Authors: Kristin Hardy
WEN THOUGHT AS SHE
walked through the casino. If she was going to be even remotely competitive against a field of more than seven hundred in the Texas Hold 'em tournament, she needed practice. As much as she cringed at the idea of sacrificing another few hundred dollars to the Las Vegas gods, Gwen knew it was a necessary evil.
As were the tight, low-rise turquoise pants she wore. The fact that her devotion to aerobics and Pilates meant she could fit into them and still breathe did little to make her comfortable with the admiring stares she earned as she walked into the poker room. She'd find a table with both men and women and play a few hands just to get limbered up, she figured.
She walked up to the entrance to check out the rules posted and then stopped. “Oh, yes,” she whispered, staring at the table across the way where Jerry was sitting. What better way to strike up an acquaintance than over a friendly game of poker? She fluffed her hair and licked her lips. Who knew, maybe they'd hit it off.
She'd make sure of it.
A squadron of butterflies skittered around in her stomach as she neared the table. What if Joss were wrong and he recognized her? Stewart had laughed at the idea of her undercover. Maybe it was ludicrous. What if all she accomplished was to tip him off that he was known? What if he wouldn't talk to her at all?
And what if he did?
Okay, so what if he did? She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. Nina could handle him. Nina knew how to have guys eating out of her palm and she'd have Jerry, too. Gwen remembered the way he'd looked at her that afternoon.
Like taking candy from a baby,
she told herself.
And tried to believe it.
Besides, she had experience now striking up an acquaintance with someone she thought could give her information. She'd done it the night before and it hadn't been a disaster.
Outside of finding herself the next morning with one very inquisitive man, of course.
That didn't count, though,
she told herself hastily. She had zero intention of winding up anywhere near a bed with Jerry. The very idea of his hands on her raised the hackles on the back of her neck.
Jerry turned to look at her as she stopped. “Well, hello, there.”
“Hello, there, yourself.” Gwen pulled out a chair. The sign said the limit on bets was ten dollars minimum and twenty dollars maximum. It would fit in her budget so long as the cards went her way. “Room for another player here?”
“This seat here is the lucky one,” he said, patting the chair to his right.
“I'm sure it is, but I'll take my chances,” Gwen said, sitting on his left, where she'd generally bet after him. The later, the better was her motto. It wouldn't hurt her a bit to take some of Jerry's money.
“I see you know the game.”
She gave him a provocative smile. “Sugar, I know every game there is.”
To her left sat a couple of guys she figured for conventioneers out for the night. They were like Mutt and Jeffâone tall and narrow, one short and plump.
To Jerry's right sat a middle-aged couple wearing wedding rings. A horseshoe dangled from a silver chain around the woman's neck. From their accents, Gwen pegged them as from Arkansas, maybe, or Oklahoma. From the fumbling way they finished out the hand, she pegged them as beginners. The conventioneers, she'd reserve judgment on. Jerry, she figured, was a playerâor at least fancied himself as one.
Gwen passed a handful of twenties to the dealer.
“New player, change a hundred,” the dealer said briskly and pushed a stack of five-dollar chips toward Gwen.
“Sorry I couldn't hold the elevator for you this afternoon,” Jerry said to her as the dealer swabbed the deck around on the table in front of him, then gathered it together for the more conventional shuffle.
“I'm flattered you remembered me.”
“Oh, I'm good at the important stuffâcards and women. Shoot, I almost stopped and came back down for you.”
“What a prince.”
“Yeah, that's me.”
The dealer gathered the deck together and tamped it a few times on the table. “Blinds?” he called.
“That's you, Fred.” The woman nudged her husband. She sat in front of the white plastic disk, or button. Fred was to her left, which meant that he bet first throughout the hand, starting with the small blind, a required bet of half the minimumâin this case, five dollars.
“I guess that makes me the big blind,” Jerry, next to Fred, said with a leer that Gwen ignored. Carelessly he flicked out the table's minimum bet required for the big blind; the two five-dollar chips clicked as they hit Fred's.
With a flick of the wrist the dealer dealt them their pairs of facedown pocket cards. Gwen pulled up the corner of her cards to discover a pair of queens. She allowed herself
the luxury of a small frown. “I thought you promised me luck,” she complained to Jerry.
“I can't guarantee the cards, doll, I can only guarantee me.”
“Big talk,” she scoffed.
“I'll show you how big, if you want.”
Gwen resisted the urge to groan and instead ordered a martini from the waitress who stopped by. Maybe it would help her ignore the fact that he was a cretin. Judging by the sound of Jerry's voice, he'd already knocked back a few himself.
Fred folded without laying a bet down, frowning at the five-dollar chip he'd sacrificed to the small blind. Jerry seemed to like what he had, tossing out a ten-dollar chip. Gwen nibbled her lip. He might have something, but then again, her pair of queens made her competitive right off the bat. With a made hand, she could afford a little risk. More importantly, she needed to drive players away from the table and get Jerry to herself. Quickly she doubled Jerry's bet.
The conventioneers matched her with confidence perhaps fueled by the beers at their elbows. Fred's wife turned a chip over and over again in her hand before nervously tossing it out.
The dealer turned over the flopâthe first three of the community cardsâto reveal an ace and two nines. Two pair for Gwen, though given that everybody at the table could count a pair of nines from the flop, it didn't really mean much. The queens, though, they gave her a nice, warm feeling.
The betting came around to Jerry. “You going to bring luck to me?”
“Probably as much luck as you bring me,” Gwen returned.
“You sit here long enough, I can guarantee you'll get lucky.”
Gwen didn't cringe. She congratulated herself for that. Nina wouldn't. Nina wouldn't care how classless his innuendoes were, so long as she achieved her goal. Gwen raised and watched the betting continue. Fred's wife folded before the next community cardâthe turn cardâwhich was a queen. Gwen gave a mental hallelujah. If all went well, she'd make a little money on the deal.
When the betting came back to her, she raisedâand substantially. It was time to see just what the conventioneers were made of.
Mutt didn't hold on to see what the dealer would turn over for the river card, the last of the five community cards. Instead he folded.
Gwen diagnosed. He'd be hard to break but might be easy to push away from the table with a series of high bets, assuming her luck held. Jeff checked, playing wait and see and also giving the scent of blood in the water. Jerry raised.
“You gonna keep up with me?” he asked with a wink.
Gwen smiled and called, matching his twenty dollars in chips and adding twenty of her own. “I'll leave you in the dust.” She flicked her gaze to the side as she said it, though, adding a bit of false bravado to her voice. He had something, she figured, maybe two pair, maybe the start of a straight, but probably not enough to beat a full house.
She nodded to the dealer for the river card. He turned it over to show a two. Jeff folded, leaving only Jerry and Gwen. The betting went around again, with each of them raising. Finally Jerry checked.
Gwen gave him a smile like a cat at a dish of cream. “Full house,” she said, flipping over her pocket pair.
Jerry blinked. “Well, hell,” he said feelingly, not bothering to turn up his cards.
Gwen raked in the chips. “Looks like I brought that luck, sugar, just not for you.”
EL WALKED UP TO THE POKER
room, tuning out the familiar hubbub of the casino. With the tournament due to start in just a couple of days, he was itching to log some time at the tables. Granted, he was writing about an average guy's experience at the tournament, but he had a couple of ten spots riding with various hecklers at the paper who were betting he wouldn't last the first day of play.
Practice made perfectâso said his mother and every coach he'd ever had. A couple of hours at the tables, he figured, couldn't hurt.
He looked over the room, searching out a table that seemed favorable. And saw Nina curled up at the table with the hustler, giving every appearance of being charmed. Del watched for a moment, felt the clutch in his gut that was becoming familiar.
Okay, so why did he care? Maybe she was the type who liked variety. With looks like hers, he couldn't blame her. And yet for every minute she was the man crusher, there was an instant when she looked like an uncertain teenager playing dress-up. Like the contact lens that morning, he thought with a smile.
Only idiots got hung up on women who didn't want them, he reminded himself. Then his eyes narrowed as the little hustler brushed a hand over her shoulders. She tensed for a moment, almost flinched. It was small, but Del saw it, just as he saw her take a breath and then, he swore consciously, lean closer to click her glass with the hustler's. Like a woman who was pretending to have a good time.
And suspicion rolled back over him.
It was none of his businessâhadn't she told him that just that morning? He'd do well to listen to advice and leave well enough alone. Del Do-Right, his sisters had always called him in amusement. Always ready to help the
maiden in distress. She wasn't his to save, though she might just need saving.
He watched her flinch again at the hustler's touch and consciously loosened his jaw. It wasn't his problem. Then again, he'd come downstairs for some poker practice. Why not be congenial, play at a table where he knew someone?
And he walked over.
RED AND HIS WIFE
were long gone. Mutt had taken a look at his dwindling supply of chips and decided to call it a night. Jeff had followed, leaving the table to Jerry and Gwen.
“Want to move to another table?” the dealer asked.
“No, this is perfect,” Gwen told him, admiring her own stack of chips.
“Looks like it's down to you and me,” Jerry said, leaning toward her.
Just what she'd been hoping for.
“Not exactly,” said a voice over Gwen's shoulder, and Del Redmond sat down beside her. “Evening.” He handed a pair of hundred-dollar bills to the dealer.
“You want a bigger game, pal.” Jerry threw him a look of sulky dislike.
“This one suits me fine,” he said pleasantly and reached out for his chips.
The waitress came by to take a drink order from Jerry. Gwen took a swallow of her martini and leaned toward Del. “What are you doing here?” she hissed.
He gave her a bland smile. “Just getting in a practice game before the tournament starts.” He leaned forward to look across her. “You playing in the tournament?” he asked Jerry.
“Me, too. Del Redmond.” He reached out to shake hands.
“I'm doing a story for the
San Francisco Globe
on the experience. Maybe I can interview you later.”
The dealer cleared his throat. “The game, gentlemen?”
This time the chemistry was totally different. There were no amateurs at the table, and Hold 'em was a game designed to encourage big bets. Del took a stack of chips between the fingers of one hand, splitting it into two stacks and riffling them together like cards. She remembered how those hands had felt on her body, the way they'd made her feel.
And wasn't that just the last thing she needed to be thinking about?
Pay attention to the game,
she scolded herself. Nina wouldn't let it get to her. Nina would put it in a box and set it aside. Nina wouldn't be so blown away by chemistry because Nina would be used to it. Nina would be in control.
Gwen only hoped she could be.
This hand, Jerry was the small blind. Gwen tossed out her bet for the big blind and turned to see Del watching her with that look that said he knew a joke and she and Jerry were the punch line.
She wondered if he was as good at Hold 'em as he was at everything else.
Her pocket held a ten and a king, both clubs. Potential for a straight or a flush, but not one she was going to bank on unless the flop turned up something. Then again, attacking might throw both men off balance. Jerry bet twenty dollars in chips. She raised him twenty. Del merely lifted an eyebrow and kept up.
Then the dealer turned over the flop to reveal a three of clubs and a ten and a five of spades. The pair of tens gave her something, but she was going to put her faith in the turn card and the river card.
In the meantime bluff,
she figured and did what she usually did when she had a good hand.
“Now, don't you go doing that again, babe,” Jerry told
her at her frown, tossing down a pair of ten-dollar chips. “Last time you did that, you were sitting on a pair of ladies.”
She raised him. “You figure I got something sweet?”
“I don't,” Del said. “I think you're bluffing.”
Now she did frown for real. Trust him to read not only her face but her body language, whatever part of her that was telling the truth. Her leg, she realized. It was bobbing, and he could see it out of the corner of his eye. “Big talk,” she said aloud, consciously trying to relax.