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Excerpt: The Gambler

Excerpt: The Gambler

Book 3: The Wedding Pact

Chapter One

No one had ever accused Libby St. Clair of being a practical woman. Not that she cared. The practical choice was often the safe one, the boring one. Libby St. Clair had also never been accused of being boring.

She firmly believed in living life to the fullest.

Ironically enough, the fact that she was now preparing to walk down the aisle toward a man she didn’t intend to marry was the first practical choice she’d consciously made, even if no one else realized it. Especially her two best friends.

“Libby,” Megan gushed, staring at Libby’s reflection in the mirror. “You look gorgeous.”

Blair gave her a warm smile. “She’s right, Libs. You’re stunning.”

“And just think,” Megan said, fluffing Libby’s tulle gown. “Not a single mishap.”

That was the part that shook Libby’s faith in her plan. Why was her wedding going so perfectly?

Blair put her hand on Libby’s arm and stared into her eyes in the reflection. “I confess, when you called last month and told me you were marrying Mitch three days before your thirtieth birthday, I had my doubts. I thought this might be some scheme related to that stupid wedding curse, but I’m happy I was wrong. Mitch seems like a great guy.” She cringed. “Even if he’s gone a little overboard with the football theme.”

Libby gave her a weak smile. “He is pretty great.” There was no denying it. Mitch was a fantastic guy in social situations. Of all the many boyfriends who’d come and gone in the past fifteen years, he was the only one who was both fairly dependable and accepting of her quirkiness. He even tried to understand her close friendship with Megan’s brother-in-law, Noah McMillan, which was more than she could say for Megan and Blair. That had to count for something, right?

But something was missing with Mitch. It hadn’t really mattered at first. She’d never intended to marry him. It hadn’t taken her long to figure out that the woman in his life would always take a distant second to his sporting activities. But she’d needed a date to Megan’s wedding, and then Blair’s, and the fact that her friends kept expecting her to break up with him, that they were always so utterly shocked she was still with the same guy, started to chafe. And so she stayed with him, at first wanting to save face and prove she wasn’t as flighty as they thought. Then, because she had seen the curse come to life with her friends’ weddings, and she fully expected it to do the same with hers.

Back when they were kids, the friends had made a pact to find husbands before their thirtieth birthdays. They’d formed the agreement while in line to see a fortune teller, and mere moments later, Madame Rowena had assured them they would keep the pact, but their weddings would be disasters and each of them would marry someone other than their intended. The curse. Only Libby had taken it seriously, but there was no denying that Megan and Blair had both gotten married before their thirtieth birthdays, and neither of their husbands were the men who’d originally proposed to them. And God knew, the days leading up to their weddings had been filled with disaster after disaster.

Just like the fortune teller had predicted.

“In a week or two, maybe Garrett and I will have you both over for dinner.”

“Listen to you, Blair Hansen-Lowry,” Megan gushed. “Dinner parties with other couples? Marriage definitely agrees with you.”

The normally hard-assed Blair actually blushed. “Now that Garrett has moved to Kansas City and we’re starting our own practice . . .” Her blush deepened. “I just never expected to be so happy.” Then a mock scowl crossed her face. “If you ever repeat that to anyone, I’ll deny it.”

Megan gave her a teasing grin, but she knew better than to make a big deal of their friend’s uncharacteristic sentimentality. “Just think. When Josh and I move into our house in Lee’s Summit next month, all six of us can hang out together. It’ll be like old times.”

Libby had to admit, Blair looked happier than she had since high school. The curse had changed her life—and Megan’s—for the better.

So what in the hell was Libby doing wrong? Staring down at her bare left finger, she tried to keep from wringing her hands. Because she’d never planned to walk down the aisle toward him, she’d refused to let Mitch buy her an engagement ring. She’d bought two cheap wedding bands at a superstore to avoid suspicion. The best man now had them in his pocket.

The door to their room opened, and Josh McMillan, Megan’s husband of five months, poked his head in the room. “Hey, girls.”

Megan glanced up in surprise. “Josh, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you seated?”

Libby looked at him with a hopeful expression. Since Mitch had a tendency to tune out anything that wasn’t directly related to the Arkansas Razorbacks or the high school football team he coached and the school where he taught phys. ed., Libby had put Josh in charge of making sure the groom’s side of things ran smoothly. Perhaps this was what she’d been waiting for. Josh walked through the threshold and shut the door behind him.

“Libs, I have some bad news.”

“Mitch didn’t show?” She tried to keep the excitement out of her voice.

His eyes widened, then he shook his head. “What? No. Nothing like that. Mitch is in the church office watching the Arkansas football game.”

Figured. “Then what’s the bad news?”

He grimaced, casting a glance at Megan, then back at Libby. “I’m sure you’re wondering why we haven’t started yet . . .”

“You mean it’s not because Mitch doesn’t want to miss the end of the game?” Libby asked wryly.

“Not entirely.” He looked concerned. “It’s because we’ve been waiting on one of the groomsmen to arrive.”

There were only two groomsmen, and she could account for the best man, having seen Mitch’s cousin only a few hours earlier. That left one person. Josh’s brother. “Is Noah’s plane late?”

“Not exactly…”

She waited for him to continue, trying not to get upset until she had all the facts.

“He’s not coming at all.”

The blood rushed from her head. “What? Why not?”

“Libs, I don’t know. He said something about Donna needing him this weekend.”

His girlfriend of four weeks?

Back in June, Libby and Noah had become instant friends in the lead-up to Megan and Josh’s circus of a wedding, and the two had schemed to make sure the new couple’s marriage was legit. Their friendship had grown closer over the following months, and Noah had quickly replaced Libby’s two best friends as her closest confidant.

Noah was a notorious womanizer and Libby was known for her serial dating. Their relationship confounded everyone they knew. It was so unlike them, but then, maybe that was why it worked. It had only seemed natural to include Noah in the wedding party. After all, Mitch hadn’t minded.

But he’d suddenly decided not to come? Just on a whim?

What the actual hell?

Josh gave her a sympathetic look. “Libby, I’m sorry. I warned you he could be . . . unreliable.”

It was true. But Libby had never seen that side of Noah. Somehow she’d thought their friendship had changed him. It had definitely changed her.

Libby put a hand on her hip and narrowed her eyes at the innocent McMillan brother. “Let me get this straight. He agreed to be in my wedding, then he decided not to come because his girlfriend of four weeks has something she wants him to do?”

In a show of solidarity, Megan crossed the room to her husband and placed a hand on his arm. “Josh has told me stories of Noah’s epic fails in the past, but he hasn’t acted like this since I’ve known him. And he’s taken on so much responsibility with the merger of Dad’s company with Josh and Noah’s . . . Josh really did think he had changed.”

Libby wiped at the tear falling down her cheek. This wedding might not be real, but Noah still should have been here for her. The amount of grief she felt over his absence caught her by surprise.

But what did it matter if they were short a groomsman? The wedding wasn’t going to take place anyway. After all, there was no way that the curse would strike for both Megan and Blair and miss her. Her knight in shining armor—her one true love, her soul mate—would show up at any minute to sweep her off her feet and marry her before her birthday on Tuesday.

Only she had no earthly idea who he might be. The only thing she knew was what the lines on her palm told her—he was creative and would shower her with the love she’d longed for her entire life.

A cold sweat broke out on her forehead. What if this didn’t work?

“What do you want to do?” Blair asked, her jaw set. She’d barely tolerated Noah in the past, so these shenanigans weren’t bound to make her any fonder of him.

One hundred people were sitting in that church, waiting for her to walk down the aisle.

What the hell was she going to do?

Faith. Libby just needed more faith. She’d had enough faith for Megan and Blair when their lives and weddings had begun to fall apart. Since they hadn’t seemed to understand what was really going on, Libby had needed to have enough faith for all three of them.

She gave them a dazzling smile. “Go ahead with the wedding, of course.”

“What about the missing groomsman?” Megan asked.

Libby shrugged. She refused to show her friends how upset she was that Noah wasn’t there. “Have Josh stand in for him.” She gave him a pointed glance, disappointment seeping into her voice. “Haven’t you spent most of your adult life cleaning up his messes? What’s one more?”

“Oh, Libby.” Megan threw her arms around her friend. “I’m so sorry.”

Libby pulled loose. “I’m okay. I should have known better. I just thought he was beyond this sort of thing.”

“We all did.”

“Does that mean you’re ready?” Blair asked, holding out Libby’s wildflower bouquet.

“I guess.”

Her response drew worried glances from her friends, but she was too busy trying to figure out what she would do if the curse didn’t work.

No. No. No. Stop thinking like that. She just had to believe.

Libby reached for the bouquet and took a deep breath. When she released it, serenity washed through her. This was going to work.

It had to.

Megan gave Josh a lingering kiss, then pulled back and smoothed his lapel, staring into his face with adoration and love. Both Blair and Libby had been jealous of their connection, even if neither woman had ever admitted it. But Blair had found that same deep love and contentment with Garrett. So where was Libby’s soulmate?

Josh left to get the groom and the other groomsman up to the altar while the three girls waited. The door flew open again, this time with more force. Libby’s mother waltzed in with a theatrical flounce. “They’re ready for you, my princess.”

Irritation set Libby on edge, quickly followed by a stab of guilt as she studied her mother. Gabriella St. Clair was a stunningly beautiful woman. Her rich dark brown hair was thick and long, and her olive complexion was flawless and nearly wrinkle-free, even though she had to be close to fifty years old, not that she’d ever admit to it. Libby had no idea how old her mother actually was since the elder St. Clair would never confess the year of her birth. Not that it mattered. Gabriella St. Clair’s face and body defied time, and she and Libby were often mistaken for sisters.

And there was the rub. Gabriella preferred to be seen as Libby’s sister than her mother and often did her best to make sure she was the center of attention. Even now—wearing a form-fitting white dress with a deep V-neck that showed off her ample cleavage—Gabriella St. Clair would not be relegated to the background.

Libby’s mother glided over to her and grabbed her hand in a dramatic flourish. “You are by far the most beautiful bride I’ve ever seen.”

Libby gritted her teeth. “Thank you, Momma.”

“I’m still not sure that boy out there is right for you.”

That was one of the few things the St. Clair women agreed upon, except Gabriella didn’t think Libby should marry at all.

“Thank you for your concern, Momma.”

Her mother patted her cheek and looked into her eyes. “No talking you out of it?”

Libby released a short laugh. At this point, if either of her friends told her this was crazy and encouraged her to back out of it, she’d probably do it in a heartbeat. But hearing her mother say it was a whole other thing. “I’ve made up my mind.”

“Well, nothing’s forever, sweetheart.” Gabriella shot a wicked glance to Blair. “And you already have a divorce attorney on retainer.”

Blair’s mouth opened as if on a hinge, but Gabriella was already sweeping out of the room.

Blair put her hands on her hips. “I can’t believe her!”

Libby shook her head, her anxiety rising. “It’s my mother. What do you expect?” She took a breath. “It’s time to start.”

Megan took a step toward her. “Maybe you should take a moment.”

“I don’t care what she thinks. We’ve known she’s a narcissistic bitch since before I found her and my first boyfriend screwing on our kitchen counter. Why would anything change in the last fifteen years?”

“Oh, Libs . . .” Megan said softly.

Megan’s sweetness was nearly her undoing. “Forget my mother. There are bigger things to worry about. I have a date with destiny.”

Her friends gave her a strange look, but Libby pushed them toward the door, not giving them time to respond.

They waited in the church lobby, listening for the musical cue to start down the aisle. Blair went first, followed by Megan. And soon the music switched to the song Mitch had picked for her walk down the aisle—the Razorback fight song. She’d agreed to everything he’d asked for, never once thinking the wedding would progress this far.

Libby cast a worried glance toward the front door of the church, wondering where in the hell her soul mate could be. After a good twenty seconds, long enough for the guests in the church to start murmuring in confusion, Libby realized he wasn’t going to come walking through the door.

Which meant he was inside the church.

Relief washed over her at that thought, which was enough to get her through the door and propel her down the aisle. Her gaze swept the crowd, looking for her Prince Charming, but the only real candidate she came up with was Mitch’s Uncle Earl—a forty-two-year-old confirmed bachelor and wholesale fish salesman down in Louisiana. He was a good seventy-five pounds overweight, and during the rehearsal dinner, Libby and her friends had decided he wore a toupee. He gave her a leering smile when he realized her gaze had landed on him. Then he licked his upper lip, as if he’d just spotted a particularly succulent catfish.

She’d rather marry Mitch.

Mitch wasn’t so bad. Her friends liked him. And if she could learn to overlook the football fanaticism, he was sweet. Sure, Libby had done her level best to keep Blair from marrying a man she didn’t love, but there was no denying that Mitch was a better partner than Neil could ever be. Still, Libby couldn’t fool herself into thinking she was head over heels in love. After she’d announced her short engagement, Blair and Megan had quizzed her endlessly about her decision. She must have performed the role of the gushing bride-to-be a little too well, because she’d convinced them this was what she wanted. But if she went through with it, it would be until death do us part. While Libby might know the best divorce attorney in the universe, she’d never let it come to that.

Unlike her mother, Libby believed marriage was for keeps.

So what was she doing?

Maybe her white knight hadn’t shown up yet. Maybe he’d gotten lost in traffic. Libby just had to keep going and believe it would all work out.

But as she climbed the two steps up the altar, panic clawed in her chest. Have faith, she repeated in her head. Just have faith.

Mitch waited for her, wearing his black tux with his University of Arkansas tie. He lifted his pants legs to reveal his Razorback socks. “Ehh?” He grinned as he dropped it. “You’re gonna be the perfect wife, Libby,” he whispered. “What other bride would let her groom finish watching a football game before the ceremony?” Then he winked and nudged her with his elbow. “We won! Twenty-three to twenty-one! Go Hogs!” he shouted, following up with a victory whoop—“Wooo Pig Sooooie!!!”—that his friends joined in from the pews.

Megan and Blair’s eyes flew open in shock.

Welcome to the real Mitch.

Her anxiety ratcheted up five notches.

Why couldn’t Megan and Blair read between the lines and realize she wasn’t in love with him? Libby had recognized all the signs with the both of them. Were they so eager for her to settle down that they’d give their approval to anyone?

She decided to ignore the fact that she’d proposed to him. Her lame attempt to get the curse rolling.

Lost in her thoughts, she was shocked to hear the minister ask, “Mitch, would you like to read your vows?”

Oh, shit. They were already to the vows?

Mitch cleared his throat and reached into his jacket and pulled out a white paper. After carefully unfolding it, he held it up for everyone to see.

Oh, my God. It’s a play diagram.

Sure enough, the paper was covered with circles and x’s, big sweeping lines and arrows. “Libs, you and me are like when the Razorbacks played Kansas in the Cotton Bowl in 2012. The Razorbacks hadn’t beaten the Jayhawks since 1967. They used this quarterback sneak play.” He held it against his chest and pointed to it. “And do you know what happened?”

She stared at him in shock. What was happening?

“They whooped some Jayhawk ass and became the Cotton Bowl champions!”

Then Mitch and his friends let out another Woo Pig Sooie.

Had it been possible to die from embarrassment, she would have collapsed to the floor at that very moment.

“That’s us, baby. You and me. We’ll whoop ass and lead our team to victory. You, me, and all our little half-backs.” When she didn’t answer, he mistook her horror for confusion. “You know. Our kids,” he added with a wink.

His friends in the audience let loose another Hogs call.

The minister gaped for several seconds before closing his mouth and swallowing. “Uh . . . Libby, do you have vows?”

Oh, my God. This was way past cold feet. This bordered on insanity.

“No.”

Mitch lowered his paper, confusion in his eyes.

“No?” The minister’s eyebrows shot up. “Would you prefer to recite the traditional vows after me?”

She glanced back at Megan and Blair, who stood frozen in shock, then turned to face the minister. “No.”

Mitch blinked. “What’s wrong with my little running back? Did you forget your vows?”

Running back . . . run . . . If she didn’t get out of here, she was going to jump out of her skin. “I’m sorry, Mitch. I can’t do this.” She grabbed her full skirt in one hand and took off down the aisle for the exit.

“Libs?” Mitch called out. “Are you goin’ out for a pass?”

She glanced over her shoulder, ignoring the horrified stares of the guests. “I’m passing all right.” She ran out the doors, Megan and Blair fast on her heels as she fought her rising hysteria.

Oh, God. The curse had failed her, and she’d just run out of her own wedding.

“Libby,” Megan called after her, but she raced toward the parking lot without slowing.

Guests had begun streaming out the double doors, Mitch in the lead.

“Libby? Where’re you goin’?” he called after her.

What was she going to do? She had no purse. No car keys. In fact, her mother had driven her to the church. She had nowhere to hide. Humiliated beyond belief, she was like a rat trapped in a maze, only there was no piece of cheese waiting for her. No perfect soul mate waiting in the wings. Only more humiliation.

A car pulled into the parking lot, and before she could stop to consider what she was doing, she bolted for it. The car slowed down, the driver probably stunned by the spectacle. She saw an opportunity and took it. Opening the passenger door, she glanced down at the bouquet in her hand. Without thinking, she tossed it toward the wedding guests congregating on the lawn.

Megan’s grandmother’s eyes lit up. “That bouquet’s mine, bitches!” She leapt for it just as one of Libby’s college friends grabbed it too.

Gram tackled the younger woman to the ground and a wrestling match began.

Her eyes still on the melee, Libby slid into the car. “I’ll pay you a hundred dollars if you get me out of here right now.”

Half the guests had spilled out onto the lawn now, and Mitch stood in the front, looking dazed and confused.

What had she done? She’d been so certain activating the curse would lead her to the man of her dreams that she’d ignored the little voice in her head whispering that she was callously using Mitch. But now the proof of her selfishness was literally staring her in the face.

“Only a hundred?” an amused voice answered. “My plane ticket cost more than that.”

Libby gasped in relief when she recognized the voice of the driver next to her. But then she remembered he’d stood her up.

Noah McMillan was a dead man.