“I’m afraid to see where this is going.”
“A little faith, mate. Will is a bit of a ladies’ man,” he said, smiling. “We’ll just . . . help him.”
“You mean get him a hooker?” I practically shouted.
Max shushed me and glanced around. “A little louder perhaps? And who’d have thought you’d be such a prude, Ben? I’m a little surprised,” he said. “I’m not going to let him sleep with her. We just want a distraction. We’re getting him a distraction.”
He held up a finger to silence me, and put the phone on speaker between us. It rang a few times before it was answered by a man with a deep, serious voice: Johnny French.
“What can I do for you, Max? Again,” he said.
“How are you this evening, Mr. French?” Max asked.
A gravelly laugh filled the line. “Funny. I trust you found everything to your liking?”
Max smiled and I raised an eyebrow. It occurred to me that I really had no idea what Max had been up to in there. I knew it involved Sara, but now I was beginning to wonder if the details were a bit more . . . sordid than I’d originally thought.
“It was brilliant. Bloody brilliant. As usual, of course. You have one hell of a place there.”
“Good, glad to hear it. Now get to the point.”
“I’d like to call in a favor.”
“The thing is that we’ve found ourselves in a bit of a predicament here, and need a little help getting out of it.”
“Yes. Sara is here, as you know. But so are our friends.”
“I see . . . And you’d like to ditch them.”
“Not exactly. We just want them . . . entertained. One friend in particular. We’d like him safe but maybe . . . occupied for a few hours.”
“So you can run off and be with your girls on Valentine’s Day.”
Silence filled the line and Max and I looked up at each other in question.
“I’m here. And yeah, no problem. Pretty sure I have the perfect distraction in mind.”
“I don’t trust him,” I said on our way back to the restaurant.
“Stop worrying. Johnny is a man of his word, I assure you.”
Max waved me off. “He’s never going to be the guy to give me flowers and tell me I’m lovely.”
“He sounded like we were assholes.”
He had a point. “So what about Henry?” I asked, stopping at the stairs just outside the restaurant.
“Do you think he’ll be a problem?”
“I think if I shoved a thousand bucks in his pocket I wouldn’t see him again until Tuesday morning.”
“Brilliant. So we have a nice dinner, wait for Johnny to send someone over, and then find our girls. If all goes well I won’t see your ugly mug until the morning, when we can start this weekend properly.”
“Done.” We shook hands and made our way inside with a new sense of purpose.
Will and Henry were just where I’d left them and now surrounded by a mountain of bowls and platters. There were steaks and fish, salad with bacon, steaming dishes of vegetables and what had to be some of the biggest shellfish I’d ever seen.
“Wow,” Max said, looking over what had to be enough food to feed at least ten people. “Hungry?”
“We didn’t know what you’d want,” Henry said with a shrug. “Plus Ben’s picking up the bill so . . .”
“Much, thank you. And absolutely famished.”
We each took a seat and Max motioned to the waiter. “I’ll have another Macallan,” he said.
“And a Belvedere gimlet for me.” I pointed to Henry and Will across from me. “And bring them two of whatever they’re having.”
“So what did I miss?” Max asked, covering his plate in some sort of potatoes. “Did you two finally stop playing hard to get and decide to run off together? There’s a chapel just downstairs, I believe. In the casino.”
“Ha,” Will said. “We were actually discussing who would be next. I assured Henry here that the only possible answer was you.”
“Oh I don’t know about that,” Max said. “Never know what will happen with one of your sheduled booty calls.”
“What about that, Stella? Think it’ll happen with you and Sara?” Henry asked.
Max smiled but it was the shielded smile that he wore whenever he spoke about Sara. “I haven’t had this conversation with her yet, I’m certainly not having it with you lot.”
“But you’ve considered it,” I found myself saying. I’d never seen Max fall for anyone like he had with Sara. I knew the feeling. He had to have at least considered it.
“Of course,” he answered. “But we’ve only been together for a short while. We’ve got time.”
Another round of drinks arrived and Max reached for his, holding it up for a toast. “To Bennett and Chloe. May your fights be rare, and if they aren’t—because who am I kidding—at least may they be followed by some wicked shagging.”
We all clinked glasses and drank deeply. The room seemed to expand and shrink, and I put my vodka down, reaching instead for my water.
“Well, I can’t wait to hit the tables,” Henry said, rubbing his palms together. “I spoke with a few of the dealers earlier. Kind of disappointed they have standard odds and no fire bet but hey, can’t win them all.”
“Wow. You sound like you’ve . . . really looked into this,” I said, wondering for a moment if I should be legitimately concerned.
He shrugged and cut into his steak. I made a mental promise that if he started talking about card counting or needing a spotter, I’d intervene. Who said I wasn’t a good brother?
We continued with dinner, Max and I sharing conspiratorial glances toward the door and back to each other. Just as Will excused himself to the restroom Max got a text.
“She’s here,” Max whispered. He typed something into his phone and pressed SEND. “Told Johnny what Will’s wearing and that he’ll be near the front of the restaurant. Showtime.”
“This is too easy,” I said, looking around, the tickle of uneasiness settling into my stomach. “Since meeting Chloe, nothing in my life is ever this easy.”
“Would you relax?” he said under his breath. “This isn’t insider trading, it’s finding a way for us to sneak off for a shag. Calm the f**k down.”
I looked up at the sound of Henry’s voice and followed his gaze across the room. A woman had stopped Will on his way back to the table. She was . . . beautiful, with miles of wavy red hair and makeup so skillfully applied she looked like a piece of art. She wore a short beaded dress that clung to her body and she smiled as she gazed at Will, her hand resting on his forearm.
I nudged Max and pointed, sitting back when he looked up. “Is that the woman Johnny sent?”
His eyes widened before they narrowed slightly, as if he were trying to get a closer look, figure out what didn’t quite add up.
“What the. . . ?” Henry said. Max began typing furiously on his phone while Henry and I continued to watch Will. The escort stood about eye level with him and had steered him toward the bar. It looked like Will might be buying her a drink. “I’m confused. Is that—?”
Will looked over at the table, meeting my eyes. And, oh, shit. In a rush I burst out laughing, understanding dawning. Johnny had totally f**ked with us, and from the second the woman found him, Will knew exactly what we’d done. The gauntlet had most definitely been thrown.
“That son of a bitch,” Max swore. But I didn’t have time to ask because it looked like Red was ready to put the moves on Will.
We all watched in rapt silence as the escort leaned in, whispering something in his ear. Her hand was big—bigger than my own—and she placed it against his chest, fingers twisting in the fabric. Will laughed, shaking his head before nodding to us at the table.
With a seductive grin, she gripped his shirt and pulled him forward, kissing him hard on the lips. Damn.
He stepped away in a daze and made his way back to the table. As he took his seat we each looked at the other, unsure of what had actually happened. Will was silent for a moment, blinking several times before reaching for his drink. He drained it in one pull and then took a deep breath.
“You’re a bunch of assholes,” he said, leaning back in his chair and popping a shrimp into his mouth. “But as far as kissing a dude went, that actually wasn’t bad.”
Honestly, that one really had ended up in the Win column for Will. I glanced across the table to where he perused the dessert tray, still wearing the same smug f**king grin.
“Am I really really drunk or did we accidentally hire a male prostitute to distract our friend?” I asked Max.
He didn’t answer, just held up his phone displaying his most recently delivered text message: a picture of Johnny’s hand, middle finger extended. Perfect.
I laughed, putting my drink down with a bit more of a crash than I’d intended. “I’m not going to say I told you so but for the record, I definitely did.”
“Fuck you.” Max slumped back in his seat, pushing his hands into his hair. “This isn’t over. He’s going to bide his time, and then completely ruin us. Do you have any idea what I’ve done tonight to be with this woman? I snuck out on my best friend’s stag weekend. I stole a limousine. I hired my other best friend a drag queen, Bennett.”
Maybe it was the alcohol buzzing in my system, or the absolute absurdity of the situation, but I started to laugh, and then I couldn’t stop.
“I think Ben’s finally lost it,” Henry said. “Who called today?” He pulled a wrinkled slip of paper from his pocket, presumably with the bets they’d each taken earlier in the day. “Damnit. It was Max.”
I sat back in my seat and scrubbed my face. Max was right: this definitely wasn’t over.
The din of voices in the bar, glasses clinking, and sounds of ringing slot machines all around us was occasionally disrupted by the loud bursts of laughter by the world’s biggest wanker, Will.
“Wonder what it’d be like to get head from a male prostitute?” he mused. “Like, okay, assuming of course it wasn’t illegal, and you didn’t even know it was a guy. I bet that would be some good suction.”
I shrugged, feeling the humor of the situation bubble up inside me and burst out. “I bet it would be bloody fantastic.”
“Bigger tongue for the equipment if you know what I’m saying,” I added.
“Well, fuck. Now you’re making me wish I’d given him a go.” Will picked up his empty drink glass and raised it for the waiter to bring another. “Where are we headed next?”
“Thought we could hit Tao, at the Venetian,” I suggested. “Or head back to the Bellagio?”
“Does anyone actually know where Henry is?” Bennett asked, looking around for only a few seconds before seeming to decide he didn’t care enough to get up.
But then Chloe and Sara appeared around a corner, arms linked and making a beeline for a blackjack table only about ten yards from the bar. Bennett straightened instinctively, drawing Will’s attention.
“You’ve got to be f**king kidding me,” Will groaned, following Ben’s gaze. With mumbled thanks, he took his drink from the waiter. “They don’t even know you’re here, do they? Oh my God, they do. That’s why you’ve both been idiots all night. It’s like the four of you have subconscious homing devices implanted in your genitalia.” He sighed. “It all makes sense now.”
I stood at the same time as Bennett, stretching my arms over my head before tucking my dress shirt back into the waist of my trousers. Will could give me all the shit he wanted. I was going to Sara.
“If you don’t mind, gentlemen, it looks like I’ll be trying my hand at blackjack this evening.”
I made my way out of the bar and to the table where the girls were organizing their chips and being dealt in. Finding a seat next to Chloe, I met Sara’s eyes just a couple of seats down, giving her a little wink.
Pulling a few chips from my pocket, I had the croupier break them into smaller denominations and add me to the hand.
“I’d love to see that,” I murmured, frowning as the dealer laid down my faceup card. A five of hearts.
“As would I.” Bennett slid easily into the last empty chair at the table, on the opposite side of the half circle from Chloe and beside Sara. Between me and Sara was a skinny man wearing a ten-gallon hat and one of the most fantastic bits of facial hair I’d ever seen.