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Neon lights flickered inside the dark casino. The cold air was thick with cigarette smoke and the scent of sugary cocktails. Frank Sinatra blared from the loudspeakers.
So this is what hell looks like. Travis Cain automatically surveyed the room, although any sudden movement from the patrons was unlikely. Most of them were slumped in front of tables and slot machines, their expressions glazed over as they waited for something- anything-to happen. "There are other things I could be doing right now," he muttered.
"True." His friend Aaron nodded as he drank a fruity cocktail. "But how often do you get a chance to make money just by sitting around?"
Aaron made it sound so easy, but Travis was never good at sitting still. "Do you know what I could be doing right now? Wingsuit-flying over the Eiger."
"As if you had enough cash to fly to Switzerland," Aaron said as he motioned the blackjack dealer to hit him with another card.
"Surfing the big waves in Tasmania." Travis smiled as he thought about the crystal-blue water.
"You've already done that." Aaron sighed when he lost the hand. "You never repeat yourself."
"I saw something about bungee jumping." He'd jumped before, so it wasn't that much of a challenge, but it was better than staying in the casino.
"Dude, this is Las Vegas. Why would you want to do that when everything you need comes directly to you? Entertainment," he said as he placed another bet. "Cheap drinks. Spa services."
The spa? Was he serious? Travis cast a glance at his friend's hand and belatedly noticed the manicured fingers. He looked at Aaron with horror, noticing everything from his long blond hair and groomed beard. Aaron's hands used to be caked in mud from digging up treasures. Now he was getting manicures? "What happened to you? Don't you crave adventure?"
"I started craving comfort. It happened the moment we kayaked that waterfall." Aaron closed his eyes and shuddered as he remembered that moment. "That was stupid."
It was a miracle that they had survived. "You've gotten old. Cautious." Travis made a face. "Married."
"My priorities have changed and I decided what I really wanted in life," Aaron corrected. "My dreams are bigger."
Bigger? Travis wanted to scoff at that statement. His friend's dreams had become safer. He now focused all his reckless energy on gambling. Unfortunately, Aaron turned out to be good at it.
"Wait until you get married," Aaron said as he motioned for the blackjack dealer to give him another card, "and then you'll know what I mean."
"Never going to happen," Travis said gruffly. Women only wanted one thing from him: a good story to tell their friends back home. He was the rebound sex or the vacation fling. Not that he had a problem with that.
Only the brave ones tried to make the affair go longer. He'd had a few serious relationships in the past and tried living in one place with one woman. Turned out he was horrible at it. No big surprise there.
His exes quickly realized he couldn't be domesticated. He did try. They wanted him to bring excitement and adventure to their daily schedule, but at the same time they didn't welcome chaos in their lives. His boundless energy was no longer attractive and his need to explore became less inspiring and more exasperating.
"Travis?" Aaron lightly punched him in the arm. "Are you listening to me?"
He hated sitting still. It gave you too much time to think about mistakes and regrets. Limitations and personal flaws. "No, but let me guess. You don't trust hotel security."
"After what happened in Rio? Hell, no," Aaron said with feeling. "The thieves tore up my room and almost got the emerald. Good thing I had it on me that night."
That was the problem with all his friends settling down, Travis thought as he took a drink from his beer bottle. He may be envious that they'd found someone to share their lives with, but settling down meant embracing the sameness. Same conversations. Same retelling of their adventures. His friends were content with that, but he wanted more stories to tell.
It was only a matter of time before Aaron launched into the story about the emerald that was tucked in Travis's pocket. How he won it from an unscrupulous guy named Hoffmann in a game three years ago. Aaron had already reminisced about that moment when he called Travis for backup. Aaron was in Las Vegas on a poker-playing circuit with Hoffmann and some high rollers and he was using the emerald again as collateral. Unfortunately, the other players were not known to be law-abiding.
"And yet you still want to play poker with these guys," Travis muttered. "If breaking and entering is part of their routine, something tells me cheating is going to be second nature to them."
"There is no evidence that Hoffmann or anyone from the circuit was behind it."
"Right," Travis said sarcastically. "It's only coincidental that a break-in happens when you enter a high-stakes poker game with these guys."
"The only time that emerald is out of the vault is when I enter a high-stakes poker game. That emerald you're keeping safe in your jacket is my collateral."
"And your lucky charm," Travis added. His friend's superstitious nature brought them more problems than protection.
"That, too." Aaron leaned back in his chair and had a faraway look in his eyes. "If I didn't have that when we were chased out of that village on the Amazon River "
Travis rolled his eyes. Why did his friend give all the credit to a rock? "I still would have saved you."
"Yes, but would I still have all my limbs? We'll never know." Aaron straightened in his chair. "Anyway, I've had that emerald with me whenever it counted. I had it when I met Dana."
"Had it when you married her," Travis finished for his friend. "I'm surprised you didn't add it to her engagement ring."
"She said emerald engagement rings are bad luck."
"Can't have that."
"Damn straight. But when I win this poker game, I'm going to buy her something nice. I saw this necklace in the window-"
Travis raised his beer bottle to his lips and paused when he saw a woman walk into the casino from the hotel lobby. She stood out from the crowd of T-shirts and jeans, wearing a skintight blue dress and platform heels. His gaze traveled lazily down her body. Travis did a double take when he saw what was in her hand. Instead of a designer purse or a weekend bag, she held a vintage mountaineering backpack. Only this backpack had never been used.
He slowly lowered his beer onto the table as his curiosity deepened. Travis glanced at her face and his heart gave a violent kick. She was a natural beauty. She didn't need to highlight her wide brown eyes or her full pink lips with a heavy layer of makeup.
The woman reached up and flipped her hair back. The movement pulled at her dress, emphasizing her gentle curves and athletic build. His gut clenched when he saw her long, bare legs. He'd bet they were silky smooth. Warm and strong. He wondered what those legs would feel like wrapped tightly around him. Travis gritted his teeth as his imagination bloomed.
"She's out of your league," Aaron said.
It was true, but that didn't make Travis ignore the woman. "Dana is out of your league, and look what happened there," he said gruffly.
"Dana is different. That woman? High maintenance. I see that kind of woman all the time in the casinos. Do you see how she's dressed? How she isn't with anyone? She's on the hunt for a big spender."
Travis shook his head as he watched the woman walk past a row of slot machines. She was a breath of fresh air in a kitschy casino filled with gold furniture and red carpeting. She was looking around, taking in everything. He had recognized the look in her eyes. She was ready for anything. "No, she wants excitement."
But what kind? The backpack indicated she wanted adventure but it didn't seem a natural fit. Her do-me-right-now shoes suggested she was looking for a good time, but she tugged at her dress as if she wasn't comfortable with the short length.
"She wants a glamorous lifestyle," Aaron corrected. "Financial security. Two things you don't possess."
"I'm getting big bucks to babysit the emerald," he reminded his friend. He would have done it for free to help out but Aaron had insisted. It was the only reason Travis would visit a place like Vegas.
"Which you plan to spend on climbing the volcanoes in Indonesia. Waste of money, if you ask me."
Travis reluctantly dragged his gaze away from the woman. "You're just saying that because you want to come along. Dana won't let you, will she?"
"Hey, she worries about me," Aaron said with a smile. "And I kind of like that."
Travis frowned. It had been a long time since someone had worried about him. He used to prefer it that way. After being raised by his grandmother, who saw danger in every corner, he didn't want to be held back because of someone's fears. But the idea of a loved one caring about him didn't sound as suffocating as it should.
"You know," Aaron continued, "if you stopped spending your money on adventures and started investing it, you could have a very comfortable lifestyle."
There was that word again. Comfortable. The idea of comfort was a trap. If you're comfortable, you're too scared to take a risk. You're too busy protecting what you have instead of going for something you want.
"You could even have a chance with a woman like that."
"I could get her now," Travis declared, ignoring Aaron's bark of laughter as he looked for the brunette in the shadowy casino. He jerked his attention back to two men sitting next to the slot machines. They hadn't been there before. He noticed only one of the guys was playing. The tall one sat silently, his attention directly on the blackjack table. Their dark suits didn't hide their bulky physiques.
"Aaron, do you see the two guys at the slot machines?" Travis asked as he made brief eye contact with the pale guy with blue eyes. "Something's off. They're positioned to look directly at us. How much do you want to bet they are looking for the emerald?"
Aaron took a long sip of his drink as he casually glanced over at the slot machines. "You're being paranoid."
"Do they look familiar?" Travis asked as his instincts started tingling. "Did you see them when the thieves tore up your hotel room in Rio? They may have blended in with the crowd, but they don't fit in with this clientele."
"Neither do we," Aaron pointed out as he set down his glass.
"Exactly." The players for the high-stakes poker game purposely chose a cheap and shabby casino for privacy and secrecy.
"Those guys are part of Hoffmann's security team," Aaron said.
"How rich are these poker buddies that they need security?"
"Very. Although I think security team is another way of saying enforcers."
"I think the one with the crooked nose is Pitts. The tall one is Underwood."
"You really need to learn the definition of buddy?'' Travis asserted. "A buddy does not put you under surveillance. I think you are being watched."
"You mean we are being watched," Aaron corrected.
"Do you think these guys are working for their boss or for themselves?"
Aaron frowned. "Hoffmann has been trying to win back the emerald. He says it's a family heirloom. He's getting a little desperate and he's had an unlucky streak."
"So if he can't win it back, his security guys are going to find it while you're in the game."
"We're making it too obvious that we're friends," Aaron said. "If they tear up my room and don't find the emerald, they'll search your room."
"Why me? You're the one who owns the gem."
"Process of elimination. If I don't have it on me or in my room, they will go after my closest buddy."
"Time to split up," Travis muttered. "Text me when you need me."
"They'll go after you," Aaron predicted. "You need to throw them off. How will you do that? You're a single guy who doesn't gamble. A lot goes on in Vegas, but you'll stick out like a sore thumb. You need to look less suspicious."
It was true. He needed to blend in with a group. Unfortunately, most of the guests in this place were senior citizens. He could infiltrate a bachelor party. Find a group of businessmen here for a convention. Travis looked around and his gaze landed on the brunette in the blue dress.
An idea formed in his mind. Travis rose from his seat, his pulse quickening with anticipation. Forget a bunch of drunk, rowdy men. He knew exactly how he wanted to spend his weekend. "I'll be with the brunette."
His friend snorted at the claim. "Her? Never going to happen."
"How can you say that? I'm holding on to your emerald," Travis replied. The emerald suddenly felt heavy in the breast pocket of his jacket.
Aaron laughed. "That emerald is lucky, not magic. But you'll find out soon enough."
She would never listen to Jill again, Christine Pearson thought as she tugged at the hem of her dress. Her friend insisted on this fancy outfit, telling her she would blend in with the crowd. Did Jill think she was staying at the Bellagio or something?
Christine took a step forward and felt her skirt rise up her thigh. She tried to yank it down as she walked, but she wasn't used to wearing high heels. She turned her ankle and almost tripped.
I should have stayed home. That had been the thought running through her mind the moment she got off the plane at McCarran Airport. She had headed straight for the restroom, found an empty stall and struggled into her tight dress and high heels.
The moment she had stepped out of the stall and seen her reflection in the mirror she knew the plan wasn't going to work. She wasn't the kind of woman to wear this dress. It was no use pretending. At least no one back in Cedar Valley would see her make a fool of herself.
Christine closed her eyes, but the chimes and bells from the machines were distracting. She took a deep breath only to inhale the stench of smoke. You 're here. Might as well make the most of this weekend.
She opened her eyes and blinked as the bright lights flickered in the dark casino. It was time to focus. Flipping her hair back, Christine tried to remember her to-do list.
She sighed and rolled her eyes in self-disgust. That should have been her first clue that this plan wasn't going to work. Who made a to-do list for a wild weekend?
Her thoughts only proved that somehow, somewhere, she had lost her impetuous spirit. She hadn't realized it until she discovered the list of dreams she had written when she had turned eighteen. She really wished she hadn't found it. Every naive, ridiculous and impractical goal was on that list.
And yet, ten years later, she hadn't accomplished any of them. Not one. The regret weighed heavily on her. Where had all the time gone? What had she been doing? She marched across the casino floor. Was it possible that she had changed so much in ten years? Was she a completely different person now?
Christine stumbled to a halt in the middle of the casino as she considered that question. Was it too late to follow this list? Should she let it go and move on?
No. Christine raised her chin and rolled back her shoulders. If she were a different person, it wouldn't have hurt so much to see that list. She would have laughed it off and thrown it away.
Instead, she'd memorized it and decided to take action. It was time to resurrect her wild side and become the bold woman she'd always wanted to be. She was starting it all off with a three-day weekend in Las Vegas so she could have the freedom to try something daring.
She walked by a row of old-fashioned slot machines and paused. Fishing through her backpack, Christine pulled out a crisp dollar bill and fed it through the machine. She pulled the lever, but didn't feel any excitement as she watched the row of symbols spin and settle.
No surprise there. But that was dream number forty-three. Win money. She knew why she had written that down ten years ago. Back then she had big dreams and a poorly paid summer position at the bank.
Now she was the manager of that bank.