Lana Rose clung to the cold metal edge of the airplane’s open doorway. The wind rushed past, blowing, pulling, sucking the air from her lungs like reverse CPR, screaming in her ear: just jump, just jump, just jump.
She gathered every ounce of her strength, held it in her muscles until she was vibrating with it, and shoved…away from the open door and back to the safety of inside the plane.
She fell on her butt with a thump. Her hands shaking, she unbuckled her parachute pack.
“I can’t do it. Sorry. I can’t.”
Her skydiving instructor closed the small aircraft’s cabin door. The air stopped whooshing, and Lana Rose breathed. In out. In out. In out. She’d keep breathing like this. In out. Until she was dead.
Which might be sooner than she’d like.
“You’ll have another chance when we circle back.”
She looked above the instructor’s eyes pinched with disappointment and concentrated on the spikes of his windblown hair.
“I’m not trying again,” she told them. The spikes bobbed once in understanding.
“You didn’t do it, did you?”
As much as she’d tried to hurry away from her locker and down the hallway, Jace had caught up to her anyway. He grabbed her arm and twisted it, jerking her toward him until she faced his dark blue eyes fringed by thick, black lashes.
“No,” she choked the word out.
His hand on her arm squeezed. She winced.
“Why didn’t you jump?”
“I…will. I will.”
“Hey, Jace.” A singsong voice floated toward them before the attractive brunette did. “And Lana Rose.” The cocktail waitress nodded at them both, slowing down.
Jace relaxed his hold on Lana Rose’s arm and turned around with a smile.
Lana Rose smiled gratefully at the woman and backed away. “I’d better get out there,” she told them both.
Jace made another grab for her arm, but she slipped past him.
Once out on the casino floor, she felt safer. Under the garish blinking lights, in full view of hundreds of tourists, dozens of floor managers and dealers, and even more cameras, Jace couldn’t get to her.
Lana Rose adjusted the tight polyester uniform vest, pulling it down. It stretched snugly across her breasts and showed some cleavage, which was good for tips.
She made her way to her usual blackjack table and started dealing. Two hours into her shift, he walked in.
She couldn’t say why she noticed him. He was handsome, sure, but not in an ostentatious way, maybe not even as attractive as Jace was when he wasn’t being cruel. But there was something about the stranger and the way he owned his space. He was just a little more than everyone around him. A little taller, a little sharper, a little more focused. He seemed more real than anyone else in the jingly jangly tarted-up room.
He pulled a stool out from her table and sat down. Her heart squeezed on a beat before continuing. He arranged his chips in front of him into a mini fortress. Then he smiled.
Forty-five minutes later and ten thousand dollars poorer, he was still smiling.
“So what’s the deal?” Lana Rose finally asked him when the other gamblers had gone, and he was once again alone at her table, betting against the house.
“You are, right?” The crinkles at the edges of his eyes folded deeper. “The dealer deals. You’re the deal.”
She stopped, one hand on the first card in the shoe.
“Why are you happy you’re losing?” She wondered if she’d offend him by asking, but if anything, his smile grew wider.
Instead of answering her question, though, he asked one. “Do you believe in karma?”
She dealt the hand and thought about his question for a second. If karma was real, then Jace would be the one with bruises on his inner thighs instead of her.
He nodded. “That’s okay. It believes in you.” He looked behind him as a weaving drunk man in a flowered shirt brushed the back of his chair. He turned back around and faced her.
“I believe in karma. It’s always been good to me. My whole life.” He played with the small stack of chips in front of him. “I’ve been on a nineteen-day losing streak. This is the last of my money.”
Did that sound like a judgment? She didn’t mean it as one. She only meant that this stranger with the kind eyes and powerful presence deserved all the luck this life had to give.
He lost that hand. She cleared the cards. He put his chips up for the next.
“Not at all.” He looked her straight in the eye and stopped smiling. “I’ve had the worst luck of my entire life this last month. Which means when these chips run out, the best thing that’s ever happened to me will happen.”
Maybe it was his intense gaze, or maybe it was the cigarette haze of the room and the glaring lights finally getting to her, but she felt heat pulse through her body and she believed him.
“My name’s Ford,” he said in a low voice. “Meet me later?” He lost another chip in this hand and tipped her his last.
“Yes,” she said, wondering if this would be the yes that killed her.
Lana Rose was the only one who’d be able to get away with it. In the small casino, the bags of money were watched continually. Any threat of robbery—even an over-interested glance—and big guys would be all over you. There’d be no escape. But up in the air, the bags were in the center of the helicopter. Anyone desperate enough to make a mid-air exit could grab one on the way out. Lana Rose often accompanied the money on its midnight deposit flight. She was dependable and little, which was one of the reasons she’d been chosen for helicopter transport duties to begin with. For Jace and the bad men he answered to, she was their lucky break.
“But there’s not enough time for a parachute jump from a helicopter. It doesn’t get high enough,” she’d protested to Jace and all those big bads who were going to kill him if he didn’t get them the money. She pictured them picking up the Golden Bullet’s take from her dead body, splattered on the sidewalk. Their shiny black wingtips stepping in pieces of what used to be her.
“It does when it passes by McCarran Airport. It gets above 4,000 feet, the minimum elevation necessary to deploy a parachute in a helicopter jump.”
“Minimum? I want more than the minimum.” She wasn’t trusting her life to minimums.
“You’ll be fine. Special Forces soldiers jump from 1,000 feet.”
“I’m not Special Forces.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll get you skydiving lessons. It’ll be old hat by the time you jump.”
But she’d never jumped. Not in that first lesson, and not in the three that followed it. But she’d have to this time. Either that or Jace wasn’t going to be the only one to end up dead.
She told all this to Ford that night in bed.
“I’ll kill him,” he said.
“Jace.” He grabbed her hand. “He hurt you. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you ever again.”
Her heart thrilled at the passion in his voice, the thought that he’d do that for her. But it wouldn’t work. She shook her head.
“It’s not just him. It’s all the big bosses Jace lost money to. They know how he’s planning to get the money, and they know he’s relying on me. Even if Jace were out of the picture, they’d come after me to recoup his losses.”
“Well, then, I’ll kill them, too.” The earnest look in his eyes almost covered the doubt and fear lurking beneath. He must have guessed her thoughts because he switched plans. “We’ll run away. Tonight. Now. Why wait? We’ll get in my truck and drive.”
Yes, they’d leave Vegas together right now and live happily ever after on all the money they didn’t have.
She put a hand on his chest, the rough hairs curling between her spread fingers. She kissed him, and her whole soul reached for him through her parted lips.
“I’ve got a better idea,” she told him.
She sleepwalked through her shift that night. Her numb mind projected images on a loop of fast-hurtling pavement connecting with the soft tissue and bones of her face.
When she mounted the stairs and stepped onto the helicopter, she tried not to think she was climbing the steps to her execution.
Her stomach leapt to her throat as they approached the rendezvous point with Jace on the west side of McCarran. She leaned down and closed her hand around the parachute pack she’d smuggled onboard earlier and stuffed under her seat.
In out. In out. In out. Still breathing.
They passed the point.
She imagined she could see tiny Jace and his cartoonish associates waving at the passing helicopter. “Wait! Come back!” she imagined them yelling. But she wouldn’t be coming back.
As they approached the east side of McCarran Airport, her rendezvous point with Ford, she pulled the pack from under the seat, slipped her arms through the straps, and buckled herself in with more grace than she’d ever had before in her life.
“What are you—” before her coworker got the question out, she grabbed the closest money bag and hugged it to her chest. She leaned through the open helicopter door.
She pictured Ford with his slow smile and kind eyes waiting in the open field. They’d get into his truck and speed out of Vegas to some place she’d never been to, never heard of. She’d be free.