Chapter 1: Old Habits
~ Zelda Wilder ~
My heart is beating too fast. Glancing down, I see my hands tremble, and I take a few measured breaths to try and make them stop.
I’ve never been this anxious on a job, but everything has changed in the last six weeks. Looking over my shoulder has become a nonstop addiction it seems.
For the first time, I’m alone with Seth, just the two of us. Unknown hit men took out our longtime partner Helen, and we don’t even know how long ago it was. The radio report simply said her body was found in a bathtub in a cheap hotel in Miami. A plastic bag was over her head.
Clutching my black purse, again I look over my shoulder. Through the neon lights and arcade noises of the Divi casino in St. Croix, I see men in black blazers dotted among the gamblers. Men with curly earpieces in their ears, men with dark brows lowered over steely eyes, men sweeping the room for any signs of criminal activity.
I do another quick sweep, and I realize I’m looking for Ava. Stop that, Zee. My little sister is far away from this life, and it’s because I chose to distance us. I decided her safety is more important than keeping our family together.
The last time I saw her, she was wounded and pale, unconscious in a hospital bed. It tore at my heart to leave her, but at least I know she’s okay. Thanks to the Internet, I’ve been able to keep up with the “developing story” of the assassination attempt on the future king of Monagasco and the shooting of his fiancée, a.k.a., my sister. Rowan has taken Ava from the hospital to the palace, where she’s recuperating under the watchful eyes of his royal guards.
With a steady exhale, I release the nerves, reminding myself it’s for the best. She’s with the man who loves her, who promised to take care of her. If a crown prince can’t do that, I don’t stand a chance.
Still… it isn’t me.
I’m not watching out for her.
As the oldest, I’ve always had that job. I’ve taken care of us since our parents died, leaving us at the mercy of the foster system. I’ve protected her ever since that last asshole thought he’d try relieving his sexual frustrations on a little girl entrusted to his “care.” It was me who’d bashed him over the head with the lamp, grabbed her hand, and run us out of there.
We’d hidden all night in the pouring rain in a concrete culvert, and I came up with a plan to keep us out of that life for good. Passing the baton to someone else—even a future king—hits me harder than I thought it would. My throat aches at her absence, my chest heavy. Stay safe, Ava-bug.
Tonight is the first time I’ve ever entered a place like this without her. Ava is the only person I can count on in any situation. Every security guard in this room reminds me of how we’ve always been a team. If anything goes wrong, I grab her hand and we run, just like always. We stay alive.
Only, I made the deal that changed everything. I shook hands with the devil.
I could argue I didn’t have a choice. We were facing jail time, felony convictions in Florida for grand theft, and while I’d be willing to take my chances in jail, there’s no way in hell I’m letting Ava go to prison. So yeah. Agreeing to work with Reginald Winchester might make me a “bad guy,” but I’d do it again in heartbeat.
Squaring my shoulders, I slide a lock of jet-brown hair behind my ear and force confidence into my stride. I make my way through the glittering, noisy casino to my target—a shiny brass roulette wheel—and prepare to start the show.
The last time we worked this con in Miami, Helen had been waiting at the table when I got there. I can still hear her gravelly voice and see her “May Contain Alcohol” sweatshirt. Sadness followed closely by fear ricochets through my insides. Whoever killed her is looking for me.
We were on our way to Tortola to hide when Seth said we should stop in here and bank extra cash. As Americans, we don’t need passports in St. Croix, and we can catch a cheap ferry and slip away in the night to our ultimate destination.
Keeping off the radar is the goal—as always. We’ll pocket a few thousand and disappear unnoticed. At least that’s the plan.
“No more bets!” The dealer passes his hand over the wheel just as I arrive, and I quickly assess the table rules. Minimum ten dollar bet. Decent.
Opening my clutch, I remove two hundreds and pass them to the dealer. He quickly exchanges them for twenty pale blue chips. I’ll join the fray next spin.
Tonight the transmitter is hidden in my shoe as opposed to my cuff bracelet. I’m wearing a strappy black dress that stops mid-thigh, and my black heels show off my legs while hiding the device facilitating our winning streak.
I have to sit with my legs crossed and point my toe to activate it. One dainty point, one shiny silver ball drops right in the tray, predictable at ninety percent accuracy. So far the odds have been in our favor.
We’ll play until Seth gives me the signal they’re onto us. Then I’ll calmly cash out, walk away, and meet him at the pier on Grapetree Point. From there we’ll make the forty-mile cruise to Tortola.
An elegantly dressed woman shakes her head and gives me a bitter smile as I sit. “Don’t stay longer than three spins,” she grumbles.
I smile in response. “That’s the rule, isn’t it?”
“That’s the rule.” Her expression tells me she lost a lot tonight.
As a student of casinos, I know how steeply the odds in roulette are stacked in favor of the House—they’re the worst of any game. The longer you sit, the greater your chances of losing, times a million. If I were giving advice to a rookie, I’d say stick to blackjack. At least there you can use strategy and possibly win a little. Walking away is something I learned early on. You can never be afraid to walk away—even when you’re certain you’re lucky. Luck is the biggest liar of all.
I place half my chips on the black rectangle and watch as the wheel begins to spin. The dealer snakes his hand to the side and releases the ball. It flies around the shining wood with a sharp rasp. I need to lose this round. The job doesn’t start until Seth arrives, and I can’t win for longer than a few spins or it’ll look suspicious.
Another glance over my shoulder. He’s still not here. Casting my eyes down, I watch the wheel spinning, black-red, black-red, black-red, flashing brass.
“Have you been here long?” A man in an elegant suit steps into the space beside me and fishes out his wallet as we wait for the ball to drop.
“I just sat down,” I say without making eye contact. I’m not here to make friends.
He passes a crisp one hundred dollar bill to the dealer. “Then we have no way of knowing if it’s a good table.”
“Sorry,” I shake my head. “I play red or black.”
“Not much of a gambler?”
A glance, and I see he’s tall and thick with dark brown hair and a cocky expression like he already knows the answer to his question.
“No,” I say in a discouraging tone.
No, thank you. Even if I hadn’t left my heart in Monagasco, I never let romance interfere with a job. Well, almost never.
“Logan Thomas.” Mr. Persistent sticks a hand at me.
He waits, and I hesitate. Two first names.
“Regina Lampert,” I lie only barely touching his fingers.
“Regina,” he gives me a nod, but that twinkle of knowledge is in his eyes.
A knot forms in my throat. I don’t like this. The ball drops on black seventeen, and a lady at the other end of the table emits a little cheer.
“You won,” Logan’s voice ripples toward me.
The dealer adds more chips to my pile, and I’m ready to hop up and intercept Seth. A swirl of warmth at my side tells me I’m too late.
About The Author
Tia Louise is the Award-Winning, International Bestselling author of the One to Hold series.
From “Readers’ Choice” nominations, to USA Today “Happily Ever After” nods, to winning the 2015 “Favorite Erotica Author” and the 2014 “Lady Boner Award” (LOL!), nothing makes her happier than communicating with fans and weaving new tales into the Alexander-Knight world of stories.
A former journalist, Louise lives in the center of the USA with her lovely family and one grumpy cat. There, she dreams up stories she hopes are engaging, hot, and sexy, and that cause readers rethink common public locations…