Jack of Hearts

Jack of Hearts

Heather MacAllister

June 2014 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-513-3

Book 2 of the Hall Sisters

He was about to get played . . .

Our PriceUS$12.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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He was her trump card.

When failed actress Laurel Hall comes home for Christmas, she thinks the worst thing she’ll have to do is explain her lackluster career. Then she learns that her family has another job for her—and this one’s going to be toughest role yet. The part? To lure the man who ruined her father into a high-stakes poker game and then take him down.

But to do that, Laurel will need a coach. That’s where gorgeous Jack Hartman, a former world-class gambler, comes in. Only Laurel quickly discovers she’d like more from Jack than poker tips.

Okay, so Jack has a bit of a shady past with cards. But he’s over that now. Still, there’s no way he can resist Laurel’s request. And as he teaches her the tricks of the trade, he and Laurel get close. Very close. But it soon becomes evident that Laurel doesn’t need a coach—she needs Jack to play the game in her stead.

But if he wins, will lovely Laurel be part of the spoils?


Coming soon!


Chapter One

LAUREL HALL’S taxi sped down the large circular driveway in the exclusive Highland Park area of Dallas and squeaked to a stop in front of a palatial, white-columned house.

"That’ll be twenty-three eighty,” announced the driver.

Laurel went through the motions of digging in her purse, gradually increasing the tempo of her movements. "My billfold!” Just the right touch of disbelief and desperation, she thought.

The cabbie obviously wasn’t impressed, but Laurel couldn’t waste her best performance on him. That she’d save for her family. "Wait here.”

He shrugged and flipped on the radio. "‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly...’”

Laurel sighed heavily. Of all the Christmas carols to hear on her ignominious return home... She ran up the three steps and stopped in front of the door. Should she ring the doorbell? She assumed it had been fixed sometime in the nearly three years since she’d lived here.

Laurel punched the bell. Almost immediately, the door opened, and she faced her brother-in-law’s searing blue eyes.

Drat. Holly and Ivy, her sisters, would have made soothing noises as they paid the cabbie while Laurel sobbed out a stolen-wallet story.

But Adam... Adam would immediately suspect that she hadn’t had anything to steal in the first place. Well, shouldn’t two years of acting lessons be good for something?

"Hi, Adam! Uh...” What she needed now was a good script.

"Laurel! Thanks for coming. I—”

The cabbie beeped his horn.

Adam’s glance flicked over Laurel in quick appraisal, shifted to the cab, then returned to her for a much slower study.

Laurel knew he saw a thinner, darker-haired version of the Laurel who had left Dallas for Hollywood.

Double drat. Adam would figure out in moments what she had spent two years denying even to herself.

Laurel Hall was a failure.

"Adam, I—”

"It’s okay.” Adam touched her briefly on the shoulder, then ran lightly down the steps and paid the cabbie. "Luggage?” he called.

Laurel barely moved her head in a quick shake of denial. Everything she’d brought from California—an extra T-shirt, underwear, and a little black dress—was in the denim hobo bag slung over her shoulder.

She managed to meet Adam’s eyes as he climbed the steps. When he reached the porch, he stopped and stared at her.

Laurel braced herself for one of Adam’s hard, assessing gazes. He always saw more than she would have liked, but was scrupulously fair, too. He’d even taken her side when she decided to quit her sisters’ Christmas decorating service, Deck the Halls, and try her luck at becoming an actress.

"My luggage has been lost.” Laurel hoped Adam would assume that the airline had lost it. Actually, she’d sold her bags months ago; sooner or later, she’d traded or sold everything of value.

Adam didn’t ask her which airline as she had thought he would. And that was fine, since she’d taken the bus. Hard to lose luggage on a bus.

"Any chance of finding it?”


He knew; she could tell. Without another word, Adam reached an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close as they walked into the house.

Did Holly realize how lucky she was to have someone like Adam? Someone to lean on?

"Holly’s in the kitchen.”

Laurelnodded and sniffed as she straightened.

"We redecorated.” Adam gestured to the front room, giving Laurel a chance to collect herself. She knew there would be no prying questions or I-told-you-so’s from him.

"This looks more like a reception area,” she commented, taking in the phone, desk, filing cabinets, and waiting-room atmosphere.

"That’s the idea. Holly sees Deck the Halls clients here. We converted several of the bedrooms—I use those for my legal clients. I act as a mediator exclusively now, and meeting in a home setting tends to calm people.” He smiled gently.

Laureltilted up her chin, warning him with a look that she could stand gentleness, but not pity.

The quiet in the foyer—in the whole house—amazed her. This close to Christmas, she remembered, the mansion was usually the site of frantic activity as she and her sisters scram­bled to pack ornaments for various tree-decorating jobs they’d landed. Their whole standard of living depended on the Christmas season. Laurel knew Holly had continued Deck the Halls after she and Ivy had left home, but where were the boxes? The carts? The inventory sheets? The shouting and screaming?

As she and Adam walked to the kitchen, Laurel felt surprisingly nervous. What could she, who had nothing, say to Holly, who now had everything?

"Laurel!” Ivy, her younger sister, raced down the front staircase and waylaid her. Adam grinned and walked into the other room as Laurel hugged her.

"Look at you!” Ivy gave her a once-over, too, but apparently didn’t see what Adam had seen. "Wow! You’re so thin! And what did you do to your hair?”

Outwardly, Laurel smiled. "I dyed it black to audition for the role of a Gypsy.”

"Did you get the part?” Ivy asked eagerly.


"Well, I’m glad. Otherwise, you couldn’t have come home, right?”

"Yeah,” Laurel echoed. "Otherwise I wouldn’t have come home.”

"Look.” Ivy dragged her over to the hall mirror. The black dye had faded, making Laurel’s hair a close match to Ivy’s dark brown. Ivy, still a college journalism student, wore her hair long and straight. Laurel’s hair was long now, too. Cheaper to maintain.

Ivy pointed. "We actually look like sisters for once.”

They did, except Ivy didn’t have rings under her brown eyes or minute wrinkles at the outer corners. She looked fresh. Laurel looked shopworn.

"I expected boxes of tree decorations everywhere. Isn’t business any good this year?” Laurel asked, turning away from the painful reflection in the mirror.

"Deck the Halls is bigger than ever, but Holly hires lots of part-timers,” Ivy explained as they walked toward the kitchen. "They work upstairs.”

"And just how many people does it take to replace us?”

"Twelve,” Ivy said with a grin. "That gives her four teams of three each.”

"Maybe I should have stuck around.”

"Are you kidding?” Ivy looked at her with an admiring expression. "Acting in movies is better than selling Christmas tree designs.”

"Acting isn’t as glamorous as you think.” Laurel had been in precisely one movie, a low-budget horror flick, which had gone directly to video. She’d played the part of a sorority girl corpse dressed in lingerie she never would have considered wearing when she’d been a live sorority girl.

Although she’d given the director the benefit of her experience, he had not appreciated her input.

Laurel’s total screen time was less than three seconds.

At first, she’d thought the two events were related. Now she knew she had been such an insignificant nobody that the director, rather insignificant himself, wouldn’t have made the effort to sabotage her nonexistent career.

She squared her shoulders and stepped into the kitchen.

"Laurel! I’m so glad you’re...”

Laurel braced for a hug that didn’t happen. "Holly?”

A curly-headed woman with a stunned expression sat at the kitchen table, spoon poised above a container of Blue Bell Caramel Turtle Fudge ice cream.

Laurel’s stomach rumbled. Breakfast had been two foil packages of ketchup dissolved in hot water; Laurel had heard that tomatoes were a good source of vitamin C.

"You’re... you’re so thin!” Holly’s face crumpled. "And I’m so faaat!” The word ended on a wail as Holly began sobbing into her ice cream.

"Not again,” Ivy moaned beside Laurel.

Laurel blinked in disbelief.This was her determinedly competent, relentlessly driven older sister? The same sister who’d fought legions of lawyers when their father’s death had left his business in a shambles? The same woman who had supported them all?

"What have you done to her?” She directed her question toward her brother-in-law. Adam wore a pained expression and moved tortilla chips and hot sauce out of Holly’s reach.

Holly emotional? Holly snacking? Holly—well, it had to be said—pudgy? Suddenly understanding, Laurel smiled. "Congratulations, Adam,” she said above Holly’s sobs. "When are you gonna be a daddy?”

"Not soon enough,” he muttered.

"I heard that!”

"Holly...” Adam looked helpless.

Laurel enjoyed the sight. Her brother-in-law had never been helpless in his life.

"You don’t love me anymore!”

"Yes, I do!”

But he spoke just a shade too forcefully, and Holly began to wail again. "How could you? I’m blimp-woman.”

"I may not last until Christmas,” Ivy said in an undertone.

"Their marriagemay not last until Christmas.”

"She missed her nap ’cause she wanted to be awake when you got here,” Ivy whispered.

Laurel widened her eyes. "She takes a nap?” Ivy held up two fingers.

Laurel raised an eyebrow. "Things have changed.”

"Holly, listen.” Ivy read from a book that had been sitting on the counter. "‘The healthy pregnant woman should gain between three and five pounds during the first trimester...’” Ivy trailed off at Adam’s frantic signaling.

Too late.

"I’ve gained nine!” Holly pushed away the soggy Blue Bell carton.

"Doesn’t that book also mention getting plenty of rest?” Laurel prompted.

"Oh, yes.” Ivy nodded. "Lots of rest, Holly.”

"I amtired,” Holly admitted as Adam helped her out of the chair and toward the door.

"How far along is she?” Laurel asked, eyeing Holly’s baggy sweater as she shuffled past.

"A couple of months.”

"That’s all?” The sisters looked at each other and began to laugh. "Poor Holly,” Ivy said.

"Poor Adam,” Laurel replied, casually wandering over to the counter where Adam had placed the tortilla chips.

Her hands shook, and the plastic bag crackled. She forced herself to keep her movements slow and controlled as she grabbed a handful of chips.

"Something to drink?” Ivy offered, opening the door to the refrigerator.

"Sure.” Laurel began to munch the chips, savoring the salt, careful not to swallow too fast.

Adam wandered back into the kitchen and stood beside the door, silently observing.

Laurel carried the bag of chips to the kitchen table and sat down. Moments later, Adam put a thick sandwich in front of her.

"Thanks,” she said, making sure he knew it was for more than just preparing the sandwich. Whatever he suspected, he was keeping it to himself.

"Boy, I’m glad you’re here,” Ivy sighed, stealing some of Laurel’s chips. "Holly’s been impossible ever since she found out about Conner Mathison.”

"That’s a name out of the past.” He had been one of her father’s associates and poker-playing buddies. Maybe not a buddy. "Buddy” didn’t fit the urbane, silver-haired Conner.

"He was a partner in several of your father’s ventures,” Adam supplied, sitting at the table with them. "One of which was the well in west Texas.”

"The... the one that caught fire?” The one her parents had been flying to when their plane crashed, causing the world Laurel had known to crash with it.

Both Ivy and Adam nodded.

"I thought everything had finally been settled.” Laurel didn’t like this. She was sick of legal battles, even though Holly had dealt with most of them. "What have you found out?”

Ivy leaned forward, wearing a hard expression that didn’t belong on her young face. "Holly’s been decorating a lot of society parties and heard some very interesting stories about Conner.”

Laurel looked to Adam for confirmation. "Such as?”

"We did some checking and—”

Ivy interrupted her brother-in-law. "We think he set the well on fire so he could collect the insurance money to pay off gambling debts.”

A roaring filled Laurel’s ears. "But... everyone said Dad set the fire! They said his business was failing.” She’d never believed her father was capable of being so dishonorable. "Conner—”

"Or someone,” Adam interjected.

"Conner,” repeated Ivy more forcefully, "embezzled money. Dad never knew.”

Food, usually uppermost in Laurel’s mind, was forgotten. "But Dad must have known the business was in trouble—”

"And it was. But we’re sure Conner cooked the books, too. He’s the only person who could have. Don’t you remember how there wasn’t any money at all? Don’t you think Dad would have held something back for us?”

It was as if the curtain of time had been drawn aside, and Laurel could see the events of eight years ago through the eyes of an adult.

She glanced at Adam, who spoke. "Conner did have the opportunity. As a partner, he had access to your father’s office. And you know your father was struggling. During all the confusion after the crash...” Adam shrugged.

"And remember—” Ivy raised a finger "—Conner bought an insurance policy on that well, Dad didn’t.”

A blinding, white-hot anger ripped through Laurel. They’d endured humiliation after humiliation. The contents of their home had been auctioned, laid out for everyone to paw over. She and her sisters had worked long hours to survive. They’d been abandoned by friends, betrayed by businesspeople, and hounded by lawyers. And now it seemed all their suffering had been caused by one man—Conner Mathison.

"Why didn’t anyone figure this out before now?” Laurel demanded accusingly of Adam. "Why didn’t anyone suspect him?”

"Because Conner Mathison is a very, very good liar. But by all accounts—and there are a lot of them—he’s a serious gambler.”

Ivy jumped up and plucked a book from a tall stack on the phone table. "Psychology of the Compulsive Gambler says, ‘Lying is more natural than telling the truth. They lie even when they don’t have to.’ That’s one of the phases of being a compulsive gambler.”

"I’ll admit the rest fits, too.” Adam leaned forward. "When a gambler loses, he begins acquiring money any way he can.”

"So who do we tell about Conner?” Laurel looked from Adam to Ivy. They’d been right to ask her to come home. Holly couldn’t handle more legal battles, her pregnancy, and the Christmas season all at once. Ivy, home for the holidays, would have to return to school in a month. Adam had a thriving legal-mediation firm. They needed Laurel.

This time she wouldn’t let them down. Adam took a deep breath, the kind people take when they’re about to tell you something you don’t want to hear. "I approached the attorney general. He declined to prosecute.”

Laurel pushed the sandwich away. She should eat, but she couldn’t. She thought of her parents, of her big jovial father, always ready to help a friend. And of her mother, who had her own reserves of quiet strength. Who’d sold the diamonds from her spectacular necklace rather than see her family sink too deeply into debt.

A warm, masculine hand covered hers. "I told Holly, and I’m telling you, to let go of your anger. Anger and bitterness will eat away at you, and there’s nothing we can do now.”

"Oh, yes, there is,” said a voice from the doorway. Holly stood there, riffling a pack of cards.

"I thought you were going to take a nap.” Adam leveled an accusing look at her.

"How can I sleep when my sister just came home? Besides, I don’t trust you and Ivy to explain the plan properly.”

"Plan?” Laurel asked.

Holly tossed the cards onto the middle of the kitchen table. "We, or rather you, Laurel, are going to beat Conner Mathison at his own game.” She took a seat. "Which we’ve heard,” she said, shuffling the cards, "is poker.”

"Wait a minute, wait... a... minute.” Laurel stared at her sisters. "Are you telling me you called me home to play poker against Conner Mathison? That’syour plan?”

"At least we waited until we had a plan,” Ivy said.

"And it isChristmas.” Holly began to deal. "You haven’t been home for the last two.” Her innocent expression belied the hint of accusation in her voice.

Laurel remembered Adam’s voice on the phone. He’d sounded worried, though he’d tried to hide it. She glanced at him now and found him watching Holly closely.

Her sister must be burning with frustration. Laurel was, and she’d never been as closely involved with the legal mess her father had left as Holly had been.

Laurel sighed. "I’ve played very little poker since Dad let me sit in on his Wednesday night games,” she warned.

"So you’re a teensy bit rusty. Let’s play a hand or two.” Holly pointed to the pile of cards in front of Laurel.

"Daddy said you were good,” Ivy assured her.

"I was never good enough to beat Conner.”

"That’s why we got all these books for you.” Ivy began reading titles of the books stacked by the telephone. "I’ve got How to Play Winning Poker, Win at Poker, Winner Poker, The Poker Winner, Poker Strategy, and America’s Favorite Game.

"I thought that last was something else,” drawled Laurel. It felt good to revert to her Texas drawl after trying to remember to sound all the consonants and speed up the vowels.

"You mean football?” Ivy asked.

"No, honey.” Laurel arranged her cards, deciding that it would be easier to demonstrate her inability rather than argue with her sisters.

She won the hand.

"You see!” Holly was triumphant. "Conner is doomed. Here, Ivy, your deal.”

No wonder Adam had called Laurel. Holly had finally flipped. "Pregnancy has affected more than just your waistline.” Laurel stared at the cards Ivy dealt. "Holly, honey, as frustrated as I am, I’m not about to devote my life to chasing Conner in poker games.”

"Only one game.” Holly clenched her jaw and darted a resentful look at Adam. "Adam made me promise. But it’ll be a humdinger of a game. We’re going to win all his money. Without cheating. I won’t fight on his level.” She studied her hand.

Laurel glanced at Adam. "Hormones,” he mouthed.

"I saw that.” Holly slammed her cards on the table. "I can’t say anything without you accusing me of being the victim of rampaging hormones!” Her voice rose. "I want to beat Conner—just once—so he’ll know what it feels like to lose to us.”

"How will that change anything?” Laurel asked. She was intrigued by this new emotional Holly. Her admiration for her brother-in-law’s patience increased.

"I don’t want Dad’s first grandchild to grow up thinking that we didn’t try to get even—”

"Holly,” warned Adam.

"I didn’t say revenge,” Holly pointed out.

"That’s what you say to me,” Ivy murmured.

"It’s just... Oh, I don’t know.” Holly slumped in the chair.

"I do,” Ivy inserted quietly. "When you tell your child this story, you want an ending. ‘The statute of limitations ran out’ is not an ending. ‘Auntie Laurel challenged the villain to a poker game and won’ is.”

Laurel smiled. It made sense in a Holly-kind of way. Besides, Auntie Laurel as heroine appealed to her. It would probably be the only time she’d ever play the lead. "Okay,” she said, deciding that striking back at Conner might ease this helpless frustration they all felt. "Hand me one of your books, Ivy. Pick up your cards, Holly. Let’s see how much practice I need.”

However, after two hours of playing, she discovered that she needed a lot more than practice. "This isn’t going to work.”

"Maybe, if we played for M&M’s instead of pinto beans...” Holly suggested longingly.

"No.” Laurel shook her head. "I need real help.”

"I’m looking into it.” Adam sighed. "And I’m sorry I am.”

Laurel chuckled at his exasperated look. "Now why is that, Adam, honey?”


"Because you don’t want me upsetting myself, right?” Holly asked, a dangerous tone in her voice.

Ivy winced and scrunched down in her chair. Adam visibly braced himself.

Laurel stepped into the breach. "Which should show you how much he loves you, in spite of the fact that you’ve been acting completely unlovable.”

"But I’m serious about this!” Holly’s lip quivered.

"You’re allowed a certain amount of leeway because of your condition,” Laurel went on.

"I’m not sick, I’m pregnant!”

"If you continue to work yourself into a hissy fit every time you think of that skunk Conner Mathison, you will make yourself sick.”

Holly’s eyes widened, but her lip stopped quivering.

Ivy and Adam were listening attentively to Laurel. She felt some of the old self-confidence, beaten out of her in Hollywood, return. "You don’t need to worry about Conner. Worry about my niece or nephew. I’llworry about Conner.” She turned to her brother-in-law. "Now, what’s this help you’re working on?”

Adam’s resigned expression drew a smile from her. "One of my fraternity brothers, Jack Hartman, was quite a card player when we were in school. He regularly played in high-stakes games. He was a freshman the year I was a senior.”

"Did I meet him at your wedding?” Laurel asked.

"No. Jack is, or was, a stockbroker and couldn’t get away.” Adam’s brow wrinkled. "I’m having a little trouble tracking him down. He’s no longer with the same brokerage firm, and his mother tells me he’s holed up in their fishing cabin.”

"A hermit card shark?” Holly looked doubtful.

"Not the Jack I remember,” Adam said in a concerned tone. "I left a message with the owner of a bait shop near the cabin. His mother says he checks in there every so often and gives her a call.”

"He certainly ought to call his own mother at Christmas,” Ivy said.

"He might have trouble getting a plane ticket until after New Year’s. Were the flights crowded, Laurel?” Holly asked.

Laurel stared at her older sister. Admit everything now, urged a voice inside her. Tell them you spent your last dollar on a bus ticket to Dallas and haven’t eaten in two days. Tell them you’ve quit. Tell them and get it over with.

She hesitated, remembering how they’d listened to her earlier. Especially Holly. Something inside Laurel warmed when she thought of gaining her sisters’ respect and admiration. They loved her, of course, but they’d never really looked up to her—except insofar as she was the tallest of the three.

Before she could admit that she had no idea how difficult it would be to get an airplane ticket, Adam spoke. "Jack’ll get here as soon as he can. He owes me a favor.”

Meeting her brother-in-law’s steady gaze, Laurel tele­graphed a silent thanks. Now she owed him a favor, too.

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