From the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, the game continues…
Zelda Wilder is on the run, this time from the ruthless assassins who’ve decided she knows too much to live.
“Playboy Prince” MacCallum Lockwood Tate isn’t about to let the beautiful player who stole his heart get away—if only he could decide whether he wants to save her or strangle her for her dangerous choices.
After tracking her down to a casino in St. Croix, Cal follows Zee back to Tortola where he intends to keep her safe. One problem: Zelda’s criminal liaisons are two steps ahead of her.
Lives are threatened, and all of the players’ skills are tested in this plot to capture a killer and save a princess.
Cinderella meets Ocean's Eleven in this CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE DUET featuring secrets, lies, royal high jinks, scams and double-crosses; breathless, swooning lust, cocky princes, dominant alpha future-kings, and crafty courtiers, who are not always what they seem.
Chapter 1: Old Habits
~ Zelda Wilder ~
My heart is beating too fast. Glancing down, I see my hands tremble, and I take a few measured breaths to try and make them stop.
I’ve never been this anxious on a job, but everything has changed in the last six weeks. Looking over my shoulder has become a nonstop addiction it seems.
For the first time, I’m alone with Seth, just the two of us. Unknown hit men took out our longtime partner Helen, and we don’t even know how long ago it was. The radio report simply said her body was found in a bathtub in a cheap hotel in Miami. A plastic bag was over her head.
Clutching my black purse, again I look over my shoulder. Through the neon lights and arcade noises of the Divi casino in St. Croix, I see men in black blazers dotted among the gamblers. Men with curly earpieces in their ears, men with dark brows lowered over steely eyes, men sweeping the room for any signs of criminal activity.
I do another quick sweep, and I realize I’m looking for Ava. Stop that, Zee. My little sister is far away from this life, and it’s because I chose to distance us. I decided her safety is more important than keeping our family together.
The last time I saw her, she was wounded and pale, unconscious in a hospital bed. It tore at my heart to leave her, but at least I know she’s okay. Thanks to the Internet, I’ve been able to keep up with the “developing story” of the assassination attempt on the future king of Monagasco and the shooting of his fiancée, a.k.a., my sister. Rowan has taken Ava from the hospital to the palace, where she’s recuperating under the watchful eyes of his royal guards.
With a steady exhale, I release the nerves, reminding myself it’s for the best. She’s with the man who loves her, who promised to take care of her. If a crown prince can’t do that, I don’t stand a chance.
Still… it isn’t me.
I’m not watching out for her.
As the oldest, I’ve always had that job. I’ve taken care of us since our parents died, leaving us at the mercy of the foster system. I’ve protected her ever since that last asshole thought he’d try relieving his sexual frustrations on a little girl entrusted to his “care.” It was me who’d bashed him over the head with the lamp, grabbed her hand, and run us out of there.
We’d hidden all night in the pouring rain in a concrete culvert, and I came up with a plan to keep us out of that life for good. Passing the baton to someone else—even a future king—hits me harder than I thought it would. My throat aches at her absence, my chest heavy. Stay safe, Ava-bug.
Tonight is the first time I’ve ever entered a place like this without her. Ava is the only person I can count on in any situation. Every security guard in this room reminds me of how we’ve always been a team. If anything goes wrong, I grab her hand and we run, just like always. We stay alive.
Only, I made the deal that changed everything. I shook hands with the devil.
I could argue I didn’t have a choice. We were facing jail time, felony convictions in Florida for grand theft, and while I’d be willing to take my chances in jail, there’s no way in hell I’m letting Ava go to prison. So yeah. Agreeing to work with Reginald Winchester might make me a “bad guy,” but I’d do it again in heartbeat.
Squaring my shoulders, I slide a lock of jet-brown hair behind my ear and force confidence into my stride. I make my way through the glittering, noisy casino to my target—a shiny brass roulette wheel—and prepare to start the show.
The last time we worked this con in Miami, Helen had been waiting at the table when I got there. I can still hear her gravelly voice and see her “May Contain Alcohol” sweatshirt. Sadness followed closely by fear ricochets through my insides. Whoever killed her is looking for me.
We were on our way to Tortola to hide when Seth said we should stop in here and bank extra cash. As Americans, we don’t need passports in St. Croix, and we can catch a cheap ferry and slip away in the night to our ultimate destination.
Keeping off the radar is the goal—as always. We’ll pocket a few thousand and disappear unnoticed. At least that’s the plan.
“No more bets!” The dealer passes his hand over the wheel just as I arrive, and I quickly assess the table rules. Minimum ten dollar bet. Decent.
Opening my clutch, I remove two hundreds and pass them to the dealer. He quickly exchanges them for twenty pale blue chips. I’ll join the fray next spin.
Tonight the transmitter is hidden in my shoe as opposed to my cuff bracelet. I’m wearing a strappy black dress that stops mid-thigh, and my black heels show off my legs while hiding the device facilitating our winning streak.
I have to sit with my legs crossed and point my toe to activate it. One dainty point, one shiny silver ball drops right in the tray, predictable at ninety percent accuracy. So far the odds have been in our favor.
We’ll play until Seth gives me the signal they’re onto us. Then I’ll calmly cash out, walk away, and meet him at the pier on Grapetree Point. From there we’ll make the forty-mile cruise to Tortola.
An elegantly dressed woman shakes her head and gives me a bitter smile as I sit. “Don’t stay longer than three spins,” she grumbles.
I smile in response. “That’s the rule, isn’t it?”
“That’s the rule.” Her expression tells me she lost a lot tonight.
As a student of casinos, I know how steeply the odds in roulette are stacked in favor of the House—they’re the worst of any game. The longer you sit, the greater your chances of losing, times a million. If I were giving advice to a rookie, I’d say stick to blackjack. At least there you can use strategy and possibly win a little. Walking away is something I learned early on. You can never be afraid to walk away—even when you’re certain you’re lucky. Luck is the biggest liar of all.
I place half my chips on the black rectangle and watch as the wheel begins to spin. The dealer snakes his hand to the side and releases the ball. It flies around the shining wood with a sharp rasp. I need to lose this round. The job doesn’t start until Seth arrives, and I can’t win for longer than a few spins or it’ll look suspicious.
Another glance over my shoulder. He’s still not here. Casting my eyes down, I watch the wheel spinning, black-red, black-red, black-red, flashing brass.
“Have you been here long?” A man in an elegant suit steps into the space beside me and fishes out his wallet as we wait for the ball to drop.
“I just sat down,” I say without making eye contact. I’m not here to make friends.
He passes a crisp one hundred dollar bill to the dealer. “Then we have no way of knowing if it’s a good table.”
“Sorry,” I shake my head. “I play red or black.”
“Not much of a gambler?”
A glance, and I see he’s tall and thick with dark brown hair and a cocky expression like he already knows the answer to his question.
“No,” I say in a discouraging tone.
No, thank you. Even if I hadn’t left my heart in Monagasco, I never let romance interfere with a job. Well, almost never.
“Logan Thomas.” Mr. Persistent sticks a hand at me.
He waits, and I hesitate. Two first names.
“Regina Lampert,” I lie only barely touching his fingers.
“Regina,” he gives me a nod, but that twinkle of knowledge is in his eyes.
A knot forms in my throat. I don’t like this. The ball drops on black seventeen, and a lady at the other end of the table emits a little cheer.
“You won,” Logan’s voice ripples toward me.
The dealer adds more chips to my pile, and I’m ready to hop up and intercept Seth. A swirl of warmth at my side tells me I’m too late.
“Roo-lette!” Seth exclaims in the exaggerated southern accent he reserves for our cons. “Well, I’m as happy as a tornado in a trailer park at this turn of events!” He turns to a man at the table. “You know, I’m a student of Roolette. Only three spins and you’re out.”
Tilting my head so Logan can’t see, I level my blue eyes on Seth’s green ones. As usual, he’s wearing black horn-rimmed glasses.
He ignores my pointed glare, his smile as overblown as his accent. “I hope you don’t mind if I stand right here beside you, Miss—?”
“Lampert,” I say, tightening my jaw. Abort, Seth. Abort!
“Lampert?” He looks up behind me at the big guy getting too close. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that name before. And you are?”
The men shake hands, and Seth shakes his head. “It’s sure nice to meet you. I tell you, I’ve met the nicest people in Saint Crow—Ah, Dealer? I need a hundred in tens.”
The dealer doesn’t even look up as he exchanges Seth’s money, and as soon as the chips are distributed, my partner in crime splits his money on two corner bets. I rotate in my chair so I can cross my legs. He’s sticking to the plan, and my insides are quaking.
Logan Thomas is onto us. Somehow we’ve been detected. I’ve been in this situation before, and it cost us a partner, two if you count Ava.
I can only guess the man to my right is another of Wade Paxton’s thugs—or worse. Law enforcement. Perhaps Reggie made good on his promise to expose Ava and me to every casino boss this side of the Atlantic.
“No more bets!” The dealer’s hand passes over the table, and the ball shoots around the spinning wheel.
I sense Seth’s body tense. It’s time for me to do my part. Logan Thomas is probably waiting for this exact moment to arrest me. Five years and a felony conviction.
My breath is coming in short pants. Perhaps I should let it happen. Would I be safer in prison? Seth clears his throat, and I swallow my terror. The slightest twitch of my ankle, the slightest point. The ball stutters and drops… Twenty-nine black.
“WOO HOO!!!!! Well, I’ll be Johnny Mack Brown!!!” Seth explodes with excitement. “I WON! And on a corner bet to boot!”
He grasps the table edge and does a little jig. I can’t breathe waiting to see what our ominous tablemate will do. Will he whip out a badge? Detain us. At least with the device in my shoe they won’t find anything in a pat down.
“Congratulations,” Logan says. “That’s two and oh for me, so I’ll be saying goodnight, Miss Lampert.” He does a little nod in my direction, still with that knowing smile.
I don’t make eye contact, and Seth is busy distracting the dealer. I haven’t touched my chips on black, yet again they’ve doubled in number. One more turn is all I can stay.
“Now this is the hard part,” Seth says loudly, pinching his top lip between two fingers. “Should I leave them there or move them?”
He glances down at me again, a twinkle in his eyes. “What do you suggest, Miss Lampert?”
Shaking my head, I again feign ignorance. “I don’t know. I only play by color.”
He nods looking again at the table. “You know what they say. If everything’s headed your way, you might need to change lanes.”
I move my pile of chips to the red field just as the dealer starts the wheel. Final bets are going around, and Seth stares at the green felt, appearing to be deep in thought. At the very last minute, he reaches out and moves his chips to opposite ends of the grid.
“No more bets!” The dealer snaps just as Seth’s hands leave the area.
He straightens, still doing his very best acting job. His lip is again pinched between his fingers, and now he’s bouncingon the balls of his feet.
“I tell you, Miss Lampert, I’m as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.”
My jaw tightens. That makes two of us… I can’t shake this tension, even with Logan Thomas out of sight. For all I know he’s waiting outside the door.
The ball starts to slow, and I shift on my stool, pointing my toe as I do so. In that instant, the silver ball drops quickly into the tray.
“HOLEE SHIT!!!! I can’t believe it!” Seth shouts, slapping the rubber table-guard. “I can’t believe it, I WON AGAIN!” He turns to me, and I glance up, giving him a little smile. “And look at there! So did you, Miss Lampert!”
“I should probably quit while I’m ahead,” I say, rising from my chair.
Warmth at my back, and a familiar voice clenches my insides. “You shouldn’t break a winning streak.”
Jumping away as if I were electrocuted, I turn to face the owner of that sexy voice. Our eyes lock, and standing here, right at this table, a knowing smile curling his lips, is MacCallum Lockwood Tate, my playboy prince. The one I left behind when I ran.
If I couldn’t breathe before, now I’m about to faint.
“Cal!” It’s a startled whisper, my fingers tightening.
His smoky hazel eyes won’t release me, and all the desire I feel is reflected back at me. At the same time, something new is in his—an edge I’ve never seen before.
“I’m sorry…” His voice is slow, measured. “Have we met? You seem familiar…”
Glancing down, I relax my grip on the chair. I focus on calm, stay in character. I straighten the enormous ring on my hand. It’s costume jewelry—fake yellow topaz set in fake yellow gold. How fitting, considering everything about me is fake.
Still, even in this remote location, wearing this silly dark-brown wig, I feel exposed, laid bare. I can’t do this in front of him. Even if he knows what I am, I’m ashamed for him to see me doing it.
Seth only pauses a hiccup before resuming the act. “He’s right, Miss Lampert. You can’t walk out when you’re winning.”
I want to kill Seth. “I can’t…” I start, but it’s too late.
The dealer only pauses a moment before starting the wheel again. My heart beats too fast. It shoots a pain between my shoulder blades, and I haven’t moved my chips. I haven’t moved anything. I have to sit down if I’m going to activate the switch, but if I sit, I’ll be right beside Cal. Our arms will touch. I’m not sure I can handle that.
“No more bets!” The dealer’s hand passes over my stationary chips.
Seth had moved his a few rows to the left, and I feel his eyes on me watching, waiting to see if I’ll choke. The wheel is slowing. I can hear the noise of the ball decelerating on its track.
Cal’s hazel eyes are like heat against my skin, never moving away, not letting me escape this time. I hear his voice the last time we spoke: I love you, Zelda…
My chest rises and falls quickly. I’m still standing.
“It’s slowing down!” Seth’s voice is eager, but it’s directed at me. He’s trying to snap me out of it.
If I blow this spin, we’ll lose everything. I’m on my own now. I left Cal behind, and even if he followed me, it changes nothing. I have to be able to take care of myself.
“Slower…” Seth says again.
With a blink I break Cal’s spell over me and lean down as if to adjust my ankle strap. A flick of my wrist and a curl of my toe, and the silver ball clatters into red seven.
“OH!” Seth bellows. “I DON’T BELIEVE IT!!!”
He slaps my shoulder, but I haven’t regained my footing. Pulling up quick, I’m slammed into Cal’s chest. My palms are flat against his jacket, and his warm breath skirts across my cheek. Strong hands grip my waist, and his warm-cedar and citrus scent floods my brain.
My insides clench. Whatever made him come after me, it’s certainly over now—unless now he wants to make me pay for what I did in Monagasco, my role in his brother’s assassination attempt. I might not have known what Reggie and Wade were planning, but I helped them get into the country all the same. I lied to all of them.
“Zee,” he says softly, his fingers grazing the skin of my lower back. The tiny hairs on my body rise, and my stomach flips the way it always does when Cal touches me. All the places and all the ways we’ve been together flood my mind.
“I’m sorry,” I manage, pulling away.
I can’t be here with him like this. It hurts so much knowing he knows everything. Everything we had, those moments with him were all stolen. It’s what I am. A thief.
And now he knows.
Seth grabs my upper arm, pulling me to his side. “I say, Miss Lampert, you must be my lucky charm.” The accent is still there, but ice is in his tone.
The muscle in Cal’s jaw moves, and I see his anger flash at my partner in crime. 7
“Cash me out.” I swipe my black clutch off the table, twisting from Seth’s grip.
My hands shake as I collect my winnings. I don’t even bother to count them. I take the money and run. Seth will meet me at the dock like we planned. Noises are behind me, but I don’t stop. I practically sprint to the doors and out to the line of cabs. It only takes a moment for me to dive into one.
“Grapetree Point,” I say, slamming the door.
I fall back against the cracked vinyl seat as we speed off into the night, tears lurking in the corners of my eyes.
About the Author
The “Queen of Hot Romance,” Tia Louise is the Award-Winning, International Bestselling author of the ONE TO HOLD series.
From “Readers’ Choice” nominations, to USA Today “Happily Ever After” nods, to winning the 2015 “Favorite Erotica Author” and the 2014 “Lady Boner Award” (LOL!), nothing makes her happier than communicating with fans and weaving new tales into the Alexander-Knight world of stories.
A former journalist, Louise lives in the center of the USA with her lovely family and one grumpy cat. There, she dreams up stories she hopes are engaging, hot, and sexy, and that cause readers rethink common public locations...