Seven Poker Night buddies are very good with their hands…and are about to lose their hearts! Each one comes to learn that only great risk leads to great reward…
John Boone loves women, and avoids focusing on just one until he meets his temporary next-door-neighbor, Gemma Marquette. She’s fancy high heels to his scuffed construction boots and soft pop to his hard rock, yet there’s an attraction that neither can deny. But he also recognizes a woman who wants forever, so he’s determined to keep his hands off until Gemma suggests one way to manage their combustible chemistry…a fling!
Experience has taught Gemma to
distrust commitment no matter how much she might desire it, so she’s on a guy
hiatus when a handsome, sexy mountain of a man takes notice of her. All those
muscles might be too hot to handle, but she finds herself compelled to give it
a try…while still holding her heart safe. For as long as she can, that is…
John Boone—simply Boone to his many friends and acquaintances—braked as he pulled his truck from his garage, his gaze shifting to the sleek sedan drawing up in front of the bungalow next door. It was past dark, but no lights illuminated the residence’s walkway or front porch. He knew they existed, however, because he’d overseen the construction of every one of the two dozen homes in this small development known as Sawyer Shores in the Central California coastal community of Sawyer Beach.
He ordered himself to return his foot to the accelerator; the woman belonging to the neighboring house was no concern of his.
But still he hesitated, watching as one slim leg emerged through the opening of the passenger door and then the other. As she straightened to stand on the sidewalk, both feet in ankle-length boots, she swung the car’s door shut.
To Boone’s dismay, the vehicle instantly sped away, the driver not waiting to ensure she made it safely inside, let alone walking the lone woman to the front entrance of her darkened home.
But that was no business of Boone’s either, though he’d seen the owner of the car once before and taken an instant dislike to his clipped golden hair, his tie, his polished loafers. As a general rule, Boone didn’t pass judgement on others, but for some inexplicable reason that day he’d bristled at the way the Suit’s proprietary fingertips made contact with the neighbor as they stood beside his fancy car. The other man had touched her right in the hollow above the curve of her pretty ass.
Her pretty ass had nothing to do with Boone either, he told himself. Still, he pretended to check his text messages as he watched the woman approach the entry, the ambient glow from his own landscape lighting allowing him to make out her slender figure and the swing of her shoulder-length hair that he knew to be coffee[ME2] dark with a slight wave at the ends. Besides those high-heeled boots, she wore a dress with a hemline that brushed the top of her knees and she switched the jacket she carried over one arm to the other in order to insert a key into the lock on the front door. Once it closed behind her, Boone forced himself to leave without waiting the extra minute or so it might take her to passcode then reset the alarm system.
The woman next door is nothing to me. He put her from his mind as he made the short drive to the venue of his weekly poker game.
Good thing he’d left when he did, because judging by the vehicles already in evidence outside his buddy Hart Sawyer’s house, he was nearly the last to arrive. The final player to turn up was tasked at the end of the evening with gathering the recyclables—glass bottles and aluminum cans. Following that he must dispose of them properly, in this case hauling the stash to the corner where large recycle bins were hidden behind an attractive pen made of stained re-sawn lumber and black-painted trim. Hart lived in Sawyer Shores too.
His old friend and host’s eyebrows shot high as Boone shoved open the front door and stepped inside the home. “What’s got you in a dark mood?” he asked. “You look like someone made off with your favorite tool belt.”
Boone ignored the question as he strode, two bags of pretzels in hand, to the kitchen’s island, the designated snacks area. Hart’s house was bigger than Boone’s which was bigger than the brunette neighbor’s—he reminded himself thoughts of her were banished—and half the long surface held non-greasy snacks of various sorts. On the other half sat a six-foot deli sandwich carved into generous pieces as well as condiments, various cold salads, and paper plates.
Poker night’s host provided dinner to be eaten before the evening’s entertainment began. Guests brought other foodstuffs to be enjoyed during play.
“Whoa, you do look like your boxers are in a twist,” his friend Eli King said, a hunk of bread and meat paused on its way to his mouth. “Watch out, you can lose your balls that way.”
Boone ignored that too, helping himself to a beer and to a waiting slice of the sub. As he chewed his first bite, he heard his name, the feminine tone startling him. By tradition, women didn’t attend poker night. He glanced over to see Sophie Daggett, the little sister of his good friend and fellow player, Cooper, as she emerged from the confines of the cavernous refrigerator.
“Don’t you worry,” she said, addressing his unvoiced surprise. Small and honey blonde, she grinned at Boone, her expression amused. “I’m not staying. I wouldn’t dream of breaking one of the sacrosanct rules. I just brought over the food.”
Yeah. That’s right. He knew the younger woman worked for a local café and also was hustling hard to establish a catering business on the side.
“Good to see you, Soph,” he said as she breezed by, popping onto tiptoe to brush a kiss against his cheek.
“Good to see me going, you mean,” she answered, with another sunny smile for the rest of the guys as she headed for the front door.
“Wait,” Hart commanded, halting her forward momentum. She turned, and his hand drew a roll of bills out of his pocket that he pressed into hers.
Sophie glanced down, then cleared her throat. “Too much,” she said, her gaze sweeping up to Hart’s face.
“Kid,” he said, his tone kind. Very brotherly. “Don’t argue with your elders.” Setting his hands on her shoulders, he angled her toward the door. “Go on, now.”
For a second, Sophie didn’t obey, then she took one step forward. “Right.” She nodded, the gesture emphatic. But on a second step, she halted again, sending Hart a look over her shoulder, one filled with something Boone couldn’t interpret. Pain? Shame? Guilt?
Before he could figure it out, her head snapped around once more and she raised spread fingers and palm overhead in a jazz-handy wave. “I’ll leave you and the rest of the 7-Stud Club in peace. You’re free to let down your hair and commence with the heart-to-hearts.”
At the click of the door’s latch upon her exit, Eli addressed the poker crew—Hart, Cooper, Maddox Kelly, and Boone—all focused on wolfing down portions of the meat-and-cheese sandwich. “Why do women continue with their erroneous belief that we ever talk about feelings?” he asked, sounding aggrieved. “It’s beneath our dignity.”
“Why does she continue to call us the 7-Stud Club?” Boone grumbled. The pesky gamine had coined the nickname years ago, riffing off one of the most popular games in their poker repertoire, seven-card stud.
Then, frowning, he did another head count. “Hey, where’s everybody else?”
“Just us tonight,” Hart said. “Shane and Rafael couldn’t make it.”
After a moment, Boone shrugged, though he realized that meant he’d earned recycle duty. Five players worked just fine when it came to play.
Eli was still grousing as they dumped their empty plates into the garbage and settled with beverages of choice around Hart’s round poker table, its felt surface edged with a padded leather bumper. The game rotated locations and they each had put together decent setups over the years. Tonight, as usual, the host acted as banker and Hart had pre-stacked ceramic poker chips for the customary buy in. He passed the discs over in turn as each guy ponied up cash.
“Don’t women know,” Eli said, obviously unwilling to let go of the subject, “that we don’t trade secrets and makeup tips on Thursday nights?”
Now Cooper forked over his money. “You want to tell ’em instead you’re here to measure your dick against the rest of ours, King?”
Eli threw his money clip at his friend who caught it in midair with a laugh and a smirk. Eli flipped him off with the middle fingers of both hands. Then they both laughed.
Yeah. Poker night. Sighing, Boone settled his bulk into his chair. The seating was comfortable, but at 6’ 5” and 225 pounds, it took his body some time to be convinced of that.
“What’s gonna happen after you get married next month, Hart?” Maddox asked, sliding his buy in toward their host. “Kim willing to let her new husband out of her sight one night a week?”
Boone stilled. It should have occurred to him that poker night might change—end altogether?—after Hart tied the knot. He’d be the first of their regular card group to wed. But what did Boone know? He’d never been married and his mother had left him and his dad before Boone reached kindergarten. All he recalled about marriage were arguments, silence, and eventual abandonment.
Not a good background for a guy who’d agreed to be best man.
Shit. Should he have declined? Three months before, Hart came home from a college reunion weekend, flying high upon reacquaintance with his freshman-year girlfriend. A couple of out-of-town weekends later—she lived four hours away—he announced they’d become engaged and were marrying here in Sawyer Shores where Kim would come to live after the big event.
Then he’d asked Boone to be the number one guy in the wedding party. It hadn’t occurred to him to hedge—especially after meeting Kim and becoming convinced his long-time friend was absolutely gone for the woman.
But how could he truly judge that, or the couple’s odds for long-term happiness?
Fact was, he couldn’t. He could only take his best friend’s word that he was genuinely, profoundly in love.
Taking a swig of his beer, he came to the conclusion that Hart hadn’t asked him to stand up beside him because Boone was some marital expert. They knew each other too well for that. Relieved by the thought, he put everything from his mind when the play began.
As Eli had said, chatter at the table didn’t involve anything personal or political. Boone, therefore, was as happy as a pig in mud taking his fair share of the pots and like everyone else, swapping insults, rolling his eyes at bad bluffs, and groaning at missed opportunities. It was all typical poker night beer and bullshit until they took their last break of the evening to gather around the snacks, everyone switching to soda or water in deference to the impending drives home.
“Who’s your date to Hart’s wedding?” Eli asked Boone, when the groom-to-be had excused himself for a few moments.
“Date?” he said, blinking as if coming awake. He’d been deep in poker zone. Happy. Pig in mud. The word “date” felt like someone threw ice down his back.
“Yeah.” Eli took a long swallow of soda. “Women love weddings, even if the couple are strangers. I’ve heard it puts them in a mood.” He wiggled his brows.
“I don’t think—”
“For God’s sake, Boone, we know you like to move slow, but females need an early head’s up for an occasion like this,” Eli said. “They make beauty appointments. Buy shoes. A dress.”
An image popped into Boone’s head. The neighbor. Those legs, the high heels, her swinging hair. He shifted his shoulders. Tried to regain control of his thoughts. “I have someone I’m already paired with at the wedding,” he said. “Hart tells me I’ll walk up and down the aisle with the matron of honor—”
“Matron,” Cooper pointed out, joining the discussion. “Means she’s married, friend.”
“And she has four kids,” Hart added, jogging down the stairs to rejoin the group. “And don’t think you’re getting anywhere with the two bridesmaids. They’re both engaged.”
Boone sucked in a breath. He didn’t want to get anywhere with the two bridesmaids, damn it!
“That’s too bad,” Cooper said, his expression full of genuine sorrow. “Bridesmaids are sweet. Out-of-town bridesmaids the sweetest, because they go home before the hangover wears off.”
“Still.” Eli again. “You really should invite some pretty girl to be by your side. Everybody will expect it.”
Despite Boone trying to silently express his disinterest, the other players continued their discussion about the merits of wedding dating. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he tried tuning out his friends’ advice and instruction. He’d never wanted or needed some pretty girl by his side. Yeah, he had them in his bed when it worked, when they wanted what he offered which was his best effort to get them both off—for one night, two nights, hardly ever three.
That arrangement kept him satisfied. His world controllable. He had no intention of seeking anything more—someone by his side, for God’s sake—knowing that his interest in romance as well as his capacity for it were nil.
The whole subject put him out of sorts. He wallet was lighter than it should have been when he heaved a bag of cans and a bag of bottles into the recycle bins then headed home.
“I should back out of the best man business,” he muttered to himself as he turned onto his block. But he couldn’t disappoint Hart, who’d befriended him in third grade when Boone was a scrawny newcomer to the elementary school and the biggest bully in class was demanding his lunch money. Look in the dictionary under “great guy,” and there’d be a photo of Hart Sawyer. He deserved happiness and he deserved it served up just the way he wanted it, with an on-the-sand wedding in Sawyer Beach and with his preferred best man standing up with him.
Boone wouldn’t disappoint him, though he didn’t need, want, or intend to ask some pretty woman to be on his arm.
Up ahead, he noted that same flashy sedan as before pulled alongside his neighbor’s house. Boone slowed, his gaze moving to the figure on the front porch. The man was knocking on the door. Rolling down his window, Boone heard him calling out in a hushed, yet demanding tone. “Gemma, come on. Let me in. We need to talk.”
Boone waited, watching to see what happened, and when nothing changed—porch still dark, no feminine figure opening the door—he could sense the other man’s frustration.
“Gemma,” he said. “We must speak.”
Boone didn’t know what was going through Gemma’s mind, but Boone wanted to get home and get to bed.
The woman next door is nothing to me.
Accelerating, he reached his house, put on his clicker, and glided into the driveway as his garage door eased open. One eye on the man next door, he saw the instant the asshole gave up. His arm shot high in a vexed gesture and he made a sharp turn on one foot. Whether he meant to or not, as he exited the porch his shoe caught a wood planter on a low stand. Both toppled over.
Without a downward glance, the guy strode to his car and sped off.
The woman next door is nothing to me, Boone repeated as he nosed the vehicle into the confines of his garage. It was time to hit the sack and get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow was Friday and his construction crew was always antsy on Fridays. He had to be on his toes to keep them on their toes.
Exiting the truck, he focused on the door leading from the garage into the house. But instead of the fireproof rectangle that he’d installed himself, he saw those legs, those high heels, that coffee-dark hair swinging against her shoulders.
She was nothing to him.
Then his feet moved, but not in the intended direction. He found himself on the walkway to her front porch, where he bent to examine the fallen planter. Simple enough. What looked like an old-fashioned bushel basket, constructed of raw, weathered slats of wood, held dirt and a healthy flowering geranium. He righted the planter, only to notice its stand had been damaged, one of the short legs having broken free.
Maybe it had suffered a previous injury and only needed that careless bump from the asshole to damage the thing.
More than maybe it was none of Boone’s business.
The woman either.
Still, he bent over.
On a sigh, he collected the stand and the loosened leg and headed to his garage. A nail or two, some wood glue, a few hours in a vice, that should fix it.
In the morning he’d walk it back to her porch and forget about the thing altogether.