unrelenting gagging noises whenever we passed him in the halls. Though our friendship was instant, born of youthful energy and the childish faith that things and people could be divided into two groups—right or wrong, good or bad, black or white—romance didn’t bloom until four years later. An accidental meeting at the movie theaters found our hormone-crazed bodies—now very different, thank you—locked in a clinch even the onscreen stars couldn’t match. Only later did Ben admit the meeting hadn’t been exactly accidental.

There’s something about seeing an adult you knew in childhood that makes them marginally vulnerable to you, and vice versa. There’s also something comforting in thinking that if they made it this far, relatively unscathed, then maybe you didn’t turn out half bad either. So I settled across from this man I both knew and didn’t, and felt both vulnerable and comforted…and was surprised to realize I minded neither.

“How’s your father?” Ben began once we’d been left alone in my father’s cavernous conference room, located on the fifteenth floor of the Valhalla hotel. There was a table the size of a small airplane between us, and our coffee cups were reflected back on the deep, polished mahogany.

“Great,” I replied, lifting my cup. “Or so I hear. I never see him.”

“Do you want me to call him? See if he can come down?”

I jerked my head. I’d stopped needing my father long ago, and Ben knew that. “He’s probably at home counting all his money. I’d hate to interrupt.”

My family was nouveau riche, and my father’s story had probably launched a thousand capital ventures in gaming and resort management, the majority of which failed. In the most capitalist city of the most capitalist nation in the world, Xavier Archer remained an icon of unparalleled and, seemingly, unquenchable ambition. His rise had been meteoric: his competitors found him cagey, his investors brilliant, and the rest of the world knew him only as driven.

No offense to my paternal grandmother, whom I’d never met, but he was also a nasty and cruel son of a bitch.

Ben inclined his head, and I could tell he was as proud of my independence as I was of his accomplishments. Both had been hard won. “And what about you? You sit at home counting your millions as well?”

“Nah,” I said, shaking my head. “Just counting the same million over and over again.”

“When you’re not going out with hardened criminals, you mean.”

“That’s merely a hobby.”

He smiled, eyes shining, but pushed the tape recorder on and recited his name, badge number, and the date and location of this interview. Then he turned his attention back to me. “We should get this over with.”

“All right.” And I told him everything. I said I had a rule about never saying no when someone asked me out, though I didn’t say why, and he didn’t ask. There’d have been no reason to mention it at all, except it explained what I was doing with Ajax in the first place. For some reason it was important to me that Ben know it had been the date that was blind, not me.

I spoke about the serrated poker, what it looked like, and I alluded to the woman in the restaurant, before moving on to the part about the pheromones and how Ajax had said he knew I was the “one.” That was the only point where Ben looked at me strangely, and I shrugged, unable to explain it myself.

The rest of the time he simply took notes, glancing up intermittently, cop face firmly fixed as if we’d only just met. This was fascinating—I felt like an audience member at an old Siegfreid and Roy show, one who couldn’t believe what they were seeing, and didn’t dare blink lest the stars disappear altogether.

An hour and a half later Ben turned off the recorder and leaned back in his chair. “That’s good, Jo. We should have enough here to put Ajax away for a while.”

I toyed with the buttons on my chair that controlled the room’s media center. “Doesn’t mean you will.”

“No,” he said, not looking at me. “It doesn’t.”

We both knew the system had loopholes. Sometimes, I thought, the bad guys just disappeared. We were silent for a time. I nervously sipped my cold coffee.

“You have a good eye for detail,” Ben said, glancing up. “Probably comes from your martial art training, huh?”

“It’s not an art.” Krav Maga was martial, no doubt, but in eight years of training I’d never once considered it an art. It was violent and dirty street fighting. Ten years earlier my instructor—now a friend, Asaf—had immigrated to the Nevada desert and brought with him the discipline, the system, and the knowledge of Krav Maga from the Holy Land. His first student, I had soaked up his instruction like a desert rose watered after a scorching summer drought.

We trained for life-threatening situations—knives, guns, multiple attackers—driving ourselves to fight on in the face of fatigue. We trained, as he told me that first day, for the possible, the eventual, and with the conviction that survival depended on breakneck reflexes and split-second reactions.

“No human predator is going to pull his punch just because you’re a girl,” Asaf told me in that wonderful clipped cadence of his. Of course, this was something I already knew. My possible, my eventual, had already happened.

When Ben saw I was going to say nothing more, he rose, shoved his hands in his pockets and stared down at me. Mr. Authority. “I should put surveillance on you. If there are others out there, like Ajax said, then we—”

“Don’t even think about it.”

“Exactly.” He sighed, and ran a hand over the back of his neck. “Sure you won’t even consider it?”

“I won’t be stalked.”

“Followed, not stalked,” Ben corrected, somewhat irritably. “They’re police officers.”

“I won’t be followed, then.”

“Even if I’m doing the following?”

I stood too. “Even then.”

He shook his head. “Mule.”

“‘Know thyself,’” I quoted, wanting to see if he’d take the bait.

“‘Knowledge is power,’” he answered, an even more tired cliché than my own.

One side of my mouth lifted. “‘All our knowledge merely helps us to die a more painful death—’”

“‘—than the animals that know nothing,’” he capped, shaking his head. “‘And a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’”

We both smiled. We’d collected quotes as teens, dueled with them, and it’d become our own language, not unlike the silly, secret ones of very young children. It was another love we’d once shared; the English language, and the way the masters could turn a phrase, and the world on its ear, in only a few words.

“How’s your wife?” I blurted, then cursed silently, feeling myself color. I didn’t really know this Ben Traina. And we no longer belonged to one another. “Sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”

“No, it’s all right,” he said and, amazingly, slowly, smiled. “But you’d have to ask her new husband.”

I blushed even more. Ben cleared his throat and picked up a crystal paperweight, flipping it in his palm. “Saw the article on your family.”

I studied him for judgment or sarcasm but found none. I licked my lips slowly and watched him watching me. Interesting. “So you read how I’m a slacker with no ambition and few abilities or admirable goals?”

He scoffed as he put down the paperweight, then skirted the table between us to take me by the hand, and led me to the window that overlooked the glittering Las Vegas Strip. His palm was warm and dry, and my own looked dwarfed inside of it. Even as a boy he’d had great hands. “They should have interviewed me. I have my own theory about the ‘prodigal daughter of the Archer dynasty.’”

That quote stung. I withdrew my hand and turned on him. “Why? Because you know me so well?”

“I think I do.”

I folded my arms over my chest. “I can’t wait to hear this.”

“Okay.” Ben mimicked my pose, leaning on the glass wall, looking as though he were reclining against the night. “First, it’s your birthday. Twenty-five years old. Happy Birthday.”

He remembered. I glanced down at my watch so he couldn’t see the sudden moisture in my eyes. “You’re about twenty-four hours early, actually, but thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Second, you’re not aimless, merely restless. You battle between a fleeting need for security and a constant one for complete freedom. You can’t lie about who you are, and therefore you can’t feign interest in your father’s business, or imitate your sister’s social grace, regardless of how successful they are.”

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