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HIgh Stakes

Chapter 1

Left or right.

Like the flip of a coin, it really had boiled down to chance.

Mixers & Elixirs.

Chance McCoy thought it was a clever enough name for the event put on after hours at the Houston Museum of Natural History. He’d only heard about it the day before, and what better last hurrah before returning to two weeks on an oil rig than drinking beer and admiring pretty women in pretty dresses?

He’d done the meandering around thing, finally making his way to the second level, since the band on the first floor playing 80’s pop music hadn’t really done it for him. At the top of the stairs, he’d paused for exactly half a second before coming to a decision.

Left or right.

Left were the wildlife exhibits, which had always fascinated Chance as a kid. It would have been his first choice, if not for the quartet of admirable pairs of legs that had just exited the ladies’ room. Normally, that too would have been his first choice, but he had little desire to play eeny, meeny, miny, moe tonight. It was a delicate dance, focusing on the woman who held most of your interest while charming her friends just enough to keep from being cock-blocked.

At least those mascaraed and eye-shadowed gazes looked him up and down appreciatively enough to let him know that he cleaned up quite nicely.

If they had been just a wee bit closer, they would have seen the wear and tear. There was the tiniest bit of grime under his fingernails that he couldn’t quite get out, short of a bona fide manicure, which was not happening for various reasons. He also carried with him the slight residue of unfinished re-acclimation into polite society. Two weeks in the testosterone-driven stronghold that was his day-job didn’t rinse off all that easily.

But Chance had always been a chameleon. Thanks to his unconventional upbringing, he could kick back with the goodest and ole’est of good ole’ boys, or sip champagne with the creamiest of the crème de la crème. So the comfortable t-shirts and worn-out jeans had been replaced with a decent, black dress shirt and a nicer pair of jeans.

All the same, those four subtle nods of approval put a nice little bounce in his step when he swiveled right instead, straight into the gems and minerals exhibit.

That’s when he saw her.

It didn’t matter that her back was to him, something about those straight shoulders drew him in. The dress was one of those halter-back deals that left plenty of flawless skin on display. Her shoulders formed a perfectly horizontal line, not too wide or too narrow. Just perfect.

She was standing in front of a display, rigid as a statue. Chance made his way over toward those smooth, brown shoulders. There wasn’t the faintest movement on her part; whatever she was absorbed in held her captive.

As he came in closer, he had a strong feeling that just maybe his luck was about to change.

About damn time.

Chance came around until he could see her in profile: full lips that held the promise of a brilliant smile, but were now slightly parted in awe; a small, round chin that stuck out almost stubbornly; a pointed, round-tipped nose that was overshadowed by the very pronounced cheekbone he had a glimpse of; long lashes that framed eyes that gradually slanted into something approaching almond-shaped.

She didn’t even register him in her periphery, which gave him pause. He certainly didn’t want to interrupt her intense concentration on—he shifted his gaze to the object of her focus—the large purple geode in front of her. One look at that shoulder, which had a rich, warm glow even in the darkness of the room snapped him right out of that lapse in judgment.

“Amazing isn’t it?”

She jumped in surprise, turning to him with all her internal bells and whistles going off at once.

“Oh my God!” she gasped, placing a hand to her heart.

Chance’s brain instinctively went to work.

The body’s physical reaction to all forms of surprise was pretty much the same, whether it was the thrill of winning the lottery, or the shock of running into a grizzly bear during a nature hike. The sensory receptacles all opened up at once, absorbing data to send to the brain at lightning speed: dilated pupils set in eyes that opened wide; flared nostrils; lips parted to form a semblance of an O; ears perked up and alert. Even the blood vessels expanded, allowing for that rapid flow to and from the heart, which would be pumping double-time in an adrenaline-fueled rush.

Interpreting these signals was practically second nature to Chance. It was a perfect cliché, but he could literally read people like a book.

It was what came next that Chance was most interested in.

The human body was also quick to recover from that initial shock, once the brain determined whether the surprise was appreciated or not.

The “not” would be obvious to all but the most blind observer as the body closed in on itself: the brow crinkling; lips pursed or pressed in a straight line; eyes narrowing or looking elsewhere; arms folded over the chest. Taken together, they might as well have been a neon sign flashing: CLOSED FOR BUSINESS.

Fortunately, her open mouth breathed out a small, relieved laugh. That was the first good sign. The rest of her face remained open, taking him in with acute interest. Those pupils stayed dilated behind lashes that subconsciously blinked prettily. The nose flared once again, inhaling those pheromones. Her body subtly twisted his way, letting Chance have a better look at her.

Then that smile appeared. Oh, that smile. It was the kind that took over the entire bottom half of her face, revealing her teeth all the way to the gum line. Chance had always been a sucker for exaggerated smiles like this, which came so naturally to some women.

“Sorry, you just scared me,” she breathed, giving him another small laugh. She had a nice voice, feminine with a slice of huskiness to it that was like that splash of Tabasco sauce in a Bloody Mary.

Her slim hand came to rest against her chest and Chance could practically feel her heart beating underneath it himself. A sudden premonition hit him that one day it would be his hand feeling that lub-dub, lub-dub underneath his palm. It made his own heart beat a little bit faster.

Cool it, Chance. The last thing he needed right now was to get seriously involved with a woman. His circumstances were complicated enough.

“It seems I’m the one who should be doing the apologizing. I didn’t mean to interrupt your concentration.” He nodded toward the large geode on display.

Her eyes followed his. “Oh, that. It’s just fascinating, isn’t it?”

“I agree. Something that looks so ordinary and even a bit rough on the outside. Most people wouldn’t look twice at it. Then you crack it open and your mind is completely blown by the wonders inside.”

The slight comparisons to himself weren’t an accident. In fact, they were subtle hints in her direction.

She gave a light laugh again, before pressing her lips back together as though she was self-conscious about her smile. “Actually, I was just trying to find patterns in it.”

“Patterns?”

She pointed one delicate finger at the glass. Her nails were short and perfectly shaped, with black nail polish. Definitely no grime underneath those nails. In fact, everything about her, from the hair twisted in some intricate knot at the nape of her neck, to the sleek heels she wore, signaled sophistication.

“I was just wondering if there was a reason why one crystal should be bigger or darker than the one next to it. Is it a matter of how close it is to the hollow center? Is it determined by how the geode rests on the ground? Gravity? The heat from the sun? Air? Water?”

“Maybe it’s just a random act of nature?” he offered, now truly interested. The conversation had taken a turn he hadn’t expected, but he was fascinated all the same.

“Random hardly ever happens in nature. Usually, if you search hard enough, you can find a reason and rationale for everything.”

“Is that so?” he replied with a grin.

She looked over at him and immediately matched his grin with one of her own, this time a little more restrained, now that she was in control of herself. Still, it was another good sign. “Trust me, I’m an expert.”

“Is that so?” he added, chuckling.

She gave another one of those femininely husky laughs. “Before you start trying anything on me, I should let you know I’m here on a date with someone.”

“Me? I’m just admiring not so random acts of nature.”

Now those gorgeous lips were twisted in a smirk. “Well, I suppose I should move out of the way, and let you observe the geode unobstructed.”

Chance moved one slight step closer to her, noting how her face and body remained open in response. She leaned back a bit, but her feet stayed in place. All very good signs.

“Who says I’m talkin’ ‘bout the geode?” he said in a playfully exaggerated drawl.

This time that slightly raspy laugh was deeper, as she twisted her head down in a bashful, but flirtatious way. Then she shifted her gaze to face him with a subtle uptick of one eyebrow. “He’ll be back any moment now.”

She probably wasn’t even fully conscious of the challenge her voice and expression held. But Chance was more than happy to pick up the gauntlet.

“Now what sort of man is crazy enough to leave a woman like you all alone, even for a moment? I feel it’s only right that I do him a favor by keeping you company so no man tries to step in and start making the moves on you.”

This time, she couldn’t keep the smile from her face. “You’re awfully bold.”

“Well, as you said, there’s a reason and a rationale for everything in nature,” he replied, raising an eyebrow with his own challenge.

Her body language was very OPEN FOR BUSINESS. Chance almost felt bad for her date. Then again, it couldn’t be going all that swell if the woman in front of him was so amenable to other suitors.

“What am I supposed to tell him when he comes back and you’re standing here flirting with me?”

“We’re just two people who happen to be admiring the same thing,” he said, letting his eyes wander down her body to clue her in on exactly what display he was admiring.

Her eyes responded in kind, though less blatantly: a quick scan of the goods, an even quicker dart in another direction, all while she tried to hide her smile.

Now he was curious about this date of hers. “Was this place your idea or his?”

“Hmm?” she asked, her eyes widening in surprise at the change in topic. “Oh, mine. I love the museum. Especially the butterfly center.”

“butterfly center,” he echoed.

“Mm-hmm,” she said nodding and returning her gaze to the geode. “I escape there practically every—”

She instantly stopped talking and flashed her eyes back to him, as though she had almost said something she shouldn’t have.

Chance’s smile assured her it was already too late.

The lips that were pressed firmly together did a poor job of hiding her pleasure. The eyes that fell to the floor demurely, and the dimple forming in one cheek told him that she had no problem with him maybe knowing too much of her business.

Before he could proceed they were interrupted by the “someone” she was here on a date with.

“Red wine, as requested,” said the voice, a little too adamantly.

“Someone” was a man who was quite a few inches short of Chance’s 6’3”. He was a bit softer under that, admittedly, much more impressive suit and tie. His dark hair, styled and coifed, was a perfect contrast to Chance’s finger-raked, dark blond hair, which grew a little too far past his collar. “Someone” wasn’t unattractive, Chance would give him that much, but there was an undercurrent of desperation and petulance Chance didn’t much care for.

He shifted his gaze to watch her reaction to the reappearance of her date. Her body signals were practically flashing neon signs as the wineglass was presented to her: perfunctory smile (the teeth and gum line were noticeably absent), a single blink that lasted just a bit too long, eyes that were just a bit too bright, the slight sigh, the body that remained facing in Chance’s direction.

Sorry pal, she’s taken.

Now all Chance had to do was figure out how to make that a reality.

He held up a finger to the man. “Actually, if you could just give us one minute. I was this close to getting this gorgeous woman’s name.”

“Her name is, here-on-a-date-with-someone-else, pal.”

“Hmm, that seems like a mouthful,” he grinned at her. “If I were you, I’d think seriously about changing it to something a bit…easier on the lips.”

The twitch of her mouth told Chance that she, one, got the joke and, two, appreciated it. The gleam in those eyes also indicated the reference to his lips—and what he was interested in doing with them—wasn’t lost on her.

Her “someone” most definitely did not appreciate it. He placed the glass holding red wine directly in the line of sight between two of them, following it with his body.

Chance waited, watching, as her lips parted, a heavy inhale preceding….

….a resigned exhale. She diverted her eyes to her “someone,” and that was the end of that.

“Thank you, Simon,” she said, taking the glass.

Chance bowed his head graciously.

“Chance is my name. Long story there. I’d love to tell you about it sometime.”

That got a small smile behind Simon’s back as he gave Chance a hard stare. “Like maybe when she isn’t on a date with another guy?”

Message received.

But Chance was never one to go down that easily. He gave his best conceding smile, making a show of back walking. “Fair enough.”

Then he stopped, his smile becoming a bona fide grin. “But I do have to say, if I was out with a woman who could put most of the gems in this room to shame, I wouldn’t leave her side for one second.”

And there it was, all her sensory receptacles opening up again. One…two…three…

“Juliet,” she said, just as Simon was about to give Chance another what for.

Chance just gave her a grin and a wink, nodding his head at the two of them, then leaving them to it.

Tough luck Simon, she’s definitely taken.

Chapter 2

“It’s gots to be real! It’s gots to be real!”

The words didn’t quite match the lyrics sung by Cheryl Lynn, but Kenny had a way of making each song his own. Despite having raised the level of their bikes to “nine,” a few snickers echoed around the spin class.

As usual, Juliet was at her Saturday morning spin class, which was no surprise should anyone have done a thorough analysis. And Juliet most certainly had.

This specific class, at this specific gym, at this specific time was the deliberate result of a number of factors, each contributing to the probability of her actually attending on a regular basis.

Arranged in order of weighted importance:

  • Proximity to her apartment
  • Proximity to a Starbucks with plenty of seating
  • Specifically being located between said apartment and said Starbucks
  • Likelihood of actually getting a bike without being wait-listed
  • Starting late enough for her to wake up, get ready, and make it to class
  • Starting early enough so she didn’t laze the morning away and eventually decide not to attend
  • Liking the instructor

It was a good thing that the instructor was weighted less heavily than the others, since Juliet normally didn’t care for Kenny’s rather flamboyant way of guiding them through the class.

However, today even Juliet managed a chuckle.

“And release! Back down to two, for a verrrry short recovery!” he yelled in his exuberant way, as You’re the One that I Want from Grease came on. “Okay, everyone…it’s race time! Y’all know what to do! Get them legs pumpin’!”

Juliet took a deep breath and began to pedal faster. It helped that her heart was one step ahead of her the whole time. As she thought about last night’s date, her legs pedaled faster, trying to catch up with her rapidly beating heart.

Sadly, it wasn’t because of Simon.

I got chills, they’re multiplying, and I’m losing control

‘Cause the power you’re supplying, it’s electrifying

Chance.

What a name. A name with a story. A name that had disappeared almost as soon as it had been uttered.

Her legs faltered and her bike shoe snapped out of its lock.

Dammit!

Juliet snapped it back in, and began peddling faster again. As her pace increased, so did her optimism for some reason.

“Okay, now I wanna hear y’all sing along!” Kenny urged as the song got to its chorus. “Get that air into y’all’s lungs!”

You’re the one that I want…

Ooh ooh ooh,” Kenny crooned. “I don’t hear y’all!”

As usual, only a few spinners joined in. Normally, Juliet wouldn’t have joined them in a million years.

Today was different.

You’re the one that I want…

Ooh ooh ooh,” she belted out, earning her a surprised look of respect from Kenny.

“That’s it, girl!”

For some reason that got more people in the class going. By the end of the song, everyone was “Ooh ooh oohing,” and laughing as they raced.

“And….done!” cried Kenny, clapping his hands.

* * *

“What got into you today?” Shayla Sweeny looked at Juliet with an amused smirk as they wiped down their bikes.

After spin class, showering and doing her hair at the gym, Juliet’s next item on the agenda was always a trip to Starbucks, where she put all the calories she had just burned right back on with a grande caramel macchiato. Practically, without fail.

Shayla and she were what they termed “weekend friends.” Months ago they had found themselves standing next to each other in line at Starbucks. After recognizing each other from class, they decided to sit at the only available table together. Now it was their regular Saturday routine.

Juliet just shrugged. “I’m just feeling good, I guess.”

“The date went that well?” Shayla asked raising her eyebrows suggestively.

Juliet just laughed. “Not quite. Long story.”

“Ooh, now I’m really looking forward to my after-spin Starbucks.”

* * *

“And then he just took off?” Shayla asked, sipping her latte.

They were relegated to the patio outside Starbucks, and enjoying it, despite the late summer Houston heat.

Once again, Juliet admired how well her friend put herself back together again after spin class. Her hair was natural, in a cute little afro, so that helped. But the once sweat-drenched, makeup-free face was now like something off the cover of Essence Magazine. She wore a bright orange tank top that showed off her dark skin beautifully, and a fun, colorful print wrap skirt.

Juliet’s typical style was carefully curated, based on plenty of research, for the strongest possibility of attracting the kind of man she wanted…or thought she did. After last night she wasn’t so sure. All the same, she had officially crossed that dreaded threshold firmly into her 30s and she couldn’t afford to take chances with her appearance.

She had washed, blow-dried, and flat ironed her own relaxed hair into something resembling “straight,” down past her shoulders, curling the ends for good measure Her make-up was the usual mascara/eye-liner/lip gloss simplicity she limited herself to. She wore a sleeveless, knee-length sundress in white eyelet fabric that showed off her brown skin perfectly.

“Yeah. Gone, just like that,” she said, shrugging. “But, I don’t know. For some reason it just felt like that wasn’t the end of it.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Shayla said, lifting her sunglasses up on her head. “Is this our Juliet? The one who doesn’t believe in chance, or luck, or fate? Praise Jesus, we’ve finally found a man to convert our little analytical cynic,” she said, falling back in her chair with a laugh.

Juliet just kicked one sandaled foot out at her friend. “Don’t be ridiculous. It was just a fun detour on a so-so date.” She frowned, remembering how disappointing Simon had been. “A really so-so date.”

“And here you are, ooh, ooh, oohing, during spin class.” Shayla leaned in closer to Juliet. “Girl, if you don’t put whatever’s going on with you out into the universe then you don’t deserve this guy.”

Her friend fell back and brought her sunglasses down again. “At least tell me he was hot enough for the spank bank.”

“Shayla!” Juliet yelped with a laugh, nearly spitting out her macchiato.

Shayla just laughed. “Oh come on. Dish! I need something to distract me from the neanderthal waiting back at home for me, no doubt still in his boxers and unshaved face, drinking milk straight out of the carton. And before you say anything, I love him to death despite that.”

Juliet took one look at the ring on Shayla’s finger and felt that familiar pang of envy. At 31, it seemed like Juliet was a walking, talking cliché: smart, attractive, successful, nice…yet no man to show for it.

Not that it should matter. Or so all the magazines, books, and websites had informed her.

Juliet wasn’t desperate for a man, she just felt like she should have met someone she was compatible enough with to marry by now. It was getting to the point where she had to analyze what was wrong with her, and not the men she was dating.

“Well?”

Juliet was brought out of those sobering thoughts and taken back to last night. She recalled the man with the recklessly styled hair, the eyes that sparkled with an interesting hue even in the darkness of the museum, and that killer smile.

“I guess if you took…the voice of Matthew McConaughey, the attitude of that guy from Suits—”

“Gabriel Macht?” Shayla interrupted, leaning in and pushing her glasses back up again. “Now I’m really intrigued.”

“Yeah, but he looks more like a mix of…” she thought about it, “50% Jensen Ackles, definitely in the eyes and mouth, 30% Bradley Cooper around the mouth, and…maybe 20% Paul Walker?”

Shayla stared at her for a beat. “Leave it to you to boil him down to the world’s hottest formulaic equation.”

“It just fits,” Juliet said, the picture of Chance etched so deep into her brain that he might as well have been standing in front of her once again.

“Of course the question still remains….”

Juliet bit, rolling her eyes, even though she damn well knew where Shayla was going. “What?”

“How the hell are you going to run into this Casanova again?”

Now it was Juliet’s turn to fall back into her chair. “I don’t know. All he has is my first name and…”

She recalled the slip-up with the mention of the butterfly center. At the time, she had been appalled at how easily she had revealed her guilty pleasure to a perfect stranger. She often escaped to the butterfly center during the week, which was only a hop, skip and a jump from where she worked at Rice University.

“And what?” Shayla asked idly.

“I mentioned the butterfly center.”

Shayla raised an eyebrow. “Well, there you go.”

Juliet wrinkled her brow. “I didn’t even tell him when or where or—”

“So what?” Shayla sighed and put down her cup. “Juliet, not everyone in the world operates by a perfect analysis of likelihood and probability and whatever else it is that goes on in your brain. Some people just throw caution to the wind and follow their gut.”

Juliet frowned.

“Don’t you dare give me that look. After all, what the hell has eHarmony gotten you so far? You wanna talk odds, how about I bet you that this guy is sitting in that butterfly center right now, damn sure you’ll show up?”

Juliet laughed.

“Laugh all you want, but when I get back from my vacation in two weeks it will be you buying me my latte, girlfriend.”

* * *

Juliet had a membership to the museum. Considering how often she made her way across Main Street from Rice University to the museum on a weekly basis, it made financial sense.

As soon as she entered the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a mostly black butterfly with white streaks landed on her dress. Juliet was thrilled; the butterflies never landed on her.

She made a point to note, not only the species of butterfly itself, but exactly where and when it had landed, what part of the center she was standing in, what lotion and soap she had used earlier today—speaking of scent, did the caramel macchiato play a role?—what time of day it was, how long since she had washed this dress. Did her laundry detergent make a difference? Perhaps it was the fabric of her dress….

“Well, hello there stranger.”

Every bit of analysis in her head evaporated upon hearing that voice.

Juliet turned to see her JensenBradleyPaul hybrid with a Matthew voice and Gabriel attitude strolling toward her. He was dressed in a simple black t-shirt that showed off his admirable build, and a pair of jeans that revealed something even more impressive.

Upon closer reflection, none of those men had anything on this one.

This one was his own man.

Chapter 3

It had been a long shot.

But Chance had lived his life, for the most part successfully, indulging in the occasional long shot.

Something deep inside of him told him that this one would work out. And wouldn’t you know it, the jackpot to end all jackpots had paid out.

With nothing more than a name, a gorgeous face, and an “escape every….” Chance had, no pun intended, taken a chance. Worst case scenario he was out the price of admission. The best case scenario was standing right in front of him. Once again, he thought just maybe his luck was about to change.

“You’re here,” she breathed, as though it was both a complete surprise and 100% expected at the same time.

Maybe not such a long shot after all.

Today, Chance didn’t have to read signals. The fact that Juliet was here was all the confirmation he needed that she was just as interested in him as he was in her. She looked even more beautiful in the daylight that filtered through the glass ceiling of the butterfly center than she had in the dark, muted lighting in the hall of gems and minerals last night.

“I am,” he replied. “I take it Simon didn’t work out?”

She gave that slightly raspy laugh that was beginning to do a heck of a lot more than just appeal to him. “No, he was…let’s just say, much more interesting on paper than in real life.”

“Well, in that case, remind me to burn my papers.”

She laughed again, but before the conversation could progress a large, blue butterfly landed on his shoulder.

“Oh! A Blue Morpho!” she gasped with delight. “I can’t believe it!”

Chance cocked half his mouth up in a grin. “Is this a good thing?”

“They’re my favorite,” she said, cautiously approaching him, her eyes growing wide with wonder as she observed the large black and blue butterfly. Chance accommodated her, not moving a muscle, lest his new wingman fly away.

She stared at it with that same look of concentration she’d held for the geode the night before. That look fascinated him. Usually the people he interacted with were experts at hiding their emotions, maintaining a look of perfect neutrality to keep anyone from reading their minds, or rather, their cards. Juliet’s face was a completely open book, revealing her excitement and interest in whatever it was she was concentrating on at the moment. It was refreshing, and very attractive.

“I always wondered what makes them chose one person or thing over another. People say wearing colors helps, but I always come here in bright colors and…nothing.” She looked down at her white dress, which Chance found extremely bait-worthy, and laughed. “Today, I actually managed to attract something.”

“You certainly did,” he said with a broad grin.

She brought those lashes back up in his direction and fluttered them before laughing again. There was that big smile again, which ended far too quickly as her lips snapped down over her gums and teeth.

“So, Mr. Good-on-Paper didn’t work out? In that case, you’ll be happy to know that I am a high school dropout, who lives in his grandmother’s basement, subsisting on a diet of Cool Ranch Doritos and Red Bull, as I play video games for eight hours straight all day.

She allowed that smile to break through again. “In which case, I should warn you that I am a clingy attention whore, whose favorite pastime will be scrolling through your text message history and poking holes in condoms.”

“A veritable match made in heaven,” he said.

It was a fun little lark, but there was a definite tug at the back of Chance’s mind reminding him that he had plenty of reasons to play it close to the vest when it came to revealing too much about his personal life. He deftly stomped out that nagging little ember and relaxed into the smile Juliet was pointing his way.

“So, now that we’ve established that we are perfect for one another, what shall we do for our second date?”

“Second date, huh?” she inquired, raising an amused eyebrow.

“You’re right, I shouldn’t commandeer another man’s date. How about first and one-quarter date?”

She laughed at that. “I don’t know. We didn’t really get to do much on our ‘first’ date.’”

“Well I suppose we should rectify that oversight.”

“By doing what?” she challenged, raising an eyebrow.

Chance boldly came around to rest an arm on the small of her back and guide her along the path in the butterfly center. He was pleased to note that, after initially stiffening in surprise, she relaxed into the hand that came to rest gently on her hip. “How’s about we just wander and see where the day takes us?”

Juliet looked up at him thoughtfully for a moment, then gave him that brilliant, all-encompassing smile of hers.

“Sure.”

* * *

“So what is your stupid pet trick?”

They were still wandering around the butterfly center at a slow pace. Chance was surprised at how simple and easy it felt, a refreshing change from the rest of his life.

“What?” she asked, laughing in surprise.

“You’re at a kid’s birthday party and someone holds a gun to your head and says, perform. What do you do?”

“Besides, call 911,” she retorted with a laugh. “And probably child protective services, while I’m at it.”

Chance laughed. “Okay, change the gun to a million bucks.”

“Um…I guess…does beating them at blackjack count?”

Chance went rigid and gave her a sharp look.

Her grin faltered at his reaction and he softened his expression, making it perfectly neutral again.

“Or baseball, or anything where numbers or statistics or information is concerned,” she continued. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not Rain Man or anything. Statistics. Odds. Predictions. I’m your gal. I’d probably end up having birthday cake thrown at me for boring the crowd, but there it is.”

“Well, now you’ve got me picturin’ you covered in whipped cream and icing,” he said in a sexy drawl, giving her his best devilish grin.

He could see the positive effect it was having on her, despite her visible reluctance to allow such a risqué line this early on. He felt the tiny ripple of laughter through her ribs and the easy feel of her relaxed body under his hand.

“So, your turn.”

“Reading people,” he said without hesitation.

“Oh?” Juliet replied, cocking her head with a smirk. “And what story am I telling?”

He squinted his eyes as if in thought. “Your smile, for one.”

He watched her instinctively press her lips together, sucking them into her mouth the way she’d done a number of times before.

“There,” he said cocking his chin toward her. “You’re self-conscious about it. You think it’s too broad? Too toothy, maybe? But that’s how I know it’s genuine when I see it,” he said, giving her a considering look. He stopped walking and reached out to hook his finger under her chin and lift her face toward him. “And it’s the most beautiful thing about you.”

Based on her initial reaction, he was right about her issues with it. A smile like hers didn’t go unnoticed, and there were people in the world—usually in the form of childhood tormentors—who lived to dampen others’ flames. Chance planned on doing everything he could to rectify that.

Starting with a kiss.

 

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