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THE GAMBLER Chapters One and Two

Want a sneak peek at THE GAMBLER? Read the first two chapters below!

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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.

Chapter Two

 

Noah McMillan had known more than his share of women. He’d dated plenty in high school, but it wasn’t until college that he started plowing his way through too many women to count. And while his easy-come-easy-go lifestyle had continued after graduation, it wasn’t until his younger brother Josh joined the family business that he gave up all pretense of giving a shit.

Why should he bother when Josh gave a shit enough for the both of them?

He knew he was a disappointment to his brother and mother, but he couldn’t find it in himself to make an effort. The truth was, he’d stopped caring about much of anything after his father died a week before he graduated college.

So he’d fumbled along for more than a decade, knowing that he and his brother both had their roles. Josh was the responsible one. Noah was the joke. And Noah played his part well—perhaps too well. He was the one who’d almost made them lose their business.

There was no denying that Noah had lost the plans for an esoteric part that Josh had created for solar panels after indulging in a one-night stand at a conference. A part that would breathe new life into their flailing business. But he hadn’t given it another thought until their patent was denied and their big investor threatened to pull his funding unless the McMillan brothers sorted out the problem within a week. It didn’t take much tracking to figure out which firm had submitted an application for the same patent a mere week before they did.

Ever responsible, Josh decided he’d do everything in his power to save the business. So he bought a last-minute ticket to Kansas City, Missouri, to confront the engineering firm and prove they’d stolen the plans. Noah wished him well, then went on a bender, never once thinking his goody-two-shoes brother could pull it off.

Less than twelve hours later, Josh called to say he’d not only met one of the partners in the rival firm, but he was currently pretending to be his daughter’s fiancé. All in an effort to get closer to the firm and find proof of their wrongdoing.

Noah hopped on a plane the next morning, expecting to bail his squeaky-clean brother out of his unsavory situation. Instead, Noah teamed up with one of the bride-to-be’s best friends in an effort to keep the couple together. Granted, he and Libby had started off with completely different motivations. Libby claimed Megan and Josh were perfect for each other, while Noah’s sole purpose was to keep them together for as long as it took to get evidence implicating Megan’s father’s firm.

But soon two things became glaringly obvious. One, Josh had somehow fallen head-over-heels in love with the girl after only a few days, and two, Libby St. Clair was different than any other woman Noah had ever met. Sure, he was intrigued for all the normal reasons the first time he saw her walk into Megan’s parents’ house. Even a blind man could see Libby was gorgeous. It was hard to look away from her long dark hair, her rich brown eyes, and her clear olive skin. But he’d already pissed Josh off a thousand ways to Sunday; he wasn’t going to risk losing him for good by hooking up with his fake fiancée’s best friend. Not that Libby would have hooked up with him anyway. She made it abundantly clear that she had a boyfriend, albeit a mostly absent one. Not that she seemed to mind. But because of their mutual goal, Noah and Libby spent enough time together before the wedding to become real friends.

After Noah went back to Seattle, he was surprised to realize he missed her. So after he thought up a lame excuse, he called her, thankful when she seemed genuinely happy to hear from him. It would be the first of many near-daily calls over the next four months.

Josh’s efforts were a success. The McMillan brothers not only saved their firm, but they arranged for a merger with Megan’s father’s office. Josh began traveling to Kansas City, but he hated leaving his new wife at home, and Megan was running out of vacation time to travel with him. The couple had decided to move back to Megan’s hometown, but in the meantime, Noah started taking the trips in his brother’s place. Even more surprising—he loved the added responsibility.

And then there was all the extra time he got to spend with Libby.

No one understood their relationship, not that he blamed them. Hell, some days he didn’t understand it himself. A year ago, if someone had told him he’d be friends without benefits with a sexy-as-hell woman who drew the eyes of every man she walked past, well, there was no way he’d believe it.

Then one day Libby called Noah after a disagreement with Mitch. They talked for over two hours—something Noah had never done with any other woman, whether he was sleeping with her or not. Both were under the influence at the time. Libby had been drinking wine to drown her sorrows; Noah had been drinking beer to quiet his inner demons.

“We should hook up, Lib,” he said, gaining liquid courage from the three beers running through his bloodstream. “We’re perfect for each other.”

She was silent for so long he thought she’d either passed out or hung up on him, but she finally answered. “That’s a terrible idea, Noah.”

The sharp stab of pain from her rejection surprised him. “How can you say that? Look how well we get along.”

“And that’s exactly why we shouldn’t,” she said emphatically. “You’re probably the best friend I’ve ever had. I don’t want to lose you.”

“But you wouldn’t lose me. You’d just get more benefits,” he teased in a sultry voice.

“And what would happen after we break up?”

“Hey! We haven’t even had sex yet. Why are you already talking about us breaking up?”

“What’s the longest you’ve ever had a girlfriend?”

“Uh . . .” Did he really want to confess that it was shorter than it took bread to grow mold?

“My point exactly,” she said. Yet he could swear there was a thread of disappointment in her voice.

“You’re telling me that you’re not attracted to me?” he asked in disbelief. She had to realize there was some kind of sexual tension between them, even if they’d both chosen to ignore it. He’d almost kissed her dozens of times. And sometimes he caught her looking at him with a hungry glint in her eyes.

“Obviously I’m attracted to you,” she said. “Only a dead woman wouldn’t be attracted to you. But what we have is special. Do you really want to throw it away for cheap sex?”

He laughed. “I’ll have you know that sex with me is not cheap. In fact, a few women have offered to pay to get with this.”

“Whatever, stud muffin. You know I’m right.”

Unfortunately, he did.

Still, he wasn’t prepared for her phone call two days later.

“I’m getting married!”

His angry “You’re what?” slipped out before he could stop himself.

“Mitch and I are getting married in a month.” The defiance in her tone was unmistakable.

“A month? What the hell are you thinking, Libby?”

“Megan and Josh were married after knowing each other for only four days. I’ve been with Mitch for six months. Why shouldn’t we get married?”

“How about because you called me two days ago telling me what an ass he is.”

“It was a fight, Noah. If you stayed in a relationship long enough to discover what type of toothpaste the girl uses, you might understand.”

He knew what type of toothpaste she used, and a whole lot of other things besides, but he decided now wasn’t a good time to bring that up. Still, he wasn’t sure how to handle the swirling emotions in his head, let alone put a name to them. “What do you want me to do, Libby? Tell you congratulations?”

“That’s the typical response, Noah,” she spat out.

Congratulations.”

“That didn’t sound very convincing.”

“You have to give me a damn minute to catch up, okay?” His chest tightened as he moved to the fridge and pulled out a beer.

“It’s been ten seconds.”

“I said a damn minute.”

“How is a damn minute different from a regular one?”

A grin cracked his mouth, despite his turmoil. No one could rein him back from his emotional spirals like Libby could. He realized he had two choices: he could give her his blessing, or he could continue down the path of belligerence and possibly lose her forever. But he had to give it one more try. “Are you sure, Lib?” He lowered his voice. “I don’t think he deserves you.”

“Listen to you,” she teased. “You’re like the big brother I never had.”

That only increased his turmoil. Big brother? Did she really see him that way? “I’m serious, Libby. Don’t you want what Megan and Josh have?”

“Who says I don’t?”

A rush of anger flooded his head, burning his filter to ash. “Are you serious? You can’t possibly believe what you have with that guy is love! He’s more enamored with football than he is with you!”

“I can’t believe you just said that!”

“The proof is right in front of you, Libby. Hell, you spend more time with me than you do with him and I live two thousand miles away.”

“Then maybe I should spend less time with you!”

“Most normal women who actually loved their fiancés would.”

She hung up on him then, and he stewed in his sorrow and unease, telling himself that he’d call her the next day to apologize and they’d be fine. And as far as her impending marriage went, surely her two friends would help her see the light. Noah might not be an expert on love, but he knew Libby didn’t really love Mitch. How could she when the guy was so obsessed with football? According to Libby, Mitch had a room in his apartment stuffed so full with football paraphernalia, he could star in an episode of one of those hoarder shows. What semi-intelligent man could be with Libby St. Clair without being infatuated to the point of distraction over her?

The next morning he called her as soon as he was sure she’d be awake.

“Lib, I’m sorry. I said some things I wish I could take back.” He was surprised by how easily the apology rolled off his tongue. The first apology he could remember making was the one he’d been forced to give to his mean next-door neighbor after cutting her flowers to make his mother a bouquet. He was four at the time. Apologies had been soured for him ever since. But while he hadn’t been sorry about the neighbor lady’s flowers, he did regret hurting Libby. She was the very last person he wanted to hurt.

Libby didn’t respond for several seconds, and his heart thudded against his ribcage. Had he pushed her too far? Finally, she cleared her throat. “I want you to be in the wedding.”

What?” Rein it in, Noah. He couldn’t lose control again. He softened his tone, then joked, “I’m warning you I won’t wear a tacky rayon dress. I’m more of a silk guy.”

“Very funny,” she chuckled, but it wasn’t her genuine laugh—the one that made him feel good inside just from hearing it. “You’ll be one of the groomsmen.”

“Does Mitch know about this?”

“He thinks it’s a great idea.”

That didn’t surprise him. Mitch was one of the most laid back, albeit clueless, guys he had ever met.

“So? Will you?”

“Sure.” Not that he ever expected the wedding to take place. Libby had stepped up twice to keep her friends from making mistakes with their marriages. They owed her big time, and surely they would see what he did—that while Mitch was a good guy, he wasn’t the type who could snare Libby’s heart.

Only it didn’t happen that way.

When Noah brought it up to Josh at the office a week later, Josh played it off. “Megan and Libby had a good heart-to-heart talk, and Megan thinks Libby’s happy.”

Noah frowned. “She’s taking Libby’s two years of acting in college into account, right?”

Josh had looked up from his computer. “Why would she pretend to be happy? Especially when she was so adamant about making sure Megan and Blair made the right choices.”

Noah shook his head. “I’ve heard her mention something about getting married before her thirtieth birthday. Her birthday is next month. Maybe she’s feeling the pressure.”

“Libby? Feeling social pressure? Not likely.” Josh laughed. “If anything, it’s that stupid curse nonsense.”

Noah perked up. “What curse nonsense?”

Josh shrugged. “Megan mentioned it right after our wedding. Something about Libby believing all three of them were cursed to have disastrous weddings.”

“What does that have to do with her getting married before her birthday?”

He gave Noah an ornery grin. “I confess, my attention was on other things when Megan told me, so a lot of the details escaped me.”

Noah cringed. “TMI, dude.”

“Really? This from the king of TMI? How many of your exploits have I been forced to hear about?”

“That was different. Megan’s my sister-in-law.”

Josh gave him a look of surprise, then continued. “Like I said, I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I do know Libby totally believes in it.”

Noah sucked in a breath, trying to quell his brewing nausea. “I don’t know, Josh. I have a really bad feeling about this.”

Josh’s gaze narrowed. “Maybe you need to take a good look at why you have that feeling.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Maybe you need to examine your own life.”

Here he was trying to save his friend from making the biggest mistake of her life and Josh was using it as yet another opportunity to point out what a screw-up he was. He started to walk away, but Josh called after him.

“How’s the Abrahams account coming?”

So Josh really didn’t trust him. Noah stopped in his tracks and turned to face his brother. “Great. I have a meeting with Scott next week.”

“You’re sure you’ve got this? I know you went to college with him, but I can help if you need me to intervene.”

Noah tried to stifle his irritation. He couldn’t really blame Josh for being cautious. After all, he had spent the better part of a decade trying to do as little as possible. Still, it sucked to be treated like a preschooler, even if he deserved it. “I think we’re good.”

Josh lowered his voice. “Look, Noah. We need that account. Bad. You know that, right?”

I know.”

“If you get into any trouble, you’ll let me know?”

“Sure,” he said, still distracted by Libby and her engagement.

That night he went out with a couple of friends and met Donna at a bar. She was with several friends who joined his group. While it wasn’t exactly unusual that he went home with her, he surprised himself by asking for her number and telling her he wanted to see her again.

In a way, Josh was right. Libby’s impending marriage had made him realize how empty his life was. Now that she was preparing for her wedding—or more likely because of their disagreement—she no longer called him as frequently, which made him acutely aware that once she was married, he would hear from her even less. Her absence left an ache in his soul, and his typical one-night stands weren’t going to fill it. Donna was conventionally pretty and model-thin—the polar opposite of Libby’s exotic beauty and hourglass figure. And while Donna was a little clueless about some things, she was actually a nice woman he could take home to meet his mother.

Everyone who knew him was shocked that he’d kept a woman in his life for more than a few weeks, and while he wasn’t as over-the-moon happy as Josh, he was trying to be content. For the first time in a long while, he felt like maybe he could stop blustering and be happy. But that wasn’t entirely true. Libby was the one who’d made him feel that way, not Donna.

Maybe it just took time.

As Libby’s wedding drew closer, Noah became more and more anxious, and Donna became more and more of a bitch over his friendship with Libby.

Noah was supposed to fly out two days before the wedding, but Scott Abrahams was a hard man to pin down. He’d postponed their meeting until Friday afternoon, forcing Noah to move his flight to the day of the wedding. But five minutes before they were supposed to meet, Abrahams called to cancel.

“Noah, you know I like your plans, but I’m meeting with someone else next week. I’ll be honest—I’ll probably sign with them.”

Noah’s stomach dropped. “Scott, I’d be more than happy to go over the schematics with you over drinks.”

“I trust your schematics, and I know we go way back, but I think I can get a better deal. No hard feelings. It’s just business.”

He hung up before Noah could press him for more details.

Noah felt like he was going to be sick. How was he going to explain this to Josh? His brother was definitely going to blame him for losing the job. He considered waiting until after the wedding to tell him, but that’s what the old Noah would do. The new Noah was taking charge. He called his brother before he could change his mind.

“That was fast,” Josh said.

“There’s a reason.”

“He didn’t sign.” Josh’s voice was flat.

“He canceled the meeting.”

“What happened?”

The accusation in Josh’s voice stiffened Noah’s back. “Why does it sound like you think I fucked this up?”

“Well, did you?”

“What the hell, Josh? You know I’ve been busting my ass to get this deal.” Still, some inner voice taunted him. You must have fucked it up. You know Josh would have closed the deal without a problem.

That voice only pissed him off more.

Josh groaned in frustration. “I knew I should have sat in on some of the meetings.”

Noah’s irritation only grew. “You don’t think I can handle a meeting?”

“I’m sure you can when drinks are involved.”

“So now you’re accusing me of being a drunk and a slacker.”

“You have to admit, you’ve fit both descriptions in the past.”

“If that’s really what you think of me, why the hell am I even working there?”

“Because your name’s on the damn building!”

And that was the crux of it. Noah had never wanted to take the helm of the engineering firm, but after their father’s death, it was just expected of him. He’d barely managed to hold it together until Josh took over, even if he’d fooled everyone else into thinking management was easy for him. Of course, he could have left then, but instead he’d coasted along, reasoning that the business owed him for single-handedly running things for a while. But then again, he had no idea what else to do.

Maybe this was the push he needed.

“Then take my damn name off, because I quit!”

Before Josh could say something else in that condescending tone, Noah hung up.

Now what the hell was he going to do?

Since he’d remained in town—apparently for no reason—Donna came over to his apartment for dinner. And since he was leaving for Libby’s wedding the next day, she was bitchier than usual. To make matters worse, over the last couple of weeks she’d appointed herself his life coach. She’d started a freelance life coaching business and slowly began offering him unsolicited advice until it had increased to an annoying intensity. Tonight she dusted off her list of the areas of his life he needed to improve to find inner peace—his apartment was too small; his car was too old; his job too financially limiting. Her list was insulting, but her passive-aggressive approach made it easier for him to ignore. “Noah, don’t you think you’d be happier if you talked to Terry, my stockbroker friend, about applying for that opening in his firm? You’d make so much more money.”

The combination of losing the account, his fight with Josh, and the feeling of impending doom that surrounded him like a noxious cloud had him so utterly miserable he couldn’t help wondering if she was right. Maybe his life really did need an overhaul.

After dinner he was emotionally beat-up, but he couldn’t let the Abrahams deal go without a fight. Even if it was time to stop working with his brother, he wanted to just this once prove he was capable of something other than screwing up. He sat through as much of Donna’s lame rom-com as he could bear before he hid in the bathroom to call Cal, his friend from college who had stayed in contact with both Noah and Scott Abrahams.

“Sorry to bother you on a Friday night, Cal, but do you happen to know if Scott Abrahams still has that cute secretary? The one he’s sleeping with? Terry . . . Tobi . . .”

“Ahh . . . Tiffany.” Noah heard the smile in his voice. “Yeah, she’s still there, although I think she’s about to cut him loose. Scott says she’s been giving him grief about not leaving his wife.”

Perfect. “You don’t happen to have her number, do you? Or know her last name?”

Cal laughed. “You probably picked a good time to make a play for her. I don’t have her number, but I know her last name is Brown.”

“That’s nearly totally unhelpful.”

“She went to college at Oregon State.”

“She went to college?” Noah always assumed she’d landed her position on the basis of her physical appearance alone.

Cal laughed again. “She quit her sophomore year. She’s on Facebook. Look her up there.”

“Will do. Thanks.”

“Noah!” Donna shouted from the living room. “Did you fall in the toilet?”

“No, coming.” He flushed to corroborate his cover story and ran the water in the sink before returning to the living room. He considered searching for Tiffany on his phone, but how was he going to explain to Donna why he was looking up another woman on Facebook? That would likely get him strapped to a burning stake. He’d have to wait.

“Are you even listening to me?” Donna asked, sounding huffy, as he sat down next to her on the couch.

“What?”

“You’re busy thinking about her again. Did you go hide in the bathroom to call her?”

It took him a second to realize she was talking about Libby. Ironically enough, the last fifteen minutes had probably been the longest length of time in days that he’d gone without thinking about her. The realization only adding to his growing tempest of anxiety.

“You’re either with me or you’re not, Noah.”

This had also been a repeated topic of discussion between them. He wrapped an arm around her back and pulled her close. “Donna, you’re the one I want, sweetheart. I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Only because you had that stupid meeting with that stupid man.”

She knew how important the meeting had been, yet she’d never once asked about it. But this was how normal people functioned, right? He didn’t remember his dad going home and discussing the specifics of his job. Normal people had responsible jobs and significant others. But he couldn’t help thinking that if he and Libby were still close, it would have been the first thing she would have asked him. Noah suddenly had a craving for something more. He’d convinced himself that normal was what he wanted. What Josh had. But if this was it, was it really enough?

“I mean it, Noah,” she pouted. “It’s not normal for a guy to be friends with a girl.”

“Hey, all those people did it on Friends.”

Her eyebrows lowered into a scowl. “They all ended up sleeping with each other like some exotic swingers club.”

Noah wondered how he’d missed the X-rated version of the series—and where he could find it—but he suspected she wouldn’t appreciate the question. “Why does it have to be either or?” he asked in frustration as he jumped to his feet, his anxiety rising to an all-time high. He didn’t need this in addition to everything else. “Why can’t I be friends with her and have you too?”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“If you met her, I’m sure you’d change your mind. Come to the wedding with me tomorrow. I’ll buy you a ticket.” He wasn’t sure where that had come from, but now that he’d said it, it seemed like a good next step in their relationship. It would show her that she had nothing to worry about, that he was in this for real.

She shook her head vehemently. “No. No way. In fact, if you go to that wedding, you and I are done.”

His eyes widened. “What?”

Rising from the couch, she planted her hands on her hips, her lips pursed like she was trying out for some lipstick commercial.

“Donna, I’m in the fucking wedding! I have to go!” But even as he said the words, he realized how much he really didn’t want to go.

“It’s her or me, Noah.” Then she stomped out of his apartment.

Noah was torn. He really wanted to be there for Libby, but he wasn’t sure he could bear to watch her exchange vows with the world’s biggest Arkansas Razorbacks fan. Not to mention the fact that he had no desire to see his brother. He was sick to death of people believing the worst of him, especially since he was trying so hard to change. Besides, if he broke up with Donna, he’d be drowned in a chorus of I told you so. He wasn’t sure he could handle that on top of the rawness he felt about Libby’s impending marriage.

So after a long sleepless night, he texted Josh the next morning and told him something with Donna had come up and he wasn’t coming. He worried about hurting Libby, but she was marrying Mitch, the man she claimed to love. Why would she care if he came or not? She’d made her choice; it was time for him to worry about his own love life.

Donna . . . he could do this. He could be in a long-term committed relationship. He just needed to make more of an effort. He picked up his phone and called her, mulling over the idea of asking her to move into his apartment. Wasn’t that what couples did when they took things to the next level?

“Did you decide?” she asked in a snotty tone when she answered.

“I’m not going.”

“Wise choice, McMillan.” Her voice took on a husky tone. “I’ll be right over.”

He made a pot of coffee, wondering when he should ask her to move in. After they had sex or before?

But when he opened the door for her, apprehension sucked his breath away. Could he really spend the rest of his life with someone who only wanted him if he met the requirements of some checklist? Someone who’d asked him to cut off a close friend? Someone, he suddenly realized, he barely tolerated? He’d rather be alone and dateless for the rest of his life.

But something even more shocking hit him and the realization nearly knocked him over. He didn’t want to build a life with just anyone.

He wanted it with Libby—and only Libby.

He had to get to Kansas City and stop the wedding.

Noah put a hand on the doorframe, blocking her entry. “I made a mistake.”

“I know.” She batted her eyelashes. “And you rectified it, so let me in.” She opened her trench coat, revealing a sexy outfit of black lingerie. He felt absolutely nothing, which only strengthened his resolve.

“No. I don’t think you understand.” Why had he been such an idiot? “Choosing you was the mistake. I’m sorry, Donna, we’re done.”

She dropped the hold on her coat, her lingerie still exposed as she put her hands on her nonexistent hips. “Think long and hard about this, Noah McMillan. You’re never going to amount to anything without me. I was probably your one last chance to make something of yourself.”

Maybe she was right, but he was willing to take that chance. “Then I guess I’ll be the low-life slacker I was meant to be, because I’m done.” Then he shut the door on her stunned face.

How had he been such a fool?

He ran to his bedroom to throw some clothes in a suitcase and grab the bag with his rented tux. He hadn’t canceled his flight, and if he hurried, he could still make it there in time to stop her from making the worst mistake of her life.

Thankfully, Donna had left by the time he ran to his car and sped to the airport . . . only to discover his flight was delayed. While he waited, he opened his Facebook app and found a Tiffany Brown who lived in Seattle, went to Oregon State, worked for Scott Abrahams, and was in a relationship labeled “it’s complicated.” He sent her a friend request, knowing it was a long shot, in the hopes she could give him inside info about Scott Abrahams and the competition.

After a delay on the ground, the plane touched down three hours late, which meant the wedding was due to start in just half an hour. But when he tried to call Lib to tell her he was coming and to hold off going down the aisle until he got there, he realized his phone was dead. The night before had been so intense, he’d forgotten to charge it.

The rental car process seemed to take forever, especially since he had to take a shuttle to get there, but he finally headed out, following sketchy directions from the rental car agent, who looked all of fifteen. Amazingly enough, the directions were good, and when he saw the church up ahead, he went over his options. It was 5:15, which meant the wedding had already started. Maybe he could go inside and object, like everyone had done at Blair’s wedding.

He’d boarded the plane with the aim of interrupting the wedding, but now he couldn’t help wondering what Libby would do if he objected. Would she be relieved? Would she kill him?

He pulled into the parking lot and discovered the decision had been made for him. Libby was running out the church doors, Megan and Blair hot on her heels. Noah slowed down and drove toward them, his heart in his throat.

Then Libby bolted again, running straight for his car. He hit the unlock button, watching in disbelief as she threw her bouquet into the crowd and then opened his passenger door. The sudden frenzy of women vying for the flowers reminded him of feeding time in a shark tank. Amazingly enough, Megan’s gram was front and center.

The door opened and Libby scrambled into the passenger seat. The crowd streaming out of the church was growing by the second, and Mitch stood in front of all of them like he was their disgraced quarterback.

She kept her eyes on the crowd as she shut the door. “I’ll pay you a hundred dollars if you get me out of here right now.”

She was here. In his car. And from the look on Mitch’s face, she wasn’t married.

“Only a hundred?” he asked, purposely trying to keep his tone light. “My plane ticket cost more than that.”

Libby sucked in a breath and turned to look at him, anger in her eyes.

Oh. Shit.

 

The rest of THE GAMBLER is available September 1, 2015!

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3 Comments on "THE GAMBLER Chapters One and Two"

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Shelley Castle
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Have been waiting all summer for this book. September can’t get here soon enough.

Jena Reed
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Ohhhhhh I can’t wait for September 1st!!!!!!

M. Kincaid
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I just finished reading the entire “Wedding Pact” trilogy. Grams and Nana have definitely earned their places in my top 5 favorite secondary characters.

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