Authors: Marni Mann
“How about I stop by the compound while you’re in Vegas, make sure things are running smooth in your absence?”
I fucking hated when he asked that question because I hated telling him no, and I told him no every time. I could barely let anyone inside that place, much less him. Only a few had access—the workers who managed the day and night shifts, Adrianna, her assistant, and me. There were the buyers, too, but they didn’t enter the premises. They were escorted into a separate wing I’d built just for transactions.
Outsiders could make things messy, and shit was already messy enough.
“You know I can’t let you do that,” I said.
He leaned into the edge of his desk, his hands resting on top of it. “You let me in once.”
“And you know why I can’t let you in again.”
It took the compound a day to recover from his visit. After he left, I implemented the no-outsiders rule. Minimal contact was the only way to keep things in order.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. But it didn’t hurt to ask again.” His brows pushed together, telling me he wasn’t ready to drop the subject. “You need anything for the place? I can send the boys over with some food and shampoo and—”
“We’re all good.”
“All right, kid. Just don’t be afraid to ask.”
“I’ve never been afraid to ask you for anything.”
There were two quick knocks on the door. Our heads turned toward the monitor on his desk. The top of the screen showed an image of Vera while the bottom was divided into three blocks, one for each of the private rooms.
“Come in!” Roman yelled.
The door cracked just enough for Vera to peek her head in. “Roman, your eight o’clock appointment is waiting for you in the lounge,” she said. Her eyes softened when she saw me. “Honey, I didn’t know you were here.” She walked over to me, and we kissed cheeks. She came with a breeze of her usual scents—stale smoke and that horrible flower perfume she’d been wearing since I was a kid. “Why didn’t you pop by the drink station to say hello?”
“I came in through the back. I was planning to come see you before I hit the tables.”
She nodded, her hand falling to my shoulder. “I’m surprised you’re playing again tonight.”
“Of course he’s playing tonight,” Roman said. “The kid’s got a tourney to practice for.”
“I don’t need the practice.”
Vera looked between Roman and me. “I’ll let you two work it out,” she said. “Come say good-bye before you go home, honey.”
“You’re on all night?”
She nodded and left the door open when she left.
I made my move toward it, hanging on to the frame as I looked back at Roman. “I’ll see you later.”
“Table Two tonight?”
I shook my head. “Four.”
“Try not to take too much off Victor. He’s already in the hole for twenty large. Any more, and I’m going to have to add another point to the juice.”
“Why are you going so soft on him?”
Roman had cut off fingers for much less than twenty thousand.
“I feel bad for the bastard. He’s having some really bad luck.”
“Poker isn’t about luck. You’re the one who taught me that…which tells me you’re not going easy because Victor is catching bad cards. You’re going easy because…” Oh, hell. Roman might have been the worst bluffer at Aced. “You’re fucking his wife.”
He leaned back in his chair, crossing his shiny shoes on the desk and resting his hands on his belly. “She’s got one hell of a tight ass. The goddamn thing sucks my dick in and doesn’t let go.”
“That’s worth at least a few grand off his tab.”
“More than that, kid. Much more.”
I shook my head and moved out into the hallway, surprised to see the guy who was walking toward me. “Derek Block,” I said, shaking hands with the developer I’d hired to remodel my townhouse, who had turned into a good acquaintance. “So, you’re finally stepping over to the dark side.”
“I’ll stick with wood. Cards really aren’t my thing. I just came here to see a client.”
“Roman said it was the best time to find him. Thanks to your recommendation, he hired me to build him a house on the South Shore. I suspect you already know that.”
I chuckled as I remembered the conversation I’d had with Roman about this and the two-story closet his wife was now demanding. “I might have said something to him.”
“I appreciate the referral, Trapper.”
“You got it, buddy.”
“It’s been almost a year since we’ve had drinks. Where’ve you been hiding out?”
“Not hiding,” I said, remembering the few drunken nights we’d had. “Been traveling a lot for poker.”
“I hear that. I’m glad things are going so well for you.” He glanced down the hallway, through the tinted glass that overlooked the main poker room. “This is my first time here,” he said. “I’m impressed.”
I gripped his shoulder and shook it. “You thought we played on cement floors and a folding table?”
“Nah. But I didn’t think it’d be this nice.”
“We keep things classy around here.”
Boston had several underground poker rooms. I’d been to all of them, but I almost always played here. It wasn’t just my connection to Roman that kept me coming back. The guys who played at Aced were good competition, and the place wasn’t some pussy-filled dirt hole. That wasn’t to say we lacked pussy. There was plenty of that down in the lounge, plenty of fresh cunt hovering behind the tables. Plenty of old cunt, too. Dudes just weren’t getting sucked off mid game. Shit like that happened in the private rooms.
“It was good to see you, buddy. Let’s meet for a drink soon.”
“Hey,” he said as I passed him. “My wife and I are throwing a party on Friday night. You should come.”
He laughed. “We have some catching up to do.”
“I leave early Saturday morning for Vegas. How about we get together when I get back?”
“Just come for a few hours, and don’t stay late. My new place is only three blocks from yours.”
I wouldn’t be getting much sleep if I stayed home. I never did the night before I left for a tournament. I might as well loosen up a bit at his place. Maybe I could even pick up a new buyer for the compound while I was there. I didn’t know his crowd. Whenever we’d hung out, it was only just the two of us. But Block had money. It made sense that he’d roll with guys who had some, too, and they were who I was looking for as clients.
“I’ll be there. Text me the address.”
“One last thing.”
I looked over my shoulder as he hesitated.
“It’s…kind of a…masquerade party.”
I pointed at my face. “You’re saying I have to cover this?”
“You should probably dress up a little, too,” said the guy who I’d only ever seen dressed in flannel.
I stepped out of the cab in front of Frankie and Derek’s brownstone and onto a red carpet that had been rolled out along the sidewalk—a sweet detail that was added just for the party. Two tuxedo-clad men stood at each side of the door with masks covering their faces. One held a tablet while the other had a tray of champagne.
“Brea Bradley,” I said.
The man with the tablet checked the screen, and then he tipped his head. “Ms. Bradley, please come in.”
I took a long drink of the champagne he had handed me as I entered.
With Derek’s taste more earthy and sensual and Frankie’s taste contemporary and sleek, the two had built a home that blended both styles perfectly. The place was extremely charming with details that only an expert craftsman and real estate agent would think of, like the under lighting along the floating stairs and the stone work that accented many of the walls.
Just as much planning and detail had been put into the party. The modern entrance had been transformed into something swanky and luxurious, swathed in dark tapestries and an antique chandelier. The music was sullen. An aroma of red wine and oak and cedar filled the cool air. It felt like I had stepped into the wine cellar of an ancient mansion.
Looking for Frankie’s plaid mask, I spotted her by the floating stairs.
“Girl,” I said as I hugged her, “I’m
not loving the masks. It’s impossible to recognize anyone when their faces are covered. I feel like I’m in some sort of horror porn.” Actually, it was kind of thrilling. It gave a sensation of daring that I couldn’t help but love.
Frankie laughed. “Yeah, they’re much more of a nuisance than I thought they’d be. I almost kissed Will’s girlfriend, mistaking her for my neighbor, Lena.”
“Wow. Maybe this
“Imagine the catastrophe if I actually would have made mouth-to-cheek contact with that whore.”
We weren’t fans of Julia, Will’s conniving, manipulative girlfriend. We hated her even more now that she had turned him into a submissive. Will was Derek’s assistant slash controller slash right-hand man. Julia was a real estate agent, who was ranked second in the city, but her sales didn’t come close to Frankie’s. Even worse, Julia had been vying for Derek’s attention at the same time Frankie was pursuing him. Julia wasn’t just evil; she was gnarly.
“Oh, yeah, I would have died,” I said.
Derek stopped talking to his guest and joined his wife. He turned and kissed my cheek. “Good call on the flannel face wear,” he said.
I flicked the side of his mask before he pulled away. “I see your wife went back and got you one to match.”
“I tried making him a flannel one first.” She lifted her hand, showing me the burn on her thumb that ran across the whole knuckle. “The glue gun won.”
“But you tried, at least,” I said.
Derek kissed around the burn as their eyes connected. It was a powerful moment even though it was brief. There was so much love in that stare, in his tender embrace.
The memory—it just hit me out of nowhere…
“Tell me you love me,” Cody said.
I tried to wiggle out from underneath him as he had me pinned to the bed. His nose was pressed against mine while he tickled my sides.
“I can’t—” I screamed and laughed, both sounds mixing together into somewhat of a snort. “Breathe. Ahhhhh!”
“Say it, or I’ll torture you for hours.”
“No, that’s not fair! I’m furious with you right now, and I won’t cave just because you’re tickling me.”
He stopped the tickling, his hands moving to my cheeks. “You know I didn’t mean to miss your parents’ dinner party. I planned on going, but work got—”
“It’s always work. And I hate it.”
“Smile for me, baby.”
“Smile for me.” A grin crept over his face as he began to tickle me again. “And then say those words I want to hear.”
I squirmed as hard and as fast as I could. It didn’t help. “No, Cody—”
“I—” I cried out and laughed some more and tried folding my body, so he couldn’t reach the spot that tickled the most. “Love you.”
He stilled again, his lips coming so close to mine. “I’ll never get tired of hearing you say that.”
“Guys,” I said, shaking the memory from my head, “the house looks amazing. I feel like we’re at that wine cellar that we visited in Maine.”
Frankie smiled. “Our trip inspired the theme. And speaking of wine…” She waved her empty fingers.
“Stay here and greet your guests,” I said. “I’ll go get us some good stuff.”
“You’re the best.”
I gave her ass a soft spank. She did the same to me as I walked to the back of the house. There were several makeshift bars scattered throughout the interior, and through the windows, I saw one outside that was surrounded by gas heaters. I was sure they all had every liquor imaginable and a well-stocked wine selection. So, I chose the one in the family room, which seemed to have the shortest line.
“What can I get you?” one of the bartenders asked when I finally reached the front.
I placed the empty champagne glass on top of the bar. “Two glasses of pinot noir, please.”
“I have a 2012 reserve from Sonoma, a 2011 from Willamette Valley, a 2009 Russian River Valley…”
“The Sonoma reserve would be great.”
I felt my phone vibrate from inside my purse and pulled it out to check the screen.
Mom: I want a pic of you and Frankie in your masks. Talk to you in the morning. Love you.
Me: Love you, too.
“I’ll take an IPA,” the guy to my left said to the other bartender.
I glanced over to see if he was someone I recognized. Only his mouth was exposed. The rest of his face, including his neck, was hidden beneath a Batman mask. His voice was stirring but not one that I could place. Still, there was something oddly familiar about him, something I couldn’t pinpoint.
“Interesting choice,” I said, nodding toward his mask.
He scanned the other faces in the room, as though this were the first time he was noticing that his mask looked nothing like all the others. Then his eyes returned to mine. “At least I got the mask part right.”
I knew everyone in Frankie’s life, and he was not part of it. I’d met most of Derek’s friends at the wedding, so he had to be one of the guys Derek met with every few weeks for drinks. No one from that small crew had been able to make it to the wedding.