After This Night (Seductive Nights #2)(2)

by Lauren Blakely

Didn’t work. Not in general, and certainly not tonight, when she had jetpacks of anger fueling her. She was pissed at Dillon, pissed at Stevie, pissed at Charlie, pissed at Hunter, and most of all, pissed at Clay for not believing her. If only he could see her now, he’d feel like a goddamn heel for casting all that doubt on her. He’d acted like she was a lying drug user, like his ex. Ha. Couldn’t be farther from the truth. She wished she could record this game with a secret hidden camera and show him. “There. See? I’m this scumbag’s ringer ‘til my debt is done. Happy now?”

Screw him and his lack of faith. Screw Hunter and his lack of a tell. Screw his tutor. Screw them all. She was ballsier than Hunter, and she’d play to her strengths. Guts.

She had two tens, and she was betting on them.

“I’ll see your $500 and I’ll raise you $1000,” she said, pressing her long red fingernail against one chip, sliding it in, then methodically doing the same with the next two chips.

He showed no response for a few seconds, as if he were trying to hold in his reaction. Then his eyebrow twitched, and she wanted to pump a fist. New tell, perhaps?

The rest of the crew had folded. The guy who owned a sporting goods shop leaned back in his chair, eyes flickering between Julia and Hunter. He was a regular, and a plant. He won some, lost some, and generally was in attendance to balance out a game. There was also a young guy with chiseled cheekbones and wavy hair who drove one of Charlie’s limos. All here to pad the table.

Over in the kitchen, Stevie the Skunk sifted through a plate of fresh-baked cookies, scarfing down another one. She had no idea who’d baked cookies for a rigged card game, but maybe it was his mama or his wife. Or maybe it was his colleague. There was a new guy with him, a baby-faced fellow named Max with gray eyes and a barrel-like body. Perhaps he was a trainee of Skunk’s, Julia had mused when she’d met him before the game. No gun on his ankle yet, though. Maybe he hid it elsewhere.

Hunter surprised her by grabbing two chips and dropping them in the pile. “Time to show the cards. Lucky sevens,” he said with a lopsided grin, all confidence and bravado now. She wondered if his tutor would pat him on the back for that move, and say good boy. She wondered if she cared what his tutor thought. She decided she didn’t. All she wanted was that money, so badly she was damn near salivating for it. All those black beauties in the pile would bring her a touch closer to freedom from Charlie’s thumb, and his knife, and his goon who followed her around with a gun.

She laid down her hand, revealing her pair of tens. Hunter nodded once, all steely-eyed and cool at first. But when Julia pulled the chips over to her corner of the table, he pointed a finger at her. She raised her eyes, mildly curious.

Hunter didn’t speak at first. She could see the cogs in his head turning, like he was adding, multiplying and dividing.

“You don’t play like the rest of them,” he said in an even voice.

“You don’t say,” she replied, emotionless.

“You play like a shark. I see it in your eyes. I know that look. I’m a venture capitalist. I have that look every day when I take a risk. You’re the same.”

“Just call me a VC then,” she said as she stacked her chips, keeping her hands steady even though her heart was thumping.

“You’re not just a player,” he said, with narrowed eyes.

“Call me a player. Call me not a player. I don’t care. Why don’t you just deal the next hand?” she said, keeping her cool as best she could.

Skunk looked up from the cookies when he heard the chatter. This was more talking than usual for this kind of a game.

“No,” he said, shaking his head as he rose. “I’m not gonna deal. You’re a f**king ringer, aren’t you?”

Stevie the Skunk took the reins. He ambled over to the table and pressed his big hands on the wood. “What’s going on? We all playing nice?”

“No. She’s a ringer and this game is rigged. I knew something was up the first time, and I know it for sure now,” he said, pointing his finger accusingly at the big man. Max marched closer but kept his distance, watching the scene.

Julia’s blood raced along the speedways in her body, panic galloping through her veins. She had a sinking feeling about what was coming next, and she was right. Skunk reached for his gun with a speed she’d never imagined the lumbering man possessed. “Get the f**k out,” he said coolly to Hunter. “And you’re not welcome at the restaurant, either.”

“I was right,” Hunter said, practically hopping in righteousness.

Julia clamped her lips shut so she wouldn’t shout, “What did you think it was? What the hell else could this game possibly be?”

“Charlie told me it was an executive game, but it’s not,” he insisted and he must have been the ballsiest VC in the Valley because he wasn’t leaving.

Stevie waved the gun. “Was there something unclear about what I said? Because it sounded clear to me. But if you’re having trouble hearing, I’m happy to head on down to the local precinct tonight and make sure my friends on the force know that you put your f**king hands all over this woman here,” he said, gripping Julia’s shoulder with his free paw, in a gesture that felt both strangely protective and thoroughly invasive. “And I’ve got witnesses who’ll vouch for me, right?”

The chiseled-cheekbone guy nodded along with the sporting goods fella.

The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and she was oddly grateful for Skunk, and disgusted at the same time. He’d protected her, but he’d really protected Charlie’s investment. And he’d done it in the same way Charlie had subverted her for his uses—by betting on her being a woman. By betting on men underestimating her at cards, and now by suggesting she was a helpless little lady who’d been manhandled.

Hunter grabbed his few remaining chips. “I’m cashing out.”

“No you’re not. You’re getting out. That’s your penalty for disrupting the game. Out,” Skunk said in a low and powerful tone, pointing to the door.

Hunter held up his hands, huffed out through his nostrils. “You won’t be seeing the last of me.”

He left, the sound of his footsteps echoing as he clomped down the stairs.

* * *

Charlie glared at her. “What did you say to him?”