Melanie Dubois detests her family's casino business. The way this addiction destroys people has her on a tear of magnificent proportions. Then again, this young lady has been put through a train wreck of her own design. She distrusts everybody except for the people who are determined to use Melanie as a poster-child for zealots.
Mike Mercer has spent nearly a year in a deep cover mission for the FBI. The one fly in the ointment of completing his objective to take down a group of dangerous anti-gambling fanatics is a fiery-tempered, blonde-haired woman named Melanie DuBois. Worse than that, she's got a passion brewing just beneath the surface that's an even deadlier attraction.
Fighting for your life is never easy when the odds are stacked against you.
Mike Mercer stood to the side watching Melanie Dubois talk to the news media. She was a piece of work, but he had to admit she had a hot body. He sighed crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned against his dark blue sedan, trying to blend in with the crowd. He wasn’t here to seduce her; even though her feistiness appealed to him, making him wonder what kind of lover she’d be. He was here to get her away from these people.
He would have to question her motives in front of the picketers and the media, so if she decided to go with The Opposition Group, Janet Batten and her followers, she wouldn’t be suspected of collusion with him. The confrontation might be fun, but more than likely he was going to get a tongue lashing. His lips curled up at the thought.
Hopefully, his cover hadn’t been discovered. He didn’t need these fanatics knowing he was FBI. A sloppily dressed journalist glanced toward Mike. Here was his opening.
Mike heaved himself away from the fender and strode into the center of the crowd. Once he reached Melanie, he grasped her shoulder, saying, “What the hell are you doing here? This is no place for you.”
Mel whirled around, jerking away from his touch. “Just who are you telling me what I can or can not do?”
He grinned down at the spitting feline image of tawny blonde hair swirling around her face. “Well, it sure looks like someone should take control of you,” he said. Pausing, his gaze roamed down her body, before he added, “But for your information I’m not telling you how to behave, I’m asking a question.” What he needed was an excuse to get her away from this bunch, but there wasn’t one.
“What I’m doing here is none of your business.”
“What is your connection to Melanie Dubois?” the journalist asked, sticking the microphone in front of Mike’s face.
“The only link between us is that I’m on the board of the Odyssey casino.” He glanced at Melanie. “There’s no way your family would want you here.”
“Why would I care about someone who doesn't love me?"
“I doubt that’s true.” What made her think that? Surely, she didn’t believe all the crap her father told her about her mother having an affair and that she was the result of that fling. “Don’t you even want to know what’s happening with your sister?”
“It’s all over the news, how can I miss it?”
Janet moved up beside them, putting her arm protectively around the young girl. “Stop harassing her, or I’ll call the police.”
Melanie didn’t know everything that was going on because the FBI told the media only what they wanted them to know. What would the younger woman think if she knew the FBI had used her sister as bait to catch the serial killer terrorizing the area? Her hostility would be nothing compared to what it would be if she learned that detail.
There was nothing he could do right now, Batten would use Melanie for her own ends until the older woman had no further use for her. He glanced behind him, noticing people closing in on him. Even though he saw Dan Travis, the light brown-haired ATF agent, there wouldn’t be any help there. He’d never break his cover either.
Hell, he’d better get out of here.
“You’re a big girl; you can make your own decisions.” He gazed into large blue eyes filled with distrust and shaded by long black mascara covered lashes. It saddened him to see her wasting her womanhood on their cause because they weren’t after the same thing she was. She wanted to save people, and they wanted to destroy them. “I just hope you don’t regret those decisions later.”
With a nod at the journalist and one more glance at Melanie, he turned and leisurely walked toward his car. He kept an eye on the man with the scar. That guy was a bad ass, and he had a record as long as his arm to prove it. Al Slavery was the dangerous one in the bunch. The others were nothing but drones.
Dressed for the day in pale blue sweats, Mel stood in the drab, dark kitchen of Janet Batten’s house and debated what to do. The growl of her stomach made the decision for her, she’d fix breakfast. She switched on the light over the sink, and reached into a lower cabinet for a couple of skillets. She poured olive oil in one pan and went to the freezer for sausage to put in the other one. Slowly, she drew ingredients from the refrigerator and placed them on the butcher block counter before she went to the pantry for potatoes and onions.
Early morning was her favorite part of the day, it was quiet and no one was around.
Why was she being left out of everything this group was doing? After being here for a month, she was still being treated like an outsider. It was almost like she was still at home. Why wouldn’t they let her help? She’d been picketing, but she knew there was more going on than just that.
Did they consider her a part of the establishment they were trying to destroy? True, she would inherit a portion of the Odyssey Casinos, but she didn’t want any part of the company. Why should she when her family treated her like a wicked stepchild? If that was the problem, she’d tell Janet that she would sell her part and use the money to help those who were addicted to gambling.
She didn’t want to belong to an industry that destroyed anyone, or their livelihoods. She’d led a privileged life on the backs of losers, living in a huge home, going to private schools and college because of them.
Thinking of the Odysseys’ always made her think of her family. Her relationship with them had been rocky for many years. Even so, she loved her sister, Jolene, and they’d been great friends when they were younger. After her sister was saved from the monster who’d kidnapped her, Mel had wanted to go see her, but didn’t want to risk being forced to leave this group by her mother and stepfather.
Absorbed in her thoughts, knife in hand chopping onions vigorously, she didn’t hear anyone come into the kitchen. A large shadow appeared on the wall in front of her, Mel swung around with the knife pointed at the person’s chest.
Recognizing Janet, her heart still pounding, she lowered the sharp edge. “You scared me to death.”
“I’m sorry I frightened you,” Janet said, stepping back. “You must’ve been in deep thought because I said, ‘Good Morning’ when I first walked in.”
“I was thinking about how I don’t feel included in your plans. It feels like home. I was always an outsider there, too.”
The older woman wrapped the younger one in her arms.
“We didn’t mean to do that, Melanie. You should’ve told me sooner how you felt,” Janet said, releasing her and gazing into the girl’s blue eyes. “We want you to feel wanted and comfortable in your new home.”
“Then why can’t I do something besides picket?” Janet probably thought she sounded like a big crybaby. She turned away to keep busy as she waited for the answer, she scrapped the ingredients from the cutting board into the skillet.
“It looks like you’re doing something besides picketing. Do you have enough for everyone?”
Mel glanced at Janet and caught a smile on her face. “I’ve got enough for a small army, but you know I didn’t mean this.” She poured in the scrambled eggs and put bread in the toaster.
Janet walked to the fridge drawing out butter and milk to place on the table. “After breakfast we’re having a meeting, and it would be helpful for you to tell your family’s story,” and then casually asked, “Would you be willing to do that?”
“Sure, I want to.” That was an understatement; she couldn’t wait to tell everyone about the evils of gambling. Yeah, she’d gladly let them know what the casinos had done to her dad. Janet had promised her when she came here she would become involved with major activities and maybe this was the start.
Janet stopped beside her, caressing the top of Melanie’s head. “It’ll go a long way to help alleviate the others distrust of you.”
“Thanks for the opportunity to explain myself.” So that’s the reason she hadn’t been able to get close to any of these people except Janet. Well hell, if that’s why they were ignoring her, she’d spell it out why she was here.
“I’ll let you know when I’m ready for you.”
“Thanks,” Mel murmured, as she darted a glance at the salt and pepper-haired woman while Janet took silverware and plates to the long, scarred wooden table. “Why are you so nice to me?”
Janet walked to stand beside her. “I had a daughter about your age.” She touched Melanie’s arm. “If she had lived, I would want her to be like you.”
Mel leaned toward Janet. “I wish I’d had a mother who loved me.” It would have been nice to have someone really care about her. She glanced past the woman as she heard people streaming into the kitchen. “We’d better hurry, here they come.”
The first person she saw was Al Slavery, who could miss that evil scarred face. It was all she could do to keep from flinching as he drew closer to her. Next came Dan dressed in his usual jeans and sweater with a swagger that would turn on most women. Several young stringy-haired women in sweats and a few older men followed behind him.
“Leave the juice on the counter along with the food. It won’t hurt them to help themselves today.” Janet winked at her.
Mel smiled at Janet, saying, “Good idea.” She swished the food from the skillets onto platters.
Janet winked at her and turned toward the people before they could sit at the table. “Come and get it before it gets cold.”
The guys grabbed plates and rushed forward. Mel backed away from the counter so she wouldn’t be trampled in their attempt to get to the food. It would be a miracle if there was any left; she’d probably have to settle for a bowl of cereal.
“Hey, you guys leave some food for the rest of us,” Janet barked, sounding like a drill sergeant.
Mel suppressed a grin, watching the men take smaller portions. She might get to eat some of her cooking after all. She flinched when Slavery purposely brushed against her scowling at him.
The man gave her the creeps.
A couple of hours later, Melanie watched people gather in the living room from where she sat on the brown-striped couch. None of them came near her, even though she scooted to one end. They obviously preferred to sit in the orange and beige matching chairs or on the floor rather than next to her. The red and black flannel-shirted man she knew as George glared at her as he took his seat.
When Janet, her forehead slightly beaded with perspiration, walked into the room and stood in front of them, everyone stopped talking and expectant faces turned toward her. She stood in the middle of the huge family room, light glowing down on her, making her look like a prophet with her arms spread.
A hush settled over everyone, faces rose expectantly as though waiting to hear from their savior. Well, she was in a way since the woman had taken them in after they’d lost everything to gaming. It was amazing how these vacant-faces lit up when Janet spoke.
“Let’s pray for the salvation of those we are trying to save from the wickedness of gambling.” Janet bowed her head. “Dear God, bless our crusade to save poor souls from the hell holes of iniquity. Watch over us tonight and keep us safe as we picket before the Odyssey, and help us reach the spirit of those who have lost their way. Amen.” She raised her head, asking, “Are you ready soldiers?”
People jumped to their feet, waving their hands and yelling, “Yes. Yes, we are.”
“We’ll do anything you ask of us,” George, a ruddy-faced man, said.
Smiling, she stuck her hands palm down in front of her and waved them up and down. “Calm down, children.” When everyone sat, she nodded at Melanie. “Many of you have wondered why Melanie is here, since she’s part of the industry we’re against, so today we’re going to give her a chance to explain.”
Mel stood and walked to stand beside Janet. The woman put her arms around her shoulders, whispering, “Your story will rouse them even more.”
Mel smiled up at the maternal gray-haired woman. “Thanks for allowing me to join this wonderful group. I do want to help, and I’m willing to do anything.” She took a deep breath, gazing into their faces as she rubbed her moist palms down her sweat pants. How could she make these people believe she belonged here with them?
“Humph. Seeing is believin’,” George said from his seat on the couch.
“It’s okay, go ahead. There won’t be any more interruptions,” Janet said, frowning at the man.
“I don’t blame him for not believing me.” She clenched her hands and lowered her chin to her chest. “I’m ashamed to admit my family owns the Odyssey Casinos.”
“I know you don’t like what your casino and others are doing to our families here in the Mid-West any more than the rest of us.” Janet hugged Melanie, releasing her a moment later. “Why don’t you explain what gambling did to your family.”
Her chest swelled as she inhaled, then exhaled and moved her hands nervously as she gripped them in front of her. “My father was addicted to gambling, and it killed him.” Not able to stand still, she paced in front of the people, no longer seeing them. She clenched and unclenched her fingers. “My father became indebted to loan sharks, and in order to pay them off, he became involved in a scheme to sell the Odysseys to the Moneymaker Casino, a company involved in money laundering.”
Damn. Double damn. Why did he do it? She bit her lower lip to keep them from trembling as she talked about the man she’d loved. “His partner didn’t trust him and, believing Daddy was double crossing him, killed him.” Coming to a stop in front of them, with her head high, she added heatedly, “My father would be alive today if it weren’t for gambling. I intend to close every single one of them.” She’d make the casinos pay for what they did to her father.
Loud clapping followed her last statement.
“That is so sad, Melanie. You may not have lost your home like the others here, but your loss was something far more precious.” Janet touched the younger woman’s arm. “Do you have more to add?”
Get a grip, Mel. Don’t fall apart now. Gaining control of her emotions, she said, “Yes, I do.” Forgive me, Sis, for what I’m about to say about you. “One addiction leads to another, my dad and my sister were both addicted to gambling, smoking and alcohol. My sister was able to break the drinking habit recently by going through rehab.”
“Oh sure, she has. How long has she been off alcohol?” George asked, in a scoffing tone.
Mel gazed at the older, red-faced man. She knew he’d lost his home, his wife and his job because of gambling, but she didn’t think that was his only problem. There’d been a time or two she’d caught him taking a swig from a wine bottle he’d stashed in different spots around the house. Once, she’d even caught him digging one out of the snow.
He’s definitely an alcoholic. Only Jolene had conquered her demons and George was still battling his. Janet had to know he was drinking. Mel couldn’t understand why the woman allowed him to continue to stay in her home.
“Only about six months, but she goes to her AA meetings regularly.” She hoped Jolene was still sticking to the program, but Mel didn’t really know.
“Oh, she’ll fall off the wagon,” George sneered. “They all do.”
Had the man tried to quit drinking and failed? “My sister will be one of those who’ll have the strength to stay off alcohol,” she said, glaring at the man. Jolene better not start again. She’d brain her if she didn’t stay with the program. She and her sister had their problems, but Mel still wanted Jolene to be happy. The damn men Joley got involved with used her because she was desperate for love.
The pinch on her arm halted her speech. Obviously, Janet wanted her to stick to the topic of gambling.
She glanced up at the woman, saying, “I’m sorry I strayed from the topic.”
“Well, it’s true that people light up and drink when they gamble, but it’s a problem that can be addressed another day. Thank you for telling your reasons for being here, Melanie.” Janet patted Melanie’s shoulder, giving her a little shove. “It’s time for everyone to get their clothes ready for tonight. It’s going to be extremely cold with the wind blowing and snow expected any time so put on your warmest clothes.”
Oh shit, why couldn’t they wait for summer to picket? She hated winter. Walking away from Janet, she decided she’d better make sure her long underwear was clean, or she would freeze her ass off tonight.
When she reached the stairs, she glanced back and noticed Al, the man she’d nicknamed Scarface because of the long scar on one side of his face, in a huddle with Janet and Dan. What’s up?
“She’s feeling left out,” Janet said, pausing as she watched Melanie go up the stairs. “If we don’t give her something more to do, she’s going to get bored and leave.”
“We can’t let that happen,” Al Slavery said.
“Why not?” Dan asked angrily. “I say let her go and good riddance. She’s nothing but a spoiled brat, and she might ruin everything for us.”
“Good thing you aren’t running the show,” Al sneered.
“Well, you aren’t either,” Dan said.
“Stop it right now.” Janet glared at both men. “Dan, I want you to make sure Melanie doesn’t get too bored around here.” Al was right, they couldn’t let her leave, but even he didn’t know the plan Janet had concocted for little Miss Dubois.
“Yeah, and how do you want me to do that?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
“You could start by talking to her for one thing. I’m sure you can come up with some ideas on your own.” Janet smirked. “You’re a man, aren’t you?”
“Not much of a one,” Al snarled, then snickered.
Janet watched Dan send a baleful look Al’s way. She’d better watch these two; they hadn’t hit it off since they’d met. These men wouldn’t be allowed to mess up her scheme. Which one would she get rid of if she had to?
Al had been with her since the beginning when they started doing harmless things like picket at cemeteries for dead soldiers. Dan was unknown, but he seemed more reckless, more willing to take chances. He might be more useful than Al for what she planned next.
A loud knock at the door caused Janet to turn toward the sound just as it banged open and a large man stormed through the entrance and stopped. “Where is she?”
“Who in the hell are you?” Dan demanded, running forward to grab the man by the collar.
Exactly. Who is this man invading her house? Janet watched the giant brush Dan off like a fly. Dan wasn’t exactly short at six feet, but the other fellow had a few inches on him. As she saw Dan raise his fists and Al rush forward to help, she decided it was time to stop this nonsense before they tore up the place.
“Wait a minute,” she said, walking forward. “Who are you looking for?”
“I want Melanie Dubois.” The agitated man looked around the room. “Where is she? I know she’s here.”
“Al, go get Melanie,” Janet said. “Why do you want her?”
“Her mother asked me to bring her home.”
“Don’t you think we should leave that up to her?” Janet asked in an appeasing tone, as she watched Al run up the stairs. “I’m sure Melanie is old enough to make up her mind where she wants to live.”
“I’m sure she’ll want to leave when she learns that her sister is getting married soon,” Mike said.
What was she going to do if he actually persuaded the girl to go with him? Melanie loved her sister and would want to be included in the wedding. “Well, we’ll see, won’t we?”
She watched the dark-haired man with sideburns turn as Melanie ran down the stairs. He looked familiar to her for some reason.
“Who wants to see me?” Mel asked, stepping off the last step and moving close to Janet.
“This man wants to talk to you,” Janet said, waving her hand at the giant. Now, she remembered, he’d confronted Melanie on the picket line a while back.
Melanie swung around, her head rose until she stared at the man. “What are you doing here? Didn’t I make myself clear before that I’m staying here?”
Towering over her, he said, “You did. I sure as the devil wouldn’t be here if it were up to me. I’m only here because of your mother and your sister.”
Her hands on her hips, she said, “Well, you can go back and tell my mother and sister I’m not coming home.”
Janet put her hand on her shoulder as an idea formed in her mind. “Melanie, you should hear him out. Your sister is getting married and wants you to be in her wedding.”
The big man nodded.
“When is the wedding?” Melanie asked.
“It’s in December, the day after Christmas.”
Melanie stared up into his face. “That’s a long ways off. I’m not going with you. Tell my sister I’ll be in touch.”
“Have it your way. It doesn’t mean a damn to me.” He turned, pulled the door open and glanced over his shoulder. “Sorry to have bothered all of you.”
Watching him pull the door closed, Janet already had a plan.