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take no prisoners - Book No. 2 - "Black Ops Inc. "

Abbie spotted the posterboy the minute she came back from break.  It was hard not to.  The guy was incredible looking.  While she felt a little kernel of unease that he’d turned up again – where she worked this time – she wasn’t going to let it throw her off her stride.

The Vegas strip wasn’t all that big.  Not really.  There were only so many places for people to eat, sleep and gamble.  When he drifted off twenty minutes or so later without so much as looking her way, she chalked it up to coincidence.  Just as she found it coincidental that the tall man with the dark eyes and short dark hair who’d been playing the slot beside the golden boy ambled over to the black jack tables.

Big guy.  The western cut white shirt and slim, crisp Wrangler jeans told her he was a real cowboy.  The kind who made their living in the saddle, not the kind who just dressed the part.   He was confident but quiet with it, she decided as she dealt all around to her full table then cut another glance the big guy’s way.

He stood a few feet back from the tables, arms crossed over a broad chest, long legs planted about a shoulder width apart, eyes intent on the action on the blackjack table next to hers.  On any given night there were a lot of lookers in a casino so it wasn’t unusual that he stood back from the crowd and just watched.  What was unusual was that between deals, her gaze kept gravitating back to him.

What was even more curious was that when one of her players scooped up his chips and wandered off, leaving the third base chair empty, Abbie found herself wishing the tall cowboy would take his place.

What was up with that?  And what was up with the little stutter step of her heart when he ambled over, nodded hello and eased his lean hips onto the chair.

“Howdy,” she said with what she told herself was a standard, welcoming smile.

He answered with a polite nod as he reached into his hip pocket and dug out his wallet.  When she’d paid and collected bets all around, he tossed a hundred dollar bill onto the table.

Abbie scooped it up, counted out one hundred in chips from the chip tray, then spread them on the green felt table top for him to see.  After he’d gathered them in and stacked them in front of him, she tucked the hundred into the slot in front of her.

“Place your bets,” she said to the table of seven, then dealt the first round face-up from the shoe.  When all players had two cards face up, she announced her own total.  “Dealer has thirteen.”

Her first base player asked for a hit, which busted him.  When she got to cute quiet cowboy, he waved his hand over his cards, standing pat with eighteen.

You could tell a lot about a person from their hands.  Abbie saw a lot of hands – polished and manicured, dirty and rough, thin and arthritic.  The cowboy’s hands were big, like he was.  His fingers were tan and long with blunt, clean nails, not buffed.  Buffed, in her book, said pretentious.  His were not.  They were capable hands.  A working man’s hands, with the occasional scar to show he was more than a gentleman rancher.  Plenty of calluses.  He dug in. 

She liked him for that.  Was happy for him when she drew a king, which busted her.  “Luck’s running your way,” she said with a smile as she paid him.

He looked up at her then and for the first time she was hit with the full force of his smile.  Shy and sweet, yet she got the distinct impression there was something dark and dangerous about him.

Whoa.  Where had that come from?  And what the heck was going on with her?

Hundreds – hell, thousands – of players sat at her table in any given month.  Some were serious, some were fun and funny, some sad.  And yeah, some of them deserved a second look.  None of them, however, flipped her switches or tripped her triggers like this man was flipping and tripping them right now.  It was unsettling as all get out.

“Place your bets,” she announced again then dealt around the table when all players had slid chips into their betting boxes.

Where the blond poster boy had been bad boy gorgeous, there wasn’t one thing about this man that suggested boy.  Abbie pegged him for mid-thirties – maybe closer to forty, but it wasn’t anything physical that gave her that impression.  He was rock solid and sort of rough and tumble looking.  Dark brown hair, close cut, dark, dark brown eyes, all seeing.  Nice face.  Hard face.  All edgy angles and bold lines.

Maybe that’s where the dangerous part came.  He had a look about him that was both disconcerting and compelling.  A presence suggesting experience and intelligence and a core solid confidence that needed no outward display or action to reinforce it.

He was the quintessential quiet hero type.  Matthew McConaughey without the long hair and boyish charm – and with a shirt on, something McConaughey was generally filmed without.  Although, the cowboy did have his own brand of charisma going on because he was sure as the world throwing her for a loop.

“Cards?” she asked him now.

“Double down.”

Smart player, she thought and split his pair of eights.  She grinned again when he eventually beat the table and her on both cards.

“I think maybe you’re my luck.” He tossed a toke in the form of a red chip her way.

“Tip,” she said loud enough for her pit boss to hear, showed him the five-dollar chip before she pocketed it.  “Thanks,” she said smiling at him.

“My pleasure.” 

He spoke so softly that the only reason she understood what he said was because she was looking right at him.  The din of the casino drowned out his words to anyone else at the table as the rest of the players talked and joked or commiserated with each other.

The next words out of his mouth – “What time do you get off?” – threw her for a complete loop.

 She averted her gaze.  “Place your bets,” she told the table at large thinking, Hokay.  Quiet doesn’t necessarily equate to shy.

The man moved fast.  Which both surprised and pleased her because it meant that all this ‘awareness’, for lack of a better word, wasn’t one-sided.  It also made her a little nervous.  Her first instinct was to give him her standard, Sorry.  No fraternizing with the customers.

But then she got an image of a devil sitting on her shoulder – a red haired pixie devil with a remarkable resemblance to Crystal.  “Don’t you dare brush him off.  Look at him.  Look!  At!  Him!

She chanced meeting his eyes again – his expression was expectant but not pressuring – and found herself mouthing, “Midnight.”

A hint of a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth.   “Where?”

She didn’t hesitate nearly long enough.  “Here.” God, what was she doing?

“Cards?” she asked the table.

He gave her the “Hit me” signal when she came around to him.

He broke twenty-one, shrugged.

“Sorry,” she said, liking the easy way he took the loss.  “Better luck next time.”

“Counting on it.”  He stood.  “Later,” he said for her ears only then he strolled away from the table.

“Dealer pays sixteen,” she said absently as she paid all winners and surreptitiously watched what was arguably one of the finest Wrangler butts she’d ever seen get lost in a sea of gamblers.


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