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Authors: Sarah Ballance

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BOOK: Gambling on the Bodyguard
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He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

“I’m not usually like this,” she said.

“Like what?”
Drop dead gorgeous?
Beautiful women were a dime a dozen in Vegas. No reason this one should have caught his attention, but when he’d seen her get that look in her eyes over Focker something primal had torn through Jax’s gut. Pretty Boy Focker had a new way to get his dick wet every night of the week, and the way he talked, no one had yet to complain about a one-night rodeo, even if it was probably vanilla as hell so Focker didn’t risk a ding to his perfect appearance. But Ellie…Ellie looked like she believed in something. Jax didn’t know what, but he didn’t want her to turn those trusting eyes on a man guaranteed to break her heart. It wasn’t until her honey brown irises rested on Jax that he remembered he was no upgrade. He had more baggage than a carousel at McCarran, and that was putting it lightly.

She traced the rim of her glass with a glossed fingernail. Not a fancy manicure, he noted. In fact, she wasn’t the usual painted type at all. She had a natural beauty that put the overdone showgirls and their pasties to shame. “I don’t have a habit of trying to sneak into places,” she said. “Or getting picked up by strangers who threaten to have me arrested. Or having dinner after eleven.”

Pushing midnight or not, the Masquerade’s Topenga was hopping. The buffet had closed for the day, but the place served up burgers and fries all night long. He would have preferred a smaller restaurant away from the main drag, but he didn’t want to take her off grid. The crowds and the lights and the casino noises provided a nice buffer between her and whatever predatory measures she thought he had in mind. If that helped her relax, he was all for it.

But if she thought eleven was late, she’d better think again.

He leaned in and crossed one tattooed arm over the other on the table. “Welcome to Vegas, where you’re not doing it right if you’re in bed before the sun comes up.”

She graced him with a flirtatious grin. “Does that mean I have a long night ahead?”

Oh, hell yes
. But it wasn’t nice to scare the tourists. “Colorado, if you think it’s a long night then I’m not holding up my end of the bargain.”

She blushed, all pretty and sweet. The kind of innocent that had no place in Sin City, let alone a table width from him. He’d corrupt the hell out of her, given half the chance, but he’d hate to think he’d steal the sunshine from her eyes.

What the fuck are you doing?
He never should have started this thing. The last time he’d cared about someone, she’d ended up dead. There was no way he was going there again…not even for the first woman in a long time who’d lit a fire to something more than his arousal.

Ellie squirmed a little, and he realized he’d been dragging his gaze over her a little too recklessly. A little too long. “What do you do back home?” he asked.

“I’m a ski instructor in Vail.”

Jesus Christ
. No wonder she had such gorgeous legs. There was something beautiful about a woman who got her curves the natural way. Conquering the leg machine at the gym had nothing on conquering a mountain, but the irony was a bitter pill. He knew the mountains. Had left them for a damned good reason—one that still hurt after sixteen years.

He picked up a fry and dragged it through ketchup, fighting for neutrality in his voice. “What about the offseason?”

“I freelance for the ski mags and volunteer at the local hospital. What do you do when you’re not…guarding bodies?”

“I hit the desert.” Not the mountains. At least not the ones like hers.

She smiled. “Chasing adrenaline?”

Protest stopped in his throat. She didn’t need to know he was out there searching for salvation. Forgiveness. Anything to ease the shitstorm that ate at him.
Anything
but getting high on adrenaline, that was for damn sure.

“Is that what you do out there?” He kept his tone neutral. “Chase adrenaline?”

“Nope.”

He looked up in surprise. “Those mountains you climb suggest otherwise.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call riding a chair lift
climbing
.”

He raised his brow. “I stand corrected. Those mountains you ski say otherwise.”

She pushed back a loose strand of hair. Her eyes sparkled with excitement. “I know this sounds weird, but I didn’t fall in love with the mountains for the thrill. It’s the solitude. It’s humbling. It’s a gift, in a way, to stand there in all that grandeur and be a part of it. It’s raw, but it’s pure. Kind of primal, but in a beautiful, back to nature kind of way.”

He’d give her
primal
…right after he got the hell off the floor. Her reasons for tearing through the mile-high Rockies with fiberglass blades strapped to her feet were exactly his for wandering aimlessly through the desert. Granted, she chose the path of exhilaration, but she got him. She fucking
got him
.

“Why did you say yes to me?” The question—or perhaps her answer—carried an importance he didn’t care to examine.

She looked at her drink and started stirring the hell out of it. “Might have been the ultimatum.”

He reached out and closed his hand over hers, ceasing her motion. “That wasn’t it.”

Her eyes had a little brush with panic, and he almost felt bad. But almost didn’t cut it.

“Come on, Colorado. There had to be a reason.”

She shrugged. Tried to play it off with a nervous smile. “You know what they say about Vegas.”

He choked back a humorless laugh. “I know good little girls don’t give a damn what they say about Vegas.”

“Well, I guess it’s convenient I’m not here on good behavior.”

His hand still covered hers, so he knew she practically shook with the effort to spit out the words. But it didn’t matter. Sweet little Ellie Montgomery from Colorado had given him a chance.

The jury was still out on whether he was dumb enough to take it.

Chapter Three

Ellie figured the Masquerade Hotel and Casino was a standout, even for Vegas. If New Orleans and an Anywhere, USA amusement park carousel had a baby, the Masquerade, in all of its striped pole and beaded glory, would be it. The façade would have been gaudy absolutely anywhere else in the world, but somehow the flags and enormous colored balls were right at home on the effusive Vegas strip.

She turned a circle on the sidewalk, which might have been more crowded with people after one in the morning than it had been at the more reasonable hour of sixish when her taxi eased down the strip en route from the airport. Traffic was surprisingly light, even at the earlier hour, but cabs were plentiful, and she imagined designated drivers were few and far between. Designated
walkers
, on the other hand, weren’t a thing at all. One such reveler compounded his gravity problem with a loud, terribly off-key rendition of “Let it Go” to a companion whose expression indicated she had no such intention. In his voracity, he threw out his arms, lost his balance, and almost took down Ellie despite the berth she’d given him.

But Jax was there. He made an effortless one arm save that drew her tight against his body and left her breathless in a way that had nothing to do with the near miss. Could he
be
more gorgeous? He’d shed the formal wear in favor of jeans and a T-shirt, the latter in a soft blue that made his eyes lethal in their intensity. Looking up at them now, it was no wonder he’d been collecting appreciative glances like they were dropped casino chips.

“Thanks,” she muttered. But in her head, it sounded more like
don’t let go
. The man was
ermahgerd
hot, and while she’d always preferred her mile-high existence in the Rocky Mountains, there was definitely something to be said for what the Nevada desert had to offer. She couldn’t forget what he’d said to her, nor could she shake the thrilling promise of his words. No man had ever spoken to her in such a way. Before Jax, she would have said it would be a total turnoff, but now she craved more.

“Are you sure you want to walk the strip?” he asked with a quiet laugh.

Right after you show me what those fingers can do
. But she didn’t dare say it. Despite her absolute craving for Jax, she really didn’t do casual sex…yet she couldn’t be more tempted. It had to be Vegas. Excitement and energy thrummed from every neon pore of the city and made her feel alive. Reckless. “Yep,” she said of the walk. “It was the first thing I wanted to do when I got here, but I figured I wouldn’t get the chance.”

He raised his brow and gave her a curious, if amused, look. “I thought Pretty Boy was the first thing you wanted to do when you got here.”

She flushed hot and fervently prayed he’d chalk it up to the neon ambiance. Ignoring his statement—and the evidence to the contrary, seeing as how she’d turned down Mr. Focker’s invitation for a private party—she said, “I didn’t think it would be a good idea to walk alone at night, but I see
alone
isn’t a thing here.”

Jax had barely eased his rescue grip. “Alone is definitely a thing here,” he said, “but there are always plenty of witnesses to it.”

She forced herself to take a step back.
Oxygen
. There had to be oxygen somewhere out of his orbit, but heaven only knew how far that extended. She hadn’t been able to take her eyes off of him all night. It almost irritated her that her years of adoring her book hero had culminated in her standing there feeling awkward while he held her for the book cover photo op. Rather than melting in his arms, she was focused on Jax. Wanting to get back to him. Hoping he meant what he said about taking her out. He’d been right about Focker. The man seemed nice enough, but his fingernails were prettier than hers, and he apparently didn’t know Colorado was part of the United States. Two turnoffs too many.

Jax took a sideways step to avoid a group of women with legs down to
there
and dresses up to
here
. To his credit, he didn’t so much as glance their way. The lump in her throat festered.

Wolverine likes you
.

In dodging the women, he closed that little bit of distance between she and Jax, but instead of standing there stealing air, he turned and in one smooth motion managed to snag her hand and lead her through a crowd waiting for a bus. Her heart stuttered at the gesture. Five seconds in, she’d bet her palm was soaked and with his fingers laced through hers, he probably felt every drop.

“Is this crowd every night?” she asked. “Or is this a Thursday thing?”

“There’s not a Thursday thing,” he said. “Not on this section of the boulevard.”

“Not because of the convention?”

“The convention is a drop in the bucket.” He gestured to the wall of lights that stretched from the Stratosphere to Mandalay Bay. “Figure there are over a hundred and twenty thousand hotel rooms, then throw in some double occupancy and a bachelor party or ten, and you’ve got business as usual.”

“On a Thursday?” she squeaked. Though they now had their pocket of sidewalk to themselves, he still held her hand.

He laughed. “People don’t come here to care what day it is. I take it you’ve never been here before?”

“No. Never wanted to.”

“Well, in that case I guess I owe Pretty Boy a cold one.”

So did she, but try as she might she couldn’t seem to remember the face that graced almost every romance novel she owned. Jax would probably have that effect on anyone, but the concession didn’t stop guilt from tapping at her conscience. If Jax had been on a book cover next to Focker, she’d have chosen Jax, hands down. She wanted to tell him as much, but to her own mind the confession sounded more like backpedaling than sincerity. It wasn’t enough in her own mind that she’d chosen Jax. His words had rocked her to the core. The truth of that scared her as much as it intrigued her, but the bottom line was the same: she wanted more. She wanted
him
. But now that they were away from the closely guarded Focker affair, she was a little nervous. A little shy.

“You know a lot about the city,” she said instead.

“It’s part of the job.”

She blinked. “Keeping a running count of the number of hotel rooms is part of the job?”

“Not exactly,” he said, “but knowing my surroundings is. Vegas lends itself to statistics. People like to memorize every random detail. I guess they feel less like they’ll lose their shirts that way.”

“What about you?” she asked. “You ever lose your shirt?”

He dragged his free hand across his abdomen, showing off the promise of washboard abs, and grinned. “Not anywhere I couldn’t find it again later.”

Something in his tone absolutely suggested sex. Either that, or her mind had gone straight to the gutter, which wasn’t a hard sell considering the number of sex ads they’d passed in a single block.

She forced away unbidden images of Jax with his perfect body sweaty and tangled in sheets.
Her
sheets. “So you just memorize facts?”

“Nah. I have a good memory, and working security isn’t always the most entertaining job so I tend to read whatever’s handy. On the floor, I have to stay alert. But guarding a door on the off chance someone beautiful will surprise me gives me some down time.”

Yeah, that was her again, but…
beautiful
? She shivered, and his grip on her hand tightened. “Why does Will—Mr. Focker need a bodyguard?”

“You mean besides all those screaming women?”

Her face heated…again. “Yeah, besides that.”

“He’s had some pretty specific threats for this event. Social media makes it a little too easy to get to someone, so we have no way of knowing if they’re credible or just some husband sitting at home pissed off that his wife is here soaking her panties over some other guy.”

“So you take it seriously until you know otherwise?”

“Exactly. Only you never really know otherwise. Could be a prank or a genuine threat from someone who lost the balls to follow through.”

She grimaced at his candor. “Which is a good thing.”

“Yeah, that’s a good thing.”

His so-called good thing still sounded terrifying. “Does your family worry about you doing this job? Is it like secret service, where you’re supposed to take the bullet first?”

His eyes darkened, but his tone remained casual. “I’d fling myself on the attacker before the bullet, but yeah, there’s less of a guarantee that I’ll see tomorrow than the next guy.”

“Your mother must be sick.” Ellie was, and she didn’t even know Jax.

“If she is,” he said, “it’s not over me. She hasn’t spoken to me in a long time. Neither has my father.”

Ouch. And yet she forged on. “Do you have any siblings?”

Did a shadow cross his face, or was it the play of neon? It was hard to tell, especially in a place that was the visual equivalent of being inside a pinball machine. “One. A sister.”

“Does she live here?”

“Nope.” The flat, one-word answer should have told her to leave it alone, but she didn’t.

“Do you talk to her?” Ellie persisted.

“Every goddamn day,” he bit out.

Alrighty then. Shadows not imagined. “Do you get along?”

He crammed his hand in his pocket. A muscle in his jaw flexed. “We did until she died.”

The blunt truth cut right through her. “Oh, no, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s been a few years,” he said, more wistful now. “I still miss her. I talk to her to keep her close. I don’t want to…forget.”

Ellie blinked back unexpected emotion. That a big, tough guy like Jax would do something so sweet and sentimental set her back a few notches. Suddenly all the physical attraction edged into new territory.

“Have you ever played the slots?” he asked.

The sudden change of subject came with a forced-sounding lighter tone. She took it. “Never.”

He led her into the nearest doorway. Like every other one they passed, it led to a football-field-sized room lit almost entirely by slot machines, approximately half of which were occupied.

After one in the morning. On a Thursday. Or Friday. Whatever.

He pulled a couple of singles from his pocket and fed the nearest machine, then gestured for her to sit.
Eight credits,
the machine read. “Where’s the handle?” she asked.

“Back in the nineteen nineties,” he said. “There are a few old school coin slots around somewhere, I’m sure, but most everything is computerized now.”

“Can’t they, I don’t know, tell the computer not to let you win?”

“Not if they don’t want to be shut down. There’s a minimum required payout per machine. Slots aren’t the best way to make a killing, and ultimately the house always wins, but it’s not rigged so you can’t walk away with a few bucks.” He leaned down over her shoulder. His scent encompassed her like a cloak. Or a duvet. She could crawl beneath one of those any minute now, especially if it smelled like him. Pointing, he said, “Those are your credits. Quarter slot, two bucks, so eight credits. You choose how many credits to play, then hit the button.”

She studied the machine. It looked a lot more complicated than he made it out to be. “How many credits should I play?”

“Any number you want, but the more credits you play, the faster the money is gone.”

“So I just hit this button?” When he nodded, she pressed the blinking light and set the pictures in motion. When they stopped, she was down to seven credits. “That was surprisingly undramatic,” she said.

“Try it again.” His voice reverberated so close to her ear that she felt it to her toes. She didn’t really care when she ended up another credit down. Then another. When the machine flashed on her fourth spin, she thought it must have been her overloaded senses screaming jackpot over the man who practically had his arms around her, but then the man in question pointed to her number of credits.

“You’re up to a hundred and twenty four,” he explained.

She turned her head only to lose her breath when she found he was even closer than she’d thought. “What does that mean?”

He tipped his head just enough to make her anticipate a kiss that didn’t come. Instead, he offered a boyish grin that had her thinking of very adult things. “You just won about thirty bucks,” he said. “Which means if you stop now, you’ll have achieved the impossible.”

“What’s that?”

“First time gambling, you won Vegas.”

God, the man melted her. But he was wrong. “Not quite.”

The corner of his mouth quirked. “What do you mean?”

“My first win wasn’t here,” she said. “It was back at the Masquerade. Door number two.”

BOOK: Gambling on the Bodyguard
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