Travis set down our bags and looked around the room. “This is nice, right?”
I glared at him and he raised his brow. “What?”
I unzipped my suitcase and shook my head. Different strategies and the lack of time crowded my head. “This isn’t a vacation. You shouldn’t be here, Travis.”
In the next moment he was behind me, crossing his arms around my middle. “I go where you go.”
I leaned my head against his chest and sighed. “I have to get on the floor. You can stay here or check out the strip. I’ll see you later, okay?”
“I’m going with you.”
“I don’t want you there, Trav.” A hurt expression weighted his face and I touched his arm. “If I’m going to win fourteen-thousand dollars in one weekend, I have to concentrate. I don’t like who I’m going to be while I’m at those tables, and I don’t want you see it, okay?”
He brushed my hair from my eyes and kissed my cheek. “Okay, Pidge.”
Travis waved to America as he left the room, and she approached me in the same dress she wore to the date party. I changed into a short gold number and slipped on a pair of heels, grimacing at the mirror. America pulled back my hair and then handed me a black tube.
“You need about five more coats of mascara, and they’re going to toss your I.D. on-sight if you don’t slather on some more blush. Have you forgotten how this game is played?”
I snatched the mascara from her hand and spent another ten minutes on my makeup. Once I finished, my eyes began to gloss over. “Dammit, Abby, don’t cry,” I said, looking up and dabbing under my eyes with a tissue.
“You don’t have to do this, Abby. You don’t owe him anything ,” she said, cupping my shoulders as I stood in front of the mirror one last time.
“He owes Benny money, Mare. If I don’t, they’ll kill him.”
Her expression was one of pity. I had seen her look at me that way many times before, but this time she was desperate. She’d seen him ruin my life more times than either of us could count. “What about the next time? And the next time? You can’t keep doing this.”
“He agreed to stay away. Mick Abernathy is a lot of things, but he’s no welcher.”
We walked down the hall and stepped into an empty elevator. “You have everything you need?” I asked, keeping the cameras in mind.
America clicked her fake driver’s license with her nails and smiled. “The name’s Candy. Candy Crawford,” she said in her flawless southern accent.
I held out my hand. “Jessica James. Nice to meet you, Candy.”
We both slipped on our sunglasses and stood stone-faced as the elevator opened, revealing the neon lights and bustling of the casino floor. People moved in all directions from all walks of life. Vegas was heavenly hell, the one place you could find dancers in ostentatious feathers and stage makeup, prostitutes with insufficient yet acceptable attire, businessmen in luxurious suits, and wholesome families in the same building. We strutted down an aisle lined with red ropes, and handed a man in a red jacket our I.D.’s. He eyed me for a moment and I pulled down my glasses.
“Anytime today would be great,” I said, bored.
He returned our I.D.’s and stood aside, letting us pass. We passed aisle after aisle of slot machines, the black jack tables, and then stopped at the roulette wheel. I scanned the room, watching the various poker tables, settling on the one with older gentlemen in the seats.
“That one,” I said, nodding across the way.
“Start off aggressive, Abby. They won’t know what hit ‘em.”
“No. They’re old Vegas. I have to play it smart this time.”
I walked over to the table, using my most charming smile. Locals could smell a hustler from a mile away, but I had two things in my favor that covered the scent of any con: Youth…and tits.
“Good evening, gentlemen. Mind if I join you?”
They didn’t look up. “Sure sweet cheeks. Grab a seat and look pretty. Just don’t talk.”
“I want in,” I said, handing America my sunglasses. “There’s not enough action at the black jack tables.”
One of the men chewed on his cigar. “This is a poker table, Princess. Five card draw. Try your luck on the slot machines.”
I sat in the only empty seat, making a show of crossing my legs. “I’ve always wanted to play poker in Vegas. And I have all these chips…,” I said, setting my rack of chips on the table, “and I’m really good online.”
All five men looked at my chips and then at me. “There’s a minimum ante, Sugar,” the Dealer said.
“Five hundred, Peach. Listen…I don’t want to make you cry. Do yourself a favor and pick out a shiny slot machine.”
I pushed forward my chips, shrugging my shoulders in the way a reckless and overly- confident girl might before realizing she’d just lost her college fund. The men looked at each other. The Dealer shrugged and tossed in his own.
“Jimmy,” he said, offering his hand. When I took it, he pointed at the other men. “Mel, Pauly, Joe and that’s Winks.” I looked over to the skinny man chewing on a toothpick, and as-predicted, he winked at me.
I nodded and waited with fake anticipation as Jimmy dealt the first hand. I purposely lost the first two, but by the fourth hand, I was up. It didn’t take as long for the Vegas veterans to figure me out as it did Thomas.
“You said you played online?” Pauly asked.
“And with my dad.”
“You from here?” Jimmy asked.
“Wichita,” I smiled.
“She’s no online player, I’ll tell you that,” Mel grumbled.
An hour later, I had taken twenty-seven hundred dollars from my opponents, and they were beginning to sweat.
“Fold,” Jimmy said, throwing down his cards with a frown.
“If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I would have never believed,” I heard behind me.
America and I turned at the same time, and my lips stretched across my face in a wide smile. “Jesse,” I shook my head. “What are you doing here?”
“This is my place you’re scamming, Cookie. What are you doing here?”
I rolled my eyes and turned to my suspicious new friends. “You know I hate that, Jess.”
“Excuse us,” Jesse said, pulling me by the arm to my feet. America eyed me warily as I was ushered a few feet away.
Jesse’s father ran the casino, and it was more than just a surprise that he had joined the family business. We used to chase each other down the halls of the hotel upstairs, and I always beat him when we raced elevators. He had grown up since I’d seen him last. I remembered him as a gangly pre-pubescent teenager; the man before me was a sharply-dressed pit boss, not at all gangly and certainly all-man. He still had the silky brown skin and green eyes I remembered, but the rest of him was a pleasant surprise.
His emerald irises sparkled in the bright lights. “This is surreal. I thought it was you when I walked by, but I couldn’t convince myself that you would come back here. When I saw this Tinkerbell cleaning up at the vet’s table, I knew it was you.”
“It’s me,” I smiled.
“So do you. How’s your dad?”
“Retired,” he smiled. “How long are you here?”
“Just until Sunday. I have to get back to school.”
“Hey, Jess,” America said, taking my arm.
“America,” he chuckled. “I should have known. You are each other’s shadow.”
“If her parents ever knew that I brought her here, all that would have come to an end a long time ago.”
“It’s good to see you, Abby. Why don’t you let me buy you dinner?” he asked, scanning my dress.
“I’d love to catch up, but I’m not here for fun, Jess.”
He held out his hand and smiled. “Neither am I. Hand over your I.D.”
My face fell, knowing I had a fight on my hands. Jesse wouldn’t give into my charms so easily. I knew I would have to tell him the truth. “I’m here for Mick. He’s in trouble.”
Jesse shifted. “What kind of trouble?”
“I wish I could help. We go way back, and you know I respect your dad, but you know I can’t let you can’t stay.”
I grabbed his arm and squeezed. “He owes Benny money.”
Jesse closed his eyes and shook his head. “Jesus.”
“I have until tomorrow. I’m calling in a solid I-owe-you, Jesse. Just give me until then.”
He touched his palm to my cheek. “I’ll tell you what…if you have dinner with me tomorrow, I’ll give you until midnight.”
I looked at America and then to Jesse. “I’m here with someone.”
He shrugged. “Take it or leave it, Abby. You know how things are done here…you can’t have something for nothing.”
I sighed, defeated. “Fine. I’ll meet you tomorrow night at Ferraros if you give me until midnight.”
He leaned down and kissed my cheek. “It was good to see you again. See you tomorrow…five o’clock, all right? I’m on the floor at eight.”
I smiled as he walked away, but it quickly faded when I saw Travis staring at me from the Roulette table.
“Oh shit,” America said, tugging on my arm.
Travis glared at Jesse as he passed, and then made his way to me. He shoved his hands in his pockets and glanced at Jesse, who was watching us from the corner of his eye.
“Who was that?”
I nodded in Jesse’s direction. “That is Jesse Viveros. I’ve known him a long time.”
I looked back at the vet table. “Travis, I don’t have time for this.”
“I guess he chucked the youth minister idea,” America said, sending a flirtatious grin in Jesse’s direction.
“That’s your ex-boyfriend?” Travis asked, instantly angry. “I thought you said he was from Kansas?”
I shot America an impatient glare and then took Travis’ chin in my hand, insisting on his full attention. “He knows I’m not old enough to be in here, Trav. He gave me until midnight. I will explain everything later, but for now I have to get back to the game, all right?”
Travis’ jaws fluttered under his skin, and then he closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “All right. I’ll see you at midnight.” He bent down to kiss me, but his lips were cold and distant. “Good luck.”
I smiled as he melted into the crowd, and then I turned my attention to the men. “Gentlemen?”
“Have a seat Shirley Temple,” Jimmy said. “We’ll be making our money back, now. We don’t appreciate being hustled .”
“Do your worst.” I smiled, skillfully shuffling the cards and flicking them to each player with precision.
“You have ten minutes,” America whispered.
“I know,” I said.
I sat at sixteen thousand. I tried to block out the time and America’s knee bobbing nervously under the table. The pot was at the night’s all-time high and it was all or nothing.
“I’ve never seen anything like you, kid. You’ve had almost a perfect game. And she’s got no Tell, Winks. You notice?” Pauly said.
Winks nodded, his cheerful demeanor had evaporated a bit more with every hand. “I noticed. Not a rub or a smile, even her eyes stay the same. It’s not natural. Everybody’s got a Tell.”
“Not everybody,” America said, smug.
I felt a familiar pair of hands touch my shoulders. I knew it was Travis, but I didn’t dare turn around, not with three-thousand dollars sitting in the middle of the table.
“Call,” Jimmy said.
Those that had crowded around us applauded when I laid down my hand. Jimmy was the only one close enough to touch me with three-of-a-kind. Nothing my straight couldn’t handle.
“Unbelievable!” Pauly said, throwing his two deuces to the table.
“I’m out,” Joe grumbled, standing up and stomping away from the table.
Jimmy was a bit more gracious. “I can die tonight and feel I’ve played a truly worthy opponent, kiddo. It’s been a pleasure, Abby.”
I froze. “You knew?”
Jimmy smiled, the years of cigar smoke and coffee stained his large teeth. “I’ve played you before. Six years ago. I’ve wanted a re-match for a long time.”
Jimmy extended his hand. “Take care, kid. Tell your dad Jimmy Pescelli says hello.”
America helped gather my winnings, and I turned to Travis, looking at my watch. “I need more time.”
“Wanna try the black jack tables?”
“I can’t lose money, Trav.”
He smiled. “You can’t lose, Pidge.”
America shook her head. “Black Jack’s not her game.”
Travis nodded. “I won a little. I’m up six-hundred. You can have it.”
Shepley handed me his chips. “I only made three. It’s yours.”
I sighed. “Thanks, guys, but I’m still short five grand.”
I looked at my watch again and then looked up to see Jesse approaching. “How did you do?” he asked, smiling.
“I’m five-k short, Jess. I need more time.”
“I’ve done all I can, Abby.”
I nodded, knowing I had already asked too much. “Thanks for letting me stay.”
“Maybe I can get my dad to talk to Benny for you?”
“It’s Mick’s mess. I’m going to ask him for an extension.”
Jesse shook his head. “You know that’s not going to happen, Cookie, no matter how much you come up with. If it’s less than what he owes, Benny’s going to send someone. You stay as far away from him as you can.”
I felt my eyes burn. “I have to try.”
Jesse took a step forward, leaning in to keep his voice low. “Get on a plane, Abby. You hear me?”
“I hear you,” I snapped.
Jesse sighed, and his eyes grew heavy with sympathy. He wrapped his arms around me and kissed my hair. “I’m sorry. If it wasn’t my job at stake, you know I’d try to figure something out.”
I nodded, pulling away from him. “I know. You did what you could.”
He lifted my chin with his finger. “I’ll see you tomorrow at five.” He bent down to kiss the corner of my mouth and then walked past me without another word.
I glanced to America, who watched Travis. I didn’t dare meet his eyes; I couldn’t imagine what angry expression was on his face.
“What’s at five?” Travis said, his voice dripping with subdued anger.
“She agreed to dinner if Jesse would let her stay. She didn’t have a choice, Trav,” America said. I could tell by the cautious tone of her voice that Travis was beyond angry.
I peered up at him, and he glowered at me with the same betrayed expression Mick had on his face the night he realized I’d taken his luck.
“You had a choice.”
“Have you ever dealt with the mob, Travis? I’m sorry if your feelings are hurt, but a free meal with an old friend isn’t a high price to pay to keep Mick alive.”
I could see that Travis wanted to lash out at me, but there was nothing he could say.
“C’mon you guys, we have to find Benny,” America said, pulling me by the arm.
Travis and Shepley followed behind in silence as we walked down The Strip to Benny’s building. The traffic — both cars and people on the thoroughfare — were just beginning to concentrate. With each step, I felt a sick, hollow feeling in my stomach, my mind racing to think of a compelling argument to make Benny see reason. By the time we knocked on the large green door I had seen so many times before, I had come up as short as my bank roll.
It wasn’t a surprise to see the enormous doorman — black, frightening, and as wide as he was tall — but I was stunned to see Benny standing beside him.
“Benny,” I breathed.
“My, my…you’re not Lucky Thirteen anymore, now, are ya? Mick didn’t tell me what a looker you’ve grown into. I’ve been waiting for you, Cookie. I hear you have a payment for me.”
I nodded and Benny gestured to my friends. I lifted my chin to feign confidence. “They’re with me.”
“I’m afraid your companions will have to wait outside,” the doorman said in an abnormally deep bass tone.
Travis immediately took me by the arm. “She’s not going in there alone. I’m coming with her.”
Benny eyed Travis and I swallowed. When Benny looked up to his doorman and the corners of his mouth turned up, I relaxed a bit.
“Fair enough,” Benny said. “Mick will be glad to know you have such a good friend with you.”
I followed him inside, turning to see the worried look on America’s face. Travis kept a firm grip on my arm, purposefully standing between me and the doorman. We followed Benny into an elevator, traveled up four floors in silence, and then the doors opened.
A large mahogany desk sat in the middle of a vast room. Benny hobbled to his plush chair and sat down, gesturing for us to take the two empty seats facing his desk. When I sat down, the leather felt cold beneath me, and I wondered how many people had sat in that same chair, moments from their death. I reached over to grab Travis’ hand, and he gave me a reassuring squeeze.
“Mick owes me twenty-five thousand. I trust you have the full amount,” Benny said, scribbling something on a notepad.
“Actually,” I paused, clearing my throat, “I’m five-k short, Benny. But I have all day tomorrow to get that. And five thousand is no problem, right? You know I’m good for it.”
“Abigail,” Benny said, frowning, “You disappoint me. You know my rules better than that.”
“P…Please, Benny. I’m asking you to take the nineteen-nine and I’ll have the rest for you tomorrow.”
Benny’s beady eyes darted from me to Travis and then back again. It was then that I noticed two men take a step forward from the shadowed corners of the room. Travis’ grip on my hand grew tighter, and I held my breath.
“You know I don’t take anything but the full-amount. The fact that you’re trying to hand me less tells me something. You know what it tells me? That you’re not sure if you can get the full amount.”
The men from the corners took another step forward.
“I can get your money, Benny,” I giggled nervously. “I won eighty-nine hundred in six hours.”
“So are you saying you’ll bring me eighty-nine hundred in six more hours?” Benny smiled his devilish grin.
“The deadline isn’t until midnight tomorrow,” Travis said, glancing behind us and then watching the approaching shadow men.
“W…What are you doing, Benny?” I asked, my posture rigid.
“Mick called me tonight. He said you’re taking care of his debt.”
“I’m doing him a favor. I don’t owe you any money.” I said sternly, my survival instincts kicking in.
Benny leaned both of his fat, stubby elbows onto his desk. “I’m considering teaching Mick a lesson, and I’m curious just how lucky you are, kiddo.”
Travis shot up out of his chair, pulling me with him. He jerked me behind him, backing up toward the door.
“Josiah is outside the door, young man. Where exactly do you think you’re going to escape to?”
I was wrong. When I was thinking about persuading Benny to see reason, I should have anticipated Mick’s will to survive, and Benny’s penchant for retribution.
“Travis,” I warned, watching Benny’s henchmen approach us.
Travis pushed me behind him a few feet and stood tall. “I hope you know, Benny, that when I take out your men, I mean no disrespect. But I’m in love with this girl, and I can’t let you hurt her.”
Benny burst into a loud cackle. “I gotta hand it to you, son. You’ve got the biggest balls of anyone that’s come through those doors. I’ll prepare you for what you’re about to get. The rather large fella to your right is David, and if he can’t take you out with his fists, he’s going to use that knife in his holster. The man to your left is Dane, and he’s my best fighter. He’s got a fight tomorrow, as a matter-of-fact, and he’s never lost. Mind you don’t hurt your hands, Dane. I’ve got a lot of money riding on you.”
Dane smiled at Travis with wild, amused eyes. “Yes, sir.”
“Benny, stop! I can get you the money!” I cried.
“Oh no…this is going get interesting very fast,” Benny chuckled, settling back into his seat.
David rushed Travis and my hands flew up to my mouth. The man was strong, but clumsy and slow. Before David could swing or reach for his knife, Travis incapacitated him, shoving David’s face straight down into his knee. When Travis threw a punch, he wasted no time, throwing every bit of strength he had into the man’s face. Two punches and an elbow later, David was lying on the floor in a bloody heap.
Benny’s head fell back, laughing hysterically and pounding his desk with the delight of a child watching Saturday morning cartoons. “Well, go on, Dane. He didn’t scare you, did he?”
Dane approached Travis more carefully, with the focus and precision of a professional fighter. His fist flew at Travis’ face with incredible speed, but Travis dodged, ramming his shoulder into Dane at full force. They fell against Benny’s desk, and then Dane grabbed Travis with both arms, hurling him to the ground. They scuffled on the floor for a moment, and then Dane gained ground, positioning himself to get in a few punches on Travis while he was trapped beneath him on the floor. I covered my face, unable to watch.
I heard a cry of pain, and then I looked up to see Travis hovering over Dane, holding him by his shaggy hair, jabbing punch after punch into the side of his head. Dane’s face rammed into the front of Benny’s desk with each blow, and then he scrambled to his feet, disorientated and bleeding.
Travis watched him for a moment, and then attacked again, grunting with every strike, once again using the full force of his strength. Dane dodged once and landed his knuckles to Travis’ jaw.
Travis smiled and held up his finger. “That’s your one.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Travis had let Benny’s thug hit him. He was enjoying himself. I had never seen Travis fight without constraint; it was a bit frightening to see him unleash everything he had on these trained killers and have the upper hand. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized just what Travis was capable of.
With Benny’s disturbing laughter in the background, Travis finished Dane off, landing his elbow in the center of Dane’s face, knocking him out before he hit the ground. I followed his body as it bounced once on Benny’s imported rug.
“Amazing young man! Simply amazing!” Benny said, clapping with delight.
Travis pulled me behind him as Josiah filled the doorway with his massive frame.
“Should I take care of this, sir?”
“No! No, no…,” Benny said, still giddy with the impromptu performance. “What is your name?”
Travis was still breathing hard. “Travis Maddox,” he said, wiping Dane and David’s blood off of his hands and onto his jeans.
“Travis Maddox, I believe you can help your little girlfriend out.”
“How’s that?” Travis puffed.
“Dane was supposed to fight tomorrow night. I had a lot of cash riding on him, and it doesn’t look like Dane will be fit to win a fight anytime soon. I suggest you take his place, make my bankroll for me, and I’ll forgive the remaining fifty-one hundred of Mick’s debt.”
Travis turned to me. “Pigeon?”
“Are you all right?” I asked, wiping the blood from his face. I bit my lip, feeling my face crumple with a combination of fear and relief.
Travis smiled. “It’s not my blood, Baby. Don’t cry.”
Benny stood. “I’m a busy man, Son. Pass or play?”
“I’ll do it,” Travis said. “Give me the when and where and I’ll be there.”
“You’ll be fighting Brock McMann. He’s no wallflower. He was barred from the UFC last year.”
Travis was unaffected. “Just tell me where I need to be.”
Benny’s shark’s grin spread across his face. “I like you, Travis. I think we’ll be good friends.”
“I doubt it,” Travis said, opening the door for me and retaining a protective stance until we cleared the front door.
“Jesus Christ!” America cried upon seeing the splattered blood covering Travis’ clothing. “Are you guys okay?” She grabbed my shoulders and scanned my face.
“I’m okay. Just another day at the office. For both of us,” I said, wiping my eyes.
Travis grabbed my hand and we rushed to the hotel with Shepley and America close behind. Not many paid attention to Travis’ appearance. He was covered in blood and only the occasional out-of-towner seemed to notice.
“What in the hell happened in there?” Shepley finally asked.
Travis stripped down to his skivvies and disappeared into the bathroom. The shower turned on and America handed me a box of tissues.
“I’m fine, Mare.”
She sighed and pushed the box at me once again. “You’re not fine.”
“This is not my first rodeo with Benny,” I said, my muscles sore from how tense they had been the last twenty-four hours.
“It’s your first time to watch Travis go ape shit on someone,” Shepley said. “I’ve seen it once before. It’s not pretty.”
“What happened ?” America insisted.
“Mick called Benny. Passed accountability onto me.”
“I’m gonna kill him! I’m going to kill that sorry son-of-a-bitch!” America shouted.
“He’s not holding me responsible, but he was going to teach Mick a lesson for sending his daughter to pay off his debt. He called two of his damned dogs on us and Travis took them out. Both of them. In under five minutes.”
“So Benny let you go?” America asked.
Travis appeared from the bathroom with a towel around his waist, the only evidence of his scuffle a small red mark on his cheek bone below his right eye. “One of the guys I knocked out had a fight tomorrow night. I’m taking his place and in return Benny will forgive the last five-k Mick owes.”
America stood up. “This is ridiculous! Why are we helping Mick, Abby? He threw you to the wolves! I’m going to kill him!”
“Not if I kill him, first,” Travis seethed.
“Get in line,” I said.
“So you’re fighting tomorrow?” Shepley asked.
“At a place called Zero’s. Six o’clock. It’s Brock McMann, Shep.”
Shepley shook his head. “No way. No fucking way, Trav. The guy’s a maniac!”
“Yeah,” Travis smiled, “but he’s not fighting for his girl, is he?” Travis cradled me in his arms, kissing the top of my hair. “You okay, Pigeon?”
“This is wrong. This is wrong on so many levels. I don’t know which one to talk you out of first.”
“Did you not see me tonight? I’m going to be fine. I’ve seen Brock fight before. He’s tough, but not unbeatable.”
“I don’t want you to do this, Trav.”
“Well, I don’t want you to go to dinner with your ex-boyfriend tomorrow night. I guess we both have to do something unpleasant to save your good-for-nothing father.”
I had seen it before. Vegas changed people, creating monsters and broken men. It was easy to let the lights and stolen dreams seep into your blood. I had seen the energized, invincible look on Travis’ face many times growing up, and the only cure was a plane ride home.
I looked at my watch again.
“You have somewhere to be, Cookie?” Jesse asked, amused.
“Please stop calling me that, Jess. I hate it.”
“I hated it when you left, too. Didn’t stop you.”
“This is a tired, worn out conversation. Let’s just have dinner, okay?”
“Okay, let’s talk about your new man. What’s his name? Travis?” I nodded and he smiled. “What are you doing with that tattooed psychopath? He looks like a reject from the Manson Family.”
“Be nice, Jesse, or I’m walking out of here.”
“I can’t get over how different you look. I can’t get over that you’re sitting in front of me.”
I rolled my eyes. “Get over it.”
“There she is,” Jesse said. “The girl I remember.”
I looked down at my watch. “Travis’ fight is in twenty minutes. I better go.”
“We still have dessert coming.”
“I can’t, Jess. I don’t want him worrying if I’m going to show up. It’s important.”
His shoulders fell. “I know. I miss the days when I was important.”
I rested my hand on his. “We were just kids. That was a lifetime ago.”
“When did we grow up? You being here is a sign, Abby. I thought I’d never see you again and here you sit. Stay with me.”
I shook my head slowly, hesitant to hurt my oldest friend. “I love him, Jess.”
His disappointment shadowed the small grin on his face. “Then you better go.”
I kissed his cheek and fled the restaurant, catching a taxi.
“Where you headed?” The cab driver asked.
The cabby turned to look at me, giving me a once over. “You sure?”
“I’m sure! Go!” I said, tossing cash over the seat.