Life’s a Gamble
Quinn knew that his night was spoiled as soon as Monique Zambrano had walked down the grand staircase leading to the casino floor. She was in her usual choice of formal attire—a strapless, floor-length dress that was blackened velvet, much like how she described her soul. A curtain of midnight fell down her back, tucked behind her ears with a bejewelled headband.
In all honesty, she looked more like a Disney villain than the typical con woman. The blazing aura contained within her jade-green eyes shone against the diluted parchment of her taut face. The startling thing was, however, that her thinness looked completely natural on her frame. Tall and thin, like most of the French models around them.
“Quinton Croteau.” She flicked a lock of ink behind her shoulder. “I must admit, I was hoping I wouldn’t see you here.”
“Likewise, Monique.” He hissed. “Don’t you have some hole to slither back into?”
Her cherry lips pinched into a smile. “As brash as usual, I see. I assume you’re here to meet the Heiress?”
Quinn’s smirk widened. Lady Mercedes Chaparro of Olite, Navarre, was said to be in attendance of the event tonight. A casino night, organized by the richest of Western Europe as a fundraiser for some sort of charity regarding endangered animals. Elephant ivory is what he believed was the cause this year. There was usually a bit of gambling, a fancy meal, and some auctioning of precious pieces with all proceeds going towards the animals.
Or so they said.
Quinn wasn’t present for the food. He wasn’t present for the gambling. No, he had a loftier goal in mind than simply having a good time for only one night. There was something about this event that caught his eye, that caused him to purchase that plane ticket and fly all the way down to Spain for the weekend.
And it lay directly atop Lady Mercedes’s collarbone.
That diamond necklace had been in the Chaparro family for generations. It was rumoured to have been cut directly from the rock of a hidden cave deep in the mountains of Galala in Suez, fixated inside a frame of pure silver. Quinn had no doubts that the luxurious piece would fetch him a pretty price.
And, apparently, so did Monique.
“Listen up, Croteau,” she seethed, “I’m getting the necklace tonight. Not you—me.”
“Keep dreaming, sweetie.” Quinn shrugged, placing his hands in the pockets of his black trousers. “You’ve got a disadvantage here, remember.”
“All the more impressive it’ll be when I snatch it from your grasp.” Monique began to stroll away, gently swishing her hips from side-to-side and grabbing the attention of most of the guys around her. “Remember, Quinton—attraction isn’t everything.”
She was gone before he could register it.
“I’ll have you know,” he muttered, annoyedly, beginning to make his way through the crowd as well, “my plans don’t always stem from that…”
* * *
Monique slid her way through the congregations of citizens, eyes on the hunt for a certain curly-haired brunette. The amount of glances she sent at a few women’s chests had gotten her in enough trouble already, somehow, despite the fact that she was only searching for a necklace. It was surprising to her, the amount of women that were not receptive to her stares. Besides, that was a Quinn move. She had no doubts in her mind that he’d be doing the exact same thing right about now.
She spotted the Lady at the roulette table. Monique could instantly tell that it was her— after all, no one else would be wearing such an ornate piece of jewelry. The woman, who Monique had guessed was around her age, wore a dress that looked as if it were cut from the midnight sky itself. In her silk-gloved hands were a pile of poker chips and a stack of bills.
Monique slithered past the random guys eyeing her from behind, making sure to send them daggers before proceeding onwards. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been blessed with her mother’s figure—even so, it’s not like it hindered her smarts in any way. If anything, it helped her carry out the crimes that had skyrocketed her wealth over the past couple of years. She was grateful for such a frame.
As Monique drew closer, she noticed a figure slip beside Lady Mercedes, draping an arm around her shoulders and washing her in giggles. She noticed a sharp, sleek black suit crested over the new person’s form like a shell of sorts. A clean mop of cinnamon curls danced in front of his eyes like the tips of an ember.
Monique had always loathed Quinton Croteau, and this was one of the reasons why.
She had always thought of herself as a genuine con woman—someone that used her natural intelligence and instinct to steal herself a fortune. All the riches she’d accumulated over the years had been the product of her own hard work—just her. No one else. Sometimes, if she were pulling a stunt on some dry guy, Monique would pucker her scarlet lips a little more and bat those long lashes of hers. But it wasn’t like she could help it; if these guys needed seducing to be supressed, then that’s what she’d do.
Quinn’s methods were a little more… unconventional.
Whereas Monique only used her genetic advantages when necessary, Quinn made a point to incorporate them into every scheme that he conducted. Whether it be a small-scale robbery or a high-end jewelry heist such as this one, he’d always ended up slicking that dark hair of his back and sending the women in charge the most scandalous of smirks that Monique had ever seen.
And she absolutely despised it.
In no way whatsoever, was he using what little smarts or skills that he had locked up inside of that pea-sized brain of his. Sure, she gave him credit, he did his work well. Hell, probably even better than she did. And yet, despite this, Monique still hated seeing him accomplish what she’d done with less than half the effort she’d put into it herself.
Take the Governor of Belgium’s paintings, for example. Both of them had been after different paintings, though they were located in the same building. Monique couldn’t even count the amount of times she’d fallen whilst attempting to sneak into the gallery during the daytime. Quinn, however, had only winked at the female security guard and strolled right in, plucking the painting from its place, and swinging out of the building as if nothing had happened.
Part of her believed that the members of her sex were too weak to deal with him.
Monique glanced back at the roulette table, deciding to keep herself hidden behind another man’s heavily padded shoulders as she watched the scene play out in front of her. She noticed the positioning of Quinn’s hand, how it gently grazed Lady Mercedes’s midsection rather than hover any lower. By doing this, she noticed, he was making her feel more comfortable, more relaxed around her. Most guys would drop it much, much lower, which Monique knew from experience. Either he was being thoughtful or cunning.
Maybe he wasn’t as stupidly lascivious as she believed him to be.
* * *
Quinn noticed Monique hiding behind a man’s shoulders before she’d even recognized who he’d been cozying up next to. Frankly, he didn’t quite care, either. Whatever tactic she was planning on using wouldn’t work, either way. He had come into this event more prepared than ever, and he wasn’t about to let her snatch the necklace from him just like that.
Her tricks were old school, anyway.
He knew that she relied on that big brain of hers to come up with strategies. She preferred to see the technical side of thieving, in contrast to the rational way that he knew. Monique was all about setting up skillful techniques and ploys that took way too much effort and, if Quinn was being honest, he didn’t quite know why she did so. There was so much extra work that had to be put into those plans in order for them to succeed. Why did she do that, when Monique knew fully well that she had the looks to pull something that Quinn usually would?
Quinn wasn’t stupid. He could see the potential in a girl like Monique. He saw the way her dark hair cascaded down her back in a waterfall of ink—he knew of some girls that would kill to have her hair. He saw the way her body had been sculpted thanks to her genetics; the perfect silhouette of an hourglass depicted on the ground on which she stood. Her bright eyes. Angular face. So many attractive qualities, so little action taken to achieve that advantage. Truthfully, it upset him.
Even he would kill for those cheekbones.
He looked back at Lady Mercedes, the multiple diamonds glittering atop her snowy skin like dewdrops on a leaf. This was his goal tonight. Not to criticize Monique’s tactics. It was to snatch the diamond necklace and get out of there as fast as he could. His flight to Bern would take off in a few hours; thus, he had to keep his timed schedule in mind. There was simply no room for distractions.
“Lady Mercedes,” he began, dropping a couple of his own chips onto the table, “you look radiant tonight. Like a star in the dark night’s sky, if I do say so myself.”
“Oh, you flatter me,” she uttered, though it sounded more sarcastic to Quinn. “I haven’t even learned of your name.”
“Er—Robin.” He settled on a fake alias. “Robin Collins.”
She nodded, appearing a little bored, and placed a few of her poker chips onto the table. “I don’t believe that I’ve seen you around before—are you from America?”
“Born and raised in New York.”
He caught Monique rolling her eyes in the background as he said this, causing a smug smile to erupt onto his face. Both of them knew how bold of a lie this was; Quinn had never even visited New York. The closest he’d ever come to the city was a trip to Las Vegas. For theft purposes, of course.
“New York?” Lady Mercedes pondered, crystalline eyes scanning the people around the table. Upon landing on a person that Quinn couldn’t quite register until he looked up, the heiress merely excused herself, turning to duck under his arm. Before Quinn could even react, she scurried off through the crowd in the direction of the bathrooms. He’d heard a sharp cackle from behind the man before he’d turned back to notice how terribly his bet had gone.
“So much for the plan of attraction—at least, for you,” he heard Monique mock, strolling up to the table and dropping a handful of chips into his. “Watch these for me while I go tend to the lass, will you?”
Quinn dropped the chips as she ran off in a flurry of cackles.
* * *
She hadn’t been expecting the heiress to resist Quinn’s advances. Most of the time when she watched him work, not a single woman was able to hold their own against the con man. They all ended up falling into his arms at some point in their encounter.
So, when she witnessed Lady Mercedes so apathetically brush him off, Monique knew exactly what she had to do in order to obtain that necklace. Sure, it may have been a little awkward to herself, but every time she found doubts entering her head, she brushed them all off with the satisfaction of stealing that necklace for herself.
Monique may have gotten the upper hand against Quinn, but one thing was for certain in her mind: it would notcome easy.
She could feel her palms begin to sweat as she drew closer and closer to the bathroom hallway, anxious to see what the heiress would do to her. Monique had never hooked up with a woman—and, safe to say, she wasn’t entirely thrilled about it. Her line of work required a little glitz and glam, with a brilliant disappearing act as the grand finale. She never let things go too far.
Was she about to break her lifelong code? All for some necklace that she didn’t even know the exact worth of?
This was Quinn’s niche. Not hers. She was beginning to think herself stupid, having led on an event that made her so uncomfortable. This was something that she’d never, ever done before. It definitely wasn’t a part of her plan. Not even close.
But she needed that necklace. Not just for selling, either. She had to prove to Quinn that she’d get that necklace over him. That her strategies and smarts would reign supreme over his serendipitous swoons. Her pride was on the line.
“You cannot be serious.”
Monique glanced to her right, where said swooner now stood. A dark eyebrow was raised in questioning, as if he were disapproving of her decision.
“I didn’t know you swung that way.”
“I don’t,” she clarified, “but I can’t let you get the necklace over me—so, for that, I’ll make the sacrifice.”
“How noble—sacrificing your pride in order to regain it.”
She shrugged, trying her hardest to hide the doubts that kept infiltrating her mind. “Strategy takes the cake.”
Quinn frowned. “That hardly counts as a strategy. If anything, you’re only solidifying my point that attraction remains supreme.”
“Which it doesn’t,” Monique argued. “This line of work takes effort, something that I never see you putting in.”
“And how do you know that? It’s not like you can tell by my actions.”
“Yes, you can—”
His chuckle interrupted her statement. “You know nothing about my techniques.”
“Maybe you should teach me, then. If you’re so good at the craft, you know.”
Quinn eyed her keenly, a small grin forming across his face. “Is that a challenge that I’m hearing, Ms. Zambrano?”
She paused, the gears cranking in her mind. What if she could use this to her advantage?
He furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. “No?”
“What if we work together?” she stopped again, carefully wording her statements before continuing. “Think about it. You’ve got the charm. I’ve got the smarts.”
“We’re equally smart, Monique—”
“But we’re smart in two different categories.” She added, “If we work together, we could probably score double of what we steal on our own. Think about it, Quinn—it just makes sense.”
“I don’t want to bed the heiress, but you obviously do. You don’t want to think of strategies, which I’ve always had a penchant for. We’re polar opposites.”
“That’s not usually a good thing.”
“Not in our case.” She smirked. “Like I said, I can take care of our nitty-gritty thinking work. You play the field agent.”
He nodded. “I get where you’re going here, but I don’t like you.”
“What makes you think I like you?”
Quinn scowled, though understanding lapped deep within his eyes. Monique knew that she’d gotten him.
“What’s in it for me?” he queried. “This so-called partnership—what benefits do I get?”
“Well, for starters, you don’t have to do the math for any money-spending or such.”
That seemed to seal it for him, somehow. Monique knew that he was lazy but hadn’t assumed that simple taxes would be the cause of his yielding.
“Fine, Ms. Zambrano,” he held a hand out. “Let’s try it out. We’ll work together for a couple of months, see where it gets us. Once that’s done, we can make that decision when the time comes.”
“Perfect.” She took his hand. “Pleasure doing business with you, Quinton.”
They shook hands, the spoken contract echoing through her mind as she met his dark eyes. Something told her that this breakthrough would be the most beneficial thing to ever happen to them.
From the bathroom hallway, Lady Mercedes could only smirk. She loved it when things went the way she’d planned.