Read Certified Male Online

Authors: Kristin Hardy

Certified Male (9 page)

Tonight Del wore black jeans and a white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The little things impinged on her consciousness: the clean scent of him, the way his jaw was just a bit dark with the day's growth of beard, the look of his lean wrists as he reached down and tilted up the corner of his pocket pair for a look.

She remembered how he'd looked with nothing on.

“Your bet.”

Gwen jumped and glanced to see Del grinning at her. Jerry had put down twenty on the flop. She doubled it. When Del raised on that, she nibbled the inside of her lip. The turn was a jack of clubs.

When she had her chance, she raised, then raised again.

The dealer turned over the river card to reveal a club. She could have kissed him. With a disgusted noise Jerry folded. It was down to Gwen and Del.

“It looks like you're pretty good at Hold 'em,” he observed, nodding to her pile of chips and tossing down the ten-dollar minimum. “I didn't expect to see you down here tonight.”

Gwen immediately raised him twenty. “I figured I needed to get warmed up,” she told him.

“I thought you were pretty hot already.” He called and looked at her.

She paused for effect, checking her pocket cards and tap
ping her finger against them. It was worth seeing if she could draw him into another raise. She began bobbing her leg again.

Del raised her. Gwen smiled and checked. She flipped her cards over. “Wall-to-wall clubs.” She gave him a challenging stare. “Don't know me as well as you thought you did.”

“Oh, yeah, I do.” He turned up his pocket cards to show a full house.

She uttered a sharp, pithy curse.

He raised his eyebrows. “Pretty spicy language there.”

“I don't like being played.”

“You'd better go home now, then,” he told her.

It reminded her of why she was there in the first place and she turned her attention back to Jerry as the dealer shuffled. “So, when's your first round in the tournament?”

“Tomorrow.” He sounded petulant, out of sorts at being ignored.

“Well, here's to luck, then.” She raised her glass to his and licked her lips.

“Maybe I'll get lucky.”

“Maybe you will.”

Gwen played the next hand more conservatively. Her pile of chips was down after the big loss to Del and she needed to recharge. The flop turned the single king in her pocket into a pair, and the river made it a trio. Del, to her disgust, folded early, but she was able to lure Jerry into betting enough that she had a solid take when they finished the hand.

“You better leave me with some of my money, babydoll,” he complained, “or I won't have any of it to spend on you.”

“You got plans to spend money on me?” She turned away from Del, deliberately ignoring him. It made her more conscious of him than ever. When Jerry reached out to brush his fingers through her hair, he caught her unawares and she jerked back just a bit.

“Take you out for a drink after. They got that fancy revolving bar at the top of the hotel. How about if we play a few more hands, then go on up, have a nice time?”

She gave him a warm smile of promise. “I can't think of anything else I'd rather do.”

“That sounds good,” Del said from behind her. “Why don't you let me buy you two a drink? I can interview you both about the tournament.”

She could have spit. He was nothing but trouble. He'd already figured out she wanted to get Jerry to herself and seemed hell-bent on sabotaging her. “Oh, I think three's a crowd. He and I have plans to—”

“Can I have a fake name?” Jerry cut in suddenly, as though not tracking the conversation too well. The tequila sunrises he'd been sucking down all night seemed to finally have begun blurring his words. “I mean, I don't want to show up as me.”

Del's expression was harmlessly affable. “Sure, we can give you a pseudonym. People just want the story.” He signaled to the dealer to consolidate his chips. “Why don't we call it a night here and go chase down some liquor?”

Anger vibrated through her as they walked from the poker room to the bank of elevators. She didn't know what he thought he was up to, but as soon as she got a chance, she was going to find out. Better yet, she'd jump down his throat first, ask questions later. The casual brush of his fingertips in the small of her back as they passed through a crowd of people had her tensing. She could feel his touch through her shirt like four small coins of heat. “Hands off,” she snapped.

“You say something, babe?” Jerry asked, knocking obliviously into a woman passing on his other side.

“Not at all. I'm looking forward to the view.”

A large party of conventioneers milled about at the ex
press elevator that led to the revolving bar. When the doors opened, Jerry crowded in with them. Del gripped Gwen's arm and held her back. “We'll catch the next one,” he explained, waving at Jerry as the doors closed.

As soon as the car was gone, Gwen whirled to him. “What in the hell do you think you're doing?” she snapped. “You are
not
invited to this little jamboree.”

“It's been a long night. I figure I could use a drink.”

“I need to talk with him.”

He shrugged. “So talk with him.”

“In
private.
Is it that hard for you to believe that I'm interested in someone else?”

His stare was direct. “It's hard for me to believe that you want him.”

“Everything was going perfectly until you came along,” she muttered, stomping onto the express elevator as soon as the doors opened. “I was having a good time.”

The door closed, leaving just her and Del inside. “Really?” He punched the button for the restaurant. “You didn't look like you were having much fun at all.”

Suddenly the space felt very small. Gwen leaned against the brass railing that encircled the glass arc of the elevator and swallowed. “What's it your business?”

Del stepped closer to her. “That's what I keep asking myself. There's no real reason I should care, but I watched you flinch every time he touched you and I didn't like it.”

“I didn't flinch.”

“Sure you did—just a hint, before you caught yourself.” He ran his thumb across her cheek and sent heat singing through her. “You might have convinced him because he's too drunk to see it, but it didn't fool me.”

Suddenly she felt a little dizzy. “And who made you the expert?”

“I know how you act when you want to be touched,” he said, leaning in toward her. “Remember?”

“You're jealous,” she managed, feeling his lips a hair's breadth away from hers.

And then his mouth came down on her. All day she'd been pushing him back, setting up defenses, trying for distance. In one swift move he stripped them all away. In one swift move he showed her how desire could slice through it all. She thought of herself as strong; he made her weak. She thought of herself as calm; he made her wild. She thought of herself as controlled; he brought out the frenzy.

And, oh, it felt right. She knew she should be worrying about Jerry, she knew she should be worrying about the stamps, but all she could think about was the soft, driving heat of Del's mouth, his body against hers. It felt so right, washing away the creeping unease Jerry's frequent touches had built. She felt clean and right and ready. She wanted more. With a soft sound Gwen pulled herself closer.

He didn't know what drove him. It wasn't her challenges, though she'd thrown them out with abandon. It wasn't the way she looked, drenched with sexuality. It was the bright spark of her, the riddle, the complexity, that drew him in. Knowing that she wanted him, knowing that she didn't want to, knowing that she would yield to him in spite of herself.

Knowing that they weren't finished with each other yet, not by a long shot.

The elevator slowed and Gwen jerked away, breathing hard. “This is my time with Jerry and I don't want you here,” she said intensely, turning away as the car shuddered to a stop.

“Maybe you can ask him about Rennie.”

Quick as a flash she rounded on him. “Don't you dare mention that name,” she said urgently, gripping his forearm with surprising strength. “This is not a game, Del. I
don't know what you think you're doing, but you have no idea what's at stake.”

Del shook his head. “What's going on, Gwen?”

“It's none of your affair.”

“It's pretty hard to walk away from. You're pretty hard to walk away from. Show me what you're holding.”

She shook her head, eyes turbulent, mistrustful. “They're my pocket cards, Del, and they'll stay down.” And as the doors opened, she turned away.

9

“H
ELLO
?” T
HE VOICE WAS FROGGY
with sleep.

“Joss.” Gwen held her cell phone, her hands-free cord connecting it to her ear as she walked down Flamingo Road, away from the Strip.

“What time is it?” Joss croaked. Something thudded to the floor in the background.

Gwen gave a half smile. “Seven.” The morning air was cool, the casinos out of sight and out of mind behind her. The constant atmosphere of the gambling had begun to stifle her. Out here she could almost breathe.

“Great. You have all day and night yesterday to call me and you pick the crack of dawn today instead.” Gwen heard the sound of a jaw-creaking yawn. “Your timing is perfect.”

“I wanted to catch you before you got busy.”

“I was busy. Sleeping.”

“Sorry.”

“Well, I'm up now, so talk. Why didn't you call me yesterday? What's going on?”

“I found Jerry.”

Joss choked.

“Are you okay?” Gwen asked in concern.

“Yeah. Just took me by surprise there. You do get a kick out of springing things on a person, don't you?” She coughed again. “So, what happened? Did he recognize you?”

Gwen studied her reflection in the window of a video
store. “Hadn't a clue. Although he was pretty well oiled at the time, so that might have had something to do with it. He's quite a drinker, our Jerry.”

“What about Rennie? Did you find out anything there?”

“Not exactly. I found a guy I thought was Rennie,” she said, her mind drifting to Del. Absently she found herself touching her mouth with the fingers of one hand.

“And?”

“And nothing.” She dropped her hand. “It was a mistake.” Exaggeration of the year. She frowned. “I don't want to talk about it.”

“Why'd you bring it up?”

“No reason.”

Joss made a sound halfway between a snort and a laugh. “I've known you pretty much since the first day you could talk and you've never said anything for no reason. Who's the guy? What's his story?”

A palm tree planted during some long-ago urban-renewal project curved up from a niche in the sidewalk, its fronds making a basket-weave pattern of shadows on the pavement. Looking down the street, Gwen could see reddish-purple mountains rising in the distance. “I'm not sure.”

“You're dying to tell me, I can hear it in your voice.”

“I'm not—”

“Never argue with your older sister.”

Joss was right, she was dying to tell someone. And before she knew it, the whole story came tumbling out.

When she'd finished, she could hear Joss clapping. “Honey bunch, your first one-night stand. You've grown up.”

“Don't be smart. I could have screwed up everything.”

“Oh, don't be such a drama queen,” Joss said impatiently. “Did you have fun?”

Fun
didn't quite describe it. “It was pretty amazing.”

“Amazing enough for a rematch?”

“Joss, let me just worry about Jerry.”

“I don't see how the two have anything to do with one another.”

“Because Del's a reporter, remember? He's decided something's up and he won't let it go.”

“Well, something
is
up.”

“And he's the last person who needs to know that. We've got enough to worry about right now without winding up on the front page.”

“Do you really think he'd do that?”

Why not?
Gwen wondered. He didn't know her and she certainly didn't know anything about him. “I don't know. I just know I'm trying to work Jerry and he keeps getting in the way and I can't get rid of him.”

“Do you really want to?”

“What I want to do is get back the stamps and I can't do it if he shows up every time I try to get Jerry to give me something I can use,” she said impatiently.

“What's your plan?”

“I've got to find out if Jerry's got the stamps with him and the only way I'm going to do that is to get into his room.” Simple enough, as plans went. Only the execution was tricky.

“So bribe a maid.”

Gwen turned so that she was cruising along Paradise Road, parallel to the Strip. “Oh, yeah, I'm sure they help with break-ins all the time. Besides, I think he's on concierge level.”

“So?”

“So that means getting into a special elevator that requires a passkey and past the host up there and then getting into the room. It's not going to be easy.”

“It's four and a half million, Gwen. Easy is too much to expect.”

“Yeah. There's an upside, too, though.”

“Yeah?”

“Jerry's fenced three of the store inventory stamps that I can tell, but according to Stewart's sources, no one's making noises on the market about the really valuable ones. That gives us some time.” Gwen only hoped it would be enough.

“Want me to come out? I could stay out of sight.”

“No. You've got to watch the store. Besides, someone's got to be around in case Grampa calls.”

“Yeah, I know.” Joss blew out a breath. “So, back to this Del. What do you want to do about him?”

What did she want? Gwen sighed.

“Hey,” Joss laughed. “You sound like your dog just died. Has this guy actually gotten under your skin?”

“I don't know. Every time I get within ten feet of him I get this incredible urge to either strangle him or to rip his clothes off and boff his brains out.”

“Well, at least you're clear about things.”

Gwen rolled her shoulders. “I can't think about him right now. I just can't. I've got more important things to worry about.” Four-point-five million, she couldn't forget.

Not even for Del Redmond.

 

I
N THE ENORMOUS BALLROOM
the mass of people at the tournament reception ebbed and flowed like some giant amoeba. Chandeliers glimmered overhead. In the corner a band played a Jimmy Buffett tune, the music only slightly louder than the hubbub of several hundred voices talking all at once. It was the sort of scene Gwen avoided like the plague.

These weren't normal times, though, and if there was even a chance of running into Jerry, she had to take it. So she'd forced herself to put on the magenta slip dress, pin
on her competitor's ribbon and make an appearance. She'd scout around, she told herself, see if she could find Jerry and lure him to dinner. Liquored up a bit and bathed in the warmth of wide-eyed female fascination, who knew what he'd say? It should have been a piece of cake.

She'd never expected to walk into party central.

Standing just inside the doorway, she gave herself a silent pep talk. Taking a deep breath, Gwen prepared to dive in.

“Coming to meet the players?” asked a voice behind her.

She turned to see Del. He wore a pewter silk shirt and black jeans. His eyes were very green. No matter what words had passed between them the night before, he was a familiar face, and Gwen found herself smiling at him in relief. “Where did this mob come from?”

He shrugged. “Well, they've been telling everyone who walked into the casino for the past week to come tonight and meet the players. Appears everyone took them up on it.”

“Came for the food and open bar, more like it,” Gwen said.

“Same difference. The point is to get 'em here, get 'em all loose and excited about playing. When they're ready to leave, the only way out is that nifty little escalator outside that goes down to the casino.”

“Convenient.”

“And no accident. I'm sure the cost of this is a drop in the bucket compared to what they'll haul in from all the little stops their guests make on the way out.”

“Cynical.”

He shook his head and gestured for her to walk ahead of him. “Realistic.”

They wove their way farther into the room, past the various gambling tables that had been set up around the perimeter, from roulette to blackjack. They stopped in a little clearing where the craps table was located.

“I guess they're trying to give us a little variety.” Gwen nodded at the croupiers.

“Maybe the craps tournament is next week.”

“Now there's an id—”

“Hey, poker chick,” a voice called from behind her. “How ya doing?”

Gwen turned to find Roxy, resplendent in a pair of black leather pants and a silver halter top. Laughing, she carried two bottles of beer in each hand.

Gwen nodded at the bottles. “Planning ahead?”

“Nah. I'm here with a couple of the guys and I lost a bet. Loser had to go to the bar.” Adroitly she managed to drink from one of the bottles without spilling. “So, who's your good-looking friend?”

Gwen turned. “Roxy, this is Del Redmond. Del, this is Roxy Steele. Roxy won the tournament last year.”

“Congratulations. You planning to do an encore?”

“Maybe.” Roxy winked at him. “Are you a player or just her rooting section?”

Del's lips twitched. “A player, but I'm pretty good at rooting, too.”

“Tall one, aren't you?” Roxy stared up at him.

“Guilty as charged.”

“So, when are you up, stretch?”

“First wave,” he told her.

“Great. I'll give Nina here a list of the guys I want you to bust out of the tournament for me, okay?”

“Consider it done.”

Someone shouted Roxy's name from down the way. “Okay, I'm being paged. Hey, nice to meet you. I'll see you at the final table.” She raised one hand with bottles in jaunty salute and walked off.

“So that's Roxy,” Gwen told him with a laugh.

“And the world of poker will never be the same.”

Gwen gave Del a thoughtful look. “She's right, you are a tall one.”

“One of my many fine qualities. It's particularly helpful in getting the attention of the bartender. Can I get you a drink?”

“Sure. How about a cosmopolitan?” Gwen told him.

“More girlie drinks?”

“I am a girl, in case you hadn't noticed.”

He looked her up and down. “Oh, I've definitely noticed.”

He was as close to her as he'd been in the elevator. He'd kissed her, she remembered, pressing her back against the glass, his mouth hot on hers. System suddenly humming, she stared at him.

And a drunken partygoer pushed them apart, en route to the craps table.

It was enough to break the spell.

“I'll go get those drinks,” Del told her, backing away.

Gwen nodded and watched him walk off, lean and rangy in his black jeans. She didn't want to think about the moment that had just passed. She didn't want to think about the night before. She didn't want to think about him. Instead she cast about for a distraction.

A shout from the craps table behind her caught her attention and she took a few steps over to watch. At her end of the table a bearded man in a polo shirt blew on the dice in his hand and tossed them to the far end. When he frowned disgustedly, she figured he hadn't gotten the results he'd hoped for. The croupier hooked the dice with his stick and handed them back.

Taking the dice, the bearded guy glanced around and stopped when he saw Gwen behind him. He tossed the dice a bit in his palm and held them out. “A kiss for luck?”

Gwen grinned and pressed her lips to the red cubes. He threw them out and a cheer erupted.

“So, can I get you to give me a kiss for luck before the tournament starts tomorrow?”

She turned to see Jerry at her elbow. Involuntarily she tensed, then consciously forced herself to relax and give him a slow smile. “Well, I don't know. If I give you luck, then I won't have any for myself.”

“Just stick around me.” He smirked. “I guarantee you'll get lucky.”

“So you've told me.” Gwen surveyed the reception crowd. “You ever been in a tournament before?”

“First time,” he admitted, taking a swig of the beer he held. “I figure I'm a natural, though. I've been doing pretty well in the poker room all week.”

“Except last night,” she pointed out.

“You had an unfair advantage.”

“What was that?”

His eyes shifted, his gaze skating somewhere below her clavicles. “I was being a gentleman.”

“Careful. Real winners focus,” she reminded him.

“Oh, I'm focused all right,” he said with a lascivious smile, “and I'm already a winner.”

“Really?”

“A big winner. I don't even need to win this tournament. This is just for fun.”

“Really?” Ignoring the rush of excitement, she moistened her lips and leaned closer. “Tell me more.”

Jerry puffed up like a peacock in his bright blue shirt. “Well, I—” He stopped, frowning, and reached in his pocket for his cell phone. With a glance at the display, he flipped it open. “What do you want?”

The cockiness became, if anything, more pronounced, but his eyes narrowed with purpose. This wasn't a social call, she thought, this was business.

“Look,” Jerry said, “you get what you pay for. And if
you don't pay, there's a penalty. Deal with it.” He glanced over at Gwen. “Just a second,” he said into the phone. “Hey, babe,” he said to Gwen, “I've got to take this. Give me five minutes, I'll be right back and we can pick up where we left off.” He sauntered back toward the door.

Gwen watched him go. Just what kind of deals did a guy like Jerry have in play, she wondered? A deal that involved the Post Office Mauritius, possibly? Could she afford not to find out? She drifted after him, trying to ignore the twinge of guilt she felt at abandoning Del. It had just been a funny little moment. It still didn't make any sense to be involved with him. She was here to get a job done.

Glancing out in the hall, Gwen spied Jerry behind a seven-foot-tall ficus in a waist-high terra-cotta planter. He leaned against the wall, his back to her as he spoke into his phone. She crept nearer.

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