They were just friends when they got married. Jill desperately needed a father for her unborn child, and Vince Patrizio wanted to give them both his name. And if Jill could ever learn to love him, he'd consider himself a fortunate man.
Then Jill walked out of his life.
But eleven years later, it's Vince's turn to have his say. Arriving in Jill's sleepy California town, he has plans to transform it into a mini Vegas to reclaim his wife and to meet the son who should have been theirs.
And Vince isn't leaving until he gets what he came for.
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The thing about relying only on yourself was that you had no one else to blame when things went wrong.
Vince Patrizio downshifted his Porsche 911 and hugged another hairpin turn in the California gold country. This bend in the road didn't bring Railroad Stop into view, either. Why am I not surprised?
His GPS didn't work in the uncharted territory at the foot of the mountains and he was unable to get a solid signal on his cell phone. He was late, lost and about to lose an important deal, one that would most likely cost him his inheritance.
Vince cursed and shifted into a higher gear, the force cocooning him deeper into the cradle of fine German leather that felt as welcoming as a well-paid stripper's back-room embrace. The car shot over a sharp rise, startling a deer next to the road. Luckily the doe ran away and down into a ravine, instead of into Vince's path.
He took a deep breath and slowed the car. It was a beautiful early-September afternoon and the narrow ribbon of road beckoned, promising he'd end up somewhere, if not exactly where he wanted to be.
The story of my life.
He'd always been a runner-up, never a winner. Born to wealth but part of a dysfunctional family, left by his wife on their wedding night, what would Vince do but screw up if faced with success and happiness?
That was his grandfather talking. Because of a card game, his grandfather had agreed to stake Vince, but only if he could put a deal together in a year. Aldo Patrizio expected Vince to fail. And for ten months Vince had been doing just that.
Vince cursed again. He jammed his foot down on the accelerator and attacked another turn.
Red lights flashed in his rearview mirror. A siren screamed.
"Now that's par for the course," Vince mumbled as he coasted into one more curve before pulling over onto the narrow shoulder beneath an ancient oak tree, hoping the sheriff was as good at giving directions as he was speeding tickets.
"This meeting is adjourned." Jill Tatum Patrizio had never been so happy to raise her gavel. Railroad Stop was safe.
"No!" Arnie Eagle grabbed the mayor's symbol of power mid-stroke, his tan fingers brushing hers.
Instinctively Jill let go of the gavel, relinquishing it to her political rival.
Why did a man's touch still rattle her after all this time?
Laughter rippled through the standing-room-only crowd at the community center, bringing Jill back to the present. Her cheeks heated. She stood and stepped back from the old warped table.
The city councilman's gaze remained fixed speculatively on Jill even as he said, "We're still waiting for our guest speaker."
That was where Jill had him. Arnie couldn't say they were still waiting for the tribe's venture capitalist to show up. That would be admitting a conflict of interest with his position on the city council.
More than aware of some three hundred Railroad Stop residents and her own son watching them, Jill lifted her chin and connected with Arnie's hard gaze. She would never support a casino in this isolated town. Railroad Stop was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone else and it was impossible not to feel at ease.
"I'm sorry, Arnie," she said. "We've rearranged the city council's agenda for you twice already. This town needs us to act to revive our economy. Since the Amador Tribal Council still lacks financing for its casino, the gated-vacation-home project will most likely garner our support. This meeting is over."
Voices filled the air. People rose to their feet. Arnie's Native American cronies began to circle him, but Jill could still feel his eyes on her. Other attendees stood and chatted or ambled out to clog the aisles. It seemed everyone but Jill was reluctant to leave, an indicator that Jill's phone would ring off the hook with calls from citizens both for and against the casino come Monday morning.
Eager to make an exit, Jill managed to reach Teddy, her ten-year-old son, and Edda Mae, her former boss and mentor. They inched their way through the throng. Edda Mae tapped a woman's shoulder with a sun-mottled, wrinkled hand and asked if they could squeeze past her. They were halfway up the side aisle and still had the rear of the room to cross.
"I would've liked to hear what Arnie's man had to say," Edna Mae said.
"Not me," Teddy piped up. "Grown-up speeches are boring, especially Mom's integer speech."
"That's integrity," Jill corrected, edging around a particularly large gentleman engrossed in a heated discussion about the merits of a casino versus a vacation subdivision. "Don't knock it. That's what got me elected."
"You were the only one who ran," Edda Mae said.
"That doesn't mean no one else cares," Jill grumbled, bumped from behind by someone.
There was a commotion at the exit doors.
"Either Arnie's man finally arrived," Edda Mae said, "or the Staitin brothers picked a fight again."
Jill wasn't sure which was worse.
Aldo Patrizio wasn't listening. The conference room at the Sicilian in Las Vegas was full of pompous men in designer suits who thought their college degrees made them more qualified to run a luxury casino than the man in his eighties who'd founded it in the first place. At least when his grandson, Vince, sat at this table, there had been some interesting ideas and a man with backbone to present them.
Che peccato. It was a shame that after Vince returned from Iraq they'd shouted themselves into a corner neither was willing to back out of.
Aldo snorted and the suit currently babbling in front of a projection screen froze in midsentence. When the man resumed, he spoke louder, as if Aldo had trouble hearing him. Aldo could hear just fine. He just didn't want to listen to people who'd barely cut their teeth in the gambling business try to tell him what to do. What he did want was to pass the reins of the Sicilian to his grandson and spend more time with his beloved Rosalie.
Instead, Vince was off trying to prove himself by brokering a deala deal that had seemed important to both of them ten months agowhile Aldo had to sit and suffer through meetings with MBAs (Masters of Baloney, Advanced).
Good, they were almost done.
"Our analysis has shown that independent casinos fail over time if not infused with a good deal of capital."
Aldo narrowed his eyes at the audacity of the speaker, who cleared his throat and continued, "Therefore, we recommend that the Sicilian formulate exit strategies from current partnerships, such as the ones with the Tatums, that we cease efforts to enter the Native American gaming segment, and that we seriously reconsider recent buyout offers from two different casino magnates."
"Enough!" Aldo slapped his palm on the mahogany table and glared at his chief financial officer. "What is our occupancy rate?"
The man rotated his chin as if his tie was too tight. "Over ninety-eight percent."
"How do our room rates compare to others along The Strip?"
"We charge five percent more on average."
"And our restaurants. Do we still have five-star ratings at all of them?"
Heads bobbed silently around the room. A bigger collection of jamooks he'd never seen.
"And our casino profits, are they also above average?"
More nodding heads.
"Then why would I want to sell?" Aldo slapped the table again for good measure.
When no one answered, Aldo stood, willing his old knees to hold up as he nailed each traitor with his glare. "I pay you to bring my vision to life, not to create a new one."
Next thing you knew they'd be declaring him incompetent and trying to take over the control of his casino!
Vince stood in the open doorway only a moment before arms pulled him into the packed community center like fans welcoming a rock star.
This is good. This is better than good.
"Let him through," a man bellowed from the front of the large, ancient hall.
"The town council meeting is over," said someone from the far side of the room. It was impossible to see who it was in the sea of faces or, over the noise, make out more than that the speaker was a woman.
"Then we'll call a meeting of the Amador Tribal Council. I hereby call this meeting to order." A man with distinguished gray in the dark hair at his temples took up a position behind the front table. With the strong features and bronze skin, he had to be the tribal chairman, Arnie Eagle. Vince had spoken with him several times about providing the bulk of the financing for a casino.
Chairs scraped and banged as people fought for a seat. A few men hurried to fill the spots at the table while others moved to stand behind them.
Pausing only to tug his starched cuffs farther down his wrists, Vince pasted on his warmest smile and walked to the podium.
"Good evening. I apologize for being late. My name is Vince Patrizio."
Someone in the crowd made a strangled noise. Chairs creaked and he heard his last name muttered throughout the room.
A nugget of his prior conversation with Arnie returned.
"Are you related to"
"Yes." Vince hurriedly cut off the chairman's question during their initial phone call, assuming that Arnie wanted to know if he was related to Aldo Patrizio, the self-made tycoon.
Vince needed to find out if his grandfather's name was an advantage or a deal breaker. Meanwhile, his smile never faltered. "I may have been invited here at the request of the tribal council, but I hope that when I'm through most of you will see the benefits of a casino in Railroad Stop. Indulge me for a moment as I recap the advantages of having such a facility in your area."
Off to his right, someone scoffed, someone Vince would have to deal with soon, just not in front of such a large audience.
Vince spoke briefly of job opportunities, the tax dollars that would go to improving roads and schools, as well as the fact that Railroad Stop could control how big the casino would be. Vince hoped for big. "Raising a family, paying the bills and building a community all take hard work and vision. I encourage you to talk amongst yourselves, to foster healthy debates like this one."
"You haven't invited us to debate you. Big companies don't usually care about small facilities." A woman's voice. From the right wall. Heckler Central.
There were several murmurs of assent.
Who was this woman? Vince couldn't tell. And he wouldn't validate her remarks by acknowledging them. It didn't matter. The time for discussion would come later, after he'd created a platform of enthusiasm and support.
Vince continued as if uninterrupted. "If you feel a casino built to represent the character and heritage of the area will help bring to life the vision you have for Railroad Stop's future, I'll be happy to help you achieve that."
His comments were met with a healthy dose of applause, but Vince wasn't fooled. Deliberately, he turned to his right, preparing a friendly smile for the vocal naysayer he needed to win over. As if on cue, all the others in the crowd angled their heads toward one woman as well, unwittingly pointing her out.
Despite the mutinous expression on her face, she avoided his gaze. She wore flannel and blue jeans like most of the crowd, but that didn't hide her polish. She wore the casual clothes with style.
A vein throbbed in Vince's forehead. It wasn't his grandfather the murmuring crowd had been thinking about.
The tremble of Jill's auburn ponytail gave away that his wife wasn't happy to see him.
The feeling was mutual.
"He's got our last name." Teddy bobbed and weaved in front of Jill as he tried to catch a glimpse of Vince. "Why is that?"
It could have been Jill's imagination that everyone within five feet of her stopped talking and leaned closer, anxiously awaiting her answer, but it wasn't, which was why she chose to ignore her son's question. Several townspeople were already streaming down the aisle with eyes on Jill. And those that weren't had Vince in their sights. The crush of inquisitive people forced Jill, Teddy and Edda Mae back down to the front of the hall, toward her husband. It was easy to pretend in the chaos that she couldn't hear anyone's questions directed her way.
"Is he your man?" Edda Mae asked, the tanned skin around her eyes wrinkled, more than usual with the width of her hopeful smile. "I bet he's come to claim you."
"If he wanted to, Vince would have come after me years ago." Jill's limbs trembled.
In the eleven years they'd been married Vince had become a shadow of her own making, always with her but never truly there. Silent and malleable, her image of Vince had been perfect for Jill. Until the real man showed up supporting the wrong cause.
And flashing his pearly whites at Arnie.
"Time to go, Teddy." Jill nudged his shoulder.
The crowd at the front of the hall parted to let them through. And why wouldn't they? Jill was providing enough fodder for a year's worth of gossip. And now she had to pass within arm's reach of Vince to leave.
"Are you going to ask him why we have the same last name?" Teddy spun about and grabbed her arm, tilting his head up so that Jill could see the impish grin on his face.
"No." Jill gently turned her son around and continued working her way toward the exit. The last time she'd seen her husband he'd been asleep on the couch in the house her parents had given them as a wedding gift and she'd been tiptoeing out the door. He'd never asked for an explanation for her departure and she'd never offered one.
Jill was now close enough to take in Vince's crisp haircut, the fine thread count of his jacket as it stretched across his broad shoulders, and the smile that had melted more than one girl's heart. At least his leather shoes had a layer of dust on them. Otherwise he'd have been fashionably spotless, whereas she looked dowdy in her worn jeans and shirt.
Vince was listening intently to the council chairman, Arnie Eagle. He wouldn't even notice her leaving. It was probably her imagination that he'd recognized her at all.
As Jill drew even with Vince's shoulder, she couldn't resist saying half under her breath, "I won't let you build a casino here."
Vince held up a hand, stopping Arnie midsen-tenceno small featand turned to Jill, his dark gaze commanding. "We'll discuss thatand morelater."