In less than twelve hours C. J. Callahan’s life would be over, and there was nothing he could do about it.
His long-fingered hand loosely wrapped around a longneck, C. J. sat in the back booth of his bar, Callahan’s, on the West Side of New York and contemplated his life … or what was left of it.
At 9:00 AM sharp he’d take over running Callahan Software Company. C. J. tucked his dark head, then lifted it to stare around the neighborhood bar that he’d first helped his uncle operate for five years, then owned outright after his uncle’s death three years ago. The bar was as much a part of him as his hands. His uncle, Robert Callahan, the older and only brother of C. J.’s father, had felt the same attachment.
Because of C. J.’s love of Callahan’s, his uncle had willed the bar to C. J. and asked him to make sure Callahan’s reached the twenty-five-year mark. C. J. had accomplished that last year and looked forward to twenty-five more and beyond … until fate said differently.
As much as he didn’t want to run the family-owned software company, he didn’t have a choice. His father’s and his brother’s health no longer allowed them to keep the grueling schedule and frantic pace. That left C. J., his parents’ only other son.
The mournful sound of Wynton Marsalis’s sax caused C. J.’s usually erect broad shoulders to sag. His unflappable sunny disposition was long gone. He felt as if every unhappy note had been written just for him. Life had done a number on him this time. It had taken him years to finally find what he wanted to do with his life, and now that he had it was going to be snatched away from him.
“It’s not that bad.”
C. J. twisted his dark head to see Alex Stewart, one of his two best friends, standing beside the booth. “Why aren’t you still on your honeymoon?”
“Because I’m here.” Alex tucked his trim six-foot frame into the booth’s other side.
C. J. grunted. Alex, a lawyer and a darn good one, had an irritating way with words. He was also crazy in love with his new bride, Dianne. They’d had a big lavish wedding a little over a week ago at his parents’ palatial estate in California, and were supposed to still be in Paris. When they weren’t working, they were inseparable. “Where’s Dianne?”
“She had a stop to make,” Alex answered, bracing his arms on the wooden table. “Sin should be here any minute.”
“And it won’t change a thing.” Sin was C. J.’s other best friend. They had always been there for each other no matter what. Sin had a way with women, thus the nickname.
C. J.’s hands closed around the bottle, then he cocked his head as he saw Sin—tall and as physically fit as the athletes he matched with his corporate clients—making his way toward them. His bearded face was serious for once; he was casually dressed in a polo shirt and slacks, the same as Alex. C. J. preferred T-shirts and jeans. Callahan Software employees might dress casually, but his grandfather, the founder, C. J.’s father, and his brother always wore a suit to work.
“Can you get me on a private jet to parts unknown?” he asked as soon as Sin neared.
Sin was a phenomenally successful sports consultant with his own Gulfstream. Payton “Sin” Sinclair moved in some very wealthy circles, but you’d never know it. He was as laid-back and down-to-earth as they came.
“If I thought it would help, you’d already be gone,” Sin answered in his straightforward way. He sat beside Alex when he slid over.
“We’re here for you, man,” Alex said.
C. J. knew it, but at the moment it wasn’t much help. He and Sin had been best friends since they were freshmen in high school. Alex hadn’t become a part of the strong bond until eight years ago, when he’d moved into the same apartment building where C. J. and Sin lived. They were as close as you could get.
“Yeah, I know, it’s just—” C. J. began, but he was interrupted by a loud whistle. His head came up and around. Marsalis’s sax shut off. C. J. came out of the booth to see what was happening, then he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Sitting on the bar, mike in hand, was none other than Maya, a six-time Grammy-winning blues singer from New Orleans. Throwing him a kiss, she opened her mouth and moaned, low and deep, and then began to sing about love lost and never regained in her haunting voice.
For a moment he was transfixed by the sight and sound of his favorite singer in his bar in a red satin dress that showed off every generous curve to perfection. Maya had a breathy, whiskey-coated voice that grabbed a man by the throat and tugged at the emotions. She also had the homeliest face on the planet, but he loved her music. No pretense, just jaw-dropping power. Not many things were that way today.
A picture of a beautiful woman in a lavender dress tied at the shoulders flashed before C. J. Her full skirt had shown a tantalizing glimpse of black netting underneath each time she’d moved in stiletto black heels. She’d smiled up at him as he held her to him on the dance floor. He pushed the image away before he could wrap his mind around why he was thinking of her again.
Ever since that slow dance with her at Alex and Dianne’s wedding, he’d been thinking of Cicely St. John more and more, of what would have happened if he had taken her to his room and untied that dress. There was a reason why he hadn’t. At best they tolerated each other because she was Dianne’s friend.
She was stuck up and had slammed his bar, not once but twice. Once to his face, the other on her irritating blog. He might have bent to be cordial for the sake of Alex and Dianne, but if he never saw her again it wouldn’t bother him in the least.
“Be back in a moment,” Sin said, scooting out of the booth. Alex was right behind him.
C. J. was still trying to figure out why Maya was there when he saw Dianne at the door beckoning Alex. Caught between listening to Maya and finding out what was going on, C. J. folded his arms and chose to listen to Maya. He was past due for something good.
The last time he’d seen Maya was at Mardi Gras a couple of years ago when he, Alex, and Sin had gone to New Orleans. They’d had a ball. The only time they’d had more fun was when they’d gone to Vegas for a championship boxing match. They hadn’t slept for three days. Even now, the memory made him grin. What happened in Vegas definitely stayed in Vegas.
There was a commotion at the door. C. J. jerked around and frowned. Alex and Sin were coming through the door with four other men carrying a long table. Even as C. J. moved to help them and finally find out what was going on, he saw the top. Green felt. A craps table. Behind them, another man carried a roulette table, while two croupiers and three men carried slot machines.
It hit C. J. at once and made him throw back his head and laugh for the first time that day. Alex and Sin were throwing him a casino party. Seemed they remembered the vacation and Mardi Gras and were combining it into one fabulous night. Still grinning, he watched them place the craps table over the top of the pool table, push back chairs for the roulette table, and place the three slot machines on the tables pushed against the wall.
“I can’t believe you did this,” C. J. said, chuckling.
“Let’s have some fun.” Sin slapped a pair of dice into C. J.’s hand. “This time I plan to walk away the winner.”
“In your dreams.” C. J. turned and with an agile flick of his wrist sent the dice tumbling. Seven.
Sin folded his arms and shook his dark head. “At least the food will be better.” He inclined his head toward the bar.
C. J. spun in that direction to see his cousin, Summer Radcliffe, owner of the famed five-star Radcliffe’s restaurant, setting up food on the other end of the bar. Dianne, Alex’s wife, was passing out tickets to the patrons. At the end of Maya’s song, Dianne accepted the mike and beckoned Sin and Alex.
Alex curved his arm around Dianne’s waist and took the mike. “We figured a lot of regulars would be at Callahan’s on a Sunday night, so Sin and the two beautiful women beside us and I thought it would be the perfect time to throw C. J. a little good-luck party for his new job as CEO of Callahan Software.”
Applause, whistles, and cheers filled the bar. Alex handed the mike to Sin.
“Summer Radcliffe, the beautiful woman in magenta, is the famed owner of Radcliffe’s, so you’re about to taste the best food in the state. And because we value you, the bar is closed. You can have one ticket for an alcoholic beverage and unlimited anything else. You’ll also be given fifty dollars in chips to play to your heart’s content.” He paused and looked at C. J. “Good luck on getting a chance at the craps table. It’s C. J.’s favorite.”
C. J. held up the dice. “It’s my party.”
“Another favorite of C. J. is Maya, who graciously came in from New Orleans for the party.” Sin turned to her.
The buxom singer leaned toward him and purred, “I could use a little company on that private jet of yours back to Naw Leans.”
Sin grinned, a wicked smile on his bearded face. “Sometimes a man knows when he might get in over his head.” He gave her the mike. “Maya.”
Taking the mike, the singer looked at C. J. “You’re too handsome and too happy to feel as deeply as you do about the blues, sugar.”
C. J. took her hand, brushed his lips across the top. “Blame it on that voice of yours.”
Maya cocked her head to one side to look thoughtfully at C. J. and then Sin. “You two are too carefree to have had your hearts broken, but one day it will come, and when it does I want you to remember that love is worth every heartache.”
Straightening, she closed her eyes and began to sing about a man giving his heart to the wrong woman, the wrenching pain, the unforgettable pleasure.
C. J. and Sin shared a self-assured grin that said no woman would ever leave them heartbroken. They were always the ones to walk away. Throwing Maya a kiss, C. J. happily headed for the craps table with Sin and Alex right behind him. If he was going to his execution in the morning, tonight he was having fun.
* * *
Cicely St. John hadn’t planned to come to the party they were giving C. J. until Dianne mentioned they were having a craps table. Cicely had always been glad she didn’t live in Vegas or anywhere they had legal gambling. She’d have to join Gamblers Anonymous.
There was something about the roll of the dice that pulled her. Like life, you never knew what would come up. Hers certainly hadn’t gone the way she’d planned. Pushing the unhappy thought away, she entered Callahan’s Bar and found the party in full swing.
People were dancing, laughing, and in general having a great time. The woman singing had a voice that made you want to move your body or cry in despair. The sight tonight was very different from the last time she’d been at Callahan’s.
She’d been there with a photographer taking pictures for her fashion blog to help Dianne and Alex’s new fashion line, D&A of NY, gain some much-needed publicity. As the fashion director for Fashion Insider, one of the top high-fashion magazines in the world, she had gained a reputation for finding the next big thing ahead of the crowd. She’d liked Dianne’s designs for full-figured women and wanted to use her blog to help.
However, from the moment she and C. J. had met, they had mixed as well as oil and water. He’d been proud of the fact that his bar was a man’s bar. They didn’t even serve wine. He hadn’t even wanted the name of the bar mentioned when she did her blog. She was happy to oblige. If he didn’t want the free publicity, his loss.
Yet somehow, at Dianne and Alex’s wedding they’d ending up on the dance floor together. Everyone was having a great time at the reception. The champagne had been excellent, the food scrumptious. C. J. hadn’t stepped on her feet and had been a surprisingly good dancer. There had been a moment when the music ended and she’d looked up at him and had the strangest urge to press her lips against his. She’d quickly quelled the idiotic notion and left him on the floor.
Now, shaking her head, she accepted the gaming chips and drink tickets. She ordered a Pellegrino and began to circulate, the skirt of her multicolored silk dress swirling around her long legs. Bohemian fashion had been in the previous summer. She still enjoyed the free, easy look and wore what pleased her.
Searching for Dianne, Summer, and the gaming tables, in that order, she moved to the other end of the bar.
A short distance away, she saw the table and a man she’d like to forget. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she continued toward the table while sipping her water.
C. J., shaking the dice, had a hard frown on his too-handsome face. Apparently Lady Luck wasn’t being kind to him. Grinning, she edged her way to the end of the table just as the dice stopped in front of her. Snake eyes.
C. J.’s gaze glanced upward. Their gazes locked. She felt a strange tingling in the pit of her stomach, and quickly attributed it to a missed lunch and a chocolate bar for dinner. With her hectic schedule, Sundays were just as much a workday for her as any other.
She’d gone over three articles for the coming issue, dropped by a fashion shoot in New Jersey, gone to a fashion show, and afterward returned home to blog until her stomach reminded her she hadn’t eaten. Now she was here.
And it seemed she had arrived just in time to have a little fun.
She tipped her bottle of water. Several gold bracelets with stones the same colors as her dress jiggled on her wrist. “Hey, fellows. Looks like beginner’s luck isn’t with you tonight, C. J.”
Alex and Sin, standing on either side of C. J., burst out laughing. Sin explained, “C. J. is an excellent player.”
Cicely lifted a regal brow and took another sip. “Could have fooled me.”
“I guess you could do better,” C. J. challenged, his jaw tight.
Cicely didn’t even think of declining. She’d had to fight all her life to fit in, fight to get where she was. Scooping up the dice with her left hand, she rounded the table and held out her bottle to C. J.
Hard black eyes drilled into her for so long that her stomach got that free-falling sensation again. She resisted the urge to rub her stomach or drop her gaze and ordered her hand not to shake. She could bluff with the best of them. She’d had to in order to survive.
Finally, blessedly, C. J. took the bottle. If he noticed the little zip when their fingers touched, he certainly didn’t show it. Her unwanted reaction to him was just enough to tick her off even more and bring out the killer instinct she’d learned in the world of fashion. The weak never survived.
Facing the table, she placed half her chips on top, shook the dice in her hand, then let them fly. Seven.
Sin patted C. J. sympathically on the back. Alex whistled.
The croupier handed her the dice again along with a pile of chips. She leaned over the table. She’d show him. And she did when, in less than two minutes, she won all the chips.
A cocky grin on her face, she turned to C. J. Careful not to touch him, she took her bottle from his clenched hand, took a sip, and almost purred, “You were saying?”
C. J. looked as if he’d like to have her head.
“Cicely, why don’t we get something to eat?” Summer suggested, taking her by the arm.
Dianne grabbed the other arm. “Summer, as usual, outdid herself with the food.”
Well aware that they’re trying to get her away from C. J. before he blew, Cicely let them lead her away. She’d made her point. She’d bested the man who probably thought the only places for women were the bedroom and the kitchen. But she couldn’t resist giving C. J. one last triumphant look over her shoulder.
She laughed when she thought she heard him growl. Sin’s and Alex’s gazes snapped from her to C. J. Clearly they didn’t know what to expect from him, either. Remembering how hungry she was, Cicely faced forward, a smile still curving her lips.
There were several people at the bar being served, but the line moved quickly. Seeing the succulent slices of roast beef being piled on soft rolls, buttery potatoes, and asparagus, Cicely forgot about C. J.
With her plate in her hand, Cicely and the women found a relatively quiet area where she could eat. Unfortunately, she was facing the craps table.
Despite the crowd, she had no difficulty finding C. J. He, Alex, and Sin stood out, not just because of their height or gorgeous looks, but because the self-assured way they carried themselves set them apart. His gaze touched hers, and she felt that strange something again. It took all her effort to look away.
Of all the men and all the times for her sleeping libido to awaken, now was the worst. C. J. was a throwback, and even if he wasn’t, she hoped to be in Paris in less than six weeks as the new editor-in-chief for her magazine’s international office. She didn’t have time for a man, any man.
And although she hadn’t known Dianne socially until recently, Cicely knew she’d miss her, and miss Summer whom she’d gotten to know through Dianne as well. They were women who were secure in themselves. They weren’t trying to use Cicely or climb over her to get what they wanted like many of the women she’d met. There wasn’t a fake or pretentious bone in their slender, fashionable bodies. Cicely figured she was long overdue to meet women who could be real friends.
“Alex and I are having our first dinner party Friday night and we want the friends who helped us find happiness to be our first guests,” Dianne said, her face wreathed in a happy smile. “Please say you both can come.”
Cicely didn’t doubt that C. J. would be invited. She could face whatever it was about him that made her body act silly or run. “I’ll be there. I’ll bring the wine.” She wasn’t afraid of C. J. or any other man. He should be afraid of her.
“I’ll take care of the dessert.” Summer held up her glass of wine. “To a successful dinner party.”
“A successful dinner party,” Cicely and Dianne echoed as their glasses touched and clinked.
* * *
Across the room, C. J. half listened to Sin while watching Cicely. Tall, elegant, she had black eyes that could tempt a man to sin from thirty feet away. Classically beautiful, she had lips meant to be kissed—often—and incredibly soft skin. His frown deepened. He hadn’t missed the flash of awareness when their fingers brushed against each other. It had taken all his willpower to hide his reaction—one that, even now, puzzled and annoyed him.
How could he be attracted to the woman who slammed his bar? Just the thought annoyed him.
The bar was like an old friend, always there offering comfort and accepting no matter what. Men needed a place to come and just be, a place they didn’t have to talk or try to explain the impossible or reason, just shoot the bull and have a good beer while watching a game without being asked to take out the trash or talk about their feelings.
Callahan’s Bar provided that and more. Yet that didn’t seem to matter to Miss Stuck-up Cicely.
When she’d blogged about Alex and Dianne’s new fashion line with pictures taken at his bar, she’d said that it just proved that good fashion looked good “no matter where.”
Of course he’d called Alex the instant he’d read the slanderous statement. Alex had said C. J. didn’t have a case to sue Cicely for slander. Now she was here thumbing her pretty nose at him and beating him at craps.
He’d known she was trouble from the moment he’d seen her. Hopefully this would be the last time. Turning away, he put her firmly out of his mind.
Copyright © 2012 by Francis Ray