-Dealing with the Devil Excerpt-

     Run and never look back.

     It was the same advice that Jericho Saint gave all of his clients. Most heeded his hard-won advice, though there were always some who didn’t. But even the vast majority of those got away with one last trip back to their house or apartment. For some, like Nadia Bates, it was the last mistake they ever made.

     His friends always told him that he couldn’t save every abused person from their abuser. He knew that. He didn’t need to save them all.

     He just needed to save the ones brave enough to walk through his door.

     It’s not your fault. It’s not your failure.

     Maybe. But it sure as hell felt like it was.

     Jericho sat in the parking lot of the Big Winds Casino, staring up at the huge lit sign, his hands still shaking even though it had been hours since he’d read the news. He glanced in the rearview mirror. With his hair a mess and the pent-up emotions making his eyes red, he looked a fright.

     If he hadn’t looked at the police blotter in the paper, if he hadn’t heard that she’d never made it off the bus, he never would have known that Nadia had been strangled to death in her apartment the night before. Strangled when she should have been on a bus to Cleveland, where a safe house waited for her and her unborn child.

     But almost nobody knew she was dead.

     What should have been front-page news in a small town newspaper had been reduced to three lines in the police blotter because last night, on the streets of that same small town, someone mowed down controversial shock jockey, Nathan Quest.

     Murdered in Murdock, Wyoming.

     The quiet little town nestled in the Rockies not thirty minutes from Alpine. The town almost no one had heard of was now on the front page of every newspaper in the US.

      Were the police even looking for Nadia’s killer?

     Or would she be relegated to the back pages, forever an unsolved crime because all eyes were looking for the killer of a man who probably deserved what he’d got?

     Go home. Go home. Go home.

     A casino was the last place a recovering gambler should be. After reading the news, he’d gotten in his truck because he couldn’t sit in his rented cabin any longer. He should have known when he’d climbed into the truck that he’d end up at the Wind, but fuck if he could think of anywhere else he could go.

     He didn’t have to sit at a poker table and trade a stack of cash for chips. He could have a drink, or two, or more and take the elevator up to a room if the drinking got a little out of hand.

     At least that’s what he told himself as he climbed out of his truck and walked through the Wind’s big double doors.

     He didn’t look right or left as he tuned out the all too familiar sounds of the slot machines and the whoops, hollers, and laughs of the people trying their luck.

     Instead, he kept his head down and followed the red and gold carpet that wound its way through the casino to the bar in the back. The carpet ended, and he stared down at the polished concrete floor at the entrance of the bar. Not much had changed in the years since he’d promised himself he would never step through the Wind’s doors again.

     And as he fought that familiar pull of the poker tables, he realized that maybe he hadn’t changed that much either.

                                                                                # # #

     The thing about the past... it always had a way of coming back and biting you on the ass.

     But what the past didn’t know was that Cassie Kemp wasn’t afraid to bite back.

     And on the third anniversary of her estranged father’s death, as she tossed his lucky poker chip into the air and caught it, she vowed to find a way to put the past down like a dirty, rabid dog.

     She just didn’t know if walking through the doors of the Big Wind Casino was the best way to do it.

     The blast of forced heat hit her in the face and burned the evening chill off her exposed skin. That early in March, she hadn’t expected so much of the winter snow would have melted, especially that close to the mountains, but           Cassie would take her paltry wins where she could.

     It might have been fifteen years since she’d last walked through the Big Wind’s doors, but it felt like fifteen days—about as long as her father had ever managed to stay away from the casino back then.

     The same neon lights flashed Winner Winner! above the floor overcrowded with slot machines. The same electro-techno sounds of the slots assaulted her ears. The same rumble-mumble of voices carried through the casino. The same booze-imbibed cheers when someone’s number came up on the roulette wheel. The same round of regretful groans when someone at the craps table rolled snake eyes.

     And the same inherent, incessant pull of the roped-off room next to the cashier. There were currently two men on a scaffold fixing the ‘e’ in the word ‘poker.’ The letter had been burned out since her dad had first started sneaking her into the room when she was in kindergarten.

     Probably couldn’t get away with that now, but her father had been on good terms with the dealers, and Cassie had become more of a mascot than anything else.

     She glanced around the casino and realized not everything was the same. The men repairing the burned out ‘e’ were not the only indication that improvements were coming to the Wind.

     “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” came an all too familiar voice behind her.

     She spun and launched herself into the arms of the burly man behind her. “Jimmy!”

     The man caught and spun her around as easily as he’d had when she’d been a kid. He put her down and kissed the side of her head. At least he didn’t give her the usual noogie and messed up her hair.

     “Look who’s all grown up and breaking hearts.”

     Jimmy looked good. Really good. One of those guys who looked better with gray at the temples and creases at the corners of their eyes when he smiled. With his big, meaty hands and barrel chest, he looked like he should have been walking off the set of Scarface than haunting the carpeted walkways of a casino. All he lacked was the mobster accent.

     “I don’t know about breaking hearts.” Cassie would probably have to go beyond her typical one-night stands and get to know someone well enough to break their heart.

     “Hey, Jimmy,” a dealer in the Big Winds’ signature uniform of black slacks, black vest, and shiny, ruffled red shirt called out from behind one of the Blackjack tables. “Whitehawk’s looking for you.”

     “Mister Whitehawk still runs the Wind?” Tony Whitehawk had seemed ancient when she’d been a kid, and for some reason, had always looked the other way the few times he’d caught her father sneaking her into the poker room on school nights.

     “No. His grandson is running the place. He just started. That’s why all the...” Jimmy waved his hands around, indicating all the work going on to spruce the place up. Cassie was all for aging gracefully, but the old girl could use the facelift.

     Jimmy’s eye roll wasn’t lost on her.

     “You don’t like him?”

     “He’s a rule follower. He would have never looked the other way when your father snuck you in the way his grandfather did, and that would have been a real shame.”

     “I don’t know. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”

     “Psht.” Jimmy waved her off and looked her up and down. From her high heels to her mid-thigh sequined black dress, to the sparkly bangles on her wrist, to the cascade of cubic zirconia dangling from her ears.

     At least she’d grown out of the faded jeans and sports T-shirt phase of her life. Mostly.

     “It doesn’t look like it harmed you none.”

     Yeah, well, the emotional baggage didn’t always come packed in an oversized Versace bag to throw over her arm for all the world to see. Not that she could afford a Versace bag on a dispatcher’s salary.

Jimmy leaned in and kissed her temple. “I’ve got to go before Whitehawk comes looking for me. Great seeing you, kid. You going to be around?”

     If she didn’t chicken out on her hair-brained idea and run back home. But Jimmy had dealt cards long enough to spot someone who was bluffing, so instead of saying ‘of course,’ she said, “We’ll see.”

     Jimmy’s name was called over the loudspeaker, asking him to go to the manager’s office before he could press her further. She watched him go, the sights and sounds of the casino slamming back into her consciousness. She rolled the poker chip across her knuckles the way Jimmy had taught her all those years ago and eyed the exit.

     If she were going to do this, she didn’t want to do it sober.

     Besides, the last time she’d been at the Wind, she’d been too young to drink.

     She commandeered a bar stool in a nearly empty bar and ordered a whiskey. She knocked it back with practice and ordered another. She took more time with the second.

     When she ordered the third, the bartender raised a dark brow and flicked her short black hair out of her eyes. Her tongue toyed with her thin, gold lip ring as she assessed Cassie. “Man trouble?”

     The bartender had a kind face and a knowing smile that said this question wasn’t a new one.

     Cassie’s smile slipped a fraction, remembering what had brought her there. “Yeah, but not the fun kind.”

The bartender fixed her drink and set it on a fresh cocktail napkin. “Not my business, but maybe you should pace yourself. The night is still young.”

     Even though the bartender couldn’t be older than her mid-twenties, she had that big sister vibe. “You don’t have to worry about me.” Cassie glanced at the woman’s name tag and appreciated that Paige did, in fact, worry about her. “There’s a two hundred pound, booze-guzzling frat boy inside of me trying to get out. I can handle my alcohol much better than most men twice my size.”

     A man slid onto the barstool next to her even though other stools were empty. He leaned in and said, “Is that a challenge?”

     Cassie spun in her seat to face him. He had bags under his red-rimmed eyes, that sexy bed-head look, but the natural kind, not the kind that takes hours in the mirror and a whole bottle of gel to materialize. He had an enticing curve to his lips Cassie wanted to kiss until the sadness left his eyes.

     But she was here to exercise her demons, not drag an unsuspecting man to her bed.

     “Just an fact,” Cassie said.

     She looked him up and down. He wasn’t twice her size, but the fir-green Henley he wore couldn’t hide the bulge of his biceps. His hair fell over his collar, and it was hard to tell if that’s how he normally wore it or if he’d been too absorbed in whatever he did to remember to get it cut.

     Being a former dispatcher with the Bison County Sheriff’s office, she’d been around enough of the LEO and first responder types to pick up on the energy he put off. If not law enforcement, then maybe former military at the very least. One of those guys with their heads always on a swivel and uncomfortable with their backs to the door.

     The bartender wandered over to take his order. After ordering, he glanced at Cassie and said, “Can I buy you a drink?”

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