by Sheryl Wright
What happens when a chance encounter turns out to be anything but?
Kara Wexler has only a few days to decide whether to accept the nomination of Chief Executive Officer and remain under her father’s hand. Should she say enough is enough and resign from the family company completely? Her siblings desperately want her to take the top job and use her innovative ideas to turn the company around. But Kara is tired of fighting with her father at every turn.
Kara’s siblings aren’t willing to let the decision go to chance. Worried that Kara no longer has the fight necessary to lead the company, they concoct a scheme to get Kara back on track. Surely deceiving Kara for the short-term is worth the long-term gain.
Madeleine Jessepp’s career has hit an all-time low. Her dream of becoming an actress isn’t going to happen and she doesn’t even have the money to return home to Minnesota. At first she scoffs at the offer to play the “Love at First Sight Role,” and spend a week as a fantasy date. But after some convincing she agrees to do it. After all, she is an actress.
Thrown together by Kara’s well-intentioned siblings, Madeleine and Kara both get more than they bargained for. What will happen when Kara discovers she’s been deceived by everyone—especially by Madeleine?
FROM THE AUTHOR
"I wanted Cause and Affection to be a fun look at the unexpected romantic encounter. To do so, I created a strong protagonist. She’s an award-winning advertising executive working for the family firm. The problem is, dad’s in charge and he’s leading them in the wrong direction and refuses to give up the mantle of control to his smart and more talented daughter. Being a lesbian, and far better at the job than daddy’s golden boy son, just adds to the angst. I wanted her to be imperfect. Being a genius in advertising and awkward with women made her more human, more honest. I also wanted to include family, the well-meaning and loving type. Because let’s face it, in our community we know both. While her father would do anything to undermine her success, she has a mother who will sit her down and tell her what she needs to hear, and siblings who worship the ground she walks on and just want to make everything better. And, they have a plan. They may be misguided, but the siblings think their wild plot will get Kara’s mojo running and put her back in fighting form to take on their father one last time. They’ve considered every detail and they’re sure everything that’s been scripted will work. That is, as long as she doesn’t find out the truth. After all, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” doesn’t it?"—Sheryl Wright
Gayle T. - I have come to expect intelligent, flawless writing from this author, and this latest book does not disappoint. As with her other books, this one is well-populated, but everyone has a role to play. No extraneous characters.
This is so well-written and compelling that I wanted to both find out what would happen next and didn't want it to end!
Carolyn C. - The author has given us not only well-drawn characters but two very determined main characters. One is a little surer of what she wants than the other, but their dynamic is so real, that their determination carries the plot through the slower parts. It's not all roses and unicorns though. There is pettiness, jealousy, courage, understanding, ambition and greed here. There is an undercurrent of society-induced hesitation about a business leader being a lesbian, but trust me, it works out better than you expect in the end.
This is absolutely, definitely, without question going on my 'READ THIS AGAIN' pile!
Isabelle S. - A very nice surprise. In short, a very beautiful romance, to read absolutely.
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“Why are we sitting in business class?” Joanne Bryson-Wexler asked, uncomfortably fussing with the seatbelt and expecting a challenge to their presence at any moment. “It’s against company policy!”
“We’re flying business class because this stupid airline doesn’t have a first class section,” her sister grumbled, eyes fixed on the world outside the jetliner’s convex portal.
“I don’t know. I don’t own the airline.”
Joanne huffed, “That’s not what I mean, and you know it, brat! Answer me!”
Kara Wexler’s attention was fixed on the layers of morning cloud the airliner blew through as it climbed out of Toronto’s Pearson airport. “Fine. Since I decided I wasn’t going to listen to Dad’s bullshit anymore.”
“Wait!” Joanne asked, panicking, “This isn’t coming out of my events budget, because if it—”
“Will you relax, I paid for the upgrade out of my own money. I do have some you know.”
Joanne just nodded, waiting while a trim flight attendant took their drink order. Once he delivered their premium booze, and in real glasses, he turned his attention to the other passengers. “Thanks, sis. Sorry, I guess I’m just tired of having to justify every cent my department spends. It gets old fast. Sometimes I just want to tell Dougie…”
“Our brother is not responsible for the nickel-and-diming going on, and you know it. Geez, Jo, why can’t you just admit the old man’s the problem?”
Joanne grumbled under her breath, taking her time to try her drink before commenting, “It’s really all our fault…”
“Stop,” Kara begged. “Please, let’s not have this argument again.”
“No! I want to have my say. You get to have all your politically correct stuff. Why can’t I say I just want us to get along?”
Staring out the cabin window, Kara didn’t immediately reply. When she finally turned to her sister, her constant exhaustion was as present as were the tears in her eyes. “Jo, is wanting to be treated the same as the next person being politically correct? Is treating strangers with respect being politically correct?”
“Why do you do that? That’s not what I meant. You keep taking things all wrong!”
Kara was struggling emotionally. The turmoil of the last few years had started with the American electoral victory of hate. Now Canadians were jumping on the bandwagon too. Suddenly their baby-panda hugging political leader wasn’t as fashionable, and some were pushing for the old ways. The country seemed evenly divided into those who were too scared or ignorant to move forward and those too tired and depressed from having always to be the face of a fairer future. “You keep talking about newcomers not respecting our beliefs. What you’re actually saying is they don’t look like us, and that’s wrong—because? Don’t answer that. Think about it this way. What did the indigenous people do when Cartier landed?”
“They…they spent all winter nursing him and the crew back to life and curing their scurvy with natural medicine.” It was a line every Canadian school kid could recite.
“And did they insist Cartier and his men change their style of clothing and hair, adopt their spiritual beliefs, or adapt to their matrilineal laws or politics?”
“Well, no, but that was their mistake. Besides, it’s different, they are a defeated people and have to adapt to our ways.”
Kara groaned to hear this common misconception. “Defeated by whom? The only enemies we’ve fought on our land are the French—if you take the English standpoint. The English, if you take the French standpoint, and the Americans from everyone’s standpoint. It’s the Americans you should be worried about, not a handful of well-educated displaced middle-class professionals who just happen to be Muslim.”
“That’s not the point! They come here and just take over. It’s not right.”
“Why? Because it’s what Dad says, or do you really think that a guy who’s lost everything isn’t entitled to come here, work at a crappy job, and care for his family who’ve already suffered through hell just to get here? How does that hurt you? Come on, tell me how it affects you or your family?” Not waiting for her answer, she raised her glass, signaling the flight attendant for a second drink. On the headrest monitor in front of her, the air map showed they were barely a quarter of the way to Las Vegas. There was a time she would have relished this conversation, looking forward to schooling her baby sister on opportunities of fairness and equality. She couldn’t help but feel that those days were gone. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, but caring hadn’t helped her life or made it any easier to deliver a vision of a fairer world to her family or company. There was a time when she loved the challenge and lived for a heated debate. Now, not so much. She’d given up on intellectual sparring when the champions became those who shouted the loudest. Her sister could be like that. Regurgitating every piece of crap that fell from their father’s mouth. “Why am I here?” Kara asked, more a rhetorical question than evidentiary.
“It’s the annual sales convention, silly. Everyone will be here this year.”
“Except you keep forgetting I have no desire to attend.” At her sister’s gaping look she added, “Jo, I handed Dougie my resignation on Friday. I’m only here because he begged me to deliver the pivot-or-sprint analysis.”
“If you quit, why do you care?”
Kara finally turned to look at her sister. Even in the poor cabin lighting, it was easy to see the sadness in her eyes. “I’m not quitting because I don’t care. Jo, I’ve just had enough of Dad’s bullshit. Stop, I see it in your eyes, I know you don’t really understand. After all is said and done, he’s your daddy, but for me, he’s just the bastard who spent every moment we had together telling me why I don’t deserve his attention or support. That, of course, was on the few occasions he bothered to recognize my presence at all.”
For the first time in a long time, Joanne was uncharacteristically quiet. Finally, she broke the silence between them. “Dougie told me about the resignation letter. He said you promised not to tell anyone until after the convention. Will you keep your promise?”
“Will I keep…I’m not the one making promises all over the place, promises he’ll never keep. I swear Dad’s more overboard this year with his ridiculous campaign to get Dougie in the top job. I would think announcing my resignation is just what he needs to get the board to roll over.”
“He won’t do that.”
“Jo, really? I know you still have faith in Dad. So do I. I have every faith that he will announce my resignation to the board but he’ll be sneaky. No need to give anyone time to look elsewhere. Instead, he’ll wait until the meeting on Saturday. He’ll pull out my resignation as he makes the motion to recognize Doug as the next CEO.”
“He won’t do that,” she repeated.
Kara’s look was a mix of disappointment and doubt.
“He won’t do that because I hid your resignation in my office safe. He hasn’t seen it, and Dougie promised he wasn’t going to tell him.”
“What the… Why? Why would you two do that?” When her sister didn’t answer, Kara covered her ears with her hands, rubbing small circles above her brows and along her temples. Eventually, her fingers steepled together and she lifted her head. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, you and Doug, but Jo please, I’m burnt out, and there’s just no coming back from this.”
“Of course there is! I know you’re hurting. And I know you’ve been walking away from things, not just work things but friends too.”
At Kara’s questioning look, she explained, “Leslie called me. She was worried. She said she hasn’t seen you this down since you and trailer trash broke up. It took you all of three weeks to get over her. This is different. You’ve been sliding away for a few years now, but this last year has been the worst. I don’t understand why. Please, Kara, let me help?”
* * *
“Take it,” Franco insisted, pushing the envelope forward. “I don’t even want my commission. It’s all yours.”
“I…I can’t, you know…”
“Hey! It’s not like that. I checked these guys out. They’re legit. It’s all according to the script. You just get her back to the room, give her a nice kiss and off you go.”
“Off I go, letting this woman—I will remind you I’m straight—a woman no less, who I’m supposed to make fall in love with me then send her off with a quick peck on the cheek? Come on Franco, I—”
“Hey, they say they studied her and everything before they created this scenario. Evidently, she just wants the girlfriend experience, you know, hand-holding and that kinda shit. You can handle it. It’s all about showing her around and helping her let loose. They need her on the ball Saturday and ready for some big boardroom smack down. All you gotta do is lay on the charm, get her pumped for battle, and send her off feeling she’s got some mojo going on.”
She grumbled under her breath, reading through the dog-eared script. It was all of nineteen pages long and mostly contained entries like where to take this woman and what to say when they got there. And they specified the mood she was to create. Yes, it did sound like she just wanted an escort to attend stuff. That wouldn’t be too bad, and the venues and restaurants were all the best Vegas had to offer. She tapped her fingers on highlighted text on page four. “I’ve never been backstage at Cirque du Soleil, how the hell do you expect me to give her a backstage tour?”
“It’s all arranged.” He opened the large envelope she had been ignoring, retrieving a smartphone. It was new and a big improvement over what she was using. “You get to keep this, after. It’s got all the contacts, the times, even your tickets. There’s a credit card too.” He handed the gold plastic to her.
She was expecting a prepaid card, but this one had her name on it. “What the hell?”
“It’s in the script. Saturday morning, when you walk through Caesar’s Palace, you’ll buy her something to give her confidence. If you need to spend more than ten grand, send me a text, and I’ll make sure her people are expecting it.”
“Her people—won’t she think it’s weird that I’m buying something for her with her own money? I mean…”
“That’s the thing, it’s all a surprise.”
“What? You said she wanted the girlfriend experience, now you’re saying ‘her people’, whatever the hell that means…”
“Maddie baby, give it a rest! It’s just how this experience thing goes. These rich people pay for the whole thing to happen sometime in the future. Hell, for all we know this chick may do this every place she visits. They say she travels a lot and expects to meet people and have adventures. Maybe it’s just her thing! Come on, you know how weird rich people are.”
It wasn’t like she could say no. After ten years in Vegas, she was sure she’d seen everything. Of course, she was sure her career and her life had hit rock bottom too. Maybe the only way to test that hypothesis was to take on this stupid pantomime. Besides, she owed Franco. Her new and overstuffed Grand Cherokee in the parking lot was his. He had won it in a backroom high stakes poker game and had handed her the keys sight unseen. “What do I need with another Jeep? You keep it. This way I know you’ll make it home. I couldn’t forgive myself if I sent you home on the bus.”
She was staring at the bulging manila envelope which she knew contained the opening payment of ten thousand dollars. Successful completion of the scripted weeklong romance promised an additional ten grand. One thing for sure, this might be rock bottom, but she wouldn’t be leaving Vegas beat down and broke like all the rest. She wouldn’t be going home a star like she promised her family, but she could return to Minneapolis with some pride for having tried. Couldn’t she?
Kara followed her sister through the casino to the elevators. After arriving and checking in, Jo had dragged her out to the Strip to some theme restaurant for lunch. A six-hour flight and fast food had left her feeling even more lethargic and uninterested than normal. Still, she followed her sister to the offices of the catering manager.
Joanne, the youngest of the Wexler children, was their father’s daughter in every way. She held the job of company event manager, was a social butterfly and had been since the first day her daddy brought her to work. It was different for Kara and Dougie. As the oldest, Kara had been tested at every turn. As Doug became an adult, he too started at the bottom, but unlike his sister who excelled, his constant failures were swept under the carpet. Everyone knew the old man wanted Dougie to take his place one day. The board also knew Doug neither wanted the job nor could handle it. They needed Kara, and Doug and Joanne had joined with several others to make that happen. If only Jo could get Kara interested in the board meeting—or anything, for that matter.
In the foyer to the catering offices, they were asked to wait just a few minutes while the catering manager finished his appointment with a VIP guest. The receptionist, a stunning blonde with a badge reading Lucy from Australia, tried to interest them in a beverage while they waited. Joanne was pleased to accept and sit patiently. Kara paced the open space, taking no notice of the stunning young beauty from Down Under.
Joanne surreptitiously watched her sister with her fingers crossed. Kara was in her own world and had been for far too long. Long since tired of trying to connect with her big sis, Joanne quietly drank her coffee. When Dougie and Zack had come to her and Samantha with this plan, she was sure they’d made the whole thing up, but once they looked through the website and had a conference call with the guy from Ultimate Experience, she was in. Her sister needed some nice girl to keep her company. Maybe this actress escort lady wasn’t the kind of girl she would have picked for Kara, but these women knew how to talk to people. Wasn’t that what they did, got these guys or gals talking and having fun? She wasn’t sure that having a girl on Kara’s arm would solve anything but her sister had been alone a long time, and this was much easier than trying to find her a date. God knows that had never worked out.
The moment the door to the catering manager’s office opened, Joanne was on her feet, hooking and dragging Kara by the arm. “I’m Joanne Bryson-Wexler, and this is my sister Kara Wexler.”
The introduction caught everyone off guard including the hotel guest just shaking his hand and saying, “Thank you again for finding a way to fit me in. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. It does appear I’ve been monopolizing your time,” the guest added with a nod to Joanne and a wink for Kara.
Kara, caught off guard by Joanne’s hasty behavior, stood with mouth agape, staring at the woman before her.
Joanne didn’t seem to notice, launching into a nervous conversation with the catering manager and the other VIP guest. Finally, the guest excused herself, and Kara seemed in a trance as she watched her leave.
“I wish they still had a football team here.”
This was the first thing out of Kara’s mouth? She meets a pretty woman, and all she wants to do is to see a football game? “Football, really?” Joanne challenged her sister. “Back in the day, you would have never let a woman like that out of the room without getting her phone number!”
“What, wait…” Kara asked, still not really in the moment. “Do you know her?”
For a moment Joanne knew she looked like she did know her, then she blanked it out. Back when she was a toddler and got caught stealing Kara’s Legos, she would do the same thing. Kara seemed to suspect something was brewing but Joanne brushed it off, offering a sweet smile. “Of course not. I’m just making a point.”
“I’m here to witness my father take our company back in time and obliterate any chance we have of joining the twenty-first century, not find a date!”
“We have a week,” she whined at her sister, adding feebly, “You might as well have some fun.”
* * *
As the script directed, Madeleine Jessepp returned to her hotel suite after her first encounter with her assignment. Now, stuck in a makeup chair, she listened as the director argued over the phone. When he finally hung up, he turned an expectant eye on her. “It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t a strikeout either. Now, let’s see…” He turned his attention to the racks of clothing. “In the next act, you will encounter each other across the poker table. Your costume…” He wandered into the bedroom—now dressing room—carefully combing the wardrobe for her performance. Script, Wardrobe, Performance. Everything they said made this sound like it was a stage act. Then why didn’t my supposed stage girlfriend take an interest in me? “Maybe she prefers dykes or something like that?” she asked the director. “I don’t exactly look like a lesbian.”
He hushed her impatiently, ordering the makeup woman to strip her face. “Just a little eye shadow and a touch of lipstick. I want you to be au naturale!” He carried a pair of well-worn jeans, a bottle green, deep V-neck sweater, and boots. Something that looked suitable for an Australian cattlewoman, not a Vegas showgirl.
Madeleine just sighed, unsure of her situation and the role to come. “Am I supposed to beat her at poker or let her win?”
“Oh my dear, just play it like the script says. Play the table as the hands come, but don’t bet against her. You can bet with her and against everyone else but not her.”
“Don’t you think she’ll figure that out?”
He just giggled as he fussed. “That, my dear, is the point.”
* * *
“Why are you dragging me to the poker tables?” Kara asked with ire.
“Because you love poker and because I will not let you spend this whole week hiding in your room. We have a lot of work to do. A lot of goodwill to repair and we can’t do that if you’re acting like a big grouch-pot! Now go play. I’ll come back and fetch you in time to meet the West Coast reps for dinner.”
The idea of wasting a few hours playing cards didn’t sound so bad. This whole week would be a waste of time as far as she was concerned. Her resignation was already written, signed, and delivered. She had intended to hand it to her father before Vegas. The truth was, she’d had no intention of making this trip at all. It was all Joanne’s doing. She’d convinced Kara to spend the week helping her cover the conference events and talk with the freelancers who fed work up to Wexler-Ogelthorpe, along with a hundred or so account reps. “Come with me. Spend a week playing nice with the regional reps and goofing off on the company dime. It’ll be fun. You’ll get some desperately needed down time, and when we get back, you can still kill our father with your resignation.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Jo. I’m not trying to kill the old man. I’m just trying to prevent him and this damned job from killing me!”
“Look.” Joanne nodded to the pit boss, “A chair just opened. Take it. I’ll come find you, later,” she emphasized, pushing her sister toward the poker tables.
* * *
Madeleine almost panicked when she saw the small line for the poker room. That was a problem. Taking a quick inventory, she could see there weren’t enough people to open another table. She knew poker players were the serious type and rarely gave up their seats, at least not until they went broke. From where she was standing, she could just see the Kara woman at the 20/40 table. Before she could decide what to do, she felt a hand on her elbow. “Ms. Jessepp, how lovely to have you back. I believe your regular seat has just opened up.”
Surprised by the attention, she was momentarily stunned then remembered, this is all scripted. “It’s a pleasure. Tell me, is the table warming?” she asked as the pit boss led her to the same table as Kara. An elderly man had vacated a seat at just the right moment. The other people in line waiting to play poker grumbled but this was Vegas. And everyone dreamed of hitting it big one day and becoming a VIP, so they let it slide.
“I’m sure things will heat up now that you’re here.” As she took her seat, he gave her the spread, the table limit, and set a tray of ten and twenty dollar chips in front of her, before wishing her luck.
A waitress appeared out of nowhere, wearing one of those skimpy costumes all women servers hate. Madeleine always tipped well and tried to be extra kind to the female servers. During her decade in Sin City, she had waited her share of tables too. She knew just how bad it could be.
“Welcome back, Ms. Jessepp.” She delivered an unordered drink announcing, “One dead bastard with brandy and bourbon. As usual.”
Madeleine thanked her then remembered the script called for her to be gregarious and generous. She didn’t know what a dead bastard was, but it probably deserved a good tip. It was a good thing players at tables drank for free, but she’d have to be careful if she was going to pull this off. She was sure her new employers wouldn’t be pleased if she got drunk during her “performance.” As she reached out to sample her cocktail, she noted a subtle warning look from her server. A good thing too. With her mouth and face all set for some premium booze, the refreshing taste of unadorned ginger ale was a shock. She kept her face neutral, now understanding the warning. They wanted her to look like she was enjoying herself, just not actually have any fun. She plastered a satisfied look on her face and beamed at her tablemates. Most were playing stoic, and trying to pretend they could actually be high rollers. She stifled a laugh, taking another healthy gulp of her fake drink to hide her amusement as she waited for the dealer button to pass. Most of the players, she’d cast as pensioners and near-retirement baby boomers playing make believe. If any were really interested in hauling in a rake, the 20/40 table wasn’t it. She chucked in her twenty for the small blind and watched across the table as the Kara woman knocked out her signal to check. She had to remind herself to stop referring to her as “the Kara woman.” She was also hyperaware she was beginning to see her as a mark. She immediately checked her concern. She wasn’t trying to con this woman. As the director had stated repeatedly, this was an interactive performance. Something the woman had signed up for. Who does that?
* * *
Kara had just lost her second hand and was seriously considering cashing in and looking for a place to hide for the afternoon. But now the woman from the catering manager’s office was joining the table. God, she’s an attractive woman! Tall and lean, with the look of a dancer. What the power suit she was wearing earlier hid, the deep V-neck sweater and the formfitting jeans accentuated. But it wasn’t like the sweater showed off her bosom. The woman was not so endowed, and for a moment Kara caught herself smiling, thinking how perfect she was. She’d always left the big-breasted ladies for her brother to chase. Judging by Dougie’s pick for a wife, he liked them well-endowed and softly curved. Not her. As her brother loved to tell their friends, “Kara always goes for the tall skinny chicks.” And he was right. Back in the day she wouldn’t have wasted a second before charming this woman up or asking her out. Had this lifelong battle with her father taken that much out of her? She had no intention of wasting time on the question. I’m here now, and that woman is smiling at me!
The betting round had finished, and she watched the woman intently, as intently as everyone else watched the dealer lay down the flop. Watching the dealer was a mistake, Kara believed; this was a game of wills. There was a certain amount of luck involved, not to mention math, but that was all secondary. This game needed to be played in the mind, the mind of your opponents. Across the table and sitting beside the woman from the catering manager’s office was someone Kara would categorize as the table bully. Aficionados might call him a classic aggressive poker player, but Kara knew better. If this guy really knew what he was doing, he’d be playing at a no-limit table, not sitting here. Still, he was a pain in the ass, going to the limit on every round, even before the flop. She hated guys like this. They made the game too aggressive for most of the other players who would probably be content to spend half the day losing their money. No one wanted to go bust inside their first half-hour. She was planning on taking him on with this hand, but the new woman followed his bet. Instead of calling, Kara carefully checked her cards, counted her chips for the table to see then shook her head, and folded. She planned to repeat that little fake tell over the course of the afternoon. Experienced players never fell for such subterfuge, but she was sure Mr. Poker would. Right now her number one concern was for the woman in the V-neck. She sat back to watch the action unfold, hoping the new player had caught his number too.
Kara had heard the pit boss call her Ms. Jessepp. Jessepp with an E, not a U. Scandinavian in origin, but changed somehow, modernized? Was that why it was Jessepp, not Jesseppsson or Jesseppsdóttir. Americanized? Yes. Midwest? Definitely Midwest. At least originally… She watched in awe as Ms. Jessepp took a hand from Mr. Poker. He seemed as surprised as the rest of the table. As the dealer dealt out the next hand, she remained focused on Mr. Poker, watching as he checked his cards. Interesting. Judging by his flaccid expression, Kara was sure he had one face card, but that was it. Most players would limp in with a hand like that and wait to see what the flop looked like. She expected the weaker his cards, the more aggressive Mr. Poker would be. Sure enough, when the betting round reached him, he called the blind and raised to the maximum. Sitting left of him and last before the buck, Kara called his raise. She was surprised to see everyone call the bet except the new woman. She smiled at Kara as she folded her hand. Interesting.
Focusing her attention back on the table and the remaining players, Kara watched Mr. Poker as the dealer delivered the turn. There was no reaction from him, and it was all she needed to see. When the betting reached her, she maxed out, again. She sat back to watch Mr. Poker’s reaction and almost fell off her chair to realize that Ms. Jessepp was watching her. She nodded some sort of approval before turning her attention back to the game. As the river card was turned, she let a satisfied look escape before pulling her poker face. Mr. Poker was watching her keenly as were the other two players still in. It was her turn to bet, and she went to the max again. Mr. Poker wavered, and it was all the other two needed to stay in. She had no idea what they were holding, and she didn’t care. Her sole aim was to bust his ass off her table. My table! She laughed at her internal language, watching him struggle to match the bet. Kara could only guess he wasn’t used to having to play the cards he’d been dealt. She was experienced enough to know it wasn’t the cards but what you did with them. It didn’t matter if she was playing poker or fighting for a new account, she always believed her first step in controlling the game was to align herself with another player. Just one. That looked to be settled and by Ms. Jessepp herself. She liked that, and she liked that name. Next order of business, kick the bullies out. Mr. Poker took one more look at his cards then met the bet. She knew he would. At this point, he would see himself as pot committed. Kara turned over her cards. While she didn’t take the pot, she was pleased to see Mr. Poker lose too. He sat back in a grump then began raking the room for the waitress. She could only hope he was ordering a drink to drown his sorrows. If he ordered a meal, well, that would not be a good sign.
The player beside her asked to cash out and took his winnings to the poker room cage. According to poker etiquette, the last player to join the game was entitled to the new seat before it was offered to a new player. Kara was delighted and frightened as all get out when Ms. Jessepp nodded to the pit boss and made her way to the empty seat beside her. The waitress returned at light speed, further irking Mr. Poker by taking first Ms. Jessepp’s drink order then Kara’s before checking on the rest of the table and accepting his.
They were halfway into the next hand when the waitress returned. This time she acknowledged both women. “Here you are Ms. Jessepp, one dirty bastard. And for you, Ms. Wexler, one Labrador Tea.”
Kara grabbed a ten-dollar chip from her stack but hesitated. Ten seemed like too much to tip even if the woman knew her name. Then she watched the woman next to her slip the waitress a twenty. Deciding to err on the high side, she grabbed a second ten and handed them to the waitress as she made her way around the table. It was obvious she’d left Mr. Poker for last. He huffed when she slapped down his beer and walked away.
“I have to ask,” the woman, Ms. Jessepp, said, leaning in and saying in a conspiring tone, “I thought a Labrador Tea was made with gin. That thing looks positively like…” She blushed.
Kara raised her glass, inspecting it with her. “I like to call this hue ‘first pee of the mornin’ yellow’.”
That got her laughing, and she offered her hand. “I’m Madeleine, and yes, that does look like a sample you might leave in the doctor’s office. I’m assuming it tastes better than it looks?”
Kara smiled, folding her hand on the flop and sitting back to enjoy the company. “It’s gin. It’s just distilled with flora regional to Labrador. I think it’s the wild rose hips that give it the color. What about you? What’s in a dirty bastard?”
“Hey, don’t I get a name or should I just call you Miss Labrador Tea?” She smiled before turning her attention back to the game. She took note of the turn card, then added two twenty-dollar chips to her bet. She turned her eyes back on Kara who was stuck somewhere between watching the hand play out and listing to this stunning woman speak.
“I…um… Sorry. It’s Kara, Kara Wexler. Pleased to meet you, Madeleine?”
“I know,” she offered in sympathy. “Madeleine is a handful, not to mention very old-fashioned.”
“I don’t know. Madeleine suits you. I think I would’ve been disappointed if your name was Debbie or Sue. You must hate it when people call you Maddie?”
“How… Okay, now it’s your turn to explain.” She raked in her winnings then turned back to Kara while the dealer cleared the table and shuffled the cards.
“It’s how you introduced yourself. It was second nature, no hint of a more common version. Do you let anyone call you Maddie?”
The woman seemed torn between answering her and just plain walking away. As the opening betting round continued, she pushed out two twenty-dollar chips to call the bet then answered with less enthusiasm, “You must be a student of human behavior.”
“Sorry, professional observation, that’s all. I didn’t mean to be a dick.”
Madeleine laughed, eyes on the table as the dealer turned over the flop. “I hate to ask but what kind of work do you do? Oh God, you’re not some sort of detective, are you?”
That question had Kara grinning, “Close. I do spend an inordinate amount of time nosing around but not on people. I investigate trends.” She watched Madeleine chuck her cards while Mr. Poker was max betting again. Clearly, his fresh beer was fueling this latest push. Kara smiled at the woman beside her and called his bet. Both women watched while the betting round preceded. Once complete, their chips were added to the pot. The dealer burned the top card before flipping over the turn card. Mr. Poker was first up and maxed out the bet. Kara listened as a few of the old boys grumbled. How very interesting to be sitting beside a beautiful woman and surrounded by grumpy old men. She had been paying more attention to Madeleine than the other players and had missed Mr. Poker’s reaction to his cards. Judging by his non-reaction to the turn card and his continued aggressive betting she was sure he was bluffing, again. She met his bet even though she had yet to check her cards. Too late now.
Beside her, Madeleine intently followed the hand, sipping from her cocktail and quietly humming to herself. Others might have found that bothersome but Kara was enjoying the sound and the woman when Mr. Poker shoved his last chips forward in a move that signaled he was all in. His commitment was meant to scare others, and she was surprised to see two players immediately fold. That left just her, Mr. Poker, and two old boys at the end of the table. It would be a good hand to win. Even though she had no clue what she was holding she smiled the most condescending smile she could muster before pushing two hundred dollars in chips forward. “Call.”
The dealer signaled for them all to turn their cards over. The old boys were sitting on respectable hands. Mr. Poker had fisted his cards waiting for Kara to reveal her hand first. She kept the condescending look on her face knowing the dealer would make him present first. It took a minute for him to realize they were waiting for him. He complained but finally tossed his cards over, then huffed back in his seat looking very much like he wanted to spit in Kara’s face. He’d tried to run the table with a three and a seven. Kara turned her cards over, seeing her hand for the first time. She took the pot with a full house.
As she raked in her chips, she felt the woman beside her give a subtle shoulder bump. “Nice.”
“Thank you, grown-up Madeleine, never little Maddie.” Kara could feel the woman’s eyes on her and chanced to look. She assumed she’d be pissed or at least annoyed. Her amused smile was the last thing she was expecting. She returned the smile while something inside clicked into place. They spent the next few hands in relative silence. That was all it took before their allied play busted Mr. Poker. Kara almost cried to see him pull five one-hundred-dollar bills from his wallet and buy back in. That was the downfall of playing an open table as opposed to tournament play. If he’d gone broke in a tournament match, that would be it, but as long as he had money, he could sit and play.
Kara marveled to watch Madeleine take him on. It was remarkable how intuitive they were with one another. They had become an unofficial tag team, taking turns to take out Mr. Poker while never betting against one another. It wasn’t like they were cheating. They would both check their cards and more often than not, pay to see the flop. By the time the second betting round was complete, one or the other would fold, and it looked like they each intuitively guessed who had the best hand or the greatest chance of besting the table and Mr. Poker.
That stopped Kara. She smiled before checking her cards and calling. “You’re welcome. I don’t know what you’re thanking me for, but you’re most welcome.”
“You’re Canadian, aren’t you?”
She looked around before answering. “Guilty. What gave it away? Was it my hypothetical accent, my sense of humor, or was I too polite?”
As the betting came around, Madeleine checked her cards again, seeming to look hesitant, maybe even confused before increasing the bet. Her bet was marginal but perfect, too. Kara always considered the limping players a pain, except when the player used it as a tactic against a bully. It was a perfect move. Kara, next in order to place a bet, made like the cards were bad and chucked her hand. She made sure to inch back in her chair. She wanted to watch Madeleine take him on but didn’t want to risk him noticing her mirth. It was also a perfect angle to watch Madeleine in profile. In the advertising world, the profile was the beauty shot. Kara had noticed her hair before, but under the lights of the business office, she had registered a darker tone, maybe Avenger Auburn but down here under the house lights, she had to admit the perfect glossy waves were Riddler Red. She should know. She’d been stuck naming sixty-four shades for a hair coloring campaign just last year. Although considering it more carefully now, she would have called Madeleine’s natural hair shade Bad Ass Red Brass. Of course that name had been rejected long before it was even suggested to the client. It was still her favorite. As if hearing everything she was thinking, Madeleine turned to face her, a smile so radiant her eyes were alight. Green, light mossy green…
“Order me another drink?” she asked, delivering a wicked grin with her request.
Her attention was back on the table, the game, and mostly Mr. Poker whose head was beginning to resemble a great big sugar beet. His stack of new chips had dwindled fast, and it looked like he would have to call Madeleine’s bet or try to limp his way through one more hand. Of course he could always buy more chips, but she had a feeling either his pride or his bride had set his limit. It would be interesting to calculate all his options or lack thereof.
Madeleine’s poker face smiled ever so slightly at the river card. Kara knew it was more for the effect than anything and noted the steam rising from Mr. Poker’s ears. Would his head blow right here? With just forty dollars in chips left, he made the classic mistake of following the pot. He was all in. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t buy more chips. As the betting round continued, Kara focused on him and his aggravated mood. He was tapping nervously on his cards and mumbling under his breath. He was also fixated on Madeleine’s hand. Not the player, just the cards, and it hit her. This guy was so sure a woman couldn’t be beating him at poker, she had to be what…cheating? It was all she could do not to laugh out loud. Where did guys like this come from? Did they have a special school or something?
Cards were turned over, and Mr. Poker freaked out. He threw his cards across the table. An infraction in poker that had you removed. He stood, knocking his chair over. The stunt with the cards had already caught the attention of the pit boss. Now the chair thing invited security into the mix. Kara was a little shocked at how fast two hulking gentlemen in suits appeared, both latching onto the flailing arm of the irate player being evicted from the game.
“Fucking dykes!” he hissed as he disappeared into the main casino floor.
The pit boss said, “Ms. Jessepp, Ms. Wexler, gentlemen, please accept my apology. I’m happy to provide complimentary dinner passes for everyone.”
Again, Madeleine turned a brilliant smile on her, eyes alight with mischief. “I’m more in the mood for a quiet drink somewhere. How about you?”
Kara found herself lost in the brilliance of her eyes and had to replay the moment in her mind, “A drink? Yes,” she answered with a decisive smile. A drink with a beautiful and genuine woman was something far and away too absent in her life these last few years. “Absolutely. Yes.”
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