The All-Star Antes Up (Wager of Hearts #2)(4)

by Nancy Herkness

Trainor shook his head. Miller shrugged. Luke went on. “I’m guessing not a lot. We see the same women at every event. Friends or colleagues fix us up. Maybe we even get a napkin slipped into our pocket and call that number.”

He wasn’t proud of that, but he’d done it when he was younger and the woman was hot.

“Speak for yourself on that last one,” the writer said with a smile that was part envy, part amusement. Trainor chuckled.

Luke didn’t let Miller throw him off stride. In fact, not much threw him off stride, including women. But maybe the time had come to change that policy. Maybe he needed a Marcy. That way, he wouldn’t feel so goddamned depressed about his best friend leaving the game. “Our problem is lack of focus. We aren’t making it a primary objective in our lives, so we’re failing.” When you were on the field with bodies, voices, and refs swirling around you like a dust storm, having the primary objective in mind made all the rest fall away.

“So we should be wife hunting instead of running a business or winning football games or writing the next bestseller?” Trainor shot back. “If you’re that desperate, hire one of those executive matchmakers.”

Luke dropped the temperature of his stare to frost level. “That’s like using a ghostwriter.”

He got a belly laugh from the novelist.

“At least the transaction would be honest,” Trainor said, an edge of cynicism in his voice.

Luke leaned in, resting his forearm on his thigh. “How badly do you want a wife and family?”

Trainor swirled his drink around in his glass as he considered the question for several seconds. “I’m listening. Miller?”

“Hell, yes, I’m still looking,” the writer said. “What’s the point of all this if you’ve got no one to share it with?” He swept his free hand around the bar where just one leather chair cost more than a scalper’s ticket to the Super Bowl. Miller turned back to Luke. “And, of course, you need a passel of sons to toss footballs with in your white-picket-fenced yard.”

“I’m hoping for daughters,” Luke said. He didn’t want any of the ugly competitiveness that had gone on between him and his brother. “But, yeah, I want kids. So what I’m saying is, we need a plan.”

The writer hummed softly under his breath, then held up his hand. “I have a better idea.” Miller’s eyes gleamed with unholy glee. “Gentlemen, I propose a challenge.”

A challenge was interesting.

“We go in search of true love. We keep looking until we find it.”

Luke sat back in disgust. “This challenge is a load of garbage. How do you prove you’ve found true love?”

“A ring on her finger.” Miller gave him a barbed smile. “Sorry, Archer.”

Luke remembered when DaShawn showed him the engagement ring he’d bought for Marcy. His friend was lit up like a kid at Christmas as he opened the velvet box. “I didn’t get her the biggest diamond,” DaShawn had said, flipping the box back and forth so the stone caught the light. “But I got her the most perfect diamond, because she’s the perfect woman for me.”

“A ring doesn’t prove anything,” Trainor said.

“I’ve spent—what?—half an hour with you gentlemen,” Miller said. “And I am confident you would not put a ring on a woman’s finger unless you believed you would spend the rest of your life with her.” The writer sat back in his chair.

Luke gave Trainor an assessing scan. Miller was right. Something about the CEO said he had integrity. Maybe it was that straight-up posture or his clear gray eyes.

Trainor thought about it before he shook his head. “You’ve had too much to drink. And so have I.”

The two nearly empty bottles on the table suggested that maybe they’d all had too much to drink, but that didn’t change the magnitude of the goal. This was a game changer, so it required a concrete incentive to get everyone’s attention. “I say we make it a bet,” Luke said. “We need to stake something valuable on the outcome.”

“The stakes are our hearts.” Miller sounded depressed.

“We need to bet something more valuable than that,” Trainor said, the edge back in his tone.

“All right, a donation to charity,” Miller said.

Luke shook his head. “Too easy.”

Miller lifted a hand for silence, and Luke caught a spark of slyness in the writer’s eyes. “Not money,” the writer said. “An item to be auctioned off. It must have intrinsic value, but it must also be something irreplaceable, something that would cause each of us pain to lose.”

Now Miller was talking.

“Who chooses this irreplaceable artifact?” Trainor asked.

“You do.” Miller waited for their reaction.

“So this is an honor system,” Luke said as the gears whirred in his brain.

The writer placed his hand over his heart in an exaggerated gesture. “A wager is always a matter of honor between gentlemen.”

Luke snorted. He’d seen plenty of wagers that had nothing to do with honor.

“A secret wager,” Trainor said. “We write down our stakes and seal them in envelopes. Only losers have to reveal their forfeits.”

“I think we require Frankie for this,” Miller said. He turned in his chair to get the bartender’s attention. “Donal, is the boss lady still awake?”

The bartender nodded. “Ms. Hogan never sleeps, sir. I’ll call her.”

“Miller, it’s well after midnight,” Trainor said. “Leave the woman alone.”

Luke nodded his agreement, but Donal was already speaking with his boss. He hung up and said, “She’ll be here in ten minutes.”

Miller asked Donal to bring them some stationery before he swiveled back to face the table. “I’ve done a lot of stupid things when I was drunk, but this may be the most ridiculous one.” He skimmed a glance over Trainor and Luke. “We can cancel this right now before it goes any further.”

“I’m still in,” Trainor said, his voice taut.

“You backing out, Miller?” Luke asked. The writer had started this.

“Pardon my moment of sanity,” Miller said, shaking his head before he drank a slug of bourbon. “Gentlemen, I suggest we ponder our stakes.”