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But her brother, Cole, thinks that's a huge gamble, and she can't disagree. At the very least, he tells her, she should go for a known quantity and ask his old friend and best poker buddy, Blake, to be the dad.
Blake's certainly a known quantity, all right.
He's Annie's first husband...
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Read an Excerpt
The cowboy pushed his hat down low.
Everyone knew that thirty-four-year-old Luke Chisum, of the renowned Circle C Ranch, shifted his hat every time he had a good hand.
Lifting the corners of his two cards just enough to see the pair of aces, Blake dropped his thirty-three-year-old silver dollar on top of them and threw in two one-dollar chips-the mandatory flop bet. His buddy Cole Lawry, seated to his left, gave him a long look.
Cole studied the ten and queen of spades and two of diamonds faceup on the table, took one more look at Blake and folded.
Brady Carrick, ex-Cowboy football player, didn't look at anyone. His face impassive as always, he pushed his cards toward the middle of the table. Brady'd had a hard time of it after an injury had caused him to take early retirement, and he'd headed off to LasVegas, only returning to River Bluff fifteen months before-a year after Blake had made it home.
The younger man had come home blaming himself for the suicide death of a rodeo cowboy in Vegas-something to do with a wager. Having just met him, Blake had stayed out of most of the conversation revolving around the incident, except to say that Brady shouldn't take the guilt of someone else's mistakes on his own shoulders.
Verne Chandler, a sometimes player with the Wild Bunch, lived in the decrepit, now closed Wild Card Saloon. The older man had moved in to stay after his sister died, leaving the place to her young son. It was there, in the back apartment, that the five-member Wild Bunch-a group of unmarried guys, most of whom had been friends on and off since high school-held their weekly Texas Hold'em games. Hunched over now in the wheel-chair he'd taken to a few months before, Verne wasn't looking so good. Though he was only in his early sixties, the wrinkles on his face seemed to be the result of about ninety years of hard living.
River Bluff's male version of the town gossip, Harry Knutson, also tossed in his pair of cards.As did Hap Jones, Luke's foreman and guest for the evening.
Ron Hayward called Blake's bet, just as Blake had known he would. Ron was more of an ass than a poker player, a nice enough guy who didn't know his own weaknesses. Put Ron on a construction site, and he was gifted. Cole, who worked for Ron, could testify to that. But let the owner of Hayward Construction join them at the poker table, and he stood out in a less impressive way. If there was a bet on the table, Ron played-whether he had a worthy hand or not. It made him a waste.
Luke, the dealer of the hand, dropped his army dog tag on top of his cards, added his two dollars to the pot and raised them two. Blake and Ron followed suit. Luke dealt the turn. An ace of spades.
Blake threw in two more chips. And then, when Luke's raise came back to him, threw in another four.
Ron had spent twenty dollars before he folded. "It's just you and me, buddy," Luke said with a grin, making a show out of dealing the river, the third in the series of deals per hand.
A two of clubs.
Blake tossed in eight bucks. Luke raised him another four. He pushed out another eight. Luke called his eight and raised him four again.
The pot was over a hundred dollars. Back when Verne's sister had been alive, this run-down and lifeless place had been pristine. Both out front, where saloon customers came in droves, and back here in the apartment, where Jake Chandler, Verne's nephew and the absentee member of the Wild Bunch, had grown up far too quickly.
"You wanna just strip off your shorts and get this over with?" Luke smiled as he raised the bidding one more time.
Blake didn't strip for anyone. Besides, he was sitting on a full house ace-deuce. The only way Luke was going to beat that was with a miracle. A jack and king of spades facedown in front of him.
Luke was no fool. But the chances of Blake sitting on double aces were slim. Glancing up, Blake looked past his opponent to the bare window behind him. In the daylight they'd be able to see the river. Tonight there was nothing but darkness.
Someone was out there. Luke bounced his dog tag on the table and grinned as it landed on his closest stack of chips. He'd perfected that move eons ago, before most of the guys had left for college. Blake, having come to the Wild Bunch late, invited by his then-brother-inlaw, Cole, when he'd married Cole's sister, Annie, had been hearing about this particular talent for years.
Blake tipped the corners of his cards again. Glanced beyond the archway leading to a thread-bare living room, and saw a woman slip quietly around the corner from the hall.
He tossed in four one-dollar chips. Noting the jack and king of spades Luke flipped over, he tossed in his two aces, still facedown, and leaned over to Cole.
"What in hell's she doing here?" His whisper sounded far too angry for the question it pretended to be. If Cole needed to see his sister, he knew enough not to do so anywhere near Blake. That was their agreement.
And since Blake was the only one of the bunch who didn't live in River Bluff, he didn't think it was asking too much of his best friend to keep that agreement. Cole had plenty of time to see his sister when Blake was safely thirty miles away in San Antonio.
"She needs to talk to you."
Blake froze at Cole's response. Then muttered, "She's here to see me?"
There was razzing going on among the others. Blake was aware of Luke good-naturedly stacking up his win. A sore winner. Verne was sipping straight from an open bottle of whiskey. Harry had found an avid listener in Ron, who seemed to have a need to know every gritty detail about whatever drama Harry was sharing, courtesy of his hair-dresser wife.
Blake thought of the Lincoln Continental he had parked outside. Wondering how best to get there.
"Please just hear her out, Blake." Cole's voice was still low, but a note of urgency had crept in. "You know I wouldn't ask you without a good reason."
Blake did know that.
And he couldn't imagine a reason good enough to justify another conversation with the woman he'd once loved more than life.
"I think she's crazy, man." Cole's whisper was clipped. "Going to get herself in a mess of trouble. The only thing I could do was get her to talk to you first."
"You could have given me some warning," he muttered, buying himself some time to figure a way out of there.
Raising an eyebrow, Cole challenged, "Are you saying you'd have come if I'd warned you?"
It was Blake's turn to deal-the cards were on the table.
With one last glance at Cole, however, he stood up. "I'm out."
Annie didn't need to witness the exchange between her brother and her ex-husband to know that she was a fool for being there. The expression on Blake's face when he'd noticed her had been enough.
"Cole didn't explain?" she asked, as the man she'd spent two years weeping over came barreling out of the back room.
Blake was not pleased. But he smelled as good as ever. It wasn't just aftershave-though he was wearing the stuff she'd started buying for him when they were first dating-and it wasn't the shampoo or soap. Both of which she'd used for years. It was just him.
He looked damn good, too. Even with the frown and his tight, straight lips. Annie hadn't seen him in almost two years-not since the day she'd met him at the airport.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt. I thought you stopped at eleven. At least Cole said..." Her words trailed off.
She could not respond to this man-not to his anger, and not to his sex appeal. Most particularly not to that.
"We stop when we're ready."
His slacks and polo shirt fit his long, lean body to perfection. This was his casual attire. More often, she'd seen him in suits.
Her lips were dry. "Do you need to get back, then? Cole said you were hosting tonight."
His gaze rested on her face for a brief second and then moved away. She felt as if she'd been slapped. "That just means that I bring the food and drinks and pick the game."
"I thought you always played Texas Hold'em." He stared at her openly. Even small talk didn't seem safe with this man.
"There are lots of ways to play," he said succinctly. "Limit, no limit, tournament..." His voice trailed off, and she knew her time was up.
"You got a minute to talk?"
His eyes narrowed and he studied Annie as if contemplating the aftermath of a particularly bad car accident. You can't stand what you're seeing, but you can't look away, either.
He didn't answer her. But neither did he walk away, and she knew Blake Smith well enough to know that leaving was something he would do without a second thought, if he felt so inclined.
Laughter burst through the archway. "Can we go outside?" she asked. Darkness might make this easier.
Still silent, Blake followed her out. She couldn't hear his footsteps, but she could feel him behind her-staring holes through her back.
If not for promising her brother she'd talk to Blake, she'd be the one eager to disappear. But she'd made up her mind on how to proceed with her life, and she couldn't do it without Cole's support.
He'd made it clear he'd give that support only on the condition that she speak with Blake.
"Ask Blake for his help" was actually what her brother had said. But that was a small detail she didn't need to concern herself with. She'd say the words, Blake would walk away, and she could move on to the next step of the rest of her life.
With Cole's support. "Cole says you're crazy." Blake's words interrupted Annie's thoughts. Obliterated her confidence in fact. It seemed as if he'd always had the ability to make her doubt herself. It was something she wasn't crazy about in him.
Probably the only thing she wasn't crazy about in him. And it wasn't even his fault.
The rest of it-his long absences, his inability to be there when she needed him-she understood. She just hadn't been able to live with it.
Or him. "My little brother has always had a problem with exaggeration," she said now.
"So what's this about?"
Right to the point. That was Blake. No "How you been these past two years?" No "You're looking good." She knew better than to even hope to get an "It's good to see you."
It wasn't good.
For either of them.
Seeing him hurt. A lot. Far more than she'd expected, and she'd had a glass of wine and a big hug from her best friend, Becky Howard, to prepare herself before she'd set out on tonight's mission.
"I'm going to have a baby."
The startling words got her firmly back on track. She'd identified her goal, and for the first time in her life she felt absolutely, completely sure about the decision she'd made.
"Why do I need to know this?" His words were cold; the tone of his voice spoke volumes.
Blake wasn't just angry, he was hurting, too. Damn Cole for insisting on this. As big as his heart was, sometimes Annie's brother just didn't know when to stop believing in things that could never be.
"The only way Cole would agree to stop trying to talk me out of this was if I asked you to be the father."
The cool air was supposed to have cleared his mind. But Blake's thoughts were fuzzy, and there was a very loud humming in his brain.
"So...you aren't pregnant?" He could feel a headache coming on.
There was no reason for him to be relieved at the news. No need to care.
The cords at the base of his neck loosened just a little, and he tried to think.