By Diana Douglas
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1974
Cover illustration by G.H. Jones
Lovely Rena Stafford had been taught as a student nurse never to become involved in the private lives of her patients. But she found it impossible not to get caught up in the wealthy Madame Zeigler’s exciting, glamorous existence in Monte Carlo. Rena had never expected this strong bond to grow, nor did she expect the strange reaction of Madame Zeigler’s handsome nephew, Dr. Stephen Montrose, when she summoned him urgently to Monaco. When two of Madame Zeigler’s attractive friends from the casino, Mark Lassiter and Jean Auriol, began to vie for Rena’s affection, she was surprised—and strangely disturbed. But the biggest surprise of all was to discover she had fallen in love—with the very man who could only mean heartbreak.
“These are small and very expensive suites available for purposes other than gambling. I’m sure you know what I mean. They are very private.”
What the back cover blurb (above) doesn’t tell you is that Madame Anne Zeigler dies on page eight. Rena Stafford had been caring for Madame for the past year, living with her in a luxurious suite in Monte Carlo. Madame had leukemia, so it was just a matter of time. But now the hotel manager is on the phone, telling her that she has to pack her bags and get out in three days, when Madame’s monthly rent payment ends.
All of Rena’s salary had been held by Mrs. Zeigler—and then there’s the matter of a small loan of all her cash on hand that Rena made Mrs. Z three days ago, which had not yet been repaid—so Rena is scrambling for some ready cash and a place to live while she sorts out Mrs. Z’s final affairs. Fortunately, these two guys are hovering around, ready to help. Mark Lassiter is an old friend of Mrs. Z’s who works at the baccarat high tables at the casino, and Jean Auriol is a croupier at the chemin de fer tables. Though Jean’s early attempts to befriend Mrs. Z were shrugged off, he calls and harasses Rena until she agrees to have lunch with him—though why you would have lunch with someone you find annoying is a mystery to me. Another fella is on the way, too; Dr. Stephen Montrose, Mrs. Z’s nephew, who is in his last year of residency, is winging his way over from New York.
Fortunately for Rena’s fiscal situation, the job as casino nurse is open, and Mark Lassiter secures it for Rena. Jean finds out about this and “arranges” for her to work nights so she will have her days free to go out with him. She does eventually agree to have lunch with him, when he lures her by saying, “Please come. There’s nothing … sinister.” Right. Lo and behold, after lunch, though Rena is expected at a meeting with Mrs. Z’s attorney and tells Jean to bring her straight to town, he instead drives her to a secluded spot in the mountains and refuses to take her back until she kisses him. Like a good VNRN heroine, she does, and finds it “long and vaguely disturbing.” He presses her for more—and her hand over his “thudding” heart—until she threatens to walk back to town and actually gets out of the car. She makes the meeting with 15 minutes to spare. Unlike other VNRN heroines, she never goes out with Jean again—but only because he is never seen again for the remaining 50 pages of the book, with no clear explanation of why he was hanging around to being with.
Meanwhile, at a small gathering after Mrs. Z’s funeral, Steve learns of a gaming system that won an Englishman a great deal of money at the casinos: when red comes up on the roulette wheel, you bet $100 on red for the next spin. If you win, you double your money. You continue to bet red for the next five spins, leaving all your winnings on the table. Then repeat the process on black. Steve’s eyes light up when he hears this, and it isn’t long before he’s at the tables, and winning, too! Rena has to literally drag him away from the tables after he’s made $700 to go to the reading of his aunt’s will. It turns out Mrs. Z was worth about $40 million (between $175 million and $375 million in today’s money)! She leaves Rena $20,000 and a diamond and mink stole, Mark Lassiter inherits $50,000, and Steve gets the rest. After this, Steve goes straight back to the tables: “It really is a most exciting way of passing the time,” he says. “It’s not as if I intend to become an addict. Nothing like that at all.” Which is sure to keep him safe, because all those other addicts meant to get hooked.
Curiously, Rena does not even start working as a casino nurse until 35 pages from the end, after the will has been read. We first see her on the job when she’s been there a week. On this night, a Countess attempts suicide with an overdose of barbiturates. The house doctor is home with the flu, so she calls Dr. Steve from the gaming tables to help. She politely waits for Steve to finish his game of baccarat, in which he loses a million francs—$100,000—and then “the fight to save the life of the Countess Isabella Galvani began.” As dawn breaks, the Countess is breathing easier and looking less blue, and Steve says, “You did a great job. Really special. I mean … really special.” Then he asks her how long she plans to keep working in the casino, and Rena tells him she’s quitting her job and returning to the States tomorrow. Naturally, he decides to go with her—and proposes out of the blue. Then it’s all over except some smooching. As Charlie Brown used to say, bleah.
Not much at all happens over the course of this book. And what does happen occurs over a glacial pace: The “race” to save the Countess takes 17 pages. The whole situation with Jean is totally “sinister,” to use his own word, more so because Rena can’t seem to say no, despite how much she dislikes him. It’s not out-and-out boring, but the most interesting things about this book are the cover illustration and the ad for Kent cigarettes bound into the middle.