Risky Baby Business

                   RISKY BABY BUSINESS

                  Betting On Love, Book 3

Four sisters named after royalty, with dowries fit for a queen. Their Gypsy fortuneteller mother predicted each would marry a prince…of sorts.

Screw Prince Charming. She’s got a baby to save.

Liz Parlier returned from a humanitarian tour in Iraq a changed person. Her family can’t reach their “healer’s” heart because it stayed in India—where Liz went to recuperate and fell in love with an orphaned baby she’s determined to adopt. Her fragile house of cards doesn’t have room for a mysterious gardener with a questionable past, but something about David Baines tugs at her wounded soul.

He’s died before. He knows the drill.

David Baines is alone by choice—it’s easier to disappear. But he’s only human, and Liz pulls him to her like tumbleweed to a fence. Keeping her out of the line of fire when his past catches up with him proves impossible, so together they confront the “man of darkness” her Gypsy fortuneteller mother warned about. But will they be too late to save the “child of light”?

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CHAPTER 1

The stack of papers on the passenger seat of her Honda CR-V toppled sideways as Liz Parlier turned onto the street leading to her house. The two-inch pile edged precariously toward the ridiculously messy floor, which was symbolic of her life, in general. Chaotic.

She slowed at the first of the newly installed speed bumps on Canto Lane.

“Ka-thunk,” she said aloud in harmony with her car’s rear suspension. She hated the four-inch hurdles that C.A.N., the Canto Association of Neighbors, had recently convinced the city of Henderson, Nevada, to install. There were two in the middle of her block—pretty much bracketing her driveway. She couldn’t help but take their presence personally, even though the road committee had insisted this was for the good of the children.

“If you had kids, you’d understand,” Crissy Montoya, mother of two and current president of the group, had told Liz while circulating a petition to enforce curb appeal. Buoyed by her success in curtailing speeders, Crissy was now on a crusade to make the four-block radius around her home more “charming.”

Liz had been abrupt when confronted with the petition and pen. Not because she didn’t approve of curb appeal, but because the concept sounded like something that would cost her money.

And it had.

Crissy’s project had been approved by the majority of homeowners and she’d hired a gardener, who was slowly adding plants, boulders and creativity to the otherwise boring tract houses that made up her subdivision. Nestled between Boulder Highway and the River Mountains to the east, the Canto development had sprung up when the line between Henderson and its neighbor to the north, Las Vegas, was still easily identifiable.

Liz hadn’t met the man responsible for making all these decorative changes, but she’d seen him several times from a distance. Tall and lanky, he usually wore a wide-brim hat with a sort of curtain that covered the back of his neck and shoulders. Shirt, pants, hat—all tan. The color of the desert. He almost looked as though he was deliberately trying to blend in.

But he was good at what he did, she had to admit, smiling at a cascading bridal bouquet of a mature yucca. She had to respect a man who could transplant succulents and keep them from dying in this climate.

She figured her place was next, and the thought of an additional outlay of money—cash she couldn’t spare—was enough to make her stomach heave.

“You need to be more proactive,” her sister Alexa had told Liz recently at one of their weekly roundtables. “You shouldn’t let that Crissy woman boss you around. Tell her you’re between jobs and can’t spare the cash. She should be able to understand that, shouldn’t she?”

Between jobs. Liz wished it were that simple. She had lost her physical therapist job after the administrator and several of the doctors at the private hospital where she’d been working were arrested. That had been one of the many repercussions the Parlier family had suffered after Liz’s youngest sister, Grace, blew the whistle on old family friend Charles Harmon, a lawyer and casino owner who had broken too many laws to count.

Liz had never had any trouble getting a P.T. job anywhere in the world. Until now. Either there was a glut of applicants in Vegas or her name carried some invisible black mark. Liz didn’t know which and wasn’t sure she cared. In a way, every closed door seemed to be a sign. She was ready for a change and knew what she wanted to do—help people stay healthy instead of trying to fix the body after something went wrong.

She was Romani and came from a long line of healers—women who knew which herbs could ease a tummy ache, help prevent arthritis and steady nerves in difficult times. During her stay in India, she’d been exposed to a different kind of healing—Ayurveda, the oldest medicine in the world. She hadn’t stayed there long enough to become proficient in the practice, but the knowledge she’d garnered had fed a need in her soul.

Was there a market for herbs, teas and therapeutic oils in a city like Las Vegas? Liz was pretty sure the answer was yes. She’d recently started offering a few small-batch teas for sale and had heard only glowing reviews. The patrons at her sister Kate’s restaurant, Romantique, had gone from ordering her three-mint blend from the menu to demanding tea bags to take home with them.

Could she make a living selling specialized teas? That was the real question. And how would opening a new business affect her other goal? Her most important goal—adopting Prisha.

Prisha, whose name meant God’s gift, was the abandoned infant Liz had fallen in love with at the ashram where she’d volunteered in India. Underweight, with an obvious birth defect—her little feet were both turned inward—Prisha was one of the lucky ones. Her maternal family had cared enough to drop off the tiny baby at the ashram when the mother decided she couldn’t care for the child.

Normally, the ashram didn’t handle children with severe birth defects, simply because it wasn’t set up as a nursing facility. But Liz had convinced the staff that daily, gentle therapy on Prisha’s legs might be enough to correct the problem. She’d been wrong. A visiting doctor had confirmed her secret fear that Prisha was going to need more extensive care, including surgery, if she ever hoped to walk. And Liz was certain the only way that would happen would be if she adopted Prisha and brought her home to the United States.

Starting a new business and adopting a child from a foreign country at the same time probably didn’t make sense, but Liz had no choice. Prisha needed her. And as long as the bank approved her application to refinance her mortgage, she’d have the money she needed to start the adoption process.

She eyed the sliding papers. Everyone was refinancing these days. Why shouldn’t she? And surely her reason was valid. She wanted to make a home for a child who desperately needed one. Prisha was nearly a year and a half old. She should already have started undergoing the surgeries that would allow her to develop normally—and, eventually, to walk.

Liz shifted her gaze to the twenty-year-old house that she’d bought upon her return from India. Nothing special, really. Affordable. A good starter home, the agent who’d handled the deal had called it. Three bedrooms with a nice-sized backyard. Room for a child to romp and play.

“And if there’s any money left over, I’ll be able to pay for my front yard’s facelift,” she murmured.

Between making and trying to market her herbal teas, plus doing side jobs like helping at Alexa’s child-care center, there hadn’t been time for landscaping.

As she slowed in preparation of the left turn into her driveway, she made a detour around the primer-gray pickup truck parked in front of Crissy’s place, which as luck would have it was right next door to Liz’s house.

She looked around but didn’t see the owner. The tailgate was down, though, and an obviously homemade ramp was angled against it. She took the turn extra wide, to be safe.

The rear tires of her compact SUV bounced over the curb, lifting the car cockeyed, which made her papers slide to the floor.

“Damn.”

She jammed her foot on the brake and leaned over sideways to collect the collated homework assignment in which the bank had asked for her life history, projected income till death and purchasing habits. She returned to an upright position and checked to see if anything besides dust had attached itself to her pristine pages.

Rap, rap, rap.

The aggressive sound of knuckles on glass made her jump. Her heart rate spiked. Adrenaline poured through her veins, bringing with it memories she could normally suppress. War sounds. Cries of pain. The harsh, acrid taste of blood and sweat and fear. Her armpits tingled. A sharp pain twisted across her brow.

“Hey, open up. Don’t you know how to drive? You just killed my four-year-old Echinocereus triglochidiatus.”

As her panic receded, Liz forced air into her lungs. Her vision cleared. She wasn’t in Bosnia. She was in her car, in Nevada. She was home.

And some stranger—a very angry man with green eyes and an artificially black mustache was pounding on the window. His words were muffled, but she wasn’t about to open the window while he had a hoe in his hand. “What do you want?” she yelled.

He gestured toward the road. “You ran over a hedgehog cactus.”

“A hedgehog?” she asked, turning to look where he was pointing. “We have hedgehogs in Nevada?”

The idea made tears rush to her eyes. She wasn’t exactly sure what a hedgehog was, but she pictured a little animal. Brown and furry. Maybe some relation to the groundhog?

The man made a sound of pure disgust and stormed away.

Liz watched him march to the rattletrap truck and toss his hoe in the back. He paused a moment and pulled a navy cotton handkerchief out of the back pocket of his one-piece jumpsuit and used it to mop the sweat from his neck and brow.

“You’re too young to wear jumpsuits,” she wanted to say. But she didn’t. As her sisters would attest, Liz was no arbiter of fashion. If clothes fit and were clean, she was happy. But still, the guy was in his early forties or late thirties. He was tall, lean and—from the parts she could see, namely his arms—well muscled.

And he was also still worked up. She could tell by his body language, which, odd as it seemed, intrigued her. He was a living, breathing contradiction. She couldn’t see his hair because of the hat, but his skin coloring belied the dark mustache. Liz was of Romani, or Gypsy, descent. She was surrounded by swarthy men with Mediterranean complexions. This guy’s mustache didn’t go with the rest of him. Nor did his eye color work for her. The green was too green.

Liz loved puzzles.

After stacking her papers neatly on the seat, she picked up her cell phone and got out of the car. She kept her thumb poised to call for help if he tried anything, but daylight and the peace of her neighborhood gave her the courage to approach him—from a distance.

“Hey. What was that all about? What did I do?”

He ignored her.

“Excuse me, sir, but didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s ridiculously impolite to pound on a woman’s window then stalk off without any explanation.”

“I told you.”

His voice was deep. Liz didn’t think she’d ever heard that rich a bass before. The lush tone drew her closer.

“Well, I was too freakin’ scared to understand the words. I thought you were attacking me.”

He made another sound of irritation and stuffed his hanky back in his pocket. “Just forget it. You wouldn’t understand.”

Now that was one charge Liz didn’t take lightly. In her family, Liz was considered the empathic one. The person most likely to give a damn. Didn’t two tours to Bosnia count for anything? Hadn’t she opened her home to Lydia and Reezira, the two young Romanian prostitutes who’d been caught in an immigration nightmare after their “sponsor,” the deceitful snake, Charles Harmon, was arrested?

“You’re wrong. You don’t know me, and you sure as hell don’t have any right to condemn me without giving me a chance to defend myself. Where’s the justice in that?”

“Justice.” The mocking tone came through his laugh. “There’s no such thing as justice.”

He hesitated a moment then pivoted and started toward her. Liz tightened her grip on her phone. It wasn’t much of a defense, but it was more than she’d had the last time a man attacked her.

When he was a foot away, he stopped. Without a car window separating them, Liz had a better look at his face. And it confused her. Mustache aside, the rest of the pieces were quite ordinary. Masculine nose—not too big, not too small. Nicely shaped eyes with pronounced crinkles that were tanned from his job, she guessed. A good-sized mouth and really excellent teeth. He was a decent-looking man, but, again, she had a sense that all of the features were slightly off. As if she were looking at one of those children’s books in which the reader turns a section of the page to change the facial features and create a different character.

He gestured toward the street, impatiently. She looked where he was pointing.

“There. Do you see that flattened lump of muck? A minute ago that squished piece of debris was a living thing. A cactus. The word triglochidiatus defines it as a three-barbed variety. Its common name is the hedgehog cactus because early Europeans thought it resembled the little animal they remembered from home. Others call it a claret-cup cactus because of the beautiful ruby-red flowers that this one will never bear.”

She studied the triangle-shaped planter at the corner of her driveway and the communal sidewalk. It hadn’t been there when she left the house that morning. Two other plants—neither of which she could name—had survived, but bits of shredded bark and some greenish splotch led straight to her tire. Proof of her vicious, although unintentional, assault.

She honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So she did both. She laughed until she tears started running down her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I really am,” she sputtered, trying to explain that she wasn’t laughing at the man or his dead plant. “It’s just that this is so typical of the way my life has been going lately. I’m running around like a crazy person trying to keep all these balls in the air. And why? I can’t even be trusted to keep a hedgehog cactus safe—how could I possibly think I…”

She didn’t finish the thought. Adopting Prisha—the goal she’d returned from India with—had never left her, but it seemed further out of reach than ever. And maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe the universe was trying to tell her something.

“It’s telling you you’re a lousy driver.”

She startled. Had she really muttered her thought out loud?

“I’m usually a good driver. Unlike my sister Grace,” she added, mostly out of habit.

“Tell that to my cactus.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’m sorry. It was an accident. I’ll pay you for the damn thing.”

He drew himself up proudly. Too proudly for a person who drove such a rickety truck, she thought. “Keep your money. Use it for driving lessons.”

Then he left. Not a backward look. Not a by-your-leave, as her mother, Yetta, was fond of saying.

But Liz was not without resources of her own. She could probably get the man’s name and number from Crissy, but that meant knocking on the door and actually talking to her neighbor—something Liz preferred to avoid. If there was another way to find out where he lived, she’d send him a check.

She used the pen clipped to the stack of papers and quickly scratched out the guy’s license plate number. On the first page of her loan application, she realized too late.

Yep, it was just one of those days.

                                                                            ~~~

David Baines only made it six blocks before he had to stop, get out of his truck and rehook the chain that kept the right side of his tailgate from working loose. He used his shoulder to shove the worthless piece of metal in place then hooked two links between the grooved notches that he’d rigged up.

His head was pounding, but at least his temper was starting to cool. He couldn’t believe he’d actually yelled at a woman for running over a plant. Yes, he cared about his cactus and other seedlings, but only a madman—a crazy demented fool—would place a higher priority on cacti than people. What was wrong with him?

So many things he couldn’t begin to count, but he knew to a day when this change in his personality had begun. August 21, 2001. The day he’d died.

He reached over the side of his truck bed and made sure the rest of his tools were accounted for. Shovels, rakes, edger. No mower. He did landscaping, not yards. He grew the plants that he transferred to people’s raised beds and patios. He didn’t call himself a landscaper, though. That sounded too presumptuous. He was a handyman/gardener. He felt the combination sounded innocuous enough. Certainly not the kind of job a person with three postgraduate degrees would be doing.

Once he’d started his new life, he’d had no choice but to learn a new trade. He’d ceased to be a scientist with credentials up the wazoo and had become a man who worked with plants. He grew them in his makeshift greenhouse at the rear of the oversize lot behind the house he rented from his elderly and slightly whacko landlady. Mimi Simms lived in the double-wide mobile home on the adjoining lot. Her late husband had spent his final years in the shack she euphemistically called the “guesthouse.”

The rent was reasonable, so David couldn’t complain even though the one-bedroom, one-bath residence was impossible to heat or cool. And in the four years that he’d been renting from her, he’d managed to grow a wall of hardy and unforgiving thorn bushes that gave him privacy and some illusionary sense of safety.

He realized that he was hiding behind the hedge. Like an ogre in some children’s fable, he’d distanced himself from polite society, only venturing forth to fulfill his private vow to do good. He’d done enough bad to last a lifetime.

He no longer made “better living through chemicals.” He made a better world through plants. This time, on a very small, humbling scale.

Which partly explained why he lost it when someone destroyed one of his plants. Or so he wanted to believe, but he was too honest to place the blame for his temper tantrum on the lovely shoulders of the woman he’d just yelled at. He’d been in a funk for over a week. Happened every year around his daughter’s birthday. Memories would slip past his defenses. Despair would fill the hole in his heart like air in a balloon—until he blew up.

This time, at a woman. He’d terrified her. And made her cry.

But she’d laughed, too, he reminded himself. As if his attack had been that of a crazy person. And she was right. Sane people didn’t explode over little things. He owed that poor woman an apology. It wasn’t her fault she’d smashed his cactus on a bad day. A day when the past couldn’t be denied.

Today was Ariel’s birthday. Number nine. No doubt she would celebrate with a party, friends and gifts galore. She was probably four or five inches taller than the last time he’d seen her. Maybe she had a retainer or braces. From what he’d gleaned from his clients with young children, orthodontists were starting earlier these days.

He tried not to think about Ariel.

She wasn’t really his child, after all. He’d married her mother when Ariel was a toddler. Ariel’s real father was a rat-bastard who had abused Kay and neglected their baby daughter and twins Jordie and Randall who were two years older than their sister. The man’s only response to his wife’s request for a divorce was his fierce refusal to pay child support.

David hadn’t wanted his new love to be tied to a man like that in any way. He had a high-paying job with a billion-dollar pharmaceutical company. He could certainly provide for his new family. And he had—until Kay, the children’s mother, left him for another man. A neighbor who was home when David hadn’t been.

The timing, it turned out, had been providential. Kay and the children were safe from the fallout created by David’s losing favor with his boss, a megalomaniac named V. A. “Ray” Cross. Born Vincente Aurelio Conejo, Ray went from being the first kid in his family to graduate from high school to the boardroom of one of the largest privately owned pharmaceutical labs in the country. His staff had often speculated about the number of bodies buried along Ray’s remarkable climb to the top, and the closer David got to the man he’d at one time considered his mentor, the better he understood Ray’s maxim for life. In Ray’s world, only Ray mattered. The bodies, David feared, were real. And, in a way, included his.

He got back in the truck and drove carefully, never exceeding the speed limit. Faster cars passed him impatiently, but David was a follower of rules. Most of them, anyway.

“Thou shalt not kill”—unless you count poisoning thousands of unsuspecting consumers.

“Thou shalt not lie”—unless the truth means losing profits in any given year.

“Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife”—well, he could honestly say he’d never done that. His neighbor’s life, maybe. All he’d ever wanted was a home and a family of his own. The kind he’d known as a child, before his parents were killed in a car accident and he was told he had to stay with his grandmother, who had considered her work over and done when the daughter she raised got married.

June, as his grandmother preferred to be called, did her duty. She even sent her grandson to the best college his inheritance money could buy, but it hadn’t occurred to her to try to replace the love he’d known in his parents’ arms.

He’d tried to find that as an adult, and thought he’d succeeded with Kay and the children. Until, fate ripped that family out of his hands, too. And seldom a night went by that he didn’t think about the pain his “death” must have caused the children he’d called his own.

As he pulled into his driveway, he caught a glimpse of his landlady. Mimi Simms was eighty if she was a day. Her red hair was brighter than a poinsettia in bloom. She was an odd combination of nosy and antisocial. David preferred the latter. Once he’d made up his mind to speak out, to become a high-profile whistleblower, he’d had no choice but to leave the past behind and disappear.

For four years, he’d been lucky. He’d also never once had an altercation with a customer and drawn attention to himself. He could only hope that the beautiful lady with the kind eyes would shrug off his embarrassing faux pas and forget about him.

“You’re a fool,” he muttered as he pulled the truck to a stop in front of his little shack. “You had your chance at a normal life, but you chose to work for Ray Cross, instead. Now, you can’t ever go back.”

Nor could he start a new life with someone else. He’d made a vow never to put anyone through that kind of torture and distress again. His decision to give up his old life and enter the federal Witness Protection Program had been relatively easy—it was either that or wake up some morning with Ray Cross’s gun in his face. The deputy U.S. marshals who had been assigned to his case had come up with an elaborate plan that included an inferno at the lab where David had spent most of his time. No body. No funeral. No fuss. Or so David had assumed. But apparently no one had informed his ex-wife.

Dying had been difficult, but it had been a lot easier on him than on his loved ones. He would regret that for the rest of his life.

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