The VIP Doubles Down
Page 2

 Nancy Herkness

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When she abandoned her small family, she’d left the jeweled locket on Gavin’s dresser with a tiny strip of paper folded into it that read, Love you, lightning bug. Always have, always will. XO, Mommy. He’d never heard another word from her.
Luke cleared his throat, yanking Gavin back to the present. “We know you’re still having a problem with writer’s block.”
He jerked, and his back muscles protested with a jab of torment. “Has my agent been talking to you?” Gavin injected a warning note.
“Only about writing my autobiography now that I’m retired.” Luke’s tone was a mix of amusement and exasperation.
“You told us yourself,” Nathan pointed out.
“Because there’s no point in keeping it secret when all my readers know the publication date has been pushed back yet again.” Gavin took another swig of bourbon, trying to wash away the bitter taste of failure.
“So we want to take some pressure off you,” Luke said. “We want to cancel the bet.”
A boil of anger flushed sweat out on Gavin’s forehead. They thought he was so pathetic that he would back out of a wager of honor made between gentlemen. The edge in his voice was razor sharp as he said, “I don’t renege on my bets.”
“We’re not suggesting you renege,” Nathan said. “We’re withdrawing from the wager.”
“You can’t withdraw. You’ve won, both of you.” Gavin could feel the rage tightening his already rigid shoulders. “Frankie has confirmed that you found women who genuinely love you, although God knows why.”
“It was a ridiculous bet,” Nathan said. “We’d had too much to drink.”
“And we were in dark places,” Luke added. “A bad combination.”
“Don’t insult me,” Gavin said. “I proposed the bet.”
“No, I did,” Luke said. “You challenged us to find a woman who loved us for ourselves, not our money. I forced the stakes on you, both the secret ones and the charitable donation. And set the one-year time limit.”
“You’re really pissing me off, Archer,” Gavin said. “I am capable of finding the right woman and putting an engagement ring on her finger before this October. Writer’s block doesn’t interfere with that.”
“Simmer down,” Nathan said. “Neither of us knew what you’d just been through or we never would have agreed to the bet.”
Somewhere in the rational part of his brain, Gavin acknowledged that was probably true, but dark clouds of temper were overwhelming his better judgment. “You’d just found out that a woman you loved had lied from the moment you met her, Trainor,” he pointed out before leveling his gaze on Luke. “And your best friend had just retired from football, leaving you staring at your future retirement with profound depression. My father’s death was no more serious.”
“We’re your friends, man, so we know it was more than that,” Luke said, shifting in his chair.
“Really?” Gavin gave the two men a cold smile. “Tell me what you think you know.”
“Your ex-fiancée showed up at the funeral,” Nathan said. “To use you for her career.”
“And your stepmother wouldn’t let you sit with the family,” Luke added. “That’s heavy stuff on top of losing your dad.”
All the anguish Gavin had crammed firmly into the far recesses of his memory flooded out, sending a burn of black ice through his veins. “My friendship with you two was an unfortunate mistake,” he said, before polishing off the last of his drink.
“Oh, stuff it, Miller.” Luke’s pale blue eyes sparked with irritation. “Friends cut each other slack when they need it.”
Gavin didn’t want slack. He wanted something to clear away the gray fog that seemed to hang over the world around him, muting sound and color and feeling. Strangling his ability to write. Truthfully, he welcomed the burst of anger his friends’ offer had ignited. “No favors,” he said. “In fact, I’m going to double the amount I have to donate to charity if I lose the bet.”
Nathan shook his head. “I won’t agree to that. Archer set that number high to make sure we took the wager seriously. None of us were thinking straight that night.”
“Donal,” Gavin called over to the bartender, “I need your boss for a little business transaction. And a pen and paper.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Luke said. “We didn’t record the donation amount with Frankie the first time. Only our personal stakes. She doesn’t need to be involved.”
“I want to make it official,” Gavin said, “so you won’t be tempted to cut me some slack later on.” He put heavy emphasis on the words Luke had used. He knew he was being obnoxious, but he couldn’t tolerate pity, even from his closest friends.
Nathan and Luke exchanged a look that he couldn’t quite read, and he didn’t like the hidden communication. He poured another drink, gingerly nodding his thanks as the bartender placed a couple of sheets of heavy vellum and a Montblanc pen on the table.
“Cheers,” Gavin said, knocking back half the bourbon in one gulp.
Luke blew out a breath of exasperation. “Look, Gavin, you helped me out by convincing Miranda not to give up on me. I’m trying to return the favor.”
Recollections of that day at Miranda’s family farm breathed some remembered contentment into Gavin. Luke had rounded up a few football players to help out with stacking hay bales. Gavin had tagged along, partly out of curiosity as to why the superstar quarterback was dragging them all up to Nowhere, New York, but mostly because he couldn’t bear to stare at his blank computer screen another day. Luke had quickly melded them into a team, and Gavin had found pleasure in the physical labor and the easy camaraderie. Of course, that was before every muscle in his back decided to clench itself into a throbbing fist.
He had also observed the vibrating tension between Luke and Miranda. So he’d offered Miranda a little pep talk, just enough to persuade her to share her true feelings with the quarterback. When Luke threw them back in her face, Gavin had told Luke what an idiot he was.
“I hope you never give me reason to regret my intervention with Miranda,” Gavin said.
Luke’s icy gaze dropped to glacial temperature. Gavin held up his hand in silent apology.