Turbulence was just potholes in the sky. No matter how many times I told myself the bold-faced lie, I could not make myself believe it. The plane taking me from New York City to Chicago jostled again as the plane hit a new air pressure. I gripped the arms of my chair, watching the deck of cards on the table slide over.
“Are you scared of flying?” Lukas Kaczmarek, the owner of the private jet taking us both home to Chicago, slid into the seat across from me.
“No.” I forced my hands to let go of the armrests and gather up my cards. “I’m afraid of crashing.”
“It’s just turbulence,” he assured me as he took the cards from my hands and started shuffling. “We only have an hour left of the flight. Want to play a few hands?” He waved the deck at me with a playful grin.
I wasn’t fooled. Lukas Kaczmarek, although slightly less intense than his older brother Christian, was not playful. I’d heard more than one rumor about what his family did to their enemies, to anyone who they deemed disloyal.
But we did have another hour of tempting fate with our lives, and he was being generous enough to let me crash his plane. Although I’m sure it had more to do with my cousin now being his sister-in-law than his overall generosity. We both lived in Chicago and had ventured to New York for the wedding celebration of my cousin to his brother, the head of the Kaczmarek crime family.
“Sure. Five card?” I sat up straighter in my seat. A few hands would keep my mind off the bumps in the road.
“You know how to play, right?” He cut the deck and continued his shuffle.
“Poker? Yeah.” I grinned. One of my father’s employees had taught me when I was little. I think he just took pity on me because I was a young girl, motherless, and wasting my entire day hanging around my father’s closed office door in the hopes of stealing a minute when he finally emerged. I was a quick learner and before the end of the week, I won almost every hand.
“Okay, then.” He dealt out the cards and put the deck face down on the table. “So, you want to make this a bit more interesting?” He looked at me from over the fanned-out cards in his hand with one eyebrow raised.
“You want to play for cash?” I hadn’t brought much with me, but I had probably enough to get through the first few hands. Then I’d be playing with his money.
“Or.” He grinned. “We could play for skins.”
“Skins? If you want to see me naked, just ask,” I teased. What the hell was I doing, teasing him? He didn’t have to ask, he was three times my size. He could simply take what he wanted.
“You’d do it?” he asked, mild disapproval in his tone.
I laughed. “Hell, no. But if you really wanna play strip poker, I’m game.” I scanned the cards in my hand.
“All right.” He nodded. “I’ll take two cards; how many do you want?” He tossed away his bad cards and took two from the top of the deck.
“I want one, please.” I slid my discard card across the table.
“One?” He laughed. “All right. Here.” He handed me the card.
I shuffled my hand around. “So, do we bet on what clothes the other has to remove?” I asked.
“We’ll start with shirts,” he announced, laying out his cards. “A pair of aces.”
I laid my hand down. “Two pair, queen high.” I wiggled my fingers at him. “So, shirt off.”
He laughed. “Lucky hand.” He grabbed his t-shirt from behind his neck and pulled it over his head. After he tossed it to the seat beside him, he ran his fingers through his dark blond hair and rolled his shoulders back, his massive, muscular shoulders covered with tattoos. I swallowed back my appreciation, and quickly lowered my eyes to the table. Busying myself, and trying to completely avoid my attraction to him, I shuffled the cards and began to deal the next hand.
“When we get back, you should stop by the club,” he said. “It’s still going to take me a little while to get things settled since Piotr is gone, though.”
“So, that’s why you’re staying in Chicago while Christian is in New York? Your cousin left his club to you?” I wasn’t ignorant of the situation. Piotr had been Lukas’ cousin, a second branch of the Kaczmarek tree that ruled over Chicago. He’d played a dangerous game and had lost his life in return. But I didn’t need to let on that I knew more than I should. Men in his position preferred to work behind closed doors, in the shadows of the night.
He glanced up at me as he filed his cards in his hand. “Something like that, yeah.”
I discarded two cards, and he dropped three.
“Okay, you first.” He nudged his chin at me. “Beginner’s luck can’t hold out too long.”
“We didn’t decide what clothing we were wagering,” I reminded him. “You picked last time, so it’s my turn.” I tapped my fingers against my lips. “Pants.”
He huffed. “Fine. Show your hand.” He gestured toward me with his long fingers.
I fanned out my cards. “Full house.”
His grin fell.
“What?” I asked, looking down at my pair of tens and three kings. “I got it right, didn’t I? It’s a full house.”
“Yeah, you got it right.” He laid down his three sevens. “You can stop with the innocent act.” His voice dipped low into an authoritative tone as he stood up from the table and reached for his belt. A warmth spread through my body, pooling between my legs and he hadn’t even taken off his pants yet.
His fingers pulled at the leather strap, unbuckling his belt then moving to his button and zipper. Heat rushed to my cheeks as his thumbs hooked into the top of his jeans and he pushed them down. He wore a pair of black boxer briefs beneath and the hard, long, thick outline of his dick became evident.
I diverted my eyes to the table and gathered up the cards again. “New hand,” I announced and shuffled the cards.
He retook his seat and grabbed the deck from me, the warmth of his fingers sending a current of arousal through my body as they brushed against me.
Fuck. I needed to get laid and quick. I could not be thinking about Lukas Kaczmarek in this way. He was trouble.
“My deal,” he said, shuffling the cards again.
“Maybe we should play for socks,” I said softly. “Just in case?”
He dealt our hands. “If you lose this hand, off goes that little t-shirt of yours.”
“And if you lose?” I asked, raising my eyes to his.
A glint in his blue eyes made the breath in my chest hitch. This wasn’t the first time we’d been alone. We’d flown to New York together to celebrate my cousin’s marriage to his brother, but it had been different before. We’d been friendly, but distant. This was quickly moving into a dangerous territory.
“I won’t,” he vowed.
I glanced down at my hand—a ten, jack, queen, and king. All I needed was a nine or an ace.
“I’m sure you’re right.” I smiled. If we were wagering like normal, I’d be able to get him to fold especially after winning the last two hands. But since it was my shirt on the line, he probably wouldn’t be tossing out his chances.
I threw one card down.
“One card?” he asked in disbelief. “You’re going to rely on one card to keep your shirt on?”
“Yeah. It’s all I need,” I said, holding my hand out for my card.
He shook his head and handed me the card. I placed it face down in front of me while he took three cards and shuffled his hand around. His full lips pulled into a confident grin.
“Four of a kind, aces.” He folded his hands over his chest. “Okay, now you.”
As I reached for my card, his phone danced on the table. He flipped it over to look at the screen. “I have to take this.” He stood from his chair and headed to the front of the plane while answering his phone. Immediately he broke into Polish, his voice getting harsher as he continued his talk.
The muscles in his back moved with his movements, and his ass—fuck, I needed to stop looking at him like he was an option. Because he wasn’t. We could be friendly. Have a drink if we ran into each other, but nothing more.
He disappeared into the small room that served as a bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
Figuring the game was over, I flipped over my card.
Two of hearts.
“Your bet.” The guy in the pit-stained t-shirt next to me at the poker table nudged me with his elbow.
I looked up from my cards and sighed. “Might as well just go all in,” I said, pushing the small pile of chips I had left into the pot.
“What was that, seventy-five? I’m in.” The guy to my left tossed in his chips. That left Mr. Pit-stains who folded. He was down to his last fifty dollars.
“Your cards.” The dealer pointed at me. I flipped over my hand, a pair of tens. Pit-stains groaned, probably pissed he didn’t stick around for the chips.
“Three fives.” The guy to my left tossed his cards down face up and reached for the pot.
“Well, that’s it for me.” I pushed back from the table and brushed my palms against each other. “Good luck.” I flashed a quick smile, careful not to aim my attention at anyone in particular and walked away from the table.
Once I reached the bar at the far end of the gaming room, I signaled for the bartender. My nerves rattled. I hadn’t expected the night to go so smoothly. Even though I knew I had the skill and the game plan was solid, things could have still gone sideways.
“Put that on the house tab,” a deep voice vibrated from beside me.
I glanced up, recognizing the voice, to find the dark stare of Lukas Kaczmarek settled on me.
“Lukas.” I threw on a soft smile.
“Maggie.” My name came out short and hard.
“It’s been a while.” I took my drink from the bartender and brought it up to my lips. I’d gone with a white wine, thought something stronger was definitely in order if Lukas was going to keep glaring at me. I hadn’t seen him since stepping off his plane at O’Hare and climbing into an Uber before he could talk me into letting him drive me home.
“A few months.” He nodded, lowering his gaze to the glass of wine in my hand. “Your poker skills seemed to have faded a bit since our game.” He cupped my elbow and led me away from the crowd pushing in toward the bar and to a quiet corner of the room. A loud cheer went up from the middle of the room at the craps table. Someone must have won big.
“Did you want to try your luck again?” I asked, taking a long drink of my wine. Flirting wasn’t really my strength, but he kept looking at me like he was irritated, and I needed a bit of courage.
“I watched the game, Maggie.” He folded his arms over his massive chest. He wore a dark gray t-shirt beneath a leather jacket and a pair of body-hugging jeans.
I took another sip. I’d need another drink soon.
“Good thing we were playing for money and not clothes then,” I joked. He didn’t look amused. “What are you doing here anyway?” I asked, gesturing toward the gaming floor. “Your family doesn’t deal with underground gambling.”
His eyes narrowed further. “What do you know about my family’s dealings?” Enough to not answer that question.
“Did you want to play a few hands?” I changed the subject while eyeing the blackjack table.
“Maggie, do you know who runs this place?” He moved closer to me. The spicy scent of his aftershave swirled between us.
“I assume one of your associates by the look on your face.” The TommyGun was a small club on the north side of the city. A great place to spend the night dancing downstairs or chancing your luck at the tables upstairs. I doubted any legitimate licenses were held for the gaming room, but I wasn’t going to question it.
“People who won’t take kindly to you using their poker tables for your hustles.” He lowered his face closer to me.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Deny deny deny and if that didn’t work, running was the next option.
“I watched you, Maggie. I watched the whole damn game and I saw what you did.” He ran the back of his knuckles across my jawline. “If it weren’t so damn dangerous, I might have been impressed.”
“Not all women live for your approval, Lukas.” I took a step back from him, needing space in order to clear my mind.
“You’re playing with fire, Maggie.” He pointed a long finger at me. “You could get hurt.”
“I can get hurt walking down a flight of stairs.” I thrust my chin upward.
His jaw tightened. “There are other ways you can hurt too, Maggie, if you keep tempting me with your attitude.”
My throat clenched. “I don’t know what you think you saw, but I promise, no one was in any danger.” Aside from me and the guy I was helping to hustle the pot for himself.
“Hmm. You and I both know that’s a lie, Maggie.”
“Whatever. I have to get going.” I downed the rest of my wine. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” He took the empty glass from my hand, then snatched my elbow, pulling me up against his hard chest. “Don’t let me catch you playing with fire again, Maggie.” His breath was hot against my ear, sending a shiver through me.
“I really should get going.” I kept my eyes trained on his chin when I turned up to look at him.
“My car’s out front. My driver will take you home.”
“I can Uber—”
He squeezed my elbow. “My car.”
“Fine.” I rolled my eyes. “I’ll take your car.” Amelia had told me the Kaczmarek men were overprotective of their women, but I wasn’t Lukas’ woman. I wasn’t his anything.
“Good.” He let me go. “If you need anything, Maggie—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Call you. I remember.” I took a large step forward. “I’ll see you around, Lukas.”
He pinched his lips together and gave me a curt nod.
As I climbed into the back of his town car my phone chimed.
Text me when your home so I know you got in okay.
I rolled my eyes at Lukas’ text but shot him a thumbs-up emoji to get him off my back.
Another message came through.
Won nearly ten grand tonight! Let me know where to meet for your cut.
I sighed. My thoughts wandered back to Lukas. He was probably right. As much fun as it was, it was a dangerous game I was playing.
Not that I would admit it to him. Or would I let that stop me. A girl had to have fun somehow.
I’d been living in Chicago for six months, and I was still dealing with bullshit my cousin left behind. How he managed to stay alive as long as he had boggled me. The idiot had no business sense at all. None of the legit business dealings were making any money when I took over. Finally, they were starting to turn a profit and I could put more focus on the more lucrative parts of the family business.
The electric doors of the massive office building swished open for me, and the cool breeze of the air conditioner hit me. Summer was almost over, and it seemed Chicago heated up at the very end. As though the heat was going for one last blast before finally allowing fall to be ushered in.
I hated this part of the city with all the business offices and stuffy atmosphere, but I had a meeting with Konrad Dudek. As much as I hated working with the arrogant prick, he sent high-paying work our way. He also owned a real estate brokerage company that operated completely on the inside of the law. Being one of the most influential real estate brokers in the city, he was able to get us properties that we could later use for whatever means we needed. If we needed some money cleaned, a large purchase such as a condo or house in the city worked great. If we wanted to make some fast cash, one of those properties might have an electrical fire that led to a serious insurance payout. Every now and then Konrad came across some work that he needed done that couldn’t be taken care of within the confines of the law. That’s when he would call on us for a favor. The relationship was a win-win.
I took the elevator up to the tenth floor where his office overlooked the city below. On a clear day, Navy pier with all of its attractions could be seen. The girl at the front desk was different than the last time I had been there, but that wasn’t odd considering how Konrad used his office as his own personal dating service. His new wife, who had been his previous personal assistant, had probably demanded staff changes. The woman at the front desk was older, mid-fifties, with graying hair and thick glasses that magnified her bulging eyes.
“Mr. Kaczmarek, Mr. Dudek is ready for you.” The woman pointed toward his office door with a gentle smile before I could even tell her my name.
“Thanks.” I walked past her to his office. The door swung open as I approached it. Konrad greeted me with a wide grin and a pudgy outstretched hand.
“Lukas. So good to see you.” Konrad ushered me inside. “You remember my daughter, Margaret.” He gestured toward Maggie who stood at the large windows looking over her shoulder at me. “She’s on her way out.”
Maggie turned around. Her shoulders dropped slightly at the dismissal.
“Dad, we weren’t finished talking. I’ll wait outside until your meeting is over. Then we can—”
“I’ve said all I’m going to say on the matter, Margaret. You know how I feel about it and your mother is right.”
“She’s not my mother.” Maggie’s jaw tensed. Internally, I flinched. Konrad’s newest wife couldn’t be more than two years older than Maggie.
“Whatever. The discussion is closed.” Konrad walked around his desk then flicked a wrist toward the door. “Go.”
I raised an eyebrow at the tone he used. It was one I would reserve for my dog, not my daughter, and sure as fuck not Maggie.
Her cheeks tinted, but she locked her jaw and gave a curt nod. When she passed me, her eyes darted away from me, as though if she looked at me, she might lose the control she was grappling with.
Once the door closed behind her, I slid my hands into my pockets and turned to Konrad.
“I could have waited a minute so you could finish with your daughter,” I found myself saying. His eyes widened slightly.
“She’s fine. Now, how can we make some money today?” He gestured to the chair in front of his desk as he plopped down in his leather chair.
I pushed Maggie from my mind. I had work to do.
The meeting with Konrad took longer than expected. By the time I finished, Maggie was already gone from the building. It hadn’t been easy to keep her from creeping into my mind while I was in her father’s office. The image of her clenched jaw and her heated cheeks lingered, and I wondered how pretty she would look with the same expression while on her knees in front of me. My cock hardened at the mental picture.
I was a dick. But I never pretended to be anything else. As I headed down the street to the garage where I’d parked, I spotted Maggie sitting at a table outside a small café on the corner. Her sunglasses sat perched on top of her head while she flipped the pages of a book. She picked up her half empty iced coffee and brought the straw between her lips, sucking gently.
I ground my teeth together. This woman gave me too many images to store away for later use.
A moment later a man in an ill-fitting suit weaved through the tables of the outside seating until he came to her table. She brought her sunglasses down over her eyes and nodded slightly toward the chair across from her. The man glanced over his shoulder before sitting down. Who the hell was he? And what was with all the cloak and dagger bullshit?
Maggie was smarter than to get involved with a married man. Maggie Dudek was no one’s side piece. My hands fisted at the idea of her being someone’s dirty little secret, waiting for this asshole to decide he wanted to play with his toy for a little bit.
I hurried my steps toward the café, keeping a close eye on their interaction. The asshole pulled out an envelope from his inside pocket and placed it inside the book she’d been looking at. She closed the book. As I approached the entrance to the patio, he stood up from the table and left, nearly bumping into me as he passed me.
I watched him scurry into the lunchtime crowd on the sidewalk until he disappeared around the corner. I didn’t recognize him, but I’d only been in the city a few months. Maybe Maggie would introduce us.
“Lukas?” Maggie looked up from her book as I approached her table. She nervously glanced down the street behind me. “Did your meeting go well?” she asked.
“It did. Yes.” I leaned over the table to get a look at what she’d been absorbed in. “A textbook?”
“Accounting.” She nodded, pulling the book further toward her and laying her forearms over it. The thick envelope kept the book from closing completely; the gap between the pages was easily seen.
“Not real estate like your father?” I asked, pulling the chair across from her out and taking a seat.
“You like numbers.” I eyed the book again. “Probably helps you when you’re playing cards.” I let the statement hang in the air.
“I beat you fairly, Lukas.” A teasing smile danced on her lips.
Leaning back in my chair, I narrowed my eyes. “Hmm. Maybe.” I moved my gaze to the book beneath her arms. “And the guy who just paid you, he won that money fair and square?”
Her eyes widened a fraction. Did she really think I hadn’t seen him, or noticed the way she hugged her textbook?
“Just helping a friend.” She shrugged, then leaned back in the chair, moving her hands from the book.
“Helping a friend,” I repeated. “You’re going to get yourself into a lot of trouble one day, Maggie.” I pointed a finger at her.
“I can handle myself, Lukas.” She brushed her fingertips across her cheek to catch a flyaway hair and tucked it behind her ear. “But thanks for the warning.”
“Oh, that’s not the warning.” I pushed up from my seat and rounded the table, coming to stand behind her. Reaching over her, I opened the book to where she hid the thick envelope and plucked it out from between the pages.
“Lukas.” She grabbed my wrist.
“Hands off, Maggie.” I lowered my voice so only she could hear me. It took a moment, but she finally let me go and I opened the envelope, exposing the stack of hundreds inside.
“This looks like at least two thousand.” I closed the envelope and put it back in its hiding place. “Friends don’t usually pay each other for help.” I shut the book and leaned down to her ear. The soft trace of lilac filled my senses as I inhaled deeply. Such a pure scent from such a naughty girl.
“Are you doing things you shouldn’t be doing, Maggie? Do we need to talk about staying out of trouble?” Her breath hitched. “Should we discuss what happens to bad girls that do bad things?” My cock hardened, pressing against the back of her chair. All the bad things I could do to her whizzed through my mind.
“Like I said, I can take care of myself,” she whispered, keeping her eyes trained on the table.
I chuckled and moved to her side. “So you keep saying.” Grabbing hold of her chin, I brought her eyes to mine. “You’re playing with a whole forest fire here, Maggie. If you find yourself getting burned, you call me. Understand?”
“Sure, Lukas.” She gently pulled away from my grasp. “If I need you. I’ll call you.”
Little liar. I wouldn’t call her out on it, not yet anyway. Let her tangle herself up a little bit before I help unravel her.
“Be good, Maggie.” I winked then left her to her textbook and her envelope of cash. When Christian told me to keep an eye out for her, I don’t think he realized how much of a handful she was going to be. But that was fine. I could have a little trouble now and then. It would keep life interesting.
So long as I kept my dick in my pants and didn’t complicate things.