Authors: Tracey Alvarez
“Five bucks says if we recorded him trying, Kez would make him sleep on the couch tonight.” Shaye held up a palm for Ford’s high-five.
Ford gave her some skin. “Burned him, baby.”
“Will you lot stop gas-bagging in the kitchen and hurry up,” West yelled from the family room.
Shaye snickered and followed her brother to the table.
When she first arrived at West’s, splattery shower sounds drifted out from under Del’s door. She’d hurried past and kept busy with Piper in the kitchen, grateful not to be caught in the hallway exchanging awkward “Hi again” greetings with Del. By the time he wandered into the family room, Noah and Ford had arrived.
Now, sitting opposite him, squeezed between West and Ford, Shaye couldn’t ignore him any longer. Dressed in a plain grey-marl sweater, Del fiddled with his stack of poker chips. With sleeves shoved casually up to his elbows, each movement of his hands emphasized the corded muscles of his forearms. The man had sexy forearms.
Shaye stacked her chips in four equal piles and breathed deeply, inhaling cedar wood with a hint of basil, and the same smell that wrapped around a woman when a man draped his leather jacket across her shoulders. She’d caught faint whiffs of it all day, every time Del walked past. If he’d been a department store sample strip, she would’ve rubbed him over her body to transfer the delicious smell onto her skin.
A thought she didn’t need showing on her face.
She edged her chair closer to Ford. He smelled like pine soap with a touch of grease. A comfortable smell.
“Noah?” she said. “Finished gossiping with Hollywood? Decorate the table, willya?”
Noah cocked a finger at her. “Feeling lucky tonight, Shaye?”
“I bought a new skirt from last month’s pot, so yeah, I’m feeling lucky.”
“Let’s go to Texas.” Noah tossed two poker chips on the table.
Del followed with four of his, and West dealt.
Shaye picked up her cards and gave a mental fist pump. A marriage—king of clubs and queen of hearts. Game on.
Ten hands later, Shaye rethought her lucky feeling. It wasn’t her night. She’d taken the pot twice, with a three of a kind and a full house. Piper and Ford had also won a game each. Noah—with his perfected blank cop face—had scored twice, but Del had won three hands. Not in a row but still, he’d cleaned up three times.
Del was no baby-beginner fish. In fact, she’d bet he was a shark pretending to be fish.
Down to the final hand of the night, only four players remained. The others threw in their cards—leaving her and Del, and Ford and West. Piper, the last round’s dealer, burned a card and placed the final one of the game face up.
“And the black bitch joins the river, boys and girls.”
. The corner of Shaye’s mouth twitched so she clamped her lips and tried to look as if she didn’t have pocket queens to play with. Her lashes flicked up to find Del studying her—the heat in his gaze either meant he had killer cards or something else, entirely.
“Ford? You in?” asked Piper.
Ford ran a hand over his shoulder-length dreads and slapped his cards face down on the table. “Nah. I’m folding like a cheap car jack.”
Shaye considered her remaining poker chips. Del would bet last, positioned as he was two places away from the dealer. He’d play big, guaranteed. Earlier, he’d nailed her as a conservative player, and she hadn’t denied it. Being “tight” most of the time gave her a cover for the odd reckless move.
A move she considered now.
Though Del had won three games, he’d lost big in the other seven—because Del didn’t like to fold. He gambled to win, but to win, he’d have to play big and risk everything.
Shaye slid her remaining chips forward. “All in.”
Beside her, West whistled long and low, nudging her arm. “You go, girl. But too rich for me.” He dropped his cards face down and grinned at Piper, who made clucking noises.
“Del?” Shaye raised a brow.
Del leaned back and crossed his arms, his two hold cards pressed against one nicely rounded biceps. “We could make this last bet interesting. Something more personal than just cash.”
Noah and Ben, who’d both gotten up to raid the chip bowl, paused in their munching.
Ben returned to the table. “Better not be suggesting anything inappropriate to my sister.”
“What’s the guy rule about workplace relationships?” Del asked.
Ben gave Del a grim smile and made an “I’m watching you gesture” with two fingers.
Del turned to her, moved his pile of chips forward. “I win, you dump the swear jar for the time I’m here.”
Shaye tossed back her ponytail. “Honestly? You can’t go a month without saying fuck?”
Her sister sucked in a soft gasp, and Ford straightened from a slouch to full alert.
Shaye gave Piper an
eye roll. She kept her language clean—so what? It wasn’t as if she couldn’t cuss with the best of them. The odd time her temper reached volcanic levels, she could creatively out-swear both her siblings. But she was her father’s little princess, and princesses who tragically lost their daddies always tried to keep their tiaras shining brightly.
In case Daddy was looking down from heaven.
Del stroked the edge of a playing card with one long finger. “I like that verb.”
How on earth did he make that sound so…dirty?
Shaye shifted on her chair. “All right, agreed. But if I win…” She paused, knuckle pressed to her lip, racking her brain for something that would take Mr.
I Like that Verb
down a peg or two. “If I win, you help cater the kids’ Halloween party.”
Ben snorted out a laugh. His two girls—Jade, his daughter, and Zoe, his almost stepdaughter—were already planning their costumes for the big night.
The smirkish curve of Del’s mouth straightened. “A Halloween party?”
“You know, kettle corn, cupcakes decorated to look like jack o’ lanterns, lots of excited kids hyped up on sugar.” She smiled winningly. “But if you’re not a risk taker…”
He showed her a lot of teeth in return. “Oh, I’m a risk taker. Only both payoffs seem to be in your favor.”
“What do you suggest?”
“If I lose, I’ll run the damn Halloween party, but”—another flash of teeth and Shaye’s heart rate kicked up a notch—“if I win, you give up the swear jar and be my plus one for West’s wedding.”
Laughter and catcalls erupted around the table. Ben’s humor evaporated, and he glared at Del.
Before she could ask why, Del said, “Simmer down, boys. We’re both going anyway.”
Ah, got it. Good ol’ equivalent-to-comfort-food Shaye was convenient and easy—so she’d do as his wedding date.
“I have plans, remember?” She fired vicious glances at Ben and Piper, hoping West would keep his damn mouth shut and not contradict her.
Del tapped his cards against his arm. “If I win, maybe you’ll change your mind about those plans.”
Dammit, the smug bastard knew she was bluffing.
Shaye straightened her spine. “Maybe I will. But first, let’s see what you’ve got.”
Del flipped his two cards face up. Two aces. Put that together with the ace of clubs, the three and seven of hearts, and the two queens on the turn and river, and it made a full house. A good hand. Actually, a great hand. Only not great enough.
Shaye batted her lashes at him—bad lashes and bad gloating smile—and flipped over her two lovely ladies.
Didn’t. Say. A. Word. The cards spoke for themselves.
Ben whooped. “Four of a kind,
“Bazinga!” Piper reached around Ford and shoved Shaye’s shoulder. “You got him gooood.”
“Ouch, bro,” said Ford. “Those Halloween parties are wild.”
The whole time heckles flew around the table, Del watched her with hooded eyes. A hot gaze that dropped to her mouth and up again but didn’t leave her face. Her blood pumped faster and faster. She’d won. He’d lost. She’d keep her swear jar and he’d help with the Halloween party.
So why did she regret making those silly bets? Why did a blush creep over her cheeks as her heart galloped around her ribcage? Had she secretly wanted him to win so she’d have a date on Piper’s big day? Her fingers locked together in her lap.
Of course not. What a silly idea.
Del stood, fished in his jeans front pocket and pulled out a roll of banknotes. Tossing two twenties across the table, he said, “Guess I’ll get a double helping of humble pie, next time you make one.”
Shaye swallowed the ball of nerves tingling in her throat and prayed her voice came out steady. “Guess you will. And I guess you’ll have to find another date for the wedding. I hear Mrs. Taylor’s free.”
Mrs. Taylor, an octogenarian widow, was a dreadful flirt with wandering hands. A good-looking young man relaxed in her company at his own peril. Which was why, in reception-planning discussions, Piper elected to place the older woman safely between Denise Komeke and Caroline Russell.
Del raised an eyebrow. “That old cougar still alive?”
“That old cougar is alive and kicking, and she’d say yes to you in a heartbeat.” Noah stood and slid his chair under the table. “Anyone want a lift back to town? Shaye?”
She shook her head. “No, I’ll stay for the clean-up.”
Ben and Ford also rose, collecting their winnings and jackets. After a quick round of goodbyes, they left.
Del and West collapsed the card table and manhandled it down to the garage, while Shaye and Piper tidied the family room and loaded the dishwasher.
Piper continued to slip sidelong glances in Shaye’s direction as they worked in silence—a well-oiled team effort, polished through years of sibling practice. Piper collected dirty dishes, Shaye rinsed and stacked them. If Ben had stayed, he would’ve been all big brother, giving orders until either she or Piper squirted him with the sink spray hose. At last, they were a family again, and for that, she’d put up with Ryan Westlake and his irritating younger brother.
“I know what you’re going to say,” Shaye said after receiving yet another glance.
“Nope, I don’t think you do.”
Shaye slotted a glass into the dishwasher. “You’re thinking I’m too hard on Del. That I should quit giving him hell and play nice.”
Piper snickered and tossed another two beer bottles into the recycling bin. “You may’ve convinced half the town that sugar wouldn’t melt in your mouth, but I know you. You’ve got a little mean streak once someone gets under your skin.” Piper shut the laundry door on the recycling bin and leaned against a counter. “And for some reason, Del’s gotten under your skin.”
“He’s in my kitchen, being a pain in the butt.”
“Short term, as you pointed out earlier. Plus, you said you worked well together.”
“I hate it when you remind me of stuff I said earlier.”
“I know. But big sisters are good at that sort of thing.” Piper pressed her lips shut and popped them open a couple of times. “Just be careful, okay? Don’t burn any bridges.”
Shaye huffed out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding and unscrewed the lid on the dishwasher powder. “This coming from a woman who doesn’t just burn bridges but annihilates them with nuclear bombs.”
Piper grinned and wrapped her arm around Shaye’s shoulder. “Yeah, but you’re only a baby ass-kicker. I’m a pro.”
“Well, this baby ass-kicker made forty bucks tonight and found a slave to do all the hard labor for the kids’ Halloween party.”
“Make that a big mean streak.” Piper’s laugh sobered quickly. “Del doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who’s into the whole family and kids scene.”
“That’s my impression, too.”
Piper flicked a glance over her shoulder at the footsteps clomping back up the stairs. “I hope the anti-family thing is mostly an act. West and Claire are pinning their hopes on Del being a kidney donor.”
Shaye’s stomach plummeted to the toes of her boots. “I hope so, too.”
But Del being a match was the least of the Westlakes’ problems. Even if Del proved to be compatible, would he agree to such a huge step? Would the boy she’d seen hiding in the corner of their garden crying thirteen years ago turn around and give the father who sent him away a kidney?
She’d no idea, because she still didn’t know what kind of man the boy had become.
Shaye turned down West’s offer of a ride home. Clambering on the back of his motorbike for the short trip into town was fun—but tonight, she needed the solitude of walking under a quarter moon.
Del had disappeared downstairs ten minutes earlier with a curt, “Night.”
Shaye hugged her sister at the door. “I can’t wait until the dress-fitting in Invers.”
Piper’s nose crinkled. “You know, I’m having second thoughts—”
“You rock the dress.”
“I do. I could rock a cute pantsuit, too.”
Shaye laughed and stepped outside. “You’re not getting married in a pantsuit.”