Everyone in Vegas who’d heard about tonight’s poker game said Luke Dalton was crazy. As he sat across the table from Benedict Cartwright in a staged venue that provided room for two hundred paid spectators, Luke briefly questioned his own sanity. But regardless of the game’s outcome, the status quo would change, and that was all he cared about.
He’d challenged Benedict to this winner-take-all poker game – the deed to Luke’s Silver Crescent Casino against the deed to Cartwright’s neighboring bar, Howlin’ at the Moon. The casino was worth twenty times more than the bar, but the Moon was a Cartwright family treasure, a Vegas landmark built thirty years ago by Harrison Cartwright, Benedict’s late father.
Luke lived in the Silver Crescent’s penthouse, which meant he had to lay eyes on that damned bar every single day and be reminded that Harrison Cartwright had driven Luke’s dad Angus to his grave. Angus had died on Christmas Day, thrusting Luke abruptly into the position of CEO of Dalton Industries.
The feud between Angus and Harrison must have taken its toll on both men, because Harrison had died a week later, on New Year’s Eve. For three long months Luke had struggled with the pain of living next to a Cartwright property. Tonight he’d either win it, and maybe even bulldoze the building, or he’d lose the Silver Crescent and change his place of residence. Either way worked for him, but he’d prefer to win.
They’d been at it for almost two hours, with the piles of chips shifting back and forth across the table. Cartwright, whose blond good looks made him a favorite with the ladies, had just won a hand that put him up a little. But he looked tired.
Luke experienced an unwelcome flash of empathy for a guy who’d also just lost his dad. Benedict’s twin brother Vaughn, older by two minutes and a born leader, had inherited the bulk of the Cartwright holdings, which had surprised no one. Benedict, the happy-go-lucky brother, had been given the bar, which also had surprised no one.
Benedict was a natural at bar ownership and business was booming. But he’d also eagerly accepted Luke’s challenge, which made Luke wonder if Benedict was sick of looking at the Silver Crescent and being reminded of the feud that had likely hastened his own father’s death.
It hadn’t always been this way between the two families. Angus Dalton and Harrison Cartwright had once been friendly competitors who’d enjoyed weekly poker games. Their fortunes had grown and so had the stakes. They’d started betting real estate.
They’d regularly traded Vegas properties and neither had seemed to worry about it much. The families had socialized. As a teenager, Luke had shot hoops with Benedict and Vaughn.
But one night, Angus and Harrison must have become bored with their usual wagers. That’s all anyone could figure, since Harrison had taken a dare and bet his premier holding, the Silver Crescent. He’d lost.
Harrison Cartwright had loved that casino more than any of his establishments except for Howlin’ at the Moon. For the first time in their long history, Harrison had accused Angus of cheating. Enraged by the accusation, Angus had vowed never to play with his old rival again, which meant Harrison couldn’t win back his beloved casino.
What followed had become Vegas legend. Harrison had tried every trick in the book to avoid turning over the deed. The legal battle had been long and costly on both sides. In the end, Angus had been awarded the casino and had asked the judge to throw in the bar, too, as compensation for his pain and suffering. The judge had refused.
As the dealer shuffled the cards in preparation for the next hand, Luke glanced toward the group of onlookers who supported him, which represented about half the crowd. His little sister Cynthia had shown up. Although he appreciated the support, he couldn’t look at his brilliant, beautiful sister without gnashing his teeth. She should be finishing her final semester at Yale right now.
He understood that grief over their dad’s death had sidelined her, but he couldn’t even get her to promise she’d go back in the fall. She was on track to graduate magna cum laude, for crying out loud.
Yet she was ready to abandon her studies and become a Vegas showgirl, instead. On top of that, for the past month she’d been hanging out with Bryce Landry, a high-stakes gambler from ‘Frisco. Landry was with her now, in fact. Whenever Luke thought about his little sister throwing away a promising future, he felt sick to his stomach.
He had no clue how to convince her to finish school, either. His mother was no help. Her grief had been so profound she couldn’t bear to stay in Vegas, or even in the States, so she was currently living in Provence.
The only good news was that Cynthia had set her sights on being a showgirl at the Silver Crescent, which meant he’d be the one to hire her. She wasn’t happy that he’d refused, but at this point, it was his only line of defense. If he lost the Crescent tonight . . . well, he’d worry about that if and when it happened.
Taking a slow, even breath, he scooped up his hand and glanced at it. He kept his expression blank as the betting began. Nothing in his behavior indicated that he had aces over kings. Even better, the cards in his hand denied Cartwright the possibility of a royal flush.
Finally Luke shoved all his chips to the center of the table. “All in.” Benedict Cartwright was going down. The sharp pang of empathy struck again. He forced himself to ignore it.
Benedict’s brother Vaughn wasn’t part of the large crowd that had gathered for the match. The word on the street was that Vaughn had tried to talk Benedict out of accepting this challenge, even though on paper it was a chance worth taking.
Only a slight twitch in Benedict’s right eyelid betrayed his nervousness as he pushed his chips forward. “Call.” He laid out three queens and two kings. Not bad. Not enough. Howlin’ at the Moon now belonged to Luke Dalton.
For one long, agonizing moment, his gaze collided with Benedict’s. The shock and pain in his adversary’s eyes was tough to see, and Luke looked away again. He didn’t want to know how bad this was for the guy. But he was afraid that look of devastation would haunt him, at least for awhile.
After a collective gasp from the crowd, the mood shifted. Some cheered and others cursed and called for a rematch. Luke shook his head. He had what he wanted, a change in the status quo.
In the midst of the chaotic scene, he heard something odd – a distinct and very canine snarl. Maybe someone had brought a service dog into the room, but he couldn’t see an animal anywhere. Yeah, maybe he was going crazy, after all.
* * *
After her flight from San Francisco landed at McCarran, Giselle Landry hopped the trolley for an open-air ride to the Illusions Hotel and Casino at the far end of the Strip. The werewolf-exclusive establishment had been the Cartwright pack’s flagship property ever since Harrison Cartwright had lost the Silver Crescent to a human named Angus Dalton in a poker game.
A hotel for werewolves in the heart of Vegas had been a daring idea when Harrison had built the Silver Crescent years ago. The other two venues in the country that catered exclusively to Weres had been established in more remote areas. One was a resort on an island in Puget Sound, and the other was outside of Denver, a sprawling lodge where Giselle had attended WereCon2012.
Everyone in the werewolf world had understood the significance of losing this urban hotel, but the humans hadn’t realized that major panic had ensued. The hotel had been designed for Weres, complete with werewolf-friendly entrances and exits that would make no sense to a human guest. When Harrison Cartwright had owned the Silver Crescent, humans who tried to book a room had been told the hotel was full.
While Harrison had fought the deed transfer in court, werewolf crews had reconfigured the rooms, doors, and elevators so that human guests would never dream it had been anything other than a normal Vegas hotel. Humans had no idea that werewolves lived and worked among them and had vast financial holdings in all major cities in the world. Giselle didn’t believe they ever should know, although a faction in the Were community was pushing for a full reveal.
With help from a team of lawyers, Harrison had stalled long enough that the renovations had been completed by the time the court awarded the Silver Crescent to Angus Dalton. Most important of all, the underground tunnel to Howlin’ at the Moon had been blocked off.
Giselle had been in touch with his son Vaughn for the past several weeks as she’d debated whether to come to Vegas. Once she’d made the decision, he’d offered to send a limo to the airport to pick her up, but she’d opted for the trolley. Between the open car and the overcast sky, maybe she could pretend she was still in her City by the Bay instead of in Vegas looking for her AWOL brother Bryce.
But Vegas would never pass for ‘Frisco. Instantly she was immersed in the jaw-dropping excess that had produced a giant black pyramid, replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel tower, and a sprawling Roman palace. The trolley rolled by the forty-story Silver Crescent, a glittering tower of reflective glass with hundreds of quarter-moon windows lining the façade and giant chrome quarter-moons on either side of the gleaming entrance.
The hotel dwarfed the one-story, rustic bar sitting next to it. But Howlin’ at the Moon had a worldwide reputation among Weres. The legendary watering hole had served drinks and bar food to world-famous shape shifters for more than thirty years.
But the bar wasn’t famous because of its refreshments, excellent though they were. Howlin’ at the Moon sat above a top-secret Were playground, Harrison Cartwright’s proudest achievement. He’d claimed to be excavating the site four stories deep so that he could put in a foundation that would support a hotel someday if he took the notion to build one there.
Instead, werewolf-only crews had created a subterranean, climate-controlled world that included evergreens, steep trails, rocky outcroppings, waterfalls, bubbling streams, and a moon that cycled through phases in sync with the real one. Powerful lights kept the plants and trees growing and heavy-duty pumps moved the water in an endless loop. Harrison had been hailed as a genius for creating a secure place for werewolves to run in the heart of Sin City.
Giselle had seen it once. She and two of her female Were friends had gone on a road trip that included one night at the Silver Crescent in Vegas. After checking into their room, they’d all shifted and used the special paw controls on the elevators to access a tunnel connecting the hotel with the bar.
They’d arrived in an ante-chamber one level below the bar. Lockers lined the walls, which had puzzled Giselle at first until she realized that bar patrons who wanted to use the playground would need a place to shift and store their clothes. Harrison had thought of everything.
She and her friends had pushed through a revolving door at the far end of the locker room and had stared in amazement. They’d entered another world, one bathed in moonlight, scented with evergreen, and filled with the sound of rushing water and the hoot of an owl.
Once they’d recovered from their sense of awe, they’d romped through that pretend forest howling and yipping like teenagers. She smiled at the memory of it and wondered if she’d have time to go while she was here. What a great way to release some of the tension created by her brother’s dereliction of duty.
The trolley moved on, gliding past rippling neon and flashing billboards promising riches beyond compare. A river of pedestrians seeking those treasures eddied in and out of the elaborate pleasure domes lining the busy thoroughfare.
Giselle searched their faces, as if she might spot Bryce in the crowd. His hair, dark red like hers, made him fairly easy to see, especially because he was tall. He was here somewhere. He’d said so, and although he could be a royal pain, like now, he didn’t lie. He’d texted every few days to let the family know he was okay, but he’d ignored all requests, or demands in the case of her father, to return home.
She’d decided not to let him know she’d flown down. Not yet, anyway. He wouldn’t be happy that she’d come to drag him back, and ideally, she’d like to make her plea in person rather than over the phone. Maybe she could arrange to run into him and catch him off-guard.
Whenever she thought of Bryce, she alternated between being worried and being royally pissed. Although she was familiar with his pattern of going along with the program until something hit him wrong and he bolted, this particular incident had lasted way too long – more than seven months, in fact.
He had to know how severely his juvenile stunt had impacted her and the rest of his pack. He was slated to be the next Landry alpha and had duties as a result. Giselle had ended up covering many of those in addition to handling her job as the pack’s chief financial officer. She wanted him home, and preferably before he did something terminally stupid.
She wasn’t terribly surprised that he’d left. At first the plan to mate with Miranda Randolph, heir to the Randolph winery fortune, had been his idea. But the two packs, especially the two sets of parents, had jumped in and taken over. Whenever Bryce felt pushed, he simply abandoned the field.
Giselle had to find a way to coax him back, even if the Miranda situation was ruined forever. Members of the Landry pack, including Giselle’s parents were talking about making Giselle the next alpha, and she didn’t want it. She had to find Bryce, but she wasn’t sure how tough that would be.
According to Vaughn, he wasn’t staying at Illusions or frequenting any of the usual werewolf haunts, including Howlin’ at the Moon. That probably meant he was spending all his time with humans, and that worried Giselle more than anything else. She prayed he hadn’t embraced the new and dangerous idea of Weres mating with humans.
After leaving the trolley and entering the soothing ambiance of the Illusions lobby, she registered and surrendered her suitcase to the bellman. She’d brought a small one figuring she wouldn’t be here long.
The lobby was a work of art, though. Rising three stories and filled with evergreens and a babbling brook, it gave guests the impression they were in a forest. In some ways the lobby echoed the playground underneath Howlin’ at the Moon.
Giselle didn’t have time to stand around and admire the beauty of it, though. She was a werewolf on a mission. Once in the elevator, she called Vaughn, whose office was on the top floor of the building.
“Welcome to Las Vegas, Giselle. The front desk notified me that you’d checked in.” Vaughn had the quiet authority of a seasoned alpha, although he couldn’t be much older than Giselle, who’d just turned twenty-eight. He’d assumed his father’s role with confidence. He’d chosen a suitable mate years ago, and now a baby was on the way, a grandchild that poor Harrison would never see.
“I have checked in,” Giselle said. “Are you free to see me?”
“Absolutely. Come on up whenever you’re settled. Is the suite okay?”
“I’m sure it is, but I haven’t been there, yet. I’m in the elevator headed for your floor.”
“Okay, good. We have a lot to talk about. Have you had any texts from Bryce today?”
“No. Has something happened?” Her heart rate picked up.
“He was seen at a poker game last night.”
She sucked in a breath. “Where?”
“I’d rather tell you about this in person.”
“I’m nearly there.” Five minutes later a receptionist ushered her into Vaughn’s office.
It looked more like a mountain hideaway than command central for Cartwright Enterprises. Beamed ceilings sheltered rustic furniture created from peeled logs, and a gas fire flickered on a stone hearth. A wall of windows looked out on The Strip, but otherwise, the room could have been part of a ski lodge in Aspen.
Vaughn came around from behind his hand-carved desk. “It’s great to finally meet in person.” He took her hand in both of his. He was a good-looking Were with dark brown hair and a solid build that resembled many of the werewolves she’d known.
“Same here. I appreciate your support in this, Vaughn, especially because you must have a ton of issues you’re dealing with.”
“Yeah.” His smile was tinged with sadness.
She gazed at him with sympathy. “Your dad was so young.”
“I know. I keep expecting him to come walking through that door.”
“Was this his office?”
“Yes, and I always loved it, so I’ve kept things the way he had them.” He gestured to a couple of overstuffed easy chairs in front of the fireplace. “Please have a seat. Can I get you anything?” He walked over to a wet bar along the wall next to the windows. “Wine? Mixed drink? Something to eat?”
“Nothing for me, thanks.” She settled into a comfy leather chair.
“You’re sure?” He sounded disappointed.
She glanced toward the wet bar, where he was in the process of returning two glasses to the shelf. “I’m sure, but if you want something, go ahead.”
“Guess I was hoping to have somebody to share a drink with.” He turned. “Shana can’t because of the baby, and it’s been a rough twenty-four hours.”
She realized then what she might have noticed right away if she hadn’t been so caught up in her own problems. Despite his crisp white dress shirt, his Ralph Lauren tie, and what were probably designer slacks, Vaughn Cartwright didn’t have it together this afternoon. His hair was mussed and without the smile he’d given her earlier, she was able to see the anxiety lurking in his gray eyes.
“What’s happened, Vaughn?”
Vaughn rocked back on his heels. “Well, that wasn’t just an ordinary poker game last night. It was a special event between two players, one of them being my brother Benedict and the other being Luke Dalton.”
“So it was a Cartwright-Dalton rematch?” Now she knew why Bryce had been there to watch. He loved to gamble, and he’d been fascinated with the Cartwright-Dalton feud.
“Exactly. Dalton put the Silver Crescent on the line and Benedict thought he could win it back.”
“Would that even be worth doing? I can’t imagine the cost of renovations to create what you had there before.”
“Yeah, it would be pricey, but we’d make it back in no time by restored access to The Moon. But that’s a moot point. Instead of winning the hotel, my brother lost the bar.”
“He bet the Moon? How could he? You’re the alpha! Surely you wouldn’t let –”
“He inherited it.” Vaughn sounded exhausted. “Unfortunately it was his to lose. I got pretty much everything else, but my dad willed the bar to Benedict, who really is a natural at running it. Or was. Now it’s owned by a human.”
“What about the playground?”
He blew out a breath. “Handled as best we could. The transfer of ownership didn’t take place until this morning. We had crews working all night. They drained the water, turned off everything except the automatic lights for the plants and the drip system, and reconfigured the entrance. Now it looks like a blank wall instead of the door that used to be there.”
“But the utility bills . . .”
“I know. I’m hoping it takes Dalton a while to see that they’re higher than they should be, considering. I have contacts with the water and electric companies. They might be able to direct a portion of the bill to me with some creative bookkeeping. I can’t let all those trees and plants die. For one thing, it would make one hell of a mess under there.”
Giselle couldn’t even imagine. “Can you buy it back?”
“Not today, but I plan to keep trying. I spent the entire morning over at the Moon making offers that would give my CFO cardiac arrest if he knew. Dalton wouldn’t budge. He said that having a Cartwright property next to the Silver Crescent was painful after his dad died.”
“I suppose it was.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it. Benedict hated seeing a Dalton property next to the Moon. He thought he’d win and we’d get the Silver Crescent back.”
“This is horrible, Vaughn.” She wondered how this would affect the relationship with his twin brother. “Were’s Benedict, now?”
“I don’t know. He supervised the work last night and let me know it was secure, but I haven’t heard from him since. Turns out I’m not the only one with family issues, though. Before I left the bar this morning, Dalton’s little sister Cynthia showed up and they got in a huge fight. She told him she was disappearing for a while so she could spend quality time with her new boyfriend.”
“Good Lord.” Giselle squeezed her eyes shut. “I take it the new boyfriend is my brother?”
She groaned and let her head fall back against the plump chair cushion. “I’ll take you up on that drink, Vaughn. And forget the girly stuff. Give me Scotch on the rocks.”