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Zoey Bancroft stared at the pink plus sign on the test stick, and her world tilted. She was going to have Derek's baby.
"Leapin' lizards," she muttered, her favorite expression since she'd starred as Annie in her junior high school's production of the musical. She sank onto the edge of the Las Vegas motel bathtub and pressed a shaky hand to her swirling stomach. So maybe her nausea wasn't from a bad burrito after all. Sucking in a slow deep breath, she tried to wrap her brain around the truth.
Pregnant. Judging by the date of her last period, she had to be two months along. And how do you feel about this? she imagined her sister Holly asking her.
Stunned. Confused. Scared.
And alone. Derek had made a hasty retreat when she'd suggested she might be carrying his child. The jerk. She'd believed in him, sacrificed for him, shared herself with him.
But when she needed him most, he'd left her, unwilling to take responsibility for his child.
The whoosh of blood filled Zoey's ears. Again her world tipped, until it listed precariously over a black void. A flutter of panic beat its wings in her chest. She'd believed Derek was her future. She'd thought herself in love with him, an illusion that had begun cracking weeks ago. What she'd wanted to believe was love, she saw now, had just been a fantasy, just the latest wrong turn in her search for her place in the world. Derek had left her dangling over this fathomless pit of isolation and fear. How could she have been so blind?
Her father had been right about Derek. She'd argued with her father, severed ties with her family and defended Derek and her choice to travel the country with him as he competed in poker tournaments, hoping for his big break. Dejection and regret settled in her chest like a cold rock when she saw how wrong she'd been to trust Derek. He'd used her, strung her along, dumped her when her money ran out and the chips were down. Just as her father had predicted.
She frowned as she stared in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door. The green-eyed reflection gazing back at her sought answers she didn't have. Her appearance wasn't substantially different from normal. She didn't look like she thought a mother-to-be should. Instead of a healthy glow, her freckled cheeks seemed pale in the harsh fluorescent light. But wan complexion aside, the auburn-haired woman who stared back at her was the same lost-and-searching soul who'd been looking for herself, auditioning different life roles for all of her twenty-four years. She huffed her disgust.
Another screwup. How typical of you.
Okay, this baby wasn't planned, but it didn't have to be a problem. Shaking off the self-censure, Zoey took a deep breath. Babies were good. She liked babies. She could take care of a baby even if she was alone. Wisps of apprehension tickled the back of her neck. Could she do this alone?
She conjured an image of the people she loved most, people she'd depended on in the pasther parents, her sisters her best friend, Gage.
Maybe her horrible blindness and subsequent fight with her parents over Derek meant she was estranged from her family, but ever since they'd became friends in junior high, Gage had always been there for her. She didn't know what she was going to do with her life now, but she knew who had her back. She knew who she would call
On the back porch of Gage Powell's Lagniappe, Louisiana, home, the cordless phone he'd set on the umbrella table trilled in the fading autumn sunshine. Gage propped his rake against the trunk of the large oak and jogged toward the porch.
"G-Gage?" the female caller rasped when he answered. The woman's voice was choked with tears. Tears usually meant the caller was his older sister. But the voice wasn't Elaine's.
"He left me. I told him about the baby, and he left me!"
Once she spoke again, Gage recognized the voice, even through the muffle of tears. Instantly he jerked to attention, his body humming and his heart thudding like it had the first day he'd met her in junior high school.
Zoey Bancroft. His best friend. First lover. Secret love.
Fiery auburn hair and a personality to match. His heart ached picturing tear tracks on her beautiful freckled cheeks, her green eyes red from crying.
With a glance to the yard to check on his niece, Pet, who was still playing on the swing set he'd finished assembling last weekend, Gage sank onto a patio chair. "Zee, what's going on? Who left? What baby?"
She sniffled loudly. "He told me he didn't want a baby, and if I kept it, he was outta there. Can you believe he'd say something so awful?"
A chill washed through Gage. "Back up, Zee. Are you saying you're pregnant?"
"Yes," she squeaked. "And alone. Derek left."
Derek. Gage curled his fingers into fists and gritted his teeth. He'd known the guy was no good, would end up hurting Zoey. But Gage had tried to be supportive, tried to keep his mouth shut when Zoey gushed in her random phone calls about the guy's poker tourneys and their life on the road.
Zoey's father had tried to warn her what kind of cretin Derek was, and the resulting argument had caused a rift in the Bancroft family that had lasted more than two years. Zoey had even missed her sister Paige's wedding earlier this summer. Paige's almost wedding. But then Gage was just as glad Zoey hadn't been in the line of fire that day
He shook his head to clear it and focused on what Zoey was saying.
"went down to the bank to check, and it was true! My savings is empty. My entire inheritance from Grandpa Bancroft is gone! And the balance of our checking account is a negative because of an overdraft and fines. I actually owe the bank two hundred dollars!"
Acid puddled in Gage's gut as he sorted out what Zoey was telling him. "So wait. You're pregnant. And you have no money. Zero. None. Derek cleaned you out, then abandoned you?"
"Yes." Another squeak. More sobs. "I told him the PIN for my ATM cardand yes, before you say it, in hindsight, I see that wasn't the smartest idea. But until recently, he gave me no reason not to trust him."
Rage, horror and grave concern swam together through Gage, leaving him shaking as he tried to absorb Zoey's circumstances. Her zest for life, her reach-for-the-stars passion and restless energy were part of what made her so special to him. She'd imbued him with the same hopefulness and never-say-die attitude many times in high school when his circumstances made him want to give up. She'd always been a fresh breeze in his stale life.
But she'd been burning her candle from both ends so long that he'd feared eventually it would catch up with her. Just as he'd known he'd be there to help her pick up the pieces, the way she'd always been there for him. Even though they'd never lost touch throughout her travels, whenever her life was in transition, she'd come back to Lagniappe, and they would reconnect, rebuild the bond that made them such good friends. And each time she flitted off on her next exploit, his heart cracked a little more.
He drew a breath, gathering his thoughts. "Okay, don't worry. We'll figure this out together."
"I hope you ate your Wheaties this morning, 'cause I'm fresh outta ideas."
His cheek twitched with a grin. At least her wry sense of humor was still in place. Her ability to make him smile in even the direst situation had helped him endure his own past crises and boded well for her resilience with her own troubles.
In his yard, Pet was kicking at the pile of leaves he'd just raked, scattering them to the four winds. He didn't care. She was having fun.
First things first. "Where are you? Are you somewhere safe?"
"I'm at our motel, but I don't know how long I can stay here before the manager kicks me out and demands payment for the room."
"What motel? Where?"
He heard a pounding in the background.
Zoey gasped. "Hang on. Someone's at the door." Gage heard the rustle of sheets, the creak of bedsprings. "It could be Derek. Maybe he came back to apologize"
The hope in her voice slayed him. Her optimism was a double-edged sword. She'd kept him focused on the positive throughout high school, but it made her vulnerable to guys like Derek. Was she going to give the creep another chance? After he'd shown his stripes by leaving her, shirking his responsibility to his baby, stealing all her money? He wanted to shake Zoey. "Wait, Zee. Don't let him in. You deserve b"
A loud crash and Zoey's startled scream cut him off.
Gage's pulse leaped, and he lurched from the patio chair. "Zoey, are you there?"
"Who are you? What do you want?" Her voice sounded distant as she talked to whoever was at the door. Gage recognized the tremble of fear in her tone.
The gruff rumble of a male voice answered her, too quiet for Gage to understand.
"That's Derek's problem, not mine."
Gage paced across his porch, agitation nipping him. "Zee, who is it? What's happening?"
Another mumble of a deep voices.
"I don't have it. No!" Her pitch rose, filling with panic. "Stop! Get out, or I'll call the cops!"
"Zoey!" Gage yelled.
She cried out, sending Gage's blood pressure into the stratosphere. "Zee, answer me!"
A crackling sound blasted his ear, followed by a deafening silence.
Then a dial tone.
He clutched the phone to his ear like a lifeline to her, anxiety climbing his throat. "Zoey!" But she was gone.
He quickly punched in her cell phone number and waited while it rang.and clicked over to voice mail.
"Zoey here. You know what to do," her message chirped in the bright, carefree tone that characterized the woman he'd fallen in love with years ago. Spontaneous. Mischievous. Full of life.
"It's me, Zee. I'm worried about you. Call me." His voice quaked, but he didn't care. Zoey had seen him worse off. Much worse.
"Look at me, Uncle Gage!" Pet called from the yard.
He raised his head to find his niece hanging upside down from the swing set. His five-year-old niece was a lot like Zoey. Wild. Full of energy. Fearless.
"I'm a monkey!" the dark-haired imp giggled as she swung from the top bar.
"Be careful, Squirt. Don't fall." One personal emergency at a time, please.
He might be a firefighter, a first responder, handling crises in the community for a living, but in his private life, Gage could juggle only so much. Taking custody of his niece while his sister dried out and put her life back together already consumed most of his energy. Now Zoey was in trouble.
He had no use for a trip to the E.R. tonight with Pet. Been there. Done that.
Dividing his attention between the phone and his niece, Gage redialed Zoey's number.
Again the call kicked over to her voice mail. "Zoey here. You know what to do."
But he didn't know. As he had much of his life, Gage felt himself sinking into uncertainty, worried about the people he loved. What was he going to do with Pet? With his sister?
And how the hell was he supposed to help Zoey?
Zoey gaped at the thug who'd crushed her cell phone under his boot heel when she'd threatened to call the police. The guy wasn't scary in the traditional sensein fact she'd call him more goofy-looking than intimidating. He had a zigzag buzz cut and a pierced eyebrow that added to his trying-too-hard-to-look-tough appearance. No, what bothered Zoey were his arms, specifically the tracks of needle marks up and down his skin. If he was high, he could be dangerously unpredictable.
With a jerk on the cord, he disabled the motel room's landline, as well.
How could Derek have done business with these cretins? And how could she convince them that she had no more money than Derek did to pay off Derek's debts?
"You don't want to call the cops, 'cause that would piss me off. And I'm not someone you want pissed at you." He aimed a finger at her and narrowed his eyes to slits. "It's real simple. Either tell us where Derek is or give us the twenty grand he owes us."
Zoey choked. "Twenty grand? He told me it was just a couple thousand!"
The guy who'd stomped her cell phone jammed his face in hers. "Your boyfriend lied. And the price goes up every day he's late payin'. Interest, you know."
His breath smelled of cinnamon gum, and Zoey pulled a face. What should have been a refreshing scent turned her stomach coming from him. "Look, Derek and I split up. Your beef with him is not my problem. I don't have any money. He stole it all from me, so"
A stinging smack landed on her cheek, and she gasped in shock and pain.
Mr. Cinnamon-Breath shook out the fingers in his hand. A hissing-snake tattoo on his forearm seemed to writhe as his muscles flexed. "I told you not to piss me off."
Zoey raised her chin defiantly. He was ticking her off, too. "I don't have"
He grabbed her wrist and jerked her close. "Derek told us you came from money. You can get that twenty thou and a whole lot more from your family."
A chill slithered through her. Dread knotted her gut knowing this guy would likely extort any sum of cash he could from her through fear and intimidation. Her family's money. She couldn't let this guy's menace hurt her family. Squaring her shoulders, she dug deep for the courage to stand up to this bully. "My family disowned me two years ago when I hooked up with Derek. They won't give me a cent." She waved a hand toward the dingy motel room bed. "Do you think I'd be living like this if I had a cash flow from my parents?"
"You got credit cards, don't you?"
"I, uh" Her gaze darted to her purse and back, her spirits rising. Her emergency credit card! After getting in a load of debt in high school, from which her parents had had to bail her out, Zoey had sworn off credit cards, cut them up. Except for one. The emergency Visa. Well, this was an emergency, right?
Except the thug's gaze moved to her purse, too. Uh-oh.
"Hey, Viper, a cop just pulled in up at the front office," his cohort said from the door. "Time to go."
Viperhis moniker no doubt the reason for his tat, or vice versastiffened and snapped his gaze toward the door with a grumbled curse. Returning his narrowed glare to Zoey, Viper backed toward the door. "You seem like a smart girl. Use those smarts to come up with my money. Meantime, we'll just take this." He grabbed her walletwith the emergency credit card and what little cash she hadand stormed out without closing the door.