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The Gambler

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He’s sitting at a green felt table with six other men, but he’s the youngest one there. With his bright doe eyes reflecting light like his tumbler of bourbon, and his plush mouth—smirking lips pink against his fair skin—he looks barely legal; but there’s something beneath his playful banter and light laughter, something knowing.

Derek watches him from the bar, studying him down the neck of his beer bottle and through side-long glances. He watches the stack of cash, various bills yanked crumpled from pockets or flat from wallets, grow with each new hand. The stakes raise at the young guy’s behest. At his goading and prodding, more money appears, and Derek swears he’s watching a scam in action.

“Hey,” says Boyd. He’s the bartender, and is wiping down a glass as he approaches Derek. His girlfriend, Erica, owns the place, but he’s the muscle that keeps the peace. Bishop and Kings is the only watering hole, genuine watering hole, for miles along the interstate, and it’s a local favorite despite the riff-raff it attracts.

Derek raises his eyebrows in question, and Boyd nods over to the poker table near the back. More specifically, to the young guy dragging a fat stack of cash towards him with broad sweeps of his long arms.

“Whatever you’re thinking of doing, don’t,” Boyd says.

“Come again?” Derek asks around a swig of his brew.

“That kid over there,” Boyd says. “I’ve seen guys give him that look before. Guys like you. It never ends well. Best to leave well enough alone.”

“He’s really a kid?” Derek can’t help but ask.

Boyd’s expression falls into well-practiced disappointment. “That’s your take-away from my warning?”

“He’s not a kid,” a woman chirps. She leans over Boyd’s shoulder and plucks the glass from his hand. Her blonde hair falls around her face and shoulders, luscious and golden, reminding Derek of wave caps in Hawai’i at sunset. As she looks at Derek, her brown eyes glitter decadently, a promise of sugar and spice woven into her coy smirk. “He’s nineteen and perfectly capable.” Then she sets the glass with its kin and presses her generous bust against Boyd’s bicep, leaning against him. “Isn’t he, Boyd?”

Boyd sighs long-sufferingly, but fondness softens his features. The woman must be Erica, the bar owner. “He’s a kid, babe,” he says.

“No more than either of us,” Erica retorts.

“What’s the deal with him?” Derek interrupts.

“He’s trouble,” Boyd says at the same time as Erica says, “Nothing!”

Derek frowns and sips his beer before turning back to the poker table.

Another hand has been dealt, and the young man has a pile of loose bills stacked near his elbow. He watches the other players carefully, his off-hand remarks really well-devised verbal jabs meant to unsettle his opponents. And if alarmingly stiff backs and slightly slumping shoulders were any indication, it works.

Players double-down and fold, hit and recount their remaining funds.

The young guy never touches or counts his winnings in the lulls of the game, but he does throw back his drink. His Adam’s apple bobs hypnotically.

Before Derek is half-way through his second beer, the game is over, and the young guy is, again, literally, raking in the winnings. A few players throw down cards and knock over chairs, then stalk away from the table angrily. Others are humble and mutter placations to the young guy, as if pleading to get a mismanaged mortgage payment back. But soon enough, the guy is the only one left at the table. Still, he doesn’t count his winnings. He just shoves all the money into a messenger bag he pulls from beneath the table, then gets up and approaches the bar.

Derek turns away and pretends he hadn’t been watching; but his farce is as transparent as he doesn’t want it to be, because the guy comes over and sits beside him. There are plenty of other available seats.

“Hey,” the guy says.

“Hey,” Derek answers, resolutely not looking over.

It doesn’t dissuade the guy. “Like what you saw?”

Derek turns then, inquiry in his expression while he idly spins his bottle between his hands.

Nodding towards the empty poker table, the guy says, “The game. Did you like what you saw?”

“What, you winning?”

The guy grins and Derek thinks he’s beautiful.

Derek scoffs and tries to play uninterested, but the exasperated way Boyd looks at him from across the bar tells him it isn’t very convincing. “Everyone has their strengths.”

“Look, man,” the guy says. “I’m making a life of reading people’s faces, and if you don’t mind me saying, you’re looking for something. Would it really so bad if you found it here?”

Derek purses his lips indignantly, but before he can set this kid in his place, remind him emphatically how they are, literally, strangers, the guy says, “Can I bum a smoke?” So Derek reaches into the inside pocket of his leather jacket and pulls out his pack of cigarettes. He offers it, and his lighter, to the guy.

He takes it and packs it, despite how Derek had already packed the tobacco before ever opening the package, then pulls a cigarette from the pack with a delicate pinch of his long fingers. He presses and holds it between his plump lips and drops the pack onto the bar top. The way he hunches his tall, sinewy frame and cups his hands round the cigarette is graceful, elegant—all smooth motions and keen awareness of the space his body occupies. The lighter flicks impotent sparks twice before a flame lights. As the guy breathes deep lungfuls of smoke, his eyes close in something like bliss, and with his sigh seems to go all his tension. Derek wonders if the guy wears the same expression when his dick gets sucked.

“Thanks,” the guy says, sliding the pack and lighter in front of Derek. “Buy me a whiskey, and I’ll share a few of my secrets. Easy money makes for easy travel.”

“What makes you think I need money?” Derek asks.

“There’s no need to spend much time in a place like this if you can afford to be somewhere better,” the guy answers.

“And why would I be traveling?”

The guy smirks. “You’re sure as hell not a local.” Then he laughs and ashes his cigarette in a nearby ashtray. “I’d remember a face like yours. I’d remember your eyes.”

Derek blushes, and he isn’t sure why. He clears his throat and drinks from his beer bottle. It’s some microbrew he isn’t much a fan of, but it’s cheap, and he’s starting to get a buzz. He doesn’t have a lot of cash, and he is just on his way through, but he really doesn’t like how—though these observations might not be particularly remarkable—they sound like insightful revelations coming from that sinful mouth.

Derek orders a whiskey. He hates whiskey, but after Boyd sets the glass in front of him, he just pushes it over to the guy with tentative jabs of his fingertips.

“Thanks, handsome,” the guy says. He sips his drink, and how the ice cubes clink against the glass sound as loud as the blood rushing in Derek’s ears. “So, the first thing about poker you need to—”

“I’m not interested in your trade secrets,” Derek interrupts.

“Oh?” the guy asks, surprised. “Then what are you interested in?”

“Your name,” Derek answers. “Maybe getting out of here.”

The guy smiles, bright and victorious and so very smug. “Call me Stiles.”

“I’m Derek.”

“The Camaro parked out back yours? It’s a beautiful machine.”

Derek narrows his eyes curiously. “How’d you know?”

Stiles smirks into his glass and finishes his drink. He fishes a few bills from his bag of winnings and drops them on the table, before sliding from his seat. “Come on, Derek. I’ve got enough to get us through a few states, and I know a few places where I can get some more.”

Derek’s bravado falls completely into abject horror. To be bold in poker, to be bold in flirting, those were completely different from being bold enough to suggest eloping with a total stranger. “Wait, what? What are you talking about?”

Stiles stops, and his smirk fades into a softer, sweeter smile. “You’re short on cash, and I’m short on adventure. I think we should help each other out.” He extends his hand, and Derek…Derek only hesitates for a heartbeat before he takes it. Stiles pulls him from his seat and leads him out into the parking lot.

They drive through the night and find a motel in the middle of the desert by sunrise. They tumble into one of the two full beds, and Derek learns that Stiles makes the same face when he gets a long-needed blow-job that he does when smoking a long-needed cigarette. He also learns that Stiles looks just as stunning spread out on gaudy, scratchy sheets in the warm rays of a rising sun as he does against the leather of the Camaro’s back seat in pale moonlight.

Derek drives with Stiles by his side and in his bed for weeks, months, until one day he realizes Stiles might have been right that first night they met. He was looking for something, and would it be so bad if he found it in Bishops and Kings?

Watching Stiles sit on the hood of the Camaro, drinking a beer in the dying light, Derek didn’t think so. He didn’t think so at all.