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"Happy birthday, girlfriend!" With glasses raised, a multitude of female voices echoed the toast. Someone added, "So, which one is this, anyhow—your thirty-second?"
Treena McCall looked at the group of women ringing the tables they'd shoved together to accommodate everyone and felt the corner of her mouth turn up. "My thirtieth," she corrected smoothly, although it was actually her thirty-fifth. That was a fact she'd just as soon forget, but the ache of muscle strain in her left calf due to a simple high kick in the final number made it tough to do.
Her friends hooted. "Sure it is," someone agreed with friendly sarcasm. A dancer named Juney nodded and said, "And this makes how many thirtieth birthdays you've celebrated?"
"Oh. Well. If you're going to be picky…" Her lip crooked up a little higher yet. "The truth is, I've decided to quit adding numbers and go straight to the alphabetical system… which I suppose makes me thirty-E. Tell you what, though, Juney. If you don't go there on mine, I promise to stay away from the subject on your next birthday."
"In any case—" Julie-Ann Spencer leaned forward from down the table to say "—I guess you won't be dancing the Crazy Horse Show for La Femme anytime soon."
There was an instant silence, since everyone knew Julie-Ann's remark—although offered in a friendly enough tone—wasn't made in the true spirit of comradery.
"Bitch," Carly murmured in Treena's ear, then raised her voice. "Is anyone at this table besides you still under twenty-five, Julie-Ann?" Rude catcalls greeted her question, and Carly gave the young woman a pointed glance. "Then I guess no one but your perky little self qualifies for the Crazy Horse."
"And that is sure as hell La Femme's loss," Eve said.
"Idiots don't know what they're missing," Michelle agreed.
But if Julie-Ann's intention had been to cast a pall over Treena's mood, she'd accomplished her mission. For not only would she never dance in the Crazy Horse, she'd be damn lucky if she passed the mandatory annual audition two weeks from now in order to keep the job she already had. Those eleven months off with Big Jim had cost her. His rapidly escalating illness had allowed her time only to take infrequent dance classes, and that sort of hit-and-miss practice simply wasn't sufficient for a Las Vegas showgirl to stay in shape. In little less than a year, she'd gone from being dance captain of the troupe to barely keeping her spot. Thirty-five might be the prime of most women's lives, but for a dancer it was nearly over the hill. There was nothing to look forward to but the slippery slope on the other side.
Age hadn't been something she'd given much thought to until she'd come back to the show, for the end of her career had always seemed far, far in the future. But as much as she'd like to ignore the way her career seemed to be hurtling toward its final destination faster than a Japanese bullet train, she'd awakened this morning to the realization that she was officially thirty-five. She knew that once this train got into the station, she'd have no choice but to get off. Unfortunately she wasn't even close to realizing her backup dream—that of someday opening up her own dance studio.
No sense dredging up the fact right this minute, however. It only served to exacerbate the itchy feeling of recklessness that had been building in her all day.
She heard a low, sharp exclamation from a male throat and an accompanying high-pitched feminine yip, but even as she turned to see the commotion going on behind her, her bare shoulder and back were suddenly drenched with a shower of melting ice. With a startled shriek, she jumped to her feet.
"Omigod, Treena, I'm sorry," said their waitress Clarissa, who was already bent down on one black fishnet-stockinged knee, righting the empty glasses on her tray.
"No, the fault is mine," said a smooth, deep voice. A tanned, long-fingered hand cupped the waitress's elbow and assisted her to her feet. "My apologies. I should have made sure no one was coming before I got up out of my chair."
As soon as the cocktail waitress regained her footing, he turned to Treena. She had a quick impression of height, wide shoulders, and tousled, sun-streaked brown hair before the man whipped a handkerchief from the breast pocket of a black jacket she'd bet a week's pay had been fashioned by some brand-name, high-priced designer. Reaching out, he used it to gently blot the moisture from her shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he said, taking obvious care not to touch her with anything but the linen square as he daubed under her hair. He fished a dripping cube from her curls with his free hand, and his dark eyebrows met over the strong thrust of a nose that had clearly been broken at some point in his life. "The only saving grace here is that she was carrying empties when I tripped her up. Turn around. Let me get your back."
He spoke with such impersonal coolness that she automatically about-faced, and found herself staring at her friends who were all watching with varying degrees of wide-eyed or raised-brow fascination as he efficiently mopped the moisture from her back. That was when her own compliance hit her.
She wasn't docile by nature, and if he'd made even a single attempt to touch her in an inappropriate manner, she'd have cut him off at the knees so fast he would've been four foot two before he knew what hit him. She was used to deflecting that sort of bullshit from Stage Door Johnnies who thought because a woman danced topless in the final show of the night she was fair game for their wandering hands. But this man's flesh didn't touch hers at all. She felt him only as a heat source through the rapidly dampening handkerchief sliding over her skin.
"There." His voice sounded like a low rumble in her ear, and his hand dropped to his side. He stepped back. "It's not perfect, I'm afraid, but the best I can do under the circumstances."
Turning to face him, she found him standing closer than she'd anticipated. She stepped back only to bump into her chair, and it rocked up onto two legs. When she reached out to steady it, she knocked off her purse. "Oh, for—"
They both stooped down at the same time, their fingers tangling as each reached for the small leather envelope. He relinquished it to her, but pinned her in place with his vivid blue eyes and murmured low enough so only she could hear, "The young woman who's young enough to dance for the Crazy Whatzit you ladies were talking about? Trust me—she doesn't look half as good at twenty-five as you do at thirty-E." His mouth crooked.
She should have been miffed at his eavesdropping but instead, a small whoop of delighted laughter exploded up from her belly. She looked at him, squatting in front of her with his faded jeans stretched white over his wide-spread knees, his silk T-shirt beneath that lightweight designer jacket nearly an exact color match for his sky-blue eyes, and felt something she hadn't experienced for a long, long time—attraction. Pure, animal, man-woman attraction. Her lips curved into her unique one-sided smile and she rose to her feet. "Thank you. That's possibly the nicest birthday present I've received today."
He rose, as well, and stood looking down at her. "Listen," he said slowly. "I don't supposed you'd consider—" With a shake of his head, he cut himself off and, combing a hand through his disheveled hair, he stepped back. "No, never mind. Of course you wouldn't."
"Nothing. It's too presumptuous."
Treena shrugged, but her heart skipped like crazy and only through sheer force of will did she stop herself from demanding to know what he'd been about to say.
Then he dropped his hand to his side, raised his lean jaw, and said, "What the hell. Would you consider joining me for breakfast tomorrow morning? I understand they have an excellent dining room here."
The reckless itch that had been agitating for expression all day urged her to snap up his invitation. Go on, whispered a little devil sitting on her shoulder. Live a little. It was her thirty-freaking-fifth birthday. She might as well get something out of it.
Exactly, the tiny red-horned demon agreed. You could stand a little fun in your life.
She wasn't a young girl who acted on her every impulse, however, and the truth was her husband had only been buried four months earlier. So even though she wanted to say yes, she wrestled the temptation into submission and opened her mouth with every intention of politely but firmly declining his offer.
But Julie-Ann beat her to the punch. "You might want to make that for brunch, big guy—or possibly lunch. Our Treena's getting up there in age, you know, so she requires a bit more beauty rest than she used to." Tilting back her head in a way that displayed her smooth, youthful throat to its best advantage, she laughed as if she'd just let him in on a huge inside joke.
Rebelliousness rose in Treena's chest as she turned to stare at the twentysomething dancer. What on earth was her problem? Julie-Ann had taken over Treena's position as dance captain. Couldn't she be content with that? Instead Treena's very existence seemed to aggravate the younger woman. Well, to hell with her. She turned back to the man. "What's your name?"
"Gallagher. Jax Gallagher."
His voice reverberated along her nerve endings. "Well, Gallagher, Jax Gallagher, I believe I would like to have breakfast with you."
His smile deepened, showcasing his straight white teeth and the creasing lines that fanned out from the corners of his incredibly blue eyes. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. But Julie-Ann's right—I'm not the young woman I was yesterday, and we old ladies do need our rest. So would you mind terribly if we made it for ten o'clock? Or if you have something else going and are pressed for time, perhaps nine-thirty."
"Ten o'clock would be great." He offered his hand.
She grasped it, amazed at how energized his long, slightly rough-tipped fingers made her feel. She had first, second and third thoughts about the wisdom of meeting him in the morning, but she merely said, "I'm Treena McCall, by the way."
"Pleased to meet you, Treena." His fingers slowly released hers and slid away. "Would you like me to send a car to pick you up?"
"That's not necessary. I'll meet you in the dining room."
"Very well. Until tomorrow, then."
"Yes," she said, as he took a step back. "Until then." She watched as he turned and strode from the open concept bar, stopping only long enough to say something to Clarissa and drop some bills on her tray. Then his long legs took him up the aisle that ran between the craps and the blackjack tables. For a moment the sounds to which she'd long ago become so accustomed she rarely even heard them anymore—the clatter of silver dollars hitting trays, the constant ringing of bells, and the competing, clashing tones and beeps of the various electronic slot machines—saturated her consciousness. When Jax disappeared into the depths of the casino, she turned back to her friends. For a second she merely stared blankly at them. Then she pantomimed a scream.
Juney, Eve and Michelle screamed for real. Jerrilyn, Sue and Jo drummed their fingers on the table and grunted, "Whoo! Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!" as if she'd just scored the winning goal at a pro-ball game. Her best friend Carly lounged back in her chair, one slender arm draped across the chair back, and grinned up at Treena. "Way to go, girlfriend! Now, that's what I call a birthday present."
Julie-Ann sulked, which should have felt like sweet vindication to Treena, considering what a pain in the butt she'd been ever since Treena's return to the show. Instead her adrenaline rush bottomed out and, looping her purse strap back over her chair, she dropped into her seat. She gave her friends a cocky smile, just as if she'd scored herself—as Carly had said—an exceptional birthday gift.
But deep inside, she wondered what on earth she thought she was doing.
Jax leaned back in his seat at a linen-draped banquette table in the hotel dining room the following morning and turned a little pink packet of artificial sweetener end for end between his fingers as he kept an eye on the entrance. He thought he'd played things rather well last night, but still he found himself laying bets as to whether or not Treena would actually show.
Tripping the poor cocktail waitress had paid off even better than he'd anticipated. He didn't ordinarily like to involve innocent people in his private agendas, but in this case it had been necessary. He'd watched Treena enough the past few days to know a straight pickup wasn't likely to work. He didn't know what she was getting out of the nondating, all-work-and-no-play widow act he was sure she was putting on, but a good gambler nevertheless always went with the odds. So he'd created his own opportunity and assuaged his conscience by making sure he compensated the waitress with a very generous tip for her trouble and any embarrassment he'd caused her.
Particularly for the embarrassment. He'd spent too much of his youth learning more about that state of mind than any kid needed to know. Humiliation might not kill you, but it could sure as hell make you wish you were dead, if only momentarily.
But he didn't want to think about that, so he focused on the couple of minutes spent getting up close and personal with Treena McCall. He stilled the packet between his fingers midflip as he reflected on those few brief moments.
His reaction to her had caught him by surprise. He'd noticed the shift in her mood when Julie-Ann made such a production out of her age, and he hadn't hesitated to use it to his advantage.
But he sure as hell hadn't expected to feel such an instant connection when her golden brown eyes lit up and she'd let rip with that full-throated laugh once he told her nothing short of the truth: that she looked ten times better at thirty-five than the decade younger Julie-Ann. The small surge of lust he'd felt at catching her scent and feeling the soft brush of her pale red curls across his knuckles was no big surprise. But that momentary flash of I know you he'd experienced just because she had a great laugh? What the hell was that all about?
Just then the object of his thoughts strolled through the dining room door, and he tossed the sweetener packet back into the little silver holder in the middle of the table and straightened. Draping his arm along the back of the leather upholstered banquette, he adopted a casual, friendly pose as he watched her speak to the hostess, then turn to follow the young woman as she wove through the dining room toward his booth.
She caught him watching her and flashed him that lopsided smile. Jax smiled back, aware of his heartbeat shifting into overdrive.
She was dressed in sleek, polished cotton beige pants and an olive-green top made of some slinky material that hung loosely, yet tantalizingly suggested the curves beneath.
So, okay then, most likely his attraction was about sex. And, hell, even if it wasn't, it really didn't matter. Treena McCall was a means to an end. She had something that belonged to him. Something he needed if he planned to stay alive.
Which he did.
So he'd do whatever it took to get it back.