Wild card Zoey Bancroft is in a scrape. Her
ex-boyfriend has left her stranded with no money in
Vegas after hearing she's carrying his child. Desperate,
Zoey calls her best friend, firefighter Gage Powell.
Before she can tell Gage where she is, a loan shark
enters her motel room and destroys her phone….
Tired of saving Zoey from yet another bind, but
unable to forget the sparks they once shared, Gage
impulsively proposes. For the sake of the baby, of
course—it'll be a marriage in name only. But trouble
that started in Vegas doesn't always end there, and this
time Gage's life—and love—is on the line….
"The author did a great job in moving the
story and making the menace feel real. The
climax is filled with tension and excitement."
-- Shirley Lyons,
The Romance Reader
Zoey Bancroft stared at the pink plus sign on the test
stick, and her world tilted. She was going to have Derek's
"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 past—her 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
"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
"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
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
"—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
"Yes." Another squeak. More sobs. "I told him the PIN for my
ATM card—and 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
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
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
"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
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
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.
"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
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 sense—in 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
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
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
"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
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."
Viper—his moniker no doubt the reason for his tat, or vice
versa—stiffened 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 wallet—with the emergency credit
card and what little cash she had—and stormed out without
closing the door.