Jackson Gallagher McCall set his drink down on the tiny cocktail table in front of him as a group of showgirls, clearly ready to party, strolled into the Las Vegas casino bar where he sat. How about that? Ask and ye shall receive.
It looked to be his lucky night; his mark was right in the midst of things. He watched her wild tangle of pale red curls gently shift against her collarbones and spill over her shoulders, and reflected on what a bitch it had been trying to pick her out in la Stravaganza, the lavish revue he’d attended a short while ago in the hotel showroom. All the dancers on stage had possessed killer bodies and seemed to be within an inch or two of each other in height. To add to the confusion, they’d all worn heavy make-up, identical costumes, and either matching wigs or the exact same lavish head dresses, give or take a plume or three.
He didn’t doubt for a minute it was the same group, however, for while most had replaced all that theatrical grease paint with the regular kind of face stuff women wore, a few of the dancers were still in the skimpy costumes he’d last seen on stage in the final number.
Not her, though. He looked her over from head to foot, and decided it wouldn’t be a hardship to seduce his way into this one’s house. Not with that body, clad now in tall-heeled, barely-there sandals, peach colored hip-hugging slacks, and a matching top, the entire back of which consisted of nothing more than a few skinny criss-cross straps. She had a bawdy laugh and a mouth that was now curved up on the left side in a slight, knowing, closed-lip smile. It was a look that said this woman had probably forgotten more tricks than most women ever learned.
It was the same I’m-gonna-give-you-the-hottest-night-of-your-life crook of the lips he’d seen in the professional head-shot his old man had sent him to show off the woman he’d persuaded to marry him.
The woman who’d become Big Jim McCall’s widow practically before the ink was dry on the marriage certificate.
“Happy birthday, girlfriend!” Glasses hoisted aloft as a multitude of female voices echoed the toast. Someone added, “So, which one is this, anyhow– your thirty-second?”
Treena McCall looked at the group of women ringing the tables they’d shoved together to accommodate everyone and felt the corner of her mouth kick up. “My thirtieth,” she corrected smoothly, although it was actually her thirty-fifth. That was a fact she’d just as soon forget, but the ache of muscle strain in her left calf due to a simple high kick in the final number made it tough to do.
Her friends hooted. “Sure it is,” someone agreed with friendly sarcasm. A dancer named Juney nodded and said, “And this makes how many thirtieth birthdays you’ve celebrated?”
“Oh. Well. If you’re going to be picky. . .” Her lip crooked up a little higher yet. “The truth is, I’ve decided to quit adding numbers and go straight to the alphabetical system. . . which I suppose makes me thirty-E. Tell you what, though, Juney. If you don’t go there on mine, I promise to stay away from the subject on your next birthday.”
“In any case,” Julie-Ann Spencer leaned forward from down the table to say, “I guess you won’t be dancing the Crazy Horse Show for La Femme anytime soon.”
There was a brief instant of silence, since everyone knew Julie-Ann’s remark– although offered in a friendly enough tone– wasn’t made in the true spirit of comradery.
“Bitch,” Carly murmured in Treena’s ear, then raised her voice. “Is anyone at this table besides you still under twenty-five, Julie-Ann?” Rude catcalls greeted her question, and Carly gave the young woman a pointed glance. “Then I guess no one but your perky little self qualifies for the Crazy Horse.”
“And that is sure as hell La Femme’s loss,” Eve said.
“Idiots don’t know what they’re missing,” Michelle agreed.
But if Julie-Ann’s intention had been to cast a pall over Treena’s mood, she’d accomplished her mission. For not only would she never dance in the Crazy Horse, she’d be damn lucky if she passed the mandatory annual audition two weeks from now in order to keep the job she already had. Those eleven months off with Big Jim had cost her. His rapidly escalating illness had allowed her time only to take infrequent dance classes, and that sort of hit-and-miss practice simply wasn’t sufficient for a Las Vegas showgirl to stay in shape. In little less than a year, she’d gone from being dance captain of the troupe to barely hanging on. Thirty-five might be the prime of most women’s lives, but for a dancer it was nearly over the hill. There was nothing to look forward to but the slippery slope on the other side.
Age hadn’t been something she’d given much thought to until she’d come back to the show, for the end of her career had always seemed to be something far, far in the future. But as much as she’d like to ignore the way it seemed to be hurtling toward it’s final destination faster than a Japanese bullet train, this morning she’d awakened to the realization she was officially thirty-five. She’d been forced to admit that not only was the end approaching, but it was almost in sight– and once this train got into the freaking station, like it or not, she’d have no choice but to get off. It didn’t help to know she wasn’t even close to realizing her backup dream– that of someday opening up her own dance studio.
No sense dredging up the fact right this minute, however. It only served to exacerbate the itchy feeling of recklessness that had been building in her all day.
A commotion broke out behind her. She heard a low, sharp exclamation from a male throat and an accompanying high-pitched feminine yip, but even as she turned to see what was going on, curiosity was driven from her mind as her bare shoulder and back were suddenly drenched with a shower of melting ice. With a startled shriek, she jumped to her feet.
“Omigod, Treena, I’m sorry,” said their waitress Clarissa, who was already down on one black fishnet-stockinged knee, righting the empty glasses on her tray.
“No, the fault is mine,” said a smooth, deep voice, as a tanned, long-fingered hand came into view, cupped the waitress’s elbow, and assisted her to her feet. “My apologies. I should have looked to make sure no one was coming before I got up.”
As soon as the cocktail waitress had her footing, he set her free and turned to Treena. She had a quick impression of height, wide shoulders, and tousled, sun-streaked brown hair before the man whipped a handkerchief from the breast pocket of a black jacket she’d bet a week’s pay had been fashioned by some brand name, high-priced designer. Reaching out, he used it to gently blot the moisture from her shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said, taking obvious care not to touch her with anything but the linen square as he daubed under her hair. He fished a dripping cube from her curls with his free hand, and his dark eyebrows met over the strong thrust of a nose that had clearly been broken at some point in his life. “The only saving grace here is that she was carrying empties when I tripped her up. Turn around. Let me get your back.”
It was said with such impersonal coolness that she automatically about- faced, and found herself staring at her friends who were all watching with varying degrees of wide-eyed or raised-brow fascination as he efficiently mopped the moisture from her back. That was when her own docility hit her.
She wasn’t docile by nature, and if he’d made so much as a single attempt to touch her in an inappropriate manner, she’d have cut him off at the knees so fast he would’ve been four-foot-two before he knew what hit him. She was used to deflecting that sort of bullshit from Stage Door Johnnies who thought because a woman danced topless in the final show of the night she was fair game for their wandering hands. But this man’s flesh didn’t touch hers at all. She felt him only as a heat source through the rapidly dampening handkerchief sliding over her skin.
“There.” His voice was a low rumble in her ear, and his hand dropped to his side. He stepped back. “It’s not perfect, I’m afraid, but the best I can do under the circumstances.”
She turned to face him and found him standing closer than she’d anticipated. Stepping back, she bumped into her chair, and it rocked up onto two legs. When she reached out to steady it, she knocked the strap of her purse from where it had been hooked over one of the back rails. “Oh, for–”
They both stooped down for the bag at the same time, fingers tangling as each reached for the small leather envelope. He relinquished it to her, but pinned her in place with vivid blue eyes and murmured low, so only she could hear, “The young woman who’s young enough to dance for the Crazy Whatzit you ladies were talking about? Trust me– she doesn’t look half as good at twenty-five, or whatever, than you do at thirty-E.” His mouth crooked.
No doubt she should have been miffed to know he’d eavesdropped on their conversation. Instead, a small whoop of delighted laughter exploded up from her belly. She looked at him, squatting in front of her with his faded jeans stretched white over his wide-spread knees, his silk T beneath that lightweight designer jacket nearly an exact match for his sky-blue eyes, and felt something she hadn’t experienced for a long, long time– attraction. Pure, animal, man-woman attraction. Her lips curved into her default one-sided smile and she rose to her feet. “Thank you. That’s possibly the nicest birthday present I’ve received today.”
He rose as well and stood looking down at her. “Listen,” he said slowly. “I don’t supposed you’d consider–” With a shake of his head, he cut himself off and, combing a hand through his disheveled hair, stepped back. “No, never mind. Of course you wouldn’t.”
“Nothing. It’s too presumptuous.”
Treena shrugged, but her heart skipped like crazy and only through sheer force of will did she stop herself from demanding to know what he’d been about to say.
Then he dropped his hand to his side, raised his lean jaw, and said, “What the hell. Would you consider joining me for breakfast tomorrow morning? I understand they have an excellent dining room here.”
The itch of recklessness that had been agitating for expression all day urged her to snap up his invitation. Go on, whispered a little devil sitting on her shoulder. Live a little. It was her thirty-freaking-fifth birthday. She might as well get something out of it.
Exactly, the tiny red-horned demon agreed. You could stand a little fun in your life.
She wasn’t a young girl to act on her every impulse, however, and the truth was her husband had only been gone for four months. So even though she wanted to say yes anyhow, she wrestled the temptation into submission and opened her mouth with every intention of politely but firmly declining his offer.
Only to have Julie-Ann beat her to the punch. “You might want to make that for brunch, big guy– or possibly lunch. Our Treena’s getting up there in age, you know, so she requires a bit more beauty rest than she used to.” Tilting back her head in a way that displayed her smooth, youthful throat to its best advantage, she laughed as if she’d just let him in on a huge inside joke.
Rebelliousness rose in Treena’s chest as she turned to stare at the twenty-something dancer. What on earth was her problem? Julie-Ann had taken over Treena’s position as dance captain– you’d think she’d be content with that. Instead Treena’s very existence seemed to aggravate the bejesus out of the younger woman. Well, to hell with her. She turned back to the man. “What’s your name?”
“Gallagher. Jax Gallagher.”
His voice reverberated along her nerve endings, and her silly heart beat like a jungle drum. “Well, Gallagher, Jax Gallagher, I believe I would like to have breakfast with you.”
His smile deepened, showcasing straight white teeth and creasing lines that fanned out from the corners of his incredibly blue eyes. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. But Julie-Ann’s right– I’m not the young woman I was yesterday, and we old ladies do need our rest. So would you mind terribly if we made it for ten o’clock? Or if you have something else going and are pressed for time, perhaps nine-thirty.”
“Ten o’clock would be great.” He offered his hand.
She grasped it, amazed at how. . . energized. . . the feel of those long, slightly rough-tipped fingers made her. She had first, second, and third thoughts about the wisdom of meeting him in the morning, but she merely said, “I’m Treena McCall, by the way.”
“Pleased to meet you, Treena.” His fingers slowly released hers and slid away. “Would you like me to send a car to pick you up?”
“That’s not necessary. I’ll meet you in the dining room.”
“Very well. Until tomorrow, then.”
“Yes,” she said, as he took a step back. “Until then.” She watched as he turned and strode from the open concept bar, stopping only long enough to say something to Clarissa and drop some bills on her tray. Then his long legs ate up the aisle that ran between the craps and the blackjack tables, his broad shoulders in that beautifully cut black jacket moving easily. For a moment the sounds to which she’d long ago become so accustomed she rarely even heard them anymore– the clatter of silver dollars hitting trays, the constant ringing of bells, and competing, clashing tones and beeps of the various electronic slot machines– saturated her consciousness. Then Jax turned right by the ten dollar minimum roulette table and disappeared into the depths of the casino, and she turned back to her friends. For a second she merely stared at them blankly. Then she pantomimed a scream.
Juney, Eve, and Michelle screamed for real. Jerrilyn, Sue, and Jo drummed their fingers on the table and grunted, “Whoo! Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!” as if she’d just scored the winning goal at a pro-ball game. Her best friend Carly lounged back in her chair, one slender arm draped across the chair back and grinned up at Treena. “Way to go, girlfriend! Now, that’s what I call a birthday present.”
Julie-Ann looked sulky, which should have felt like sweet vindication, considering what a pain in the butt she’d been ever since Treena’s return to the show. Instead her adrenaline rush bottomed out and, looping her purse strap back over the chair rail, she dropped into her seat. She gave her friends a cocky smile, just as if she’d scored herself– as Carly had said– an exceptional birthday gift.
But deep inside, she wondered what on earth she thought she was doing.
Jax leaned back in his seat at a linen draped banquette table in the hotel dining room the following morning and turned a little pink packet of artificial sweetener end for end between his fingers as he kept an eye on the entrance. He thought he’d played things rather well last night, but still he found himself laying bets as to whether or not Treena would actually show.
Tripping the poor cocktail waitress had paid off even better than he’d anticipated. He didn’t ordinarily like to involve innocent people in his private agendas, but in this case it had been necessary. He’d watched Treena enough the past few days to know a straight pick-up wasn’t likely to work. He didn’t know what she was getting out of the non-dating, all-work-and-no-play widow act she was putting on, but a good gambler nevertheless always went with the odds. So he’d created his own opportunity and assuaged his conscience by making sure he compensated the waitress with a very generous tip for her trouble and any embarrassment he’d caused her.
Particularly for the embarrassment. He’d spent too much of his youth learning more about that state of mind than any kid needed to know. Humiliation might not kill you, but it could sure as hell make you wish you were dead, if only momentarily.
But he didn’t want to think about that, so he deliberately turned his thoughts to the couple of minutes spent getting up close and personal with Treena McCall– only to promptly realize that probably wasn’t the greatest distraction, either. Not when reflecting on those few brief moments caused the packet between his fingers to still mid-flip.
His reaction to her had caught him by surprise. Having watched her closely while the group of showgirls celebrated her birthday, he’d caught the shift in her mood when little Julie-Ann made such a production out of her age. And he hadn’t hesitated to use it to his advantage.
He sure as hell hadn’t expected to feel the instant of connection, though, when her golden brown eyes lit up and she’d let rip with that full throated belly laugh at hearing him tell her nothing short of the truth: that she looked ten times better at thirty-five than the decade younger Julie-Ann. The small surge of lust he’d felt at catching her scent and feeling the soft brush of those pale red curls across his knuckles when he’d mopped up the results of the accident he’d engineered was no big surprise. But that momentary flash of I know you he’d experienced just because she had a great laugh? What the hell was that all about?
The object of his thoughts strolled through the dining room door, and he tossed the sugar packet back into the little silver holder in the middle of the table and straightened. Draping his arm along the back of the leather upholstered banquette, he adopted a casual, friendly pose as he watched her speak to the hostess, then turn to follow the young woman as she wove through the dining room toward his booth.
She caught him watching and flashed him that lopsided smile. Jax smiled back, aware of his heartbeat shifting into overdrive.
She was dressed this morning in sleek, polished cotton beige pants and an olive green top of some slinky material that managed to hang loosely, yet tantalizingly suggested the curves beneath.
So, okay then, most likely his attraction was about sex. And, hell, even if it wasn’t, it didn’t really matter. Treena McCall was a means to an end. She had something that belonged to him. Something he needed if he planned to stay alive.
Which he did.
So he’d do whatever it took to get it back.
End of Excerpt.