The dress was so perfect it brought a tear to her eye.
“He’s going to have the breath knocked out of him when he sees you walking down the aisle,” Julia managed to say while wiping her hand across her cheek.
Her sister, McKenna, twirled once in front of the three-way mirror at Cara’s Bridal Boutique deep in the heart of Noe Valley, admiring the tea-length dress she’d picked for her wedding in a few weeks. The dress was pure McKenna, down to the flouncy taffeta petticoat underneath the satin skirt.
“It’s so playful and pretty at the same time,” Julia said.
“Speaking of pretty, do you like your dress still?”
“Of course,” she said with a wide-eyed smile, gesturing to the sleek black maid-of-honor dress she wore that McKenna had picked for her.
“It’s totally you. I wanted you to have a dress you could wear again. Maybe to a date? A fancy night out?”
The words fell on her ears with a hollow clang. Because she could no longer wish for a night out with the man she wanted terribly.
Clay had left her that morning on the streets of San Francisco, ending their brief love affair and driving away in his town car. She couldn’t fault him for taking off. She couldn’t give him what he wanted—an end to her secrecy. That’s what Clay needed more than anything. More than her body, more than their chemistry, more even than their endless nights together. She couldn’t tell him the truth about why she’d lied to the guy with the gun who’d been waiting on her doorstep that morning when they had returned after breakfast. What could she say? He’s the mob heavy who’s been assigned to me to make sure I pay off a debt that isn’t even mine? If she told Clay, he’d be a target too, because that’s how these men operated: they circled you, ensnaring you on all sides until the people you loved fell into their crosshairs, too.
That’s why she’d claimed Clay was just some guy she’d met in a bar, rather than a high-profile entertainment lawyer with an even higher-profile list of clients. She wanted to protect his identity and keep him out of the line of fire.
“And I will wear it again. Again and again. I promise,” she said, tugging McKenna in for a warm embrace, even though she had no idea when or where she’d wear this number.
After they stepped out of their dresses, McKenna paid the final deposit on both, plunking down her credit card on the counter without a second thought. Julia felt a sliver of envy for the ease with which her sister could navigate matters of money. Shrewd businesswoman that she was, McKenna had turned her fashion blog into a fashion empire. If she’d owed a big, fat debt, it could be paid off instantly from her flush savings account. If she asked, McKenna would pay Julia’s debt too, handing over the dough in a heartbeat. But she wasn’t going to attach her sister to this problem because that’s how it became hers in the first place—when it was passed on to her, like a disease.
“Chris said the meeting with Clay went great today,” McKenna remarked as they strolled out of the shop and onto the busy street, crowded with mid-afternoon foot traffic: moms pushing strollers into coffee shops and young hipsters heading back to work after lunch at cafes with all-organic menus.
“That’s great about the meeting,” Julia said, as casually as she could.
“Did he tell you about it?”
“Chris? Why would I be talking to him?”
McKenna shoved her playfully. “Um, no. The hot guy you went to New York for. The hot guy I know you’re into. Are you going to see Clay while he’s in town?”
She shrugged and looked away, and those twin gestures were enough for her sister to stop in her tracks and park her hands on her hips. “Whoa. What’s going on?”
And with that, it was as if a tight knot started to unravel in her. She might not be able to tell her sister about her money troubles, but she could at least let her know about her man woes.
“I did see him last night. I don’t think it’s going to work out between us,” she said, and she didn’t bother to strip the frustration from her voice, or the residual sadness. A sob threatened to lodge in her throat and turn into a fit of dumb waterworks. But giving in to the tears was like kicking a brick wall. It didn’t do any good, and you were left mostly with a stubbed toe.
“Oh no. Why do you say that?”
“He’s too far away in New York. And I’m just busy here. And he’s all about work.”
“That stinks,” McKenna said, and she stomped her foot on the sidewalk. The gesture was so child-like that Julia couldn’t help but laugh. “But at least you weren’t too far in?” she said, her eyes full of hopefulness. She wrapped an arm around her sister.
Julia was tempted to reassure her. To tell her it was nothing, just a night here, a weekend there. But it wasn’t. He was more, so much more.
“Actually, I really liked him a lot, so it’s a bit of a bummer.”
“Then we need to go drown our sorrows in French fries and cake. Let me take you out,” McKenna offered.
Julia said yes, and though the French fries were fantastic, they weren’t enough, not even close, to forget about the man she couldn’t have. The problem was she didn’t have any room in her life for him, and if she let him linger any more in her heart, she’d surely lose the game tonight.
Tonight was for winning.
The venture capitalist with the laughing tell was back, and he spent most of the game staring at Julia. But Hunter must have gotten a tip to strike that laugh from his repertoire because the first time he chuckled Julia went all in, and lost a cool grand. He’d really had three kings. No bluffing.
He’d likely snagged himself a poker tutor, some former pro player who now trained eager wannabe card sharks in the ways of the game, or a grizzled old veteran needing to earn a dime or two after he’d retired. She’d seen it before among the hotshots. A pivot here, a change-up there–all signs that they were being coached on the side. And that they thought they were hot shit.
He wasn’t. No one was.
“I’m in,” he said, shoving a black chip into the pot, eyes on her the whole time. Like she was his prey.
She was the predator. They were all her enemies, every last one of them, and just because she’d lost a hand didn’t mean she was going to lose the game. She rubbed her index finger against a black chip, checked out her cards again, then scanned Hunter’s face. Pale skin, pock marks from acne probably garnered only a few years ago when he was in high school, and a nice, straight nose. His blue eyes were locked on her, and that was another clue he’d hired a tutor. He’d probably been told to stare her down, the tutor thinking that would knock her off her game.