Finding Joy
Chapter 1

Caution: This Romantic Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Consensual, Romantic,

Desc: Romantic Sex Story: Chapter 1 - Former professional poker player Jared Tyler thought he'd found the life he always wanted: a good job, a wife, a house, maybe even a white picket fence. Then, his fiancee walked out on him and he was left to wonder if the good life was all that good for him.

Jared Tyler was neither entirely awake nor entirely asleep when his phone rang.

He'd woken up just after two in the afternoon with a pain like someone had rammed their fist up through his sinuses and was now squeezing his brain. It was partially the result of having slept fourteen hours in a row after barely sleeping for three days straight. Knowing that he would get nothing accomplished, he'd taken a double dose of Advil, planning to turn on the TV and rest until the headache passed. But, the unrelentingly gray sky and the patter of rain on the street below had lulled him back into something like sleep, but broken by a string of vague and disquieting dreams. He'd finally woken for good a little while ago, but remained huddled under a blanket on his couch. The air conditioner, turned up high to battle the sticky, sickly humidity of mid-August the night before had kept cooling the room after the storm broke, drawing temperature and humidity down outside. The room had gotten as cold as a morgue.

He was up and off the couch, blanket wrapped around his shoulders before he'd fully registered that he was hearing the phone's generic ringtone. That meant it wasn't Karen, who swore she wouldn't call again. It wasn't Ed Herron from ADP calling to offer him the job that they both knew was his. Ed was on vacation this week and ADP's human resources department was glacially slow. Jared gave a mirthless chuckle. If he'd had the foresight or the motivation, he would have gone on vacation this week himself instead of hanging around the apartment, waiting for things to happen. But, he'd been hoping that Karen would give in and change her mind about him and come back to the apartment that had once been theirs, but was now his. It would not be a move entirely without precedent. Once they'd called the wedding off, it had taken her three months to move her possessions to her sister's apartment in Queens. Everywhere in the tiny room were the bloodless places where her things had been excised—negative spaces that had once held her books and her boots and her clothes in the closet. The first week after she moved out, she spent five nights in their bed. She'd come over for dinner on Friday night and not left until Sunday afternoon. That was the first time she told him that she needed a clean break and wouldn't be coming back. They'd had dinner the next Thursday and by Saturday, she was back in their bed.

In the weeks after that, her visits had become gradually less frequent and each time, she'd protested a little more about the sex, then about the easy intimacy, then about even coming back to the apartment. Soon, she was telling him that each time had definitely been the last. Jared thought he'd understood how the game worked. Then, the Sunday morning two weeks ago, when it had been cool enough to leave the bedroom windows open and a light summer breeze had wafted over their bare, sun-warmed skin, the rules had changed.

"This really has to be the last time," Karen had said, drawing her dress from the night before across the bedspread. To Jared's indulgent smile, she'd added, "I know I've said it before, but I mean it this time, Jared. I know what I have to do, but every time I get around you or even talk to you, I get... confused." She'd sat up, holding the dress over her breasts like a shield, as if she'd relegated Jared to the category of men who were no longer allowed to see them, "I need to stop coming over here. And, the only way I can do that is if I stop talking to you... even on the phone."

"Or," Jared had said, feeling oddly complimented. "You could bring some of your clothes back so you're not always running out of here in last night's dress."

And then Karen had shook her head and Jared had seen something in her eyes that made his heart sink and the words that came next sound like the hammering of nails into a barricade.

"I have a date tomorrow," she'd said, looking him right in the eyes. "It's with a teacher my sister works with. He seems like a really nice guy."

Jared had tried to argue, but Karen had refused. If he hadn't seen the end of things in her eyes, that would have told him everything he needed to know. For years, he and Karen had argued, rarely with even a hint of acrimony and often just because they enjoyed the rhythms of it, the give-and-take and the sense that, while it was exceedingly rare that either would change their mind, both understood their own position at the end of it. Normal couples might be able to sense that things had deteriorated because they started arguing. Jared heard the death of his relationship in the silence when they stopped. After she left that afternoon, Jared hadn't heard from her again. He'd called twice and left voicemail, getting no response. He hadn't tried a third time.

Now, his phone sat in a curiously empty space on his otherwise cluttered desk, a rectangle of emptiness outlined with an unidentifiable brown grime that delineated where Karen's computer had sat for four years from the day she moved in to the day she packed it into a moving truck. In that time, Jared had changed computers three times, but Karen's computing needs were slight, her dislike of change well-documented, and the machine always good enough.

He detached his phone from its umbilicus and hit the talk button just before it would have gone to voicemail. A quick glance at the incoming phone number as it went by hadn't brought recognition, but the area code wasn't one he immediately recognized.

"Jared speaking," he sat down in the second-hand office chair he'd put off replacing in anticipation of moving into a house with Karen and wrapped the blanket around himself more tightly. The chair squealed like a pending traffic accident as he turned to shut off the air conditioner, obscuring the first few words from the other end.

"... wake you?"

"No," said Jared automatically. "Well, sort of... but not really... Charlie?"

"How you been, man?" asked Charlie.

Jared found himself smiling, "About the same. Why aren't you using your cell phone? I almost let you go to voicemail."

"Long story," said Charlie. "I've got a business proposition for you. How are you feeling?"

"I'm... fine," said Jared, sliding his feet into his navy blue slippers to keep them off the floor. "What's the proposition?"

"I heard from Frank Avery that you're back on the market again... in more ways than one."

Jared rubbed his temples with his free hand, "And I heard just this minute that Frank Avery has a big mouth." He unscrewed the top of a half-empty bottle of Poland Spring from the night before and took a swig to clear his throat, "I would have told him to keep a lid on that information, but I don't remember telling him about Karen."

"So, it's true?"

Jared shook his head, "Half true. I'm pretty sure I've got a job with ADP once the project manager comes back from vacation."

"ADP?" asked Charlie. "The payroll guys? Don't they have that huge complex down in 609?"

Jared grinned to himself, wondering how many people referred to parts of the country by area code, "One and the same."

"You're going to commute all the way down there to work for those humps?" Charlie sounded doubtful. "That's got to be like two, two and a half hours each way."

"I wouldn't be commuting for long," said Jared. "Once I get the gig, I'll start looking for a house down there."

There was a long pause, then Charlie said, "I guess it's closer to Atlantic City anyway."

Jared chuckled. Once, that would have been a much bigger priority, "It's still like an hour away. I'd probably need a hotel room if I wanted to stay up and chase the smell of desperation."

"Don't tell me you're not playing poker anymore?" Charlie sound genuinely alarmed.

"Of course I am," said Jared. "That's pretty much all I've done for the last couple of weeks." For some reason, the next sentence came out sounding like an admission, "It's just been online."

"How's that working out for you?"

"You know how it goes." Jared stretched his back, trying to get rid of a minor crick from sleeping on the couch, "Every time I think I can do better playing poker, somebody offers me more money to program."

"You should come out to 702—do both."

Jared paused mid-stretch as he finally made sense of the area code, "You're in Vegas? What happened to Hawaii?"

"It's still there," deadpanned Charlie. "But, real estate turned out to be boring. I'm in the poker table business now. And that means going where the poker is."

"No shit?" Jared yawned involuntarily.

"No shit," said Charlie. "I've got a website mostly set up, too."

"Uh oh," said Jared, grinning to himself. "I think I just spotted the business proposition."

"Not really," said Charlie. "Although, I could use some help getting the site put together. It wouldn't take you more than a week, tops."

Jared laughed out loud, "Ah. And, what would be my compensation for flying out to Las Vegas and putting this site together for you?"

"I fly you out," said Charlie. Jared knew that Charlie had been born in California. But, he sometimes deliberately dropped into the broken English and faux Vietnamese accent he might speak in if he'd emigrated. Jared knew that the affectation was his way of warning you that he was pulling a fast one so you that could catch him at it. If you were Charlie's friend, he didn't want to get away with conning you, but he couldn't resist playing the angle anyway, "I got big house. Much nicer than last place. You stay free."

Jared shook his head, "I think you'd better tell me more about this charity you started out there."

"I not start charity. I..."

"Neither did I," interrupted Jared. "What's it pay?"

"Not what you're worth," admitted Charlie in his normal voice. "But, I mean it about the house. My cousin is lending it to me for as long as we need it. And, it's huge—six bedrooms, an enormous rec room I turned into an office, a huge, working kitchen. It was set up as a demo house..."

Jared lost the rest of the statement as he turned, wrenching a squeal of protest from the chair, and looked at his own kitchen—tiny oven, tiny stove, and a counter that wasn't big enough to hold a toaster and a coffee maker at the same time. Charlie had listened to him complain about the lack of anywhere to cook ever since he'd moved back to New York. Jared was pretty sure Charlie had mentioned the kitchen just to try to get him to accept a lowball offer. Worse, if Charlie had known that Jared was just now thinking how he needed a vacation in the worst possible way, he might have realized that he didn't need to mention the kitchen at all. Charlie's first offer of a place to stay in Vegas for a week had actually been kind of tempting. But, Charlie would have been disappointed in Jared if he'd taken the first offer. He'd always said that friendship didn't mean letting people screw you out of money.

"... and you can stay an extra week if you like. One week of work, one week of poker. What do you say?"

"I say 'What does it pay?'" repeated Jared, enjoying the dance that Charlie had taught him. "You know, most clients throw in room and board as a matter of course. And, I don't see how you and I need six bedrooms."

"It's not just you and me," said Charlie. "I've got two beautiful girls staying here."

Jared laughed at the transparent ploy, "I hope you're not planning on paying them more than you're paying me."

"Hey," Charlie's voice held mock severity. "Be nice. It's Victoria and Joy."

Jared knew that Victoria was Charlie's girlfriend, a lawyer he'd met in Hawaii. They'd been together a year, which beat Charlie's old record for relationship longevity by at least ten months. But, it took him a second to realize who the second woman was that Charlie had mentioned. The mental image that came with realization was so strong that Jared closed his eyes to block out the room around him. It wasn't an image of Joy herself, but of a pale yellow and white sun dress she'd worn one night, seemingly the thinnest layer of cotton possible between her skin and his as they'd danced and later, when she hugged him good night. Charlie couldn't know how much a mention of Joy would effect Jared today or he wouldn't have bothered mentioning the kitchen or the week in Vegas.

"Joy from TradeNet?" Jared was embarrassed to hear his voice rasp.

"That's the one," said Charlie and Jared caught a hint of smugness in his voice.

"When would you want me to come out?" asked Jared, suppressing a sigh. "Even if I left right now, I couldn't do two weeks. I'll probably have a job a week from today."

"So?" asked Charlie. "If they make you an offer on Monday, tell them you can start in a week. Once you take this gig and become a nine-to-fiver again, when are you going to be able to just take off and play poker for a week? This could be your last chance."

Jared sighed audibly, "All right. When do you want me to come out?"

"Today," said Charlie, sounding faintly impatient. "Now, if you could. Just get on a plane and come out."

Jared scowled at Charlie's exuberance, "I would have to pack at least."

"So, pack."

Jared rubbed his forehead, "I need to do laundry first."

"Bring dirty clothes. We've got a washer."

Jared scowled at Charlie, three quarters of a continent away, "I would have to break some plans with friends here." It wasn't exactly true, but it was close to true.

"Call them from the cab." Charlie laughed, "Just throw your things in a bag and come. We'll figure it all out once you get here."

Jared didn't say anything for a long time. There were so many reasons he shouldn't be going. But, he really wanted to. And, he hadn't wanted anything that he could have in what seemed like a very long time, even if it had only been a couple of weeks. Finally, he asked, "So, five thousand for the week?"

Charlie made an indignant sound, "Like I said, I can't even afford what you're worth. And, you're not worth tha much. The best I can do is two thousand plus air fare and two weeks room and board. That's not a negotiating point. That's really the best I can do."

By the time the Las Vegas strip appeared, gleaming on the horizon like the world's biggest rhinestone, Jared was already feel better. He and Charlie had talked for another hour after they'd agreed on a price for Jared's services. But, even as they'd talked, Jared had been making a list of everything he absolutely had to do before leaving and, by the time the phone call ended, he was already packing.

Eventually, Charlie had even gotten around to the business proposition he'd originally claimed to be calling about. It had brought up such a mix of emotions that, had Jared not already started packing, he might have balked at the whole trip. While it was a very exciting, potentially lucrative deal, it also tied into so many of the things that had gone wrong the last couple of years.

"You still have the source code for PokerBrain?" Charlie had asked.

"Of course," Jared had heard a snap in his voice he hadn't meant to take out on Charlie. But, he didn't have the discipline today to modulate it, "That's all I've got to show for nine months of work."

"Bring it with you," Charlie had answered good-naturedly. "I think I've got a buyer lined up."

Jared was already in the air before he realized that the web work was probably a screen for getting him out to Las Vegas for the bigger deal. And, he'd had to laugh. His Charlie-wrangling skills must be getting rusty.

The tunnel between the plane and the terminal was a gauntlet of hot, stale air. But, Jared had known enough to wait for everyone else to get off the plane before following so that he could trot up the passage and be back in air conditioning before he'd even started to sweat. Even at midnight, it was twenty degrees hotter than the sodden, sloppy soup he'd flown out of at JFK. But, without the murderous humidity, it was far easier to take.

As he reached the bottom of the ramp, he turned around and waited for several seconds before he realized that he was waiting for Karen. For most of the trip, he'd managed to forget about his ex-fiancee, even daydreaming about Joy guilt-free without specifically remembering why it was supposed to be okay to do so. Karen was gone. Her things were go. She wasn't answering his phone calls. She was dating some teacher. It was time for him to move on as well. Anger washed over him for the first time since they'd decided to break up—rising like a hot desert wind. She was dating a teacher? Irrationally, Jared felt like the choice of a man who voluntarily dealt with children on a daily basis had been a deliberate slap in the face to him.

He took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh, feeling the anger drain out of him with the breath. Trailing his wheeled carry-on, he followed the signs for the monorail that would take him to baggage claim.

Many airports looked virtually identical to Jared. JFK, LAX, O'Hare... he couldn't tell them apart. But, McCarren always made him smile. It still had the same uncomfortable chairs you found everywhere, the same boarding counters, and the same tinted glass windows, but he'd never been in another airport that had slot machines or come-ons for strip shows along the walls. It was an airport that could only exist in a place like Las Vegas with its cheerfully guileless embrace of the vices that other cities furtively tucked away into their low-rent, high-crime neighborhoods. He could even forgive the enormous ad for Celine Dion in concert as he descended to baggage claim even if he didn't approve.

As he pushed his rented cart up next to the baggage carousel, he kept one eye out for his luggage and the other for a driver holding a sign with his name on it. Charlie had promised to send a car to pick him up and bring him out to the house. There were a half dozen men in black suits and ties with starched white shirts holding signs as he passed, but none of the signs had his name or even a rough approximation that might be a transliteration of his name from a badly garbled phone call. He bent over his carry-on to retrieve his cell phone and call Charlie. As he searched, he caught motion on the periphery of his vision. He glanced up enough to see a pair of women's white Nike running shoes with pink swooshes, the toes pointed straight at him like their wearer was looking at him. He glanced up past the rolled-down white socks. As his gaze traveled up two lean, tan legs, he grinned. There weren't many women he could identify by looking at her legs, but Joy's were memorable. He stood up, still grinning and found himself in a full-bodied hug that filled his senses with soft curves, the smell of cocoa butter and silky, honey-blonde hair imprinting the desert's warmth into his cheek and neck.

It drew him back to the last time Joy had hugged him like that. They had gone out for dinner and drinks at a Mexican restaurant with a big outdoor patio to celebrate the end of the project. She'd pulled him onto the dance floor and he'd surprised himself by going without even token resistance. He loved to dance and it had felt like months since he'd done anything but work and sleep. Later, they'd shared a cab—Jared to go home, Joy to go to a party a couple of blocks away. She'd come up to use the bathroom and, before leaving, given him that full-bodied, lingering hug.

Jared had never been unfaithful to Karen. He'd never wanted to be, not even then. But, he had momentarily regretted not being single. The next weekend, Karen had moved in.

Today, he was single. For the first time, the thought brought a smile to his face. He hugged Joy back, lifting her a little. She kicked her feet and laughed, "God, Jared. It's good to see you."

Jared put her down and stepped back, hands still on her shoulders. She was younger than him by a half dozen years, but she looked even younger tonight. Dressed in denim shorts and a white t-shirt that said "COLLEGE" in black block letters, she had her hair tied back in a ponytail and a black leather handbag with a gold clasp. Her smile was guileless. She still had the proportions of a teen-aged girl blossoming into womanhood—the long, elegant arms and legs without the coltishness or uncertainty of such extreme youth. Still, Jared noticed more than one man looking up from the luggage carousel at him with some combination of jealousy and disgust. He couldn't really blame them for either. Joy was beautiful, but she could have been sixteen as easily as twenty-six.

Joy bounced up on her toes, ponytail swinging back over her shoulder, "We should get moving. I'm kind of double parked... in the limo lane."

As Jared spotted his bags and dragged them, one at a time, off of the carousel, Joy kept talking, "Wait until you see the house. It's huge."

Jared laughed as he hauled his biggest bag free of the rail and shoved it onto the back of the cart, "Charlie has a way of finding good accommodations. You should have seen the place we lived in Atlantic City."

Joy shook her head, "I'll bet you twenty this place is nicer."

Jared hefted another bag onto the cart, "You sound pretty certain."

Joy tested the weight of Jared's carry-on, then let it go with a feminine grunt, "You moved out of the other place. I think I'd stay here forever if I could. It's kind of remote, though. But, once they finish building the rest of the development, it'll be pretty awesome."

"You still play poker?" Jared swung his third suitcase onto the cart.

Joy nodded emphatically, shuffling her feet as if she were impatient, "Sure. I've been playing pretty much every day since I got here. Why?"

Jared lifted the carry-on off its wheels and wedged it on top of the other luggage, "I just don't remember you making a prop bet before. I was just wondering how far over you'd gone to the dark side?"

Joy laughed, "I'm getting good odds. I think it would be a sucker's bet to take it. The place was set up as a model for timeshare."

Jared gave the cart a shove to get it moving. As he went by, Joy's fingertip traced over his bicep and down the back of his shoulder, "Still working out?"

Jared shrugged, suppressing a shiver from the chill that had shot down his spine, "I've been slacking the last couple of weeks. But, I try to take care of myself."

"Wait until you see the exercise room," said Joy, bouncing along next to him.

"It has an exercise room?"

Joy nodded emphatically as they passed through the automatic doors into the hot, dry air outside. Even at midnight, it was hot enough to suck the breath out of your lungs and the sweat out of your pores. If you weren't careful, you'd feel lightheaded from dessication before you even felt thirsty. Las Vegas could cool itself down with industrial grade air conditioners, pipe in water, and build elaborate boxes of glass and steel to keep the desert away. But, it would be a mistake to forget that it was always right outside. Joy led him out to a boxy, black towncar that looked just like the radio cars lined up along the curb. But, the similarity wasn't enough to fool the professional drivers. Joy ignored the dark scowls as they crossed the limo line, but responded to the one churlish blurt of a horn with a smile and a wave as if it had been a greeting instead of a complaint.

Joy popped the trunk open with a chirp from her key chain, "Tired... or hungry?"

Jared was both, although he refused to allow his fatigue to show after Joy had complimented him on his physique. He knew he was preening a little as he lifted the suitcases as if they weighed nothing at all, but if he couldn't show off for a pretty girl, when could he show off?

"I could eat," he fitted the last bag in the trunk and shut it.

As he pushed the empty cart back to the sidewalk, Joy followed him, "There's a nice, little cantina on the way to the house. We could go right there or swing by the house for a shower and a change of clothes if you prefer."

Jared shook his head. He didn't want to go to the house yet. As much as he was looking forward to seeing Charlie again, once he got there, this would be a job again. Right now, it was an evening out with Joy. Still, he didn't want to be oblivious if she was trying to hint at something. He pushed the empty cart onto the sidewalk, "I don't know. Do I stink?"

As he turned around, Joy was right there, close enough to wrap his arms around. She leaned in so that her nose was almost pressed against his shoulder and inhaled deeply, then shook her head, smiling up at him, "Nope. Fresh as a daisy."

Jared smiled back uncertainly, but didn't move. Joy was right there, head tilted back, lips slightly parted. Every sign told Jared that she wanted to be kissed except that nothing in the situation or their history warranted it. Instead, he joked, "Pity. I was going for 'rugged and manly.'"

Joy's grin widened, "I meant a very manly daisy... of course."

Inside the cantina was dark and cool, lit only by candles smelling faintly of oranges. The citrus scent mixed more pleasantly with the undercurrent of cigarette smoke than Jared would have expected. Spanish language dance music was punctuated with the clatter of billiard balls on an unseen pool table that must be somewhere in the back. Battered boots, mud-spattered trucks, callused hands, and muscular arms told Jared that most of the men there were in the building trade. The easy mixture of Spanish, English, and other, less recognizable languages in convivial chatter and interrupted by frequent, relaxed bursts of laughter told him that business was good. More significantly, there were nearly as many women there, dressed in bright colors, smiling, dancing, and flirting. Pretty young women bespoke prosperity better than bars of solid gold.

"They're breaking ground on a new casino just down the road," said Joy, leaning in to be heard over the music. "We're way off the Strip here. But, there's just a constant stream of pickup trucks and earth movers out this way and at least a half dozen job sites. The house is right on the edge of the desert, but I feel like, if we stayed here long enough, the city would just grow up around us."

Jared piled cheese and lettuce on a sliver of grilled chicken and wrapped it in a flour tortilla. The menu here was full of simple, inexpensive food, as different from the place he'd danced with Joy those years past as two Mexican restaurants could be. Even so, it felt to Jared like a continuation of that night with a short, three-year interruption in between. Even as the clock inside his head ticked past four in the morning, he would have happily danced if Joy had asked.

"If you're not planning on drinking tonight, would you mind driving the rest of the way to the house?" she asked, placing her empty beer bottle on the table with exaggerated precision. When Jared acquiesced, she sighed, "Thanks. I can use it."

Jared raised an eyebrow, "Long day?"

Joy gave a lopsided smile, "They're all... not exactly long, but intense. Charlie and Victoria have this... urgency about them. I think it comes from living and working out there and not leaving for days at a time." She shook her head, This was actually a comparably short day. Normally, I sleep eight hours, work eight hours, and play poker eight hours—minus the driving to get from place to place, of course."

"Sounds like the life," said Jared, grinning.

"You used to do it in Atlantic City. Didn't you?" Joy signaled for another beer, "Except, you didn't have a job at the time. Did you?"

Jared shook his head, "Not unless you count poker as a job."

Joy's grin held a hint of disbelief, "If you could pay the bills like that, why did you ever get another job?"

Jared ran his hand over his hair. The answer was complex. It had been said that poker was a hard way to make an easy living. The bankroll swings had been hard. In spite of what he'd told Charlie, he'd actually made more money playing than he did programming. But, he wasn't one of the best players. One long dry spell and he would have been wiped out. Besides, he'd met Karen, which had really driven home how unlikely he was to find the sort of woman he was looking for as a professional gambler. With his friends, he'd argued whether poker players were gamblers in the traditional sense of the word, but the distinction had been lost on his future fiancee.

That brought up a lot of subjects he didn't want to discuss tonight. Instead, he gave an answer that was equally true, "I'm a programmer. Even though I spent three years playing poker for a living, I kept programming and reading about programming. Every night... or morning, I would unwind from poker by reading an e-mail list full of programmers. I always knew I'd go back one day."

As he spoke, he was afraid he might be ruining any chance he had with Joy, but she just smiled, "Okay. Maybe I should have asked why you ever went and played poker for three years."

Jared laughed, "Well, when I work as a programmer, I go play poker three days a week. I read poker books. I frequent poker forums..."

Joy laughed along with him, "... and you unwind by reading an e-mail list full of poker players. I get it."

Jared lowered his head and shook it, grinning, "Something like that."

"Sounds like this is the perfect gig for you," Joy accepted a fresh Corona from the waitress and took a sip. "Think you can keep up with me?"

Jared's head went back as he laughed, "Keep up with you? I was playing all nighters before you were... well, before you were old enough to get into a casino, anyway."

"That's my point," said Joy, a wicked grin spreading across her features. "It's kind of a tough timetable. Eight hours of work, eight hours of poker, the truth is... sometimes the sleep budget suffers a little."

Jared chuckled at the obvious goading, "Do you ever eat?"

"Of course I eat," said Joy indignantly. "I'm not that skinny."

"You still like Indian food?"

"Yes. Why?"

Jared smiled, "There's this really nice Indian restaurant in the Rio on the pavilion side. We should go... say, tomorrow?"

That bought Joy up short for a moment. Her grin didn't fade, but it seemed to acquire a shadow of uncertainty, "You mean on a date?"

"I mean on a date." Jared's voice was calm and certain.

"I've never been on a date," said Joy. "Sounds like fun, though."

Jared grinned, but he had to ask, "You've never been on a date?"

"Well..." said Joy thoughtfully. "Not officially. I've gone out with people and I've met up places with guys I planned on..." She stopped and changed the direction of her sentence midstream, "... guys I was seeing. But, an official date... no."

Jared laughed and shook his head, "Had I known it was your very first date, I might have made my request a little more formal."

The job site for the new casino loomed over the road like a slouching giant. A skeletal frame of I-beams stood in sharp relief against the orange-gold moon. As Jared drove closer, the road widened out, paralleled on both sides by deeply rutted mud tracks that had become dirt roads of their own. Even now, the sound of metal on metal rang out high and clear over the sound of motors and men. A man in an orange jacket waved them through and, within minutes, the road was flanked on both sides by the naked desert, blue and quiet.

"Take the second left," said Joy, slouched down low in her seat, her eyes not quite focused. "The first one looks just like it as you go by, but it's a ghost town."

"A ghost town?"

Joy yawned powerfully. She's been a little unsteady on her feet coming out of the cantina, but there was no obvious sign of intoxication now, "I'm not talking about real ghosts, of course. But, I drove in there by mistake the first night. It's... kind of creepy. It was going to be a housing development, I think. But, they must have run out of money. The house frames are still there, but they're bleached dry like old bones. And, the desert has started to reclaim the roads once you get a few blocks in."

Somewhere out on the desert, a coyote howled. Joy turned and looked at Jared, grinning broadly, "That was cool timing."

Jared drove on, skipping the first left and turning into the second. Joy pointed at the first right after he'd turned, "Turn right here. It's all the way at the end."

Jared did as he was told. The new street was bordered on both sides with lush green, neatly manicured sod. The first yards surrounded houses that were no more than frames. As he drove on, the houses became more complete, mission-style buildings, gaining windows and shutters, whitewash and red tile roofs. Joy washed them impassively, "What do you know about Victoria?"

"Charlie mentioned her a couple of times on the phone." Jared shrugged, "She must be extraordinary in some way. He's stayed with her over a year now. That beats his old record by at least... nine months."

"She's gorgeous," said Joy. "And very intense, particularly when she's in lawyer mode. I thought she completely hated me for the first couple of days. She would stare at me like I was something she had to dissect later. But, she seems to have warmed to me more lately."

"I'm not surprised she's good looking," said Jared. "Charlie's always had a knack for surrounding himself with beautiful, talented women. I never quite figured out how he did it, but I never complained either."

Joy grinned and Jared realized that she was, of course, included among those beautiful and talented women. She'd been the web designer on Charlie's team at TradeNet and managed to turn in professional work on impossibly tight deadlines, working shoulder-to-shoulder between developers and day traders. In spite of all the frayed nerves and bruised egos as the site had neared its deadline, she'd managed to stay above the fray and keep the atmosphere light. It had seemed so effortless at the time that it only now occurred to him that she'd been doing it on purpose.

"I'm just saying... give her a chance to get to know you before you rip into her."

Jared frowned, "I don't rip into people."

Joy laughed, "Jared, didn't you tell Izzy Klein to shove his laptop up his ass?"

Jared shook his head, but had to grin, "No. I told Izzy that he wouldn't have room to shove his laptop up his ass until he pulled his head out of the way."

Joy laughed again, "Yes. I think those were your exact words."

Jared raised a finger, "I'll have you remember that Izzy was in there every morning trying to get the web team to do his tech support when we were under that huge time crunch."

"I remember," said Joy. "I also remember that he was chewing me out for not helping him when you finally snapped."

Jared frowned, "I don't remember that. I just remember him ranting at the whole room... and then threatening to have me fired when I pointed out his recto-cranial inversion."

Joy placed a hand on the center of her chest, laughing harder, "And then, you told him that he couldn't have you fired. You were a consultant. He had no power to hire or fire anyone. And no one liked him."

"Well," admitted Jared. "No one did like him."

"He had good profit and loss," said Joy. She pointed. "It's that one right there."

Jared pulled into a driveway with the letter A painted on it in a white block letter. The driveway next to it, marked with a "B" was empty. Jared hadn't seen another car since driving into the development.

By the time he got out of the car, Joy was out of the passenger side, leaning over the hood and rifling through her purse, muttering to herself.

"Something wrong?" Idly, Jared noticed the frayed cloth lining of the bag with a blurred gold double-G logo indicating that it was supposed to be a Gucci, but actually wasn't. Somehow, he doubted that was the problem of the moment.

Joy kept digging, "I think I forgot my key when I came out tonight." She shoved her hand into the bottom of the bag, dug around, and came out with a key ring that held a single key, "Fortunately, I have the key to the office downstairs and I know we don't lock the adjoining door." She picked up her purse to sling over her shoulder, misjudged the arc, dropped the bag, and spilled its contents onto the macadam.

After a moment, Jared went down on his knees to help her gather up her things while she muttered a few choice profanities to herself. He mused that, if this had been an after school special, this would have been the part where he discovered her deep, dark secret. Unless the secret was an addiction to Max Factor, he'd missed his cue.

When he helped Joy to her feet, she fell against his chest and stayed there. Jared put his arm around her waist, holding her close, his nostrils filling again with the cocoa butter smell of her moisturizer and the faint hint of strawberry shampoo from her hair.

For a few long seconds, Joy stood with her head back, looking up into his eyes. When Jared didn't move, she said, "If you're one of those guys who won't kiss a girl because she's a little bit drunk, I'd like to mention that I've been hoping you would kiss me since..."

Jared kissed her, cutting off the rest of her sentence. Joy hugged him tightly, kissing him back. He'd thought of the hug she'd given him back at baggage claim as a lover's hug, one given without concern for how your bodies touched. Now, he saw the difference. Joy fitted herself against him eagerly, her high, firm breasts pressed his chest, one leg pushed past his hip so that they fit as closely as possible.

When the kiss broke, she smiled up at him, a gleam in her eyes, "... I saw you at the airport."

Jared laughed, "Only that long?"

She smiled and laid her head on his chest, "You wanted to that night. Didn't you?"

Jared kissed the top of her head, "Oh, yeah. No question."

Joy nuzzled the hollow of his throat, "Good."

Jared cradled her head, tilting it back so that he could kiss her again. When the kiss broke, she was leaning back against the car, looking up at him grinning, "We should get inside." She slid out from between Jared and the car, wrapping herself around his arm and drawing him down the cement path towards the back of the house, "That kind of loyalty is really sexy, you know?"

Jared chuckled, "I guess I shouldn't mention how sorely tempted I was to kiss you, then?"

Joy shook her head, unhooking the gate between the front and back yard, turning, and pulling him through, "No. That's what makes it sexy." She let him stumble into her, wrapping herself around him for another kiss, then pulled him forward again. Jared's heart was thudding in his ears. After the swings his life had taken over the last year, he'd found comfort in the long, gray static stretch when nothing at all had changed. Now, everything was changing at once and he felt like it couldn't happen fast enough.

Joy slid out of his grip again and drew him along the path to the door. Jared caught a glimpse of the moon glowing up at him from the depths of a wide, unlit swimming pool surrounded by red terracotta tiles. Along the back wall of the house, roses the color of wine grew out of dark, lush bushes. As Joy fumbled with the key in the back door, Jared looked around at the tiny oasis that had been built here.

Joy stood with her back to the now-open door and laid a hand gently on Jared's back, "Nice place. Isn't it?"

Jared turned and faced her again, "Beautiful."

Joy took his hand and led him forward into the dark room. Coming in from the moonlight, Jared was momentarily night blind and let Joy lead him until she ran into something metallic sounding with a clatter and a muttered curse. Jared stumbled against a desk and heard its feet scrape across the floor. Joy laughed and was in his arms again. Jared sat back on the desk, holding and kissing her, the scent of her skin large in his senses as his sight recovered. He shivered as he felt her hand under his shirt, warm on the cool flat of his stomach. His own hands traced down her back and over her shorts, seeking skin.

"Jared..." she whispered in his ear. "We should really go upstairs."

Jared nodded against her, "Can you see yet?"

Joy shifted and looked around, "Not really."

"I think I can," said Jared. He rose and took her hand. With Joy following, he picked his way past desks and chairs and filing cabinets and, in the dead center of the room, what turned out to be a pool table. After a long, shuffling walk, Jared found a set of stairs and led Joy up them, "Next time, remind me to turn on the light before we try this."

Joy giggled, "Next time, remind me to bring the key."

At the top of the stairs, there was a small landing. When Jared guided Joy onto it, she slid into his arms again, kissing him, her momentum pushing him back against the door there. He heard the door pop open and grabbed the door frame to keep from falling.

The door opened into bright, white light and Jared was again momentarily blind as he blinked away the spots.

"Jared," Charlie deadpanned somewhere off to his right. "We expected you to come in the front door."

Jared closed his eyes for a few seconds. Joy was pressed to his left hip, arms around his waist, "Hi, guys."

The white and gold blur Jared had first seen on coming through the door had resolved itself into a woman of indeterminate, but clearly Asian heritage. She stood barely over five feet, but neither her small stature nor the generous decolletage of her nearly-translucent white nightgown detracted from her elegant bearing. As if she could feel Jared's glance, she shrugged the dark green silk robe she wore over the nightgown shut and put down the cell phone she'd been wielding long enough to tie the sash, "You must be Jared."

Jared tried a disarming smile, "And you must be Vicky."

"Victoria Cole," she said, her tones clipped and precise. "From Hong Kong." She did not extend a hand to shake.

"Jared Tyler." He stepped forward, letting Joy slide out of his arm, "From New York."

"You're a friend of Charlie's... from New York." It didn't sound like a question so much as an accusation.

Charlie clapped his hands loudly, "Now that we know that you're not here to rob, rape, and murder us, I'm going to go get your luggage."

"I'll help," said Joy, following Charlie out of the kitchen. "There should be something light enough for me to carry."

Before Jared could say anything, Victoria broke her stare at him and turned away, walking over to the refrigerator. It gave Jared a chance to look around the room. If things hadn't been so tense, he would have whistled. The kitchen was bigger than his living room back home. All the surfaces were white with silver-colored accents. An island the same size as the pool table downstairs dominated tbe space. On the ceiling, a rail of hooks held a variety of pots and pans he hadn't seen since his grandfather's kitchen. One wall was taken up by stove, sink, and oven. The back wall, aside from the door, was taken up by one long counter. The far side was bordered by a long, white bar with black stools lined up behind it.

"Would you like something to drink?" Victoria was standing in front of the refrigerator.

"Uh, sure," said Jared. "What do you have?"

"Water," said Victoria. There was a pause, "Beer. A Coke."

Jared glanced past her and smirked. Other than a bottle of ketchup, she'd cataloged the entire contents of the refrigerator. Clearly, no one was cooking here, "Water would be great."

Victoria handed him a bottle of Evian and held another in her hand. Without saying anything, she turned and walked out of the kitchen. After a moment, Jared followed her into the living room. She sat down on a black leather couch and unscrewed the top on her water. While Jared's senses were still swimming with Joy's touch and his lips tingling from her kisses, he couldn't deny that this was a beautiful woman in front of him. Of course, he'd never known Charlie to get involved with a woman who wasn't beautiful, but Victoria was probably the most beautiful one yet. Her golden complexion, tawny brown hair, and rich chocolate eyes suggested she was Thai or Cambodian. But, she'd said she was from Hong Kong. She was slender and petite, but unusually voluptuous up top. If only she wouldn't scowl like...

Jared realized he was staring and sat down, "So, you're Nguyen Poker Services' lawyer?"

"Yes," said Victoria and Jared thought he heard a hint of indignation creep into her voice as if he'd been challenging her status. More evenly, she said, "I'm also a managing partner."

Jared allowed himself a smile, "So, everything is above board and legal, then?"

"Of course," said Victoria, the indignation clearer this time. "Why would you ask that?"

He'd asked as a half-joke. But, if he really thought about it, he'd asked because Charlie was involved. When they'd first met, Charlie was the compliance officer for what turned out to be one of the biggest boiler room brokerages in the history of New York. When the owners had closed the doors and fled the country, Charlie had turned over reams of evidence that allowed the SEC to recover hundreds of millions of dollars and Charlie to walk away a hero. He'd even helped Jared collect on an outstanding five-figure invoice. But, Jared had never been able to shake the feeling that Charlie had been a shut-eye chaperone as long as it served his purposes.

When they'd lived together in Atlantic City, Charlie had been running some elaborate scheme that he claimed allowed him to arbitrage between sports books on prop bets. The system had been unbelievably complex and often involved placing contradictory bets with bookies all over the country. He'd tried to explain it, but Jared had never understood it entirely. Still, it worked for almost two years before the bookies got automated enough to close the hole in the system. As far as Jared knew, it had been legal. But, Jared was no lawyer.

Hearing Victoria's indignation, he was tempted to tell her about her boyfriend's history, but he would never do that to Charlie. Instead, he unscrewed the top on his water bottle, "Just doing my due diligence, counselor. The laws about poker are funny. You want to make sure that your t's are crossed and your i's dotted."

Victoria blew out a long, slow breath that sounded like a release of tension, then gave Jared a bashful smile, "Yes, of course. I..."

The front door opened, admitted Charlie and Joy, wheeling his bags behind them. "Come on," said Charlie. "I'll show you your room."

Jared rose, nodded to Victoria, and followed Charlie and Joy into a hallway on the far side of the living room. A short way down the hall, Charlie rolled Jared's two big, red suitcase into one of two facing doors. Joy followed behind rolling a third suitcase and his carry-on. Jared followed.

Charlie was already turning around and heading out of the room as Jared stepped in. He patted Jared on the shoulder as he slipped past, "Welcome to Vegas, man. We'll talk in the morning." He stood in the doorway, "Don't worry about Vicky. I'll settle her down." Then, he was past, closing the door with Jared and Joy inside.

If Joy realized the implication of Charlie closing the door, she didn't acknowledge it, "You sure brought a lot of stuff. Planning on staying?"

Jared shook his head, "I'll probably be starting a new job back home in a couple of weeks. I just... wanted to be prepared."

Joy grinned, "So, you're still a clothes horse?"

Jared gave her a mock scowl, then laughed, "Charlie really wanted me out here tonight. I threw all my dirty laundry in there." He looked around the room—big, wide hotel-style bed, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors on the far wall, flat screen TV on the wall. Someone must have spent a lot of money on that.

Joy sat on the bed, drawing her feet out of her shoes and up under her, long legs crossed, "So, you've met Victoria."

Jared chuckled. There was a desk against the hall-side wall. He turned the chair there around and straddled it, "Yeah."

"A little intense. Right?"

Another chuckle, "Yeah. Something like that." The encounter with Victoria hadn't actually been unpleasant, but it had been awkward enough to momentarily kill his building ardor. Now, his fatigue was trying to reassert itself. The sun would be rising soon in New York. As soon as he realized that, he found himself fighting a yawn. Joy saw it and grinned at him.

"So," Jared asked, trying too late to cover it. "How much longer are you out here?"

Joy shrugged, "I was planning to fly out a week from today, but Charlie has asked me to stay on for another week and take care of some office work. It's not really my field and it doesn't pay as well... but it would let me stay one more week... and I am making more at the tables that at work anyway." She gave him a lopsided grin, "I know it can't last like this forever. But, the tables have been really soft lately. I think there are a lot more tourists here than in AC." She gripped her toes in both hands.

Finding a roundabout way of approaching the question that was foremost on his mind, Jared rose from the chair, "You know... if you like, I could introduce you at my clubs in New York." It was an offer he'd considered making when they worked together, but the idea of sharing that part of his life with Joy, the part Karen had never understood or wanted anything to do with, it had felt... not exactly wrong, but furtive and dangerous to his relationship with the woman that, even then, he was starting to think of as his future wife.

Joy smiled and rocked a little, "That would be cool." Then, she frowned and stopped rocking, "Only, I might not be going back to New York. My roommate just moved to Paris to do some modeling. And, she's been trying to talk me into joining her."

Jared nodded thoughtfully, "That would be Nataliya?"

Joy grinned and sat back, "Yeah. Tally. Good memory."

Jared allowed himself a small smile, "She's the only one of your roommates I met. She picked you up for some party at work. She was... memorable."

Joy laughed, "She certainly is that. She remembered you when we talked this morning."

"See?" Jared sat on the bed next to Joy. "Now, she should be commended. I don't think I said more than two words while she was there."

Joy leaned in against his back and placed her hands on his shoulders, rubbing gently, "I don't think it's anything you said. She called you 'the sexy one from TradeNet.'"

Jared leaned back against her, "Funny. That's how I remembered you."

Joy laughed and slid across the bed so that she was pressed against his back, then resumed rubbing. Jared closed his eyes in appreciation, "So, if you went to Paris, would you model, too?"

"I could," said Joy, hugging his back and wrapping her legs around his waist. "The woman who recruited Nataliya asked me first. I haven't decided to go yet."

Jared chuckled, "Modeling in Paris."

"I've always wanted to see Europe."

Jared reached back to draw her around him, but Joy held on so that he wouldn't have been able to dislodge her without a struggle, "Could be romantic."

Joy kissed the back of his neck, "Designing web sites in Las Vegas is working out pretty well, too." Then, she yawned, stretching against him.

"I guess my yawn was contagious," said Jared, reaching up to stroke her arm.

Joy laid her head on the back of his neck, "I'm actually really tired all of a sudden." She kissed his shoulder, "But, we could still... hang out if you want."

Jared considered the offer. Now that he had Joy this close, he didn't want to let her go to her own room. He was afraid that whatever had gotten them to this point tonight would never happen again. And, they might only have two weeks together before she was jetting off to Paris. But still, the accumulated fatigue of the day was weighing heavily on him and apparently Joy, too.

This time, when he reached back to draw Joy around him into her lap, she helped him, sliding around, throwing a leg over his lap and pulling herself across until she was straddling him. Jared took her face in his hands for a few seconds, then kissed her, slowly and thoroughly. As he did, he felt the heat rising inside of him again and the fatigue recede. But, when he broke the kiss, Joy laid her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. When she had stayed like that for a full minute, Jared leaned down and kissed the top of her head. Joy murmured something he couldn't quite understand.

"What was that?"

"Sleep here," Joy murmured, curled up against him. "In your arms—warm and safe."

Jared chuckled, "I've never tried sleeping sitting up before. But, I could give it a try."

Joy yawned, then opened her eyes. Turning, she put one foot on the floor. Then, she kissed Jared on the cheek, "I need to get to bed. I've got a date tomorrow after work."

Jared grinned even as the regret of knowing she was leaving washed over him, "I guess you'll want to be well-rested for that."

Joy nodded and unfolded herself from him so that she could rise. Jared got up behind her and followed her to the door of his room. She opened it, then turned and wrapped her arm around Jared's waist. Jared cradled her head in his hand and kissed her again, another slow, lingering kiss. And again, he felt the heat rising, pushing away thoughts of sleep. He tried to pull back, but Joy held on tightly to him, perhaps trusting his restraint more than he did. By the time the kiss broke, his breathing was shallow and uneven.

"Good night, Jared," Joy said quietly, an enigmatic smile on her face. Jared nodded, unwilling to trust his voice. She turned, crossed the hall, and stepped inside the room on the other side. When she looked back over her shoulder, the enigmatic smile was still there and it was the last thing Jared saw before the door closed, obscuring her from view.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Consensual / Romantic /