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Happily-ever-after is so overrated...
 

Ditching her louse of a fiancé was the best thing Nicki Albizia ever did—although he might have a slightly different opinion about it.

When Raymond III continues to turn up in Nicki’s life like a bad penny, visiting her sister on dreamy Martha’s Vineyard seems the best thing to do. Out of sight, out of mind—Nicki is so done with “numbered” guys!

Luckily, the hunk who crosses Nicki’s path is really down to earth—and perfect for some unconditional summer fun.

Parker Haynes III joined the Army to get as far away from his family’s stifling expectations as his Black Hawk could take him—and he wouldn’t change it for anything!

Until his ex-girlfriend drops a wiggly bundle in pink in his arms, and Parker has no choice but to reroute his life and turn to his family for help—which comes uncomfortably close to failing a mission.

However, his plan to treat the situation like any assignment—go in, deal with it, get the heck out—goes awry when he falls head over heels for Nicki.

NICKI GOT SPUNK is a touching story about overcoming hurdles and moving forward while staying true to oneself…and finding true love when you least expect it.

Read: e-Book, Paperback  

Listen: Coming soon

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Nicki

“Here’s to one year since ditching Ray. Good riddance!”

Sitting at a rooftop terrace bar with sweeping views of Boston’s skyline and inner harbor, Nicki Albizia raised her wineglass and smiled at her three friends—who would’ve been her bridesmaids last summer if she hadn’t sent her cheating ex-fiancé packing a week before she’d planned to sail down the aisle on a cloud of satin and tulle.

“Hear, hear.” Sally clinked her glass against Nicki’s.

“Cheers,” Kelly saluted.

“From what I hear, he’s still brooding about it,” Ally all but yelled over the clamor in the bar while holding up her glass.

“What exactly did you hear?” Nicki asked after they all sipped.

“Ray told Humphrey that he thinks you made a huge mistake by breaking up with him,” Ally said with a don’t-shoot-the-messenger shrug.

Nicki wondered—not for the first time—why, out of all eligible men, Ally had to hook up with one of Ray’s friends. Their relationship made it almost impossible for Nicki to make a clean break with Ray. “No surprise,” Nicki snarled. “He informs me at every chance he gets about how I disgraced not only him, but his parents.”

“Well, it’s being said that one marries not only the guy but also his mother,” Kelly said.

“Someone else said that while most engagements end in marriage, some actually have a happy ending,” was Sally’s dry retort before she took a long sip of her wine.

“Who said that?” Ally asked, forehead wrinkled.

“My father, after he and my mom divorced. It’s one of his lame jokes that he loves to repeat ad nauseum,” Sally said. “But let’s talk about something fun. How’s Mimi doing? How far along is she in her pregnancy?

“About six months, and she’s doing great,” Nicki said. “I’m going to Oak Bluffs next week for her baby shower.”

 “I think it’s so cute how she and Jake met. That love-at-first-sight stuff is ultra-cheesy, but still sooo sweet,” Kelly gushed.

Sally dunked one of their shared herbed fries in a dipping sauce but, instead of taking a bite, pointed it at Nicki. “Maybe you’ll meet your Prince Charming on Martha’s Vineyard too. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

“Don’t go bridesmaid dress-shopping yet,” Nicki said before shoving a fry in her mouth and munching slowly.

The priceless yachts bobbing in the harbor basin below suddenly reminded Nicki of her bachelorette weekend, when Ray and his groomsmen showed up out of the blue on his father’s yacht. How he made a—futile—pass at Sally. How Mimi witnessed it. And the rest—in a nutshell—was history.

“Who knows…” Sally chirped while Kelly and Ally nodded. “Everything’s possible.”

“I can promise you that nobody’s going to tie me down anytime soon,” Nicki declared.

“Mmm…” murmured Kelly.

“Come on, girls, give me some credit! We’ve seen firsthand what kinds of guys hang around there. The last thing I want is another spoiled, rich son from some snooty family. Been there,”—she sliced a hand diagonally through the air—“done that. Nope. Never again!”

“Famous last words…” Sally chuckled and waved her empty glass at a nearby waiter.

Nicki had just ordered a refill when her attention landed on a group of men strutting out of the restaurant like peacocks on the loose—and heading straight toward their table. Led by none other than the bane of her existence: Dr. Raymond Lancaster III.

“Ally, did you tell anyone where we were going tonight?” Nicki said through her teeth while she plastered on a smile, hoping it didn’t look quite as fake as it was.

“Emmm…” Ally scrunched up her lips and looked away.

“Seriously? What is wrong with you?” Sally hissed.

“Humph said…”

“I don’t give a crap what Humph said. You know Nicki wants nothing to do with Ray, and this is—was—supposed to be a girls’ night out,” Sally said, not bothering anymore to keep her voice down.  

“Ladies, what a lovely happenstance.”

Nicki cringed at Ray’s haughty tone—and wondered if he’d added a layer or two of pomposity since they separated, or if he always had this attitude of superiority and she’d just been too naïve to notice.

She hoped it was the first.

 

Chapter 2

Parker

After taking a speed shower, Parker Haynes swapped his heavy boots and fatigues for sneakers, khaki shorts, and a black T-shirt. The irony wasn’t lost on him that he favored neutral tones even when he was off base. Black and gray were easy to mix and match—especially for a fashion-ignorant guy like him—plus it simplified laundry duty.

Sliding his cell phone and wallet into his pockets, Parker grabbed the paper bag with fresh fruit he’d picked up at the commissary, then spotted the folded yellow snuggle blanket on the counter. He bought it on impulse, the sleepy bee almost impossible to resist—after all, it flies! With a smile, he set it on top of the groceries, then tossed his key ring in the air and caught it one-handed.

Three off-duty weeks awaited him—with nowhere to go but where he chose to be!

Half-singing, half-humming the first lines of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” Parker left his air-conditioned apartment and walked into a glimmering wall of heat and humidity. The air teemed with so much energy it was almost vibrating—and perfect for riding with the soft top down.

Driving his Wrangler through Fayetteville, North Carolina, Parker reveled in the warm wind whipping around his head while the sun caressed his face. One day he’d zoom down the highways to Nowhere, endless roads crossing the deserts of Arizona or Nevada—preferably on a Harley—but his Jeep had to do for now. It was a dream he and Matt Bellini, his best friend back home, concocted during their senior year of high school.

Parker took a deep breath—and almost choked on a dose of car exhaust from the Waltons-era clunker in front of him.

While a cross-country ride à la Easy Rider was out of question right now, he should at least try to do a few day trips in the next couple of weeks. Maybe Beth would be interested in a jaunt to the beach, just to get out for a day.

By the time he flipped the blinker and turned into her apartment complex, he figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask, because who doesn’t enjoy dipping their toes in the soft sand and salty coolness of the ocean?

Bringing his SUV to a stop in front of Beth’s building, his heart tightened when he saw the snuggle blanket and imagined it clenched in Clover’s tiny hand. 

Clover…the living, breathing, eight-week-old result of a short but fiery liaison. And although he and Beth broke up early in her pregnancy, they remained amicable, and Parker supported her in every possible way.

Clover…a stereotypical oops. But it didn’t matter whether a stupid condom malfunction was to blame or the idiocy of one-time unprotected shower sex, Parker already couldn’t imagine life without his baby girl.

He was climbing the outdoor stairs to Beth’s second-floor apartment, when he heard the heart-wrenching cries. Angry wails echoed through the humid evening air, making him dash up, two steps at a time, and bang his fist on Beth’s door without regard for her neighbors’ guaranteed curiosity.

“Beth?” he yelled and fumbled through his pockets for the key to her apartment. He seldom used it, but was now very glad to have one.

Before he could insert it in the lock, the door swung open and a glassy-eyed young woman in a flowing skirt stared at Parker. She knotted her long black hair on the top of her head and slurred, “Oh, it’s you. I thought it’s the delivery guy. We ordered Chinese.”

Wordlessly, and not the least interested in their dinner choice, Parker shoved past her and stormed into the living area. Another young woman sat on a sofa, munching chips right out of a large bag without looking up from the phone in her hand while her right foot bounced against an infant swing.

Parker did a double take.

Strapped into the swing was a screaming, red-faced Clover, her cheeks covered with snot and tears, and her little arms and legs flailing.

Parker dropped the grocery bag on the coffee table, reached the baby in two long strides, freed her, and cuddled her against his chest. Holding her tight, he felt her wet bottom while the stink of sour milk combined with a loaded diaper almost turned his stomach.

“Beth?” Parker called, his blood hammering in his ears as he wound his way toward her room in the three-bedroom apartment she shared with her two friends, dodging almost as many obstacles as he dealt with during a field training exercise.

In passing, he noticed Clover’s portable crib—piled high with dirty laundry.

Way past worrying about privacy, he barged into Beth’s room and found her swaying gently in front of an easel, huge headphones covering her ears. Parker wanted to rip the headphones off, but managed to walk around and face Beth so he wouldn’t startle her.

“Oh, hi,” she smiled—suspiciously dreamily—and took off the headset.

Parker sniffed. What assaulted his senses had nothing to do with the rank baby in his arms. It was the distinctive odor of marijuana. He hissed, “What the fuck’s going on here? And why is Clover wet, stinky, filthy, and hysterical?”

Beth glanced at Clover and shrugged. “You have to ask Arlene and Haruka. They agreed to babysit because I have an inspiration for a new painting.” She pointed to globs of black and brown on the canvas, an exact rendering of what Clover had been forced to stew in for a while.

“I asked you not to paint in the same room where you and Clover sleep. The oil paint fumes aren’t healthy,” Parker said, forcing himself to sound much calmer than he felt. He put the baby on the changing table—which, to his surprise, was only sparsely covered with non-baby stuff—and began to undress the wiggling. sniffling bundle while taking note of the overflowing wastebasket next to him.

“The paint dries quickly, but Clover doesn’t always sleep in here,” Beth said and brushed some blood-red oil paint through the latrine-like mess that was the painting.

“Excuse me? Where exactly does she sleep?” He barely glanced to his side while he cleaned up his daughter and applied a generous amount of diaper rash ointment on her tiny butt.

“In the Pack-N-Play in one of the other rooms.”

Parker inhaled, counting to three, knowing he’d never make it to ten.

“Who takes care of her at night?” he ground out, not even bothering to ask if they cleaned the crib, since it obviously doubled as a community laundry hamper.

“Arlene and Haruka take turns if I’m too tired. I need at least six hours of undisturbed sleep to be creative.” Beth dipped her brushes in a mason jar of cleaning solution. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that I don’t nurse Clover, or I couldn’t do that. And did I tell you that we’ve put Clover on a feeding schedule? If she continues to eat as much as she does, she’ll blow up like a puffer fish.” Beth wiped her hands on a towel and tossed it over a second easel.

Parker’s heart skipped a beat or two while he dressed his daughter in clean clothes, the last ones he found in the drawer under the changing table. “Are you nuts? I’m certainly no expert, but I’m pretty sure she’s still supposed to eat every three to four hours.”

“Parker,” Beth appeared at his side without paying attention to their daughter. “I can’t do this anymore. It was a mistake to have Clover.”

He froze. “What do you mean?”

“I shouldn’t have had her.”

“But…don’t you…she’s…your child…don’t you…love her?” he stammered, picking up the baby and again cuddling her against his chest, hoping his hammering heartbeat calmed the infant while confusion, shock, and anger battled inside him.

“Sort of…love is a powerful word. I never wanted to have children, and only followed through with the pregnancy because you begged me…” She smiled up at him. “You can be very convincing. Maybe you should’ve become a lawyer or a politician.”

Parker shuddered—her words stung like hard slaps, and for reasons she couldn’t even fathom. He backed away from her.

Clover started sucking on her hand in between hiccups, and Parker managed to say in a quiet voice that required a herculean effort, “Beth, before we continue this conversation, can we feed her, please?”

“Okay, I’ll go and warm up her bottle.” Beth turned, then stopped and said over her shoulder, “Oh, and I prefer to be called Shantelle. It goes better with my new vibe.” She almost glided out of the room, her lightweight kaftan fluttering behind her, making Parker wonder again what he had missed during the past few weeks.

 

Chapter 3

Nicki

Is this flipping déjà vu?

Simultaneously, Nicki and Sally picked up their purses and dropped them on the thick seat cushion between them. A hint utterly lost on Ray, who swished them aside like breadcrumbs and made himself comfortable. Spreading his legs wide, he placed an arm possessively behind Nicki and leaned in.

Before his lips could touch her cheek, she backed off and said, “Our kissing days are over.”

“You’ve always been a hugger and kisser,” he said.

“With people I actually care about.”

A flicker of surprise—or annoyance?—flared up in his eyes, but he only said, “You know, this is like old times.”

Not really. Ray had routinely snubbed Nicki’s non-socialite friends by pretty much ignoring them. Except for Sally. Because he wanted to get in her panties.

In a voice as emotionless as she could manage, Nicki said, “Ray, it’s been a while.” But not long enough!

“Not for lack of trying. On my part, of course,” he said before he looked to his left. “Sally, listen, we somehow rubbed each other the wrong way last summer,”—Nicki startled at his choice of words and the accompanying chuckle—“but I won’t hold the little misunderstanding against you...seeing as you’re Nicki’s BFF.” He smiled—more grimaced—at Nicki, “And I want to prove to my girl here how much I’ve changed.”

Clearly not enough, if you need to point it out.

“I’m not your girl,” Nicki hissed and shook off his hand while scooting as far to the right as the seat allowed.

Sally put her hand over her heart and all but chirped, “Oh, Raymond, although I don’t recall any rubbing between you and me, I can’t tell you how I’ve been waiting to hear those words. Maybe now I can finally sleep again.” Her voice turned as steely as her glare. “But, sadly, I’m not the easily forgiving kind when it comes to sleazy pitches like yours. And I. Can’t. Stand. Cheaters.”

“I told you it was an unfortunate mistake,” he said, making Nicki stiffen when she saw his left knee bump Sally’s leg.

“But you’re not learning from your mistakes, huh?” Sally craned her neck and looked around, “Hey, where’s your lawyer friend? Christopher?”

“Chris had plans. Would you like me to tell him you inquired about him? Give him your phone number, maybe?” Ray asked.

“Not necessary, but thank you.” Sally shoved his knee away with the back of her hand.“ But I could’ve sworn he advised you last year to stay away from me and Nicki. Hmmm…?”

The waiter returned with the refills, and Ray addressed his two buddies who leaned against the glass and metal railing, their backs to the sun-kissed, gleaming skyline of Boston, “Gentlemen, what say you? Shall we keep the girls company for a bit before exploring other options?”

Nicki snorted, “By all means, if you gentlemen need to be somewhere else, don’t let us hold you back. Oh, and look! There are more seats becoming available.” She pointed to the empty benches in the park five stories below.

To her great relief, one of the guys, Charles, proved his good sense when he said, “Let’s go somewhere else. We can hardly all squeeze onto this settee. Unless the ladies don’t mind following suit?” He pointed at Humphrey, who sat with Ally in his lap like a clingy monkey. Then Charles winked at Kelly—and Nicki’s momentary favorable opinion of him dissipated like a tendril of smoke into thin air.

Ray bumped Nicki’s shoulder with his arm, “Guess today’s not the day. We’ll catch up another time, sweets.”

“Don’t bother,” she said.

Ray and Humphrey got up and did some odd headlock/shoulder clasp-and-clap combo. Their weird display—men in their mid-thirties who behaved like frat boys after buying beer with a fake ID— sickened Nicki, and while she had no proof that Humphrey was a louse like Ray, she couldn’t imagine her ex surrounding himself with morally sound friends. She just couldn’t see it.

Watching Ray’s retreating back, Nicki took in his brazen attitude and his gelled-back blond hair—longer than it used to be—and the David Spade look didn’t suit him at all. Since their breakup, she’d seen Ray only a few times. Every time felt forced, and while the atmosphere wasn’t downright hostile, it had a rather unpleasant undercurrent.

“Who does he think he is?” Sally demanded.

“You took the question right out of my mouth. When did he turn into such a prick? He wasn’t such a self-centered jerk when I met him six…no, seven years ago,” Nicki said.

“Well, he was always a little too full of himself, even back then, but it’s gotten worse. As if the world owes him. You did the right thing by sending him packing, Nic, for a multitude of reasons,” Sally said quietly, even though, with the music and noise around them, there was no need to lower her voice.

“I know, but it still hurts at times. You know when I should’ve realized something was wrong in our relationship? Besides his cheating, of course.” Nicki eyed Ally and Kelly, who were absorbed in their own conversation. “After we got engaged and he constantly criticized me, trying to change who I am, finding fault where there was none. Like my boobs being too small, or my hair the wrong shade of brown, or me having a lowly job.” Nicki made air quotes when she said too small and lowly.

“Ugh…” Sally grunted.

Ray’s verbal insults zipped through Nicki’s mind, and she pointed to her cleavage. “This is how I looked when we met, and, granted, they’re average size, but hey, at least they’re real… And he knew I was getting a degree in early childhood education because I love working with young kids.” Nicki glanced around. “Did you know he even suggested that I get a boob job?”

“Forget everything that prick ever said to you. He’s not worth it,” Sally said with a dismissive snort. “He tried to turn you into someone you aren’t, and for a while you let him. But what matters is that you came to your senses before you married him.”

Nicki nodded. Sally hit the nail on the head. She raised her glass and called out, “Cheers to last-minute wake-up calls.”

Kelly and Ally looked up, tossed their long hair over their shoulders, and sat up straighter. All perfectly synchronized. Nicki chuckled and said, “Okay, guys, I never told you, but...” She let the sentence trail out.

“Out with it,” Ally said.

“Good or bad?” asked Kelly.

Nicki shrugged. “You decide. Okay… Do you know Mimi’s nickname for the three of you?”

Sally asked, “Is it something cool like Badass Chicks?” She flexed a toned arm.

“Not quite, but close,” Nicki laughed. “Because you have names that rhyme, she dubbed you The Ducklings, after Huey, Dewey, and Louie.”

Kelly and Ally snickered while Sally flapped her arms and quacked.

Nicki was glad to have lightened the mood after the unpleasant Ray encounter. But she needed to find a way to steer clear of him—and hoped she’d be able to avoid a full-on confrontation.

 

 

Chapter 4

Parker

With one swipe, Parker dumped discarded clothes off the rocking chair in the corner of the room and sat down. He ran his fingers over Clover’s fine blonde hair, slightly sweaty at the temples from her heartbreaking crying fit, and shook his head. Who let an infant work herself into such a tizzy? He looked deep into her big blue eyes, having a silent conversation with the doll-sized person who had captured his heart as soon as she was put in his arms at the birthing center. I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner.

Beth returned with the bottle and handed it to Parker, then sat cross-legged on her bed. He tested the temperature with a drop on his inner wrist, and as soon as he brought the bottle to Clover’s lips, she latched on like it was heavy-duty sticky tape.

Without preamble, Beth said, “Clover hinders my creativity—”

Parker’s hand twitched—Beth’s impassioned voice startled him as much as the blunt declaration—but he kept his attention on Clover, who sucked greedily without letting go of Parker’s finger. Or taking her eyes off him.

“—and Haruka invited me to Hawaii to recharge. Her aunt runs a retreat for artists, because she experienced firsthand how misunderstood creative people often are, especially when they also carry the burden of a family and a household. What started as a one-month retreat is now a year-round sanctuary where artists can find themselves and be who they are without being judged or criticized. They even grow their own food and generally support each other. Haruka said it would give me new perspectives.”

Haruka was the hula dancer who let him in, and Parker doubted that Beth could learn anything useful from her. The description of this sanctuary sounded suspiciously like a commune, and he’d bet his pilot’s license that most of the plants growing there had hallucinogenic properties.

Parker waited for Beth to continue. When she didn’t volunteer more, he looked up and saw her staring at the ceiling. He asked with steel in his voice, “Do you hear yourself? Is it always all about you? Don’t you feel even an ounce of responsibility for Clover?”

Beth glared at him. “Um, excuse me? Don’t talk to me about responsibility. I gave birth to her, didn’t I? I’d say I fulfilled my obligation.”

He let the statement settle. Not that he didn’t believe or understand her desire to do something for herself, but the timing sucked. And her attitude about having fulfilled her obligation baffled him.

A nightmarish vision of Clover sitting in a cannabis field, putting a palmate-shaped leaf in her mouth, made bile rise in his throat. Hell would freeze over before he let Beth take Clover to that pot farm.

“How can a trip to a hippie co-op be more important than Clover? I won’t allow you to take her there.”

Beth waved a hand dismissively and smiled, “No need to puff out your chest. First, it’s not a hippie co-op, and second, I don’t plan to bring her.”

The churning in his stomach settled, and he tried to smile too. “Oh, you’re talking about going there at some point in the future. Sure, I can plan my vacation accordingly when she’s a little older. We’ll figure it out.”

“Haruka already booked our flights. She landed a bargain, and we’re leaving on Monday. Clover’s all yours.”

“What do you mean?”

Losing control over his helicopter due to system failure couldn’t be more gruesome than what Beth just threw at him. Regular trainings, during which he faced simulated life-or-death situations, prepared him to deal with emergencies with his Black Hawk. But this???

There was no doubt that the first few weeks and months with a newborn weren’t all sunshine and roses. It was an enormous adjustment for everyone involved, and, being a man, he couldn’t fully conceive of the changes a woman’s body underwent during pregnancy and after giving birth. But they’d discussed their situation and set up a support system for Beth—starting with her two roommates, who’d jumped happily at the chance to help with Clover. For whatever it was worth…another reason why he stopped by often.

“It’s your turn to step up and deal with Clover,” Beth said.

“I thought that’s what I do by taking three weeks of paternity leave. To help you and to give you a break. You know I’m coming over as often as I can after work, but I can’t change my schedule.”

“There you go! You can’t rearrange your precious schedule, but I’m expected to upend my entire life?”

“We went over all this when we learned about the pregnancy, Beth.”

“Shantelle.” She rolled her eyes as if he was the dullest blade on the rotor.

“Fine. Shantelle,” he huffed, pulling the bottle out of Clover’s mouth to give her a short break. If not for the baby nestled in the crook of his arm and her bottle in his hand, he’d be literally tearing out his hair. “Listen… I’d ask for emergency leave, but you know I have a multi-week training in Fort Rucker coming up. If I reschedule now, it’ll take forever to get back on the list to attend the course. But let me talk to a few—”

Beth threw her arms in the air and shrieked, “See? But…but…but… You…you…you… Is your stupid course more important than my desire to connect with my spiritual self and to fuel my creativity?”

“It’s my job and…”

He clamped his mouth shut and shook his head. Why were they even having this discussion? Beth was smart enough to know he wasn’t in charge of his schedule, and the fact that he’d be going to Alabama for a couple of months wasn’t news, either.

Beth shrugged. “Well, either you take Clover, or I’ll hand her over to DCF.”

The earth tilted and a rivulet of cold sweat ran down Parker’s spine. “You’d do what?!”

“What choice do I have?” She reached into a bowl full of colorful gummies and popped a handful in her mouth, making Parker suspect they were the kind children shouldn’t get their hands on.

“How long are you going to be away?” he choked out as he returned the bottle to Clover’s mouth.

“Until the spirits tell me where to go or what to do next.” After swishing her arms theatrically through the air, she pulled an envelope out of a bag. “Since we have joint custody and your name’s already on Clover’s birth certificate, I signed my parental rights over to you.”

Beth giggled—making Parker want to throttle her. Did she honestly think this was funny?

“I doubt a handwritten note holds much weight in any court,” he managed to say.

“Why? It’s not much different from a last will and testament, and Arlene and Haruka signed as witnesses.”

“A last will is totally different…” he started, but might as well not have bothered.

“Fine!” Beth snatched another scrap of paper and scribbled on it. “Here, I’m giving you sole physical custody.” Beth added her signature, date, and place. “Now Clover’s officially yours.”

“Beth…” hearing her exaggerated sigh, he corrected himself, “Shantelle, I really don’t understand what’s going on, but why don’t I take Clover to my apartment for the weekend? I thought we’d wait until she’s a little older to spend alternating weekends with me, but hopefully a few nights of uninterrupted sleep will give you a break. We’ll discuss this in more detail on Monday, after we’ve both had time to give it some thought. Can you pack everything she needs?”

“There’s nothing to discuss, and I’m heading to Hawaii on Monday.” Beth slid the paper and envelope into a bursting-at-the-seams duffel bag that had—thanks to the messy room—escaped Parker’s attention. “Most of Clover’s clothes, plus some toys, diapers and wipes, the phone number of her pediatrician, and her immunization records are in here. And her birth certificate, even though you have a certified copy.”

Parker sat there.

Dumbstruck.

He opened his mouth and closed it again, his head spinning faster than an out-of-control car on ice.

Given their brief personal history—he had zero energy to rehash it now—Parker was sure there was a lot he didn’t know about Beth, but he’d never in a million years have thought her capable of being so cold. So heartless. So calculating. She knew she was leaving, had planned it meticulously without giving him the slightest hint, and treated her own child like a commodity to be bequeathed—more or less graciously—to a relative.

He was speechless, and struggled to concentrate on the most important matter at hand—Clover—while esoteric music drifted through the closed bedroom door together with high-pitched laughter.

Needing to get out of this loony bin, Parker stood and kissed Clover’s chubby cheek. I’ll never let you down, baby girl, he promised her silently.

“Beth…umm… Shantelle,” he ground out as he reached for the duffel bag with Clover’s belongings. “Please don’t change your phone number. I’ll seek legal advice, but until this is settled I need to be able to reach you.”

“Of course. Promise,” she chirped.

Yeah, for whatever that’s worth.

***

Two hours later Parker dropped onto the two-seater sofa in his bachelor pad, his eyes fastened on Clover. She was sleeping peacefully in her car seat, since the playpen was still airing out on his balcony after he gave it a thorough scrubbing while her clothes and a few stuffed toys enjoyed a sanitizing tumble in the washer and dryer.

With his heart hammering, he watched Clover’s pink lips pucker up and a sweet little smile appear on her face while she dreamed with the new bee blanket clutched in her fist. It was too early to make out permanent features, or to say who she’d favor one day, but her downy hair was as fair and fine as Beth’s, and her eyes were already the same blue as his. And the dimple on her right cheek was a carbon copy of the one he saw in the mirror when he shaved.

Parker took a long pull of his beer while today’s events raced through his mind.

Beth hadn’t even kissed Clover goodbye. She ran a hand over her head and mumbled some gibberish that Parker didn’t understand but desperately hoped wasn’t some butt-biting voodoo.

After swallowing another swig of the beer, Parker sighed out a long exhale.

He had three weeks and two days to figure out his next steps. To set the course for his and Clover’s future.

Who was going to take care of Clover when he was on base?

What about his upcoming training in Alabama?

Where to begin?

He might be wading through the thickest mud of his entire life, but one thing was crystal clear: Clover was his daughter, unplanned but no less loved, and he’d protect her for the rest of his life. Which included making sure no one could ever challenge his paternal rights and take her away from him.

And because even he knew Beth’s scribbled transfer of parental rights had as much value as a damn grocery shopping list, Parker’s top priority was to secure an ironclad legal document that awarded him irrevocable and sole physical and legal custody.

For which Parker needed help.

Help that required a trip to Massachusetts for a face-to-face meeting with the man who’d called Parker his biggest disappointment when Parker joined the Army eleven years ago.

Justus Parker Haynes II.

A ruthless, cutthroat lawyer—and Parker’s dad.

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