Tied to the Tycoon

By: Chloe Cox

But she’d been frozen on the outskirts of the party, too busy grappling with her own stupid issues to enjoy herself. So, obviously, it wasn’t all ancient history, and she hadn’t figured it all out. So what? She’d never been a coward, either. Which was when Ava Barnett had found the strength to become the person she’d learned to be—witty, charming, gracious, beloved—and ventured out to the one thing that looked familiar: a poker table. At least she’d assumed it was a Hold ‘Em table when she’d seen two cards being dealt out, and Ava knew damn well that she was good at Hold ‘Em. That talent for reading people came in handy, and there’d be no better way to regain control of her night than to whip some rich guy’s butt at cards.

Which was how she came to be sitting at this table with cards that didn’t look like any poker cards she’d ever seen, and with a mystery man sitting across from her. A man who hadn’t moved. A man whom she felt like she knew. A man whose eyes…she could feel them on her skin, like the gentle slide of sheet being drawn across her naked body.

Wow, Ava, do not blush.

She pulled herself together, remembered the arrogance of the last thing he’d said.

“What makes you think I don’t have the stake to play?” she said.

“I didn’t say that.”

Was he being willfully obtuse? She summoned her patience, and said, “If I don’t have the stake to play with them, what makes you think I have the stake to play with you?”

“You’re the only one who does.”

She felt him smile again. Just subtle shifts in his posture, his body language. It was like she’d known him all her life, and yet she didn’t even know his name. Or what his face looked like.

Still, Ava was getting annoyed. “What the hell does that mean?”

“You don’t know what the table stakes are, do you?” he said. Now she knew he was smiling in the dark. There was no disguising the amusement in his voice.

“Fine. I don’t. So what are the stakes?”

He finished another shuffle and started to deal out the cards.

“You,” he said.

Ava covered her surprise with a laugh. It was absurd. “Oh, really?”

“Yes. That’s the nature of this table. All of those men assumed you understood that when you sat down to play. I knew that you didn’t.”

“You knew that I didn’t? How condescending. How could you possibly know what I understand or don’t understand?” The fact that he was right only made her angrier.

“Because I see you.”

Ava’s heart stopped. There was something in the way he said that…and that voice…

The man in the dark continued, “This is Volare. If you don’t have chips, you bet with yourself. It’s a sexual game. And you don’t have chips.”

“I was going to buy some.”

“How many thousand dollar chips were you gonna buy, exactly?”

Ava stared dumbly at the cards that lay before her. She did not have chips, and yet, she was still in the game. She looked up, even though she knew what she would see: a stack of chips in front of the mystery man.

“I’m sorry,” she heard herself say. “You are going to have to explain this to me like I’m an idiot. What, exactly, do you think I’ve bet?”

“You heard me,” he said. “You’ve bet yourself.”

And before she could object, the man reached out, leaning over the table, his face still in the dark, and grabbed her hand. It burned where he touched her. He pulled her toward him, raking her breasts across the table, and whispered: “One week. If I win, I can have you for one week.”

Ava could scarcely breathe. She didn’t know how she spoke. She knew less why she said what she did.

“And do what with me?”

“Anything I want, Frida.”

Frida. The memories flooded her mind, too many, all at once, the exact ones she’d been holding at bay all night. She’d been struggling to hold up under the pressure of all those memories, and this last one, the heaviest of them all, added to the weight was just too much: Frida. Only one person in the world had ever called her that. Only one person in the world knew what it meant to her.

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