"It'll be great," Cal said as he followed Gillian out to her car. He'd been waiting just outside her office door, hands tucked deep into his pockets since he'd clearly been in too much of a rush to grab his coat. Prospective trips to Vegas did that to him. "Think of it as moral support," he added entreatingly.
Gillian quickly translated "moral support" to "roulette". "How did you find out about the conference, anyway?"
"Little bird told me," he said blithely. Gillian lifted an eyebrow. "Fine, I saw the reservations on your desk last night while you were in the loo."
Gillian unlocked her car and tossed her briefcase inside. "You know, you can go to Vegas any time you want."
"It's not as much fun alone, you know that." He smiled in a way that was clearly supposed to be winsome and charming.
Unfortunately, Gillian had never been immune to that smile and with Alec currently... away... and unable to use the ticket she'd bought for him, she had to admit that the idea of having some moral support was an appealing one. "I only have the one room," she pointed out.
Cal beamed. "That's all right, luv. I'm sure there'll be a sofa. Everyone knows the psychology conferences are posh."
Actually, there was a couch, but only because Gillian had paid extra for the upgrade when Alec had agreed to go. Not that Cal needed to know that.
"Zoe's okay with this?" she checked.
"Practically booted me out the door," Cal said. "She and Emily are having a girls' weekend. Frippery and makeup. Best if I'm not there."
Gillian smothered a grin. "What about the DoD?" she asked, in a last-ditch attempt to talk reason into at least one of them. "I don't think you're supposed to just up and disappear on your job."
Cal shrugged negligently. "Not like I'd be the only one taking a three-day weekend. 'Sides, they aren't particularly interested in what I have to say."
Those last words were the most bitter Cal had ever allowed himself to be about his job, no matter how much they both knew he loathed the Department of Defense and their attitude towards Cal's science. Still, this wasn't the time or the place, not with Cal shifting from foot to foot to warm himself up and with Gillian still trying to recover her equilibrium after Alec's departure two days before. "Fine," Gillian said with a sigh. "But you're buying me dinner. A nice one."
"Any restaurant in town," he promised with a smile. "Your pick."
Gillian shook her head made a mental note to insist on dinner on the first night -- before Cal had a chance to hit the roulette wheel.
Cal slept on the flight or, at the very least, did a remarkably good facsimile of sleep. Gilliam was grateful for the silence; she didn't think she was up for a talk about Alec, no matter how comforting Cal tried to be. Especially since they both knew exactly what Cal thought of Alec, though he'd never stated his opinion out loud.
There was a limo waiting for them at the airport. Cal took in the bottle of champagne and box of chocolates that were waiting inside the car and stared at Gillian. She, in turn, stared out the window, willing herself not to blush.
The conference was at the Venetian, which was one of only two casino hotels that Gillian would ever voluntarily stay at, and she'd gone all out when booking the room. Cal whistled as he took in the vast space, from the sunken living room to the open bedroom beyond, with the floor to ceiling windows that looked down on the Strip. "Nice," he said.
"Thanks," Gillian said, frowning at the two loveseats that sat in the corner of the living room. Cal wasn't a tall man, but she couldn't quite imagine either one of those couches being at all comfortable for sleeping.
"Well, I'm off to make some spending money," Cal added brightly, already heading for the door.
Gillian just shook her head. So much for moral support. "Dinner!" she reminded him.
"Meet you here at seven," he called back and shut the door behind him.
Gillian sighed and opened up her bag for a jacket to go over her dress. Might as well get registered.
Registration went well enough, and Gillian enjoyed the meet and greet. She hadn't had as many opportunities to meet new colleagues since she'd gotten married. Still, no matter how much she threw herself into socializing, she couldn't completely forget the fact that she was supposed to have Alec at her side, cheerfully schmoozing and charming and generally livening up the room as a whole. Alec had always been good at parties.
Making matters worse was the banner overhead, one that she'd carefully positioned outside of her line of sight, though it was much harder to put it outside her line of thought. Behavioral Health and Addictive Disorders Conference it read. Maybe someday she could appreciate the irony inherent in her choosing this conference as the one to help her and Alec over their rough patch, but not today.
Between the banner and the might-have-beens, Gillian was more than happy to make her excuses for missing the nightly show and dinner buffet, and it was with a sense of relief that she headed back up to her room. She was surprised to find Cal already there, waiting for her.
"Having a nice time?" he asked.
"It was okay," she said brightly, and it was only half a lie. Usually Cal wouldn't call her on those. "You?" she added as she went into the bathroom to touch up her makeup and change into a less boring dress.
"Got my spending money," Cal said, loud enough to be heard through the slightly open bathroom door. "I swear, poker players are getting worse every year."
Gillian didn't bother to give the obvious response, instead replying, "Just don't get yourself thrown out this time. I like this hotel."
"It's not my fault I'm good at poker," Cal said defensively. "Not even my game."
Gillian grinned as she pulled her dress up. The zipper tab on this one was ridiculously tiny and she only gave it a couple of tries before calling, "Come zip me up."
Cal was still muttering about boring games and boring players as he entered the bathroom. Gillian held her dress in place as Cal carefully zipped it up, then stepped back to get the full effect. The dress was a simple sheath, but it was in Gillian's favorite dark pink, the one that heightened her natural coloring and just made her feel beautiful. "Very nice," he said, and Gillian felt a flush of pleasure at the blatant appreciation in his voice. "Come on, luv," he said, crooking out his elbow. "Dinner awaits."
Gillian smiled and hooked her arm in his; enjoying his warmth along her side, she allowed him to escort her out of the room.
They ate at Bouchon, which Gillian picked because it was one of the few places where she could dress up to the nines and Cal could get away with not wearing a tie. Cal had the Croque Madame without the ham and Gillian had the roasted lamb. Both were exquisite, though Cal protested when Gillian stole a bite of his fancy grilled cheese sandwich. He took his revenge on her dark chocolate mousse, eating several bites while she was still savoring her first spoonful. Gillian just laughed, passed him the mousse, and ordered a caramel custard for herself. It was divine.
They talked as they ate, using the opportunity to catch up with each other's lives. "I enjoy having my own practice," Gillian said as she played with the last bit of her custard. She was full, but the custard was just so good that she ate another bite. "But it is a bit mundane at times. Most of my clients just want someone to validate them."
Cal snorted. "At least your clients listen to you. If I have to hear one 'limey' joke..."
Gillian raised her eyebrows. "Limey?"
"One of the secretaries is a fan of the movie," Cal said dismissively. "The rest think it's an insult."
"Ah," Gillian said wisely. "Apparently they don't realize that all British insults are based on sex." Cal narrowed his eyes at her. She just smiled back beatifically.
"Not the point anyway," he said. "They can call me whatever they want as long as they'd just listen to me. But they don't want to hear what I have to say. They don't want to hear that they've got innocent people locked up. They don't want to hear that just because a man has brown skin and calls his god a different name doesn't mean that he had anything to do with 9-11."
Gillian reached out to cover Cal's hand, which was clenched in a fist next to the mousse dish. "It's been less than a year," she said gently. "Emotions are still running high."
"I'm sure that's a comfort to the General's prisoners," Cal said flatly, though Gillian noticed that he didn't pull his hand away. He sighed. "Ah, luv. I'm just tired of working for governments. British, American -- they're all the same. Bunch of bloody wankers."
Gilliam leaned forward and squeezed his hand. "See, I told you so," she said. He frowned a little in confusion. "Insults. Sex. Can't have one without the other."
As she'd hoped, Cal laughed despite himself. Smiling complacently, she used her free hand to steal the last of his mousse.
That night, Cal managed to squeeze himself on the couch, but twice during the night Gillian woke up to the thumping sound of a body landing on the floor. Finally, around three, she ordered Cal into the bed. He crawled under the covers, grumbled for a bit, and was asleep before Gillian even managed to get comfortable under the readjusted blankets.
The first session of the conference was "Secret Truths: Identifying Hidden Addictions". Gillian managed not to storm out of the room or break down in tears, but at the end of the session she retreated back to her room to pull herself together before facing the afternoon panels.
The first thing she noticed when entering the room was a medium-sized white box sitting on the coffee table. The top was elegantly embossed in gold with JP. Curious, and just a bit nervous, Gillian carefully lifted the lid...
...and gasped in delight. The box was full of tiny cakes and delicate cookies. Tucked in one corner were a pair of chocolate-dipped strawberries, and Gillian immediately picked up one of them, blissfully breathing in its fragrance before sinking her teeth through the fragile chocolate shell and into the tender fruit within. A burst of juice filled her mouth and she moaned in pleasure as the flavors blended into a sweet, splendid perfection.
"Should I come back later?"
Gillian twisted around to see Cal smirking from the doorway. "Sounds like you two would like to be alone," he said smugly.
She smiled at him. "These are wonderful, Cal. Thank you."
He shrugged, but she could tell he was pleased. "How'd the first session go?"
She wrinkled her nose and set aside the rest of the fruit. "Could've been worse."
Cal didn't look impressed, but he merely said, "Care to spot me lunch?"
"Ran out of money already?" Gillian asked. "It's just been a couple of hours."
"What can I say?" Cal said with a shrug. "Luck hasn't been with me. I'll make it up after I eat."
He undoubtedly would. Just like he would undoubtedly lose every penny he made a few hours later on the roulette wheel.
Still, Cal was an adult and she was neither his mother nor his wife, so she just said, "How about Italian?"
Cal smiled, and Gillian knew she wasn't imagining the hint of relief on his face.
They had a delightful lunch at Enoteca San Marcos, where they amicably shared cauliflower rigatoni and tomato and ricotta penne and fought over the gelato and sorbet desserts. "You'll teeth'll rot if you keep eating like that," Cal said and took advantage of Gillian's spluttering to steal the apple pie sorbet. Gillian pretended to glare at him, but she couldn't find it in herself to complain when that meant she could claim the rest of the dark chocolate and almond gelato for herself.
Unlike dinner, they managed to keep the conversation light, with Cal providing anecdotes about his earlier poker games and Gillian contributing a few off-the-cuff analyses of the people sitting in the surrounding tables. By the end they were both playing "what's that emotion", and while Cal won as he always did, Gillian took pride in the fact that she was getting good enough to provide at least a bit of a challenge.
Batteries recharged, Gillian managed to walk into the afternoon sessions with her head held high and her professional face firmly in place. The sessions were on anxiety disorders and cybersex addiction, both of which were fascinating and non-threatening, and by the end Gillian was starting to think that she actually might get something useful out of this conference.
At which point she went to her room to find Cal sitting on the couch and looking glum.
"Don't tell me," Gillian said. "They kicked you out already?"
"Apparently I was playing a whale. Can't imagine he's not used to losing, though -- he's nothing but tells." Gillian just crossed her arms and stared at him pointedly. "It's okay," he protested. "They said I could stay in the hotel, as long as I don't gamble in the casino."
Gillian just threw up her hands and headed for the bakery box.
There was a bit of awkwardness that night as Cal laid out a blanket on the couch as if he actually intended to sleep there. Gillian just rolled her eyes and snatched the blanket right back up again. "We've already shared the bed once," she pointed out.
"Very true," Cal said and, no more awkwardness in sight, climbed into the bed and made himself comfortable.
Gillian huffed out a soft laugh and crawled in on the other side. "At least there's just one more day," she said. "You won't have time to get bored."
"Course not," Cal said. "There's still a few casinos I haven't been kicked out of yet. I think I'll try Nouveau Royal tomorrow."
Gillian groaned and turned off the lights. She fell asleep to the sound of Cal's breathing.
The next morning ("Ethics and Boundary Issues for Clinicians" and "The Science of Happiness") flew by and Gillian went upstairs to pack before walking down to the Nouveau Royal and heading straight for the roulette tables. Sure enough, Cal was sitting there, a massive pile of chips in front of him and several thousand dollars sitting on double zero.
Gillian sat down next to him. "You know, just because statistics say that the ball will eventually land on double zero, that doesn't mean it'll ever happen in your lifetime."
Cal just grunted and stared at the wheel as the croupier set the ball spinning. A minute later it started bouncing, eventually landing in 23. Cal didn't say anything, just started counting out chips as the croupier swept the old chips into a hole in the table.
"Hey!" came a furious voice from just behind them. "What are you doing here?"
Gillian blinked and turned to see a man standing behind them. A tall man, well dressed, and very, very angry. He was flanked by two beefy security guys. "Really, Cal?" she murmured. "Already?"
"How was I supposed to know he was Hugh Ellis?" Cal asked, loud enough for the man to hear. "You'd think a casino owner would be better at poker. And I swear I didn't that woman was his wife. Besides, she bought me the drink!"
Gillian wanted to groan, but put on a sparkling smile instead as she turned to face Ellis, Cal doing the same next to her, sans smile.
"I thought I told you to get the hell out of my casino," Ellis snarled.
"No," Cal said in that smart-ass tone he always used when deliberately pissing people off. "You said I couldn't gamble in your casino, and I'm not."
"Then who do those belong to?" Ellis retorted, pointing at the chips.
"Foster," Cal said, jerking his head in Gillian's direction. "She's a big fan of roulette."
Mentally, Gillian promised herself that she could kick Cal's ass as soon as they were alone. For now, she made her smile just a bit bigger and said, "I've never played any other game."
"If you're with him, you're leaving," Ellis. "He's not welcome here."
"Tell you what," Cal said. Gillian tensed, but did her best to hide it. "We've got to leave in half an hour anyway. Why don't you let her have one more spin? All or nothing."
Forget his ass, Gillian decided as Ellis eyed her with suspicious eyes. She was going to kick Cal someplace a lot more painful.
"Fine," Ellis said. "One spin. Pick a number."
"Double-" Cal started.
"Thirteen," Gillian cut in. Cal gave her a betrayed look. Gillian ignored it.
"All on thirteen," the courier said, placing a single chip on the spot to mark it, which made sense as no stacking in the world would make Cal's pile of chips fit on that spot. "No more bets."
Without fanfare, he flipped the ball into the wheel.
Six pairs of eyes locked on to the small white marble as it wound around and around the wheel, the tension ratcheting up with every pass until Gillian forgot to breathe entirely. The ball bounced once--
--fell into double zero (Gillian just about had a heart attack)--
--then bounced out once more.
To land on thirteen.
Gillian couldn't help it; she squealed and threw her arms around Cal. Cal hugged her back just as tightly, though she could hear his discontented mutterings about double zero. She ignored them with the ease of long experience.
"Get them their winnings and get them out of here," Ellis said as they separated. He looked like he'd just sucked on a lemon. "And Lightman? Don't ever show your face in Vegas again."
Gillian just laughed and hugged Cal again.
There was no way they were carrying that much money on the plane, so they had to find a bank before they could go to the airport. They had a bit of a squabble over who it belonged to -- Gillian kept insisting that it was Cal's money in the first place, while he kept insisting that she was the one who'd played it. Finally -- and rather suddenly, Gillian thought -- Cal agreed to put the funds in his own account.
All the way from the bank to the airport, through the security line and the waiting area and finally onto the plane, Cal had a thoughtful look on his face. By the time the plane started to take off, Gillian was starting to get a bit nervous.
"You okay?" she asked once they reached cruising altitude.
"Yeah, yeah," Cal said. "Just thinking."
He turned to her, his eyes alight in a way she hadn't seen since they first met in college all those years ago, when he'd first told her about the science of microexpressions. "Fo-- Gillian. What would you think about starting a business?"
Gillian frowned. "I have a business."
"No," Cal said. "Not a clinical practice. Not a place where people talk to you and tell you lies. Something new, something that the world hasn't even seen before. Something that the world truly needs."
"Like what?" Gillian asked suspiciously.
"Something like an agency of truth," he said, and the words would've sounded ridiculous if his belief in them wasn't so obvious. "Think about it: my ability to read faces, your ability to interpret behavior... there's no way they could hide the truth from us. And people need that truth, Foster. People will pay for it, I know they will."
"And if the business takes off, the study of microexpressions will gain legitimacy as a science," Gillian interpreted.
Cal shrugged and didn't try to deny it.
"We'll need start-up funds," she said.
"As it happens, I just came into a lot of money," Cal said wryly. A bit more seriously, he added, "And it's just as much your money as mine. We'd be partners in this, Foster. Full partners."
His enthusiasm was catching and Gilliam wanted to say yes right then and there. Cal was right, a business based around the idea of truth was a wonderful idea. At the same time, she couldn't make a decision that big without talking to Alec. It wouldn't be fair. Or smart.
Then again, Alec was in rehab and it wasn't fair or smart that he'd blown most of their savings on cocaine. And if Gillian were honest with herself, she wasn't happy with her practical job or her mundane clients or her environmentally sound car or the good investment that was her house. They were all safe, yes, but they were also stifling and more than a little boring. Not to mention the way the last few days had demonstrated just how uncertain that safety was.
Gillian didn't want to play it safe anymore. She wanted to take a risk, to try something new.
To take a leap of faith.
What the hell.
"Yes," she said, and she reached out to grip Cal's hand in her own.