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"You won't regret giving me this opportunity."
And hopefully neither will I.
Cleo Sinclair kept the worrisome thought to herself as she held her cheery smile in place. With the meeting at last over, she sailed out of the office of the vice president of player development, barely remembering to pull the door closed behind her. Away from Mr. Burns's cool demeanor and skeptical stare, she rotated her shoulders, easing the tension.
At the end of the hall, the elevator chimed and the door opened, allowing an employee to exit. Cleo stepped up her pace and slipped into the open car. Her pink manicured nail pressed the button for the main floor. Once the doors swished shut, the air whooshed out of her lungs and she leaned against the wall for support.
Step one was done. She had the job, albeit on a trial basis.
Now on to step number two.
She had to prove to the ever-doubting Mr. Burns that she was up to his challenge. She could and would bring in wealthy clientele eager to gamble at one of Las Vegas's most luxurious establishments, the Glamour Hotel and Casino.
A glance at her image in the polished doors had her adjusting her cheery yellow dress, which dipped a little lower than she'd like. When she'd worked in the accounting department, her attire hadn't been so important. But now working the frontend of the casino, everything about her appearance mattered. She smoothed her hands over the skirt. It wasn't the fanciest outfit she'd ever stitched. In fact, she'd worried that she'd made a mistake by choosing to wear it, but with each compliment from her fellow employees, her nervousness had eased That was, until her meeting.
She halted her rambling thoughts and inhaled a deep breath.
It was too late to second-guess herself. The train had left the station. The ship had sailed. Oh heck, it didn't matter what phrase she used. Her plan was in motion. And she would succeed.
After all, she'd just put her entire future on the line. There was no going back. No changing her mind. If this arrangement didn't work, she couldn't stay in Vegas nor would she be able to return home to Wyoming.
The elevator doors silently slid open, revealing lush carpeting leading to the casino area. The soft lighting added to the ambiance while the blinking lights on the slot machines lured guests to try their luck at winning a fortune. Without windows or clocks, minutes stretched into hours. In fact, she had found herself losing track of time on the numerous occasions she'd spent on the floor training for this promotion.
A cheer echoed through the room and she glanced around to see an excited crowd at the craps table. The palpable energy charged the room. Someone must be on a roll of luck. She hoped this would be her lucky day, too.
As of yet, her whale, the big client, hadn't checked in. The VP himself would be greeting the guest and then he'd phone her when her presence was required. Her boss had gone over the guest's preferences, including his favorite gameblackjack. Her job was to keep the whale happy by comping his meals and getting him tickets to whatever shows he preferred. But the utmost important thing was to maintain this guest's privacy, above and beyond their normal discretion. Even she didn't know his name yet.
With her family's ranch deep in debt, this was her only chance to chip in and prove to them that she was still a Sinclair. And she was doing what any Sinclair would dotaking a necessary calculated risk and making sure it paid off.
She wanted to be close by, so she headed for the China Cup, a little coffee shop just on the other side of the reception area. Her mouth watered in anticipation of her first sip of a mocha java latte. Her steps came faster and when her blue suede heels hit the marble floor by the front doors, they made a rapid staccato sound.
A line of guests waiting to check in trailed past the sculpted fountain, blocking her passage. She paused, finding the line almost reached the entrance. They must be here for the car convention that opened today. It was the biggest event along the strip. The hotel had sold out months in advance. This would be an ideal time for her to fish for new clientsif only Mr. Burns didn't have her on such a short leash, insisting she cater to this one whale only.
"Hey, buddy," grouched a man near the front of the line, "how about moving aside?"
"Yeah," chorused a screechy female voice. "The rest of us have reservations."
Shouts and complaints rippled through the lushly decorated lobby.
Cleo glanced at the front desk to find one employee on duty. What in the world? There were supposed to be three people helping with check-in, but the only person standing there was Lynn, their newest hire. The girl was so green that she made the grass on the eighteen-hole golf course look dull and grayish. Why would they leave her alone at the front desk, today of all days?
"There has to be a mistake." Rising frustration laced the voice of the man standing at the counter.
But it was more than the angry tone that drew Cleo's attention. A note of recognition chimed in the far recesses of her mind. She craned her neck for a better look. Only the back of his short brown hair and his blue-and-white-striped collared shirt were visible. She knew that voice, but from where?
She glanced around, hoping to find someone qualified to assist the now flustered desk clerk. When Cleo didn't see any hotel employees moving in to help, she stepped forward. The least she could do was maintain crowd control until someone showed up to help with registration.
"Check again." The man's posture was rigid. "It's under Joe Smith."
"I am, sir." Lynn studied the computer monitor. "I can't locate your name in our system."
"Call your supervisor."
"II can't. She's just left. She's ill."
"Then call her boss. Surely there's someone around here who knows what's going on."
While Lynn frantically stabbed at the phone pad trying to reach someone to straighten out things, Cleo stepped up behind the disgruntled man. He didn't notice her as he leaned both elbows on the counter, peering at the computer monitor. Her gaze slid over his broad shoulders to his tapered waist, where his jeans accentuated his finer assets. Realizing what she was doing, she jerked her attention upward.
"Excuse me, sir. Can I help?"
When the man straightened, he was much taller than she'd anticipated. As he turned to her, she found herself straightening her spine and lifting her chin. His assessing glance sent a shiver of awareness down her arms. She shook off the sensation. Obviously she'd been concentrating on the problems with her family and her job a little too much. It had been years since a man had such an effect on her. Not since
His cool blue-gray gaze met and held hers. The chatter of excited voices and the jingle of the slot machines faded into the background. Her breath caught as she waited for a sign of recognition. But none came. No smile. No hug. Nothing. What was up with that?
She smiled at him. "Hey, Jax. Still making trouble, I see."
He made a point of checking out the ID badge pinned to her chest. Was it just her imagination or was he taking longer than necessary to verify her name?
"Jax, it hasn't been that many years. You've got to recognize me."
Sure she'd changed some, but so had he. His long brown hair had been cut off. Her fingers itched to brush over the supershort strands. And his face was now pale instead of the tanned complexion she recalledback when they spent most of their time outdoors.
But not everything about him had changed. If you knew to look for it, there was still a little scar that threaded along his jaw. She clearly remembered the day he'd gotten it. They'd been fishing at the creek. He'd been goofing off when he'd slipped and fallen on rocks. He'd clambered back upright and laughed at himself until she'd pointed out he was bleeding.
They'd practically grown up together even if he was five years her senior. Hope Springs, Wyoming, was a very small town and it was great seeing someone from home. It'd been so long since she'd been there. And her last visit had been such a nightmare
Her throat tightened. Could that be the answer? It might explain why he was acting as if he didn't know her. Even though he'd left Hope Springs years ago, it was possible he kept in contact with someone from there. Her stomach churned. Did he know about what she'd done?
"Jax, stop acting like you could forget the girl who used to follow you to our favorite watering hole."
"I think you must have me mistaken for someone else." He turned his back to her and waited while the clerk spoke in hushed tones on the phone.
Mistaken? Not a chance. She'd know those baby blues anywhere. They could still make her heart flutter with just a glance.
Even with the passage of time and some outward changes, it was impossible he'd forget her. She'd had a teenage crush on him of megapro-portions. To say she thought the sun rose and set around him was putting it mildly. She'd have done anything for him. She had done anything for him, including lying. So whatever he had going on with this alias of his, she refused to lie for him again. Not here. Not when she could lose her job and so much more.
"Stop acting like you don't recognize me. We need to talk"
He glanced over his shoulder at her. His eyes darkened and his voice lowered. "No, we don't."
"Your name is Jax Monroe. You're from Hope Springs, Wyoming"
"Stop." He turned fully around. "You aren't going to let this drop, are you?"
She crossed her arms and shook her head. When his eyes flared, she realized she'd made the wrong move. Her arms pushed up on her chest, which was now peeking out from the diving neckline. She wanted to change positions but stubborn pride held her in place. Let him look. Maybe now he'd realize what he'd missed out on when he'd brushed off her inexperienced kiss and skipped town without a backward glance.
Jax Monroe couldn't help but stare at Cleoall grown-up and filled out in the right places. Long wavy honey-gold locks just begged for him to run his fingers through them to see if they were as soft as they appeared. Wow! If he had known how hot she'd turn out, he might have reconsidered returning to Hope Springs. After all, she'd had a crush on him that was apparent to everyone in their hometown. But then he recalled how young she'd been back thenmuch too young for him.
And now, as much as her body had grown and changed from the gangly teenager he'd once known, there were other parts of her that were annoyingly the same. She still spoke her mind at the most inopportune time and without any thought of who might be listening.
What in the world had made him think that flying across the country to hide in plain sight was such a good idea? On second thought, maybe he should have stuck it out in New York until it was time for his courtroom testimony. But he'd already made his choice. And now that he was here, he was looking forward to seeing if Lady Luck was still on his side.
Now if only he could just get Cleo to quiet down before she revealed his identity to everyone in the hotel. Frustration bubbled in his veins as he considered clamping his hand over her pink glossy lips. Then a more tempting thought came to mind of how he might silence herlip to lip.
One look at the agitation reflected in her eyes and he knew she'd slap him if he dared kiss her. Definitely not a viable option, even if Cleo wasn't his best friend's kid sister. Kurt had been the one guy who'd always accepted him as isthe same guy who'd saved his bacon more than once when he'd acted out after his old man had called him a good-for-nothing mooch. The only thing Kurt had ever asked of him was to keep his hands off his little sis.
Jax smiled as he recalled Cleo with knobby knees, freckles and a long ponytail. Boy had things changed. She was smooth and polished like a piece of fine art. Cleo's green eyes narrowed. "Am I amusing you?"
"Um, no." He struggled to untangle his muddled thoughts. "I take it by your name tag that you work here."
Lines creased between her fine brows. "What's the matter with you? Have you been drinking?"
"What? Of course not." He'd watched his father live his life out of a scotch bottle and the way his mother tried to please him, with no luck. Jax refused to follow in his father's unhappy footsteps. "I don't drink."
"So why are you calling yourself Joe Smith?"
"Let's talk over there. Out of the way." He pointed to the edge of the counter, away from the incoming guests.
She turned to observe the long line before following him. "I don't know what game you're playing, but I won't let you cause trouble here."
"Lower your voice." Luckily no one appeared to notice them or their conversation. The guests were more interested in the arrival of an additional desk clerk than in what Cleo had to say. "I promise you I'm not here for any nefarious reason."
"Why should I believe you? I covered for you when you 'borrowed' the school mascot and when you pulled those numerous other pranks. I know the trouble you can cause."
"You've got to trust me."
She arched a disbelieving brow. "Says who?"
Little Cleo had certainly gained some spunk. Well, good for her. It was also a relief to know she wasn't still carrying that crazy torch for him. The last thing he needed at this critical juncture of his life was more complications.
Her finger poked his chest. "You're up to something and I want to know what it is." Her tone brooked no room for debate. He wouldn't be wiggling out of this confrontation with some flimsy story. "You can start by explaining your need for an alias."
"Just leave it be."
She shook her head. "I can't look the other way. We aren't kids anymore. This is where I work and I can't let you jeopardize my job." Cleo's voice rose with every word. "But if you turn around and leave now, we can forget we ever saw each other."
He doubted he'd ever be able to wipe her sexy image from his memory. Her polished persona stole his breath away. She may have been a cute kid, but she'd grown up to be a real knockout. And as for leaving here now, he wasn't about to do it. He had as much right to be here as anyone else.
Cleo leveled her shoulders and tapped her foot. He hated to tell her but if she was angling for an intimidating pose, she'd missed her mark. She was more alluring than scary.
"Don't make me call for security."
Heads were turning in their direction. The very last thing he wanted was to become a spectacle for the masses. "You wouldn't do that to an old friend, would you?"
"A few minutes ago you didn't even know me."