Betting Hearts [A Rancho Del Cielo Romance]
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by Dee Tenorio
Description: A Rancho Del Cielo Romance He's never lost a bet in his life but she's playing for keeps! Cassandra Bishop's boyfriend is back. Only problem is?she doesn't want anything to do with him. Or his new fiancée. What the confirmed tomboy would like is to wring his neck. She might have done it, too, if he hadn't filled her in on the embarrassing truth that he'd left her at the altar because she wasn't woman enough to satisfy him. Her pride nearly settled for punching him in the nose?until she thought of something better--proving him wrong. High on Burke Hallifax's list of cataclysmic nightmares is having to look at his best friend as a real female. But when her ex-fiancé makes his wedding a personal vendetta against Cass, Burke has no choice but to bet everything on her ability to out hot-girl the competition. Unfortunately, the entire town is betting as well--on whether Burke and Cass can pull off the makeover of the century?without losing their hearts in the process.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2006
eBookwise Release Date: February 2011
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [286 KB]
Reading time: 180-252 min.
"This isn't your night, Sel," Alice Panyon crowed to her husband a few hours later. She pulled in her third pot of the night with a smoky laugh.
"It's always my night, angel."
Cass smiled at the pair of them, the most improbable couple in all of Rancho Del Cielo. Where Selvyn Panyon was probably born in jeans and leather, Alice was the epitome of a debutante; cool, blonde and perfect. Ironically, Sel grew up to be a world-renowned artist while Alice was a retired firefighter. They were probably the happiest couple in town, too, with one little girl and another baby due to make an appearance sometime in the next few weeks. Not that a high, round belly kept Alice from stretching her arms around a pile of multicolored chips and chortling greedily.
Sel smoothed a wisp of Alice's white-blonde hair behind her ear, a gesture so intimate and familiar, Cass looked at the cards with a sense of guilt at having watched. Even jealousy. No one ever touched her like that.
But someone would.
Like a vow, the sentence ran through her mind as the cards ran through her fingers. When she did lift her eyes again, it wasn't to spy on Alice and Sel, or to see what May Belle and Jimmy were conspiring about this time, or even if Ben Friedly was trying to swipe another handful of popcorn from the bowl on the counter. It was to look at Burke as she shuttled cards around the table.
He hadn't made eye contact all evening but she concentrated on him until he couldn't avoid her any more. A deep blue, Burke's eyes were those of a man who thought, probably too much. He did everything deep in his head; math, bills, itinerary, designs for the cars he rebuilt from heaps. In the span of two minutes, the man could mentally take apart an entire engine and put it back together using all the pieces. Didn't take him much longer in real life either. His entire life was about plan of attack. If anyone should appreciate her setting a goal, it would be Burke. Normally.
Right now, she could tell he was thinking too much again. Chomping at the bit to get the evening's game over with so he could send her home with a pat on the head before having to discuss "the femininity plan". Well, she'd just have to get around that, now wouldn't she?
"Dealer's choice. Five-card stud, aces high, favor game. Showdown rules."
There were a few grumbles around the table, but no one complained about the game choice. Favor games were where you had to bet a favor instead of chips. Showdown rules meant in the case of only two players still holding, they could request a favor instead betting one. Burke eyed her suspiciously before reaching to the breakfast bar for the phone pad of paper and a pen. Cass gave him her best smile.
He almost knocked his chair over.
She stifled a laugh and set the leftover deck in front of herself. Carefully, she looked at her cards. Two queens, two aces and a deuce. She fought the urge to smile again as she lay down her deuce and slid it over to Jimmy. Burke was so going to lose.
They passed the pad around and by the time it made a full circle, the pot held a portrait sketch, a casserole, a lawn mowing, three free gallons of milk, a free dinner from Shaky Jakes and a Garth Brooks CD. Cass scowled. Damn, she better win this hand.
Right before she was about to call, Burke said he wanted to raise. He scribbled over the rights to his kitchen radio.
Fine, she could play dirty, too. She wrote her note and tossed it into the pot.
Jimmy leaned over and read her rotten handwriting by squinting one eye. "A date?"
"Gotta have one to take to Luke's wedding, don't I?"
She could have dropped a pin on the carpet and heard it snag.
Finally, Jimmy coughed. "Most of us here are married, CB. 'Cept Burke. You sure you wanna drag him to a wedding?" In other words, are you sure you want to go to the wedding?
"Pass me off to someone. You meet more people than I do, Jimmy. I'm sure Sel could find someone if it came down to it. Alice and May Belle keep trying to set me up with people, so there's no problem there."
Sel gave his wife a worried glance. Alice shrugged. What else was she supposed to do? It was true.
"What am I supposed to do with it?" Burke's baritone demanded.
Cass made herself shrug. "I don't know. Use it?"
His brows crashed together hard enough to clang.
"Give it to one of the guys at the shop. Pawn me off on a customer. Whatever you want."
"You're going to let us hand you off to some stranger?" Alice asked, each word enunciated with care, eyes darting from Cass to Burke and back. Cass nodded, waiting for the sign that Burke was paying attention.
There it was, the twitch of his eye when he thought she was doing something stupid. Reverse psychology was invented for Burke Halifax. No way would he let her go on a date with some stranger he didn't know. Even if he had to suffer himself.
Cass prepared herself for a hell of a game.
* * * *
He should have throttled her while she was sleeping. Should have let her get pneumonia by sleeping on his front porch in the rain. He should have done anything but let her play poker tonight. The evil gleam in those green eyes warned she was about to be more trouble than she was worth but did he listen? No, of course not. That would have made sense. Now he was stuck watching the brat try to make him wriggle like a worm on a hook.
"Your bet, Jimmy." Cass blinked innocently at the older man on her left. Ha! If she's innocent, I'm the mayor of Munchkinland.
Jimmy slipped a glance over to Burke, who knew he didn't have to bother shaking his head. Jimmy ran the only grocery in town. He survived Korea, thirty-five years of marriage, two children, and most recently four years of marriage to May Belle. The man knew when to throw in the cards.
May watched her husband, shrugged and tossed down her five as well. "Sorry, CB, Burke looks about ready to bust a vein. If I set you up, we have to do it discreetly."
May Belle's main clientele were gamblers and gossips. If they did it, they'd be doing it over his dead body.
CB smiled, nodding her head like a queen. Of course. She was getting what she wanted.
Sel leaned forward to look around Alice's abundant stomach to check with Burke like Jimmy had before him. "I do know this one guy--"
"No, you don't, honey." Alice splayed her hand over Sel's cards and laid them on the table. Hers quickly followed suit. "And neither do I."
God, she better not be in on whatever CB was up to. Burke would hate to get angry with a pregnant woman.
He stared down at his own cards and wondered if he could beat her. They might only be fives, but it was hard to beat a three of a kind. He decided to risk it. All he had to do was take her bet and never call her on it. Easy as pie. "Call."
"You can't call."
"Showdown rules. It's just you and me now. I get to request a favor from you."
If she said even one damn word about finding her femininity, he was going to kill her and let the coroner look for it. Wrap both hands around that long neck of hers and squeeze till she popped. No one could convict him, either. Through gritting teeth he made himself ask, "Fine. What do you want?"
Cats with cream didn't look as pleased with themselves. She licked her lips, startling a rise out of him that had no business rising. You'd think his desire to do her in might have the smallest effect on him. At least his temper should have tamped the problem. It probably would have, but his worst nightmare began right before his eyes.
Cass leaned forward, wet lips pursed and pink, and said the words a man should never hear from his best friend. "It's simple, Burke. I want you to make me a woman."