Vienna Mortenson isn’t your typical gambler. She prefers to stay under the radar, using her poker winnings to support her family and her community, including the local search and rescue team, which she heads up. Out in the backcountry there’s no time for hesitation when lives are on the line. Vienna prides herself on being tough and decisive. She’s not the sort to make a fool of herself over a guy, especially one who left her high and dry without a backward glance.
Zale Vizzini’s job constantly puts him in harm’s way. Working undercover and disappearing for months at a time isn’t exactly a recipe for a stable relationship. Despite the challenges and the risks, Zale wants something real with Vienna. He just needed time to figure out how to be in her life without putting her in danger. Now, he’s determined to win her back, and he’s ready to lay all his cards on the table.
As their friends’ wedding approaches, Zale takes advantage of the festivities to make a play for Vienna’s heart. But there are more deadly forces waiting to strike in the rugged terrain of Nevada and the western Sierras. Soon both of their lives are threatened, and the odds are stacked against them....
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Vienna Mortenson pushed her shiny key into the private elevator to take her to the floor where her suite was located. She had never been impressed with money. Never. She preferred camping outdoors to hotels, no matter how luxurious they were, and casinos were not her thing. Being a nurse and seeing time and again what cigarettes could do to people, she despised the smell of them. Just walking through a casino floor made her want to tell all those people smoking what was inevitably going to happen to them. Yet here she was, being impressed with this particular hotel.
The Northern Lights Hotel and Casino was owned by billionaire Daniel J. Wallin. Vienna was aware that he had partners, but Wallin had started the hotel; it was his concept and he owned the majority of shares. It was rare for a single hotel to do the kind of business that his did. It was popular, full to capacity at all times. The twice-a-year gambling tournaments drew the biggest names and had some of the biggest returns, which was one of the reasons she had decided to participate even though it required her to be there in person.
Normally, Vienna competed online. She'd built her reputation through her username luckypersiancat. She'd managed to pay for her mother's cancer treatments. Her mother still lived in Vegas with her partner, and Vienna paid her rent using her gambling money. She'd put herself through nursing school. She owned a nice house in Knightly, where she resided with her Persian cat, Princess. She'd put quite a bit away for retirement and invested most of the rest of her winnings. She gave a great deal of the money to the local hospital and also invested in search and rescue gear for the county she lived in. She had established a scholarship program for single mothers with children. She'd been careful to stay under the gambling radar, living and working in Knightly at the local hospital. She was also head of Search and Rescue for the county.
"Honey, hold that elevator," a voice called out.
Vienna turned. She didn't particularly like to be addressed as "honey" by total strangers, but the gentleman calling out to her was older. He looked to be about seventy, with thick gray hair and faded blue eyes. He did look fit, even though he walked with a cane. She flicked a quick, assessing glance over him to see what his injury might be. He didn't appear to have one. He wasn't actually limping or even leaning heavily on the cane. He wasn't even walking with it correctly. He did have a key to the elevator in his hand, so she held the door.
She looked past him to the man behind him and her breath caught in her lungs. Everything in her stilled. She nearly let go of the door. Zale Vizzini. The moment she saw him, she could taste him. The way he kissed. Feel him inside her. The way he moved. The way he filled her. No one was like him. No one ever would be again. Her eyes met his, and she caught the little shake of his head. It was almost imperceptible. His hand lifted to his chest and he waved her off-again, the smallest movement.
Vienna flashed a brilliant smile at the older gentleman, who was nearly to the elevator. "You know, if security is watching, I'll probably receive a visit from them."
"And rightfully so," the man said cheerfully. He stepped inside the cedar-scented elevator, hooking the cane over his arm as he did so. "I'm Wayne Forsyne. You're actually more beautiful in person than in your photograph, and I thought that was extraordinary." He completely ignored Zale slipping into the lift behind him and settling against a wall.
The doors slid shut silently and the elevator began to rise. Vienna kept her gaze steadfastly on the older man, although every nerve ending in her body was vividly aware of Zale. It was embarrassing and rather humiliating not only that she could feel his body heat when he was completely across from her but that she could feel her entire body reacting to his presence. That never happened around other men.
Deliberately, she sighed. "I suppose you're referring to that obnoxious wraparound photograph the hotel has of me along with the other tournament players going around and around the outside of the hotel and then in the lobby and again in the casino?"
"You look lovely, even more so in person."
"I think it's a little overdone to have us everywhere, not to mention it seems like it's miles high, but I suppose it's good advertisement for the hotel and casino."
The elevator smoothly came to a stop and the doors glided open. Forsyne waved for her to precede him, and she did so without hesitation. She didn't need to be in such close proximity to Zale. She would know his scent anywhere. The cedar in the elevator couldn't cover the way his skin hinted at first snow and fresh rain in the High Sierras.
She wanted to run to the door of her suite, but instead she turned calmly to smile at Forsyne. "It was lovely to meet you."
"If security takes you to task for helping an old man out, you call for me. I'm next door."
There were only four suites on the entire floor, and his suite was directly across from hers. She shared the elevator with Forsyne. The other two suites had their own elevator on the other side of the floor.
"I'll do that." She was very proud of herself for not looking at Zale as she inserted her gold key into the lock and the door opened for her. She stepped inside and closed the door, nearly going to the floor, her legs turning to rubber.
She had never thought she would see Zale Vizzini again. Not ever-and she didn't want to see him. She wasn't a woman to make a fool of herself over a man. He'd walked away from her without a backward glance. That had hurt. Really hurt. She knew better than to have any faith in men, but she'd wanted to think she'd mattered to him. She hadn't. So, okay. She'd gotten her heart broken just like a million other women. She was tough. She could take it. She didn't want a repeat of the process, and seeing him and feeling her instant reaction told her she was susceptible to him.
Vienna slid down the door to sit on the floor. There was no one around to see her moment of weakness. She had learned to take those moments if they came. She was decisive as a rule. She'd been raised by a single mother and they had struggled financially, though not at first. They seemed to have money coming in, and they lived in a nice neighborhood in a nice home. But when it came time for her to go to school, that hadn't lasted.
She'd had to learn at an early age not to let other people's opinions bother her. Her clothes weren't good enough. The car her mother drove wasn't nice. They eventually lived in a run-down apartment so the money could go to private school tuition. Soon, they didn't have the money for that. Vienna was grateful that they didn't have the money and she could leave that school where the girls weren't nice to her. She got odd jobs to help out, contributing the money and feeling like it was the two of them, her mother and her, against the world. They were so close, and she loved that.
Vienna took a deep breath and looked around the far-too-large-for-one-person suite. It was gorgeous, from the marble floors and grand piano, to the sweeping views and up-to-date high-tech gaming room, to the deep soaking tub, Jacuzzi, private hot tub on the balcony, walk-in marble shower and enormous far-too-comfortable bed with fireplace and views. There wasn't anything she could possibly think of that had been left out. If she did need anything, she simply had to pick up the phone and her own personal concierge would immediately provide it for her. Best of all, it was free. Why? Because she'd been invited to play in their tournament. The one with the enormous prize at the end. How could she possibly resist coming out from behind her anonymity for a chance at millions, especially since she was already going to be in Vegas?
She'd been there for over a week, playing along with more than a thousand hopefuls trying to get a seat in the semifinals. She'd steadily advanced, one game at a time, until she'd finally managed to make one of the coveted seats.
Her phone buzzed and she glanced down. Stella Harrison. The bride. One of her best friends. "Right here, but I'm not sure I'm speaking to you at the moment," she greeted.
"Uh-oh. What's wrong? Are the other players being mean?"
"I can handle players in a tournament," Vienna said. She stood and ran her finger back and forth along the beautiful table. There wasn't a speck of dust. Not one single speck. Now she was putting fingerprints on it. She felt a little guilt over that. "Do you remember when Sam had some of his friends take us to Shabina's house because he felt it was the safest place to be when the killer had threatened us?" She couldn't make herself say the killer's name. It still hurt, after all these months.
"He threatened you specifically, Vienna, and me," Stella said. "But yes, I remember."
"I wasn't so happy about being forced to leave work by some man I didn't know. He didn't give me much choice. And he didn't talk much either. It wasn't like he explained the situation."
"As I recall, none of Sam's friends were big on talking, but then, Sam isn't either," Stella agreed. "We've just gotten used to Sam over the years we've known him."
Vienna appreciated that Stella was allowing her to get around to what she had to say without hurrying her. Vienna wasn't certain how to explain the situation. "The man he sent to collect me was named Zale. I found him the most annoying and attractive man I'd ever met in my life. He was so damned intelligent and could actually talk when he wanted to about a wide variety of subjects."
There was silence on the other end of the phone. Vienna could almost count the breaths Stella took. "When did you ever have a conversation with him? Certainly not at Shabina's house. We were all together. I would have known you were talking to him. And afterward, when we found out Denver was dead, we were all so shocked and devastated, we just kind of stayed together for a little while and talked things out."
"I know. But then I went backpacking up into the mountains alone. I didn't want to be afraid of a serial killer coming after me. I have to be able to go into all sorts of places without being afraid. I decided I needed to just go, to get it over with. I had built up a ton of vacation and I took six weeks, packed up and went hiking. Zale followed me."
Again, there was a long silence. Finally, there was the sound of a door closing. "Sorry, someone came in. I take it you didn't send him away."
"No, he stayed with me for the entire six weeks. He was this amazing man. So intelligent, and you know how brains matter to me. He could make me laugh. And he was great outdoors. On top of that, he was dynamite in bed. He could light up the night. I had no idea sex could be like that. We didn't talk about my home life or his, because I thought we had all the time in the world. For some ridiculous reason, I believed he was as taken with me as I was with him. I mean, he didn't say so, and neither did I, but when he touched me, I felt it. So much for my intuition as a woman."
Vienna was very proud of herself for keeping any bitterness from her voice. She didn't even feel bitter. She'd been hurt, but she wasn't bitter. Zale hadn't given her false promises. If she had built a relationship between them, it had been all in her mind. He'd shown up, they'd talked. She couldn't even say he'd seduced her. The attraction had been mutual. He'd been respectful. Careful of her because they were alone out in the middle of Yosemite. He'd told her he'd pitch a tent away from her. She'd been the one to make the decision to allow him to stay with her.
"He just packed up one day and disappeared without a word. I mean, I woke up, he was packing up, he leaned over and kissed me goodbye and was gone. I never heard from him again."
"Are you kidding me?" Stella sounded outraged.
"No. He really is one of the ghosts Denver was always going on about. In any case, he's clearly working some job here. He signaled to me that he didn't want me to acknowledge that I knew him. Or maybe he's married and his wife is here with him. Sheesh, I never even considered that." Now that she thought of it, she was alarmed. Horrified.
"No, he's not married. Well, at least I don't think he is. Now I'm going to go grill Sam. Zale Vizzini is Sam's best man. I had no idea you even knew him other than for that brief moment at Shabina's or I would have told Sam he was banned from our wedding. I wonder if it's too late to kick him out. I'll turn into bridezilla for you."
Vienna laughed. "You can't do that. I can handle it. It was just such a shock to see him." She sobered up suddenly. "Although if he was married at the time, I'll have to retaliate even if it's in a childish way. That would be so disgusting. I do not mess around with married men. And that includes men in partnerships."
"I'll find out what I can and call you back."
"Please keep what I told you confidential."
"I'm very aware you're an extremely private person, Vienna. In any case, you kept everything about me confidential," Stella said. "I can't wait to see you in a few days."
"I'm looking forward to bouldering and some other outdoor adventures. After the tournament, I'll need to be out of this building," Vienna assured. "Don't forget to text or call me back when you know something. I don't want to be up all night feeling guilty if I didn't do anything wrong."
"Will do," Stella promised.