EXCERPT: CHAPTER ONE
The slot machine whirred. Three bright streaks of red, blue, and orange whizzed past. Kelli took a sharp breath and held it, watching as the first cylinder dropped into place with a clang: an orange on the top row, a plum in the center, cherries below. Three chances to win.
A split second later came another clang; another plum in the center. The third cylinder continued its mad spin. Could it be? Another plum? Three plums and she'd win--
With a final clang, a cluster of red cherries popped into the slot next to the plums. The slot machine froze into metallic stillness.
Kelli sighed. No wonder they called it a one-armed bandit. In five seconds she'd lost three quarters--a third of tomorrow's lunch money.
Oh well, she thought with a small shrug. Fortunes like mine come and go. She didn't drive all the way from Seattle to South Lake Tahoe to gamble, anyway. She came to watch over her brother's vacation home in its last three weeks of construction and to get in some skiing--a few days of glorious downhill on some of Lake Tahoe's finest slopes. And of course there was the job interview in San Francisco.
Kelli slid up onto the stool next to the slot machine and straightened the calf-length skirt of her white silk evening dress. Last summer, she thought with amusement, if someone had told her she'd be sitting in a casino lobby on a Friday night in early December, waiting for a man she barely knew--a man who might be her next employer--to escort her to an exclusive party on the hotel's top floor, she wouldn't have believed it.
If she hadn't acted so impulsively, hadn't let her temper get the best of her, she'd still be working away at the ad agency in Seattle. But in the past year she'd experienced a rash of compulsions to do the boldest, most brazen things. Like the time she accepted her brother Kyle's dare and took over the controls of his twin-engine Bonanza over Puget Sound. Crazy! And the morning, six months ago, when she asked Wayne to pack up his things and move out, then told her boss of four years to go fly a kite and stormed out the office door without a backward glance. Madness! Her actions had shocked everyone-including herself.
It was only later, in the ensuing weeks on her own, that she'd come to understand her motivation. For twenty-eight years she'd allowed well-meaning parents and sisters and then a domineering boyfriend to influence her every move. Afraid of losing her job, she'd kept silent while higher-ups stole her best design work and claimed it as their own. All the while her resentment had simmered, until finally she'd blown her stack.
Life, she'd come to realize--like the ad slogan she'd helped to create--life is not a spectator sport. Never again would she calmly sit back, letting people manipulate and take advantage of her. She was going to be in the driver's seat from now on.
She hadn't wasted any time getting her new life in order. Out from under Wayne's judgmental eye, she felt more capable, more attractive. She had a slender figure, a face that men seemed to notice, and wavy, shoulder-length, reddish-gold hair that her hairdresser envied. The world was overflowing with limitless, exciting possibilities, and she was going to enjoy every minute of it.
She had immediately indulged herself in all the things Wayne would have disapproved of. She bought clothes that were beautiful, not practical, ate take-out Chinese food five nights in a row, and went to see movies she liked-all comedies and romances without a single too-macho hero or blast of machine-gun fire. She'd felt terrific, like a new woman, like a caged sparrow at last set free.
She decided not to work for another agency and tried free-lance advertising instead. Within a few months she'd built up a small but steady clientele and was enjoying herself immensely. She loved being her own boss, reporting to no one, allowing her creative energies to have free reign.
The only problem was money. Business was undependable--too busy one week and quiet the next. When Bob Dawson called from San Francisco, he caught her in a weak moment. She'd just gone over her bank statement, and had been forced to admit that her earnings barely covered her living expenses and her savings would be gone in another month.
Bob had seen her design work on a recent, award-winning campaign, and had tracked her down. He'd been so profuse with his compliments that when he asked her to come down for an interview, she couldn't say no. She had to be at Lake Tahoe for three weeks anyway, to watch over her brother's house, so she agreed to stop off in the city to meet him on the way.
Remembering her meeting two days before in Bob's office made her frown.
"Your artwork and design show remarkable versatility," Bob had said, bracing tense fingers on the immaculate expanse of desktop between them. "I've been looking for someone like you to take over when our creative director leaves next month. We've got an exciting campaign coming up for Cassera's Hotel and Casino, one of our largest accounts, and I'd like you to work on it."
She'd been amazed by the generous salary he offered-even more amazed when he invited her to the party tonight to meet Ted Lazar, the casino's general manager. It was an excellent professional opportunity, the dream position she'd been working toward for six long years. She hadn't liked Bob at first, but he'd turned out to be polite and charming. She ought to have accepted the job in a flash. Instead, she'd told him she needed time to think it over.
Why was she hesitating?
People in jeans and ski jackets streamed in through the double glass doors at the casino's nearby side entrance, bringing in laughter, a blast of cold air, and a flurry of snowflakes. Kelli checked her watch again. Nine o'clock.
Bob was an hour late. What could be keeping him? What if he never showed up?
This is ridiculous, Kelli decided. Go on up to the party and let him join you.
She slid off the stool and hurried past the slot-machine area, around the corner to the hotel elevators. A bell announced the impending arrival of the closest elevator and she stopped in front of it. The doors hissed open and she took a purposeful step forward. At the same instant a man propelled himself out, and they collided with an impact that sent Kelli staggering backward. She uttered a startled cry just as hands grabbed her arms to steady her, and she found herself eye to eye with the lapel of a charcoal-grey suit.
"Excuse me," said a deep voice.
He took a step sideways, away from the elevator and the other departing passengers. She looked up, still numb with surprise, into a face that was handsome even though its dark brows were drawn together in a distracted scowl. He looked a few years older than she was; thirty, maybe thirty-two. He had a straight nose, a determined set to his jaw, a wide mouth that was pressed together in a tight line. His short, wavy hair gleamed almost black beneath the overhead lights.
The survey took only a fraction of an instant. He stood just inches away, still gripping her arms with his head tilted down to hers, so that despite his height, she couldn't help but stare directly into his eyes. They were a rich, vibrant blue, like the Tahoe sky, surrounded by thick, dark lashes; quick, intelligent eyes, which at this moment sparked with irritation. Despite this--for some inexplicable reason--she felt a sudden, wild fluttering inside her--a feeling of momentous, impending change.
"Fate," she thought, and realized, too late, that she'd said it out loud.
He released her arms. His scowl vanished and his eyes lit with interest and a surprising warmth. "What?"
She cleared her throat. "Nothing."
"I thought you said fate."
"No, I said...late."
"I'm...late," she said. "For a very important...date."
His lips twitched with amusement. "Curiouser and curiouser."
She realized she'd babbled a line straight out of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and he'd responded in kind. She blushed. "I'm sorry I rammed into you. I shouldn't have been in such a hurry."
"My fault." He waved away her apology. "I wasn't in the world's best mood, or I would have watched where--" In a single, rapid glance he took in her formal attire, and a speculative gleam came into his eyes. "You wouldn't by any chance be going to the party upstairs, would you? The one on the top floor?"
"Well--yes, I am."
"And you're on the list? They're expecting you?"
"I think so."
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment. "Listen, would you..." He checked his watch and a perturbed look flitted across his face. "I know this is an imposition, but...can I ask you a favor? I'm supposed to meet someone at that party, but it looks like he forgot to leave my name at the door. No one gets in if they're not on the list, and they've got Attila the Hun guarding the door. I've come up all the way from San Francisco and I'm not going to leave now."
"So, you want me to...what?" Kelli asked, a spark of excitement surging through her. "Smuggle you in? Pretend you're my date?"
He nodded, his eyes searching her face. "Would you?"
"I don't know. Who are you supposed to meet?"
"The casino general manager?" she asked. He nodded. The very man Bob wanted her to meet tonight. "What's it about?"
"Business." He waved his hand impatiently. "It's too complicated to go into. But the timing on this thing is critical, and it's getting late. I want to get in there before Ted decides to take off."
Kelli wondered how much of his story was true. Business, he'd said. How vague was that? But she saw no threat in his anxious, blue gaze. Instinct told her she could trust him. And the element of intrigue...well, intrigued her.
The elevator touched down again and a handful of people in party dress spewed out. "Well?" he asked, gesturing toward the waiting lift.
Life is not a spectator sport, Kelli thought. This was the most interesting, attractive man she'd met in years. A smile lit her face. "Sure," she said. "Why not?" And she stepped lightly into the empty elevator in front of him.