BEN GAZED out over the Place du Casino in Monte Carlo from his table on the terrace at the Café de Paris. Even seeing it right before his eyes, with the taste of gourmet ice cream in his mouth and the promise of a heart-attack-inducing bill to come, he still couldn’t quite believe he was there. But then, it had been like that in every place he’d visited so far. His European Odyssey, as his BFF called it, was like a living dream, despite having been in progress for nearly three months already. He’d made his way through the UK and Ireland, France, Spain, and Portugal. Italy was next, but first he was taking a precious week to just loll around in the land of the idle rich.
It had always seemed a symbol of the ultimate luxury to Ben. Even before he’d gone to work for Mrs. K., he’d lingered over tales of the glamorous principality, although he’d never planned to visit. No, his travel had always been closer to home, and when he’d dreamed of something farther afield, it was always of a more “sensible” locale than Monaco—somewhere he could combine a great deal of sightseeing with more lazy pursuits, and stick to a narrow budget.
He didn’t have to concern himself with that anymore.
As the May sun sank farther and twilight descended on the city, he scraped up the last melted bits of his dessert, then licked it off the spoon with blissful slowness. Never had he imagined he would ever pay quite so much for ice cream, but wow, what ice cream! He’d actually embarrassed himself in his enjoyment of it, moaning over the first few spoonfuls in a way that had attracted attention from passersby. He hadn’t quite been able to bring himself to eat an entire meal at the Café de Paris, not when the cost of one dinner would have covered his weekly food budget at home, but he was content to pay the price for dessert and people watching—hence his choice of a table right by the road. From there, he could see both the rest of the café and its diners, and the people strolling the square, visiting the casinos and the Hotel de Paris across from the café, or simply taking in the old-world grandeur and snapping photos. So far by his count, Monte Carlo was pretty evenly balanced between tourists and old men with much younger female companions. He wondered idly where the old men who wanted much younger male companions were. Not that he was interested in being a gigolo to a rich man, but it would be nice to know the opportunity existed.
He snorted, causing the couple at the next table to glance disdainfully at him—again. He wasn’t exactly gigolo material. Gigolos usually gave a damn about their appearance for one thing, and Ben had given up caring how he looked in nursing school. Nowadays, he only just took the time to wash his face and make sure his always-wayward short dark hair wasn’t sticking up too badly. His habit of shopping in thrift and discount stores and then wearing his clothes until they were about to fall apart probably didn’t give him the perfectly put-together look he imagined gigolos aimed for, either. In fact, he really needed to replace the battered runners that were his current “casual” shoes. One was worn to the point that his toe, on the verge of popping through for weeks, had finally made an appearance, and he’d garnered quite a few askance looks over the past week. No way was he buying new shoes in any of the shops he’d seen in Monaco so far, though. It would have to wait until Italy—he could probably find a street market somewhere.
The lights came on around the square, and he finally got to see what he’d been waiting for, what Mrs. K. had spoken about with such a wistful tone and a far-off gleam in her eye. She hadn’t been wrong—the facade of the “old” casino did glow warmly. As he gazed around, he noticed that while he’d been lost in thought about gigolos, there had been a subtle change in the populace of the square. He could still pick the “tourists” like him, but even they were more dressed up and had put their cameras away. More, now, were those who wanted to see and be seen, and those who considered the city their personal playground. Even his untutored eye could spot the expensive designer clothes and real jewels—not to mention the high-end vehicles, keys casually tossed to the casino valets as their owners strolled inside.
A group of men in front of the Hotel de Paris caught his eye, and his breath stopped in his chest. They walked—no, strode—boldly toward the casino, their arrogance almost a palpable thing. People moved out of their way, whether consciously or not. All five were big men, all dressed in dark trousers and blazers, all but one dark-haired and dark-skinned, but one man stood head and shoulders above—
Well, no, he doesn’t. Ben chided himself for being fanciful. The man in question was actually not the tallest in the group; two others were slightly taller. They all had to be at least six feet, though, which made them giants beside his own five foot eight, even if they hadn’t also been well-built. But the not-tallest one… his height didn’t matter. If he’d been five feet, he still would have walked the same way, as though he owned the square, the principality, and possibly part of France too.
And all the people who lived there were his slaves, existing purely to serve his pleasure.
Stop. Ben shook his head. He wasn’t usually so imaginative. Still, he couldn’t help but stare as the group came to a stop at the steps of the casino. Just the way the man moved made Ben’s dick beg for attention. He hadn’t had a reaction like that to a fully dressed stranger since he was a teenager. Something about the not-tallest man made Ben want to throw himself at him and plead shamelessly to be fucked.
Which was stupid. He’d rarely ever had sex with hot strangers. Or any strangers, for that matter.
One of the men opened a satchel Ben hadn’t noticed and handed something—a wallet?—to him, the not-tallest man, who put it in his inside breast pocket. What a dick. Couldn’t even carry his own wallet. Ben had run into a lot of men like that during his trip, what with staying at the best hotels for once, and they’d all looked at him as though he was something unpleasant they’d stepped in, even though none of them seemed to do anything productive with their lives.
The man with the satchel and the blond one turned and walked back toward the hotel while the other three went up the steps to the casino. The doormen scrambled to get the doors, and even from such a distance, Ben saw the way they greeted the not-tallest man, the deference they showed.
His imagination went wild.
Who was this man with such commanding presence? Why didn’t he carry his own wallet? Was he so rich and spoiled that carrying his own belongings was beneath him? Nobility, perhaps, or even royalty? This was Europe after all. Or maybe he was part of a criminal organization, and the satchel guy was his lackey? Ben had heard a lot lately about the activities of the Albanian mafia, and this guy’s coloring fit.
More important than anything else… what did he actually look like? From where Ben sat, with distance and the shadows of night hindering him, he’d been unable to make out the man clearly. But someone with so much raw sex appeal in just his bearing had to be attractive… right? There had to be some reason people were so deferential on sight, why he so clearly expected that treatment. Why Ben’s hormones wanted him to smear honey all over him and lick it off.
He had to find out.
Galvanized into action, he flagged down his waitress—who looked affronted by his urgency and unsubtle gestures—and paid his bill before striding toward the casino. Well… trying to stride. In reality, he nearly walked into one of the bollards protecting the valet parking spaces, and then staggered awkwardly in an attempt to regain his balance. There were titters, but when he finally was able to look up, nobody seemed to be paying him any attention. Face flaming, he marched determinedly onward. He had to see the not-tallest man up close. Had to get a better idea of who he could be, why people scrambled to let him pass.
The first real hurdle came at the entrance to the casino. Rather than open the door, the doormen cast disparaging gazes over him.
He reached for the door handle. After all, he was a grown man, right? He could open a door by himself.
One of the uniformed doormen sidled sideways, blocking him. Ben blinked, but before he could say anything, the man spoke.
Ben winced. He’d taken Italian in school, and that had firmly established that languages were something he’d never be good at. His knowledge of French was limited to bonjour, s’il vous plaît, merci, anglais, and croissant. He’d been relying heavily on gestures, big smiles, and his phrase book…, which he’d left at his hotel because he’d been assured that everyone spoke English in Monaco.
“Ah… do you speak anglais?” he tried, pairing the words with his biggest smile. The doormen exchanged glances, and it seemed the look for this guy is a total dumbarse transcended language. One of them opened the door a tiny bit and slipped inside. Ben stood staring at the other one, who was still blocking his way. The casino was open to the public; he knew it was. There was a small fee to go into the gaming rooms, but it was free to stand in the foyer and gawk at the architecture, so he shouldn’t have to pay at the door. He had the right to go into the casino, damn it, just like all the rich bastards he’d watched enter already.
Crap, he needed a translator.
Maybe he could use Google Translate? Even if he couldn’t pronounce the words, he could let the other man read them off the screen. He was fumbling in his pocket for his phone when the door opened again—wider this time—and the other doorman came back out, accompanied by a man in a black suit.
“Good evening,” the man said with a French accent, smiling politely.
“You speak English,” Ben exclaimed in relief. “That’s so good, because I was about to try using Google Translate, and I’m pretty sure nothing good was going to come of it.”
The man’s smile wavered slightly, and Ben immediately felt like a dork. What was wrong with his stupid brain-mouth filter?
He drew himself up… and was still two inches shorter than Suit Man.
“I wish to enter the casino,” he declared, then tried to hide a wince at how pompous he sounded.
The man nodded. “Yes, and we would love to have you as our guest. But you see, we have a dress code at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Shorts and trainers are strictly forbidden.”
Ben blinked. Had they lost something in translation? Trainers? Like, personal trainers? Why would they forbid— Something he’d heard in England clicked in his brain. “Oh, you mean runners.” He looked down at himself. Yep, he was wearing both shorts and runners, thereby well and truly violating the dress code.
He could go back to his hotel and change. Total walking time would be barely five minutes, less if not for that damn hill. But it seemed silly to go back to his hotel to change clothes, then come back to the casino… just so he could look at a man he didn’t know. This whole thing was kind of silly, really. He was a levelheaded guy, sensible—he was a nurse, for God’s sake. His last boyfriend had accused him of having no imagination, no creativity whatsoever. Why did he care that some random probably hot guy acted like a god deigning to mingle with mere mortals?
“Perhaps sir would like to visit the Casino Café de Paris?” Suit Man said smoothly. “There is no dress code there. I’m sure you would be more comfortable.” Although his words were perfectly polite, there was just a hint of disdain in his gaze that made Ben’s mind up.
Silly was the way to go.