Tempting the Best Man (Gamble Brothers 1) - Page 9

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“I don’t know.” She glanced at a silent Chase. “Maybe four…?”

Her mother gasped, but Lissa giggled as Madison’s brother grinned and shook his head. “What a wino,” he said.

Madison made a face and then turned. As far as the eye could see, there were grape trees and rolling hills under the bright glare of the sun and blue skies. Luckily the conversation turned from her hangover to wedding plans. Friday night, there would be a rehearsal, since the bachelor and bachelorette parties had been held the week prior. There was a busload of wedding programs that needed to be folded and, wanting to be of some use to the whole shindig, Madison offered to do it before dinner.

“Thank you!” Lissa exclaimed, obviously grateful. “You’ll probably need some help. There are a lot of programs, plus the little card holders. I’m sure some of the other bridesmaids would love to help.”

Being the maid of honor, these were the kind of things she should be doing and she actually wanted to. And the other girls had done so much, stepped in whenever Madison had needed their help. “It’s okay. I can do it. Let them relax.”

Lissa relented, but she passed a look to Mitch.

Madison loosened her grip and smoothed her hands over her denim skirt. Sitting across from her was Chase. Even though he hadn’t said more than two words to her since she crawled out of bed, she could feel his eyes on her.

Last night… Dear God, he’d had to help her change out of her dress and she’d admitted that she slept naked. Well, she definitely added another notch to the humiliation belt. Swearing off wine forever, she stole a quick glance at him.

Their eyes locked just as the tour guide stopped by a large stone building. Everyone unloaded in a rush. Mitch and Lissa in the front, their arms snug around each other’s waists. Her parents were just as cuddly. Like Chase had said earlier, they were treating the trip like a honeymoon. They hadn’t had a real one after they married, so Madison was glad to see them having so much romance and fun.

“Here,” said a deep voice.

Madison looked up, surprised to find Chase beside her, holding a bottle of water. She took it, offering a tentative smile. “Thank you.”

He shrugged. “I’ve seen many hangovers worse than what you have, but the water should help.”

Chase would know, she thought, unscrewing the lid and taking a drink. Besides running three clubs where liquor poured from the ceilings, he’d been quite the partier in college, and then there had been his mother… Chase and his brothers had probably learned how to treat a hangover at an early age. She always found it strange that Chase had gone into the nightclub business, but he was clearly determined to be “like father, like son,” she supposed. His dad had owned dozens of bars and nightclubs. It seemed only natural that one of the brothers would’ve followed suit.

But Chase… He wasn’t like his father, not really. He wasn’t as cold as the elder Gamble or as selfish. A fine shudder rolled through Madison as she recalled the few times she’d been in the Gamble house. Once when she was just a kid and then when she’d been seventeen. Both times, the house had been sterile and frigid. His mother had been a lifeless shell, living from one wine bottle and prescription pill to the next. The woman had loved the boys’ father to the point of death and their father…he hadn’t seemed to care.

Discreetly peeking at Chase from behind her sunglasses, she noticed again how out of the three brothers, Chase was the one who resembled his father, but even with the clubs, the girls, and the success, he was the least like him.

He just couldn’t seem to stop acting like he was.

When he glanced at her, she looked straight ahead. Why was she even thinking about this stuff? It didn’t matter, and if she didn’t start paying attention, she’d tumble right down the narrow steps the guide was leading them down into the wine cellar where thousands of bottles were racked and stocked from the floor to the ceiling.

Something was different about Chase today as he joked with his brothers and Mitch. Like a tension in his shoulders that hadn’t been there yesterday morning had set in. She hoped it wasn’t from sleeping on that terrible couch.

The air was several degrees cooler in the wine cellar, and she rubbed her arms, chasing the chill away. Since wine storage wasn’t of much interest to her, she roamed off, following the maze of bottles.

Good Lord, if she were claustrophobic, being down here would be a problem with how tight and narrow and tall the racks were.

Her flip-flops smacked on the cement floor as she tried to read the names on the bottles. Most of them were unpronounceable to her and honestly, she’d go to the grave before she had another sip of that stuff.

The voices of the group faded off as her fingers trailed along the chilled bottles. She wasn’t a big drinker, obviously. Last night had been out of the norm.

Stopping at the edge of the rack, she glanced over her shoulder, suddenly realizing she couldn’t hear anyone anymore. Frowning, she backtracked to where she thought she’d left them, but no one was there.

“Crap,” she muttered, hurrying down an aisle.

This wasn’t happening. They did not leave her. Tightening her grip on the water bottle, she barrelled around the corner, smacked right off a hard chest, and almost landed on her ass.

Chase snatched her arm before she ended up on her rear. “Whoa. You okay?”

Blinking, she nodded. “I didn’t know you were there.” She took a step back, ignoring the sudden increase in her heart rate. Her reaction was ridiculous. “Why are you here?”

He cocked his head to the side. “The group is moving on to lunch.”

“Oh?” Since she wasn’t bouncing around in that horrible truck, her stomach perked up happily.

A half grin appeared. “It’s a picnic, I hear, out in the actual vineyards.”

That sounded incredibly tasty and romantic. “Well, we better hurry, then.”

Stepping aside, Chase let her walk by. He followed behind her silently, and she wished he’d say something. Anything. But then again, she had no idea what to say, either. The awkwardness that had developed between them sucked. Proof positive why friends of any sort should never cross that invisible line… At least not unless they planned on crossing all the way.

When they reached the entrance, Chase swore under his breath. “Where in the hell is everyone?”

A horrible sensation snaked its way through the pit of her stomach as she glanced up and down the empty aisles. There was no sound other than Chase’s soft breath and her pounding heart.

“They didn’t…?” She trailed off, unable to accept what was happening.

“No.” He edged around her and pounded up the steps. Another loud curse and banging caused her to wince.

Madison found him at the top of the stairs, his hands on his hips. “Please don’t say what I think you’re going to say.”

“We’re locked in.” Disbelief colored Chase’s tone.

“You have got to be kidding.” She squeezed past him and tried the door, jiggling the handle. Nothing. She wanted to smack her head off the door but figured since her headache had finally eased, that was not a good idea. “They left us.”

Chase leaned against the cool cement blocks, closing his eyes. “They have to realize we’re missing. They’ll come back. Soon. It won’t be that long.”

Boy, she hoped so. She was already colder than a witch’s tit, but as five minutes passed and then ten, it wasn’t looking like a rescue was going to happen anytime soon.

Madison dropped down on the step, chasing away the goose bumps on her bare legs with her hands. “You know, I’m kind of offended that no one has even realized we’re not with them.”

He chuckled and settled onto the step above her, leaning forward and crossing his hands on his bent knees. His face was nearly eye-level with hers, so now she didn’t have to tilt her head to talk to him. “Yeah, it does wonders for your self-esteem, doesn’t it?”

“I bet they’re enjoying their lunch, too. Eating finger sandwiches, drinking club soda, and thinking, ‘Hmm, the group seems different, but oh, never mind, we have pickled eggs!’”

Chase’s deep, husky laugh warmed her belly. “This reminds me of something.”

At first, she didn’t know where he was going with that statement as she pulled the sunglasses off her head and placed them next to her water on the top ledge. And then it hit her.

Oh, for the love of all things holy in this world.

“You were seven,” he said, humor lacing his voice.

She lowered her head in shame. Chase had this wonderfully selective memory when it came to remembering the most humiliating moments in her life.

“And Mitch and I were going to the park to play a game of basketball and you wanted to go, but Mitch wouldn’t let you.” Another chuckle filled the pause. “So, you decided to retaliate.”

“Can we talk about something else?”

He ignored her. “By stuffing yourself in a chest in the tree house—what the hell did you hope to gain by that?”

Her cheeks burned. “I was hoping that you guys would come back and miss me, and then you’d feel bad for not letting me play with you. Yeah, I know, not the smartest plan, but I was a kid.”

Chase shook his head and a lock of dark hair fell forward over his forehead. “You could’ve killed yourself.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“Except we thought you went to the neighbors’ house,” he added, frowning now. “Man, you had to be in that chest for hours.”

She had. Luckily it had a huge rusted-out hole in the side, but something had gone wrong when she had closed the trunk. It had locked on her. Even with her scrawny arms, she couldn’t reach the latch from the inside. So she had stayed in that damn chest, helpless as night fell and she felt like spiders were crawling over her. She remembered crying for what felt like days and then finally falling asleep, positive she was going to die alone.

“When your dad realized you weren’t at the neighbors’ and no one had seen you since we’d left for the park, I thought he was going to lock us in one of his bomb shelters.”

Imagining how angry her father must’ve been, she laughed. Half the reason why she’d been able to tail them so much as a kid was the fact her parents had put the fear of God in Mitch and the Gamble brothers. If Madison wanted to play with them, she got to play and set the rules.

Too bad it didn’t work that way now.

“You found me,” she said, closing her eyes.

“I did.”

“How?” she asked. It was the one thing she’d never figured out.

Chase was quiet for so long, she thought he might not remember. “We searched everywhere—my brothers and your family. They’d been in the tree house, but I don’t know why I checked it again. I saw that damn chest we used to sit on and looked in that hole. I saw your red jumper and about had a heart attack. I called your name and you didn’t answer.” A heartbeat passed. “I thought you were dead in there. I had to use that busted old hammer to pry the lock open.” He took a deep breath. “You scared the hell out of me.”


Tags: Jennifer L. Armentrout Gamble Brothers Erotic
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