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The King (Masterpiece Duet #1)
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The highest stakes…
My father gambles every night, falling deeper and deeper into debt. When he hits the bottom, he places a new bet: his daughter. I’m his entry bet to the biggest underground poker game.
Every kind of danger circles the velvet-covered table, but only one man makes me tremble.
A trailer park princess.
The son of a criminal king.
We don’t belong together, but I’m caught in a twisted game.
His eyes meet mine with dark promise. And when he puts down his cards, I know I’m going to lose more than my body. I’m going to lose everything.
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One of Mama’s boyfriends took us on a trip when I turned four.
We visited this restaurant that had a special mermaid show. Metal bleachers lined up in front of a giant pool with see-through sides. Mermaids swam around in time to music while I watched with rapt attention.
Even though I could see the clear little tubes they used to breathe, even though I could tell the fins were made of fabric, it was magical to me.
I think I fell in love that day.
Inside the gift shop I found a stuffed blue-green mermaid with yarn hair and sparkly scales. I begged Mama to get it for me, but she said no. We never had much money.
The next day we went tubing in the river.
The tubes were black and slippery, the water dark. Not sparkly blue water like the mermaids had. I didn’t like it but I knew better than to complain, especially with Mama laughing extra loud and Mama’s boyfriend drinking beers from the floating cooler. He had what Mama called a movie star smile, but it just made him scary.
I held on to the tube as hard as I could, until my muscles were burning. It was too big for me to lay over the top, too big around even as I floated in the center, my arms slung over the large rubber sides. The river bumped me this way and that, taking me away from Mama until I pumped my legs to get back to her.
It happened suddenly.
The water got rough.
My hands slipped from the rubber.
I kicked hard against rocks smooth with algae. It hurt but I knew I couldn’t stop.
The water sucked me down.
One minute I was floating in the middle of a big black tube. The next I was completely under, black currents swirling me around in circles, like a leaf in a hurricane. I remember the fear of it, the way I felt freezing inside, even colder than the water surrounding me.
The current slammed me to the bottom, the rocks hitting my back.
Then my head.
I don’t remember what happened next, but someone must have pulled me out of the water.
Mama bought me the mermaid with green-blue hair to make me feel better. I kept that mermaid for a long time. Even after Mama was gone. I like to think it means she loved me, even if she ended up loving needles more. I found her in the bathtub one night, her grown-up things spilled over the cracked tile, her eyes open, her hands cold.
I didn’t ever like swimming after that, even in sparkly blue pools.
After that I went to live with Daddy in the trailer park. I think he felt bad for what happened with Mama. He had this careful voice he used with me, like he thought I might cry. Even though I never did.
Daddy brought me to his parole meeting once. I sat in a chair with itchy fabric and wooden arms, trying not to look at the other men in the waiting room. The officer wore a brown suit, not a police uniform. He asked me if I liked living with Daddy.
He leaned forward, his eyebrows pressed together. He had a big nose and a shiny head, but not in a bad way. It made me trust him. Like he was a regular person. I didn’t trust people who looked too slick and handsome, the kind of men Mama dated.
The kind of men who bring needles as presents. The kind of men who disappear in the middle of the night with our rent money.
“Are you sure, Penny? You can tell me the truth.”
I think he wanted me to tell him about the gambling, the nights we would go to the bar, when I would sit in the corner with a book while the men shouted and smoked and drank. The way Daddy would sometimes lose everything, even bus fare, and we would have to take the long walk back to the trailer park.
“I like it here,” I tell him, because I do. There are no needles, and most of the time there’s enough food. I can’t trust that anything else would be better. “Daddy takes good care of me.”
It was almost true when he brought me to his card games. The owner of the bar was named Big Joe, and he would usually give me a plate of French fries and a Sprite. Mostly I ate every day. That didn’t last forever.
Once Daddy said I was old enough to stay home, it got worse.
He started staying out overnight, only coming back the next morning, his clothes rumpled and his eyes red. Then it was two days. Then three.
Now I watch the dirt road from the window, wondering if he’ll come back tonight. I tried to make the box of mac and cheese last, but it’s gone now. My tummy makes a loud sound. Daddy won’t have much money, if he comes back now. He never does after the long trips. But I still keep wishing for him. Even if we were hungry, we would be together.