Aces Up


Seventeen-year-old high school senior Shannon Card needs money. And lots of it. She’s been admitted to Wellesley, but her dad just lost his job, and somehow she has to come up with a year of tuition herself. But Shannon’s dream of making big bucks waitressing at the local casino, the Collosio, disappears faster than a gambler’s lucky streak. Her boss is a tyrant, her coworker is nuts, and her chances of balancing a tray full of drinks while wearing high-heeled shoes are slim to none. Worse, time is running out, and Shannon hasn’t made even half the money she’d hoped.

When Shannon receives a mysterious invitation to join Aces Up, a secret network of highly talented college poker players, at first she thinks No way. She has enough to worry about: keeping her job, winning the coveted math scholarship at school, and tutoring her secret crush, Max. But when Shannon musters up the nerve to kiss Max and he doesn’t react at all, the allure of Aces Up and its sexy eighteen-year-old leader, Cole, is suddenly too powerful to ignore.

Soon Shannon’s caught up in a web of lies and deceit that makes worrying about tuition money or a high school crush seem like kid stuff. Still, when the money’s this good, is the fear of getting caught reason enough to fold?


Chapter One

I will not freak out, I will not freak out, I will not freak out. It is only a dress. A flimsy, totally stretchable piece of fabric. A flimsy, totally stretchable piece of fabric that will not budge over my hips, but still. Totally not a big deal. In fact, I’m sure things like this happen all the time. I’ll just march out of here, head into my new boss Adrienne’s office, and calmly explain to her that the uniform they’ve given me just doesn’t fit.

I mean, I indicated on my application that I’m a size eight. And since they have somehow decided to give me a size two uniform, then really, they should be the ones apologizing to me. Isn’t that some sort of sizeism? (Sizeism = like racism, only against people who aren’t a size two or four.) They’ll probably be so nervous that I’m going to sue them for discrimination that I’ll get some kind of bonus or something. You know, so that I’ll keep my mouth shut.

I start to pull the dress back off, but before I can get out of it, someone knocks on the door to the dressing room in the employee lounge, where I’m huddled with the dress, pulled halfway up my hips and stuck.

“Who’s in there?” a voice demands. A bossy, nasally, very loud voice. My boss, Adrienne.

“Um, it’s me,” I say. “Shannon.” My voice comes out all strangled, and I clear my throat and try to sound
normal. Maybe I just need someone to zip me up? Or to lie down on a bed somewhere, like I have to do when my jeans just come out of the dryer. Of course, there’s no bed in here, they wouldn’t put a bed in a dressing room, that would be a little ridiculous. Although you’d think they would realize that sometimes people need to lie down to put their jeans on. And there’s definitely not enough room to lie down on the floor, although maybe if I angled myself a little better, I could lean back and then —


“Shannon!” I say, louder this time. Maybe the uniform’s vanity sized. And so their two is actually a six. Like they do at the GAP. I give the dress a good yank, and it creeps up a little further over my hips. Hmm. I give it another tug, this time as hard as I can. Riiiiip. The sound of fabric tearing echoes through the dressing room as the side seam of the dress splits in two. Oops.

“What the hell was that?” More pounding. “There are customers waiting to be served!”

“Um, well,” I say, throwing my sweatshirt over my head and opening the door to the stall. My face is burning with embarrassment, and I’m sure there are two big red splotches on my cheeks. “The thing is,” I tell Adrienne, “I have a problem with my uniform. It doesn’t fit.” I hold up the shredded piece of fabric. “Or, um, it didn’t fit.” I give her a hopeful smile.
“You ripped it?” Adrienne asks, looking incredulous. She reaches out and fingers the material.

“Well, not on purpose, I would never do something like that on purpose.” She looks at me blankly. “I thought it was vanity sized,” I explain, still trying to stay positive.

“You tried to shove yourself into it, and you split it?”

“Well, not shove exactly, it was more like….wedge.” Adrienne is a few years older than me, and very, very scary. She has short black hair with thick bangs and a dark red mouth. She wears lots of eyeliner and I’m pretty sure her boobs are fake. At my interview last week, when she asked me why I wanted this job, I told her I loved interacting with people, and she laughed, like she thought I was joking

I totally wasn’t, but I do not want Adrienne to hate me and/or think I am causing any kind of trouble, so I laughed, too. If she finds out I’m only seventeen, I will be fired immediately. You have to be eighteen to work as a cocktail waitress at The Collosio Casino, but I really, really need this job. My dad got fired from his job four months ago, and if I don’t make my own money, there’s no way I’m able to go to Wellesley in the fall. And since I’ve already been accepted early admission, which means I’m not allowed to apply anywhere else, this is a bit of a problem. (I’m calling it a “bit of a problem” so that I don’t freak myself out too much. The truth is, it’s a “bit of a problem” that has the potential to turn into a “really bad disaster.” Me + no money for Wellesley = no college.) So I bought a fake I.D from this guy named Chris Harmon who’s in my fifth period study hall, and here I am. Besides, I’ll be eighteen soon. Well. In seven months.

“It was too small,” I say again, holding it up in front of me, as if to demonstrate its too-small status. She’s making me nervous, and the lights overhead are beating down on me. I brush my long brown hair out of my face and hope I don’t start to sweat. “I am so, so sorry. I thought I marked down on my application that I’m a size eight, but apparently it ended up that — ”

Adrienne sighs and rubs her head with her temples, as if I’m a child she’s baby-sitting. She sets her pen down on her clipboard and looks at me. “What time is it, Shannon?”

Um, is this a trick question? “Five o’clock?” I try.

“Right. And what happens at five o’clock?”

“I start work?”

“Right. And if you come into work not ready to start working, then what happens at five o’clock?”

“Um, I don’t start working?”


“I’m sorry,” I say again. “But I marked down on the application you gave me that I’m a size– ”

Adrienne holds up her hand. “Look,” she says, her blue eyes narrowing. She smells like some kind of violet perfume. “Can you hang or not? Because there are a lot of girls who would kill for this job.” I’m not sure what “can you hang?” means, but I have a feeling it’s to be answered in the affirmative and does not include having a uniform situation on day one. Also, I’m very wary she used the phrase “a million girls would kill for this job.” That’s what they kept telling Anne Hathaway’s character in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. And things did not go so well for her.

“Yes,” I say, squaring my shoulders and trying to look shocked, as if I can’t believe she’s asked such an insane question. I roll my eyes. “Of course. Of course I can hang.” For ten dollars an hour, plus tips, I can definitely hang. One hundred percent hanging.

“Then go get another uniform from the uniform closet,” Adrienne says, pointing toward a door on the other side of the room. She snatches the ruined uniform out of my hands. “This one will have to come out of your paycheck. And then get back here and we’ll get you started on your training.” She waves her hand and her black-tipped acrylic fingernails, dismissing me.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m in my new uniform (fits, but makes me look like a sausage – stretchy black fabric, a gathered waist, and a built-in bra that pushes your boobs together is not a good look for anyone), standing in the bar area with Mackenzie.

Mackenzie is the waitress who’s training me. She looks like a Miss Hawaiian Tropic and definitely does not have a problem zipping up her uniform.

“Basically the tips are all you want to worry about,” she’s saying. “You want to take as many drink orders as possible, and get the drinks out as fast as possible.”

She flips her long blonde hair over her shoulder. I’m shadowing her today, which, as far as I can tell, basically means I’m going to follow her around the casino all night, watching what she does. For that, I will earn my ten dollars an hour, with no tips.

But whatevs. I’m all about the big picture. Once I get the hang of it, I’ll be out on my own, and then I’m sure I’ll be making tons.

“Right,” I say. I work on practicing The Secret, that book that says whatever you think will actually become your reality, and conjure up an image myself at Wellesley, walking on campus with a book bag full of newly purchased schoolbooks in one hand, and a grande peppermint latte in the other. Feeling cheered by my mental picture, I pull a tiny gray notebook out of my pocket and write, “as many drinks as possible, make them come out fast.”

“What are you doing?” Mackenzie asks. She’s wearing glitter eye shadow, and some of it has fallen onto her cheeks, giving her a sparkly glow.

“I’m writing down what you just said.”

“You can’t remember to serve as many drinks as possible?” She looks as if I’ve just said I can’t remember what my name is, or that I’m supposed to eat.

“Well, I probably would, technically, be able to remember it,” I say. Which is true. I have a very good memory. “But if I write it down, then I’ll definitely be sure.”

She looks at me blankly, and then I get it. Mackenzie is one of those girls who never, ever writes things down. She probably shows up to her classes without notebooks or pens and is that annoying person who’s always borrowing looseleaf from everyone.

“What’s that?” she asks, peering down at my notebook.

She’s looking at the opposite page, where I’ve done a very thorough and complete calculation of my financial situation, and how much I will need for Wellesley.

It’s all broken down into separate subsets, including type of financial aid, type of cost, year orf schooling, etc. Then there’s an overview at the bottom.
For example, freshman year overview:

Total cost of tuition, room and board, etc = 48, 786.00

Total loans = 3,245.19

Grants =18,141.57

Total Amount of Financial Aid = 21,386.76

Total Amount Still Needed = 27, 399.24

“Oh, that,” I say. “That’s just a breakdown of how much money I need to pay my tuition.” Then I realize I’m already supposed to be in college, so I rush on. “For all my other years at school.” She’s still looking at me blankly, so I show her the page. “See? For example, I need twenty thousand dollars still to pay my tuition. Now, they have payment plans, but if you don’t pay, then they can totally hold your transcripts and your credits.” I bite my lip. “At least, I think they can. I heard it from one of my sister’s friends. Her mom lost her job and then her loans got – ”

“Whatever,” Mackenzie says, putting her hands up like I need to stop talking.

Suddenly, I am very suspicious of her. Anyone who can look this good in the Collosio Casino waitressing uniform and is also questioning the validity of taking copious notes and making diagrams, flowcharts, etc. cannot be trusted. That size double zero I saw in the uniform closet? Definitely hers.

“Grab that tray,” she instructs, pointing to an empty one that’s sitting in the kitchen near the bar. Great. Now she’s bossy. I pick it up and watch as she starts loading my tray with the little plastic cups of drinks that are sitting on the bar, already filled. “These,” she says, “Are what you fill your tray with. Water, soda, beer. They’re the most common drinks people want. But you need to keep a pad near you in case you need to take special orders.”

Right. I write down, “Fill try with H20, soda, beer. Keep notebook for special orders.”

“Look, stop writing crap down,” Mackenzie says. The lights overheard bounce off her perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth. “We don’t have time. Start filling your tray.”

I do what she says, and when I’m done, it weighs about three thousand pounds. I am then expected to heft it up over my head, and follow Mackenzie through the bar and out into the poker room. Immediately I feel like maybe I’ve pulled a muscle. Mackenzie hoists her tray over her head like it’s a feather and starts weaving her way through the tables.

The poker room at the Collosio is huge, the biggest poker room in the United States. You’d think the biggest poker room would be somewhere in Vegas or Atlantic City, but nope – it’s right here in Connecticut. There are over a hundred tables filled with people playing cards, and even more standing around, waiting to get into a game. One of the best things about working the poker room is that it’s relatively quiet compared to the rest of the casino. No screaming slot machines. And it’s smoke free. It’s Tuesday night, so I figured it would be dead, but there’s so many people I wonder how we’re even going to be able to walk, let alone walk with these trays.

I try to keep myself from tripping as I weave my way through the tables. I’m not so good in high heels, and Adrienne wouldn’t let me wear the shoes I had on (my older sister Robyn’s black Adidas gym shoes, that she bought last year and then immediately stopped wearing when they became “uncool” a few months later), and made me instead wear black heels which she borrowed from some other waitress named Nancy who had an extra pair. (Very shady, wearing someone else’s shoes, due to toe fungus, bacterial infection, etc.)

“Mackenzie!” I yell, trying to get her to slow down. I step on a guy’s foot, a middle-aged man with a gray beard who’s sitting at a poker table. “Hey!” he yells, “Watch it!” My tray jostles, threatening to spill all my plastic cups full of liquid all over the carpeted casino floor.

“Sorry,” I say, but he’s already turned back to his cards. This is definitely not part of hanging. I take a deep breath and try to practice my yoga breathing I learned in the Young Meditators group I was in last year. (Line from the Wellesley webpage under admissions requirements: “Prospective students should be well-rounded, with a variety of extracurriculars.” Which is so me. Completely well-rounded with a variety of extra-curriculars. And now I even have a job, yay!)

“What are you doing?” Mackenzie’s a few feet ahead of me, looking back in exasperation. “You didn’t stop to write something down, did you?”

“Uh, no,” I say, abandoning my breathing. “I’m just having trouble walking in these shoes.” I hold my leg up as if to illustrate the insanity of having to carry heavy trays in high heels.

“You’ll get used to it,” she says, not sounding all that sympathetic. She puts her hand on her hip, her long nails curving around her slim waist. “Now come on.” I follow her obediently. “Beverage,” Mackenzie calls, zipping through the poker tables. “Beverage?”

“Beverage?” I try, holding my tray and following her as best as I can. “Bevvverraggeee?”

A man wearing a blue flannel shirt looks up at me from the table and gives me a dirty look. Geez. Not too friendly around here, are they? But maybe it’s because they take their poker really seriously. I would, too, if I was risking hundreds of dollars. Of course, I wouldn’t be risking hundreds of dollars. That just seems really stupid.

“You don’t have to scream,” Mackenzie hisses. She hands someone a soda and takes the dollar chip they hand her. She gives the guy a huge smile and drops it in her tip cup. “Thanks, honey,” she says.

“Thanks, honey,” I echo, trying it out and putting a little wiggle in my hips. Mackenzie rolls her eyes. “Less flirting, more concentrating on keeping your tray up. You’re going to drop it.”

“Oh, come on,” I say. “I’m not that bad.” Yeah, the tray is heavy, but I’m totally coordinated. In second grade I took gymnastics. We learned to do cartwheels and did a synchronized dance. “I used to be in gymnastics,” I explain to Mackenzie.

“Yeah, well, you’re not in Kansas anymore.” This really makes no sense, and I’m contemplating what she meant by it (that I’m out of my element? that I’ll be desperate to get home after working here?) when I trip and fall, spilling my whole tray of beer onto a dealer.



He was perfectly nice about it. The dealer, I mean. Said it wasn’t even his good work shirt. But still. How embarrassing. And I can tell Mackenzie is not too pleased with me.

“Shannon spilled some drinks,” she immediately tells Adrienne during our break. We’re in the employee lounge, where Mackenzie has procured some kind of yogurt seemingly out of nowhere. No one told me I was supposed to bring any dinner, and even though there’s a little café in the casino that’s right around the corner from the poker room, I’m not sure I’m allowed out of Mackenzie’s sight. Not to mention I probably shouldn’t be spending seven dollars on a sandwich. Why didn’t I remember to bring something to eat? Going hungry definitely can’t be good for my working state. In fact, I think I’m starting to feel a little light-headed. You know, from all the heavy tray lifting and stress.

“Lovely,” Adrienne says, writing something down on her clipboard. “How’d you do that?”

“I tripped,” I say, wanting to blame it on shoes she gave me, but not wanting to seem whiney. I wonder if she’s going to fire me already. Would that be some kind of record?

But all she says is, “Well, don’t trip. And bring me a copy of your birth certificate. I need a backup form of identification.”
“Sure!” I force my voice to sound bright and falsely cheerful. I don’t have a fake birth certificate. I wonder if I can get one? Fake IDs are one thing (everyone needs them to drink), but fake birth certificates? I’ve only heard of these in movies, when people go down into some dark alley and get fake “papers” for secret spy missions. I’m not a spy. And I’m afraid of dark alleys.

Recap of the night so far (in numbers):

Number of times yelled at by Mackenzie: Seventeen

Number of drinks served: Eight million

Number of drinks spilled: One instance, but eight actual drinks

Number of times butt was pinched by drunk, poker-playing men: Two

Number of times was asked to procure fake birth certificate, possibly causing me to get fired, have to find dark alley, and/or be arrested: One

For all this trouble, at the end of my five hour shift, I will have made fifty dollars. After taxes, that works out to about forty dollars maybe? All that work for forty dollars. What a travesty. College textbooks can cost around a hundred and fifty bucks each. I’ve just made about a quarter of a textbook. Not even, when you factor in the cost of the uniform I ripped. I probably still owe them money.

Adrienne walks our of the room and toward the bar area, mumbling something about food costs, so I turn around to nonchalantly ask Mackenzie if everyone has to have their birth certificate on file (has spilling drinks made me seem suspicious?) but she’s already left and is back out on the floor! Rude!

Number of new friends made at work: Zero. Sigh.

By the end of my shift, my back is aching, I’m not getting any better at walking in heels, and although I manage not to spill any drinks on people, I do spill a drink all over the floor back in the bar area, and almost cause one of the other waitresses, a girl named Tansy, to slip and fall and kill herself. (George the bartender catches her just in time, right before she goes down. She screamed and said, “OHMIGOD, I ALMOST BROKE MY ANKLE!” and I apologized for ten minutes, but she wouldn’t forgive me. At all. I know this because she told me. She said, “Sorry, but I won’t forgive you. At all.”) Mackenzie is so annoyed with me that she decides we’re going to punch out three minutes early.

“You know, you’ll get much better tips if you get a new attitude,” she says as she slides her card through the punchout machine.

“I don’t know,” I tell her, sliding my own card through. “Remember earlier when I tried to flirt? You yelled at me and then I spilled a big tray of drinks all over that man.”

“You could learn,” she says. She pulls her tips out of her tip cup, sits down at one of the tables in the break room, and starts to count them. The chips make a clinking noise as she stacks them up. “And if you don’t want to flirt, just ask them about their poker playing, they love that.”

“I don’t know the first thing about poker.” I sigh. I’m looking at the page in my notebook that has my Wellesley calculations on it. I subtract the forty dollars I made tonight, leaving the grand total of money still needed for my first year at 27,359.24. I tell myself it’s okay, that I’ll start making more once I can keep my tips.

But how am I going to do this Every. Single. Night? Is this what people talk about when they talk about the real world? If so, I’m definitely not ready for it.

“Whatever,” Mackenzie says, checking her Blackberry for texts and then sliding it back into her bag. “I have to go. Lance is meeting me here and we’re going to the concert upstairs.”

I don’t bother asking who Lance is. Probably her boyfriend. Then I realize this might be why I’m horrible at making friends. Because I don’t take an interest in other people’s lives. “Who’s Lance?” I ask politely. “And what concert is it?”

“The Killers,” she says, ignoring the question about Lance. She looks like she’s about to say something else, but she just shakes her head and gives me another look, like “OMG wow you’re hopeless” and then turns on her heel and leaves. I decide to worry about her later, since I’m exhausted, and have two hours of homework waiting for me at home.

I force myself up from the table and over to my locker on the other side of the room, where I place my borrowed shoes gently on the floor, lining the toes up against the wall. I hope their owner finds them. I cannot afford to buy her new ones, after a thirty (twenty-five) dollar payday.

I seem to have lost the paper Adrienne gave me with my locker combination on it, and I’m definitely not about to go ask her for another one, so the combination takes me six tries, and when the door finally opens, a smooth cream envelope falls out. My name, “Shannon” is written on the front in red cursive script. On the back, it’s sealed, and stamped with a picture of two playing cards, the ace of spades and the ace of hearts. I turn it over in my hand, praying it’s some kind of employee orientation thing, or info on how to cash my paycheck. Then I have an awful thought: a pink slip?!

I slide the paper out, one sheet, and am relieved that it’s a white piece of paper. I think maybe pink slips are actually pink.

Dear Shanon,
Please come to room 2123 in the Grand Mahnan Tower Hotel of The Collosio Casino immediately to discuss an extremely important matter. If you choose to ignore this request, FURTHER ACTION WILL BE TAKEN.

I look around, half expecting to catch one of the waitresses hiding behind a table, a hand over her mouth to cover the giggles. But I’m all alone. I look at the letter again, hoping I’m not in trouble. There’s no way they could have found out I was working here illegally already, is there? I mean, this letter isn’t even signed and they spelled my name wrong. If they found out I was underage, wouldn’t it be all official looking and signed by someone with a scary sounding title, like “Head of Casino” or “Security Manager”?

I’m tempted to just ignore it, because I really am completely exhausted and desperate to get home. But if it is something important, I don’t want to be accused of skipping out on meetings on my first day. I already haven’t made the best impression, what with the spilled drinks and my hips destroying one of their uniforms. So I sigh, shove my street clothes into my bag, and then head out toward the elevator and the Grand Mahnan Tower Hotel…

Copyright © 2010 by Lauren Barnholdt.

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