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Double Blind
by Heidi Cullinan

Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Poker player and professional smartass Randy Jansen believes in fate but doesn't let it rule his life. Whether he's at the table or between the sheets, Randy always knows the odds, and he only plays the games he can win--until he meets Ethan Ellison. Ethan came to Las Vegas with a broken heart and shattered spirit, and when he sits down at the roulette table with his last five dollars, he means this to be one of his last acts on earth. But Randy ropes him into first one bet, and then another, and then another.... Pretty soon they're playing poker on the Strip and having the time of their lives--and all this even before Randy gets Ethan into his bed. But before Ethan can plot out a new course for his life, they're drafted into the schemes of Randy's former lover, a tricky gangster who needs a fall guy. To survive, Ethan will have to stop waiting on fate and start making his own luck, and Randy will have to face the demons of his past and accept that to win this round, he's going to have to put up a big ante. It isn't money going into the pot this time, either: it's his heart, and Ethan's too--because for better or for worse, the game of love has a double blind.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2010 2010
eBookwise Release Date: May 2010

eBookeBook

82 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [601 KB]
Words: 144037
Reading time: 411-576 min.


Double Blind is a very well written book and one that ultimately I really enjoyed reading. The plot is intriguing and exciting, it's fast paced and has many different subplots that all worked well within the main storyline. by Lily @ Jessewave


Chapter One

The man playing at roulette table number three on the main floor of Herod's Poker Room and Casino was playing like a fool, and it was driving Randy Jansen crazy.

Randy lay sprawled across the plush leather sofa in Billy Herod's office, making occasional "Yes, I'm listening to you" noises as his employer launched into one of his "Do you know what I think?" monologues, but mostly Randy watched the security feed from the casino floor.

Goddamn, but he hated it when people played stupidly. It was why he'd never make a good casino owner, because this was money in the bank, what he was watching on the screen, but it was stupid playing and stupid fucking philosophy, too, and it made Randy itch. But there wasn't anything he could do about it, so he just lay there, watching the black and white security footage of the casino tables as the somber-looking and meticulously clean-cut man placed his bets. He made them five at a time, with the grimness of someone marking out a plot for his own burial, the man at the roulette table laid out his five dollar chips and bet on black, over and over again.

A hard nudge on his foot startled him out of his voyeurism, and he looked up sharply to glare at Billy. "What?"

"Quit scanning my floor for dates, and tell me what you think of my brilliant plan." Billy planted himself in front of Randy and held out his hands. The gesture made his back arch, too, just enough to make his paunch roll over the waistband of his expensive trousers. "Go on, I dare you to tell me it won't work. I dare you."

Randy glanced across the room to the other occupant of the office: Billy Herod's godfather, Crabtree. The older man, round and soft and tricked out in a massive head and face full of curling white hair, might as well have been wearing a red suit with fur trim. He even had Santa's laugh, and the sound was rumbling out of him now, his blue eyes twinkling as he watched the byplay between Randy and Billy--or, rather, as he anticipated it.

The fuck if Randy would give Crabtree the satisfaction. He had better things to do, he told himself, and turned back to the television screen, where the somber man was getting ready to bet again.

The man's sweat wasn't actually visible on the tiny screen, but enough of the tells were there for Randy to know that he was sweating indeed, probably profusely. It was also clear that the money, which could never have been much and was absolutely more than he should have been gambling with to start, was almost gone. The man's shoulders were rounded just slightly, and he was watching the chips go as if he were sending his children out to slay monsters.

This time the nudge came at Randy's shoulder.

Randy sighed. He glanced at Crabtree, whose whole body was shaking now with his mirth, and yes, it did look like a bowl full of jelly. Randy wondered how many people had let themselves be distracted by this image right up until the moment when the knife went into their belly, watching in shock as Santa, who was not a jolly old elf but a ruthless gangster, turned the knife, his eyes still dancing as he bled their life away.

"Hey!" Billy said, and tried to poke again.

Randy rolled onto his back at the last second, escaping the jab, and looked up at Billy. "It won't work."

Billy beamed and hitched his thumbs in his belt loops. "Oh, it will. See--"

"It won't work," Randy said, interrupting him, "because it doesn't follow that just because you hire a bunch of twinks to walk around shirtless that rich gay men will come in here to gamble. It's a possibility, yes. But it's also a possibility that there won't be enough rich men for you to make back what it's going to cost you to get this latest bright idea going."

"It will work," Billy said, happily ignoring Randy, "because more and more of you gays are coming to Vegas, and I read a magazine that said gay men have money to burn. And it makes sense! No kids! And you're even more oversexed than regular men. Rich gay men will come in droves when they see what I offer, every Tuesday night!"

Randy covered his face with his hands and shook his head. From the other side of the room he heard Crabtree's chuckle. It wasn't quite "ho, ho, ho," but it came damn close.

"God, Billy, but they hit you with the stupid stick way, way too hard." Randy looked up at Billy as he ticked his objections off on his fingers. "First of all, Junior, you'd have to hire all these cute young men to be your sugar-daddy bait, and cute twinks willing to work for your cheap-ass wages are not as thick on the ground as you might be assuming. They can get more working on the street. Which brings me to point two: if you get anyone in here, you will get street boys, which means you will also get police. Which, if I recall, you and Crabtree don't care for. And third, no matter how oversexed gay men might be, we aren't as thick in the head as you are, Billy, and if you treat us like morons you're being generous enough to bilk every Tuesday night--"

He stopped and looked up at Billy, whose distracted expression told Randy his employer was already lost in his Latest Wild Hair. Crabtree's laugh was thick now, and the old man was occasionally slapping his thigh.

Randy tossed Crabtree a quick flash of his middle finger, threw up his hands, and settled back into the couch. "Never mind. It's a brilliant idea, Billy. Go for it. Just make sure I work that night, so I can watch the fun."

Billy had turned away from him and was rubbing his hands together and staring at the faded 1960s photo of the Strip hanging above his godfather. "I'm gonna bring back the glory days, Randy. You just watch. And I'm going to be rich, and then--" He glanced down at Crabtree and briefly scowled. "Well. Then it will be good again."

"You're already rich, Billy." Randy rolled back to his side and found his quarry on Roulette 3. The man was still there, because he hadn't run out of money yet. He looked like somebody had beaten him about the head, but he was still there, watching the dealer claim his chips as once again the wheel failed to land on black. Randy threw up his hands. "Jesus, buddy. Switch to fucking red."

"What?" Billy said, jerking himself out of his vision. He zeroed in on the camera screens with hawk-like focus. "Is somebody cheating me?"

"God no," Randy said, and pointed to Roulette 3. "This guy is driving me insane. He just keeps betting on black, over and over again. That wheel hasn't hit black in six spins, but he just keeps at it."

"Oh?" Billy smiled and leaned in closer. "Bet black again," he told the man.

"Go back to your room, get drunk, and watch some porn on pay-per-view," Randy suggested instead.

"Not call his wife?" Billy asked, watching as the man carefully counted out his chips again.

"Shit, no. There's no wife." Randy grimaced as the man ran his thumb along the pitiful stack. "He doesn't have kids. He wanted some, maybe, but he never had any. He's sure as hell not married. There was somebody, yes, but whoever it was is gone now." Randy watched the thumb slide around the top chip reverently. He shook his head. "And the cash went with them."

"You're full of shit," Billy said, shaking his head but still watching the screen. "You can't know all that."

Randy could, and he did. He'd been watching this guy for half an hour. The particulars might shift a bit, but he knew he was more right than wrong. "He's been dumped, he's been screwed out of money, and he's decided that he's going to turn his life around by betting his last dollar on the goddamned roulette wheel--by betting on black on a wheel which hasn't won black since he sat down."

The promise of this new "show" caught Crabtree's attention, and he pushed himself out of his chair and ambled over to stand behind Billy and watch. He studied the screen for a moment, and Randy glanced back at him, interested to see if the retired gangster agreed with his own assessment. Randy watched the blue eyes flicker across the screen as they took in tells, making judgments, assessments, and predictions--all in a matter of mere seconds. And then Crabtree flattened his lips, shook his head, and lifted the drink in his hands to his lips.

Fucking hell, Randy thought, turning back to the screen. He'd really hoped he was wrong this time. Why, he didn't know. There was just something about this guy that got to him.

He returned his focus to the screen and watched Roulette Man slide another five-stack forward, all on black. Again.

"Why the hell does he keep doing that?" Billy asked, mystified.

"Because he's an idiot," Crabtree replied into his drink.

"Because he thinks the wheel owes him," Randy said, a little sharply. "He's not an idiot. He's just suffering from delusional thinking. He's thinking, 'It's been red too long. It's due to go black, more now than ever'. He's thinking about laws of averages, and probably fate too. It has to fall to black, he thinks. But the wheel isn't ruled by averages or fate. It's ruled by chaos. It's completely random. It doesn't owe him black. It doesn't owe him anything."

"Which is a long way of saying," Crabtree drawled, "that he is an idiot."

Randy knew when he was being baited, and kept his mouth shut. But his fingernails bit into his palms as the three of them watched. The dealer called a halt on bets. The ball began to slow, getting ready to bounce itself into its final resting place.

"You do realize," Crabtree said as the wheel continued to go around, "that Billy Junior is not entirely wrong. His idea for a gay-themed night would work, because of thinking like this. The twinks will come because they will be thinking of the sugar daddies. The sugar daddies will come for the sex. And they'll do the negotiating over these tables and the machines and at the bar, and they'll finalize the arrangement upstairs in our hotel rooms."

Billy turned to his godfather, surprised. "You really think it will work?" He laughed and rubbed his hands together. "Hot damn!"

"It's tacky as hell, Billy," Randy said, his eyes still tracking the ball. "And I can't believe you're encouraging him, Crabtree." Land on black, you fucker. Land on black.

Crabtree snorted. "Of course it's tacky. Everything about this place is tacky now. I didn't say it was a good idea. I just pointed out that it would work. Except, as you say, for the police. Which will never do. But the fact remains that idiots are idiots and that they make us a lot of money."

The ball landed. Randy swore, and Billy clapped his hands.

Crabtree sighed. "Ah, the dear, sweet lambs. They never disappoint."

Randy watched, disgusted, as Roulette Man shrank farther back into his chair. He had one stack of five chips left in front of him, and then it would be over.

"There's got to be a way around the police," Billy said, stroking his chin as he walked away from the camera screens. "I'll have to work on that. Thanks for bringing that up, Randy."

"You're not welcome," Randy said, watching the gambler on the screen. He looked like he might seriously vomit on the table. Over five fucking dollars. Goddamn, but Randy hated this. He hated that it was bugging him as much as he hated what he was watching. He should get up and forget about it, he knew. But for some reason he couldn't.

Crabtree sat down on the edge of the sofa and patted Randy's foot. "People are people, Randy. They will be the card they were dealt to be."

Randy pursed his lips. "This guy's smart, Crabtree. Normally, anyway. He's just got his head wrong. I've been watching him all night, and he's not dumb."

"Oh no," Crabtree agreed. "This one's an ace."

"You think?" Randy tilted his head to the side and studied the man on the screen with new eyes. Then he nodded. And grimaced. "Fucking hell, he is. And stuck on playing himself low."

Billy had settled in at his desk and was leaning back in his chair, watching them watch the man. "You two and your aces and kings. You can't figure people out just by watching them for five minutes."

"It's been half an hour," Randy corrected him, "but yes. You can. And in a lot less than five minutes. It's called a tell, Billy."

"But you were so specific with this one," Billy dogged, leaning forward now. "You really think you're right? That this guy is exactly what you think he is? Dumped, cheated out of money, and down to his last dollar?"

"Yes," Randy snapped.

"And for some unknown reason you care about that," Crabtree mused.

Randy glared at him. "Not everyone is as unfeeling as you."

Crabtree studied Randy thoughtfully. "No, but you usually aren't this involved. You've been funny, in fact, ever since that friend of yours got married." A smile played at the edges of Crabtree's lips. "Randy Jansen, are you going soft on me? Do you wish you could go down there and sweep this sorry little sack off his feet, then console him and live happily ever after?"

Randy rolled his eyes. "Oh, yeah, that's exactly it. I just wish I could go down there and save his poor sorry ass. I'm just dying for an excuse."

Billy, sensing opportunity, braced his hands on his desk and leered at Randy. "Bet you can't."

Randy snorted. "You want me to go down there and seduce this guy on a bet?"

"No," Billy said, "I want you to go down there, flirt with this guy, and find out his story. See if he's what you think he is. And if you aren't one hundred percent right, and if you don't get him into bed with you, I win."

"You're a sick fuck, Billy," Randy said. "I'm not taking that bet."

Billy changed his tactics. "Okay--then just go and see if you're right. I want to know."

"If he's gay?"

"If you were right about what happened to him."

Randy eyed Billy warily. "Why?"

Billy shrugged. "Because I'm curious." When Randy snorted, Billy smiled reluctantly. "I am. I want to know if you're right or wrong, or even just close. I want to know if people can be pegged this well. It could be interesting."

Which meant he thought it might be profitable. Randy rolled his eyes again and turned away, but he caught Crabtree watching him with an interest that unnerved him. Randy forced his attention back to the security feed. He thought of Crabtree's blithe dismissal, of his own frustration, and he thought, Maybe I can re-screw this one's head on just a little. Send the ace back up to the top of the pack again. A sort of public service.

Besides, despite being a bit morose, Roulette Man was very hot, and Randy always enjoyed flirting. Probably would come to nothing, but then again, maybe not, and it was always fun to mess with a hot straight man.

"Not that I'm taking it," Randy said, as the ball spun again, "but what would you want to bet for?"

He expected Billy to say something lame, like "fifty dollars," but he didn't.

Billy was beaming, in fact. "If I'm right, you're one of my shirtless twinks on opening night for Gay Nite."

Randy laughed. "I'm not a twink," he pointed out, gesturing to himself. He was dark, just a tiny bit hairy, and full of lean muscle from working with engines.

"Then you'll be whatever you are, but you'll be in the sexy getup. Or at the very least something really embarrassing for you. But," he went on, before Randy could tell him off, "if you're right, I make sure that on that night you get your own twink. Or whatever. Whichever one you like best gives you his full attention for the evening."

Randy considered this. He watched the man at the roulette table watch the ball go round and round, letting it decide his fate. Randy knew, with soul-deep certainty, that he wasn't wrong.

But he knew, too, that Crabtree was also right. Randy had been feeling funny the past few months, and he didn't like it. He was restless, irritated, and sometimes even lonely. Was it really worth twenty dollars' worth of drinks and several hours of conversational dirge for some potential, unspecified tail?

Would it make the restlessness and loneliness better or worse?

"Don't do it, Randy," Crabtree said, and sipped his drink again. "When an ace falls, he doesn't get back up that easily. And he won't appreciate your intervention. The only way aces go high after falling as hard as this one has is under extraordinary circumstances. And even then it isn't guaranteed. The odds are bad, Randy." His hand lowered and stroked, once, against Randy's ankle. "You can make much better use of your time and talents."

That made Randy pause, especially when the caress came again. It had been a while since he and Crabtree had played their kinky little games, and yeah, they'd do for a distraction. But something was holding Randy back, and he kept silent as, on the video screen, the roulette ball went round and round and round, its final destination impossible to guess.

"How would you verify it?" Randy asked Billy. "How would you tell who was right or not? Would you take my word for it?"

"Has to be a witness," Billy said. "Someone neither of us could pay off. Who's working bar tonight?"

"Scully," Randy said absently, watching the ball. Land on black, goddamn it.

"Scully will do nicely." Billy settled back and threaded his hands behind his head. "So?"

Crabtree said nothing, but his massage on Randy's ankle was becoming more direct, his invitation quite clear.

But Randy couldn't take his eyes off the ball. It was starting to bounce, ricocheting wildly across the spines. Why would anyone bet on this, outside of masochism?

He had to know. He had to find out what this guy was about. To see if he was right, or if Crabtree was.

"I pick the guy," Randy said at last.

"That's what I said," Billy replied.

Randy shook his head. "No--I pick who you hire. And he understands the full-service nature of his employment."

Billy shrugged. "Sure. Is it a deal?"

"Yes," Randy said, but tersely, because the ball had landed once more on red. "Fuck."

Crabtree lifted his hand from Randy's ankle. He studied the screen for a minute, then rolled his eyes, shook his head, and finished off his drink before setting it down on the edge of Billy's desk. "Better get down there, Romeo. If he really is out of money, he's going to run away."

Randy nodded, then sat up and slid into his shoes, wondering why he felt so disoriented and so nervous. This was stupid, he acknowledged. But he knew he was going to do it. He gave up trying to figure out why.

"Remember," Billy called as Randy headed for the door, "go to Scully to verify."

"Give your fallen ace my love," Crabtree called as Randy pulled on the doorknob.

"Fuck you," Randy replied, but wearily.

"You turned me down, remember?" Crabtree drawled, and Randy sighed, squared his shoulders and headed for the elevator.

* * * *

Ethan Ellison watched the last of his chips slide across the felt with an increasing sensation of horror, rage, and disbelief. He'd done it. He'd actually done it.

And now the future loomed before him: black, short, and violent.

Ethan wiped his hand over his mouth, suppressing the urge to vomit. No. No, I don't want to, not anymore. The realization was both a relief and a nightmare.

What in the world was he supposed to do now?

"Bad luck again. Sorry about that." The dealer, a middle-aged man with a thin silver mustache that tickled his upper lip, glanced inquiringly at Ethan. "Can I get you some more chips, sir?"

Ethan shook his head and with some force of will pushed himself up from the table. "No. Thank you--no." But he had nowhere to go--or rather, he had only one place to go, and he no longer wanted to go there.

To delay his next decision, he stood staring at the table, focusing not on the sea of numbers but on the red and black squares at the edge of the felt nestled just between the words EVEN and ODD.

A fifty-fifty chance, and I still couldn't win, not even once. The pain in his head increased, and his throat began to close as well. What now? What now?

Ethan had no idea. None whatsoever.

Help, he thought, but of course no one answered. If he couldn't even get one lucky break on black, he wasn't going to be getting any at all.

He started to turn away from the table, but he glanced back at the dealer as he left, remembering the nicety of a goodbye at the last second. His smile fell as he caught an expectant look in the dealer's eye.

Oh God. The man expected a tip.

Ethan flushed and patted his pockets, more for a stall than because he expected to find anything there. He looked up guiltily at the dealer. "I--I'm sorry--" He patted his pockets again searching a little more desperately now, just in case there was something, anything left. But there wasn't. Not even a dime. "I don't really have anything."

The dealer's friendly, hopeful expression was wiped away as if by an invisible wiper blade. He rolled his eyes, shook his head, and turned back to stacking his chips.

Ethan faltered, feeling even more of a loser than he'd been on that last bet on black. "I'm very sorry, I didn't realize--" Because I'm an idiot, a sorry, soppy idiot. He dug deep into his trousers, then paused as he hit the bit of metal.

It wasn't money, but once it had borne great, great value to Ethan. Once this little silver circle had been his everything, and now it was just detritus in his pocket. The thought turned dark and bilious in Ethan's wounded soul.

So stupid. I was so stupid, because it never really was anything, not if I could end up like this.

Ethan swallowed hard, pulled the object out, and laid it on the table.

"You can have this," he said, feeling he had a victory at last in that his voice did not shake nor break as he spoke the words. "It's all I have."

The dealer leaned over and inspected it. "A ring?" His nose wrinkled. "Is it real silver, or what?"

Ethan stared down at the plain gray circle with the simple engravings that had once brought him such comfort. Now they just made him feel like a fool. "I don't know. Whatever it is, it's yours."

He turned away.

A hand came down on his arm, startling him, and as he turned he saw another hand, weathered and stained with dark streaks closing over the discarded ring. A man stood there, dark and almost shaggy with his head of wild hair and thick eyebrows. He looked up at Ethan with sharp, dancing eyes, and he winked.

The dealer, who had been still making a face at Ethan's offering, startled, then glared at the newcomer.

"Hey!" he said, then looked at the stranger's face and flushed. "Jansen, you prick, that's my tip!"

"It isn't customary to give tips to a dealer when you do nothing but lose." The stranger scooped up the ring, held it by the bottom of the circle, and shook it once at the dealer. "Unless you're a prick."

The dealer's face turned stormy. "He gave it to me, you ass!"

"First prick, now ass." The stranger lifted an eyebrow. "You coming on to me, Tyler?"

As the dealer scowled, Ethan decided the situation had gone far enough. "I don't mind if he takes it," he said, then realized he'd said the wrong thing when the stranger turned toward him.

Those dark eyes pierced him, and Ethan felt as if he were being stripped right there in the middle of the casino floor, laid more completely bare than he had ever been in his life. As if he were being measured, parceled out, and judged. And found, he suspected, very wanting.

The stranger turned back to the dealer.

"Tell you what, Tyler," the man said, his voice as smooth as velvet, but even Ethan could hear the knife inside. "Let's play for it."

The dealer swore under his breath. Ethan turned to the stranger, frowning.

The stranger ignored him and leaned over the roulette table, his palms resting on the padded edge. "I'll let you pick the game."

The dealer stopped scowling. "Seriously?"

Ethan's shock was wearing off, and he was beginning to be annoyed at being ignored. "Excuse me," he said, a little tartly. "But who are you, exactly?"

"Randy Jansen. So. Tyler. You feeling lucky?"

"Any game," Tyler said, in the tones of a man who did not believe what was before him could be as easy as it seemed. "You'll bet against me in any game on the floor?"

"Anywhere in the casino," Randy said, smoothly. He nodded at the back of the main floor and smiled a wicked smile. "Any game."

Tyler drew back, looking horrified. "The fuck I'm playing poker against you!"

"Then name something else," Randy said.

Ethan decided enough was enough. "This is hardly necessary. I gave the man my ring of my own free will."

"And now he's going to bet against it," Randy said, still not looking at Ethan, "of his own free will."

"Any game," Tyler said, clearly trying to find a loophole.

Randy stood straight and held out his hands, indicating his complete compliance.

Tyler's smile turned feral, and he pointed to the wheel. "Roulette."

Randy shrugged. "Fine."

But he didn't look happy, Ethan noticed, and Tyler was beaming. "Put it down and make your call. Red or black."

"That hardly works," Randy said. "What about the zeroes?"

"We re-spin if they fall there," Tyler said. "Or we spilt. I get single, you get double."

Randy shook his head. "No. Even or Odd. And the zeroes are even." He smiled at the dealer, then slid Ethan's ring onto the felt.

"You can't pick Even!" Tyler shouted, pointing at the table. He looked and sounded, Ethan thought, like a child. "Not when you just gave it a two-number advantage!"

Ethan frowned. "But zero is even. And so is double zero."

Tyler aimed a finger at him. "You stay out of this." He turned back to Randy. "Zeroes are out. They're nobody's."

"They have to go somewhere," Randy said, "because I'm only making one bet with you."

Tyler glared at Randy for a few minutes, then flicked a glance at Ethan. "Him. He gets both zeroes. If it lands on one of them, it goes back to him."

"Sounds fair to me," Randy said, and indicated the wheel. "Spin."

Tyler hesitated, looking as if he suspected anything Randy readily agreed to would be an arrangement against himself. Then Ethan saw a tall man in a tuxedo and an earpiece watching them carefully from a few tables over.

"Are we going to get into some sort of trouble for this?" Ethan asked nervously. "Because that man over there is looking like he'd like to cause some."

Tyler followed Ethan's gaze and winced. "Shit. Pit boss. Hold on, Jansen. We're clearing this with Herod first."

"Trust me," Randy drawled, "Herod is watching our every move." He sat down in the chair Ethan had vacated and nodded at the wheel. "Let the ball fly, and get this over with."

Tyler hesitated just a beat more and then, while still watching Randy, spun the ball into the rotating wheel. They all watched it travel around and around, moving in opposition to the swirl of colors.

Randy leaned closer to Ethan. He still wasn't looking at him, but Ethan knew he wasn't speaking to anyone else when he said, "If I win, you're having a drink with me at the bar."

Ethan wanted to tell him what he could do with his drink, but something about the spinning ball stayed him. "And if the dealer wins?"

"Oh, then you're having two."

Ethan glared at him. "And what if I win?"

Randy glanced at him, amused. "Then I'll let you decide how many."

"What if I don't want to have a drink with you at all?" Ethan snapped.

On the wheel, the ball was beginning to bounce. Randy had been watching it, eagle-eyed, but at Ethan's question his lips quirked, and those sharp, dark eyes were on his again.

"Then I suggest you think of what else you have to bargain with to win your way out of a trip to the bar."

Ethan felt his face and then his whole body heat. Randy had already looked away, focused once again on the wheel, but Ethan stared, rattled, at the man's dark, arrogant head. There had been a knowing in that look on Randy Jansen's face that went beyond arrogance. And as Ethan huffed, trying to convince himself he'd imagined it, he felt a warm, brief touch on the back of his thigh. Startled, he jumped back and looked down in time to see Randy's hand falling casually back to his side.

"You--!" Ethan hissed, but Randy wasn't looking at him and had never looked away from the table. There was a soft click as the ball fell into place. Randy smiled at the same moment that Tyler swore.

"18," Randy called. He turned to Ethan, his smile tilting to rueful as he added, "Red."

"You son of a bitch," Tyler swore, glaring at Randy. "You rigged this, I know you did!"

Randy gave him a withering look. "And how, Tyler, did I rig your wheel?"

"I don't know!" Tyler shouted. "I don't know how, but I know you did!"

The pit boss, who had been watching the entire game now from just a table away, stepped forward. "Is there a problem?"

"He's cheating!" Tyler declared, and pointed at Randy.

Randy leaned an elbow on the rail and rested his chin in his hand, looking innocently at the pit boss. "I think your dealer could use a break," he said. "But ask him to place the dolly first, please."

"He's cheating!" Tyler repeated, loud enough that now several other patrons were watching to see how the show ended.

The pit boss frowned at Ethan's ring lying on the table, but as he opened his mouth to speak, he paused, then froze as he lifted a hand and pressed it against his earpiece. "Hold on," he said to the table, then fixed his gaze on a random point as he listened, nodding occasionally. He glanced at the ring, at Randy, and finally at Ethan.

Ethan took a step backward.

The pit boss nodded again. "Yes, Mr. Crabtree." He lifted his head and turned to Tyler. "The play is fair. Place the dolly, dealer."

Tyler's face was red. "He's cheating--"

"--and then report directly to the office. Mr. Crabtree's assistant would like a word with you," the pit boss finished.

The color drained from Tyler's face.

The pit boss nodded again at the table. "Place the dolly, please."

Tyler, his hand shaking, lifted the gold marker from the rail edge in front of him and placed it on the number 18.

Randy smiled, swiped the ring from the felt, and stood. "Thank you, Mr. Heinz," he said to the pit boss. He reached into his pocket, pulled out two blue-edged chips, passed one to the pit boss, and flicked the other casually onto the table. "Have a good night, Tyler," he called, then turned to Ethan, and in front of the now considerable crowd watching them, slipped his arm through the crook of Ethan's own.

Ethan was too shocked to resist, especially when Tyler started shouting and the pit boss spoke sharply to him. He let Randy maneuver him through the crowd, herding him down the line of tables toward a series of archways beneath a glittering chandelier. But as the crowd thinned out and they passed beneath a dark curve into a room lined with slot machines, the spell that Randy had cast at the table broke, and Ethan pulled away.

"I'm not having a drink with you," he said, brushing his hand over the wrinkled spot on his shirt where Randy's hand had been. "I don't know who you are, but I do know that I don't have to have a drink with you." But even as he said this, he was uncertain. Something about this man hinted that he knew things, possibly people, too. Something about him hinted that Randy Jansen could pretty much do whatever it was in life that he wanted.

He expected Randy to fight him, or mock him, or even, given the way this was headed, try to seduce him. But as if Randy could read his mind and wanted to make sure he thwarted him, he didn't do anything that Ethan expected. He just held up his hands and smiled ruefully.

"You're right," he said. Then he bowed, winked, and turned away.

For a second, Ethan could only stare, watching Randy walk past the video poker machines, on toward the end of the row to the entrance of the bar attached to the casino. Ethan watched him and heard a part of himself whisper that this was his moment, that he could go. That he could be rid of this idiot once and for all.

And do what?

The vision of his alternate future came back, hot and dark and short, and Ethan went still.

And then, as he watched Randy Jansen sauntering away, something else rose up, something as black as the mark on the table which had never, not even once, gone Ethan's way.

Rage.

Ethan tightened his fists, and his jaw, and he glared. "Hey!" he called, and when Randy didn't stop or even glance over his shoulder, he swore under his breath and stormed after him.


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