A MATCH MADE IN VEGAS Betting On Love, Book 4
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“Itsy-bitsy spider crawled up the water spout.”
Alexandra Parlier—or Miss Alexa, as the sixteen preschool-aged students grouped on the round, sunshine yellow rug called her—hummed the second verse, letting the class fill in the words. The four-year-olds knew the song well and loudly enunciated each phrase for the benefit of their younger classmates, adding a dramatic hand gesture to the word washed.
“Out came the sun …hum, hum..
“Did you forget the words, Auntie Alexa?” her niece, Maya, hissed softly at Alexa’s elbow.
Alexa smiled at the concern she heard in Maya’s voice. “No, sweetheart,” Alexa whispered, “I was just listening to see who needed help.”
Satisfied with the answer, the child smiled back.
“And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.” Alexa led the applause. “Who’s ready for outside time?”
“I am, I am.” Alexa’s sister Liz, who’d volunteered to help that morning, jumped to her feet. Liz, who was just fourteen months younger than Alexa—and extremely busy with her new herbal-tea company, and her recent engagement—hadn’t hesitated when Alexa had called in a panic. Shorthanded again.
Earlier in the year, their sister Grace had tangled with old family friend Charles Harmon, a powerful and deceitful lawyer and casino owner, who had promised revenge on the entire Parlier clan. In Alexa’s case, he’d tried to stir up trouble by spreading untrue rumors about some of the people working for her at her Dancing Hippo Day Care and Preschool.
No charges were ever filed because Alexa always did a thorough background check before she ever hired anyone to work at the Hippo. Although it had taken time and a great deal of talking, Alexa had personally called each parent on her enrollment roster and explained what was happening. To her profound relief, the parents of her students had stood by her, one and all. Unfortunately, two of her part-time aides hadn’t appreciated being the targets of slander and had quit. Alexa was still trying to replace them.
She didn’t blame anyone for not wanting to deal with Charles’s spite, but she really couldn’t afford to be short staffed over the holidays. Stress was not only bad for the kids, it was bad for her health. And she couldn’t afford to get sick. Not now.
“You’re a lifesaver, Liz,” Alexa said, helping to escort the energetic herd of youngsters toward the back door after the mandatory pause for putting on coats and sweaters. Late November in Las Vegas might be balmy compared to other parts of the country, but lately the wind seemed to hold a bite that went straight to her core.
“Rita should be back soon. I can’t imagine shopping for Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving, but she starts at five and buys all of the gifts for her grandchildren in one morning.”
Rita, a retired kindergarten teacher, was Alexa ‘s most senior aide. Privately, she’d told Alexa that she’d been planning on quitting before the Charles Harmon episode but had delayed the decision because she didn’t want to add to Alexa’s problems.
The Dancing Hippo was Alexa’s baby. Her life, her sisters were quick to point out. Seven and a half years earlier, she’d opened the day-care center partly to stay afloat financially and partly to keep from sinking into an easily justified depression after her fiancé, Mark Gaylord, had broken off their relationship. Alexa would never forget the day he’d admitted to spending the night with his partner, Tracey. Alexa had barely come to grips with his betrayal when she learned that Tracey was pregnant.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen, Alexa,” he’d said. “But it did and I have to accept responsibility for my actions.”
Mark. Ever the hero. The love of her life. The man with the troubled past who worked so hard to rise above his difficult childhood. She knew what being a father meant to him. His concern for children had sealed her love for him, and she’d understood why he’d chosen his unborn child over her. What she’d never understood was why he’d risked their future together for a night in the arms of a woman like Tracey, who had a reputation for partying with all the wrong people.
Alexa shook her head to push the thoughts of Mark away. She would have said she was over him completely if not for the fire the night of her sister Kate’s wedding last July. Someone had set fire to Liz ‘s date’s home and greenhouse, and Liz—the sister who had voluntarily served in a war zone—had been too shaken up to drive, so their mother, Yetta, had asked Alexa to play chauffeur.
To Alexa’s shock, Mark, who had apparently traded in his cop’s badge to become an arson investigator, had been on the scene. Seeing him had resurrected all her old memories and she’d barely made it through a night since without bumping into him in her dreams.
“Four steps forward and five steps back,” she muttered under her breath.
“Are you talking to yourself again?”
“Again? When have I ever talked to myself?” she asked Liz, who was smiling that smile Alexa hated. A cross between know-it-all and smug. Not that Liz was condescending by nature, but at the moment she was on top of the world. She’d just become engaged to a great guy and her specialty blends of herbal teas seemed to be taking off.
“Alexa, you’re the eldest. Every time you were giving orders to Kate, Grace or me, you were talking to yourself.”
Liz’s laugh was so infectious Alexa couldn’t prevent her own guffaw. “Are you saying I was bossy?’
“You tried to be. But in all fairness, it’s not your fault. Dad called you Alexandra the Great, remember? So you had a lot to live up to, and since we were your only subjects, you tried to rule us.”
Alexa stepped in front of three-year-old Madelaine Rose before the child could whack two-year-old Preston Johnson over the head with a plastic shovel. “We are gentle with our friends, Maddie. Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.”
To Liz, she said, “I tried to lead by example, not oligarchy.”
Liz laughed so hard tears came to her pretty brown eyes.
Alexa had never seen her sister so relaxed and obviously happy. Love will do that do you.
She’d loved being in love and would have actively sought to find a new man in her life after Mark—except she’d been so busy trying not to lose the house they’d been in the process of buying together.
Without his additional income to secure the loan, she’d been forced to use the money in her trust fund to make the down payment. Even now she didn’t have a lot of wiggle room when it came to budgeting, and her ongoing health issues hadn’t helped matters. Self-employed, she didn’t make money when she had to hire extra help because she was doubled over in pain once a month from an inflamed ovarian cyst.
But she had no real regrets when it came to her career. Instead of becoming a secondary school teacher as she’d intended, she taught preschool. She loved working with children in this fertile—everything was amazing and fresh—stage of life. She loved kids—even if she wasn’t always wild about their parents. She’d learned how to handle almost every contingency, from babysitters who forgot to pick up their charge on time to parents who had restraining orders against their mates. The one thing she hadn’t found was a mate of her own.
For years, she’d expected to look up one day and see Mr. Right walk through her door. After all, her mother, whose reputation as a gypsy mystic was well known, had foreseen a prophecy for each of her four daughters. Alexa’s was very clear: “A child’s laughter can heal the wounded heart, if first you heal the child.”
Child. Preschool teacher. Alexa figured she was in the right place to meet the man of her prophecy. And she’d worked with dozens of kids over the years who qualified as wounded. She just hadn’t fallen in love with any of their single fathers.
“Hey, did you know Grace is coming back next week?” Alexa glanced at Liz for a second, but out of the corner of her eye she detected trouble in the sandbox. She headed that way, motioning for Liz to follow. “Are you kidding? Does that mean she and Nick aren’t coming for Christmas? Mom will be heartbroken.”
“No, they’re coming then, too. This is just Grace alone. Something to do with Charles’s trial. He’s trying to get it postponed again.” She sighed. “I’ m ready for some closure where that mess is concerned, aren ‘t you?”
Alexa nodded but was too busy redirecting William, before he could wrestle a big red dump truck out of the hands of his playmate, to answer.
Liz kept talking anyway. “Mom also said that Grace is going to train the new bookkeeper Kate and Jo hired at Romantique.”
Jo Brighten, Kate’s mother-in-law, had purchased Grace’s share of the restaurant after Grace had moved to Detroit to be with her future husband, Nikolai.
“That’s generous of Grace,” Alexa said. “Especially since she misses her job so much. It’s too bad she and Nick have to live in Detroit.”
“Did I tell you I took my staff to dinner at Romantique two nights ago as a thank-you for hanging in with me through this horrible time? We had a wonderful meal. Jo made beef short ribs that melted in your mouth. And her seven-layer cake. Oh, my G—” Alexa stopped mid-exclamation. “Morgan, what are you doing? MacKensie is your friend. She doesn’t want sand in her hair. Do you, MacKensie?”
She took both little girls into her arms and settled the dispute, which was more about them both being three than anything else. “Bend over, MacKensie, and shake like awet dog. Can you do that for me? Good girl.”
To Liz, she said, “Sorry. Would you do me a favor? Go inside and start setting out the snack. Carrots and raisins, I think. This week’s menu is up on the wall in the kitchen.” She smiled as she watched her sister wind her way through the boisterous youngsters in the yard. Liz’s sense of joy showed in the way she walked, talked and took time to comfort the little girl who and fell in her path.
Just twenty minutes till nap time, Alexa thought as she scanned the yard, making a mental head count of her charges. Once, early in her career, she’d “lost” a child who had crawled into a toy box and gone to sleep while the adults had called 9-1-1. Now, some sixth sense kept her connected with her charges.
“We did it,” Liz said in a stage whisper half an hour later. “The entire herd, down for the count.”
“Yep. Another exciting morning in the world of childcare,” Alexa joked as she walked her sister to the front door. “I really appreciate your lending a hand, Liz.”
They stepped outside on the wide, covered stoop that faced the street. A chain-link fence, a four-foot-tall version of the one that enclosed the play yard at the rear of the house, followed the sidewalk. The hinged gate opened to a wheelchair-friendly ramp leading to the door. Alexa hired a yard service to keep her two matching rectangles of grass alive beneath the brutal Las Vegas sun each summer. In the middle of the yard to the left was a hand-carved sign carrying her logo—a dancing hippopotamus in a purple tutu.
“No problem. David, I mean, Paul—” Liz smacked the heel of her hand to her forehead in exasperation. “I can’t believe I’m still having trouble remembering my husband-to-be’s real name. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?”
Alexa smiled. David, the name everyone in the family had first known him as, had been hiding his past to escape a vindictive maniac. Once that man was no longer a threat, David had begun resurrecting his former persona, Paul McAffey—the man Liz was planning to marry.
They hadn’t set a date, but they had moved in together. “Speaking of Paul, how goes his new position at UNLV?”
“He won’t actually be teaching until next semester, thank God. But even getting things ready has been a fulltime job. I think he’s going to be brilliant, but I could be prejudiced. Gotta run. We have a huge tea order to fill today, and if I’m not there, Lydia and Reezira might not get the ratio of herbs right. We’re still overcoming a language barrier although they’re catching on pretty fast.”
Liz’s two employees were one-time illegal immigrants who had been secreted into the United States by Charles Harmon and forced into prostitution. Two more examples of people who had wound up suffering because of one man’s greed and lust for power. But, thanks to Liz, the young women now had green cards and a job.
Alexa started to ask if the girls were going to join the family for the holidays, but the sound of a car door closing caught her attention.
Liz let out an audible gasp. Alexa’s breath caught in her throat, making speech impossible.
“Wow. He looks different without his firefighter gear on. Handsomer. Is that a word?”
“What’s he doing here?”
“I have no idea.”
“Well, um, I’ll stick around. Just in case.”
Alexa looked at her sister and smiled. She and Liz had always shared a special bond. Growing up, each had seemed to sense when the other was upset or in trouble. But that bond had weakened, for several reasons. One was the man coming up her walk. Liz had been quicker to forgive than Alexa had thought appropriate.
“No. You’ve got more important things to do.”
“I know what you’re thinking, Elizabeth,” she said, using the formal tone their mother always employed. “But don’t worry. I can handle him.”
“Tell Paul I said hi.”
Liz left, pausing only long enough to mutter something to Mark on her way past, then she hurried across the street where her new SUV was parked.
The gate made a familiar creaking sound as Mark opened it to walk up the ramp. “Hi, Alexa.”
“Hello, Mark. This is a surprise.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it is. I probably should have called first, but I thought I’d take a chance. . . um.. .do you have a minute? I could come back later.”
She poked her head inside to make sure her helpers had everything under control—and to give her heart a chance to quit turning somersaults. Why did he have to look so damn good? Blue jeans, black mock turtleneck and black leatherjacket. He’d aged some, but every line gave his face more character. He wasn’t just a handsome young stud— he was a man.
She’d been doing this job for so long that she could tell at a glance that the children were resting peacefully and her aides were preparing for the afternoon session.
She closed the door and leaned against it, crossing her arms. The late fall sunshine was warming; the wind was blocked by the house behind her. “Now is as good a time as any. What can I do for you?”
“Right to the point, as always. Okay, then, here’s my question. Will you let me enroll my son in your school?”
* * *
Mark braced himself for a negative response. He had no right to ask the question, but he was desperate. Only a truly desperate man would ask his ex-fiancée to provide child care for the child who, for all practical purposes, was the reason they weren’t married. If not for Braden, he and Alexa would probably have a kid or two of their own by now.
Instead, Mark had spent nearly every minute since that fateful night when he’d given in to Tracey’s no-strings attached suggestion trying to make amends for his mistake. To his ex-wife, for not loving her enough to put up with her drinking and partying. To Braden, for not being able to pretend any longer that he loved the little boy’s mother. To his conscience, which knew just how badly he’d hurt Alexa.
“You want to bring your son to the Dancing Hippo?”
“Why? This is a preschool. Your son must be in what— second grade?”
“He’s repeating first grade this year. He just turned seven. Tracey and I split up when he was three. She started him in kindergarten when he was four. His birthday is September 23, so technically he was old enough, but I didn’t think he was ready.”
“It didn’t work out?”
“He passed, tNlt whenever I went to a parent-teacher conference, I could tell his teacher was concerned about Bray’s socialization skills—or lack of them. He’s very shy and has had a bit of a stuttering problem almost since he started speaking. At the time, it wasn’t debilitating, but his teacher thought he’d be better off repeating kindergarten. Tracey disagreed. She insisted that he’d catch up in first grade.”
“Didn’t have a chance to happen. About six weeks into the school year, his teacher called us both in for a conference. She was extremely blunt. She said Braden needed speech therapy and should probably be placed in a special needs class.”
Alexa winced. “I bet that didn’t go over well with Tracey.”
“She blew up. Accused his teacher of being lazy and showing favoritism. She called me the next day and said that since she wasn’t working, there was no reason why she shouldn’t home-school him.”
Mark looked away. In hindsight, the battle that had ensued had been a waste of time and money and had put his son right in the middle of his parents’ war. “I hired a lawyer to to make her take him to school. Odessa, Tracey’s mother, got involved. I filed for sole custody. Then, in March, before we had anything settled, Tracey died.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Tracey’s dead?”
He nodded. “A fire. She and the man she might have been involved with at the time were killed.” He didn’t add the brutal details: the two had died in an explosion at a meth lab where Tracey most probably had gone to get drugs from her on-again, off-again pusher boyfriend.
“Oh, how awful. Poor Braden.”
Mark hurried past her sympathy. “I put Braden back in regular school as soon as I could. Probably the wrong thing to do. He had a hard time adjusting. The other kids teased him.” They teased him about his stutter and picked on him because he was small and weak and lost. Mark could barely think about that time without breaking down. He’d felt like the worst father in the world.
“I know it’s a cliché,” Alexa offered, “but kids can be cruel. Did the school test him academically?”
Mark nodded. “He’s behind in reading and math skills and has problems with peer interaction—their words, not mine. His cognitive functions—” He tried to smile. “See, I’ve learned a new language. His cognitive functions are within normal range, but his speech impediment has had a negative impact on his ability to make friends and communicate with his teachers. We have an IEP—IndividuaIized Education Plan—designed to help him get back on track.”
The concerned look on her face intensified. “Has he shown any improvement?”
“Not really. The school he’s attending likes to mainstream its special-needs students. He’s in a new first-grade class and he works with a speech therapist a couple of times a week, but she’s not having a lot of success. Most of the time, he just doesn’t talk.”
Sympathy sparkled like tears in her gorgeous brown eyes. He’d always said he could see his forever in Alexa’s eyes. But he’d been wrong. And now, he didn’t want sympathy. He wanted—he needed—help.
“I’m looking for after-school care. Your ad in the Yellow Pages says that’s something you offer. I checked with his school and the bus can drop him off here, if you’ll let him come.”
She frowned. “I’ve had a few older kids—mostly siblings of students in my preschool class—sign up for that program, but at the moment, my cousin’s son is my only after-school student. Luca is pretty independent. Does his homework then plays video games until his dad picks him up. Your son would probably benefit from a more one-on-one type of program, and, frankly, I don’t have the staff for that.”
She hadn’t said no, exactly. “He needs a place where he can feel safe and get some stimulation beyond sitting in front of the boob tube. He doesn’t act out. He’s not disruptive. The poor kid has missed out on a lot of things in his short life, including preschool. His mother was too busy or too broke—according to her—to enroll him in one. This kind of setting might be really good for him.”
“What are you doing for child care now?”
“I have a babysitter who comes to my house. But she’s found a job that pays more and given notice. I advertised the position, but I’ve only had a couple of applicants, and Braden didn’t seem to like any of them.”
Desperately searching online one evening, he’d spotted Alexa’s webpage. A quick call to his friend Zeke Martini confirmed that Alexa Parlier owned and operated the Dancing Hippo.
“How many days per week would you want him to come here? What hours? If I remember correctly, a cop’s shifts are pretty irregular.”
Questions were good. Better than a flat-out no. Better than he deserved. “I’m an arson investigator with the Las Vegas Fire Department. I work five eight-and-a-half-hour days with the third Monday off. Sometimes, I might get called in if there’s an emergency. There’s a woman in my building who is a stay-at-home mom. She helps out if that happens, but she doesn’t want to take on another kid full-time.”
“So, you’re just interested in after-school care, five days a week?”
“From three to six or six-thirty, depending on traffic.”
Her frown made him wonder what she was thinking. Was she remembering that day when their plans had blown up into tiny shards of anger and disappointment? The day he’d told her that Tracey was pregnant, and he was the father?
“On rare occasions I might run late. I have to know there’s a safety net in place in case something comes up at work. If I don’t work, I can’t afford to pay for after-school care. It’s a vicious circle.”
Her chocolate-brown eyes looked troubled. He knew how much she adored kids. But could she look past what had been between the two of them?
“Won’t he feel humiliated by associating with babies? And I’m not trained to work with speech impediments.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to. He probably won’t say two words to you while he’s here. And, honestly, I think being around younger kids would be a relief for him.”
A little bell rang from inside the attractive ranch-style house that had—almost—been his. He could hear the muffled sounds of children’s voices. Happy sounds. God, he prayed, please let her take Bray. He deserves a second chance. I know I don’t, but Braden does.
“I really can’t say for sure, Mark. Not until I’ve met him. Could you bring him by sometime next week? He might not like it here at all.”
Mark believed that—although he couldn’t say for sure why. He’d tried everything to communicate with his son and still didn’t have a clue what was going on inside that adorable blond head. Bray looked so much like his mother it was unnerving at times. Alexa might not be able to get past that—she was human, after all. But maybe she’d take pity on the poor kid, and let the past stay where it was—buried beneath angry charges and a surfeit of tears.
“How ’bout Monday? That’s my day off.”
Her eyes widened as if regretting her offer. “I don’t know if this is a good idea—given our history, but okay. Bring him in. If he’s not unhappy here, then we’ll see.”
We’ll see. A small glimmer of hope, but more than he’d had in weeks. He’d take it.
* * *
“Braden, eat your hotdog. There’s ketchup. You love ketchup, remember?”
Mark wasn’t certain that statement was true. He’d seen Braden eat hot dogs with ketchup and assumed the boy still liked the food, but he had a feeling he could have put ketchup-covered beetles on the plate and Braden would eat them just as readily.
Braden generally did what he was told. He didn’t talk back. He objected to taking a bath most nights, but Mark didn’t think that made him unique. He ate, slept—except for the nightmares that hit like clockwork—and watched TV like a normal kid. But Mark knew in his gut his child wasn’t “normal.”
Something had happened in Braden’s short life that had left him traumatized. Considering Tracey’s erratic behavior during their marriage—and her turbulent, high-drama relationship with her mother—the possibilities were endless. Mark had been a cop for four years before he’d switched to arson. He’d seen enough cases of child abuse to fear the worst.
Hell, Mark had lived through the worst himself. The son of an alcoholic father and codependent mother, Mark had found himself on the receiving end of many a beating.
“You’re a total screwup,” his father would shout. But Mark had joined the police academy, found a mentor who believed in him, and had eventually moved to Las Vegas and met Alexa.
Then, he’d blown it. How his old man would have laughed if he hadn’t managed to fall asleep with a burning cigarette and set fire to the house, killing himself and Mark’s mother.
After Mark and Alexa had broken up, he’d married Tracey in a quick civil ceremony. A few months later, he’d taken the necessary tests to become a fireman. He’d changed jobs so Tracey’s position in the department wouldn’t be in conflict after she came back from maternity leave—and maybe to some degree because of what had happened to his parents. Serendipitously, he’d discovered his true calling—arson investigation.
Unfortunately, Tracey’s life hadn’t gone so well. Trouble at work, trouble keeping a qualified babysitter, trouble with her mother, trouble with her marriage. Tracey had sunk into a depression, and nothing Mark said or did seemed to help.
Mark loved his son, but any tender feelings he’d tried to coax to life for Tracey had died before their son was a year old. At some level, Mark had known that she’d sensed his ambivalence about their marriage, and she’d blamed Alexa for it. Her anger slowly poisoned her whole life. An altercation with a junkie during an arrest brought her under scrutiny for excess use of force. She probably would have been kicked off the force in disgrace if she hadn’t been injured in the scuffle. Chronic pain may have added to her need for alcohol and street drugs.
Mark was still picking up the pieces of the wreck he’d made of his life. The only good thing to come of his mistake was Braden, but at the moment, he felt very close to losing his son. His gut told him Alexa Parlier—dauntless advocate of children, and the kindest, most loving person he’d ever known—was his last hope.
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