What do you do with your life if you peaked at age 12? If you're Annie Raye, numbers whiz and former Black Jack champion, you try to be like everyone else, with a normal job, forgetting your past. Which would be fine if you hadn't married an embezzler and had to start all over in a new town applying for a new job and needed to pass a background check conducted by a tall, sexy stranger who doesn't realize you're no trouble at all.
Heat level: medium.
Sam pulled a hot dog from the warming rack at the 7/11 across the street from Slotto, feeling pretty damn good about the morning.
“You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, buster,” a woman said next to him. Sam had been called much worse than buster by more threatening babes, but this taunt threw him for a loop. The woman looked like a petite Swedish school teacher come to punish him for being bad. Short ruffled blond hair, boring well-filled out suit, plenty of leg, pearls around her neck. Just the right combination of good girl sex appeal.
Sam turned his back on her and filled a soda cup with ice.
She sidled up next to him, invading his personal space, whispering as if what she had to say was for his ears only. “You’re a disgrace to…to…the private investigator profession…and men in general.”Wait a minute. He remembered seeing her in the reception area of Slotto. “Lady – ”
“My name is Annie Raye. Ring any bells?”
She was sexier than he’d expected, the kind of woman who was hot and didn’t know it. He disliked her all over again. “How did you…? What are you…?” Smooth, Knight. He filled his cup with Pepsi.
Annie looked him up and down. “You deep-sixed my background check and I want to know why.”
Normally, he was polished with the ladies, in control, on top…or whatever position suited him. But that was before Iraq. “I don’t have to explain anything to you.”
She glared at him. Given her Hilary Clinton suit, she probably thought men could actually ignore her well proportioned body and take her seriously. “How long did it take you to do my background check? A week? A day?”
He wasn’t going to admit fifteen minutes. But it had been one of the most enjoyable fifteen minutes he’d spent in a long time.
“That’s what I thought. You should spend more time getting the answers right. Now, call up Carl Nunes and let’s straighten this mess out.” She may look like an angel, but she was psycho.
“You didn’t pass the screen,” Sam said lamely. What was wrong with him? He tried to sound firm. “There is no recount, no redo, no make goods. Not for embezzlers.”
“My husband…” Her cheeks lost some of their color. “My ex-husband is the crook. I was booked on suspicion but no charges were ever filed against me. There’s no reason Slotto shouldn’t hire me.” Annie glowered at him, but the look was ruined by the bedroom huskiness of her voice. “In fact, it’s illegal for you to even use that information against me.”
“It’s illegal in California, but we’re much more lenient in Nevada, sweetheart.”
She made a huffing noise. “That’s not a good enough reason.”
“How about this? Your father is a professional gambler and probably a petty crook who’s never been caught scamming tourists.” There was no way Annie Raye could work in any field even remotely connected to gambling when her father made his less than successful living playing cards.
“Slotto doesn’t want to hire my dad.” She pushed out her pink lower lip, plump and tempting.
Annie Raye represented everything a man wanted. Indignant blue eyes, sunny blonde hair and a cute little figure all wrapped up in that virginal package that said home cooking and flowered sheets. But her spunk let a man know the possibilities on those rose petals were endless. No wonder Carl Nunes had been fooled. She may have been on Sam’s things-to-avoid list, but Annie couldn’t put one over on him.
He finally came to his senses and headed to the cashier.
Annie lacked the bravado to stand in his way, but she doggedly trailed after him. “I packed everything I own in my car and drove here this morning. And do you know why?”
“No, and I don’t care. Go peddle your resume somewhere else. I need breakfast.”
“A hot dog and a soda? No wonder you look like a truck ran you over.”
His hot dog was no longer hot. Wearily Sam turned back to her. “You might get better results explaining all this to Carl or a reporter. Maybe Slotto is the type of company who’d hire you just to escape some bad press. Of course, you’d have to be willing to bare your soul and your past to God and everyone. But hey, Vegas loves gamblers, right?” He found himself caught in her vivid blue gaze. There was more than anger in her eyes. There was fear as well.Sam may not have discovered all the skeletons in Annie Raye’s closet.
The Story Behind the Story
Have you ever seen Oceans 11? Or 12? Or 13? After I saw the first Oceans movie, I wondered about those people. Had they always had that kind of skill? Even as a child?
And so Annie was born to a man who loved to gamble. And wouldn't you know? Little Annie had a knack for math, including counting cards (which involves remembering which cards have been played so you can increase your odds of winning the next hand or so - considered by casinos to be "cheating"). And of course, Annie's father got into trouble with Annie trying to use her to help him win money, which turned out badly for everyone. Years later, when Annie is trying to rebuild her life after a divorce, I wondered what would happen if she has to move back in with her father? And now she's got a little girl of her own with a knack for math...
I had to teach myself how to count cards to write this book and let me tell you - Vegas has nothing to worry about! I am easily distracted.
And because I like a little comedy to balance some of my characters' more tragic backstories, I created a hero who faints when he gets near children. It evens out the balance of power between the h/h. He gets to cocky and Annie's daughter enters his line of vision. Ooops!
Cover buzz: Speaking of cards, Harlequin was reluctant to depict a card game on the cover, although they did compromise and have the little girl playing.