All posts by K D Grace

In Pursuit of Mr. Sands: Part 1 of a KDG Consortium Story

Happy Monday, my Lovelies! After last week’s final instalment of The Bet, I didn’t want to leave you bereft of a bit of Monday morning reading candy.  I’ve been in pursuit of Mr. Sands for quite some time now, and somehow he always manages to elude me. Just recently he made another titillating appearance, only to lead me on a merry chase. I lost him in North Africa somewhere and ended up recovering in Delphi, where I met up with some unexpected acquaintances. (More on that to come. )Never mind. There are worse places to end up, and I’m sure Mr. Sands will raise his oh so fascinating head again when I least expect him.

But for now, this is the story of my first vicarious encounter with Mr. Sands. It is also an introduction to the equally intriguing PI, Elise North. I hope you enjoy her account.

 

 

In Pursuit of Mr. Sands Part 1: Choosing an Inflight Meal

I followed him at a safe distance. He was fast tracked through passport control at Heathrow, as was I, and neither of us had luggage. He was my job. I wasn’t about to lose him. Once through customs and in the arrivals hall, he made his way to the first class lounge, where he got himself a coffee, and I did the same, discreetly watching him watch the woman who was ushered in by one of the first class flight attendants, who settled her into a booth and ordered her up a full English breakfast. The woman looked dazed, and her hands shook with her first bite of food.

She had good reason to be shaky, and she had good reason to be half-starved. I knew exactly what the attendant was explaining to her in hushed whispers, and so did he. He was the reason for her weakened condition. The flight attendant knew that and so did I. The thing is no one knew that I knew.

My name is Elise North. I’m a PI. At least that’s what Magda Gardener calls me, and that’s what my business card says – the one I almost never hand out. Most of the time I work under cover, and my ID changes with the job. I don’t carry a gun. It would hardly do me any good with my clients. I work on cases that need a delicate hand. I do, however, own a silver-tipped stake … more of a stiletto actually, but I know how to use it. I’m athletic, I’m fast and well trained in martial arts because, in a field as specialized as mine, if things ever go south, about the best I can hope for is to escape and run like hell. None of those skills, however, are the reason Magda Gardener hired me. I have other gifts, gifts that in the kinds of circles Magda and her people run in, are highly coveted.

Those particular gifts are the reason I was just off the night flight from New York’s JFK to London Heathrow after paying an enormous sum of money to sit across from Daniel Emerson Sands in first class. Before we were even off the runway at JFK, all the flight attendants made time to pay the man homage. A big name celebrity couldn’t have drawn more solicitous, yet quiet attention. Each one, whether male or female, approached him with a fan girl flutter of excitement. I observed the flush in the cheeks, the quickening of the pulse in throats, in temples, the moistening of lips with a flick of the tongue, the acceleration in the breath.

He kissed the fingers of the female attendants, so delicately caught up in his strong grip. Each of the male attendants he offered a warm handshake, then a clasp of the shoulder as they bent forward, almost as though they were about to share a secret … or a kiss. It came as no surprise to me that each attendant responded with a little gasp and then a grunt and a shudder of the body that would have been almost undetectable to someone less observant. Neither did it come as a surprise that with each encounter, Daniel Sands inhaled deeply and sighed as though he had just past a bakery with an open door. What also came as no surprise, and yet I still found disturbing, was the frisson of fear that accompanied the ritual. Each attendant came to Sands eager and willing, but fear was as much a part of the formula as lust. They all knew what he was. If they didn’t, he couldn’t do what he does on this flight … repeatedly.

While we taxied and took off, Daniel Sands sat quietly perusing a complimentary copy of The New York Times as though he were any other passenger in transit just wanting the journey to be over with and to arrive safely at his destination. But I knew better. I’ve known better since Magda Gardener assigned me to follow him, to learn all about him that I could. But even without the information she had given me on the man, I would have known exactly what he was the second I sat down across from him. Daniel Emerson Sands is an incubus, a particularly powerful one, and one Magda Gardener has set her eyes on. It’s a very dangerous thing to have Magda Gardener sets her eyes on you. Mr. Sands had no idea he was up against a master huntress. All he wanted was his special in-flight meal service.

The flight attendants and the woman at check-in, and all the others that Sands had contact with before boarding, they were nothing more than nibbles, appetisers, if you will. There were only seven of us in first class, but just one would be his chosen main course. As with all his inflight meals, she was upgraded from economy. I stood behind her in the line at check-in, I watched while Mr. Sands subtly bumped into her all apologetic for being so careless. I watched the way he rested a solicitous hand at the small of her back to steady her so she wouldn’t fall. I watched the way he smiled at her. I watched, and I knew from my research, that she was the one, that she would have a visit in the dream world she’d be very unlikely to forget. And she would wake up weakened and confused. But oh, the dreams. She would revisit the dreams for the rest of her life.

 

The Bet Part 5: Last Instalment of a KDG Scribe Story

Hi my Lovelies! And welcome to the fifth and final instalment of  The Bet, which is one of several in a series of Scribe stories that I’ll be sharing within the next few months. The Bet is set in an exclusive Vegas casino that deals in very unusual bets. Our boy Michael is about to learn the hard way that the lines between winning and losing are not always as clear-cut as they seem.

As you’re reading The Bet, I invite you to guess the identities of Magda and Mr. Graves, who owns buried pleasures. Enjoy the story.

If you missed last week’s instalment of The Bet, you can catch up here:  https://kdgrace.co.uk/blog/the-bet-part-4-a-kdg-scribe-story/

If you’ve just arrived at my blog and have missed the earlier episodes of The Bet,  you can find the beginning here: https://kdgrace.co.uk/blog/the-bet-a-kdg-scribe-story/

 

 

The Bet Part 5: When the Time Comes I’ll Remind You

“Yes. He comes for everyone.” She smiled up at Graves. “But more than likely when it’s your time he’ll just invite you back to Buried Pleasures for one last bet before you take the boat across the river.”

“The boat across the river.”

“A bit more elegant than being shoved in a hole in the ground to rot, don’t you think?”

“And my innocence? How can I possibly give you that?”

“You already have, Michael. If you’re lucky the symptoms will come upon you gradually, but occasionally, they can all come at once and thoroughly kick you in the ass, like a really bad case of the flu, only worse.”

“I’ve never had the flu,” he said.

“Something else to look forward to then, I suppose.”

There had never been much color in Michael’s face, but what little there was leached away with each passing second. The face that had somehow seemed carved from warm alabaster now was no less beautiful, but showed signs of exhaustion, regret, understanding even, all overlaid by bone-crushing fear. No help was coming from above, of that he was certain. What he would never again be certain of was whether there would be retribution. But then that was part of the human condition as well, wasn’t it? He stared down at his hands. “I don’t feel so well. Do you think I’m getting the flu already?”

“It’s just human frailty, Michael. Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.”

“Is it always like this?”

“I suspect so, but then I’ve never been human, so I can only guess.”

That didn’t seem to surprise him too much. “Are you like, his angel?” he asked nodding up to Graves.

She smiled. “Interesting thought, but no. I suppose you could say I’m here to collect debts.”

“ And Mr. Graves owes you?”

“Not Graves so much. His brother does, though, big time.”

“But I don’t owe anything,” he said, looking back down at his hands.

“Oh you will. Eventually you will.” She leaned forward, very close to him, the tresses of her hair slithering and writhing. For the first time, she allowed him to see her true form, but she kept the glasses pressed tightly against the bridge of her nose. With his immortality laid aside, he was now so very fragile. She didn’t want to hurt him. She was not his enemy. In fact, she was just what he would need one day. She spoke softly, a near whisper against his ear, only a breath away from the desperate hammering of his pulse setting a cadence, which she felt up through her spine. The life force there was so sweet, so finite, exposed as it had never been before. “When that time comes, when you’re wondering how you’ll ever pay those debts, you’ll be needing an ally.”

It spoke of how frightened he already was that her little reveal elicited only a raised eyebrow and a catch of breath, recognition of what shouldn’t exist. But then what shouldn’t exist could hardly be much of a challenge for an ex angel.

“So now you’ll kill me, was that the plan all along?” He asked watching her hair warily.

“Of course that’s not the plan.” She didn’t bother to tell him what the plan was, and when he didn’t ask, she figured he had enough to take onboard at the moment. Shock made everything else fuzzy and distant, that much she remembered very well. It offered comfort in the cataclysm of change, always the place where one longed to linger when faced with the true consequences of loss and anguish. It would depart far sooner than he’d be ready. She was happy to let him linger awhile. It wouldn’t hurt.

He sat looking like a man who was lost, which was exactly what he was. “What do I do now?” he asked at last.

She shrugged. Now wasn’t really her concern. “Go home to your lover, I suppose. It’s up to you. Do whatever you want.”

When he still didn’t move, she asked, “do you have a place to stay? Is your lover in Vegas with you?”

He looked up at her as though he’d only just realized she was there, and didn’t know what to make of her. Oh he was an impetuous lad, she thought.

“Your lover doesn’t know that you’ve done this?”

He blinked as though the light in the casino had become too much for his eyes. “No, I’m here alone. All alone.”

“But you did this with your lover in mind?”

He only nodded, still blinking.

“What a nice surprise it’ll be then.”

When the thundering of his pulse grew to a rapid staccato, she said softly. “At least you hope it will be.”

He swallowed hard, as though he were trying not to vomit.

“Can I drop you at your hotel, maybe?” She asked.

“Hotel? I didn’t think about that. I flew here.”

“With your angel wings, yes I know, and now you can’t get back without a plane ticket or a car. I suppose you don’t drive though, do you?”

His lack of response was response enough. Shell shock didn’t begin to cover it, she was certain. Knocking over a teetering stack of chips, she reached out and stroked his arm. “Who you are now depends entirely on you and your decisions, Michael. Well, that and everything that happens to you from now on. Loss of innocence is as much about having no one who can protect you or make decisions for you as it is about being naked. It’s all up to you.” She lifted her head toward the ceiling. “No more control from upstairs.”

When his breathing became so rapid that she feared he’d hyperventilate, she shoved several stacks of chips in his direction. “Here, This’ll pay for a hotel room for a couple of nights, some clothes that halfway fit and a plane ticket back to wherever your lover is. Then you can make a plan, get a job, get used to your new life.”

When the only movement was still the jerking of his pulse, she stood and offered him her hand. “Come on, I’ll help you get settled in, help you learn the ropes.”

“Thank you. I didn’t think. I didn’t have a plan. I guess … I thought it would be different somehow.” His voice trailed off and his hand, clenched tightly around hers, was icy cold.

“It’s all right. One can hardly know what to expect at times like these.” She motioned him toward the exit. “Transitions are never easy.” As they turned to leave, she caught Jack Graves’ eye and gave him a nod, which he returned with a slight inclination of his head. “You’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of you, Michael, but you’ll be all right. Don’t worry.”

“Thank you.” His reply was slightly breathless. “I won’t forget how you helped me.”

She offered him an easy half smile and allowed the glasses to slip ever so slightly. “Of course you’ll forget. But don’t you worry, when the time comes, I’ll remind you.”

The Bet Part 4: A KDG Scribe Story

Hi my Lovelies! And welcome to the Fourth instalment of  The Bet, which is one of several in a series of Scribe stories that I’ll be sharing within the next few months. The Bet is set in an exclusive Vegas casino that deals in very unusual bets. Our boy Michael is about to learn the hard way that the lines between winning and losing are not always as clear-cut as they seem.

As you’re reading The Bet, I invite you to guess the identities of Magda and Mr. Graves, who owns buried pleasures. Enjoy the story.

If you missed last week’s instalment of The Bet, you can catch up here: https://kdgrace.co.uk/blog/the-bet-part-3-a-kdg-scribe-story/

If you’ve just arrived at my blog and have missed the earlier episodes of The Bet,  you can find the beginning here: https://kdgrace.co.uk/blog/the-bet-a-kdg-scribe-story/

 

 

The Bet Part 4: If You Lose, You Get What You Came For

He blinked, then blinked again. “What? You think because of what I am, I’m innocent?”

“Oh I know you are.”

This time, he did look away, but not before she saw the desperation drawn tight across his face. When he spoke it was little more than a whisper. Anyone else might have missed it, but Magda never missed anything. “I have a lover, and it’s … well it’s complicated.” He drew a shaky breath and struggled to meet her gaze again. “I’m … I have no innocence to bet.”

She managed not to laugh this time. She understood innocence well enough to be just a little bit empathetic, but she would allow herself only that little bit. Empathy was not her strong suit. She tried hard not to sound condescending, not when this was the moment she’d been waiting for, the moment that the true wager would happen. “You think having a lover, having sex means you’re not innocent? The leaving of Eden wasn’t predicated upon two people having sex, was it?”

When he didn’t answer, she continued. “Being naked and understanding that we really are naked and alone in our own skin, that’s what leaving Eden is all about, and you, my dear Michael, are nowhere near naked yet.”

“What about you?” He raked her with a look that was anything but sexual, and yet he blushed. “You’re not naked, are you?”

She finished the whisky in a quick gulp and ordered another with a nod of her head. “I cover myself, like all of us who were forced from Eden, hoping no one will notice just how naked I really am. Though I probably needn’t worry. Everyone else is too concerned about covering their own nakedness to notice mine.”

The fine muscles along his jaw tensed and relaxed. He clenched a fist on the top of the table. “And you want to see me naked?”

“It isn’t about me seeing you naked. It’s about you seeing yourself that way. You waltz in here out-glitzing a Vegas showgirl all clothed in your shiny immortality and the protection of your maker and expect to get what you want by just losing a few hands of poker.” When he opened his mouth to protest, she pointed to her Ray-Bans. “Oh I see a lot more than most, Michael, and the owner of this place, well if anything he sees even more than I do. Hell, you might as well have your maker’s signature stamped across your forehead. You’re not fooling anyone but yourself, and the gods, well they like it that way just fine. But if you want to play the game in Buried Pleasures, you place your bet. Otherwise, don’t waste my time.”

He sat for a long moment studying her as though she were trying to trick him. He needn’t have worried. There were no tricks at Buried Pleasures, and everyone there ended up as naked and exposed as everyone else. Well, everyone but her and Jack Graves, but they’d both paid their dues a long time ago. They both knew that the breath of eternity blowing in your face always smells of death.

“And if I lose?” His gaze darted from her to the deck of sealed cards then to Graves standing with his arms crossed looking down on them from the mezzanine.

“If you lose, you get what you came for.” She nodded up to Graves. “He’ll sort the details with your maker and then you’re all his.”

“Wait a minute.” Michael shot another glance at Graves. “He’s not …”

This time she didn’t even try not to laugh. “Of course he’s not Satan. Granted, I suppose the storm tunnels might be mistaken for hell, what with the scorpions and the rats, but it suits Graves. He’s the only one who deals in mortality, and that is what you want, isn’t it, to be finite, to have a beginning and an end, to be a real boy?”

He bit his lower lip and gave a barely perceptible nod. Then he glanced over at the dealer as though he were afraid she might rat him out to his boss. Magda couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for him.

“Then trust me, this is the only place you have any chance of that happening. You are sure that’s what you want?” She quirked her head to the dealer, who gave him a questioning look.

“More than I’ve ever wanted anything,” he whispered blinking back emotion.

“And consequences be damned?”

He nodded his response as though he had suddenly lost the power of speech. Then he motioned to the dealer. She opened the deck and shuffled. Michael carefully took each card dealt him as though he feared one of them might explode. She watched him rather than her own cards. The last few seconds of eternity was something she’d never seen on anyone’s face before. While this might have been exactly what Michael had wanted, she could almost taste his fear. Before he could turn over his last card, she placed her hand over his. “It’s not too late to change your mind. I’ll completely understand if you want to back out, and so will Mr. Graves.”

“I won’t … change my mind.” He tried to pull his hand free, but she held it. “Once it’s done, it’s done. There’s no going back. You know that?”

“I understand.” He took a deep breath and pulled free.

It only took one hand. One hand and the angel, Michael, lost spectacularly. Then Magda sat back and watched him change. Oh there were no feathers dropping to the floor from the wings that no one could see, no tinkle of a golden halo hitting the marble beside his chair. There was no crash of thunder or strike of lightening, no roaring voice from heaven and no flaming sword guarding the way back to paradise. His hands shook a little as he pushed the mountain of chips to Magda’s side of the table. He sank back into his chair in a motion that was more one of a weight settling than a weight being lifted. Magda knew the difference very well. A thin sheen of sweat broke on his high forehead and slowly his attention shifted to Graves, who only smiled down at him and lifted a glass in salute. At last he found his voice. “He’ll come for me now?”

 

The Bet Part 3: A KDG Scribe Story

Hi my Lovelies! And welcome to the third instalment of  The Bet, which is one of several in a series of Scribe stories. The Bet is set in an exclusive Vegas casino that deals in very unusual bets. Our boy Michael is about to learn the hard way that the lines between winning and losing are not always as clear-cut as they seem.

As you’re reading The Bet, I invite you to guess the identities of Magda and Mr. Graves, who owns buried pleasures. Enjoy the story.

If you missed last week’s instalment of The Bet, you can catch up here: https://kdgrace.co.uk/blog/the-bet-part-2-a-kdg-scribe-story/

 

The Bet Part 3: What I Want is Your Innocence

“Look Michael,” she scooted back to her chair and examined her manicure, “what I’ve lost, it’s no big deal to me. For me this really is just a game, something I do for entertainment when I’m bored. The owner and I are old friends, so from time to time he allows me play with the guests.” She nodded to the bustle of the casino awash in the bells of slot machines and the hiss and flutter of cards all muffled in the mutter and buzz of the guests. “There are plenty of other people I could play with, some even more desperate than you are, which makes the game all the more intriguing.” She patted the back of his hand, “Or perhaps I’ll just go out and enjoy Vegas. Unlike you, I find the city fascinating. So if you want me to keep playing, you’ll have to make it worth my while.”

He licked his lips and blew out a heavy breath in a gesture she’d have expected from a desperate loser, not a winner. Then he glanced around as though he expected to find a solution to his problems in some other part of the casino he’d not yet been to. “This is all I have. I don’t own anything else.”

This time she didn’t even try to disguise the predator within. She tossed back the rest of her champagne and ignored the ribbon from her hair as it slid off onto the floor. Then she slapped down the glass, her gaze never leaving his. She had to hand it to him, he didn’t look away. He didn’t even flinch. “Oh I know you don’t own anything. But that,” she waved a hand over the pile of chips, “that’s not all you have. Come on Michael, use your imagination, entice me.”

The colour rose to his pale face, and he sputtered. “What, you mean like … sex?”

She rolled her eyes, a gesture he missed what with her glasses in the way. “I said use your imagination.” She made a point of looking him over until he squirmed and blushed like an adolescent. Then she inhaled the hot iron scent of his nervousness, of his desperation, a scent so familiar in the plush halls of Buried Pleasures, a scent ever present in spite of all the perfume and deodorant and shower gel attempts to make the losing and the winning more comfortable. But on Michael, the smell of desperation was mouthwatering with its added sharp edged, thunderstorm bouquet stimulated by a new experience with which he wasn’t at all comfortable. “While you are pretty easy on the eye, I have no way of knowing how good you are in bed, and frankly, I don’t have to gamble for good sex if I want it. Besides, don’t you think that’s a bit cliché?”

He blushed even harder.

“Look, you wouldn’t be in Buried Pleasures if you weren’t desperate, if you weren’t willing to risk everything, and this,” another wave at the table, “you being my sex slave, none of that has anything to do with what you came here for, or what you’ve got to lose. So come on, Michael, make it worth my while or I’ll find someone who will.”

“I’ll bet my wings.” He blurted out, and then quickly glanced around to make sure no one was listening. No one was. In Buried Pleasures, no one cared.

This time Magda laughed outright. “Your wings? Seriously.”

“Yes! My wings.” He glanced around again and then leaned far over the table speaking between barely parted lips. “I know you may not believe it, but I’m –”

She all but snorted as a cocktail waitress delivered her a whisky and one for Michael, which he hadn’t ordered. “I know what you are, and so does he.” She nodded back to the owner. “Frankly, I’m a little surprised he let you in at all. He’s a live and let live sort of guy, Mr. Graves, and he usually doesn’t poach on anyone else’s territory.”

“What? Is he afraid God will strike him dead?”

She huffed out a laugh. “The gods don’t worry him much. But still, he doesn’t like to ruffle feathers if he can avoid it. He plays the long game, you know.”

“Well then if he knows what I am, and if he has no problem with it …”

She waved a dismissive hand. “Honestly, Michael, what the hell am I going to do with your wings? Sell them on eBay?”

His face reddened again. “I was thinking more along the line of Sotheby’s.”

“Oh please! You think some trophy hunter is going to mount them on the wall? Oh you are big game, I suppose. But angels giving up their wings is at least as cliché as people betting their bodies for sex in Vegas casinos. Wings are nothing. Wings don’t make you who you are. Wings are just the cherry on the top.”

This time he buried his face in his hands and shook his head. She waited for it, waited as though she had all the time in the world. At last, he squared his shoulders in the too tight jacked, sucked in a heavy breath and met her gaze, way better than most would have. She liked that about him. “All right. Then you tell me. What do you want?”

She leaned in toward those stunning blue eyes, letting the Ray-Bans slip again and the hair fall in a mad cascade all but brushing the pile of chips. She leaned forward until he squirmed in his little chair and grabbed onto the table with a crushing grip, but he didn’t look away. “Unlike Mr. Graves, I don’t mind poaching at all. What I want, Michael, is you’re innocence. If I win, it’s mine. If I lose, you go back to where you belong and accept your fate.”

 

The Bet Part 2: A KDG Scribe Story

Hi my Lovelies! And welcome to the second instalment of  The Bet, which is one of several in a series of Scribe stories. The Bet is set in an exclusive Vegas casino that deals in very unusual bets. Our boy Michael is about to learn the hard way that the lines between winning and losing are not always as clear-cut as they seem.

If you missed last week’s instalment of The Bet, you can catch up here: https://kdgrace.co.uk/blog/the-bet-a-kdg-scribe-story/

 

 

The Bet Part 2: Never at Any Point A Fair Exchange

“Must be beginner’s luck.” She spread yet another losing hand onto the table, studying him from behind her dark glasses. “Looks like the guy upstairs might just be giving you the edge.” She shoved the pile of chips his way.

The jerk at the corner of his mouth could in no way be misconstrued for a smile. “The guy upstairs never gives anyone the edge.”

Michael had arrived at Buried Pleasures with nothing more than his name on the guest list, and the house had covered him in accordance with what he was willing to gamble. They were generous that way when someone was willing to go for broke. Buried Pleasures was happy to deal in unusual bets. No one was allowed in unless they were willing to risk it all, and Jack Graves always knew who was willing to take that chance. Michael confirmed Magda’s suspicions when he bet everything in the first hand. He wasn’t there for the adrenaline rush. He just wanted it to be over with. She, on the other hand, liked to linger over a good game, especially when she knew just how delectable the pay-off would be.

He proceeded to win hand after hand, becoming more agitated the more chips he raked in. At Magda’s request, a waitress brought over a bottle of Moet and Chandon and two glasses. She didn’t ask him if he wanted any, she just nodded to the waitress who poured. “A toast to winning big,” she said, lifting her glass and watching his response over the top of her Ray-Bans.

He took it cautiously and sipped, as though he feared she might have slipped him a roofie. “I don’t drink,” he said with a blush, but he finished the glass in a single gulp anyway. She smiled to herself. She could have bought the cheap stuff for all it mattered to him, but it mattered to her. Besides she could afford it, and anyway, Graves didn’t stock the cheap stuff. She refilled his glass and nodded back to the cards. By now it was clear that for Michael it would be a test of endurance, a test of how badly he wanted what he thought he wanted. The old saying was never truer than it was for those who came to gamble at Buried Pleasures. Be careful what you ask for. You might just get it. But the truth was, Magda didn’t care if he really wanted what he thought he did. She only cared that he got it.

When he pushed all of his chips into the center of the table and nodded to the dealer, it was clear that what Michael wanted was to lose, big time, and Magda was about to find out just how much he was willing to risk. She offered him her best predatory smile. As her Ray-Bans slid down her nose just a smidge, she had the satisfaction of watching him shudder and grab onto the edge of the table as though he feared he might fall off the chair. It did her heart good to know even his kind were just as susceptible to her special brand of magic as anyone else. “All right,” she said stretching back languidly in her chair as though she had just awakened from the most delicious nap, “I suppose I’m up for one more hand.” The tension drained from Michael’s broad shoulders as though he had just received a stay of execution. He had no idea, she thought.

He pulled a full house and cursed under his breath as she shoved the mountain of chips back in his direction. If Magda didn’t know better, she’d almost think there was some divine providence at play, for Michael’s own protection, of course. While he might be punished for his actions, for the results of accepting Graves’ invitation, he’d already gotten all the outside help he was likely to get.

From the corner of her eye, she could see Graves, in his regular uniform of bespoke black, watching with interest. Oh he wasn’t concerned that Michael was cheating. No one cheated at Buried Pleasures. It was simply that allowing Michael in, allowing Michael to bet, put the casino, and its owner, in uncharted waters. Very few of the punters had connections as weighty as Michael’s, though a hand full of priest and religious nutters, along with the usual smattering of filthy rich, thought they did.

Without so much as a pause, Michael shoved all the chips back into the center of the table. But this time Magda shook her head. “I’m going to quit while I’m behind. Why don’t you go cash in and enjoy Vegas.” She nodded to the chips. “You certainly can afford to. Hell,” she added with a little chuckle, “you could buy half of Sin City with what you just won, then retire and sit back and enjoy yourself.”

“I can’t retire,” he said.

She knew he couldn’t, but there was just enough cruelty in her nature to want him to squirm a little bit, to want him to sweat over the possibility that he might just fail in his mission.

His mouth was a thin line and his square super-hero jaw looked like it might have been carved from granite. “Don’t you want to win back what you’ve lost?”

She heaved a sigh that sounded like it had taken a lot of effort and toyed with a long strand of hair, which had escaped containment from the black ribbon that held the rest of her tresses in check. “I don’t want to lose any more.” At her response, his shoulders looked as though they would split the seams of the jacket.

“If you don’t have anything to bet, I’ll spot you,” he said and started to push half the chips back at her.

Magda raised a hand to stop him. “It’s not that I don’t have anything to bet,” she let her shades slip again, and he grabbed at the edge of the table and gasped as though he were suddenly falling. From her peripheral vision, she caught Grave’s frown. He didn’t appreciate her toying with the clientele. She turned just a tiny bit and smiled up at him giving her glasses a gentle push back up the bridge of her nose. Then she focused her attention once again on Michael. “It’s just that this game has become boring, darling, what with you winning every hand.” She gave him an evil smile, and nodded up to Graves. “One could get the impression that you’re cheating.”

He ran a hand through dark hair in need of a cut and tugged at the collar of the white polo shirt he’d buttoned all the way up to the corded muscles along his throat. “I’m not cheating. Honestly I’ve never even played poker until tonight. Surely you know I’m not cheating.”

She drummed her mauve nails mutely on the felt tabletop. “That may be, but how do I know that you’re not some sort of savant or a card counter? That’s against the rules, you know. If you get caught.”

“I’m not! I’m not either one of those, honestly. I don’t want to … I’m not trying to … cheat.”

The poor guy. As much as she loved toying with her victims, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. She shoved her hair over her shoulders; the ribbon had all but lost control of the heavy locks, and she leaned across the table, nearly into his personal space. He moved back as far as he could in a chair that barely contained him. He was a big boy, and yet he was uncomfortable in her presence. That was to be expected, but she figured he’d be uncomfortable in just about anyone’s presence. Poor shy lad. Still, she was sure he would do what he had to. She was counting on it. “Michael, darling, let me give you just a little bit of advice. You don’t mind, do you?”

He blinked dark blue eyes, looked for a second as though he might protest, and then only shook his head.

She didn’t sit back. In fact she slid into the chair next to him watching the hammer of the pulse in his throat speed up at her nearness. It was the usual response from prey to predators, but there was so much more going on here than just a shy boy being uncomfortable in the presence of a beautiful woman. She shoved his shaggy hair away from his ear and his eyelids fluttered. His whole body went rigid as she whispered, “what you need to understand about gambling, Michael, is that while there is an exchange, never at any point is that exchange fair. Consensual, yes, but never fair. And sooner or later, everyone loses.”

He squared his shoulders and with the kind of effort she’d seen often in the very shy, met her gaze. “That’s what I’m counting on.”

And there it was, the truth of the matter she’d known from the beginning, the implications of which he could not possibly comprehend. At least not just yet.