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The Temptation of Savannah O'Neill Molly O Keefe 2022/8/3 13:52:45

“Come on,” she begged, her smile a glittery replica of her mother’s in the surveillance picture he’d stared at far too long. It changed Katie’s awkward features—the prominent nose, the messy hair and freckles—and he got a good solid glimpse of the beauty Katie O’Neill would be. “A card trick. Just one.”

He couldn’t say no to that smile, or to a bored kid. He remembered all too well what that was like, waiting in the car for hours on end while his father “worked” in some backroom card game. He set down the scythe and turned around, wiping off his hands.

“Let’s see what you got,” he said with a smile, expecting something along the lines of Go Fish.

With a flourish that would have made the old man proud, Katie shuffled and bridged, the cards a blur in her hands.

“You’ve done this before?” he asked, lifting his eyebrows.

“Watch the queen of hearts,” she said, flashing him the old lady then breaking into a flimflam routine that would have worked on any corner in the city fifty years ago. “You watching?”

“Oh, I’m watching.” But he was watching the nine of clubs, which had been next to the queen.

Katie gave him another glimpse of the queen then tucked her seamlessly behind the nine. “You see her?”

“I know exactly where she is.”

Katie scoffed, her eyes bright, and fanned the cards, facing him with a flourish. “Pick her.”

And he did, right away, tucked behind the nine. Katie’s face fell. “You’ve got to work harder than that to fool me at cards. Don’t hide the mark under the closest card. Pick a different card a few spots away.” He took out the queen and moved her behind the three of spades, which was halfway across the deck.

“You play cards?” Katie asked.

He laughed, amazed at this little girl’s capacity to surprise him. “I’ve played before.”

Her ice-blue eyes narrowed. “You a shark?” she asked.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Another voice yelled and Matt and Katie turned to find Savannah bearing down on them from the doorway like a hurricane.

Katie pushed the cards into Matt’s hands and he fumbled, dropping most of them.

“He was showing me card tricks, Mom,” Katie said, blinking her blue eyes in an innocent act so bad Matt nearly groaned. But Savannah bought it. She grabbed her daughter and glared at Matt as if he were showing her how to play with matches.

“We don’t play cards in this house,” she said, her eyes ripping the skin off his body. She pushed her long blond hair off her face, away from her eyes and Matt realized she looked like a Valkyrie. A woman warrior out for blood. His.

What did I do? he wondered.

“Cards?” he muttered, like an idiot. According to his private investigator’s reports hidden away in the sleeping porch, her brother, the middle one, had won the World Series of Poker last year. Her family not only played cards, they excelled at them.

“Not in this house,” Savannah nearly hissed.

“I…ah…” Matt was struck dumb and Katie buried her face in her mother’s neck, offering him no help at all. “I’m sorry?”

“Damn right you’re sorry,” Savannah snapped. “No cards. No tricks. No games.”

He considered clearing his name and opening Savannah’s eyes to the flimflam artist she was currently cradling against her chest like the last innocent on the planet.

But Katie lifted her head momentarily and shook it, fear in her eyes, and Matt didn’t know if he was being conned or if she was truly scared. Either way, it wasn’t much skin off his nose. One more lie added to his growing pile.

But he couldn’t help wonder what scared Savannah so much about cards or gambling that she could lie to herself so completely, see the world so differently from how it really was.

He nodded, solemnly. “Got it. I am sorry. I was just passing the time.”

“We hired you to work.”

He arched his eyebrows in stunned silence. He’d been working his tail off and no one, not even an angry Savannah, could deny that. “Is there something wrong with the amount of work I’ve done?” he asked, his pride leaping. “Am I not doing enough?”