This Time Tomorrow by Tessa Bailey
Las Vegas 2017
Elias clearly needed to get out more.
Laughter came easy to everyone else gathered around the poker table, the fellow members of his S.W.A.T. team getting to know the strangers they’d been seated with. The sound of shuffling poker chips blended seamlessly with their conversations, cards spitting out of the dealer’s hands and landing with neat, two-card piles in front of them.
This wasn’t his first time in a casino, but he didn’t recall a state of suspense chafing between his shoulder blades those other times. They’d arrived an hour ago and he’d checked behind himself a dozen times, expecting…what? He had no clue. But the energy in Vegas was almost frenetic. Desperately hopeful. People on a deadline to have the time of their lives. And his law enforcement intuition was probably in overdrive, trying to put everyone and everything into two categories. Threat. Not a threat.
A balled up cocktail napkin hit him in the shoulder. “For the love of God, Perry, would you stop thinking so hard over there?”
Elias’s lips jumped. He didn’t need to look up from his cards to know his teammate Kenny had thrown the napkin. “You would say that when you’re trying to rob me blind.”
“Hey, look.” Across the table, Kenny leaned over the green felt. “We’ve all had our turns going home broke to the missuses.” The beers he’d knocked back at the pool were catching up with the former college linebacker. “It’s your weekend to pony up, Silent E.”
Elias showed no reaction to his name being shortened, but it was the first time any of his teammates had done so. He’d been working with the highly trained tactical unit for three years, and with their lives at continual risk, the brotherhood was fierce. Every damn body had a nickname. Except him. Until now, apparently. He tried not to let the meaningfulness of that show on his face as he folded his terrible hand.
“Kenny speaks the truth,” chimed in Darius, also known as “Latte,” thanks to that one time he had Postmates deliver a tray of lattes to a post-raid crime scene. “Give us all your money. Think of it as a long-overdue initiation.”
Kenny chuckled. “Still can’t believe we finally convinced you to come. We were starting to think you didn’t love us.”
“Calm down,” Elias said without missing a beat. “I’m still on the fence.”
Kenny and Latte laughed along with the strangers at the table, but Elias couldn’t join them because that odd rub was happening again between his shoulder blades. He accepted his next hand from the dealer, checked his turn, then cast another glance toward the casino floor. There was nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, everything was status quo. The poker section was populated with young men mostly, only a couple of women. The slots were swarmed with seniors, their hands smacking down on the buttons, the jackpot count ticking higher over their heads. A younger crowd crammed in around the roulette wheel. Pit bosses paced down the center of endless blackjack tables. Nothing was off but him.
Elias shook himself and turned his attention back to the table where Latte was in a tense hand with a man in a San Diego Padres hat. “Where did Jenks and the commander go?” he asked, referring to their other teammates. Five of them had driven up from Los Angeles together for a mandatory breather from the department. They’d yet to talk about why, but Elias suspected that’s what the beers were for. Liquid courage might make it easier to bring up the uncomfortable subject. “Don’t tell me those punks snuck off to another Cirque du Soleil show.”
“Yup. Mystère this time.” Kenny chuckled. “They’re going to meet us back at the Encore later. After they’ve located their dicks.”
Latte lost the hand with Padre man and leaned back in disgust. “Hey, man,” he said to Kenny after a moment of grief for his bank account. “I cried at O. That shit is emotional.”
Kenny gestured to table’s occupants. “You’re really going to humiliate the LAPD like this? Do you care nothing for our reputation?” Obviously enjoying the laughter from the other out of towners, he tipped his head at Elias. “Now Silent E over there has the right vibe. Lethal. Cynical. Mysterious.”
Elias shook his head, uncomfortable being the focus of attention at the table, but not wanting to lose the ground he’d gained with his teammates. He liked these guys. A lot. And hell, they were right. He’d never come to Vegas with them, despite repeated invitations. Only gone for a handful of happy hours, usually when it was someone’s birthday. Maybe it was time. To start making friends again. To loosen some of the mortar in the brick wall he surrounded himself with. “Mysterious?”
Kenny and Latte flicked a look at each other, visibly surprised he’d taken the bait. They were always casting out a line and reeling it back in empty. “Yeah, man,” Latte said, patting a hand over the tight twists of black hair on his head. “Been on the team with you for years and I still don’t know your Starbucks order.”
“Jesus,” Kenny muttered, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. “That’s the first thing you want to know about him? What is it with you and the fancy coffee?”
“Sprinkled cinnamon makes it taste good.” Latte kept a glare trained on his friend for several beats and this time, even the dealer laughed. He took a moment to place a bet and survey what everyone else was doing. “Fine, Silent E. I retract my earlier query. How come you never tell us about the dates our wives set you up on?”
Kenny threw up his hands. “Hallelujah. That’s what I wanted to know.”
Elias hedged. They couldn’t ask him his favorite movie or something?
A couple of times over the last few years, he’d gotten cornered by the S.W.A.T. wives, who frankly were a tactical unit of their own, and coerced into some blind dates. Nothing had ever come of them, to put it mildly. He’d found it impossible to be present or have a decent conversation with any of the women, whose names and faces he now couldn’t recall.
But he wouldn’t be telling Kenny and Latte that. First of all, those women were perfectly nice. The issue was his and his alone. And he definitely wouldn’t be telling his teammates that the older he got…the more going on dates made him feel as if he were doing something wrong.
Like he should be home. Waiting.
Waiting for what?
Elias cleared his throat. “I’m sure they gave the play-by-play to your wives.”
“It’s not the same,” Kenny groaned.
“Yeah,” Latte agreed, calling with a toss of chips into the center of the felt. “We should be compensated, man. We took the blame over you never calling their friends back.”
“If you’re trying to guilt me into letting you win a hand, it’s not working,” Elias drawled, pushing a short stack toward the dealer. “Raise.”
Kenny shot forward in his seat. “You see that, everyone? Lethal.”
Latte did his best to look betrayed, but his cheek jerked with a smile. “How are you going to play me like that, Silent E?” He sniffed into his wrist. “Here I thought we were finally becoming confidants.”
Thing is, he had been trying to “open up,” so to speak. Then he’d gotten a good hand.
His teammates were a lot more curious about him than he’d realized, though, and he kind of got the sense they were hurt that he’d withheld so much. He didn’t like that. These men were constantly at his back in harrowing situations. They guarded each other’s lives. Despite Elias’s standoffishness, they tried to include him in everything and he needed to reciprocate.
“Beers on me later,” Elias muttered, keeping his attention on the cards. “You can ask me whatever you want…”
He trailed off, that scrape between his shoulder blades growing more pronounced, until he couldn’t concentrate enough to decipher the suits of his cards. What the hell was going on? Throat dry, he laid down his hand and turned in his chair—
Silence fell around him when he saw her.
She was golden. Radiant.
The long-legged blonde limped through the casino with a beautiful pout on her face, a pair of high heels shoved under one arm. There was a fine sheen of dew on her incredible face, telling Elias she’d just escaped the stifling Vegas heat. Simply by existing, she commanded fealty and the casino seemed to part around her like the Red Sea, creating a path for her to complete a wobbly strut toward Elias’s poker table—and the closer she came, the more his lungs compressed, as if he was running out of fucking oxygen.
Who is she?
No idea. But the discomfort between his shoulder blades was gone.
Like a balm had been applied.
The girl was beyond gorgeous. He’d never noticed cheekbones on anyone in his life, but he noticed her high ones. The indigo blue of her eyes. And Jesus, he definitely noticed the way her soft mutterings made his heart flop over. Who are you?
Vaguely, he heard Latte ribbing him. “Bet you’d call her back, huh, Silent E?”
“Forget what I said about him being mysterious,” Kenny quipped. “Everything he’s thinking is right there on his face.”
More laughter. But the buzzing in his skull was already drowning them out.
Elias watched the blonde’s high heel fall out of her arms and flop sideways on the casino floor. He was on his feet before it stopped moving, abandoning his hand at the table without a thought so he could scoop up the shoe and follow. He didn’t have a choice in the matter. Going after her was a requirement, searing him, compelling him.
And a moment later, when she looked up at him from her seat at a slot machine, his world righted itself with a grinding snap. He hadn’t even known it was off kilter.
The blonde crossed her impossibly sexy legs and his body reacted swiftly, hardening.
“Well?” she said in a husky Russian accent. “Make it good. I only have five minutes before I wreak the havoc.”