Disclaimer: JE owns them. I do not.
I kept my face blank as I picked up my hand to find three aces. I'd been winning for most of the night, and it looked like this last hand was going to be just one more to add to my tally.
"How about we finish this night with a bang?" Santos asked gleefully, unable to keep the grin from his face. "Let's make it interesting."
We'd been playing for bragging rights most of the night, in deference to Binkie, who had previously struggled with a gambling problem, but he'd already gone to bed, as he had the early shift the next morning. Once he'd left, Tank had pulled out the poker chips and the rest of the group and I had begun playing for more than just the right to say we'd won. Whoever had the most chips at the end of the night was going to get their next night of drinks free when they went out together. One by one, the others had lost all their chips, leaving Lester and me to battle it out.
Raising an eyebrow in question, I stayed quiet, waiting for my cousin to explain.
"Winner gets one favor, no questions asked, with no backing out." Lester looked smug.
I nodded slowly, not able to come up with any reason not to agree. "Rules?"
We'd done this so many times before, I didn't really need clarification, but Tank, Hal, Bobby, Zero, and Manny were all sitting around the table, looking curious.
"Nothing that'll end up with either of us in jail," Lester answered, the grin on his face letting me know he was remembering a time a few years back when he'd gotten picked up for hooking after I had bet him to dress up as a woman and walk down Stark Street.
"Nothing that involves Stephanie," I said firmly, my tone brooking no arguments. I didn't want Stephanie dragged into any mess Santos pulled.
I nodded once, watching and waiting as Tank dealt out the last cards. The two of diamonds didn't add to my hand any, but I wasn't worried.
"You first," Lester said, motioning with his hand for me to go ahead.
As I spread out my cards face up on the table—the two of diamonds, six of spades, and jacks of hearts, clubs, and diamonds—I finally let the smirk I'd been holding back come out. "Three of a kind."
Lester was quiet, his face frozen, and I began doing a victory lap in my head. But just when I was about to speak up and tell Lester I'd get back to him on what favor I wanted, my cousin grinned.
When he laid down the cards, I slammed my blank face down so I didn't give him the satisfaction of seeing my shock.
Three fours and two sevens.
Lester had a full house.
My blank face was firmly in place and I was in my zone as I sped down the interstate toward New York City. My hands gripped the steering wheel so tight, my knuckles were white. Stephanie could tell I had a lot on his mind and was using the time to play Angry Birds on her phone, rather than trying to force me to talk, which I appreciated greatly. It was because of that fact that my mind drifted back to the week before, when Santos had finally told me how I had to pay off my debt.
"You want me to what?" I roared, my feet thudding from my desk to the floor as Lester smirked.
"I'm supposed to do this photo shoot thing," Lester said again. "Mari roped me into it a few months ago, when you were gone on your last mission." He shook his head. "You know how your sister is. She was relentless. 'Oh, Les, it's for charity! You can't say no!'"
Lester's fake girl voice sounded almost dead on for my sister, and I couldn't help but chuckle...before my amusement died away.
"I'm not getting naked," I said emphatically with a shake of my head. "I don't care what kind of charity it is. I'll donate the damn money if I have to."
"Nah, cuz, I wouldn't make you do that." He grinned. "If I had to get naked to do it, I wouldn't give away my spot. There are gonna be women there. Models." His eyes glazed over, and he grinned before focusing back on me. "Anyway, a bet's a bet. Next Saturday, 0900." He flipped a business card in my direction. "That's the address. Don't be late."
He strolled out of the office, whistling, as I scowled at his back.
And I was still scowling. I knew I was being an ass about it, but I couldn't help it. I'd gotten over flaunting my looks years ago, and even though it was fun to see Stephanie get flustered when she looked at me, I didn't like feeling like a piece of meat.
"You'll be fine," Steph said quietly beside me. "You can pretend you're posing for me," she teased.
"Babe," I murmured, finally glancing over at her. "Anytime you want me to pose for you, just let me know."
Stephanie was single and had been for a few months. We'd begun seeing one another shortly after I got back from my last mission—the last one of my contract, thank God—but we were taking it slow. As much as I wanted her under me—and over me, and every which way in between—I wanted her to know she meant more than just a quick lay. That didn't stop me from teasing her and driving her to the brink of her control, though.
I watched as her cheeks went pink with her blush and knew if I reached up, they would be warm with embarrassment. But then, like the Stephanie Plum I knew and loved, she straightened her backbone, batted her eyelashes, and said breathily, "Too bad we have someplace to be, or I'd have you turn the car around now, Carlos."
It took all my control for me to not do exactly that. I felt my dick grow hard behind my zipper, and I practiced deep breathing as I willed the erection away, knowing there was no way in hell I wanted to get there and be hard.
"Babe," I groaned, shaking my head. "You're killing me here."
Stephanie just laughed and went back to her phone, leaving me to my peaceful quiet once more.
After another twenty minutes had gone by, I realized Stephanie's patience had nearly run out. She'd begun to fidget in her seat, her knee bouncing as she picked at the chipping polish on one of her fingernails.
"Babe..." I reached over and put my hand over hers, lowering them to her thigh to stop both actions.
"I'm bored," she huffed, making me chuckle.
"I wondered how long it would take."
Instead of getting upset, Stephanie just shrugged and grinned. "Hey, I let you have almost forty-five minutes in your 'zone' before the quiet got to be too much." She actually pried her hands out from under mine to make finger quotes around the word zone before tucking her left hand back under my right on her thigh. "So as my reward...talk to me."
The corner of my mouth quirked up as I smirked. "What do you want to talk about?" I asked, glancing over at her before turning my attention back to the road in front of us.
"Tell me more about the photo shoot," she requested. "You told me it was for charity, but that's all."
I shook my head, frowning. "I don't know much, honestly. I know it's a charity thing for military spouses. Some hometown heroes or something."
Stephanie gaped at me. "Will you be nude? Lester didn't tell me that!"
"No!" I growled, clearing my throat before mumbling a much quieter, "Sorry. No, Santos said if it had been nude, he'd have kept it for himself since there will be models there."
Steph's whispered word had me looking over curiously, wondering what had caused the drastic change in demeanor. She was looking out the window, and I could see her reflection in the glass as she chewed on her lower lip.
It hit me immediately what had upset her. "Babe," I said softly, squeezing her hand gently to get her attention. "You have nothing to worry about, querida, but if it makes you too uncomfortable, I'll turn the car around now and send someone else. To hell with the bet."
Steph turned to look at me, her eyes wide. "You'd do that? Just because I'm jealous and stupid?"
I started to reply, but when I saw a sign for an exit just ahead, I kept my mouth shut, turned on the blinker, and exited to the right, ignoring Stephanie's sputtered questions as to what I was doing.
Once I'd parked in a spot in the parking lot of a BP gas station, I turned to look at Stephanie, who was still wide-eyed and open-mouthed as she turned to face me as best she could while still encumbered by the seat belt across her chest and hips. I slid my hand up her arm, tangling my fingers in the curls at the base of her neck, and tugged her so she was leaning toward me.
"Stephanie," I said, my voice serious as my breath ghosted over her lips, "you should know by now that I would damn well do anything to make you happy. It won't matter if there are no other women there or a hundred. The only woman who will have my focus is you. If going back home makes you happy, I'll do it. Just say the word."
I tightened my fingers ever so slightly as Stephanie closed the remaining distance, gently pressing her lips to mine. The kiss was brief, tender, just a touch of our lips and nothing more, before she pulled away. She reached her hand up to cup my face, her thumb brushing the stubble of my unshaven cheek.
Pressing my forehead to hers, I massaged her neck gently when she closed her eyes and took a deep, slow breath.
"Drive," she huffed, finally pulling away and grinning at me. "But I'm telling you now, if one of them looks at you like you're their next meal, Imma cut a bitch."
Letting out a loud bark of laughter, I shook my head. "You've been hanging out with Lula too much."
Stephanie nodded, grinning, and turned back to face the front of the Cayenne.
Without another word, I settled back in my seat and drove out of the parking lot, finding the entrance to the interstate to continue the drive into the city.