“What did you do with all our money!?” I yelled, furious. The bank called me today to say that our account was empty and our credit cards were overdrawn. I required information about the report with savings, and I found out that nothing like it existed.
Two years ago, Chester persuaded me to invest our savings into some business, and today, the woman on the phone told me my money was never placed in their account. My idiotic husband lost everything in the casino. And he didn’t care that our daughter started her first year at school, that we had to pay rent or for the car. All that was on his mind was gambling.
“Leave me alone, Valeria. I have a headache from your constant shrieking,” he groaned, turning his back on me, but I grabbed his elbow, halting his movements.
“I demand an explanation!” I felt blood rushing through my veins at an impossible speed, and my head almost exploded, but I refused to let it be. He lied to me for years.
“I said, leave me alone!” he roared, yanking his arm from my grasp. He pushed me to the side, and I hit a shelve with my shoulder, but I ignored the pain. I was at the end of my strength and patience with this man. This was the last drop.
“Zara’s birthday is on Saturday,” I pointed out, stomping through the hall behind him. “How are you planning to pay for it?”
“You wanted a child,” he snapped, abruptly turning around so I almost bumped into his chest. “Now, take care of her!” he slammed the door into the bedroom, locking it to end the argument.
His words hurt me deeply, yet I refused to acknowledge he didn’t love our little girl. But in my eyes, he just reached the absolute bottom, and I couldn’t find any excuse to continue in this charade.
After he made a lousy investment four years ago, his business and our marriage went downhill. I tried to save the pieces of the man I once loved and respected, but he made it perfectly clear he didn’t care for us. He spent the nights out with his buddies, playing cards, while I did everything possible to prevent our family from splitting. Yet I was tired, so fucking tired of all the bullshit he said and did.
Overcoming an urge to take an axe and break the door down, I took my jacket and left the apartment. In the elevator, I started mindlessly at my reflection in the mirror, pushing back the tears. He wasn’t worth my perfect makeup.
I had a night shift in the casino, where I worked as a poker dealer. Zara was in her grandparent’s house because I didn’t want her to witness another argument. And because her “amazing” father left her alone last time when he should have been with her, I instead called my mother-in-law. She knew her son was an irresponsible bastard, and she always helped me. At least I had her on my side.
A loud elevator ring stirred me from my thoughts, and I checked my appearance for the last time. I wore a royal blue dress with a V-neckline and long sleeves, considered a uniform. It ended above my knees, and my legs looked stunning with high heels.
In the past few months, I lost weight so rapidly that all of my clothes were too big for me. The situation with my husband started to affect my health, yet I was well aware of my responsibility toward my daughter. I couldn’t end up in the hospital and leave her with her idiotic father. I had to assemble myself and find the courage to file for divorce. It was the best thing I could do for all three of us.
I walked through the back entrance of the casino precisely five minutes before six. I left my purse in the dressing room and took a deep breath. Another twelve hours of pretending were in front of me.
“Hello,” I greeted when I entered the room for staff, plastering a fake smile on my face. Only two of my colleagues were there, packing their things because they finished.
“Goodbye,” Tony, an almost sixty-year-old man with grey hair and soft blue eyes, waved at me, and Richard quickly followed him. His wife gave birth to twins three months back, and he always ran home to help her with everything. They had a fantastic relationship, and I sighed heavily when I compared it with my destroyed marriage.
“You look like shit,” a familiar female voice of my best friend, Agness, spoke from behind me, and I rolled my eyes.
“You didn’t see my face,” I objected weakly, turning on a coffee machine. We should’ve already been outside, but I desperately needed my dose of caffeine.
“Your shoulders are slumped, and your hair is up. That’s enough for me to know it was another argument with Chester,” she pointed out, and I turned around, watching her as she zipped her dress. She was short and chubby, my exact opposite, but with such charisma that she overshone everyone. Her curly brown hair was flying all over her cute face, and the look was absolutely perfect when she placed glasses in a thick black frame on her nose.
“He lied to me about the money,” I admitted quietly, handing her a mug of steamy concoction. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she pressed her full brown lips into a line.
“Again?” she whined, moving the cup away and sitting on the old black leather couch. I plopped down beside her, almost throwing the hot coffee on myself.
“For two years, every month, he took a thousand dollars to place it in our savings account,” I explained, using the burning wall of a mug to ease the pain and disappointment in my soul. “Today, I found out there is no account.” I gulped, clenching my teeth together to stop myself from crying. “And he also took all money from our other accounts. I’m officially broke.”
“Jesus Christ,” Agness whispered, and I inhaled a deep breath. I was glad I had someone to talk to; otherwise, I would’ve lost my mind. Years of my work ended up in slot machines, not to mention my daughter’s birthday would probably never happen.
“What did he say?” she asked, and I snorted, wiping a lone tears that escaped my eye.
“That he’s tired of my shrieking,” I whispered, embarrassed. As a thirty-year-old educated woman, I couldn’t find why I allowed it to go so far. I should’ve left him when he stole the money for the first time. But I believed in second chances, and he acted like a perfect husband for months. I let him fool me, and now I was paying the price for my own naivety and stupidity.
“You must put it to an end, Val,” Agness said gently, taking my hand and squeezing it supportively. “Think about Zara.”
“I know,” I breathed, and an image of my sweet, smiling baby girl appeared in front of my eyes.
Before I could say more, a casino manager burst through the door, disheveled and angry.
“C’mon, girls!” he whined, and Agness giggled. Our boss, Mr Travis Wreight, was a temperamental, enthusiastic, and highly reliable person who hated when we were late. “Don’t tell me you feel bad, Valeria. Marion just called; she won’t make it here today.”
I watched as he placed his hand on his lips, his green eyes glued to my face. In his dark suit with a white button-up shirt and black bow tie, he looked great but too young for my liking. He returned to New York after working in Las Vegas, and because of his experiences in the biggest poker rooms there, the owner made him a manager. In his twenty-six years, he was superior to much older employees, yet he gained respect from everyone. He was terrific in his job.
“I’m okay, Travis,” I reassured him, standing up. He insisted on calling him by his first name, and even when it felt slightly odd at the beginning, we all got used to it after a few months.
“Perfect, you’ll take Marion’s position for tonight,” he announced, wanting to leave, but I stopped him.
“I can’t!” I raised my voice, and he lifted his eyebrows in confusion. “I’ve never done it before.”
“Valeria,” he sighed, coming closer to me. He placed his hands on my shoulders fatherly, making me slightly uncomfortable by his overly friendly approach. “You have worked here for years. You’ll be great.”
“But…,” I whispered, staring wide-eyed into his handsome tired face. I noticed freckles on his nose and a small wrinkle between his eyebrows.
“No buts, Valeria,” he cut me off, shaking his head. “Tournament or VIP lounge. Pick.”
“Tournament,” I replied instantly because I wasn’t in the right mind to work with tipsy billionaires who came here to throw their wealth around.
“Perfect.” He clapped his hands enthusiastically and waved at me to follow him. I glanced at Agness, who winked at me and took the other direction. She worked at the roulette tonight.
With my heart beating somewhere in my throat, I listened to all the instructions, and when Travis left, I prepared everything I thought I would need during the game. Overseeing the tournament in our casino wasn’t such a big deal, but one could never be sure. I expected around fifty players to come competing for the fifteen thousand guaranteed money, yet there was still a chance more would show up. I had to be ready and maybe show my boss that I could do the job as well as Marion, perhaps better. Promotion would be a huge game changer in my current situation.
During the evening, everything went smoothly. Players were polite, and few who knew me for years congratulated me on the new position. I didn’t have the energy to explain that it was only temporary, and they apparently took my smile as a thank you.
Around eleven o’clock, when the registration for the tournament was almost closed, I noticed a man coming to my table. The casino’s solid lights and golden decor often blinded me, so I didn’t see his face. Only when he stood only a few feet away from me, I could take him in.
He was dressed in a simple red shirt and blue jeans with white sneakers, yet he looked like he didn’t belong there. Many people around me wore casual clothes, but they looked like bad advertisements compared to him. The shirt hugged his muscled chest and shoulders tightly, leaving nothing to the imagination. His right arm was tattooed to the last inch, and only his fingers stayed untouched. A huge golden watch on his wrist screamed luxury, and a few expensive bracelets only confirmed he probably was in the wrong place. The big game was in a VIP lounge.
“Good evening,” he said, flashing me a million-dollar smile, and I involuntarily sighed. He probably had this effect on every woman. His face was exquisite with his perfectly chiseled jaw, covered in day-long stubble, high cheekbones, and big hazel eyes framed by long eyelashes. A darker shade of his skin made the piercings in his ears shine, and the silver chain around his neck was just icing on the delicious cake. He was a total eye candy and every woman’s fantasy.
“Hello,” I smiled, doing my best to act professionally, but he made the job really tough. “How can I help you?”
I was still sure he had made a wrong turn and should be in a lounge when he handed me a small golden card indicating paid buy-in into the tournament.
“I need a place to sit,” he replied, still giving me that irresistible grin that made my insides flutter.
“Table three, position seven,” I stated without a breath, avoiding eye contact with him. He didn’t say more and plopped on the chair right next to my table. I didn’t realize the place was only two feet from me.
Nervously, I gathered all the golden cards, feeling like I was being watched, but when I looked around, no one paid attention to me. The handsome stranger looked bored. He made tricks with chips, with his palm supporting his head and watched TV in the opposite corner. I felt weirdly disappointed that I didn’t make the first impression as great as he did. Yet I instantly almost slapped myself. I was a married woman with a child who first had to solve her own problems. Drooling over a good-looking man wasn’t on my list right now.
The music announced the end of the last level and a forty-minute break, and players scattered between the slot machines and live games tables. I stayed behind my counter, counting entries, when someone approached me, throwing shadows on the paper with notes.
“Do you have time for a chat, Miss Redhead?”
I raised my head from the screen, staring at the tall figure towering over me. I leaned into my seat, narrowing my eyes at him. He was one massive piece of a uniquely attractive man. Over six feet of pure muscles, in combination with a charming smile and innocent look, made him irresistible. However, I wasn’t some thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.
“It’s Mrs, and my name is Valeria,” I pointed out, watching his smile widen.
“I’ll take it as yes then, Valeria,” he uttered, moving the chair to my table, turning it around and straddling it. He rested his arms on the backrest, his vast biceps flexed with every move.
“What can I do for you, Mr.?” I lifted an eyebrow at him, and he took a hint.
“I’m Dorian,” he replied, stretching his hand in my direction, and I took it after a millisecond of hesitation. “Pleasure to meet you.”
A weird tingle appeared in my chest, and I quickly retracted my palm, answering with a diplomatic “me too.”
He studied my face briefly before looking away; a small, mischievous smile danced on his full lips.
“Do you like working here?” he asked, frowning at the black and golden dragons hanging from the ceilings. The casino owner was obsessed with cliches, yet the place was packed to trim every day of the week. Customers loved this pompous, kitschy imitation of luxury.
“Yes, I like my job,” I answered, staring into his hazel orbs longer than was polite. He was like a magnet to my eyes. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m just curious why an elegant, classy woman like you works in a desperate hole like this,” he wrinkled his nose in disgust, shrugging. “There are much better places which would pay more money to someone with your experience.”
“It’s not that bad,” I smiled, thinking he was overreacting. Yes, some casinos were more successful or glamorous, but the salary was good, and we had zero problems with our customers.
“Then you didn’t see how the great looks,” he remarked, tilting his head to the side. “Don’t settle with less than you’re worthy, Valeria.” He flashed me another smile and stood up, ignoring my flabbergasted expression. “I need a beer.”
I stared at his broad back as he leaned over the bar and said something to the waitress; my mind was jumping from one thought to another while watching the waitress flirting with him.
“Valeria, please, we need you,” Agness jogged to me as quickly as her high heels allowed her to. “There is a big game on the blackjack table.”
“What?” I shook my head, removing the images of an Adonis who crashed my evening with his overwhelming presence, and I abruptly rose to my feet.
“Please, go there. Natalia is confused, and I need to correct my makeup and drink water. I’m dying there.” She groaned in discomfort and disappeared behind the staff room door, not waiting for my response.
Armored with patience, I walked behind the corner where the live game tables were located, stopping right in front of the same man who, just a second ago, stood at the bar. I frowned, eyeing him up and down. He wore a blue button-up shirt without a tie and black jeans. The watch on his wrist was the same, but the playful glint in his eyes from before was missing. I opened my mouth to ask how the fuck he was able to change so quickly when someone grabbed my arm.
“Valeria, come with me.” It was Travis, and before I could react, he dragged me to the side, his nervousness evident.
“That man,” he pointed to the God who stepped down from his pedestal to live amongst the common people, “is Malin Zhumagulov. He’s here with his brother.”
“Brother?” I echoed, looking at the direction he was pointing at. The different name suddenly made perfect sense. The one in the red t-shirt still talked with the waitress.
“Yes, I’m sure you see they’re basically the same,” Travis groaned, annoyed, bouncing on his feet. He was anxious about something. “The third one isn’t here, but if he shows up, we are screwed.”
“There is the third one?” I asked in evident shock, drifting my gaze between the two most handsome men I had ever seen. And I wasn’t the only one. All the women in the casino were casting secret glances. Boys stuck out as a red Ferrari between white vans.
“Valeria, do you have any idea who the Zhumagulov brothers are?” Travis inquired, his forehead wrinkled when I shook my head no.
“Oh fuck,” he sighed, running his hand through his hair. “Let’s hope you won’t find out tonight.” He took my arm and turned me to the right, exhaling heavily. “Malin is playing a thousand-dollar bets, and he’s losing. Please be professional and use your charm to soothe him a little.”
“Great,” I mumbled as I moved to the table where Dorian joined his brother. They looked utterly alike and totally harmless, but I saw nervous glances from Travis at me. My curiosity was eating me alive. Who the hell were the Zhumagulov brothers?