The tumbler of fine, single malt dangling from his fingertips was poised halfway to his lips. He’d been keeping only half an eye aimed toward the lift on the off chance she’d decided to accept his invitation. The ancient elevator doors opened with a muffled groan and a woman paused for a moment before stepping out. An arresting woman. One with huge eyes, a wide but lush mouth and a fringe of bronzy-blonde hair. By God, it was Audra Preston, but not the Audra he was expecting if he was expecting one at all.
Perhaps it was his stunned immobility that caught her attention, but she met his gaze and a tentative smile curved her lips as she started in his direction. On some unconscious level, he noted the slim calves revealed by the short black dress, the narrow feet in strappy sandals, the toned arms bracketed by gold bangles on one and a sensible watch on the other. The Fringe – in his mind it took on a proper title – that was brand new and slyly revealed large, gold hoop earrings. The V-neck of her dress framed what looked like a tapering garland of red coral and just a hint of shadowed cleavage.
“David?” she stopped a few feet from where he sat. “Thank you, so much, for asking me to join you this evening.” Self-consciously she tucked The Fringe behind an ear.
While he struggled to order his thoughts, he took great care in placing his scotch on the polished mahogany bar behind him. What had started out as merely a friendly gesture had somehow escalated. He didn’t particularly care to feel an inconvenient attraction for the young woman.
“It seemed foolish for you to spend your first evening in Monte Carlo on your own when we’re both in need of a meal,” he shrugged, “You mentioned seeing the Casino. It’s well worth a visit, but I don’t think you should go there unaccompanied.”
He watched her thick lashes lower over her hazel eyes and, with a slight pang, her smile shifting from shy to wry. “Yes, very practical suggestions. Do you prefer to dine here or in town?”
David unfolded from his barstool and downed the last of his drink.
“There is a restaurant on the Place du Casino – the Brasserie le Café de Paris – that has outdoor seating. As it looks like a mild night, I thought we could enjoy the sights in the Place while we eat, then walk over to the Casino. Do you have your passport?”
Her eyebrows quirked with the question, “Passport?”
“Yes, you’ll need it. Citizens of Monaco are not permitted in the Casino so you must show your identification to enter.”
“In that case, give me two minutes to go back up to my room and retrieve it from the safe,” she laughed as she turned away, “Not that anyone would mistake me for someone who actually lives here!”
Ah, he thought as he watched her enter the lift, but they very well could.
Audra spooned the last of her crème brûlée and watched her companion’s profile as he sipped his wine and watched the play of the fountain in the center of the Place. Over dinner he had quizzed her about her afternoon’s activities and paid her a nice compliment on her new hairstyle. He’d seemed interested, but she sensed a distance. When small talk was exhausted, they’d both fallen quiet and watched dusk turn to night, the lights came on around the square glowing like diamonds on dark velvet.
David pulled back the cuff of his sleeve and glanced at his watch. “Well, 10 is still early by Monte Carlo standards, but we could wander over to the Casino, if you’d like.” He gave her a slight smile and signaled their server for the check.
“I would, if you’re still up for it,” she studied his eyes in the dim light trying to read his mood. She reached for the bill, but he deftly slipped it to his side of the small table.
“My invitation, my treat,” this time the smile reached his eyes and the crinkles at the corners deepened.
Once in the Casino, Audra tried hard to take it all in without looking like a star-struck tourist. The lush carpets, crystal chandeliers and tuxedo-clad staff set an elegant tone and David Gray blended into the milieu with ease. He stopped a server and ordered drinks for them, then guided her toward the roulette table with a subtle touch to her lower back.
“Will you play or would you prefer to observe?”
“I’m not much of a gambler, David, but please go ahead. I’ll try to bring you luck.”
“Not roulette, then,” he signed for their drinks and then led the way to the Salons Privés where the level of play was quieter, more intense, the stakes higher. “Baccarat Chemin de Fer. Are you familiar?”
“It is safe to say, I know absolutely nothing about the game – never seen it played and the name alone sounds like it would take more than I make in a month to play.”
“Just a short bit of play then, so you can say you’ve seen it,” he took the place of a departing player, an older man wearing the garb of an Arabian Gulf sheik, and exchanged a sizeable stack of Euros for chips.
Audra stood silently at his shoulder, watching and sipping her drink. For the first few hands, David placed bets and watched others play ponte, gauging the caliber of the other players. On the fourth hand, he said, “With the table,” and counted out chips for his wager. The other eight players placed their bets and the ninth player – the “banker” – alternately dealt two cards each to David and himself.
“Carte,” he said and the banker dealt him another card. He considered for a moment, then said, “Pas de carte,” staying with his hand. The banker looked across the table at David, then at his two cards and stayed his hand as well, losing the hand. David and the other players were paid for their bets and the banker had to pass the card shoe to the next player.
He looked back over his shoulder. “Ready to move on?”
“If you are, you’re the one who’s winning.”
“The most important part of playing, or winning, anything in life is getting out when one is ahead.” He nodded to his neighbors and relinquished his seat to another waiting player.
“It’s a beautiful night, do you feel up to walking back to the hotel?” They stood on the steps at the rear of the Casino overlooking extensive gardens and the yacht harbor. The lights on the vessels twinkled like jewels against the black surface of the water. Faint strains of music and women’s laughter drifted on the still air.
“I’m game,” she took his offered arm, glad that their earlier camaraderie seemed to have returned.
He patiently answered her flurry of questions about the finer points of scoring and strategy in playing Baccarat Chemin de Fer as they strolled along Av. Princess Grace back to their hotel.
“Oh, David!” Audra stopped abruptly at a balustrade along the quay, struck by the glittering moonlight that painted a silver path on the sea directly to the place where they stood. “Doesn’t it seem like we could walk across the sea on the moon’s reflection?”
She turned to find him watching her, his warm brown eyes merry for once. “And where would you lead me if we could?”