From Friends To Lovers To Parents?
Claire DeAngelo's fantasy was the white picket fence and a husband and babies. She thought she'd found it, but now she's getting a divorce. Her ex's behavior is bordering on harassment, so it's lucky Claire runs into her college buddynow undercover copLuke Devlin.
Luke can't believe his luck. He's investigating a smuggling ring, and Claire lives in the building he has under surveillance. What better way to keep an eye on the criminals than to move in! When Claire's ex becomes hostile, Luke's protective instincts take over and the attraction between old friends heats up.
Back in college, Luke was a carefree playboy. So when Claire discovers she's pregnant, she knows better than to expect Luke to be family material. She's finally getting that white picket fence and a baby even if there's a piece missing!
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Claire DeAngelo stabbed her fork into the last piece of lettuce on her plate. Two hours ago it was barely appetizing. Now warm and wilted, it was just plain gross. She dumped it into the trash can under the sink and put her lunch dishes in the dishwasher.
"Forget about food. You have more important things to think about." She walked purposefully back to the dining table, sat and opened the calendar on her laptop.
This had been a busy week. She had closed the sale of a home in Seattle's Victory Heights neighborhood and listed two others. She'd lined up three showings tomorrow morning for some prospective home buyersnewlyweds in search of their dream home. She would be tempted to tell them it was all downhill once the honeymoon was over, but she was a real estate agent, not a marriage counsellor.
The company she'd launched several years ago was really taking off and her two business partners were as busy as she was. Busier, given their family commitments. Claire was happy for Samantha and Kristi, she really was, but more than a little envious, too. Since she'd been a little girl, crisscrossing the country from one military base to another, she'd dreamed of a real home with a white picket fence and a big backyard, where she and the man of her dreams could watch their children chase the dog and play with their friends. Technically neither Sam nor Kristi had a white picket fence, but they had everything else Claire wanted.
She stood and walked to the floor-to-ceiling wall of glass that overlooked Puget Sound. She had a pricey penthouse with a million-dollar view, an imperialistic cat who slept most of the time, no children and a soon-to-be-ex husband. She checked her watch. It was two-thirty and it was Friday afternoon and all her work was done, so why was she feeling so out of sorts?
"Because I'm starving." The salad she'd eaten for lunch had worn off, as had the sense of virtuousness for eating something healthy and almost calorie-free. She went back into the kitchen and looked in the fridge. The makings of another salad, four eggs, a tub of fat-free yogurt and a quart of skim milk. She took out a Tupperware container filled with carrots and celery sticks, then opened a cupboard. A box of breakfast cereal with a measly hundred calories per serving and a package of rice cakes.
What were you thinking? she asked herself.
That you're supposed to be on a diet.
She set the rodent food on the polished granite coun-tertop. Ugh.
"La Cucaracha" started playing on her cell phone. Double ugh. Only one incoming caller was assigned to that ring tone. Her can't-be-ex-soon-enough husband. She'd been hearing it a lot lately, and he was really starting to bug her. She was tempted to let the call go to voice mail, but then he'd leave a long-winded message. And then he'd call back in twenty minutes to find out if she'd listened to it.
"I told you to stop calling me," she said, forgoing the usual pleasantries when she answered.
"This is important."
It always was. "What do you want?"
"My lawyer has drawn up the divorce papers and we're sending them to your lawyer this afternoon for you to sign."
Typical Donald. He assumed she would agree to the terms, just as she had agreed to everything he'd wanted while they were married. They'd bought the luxury condo he'd chosen, postponed having a family because he wasn't ready. Getting divorced would damn well be on her terms.
"I'll discuss them with my lawyer and see what she thinks." She was suddenly overcome by the feeling that lunch had been two days ago instead of two hours, and a carrot stick wasn't going to do it for her. She was craving something rich and sweet and chocolaty. A candy bar, maybe. Or a double-chocolate donut. Or a quart of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Therapy.
No, make that all three.
"It's a straightforward agreement," he said. "Everything will be divided equally, and we'll split the proceeds from the penthouse although that can't happen if we don't get it on the market."
Claire picked up one of the rice cakes and pictured a Belgian waffle heaped with fresh strawberries and a mountain of whipped cream, all liberally sprinkled with shaved chocolate. "I still have to find a place to live," she reminded him.
"You own a real estate company, Claire. You've had months to find a new place. It's not that difficult."
It sure hadn't been for him. He had moved out of their home and straight into his new girlfriend's condominium. Deirdre. Claire had never met her, but she imagined the woman was a lot like Cruella de Vil, only meaner.
"My lawyer will call your lawyer," she said.
"One more thing."
With you, there always is. "What?" she asked. She dipped an imaginary spoon into a chocolate-bottomed creme bailee and pretended to swirl it across her tongue. Heaven.
"We've come up with an equitable division of assets, and I want that book my grandmother gave you."
Claire practically dropped the phone. We who? Donald and his lawyer? Donald and Deirdre? "Absolutely not. That was a gift to me, and that makes it mine."
"Doesn't matter," he said. "It was given to you by one of my family members and I want it back."
His mother had given her a butt-ugly red vinyl purse for her birthday last year. Did he want that, too? "It's a children's book," she reminded him. "Why would you want it?" Unless was Deirdre pregnant? After insisting he wasn't ready to start a family with Claire, that would be the ultimate insult.
"Apparently it's a collector's item and it belonged belongs to my family."
Of course. This had nothing to do with sentimental feelings about families or children, or even literature. Claire still had all of her favorite books from childhood and over the years she'd added to the collection. When she finally had kids of her own, they would spend many happy hours reading those books together. Donald's grandmother had loved books, too, and had looked forward to a great-grandchild someday. Just before she died, she'd given the book to Claire and made her promise to share it with her children.
Donald probably didn't even remember it was a first edition Beatrix Potter. With him it was only about the money. Always about the money. Well, too bad. If he thought he was getting that book, he could think again.
No, he could go straight to hell. In a handbasket.
"It's been a busy week and I have to get back to work.
My lawyer will call your lawyer after we've looked at the papers."
He was still blustering when she hung up.
Her hands were shaking and her stomach felt like a deflated balloon. Screw the diet. She dumped the raw veggies and rice cakes into the trash, snagged her purse off the counter and headed for the door. She debated whether to leave her phone at home and quickly ruled it out. The only thing worse than getting another call from the cockroach was missing a call from a client.
On the way back to her building, Claire navigated around a cluster of pylons on the sidewalk. A window-washing platform was suspended a few feet above the ground and a crew of workers was loading equipment onto a truck.
"Claire? Claire DeAngelo? Is that you?"
She whirled around, clutching a paper bag filled with guilty pleasure. Who on earth.?
She looked up at the man on the platform and stopped breathing. She'd recognize that devilish grin anywhere. "Luke!"
He vaulted over the safety railing, landed lightly on his feet in front of her and swept her into an enthusiastic embrace. "I knew it had to be you. What are you doing here?"
"Just taking a break." She waved at the main doors of her condominium complex. "I'm on my way home, and back to work. I mean, I work at home sometimes."
He planted a kiss on her forehead. "How long has it been?"
"I'm not sure. Since college, I guess."
"Wow. Fancy digs," he said. "Good for you. And you look great."
So did he. Back in college he'd had the bluest eyes she'd ever seen and a smile that had melted a lot of girls' hearts.
She could see that hadn't changed. The rest of him had. He'd always been athletic but Adonis himself would envy this body. He still had his arms around her and the biceps alone were enough to make a woman feel light-headed. His black T-shirt was streaked with water and dust, and he smelled like hard work and testosterone. When he finally released her, she felt slightly chilled. "Are you married? Kids?"
She shook her head, still somewhat confounded by this unexpected encounter. "Separated. Almost divorced, actually. No kids. What about you?"
She asked because she felt she had to, but she knew his answer would be negative. Luke Devlin still didn't look like the kind of man who'd ever be caged behind a white picket fence.
"Nope. Single and free as the breeze."
That was Luke, all right. The college friend she'd known and loved, and he could still make her laugh. They had met in first-year American History when they'd been paired up to work on a Civil War assignment. Claire had gone on to major in English literature and Luke had settled for being a major babe magnet. She had occasionally played the role of platonic place-holder, hanging out with him after one of his many breakups, letting the old girlfriend think she was the new one. She had always been surprised they fell for it because, let's face it, serious, studious and slightly overweight Claire DeAngelo was not Luke's type.
A number of years ago she'd run into one of his old college roommates and he'd told her that Luke had joined the Seattle Police Department. Finding out he'd become a cop had been a shocker but finding him here, working as a window washer, of all things, was a complete bombshell.
"Free as the breeze, huh? Sounds just like the old days," she said.
"Not quite. I had a pretty serious girlfriend for a while, but it didn't work out." His smile faded by a few watts.
What was this? Luke Devlin with a broken heart? Not possible. "Welcome to the club."
"Seriously? Any guy who'd dump you would have to be crazy."
"That's one adjective that works."
Luke grinned at her. "Misery loves company, isn't that what they say? We should grab a bite to eat when I get off duty. Off work. We can catch up on however many years it's been."
After the insanely busy week she'd had, and especially after that last phone call from her ex, why not? She hadn't been on a date since Donald left, which meant she technically hadn't been on a date since before she got married. Not that a casual, off-the-cuff invitation to "grab a bite" constituted a date, but it would be more fun than sitting down to a salad, alone.
"Dinner would great," she said. "What time?"
"I'm off at five. How does six o'clock sound?"
"Six will work. I'll meet you downstairs at my front door."
He kissed her again, on the cheek this time. As she walked away, she half expected him to swat her rear end the way he used to, but it seemed that even a guy like Luke grew up, at least a little. She looked back when she reached the entrance, but he'd already climbed onto the window-washing platform. That's when she noticed the red lettering on his black T-shirt. Lucky Devil, with three prongs on the tail end of the letter y. She was still laughing when she let herself into the lobby and pushed the elevator button. Back in college she would have given almost anything to go on a date with Luke Devlin, even though he'd had a campus-wide reputation for getting lucky. Now she knew better than to give herself to a bad-boy-cop-turned-window-washer, but for the first Friday night in forever, she had dinner plans.
Luke tossed the last couple of pylons into the back of the truck. I'll be damned, he thought. After all these years, he kinda sorta had a date with Claire DeAngelo, and he had just enough time to run this load over to the shop and get back here to meet her. Before he climbed into the cab, he reached up and yanked on the ropes to make sure the platform was secure on the roof rack. Better change your shirt while you're at it.
He was back at Claire's condominium complex at five minutes to six. He'd made it home in time to take his dog, Rex, out for a run and grab a shower and a change of clothes, and still made it here with enough time to spare to make it look as if he had all the time in the world. He wasn't sure why that was important, but he didn't want to make Claire wait. For one thing, knowing her, she wouldn't.
He leaned against a light standard, arms folded, and while he waited, he kept a watchful eye on everyone who came and went from Claire's building. After his years with the Seattle Police Department, maintaining a keen awareness of his surroundings was deeply ingrained. Claire wouldn't know he was a cop and given his lousy study habits in college, she was probably not surprised to see him washing windows. Just as well. It meant he wouldn't have to tell her he had her building under surveillance, or why.
She took his breath away the instant she stepped through the door. The reticent, sometimes even awkward study-buddy he'd hung out with in college had outgrown her awkwardness and blossomed into a beautiful, confident woman. She had the same soft blue eyes, still wore glasses instead of contacts, still dressed conservatively but with a lot more style.
She smiled when she saw him and raised one hand as if to wave.
"Claire!" The man who called her name was striding toward her.
She froze and her smile faded.
Okay, something wasn't right here. Luke straightened and quickly stepped up beside her.
"Donald, what are you doing here?" she asked.
"You hung up on me. We need to talk about selling the penthouse, Claire. And I want that book."
Ah, yes. The ex. The guy was a little taller than she was, very well dressed and about as intense as they come.
"Not. Now." Keeping her voice calm seemed to require some effort. "I have plans." She glanced up at Luke as though seeking confirmation.
Since Luke didn't like the look of this guy, he was more than happy to play along. He slung an arm across her shoulders and extended a hand to her ex-husband. "Luke Devlin. I don't believe we've met."
Claire's ex looked momentarily confused and then shot Luke a frosty glare. He grudgingly accepted the handshake, though. Luke didn't like his grip any more than he liked him. He was trying way too hard to be firm. For one fleeting second, Luke considered making the guy say uncle.
Don't be a dumb-ass, he chided himself.
"Donald Robinson," the guy said. After he pulled his hand away, he zeroed in on Claire again. "You can't keep putting this off."
This guy wasn't getting the memo.
Luke drew her closer. "Like Claire said, now's really not a good time. We should get going, babe. We don't want to be late."
She looked up at him, lips ever so slightly parted, and gave him the kind of smile that suggested there was actually something going on between them. Since Donald wouldn't know there wasn't, Luke lowered his head and gave her a light, lingering kiss.
"You are so adorable," he said, purposely making his voice go soft and quiet. "Isn't she adorable?" he asked Donald.