The VIP Doubles Down
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Gavin Miller walked into the paneled bar of the ultra-exclusive Bellwether Club, rolling his neck in a vain attempt to ease the jabbing muscle spasms. Spasms that came from staring at a computer screen for hours at a time without typing a single word of the novel that was now eight months overdue. He hoped a stiff drink would offer some relief.
His friend Luke Archer had persuaded him to venture out on a sleety late February evening. Luke was the New York Empire’s Super Bowl–winning machine of a quarterback. Former quarterback, as of a few days ago. Which was why Gavin was suspicious of the invitation, since he would expect Luke to be home celebrating his retirement with his new wife.
“What the . . . ?” he snapped as he spotted Luke sitting with Nathan Trainor, the CEO of Trainor Electronics. Nathan was also a friend, as well as the third participant in a drunken wager they’d made five months before. A wager on love.
Luke was dressed casually in khaki trousers and a blue-and-white-striped shirt, but the CEO was wearing a navy suit, as though he’d come directly from a business meeting. The fact that Luke had brought reinforcements increased Gavin’s wariness. Stalking over to the brass-topped table, he scowled at the two men. “I didn’t know we were having a convention.”
“Sit down, Miller,” Nathan said, the corner of his mouth twitching as he waved his cut-glass tumbler toward an empty leather chair. “And stop being so charming. We’re just three friends having a drink together.”
Gavin slouched into the chair, shifting as pain ripped through his neck and shoulders. He forced himself not to wince.
The CEO nudged a glass of amber-colored liquid toward Gavin. “Bourbon. Maybe it will mellow you.”
Gavin seized the glass and took a gulp, praying the liquor would dull the pain. “Mellow is not a word found in any of our vocabularies.”
The Bellwether Club accepted only those who had made their ten-figure fortunes for themselves with no help from family trust funds. So its membership was not a group that was known for kicking back and relaxing.
Nathan took a sip of what Gavin assumed was single-malt scotch, his usual drink. “Speak for yourself.” A smile played around the CEO’s lips, and Gavin knew the man was thinking of his fiancée, Chloe. The wedding was scheduled for October at Camp Lejeune, in honor of Nathan’s Marine father. Gavin was a groomsman, much to his public dismay and secret enjoyment.
He lifted his glass toward the quarterback, careful not to move too quickly. “Congratulations, Archer. You went out in a blaze of glory by retiring after your fifth Super Bowl victory. I salute you for knowing how to make an exit. I swear several of those sports reporters were wiping away tears because their golden boy will no longer be around to give ratings-boosting interviews.”
“I appreciate the good wishes, Miller.” The ex-quarterback’s Texas twang held the edge of sarcasm Gavin took such pleasure in provoking, since Luke’s usual persona was that of a laconic, unflappable jock.
“Are we gathered here to celebrate the end of your football career?” Gavin needled.
“You can really turn an innocuous phrase into something awful,” Luke said.
“That’s what makes me a great writer.” Trading insults with Luke was easing Gavin’s tension.
“When do you take the Series 7 exam?” Nathan asked.
“Series 7, Series 6, Series 66.” Luke listed an impressive battery of tests required to qualify as an investment adviser. “I start the process in two months. Miranda’s helping me study.” As he spoke his wife’s name, Luke’s eyes warmed in a way that made Gavin envious.
“And you intend to ace them all.” Gavin started to shake his head but thought better of it. “Every brokerage firm in the country is clamoring to hire you without a single test to your name, but you have to pile on the qualifications from the get-go. Take a break. Stop competing for a day or two.”
Luke lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “If I’m going to tell people what to do with their money, I want to make sure my advice is sound.”
His insistence on all the tests was ironic, considering that Luke had made most of his fortune not by playing football but by funding a start-up that had hit big.
“Always the quarterback, aren’t you, boyo?” Gavin said. “Calling the plays.”
Luke flashed a grin that brought out his famous dimple. “I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old. Hard to break that kind of habit.”
“Like standing at attention when your father walks in the room,” Nathan agreed. “You don’t even realize you’re doing it.”
Gavin scowled at his glass. Whenever his father had walked into a room, he’d hidden whatever book he was reading. Otherwise, his father would give him a list of chores that needed doing, and they were usually the dirtiest ones.
Now his father was gone.
“Hey, Miller.” Luke nudged Gavin’s polished black loafer with the toe of his cowboy boot. “Where’s your mind wandering?”
“I was just considering whether we should thank or berate our fathers for making us what we are.”
“We’re getting into deep waters now,” Nathan said. “Freudian and Oedipal.”
“Oedipus was all about his mother,” Luke interjected.
“Yet again the jock surprises us with his intellect,” Gavin snarked.
Luke leveled a bland stare at him. “I had to take three gut courses a semester to play college ball. When I got bored, I listened to the professor.”
Gavin snorted. Luke Archer was famous for memorizing his team’s playbook. He had a mind like a steel trap, which was why Gavin had no doubt he would earn the highest possible score on every financial test.
“I’m fortunate,” Nathan said. “I’ve been able to make my peace with my father, thanks to Chloe. But you never got the chance, Miller. That’s a damn shame.”
Gavin’s father had died suddenly, struck down by a massive heart attack as he carried a bag of horse feed out of the stockroom of the family store. Gavin had met Nathan and Luke for the first time in this very bar right after Gavin returned from the funeral. They’d gotten drunk together and made the ridiculous wager. A wager two of them had won well before the one-year deadline they’d set. Gavin was the only one whose stakes were still at risk.
“I’m not sure there was any peace to be made with my father.” Gavin’s mother had bolted when he was a child, unable to bear the isolation of the rural Illinois town and the joylessness of her older husband. He remembered her turning on the radio and dancing around the living room, her brightly printed cotton skirt swirling around her bare calves while the heart-shaped locket at her throat threw out glints of light. Every couple of songs, she would try to tug his father to his feet to join her. But his dour father just shook his head and sat in his lounge chair, pretending to watch television. Gavin wasn’t fooled, though. His father’s eyes followed his mother’s graceful, swaying figure through every dip and turn.