The Unkindest Cut - By Honor Hartman

Chapter 1

I stared at my hand. Was it strong enough for the course of action I was attempting?

There was only one way to find out. I hesitated a moment longer, then clicked on the button to bid six hearts.

I half expected my computer opponent to double, and when that didn’t happen, I grinned. I had been playing this computer bridge game for a little over six months now, and I had yet to understand all its vagaries of bidding.

Olaf stretched and yawned in my lap, his claws kneading the side of my thigh. Thank goodness I had clipped his nails yesterday, or I would have had little spots of blood all over my sweatpants by the time he was through. I rubbed his head, and his purring hit overdrive.

Hilda, my other cat, contemplated me sleepily from her napping spot on the desk by my computer. I had long ago given up trying to dissuade the two cats from climbing all over me and my computer when I was trying to work—or play bridge, which I had to admit happened a lot more frequently than work these days. We had settled on a compromise—Olaf in my lap, Hilda on a comfy pad on the desk where she could keep an eye on Olaf and me.

I focused my attention on the computer. It had made the opening lead, and now my dummy partner’s hand was revealed. I quickly counted the points in it, and I grinned again. With my eighteen high card points and dummy’s thirteen, we had enough for slam.

Before playing out of dummy’s hand to continue the first round, I made some quick calculations. I could easily make six hearts, but only if the king of spades was held by my left-hand opponent. The finesse had to work.

I began to play the game, clicking away with my right hand while my left continued rubbing Olaf’s head. The spade king fell as I hoped, assuring me of victory. I was about to click on the next card when a voice called from downstairs.

‘‘Emma! Where are you?’’

‘‘In my office,’’ I yelled back. ‘‘Come on up.’’ I grimaced when Olaf dug his claws into my leg as he prepared to jump to the floor. Even clipped, those claws were sharp enough to penetrate the skin when twelve pounds of cat decided to use my leg as a launching pad.

I finished the game and shut down the computer just as my next-door neighbor and best friend, Sophie Parker, appeared in the doorway. ‘‘Morning, Emma,’’ she said. ‘‘Did you win?’’ She tilted her head toward the computer.

‘‘Morning, and yes, I did,’’ I said, examining her from head to toe. I marveled as always at the fact that she almost never appeared anything other than immaculately turned out. Ruefully, I glanced down at my ratty old sweatpants and faded Rice T-shirt. My hair was probably sticking up in spikes, not to mention the hated cowlick I had never been able to conquer.

Sophie’s blond head shone, her hair neatly pulled back into a sleek ponytail. Her sweats, made of iridescent, multicolored silk material, probably cost more than the most expensive dress in my closet. Then there were the running shoes—shoes that were never used for running, of course. Sophie was elegantly thin, and though she reputedly spent time on a treadmill every day, I had yet to see this fabled machine.

‘‘What is it, Emma?’’ Sophie asked, smiling.

I shook my head. ‘‘Nothing. I’m wondering, yet again, how you always look like you just stepped out of the Neiman Marcus catalog.’’

She giggled at that comment. ‘‘You do say the sweetest things. But I guess that’s what best friends are for.’’

I couldn’t help smiling back at her. We had been best friends for a long time, ever since she was four and I was twelve. We had grown up next door to each other in another part of Houston, and both of us had parents who were flaky in vastly different ways. Sophie and I, and my younger brother, Jake, had looked out for one another, especially since the so-called adults in our lives were too busy with other things to pay much attention to their children.

‘‘Don’t you get tired of sitting at that computer?’’ Sophie asked. ‘‘I swear, you’re playing bridge on it every time I come over lately.’’

‘‘It passes the time,’’ I said, ‘‘and it does help me with my bridge game.’’

‘‘You are playing very well these days,’’ Sophie said, ‘‘so I suppose the computer does help.’’ Olaf twined