KENDRA HENDERSON
CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE
THE BILLIONAIRE'S LOVE GAMBLE
Digging into the mysterious funding source for the Floating Tiger casino in Macau, investigative reporter Chloe Dell finds herself on the run from a deadly local gang with the tough, smouldering casino CEO Edward Steel.

Fleeing for their lives, the casino billionaire and the investigative reporter find themselves flung together, in a variety of encounters where not just their bodies but their hearts are put in serious jeopardy...

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CHAPTER ONE

It was only six o'clock in the morning, but even at such an early hour, the casino floor already clamoured with activity.

The slots floor of the Floating Tiger casino was a rainbow of flashing lights. The cacophony of hundreds of fruit machines, simultaneously being given a vigorous workout, filled the air. They rang and beeped and played their high-pitched electronic tunes as eager gamblers popped coins into their ever-hungry slots and yanked their levers in the hope of a sudden, unexpected windfall from the notoriously capricious gambling gods.

Like an emperor travelling his kingdom, Edward Steel strode across the casino floor and the half-dozen members of his executive team hurried after him, struggling to match his determined pace.

"The security report for last week?" he prompted the man hurrying along beside him, who was visibly perspiring as he attempted to keep up.

“Card counting is down”, the man replied. “We detected only three incidents last week. Two loners and one team of three. They were up about nine thousand dollars in total before we caught them and threw them out.”

“Which means the counters are getting better at flying under the radar or...”

“They've finally realised they can't get away with it in our establishment.”

Edward scoffed. “I can't believe they've actually decided to begin avoiding the most popular casino in Macau. It sounds too good to be true. And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't. Reprocess all the card hand data again with some additional checks for suspicious betting patterns. Focus on coordination between players. I've got a sneaking suspicion that some of these card counting teams are managing to successfully evade our detection software. And that's going to hit our bottom line.”

The head of security nodded and hurried off to carry out his boss's orders.

“Catering?” asked Edward.

Another man moved up beside the CEO. Thinner, in better shape than the head of security, the head of catering kept pace with his boss a lot more easily.

“Current supply levels are good, with a single exception.”

“Go on”, said Edward.

“Whiskey levels, unfortunately, are at an all-time low.”

Edward's voice grew cold. “We can't run a casino without liquor. How do you propose to rectify this situation?”

The head of catering swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. “I've been...looking into alternate sources. I believe I may have found another reliable supplier.”

“Don't just look into it”, said Edward, in a derisive tone. “Make it happen.”

The head of catering nodded eagerly. “Of course, Mr Steel. I'll see to it right away.”

“See that you do”, said Edward, turning towards his next executive for another report on another casino department.

And so it went. Every morning, without fail, Edward Steel stalked the numerous floors of his immense casino, received reports from the half-dozen executives below him and pointed out anything he noticed which required immediate rectification. Steel's early morning prowl had by now become so notorious that almost every casino employee took particular care to ensure that nothing was out of place during that crucial hour, when the unforgiving eyes of the boss roamed everywhere and missed nothing.

Finally, they arrived at the traditional endpoint of their morning patrol; the lift which carried casino guests to their rooms in the hotel above the gambling floors. Above the guest rooms, at the very top, lay Edward's offices and personal penthouse suite.

“So, do we have anything important scheduled for today?” he asked.

Maria, his executive assistant, studied the small tablet nestled in the crook of her arm. “Mr Lanto wishes to see you for lunch", she informed him.

Steel's eyes widened in alarm. "Feng Lanto?" he asked, unable to disguise his alarm.

Maria shook her head. "Dai Lanto", she replied, in a low voice.

“Leave us”, Edward ordered the others. “Now.”

With an abundance of deferential nods, the entire casino management team departed, leaving Edward and Maria standing alone by the lift.

With his executives no longer keenly studying his every expression for some insight into his current mood, Steel let his bold, confident facade drop. He sighed heavily. A meeting with Dai Lanto, Feng Lanto's son, was just what he needed to make his day go down the pan in a rush. Feng Lanto was the boss of the largest chinese mafia gang in Macau. A previously ruthless gang leader who had mellowed with age, he liked to ensure that businesses in Macau ran smoothly in order to maximise the return on his investments. His investments were, inevitably, shares that had been extorted from businesses over several years, when those businesses had proved reluctant or unable to pay the protection money required to prevent a post-midnight firebombing or another form of gang-enabled sabotage.

Feng Lanto - a notorious bon vivant, who liked to be seen in the best clubs and restaurants around the city - had been venturing out a lot less of late. When he did, he appeared pale and unwell. In just a few weeks, he also seemed to have lost a significant amount of weight. Rumours that he had developed cancer or contracted some other deadly malaise now abounded.

It was a worrying development. Despite his penchant for extortion, Feng Lanto had been a steady hand for local business, ensuring that the amount of extortion was kept to a sane level. He also helped mediate disputes between local business owners and gang members when major violence threatened to erupt. Now that it appeared that Feng's steady hand might no longer guide the course of local commerce for much longer, every major business in Macau found itself navigating uncertain waters, with treacherous submerged rocks and the ever-present threat of a major incoming storm.

The incipient power vacuum that would undoubtedly follow Feng Lanto's passing was something that kept the owner of every major business in Macau awake late at night.

Edward couldn't think of anything he wanted to do less than conduct a meeting with Dai Lanto. He also knew there was no way to avoid it without insulting the young man's honour; something that would almost instantly place the future viability of the Floating Tiger casino as a profitable business in serious jeopardy.

"Inform Dai Lanto that I can fit him in for one o'clock in the Lantern High", said Edward. The Floating Tiger casino complex boasted five different restaurants. The Lantern High, with its fine ocean and downtown views, was the most refined; a favourite for high-flying executives dining out with their wives or mistresses and flush gangsters wishing to impress their girlfriends.

Maria nodded, quickly and efficiently tapping the screen of her tablet to record Edward's instructions.

Edward turned to leave, then froze as Maria's low, yet urgent voice summoned him back.

“There's one more thing, Mr Steel.”

He sighed, then turned back to face his assistant. “Tell me it's something better than the Lanto meeting.”

Maria shook her head. “I'm sorry. It's more bad news, but perhaps more manageable than Mr Lanto. The journalist who was attempting to dig up a story about the alleged connection between the Floating Tiger casino and Chinese mafia activities in Macau. She's requested a meeting. A personal meeting, with yourself.”

Edward shook his head. “Under no circumstances do I want to encounter that persistent young lady. She doesn't realise she's swimming in a pool full of sharks. Any meeting we conduct could be perilous for both of us.”

A worried look crossed Maria's face. “She claims to possess documentary evidence supporting her suspicions. She has also stated, in the email, that she's almost ready to publish her findings. She says she's offering you a one time opportunity to refute the allegations. To put across your side of the story.”

Edward swore under his breath. “Just when I thought my day couldn't get any better”, he muttered. “Okay, then. When am I free today?”

Maria studied her tablet. “You're not meeting anyone for dinner tonight.”

“Great”, said Edward. “Pencil her in for dinner at seven o'clock.” He laughed grimly. “Can't say it'll help my digestion. Hopefully she'll choke on her steak and that'll solve another one of my problems.”

“Yes, sir”, Maria replied, tapping on her tablet as she walked off towards her office.

Edward rode the elevator to his office, high above the casino. When he emerged from the lift, he wandered across the wide, marble floor to the tall windows to enjoy the marvellous view.

Here, along the waterfront, a number of impressive casinos stood facing the ocean. None of them were as large or successful as the Floating Tiger. Over the past ten years, Edward had grown his business from nothing to the greatest, most impressive gambling operation in Macau. The magnificent view he now enjoyed, from his immense office suite on the fiftieth floor of the hotel, was a constant reminder of just how far he had come over the past decade.

The climb to the top hadn't been easy. At only twenty years old, Edward had teamed up with some prominent Chinese mafia figures to organise a series of illegal poker games for high rollers in various hotel suites around Macau. Later, he'd begun his own poker operation, organising the games himself. Soon after that, when he'd earned enough money to invest in his first major business venture and obtained some external investment, he'd bought a local casino, the Floating Tiger.

The casino was a wreck when he purchased it. Neglected by its former owners, it was little more than a broken shell of a building. But Edward had a lot of ambition and even then – with its walls crumbling and its ceilings fallen through - he'd seen its potential. Fixed up, with the right kind of management and investment, with excellent marketing, the Floating Tiger had the potential to attract all of the tourist wealth that flooded into Macau, both from China and abroad.

Edward had spent months frantically networking, attending every business convention and meetup he could wrangle an invitation to, in the hope of attracting an investor who shared his passion, his vision for what the newly rebuilt and reopened Floating Tiger casino could be. He had pitched to dozens of businessmen and potential investors, all to no avail.

Finally, in desperation at the lack of vision displayed by every investor he had approached, Edward had reached out to some of his former associates from his poker game days. The only person in Macau capable of writing such a large cheque that he knew personally was Feng Lanto, the head of the local chinese mafia.

So it was to Feng Lanto that he went. And Feng Lanto had written the cheque, but at a heavy price. In return for providing Edward with enough money to rebuild the casino and get it back up and running, Feng would take a forty-nine percent stake in the business. He would also require fifty percent of the net profits, each and every month that the casino was operational.

Despite the stringent conditions, Edward had accepted the deal, shaking hands with the old gangster over a tense dinner in a top restaurant that Feng Lanto owned. And afterwards, when the casino was finally up and running, he had worked hard, day and night, to make it a success. And now, ten years later, it was throwing off a handsome profit. His fifty-one percent share had made Edward a billionaire. Feng Lanto's share of the monthly net profits from the business had repaid his original investment many times over and his forty-nine percent share had also enabled Feng Lanto to join the three comma club; the select group of businessmen in possession of a bank balance that ran to ten figures.

Now, with the casino running relatively smoothly, providing a steady, reliable monthly profit for them both to enjoy, Edward should have been easing back, reducing his customary fourteen hour day, six or seven days a week. But he hadn't been able to shake the uneasy suspicion that - the moment he allowed himself to relax - disaster would inevitably strike.

Now, as he stared out of the windows and pondered his upcoming meeting with Dai Lanto, Feng Lanto's son, Edward wondered if this was the very peril he had feared, through all the tough years he had worked to make the casino a success.

Lately, as his father had grown increasingly frail, Dai Lanto had been assuming control of more and more of his father's duties. He'd also been increasing the size of the protection payments demanded. Several other business owners on the island had contacted Edward regarding the increased payments, telling him that the now ridiculous size of the extortion was going to put them out of business.

With his father ailing and the Chinese mafia captains directly beneath him jockeying for position, in preparation for the upcoming power vacuum, Dai Lanto seemed determined to ensure his position as heir apparent remained unchallenged. To this end, he had embarked on a series of ventures to prove himself to the captains who reported directly to his father. Increased protection payments were only one move he had made to cement his reputation as a ruthless hardman in the same mould as his father. It was rumoured that he had also extended the gang's smuggling operations, brokering deals with the Russian mafia and other foreign gangs in order to increase the sizable profits that came with smuggling fake designer goods and other illicit goods into the country.

In his short tenure as his father's temporary replacement, Dai Lanto had already extended some of the organisation's illegal activities. Now that his father's long reign appeared to be coming to an end, he was poised to take over the entire operation.

The meeting with Dai Lanto, Edward realised, would have to be handled with great care. If the Floating Tiger casino was going to have a viable future, Edward would have to find a way to deal with the young upstart who would soon control almost all of the illegal activity in Macau.

He raked his fingers through his hair and sighed. Today, with such a serious threat to divert, he couldn't even take pleasure in the view from his office, the one thing that always lifted his spirits whenever he returned to his private bolthole above the casino.

Preoccupied with the problems facing him in the day ahead, Edward turned his back on the view and strode to his desk to get some work done.

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