to the short black cocktail dress that draped her slender body, revealing ample cleavage for such a slight woman, he had to admit she made for an enticing package. One he couldn't ignore if he'd wanted to.
"I know it's an unusual name," she added.
"Actually, I was going to say it sounds like it belongs to a Vegas showgirl. No insult intended."
Her porcelain skin flushed beneath the tacky casino lighting. She grinned, showing off one dimple in her cheek. "You're half-right. Rose was my mother's maiden name. Celia Rose. She was a showgirl."
A shadow passed over her eyes. "She died when I was born. So, what brings you to Vegas?" she asked, changing the subject as she looked down and noticed their still-intertwined hands.
He'd been holding on, drawing lazy circles around her wrist with his thumb, enjoying the connection that felt so right, so fast. Obviously she didn't want to discuss her mother and he let the subject go. "I'm here for a wedding."
"Yours?" She jerked her hand back, a horrified expression on her face.
"Hell, no, not my wedding. Do I look like the kind of guy who'd hit on a woman if I was getting married?" he asked, quickly setting things right. "It's my partner's."
"Oh." She exhaled hard. "So you are hitting on me?" she asked, sounding extremely pleased at the notion.
"Most definitely." He stepped closer. Despite the acrid smell of cigarette smoke in the air, he caught a whiff of her floral scent and grew immediately more aroused. "I'm not married or involved," he said, further reassuring her.
Her lips turned upward in a smile.
Any normal, red-blooded man would be attracted to her. Mike had worked so many hours lately, he couldn't remember the last time he'd gotten laid. He didn't normally go around picking up the women he rescued, but Amber was different. Sexual attraction wasn't her only appeal. She was intelligent and obviously had moralsshe'd made it clear she wouldn't have been interested in him if he'd been someone else's husband.
He was here enjoying a long weekend before he had to be back in court early Monday morning to testify in a case he'd closed last year. He'd planned to have fun, unwind and celebrate with his friends. This woman was an unexpected bonus and he realized he wanted to do all of the above with her by his side.
He wasn't normally so impulsive, but what the hell? Where else but Las Vegas could a man indulge and not feel guilty? If the desire was mutual.
"So." She ran her tongue over her glossed lips. "What are you going to do now that you've hit on me?" she asked in a husky voice.