Darcy watched over the casino floor with the relaxed alertness of a lioness following the movements of a herd on the Serengeti. Darcy wasn’t a lioness, though she was a natural predator.
The soft glow of a thousand tiny faux-Chinese lantern ceiling fixtures provided the only light in the huge room, lending Stackhouse Casino’s poker room an air of perpetual twilight, no matter the time of day.
Nothing in a casino was ever by accident. Every twist and turn of the corridors leading in, each swirl in Stackhouse’s ocean of carpet had been painstakingly crafted to soothe or stimulate the clientele’s experience.
Darcy assumed that the sensation of fading light was meant to evoke the sense that something big was about to happen.
As easily as it convinced the players that they were about to win big, so the light left Darcy eternally convinced that something terrible was about to go down.
Which was probably the perfect state of mind for a cooler.
While her job title might be Executive Facilitator, Darcy held no illusions that her role was materially different from the job of barroom cooler that Patrick Swayze’s character had in that eighties movie. And while she seldom had to duck from a flying barstool, she’d taken down her fair share of drunk frat boys and sore losers.
Usually though, she preferred a much gentler approach.
And so far, tonight was no exception - just a typical crowd for a Saturday. Most likely, she could keep the peace by making sure everyone had a good time, and deftly convincing any undesirables that there was somewhere else they’d rather be.
Darcy was a very convincing woman.
In part it was because of her physique, a heady combination of hard muscles and ample curves. Darcy had a body like a pin-up girl turned assassin, and she was too straightforward to think that being modest about it would make her any more popular with her fellow women, or any less popular with the opposite sex.
But the truth of it was that her wolf gave her an even bigger advantage than her appearance.
Never seen, yet ever present just beneath the surface of her skin, the wolf heard with clever ears, saw even in darkness, and sniffed out lies from truths as easily as Darcy could discern between black and white.
“Hey, new kid,” one of the house dealers winked at her on his way to a shift on the tables.
“Frank,” she nodded coolly as he passed, studiously ignoring his denim blue eyes and wide shoulders.
Sooner or later they’d all catch on that she never fraternized with colleagues. Mixing business with pleasure was a huge no-no for a cooler. She’d learned that the hard way in Vegas.
As it turned out, what happened in Vegas did not always stay in Vegas.
As a matter of fact, sometimes it fled back to the east coast and did a long stint in Atlantic City - that purgatory of casino scenes - before finally being courted for an ideal gig with Stackhouse in Philly.
And boy was Darcy happy to be at Stackhouse.
It wasn’t just because the place was brand spanking new. The facilities were top notch - state of the art machines and pristine decor. But that wouldn’t last. Sooner or later, the glitter always rubbed off.
No, she was mostly glad to be close to home, or the closest thing to home she had ever known.
In spite of the sequin gown and the stilettos, Darcy felt most herself when she was curled up on the rag rug in front of the fireplace in the modest white stucco farmhouse at Harkess Farms, where her foster mother and siblings lived. And Stackhouse was only half an hour from Tarker’s Hollow, making it paradise as far as Darcy was concerned.
Besides, the Philly casino scene was quieter than Atlantic City - less flashy. Way fewer Sopranos and Goodfellas wannabes. It was still a pretty new thing to gamble here, a novelty in the land of Ben Franklin and the Quakers.
And tonight was shaping up into another comfortable evening. A couple of idiots at one of the lower stakes tables were trying to work together to increase their odds. She could probably bust them for collusion, but it wasn’t really cheating when you weren’t winning. She’d let them have their fun. For now.
The wolf huffed in her head and she turned back to the handsome middle-aged guy at table six she’d been keeping an eye on.
Not good. He’d just lost big for the third hand in a row.
Darcy could see the bad decisions he hadn’t made yet written all over him. He didn’t like losing. No one did. But he especially didn’t like doing it in front of the woman next to him. She had to be 20 years younger than he was, and he was trying so hard to impress her.
Darcy nodded to Mason, who was working the door. The huge guy in the black suit nodded back. He didn’t move, but she knew he was watching as she headed over.
Never work alone. It was a good motto in Darcy’s line of work. As much as she preferred to work alone, she couldn’t argue with common sense. She was good, but a situation could go sour fast. You didn’t want to start looking for help when the shit had already hit the fan. Confrontation upset everyone. And that was bad for business.
She eased up to the guy at the poker table, and placed a gentle hand on his elbow.
The wolf had begun noting signs of strain. The guy’s posture was stiff. There was a sour edge to his sweat. His heart, already beating too quickly, accelerated harshly at Darcy’s touch.
The man spun a bit too fast to face her, fury twisting his features.
She gave him a fraction of a second, then he responded just as she expected.
His anger ratcheted down a few notches as he took her in, his eyes inevitably sliding down her body and lingering at the place where her dress barely covered her breasts on the way back up.
The fit and hang of the dress was on purpose, its effect calculated by Darcy as much as the lighting had been calculated by the owners of the casino. Men found her attractive and she had no qualms about using that fact to do her job well. Even if it meant using double-sided tape on a plunge bra as if she were dancing in a cabaret instead bouncing at a casino. If she had sent the more linebacker-esque Mason over here, this interaction would be playing out very differently. Anyone could justify getting mad at the goon in the suit, but no one wanted to be the guy yelling at the girl in the pretty dress.
“Sir, your private table is waiting for you in our VIP dining area,” she said in her friendliest voice. Tone was important, it had to be soft enough that it wasn’t confrontational, but loud and clear, so everyone at the table could hear. “The chef has taken the liberty of starting you off with some complimentary oysters on the half shell with his own mignonette sauce. I hope that will be to your liking.”
He stared at her a moment, his anger turning to confusion.
Then there was the magical instant when she saw his expression relax into understanding and then relief. She had thrown him a safety line and he was going to be able to save face.
“Yes. That will be fine,” he said nonchalantly.
But the wolf noted that his voice was deeper than before, a telltale sign of gratitude.
Darcy gave him a winsome smile, then swept both the man and his guest off through the maze of gaming tables to the VIP dining area.
The casino was more like a wasp’s nest than a building. Though every inch was covered in shimmering chandeliers and plush carpet, Darcy still would have described the path to the safety of the dining room as a walk through the catacombs. Clientele could get lost in here. And with opportunities to bet around every corner, it was in the Stackhouse’s best interests that it not be particularly easy to find your way out.
At last they reached the VIP dining room. The subtle gold leaf on the wallpaper and the creamy white coffered ceilings made diners feel prosperous, and the complimentary drinks relaxed them.
Darcy was still feeling everyone out, but she was quickly realizing that Mason was good at his job. He must have had heard her conversation back in the poker room and texted the kitchen ahead, because when they arrived, they found their oysters on the table waiting, just as Darcy had promised.
The man held out a chair for his date and then sat.
Darcy leaned in over his shoulder.
“Mr. Panchenko is delighted that you could join us at the Stackhouse again, sir,” she murmured just loudly enough that the date could hear it.
“Enjoy your meal,” she told them, straightening up.
The man winked at her, clearly feeling happy again, and she took off hoping she hadn’t missed too much in the poker room.
When she was about to turn the final corner, a voice spoke from behind her.
“Hey there, beautiful.”
She didn’t have to turn to recognize it - deep, and a little rough, but with a playful Irish lilt around the edges.
“If it isn’t The Amazing Finn,” she teased, without turning to him.
“Fantastic, actually. It’s The Fantastic Finn. At least that’s what they tell me. But you don’t have to take my word for it, love.”
Jesus. She could actually hear the wink in his voice.
Finn was the casino’s magician in residence, if that was a thing.
He was also an immensely handsome and deeply masculine guy. Tall and muscular, with long hair that made him look like the man-bun video guy, Finn’s eyes were always full of mischief.
It was all just insult to injury that he made a mockery of himself by working as a magician. Only a ridiculous person would chose magic as a career.
Against her better judgment, she turned to him.
She could tell by the way he was dressed, like a pallbearer at Liberace’s funeral, that he must be between shows.
“I’m a little busy right now, Finn,” she said. “So if you were hoping to wow me by pulling a rabbit out of your pants, or whatever, it’ll have to wait.”
“I wouldn’t dream of wasting your time, love,” he told her, his hazel eyes flashing down at her conspiratorially. “But I thought you might like to know that the gentleman at Trish’s blackjack table just pulled a Savannah.”
She dashed around the corner and used her wolf’s amped up hearing.
“Sir, you can’t touch your chips after the cards have been dealt,” Trish was saying, an edge of anxiety in her normally sultry voice.
The man across from her was wearing a cheap suit that was probably meant to look fancy. He apologized, making drunkenly exaggerated hand gestures.
As Darcy approached, her wolf’s nose told her he was not even tipsy.
“Is there a problem here, Trish?” she asked.
Trish looked up at her in gratitude.
“This guy keeps messing with his chips after he bets. And all night long, he’s been betting 20 bucks. Now, all of a sudden, he wins a big hand, and there’s a $500 chip in his bet,” she explained.
That was how the cheat move known as the Savannah worked. You hid a big money chip in your bet once in a while, but then snuck it out if you lost. That meant touching your chips to hand them to the dealer, instead of letting her pick them up, which was a no-no. And the best way to cover it up was to be drunkenly enthusiastic and overly apologetic.
It was like this guy just googled how to cheat at cards and copied the first video he’d found.
“Everyone can see the chips on the table. I didn’t touch nothing,” the idiot spluttered.
Darcy could see the $500 chip peeking out from beneath the three $5 chips on top of it.
Now she was going to have to haul this guy in and scrub the security footage until she caught him cheating. It would be difficult to spot, even if the cameras had the proper angle and the resolution to distinguish one chip from another.
So much for her easy night.
“Why don’t we just count the man’s chips and pay him what he earned?” Finn’s deep voice came from behind her.
Darcy turned in surprise.
“May I?” Finn asked the guy.
“Be my guest,” cheap suit said with a huge grin.
Darcy watched in wonder as Finn pushed up his puffy sleeves, looking more than ever as if he had just escaped from a community theatre production of Macbeth. He picked the chips up and placed them on the table in front of the man, one at a time, counting as he did.
“Five, ten, fifteen…twenty,” he said lightly, laying out four, five-dollar chips. “I don’t see what the problem is.”
Darcy, who prided herself on her powers of observation, hadn’t even noticed him switch out the $500 she’d spotted at the bottom of the stack before Finn had touched it.
“What the fuck?!” the guy yelled, all traces of his grin and his phony slur completely gone. “You cheated me!”
Finn held up his empty hands.
“Sir,” Darcy said to the guy immediately, “cheating is a very serious accusation. Fortunately, there is a security camera right over there. If you’d like, we can go upstairs and review the footage to see if Mr. Butler here did cheat you.”
The man actually looked torn.
“And while we’re there, we can review your play from earlier tonight,” she added. “To prove that you never tampered with your bets, and clear your good name.”
“This place sucks,” he announced, grabbing the twenty dollars in chips from the table.
He turned to storm away, then stopped.
Darcy read his next move as easily as if he were holding up a big sign.
But Finn was too busy grinning proudly at Darcy to notice.
The guy turned and swung a wild punch, connecting just above Finn’s eye.
Darcy moved in with a shot to the man’s solar plexus, knocking the wind from him before he could take another swing. Two of the nearby security personnel each grabbed an arm and escorted him away.
“You okay?” she asked Finn, going up on her toes to check out the bruise. There was no real harm, but it was going to leave a mark. Damned magician.
Though she had to admit he’d been pretty helpful.
“I’m fine, love.” He smiled down at her, those hazel eyes flashing pleasantly, giving her an unexpected flutter in her chest. “I’ll just grab some ice to put on it before the next show.”
Darcy pulled her hands away from his face quickly and nodded to Mason, who was back in his position against the wall. She inclined her head toward the ladies room so he would know where she was headed. She needed to freshen up after the little dust-up.
Once in the relative safety of the endlessly mirrored ladies room, she straightened her dress and smoothed her hair.
She was about to head out when a searing pain lashed at her belly. It wasn’t like the pain from having been shoved around a little, or even taking a hard punch. It felt like something was mauling her from the inside.
There was no one else in the bathroom, so she rolled up the red sequined gown over her thighs and up to her rib cage.
In the endless mirrors, a thousand Darcys stared in wonder at the strange, swirling black markings that appeared to be rising to the surface of her skin, like some sort of tattoo, only being drawn from the inside.
More intrigued than frightened, she slipped her hand into her clutch to grab her phone. This was definitely something to talk to Mom about right away.
But she pulled out more than the phone.
The $500 chip.
The Fantastic Finn strikes again.
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