Sadie lowered her gaze, staring down at the colorful piles of chips on the table. But the man’s image had burned itself into her retinas. Though his frowning stare had unnerved her, she had to admit that his looks were mesmerizing. Everything about him left one overwhelming impression: big, tough, and more than a little dangerous. The deep navy suit and white open-necked shirt accentuated his tanned, rugged features, as did his black hair and heavy five o’clock shadow. A gorgeous specimen. Gorgeous, but scary.
Then again, casino security agents were supposed to look scary, weren’t they?
Lifting her head, she braved another peek at him, letting her gaze run over his brawny chest and broad shoulders. Then she returned to those hard eyes and almost fell off her stool. They were still relentlessly fixed on her, and still making her as edgy as hell.
She sucked in a shaky breath, her head spinning both from the effect of the alcohol and that unnerving inspection. “I need to get out of here, Cass. Not just away from this table. I mean right out of the casino.”
Cassie looked dumbfounded. “What are you talking about? We’ve just started to play. Is that guy the problem? If it’s bothering you that much, I’ll go tell him to back the hell off.”
Sadie quickly shook her head. “Please, no more drama tonight. I’m not sure what’s wrong. I just feel really uncomfortable all of a sudden.” She swiped the back of her hand across her brow, surprised at the perspiration beading on her forehead despite the near-frigid temperature of the casino. “You stay, okay? I need to go up to my room for a while.”
“You sure? You want me to come with you?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll rendezvous with you later.” Sadie grabbed her drink, scooped up her small stack of chips and gave Cassie an air kiss.
Unfortunately, the shortest route to the elevators ran directly past Mr. Scary Security Man. She gave a quick thought to walking straight up to the guy and telling him to lay off the surveillance, just like Cassie had threatened to do. But that idea, along with her courage, disappeared in the time it took to process it. No. Better to steer completely clear of him tonight and hope not to see him again.
By the time she reached the main aisle, a quick glance to her left told her he hadn’t moved. But at least he wasn’t still looking straight at her. She turned to her right. Going in that direction meant she’d have to practically circle the casino floor. Just what she needed—extended navigating in her skyscraper boots. But so be it. She needed to get back to her room, calm down, and remind herself why she was here in the first place.
As she stumbled along, trying to keep her balance, she belatedly realized that she should have left her drink back at the roulette table. She did not need another accident—or more alcohol, for that matter.
Spotting a casino waitress serving drinks at a nearby Pai Gow poker table, Sadie pivoted to head in that direction. The last thing she felt before becoming airborne was a small tug on her spike heel as it caught in the carpet. Then she crashed head first into the poker table. Her drink sailed out of her hand as she landed heavily onto the hard surface.
She didn’t move right away, so dazed she barely realized what had happened.
A shocked female screech blasted out from somewhere behind her. “What the hell?”
“Holy shit, lady!” another voice lashed out. “You just screwed the best hand I had all night!”
Sadie’s stomach gave a sickening lurch at the man’s nasty tone. With her face buried in a pile of chips and her butt sticking up in the air, she was too stunned to fully comprehend the profanity-laced invective hurled her way. While nothing felt broken except her pride, her thighs throbbed where they’d made a bruising impact with the edge of the table.
She groaned, not just with the blossoming pain but with the humiliating realization that she’d made an ass of herself again. If only a chandelier would land on her head and knock her senseless, she would be happy. But no such luck. She knew she had to get up and apologize to…well, to everyone in sight. Maybe to the whole damn world.
Wedging her hands underneath her chest, she began to push herself up when a pair of very big, very strong hands clamped around her hips and lifted her backward off the table. Those same hands then set her carefully on her feet. She shoved the hair out of her eyes and gave a horrified squeak at what lay before her. The table was a disaster, with cards and chips flung haphazardly. Her drink had smashed, scattering booze, ice cubes and shards of glass over the chip tray and onto the poor dealer. Brushing himself off, the young man glared at her with undisguised contempt.
Upright now, Sadie carefully turned around to thank whoever it was who had helped her off the table.
She must have looked like a wide-mouth bass as her gaze met the obsidian eyes of Mr. Scary Security Man. Stomach lurching—this time all the way into her throat—she had to bite her lip to keep from letting out a groan of dismay.
“Are you all right?” he asked through clenched teeth.
His deep voice, as dark and menacing as the rest of him, shot a ripple of anxiety along her already over-taxed nerves. She had just enough of her wits left to notice him scanning her body from head to foot.
Dropping her gaze to the floor, she struggled to compose a dignified reply. Then she dredged up a smile and forced herself to look at him.
“It would seem so, thank you. I suspect I’ll be rather sore tomorrow, but apparently no lasting harm has been done.” She glanced back at the chaos she’d left in her wake. Players were collecting their chips and leaving the table in a huff. “Other than possibly ruining the surface of a card table and destroying some winning hands. But I suppose I shouldn’t minimize that.”
She tried to straighten out her rumpled shirt, noticing how his eyes followed her hands as she smoothed the fabric over the top of her jeans.
“Ma’am, I’m with casino security,” he said in a calm voice. “Please come with me.”
Without waiting for her reply, he grasped her wrist in one of his big hands. His touch was firm but not harsh, and Sadie felt a surprising and unfamiliar jolt as warm fingers closed around her bare skin. Not fear. This was something...well, she didn’t know what it was, but it still made her nervous.
Now that she’d declared her lack of injury, his eyes had reverted back to chips of black ice. She caught herself wondering what they might look like if something lit them and turned them to burning embers. He’d probably resemble Lucifer himself.
“I simply tripped, for heaven’s sake.” Sadie shook out of his grip, wincing at the shrill tone to her voice. But she didn’t want to spend a second more with this man than she had to.
His mouth thinned into a brutal line. “I can’t detain you, ma’am, but I can remove you from the Desert Oasis Casino. Not just for tonight, but permanently. You might prefer the option of talking to me for a few minutes.”
Cassie rushed up to her, breathless. “Sadie, are you okay? I heard the crash, but I didn’t know it was you till one of the waitresses told me.”
She gave Cassie a shaky smile. “I’ll live. Just a pair of bruised thighs and a whole lot of bruised pride.”
The security man began to look both annoyed and impatient. “Ma’am, please. Come with me.”
Darn it. There was obviously no point in arguing with the pig-headed brute. Better to get it over with than cause yet another scene.
“All right, Sheriff, lead on,” she replied, ladling on the sarcasm. “Do your worst. I’m ready.”
He shot her a look of sheer disdain and waved her in front of him.
“Hey, wait a minute! Just where do you think you’re taking her?” Cassie demanded. “Who the hell are you to treat my friend like that?”
“Casino security, ma’am. I’m simply taking her for questioning. It shouldn’t take too long. But the longer we stand here, the longer it’ll be.”
Cassie planted her feet like a prizefighter, ready to deck him if need be. “I’m going with her. I’m not letting her go off with you alone.”
The security man fixed Cassie with the coldest stare Sadie had ever seen and, sure enough, her friend bristled with outrage. She had to get the situation under control before Cassie wound up getting herself in big trouble, too. “It’s okay, Cass. I can handle this. I’ll catch up to you as soon as the law here is done with me.”
The big man switched his glare to her and then gave a sharp nod. “As I said, follow me.” He turned and strode off at a rapid pace.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she burst out, exasperated by his mental density. “Sheriff, it appears necessary to remind you that I’ve been having a certain degree of difficulty with this footwear. I really could use some assistance. Or would you prefer to have to hoist me off a card table again?”
The man stopped and turned as gracefully as a panther. A big, terrifying panther. Cassie was right—the brute was undeniably handsome, in a dark, rugged, and altogether intimidating way.
“Sorry,” he said, sounding genuinely apologetic. “You’re right. I should have thought about that. Here, ma’am, take my arm.”
Sadie almost fell over, yet again. Where had that gentlemanly behavior suddenly come from? Cautiously slipping her hand into the crook of his arm, she encountered an impressively hard set of arm muscles. They flexed beneath her fingers and her edgy feeling returned. This time down low in her belly and between her thighs.
As he led her away, Sadie couldn’t help but wonder what kind of trouble she’d stumbled into this time.
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