Ginger Peet took one look at the offending piece of plastic in her hand and hurled it clear across the room. It was reflex. An unconscious action. If she’d have held it a second longer, it surely would have set her hand on fire. She watched the object bounce off her chest of drawers and slide to a stop at the base of her life-size Dolly Parton statue. For once, the giant porcelain likeness of her idol offered zero comfort, the Smoky Mountain Songbird’s frozen smile taking on more of a smirking quality that Ginger definitely did not appreciate. Not now, when she’d just gotten the shock of a lifetime.
Considering some of the shocks she’d been dealt in her lifetime, especially in the last year, that was truly saying something.
“Well, Dolly?” Ginger plopped down hard on the wooden floor, the heels of her cowboy boots making a loud clunk. “No clever, down-home advice for me? You’re just going to stand there and act all high and mighty? I didn’t plan for this to happen, you know.” She breathed a sigh. “I don’t mean it, Dolly. I’m just upset, is all.”
Of course, the statue kept quiet, although when Ginger looked away for a split second, she swore it tilted its head to the left. On hands and knees, Ginger crawled across the room and without touching the object, leaned down and squinted at it, hoping she’d been wrong the first time.
Nope. Still knocked up.
She rolled over onto her back, staring blindly at the ceiling. “How did this happen?” Okay, that time she didn’t imagine the statue’s head tilt. Right? “I mean, I know how this happens. I worked in a bar for seven years. You pick up a thing or two listening to people piss away their troubles over whiskey. But we were so damn careful.”
A flush crept up her neck as a barrage of scenes starring her and Lieutenant Derek Tyler, her boyfriend of nearly a year, blurred together in her mind, starting the week she, Willa, and Dolly had moved in next door. They’d been on the lam, having fled Nashville to escape their dire circumstances. A cop had been her last choice in a neighbor. He’d wasted no time making his intentions clear. Very clear. She shook her head to dispel the visions of their naked, writhing bodies on various surfaces. “Don’t look at me like that,” she said to Dolly. “I remember that time at the Laundromat. And that weekend in Miami last month…”
Ginger slapped her palm to her forehead. Derek had surprised her with a last-minute trip to South Beach, having finally wrapped up a major case and deciding to take his very first vacation since joining the force. Never having been to Florida, let alone on a vacation, she’d forgotten her birth control pills in the excited rush to pack. At first, they’d been careful about using condoms, but there’d been that one single time. And wasn’t that always the way it happened? That afternoon they’d spent on the beach, sipping mojitos. Swimming in the ocean, slipping against one another’s wet bodies, tempting, heightening the anticipation. He’d growled over her choice of a purple string bikini, but she’d felt the effect it had on him. Hadn’t wasted any opportunities to brush against him with her barely covered bottom, wrapping her legs around his waist, leaning over his impressively muscled chest to apply sunscreen.
By the time they stumbled, kissing and petting each other, into the hotel room, they’d been in a sexual frenzy. She’d been pulled down onto the floor, just inside their hotel room door. Her purple bikini had been torn from her body, baring her bottom to receive the mighty slap of Derek’s palm…he’d been inside her before they remembered he hadn’t worn a condom. By then, nothing short of a tsunami could have stopped them. Ginger remembered it clear as a bell, as if it had taken place five minutes ago instead of six weeks prior. There had been an illicitness to their lovemaking, as if the risk were adding a whole new element. Knowing they were gambling, in a sense, had made them twice as wild.
He’d finished with a roar, then flipped her over and taken her again. Harder.
Ginger cleared her throat in the silent room. “Well. I seem to have sorted out the when and I’ll be keeping it to myself, Dolly, if you don’t mind. Now on to the why now.” She glanced over at the framed picture of her and Derek that sat on her bedside table. Derek kissing her forehead, arms wrapped around her protectively. Always protecting. So solid and reassuring. The picture had been taken by Willa, her photographer younger sister, when they were both unaware. It was the main reason she loved the picture. No posing or false smiles. Just the two of them as they were at that moment. Happy. At peace.
Would this unexpected news change that? Yes, they loved each other. Yes, this last year, without question, had been the happiest in her twenty-four years. But this…a baby…it would change everything. They’d never even discussed having children. Although
to be fair, she suspected Derek would avoid that topic at the risk of sending her screaming for the hills. He knew every gory detail about her shitty upbringing, her issues surrounding family. Her mother had been a drug addict and a prostitute who’d turned tricks in their living room. Not exactly a shining example of motherhood in all its glory.
One of the insecurities she and Derek had set out to overcome was her intense fear of commitment. After watching her mother being used and discarded regularly, she’d never envisioned herself in a relationship. She’d only moved in with Derek a few months ago and while she loved him to an astonishing degree, it had been a monumental decision for her. The stubborn man had all but tricked her into it. A baby epitomized commitment. A lifetime’s worth of it. She wasn’t sure she was ready for that kind of thing. Even if she was…what about Derek?
She thought of herself nine months pregnant, wearing maternity clothes to accommodate her swollen belly. And allowed the tiny niggle of worry to creep in at the image. At age fourteen, she’d realized men liked the way she looked. Sure, she’d used it to her advantage. Even while luring Derek into what she’d thought would be a purely physical encounter. She didn’t waste a moment regretting it, either. Use what you’ve got had been the words she’d lived by for so long. But since breaking free of her past and taking control of her life, she’d stopped relying on them. Her body’s shape didn’t define her anymore. Her self-confidence had grown exponentially since moving to Chicago and meeting Derek.
She was now a businesswoman. An actual role model to the sister she loved. Yet…she always knew the looks were at her disposal if she needed them. And perhaps a small, leftover part of her past self was worried that Derek wouldn’t want her as much with cankles. She hated thinking that way. It was vain and silly. And yet.
“You understand, right, Dolly? You never leave the house without your sequined bustier and blond wig.” Okay, now that time the statue definitely shook its head disapprovingly. Pregnancy was apparently already taking its toll on her sanity. “Don’t look at me like that. Everyone knows about the wigs and no one here is judging you. Especially the pregnant lady talking to a damn statue.”
Raising a baby was simply not in her wheelhouse. While she may have grown emotionally and shed most of her hang-ups, it didn’t mean she was ready for another human being to be completely dependent on her. She’d managed to raise Willa, now majoring in photography in college, through trial and error. Lord knew she’d made plenty of mistakes along the way. There’d been no time to prepare for this.
She doubted it was on Derek’s radar, either. Not with his heavy workload, the way his peers relied on him. He’d been honored by the department earlier that year for his work in a sting operation involving two local gangs. She’d watched him accept his plaque from the Chicago police commissioner to thunderous applause from his colleagues, so choked with pride she could barely breathe. His career was on a major upswing. This would mean change. Sacrifices. Then, there was her own work. She’d opened Sneaky Peet’s in Wicker Park, creating and selling custom furniture. Her designs had become so popular, her hours were nearly as demanding as Derek’s. Throwing a baby into the equation at this stage, well, it was damned inconvenient.
Automatically, she felt an immense wave of guilt at her own thoughts. Slowly, very slowly, her hand crept to her still-flat belly and lay there. The world didn’t end.
“Hell, Dolly. I’m screwed. I already love the little booger.” She blew out a breath toward the ceiling. She would tell Derek. He would understand. He’d hold her and tell her everything was going to be all right. She had to believe in that. Believe in him. “Looks like the three of us are having a baby.”
Without looking up from his mountain of paperwork, Lieutenant Derek Tyler waved in the detective who’d just knocked tentatively on his glass office door.
“Do I not look busy enough to you, Alvarez?”
Most detectives knew when to back off around him. Not Alvarez, twenty-year veteran and all-around bullshit artist. He whistled softly through his teeth. “Someone’s even testier than usual. I know you haven’t been home to see your woman in two nights, but cut a dude some slack. Only doing my job.”
Stone-faced, Derek simply let Alvarez squirm under his stare. He didn’t like any of his men talking about Ginger. Not in any capacity. His woman. His business. Being that he’d spent the night away from their bed, instead of wrapped around her soft form where he belonged, he wasn’t in the mood to make an exception for the ball-breaking detective. Derek had thought when she moved in with him, he wouldn’t feel quite so anxious, unsettled, when he was forced to spend the night working. She’d be safe in his bed, behind a door he’d locked himself. Oddly, the desire to be home had grown exponentially. He should be home with her. Seeing to her needs. Demanding that she see to his. Spending every moment enjoying the fact that she’d taken that leap for him. With him.
His work-weary gaze strayed to the clock on his computer. Nine fifteen in the evening. She’d be spreading on lotion after a hot bath. Throwing on one of his department T-shirts. Nothing but tiny panties underneath. Sitting cross-legged on the floor cutting out pictures from magazines for her furniture designs, her brows drawn in concentration over her beautiful face. If he were to walk in the front door right now, she’d give him that hundred-watt smile and climb up his body for a long, wet, welcome-home kiss. God, as bad as he needed a fix of Ginger right now, he’d probably throw her down on the closest surface and fuck her hard and thorough before they’d even exchanged hellos.
So, no. He wasn’t in the mood for this shit from Alvarez.
“The point. Get to it.”
He threw up his hands. “Fair enough. Although by the time I’m finished giving you this report, you’re going to wish you’d put it off a little longer.”
“I highly doubt it.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Alvarez flipped open the manila folder in his lap. “Two words. Gino Lazio.”
Derek’s spine stiffened, his entire body immediately on high alert. The paperwork on his desk suddenly became meaningless. His exhaustion a minor detail. Gino Lazio. Notorious crime boss on Chicago’s South Side. Last year, a raid on the warehouse where Lazio’s crew was making a major narcotics deal had ended in the loss of one of Derek’s men. Lazio had been the one to pull the trigger. Then he’d disappeared without a trace. Derek’s team had prevented the drug deal, temporarily disabled Lazio’s crew, but there’d been no justice for the fallen officer—a fact that haunted him constantly. Relentlessly. He’d sat through the man’s funeral, shook the hand of his crying widow…and he’d been unable to offer closure. Lazio had immediately gone to ground. They’d even heard through one informant that he’d been lying low in Italy, waiting for his chance to slip back into Chicago unnoticed. Not likely. Derek hadn’t forgotten. Gino Lazio was his white whale.
“Tell me everything.”
Alvarez had the good sense to keep a straight face. “As you know, we’ve had to pull our undercover officer embedded in the Lazio crew and relocate him. Things were getting too hot. They suspected a leak and he was new blood. Good news is, we’ve got an informant who continues to deliver. Lazio’s nephew. We pick him up for cocaine possession like clockwork once a month and he spills his guts in exchange for leniency.” Alvarez paused, seemingly for effect. “The kid swears Lazio is returning from Italy this week for a major meeting with Modesto’s remaining crew.”
Derek’s eyes widened at that piece of news. He’d been commended by the department for leading the bust on the Modesto crew last year, right around the time he’d met Ginger. Trafficking charges had stuck to the major players, but a small portion of the crew had walked. “Lazio is absorbing the Modesto crew?”
Alvarez nodded once. “And their territory along with it.”
“Can’t let it happen.” Derek meant every word. Lazio’s operation, thanks to generations of experience dealing dirty in Chicago, was twice as sophisticated as Modesto
’s. If they were granted rights to more territory, the police would have a damned hard time containing it. They had ten times the men and enough firepower to cause serious damage to the city. His city. “When and where is this meet taking place?”
“That’s the bitch of it. I leaned on the nephew for hours and he swore to every saint his junkie brain could remember that he doesn’t know. He likes his freedom too much to bullshit me, Lieutenant.”
Derek cursed under his breath. “Where the hell does that leave us?”
“Waiting on pins and fucking needles. That’s where.” Alvarez propped his booted foot on the edge of Derek’s desk, removing it just as quickly when Derek scowled at him. “The kid says Lazio and company have grown too suspicious of the leak. The meeting time and place is going to be spur of the moment to avoid police interference. We have to be prepared to go at any time.”
“I don’t like it. We need more intel going into something this big.”
“Working on it.”
“Lazio and Modesto meeting,” Derek mused. “Lazio sure as hell won’t take any chances on getting caught. We’ve got an eyewitness in Detective Troy Bennett. That bullet killed his partner. He transferred to New York last year, but he’d fly back in a heartbeat to testify and put Lazio away.”
Alvarez made a sound of agreement. “Yeah, he would. It’s up to us to bring in Lazio, though. You were right about them not taking any chances. There’s going to be more guns at this meeting than an NRA convention. Lazio is already a scary son of a bitch. Throw in the fact that he has nothing to lose? We’re walking into a possible massacre.”
Dread settled heavy in Derek’s stomach. His eyes strayed to the picture of Ginger sitting on his desk. Blowing him a kiss in her purple bikini, the Miami sun setting in the background. Long, chestnut-colored hair in tumbling waves around her face. Brave, vulnerable, too-gorgeous-for-words Ginger. His reason for drawing breath.