Thursday, October 13, 2022

BLACK ICE (STORMWATCH Book 4) by Regan Black

$3.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited


The storm sweeps in like a thief in the night... Winter storm Holly is the worst in eighty years bringing high winds, subzero temperatures and snowfall better measured in feet than in inches. The weather paralyzes everything in its path, but in this storm, weather isn’t the only threat.

Evelyn Cotton deals poker at the Silver Aces casino in Deadwood to keep the family adventuring business in the black during the off-season. News of the storm barreling closer has the casino packed with locals pushing their luck and travelers who are stranded. When Wyatt Jameson, her high school sweetheart, sits down at her table it’s all she can do to keep her hands to herself. For more than twelve years she’s dreamed of choking the life out of him for running away to the Army without giving her so much as a goodbye kiss.

Wyatt isn't back in town for a reunion, though seeing Evie reminds him what sacrifice means. He's been looking for purpose since an injury ended his Army career. Now, the FBI has recruited him to infiltrate a crew planning to steal a fortune in diamonds, including the famous Mae West Solitaire currently on display at the Silver Aces. The thrill of being needed and the hefty payday if he succeeds easily override the risk of dredging up the old memories and heartache he left behind.

But when the thieves up their timeline due to the storm, Evie gets caught in the crossfire and Wyatt's plans are turned upside down. He has to win her over -and fast. Without her expertise they might not survive long enough for him to tell her she's the woman he's never stopped loving.

Don't miss a single installment in the Stormwatch series from half a dozen of the genre's bestselling storytellers!
Frozen Ground by Debra Webb
Deep Freeze by Vicki Hinze
Wind Chill by Rita Herron
Black Ice by Regan Black
Snow Brides by Peggy Webb
Snow Blind by Cindy Gerard 

Chapter 1

Deadwood, South Dakota

With her laptop perched on her knees and ear buds in her ears, Evelyn Cotton hit refresh, hoping this time the man she was scheduled to chat with would be in the online meeting room. Thanks to technology, it was her first face-to-face meeting with a potential investor in the family business she was trying to save.
Except he wasn’t showing up and she couldn’t sit here staring at the screen forever. She had to get over to the casino for her evening shift. This time of year, wild winter storms or not, dealing poker at the Silver Aces kept this family in the black.
The investor, Tate Cordell, had contacted Cottonwood Adventures a few weeks ago. They’d hit it off over the phone and he’d requested a personal tour to get a feel for the area and a better idea of her plans to expand and offer winter activities. She was happy to oblige, but he’d cancelled last week’s visit at the last moment, after she’d traded away her shift. With the sudden weather system jacking up flights and travel plans, they’d opted for an online meeting.
“Come on, Tate.”
“He called?” her father, Dale, half-shouted from his beloved recliner. He’d spent the day in his woodshop, restoring a set of kitchen chairs for a friend.
“No.” She shook her head. “Must be trouble with the connection.”
“Or he lost interest.”
Gee thanks. Evelyn suppressed a scathing glare. It was bad enough sitting here as if she’d been stood up by a date. “He’ll call.” She reached for her boots and pulled them on. When he did show—and he would—she wanted to make the most of every remaining minute.
“Then what’s with the boots?”
She forcibly reminded herself that her dad loved her, even when he didn’t show it in normal ways or even in ways she might prefer. Plus, big storms like the one closing in on them usually amped up his depression issues. “There’s no sense wrecking my good shoes crossing the parking lot,” she replied. If the meeting with Tate went well, this might be her last winter at the casino. Her heart actually fluttered at the happy thought.
For several seasons now, her father had posed significant resistance to her many suggestions and ideas that would shift Cottonwood from merely scraping by as an average three-season tour operation to a thriving year-round profitable endeavor. Whether or not he believed she could do it, he seemed determined to prevent her from trying. None of her spreadsheets or marketing plans had changed his mind. All she needed to put them on the map was a modest financial investment for new gear, a storage building, a website overhaul and a couple of new hires. All sounded like a lot, but she knew how to prioritize and make every penny stretch.
Her father, despite the evidence in the roof over his head and food on the table, wasn’t convinced of her ability. Every time she asked, Dale refused to even consider a business loan, leaving Evelyn to get creative.
“I wish you’d stay home.” He pointed at the television, where another aspiring journalist was bundled up against the gusting wind and blowing snow. “It’s going to get worse in a hurry.”
“It’s a wonder the mic doesn’t freeze over,” she muttered. Her laptop chimed and she scrambled back in front of the camera, only to see that the meeting had timed out without starting. The chime was an email alert from the casino. Small comfort to know the internet connection was fine on her end. “Damn.”
Her father snorted, either agreeing with her assessment or disapproving of her vocabulary. It didn’t matter. She and Dale hadn’t seen eye to eye on much of anything since her mother, Tess, died during Evelyn’s senior year of college.
“Only goes to show you shouldn’t be out in this mess,” he said.
“I wish it was as easy as calling in,” she said. “My boss just asked me to confirm I can make tonight’s shift and she’s hoping I’ll stick around to work through the storm.”
“You told me they were evacuating the resorts.”
“Dad.” Evelyn clung to her last scrap of patience as she turned off her laptop and stowed it away. Tate would reschedule. It helped to remember that he wasn’t the only backup plan she had working. “They were discussing the option. If people can’t get out of town, they’ll need entertainment.” She’d packed an overnight bag and stowed it in her car, just in case the roads were impassable and she had to stay over.
“You’re risking your neck just so they won’t miss a dollar,” he grumbled when she crossed the room to tell him goodbye.
She could launch into a lecture about the economic boost the casinos brought to Deadwood with events and tourism every single month. The Silver Aces even recommended Cottonwood Adventures to guests when the company was open. She could mention how the casinos reinvested a generous chunk of their profits back to the community year after year. She could, but she’d be wasting her breath.
“There’s meatloaf in the fridge when you’re ready.” She wrapped her scarf around her neck and kissed her dad’s graying hair before shrugging into her coat. Grabbing her overnight bag, she escaped her well-meaning father and headed for her car.
Between the wind and the temperature drop, the air had more bite as she stepped outside. She leaned into the wind, averting her face and wishing she’d parked in the garage. Thankfully, her compact SUV started right up with the same dependability it had shown for years. She turned on her radio for some upbeat music to perk up for her shift. Tate being a no show was a bummer, but dwelling on that disappointment would negatively impact her tips. Unfortunately, her favorite station was in full storm-mode.
“People.” Winter Storm Holly was becoming a local obsession. She navigated the winding driveway from her lifelong home, past the turn off for the Cottonwood Adventures office and to the main road. “It’s not our first brush with snow.” She laughed at herself, eyeing the remains of the most recent snowfall lining the shoulders on either side of the road and covering the wilderness in a blanket of white.
Traffic was lighter than she expected and, once she was out of the driveway, the roads were mostly clear. Though she’d lived here all her life, it was hard even for her to imagine six feet of snow at the minimum. Maybe people were being smart and heeding the warnings to prepare for the worst. While that was the smart and safe way to go, it could cost her on a night when she needed the tips.
She was almost to the casino before she found a station still playing pop remakes of Christmas classics. It was enough to put a smile on her face as she finished the drive and circled for the closest parking space she could find.
As she gathered her purse and the bag with her good shoes, her cell phone rang. “Come on, Dad,” she groaned. But she brightened when the screen showed Tate Cordell’s number. Sucking in a quick breath, she pulled off her glove and swiped the screen to answer. “Cottonwood Adventures, Evelyn speaking.”
“Evelyn!” He sounded slightly out of breath. “I am so, so sorry I didn’t make our appointment.”
She stopped herself before she spewed platitudes and nonsense that he shouldn’t worry about it. It was time to change tactics. She’d been far too accessible in their prior conversations. He was a busy man, but she was no slouch.
“I hope everything is well,” she said neutrally. “I’m about to head into another meeting.” It wasn’t a lie, she’d be meeting plenty of people on her shift. And she did need to speak with the manager on the hospitality side of the casino operations about her recent proposal for team-building excursions and events. “Please, send me an email and we can reschedule. Have a great—”
“Hang on.” His tone hardened. “My internet connection went out.”
“I hate it when that happens,” she sympathized. The weather was already draining the warm air from the car. Her ungloved hand was getting chilled. “Whenever it’s back up and running, send that email.”
“You promised me a tour of the area.”
Her cold fingers were quickly forgotten. He still planned to visit? He’d agreed to her outrageous price of a thousand dollars for a glorified walk through the woods, despite it being a snow-heavy season. They’d scheduled for the day after tomorrow and she’d assumed, especially after he didn’t make the online meeting that he’d intended to delay the entire thing. “You’re in Deadwood?”
“Almost,” he replied. “Travel is interesting at best, but yes, I changed my plans to get ahead of the storm.”
“Holly is a beast,” she agreed as a gust sent snow swirling across her windshield. “And I’m afraid the last update said the storm was barreling straight for us. We really should postpone until the worst has passed.”
“If I can get in tonight?”
His tenacity, the press in his voice, surprised her. “I’m not available until tomorrow at the earliest.” Maybe not then if she had to cover for a coworker.
“What do you recommend?”
“With this storm?” She looked up at the heavy gray sky, gloomier still as evening deepened and the light faded. “I recommend you wait it out. The wilderness will still be here once Holly blows over and everyone can dig out.”
“Dig out?”
She hadn’t asked, but she got the impression Tate had been raised in a warm climate. “They’re predicting several feet of snow accumulation. Factor in the drifts and it could be difficult if not impossible to get around for a few days.”
“I didn’t realize.”
Loosely translated into business-speak, that meant she wouldn’t be getting an influx of cash anytime soon. Worse, she might have just botched the deal, giving him the impression this was winter every year. She scrambled to salvage something from the call. “A winter storm like this one isn’t something we see often, not even up here. As I explained earlier, the winter activities we want to offer won’t be interrupted by inclement weather any more often than we experience in other seasons.”
“I understand, Evelyn.”
Oh, she hoped he did. More importantly, she needed him to trust her lifelong expertise in the area and her innovative expansion plans. Tate Cordell had surprised her when he’d reached out, but to date his continued interest in Cottonwood remained the most promising solution to propel the family business into profitable and sustainable territory for the long term.
There was a rapid tapping noise on his end before he spoke again. “I’ll keep an eye on the weather and be in touch.”
The call ended before she could say thank you.
Chilled again, she shoved her cell phone into her purse and put her glove back on for the dash across the parking lot.
Stan, a friendly face from high school, was the security guard on duty at the employee entrance. He held the door open for her as she rushed toward the building. “Evening,” he said. “I hope you did all your storm prep before coming in.”
She smothered the scream building in her throat. “Sure did,” she replied. It wasn’t Stan’s fault that no one knew how to have a conversation about anything other than snowstorms right now. “Dad is all prepped at home and I have an overnight bag packed in the car, just in case I need to stay on and cover shifts.”
“You really are set,” he said with a smile. “Have a good shift, Evelyn.”
She returned the sentiment as she walked away. Back here behind the scenes, the casino had designed a pleasant-enough area, though the focus was on utility rather than creating the posh experience everyone maintained out front for guests.
Stowing her coat and scarf in a locker, along with her boots, she slipped into the heels that completed the uniform and prepared for her shift. There weren’t any new notices regarding players or problems, so when it was time, she strolled out to the casino.
It was her habit to take a circuit of the casino floor before taking her place at a table in the poker room. The routine helped her get a feel for the general vibe in and around the casino. Sometimes social events, big parties, or business groups amped up the energy and made everyone feel lucky. She had a similar habit when she guided tours with Cottonwood Adventures, always spending a few minutes by herself taking in the weather before loading gear or heading out.
Tonight, the guests seemed upbeat overall. She didn’t hear any chatter about the weather, not even around the slot machines. There were the usual grumbles about luck, but the staff worked together to make sure no one turned mean or disruptive. Although the casino wasn’t at full capacity, business was brisk, which was a good sign for her potential tips.
Evelyn opened her table for Texas Hold’em and the poker room host filled it immediately with four men she guessed were traveling together for business judging by the button-down shirts open at the collar and the khaki slacks that had probably been freshly creased this morning. The loafers were the big clue. No local in his right mind wore loafers in Deadwood at this time of year.
She found the group amusing with their friendly banter and superb poker-table manners. The various strategies they each attempted to convince the others to fold were hysterical. They played for an hour straight before one man excused himself to take a phone call from his wife.
Between hands, they discussed local attractions and dinner options. She dutifully recommended a casino restaurant without bringing up the adverse weather conditions. It would’ve been nice to suggest a winter walk or a sledding adventure, but Cottonwood didn’t have those options yet. Not for the public anyway.
Other players came and went as seats opened up. The current game was tight as a drum and conversation declined as the betting increased. The intensity was palpable, though it was Evelyn’s job to keep up the impression that every player in the game had an equal chance.
She relaxed a bit more as the hours ticked by and the players changed. Sure, she preferred working outside in tennis shoes or hiking boots instead of heels, but on days like today, the casino had become her salvation.
In here, with no clocks, she could pretend she wasn’t running out of time for the business or for her personal goals. Her only task in here was to perpetuate the illusion that a life-changing jackpot was almost within reach. Beyond the tips, a shift at the casino also gave her a marvelous break from the constant news and weather warnings for the area. A customer might mention it in passing, but then someone would change the bet, or grimace, and the focus would shift back to the game.
There could be one snowflake or three feet of snow or even snowmageddon blowing outside. None of that mattered in the casino. People around town might complain about ‘casino morals’ but she’d learned that, for her, it was a slice of bliss. She dealt the cards, players won and lost, she dealt more cards, and the tips added up.
Did she want this forever? Not a chance. But right now, dealing at the Silver Aces was her best option. Maintenance expenses, equipment upkeep and property taxes didn’t go into hibernation after the last leaf walk in the fall.
“Call,” one of the men at her table declared with unmistakable excitement and only three cards turned up. There was a rumble of disappointment around the table followed by relatively sincere congratulations as the winner showed his hand.
Evelyn suppressed a smile as the winner gathered his chips. He took his time stacking the chips into his tray and then finally slid out of his seat, tossing a mock salute to the losing players.
Groans and complaints erupted from the remaining players. Everyone wanted a chance to change their luck.
“Know when to quit, that’s my motto,” the winner said. “There’s a song about that right?”
“More than one,” she replied.
With a wink, he slid a hundred-dollar chip her way as a tip.
“Thank you. It was a pleasure having you at the Silver Aces.” Evelyn delivered the standard response politely when inside she was doing a dance of joy.
When the remaining players were settled again, she pulled the freshly shuffled deck from the automatic shuffler and prepared to deal the next game. She didn’t need a clock to know her break was due after this game, her aching feet and back kept time for her. Tonight, she was looking forward to getting to the break room so she could check her phone. She wanted to check on her father and, with luck, she’d have an email from Tate with new post-storm options for tour times.
“Pardon me. Is it too late to slide in for this hand?”
She shot a quick glance at the poker room host and confirmed the customer was in the right place. Giving the man a nod to take the seat, she waited for him to post his minimum bet and then she dealt him in.
“Evelyn Cotton,” he said as the players checked their cards. “Wow. It’s really you.”
That voice filtered through her senses, a sweet memory and brand new at the same time. Her head snapped up and she was immediately caught in a bright, laser-blue gaze. Those familiar eyes seemed to freeze time, stopping it short and pitching her backward.
Wyatt Jameson.
This was the last place on earth she’d expect to see him. Of course she’d given up on ever seeing him again, period. What had she done so wrong that fate or luck or whatever dumped him at her table? Her gaze swept over the room. Surely there had been another dealer with an open seat.


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