Meredith Hunt is content with her solo life. She owns and runs a successful Pilates studio, volunteers at the high school every week, and recently bought a house. She can take care of herself, which is good because she has a hard time relying on other people. When she’s mugged and a handsome man comes to her rescue, she doesn’t know how to accept his helpor how to stop staring into his chocolate-brown eyes.
Ace Vance moved to Bridgeport to offer his fifteen-year-old son, Finn, a better life. Here, Finn has a chance to play football for a good team and maybe even earn a college scholarship. And Ace scored a job at a top-notch garage, where he gets to fix up classic cars. Plus, they could both use some distance from Finn’s toxic mom. The last thing on his mind is falling in love, but he can’t help offering assistance to a gorgeous redhead in need.
Thrown together by a careless criminal, Meredith and Ace can’t deny their attraction. But can they open their heartsand their livesto make room for love?
Shelley Shepard Gray’s Bridgeport Social Club series explores how communities can come together to support each other, whether it’s around a poker table, in a Pilates studio, or anywhere in between. Get ready to fall in love with a group of men and women who, even when they feel lost, refuse to lose hope.
About the Author
Shelley Shepard Gray is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of numerous romantic fiction series and mystery novels, including the Seasons of Sugarcreek series, the Sisters of the Heart series, the Families of Honor series, and others. She is a recipient of RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award.
Read an Excerpt
FROM LES LARKE'S TERMS FOR POKER SUCCESS:
All In: When a player bets everything he's got. Be advised that this can be a risky undertaking. If you lose, there's nothing left.
The shove came out of nowhere, hitting Meredith Hunt hard on her shoulder and knocking her down onto the paved walking path. Feeling both shocked and confused, she threw out her hands in a weak attempt to break her fall. But instead of helping the situation, a sharp, fierce pain reverberated along her right hand. Pebbles tore into her other palm, her knees, and parts of her thighs. She felt dizzy. Stunned. Half in shock.
What the heck had just happened?
Panic overtook her as she realized that whoever had just rammed her to the ground had taken off with her backpack — the backpack that would have been secure on her back with its chest clip had she not been retrieving her water bottle at that exact moment.
Just like that, a dozen images of what was stashed in there flitted through her head. Her wallet. Her phone. Her keys ... Her address. The idea of any of that coming into a stranger's hands was enough to make her jump to her feet.
Well, she would've jumped up — or even simply sat up — if she hadn't been feeling so dizzy.
"Hey. Hey, are you all right?"
Opening one eye, she realized a man was kneeling next to her. He had short black hair, dark eyes, scruff on his cheeks, and a very concerned expression. He was what her best friend in high school would have called "dreamy."
"I think so," she muttered, horrified to realize that she sounded gritty and hoarse. Like she was barely hanging on. Which, unfortunately, pretty much summed up exactly how she felt.
The guy's expression grew more concerned. "I saw some punk push you down. Looks like you hit the ground hard."
Hating that she was still sprawled out in front of him, she stretched a leg experimentally. "I need to get up."
"Hold on. What hurts, darlin'?" he drawled. Though she knew better than to be taken in by a drawl and a cast-off endearment, she relaxed a little. This man was a stranger but he didn't seem dangerous. Just as her conscience started to remind her that good looks and charm really didn't mean anything at all, he reached out to slip a hand under her head. "Is your neck okay?" he asked quietly. "Can you move?"
Thinking that was a good idea, she moved her head, realizing as she did that it was being supported by a very big hand. "I'm all right. I hit my head, but I think my hand got the worst of it."
He shifted and took a knee, which was covered in faded denim. "Just your hand?"
She knew what he was getting at. She was acting a little peaked for someone who had just a cut palm. Thinking of all her students who powered through her classes even when they were struggling or in pain, Meredith tried to get a grip on herself. "Maybe ... I guess I hit the ground kind of hard. I'm a little stunned." Maybe a lot stunned, since she'd just mentally compared the color of his eyes to her favorite dark Ghirardelli chocolate bar.
After studying her a moment longer, he slid his hand out from under her head to her arm. "Ma'am, I'm going to take your elbow, okay? We need to get you sitting up."
Ma'am? She swallowed. Did she really look that old?
"Dad, what are you doing?" a voice called out. "Oh my gosh. Miss Hunt?"
Surprised, Meredith focused on the person just beyond her rescuer. Finn. He was a sophomore at Bridgeport High — one of the kids she helped out when she volunteered in a friend's class once a week. Finn was fifteen, muscular, almost six foot, and a little on the chunky side. He was built like the football player she'd recently learned he was.
However, in spite of all that brawn, there was still a sweetness to him. His face still had a touch of peach fuzz that most underclassmen boys at the school had. He also had dark-brown eyes and dark hair. Pretty much the spitting image of the man who was still kneeling by her side.
"Hey Finn. Fancy seeing you here." Inwardly she winced. Had she really just said that?
Finn blinked, then grinned, like she'd really amused him. The man by her side, the one whose hand was still curved protectively around her elbow, looked confused.
No doubt that was not only because his kid knew her, but also because she'd spouted such an idiotic phrase while lying on the ground. When she noticed that his free hand was hovering in her general direction, that he didn't want to manhandle her without her permission, she tentatively smiled at him.
That was all he needed to wrap that hovering hand around her side. A little above her waist. A little below her breast. Not that she should be noticing anything like that. After all, she was a Pilates instructor. She knew that positioning other people didn't mean anything personal. Usually, it really was just an offer of assistance.
But still, she was aware of his touch as she moved to a sitting position. She breathed deep, hoping to get her bearings. But all she got was a good whiff of him. He smelled like soap and tobacco and peppermint. It shouldn't have been a good combination. Neither should have been his underlying scent — the one that signaled he was all man.
She really needed to get her bearings. Like, immediately.
"You all right?" he murmured.
"Um-hum," she whispered back, though why she was whispering, she didn't really know.
Finn stepped closer and looked down at her. "Miss Hunt?"
She summoned what she hoped was a sunny smile. "I'm going to be just fine."
The man looked from her to the boy in confusion. "I'm guessing y'all know each other."
"I help out in one of his classes," she replied. "Finn, well, he's currently my favorite sophomore."
Blushing, Finley ducked his head as he dropped to one knee next to his dad. "You tell everyone that."
"Maybe. But right now it's true." Looking at his dad, she attempted to act like the situation was normal, even though she was lying on the ground in the middle of the bike trail. "Hi. I'm Meredith Hunt."
"You work at the high school?"
"Work? No, not really. I'm just a volunteer."
"She helps out in Miss Springer's classroom, Dad," Finley explained before turning back to her. "Miss Hunt, are you really gonna be all right? That guy who shoved you was really big."
Still feeling out of sorts, she tried to nod, but was immediately hit with a monster headache. "He grabbed my backpack."
Finn frowned. "I thought that was what he did. Sorry we weren't close enough to grab him."
Even imagining Finn getting tangled up with the man who'd shoved her made her tense up. "I'm glad you weren't any closer! He was kind of big. You could have been hurt. No backpack is worth that."
While Finn looked like he was about to start laughing, his dad looked affronted. "That kid wouldn't have hurt us. But to be honest, I wasn't thinking about your pack."
He'd been thinking about her.
"I wish I'd been more aware of what was going on. My life is in that backpack."
"Like you just said, it's just a backpack," Finn's dad said softly, a thick drawl accentuating every word. "We've also got more important things to worry about."
He smiled sympathetically. "In case you didn't realize it, you're bleeding."
She looked down at her bare legs. In spite of it being January, she'd decided to wear shorts to run. The sun and fifty-degree temperature were too welcome to ignore. But now, seeing the scrapes, she was coming to regret that decision. They did look kind of bad, but there wasn't that much blood. "My knees will be fine."
"I was talking about your hand, Meredith."
To her surprise, he pulled out a worn, soft bandanna from a pocket and pressed it over a cut on her hand. Right then, a slicing sharp pain entered her wound. She sucked in a sharp breath.
Finn's dad curved a palm around her shoulder. "Easy, now. It's deep. You need stitches." Still looking at her hand, he frowned. "It's swelling, too. You might need an X-ray."
Finn pointed to her head. "I think you're gonna have a big bruise on your head, too. You might have a concussion."
Shifting, Meredith looked at her hand in confusion. Blood oozed from her palm. "Gosh. You're right. I guess I better go ..." Her memory returned — as well as the knowledge that everything she'd been carrying had been stolen. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't have my license or keys." Or her insurance card. Or any money. Or her phone.
Panicked, she struggled to her feet. "I need to —"
Resting both hands on her arms, Finley's dad held her steady. "Hold on, now," he drawled. "You're gonna hurt yourself."
"You don't understand. My phone was in there with my wallet." Which, for once, was full. And her credit cards.
Oblivious to the minor meltdown she was having in front of them, Finn said, "Dad's right, Miss Hunt. You need to be careful. Sorry, but you look pretty bad."
She felt pretty bad, too. Though she was feeling fuzzy, she had recovered enough to start making sense of the situation. "Do you think that guy might have only taken cash then dropped my bag or something?"
"It's worth a try. Finn, go look up ahead. Maybe go a couple hundred yards or so. What color is the pack, Meredith?"
"I'm on it." Finn got to his feet but his attention was still on her. "You gonna be okay?"
Everything inside of her turned to mush. Just mush. In the three weeks since he'd arrived in Bridgeport, Finn Vance had been kind of hard to read.
At first, she'd thought it was simply because he was the new kid. That would be hard for anyone. But then she heard from one of the coaches she worked with that Finn was destined to be a starter on the varsity team in the fall. She'd also heard from her friend Emily that he seemed to be struggling in her class.
She'd also noticed that he never looked all that happy in class, either. Always serious.
That serious attitude, combined with his fake diamond earrings, faded jeans, and collection of black concert T-shirts made him definitely stand out in the school.
But though he also seemed tough, he behaved well and always watched her like he was trying to figure her out. Just last week, when her arms were full of notebooks, and she was having trouble managing them all, he'd helped her carry them to her car.
She'd suspected then what he was proving now. Underneath all those muscles, T-shirts, and attitude was a kid who'd been raised to be something of a gentleman. "Finn, I wish every kid in Bridgeport was like you. Thanks."
The blush that reached the roots of his hair made her smile. When he trotted off, she turned to his father. "I think I can stand up now."
He nodded, but looked at her steadily. And, if she wasn't mistaken, in a completely new way. "Careful, now."
Feeling awkward, she stood up, accepting his hands on her elbow and waist again. Once they were both on their feet, she blinked as she lifted her head another couple of inches to meet his gaze. "Thank you again. And, um, I guess we should probably introduce ourselves a little better. As I said, I'm Meredith Hunt."
"And I'm Ace Vance, Finn's dad."
His voice was serious, gravelly. Meredith thought that it went well with his eyes, which looked like they had seen too much and were ready to take on anyone's burdens. "Thank you for coming to my rescue. I don't know what I would have done if you and Finley hadn't arrived."
His dark eyes turned stormy. "Don't thank me. I haven't done anything yet." Before she could refute that, he visibly scanned her from top to bottom. "We need to get that hand taken care of."
Looking at the bandanna that was slowly getting soaked, she resigned herself that he was right. "I guess I better call the police. Maybe they can help me?" Of course, that was going to be kind of hard to do, since she no longer had a phone. Thinking of all she'd lost, panic set in. "Could I borrow your phone for a minute? Would you mind?" "If you need the cops, I'll call. But give Finn a sec, okay? I think there's a good chance he might find it nearby. Most muggers are only after cash, not backpacks and keys."
Imagining the worst, she said, "I hope that mugger isn't nearby. I'd hate for Finn to get hurt."
"Finn already weighs one eighty. He's played football since he was six. No backpack-stealing punk is going to get the best of him."
Releasing a ragged sigh, she knew he was right. One step at a time. Seeking to take her mind off her misery, she said, "Um, your son is really great." "Thanks."
"No, I'm not just saying that. He helped me carry some equipment to my car the other day. Half the kids I work with wouldn't do something like that. That's how we met."
His eyebrows lowered. "They should be helping you."
"What I'm trying to say is that he's really composed and mature for his age. You should be proud of him, Mr. Vance."
A reluctant smile appeared on his lips. "Thanks. Finn's not much of a student, but he's a good person. At least, I've always thought that. You know, when he's not being a teenager with a chip on his shoulder."
She laughed. "I'd guess half the kids at Bridgeport High have chips on their shoulders, Mr. Vance. My friend Emily says it comes with the territory."
A reluctant smile crossed his features. "Why don't you call me Ace, Meredith? I've never been the type of guy to be called 'mister' anything."
"That's reserved for your father?" she teased.
"Nah, he ain't that kind of man either." Looking bemused, he said, "Now that I think about it, I can't think of a single person to ever call my dad anything but Hank."
Hank. Ace. Finn. Interesting names. Country names. "All right." She smiled slightly, thinking how odd it was that she felt so at ease with a man who looked so different than the majority of the men she knew. He had to be at least ten years older than she was, seemed to favor black as much as his kid, and had earrings in his ears as well. Two tiny silver hoops. One of his arms had a bunch of tattoos, all inked in black.
Startled by the direction of her own thoughts — of the way she wondered when he'd gotten his ears pierced, what he did for a living, and why he was in Bridgeport, she held up her bleeding hand and pretended to be completely fascinated about the way blood was oozing out of her palm."
"It'll be okay," he said in a soothing tone. "I bet you won't even have much of a scar."
She was an adult. She'd taken CPR. She'd had extensive training when she became a certified Pilates trainer. She dealt with clients recovering from injuries on a daily basis. She definitely did not need some unfamiliar man coddling her and murmuring sweet things in her ear.
So why did she kind of feel giddy around him? Why did she feel like he might even be making her feel better?
She turned to stare at the path behind her. Maybe if she stared down the empty path long enough she could suddenly conjure this whole thing to be over.
And then she saw her savior. Again.
"Here comes Finley!" she called out like he was returning from battle. "And he's holding my pack." Relief flooded through her.
Ace looked in that direction as well. When Finn got within speaking distance, Ace grinned. "Good job, kid."
Finn smiled broadly. "It weren't nothing. It was laying on the ground just around the bend. I didn't see the guy who took it, though."
"S'okay. You got her bag," his dad said quietly, in that same soothing tone that sounded so mesmerizing. "That's most important."
Finley nodded before turning to her, then he said, "It was already opened, Miss Hunt. "I didn't open it."
"Of course you didn't." Impulsively, she squeezed his hand with her good one. Before she thought the better of it, she waved her fingers toward the zipper. "Well, go ahead and check it out. What's inside?"
He opened it. "Keys," he said, pulling out her heavy Minnie Mouse key ring. "And your phone."
"That's a relief. Do you see my wallet?"
Ace frowned. "Nope. Sorry."
She was sorry, too, especially since her wallet had all of her vital information in it. Determined to not show the extent of her dismay in front of the teenager, she reached for the pack with her good hand. "Thanks, Finn. That's too bad about my wallet, but at least I can get home now." Already making plans, she said, "I'll cancel my credit cards when I get home. And if I get pulled over for driving without a license, I'll just have to explain to the policeman what happened. He should understand, right?"
Finn was staring at her like she'd grown another head but nodded. "Yeah, maybe."
But Ace frowned. "You need to get to the doctor first before you do anything. And you shouldn't be driving. Not until you get checked out."
"That's sweet advice, but I don't really have a choice." She wasn't going to burden a girlfriend, and her mom lived in Tampa.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All In"
Copyright © 2019 Shelley Shepard Gray.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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