“You’re overthinking it, Zoey. It’s not that complicated. You pack a suitcase, you grab your passport, and you join me in Paris this weekend.”
I nibble the inside of my lip as I listen to Ricky’s slightly annoyed voice on the other end of the line. He’s right, of course. It’s just a trip to France. Three days, two nights.
“But the diner—”
“Can manage fine without you.” His voice hardens. “It’ll do you good to get away. All you can ever think about is that damn diner.”
I sigh out a frustrated breath. “I just wish you’d given me more warning. I’m not even sure if Danika can work—”
“She’s your employee. How about you insist?” Ricky’s losing his patience. Am I really going to give up a chance to spend the weekend dining on French cuisine at some adorable bistro? Or drinking wine on a tiny balcony overlooking the bustling cobblestoned streets of Paris?
And you know what he’s going to ask, don’t you…?
Am I really going to say ‘no’ to a weekend away when I’m ninety-nine percent sure Ricky Marconi is going to ask me to marry him on said trip?
“Okay,” I whisper, half-afraid to say it out loud in case the world implodes. “I’ll… I’ll do it.”
Ricky laughs. “Like pulling teeth with you, Zoey. I’ll meet you at the airport in an hour.”
“An hour?” My head spins at the thought of trying to pack a suitcase in sixty minutes. “Ricky, no, I can’t. I need more time!”
“Throw in a clean pair of undies, a nice dress, and your toothbrush. Remember, I’ve got your passport.” He blows me a kiss before ending the call, leaving me gaping at my cellphone.
I’m suddenly grateful I gave the passport to him. In my current state, I’d probably leave it behind and we’d miss our flight.
I try not to panic as I haul my suitcase out from the top of my closet. I’m always late because I can never figure out what to wear, how to do my hair, or what color eyeshadow to use, even though the only colors that look remotely good on my fair, freckled face are neutral colors.
Is he doing this on purpose? Maybe it’s his way of declaring some kind of an ultimatum. Like, if I don’t get to the airport in time, he knows it would be a mistake to marry me.
Oh, my God… Am I going to marry Ricky Marconi?
The thought threatens to grind me to a halt, so I shove it out of my mind in favor of packing a few clothes in my suitcase. I’m holding up two pairs of flats in the mirror, trying to convince myself that I don’t need both, when there’s a deep, hacking cough from the next room.
I shove both flats into the suitcase and zip it up, puffing an auburn curl from my face as I hurry into my mother’s room. “You okay?”
“Never been better,” my mother says as she reaches over to her nightstand to retrieve a packet of cigarettes and her lighter.
I wince, remember I’m abandoning her for the whole weekend, and nearly die of guilt right where I’m standing. “Mom, uh, there’s something—”
“If you’re going to lecture me again, save your breath.” Mom narrows her eyes at me, but there’s a good-natured gleam in her blue irises. “This is only my second one today.”
“It’s not that. It’s Ricky.”
“What’s he gone and done now?”
I roll my lips between my teeth, quickly checking my phone before sinking down on the edge of my mother’s bed. She likes to turn in early these days, spending a few hours reading and having a cigarette or two. “He’s taking me to Paris.”
“Paris?” Mom’s eyebrows jump up, and she studies me over a coil of cigarette smoke. “Fancy.”
“It’s very late notice, though.” I shake my head, making to stand. “I can’t up and leave like this. The diner needs me, you need me—”
“Don’t blame me if you’re too chicken to get on a plane,” Mom says with a chuckle. “That’s all on you, sweetheart.”
God, I forgot how much I hate flying. “It’s not that, it’s—”
I cut off when she grabs my hand. “Zoey, sweetheart, stop worrying so much. I’ll be fine. The diner will be fine.” She pats my arm. “Go have yourself a lovely vacation.”
Nodding, I stand and bend over to give her a kiss.
She turns her face at the last minute, coughing into her hand.
“Are you sure—?”
“You’re doing it again,” she says, tutting me.
“Sorry.” I head for the door, pausing when she speaks.
“Are you going to say yes?”
I spin around, my eyes wide. “How did you…?”
“I’m old, not stupid,” she says, a twinkle in her eyes. “Well?”
“I do love him.” I shrug. “What do you think I should do?”
“Listen to your heart, Zoey.” She pats her chest, reminding me just how skinny she’s gotten over the past few months. I can’t really blame her—ever since Dad passed, she eats like a bird. Then there’s the smoking, and the copious amounts of coffee. Sometimes I wonder if she’s trying to check out early, like she can’t bear being without him. She hasn’t been to the diner in over a year, leaving me to handle everything from the wait staff to the books.
I should probably tell her I have no clue what I’m doing. I never took accounting in school. A fact she either forgot or thought wasn’t important. I thought I was doing okay, but when I bitched about how high the diner’s taxes were last year, Ricky insisted on taking a look. Unlike me, he had done accounting in school, and from the horror on his face when he went through the accounts, I’d stuffed up royally.
Thankfully, he helped me get everything in order. It’s one reason I love him. He doesn’t judge me. He accepts me, warts and all.
“That’s the only way you’ll know if he’s the right one.” She pats her chest again. “Listen.”
I give her a sad smile, nodding. It’s hard to listen to anything when all I can hear is a constant to-do list running on repeat through my head. “I have to go,” I whisper, kissing my fingertips. “I’ll call as soon as I land.”
“Like hell you will,” she mumbles, opening her book to the place she marked with a bony finger. “You’ll call me in the morning like a decent person.”
I laugh, waving goodbye as I wheel my suitcase out into the hall of our apartment. We downgraded after my father passed away—the Day family had so much debt that his entire life insurance policy went into settling our accounts. If we hadn’t sold our home, I doubt Mom and I would still be afloat right now.
Yeah, it’s been a shitty few years, but I’ve been holding onto the diner with claws. I must remember to thank Ricky for sorting out the books. Without him, I might have lost the Slice of Heaven too. He even deposits the day’s earnings for me in the bank. Says it’s unsafe for me to be walking around with so much cash on me.
I’m in the elevator when a message comes through on my phone. Damn it! Danika is running late. She’s supposed to be there at the shift change, but now Barry’s going to handle it, and there’s always a time card or two that doesn’t get punched when he’s in charge.
I have a few minutes to get to the airport, but every fiber of my being is telling me to stop by the diner first. Shoving my phone in my pocket, I rap on the cab’s divider. “Can you make a stop at Slice of Heaven? It’s on—”
“Corner of Fifth and Main?” the driver says, giving me a faint smile when he sees how surprised I am. “Best cherry pie in the state, ma’am.”
“Thank you,” I say, blushing crimson as the driver turns on his indicator and takes a left. I rest back in my seat, watching the lights stream by.
A weekend in Paris, and the possibility that Ricky might propose. I can’t decide if I’m nervous or excited. Maybe a bit of both. Just a quick stop at the diner and—
“What’s this?” The driver ducks his head, frowning as he stares through the windshield. “Must have been an accident or something.”
My stomach lurches when I turn and see the red and blue lights flickering up ahead. The diner is on a busy road, and we have a few tables outside when the weather is fine. I hope nothing happened to one of our customers.
As the driver nears, there’s a sudden tap-tap-tap on the roof of the car. It takes me a second to realize it’s rain. But even that thought is suddenly distant as the driver pulls into a parking bay and I open my door.
There was no accident. At least, the only cars parked haphazardly in the road are patrol vehicles, all with their lights flashing, and at least two with blaring sirens.
What… the… hell?
“Ma’am,” the driver calls. “Your bag?”
The concrete feels spongy under my feet as the driver puts the handle of my suitcase in my hand. I try to tell him I still have to go to the airport, but my tongue isn’t working properly. So I trundle over the sidewalk, wedging between onlookers, and come to a stop in front of the Slice of Heaven diner that’s belonged to the Day family for nearly forty years.
“Back up,” one of the police officers stationed near the door says.
“What’s going on?” I manage, my hand tightening on the handle of my suitcase.
His friend looks over and then gives me a double take. “Zoey Day?” he barks out, sounding surprised.
“Yes.” I blink into the rain now pummeling down on the sidewalk. Some onlookers decide there’s too much water and not enough drama, so they drift away, but I spot a few of my regulars standing on the curb, watching my exchange with the police with obvious concern. “This is my diner. Has something happened?”
My stomach is tight as a drum, my skin prickling hot and cold. I’m in jeans and a hoody—the clothes I’d been wearing when Ricky called me earlier and told me he was taking me to Paris. Moments ago, but it could have been a lifetime.
“Going somewhere?” The first officer stares at my suitcase, one hand inching to the handcuffs on his belt.
“Paris.” I frown at him. “But you still haven’t told me what—”
“Zoey Day?” A man steps out of the diner, his FBI jacket garish in the flashing lights of the patrol cars nearby.
I don’t know why I snap at him. I guess it’s because I’m scared, frustrated, and shivering from the icy rain. “Will someone please tell me what the hell’s going on?”
The FBI officer gives me a smile that’s anything but warm. “Zoey Day, you’re under arrest.”
“What?” It’s more a shriek than anything else. “You’re kidding. What the hell for?”
His smile turns static. “You have the right to remain silent. You have the right—”
I’ve heard it all before. In movies, of course. But it sounds a hell of a lot different when someone with a smug look on their face is grabbing your wrist and slapping on a pair of cuffs. A police officer takes my suitcase out of my hand, peeling away my fingers because I refuse to let go, and someone pushes down my head as I’m shoved into the back of the nearest police cruiser.
I get one last look back at my family’s diner, and a chill goes through me at the sight of the white-and-gold sign and the charming little booths. The Slice of Heaven diner looks like an elaborate prop, too gaudy in the red and blue lights painting its facade.
A passerby closes up her umbrella, and I catch a flash of Danika’s shocked face. Then she scowls at the policemen, the flashing lights, and the curious crowd as if they’ve just royally messed up her day with all their drama.
“Paris, huh?” the FBI agent says as he climbs into the passenger seat. “You might have made it, too. But you just had to visit the scene of the crime one last time, didn’t you?”
But the FBI agent is talking into his radio, ignoring me as the driver tears down the road.
“Please, you’ve got the wrong person. I haven’t done anything!” I slap my hands into the mesh dividing me from the front of the police cruiser. “Please!”
“Isn’t that what they all say?” the FBI agent says to the driver.
“Yup,” the driver agrees.
My head is pounding. My clothes cling to my body, itching as they dry. Frustrated tears prick at my eyes, but I blink them back with iron determination. I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I know this. When we arrive at the police station, I get to make a phone call.
Ricky will know what to do. He’ll help me. This is all just one big misunderstanding.
And yet, as I sit here, confused and frightened in the back of a police cruiser, I get this weird premonition.
That’s when I bow my head and let out the sob that’s been pushing to get out.
This won’t end well, will it?
Five years later
My cellphone vibrates in my pocket, tearing my attention from the spreadsheet I’ve been staring at for the past half hour. It says a lot that a simple message is all it takes to drag me from the ocean of numbers I’d been swimming in. Usually my concentration is a thing of legends, especially with the casino’s accounts.
The message is from Maksim Balmont, friend and co-owner of the Devil’s Luck casino in whose dingy, windowless back room I’m busy preparing for this year’s tax return. I have a fully equipped office on the first floor, but there are too many distractions in there for me to focus. That we sometimes use this room for interrogations also does wonders for my attention span.
Have you found her yet?
My mouth pulls into a rueful smile as I type out a quick reply before attempting to go back to the casino’s paperwork. But my focus is gone.
I run this casino like a finely tuned machine, expecting—and receiving—no surprises whenever I’m doing the books. With Maksim and Richmond out of town attending to mob business, I’m ahead of schedule. Usually I’m interrupted every ten minutes by one or the other, but now it’s been hours since I’ve had a break.
Standing, I run a thumb under my leather suspenders before slipping on my suit jacket and letting myself out of the office into a dimly lit hallway. Troy is leaning against the opposite wall with the air of someone who could stand there all day and not get bored. I don’t know how he does it. I’d lose my fucking mind.
“I need a drink,” I tell him.
“Maksim on your case again?” This man is psychic, I swear.
“It’s not like I haven’t been looking,” I grump. “I told him I’ll find her.”
He nods, casting a quick glance down either side of the hallway before following me toward the main casino floor. It’s Thursday night, and as usual, the Devil’s Luck is overflowing.
Rows of slot machines jangle merrily, their bright lights and explosive colors turning the ground floor into a circus. There’s a palpable energy to the air, an eager expectation, as if everyone’s waiting for their machine to hit the jackpot.
Troy and I head up the sweeping stairs to the mezzanine level overlooking the roulette and craps tables. Here, intimate nests of poker and blackjack tables are scattered over the thick carpeting. The noise from below washes over the railings, but arrives muted at the baize tables.
We weave our way through the tables, my eyes darting from players to dealers to pit bosses. The casino staff all have friendly smiles on their faces, the pit bosses the gleaming concentration I’ve become used to. There’s a strict semi-formal dress code on the upper level, but some suits aren’t as immaculately tailored—or as pricey—as the others. Doesn’t matter to me. As long as they don’t think they can come in here in shorts and t-shirts, I’m—
“Blackjack!” The man’s excited voice comes from a nearby table, and on instinct, I turn to see who won. It’s not the same guy who shouted—he’s staring in awe at the woman seated beside him. Despite the dress code, she’s wearing a baseball cap and a frayed denim jacket with a plain white tank top underneath. She accepts the chips the dealer places beside her winnings, and as if feeling my eyes on her, casts a furtive glance in my direction.
Judging from the pile of chips already in front of her, Miss ‘What Dress Code?’ is in the middle of a lucky streak.
I’m itching to go over and tell her she can’t be here, not dressed the way she is, but as if hearing my thoughts, she quickly places another bet and turns back to the game, her shoulders hunching in as if she wants me to forget I ever saw her.
I slide my thumb under one suspender, toying with the give and take of the thick material.
“Leave her be,” Troy says, knowing how I feel about the misinterpretation of smart casual. “She’s winning.”
“This isn’t Vegas,” I mutter back. “If they want to wear socks with their flip-flops, then they can get on a plane and spend their money in another state.”
“But she’s not wearing—”
My attention swivels back to the blackjack table. Again, it’s not the woman who said anything, but the guy sitting beside her. Is he her date, or just an excitable onlooker?
“Some of your luck had better rub off on me,” the guy says, leaning in toward her until their shoulders are touching. The woman cringes back, a lock of auburn hair tumbling out of her cap when she scowls at him.
The woman’s bright blue eyes lock with mine for a moment before she hurriedly looks away. She considers her pile of chips and then pushes them toward the dealer. “Please cash me out,” she says.
What is she doing? Even novice players can tell when they’re on a streak. Why would she leave a hot table?
“Babe, what the hell are you doing?” the annoying guy beside her demands, tugging on his clothes as if he’s worried she hadn’t noticed how expensive his Hugo Boss suit is. “Play another hand.”
“I have to go,” the redhead says, casting another worried glance over her shoulder when she realizes I haven’t moved on.
And then she does the unthinkable. Instead of waiting for the dealer to cash out her chips, she rushes to her feet and hurries away from the table, leaving her winnings behind.
“The fuck?” Troy says behind me.
“She was counting cards.” I have no proof other than that she looked like she saw a ghost, left at least thirty grand at the table, and is now heading for the exit as fast as her legs can carry her.
“I’ll head her off,” Troy says, but I grab his arm.
“I’ve got this.”
“You sure?” He frowns at me, his eyes crinkled at the corners. He’s got at least twenty years on me, but the muscles under my fingers are still as hard as steel.
“I’m sure I can handle one little girl.”
There’s a strange tilt to his mouth as he nods and steps back. “She’s all yours.”
I don’t know why I like the sound of that. Maybe I’ve been working too hard, because I’m more than eager to get my hands on the little ginger who thought she could get away with counting cards in my fucking casino.
Shit, shit, shit! My heart pounds a frantic drum beat inside my chest as I rush toward the casino’s exit without flat-out running. What the hell was I thinking? I should have cashed out the instant I saw the man in the thousand-dollar suit looking at me. But I convinced myself he wasn’t interested in me, that he was just doing his usual rounds through the casino like any good floor manager would do.
If I hadn’t been ogling him, he wouldn’t have paid me any attention at all, I’m sure of it. But no, Zoey is so damn thirsty, she can’t stop herself from staring at a handsome guy.
Ha, handsome? Good God, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as attractive as him, with his dark eyes and his perfectly pressed suit.
Get out, Zoey!
I hurry down the sweeping staircase leading into the chaotic ground floor of the Devil’s Luck casino. Slot machines ring and chime, the clattering of coins into metal trays deafening. I should have eaten something tonight, but I was too excited. Too nervous. Which is ridiculous, because I’ve been doing this for months.
All different casinos, of course. Tonight was my first time at this casino. Which is ironic, because it’s the first time anyone’s ever suspected me. If it hadn’t been for that obnoxious idiot sitting next to me, I’d have gotten away with it.
No, Zoey, if it hadn’t been for you, you’d be scot-free right now.
Counting cards isn’t difficult. Honestly, I thought I’d have to be some kind of prodigy for it to work. But if you can handle basic addition and subtraction, then you’ve got it. The most complicated thing about it is not losing concentration… but I’ve been practicing for over a year, so something as simple as spotting a handsome man shouldn’t have broken my focus.
Damn it, I was so careful. I never visited the same casino more than twice a month. When the cards were in my favor, I would bet big. I could have made what I needed in a month or two, but I forced myself to cash in smaller winnings so none of the casinos would get suspicious.
One night. Hell, one hand was all it took for this guy to make me. Should have known the Devil’s Luck would be my downfall. My life is ironic like that.
I glance over my shoulder, and nearly have a heart attack when I see the dark-haired floor manager casually walking down the stairs, his black eyes locked onto me like a homing missile.
“Fuck!” I dart between a row of slot machines, the bright lights and loud sounds making my head spin. I’m lightheaded, my mouth cork-dry. All the casinos I’ve been to love giving free drinks to their players, especially those at the poker and blackjack tables. I normally take a fruit juice or a water, but tonight was my last night. I was celebrating.
Now I’m regretting the vodka-tonic I had as much as the food I didn’t have.
Someone gets up from a slot machine in front of me, and I don’t dodge fast enough. The guy gives me a grumpy look when I crash into his shoulder. My cap comes loose, spilling a mess of auburn hair down my shoulders. I briefly consider pausing to look for it, but then I spot Mr. Casino Boss turning into the aisle of slot machines, and I nearly wet myself.
He’s not even running. He’s walking! I feel like I’m in that damn Terminator movie or something. No matter how fast I go, I can’t outrun him.
Screw the cap. He already knows what I look like.
Wait a minute… is that why he noticed me? Because I wasn’t dressed up like the rest of the players up there? I thought something was off when the dealer gave me the stink eye as I sat down to play. But no one said anything.
I guess they were being polite. But not Mr. ‘I’d never be caught dead in Armani.’ Oh, no. He’s obviously got an issue with the fact that I wasn’t in some designer dress and killer heels.
No, Zoey, he had an issue with the way you were counting cards in his casino.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit!
I turn a corner, hoping to lose him by doubling back through the slot machines, and walk promptly into a solid wall of man flesh that feels much firmer than it has any right to. I bounce right off, but he’s too fast, snatching up my wrist and dragging me up against him.
“Where’s the fire, girl?”
Of course he’ll sound several thousand degrees hotter than he looks, with a deep, silky voice and the way it oozes authority. I’m struck mute both in fear and panty-melting disbelief as a man who has no right looking and sounding this handsome takes me in with an emotionless sweep of his dark eyes.
His lashes are longer and thicker than mine.
Where’s the fire?
In my damn belly, that’s where.
Sliding a hand down my arm, the man angles me away from the slot machines. When it looks like he’s leading me to the casino’s front entrance, a blast of icy relief chases through me… but then he angles me away and shoves me through a nondescript metal door into a dimly lit passage.
I force a swallow when that heavy door slides shut behind us, snuffing out the noise from the casino.
“Where are you taking me?” I wish I could sound indignant, but my voice is shaking too much.
Goosebumps scatter over my arms. Oh, God. This is bad. Very, very bad.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble, blinking back a sudden push of tears. “Please, I—”
“You’ll know when I want you to speak, because I’ll have asked you a question.”
I throw him a glare over my shoulder, but he ignores it. “Look, guy, I get it. People look up to you.” Quite literally—this guy is tall. “You have an example to set. But I’m not—”
“Last warning, girl.”
When I catch sight of the man’s calm expression, I realize I’m possibly alone in a dark hallway with a psychopath. So I decide to choose my battles, and I shut the hell up.
He drags me into a tiny room with zero windows, one creaky air conditioner, a dented metal desk with a laptop, and a chair that’s seen better days.
Even then, I manage to keep my mouth shut. After all, it’s not like he can hurt me. People saw him chasing me through the casino. There are eyewitnesses. If he commits a crime, then he’d be arrested and—
Then we’d both be sent to jail, because even being in a casino is a violation of my parole.
He gives me a slow, considering onceover and then in that deep, low voice of his says, “Strip.”