Once a Gambler (Harlequin Blaze Series #461)

Once a Gambler (Harlequin Blaze Series #461)

by Carrie Hudson

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780373794652
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 03/31/2009
Series: Harlequin Blaze Series , #461
Edition description: Original
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Question: Is it always fundamental to know one's destination? Or, can not knowing be the path to truly knowing?

(A little-known Confucius-ism)

Hollywood, California March 2009

The photograph of Ellie and her sister swam just beneath the surface of the chemical bath, appearing slowly as if rising through a bank of fog. Like a puzzle it evolved: her own dark hair, their clutched hands, her sister Reese's head thrown back in laughter—until finally the two of them appeared just as Ellie remembered they'd been that day before everything had changed.

That day, she remembered, was a Friday. She had worked for thirty minutes setting up that shot and kept getting it wrong. Either she would miss getting seated altogether before the autoshutter went off, or Reese would make a silly face and they would dissolve into laughter again. There was a decent posed shot—all terribly serious. Even she had to admit they both looked great, but she didn't like it as much as this one. This accidental one. This shot captured the real Reese. Not the physician the world knew on TV news shows. Not the brilliant, accomplished one their parents adored.

But simply her big sister whom she had loved.

She transferred the photo into the stop bath, swirling it beneath the surface with the plastic tongs. She liked the contrast on this one. It was good and she knew it. But that wasn't the point. It wasn't for the show she was putting together. The point was—she'd realized sometime late this afternoon—she'd begun to forget that little dimple in Reese's cheek and the way the lines around her eyes crinkled when she laughed hard. It had taken almost a year to work up the nerve to even develop this roll. Now she wondered why she'd waited so long.

Reese would have said it was because Ellie always did everything the hard way: school, their parents, falling into a career in modeling. "RWC" Reese would call her with a smile. Rebel-without-a-Cause. And deep down, Ellie suspected that maybe her driven, accomplished sister envied that just a little.

She studied the photo under the safelight for anything—any sign that a mere twelve hours after this uproarious laugh, Reese would be gone forever and Ellie would be left alone.

There was nothing. No precognition. No warning. Just two women sharing a rare moment of sisterly hilarity. Maybe that was just how life was. A constant collision of happiness and loss.

"Ellie?" Dane knocked on the makeshift darkroom door. "Are you dressed? It's almost six-thirty."

She looked down at her ripped jeans and fixer-stained T-shirt. "Um…" she hedged, pulling the photo out and slipping it into the third tub containing the rapid fixer.

On the other side of the door, she heard Dane cursing. She couldn't see him, but imagined that about now, he'd be dragging a hand through his perfect dark-brown hair and starting to sweat through the perfect charcoal Prada shirt it had taken him two hours to pick out.

"Just give me a minute, okay? I'm almost done."

"Ah, God, Ellie." The words were gruff, husky, disappointed.

"I know."

"This screening is important to me. You said you'd come, dammit. I need you there."

"I know. I'm coming." She'd done enough red carpets in her lifetime to pave the Great Wall of China, but she detested them. It wasn't that she didn't want to do this for Dane. It was what she knew would come along with it.

"What are you doing in there? Can I come in?"

Ellie switched off the safelight and turned on the regular one. Outside the door the red warning light would no longer be on, and Dane took that as an invitation.

He appeared at the door, looking very Hollywood producerlike in his power suit and spiffy Italian shoes. In another lifetime, Dane Raleigh could have been a movie star, with his looks and his confidence. But now, he was a producer with a film that had made it to screen and that, in this town, was like winning the freakin' lottery.

He glanced down at the photo in the stop bath and went quiet for a second. Ellie slipped the photo into the hypo fixer.

"So this is about Reese again?"


He slid his hands around her shoulders and turned her toward him. "Just for tonight, can we not put your sister between us?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means I want all of you tonight. Not fifty percent. Or eighty. I want a hundred percent of you. You know the damned studio has got us opening against Lands' End, the best reviewed gangster movie since The Godfather, and that behemoth animated kids' movie Pixar Films made about damned ladybugs."

"I know."

"And if we can't get press on this thing tonight, we're screwed for opening weekend. And if opening weekend is screwed—"

"It won't be. And you have me," she said, leaning her cheek against his hard shoulder so she didn't have to lie directly into those rich-colored eyes. "It's just… you know I hate these things. With the paparazzi and the media."

He patted her awkwardly with his palm, distracted by his own problems. "They're just people trying to make a living. And for a girl who spent half her adult life on the world's best runways facing flashbulbs, you should be used to it."

She could explain to him again about the things she didn't want the world to know about her, about how a chunk of her had gone missing after all those years of modeling. She could try to explain that the rock he'd put on her finger a month ago did not give them the right to invade her private life one more time. But she had the sneaking suspicion that Dane liked the attention that came with having her on his arm and the ring making the tabloids. But underneath everything else she believed about him—about them—was the fear that he loved all of that more than he loved her.

He swatted her on the rear and pushed her toward the door. "Go get ready. The driver's here in twenty minutes. Let's not keep him waiting."

The gauntlet set up along Sunset Boulevard beneath the historic archway of the old Cinerama Dome came complete with a red carpet and banks of halogen lights. Beacons of bright light pierced the night sky, as heavy banks of clouds hovered over the Hollywood.

There was a deep crowd just outside the railing, which included fans and paparazzi who hadn't been lucky enough to nail a press pass. The media had already swarmed Ross Neil, the only money star of Ticking Clock!, and his little-known female costar up the line. Fans were shouting at them across the railing, hoping for autographs or even eye contact.

Ellie touched the jade necklace at her neck, Grandma Lily's necklace, like a talisman. She hadn't taken it off since Reese vanished. And though it complemented the designer canary-yellow dress she'd worn, she didn't care if it did or not. It made her feel safe to wear it.

She'd spent her life, it seemed, at events like this, tugged around by her parents. Yes, they'd brought her and Reese to their movie openings. The happy family photos would show up on the pages of the latest gossip rag with captions about what great parents they were, and wasn't it fabulous that two big stars could keep it all together the way they did? Until they'd gotten divorced.

For a while, Ellie had cherished these red carpet events as the only way she would have any time with her parents. But that was old water, way under the bridge now.

Ellie gripped Dane's hand tighter as they exited the town car beside Caleigh Nguyen, Dane's publicist. The woman was wearing her official I've-got-everything-under-control look and a lime-green, Rachel Pally kimono dress. For about the count of three, they were anonymous. Unnoticed.

Then… all hell broke loose.

Camera strobes flashed. The crowd swelled in their direction. A tribe of paparazzi and media rushed them.

"Ellie! Ellie Winslow! Look this way! This way, Ellie!"

"You look beautiful tonight, Ellie. Can you show us the ring?"

"Dane, have you two set a date?"

And then the zinger she was bracing herself for: "Any new leads on Reese's disappearance, Ellie?"

As she felt her stomach sink, Dane slipped his hand under her arm and guided her away from the reporter who had asked what all the others hadn't had the nerve to. "Just ignore 'em," he told her under his breath.

"Yeah, this is me," she answered, pasting a smile on her face, "ignoring them."

"Good girl." His hand slid down her hip and patted her there—a photo op missed by no one.

Dane turned to the reporters as strobes flashed. "I'd like to thank you all for coming. This is a big night for us," he told the crowd. "And my beautiful fiancée, Ellie Winslow, is here to support me. My film Ticking Clock! has been a labor of love for us and I hope you all enjoy it and, come opening weekend, you bring your friends. By the way," he added with a wink, "we have set the date. But that's our secret right now."

She bit the inside of her cheek. And a pretty good secret it is, she thought, since they were about as close to "setting a date" as they were to jetting to the moon.

Ellie allowed herself to be pulled along under Dane's protective arm as he worked the crowd. She bore the questions with a patented smile as photographers clicked away. Caleigh leaned close to her ear and shouted. "He's doing great, right? Look at him. He's a freakin' press monster."

And she actually meant that in a good way. "Hmm," Ellie said by way of reply.

"How are you doing?" Caleigh scanned the crowd behind Ellie's head like a shark for chum. "Great dress. Who is it?"

"Um, it's a Chlo—"

"Hey, would you mind if I steal Dane away from you for a sec to talk to Lara Walker from The Inside Edge? They wanna do a segment on him and I promised them I'd steer him her way." She wrinkled her perfect little nose. "Thanks, sweetie."

And without further ado, Caleigh removed Ellie's hand from Dane's arm and spirited him away, leaving Ellie momentarily alone. "Sure. Why not?" she mumbled, mostly to herself. Then, head down, she made her way toward the theater entrance, hoping to lose herself in the ladies' room for a little while as Dane did the rounds.

A reporter with a TV tabloid logo on her mike thrust it under Ellie's nose, cutting off her path. "Ellie, when are you going to go back to modeling? I hear Vogue is still making you offers, and all the runway designers would love to get you back up there for the Paris season."

Ellie sent her an even smile. "I'm actually done with modeling. Completely done. I'm just a photographer now."

The woman tilted her head like a confused rottweiler. "Does being the daughter of film luminaries like Linea Marks and Brad Winslow make it somehow easier to walk away from a career a million girls would give their right arm for, or is it really because you still feel in some way responsible for your sister's disappearance?" She smiled and thrust the microphone back in her face.

"Ya know, I've got to get inside now." You slime-sucking codfish. "Would you excuse me?"

"Word from the South Dakota police," the reporter continued, "is it's a cold case now. Care to comment on the fact that they've given up on finding her?"

"No, I wouldn't." She smiled an evil smile at the bottom-feeder's cameraman and plunged into the crowd, feeling a panic sweat travel up her chest toward her face. She dug into her purse for her cell phone. Elan, Dane's driver, would come and rescue her. Dane would never even know she had gone.

But a tall guy on the other side of the velvet ropes caught her by the arm in the chaos and, with an imploring look, tugged her to a stop. "Please, Miss Winslow. Please just a moment of your time."

Except for the facial hair—the Colonel Mustard goatee and mustache, and the way he was dressed, in an ill-fitting, poorly made windowpane-check suit that looked like it might have been borrowed from an old theater company—he wasn't bad-looking. And the gold watch fob dangling from his front pocket looked… well, real.

Desperation glinted in his world-weary blue eyes. She suspected he wasn't more than thirty, but appeared older. His grip was strong.

"Please," he said, "it's taken me so long to find you."

He wasn't the first crazy fan who'd laid hands on her, and he wouldn't be the last. Ever since the swimsuit issue she'd done for Sports Illustrated, they'd crawled from under the oddest rocks to get a closer look at her.

She tried shifting from his unyielding hold and glanced around to see a burly security guard dressed all in black heading her way. "Let go of me now or I swear they'll bodily remove you," she warned.

He did. Instantly. Ellie pivoted to make her escape.

"It's about your sister," he called after her over the din around them.

She exhaled sharply and turned back on him. "When the hell will you people stop—"

"You're almost out of time." His gaze fell to the necklace at her neck.

She narrowed her gaze at him. "What?"

"You must look for the photo."

"What photo?" Her mind skipped back to the darkroom and the photo she just developed. To the smile on Reese's face.

The refrigerator-shaped security guard with the buzzed haircut was almost on them, barreling toward them as if he'd skipped breakfast.

Urgently the man leaned into her. "You must go back to the beginning. To the trunk. That's how you'll find her."

"Trunk?" Uneasiness frizzled up her spine. "Who are you? And what do you know about my sister?"

"Hands off the celebrities, amigo." The guard shoved himself between them, grabbed the stranger's arm and yanked him practically off his feet. "No touchy, touchy."

Ellie backed up a few more steps, muted by fear.

"Please," the man shouted, trying to be heard above the noise of the shouting fans. "I just need to—"

"Sorry about this, Ms. Winslow," the guard said, as he hauled Colonel Mustard toward the curb. "Man, the locos that show up for these things, eh?"

"In two days," the man shouted over the triangle of the guard's arm, "it'll be too late! I beg of you! I won't be able to help you after that!" A moment later he was swallowed by the crowd and disappeared.

Frozen in place, Ellie stood watching the humanity close in around them as if they'd never been there. Gradually, all the shouting disappeared, and the crowd blurred into a hazy halo around her.

Because all she could focus on was an image of that antique, humpbacked trunk in Grandma Lily's attic— the last place she'd seen Reese alive.

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