Red on the River

#1 New York Times bestselling author Christine Feehan goes all in with this sexy romantic thriller set among the dangers — both man-made and natural — of Nevada's breathtaking landscape.

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...

Christine's Notes

Christine Feehan
I love this couple. They are so different from Sam and Stella, but I really feel readers will love them.
This is a romantic thriller that tasked me to set up the story to be a true mystery. Vienna is a down to earth woman who is very human. She's made mistakes and tries to learn from them so as not to make them again. I love bringing back the ladies from Murder at Sunrise Lake and learning more about each of them. I love the sisterhood they have as they help each other, not only with climbing, hiking and bouldering, but with life. They are loyal and care for one another.
Zale is a dangerous man with an equally dangerous job. He's not sure how to have the relationship he wants with Vienna, now that he knows what he wants he won't let anything stand in his way. This book was both fun and humbling to write. Fun because I love this couple and I love the friendships the women have with one another. Humbling because, well, let's just say - No one is going to invite me to celebrity poker in Las Vegas anytime soon.

Christine regularly writes about her books (and all kinds of subjects) in the following places:


Red on the River

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Latest Release:
Latest Release Date: June 27, 2023
Original Release Date: June 28, 2022
Number of Pages: 432 pages
Publisher: Berkley
Language: English
ISBN: 0593439155

Red on the River (Single Titles, #)

Excerpt: Chapter 1

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 not only embarrassing and rather humiliating 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 proceed 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.  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 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 rundown 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, 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 semi-finals.  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 Harrington.  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 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 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 matters 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 showed 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.
“What happened?”
“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 thought of that.”  Now that she thought of it, she was alarmed.  Horrified. 
“No, he’s not married.  Well, at least I think he’s not.  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.
Vienna paced around the suite several times.  She’d meant to stay in and just relax but now she couldn’t.  She needed action.  Something.  Anything outdoors.  She would have to work tomorrow, starting early afternoon, and play carefully to stay in the game.  She was playing against some of the top players in that world.  She’d made it through to the semifinal table, a feat she was certain, hadn’t been expected of her.
When Vienna first started, she’d had to borrow money to buy into her first online game.  She’d won.  She’d been able to borrow the money because those who knew her were aware of her uncanny ability to win at cards.  It wasn’t that Vienna counted cards or anything like that, she just “knew” things.  She had a gift, and over the years, she’d come to believe in it and knew she could trust it.  Because she saw her talent as a gift, she didn’t overuse it, and she made it a point to give back in some way.
She knew that when she entered the room with the other players at the semifinal table, they would all be looking for anything they could about her to help them find an advantage over her.  Vienna had been in charge of others as a surgical nurse and also as head of search and rescue for Inyo County.  Sometimes that would spill over to Mono County as well. 

She was experienced in all-weather rescues, and could do avalanche control when needed.  She’d climbed Mt. Whitney several times and rescued more than one person as well as retrieved bodies when weekend climbers thought they knew more than the experts warning them of the various hazards
She had to make split-second decisions that could be life or death for others as well as for herself under extreme conditions.  She didn’t give much away unless she wanted to.  She wasn’t worried about the tournament.  She had made it through to the semifinal table and had every confidence that she would make the final table.
Once, Vienna had made the mistake, because she’d needed the money for her mother’s cancer, of playing in-person at some of the tables in Vegas and someone had tried to rob her on her way home.  As if she’d carry cash in her pockets.  What idiot would think that?  She’d arrived home shaken beyond belief, needing comfort from her mother, only to end up in a huge fight with her.  Her mother had been her best friend all of her life.  That night had changed her life forever.  Vienna had moved out and she’d never played poker at a table in Vegas again. 

Vienna gambled online as luckypersiancat, a totally anonymous way to gamble.  No one knew who she was or how much money she made.  She no longer had to borrow money to get into the ten-thousand-dollar buy-ins with the five-hundred-thousand or million-dollar rewards at the end.  She could manage that all on her own now.

Vienna went running, one of the few things that could clear her mind completely.  She drove out to Red Rock and parked, choosing one of the many trails that looped around.  It was still fairly hot, although the sun would be setting soon enough.  She made certain she was carrying enough water and had a filtration system with her just in case.  She was a hiker, not a dedicated runner, and knew any injury could suddenly change everything.  If she was caught out in the blazing sun without the ability to call for help with no water, she could easily lose her life.  She’d seen that happen too many times not to prepare for an emergency.

Vienna had long legs and within minutes had hit her stride, covering ground with a steady rhythm.  The sights were breathtaking.  She wasn’t going for speed so much as just wanting to be grounded by the beauty and peace of the outdoors.  Red Rock had natural formations of rock with various colors and unusual concretions.  Red dots were scattered throughout some of the rock while brown rock balls were dense in others.  Erosion caused many different shapes, from fins and spirals to caves and arches.  It was difficult not to want to stop and explore them.

Shadows fell across the rocks towering above her at times, lending them different appearances, coloring them with darker varnishes, but she kept her pace even though, again, she wanted to go examine them closer.  Her friends would be joining her in a week or so for Stella’s bridal shower.  Stella’s event wasn’t a traditional one.  They would be going to boulder first and then exploring the various scenic trails Red Rocks had to offer.  They would also do some trad climbing there as well.

Next, and all of them were excited about it, they would spend a day on the river kayaking, starting at Hoover Dam.  They planned to find out-of-the-way coffee shops, something they all loved.  It definitely wasn’t the traditional bridal shower, but for Stella, it was perfect.  They planned to follow it up hiking and camping the Tuolumne trail in Yosemite along the river for an additional adventure before the wedding.

Vienna felt lucky to have five such close friends as the ones she’d met in Knightly.  They had been unexpected—and wonderful.  Five powerful women, women who made each day count.  They shared the same interests and loved the outdoors.  They loved to dance and often met at the Grill, a bar where they danced, drank their favorite drinks and ate the owner’s famous offerings surrounded by other locals.  Had she not fought with her mother, she never would have moved and found a new life filled with friends and adventure.  She detested that she’d never gotten back her friendship with her mother, but she truly loved her life.

Vienna was hot and sweaty, but felt so much better when she was once again back in her suite at the Northern Lights.  After a shower, she soaked in the deep tub, enjoying the hot water on her sore muscles.  It was nice to close her eyes and relax, to feel at peace again. 

Wrapping herself in her robe, long hair in a towel, she checked her phone.  Stella had messaged her back.  No relationship ever.  Vienna breathed a sigh of relief.  She wouldn’t have been to blame, but it would have left a bad taste in her mouth had she been with a married man, even through no fault of her own.  She hadn’t asked Zale that question and she should have. 

Refusing to allow Zale Vizzini to take up any more time in her brain, she checked out the menu to see what really great dinners she could order.  Everything was first class, including the food.  She hadn’t been disappointed yet. 

The door buzzed and she swung around.  No one knew where she was with the exception of the hotel personnel, Zale and the gentleman he guarded, Wayne Forsyne.  Maybe security was really going to lecture her.  She hadn’t even told her mother where she was staying.  She planned to visit her, but after the tournament.  There were millions of dollars at stake.  She didn’t want anything distracting her.  Well, maybe sooner.  She really wanted to see her.

Fortunately, her robe was the type that had buttons instead of a belt, so she was fairly decent.  Vienna went to the door and peered into the peephole to see who her visitor was.  The older man and Zale were outside the door.  Zale was looking up and down the hall very alertly.  Something in the way he did sent chills down her spine.

She hit the intercom.  “I’m not exactly dressed for company.”

It was Zale who answered.  He reached past Wayne to hit a button to respond.  “Open the fucking door, Vienna.  We need to get out of sight now.”

He was such an ass.  He was back to the man he’d been when he’d ordered her out of her place of work and into his car.  When she hadn’t cooperated, he’d simply abducted her.  No second chances, just picked her up, tossed her over his shoulder as if she weighed no more than a child, and took her to Shabina’s.  He had that same low voice with the commanding purr.  Not a growl, a purr.  It wasn’t a nice purr.

She opened the door because Wayne’s face was pale.  If she could have, she would have allowed him entrance and barred Zale from coming into the suite.  She must have stepped into the doorway, because he put a hand to her belly and pushed her inside, closing the door after him.

“I need you to check out Wayne for me, Vienna.  I don’t think he’s hurt bad.”  As he spoke, Zale helped Wayne to the nearest couch.  She trailed after them, watching the older man carefully.  He carried the cane, rather than leaning on it, and even though Zale was helping him, he walked as a much younger man would. 

She noted blood on Zale’s shirt, a slash line on his belly and right arm.  There was blood on Wayne’s shirt, much more of it than on Zale’s.  Wayne’s wound was on his left side, along his ribs.  Zale unbuttoned Wayne’s shirt as Vienna hurried to the bedroom to retrieve the small medical kit she always carried with her.  She also got warm water from the master bath.

“Tell me what happened and why you didn’t take him to the hospital,” she ordered, nudging Zale aside with her hip so she could take over.

“We were outside the casino, just taking a walk.  It can be difficult staying indoors so much when you’re not used to it.”

She understood that.  She also caught the “we”.  Wayne didn’t have to go with Zale to take a walk.  He could have stayed locked in the safety of his suite.  She kept her mouth shut. The knife had sliced into the skin, under the ribs, missing all vital organs somehow.  The wound was shallow enough that she was certain she could close it with glue. 

“Zale blocked the attack,” Wayne provided.  “Otherwise, I would have taken the hit right in my heart.  They came out of nowhere.  I think they were in the flower beds.”
“They were,” Zale confirmed.   

Her heart accelerated for a moment before she could get it under control.  More than one attacker.  Zale was obviously working undercover.  This wasn’t a random attack and there had been more than one assailant.  She washed the wound carefully.

“Knife wounds are tricky.  This isn’t deep.  You don’t need stitches.  I can glue it, but if the blade had bacteria on it, you can get an infection that could eventually kill you.  You need antibiotics.  I don’t have those and I really mean you should have the wound flooded with them and you should take them orally. I’ve got a topical I can apply for now, but Zale, if the two of you have access to help, get both of you antibiotics.  I can see the knife cut you as well.”

She finished up with Wayne and turned her attention to Zale, indicating for him to take off his shirt, although that was the last thing she wanted him to do.  She remembered his body all too well.  She’d mapped every single inch of him with her tongue.  He was there in her mind, never to be forgotten.  

Refusing to meet his eyes, she kept her gaze fixed on the wounds.  Maybe it was cowardly but, she told herself, she was a nurse, and she needed to make certain the laceration was cleaned properly.  “Very shallow.  Same with your arm.  But I’m very serious about the antibiotics.  No doubt the blade of the knife contained bacteria.”  She hoped it didn’t contain poison for their sakes.

She smiled at Wayne cheerfully as she sat back on her heels.  “You’re good to go.”  Meaning they could leave her suite.

“Do you want a drink, Rainier?  Rainier is a friend of Sam’s as well and you’ll be meeting him soon enough at the wedding, Vienna,” Zale informed her. “He’s undercover as Wayne Forsyne.”

She put her hands over her ears.  “I don’t want to know anything more.  You two are obviously working on something important, and I don’t need to know anything about it.”

Zale ignored her and went to the bar, turning to raise an eyebrow at his friend.

Wayne sat up.  “Nice to meet you as me, Vienna.  Zale has assured me you know better than to break confidentiality.”  There was warning in his voice. 

“I take it you’re not seventy.  I’d already guessed that.  You don’t walk with your cane correctly.”  She stood up and went to the master bedroom to change into actual clothes.  Having no underwear around Zale made her feel vulnerable. 

“You want a drink, Vienna?” Zale called out.

“No, thanks.”  She needed her wits about her.  Dressing hastily in leggings and a favorite comfortable sweater, she unwrapped her hair and brushed it out, leaving it down to air dry.  She wasn’t going to try to make herself look good for Zale.  If anything, she wanted him to ignore her, just as he’d done these last few months.

Zale and his colleague had made themselves right at home, sitting in the living room, Rainier going through the menu.  He looked up when she entered.  “You sure are a beautiful woman,” he reiterated.  He sounded like he was stating a fact rather than flirting with her.  He just looked her over and then was back looking at the menu.  “You hungry?” he added.  Even the voice was different, sounding much younger.

“Yes.” Vienna went to stand beside his chair, looking down at the menu.  “I was about to order room service when you were announcing yourselves.  Do you think you were followed?”
“No one can get up to this floor.  In any case, Zale wounded all three assailants.”

She didn’t look at Zale, but continued to peer at the menu as though she were really studying it.  Three attackers.  He’d managed to block the initial attack from Rainier, keeping him from getting killed, and then took on all three.

“Won’t they go to a hospital and report that they were attacked by the two of you?  There must be security cameras outside of the hotel.”  She took the menu right out of Rainier’s hands.

“I jammed the cameras for a moment,” Rainier admitted, “but the fight was over in under eight seconds.  Zale wounded all three of them.  They don’t think the wounds are bad enough to seek help, but that’s classic textbook.  They’ll bleed out slowly without even being aware they’re going to die.  They’re heading to a safe place to lick their wounds, but it will be too late for them.” 

Rainier sounded very satisfied.  Vienna couldn’t blame him.  If someone came out of the bushes and attacked her to kill her, she would want them just as dead.  She wasn’t a forgive and forget kind of girl.  That was one of the reasons she wasn’t going to look at Zale.  No matter what, she wasn’t falling into any traps—if he even thought about going there again.

“You’ve looked at that menu long enough to memorize it, Vienna,” Zale said, using his purring, commanding voice after Rainier gave her his order.  “Hand it over.”  He didn’t come to her.  He stayed across the room in one of the two-person cuddle chairs.

A red flag went up instantly.  She thought about sailing the menu toward him, hoping to hit him right in his hard head.  That wouldn’t go along with the calm, she didn’t give a damn that he’d left her and never contacted her again façade. 

 “Sure.  I do think I’ve memorized it.”  She shared a little laugh with Rainier and then walked slowly across the wide expanse of the room to Zale.  Before she reached him, she held out the menu.  “I’ll call it in for everyone.  That way, they’ll only hear my voice.”

Thankfully, Rainier responded, giving her the opportunity to turn back toward him. 

“That’s a good idea.  We’ll hide out in another room when room service gets here, although they’re going to think you’re a very big eater.”

Unfortunately, with her back to him, Zale was able to lean forward and shackle her wrist, drawing her close to him, toppling her into the seat beside him.

“What are you doing?  I was going to call in the order.”  She did her best to sound a little surprised at his outrageous behavior.

“I need time to look this over and you can sit here while I do it.  You didn’t seem to have a problem giving Rainier time.  Or standing right over the top of him while you were deciding.”

“You do need to eat.  I think you have low blood sugar.  I might have trail mix in the other room so you can snack on something while we’re waiting for dinner,” she suggested helpfully, starting to push up from the cuddle chair.

He didn’t even look at her, but his arm swept across her like a bar, restraining her.  “Just stay put.  If my blood sugar starts to drop, you’ll be the first person I’ll tell.”

She looked across the room at Rainier.  “Is he always this grumpy before he eats?” She poured concern into her voice.

“I never noticed it before.” Amusement colored Rainier’s voice until Zale looked up, pinning his friend with a dark stare. Rainier sobered instantly.

“I’ll have the steak, rare.  Baked potato with everything.  Salad.  The roasted brussels sprouts.”

“That sounds eerily like Rainier’s order.”  Vienna took the menu out of his hands and once again made a move to go to the phone.  Again, Zale blocked her.

“Are you going to look at me?”

“I have looked at you.”

“You haven’t.”

She sighed.  “I’m hungry and tired.  I have low blood sugar.  I just came back from a long run and I have a big day tomorrow.  I can’t afford any distractions, Zale.  I appreciate that the two of you are in trouble.  Maybe the fate of the world is in your hands, I don’t know, but I have to keep myself under control.  Whatever the two of you are into, I can’t be a part of.  I’m not in your world and you’re not in mine.”

There was a small silence.  Rainier broke it.  “I’m sorry, Vienna.  We needed medical attention, and Zale mentioned you were a nurse.  We couldn’t go to the hospital and you were on the same floor.  You were going to meet me at the wedding anyway, so it wasn’t like you weren’t going to find out I was working undercover with Zale.  We didn’t mean to drag you into our problems.”

She felt a little ashamed.  It wasn’t as if she didn’t want to help them, especially when they both were hurt.  She shrugged.  “I don’t really mind helping out.  It’s just that I know I’m not supposed to know what you do and I respect that.  Like I said, I’m just tired and hungry.  I’ll call in the order so we can get our food.”

Zale had removed his arm so she took that as permission to make a break for the phone.  While she gave their orders for dinner, Zale made another drink for Rainier and himself.  She took the sparkling water from him and sank into the single cuddle chair across from him, putting her head back to stare up at the ceiling.

“I guess whatever you’re into is dangerous.  If your cover is blown, shouldn’t you pack up and go home?”

“Not necessarily,” Rainier said.  “No one saw the attack in the parking lot.  We’re betting the three die before they report to their boss.  They aren’t going to be too quick to tell whoever they report to they missed an old man and the lone personal protector wiped up the floor with them.  At least, that’s the hope.”

Vienna studied the ceiling.  “You’re betting your lives.”

“This is Vegas,” Rainier said, humor once again tingeing his voice.

Vienna let the air move in and out of her lungs.  Waiting.  It was a bet.  A wager.  It didn’t matter that lives were at stake, it came down to a bet.  Three men were somewhere slowly bleeding internally.  They were unaware they were dying.  Would they call their boss and report to him or her that they had failed to kill their intended target?  What were the odds?  There were three of them.  They wouldn’t die at the same time.  They each had a cell phone.  The boss could call them.  They’d grow cold. Weak.  Would they try to call for help? 

Vienna nodded her head slowly.  “I do believe you have a good chance those men won’t admit their screwup to their boss.  By the time they realize what’s happening, it’s going to be too late.”  She knew things.  How?  She had no idea, only that she could bet on cards because she knew what each opponent had in his hand and what was going to be the card the dealer put down next.  Bets were tricky things.  “But there are a lot of variables.  Their boss might just show up last minute.”

Rainier laughed softly.  “I was feeling good for a minute there.  You just shot that down.”

“That’s the nature of the gambling beast,” Vienna said, joining in his laughter.

“You seem to do fairly well.  Did you expect to make it to the semifinals?”

“I expect to win,” Vienna said.  “I’ve been playing for quite a few years now.  It isn’t like I just walked in off the street.  I was invited to the tournament and it just so happened that Stella wanted to do a few fun things in Vegas so I thought I’d come ahead of the rest of my friends and do a little work.  I prefer to play online.”

“Why is that?” Rainier asked.

“I’m not terribly fond of having my photograph plastered all over the casino.  I like to sneak around under the radar.  You should know something about that.  You don’t even use your real name.”

Was Zale even his real name? Had she slept with someone and she had no idea who he was? Probably.  She didn’t look at him.  She detested that she meant nothing to him at all when, in her mind, he’d been the one.  She had never been that kind of woman.  She didn’t build fantasies around men.  She’d never grown up thinking she needed a man to rescue her or complete her.  She worked hard and took care of her mother and herself.  She was happy.  Zale had been … unexpected. 

There was a knock at the door.  Zale snapped his fingers and indicated for Rainier to go to the other room.  Both men were suddenly all business, expressions sober and weapons out.  Zale concealed himself in the shadow of the bathroom off the living room.  He left the door partially open in order to cover her.

The cart was rolled in and the dinner put on the dining room table.  Plates and silverware were used, not Styrofoam takeout containers.  Linen napkins were set beside each dish along with wine glasses and water glasses.  When the servers left, she made certain the door was properly locked while both men took out small devices to check the room for any listening bugs.
Vienna seated herself at the table.  “Interesting way you have to live.”

“We don’t usually live around other people,” Rainier said.

She nodded.  “I’d forgotten that.  Sam’s been away from it for quite a long time.  We’re used to him.  He doesn’t talk much, but he participates.  He goes to the bar with us.  Most of the time, he’s our sober driver and he gets an earful.  He works at the resort and fishing camp, but he normally works alone, unless he partners with Stella.” 

She took a bite of her food.  She’d forgotten how hungry she was.  She decided less talking and more eating was in order.

“Sam just one day walked off the job,” Rainier said.  “He was like that.  He’d make up his mind to do something and you couldn’t talk him out of it.  He wouldn’t argue with you, he’d just do it.”  He indicated Zale with his fork.  “He’s like that.  Decides and that’s it.”

“What’s there to argue about?” Zale said.

“There’s nothing wrong with discussions,” Vienna said, savoring the roasted brussels sprouts. “Discussions are fun.”

“That’s not the same as arguing,” Zale said.  “Arguments lead nowhere and usually end up in hurt feelings.”

“This is good steak,” Rainier declared.  “As in great.  Notice, there’s no arguing on the subject.”

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Red on the River

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.