Make Your Move, Soldier…
Finally, Theo Lacroix’s life is right where he wants it. He’s on the cusp of buying the houseboat business he’s run for a decade and he’s the star player on Bomb Squad, an ice hockey team for combat-wounded veterans like him. He wants for nothing…right up until a sexy tornado of a woman crashes into his life and claims the business for herself. Theo knows he should quit and move on, if only he could ignore the chemistry sizzling between them or the urge to sweep her up in his arms and do some claiming of his own.
Allison Whitely lived a Cinderella dream—until her ex left her with a baby, a pile of debt, and a business she knows nothing about. And her would-be knight in shining armor? He’s a hard-bodied ex-soldier with an even harder heart. Never mind that she can’t stop fantasizing about kissing him. Allison’s never needed to be scrappy before, but to survive in her new life, she’ll have to go head-to-head, and heart-to-heart, with the man who just might prove to be her hero after all. . .
Of course, being that it was Allison Whitley’s lot in life to suffer the presence of water, it was pouring rain the night the Buffalo police marched her husband down the front walk of Pinky Rae’s Gentleman’s Club, right past Allison and into one of four idling patrol cars.
From her birth, Allison’s world had been saturated with water. It flooded her waking hours with rain, snow, swift rivers, and waterfalls, and her nightly dreams with crashing waves and the insidious menace of backyard swimming pools.
It wasn’t as though she never touched the stuff. She wasn’t that far off her rocker. She showered every day. She didn’t even mind filling a pot with water to boil pasta. But when the water got bigger than her, that’s when life got tricky. Her pulse sped and her insides fluttered so that she felt like a hummingbird—hollow-boned, buzzing fast and light. Unable to stop.
The thing about water was that she didn’t trust it. Not one bit. It was an inconvenient feeling for the daughter of a tour boat captain who’d grown up in the shadow of Niagara Falls and whose mama thanked God for the Falls every night before supper. But then, Allison supposed it was human nature to cringe away from the thing that had tried to kill you.
Pinky Rae’s neon signs flashed out of sync with the police lights and shimmered on Lowell’s round, wet face like he was Lake Erie during a Fourth of July fireworks display. “Allison, don’t listen to them. I didn’t do anything wrong.” An officer pressed on the top of his head, muscling him into the patrol car’s back seat. As the door closed, he hollered, “I swear, it’s not what you think.”
That had been her response, too, when her sister Janie called. Janie had seen Lowell’s Corvette parked at Pinky Rae’s because, tonight of all nights, the Women’s Evangelical League that Janie belonged to had planned to picket the place.
It’s not what you think, she’d been tempted to plead with her older sister over the phone. A strobe of bright, hot anger flashed through her at the memory. Anger at her own foolish pride for wanting to defend her husband for the sake of their marriage’s public image despite that there was no way Janie could be wrong about what she’d seen. Pinky Rae’s sat alone on a barren corner and there was no mistaking the custom gold paint job on Lowell’s Corvette or the license plate frame reading EAT MY GOLD DUST.
One would’ve thought a respected city councilman would at least have had enough sense to park out of sight. Guess Lowell was feeling a little big in the britches after his latest landslide victory.
Clinging tightly to her embarrassment so anger couldn’t unravel her, Allison had braved the rain for the express purpose of dragging Lowell’s ass home before reporters showed up to cover the Women’s Evangelical League’s protest. Not that she cared about salvaging their relationship. She’d filed for divorce months ago, though they still shared the same roof. But she’d be damned if she was going to let the soon-to-be father of her child land himself at the center of a local scandal and lose his position with the city, along with his income—which, by default, was her only income.
If she’d had some idea of what she was going to find when she got to Pinky Rae’s and what the aftermath would be like, she would’ve spared herself from the strongest summer storm in five years and, instead, would’ve spent one last pleasant night in the house unpacking shower gifts in the nursery.
Amid the soundtrack of Lowell’s continuous stream of lies from behind the closed patrol car window, she tried to look as dignified as one could while standing outside a strip club wearing a soaking wet purple maternity dress. Templing her hands over her forehead as a shield against the rain, she sought the attention of the nearest officer. “Excuse me, I’m Lowell’s wife.”
Technically true, because he’d never signed the papers, but the words tasted as sour as lemon juice to her tongue. All she ever wanted, more than being a bride, more than having a career in the business world, was to be a stay-at-home mom. She’d thought Lowell was the perfect provider to make her dream come true. Stupid, that she’d been so delusional as to believe she’d get all she ever wanted by the age of twenty-six.
She should’ve known that the world didn’t work that way.
She wiped water from her eyes, as if that would do any good. Blast it all, she hated being wet. “What is he being charged with?”
The officer’s all-business expression morphed into pity. “Embezzlement.”
Not what she’d expected to hear. Not at all. She’d expected solicitation or lewd acts in public, something fitting for an arrest made at a so-called gentleman’s club of a man with pervy fantasies like Lowell had turned out to have. She grabbed the officer’s sleeve. “What did you say?”
“He’s charged with embezzling over five hundred thousand dollars from the state of New York.”
Allison’s throat tightened. She dropped her hands, blinking through the rainwater that was stinging her eyes. Lowell’s faults covered a whole spectrum of sins, some even of biblical proportions, but he’d never struck her as particularly greedy.
As if the universe was laughing at her naiveté, Lowell’s Corvette rolled past her on the back of a tow truck, its gold paint glinting in the police lights and neon signs. She gaped at the words EAT MY GOLD DUST as the convoy disappeared down the street. Mortification burst to life inside her. “Oh, my God. I’m such an idiot.”
She whirled toward the patrol car and pounded on the backseat window with her fist. “A half a million dollars? Really, Lowell? What the hell did you do with it all? Because I’m sure not living in the lap of luxury.”
Someone took her by the elbow. “Ma’am, I have to ask you to back away from the vehicle.”
She wrenched her arm away and smacked the glass with her open palm. “I clipped coupons for you, you son of a bitch.”
The officer took her arm again, more tightly this time. “Mrs. Whitley, please.”
But she refused to budge. Breathing hard, she spit wet hair away from her lips, then shoved it away from her face. Goddamn, she hated water. “How did you know where to find him?”
The officer shifted his weight, looking uncomfortable. “Mrs. Whitley, your husband comes to Pinky Rae’s every Thursday night. I’m so sorry.”
Oh, hell, no. Impossible. Thursday night was poker night. The one night a week she got the big TV all to herself.
“I thought this was supposed to be poker night?” she shouted through gritted teeth.
Lowell had the wherewithal to look contrite. “Sometimes I played video blackjack.”
She opened her mouth, a scathing retort on her tongue, when pain rippled up her spine, contorting her forward—punishing her for her stupidity in ever pledging her life to a dirtbag like Lowell Whitley. Damn him and his skeevy friends that had vouched for him about their poker games all these years. She’d bet his Corvette they were all regulars at Pinky Rae’s, too.
She leaned against the patrol car for support as the pain seized her whole body from the inside out.
“It’s going to be okay, baby,” Lowell called.
She’d thought her sensibility had snapped when she found out the truth about poker night, but calling her “baby” was one outrage too many. Anger and pain swirled inside her like a lethal cocktail. It was all too much. She had to get out of the rain.
She pushed away from the door, then wrenched her arm away from the officer and speared a finger in Lowell’s direction. “Don’t you dare ‘baby’ me. You’re signing the divorce papers if I have to bring them to you in prison!”
“What about our daughter?”
She let out a hard laugh as the officer draped an arm across her collarbone and forcibly backed her away. “You should’ve asked yourself that before you stole a half-million dollars.”
She heard her name and turned to see Janie dodging cops, running her way. Allison’s belly quivered as another shock of pain overcame her. She folded forward, eyes squeezed closed, and bellowed for all the world to hear, no longer caring about facing childbirth with brave composure. She had no dignity left anyway.
Janie’s polyester-clad legs appeared next to her. A soothing hand stroked her back. “Allie? What’s wrong?”
The question cried out for a sarcastic response, if only her jaw wasn’t locked in a guttural scream. She was about to give birth to a baby girl who would come into the world cursed with a pervy criminal as her father and a delusional dreamer as her mother.
She breathed through the final wisps of pain from the contraction, then straightened to rest her forehead on Janie’s shoulder as the beginning of a sob built like a painful lump in her throat. “I hate the rain.”
Then her sister’s arms were around her, strong and capable as Janie had always been. “I know you do, sweetie. We’re going to get you to a hospital.”
“Grant’s here, too.”
She groaned and buried her head more deeply into Janie’s fleece jacket. Nothing like having her two most perfect siblings witness the worst moment of her life. Who she really needed at a time like this was Chelsea, the only member of the Lexington family more screwed up than she was. Until tonight anyway.
She hissed through her teeth as another contraction curled her in on herself, this one so intense that she quaked from her toes to her fingertips. She braced her hands on her knees, cursing the clouds for their relentless pounding of cold, heavy drops.
The next time she blinked her eyes open, emerging from the haze of pain, it was to see the patrol car in which Lowell sat drive away. As fast as her thirty-nine-weeks-pregnant belly allowed, she rose to her full height and watched the back of his head through the rear window. That’s when the truth hit her, colder and harder than the rain or Lowell’s betrayal or the last contraction that nearly brought her to her knees.
My life is never going to be the same again.
Her hands wrapped around her belly, cradling her baby, as a new kind of pressure built between her legs. Hot liquid burst from her body, splashing over her legs and feet, adding insult to injury.
Her water had broken.
She turned her face up to the rain. Bring it, Universe. What was a little more water after the life she’d been given? Grant and Janie sprang into action, fussing over her and coordinating with the cops still on the scene.
“Hang on another minute, Allie. We’re going to get you out of the rain,” Grant said. As if she could escape it. As if water hadn’t haunted every aspect of her life already. She knew what it meant to drown—and it felt a whole lot like this.
Another contraction ripped her apart, wrenching from her lungs a bellow so foreign and primitive, she couldn’t believe it had come from her. This time, she squatted. She didn’t mean to, but her body was working apart from her mind and that’s what it wanted to do. It wanted to push.
Far above her, a rumble of thunder cracked and the rain thickened. So much for getting to the hospital. Her poor baby was doomed to be born in a drenching rainstorm beneath the flashing neon signs of Pinky Rae’s Gentleman’s Club.
“She’s coming,” she said, flailing for an arm or hand—anything—to brace herself with. People were moving around her, taking action, but the pain was a steady force now, a never-ending current of electricity that made her eyes roll back and her fingers stretch out, and she couldn’t process anything besides the building pressure inside her.
The lights and people blurred. Sound muted. Despite the crowd surrounding her, she’d never felt more alone inside her body. Alone and scared and out of control. Yeah, she thought, this was exactly what it felt like to drown.