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Grand Central Publishing
November 2006
ISBN-10: 0446616524
ISBN-13: 978-0446616522

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Chapter One

Her chips were definitely down...

The scent of salt water always made her sick.

Which was really unfortunate for Veronica Jinkowsky because not only was she being sucked into a venture that would place her on the high seas, but here she stood on the boardwalk in freakin' Atlantic City, the salt water taffy capital of the world.  On a sucky day scale of one to ten, she figured she was hitting about fifteen.  And her day was not yet over.

The rhythmic click of her high-heeled Christian Louboutin pumps on the boardwalk planks resonated through her body up to her head, which not surprisingly throbbed with a killer headache.  Swinging through the back, beachside door into the Taj Mahal, she blinked against the assault of cigarette smoke, raucous music, flashing lights and the ching-ching-ching of the slots.  It was midnight, and the gamblers were out in full force.  In the midst of all this "splendor," she stood out like a sore thumb in her beige silk designer suit.

Well, maybe not.

Distracted, Veronica bumped into a short, elderly woman with red curly hair carrying a purse the size of Idaho.  The jolt forced the woman against a slot machine which began to make loud noises, "Wheel...of...Fortune.  Wheel...of...Fortune..."


At first, Veronica was alarmed.  The woman had to be at least seventy years old...or more.  That's all Veronica needed.  To knock off, or knock down, some old lady in a casino.

But the old lady righted herself and asked in a heavy Southern accent, "You gots any idea where the Chippenduds is dancin'?"  She was so short she had to crane her neck to peer up at Veronica.

Huh?  Ohmigod, she must think I work here.

But then the old lady asked, "Are you a hooker?"

"I beg your pardon!"  That question was so outrageous that Veronica forgot to be offended.  "Why would you ask such an absurd question?"

"You doan look like the other folks here.  No offense.  Some of my best friends is hookers down on Bourbon Street.  Well, okay, one of them was...back in 1952.  Marie  Boudreaux, bless her heart.  Anyhow, you look like yer high class, and I heard they has lotsa hookers here in Atlantic City, and I figgered you mus' be one them call gals or sumpin'.  You know, high-priced ladies of the night.  Ain't you ever seen that Elizabeth Taylor movie, Butterfield 8?"

Veronica clicked her jaw shut.  She hadn't realized she'd been gaping.  Me?  A hooker?  Is she blind, as well as batty?  Veronica refused to answer such a ridiculous question.  "Back to your question...your other question.  I've never heard of Chippenduds.  Do you mean Chippendales?"

The lady furrowed her already wrinkled brow.  In fact, she had so many wrinkles she could probably screw a hat on.

Ha, ha, ha!  This is just swell.  Now, I'm making jokes with myself.  Deep end, here I come.

"No.  They's definitely dudes, not dales."

Veronica had to smile, despite her foul mood.  "Are you looking for male strippers?"

"Tsk, tsk, tsk!  Do I look like I could do anything with a nekkid boy toy?"

Not in a million years was Veronica going to answer that question.

"Now, Richard Simmons, thass another story.  Hubba-hubba, that boy is ten kinds of sexy!  Betcha he's got a real nice hiney.  Betcha it's an onion butt.  My niece Charmaine says an onion butt is when a butt is so nice it brings tears to yer eyes."

Good grief!

"Nope.  I come all the way from Looz-ee-anna to rescue my nephew.  He jist grad-je-ated from college and got hisself a summer job flashing his bee-hind in front of a bunch of horny wimmen.  Talk about!"

Oh, boy!  Leave it to me to find myself a looney bird after only five minutes in a casino.  Why me?  "Sorry.  I don't know where there are any male strip shows.  You might try asking at the front desk."

The old lady resembled a combination of Estelle Getty from "The Golden Girls" and the grandmother on that old TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies," except for the red hair.  "The rascal's prob'ly hidin' from me.  That Tee-John allus was slicker 'n hog spit.  But I'll find him, guar-an-teed."

"I've got to be going."  Veronica backed away.  But her innate sense of kindness wouldn't let her abandon the woman, if she was lost or stranded here.  "Are you here alone?"  Please, God, don't let her be here alone.  I can't solve my own problems, let alone someone else's.

"I came with Henri Pinot.  He said he'd be back quicker 'n a gator kin blink.  That means in a minute.  Henri is my third cousin.  A widower.  But his dead wife Margie talks to 'im all the time.  Margie was a Voodoo priestess.  Henri went to the rest room.  Between you and me, he has a little prostrate trouble."

Way more information than I need.  Time to make a getaway. 

"Uh, nice meeting you.  Good luck."

Grandma Clampett had already turned around and was putting a quarter in the machine.

Veronica inched away.  She felt a little guilty, leaving the aged damsel in distress, but Veronica was a woman on a mission herself.  And she damn well wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

Wending her way through the casino, past a city of slot machines, roulette, craps and blackjack tables, she finally arrived at the poker room in the front of the hotel.  A banner above the poker room proclaimed, "U.S. Poker Championship."  Another sign read, "No Limit Texas Hold 'Em...$1 million Grand Prize." 

ESPN camera crews were there filming, and somewhere in the background, probably in some anteroom, she heard that catchy country song by the duo, Big and Rich.  The rowdy song was the lead-in to some of ESPN's TV poker programs.  Something about a guy who walks into the room, passing out hundred dollar bills, buying the whole room a double round of Crown, and "it kills and it chills..."

She shook her head with disgust, definitely chilled. Inside the room, spectators were cordoned off by velvet ropes from the finalists' table about fifteen feet away where six players were still in the game with piles of chips in front of each of them.  The tour director was calling out the action:  "Sabato bets..."  "Molene raises..."  "Here comes the river..."

She didn't recognize the middle aged guy in the cowboy hat or the young Vietnamese fellow, but she did know some of the others. 

Grace O'Brien was a cynical ex-nun.  Correction...a cynical ex-nun with a sense of humor.  The first time Veronica had met her, four years ago, Grace had cracked a joke.  "What do you call a one-legged nun?  Hopalong Chastity."  Veronica had been to Grace's Cape May cottage several times and liked Grace a lot. Mark Molene was a Denver oncologist who'd given up his high stress medical practice a couple years back.  Mark was dark and a little scary, giving new meaning to the word unsociable. 

And Angel Sabato.  She had to smile, seeing the guy with the long ponytail who was famous for his collection of Harleys...and Harley groupies.  She recalled a harrowing trip she'd taken with him one time down the Garden State Parkway.  Angel, not surprisingly, had posed for Playgirl last year under the suggestive heading, "His Poker is Hot."  She wouldn't admit it to just anyone, but Veronica had checked the issue out...only because she'd wanted to see if he really did have piercings in his penis, as had been rumored.  He did.  And, yep, it was hot.

Then, there was the last player.  You could say that she was acquainted with him.  Well acquainted.  It was her ex-husband, Jake Jenson. 

Actually, he was her fourth ex-husband.

Okay, he was her only ex-husband.  They had married and divorced four times, each of the marriages ending in a Mexican Stand-Off of one kind or another, and Jake ultimately leaving.

Trying to have a sense of humor about their repeated weddings--it was either laugh, or cry--she and Jake had given names to their four marriages. 

First was the Sappy Marriage, where they had been so much in love it practically leaked from their pores.  They'd foolishly thought love conquered all.  That one had involved a church service and a lavish reception, despite her grandmother's disapproval of Jake.  The marriage had lasted a record three years.

Next had come the Cowboy Marriage.  Hey, what woman could resist a guy in Reno wearing cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and the sexiest grin this side of the Texas Panhandle?  All she knew was that she'd somehow landed in the honeymoon suite of the Las Vegas Caesar's with Jake, him wearing nothing but cowboy boots and an open snap-button shirt, and her wearing nothing.  Lordy, Lordy!  She got shivers just thinking about that one.  Too bad it had ended two years later.

Third came the Tequila Marriage.  Think Mexico and a gallon of tequila.  Enough said!  One year for that mistake.

Fourth was the Insanity Marriage.  They had actually gone  into that one with their eyes wide open.  No heated rush!  No booze.  Just a pathetic hope that they could make it work.  That marriage went out with a roar in a pitiful three months.

Thus, four marriages and divorces.

It was embarrassing, really.  She was a corporate lawyer...

albeit a burned out, bored one.  Presumably intelligent.  She was sensible to the max.  Even so, she didn't have the sense to stop marrying and divorcing the same guy over and over.

She continued to watch Jake as he played.

Some people thought he looked like a leaner, younger George Clooney.  She thought he looked better.  The years gave her cellulite.  The years gave Jake charisma.  Her heart skipped a beat and hammered against her chest walls, turning her breathless.  That's the reaction she always had on first seeing her sinfully handsome ex.  You'd think the hair-trigger attraction would have faded in the two years since she'd seen him last.

Not that any of that mattered.

Veronica shook her head to clear it of the unwelcome temptation.

He was thirty-five years old, and yet he wore a baseball cap over his short black hair and sported day-old whiskers.  He wore his lucky gray tee-shirt with the logo "Up that!"  She'd bought it for him sometime during the Tequila marriage.  Dark sunglasses covered what she knew were compelling, pale blue eyes.

"How much are each of those chips worth?" she asked the elderly gentlemen next to her.

"This is the cadillac of poker tournaments; so, let me see.  The orange ones, one thousand each.  Gray ones, five thousand each.  Buy-in fee was ten thousand dollars."

"Holy Moley!"  Stacked in front of Jake stood about...she did a rough mental calculation...four hundred thousand dollars.  He sure had come up in the world...if gambling one's life away could be considered an achievement.  There was an old Armenian saying, "What the wind brings, the wind blows away."  She and Jake had been in more wind storms than she could count.

She must have spoken louder than she'd thought because Jake's head shot up.  He lowered his sun glasses down his nose and peered over them to get a better view of her.  Then a slow grin crept across his lips, just before he slid the glasses back up and resumed his blank expression.

Instantly, he morphed into his zen mode, something he'd perfected over the years.  Focus, focus, focus...that's what was needed to be a winning poker player in the Bible According to Jake.  He gave away no "tells" once he was in that mind mode...

not a blink, grimace, or gesture, nothing to indicate whether he held a winning or losing hand.

Every one seemed tense at the table.  She knew from living with Jake that in no limit Texas hold-em, fortunes could change from hand to hand.  Some pros refused to enter this kind of game because of the heartstopping swings.

The spectators could see cards being dealt but not which cards.  The flop cards were already on the table and then, with a flip of the turn card, five piles of chips were pushed to the center of the table.  With the final river cards, more bets were made and then the hand ended with one player folding, the Vietnamese guy.  Amidst the hooting and laughter and loud conversations, the players stood and stretched.  Apparently, a break was being called.

Jake immediately made his way toward her, which she'd expected.  He knew she wouldn't step foot into a casino, or come searching for him after all this time, unless it was important.  People kept patting him on the back or shaking his hand but he merely nodded at them and continued on his way.  Even the ESPN reporter was waved off. 

When he got to her, he took her elbow and steered her down a side corridor labeled "Employees Only."  Not a word did he utter. But then she was a bit speechless herself.

He stopped and stuck one hand into his jeans pocket, something he did reflexively when he was nervous.  No one but she  knew that he was probably fingering the silver worry beads she'd bought him during their Sappy Marriage.  Or was it the Cowboy  one?  Taking off his sun glasses, he leaned his left shoulder against the wall.  "Hey, Ronnie," he greeted her in that low, husky voice that made her melt.  Made her melt at one time, she amended.

"Jake," she said back, matching his huskiness.

It was a familiar greeting routine they had played often in the past. To her surprise, he didn't appear pleased.  "What's up?" he asked with equal measures of irritation and concern.

She leaned her right shoulder against the wall, facing him.  Forget old feelings of tenderness...or lust.  She was angry once again.  "My grandfather," she snapped.

He arched both eyebrows.  "Frank?"

"Yeah, Frank."  Veronica had called her grandfather Frank from the time she was only a few years old.  Grandpa or Gramps were too soft a word for the man, even then.

"What's the old geezer done now?  Did he find any more gold toilets?"

Her grandfather owned a treasure hunting company, Jinx, Inc., a play on his last name, Jinkowsky.  A treasure detective, that's what he called himself.  Sort of like Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt, she supposed.  Sometimes his projects involved deep sea expeditions, sometimes archaeological digs, and sometimes just tracking down some mysterious, missing objects.  While he supposedly had a great reputation among salvers and treasure hunters for having made some important discoveries, he was known to take on infamous cases, as well.  Last year, he recovered a solid gold toilet once owned by Mussolini.  Some Italian prince paid a million dollars for the stupid thing.  The story made all the newspapers.  Frank had been quoted as saying something about even Mussolini needing a crapper and other unsavory observations.  Her Boston family was not amused.

Veronica refused to play teasing games with Jake, though.  This was business.  Serious business.  "He signed Jinx, Inc. over to me."

Jake's mouth literally dropped open before he clicked it shut.  "You're kidding!"  She sure had his attention now.

"But not only the treasure hunting company.  He's given me his boat, "Sweet Jinx," the Barnegat warehouse, his Long Beach Island house, and a bunch of his personal belongings.  Without my permission, by the way."

Veronica had become increasingly dissatisfied with her job as a corporate lawyer this past year.  But that didn't mean she wanted, or would ever, become a treasure hunter, for Pete's sake.  That would be like Donald Trump deciding to become a hula dancer.

No, it was the field of corporate law that no longer appealed to her...not the law itself.

Jake was clearly startled by her news, but he remained silent, waiting for her to explain.  Talking to Jake was like a game of cards.  She never knew what he was thinking, unless he wanted her to.

Jake laughed.  "You?  Running a treasure hunting company?  Last time I talked to Frank, he said he was planning a venture that involved deep sea wreck diving.  Hell's bells, Ronnie, you get seasick in the bathtub."  He was still laughing.

"It's not funny.  I have a job in Boston.  A steady job," she added for his benefit.  "I have no time for this nonsense."

Jake didn't rise to her bait, especially the steady job jab. He'd heard it enough in the past.  "So?  Decline all the...


"I can't.  His lawyer says the trust he's set up is ironclad.  I just came from Harley Winston's office in Asbury Park."

Jake's eyes swept over her.  "So that's why you're all dolled up."

She felt herself blush, though why she hadn't a clue.  Jake had said and done much more to make her blush over the years.  "I went to a charity event of my grandmother's before I met with the lawyer."

He nodded, his face suddenly grim.  Jake didn't like her grandmother any more than her grandfather did.

If he only knew how her grandmother had flipped when she'd told her where she was going tonight!

"Can Frank do that...give you something you don't want?  Isn't it illegal or something?  Oh.  Forget I said that."

They both knew her grandfather was up close and personal with all the politicians in New Jersey.  Criminals, too, for that matter.  Sometimes they were one and the same.  He could probably do just about anything without being arrested.

"You're a lawyer.  Take him to court."

"A corporate lawyer.  This is a civil case."

"If he's given it to you, then sell it.  No big deal!"

"Hah!  You would not believe the conditions he's set up for me to liquidate anything.  I'd be spending the next few years in court.  Besides that, I'm not sure what Frank's financial situation is.  I might be liable for his debts, as well."

"And no one in your grandmother's law firm could handle this pro bono?"

She shook her head.  "An entirely different field of law."

"Frank always was a cagey one."  He said "cagey" as if it were a compliment.  Jake frowned then.  "Why would Frank do this?  Turn over his precious company to someone who knows diddly squat about treasure hunting...and has no interest in learning?"

Veronica winced at his last remark.  Jake had always pushed her to get closer to her eccentric grandfather, who had often been downright cruel to her.  Frank had assumed she was as judgmental as her grandmother Lillian who had divorced him more than fifty years ago.  "I don't know why," she replied finally.

He waited for her to say more.  When she didn't, he said, "I'll bite, babe.  Why not just ask him?"

"I intend to.  In fact, I've already spoken to my own lawyer back in Boston...a civil attorney.  He suggested I talk to Frank before I do anything."  She put a hand to her forehead and sighed.


She nodded, waiting for him to say something sarcastic, like, "What?  Your halo on too tight?"  It wouldn't be the first time.

He said nothing, though, just continued to worry the beads in his pocket, watching her.

"So, Ronnie, you came to me first, before confronting Frank.  Why?"  Slowly, his eyes went wide with disbelief, coming to his own mistaken conclusion.  "Un-be-friggin-liev-able!  Don't tell me you missed me."

That was a low blow.  She would always miss him, and he knew it.

Instead of appearing pleased at the prospect, Jake shifted from foot to foot with discomfort.  By the movement of his fingers in the jeans pocket, he was worrying those beads like crazy.

"Why?  Did you miss me?"  She regretted the words the second they left her mouth.  "Nevermind."

But it was too late.  Some words couldn't be taken back.

Whatever discomfort he'd been experiencing melted away, and sparks sizzled in the air.  The sexual attraction between the two of them had always been spectacular.  It was probably why she'd given in to him when she was a freshman and he was a senior at Boston U.  It was probably why they kept marrying, repeatedly.  But then, good sex didn't necessarily mean good marriage, they'd learned the hard way.  Even love didn't guarantee a good marriage, as had so sadly been drummed into them four bloody times.

He put a hand over his mouth and rubbed it back and forth, watching her intently.  But he didn't answer.  He didn't have to.

"I'm not here because"  To her chagrin, her face heated.  She was a corporate lawyer, who had no trouble at all talking with high-powered clients and judges, but now she was floundering for words like a teenager in heat.

"Obviously!  The last time we were together, you told me to hit the road and stay out of your life forever."

"Of course I told you that.  You were already halfway out the door.  Running away.  Like you always do."

"Sure I run.  You provoke me into leaving every single damn time."

"You avoid arguments."

"You love arguments."

"Maybe if you stuck around one of those times you might have discovered how untrue that is."

"I stuck plenty."  Jake's jaw tightened as he visibly suppressed his temper.  Apparently their last parting still rankled with him.  Finally, he ran his fingers through his hair and said, "I didn't run.  You pushed me out."

"Oh, Jake.  That was two years ago."

"Uh-oh!"  Jake stiffened at the softness of her voice, and fear flashed across his face for a brief moment.

Good heavens!  Does he think I want to hook up with him again?  And why would that scare him?  Well, okay, that would scare me, too.  Like a bad B movie.  Return of the Living Idiots.  "Don't uh-oh me.  I haven't changed my mind.  I am not interested in you...that way.  I came to you because Frank's lawyer gave me some interesting information.  It appears you are a major investor in Jinx, Inc."  She narrowed her eyes at him.  "Since you invested in Frank's company, you must have known what he was up to...regarding me."

"No, I didn't know Frank was handing the company over to you.

"It's a corporation, isn't it?  Jinx, Inc.  He can't make that big of a decision without consulting his shareholders."

Jake laughed.  "The Inc. to Frank means signed in ink.  It's not legally a corporation."

"Why did you just happen to dump that much money in his lap?  Why not invest in something else, like, oh, let's say, real estate?"  It was a question she shouldn't have asked.  Jake was a rounder, a person who plays poker for a living.  Taking risks was in his genes.  She, on the other hand, was what was known as a grinder, a person who played safe; it was not a compliment, in her case.

Jake exhaled with exasperation at her persistent questions.  "I like Frank.  I had a stretch of good luck.  Simple as that.  And why the hell not?"

"Good luck?  Good luck?"  She was practically shrieking.  "Give me a break!  A hundred thousand dollars is not just luck."

"Let's not beat that dead horse again."  His jaw, under the day-old stubble, was stiff, and his eyes blazed.  Her criticism of his gambling was a perpetual hot button...a dead horse, for sure.

"Couldn't you have bought a savings bond, or some IBM stock? I'll bet you don't even have an IRA yet."  Veronica grimaced mentally as she realized that she had fallen into the conservative lecturing mode that Jake used to tease her about.  In fact, he had often joked that her idea of doubling her money was to fold the bills and put them back in her pocket.  Still, she blathered on, "The investment to return ratio on blue chips has got to be better than treasure hunting, and almost risk-free in comparison."

He relaxed and smiled at her.  When he smiled like that, his dimples emerged, and Jake's dimples pretty much amounted to lethal weapons of the most erotic kind.  "Cupcake, when did I ever play it safe?"

And that is the crux of our problem.  Always has been.  Always will be.  "I want you to pull your money out and talk some sense into my grandfather."

"Still afraid of the old man, are you?"

"I'm not afraid...oh, all right...he does scare me a little. I never win an argument with him.  And he has a way of making me feel like I'm a condescending clone of my grandmother."

He gave her a quick once-over which said he agreed with that opinion.

The jerk!

"What makes you think I could do any better?" Jake asked.

"He likes you.  He always did."

"He likes you, too, Ronnie.  You never gave him a chance." 

The unspoken message was that she never gave Jake a chance, either...which was ridiculous.  She'd given him four chances.  She waited for him to say that he liked her, too, which would normally have been the case, but he didn't.  Something is going on here.  Jake is not acting his usual self.  "Let's put the subject of my grandfather in the dead horse category, too."  She and Jake had never agreed about Frank and probably never would.

He glanced at his wrist watch.  "Listen, I only have another half hour before they resume play.  I need to go meditate for a few minutes.  What do you want from me?"

Ouch!  Talk about blunt!  There was a time when he would have had me in the sack by now, game or no game.  "I told you, Jake.  Go talk with Frank." 

"You go talk to Frank."

Blunt again.  "Come with me to Long Beach Island."  She slapped a palm over her mouth.  She couldn't believe she'd said that.

"I can't," he said sadly.  "Five minutes next to you and I'm already all twisted up inside.  You make...oh, shit!"

Veronica turned to see what had caused Jake to curse.  A young woman was approaching.  Like a slow motion vignette, Veronica watched as the woman smiled at Jake, ignoring her as she came up to them, then put her hand on his arm.

In the old days, Veronica would have snarled at that hand on his arm.  Now, she just snarled inwardly.

The girl...woman...had to be no more than twenty-five.  Her wavy blonde hair was any woman's dream...or man's, for that matter.  Her tall, perfect figure would put Barbie to shame.  Is Jake her Ken?  Definitely no cellulite here.  She wore a black suit with a brass name tag.  Probably a casino or hotel employee.    "I just got off work, Sugar."

Sugar?  I think I'm going to be sick.

"How are you doing in the tournament?"

Veronica realized belatedly that she hadn't even inquired how Jake was doing.  Probably good since he was one of five  finalists in a million dollar tournament.

"I'm doing great."  He didn't sound great.  The was unfair, but that's how Veronica chose to label any of Jake's women...tilted her head in confusion, first at Jake and then at her.

He sighed deeply.  Then, "Terri, this is my ex-wife, Veronica...Ronnie...Jinkowsky."  His eyes held Veronica's for a long moment, as if he was sorry for something.  Then, he put his arm over the shoulders of the bimbo and said, "This is Trish  Dangel." There was a long pause before he added, "My fiancée."

Someone said, "Congratulations."  It had to be Veronica, but she was oblivious, stunned.  She couldn't have hurt more if she'd been kicked in the stomach.  It's been lovely, but I think I'll go scream now.  Loud white noise roared in her head.  She tried to think of something to say, but words failed her.  Do not cry in front of him.  Do...not...cry.  Instead, she turned slowly and walked away from the two of them.  Jake called after her to wait, but she didn't...couldn't...stop.

Once she had gone some distance, nausea overcame her and she rushed into the first ladies room she saw.

The scent of industrial strength pine cleaner and a floral deodorizer assaulted her senses.  Luckily, the rest room was empty. 

Apparently, Jake had moved on with his life.  It was unreasonable for her to be so stricken.  Their relationships had  always been doomed. 

Still, Veronica's heart hurt and literally felt as if it were breaking, despite the divorces, despite not having seen him for two years.  She was reacting so strongly because his announcement had blindsided her, she concluded.

Satisfied with that explanation, she walked woodenly into one of the stalls, locked the door, and leaned against the wall.

I don't care!

I don't care!

I don't care!

Then she gave in to the sharp pain in her abdomen, clutched herself around her middle, crumpled to her knees and retched violently.

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