A/N- So here it is, my latest story. I've been playing with this one in my head for over a year now, so I'm very excited to finally write it out. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I'm enjoying writing it!
To get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way, I'm not Stephenie Meyer, and I don't own Twilight. I'm merely obsessed with it.
"I heard somebody call your name
from underneath our willow
I saw something tucked in shame
underneath your pillow
Well I've tried so hard baby
but I just can't see
What a woman like you
is doing with me
So tell me who I see
when I look in your eyes
Is that you baby
or just a brilliant disguise
Now look at me baby
struggling to do everything right
And then it all falls apart
when out go the lights
I'm just a lonely pilgrim
I walk this world in wealth
I want to know if it's you I don't trust
'cause I damn sure don't trust myself"
From Brilliant Disguise by Bruce Springsteen; off Tunnel of Love, 1987
March 2011- Delaware
"Twenty-one!" The dealer exclaimed jubilantly, after throwing a third seven onto Bella's other two.
"Great hit," the skeezy guy next to her said, running his hand up her leg a little and squeezing her thigh.
"Thanks," Bella slurred, stirring her mostly untouched drink and taking a small sip. Her act was always easier she pretended to be drunk. She tried to ignore the feeling of the guy's hand on her thigh. She thought he said his name was Mike, or maybe Matt. It didn't matter to her. What did matter is that he was creeping her the fuck out, but it wasn't time to walk away yet. The cards were hot, and the count was high.
As the dealer began to deal the next hand, Bella counted the cards as they came out of the shoe. The count was steadily going up, which was very good for her. Bella would up her bets the next hand, but have to do so discreetly.
She was only playing at a twenty-five dollar table. That was the highest limit table she was willing to play. A table with higher limits tended to attract the attention of pit bosses and casino managers, who liked to sniff out potential high rollers and exploit their money.
Today, Bella played the role a small town girl on her honeymoon. She'd only played blackjack a couple of times before, and she knew the basics. She flirted with the other men at the table, asking them for advice she didn't need while she flaunted her good looks. She needed to act just drunk enough that her card counting would go unnoticed, but not so drunk that she'd attract unwanted attention from security.
So far she was up about two hundred dollars, a nice take for only four hours of playing. Normally she'd only make that much in ten or twelve hours because she played conservatively. Today was a good day; the cards were hot, and she played smart, as always.
Bella just wished the creep next to her would stop touching her. He was college-aged, with greasy blonde hair matting his pimpled face. His hands felt cold and wet against her skin. She thought about hitting the programmed "panic" button on her prepaid cell phone to alert Jasper it was time to go, but the cards were just too damn good.
It was Jasper's idea to start rounding in casinos. Bella had always been great with numbers- a certifiable genius. The two were runaways, drifters, and they had been traveling and playing casinos across the country for the last three years.
They had no place to truly call home since they left Philadelphia at age eighteen, neither of them having even finished high school. Jasper had gotten himself into some trouble and had to leave, and Bella didn't have to think twice about going with him. She doubted her parents even missed her.
One day, after months of living on the street or out of Bella's old truck, Jasper had an idea that changed their lives- or at least, how they were living.
They were temporarily in Las Vegas, and Jasper found himself wandering into a casino. He wasn't of age to play yet, but that hardly mattered. The only true identification he had was a fake id anyway. He wandered the casino floor, taking in the sights and the sounds. He was overwhelmed by the high pitched jingle of the slot machines, the hacking of the old ladies shuffling by smoking cigarettes, the lights, the seemingly endless corridors of slot machines and table games. He wandered in a daze, taking it all in.
He became transfixed as he watched a blackjack game being played near the center of the vast casino floor. Players at the table were laughing and giving each other high fives, and the chips were flowing back to the players in an endless stream of color.
Inspired, he used what little money he had and bought six decks of cards from the corner gas station and returned to their truck where Bella was waiting. He was supposed to have gone out to procure food, but he had become so distracted he'd forgotten entirely.
The only thing that held Bella back from a more lucrative life was her parents, who never really nurtured her gift for numbers. When Jasper was down on his luck, she never thought twice about joining him when he decided it was time to leave home. Philadelphia held nothing for them, and together they pooled their meager savings and took off in Bella's truck.
Jasper hastily shuffled all six decks together and told Bella he wanted to try something. He started flipping the cards out in the bed of the truck, telling Bella to watch carefully. She couldn't help herself as she automatically counted and memorized what was coming out. When Jasper had about a deck of cards left, he asked, "What's left?"
"Mostly low cards," Bella answered automatically. "Six and under, and maybe ten percent middle cards. Only a couple of highs left."
"Excellent," Jasper said with a smile. "Now I'm going to teach you how to play Blackjack."
Bella didn't need a fancy rulebook or a cheat card to figure out what moves to make when she was playing. Once the rules were explained, she knew implicitly what the best moves would be to make, calculating the statistics in her head. She was a natural.
Since then, they had been making a living traveling the country, stopping at casinos, cleaning up for a night or two, and then moving on. Jasper loved the rush of living day-to-day and town-to-town. Bella, on the other hand, was become increasingly frustrated with the lack of stability in their lives. Jasper was completely unaware of her feelings, but she wanted out.
Unfortunately, since the two were living completely off the grid now, Bella didn't see another way out. They had no schooling, no licenses, no birth certificates. They had no job experience and no credit. Finding an apartment would be near impossible, and neither of them was willing to return to ask their parents for help. Bella felt stuck, and for such a smart girl, even she couldn't see a way out.
As the dealer pulled the cards away and paid out winnings, Bella stacked four green chips in her circle, then made a show of taking a deep pull from her drink.
"A hundred dollars, girl?" asked Mike. "Feeling pretty confident huh?"
Bella fought the urge to scowl at him and smiled sweetly. "I'm up a little bit, I figure why the hell not?"
The count was high now, which meant that in the previous several hands, mostly low cards had been dealt. Bella knew that there was a favorable deck, and the table was about to have a run of luck- lots of high cards coming out. Bella scanned the table again as the cards were dealt. As she correctly predicted, mostly high cards were dealt. She now had two aces in front of her.
Bella cocked her head a little and narrowed her eyes at the cards, looking confused. Turning to Mike, she asked with her best clueless look, "What am I supposed to do with this again?"
"You have to split those. Always split aces," Mike answered helpfully, his chest puffing out a little. Bella made him feel important, and he was completely enchanted by her. He didn't even care that she told him she was married, because so few girls had ever really paid attention to him.
"Oh, no! I shouldn't have bet so much… now I have to put down another hundred?" Bella pretended to be uneasy about it, even though putting down more chips was exactly what she wanted to do.
"It'll be alright, girl," he said reassuringly, squeezing her thigh again, this time a little higher.
Feeling suddenly nauseous by the feeling of Mike's hand on her leg, Bella knew it was time to go. She made a show of being hesitant to throw out another hundred to split the cards. Now she had two hands to play.
The dealer moved her cards for her to show that she was splitting and dealt the next card on top of her first ace. It was a king; her first hand totaled twenty-one. Bella clapped excitedly and waited for the next card.
He dealt the next card, and it was another ace. Bella knew she could split again if she wanted, but that would mean putting out another hundred. She pretended to ponder the decision and looked at Mike for "guidance."
"Split again, girl," Mike encouraged her. "You're hot."
"My husband's going to kill me!" Bella groaned, placing another stack of green chips next to the other two.
The dealer quickly dealt out two more cards on top of the remaining aces, a queen and a nine. Twenty-one and twenty. Despite being almost certain that she would make both hands given the cards left in the shoe, Bella squealed excitedly and high-fived the other players at the table.
When the dealer finished going around the table, he turned over his own hand. He'd been showing a nine, and Bella was pretty sure he had another ten underneath it. He flipped over a king, Bella won all three of her hands. She'd put up a total of three hundred dollars and doubled it in one hand. She was already up five hundred dollars from the original two she started with. With all the high cards that came out in the last hand, the count was rapidly falling. Bella discreetly reached into her purse and hit the programmed button to dial Jasper, knowing he wouldn't be far away.
He usually stayed close, either playing at a low limit table near hers or hanging out at the bar. Sometimes he'd venture into the poker room, where he had his own natural talents. He was especially good at reading people and picking up on their emotions, but he wasn't an elite player. He didn't have enough experience yet, and Bella was always a sure thing at the tables that he didn't want to blow too much of their money.
Bella needed to get away from her table soon. Her last win didn't go unnoticed by the floorman, who was now standing behind her dealer with his arms crossed, watching closely. Bella returned her bet back to twenty-five dollars, and pretended not to notice him standing there as she continued talk excitedly with the other players as the cards continued to come out.
"Woman, what the hell are you doing?" Jasper asked angrily, coming up behind her.
Bella noticed that he was really pushing the southern accent he'd been practicing; it sounded ridiculous to her. Mike retracted his hand quickly from her thigh and made a show of counting his chips, staring at the couple from the corner of his eye.
"Umm… playing blackjack?"
"I told you to stay at a ten dollar table!" Jasper said angrily.
"They were all full!" Bella argued. "Besides, I'm up. You should have seen the last hand!"
"Get up. We're leaving," Jasper said, crossing his arms over his chest. When Bella didn't budge he grabbed her upper arm and pulled her off the stool. "Now, Marie."
Bella huffed and grabbed her purse. "Fine," she grumbled.
"Hey, buddy, you shouldn't talk to her like that," Mike said, challenging his courage. Bella was actually impressed that he had the balls to say anything. Jasper was an intimidating character. He was tall and lean, but built, and he was scarred to hell from his rough upbringing. He had a particularly nasty scar that ran from his temple to his chin, which he usually covered with his long hair, but today it was pulled back. His eyes were dark and hard, and when he wasn't smiling he looked downright scary. Bella had seen the softer side of him and knew this was just an act, but she was impressed with how well he could play the "angry husband" act.
"Mind your own fucking business," Jasper growled at Mike. "Let's go."
As Bella started to gather her chips, the dealer asked, "Want to color up?"
Bella cocked her head. "Do I want to what?"
"Color up? Give me your greens and I'll give you a few blacks so you can cash in easier."
"Oh, okay," she said, sliding her chips towards him. She had seven hundred and fifty dollars in twenty-five dollar chips. The dealer shouted, "Color seven hundred!" The floor man came up behind him and nodded his approval.
"Give me the chips and wait for me outside." Jasper said. Bella handed the seven black chips to Jasper and gave the dealer her two remaining greens as a tip. While Jasper exchanged the chips for some cash, Bella managed to grab a cab outside.
They didn't speak until they were out of the cab and outside the motel they were renting by the week. Bella shivered as soon as she was outside the heated cab, partially from the chill in the air, and partially from the unsettled feeling she got from the neighborhood. The motel they selected was cheap and in a bad neighborhood, far from the casino. Normally places that allowed for weekly rates weren't in the best of places, but Bella's take for the day was more than enough to cover the weekly rate at the seedy place, plus some. Normally in an eight or ten hour day of working a casino, Bella would expect to bring back a hundred or two. Five hundred was unusual, and so Jasper was bubbling with excitement.
As they approached their motel room door on the first floor of the two story building, Jasper noticed a couple of shady characters lingering outside a couple of doors down. He wrapped his arm protectively around Bella's waist as he pulled out the keycard to enter their room.
"Hey, baby!" one of the guys called, approaching them, stumbling a bit as he did. "When you're done in there, you can come down to 106. I pay good."
"She's not a fucking hooker," Jasper growled.
"Sure buddy, whatever you say," The guy answered with a laugh.
Jasper let go of Bella and took a step towards the clearly inebriated man, but Bella grabbed his arm and pulled him back. "Let's go," she said, not willing to let Jasper's temper get out of control. Once he was riled up, he was almost impossible to reel in.
Jasper relented and guided Bella into the room, shutting and locking the door securely behind them.
Once safely inside Bella tore her itchy blonde wig away from her hair with a scowl. She wore the wig because she found it easier to pretend to be someone else when she looked like someone else. Also, if they decided to hit the same casino again in a couple weeks, she could wear something completely different and not be recognized.
The acts and disguises weren't completely necessary. In most casinos, card counting was simply frowned upon, and the worst that could happen was that they'd be asked to leave. However, after one particularly bad experience of getting caught back in Las Vegas, they decided to be careful. They would have their roles and play their parts, then if they ever went back to the same casino in the future, they would play different roles.
Bella stripped down to her panties and threw an old t-shirt over her head. As she flopped on her side of the bed, she reached for her whiskey bottle she kept under the mattress- she always hid it, because motel maids had stolen her from in the past.
"You were great out there today," Jasper murmured, sliding in behind her on the bed. He wrapped his arm around her midsection, his calloused fingers trailing down her silky flesh. Bella immediately shrugged away from his touch. Jasper retraced as if he'd been burned, and Bella rolled her eyes.
"What the hell is your problem tonight?" Jasper asked, frustrated and rolling onto his back to stare at the cracked ceiling.
"I don't like to be touched," Bella snapped. "You know that."
"You didn't seem to have a problem with that fucking creep sitting next to you feeling you up tonight."
"The cards were hot. I didn't want to draw attention to myself."
"Whatever. You've been in a funk for the last week or so- ever since we got here. We work and come home. You've barely said a word outside the casino in days." Jasper lit a cigarette and stared at her, demanding an answer.
Bella snatched the smoke from between his lips and put it between her own. "You said you quit."
"I did," Jasper muttered, as he lit another for himself. "And you didn't answer my question."
"I'm just tired of this hick town. I'm tired of this life!" Bella exclaimed. She hadn't exactly meant to tell him like that, but she was glad it slipped out.
Jaspers eyes widened briefly, and he took a long, deep drag of his smoke. "Since when?" he asked quietly.
Bella shrugged and rose to her feet, disappearing into the bathroom with her bottle, effectively ending the conversation on her part.
When the door was firmly secured, she threw her cigarette into the sink and slid down the wall. Taking another long pull from her bottle, she tried to remember how she got there.
On the other side of the door, Jasper paced back and forth. He knew Bella wouldn't emerge any time soon, which left him to his own thoughts for a while.
And as always, his thoughts were consumed with Bella. He was completely in love with her. He had been for a long time, and since the first day he admitted it to her, he never tried to deny it, even if it was unrequited.
Jasper lived in the house across the street from her when they were kids, and it had always felt like the two of them against the world. Bella was smart- incredibly so, and as she grew up she struggled socially. She was so lost in her own thoughts most of the time that she never really developed any social skills.
Jasper took it upon himself to become her "protector", shielding her from the world, especially at school. In a neighborhood like they lived, the schools were rough, and Jasper never let Bella leave his sight. She had the book smarts and he had the street smarts. It was up to him to keep her safe, and she tried to keep him out of trouble. Bella never had friends besides him. She'd never had a boyfriend, and to Jasper's knowledge, she never really wanted one. She sort of floated along, lost in her thoughts most of the time. She was usually unaware of the world around her, which would have left her an open target if it weren't for Jasper.
Jasper knew that Bella only left Philadelphia because of him. He had to get out, and he selfishly couldn't leave without her. Not only was he in love with her, but he had managed to convince himself that she couldn't survive without him. As she got older, she became more street-smart and aware and better able to protect and care for herself. That mattered little to Jasper, though.
Now he realized that he created this life for them, and he saw his actions were causing her pain.
He felt like a failure. If only he could be a better man, give her a better life, and make something of himself, then could she one day love him back?
He knew needed a plan. He had made some connections over the past three years of their travel, and he knew what he needed to do.
Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed the number he'd been avoiding for months. He held his breath as it rang, until a gruff voice came on the other end.
Jasper swallowed hard and said, "James, its Jasper. Is your offer still good?"
End notes: I'm a little nervous about this one since it's new and all, and it's going to be much different from my other stories. Please take a sec to let me know what you think!
As far as updates, I'm planning on updating weekly for now, on Saturday or Sunday. There will probably be more frequent updates as I get further into the story. Thanks for reading, and see you next week!