No Player Required

Chapter One


Rafael “Rafa” Salord strode through the run-down Lucky Lane Casino and Hotel in a designer suit and thousand-dollar cufflinks like he owned the place. Because he did. Or, at least, his father did.

 

"The cafe is open twenty-four seven,” General Manager Dean Bullen said to Rafa, pointing to the restaurant in front of them. “The buffet serves lunch and dinner—brunch on Sundays. Upstairs, our steak house opens at five every night.”

 

The dim lighting reflected like spotlights off the old guy’s smooth bald head as he pulled at the lapels of his polyester pinstriped suit. “And Lucille’s is open every day for lunch and dinner. It’s the best BBQ downtown.”

 

Pues bueno. Rafa had gone from jamón serrano to ketchup-smothered pork. How the mighty had fallen.

 

“Listen, son.” Dean rested his hand on Rafa’s shoulder, an act the manager would know was too familiar if he knew anything about Rafa. The fact that Dean had to reach up a foot to touch Rafa’s shoulder made it even more odd. “You think your old man is punishing you by sending you here. I mean, Hong Kong, Monaco, Bahamas—Ganadora Industries’ portfolio gave him a lot of properties to choose from.”

 

Exactly what Rafa was thinking. His father’s gaming company had properties in the most exotic places in the world, and now Reno? “My father has fond memories of his college days with you.” Looking at Dean, Rafa could barely believe it. But relationships were important to Sergio Salord—with everyone, apparently, except his own son.

 

“Wild times.” Dean snorted. “Poor little exchange student was a fish out of water. But I took Sergio under my wing, and we had fun. Probably a good thing Sergio was only here one semester.” He laughed. “Though it surprised me when Ganadora purchased us.” Dean winked. “Maybe your old man never got our little city out of his system.”

 

Dean motioned for Rafa to lean in. Gritting his teeth, Rafa did, bringing the overpowering smell of Dean’s ten-dollar cologne too close. “Trust me. You’ll have your share of fun in Reno, too.”

 

Fun. Skiing in Val d’Isère? Some fun. Yachting in Porto Cervo? Always fun. Babysitting a past-its-prime, barely profitable casino in Nowhere, Nevada—so not fun. Dios mío, northern Nevada was a long way from Madrid. Hell, northern Nevada was a long way from everywhere.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Rafa saw Dean give an almost indiscernible nod to a guy at the bar overlooking the table games. The guy’s jacket—loud plaid, wide-collared, and ill-fitted—screamed hustler. Rafa would know. He hung out with the best of them around the world. “Friend of yours?”

 

Dean’s eyes widened just slightly. “Uh, not really. Just one of the regulars. Hey, listen, I got a few things to handle.” He slapped Rafa on the back.

 

Rafa closed his eyes. Uno, dos… Pummeling a supposedly well-connected guy in Nevada gaming was probably not a good day-one move. Especially if Ganadora ever wished to grace the Las Vegas Strip with its presence. Though if Dean’s connections were as good as rumored, why he stayed at this two-bit dump was beyond reason.

 

“You seem uptight, kid,” Dean said. “You need to relax with some company after that long trip. You know what I mean? What do you like? Feisty? Role-playing?”

 

Rafa tensed. Like he needed help with women, especially from this guy.

 

Dean misread Rafa’s body language. “Ah…role-playing. I know the perfect girl.”

 

“I don’t think tonight’s the night.” Or tomorrow or the next day. He hadn’t done something so unrefined as pay for sex since college.

 

“Friday’s one of her busiest nights, but I think I can get her here,” Dean said, ignoring Rafa’s declination and checking his watch. “Tell you what, be at the Fish Bar at eleven tonight. She’ll find you.”

 

Nothing called the Fish Bar could meet Rafa’s standards. He started to decline again, then stopped. Even with his head foggy with jet lag, his instincts perked up. As much as he didn’t want to buddy up to this guy, the truth was he needed Dean. For now. He’d meet the girl, buy her a drink, throw her some cash, and then call it a night. “What’s her name?”

 

“Michelle. She’s pricey but worth it.”

 

                                                                                                           ***

Destiny slid her beat-up dark blue Sentra into the last cramped parking space on the top floor of Lucky Lane’s deck. The clock on her dash read ten to seven. At least she wasn’t late. Seven o’clock, sharp, was the meet time per Starr, the bride-to-be.  

 

“Listen, Aunt Mabel, I gotta run,” Destiny said, speaking into the car’s recently installed hands-free device for her phone, the only piece of her jalopy that was less than ten years old. “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop back by after work. Now tell me what you’re having for dinner tonight.”  

 

“Oh, a little of this, a little of that,” the old woman sing-sang.

 

“Remember what the doctor said about eating right—like whole meals?”

 

“Stop fussing. You sound like an old lady. You worry too much.”

 

“You know that’s my specialty.” And she’d done more of it than usual lately. There was too much to do to get her charity off the ground, with raising money being a priority. Her charity. Yes, it was official. Mike Mayfield, the founder, had finally revised the paperwork and added her as a partner.  

 

“I don’t need a nightly check-in.”

 

Destiny could almost see the pout on her aunt’s face, because they both knew the truth: Aunt Mabel did need a check-in or she’d forget to eat. That’s why Destiny had moved into the same apartment complex in little Washoe City. She knew her aunt felt comfortable where she’d spent most of her life. And, sure, seeing wild horses graze in the distant pastures was oddly comforting. But sometimes the twenty-mile drive outside Reno felt like one hundred. Still, someone had to watch her mom’s older sister, and since Mom had been basically MIA for years, Destiny was all the someone her aunt had.

 

“You should be out.” The irritation in Aunt Mabel’s voice faded to concern. “You’re young.”

 

Destiny smiled to herself. “I am out,” Destiny said, knowing she’d regret it and the hundred questions she’d get over the next week. “I’m going to my friend’s bachelorette party.” She knew her flat tone didn’t do the event justice.

 

“Oh, good! Though you make it sound like a funeral. You’ll have fun!”

 

Fun would be soaking in a bubble bath or catching up on all of the TV shows Destiny had missed while working late this week. Or reading. Yes, definitely reading. But she had to go to this party; Starr was one of her closest friends. Plus, it was Starr’s last night in town before returning to New York, where she now lived with her soon-to-be-husband.

 

At one point, Destiny thought Starr might ask her to be maid of honor, but Starr had opted for her sister-in-law, Grace, instead. It was for the best all around. Starr deserved a maid of honor who believed in what the bride was doing. Not that Destiny didn’t think highly of the groom-to-be. She did. Spencer was an amazing guy who seemed to love Starr very much. Too bad love was never enough. Mom had taught her that.

 

“Where are you going? What are you girls doing? Tell me all the details.”

 

“Dinner at Lucille’s, that new BBQ restaurant in Lucky Lane. Then probably a nightclub or two.” Packed like sardines with strangers inside some skanky club, bodies sweating, music blaring, ears ringing. Yeah, total fun.

 

“Lucky Lane! My favorite place. Maybe you’ll meet a man.”

 

“First, Lucky Lane isn’t your favorite place, because you promised you wouldn’t gamble anymore.” Destiny had lost track of the number of times Aunt Mabel had Ubered her way into Reno, only to gamble all her money and call Destiny for a ride home. “Second, I’m not looking for a man, especially the sort I’d find at Lucky Lane.”

 

She could feel the old woman’s frown—most likely about the gambling comment.

“When’s the last time you went on a date, honey?”

It was Destiny’s turn to frown, though she wasn’t sure if it was because a sixty-plus-year-old woman was questioning her social life or because Destiny didn’t have one. She didn’t have time to check her email, let alone date. What would be the point, anyway? She didn’t want a relationship. Her mother had been through plenty and was still miserable. What was Mom on now—husband number five, six? Destiny had stopped counting.

 

“I’m not interested in dating,” Destiny said almost robotically. The topic came up frequently with her aunt. “I’ve got no time.” Not with everything that had to be done to get All For One up and running. She’d put her heart and soul into this charity. “Besides, I’ve got all the companionship I need with you. Are you trying to get rid of me?”

 

A beep on the line indicated an incoming call. Destiny checked the screen. Mike Mayfield. Speaking of needy… 

“I’ve got to go, Aunt Mabel. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She kissed into the phone, then hit the button to change lines. “Hi, Mike.”

 

“Destiny, I’m so glad I caught you.”

 

Nothing good could come from an opening line like that on a Friday evening. Destiny tensed for the list of undone items needing weekend follow-up.

 

“I forgot to tell you I’ll be unavailable for a few days,” Mike said.

 

“Unavailable?” While I’m doing all the work for next Wednesday. “I’m picking up the silent auction cards tomorrow, then meeting with the florist. And I meet with the caterer at three to review the menu. We can go over all the other last-minute details when you get back. I’ll schedule time for first thing Monday, and we can divvy things up. Sound okay?”

 

“Actually, no. I’m out the first part of the week. Let’s meet up Wednesday.”

 

“The charity event is Wednesday.”

 

“I know, and I know it’ll be perfect, just like everything you do.”

 

“Mike, no. You can’t put this all on me.”

 

“Don’t be so dramatic. You have Sarah to help.”

 

“Sarah’s not even full-time. Plus, she’s young and still learning. She’s never put together a charity event.” And I don’t have time to guide her through everything. “There’s still a ton of stuff to do. I don’t have time to fin—”

 

“Listen, Des, you’re breaking up. But I’ll see you there Wednesday night. Oh, and Des, I borrowed two hundred from the petty-cash envelope. Short-term. Promise. Des, can you hear me? Des?”

 

Click.

 

Dang him. Destiny leaned back against the car’s headrest and closed her eyes. When she’d left her social worker position to join Mike at All For One, he’d made it sound like they’d be building the charity from the ground up together—not like she’d be a one-woman show. And two hundred dollars from petty cash? That was the petty cash fund.

 

Whatever. Worrying about it now wouldn’t fix it. Maybe Aunt Mabel was right. A night out was exactly what she needed before a new week of hell began. One night when she wasn’t a twenty-seven-year-old goody-two-shoes whose main companion was her elderly aunt.

 

Destiny whipped off the button-down shirt she’d been wearing as a jacket. That left a skintight purple tank that, when tugged down past her better judgment, teased a black lace bra. Her jeans were stylish enough and tight enough. Her shoes, on the other hand, should’ve been a cute pair of pumps, not the Converse she was sporting. Oh well. She looked in the rearview mirror and tweaked her cheeks until they were rosy pink. She put on an extra coat of mascara, the only eye makeup she ever wore, and fluffed her long, dark hair. Then she grabbed lip gloss from her purse and put on one—no, two—thick coats.

 

Tonight, come hell or high water, she was going to have some fun.

 

                                                                                                            ###

The entire club shook from the music’s beat—the lights, the floor, even the little piece of mahogany bar Destiny clung to while waiting for the other girls to weave themselves through the throng from the dance floor. One by one, they appeared, then gathered around Starr and her poufy pink-feathered tiara. Starr’s blonde ringlets bounced off her shoulders, matching her bubbly personality.

 

Unable to shake the mother hen in her even when it came to partying, Destiny gathered the flock close. “Okay, ladies, Cuervo time,” Destiny hollered over the music, indicating another spread of lime wedges, salt, and shots on the bar. She grabbed hers, then stepped back. Would anyone notice if she sipped it this time—or better yet, spilled it? She hardly ever drank, and her taste buds were already revolting from the first round.

 

Grace, the bride-to-be’s future sister-in-law, raised her shot glass. “To Starr. She was my favorite babysitting client a dozen years ago. Now she gets to babysit her new husband for the rest of her life.”

 

Amid the group’s hoots and hollers and “good luck with that” well-wishes, the ladies downed their drinks. Destiny squeezed her eyelids shut, threw back her head, and followed suit. When she opened her eyes, the room spun along with her wits. She grabbed the bar to steady herself. Two shots were definitely her limit. For the year.

 

Starr flung an arm around Destiny’s shoulder. “You know, I never thanked you for helping Spencer and me get together.”

 

“Nah.” Destiny shook her finger at the perky blonde. “You figured it out on your own.”

 

“Maybe.” Starr squirmed her way to sit next to Destiny at the bar. “How’s the new charity?”

 

“Good.” Except for my boss. “Different. I thought it’d be more of a partnership. But I’m really putting a lot of it together myself. Mike’s been…” Disappointing. Unreliable. “Don’t get me wrong, I love what we’re doing. I mean, what we’re going to be doing. The idea of helping former drug users—like Mike used to be—stay on track is needed. There are lots of programs out there that help them get clean but not many that support them long enough afterwards.” She played with her empty shot glass. “There’s all kinds of vulnerable people out there. I wish I could help them all.” Destiny thought back to the too-recent past, when Aunt Mabel had gambled away her monthly social security check. She looked at her friend. “I miss you.”

 

“New York’s not that far.”

 

Destiny raised a brow.

 

“Okay,” Starr conceded. “Maybe it is.”

 

“I can’t believe you’re going back tomorrow.”

 

“At least you’ll be coming to visit soon. Only three months ’til the wedding!”

 

Destiny leaned into Starr. “And it will be fabulous, even if it’s not in Reno.”

 

“Just remember, I’m proud of you wherever you are and wherever I am.” Starr squeezed Destiny’s neck, accidentally bonking their heads together. “Whatever you do, you’ll be awesome.” She waved haphazardly at the bartender. “Another round for me and my hero.”

 

Destiny laughed and held up her hands. “I think I’ve had enough.” She should head home. But to what? An empty apartment? To her guilty conscience about everything she’d wanted to get done this week at work but didn’t?

 

“Nonsense,” Grace said, reaching over them for one of the shots the bartender had laid out behind Starr. “We’ve just started.” She handed a shot to Starr, who downed it. Grace hugged Starr with one arm, then called out to the rest of the group. “Ladies, let the games begin. Starr’s up first.”

 

A chorus of hoots greeted Grace’s announcement.

 

“Oh, no,” slurred Starr, the feathered tiara bouncing on her head. “I’ve got my own games planned for tonight with Spencer. Besides, someone’s got to stay impartial, in case there’s a tie.” She giggled.

 

“Fine. For the rest of you wanton women, listen up.” Grace motioned the group away from the bar and into a close circle with an exaggerated curled finger. “We’ll start with an easy one. Get a guy to buy you a drink.” She pulled out her cell phone. “Quickest wins. Extra points for style. Destiny, you’re up.”

 

“Wait, why me?”

 

“Alphabetical.” Like any of them could recite even the first ten letters of the alphabet at this point. Grace grabbed Destiny and tugged her tank top until the black lace from the bra below was fully visible. “Now you’re ready.” Grace punched her phone. “Timer’s on. Go!”

 

Destiny flicked her fingers at the butt swats from the girls as she scooted away from the group. What had she gotten herself into? She’d barely say hi to a guy when she was sober. This wasn’t her. Damn straight this wasn’t her, but it was exactly what she needed after the week she’d had and the next one coming.

 

Fine.

 

She stopped, straightened her shoulders, and pushed out her chest. If she was going to do this, she was going to do this right. No teenybopper. She scanned the bar for her target. No to the group of business men. No to the pair of smoking tattooed guys.

 

Looking, looking… Wait.

Sitting alone at the bar: dark hair, broad shoulders, tailored suit. Perfect. Almost too perfect for this place. He’d do.

 

Rehearsing her cool pickup line, she slid next to him. Before she could open her mouth, a guy from behind bumped into her, propelling her into the bar. “Oof.” Destiny caught herself before face-planting on the bar. The room spun. She should’ve passed on that last tequila. Breathe in, breathe out. In, out. The movement slowed, then stopped.

 

“Are you all right?”

 

Destiny didn’t know if it was the Spanish accent or the velvet voice, but something in those four words burned a path from her ears to her stomach, then lower.

 

Tequila. It had to be the tequila.

 

She pushed up from the bar and looked up into the darkest eyes she’d ever seen. Dark as onyx and ringed by thick black lashes. Despite her standing and him seated, she was barely at eye level with what must’ve been a six-foot-plus giant. His dark eyes locked onto her baby blues, mesmerizing her.

 

Or maybe it was his high cheekbones, his naturally tanned skin, or his sexy twenty-four-hour shadow.

 

“Are you?” he asked again. “All right?” His full lips twitched.

 

“I’m… I’m fine.” She took a deep breath. “Never better.” She treated him to her best effort at a sexy grin. “But I could use a drink.” She slid onto a bar seat.

 

“Of course.” He waved the bartender over. “Another rum and Coke for me, and…” He looked to her.

 

“A cosmopolitan, please,” she said. For the game. “And a water.” For her.

 

Those full lips next to her twitched again.

 

“I’m Rafa.” Mr. Tall, Dark, and Sexy leaned in.

 

She got a light whiff of fresh-cut pine. It was subtle—from soap, not cologne. And very intoxicating. Focus, Destiny. The game. Remember the game. “Rafa?”

 

“Short for Rafael. My friends call me Rafa.”

 

“So, we’re friends already, Rafa?”

 

Rafa leaned in. “We will be, as soon as you tell me your name.”

 

He waited, Destiny assumed, for her name. Her name. Destiny was the perfect pick-up name. It was also real. And she wasn’t being real tonight. It’s only a name, Destiny, not nuclear codes. Give him a name—any name.

 

He raised an eyebrow, still waiting. She blinked. She’d never seen eyes as black as his. Infinite.

 

“Let me guess.” Rafa smiled. “Michelle.” With his accent, the name came out with a long “e”—MEE-shell. Amazing how an accent could sexy-up a name. Destiny watched his arm muscles bulge through the suit as he leaned onto the counter. Meeshell it was.

 

She reached for the drink the bartender had placed on the counter. She leaned over and teased him with a view. Dear Lord, she didn’t know where her nerve came from, but she couldn’t deny the tiny rush of power she felt when appreciation flashed across his face. “That’s right. I’m Michelle. You’re good.”

 

“Better than you’ve heard. Unfortunately, tonight I have another engagement, though I appreciate you meeting me.” He pushed four hundred-dollar bills toward her.

 

Destiny stiffened. “What’s this?” Wait… Was he trying to buy drugs? Did she have the face of a drug dealer? Her heart plummeted to her stomach and then kicked the lining. Destiny glanced around. She couldn’t see a thing through the mob. Where were the girls?

 

He raised a brow. “Did you expect more?” His fingers stroked her forearm. “Look, I’m not interested—at least not tonight. Just take the money and go.” He nodded in the direction of the exit.

 

Destiny pulled away and steadied herself. Dear Lord, he wasn’t buying drugs; he was buying her.

 

Her face heated. She wasn’t dressed like a slut. And even if she was, what kind of pervert just walked up to a woman and assumed she was one?

“No thanks.” She gritted her teeth, holding back a host of other words clamoring to rush from her lips. Sleazeballs like Rafa were exactly the reason she avoided bars and clubs and dating. Destiny popped off the seat and turned to leave.

His chuckle stopped her. “I heard you were feisty. Maybe this act works well for Dean and his crowd. I prefer a bit more sophistication.”

 

Her mortification turned to molten anger. She wasn’t sophisticated enough for him?

 

Rafa pulled out a wad of cash and tossed a couple twenties on the bar for the bartender. Then he picked up his drink with one hand and took her by the arm with the other. He turned toward the exit. “I’ll walk you out,” he said like he owned the place.

 

He was nuts. She pulled her arm back. “Wait.”

 

“What now?” Rafa paused and looked back just in time to get the contents of Destiny’s drink tossed in his face. He let out what she assumed were several profanities in Spanish—possibly other languages as well.

 

Before she knew it, she and Rafa were surrounded by casino security, who ushered them out the nearest exit and onto the casino floor. “Thank God you guys are here. This man tried to accost me.”

 

“Correction. You accosted me with your drink.” Rafa removed a monogrammed handkerchief from his front breast pocket and dabbed his dripping face. Then he turned toward one of the security guards, a middle-aged guy with a potbelly. “Please escort this woman out of the bar and the casino. Get her a cab.”

 

Was this guy for real? “I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Ignoring her, Rafa flipped a few bills to the guard. “Send her anywhere she wants to go.”  

 

Where the heck were the girls? “Who do you think you are?”

 

He turned to Destiny. “My name is Rafael Salord, and your services are not required tonight.”

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