Excerpt for Last Hand by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Last Hand



By Nicolette Pierce



Published by Nicolette Pierce at Smashwords.



Last Hand is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.



Copyright © 2018 by Nicolette Pierce



All rights reserved.





Smashwords Edition, License Notes



This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Dedication



Melissa Haag, thank you for all of your help. You’ve been an amazing champion to have on my side.

Acknowledgements



Many thanks to every reader out there! This journey has been inspiring. I appreciate your kind words, your enthusiasm, your love of reading, and your support!



Thank you to Amber Barry. I’m thrilled we are on book fifteen together. Your editing skills help shape the book and make it perfect.



Judy Hanson, thank you for your critique and advice. I always trust you with the first round of editing.



Thank you to Melissa Haag! You have a gift for design, and I’m so happy I found you. You’re stuck with me now.

Books by Nicolette Pierce


Mars Cannon Novels

Deadly Dancing

Predator Patrol

Security Squad

Biker Brigade

Fearsome Foursome



Nadia Wolf Novels

No Limit

High Stakes

Cashing Out

Squeeze Play

The Last Tailored Suit

My Traitor

Pocketful of Diamonds

Last Hand


Metal Girls Trilogy

Melting Point

Critical Point

Triple Point


Please visit Nicolette on her website at:



www.nicolettepierce.com



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TABLE OF CONTENTS



Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19


Prologue


Excerpt from Pocketful of Diamonds.





Somewhere in the Las Vegas airport . . .



I ran from the plane and into the women’s restroom. I had been queasy since the plane had taken off, but the landing was what clinched it for me. I was most definitely pregnant. I wretched into the toilet, feeling as though even my toes were purging.

After a moment, making sure I wouldn’t lose a second stomach’s worth of food, I stood and hurried to a sink. I rinsed out my mouth and splashed water on my face, cursing when I realized there were no paper towels, only a hand dryer.

With a sigh, I mopped my face with the hem of my shirt and walked back out to find Caleb waiting for me. His brow was etched with worry.

“Are you okay, kitten?”

“I’ve been better.”

“The flight must have upset your stomach,” he said, wrapping his arm around my shoulder. “Let’s get the luggage and go home.”

It wasn’t really home. I no longer had a home in Las Vegas. It had been blown up along with all of my stuff. So, we were going to Caleb’s condo, which was his home. However, it was temporary. Our house was under construction, and so it was only a matter of time before we could move in.

I feared returning to Vegas. Nothing good ever happened there. My life had been a series of mishaps, blunders, and life-threatening fiascos. The only exception being Caleb, who had wanted to marry me, but only after I’d left. So, Vegas couldn’t even claim that.

Caleb looked at me with a creased brow. “You’re still worried, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am.”

“I didn’t think you were superstitious.”

“I wasn’t. Vegas made me this way. Bad luck happens here. As soon as I left, I started winning at the tables.”

“That’s because you stole my luck.”

“And now that we’re home, you will steal it back.” I was sure of it.

“You’ll feel better once we’re at home. Your nerves will relax after a couple of days without incident.”

“A couple of days?” When had I ever lasted that long? “Try a few hours.”

He smiled. “That’ll be even easier. All we’re doing is going to get the luggage and then driving home.”

Caleb said it was easy, but I knew not to get my hopes up. I knew something lurked around the corner.

“Nadia?” Frankie asked. “You’re back!”

Holy cow! It happened sooner than expected. I didn’t really believe bad luck lurked around the literal corner, but there they all were. My friends of misfortune come to plague me in the airport.

“Nadia!” Mya bubbled and flung herself and her rounded baby belly into my arms. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming home? I would have thrown a surprise party.”

“That’s probably the reason I didn’t tell you.”

Mya straightened and swatted my arm. “You are such a poop. But I’m so glad you are back.”

With wary eyes, I scanned the entire group assembled at baggage claim.

“Why are you all here?” I asked, backing into Caleb.

I couldn’t understand running into Frankie, Mark, Mya, David, Greyson and his fiancée. At least I assumed the pretty young woman was his fiancée. We had never been introduced.

“Ian and his wife came home,” Mya said. “You just missed them.”

“Wife? How long was I gone?” Wasn’t it just a few months ago that I signed the annulment papers with Ian?

Well, a lot could happen in a few months. The little baby that decided to take up residence in my belly could attest to that.

“You remember Gwen, right?” Mya asked. When I nodded, Mya smiled. “They’re together now.”

“I’m so confused.”

David laughed. “We were all confused at first, but they seem happy.”

Mya nodded. “They’re going to get remarried here, and . . .” Mya squealed. She turned to Frankie and Mark, who also began squealing.

“What’s happening?” I asked, trying to back up farther.

“I think you and Caleb have been added to the wedding list,” David said.

“Wedding list?” I could only seem to parrot. Suddenly a wave of nausea swept over me and I reached inside my purse to grab a lollipop. They seemed to bring a small amount of relief in a pinch. And someone had definitely pinched me. I popped it into my mouth, willing my already emptied stomach to behave.

With a bit of relief, I realized I was being rude. I stretched out my hand to the woman at Greyson’s side. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Nadia.”

“Jenna.”

“It’s nice to meet you. Congratulations to you both.”

“And to you too,” Jenna said. “Not only are you engaged, but you won a few tournaments.”

“Oh, thank you. I didn’t realize you followed poker.”

“I don’t. Mya keeps me updated.”

I could feel my eyes widening in horror. While Greyson and I had never been in a serious relationship, Jenna wouldn’t want to know about me.

Jenna smiled. “Mya loves you. I have a feeling we’ll be in each other’s company quite a bit. I hope you don’t mind.”

Mind? While I really didn’t want to be in anyone’s company, except for Caleb’s, Jenna would probably cause the least amount of woes. She might actually serve as a buffer between me and the designing trio.

“Oh my God!” Mya burst through my thought. “You’re pregnant!”

I looked from Mya to Caleb, the lollipop held in suspended animation. “What?”

“I know those lollipops. You bought them for me when I was having morning sickness.” Mya beamed, unaware of the stir she was causing.

“Is it true?” Caleb asked.

“Ah, well,” I hedged. I didn’t want to blurt it out, especially not before having it confirmed by a doctor. But Caleb looked expectantly at me, his eyes revealing his surprise. My shifting insides turned upside down. “I think so. I have an appointment to see a doctor tomorrow.”

His mouth swung open.

“You can say something. Anything. There are people staring at us.”

He swooped me into his arms and spun me.

“Let me down or I’ll throw up,” I moaned, popping the sucker back into my mouth.

He set me down. “I can’t believe it.”

“Believe it.”

Mya, Frankie, and Mark squealed again, huddling as they spoke animatedly and with large gestures.

I groaned, and this time it had nothing to do with my stomach. They were up to something.

“Nadia?”

I turned to find Sergio and his sister-in-law, Rosie, walking toward us. “Sergio? What are you doing here?”

His face was strained, Rosie’s too. “We followed him back here. We were going to warn all of you tonight, but since you’re all here—”

“Who?”

“My cousin.”

I hadn’t thought of Alfonso in some time. If Sergio’s drug-cartel cousin was in town, there was a reason. One I wanted nothing to do with.

It seemed I had been right all along. Las Vegas was bad luck. And it took less than an hour to prove it.

What could possibly happen next?




Chapter 1


It wasn't because the bed was lumpy or uncomfortable that I couldn't sleep. It was everything else. As I tossed and turned next to a peacefully slumbering Caleb, I realized that life had become complicated.

No matter how much I tried to force it, sleep was not my friend. It only made me queasy. Of course, that could be due to the very disruptive baby now performing summersaults in by belly. I sat up and rubbed my stomach, willing the nausea to go away. But, like always, it didn’t work. I ran to the bathroom, hand covering my mouth to halt the geyser. And like always, when I finally made it to the toilet, not much came out, just retching and heaving. It was horrible, this nausea. I didn't understand how the Earth’s population was so large. Who would ever want to go through this multiple times?

Mya had promised it would only be a couple of months, and then I would feel better. I hoped she was right, because there was no way I would survive like this much longer.

As I flushed the toilet and washed my face and hands, rinsing out my mouth, I felt a presence behind me.

"Are you okay, kitten?" Caleb asked, flipping on the light. His brow was etched with concern.

It was rare to see Caleb worried. He was always a source of unaffected good humor. With his sandy locks and wide smile, he had a tendency to spread his happy mood to everyone who crossed his path. I envied that about him.

I grabbed the hand towel and mopped my face. "I'll live."

He crossed the distance between us and wrapped me in his arms. I leaned heavily against him, thankful we were in this together.

"It'll get better," he promised.

I didn’t see how he could guarantee that, but I didn’t really want to argue either. He was only trying to be supportive. If men really wanted to help, they would’ve figured out how to carry babies themselves.

"It’d just be easier if we had a home," I said.

"We'll have one soon enough. Unfortunately, the repairs to my condo won’t be done until our new house is finished. We’re stranded for now. We just have to wait this out."

"Or go to a hotel," I suggested hopefully.

"Frankie and Mark insisted we stay here. They're excited to share their new chapel and home with us."

"That doesn't mean we need to live here for two months. It’s only been a week and I already want to run away."

Caleb chuckled, pulling me closer and kissing the top of my head as if consoling a child. Perhaps I was behaving like one. But with his condo flooded from a water-pipe break, me being pregnant and miserable, and then having to live with Frankie and Mark, it was as much as I could handle.

“I feel like I’m in a zoo and all the animals are judging me,” I said.

"Would it make you feel better if I turned them around?" Caleb asked, pointing to the quilted animals surrounding us.

"No, leave them." I had made my peace with the hundreds of crafted animals that Mark had strewn throughout the room. It was a little claustrophobic, but we were in their home.

Mark had tried to contain his craft area to the corner, but with over twenty bolts of fabric plus all the bobs and doodads that went with it, it was nearly impossible. However, the bed was comfortable and we had our own bathroom. Plus, Frankie and Mark were usually pleasant to be around during the day. At night, they tended to argue a lot.

Their house, located off the back of the wedding chapel, was not big enough to hide from them or their voices, which bounced off the vaulted ceilings. Two bedrooms, two baths, and an open-concept living room and kitchen were great for a couple and a cat—but not also for two long-term guests.

"I think I need air," I said.

"It's the middle of the night. Just come back to bed. I'll give you a massage."

I paused, not wanting to miss out on one of his massages. Quickly agreeing, I plopped down on the bed, awaiting his wonderful hands.

I wondered how life would be after the baby. It made me nervous. Even in strong relationships, a baby could upset everything. I had my doubts and worries, but Caleb seemed perfectly content. It was as if this was everything he had expected.

It was not what I had expected. In fact, I hadn’t known if I’d ever want a child. Now I just had to wait and see what happened.

Caleb settled next to me, stroking my back with one hand. It was lovely until a few minutes later when he fell into a sound sleep. His warm hand dropped in the middle of my back, adding an extra weight that made me uncomfortable. I was already retaining what felt like gallons of water.

Gently slipping out of his grasp, I sat up. It’d do me no good to lie there and listen to his breathing. Besides, I'd never be able to fall asleep with so much uncertainty racing through my mind. No, it was time to get back into a routine. Just because I was pregnant didn’t mean I couldn’t work. And since the baby wouldn’t let me sleep, she would just have to come with me.

I really had no idea the sex of the baby. But I didn't want to call it “it” either. So, instead, I chose “she.” For some reason, I suspected she would be a girl. I didn’t care one way or the other about the gender, but there was just something that told me she would be a girl. I never once told Caleb what I suspected. He was adamant that it should be a surprise.

Quietly, I dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, then slipped on my shoes. I gave my mouth a final scouring before I picked up my backpack and grabbed my hoodie on the way out.

Gus sat outside the bedroom door. His very grumpy demeanor greeted me. I reached down to pet him. “Frankie kicked you out of the bedroom again, didn’t he?”

Gus grunted his disproval when I straightened. The tubby gray cat never wanted my affection, just food. But with Mark’s coddling, Gus no longer had to demand food. His rounded belly was proof of that.

I let him into the bedroom to sleep with Caleb. He waddled through the door and stared at the bed and then at me. Knowing exactly what he wanted, I walked over to pick him up and set him on the bed. He gave another grunt and then settled in.

Smiling, I walked out the door and headed to the casino.


* * *


It was an hour into playing when I folded my hand again. My head wasn't into cards, but the rest of me wasn't into sleeping. So, I waited for the next hand at the low stakes table, biding my time. I could have entered the high-stakes room. But even though I had won enough money to afford it, I still felt odd sitting at the high roller’s table. My comfort zone was on the main floor. So there I sat, waiting for the night to end with hundreds of other people.

"My office. Now!" I heard the growled order behind me and knew instantly who it was. I had come to Tropical Rain Casino because I knew where everything was, and I knew the play style. However, I didn't think Remy would be working the night shift.

Since I wasn’t currently in a hand, I gathered up my chips and tucked them into my pocket. Standing, I turned to find a scowling, tightlipped man who towered over me with way too many muscles. Slot-machine lights bounced off his shiny, shaved head.

I smiled at him. "What brings you here?"

His scowl deepened, and I knew I had poked a button. But it was so easy with Remy. He had so many buttons. "Get your ass in my office. Now!"

"It's nice to see you too. How have you been? I hear you're dating someone. I believe her name is Ava."

"Jet!" he growled his nickname for me in warning.

If my stomach hadn't chosen that moment to tumble, I would've chuckled at his expression. He looked thunderous. Had anybody else been under that glare, they might have crumbled. But he couldn't scare me. Remy was a softy and my friend.

So, instead of pressing him to the breaking point, which he was already tiptoeing, I allowed him to march me to the office.

I sat down on the familiar couch and eased back, rubbing my stomach.

His scowl eased only slightly. "It's the middle of the night, Jet. And you're pregnant. You should be home."

"I appreciate your concern, but I couldn't sleep and I have no home. I needed to get out."

"Where's Caleb?"

"Sleeping at Frankie’s."

“Then that's where you should be."

I raised a brow. "Last time I checked it was the twenty-first century. I don't need to be everywhere my fiancé is."

"I didn’t say that," he snapped. "But have you forgotten Sergio's demented cousin? Alfonso is still out there. Until Sergio figures out where he is, you’re not to be alone anywhere or anytime."

"I don't see why I'm in danger. What would he want with me?"

“Jet, you helped take down his family business."

"Not really. Sergio did most of the work."

"Have you forgotten Dagor? He was one of the cousin’s workers."

How could I forget Dagor? The man had kidnapped me and Mya, he had an illegal counterfeit operation running in Greyson’s casino, and he tried to kill me several times.

"If that's the case, we’re all in trouble,” I said. “You, me, Greyson, David, and Mya. We were all involved. And weren’t Jenna and her brother somehow wrapped up in it as well?" I didn’t know Jenna very well, other than what Mya had told me. But her brother had accidently picked up the wrong bag with Alfonso’s drugs in it. Greyson had to pay a hefty sum to keep them all alive.

"David's keeping track of Mya, Jenna, and Greyson,” Remy said. “He has enough to deal with without adding you to the list.”

"Have there been any leads or threats?"

"Only what we've learned from Sergio. Alfonso is out for revenge. He’s angry and has nothing to lose. And that means he won’t stop. He’s out for blood."

“From what I remember, he was out for blood to begin with."

"He won’t stop. Do you see our problem?”

There was always a problem. That never seemed to change, and I was tired of it. I was tired of living in fear.

"Tell me about Ava," I said.

"Stop trying to change the subject. You know damn well I'm not going to answer."

"Why not?"

"Jet, if you want to live to see tomorrow, stop asking about Ava. This is serious."

I studied him for a moment. "Are you two fighting?"

"No, we’re not fighting!"

"I think maybe you are."

"Jet!"

I didn’t know why I liked to rile Remy. Maybe because it was so easy. Maybe it was because I felt as though he were a brother. Or maybe when everything in life turned upside down, I could count on Remy, even if he was upset with me.

I held up my hands, signaling a truce. "Okay, I won't ask about Ava anymore tonight, but I do want to meet her eventually."

Remy’s scowl disappeared as he straightened. "Good. That will work nicely."

"What will work nicely?"

"Since you seem to wander around with no thoughts of protecting yourself or the baby, Ava will be assigned to you."

I sat rigid. "Assigned? You can't assign her to me."

"You said you wanted to meet her. Now you can."

"Meeting her is one thing, but I don't need a babysitter."

"Obviously you do."

"Remy, this is silly. Ava won't want to follow me around, and I don't want her to."

"It's either this, or you stay at Frankie's until we resolve the issue."

Well, there was no way I was going to stay holed up at Frankie's. I had no idea how long it would take, and I was truly beginning to think Mark's quilted animals were planning on murdering me in my sleep.

"I promise to stay near Caleb or be with someone at all times. Will that make you happy?"

"This isn't about me being happy. It's about survival. You’ve been through too many scrapes before, and narrowly escaped each time. You might not be as lucky this time."

"I appreciate the concern. But until we know more, there's no need to bring out the armed guards."

"That's exactly what needs to happen," he said.

"Remy, I promise I'll be with someone at all times."

"And what happens if you break your promise?"

"I won't. But, if I do, then you can put me under lockdown."

"I'll keep you to that promise."

"I promise," I repeated. When he looked convinced, I added, "So, tell me about Ava."

He groaned.


Chapter 2


When I returned to Frankie and Mark’s, the morning light twinkled on the horizon. Remy had let me stay at the casino a little bit longer, posting a guard right next to my table. Unfortunately, the play had fizzled, and I was forced to either return home or throw money away.

To my surprise, both Frankie and Mark were awake and in the middle of a quarrel. Well, the quarreling didn’t surprise me. I tried to navigate past the warring couple, however, they caught me.

"Tell him he's a fool," Frankie demanded.

"I'm the fool?” Mark questioned. “What about you? The whole idea for the extra room is ridiculous."

I didn't want to get in the middle, yet it seemed I had no choice. Frankie tucked his arm in mine and ushered me to the kitchen where coffee was brewing. The delightful smell tickled my senses, making me want to have a cup. But I had been told I had to greatly limit my caffeine intake. Too much caffeine wasn't good for a baby. As the scent wafted around me, I couldn't help but accept a cup from Frankie. I took a tiny sip and relaxed into a kitchen chair. I wouldn’t drink the whole cup, but two little sips would be okay.

I sighed. This whole baby thing was confusing. I didn't know how much was too much and how much was not enough. They needed more specifics. Like one ounce of coffee was okay but two was not. I needed hard numbers, not a ballpark figure.

Shifting in my clear plastic seat, I tried to find a comfortable spot. The chairs might look modern, but they were not comfy. The rest of the kitchen was decorated in classic happy yellows on the walls and a light-colored wood for the cabinets.

"I'm not going to have a dinosaur-themed chapel," Mark said. "It's undignified."

Frankie rolled his eyes. "How are we going to be the best if we don't have all themes covered?"

"Dinosaurs died a billion years ago. Let them rest."

"Why are you awake so early?" I asked, interrupting their bickering.

"Early?” Frankie asked. “We haven't even gone to sleep yet."

"Well, I suggest you do. You’re both probably overtired and are fighting for no reason."

"No reason?” Frankie snapped. "He's dismissing my idea without even thinking about it. It could have potential."

"Potential?” Mark scoffed. “What, a caveman dragging his bride down the aisle by her ponytail? Real classy."

I sighed and slumped over the table and instantly regretted it when acid reflux fired up my esophagus. Coffee was now my enemy. I straightened and rubbed my throat. "Can you get me a glass of water, please?"

Mark nodded, hurried to the cupboard, and pulled out a glass. While he was filling it, I asked, "Why are you having problems with this one room?"

"We have nine other rooms and all of them have their own themes, but we are stumped on this last one." Frankie frowned.

"What are the other themes?" I asked, giving Mark a nod of thanks when he handed me the glass. I took a fortifying sip and let it wash away the burn from my throat.

I listened while they listed off the rooms, which included a fairy-tale chapel, an Elvis chapel, country-western, Adam and Eve, and several others that sounded quite nice. But they were missing the essence of the original All Celebrities Chapel.

“I think you need to leave it empty," I said.

"Have an unused room?" Frankie asked. "We’d lose money."

"No, don’t leave it unused. But give it rotating themes. Every month you could have a new theme. It could be dinosaurs or whatever you want.”

They glanced at each other with rounded eyes. "Actually, that might just work," Frankie said. "Then we wouldn't get bored of our standard themes."

Mark shuddered. "I don't want to ever be Prince Charming again."

"Then who will officiate the fairy-tale chapel?" I asked. Mark looked the part when he was dressed in his tunic and tights.

"We’re hiring two new employees," Mark said. "It was one of the conditions we negotiated. I don't want to work around the clock with all of these different chapels. It would be insane."

"It sounds like you have everything under control," I said.

"Almost," Frankie said.

"What's left?" I asked. Since I had solved one of the problems, I thought I was on a roll. Maybe I could help them out more.

"You."

"Me?" I asked confused.

Both Frankie and Mark nodded.

"What did I do?" I asked.

"You made Remy yell at us," Mark said.

"That man is built like a rock and growls like a bear,” Frankie said. “I don’t like when he yells at me for losing track of you."

"I'm sorry,” I said. “I promised him that I wouldn’t go anywhere alone again."

"He doesn't believe you,” Frankie said. “He thinks you’re going to try something. So, from now on, we’re going to be your shadows."

I shook my head. "No, I'll make sure to stay near Caleb."

Frankie tsked. "We already enlisted help."

"Who?"

"David, Greyson, and Remy will all be over later today to come up with a game plan."

I narrowed my eyes at that, wondering what was really going on. Remy may have yelled, but I doubted Frankie and Mark would care enough to bring the whole gang over to figure out my safety.

"And when they come over, what are you going to do?" I asked.

"They’ll be security," Frankie said, and Mark nodded.

"You called them this early in the morning?" I asked. “Did you wake them up?”

"They weren’t happy," Frankie admitted. "But once we told them why we were calling, they were very cooperative."

"I bet," I said, suspicious.

"We better get our beauty sleep before they arrive," Mark said.

"Yes, wouldn’t want to have dark circles," Frankie added.

"What about Mya?" I asked.

“She’ll be at home," Frankie said.

"So, just the men?"

"Yes, they should be enough," he said.

That was my aha moment. Frankie and Mark didn't give a fig about me. They only wanted an excuse to see the hunky men.

"You just blew your cover," I said. "And I thought you two were in a committed relationship."

Mark and Frankie looked at each other with a shrug and then back at me.

"We are," Mark said.

"That doesn't mean we can't appreciate the beauty of the masterpieces." Frankie smiled.

"Masterpieces," Mark said, grinning. "Couldn’t have said it better myself."

This wasn't good news for me. It meant I had to see Greyson again. I wished the best for Greyson and Jenna, but I didn't want to make it any more awkward than it already was. Just based on my brief encounter with him at the airport, he seemed happy with his new girlfriend. However, to sit in the same room with him didn't seem like the right course of action. But since he was in the middle of this as well, I supposed that he should be involved. I just hoped Caleb wouldn't feel bad about the situation. It would be like me sitting in a room with one of his ex-girlfriends. I would hate that.

Since Caleb and I had gotten engaged, not once had he ever looked at another woman, which was sometimes difficult. At large competitions, he was the focal point and women tended to follow him around. But he never gave them attention.

When I remember back to when we were just friends, he never looked at other women when he was with me. Sure, one might've been draped on him, but he was always attentive to me. I wish I would have understood my draw to him sooner. I would have less of a mess to clean.

After Frankie and Mark said goodnight, I took a large drink of water and placed the glass in the dishwasher. I then mustered up the courage to talk to Caleb. To my surprise, he was awake and lounging on the bed, reading a magazine. He looked up and smiled, though his dimple was showing, which meant he was upset about something . . . or someone. Probably me.

"Were you able to fend off Remy?" he asked.

"He called you too?"

Caleb nodded. "Very adamant that I should keep track of my woman."

"I'm sorry he called."

"I'm not. It was nice knowing where you were."

"Are you mad?"

He thought for a moment before shaking his head. "No, I'm not mad. But I do think you should be more careful. Remy has a point."

"Yes, he has a point. But I can't be cooped up all day and night. The baby has me and my hormones all messed up. I can't sleep, I can hardly eat, and what little I drink gives me indigestion. Sometimes I just need to escape. Sometimes I just want life to return to normal."

"Ever since I met you, you've never had any sort of normal life. But I understand. And I don't want you to feel like you’re trapped. I also don't want you to think that you and I have to be joined at the hip either. I just want you to be safe, kitten. And whatever that takes, I'll do it. So, if that means you want to go to the casino in the middle of the night, let me come too. You don't have to sit with me. You can play at your own table."

I sat on the bed next to him. "I have a confession."

"What's that?"

"I played at the low-stakes table tonight. I don't feel comfortable going into the high-stakes room."

"It takes time, kitten,” he said, his hand stroking my arm. “We don't all start out at the high-stakes table."

"I know. But I thought now that I have money, I'd feel more comfortable there. But I felt like a fraud. I wanted a poker career because I enjoy it. I enjoy the thrill of winning and being on the edge of losing. In high-stakes, it's magnified. What if I can only ever be a low-stakes player? What if this is the height of my career?"

And when the baby comes, what then? I couldn’t very well have a bouncing baby on my lap while I played. Would I get a sitter? Or would I stay at home? Somehow, I didn’t think that would work out so well. I had already fled the coop tonight.

“What are you thinking about?” Caleb asked. “You’re frowning.”

“I have too many questions in my head.”

He tossed down his magazine and pulled me in closer. “We’re in this together. Don’t forget that.”

“I know. There’s just a lot to think about.”

“Stop thinking, then.”

I laughed. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“Sure it does,” he said, placing small kisses along my neck.

It felt delightfully warm and tingly . . . a little cozy too. I wrapped my arms around him. “I don’t believe you. Prove it.”

He smiled. “Gladly.”



Chapter 3


Frankie's dream of having only gorgeous men come over never came true. Each invitee came with their significant other. I gazed about the leather-decorated living room, amazed that in such a short time everyone had found their happily ever after.

Greyson had found Jenna, and both seemed completely content together. She animatedly chatted about the bed-and-breakfast, which was, of course, a success. How could it not be with Greyson at the helm? Remy had Ava, who looked as though she could dropkick a ninja, while still pulling off more style than I could.

I glanced down at my baggy shirt and jeans and sighed. I didn’t even have Caleb’s good looks to balance me out as he was out running errands.

Ian could barely take his eyes off Gwen. She was beautiful, of course, but I knew there was something more to her. There was something more to all of them than pretty hair and white teeth. And while I was happy to meet each one of them, I also felt a little overwhelmed. I had gone away when life had crumbled and came back to buildings rebuilt and each friend happily paired.

While I still loved Greyson, it was only as a friend. And my ex-husband Ian was more of a brother. Then there was Remy, who would always hold a special place in my heart as the one that I couldn't shake. He was my constant shadow.

Thankfully, Mya and David had come as well. They were the glue that held this motley crew together.

Frankie and Mark hurried between the couples, who were chatting amicably. Drinks were offered and appetizers passed around. The atmosphere seemed like more of a party than a doomsday strategy session. It was almost as if nothing had happened. Yet I detected a subtle unease—or perhaps it was just myself. It was as if there was a nameless creature sitting in the room that no one wanted to address.

Mya hurried over to me with a beaming smile. Well, she hurried as fast as her pregnant waddling body would allow. Her curly blonde hair bobbed with each step. It was still faster than I could move, considering every time I tried to stand I felt nauseated. So, I sat safely on the brown leather couch.

"Isn't this wonderful?" she asked, sitting next to me. "Everyone is here. We’re all a big happy family again."

"When were we ever a big happy family?" I asked.

"Don't be such a poop," she scolded, wagging her finger at me. "It's wonderful that we’re getting together like this."

"I didn't mean to be a poop," I said. "I just meant that we've never been like this before. It was always David and Remy trying to pull rank on everyone. Greyson with his head buried in casino work. Ian causing mischief from a different country. And you and I stuck in the middle of all of it."

"Well, I guess when you put it that way, it's a little different. But, look around. Everyone is in love.” She clasped her hands together at her chest. “Isn't this great?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"What do you mean you guess?" Mya leaned over and whispered, "You're not still in love with Greyson, are you?"

I glanced about the room to see if anybody had heard her. Thankfully, it didn't seem as though anyone had. "No. Yes . . . I love him as a friend. It has nothing to do with Greyson. I'm just overwhelmed, I guess."

"Overwhelmed with what?"

"Well, I'm engaged and pregnant. And oh yeah, there’s a bloodthirsty drug lord that wants revenge. And I’m living with Frankie and Mark."

Mya rubbed her rounded belly with a frown. "Well, we’re here because of the drug lord, so we’ll come up with a plan for that. As for the baby, I'm so excited! Our babies are going to have so much fun together. It's great for them to have instant cousins. And who knows, maybe we can get Jenna, Gwen, and Ava to have babies as well."

It was then that attention was turned toward us as six pairs of eyes stared in horror at Mya. I simply smiled back. Those poor girls had to know what they were marrying into. And yes, Remy and Ava could say that they weren’t technically related to Mya. However, I wasn't related either and yet our babies would be cousins. It was as if once you met Mya and she tugged you into her circle, you were part of her family forever. And that's what I loved most about her, and yet, it did have its downsides too.

"Oh, don't look at me like that," Mya said. "I've already told you the time frame for having babies. Which means you all need to get married soon."

While Frankie and Mark had no desire to hop in on the baby conversation, they were quick to turn their attention when it came to weddings. Frankie glanced at each couple with dollar signs in his eyes.

"We can host all your weddings here," Frankie said. "You just let us take care of everything. We have a tenth chapel, which will be a rotating theme. Whatever you want, we’ll make sure it happens.”

“You'll get the friends and family discount, too," Mark added. "And, if you'd like to do a double wedding, we can accommodate that."

Mya clasped her hands together. "Can you do four weddings at once?"

"I’ve never done one that large before." Mark said.

“But we’ll take on the challenge,” Frankie said.

"Oh, this is going to be great,” Mya said. “I wish I could get married again."

David nervously glanced at his wife. “Let’s just focus on the baby for now.”

"What date should we mark on our calendar?" Frankie asked the group.

"Hang on," Remy interrupted. "We weren't planning on having a group wedding.”

Frankie and Mya frowned. Mya crossed her arms as best as she could, folding them over her belly. She tried to look stern but couldn’t pull it off. However, everyone in the room knew they were no match for her. When she had her mind made up on something, it was hard to sway her. And with Frankie and Mark in her corner, it would be best if everyone fell in line.

"You know very well that you all are busy." Mya turned to the first couple. "Remy, you put in long hours at the casino. Plus, you and Ava both have the tendency to drag your feet. Don't try to deny it. Wouldn't you rather leave the planning to us and finally get married?" Before they could answer, she turned to Ian and Gwen. "I know that you both are doing extensive charity work for Sierra Leone. Wouldn’t you rather spend time doing that than planning a wedding? And I mean a legitimate marriage with a certificate." Again, she didn't let them answer. "And Greyson and Jenna, I know darn well that you both are spending all of your time working on the bed-and-breakfast. You both are cut from the same cloth and you can’t get your heads out of business to save your life. Let us do the planning. You can look over the details and give your final approval." She then turned to Frankie with a smile. "I think we have it settled."

"What about Nadia?” Ian asked, grinning.

I returned his grin with a scowl.

Mya waved a dismissive hand. "Of course I'm going to take care of her too. It was implied."

His grin grew wider, and my scowl deepened.

"Well, I think we have it all arranged. We’ll get back to you with a date," Frankie said, ending the discussion before anyone could object.

In those few minutes, the entire room had been silenced and everyone had the same dumbfounded look on their faces. Once again, the meddling trio had bulldozed the group.

Thankfully, David had the good sense to break the silence as the three tittering wedding planners maneuvered to the kitchen, talking all at once about the upcoming wedding. “Don’t worry. I’ll talk to Mya. As soon as the baby arrives she’ll be too distracted,” he said, then he turned to me. "So, Nadia, how's the new house coming along?"

"Caleb is checking on it now. It seems to be progressing, although very slowly. I’ll be happy when it’s finished."

He smiled knowingly. "Life must be interesting here."

"You have no idea."

Everyone here was familiar with Frankie and Mark. There was a general murmur of agreement before the conversation began flowing as easily as it had before the matrimonial announcement.

Caleb had promised to be back before the others arrived, so something must have delayed him. I sat on the couch, feeling like the odd man out. Everyone here had their significant other except for me. Normally, something like that wouldn't bother me too much, but right now I was feeling rather vulnerable.

David must have sensed that. He crossed over and sat next to me on the couch. "You know I’ll talk to Mya, right? There’s no reason to be nervous."

"I know. This has nothing to do with her. I’ve had this feeling that when I got back to Vegas everything would fall apart like it did before. It seems like every time I'm in the city, I have bad luck. But as soon as I leave, I have good luck. I'm just worried. With Sergio's cousin Alfonso still on the loose, what if everything falls apart again? What if I lose everything again?"

He clasped my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "You know we’ll never let that happen."

I nodded to make him feel better, yet it did nothing to relieve the sourness churning in my stomach. I knew, without a doubt, that my entire life was still held by a single, fragile thread. What if by the end of today, or next week, or even a month from now, it would snap and be gone? Life was in a very turbulent state. And so, when Mya, Frankie, and Mark all skipped into the room and announced the ceremony date, I didn't blink. The others might have gaped in astonishment, but I saw it as a relief.

In one week from today, I'd be married to Caleb. And that was the only thing that made this situation any better.

Chapter 4


It was thirty minutes later when Caleb appeared, looking as though he had rolled in a pile of sawdust. His jeans and T-shirt were covered with sandy debris, and his shoes were encrusted with it. He said a general hello to everyone before dipping down to give me a kiss, sprinkling dust down on top of me and the couch.

"What happened to you?" I asked.

"There’s been another delay in construction. I'm trying to hurry the process along."

"You were helping the builders?"

He gave a nod, sending a dust storm down from his wavy caramel hair. "I'll take a quick shower and be right back."

I excused myself from the group and followed him down the hall to the bedroom. As soon as we were alone together, I asked, "Why was there another delay?"

"Half of the workers are out with the flu.”

“And so you jumped in and helped?”

“I know you want to get out of here. The more manpower they have, the quicker it will be completed."

He was so adorably sweet with his concern—and utterly sexy in his dirty work clothes—that I wanted to drag him to the bed. However, the sawdust tickled my nose and the scent twisted my stomach. So, instead, I said a quick thank you and closed the door behind me, rejoining the group in the living room. By that time, Sergio and Rosie had arrived. They were in the middle of telling the group the latest news, so I took my seat on the couch and listened.

"You already know Alfonso is out for revenge. He's not well," Sergio said.

Rosie nodded, her shoulders drooping as if she felt the weight of their troubles bearing down on her. It couldn’t have been easy for her. She had been married at such a young age and to Sergio’s horrible brother. It would have been much better had Sergio married her instead. But at least she was free from the drug cartel life, if only Alfonso would leave them alone.

"We know he's out for revenge, but is there anything else?” David asked. “Did you find out what he’s planning?"

"Or where he's living?" Remy asked.

"He's hiding in Vegas, but that's all I know. We've tracked him to this area, but every time we think we find him, it's just a dead end."

Rosie nervously twisted her gold necklace around her finger.

"Does he have any help or hired men?" Greyson asked.

"No, I don't think so." Sergio said. "Rosie and I were able to disband the family business. If he has help, he’s funding them. And, as far as I know, he doesn’t have any money."

"So he's solely looking for revenge?" Ava asked. "He doesn't have anything else on his agenda, like starting up the family business again?"

"As far as we know, no,” Sergio said. “All of his assets have been either frozen or we've given to charities."

"Why can't we just call the police?" Mya asked.

"Because we have no real information to give them,” Sergio said. “He's illegally in the United States, we have no way to find him, and the only thing the police could do is ship him back. He'll just keep coming for us."

"So, how are we involved in this?" Gwen asked.

"It started with Dagor and the counterfeit money that was being laundered in Greyson’s casino," Sergio said. "From there it snowballed to Nadia, Remy, Mya, and then even to Jenna's brother. Anyone who was ever involved in bringing him down is a target. You all helped in one way or another. I'm not sure if you understand the full weight of this. Even without money or help, he will want to kill us one by one."

"Think of it as a blacklist," Remy added. "We brought down his family legacy, the one he had wanted to overtake. He will kill each one of us, starting with the one at the top of the list."

"Rosie and I would probably be at the top the list," Sergio said. "Followed closely by Nadia and Greyson. And then the rest."

"So, what should we do?" Jenna asked.

"I say we put everyone we think is at the top of the list under lockdown," Ava said. "The rest of us can perform a search. We can catch him before he has a chance to put a checkmark on the list."

"No, that’ll just put the rest of you in danger," Greyson said. "If he has the opportunity to kill anyone, he'll take it."

"Do we all stay under lockdown?” Mya asked.

“No, we’d end up becoming stationary targets," Remy said.

"The only way we’re going to end this is if we flush him out,” David said. “We need him to come to us. Otherwise, we'll be hunting shadows. And he'll still have the upper hand."

“You’re going to bait him?" Ian asked. "I don't like the sound of that.”

"It's not like we would tie someone to a train track with a neon sign pointing to him,” David said sarcastically. “Remy, Ava, and I trained for this in the military. We’ll handle it."

"No, you won't," Mya stated with a stomp of her foot. “The baby is due any day. The last thing I need is to worry about you. Don't make me go through that again. I couldn't handle it, not with a newborn."

David wrapped his arm around her to soothe her, but she pulled away and turned her back on him. He looked up at the heavens as if willing strength.

"Mya is right," Ava said. "Remy and I can handle this. David should stay with Mya. His first priority is his family’s safety."

"I can do this by myself," Remy said to Ava.

"Remy, we talked about this. I'm the best tracker you have. Who do you think saved your ass in Iraq?"

Remy, who had been ready to argue, closed his mouth and gave a sharp nod.

"Give me a couple of days," Ava said to the group. "If I can't find him within those days, then he's gone underground or moved locations. I’d be able to find him eventually, but I don't want to drag it out past forty-eight hours."

"But not alone," David said.

"Of course not. Remy and I will do this together and update you as we progress. The rest of you need to hide. And not at home. You need to figure out a place to stay that he couldn’t easily find you."

We all looked at each other, not sure of where that would be. Caleb and I were already homeless. And it wasn't like Greyson and Jenna could leave the bed-and-breakfast for too long. Mya had to be close to the hospital, plus Frankie and Mark were still in the process of opening their chapel. No one could just drop everything and hide. Well, except for me.

"You can stay at the Tropical Rain," Remy said. "It’d be easier for me to get word to you anyway, and I could register you all under fictitious names. Since it's the slow season, I could lock down an entire floor."

There was a general exchange of eye contact and concern, but not from me.

"Thanks, Remy. I'd like that," I said.

I should've expected the shocked looks from everyone. It's not as if I had ever wanted to follow along with plans. However, this would get me out of Frankie and Mark’s domain, and I would be in a casino where I could play. It was perfect.

"Well, it's settled." Remy said. "Go pack for a couple of days away and meet me at the Tropical Rain in two hours."

"Two hours?" Mya asked. "That's not nearly enough time."

"You only have to pack enough for a couple of days," David said. "You'll be okay with just a few items."

"I'll call the security staff and let them know we’ll need extra detail," Remy said, already heading to the door. "Two hours. Or I’ll hunt you down myself."

Ava flashed a smile before following Remy out the door. "He does love his sport."

After Remy and Ava left, the rest followed suit. Some were mumbling, some were worried, but not me. This was the best possible scenario for this predicament. I smiled and hurried back to the room to find Caleb freshly showered.

"Pack your bag," I said. “We’re all moving to the Tropical Rain for a couple days of lockdown."

He looked at me with suspicion. "Why are you smiling?"

"Because a couple of days of lockdown with you is exactly what I need."

He returned the smile. His twinkling blue eyes spoke volumes.

Perhaps Vegas wasn’t a source of bad luck after all. I had every faith that Remy and Ava would be able to locate Alfonso. And while they did that, I would enjoy my time with Caleb.

Chapter 5


The U.S. Secret Service had nothing on Remy and Ava. Those two didn't leave anything to chance. By the time we arrived at the Tropical Rain, Remy and Ava had secured the fourteenth floor, which was only one floor lower than the penthouse. The entire floor was ours, along with a guard at every exit and elevator, plus one to walk the hall. More security was assigned to the ground floor. A tourist probably wouldn't notice the increased security. However, I did.

As soon as Caleb and I were given our key, we headed straight to the room and bolted the door per Remy's order. While I had thought I could go to the casino floor and gamble, that idea was quickly dashed. We were prisoners for the next forty-eight hours. The guards were under strict orders to keep us under lockdown and to make sure no one else accessed our floor.

"It'll be okay, kitten," Caleb said. "It's only for a short time. You know that.”

“Yes, but I was hoping I could play a few hands.”

“We can always have a private game,” he said with a wink.

While I adored our private games, I had wanted to get back to work. I wanted to establish a routine I could maintain even after the baby arrived. Yet, when he looked at me the way he did, which was sultry and sweet at the same time, I guess I didn’t mind. The casino would always be there when everything was back to normal.

I was contently pondering a private game when I heard a knock on the adjoining door.

"Hello, neighbor," Frankie said when I opened the door.

I held back the urge to groan. I had hoped we would have been spread out farther.

"Hey, Frankie," I said.

"We’re holding a soirée tonight," he said, fluttering in and eyeing our furniture.

"Tonight? It's already eight o'clock."

He tsked and waved a dismissive hand. "Why do I have to keep reminding you that you’re in Las Vegas? Eight o’clock Vegas time is brunch."

“I'm not on the Vegas time. Not yet, anyway."

"You've never been on Vegas time, Grandma."

"Did you want something?"

"Yes, I want your furniture."

I scanned the Tropical Rain’s standard hotel room, decorated in large palm leaves. "I have the table, two chairs, and the loveseat."

"Perfect."

Frankie hurried over to a chair and picked it up, then dashed back into his room with it. On his return, he eyed Caleb. "Can you help with the loveseat?"

Caleb stepped forward, ready to assist. While Caleb was able to get a good grip on his end, Frankie was not.

Frankie dropped his end and tsked. "We'll need to get Remy to help. Or David. Or even Ian."

He hurried out the door and began knocking on doors, even though Remy had forbade it. Within a few minutes he had four additional men in the room to carry one loveseat. Frankie stood back and admired his handiwork.

"I just love it when they flex their muscles," he said.

While David and Ian helped move the loveseat, Remy scowled. "Frankie, this is serious. We’re not here to have a party. We’re here to keep you alive and safe."

"Who says we can't be safe and have a party at the same time? Isn’t that what being alive is all about?" Frankie asked. "Besides, we’re all stuck here together. We might as well plan out the wedding."

"There won't be a wedding if we die," Remy said.

Frankie smiled. "I knew you'd agree to the wedding."

Remy’s scowl deepened, but I let out a laugh.

"Careful, Jet," Remy warned.

"I didn't say a word."

"You didn't have to. It's written all over your face."

I grinned even wider, making him throw his hands up in disgust.

I leaned over to whisper to Caleb. "This might be better than I thought."

"I heard that," Remy said before huffing out of the room. “Bolt the damn doors!”

When all of the furniture had been moved over, and we were only left with a bed, David smiled. "At least you have the most important piece of furniture," he said. “See you later.”

Before anyone could return to our room, I closed both the adjoining door and the door to the hallway. It was just Caleb and me and a bed. All things considered, this was still better than I had hoped for.

"Are we going to the soirée tonight?" Caleb asked as he took my hand and gently guided me to the bed.

I glanced at him and then at the bed. Both were strong motivators to stay in the privacy of our own room. However, with Frankie next door, and his nosy friends, I decided it was probably worth putting in an appearance.

"We'll go for a little while. Then I’ll feign morning sickness."

"How have you been feeling today?"

"Good and bad. Just when I think I'm feeling like myself again, I get a wave of nausea.”

He gave me a soothing hug before telling me to lie on the bed. "How about a massage?"

"I love you," I said. He knew exactly what I needed before I did.

He smiled, coaxing me to lie down. I did so willingly. "I know, kitten."

"No, but I do."

"I know."

“But I don't think you know how much I love you."

"Why don't you tell me," he suggested with a cute twist to his mouth, his smiling eyes twinkling.

"Because you always help me. Not just because we’re engaged, but even as friends. You've always been there for me. Even when I'm sick and miserable, you're here for me."

"I’ll always be here for you, kitten. Where else would I be?"

I gave a shrug. "You could be anywhere. You could be at the casino making money, or over at the bar having fun with your friends. You could be avoiding me because I'm sick and miserable. But you're here, with me."

He sat down next to me and stroked my back. "Any man who wouldn’t be here isn't truly in love. I love every little bit of you. I love you even though you’re friends with Frankie. And I love you even though you tend to bring dangerous criminals into our lives. I will always love you."

I bit my lip to keep it from trembling. Ordinarily, I wasn’t a crier. But with my pregnancy hormones raging and my life once again in danger, it was more than I could bear. The tears began to flow and, once again, I was tucked into Caleb's arms, holding onto him as my rock. If anything should ever happen to him . . .


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