Wager. Bet. Chance. Stake. Risk. Most people made decisions by considering pros and cons. But Jake Lilliard was a gambling man, and he evaluated opportunities a little differently.
Instead of listing the pros and cons of a situation, he weighed the risks and rewards and calculated the odds of getting what he wanted. And he always factored in luck, something that other people overlooked.
Lady luck was a fickle bitch, and she could screw up everything, no matter how much you planned and prepared. But she’d always had a soft spot for Jake, and he hoped she wouldn’t abandon him when he needed her the most.
After five torturous months of wanting Kyla Andrews, Jake was finally—finally—going to be able to do something about it. In less than two weeks, she would graduate from Riley O’Brien & Co.’s management trainee program, and he would no longer be her boss. The moment he relinquished that title, he was going to make his move.
It might sound dramatic, but pursuing Kyla would be the biggest risk Jake had ever taken. He’d never wanted a woman the way he wanted her.
Hell, he’d never wanted anything the way he wanted Kyla. What had started out as a spark of interest had escalated into a soul-deep craving he could barely control. He burned to know the textures and tastes of her body … to tangle his hands in her honey-blond hair … to make her silvery-gray eyes turn hazy with desire.
Jake was always careful about his interactions with female colleagues, mindful of any behavior that could be considered sexual harassment. But everything was different with Kyla.
A couple of times he’d allowed his hand to linger on her shoulder. And more than once he’d let himself get close enough to smell her perfume. He knew it wasn’t smart, but sometimes his desire for her overwhelmed his common sense.
For the most part, though, he had maintained his professionalism with Kyla. His poker face rarely cracked, and only the people who knew him best would ever guess that he’d spent hours imagining her naked and spread out on his desk.
Something banged against the door to Jake’s condo, and he jerked in surprise. The stack of poker chips in his hand spilled onto the slate tile floor.
“Dude!” The exclamation filtered through the wooden barrier. “I could use some help!”
Kicking colorful poker chips out of his path, Jake hurried to open the door. His roommate and best friend, Charlie Shipley, stood in the hallway, awkwardly holding a portable poker table.
“Thank you so much,” Charlie said sarcastically.
Jake flattened himself against the wall to let the other man pass. “You’re welcome.”
Charlie hefted the table higher, until it covered the scarlet UNLV printed on his gray T-shirt. Both he and Jake had obtained undergrad degrees from their hometown college.
When Charlie had decided to go to medical school at Stanford University, Jake had applied to the school’s MBA program. They both had been accepted into their respective programs, and they’d moved to Northern California together. That had been nearly eight years ago.
“I hate going to the basement,” Charlie grumbled
“Was it dark down there?” Jake gibed. “Were you scared?”
“I’d flip you off if my hands were free,” Charlie replied sourly, his brown eyes narrowed behind the thick black frames of his glasses.
“You could just say the words.”
Charlie shook his head, his dark hair drooping untidily over his forehead. “Nah. If I curse at home, I might slip up at work.”
Charlie was a pediatrician, part of a multi-physician practice near Saint Philomena Children’s Hospital. For the past three years, a local parenting magazine had named him “Best Pediatrician in the Bay Area”.
Jake was convinced that Charlie excelled at his profession not only because he loved kids, but also because he loved the same things that kids loved: video games, animated movies, pizza, and chocolate milk. He was a ten-year-old boy hiding out in a man’s body.
“The next time we host poker night, you’re going down to the basement to get the table,” Charlie said.
“Fine.” Jake closed the door behind the other man. “I’ll get the table if you’ll deal all the hands so I don’t have to.”
Charlie shuffled forward into the living room. “The guys won’t agree to that. You’re a much better dealer than I am. You learned to deal before you learned to walk.”
“You know that’s not true. I was in kindergarten when my dad taught me to deal.”
Jake’s dad, Ralph, was a professional poker player. After he’d won his fourth World Series of Poker bracelet four years ago, he had retired. But it hadn’t stuck. He couldn’t stay away from the table for too long.
Charlie shot Jake a questioning glance. “Should we set up the table on the balcony?”
They lived in a three-bedroom penthouse unit in a residential high-rise. The steel-and-glass cylinder towered over the SoMa area, giving them unparalleled views of the city’s skyline.
Jake opened the sliding glass doors and stepped out onto the balcony. Behind him, Charlie flipped the switch for the wall sconces and the mini bulbs strung under the overhang and along the railing.
A gentle breeze teased Jake’s hair. It was a perfect night to sit on the balcony with friends, play Texas Hold’em, and drink beer.
“It feels good out here,” Charlie noted.
The rainy season had ended in late April, and the Bay Area had enjoyed fairly nice weather for the past two weeks. But by the time Memorial Day rolled around in a couple of weeks, the weather would likely be chilly and foggy.
With the two of them working as a team, it didn’t take long to set up the poker table. Once they’d dragged four chairs outside, Jake scooped up the poker chips he’d dropped earlier and returned them to their aluminum case.
When Jake finished fastening the latches, Charlie passed him a Blue Moon. He took a pull on the bottle, relishing the beer’s strong wheat taste.
Charlie tipped his bottle toward Jake. “So how was your day, dear?” he quipped.
“Eh, it was okay,” Jake answered with a shrug.
As a vice president in Riley O’Brien & Co.’s finance department, Jake spent a lot of time with the company’s CFO Diana Stanton. Today, he’d been stuck in a seven-hour meeting with her. She had been even more irritable than usual, complaining about everything from the temperature in her office to the taste of her coffee.
Jake couldn’t deny that Diana was a Grade A pain in the ass, but he didn’t have a problem with her. While her abrasive attitude rubbed almost everyone else the wrong way, he had figured out how to work with her, and if necessary, how to work around her.
Usually he tried to charm the cantankerous CFO out of her bad moods, but today he had lacked the patience to flatter and cajole. He hadn’t been sleeping well, and he doubted that he would until Kyla was lying next to him. Unfortunately, he had no idea when—or if—that would happen.
Charlie chuckled. “Another day, another hard-on for Kyla.”
A couple of months ago, everyone from the finance department had decided to go to a new restaurant for happy hour, and Jake had invited Charlie along. His best friend knew him better than anyone in the world, and when Jake had introduced Charlie to Kyla, it hadn’t taken Charlie more than two minutes to realize Jake wanted her.
Ignoring the taunt, Jake took another swallow of his beer. Charlie shot him an amused glance.
“How many days?” Charlie asked.
When Jake didn’t answer, Charlie asked him again. And again. And again.
“Eleven,” Jake finally shouted.
Eleven days until he could taste Kyla’s plump lips and touch her smooth skin. Eleven days until he could hear the sounds she made when she came.
Whoa, chief. You’re getting a little ahead of yourself.
“T-minus eleven days and counting ‘til lift-off.” Charlie smirked. “Or maybe I should say blast-off since you’ve already had lift-off.”
“You’re a real fucking comedian.”
“Dude, you’ve totally lost your sense of humor,” the other man lamented. “This chick has you twisted tighter than barbed wire.”
Growing up, Charlie had spent his summers on his grandfather’s huge ranch in northern Nevada. As a result, he often thought about things in ranching terms.
Although Jake wasn’t fond of the term “chick”, he supposed he should be relieved that his best friend hadn’t called Kyla a heifer. That would have necessitated a little chat about acceptable nouns to use when referring to her. He really hoped “girlfriend” would be one of them in the future.
“I know she’s pretty,” Charlie continued, “but you’ve been with women a lot hotter than Kyla Andrews.”
At this exact moment, standing in his condo and drinking beer with his best friend, Jake couldn’t think of any woman hotter than Kyla. And he had a hard time remembering any of the women he’d had sex with, too, anyone except for Hannah, his high school girlfriend and first lover.
“Seriously, Jake. I’ve never seen you act like this about a woman. Why is Kyla so special?”
Jake rolled his shoulders, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. He didn’t want to talk about his feelings, for fuck’s sake.
Then he abruptly realized how embarrassed Charlie must have been when he’d fallen apart after his long-time girlfriend and fiancée had left him standing at the altar with no explanation. There had been several occasions when Charlie had sobbed like a baby. Of course, he’d also been shitfaced at the time.
Taking another swig of beer, Jake pondered Charlie’s question. Finally, he figured out the best way to explain his fascination with Kyla.
Charlie’s dark eyebrows crawled up his forehead. “Earnest?” he echoed.
Jake nodded. “Yes, earnest. Everything she does, everything she says, it’s so earnest. There’s no selfishness, no self-absorption. When I talk to her, she listens with this expression that’s so intent … so focused. And she’s the same way with other people. They can be talking about their cat, and she listens with the same attention. She’s genuinely and sincerely interested. She’s just so…” He searched his head for the right word. “Sweet. She’s sweet.”
Charlie’s brown eyes widened. “Oh, man,” he breathed, “you’re in—”
Just then, a hard knock sounded on the door. Jake glanced at his watch. It was exactly seven o’clock. He didn’t need a peephole to know that Zeke May stood on the other side.
Zeke had served in the Army for more than a decade, and he was always on time, unless his fiancée was with him. Margo wasn’t quite as punctual as her husband-to-be. But who cared about punctuality when her smile was brighter than the Vegas strip and sweeter than late-summer strawberries?
Charlie beat Jake to the door, welcoming Zeke inside with a slap on the back. The tall veteran held a stack of cardboard pizza boxes.
As Zeke deposited the boxes on the gray granite island, he said, “Hey, guys. How’s it going?”
When Jake had met Zeke a little over a year ago, the dark-haired man had been taciturn and rarely smiled. But being with Margo had changed him. She made him happy, and his ready smiles and frequent laughter proved it.
Zeke and Margo were getting married in a few weeks, and he had asked Jake to be a groomsman. Jake had been honored, but unsurprised. Over the past several months, he and Zeke had become close friends, almost as close as he and Charlie.
“Beer?” Charlie offered Zeke. “We’ve got Sierra Nevada,” he added, knowing that the other man preferred pale ales.
Zeke nodded, and after Charlie snagged a bottle from the fridge for him, Zeke popped the top and leaned back against the island. “Cal just texted me. He’s going to be about an hour late.”
Cal O’Brien was the fourth poker player in their little group. He was one of the O’Briens—the great-great-grandson of the man who had started Riley O’Brien & Co. back in the mid-1800s. Cal headed up the company’s global marketing and communications department.
Jake had interacted with Cal a few times over the past six years for work-related projects. But he hadn’t gotten to know the other man on a personal level until they’d played on the same company softball team last spring.
Cal was a good softball player, but he wasn’t much of a card player … despite his insistence that he was awesome. While his poker face was decent, his pale blue eyes gave everything away.
Charlie opened the lid of the pizza box on top of the stack, and the enticing aroma of pepperoni saturated the air. A second later, he shut the lid and shoved the box aside.
Glancing at Jake, Charlie said, “Zeke got your favorite pizza: pepperoni and jalapenos. So disgusting.”
“Thanks, man.” Jake handed Zeke a paper plate and a stack of napkins. “We’re eating and playing on the balcony.”
The three of them loaded their plates with pizza, exchanged their empties with full bottles, and headed out to the balcony. It wrapped around the condo in an L-shape and added about three hundred square feet of outdoor living space.
As they sat down at the rectangular patio table, Zeke said, “I’ve never been out here before. This is great.”
Although Zeke had never asked how Jake and Charlie could afford a penthouse unit in one of the most expensive high-rises in the city, his curiosity was evident. It wasn’t a secret that Jake’s dad was a professional poker player, so Zeke probably assumed that gambling had paid for the condo.
His assumption wasn’t incorrect. But the money hadn’t come from Ralph’s winnings; it had come from the sports book business that Jake had started when he was a freshman in high school. He still owned the business, but a local team managed the day-to-day operations.
Jake didn’t make a habit of telling people about his side gig as a bookie. He’d realized it was better to keep that information to himself.
Everyone had an opinion about gambling, whether they admitted it or not, and most of them were opposed to it, even when they thought they weren’t. And people really disapproved of bookies since they profited when a gambler lost.
Beyond Charlie, only one other person in the Bay Area knew about Jake’s side gig: Quinn O’Brien, the CEO of Riley O’Brien & Co. and Cal’s older brother.
Quinn also had attended Stanford’s MBA program, and Jake had met the young executive during an alumni event. They had formed a casual friendship over mediocre hors d’oeuvres and cheap wine.
When Quinn had suggested that Jake join Riley O’Brien & Co., he had felt compelled to disclose that he was a bookie. To his surprise, Quinn hadn’t been bothered by it. In fact, the young CEO had been impressed by Jake’s ability to run such a large operation.
Jake had come up with the sports book scheme while participating in an after-school math club. He’d started out taking bets on college football games, and by the time he’d moved to Northern California, the business had grown into one of the largest independent sports book operations in Vegas. It had an annual handle of nearly fifty million dollars.
Jake’s earnings had paid for his and Charlie’s education at UNLV and Stanford. In exchange, Charlie had agreed to provide free and unlimited medical care to Jake’s future children, whenever they arrived.
“Why is Cal late?” Charlie asked before taking a huge bite of pizza.
Zeke shrugged. “He said he had something important to do.”
“Something important?” Jake repeated. “More like someone important.”
“Bebe,” they chorused.
Cal had recently asked his girlfriend, Bebe Banerjee, to marry him. She had accepted his proposal, probably because he’d bribed her with cream-cheese brownies. Either that, or she’d been blinded and disoriented by the obscenely large yellow diamond that Cal had picked out for her engagement ring.
“When Cal gets here, I’m going to give him shit for blowing us off,” Jake vowed.
Charlie snorted. “Like you wouldn’t do the same thing for Kyla.”
“I wouldn’t…” Jake denied, but stopped when Zeke shot him a knowing look.
“You would,” Charlie insisted.
Jake gave a self-deprecating laugh. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Charlie and Zeke were the only people who knew about Jake’s interest in Kyla. It wasn’t something he wanted to advertise until it no longer violated Riley O’Brien & Co.’s employee policies.
“Speaking of Kyla…” Zeke began. “Have you talked to her about her plans after she graduates from the management trainee program? I’d love to have her back in the supply chain and logistics department.”
“No.” Jake shook his head. “I don’t know which positions she’s interested in.”
After a beat of silence, Charlie began to guffaw. “Why don’t you just ask?” he suggested around his laughter. “Hey, Kyla, what’s your favorite position?”
Jake narrowed his eyes. “Charlie…” he warned, but his best friend just rolled his eyes and took another bite of pizza.
“Are you still going to ask her out when she’s finished with the program?” Zeke inquired.
Jake wasn’t sure how Kyla would react to his interest. His dad had taught him to read people … to scrutinize their expressions, to study their body language, to listen to what they did and did not say. Unfortunately, Jake’s feelings for Kyla hindered his ability to read her.
He knew she liked working with him, but that was only because she’d told him so. He knew he could make her laugh until she cried. He also knew that she blushed a lot when she was around him. But pink cheeks did not necessarily mean she felt the same way about him that he felt about her.
Zeke’s phone buzzed, and he immediately picked it up. A smile curved his lips—one that only his fiancée could elicit—before he returned the phone to the table.
“Margo wants to know if you’ve decided on what we’re doing for my bachelor party,” Zeke said.
Because Jake was the only local groomsman (the other two were Zeke’s brothers, and they lived in North Carolina), he had been tasked with planning the bachelor party. Zeke had been very vocal about the activities he considered unacceptable. The list was fairly extensive. No strip clubs, no surfing, and no bars-on-wheels, just to name a few.
Jake had considered paintball, but had decided against it after weighing the risk of injury against the reward of male bonding in an outdoor environment. He had also factored in Zeke’s history as a soldier who’d completed tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. There was a risk that paintball could stir up bad memories of being in combat.
After a lot of research, Jake had finally decided on skydiving. It was a little risky, but the reward was worth it.
From Jake’s perspective, jumping out of a plane wasn’t nearly as risky as asking Kyla out on a date. At least he’d be wearing a parachute when he went skydiving. Nothing would soften his fall if she turned him down.