Read Certified Male Online

Authors: Kristin Hardy

Certified Male (4 page)

BOOK: Certified Male

She felt no fatigue—far from it. She was wired, playing on house money. Her luck had been solid so far, but it was beginning to flag. Gwen drew a queen to a hand that was already twelve and busted.

Rennie looked at her. “We got a bad trend going here,” he observed, gesturing at his own busted hand. “I'm thinking it's time to knock off while I'm ahead.” He pushed his chips to the dealer, asking for a consolidation.

Panic seized Gwen. He couldn't leave—how would she find him again? She knew almost nothing about him, aside from the fact that he had a sexy smile and a weakness for banter.

And maybe a weakness for her.

Nina, of course, wouldn't be shy about putting her looks to work for her. No way would she just let the guy walk away. If Nina were trying to follow the trail of millions of dollars, she'd do whatever was necessary to persuade him to stick around. Gwen sent him a look from under her lashes as she collected her consolidated chips from the dealer. “So, how about a drink?”


was there more devilry in his smile? “Sure.” He slid his handful of hundred-dollar chips into the pocket of his jeans.

Cosmopolitans, Gwen discovered as she rose from the table, had more of a kick than white wine. Her heel caught in the carpet as she slid off the stool.

“Whoa.” Rennie caught her as she stumbled. “Here, why don't you grab my arm?”

“That's very gallant of you.” His bicep was a solid swell under her fingers. The contact shivered through her. He wasn't built lightly at all, she realized as he tucked her hand against his body. The guy had some very real muscle. Her imagination instantly conjured up images of washboard abs and cannonball shoulders.

“Just call me Sir Galahad,” he said. “So, where do you want to go?”

“Let's find a nightcap.”

“You sure? We've been drinking for the last two hours. Have you had dinner?”

Gwen thought back but couldn't remember. “Something on the plane, maybe.” He was an inch or two taller than she was, even in her spike heels, she realized. There was something alarmingly cozy about him standing there holding her hand against him protectively.

He looked down at her a moment and considered. “How
about if we go to the Reef Bar. Maybe we can get some food there. Trust me, you'll be happier tomorrow.”

The bar was dark and yet lit with an aqua luminescence from the aquarium that took up one wall. Tropical fish made bright flashes of color amid rocks and waving green fronds. Music played in the background, but there was no crowd and no dance floor.

Quiet and dark was perfect for her purposes, Gwen thought as they took seats off in a corner. Or maybe not. The tabletop was about the size of a dinner plate, she realized. By the time she'd scooted onto her high stool, she found herself much, much closer to him than she'd anticipated. Close enough to find herself staring at that enticing mouth. Close enough to find herself noticing the way the aqua light reflected off his cheekbones. He really was gorgeous, she realized, not to mention sexy as hell.

Okay, reality check. Getting distracted was not good. She was here only to try to track down Jerry. Recreation with Rennie—one of the bad guys—was out of the question.

On the other hand, she'd do what was necessary to accomplish her purpose.

A waitress appeared, dressed in the bikini top and sarong uniform of the bar. “What'll it be, folks?”

Rennie studied the drinks card that sat on the table. “An Anchor Steam for me,” he said. “And an order of potato skins.”

“Sorry, guys, kitchen's closed. If you want food, you'll have to go to the coffee shop.”

“Let's stick here,” Gwen said quickly. No way did she want to go to a bright and noisy coffee shop. Anyway, Nina would probably sniff at coffee. She'd want a real drink. “How about a Courvoisier?” She wasn't exactly sure what Courvoisier tasted like, but she liked the idea of swirling a brandy glass.

His eyes were very dark in the dim light as he studied her. “My name is Del, by the way.”

Gwen leaned closer to him. “What?”

“My name. It's not Galahad, it's Del.”

“Del?” All the fun evaporated in an instant. She stared at him. “Wait a minute. You're joking, right? I thought your name was Rennie.”

He shook his head. “'Fraid not.”

Gwen thought.
It was a disaster.
This was supposed to be Rennie, her conduit, the one who was going to lead her to Jerry. If he wasn't, then she was back to square one, no better off than she'd been when she'd walked into the casino. Worse, because Rennie had been around there somewhere. Now where was she? No lead, no closer to finding the stamps. Instead she was stuck here with him while the true Rennie was still out in the casino somewhere. She struggled to master her disappointment.

And ignore the small, sneaky sense of relief that lurked underneath.

“So, where'd you get the idea I was—who was it— Ronnie?”

“Rennie. That's what the dealer called you.”

He looked at her, mystified.

“Before I sat down,” Gwen clarified. “I thought the dealer said something like ‘You always win, Rennie.'”

She watched the answer dawn. “Ah. She was joking around with the other dealer.”

“Which other dealer?”

“The one who left when you came up.”

“Was that her name?”

He shrugged. “I don't know. It sounded like a nickname.”

“What did she look like?” Gwen asked sharply, thinking back. But she'd fastened so quickly and completely on
him that everyone else was a cipher. She cursed under her breath. “I can't picture her at all.”

“Does it matter?”

He was looking at her attentively—way too attentively. Relax, she told herself. “No, it's no big deal. I was just surprised.” So how willing would the staffers be to help her find Rennie? And would she be back on shift the next evening? Maybe a quick conversation with the other dealer would help. Then again, Gwen didn't want to make Rennie suspicious.

“Boy, you've got some serious wheels turning in that head of yours,” Del commented. “Not that it's not an entirely gorgeous head, but if I were Rennie, I'd be a little scared.”

He'd leaned back to watch her, the frank curiosity on his face more than a little alarming. She needed to defray that, pronto.
Flirt, Nina, flirt.

Gwen traced a pattern on the tabletop with one fingertip and sent him a look of promise. “Who cares about Rennie or whoever? You're here and I'm here, that's all that matters.”

The amusement was back in his smile as he leaned forward and propped his elbows on the table, putting him disconcertingly near. “I suppose. You're holding out on me, though,” he added conversationally.

Alarm surged through her. “What—what do you mean?”

A beat went by. “Your name. You know mine, I don't know yours.”

“Oh.” She almost sighed with relief. “Nina.”

“Nice name. So what brings you to Vegas, Nina?”

“A couple days off. I wanted to get out of town.”

He watched her for a moment, his mouth curving in a way that suggested he could see more than she wanted. “Searching for people named Rennie?”

Gwen flushed. “No. I just wanted a break.”

“From what?”

“Oh, life.” That much was true. She thought of the rest
lessness that had plagued her of late. “You know, you get tired of being stuck at home.”

“Where's home?”

“San Francisco.”

Genuine pleasure slid over his features. “No kidding? That's my stomping grounds.”

“Really? Small world. What are you here for?”

“I'm doing a series on poker. I'm a sportswriter for the

“You're a journalist?” Gwen asked faintly. That was all she needed—a curious reporter around.

Again he gave her that look. “I don't think I'd dignify it with that word necessarily. Let's just say I can bang out twenty column inches on the Giants versus the Dodgers by deadline.”

“You don't sound thrilled with it.” The waitress set their drinks down in front of them.

Del shrugged. “It's a living. What about you?”

Gwen swirled her brandy glass to buy time. Lying wasn't in her nature. Then again, the last thing she wanted to do was give any personal details to a reporter, especially to a reporter who was entirely too interested in her earlier gaffes already. Even if he was a sportswriter. “I'm an accountant,” she told him. It wasn't really a lie. She did the books at Chastain Philatelic Investments. She just did a whole lot more.

“Seriously?” He grinned, sending a little flutter through her midsection. He was so close, she realized suddenly. Close enough to whisper. Close enough to kiss.

Gwen blinked. “Yes, seriously. Why, what did you think I did?”

“I don't know. But I could have guessed a couple dozen possible occupations for you and none of them would have included accounting.”

She could just imagine. “So, what occupations were in your couple dozen?”

“Oh, I don't know,” he said offhandedly, “neurosurgeon, astrophysicist, president of the World Bank…”

“You know, if you'd have said lingerie model, I'd have had to belt you.” She reached out a hand to mime slapping him. He caught it in his and held it to his face.

Heat bloomed through her. Sensation piled on sensation, the rough stubble of his day's growth of beard, the strength of his fingers on hers, the slight calluses on his palm.

It lasted only a second or two and drove every thought out of her head except the desire for more.

Del released her hand, changing his hold to bring her fingers to his lips. Warm and soft enough to make her melt. “Whatever you do, I'm sure you're very, very good,” he murmured.

Eyes wide, Gwen sat stock-still, forcing herself to breathe. “I…excuse me for a minute,” she managed to say and stood up on knees that trembled only a little.


away and waiting for the drumming in his head to stop. He hadn't been able to resist the impulse to touch her. The sudden urge to have her had surprised him, though. He considered himself a civilized man, but there was nothing civilized about this overwhelming need to drive himself into her deep and hard.

Colorful fish circled lazily in the aquarium beyond. He'd sat down at the blackjack table for a change of pace, to kill a couple of hours, not to hook up with a woman. Then Nina had sat down, fragrant, silky and looking hot enough to melt wax.

It wasn't completely outside his experience to have a woman hit on him, but it certainly wasn't his normal style to bite. He'd learned from personal experience—in his re
lationships and in his professional life—that the easy pickings were generally not the way to satisfaction, they were just…easy.

There was something about her, though, more than the looks. The combination of the promise in that wide mouth and the sharp intelligence in those eyes had captured his attention utterly. But something else was going on, something more than blackjack, more than sexual jousting. What about the consternation over his name? And why had she pumped him so hard about his friends?

And how was it that he didn't really give a damn about any of it, so long as he could have her?

He watched her cross the room toward him again, in her low-cut jeans and skimpy, fire-engine-red T-shirt. The confidence was back in her swagger, in the toss of her head. For a moment earlier she'd seemed like a high school girl, completely undone by his move. It seemed incongruous for a woman who looked the way Nina did, a woman who'd probably been romanced every way possible.

“Welcome back,” he said as she sat.

“Thanks. I'm happy to be here.”

He grinned and raised his beer. “Well, here's to being here.” Her eyes watched him over the rim of her glass, the deep aqua of the Caribbean. Her scent drifted across to him, something that whispered of dark nights and forbidden passion. “So, how'd you get so good at blackjack?” he asked.

“My grandfather's got a weekly game. Blackjack, poker, whatever. I usually sit in with them.”

“Win much?”

She shrugged. “I walk away with my share of pots.”

“That's because you've got a genetic advantage.” He propped his chin in his hand. “They probably can't concentrate a lick with someone who looks like you at the table, and on top of that you're smart.”

He couldn't be sure in the dim bar, but he'd swear she flushed. “I've known most of them since I was about ten. I'm sure they can ignore it.”

“You underestimate yourself. I don't think any man who sees you can ignore it.”

She gave him a smoky look and propped her arms on the table herself. “Really?”


“And would that include you?”

He felt the stirring in his belly. “What do you think?”


. S
staring at his mouth. She couldn't stop wondering how he tasted. The table had shrunk, or maybe she'd inadvertently moved her stool closer to him when she'd returned, because when he reached out to tangle his fingers in hers, it was only a small movement.

This time there was no shock, just the hot and sexy snap of connection. All the way to the bathroom and back—merely an excuse to get away and think for a minute—she'd thought about what it might be like with him. It wasn't the sort of thing Gwen would do, but she wasn't Gwen, was she? She was Nina. Nina wouldn't just sit and wonder what it would be like to kiss this man. She wouldn't wait for him to make the move. Nina would satisfy herself. Nina would just do it.

His eyes seemed darker, deeper as she leaned closer. She flicked a glance at his mouth and her tongue darted out to lick her own lips. She wanted this, she thought, tipping her head slightly. For tonight Jerry and the stamps could take a backseat. For tonight she just wanted.

And then their mouths came together and she didn't have to want anymore.

Her fingers were still curled in his but she didn't feel it.
All her awareness was concentrated in the feel of his mouth on hers. He didn't just kiss, he savored, feasting on her as though she were some rare delicacy. A shift, a nip, a quick slick of tongue. There was a sumptuousness in the slide of lip against lip, temptation in the taste. Her system began to buzz.

When his hand slid to cup her neck and pull her closer, Gwen went willingly. When his mouth opened against hers, she made a little sound of pleasure in her throat. It didn't matter that she hardly knew him, that he was just a pair of teasing eyes and a devilish smile. Something about him tempted her to take a risk. Something about him sent desire surging through her with an intensity she couldn't recall feeling before.

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