Ah, crap. He’d seared that memory into her brain forever. This bar would always carry the delicious secret of surrender, the shattering of her multiple climaxes, the aching tenderness when he held her afterward, worried she’d walk away.
She couldn’t. Not yet. Something had been forged between them. It had only been two nights ago, and they hadn’t seen each other since. He’d called and said Morgan needed him to track down a certain supplier, so he was in Vermont for a couple of days, trying to score a special order of Douglas fir at the warehouse. He spoke like he was making a billion-dollar deal, his voice hushed with respect for the material. He asked to see her after poker night, and she agreed. A man who disappeared the day after having sex for the first time was highly suspect. Raven waited for the slap of betrayal or anger to hit. Nothing did. Simply put, she believed him and didn’t need any special coddling or reassurances. She’d never experienced this rightness before with a man—as if they completely understood each other on a deeper level and didn’t need to steep themselves in endless analysis of each other’s moves.
Though this thing between them was a mess of complications, she didn’t want to break it off yet. Soon. After all, their odd relationship had no future, and continuing it could just lead to disaster. He was also owed the truth, and she needed to tell him eventually.
The door pushed open. Morgan came in, dressed in her usual white, her blond bob swinging neatly above her shoulders. Sydney was at her side, a complete contrast with her fiery red curls and bright yellow shirt, green eyes sparkling with what seemed like anticipation. Raven had liked them from the very first night she’d served them, almost a year ago. They were fun, smart, and strong, the three ingredients Raven sought in a female friendship. She’d kept her distance only because of Morgan’s relationship with Cal, but time began eroding the barriers. She didn’t get to see Izzy much, since they were both so busy. It would be nice to make some new friends and hang out with Morgan and Sydney. Sometimes she just needed some girl time.
“Thank you for setting this up, Raven,” Morgan said, her white Chanel purse swinging on her arm. “I swear, y’all, I needed to get away from the buckets of testosterone. Tristan and Cal had a fight and began wrestling on the ground like toddlers, and knocked over the Waterford vase. I stomped out and swore there’d be no dinner for the next week, and then I had to deal with the puppy-dog eyes and the promises that they were only kidding.”
Sydney laughed. “I’m thrilled to escape watching Frozen for the billionth time. And I brought tons of singles!”
Sydney not only worked at Pierce Brothers and ran the offices with an iron fist, but also had a five-year-old daughter whom she adored and doted on. Raven gave her a lot of credit for being such a dedicated single mom. “Sweets, there’s no strippers here. You buy in with chips, and I happily take twenty-dollar bills.”
Her face fell with disappointment. “Oh. You know, the bank teller looked at me with suspicion when I asked for fifty singles. Should’ve known.”
Morgan ripped out a hundred-dollar bill with glee. “I brought a hundred!”
Raven pressed her hand over her mouth, holding back her mirth. “This is a training session, ladies. I don’t think we’ll be playing for such high stakes yet.”
Now Morgan looked disappointed. “Oh. Maybe next time?”
“Definitely. I made some new cocktails for you to try out. Come over to the bar and I’ll show you.”
“The place looks amazing,” Morgan commented. Her gaze swept over the restored bar, new stools, and the rearranged tables and decor. “Dalton is a master with woodworking, isn’t he?”
And so many other things . . .
“He is.” She refused to let anyone know they were sleeping together. It would only raise further complications. “This is a twist on a key lime martini I’ve been playing with. I made it with Skinnygirl products, so calories are manageable.” She poured two martini glasses rimmed with graham cracker crumbs, added a slice of lime, and plopped them in front of the women. Then she set out glasses of water with lemon. “I won’t serve you another drink until you hydrate with one full glass of water in between. Limit is three per person, but you have to blow into this before I let you go home.” She pulled out her Breathalyzer. “Can’t be too careful, now.”
Sydney sighed. “Is it okay to have a girl crush? ’Cause I have one on you.”
“Aww, I’m flattered, sweets.”
Morgan burst into laughter. “I love it! I swear, you’re like my heroine.”
Raven leaned her elbows on the bar. “I heard you have a pink hammer,” she said. “And a pink hard hat with matching boots. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Morgan tilted her head, considering. “Yeah, you’re right. I guess I have a bit of cool in me, too.”
“And, Sydney, you’re raising a daughter, who you show every day by example that you can have anything you want if you work hard enough. That’s as badass as it gets.”
Sydney stared at her, gratitude gleaming in her green eyes. “Thanks. Sometimes I really need to hear that.”
Morgan grabbed her friend’s hand and squeezed. “Not supposed to be easy, is it? At times I feel like women have all this stuff inside that trips us up, more than men. Thoughts and emotions and worries. Expectations and analysis. It’s exhausting.”
“Men are so much simpler,” Sydney agreed with a sigh. “Food. Beer. Money. Work. Sex. That’s it.”
“I know. But then after I met Cal, something shifted inside me, and all that junk rotating in my head became less important.” Morgan’s face softened, and her eyes glowed with a light that made Raven’s heart ache. “It was almost like, because he loved me, he took on half of the load, giving me this beautiful air and space inside I never had before.” She bit her lip. “Sorry, it’s silly.”
Raven smiled. “No, I think it’s . . . nice.”
“Me too,” Sydney said. “The only time I ever felt like that was with—” She broke off, as if realizing the name she was about to drop like a nuclear bomb.
“With . . . ?” Morgan prodded.
A flush hit her cheeks. She waved a hand in the air. “Nobody. Not important. Someone I loved when I was very young and very naive.”
Raven wanted to ask more questions, but she respected Sydney’s secrets like her own. Some things weren’t meant to be shared.
The door swung open, and a trail of women came through, giggling and excited about a night out for themselves. Raven set everyone up with drinks, noting that the key lime martinis were the most requested, and led them over to the tables. She dispersed chips, completed a round of introductions, and gave everyone cheat sheets to begin.
Most of the women had played some form of cards before, so it was easier than Raven thought. Within an hour, they were able to play a decent game with a big enough pot to get interesting.
Morgan threw a chip in the pot, her face cool and politely distant. She was definitely the best bluffer in the group. “I’ll raise a dollar.”
Susan, a sweet, doe-eyed pastry chef, batted her lashes like she was flirting. “I think you’re bluffing,” she announced. Her silver bracelets jangled as she threw a bunch of chips in the pot. “I raise five dollars.”
A hush fell upon the table. It was the biggest raise of the night. Sydney quickly threw her cards in. “I fold.”
Victoria stared at her cards, then back and forth between Susan and Morgan. She was a young blonde with animated gestures and seemed to have trouble keeping still. “I’m in. Five to stay.”
Two more dropped out, including Raven, and there was another raise. When it came back to Morgan, a strange expression gleamed in her eyes. Almost like a predator sensing prey.
With a sharklike smile, she pushed all her chips into the center of the table. “All in.”
The group broke into excited chatter and gasps.
“You can’t do that!” Susan said. “Can she?”
Raven nodded. “Since someone else raised, she could either meet the raise or raise again herself. We didn’t put a limit on the raise, just the ante. So, yes, she can do that. But Morgan has fifteen left, and you only have ten, so you’d need five more to stay in.”