The Hardest Fight: A Clean Romance

The Hardest Fight: A Clean Romance

by Amy Vastine

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Overview

There's no backing down this time 

Lucy Everhart expected her opposing counsel to be a slick, soulless corporate lawyer. Who else would represent developers intent on turning Chicago's Safe Haven women's shelter into condos? But she never imagined it would be Dylan Hunt. Clearly, he's no longer the idealistic young man she fell for in law school. This is Dylan 2.0. The man who let her go without a fight five years ago—along with his passion for social justice, apparently. He may have compromised what he believed in, but Lucy hasn't. Dylan has no idea what kind of fight he's in for. But then again, neither does she.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781460385050
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 07/01/2015
Series: Chicago Sisters , #3
Sold by: HARLEQUIN
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 481 KB

About the Author

Amy Vastine has been plotting stories in her head for as long as she can remember. An eternal optimist, she studied social work, hoping to teach others how to find their silver lining. Now, she enjoys creating happily-ever-afters for all to read. Amy lives outside Chicago with her high school sweetheart-turned-husband, three teenagers who keep her on her toes, and their two sweet but mischievous pups. Visit her at amyvastine.com

Read an Excerpt

"You're not going to believe this." Paige Clayton tossed an innocuous-looking envelope on top of the piles of paper on her cluttered desk. As the executive director of Open Arms Women's Advocacy Center, she had more on her plate than all the overpaid CEOs in the Windy City.

An unwelcomed feeling of dread hit Lucy Everhart as she reached for the letter.

"We've had an anonymous donor offer to pay all our bills and pledge an extra million dollars to our cause?" She knew better, but a girl could dream. As Paige's second in command, Lucy wore many hats. Her official title was Director of Legal Affairs, but Lucy also worked as one of the counselors at Safe Haven, Open Arms's temporary shelter for women and their children. She gave much of her time to outreach and fund-raising as well, which was most likely why Paige had called her in today.

Paige let out a heavy sigh. "I wish."

Times were tough, and Open Arms was suffering the consequences of the country's economic downturn. Government funding had been cut drastically over the past couple of years, and private donations were at their lowest in the center's history. Less money came in while more women knocked down the door. It wasn't surprising that abuse increased as a result of rising unemployment rates. Money troubles triggered tempers like nothing else.

Lucy slid the letter out of the envelope. It didn't take long for her face to flush red with anger. "Are they serious?"

"These people want to meet to discuss our 'bottom line.'"

This was all part of a conspiracy to run Open Arms out of the up-and-coming Logan Square neighborhood, where Safe Haven was located. The gentrification of that area had pushed out many who had lived there. Older places were being torn down in favor of fancy new condominiums and expensive single family homes. The new neighbors weren't happy about having a women's shelter on their block. Someone had bent the ear of a certain alderman; Lucy was sure of it.

Two months ago, the City of Chicago cut its funding to Open Arms. That money had been going to pay the mortgage on the seven-bedroom house they had acquired before the neighborhood had become such a hot spot. Lucy had projected that they'd have to give up the house or make some drastic cuts elsewhere if they didn't get more money soon.

"We can convince the board that we'll be able to cover the mortgage through the winter for sure. We'll need to get creative around March." Lucy began to pace. She thought better—clearer—when she was on the move. "We'll promote the heck out of this year's Hope and Healing fund-raiser."

"We know what to expect from the Hope and Healing fund-raiser. It won't be enough," Paige lamented.

"We'll come up with ways to make it bigger and better. Plus, the holidays always bring in lots of donations. People feel the most charitable between Thanksgiving and Christmas."

"Most of those donations aren't monetary. We get blankets and shampoo. People clean out their closets and give us their clothes and toys."

"We won't let anyone take what's ours." Lucy threw the letter back on Paige's desk.

"They don't want to take it. They want to buy it." Paige held her head in her hands.

"Maybe we call an appraiser and see what the house is worth."

"Don't even go there," Lucy warned. "We are not going to think the worst before we even attempt to fight. Let's meet with the board, light a fire under them to appeal to their connections and find donations. I'm not giving up. If there's one thing I know how to do, it's fight to win."

When Lucy took up a cause, she did so with the intention of seeing it through. She had shut down puppy mills and rallied to give workers their fair pay. She'd helped clean up neighborhoods and build playgrounds.

Life was short. People had a limited amount of time on the planet. Their objective should be to leave the world a better place than they found it. Lucy worried she had less time than most, so she dedicated her time and energy to any cause she found worthwhile. Open Arms was her favorite. She wasn't going to let it fail.

"You're right," Paige said, sitting up and squaring her shoulders. She tucked her black, pin-straight hair behind her ears. In her mid-fifties, Paige resembled Isabella Rossellini with her dark hair and hazel eyes. She was dedicated to Open Arms, forgoing any kind of personal life. Lucy knew she wouldn't go down without a fight. "That's why I called you. You're my rock."

Lucy smiled. Her sisters, Kendall and Emma, referred to her as that, as well. Whenever they were on the verge of some sort of emotional breakdown, it was Lucy's clear head they sought out.

A knock on the door interrupted them. Hannah, Paige's assistant, poked her head in. "I've got a woman here who needs to speak to someone in our legal department."

It really wasn't much of a department. Lucy was the only staff member with a law degree. She was the one who would help women obtain orders of protection or act as a legal advocate when needed.

"We're going to figure this out," she said to Paige before following Hannah out. "I promise."

"I know better than to argue with you. You always win."

Lucy winked. "Exactly."

A woman fidgeted in the chair outside Paige's office. Her designer clothes weren't part of the usual wardrobe of an Open Arms's client. Wealth didn't make anyone immune from abuse, but it could keep some women from accepting aid. The woman sported rings on several fingers, except the ring finger on her left hand. That one was empty, and the woman kept staring at it as if something was missing. Her face lifted at the sound of Paige's opening door.

Lucy recognized her as soon as their eyes met. Nora had been here a few months back, spent no more than a week at Safe Haven before disappearing. The angry red mark on her cheek spoke volumes about where she'd been since she left.

"Nora, right?"

Nora's gaze fell to her feet, as if she was ashamed of being recognized. "I'm really sorry to bother you."

"You're not bothering me. Come on, let's go talk in my office." Lucy often amazed herself with how calm she could sound at moments like this, even though all she wanted to do was find the man who had put his hands on this woman and give him a taste of his own medicine.

Lucy's office was really more like a glorified closet with one small window that provided an excellent view of a parking lot. The cramped space left little room for more than a desk and two chairs, but it had a door and provided them with some needed privacy. She invited Nora to sit and took her own seat behind the desk. Unlike Paige, Lucy had an almost obsessive need to keep her things orderly.

"As sorry as I am that you've found yourself in need of our assistance, I'm happy you're allowing us to be here for you. How can I help?"

Nora bit her bottom lip and lifted her purse into her lap. "I'm not sure anyone can help me." She began to dig through the seemingly bottomless bag. "I wasn't going to come, but there was nowhere else to go."

"I hear that a lot, actually." Most of the women who came to Open Arms had a million reasons why they shouldn't be there. They had lived with the shame and the fear so long, it prevented them from believing they could escape. "I'm more helpful than people think."

The woman set a manila folder on Lucy's desk. "I'm pretty sure my husband has something in these files that can get me in trouble, but I don't know what it is."

Lucy often helped women obtain an order of protection or explained the confusing language lawyers and courts loved to throw at the layman. This was the first time someone had come to her about something a bit more complicated.

The folder was filled with bank statements, spreadsheets, invoices and other financial documents. As Lucy perused the paperwork, Nora told her story. She and her husband had met at work when she was hired as his personal assistant seven years ago. He had climbed the corporate ladder quickly. The more money he made, the bigger his ego—and temper—grew. They had still just been dating the first time he hit her, but she'd believed him when he remorsefully pleaded for her forgiveness and promised it would never happen again. He had lied.

Instead of breaking things off, Nora had believed she could change Wade by proving her love and married him six months into their relationship. The only one who changed, however, was Nora. Wade quickly had her cut ties with everyone in her life. She'd been "encouraged" to stop talking to her parents, her brother and her friends. Wade had told her they didn't care about her the way he did, weren't responsible for her the way he was.

As she became more isolated, he became more controlling. He picked out all her clothes, told her when to get her hair cut, had rules about how she should clean the house. When she didn't comply, she was punished. If he left marks, he made her stay home, and since he was her boss, no one questioned it.

Wade soon left his job to start his own wealth management corporation with a couple of other guys, taking Nora with him. It had been his way of removing all her social connections outside of him.

Alone and unable to meet her husband's unreasonable standards, Nora had considered several means of escape. Some were more desperate than others. There was no telling what she would have done if she hadn't seen a flyer for Open Arms tacked on a bulletin board at the coffee shop where she bought Wade's morning latte.

"I'm grateful for everything Open Arms did for me, but when I left him the first time, he sent me a warning via my mother. He said if I didn't come home, he would have no choice but to tell the world about what I had done. I hadn't done anything, but that didn't mean he had nothing to tell. Wade doesn't make idle threats."

"I see you have several accounts in your name—that was smart," Lucy said, paging through the other files. It would take time to make sense of all this.

"I thought about opening up an account a couple of years ago. I figured if I ever wanted to leave, I was going to need some cash. The only problem was Wade watched every penny and nickel I spent—my checks from work were deposited directly into our joint account. There was no way for me to funnel money into anything."

Lucy was confused. The statements in the folder were for three separate bank accounts, all in Nora's name. "You didn't open these?"

Nora shook her head. "I came across all that by accident. He was hiding it in a drawer in his office at home." She pulled out a flash drive. "This, too. I don't know what's on it, but I have a feeling it's all connected."

"You need a lawyer." Lucy had heard some crazy things working here, but this was the wildest of them all.

"That's why I'm here. You're a lawyer, right?"

"Yes, but—"

"I have no credit cards, no access to the money in our joint account, nothing. All I have is this." She pulled out an envelope with several hundred-dollar bills in it. "I pawned my wedding ring this morning. You can have it all if you'll help me."

Lucy knew better than to take this case. It had trouble written all over it. Yet, if there was one thing Lucy couldn't resist, it was putting someone in their place.

"That's your money. My services are free."

Nora sighed with relief. "Thank you." Her teeth dug into her bottom lip again. "One more thing—he's going to kill me when he finds out I took all of these files."

"Not if I can help it," Lucy said with a sure smile. She wasn't afraid of anyone.

Paige had set up a meeting with the board a few days later, and with Lucy's help she'd convinced them to hold off on accepting any offers before they put forth their best efforts to save Safe Haven. However, the board also thought it was important to meet with the prospective buyers to hear them out, at least.

Lucy had appealed to her two allies on the board. They seemed to be in agreement with her about the necessity of keeping possession of both the shelter house in Logan Square and the office space in Lincoln Park. They promised to make some calls and find some money. There were two other board members who were less opposed to selling the house. Their contacts were tapped out. The fifth and deciding member always voted however Paige wanted her to vote. She trusted Paige's judgment unequivocally.

In order to prove to Paige that Safe Haven could be saved, Lucy had spent countless hours during the week brainstorming ways to raise the money to keep up with the payments. She had even enlisted the help of her sisters. Emma came up with the idea of having a live auction at the fund-raiser this year in addition to the small silent one they usually did. Kendall agreed to donate her time and talents to the cause.

Lucy was confident they could find a way to keep things going through the new year. That was why she wore an easy smile the morning of the meeting with the developers. They were going to show these people that the women who spent time in Safe Haven had been pushed around enough; they certainly weren't going to be pushed out of a neighborhood that provided them with much-needed security.

"You look like you don't have a care in the world. How do you do that?" Paige asked, appearing quite the opposite. Her hair was slipping out of its barrette and the worry lines on her forehead seemed almost permanent.

"They can offer us any amount they want. The board will side with us."

"What if it's a lot of money?" Paige wrung her hands as she paced around the reception area of Open Arms.

"We don't need their money."

Paige nodded and repeated Lucy's words a bit less confidently. "We don't need their money."

The front door to the office opened and a parade of people waltzed in. Lucy hadn't expected the buyer to bring an army. Perhaps they really were at war. She put on her game face until the last man stepped over the threshold. Her breath caught and her face fell. She hadn't seen him since she'd told him to stay away from her almost five years ago.

Dylan Hunt had always been a golden boy. Blond hair, blue eyes, broad shoulders and a brilliant mind. He had also broken Lucy's heart. It didn't matter that she was the one who'd ended the relationship. He hadn't fought for her, hadn't cared enough to ask why. She'd been so easy to let go of, he had done it without a second thought.

"Ms. Clayton?" The only woman in the developer's group approached Paige first. She was all glamour and gold. She wore her wealth like a shield, clearly separating herself from the underclass.

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