Staked: Chapter Two

Pietra knew someone who knew someone, and in less time that I would have liked, a freelance clerk had transferred Kieran’s draft contract to his own tablet for review. “Ms. Cheng, the document seems in order. If anything, it may be slightly more favorable to yourself.”

I shrugged. I wasn’t going to give up any advantages, however small.

“We do have one addendum and would appreciate your assistance with the phrasing,” Kieran said.

The clerk’s eyebrows didn’t rise a millimeter when Kieran explained the stakes of the game. I couldn’t imagine what craziness he saw in his job.

“There. Ready for your thumbprints, then it’ll be filed and a matter of legal record.”

I gulped. “Wait. Is there a way to make the last… condition private?” The thought of curious legal students running across our little bar bet edged too close to exhibitionism for my taste.

The clerk pressed his lips together. “I can put a seal on that section, so it’s only revealed to a judicial level inquiry, but that’s about all. And it’ll cost extra.”

Kieran grinned and slipped the clerk a credit. “Do it.” He winked at me. “Your happiness is my only concern.”

The laughter in his eyes faded when I didn’t respond. “Do you have cards with you?”

He shook his head, looking a little sad. “Would you use them if I did?”

I felt my lips pull up into a twisted smile despite myself. “No, probably not.”

Oleg appeared with a sealed deck.

I passed it to Kieran for inspection.

He broke the seal, fanned them open. Nodded. “Looks fine to me.” He reached to hand the deck back. “Shuffle?”

“I called the game. Go ahead.”

One, two, three, four, five. Five slips on the table before both of us.

This was my big plan to save the bar and my pride?

I picked up my hand. Not great, but I could work with it.

Discarded one, drew another. And that made it totally workable.

I glanced up at him. Kieran frowned at his cards. Maybe he hadn’t played since he left. Maybe he had one of those crappy hands my father always called a foot.

Another draw, and the hand fell into place.

Once upon a time, I would have waited, dragged the game out a bit, seen how much I could make Kieran squirm, but in three rounds I laid my cards down.

A run of three, a pair and a discard. Nothing left in my hand, and Kieran still held all five of his cards.

The iron vice around my chest eased just a bit. “One point to me.”

He tossed his hand to the table and shrugged. “Not over yet.”

I shivered. His voice had a certainty to it, a confidence I didn’t expect.

I dealt the next one. Picking up my hand, I cringed. This was a foot.

Nothing connected my cards—not symbols, not colors.

All I could hope for was that his hand was as bad. Kieran pulled from the top of the pile, not a flicker of emotion on his face.

One round, the next. That vice around my chest was back. I hesitated at my next turn, gnawing my lip.

“A problem?”

Other than wanting to choke the slow drawl out of him, no. I smiled brightly. “Everything’s fine, thanks.”

“Good to know.” He slapped his cards on the table, a mirror of my earlier play. “And now a point to me.”

Hell. I should have gone for the single game.

Why didn’t I just pick one game?

My thoughts raced as he gathered the cards for my deal. I jumped as his hands brushed mine.

“Sure everything’s okay?”

He was mocking me. “Fine,” I growled through gritted teeth.

One deep breath, then another. I looked at my cards. All right, I might be able to do something with this. If the Domina moved here…


My head snapped up. “What?”

“You heard me. Check them out,” he crowed.

I placed my cards down carefully on the table, trying to control the sudden shaking of my body. His hand was face up on the table.

Tunk damn near never happened, but here it was. All low point cards, equaling less than fourteen.

An automatic game winner.

I rocked back in my chair.

He’d won.

He’d won me.

I stiffened as he came around the table towards me, then bit my lip at the intensity of his gaze. Kieran bent over, whispering in my ear, “I’ll send a car at 1800. Keep the spike, I’ll send the transfer codes when you arrive.”

His scent surprised me.

Warm, heady, almost spicy. His lips brushed the rim of my ear, and despite myself, I quivered.

He walked out of the bar, calling over his shoulder. “Don’t be late, Ani.”


The next two hours passed in a blur. Pietra argued none of us would be focusing on business as usual and against my protests, closed the Star for a rotation.

One by one customers drifted out, and finally the bar was empty of all but residents.

Dalla and Shaymarie coaxed me upstairs to one of the bedrooms where Oleg had already been making plans.

“Let’s find something nice to wear, all right?”

My voice sounded far away. “It doesn’t really matter, does it?”

Dalla spun and glared at me.

“Of course it matters! Look.” She plopped down on the edge of the bed where I sat. “Here’s the thing. You’ve never quite had to learn this, and that’s all right. But you need to know this now. Your clothing, your makeup, your hair. That’s your armor and weapons. You can do anything you need with a client, but put a little effort into it, and you’ll own him as much as he owns you.”

She stared into my eyes, waiting for some sign of understanding, an acknowledgement I couldn’t give, not while my mind still reeled.

I’d lost to Kieran, again.

She sighed. “Never mind. Will you trust us?”

I nodded.

That I could do. “I trust you,” I croaked. “But… Kieran…”

Oleg rubbed my shoulders. “He doesn’t look like a bad guy. I’m not getting a dangerous vibe from him.” He stopped. “Actually, I am. But not that he’d be dangerous to you.”

I swallowed.

Somehow that wasn’t very reassuring.

Dalla wasn’t done. She brushed the small, pale scar on my upper arm and raised her eyebrows. “Is your implant current, and your shots up-to-date?”

I nodded. I might not go out much, but growing up in the Star had reinforced the necessity of protection from all sorts of surprises.

Oleg led me to a chair in front of a dresser and brushed my hair as Shaymarie arranged pots of color and brushes.

The strokes through my curls, accompanied by the feathered touches of the brushes across my face relaxed me.

Maybe this would work out after all.

I watched in fascination as Oleg pinned my hair into an elaborate pile at the top of my head, then pulled out locks according to some unknown plan.

“What? After all that effort, why?”

Oleg’s eyes twinkled. “The instant he sees you, I want him to think of how you’ll look on his pillows.”

I shivered.

I’d love to say it was from fear, but the thought of laying, spread before Kieran, letting him do anything he wanted to me….

I sighed. Once, I would have given anything to be his.

Later, he was the first man I learned to hate.

Now, I didn’t know.

“Sweetie, tilt your head up.” I did as she said, and Shaymarie applied deep ruby tint to my lips.

Dalla came back into the room, arms piled high with clothing.

“There wasn’t a thing in your closet suitable for a date,” she griped. “When this is over, we’re going to talk. You’ve got to get out more.”

Pietra grinned. “I’ve been telling her that for years. Wouldn’t have thought it would take something like this for it to sink in.”

I stared at her.

Of all people to be joking about this. “Pietra, you don’t go out either.”

She quirked her lips up at the corner. “Shows what you know. Why do you think I don’t live here? Easier to keep my personal life just that, personal.”

I stared in disbelief into the mirror as they sorted through clothing, not bothering to consult me. Finally, they settled on a gauzy syntra caftan of the deepest blue, covered with tiny purple jewels.

Cambrie ran into the room right before they dressed me. “First things first!”

She held up a tiny bag with a logo I didn’t recognize, but everyone else in the room did.

When I didn’t react, she pulled out two ivory tinted scraps of lace. I blushed.

She laughed. “I didn’t even look in your drawers. I know you don’t have anything… appropriate.”

Dalla giggled. “Did you get a good deal?”

They whispered behind me as I stepped into the sheer panties and slipped on the lace bra that was nothing like my usual support.

There must have been strands of tech in the weave, because there was no way that thin fabric should have lifted my breasts as well as it did.

They arranged the midnight syntra over the lingerie, the amethyst flecks sparkling.

A chime rang from the front of the house.

“It’s time!”

I’d thought there’d been a scurry of activity before, but the frenzy only heightened as the last bits and pieces of my costume—my armor, as Dalla had called it—were arranged.

“And now,” Oleg stepped in, his arms covered in fabric. “The gift is ready to be wrapped.”

He gently settled a deep burgundy colored cloak over my shoulders, fastened it down the front, and drew the hood up. I peeked under the hood to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The only thing visible was the lower third of my face.

The lip stain matched the fabric, catching the eye immediately.


They really, really were good at their jobs.

Steel straightened my spine. And that’s why I was doing this. To keep everyone’s jobs. To keep this, my little family, safe.

They were right. Kieran wouldn’t hurt me.

At least, not my body, a tiny voice in the back of my head whispered.

And the steel weakened, just a bit.

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