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Cara Taylor wiped sweaty hands against the tight satin of her skirt, hoping she didn't leave an imprint. Tonight was the night. The biggest night of her career as a croupier thus far, and she'd just been dealt a blow she wasn't sure she could recover from.
Bobby wanted her to throw the game. Cara took a deep breath to steady herself. She could do this. She had to do this. The men who would arrive at her table in just a few minutes were some of the wealthiest, most daring men in the world. In many ways, though they made her job possible, she loathed them. They were accustomed to waging millions of dollars on one turn of the cards, and just as accustomed to losing as they were winning. This was child's play for them.
Did it matter if she was the instrument of their losses tonight? Not one of them would go home poor. Not one of them understood what it was like to lose everything they had, to fight and struggle for survival on a daily basis.
Cara knew. She'd been fighting to save her family since Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans over five years ago and devastated their home. And not only their home; Katrina had also blown away the diaphanous veil obscuring her father's dark secrets. With her father's betrayal and her mother's subsequent breakdown, it had been Cara's responsibility as the oldest to make sure her family was safe and well. It had taken a long time and a lot of worknot to mention putting her own dreams on holdbut she'd gotten them back on their feet.
Tonight, she finally had a chance to put financial worries behind them for good. She would set Mama up with enough money to make sure the house was paid for and the exorbitant insurance premiums covered. Since the hurricane, insurance companies had raised their rates through the roof. And Mama didn't want to move farther inland.
Though it often frustrated Cara, she also understood it in a perverse way: New Orleans was home. Mama had been born and raised there, and she couldn't leave it. Nor, it seemed, could Cara's sister, Evie. She chewed the inside of her lip. If not for Evie staying home to help Mama and their little brother, Remy, Cara wouldn't be here. And since she was here, she owed it to them all to do everything she could to secure their future.
After tonight, Remy would continue to have the specialized care he needed, which was the most important consideration of all. The bonus Bobby had promised her when she'd agreed to come to Nice for the opening of his new casino would finally enable her to achieve all the goals she'd had when she'd left home.
But first she had to throw this game.
"You understand what you have to do," an oily voice said from behind her.
Cara turned smoothly, hoping her distress didn't show on her face. "Of course."
Bobby Gold winked as he tapped her on the ass. Cara did her best not to flinch. She'd never liked Bobby, but he was the king of the casinos in Vegasand abroad, as this new multi-billion-dollar facility located in an old French palace in the center of Nice proved.
When she'd begun working as a croupier, it had been for one of Bobby's rivals. It hadn't taken long for Bobby to find her and offer her a job. She'd refused at firstbut money, and her desperate need for it, had eventually won out. And, other than the occasional leering pass from the man, she'd had no reason to regret her decision. Until now.
Bobby's gold tooth caught the light as he smiled. She'd never been sure if it was an affectation, or if the man really needed a gold tooth. Nevertheless, it disgusted her.
"Keep the players happy, Cara. Use those beautiful breasts of yours to distract them as much as possible. And keep an eye on the man I point out to you. When the stakes get high enough, he'll give you the signal."
Cara's face burned, but whether from Bobby's casual suggestion she use her breasts to distract the players or from the idea of cheatingof going against her entire moral compassshe wasn't quite sure. She suspected it was a bit of both. Cheating wasn't in her lexicon, especially after the devastation her father had caused. Adultery was a different kind of cheating, but the results were the same. It was simply wrong.
And she wasn't a cheater, period.
Cara slid a nervous hand down her skirt once more. She wanted to pull her shirt closed a bit more, but she wouldn't do so while Bobby leered at her. Usually, her uniform consisted of a long skirt and a high white-collared shirt with a bow tie.
Tonight, Bobby had given her a new uniform. Short, tight black satin mini, and deep-V crimson silk blouse. The bow tie was still a part of the uniform, only now it was around her bare throat.
Just get through tonight, Cara, and you can go back home and never see Bobby Gold again.
A pang of wistfulness shot through her at the thought of leaving Nice before she'd even gotten to explore it. She'd put her dreams of adventure on hold after Katrina's devastation, and now that she'd finally gotten to go somewhere wonderful, she was about to leave again.
"I'll do what I can, boss," she said.
Bobby's face grew hard, his gaze cold and cruel. She'd seen that look before. A shiver washed over her at the thought of all Bobby was capable of.
"Make sure that you do, Cara. I'd hate to have to punish you."
Before she could answer, he turned away and strode toward the bar. Cara let out a long breath. She turned back to the table as the black velvet curtain to the private entrance parted. A tall blond man strode into the room and went straight for the bar. She could hear his accent as he ordered. German. Count von Hofstein, then.
As the minutes trickled by, several more men entered the luxurious room that Bobby had set aside for this very special game. A fat sheikh, who wore a headdress with his three-piece suit and sported a huge ruby ring on the index finger of his left hand. An African man, tall and handsome with luminous ebony skin, came in and took a seat at the table. One by one, the seats filled. The men were quiet, contemplating the game perhaps.
When there was only one chair left, the curtain parted again and another man entered. Cara's pulse kicked up. He was tall, lean and impeccably dressed in a bespoke tuxedo. His hair was darkblack or brownand his eyes were the most piercing shade of silver she'd ever seen. His jaw was strong, handsome, his lips almost cruel in their sensuality. Everything about him screamed money.
And everything about his demeanor said he didn't give a damn about anyone or anything.
Cara shivered as a chill prickled down her spine. She'd never had quite this reaction to the sight of a man before. She'd moved with her ex to Las Vegas, but she hadn't done so because her heart had fluttered when James had entered a room.
This man's expression, so cold and distant, grew even chillier as he looked at her. She quickly glanced away, cursing herself for staring.
Great. He probably thought she was one of those women working in a casino in order to snag a rich husband. She'd had more than one man assume she was looking for a good time, but she'd quickly set the record straight whenever any of them assumed she was up for sale along with the poker chips.
A touch on her arm startled her, and she jumped, her heart slamming into her ribs. Bobby pulled her away from the table. Cara folded her arms over her breasts, hating the way Bobby looked down her shirt, and hating that he knew it bothered her by the way he grinned at her.
"Don't get any ideas of being noble, Cara," he said. "That bonus I promised you will go a long way toward helping your sweet mama, so make sure you remember it." He leaned in close, ran a fat hand down her arm. "The man with the red tie is Brubaker. When it's time, pass the play to him. He'll take care of the rest."
"Yes, boss," she said, hoping her revulsion didn't show.
Cara returned to the table and took out her deck of cards. After announcing the rules of the game, she shuffled. Then she passed the deck to the player on her right, who also shuffled. After a series of shuffles and cutting the deck, Cara dealt the cards.
The man with the silver eyes was directly across from her. He picked up his cards. There was no flash of emotion, no indication whether he was pleased or irritated, before he set them back down. During her time in Vegas, she'd seen her share of card sharks and amateurs. She'd always been able to tell what a player thought of his hand by the telltale little signs she'd observed at countless tables. But this man was unreadable.
Until he looked up and caught her gaze. His eyes bored into hers, and her pulse skittered wildly. For the first time tonight, she was glad she wasn't wearing a high collar. Because she'd have been sweating beneath this man's gaze if she had been.
His mind did not appear to be on the cards lying in front of him. Slowly, his gaze slipped over her, lingering on her breasts, before sliding back up. His regard didn't repulse her the way Bobby's had. No, if anything, her skin tingled with awareness and heat.
Cara dropped her eyes to the green baize of the table. She had to concentrate on this game, had to be prepared to perform her task when the time came. She didn't have the leisure to gape at gorgeous men.
Gorgeous, useless men
Jack Wolfe thumbed the cards he held and waited for someone to call. He hadn't spent time at a card table lately, but when he'd heard Bobby Gold was opening a casino right here in Nice, where Jack had been spending a great deal of time for his business lately, he'd been unable to resist.
He and Bobby didn't know each other well, but they went back a long wayand not a moment of it was pleasant. Bobby never missed an opportunity to spew his rhetoric about lazy, inbred British aristocrats and their inability to manage their money. Jack knew it was a dig at his long-dead father, and though he couldn't care less what manner of disparaging things anyone said about that sorry excuse for a human being, Jack couldn't turn down the chance to beat Bobby at his own game.
Jack didn't frequent casinosthe stock market was far more challengingbut tonight was a special case. He'd once gone head-to-head with Bobby in a game of chance. It hadn't even been serious, just a random event set up by one of Jack's friends who'd been telling Bobby that Jack was a whiz with cards. Bobby, as a new casino owner at the time, had been unable to resist. And when he'd repeatedly lost everything, he'd grown angry.
Yes, Bobby Gold was a mean brute of a man. Jack didn't need the money, but he would certainly enjoy watching Gold's fat face turn purple when he won the jackpot. He'd thought Gold might try to keep him out of the game, but the man merely nodded at him. It made Jack wonder what Gold had up his sleeve.
Cards weren't a challenge at all, not any longer. It had been years since Jack had enjoyed a game, but he'd never lost the ability to read those around him. And he never would. Reading people was second nature to him. Growing up, he'd needed to be able to tell what someonehis fatherwas about to do based on the twitch of a muscle, the tick of an eyelid or the jerk of the lips. Then, it had been a survival skill. That it was also a skill which translated to the card table was something he'd found out much later.
These days he preferred the high stakes of stock trading, the rush when he made a killer deal and the satisfaction of doing it all again just a short while later. The sums were much greater, the thrill much more intense. And the need to read people, still very necessary, was relegated to determining the behavior of the pack.
Jack looked up at the croupier again and lifted an eyebrow when she glanced away nervously. The instant he'd walked behind the curtain and seen her standing there, in her little top and even littler skirt, he'd felt like the evening would be much more interesting than he'd originally anticipated.
He'd watched with interest when Gold had taken her away for a word. Her body language was defensive and her face closed off, though he'd thought he'd seen a flicker of unease in the way she'd swept her long hair off her shoulder. When Bobby leaned in and ran a hand down her arm, Jack had to stifle the urge to leap across the table and punch the man in the face.
As the hand finished and the sexy croupier called the first break in play, the men got up from the table and filtered to various corners of the luxuriously appointed room. Some whipped out cell phones while others chatted quietly.
Jack didn't move. He stretched out his long legs beneath the table and took a sip of his drink. Mineral water with a twist of lime while he was playing. He didn't drink alcohol when he needed his senses to be sharp.
The croupier straightened the chips with quick movements. Jack found himself mesmerized by the elegance of her long-fingered hands, the way she seemed to caress the chips before letting them go. He imagined those hands on his body and was instantly glad he'd decided to remain seated.