The All-Star Antes Up (Wager of Hearts #2)

by Nancy Herkness

PROLOGUE

Luke Archer picked up his cut-crystal glass and winced as the motion tweaked the bruises from yesterday’s game. He switched hands before bringing the glass to his lips. He’d been sacked once, but those aches and pains didn’t faze him. Some ice, some work with his trainer, and he wouldn’t notice them by Friday’s practice.

What he didn’t want to think about was how in the last seconds of a hard-fought battle, he’d thrown an interception. He’d been set up to pass one way but had seen a better opportunity downfield, so he’d redirected his throw. It was something he’d done a thousand times before, but this time pain had seared through his shoulder like a branding iron. The shock spoiled his aim and sent the ball spiraling into the hands of the enemy.

Then the pain was gone, like it had never been there. He hadn’t told his trainer because Stan would be all over him to get it checked out by a doctor. Luke didn’t want to admit, even to himself, that it was anything other than a misthrow.

Luke grimaced at his glass. Maybe he should have ordered tequila instead of water. The alcohol might ease the sting of the memory. However, even alcohol couldn’t dull the agony of losing to the Patriots, so Luke swallowed his water and stretched out his legs under the brass-topped bar table. His motion made the light from the wall sconces glint off the patent leather of his tuxedo shoes and sent more twinges of discomfort jabbing through his stiff muscles.

The perfect emptiness of the Bellwether Club’s bar was spoiled as another tuxedo-clad patron with an almost military posture strode through the big mahogany door to settle at a table across the room. His air of command brought a waiter instantly to his side. After the new arrival ordered scotch, he ripped off his bow tie, which made Luke think the fellow was settling in for some serious drinking.

The man seemed familiar, but then Luke had met most of the members of the Bellwether Club at one time or another, because there weren’t that many of them. Membership required a net worth in ten figures, and all of it had to be earned, not inherited. Hell, if Luke hadn’t invested in the BankBuddy start-up as a favor to a friend, he wouldn’t be a member here himself.

He let his chin sink forward onto his chest. It wasn’t really the muscle aches or even the loss that had sent him to the bar instead of home to his New York City penthouse. It was the party he’d just been to, a charity gala honoring all-star wide receiver DaShawn Williams’s retirement from football.

That and the fact that Luke’s brother, Trevor, was waiting for him back at his place.

As a cloud of gloom settled itself on his shoulders, the door swung open again. Glad for the distraction, Luke glanced up to see a tall, lean man with disheveled dark hair stagger in, also wearing a tux. The man threw Luke a long stare, and Luke gave him his well-practiced polite but distant nod. The man nodded in return before hoisting himself onto a bar stool and ordering a bourbon straight up. His face nagged at Luke’s memory more strongly than the first man’s, but he couldn’t place it, either.

When the newcomer had been served his drink, he turned and made a sweeping gesture around the room with his glass. “To my fellow late night tipplers. Bottoms up!”

Luke lifted his glass and took a swallow of water while the other man polished off his bourbon in one gulp. He was pretty sure the drinker at the bar had recognized him. Thank God the man hadn’t tried to start up a conversation. He didn’t want to talk about the game.

That was one reason he liked the Bellwether Club. The members were all at the top of whatever field they were in, so they respected the desire for privacy. Still, even CEOs of multinational corporations had opinions on football.

Which brought his thoughts back to DaShawn.

They had played and roomed together in college, forming a bond so close that the other players claimed they used mental telepathy on the field. Their partnership had been pivotal in the three NCAA championships they’d won for the Longhorns. The NFL draft had broken up their partnership on the field, but their friendship had stayed strong.

Now DaShawn was leaving the game.

He and Luke had talked about the decision for hours the night after the Empire beat DaShawn’s team, the Seahawks. DaShawn had looked Luke in the eye and said, “I can feel myself losing just one microsecond of jump at the snap. No one else knows it, but I do, and that’s enough. I want to go out at the top of my game, bro, not as some washed-up old guy who won’t let go of his glory days.”

DaShawn had paused before continuing. “The thing is, I’ve lost my passion for playing. When I’m on the road, all I think about is Marcy and my kids.” His friend smiled in a way that sent a strange hollowness echoing through Luke’s chest. “I don’t know why the hell Marcy married me, but she’s the center of my world. I need her like water.”

DaShawn had gripped Luke’s shoulder, his left one. “It’s different for you, man. You’ve still got the hunger. You’re still going for the gold.”

Luke shifted in the leather chair again. The irony was that he had helped make it possible for DaShawn to retire by advising the wide receiver on how to invest his contract money. Luke had watched too many fellow players get drained by greedy family members and bad managers, or just spend their money as though they were going to keep playing football for fifty years.

So he’d started taking them aside and offering basic financial advice. At the beginning it was just his friends, but word got around, so teammates began to seek him out. During the off-season he spent time with his own money manager, augmenting his knowledge of the markets. It gave him something to think about as he powered through the punishing grind of the training required to keep his thirty-six-year-old body in top condition.

Luke rolled his right shoulder, feeling the ghost of the brief, excruciating pain that had burned through it.

He couldn’t argue with his friend’s decision. DaShawn had a wife and two sons, and a powerful dedication to the foundation he’d started to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds go to college.

Luke had football.

“At this hour of the night, I’m betting it’s a woman.”

Startled, Luke looked up, but the man at the bar was talking to the quiet drinker on the far side of the room.

“I know what his problem is.” The man on the stool jerked his head toward the corner where Luke sat. “He threw an interception with five seconds to go against the Patriots.”