"I'm telling you, Wendy said it was a foolproof system. When have you known Wendy to lie?"
"Need I remind you about the foolproof plan to make a million with bamboo imports?"
"Sugar, you know what your problem is?"
The short blonde turned in her seat and looked at the woman sitting extremely close, considering they were flying coach, on the long flight from New Orleans to Las Vegas. "What's my problem?" She leaned further back in her seat, coming very close to disturbing the sleeping man in the window seat. "I'm just dying to know." The sarcasm was a clue that what her partner had just said hadn't been appreciated. "Because aside from you calling me sugar, I didn't think I had any glaring problems."
"Come on, honey, you know I tell you all these things to help you." Claire Smith leaned further into the aisle just in case Jolie Clement decided to take a swing at her. They had lived together for five years and every so often the feisty woman's temper got the better of her and she laid waste to everything in her path.
"I distinctly remember just telling you I'm dying to know, so spit it out already."
"Your problem is you don't know how to take a chance. Life is all about taking chances, gambling every so often, sugar?I mean, Jolie. If you don't, you just become stagnant, caught in a cycle of boredom."
"Uh huh," Jolie put her finger up, stopping any other wisdom ready to spout from her lover's mouth. "As I always say, darling, everyone is entitled to their opinion. It may be incredibly simplistic in nature and based on simplistic thinking, but you are entitled to it." The plane rocked a little as it hit some turbulence, making Jolie's knuckles turn white from gripping the armrest. It was pitch black outside the windows as they flew over some of the least populated areas in America, adding to the small blonde's fear. "Do you want to know what your problem is?"
Claire waved her hand and gave the smaller woman a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Please go on, you seem to be on a roll."
"You don't think taking our mortgage money for the next two months and gambling it away in Vegas is crazy? Which, by the way, makes me crazy by default since I'm sitting next to you on this death trap more than willing to watch you do it." The bumpiness came again making the blonde turn and face the seat in front of her. If the all too friendly stewardess announced the necessity to put her head down and start praying in case an emergency landing, she wanted to be ready. "Maybe if you had grown up with a little less you'd have a healthier respect for money and what you need to get it."
Next to her, Claire pantomimed the words coming out of Jolie's mouth having heard the lecture more than once. "Okay, I get it. You think this is crazy, but you just wait. When we get there and I start playing blackjack, and start making money hand over fist, you're going to wonder why we didn't do this sooner."
"Yes, I'm sure, next week when it's time to pay the house note, I'll be wiping my brow as we get to pay it off in full."
Claire laughed softly and patted the white knuckles close to her hand. "Actually we'll be doing that just as soon as the sports bar Wendy and I are going in on starts making money. Just think, soon I'll stop bitching about having to go to work since I'll be having so much fun at C&W's Sports Palace."
"Yeah, just think."
"Senator Vetter faxed this over about the Breaux Bill." The paper was handed over without the man looking up from the stack that was left. "He wanted your opinion on it and wanted me to remind you he still has a bit of campaign debt."
"Of course he did, Oscar. When have you ever talked to any politician without them bringing money into the conversation at some point? Call him back and tell him we'll send a big fat check if he goes to bat for us on this one."
Oscar Giovino looked up from his paperwork and laughed. "Isn't that a little like a bribe, Becker?"
"There's no such animal as a little like a bribe. It's sort of like being a little pregnant."
"So it isn't a bribe?"
"It's a bribe dressed up like a campaign contribution. You dress it up, take it dancing and at the end of the process, it lies down and does your bidding. Having the Breaux Bill pass would save us a fortune in equipment taxes so it's worth it to me to do business with Vetter. Other than that, I have no use for the man."
Becker Gaudet leaned back in the comfortable leather seat of the private jet, stretched out long legs and sighed. The pile in front of Oscar represented the additional hours of work necessary to prepare for the looming tax audit. Work and paying taxes wasn't something she minded, but when assholes like Dave Vetter got mixed up in her day it made her want to find a nice island to retire to and fish all day.
"Last I looked, you didn't have use for too many men," teased Oscar.
Becker laughed along with him but didn't open her eyes. "I don't see you going around chasing any, so why should I?"
She watched as the ice in the glass of vodka beside her jiggled a little from the turbulence they'd just hit. They were taking a little break for the weekend, before that dreaded April 15th deadline rolled around, in their favorite city outside New Orleans. While there were setbacks to being Becker Gaudet, there were also tremendous perks. With that thought, she closed her eyes and tried to get her shoulders to relax.
They had become good friends years before when the older man taught a gutsy teenager the ropes on an oilrig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. It was the only job Becker could think to get without a college education, which would pay enough to keep the orphan off the streets. The nuns would only keep you until that magic eighteenth birthday. After that, it was off to join the world outside the tall gates of St. Genevieve's whether you were ready or not.
Twenty years later Oscar was still helping her make her way in business, now more in the capacity of keeping the hangers on away from his boss, and helping her run Gaudet Oil Tools. In all that time, the older man had become more of a father, best friend and confidant all rolled into one. In Becker's heart, he was part of the only family she had and one of the two people in her life who didn't want anything from her, other than to be her friend.
For Oscar, it was much the same story without the sad beginning. He'd grown up in the suburbs with parents who loved him, but had never found the woman he wanted to share a life with. Now he was content to live and work with Becker, always feeling like he had a home and someone who cared about him.
Gaudet Oil Tools had started small, just the two of them manning everything from the phones to the packing and deliveries. Soon though, most major oil companies discovered the drill bits Becker designed and manufactured lasted longer and were about a third cheaper than their nearest competitor. That was in the beginning. Now the company employed close to two thousand people and had contracts worldwide. The kid, who had grown up with only dreams and aspirations of success, now had more of it than she knew what to do with.
"Nah, you're on the right path staying away from the likes of someone like me romantically."
The blue eyes opened, and with a slight twist of her head, Becker looked at her friend with a huge smile on her face. "What, you'd just try to get into my pants then I'd never hear from you?"
"Actually, that sounds more like you, smartass." Oscar stood and poured them some fresh drinks. If there was something Becker and he had in common, it was not finding true love. But then again, it wasn't like they were looking.
"I'm waiting for divine inspiration, old man, so leave me alone. When I fall, I want it to be a permanent condition."
"Then here's to divine inspiration and the perfect women it may conjure up," Oscar held up his glass as he said it.
"I'll drink to that, buddy."
"Why'd you have to pack so much? We're only going to be here until Monday." Claire stood close to the chute that was at the moment spitting out luggage from their flight.
"It's one bag, Claire, so calm down. Are you expected somewhere I don't know about?" The brown bag was easy to spot in a sea of black and Claire hurried to catch it before the conveyer belt carried it any further down the line.
"I'm just anxious to hit the tables is all. It is why we're here, after all." Outside she flagged a cab making Jolie run to keep up.
As soon as their bags were in the trunk and they were sitting in the back seat, the two women had to brace themselves to keep their heads from slamming into the front seat when the driver hit the brakes to avoid hitting a passing limo. The car had no markings on it and the windows were so dark it was impossible to tell who its passengers were. Jolie laughed at the string of Spanish obscenities, or what she assumed were obscenities, that came pouring out of the cabby's mouth.
After the added excitement, Jolie reached over and put her hand in Claire's. Since the Vegas airport was right next to the famous strip, she leaned back and looked at the mammoth structures on both sides of the boulevard. To Jolie each casino was like a city with thousands of employees keeping it running no matter the time. Her partner hadn't mentioned where they were staying, so she was surprised when about thirty minutes later they pulled into the plush Bellagio property.
Jolie walked to the ornate railing while Claire paid for the cab. She watched entranced as the fountains the hotel was known for put on a spectacular show to music from "Phantom of the Opera." She found the booming fountains and equally emotion packed music made goose bumps rise on her arms and she lifted her hands to smooth them down.
"Do you love that musical as much as I do?"
The voice was soft and somewhat soothing in nature, enough to tear Jolie's eyes away from the dancing water to see whom it belonged to. Standing close by, but a respectable distance away, was a tall figure cloaked in the shadows created by the trees that towered well over the front of the entrance.
"I've never actually seen it." The blonde went back to looking at the fountains since her fellow admirer had done the same. From the build up of the music she could tell it was coming to an end.
"You seem like someone who would appreciate a great love story no matter how sad the ending, I know I did."
Jolie's brow scrunched as if in confusion as to why the woman would say that, but she never took her eyes off the lights and water. The music was hypnotic and she was about to ask the woman about it when the last notes played and the lake the hotel was named for went once again silent and still. When she turned she found the space next to her equally so.
"You ready?" asked Claire from across the drive. One of the bellhops insisted on taking their bags which meant a trip to the room would be necessary, unless she could talk Jolie into going alone so she could head to the tables that much sooner.
"When does the fountain come on again?" Jolie asked the man in charge of valet parking.
"Every fifteen minutes until midnight, ma'am."
The blonde looked at her watch and made a quick calculation from Central Time. It was a little before four in the morning in Las Vegas.
"You do realize that midnight was over three hours ago."
"We heard you were coming into town, ma'am, and decided to give you a welcome only the Bellagio could deliver," teased the young man.
"Uh huh, next you'll be telling me where all the good slots are. Why the extra late show really?"
"One of the hotel's favorite guests flew in this morning and that particular one is their favorite. In Vegas speak that means the guest must be one serious whale to rate blowing up all that water."
"Wait, what's a whale?"
"I'm sorry. It's what the casinos call high rollers." He started for the door walking slowly enough for her to keep up. It wasn't often he got to enjoy a conversation with attractive guests since most people passed the bellhops without ever noticing them, much less talking to them. I'm glad you arrived in time to see it because the extra ones don't happen often. You lucked out by catching the redeye out here this morning. Tomorrow they start back up at around noon and the first one is one of my favorites if you have the time to come back out."
She looked at his nametag and saw that Joe was from New York. "Let me guess, "New York, New York?"
He tipped his hat and smiled. "I can't help it if it reminds me of home whenever I hear it. The fountain show they put together for it is one of the best though, and it's the safest bet in this town."
"I'll keep that in mind, Joe, thanks."
If the outside of the hotel was impressive, the inside was truly awesome. Jolie had to stop and look around in awe when the revolving doors let her into the lobby. While the detail of the architecture and detail in every aspect of the space was incredible, it was the massive collection of glass flowers hanging from the ceiling that captured her attention. A couple of other people coming in after her bumped into Jolie as she stood there and stared at the most colorful thing she'd ever seen.
"Why don't we move to the center of the lobby and you can enjoy Chihuly's flowers without getting run over." A woman, dressed in a conservative suit, took Jolie by the arm and walked her a little further into the space. "Now that we have you out of harms way, let me welcome you to the Bellagio. My name is Constance. Is there something I can get you?"
It was four in the morning and the lobby looked like it was noon from the people jammed in line trying to check in. Most of them had their backs to the front desk so they could admire the lobby, making Jolie feel less like clueless tourist for her own rubbernecking. The difference between them and her though, was that no one like Constance was standing next to them offering to get them anything.
"I'm sorry, do you work here?" It wouldn't be the first time Jolie was targeted by someone thinking she looked naive and ripe for the picking.
"No, don't be sorry, I should apologize." The attractive brunette held out her card with a smile. Jolie read that she worked for the hotel in casino services, whatever that might be, in a supervisory capacity. "I do indeed work here and I'd like to know if there's anything I can get you."
"To the front of that line," answered Jolie in a joking way. From where she was standing, she could see the tense set of Claire's shoulders. They had taken the late flight thinking everything but the tables would be dead.
"That's being taken care of, ma'am, if you could just point out who you're traveling with, I'll handle everything."
She laughed thinking she was delirious from a lack of sleep. "Yeah, right."
"Yes, ma'am, that is right. Who is it you're with?" Constance stood there with the same smile on her face. This wasn't her usual job, but then every so often it was nice to come down and deal with the gambling novice. "The sooner you point her out, the sooner you'll be in your nice room."
"Claire Smith in the red shirt over there," Jolie pointed to her partner. The man standing a few feet behind Constance started walking as soon as she answered. He pulled Claire out of the line and pointed to a door Jolie had missed on the way in. The ornate glass and brass opening had the words "V.I.P. Check In" written above it. "Were we the millionth customers or something?" The treatment didn't make any sense.
"Or something. Did you have any questions?"
"You mentioned something about Chihuly's flowers?"
Constance escorted her in further into the room until they were standing directly at the center of the overhead artwork. "Dale Chihuly is the world renowned artist who created the pieces you were admiring. There are 2000 flowers in the display each varying in size, color and weight. Of all the things the hotel is known for, I think most people remember us most because of the Fiori de Como, and the fountains outside."
"Can you blame them? This thing is incredible."
"Indeed it is." Constance smiled at the man taking care of Claire as they passed by. She wondered if the two women had any idea just how lucky they had been so far before they ever stepped foot on the Bellagio's gaming floor.
The short question brought Constance's attention back to the blonde in her care. "I'm sorry, why what?"
The Chihuly flowers weren't the only extravagance the hotel lobby sported. From where Jolie was standing, she could see a little of the botanical gardens and the massive flower arrangements scattered throughout the back of the check-in desk. Being a florist by trade, she had some idea how much time and money went into something few people would take notice of.
"Why spend so much on things that aren't essential to your business? The art, the flowers," she looked closer at the material the front desk was made of, "The marble. Does it make people gamble more?"
"I don't believe so, no, but when the hotel was built the owner treated each detail of the design like a woman he loved." The manager laughed and shrugged her shoulders. "Well that's my romantic notion anyway."
"What do you mean?"
"If you love someone, to me, you do everything in your power to make their world as beautiful as possible. To some, it's buying jewelry or perhaps giving flower, but they don't give them to make themselves feel better. They give them to see the smile their thoughtfulness brings the other person."
"That is a romantic notion, Constance. You're single aren't you?"
"That I am, Ms??"
"I'm sorry, how rude of me. I'm Jolie Clement, but please call me Jolie. You did after all save us from the line from hell."
Constance nodded and waved her towards the gardens. "I may be single," there was a crew of gardeners setting up to start working on changing out the thousands of plants in preparation of the upcoming Sunday. "And I may work in a place where everything is pretty much staged and make believe, but I do know one thing for certain."
"What's that?" Jolie was amazed at the number of roses they had on hand in large buckets of water.
"There are still people in this world who go out of their way to do for others just because. Especially for the people they love."
"Most people, not to pop your bubble, give a little because they're planning to take much more." Claire walked up with a huge grin on her face before Jolie could go on. "All set?"
"They must know we're here to gamble, honey, because they sure have rolled out the red carpet. They must be afraid we'll go somewhere else."
Constance's assistant hid his smile behind his hand, but not well enough to keep Jolie from not seeing him. "I'm sure that's the reason," Jolie said with a bit of the same humor Constance's assistant had just displayed. "Did you get us a room?"
"Actually, the hotel upgraded you to a suite, Ms. Clement. Whenever you're ready, Mark will show you the way," answered Constance.
"Can I call you if I have any other questions?" Jolie held up the business card. "I enjoyed our short talk about the hotel and your ideas."
"Call anytime you like, Jolie, and please enjoy your stay." With a quick bow of her head, Constance headed back to the VIP Check In to the only set of elevators that accessed the penthouse suites. One more assignment and she could head home to her two cats.
The doors slid open to a wall of glass that highlighted the Vegas strip in stunning detail. This was more the level of what Constance did on a daily basis. The penthouse rooms, and the people who stayed in them at the casino's expense, were her responsibility to see to it that their every whim was catered to. The casino would do anything to keep this guest happy and strive to keep them coming back.
"Can't you ever arrive at a decent hour?" Her tone was teasing, and she smiled as she accepted the drink the woman by the fully stocked bar was holding out. "If I look like crap tomorrow from a lack of beauty sleep I know who I'm blaming."
"You? Not beautiful? There's no way in hell!" answered Becker. She took a seat on one of the sofas in the room and stretched out her feet. "Hell, Constance, you're the reason I keep coming back here whenever I get the chance. At least that's what I write on all those little cards asking me about my stay."
"You are so full of shit, Becker. When was the last time someone asked you to fill one of those out?" She sat close to the lounging woman taking a sip of the light amber liquid in her glass. Like her, Becker had a keen memory for people's preferences, remembering Constance's love of a good scotch.
"How have you been?" Becker leaned over and kissed the woman hello.
"Missing my favorite guest, aside from that, all right. I haven't seen you in awhile. Staying long?"
"I thought Herman Lansing from Ohio was your favorite guest?"
She pinched Becker's leg getting a good grip on the skin of her upper thigh, since she was just wearing a dress shirt and boxers. "You have Herman beat by a mile, honey, just don't tell him that. Are you at least here through the weekend?" The fingers let go and Constance rested her hand on the warm skin. "Maybe we could have dinner or something while you're here?"
"You have me until Monday so just call Oscar and tell him when you're available." Becker took a drink of vodka and rested her head back against the butter soft leather. "I just needed to unwind a little over a few games of craps, so tell Marvin I expect to see him in the pit some time tomorrow. Right now, I just need to get some sleep."
"Nah, craps is not a lot of fun when you play alone. Just make sure they raise the maximum bet limit for me and I'll happily play with the tourists."
"We actually have a group in from Texas putting together a high stakes game tomorrow night. I'm sure they have room for one more. Interested?"
"Set me up, baby. Guys in cowboy boots are always good for a game of craps. It's all the whooping and hollering they do that gets your blood pumping, well for bets anyway." Becker picked Constance's hand up and kissed the back of it. "Now if you'll excuse me, we both need a little beauty sleep."
The casino employee looked at Becker and sighed. Here was one of those rare people who had no idea just how attractive they were. The short dark hair that curled slightly at the ends, the blue eyes, strong jaw and tall well-toned body made you look, then look again. Then, when you were faced with the charming personality and giving nature, you wanted to devise some plan to win her heart. Constance was sure that the woman who managed that, would be a big winner since the casino manager was sure of how safe a bet Becker was.
"Some of us need less than others. Have a good sleep, my friend, and I'll be by tomorrow with the details. Mark is here if you need anything before I get back."
"Thanks, Constance, and thank you for always taking such good care of me."
She nodded her head and smiled. Constance would never try and cross the line of their established relationship but wouldn't hesitate to accept if it was Becker making the first move. "Oh, before I forget. We took care of the other accommodations you asked about. Ms. Clement thought they were the millionth customers for rating such good service."
"And you killed that idea in her head? Shame on you."
"I did no such thing. Where do you know these people from?"
The deep laugh chased a shiver of delight down Constance's back. "I don't know them. Is Ms. Clement the blonde?"
"I spent all that time in that zoo for people you don't know? Becker, you should be thrilled I love you so much."
"It thrills me to no end, sweetheart. I just saw them when we came in. Thank you for cuing up the fountain for me by the way."
"And all the pretty water made you want to upgrade Ms. Clement and her companion?"
"Actually, Ms. Clement seemed to like it as much as I did and I thought I'd do something nice for her. I promise I'll make it up to you for doing what I'm sure is an excellent job." The tall charmer stood up and gave Constance a hand in getting to her feet. "It doesn't happen often, but I get the urge to practice random acts of kindness for people every once in awhile."
The memory of the diamond bracelet she had received on her birthday came to Constance's mind. "Uh huh, tell that bunch of bull to someone who doesn't know you. Being kind is your specialty, Ms. Gaudet."
Becker leaned down and placed a chaste kiss on Constance's lips. "Thank you for the very generous sentiment. Have a good night, and I'll see you tomorrow."
Las Vegas Boulevard was swarming with tourists by nine in the morning, while the more serious gamblers were just returning to their rooms for a few hours of sleep. On the strip, most of the older casinos had hawkers outside trying to entice people in with penny slots and a dollar hot breakfast. Becker watched the sea of humanity from the comfort of her room, sipping on a strong cup of coffee while she listened to her secretary run down all the calls she had received that morning.
"Tell the first three, there's no way in hell we're going that low on that much equipment, and tell Frank I'll be back on Monday to deal with his problem." The four-hour nap and hot shower she'd had left her energized enough to want to go out and do something. "I'll be here probably until this evening, but I'll have my phone with me if you need anything after that, Ann. Anything else pressing right now?"
"Put a dollar in a slot machine for me and see what happens."
Becker laughed before draining the cup in her hand. "And if I win a million dollar jackpot, then what?"
"Then I'll retire and leave your ass in the lurch." The teasing in Ann's voice more than came through making Becker chuckle.
"Then I'll have to lie to you if I win. Take it easy today and go home early. All the idiots calling today can wait a few days for answers."
"Thanks, and good luck, boss."
Oscar ended up sleeping a while longer, and when he finally emerged from his room, he found Becker lying down on the sofa reading a magazine, still wearing one of the hotel's rich bathrobes. While this was normal for the average person on vacation, Becker was more of an action type of person and it surprised him.
"I feel fine." She closed the book and sat up surprised to see it was turning dark outside already. "I just wanted to see what it was like to just unplug for a day and do nothing."
"And?" Oscar poured himself a coke and snagged a piece of fruit from the basket Constance had sent up.
"Remind me not to do that again anytime soon. I feel like a truck ran over me and backed up I'm so lethargic. Lazy isn't something I do well."
"Hell, Becker, I could've told you that. Why don't you get dressed and take a walk? After you walk the cobwebs out, we'll call Constance and take her out to eat."
Dressed as casually as Becker ever got, the tall business owner walked through the lobby headed in the direction of the casino. The tables were mostly full as were the slots and she laughed at a group of older ladies crammed around one of their friends playing one of the slots. They were all cheering her on as if the way the woman pulled the arm of the slot machine had something to do with the outcome. Becker kept walking when she reached the mall entrance to the casino shops thinking she would pick something up for Ann before the weekend got away from her. Her assistant never acted like she expected anything when Becker left town, but she loved opening the little gifts her boss thought to buy for her.
An hour later Becker walked out of Tiffany's with the saleswoman's promise the blue bag with the wrapped jewelry box inside would be delivered to her room as soon as possible. As she made her way back into the casino, Becker looked inside one of the exclusive shops that sold designer dresses and had to smile at the blonde holding one up in front of her. Not one of the saleswomen working was paying any attention to her and Becker could guess why. The faded jeans and equally faded denim jacket that weren't designers meant there was no way in the world the woman could afford the dress in her hand.
Impulsively she entered the boutique, waiving off the group of eager saleswomen and headed to the lonely shopper. "You have excellent taste, Miss."
Jolie looked into the mirror startled a little by the voice. She'd heard it only briefly the night before but it was hard to forget. "Thank you, but I'm more of a looker than a buyer. It's a beautiful dress but there's no way I'd spend this much on something like this. Not that I'd know how much it cost since nothing in here has a price tag on it."
"It's to keep you from running screaming for the door. I think it's their plan to have you fall in love with the clothes first, then shock you with the price." The sound of Jolie's laugh made Becker smile. "But if you were buying, I doubt Vera Wang would look better on anyone else."
"Do I know you?" There were a lot of customers who drifted in and out of her flower shop in New Orleans who just stopped in to browse or make a last minute order. She didn't have trouble remembering the regulars but there were too many others to keep them all filed away, though she was certain she would have memorized the face that went with that voice.
"I don't believe so." When the blonde turned around Becker held her hand out. "But that's easily remedied don't you think? I'm Becker Gaudet."
"Jolie Clement," supplied Jolie as she took the woman's hand.
"That's a good old fashioned south Louisiana name, Ms. Clement. I apologize for interrupting you. I'll leave you to your shopping."
Carefully, as if not to wrinkle it, Jolie put the dress back on the hook and shook her head. "You're not interrupting me, please don't apologize." The night before came back to her again and Jolie came to the most likely conclusion. "Do you work for Constance?"
"I'm not with the casino, no. Just out buying a gift for someone."
"If it's coming from any of the places in here they're pretty lucky is my guess." Jolie smiled, enjoying the fact the woman had stopped to talk to her again.
The day had crawled by while Jolie walked around the city alone, doing some exploring in some of the closer places. Claire had gotten up early and started on her quest to win enough to buy her sports bar dream with her foolproof winning system for the blackjack tables. Surprisingly, her partner had given her back the mortgage money when she'd passed by to check on her. It seemed, at least for now, that her friend Wendy had been right and Claire was up about sixty thousand dollars.
The gambler had given back the seed money but balked at giving up anything else when Jolie suggested they bank some of the winnings. Claire was sure that with another ten hours of playing, she could afford to buy whatever she wanted with or without a partner. It was the last thing she'd told Jolie before the blonde left to go sightseeing.
"I hope my secretary feels that way." Becker held out her hand again and waited for Jolie to take it. "It was nice meeting you, Ms. Clement. Good luck while you're here."
"Thank you, I have a feeling we're going to need it."
"I've found that if you need it, Las Vegas has a way of providing it."
Jolie's brows scrunched in confusion but didn't ask what the woman meant. "Good luck to you as well." She took the hand being offered and watched hers get swallowed up as a result. "It was nice meeting you."
"Likewise." Becker turned and left, stopping to have a brief conversation with the saleswoman closest to the door. She never looked back inside the store as she walked back to the casino and so didn't see the way Jolie was looking at her as she felt around in her purse for Constance's card. There was something about this tall stranger that intrigued her, and if there were someone in Las Vegas that might know something about her, it would be the supervisor of Casino Services.
"The player has nineteen," the dealer pointed to Claire's cards. "Do you want another card?"
Studying the dealer's cards, which now showed a total of thirteen, but one card was still facing the green felt, so Claire thought about her options. She was starting to attract a crowd who were lured in by the stack of chips she had in front of her. "I'll hold."
The dealer moved on to the next player who accepted a card, then the last man at the end who also held, making Claire sweat out the ten thousand dollar bet she had made. With a unique style, the dealer flipped her hidden card over and showed no emotion when she found the king of hearts. Sometimes it was nice when you didn't have any money at stake was her thought as she pushed another large stack of chips in front of the woman pumping her fists in the air.
"That's enough for me today, can you color me up?" requested Claire. She had picked up some new lingo while sitting at the table all day and was putting it to good use as she watched the dealer trade out the chips for some rarely used colored ones. It was a lot easier carrying them to the cashier's window than the pile she had accumulated. "Here you go, and I hope to see you a little later after I get some sleep."
The dealer held up a thousand dollar chip and nodded. "Thanks and good luck."
"Luck has little to do with it, sweetheart, it's all skill," bragged Claire as she slipped the four chips the dealer handed her in her front pocket.
The cockiness still hadn't died away by the time she reached the suite and found Jolie watching television. "I bet I can beat whatever you're watching." Claire rocked back and forth on her heels and tried her best to keep the words 'I told you so' from coming out of her mouth.
"You look too smug to have lost it all already, so what gives?" Jolie reclined further into the pile of pillows behind her and put her hands behind her back. She could hear the rattle of chips from Claire's pocket but decided to wait the woman out.
The firm mattress didn't make a sound as Claire placed her right knee at the foot of the bed and took her hand out of her pocket. The left one followed suit and soon she was kneeling between the blonde's naked legs. For as long as they had lived together Claire had loved coming home and finding Jolie lounging around in skimpy underwear. None of her other friends were this lucky and she was quick to remind them of the beautiful woman who shared her bed when ever the opportunity presented itself.
"Can you find something on that screen that's better than this?"
Jolie looked up at her and thought her lover was referring to herself. That she was for once thinking about what they had as a couple instead of the next scheme to make it big. "I can honestly say there's nothing better than you, baby." She pulled Claire down to feel the weight of her on her skin and the touch of her lips on hers.
Before the passion could escalate any further, Claire rolled off her and shook her head. "Come on, honey, that's not why we're here." She reached into her pocket and pulled out the rewards for her long day of sitting in the casino. "I was talking about this."
The few chips that landed on her abdomen represented one hundred eighty four thousand dollars. Claire had managed to turn five thousand into a considerable nest egg for their future.
"You're quitting right?" Jolie couldn't take her eyes off the chips as she asked the question.
"We had a deal, Jolie, and I'm keeping my end of it."
Jolie couldn't believe when Claire just scooped up her winnings and headed for the bathroom. "Then give me half for safe keeping."
"The deal was we chance it for two days. Today is the first day, so by my calculations, leaves us with another twenty-four hours to go."
"You don't need all of it to keep gambling, Claire. Hell you started with five, so hand over half. Or is it I'm supposed to share the risk but not the winnings?" Jolie's voice was more than loud enough for Claire to hear through the closed door.
"See?this is what I was talking about on the plane. You don't ever see the big picture because you're dwelling on all the bad stuff that can happen. Every once in awhile let go of all your hang-ups and accept life isn't always bad. That it favors those who are brave enough to take chances." The winnings had emboldened Claire and she wasn't backing down. For once she felt like the one everyone envied and she wasn't giving it up without a fight. "You don't want to be a coward forever do you?"
"You think lady luck is going to give you another afternoon like today just because you're brave? Is that your theory?"
The door flew open and Claire decided to scream back. "Listen to yourself. For God's sake, can't you have faith in me this one time?"
The angry words caused Jolie take a step back. "You believe I don't have faith in you?"
"You promised me two days and that's what it'll take for me to believe you do."
"Fine, do what you want. We at least have our house money back so play with your winnings." She took another step back when Claire went to touch her. "I see that's what they are now, your winnings." The ice in Jolie's voice was as noticeable as the barriers that had gone up around her heart.
"Don't be like that, baby. I'm doing this for us - for our future."
"Our future revolves around us making decisions together, not you dictating what it's going to be." She turned and picked up her jeans, jamming her legs into them in an effort to escape.
"The guilt trip isn't going to work this time, Jolie."
The blonde grabbed her purse and started for the door. She didn't have a destination in mind, but didn't want t be in the room a minute longer. The only thing that slowed her down was Constance standing outside poised to knock.
"I'm sorry, bad time?" Constance's hand dropped to her side as she took a step back in case Jolie wanted to pass.
"Sorry, I just needed to get some air." Jolie ran her hand through her hair realizing she hadn't brushed if after her nap. "Can I talk you into joining me?"
"I'm still on the clock so to speak, which is why I'm here," Constance pointed to the box under her arm. "I come bearing gifts if you'll let me in for a minute."
From the bedroom, Claire watched as the woman from early that morning handed Jolie the large black box. It had some initial on it and was the size of something a jacket would come in. Maybe this was why Jolie wanted half the money. She'd spent her share already.
"What is it?" asked Jolie.
"I could tell you, but wouldn't it be more fun to just open it yourself and find out?"
Jolie recognized the logo on the box but couldn't imagine what could be inside since she was sure she couldn't afford a hanger, much less anything made of actual cloth, from the place. She took it and put it down on the bar so she could get the top off. Inside, wrapped in a swath of silk material instead of tissue, was the dress she'd admired, and sitting on top was a note.
Sometimes the buying is a lot better than the looking.
"Who sent this?" Despite knowing she couldn't accept the very generous gift, Jolie couldn't help but pull the dress out of the box.
"Someone who thought you might enjoy it, no strings attached."
"Constance, I keep telling you, there are always strings attached. Besides, I can't accept this. It's not appropriate."
"Do you remember the talk we had in the garden this morning?" Jolie nodded. "Then believe me, there are still people in the world who do it for the simple pleasure of seeing you smile, nothing more."
"Only thing is, it's you who's getting to see me smile. Is that part of your job too?"
After dealing with the blowhards all day, Constance had to laugh at this woman's no bullshit approach. "I do declare, Miss Scarlet, that's the nicest way anyone has ever asked me if I offer pimping services."
"My work for the casino and our more important guests touches on a lot of areas, but matters of the flesh as it were are not my forte, Ms. Clement. I assure you of that."
"I believe you, but I still can't accept this." As carefully as Jolie had lifted it out of the box, she gently put it back. Even though she was more partial to jeans and comfortable clothes, it didn't keep her from thinking about what it would feel like to put something like this on and be taken out on the town by someone who would treat her like a woman they desired, just because.
"I understand your feelings but if you can't accept it then you'll have to return it yourself. I'm sure the boutique will take care of it for you." Constance ran her fingers over the black fabric, lingering over the straps that made up the top. "Before you do that though, why not take a few hours to think about it? What's the harm in that?" The brunette put her arm around Jolie's shoulder and turned her away from the open door of the bedroom.
The doors and walls of the Bellagio were thick but not so thick she hadn't heard the argument going on when she arrived. It was a common theme with some who came to the city and went nuts under the neon and sound of the slot machines. "How about you go and comb your hair and splash some water on your face and we'll take that walk you talked about?"
"I thought that wasn't part of your job."
"If anyone asks, just tell them you're an heiress in from Louisiana to cover my butt. Now get moving before I put away my more genteel side and forget all about you," teased Constance.
When Jolie passed her without a word, Claire walked in and just stood near Constance as if trying to intimidate her. "I hear you did well today?at the tables anyway." The brunette couldn't resist the snipe.
"I see news travels fast." Claire put her hand on the box but didn't move to open it. "I plan to do even better tonight, so you'd better keep an eye on me and be nice. I might just be one of those important people you were talking about."
"While there's hardly anything that happens in this building I don't know about, you'll have to go some before you become a blip on my radar screen, Ms. Smith." Constance offered her a weak smile. "No offense of course. I do though on occasion give free advice. Could I give you some?"
"Sure, as long as it's free, because I'm finding nothing in this place is really free."
"The tables as they say turn on you eventually no matter how good you think your system is. Casinos like the Bellagio are built and maintained because in the end the odds always favor the house. If you've been lucky enough to have beaten those odds, then you should quit while you're ahead."
Claire laughed and clutched the chips in her pocket. "Isn't your job to make people want to spend money here? Maybe your boss needs to have a talk with you if you're trying to send me packing."
"In my job I meet and deal with people who come here and blow a couple of million dollars in a weekend just for fun. To you and me that sounds like a lot of money but to them, it's loose change." She put her hands up and shook her head. "I know that sounds farfetched but it's just the facts. When they lose, I don't worry about how it will affect them when I put them on their private planes back to their real lives. I don't know if I'll be able to say the same thing about Jolie. Just think about that."
"I would keep my advice to myself from now on or I really will call your boss. It's worth as much as you charge for it."
"Duly noted, Ms. Smith."
Claire picked up a corner of the gift box as if it were getting ready to come to life and bite her. "Who sent this, and why?"
"I'm not at liberty to say, but it was just someone who thought she would like it. According to Jolie it's going back so I wouldn't worry about it."
"Good," Claire pushed the box away from her and put her finger up. "Oh, one more thing."
"Yes?" Constance looked at her watch and wondered where Becker was at the moment and what misery she could rain down on her for this.
"Make sure they only serve me Chivas at the tables tonight. I don't want any of that cheap shit."
"Our high end tables only serve twenty-five-year-old Glenlivet but I'm sure we can scare up the cheaper brand for you. I can see if you haven't had it before where it would be an acquired taste." The thought of telling this bore what a bad idea it was to drink and seriously gamble died in Constance's head. After all, Claire wasn't interested in her advice. "Good luck tonight." When Jolie reappeared, Constance was more than ready to get some air herself.
"Mark, could you call Oscar and tell him I can't make it tonight," the request was whispered into the phone as Constance watched Jolie bend over to look at yet another flower arrangement.
"Are you sure you want me to do that? Becker is going to wonder what happened to you." He pulled the card of numbers he would need if the answer was still yes as he waited.
"I'm sure she will, but tell her I'll make it up to her tomorrow. I'm still babysitting her gift. If she needs to talk to me just give her my number. I'll stop by the table tonight to see how's she's doing. Make sure you mention that."
"Will do, boss, have fun."
"Beautiful aren't they?" The phone was put away and Constance stepped closer to Jolie. After several hours in the woman's company, she could see why Becker had spent close to twenty grand on the dress. "How would you like to have dinner with me?"
"I'm not really dressed for anything special."
"Let me rephrase. If I promise they won't shun you, would you like to have dinner with me?"
Jolie laughed and nodded. "That would be lovely, thank you. Don't you want to head home though? I'm sure it's been a long day for you."
"They're all long days, but lucky for me I love my job."
The lobby was starting to fill up again and most of the employees waved to Constance as they walked through. "It looks more like it's lucky for the casino that you love your job. I hope they pay you a lot."
"The money is nice but there are other things that keep me interested."
They walked along the major thoroughfare through the gaming area, smiling when they heard more than one yell from obvious winners. Constance pointed to her left and one of the many restaurants Bellagio was known for. The only problem Jolie could see was the mile long line to get into the place.
"Just two, Constance?" The oriental woman at the hostess counter asked.
"A booth if you have one, thanks."
"Is not having to wait in line one of the things that keep you interested?" No sooner had Constance asked for a booth than they were seated and being served hot tea.
"One of the things, but it's far down on the list." A waiter appeared with menus but didn't hand them over or interrupt. "Would you like to order something specific or are you up for a surprise? Noodles isn't our most expensive place but it's my favorite."
"What the hell, surprise me." Jolie smiled at the young man who walked away without saying a word. "What's the top thing on your list of likes?"
Constance put her hands around her cup and paused before answering. "Can I wait and answer that?"
"You don't have to answer at all if you don't want."
"The thing I love most is better shown than explained, and I can't do that right this minute." Taking a gamble of her own, Constance asked the question that was going to be the answer to Jolie's question. Asking though would be going beyond what Becker had asked of her, so therein was the gamble. "Are you busy later?"
"I'm sure the pay per view can wait. What did you have in mind?"
"I want to show you what I love about this job. I want to show you the heart of the city."
"Sounds like an interesting proposition, sure."
"Any cards?" The dealer rested his hand in front of Claire's cards. The king of spades and the three of hearts was nothing to hold on so his other hand was on the boot.
"Hit me." Slowly Claire looked from the pile of neatly stacked chips equaling twenty thousand to the card he turned over. The ace of hearts brought her to fourteen, still not close to the twenty-one she needed. Wendy had lectured anything less than seventeen ask for another card.
With a flair that was starting to get on Claire's nerves, the dealer revealed another card. The queen of spades joined her mate a second later. "Player has twenty four." He flipped over the ace of diamonds to add to a ten before sliding all her chips toward him.
"Play again, ma'am?"
"Everyone has as couple of bad hands, no big deal." The pep talk was for her own benefit and the dealer didn't try to add anything.
"Hold your water," she saw only one way to regain what she'd lost and get back on track. "Ask him for one hand at a hundred thousand."
The dealer looked to his pit boss. It was quiet enough for him not to have to repeat the question. The decision maker had heard her. With a nod, the chips were put into play. The dealer's hand showed a king and the hidden card, and Claire had another two tens.
"Any cards, ma'am?"
"I'll hold, thank you." The ball of fire in her stomach disappeared and Claire started planning her next hand and how much to bet.
The dealer flipped the card over showing the five of diamonds. He pulled another card from the boot, the card Claire would've gotten had she asked for one. An ace reignited the churning in her stomach. Another card flipped out and she leaned back to keep from throwing up when it was a three. The odds were he would bust before a two appeared.
"Two of diamonds, dealer has blackjack." Hours of luck were swept away without so much as an apology. "Thank you for playing."
"Don't thank me yet, I'll be right back."
The room was quiet when Claire went back up to the suite. She took it as sign her luck was changing since she could get in and out without an argument. She had to think a minute to remember the safe combination, punching in the numbers when it came to her. The earlier smile came back when she heard the lock mechanism release. Jolie would just have to understand.
The rest of the money was lost in the span of two deals, but Claire wasn't ready to give up and gladly signed her name to the casino credit slip. Jolie and Constance found her throwing up into one of the marble garbage cans close to the table as they made their way to the back. The earlier fight was forgotten when Jolie thought Claire was sick.
"Did you eat something that didn't agree with you?" It scared her when Claire broke into tears instead of answering. "What's wrong? Do you need a doctor?"
"Jolie, can I speak to you a minute?" Constance didn't want to interrupt, but a dark reality of gaming when you couldn't afford it was about to become an actuality for the blonde and her partner, and she wanted to warn Jolie.
"Can you call a doctor for me first?" She held Claire's head against her chest and ran her hand through her hair in comfort.
"Trust me. You'll want to hear this."
"No!" Claire found her voice when Jolie went to follow Constance. "Stay with me."
"I'll be right back, honey." She was torn but Constance looked serious about something.
When Constance finished it was Jolie who wanted to throw up. Claire had not only lost the day's winnings, their original five thousand, but an additional twenty they now owed the casino. The one thing Constance wanted her to know was they had twenty-four hours to pay it back since they had no established credit with Bellagio.
"Or what, they come and break our legs?"
"That was the old Vegas, sweetie. The new Vegas just gets their legal department to start stripping you of assets until you make good on the marker. Do you have the cash to cover this?" She looked to a pale Claire and Jolie didn't need to answer. "Because these guys don't really mess around with stuff like this."
"We have equity in the house but that's going to take a few weeks."
Constance sighed and closed her eyes for a second. If she didn't care for Claire before, the woman had hit a new low for causing the sick look on Jolie's face. "Let me think, because I can maybe buy you a few days." It was then the table in the craps area let out a simultaneous yell. Someone was having a streak of luck and the brunette could only guess who. The person lady luck seemed to favor more than anyone had the dice in her hand and she was just getting started. "Do you remember Becker?"
"I met someone with that name in the boutique today. Why?"
"Because it must have been memorable enough for her to buy you a really expensive non-refundable dress."
The blonde almost stumbled from relief until she reviewed and zeroed in on the word non-refundable. "I thought you said I could bring it back?"
"I said you could return it true, only to the buyer not the store. Becker knew the risks when she had me deliver it." She put her hands on Jolie's arms in an effort to get her to focus. "The dress is a moot point, Becker on the other hand isn't."
"Come on, Beck, we need the four, man," someone yelled in a Texan drawl.
"Okay, why would someone who doesn't know me buy me a really expensive gift?" Jolie was still standing only by sheer will power because she had a real need to lie down.
"I've know Becker Gaudet as long as I've been here and I really can't answer that. Today was really out of character for her."
"There must be something she wants." Jolie's eyes filled with tears and a few rolled slowly down her face. "No one does something like that for nothing."
"I realize you don't know me very well but you'll just have to believe me. She gave you the dress because you seemed to like it, nothing more. But because she did, if you ask for something more, then I also think she won't say no."
The yelling kicked up a notch with the dealer being the loudest voice. "Number four, we have a winner."
Jolie looked to Claire and something she'd said earlier came to mind. Only cowards didn't take chances, was her taunt. "But only fools believe that enough to try," she whispered.
"What?" asked Constance.
"Nothing important," she took a deep breath and tried to picture the face in the boutique from earlier. "Claire, what do you want to do?"
"It's so unfair. There's no way he gets that two of diamonds without cheating. That game was rigged."
"Claire!" Jolie's voice rose enough to cut through the woman's ramblings.
"What?" Claire matched her tone. After the day she'd had the last thing she needed was her lover giving her shit.
"What do you want to do?" The blonde didn't come any closer and had her arms crossed over her chest. She wasn't angry, but the fear of losing a lot of what she'd worked for was making her head hurt. "Christ, Claire, what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking of making a better life for us, but like always, I ended up fucking it up. If you're looking for answers right now I don't have any." Her head was down as she tried to make sense of what happened then looked up, almost eager to see Jolie's reaction to her suggestion. "Maybe I could try and win it back."
"The self pity act isn't working for you, so can it, and if you think I'm going into further debt by letting you piss away more money at the tables, then you're insane." A pale brow arched over a green eye as the only thing that could get them out of this came to mind. "If you put the whole collection on the net tonight with a time limit of twenty four hours, I think we'll have more than enough to dig out of this."
"You want me to sell my sports memorabilia collection? The collection I've been working on since I was fifteen and got my first job? Tell me you're not serious?"
Jolie walked up and put her hands on Claire's face so the brunette would have to look at her. "Then tell me, tell me exactly how we fix this? What you don't seem to understand is that not only are we out our five thousand dollars, half of which was mine - which is the part you seem to keep forgetting - but you put us in another twenty thousand deeper. You made all those decisions by yourself, Diamond Jim, so I'm asking you how you plan to fix it without a little sacrifice on your part?" Her hold tightened when Claire went to pull away. "Tell me."
"I don't know all right. There, are you happy? I don't know."
The small hands dropped in defeat and Jolie turned to face Constance. "What are our options here?"
"Come with me."
Continued in Chapter 2
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